CHAMPARANYA

To be continued…

*

Champaranya

Northern British India

Diary Entry: It is another rainy day of the Indian monsoon. I was wandering through the wilderness of Bhojpur with my ‘ancient’ Enfield rifle… it does fire, by the way. It was gifted to me by the landlord of Azeemabad, Nawab Daud Khan; I worked as his secretary for years. Apart from my Enfield, I had a leather briefcase with my essentials stuffed in. There was a time when I owned a piece of land, a big house, and a beautiful brown horse of higher breed. Things changed later on as they changed for Mughals and the Nawabs. Well, my Enfield and the briefcase is all I got now. I wore a raincoat matching my knee-length boots, I wish them a longer life. 

It’s afternoon time but appears to be dusk. I stopped suddenly; I cannot go ahead as the area afterward is flooded. I sat under the canopy of a thick banyan tree. I waited for a mallah to appear, I knew he would appear. I waited as long as I could, and a mallah appeared with his boat. I must cross this flooded area to reach my destination: the Kali Temple.

 

Iqbal.  Could you take me to the Kali temple? It’s very urgent. I must go there.

Boatman.  Well, I will take you there, Saab. How much will you pay?

Iqbal.  You know the fare. How much would you take?

Boatman. We generally don’t ask for it, but the time is bad these days. Pay whatever you wish, Saab. Get in the boat. I’m going in the same direction. 

Diary Entry: I hopped in the boat and realize that it’s quite spacious and somewhat cozy inside. And yes, it was very brave of him that he asked for the fare as they are not supposed to.  

Iqbal.  Nice boat, you got. How far is the temple?

Boatman.  About a mile. I’m wondering why you should be going there. It’s dilapidated in this season. The fair ended a few months ago. Only the monk lives there with his two servants. 

Iqbal.  I’m a journalist. I’m going to write about the temple and its glorious past. I’d be interviewing the monk also. My job, you see. 

Boatman.  I see, Saab. 

Diary Entry: We slowly waded through the flood. Water, as far as one could see, only water. The water had reached the top of the trees; mud houses had submerged. I shivered as I realized the depth of the water. Deadly silence everywhere. Even the blaring frogs and toads couldn’t breach the deadly silence of the flood.  The dark clouds started pouring again. The dust was falling… a dark and frightening one. 

Boatman.  I thought you were a policeman with a gun. I fear guns. 

Iqbal.  This gun is a licensed one. It’s for personal protection from wild animals. I usually travel alone and into the wilderness. Such is my job. 

Boatman.  I see, Saab. The temple is haunted by the ghosts, villagers say. I’m afraid your gun may not be of any use there.  You must find some shelter under the holy monk. A great soul he is. 

Iqbal. What more do you know about the monk? I hear some bad things about him.

Boatman. All rumors Saab. All rumors. I know the monk myself. I’ve spent time with him; a few months under his blessings. A great soul he is. 

Iqbal. About the abduction and the vanishing of the servants who lived there. People say he’s a rapist too.

Boatman. It’s very easy to vilify a monk these days, Saab. But, all rumors. I hope you meet him soon, and you’d know what I meant. 

Diary Entry: The boat sails further under the dark clouds and the deadly silence. Drowned trees and thatched huts everywhere, but no signs of human beings. We sailed further into the silence, only to witness the grim picture of the flood. Carcasses everywhere! A dead sari-clad woman among dead swolen animals floats in the water. The Boatman shivers with fear, and I was terrified too. We must go on. 

Iqbal. The terrible flood this year, no?

Boatman. I didn’t see such a flood that I can remember. The old ones say they’ve seen worse than this though. 

Iqbal. Hundreds have died, I read. But, nobody cares. 

Boatman. Once we get the freedom from the white folks, we can hope for a better future. God bless Gandhi baba.

Iqbal. Nonsense! Nobody is fighting for freedom or a better future. They all are fighting for themselves. They are fighting for power. The white ones will go, the brown ones will rule. 

Boatman. Haha, this is what I think too. Only god can save us. 

Iqbal. Only we can save ourselves. 

Boatman. You don’t believe in god, Saab? 

Iqbal. I don’t know. Maybe, I don’t wanna burden god with unnecessary stuff. Why disturb god all the time!

Diary Entry: We sailed further in the gloominess and the  deadly silence for a while. The boat journey must end now.

Boatman. I think it’s time you should strengthen your trust in God, Saab. 

Iqbal. Why?

Boatman. Why don’t you look back, Saab?

Iqbal. Why? What’s back there?

Diary Entry: I involuntarily turned my head back. I see that the head of the dead sari-clad woman was staring at me. 

Iqbal. Oh, god! Oh god! What is that! Oh god! Is she following us? Is she alive? Sail faster! Oh god! What is that!

Boatman. Calm down, Saab. Calm down. Take lord Rama’s name. Nothing can harm you. Jai Siya Ram! Jai Siya Ram! She soon will be gone, Saab, don’t fear. Don’t look in that direction. 

*

Diary Entry: The horizon appeared, but it’s still very far. The weather changes its course and the sun has still not set. The gloominess faded from our faces. Now, I guess that the incidence of the sari-clad dead woman was nothing but an optical trick. I’m a little ashamed of my reaction to that occurrence in front of an illiterate Boatman. I must reinstate my image.

Iqbal. Darkness surely plays tricks on your mind. Even dark clouds can make you believe in ghosts. The sunshine makes everything great. See the beauty of this wilderness. 

Boatman. I don’t see any beauty in the wilderness, Saab.  To me, the wilderness is darkness. I love the company of human beings. Unfortunately, I always find myself in the wilderness. 

Iqbal. Oh, I see. Why don’t you go to the cities then? You’d find many jobs for yourself. Patna is not very far from here.

Boatman. I tried my luck there twice, Saab. It didn’t work for me. Cities are good for those who are born there. I couldn’t survive there for long. It’s suffocating there. 

Iqbal. What is your name, by the way, I forgot to ask?

Boatman. They call me Chandu Lal, Saab.

Iqbal. Where do you live? How will I find you if I need your service again?

Boatman. Lord Rama knows how we meet again. I don’t live in the village anymore. I keep flowing with my boat these days. Karmanasa river is my home, you can say.

Iqbal. You don’t live in a village anymore, what do you mean?

Boatman. A few years back they killed my wife. The villagers… killed her. She was pregnant then. They called her witch. But, I know, she was not. She was just mad. Oh, I’m sorry Saab. I shouldn’t be talking about bad things. Let bygones be bygones!

Iqbal. I understand. I’m sorry for your loss. Well, we’ll meet again anyway. Ah, we’ve almost reached the shore. I don’t see any sign of anything. 

Boatman. It’s just the shore, Saab, not your destination. You still got to walk for three miles from here. You can ask anyone you come across for the direction of the Kali temple. I’m afraid you may not find anyone in these times in these areas. 

Iqbal. I’m on my own, I guess them. How much do I owe you? 

Boatman. Your wish, Saab. You can pay me in coins or food if you got any. 

I gave him a few coins as well as some packaged food that I brought along. The Boatman expresses contentment. 

Iqbal. (Smilingly.) Well, Chandu Lal… We’ll meet again, hopefully. 

Boatman. Lord Rama knows. Will you do me a favor, Saab.

Iqbal. Yeah, say it. 

Boatman. When you meet the Babaji, ask him for my wife’s salvation and redemption. I’m a small man, but he’d surely listen to you. (Sobbingly.) I want Mukti for my wife; that’s all I want.

Iqbal. Okay, I will. Listen, I’m sorry about what happened to your wife. But, you know, she’s at a better place now. Away from the misery of this brutal world. She’s at peace.

Boatman. (Angrily.) No, Saab, she’s not at peace. She’s not at peace. She’s suffering. She’s still suffering. She’s not got her Mukti. She is still stuck here. 

Iqbal. Calm down, Chote Lal, calm down. I’ll surely speak to the Babaji on it. I know how you feel, but, listen to me, and listen to me carefully. Listen, your wife is dead. She’s at peace. And you should know that. She’s not stuck or anything like that. You are a good man, don’t be like other illiterate villagers. 

Boatman. Oh, Saab, you don’t understand. The dead woman you saw in the water is my wife. She follows. The devil’s got her. She’d follow you now unless you seek the Babaji’s blessings. 

Iqbal. Ah, you’ve gone crazy Chote Lal. I must go now. Goodbye!

Boatman. Be careful of the devil. Ram, Ram!

Diary Entry: I kept marching ahead in the search for any sign of civilization, but all I see is a wilderness darkened by rainy clouds. I shuddered when it thundered. The wet and muddy tracks made my journey miserable, but the greenery washed by rain cheered for my faith and spirit. I kept  walking. I would keep walking at least three miles straight ahead; nothing else could I do. I, finally, was someone at the edge of a mud hill, a half-naked boy riding his buffalo.

Iqbal. (Shoutingly) Hey, the temple? Kali temple? Where is it?

Diary Entry: The boy signaled me to keep going ahead and didn’t say a word. 

Iqbal. How far?

Diary Entry: The boy says nothing.

Iqbal. How far? Do you know?

Diary Entry: The boy said nothing again. I knew that the boy was not going to talk much, so I moved ahead. After walking for a mile, the wilderness and loneliness surrounded me. Clouds turned darker, and insects’ screeching deeper.  Still, no signs of human habitation. … a ray of hope! Smoke emerging far away in the jungle. I hurried toward my little ‘hope’ not paying any attention to the obstacles that hindered my path.

The smoke was emerging from the kali temple. The temple was in dilapidated condition. Some of its parts have collapsed and most are covered with thick and leafy shrubs common these days. Trees and wild grass all around. The rainy season has damped the environment. The toads and cicadas kept blaring. 

I stood in front of the temple, looked around, and waited for someone to appear. I cautiously walked into the temple and made some noises. 

Iqbal. Someone’s here? 

Diary Entry: A middle-aged man appeared from the inside. By his servitude, he appeared to be a servant at the temple. 

Servent. Yes? Who are you, sir?

Iqbal. I’m a journalist from the city. I’ve come here to report some important matters. Can I see Panditji? 

Servent. Panditji? He is not here. 

Iqbal. He’s not here? Where is he then? I’ve come here to meet him. I was told that I can meet him here. 

Servent. Yes, one can meet him here. But, these days he attends some important rituals at Buxar Ghat. He would be back in a week or two; no one can say. He might come just tomorrow. I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name. Does he know you?

Iqbal. My name is Iqbal. …Ram Iqbal. He doesn’t know me, but he would not mind your visit. 

Servent. No, he doesn’t mind anyone’s visit. He loves visits. In these parts, anyone hardly comes to see him. 

Iqbal. In this case, I might need to wait for him. Can I stay here till he comes? I come with all my arrangements. 

Servent. You, indeed, are most welcome sir. We will try our best to make you feel comfortable here. My friend, Hira, would be coming soon. He’s out there in search of some firewoods. We are running short of it. Why don’t you come inside, sir? 

Diary Entry: We both went inside the temple. The servants lived in the outer hall of the temple. The servant took me into a smaller hall attached to the main one. It is specially made for guests or visitors. After the arduous journey, I found this living area warm and cozy with a comfortable bed and a mildly lit lantern hanging on the wall. I began settling down. 

Iqbal. Thank you very much. You are so kind to me. Ah, I forgot to ask your name? 

Servent. My name is Murali. Hira, my friend, and I are servants of the temple. We always stay here…taking care of the temple. 

Diary Entry: It started raining again.

*

Diary Entry: I must be half asleep, for I could hear the sound of storm and rain. It was dark, and the lantern was still lit somewhere in a corner, I could sense. ‘Wait…where am I?’…oh now I remember. In the temple. Murali had prepared Litti-Chokha for dinner. The long arduous walk… I remember everything now. My legs hurt but I was not tired anymore. I got up and looked for Murali. He was waiting for his friend. I lit my torch and went outside. A lantern was lit brightly. And Murali was sitting at the threshold of the temple. 

Murali. Ah, you are awake, sir. Mosquitoes must be troubling you, I guess. 

Iqbal. No, surprisingly I don’t see mosquitoes here. 

Murali. I burn incense. That keeps mosquitos away the whole night. 

Iqbal. You didn’t go to bed! Still awake? 

Diary Entry: I sat beside him and lit up a cigarette. I offered him one but he humbly declined. 

Murali. I am still waiting for Hira. He hasn’t come yet. It troubles me a lot.

Iqbal. He must have stayed at his home; it’s raining heavily. You shouldn’t worry much. 

Murali. He has not got any home. This temple is our home. We don’t belong to this village. We are from Bengal. This temple was built by a Bengali landlord long, long ago. We try to keep our Bengali legacy alive here. 

Iqbal. That’s surprising! You are too far away from your homes. Don’t you miss your homes and folks there? 

Murali. No sir. We have no memory of our family and homes. We came here as a child. We have been serving this temple since then.

Iqbal. But, you’d still have someone there? How long will you be here? It’s a foreign land for you after all. 

Murali. No, it is not a foreign land for us anymore. It’s our homeland now. Here we live and here we die. 

Iqbal. Wow, that’s incredible. 

Murali. I now fear for my friend’s life. 

Iqbal. What! What do you mean? Why?

Murali. He has not come yet. He has no reason not to come by now. 

Iqbal. Ah, you worry too much. He must be stuck somewhere. It’s terrible weather tonight. He should’ve taken shelter somewhere. 

Diary Entry: And then a wild haunting screech emerged from the jungle. I shivered because it was a ghostly screech. Murali appeared frightened too. 

Iqbal. What…what was that? Animal?

Diary Entry: Murali started crying.

Murali. No, no, it’s not an animal. It’s the witch. The witch! She should have killed Hira. She’s excited that she’s got her victim. Hira must be dead. 

Iqbal. This is enough, Murali. It’s some wild animal making this sound. He will come back. You must go to bed now. He’ll be back tomorrow. 

Murali. (Sobbing) You don’t know, sir. You don’t know anything about here. Let’s go inside now. No need to wait for him. He will find his dead body tomorrow. 

Diary Entry: We got up to go inside the chambers. It rains even heavier. Thunders strike. We were about to retire to our beds, we heard a distressing sound that emanated from the jungle: Help! Mirali! Help! Murali, come here!

Iqbal. See. It’s Hira. I told you, he’s alive. He needs our help. Let’s go! Let me take my torch. 

Diary Entry: Murali didn’t appear excited at the hint that Hira is alive and seeks our help. 

Murali. No! Let’s go to our beds. Let’s not venture out. It’s not safe. We are safe only inside this temple. The witch is out there. It’s her, not Hira. 

Iqbal. What! Have you gone crazy? Are you mad! Let’s go, Hira needs our help. He’s out there. What kind of friend are you?

Diary Entry: Now, the screams for help turned into devilish laughter. I was perplexed and frightened at the same time. At that moment, I believed in the devil. I dropped the brave idea of venturing out and helping Hira. We retired to our beds. I crouched on my bed. I realized I was shivering out of fear. Fear of a ghost. 

*

Diary Entry: I opened my eyes, I still was in my bed. Birds were chirping and the room was bright. The weather must have improved. I recalled what happened last night but the bright morning had lightened my thoughts. No, Hira couldn’t have been killed by a ghost. He must be out there in the woods. I sprang out of my bed and hurried towards the entrance. There I found Murali talking to someone. 

Murali. Sirji, a miracle has happened. Please meet my friend. This is Hira. He’s alive. He has been spared by the devil. I have told him everything about you, and how you were to venture out into the jungle to help him. 

Diary Entry: Hira came closer and stooped towards my feet to express his gratitude; I stopped him and hugged him. I didn’t know this person, never seen him before. But I was getting great pleasure in meeting him. He reflected a figure of a timid and humble fellow. He’s slim and wore a soiled turban as most villagers in these parts do. 

Hira. Please tell me how can I serve you, Saab? I’m so indebted to you. 

Iqbal. (Laughingly) you are such a fine fellow Hira. I’m so glad to see you. I’m glad that you made it. All night…how could you survive? You are a brave chap. 

Hira. I don’t exactly remember what happened last night. I was lost in the jungle yesterday. Though, I know these areas very well but; it was night time, and I was afraid of evil things. But, I remember… ah, why am I troubling you with these matters! You are our guest here.

Iqbal. Thank you, Hira. You two are good souls. You both have given me shelters in this wilderness and in such horrible weather. I’d always remain indebted to you. 

Murali. Sirji, truth be told we are indeed delighted to have you. We always wait for some guests or even strangers. And, Babaji would also be delighted to meet you. Mahantji, a great soul, teaches us humanity and compassion. 

Hira. I love strangers also because they help us kill the deadly loneliness around here. We hardly see humans around. 

Diary Entry: I was getting a little nervous to know about their love for human beings and strangers. Perhaps, it hints about the vanishings in this area. 

Iqbal. (Expressing positivity)Well, it seems like a happy reunion today. Sun has come up and looks at these happy birds. Sounds like a good day today. Well… what are we going to prepare for breakfast?

Hira. You first get ready sirji, I would prepare Ghee dipped Litti and Chokha for you. 

Murali. He’s a great cook, sirji. You don’t have to worry about food here. 

Diary Entry: It is getting unbelievable now. All my trouble and misery of my journey to the strange land was turning into a fairy affair.

*

Diary Entry: Today is my fifth day at the temple. The rain bouts have subsided now. The sky is clearer and shines beautifully. Murli and Hira are still good to me as they were in the first meeting. I tend to like Murli more than Hira, though I don’t have any explanation for this. Hira prefers staying in the village far away from the temple, but he does visit the temple once in a day. As the days passed, the boredom became unnerving. …still no news on Babaji. I cannot wait for him my whole life here. But, sometimes I find this place fascinating. Away from civilization and the maddening market noises. However stupid but the idea of settled here down does come to my mind. Well, I must not forget, I’m here to bring the thug baba to justice. Or, at least, the world should know about the crime that is being committed against the poor people of  Champaranya. 

It’s been a while since I have eaten a good meal. I dream of biryani and kababs. It’s a nonveg day, or at least for me. 

Iqbal. Murli, do you eat meat?

Murli. Yes, I do. We’ve Bengali ancestry and we worship the goddess Kali. 

Iqbal. You don’t have to explain, Murali. We eat meat today. I feel like roasting something. What plans have you got? Where is Hira, I see less of him day by day. 

Murali. He should come in the evening time as usual. But, why wait for him! We should stick to the plan, I do feel like eating meat today. Let’s go to the tribals. They have got the fattest hens, goats too. 

Iqbal. We’d try the hens first. How far is that place?

Murali. Not very far, just five to six miles. 

Iqbal. What! We’ll… let’s go then, after all, we got nothing else to do in this world. 

Diary Entry: five to six miles on foot! Through the thick and unknown jungle! I motivated myself for this journey… something unexpected might happen, or I might meet someone unexpected. Just in a few minutes, we were surrounded by dense herbs and shrubs that had grown uncontrollably in this rainy season. And then, we were passing through the wet jungle. 

It must be a five-six mile journey for Murali, but I believe it was not less than ten or eleven miles distance for me. Perhaps, I would never come back to this place again..just for some hens. 

Sooner I realized that the trouble was worth taking. The place I had arrived at was such that one could have imagined in children’s books. In the middle of the woods appeared a cluster of some fifteen or twenty huts made of mud, bamboo, and grass. Beautifully decorated and well maintained. An archaeologist should have shown a great interest in the artifacts and the wall paintings that had mesmerized me. 

…I noticed some uncomfortable silence in the ambiance though. I could see only the old ones sitting outside and staring at us. I didn’t notice the presence of any children or women. But, sooner I realized that they were hiding. They were hiding from the suspected predators. I could sense that. 

Murali. They don’t trust us. And, I don’t blame them. They’ve always been mistreated by the landlords. Their greed and ego are such that they won’t stop unless they see these tribals as slaves or dead. 

Iqbal. I see; no peace in the jungle too. No respite in cities either. I hear about the vanishings in these areas, especially young women and children. Do you think these landlords are to blame? 

Murali. No! No! That’s a completely different subject. 

Iqbal. What?

Murali. I don’t know. Perhaps, Hira can tell you. 

Iqbal. Okay, if you don’t wanna talk about it. Let’s buy the hens. They’ve got the healthiest hens I’ve ever seen. 

Murali. Yes, Saab, and they are the tastiest ones too. How many should we buy? 

Iqbal. Three hens. Each for everyone. We are going to have a feast today. 

Diary Entry:  Murali dealt with one of the oldest members of the tribesmen. The chickens were way cheaper than I could have expected. One of the benefits of living in the countryside.  

I was tired and dreaded the very thought of the long march back home. I shut my thoughts and marched on. I badly needed water, cold and sweet water. I felt as though I could drink the whole river, such was the thirst.