‘Ratan you can’t do this.’ As Radhika spoke, the network of scars on her face knuckled up angrily in purple corrugations.
‘I don’t want to,’ Ratan shrugged.
Radhika’s face changed.
It was like watching some crazy cybermorphing. The scars faded as Yashoda’s warm intelligence shone in Radhika’s eyes. He should be used to it by now, but it still quickened him with delight.
She laughed indulgently. ‘The old man must have his reasons.’
‘Old?’ Ramratan growled. ‘I’ll show you old, woman!’
But this morning, the challenge did not end in the usual romp.
It was the sixth of December. Twenty-three years to the day Radhika watched her lover Anwar burn to death. It was the day Ratan Oak’s submerged life had burst into the open—the life of Ramratan Oak.
Ramratan Oak, surgeon to the dead, was Ratan’s greatgrandfather —but that explained nothing.
‘Don’t explain,’ Radhika whispered in his embrace. Now that she guessed where Ratan’s decision came from, she no longer opposed it and this made him jealous sometimes.
Now Ramratan chuckled in Ratan’s skull.
‘That Chikhalkar, complete humbug that he was, couldn’t humbug us, could he?’
These days Ramratan stayed long enough to start the conversation that would catapult Ratan into his other life.
‘What do you mean?’ Ratan demanded.
‘Why ask me? You were there. Nineteen ﬁfteen.’
‘No, you were there, not me.’
‘Never mind, we’ll both be there at the Centenary.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘Like hell you’re not.’
So he, Ratan Oak, had accepted the invitation from the slime-ball Shakha Pramukh. This had enraged Radhika.
Radhika was the real reason for the invite. She had done nothing to conceal her scars.After a few operations to restore full mobility in her limbs, she had refused any further plastic surgery. She used her scars as a weapon.
‘My parents did this to me,’ she would say quietly.
It amazed Ratan how seldom the exchange varied. ‘Your parents? What did you do to deserve it?’
‘My lover was Muslim. I am Hindu. My parents hired a man to burn Anwar to death. I burned too. But I lived. It happened on 6 December 1992.’
Someone invariably said, ‘You’ll never forget the date…’ And Radhika would shoot back, ‘Can you?’
The question confused her listener. ‘I?’
‘What happened that 6 December? Yes, this happened to me.What happened to you?’
‘Nothing. Nothing happened to me on that day.’
‘No? The day our nation plunged into ﬁre? Surely, you burned too? These are my scars. Tell me, what happened to you?’
Usually, that ended the conversation.And it killed him.
‘Must you?’ he asked each time.
‘I must. It’s what I do.’
Over the years, the neighborhood’s perception of Radhika’s scars had changed. She had gone from hero to health warning.
‘Earlier, people would say, ‘Forgive your parents.’ Nowadays they say, Time heals everything, na? By now your parents must have forgiven you.”
The local Right was celebrating the birth centenary of Pandurang Chikhalkar, and for the heartbeat of Bharatvarsh to resound in the ears of aliens and barbarians, invitations were sent to ‘trouble-makers’ too.
It was typical of them that the invitation should be addressed to Ratan Oak, with and family crossed out in red ink.
Ramratan wanted him to go, but Ratan was not as easily persuaded as Radhika.
No matter what Ramratan’s view of Chikhalkar was, he would have to sit through an hour or more of cringe-making adulation, and then one more of listening to the poet’s propagandist effusions recited, or even worse, sung relentlessly off-key.
‘I’m not going,’ he let Ramratan know. ‘Why should I care if a third rate poet turns hundred?’
Ramratan laughed. ‘Hundred? He would be my age if I were alive. It is not a birth centenary, it is the centenary.’
‘The celebrated poem Chikhalkar wrote in anguish. He gave it to his son sealed in a porcelain bottle on 6 December 1915.’
‘How do you know it was a porcelain bottle?’
‘Our Kaviraj couldn’t swallow his bhākri without a dab of Patum Peperium.’
‘What on earth is that?’
‘Some kind of ﬁsh paste. Nasty, expensive stuff. Nusser saves his jars for Yashoda. Neat round porcelain screw-top jars.’
‘Why not seal the poem in an envelope?’
‘Ha! Chikhalkar wasn’t looking for convenience. His quest was always for immortality.’
‘The term is new to me, but yes.Time capsule. Gentleman’s Relish as time capsule,’ Ramratan laughed. ‘Can’t miss that, can we?’
‘What’s in the poem?’
No answer was forthcoming.
Ratan felt the familiar migraine setting in. Since he had given up ﬁghting it, he preferred to time travel in comfort. He kicked off his shoes, and looked around for a cushion. He hadn’t noticed till now how annoyingly his neck ached…
He hadn’t noticed till now how annoyingly his neck ached. He seemed to have lived with this excruciating pain all his ﬁfty-ﬁve years. Would the ride never end? His ﬁngers itched to tear the wheel from Nusser. Perhaps he should strangle him ﬁrst. If it hadn’t been for the humbug in the back- seat, he would have done one or the other. Ramratan clenched his teeth as Nusser hit another pothole.
The Silver Ghost was getting it much worse than his neck.
‘ …the chassis has been specially developed for Indian roads,’ Ramratan quoted silently from the luxurious brochure, but both Rolls & Royce had reckoned without Nusser.
The expedition was all his own fault.
Darayus Surveyor had shown him a marvel when he was thirteen. Nusser, a sickly boy, never made it to these ﬁeld trips with his geologizing father, but Ramratan accompanied Darayus every summer.
Darayus was a wonderful teacher. He would bring alive the Sahyadris like a storybook without an ending.
Nusser had missed it all.
He couldn’t care less, but Ramratan felt the entire weight of the ghats oppress him after Darayus’ death, and never lost an opportunity to restore Nusser’s patrimony.
So when Nusser had announced a ‘country jaunt’ to break in the Silver Ghost, still gleaming untouched in his bungalow at Aundhgaon, Ramratan suggested they drive down to the Kukdi riverbed, ‘Our own, very private Hawaii, pāhoehoe in Poona!’
And despite Ramratan’s pleading, Wilson was given the day off, and they set out at dawn with Nusser driving.
‘We’re picking Chikhalkar up on the way,’ said Nusser after a bumpy mile. ‘Flows like silk, doesn’t she, Ramratan?’
‘It’s all about the engine—’
‘Why Chikhalkar? Why that insufferable bore?’
‘I can’t stand him either. He begged, Ramratan, and I can’t stand that too.’
‘Yes, but what for?’
‘He said he’d never been in a motor, as he calls it.’
‘Isn’t it against his principles? This is a western invention.’
‘Not at all. He says Henry Ford got the blueprint for his engine out of the Ramayana.’
‘No, those were the Wright Brothers. They stole the pushpak viman.’
‘Don’t rile him, Ramratan. Promise me you won’t.’
‘That’s rich, Nusser. First I must endure him, and then promise not to rile him? Why?’
‘Because if you do, he’ll start reciting his stuff.’
That silenced Ramratan.
They found Chikhalkar waiting for them at the Koregaon-Bhima naka, holding forth to an adoring audience of chelas.
‘Hop in! We’re in a hurry,’ said Ramratan unguardedly.
On cue the chelas struck up Chikhalkar’s popular, Where so fast, O traveller? The punch line was delivered with fine irony:
Twenty horses to your engine?
My chariot has just two and two’s aplenty!
‘Does that mean you’ll walk?’ Ramratan asked.
Chikhalkar ignored him. He silenced his chelas and trotted them around the Rolls Royce.
‘Today we will call this a motor car,’ he declaimed. ‘We may even concede it to Rolls & Royce. But the time is not distant, my friends, when it will be called by its true name. Vidyut Vāhan! So, don’t say RR, say VV!’
Nusser took this as a signal to rev up and the chelas fell back in alarm.
Chikhalkar was posted into the back seat complete with umbrella, cloth bag and shining brass kamandal.
For the first ten miles or so, the sheer tumult of the journey silenced Chikhalkar’s muse, and he mercifully nodded off.
Ramratan divided his irritation between Nusser’s driving, his aching neck, and the long miles ahead.
They halted for lunch at noon.
Wilson had done them proud: rugs, cushions, a tall canister of water and, not one, but two, wickerwork hampers that promised all sorts of delights.
‘Two hampers, Nusser?’ asked Ramratan. ‘Isn’t that excessive?’
Silently, Nusser pointed to the poet who still snored, huddled in Nusser’s shawl.
Shuddha shakahari, no doubt.
Ramratan stretched his legs gratefully. Nusser tore off goggles, cap, traveling coat and settled down on a rug.
‘We should let Chikhalkar sleep,’ suggested Ramratan.
But Nusser, kindly host, would have none of it, and Ramratan woke him none too gently.
Chikhalkar trotted off into the bushes kamandal in hand, and returned with a brisk air of appetite.
He waved away the shuddha shakahari hamper as a childish affectation.
‘The road has its own dharma,’ he proclaimed as he tucked into the sandwiches.
Wilson had relied on the Royal’s very British largesse.
‘Roast beef,’ Ramratan warned.
Chikhalkar nodded happily and took one more. He was lavish with mustard and pounced on the little pot of Patum Peperium with a cry of joy.
‘This is my favorite,’ he confided, as he slathered it indiscriminately on everything he ate, and as he ate everything, the pot was soon wiped clean.
Wilson had indulged Ramratan by providing little ramekins of his delectable crème caramel.
‘Such tiny servings!’ Chikhalkar complained. So they gave him theirs too.
‘I’m taking a walk.’ Ramratan set off brusquely, but before long Chikhalkar joined him.
‘Nusser is taking a nap,’ he said. ‘This kind of lunch is most stupefying to the brain. Leaves one in tamāsik gloom!’
‘I suppose your sātvik glow comes from all the rājāsik things you’ve eaten?’ Ramratan riposted.
‘Listen, don’t get me wrong, but will your friend mind if I take two of those dabbas of ghee?’
‘Foie gras? Ask him, I’m sure he won’t mind.’
‘It is highly recommended in Ayurveda.’
‘No doubt. So too are elephant testicles and tiger pizzle.’
‘For advanced cases only. In my case this ghee induces poetic fire.’
‘Really? The fat engorged liver of a goose can do that for you?’
‘You’re the doctor, not me. And there is nothing sātvik about poetry.’
‘The other two, eh?
‘Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Look at those women now. I may stare at them, and though I am on fire, my gaze is blameless, for I am a poet. You, on the other hand can have nothing but lust in your gaze, you not being a poet.’
‘Still, I suggest you stop staring unless you want a thrashing.’
‘They’re going to thrash me? Those little chits?’
‘No. I will.’
Ramratan stumbled over something and nearly lost his balance. It was a slab of stone, half buried in the grass and weeds. Recently fallen, it had crushed a thick green vine under it.
The carving on the stone arrested him. A woman’s upraised arm, displaying the unbroken bangles of conjugal felicity.
A sati stone.
Judging from the crude unembellished carving, the sati was a humble villager, her life rendered significant only by death.
Sati stones were common enough in the countryside, but he could never stop the dread that overcame him when he saw one. There but for the grace of God went Yashoda—
‘How shameful to let it lie where our feet touch it!’ Chikhalkar exclaimed. ‘Those women just walked past it! They should be worshipping this punyavati, lighting a lamp, anointing it with haldi and kumkum, garlanding it with flowers. Surely they’ve earned the wrath of this pure soul.’
‘Let’s go, Chikhalkar.’
‘You carry on. I’m not going anywhere till I’ve shown these women the error of their ways!’ And he grimly marched ahead, every slap of his chappals a scold.
Ramratan was strongly tempted to return to the car and urge Nusser to take off, leaving this nuisance behind. Only the fear of Chikhalkar saying or doing something offensive made him follow.
Chikhalkar was in mid-harangue when Ramratan caught up with him. The three women looked too frightened to respond with anything more than looks of distress. They were very young, barely in their twenties.
Ramratan managed to get a word in and pressed his advantage by asking them about the village.
But Chikhalkar’s rebuke had awoken something deeper than alarm in them.
‘Is that why you’ve come?’ the first girl asked hesitantly. ‘For the ceremony?’
‘What ceremony?’ Ramratan’s mouth went dry.
‘That.’ The girl pointed to the fallen sati stone.
‘Is there such a ceremony today?’ Ramratan forced out the words. ‘For whom?’
‘In the Patil’s house. They say it’s his daughter-in-law. But we don’t know anything about it.’
She was about to pull her friend away, but the other girl turned suddenly brave. ‘No, we know about it.We watched them build the hut.’
The girls would say no more, but Chikhalkar seemed to know all about it.
‘The hut is good,’ he said with approval. ‘With a hut, everything goes off well. Come on, let’s watch the fun!’
‘We aren’t going to watch. If you want to, we’ll show you the way.’
The girls set off, hurrying more to escape Chikhalkar than to get anywhere.
It couldn’t be happening—
Ramratan was already running, heart in mouth, in the direction the girl had pointed. It couldn’t be happening, but he knew it could.
Chikhalkar came loping after him, pointing importantly at the knot of people gathered in the distance. ‘That must be it.’
Ramratan, who had paused for breath, set off again, with Chikhalkar close on his heels. It crossed his mind that Chikhalkar’s motives might be very different from his own. ‘Slow down, Oak! I can tell you there’s plenty of time.’
‘How would you know?’
‘I say—you’re not going to do something foolish, are you?’
‘I’m going to stop it.’
‘It is a noble act, sanctioned by the scriptures. You have no right to stop it.’
‘It is murder. For your information, it is not sanctioned by any old scripture. And, what if it were? If you die tomorrow, would you want your wife to burn herself with your body?’
‘I would. But she probably won’t. It is her choice. Look, there’s the hut now.’
‘What’s this hut for?’
‘The husband’s body is placed inside the hut. The widow is led in, and the thatched roof is weighted down with logs. Then the door is barricaded with more logs. The true punyavati will light the pyre herself, from inside. So I’ve heard. I’ve never seen one myself. Bruce Carlisle Robertson made the hut famous, you know.’
‘Used to be the Sahib here a century ago. He tried to stop sati. Naturally, the people didn’t like his interfering. So he tried another trick. He got them to alter the hut in such a manner that the logs wouldn’t fall in at once, and the woman could escape, if she wanted to. He witnessed what happened when they tried it his way. The hut exploded within seconds! He became the laughing stock of Poona!’ Chikhalkar laughed heartily.
Ramratan had never before felt such revulsion towards any man, and yet he grabbed Chikhalkar by the arm and said earnestly, ‘We’ve got to find her.’
The poet tried to shake free, but Ramratan dragged him along in his stride.
A purohit was readying the grass hut. He stopped them angrily, barring their way towards the hut.
‘You’re perfectly aware you’re committing murder,’ Ramratan said coldly. ‘I’m a government official and I will have you arrested within the hour.’
Several voices shouted back. ‘We don’t know you. You have no authority here.’
‘I do.’ Nusser stepped forward. ‘I’m a magistrate. When I say stop, you stop. Dr Oak and I will have the police here before you know it.’
Ramratan was surprised by Nusser’s sudden appearance, but not by his quick grasp of the situation. It took a crisis to bring out his genius.
‘We’re not forcing her,’ said a young man. ‘She’s doing it because she wants to. Because it is the right and noble thing to do. Isn’t that the truth, vahini?’
The woman he addressed, a stout girl in her thirties, nodded enthusiastically.
‘Yes, it’s always been her intention. And now, none of us can stop her.’
‘How did her husband die?’
‘Snake bite. She will be very upset if you stop her now.’
‘Let me speak with her.’
They were intimidated by Nusser’s authority and Ramratan was led unwillingly, into a house some distance away.
Their guide pointed to a darkened room. ‘She’s in there.’
The others fell back, suddenly disinterested.
Ramratan pushed open the nearest window when he entered the room. Behind him Chikhalkar gasped in disbelief.
A small girl dressed in wedding finery sat crouched against the wall.
The child was barely fifteen.
She cowered and shrank into her clothes under their scrutiny.
Ramratan knelt down next to her.
‘Don’t be frightened, little one,’ he murmured. ‘Do you know why you’ve been brought here? Tell me.’
Her eyes focused severely on him. A small voice asked ‘How long will it hurt? They say it won’t hurt at all. The fire won’t burn me. I’ll go straight to swarg.’
‘No, that is a lie. The fire will burn you. It will hurt worse than the worst pain in the world. That’s why I won’t let it happen to you. Come on! I’ll take you home to your parents.’
‘No! They’ll be angry with me! I’ll bring shame on them!’
That canard. Would it never stop?
‘Come on, now.’ He raised her in his arms and carried her out.
A sobbing woman was being led towards them. She took the child wordlessly from Ramratan.
‘The police will be here to make enquiries,’ Nusser told the spectators. Nothing could have made them disperse quicker.
‘Let’s go home,’ Nusser suggested.
Ramratan nodded. The Kukdi river bed could wait.
Chikhalkar stumbled after them.
They passed a small temple where the same purohit was in attendance.
Chikhalkar stopped for a moment to peer at the murti in the dark sanctum.
‘Why have you draped a sari over the devi?’ he demanded.
The purohit answered with a scornful look.
‘Why?’ persisted Chikhalkar.
‘Why? For decency, what else?’
Chikhalkar, quite satisfied with that answer, caught up with them and the Silver Ghost set off at a bone-rattling pace.
All three men were silent.
Nusser’s abstraction made him drive better.
Ramratan, battling his own demons, ignored both his aching neck and Chikhalkar’s attempts at conversation.
At Koregaon-Bhima, Chikhalkar insisted they stop by his house for a few minutes as he wanted them to witness something important. Wearily, they agreed.
Chikhalkar invited them to be seated on the stone bench in the verandah and called for his son.
‘Bring my desk!’ he barked when the boy turned up.
The desk was brought.
The poet scribbled a few lines on a piece of paper.
‘Now, my friends. I would like you to witness this. I have just written, under your scrutiny, the most important poem of my life. It contains not my dreams, but my conviction of what my dreams will accomplish. Not today or tomorrow, but a hundred years from now! So, in your presence, I’m sealing this poem.’
And from his pocket out came the emptied Patum Peperium jar from Nusser’s picnic.
The poet folded his poem and put it into the jar still cloudy with fish paste. Then, taking a stick of red wax from his desk, he sealed it securely.
‘There, Madhav! This is your responsibility. And your son’s, after you. In the presence of these honored gentlemen, I entrust you to open this one hundred years from today. On 6 December, 2015! Then the world will understand the burden oppressing my soul today.’
Without further ado, he politely thanked his visitors, and sent them away.
‘The arrogance of the man!’ Ramratan gnashed his teeth.
Nusser guffawed. ‘He’s a poet, Ramratan, forget him.’
But they were to remember him, after all.
‘He blamed me for his suicide,’ Ramratan’s voice continued in Ratan’s brain.
‘He committed suicide?’
‘Within the month. It was called an accident, naturally. He was cleaning a pistol. That was seen as political. If the gun hadn’t gone off in his face, Chikhalkar, not Mohandas Gandhi, might have been the Mahatma responsible for free India.’
‘Why blame you? Did he leave a note?’
‘No. He blamed me long before that. The letter came on Christmas Day. I’ve kept it somewhere, you’ll find it. A lot of blather about Bharatvarsh, but the lines meant for me said: On you rests the entire responsibility for my despair. In that one afternoon you cremated all my dreams. Scorched by their embers, my fingers have written the truth at last, but you will not be around, my friend, to read those lines.’
‘The Patum Peperium bottle?’
‘Yes. You see now why we must go for that Centenary?’
Ratan was received at the entrance by a bevy of young women all clad in colorful nauvaris.
He was faintly surprised to identify a couple of his own students among these apsaras. Escape was now impossible.
An arati was waved at him, a tilak bestowed, a rose offered as boutonnière, his hair sprayed with rose water.
Young men in tasseled dupattas and saffron phetas bustled around importantly.
One of them approached Ratan with folded palms. ‘We’re greatly honored by your presence, sir. Please take your place on the stage.’
Pinioned between two other boys, Ratan was literally dragged to the podium.
‘Why are you so important all of a sudden, Ratan?’ Ramratan sounded alarmed.
The guests already seated on the podium rose to greet Ratan.
‘That’s the grandson.’ Ramratan identified the youngest Chikhalkar.
‘I’d know that snub nose anywhere.’
In a daze, Ratan subsided into the plastic chair. He registered nothing till his name boomed back at him from the microphone.
‘ …and we are privileged to have with us, Dr Ratan Oak, the torchbearer of none other than that fearless champion of truth, Purushottam Nagesh Oak! Here is the man who will restore to our Hindu Rashtra the great, the glorious Tejo Mahalaya! Yes, the sacred temple we have been swindled into calling the Taj Mahal! But that must wait. On that day, Ratan Oak, we will greet you with our hearts in our extended hands. But today’s ceremony is no less important. I will now ask Shri Mohanrao Chikhalkar to introduce the Time Capsule.’
‘Sit down!’ Ramratan whispered furiously.
Ratan, who had every intention of bolting, stayed.
‘Who is this new lunatic? He’s no relation of ours!’
There was no time to answer Ramratan as just then Chikhalkar’s grandson, a man in his eighties, rose to great applause. He swayed on his feet and had to be persuaded to deliver his speech sitting down. It took a while to get him started.
‘My father has often spoken of the day when my revered grandfather wrote this poem,’ Mohan began. ‘He had spent the day on a padayatra through our glorious countryside. As you know, every grain of our punyabhumi was a syllable to him, every blade of grass a punctuation mark, every flower a song—’
Enthusiastic clapping greeted this effusion.
‘So, it happened like this. That day my grandfather had walked many miles, supported by his friends who hung eagerly on his every word, urging him to write a new poem. Can that be done on order? Never!
But my grandfather told my father that this poem, the one that will be revealed to the world today by my unworthy self—this poem was compelled by what he had seen and heard that day. It was an effusion from the very depths of his soul. You know how the simple joys and sorrows of humble people made up the lifeblood of his poetry.’ Overcome, Mohan Chikhalkar mopped his forehead.
An ornate casket of gilded cardboard was now placed before him and opened to great cheering.
He took out a small porcelain jar and held it up.
‘I want you to see this! The sealing wax is undisturbed. It has been undisturbed for a hundred years! From 6 December 1915 till today. I ask you, have I kept this sacred trust to the people’s satisfaction?’
‘Yes!’ roared the audience.
‘Then I have not lived in vain. It has been my life’s endeavor to see this day complete.
‘Get on with it you idiot,’ hissed Ramratan.
Shouts of ‘Open it!’ urged Mohan’s fumbling attempts to break the seal.
The master of ceremonies and other worthies crowded him, and under their joint efforts the Patum Peperium jar fell to the floor and shattered.
A folded scrap of paper fluttered away in the fan’s waft.
Ratan dived hastily and handed it to Mohan who was being restored with a glass of water.
Mohan settled his spectacles, and in taking the paper he retained his hold on Ratan’s hand to draw him into the chair next to him.
Ratan was concerned about the man.
Mohan was breathing uneasily, his forehead was pouring out rivulets of sweat. But he grasped the mike with greed and cleared his throat as he opened the paper.
Over his shoulder, Ratan read the poem with disbelief. Ramratan chuckled. ‘Here comes my absolution, Ratan.’
It was a short, scornful laugh that transformed him.
He rose energetically to his feet and spoke in a strained yet steady voice. ‘The poem is in English. Does that surprise me? No! No man is a prophet in his own country. So he wrote his prophecy not in the sweet tongue of his birth, but in the brutish language of the tyrant. It is a short poem, only four lines. He told my father that it would be the song of the times, shouted from rooftops, lisped by infants in their classrooms. Yes! Listen carefully and judge for yourselves—
‘We battled long, and awfully,
To lose the past we loathed—
Mohan repeated the lines with growing fervor till the audience chanted it with him. His thin voice swelled to a rich baritone as he declaimed the quatrain entire:
‘We battled long, and awfully
To lose the past we loathed.
Brides may now burn lawfully,
And all our gods are clothed!’
A stunned silence followed.
Ratan wondered if Mohan Chikhalkar had quite grasped the lines he had read so powerfully.
As if in answer, his voice rang out again, and the audience joined in.
Soon they were all chanting, like a mantra of redemption, redemption, Chikhalkar’s anthem for a lost dream.
We battled long, and awfully
To lose the past we loathed.
Brides may now burn lawfully,
And all our gods are clothed!