Rajat Chaudhuri

`There would always be those who would disagree but it is perhaps for the best that Watersmoke was lost forever,' the silvery haired professor was telling his listener. He was sixty now, almost old in this part of the world. The listener, a young sharp-eyed man tried to make himself comfortable on the straight-back chair. The mild winter of the tropics had just touched the city of the east.

Gour listened intently, sipping the strong half-dust tea. Priyabrata Gupta lit his pipe, spreading the aroma of a long-forgotten summer. The steel-grey afternoon was dissolving to a moonless night as the famous geneticist answered the phone, took a note on his PDA and resumed narrating the events he had begun to tell Gour.

`I had been working with Bykofsky then, Bykofsky you know of course?'

Gour nodded. Gour worked for a life sciences company that was developing anti-ageing therapies using genetic-engineering techniques and everyone in their line had to read about Bykofsky's work. He was the Niels Bohr of genetics.

`We were both looking at dolphins, working on some of the genes of those animals,' the professor said.

`Dolphins?' Gour asked a bit amused.

`Yes, two kinds of creatures, the Dusky Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus obscurus and our very own Platanista gangetica, found in the Ganges. We already knew about the intelligence of these creatures and then there were the stories of strange cures. Of people swimming with dolphins in rhythm to feel happy and clear-headed, to get cured of mental illness and stress and so on. We thought there may be something there.'

And that morning Bykofsky had called in an excited voice. We would usually talk on instant messaging but if he was making a phone call, I knew it had to be something really important.

`Gupta, There is really interesting stuff happening, here,' Bykofsky said.

`Oh, really!' Priyabrata said sounding a bit skeptical.

`Yes, as you know I was tinkering with the Mk5 gene of the Dusky dolphin, and the results are exciting. Now we are certain that the gene helps the dolphin to encode a protein that is instrumental in the release of a pleasure causing substance into its immediate surroundings.'

`Ah! pleasure, what else?' Priyabrata asked on a hunch.

`I still have to find that out, it could have other attributes,' Bykofsky said.

`Hmm,' Priyabrata began to think deeply.

It was late in the afternoon now and he was still pondering on Bykofsky's discovery. They, supported by a team, had together sequenced the dolphin genome just a year ago. And then this government-funded research on cannabis had taken away most of his time. With cannabis he had been moderately successful. His work was progressing but some keys just did not fit.

`We know how cannabis acts to heighten the introspective and meditative states of the mind, that it helps us to think about our thoughts i.e. metacognition, the long chains of thought that it releases in us, but the cannabis-induced reason goes in so many directions and its often not well connected. With cannabis, even a half-wit becomes a genius for sometime but still it's a confused genius with eighty percent of his ideas well thought but not leading to anything,' he was explaining to his new assistant one day, `it helps you to build intricate machines and complex structures which are either utterly useless or based on wrong fundamental principles. If we can take care of this it may be possible to make cannabis really useful.'

His new assistant looked impressed. A young man of thirty-five, his assistant, Sonaton was loaned to him as part of a fellowship programme that the Institute of Strategic and Advanced Research was supporting. From the first day, Sonaton caught the imagination of Professor Gupta.

Professor Gupta had been after this elusive something of cannabis - something that could correct the deficiencies of the magic herb. But no kind of tinkering with the genes had been useful. One such frustrated evening, he was returning from the laboratory when his wife called,

`Dear, can we have dinner at the Burmese restaurant tonight?'

`Oh, you want to go there, but I have some work to finish...'

His wife, Leah was a pleasant-mannered Irish woman. They had met when Priyabrata was teaching at Dublin and after a storybook romance they married. Fifteen years his younger, she liked his engaging and understated erudition. He would speak, when the two were together and she would never get bored to be the listener.

She was a plump-cheeked woman with limpid eyes who adored biriyani and loved U2 and James Joyce. When she felt lonely, for Priyabrata would always be working, she would ask him to `at least for once stop cut-pasting genes and look at me. See I am growing thin. I need fresh air, can we go to the hills?' But such holidays remained elusive for the two. When his assignment at the Irish university was over they went to the United States for a year and just for once they managed a short holiday in the Adirondacks following which they had come to India.

Leah was teaching English in a Carmelite convent in Calcutta for the last few years, while Priyabrata Gupta remained steeped in his work. When he went abroad for a conference she would sometimes accompany him, to places like Utrecht in Holland or Gdansk on the Baltic, where very little happened and even less was expected.

She kept busy with her classes but sometimes she wanted to be with him and beyond the reach of work. Talk with him for long lazy hours or bite into a new dish they had cooked together. But he was always buttoned down with the research. `The genes eat up my dreams,' she once wrote in a frustrated letter to her mother, `they spring out from the petri-dishes in his laboratory and steal our holidays.'

This day, she was really keen to go out for dinner, to the Burmese restaurant.

`But I had promised myself to complete my paper for the Tokyo university lecture, you know I leave next week,' he said apologetically. There was a touch� on the other side, then the line went dead. When he returned home she didn't talk with him and they both went hungry that night.

So, that was Leah. Priyabrata felt a sort of guilt when he remembered her small wishes and how he had failed to walk with her. So many times. And now, with Bykofsky's telephone call last week, and the thought trains that it had released in his mind, he felt he would have to punish her even more by being buried deep in work.

The morning after Bykofsky's call came, the professor before setting out called his assistant. `Please come a bit early if possible, I have news from abroad!' he told him in jest. At the lab he explained to Sonaton the significance of Bykofsky's discovery and how it could be useful for their work. A week later he was on a plane headed for New York.

He knew Bykofsky's findings on the dolphin gene could have important implications. Other than the possible medical applications, another new and quite revolutionary thought had occurred to him. He had been thinking about his progress with the cannabis research. Something eluded him.

Could it be possible, to somehow tinker with cannabis so that the thought processes it fires up and mental powers that it unleashes in the user can be directed and controlled. So that they are not based on bogus assumptions and spurious reasoning but rooted in solid premises and the accepted rules of logic. In other words could it be possible to think ramrod straight and deep under the influence of cannabis? he asked himself. He knew the answer would lie with one or more genes of the plant and somehow Bykofsky's findings on the dolphin gene seemed somehow relevant. In a few weeks time he was off to America. The question topmost on his mind when he set out was, `could cannabis be modified to supercharge the process of thought and problem-solving in general?'

Bykofsky was an affable Jewish immigrant of the second generation who spend more time taking him round New York than discussing their work. The two professors got drunk at Greenwich village and danced with Turkish girls at the smoky jazz clubs in downtown Manhattan. Priyabrata felt uneasy with these pleasures as Leah was not with him. He knew she would have loved to be there.

They discussed gene Mk5 in the mornings, visited Bykofsky's laboratory. Priyabrata went to hear his friend lecture about his latest findings and was happy to see that the scientists gathered there were generally appreciative of Bykofsky's work.

Bykofsky was a kind and helping colleague. He shared his papers and work-in-progress with Priyabrata and loaned him material. Two winter weeks slipped by and on the plane back home, he had been reading Abu Usabiya's descriptions of the booz-rooz ceremonies of ancient Persia, where tribes regaled and celebrated with massive bonfires of cannabis. It was an interesting account and suddenly, in a flash of comprehension, it became all clear to him. He had been touching it but without feeling it between his fingers. It had been right there before his eyes - the dolphin gene, Mk5. Lagenorhynchus obscurus, that was the key! That was the answer to his questions about cannabis! A ringing intuition told him it would work.

`Egged on by the belief of a terrific invention I worked and worked like a madman,' the professor told Gour as he related his story so many years later. ` I should have been careful, but I never thought someone would be keen,' he said with a self-deprecating mirth that comes from hindsight.

`What happened with your cannabis experiment?' Gour asked.

`This part is trickier, it's something that has been buried, and happily so, for good and it's best nobody knows, it's best kept like that...but maybe I can tell you now, that so many years have passed,' and he for once, sounded sentimental.

Gour was more eager, `You mentioned earlier, something about a friction between Beijing and Tel Aviv?'

`Yes, yes, I will come to that. Thank heavens that the situation didn't go completely out of hand,' the professor said, and continued, `As I told you, I had this penetrating hunch that the dolphin gene Mk5 could throw up interesting results with cannabis. So I did just that, I inserted that dolphin gene in cannabis sativa and grew a flower-bed full of what I called cannabis aquatica or Watersmoke.'

Gour waited as the professor refilled his pipe.

`Cannabis aquatica grew to be a fascinating plant. Unlike the usual cannabis, our Watersmoke plant grew to be over eight metres. The leaves grew broad and huge and were curled at the edges in a fashion that made it look like flippers and it was unusually sturdy for a herb. Even a strong wind couldn't sway the tall and graceful plant. But it needed a lot of water at its root to keep healthy and alive. Watersmoke began flowering in three years time,' the professor said.

It was a day just like any other at the research lab and it was impossible for somebody passing by to judge the nature of experiments being carried out within its walls. Both the professor and Sonaton had arrived early. They had made tidy plans with certain precautions just in case things went out of hand.

Professor Gupta had decided to test the efficacy of Watersmoke on himself. Some of the flowers had been cut and cured and made into a fine powder and stored in corked test tubes on a rack. Consulting habitual smokers and using his own experience from younger days, Priyabrata and his assistant made two preparations from the herb. He would first smoke the cannabis using a gravity-bong, which essentially filters the smoke through water. Then he will have a few bhang-cookies made from the leaves of the plant.

Sonaton will be his life-line. The laboratory would remain closed for the day with only the two of them there. If things went out of hand and Sonaton felt that the smoke was causing harm, then he would try some common antidotes like tamarind juice and keep a watch on him till the effect died out. The experiment was kept a well-guarded secret and except for one senior colleague, Priyabrata informed no one. He told Leah, he would be going for a field trip and would be unreachable throughout the day.

Balls of thick grey smoke rose out from gravity-bong as the professor took puff after conscientious puff. He tried to concentrate. His eyes looked bright, sparkling like crystals. Sonaton sat at a distance watching intently. The professor was on the floor of the lab sitting on a mat. He had a quiet and easy posture. In about twenty minutes the first charge of cannabis was smoked.

Time distended slowly as the Priyabrata felt Sonaton sliding far away and into a separate glass chamber. He would not be able to hear if I screamed. The lab seemed suddenly, abnormally quiet. It was as if even if an ant crawled over the mat now, he would be able to hear its legs scratch against the straw. More moments passed. As instructed, Sonaton went on noting everything that he could see.

Suddenly Priyabrata felt the floor and the mat was turning soft. As if the concrete of the floor was melting because of some sudden change in temperature. But he didn't feel warm. Only, gradually, it seemed the mat had a life of its own. It shivered and shook and turned and moved from side to side. Then there was a bobbing sensation, an undulating wavy motion. The mat was no more on hard ground. It had begun to float!

Sonaton noticed the professor was trying to balance himself with his hands. He moved his head in a certain rhythm from side to side, the crystals of his eyes flashed silvery lasers.

Priyabrata remembered their long forgotten holiday up in the Adirondacks. It had been only two years they had married and on Leah's insistence he didn't carry any work, no journals, no books nothing for the trip. But just as a diversion he had taken along a volume on the unsolved problems of mathematics by a Russian professor. One morning staring out of the window of their hotel and enjoying the view of the mountains, he had felt that a simple proof to Fermat's Last Theorem, one of the greatest unsolved problems of mathematics at that time, was possible.

`It is impossible for a cube to be the sum of two cubes, a fourth power to be the sum of two fourth powers...(...)...I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition...' wrote the mathematician Fermat, in the margin of a book.

The possibility of a simple and truly marvelous proof had then occurred to Priyabrata and he had begun working on notepaper. Yet the problem while on the brink of solution remained elusive. Somewhere he lost his way. And now in his laboratory, with cannabis aquatica raging in his blood it came to him again like a series of cracker bursts. A chain of crackers exploding one after the other and in a matter of seconds he knew how he could prove Fermat's Last Theorem. The solution of a problem on which the best mathematical minds had laboured for centuries came to him easy like a fourth standard addition sum. He quickly scribbled down the outline of the proof in his notebook as his brain pulsated with new chains of bursting crackers. In a moment he could figure out how coconut palms could be engineered to grow the coconuts near the ground and not high up, a few seconds and he understood what would be a safe way to lengthen the telomere caps of chromosomes and thus cause a great advancement in the battle against ageing and death. It was an amazing but fearsome experience. The professor gave Sonaton a pre-arranged signal. He had to stop this now, too many borders were being crossed and too fast.

The tamarind juice was poured into a round-bottom flask from which he drank in great gulps. When they left the lab it was two in the morning.

Later, reviewing the experiment and the results it had thrown up, Priyabrata knew that the world that Watersmoke had opened up inside his head, was not unreal. Every thought, every ratiocination, every formula and method that had occurred looked logical and plausible. Though more experiments, more reviews would be required, a mathematician friend told him that he could not see any flaw in his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. `You are right on dot,' Priyabrata,' he told him, `such a simple and elegant proof, we had never thought in those lines!' Another senior mathematician confirmed this. Similarly geneticists were excited about the paper on anti-ageing and telomere repair he wrote for a journal. They gave him envious smiles while the mathematicians asked him to become member of their secret societies that sparred on such issues like, whether zero is a prime number.

`It's mind-boggling, and dangerous,' he told Sonaton, `Watersmoke, charges up both reasoning and intuition a million-fold. No pipe dreams, this stuff has to be used with great caution. Don't discuss this anywhere,' he warned Sonaton.

He needed to do more experiments with the genetically-modified herb. He needed to organise the results and probably publish a paper but he was not sure if this should be done at all. Being a government supported research he had obligations but with each passing day he was unsure if the findings from his present experiments should be shared. There could be serious implications. In the hands of a fanatic or a rogue state, Watersmoke could become a dangerous weapon. What extraordinary advantages it would give to military research or to the deranged mind, intent on mass murder.

Leah's birthday was approaching. This was one of those rare occasions when he would take a day's leave. It was not very far, this day, and the promise of spending it with her, kept him cheerful for the rest of that week. The thought of a gift, something that would please her, something she would like, also kept him engaged. It could be a holiday in Manali but that was not possible right now, it could be one of those new house-help robots that the Japanese had just released. But that was way too expensive and he was not sure if these would make her happy. Utility does not automatically breed happiness or pleasure, at least not the kind of happiness I want to give her. Then the idea occurred to him. `Why not Watersmoke?'

They could try shotgunning, sharing each others smoke between curled hands, as if they were young again. A couple of joints and then dinner in that Burmese restaurant, a river-boat ride in the evening. Yes it would be fantastic, Priyabrata felt he had hit upon the best of gifts he could give her. Just be a bit careful and let no one know. Besides Leah's experience of the new herb, that would add to the research, one more subject, Sonaton would be next. The evening before her birthday, he quietly packed five test tubes of powdered cannabis aquatica in his bag before setting out for home. `Have to get some flowers,' he reminded himself as he walked down the long concrete path that wound out of the well-guarded gates of the Institute of Strategic and Advanced Research.


Private television channels broke the news first. The government's confirmation came much later. A newscaster on one of these channels, late that evening, `We are getting reports that sensitive and potentially hazardous material has gone missing from a national research institution. The nature of the material is still to be confirmed.' A little later another news channel was getting a phone-in from one of its reporters in Calcutta, who was saying that nuclear material may have been stolen from one of the nation's premier research laboratories. Still it was blurred. The official confirmation was aired much later in the evening. A government spokesman in his curt and dry style read out a written communication from the ministry of science and technology. It said, `Today at fifteen minutes past five some unknown persons barged into the laboratories of the Institute of Strategic and Advanced Research and snatched material from a scientist involved in sensitive research. The security agencies are investigating the matter and involvement of people or agencies beyond our borders are not ruled out.'

There was a lot of speculation in the media and international circles. Some said India had been manufacturing biological weapons and now a deadly virus has slipped into the hands of insurgents. In dimly lit chai-shops of a hundred towns and cities the country debated whether it was a ploy of the government to divert attention from the rising price of onions. And yet more exotic reasons were forwarded that were born, grew and multiplied.

Gour was looking at the professor's face, mesmerised with the story. The straight-back chair did not discomfort him any more and he only curled his feet up to keep him warm from the spreading chill of a winter night.

`Who stole it? Could they find out?' he asked.

`No, only a few days later there was news of some trouble between the Chinese government and the Israeli embassy in China. A senior official of the Chinese government was found dead in unnatural circumstances in his quarters and then an Israeli diplomat was evicted from that country. No official links with Watersmoke, mind you, but the chai-shops and the tabloids now knew who it had been. If you ask me, the man who snatched it from my hand near the flower boutique, looked neither Chinese nor Indian. He had the rugged features of Central Asians.

`So did the Chinese take it from us and then the Israeli's tried to snatch it from them?' Gour asked.

`Who knows, perhaps it was just a petty thief?' the professor said, `but anyway relationships between China and Israel went down several notches following that and reached its nadir when Israel began to openly support the Taiwanese cause. Yes it enthused students in Taipei who reinvigorated their campaign for freedom.'


`Yes and the Chinese flexed their muscles by showering missiles in the Strait of Taiwan, till the US repositioned its fleet in the Pacific and a tenuous balance ensued.'

`What did the Israeli's do with Watersmoke?' Gour asked.

`No idea, that they even got it,' Professor Gupta said, `a few months later a friend in the government told me something that I chose to believe.'

`What did he say?'

`That our ministry has received information from a friendly nation that the samples of cannabis aquatica and my notes, that were snatched from me were all lost on that night, the Chinese official was murdered.'

`The killer couldn't lay his hands on it?'

`No, that's what I was told, it might have been already lost or maybe only the dead man knew the hiding place,' the professor said.

`Are you sure, professor?' Gour asked.

`One can never be sure. Whenever I read in the newspapers and journals about an impossible feat of genius, a stupendous progress in the field of science, effected by one single individual I get this uncanny feeling that our magic herb is back in action,' the professor said and suddenly grew serious.

`Like what, and where?' Gour was curious.

`Like, they are saying a layman like me has solved all of the remaining Hilbert's problems in a single sitting of ten hours. Smells fishy isn't it?' the famous geneticist allowed a shade of a smile to form on his face.

His young friend smiled back and though quite unfamiliar with the intricacies of higher mathematics and Hilbert spaces, could not disagree with the professor.