A New Identity or A Lost Heritage
Ay, like Sundari
before, he grieved to touch the Howrah trees. He was seeing the neat row of
banyan trees along the road to the Hanuman Temple. Chandini…
ay, she wrenched his soul yet!
shouted Chakra in concern. “You feeling sick?”
“No,” he replied, taking a
deep breath. “My mind had roamed, Chakra. I am myself now.”
“You grieve for India like the
rest?” asked Hari.
“Yes,” he confessed. “I have
grieved to return to India every day of my life. And so have all those who came
from India. It is a feeling which cripples everything inside you. Worse than
anything you will ever know. Worse than death.”
“I see tears fall from their
eyes when they talk about their life in India,” said Hari.
“But I cannot grieve for what I do not know.”
“Well said, Hari!” Ramdas returned. “One day you will tell me what you know, and I will tell you what I know.”
Contact: Marie Blair @ 402-310-2837
Ramdas was born in a small village just outside of Howrah. He was the fourth son of Udai Singh, a builder of the sudra caste. Udai had constructed the new two-storey ashram for the village guru. They were close friends, it seemed, since the guru often came to talk. It was he who gave the name, Ramdas to the child.
His mother, Anjali was too fond of her last child, and showered him with love. Ramdas grew up speaking the Bengali and Hindi languages. It was often that he would sit with his father in the parlour, while he and the guru spoke. One day, when Ramdas had ten years, the guru said to Udai: “The boy is intelligent for his age. Send him to learn in the English college.”
Udai’s face expressed shock at the advice.
The guru was able to read Udai’s mind, and he spoke: “When Manu the law-giver looked at the society, he was merely defining what was already established. You do know, since Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita, that a man, any man is elevated only through his merits.”
Udai knew all this.
The guru continued: “Since when did the great Bhagavan choose from the great to make the great, unless they are first humbled?
“So,” said Udai, nodding his head. “You see a different life for the boy?”
The guru smiled, and said: “I am not as blessed as the saints and seers of India. The boy’s aptitude for learning is clear to all.”
Udai was aware that the guru wasn’t telling all he knew. “Why not our own school? Why go to the English school?” he asked.
“I can only tell you what you already know,” the guru returned. “The British yavanas are not the same as those who have invaded the Land of Bharata from thousands of years ago. Hindu life is much frustrated today.”
All of India was discontented with the British yavanas. Their form of government, and especially their alien and oppressive laws had already overturned and corrupted Indian life. For millennia, the dictum in Europe was that a man should not seek to rise out of the situation, in which God had seen fit to place him. Now, the yokels had achieved a strange merit. The colour of their skin made them superior! Ay, they even mocked the Hindu religion!
Mr. Udai Singh could not understand why his son should attend an English school. But one never argued with the village guru. “My wife has a sister in Howrah,” he said quietly. “It is just six miles away.”
The guru nodded his head. He took his leave then. When Anjali heard, she cried her heart out.
But she was consoled when she understood that Ramdas would spend his holidays at home.
* * *
The young brahmacarin was soon settled in his new home at Howrah. His aunt, Anurupa was not unlike her sister in ways, and Ramdas was soon made to feel at home. Her husband, Mitra was a teacher in the near-by Hindu school! The couple, in their middle forties, had three children. Vinay, the son more advanced in age, was employed in the civil service, while the other, Mohit was a sepoy in the Bengali army. Their daughter, Nalini was twelve years of age.
It was a spacious residence, with a parlour twice the size of the one in his village. Ramdas was given his own room. Outside was a neat and pretty flower garden, with a single sheoli tree in white blossom. The orchard at the back was planted with jackfruit, date, fig, litchi and mango. The margosa and cadamba stood at the edges.
Ramdas had scarcely applied himself to his studies, when Nalini entered his room, and said: “So, cousin Ramdas. You are going to follow Bhai Vinay, and work for the Yavana government?”
Ramdas, known for his ready wit, could not reply. Finally, he confessed: “I do not know why I am learning English.”
“Papa teaches Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit,” she added. “You know Sanskrit?”
He wagged his face thoughtfully. “Only some poems by heart.”
“Good. I will teach you what I know,” returned Nalini, leaving him to continue his homework.
Howrah had a teeming population, and Ramdas soon made many friends. And since he was endowed with a ready wit, he was also popular with his class-mates. His uncle, he observed, was accustomed to talking with his colleagues in the parlour late into the evening. Uncle Mitra also had a variety of guests, and Ramdas could not help overhearing some of their conversations.
One thing was made clear daily in his young mind. India was having the worst period in its entire history.
When the school term came to an end, his father, Udai came to fetch him. Ramdas was then happy to be home again; and to answer a thousand questions from his mother, Anjali. He visited the guru at the ashram too, and spent time with the younger disciples.
After several such vacations, Ramdas looked twice at Nalini. “You are staring at me, cousin,” she said.
“Yes,” he admitted. “Each time I return from holidays, you look bigger, prettier.”
“Ha, ha,” Nalini laughed and blushed.
“And these days you chamke much,” he added.
“Array? What you know about chamke? You have a secret girl friend?”
“I have many girl friends,” he replied manly.
“Hat! You are too young. Besides, love is not good for the student.”
“Ay, cousin,” said he. “You know love?”
“S’hhhh,” Nalini cautioned, placing a finger to her lips. “Follow me to the cadamba tree, and I will tell you all.”
Nalini was on her way to becoming a seamstress. She had reached fourteen years, and now took dancing lessons. Under the cadamba, she confided to Ramdas all about her secret love.
His name was Charan, and he was the son of the seamstress who taught her. This Charan was a sepoy of nineteen years.
At the end, Ramdas said: “You are very pretty to get married. But grow some more.”
“Hat! What do you know about love? You are a boy yet.”
“I am no longer a boy,” Ramdas insisted.
Nalini cast her eyes up and down his figure. “You have grown much since you came here. You just wait, cousin. When time come and Kama strikes you, then you will know what I feel. You will surrender to Kama.”
After a while, Ramdas spoke: “Kama is very powerful then?”
Nalini would talk all evening, but her mother was calling her to help prepare the dinner. There was more learning to be had in the kitchen. Ramdas already knew that Indian cuisine with its spices, together with so many other aspects of life, such as song and dance, had developed from thousands of years ago. It was one of the reasons, the Europeans had searched for so many centuries for a gateway to India.
Ramdas returned dutifully to his studies. At the end of another two years, he wrote his examinations. While the results surprised no one, all expressed their joy at his several distinctions. Following his uncle, Ramdas was literate in both English and Sanskrit.
He was surprised then, to hear Bhai Vinay and his friends talk about the linguist and grammarian, Panini. And also, how Sanskrit had helped the English to analyze their sentences. Vinay and another of his friends were on vacation, and they were still undecided whether to make the kumbha mela at Orissa or at Allahabad.
Ramdas already knew that India was a land of tens of thousands of saints and seers. And that millions would attend these pilgrimages. Vinay would have liked to carry Ramdas along, but the routes were dangerous. But in Bengal also, they were celebrating the birth of Lord Jaggernauth, and his sepoy cousin spoke about the colossal chariot and statues already built. Mohit would take Ramdas along to the celebrations.
Not too long in his fifteenth year, Ramdas was thrilled with the excitements of life. Nalini was soon to be married! Once more, they were under the majestic cadamba tree. Nalini used a dainty foot to push herself on the swing. “Now that time has arrived, I am a little scared,” she spoke, yet her face was beaming with a smile.
Ay, but wasn’t Nalini a beautiful young woman! thought Ramdas. “Your sepoy, Charan is a very fortunate man. Lucky to have you.”
“I am the lucky one,” Nalini returned. “My love is overflowing enough to kill him.”
Ramdas laughed. “One day, I will look for a girl like you. But I shall never be a sepoy.”
“Too often we have discussed that the sepoy must kill human beings like himself. I say that the sepoy defends life; you say you cannot kill,” spoke Nalini.
“Cousin Mohit says that his duty is not to think, but to follow orders,” said Ramdas.
“So if Mohit kills, he is the murderer?”
“I would die before I will kill,” replied Ramdas. “I do not like this topic.”
“Your village guru named you too well,” observed Nalini. “When you had just come, I asked if you would follow Bhai Vinay.”
“Bhai speaks with disgust about his British superiors. Not only do they get the higher posts which they do not merit, but they are snobs.”
“What is a snob?”
“It is not in Hindu literature. And the English dictionary is inadequate to describe him. It is someone disgusting and distasteful.”
Nalini laughed, and pushed herself harder on the swing. “You must make new clothes for my wedding, Ramdas,” the seamstress spoke now. “You see how Mohit’s British attire could strangle him alive. So tight it is! So too is your school uniform. But you look like a prince in Indian attire.”
“They insist that we wear uniforms,” said Ramdas. “Ay, I have heard Bhai Vinay say, that they even mock our humble manners of greeting. They shake hands instead, both men and women!”
“Come shake my hand, cousin,” Nalini’s laughter filled the orchard with love.
They returned within then, to have dinner.
That year, Ramdas was able to spend more time in his village. Angali would never cease praising her son, how well he had grown. He told his mother all he could. About the endless people celebrating Lord Jaggernauth’s anniversary. About Nalini’s ceremonial wedding, with song and dance, and catching drums. And about his studies, of course.
At the ashram, he told the guru that he’d enrolled to write the civil service examinations. Ramdas was disappointed that the guru showed indifference, since it was he who had recommended that he attend an English school! Instead, the guru stared rather sympathetically at him!
His Howrah home was one of shared knowledge and daily learning. Ramdas was aware that his years as a brahmacarin were coming to an end. Uncle Mitra let it be known through Anurupa, that Ramdas should spend as much time as he could spare, in the parlour.
Ay, wasn’t he an adult now, he felt. Ramdas began to listen with adult ears to the several guests, and to their vast knowledge. He heard of India’s civilizations long before the coming of the yavanas, the conquerors. Long before the age of empires. To the linguist, Panini, were added several distinguished men, and their contributions to Indian life. Thus, he heard of Kalidas the playwright, who invented theatre, and of the saint, Valmiki, the first poet in the world, and who wrote Rama’s Way. And all this, long before the common era.
Ramdas found himself staring at his uncle’s guests, as if he’d never seen or heard them speak before. Millennia ago, even the Chinese had come to study law and philosophy at Indian universities. Even then, there were splendid cities along the Holy Ganges. Ay, the saints of the Himalayas had blessed this great river, so that its waters became holy, and forever unpolluted! That the saints had this power was common Hindu knowledge.
The conquerors had brought their beliefs and their cultures, which were absorbed into Indian life. After conquest, they had settled, adding to India’s civilizations. But now, it was another kind of yavana, who was not only carrying away India’s wealth, but insulting and destroying her way of life.
Perhaps what confounded Indian life most was British law. The magistrates, shocked that the Indian could not tell a lie, compelled him to bear false witness. For refusing, he was imprisoned.
The talk now was how to take back their country from the European yavanas.
* * *
Uncle Mitra’s guests included from time to time, holy men, swamis and saddhus, gurus and miracle workers. Then it was, Ramdas was most delighted to listen. He never ceased to be amazed at their vast knowledge. Ay, these holy men knew everything, and offered seemingly simple answers to what was sometimes confusing to Uncle Mitra and his colleagues! And yet, they’d never been to school!
This evening, amongst several guests in the parlour, the guru spoke: “I have listened to you speak about India’s history. And yet there is another history without which India is nothing. In the beginning was the word, Aum.”
The guru clasped his hands at the holy word, and continued: “Today, some argue whether it was God who spoke the Vedas to the ancient rishis, or whether they looked within themselves and realized God.”
“Which is it you believe, guru?” asked Uncle Mitra.
He would not answer directly. He said: “Does it matter? You know your soul, Mitra. You know you are linked to God.”
He gave Mitra a smile before speaking again. “Throughout the ages, intelligent men have asked themselves: ‘Who am I? What is the purpose of my life?’ The ancient Vedas are clear: You are inseparable from God. Your purpose is to return to Him. And how to do this is prescribed.”
One of Mitra’s colleagues now inquired: “Guru, great men, such as Prince Gautama renounced the material world, and fasted under Pipal to know truth. And yet he failed?”
The guru was almost grinning. “Perhaps you have answered Mitra’s first question: Whether the Vedic Scriptures are from God or man. But how about God in man?” The guru now allowed himself a chuckle.
He spoke again: “Both Gautama and Jinna had to return to Hinduism to find God. That you know.”
His aunt, Anurupa now came with a tray of jack-fruit juice, which was followed by a bowl of litchi and sweets. Ramdas was thrilled to hear the guru, thrilled to hear the holy men speak. They knew all the answers. How? Ay, the guru was staring at him. “Look within to find truth, Ramdas,” he spoke.
Ramdas now felt his head giddy. Ay, it was exhilarating to live with God!
* * *
He continued his studies until it was time to write the civil service examinations. Ramdas was in the middle of his sixteenth year when his results showed he had passed with honours. Once more, no one was surprised, and all were happy for him. He received many gifts, including a princely suit of clothing from Nalini!
Ay, thought Ramdas, the life of the brahmacarin is hard. He preferred to listen to Uncle Mitra’s guests in the parlour, especially to the holy men. There, he continued to hear about India’s history and her splendid architecture. Of great temples and mosques, and palaces adorned with multitudes of statues, carved by the hands of holy and inspired sculptors.
He heard too of so many wars, some ending in massive jauhars, with wives and daughters rushing before the enemy. And of ancient armoury: chariots filled with death-dealing weapons. And when the bow was tall as a man, and the foot used to let fly the arrow! “The British Enfield rifle and their cannons have replaced chivalry and honour in war,” Uncle Mitra had pointed out.
Bhai Vinay had found employment for Ramdas. The civil service was filled with young and intolerant youths from England. It was a miserable place for an Indian to be employed. Ramdas could work in Howrah. Either at the Post Office or in a British Trading House. He chose the latter.
“You must cut your hair first,” Bhai Vinay smiled to say.
That evening, Nalini and her husband, Charan visited. While Nalini cut his hair, the two sepoys spoke about the discontent in the Bengal army. British graft and nepotism had extended to all areas of their administration. Ramdas was hearing that the Brahmin and Rajput sepoys, mostly from the Kingdom of Oudh, had lost all their favours since the annexation. The sepoys were ready to mutiny!
Mohit was speaking: “To become a general these days, it is better to have one tooth or none.”
Sepoy Charan laughed, and added: “How many hairs must you have on your head?”
“None!” Mohit shared his laughter.
If these young sepoys predicted mutiny, they could not know its horrible consequences.
It was early summer when Ramdas began his first job. The Trading House was just about a mile from where he lived, and he enjoyed the early walk. Ramdas was employed as an assistant clerk. The first glance he had from his superior, he understood at once was one of preconceived contempt. But Ramdas’ natural intelligence and aptitude, together with his Hindu upbringing, soon won the admiration of the Englishman.
He began to enjoy his work, at the same time, learning much about British manufactures. Along the way, a side street, planted neatly with banyan trees would always catch his eye. The road, he noted was paved with ancient, burnt bricks, but appeared as tidy as the quiet houses within the trees.
The Saturday’s work was half the day. As Ramdas neared the street, he saw several well-dressed folks, many carrying beautiful garlands, making their way within. Curious, he stopped to look. The next moment, someone was shouting: “Hanuman Jayanti!”
Ramdas smiled, as ‘Hanuman Jayanti’ became a loud chorus. He followed the folks, staring at banyan along the way. Soon, the street made a bend, and there, standing on a mound, was a temple dedicated to Hanuman, beloved servant of the great avatar, King Rama of Ayodhya. Hanuman gladdened the hearts of all men. It was his Day.
Ramdas found seat close up to the temple. A group was singing hymns from Ramayana, while others accompanied with drums, the tamboura, and a pair of cymbals. Ramdas stared at the huge, orange statue. Hanuman would smile. Ay, Hanuman always smiled for those who would know him!
But he did not smile now. Ramdas had turned his gaze to the back of the young woman, laying her garland at Hanuman’s feet. She was turning, fixing her colourful shawl at the top of her head. Returning. Ay, so gracefully! She had seen him. Ramdas was stunned. Did she smile?
He saw the red bindi between her brows, the three dots above her chin. She wore intricate necklaces of silver, bracelets of silver. And the coloured tapestry on her scarlet dress was an affair of exquisite craftsmanship. She was brown as the rich earth. Too simple to be simple.
Ramdas stood from his seat, bereft. “I am Ramdas,” he said.
She laughed then, gaily. Her face lighted up in innocence. Ramdas was already thinking that Kama had struck him. “Ramdas is Rama’s devotee,” she spoke. “It is Hanuman’s Day. So who are you, really?”
“The guru in my village named me, Ramdas,” he replied.
She saw that he was earnest, and smiled again before speaking: “I am Chandini. You will stroll?”
“Yes,” he answered quickly. “If my feet will allow me.”
Near the resting house, they found seat under the shade of the margosa tree. “Chandini,” he repeated her name. “I have smiled with many girls. I have never felt this way. Who are you?”
“I just passed sixteen years,” she spoke. “I am a very simple person.”
“Not true,” he blurted. “You are the only girl in the world who is not simple.”
Chandini laughed easily. “I look like a girl to you? Half a dozen men already ask papa to marry me.”
“Then I am lucky to arrive in time?”
Her face turned serious then. “I told papa my wish was never to get married.”
“I want to marry you,” Ramdas said, surprised at himself.
“Be serious,” she scolded. “It is only minutes that you met me.”
“I do not need more minutes,” he insisted. “Each night now, I shall see your beautiful face amongst the stars.”
“Array? Your tongue is too sweet. I believe you have much practice with the ladies of Howrah.”
“Only with my cousin, Nalini,” Ramdas explained. “Before she married, she told me that one day Kama would strike me. That I will surrender.”
“It is too quick to surrender,” said Chandini. “You are good-looking. And through your bold words, I see you are also nice. I confess, I like you very much.”
Ramdas controlled his bold words. They shared their past then. She lived in the first house, shrouded amidst the quiet trees. Her father was a goldsmith. She had a younger sister, while her two brothers were sepoys in the Bengal army.
Chandini listened eagerly as he related his own past. At the end, she said: “You have lived an unusual life. What is to be your karma?”
Ramdas had found his karma. He would keep quiet.
“Here in Howrah, it is so peaceful. Hanuman is my guardian. Ramdas is Hanuman,” she spoke quietly.
Ay, her words encouraged him. They chatted on until the sun dipped behind the trees. There was bhajan singing and music at the temple. The young couple was hearing their own music. But it was time to return home.
Ramdas understood that life would never be the same again. Who is this Chandini that made him surrender without a battle? Ay, but the battle was in the depths of her eyes. Her every gesture was a cultural nuance begun from time immemorial! She was a Hindu woman!
At her entrance, he said: “Tabe asi. I will come.”
Chandini laughed, squeezed his hand, and said: “And I will be looking out for you!”
Ramdas walked with giddy footsteps along his way. He would tell cousin Nalini that Kama had smitten him. He had surrendered. Ay, Nalini was so overjoyed, her laughter brought tears to her eyes. “I would see this Chandini,” she said, “who has defeated you with a glance!”
“Kama is great,” he replied.
Ramdas could not help his silly aspect. At home, over his dinner, Mousee Anurupa smiled and inquired: “Who is the girl, Ramdas?”
He blushed for the first time he could recall. “How do you know, auntie?”
“I counted twelve times since you came, how you looked in the mirror and combed your hair,” Anurupa laughed. “Before today, your dinner would be long eaten.”
Ramdas explained how he met Chandini. Later, that evening in the parlour, he listened with deaf ears. Chandini had taken control of all his senses.
On his next workday, she came out to her gap to greet him. Ay, and to blush! And in the afternoon, after work, they chatted under her jambu tree. This became a daily pattern, a ritual. And as early as the weekend, they were once again strolling past the banyan trees, on their way to the temple.
This afternoon, Chandini was dressed in shades of pure white. Ay, he thought, holding his speech. If ever a woman deserved the title, Princess, it was she, Chandini. Ramdas felt so unworthy before her!
Just before the easy flight of steps, she said: “Wait here for me, Ramdas. I have a prayer for Hanuman.”
She was not long, and yet Ramdas felt his impatience. Ay, Chandini was returning, as graceful as when he’d first seen her. Was she crying? She stood now before him, speaking with tearful eyes: “Hanuman is silent these days and will not speak.
“Ramdas, like the Son of the Wind, you have captured my heart. Now I wish to be your consort for life.”
He held both her hands, and replied: “And I. I wish to be worthy of you. So be it.”
The young couple announced to their parents and all, their wish to be married. The next month, Ramdas’ parents, Udai and Angali, visited Chandini’s folks to discuss the marriage between their offsprings. Everyone was pleased, happy. Ramdas and Chandini existed in that heady time of impatience, together with heavenly bliss.
They had agreed for the wedding date to be early in the new year. A fortnight before the date, in the Bengal army, the Lascar was taunting his superior: “Bring me my water-vessel!” he commanded. When his superior refused, the Lascar continued: “Your cartridges for the new rifle are greased with the fat of the sacred cow!”
The Lascar then turned to the Muslim sepoys, inciting them with the news that the grease contained pig’s fat. This trivial ruse was sufficient to spark off the anger and frustration felt, from decades of oppressive British rule.
India exploded into what would be called, The Great Mutiny. And for two full years following, blood flowed as freely as water.
* * *
Chaos and confusion now spread all over India. After the punishment parade and imprisonment of eighty-five sepoys at Merut, for refusing to accept the cartridges, the Indian cavalry mutinied and released their fellow sepoys. Disorganized and destructive, and joined by two more battalions of infantry, they followed on the Delhi road.
So far as the British were concerned, the punishment for mutiny was death. Yet there were mutinies all over northern and central India. The East India Company requested more troops, but the British soldiers were engaged in war in Persia and in Russia. The Company resorted to making alliances and treaties, thus weakening and dividing any concerted Indian attempt at organized resistance.
The mutineers had taken Delhi. In the process, they massacred the English women; and the Europeans, trying to escape were cut to pieces on the streets, or herded into the palace, where they were put to death. The British retaliated with equal violence, until Delhi was captured. It was the turning point.
In the end, when The Mutiny was finally put down, the rule of India passed from The Company to the Crown. There was no perceptible difference. And from 1860, India was governed by the Penal Code.
It was a system that bred corruption. From the British governors to the Indian Chief of Police, all turned to politics to get rich quick. Hundreds of recruiters established themselves, and when propaganda failed, hundreds of thousands were forced and herded into the depots, to be shipped for labour as chattels on European overseas plantations.
* * *
Life in Howrah became a nightmare. Sepoys were being hunted down and put to death for complicity. Nalini returned home with her babe while her husband, Charan, following cousin Mohit, went into hiding. Ramdas felt a deep concern this early morning, and almost ran the way to his betrothed.
Swinging her entrance and reaching under the jambu tree, Ramdas was hardly aware that he shouted her name. Ay, Chandini’s papa, the goldsmith appeared at the doorway. He was wagging his head, trying to explain: “The soldiers came for my son, Ajay. So he went to hide in the temple.”
Ramdas wanted to interrupt, to inquire about Chandini. But the misery in her father’s face stopped him.
“Yesterday, when Chand carried food for Ajay, the arkatia tried to grab her. But Ajay was looking out, and he rescued her,” he continued. “There is no place to hide in Bengal, so they left for Lucknow where I have a brother,”
Ramdas’ head was in turmoil. Lucknow was several hundred miles away!
“Son,” her papa spoke again. “It is a bad time for India. Only the Bhagavan knows tomorrow. You must go home now.”
Ramdas bade Chandini’s father goodbye, with his mind already set on going to Lucknow. He could not work again, until he knew that Chandini was safe. He would go at once to the British Trading House and explain his situation.
Ramdas was still on the side-street, when he saw the office boy, Banerjee running towards him. “Bhago! Bhago, Ramdas! Yavana business-house done burn down!”
“What?” he exclaimed, stupefied.
Banerjee further explained: “The people burning all British business. They suspect you have a hand.”
“Jute! Not true, Banerjee,” he replied. “I will explain.”
“Kaun ouloo hai?” persisted Banerjee. “Truth is now dead in India. They will lock you in prison and throw away the key.”
The office boy, Banerjee was a middle-aged man. He noted the indecision on Ramdas’ face, and began to implore him. “Run quickly, Ramdas. Just now the chowkidars will come for you. I beg you to make haste.”
Ramdas finally heeded the advice. He would not add to his relatives’ woes. They’d all looked after him, and with the love of a natural son. While Ramdas explained what had happened, he noted how Aunt Anurupa wrung her hands in concern. Even Uncle Mitra appeared to have lost his natural presence of mind. He said: “Chalo, Ramdas. This time will pass.”
Nalini accompanied him to the road, pleading that he be careful. “Chalo,” Ramdas said to her. “I will return.”
With hurried steps, he covered the six-mile journey to his village in less than two hours. Anjali hugged him with joy. But in the next moment, as he explained his situation, her joy turned to grave concern. “You will hide here,” she said.
His father spoke: “Just five days now, the arkatia was here. The villagers grabbed their latees and chased them away. We think they will return.”
“I am not worried about the arkatia,” said Ramdas. “The office boy said the chowkidars are looking for me. Besides, I must go to Lucknow. I will have no rest until I find Chandini.”
“Udai,” his mother spoke. “Go call the guru. Perhaps he might have something to say.”
Ramdas’ mind was already made. When the guru appeared, he hadn’t much to say. “It is often I have said, that I am not as blessed as the saints and seers of India. Only the Bhagavan knows the future, and His ways are not the ways of man.”
“You see an end to this nightmare, guruji?” asked Ramdas.
“India will return to India, even if it take a hundred years,” he replied.
Ramdas felt irritable. A hundred years! He could not wait a single day. The guru was staring intently at him. “One day you will understand, Ramdas. This life is just the dream. You have only one purpose, which is to make your way back to God. Follow the Dharma law, Ramdas.”
Ay, for the first time, philosophy had little meaning. The blood of India was flowing on the streets everywhere. Ramdas was relieved that the guru must return to his ashram.
Anjali brought food then, insisting that he eat. Ramdas spoke over his meal. “Before the police come, I should go.”
The more Anjali thought, the more her eyes filled with tears. “How you will live? What you will eat? Where you will sleep?” she wept.
“Do not worry, ma,” he returned. “I will seek shelter in the ashrams along Ganga Mai.”
Angali was not much appeased. Ramdas would leave this very evening, but she kept him for two more days. And when it was time to go, Anjali’s voice failed, as she wept. “Ramdas… my son.”
Ramdas waved goodbye, seeing his father still holding Anjali by the shoulders.
* * *
He returned to Chandini’s father for directions to his brother’s residence in Lucknow. “Everywhere is dangerous, and good luck will not save you,” her papa said. “Since I know your mind cannot be changed, I will send you to a faithful friend. Bachan lives on the other side of Howrah. He will help.”
Ramdas received his blessings before he moved on. He kept a careful eye out, avoiding the chowkidars and sepoys along the way. By the time the evening had grown, Ramdas was relieved to find Bachan in his hut.
The man listened to him without interrupting. At the end, Bachan said: “Ouloo hai? What you intend is not possible.
“He said you would help,” said Ramdas.
Bachan shook his head and invited Ramdas to share in his talkari. The night was already falling. “I have some old clothes,” he spoke. “Four o’clock morning, you will dress like the swami. You will also take a staff to help you walk.”
Bachan grinned then, and Ramdas inquired, “What is your work?”
“I transport the British yavanas on my rickshaw, along the streets of Bengal. They are stingy with money; still I make good pice.”
Ramdas observed Bachan was a powerful man. He advised him to sleep early. It seemed he had just fallen asleep, when Bachan was calling for him to awake, and to get dressed. Bachan even hurried him, and it was not long that they stepped outside.
The back roads on the outskirts of Calcutta were still dark, but Bachan knew his way. They walked swiftly, without uttering a single word. But when the sun appeared, Bachan uttered: “Kaun jhanjat! You walk with the garb of a monk, but your face is clean and handsome like a lover. You cannot escape the eye, Ramdas!”
“My beard will grow,” he returned in a weak voice.
“Ay, until then you are a dead man,” spoke Bachan. “Keep your eye near and far as we go.”
It was often that they would dash into the woods. Groups of people appeared on the routes, and all had the same words to tell. They were fleeing the arkatia, the chowkidars, and the sepoys.
“Are they going in the right direction, Bachan?” asked Ramdas.
It was not a question that could be answered. Bachan kept a steady pace until the sun was over their heads, until the sun began to hide behind the jungle. Then they were entering Serampore.
Bachan allowed himself to relax. “I have friends here. They will provide food and shelter. Tomorrow, the road to Burdwan is twice as long. From there you will be on your own.”
With Chandini and Lucknow impatient on his mind, Ramdas fell asleep. The next day, the journey to Burdwan was even longer than Bachan had said. Ramdas would rest for two days before following his journey again.
Bachan spoke: “I wish you would change your mind and return with me. You are mad to continue the way to Lucknow. Ay, but you already begin to look like a mad monk. In India, the only mad monks are the yavana missionaries.”
Ramdas smiled and felt for his incipient beard. “I thank you, Bachan. I am in your debt.”
Seeing that the youngman would not change his mind, Bachan had some final words: “Avoid the Delhi road. There are rest-houses along the other roads, but filled with thieves and thuggees. I cannot say if the ashrams and temples are now safe.”
Ramdas heeded Bachan’s advice. Along the banks of the Ganges, he soon realized that the arkatia had no conscience in violating the sanctity of the temples and ashrams. Everywhere, people were being captured and hauled to the depots. Perhaps what really saved Ramdas, apart from his indifference at being caught, was his dirty garb, and his unkempt beard!
Some three months after Howrah, and surviving on the meanest jobs in the many ashrams, Ramdas left Patna for Lucknow. He had no thought of how he looked. That would come after he met Chandini.
After many inquiries to find his destination, Ramdas was on the narrow road, dividing the village huts. It was a lonely village with scant folks, he noticed. Where the huts petered out, he followed to the end of the side street. There was the house! Ramdas could hear his heart as he shouted for Mr. Sohan, the goldsmith. As he shouted for Chandini!
The house was built with burnt bricks, and with board to the front. Ramdas stared into the open doorway. He felt the desolate surroundings within his soul. “Chandini,” he whispered, “where are you?”
“Ay, swami,” he heard the voice from within the trees.
He turned to see the girl. A youngwoman half hidden behind the tree trunk. “Where are the people from here?” he asked.
“You are arkatia?”
“Do I look like arkatia to you?” he replied, almost in anger.
She stepped forward then, speaking: “One month now, the arkatee came with banduk. They carried all away, except the old and the little children.”
“A youngwoman was here? A pretty youngwoman…?”
“Chandini,” she said. “The arkatee bound her hands, and her brother’s too. Some people escaped in the woods, but many were caught.”
Ramdas felt all his insides suddenly on fire. He marched into the empty house, searching everywhere, shouting for Chandini. The youngwoman became frightened, but she entered the gallery. Ramdas ignored the wooden bench and sat on the floor.
He felt like death.
He half heard the youngwoman speaking. Her name was Madhuri, and she was to be married to Premchand, the son of the goldsmith. Premchand too, was bound and carried away. Ramdas closed his eyes.
* * *
If Ramdas had lost some of his sanity, Madhuri grieving her loss of Premchand, found a strange kind of satisfaction in tending to him. After several weeks, his much weakened body began to regain some of its former strength. He caught Madhuri’s chamke when her mother asked him to stay.
He explained that it wasn’t fair. He must leave. Yet he stayed until he heard that the Mutiny was put down by the British. And yet another year went by. His purse of rupees remained untouched, except for his own expenses. Madhuri would not accept his money.
Ramdas had done much thinking. He would never return home without Chandini. She was the starlight, and for hours he would see her face amongst the stars.
One day, as if Kala had spoken to Kama to make his loss bearable, Ramdas felt much relief. He would survive. He cut his beard, and shaved his face clean. Ay, it was a stranger that stared back at him from the mirror.
Madhuri was delighted, and said how handsome he looked. Ay, four years had passed since Ramdas came, and Madhuri was now eighteen years! “Ramdas,” she said. “I shall sleep with you tonight.”
“From a sweet girl, you have grown into a sweet woman. I cannot love anyone except Chandini,” he returned.
Madhuri did not blush. “I too have lost,” she spoke. “And I will always love my Premchand.”
“I shall soon leave Lucknow,” he said.
“I am sure you will,” she replied.
Ramdas spent a full year with Madhuri. One day, he said he would attend the kumbha mela at Benaras. Madhuri clung to him, with tears in her eyes, and said: “Chalo, Ramdas!”
He left his purse of rupees behind. At Benaras, Ramdas saw thousands upon thousands of holy men. Ay, he estimated that over two million had come to make the pilgrimage! He did not return to Lucknow but journeyed to Allahabad.
He understood that India had redoubled its spiritual fervour. It was the people’s way of returning their country to themselves.
Ramdas had settled himself in an ashram, in which there were several young disciples. He had just turned twenty-four years. This evening, the arkatia came to raid. Ramdas found his hands bound, as they forced him to march on the way to the Calcutta depot.
This life was truly a nightmare. Everywhere… everywhere he was witnessing human suffering. Dohae, dohae. The next day, Ramdas found himself on the high seas! If this is a dream… he pinched himself again and again.
Ramdas was not aware that before him, others had pinched themselves to awaken from their dreams. And that it was to no avail. The dream continued within the wider dream.