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Narasimha (Part 2)

‘A streak of wild imagination runs through my family and I have always chosen to ignore it,’ Mr. Rakshit said. ‘But – this last time – when Bongo went missing,’ he swallowed the words.

‘It had just gone dark. And on the other side of the Khoai in that grey light, I swear I saw a – a lion – silhouetted against the dusk.’

‘A lion? Here, in Santiniketan?’ asked Samaresh in frank disbelief. ‘Impossible. Foxes, now – that’s believable. Besides, it would be seen.’

‘I know you doubt me, Mr. Chatterjee. And yet, I have heard it roar at night.’

‘What – here? Oh come now, that is surely your imagination speaking. You’ve been traumatised by the loss of your dogs, you see. Tell you what, come over for the picnic tonight. Face the Khoai again, so you know it’s an illusion.’

Mr. Rakshit demurred, then agreed.

Samaresh’s mood did not improve on returning to the bungalow. The artistic young man was leaning across the gate, speaking to Somlata with half closed eyes. His wavy hair shone golden in the sunlight. Somlata’s face was flushed. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he was Subra’s friend and gay, I would have thrown the fellow out forthwith, he bristled inwardly.

‘Oh there you are!’ beamed his wife, a trifle breathlessly. ‘Narasimha was just asking me to sit for a few portrait photos near the Khoai tonight. The moon will be simply magnificent, my dear,’ her bosom heaved as she said the word ‘magnificent’. Goddamned gigolo, preying on older women, thought Samaresh. He was as fond of his wife as a man could be after twenty years, but even he noticed that Somlata needed to lose a good twenty kilos.

When Subra drove up in his jeep that afternoon, Mr. Rakshit was already in the car. Samaresh and Somlata squeezed in with their picnic baskets, both puffing with the slight exertion. Rather pointedly, Samaresh sat next to Narasimha. Somlata was wearing her most diaphanous chiffon and he didn’t want that blighter, gay or not, too get too close.

‘Ah, I’m glad you got the food sorted, Somlata,’ said Subra. ‘My strict vegetarian fare would not have appealed to any of you, I fear. Narasimha here has to step out most evenings for his food.’ Narasimha sat with his camera slung around his neck and said nothing. He was looking intently at Somlata, not taking his eyes off her. Samaresh noticed that Mr. Rakshit was staring almost as intently at Narasimha.

It was a short drive to the Khoai and there was still some light as they set up the picnic, although the orange had almost gone out of it, leaving mostly grey. Samaresh lit a cigarette as it got darker; Mr. Rakshit was bending over, looking for something. Pug marks?

Dusk. Narasimha looked at Somlata with his unblinking gaze. She turned to look at him as if mesmerised. Samaresh pulled harder at his cigarette and looked the other way. If she wanted to make a fool of herself …

‘Mr. Chatterjee!’ shouted Mr. Rakshit as he ran towards Samaresh. ‘Quick, man, where is your wife?’ It was dark now.

‘She’s gone for that – that damned photo shoot,’ he said between gritted teeth.

What?’ He clutched at Samaresh’s collar. ‘But you don’t understand, he – he is the lionhe alternates – he is Narasimha – look!’

A woman’s scream rent the silence.

As the silver moon rose above the horizon, they saw a lion silhouetted against it. In the lion’s maw was a woman’s entire arm. The lion turned to look at them once, then turned and disappeared in the darkness of the jungle.

Nothing was seen or heard of Narasimha or Somlata again. All that Samaresh found was a tattered chiffon sari, the camera and Subra’s pendant in a nearby bush. Mr. Rakshit has kept a fresh litter of boxer pups. Subra no longer brings models home.

 

 

 

 

Narasimha

‘Mr. Rakshit has done it again,’ announced Somlata Chatterjee with smug satisfaction.

‘Eh?’ asked her husband, peering over the morning paper. His wife had talked incessantly over breakfast and Samaresh had lost himself in the morning news.

‘Lost his third labrador in the ravines of the Khoai,’ said Somlata, arching an eyebrow. She was known to be something of a beauty and never let anyone forget the fact.

Samaresh Chatterjee did not respond, finishing his third cup of tea in preoccupied silence. Then he picked up his sunshade and his trusty walking stick and set off for his post-prandial walk towards the Vice-Chancellor’s house.

‘You will rest in the afternoon for the moonlight picnic, won’t you?’ asked his wife as he left. ‘Subra will be there. And that young friend of his – what does Subra call him now – yes, Narasimha.’

Samaresh took his usual route past the Vice-Chancellor’s house and the artists’ colony, still thinking about the labradors. Animals had been going missing near the Khoai in the past month. Mostly poor people’s poultry, but also a few dogs. He looked around. Some of the bungalows in the artists’ colony were being sold off to the inartistic well off and bore the mark. Mr. Rakshit’s was one of them. He had imposed a grand, if incongruous, Spanish roof over the Santiniketan bungalow to announce his presence. Samaresh shuddered delicately.

He didn’t quite reach the bungalow. The queer young man living in artist R.N. Subramanian’s house stepped out of the gate and said ‘Hello,’ in his soft voice. His skin was porcelain smooth and luminous. His yellow sapphire eyes glinted in the sun, rooting Samaresh to his spot with their gaze. Samaresh swallowed his involuntary revulsion. There should be no room for homophobia in a magistrate’s mind.

To hide his discomfiture, he asked somewhat gruffly, ‘So, your three weeks are nearly up, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, I leave after the full moon,’ said the young man. ‘You have put on some weight,’ still staring closely at Samaresh with his intent yellow gaze.

‘We are not all, er, models,’ he replied, utterly taken aback. He noticed for the first time that the young man wore his nails long, manicured and sharpened into talons. ‘So how was your stay at Shantiniketan?’

‘It was comfortable,’ shrugged the young man. Food is very good here, especially the meat.’ He licked his lips, which were coral red.

‘I see Subra has taken a liking to you,’ said Samaresh, nodding at the handmade pendant at the young man’s throat. ‘He doesn’t gift those to everybody.’

‘I do not care to be anybody’s pet,’ said the boy with narrowed eyes and a smile that bared sharp yellow teeth. Then, with a swift spring, he sidestepped the magistrate and and loped on. Samaresh shivered for no reason. His nerves were on edge this past week.

Settling down in Mr. Rakshit’s verandah with a strong cup of black tea made Samaresh feel distinctly better. His new neighbour had questionable taste but unquestionable warmth. As he commiserated over the dogs, a vacant expression came over Mr. Rakshit’s face.

‘It isn’t just the dogs and the odd poultry, Mr. Chatterjee,’ he said. ‘My gardener’s brother lives out there and his little boy has gone missing without a trace. And when I lost Bongo, just this last time, I was there.’

(1/2)

 

 

CLANDESTINE

 

She looked at his last e-mail one more time. It had become an obsession with her. She marvelled at its breezy, non-committal tone. Did that mean he wanted to back out? But there it was, a faint undercurrent of excitement in the last line, she was sure of it. Holding her mobile close to her eyes, she scanned hungrily for more clues. Nothing but perfunctory politeness stared back through the typed letters.

A wave of last minute panic washed over her. Don’t get sucked in. Just turn around, walk away. Instead, she found her feet leading her towards the boarding gate, her mind momentarily blank. She was tired of living a lie. If she couldn’t get what she wanted through accepted channels, well, she would just have to try others. She stowed her overnight case in the overhead locker, keeping only her mobile with her.

There would be no internet access once the flight took off, which was just as well. She wouldn’t be embarrassingly compelled to mail him again and again about the room. But that just meant she would stare at the downloaded image for the entire duration of the flight. She let her eyes linger over it, her throat dry, snapping the lid shut as soon as she realised the flight attendant was glancing at it from over her shoulder. There was no such thing as privacy in this country.

One could only desire so much, anyway.

Once she was alone with her thoughts, there was no escaping the pangs of guilt. Her middle class upbringing ensured that any pleasure was tempered with a large dose of accompanying moral angst.

The car was waiting for her at the airport. Putting on her sunglasses, she got into it, her left hand clutching her mobile out of habit. There was no need to look at the image again, it was only a matter of minutes now. The city sped past in a blur, until she was at her destination. He was waiting at the entrance, looking impatient. Her palms felt clammy. From behind her sunglasses, she discerned a few pairs of curious eyes staring at her. ‘Let’s go,’ he said through clenched teeth.

At first her eyes could discern nothing except indistinct shapes in the darkness. As they got used to the dim light, she gasped in recognition – this was the room. And they were everywhere, thousands of books lining the walls, spilling on to the floor, hardbacks, paperbacks, leather bound, gilt edged. Her breath was shallow in her own ears.

He stretched out his palm. She dug into her purse and silently handed him the cheque. It had taken her three months to save the money. The amount would buy her twenty four hours in this room, undisturbed. In a land of banned books, her fix had become inordinately expensive.

 

 

Excerpt From Skyserpents – 2

KALI’S DREAM

Bilal crouched inside Kali’s mouth—a miniscule atom of a being—biding his time. Now that he was in, he had to get into the recesses of Kali’s mind. But how? He concentrated, silently imagining Kali in his innermost core.

Nothing of note. He could hear Kali talk, discuss strategies and plans about Earth. All that was for Anya to figure out. He ignored the speech, focussing instead on the mind. Concentrate. It’s the layers underneath that you are seeking, not the crust. Look, feel. Search for the undercurrents, ignore the waves on top.

The whirr of activity, instructions and superficial thoughts was enormous. It was like searching for something in a storm. Bilal forced himself to stay calm, letting his own being get used to all this. It was bearable after a while. He could think and observe as an independent entity now. Not too independent, though. Kali would discover his presence if his personality showed any distinctive traits.

Slowly, he learnt to look around him. Something seemed to move away in the distance in a flash. What was that? He had a sense of a big black thing, endlessly long, just at the edge of his consciousness. Bilal quietened himself, waiting for more. No other glimpse. But he could sense it; something terribly unnatural, an anguish of an unhinged mind, a very powerful one. Something … a body perhaps? Cut in two, then ineptly rejoined. He waited and watched for other clues. The sense of anger and loss remained. Whose anger was it? It felt distant, as if the anger had been witnessed, not experienced by Kali. A sharp pang of agony, frustration and fury crossed his mind. Whatever it was, something had gone terribly wrong for it.

Bilal wanted to learn more, but a wave of another emotion, Kali’s this time, swept everything away. He was triumphant, exultant. What could it be? Anya would know. Kali’s euphoria continued for a while. In his tiny form, Bilal sensed another presence, a voice in the shadows whom Kali wished to please. A collaborator? But who? Bilal racked his being, but the shadow remained a shadow. He would have to wait for more.

He settled down in his place near Kali’s palate and emptied his own mind, waiting for the outside noise and emotion to subside. Only then would it be possible to search Kali’s subconscious.

Hours passed in this way. Bilal saw nothing new; once or twice, the strange elongated darkness passed by the edge of his awareness like a blind spot in a person’s vision. But there was nothing else worthy of note, so he concentrated on noticing things through the storm of superfluous thoughts in his quarry’s mind. At long last, these subsided. Kali was approaching sleep. Time to get to work.

Bilal felt the noise of Kali’s thoughts falling away. There was going to be a brief lull. Then his deep-seated emotions in the subconscious would start acting out their own story in a dream state.

That would be his chance.

***

His first awareness was of acute resentment. It was the ground he was standing on, and it was not solid. An ever-expanding swamp, it pulsated slowly under his feet, threatening to engulf him in a quicksand of resentment if Kali’s emotions surged. Emerging from this swamp was a black lotus on a black stem. In front of Bilal, the lotus grew and grew. A terrible four-headed old man emerged, sitting cross-legged on the lotus. He was black, like polished stone, with a long beard on each face and smouldering yellow eyes that looked like burning coals. His beard was white. The old man contrasted horribly with the angry red landscape around him. Bilal found himself speaking, to his surprise, in Kali’s voice. He had assumed Kali’s form in the dream, his own small form subsumed into the god’s dream version: he was Bilal-Kali.

‘Father!’

The front head turned its fearsome yellow eyes on him.

‘You! You are not my son.’

‘But you created me, Father. From your mind, don’t you remember? Just like Narad, the seven saints—Saptarshis. Just like Saraswati—I am a child of your mind, a manasputra !’

‘You were formed from all that was base in me. You had to be created so I could be rid of it all. No part of me wishes to live on in you. You were never meant to be my son.’

The ground pulsated alarmingly under Bilal-Kali’s feet. Kali was angry, hurt.

‘Did all this baseness disappear after you abandoned me? If so, what prompted you to obsessively control nature’s every move to suit you, so much so, that Shiva had to cut one of your heads off? Has your desire to control the universe truly died? If so, how could the march of ego continue in this world? Why are you never worshipped, even though you are one of the trimurti? You don’t fool me, Father, your lust for power still lives on in you and so it lives on in me and everywhere else. Whether you wish it or not, I am more your son than the others.’ Bilal-Kali said the words, mesmerised at the way he could be two distinct identities in one form.

The yellow eyes seemed to emit fire.

‘Ignorant fool! Do not toy with what you cannot understand! My mistake was a lapse in my good sense, for which I gladly paid the price of never again being worshipped by humankind. I have selflessly served my creation and Vishnu’s vision since then, always willing to serve humanity. The ambition of the other gods didn’t end with mine, however. If your value went up as they got drunk on power, it was not because of any encouragement from me. Beware, Kali! The pantheon is not an eternal thing, even if gods are immortal. It can and will change—accepting that change is something they, and you, will need to learn. Purandar has to learn to let go.’ Once again, the shadowy presence made itself felt, but Bilal knew he couldn’t afford to notice it and get spotted by the real Kali. He just knew it was angry. Very angry.

Rapidly, Brahma was lowering, disappearing into the swamp. Bilal-Kali dislodged his ankles from the quicksand with difficulty. They had sunk in during the discussion.

‘One word of acknowledgement from you and you could have been the Supreme God in the universe I would have created for you,’ sighed a voice next to Bilal-Kali. His heart missed a beat. Cautiously, calmly, he turned round to face Kali, looking at the last remnants of his dream inside the dream.

Bilal-Kali waited, unsure of what was expected from him. One false move and he would be exposed.

‘That is one father who will not stand by us, we can safely assume,’ said Kali, looking at Bilal. ‘He’s been getting frailer over the years as I have gained, did you notice? Bound to happen if you keep shedding parts of yourself when they don’t smell of roses. I just keep getting stronger each time. The more he rejected of himself, the stronger I grew. Talk about being in denial!’ Kali moved closer to Bilal-Kali, looking straight into his eyes, searching for something. Keep calm, breathe steadily and normally, was the only thought Bilal-Kali allowed himself.

‘He is never going to protect us, like a father should,’ he hissed in Bilal-Kali’s ear. ‘Which is why I learnt to protect myself.’

‘How?’ asked Bilal-Kali. His throat felt dry.

‘Gold for the humdrum enemy. I find it can buy anything, amongst a certain class of individual—human, demonic or divine. Vices are different. They are useful to lure people in and then to bind them to do my bidding. The old carrot and stick. There are gods who have been lured by gambling—remember the eight Vasus—and sent to serve on earth. All my manipulation. Then there is a class, usually rich in their own right, whose vice is power. This last class I find the most interesting, also the most challenging.

‘How so?’ asked Bilal-Kali. They were walking over the swamp-like ground, which was gradually solidifying into a muddy brown surface. Mist appeared in wisps, enhancing the sense of mystery. Kali was enjoying talking to someone at last. All that he had always kept bottled up for eons was pouring out to this new version of himself. It felt good. Very good.

‘They’re a gamble. They can be mortal or immortal, it doesn’t matter. They can bring us more victories than any other. But if things go wrong, then they can be powerful enough to not just wreck our plans, but cause serious harm to us as well. However, like all veteran gamblers, I carry insurance for such eventualities.’

‘Do you mean …’

‘The Syamantak? Of course I mean the Syamantak. The one good thing my enemy left for me. Yes, its incomplete right now, but we’re that close to getting the rest of them. We know the whereabouts of that camp of theirs for a start.’

So that was it. The reason behind the exultation. Bilal knew now that there was very little time. He would need to grab the amulets, and quickly. Something of his nervousness percolated to Kali. He stopped in his tracks and looked closely at his companion.

‘The dreams I dream are usually quite muted. This one has been an exception. Still, its good to have talked to my inner self.’

Inner self, thought Bilal-Kali. So that’s who he thinks I am.

He mustered up all his courage and looked straight into Kali’s eyes, thinking of nothing but the amulets—how it would feel to just see them once … to hold them in his hands and feel the security they offered … soon all ten would be in his hands, fiery, sparkling, protective …

‘All right, all right, we’ll do it!’ said Kali, his guard down in front of this newfound, perhaps only, close companion. ‘You know, I have the same hankering as you. Come along.’

They turned left from the misty road and Bilal sensed, rather than saw, moist tissue. A feeling of claustrophobia overcame him as the moist tissue walls closed in on them. They were engulfed by the walls, suffocating with the pressure; then suddenly, it eased. They found themselves in a flesh-pink cell, uncomfortably reminiscent of tonsils. Kali waved his left hand. The fleshy walls expanded and moved away further into the distance. Bilal-Kali stepped behind him, remembering to keep his mind and his thoughts on an even keel.

The duo walked on a little further. Then Kali stopped. He put his hand in a recess that seemed to materialise out of nowhere and simply pulled out a bag made of silk. It was yellow in colour and was tied at the neck with a silken red string. He loosened this string at the neck and poured out five sparkling blood-red stones on his palm.

At that very instant, Bilal recognised a very important thing: that although everything else was a dream, the five stones, just like him, were real.

Now, he thought.

Kali was stringing the neck of the bag closed.

‘May I?’ asked Bilal-Kali, reaching out for it.

Instinctively, Kali gave it to him. And realised immediately that he had made a mistake.

‘Its too comfortable, too good to be true,’ he mused, turning slowly to face Bilal. Everything was dissolving around them, rapidly.

‘Who are you?’ he whispered, suddenly fearful.

Bilal-Kali found himself replying, in the words of an unknown person, and in a voice he didn’t recognise as his own, ‘ I am He whose gem you dared to steal. I take back what is mine today. Your reign is hereby challenged.’

Dissolve, dissolve away, damned dream. The image was taking his amulets away from him. Kali thrashed about in his sleep, but couldn’t wake. He let out an agonised cry, and with it, Bilal emerged, a speck with a tiny bag in his hand, a drop of the dribble from the sleeping god’s mouth. Then that too, disappeared. In Kali’s dream, anger filled the vacuum in a red haze.

***

tower

Excerpt From Skyserpents – 1

MANY, MANY EONS AGO

The din was unbelievable. Who knew that a churning could produce so much noise? Milky white waves, many feet high, crashed upon the shore with ferocity. No one was injured because every man available had been pulled into the ocean to churn. Pull left, then right.

In the centre stood a long, narrow mountain peak, kissing the heavens. It was now moving clockwise, now anti-clockwise. Slowly, the peak was building up speed. The waves were frothing.

The armies at both ends, innumerable men, pulled at a thick, leathery rope. No, not a rope – an immensely long snake – coiled around the peak with both its ends being pulled in opposite directions, faster and faster. The air was heavy with their gasps, moist with their combined sweat. They were close to exhaustion, but still they pulled. There was no stopping now. The snake had vomited earlier, nearly killing them with its venom, because the churning had made it giddy. They were narrowly saved by the wild looking man on the shore who had calmly drunk all the poison floating on the sea foam and still remained standing. Everyone wondered how he survived, but there wasn’t much time for speculation. They had to get back to the churning. Pull left, then right.

A beautiful woman stood next to the wild man on the shore.  They spoke in quiet tones in spite of the waves crashing around them.

‘Are you certain that this will work? Assigning roles, separating them in this manner?’ asked the man.

‘Without structure, they will not know their responsibilities. They have to help the human race evolve. Both roles are crucial.’

‘I still feel that this interference with Nature is unnecessary. Why give the humans more power than others?’

‘It is not so much an interference as a catalyst. To bring forth new thoughts. To leap ahead and learn to create. A complement to Nature, if you like. The evolved Human spirit. Who knows what wonderful innovations and discoveries it might unveil?’

‘And if this spirit decides to overreach itself? What then?’

‘I shall correct the course. I take that responsibility.’

They stood in silence and watched the milky ocean churn. Pull left, then right.

Hours passed by.

The waves were clumping, separating into stiff white shapes and transparent water. A white horse shape seemed to form first. Its perfectly sculpted form came to life, unfurled its wings and flew to the shore with a neigh. More was yet to come; there could be no slacking in the churn now. Left – and right, left – and right.

A five headed elephant, a tree of gold with silver leaves, a woman bearing an overflowing, ever filling jar of gold, all solidified from the stiffening foam and emerged one by one, granted life by an unknown hand. Faster, faster, left – right!

Finally, when the all the water of the ocean had become the transparent greenish white that we see today, a small pot formed with the remaining white solid, overflowing with an unseen liquid. Then the armies halted. The prize that they had allied and worked so hard for had arrived at last. The nectar of immortality – Amrit.

The woman on the shore seemed to be there all at once, organising everything. Her allure was all overpowering. One look turned their knees to liquid, but on hindsight, no one could accurately describe her. All everyone remembered was that she was the most beautiful woman of they had ever imagined. Each man present had a different description.

The armies took to the shore, organised into an orderly file. No one seemed to question how the pot of Amrit had somehow become the woman’s responsibility, how she had started doling it out from the end the Devs sat at and seemed to slow down as she approached the Asurs. Was she not planning to reach them at all? No one noticed, except one Asur.

Swarbhanu had not allowed the euphoria of the successful mission cloud his goal of immortality. Taking no chances, he disguised himself as a Dev. He would just need to pass himself off as one for a short while.

She was nearly there. He held his breath, not daring to move. The Dev next to him drank and turned into a harsh, bright golden yellow aura, unbearable to look at, powerful and immortal. The woman was next to him now. He closed his eyes and took that all important sip. A warm strength coursed through him. The Dev to his right was drinking the Amrit next, his aura turning into a soothing shimmery silver. Time to make an unobtrusive exit.

He never quite understood how they found out. Who knows how he gave himself away? The two Devs on either side lunged at him, holding him captive. ‘Imposter!’ went up their cry. Before he knew it, the woman turned into a gigantic dark man, furious with his trick. With a sickening feeling in his stomach, he saw the man summon a spinning discus. The Sudarshan Chakra. He took one last look at the two Devs holding him.

‘I shall have my revenge,’ said he. Then the Chakra whirred closer and closer, slicing off his massive head as simply as a knife cutting through a potato. Swarbhanu didn’t see it, but his kinsmen had begun to arm themselves, ready for battle. The deception of the Devs had finally dawned on them.

One person silently watched the chaos with great satisfaction. It was all going exactly as planned. He watched as Swarbhanu’s disembodied head flew past him in a graceful arc and smiled to himself. The stupid Asur had made his ambition too clear too fast. He would not make the same mistake. Success lay in stealth. He had time on his hands.

*

In the cold stillness of the Himalayan night, the sky loomed limitless; an overlord of the meek earth below it. It was cloudy. A rare crack of lightning signaled the approaching thunderstorm. The twin lakes lay still and dark, not a soul in sight. The one on the right, circular, holy, life-giving Mansarovar. To its left, crescent shaped, forbidding, dead Rakshas Tal. Its thick, saline waters were swirling.

A gigantic man emerged from under the water, as if he had just risen from a dip in the Lake.  A putrid smell filled the air. The man was at least sixteen feet tall and proportionately broad. His curly mane of hair hung loose up to waist length, twinkling with droplets that were caught in the entangled curls. His long snout like nose stood out in the dark silhouette made by the moonlight. He was bare chested and wore only a red dhoti. In his folded hands was a bone.

‘Have you understood what is required of you?’

The voice tore the silence into a thousand shreds. It was a clear voice, not especially loud, but the gigantic man in the lake could hear every word as if the speaker was right next to him. Its penetrating clarity was meant just for the listener’s ears. Not even the air stirred.

Our giant spoke. ‘It is an extremely difficult task that you ask for, almost impossible to achieve. My best sorcerers will be testing their limits.’

‘It has to be done if victory has to be ours; he is essential to my plans,’ replied the voice. Its clarity had such a perfection about it that it sounded unnatural.

‘We know nothing about the effects of this … experiment, my Lord. If it can be done at all, he would undergo immense pain. Will he be willing?’

‘Wills are meant for bending. The experiment will be carried out by your sorcerers. We know he cannot die. Whether he will be of any use to us depends on you. Remember this Kali: we cannot win without Swarbhanu.’

The interview was over. Silence regained its hold over the valley. The gigantic silhouette was slowly sinking into the depths of Rakshas Tal. Bit by bit, his form was lost to view, only the huge head remaining towards the end, a worried frown creasing its forehead.

Swarbhanu.

Then that too, disappeared in the depths of the dark waters.

The silence in the valley was unchanged but for the steady patter of rain that had followed the thunderstorm. Only a third hidden person remained, one who had witnessed every word.

This would be worse than the last attempt. Far worse.

*

tower

Conversation with Saffron Tree on The Wordkeepers

Conversation with Saffron Tree on The Wordkeepers

Saffron Tree – one of the most comprehensive resources for Indian books for children, interviewed me earlier this year.

Here is the link:

http://www.saffrontree.org/2014/01/in-conversation-with-jash-sen.html

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (10)

Chapter 8

A Silver Lining

We packed all night, getting an hour’s sleep just before dawn. then left home on time for the train. Our group consisted of Bimal’s trusty manservant Ramhari and my dog Bagha. Two big bags, a suitcase and an Ikmik* cooker, Bimal didn’t allow us to carry anything other than these.

(Translator’s comment – *An Ikmik cooker was a precursor to the rice cooker; it had four compartments  and steam cooked food over a coal fire – extremely popular in Bengali homes at the turn of the century.)

But the bags held everything we could possibly need – knives, scissors, a first aid kit, a camera for photographs, an electric torch, a flask, biscuits, fruits and cans of potted meat and fish, some books on Assam in English, exercise books, two small cushions, rugs and the two masks. Bimal felt we might need them later as well. Other than these, the bags held a multitude of other knickknacks that I cannot name. The suitcase held our clothes. Each of us carried a thick stick, ones that could split open a man’s head, if need be. Needless to say, Bimal didn’t forget his two guns.

I felt strangely melancholic as I left home. I was leaving for who knows which foreign place*, where tigers and wild animals and enemies might lie in wait, I didn’t even touch Ma’s feet before I left who knows if I’ll ever return and see her in this lifetime! At one time I thought I’d tell Bimal, ‘I won’t go!’ but I steeled myself instead, because I didn’t want him to think of me as a coward.

(*People travelled very little in those days – The railways were new and Assam was “foreign”.)

I think Bimal took a look at my face at understood what I was going through inside, for he suddenly asked me, ‘Kumar, are you feeling sad?’

I told the truth, ‘A little, of course.’

‘For your mother?’

‘Yes.’

‘Don’t worry. There is a high probability that you’ll meet your mother this very evening.’

Taken aback, I asked, ‘How’s that? We’re off to Assam.’

‘That’s true, we are,’ said Bimal and looked all around him with an anxious expression on his face. He must have been checking for any enemies who might be following us. But no one could be seen.

Bimal’s car was waiting to take us to the station. It set off once we had all boarded. Bimal was lost in his thoughts for the entire journey, only breaking his reverie for anxious looks outside the window to check if we were being followed.

We alighted from the car once we were at Sealdah station. I looked around carefully once and said, ‘Bimal, there’s nothing to fear for now. Karali’s men have not been able to follow us.’

Not replying to this, Bimal said, ‘You all wait here. I’ll buy the tickets.’

Once he returned with the tickets, Bimal entered the station with us, putting Bagha in the animal compartment. Bagha didn’t want to leave me at all, finally Bimal had to drag him by the leash and put him in there.

There was still some time left for the train to leave. Seeing the humid heat in the compartment, I stepped down on to the platform for some air. Strolling, I reached right at the end of the train. My gaze skimmed over a coach – and I had goose pimples all over. Karali was sitting inside the compartment! Two boot black goons were sitting with him and engrossed in saying something while gesturing with their hands – they couldn’t see me. I quickly boarded my compartment, running back as fast as I could.

Bimal saw me and said, ‘What’s the matter, Kumar? Why are you running with your eyes bulging out of your head?’

I said, ‘Bimal, disaster!’

Bimal smiled and said, ‘You’ve seen Karali, haven’t you? So what? That’s hardly a disaster. I knew he wouldn’t let go of us. Anyway, you just relax and sit down. Don’t be afraid.’

I couldn’t dismiss the whole thing as lightly as Bimal. I sat down on my seat quietly enough, but I felt really low. Bimal saw my body language and smiled. The train started.

Who knew what lay in store for us? It looked very likely that we would meet with an untimely death in the jungles finally. Who knew how many men Karali had with him? He won’t stop following us now that he’s come prepared like this. I thought of this and other myriad troubles, real and imagined, and shuddered.

But Bimal, unperturbed, rested his feet on the seat opposite and started reading some book or the other.

The train stopped at a station. Bimal stuck his head out of the window to check and said, ‘Kumar, get ready! The next station’s Ranaghat. We’re getting off there.’

What new madness was this? Taken aback, I said, ‘We’re getting off at Ranaghat? Why?’

‘From there to Shantipur, to your uncle’s place – we’re going there and meeting your mother.’

‘Why did you change your mind all of a sudden?’

‘I haven’t changed my mind, I just didn’t confide in you. I had planned all this yesterday. Here, look, the tickets are for Shantipur. Do you understand why?’

‘No.’

‘I knew perfectly well that Karali would follow us since his spy had heard us say yesterday that we were bound for Assam. Even at this moment, he thinks we are going to Assam and nowhere else. Let him assume that and sit tight in his compartment, while we alight at Ranaghat. We’ll stay at your uncle’s place for a few days, enjoy ourselves, whereas Karali will be completely lost once he learns we are not on the train! He’ll definitely think we’ve taken an alternate route. He will lose heart and return to Calcutta, whereas we, we will take your mother’s blessings and set out for Assam after a few days without anyone the wiser.’

Finally, some good news. Karali tricked and a meeting with my mother, just as I had wished for – killing two birds with one stone, indeed! I shook Bimal delightedly by the hand and said, ‘You are just so clever! I am completely in awe of your intelligence.’

As soon as the train reached Ranaghat we got off – no one spotted us.

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (9)

Chapter 7

The Black Face At The Window

We drank a glass of cold water each and sat in the living room. It was then two thirty at night.

Bimal said, ‘No sleeping tonight. We’re leaving for Assam by tomorrow afternoon’s train.’

Surprised, I said, ‘What! So soon?’

Bimal said, ‘Hmm, it won’t do to delay. Karali rascal now bears us a grudge, he must have realised by now that only we could have snatched the skull from him, who knows what trouble he might create? We have to say our farewells and leave tomorrow itself.’

I objected and said, ‘Ma has gone to Shantipur, to my uncle’s. How can I leave without letting her know?’

Bimal said, ‘Send her a letter – tell you’re off on a sightseeing trip to Assam, but you couldn’t meet her because the plan was made at such short notice.’

I said with a worried expression, ‘Fine, I’ll write the letter, but we’re going on such a big mission, there’s a lot to prepare. Will I be able to organise everything by tomorrow afternoon?’

Bimal said testily, ‘You don’t have to do anything special, I’ll do all the organising that needs to be done. You just carry clothes and a couple of sets of coats and trousers, all right, my worthless genius?’

‘Why? What do we need coats and trousers for?’

‘We’re going to jungles and hills. Fussing with your dhoti like a dapper gentleman from the city will not do there – you’ll be in constant trouble then.’

I pondered this in silence.

Bimal said, ‘I had thought that the just two of us would go. But looking at how immature you are, I’m thinking it would be better to take one more person along.’

‘Who’ll you take?’

‘My manservant Ramhari. He’s an old family retainer; trustworthy, intelligent and very strong. He can give his life for me with a smile.’

‘Not a bad idea. Then I’ll also take Bagha with me. I hope you don’t mind -‘

‘Hush!’ said Bimal and stood up with one swift movement. Then he suddenly ran to one of the windows and pushed it wide open. I clearly saw a grotesque black face move  to one side at the speed of lightning. Someone must have been eavesdropping on us. Bimal didn’t pause either, he picked up a man-high thick bamboo stick from one corner of the room and ran out. I bolted the door and sat down stiffly!

After a while, Bimal returned and called me from outside. I opened the door and asked him hurriedly, ‘Could you catch him?’

Still panting, Bimal returned the stick to its old place and said, ‘No, I chased him for a long distance, but couldn’t catch him!’

‘Who do you think the man was?’

‘Who else? One of Karali’s men, most probably a hired goon. Kumar, do you realise the seriousness of the situation? That man’s probably heard every word of what we’ve said!’

‘Bimal, you’re right, we shouldn’t delay any longer. We have to leave tomorrow.’

‘That we will, but Danger will probably accompany us.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning Karali will probably travel with us, along with his retinue.’

I was totally discouraged at this. Bimal too, sat and thought hard. After a long time, he said, ‘Whatever happens will happen. But curling up in our rooms like a pair of earthworms for fear of Karali Mukherjee, that is not going to happen. Its settled, we’re leaving tomorrow itself.’

I pleaded, ‘Bimal, don’t be pigheaded.’

Bimal punched the stool and said, ‘I will go, come what may. If you are afraid, stay at home. I’ll get the yaksha’s treasure and deliver it to you personally – let’s see who loses, Karali or me.’

I held his hand and said, ‘Bimal, I am not afraid. I’ll definitely come along if you’re going. But just think through this, it could culminate in bloodshed in the middle of the jungle. Karali has many more people, we won’t be able to do anything.’

Bimal smiled in derision and said, ‘To hell with Karali. Kumar, I am not just strong, I also have some strength up here in my brains. You don’t worry about a thing, come along with me and watch me lead him to a merry dance.’

I know Bimal very well. He doesn’t know what idle boasting is. If he’s reassuring me, he must have thought up a new plan. Therefore, free of worry,  I said, ‘Fine, my friend, I’m okay with whatever you say.’

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (8)

Chapter 6 (continued)

As soon as I let go of the branch, I landed with a soft thud on the terrace. Bimal slapped my back and said, ‘Well done!’

But I was just not easy in my mind. We’d entered someone else’s house like thieves and were sure to be handcuffed like thieves if we were caught. Then there was the other worry – how shall we escape? We had entered by leaping on to the terrace, but we couldn’t very well leap up to that high branch to leave. I told Bimal my concerns.

Bimal said, ‘We had to enter via the tree because the front door is shut from the inside. When we escape, we’ll just leave the  through the front door.’

‘But the house has a guard!’

‘We’ll fix him when the time comes. Now, let’s check out where the stairs are. Remember to tiptoe.’

We found the stairs at the west corner of the terrace. Bimal led the way down, I followed behind. There was a room immediately after the stairs ended. Bimal put his ear on the door and told me in a quiet voice, ‘Someone’s sleeping in this room – and snoring.’

We made our way to the main corridor using the darkened lantern’s narrow beam to guide us. Three rooms on one side – all shut from the inside. Bimal stood in silence and considered this conundrum. As for myself, I lost all hope. Such a huge mansion, we knew nothing of the layout inside, somewhere in this maze lay hidden a small skull, how on earth were we supposed to sniff it out? Bimal was such a lunatic! All this hassle, all for nothing!

All at once, Bimal said, ‘There’s a bit of light visible through one of the doors on the other side of the corridor. Let’s go there.’

Bimal tiptoed over to the door of that room. The door gave way to the slightest push. Bimal peeped through the gap for a while, then turned to whisper into my ear, ‘Look!’

What I saw through the gap in the door made my heart dance with joy! Karali, snoring with his head resting on the table, and close to his head – what we’d come looking for – the skull! Karali must have been trying to understand the cipher, then had nodded off, exhausted. Then he really was the thief!

Very gingerly, Bimal opened the door a little wider and tiptoed into the room. Then, standing behind a sleeping Karali, he picked up the skull from the table. Then, grinning, he stepped out of the room. I had never imagined that we’d succeed so easily.

Now for the escape. Once we were outside we were home free!

We climbed down to the ground floor. The front door was just across the courtyard. But here’s the rub – the beam of the lantern showed a burly man spreadeagled in blissful sleep right in front of the front door!

However, Bimal didn’t hesitate for a moment, he just stepped over the guard very softly and started unbolting the front door. My heart thumped in fear against my chest – the slightest sound and we were ruined.

Bimal was such a hero! He opened the door so carefully that not a single sound was made. But a bug played spoilsport – it suddenly rushed into my nose and I let out a great big sneeze right away.

The guard woke up! He let out a terrific roar – ‘Who’s there?’

The lantern was in my hand at the time. In its light I saw Bimal turn around at lightning speed, then leap on the guard like a tiger, holding his neck in a death grip. The guard let out a few moans and soon fell in a dead faint.

What’s left to say? We ran for our lives! No racehorse could have caught up with us then – we sprinted back home in one stretch and then breathed again freely.

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (7)

Chapter 6

Burgling the Thief

It was a moonless night. The darkness seemed to coalesce around us. Only the fireflies occasionally blinked everywhere – just like the thousand eyes of the demon of the dark.

Our house is in the outskirts of Calcutta, the neighborhood isn’t as dense as the rest of the city yet. The house are all far apart – there are more trees than residents. In other words, we live in Calcutta only by name, this place cannot quite be called Calcutta yet.

Right next to our house is an open grassland and in that grassland Bimal and I sat hidden in a large taro bush, waiting for the opportune moment. Karali Mukherjee’s house was on the other side of the grassland.

Sensing our presence, the mosquitoes around us were playing an upbeat music in anticipation of a free meal. Every mosquito in the vicinity had turned up on hearing this band and were lovingly caressing us with their collective probosces. Unable to take this terrible caress any more, I whispered to Bimal, ‘Hey – this can’t be borne for much longer!’

Bimal only said, ‘Be still!’

‘Can’t you comprehend how difficult it is to be still?’

‘Of course I do! How do you think I’m keeping still?’

I couldn’t argue with that. So I kept still.

By the time there were swollen blotches all over my face and limbs, it was the dead of night; the church clock loudly tolled one o’ clock, making my heart thump.

Bimal stood up and said, ‘Now it’s time!’

I was ready anyway – I leaped out of the bushes.

Bimal said, ‘First put this mask on!’

Bimal had bought two expensive imported masks from Radhabazar this afternoon. Both were terrifying faces – guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of anyone who suddenly saw them in the dead of night. The idea behind wearing these was that no one would recognise us even if they saw us.

We put on the masks and walked towards Karali’s house in silence. Once we reached the rear. Bimal said, ‘Tuck your dhoti pleats into your back.’

I said, ‘But there’s no back door here!’

Bimal said, ‘Who’s using the door? Have we been invited to dinner? There’s a big banyan tree here, one of its branches falls directly on to Karali’s terrace. We’ll use the branch to gain entry!’ Bimal raised the darkened lantern in his hand and a thin beam of light fell on the branch.

I wasn’t too happy with the mode of entry – but I said nothing and climbed the banyan tree along with Bimal.

Once we’d climbed a fair height, Bimal said, ‘Now – very carefully – come along here! Look – that’s the branch – we have to climb this branch and jump on to the roof.’

I saw the vague outline of the branch in the darkness. Bimal moved along the branch first – a slight thud told me he had landed on the roof.

I held on to the branch with both arms and legs and inched ahead – fearing I’d fall at any moment! Not even the goddess of healing would be able to save me if I fell from that height.

Without warning, Bimal’s muffled voice said, ‘That’s it! Now swing from the branch.’

My heart in my mouth, I held on to the branch with both arms and swung.

‘Now let go!’