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Memory holds within its slivers whole eras and aeons. We walk around with a store of time compressed within us. In our legends, however, time can compress not only memories but whole lifespans. We find that in such instances time splits, and when it does, our existence and destinies split too. Studying these split lives, we discover that while one is lived at the customary pace, the other unfolds in minuscule time. At some point, when one of these lives unravels, no difference is found in the experience of the life within the two.

It is said that in the 16th century, during the reign of Humayun, a magician named Raghu Jeetan earned great renown by performing many marvellous feats in the city of Shamsabad.

Intrigued by the reports of his powers, the scholar Sheikh Ahmed Farmali paid him a visit with a friend, and requested him to perform some feat for them. Raghu Jeetan consented, asked them to sit down, and set about his work.

Raghu Jeetan put up a few screens of grass beside the house, and invited Sheikh Farmali to enter. According to Sheikh Farmali’s account, as soon as he entered the area between the screens, he believed that he had set out from his house for Gujarat. He continued on his journey, travelling by day and resting at night. Arriving in Gujarat after many days, he came upon an orange orchard. As he was picking fruit from a tree, the orchard keeper arrived, and rebuked and manhandled him for stealing food from the royal garden.

Sheikh Farmali was led before the ruler who, realizing that Farmali was a scholar, admonished the gardener for the excesses he had committed against him, and inquired from Sheikh Farmali what had brought him to Gujarat.

Sheikh Farmali stated that he had come with the intention of finding service with the ruler. As he had no reference who could introduce him at court, he decided to steal fruit from the royal orchard as a ploy that would result in his being presented before the ruler. After hearing his account and finding him to be a highly learned man, the ruler accepted him into his service, conferring on him a residence, two horses, an estate from which he could receive regular income, and money for his immediate expenses. Sheikh Farmali slowly rose in the ruler’s esteem. When the ruler went hunting or felt like playing the chogan (polo), he took Farmali along.

Sheikh Farmali spent many years in Gujarat in the ruler’s service, married and had children. Five decades passed, and Sheikh Farmali became old and weak. One day as he entered a shack and came out, he saw his friend sitting some distance away. He greeted and embraced him, and asked him when he had arrived in Gujarat. His friend answered that they were still in Shamsabad, and at Raghu Jeetan’s house. He told Sheikh Farmali that he was barely gone an hour.

Sheikh Farmali then remembered that they had come to see Raghu Jeetan’s magical tricks. He inspected himself and realized that he was still young. All the signs of old age had disappeared from his person as if they had never existed.

To the end of his days he could never get over his wonder at how five decades had been compressed into an hour, and the distance to Gujarat become stretched between the grass screens of the magician.

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Yet another legend with somewhat similar features offers an even more marvellous ending that makes us question our notions of illusion and reality. It is said that one of the disciples of the Sufi Junaid went for a bath to the river Tigris. When he dove in and came out, he found himself in India. He lived there for many years, married and raised a family.

One day, when he went to the river for a bath and immersed himself, he found himself back in Baghdad when he emerged. He returned to Junaid’s company and found all of them were in the same moment he had left them. When he narrated the event before Junaid, he sent some people to India to investigate the matter. They found that the man indeed had a family in India. They were sent for from India, and he was reunited with them.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and @microMAF on Twitter.

This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.

Also Read | Musharraf’s previous Lounge columns

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