jash sen

excerpts, translations, articles, other scribbles

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (6)

Chapter 5

A Consultation

I said, ‘How did the skull get stolen, Bimal?’

Bimal said, ‘Don’t know. I woke up in the morning to find my study door open, someone had broken into the room last night! My heart immediately missed a beat. I had kept the skull in my table drawer and locked it. I ran in to see that the drawer was pulled wide and that the skull was not in it!’

I exclaimed, ‘This must be Karali Mukherjee’s handiwork. It is he who’s sent goons to steal the skull. But what surprises me is how Karali Mukherjee knew the skull was at your place?’

Bimal said, ‘Karali must have stationed spies everywhere. He knows all about what we’re planning, what we’re doing.’

I said, ‘But what will he achieve with just the skull? He doesn’t know the coded message after all.’

Bimal said, ‘Kumar, never underestimate the enemy. If we could understand the message, then why can’t Karali understand it as well with just a bit of effort?’

I said, ‘But even all of the message is not on the skull anymore! Do you remember, it fell from my hand yesterday and got nicked?’

Bimal absently said, ‘Still, one can’t be complacent,’ while thinking of something.

All of a sudden I remembered something else. I hurriedly asked him, ‘Is Thakurda’s pocket-book stolen as well?’

Bimal said, ‘No, that is one saving grace. I had taken the pocket-book to bed with me last night to read it once again, properly. Before I went to sleep, I put it under my pillow – the thief couldn’t take it.’

Somewhat relieved, I said, ‘Well – we’re still saved, my friend. The actual address to the treasure is in that pocket-book. Without the address, Karali can’t do anything even if he can work out the message! But be very careful Bimal! The pocket-book shouldn’t get stolen now.’

Bimal said, ‘I’ll arrange for that today itself. Wherever the pocket-book mentions the route and the address, I shall obliterate with ink in such a way that no one can read it.’

I said, ‘But then, we’ll be in trouble as well!’

Bimal laughed and said, ‘Never fear. I’ll copy down the route and the address on a fresh sheet of paper in code – no one has the key to that code other than me.’

After a pause, I asked, ‘What shall we do now?’

Bimal said, ‘First we have to retrieve the skull.’

Surprised, I asked, ‘How to do that?’

Bimal said, ‘Just how he took the skull from us!’

I said, ‘Burgle the thief?’

Bimal said, ‘What other way is there? I’ll break into Karali’s house somehow this very night. You’ll come along as well.’

A bit nervous, I said, ‘But if Karali gets to know, he’ll get us arrested as thieves! There is no proof that he has stolen the skull from us, after all.’

Bimal said, sounding desperate, ‘We have to do what destiny has in store for us. But it is true that Karali cannot catch either of us while I’m alive.’

Unable to convince myself, I said, ‘No Bimal, let’s avoid this. Shall we finally have a scandal in the neighborhood?’

Bimal flew into a rage at this and said, ‘Damn it, you coward, you’re planning to go to Roopnath caves with this brand of courage? Why don’t you just be the mollycoddled little boy and sit on your mother’s lap at home – I’ll return your pocket-book right away,’ saying this he briskly strode towards the door.

I quickly brought him back and said, ‘Bimal, you’ve misunderstood, I am not scared at all. I was just saying -‘

Bimal interrupted me and said, ‘I don’t want to listen to what you’re saying. Tell me clearly, are you ready to come with me to Karali’s place tonight or not?’

I replied, ‘I’m ready.’

Gladdened, Bimal shook both my hands in a mighty handshake and said, ‘Hmm, there speaks a good boy. If you want to be man, be a daredevil first.’

I laughed and said, ‘Daredevils get strung up, though.’

Bimal said, ‘No one who lies in bed cheats death either. If we have to die anyway, it’s much better to die like a warrior than die lying in bed! All these good boys you all approve of, I can’t stand those whimpering lumps of lard. They are the ones terrified of the British, they are the ones who can’t survive danger, they die – but like cowards. These are the bane of the Bengalis. The races who are living with their head held high in today’s world have all disregarded Death and aimed to be the best. Do you understand, Kumar? Danger makes me happy.’

Advertisements

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (5)

Chapter 4

Ruin

I said, ‘But Bimal, now that we know the meaning of the code, what shall we do?’

Bimal interrupted me and said, ‘There are no buts here, Kumar – we have to go! Such a momentous, strange affair, I won’t be satisfied until I see this through to the end.’

I said, ‘Who’ll come along with us?’

‘No one. Just you and I.’

‘But it’s a very inaccessible place. Should we go without a team?’

Bimal said, ‘It’s not inaccessible at all, I know the way very well, I can take you up to Roopnath caves myself.  I don’t know the way from there of course, or how the path is, but it won’t take us long to find out. Are you afraid of danger? Don’t be. Don’t fear danger. Humanity wouldn’t have reached where it is today had it feared danger. Even a child can take the easy path, where’s the credit in that? But a Man among men allows danger to temper him with a smile and emerges truer.’

I said, ‘But how will Humanity gain if we lose our lives to pigheadedness? I’m not a coward, of course – I’m ready to go wherever you say. But we shouldn’t do anything blindly – you know how the proverb says, “Look before you leap”.’

Bimal said, ‘I’ve thought through everything there is to think of, no more thinking now.’

‘When do you want to go?’

‘I’m ready. Tomorrow, day after, whenever you say.’

‘So soon! We have to organise ourselves before we leave!’

‘Organise my foot. We’re not going there to set up home – it’s best to travel light when it comes to jobs like these. Two odd bags and the two of us – that’s it.’

‘Which route will you take?’

Bimal said, ‘We have to cross Kamrup and then climb the Khasi hills. Right next to the Khasi hills, like a twin, there’s another – called Jayanti*. To the north of these lie Kamrup and Nabagram*. To the east lie North Kachar*, the Naga hills and the Kopili river. To the south lies Srihatta* and to the west, the Garo hills.’

(*Translator’s comment: These are the old Bengali names for – Jayantia hills, Nagaon, North Cachar and Sylhet.)

‘Are the Khasi hills very high?’

‘Uh-huh. Four thousand in some places, five thousand in others and nearly six and a half thousand feet high sometimes. There are many waterfalls in these hills – among these the Mawsmai falls near Cherrapunji and Beadon falls near Shillong are the large ones. The first one is one thousand, eight hundred feet high, the second one six hundred feet. Mawsmai is the second highest waterfall in the world. There are hot springs in the hills too. The Khasi hills have two seasons, monsoon and winter. Rain and thunderstorms are common. March and April are a bit dry, so one gets a touch of spring. Cherrapunji in the Khasi hills is famous for its rainfall.’

I said, ‘Are there tigers there?’

Bimal laughed and said, ‘Why just tigers? The jungles there have them all – elephants, rhinos, wild buffaloes, wild boar. But hardly any snakes.’

I scratched my head and said, ‘Hmm, there is that.’

Bimal slapped my back and said, ‘Kumar, you think the jungles are more dangerous than they actually are because you’ve never stepped out of Calcutta. And I’ll be there with you, so what do you need to be afraid of? You know I have experience of big game hunting, even at this age. I hold two gun licenses, I’ll give you one. You’ve not hunted any game yet, but I taught you how to shoot ages ago, this will be a good test of your skill.’

I didn’t say anything further and returned to my place. I was scared, but I was also excited. I had always wanted to see new places. When I read about remote places in books, my heart would grow wings and fly off there. Sometimes I wished to build a hut with my own hands on a desolate island like Robinson Crusoe and live there for days on end, sometimes I wanted to be Sindbad the sailor and fly to the skies with a Roc bird, cook on the back of a whale and serve the old man on the island his just desserts. At other times I wanted to delve into the depths of the ocean in a submarine and loot all the treasures of Pataal! I cannot tell you how many of these dreams I have dreamed – you will laugh at me if you hear them all.

The truth is, more than the yaksha’s treasure, the thrill of seeing a new place cheered me up considerably. All my worries and fears faded away.

As soon as I was near my home, my dog Bagha greeted me with six inches of hanging tongue and a wagging tail.

I said, ‘So Bagha, want to come along to the Khasi hills with us?’

It looked like Bagha understood what I said. He stood on his hind legs and wrapped my waist with his front ones, then proceeded to lick my face with great enthusiasm. I quickly moved my face and extricated myself.

My Bagha isn’t some foreign pedigree dog, he is a local mongrel, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at him. Bagha is living proof of the fact that with proper care, our local dogs can look just as impressive as the pedigreed ones. He is huge, yellow-brown with black spots on his coat, a bit like a leopard, which is why I call him Bagha. Bagha didn’t know the meaning of fear and was very strong. Once a huge hound of some sort had chased him, but one bite from Bagha and he had nearly died. I decided we’d take him along with us.

Early next morning, when I hadn’t woken up, someone woke me up with a great deal of commotion. I opened my eyes and saw Bimal by my bed. He was panting.

Surprised, I sat up and said, ‘How come you’re here so early in the morning?’

Bimal, still panting, said, ‘We’re ruined!’

I said quickly, ‘Ruin! Why?’

Bimal said, ‘Last night the skull was stolen from my home.’

‘What!’ I exclaimed, dumbstruck and at my wits’ end.

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (4)

Chapter 3 (continued)

 

I rushed to Bimal’s place as soon as it was light the next day. His door was always open for me. I went straight to his study and found him poring over his table, writing something, with the skull in front of him. At the sound of my footsteps, he quickly picked up the skull in an effort to hide it – then relieved at seeing me, said, ‘Oh, it’s you! I thought it was someone else.’

‘You were full of bravado yesterday, so why are you so scared this morning?’

‘Yesterday? Yesterday I hadn’t figured all the details out. I have realized that we have to do everything with the utmost caution from now on – no one should know anything about this.’

‘Could you understand the calculations?’

‘Everything that needed to be understood, yes.’

I jumped up in joy, shouting, ‘You understood everything? Really?’

Bimal said, ‘Hush! Don’t shout! You never know who might overhear. Calm down and take a seat.’

I pulled up a chair and said, ‘Tell me what’s written in the skull.’

Bimal said slowly, ‘I couldn’t make out anything at first. When I’d nearly lost all hope after trying for four hours, I suddenly recalled something. Quite a while ago, I had read an English book which had explained many ciphers and codes at length. This book had mentioned that thieves and robbers in Europe often use a cipher not very different from this one. They allocate a number to every alphabet, so ‘A’ is 1, ‘B’ is 2, ‘C’ is 3 etcetera. I thought perhaps this skull employs something similar as its code. On trying, I found that my surmise was correct. Then I deciphered these symbols very easily.’

I asked eagerly, ‘So what could you make out after reading it?’

Bimal extended a sheet of paper towards me, saying, ‘The skull’s symbols are divided into 40 cells. I’ve arranged them in exactly the same way.

The sheet had the following words :-

behind

the

broken

shrine

the

pine

tree

from

the

trunk

base

ten

yards

east

stop

go

right

eight

yards

buddha

in

the

east

to

the

left

six

yards

ahead

three

rocks

dig

under

for

seven

cubits

and

find

your

path

I read the sheet, thinking how marvellously clever Bimal was.

Bimal said, ‘Let me explain the code to you. The script is divided into vowels and consonants. The vowels are given numbers from 1 to 5. So ‘A’ is 1, ‘E’ is 2 and so on. The consonants have likewise been given numbers as well. Here, ‘B’ is 1, ‘C’ is 2, ‘D’ is 3 etcetera.

When a word has a vowel, it appears next to the consonant in brackets. So 1(2) stands for ‘be’ and 6(3) stands for ‘hi’. When a vowel starts a word, it appears on its own. So (3) stands  the vowel ‘i’ and 11 under it stands for the consonant ‘n’ – ‘in’.

I picked up the skull to inspect it once more, but it accidentally fell on the marble floor with a loud crash. Picking it up immediately, I scanned it once and said, ‘Oh no! A bit of the skull’s nicked.’

Bimal asked, ‘Which bit?’

I said, ‘The first seven cells, – behind the broken shrine the sal tree – that bit.’

Bimal said, ‘Had this happened earlier, it would have ruined everything. But there’s nothing to fear now, I’ve copied the symbols on to a piece of paper. But we have to be very careful, it is best to keep the calculations and destroy the words now.’ Saying this, he tore the sheet of paper into shreds.

When required, we would be able to solve the code in five minutes, but no one other than us would be able to get at the message from the symbols on the skull.

(Translator’s comment: The code in the original uses Bengali script and the use of matras. I have had to modify a little so that the essence of it is clear to the reader.)

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (3)

Chapter 3

The Meaning of the Code

 

Ooh! Karalibabu’s such a dangerous man! He had tried to trick Thakurda, but couldn’t quite manage it. But he still hadn’t given up hope in all these years. I now realized that Karalibabu had landed up at home just to learn where the skull was kept. The thief had come at night with the sole objective of stealing the skull, there was no doubt about it. Thank goodness I had chucked it into the ditch next to our house!

What should I do now? The key to the treasure was right here on this skull, but I couldn’t make head or tail of it even after going over it many times. I flipped through every page of the pocket-book, Thakurda had left no clues there either. I was very annoyed with Thakurda. There was no way to understand the actual message.

Then I thought, what would have been the point of understanding the message anyway? I am seventeen years old. Studying in my second year. Never stepped out side Calcutta in my life. And there were the Khasi Hills, who knows in what corner and somewhere in them the ‘Roopnath caves’ – just finding out all this was impossible for me. To top it all, that dense forest, where wild animals roam freely in broad daylight! And finally some Buddhist monastery, where there is a yaksha’s treasure – yet another spooky thing! What if I lost my life, like Alibaba’s brother Qasim, in my lust for wealth? Just thinking about all this made my heart flutter.

Suddenly I thought of Bimal. Bimal is my closest friend, from our neighborhood. He is three odd years older than I am, appearing for his B.A. this year. I haven’t met a cleverer person than Bimal. And he’s as strong as an ox, he wrestles every day – does three hundred bench presses daily. To top it all, he has travelled widely even in this young age – why, just last year he had been to Assam. I never hid anything from Bimal. I decided, whether I go or not, let me just show Bimal the skull once.

That afternoon when I landed up at Bimal’s place, he was sitting and cleaning his gun. Seeing me, he said, ‘Kumar, I see! What brings you here?’

I said, ‘A puzzle has put me in a complete spot, my friend.’

Bimal said, ‘Which puzzle?’

I took out the skull and said, ‘This one.’

Bimal stared at the skull for a while in surprise. Then he said, ‘What’s this?’

I pushed the pocket-book towards him and said,’My grandfather’s pocket-book. Read it and you’ll understand everything.’

Bimal said, ‘Fine, hang on. Let me quickly finish cleaning the gun. I’d gone hunting for birds yesterday. The gun’s collected a lot of dirt.’

Having cleaned the gun, Bimal washed his hands and said, ‘What’s the matter, Kumar? Are you interning with some tantric? Why do you have a skull in your hand?’

I said, ‘Why don’t you read the pocket-book first?’

‘Fine,’ said Bimal and started reading. Some time later, I saw his expression change from one of resignation to wonder and curiosity.

As soon as he finished reading, Bimal quickly picked up the skull and scrutinised it, turning it over several times. Then he sighed and said, ‘How astonishing!’

I asked, ‘Could you make any sense of the sums?’

Bimal said, ‘No.’

‘Neither could I.’

‘But I’m not letting go this easily. You go home now, Kumar. Let the skull remain with me for now. I am determined to learn its secret! Come back tomorrow morning.’

I said, ‘But be careful.’

Bimal asked, ‘Why?’

I said, ‘Because Karali Mukherjee had sent a man to steal the skull from me last night.’

Bimal said, ‘Karali? None of his henchmen will have the guts to stick their necks in my home.’

‘I know that. Still, it never hurts to be careful,’ saying which, I came back home.

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (2)

Chapter 2

The Yaksha’s Treasure

What could be the meaning of these strange numbers? I obsessed about them, but couldn’t make head or tail of the whole thing.

Then I remembered my grandfather’s pocket-book. It was there with the skull as well, might I get an answer to this mystery in its pages?

I immediately pulled it out from the shelf. On opening it, I found it filled with writing from cover to cover. I read the first sixteen or seventeen pages in the beginning, but it was all inconsequential drivel. Then suddenly, somewhere, I saw:-

“September, 1904. We were coming through a forest one evening on our way back from Assam. It was nearly dusk, we were descending from a hill to the valley below. All of a sudden, we saw an enormous tiger some distance away. It was crouching – aiming before its killing pounce on someone! Then I saw a hermit some distance away beside the track, lying down under a tree. It was him the tiger was aiming his leap at!

I shouted out right away. The porters shouted along with me. The hermit woke up and the tiger, startled by the din, saw us and disappeared in one jump.

The hermit had understood all. He came to me and expressed his gratitude, saying, ‘Son, today you saved me from the jaws of a tiger.’

I said, ‘Thakur, is it sensible to sleep in the middle of the jungle like this?’

The hermit said, ‘This jungle is my home, son.’

I said, ‘But you could have lost your life just now!’

He said, ‘Where, son? I didn’t lose it after all. God sent you to me at just the right time.’

I learnt he was headed the same way as us. So we took the hermit along with us and moved on.

The hermit stayed with us for two days. I took care of him to the best of my ability, leaving no stone unturned.  Before taking our leave on the third day, he told me, ‘Son, I am truly pleased by your unstinted service. You saved my life as well. Before I leave, I want to give you some directions.’

I asked, ‘Directions to what, thakur?’

The hermit said, ‘To a yaksha’s treasure.’

I asked eagerly, ‘Yaksha’s treasure? Where is it, thakur?’

The hermit said, ‘In the Khasia* hills.’

(*Translator’s comment: the old Bengali name for Khasi hills. I have taken the liberty of using Khasi hills throughout from now on)

I said in dismay, ‘But how will I know where it is, thakur?’

The hermit said, ‘I’ll tell you. Have you heard of the Roopnath caves in the Khasi hills?’

I said, ‘Yes, I have. Legend has it that one can go all the way to China from these caves, and that many years ago, a Chinese emperor had come through these caves with his troops to attack India.’

The hermit said, ‘Indeed. If you go about sixty miles to the west, you will find an ancient temple in the middle of the valley. The temple is in ruins, some years down the line there will probably be no signs left of it. Once there was a sprawling monastery there for Buddhist monks. A king from those times hid all his wealth in this monastery before embarking on a battle with a foreign enemy. But he lost the battle. Fearful that his wealth would fall into the hands of the enemy, the king hid it all in one place and left a yaksha to guard his treasure for him. Then he escaped, but he never returned. The treasure is still in the same place.’ Then he gave me the directions to the monastery in detail.

I said, ‘But what if someone has already found out about the treasure?’

The hermit said, ‘No one has. It is very difficult terrain, no one knows that there is a monastery there, no one goes there. Even if they reach the monastery, they won’t find it if they search for it for the rest of their lives.’ Saying this, the hermit fished out a skull from his sack.

I asked him in surprise, ‘What’s that for, thakur?’

The hermit said, ‘This is the skull of the yaksha who is guarding the treasure. I have put a spell on it, the yaksha will not harm the person who carries it. These numbers and calculations that are carved on the skull are in a code. I will also give you the key to the code, once you use it, you will know exactly where to find it.’ Saying this, the hermit explained the secret key to the code to me.

I contemplated this for an entire year; but wasn’t confident enough to venture into that difficult terrain on my own. Finally I decided to trust my neighbour, Karali, and told him everything, adding, ‘Karali, you’re young, if you come with me, I’ll give you an equal share.’

However, I hadn’t realized that Karali would betray me. He kept trying to dupe me of the skull. He also sent mercenary thieves to try and steal it, but failed. Thank heavens I had not told him the whereabouts of the yaksha’s treasure.

But I have given up all hope of going to the Khasi hills. Should I lose my life on alien soil in my old age to wild bears or tigers or bandits? And I no longer trust anyone enough to take them with me – who knows, a friend could kill me in the end for greed!

Still, I have written everything down in this pocket-book. It might come in useful to my descendants in the future. But if any of my kin truly decide to travel to that Buddhist monastery, they must think of the dangers that will befall them before they embark. Danger will follow this mission every step of the way.”

I sat with the pocket-book in my hand, transfixed.

THE YAKSHA’S TREASURE by Hemendra Kumar Roy (1)

Chapter 1

The Skull

When my grandfather expired, we found a small box in his iron trunk among his other belongings. My mother opened it, thinking it must contain something valuable. But all she found was an old pocket-book, and something wrapped in a dirty newspaper. She unwrapped the newspaper and immediately screamed in fright, dropping whatever was wrapped in it.

I hurried over and asked, ‘What – what happened, Ma?’

Trembling, she pointed to the floor and said, ‘Kumar, throw that thing away right now!’

I bent down and saw a skull lying on the floor. Surprised, I said, ‘A skull in his iron trunk! Had Thakurda lost his mind in his old age?’

‘What are you waiting for? Just throw it and sprinkle Ganga Jal right away?’

I chucked the skull out of the window into a ditch next to our house. The pocket-book I kept on a shelf. Ma put the wooden box back in the trunk.   …

A few days later, Karali Mukherjee from our neighborhood suddenly turned up at our house. I was very surprised to see Karali Mukherjee at our place, because I knew that my grandfather and he had not got along at all; when Thakurda was alive, I had never seen Karali Mukherjee enter our home.

Karalibabu said to me, ‘Kumar, you have no elders guiding you any longer. You are still underage. All said and done, you’re a boy from the neighborhood, we should all be helping you right now. That is why I have come.’

Listening to Karalibabu’s words, I thought he wasn’t as bad a person as I had previously assumed. I thanked him and said, ‘If I need anything, I’ll come to you first.’

Then Karalibabu sat and talked of other things. In the course of our conversation, I said, ‘Something rather interesting has been found in Thakurda’s iron trunk!’

‘What thing?’ asked Karalibabu.

‘A sandalwood box, containing a skull-’

Karalibabu’s eyes burned bright like two embers. He quickly said, ‘A skull?’

‘Yes, and a pocket-book.’

‘Where is that box now?’

‘Still in the iron trunk.’

Karalibabu changed the subject after that, but I could tell that he was in the grip of some great excitement. Then he left.

That night I woke up all of a sudden. My dog, Bagha, was bringing the house down with his barking. Annoyed, I scolded him a couple of times, but all that did was egg Bagha on further. He barked even louder than before.

Right after that, I heard footsteps. Someone had just sprinted over our terrace, the footsteps thudding. Flustered, I rushed to open my bedroom door and stepped out. I looked around me, but there was no one there. I thought it was my imagination. Letting Bagha out of his leash, I returned to my room and went back to sleep.    …

I woke up next morning to a huge commotion created by my mother. I stepped outside my room and asked, ‘What has happened, Ma?’

Ma said, ‘Kumar, a thief tried to burgle us last night!’

So I hadn’t imagined what I had heard.

‘Come and take a look, he’s broken open the iron trunk in the drawing room.’

Entering the drawing room, I saw she was right. The thief hadn’t been able to take much though, just the sandalwood box.

But a niggling worry ate away at me. Despite all the other valuables in the trunk, why did the thief just carry that one sandalwood box? Then I remembered how excited Karalibabu had been when I had mentioned that box yesterday. Was it possible that the box was part of some sort of a mystery? Otherwise, who would carefully store a skull in a trunk?

Without alerting my mother, I rushed out. When I reached the ditch I found the skull lying on a mound of trash! I picked it up once more to inspect it. The skull had been painted over on one side with some sort of dark dye, but the water in the ditch had rubbed off some of the colour. And where the dye was absent, there were some calculations carved into the bone. Burning with curiosity, I smuggled the skull back home. Some hard rubbing with soap and the dye washed off. I watched in silent surprise as an entire side of the skull emerged, filled with minute numbers; someone had carved them in. They looked like this :-

1(2)6(3)113

 

166(2) 114(4)8(2)11 15614(3)11(2) 166(2) 12(3)11(2) 1614(2)(2) 414(4)10
166(2) 1614(5)118 1(1)15(2) 16(2)11 20(1)14315 (2)(1)1516 1516(4)12 5(4)
14(3)5616 (2)(3)5616 20(1)14315 1(5)336(1) (3)11 166(2) (2)(1)1516 16(4)
166(2) 9(2)416 15(3)19 20(1)14315 (1)6(2)(1)3 16614(2)(2) 14(4)2815 3(3)5
(5)113(2)14 4(4)14 15(2)17(2)11 2(5)1(3)1615 (1)113 4(3)113 20(4)(5)14 12(1)166

THE SEER – From The Wordkeepers

The Supremo’s personal pod was inaccessible to all except his most trusted lieutenants. He usually preferred to meet his team at official venues. General Kokh was one of the few to have the honour of visiting him at his residence. 

Tonight, however, the Supremo was his escort to another meeting. The General sat and waited patiently for his buzzer to go off. He didn’t have to wait long. A large moon-like asteroid enveloped in mist appeared on his oculus, a screen that showed him what was directly above on the surface, for the General’s abode was deep under the ground. General Kokh tapped his brother on the shoulder and both men disappeared through the reinforced metal walls, their arms linked. 

They found themselves in a brilliant white hemisphere, the upper half of the pod, the Supremo’s public domain. They were seated on a long, white sofa in the softest leather. Behind them was a mahogany twenty-seater table. In front of them was a massive desk of black, polished wood, with gold edgings, flanked by two huge, circular white rugs made of silk. Behind the desk, where the hemisphere nearly ended, was a domed staircase leading down to the sanctum sanctorum, the Supremo’s living quarters. The chair behind the desk was made of pure gold. On it was seated an enormous figure. The Supremo. 

His snout-like face, under its mane of curly black hair, surveyed them in an unblinking stare. His black uniform with its thick gold braiding dazzled their eyes. As the twins had expected, the room was heavily, even cloyingly scented—but an all-pervading putrid smell, like rotten corpses, filled the air. Years of experience ensured that both men kept their faces impassive, although their complexions paled under the onslaught. 

‘Greetings Kokh-Vikokh. I trust all’s well?’ The voice was unexpectedly soft and seductive. A large tongue lolled out, unguarded. The Supremo often had a problem with the size of his tongue. His lieutenants knew better than to ever mention it. 

‘We are well, Supremo, just surprised at this rare honour,’ replied Vikokh, careful with his words. 

‘Take a look outside,’ said the Supremo, not explaining himself yet. 

The landscape had changed; they were hovering above Earth, over a barren patch of land with a few flickering fires. Skulls and bones were strewn all over. It was isolated, although the bustle of the city surrounding the spot could be seen below. 

‘A cremation ground. Where exactly are we?’ 

‘At Kaalikshetra—or Kolkata as it’s now called. That is Keoratola, a favourite spot for our quarry,’ replied the Supremo. ‘I have a guest for you two, I think you’ll find her both interesting and informative, especially given the task at hand.’ He pressed a buzzer on his desk and spoke into it: ‘Bring Dhoomavati up, Durukti.’ 

‘You have the Seer for us, Supremo? Has she anything new to tell?’ Vikokh leaned forward, his voice sharpening in excitement. The Seer had not been seen by anyone on Vishasha but Kali, and was a subject of endless speculation. 

‘You two are masters at ferretting out the truth. Who knows, seeing her in person and discussing the prophecy might bring up some clues. Perhaps there’s something I haven’t identified yet that you’ll find. But I have to warn you, she’s in a foul mood—didn’t take kindly to being brought here from Earth, I expect. Got a sharp tongue, too, so watch your temper. And remember she’s a goddess. You don’t want to get blown to smithereens with a curse.’

‘No risk of that one while we’re together, Supremo,’ said General Kokh, touching his brother’s arm lightly. 

 

A most ungodly goddess entered the room. 

Dhoomavati looked like a mad old beggar in the last stages of starvation. She was enveloped in a cloud of smoke, one hand clutching a half-smoked cigarette, the other, a winnowing basket. Her matted hair was white but nicotine-stained. Cigarettes stuck in the tangles made her head look like an albino porcupine. Her dark skin was as wrinkled as crepe paper, either from extreme old age or excessive smoking—it was difficult to say which. Her tattered sari, once white, now muddy, hung loose on her emaciated figure. Her eyes were bloodshot and she seemed drunk. 

She stood with her hands on her hips, swaying slightly. The cigarette smouldered near her right hip, burning a hole in her sari, but she didn’t seem to notice. She took one last drag and threw it on the plush white carpet, unconcerned. 

‘Supremo? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days? Whatever happened to the good, old- fashioned name your father gave you, eh, Kali?’ She paused and allowed herself a look round the room. 

‘Nice pad you’ve got yourself—not bad for a banished god, not bad at all! A far cry from the earlier barren planet, eh?’ She cackled, clearly pleased with her own humour. 

The Supremo sat still at his desk, toying with a gold paperweight. His eyes flashed golden for one brief moment, at the word banished. When he spoke, his voice was normal, pleasant even. 

‘Have something to eat, Dhoomavati,’ was all he said. A retinue of silent staff brought in trays of food that covered the entire length of the large, twenty- seater table. 

Dhoomavati uttered a little shriek. Without speaking a word, she seemed to carve through the mountain of food. She didn’t just gorge, she devoured. Her toothless mouth opened wide as she shovelled food in, indiscriminately and without any pleasure. In no time, the emaciated old woman stood in front of a sea of empty dishes and belched loudly. Then she opened her mouth wide and simply sucked in the whole table with the empty dishes. She looked as underfed and hungry as ever when she finally turned to face Kali. 

Archly, she said, ‘I see your obsession with gold still carries on. Maybe you should’ve made yourself a gold suit with the braiding in black instead. Now, why did you send Dreadful Durukti to abduct me?’ 

‘You forget that I am gold, Dhoomavati,’ replied Kali calmly. ‘And all the vices too,’ he added, nodding towards the cigarette stub on the carpet. ‘Which is why you worship me more than you know, and I have my power over you just like I do over every other being on Earth.’ 

‘The great Mahesh made me this way and I serve his grand purpose. If he needed me to be a nurturing goddess at this time, you would have seen me as Kamala. The time for dissolution is near; I have had to change myself.’ 

‘Brazen words Dhoomavati, but your eyes betray your doubt. It can’t be easy, being abandoned like this. All beings on Earth are under my sway now. Why don’t you join the side where the power lies?’ 

‘Almost all beings,’ snapped Dhoomavati. ‘There are still people wed to the better principles of humanity. And their day is coming.’ 

‘A negligible minority,’ shrugged Kali. ‘The rest can be bought or seduced or imprisoned. Gold, money, prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, power—I rule them all. This epoch is all mine, and don’t you forget it.’ 

‘Your epoch, as you put it Kali, is ripe for dissolution. Have I not told you before? Shambhal has fulfilled its destiny; the child has been born.’ 

‘Are you sure?’ asked Vikokh in his crisp voice.

She spun on her toes to face him, noticing him for the first time. ‘Why the devil should I answer to you, minion? Know this, Kali— the avatar was born when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter were in Pushya nakshatra in Karkata. That was nearly fourteen years ago. This child is still safe and secure and hidden and it is now fourteen years of age.’ 

‘Is it male or female?’ persisted Vikokh, in the same crisp voice. 

A subtle change came over her expression, like an invisible hood. She hesitated for a fraction of a second. In the pod, they all felt it. 

‘I don’t know,’ was all she said. ‘All I know is that this child will challenge and overthrow the existing order.’ 

‘Where is the child now? Who looks after it? Who are its parents?’ 

Again, they felt the same reticence. Then she spoke. ‘As I said before, the child is hidden well, and away from its birth parents. It will move all over, as is its destiny. You can try to find Shambhal, for a start. Some say it’s in the Ganga valley, or near the Chengapattanam–Andhraka region; or maybe it’s where the Buddhist Shambhal is—close to Tibet. Others have another name for it—Shangri-La.’ She leered with glee at Vikokh. ‘You magician boys have your work cut out for you, don’t you?’

Then she disappeared in a whiff of smoke, leaving behind the dying fragments of her malicious laughter. 

 

FAMILY REUNION – From The Wordkeepers

The Council was relaxing in the smoking room after their sumptuous dinner; most of the diners nursed a goblet of brandy and some had also lit up the odd cigar. All twelve men and women seemed to be in a convivial mood. Looking at them now, it was difficult to imagine that their last topic of discussion had been an assassination plot. 

Anrit glanced surreptitiously at the members. The women first. Sergeant Durukti was shrivelled, tall and angular with a frown between her eyebrows. She had barely spoken a word all evening, choosing mostly to observe the proceedings, and nod if she agreed with any of the points made. Durukti was not a warrior, like the rest of the Council. Her powers lay in her bitter and morbid words, always spoken to destroy. Hers were the words that killed. She was called upon to break brave warriors when torture of the physical kind failed. She always succeeded.

At the Security Council, Durukti took notes, as she was a quick scribe. She was also the Supremo’s personal secretary, and present at all his meetings. 

Himsa was more garrulous. Her shiny red lacquered nails grabbed attention. She was all animal passion, tossing her red mane-like hair back as she laughed her throaty laugh, her eyes appraising Anrit. Himsa’s star was on the rise in Vishasha. She was fearless in battle, a quality much prized by her General. The armies she led fought with an extra ferocity, bringing the Supremo his most stellar victories on Earth. Her eyes seemed hazel until they focussed on something she liked. Liked? No, coveted. Then they turned a tawny yellow and gave her face a manic glow. Whereas Durukti seemed to be decaying, Himsa was terribly alive. 

Major Dambha had an outwardly confident air, the kind that a less astute person than Anrit would have been taken in by. A few lank strands of hair were plastered to his forehead. He was one of the Council’s most valued researchers, with a talent for ferreting out the truth. Anrit wondered if that was a rumour put out by the Major himself. He spoke with a bluster that Anrit saw through easily as acute nervousness—what do you have to hide, Major? Then again, don’t we all have something? 

His eyes shifted to Major Bhay’s enormous frame while the latter conversed with Mrityu. He immediately looked away. Now, there was a person that no one wished to cross. Bhay was gigantic, coal black, with scorching yellow eyes. His tiny irises darted maniacally across everyone’s face as he spoke, in a constant silent challenge. Anrit noticed that, like him, the others barely met Bhay’s gaze. He seemed to intimidate everyone by his very presence. 

Except Mrityu, who was calmly engaged in conversation with the demon, his skull-like face, emaciated frame and yellow teeth standing out in stark contrast with the appearance of his companion. Yet, his shrivelled form seemed to command respect, even fear, from all those present. Rumour had it that Mrityu wasn’t really one of them. There was an odd dispassionate trait in him and he seemed to look at everyone in the same way, appraisingly, as a potential target to kill, in his cold, unemotional way. Members of the Security Council were no exception. Mrityu was his own master and no one else’s. He was in Vishasha because it suited him. 

Anrit felt a chill run down his own spine as Mrityu gazed at him in mid-conversation. Why were they all here? Why was Earth so very important to the Supremo? He had a strong presence there anyway. 

He felt a pair of eyes watching him; Nirritti was weaving through the crowd, walking up to him, still in her human form, like himself.

‘The Supremo doesn’t want to play second fiddle any more. It’s about legitimacy,’ she whispered in his ear, guessing the direction of his thoughts. 

‘I wondered when you’d step up,’ he said dryly, on his guard. Nirritti could be unpredictable, especially in the corridors of power. ‘So you think he wants 

centrestage?’ 

‘The Supremo wants to be recognised as the one true lord of humankind, instead of the many existing deities and prophets. This is his age after all. Humans have long put gold and vices above every other priority, just paying lip service to Vishnu all the while. No challenge will be allowed to exist. The Enemy, even if it is a child, is a challenge and needs to be removed from his path.’ 

‘What about those who don’t accept him?’ 

‘A miniscule number. Just look at the humans. They all worship the Supremo first. Who on Earth cannot be bought today with gold, or land, or power, or fame? The rest will obviously come to heel or be dealt with.’ 

Anrit took a drink and sipped gingerly. He didn’t like the sound of ‘dealt with’ much. As a rule, he preferred subterfuge, leaving violence to others. 

‘What do you think of them after all these years? Quite the family reunion.’ Her voice was as cold as ice.

‘We’ve always had more a successful working relationship than anything else,’ he responded, careful to keep his voice neutral. ‘And anyway, you know that families like ours tend to work and play together. We’re a close-knit bunch; with our interests, we have to be.’ 

The two of them shifted their gaze to the motley group of Council members that remained. They were huddled together, heads bent in conversation, a clique within a clique—Vyadhi, Jara, Shoke, Trishna and Krodhe. Although vastly different in appearance, personality and skills, they nonetheless shared a certain ambivalent, unisexual appeal. Trishna’s hoarse voice belied her outward femininity, whereas Vyadhi and Jara sported plucked eyebrows and lacquered nails, in addition to obsessively groomed facial hair. They were all members of the elite Third Gender Task Force, a regiment formed of the best eunuch officers that Vishasha offered. 

Nirritti smiled her icy smile. ‘Pity our nephews and nieces are so fruitless. Imagine what we could have accomplished if there were a few more generations of the family.’ 

For Vishasha was a rather inbred world. It was the norm for brothers and sisters to marry in Vishasha. While this meant wealth and power multiplied, it also meant that mutations and deformities were common. 

On Vishasha, incest was a way of life. 

 

*

 

Leaving the Security Council to their post-dinner drinks, General Kokh moved to his inner sanctum, his aide close behind him. The hesitancy in his steps gradually reduced as he approached the chamber. His aide maintained the light hold, however. The automatic doors slid silently open with the General’s muttered command and shut just as noiselessly behind him. His aide released his hold and relaxed his stance as the General strode confidently to his desk and took off the dark glasses. 

The chamber consisted of a bed and a large wardrobe with mostly military and a few civilian outfits, a sofa for visitors and a large desk with three chairs: a leather swivel one for the General and two smaller ones opposite it for visitors. It was on one of these that his aide sat down, without asking for permission. Vikokh was General Kokh’s twin. Within closed doors, there was a subtle shift in their relationship. Here, Vikokh seemed to exude a greater air of self-assurance. 

The General folded his dark glasses and placed them on the desk with the precision of a surgeon: his vision was evidently normal, if not excellent. In the confines of his high-security disaster-proof and sealed chamber he felt free to let go of the elaborate subterfuge. 

‘Pointless pretence. The blindness thing. Why keep it going?’ asked the General, his voice gruff. He spoke in the staccato style he reserved for more informal situations. 

Vikokh threw his jacket on the arm of a sofa, hitched up his trousers, and said, ‘You mean, tell them that our true form is that of conjoined twins— invincible when our bodies touch? No thanks, I think we’ll keep that to ourselves. Alliances are shifting sands. Let’s not divulge critical information based on them.’ 

‘The Supremo’s impatient. Feels we’re not doing a good enough job. It’s been fourteen years—the human should be in our grasp by now. Each passing day is an increased threat to our existence.’ 

Vikokh was toying with a small flag of Vishasha. He replied crisply, ‘Our agents are on the field both on Vishasha and on Earth; the fourth wordkeeper has already fallen; we’ll get the rest as well. It would be useful to know the gender, though. Are you sure your information’s correct? The Seer has said nothing about it?’ 

The General grunted. ‘A gap-toothed cackle and a date. We’re keeping a close watch on the Sindhu river valley. It’s highly likely that all of the Indian subcontinent and some of China are fertile grounds for our search. But nothing to stop the Enemy from being anywhere else on Earth, or even in Vishasha itself.’ 

‘A fourteen-year-old moving from Earth to Vishasha? Impossible!’ 

‘You forget, Vikokh, that it was born with powers that are unheard of on Earth and rare even in Vishasha. Never underestimate the Enemy … or the Seer’s words,’ said the General in a tone that indicated that the discussion was over. ‘Get me that bottle of Al Oudh, will you? I have to meet the Supremo now and I feel quite breathless after one of our interviews—a dash of cologne really helps.’ 

‘Get it yourself,’ retorted his aide in a shockingly disrespectful voice. He could get away with it.