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.