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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Prologue: This is a true story. Well, it almost is. I've used some poetic license to embellish it a bit. I was inspired to write this after reading Nyctophilia - a very brilliant poem by Maniparna. 

The names and event are real. So are the facts about astrology and séance. I don't believe in supernatural, but don't deny it either. The decision is kept pending till science finds out what happens after death or till I experience it first hand - whichever happens first. All I can promise you is, once I know what happens after death, you will be the first to know. Although, I doubt that you will be pleased to see me then. :D

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Man by nature is a mystery lover. That's the reason we excelled over other fauna. Mystery, apart from being highly attractive, is also intimidating. We are scared of death, because the afterlife is shrouded in deep mystery. Some day we will decipher the ultimate enigma - Death, and then we will treat it as any other phenomenon, like lightening and hurricane, which used to scare the prehistoric men once.

During my engineering days, we had a rowdy group. Like all other youngsters during pre-social media era, we were intrigued by afterlife and spirits and always tried to dabble into various loony things, such as graveyard visits at nights and long discussions on hypothetical scenarios involving paranormal etc. Once I got hold of a medieval book on séances at some Raddiwala and we decided to try it out.

Astrology is one of my various hobbies and pastimes. People know only the prediction aspect of astrology and spurn it as nonsense when the predictions aren't fulfilled. Astrology is an exact science. At least, the chart casting part is. The chart resembles the location of planets in the heavens at any given point of time and can be verified by a simple telescope with a magnification of 15X. The horoscope is nothing but a map of the sky. The entire chart is divided into 12 sections of 30 degrees each, totaling to 360 degrees of the circular universe. The topmost part or the 'house' is called the Ascendance and represents east. It is considered the first house. Rest of the houses are numbered anti-clockwise. The zodiac sign rising in the east is entered in the ascendance and is numbered according to its position in the zodiac, for example, one for Aries and 12 for Pisces. The current positions of planets and signs can be derived by any reputed ephemeris, published by observatories across the world. I used and still use the Raphael Ephemeris, published by the Royal Observatory, London. As I said, astrology is tied to the pure science of astronomy. It's when people begin to interpret the effects of those heavenly orbs that they goof up, because predictions require an acute intuition and powerful sixth sense. I used astrology more as astronomy.

According to the book, séance can be conducted when retrograde Saturn is in conjunction with Hershel. Saturn is one of the slowest moving planets in the solar system and takes seven and half years to go around the sun. Eight is considered to be the number ruled by Saturn. We decided to summon the spirits on Saturday, the eighth of September.

We all gathered in my room on the stipulated time. I cast a chart of the current time and found that Saturn in conjunction with Hershel was going to ascend by 11.30pm. At 11.30pm, four of us sat around a table, holding hands, while Saturn Hershel conjunction was rising in the east. The table had a crude planchètte, drawn by me.

Planchètte is French for small map. It is a small board or piece of paper 18 inches square with a small circle in the middle. There are many ways to prepare a planchètte using words and images etc. I prepared the simplest ones, using 26 letters of alphabet and 10 numerals around the circle. During the séance, a leader is selected. The leader is always a psychic medium. Usually, it's a female as they are considered more sensitive to ultra sensory perceptions. They all sit around a center table, usually circular in shape and hold hands so that the positive energy is circulated in everyone. Beeswax candles are lighted near the four corners of the planchètte in the center of the table. The leader sits facing south and keeps something flat and small, such as a coin in the center of the planchètte. The light of the room is dimmed and the room is perfumed. Then the spirit is summoned. There is no particular method in summoning them. The uninitiated consider that the spirits need some mantra or arcane Latin chants to arrive. It's unseemly that the spirits require humane languages to communicate. Like God, they are just a power, and use telepathy to understand us. Once seated, all the members focus their thoughts on one particular spirit and begin to summon it in unison in whatever language they are capable of. Usually it is in the form of never ending chants. Once the spirit is summoned, the coin in the center of the planchètte vibrates and the leader keeps their right forefinger on it. The members ask questions and the coin moves automatically to the letters or images. A recorder is present there to note down the answers. Usually, the leader and the members are totally drained out at the end of the séance and don't remember anything afterwards, hence the presence of a recorder is a must.

We chose Divya as our leader, because she was considered a most receiving medium. A medium requires certain traits. They need to be ultra-sensitive, so that they can sense and react to slight changes in the atmosphere, they shouldn't have much will power, so that their psyche doesn't resist when a spirit is trying to control it. I was selected to be the recorder as I'm a total loss as a medium and am always kicked out of any such activities, in spite of my overall enthusiasm and ever ready willingness.

The session began at 11.40 pm. You need to attend a séance to believe the mystical environment it creates. Mere words are insufficient to enact a true image of the scenario. In the ghostly atmosphere, a number of somber people sitting around a table, holding hands in semi darkness and chanting eerily... It's enough to freak out any weaker willed person! The skeptics say that it's the power of suggestion and the mystery imbued in the atmosphere instead of any real paranormal force, which causes the members to believe that a spirit has arrived. May be, they are right. The team was trying to invoke the spirit of Meena Kumari, a film actress, who died in the early eighties. The small room resonated with the monotonous humming of their chants. In spite of my iron will power, I was affected by the ongoing humming, just as we feel drowsy when we hear the incessant humming of a turbine engine. Suddenly I felt a cold breeze at the nape of my neck and was fully Alert. I looked at the faces of the members sitting in trance. None of them had stirred. The room was stifling hot with no sign of any breeze.

They sat there for nearly an hour, chanting and meditating. Nothing transpired. Finally, they gave up. Everyone stood up and we switched on the lights. We were silent for some time then everyone tried to explain their experiences at once. When we perform some activity, truly believing in it, we don't concede defeat immediately, even when we are faced with certain proof of failure. We always console ourselves that we did achieve a modicum of success. People were explaining to me - the only not-so-gullible audience available - that they saw some spirits in their trance etc. I didn't believe any of their rot.

Divya went to the mirror and started to brush her hair while talking to us. I was insisting that it was a failed experiment. Rahul and Steve were still arguing that it wasn't an entire failure. We appealed to Divya, who was our leader. She laughed and finally admitted that it was a failed experiment. We decided to try it again some day. After all, whoever expects success in the first try? Divya promised to get candles of genuine beeswax instead of the paraffin wax ones, which we had used. Possibly, the spirits didn't come because of that! While analyzing a failure, it's always normal to blame it on any of the smallest details available. After all, we all need a scapegoat.

Suddenly she froze and looked at her reflection keenly. She realized that it had been still as a poster and was staring back at her intently all the time she talked. It hadn't laughed or moved when she did.

Terror dawned in her eyes, when her reflection suddenly smiled at her and winked.



Friday, January 8, 2016

The Banyan Tree

The sprawling banyan tree stood in the middle of the huge open ground outside the small village for decades. Like an aged and fatherly centurion, it stood there as a sentinel, as if protecting the little village and allowed kids to prance around its innumerable branches and hanging roots. Due to its opportunate vantage point, it had seen hundreds of weddings and deaths. It had seen people arriving and leaving the village, animated with different emotions. Their happiness and grief had scarred its gnarled bark and had made it a contemplative philosopher.

Lakkhu was not a philosopher. One cannot afford this luxury, when one has to toil in a 'two-bullock' field from sunrise to sunset. He was an unimaginative farmer and didn't deal in hypothesis. He only understood actuals and dealt in facts. He was sitting on one of the lower branches of the banyan tree, his feet dangling, and was lost in deep thoughts. This tree was his favorite place where he used to sit and brood upon the inequities of the life. The banyan tree was rumored to be haunted, so no one ventured near it after dark. Lakkhu didn't believe in rumors. Since last year, he had spent many nights sitting in its branches and has never encountered any ghosts or spirits. Hogwash! He thought bitterly! The greatest devils in the world are one's own kins, who will rob the skin off a person, if they get half a chance!

Today he came here just before the sunset and sat on one of the lower branches. He saw both of his younger brothers walking towards the tree, talking earnestly. Lakkhu was sure that they cannot spot him in the fading daylight,  still he hid himself behind dense foliage to ensure that he's not seen by them. He was curious to hear what these vermin were plotting. Lakkhu knew that they had their eyes on his small land and his house. They hated his guts and wanted his kids to starve. His elder daughter Gaura was of marriageable age and Lakkhu was worried. He didn't even have enough money at home to decently feed and clothe them. Now, these monsters were planning to sell his only source of survival! He invoked all the ghosts and spirits to attack and destroy these fiends. But, like gods, even spirits have a selfish trait and help only those, who don't require it. The needy are always ignored.

His brothers approached the tree. Girdhar, the elder of the two was laughing. "Did you see Lakkhu's wife crib for that sack of grains? That woman will never learn!"

Madho, the younger one smiled. "Bhaiya, it's all Lakkhu's doing. He has trained her to be like that. What can we do?"

Lakkhu's blood boiled after hearing this. He wanted to jump off the branches and smash their heads together till they split like rotten melons, but he controlled himself. There was more, he was sure and he wanted to hear it all. He wanted to see how low his brothers could sink in their avariciousness for his lands.

The younger brother cleaned the ground below one of the many roots of the banyan and both brothers sat their comfortably. The elder lit his beedi and resumed.

"Madho, yesterday I talked to the sarpanch about the lands. We will have to pay Rs 5,000 to him and he will change the title. Once it's done, the rest is easy. We have to close the sale by the end of this week or it'll be too late."

"Bhaiya, are you sure to do this without arousing anyone's suspicion? You know what big mouths we have in this village! Nothing is secret!"

Oh! So, that's the plan! Plague take such brothers! Lakkhu was shaking in rage. They wanted to turn his land in their own name! Wow! Some brothers! The Ramayana needs to be rewritten to accommodate such saintly souls! His hands shook in anger and the foliage rustled. Girdhar looked up warily and tried to peer in the gathering gloom.

"Is someone up there?" He asked suspiciously.

"No, bhaiya. May be a stray buffet of wind. It's considered to be a haunted tree. Who will come here in their right mind? People here are so superstitious! Last month Hari Mallah passed by and was down with fever for a week. Claimed that he saw a chudail here and she was dancing and beckoning him. I advised him that he should have gone with her. She being the only female, which showed any interest in him!"

Madho guffawed and Girdhar joined him, shaking his head at the follies of his illiterate brethren. "We are more than a match for those spirits, Madho!"

You are not a match for Lakkhu, you bastards! Lakkhu thought viciously. Let me unearth your full plan once, then I will ensure that you two will haunt this tree till the Apocalypse!

Girdhar lighted another bidi and became serious. Madho asked, "Do you know what's the full amount we need?"

"It's around Rs 30,000."

"Did you try to talk to them? I mean, even they should understand the severity of the situation and should show some empathy!"

Girdhar spat on the ground. "This is after including their empathy. They were asking for 50. I showed them the entire papers and explained the situation. Then they agreed for 30. We also need around Rs 15,000 to pay to the landlord, which is owed. We will get around Rs 40,000 by selling the lands. God knows how we will manage!" He added morosely.

"Don't worry bhaiya. God is great!" Madho said.

In your case, it'd be the devil, wouldn't it? Lakkhu was fuming in the gathering darkness.

Madho said, "I don't really feel good about all this selling business, bhaiya! Why don't we sell Lakkhu's land? Anyway, it's his problem! Why are you selling ours? God knows that the crop wasn't much this year!"

Girdhar picked up a pebble and threw it in the gathering darkness. "We can sell his land, Madho, but what will his family eat? Lakkhu already sold most of his fields due to his addiction to drinking and gambling. If we sell this remaining piece of land, how will his family survive?" He was sad. "I know that he never trusted us and always spurned us, but after all he's our own kin! And, what if we sell a parcel of our lands to tide his family over? At least, let his daughter get married peacefully! As long as they retain that small land, his sons can fend off for themselves. Tomorrow I'm selling off my that useless field and you go and pay the Rs 30,000 dowry. Let's close it. I will meet the landlord and pay Rs 10,000 debt and ask for some time for the remaining."

Lakkhu was stunned! So, they were selling off their own lands so that they can pay off his debts and get his daughter married? We usually tend to misjudge people in what we construe a righteous anger over imagined facts. In this trait, we aren't any better than animals. If one tries to save a snake from drowning, the snake will never appreciate this and will invariably end up biting the savior. It will always use its narrow perspective to judge the situation. Just like that snake, we humans are also prejudiced based upon our past experiences or our own reactions to similar circumstances. The only saving grace is, some of us retain the humility to be abashed and ashamed, when we are exposed to the truth.

Lakkhu felt ashamed! He jumped off the tree to apologize for his suspicions.

"I'm sorry, my brothers." Lakkhu began humbly with folded hands, "I always misunderstood your care as avarice. You have treated my family as yours, still I thought of you as thieves! Please forgive me!"

The brothers ignored him and continued talking. Lakkhu stood with folded hands and bowed head.

"Sometimes I wish he didn't drink so much to die of cirrhosis! It has been one year since his death! You are right, bhaiya. Money is not everything, wish it could bring our dead brother back! I'm unable to see the never ending misery in the eyes of his widow." Madho said sadly.

Like a wise old sage, the banyan tree stood gravely, looking at the two living and one ghost brothers. The evening breeze rustled its leaves gently. It couldn't speak to the living ones, but caressed Lakkhu and beckoned him back on its branches lovingly. Although it was a tree and devoid of any feelings, it had seen and absorbed enough emotions of the humankind in the past decades to understand the upheaval going through this sobbing and penitent ghost. It knew that this tortured soul needs love as never before, because it is hurting with the knowledge of its own injustice towards others. The brothers walked away in the darkness, hands on each others shoulders. The hanging roots of the banyan tree gathered a sobbing ghost and deposited it on one of the lower branches, where it sat sadly, dangling its legs, lost in deep thoughts.

Another notch was carved on its scarred bark.



Sunday, January 3, 2016

Bholenath

Dayashankar Pandey rubbed chandan on the small and round slab of stone and looked disdainfully at Girdhar Tiwari. "Panditji, I'm astounded! It's just because of people like you that the Hindu Sanskriti is at the verge of oblivion. How can you even think that Benaras will tolerate ban on Mahashivratri procession? Aag barsegi, aag!" He fumed and cursed the government. Girdhar adjusted his canvas umbrella and laughed. He looked towards Manikarnika and gargled from the water of the lota in his hand. He came back to Mahadev sitting on ghat steps and offered a small ball of bhang, which placated the arrogant Brahmin.

Daya was a Bahurupiya. A Bahurupiya is a type of actor, who masquerades in the form of various characters, in Dayashankar's case, Mahadev's. In Benaras, there are hundreds of them. You will be meandering through the crowded streets, minding your own business, and suddenly you are accosted by nothing less than Bholenath himself, complete with a  snake in neck, Ganga flowing from his matted compilation of locks, trishul and reciting Shiv Tandav Stotra! People are known to remember their maker after seeing them. Some have actually met Him in shock. Benaras is a place, where people come to die anyway, so let's ignore them. Bahurupiya is not a beggar. Who in their right mind would call a god a beggar? English may be the richest language in the world, but it cannot differentiate between a Yaachak and a Bhikshuk. Yaachak is someone, who begs. Bhikshuk is someone, who does us a favor by accepting our offerings.

Dayashankar lived in a rented house near Gaudauliya bus stand. He and his  wife had emigrated from Jaunpur. 'Emigrated', as one cannot relocate from a mortal Jaunpur to the City on the Trident of Mahadev. Daya was a Sanskrit graduate and didn't have any other qualifications. He also dabbled in sleight of hand and was a stage actor in his college days. In Bholenath's city, he tried to search for jobs and failed as in the age of SQL Server and Data Analytics, there were no takers for a Sanskrit scholar who could recite Laghu Siddhant Kaumudi. Daya was jobless for months. Shiva is a merciful landlord and always looks after his tenants. No one sleeps hungry in his city. Daya, his wife and his six years old daughter didn't actually starved, but they just managed to live at the fringe of starvation. That was when he decided to use his histrionic talents and imitated the God himself. Everyday morning at 5 am he went to Assi ghat and applied his makeup, then blessed the locals as well as tourists. They paid some small change. Sometimes, he got foreigners, who were blown by his fluent Sanskrit and he earned up to three thousand in a day. By noon, he went to Lanka and blessed all the shopkeepers there for five rupees each. At 4pm, Shiva visited Harishchandra Ghat and Kedar Ghat. At 7pm, he was at Dashashwamedh Ghat and danced his Tandav at the amplified sound of Damru on the live broadcast of Kashi Vishweshwar temple's arti. Shiva was happy. Daya was surviving.

Today he was agitated. His daughter was sick and he didn't have any money to pay for the doctor. He took her to the Babu Deenanath Nursing Home near Pandeypur and they said that she's too weak. The quacks administered saline and charged him 200 rupees. He paid it, without knowing that the saline was simply distilled water. He trusted those Benarasi Thugs. Dayashankar didn't know history. Lord Welselly learned this when he lost his horse three hundred years ago. When his daughter became serious, they referred her to BHU.

Benaras Hindu University is one of the best universities in the world and houses more than 15000 students. It has a concourse, which is in 12 sqkm. Pt Madan Mohan Malviya begged from everyone and built this  university single-handedly. The university boasts of its own aerodrome and a police force, known as PEC. Once again, O my reader, he was a Bhikshuk and not a Yaachak.

He left the Assi Ghat and went to Ratanshi Jewelers in Nagwa Lanka. The Naked City of Ravan. The world enacts Ramayana on stage. We Benarasis enact it in the entire city with people following the play. We have a Lanka. We have an Ayodhya and a Panchavati. Nagwa Lanka is where Ravana sees himself naked, just before death. A small and scared kid came out of the shop with an apple, couple of bananas and five rupees coin. Daya smiled and blessed him. The kid forwarded his offerings, wary of the realistic rubber snake. The man behind the counter laughed, "Bless him, O lord! It's his birthday."

Daya froze. Birthday? He pressed the hidden bulb and Ganga flowed from the top of his head. He recited in a fierce voice:

"Aghorebhyoth ghorebhyah, ghoraghor tarebhyayah.
Sarvatah sarva sarvebhyah, namastestu Rudra rupebhyah."

The kid screamed and jumped back. Daya exclaimed, "A birthday! And, you send the daily offering? I refuse it. Mahadev refuses it. Shambho Bholenath Tripurari!" He played the Damru. The kid expected some magic, as Damru is always associated with those roadside shows. The jeweler hastened and paid a tidy amount and a couple of toys. Shiva blessed everyone. Everyone was happy, except the god himself. He was worried sick in the fear of his daughter. Like all poor parents, he cared more for those free toys than the money. He knew that the money is already spoken for, but the toys are more valuable and more dedicated. They will bring more happiness on those dried lips. Money is immaterial as the child can't understand it. Given to himself, he'd never waste the money on toys, which could be spent on medication. But, at times a chocolate is better for the morale than antibiotics.

 He stuffed the small pink teddy bear and the clockwork toy train in his shoulder bag and went forward, reciting Shiv Panchakshari.

"Nagendra haray, trilochalanayah,
Bhasmang ragay supujitayah... "

It was 4pm. He went to a public telephone and called BHU. His wife was crying. A surgery was required. Mahadev dropped the receiver of the phone.

Dayashankar went to a tea stall and asked for a glass of tea. He pulled out his wallet and counted his money. No one was amused by seeing the Lord of Kashi, sitting on the footpath and counting changes at a tea stall. After all, it's Benaras. Daya had Rs 462 in cash, few toys and 3kg rice. He looked at the toys and smiled. It was an omen. She'll live to play the soft teddy. Bholenath won't joke like this! He has given this for a purpose! With exhilarated heart, he proclaimed, "Shiv Bhola Bandari!" Everyone echoed, "Har har Mahadev!"

He cut short his tour of business and returned to Kabir Colony. The main gate of BHU was before him. He stopped for a second, then recited the Vedic scriptures of Rudrashtadhyayi, which described Mahadev:

"Chandrama manso jatar chakshor surajostaja
Shrotadwaush pranasch, mukhadagnirjayatah."

His psyche is as cool as the moon and his eyes are burning as the sun. His breath is the scream of the hurricane and his mouth is as all-encompassing as a wild flagration.

He carefully wiped his blue forehead and went in. He went to the counter. The Mallu nurse asked in her belligerent tone, "Kya mangta?"

Shiva said, "Riddhi Pandey, my daughter. She's admitted here. My wife Parvati should be listed."

The nurse checked the computer and asked him to go to the general ward. Bed number 307. He went rushing. O reader, this can only happen in Benaras that someone in so outrageous a costume as Shiva can barge in a hospital and no one raises an eyebrow!

Bed 307 was empty. A quick check with nurse revealed that the patient was in the operation theater. Daya ran to the OT. His wife was sitting there. Daya sat next to her. She saw him and broke down. Daya smiled and kept his hand on her shoulder. He consoled her inconsolable wife. He pulled out the pink teddy bear from his bag.

"Arre! Why are you worried! Look here! I purchased these toys for her. She loves pink na? And, I also got this small train. It's a bit scratched, so I got it cheaper. You don't worry. She'll be out immediately." He laughed.

Parvati cried in random disconsolate waves, "Riddhi ke papa! Your daughter died an hour ago."

She couldn't speak anymore and chocked in her own grief. No more words were necessary. Daya looked blankly at the pink teddy bear and the small blue toy train in his hands. He looked at his devastated wife. The doctor called him for paperwork.

************

Parvati was getting frisky. It was more than three hundred years that Shiva took her out. Today she decided to dig her dainty heels and insist. Mahakal decided to give her a tour of his own city. Nandi and Veerbhadra arranged the cortege and the team took off. They flew through Mughalsarai and Ram Nagar, they passed the Varuna river and laughed at the antics of the loony monkeys of Sankatmochan...

It was a lovely tour.

They reached at my favorite Dashashwamedh Ghat. It was midnight. The ghat was silent. Shambho waved the guards away. Rakesh was shining in the sky. Shiva adjusted him on his head, so that he's brighter.

Both the lovers enjoyed the moonlit night. The Ganges left her naughty nature and acted mild. Mahadevi smiled at the Manikarnika Ghat across, which was named after her earrings. Just like a normal teenager, she hitched her skirts and dipped her fair feet in the cool water. Fishes swooned and kissed her feet. Fishermen went hungry that night. She looked smiling at Shiva and was shocked. She  looked at him strangely.

"Bholenath, you say that you are a Bairagi and you never feel any emotions. You always claimed that you are aghor. Then why do I see you crying and tearing a pink teddy bear and throwing it in Ganges?"

Bholenath looked at her and smiled through tears.


Friday, January 1, 2016

The Compensation

"Based on the evidence of the City Sheriff, the Royal Court finds Prince Chandrabhan guilty of stealing pots of the town potter. The guilty is to be tied in the middle of the market and to be given 50 lashes as a common criminal." Maharaja Prataprao gave his just verdict in his grave voice.

The guilty looked up in anger. "How is it that I'm always punished? Why are you never lashed like a common criminal?" Prince Chandrabhan retorted indignantly.

"Because, I'm the king and you are a Royal Prince! And being a king gives me greater responsibilities as well as privileges." The King puffed up his chest and said importantly.

"Greater responsibilities be damned!" the bound culprit blasphemed against the Royal Majesty. "How come you always become a king and I'm always punished for something or another? Why can't I be the king for a change?"

"Beware, O condemned prisoner! You can be beheaded for this rebellious mutiny!" The incensed king tried to rise from his throne in Royal Majesty. This was too much for the rickety throne with three tottering legs and it toppled over in the ditch, taking His Royal Highness with it. The courtiers and the condemned man let go a not-so-courtly howl of laughter. While the emperor tried to climb back, bruised, his shirt torn and spitting gravel stuck in his teeth, he saw his mother turning the corner with a slipper in her hand and yelled, "My mom!" The court adjourned haphazardly and the courtiers scattered. The  Royal Prince was caught by the attacking enemy as his hands were tied behind his back and  the offending slipper was subjected to his Royal Posterior. He somehow managed to escape with a tingling bum.

The court reconvened near the empty school, where Pintya, the king was attacked by Chandu, the prince. The courtiers were promptly divided into two armies. The bloody and gory war raged for many years and thousands were killed. In the evening, a truce was signed, prisoners exchanged and the two friends walked home with hands in each other's neck.

Summer vacations had started last week and the brats of the village of Chandarpur in the famine struck Buldhana district of Maharashtra were beyond themselves. The villagers were harassed by their day-to-day antics. The skies were clear with little white clouds floating with the swift summer wind like tiny bunnies romping in a blue meadow. The clear blue skies, that would have gladdened the heart of an English gentleman, filled the hearts of the poor farmers with foreboding as they were the harbingers of dry season ahead. Last year rain was elusive and the crops had suffered. The meager crop of sugarcane was sold at half the expected price as it was sold standing in the fields. The cash crop of cotton was suffering without irrigation. The farmers initially tried to water their dying crops through well water, but when that was inaccessible too, they left it to the mercy of seasons and just stared at the merciless skies with vacant eyes.

Pintya was sitting under the tamarind tree near the school and waited for his friends impatiently. He found a thorny stick. A stick will always remain a stick in the hands of someone like yours truly, who's an unromantic and unimaginative adult. But, a stick can take various forms in the hands of a fertile brained child. It turned into a Dandpatta and the wielder became Bajiprabhu Deshpande, the fabled warrior, who was born in the same region, some 400 years ago and laid his life for his master, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Pintya attacked and conquered the fort of Sinhgadh by defeating the vast Mughal army and died in the foray. It was a satisfactory battle as usual, where hundreds died. During the heat of the battle, one of the thorns in the stick grazed his thigh and caused a trickle of blood. This made the battle more realistic, where blood of noble warriors flowed from those impregnable Sahyadri mountains and the Mughal army was crushed mercilessly. Pintya was the warrior Bajiprabhu. He was the horse. He was the Mughal overlord ruling the fort. He was the Mughal soldiers, who died under his sword. He was Shivaji, who cried on his own death. He also tried to become the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, but did not know Urdu. So, this emperor used the Marathi lingo to blast his commanders for the loss of such a strategic fort. Overall, it was a fruitful and a satisfactory day.

After a long time he saw his friend Chandu walking towards him. Pintya hailed him and cursed him for his tardiness. Chandu was somber. Pintya ran towards the village, when he heard the news which Chandu had.

Bible says that miseries are sent to us by the Lord God to test our mettle. Those with a virtuous spirit pass the test and glow like an angel. The weaker willed succumb to it and are burned in the everlasting fires of hell till eternity. Tatyaram was one of the weaker willed ones. He couldn't see his kids crying with hunger and his wife suffering without any medical help. He was hoping for the cash crop and the rains, which would have ended their misery. The skies betrayed him. Finally he gave up and took the easy and cowardly way out by hanging himself. There was a mob outside his house. Pintya and Chandu joined it and tried to see the dead body. Someone spotted them and kicked them away. They climbed a nearby neem tree and saw Tatyaram's wife crying and his children huddled near a shrouded body. Pintya hoped for a breeze, so that he can see the face of the deceased. He had never seen a dead person before and was curious. After a long time, both the friends climbed down and went to their homes. Each lost in his own mysterious thoughts.

A child's heart is different than that of us grown ups. It can never remain bowed down for long. It's very resilient and elastic. It can forgive and encompass the entire world in it with space to spare and has the capability of healing itself of any hurt. We all are born with this magical heart. In the process of growing up, we lose these magical characteristics somewhere along the line. It's a debatable point if growing up is good or bad for mankind. Death has a sobering effect. The entire village, which was already bowed down under the anger of the brutal sky, was now subjected to another unmentionable fear. But, even death failed to subdue the boisterous spirit of childhood. The famed and noble dacoit Pratap Singh was attacking the neighboring kingdom of the wicked king Chandrasen. This time Chandu refused to be beaten as always and both friends fought and tore at each other. Things were happy and satisfactory as usual.

Pintya woke up and staggered out of his hut and was amazed! A large new car was parked before Tatyaram's hut. The sarpanch of the village was standing with folded hands before someone dressed in white. Pintya was mesmerized by the shining vehicle and caressed it gently. He hopped away like a startled hare to inform his brigade about this unusual incident.

The sarpanch was euphoric. His visitor was the PA of the Member of Parliament from the opposition party, who wanted to visit the village and pay a compensation of one lakh to the bereaved widow as a token of sympathy from the merciful party. This was the first time that a political dignitary would visit this small village. The sarpanch was aware what this may mean to his political ambitions. If handled correctly, this visit may be the much awaited and long coveted ticket to the mainstream politics. He swore to make it a shining success.

The village common was cleaned. The streets were swept. Tatyaram's house, which was painted when it was constructed by his father, 60 years ago, was whitewashed from outside. The village was apprehensive. When one is buffeted for too long by fate, one gets the jaundiced eye and views favorable things with suspicion. The village was scared that this may be the beginning of another calamity, which will compound their already unbearable misery. The children were immune to this depressing pessimism and were treating this event as a celebration. An optimist is a person, who thinks that bullshit is a fertilizer and a child is an epitome of undying optimism.

Finally the auspicious day arrived when the MP of the opposition party was to visit the wretched village. A small stage was erected in the village common, outside the Bajrang Bali temple, who was smiling at this display of human hypocrisy through the newly painted door of his temple. The dusty streets of the village were decorated by buntings and flags of the opposition party. A shy crowd of motley ragged people were watching from a distance. The sarpanch and his gang were dressed to nines and seemed to be everywhere. Someone shouted that the great man has arrived. Ladies from the household of sarpanch stepped forward, clad in nine yards of sarees draped in Maharashtrian style, with a thal of aarti, and the MP was welcomed. Children were agog to see the gun totting bodyguards and the well fed and handsomely dressed MP. An artist finds inspiration in the most mundane of the subjects. Everything has a story. It just requires an imaginative mind to unearth it. Pintya found the subject for his next skylarking in this event. He will be the great MP and Chandu will be a notorious bandit, whom the MP will slay bare handed. Our hero was a bloodthirsty little devil like your writer.

The great man climbed on the stage. He was welcomed by the sarpanch, who praised him and his party for their kindness shown towards this backwater village. The MP was smiling and nodding, spreading his warmth over the poverty striken village, which was basking in the sunshine of his kindness. He was not a stranger to the cruel pangs of hunger. Only yesterday he missed his afternoon meal and was very hungry till he could find snacks at 7pm. There was a similar instance last year, when he had to go without dinner while on a tour. He knew how it felt to go without food for hours at a stretch. Today he had a hearty breakfast in the State Guesthouse to avoid a recurrence. He looked at the assembly with an empathy, which only those can feel who have experienced the misery firsthand. He finally stood up, cleared his throat importantly and his well modulated voice boomed over the hushed village.

"It's a sad state of events when the farmers, who are the providers for the nation, commit suicide in desperation as they are unable to feed their own family! My heart screams in pain and horror to see what the gods of the lands are reduced to by our ruling government! If they would have done their job, the farmers would have been prosperous."

Chandu whispered to Pintya, "Can the government make the clouds rain?"

"Of course, you fool!" Pintya laughed at the ignorance of his mate, "The government is very powerful. They have this huge machine in their palace which fills water in the clouds..." He would have explained this classified and advanced technology in detail, but was slapped by someone and threatened to sit quietly.

"People of Chandarpur! It's neither the situation, nor my nature to blame someone else for a deed gone horribly wrong. I'm here to show that unlike this government, my party cares for the farmers. We are offering one lakh to the bereaved family. I know that this money will not bring the deceased back, but it's just a token of our respect to the creed, which causes the food to be brought to our tables. After all, we can't really eat money!" He smiled and looked around at this conversational gem, which apparently was well rehearsed and much used. His cronies smiled politely and applauded. There was a scattered applause from the crowd.

"What did he say?" A nearly deaf and old farmer asked his neighbor, who shrugged.

The MP alighted from the stage importantly and went to the freshly whitewashed hovel of Tatyaram, the news reporters followed him with their cameras and mikes. Pintya beat them to it and was already standing at the hut. The village didn't have a television, but it was not a small satisfaction to the glory seeking child that his image will be broadcasted all over the nation. The bereaved widow arrived and the MP presented the check grandiloquently. Everyone applauded. Cameras clicked. The MP ruffled the hair of Pintya, thinking him to be the son of the dead farmer. Cameras zoomed in to capture this great moment. Everything was hunky-dory. The MP bent down condescendingly and asked the kid in a paternal voice, "What's your name, son?"

"Pratap." Pintya fumbled nervously.

"A great name. A name worthy of a great future. We will ensure that you have a bright future, son. Who do you think is responsible for this great loss of yours?"

The cameras waited expectantly, waiting for Pintya to throw some light on this enigma. The usually effervescent Pintya experienced the stage fright, which better people than him have experienced before. The smiling politician cajoled him further. The cameras waited. Pintya still hung fire. His toes were drawing an intricate pattern in the dusty ground.

"Say something, son. You are our future!" The smiling MP looked around, and was gratified by the approving nods of his sycophants. Someone nudged Pintya and he mumbled something.

"Speak louder, my boy! We all are waiting for the verdict of our next generation." The politician gave his best patronizing smile.

Pintya blurted out, "I think that if you would have given this one lakh a week earlier, Tatya kaka would still have been alive."

The cameras froze. The politician was trying to close his open mouth. The silent crowd was watching curiously. Let's draw a merciful curtain over this embarrassing scene and move on.

Somewhere a cloud rumbled in distance and the skies darkened. The usually arid wind carried an exhilarating whiff of incoming rains.



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Moon-Thief

The guard waved the green flag. The Desert Express blew its shrill whistle and the strolling passengers on the platform of Falna station ran towards their respective coaches, throwing away their half drunk Frootie packs.

Bhairo was running like a maniac. He had a duffel bag on his shoulder and a metal trunk in his right hand. A young woman in her late 20s was running after them. He reached the platform and barged in the first compartment he could and threw the duffel bag and the trunk inside. He stood at the door of the train, which was catching speed now and shouted at the woman, who was running desperately. "Run faster...!" The woman stumbled and fell. She watched the last compartment pass away before her with its cliketty-clack. Each stroke striking her chest with a physical blow. The mute anguish welled in her dark, almond eyes...

Bhawari stood in the burning heat of Rajasthan desert and kept looking at the diminishing metal monster which carried away the only person she had ever loved in her life. A police inspector and a constable came running and stopped near her. The merciless sun was heating the sand crystals and turning them into silica in the fierce desert. A bigger furnace was burning in the bosom of the diminutive dark woman. The agony exploded through her and she let out a high-pitched unearthly scream like an animal in pain...

*****

Bhairo belonged to the infamous Bedini tribe. This tribe was notorious for the flesh trade, in which each female member was involved. The male counterparts kept the home or arranged for customers for their wives. With the change of time, even this tribe went through reformation and prostitution was curbed to an extent. People were educated and the standard was improved. Bhairo didn't act as a pimp anymore. He was upgraded now. He went to Badmer and Pakistan for higher education. Now he was a pickpocket par-excellence and a thief. No more flesh trade for our hero. He was good with his hands. At five feet ten of height and his very fair complexion, he looked more like a decent businessman than a thief. His face was pockmarked and he hid it by maintaining a four days stubble. He and his friends committed a daring bank robbery in Baswada. A bank guard was killed in the heat of the moment. Bhairo and his friends escaped from there and decided to hide in some remote village till the heat was off.

Bhairo retired to the Shekhawati district and hid himself in a small village called Fagwara near Falna town. It was a small town with a narrow gauge railway station. He established himself as a rich businessman and splashed his ill-gotten wealth around. Soon people started looking at him as a wealthy and respectable man. Power and prestige are like aphrodisiac. They are highly addictive. Once someone gets used to these, they forget the reality and live in a dreamland. Bhairo forgot his own low station and became self-styled Rana Bhairo Singh. Each afternoon, when the dusty streets of Fagwara were deserted because of the fire raining from the heavens, he could be seen entertaining the who's who of the village and town in his air cooled drawing room. It was there that he saw Bhawari.

In Rajasthan, they use clay cups called 'Kulhars' for serving drinks to guests, which is supplied by the village potter. Bhairo was sitting in his drawing room, when his servant ushered in Bhawari, carrying a wicker basket full of kulhars.

O reader, like you even I always believed those love-at-first-sight stories as clichés. But like spirits, even such paranormal things do exist! When Bhairo saw Bhawari, the elusive emotion hit him like an Express Train. The pert woman kept her eyes down demurely, but she could feel the upheaval in the soul of the latter. She also could feel a reciprocation in her own bosom and was uneasy by its novelty. She suspected that anything so euphoric must be a sin! Especially for her. She left hastily, without waiting to get paid for her wares.

Bhairo stood transfixed for an eternity, then called his manservant and asked him casually about her whereabouts. Armed with this information, he hitched his Jeep and went to visit her, on the pretense of paying her for the kulhars.

The thatched hut of the potter was in a deplorable state. An old man was sitting outside on a bamboo cot, smoking a coconut hookah. Wild summer wind whistled in those sifting sand dunes. Palm and coconut fronds whispered their secrets in her ears and she giggled. He immediately stood up respectfully, when he saw the Jeep entering his courtyard. "Khaini Khamma, Rana Sha!" He said apprehensively. Bhairo dispelled his apprehensions, saying that he had just came in to pay for the kulhars. The old potter was overwhelmed by the humbleness and generosity of the great man. He bade him to sit on the rickety cot. Normally, Bhairo would have spurned him for this affrontry, but today his heart was dyed pink. He sat there and tried to peer in the darkness of the hut. "Where's your son, kaka?" He began fishing. The old man's eyes clouded. "Sometimes gods love to play with us mortals, Rana Sha! He summoned my young son and left an old man to care for his wife. My son died last year in the plague epidemic.!" The old man took another sad puff at his hookah. Bhairo found his eyes moistened and was astonished. He was not a sensitive and emotional man by a long chalk and was surprised at this turn of emotions in his granite heart, but love changes the man and causes diamonds to crack. The widow appeared in a long veil, bringing jaggery and a jug of water. Both kept their eyes downcast, but were achingly aware of each other's physical presence. The negative has an powerful affinity to attract the positive. The positive is always at a loss. The negative has nothing. Bhairo was negative.

Stories and novellas always give us a wrong notion of love and romance and like children watching cinema, we believe in them. The romance of Bhairo and Bhawari was nothing like those Mills & Boons series. It was like one of those devilish whirlwinds in the desert, which can change the appearance of the stolid earth by its torque.

Bhairo was a changed man now. Circumstances and influences change psyche. Love has the power of conversion, which beats that new-fangled nuclear powers. The poor potter had his hut redeveloped. He had a motor installed in his potter wheel. A government official visited his wretched premises and a hand-pump was installed in his courtyard. Of course, Rana Bhairo Singh visited his premises daily. Rana Sha met his widowed daughter in law and assured her that he'll get a stipend issued to her. A male isn't allowed to touch a widow. But, money is a panacea and cures all such deep-built stupid notions. Everything was hunky-dory.

Bhawari was a very practical woman, who was married at 11 and widowed at 19. Life was like those fleeting thoughts for a brief second, when she was married. After she was widowed, it resembled those never ending deserts, extending to the infinity! She was a good looking woman, rendered lusterless by the grinding wheels of life. Her dry and lifeless tresses were filled with the tears of the desert. Sand was not only in her eyes and heart, it was also in her soul. That dry and gritty feeling! Her sexual life non-existent and no love on horizon, she was an epitome of what those eastern samurai called honbun. Life was a duty.

That immovable rock was suddenly attacked by a monstrous force, which it could never imagine. One can always fight against an adversary, who attacks ferociously. How can one fight against someone, who uses love and submission as weapon? Her soul screamed and warned her that this guy is not good, but her hungry psyche loved his attention and care. Overall, she loved his care for her. She knew that he loves her, but never tried once to look at her or shame her by talking. Bhawari was not like those arrogant and impervious Aravali peaks. She was a human and she crumbled under that intense heat of love. She started loving his four days stubble. She loved everything he did. She was snatched away by those wild summer winds of Aravali, which once dragged with them another soul, Mirabai and deposited her with Kanha! Bhawari didn't know who's Mira. This brown earth just knew that crazy moon, who was getting closer to her and was causing high tides in her oceans. Bright, scintillating and effervescent... it was a thief. His own glamour was stolen from sun. She was in love.

They were married. No one knew of their marriage. It was an unspoken understanding. Everything was fine till a summon reached in the Falna Police Station from the Badmer control room and resulted in a deputation of an SHO, two sub inspectors and 14 constables to visit the village of our lovers. The contingent swooped at Bhairo's residence in their inimitable style, like an airborne eagle swooping down at a rabbit. In this case, the rabbit was missing.

Bhairo was with Bhawari behind the sand dunes. She was convinced finally. An year's meditation paid. They decided to leave. Bhairo asked her to go to Falna station and left her to collect his worldly wealth. What's money to a thief, Saint and a philosopher? Just dirt.

He saw the police convoy before his Haveli and hid in the shadows. He was spotted by someone. He ran with the contingent behind him. He was running desperately when he saw Bhawari trundling a duffel bag and a trunk. He picked up her burden without breaking his stride and sprinted towards the station. Bhawari started to run desperately after him.

********

Thambidorai Saravanan was embarrassed. He was a tough guy.  In his forties, he was fit as a bull. The arrogant law protector didn't know how to handle this woman. He removed his peak cap, scratched his bald head and thought, 'Wish it would rain!'

He asked tried questioning Bhawari. She didn't even deign to move her head and just let out a gut wrenching wail. The inspector shrugged in frustration. No one likes a woman crying.

Bhawari refused to believe that her Bhairo was a bank robber, a murderer and on the run from police. She refused to believe that all his love was a pretense and a physical lust for a female body. Like a hunt, it was a sport for the hunter, but it cost the game its life. Police recorded her statement and let her go. Bhawari came back to her village. By now, everyone knew that she had run away with a thief and she, along with her father in law were boycotted by the village Panchayat. The old man was sitting on the cot, smoking his hookah and coughing. He called out to her to give him something to eat. Bhawari went in silently, walking like a zombie and shut the door. She stood for a long time, with her back to the door. It's better to remain loveless, than to love and lose it. Especially, to be cheated of love. Her tears had dried. She had lost her already meager smile and happiness to a glib talking conman. It was growing dark. The Moon-Thief was rising in the sky, stealthily, behind clouds, like a pickpocket stalking his victim.

The police spread their dragnet but failed to capture the elusive thief. Like a new moon, he had vanished into the dark pit of the universe, not to be spotted by anyone. Life was a dragging dream for Bhawari. The ire and repugnance of the village faded with time. A course of action results in many reactions, which the perpetrator is blissfully unaware of. Bhairo, wherever he was, was unaware of his effect on Bhawari. Each evening she stood at her doorstep and stared at the never ending desert with her vacant eyes. The wild wind played with the sand and caused miniature hurricanes, which were a reflection of the raging and unabated storm in her own chest. Sometimes, she thought she saw her Bhairo in those swirling sand columns - with his lopsided smile and his four days stubble - before the capricious wind carried him away and merged him with the infinite desert, from where he came from.

The selfish moon always smiled beyond the sand dunes. The earth lay patient, like a widowed mother, in wait of someone, who may never come...


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Valentine's Day

Today was 14th February. The pale orange sun was trying to climb unwillingly across the ladder of the sky, like a small kid dragging his unwilling feet towards the school while his friends were playing in the street. Glorious spring was rejoicing everywhere. Love was in the air. After all, today was St Valentine's Day! Cupid had worked his magic diligently all the night and the world was not looking it's regular vicious self. The cruel hearts were softer today and the merciless wheels of time had slowed down in the respect of the one emotion, which actually made the world go round. Even your writer was feeling mushy and was sick to the stomach for that!

Baanke ran his fingers in his carefully disarranged hair while checking himself out in the mirror at the paan shop and stuffed the Benarasi Paan in his mouth. All the time he was looking askance at the gate of Heerabai Chawl. He saw Rubina walking daintily, avoiding the garbage dumped over by the careless inhabitants of the chawl. "These animals will never learn the lesson of cleanliness!" Baanke swore loudly and prolatized, while spitting on the feet of one of the customers. He admired his disarrayed locks for the last time in the mirror, adjusted the colored handkerchief rolled in his collar in the style worn by Anil Kapoor in the movie Tezaab, adjusted his rainbow glares and followed Rubina. He knew that Rubina is the daughter of a doctor and is a graduation student. Way above his own station. But, since time immemorial, love has never cared about class and worth. Like an accident it can happen to anyone. Baanke was in love. He followed Rubina to Dadar station. He would have followed her till her college in Bandra, but the last time he attempted this, he was caught without ticket and was jailed for three day and that had cooled off his ardor temporarily. He stopped near the cab stand and watched a piece of his heart walk away. He pulled out the plastic rose, which he had bought today to gift her as a Valentine.

Rubina looked behind once and didn't notice Baanke. Today should be declared a national holiday, she thought. At least for the youths. She wasn't aware of the history of St Valentine or his sacrifice but she was aware of the importance of this day in youngsters' lives. She alighted at Bandra while debating with herself if her love for the professor was real or simply another childish infatuation. Then she saw him. Professor Mukherjee was in his early 30s and looked like a yesteryear's film star. Very funny and mild. He exuded a boyish charm and was adored by all the female students of his.

As usual, she was mesmerized by the charms of the handsome professor, who never referred to his notes even once and still managed to keep the students spellbound through his sheer charisma. This was the only lecture, which she hadn't missed in the last three months. She patted her stray tresses in place and kept staring at her idol, while he walked at the podium, expostulating some theory or another. She was waiting eagerly for the lecture to end. Rubina opened her clutch and peeked inside. A small red rose looked back at her shyly. The bell rang, announcing the end of the lecture. Rubina hastened to meet Mr Mukherjee. She held him as he was going to leave in a hurry. "What's it, Ms?"

"Sir, I wanted to tell you something... " Rubina stuttered, her ears turning red, while her hands sought to find that elusive red rose in the junk of her clutch while Mr Kumar, the philosophy professor arrived out of nowhere and pulled Mr Mukherjee away. Rubina stood there with mixed emotions. Relief from being granted a reprieve out of a painful situation and the frustration of being robbed of the peace of mind, which she would have got, once this unsaid was finally off her chest! She cursed Mr Kumar for intruding at the wrong time and also breathed a sigh of relief at delaying this moment for another opportunate time.

Mr Mukherjee was in a hurry and was fuming inside. He tried to fob off Mr Kumar, but the latter had something important to discuss. Mr Mukherjee finally got rid of him after 15 minutes and nearly ran to a waiting cab. He jumped in and barked at the driver to drive him to the Bandra station as fast as he can. The driver rolled his eyes as Bandra station was walkable distance, but he dutifully started the cab. Mukherjee was restless the entire time and kept looking at his wristwatch. He adjusted the collars of his two-piece blazer, which he had bought last week for today and rubbed his face vigorously with his hankie. He checked his watch again and was sure that he was going to be late by five minutes and miss her.

Snehal was standing there in the queue for the daily shuttle bus for Santacruz and was looking anxiously towards the incoming vehicles. She was aware that today he was late again. She was wearing ice-blue denim and white top, which offset her fairness and gave her an ethereal quality. She was wearing her hair loose and was listening to some music through her earphones.

Mr Mukherjee jumped off the cab and stood at the corner, devouring the heavenly beauty distantly. He opened his handbag. It had a red rose wrapped in a cellophane. He decided to cross the street and hand it over to her, may be also convey his feelings to her today. He tried to cross the busy station road, by then her shuttle bus arrived and crushed his one-sided romance under its giant wheels. He stepped back sadly and decided to try again some another time.

The driver jumped out in filmy style and crossed towards the left side of the vehicle to welcome the passengers. Snehal loved the song being played in her earphones, but now it was simply a meaningless gibberish to her as her attention was elsewhere. As usual, she preened and smiled at the driver, who simply gave a polite smile and opened the door of the bus chivalrously. It was a generic gesture, but to Snehal it seemed especially for her. She lowered her eyelids and murmured a self-conscious thank you. While the passengers were settling in the bus the driver walked over to the regular hawkers jovially and joked around. He leaned over a parked bike and rearranged his hair using a pocket comb, smoothed his khaki uniform, which looked as if it was especially designed for his athletic body and walked around to his driving seat. Snehal looked at him till he hopped into his perch and drove off the bus. Snehal opened her bag and took out the red rose and debated if it would be considered ladylike to give a rose to a driver on Valentine's Day, even though he's an employee in her company? What were the HR policies on that? The bus stopped at Santacruz and the driver was called inside the office by his supervisor. Snehal looked in that direction for a few minutes and then left for her office, crestfallen. The magic moment had passed. Now, she will have to try again.

Raghu was reprimanded by his supervisor for being late thrice this week in his shuttle deliveries. This was against the policy and he was issued a warning for that. He was a jolly guy, who never was upset for anything for long. He bowed down his head till the torrent passed, then flashed his lovely smile. His supervisor laughed at him, in spite of her anger and said, "You will never change, will you?"

Raghu smiled shyly and walked out. He left for his home early. Today was Valentine's Day. The Universal Lover's Day. He had decided to let Kajri know that he loves her. He went to a flower shop and bought a red rose. When he arrived in his locality, he saw Kajri walking off with her basket of red roses towards the market. Raghu couldn't bring himself to hand over the rose, which he had brought for her. Kajri looked at him staring at her and smiled politely. He grinned goofily and hid the rose behind his back. He cursed himself for lacking the courage!

Kajri adjusted her nine yards Saree, which she always draped in the classical Maharashtrian style and looked ahead. She subconsciously patted the jasmine gajra worn in her hair and her eyes passed through the shy Raghu as if he didn't exist. They were searching for the handsome and smart Baanke, who was standing at the tea stall, along with his other rowdy friends. They were joking with one of the vendors on the footpath and every one was laughing with Baanke shooting a furtive glance at the gates of Heerabai Chawl at intervals. She put down her basket of flowers and pulled out a red rose out of it and debated if she can give the rose to him as a token of her affection. Wasn't today the Universal Lover's Day?

******

Up there somewhere, beyond the clouds, the chubby little Cupid was peering down and dancing in glee with his tiny bow in one arm. The cherubs were also chortling happily, twanging on their tiny harps. St Valentine was passing by and was intrigued by this incessant merriment. He decided to investigate. He took one look and was perplexed by what he saw! He tapped the merry little cupid on his shoulder and said, "l say, buddy! Don't you think that your arrows are hitting a bit off their marks? These guys are not loving the people they are supposed to!"

"But that's the whole idea, sir!", the adorable little angel gave his impish smile and exclaimed while adjusting his little bow. "Those who get their love too easily, never value it. Now, as they won't get it so easy, they will cherish it for their lifetime. And, if they don't get it at all, love will be akin to God in their eyes and like a hungry beggar, they will savor every morsel of the dry bread they get." And he again laughed like a silver bell tinkling somewhere, with his golden curls dancing around his oval childlike visage.

This doctrine confounded the venerable Saint, who threw his hands in exasperation and stomped off, leaving the naughty little angles enjoying the romantic plight of the humankind...


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Heartbreak

I was madly in love with her.

Some relationships are beyond comprehension to our minute minds. Like God, they don't really exist but they permeate the entire universe and its inhabitants. We can feel them but can't name or define them. It's beyond our feeble understanding. Then, in our utter confusion, we blame certain chemical reactions in our brains to be responsible for them and call them by the glorious name of love.

I and Jyotsna were in such a relationship. I wasn't worthy of her. She was elegant, stately and looked like a beautiful and dainty princess. Whenever she smiled, she lit up the gathering gloom of life. She dressed like a model, had a sweet temperament and a ready smile for everyone.

I, on other hand was exactly her opposite. Whereas she was a stately empress, I was an ugly gnome. She had a voice like a mellifluous wind chime which caused hearts to flutter, mine was grating and harsh. She had an hourglass figure and I was ungainly with limbs like sticks. I never would have dreamed of winning her smile, let alone her heart.

Destiny is a mischievous nymph and is always full of surprises and shocks. My meeting with Jyotsna was just an accident. She was arguing over some trifle with a shopkeeper in the busy market, while I was passing by. I was going to intrude, till then she threw the wares at him and stormed off. I was simply enchanted by her and followed her to where she lived. I tried to talk to her. She initially ignored me and then got interested as I was very funny. I know a lot of tricks which people admire. In my long and eventful life, I have had many opportunities to learn a lot of things. I used my unbeatable armory of tricks to entice her and was rewarded by her affection. Impossible that it sounds, she fell in love with an ugly brute like me.

These unromantic scientists compare love with boring chemical reactions, which can be jotted down on a piece of paper. But those who have experienced this heavenly emotion know how euphoric a whirlwind romance can be! You get hurt and break, but you still don't relent. You adore everything related to your lover. You remember the smallest thing associated with your love. It's only after marriage that a temporary amnesia attacks the lovers and makes them forgetful. I think, marriage is a bigger enemy of love than the cruel world. Anyway...

I was beyond myself, hardly able to believe in my luck, I went around in a  golden daze! I wanted to wear her on my lapel, but I didn't have a coat. I wanted to sing love songs written on her, but I was not a poet. She made me forget my ugliness. In fact, she adored my scarred and broken face! We met every day. I was always absorbed in her inane, never ending chatter, although not understanding half of it.  Then I took a bold step and moved in with her. Based on my past experiences, I was sure that I'll be spurned, but she accepted me as if she was hoping for my company. It was a dream come true! But, dreams are what they are: just a surreal image of our innermost desires. Dreams are meant to be dashed.

I was living in a heaven when he entered his life. Dr Shailesh was a tall and handsome looking guy. He was very witty. Had a beautiful voice and was very rich with great manners to boot. He was everything I was not. In addition, he met her everyday and loved her. I could see it in his eyes.

For the first time in our little and strange love life, Jyotsna got angry on me because of him and asked me to go away. She slammed the door shut on my face. I begged her to not to hate me. She finally allowed me to stay on the condition that I will never object to him as he was her best friend. I didn't have any options. I stayed in the distant hope that she will realize some day that no one in the world can love her more than me.

Persian poet Abdurrahim Khankhana has said that love, cough, alcohol and blood cannot remain hidden, however hard one tries to camouflage them. It was soon evident that they are in love and are planning to marry each other. I was ablaze with jealousy. I went berserk with the storm brewing in my angry but helpless mind. I tried to woo her away from Dr Shailesh, but I was no match for the handsome Apollo. The tricks which had wooed her initially failed to win her again. Jyotsna initially started shouting at me, then ignored and hated me. The process of shutting me out was becoming frighteningly frequent now and her resistance to my begging increased.

On that fateful day when he came to her, I could see the love for him in her eyes. I got very angry. All my life, I had lived in gutter and was not willing to allow this sweet talking charmer to snatch away the reason of my life. I decided to attack and kill that damned doctor. Jyotsna came inbetween us. White with anger and hatred, she slapped me and kicked me out. Her door shut on my face with a despairing finality. I sat numb for a few hours, then started begging her to come back.

Deep in my heart I knew that this door will never open again. But, I was unwilling to accept that her love for me can die before the glamour of this charismatic doctor. After all, wasn't I always willing to fight and die for her? Wasn't I honestly loyal and fiercely protective about her? Didn't I love her more than even her parents did? I was wrong. The door didn't open, even though I opened my heart. I cried and screamed in that dismal night. Startled and indignant birds cursed me to be quiet. I finally left with a broken heart.

I was a stupid fool! I didn't realize that a beautiful woman cannot marry a dog, however it loves her. We canines can be a woman's best friend, but never a spouse.

I whined and barked at the waning moon once then put my scrawny tail between my hind legs and slunk off in the dying night, towards my gutter...





Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Practical Joker

Everyone loves jokes and jokers. But, there is a breed of jokers, which is hated unanimously. They are called Practical Jokers. In hatred and avoidance they fall somewhere between Insurance Salesmen and Credit Card due collectors. And just like either of them, they have a high respect for their talents and think themselves above mere mortals.

During my college days, I belonged to this infernal breed. I was a great practical joker. My victims never realized what hit them before the punchline, which made them laughing stock for everyone - to their chagrin and embarrassment. But, I was cured of this deadly disease by one incident.

During my Mazagaon days, I had a childhood friend called Pintya. We were cast in a similar die. Born brats and mischievous, moving in mysterious ways our nefarious wonders to perform. His dad was an old school wrestler from Kolhapur. Squat, uncouth, with cauliflower ears and a murderous temper to match. People of Ghat are known for their ferocious temper. And, this cove was an akhada wrestler to boot! Many a time I've seen Pintya thrashed by him mercilessly for smallest breach. Pintya was a boxer like me and we were kinda used to merciless floggings, so he didn't mind. A loveable lot we were!

Pintya shared my penchant for practical jokes. We used to harass all and sundry indiscriminately. Once, we decided to play a prank on his dad. Well, I'm using the pronoun 'WE' rather loosely. It was I who decided this course of action. Pintya simply declared that he has nothing to do with this suicidal plan. After a lot of cajoling, he finally agreed to play the part of an inert catalyst. Those who have studied Inorganic Chemistry may know that it's the inert catalysts which cause most of the deadliest chemical phenomenon. The scientists, who discovered them were a loony specie. Otto Fischer didn't have a clue while splitting an atom. It could have been turned all right. On the other hand, the chappie might have been torn limb to limb! Pretty silly he would have felt sitting on the top of his house after splitting the atom! All the results of inert catalysts! The damned things should be banned and locked up, I say! But, this is hindsight speaking. At that time, hotblood and recklessness and what not, I convinced the poor fellow and we proceeded with the plan.

The auspicious date was decided to be the 1st of April. The Worldwide Fool's Day.

On the fateful day, Pintya left his home at 6 am sharp as decided and went hiding on Mazagaon Hill. A lovely garden on a hilltop in Mazagaon, designed by late British hydraulic engineer Joseph Baptista. I strolled towards the post office, which had a pay phone. Mobile phones were unheard of in 1995. People didn't even have MTNL land lines. I called Pintya's neighbor and spoke in a hoarse voice. 'Aho, Khillare kakana bolavta ka? Me Pintya cha mitra boltoy.'  (Can you please call Khillare uncle? I'm Pintya's friend.) The friendly neighbor called the old man to phone. 'Kon re bala?' (Who are you, son?), a fatherly voice asked.

'Kaka, me Pintya cha mitra boltoy. He met with an accident and is in JJ Hospital. He's in coma. Please come soon. He may not survive! '

There was a long silence at the other end, then slamming of the phone receiver. It was like an anathema! Much ado about nothing! All this preparation gone awry! I put the phone down and started walking towards my home, head bowed down. Suddenly I saw the old man dashing down in his pajamas and vest with his agitated wife in tow. They were trying to hail a cab. I smiled happily. Finally! Some result out of the meticulous planning! I walked jauntily towards him. 'Kai jhala Kaka?' I asked. Knowing well the answer. The panicked voice of the old warrior of rings quivered, 'Arre, Pintya serious aahe! He's in the JJ Hospital!' His eyes became cloudy and the thunderous voice shook. "He may not survive!" I smiled suavely. I had read in my favorite novels that protagonists smile suavely when playing for the audience and here was my audience. In the chawl system of living in Mazagaon, half the world had alighted to witness the tragedy. People have a morbid sense. They will hate a drop of blood but will crane their necks to the breaking point to see a victim of a fatal train accident and then talk about it for years! But, as Shakespeare said, world was my audience and I was playing to full theater.

'He is all right. I just played a practical joke on you.' I said laughingly, examining and polishing my nails as my favorite hero did in my favorite novel. 'He's on Mazagaon Hill and will be back in afternoon.'

There was a hush. Those who have survived typhoons, earthquakes and other natural calamities say that there's a sudden lull in atmosphere, which causes their hackles to rise. An ominous silence, I believe it's called. It's a premonition of the impending disaster. In my natural stupidity, I ignored that deathly silence heralding the forthcoming blast and enjoyed his discomfiture, or so I thought till I felt his iron fist clutch my throat in his meaty hand and shaking my head till my teeth rattled in my brain. 'Maskhari hoti? Is this a joke?' The Hercules thundered in my ears. Next, I was flat on my back.

I have been an aggressive boxer till my university. I can solemnly swear that I'm as brave as they come and never flinch from sever physical punishment. But, this was a class apart. I was being thrashed like a punching ball, being bounced from the compound wall to a parked car and so on. 'Chal, tujhya bapala bolto! What a brat he begat!' This was taking a joke too far! My dad would have killed me for sure! I fled.

My dad came to know about that eventually and another storm brew in my single room home, but that's not related to this story.

In 2009, when I was married and a proud father of a 7 year old kid, I met the old centurion. Like all fighters, he didn't bear me any grudge. He was very happy to see me and cuddled my son. He recalled that episode - embarrassing to me, for obvious reasons - where he thrashed me before half of Mazagaon and started to recite it to my innocent kid happily. I was restless! What a thing to say to a son, who hero worships his father! I tried to change the subject, but the relentless old devil continued...

'I nearly died that day! Your evil father played such a vatrat joke! My only son, and he killed him for his infernal joke! I nearly got a heart attack to hear that news! I beat him good, but!' he cackled happily with my son laughing like a demented hyena.

This was putting things in a new light. What if someone played such a joke on me about Shanu, my son?

I shivered involuntarily. I stood up and touched the old man's feet for not killing me. He just thrashed and let me escape. I swear, I will kill the bastard who plays such a joke on my only son! Just like Ghatis, we Banarsis are notorious about our tempers too!


Friday, November 20, 2015

Actors of Benaras

The irritated and angry wintry sun finally tired out and called it a day. Like a rich and angry father who always made the life miserable for his children and in his last days was trying to make amends with them by splurging his wealth, it was showing off its benevolent side to the harassed world. The surface of Ganges was gilded with molten gold. The Holy City of Benaras was preparing to settle for its nightly rest after a long day. Finally at peace with itself.

12 years old Chandu was far from peace. He was sitting on the steps of Asi Ghat and was looking across at the funeral pyres of the desolate beach of Manikarnika Ghat. This was the second day of his being jobless. The municipal officers, who raided the tea shop in Dalmandi, where Chandu worked, were least bothered about his sustenance. They were only concerned with upholding the Child Labor Law. Consequently, Chandu was jobless and penniless. He hadn't eaten anything since yesterday morning. The law is supposed to bring peace and prosperity by its application. Chandu could not fathom why the law  made him a beggar from an honest labor!

Hungry and sad, he went to sleep on the freezing steps of the Asi Ghat. He cried for his dead mother, whom he didn't know or remember. She was just an idea for him. Like the ever illusive God, who always loves to test and joke with the meekest and the weakest. Whoever heard of God testing a rich man? May be, even He's scared of their clout. All the tests and travails are reserved for the poor, who aren't even allowed entrance into His affluent temples. Desperate with hunger and cold in the cold January night, he cried himself to sleep.

Today was the third day. He couldn't find any job or food in the City of Bholenath. He tried to beg, but no one allowed him to beg in the Holy City. Here the beggars are under contract and their seats command lucrative rents by their overlords. A poor, hungry and amateur kid was not welcome. All day he slept under the tamarind tree outside Kashi Vishwanath temple, opposite the Gyanwapi Mosque and went to the bank of Ganges in the afternoon. He saw the distant flames of Manikarnika Ghat and strayed towards it like a moth.

There was a festive atmosphere. Or, as festive as a crematorium can manage. The famed poet father of the superstar Mahesh Kumar had died and he had arrived from Bombay to conduct the last rites. There were buntings strung all over. The gates of the Ghat named after the wife of Mahakal - Manikarnika: The One Wearing Ruby Earrings - was awashed with flood lights. There was heavy security. The dirty child in his torn clothes approached meekly. He saw the posters of Mahesh Kumar and couplets by his poet father splashed on huge banners all over. He was a diehard fan of the superstar and always mimicked his baritone voice and his flamboyant acting. In an instant he forgot the pangs of hunger gnawing in his intestines and craned his scrawny neck to the breaking point to get a glimpse of his idol. Suddenly he got a resounding slap from a constable and was kicked out of the way. He got up from the ground, ignoring his bleeding ear and again started looking out for Mahesh Kumar.

There he was! Resplendent in white Kurta. Chandu piped in his squeaky voice, "Mahesh Kumar!", and was rewarded by another slap by a policeman. "Shut up, you bastard!", the guardian of law growled menacingly. Mahesh Kumar waved to the adulation of the mob and folded his hands with a grim face. After all, he was the bereaved son! Chandu could remember his scene in the movie 'The Wall', where Mahesh had cried buckets upon his mother's death and had vowed that he will avenge her. Then he went ahead and single handedly wiped out the entire clan of villains. Today, may be he was not in the mood. He just mimed a formal Namaste and went inside the decorated gate of Ghat. Chandu was disappointed.

People started moving on. It was a chilly night and they wanted to reach the warmth and comfort of their homes. Few of them waited for the return of the superstar. Chandu decided to wait as he didn't have anywhere to go. After an eon, the superstar came out. Carrying the ashes of his dead father in a silver urn, along with three other people, may be his family. He was looking majestic. Just like his role in the epic movie 'Aag ka Rasta'. With a vermilion teeka on his forehead, he was the ideal son of a father. How proud his father must feel! The paupers in the surrounding crowd wished that their sons were like him! Death would indeed be welcome if it's accompanied by such pomp and ceremony!

Chandu was beyond himself! He was screaming as if he was dying. Suddenly he was caught by the scruff of his neck. "Get lost, you bastard!", a harsh voice grated in his ears, followed by a swift kick in his pants.

"Wait!", a baritone voice boomed over the crowd. Chandu's heart flipped a beat. It was the same way Mahesh Kumar had commanded the villain in the movie 'The Emperor', when he was trying to kill the mom of the girl he loved. The unruly guard was suddenly penitent and fawning. "Yes sir."

"Leave the child alone.", God boomed. Chandu was beyond ecstasy. The guard released his clutch. The kid scampered to his idol. Mahesh signalled the kid to walk beside him. Everyone was impressed. Such a humble and caring man! Such a great son of a great father! The crowd was chanting 'Ram Naam Satya Hai!' Only the God is the truth. Chandu screamed lustily, with different expressions, as if giving an audition. Sometimes he was a bereaved son, with tears in his eyes. Then the tears became blood and he wanted to punch the world with his tiny fists. He was emulating the great Mahesh Kumar in all his roles. He was Mahesh Kumar with his dead father. The father he never knew. Tears were streaming in the false memory of a father he didn't remember. His tears grieved for the childhood, which was a mirage. He presented his Oscar performance for his idol, who was gravely silent and grim as an idol should be. Chandu was ecstatic.

The procession reached to the bank of Ganges. A fisherman with stained teeth had decorated his boat with buntings. It was washed clean. Mahesh Kumar stepped gravely in the rocking boat and waved once again at the crowd. People thronged at the bank. Mahesh Kumar beckoned Chandu, who just couldn't believe his luck. Mahesh smiled. A painful smile, which he depicted in the super hit movie 'The Chain'. Chandu sat near the great man with red eyes and tear stained face. He was acting. The priest was standing. Somber. Looking around at the throng with an exalted heart. He was acting too. The crowd was silent. Showing off their grief. They were acting. Mahesh was touching the corner of his eyes. He couldn't meet his eyes with the crowd. He was beyond grief. Then, his eyes met Chandu's. Even he was acting. Shakespeare would have approved of the scene wholeheartedly.

The boat casted off with its somber passengers in the freezing night. The lamps and lights on Dashashwamedh and Gai ghat twinkled across like a million fireflies. Mahesh Kumar was shivering in an expensive shawl. Chandu was drinking this epic moment of his life through his wide eyes. In the middle of the Ganges, they had to disperse the ashes in the urn for the nirvana of the great poet. The guards held the urn near water line with Mahesh touching it with his ring finger. Chandu went with his enthusiasm and lent his hands. No one said anything. Now he was the charmed one.

The actors in this grand drama forgot that it was not a steamer. It was an ill-maintained boat of a fisherman. With such a humongous load on the starboard, the frail vessel toppled over. People screamed. Chandu got an elbow from one of the security guys and was tossed over. There were screams and melee. Couple of security guys jumped over in the freezing river in the January night and rescued the superstar. One of them secured the vagabond urn, which was trying to get away in the angry stream. The boat was made upright. People clambered over, preceded by Mr Kumar. Everyone tried to settle down in the freezing temperature.

Chandu was confident that he will be rescued. He expected his idol to act like a champion swimmer as in the movie 'Ganga and Jamuna' and save him. Chandu never learned to swim. He went under for the second time and saw his star shivering in blankets and the boat moving away. He tried to scream and his mouth was filled with the holy water of the Ganges. All the movies of his favorite idol flashed before his eyes. Suddenly he was the Great Actor, enacting all the fabulous roles. Suddenly he was killing villains mercilessly and giving his life to save innocent children. Suddenly his parents hugged and consoled him and he cried. He mercifully went under for the third time. His sins washed. His hungry soul sated and purified.

The sun was melancholy today when it rose beyond the Vindhyachal mountains. Today, the sun didn't smile. It was grim. Today he forgot his anger and didn't try to burn down the world. Today was a cold day.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Village

The Tinsukia Passenger was eight hours late. Later than it's regular five hours. It arrived at the remote village of Lakhanpur at 1.30 am.

A lone passenger alighted on the deserted railway platform and stretched his limbs. In the mid-January cold, the blaring horn of the departing train slashed the silence of the gloomy night and disturbed the meditation of the sleeping crows. No one stirred in the distant sleeping village of Lakhanpur.

Joseph slapped his chest and arms to keep himself warm on the freezing platform. No one in Bombay told him that it would be so cold in this backwater! He was wearing a tee-shirt and light summer trousers, totally unsuitable for the North Indian winter. He had a blanket and an inflatable pillow in his suitcase, but laughed at the idea of himself walking alone in the dead of the night, wrapped in a blanket like a walking corpse. He shivered and crossed himself involuntarily. The train had gone and the crows had settled for the night, secure in the belief that their peace will not be disturbed for the next 20 hours, when another train will arrive.

Joseph was a Medical Representative for a reputed medical firm. His job profile included long travels, which he hated. There was a small hospital in this sleepy village, which had complained piteously to the Health Ministry about lack of medical supplies and begged for some attention. The huge machinery of government slowly moved into action, as the elections were near and his firm received a 'suggestion' from the Health Minister to scout the area. As it was a thankless job, it was dumped in his lap Joseph thought bitterly. He looked around morosely in the darkness, where the trees stood like ghostly sentries in the dim light of the vaning moon. It was looking more like a graveyard than a thriving village, as his lying manager has assured him.

"Macha, it's a beautiful place. Nice scenery and good food. Wish I could go, da!" Saravanan M, Area Sales Manager had said unconvincingly, when Joseph protested for this trip. 'Up yours, you rascal!' he thought viciously, peering hopelessly in the impenetrable darkness.

He stepped out of the unmanned gate of the station and walked through the deserted street, the eerie echo of his footfalls reverberating off the brooding shadows of the houses lining the street. He shivered with cold and fear. He stopped near a shop, pulled out a hip-flask from his pocket and took a hearty swig of neat Old Monk rum. The elixir burned from his gullet to stomach and warmed him. He looked around. The faded, hand-painted board of the shop proclaimed 'Chhenu Misthan Bhandar'. There was a large earthen oven with still hot coals and ashes of the evening smoking in bitter chill. Joseph cursed colorfully, taking another swig of rum. He damned his boss, Indian Railways, the Health Minister, his estranged wife and the cursed village of Lakhanpur in general and kicked the oven in anger.

Something small and black shot from the oven at him and he screamed!

The small, black, mangy dog was as startled as Joseph - who collapsed on the road with a loud cry, wild-eyed - and scampered whining in the darkness. Joseph sat on the ground for a full minute, staring after the vanished apparition in disbelief, trying to settle his thumping heart which was ready to burst off his breast. Then he slowly stood up, described the ancestry of the mongrel in an unmentionable language, let loose another expletive for Saravanan for good luck and drained the remaining rum at one go. The fiery liquid heralded 'Inquilab Zindabad'  all the way to his stomach and he got up unsteadily. He looked for his suitcase and started walking on the desolate road. The sick moon tried to illuminate the bleak world half heartedly, and failed.

His feet hit something which jangled on the dusty road. He took out his cellphone and tried to peer in its light. He found an antique and broken bracelet and picked it up. It looked valuable. He was examining it in detail, when the battery of the phone expired with a plaintive moan. He rolled his eyes towards heaven in despair. He didn't have a hope of network here, but those who own a cellphone will realize what a comfort it is to have it with us, even though without network. At least one can play Candy Crush and bombard one's unfortunate friends with horrible game requests once in network! He kept it in his pocket, shook his hip flask expectantly and threw it when was sure that it's empty. Suddenly he froze on the spot.

His senses, heightened by half a bottle of rum and an unnamed fear, screamed a warning. He sensed that he wasn't alone. It's disconcerting to find oneself in the middle of the night on a lonely street and to feel that someone is stalking you. Someone invisible and menacing. All the horror stories and movies replay themselves in your mind with an alarming clarity, with you being the unfortunate victim. Nothing but his eyeballs moved in search of the intruder. It's a primitive instinct alluded to our hunting ancestors no doubt, which compels us to freeze in case of extreme fear. In the hope that we will become invisible to the predator. People have died trying this trick before train engines and wives. The writer advises to not to try this at home.

One of the shadows detached itself and moved forward. Behind it, he heard a snorting sound and realized that it's just a horse cart and it's driver. He breathed in relief, ashamed of his fears. The driver was swathed in a blanket and his eyes were sunken in shadows. He had a horse whip in his hand. Joseph asked him to drive him to a hotel. The driver just kept staring. Joseph was impatient and asked rudely, "Is there any inn or hotel in this godforsaken place where I can rest? I need to visit the Civil Hospital in the morning. My train was eight hours late. And, what's wrong with the electricity? Is Lakhanpur so backward?"

The driver kept staring for an eternity and then replied in a weird accent. In a voice, which sounded as if emanating from a deep well with no bottom. "This is not Lakhanpur, my lord. This is Hazaratganj. I cannot take you to the inn in this village , because there's no village  anymore. Nader Shah Durrani killed everyone in this village  last week. Including me. Now they are coming for you." and he looked behind warily and hurried away.

Joseph looked at him with an expression of dawning horror and backed away. His subconscious mind recalled reading somewhere that Hazaratganj was renamed Lakhanpur after Nader Shah of Durrani decimated it in 1739 AD. His train did drop him at the right place. Just 300 years too early.

He turned and ran desperately towards the railway station, lugging his heavy suitcase. He could hear the clatter of horse hooves. He looked over his shoulder and saw the macabre steeds with their ghostly riders swinging swords and mesh, hot in pursuit. His lungs were near bursting but he kept running, in the  hope to reach the station. There must be some official, who can protect him from these ghostly assailants and explain this bizarre phenomenon. He screeched to a halt. A grove of trees stretched to the horizon, where the station concourse had been around 30 minutes ago.

Joseph looked behind in abject terror. The riders were approaching in the light of the pale moon, the eyes of their steeds glowing red as ambers. Suddenly the horse cart drew parallel to him and the rider screamed, "Saheb, get up! Quick!... "

Joseph tried to jump and banged his head at the bottom of the upper bunk. He looked around, bewildered while his fellow passengers laughed.

"Were you dreaming, saheb? We will reach Lakhanpur in five minutes. You asked us to wake you." the rustic said toothily. Joesph tried to control his breathing and palpitations and picked up his suitcase. The nightmare was too surreal!

The Tinsukia Passenger was eight hours late. Later than it's regular five hours. It arrived at the remote village of Lakhanpur at 1.30 pm. The platform was burning in mid-summer heat of May. The crows were perched in a trance on the unmanned gate of the station, silently meditating like those sadhus at the ghats of Benaras.

A lone passenger alighted on the deserted railway platform and stretched his limbs. He kept his suitcase on the platform and thrust his hand in his pocket to pull out his packet of cigarettes when his hand closed on a round object. He pulled it out and stared at it in raw terror...

It was an antique and broken bracelet of no little value.