Shivaji K. Moitra
© Copyright 2002 by Shivaji K. Moitra
I came to know Sanjoy
on the first day of school. He came to sit just beside me on the same bench
The transferable job of my father who had been employed as a doctor with the Indian Railways made him somewhat of a rolling stone. And it was soon decided that it was time I be sent to some boarding school for the sake of what my parents thought was the continuity and consistency of my studies. No wonder, I was the last to prescribe to that alarming view.
So one winter afternoon I landed with an ashen face and my big trunk and holdall within the high compound walls of a boarding school by a clan of Christian missionaries who hold a virtual monopoly over that type of business made out of imparting education throughout India. It was situated on the fringe of a town far away from my home and I was so upset and frightened. It was painful beyond imagination to see my father off leaving me away from my home for the first time in my life. From the other side of the huge wrought iron gate that held me back he waived to me for a long long time until his quivering image vanished from my steaming eyes. Though I wasn't a child then, I was nowhere near my teens either and was ill prepared for a dispassionate life revolving around a strict and uninspiring routine with imposing walls. Suddenly from being a free bird I was a caged one. My insouciant wild spirit could scarcely reconcile to the idea of living chained.
Sanjoy glanced at me. I struggled to retain my composure and looked straight ahead at the blackboard trying to escape making an eye to eye contact with him. But my welling eyes betrayed the raging storm of emotions within. Sanjoy drew himself closer. "Ah! I see you're a new pal," he whispered almost into my ear so as not to embarrass me before the boys. He told me his name was Sanjoy Yadav and that he could well understand my hard feelings. "Don't worry brother; I shall introduce to all those chaps who matter here," he added with a note of cool authority. Yet his tone was unobtrusive and assuring. In barely audible words I thanked him for his sympathy. As I became close to him rather quickly I found that he was a day-scholar who stayed with his widow mother and his little sister in one of those neat quarters inside the Garrison situated just beside the school premises. His mother worked as a nurse at the Garrison Hospital and his father he said was a Major when he went down fighting gallantly in the '62 Indo-China war. The more I knew about him the more I came to admire him and enjoy his company.
The town situated on a rocky valley of the Tebo Hills was picturesque and the mild climate spawned huge Sal, Segun, Simul, Sirish and Tendu trees. The air was fresh and fragrant and the water salubrious. But the same could not be said about the food which came out of the hostel kitchen. The rice was coarse, worm infested and smelly and the curries bland and watery and when the plate of meat arrived once in a week you could at best guess in apprehension from which part of what animal came those chopped and boiled morsels. No wonder, at no point of time did hunger leave me altogether.
Ironically though, the cause of my disgust and discomfiture was not only beyond comprehension but also the topic of some derisive jokes to the majority of the boarders of whom a sizable number either came from various Christian orphanages or had a step-parent who having brought the child to grief through hateful behaviour or indifference had thus soured his ties with his home. Such boys who had thus ceased to have expectations of parental love and compassion and which in turn had killed their finer sensibilities could hardly sympathize with my predicament. But awful food could only hurt your body and not your soul. And here came the Proctor of the boarding. He was an old, peevish and insolent man by the name of Mr. Venant who loved to use the stick to rouse the boys out of bed at the break of dawn and also for every small misdemeanour. His wife and two daughters had left him long ago for reasons unknown and his wife had remarried. Mr. Venant sometimes allowed us into his room opening into the far end of the long corridor and showed us their fading photographs which stood in a neat row on his writing desk. I could perceive the happiness of his bygone days return before his cloudy eyes as he pointed to each of them calling their names with affection. I wondered if it was the pain and insult for having been so forsaken by his family that manifested itself in his sadistic behaviour and his insensitiveness towards boys young enough to be his grandchildren.
Sanjoy being a student of the school since a long time preceding my arrival already knew everything about the boarding which I thought unwise and improper to discuss with him. Everyday he brought for me an extra tiffin-box neatly packed with ghee-laced chappatis and other tasty snacks much to my embarrassment. Despite my sustained refusals he almost compelled me to have tiffin with him on the improbable pretext that his mother always gave him more than he could manage to eat. I hated to imagine what transpired between him and his mother before she agreed to prepare the extra stuff. Nevertheless, being in a state of perpetual hunger I wasn't the least averse to savouring those tasty tit-bits of course, not before politely refusing such a number of times as was deemed necessary to keep my self-esteem intact.
Sometimes I mused if it was the loss of his father that made him all the more understanding and sensitive to other people's sorrows. But I noticed the strong side of his character as well. He was a nice, smart guy, fearless and assertive and even aggressive if he had to deal with some bully. He was a little shorter than me but stouter and he played football so well. He wore a thick gold chain with a striking gold locket embossed with the picture of Lord Shiva in Tandava pose which tossed violently on his chest as he ran with the ball. He told me it was worn by his father and retrieved by a fellow soldier upon his death on the battle-field. Ever since his mother wished it to be on her son's neck. But our interests were mostly similar; he enjoyed just as I did reading the Panchatantra and Corbett and at tiffin time we loved to ponder in solitude about home and family and our pets. The former two I missed badly and it got reflected in my nostalgic mutterings to which Sanjoy would reciprocate with his carefully preserved memories of those happier times when his father had been alive.
Each evening I maundered absentmindedly up the main road leading straight to the campus entrance and took a peek into the free world outside. The sight of people going about their business, for instance a milkman riding his bicycle to his customers or a family riding a cart to the station or a group of boisterous boys returning from the market laughing and making faces at one another filled my heart with envy and bitterness. But I tried to stem that tide of indignation and envy by reminding myself about my parents' compulsions for putting me where I was. Sanjoy would often stroll up in the evenings to meet me at the gate for a hearty chat. Sometimes he brought his little sister along. She was a sweet little talkative thing who called me 'brother' which I loved to hear again and again and never forgot to thrust a toffee into my hand. It gave me immense pleasure to feel the warmth of home amidst the desert what if it were for no more than some fleeting minutes. For my homesick mind those few moments of happiness was akin to a draught of life-saving medicine which only ensured a dying patient a few more days of life. On some nights when a nightmare startled me out of sleep or if the summer heat held back slumber till the late hours and the urge to visit the urinal repeatedly came as its natural consequence I always stepped on to the corridor gingerly trying hard not to let my gaze wander straight over the far end of the long corridor because the Command Hospital's morgue stood next to the boundary wall of our school and the grisly sight of doctors dissecting corpses for post-mortem late into the night greeted you through an open window if you happened to look that way.
Sanjoy laughed off my fear with his characteristic insouciance and reasoned that if ghosts or spirits were indeed around his beloved father would certainly have appeared before him to convey his undying love for his children at least once. I nodded vaguely in confusion.
Time never stops for any of us on earth and in the few years that we grew out from little boys into our teens Sanjoy and I became trusted and caring friends confiding in and comforting each other at every crisis of adolescence.
One breezy summer evening not long before our school-leaving examination Sanjoy told me for the umpteenth and what incidentally happened to be the last time how his young heart had fallen prey to the innocent beauty of some businessman's daughter studying at the Girls' School nearby. "She has large eyes like blue lagoons and a heart as soft as silk-cotton," he crooned. But he also disclosed that they were Brahmins and it was unlikely that her father would readily consent to give his daughter into a caste way down in hierarchy to which he belonged. With dreamy eyes he spoke shyly and softly about his plans for the future. He said he would join the Army following in his father's footsteps and then tie the knot with his sweetheart.
I wished him success in love and earnestly hoped he had his dreams fulfilled quickly. Sometime later having crossed the first academic hurdle of school I returned to my parents leaving all the bitter memories and the ill feelings about the boarding school behind for good and all the sweet and pleasant ones treasured in my mind.
We kept track of each other for a few years; I knew he had completed High School and had successfully entered the Defense College but that his love story had run into trouble with the girl's father refusing to accept one as his son-in-law who not only came from the caste of milkmen but also whose life was hard and fraught with grave risks.
Thereafter, the elements of time and distance got to work together as they have been doing since the inception of history to nibble at the bonds of our friendship and the letters became gradually infrequent before ceasing to arrive altogether.
My subsequent months and years followed one another without anything happening to either cheer or resent about. With neither the scope nor the means of embarking on a life different from that of the average Indian I completed my studies and immediately pricked by the feeling of guilt for having been a burden on my parents for so long I swiftly got lost in the eddy of earning a living. I tried my hand at quite a few odd jobs, had fallen in love and out of it a couple of times and had taken the pleasure of both money and the lack of it and one day I found to my dismay that I was a middle-aged man who had neither seen the world nor had done anything remarkable or spectacular so as to be seen by the world. That realization was intensely painful and the frustration was numbing.
I decided to go out on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas to rid my mind of all those mundane thoughts which keep accumulating over time and darken it making it incapable of comprehending the futility of running behind money and luxury and comfort and the social status which it begets.
April which marks the onrush of Summer in the Indian sub-continent was in its last week. The tropical sun had been breathing fire and wreathing the land below in a hue of steam.
But 2000 feet above it was still springtime on the pranky hills of the Himalayas. Delicate clusters of redolent wild flowers swayed in the cool breeze like sottish bears and attracted a steady stream of bees and glistening humming-birds. To my eyes they represented God's palette where every possible shade of colour vied with one another for prominence. A winsome serenity reigned within the deep green woods of Pine, Birch, Oak and Fir from whence emanated the melody of known and unfamiliar bird calls and the verdant meadows teemed with brilliantly coloured butterflies and dragonflies. Closer to the azure sky and closer to God I was thrilled to imagine spending my entire hard-earned holiday in the sylvan surroundings of Rudraprayag. I intended to give my eyes a memorable feast of colour and beauty and my mind the bliss of solitude. Inhaling the crisp aromatic air I sought to recharge my body and mind with that inscrutable energy which is so abundant on the hills and which immediately seeps into you as soon as you arrive and banishes all worry and languor from within. But the small sleepy hamlet of Rudraprayag was unusually alive with swarms of pilgrims and tourists descending upon it from almost every part of India. It was festival time and people on their way to the famous ancient temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath tucked up in the upper reaches of the Himalayas traditionally stopped over at the place both to rest their weary limbs and pay obeisance to the presiding deity of Rudraprayag, whose quaint temple stood on a huge flat piece of stone by the confluence of the speeding white waters of the Alaknanda and Mandakini. Though they crowded each and every habitable structure---the dark, damp rooms of the Dharmasala, a score of stone and slate huts let out by their owners during each festival season, the prayer-halls and basements of temples and even some tents pitched up by the pilgrims themselves, they never seemed a nuisance or a burden upon the idyllic place. These devout people carried themselves with the discipline and silence of an army which never loses sight of its objective and target.
I managed to befriend a motley group of Bengali pilgrims and with them slipped into one of the larger stone huts dotting the hills on either side of the pathways. It had two small rooms opening into a common veranda besides a tiny clean toilet. I was pleased to find the rooms clean and well ventilated and the wooden floor covered with a beautiful Tibetan carpet. Just above the door the magnificent head of a large wild buffalo was fixed to the wall and the light from the lantern glistened on its splendid horns. The stone walls were bedecked with fine traditional handicrafts and needlework pictures and from the slate ceiling hung an attractive conch-shell chandelier which perhaps waited patiently for the opportunity to light up when electricity would reach the village some day. But what surprised me most and held my attention was a wall-mounted antique teak book-shelf packed with books. Not that it was something singularly unusual to find books in someone's household, but it was the choice collection of English books by renowned writers like Tolstoy, Shaw, Russel, Maugham, Sholokhov and others which raised my eyebrows. I hardly expected a connoisseur of English literature to dwell in that isolated den tucked away up in the remote mountains where the only tiny bookstore catering to the needs of the rustic locals sold nothing but school books and religious books in Hindi.
I had not yet seen the landlord but I imagined him to be some retired Army Colonel or government officer who had returned to live a quiet, insouciant life in his ancestral place.
It was late evening. I could no longer hold my wavering interest in the pious conversations my pilgrim room-mates indulged in. So I furtively pulled out a book and held it before the lantern. It turned out to be the paperback edition of the Jim Corbett book---'The Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag'. A tremor ran down my hand. It was an eerie coincidence to find that particular book written long ago in the backdrop of that particular place. Though I had read the famous book in my childhood, I immediately settled down with the enthusiasm of a child to read it again in the quivering light of the lantern for the sheer trill of imagining the leopard still on the prowl in the neighbourhood and its legendary hunter crouching somewhere behind a cowshed for the satan. A brief suspension of disbelief and identifying oneself with the characters of a book are all that is required of a reader to derive the immeasurable pleasures of reading. And I have always tried to be a true reader. My imagination in this case however was not bordering on the impossible since tigers, leopards and a diverse variety of other wildlife were still abundant in the vicinity and some of which strayed into the village sometimes because the marauding civilization of markets and profits had not yet reached the hills to strike terror in their hearts.
As I turned page after
page engrossed in the haunting tale I could catch through a corner of my
eye some members of the group cast curious glances at me perhaps taking
affront for displaying so brazenly my lack of interest in their religious
discussions that included among other things the lively exchange of strange
tales of their earlier pilgrimages. By turn while one of them calmly related
to the others the travails and adventures of such a journey undertaken
by him sometime in the past with such devotion and pride as befitting an
ideal devotee who is ever so ready and elated to suffer the pains and hardships
of the pilgrimage and overcome every obstacle whether of the elements or
of the terrain in order to taste the eternal bliss of meeting his deity,
his God, they heard him with infinite interest with approving nods and
unlimited veneration in their eyes. I continued to read unruffled by the
stares, having decided in passing to expiate for my seemingly infidel behaviour
by joining my mates later in their pious talks over dinner. But
a sharp knock on the door snatched everybody's attention.
As I opened the door I found standing before me a man of medium height and build in a long overcoat and an old grey soldier's hat whose broad wavy rim cast a long dark shadow over his face making it indiscernible. Dressed as heavily as he was I guessed he just had a long walk through the cold still night. Stepping inside he promptly introduced himself as the landlord and humbly enquired in a raspy whisper, "Respected pilgrims, are you all comfortable in my modest hole?"
Having instantly received an affirmative reply he quietly went on to unlock the other room which had been hitherto closed. Then his eyes fell on the book in my hand.
"Corbett today is a forgotten poor name," he croaked in a polished urban accent bearing the signature of deep regret. In the cold, weak light of the lantern I caught a profile of the crimpy face of a man who had just entered the last quarter of his life-span. But his shoulder-long hair was copious and black and his beard, dense with a tinge of white was neatly trimmed to give it the shape of a small bee-hive. Moreover, his erect gait and strong physique portrayed a man no older than forty five.
"Unfortunately, that's true," I finally managed to mumble in response to his observation. He turned his head just enough to look askance at me and gave a wry smile in acknowledgement. I was eager to strike a conversation with him but he seemed headed straight for the bed. Having lit a candle he said, "Have a good sleep, pilgrims; good night," and promptly withdrew behind the closed doors of his room.
But his demure tone, his accent and the features of his weather-beaten face, all combined to evoke a strange flutter in the backyards of my memory. The person seemed somehow familiar yet it was extremely unlikely that I could have seen him before. His impression floated across my brain desperately trying to find a match howsoever faint, howsoever frayed by time in my memory-bank. Though my wanderlust had taken me to the foothills of the Himalayas and above a number of times I hadn't been to the Kumaon region before. I mused, perhaps I had a nodding acquaintance with him sometime somewhere on the hills.
Nevertheless, the feeling was akin to one that strikes you when the scent of a particular aroma or the rhythm or melody of a particular song wafting across the air suddenly arouses from some deep recess of your memory the vivid remembrance of some long forgotten happening, some funny or sad episode of childhood. The landlord had long left when I woke up next morning. I had no idea where he had gone or what exactly he did for a living. I asked my fellow pilgrims about it but they weren't any wiser either. Then I thought of accosting some village folk with my queries but the hill people were known to loathe any attempt to trespass upon their privacy and I left that idea.
The soft heavenly glow of dawn had just turned into a dazzling bright morning. Unhindered by haze or pollution the resplendent sunshine held the lofty snow-covered peaks of Trisul and Nanda Devi in a magnificent contrast of sparkling white against the clear blue sky and made the trees of Cedar, Oak, Pine and Cyprus glisten in shades of silver. A steady zephyr was blowing in from the snowline above making the leaves flutter with a continuous rustling sound as pleasing as music to the ears.
Energized by a wholesome breakfast of fresh milk, chapaties and banana and a steaming glass of herbal tea I set out to explore the heights and abysses of the neighbourhood and in course visit the legendary temples of Jagadamba and Rudranath and a few other lesser known shrines sitting snugly on some ledge or tucked inside a cave. The chill in the air was just perfect for ambling up and down the precipitous slopes for hours without either getting the feel of exhaustion or having to perspire.
Leaving the road which snaked up to the spots above I preferred to take the steep narrow shortcut favoured by the young villagers which took you through dense undergrowths of lantana, wild banana and elephant grass and dense forests of trees laden with lichen and rhododendron. Imagining myself to be some ancient explorer for the sheer fun of it I advanced slowly and cautiously sometimes balancing on slippery moss-enveloped stones or jumping over a crevice that had sucked in a yard of the forest path and all along slithering past prickly shrubbery which leaned from either side of the narrow path baulking my passage every few yards. Now and then a mongoose or a solitary fox scurried across my way and a troop of curious langurs shadowed me for about a furlong. But a deep grunt that came from behind a screen of bamboo where I reckoned lurked a sloth bear knocked the strength out of my legs for a moment.
I found myself at the mouth of the cave-temple not exactly tired but nevertheless panting from the steep climb.
The cave opened on
to a short thin slice of flat grassy meadow wedged between two lofty ridges
from atop which three thin white springs came cascading down to form a
gargling mountain stream. The meadow was enclosed at one end the other
of which rolled down gently alongside the stream into a valley below. Under
a rocky ledge to the left of the cave entrance sat a small group of sadhus
at peace with themselves and clad scantily in saffron robes, most of their
lean weather-proof bodies hidden behind their flowing white beards which
descended like the bushy tap roots of an old Banyan tree trying to touch
the ground beneath and their heads displaying those spectacular mounds
of long matted hair. They watched the pilgrims milling around with no particular
interest with piercing eyes that gleamed with the power of victory over
their senses attained only through hard deep meditation. And a couple of
yards away behind rows and rows of closely packed sandals and shoes belonging
to pilgrims who were required to enter the temple barefoot sat our landlord
cross-legged on the stone floor. He was busy receiving and returning the
devotees' footwear against small pieces of metal tokens with numbers for
identification. He wore a
saffron kurta and a wraparound cloth.
In the East a temple shoe-keeper is believed to be doing a great spiritual duty and is looked upon with veneration as he handles the devotees' footwear. As I stooped to deliver my shoes to him my host recognized me vaguely and smiled with a gentle nod while he bent forward and stretched his arm. And out popped a gold locket hanging from a gold chain on his neck. The embossed figure of Nataraja on it gave me the shock of a lifetime. It instantly thawed a part of my frozen childhood memory.
"S-a-n-j-o-y," I cried out in a drawn out feeble note. We clasped each other's hands and looked fixedly at each other for a long long time which seemed like eternity, the element of surprise refusing to leave our eyes.
That night sitting in the cosy glow of the fireplace of a tavern where Sanjoy invited me for dinner I heard the umpteenth tale where a man's love gone awry had left a trail of destruction and had changed the very course of his life.
"Perhaps you remember I went into the Army," he begun, looking vaguely at the burning logs in the fireplace. "Certainly, and that was the last I heard of you," I said impatiently.
"Yes," he continued, "I had planned to marry after the completion of my training period. I tried my best to convince Priya's father; I begged him innumerable times not to make her daughter unhappy. You knew her name was Priya. I tried to reason him out of his vainglory without being arrogant, but he was absolutely mulish. Ultimately, I had decided to snatch her. But even as I was drawing up my strategy they sent me out to the Pakistan border where trouble was brewing up.
One morning I received a letter from Priya where she revealed her desperation and implored me to meet her immediately; she said her life was going to be ruined. The tone of the letter was ominous. I immediately asked for leave but the Commanding Officer refused to spare me before another week.
When I rushed back home my Priya was no more. A day before her hurriedly arranged marriage to a man handpicked by her father, I was told she jumped down from the cliff, you know, near the Hirni Falls where we often went on excursions. Next day the police fished out her battered body a few hundred yards downstream, struck under a rock.
I couldn't spare that criminal after that you know. I went to his house and shot him down."
"You killed her father?" I croaked.
He gave me a cold reptilian stare, his eyes smouldering in the reflection of the quivering light of the fireplace. Then he blurted out, " Yeah, he changed the course of my life, he made me what I am. I lost my job, spent a decade behind bars and when I came out life had no directions for me. Drifting aimlessly from one place to another I arrived here one day and fell in love once again, in love with the simple smiling people of these hills who though poor and neglected live in a contented happy society where envy and greed are unknown. Ever since, I have lived here in peace and tranquility with my old mother."
"Where's she ?" I interrupted.
"She is right here looking after the affairs of this tavern. By serving the pilgrims one way or the other we serve God and earn enough to live through the rains."
An elderly lady of about 65 emerged from the kitchen and ambled up alongside the waiter who carefully placed on our table the steaming dishes of various curries and hot chapaties.
"This is my mum," he crooned. Standing up I greeted her with a 'namaskar'.
She put her hand on my shoulder and said softly, "Sit down, son; it's wonderful, you school boys should meet again as old boys."
"Perhaps God willed that we should run across each other so unexpectedly," I reflected. Scarcely had we finished dinner, when a youth came up to Sanjoy. He appeared excited and in great haste. He sputtered something in the local dialect. Sanjoy raised himself from his chair quietly and fished out a torchlight from his overcoat pocket.
"A boy has been badly
mauled by a leopard; I have to go to the next village to give him first-aid,"
he said calmly. Then he dropped some medicines into his pocket, apologized
for leaving me abruptly, clutched an old tin box and vanished into the
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Shivaji's Story List And Biography