jash sen

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Tag: Adventure

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

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!’

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.’

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.