02
Nov

Life And Death On The Ganges

About The Book

1948.

A cold, rainy night in a forest across the Ganges, deep in the heart of eastern India.

An unarmed man with anger in his heart and a fortune on his person.

A handsome Thakur with evil on his mind and blood on his hands.

Both chasing a rare diamond, but for completely different reasons.

As the chase draws to a nerve-wracking climax, the night, too, is ticking down to a bloody end.

There are the others too—the Thakur’s beautiful wife, the sleazy psychopath, the angry muscleman, the corrupt dairy manager’s stunning daughter and the aging ranch hand with angry welts across his body and soul.

Each is a pawn in this bizarre game of life and death, and each with a story to tell. Or hide.

Will there be a sunrise for Shambhu? Or will he die like his friend, whose brutal murder triggered his perilous journey?

Find out…

About The Author

Growing up in Bihar through the troubled sixties and seventies, Hemant has witnessed turmoil from such close quarters, that he says he has looked into the bowels of the monster called violence. But in the same turmoil, he says he has come across character of extraordinary solidity – in men and women of ordinary means. Hemant says Prey By The Ganges has cooked in his mind for as long as he can remember.

You can find out more about the book and contact the author here:

www.preybytheganges.com

http://www.facebook.com/hemantkumaar

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prey-By-The-Ganges/203127739726436

Read the first three chapters of the book:

CHAPTER ONE

 

October 15, 1948.

By the river Ganges, in a remote eastern Indian village.

It was a clear October night by the holy Ganges. Clear, and very very still. It had stopped raining in the plains and early snowflakes had dusted the Himalayan ledges, from where the river came cascading to the plains. She felt and looked more settled. Gone were the muddy impurities of the monsoon and the froth and gurgle they brought. Her waters were cooler, but quieter, cornering boulders instead of smashing against them, gliding off their slick, moss-encrusted backs like gleeful kids giggling over slides. The river was wide here. There were times in the summer when two people could stand at its opposite banks and talk to each other. Now, she was hundreds of feet at her widest and you had to shout to be heard across the waters.

A surreal wisp of mist hovered over her cool waters, curling and vanishing softly into the milky ether. Every now and then, a darting bat or a preying owl skimmed over the surface, tearing the mist, ruffling its curls. Other than that, the night was absolutely still. A full moon slipped across the horizon like torchlight muted with butter paper.

Light was graduated in a diffuse sequence of grey, from almost black on the ground, to the softest touch of milky white in the silver sky. Tiny, unseen droplets of moisture landed noiselessly on the leaves and the grass. As each droplet fell, the tender leaves shivered and deepened their furrows, welcoming the gift of the Gods. Giant neem, mango, banyan and tamarind trees were sprawled out in the moonlight, soaking up the cosmic nectar of the night.

It was three in the morning. Even the dogs were asleep. Nothing stirred, nothing moved. Not a sound.

But 35 year old Hariya was wide awake. He had waited a whole year for this night. Once in many years, the stars and the planets lined up in a formation that showered the earth with unique bone healing properties. And Hariya sat up all night under the open sky with half-a-dozen wide-brimmed earthen pans filled to the top with freshly prepared herbal formulations. Hariya was friend, mentor, guide, cook for vaidya Shambhu Nandan, who was lying on a cot in a hut nearby, unable to sleep – in stark contrast to the serenity of the night. Flickering in a blackened alcove, a small, naked oil lamp kept him restless company.

On the outskirts of the capital city of Patna, this stretch of the riverbank was sparsely populated. Shambhu and Hariya did not live here. They lived in Shibgunj, hundreds of miles south of Patna. The hut was a kind of rest house for herb-gathering visits into the jungle across the river, and for special occasions, like the one tonight.

It was a night of waiting, and Shambhu and Hariya had decided to spend it fortifying their flagship herbal preparation with the healing energy of the rare celestial alignment of Sharad Purnima.

In the morning, they would offer special prayers by the river and pour the herbs into ceramic bottles, sealing each one of them with hot wax to keep the moisture out.

“If you soak in this cosmic rain enough number of years, you, too, will become as invincible as those herbs in those pans”, Shambhu often joked with him. Hariya adored vaidya Shambhu, a man he knew to be upstanding and devoted to his profession. In a silent prayer, he closed his eyes briefly, asking the Gods to grant Shambhu more healing energy.

Hariya sat back and rested his palms on the cool, soft ground, straightening his hurting back. He loved this time of the year when the air had a smoky, cool flavour and dew drops clung to the ground. Shambhu had asked him to wrap a light shawl around his shoulders to keep his head and back warm. But the warmth made him sleepy and he was using the shawl as a sheet on the ground. His eyes had become so accustomed to the dark and his ears so in tune with the sounds of the night that he could hear the rustle of leaves or a coughing cow in faraway fields. The silence was ethereal- powerful and deep. Completely devoid of all earthly distractions, the atmosphere was charged with an otherworldly energy- a sort of background hum that descended upon the earth from the stars above. It lingered over the trees and the grass like the fading note of an ethereal aum.

Without a warning, a blood-curdling scream shattered the stillness of the night. The scream arose from a cauldron of pain. High-pitched and primordial, it tore through the air, piercing the heart of the night; ricocheting off the mud walls of the hut, where Shambhu lay, wide awake. He sat up, shaking down to the navel. Alarm bells went off in his eardrums and a charge of current ran up and down his back.

Outside, Hariya’s elbows buckled and he fell backwards on the grass.

In seconds, Shambhu was out of the hut and by Hariya’s side.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered hoarsely, his heart thumping wildly.

“Hm,” said Hariya, rising.

Unspoken in that moment was their concern for the safety of Shambhu’s childhood friend, Ravi.

“It came from the other side, right?” asked Shambhu.

“Yes,” said Hariya, adding: “Maybe some animal fell into a trap.”

“Hm,” said Shambhu, nodding pensively, but he was suddenly very, very worried. Ravi had set off on a dangerous trek across the river only that evening.

Shambhu sprinted towards the river, down a narrow, meandering path cut through ten-foot high elephant grass. Hariya ran into the hut, grabbed the vaidya’s medicine bag, and followed, the scream still echoing in his ears.

The elephant grass cleared, giving way to a centuries-old, low mud wall that separated the jungle from the riverbank. The opposite bank was clearly visible in the moonlight. As they approached the berm, loud voices stopped them in their tracks.

Shambhu and Hariya sat down, hunched and breathless, only their eyes clearing the wall. Less than a hundred feet away, on the opposite bank, stood a clutch of men. They were cussing and shouting. Something lay at their feet, on the sands of the bank. Shambhu realised it was a human figure- very still.

One of the men raised a club he held, and brought it down, full-force, on the motionless figure. Grunting loudly, the man raised his arm again, this time even higher. The tight knot of men surrounding the body, pulled back quickly, to make way. Once again, the club came down hard on the body. The punishing ‘thwackkk’ of wood making contact with flesh and bone, flew over the silent waters with terrifying impact. On and on, the beating continued, relentlessly.

Shambhu cringed, every hair standing on his neck and back. He was a traditional bone setter. He knew what was happening to the victim – his bones were being mashed into pulp.

But the victim did not make a sound.

“The man has either slipped into a deep unconscious state, or is dead beyond pain,” he said to himself. In his years of practice as a bone healer, Shambhu had seen many patients with severe injury and trauma to the bone. Never before had he witnessed the brutal dismantling of a human body.

This was quiet, cold violence. It felt visceral, evil. He shuddered.

Pursing his lips in a muted wince, Shambhu nodded at Hariya. He grew sharply aware of the sickening stab of fear goring his heart. Eyes glinting in the moonlight, both men looked on in silent acknowledgement of the misfortune that had befallen them. Shambhu thought he was going to be sick, as an irrepressible cry arose deep in the pit of his stomach. He bit down hard, curling his lips inward and clamping down with his teeth. Tears streamed down his cheeks like a tap had been turned, and he began shaking.  He closed his hand around his mouth, stifling a scream much like he would use a wad of gauze to stanch a bleeding wound.

When the wave of nausea had subsided, Shambhu wiped his tears and took stock of the situation. Although his mind knew the victim was, indeed, Ravi, his heart was desperately hoping it was someone else. Whoever it was, the beating was so severe and so relentless, survival was almost impossible. Vaidya Shambhu knew there won’t be a single joint intact by the time the beating ended, if it did. It seemed to just go on and on.

They should be stopped, he thought, looking hopelessly around for help. But he knew there was not a soul for miles on his side of the secluded bank. He did not even have a gun. Even if he had one, he didn’t know how to use it, anyway. There was nothing to do, except to watch in silence.

The men on the opposite bank were not even looking over their shoulders to see if anyone was watching them. It was as if they owned the night, unafraid, oblivious.

The club-wielding man spat in the river, drew back a little, and landed a full-blooded kick at the side of the motionless body. Shambhu winced. Such a brutal blow should have drawn an instant scream, but there was no reaction from the body. The brain had shut itself off from the tortured body, in a primeval attempt to survive the punishment. But inflicting pain isn’t enjoyable if the victim is unresponsive, the tormentor grows tired, bored, and loses interest.

Cursing angrily, the man walked away, and the other men followed. Slowly, all of them vanished from view, into the jungle behind the elephant grass.

For a moment, Shambhu and Hariya stood there in stunned silence, not daring to breathe. Then Shambhu pointed to a dingy resting on the sandy bank. They jumped the wall. Hariya pushed the dingy into the river. Within seconds they were on the opposite bank.

Shambhu dropped to his knees beside the body, while Hariya rested the medicine bag on the sand. It didn’t take any knowledge of medicine to understand that the victim wasn’t going to need any medicine.

There were no clothes on the man’s body. It was clear why the man had shrieked like that; the high-pitched, whites-of-the-eyes screech of a slaughter house animal; of a man who was being broken, piece by piece. And of a man who had given up. His long hair was a tangled mess with thick clumps of clotted blood. His face was swollen, blood-smeared and sand-encrusted. One eye was almost out of its socket. Oddly, there wasn’t much fresh bleeding. His wounds were oozing, but most of the blood was congealed, at least on his face, neck and chest. It suggested he had endured the beating for a long time before he shrieked the way he did. The nose had split open and smashed ligaments and bone fragments poked out of the gaping wound. The mouth was hidden behind a bloodied, puffed up mass of ruptured muscle and tissue.

Hariya doubled over, retching spasmodically on the sand. That was the only sound in the night- stunned, angry, subdued.

Shambhu became aware of the manner in which he was analysing the state of victim- as he would examine a patient for the first time. Not dispassionate, or unconcerned. But from a professional distance so that his faculties remain sharp and focussed. But he was also acutely aware of his trembling hands and shaking body. As he looked, his blood turned cold. This was, indeed, his only friend, Ravi, beaten to death. Moaning, he hoped that it was, somehow, a mistake.

“Let it be someone else, God, please, please…,” he murmured, scanning the riverbank from side to side. He wanted to scream. Steadying himself, Hariya laid a comforting hand on Shambhu’s shoulder, stilling the rising tide of panic between them.

In a glance, Shambhu could see that nearly all the joints on the man’s body were broken. The right hand was tucked under the body at odd angles- shattered. The wrist of the left hand was swollen like a dumbbell – shattered. One jack-knifed knee was also partly under the body – shattered. “Like a rag doll,” Shambhu murmured.

He reached for the left side of the man’s broken face, feeling for his left ear. As he circled his finger around the earlobe, from top to bottom, scalding tears burst through his closed eyes. It was, indeed, Ravi. Early in childhood, Ravi had lost part of an earlobe to a dog bite.

Feverishly, he looked for the pulse in the right hand, where the wrist was relatively intact. None. For the first time in his life, Shambhu blanched while examining injury. His mind was fogging up with anger, frustration and desperation. He didn’t want to be a vaidya or healer or anyone responsible. He just wanted to sob uncontrollably. He wanted to give in.

Suddenly, his ears caught a very faint sound. Shambhu knew gasses escaped from lifeless bodies, making all sorts of noises. Still, a spark of hope ignited in his mind. Quickly, he bent forward, putting his ear to his friend’s battered nose, and placing one gentle hand on his chest. He felt the chest heave slightly and at the same time, blood bubbled through Ravi’s nose. “My goodness! He’s breathing,” exclaimed Shambhu. Hariya turned, surprised.

With spirit from his bag, Shambhu daubed clean the area around the nose and mouth. The man stirred, coughing and moaning at the same time. He tried to speak, but managed only an unintelligible low whistle through his broken teeth and smashed mouth. Shambhu caught half a word: “… Sham..”.

The mutilated lips were unable to form the word, but Shambhu knew his friend had called out his name. His heart leapt to his throat.

Ravi choked on his own blood and his body went limp, losing consciousness. Shambhu kept his ear fixed an inch above Ravi’s mouth, desperate hope revived.

“Maybe, just maybe, my prayers have been answered,” he whispered.

He shook Ravi gently, trying to bring him back to consciousness, but his head lolled lifelessly.

“Can you hear me?” asked Shambhu. “Can you hear me, my friend?” Shambhu whispered in his ear, repeatedly. With Ravi’s head in his lap, Shambhu rocked gently, chanting his question softly. But there was no sign of life.

Questions poured out of Shambhu: “What happened? Who did this to you? Why? Give me a name. Can you hang on?”

“Can you hang on, Ravi? Can you hang on?” Shambhu whispered again and again, expecting the same deathly silence. But Ravi’s stomach heaved. He sucked in air, haltingly, as if drawing a giant breath. Shambhu held his own, focussing on what Ravi was about to say. Hariya drew closer, straining to hear.

A deep, loud guttural sound escaped Ravi’s throat. Hariya drew back, stunned. Shambhu knew this sound. It was the final breath of a man in the throes of death. Exhaled without control, it came as a momentous sigh or an extended grunt, largely unintelligible. People said it was the body’s final struggle to keep the soul from escaping into the ether.

But the sound wasn’t unintelligible. Ravi had just said a very loud “No.” More air hissed out of Ravi’s mouth. He stiffened once, and then, went absolutely limp.

Life had ebbed out of Ravi’s shattered body.

He died in his friend’s arms.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Shambhu and Hariya rowed the body back to their side of the river. By dawn, they had cleaned it up, bathed it in the Ganga, in Hindu tradition, and draped it in a new cotton dhoti. Although most of the body was covered, the face spoke the gory tale of violence. It was swollen; discoloured and deep gashes ran through the middle of the forehead and the sides of the cheeks. With great difficulty, Shambhu had managed to stuff the left eye back into its socket, but could do nothing about its ruptured vessels and the torn eyelids that wouldn’t let the eye close. It remained embedded partly in the skull, swollen to twice its socket’s diametre.

Shambhu had cleaned the blood and sand and even sutured the skin and flesh wherever he could, on the face. Goofball sized contusions on the forehead, eyebrows and the bridge of the nose spoke of the beating Ravi had endured. The mouth was a different story, altogether. The upper lip was missing and so were most of the incisor and canine teeth. Shambhu had recovered two of the teeth from inside the gullet. They must have fallen inward with the force of the blow. The handsome, youthful face of Ravi had been smashed into pulp.

Shambhu wanted to cremate Ravi by the river, not at the village crematorium, which wasn’t far. There would have been too many questions to answer and Hariya said it was probably the surest invitation to the bandits to come looking for him. “You don’t cremate such a badly battered body in the village every day. They will talk about it forever”, Hariya had said. “Word will soon travel to the bandits and how long before they cross the river and swoop down on us?”

So they loaded the body and enough dry wood on a cart and rode to a deserted patch of land a few miles down the river. It was a quiet cremation. Hariya said the necessary prayers and Shambhu lit the pyre. The body would burn for a few days but Shambhu and Hariya returned to the hut after a few hours. Hariya would return to collect the ashes.

Shambhu was beyond tears now. He was a doctor, a man of settled emotions, experienced to witness and understand trauma. But his grief numbed him. He wasn’t able to figure out the mind of a man, or men, who would unleash such brutality at a complete stranger.

“Someone gave him away or told on him. He should have been at Janak Ganj, miles from where he’d started. Why did he die a stone’s throw from where he’d left, hours ago?, ” Shambhu asked himself, over and over again.

He had been uneasy about Ravi’s trip into Janak Ganj – no intuition, just plain apprehension. “Is it not safer if someone else can go and meet Suraj Singh for you? Someone you could depute?” he had asked Ravi that evening.

“Who? Who can I depute? There’s just the three of us here, and it’s just as tricky for me as it is for anyone of us. And Thakur Suraj Singh is so jumpy, he won’t deal through emissaries. I have to go.” Ravi had replied patiently. “It’s a neat plan, friend. I go in today,” he had explained, “without the  money, meet Thakur Suraj Singh and discuss the nuts and bolts of the actual transaction – if, only if, he agrees to do business with me. He is very afraid of traps. His brother, you see, is coiling about the place like a loaded viper. If all goes as planned, I will be back tomorrow morning.”

“Why aren’t you carrying the money tonight itself?” Shambhu had asked.

“Not tonight, doctor saheb,” Ravi had replied, smiling. “First, I’m not sure if Suraj Singh will meet me at all. Where will I stash all that money? Secondly, I, too, need to be sure there is, actually, such a diamond for sale. I have only heard stories about it, never actually seen it. So, today’s meeting is an introduction of sorts. But I’m sure he will remember me from college. I do remember him.”

“What happened across the river? Was it a trap? Was it betrayal? Who betrayed him?” Shambhu was desperately seeking answers.

He knew that most of the answers were already gone with Ravi. The thought tore through his flesh like hot shrapnel.

Shambhu shuddered, thinking about the excruciating pain Ravi must have endured. He knew that such extreme pain could make anyone give anything away. “When the body suffers so much pain, the mind acts selfishly. It reasons that if it gives the tormentor what he wants, the punishment will stop. That’s how the police beat confessions out of anyone. No human being can take so much beating and remain human,” he explained to Hariya.

His heart was gripped in a vice, convulsing with grief and anger. Shambhu stood up, squared his shoulders and drew a deep breath. “Ravi died so we could live, Hariya,” he said, fighting back the flood of tears building up inside him. “They would have slaughtered us, too, if he had told them where the money was. He let them beat him to death so we could live.” Shambhu’s eyes were fixed far away, at infinity, he spoke reverentially: “That’s superhuman.”

Shambhu had made up his mind.

He announced to Hariya that he was going to cross the river – with the money.

“What?” Hariya almost barked. “But you don’t know the first thing about Janak Ganj or the jungle, or anything. See what happened to your friend.”

Shambhu had decided and Hariya knew wild horses wouldn’t keep him away, danger or no danger.

“I want answers”, he snapped.

“What will answers bring, or bring back?”

“Closure,” he replied, quiet, ready, resolute.

“Sarkaar, do you think you are the only one who has questions? Will you listen to me?” Hariya beseeched.

“Nothing you say will change my mind, Hariya. My mind’s made up.” Shambhu had a glint in his eyes and Hariya knew better than to argue with him.

“Didn’t you agree to Ravi bhaiya’s trip into Janak Ganj? And don’t you feel responsible for it – for what has happened?”

Shambhu hung his head and his shoulders slouched in resignation.

“I feel the same right now – letting you walk into that snake pit without asking the right questions, at least. Please understand, sarkaar, I have brought you up,” said Hariya.

Shambhu sat down on the floor before Hariya, resting his back against the bare wall of the hut. Raising one knee and resting a straightened elbow on it, he gave Hariya the nod to go on.

“Something happened in the hours between Ravi’s crossing the river and that beating over there,” began Hariya. “He was a regular at Janak Ganj. They were used to seeing him. In all these years no one had ever done anything to him. He came and went as he pleased. Then how did they suddenly pounce on him? And who were those men?”

“Look, Hariya, my friend,” explained Shambhu, “there’s no point asking these questions. You can’t dissuade me from going. My guess is as good as yours. Now listen carefully. Here is how it goes: it is possible Ravi’s contact sold him out to the bandits. If that’s the case, then I’m safe. The contact doesn’t know me. If he walked into a trap, same story. No one knows me, or that I am on my way.”

“What about Thakur Suraj Singh? Could he have…?”

“I don’t think so. Remember, Ravi knew him from University as a man of integrity. I’m inclined to believe he did not. I’ll take that chance. He met, if indeed he did, Ravi inside the temple. He didn’t have to chase him miles down the road to the riverbank, risking his life and everyone else’s, to beat Ravi to death like that. He could simply have silenced him inside the temple – one bullet in the head, that’s all. He wouldn’t need to beat him like that. Too far-fetched. The mystery is whether or not Ravi and the Thakur met inside the temple. And what happened there? Did they agree to transact? When and where did they decide to meet? These are more important questions, not whether there’s a rat somewhere in Janak Ganj who sold our friend to the bandits. God will give him his due.”

“If all had gone well, Ravi would have returned to the village the day after tomorrow, this time with the money. He would have hidden the money for Dhibri to take it to the cremation grounds. If that end of the arrangement is still intact, then there’s only one change in this plan – me,” said Shambhu, sitting straight up.

“How will you inform Thakur Suraj Singh that you’re there and will he do business with you?”

“There’s half-a-chance Suraj Singh will be at the cremation grounds with the diamond, tomorrow. Isn’t that what Ravi had said? It’s half-a-chance, but worth taking. As for doing business with me, what else will he do? Shoot me, for keeping Ravi’s word to him, or for making the treacherous journey in spite of this momentous tragedy? If that’s how it’s going to end, then so be it. I’d rather die finishing what Ravi started, than go back with this knife through my heart. Don’t you see it, Hariya? This journey is waiting to happen. I have to travel.”

“The answers are all here, sarkaar. The Thakur waylaid him, tortured him and left him to die. It’s as plain as that. You are still alive, the money is still here, why don’t you just walk away from all this and we will rebuild our lives.”

“How can I walk away from this, with my heart smashed to pieces? Why don’t you understand? How can you say this? That man was everything to me, everything. What does this money mean to me? What does anything else mean to me?”

“Then, if you do want answers, why don’t you go meet Thakur Gajanan Singh in his village, and talk to him? Why take all this money, risk everything all over again and walk right into the jaws of death? There is a much simpler and safer alternative to all that danger,” said Hariya, pleading.

“There isn’t. How do you know it was Thakur Gajanan Singh over there, by the river? It could have been anyone. How can I just walk up to him, look him in the eye and ask him why he killed my friend, my brother, my everything? No, this isn’t how it’s going to happen, can’t you see, Hariya? I have to retrace Ravi’s footsteps, moment by moment, and then see for myself, where it went so horribly wrong. There isn’t a safe, secure way to do it. This danger has to be lived, even if it takes my life. The money is here, the diamond there. Between here and that place, lies the answer to most of my questions. If Ravi’s plan is still intact, then your cousin will most likely be waiting across the river tomorrow, with his bullock cart. I will ride with him into the village.”

“If the plan is still intact,” murmured Hariya, shaking his head.

“Intact or not, I am travelling. Ravi is replaced” said Shambhu, resolute.

“What if it was Thakur Gajanan Singh, after all? You, too, know that it could not have been anyone else. What then? What will you ask him and what will he then do to you? Have you even thought about that?” Hariya was clutching at straws in the wind.

“Well, then, he will learn to pay for his deeds. If I can put bones together, I can also take them apart, with my bare hands. I know everything about bones,” said Shambhu, exhaling loudly.

The shadow was back in his eyes, slate-grey lines of hard thinking on his forehead and anger in his heart. Hariya noted with a knot in his stomach, how the inquisitive boy he had so lovingly nurtured, was struggling with cyclic bouts of guilt, grief, disbelief and cold murderous rage.

“How far can rage take a man?” asked Hariya.

“To the end of the earth,” replied Shambhu, in a voice sharp as the edge of a blade. “Or to the bottom of the earth.”


CHAPTER THREE

October 17, 1948.

Mahendru Ghat, Patna, on the South bank of Ganga

Shambhu stared at the vessel that would launch him on the most perilous journey of his life.

It looked fragile as a paper boat. Rusted keel, rusted decks and rusted stack. It had been painted once, but now, high on the stack, only the chipped remains of a black-and-gold emblem caught the sun off and on. Weighed down by the tonnes of coal in the hold below, the boat was listing. The coal burned the fires that boiled the water that made the steam that drove the turbine that turned the propeller that moved the boat forward.

The vessel was moored to large iron rings driven into the floor of the stone embankment. The rings formed the functional end of wrought iron rivets, thick as a fat man’s thumb, driven almost a foot into the stone block. Thick coir ropes secured the vessel that locals called a steamer.

The aging steamer was, in fact, a marvel of sorts. Marvel because the old, leaky tub was a write-off at best, like most of the other steamers that run east and west of Patna along the Ganges. Yet, it made daily trips across, and up and down the river, albeit raining soot and coal dust on the uneasy commuters.

All the vessels that ran the waters were alike. Their engines stalled mid-stream, water sneaked in through weakened rivets and metal-fatigued keels, and there was little shelter from the rain. The tall, wide, unwieldy stacks upset the center of gravity so violently that in rough waters, they swung from side to side like crazy weather cocks. Their owners didn’t repair them and the contractual operators packed them till things were falling into the water. But here in the forgotten, stagnant backwaters of independent India, the steamers were the lifeline of the people.

Shambhu ambled up to a man who was leisurely scooping up pails of muddy water from the floor of the vessel’s deck. He asked him when the boat would leave. “When it fills up. But first I’ve got to get the river out of my boat,” said the man without a hint of hurry in his tone or body language.

“And when will it fill up?” asked Shambhu.

“God only knows,” said the man, tossing some dirty water overboard and pausing to take a long drag from a bidi resting on the edge of a bench. “Sometimes she is full before we’ve shovelled the coal into the furnace. And there are times when she sits and sits here like a chronic spinster.” He shrugged his shoulders amiably, as if talking about a favourite person, not a water-logged steamer. “Why, you new here?” asked the man, taking a deep drag from his bidi.

Shambhu said something about coming from another part of Bihar, and looked away.

He scanned the Ghat from end to end. It wasn’t more than 100 metres long. Personal luggage and commercial goods were steadily stacking up near the boarding area. It was indication that the boat would at least make the journey. And what a journey it promised to be- with a dozen or so goats, as many pigs, scores of chickens, fruits and vegetables, hoes, buckets, cots, bicycles and even a full-length plough. Reassured, Shambhu trudged back to the market where he had been waiting all morning.

He settled down on the stone steps of the Ghat, carefully placing a bamboo bed beside him. Eight man-sized bamboo poles, laid side by side and lashed together with coir ropes made up the bed. The outer poles were longer than the rest, stretching out as handles on all four corners. Everyone knew what it was. The arthee that took a man on his final journey, right into the cremation pyre, each of its thick handles resting on a grieving shoulder. The rich and the well-healed decorated them with gold threads and silver flowers. Poor men rode ordinary class. The bed by Shambhu’s side was plain, basic. “Some unfortunate ones don’t get even the basic one,” thought Shambhu.

A curtain of darkness fell upon his face as he thought back to the day before, and the night before.

“There will be answers, there will be,” Shambhu murmured as he stretched, taking his mind off the topic and surveyed his surroundings.

It was late afternoon in the bustling riverside bazaar of Mahendru ghat. Under the warm winter sun, colourful glass bangles jingled, swaying playfully on storefronts like delicate wind chimes. A bunch of garrulous young women sat on the steps of the Ghat, munching on the season’s favorite street snack: freshly roasted corn rubbed copiously with lemon and spiked with rock salt and red chili powder. Vegetable vendors presided over tiny hillocks of blood-red carrots, tender sweet peas and deep purple turnips. A wild-haired young man tuned a harmonium, matching its keys to his own deep and finely tuned voice. In spite of the weight on his heart, Shambhu was unable to disregard the cheerfulness of the atmosphere. “If you close your eyes,” Shambhu thought, “this place sounds like a carnival.”

Shambhu was not sure if he would ever sit by the Ganges again.

Or if he did, under what circumstances it would be.

But for now, he was content to be here. And he wasn’t alone.

The Ganges was everything to everyone. She was like an elder sister, a friend, a confidante. If people had to talk, they went to the river. If they were depressed, the river consoled them. They bathed there, prayed there, dreamt there, wept there, and laughed there. There was something about waking up before dawn and heading for the Ghat. It was like seeing the faces of your loved ones, first thing in the morning. Breathless, dhoti-wrapped, mantra-chanting Brahmins picked their way through the morning crowd, carefully avoiding contact with anyone, lest they were defiled. Bleary-eyed children stood by the waters, absent-mindedly brushing their teeth with tender neem twigs. The ghat was the most democratic, secular and laid-back place for a peoples who were otherwise barricaded behind barbed-wire boundaries of caste and religion.

Shambhu had grown up imbibing Mahendru Ghat’s busy mix of utilitarian commerce and intense religion. His aunt had lived for 40 years in a house nearby, and he had spent enjoyable months of summer here till the age of 15. Then she died, and Shambhu stopped visiting Mahendru. But he remembered with a lot of fondness, the long meditative hours that he had spent sitting on the stone steps of the Ghat, just gazing at the flowing river and the brilliant play of light on its crystal clear waters. Or lying on his back, watching the setting sun burn the horizon and then suck the light out of the sky, leaving behind cool distant embers in the starlight that followed.

He sat in a corner of the wide, stone steps, facing the rapidly flowing Ganges. In seven years, a lot had changed. “And yet, a lot hasn’t,” he thought. Ganges had her moods and they affected everyone deeply. Most of the time, she was tranquil, deep and cool. But there were times when she brooded, some say moaned, and howled. Sometimes, she was outright enraged. Then, there was nothing much to do but wait for her to calm down.

In the lean months of summer, the river receded all the way down. But within the first few days of monsoon, it quickly reclaimed the first few steps, notching up inches in a matter of hours. If it rained all night upstream, you could return the next morning to a completely submerged Ghat.

Millions of feet ground relentlessly on the grooved sandstone of the steps, day in and day out, coaxing tiny sand particles loose from the slabs. Millions more feet fell on the eroded stone, shaping out smooth, foot-long depressions along the center of the steps — all the way from the top of the stairs, to the bottom. Time had left its indelible stamp on the stone. Wet feet constantly dripped water into the well-filed depressions, leaving tiny pools of Ganga in each one of them.

People came to the Ghats to cross over to the other side, to do business or to meet a loved one. Many others came to wash their sins away in the holy Ganga. Grain by tiny grain, the river washed their sins away, carving deep pits of anguish into the hearts of the mute stone slabs.

 

“To deal with the dark depths of the human conscience, you need a heart forged in tempered steel. Either the sins of man are too grave or the stone is just weak-hearted,” Shambhu said to himself, sighing.

Someone nearby let out a lungful of smoke and Shambhu watched it disappear like a stray whiff of cloud. Right then, a clear and pure vocal note arose next to him and floated effortlessly, chasing the curling smoke into the washed blue sky.

Shambhu turned to look. The harmonium tuner had broken into a melody of devotion to the Ganges. He was now joined by three others, who sat around him in a circle. Eyes closed, long curly hair bouncing in the afternoon sunlight, head tilted upwards and muscular chin quivering passionately, the youngster sang like a man possessed. To Shambhu he seemed in perfect communion with his maker, singing the music of a loving soul and an unchained heart. Two of his companions began playing instruments- a dholak and a manjeer.

Their fourth companion, a pony-tailed man was kneading dough in a large shallow vessel. He wasn’t singing, but from time to time, he passed a little earthen pipe around. Like a practiced musician, each would take a deep drag from the pipe, while someone else picked up the strain of the music, never letting the tempo down or missing a word. A gauze of moist cloth covered the lower part of the pipe to cool the searing smoke that came charging out of the pipe with each hollow-cheeked lungful pulled by the user.

It took a practiced hand to load the pipe, called chillum, with a spiritually stirring blend of tobacco and bhang. When the match was struck at the top end of the pipe, and the smoker closed his lips around the cloth-covered opening at the bottom, God made connection with man, charging his breath with his own calming energy. If the pipe wasn’t prepared with love and devotion, the experience would be less than religious. And the music less than melodious.

The pipe was right, the blend perfect and the music stirring. Like a chemical corkscrew, the potent mix of bhang and tobacco wound its way through their hearts, hastening the tempo of their music. The songs acquired a graduated sense of urgency, chugging up like a train leaving a station. The fingers beat harder on the skin of the drum and the voices notched up a pitch louder. The songs shifted to themes of love and women. Pumping through his body, the singer’s supercharged breath churned rhythmic beads of sweat on his forehead and face. And when he shook his head in the middle of an excited crescendo, tiny droplets of sweat flew out like scintillating pieces of music, backlit by the brilliant winter sun.

Enraptured, Shambhu moved closer and sat down on the ground. For a while, his mind was off his mission at hand and the dangers that lurked ahead.

The fourth companion had rigged up a small oven of firewood and coal topped with sun dried cow dung cakes, called goytha. Goytha, the high-energy product of an age-old practice of recycling cow dung, was deeply enmeshed in the life, culture, and religion of Biharis. Housewives gathered the fresh dung of the revered cow, and hand-mixed it with chopped hay. Then, taking tennis-ball-sized dollops of the high-methane mix, they flattened and pasted the goythas on the walls of their huts. Dried dung cakes, placed atop burning coal, glowed with a gentler heat than coal, repelled mosquitoes and their smoke felt good in a comforting sort of way. Plus, they cost a fraction of the price of coal.

The cook was now roasting fist-sized dollops of dough filled with a mix of boiled, roasted, spiced and ground pulses on the red hot coals and goytha.

The bhang had by now hit the brain, and the quartet exploded into high gear. They swayed and gyrated in unison as if they were parts of the same body. The singer’s voice shot up many octaves to a pencil-point fragility, but never went out of key, never cracked. Strapped to the adrenaline pump, lurching and swaying in tandem with the drug coursing through their bloodstreams, the men and their music raced towards an ecstatic climax. The singer shook his head and his curly locks as he climbed up to his last note. And then, with a shudder that rose at the base of his spine and rushed up to his head, he froze in mid-motion, his hair swirling and bouncing around his shoulders, just the same way as a dancer’s skirt gathers at her ankles. Three precise beats later, the dholak stopped and so did the manjeer. Like discharged tops that had run out of spin, the musicians tipped over, rolling on the cobbled stone — spent, but blissful.

Shambhu sighed as the music came to an end. One by one, the musicians stirred, emerging from their lyrical trance, glassy-eyed and smiling at no one in particular. The cook then placed the baked dollops of dough before them. Taking his cue, Shambhu got up to leave, but the singer said: “Bhai, sit down, sit down. You’ve enjoyed the music, how can you leave the food, haan? If you think that was good music, wait till you have these.” Smiling, he pointed to the dollops, called littees.

Shambhu hesitated, but the cook echoed his companion: “The food is simple, but it’s made with love. Sit down.”

Shambhu was fond of littees. But he liked them crisp and soaking in cupfuls of molten pure ghee made by clarifying butter. The cook read his face in an instant: “We don’t have ghee. No money for that. We just soak them in our saliva — good enough,” he said with aplomb, followed by a chorus of affirmative sounds from every other member of the group.

“Here, start eating,” said the cook, and they attacked the food, all at once.

Shambhu broke a piece of the littee and bit gingerly, half expecting it to crunch under his teeth like hard limestone. But the dough crumbled in his mouth, releasing an aromatic blend of herbs and spices. Closing his eyes, Shambhu let the food interact with his body.

The cook continued to observe Shambhu closely. “Is the saliva better or do you still miss the ghee?” he asked at length. Everyone burst out laughing, dropping little pieces of food from their full mouths.

Shambhu gulped his piece and said: “I have never eaten such delicious littees in my life, honestly. And ghee is not for poor folks like us. In fact, it would have spoiled the taste, really.”

The cook fixed Shambhu with a long, hard scrutinising stare. A half-smile cracked his happy face. “This was dough kneaded in Ganges water and enlivened with the sounds of music. This is the prashad of Mother Ganges. Nothing gets purer than this, does it?” said the cook.

“No doubt, no doubt. And where are you headed?” asked Shambhu.

“We are bhaktas of Mother Ganges. We go wherever she takes us. We don’t live here,” said the man. Shambhu nodded knowingly and he went on: “We don’t live anywhere. Just as the river doesn’t live anywhere, yet she is everywhere. But if you ask, we are going to Rishikesh, even beyond, to Gomukh, where the river begins. Each year, we start here in the winter and head back up the river to Rishikesh. By the time we reach the hills, it is summer. When it gets colder up there, we come down to the plains. Like her fish and her ghariyals, we are also creatures of the Ganges. She looks after us,” said the cook, glancing affectionately at the river.

Though Shambhu had seen such men before and knew about them, he had never interacted with them. But he felt tremendous empathy with them. To up-and-leave without a care in the world, there was something very deeply romantic about it. “Oh! The hills sound exciting. How do you make a living? I mean, where do you get the money for food and other needs?” Shambhu couldn’t contain his curiosity.

“What are our needs? Two meals a day, that’s all. The benevolent Ganges makes sure that our stomachs are full. In Rishikesh and Hardwar, we sing bhajans and kirtans with large groups. The offerings of the devout take care of our needs for the rest of the year. And what do you do, young man? You don’t look like you live here, either, now do you?”

“Oh no, I live in Shibgunj, near Ranchi,” said Shambhu, and suddenly checked himself. “I’m a paan seller at the local market,” he said.

The singer looked vaguely at Shambhu: “Where is this Shibgunj? Why haven’t I ever heard of it?” he asked.

“Oh! Do you know Ranchi? Shibgunj is South of Ranchi.” The singer nodded encouragingly, and Shambhu went on: “It’s in the Santhal foothills, by the hills of Netarhat. It’s really a nice little town.” The others made all the right noises. All eyes on him, Shambhu shifted, suddenly awkward, feeling scrutinised.

The resounding hoot of the steamer’s horn came as welcome relief. Shambhu sprang up. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “it’s already time? Never realised how time just flew. What an afternoon. Well, that’s my boat,” Shambhu tilted his head towards the steamer. Folding his hands in gratitude, he started to say: “Thank you for…”

But the singer cut him short: “That’s our boat, too. Keep your thanks for the ride,” he said, rising quickly and brushing the dust off his dhoti.

As the crowded steamer pushed away from the Ghat, a loud cheer went up from the decks. A deckhand told Shambhu that the downstream ride east, to his destination, Simariya ghat, would take nearly two hours. There would be numerous stops along the way.

Dark rain clouds were gathering on the horizon and a cool breeze blew in from the north. Resting his back against a giant canvas mailbag, Shambhu sat on the bare deck – all the seats were taken. The steamer lurched ahead like a bucking horse, shuddering from prow to stern as the pounding pistons muscled the vessel through the water. The fatigued hull creaked and groaned and its straining rivets jiggled in protest. The huge stack belched a noxious mix of steam, smoke and coal particles, spraying everyone and everything a fine shade of gray. The experienced passengers had already tied a wide cotton cloth around their head, face and neck, leaving room only for the eyes.

A bespectacled, elderly man sat across from him, reading “The Searchlight,” an outspoken English daily from Patna. The paper fluttered in the old man’s hands but he was immersed in an editorial on the question of Kashmir. Shambhu would have loved to read the newspaper, any newspaper. He hadn’t read one for days. But remembering who he was, he just cast a casual, indifferent glance in the old man’s direction.

Solitude brought introspection and Shambhu turned his attention to how he had been feeling. His heart had been strapped to the adrenaline pump ever since the incident by the river. His head throbbed, relentlessly. He could even feel his carotid artery jumping in matching beats, by the side of his neck. Looking around casually, he placed the ring and middle fingers of his right hand on the pulse of his left, and read the urgent messages from his wildly beating heart. Closing his eyes in deep meditative contemplation, Shambhu tried to still the unrest, the anger within. Slowly, the throbbing in his head calmed down as the heart settled into a gentler rhythm. Before long, the full stomach and the rocking vessel lowered him into a featherbed of welcome sleep.

The horn sounded again and the engine started decelerating, waking Shambhu up with a start. Wiping a generous coat of coal dust from his face and eyelashes, and shaking it off his hair, he looked quizzically at the man sitting next to him. It was the cook from the music group.

“The first stop. This is where we leave. Slept well?” he asked.

“Oh! That meal just sent me to sleep.”

“Hm, where are you headed and what’s your name?” asked the cook.

“Shambhu, my name is Shambhu. I’m going to Janak Ganj. There’s been a death in the family,” he replied, scanning the horizon, avoiding his gaze. “How true,” he said to himself. “There has, indeed, been a death in the family.” The driver had killed the engine and the silence on the deck was pervasive. People were gathering their belongings in preparation for disembarking.

“I am Surya Kant – call me Surya. Janak Ganj, hm? Janak Ganj.” Surya recited the name with remarkable deliberateness, chewing upon it. “My cousin has a little temple, right where you will disembark – at Simariya ghat. Pandit Rama Kant Mishra – haven’t met him for years. I’m a wanderer, you see. But he’s a fine man, very knowledgeable. Do convey my namaste to him. You can ask him for any help, anytime. Just take my name” he said, smiling graciously.

Shambhu had no intention of meeting any cousin of anyone, but he replied politely: “I will.” For Shambhu, temple Brahmins were the self-appointed gate-keepers to divinity. He was amazed at how a man’s caste entitled him to plant a statue anywhere and start a temple. But he was even more perplexed by the blind faith of the devout. He had no contempt for the pundits; he just didn’t see them as the agents of God, or godliness.

Reading Shambhu’s face clearly, Surya Kant said: “I don’t believe in temples, either. To me, God is either everywhere or nowhere. But be careful, the road to the village is treacherous. You’re more likely to meet armed bandits there than God,” said Surya. “They own the night, the bandits.” It struck Shambhu that this was exactly what he had thought of the devil-may-care air of Ravi’s tormentors. Evil owned the night. Surya waited for a reaction from Shambhu and then, lowering his voice conspiratorially, he added: “But you don’t have anything worth robbing, now do you?” The question came flying at Shambhu like red-hot charcoal. He could neither hold it nor throw it away. His hand moved involuntarily to the bamboo bed, and its indented rings and rough strings felt reassuring against his fingers.

The steamer was lining up against the stone steps of the Ghat. Rolling and pitching, it bobbed as the deckhands jumped ashore and secured it to the Ghat. One by one, the passengers disembarked, stepping on wooden planks that passed for a bridge between the vessel and hard ground. Not many people were boarding and Shambhu could guess why. It was late afternoon and starting a trip now meant reaching after dark; something that everyone avoided. His stop was the last on the journey. The vessel would make a U-turn at Simariya ghat and head back for Mahendru, to park for the night.

SuryaKant got up to leave but paused and put a friendly hand on Shambhu’s shoulder. Then, leaning closer, he whispered into his ear: “You are as much a paan-seller as I am a thoroughbred Saheb. Get your story right. Try a more convincing disguise. Observe.” Smiling conspiratorially, he jumped onto the planks and crossed over to the Ghat like a practiced tightrope walker. For a long time, Shambhu stared after the disappearing figure of SuryaKant, hoping to catch a glimpse of his face and the expression on it. But the man never turned around.

“How did he know?” thought Shambhu, disturbed and worried. “What am I doing wrong?”

So far, he had succeeded in putting on the unhurried air of a man who waits for everyone and no one waits for him. But Shambhu was beginning to learn that being ordinary was not the easiest thing in the world.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He wore a grey, tattered shirt and an equally dismal dhoti. A once white cotton towel, called gamchha, was slung over his shoulder. Each time he wiped with it, he got more sweat on his face than off it. His thick, healthy hair was mud-caked and dirty, and a stubble dotted his handsome chin. A bidi was tucked behind his right ear and a matchbox rolled into the waistband of his dhoti.

But he remembered Hariya’s words: “You don’t have the wizened face and weathered hands of a peasant. Those hands are different hands. Those hard-as-wood hands till the soil, tie ropes into knots, pull reins, wield axes and hammers and shield the eyes from the burning mid-day sun. You have never laboured with your hands.” Shambhu turned the palms of his hands over to examine them closely. They were manly, he told himself, but most unlike a peasant’s. “Anyone looking close enough will know you’re not a peasant,” he said.

So, Hariya had made Shambhu stain his hands a deep red colour, to pass for a paan seller.

In 24 hours of sustained exposure, the kattha and lime had roughened the skin of Shambhu’s fingertips and seeped completely down to the grooves of his fingers, colouring them a deep shade of reddish brown, even black. In fact, right now, a perfectly round bolus of paan sat tight between his right cheek and jowl, its juice, laced with an acrid dash of cheap tobacco, trickling into his mouth and shooting up to his head. His stomach was churning from the lime and tobacco cocktail that lined his insides, from the throat to his intestines. At first glance, no one could doubt that Shambhu was an ordinary peasant from a village nearby.

Shambhu had practiced walking barefoot on hard ground and dirt, something that he had never done, even on the plush carpets of his well-appointed house. But it had been essential. “You are a poor peasant,” Hariya had insisted. “You don’t have shoes. When you walk barefoot, the soles of feet crack. It’s winter.” The soles of Shambhu’s feet were not cracking yet, but they sure hurt when he walked.

His accent was, fortunately, not a problem. He was supposedly coming from Patna, a city of mixed languages. In Patna, they spoke Hindi with a thick Bihari drawl. He had lived long enough in Patna to roll his modulation into the trademark Patna twang.

But the disembarking yogi had shaken Shambhu’s confidence and he was irritated with himself for having allowed such close scrutiny of his disguise. “It is a disguise, after all”, he told himself. “If you scratch hard enough, the truth will show beneath.” But it troubled him to think that the truth showed so easily. As the steamer chugged away from the bank and picked up speed, Shambhu began a quick analysis of his appearance. “What am I doing wrong?”

There was nothing wrong with his clothes, for sure. “I sit like them, eat like them, smoke like them and certainly, feel like them, too. Then, where am I going wrong?”

It occurred to him that he may not smell like the average peasant. He wondered if the bolus of herbal paste tied into his waistband had given him away. It was possible he was smelling of his herbs, when he should have been reeking of tobacco, rolled into sweat and grime. Shambhu patted his waist, just above the groin on the right, and felt the soft protrusion of the bolus wound tightly into his dhoti’s waistband. Hariya had rolled a golf ball sized bolus of the specially prepared herbal paste and flattened it into a 2-inch cylinder before rolling it into the waistband of Shambhu’s dhoti. “This won’t arouse anyone’s suspicion”, Shambhu said to himself.

A hawker came around with an oversized brass kettle of tea and a bagful of small earthen glasses, called kulhads. Shambhu bought a kulhad of steaming tea and took a sip.

The tea reeked of engine oil and tasted like syrupy coal-dust. Shambhu’s immediate impulse was to empty the industrial concoction over the rail into the river.  But the Yogi’s “observe” made him look around, at the motley crowd of commuters, sitting on their haunches on the bare floor of the vessel. Most of them were poor peasants and vendors, just like him – barefoot and basic. The general disinterest in their surroundings and indifference to everyone was striking. But they were sipping tea loudly from the kulhads and enjoying it as if it were ambrosia. They didn’t know the delicate flavors of Assam or Darjeeling. For them, tea was a steaming hot brew, boiled in milk, drowning in sugar and spiked with cardamom and cinnamon.

It hit him, then. They were themselves. He was the outsider.

He was also the outsider because he had interest in everything. His eyes gave him away, he realised with much regret. Hariya had mentioned his eyes and he had assured him he would be fine. Now, when he looked around, he could see what Hariya had meant. A disguise must show in the eyes as well. They should be easy, natural, convincing. Otherwise, they are a dead giveaway. His eyes set him apart from his surroundings, he realised.

So, he sat down on his haunches, just like the others, and started sipping the tea, with relish. It tasted just as bad as before, but he was determined to finish it. Taking noisy sips of the tea took his mind off its taste. Then he tossed the empty kulhad into the Ganges, like everyone else did. To round things off, he plucked bidi stuck behind his ear. “What the hell,” he said to himself, “a bitter brew can always be followed by a bitter smoke, if you make up your mind.”

And Shambhu had made up his mind. Now on, he would play the role of the paan-seller to perfection. “I will not,” he repeated to himself, “will not end up in a ditch, gored and dead and swollen.”

 

 

 

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 at 10:25 am and is filed under Authors, Chapters, Synopsis. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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