The Sieve

I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains
And with my hand turns Fortune’s wheel about
-Tamburlaine, Christopher Marlowe

Usman glared up in defiance at the sun, beating down on him as he set out for his day of sieving. He would not be cowed by mere nature. He had battled these elements before, and they hadn’t succeeded in breaking him. They wouldn’t succeed now. Today, he would change the fate of the world.


He had read, in the plays of Ancient Greece, of the concept of hubris. The idea that if man built himself too high, the Gods would take it as a challenge to their divinity and strike him down. It was a common theme in many cultures and religious texts, always discouraging man from rising too far above the pack. Leave it to the Gods to be Godlike, mankind must be human. Or, as Nietzsche says, All Too Human.

It occurred to him that maybe he was guilty of the same. His contempt for nature, for anything he couldn’t control, for all the chaos he encountered on his long walks everyday, could very well be equated to a God’s anger on finding that his subjects are running amok. He wondered if he was setting himself up to be struck down. But he was too far-gone to have any doubts anymore. He shrugged, picked up his bag, and set off again, muttering curses to the sun as he walked.

The streets of Bangalore seemed different on days like this. The city-dwellers were unused to sunlight, and it clearly showed on their faces. The populace gazed, flustered, at the yellow harbinger of discomfort. They cursed, then turned their heads and spat in disgust. Usman noticed all the nuances of their mannerisms. He had been studying them for years. He could almost predict what a certain person would do in a certain situation. What his tone of voice would be, how he would use his hands to emphasize his displeasure, and how he would use volume to discourage any who disagreed with his opinion from voicing theirs. He learnt to read people’s faces, being able to judge at a glance whether the object of his study had any substance or was all bluff. All of this, Usman learnt with the help of the art of sieving.

Usman had come to Bangalore at the age of fourteen. A naïve, innocent young man, unaware of the awakening that was waiting around the corner, waiting to strike down every belief he had ever held with ruthless efficiency. Throughout high school and college, Usman remained unaware. The forces remained insidious, there was nothing he could see or feel that needed guarding against. He gradually found his hobbies being modified and fine-tuned as if to serve a higher purpose. One that was as yet unknown to him.

He lost interest in much that was earlier dear to him, and acquired a whole spectrum of interests that just a few months ago would not have warranted a second glance from him. He would ordinarily have attributed these changes as part and parcel of the normal evolution of a boy into a man, however the sheer coherence and sense of direction of all the changes, a direction in which he himself had no say, often caused him to think he was being puppeteered. He renounced religion, renounced charity and social work, and gradually renounced anything in which too much emotional investment was required. His relationships, until then at least on the fringes of normalcy, suffered heavily from these changes, and he soon became a recluse. And an enthusiastic one at that.

The activity he enjoyed most under the new scheme of things, was his daily walks. He took longer and longer walks, and more and more often. He walked aimlessly, with quick, long steps, never looking at the road, never looking at the sky. On these walks he would look only at the people. The people of Bangalore were the subject of his study. For hours on end, he would walk up and down a street, noticing people and their endless variations in speech styles, expressions and body language. The limitless stimulation of deciphering the lies from the truths, the exaggerations from the understatements, the fakeness from the genuine, fascinated Usman.

Once he got home, he would recall those who had used their speech and body language to greatest effect, those whose words had had the most impact, those who had been the most successful in holding his attention. He would recall them and then he would copy them. The hand gestures, so alien to the shy boy who had entered this city as a teenager, now became second nature to the swiftly transforming adult. The key to this method lay in his own judgment. He would only focus his attention on those who were exceptional. Mediocrity could not lay claim to even a small percentage of his time. His judgment improved everyday as he refined his scales of judgment with the help of the infallible knowledge acquired by experience. In this way, he absorbed only the best, and anything falling short of that standard was remorselessly cast aside. “Let through only what is pure, discard the rest. I am a sieve, and this is the art of sieving,” Usman thought to himself.

He started testing his newfound skills in his university, making speeches in his classroom, participating in debates, elocution contests. He found none anywhere who could match his talent, he had no equal. It was then that it struck Usman that he had hit upon the golden solution. He started branching out in the things he was looking for. Once again, the direction of his searches seemed dictated TO him rather than BY him. He was automatically drawn to personalities that possessed a commanding aura. The kind of people who could silence a room just by walking into it. He had already mastered their speech techniques, now he began to concentrate on other things. The kind of clothes they wore, how they walked, when they spoke and when they were silent. He started concentrating on the content of their speeches rather than the style, their opinions, their beliefs, their values.

In the course of a week, Usman would hear around twenty or thirty contradicting views on the same subject. He would go home everyday, think hard on the subject, consider each person’s argument, try and see it his way, iron out any contradictions, and have a coherent, logical conviction at the end. One built out of the fragments of conversations his ear had stolen from his daily walks. But the monument that was his collection of fragments seemed to him much more beautiful, flawless and profound than any of the mundane buildings he had borrowed the fragments from.

Soon, he started noting down books that were being referred to by the best of the speakers. While hanging around inconspicuously, he would note down any book that the person in question recommended. Some days he would get extremely lucky and would sit in on a conversation between a group of friends all discussing the books that had impacted them the most. On those days he went home with a smile plastered on his face, and the names of forty or fifty books scribbled hurriedly into his notebook. He began visiting the library and borrowing those books most frequently recommended. He ran through them at a terrifying pace, spurred on by his desire to emulate those he saw, to sieve the best this world had to offer. He read of all the personalities that had shaken the world with their words or deeds. He did not discriminate on the basis of morality, he had long since learnt that morality was a word bandied about by the weak. No, morality had no place in his thought process, his only judging standard was that of impact.

Usman had, by now, completely immersed himself in this pursuit. He hadn’t been to college in a month, he neglected daily formalities such as hygiene and grooming. He would awake, wash the sleep out of his eyes, and set out for the day. He would eat at a café, sitting for hours, hunting out the type of people he could wean some more valuable tidbits from. He learnt the kind of places he was more likely to encounter his chosen objects of study. When he found one particularly interesting, he would follow him around all day. For this, Usman had to learn another skill, the skill of camouflage. He learnt how to stay within earshot of a group, and yet remain unnoticed. Hiding in plain sight. Not one of the people he spied on and studied ever knew of his existence.

But the walks began to take their toll on his appearance. Once plump and jolly looking, Usman thinned out and his face grew long and haggard, a bushy beard running wild upon his face. He wore the same clothes for days on end, and after three or four days, his clothes were brown from muck and dust collected from his daily travels. A casual observer may have mistaken him for a beggar or a homeless person, but one who possessed a keen eye would have noticed his proud gait and glint of intelligence in his eyes, and realized it was not so. Usman, however walked just as resolutely as ever, oblivious to what the world thought of him. He had sieving to do.

Months passed this way, Usman’s name was stricken off from his college records. He had failed to attend any classes that semester. His parents, who lived in Kashmir, were notified. They were shocked to say the least. Usman had been a good student all his life, they had never needed to force him to study or attend classes, and besides, his degree was one of his own choosing. When they called him to find out what was going on, they heard a strange voice on the other end of the line. It sounded like their son, but his manner of speaking, his accent, the forcefulness of his words, all were new to them. His father, alarmed by the great chasm that seemed to separate his son from himself, attempted to strong arm his way back. He threatened Usman to return at once to Kashmir, or else his monthly allowance would be cut off immediately.

Usman smiled, muttered an enigmatic farewell to his father, and disconnected the phone. He never spoke to his parents again.

Now he was on his own. On one hand, that meant he had to arrange for his own sustenance, which would require some skilled maneuvering. But, on the other hand, the last of his fetters had been removed. He was now free to soar the heights that his genetic wingspan would allow him to lift himself to. He could now maximize his potential.

Usman took all the belongings that were indispensable to him from his apartment, his clothes, books and his beloved mirror. All of them fit in one large bag. He walked the crowded streets of Bangalore, ever vigilant, on the lookout for an oyster that would unintentionally drop a pearl of wisdom into his lap. Something he could absorb, something he could imitate. He found a spot on one of his favored streets, hid his bag behind some bushes and sat down to survey his beat. This was his new home.

Now the time for self-education was approaching its close. It was time for his internship. He began to use all the tools he had perfected through months of practice, and he used them to terrible effect. He would single out a weak shopkeeper, speak in his most forceful, most enchanting words, until the man lay quivering at Usman’s mercy. He would then take what he needed, just the bare minimum, and leave with a polite word of thanks and a promise to return again soon. He would placate one to hand him a free meal, another to buy him a cigarette. He would intimidate one to buy him some fresh juice, and outright threaten another to fix his tattered shoes. A streetside barber would cut his hair and shave his beard for free in return for the many fantastic tales Usman spun while seated at his chair. It brought more customers to the shop, it was good for business.

Usman’s years of watching people with unwavering concentration taught him just which route to take to control which people. Suddenly the whole of Bangalore seemed at his mercy. He could get whatever he wanted, from whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Humanity stretched out in front of him like a vast garden of Eden, just there to be harvested. But he was the God here, there was no fruit forbidden to him.

His daily sustenance thus arranged for, Usman decided to see just how far his powers could go. He started aiming higher, became more ambitious with his targets. He walked into a newspaper company, demanding that he be allowed to speak to the manager, he was here for a walk-in interview. (He had convinced the guy at the launderette to wash and iron his suit for free as a “special favor”. It was his third special favor that month)

The manager looked up impatiently, telling Usman they were not recruiting anyone for the time being. Usman spoke, his words hitting all its targets. He could visualize himself as a sniper sitting high above the battle in his tower of ivory, merely picking off his defenseless victims at will. They had no escape, this manager stood no chance. Ten minutes later, he was offering Usman a job as a senior editor. Usman smiled, turned and walked out of the building. He was never seen in the office again.

“People,” thought Usman, “are the same everywhere. Those higher up are no better than the ones below them. They may have built up huge fortresses, but their fortresses lie on the same shaky foundations. Just as susceptible to attack from one who knows where to strike.”

Every day Usman returned from his walks, he came back to his spot and looked at himself in the mirror. He had done so habitually for years now, and the changes he had noticed were merely physical. He had been plump, now he was thin. He had been fair, now he was tanned. But now, he began to notice something else. He seemed to himself sub-human. Ethereal. He seemed to be almost translucent. Unable to look at himself, he instead ended up looking through himself. Every single day he seemed further away from his physical being, as if he had removed himself from humanity.

The full extent of his ability was still not clear to him. Perhaps it never would be. Every time he turned a new corner, a whole new world of possibilities opened up to him. He now understood the sense of power Adolf Hitler must have felt when he gave his speech at Nurnberg. The intoxication was tremendous. No wonder Hitler got carried away.

He delved deeper into the world of men, trying to see where he would meet his match. Higher and higher, still unchallenged. He felt like a rocket that launched, expecting resistance and gravitational pull, but encountered none and so shot endlessly upwards into space.

He began targeting the elite. The brilliant, the powerful, the geniuses. The very people he had observed during his college days, the very people who gave him all the tools he now possessed, were made the target of his experiments. They crumbled before him and gave way meekly. Each victory made Usman more belligerent. He played games with himself, setting himself handicaps, each riskier than the last, and always getting away with it. Vainly he looked for a peer, a fellow commander, but he found only obedient slaves. Just waiting for him to come and take control. Fate may have puppeteered him into this position, but he was now the puppet master for all of humanity. He was the Superman, the Ubermensch, the Superior One. Was he not God-like? What was God, if not this?

He mocked at the Greeks. There was no accountability for hubris. Nothing could strike him down. There were none remaining that could withstand him.

Usman now realized the end was not far. On finding all of mankind beneath him, he quickly began losing interest in them. The faces that had presented riddles and puzzles to his youthful mind, now seemed predictable and uninteresting. It was as if one were asked to solve a crossword puzzle that one had already solved many times before. There was nothing in existence that could challenge him, the world lay at his mercy, what was he to do with it?

A movie he watched recently indicated that when one amasses knowledge of such gigantic proportions, the duty of mankind is to pass it on for the future generations. “Possibly,” thought Usman, “that is what mankind should do. But I have long since ceased to belong to that species. I do not think I will follow that course. Besides, who amongst them has the ability to comprehend what I have to say?”

He sat at his spot on the sidewalk for three days, only pausing to eat or drink. He meditated upon all the pros and cons of each course of action. His own argumentative skills turned upon himself, he found himself engaged in an almighty debate. Here, then was his only competition. Himself.

At the end of the three days, it was decided. He lay on the sidewalk, exhausted from the immense mental exertion. He took another three days to recuperate.

Then he arose, packed all his belongings into a large garbage bag, slung it over his shoulder, and left. The first thing he did was hitchhike his way away from Bangalore. Bangalore was too sane to be the flashpoint for his plans. He needed more chaos. He travelled North.

On reaching the city of his choice, he settled down and for a week or two, got his eyes accustomed to the filth. Not the filth on the roads, but the filth in people’s minds. Bangalore seemed to him like a paradise compared to this supposed Metropolis. His task would be easier than he anticipated, it seemed.

By the end of the month, Usman had his finger on the pulse of the city. He knew what made it tick, and what swayed the masses. He knew the political situation, the economic situation, the ideological minorities and majorities. He identified every aspect of life in the city, and then every element that affected those aspects. He felt like a veteran surgeon, so comfortable with the human anatomy, that he could operate blindfolded. Usman was the surgeon of human souls.

He waited, patiently, for the opportune moment, he knew it wouldn’t be long before it presented itself. And he was not wrong. A muslim had been murdered. A holy festival was coming up. Communal tension was high. This was it.

He dressed himself appropriately, his bushy beard swaying gracefully beneath his face. He had been growing this one for months now. As he walked into the mosque, he gauged the mood of the people. Everything was perfect. All they needed was a gentle push and they’d do the rest. He sat patiently as the Imam spoke, shaking his head disdainfully at the old man’s sincere, but misguided efforts at preaching peace to the mass. This was not in keeping with the public mood, it just made them more restless. It played right into his hands. He stood up, and he began to speak.

Knowing this was the beginning of the end, he spared no effort. He poured years of passion and learning into his words, picking only those which would rankle in the minds of his audience. He touched on all the topics that would incense them, but not in a way that seemed provocative. He let his words take their own form and advance on the public. None amongst the crowd that day would remember his face, at best they’d have a vague, hazy image of his in their heads, but not a single soul, man, boy or child, would forget a single word he spoke. Their hearts were moved, their brains blockaded, they were putty in his hands, and he molded them into a blind weapon. The effect was terrible, the horde, not even waiting to offer the prayers they came to the mosque for, gave an almighty roar and ran out into the streets. Men picked up any kind of weapons they could find around them, the children followed excitedly, unsure of what was to follow, but curious to find out. Usman watched in silence from the confines of the mosque. He did not move a muscle, merely observed the work of his minions. The whole mosque was empty, except for the Imam, the peace loving fool.

Predictably, the riot caused a backlash. The victims sought revenge, and the bloodlust remained for days. It was not new to this city, communal riots happened once every few years, and always died out in a few days. But this time a curious thing happened. Just when it seemed that the fighting was about to die down, a fresh mob would appear, sometimes from a mosque, sometimes from a temple, screaming in angst and rage, baying for blood. And always, in the place from where the mob had poured forth, an observer would find a tall, dark, lean man, fully bearded, watching quietly with a twinkle in his eye and the hint of a smile on his face.

Two months passed, and the city had been brought to its knees. The streets, once jam-packed with cars, stalls and city dwellers, now lay empty and bare except for a few overturned vehicles burnt to a crisp and shattered to smithereens. None dared to leave the streets for fear of getting mobbed by another rioting group of men. People left the city in droves, shaking their heads in disbelief in how quickly their lives had disintegrated.

Usman watched with grim satisfaction. This was the first time his mind had been this excited since the day he had had the debate with himself. This was his stimulation. And this was the fate of the world.

He continued from one city to the next, always spending a day or two to identify the flashpoints. Always waiting for the perfect moment to strike. With time he got better, some cities crumbled to dust within a day or two. The world looked on helplessly. There seemed no pattern. No unifying reason for all these outbreaks of violence. Each city seemed to choose its own reason to break into warfare. How was one to prepare for that? Taking their cue from India, people all over the world began rioting and taking up arms in revolt against any cause they saw fit. Chaos, it seemed, was contagious.

The warring spread like wildfire, being religiously inspired in some places, economically inspired elsewhere. The whole world split itself into opposing factions, not only externally, but internally as well. Each country was at war with another country while trying to prevent a rampant civil war within its own borders. And every time a resolution seemed imminent, a mysterious force would appear, spurring on the people to rebellion all over again. As if a malicious wind refused to let the turbines of slaughter stop turning.

For four years, every country poured its heart and soul into the destruction of another country, the populace gave up their lives for any cause that was trending at the moment. Alliances were forged and forgotten in an instant. No one was sure of just where they stood. The tower of mankind, the sum total of 4 billion years of evolution, stood tottering on unsteady ground. Each time it sought to steady itself, a bearded man would appear to destabilize it again.

Eventually, inevitably, it fell. The world was brought to its knees, each country lay in ruins, its people lay dead or dying. All the causes they fought for died along with the last of them. No monument, no “wonder of the world”, no library, no testament to mankind’s achievement survived the world war. The only evidence that civilization ever existed lay in the symmetrical ruins left behind all over the world.

Amongst the ruins of the world, Usman walked quietly, enjoying the solitude.
He looked upon all the havoc he had wreaked. All without lifting a finger himself. Pride swelled his heart, but with it, also recognition that it was all over.

He stood atop a ruined monument, his silhouette framed against the sun. That same sun that had meekly attempted to stop him on the fateful day he left Bangalore.

He looked into his mirror one last time. He was no longer translucent, no longer ethereal. He was solid, physical, opaque. He was all that remained, everything else had faded away.

“I have let through only that which is pure. I have discarded all the rest. I am a sieve, and this is the art of sieving.”


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