Elixium

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Chapter 18 – The Jungle Spirit

Reclining on the sofa, Reuben forced himself to smile, even though the intense studio lights burning against his skin made him want to grimace. Just before the director yelled action, a makeup artist swooped in and powdered his nose.

“Thank you for joining us for Talking in Circles,” said the host. He had a head shaped like a turnip and the charisma of one too. His smart, but oversized, shirt and tie only exaggerated his thin neck. “Tonight we have an esteemed guest to discuss the future of health care and disease. A renowned entrepreneur, he followed in his father’s footsteps to become the CEO of the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. Ladies and gentleman, it is a pleasure to welcome Mr Reuben Fenwick.”

“Thank you,” said Reuben as applause rippled through the studio.

“Before we discuss your thoughts on the future of health care, let’s talk about you. You were a very successful day trader until the age of twenty-seven—”

“Twenty-six,” he corrected and added a smile. Best not appear conceited.

“My apologies. At twenty-six, what prompted your move into the pharmaceutical industry?”

“Like many young people, I had a great desire to purge humanity of pain and suffering, and—” He slipped his hand into his suit jacket pocket and touched the talisman he always carried with him—a skull-like object, carved out of wood. His fingers palpated the talisman’s gruesome visage, and he chuckled to himself, remembering that this ugly thing supposedly contained a fragment of his soul.

*

Reuben had travelled the world in his youth, setting off soon after his twenty-first birthday. His mother had died of cardiac disease two years before, leaving his father distraught, but Reuben couldn’t care less. He’d never forgiven his mother for dismissing Nanny Zahra, and throughout his childhood held a grudge against her and his father. His hatred was further cemented by a rumour that circulated between the maids and servants of the estate. According to the whispering tongues, Mr and Mrs Fenwick were second cousins, owing to the family propensity to only procreate with certain favourable stock. The thought that he was the product of inbreeding stung him like nettles and by his teenage years, his rebellion was in full swing. Alone in the East Wing of the mansion, he grew his hair long, drank, smoked and butchered Stairway to Heaven on a vintage Gibson guitar.

The knowledge that he’d inherit everything once his father popped his clogs eradicated all meaning from his life. Why bother getting out of bed when someday you’ll own a fifty-one-room mansion, a castle, several holiday homes, a small island, private jets, yachts and a fleet of vintage cars? His increasing ennui irritated his father, who reprimanded him for sitting around all day in a sulk, playing guitar. His father constantly reminded him he needed to prepare to take over Elixium Pharmaceuticals, denying him his own identity and path through life. Their frequent shouting matches echoed around the cavernous halls of the Fenwick estate.

As an olive branch on his twentieth birthday, his father offered to set him up in the entertainment business, suggesting that this ‘side-venture’ would give him fresh impetus, which one day he could channel into Elixium.

His father smiled, his bushy moustache twitching. “I’m inviting the best musicians in the world to the estate tomorrow. They’ll audition to form your backing band.” He told Reuben his band would record with the best producers and release on the biggest labels.

Early the next morning, Reuben shaved off his long hair and tossed his guitars in the lake.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” yelled his father in the drawing room, as a servant scrubbed algae from one of Eric Clapton’s Fender Stratocasters. “You should be grateful for these opportunities!”

Typical of his father, he thought. Throwing vast amounts of money at life’s problems no matter how big or small. “I can’t wait for you to die,” he fired back. “I’m donating everything to charity.”

His father picked up the nearest piece of porcelain—a nineteenth century Worcester cabinet plate—and threw it at him. He missed, and the plate smashed on the floor. “You’re no son of mine,” his father shouted, red-faced and stamping his feet. “I’ll cut you out of the will. You’ll get nothing.”

Reuben marched into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and sliced open his forearm. The sharp sting and the ruby of blood slowly emerging from the gash invigorated him. He embraced the pain and discomfort. the one thing his father, with all his riches, could not control. A maid tended to his wound, an Indian, like Zahra. He remembered the almost supernatural colours of the gods in the books Zahra showed him and longed to visit the temples of India. Not on one of his father’s all expenses paid holidays, but to explore as a traveller and immerse himself in the culture. He couldn’t stay here, rattling around in his father’s mansion for the rest of his life. His soul longed for release from this gilded cage. If he lived an ascetic life, like Siddhartha Gautama, maybe he’d find inner peace.

*

The heat of Calcutta hit Reuben like a freight train, and his sweat-soaked shirt clung to his chest. Traffic swelled before him in the blazing sun, a rag tag procession of cars, buses, ox-carts, bicycles and people—rich and poor, fair and dark skinned. Nestled between modern buildings, stalls and bazaars sold aromatic perfumes, silks and spices to tourists, the loud voices of touts comingled with the bustle of the street. He climbed on to a bus packed with both Indians and foreigners and gazed out of the window, awestruck by the grand hotels, temples and shrines. As the bus trundled through the city, a sprawl of slums shimmered in the hazy distance beneath an electric blue mantle of sky. His heart raced, enchanted by the promise of India.

After months of sightseeing, he yearned for more adventure. He’d visited the Taj Mahal, the Amber Palace and The Holy City of Varanasi. The sights inspired him, but he felt like another tourist. He wanted to venture off the beaten track and see the real India; only then would he achieve the kind of inner peace his books about Hinduism and Buddhism talked about.

He meandered the cities, staying in hostels. In Madurai, he shared a room with a long-haired backpacker called Sean from New Zealand. Sean told him about a Brahmin who lived in a mansion close to the Western Ghats. According to Sean, the Brahmin cultivated a rare plant and had achieved enlightenment by grinding the petals into a tincture and spreading it over his skin. Sean claimed the tincture had melted the man’s ego and connected him with ultimate consciousness.

“Instant nirvana, mate,” said Sean, his wild green eyes twinkling with excitement. “The Brahmin offered to sell me the tincture, but I couldn’t afford it. I’m gonna earn some money washing pots in the restaurants and hotels. Then I’m going back.”

As they smoked hashish, Sean told Reuben of the early Indians, the ancient Vedic religion and the ritual of extracting juice from a now-forgotten plant to create soma, which was said to confer immortality and allow one’s soul to attain the supreme light.

The backpacker’s stories tantalised Reuben. “Can you tell me where to find the Brahmin?”

“Sure mate.”

*

Supplied with directions, Reuben set off the following day. He travelled to Munnar, a small town garlanded by rolling hills and the emerald jewel of Anamudi Peak. The Brahmin’s mansion was supernaturally beautiful; a citadel of dreams beside a tranquil river. Reuben peered through the gates and saw an overweight man meditating in a verdant garden. He wore expensive silk robes and had a long white beard. He looked drunk on religious rapture—a beaming smile, head tilted upwards to the sky.

A tall Indian man in his mid-twenties with a shaven head and a large, beak-like nose approached the gate. “Namaste,” said the man, his smile a dazzling crescent of white.

“Namaste,” replied Reuben, bowing his head. “I wish to speak to the Brahmin.”

“The Brahmin is busy, sir.” The man looked him up and down. “You’ve come to discuss the tincture, isn’t it?”

Reuben nodded.

“Many travellers come here. They are seeking a quick path to enlightenment. They are offering many rupees, oxen and sometimes their wives to the Brahmin, but he always says no. Why should he speak with you?”

“I can offer more money than all of them put together.”

The servant pursed his lips and looked upwards at the mansion.

“Please,” begged Reuben. “I need this.”

“Wait here.” The servant trudged over to the Brahmin and whispered in his ear. The Brahmin nodded, and the servant sidled back to the gate.

“Very well, kind sir,” said the servant, opening the iron gate. “Please come with me. My name is Anand Dar.”

Reuben sat beside the Brahmin and joined him in meditation. The man murmured softly, as a gentle breeze rustled the wild flowers in the garden. After an interval, he saw the Brahmin’s small, rodent-like eyes open. “How does it feel to be enlightened?” asked Reuben, his words poisoning the serene calm.

“It’s beautiful, young man. I’m connected with everything. The birds, the trees, the sky. All of life flourishes around me. I’m wrapped inside the boundless, loving embrace of the universe.”

Reuben smiled. “Please tell me about the tincture.”

The Brahmin told him that a tribe produced the tincture by crushing the petals of an epiphytic plant of the genus Mettaninaceae which fed off moss on the rainforest floor, gradually transforming from a sporadic collection of hair-like vine roots to a white, oval structure, about the size and shape of a rugby ball. This structure would open once every hundred years, revealing an opulent spectrum of purple, orange and gold petals.

“You must only touch the plant when it’s open,” said the Brahmin, showing Reuben his scarred and blistered hands. “Try to open a closed bud by force, and the plant spits acid. As in all of life’s most precious endeavours, you must wait patiently.”

Reuben licked his lips. “And where can I find this plant?”

The Brahmin stroked his beard, sizing him up. “You are rich, young man, according to my servant. Many women in India will dance and have sexy love for you. What need you of enlightenment?”

Reuben thought about his father, who’d cursed him the day he left the estate alone to go travelling. The family’s riches meant nothing to him; he wanted to discover the purpose of life and to understand himself. “I wish to escape my destiny.”

The Brahmin’s lips curled into a smile.

“There’s an ancient tribe in the jungle who guard the plant, but it is dangerous for you to travel alone. The tribe have never seen Westerners and sometimes they are ripping out the heart and lungs to keep the jungle spirit alive. For a cost, my servant Anand will take you there. He speaks Kannaḍa, one of the Dravidian languages used by the indigenous peoples.”

“I’m willing to pay… whatever it takes,” said Reuben, plunging his hands into his backpack to find his wallet.

*

Reuben trailed after Anand, who hacked away at the rainforest with a machete. Walls of dense foliage blocked every direction, and the air was thick and hot. Sweat glued his clothes to his skin. Reuben forced his weary body to continue; he’d hoped they’d have reached their destination by now. After ten days, his ears still had not grown accustomed to the slash of the blade and the cacophony of birds and bugs. Earlier he’d heard a buzzing sound like a pneumatic drill; Anand pointed up towards a sandbag-sized nest in the trees which teemed with killer bees.

It was mid-afternoon. Reuben had been listening to the Stone Roses on his Walkman, bobbing his head along to Fool’s Gold, but after seeing Anand’s frown, he switched off the tape and stalked behind the guide. Anand told him they had to remain vigilant for predators; Royal Bengal tigers and Asiatic lions hunted in the region. On their journey, Reuben had already seen a huge monitor lizard sauntering along the jungle floor. Anand claimed it wasn’t venomous, but they should avoid it anyhow.

They continued for many hours: tired, thirsty and hot. Reuben felt suffocated, strangled by virescent fingers, and the tiny patch of sky above the towering trees was green, as if swallowed by the jungle. Anand took off his hat and wiped the sweat away from his brow. They continued for a few more hours until Anand ceased cutting at the foliage.

“What is it?” whispered Reuben, but the guide did not answer. The thick, sickly sweet air was hard to breathe, and he panted, struggling to take in more oxygen.

Something rustled the vegetation beside them. Anand motioned for Reuben to remain completely still. Reuben’s heart thumped in his chest. His mind raced, conjuring images of big cats with bared teeth ready to pounce.

A young man with a long spear burst through the foliage, yelling at them. He had shoulder-length black hair and green stripes painted across his face from ear to ear. He had a very flat forehead and wore only a pair of grey cloth shorts. Draped loosely around his neck was an artefact, about the size and shape of a fist, carved from a knotted tree. It was a skull with grotesquely elongated eye sockets and fine grooves along the bottom edge for teeth. Reuben sank to his knees and raised his hands to surrender, but the fury in the youth’s eyes dissipated when he saw Anand and he smiled widely.

Anand spoke to the youth in what Reuben imagined was an ancient language of the jungle. The deliberations sounded joyous, as far as he could gather, but he waited on his knees, still trembling.

Anand grabbed Reuben by the shoulder and said, “He will take us to the camp now, sir.” Reuben breathed deeply and smiled towards the youth, but the youth glared back at him with suspicion.

The youth led them through the jungle for hours until the dense vegetation thinned and they found themselves in a settlement with small garden plots, potter’s huts, chicken houses and shelters. There was a sweet smell of manioc and sugarcane from crops in the gardens. As they passed through the village, the tribe members stared at them; some with wonder, others with fear. A small child ran forward to greet Reuben, but her mother grabbed her and hissed at him. Reuben backed away to show he meant no harm.

They were taken to a large hut, thatched with leaves. Inside, they found an old man—the tribe’s priest. He wore a mask of white feathers and had green stripes painted all over his gaunt body. Anand bowed and sank to his knees on the woven mats, Reuben quickly copied.

“My name is Reuben Fenwick. I’ve travelled from a faraway land. Please permit me to spend some time with your people. I wish to learn more about your way of life.”

Anand translated his words, and the priest smiled, revealing crooked, rotting teeth.

While Anand and the priest conversed, Reuben fidgeted, tracing the edge of the woven mat with his fingers. When the priest erupted with hearty laughter, Reuben turned to Anand. “Ask him about the tincture which can help me achieve enlightenment.”

“We should wait, sir,” replied Anand. “Impatience may make him upset, isn’t it?”

“He looks perfectly happy to me,” said Reuben.

“Ok, I’ll ask,” said Anand, before muttering the request to the priest.

The priest hissed at Anand, his nostrils flared.

“He says you can’t take the sacred plant. Not worthy. You must belong to the tribe.”

Upon hearing Anand mention the sacred plant, Reuben’s heart fluttered. “Tell him I wish to join,” he said, as if he was signing up for a credit card. On reflection, he felt ashamed of his eagerness and imagined his father would also be impatient in this situation. He’d probably attempt to sell the stuff via Elixium, as if it was a two-week weight loss programme, rather than a bridge to eternal enlightenment.

“He says you must take part in their initiation ceremony.”

Reuben bowed before the priest to show he had understood.

“Anand, please tell the priest that I would be honoured.”

As Anand translated, a few of the tribe’s children eavesdropped at the hut’s entrance. Their wide, curious eyes felt like daggers penetrating his skin.

*

The initiation began immediately. First, they instructed him to rid himself of all possessions. Reuben gulped, realising they wanted him to throw his rucksack—along with all his clothes, food, water, money, his Walkman and his cassettes—into a river, a tributary of the Periyar. The idea troubled him, but he reminded himself of the look of rapture on the Brahmin’s face and told himself he would care nothing for material things once he’d achieved enlightenment. So he undressed and placed his clothes in a pile, and soon he stood naked. They gave him woven shorts to cover his modesty.

When Reuben had placed everything he owned in his bag, a young tribe member helped him weigh it down with stones. His father’s face loomed in his mind as he swung and heaved the bag, his fat head obliterated by a fury of ripples as the bag hit the water. Despite having lost everything—including his passport and money to return home—Reuben felt liberated. His mind, and his body, felt lighter. The current was strong and the bag soon sank. The water rushed along, already forgetting his sacrifice. A curious lion-tailed macaque stalked along the opposite bank, before turning its back and disappearing into the jungle.

Next, the tribe’s women adorned him with beaded necklaces and painted green stripes across his face, using crushed plant seeds as paint. A deep organic aroma, quite unlike anything he’d smelt before, calmed his mind. He closed his eyes and listened intently to the cackling calls of hornbills high in the trees.

As it grew dark, Reuben joined Anand in the priest’s hut.

“The priest is pleased,” said Anand. “But to become part of the tribe, you must understand the jungle spirit.”

How am I supposed to do that?

The priest spoke and Anand translated. “The tribe live in harmony with their surroundings and the environment is shaping their thinking. They believe there is a distinct reality—the realm of the jungle spirit—hidden within the plants, trees and animals. The spirit lives in the earth and makes the forest grow. Sometimes the tribe is using the tincture to listen to the spirit. The call of birds and the chirping of bugs is full of proclamations.”

Reuben’s excitement flared at the mention of the tincture. “Perhaps I’d understand their religion better if I took a little—”

“Not yet,” whispered Anand, although the priest showed no signs of understanding their conversation. “We must spend time with the tribe and learn more about their religion. You must show you’ve taken the first steps towards understanding the jungle spirit.”

“Okay,” said Reuben and sighed.

*

Reuben found the tribe’s religion meagre compared to Hinduism and its pantheon of gods. The tribe had no deities, icons or sacred texts. Instead, they adhered to a simple animism, passed down orally from generation to generation. According to Anand, the tribe believed time was an illusion—a spell which could be broken by connecting with the jungle spirit. Anand also related some of the tribe’s creation stories. In one myth, the ancient jungle spirit took on human form and blew a feather into the wind, making many species of birds. After this sublime act, the jungle spirit transformed into a tree and towered into the sky, where the souls of dead people float with the clouds.

Reuben noticed a gaunt tribesman sitting alone in reflective silence at the edge of the settlement and asked Anand what he was doing.

“He is meditating—emptying the mind of thoughts to connect with the forest. He spends many hours like this, it helps the soul conjoin with the jungle spirit.”

Reuben smiled. He could handle a few hours of meditation to get his hands on the tincture. “I’ll join him and pray to the jungle spirit,” said Reuben. The priest nodded and seemed pleased.

Reuben sat crossed legged until darkness fell. The tribe member beside him remained frozen in perfect composure, his eyes open but fixated on the thick vegetation in the distance. At night, the priest lit a fire, and the tribe gathered around, all except Reuben, flanked by his mute partner.

Anand approached him at dawn, and Reuben asked him if the priest had seen his act of devotion.

“He’s pleased,” said Anand, “but he doesn’t believe you have connected with the jungle spirit. Maybe you should meditate some more.”

So Reuben continued to pray in the priest’s hut on his knees, his back aching and tense. He spent the entire day in silent prayer, and soon night descended.

During his prayer, he thought about his former life in England and his family. Aside from the affection Zahra showed him, his life had been devoid of love. His father wanted a clone of himself to continue the Fenwick family legacy. These thoughts burned inside, but once he’d attained enlightenment, he’d be free from all anguish. He’d be free from the bonds of suffering and he’d live in peace and unity forevermore. This dream fuelled him, hour after hour, as he pretended to connect with the jungle spirit.

That night, one of the tribe’s women brought him a clump of rice about the size of a golf ball and a tiny cup of water, barely enough for a mouthful. Hunger and thirst made him weak, but the possibility of enlightenment roused him. Adrenaline surged through his veins. He focused on the priest dozing in his chair, with one of the tribe’s women beside him. On one of the woven mats, Anand snored.

The next morning, just as the sun rose, the priest gave Anand a signal for Reuben to stop. “He is pleased with your worship,” said Anand.

“Anand, please thank him kindly,” Reuben said and smiled, anticipating the wondrous gift he was about to receive. “Then please ask him if I can take the sacred tincture.”

Anand did as instructed, but from the priest’s harsh tone, Reuben knew his request had been denied once again. His heart sank. “He believes you’re still not ready. You are not yet understanding their faith.”

Why are they making me suffer like this?

He whispered to Anand. “I fully understand. It’s a primitive religion.”

Anand grimaced. “Let’s spend more time with the tribe. There’s some subtlety here you’re not yet grasping, I think.”

Anand took him to a hut on the outskirts of the village. Inside, women carved wood, muttering to each other as they worked. Delighted to see him, a woman approached and offered him an artefact—what looked like a skull. The elongated features were menacing. Similar pieces hung from threads from the roof of the hut.

“She says this will help you understand,” said Anand. “The people here believe we have two souls. One soul evaporates into the heavens when we die, the other soul never dies. It wanders the earth, conjoining with the jungle spirit. A part of that soul enters the bodies of newborn animals. Keep this talisman with you. It will remind you of the second soul, the soul that is part of the forest.”

“I understand,” said Reuben, as Anand helped him fasten the talisman around his neck with twine. “Shall I meditate again?”

“That’s a good idea, kind sir,” said Anand.

Reuben meditated and fasted. For another ten days and ten nights, he consumed nothing but the tiny balls of rice and the little cup of water that the women brought in the evening. The scorching sun burned his skin. He grew severely dehydrated. He was wasting away; his body metabolised every ounce of fat and was now eating away at muscle. Insects crawled over his bare calves and up his back; his knees ached and his red, sunburnt skin felt raw, but he did not move to scratch for fear of displeasing the tribe and losing his chance at enlightenment.

As he continued to meditate, his skills improved, and the discomfort faded. Instead of attempting to rid himself of conscious thoughts, he simply let them flow without question. It was impossible to silence the internal monologue of the mind, but with practice, he learnt to dissociate from the mental chatter, pretending he was listening to a conversation in a language he did not understand.

He sensed pure enlightenment within reach—a radiant dawn glimpsed between the leaves of the rainforest. An aura of godlike power surrounded him, as if he’d achieved transcendence. Deification, even. He’d gained mastery over his body and mind. He reached out to grasp, but divinity slipped through his fingers and he fell back into the world of pain and suffering. He persisted for several hours, the supreme bliss lingering on the edge of the horizon, just out of reach.

The next morning, a hand on his shoulder interrupted his flow.

It was Anand. “Good news, my friend! The priest is pleased with your progress. He wishes to show you the sacred plant.”

Reuben gasped, struggling to comprehend Anand’s words. Anand had brought a jug of water, which Reuben snatched and guzzled down in one go. Reuben wiped his lips and then smiled. “I’m ready,” he said.

*

Reuben declined the offer of food, more water and rest. Desperate for enlightenment, he wanted to find the sacred plant at once. After hours of stumbling along behind Anand and the priest, he regretted his decision. His famished body struggled to keep up, and he couldn’t tell what was real anymore. Tiny pinpricks of red light—like fireflies—flickered in and out of his vision, as they delved deeper and deeper into the jungle.

The priest and Anand suddenly stopped. Reuben hoped for a rest, but soon realised from their horrified expressions that they were in danger. He heard a roar close by and stopped dead, his heart racing. If his bowels were full, he’d have shit himself there and then. Anand pulled out a knife from his waist, although he didn’t fancy the Indian’s chances against whatever monstrous beast stalked them. He flinched as something soft stroked against his bare foot; a lime green snake—perfectly camouflaged against the vines of the forest—slithered over his toes before scaling a nearby tree. Another roar froze the blood in his veins. His heart pounded. They waited, suspended in animation, for a few minutes, until Anand grabbed his arm and told him to keep going. For now, it appeared they were safe.

After they’d been walking for some time, the priest began conversing with Anand. From the priest’s tone, Reuben sensed he was concerned about something.

“What’s the matter?” Reuben asked Anand.

“He is thinking the jungle spirit is angry with us for offering you the sacred plant. The snake and tiger are a warning, he believes. But don’t worry, kind sir, I am persuading him we mean no harm.”

“Thank you, Anand,” said Reuben, breathing a sigh of relief.

Presently, they came to a small clearing, and Reuben saw large white buds, like eggs, growing on the rainforest floor. He gasped. Finally, he had found the sacred plant!

As the priest approached, a bud opened and revealed its beautiful interior: layers of purple, gold and orange petals. The priest clasped some petals between his fingers and carefully prized them from the plant. Then he motioned to Reuben that they must return to the village.

*

Back at the village, the priest used stones to prepare the tincture, grinding the petals with a little water, creating an oily substance. Soon, the hands of the tribe’s women spread the tincture thinly over Reuben’s naked body, over his chest, his legs, face and buttocks. The smell was pleasant, like liquorice.

“He says you must rest now,” Anand said.

“Thank you, Anand. I won’t forget it.”

Reuben watched Anand being escorted from the hut, and then waited for the tincture to take effect.

Hours passed, but Reuben felt no different to before. More relaxed, perhaps, but definitely not enlightened. He closed his eyes and counted to a hundred, but it was no use. The tincture had stained his skin brownish-yellow and now smelt like rotten eggs. He was hungry and thirsty, desperately thirsty.

Finally, and with great disappointment, he left the priest’s hut, and found several members of the tribe gathered outside, around a large fire. Some of them had drums which they pounded, some engaged in a Gregorian chant, deep, guttural sounds filling the air. Seeing he’d left the hut, Anand approached him.

“How are you, my friend?”

“I don’t feel enlightened. I don’t feel any different at all. Isn’t this supposed to melt my ego?”

Anand looked disappointed. “Reuben, I think you may have misunderstood.”

“Misunderstood?”

“The plant’s tincture relaxes the muscles. The tribe is rubbing this on themselves to loosen up the body. It helps calm the mind so they can worship the jungle spirit.”

He almost punched Anand in the face. “I’ve come all this way, thrown all my things in the river, meditated for days, starved and dehydrated myself. And you’re telling me the tincture is nothing more than a muscle balm?”

“There is no shortcut to enlightenment, Reuben. It takes many years of practice. But the priest says that you are making excellent progress, and the tribe welcomes you as part of their community. If you stay among the tribe, one day you will have a deep connection with the jungle spirit.”

“Charlatan,” said Reuben. “You took my money. Are the tribe in on this scam too?”

“Calm down, kind sir,” said Anand.

“Calm down? I’ll show you calm.” He snatched the dagger from Anand’s waist and thrust it at him. Anand backed away.

Reuben approached the bonfire, the flickering flames reflected in the blade. The men of the tribe—with their warrior physiques—laughed at him. He must look pathetic—naked and covered in rotting tincture, holding a dagger in his shaking hand.

They may be physically stronger, but I have the intellectual strength.

Before anyone could stop him, he pulled a burning branch from the fire and ran towards the priest’s hut and set it ablaze. The dry thatched leaves caught fire easily, the flames spreading fast. He continued to the other huts, lighting them one by one like candles. The tribe yelled and screamed. Some tribe members threw stones at him, but most focused their efforts on saving the priest who slept in a burning hut.

In the commotion, Reuben escaped. Blood-curdling roars from the younger men of the tribe filled the air. He ran into the jungle with no idea where he was going.

The roaring of the tribe abated as the forest thickened around him. The tribe didn’t need to chase him. Lost in the rainforest with no food or water, he wouldn’t last long. In a couple of days, they’d find his body stripped to the bone by hyenas.

Mist descended on the rainforest. He continued through the jungle as best as he could, his body weak from fasting, his vision blurry and his feet stumbling. Puddles of water lay all around, but they’d be infected with bacteria and parasites.

In his mind, the laughter of the tribe and especially of the priest, his rotten teeth exposed, played on. He hoped the tribe would sacrifice Anand. The thought of them pulling his beating heart from his chest and offering it to the jungle spirit pleased him. He cursed the priest for being an archaic, polygamous, unwashed liar, and the Brahmin in India who’d deceived him—what a fat, greedy fraud! Then he cursed himself for being so easily swayed by false promises of enlightenment. Finally, when he could curse no more, he settled beside a tree.

The talisman the tribe had given him hung around his neck. If he survived, he’d keep the ugly thing as a reminder of the deception. He thought of his mother, saw her face in the darkness. How wrong he’d been about her. She’d sought to protect him from the lies and fake mysticism of the East. Zahra, his nanny, had attempted to corrupt him.

The sky rumbled and forks of lightning illuminated his surroundings, the tangle of vines and branches flashing into view. The storm set off a terrifying cacophony of alarm calls from the langurs and macaques in the trees.

Fear and the endless noise of the jungle prevented him from sleep. Every time he heard a nearby rustling his heart hammered inside his chest as he wondered whether he was about to be slain by one of the tribe members or mauled to death by a panther or a leopard. He felt something crawl against his leg and his mind conjured images of bird-eating goliath spiders. Should he swipe with his hand or stay still and let it pass? In the event, he closed his eyes and hoped for the best.

*

He awoke. In the early morning half-light, the forest took on a murky green hue. On a tree opposite him, a large butterfly with metallic blue wings settled. He gasped, delirious with thirst and hunger. The butterfly fluttered away as if to guide him.

He followed in the direction of the blue butterfly, weary of going around in circles and ending up back at the tribe’s settlement. After he’d stumbled through the forest for almost an hour, he came upon a banana tree, bountiful with ripe fruit. Immediately, he pulled a bunch of bananas from the tree and ate them, one after another. They were delicious. He felt like a new man, enlightened almost. The realisation that he’d been conned had awoken him.

He continued through the rainforest with an armful of bananas. As he progressed, he mulled over his future. If he survived this ordeal, he’d make amends with his father. He did not belong in the jungle with these half-evolved primitives. He ought to be in England, at his father’s side. Instead of religion, he’d place his faith in science. Who knows, perhaps he and his father would discover a chemical which really would enlighten the user.

Later that day, he fortuitously stumbled across a group of backpackers. They were alarmed to see him at first—naked and emaciated—but they fed him, gave him some spare clothes, saw him to a small checkpoint in the Rajmala Hills and gave him a little money. From there, he reached Munnar and finally Madurai where he contacted his father, tearful and repentant. After pulling a few strings to get him a passport, his father had a private jet fly to India, and soon he was back in London.

A few months after his return, Reuben watched a documentary about the rainforests of India and discovered that, soon after his contact, a deadly disease had afflicted the tribe. The children succumbed first. Then the women. Then the men. The priest perished early on. The documentary showed the burned remains of their settlement and piles of dead bodies. A narrator explained that the influenza outbreak was most likely caused by westerners making contact with the indigenous people. The tribe was completely annihilated. Every man, woman and child died.

Reuben smiled and clapped his hands. The thought that he was personally responsible for the genocide of an ancient tribe imbued him with an intoxicating feeling of power, although he surely wasn’t the only Westerner to make contact. The tribe deserved to be wiped out. They were pathetic, primitive people.

*

“Mr Fenwick…” The host’s boiled egg eyes inspected him.

“Sorry,” said Reuben, aware of the audience and the cameras. “I was miles away. Do we need to start again?”

“No, it’s ok. We’ll edit these bits out. Do you need me to repeat the question?”

“Please.”

“Why did you choose to work in the pharmaceutical industry?”

“Ah yes,” said Reuben. “I wish I could say out of a desire to purge humanity of suffering and disease, however, my particular interest stems from disappointment in religion.”

“Religion?”

“The ancient texts tease the possibility of transcendence. As a young man, I sought enlightenment through my travels in the East. I soon discovered I’d been conned.” He now despised religion. The new age, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and even the damn jungle spirit. All fictions to control people, with phoney promises of salvation.

“Despite my disappointments, I kept the desire to elevate the human condition, both for myself and my fellow man. I began to wonder whether science and technology would enable us to achieve some kind of apotheosis.”

“You’re very optimistic!”

“Extremely. I believe life extension technologies will soon become available—perhaps within my lifetime. Techniques that allow us to slow down or even reverse the damage done to the body by ageing. And I believe progress will be exponential. We’ll add a hundred years to life expectancy, and by the time those years pass, the technology will allow us to add a hundred more. Effective immortality.”

“Except, of course, if one died because of accidents or, perhaps, suicide.”

“Quite, but I have faith that humanity will become more resilient in time, with all kinds of body modifications which will transform our rather flimsy bodies into adamantine instruments. In mental health too, we’ve made considerable progress in combatting psychological illnesses through drugs. And new technologies will soon allow us to interface more directly with the mind. I foresee fine-tuned mood enhancement for every man, woman and child.”

“Indeed. And where does this leave religion?”

“In the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A chuckle from the audience delighted him. Since his travels to India, he ordered his life around a few basic tenets. He believed that the creator of the universe was a tyrant, a demon far worse than Satan. The creator cornered humanity in a prison—a biological, psychological trap—an unjust world of chaos, with no earthly salvation or justice. No nirvana and no heaven either, just an endless, infernal abyss awaiting one and all.

“Let’s hope there’re no Christians in the audience.”

Reuben shrugged. “In time we will pick the lock of God’s cosmic prison. Intellect—the gift of the serpent in the garden of Eden—will guide the way. Through science, we will wrestle control, conquer death and colonise the stars.”

But only a small elite will attain apotheosis, Reuben added to himself. Those who cannot or will not use their intellect must perish in the darkness. He thought of the wretched tribe in India. By choosing a simple, insular life, eking out the most basic of existences in the stinking cesspit of nature, they had chosen death. And they’d done the species a favour.

“I intend to bring about a fundamental schism in the cosmos: to make God squirm at my feet, begging for mercy.”

“You have a remarkable sense of ambition, Mr Fenwick.”

More laughter from the audience.

“I was born in a very privileged position and could have lived a life of leisure. But ambition is key. Developing new drugs and technologies requires a great deal of capital. It’s an expensive business. For every successful product there are a hundred more which lose money.”

“That explains why you amassed your own fortune.”

“Yes, as a day-trader. A wonderful time.” The City of London became his jungle. The Cullenia trees of the Western Ghats became skyscrapers housing global banks and insurance companies. Instead of scouring the floor of the rainforest for enlightenment, he scoured the floor of the London Stock Exchange for economic forecasts and made his own fortune with ruthless efficiency.

After a few years in London, he became a financial handler of offshore trusts in the Cayman Islands where he dreamt up tax evasion schemes for multinational companies, including Elixium Pharmaceuticals. He lied, cheated and stole and felt not a scintilla of shame. Those at the bottom, those disgusting fools living in poverty and squalor, breeding like mice—would scream moral outrage if they only knew how he’d fleeced them. But they deserved to be fleeced because they let men like him run rampant. Like the indigenous tribe, they chose darkness, stupidity and death. We should never allow the weak and infirm to overwhelm the strong. They needed to be stamped out.

“Thank you, Mr Fenwick,” said the host. “It’s been a pleasure talking to you.”

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