Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Infinite Tiffin

Because Indian food is the best in the world, as everyone knows, a scientist who worked for an educational institute on the outskirts of Bangalore once tried to devise a method of ensuring there was more of it. The more the better, was his motto. His attempts to construct a machine that would multiply chapatis, vadas, dosas, idlis and bowls of curry failed, for it turned out to be impossible to create new matter from nothing — thanks to the physical laws of the universe. But this scientist wasn’t a man to be so easily discouraged. Where there’s a will there’s a way, was his other motto. He had two mottos, just as he had two arms, two legs, two eyes and a pair of spectacles on his nose.

He thought of a way he could get around the particular law of physics that had sabotaged his first plan. Instead of multiplying the food in order to increase the amount available, why not shrink the eaters instead? A man or woman the size of a thumb would be confronted with chapatis that were like islands, vadas like boulders, bowls of curry like the craters of active volcanoes. Yes, that was the best solution. He got to work on it right away and he even stayed late in his makeshift laboratory at the institute and ignored all phone calls from his parents, who wanted to know when he was going to marry a nice girl, or failing that, any girl at all. He was wedded to his experiments.

At last, he chanced on a viable method of shrinking people to a specific size. He celebrated by going home and sleeping for three days. When he awoke, a wide smile on his face, he knew that finding volunteers would be fairly easy. He placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, and it wasn’t long before people began contacting him. He would pay them a small honorarium for taking part in the trial run and they would be allowed to eat as much food as they wanted. So many applicants contacted him that he was overwhelmed, and he had to declare that the offer was over. No more volunteers were required. He had two suitable candidates and wanted to use them immediately.

Pawan Kumar and Shruti Patil were both at loose ends, like pieces of string that knew knot what they had let themselves in for. That’s a pun, but neither one of them cared for wordplay. Pawan was an auto driver and Shruti worked as a maid in a gated community. Neither were gluttons but it must be admitted that they hadn’t had a notable feast for a long time. They jumped at the opportunity that the scientist offered. And in case you are wondering why this scientist has remained nameless so far, it’s because after what happened he preferred to stay anonymous for all time, and we must respect that.

Pawan had found a copy of the newspaper left by a passenger on the back seat of his auto, and Shruti had found one stuffed into the bin that she took out of the apartment she was cleaning. Both had paused for less than one minute in order to read the advertisement. This was a happy chance, if chance can ever be said to be truly happy and isn’t faking it, and then and there they had decided to plunge headlong into this new adventure. They were perfect volunteers, in other words, without a twinge of anxiety between them.

The scientist said, “Are you sure?”

They both nodded in agreement, bemused that he should seem more nervous than they were. All they were risking was their existence, but he was risking his entire career, and success in this unfortunate world is often held to be more important than life itself. He continued, “There might be complications, but I don’t think it is likely. I just want you to be aware.”

They were aware, fully so, and he ought to worry less.

“So be it,” he said dramatically.

It’s still a trade secret as to how he shrank them from ordinary sized people to miniature versions of themselves, so I am unable to describe the machine he used and the green rays it beamed on them from a series of crystal lenses all of which were carved into different shapes that were offset polyhedra, and even the copper coils and capacitors and diodes as big as cucumbers must be passed over in discreet silence, nor can I say how the whole contraption was powered by an array of solar cells on the institute’s roof.

Pawan and Shruti found themselves diminishing rapidly but that’s not how it seemed from their perspective. It appeared to them that the outside world was expanding, rushing to inflate itself, and the effect was so startling and alarming that they clung to each other for comfort, despite the fact they hardly knew each other, and their parents didn’t know each other either. This embrace also helped them to keep their balance as they rushed down the scale until they were almost exactly the size of the scientist’s thumbs.

The scientist spoke and his voice was so deafening that it boomed like the thunderclaps that sometimes echo from the crowded buildings of Bangalore and rumble down the streets before fading. They understood none of his words and it was a minute before they could gather their wits to act on their own initiative. He had simply said, “Please begin eating.”

He had picked them up and was lowering them on a long table that groaned with the amount of food it held. He was careful not to squeeze them too tightly. Then he released them, and they wandered in utter amazement among the plates, bowls, dishes and banana leaves, all heaped with delicious foodstuffs. The idea that they should devour this landscape seemed as absurd to them as any resident of Mysore supposing he can munch his way through the Amba Vilas Palace. It was too overwhelming, far too miraculous.

The scientist now clapped his hands impatiently. “Come, come, tuck in, I don’t have all day. Let’s see what happens!”

But his voice was still too low in pitch for their tiny ears to hear anything more than an incomprehensible booming. That was of no importance because the mission that had been assigned to them was plain. They had to eat as much as they liked in the time available to them.

It never occurred to Pawan or Shruti to ask whether the miniaturisation was permanent, and in fact even the scientist didn’t know if the effects would wear off naturally, or if he might find it necessary to try reversing the polarity of his machine in the hope it would restore them to their former size. But they had full faith in his competence and began nibbling at tasty objects that were in their vicinity. They were only a little cautious.

Soon they grew confident, then became joyous. They bounded between dishes and plates, climbed mounds of sweet and savoury foods, waded through curries, cavorted among the vegetables.

In the meantime, a reporter from the newspaper was on his way to the institute on the outskirts of Bangalore to find out why this scientist needed the volunteers he had asked for. The reporter smelled a story in the making. When he entered the building, after showing his press credentials, and approached the laboratory, he smelled something beyond a story. It was a banquet! He rapped on the door with his knuckles and cried: “Good afternoon, sir.”

To which the scientist replied, “Go away! You are disturbing the future of the human race. The door is locked.”

“I merely wish to interview your volunteers.”

“They are far too small to answer your questions. You must depart now. I will have you ejected from the premises if you refuse to leave of your own free will. The volunteers can’t understand your words, no matter what language you speak. They are cavorting on the table.”

“How so? You mean that they are monkeys?”

The scientist cursed at this.

The reporter struggled to see anything coherent through the frosted glass of the door. All he could make out was the shape of the banqueting table, which at this distance was like an operating table, and parallel rows of foodstuffs, which to him looked like an array of gadgets. The scientist stood with a spoon ready to serve rice onto plates and to the reporter it seemed he was clutching a surgical instrument that could probe brains.

“Is he brainwashing monkeys? Turning them into robots or assassins! I will write an article about this scandal.”

And he dashed out of the institute building as fast as he could run. During this rumpus, Pawan and Shruti had gained even more confidence. They started to eat with gusto and passed from dish to dish like explorers among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, taking morsels from every alluring display. Most of this food was from Karnataka but not all.

They chewed and swallowed bisi bele bhath, maddur vada, Dharwad peda, akki roti, saagu, upma, ladoos, three variants of idli, namely thatte idli, rava idli and Muday idli, churumuri and many other typical foods. They were soon full, but they continued eating, more on aesthetic grounds than from physical need. It was like a chain reaction. They would keep going until something exploded and that something would be their bellies.

But now something strange happened, and the simple adventure became a much more complex and tricky exploit. Pawan found a paper dosa, a very long and crispy example, and it had been rolled into a tunnel and he peered into the mouth of the tunnel and he was baffled.

“The landscape on the other side of the tunnel looks different,” he said to Shruti with a frown. “Come and see.”

She did so and she was no less astonished.

“There’s a garden there.”

“Yes, there is, and it makes no sense.”

A dosa with a tunnel. Courtesy: Creative Commons

They exchanged meaningful glances, but the exact meaning was unclear to both of them. Nonetheless they tingled with anticipation and Pawan gave into temptation and suggested they walk together through the dosa tunnel in order to see what the far side might actually be like.

Have you ever walked through a dosa yourself? It is surely an odd feeling. They stumbled on the batter, which yielded too readily to their feet, cracking a piece off here and there, but soon enough they emerged from the exit. And what they saw was remarkable. They were no longer on a table in a laboratory in an institute on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Pawan and Shruti were unworldly people and had never heard of the myth of the Garden of Eden, but that’s what they found on the other side of the magic dosa. There are some special points in our world that are portals to other worlds and if you step through them, you will end up in that new dimension. They saw that the garden was full of trees, but the trees had gulab jamuns hanging from the branches instead of fruits. Gulab jamun trees! Was that even possible? Clearly, yes it was, here in this incredible place.

Gulab Jamuns. Courtesy: Creative Commons

As they strolled deeper into the garden, enchanted by the sights, they took slightly diverging paths and ended up alone. Shruti stopped by a tree and despite the fact she was full, she reached up to pluck a gulab jamun that glistened most invitingly just above her head. And that’s when the snake appeared. It slithered down from the top of the tree and said:

“You are allowed to eat the sweets from any tree in the garden with the one exception of this tree, which is the tree of knowledge. But I think you should be a rebel and eat it anyway. Why not?”

The snake had the voice and face of the scientist.

Shruti pouted at him.

“Because that would be greedy,” she said.

“Don’t be so timid!”

“Knowledge is overrated. You have plenty of knowledge and what has it done for you? Turned you into a snake.”

“Don’t say that. I am an intellectual benefactor.”

“You eat it then.”

And she held out the gulab jamun for him.

He hissed and swayed in annoyance, his forked tongue flicking, but at that very moment Pawan came over to see what the fuss was about, and he shook his fist at the snake and warned him: “I am an auto driver. I often have passengers like you. I will throw you out of the garden if you don’t behave.”

The snake continued hissing angrily but it slid away and they still don’t know where it went because they have never seen it again. Meanwhile, the scientist mysteriously disappeared from the laboratory and the only theory that explained his vanishing was that he had turned the rays of his own machine on himself and shrunk down to a dot and then to an atom.

But why would he do that? Nothing made sense any longer. Pawan and his wife, Shruti, still live in the garden beyond the dosa, and because all the food in the laboratory has been taken away, there is no way for them to return to the real world. They don’t care about that. They are satisfied where they are. They keep the gulab jamun of knowledge safe and maybe one day they will take bites from it. But they are in no rush to do so.

The reporter wrote his story about monkey robots and assassins, but it was never published because his editor thought he had gone mad. He was told to take a week off work and go on holiday. He went but never returned. Searching for him proved futile but rumours persisted of a monkey on the coast who liked to read the newspaper as if he understood the words. Probably some sort of coincidence. The world is stuffed full of them.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s