The Relic of Lhamabazar: Dr Arjun Chaudhuri.

From Birendra Chandra Choudhuri’s diaries of 1952.

“Ranendra, my youngest brother, was an earnest seeker of truth. When I was eighteen, and he only a year younger than me, the great Tantrika Suryananda-jiu, who was our kula-guru [i], arrived to stay with us during the period of the chaturmasya [ii]….(he) blessed many people, several of them members of our family, with the (due) rites of initiation. My brother Ranendra (however) he did not oblige with his blessing. This caused my younger brother great pain. He would spend hours at the feet of the master in order that his prayers might be heard. But the holy one would not budge. At the end of his stay, however, Suryananda-jiu called Ranendra to his room one day, and spoke to him (at length). (No one) was allowed inside. When he emerged from the room, we could see that Ranendra’s disappointment at not being accepted as a disciple had somehow been alleviated. He was a changed man. Gone was his anger and depression. A week later, however, he was not to be found anywhere. No trace of his could be discovered in spite of how hard we searched for him. After a week, we sent word to the ashrama of Suryananda-jiu at Kamakhya. The reply came from there that though the saint did not know where Ranendra was yet he could assure us that he was alive and that we should not try to look for him since he had opted for the path of the kaula. But this did not deter us from searching for him. My father wrote to many monasteries across the country but no one could give us any information about Ranendra. He seemed to have disappeared into thin air. After nearly three years of his disappearance, the family decided to give him up for dead. My mother was heartbroken, and Ranendra had been her favourite son too. All of us were deeply saddened by this misfortune that had overtaken our family. Suryananda-jiu [iii] had also passed by then, and there was no way we could ask him for any help as to Ranendra’s whereabouts. The appropriate rites for a missing person given up to be dead were conducted. But I, for one, was not convinced that Ranendra had left his mortal coil. Somehow I found it easier to believe that we had not heard the last of him.”

1.

Chittaranjan Park, New Delhi, November 2010.

The oddly shaped artefact inside the box was ivory-hued, with a slight reddish tinge on the edges of the white, where a thick alloy frame began, on all four sides. The metal was silvery, and streaked with thin wavy lines of deep black across a sort of light-dark, smoky patina. It was as if somehow, at sometime in the past, the metal had begun to evaporate all on its own, as if to form words across the artefact. Shaped like a pendant, with a clasp at one end of it meant to be strung into a necklace or a chain, it was quite obvious that the artefact was, in fact, a relic of sorts. A series of arcane symbols crisscrossed the entire margin of the metal frame. A few Mahendra recognised, from his dabbling in the esoteric, were symbols particularly associated with the veneration of the yidam [iv], or one’s chosen deity, during Vajrayana [v] rites. But some of them he also recognised as key symbols used in Hindu rituals, especially during the Tantrika chakrapuja [vi].

Mahendra turned to Chitra and asked “How did you find this?”

“The old man I told you about, at that ashram. He showed it to me when I told him about what I’d come there for. He seemed to understand what I said very easily, even knew your great-uncle’s name. I hardly had to explain anything further than that. It did seem very strange to me, Mahen. But tell me, what is this all about?” Chitra said, raising her eyes from the bag she was unpacking.

Mahendra asked again, “He knew me? Are you sure?”

Walking away towards the kitchen, she said, “Yes, I am sure that he knew the Choudhuri surname, also knew about Silchar. I am very sure, in fact. When I told him that I’d come to visit on behalf of the Chaudhuris of Silchar, and that I was looking for a hermit named Shyamananda, the old man started up at once, and then asked me to follow him inside the main temple. He also gave me a bundle of papers tied in red cloth and asked me not to read them. I had to deliver those to the family. Family, he said very specifically. The bundle is in my luggage. Just let me have some coffee running and I will take it out.”

Chitra had started the coffee in the kitchen. The tinkle of the coffee mugs and the gurgle of the water boiling seemed to accent the silence that had descended around him. And the epicentre of that stillness lay in his hands, dressed in a metal frame, a making of holiness and mystery that seemed to reverberate with a story that Mahendra only had a faint inkling of, at least at that moment. Maybe now he would have a few answers, Mahendra thought.

The evening had descended over the city like summer rain, fast, fading into a darker cover and night would be here soon. Outside the doors that led onto the balcony of his flat, Mahendra could hear the sounds of the day ending -children playing in the park opposite the building, a car or two making way into the garages that lined the path between the buildings and the park and the distant hum from the temple in the market square, the vespers’ clangour and clamour mixing together. The cold air of November was seeping into the living room, creating a dull throb of chill and warmth alternating, vying with each other.

Mahendra stepped outside and turned towards the sunset. Far away, he could make out a distinct line of thinly visible crags, above the trees, and beneath the dimmed light of the departing sun. Those were the yet visible remnants of the Aravalli after human hands had taken over the foothills. At that moment, he felt that he could somehow feel the connection that these hills had with this once-rehabilitation colony embedded in the ever expanding limbs of Delhi, this remnant of a sheltering past. He stood looking at the sight, without realising that Chitra had come up behind him.

“Here is your coffee. No sugar.” Chitra handed him the mug.

“What is it?” she asked, seating herself on the sofa next to the balcony door, “The old man was most insistent that I do not read the documents before you. I also had a hell of a time defending the box at the security checking. Told them it was a religious thing. Oh, and by the way, I left your phone number with the old man. He said that he would find a way to talk to you sometime. Not that he was forthcoming with any details at all. I found him most….disturbed during the half hour I was there. I wonder if it is something serious.”

Mahendra smiled at her. There was a vague look of enquiry on her face, but she didn’t seem to press the issue. He walked inside into his study and Chitra followed him there. Sitting at the table where the box lay beside the bundle of papers, Mahendra lifted the lid with a single finger. Chitra sat close to him and looked inside. The object seemed to shine with a dull, hollow glow in the muted light of the table lamp. Somehow, the colour and the texture of the object seemed to speak to Mahendra as he held it in his hand.

“Looks pretty old, no? What is it?” Chitra asked again.

Mahendra picked up the artefact in his right hand and held it aloft, right in front of her eyes. “What do you think it could be, Chitra?” he asked her.

“Don’t know. It is an amulet, or a talisman, I think. Maybe a piece of ivory, or bone? They use many things as talismans up there as I have seen. A friend once had a set of bone earrings. She said those were made from a yak’s jawbone. This one…however….” Chitra trailed off.

Mahendra put the object inside the box again and sat there looking at it. Chitra tried to take it out of the box herself. As she took it out, Mahendra seemed to shift a bit, making as if he’d try and stop her. Chitra glanced at him, surprised but he did not say anything. As she looked at the object closely, the faint striae at the edges where the metal met the white of the relic seemed to hint towards what it actually was. It was not animal bone, clearly. The dull enamel surface of the object suggested something else. The dense colour of yellow and white with a steely gray hue could only mean one thing. Eyes wide with the realisation about what the object was, Chitra looked at Mahendra and said “Mahen, I think I can see what it is. It is a….”

“A tooth, yes. It is a tooth, I can see as well. But for what it is, Chitra, I can also hazard a guess that it is a human tooth.” Mahendra replied, looking away from her and at the relic again.

From Birendra Chandra Choudhuri’s diaries of 1959.

“That year was a terrible one for all human life. It would seem that the goddess of the earth had decided to seek retribution for the crimes committed by humanity against her. The country had been freed from the boot tread of the mlechha indeed. But the freedom had come at a great, terrible price. We were in Ballygunge at that time, having reached Calcutta in April for the wedding of my elder sister which took place with as little fanfare as was possible. My brother in law was a true adherent to the principles of the Mahatma. He did not want an expensive wedding, and as the bride’s family we had to bow to his wishes. Reports were coming in about the immense upheaval that had shaken both Bengal and the Punjab, and had overturned the very foundations of our great motherland.

The great and powerful at the centre had parlayed hard with the leaving conquerors and had decided to split the land into three, thus breaking Bengal’s backbone and wringing the Punjab’s neck. This effectively sealed the future of our newly independent nation. Only after independence did the actual ramifications of the bloodbath emerge. For us in Ballygunge, one would think it was an easy time. But it really wasn’t. The streets of the city had begun to resemble an abattoir in parts. The Mahatma was in the city at that time, but it was no solace to us. For we were worried about our relatives and family members in the various districts of what had now become an alien land, East Pakistan.

One day, early in the morning, Bahadur came to me with news about a sadhu at the door asking for the master of the house. Since my elder brothers were all outside and away for work, I went to receive the visitor. A tall man, dark of complexion, clad in the red robes of a sadhu and with long hair reaching to his waist stood at the door, a bag slung around his shoulders. When he saw me, a frown crinkled his brow. But he spoke immediately, “Are you the master of the house? I have a letter for Shri Dinendra Chandra Choudhuri.”

Faintly surprised at this, since my father had passed three years back, I replied, “He was my father. But he passed away three years back. Who is the letter from?”

The sadhu replied, “That is not for me to reveal. Please accept the letter, however, and relieve me of the responsibility.”

I took the letter, seeing as no one else was available. The sadhu left immediately after that, rejecting all offers of food and rest. When my brothers came home, we all decided to read the letter. It was dated six months ago, from a place named Dudunghar in NEFA [vii]. The writer was our long lost younger brother Ranendra.”

2.

Lhamabazar Temple, near Tawang town, November 2010.

That evening, Vairochan decided to stay at home and finish the tallying of the despatch that he’d received last week. It was Sunday, an off day from his duties at the temple office. The goods had to be listed before he could send them out, part by part, portion by portion, to the remaining few of his associates at Jang, Lhou and Lumla. Not much to send out, of course. The customs people had grown greedier of late, demanding more ‘cuts’ from the goods that were filtered across the blockades. The officer in-charge at the post was a Jatt. A tall, broad shouldered Jatt who made no secrets with his leering and glaring, or his monetary demands.

Vairochan had always felt queasy whenever he had to go to that man’s office. Next time, he would send Chandu to do the bidding, he mused, instead of having to sit it out for hours before the officer agreed to a feasible amount. “Leather jackets, hmmm? Very nice. Humein bhi kabhi kabhar leather ke gifts diya karo, beta” the officer had said the last time Vairochan had been at the office. The man’s overt familiarity and jokes had alerted him almost instantly. When powerful men in high offices aimed their glee towards you without a seemingly good reason for doing so, it was always reason enough to be on one’s guard. This Vairochan had learnt from experience. And the man had also been very candid with his back pats and shoulder clasps throughout the interview with his hands often straying inside Vairochan’s collar. Vairochan knew what it meant and he hated that man for it. He would not go that way, even if it meant that his business would have to be shut down.

And that had not been the only occasion he had been groped by the officer. Vairochan remembered that day during Losar [viii] last year, just after the annual puja at the monastery, when he had been accosted by the officer. Vairochan was a frail man, thin, and gangly with almost no muscle to speak of in his limbs, no match at all for the nearly six feet and a half tall officer who had cornered him in the cooking sheds at the monastery. Vairochan had been sorting through the piles of washed utensils which were to be packed away now that the festival was nearly over. It was part of his duties as a volunteer. He had been so engrossed in counting the huge brass ladles that he hadn’t realised someone stood behind him until he felt huge hairy arms surround his body. Startled and not a little bit frightened, he had turned to see who it was and had come face to face with the officer reeking of chhaang [ix] fumes. The drunken man had tried to push him down to his knees with all his strength. However, Vairochan had slipped out from there and made good his escape before things could have gone further. A week later, the officer had found him at the market and had tried to make amends for his drunken officer, asking Vairochan to have tea with him, and even offering him some money as a goodwill gift.

But it hadn’t stopped there. Only a few months back when he had gone to the local commissioner’s office to get some documents stamped for the temple office, he had seen the customs officer watch him out of the windows on the second floor of the building. An hour later, a man from the upper office had come and beckoned him towards that part of the building where he had seen the officer standing. Vairochan had a doubt about what was going to happen but he had still accompanied the man. He had been escorted to a chamber where the Jatt officer sat at a desk with a bottle of beer open in front of him. The room was quite out of the way, in a secluded corridor. Vairochan had left the door open behind him so that he could flee easily if necessary.

But the officer had behaved very courteously at first. It was only after a few swallows of the beer that he rose from his chair and slammed the door shut. Vairochan had been badly frightened at this, but he had held his ground. “Tu itna darta kyon hai mujhse? Main tera dost banna chahta hoon aur tu hain ke humesha mujhse bhagta hi rehta hain,” the officer had said. Yeah, Vairochan had fumed silently, I know what sort of friendship you want me to have with you, you mangy cur. But he had smiled outwardly, groveled as was necessary when a lowly civilian, and someone like him who was involved in a not so legit business was faced with a government officer from the north of the country, especially one as powerful as this man was. Vairochan had somehow managed to mollify the obviously excited man and had promised to come and visit the officer at his quarters.

Son of a whore he is and a filthy dog himself, Vairochan fumed. Lately, the officer had taken to hanging around the temple compound in his white Jeep at very odd hours. It was as if he was lying in wait for Vairochan. But he could do nothing about it. The officer was a man of the law, and Vairochan, a puny smuggler as he was, could not even make a complaint about him at the police station. And what would he complain about? It would have been different had he been a girl, or a married woman, though even that wouldn’t have helped his case too much. As it was, the business for smuggled clothes in the vicinity of Tawang and Dudunghar had narrowed down to a trickle over the past one year and a half. Especially after the tough crackdown on the border control. The Indian government had spared no ends to see that absolutely no border trade took place without ‘proper’ surveillance.

Where once it had been a flourishing business, the sale and supply of contraband goods, like his own business for smuggled leather jackets, had now become a sporadic enterprise, making it possible for a transaction to happen only once or twice in a month. When he had started this business, and he had barely been eighteen then, it had been very lucrative, with transactions made possible every week with a dash of dare and the right amount of coin crossing the right palms. Now, nearly ten years later after he had first started, it had all been reduced to nearly nothing. Vairochan had always known that the line he had chosen was a very uncertain one. The others, his friends, who had chosen to smuggle medicines and drugs, and essential oils and artefacts from the devastated monasteries across the border, were doing fairly well, in fact. But Vairochan would have none of that. Drugs were a no-no in his book. And trading religious artefacts was something he couldn’t bring himself to think of. But he would persist as much as he could. As long as he could persevere without getting caught up in any mess. And the officer was surely angling for some sort of bigger mess than the usual variety of arrest-smuggle-arrest-interrogation. But Vairochan would not let that happen to him. He had heard of other men who had done that sort of slap-and-tickle thing, made compromises with other officers, and even this Jatt officer breathing down his own neck, just in order to have their lines safe and left alone. But he would hold out as long as he could, and if the business was closed down, then he would flee to Guwahati and take up a job there.

And that day would not be far away, Vairochan thought, rubbing his slim hands together. The officers at the customs office were difficult to deal with, and he knew that he might have to give up his line altogether quite soon. It would be only a matter of a few months at the most. Maybe then, he could think about going to stay with his friends at Guwahati. “There is money to be made there”, his friend Gopal had told him last time he had come to see him. Gopal had told him, “There are many nice, plush hotels coming up, and the management in most of those is on constant lookout for young good-looking men, preferably of tribal stock. It adds to the show, you see. Tribal boys do well in the hotel industry; they get more tips and are much sought after.”

Now what would that mean? Vairochan wondered. But the thought frittered out as he remembered the work he had been doing, and he turned back to the damp parcels on the floor next to his bed, falling fast into the motions of the tallying. Suddenly, a knock at his door shook him from his reverie.

“Who is it?” Vairochan asked.

“It is me, Chandu,” a voice replied from outside his door.

Vairochan rose from his squat and shoved the parcels beneath his bed. Even though Chandu knew about his work, and used to assist him as well off and on, he did not know whether the boy was alone or with someone from the temple office. Ensuring that those were out of sight, Vairochan shook the latch open and peered outside. Chandu stood there, holding a barely lit electric torch. Behind him stood the old peon from the office, huddled in a blanket against the cold breeze.

“What is it? Why are you here so late at night? Is anything wrong?” Vairochan asked, puzzled at the fuddled look on Chandu’s face.

“The mahanta [x] has called for you. You are to go now to him,” the old peon replied, and turned to go.

“Is everything alright?” Vairochan called at the retreating back of the old man.

“I don’t know. You be there soon. He is waiting,” the peon called back.

Chandu cast a look again at Vairochan before turning away, hurrying with his torch to show the old man the way to the main quarters. What was wrong? Vairochan thought. Had they come to know about his business? He had kept it hidden for all these years, using the old shed behind his room to hide his stuff. But that was only for a couple of years now that he’d actually dared to bring the goods into the temple compound. Before that he had used a common godown that his friends and he had rented from Agarwal the money lender.

Whatever the matter, he would handle it as best as he could, Vairochan thought. He had done nothing wrong, though smuggling goods wasn’t really something the temple authorities would find praiseworthy. But what else could he have done? With a father engrossed in his religious practices when he was alive, and he had been dead for quite a few years now, a mother who had died before he was ten, and no education so as to speak of, no other family support, he didn’t even have a chance at a respectable job anywhere. Not that he had not tried hard enough. He certainly had. His work at the temple was only certain duties that were expected of him in exchange for the free food and board he was given. And that too because the mahanta still had great respect for his grandfather and father, both of whom had been accomplished adherents of the Tantrika cult practiced in the temple, and maybe, he would like to believe, because the old man looked upon him as a son.

The only way out for Vairochan at that point of time when his father had died had been this line. He had been barely eighteen then. Though the mahanta had taken care of all his needs even then, it irked Vairochan to remain a charity case even as a grown up young man. He had been desperate to earn his livelihood, and that had brought him to his clutch of smuggler friends. They had taken him up as a protégé and had helped him set up his line. A few years into it and he had become quite an expert in the pilfering and the hiding. Vairochan stood there at his door glimpsing his life flash in front of his eyes as a series of images. That day when they took away his father’s body wrapped in ochre and red robes. That evening when he had first visited the godown at Dudunghar. That weekend he had first spent waiting for the shipment to arrive, wrapped in blankets and ensconced under a boulder near the pass. He really did not have too many choices, and the decisions he had taken could not be said to have paid off really well. If the mahanta asked him about his smuggling, he would be very honest and reveal everything. After that, whatever would be would be. Wrapping his only shawl around him, Vairochan traipsed up the pathway that led to the mahanta’s quarters and reached the stoop of the one storeyed building. The moon shone faint across the threshold of the house. The mahanta, an old man of seventy, stood there waiting for him. Vairochan prostrated himself at his feet and stood up.

“There is something I need to tell you, Viru. Come with me,” said the old man as he turned and entered the room.

Vairochan did as he said, his heart throbbing wildly now. In spite of all the bravado he’d marshaled a few minutes back, he was afraid now of what was going to happen. The mahanta closed the door behind him as he entered and took his place on the floor.

From Birendra Chandra Choudhuri’s diaries of 1959.

“The letter that had reached us so late assured us of the fact that Ranendra was alive and well, albeit living too far away from us. In the letter he had told us all that had happened to him after he had left home, but very briefly. He never had too much to say anyway even as a child or as a young man of seventeen. After his disappearance from home, Ranendra had, as he told us in that letter, travelled with wandering mendicants for nearly a year before heading towards Mahachina [xi] where he had practiced the mysteries of Chinakrama [xii] under a number of masters and had received purnabhisheka [xiii]. Returning from there he had lived for a while at Varanasi and Allahabad, pursuing his religious practices there. It had only been a few years that he had travelled to Dudunghar on the outskirts of Mahachina again. He was head of the Lhamabazar monastery there now. He also wished for us to send him word of our welfare through a letter that was to be addressed to an address at Tawang and for the name of Swami Shyamananda. No other contact was to be established. We were all glad to hear from our brother after so long, and some of us wanted to go to Tawang immediately. But it was our mother who stopped us from going. She wanted that her son should be left alone in the life he had chosen for himself since he, as she said, was beyond the normal pale of familial bonds as a sannyasin [xiv].

All this happened more than a decade earlier. We respected Ranendra’s wishes and had replied accordingly, apprising him about the deaths and births and marriages in the household along with further details about how to contact us if the need ever arose. A small fund of two thousand rupees was sent to him along with the letter. In a matter of a few months the money was returned to us at the estate office address with no covering note or express communication. It seemed that Ranendra had indeed forsworn all mundane connections with us. However, now as I look back on things, I wonder if we had made the right decision at that time by not going to Tawang after all. In my opinion, we had not. We should have allowed him some time and gone there to at least try and convince Ranendra to return to us. But we hadn’t done that. And it had not been a good decision, my heart says.”

From Birendra Chandra Choudhuri’s diaries of 1978.

The last entry in the book.

“This morning a letter arrived from Ranendra. A sadhu from the local Bharat Sevashrama monastery had brought it to the estate office. I was deeply disturbed by what I read there. In spite of everything that had befallen my brother, the poor man had yet remained firm in his principles of renunciation and devotion. He had married, under instructions from his guru, a woman who was also a Tantrika adherent of the same order. They have a son name Raghavendra who is seventeen years old now. It appears that they are all very happy in their lives. But I could sense a vague whiff of dejection in his words in the letter. It would seem, from his recollections of his childhood and his parents and siblings that he rues certain decisions he had made in his life. In his last words in the letter, Ranendra has written to me to take into consideration the future of his son Raghavendra if anything untoward would happen to him. His son, it seems, is also devoted to the religious orders Ranendra is part of and hopes to follow his father into the fold.

Tawang town, November 2010.

“You must realise that it is a dangerous thing that you have been doing for the last ten years, my son,” the mahanta spoke, “The babu at the customs office has sent me a summons for you. I told the messenger that you are not in town. What has happened all of a sudden that he would have to call for you?”

Vairochan fumed to himself. So that mangy cur had finally played his cards. He knew that if he called at the monastery then Vairochan would have nowhere to flee to. And if it was the mahanta who was involved in the matter then Vairochan was as good as captured in the officer’s nets. But how could he tell the old man what the matter was. He wouldn’t understand, of course. Vairochan decided to say as much as he safely could. “I do not really know, baba. The babu has been sniffing around for quite some time. He keeps cropping up wherever I am, in the bazaar, in the square, and even at the big monastery when the annual puja was on. The only place he hasn’t come looking for me is inside the temple compound. I don’t know what the matter is. There are many other people in this same business, but they don’t get this sort of attention from him, baba”, he said.

The mahanta frowned before he continued, “I cannot understand what the matter is, my son. But all I know that his intentions are not good. And so I have decided that you must leave Lhamabazar as soon as possible and go to Assam to meet your relatives there. They will house you well and find a new life for you. As it is, you are living a life of no good here. Maybe once you are with your family you will have a better chance at life,” he continued.

“My relatives…family? But….” Vairochan asked, nonplussed.

“Yes. Your grandfather’s family in Assam,” the old man replied.

It was long past midnight when the old man finally finished telling him all about his apparently estranged family in distant Assam. The night watchman had already done four rounds of the temple’s periphery, striking his long stick on the bars of the main gate twice for every hour passed. The mahanta’s revelations had stunned Vairochan, and he had sat there like a stone idol, a faint, uncertain glimmer of hope rekindling in his heart. But alongside that he also could feel a deep, gnawing fear for the future that the mahanta had held forth before him. It was, after all, a past of much distance, too alien, too different from everything he had known. He had never heard of this aspect of his family’s past before. All he knew was that he was Vairochan Jogi, son of Raghav Jogi, a sadhu and once a respected spiritual leader of the Lhamabazar monastery. That this past of his family’s would, and probably already had, become his future was something difficult for Vairochan to accept. Leave Tawang? But he did not know of any life beyond Lhamabazar and Tawang. Granted that he had often thought of leaving for Guwahati to find work, but those had been due to an attraction he had felt for his friends’ narratives of grand living, a blind lust for a better life that had tempted him into thinking of leaving. But he had never really thought of it past just empty daydreaming. Now that his departure from this familiar life in Tawang seemed imminent, Vairochan could not bring himself to accept things as they were happening.

Why now after so many years? Vairochan mused. Maybe it was the love the mahanta had for Vairochan that had kept the old man from revealing this history to him earlier. After his father’s death, the old man had cared for him in the best way that was possible for him. Food from the communal kitchen, medicines whenever he had fallen ill, new clothes once every year, and whatever else he needed had been given to him at Lhamabazar. He did, however, stop accepting everything else other than the food and the board once his business had taken off. When asked by curious people as to where he got the money from, he told them that he did odd jobs at the army cantonment, or at the customs office and got paid for it. Whatever he was doing was more than enough for him, he had assured the mahanta once when the old man had tried to talk to him about a job he had arranged for Vairochan at a sundry goods shop just outside the temple compound. But he could not risk telling anyone at the temple about his smuggling line. Only Chandu knew, but that was because he assisted Vairochan in his work.

“Go now. Tomorrow we will figure out how best to arrange for your passage from Dudunghar. But you must leave Tawang as soon as possible. Pack your bags tonight if you will, and where is your pendant?” the mahanta asked, in a final huff.

He was tired, Vairochan could see. Seventy and counting, and still awake at so late in the night was not good for the man’s health. Concern overwhelmed him for the old man who had been the only refuge he had known after his father had died so many years back.

“It is here, baba. I always wear it around my neck. Just like you told me,” Vairochan replied.

“And you must always keep it that way. It is a very holy relic, my son. Directly from your grandfather’s earthly body. After his death, his disciples made a few of them from portions of his body that could not be destroyed in the pyre. Only one of those remains extant. Guard it well and it will guard you well in return,” the mahanta said. Turning again towards Vairochan, the old man said just one more word, “Tonight.”

Tonight? Vairochan was dumbfounded. How could he do that? His goods were yet to be dispatched and he was owed money by some of his associates who peddled the leather goods. But he did not say anything and instead nodded his acquiescence mutely to the mahanta. Prostrating himself again before the old man, Vairochan quickly stumbled out onto the stoop of the building and found Chandu waiting for him there.

“What happened?” the boy asked him fervently.

“Nothing. Come along. We have work to do,” Vairochan said and dragged him by his arm towards his room where all his own pasts lay, now about to be dismantled forever as it seemed. But there was no time to be had for such musings. He had things to do, and goods to despatch. If he wasn’t there to do it all then he would see to it that Chandu got the work done as and how it needed to be done.

“Take the parcels to Vishwambhar’s house right now. I will follow you in half an hour,” Vairochan told Chandu as he struggled to bring the parcels out from their confines beneath the bed.

“But, but…..why?” Chandu asked, clearly nonplussed.

“There is no time for explanations. Just do as I say, Chandu. Go to Vishwambhar’s house with these and wait for me there, okay?” Vairochan said, pushing Chandu towards the parcels.

Chandu bent to pick the parcels up from the floor. Vairochan sneaked a look outside to find out if someone was watching. The entire compound seemed to have fallen asleep. No lights except the customary one at the gates and at the temple doors could be seen. No one to see me go, Vairochan thought as Chandu pulled the parcels out into the dark, no one to wait, no one to know.

As he slinked out of the compound, a vague unease descended on him. He felt as if someone was watching him. Shuffling outside the gate through the small breach in the grille gate, Vairochan turned towards the right. He would have to go to the godown to pick up what remained of the goods he had stored there. Hopefully, the night watchman would recognise him and let him enter. He felt in his pockets and pulled out the keys to his own cubby hole at the godown. His hands were sweating, in spite of the cold winter air. What was happening was all part of the present. Soon it would be over, and the future would arrive. He would be a free man, away from this life of petty smuggling. The mahanta had told him that his grandfather’s family in Assam were rich people, and that they would see to it that he did not want for anything at all in his new life.

Maybe leaving would make things better, and once he was settled, after some time, he could return to Tawang, maybe buy a house in Nehru Nagar…. The key Vairochan held in his hands slipped and fell to the ground. Luckily it was a moonlit night and Vairochan could see the faint shine of the metal at his feet. As he bent to pick it up, something heavy crashed into the back of his head. A red haze of pain nearly blinded him for a moment, and the entire world seemed to move fast in a huge circle around him. Struggling to raise his head, Vairochan could barely make out a pair of big, booted feet right in front of him. Before he could cry out for help, Vairochan felt a niggling doubt in his mind that he knew who his assailant was. And then, as he began to lose consciousness, he felt a pair of big, hairy arms surround his frail body. After that, there was only darkness. The night swallowed Vairochan whole.

Chittaranjan Park, New Delhi, December 2010. 

Mahendra put down his iPad next to him on the sofa and blinked his eyes at the early morning glow outside. He had read throughout the night and was now too tired to continue. But he was not very sleepy. A vague discomfort had spread itself across his thoughts. Rising from his place in the living room, he decided that he wanted some tea. At least that would work to stave off the despondent feeling that had begun engulfing him since Chitra had arrived with the amulet and that red bundle of old papers. As he stood inside the kitchenette waiting for the water to boil, Mahendra’s thoughts turned to his grandfather’s diaries that he had begun translating a year back. As part of a research project with the MAW forum at Cambridge, he had started working on a huge collection of family documents in order to trace narratives about the Sylhet referendum and the War for Bangladesh’s liberation therein. He had scouted for a whole year for these papers. From various branches of his own family spread across the world to his friends’ families and even his acquaintances from Silchar. Almost everyone he had approached had been forthcoming and not very reticent about their family’s correspondence being made the subject of academic research. And he had begun, obviously, with the papers that he had managed to gather from his own family members. Not much into his digging, he had alighted upon his grandfather’s journals, which he had promptly begun translating in order that these could be used in the research. In the last journal that he had translated, Mahendra had come across the story of Ranendra, his expatriate great-uncle who had become a sannyasin.

Mahendra’s grandfather had died in 1978. And there had been nothing after or before that year’s diary entries by his grandfather to suggest what had become of his great-uncle’s family. There was only an address in Tawang that had been appended to the last entry in the book, just beneath where his grandfather had signed his name. Mahendra had decided begin his search for that lost branch of his family from that very address. Since much of his work required his immediate presence, he had asked his friend Chitra to find someone who could travel to Tawang for that purpose. As coincidence would have it, Chitra, it seemed, was scheduled for some reporting work at Tawang that year in October, something to do with a feature story about the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet during the 1959 uprising. On hearing what Mahendra had in mind, Chitra had volunteered herself to do whatever was necessary. He had given her whatever details he could gather about Ranendra Chandra Choudhuri, also known as Swami Shyamananda, including details about the monastery he had been head of during his lifetime. Mahendra was sure that the man was no longer alive. And even if he had been alive, he would have to be nearly ninety four years old. A near impossibility, surely.

And Chitra had come back with that strange amulet and that bundle of papers, all of which, he discovered, were correspondence written by Ranendra, and some of them by his son Raghavendra, to Mahendra’s grandfather; letters which, as it appeared, had not been sent after all. It seemed from the text of some of the first letters that Ranendra had written to his elder brother sometime during 1979 asking him to come and visit his family at Tawang. But he had received no reply. How could he have, Mahendra thought, the man had already been dead by then. The letters after that were full of pleas for forgiveness and muted applications for financial succour. But even those had not been sent to the addressee. Mahendra was nonplussed at this. If things had really been so bad for the family, then why had the letters they had written not been sent in the first place? Anyone in Mahendra’s family would have responded gladly, even if his grandfather had been no longer alive. A single envelope, streaked with stains and folded into three, had been stuck into the bundle. Mahendra had found a letter from the present mahanta of the Lhamabazar monastery in it. And that had somewhat cleared matters for him. It seemed that Ranendra’s wife, a strict adherent of the order’s dicta of renunciation and poverty, had the idea that Ranendra’s pleas for financial help from his brothers were improper and not in keeping with his monastic vows. She had intercepted them and had kept them hidden. Long after his parents’ death, Raghavendra had discovered these in his mother’s things and had decided to make good the harm that his mother had wrought in her blind devotion to the order’s regulations. But even that letter had, very strangely enough, remained unsent. After Raghav Jogi’s death, the mahanta had written, these letters were discovered in a box beneath his bed. He had kept them secure so that he could one day make good the loss that had come about through a lot of distance and too much faith. It was, however, the second half of that letter that had shaken Mahendra to his very core.

The mahanta mentioned in his letter about how Raghav Jogi’s son Vairochan too had passed away very recently in a rather unfortunate incident. The boy had been only twenty eight. The circumstances of his death had been most mysterious, the mahanta had added. Vairochan, the letter clarified, had unfortunately become part of an ever expanding nexus of illegal trade along the border. What could have been the case, the mahanta had surmised, was that he had fallen afoul of some of his associates. It was very unfortunate, very sad, and especially for him since he had cared for Vairochan like a son. All his earthly goods had been seized by the police who were still investigating the murder and now that there was some contact from Swami Shyamananda’s family that he could make use of to write this unfortunate letter, could Mahendra please come down in another week to see the funeral obsequies done properly?

The only things that could be sent to assure him of the verity of this matter were the letters left from Vairochan’s father and grandfather, and the amulet containing a tooth of Swami Shyamananda’s, Vairochan’s grandfather, who had been a great Tantrika and the erstwhile mahanta of the Lhamabazar monastery. It was the only thing that he, the mahanta, had managed to salvage from Vairochan’s belongings, and when the young man had been alive, it had barely left his neck. Also, the young man had been a samsari and since there was no one else in the family who could perform his last rites, and since no one in the temple could do the needful as well, it was only right that Mahendra came himself or sent someone from the sapinda [xv] lines to do it. It was an earnest entreaty that Mahendra had heard voiced in the words of the letter, and he could not resist the call. There really wasn’t anyone else in the family who could, or would go in his stead. His cousins were settled abroad, some of them in the United States, others in Europe, and his only surviving uncle was too unwell to travel. His mother could not leave the family estate because of his sister who was also, at this moment, recuperating from her recent brush with typhoid.

He would have to go, Mahendra surmised. But there was so much work to be done that he did not know how he could manage it. Leaving matters as they were at the moment could be bad indeed, as he realised. But this was family, as the mahanta had told him during his phone call a couple of evenings earlier. The old man had called twice after that to make sure Mahendra would be turning up for the ceremony. But, regardless of the old man’s exhortations, Mahendra knew that he and maybe his family as well owed at least this much to the young man, his long lost cousin who he had never seen. Mahendra stood looking at the dawn outside with his cup of tea slowly going cold in his hand. The birds had long since ventured from their nightly havens and a golden glow of wintery sunlight had spewed forth onto the whole of the city from within the auspices of the craggy Aravalli range which marked the horizon with its dark intensity.

Tawang town, December 1st, 2010.

The funeral ceremony was to take place the day after. An exact thirteen days after Vairochan’s body had been released from police custody. Mahendra stood in front of the small two storeyed hotel that was called Hotel Tourist Star. It was a pleasant place indeed, and the rooms better than he had expected. The flight from Kolkata to Tezpur had taken a rough two hours since the fog had lowered the visibility to almost nil. The inner line permit had not been much of a problem after all. Mahendra’s friends at the secretariat at Guwahati had managed it within the span of a few hours. It was one of the first things that had worried Mahendra when he had started his preparations to come here. After that there had been the journey to worry about. The seven hours long drive from Salonibari Airport to Tawang town which meant that he could not have arrived earlier than at two p.m. in the afternoon. After a brief nap, Mahendra had dressed and made his way downstairs since someone named Chandu was supposed to come and meet him soon, as the old mahanta had told him over the phone he would, in order to take him to the Lhamabazar temple.

But he was not sure of when the man would arrive. The mahanta had not specified any particular time. Mahendra left instructions at the reception along with his mobile phone number for a call to be made to him once the man named Chandu arrived, and walked down the path leading away from the hillock on which the hotel was located. It was very cold, even colder than the deep, ferocious Delhi winter he was accustomed to. Mahendra tightened his heavy jacket around him to guard against the cold breeze that was undulating throughout the area. He could see a diminutive figure hastening up the slope towards him. As the figure neared, Mahendra tried to give wide berth to the rushing man but he was surprised when, instead of continuing up the sloping pathway, the man stopped right in front of him and made a very deep bow with folded hands. “Namaste, babu. Are you Mahendra-ji?” the man asked him.

“Yes, I am, but how do you know? Have I seen you before?” Mahendra asked.

“No, no, babu. Actually the driver who brought you here from Salonibari told me about you. I am Chandu. Mahanta-ji has sent me to escort you to the mandir-bari.  He will see you there. You cannot enter the temple now…..” Chandu broke off, staring guiltily at Mahendra.

“Why can’t I enter the temple?” Mahendra asked, puzzled at this statement.

“The ashaucha [xvi] period, sir. You are supposed to perform the funeral obsequies,” the man clarified. Mahendra nodded in understanding and followed Chandu as he set down the path.

“Do not ask Mahanta-ji anything about Viru’s death, sir. He knows it all, and is already very upset. We all are, you see. Viru was our brother, and we could not save him from….” Chandu looked at his own feet as he said this.

“I can well understand. But I want to know how this happened, Chandu. Though I never knew him, Vairochan was my cousin. I need to know. Should I ask at the police station?” Mahendra replied.

“No use, sir. No one will tell you what happened. But I know it all. I can tell you, if you will promise not to tell anybody,” Chandu urged.

Mahendra was somewhat irritated at this apparent attempt at secrecy, but he complied nonetheless. “I promise. Tell me. What happened? How did Viru die?” he asked, stopping at the juncture between the main street and the pathway from the hotel.

Chandu seemed nervous and a little bit teary as he gulped and made ready as if to speak. “He was killed by that Jatt officer, sir. I know it for sure. That night when I went to Vishwambhar’s house, I saw his Jeep parked at the bend in the road just outside of the temple compound. I knew something was up but Viru had already hurried me away with the parcels. That officer is a cruel man, sir. He wanted to use Viru for his pleasure.”

Mahendra started, and asked Chandu, “What do you mean by use? Surely not….”

Chandu nodded, and continued, “That man had been after him for quite some time, sir. But we could not say anything for fear. He is a very powerful man here. If we were to say something, all the smugglers would side with him for obvious reasons. You know, they found him face down in the ditch by the highway, near the new poll gate. No clothes on his body and his face smashed beyond recognition, his limbs broken. There was blood even all around his….his backside,” Chandu broke off at this point.

Mahendra stood there. Shock and a slow anger had stunned him into silence. To think that a man had had to face such a violent death was something he could not even bring himself to imagine. And that man had been a member of his own family.

“The only thing that helped to identify him was the pendant he wore around his neck. Mahanta-ji and I went to the morgue at the civil hospital to identify him. Mahanta-ji bribed the nurses at the hospital to get it off him. I think he still has it with him. Come now, I have told you all I know. Mahanta-ji must be waiting. It is already time for the evening vespers,” Chandu said, and ran off to get an auto rickshaw.

Mahendra clasped his hand around the amulet that the mahanta had sent him through Chitra only a few days earlier. What sort of gory coincidence had led him to investigate his grandfather’s story about Ranendra and his family? What would have happened if he had not delayed doing this? He had already had the address for quite some time, since May this year. But he had procrastinated and left off doing this until so late. What if he had contacted the temple at Lhamabazar as soon as he had learnt about Ranendra and his family? Would Vairochan have survived his sorry end, then? Would things have been different then, and far better than how they had turned out now? What had led the amulet to survive two generations and land into his hands? To think that a relic of Vairochan’s grandfather had accompanied the news of the young man’s death to Mahendra. Overwhelmed by the cold creeping around his heart, a cold that matched the sharp winter air of Tawang and even surpassed it with its growing, pullulating intensity, Mahendra stooped to enter the auto rickshaw that Chandu had hailed down. As they moved towards the temple compound of Lhamabazar, a fog descended, covering all that could be seen until now with a spreading mire of uncertainty.

GLOSSARY:  

[i] The spiritual preceptor of a family or clan.

[ii] A four month long period of abstinence and ritual observances beginning during June-July of the Gregorian calendar.

[iii] Honorific used for a revered person, or for a deity.

[iv] A deity, or Buddha in esoteric Buddhist rituals who is the object of the practitioner’s meditation.

[v] Esoteric Buddhism.

[vi] A Hindu Tantrika ritual, or mystery involving the participation of both male and female practitioners in closed quarters.

[vii] The North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), earlier the North-East Frontier Tracts. It was a political division in British ruled India and later the Republic of India. In 1972, it became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh with its administrative headquarters based in Shillong (until 1974, when it was transferred to Itanagar).

[viii] The Tibetan new year.

[ix]   A Nepalese/Tibetan alcoholic beverage. The name literally means “nectar of the gods”, or “ambrosia”.

[x] Head of a traditional Hindu ‘mathh’, or monastery.

[xi] The ancient name in Tantrika scriptures for China.

[xii] A very little known way of the Tantra practiced in early medieval China.

[xiii] The Tantrika equivalent of sannyasa, or formal monastic vows.

[xiv] Someone who has formally renounced the world and all material ties. In Vedic monastic cultures, this implies celibacy and a disregard for sex and spouses. In Tantrika cultures, however, monasticism implies a disregard for social hierarchies and material ties, but does not preclude sexual relations or spouses.

[xv] Literally, “of the rights of the pinda”. A word used in the context of relations extending as far as the third generation in the line of ascent through the mother, and the fifth in the line of ascent through the father. These relatives bear the right of “pinda-dana”, or the customary gifting of the pinda (flour or rice balls as oblations for the dead) during Hindu funeral ceremonies.

[xvi] The period of ritual mourning after the death of a relative in Hindu, especially Bengali, cultures during which all ritual observances not related to the funeral are shunned.