The mess at number 14, Habshibagan Lane was small, but neat and tidy. The reason for this was that its manager, Nibaran, kept a careful eye on things, although by nature, he was laid-back and easygoing. There were only five or six occupants. All were reasonably well off. There was a separate living room in the mess, in which were kept musical instruments of various kinds, in addition to packs of cards, a chessboard and other games, offering visitors more than one form of entertainment. There was also a selection of magazines.
The Puja holidays were going to start from the following day. Everyone in the mess had gone home, back to the villages they came from. Only Nibaran and Paramartha were left behind. These two were unable to leave Calcutta as their wives' families had decided to visit them during the holidays.
Nibaran taught in a college. Paramartha worked as an insurance agent and dabbled in yoga and theosophy. This evening, they were joined in the living room by their next door neighbour, Nitai Babu. Nitai Babu was a regular visitor here. He was older than the occupants of the mess, so they treated him with due respect -- that is to say, if they wanted to smoke, they did so behind his back.
" ... I am not a happy man," Nitai Babu was saying. "My domestic help has run away, my wife is nagging all the time, my daughter's got fever, and I can no longer relax and have a nap in my office. No, sir, I cannot even do that. The new boss prances around everywhere."
"Really? I thought your office had rather good arrangements for its staff," said Paramartha.
"It did once. But those days are over. Yes, during Mr Mackenzie's time, things were different. Remember Barada Mukherjee of Shyamnagar? He used to take opium, every day, at two o'clock. Then he'd sleep from half past two to four. The rest of us took turns to go to our tea room for a quick nap, but Barada never left his seat. One day, he was making entries in a ledger. Just as he reached the bottom of a page, he began to feel sleepy and nodded off. He did not move, did not snore, nor bend any lower over his desk. His hand became still just over the column showing the total, his fingers remained curled around his pen. He had this extraordinary power. From a distance, it was impossible to tell that he was sleeping. Suddenly, Mr Mackenzie walked into the room. Everyone rose to their feet at once. Mr Mackenzie looked at Barada, then went over to his desk. He spent the next few moments studying Barada closely, then pinched his shoulder. Barada opened an eye and began muttering immediately: 'thirty-seven ... that's seven taken away, carry three ...'. Mr Mackenzie laughed and said, 'have a cup of tea, babu.' Now, alas, nothing of the sort can be expected. To be honest, I no longer wish to live like this, with so many responsibilities. I've had enough. If I could get hold of a suitable sadhu, one who'd show me the way, I'd leave everything and go with him."
"Well," said Paramartha, "I saw a sadhu today at Jagannath Ghat. He's called Mirchai Baba. Apparently, all he ever eats is green chillies. Not rice, not wheat, not maize -- just chillies. Thousands of sick and ailing people come to him, and he gives them a specially blessed green chilli. Just one chilli, and every patient recovers. I've heard that his guru has even greater powers. All he eats is sawdust."
"Professor," Nitai addressed Nibaran, "you are an MA in philosophy, aren't you? What is the spiritual significance of chillies and sawdust? Can you tell us? Look, do stop fooling around with that pakhawaj. You are driving me mad."
While Nitai and Paramartha were talking, Nibaran had been engaged in reading one of the magazines. There were five short stories in it. The heroine in each was such a paragon of virtue that Nibaran had felt obliged to discard the magazine, and pick up a pakhawaj. He was playing it without any success. Nitai Babu's words made him stop. "Chillies and sawdust?" he said. "Those are maargas. You know, spiritual paths that will take you to your ultimate salvation. There is the path of gyan, or karma, or bhakti. Similarly, you have the path of chillies, sawdust, salt, cowdung, crystal, crows --"
"Yes, haven't you heard? I went to a big fair last year. There was a huge cage, made of bamboo, and about two hundred crows were in it, making an infernal racket. A man was shouting: 'a crow for two annas! Just two annas, and you can have a crow!' I thought they must be special crows, perhaps from Multan or Peshawar. Perhaps they were talking birds. So I went close to one that seemed larger than the others, and said, 'come on, myna, say Radha-Krishna! Say Sitaram!' Instead of talking, the bird looked decidedly cross and raised its beak to attack me. The man said, 'no, babu, it doesn't talk'. So what did it do? Why was he selling so many? The flesh of a crow was supposed to have a bitter taste. Who would eat a crow? 'No, no, these birds are not to be eaten,' the man said, 'they are to be released. Can't you see they are imprisoned? Buy as many as you want -- two annas each, don't forget -- and release them from this cage. Liberate them, babu. Think what a good deed that will be. It will liberate your own soul.' I couldn't help marvelling at this. That man was showing me a path to moksha, to liberate my soul. And, in order to do that, he was prepared to catch and imprison hundreds of birds, thereby committing a sin which would certainly block his way to salvation. Think of the sacrifice he was making. Perhaps this is what is known as conservation of virtue. If one must earn virtue, another must sin. Otherwise, all is lost."
At this moment, a young man in his early twenties entered the room. He was dressed in a suit and a tie. He was also wearing a hat. The first thing he did was to push the regulator of the fan to its maximum speed. Then he took his hat off, flung it aside, and flopped down on the mattress spread on the floor. This man was called Satyavrat. He had recently finished his studies and started a new job. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed, panting, "Am I in trouble!"
This was nothing new. Satya frequently found himself in trouble. So no one expressed interest or concern. He went on speaking to himself: "After a hard day's work at the office, I thought I might relax in the evening and see a film. But no. Pishima said, 'Satya, you have become too big for your boots. Come with me to Mr Sanyal's lecture. It'll do you good.' So I had to go with her. But it didn't work. There was Mr Sanyal, talking about the benevolent influence of religion, and there I was, thinking of cockroaches."
"Cockroaches?" Nitai Babu failed to hide his amazement.
"Yes, three tonnes of cockroaches. We have a forward contract. Shipment by November-December, forty pounds and fifteen shillings per tonne, CIF Hong Kong. China is about to go to war, so they are stocking up. The boss wants the whole consignment packed and sealed in a month. Now, where am I going to get so many cockroaches in that time? Am I in trouble!"
"Satya, you are a Brahmo, aren't you? Brahmos don't tell lies, surely? At least, they are not supposed to."
"Says who? It's all right to tell lies, as long as I don't lie to Pishima."
Nibaran intervened. "Satya, do you know of any good and wise holy men?"
"Holy men? How many would you like?"
"Come on, don't joke about it," Nitai Babu protested. "You don't believe in rituals of any kind. No pujas, no mantras. What would you know about holy men?"
"Who says we don't believe in rituals? Or miracles? Only the other day, Pishima had a terrible toothache. She couldn't eat, she couldn't sleep, she couldn't talk, though she kept scolding her husband. Everyone in the house felt tense. She tried taking aspirin, then she had peppermint, then someone gave her an amulet to wear -- it was supposed to have special pain-killing powers -- but nothing worked. Then, in desperation, her husband began to pray. He prayed so hard and with such devotion that, on the third day, Pishima's tooth fell out."
Paramartha was considerably put out by this. "Look, Satya," he said, "don't make fun of things you know nothing about. Praying is the same thing as mantra-sadhana. Do you know what that means? Meditation. Mantra-sadhana is chanting a mantra, over and over, with every ounce of your concentration. That kind of sadhana creates pools of energy. Can you believe that?" "Of course. This theory has been proved by Taritananda Thakur of Rajshahi. The boys in college call him Radio-Baba. Do you know why? Because he sports two tufts of hair. One of them is for positive currents, the other for negative. He can absorb electricity from the sky and the air. Sparks fly out from his body, each eighteen inches long. It's impossible to get anywhere near him without wrapping oneself in a silk scarf."
"No," Nibaran said firmly. "Green chillies, or sawdust, or even electric sparks ... none of these would do. Nitaida here couldn't handle any of them. Tell us if you know of anyone quieter, more amiable. But he must have magical powers. We are not interested in plain talk about religion. What do you say, Nitaida?"
"In that case," said Paramartha, "let's go to Gurupodo Babu's house in the country, in Dum Dum. We'll find Birinchi Baba there."
"Gurupodo Babu? You mean the lawyer who practises in the Alipore court? Our Professor Noni's father-in-law? Where did he find a babaji? Satya, have you heard anything about this?"
"Yes, Nonida did tell me his father-in-law had found some holy man, supposedly quite powerful. Gurupodo Babu has changed a lot after his wife's death. He never believed in such things before."
"Doesn't he have a young and unmarried daughter?"
"Yes, Nonida's sister-in-law. She's called Buchki."
"All right, Paramartha. Tell us what this babaji is like."
"He is just amazing. Some say he is five thousand years old; others say five hundred. To look at, why, he doesn't seem any older than Nitaida here. If anyone asks him his age, he simply smiles and says there's no such thing as age. Time is the same everywhere, and so is place. A man who has found the truth can move from the past to the present, or the future, backwards and forwards. He can live on this earth, or travel to the other world, just as he pleases. Say, you are here today in Calcutta, and it is September, 1925. Birinchi Baba can easily take you back to the time of Akbar, or even further back to fourth century BC, and show you what the ancient city of Pataliputra looked like. Everything is relative, you see."
"Really? You mean Einstein is ruled out completely?"
"Einstein? Ha! When Birinchi Baba was in Czechoslovakia, Einstein used to visit him sometimes, to ask for guidance. But he never learnt anything beyond relativity."
Nitai Babu had been listening to this exchange most anxiously. Now he said, "What is this theory of Einstein? Can you explain it to me?"
"Well, according to Einstein, time, place and people are all dependent on each other. If time and place change, so will the people."
Satya said, "No, let me make it easier for you. Suppose you were fat and heavyweight, and you went to the Indian Association. Your weight there would be in the region of 80 kilos. But if you went from there to the office of the Congress Committee, you would not weigh anything more than a few grams. You'd fly off if anyone so much as blew on you."
"Right," Nibaran agreed. "It's the same thing that our cook does every day. When he buys potatoes in the market, he pays for two and a half kilos. But, by the time he returns to the mess, the potatoes weigh no more than two kilos."
"Tell me, Paramartha," said Nitai Babu, "Birinchi Baba himself may be able to travel from the present to the past. But does he -- or can he -- do anything to help his followers?"
"Yes, certainly, if the follower is important enough. Only the other day, he helped Mekiram Aggarwal. He took him back to 1914, just before the war started. There he stayed for three days, and bought iron beams. Five thousand tonnes of iron, at six rupees a tonne. Then Birinchi Baba took him to 1919 for a month. Mekiram sold all that iron at twenty-one rupees a tonne. Now he has been brought back to the present time, and he owns fifteen hundred thousand rupees. If you do not believe me, do the calculations yourself."
Nitai Babu clutched Paramartha's hands. "Paramartha," he said, his voice choking with emotion, "my friend, my brother, take me to this Birinchi Baba immediately. I'll pay for everything, I'll sell all I have got, I'll beg my wife to give me her heavy gold chain, and I'll pawn that, too, if need be. If I can spend even a week in 1914, Paramartha, I shall never forget your kindness. Ten per cent, that's what I will give you. Oh God, dear God ... just think of all that iron!"
Nibaran looked at Paramartha. "What about Gurupodo Babu? Has he been able to make any money?"
"He is not even remotely interested in money. I hear he is going to leave all his property to Birinchi Baba."
"Oh? Have things gone that far? Why, Satya, aren't your Nonida and his wife doing anything about it?"
"You know Nonida. He's just a mad scientist, interested in nothing but his experiments. And his wife is a simple, kindly soul, she'll never say or do anything to protest. If steps have to be taken, only you and I can take them. But we must hurry."
"Very well. Let's go and see Noni right now. Let's hear what he has to say, then we'll go to Dum Dum."
Nitai Babu was busy doing some quick calculations on a piece of paper. At Nibaran's words, he raised his eyes and said, "Dum Dum? Are you two thinking of visiting the Baba as well? Why? If too many people turn up asking for favours, he might get confused. Satya is a Brahmo, anyway, and most irreverent. He need not go at all. Why don't you go to your nice Brahmo Samaj, Satya? Leave our Hindu gods alone. Tell you what, why don't Paramartha and I go first? Then Nibaran could go another day."
"Don't worry, Nitaida," said Nibaran reassuringly, "neither of us will ask for favours. We simply want to discuss the scriptures with him. If we can get ourselves organised, we can all go tomorrow evening."
It was eight o'clock by the time Satya and Nibaran reached Noni's house. There was no one in the living room. The servant who opened the door told them that the master of the house and his wife were out in the courtyard at the back. Satya and Nibaran made their way there, to find that a stove was burning in one corner. A huge pot was placed on it, and in the pot was a green substance, simmering gently. Noni' wife, Nirupama, was stirring it with a spoon. In the passage that ran alongside the courtyard, a harmonium had been placed. A rubber tube ran from it to the boiling pot. Professor Noni was standing by, arms akimbo, his dhoti tucked in at the waist.
"Why, Boudi, who are you cooking so much spinach for?" asked Nibaran.
"It isn't spinach," Nirupama replied. "What's boiling here is grass. You know your friend gets a lot of weird ideas."
"Grass? Why are you cooking grass? Is Noni finding it difficult these days to eat it raw?"
"Don't joke, Nibaran!" said Noni gravely. "There won't be food shortages anywhere in the world, if my experiment is successful."
"How come? Not everyone is like Professor Noni, or entirely herbivorous. So they may not be that pleased if they are told to eat grass."
"Brother, that's not going to remain grass, don't you see? It's called protein synthesis. The grass will be hydrolised, and it will turn into carbohydrate. All I need to do is add a couple of amino groups. Hexa-hydroxi-di-amino--"
"Enough, enough. What's the harmonium for?"
"Can't you guess? It's to oxidise everything. Niru, play it."
Nirupama left the pot and played the harmonium. Instead of melodious notes, a great deal of air passed through the rubber tube and made gurgling noises in the pot.
"Just bubbles?" Nibaran asked. "Is that all you can produce? I thought great music was going to pour through that tube, fuse with the grass, and perhaps create a bar of some heavenly green symphony. Anyway, Boudi, I've come to enquire about your father. How is he?"
Nirupama's face fell. "Haven't you heard about my father? He's become a totally different person ever since my mother died. Ganesh Mama found him this guru, now my father spends all his time with him. Honestly, all he can think of is his guru. I tried talking to him, I even cried a lot, but nothing worked. Now I hear he's going to leave all his property to this man. My only concern is for my sister, Buchki. I'd have gone and spent a few days with her, but my mother-in-law here is not well, so I cannot leave this house."
Satya spoke next. "Look, Nonida," he said, "why don't you speak to your father-in-law? Can't you drive some sense into him?"
"No, sir. I would not dream of speaking to him just to tell him what he should do with his property. What if he thought I was trying to meddle in his affairs because I had my eye on his money?"
"In that case, give me your permission to thrash the daylights out of this guru."
"No, no," said Nirupama hurriedly, "don't use violence, please. If you do, it will be Baba who will have to face the consequences. See if you can do something without hurting or upsetting him." "That is going to be difficult. Anyway, tell us about this Birinchi Baba. What's been happening in your house in Dum Dum?"
"Well, it started about a month ago. Birinchi Baba came, together with his follower, the junior maharaj, called Kebalananda. Ganesh Mama looks after them both. My father has been staying in the house in Dum Dum, he refuses to go anywhere else. Every day, nearly three hundred people turn up to listen to the strange things Birinchi Baba says. Every Sunday, he lights a fire and does a special puja. Out of the fire comes a god -- it could be Ram, or Brahma, or Sree Chaitanya, or even Jesus. Not everyone is allowed into the room where this puja is held. You have to have special permission, and you have to be a front runner among his followers. But I was allowed to stay the night Brahma came out of the fire."
"What did you see?"
"I don't remember very well. It was dark, I couldn't see clearly. Behind the fire, suddenly there was this massive figure; it had four heads, and a long beard. I took one look at it, and promptly had a fit. Ganesh Mama threw me out of the room. Buchki is much braver than me. But then, she sees this happen almost every day. Tomorrow, I believe Mahadev is going to appear."
"Really?" said Nibaran, "I think we should definitely go tomorrow and pay our respects to Birinchi Baba. If he looks on us kindly, we might even get to meet Mahadev."
"You will have to do something to please Ganesh Mama. No one is allowed in without his permission."
"I'll manage that, don't worry. But ... Satya, it's you I am worried about. I bet you will start laughing and spoil everything."
Satya protested vehemently, by shaking not just his head, but his whole body. "Laugh? Who, me? Never. Not on your life. Who's going to laugh? Which bast .... oops!"
"Why, Satya, whatever's the matter? You were saying ...?"
"No, no, I am sorry. I do beg your pardon, Boudi, that word should not have slipped out. Thank goodness Pishima is not around. She'd have skinned me alive."
"All right, I think we had better leave now. Oh, by the way, can you tell me how I can create a lot of smoke?"
"Smoke?" asked Professor Noni. "What kind of smoke? If you want red smoke, then you will need nitric acid and copper. If you want purple, you must have iodine vapour, and for green ..."
"No, no. We don't want any of those. All we require is plain, ordinary smoke."
"In that case, tri-nitro-di-methyl--"
Nibaran placed his hands over his ears. "Oh God, he's off again!" he exclaimed. "Tell me, Boudi, how do you live with this man?"
Nirupama laughed. "My uncle has cowsheds. I've seen his servants light damp straw there. It creates a lot of smoke," she said.
"Eureka!" Nibaran cried. "Boudi, it is you who will get the Nobel Prize. Noni here will never get anywhere."
"Why do you want smoke?"
"There are moles about, creating havoc. Let's see if I can get rid of them."
Nibaran, Satya, Paramartha and Nitai Babu arrived at five o'clock the following evening. A hall on the ground floor had been cleared to receive male visitors. There was a durrie on the floor, and in the far end stood a divan. There was a mattress on it, covered with a printed rug, showing a tiger. Female visitors were being taken to an adjoining room. Birinchi Baba had not yet made an appearance. His followers were waiting anxiously, occasionally discussing the strength of the Baba's prowess. A middleaged gentleman, dressed in western clothes, was present among the devotees, sitting on the floor with his legs folded under him. It was not easy to sit in that position, but he was prepared to put up with the discomfort. He was Mr O K Sen, bar-at-law. Having recently lost a great deal of money in trying to set up a business selling coal, he had turned to religion for comfort.
Nibaran and Satya helped the others to find suitable places in the audience; they then went out, walked around the garden and arrived at the front gate. A row of rooms with tiled roofs stood nearby. They housed the driver of Gurupodo Babu's carriage, known to everyone as Coachman, his chowkidar and mali. The stable was also situated in the same area.
Maulavi Bachhiruddi was sitting on a broken bench outside the stable, chatting with Jhoti Mia (the Coachman), and Feku Pandey (the chowkidar). Maulavi sahib hailed from Faridpur. He was one of the clerks in Gurupodo Babu's employ. His income was reduced, now that Gurupodo Babu had stopped working as a lawyer, but he still received a monthly salary. So he came here to see his employer from time to time, and to express his gratitude.
Maulavi sahib was describing the current misfortunes that had hit the world, and his listeners were nodding in agreement, when Nibaran and Satya appeared on the scene. A groom, at some distance, was giving a horse a good rub-down. Each time the horse got restless, he was slapping its flank noisily and saying, "Be still, you idiot!" In the front garden, a huge cat was eating grass, making awful grimaces. Presumably, large helpings of fish from the leftovers on Birinchi Baba's plate had given it indigestion.
"Adaab, Maulavi sahib!" said Satya. "I hope you are well? Parnam, Pandeyji. How are you, Coachman? Have you met my friend? This is Nibaran Babu, an old friend of your master's son-in-law. He has brought gifts for all of you -- Durga Puja is round the corner, you see. If it's all right with you, Maulavi sahib, we have got ten rupees for you, five each for Pandeyji and Coachman, and another five for the groom and the mali."
Overcome with gratitude, Bachhiruddi, Jhoti and Feku grinned from ear to ear, folded their hands and sought blessings from Allah and Kali respectively, for the welfare of the two babus. "Babu moshai," said Bachhiruddi, "the good days are over. Ever since Ma Thakrun went to heaven, our own babu has lost his will to live. I told him so many times not to give up his practice, but he didn't listen to me. Now only Allah can save him."
Nibaran said, "It's that babaji. He's the one who is causing all the trouble."
At this, Feku Pandey felt encouraged to speak. That babaji, he announced, could never be a genuine holy man. To start with, he did not wear the sacred thread of a Brahmin; nor did he have long, matted hair a sadhu ought to have. He ate fish, as well as goat's meat. Every morning and evening, he had to have tea and biscuits. These Bengali babajis were all fakes. And the junior maharaj -- Birinchi Baba's chief follower -- was a handful, too. Thought too much of himself, he did. Why, he had tried to challenge Feku himself! Obviously, he did not know that Feku had wielded his sword during the mutiny (never mind that the mutiny happened long before Feku was born). His master had only to say the word, and Feku would make good use of his stick to put these babajis in their places. He would break every bone in their bodies.
Bachhiruddi, it turned out, had also had to put up with a lot of humiliation. He could not bear to have Mamababu (Ganesh) order him around. He, Bachhiruddi, was not an ordinary man. Pure Mughal blood coursed through his veins. People might call him Bachhiruddi, but his real name was Mredam Khan. His father was called Jahanbaz Khan, and his grandfather Abdul Jabbar. They came not from Faridpur, but from an Arab country. Turkey, in fact. Everyone there wore lungis and spoke Urdu. He had had to learn Bengali only to get a job. In the middle of that Arab country was Istanbul. On its left was the city of Baghdad. This Calcutta, compared to Baghdad, was nothing, absolutely nothing. Mecca-sharif was not far from Baghdad. He had a bottle of holy water from Mecca -- aab-e-jamjam -- which could be used on the two babajis. If he was given the necessary go-ahead, the maulavi could easily sprinkle some of that water on the pair of them, as well as Mamababu, and send them on their way to hell.
Nibaran said, "Look, Maulavi sahib, we are determined to get rid of those two men. Today, if we can. But we cannot manage everything by ourselves. We need your help, and Pandeyji's."
"You want me to thrash them?" Feku asked hopefully.
"No, no, nothing like that. There will be no violence. All you'll have to do is shout, and make a noise. Can you do that?"
Of course. Certainly. Never fear. But ... what if the master was displeased?
"He won't say anything to you, I promise!" said Nibaran reassuringly. "I will return later and explain what you must do."
Nibaran and Satya took their leave, and made their way back to the hall. They bumped into Ganesh Mama on their way. Ganesh was busy making preparations for the event that would follow later -- the lighting of the holy fire -- in a different room.
"Heh-heh, you are here, too!" he exclaimed, upon seeing Nibaran and Satya. "Very good, very good. So ... how's the family, heh-heh? Nibaran, is your father better now, heh-heh? And your mother? And sister? Satya, your Pishima and everyone else ...?"
Yes, Nibaran told him quickly, all in his family were heh-heh. Satya's family was the same, thanks to Mamababu's blessings. Ganesh Mama tried to look suitably reassured, as if anxiety over their families had been causing him sleepless nights.
"Mama," asked Satya,"has that young son-in-law of yours found a job? If not, ask him to see me after the holidays. There's a vacancy in our office."
"Really? Thank you, son, thank you. You are my very own. If you don't try to help me, who will? He will certainly see you as soon as your office reopens."
"Mamababu," Nibaran put in, "I have a request. I'd like a special darshan, of the god."
"Why, that's not a problem. Go into that hall, everyone is ..."
"No, no, that's not what I meant. That god we can see easily enough. I meant the real stuff ... you know, in that small room where you'll light a fire."
Ganesh Mama drew in his breath sharply, as if the very idea frightened him. "No, how is that possible?" he asked, after a pause. "That's a special privilege. One has to earn it. I can't allow all and sundry ... besides, Satya here is a ... a ..."
"Brahmo. But he's not all that committed to Brahmoism, you see. He has not stopped being a Hindu. I mean, not totally. He can quote from the Geeta, he goes to the theatre, and attends all Hindu festivals. You are older than both of us, so I shouldn't boast in front of you, but ... I have to say Satya's knowledge of the scriptures is really quite profound. He can take on other pundits and challenge ..."
"No!" Ganesh Mama interrupted. "He may know a lot, but if he has chosen to move out of our Hindu society, he cannot come back. And you ... I've heard that even you eat and drink what is forbidden."
"Everyone does, Mama, from time to time. Gurupodo Babu has done the same, ask him. Anyway, if you're bent upon disappointing us, we'll take our leave. Come on, Satya."
"All right," said Satya. "Pronam, Mamababu. Oh, by the way, may I suggest something? Why don't you ask your son-in-law to learn typewriting? Let him practise for four or five months. If he has no experience at all, his boss might not be happy with his work. Think how embarrassing it will be for me, if that happens? Perhaps when the next vacancy comes up, some time in the future ...?"
"Oh, don't say that!" Ganesh Mama cried in dismay. "Vacancies don't crop up every day, do they? Please, Satya, my son, you've got to get him this job. Er ... so you do read the Geeta, do you? Well then, may be it's all right for you to go in. Sprinkle some gangajal on your head before you go. Yes, both of you. And ... don't forget about that job."
Nibaran waited until Ganesh Mama was out of earshot. Then he said, "So far so good. Let's hope nothing goes wrong at the last minute. Are your friends here? Amulya and Habla?"
"Yes, they're waiting in the main hall. They'll appear when the moment is right, don't worry. Tell me, Nibaran da, do you think Ganesh Mama is getting a share of the proceeds?"
"God knows. All I can say is that Ganesh Mama gets a free hand in everything as long as Gurupodo Babu remains indifferent to how his house is run, or how his money is spent."
A most appropriate image for a religious guru. He was wearing a saffron robe, and a cap made from the same cloth. It had flaps that came down to cover his ears. He did not exactly appear to be five thousand years old. At a guess, one would have placed him closer to fifty-five than either five thousand or five hundred. Just below the dais, on the right, sat his chief follower, Kebalananda. The devotees had not yet been able to decide how many centuries comprised his age, but he appeared to be both young and strong. He was dressed similarly, but the cloth his dress was made of was clearly of an inferior quality. To the left of the dais sat Gurupodo Babu, half reclining and leaning his head against it. He was very thin, his eyes were closed. It was impossible to tell whether he was awake or not.
In the next room, a young girl of about eighteen, dressed in a red saree, was sitting in the front row among all the women, casting frequent pathetic glances at Gurupodo Babu, through an open door. Her long hair was left open. It was Buchki, his younger daughter. Among the other people present in the hall, some were lying prostrate on the ground. Others were sitting with their hands folded, and their feet covered, waiting to drink from the fount of knowledge and wisdom that was about to spring forth from Birinchi Baba's lips.
In order to show his respect, Satya bent very low, his head touching the floor; then he rose and took his place in the audience. Nibaran shot forward, ignoring Kebalananda's protests, and grabbed the Baba's feet. Birinchi Baba smiled indulgently. "Your face seems familiar," he remarked.
"This servant of yours, Baba, is called Nibaran."
"Is that so? I mean, is that what you are called now? Where have I seen you before? In Nepal? No, it was in Murshidabad. You do not remember, I am sure. It was at the palace of Jagat Seth that we met. It was after his mother's death, after all the rituals were over. Jagat Seth had hosted a meal for a lot of people -- there was Raja Krishna Chandra, Rai-rayan Jankiprasad, the commander-in-chief of the Nawab, Khan-khanan Muhabbat Jang, and Amirchand of Sutanuti, described by the historians as Umichand. You were the Seth's cashier. Your name was ... wait a minute ... yes, it was Motiram. Oh, it was a very good meal, Sethji spared no expense. But the babus of Sutanuti complained that the number of sweets they were served was less than what the others were given. So they had words, and walked off in a huff. So ... Motiram, I mean Nibaran ... try the Dhurjati mantra. It will help you a lot. Every morning, as soon as you open your eyes, you must chant, 'Dhurjati, Dhurjati' one hundred and eight times, as quickly as you can. All right? Now go and sit down."
Nibaran touched his feet again, with a great deal of fervour, as if he wanted to wipe all the dust from them. Then he pretended to lick his hands -- the dust was, after all, totally pure, coming from the feet of such a great man -- and finally went and sat down next to Satya.
Nitai Babu, having witnessed the whole scene, whispered to Paramartha, "This isn't fair, is it?
Nibaran catches the Baba's eye the minute he walks in, and I've been waiting here for more than an hour. Just my luck. Well, I'm going to go and grab his feet, too, as soon as I can. Then let's see what happens."
Among those who were lying prostrate, there was an old man, of generous proportions. He was wearing a fine cotton dhoti with a narrow golden border, a kurta also made of fine cotton, through which a thin gold chain was clearly visible. He was the famous businessman, Gobardhan Mallik. He had recently married for the third time. Slowly, he rose from the floor, folded his hands and asked: "Baba, which is better -- the path of desire, or the path of fulfilment?"
The Baba replied with a smile. "That is exactly what Tulsidas had asked me. Let me explain. We eat, right? Why do we eat? Because we feel hungry. What do we eat? Rice and wheat, and vegetables and meat. What happens when we eat? Hunger is fulfilled and appeased. So, you see, desire is at the root of the very act of living. And its final end is fulfilment. Tulsi was a sanyasi. I said to him, 'look, your life is not going to be fulfilled unless every desire has been met'. So, when he finished writing the Ramayan in Hindi, I made him Raja Man Singh. He managed to make a lot of money, but none of it remained in his family. His son, Jagat Singh, married a girl from Bengal and spent it all."
"Wond-uh-ful!" exclaimed O K Sen, the barrister.
Nitai Babu could no longer contain himself. He stood up, rushed forward and threw himself at the Baba's feet. "Help me, Prabhu!" he begged. "Have mercy upon me!"
The Baba frowned. "What do you want?" he asked. Somewhat taken aback, Nitai Babu mumbled, "Nineteen fourteen."
Satya, as it happened, suffered from a great malady. He found it very hard to control laughter. If he had to pull someone's leg, he could say the most absurd things with a perfectly straight face. But, if someone else said something that struck him as funny, he could not stop himself from bursting into laughter. In order to exercise better control, he often tried to divert his mind by imagining situations that might be difficult, or even frightening. But it did not always work.
"Nineteen fourteen?" Birinchi Baba repeated, a little puzzled. "What do you mean?"
Nibaran leant towards Satya and whispered: "One nine one four. No reply? Try again, Miss." Satya closed his eyes and tried to imagine a horrific scene. He was lying on a table, and a carpenter was hacking bits of flesh off his back with a very sharp saw. Oh God, it was so incredibly painful!
Nitai Babu was obliged to expand. "Please, Baba," he implored, "take me to 1914, before the war started. Just for a week, Baba. I want to buy iron, as cheaply as possible. I beg of you, Baba!"
"What do you do for a living?"
"Me? I am a ledger-keeper, in the office of the Volture Brothers. I only get a hundred and fifty rupees a month. Simply cannot manage with that, Baba."
"You want wealth, and a great deal of it? That isn't easy to achieve, you know. It requires rigid discipline, and a special yogic power. With this power, the sun has to be made to walk backwards. Not everyone can acquire such power, dear man. There are several rituals that must be completed, you have to spend a lot of money to do that. No, such a thing is not for you. What you can do is chant the Martyanda mantra. At mid-day -- on the dot of 12 o'clock -- you must look straight at the sun and say 'Martyanda, Martyanda' one hundred and eight times, very quickly. Make sure you don't blink in that time, or stutter even once. If you do, you're in for big trouble."
Nitai Babu returned to his seat, looking utterly crestfallen. Birinchi Baba went on speaking: "Everyone wants money, everyone wants affluence. But it must go to the right people, only those worthy of it. Jesus and I used to argue over this. Jesus used to say, a rich man will never go to heaven. I said to him: why not, if he puts his money to good use? Poor Jesus. He lost his life so young!"
Mr Sen, looking astounded, asked, "Excuse me, Prabhu, but did you actually know Jesus Christ?"
"Jesus? Ha ha ha, Jesus was born only yesterday!"
Satya tried imagining a different scene: there were poisonous insects inside his nose and ears, drilling holes into his flesh, biting and stinging painfully.
Mr Sen turned to Nibaran. "Does that mean he also knew Gautam Buddha?"
"Of course. Prabhu here knew not just Gautam, but Manu and Parashar, and all the ancient Hindu sages as well. Knew them intimately, they all smoked ganja from the same chillim. He knew everyone you have ever heard of -- Bhagirath, Tutenkhamun, Nebuchadnazzer, Hammurabi, the neolithic man, pethacanthropus erectus, even the missing link."
Mr Sen's eyes nearly popped out. "Ma-aih!" he gasped.
Satya was being chased by as many as seven tigers. Three vicious wild bears were in front of him, waiting to pounce.
Birinchi Baba was still speaking: "Once -- after a great flood -- yes, that's when Noah built his ark, I am so glad he took my advice -- Vishnu came to me. 'I am the preserver,' he said. 'how am I supposed to preserve so many lives when there's water everywhere?' So I said, 'don't worry, Vishnu, my friend, I'll help you.' I raised the sun's heat, and it dried up all the excess water in no time. The earth was left looking green and beautiful. The sun and the moon are in my charge, you see. I run them."
Mr Sen opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came.
Satya was dead. He had been travelling by the Punjab Mail, which collided with the Darjeeling Mail ... there was blood everywhere ... and dead bodies ... horrible, horrible sight ...!
Sadly, it did not work. Pent up laughter began bubbling in his throat and threatened to burst forth. Desperate, he made a final superhuman effort, and managed to turn that laughter into tears. He covered his eyes with his hands and burst into loud sobs.
"What is it?" Birinchi Baba asked, sounding concerned. "What's the matter with him? Make way, please, let him come to me."
Satya quickly made his way to the dais. "Save me, Baba!" he wailed. "I do not wish to live as a human being any more. I hate it. Make me a deer, and set me free in Shakuntala's ashram. I don't want money, or fame, or even moksha. All I want is some grass, plucked by Shakuntala herself. And please give me long and sharp antlers, so that I can gore Dushyant when he comes to woo her."
At this point, realising that things were getting out of hand, Nibaran intervened hastily. "Forgive him, Baba, he's gone mad. He may be young, but he has suffered a lot."
Baba was spared the necessity of making a reply, for the clock struck seven. In keeping with his daily practice, Birinchi Baba suddenly closed his eyes and fell into a trance. He sat very straight, and very still. Only his lips moved slightly. Ganesh Mama, Kebalananda and two others carried him away to his private chamber. The public meeting was over. His followers began to leave, one by one.
Nitai Babu turned to Paramartha. "Useless, totally useless! If he does have any supernatural power, why didn't he show us something? Proved it in some way? Oh no, he had to spend hours telling us what he did thousands of years ago. I say, Paramartha, let's go. We can catch the 7.20, if we hurry. There's no need to wait for Nibaran and Satya. They can jolly well make their own way back. ... Look, can you take me to your Mirchai Baba tomorrow?"
The few windows the room had were all shut, as was the door at the back. Ganesh Mama stood at the entrance, guarding it with his life. Kebalananda could not be seen. He was reported to be busy getting dinner ready for the Baba. A single oil lamp flickered in the room. Birinchi Baba was seated in the lotus position opposite the fire, his eyes closed. Behind him were Gurupodo Babu and Buchki, flanked by Nibaran and Satya on one side, Gobardhan Babu on the other.
After a long time, Birinchi Baba opened his eyes, took some water out of a copper pot and sprinkled it everywhere. The lamp went out. The fire had almost died, too. There were certainly no bright flames, only the embers glowed in the dark. Birinchi Baba began a new yogic exercise, beating his cheeks rapidly with his fingers and making a noise that seemed to come from somewhere deep within his throat. The small room shook and reveberated under its impact.
Satya leant over and whispered into Buchki's ear: "Buchu, are you afraid?"
"No," Buchki replied briefly.
Suddenly from the dying embers, a blue flame shot upward. In its dim, hazy light, everyone saw ... why, it was Mahadev! Behind the fire stood a figure clad in a tigerskin, garlands of bones and skulls around his neck, a bow in one hand, a damru in the other. His body glowed white in the dark. Yes, it was unmistakably the figure of Mahadev.
Gurupodo Babu did not speak, or move. Gobardhan Babu, on the other hand, started speaking at once, describing to this god of all gods every problem related to his third marriage, and his business. His tone held a discernible note of pathos. Ganesh Mama plunged into a hymn written in praise of the Lord, one that his youngest daughter had learnt in school.
Nibaran uttered just one word into Satya's ear. "Now!" he said.
Instantly, Satya gave a great shout. "Bom Baba Mahadev!" he yelled.
A few seconds later, a commotion broke out in the compound. A lot of people appeared to be talking excitedly. Then someone shouted, "Fire! There's a fire!"
Birinchi Baba's fingers stopped drumming his cheeks. He began glancing around uneasily. Ganesh Mama went out to investigate.
"Oh yes, there's a fire! Come out, come out immediately!" cried a voice. Coils of thick smoke began to invade the room. Birinchi Baba did not hesitate. He jumped to his feet and leapt out of the room. Gobardhan Babu followed suit, screaming. Buchki began tugging at her father's sleeve.
"Baba, Baba, get up!" she implored.
"It's all right," said Nibaran, his voice low. "Don't move, just wait here. You are in no danger, believe me."
At last, Mahadev seemed to realise that there was something seriously wrong. He began to fidget. Nibaran rose and re-lit the lamp. Mahadev promptly moved towards the door at the back, and opened it. Just as he was about to slip out, Satya sprang forward and flung his arms around him.
"Lemme go, lemme go!" Mahadev beseeched him. "Honestly, this is no time to fool around. There's a fire, for heaven's sake. Lemme go, I say!"
"Not so fast, O Lord," Satya replied. "Let's get to know each other first. Won't that be nice? Well then, Kebalram, how long have you been playing god?"
A few people entered the room through the main door. Satya handed Kebalananda over to Feku Pandey, and helped Buchki and her father to come out of the room.
There was no fire, it turned out. Someone had lit a pile of damp straw in the next room. Feku, Maulavi sahib, Coachman and Satya's friends had all got together and raised an alarm, quite unnecessarily.
Gobardhan Babu, justifiably furious, said, "You tried to cheat me? Do you know how much power and influence I have got? I have dealings with Englishmen, big and important Englishmen. You thought you could get away with it? Give him two tight slaps!"
Gurupodo Babu, by this time, had regained his composure. He said, "No, no, let them go. I don't want any unpleasantness. Satya, get the carriage ready and take them to the station. No need to say anything more."
When they had finsihed packing their belongings, Satya accompanied both the guru and his follower to the station and put them on a train. When it started, he said, "Prabhu, are you really leaving us? Well, remember the sun and the moon are still in your care. Make sure they work, and don't forget to oil them occasionally!"
When he returned to the house, most people had left. "Dear Nibaran, deat Satya," said Gurupodo Babu, "you have done me a very big favour. You saved me from the clutches of that ... I shall never forget it, never. It's too late now for you to go back. So I suggest you have dinner with us, and stay the night. Why, Satya, your hand is bleeding! What happened?"
"Oh, that's nothing. When I was tackling Mahadev, he bit my hand. Don't worry about it."
"Come with me, I'll get Buchki to dress your hand with the tincture of iodine."
After dinner was over, Satya found Nibaran in a quiet corner. "Am I in trouble!" he said.
"Why, what's happened now?"
"What is it, Satya?"
"I say, Nibaranda!"
"For heaven's sake, Satya, spit it out!"
"I want to marry Buchki."
"That's pretty obvious. But what if your offer is rejected?"
"Why should it be rejected? Of course it won't. Buchki's father will never reject me."
"Her father may agree, but what about Buchki herself? What does she say?"
"Well, her answer's not very clear."
"Why, what did she tell you?"
"She said, 'aw, go on!'."
"Satya, you are an idiot. When a girl says, 'aw, go on!', do you know what that means? It simply means, 'oh yes!'."
Published in Parabaas in June, 2002
The original story [biri~nchibaabaa*] by `Parashuram' (or Rajsekhar Basu) was first published in a collection of short stories titled Kajjali in the 1920's.
`The Holy Man' segment of Satyajit Ray's movie `The Coward and the Holy Man' (kaapurusha o mahaapurushh) is based on this story.
Illustrated by Jatindrakumar Sen [yatIndrakumaar sen *] These are the original illustrations. Jatindrakumar Sen also used the pen-name Narad. His illustrations have been extremely well received by the readers right from the beginning. The humor in Parashuram's writing and Narad's illustrations beautifully complemented each other and their partnership increased the appeal of these classics.