When the famous sportsman Ranjitsinhji, travelling alone to fulfil some kind of religious penance, arrived at our home he charmed my widowed mother into inviting him to stay to dinner.
Our house was a huge rambling priory, with an enormous front lawn as large as a cricket field. Ranji was perfect in every detail, with his athletic lope, double-breasted blazer, MCC tie, shoes with spats, and shy and understated mannerisms. But I knew he was a fake.
He accepted my mother's invitation gracefully and was handed over to the butler, with whispered directions about the second-best guest room. I remained with her outside the great front door to the priory, where she had encountered him and where he had told her some nonsensical story about the purpose of his visit.
'This is completely impossible, Mother. Ranjitsinhji was a cricket icon before the first world war. If he were still alive he would be over a hundred years old.'
'But his manners are so beautiful. He must be genuine. No-one can deceive me about manners, my dear.'
'He is a fake, a simulacrum, for all I know he's been grown from a vat of genes, but he cannot be the real Ranjitsinhji.'
But my mother was smitten, and I had no alternative but to undermine myself in an attempt to save her.
'Mother, he is lying because he wants something from you. I know he is lying because we are both men, and that's what men do: they lie to get things from women.'
'I'm sure you do it very nicely, dear. Now come inside. We'll have drinks in the library.'
After dinner we dispensed with the withdrawing ritual, as my mother was the only female present. Instead we men tacitly agreed to forgo our cigars, although we did pass the port decanter around. Mother kept a glass of dessert wine beside her, but she hardly touched it.
There were four of us altogether. The males were my cousin Dorian, myself and the enigmatic Ranjitsinhji.
With an eye to drawing Ranji (as he insisted we call him) out from his cover, I turned the conversation to metaphysical matters. Life after death was my theme, but before I could broach it properly Dorian interrupted with one of his tiresome sub-Wildean quips.
'In some cases we'd do better to establish if there's life before death, what?'
'Dorian, don't be silly. Your cousin has a serious point, don't you, dear?'
'Yes, Mother, I do. Only if life after death were possible could our visitor be a genuine prince. You, Ranji,' and I put as much insulting familiarity into my tone as the scion of a fourth generation subcontinent civil servant could muster, 'you, Ranji, are not the famous cricketer and Jamsahib of Nawanagar. That man died in 1933.' And here I triumphantly produced my clinching argument, obtained during a preprandial browse in the Britannica: 'What is more, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji only had one eye; he lost the other in a shooting accident in 1920!'
There was a stunned and slightly embarrassed silence, which lasted for about five seconds. It was broken by Ranji dropping his glass eye on to the cheese plate, where it rolled around with a defiant tinkle.
'Why do you think life after death is impossible?' he asked mildly.
Fortunately I had left Dorian to entertain our guest before dinner. While they chatted I had turned away to the bookshelves to cram up on my subject, so I was not as unready as one might suppose.
'I don't have to prove a negative,' I said, 'it is up to proponents of the afterlife to prove their case. But to start with, there are no reliable reports of such a thing as disembodied consciousness. Mind requires brain. All awareness depends upon a physical generator.'
'It could as easily be argued that it depends upon a physical receiver,' said Ranji.
'Oh no, argue for a receiver and you have to have a transmitter. In the absence of any evidence for this multiplication of entities, Ockham's Razor determines that the simplest explanation is the most likely. The brain generates mind, which therefore dissolves when the brain ceases to function.'
'How absolute you are, my friend. It is at least as likely that the material world is brought into being by the operation of mind. Universal consciousness explains more than universal matter.'
'What about these spiritualist chappies,' said Dorian, 'ouija boards and ectoplasm and so forth. Don't they show there's life after death?'
To my surprise Ranji dismissed this argument himself. 'They have been shown to be frauds so often, that it stands to reason that those few who have not been exposed yet are merely better operators than the others. No, the afterlife deserves better evidence than that.' He looked at me. 'I take it that you do not accept religious testimony about our subject?'
'No, I do not, and for the same reason as you have just given. Most religious thought would be seen for the drivel it is if it weren't sanctioned by tradition. I am not basing my understanding of the universe on what some hallucinating stone-age shaman heard going on in his head thousands of years ago.'
'We don't need to go so far back for mystical experiences. Do you reject per se that there are states of mind so profound, so pellucidly clear, so comprehensive that they effortlessly transcend our mundane consciousness?'
'There may be such, but descriptions of them are merely subjective,' I said and reached for my last Britannica morsel. 'William James, who coined the term "cosmic consciousness", was prevented by his place in the temporal sequence from enjoying better psychedelics and therefore employed nitrous oxide to transcend his mind. Generations of giggling dentists have watched over his shoulder as he recorded his insight: "Higamous, hogamous, women are monogamous; hogamous, higamous, men are polygamous".'
Mother laughed. 'I'm not so sure James did not discover a profound truth,' she said.
'His brother, the novelist Henry James, saw the afterlife as something like a literary reputation,' said Ranji. 'If the creative consciousness interacts with the world on enough levels it becomes… permanent. Art and history provide a kind of afterlife, and if those terms sound too pretentious for the reality in which I find myself surviving here at this moment, then let's just call it communication.'
We digested this, or, in Dorian's case, ignored it while pouring himself a large port.
'James saw afterlife not as a belief, but as a desire,' Ranji went on. 'And whether that desire gets fulfilled is beyond the capacity of our earthbound brain to know; in his words, our "poor palpable, ponderable, probeable, laboratory brain".'
'So the status of the afterlife has been declining over the years,' I said. 'It has gone from a fact, to a belief, to a desire. How much weaker can it get?'
'On the contrary, I think that's an upward progression. There is nothing in the universe more powerful than desire. But aren't you forgetting the most salient piece of evidence?'
'What's that?' said Dorian on cue, but I knew what Ranji meant.
'My existence here in your dining room. I am either an impostor or proof of the afterlife. In fact I can never prove to you that I am the real Ranji, because even if I answered your questions for a year and dictated the story of my life in twenty volumes down to the most minute circumstances, you would still prefer to believe there is some fraud involved. To look squarely at the case would require too much of a paradigm shift. So like an old scientist presented with a revolution in his field you turn a blind eye, so to speak, to the new evidence, preferring to cling to your old certainties.'
'Since you represent but one anomaly in a series of millions of certain events you are quite right that I do not accept your existence,' I said with some asperity.
Ranji sighed, took a sip of port and belched delicately behind his hand. I don't know what turn the argument would have taken, because at that moment the butler announced that coffee was being served in the library. Somehow the subject had been changed by the time we all had cups in our hands, and the evening ended with nothing more controversial than the prospects of Sussex in the county cricket competition.
Ranjitsinhji left in the morning to pursue his mysterious pilgrimage. I was relieved that my mother's honour appeared to remain intact and the family silver unpilfered. In fact the household would have forgotten him altogether, but for the glass eye the kitchen maid discovered among the washing up.