Vishnu was not taking visitors that day. Barring Narad, no one was to disturb the calm of his home today. He stood by the window and watched the undulating waves of the gentle sea of milk as he sipped his cup of tea. He wondered if there was milk in his tea. Then he wondered how it was possible for an all-powerful god like him to wonder about anything. He knew everything — past, present, and future were all open books to him. He knew all that had ever happened and all that was ever going to happen. Right now for example, he knew that Agni, god of fires, was arguing with his guards and demanding that he be let into Vishnu’s presence.
Vishnu kept sipping his tea and didn’t flinch when the door to his living room blew open in an explosion of fire. As Vishnu slowly turned and put his cup on the table, the two guards — whose names were Jaya and Vijaya — were already waking up and getting back on their feet. Also, the sofa was on fire.
Vishnu, out of respect for the god of fire, decided to let the couch burn. He waved the guards’ injuries away. Then he waved the guards away.
“I regret the destruction of your living room Lord Vishnu!” Agni said as soon as the flames took human form, with no trace of regret in his voice.
“I do not doubt that Lord Agni,” Vishnu responded calmly. “But could you not harm Jaya and Vijaya the next time you are on your way? I am very fond of them both.”
Agni produced a sound that might have sounded contemptuous to anyone less all-knowing, but Vishnu knew that raging and burning and bringing pain was the very nature of Agni. Without those searing qualities, Agni would not be Agni.
“I do not like those two,” said Agni gruffly. “I never have.”
There was a moment of silence during which both immortals reminisced about the events of ages past. Agni was the first to return to the present.
“I have a favour to ask of you,” he said.
Vishnu grew worried. Agni noticed this and realised he already knew what he was going to say. So he hurried on to get his sorrows off his chest.
“I made a promise that I need your help to keep. It concerns a childless human couple.”
“The time has not yet come for another avatar of mine to appear on Earth,” Vishnu said.
“But this is Kaliyug,” protested Agni, his flames flickering in despair. “The mortal world is destined to see one more incarnation of you still.
“It is,” said Vishnu, turning away from Agni, “but not yet.”
“Please! You cannot forsake me! Without your help Lord Vishnu, I am doomed. The smell alone would kill me many times over!”
“The smell?” Vishnu turned, and for the first time that afternoon, Agni saw curiosity on the Lord’s face.
Then he started noticing other things — small things. His skin was a little less blue, his hair was slightly shorter, and he was blinking a fair bit more. His clothes looked as if they were made of cloth, and not woven straight out of the fabric of reality. Agni came to understand that the all-knowing one had left the room quietly, leaving behind this imperfect shadow of himself.
“What smell?” said Vishnu’s shadow, with a little more emotion than Agni had come to expect from the Lord of the Universe.
The Lord of Fire reminded himself firmly that the young man who stood before him was not the Lord of the Universe and decided to start afresh, “Let me start by telling you where I have been for the last eight hundred years.”