3. Rug Dealers
Ramanujan and Namagiri were cuddling. It was night, the lamps were out, and they were in bed together. Namagiri said, “Did you see the caravan arrive?”
Ramanujan said, “Yes, I did.”
“Were there horses? Camels? Elephants?”
“No elephants, a few horses, mostly camels,” Ramanujan said. “The camels galumphed through the streets, their packs swaying. People crowded to see the camels eye them with camel disdain. The camels were in a foul mood; for those packs were heavy.”
“And did you see the Sheik meet the Prince?”
“What did they say? Tell me every word!”
* * * * *
The horseman at the gate said, “I am Prince Rahnraygunaurobindo, but my friends call me Prince Rahni. Who are you?”
The horseman arriving said, “I am Sheik Rudollah Kahmunni. My friends call me Merchant, my enemies call me Smuggler. What do you want?”
“I hear that you traffick in rugs, hangings, and tapestries from far Persia.”
Sheik Kahmunni said smoothly, “One must not credit every rumor one hears. For if I, a poor merchant, possessed priceless multicolored gems of weaving, each bolt a lifetime of labor, then how could I escape being noticed by the highwayman?”
“Or the taxman?” Prince Rahni asked.
“Either one! Only a master smuggler could bring such treasures so far! But how could I, a poor yet honest merchant, achieve such a feat?” the Sheik asked.
“Where there’s a will, then no doubt there’s a way.”
“No doubt! And what do you offer as incentive for such enterprise?”
Prince Rahni replied, “I have hemp fiber; thread, ropes, and cloth. In bulk lots.”
Sheik Kahmunni looked bored. “And?”
“And flowering tops,” said Prince Rahni. “In bulk.”
Sheik Kahmunni nodded slowly. “And?”
“And rare and precious spices from a distant land. In bulk.”
“Ha. Hm. An interesting offer. Just what spices are these?”
Prince Rahni laughed; and he dismounted. Sheik Kahmunni followed suit. The Prince said, “Come, O guest. Let us dine together, so that you may taste for yourself.”
The Prince led the Sheik and his retinue through the palace gate.
* * * * *
“- and that was all I saw,” said Ramanujan.
“I saw them in the banquet room,” said Namagiri. “They came in through the West Corridor. The Prince pointed towards a dias covered with pillows, low tables, and servant girls waving fans. I was there, scrubbing a far corner of the floor, so I heard everything.”
“What did they say? Tell me every word!”
* * * * *
The Prince said, “Recline here with me, partake of our food and our spices.”
The Sheik nodded, smiling; but when he got to the dias he looked down at its rug and frowned critically.
“Oh! The carpet!” said Prince Rahni, dismayed. “No doubt that old rag is barely fit to sling over one of your camels!”
“I would never say such a thing, O Host,” Sheik Kahmunni said smoothly. “But fortunately for both of us, it just so happens that I do need a camel rag, and what is more, here is a replacement!” He snapped his fingers; one of his retinue came foreward, bowed deeply, and proffered an elaborately detailed carpet. “You may have it gratis, as a sample of my wares.”
“But... it’s stunning! Beautiful!”
“The first one's free,” the Sheik explained with an ingratiating smile.
The exchange was made quickly, in a flurry of tables and pillows. The serving girls quickly installed the glorious new Persian carpet on the dias. “This is really quite generous,” Prince Rahni said as they settled down.
“It is nothing; for you shall soon see others far finer.”
“And you may inspect our fiber, rope, and cloth. Consider that napkin; feel how soft it is! And here, you see, is a spool of our thread.”
The Sheik inspected a length of the thread, tugged at it. “Strong. And the ropes?”
“I will show them after dinner. But now...” and Prince Rahni clapped his hands.
A serving-girl came and set out a large water-pipe; then she opened a small box and showed the contents to the Sheik. He nodded. The serving-girl loaded up the pipe, then excused herself to retrieve a lit taper. Prince Rahni and Sheik Kahmunni inhaled; the water in the pipe gurgled loud and long. They exhaled great clouds of smoke.
Sheik Kahmunni smiled and said, “I suddenly have a ravenous appetite.”
Prince Rahni smiled back. “Then it is now time for our meal!” He clapped; serving girls brought dishes. “These are various spiced delicacies. We imported the spices from a place far east of here.” The Sheik raised an inquiring eyebrow, and Prince Rahni said disingenuously, “The Spice Isles.” (The Sheik quietly noted this as a topic worth further investigation.) The Prince said, “These dishes contain pepper, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, ginger, mustard, cinnamon, and garlic. And here is one of our specialties.” Prince Rahni lifted the top off a small spice pot, to reveal yellow powder. “Certain of these spices, combined in certain proportions, yield this, our favorite flavoring. We call it curry. Try it over rice.” He mixed a pinch of curry into a spoonful of rice, and ate it.
The Sheik took three spoonfuls of rice; then, before Prince Rahni could stop him, dumped over it an entire spoonful of the Prince’s potent curry. He mixed it in thoroughly, until the rice glowed a blazing bright yellow.
* * * * *
“Oh no!” Ramanujan cried.
“Don’t worry, the Prince managed to prevent disaster,” Namagiri said. “He stopped the Sheik to tell him that we have a ... little ritual.” And Namagiri smiled in the dark. “He called it the ‘Rite of the True Curry’.”
“And what might this rite be?”
* * * * *
Prince Rahni explained, “The practitioner eats some curry, then closes his eyes. Then he opens his eyes, crosses them, blinks rapidly, and weeps.”
“One weeps on command?” the Sheik said, puzzled. “By custom? Duty?”
“By inner impulse,” said Prince Rahni. “Then one utters a vowel.”
“And what vowel might that be?”
“Usually ‘aaaaa’ will do. Then one invokes the gods. Fervently.”
“Such piety,” the Sheik said, still not getting it.
“Then one must drink some water.”
“Do you sip or swallow?”
“You guzzle, very very quickly, one, two, three goblets of water; and true devotees will drain the pitcher itself. Girl, fill this pitcher,” he ordered. As the serving girl did so, the Prince said, “Then you may eat some of this cucumber-in-yoghurt; or even chew some of these anise seeds.”
“Blink, weep, utter vowel, invoke gods, drink water, eat yoghurt, chew anise,” Sheik Kahmunni recited. “Is that all?”
“The ritual concludes with a short fervent hymn of thanksgiving.”
“How very very quaint,” the Sheik said smoothly. Then he lifted his spoon and gulped down his overcurried rice.
* * * * *
Ramanujan said, “What happened then?”
Namagiri said, “Well... first he closed his eyes.”
“Then he opened his eyes.”
“Were they crossed?”
“Yes. He blinked rapidly, weeping freely.”
“Did the Sheik perform the rest of the Rite of the True Curry?”
“Yes; and he did so sincerely, spontaneously, and enthusiastically,” said Namagiri. “Afterwards, the Sheik told the Prince that his curry was a hot item indeed.”
* * *
Soon the courses were all done, and the dishes all taken away. Prince Rahni sighed heavily, then said, “Very well, let us deal! How many carpets do you have to offer?”
Sheik Kahmunni said, “My weaving‑women are as numerous as the trees of the forest, and as tireless as wind and tide. Our carpets are countless; they pile to the ceilings, overflowing our innumerable warehouses. And how much of this fine fiber do you have, suitable for dyeing and weaving into my humble carpets?”
Prince Rahni said, “My kingdom is as broad as the trackless sky; within it are numberless farms, in each of which grows indefinitely many hemp plants. Surely I could produce for you as much fiber as there is water in the sea.”
“And I could produce for you as many carpets as there are sand-grains in the desert,” replied the Sheik.
“A fine prospect for us both!”
“Agreed,” said the Sheik. “But there is one slight snag; a matter of accounting. Both our reserves are tremendous, stupendous. But exactly how tremendous? Just precisely how stupendous?”
Prince Rahni said, “I see your point. I say I have infinitely much fiber and spices; you say you have infinitely many carpets and tapestries. But which infinity is greater? And even if they are both infinite enough to satisfy both parties, will they be infinite enough to cover the infinite overhead of the deal itself?”
Sheik Kahmunni said, “Only Heaven is infinite! We are but mortals; our resources are finite; our days are numbered; so are our goods. If we but tally up our holdings, then perhaps we can ensure fair dealing.”
Prince Rahni said, “But what numbers exist that are large enough to describe how rich both of us are? A thousand carpets? A myriad bales of rope? Ten myriad spools of thread? I don't know any numbers big enough, do you?”
The Prince and the Sheik contemplated this, along with the carpet they sat on.
Prince Rahni said, “Perhaps we should consult my computer...”