Saturday, 23 February 2013

Indexed Stories-8

It has been almost two months since my last post. The party season was hectic and the chill this year seemed to justify prolonging the Bacchanalia. All said and done, at the end of all the partying, I decided to hibernate for a while – a situation that I can ill afford.
My conscience kept on telling me to get back to work. I tried to, but my heart was just not in it. And then the worst nightmare happened…my computer conked it. This was a good enough alibi for not working at all. The computer is back to working now, except that it gives me a ten minute window for work and then shuts down. I have stopped playing scrabble on the net, not face-booking as much as I used to and my social skills have hit an all time low. Met a few of my friends from the virtual firmament, but could not keep my word of meeting up again. There was one or two that I did not meet at all. Next year I promise to correct that. My New Year resolution included daily walks – which I have assiduously avoided, choosing instead to allow my belly to luxuriate.

Under such circumstances a person inevitably falls prey to hypochondria. The tiniest of blimps on the skin looks potentially cancerous and one is beset with aches and pains, both real and imaginary. One evening while I was trying my best to work in ten minute slots, I thought I felt a bit of pain on the left side of the chest. I felt the area with my fingers and located a spot two inches below the collar bone. Finger as place holder I went to Smriti and asked, “Is this where my heart is?” 

“No, it is generally about a few inches lower than that” she said. I don’t know whether she meant that mine was not in the right place.

While I walked away to my next ten minute slot feeling somewhat let down by her disinterest, I heard Smriti complain about my excessive smoking and drinking. “Why don’t you see a Doctor?” she demanded. Normally I would have let that pass, but hypochondria had the upper hand here. I called the Doctor, who examined me for a long time and found nothing wrong. He diagnosed sleeping posture as the reason and prescribed mild pain relievers. He also advised that I do a series of tests that included an echo cardiogram. “Just to be sure”, he said. This would cost me a few thousand and my pain seemed to proportionately increase. Smriti kept on reminding me of the tests and after delaying it inordinately, I scheduled them at a lab close to home.

I have never been examined so thoroughly before. Blood samples were taken before breakfast and after. I was ushered into a tiny cubicle which had a bed and an array of computers. I was instructed to take off my shirt, lie down and face the wall. Soon, the echo cardiogram test started and I heard the noise of a pump trying to extract what seemed like mud. This I realized was my heartbeat amplified many times with Dolby-like clarity. It suddenly dawned on me what a lot of hard work the heart has to do to keep us alive. I always considered the sound of heartbeats as amorous and romantic. But, this sound was depressing, it went – “squelch blob gluck, squelch blob gluck, squelch blob gluck!”

Like many other beliefs that have gone to the grave before this, the romanticism of heartbeats died that day.
As if I could find answers to such unpleasant revelations, I started scrutinizing my telephone diaries once again. The F page had no names on them except in the last one, which had just one entry – Falke Schnieder, a young German who was in Calcutta for a while and who was Eugene’s German language instructor, but I did not know him well enough. So, there are no stories here. But, this cannot be a reason for not telling a story; whatever might be the protocol I have set. I searched amongst my old sketches which I keep in a deep drawer upstairs and found a few that reminded me of stories located in Rikhiya – a small village on the outskirts of Deoghar.

Rutted road outside Rikhiya village
This was in 1977. I would have been in the final year at the Government Art College if I had not dropped out two years earlier. I was thus a self-employed designer. Rahul must have just returned from his first stint in the Merchant Navy and Kunal by then had joined the Statistical Institute. On that trip our group also included Shovan, Dipu, Subroto and our departed friend Sambit – all were students then.
We got off at Baidyanath Dham railway station and took a “Tanga” to Rikhiya. This journey took a little over an hour as the old and emaciated horse made exceedingly slow progress on the undulating road that meandered through a lush and picturesque landscape punctuated with boulders. If you have been anywhere near Chhota Nagpur plateau you will get the picture. As I looked around in wonder, Shovan had this déjà vu trip, which he tried to establish in all earnestness throughout our week long stay in Rikhiya.

As one approaches the village, there is a right fork in the road that leads you to a small clearing around which are small, quaint houses belonging to a handful of Bengali intellectuals who had been nicknamed the ”Boishnobs” as the poet Bishnu Dey was at the centre of this group. Nirod Mazumdar too had a house there. Rahul’s house was on the right of the clearing and had a large compound that slowly sloped away at the back. The garden had huge boulders jutting out of it and was the defining feature of this property. As we unpacked I realized that I had left behind my roll of drawing paper on the train.

Like a dutiful son of a “Boishnob”, Rahul marched us to Bishnu Dey’s house. He introduced us one by one and when my turn came, he introduced me as an artist and added that I had misplaced my roll of paper. On hearing that, the poet rose from his chair and went inside. He returned in a while with a sheaf of papers that were of different sizes and of dubious quality. On closer inspection I found that these were the reverse of old calendars. “Paper is difficult to find in these parts” he explained. I thanked him and we left with the promise to visit him again before we left.

For the next few days we walked around the countryside, went to the haat (local market) and everywhere I attempted to sketch. My friends were always in a hurry to explore more and that left me with no time for elaborate drawings. By the time I had finished most of the sheets, it was time to visit Bishnu Babu’s house once again. Rahul insisted that I take along my sketches to show him. Reluctantly I did just that and placed the bunch on the table in front of the poet. Bishnu Babu looked at each of them intently without a word and arranged them in two neat stacks – the larger stack was about three times the smaller one; he picked up the larger stack and went inside and returned empty handed. I did not know how to react, but the message was clear – his paper, so he had ownership rights! The words Mahajan and Dadon passed through my mind, but I banished them right away…after all he was a respected poet.

The next morning Dipu and I borrowed two bicycles and set off. After the strenuous up-hills, coasting down-hill felt liberating. We ventured onto roads that were rutted and my luck ran out soon enough, as my cycle developed a flat. Dipu pedaled away and I walked the cycle homewards when turning a bend I noticed a shed with the words “Fakir Chand Saikil Ripiyar” scrawled on a piece of tin in Hindi. A well built man with shoulder length hair sat working. He looked quite imposing; actually he looked a countrified version of Amir Khan as Bhagat Singh. He readily agreed to mend the leak and started dismantling the wheel. I looked at him work and then my eyes wandered to the scenery behind the shed. It was beautiful. A shallow meandering brook cut through the red earth and I immediately started sketching it. Fakir looked over my shoulder and said “Iss chhoti si nadi ka ek kissa hai” (This rivulet has a story). I was all ears and politely asked him to tell me the story if that wouldn’t disturb his work. “No. I work with my hands and talk with my mouth. But, you will be drawing pictures and won’t pay attention to my story” he smiled patronisingly

“No. I work with my hands and listen with my ears” I said. 

He feigned displeasure at my ready repartee. “Do you know who Ravana was?” he shot back.

“Yes. I know the Ramayana story” I said. 

“This episode (kissa) that I will narrate to you is not in the Ramayana” he said firmly.

It would have been great if I could tell the story the way he did in his Bihari Hindi. But, I don’t remember all of it. Just a few expressions remain with me today and I will tell them as and when these expressions appear in the narrative.

Fakir’s story:

“Ravana was a great devotee of Shiva” (Ravana Raja Shiuji ka burra bhakt thha) he started.
But, Shiva never paid him much attention. But the King of Lanka (Lankeshwar) would not give up. He went to the Himalayas, sat in meditation and prayed for years until Lord Shiva condescended to meet him and came down from Kailash for an audience with Ravana. 

Ravana (detail) by Dhiren Karmakar, Bikna. From our own collection. Notice how the problem of balancing ten heads has been solved!

At this point of the story, Fakir asks me “If Lord Shiva appeared before you, how would He address you?” Fakir did not wait for me to answer. “He would have said - What can I do for you Son (Beta)? But he did not address Ravana as Son. So, what did Shiva say to Ravana? Shiva addressed Ravana as Lankaraj” he continued with his story.

Shiva said “Lankaraj I am displeased with you for having forced me to leave my abode in Kailash to meet you. Yes, I am impressed with your devotion, but I am displeased nevertheless. So, instead of the three boons that I give to my devotees, I will give you only one. Say what you desire and let’s get over with it. I am in a hurry. I haven’t had my daily dose of ganja and that makes me very irritable.”

Ravana the wily King of Lanka had come prepared for this. He possessed a quick mind – after all he who has ten heads, has a definite advantage. With folded hands he said “Lord, I am your ardent devotee and have always wished to take you to my Kingdom and to set up temples in your honour. This is my only wish – grant me this boon.”

Shiva hadn’t come prepared for this. He was dumbstruck. Fakir as an aside said to me “You know the Gods have a way of communicating with their peers and all of Heaven (Swargapuri) were dismayed and started telling Shiva not to accept. How can you go to Demonland (Rakshaspuri)? Quick, use your wits or else the balance of the universe will be endangered.”

Shiva thought for a very long while. It was difficult for him to sort out the problem while Ravana knelt at His feet and waited. All the Gods in Heaven were now frantic and they finally hatched a plan that was duly communicated to Shiva. “You see Swargapuri and Rakshaspuri not only spoke in different languages, they did not communicate with each other (different wavelengths I presume). So, Ravana did not hear any of the conversation that Shiva was having with the other Gods” said Fakir.

So, Shiva finally straightened himself up and said “Lankaraj! I will go with you, but, I have one condition.” Ravana was elated, his happiness knew no bounds. Like a small boy he clapped his hands and danced around Shiva and repeated “Any condition, no problem, any condition, no problem!” not realizing the diabolical plan that the Gods had hatched. Exasperated by such childish behavior Shiva chided him “Stop that! First listen to the condition I have set. I will go with you to Lanka, but, I will not walk, or ride a horse, nor an elephant. I will go piggyback on you and if you set me down before we reach Lanka, you will not be able to budge me from that spot.  Agreed?”

“No big deal” Ravana said. After all he was powerfully built, had ten heads and each head took turns to sleep, which meant that there was always a large part of him that was always awake. So, he lifted Shiva on his shoulders and started walking from the Himalayas to Lanka. When he was right here said Fakir pointing to the floor of his shed, Ravana knew he was in trouble. He had to answer the call of nature and how could he do that with Shiva sitting on his shoulders? That would be sacrilegious! Perspiring, crossing his legs this way and that to hold it in, lest he wet his dhoti, Ravana was at the end of his wits. “Dus mathey se bahut kuch woh kar sakte thhe, lekin peshab roka nahi ja sakta” (He could achieve much with his ten heads but was powerless when it came to holding his pee) explained Fakir.

Uss samay, hazaro saal aagey idhhar jungle hua karta tha” (at that time thousands of years ago all of this was forested) he continued. As per the plan that the Gods had hatched, Narad Muni in the guise of a simple sadhu appeared from nowhere. Narad behaved as if he felt pity for the King of Lanka and offered to hold Shiva aloft so that Ravana could urinate in peace. Relieved Ravana handed Shiva to Narad and excused himself. The Gods had all this planned because they knew that when Ravana urinated he did so for seven days and seven nights continuously (Saat din aur saat raat beet jata peshab karney mey). That is how this brook was formed said Fakir pointing to the scene that I was drawing.

My bicycle had by now been repaired and as I got up Fakir motioned for me to sit down. “The story does not end here” he said. 

While Ravana was urinating, Narad had dumped Shiva as planned and vanished. Shiva took a few drags of ganja and happily went off to sleep under a tree. When Ravana returned he was shocked. He beseeched Shiva to forgive him and continue on the journey to Lanka. Shiva was adamant and refused to give in. “Hum zuban ke pakkey hain aur yehi asha kartey hain ki tum bhi apna shart rakho” (I keep my word and hope that you too will keep yours) Shiva reminded.

That is why a little distance from here Ravana built a temple to Shiva and is today known as Baidyanath Dham. But Ravana was so angry and frustrated with himself that he dealt a mighty blow on the temple courtyard (Aisan mukka maara) that it tilted permanently. Fakir illustrated the power of the blow by slapping the seat of my bicycle. You can see that yourself when you visit the temple complex. Needless to say we never verified it.

As I rose up to go, Fakir looked at my drawing and said “Looks quite alright, but my story is not in it.”

The brook Ravana is said to have created.

On the last day we went to Usri Falls. I started sketching as usual, but was stopped short by a yell from Sambit. Rahul had sprained his ankle slipping on the wet boulders. He had to be helped back all the way home to Calcutta.

Usri Falls.
The emptiness of the F pages is not empty anymore.

Fakir Chand’s story is now embedded in it and there will always be stories as long as our hearts go “squelch blob gluck, squelch blob gluck, squelch blob gluck!”


  1. quite fabulous! thoroughly enjoyed it. lage raho abhi we await G. you never got back your drawings??

  2. Engrossing ! I wonder what your diary has in'R'. Waiting eagerly for it...and many more :)

  3. Enjoyed reading. Thanks for sharing Dada.

  4. Daroon! Great story telling and as one of the FB friends who wanted to meet you and the lovely Smritidi at least once, there is hopefully next January..:)