Arjuna the God
(co-written with Jane Kayantas)
“What are you reading?” asked a well-dressed Indian gentleman in perfect Queen’s English.“The Story of India,” replied Jane.
With that simple exchange, a little adventure had begun.
We were in Jodhpur’s airport waiting for our flight to Mumbai – a transit one-night stop on our way to Ladakh. We had just completed a two-month tour of the “real India,” during which we had explored a big part of the country, including the Deccan Plateau with its huge expanses and sweltering summer heat.
Arjuna, the gentleman inquiring about Jane’s book, was also heading to Mumbai. Our delayed flight gave us the opportunity to pass the time together, sharing our impressions of India and our travels in general. When the announcement was made that our flight was ready to board, we separated from Arjuna, because he was traveling business class and we were in economy.
As soon as we took off, Arjuna came to our seats and asked in which hotel we would be staying. When we told him we had not made any arrangements, his face lit up, and with a wry smile, he said:
“I would like to invite you to stay with us. You can sleep in my…doghouse!”
“Thank you for your offer, but we don’t want to be an inconvenience,” Jane replied.
“It’s not an inconvenience, it would be my pleasure,” he insisted. “Plus, I’ll make arrangements to bring you to the airport for your early morning flight to Ladakh. My house is thirty minutes from the airport. So you have nothing to worry about.”
Always open to surprises and new experiences, we accepted his invitation.
Upon landing at Mumbai airport and collecting our luggage, we found Arjuna’s driver waiting for us. We entered a nondescript sedan and drove into Mumbai’s congested traffic. Half an hour later, we were passing through an imposing iron gate guarding an extremely posh neighborhood with tree-lined streets and beautiful mansions surrounded by acres of manicured gardens. We soon arrived at another gate and drove up a long driveway to a lovely small house nestled in a wooded area.
“This is actually my doghouse, where you’ll spend the night. Our nanny lived here for several years. We’ll come here later,” Arjuna said.
We continued up a hill to a huge mansion, with a built-in pool in the garden.
“Welcome to our home!” he said.
We stepped out of the car, a little shell-shocked at India’s contrasting reality – the few super rich among a billion poor.
“Well, this is our current home. But before we go in, I’d like to show you our soon-to-be-finished new house, which is still under construction! It’s around the corner.”
We walked towards what seemed to be a huge construction site. The half-built brick building was of the same scale as a hotel complex. We approached in awe: it was gigantic.
“Come on Arjuna, this is not your new house. What is it? A hotel? A conference center?” I asked.
“It’s everything,” he said with an air of mystery. “Let’s start with the basement…”
We walked down two flights of stairs.
“This basement is two stories below ground and will include a full recreational center, complete with a rock-climbing wall, basketball court, indoor swimming pool, and gym,” explained Arjuna. Jane and I stared at the vast empty space with a few internal walls and support beams extending up to the ceiling.
“No way!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “This complex is definitely not your new house. This is an over-the-top playroom. How many kids do you have – twenty? This can’t be your new house; it’s just too big to be ‘a house.’ Come on, tell us, what is it really for? Are you building a hotel here or some grand sports center?” I continued.
“It is really my house – not a hotel. We only have two children, a son and daughter, but they always have their friends here, so why not create the ultimate playroom?” he replied. “Come, let’s continue the tour.”
We followed Arjuna as he walked up the stairs to the ground floor of the cavernous half-built house, still feeling like he was toying with us.
“We’ll have four living rooms,” was his bold opening statement on the ground floor, and it felt as if he had just played the four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth!
“This is a living room for formal gatherings and the next one for informal get-togethers,” he said excitedly, like a little boy showing his friends his new toys. “This is the third living room, which can easily turn into a ping-pong room. I’m a good table-tennis player, but I intend to invite champions to come here for special tournaments. So the room has to be big,” he continued. “And this is the largest of the four: my grand home cinema that will seat fifty people. I’ll buy a proper movie theater projector and show movies from the reel – it’s a different feeling, you know.”
“Come on, my friend,” I insisted, “this is definitely not a house! It’s not even a mansion. It’s a hotel of some sort. I have seen many large mansions in my life, but this is ten times larger than the largest house of a big Hollywood star in Beverly Hills! How can this function as a family home? How will you spend time with your family if you need to walk ten minutes to get from one room to another?! You are pulling our leg!”
Jane shot me a sharp, annoyed look. I knew I had to cool down and stop expressing my disbelief.
“No, no, it’s really my new house, and it will function just fine for me and my family,” he said in all seriousness, pausing for a minute to allow the silence to underscore his statement.
“It is his house,” Jane said. “Accept it.” With Jane convinced, I had to let all my defenses drop and accept the unbelievable: he was telling us the truth after all – this was his future house!
“OK, let’s move to the kitchens,” he said, entering a new corridor and then another. “We’ll have four kitchens,” he continued, and I could now hear Beethoven’s recurrent theme being repeated on an ascending scale. “There will be a small one in the basement for preparing sandwiches and snacks – that’s below us. Here, there will be a restaurant-equipped kitchen for formal dinners, and over there, one for everyday cooking.” He opened a sliding door. “… And here is the open-air one, for barbecues, and of course, it has a tandoori oven.”
Mouths agape, we could now easily imagine his house completely finished, furnished, and lived in, with all four kitchens fully staffed and functioning, and a bevy of children playing, and adults lounging in the various rooms or…watching Bollywood movies from a real reel!
“The bedrooms,” Arjuna continued, “will be in this section, each with its own bathroom and living room area. The two master bedrooms will have an adjoining library. That’s because I love to read and I want our kids to be surrounded by books so they will become well-educated.”
“Well, that’s a great idea!” I said reluctantly in a pathetic attempt to strike my first positive note.
“There will be a total of six bedrooms, one for each of us, and two extra for guests,” he explained.
“But why would you have two master bedrooms?” Jane asked.
“My wife and I like to sleep separately. This way we don’t disturb one another late at night or in the early morning. It’s much healthier to sleep alone anyway,” Arjuna replied.
Suddenly, while staring at a wall outside the space that would be his master bedroom, Arjuna became silent. In the most serious tone, he asked, “Have you ever seen God?”
“What?! Where does this out-of-the-blue question fit in all this?” I asked with a tone of irony.
“I’m just thinking aloud. You both seem very well-educated and with an inquiring spirit, so I ask you: Have you ever seen God?” he repeated.
Caught by surprise, we were trying to form some type of answer, when Arjuna gazed off into space through a window of the soon-to-become master bedroom and, adopting an orator’s demeanor, said:
“I am God! I am a reflection of God – as we all are. I want to see God as often as I can. For this reason, mirrors will adorn the entire house. Why shouldn’t I honor God with reflections of himself everywhere? Reflections, that is, of myself.”
Now we were really speechless. Arjuna wanted a house full of mirrors to see himself, as the God he is. Was our new friend a narcissist or a megalomaniac? Or was he simply taking the Hindu concept of our Divine Nature to its extreme by adding a personal touch?
We followed him silently as he proceeded to take us outside. Suddenly, Arjuna proudly proclaimed, “And this is my favorite creation: Behold the theater!”
In front of us appeared a huge outdoor semicircular amphitheater, designed like an ancient Greek theater, complete with seating built into the hill. An amphitheater – his own personal Epidaurus!
“I have a vision about what will transpire here,” he continued. “I will create a world forum to invite leaders from all fields to address and find solutions to the most pressing global problems.”
“Do you know any world leaders?” I asked. “What type of global problems do you want to solve? And why have the amphitheater next to your home?”
“I know some world leaders, but more importantly, I can now get to know more by inviting them here. Global problems are rampant, and as the world becomes smaller, these problems will only increase. Problems such as educating the masses, supplying clean water to the most needy, providing basic medical care to those living in isolated villages – all are solvable problems. They simply require the right intentions, proper leadership, and smartly invested funds. None of these problems are as challenging as sending a man to outer space, and we’ve done that many times. I built it next to my home, because I had the space here. Maybe I will stage some theater plays, too.”
“OK, Arjuna. Now I get it,” I said reassuringly. “This is your future house – or rather, palace – but with an agenda for your grander philanthropic vision and many other interests.”
Arjuna smiled with satisfaction. “I’m glad you got it and that you too can now see my vision! Let’s head back to the house and have some dinner. Lila, my wife, is waiting for us.”
Our new friend walked us back to his current house, a beautiful normal-sized mansion. They served us drinks and made the most delicious Western-style meal we had eaten in months. We put aside our shocked impressions of the new gigantic house under construction and loosened up to enjoy our gracious hosts’ company.
We soon learned that both Arjuna and Lila had studied and lived abroad for many years before returning to India in their late twenties. Arjuna managed his family’s clothing factory and then started to expand into other fields, mainly technology, where he “got lucky.” Lila, on the other hand, had put her career on hold to raise their children, but now she started studying again to become a digital designer. They were both well-read and well-traveled, had many interests, and were curious to learn about our life too. We spent the evening sharing stories and discussing a wide range of topics: from the unique smells of a seaside Indian village to Shankara’s philosophy, and from the current state of China to life in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were open-minded and open-hearted. In fact, the more we got to know Arjuna, the less he seemed to be the narcissist or megalomaniac who was building the nearby gargantuan house. I felt he was a man torn between his spiritual interests and his need for recognition and approval. He wanted to learn, give, change the world, but he also loved to impress and be admired.
When, a few days later, we Googled Arjuna, we discovered that he was not a simple businessman, but one of India’s most successful, having reached the Forbes list of billionaires!
Our enjoyable dinner was followed by tea and sweets and more conversation. By the time we were winding down from our long adventurous day and about to head to the “doghouse” for our night’s sleep, we had almost completely forgotten the earlier tour. But just then, we heard a giant roar and felt the house tremble. Jane and I fell silent, fearing it was an earthquake. With a dash of embarrassment, Arjuna quickly said, “No need to worry. It’s just an airplane flying overhead.”
“An airplane?!” I exclaimed.
“After I bought this property and started building my dream house, the airport changed its air routes, and now there’s a flight path exactly over us. I’ve started the battle to revert the routes to the old ones, but with no results thus far,” explained Arjuna.
What a tragic irony, I thought. Imagine: building a gargantuan mansion adorned with rambling mirrors suited for the self-conscious incarnation of God, and an amphitheater to invite world leaders to solve the world’s problems, only to have deafening airplanes roaring above! I furtively looked at Jane, who was sitting next to me, and I immediately knew we were both thinking of the same thing: there was a certain poetic justice to his ostentatious grand plans. While he could certainly afford to create his dream, somehow the laws of the universe rejected it, as if it were too grand, too insulting. Nemesis, the Ancient Greek goddess of retribution, “the winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice” – as described by the second-century poet Mesomedes – who punishes hubris, found this ingenious way to subtly destroy Arjuna’s dream. For irrespective of how much money he had and how grand his plans were, he could never control the skies and the routes of planes! If he wanted peace and quiet in his palace, he would have to find another place to build it. But now he had almost finished it and there was nothing he could do about the planes but battle the airport authorities for the rest of his life.
Bidding our farewell and thanking our gracious hosts for the impromptu five-star luxury adventure, we felt immensely grateful for our serendipitous luck. We were taken to the “doghouse” (a two-bedroom house with a beautiful living room in its own right) where we enjoyed a hot shower and climbed into a comfortable bed with luxurious soft cotton sheets.
A minute later, we heard another plane fly over us, and then another. I wore my earplugs. As I dozed off to sleep staring out of the window, I thought I saw an apparition: Was it Nemesis winking at me with a smile, or was it Arjuna, the tragic god of the Baghavad Gita, now incarnated in the palace of a thousand mirrors?
(Some details have been changed to protect the identity of the characters.)