Sunday, January 22, 2017

THE LAMAS OF DHANKAR GOMPA

Sudarshan Krshnamachari was associate professor of Ancient Indian History in the Madras University at Chinnai. Even though he belonged to a chaste Brahmin family, he was an ardent Buddha follower and had done lot of research in Buddhism.
Sudarshan was orphaned in young age and brought up by his   maternal uncle. He was a brilliant student, which made him eligible for the government scholarship and pursue his interest in academics. At the age of twenty seven he was appointed as assistant professor in the Sri Radhakrishnan Government College, Chennai.
Sudarshan was an introvert, mostly glued to books. His contact with the outside world was limited to an hour he gave to reading newspapers in the morning. After college, he gave most of his time studying Buddhist literature and visiting Buddhist shrines during vacations.  
         
He had studied all the five sects of Buddhism in general but he believed in the doctrines of Theravada sect, which gave an individual, freedom to find his own way to enlightenment and Nirvana. He was also convinced that Buddha was a normal mortal who attained enlightenment and should therefore be respected but need not be worshiped. He supported the sect’s doctrine of non-proliferation of families of deities.

Sudarshan didn’t believe in the re-incarnation theory and hence his heart remained away from the Mahayana sect even though it was the largest sect of Buddhism.  Perhaps his childhood struggle inculcated the survival instinct in him that believed in self effort.

But his real interest lay in Tantric Buddhism. Its mysticism fanned his curiosity towards the sect. He always wanted to have a closer look at the followers of this sect and if possible undergo some of its rituals.   

Tantric Buddhism is a mix of Indian Buddhism and Tibetan beliefs, which came to recognition in the seventh century.  This form of Buddhism varies from other forms of Buddhism. The Tantric Buddhists worship by reciting prayers and sacred texts, along with chanting of hymns. They meditate sitting in circular formation signifying the shape of the universe.  The lamas blow trumpets, play drums and dance wearing masks while performing rituals to scare away spirits. They extol the supernatural by mystical incantation, which endows them with magical charms. Tantric Buddhism exists in the Indian regions bordering with Tibet and Nepal. Sudarshan found out from the web site of Himachal Pradesh Tourism that there was an ancient monastery dating back to eleventh century in the Spiti Valley. It said the monastery was on the left bank of a Pin River resting on an overhanging cliff. Sudarshan was overawed by the pictures and the account of the monastery. He wanted to find out more about it and decided to visit it.  
Sudarshan submitted a pilot project to Madras University seeking financial support for leading a study group to the monastery. Unfortunately, the Head of History Department of the university was a known atheist with leftist leaning. He mocked at the proposal and quashed it out right.
“The proposal doesn’t mention specific area of research. It will be sheer waste of time and money. We cannot support such flimsy proposal.” The Head of the History Department wrote on the file.
Sudarshan was determined to visit the monastery. He learnt that July and August were the ideal months when the weather in the valley was moderate.  He applied for leave; sold his car, the gas oven and his refrigerator; the only material assets he possessed and left on his mission in the last week of July without waiting for the formal sanction of the leave of absence he had applied.
A week later, Sudarshan was in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla discussing his project with Dr. Awasthi, the Chief Librarian of the Institute.
Dr. Awasthi was impressed by Sudarshan’s enthusiasm and dedication and allowed him to access the archives of the Institute for the furtherance of his research. The records narrowed the area of research to the monastery referred to as Dhankar Gompa, built in the eleventh century.  
Dhankar Gompa is about two hundred kilometres from Shimla. An inner line permit is required to go beyond Rampur Bushair, a small town village on the bank of Sutlej River. Sudarshan discussed the matter with Dr. Awasthi who assured to help him getting the permission.
Sudarshan took the morning bus from Shimla to Pooh and reached there by late evening. He purchased some dry fruits and biscuits from a local shop in Pooh and the next day took the bus going to Samdoh and further to the ancient town of Tabu. The road is narrow and hazardous, fraught with the risk of frequent landslides.  Luckily, Sudarshan was in Tabu by late evening without much hassles.
Sudarshan had carried a letter of introduction from Dr. Awasthi for the local school teacher with a request to help him in his project. The school teacher told him that a truck of the Public Works Department was likely to go to ‘Dhankar’ village in couple of days. The contractor who was also staying in the school agreed to give Sudarshan a lift to the famous  monastery.
It was beginning of August, the summer month in the Spiti valley. Days were warm and bright but there were still snow humps on the shadowed patches. The valley was however getting lively with trees getting new green coat and locals coming out of their houses along with goats and yaks.
Tabu monastery is on a plateau. By its side is a government school and little away is a picket of Indo-Tibet Border Police.   Sudarshan had lively discussions with the head lama of the monastery but noticed that the he was not willing to discuss the tantric practices known or exercised in the monastery.  
“Isn’t it true that a sect of Buddhism practices tantric powers and some of the lamas were bestowed with supernatural powers?” Sudarshan asked the head lama.
The head lama just smiled without responding. Sudarshan could not elicit any information from him on the subject. 
 Sudarshan stayed two days in Tabu monastery, talking and discussing various aspects of Buddhism with the monks there. He spent one evening with the officer in charge of the ITBP post who was a very willing host.
“For how long have you been here,” Sudarshan asked him.
“Almost three years and hopefully should be out of this sector in couple of months.”
“Have you heard of any miracle; anything that may suggest anyone of the monks possessing supernatural powers?
“We are under strict orders not to interfere in the matters of the monastery. I do see some patients coming to the monastery for treatment but what they do or how they treat them, I have no idea.”
Sudarshan was disappointed by the detachment commander’s non-committal answer.
“Our boys go to Sumdoh Army MI room,” the officer added after a little pause.
Next morning Sudarshan took a lift from the truck going to Dhankar village, which is at an elevation of 3800 metres in the Spiti valley on the bank of Pin River. It is a small village with a head count of less than hundred.
The village chief spoke little bit of Hindi.
“A new monastery has been built on the plains of the Pin River. The scrolls and other scriptures have been shifted to the new monastery,” the village chief said and then added, “This has been done for the safety of the devotees since the path leading to the old monastery is hazardous. Moreover, the old monastery is in a dilapidated condition.”
“I want to visit the old monastery,” Sudarshan told the village chief.
The village head stared at Sudarshan. “No one is allowed to visit the old monastery,” the village chief sounded crotchety.
Sudarshan deemed it proper to let the matter rest at that point and decided to take it up with the senior lama of the new monastery.
Next day Sudarshan went to the new monastery and spent nearly the whole day there. His interest and knowledge of Buddhism impressed all and sundry. At the close of the day he went to the senior lama and requested him to permit him to see the old monastery.
 “It is in a rundown condition. The walls may give in any time. We don’t take risk.” The senior lama told him.
“I am writing a book on ancient monasteries. It will be incomplete if I don’t include Dhankar Gompa in my book.” He pleaded.
“We don’t allow non Buddhists to enter the old monastery. Besides, one should be a member of our order.”
“I am devout Buddhist even though I was born in a Brahmin family. I have presented more than twenty papers on Buddhism in the international seminars. And if you insist, I willing to convert; accept Buddhism right now.”
“What is your area of interest?”
“I am working on the tantric powers of your sect. I understand Dhankar Gompa was one of such centres of Tantric Buddhism.”
The head lama paused, gave Sudarshan a hard stare and then closed his eyes. Both sat motionless. The senior lama looked in a trance like state as Sudarshan sat waiting expectantly for a favourable outcome.
  “Good. Come here before Sun rise. Make sure you have no camera, no recording gadget and no pen or paper,” the senior lama said with a feeble smile.
Sudarshan nodded quietly and left with a bow.
Sudarshan could not sleep that night. He wanted to structure his audience; frame a set of questions in his mind for seeking elaboration from the lamas of the ancient monastery. Next morning Sudarshan reached the new monastery where the senior lama was waiting for him. “Come let’s go to the river,” he told Sudarshan.
The water of the Pin River was cold; colder than the ice water from a fridge.
“Take out all your clothes and have a dip and stay in water until I ask you to come out,” the senior lama told him.
Sudarshan obeyed. As he entered the water, he felt as if his body was shrinking. He remembered his childhood days, when he used to dip in the village pond, naked. But then he was one of the many children and the water was very comforting.   
It seemed to him as if the clock was moving slow.
“May be, the senior lama has forgotten that he had ordered someone to remain in the freezing water. Well! if this is going to be the end of my mission and my life, let it be. He thought.
Sudarshan was on the verge of collapsing when the senior lama appeared.
“Death is of the body; the soul is imperishable,” The senior lama spoke as he came near Sudarshan. And then after a little pause, he handed Sudarshan a white cloth sheet to wrap around and signalled him to follow.
They walked quietly to the old monastery ascending the cliff hanging over the Pin River. Sudarshan was overly frightened to walk over the terribly narrow path with gorges on either side.
“Fear visits when desires supplant the mind. There is no fear if you desire nothing,” the senior lama spoke.
Has he read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised by the lama’s words.
They entered the monastery. Sudarshan was gleefully happy.
I am close to accomplishing my mission. He thought.
Inside the monastery was a giant Buddha statue with oil lamps lit all around in glistening golden pots. On one side were few bhikshus sitting in a circular pattern on woollen mats meditating and behind them was a Lama sitting on a podium.
He was the head lama of the old monastery.
There was a mat lying unoccupied. The Head Lama beckoned Sudarshan to sit on it.
Sudarshan was still naked with the white sheet wrapped around him. He was uncomfortable but his mind was agog, expecting exhibition of some supernatural powers.
“Supernatural is something to be experienced within. It’s  not a matter of exhibition. It is within you, don’t seek it out side.” The Head Lama spoke looking at Sudarshan.
Was it telepathy? How was he able to read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised once again.
“Meditate and seek answers to all your queries from within,” the Head Lama spoke with a smile this time.
Sudarshan closed his eyes. He feigned meditation. He was a near atheist; never had gone to any temple in his adulthood.
Suddenly he sailed into his past. He remembered the banyan tree of his village temple and felt that he was sitting on one of its branches. Then he felt the banyan tree was taking him through his life journey. He saw his mother waiting with his clothes after his bath; his father holding his lunch plate; he saw his friends in his school ground. And then the banyan tree took him to his college and to the college where he taught. He saw all his folks and friends receding beyond the skyline.
Sudarshan was shaken. He opened his eyes and saw himself sitting on the woollen mat inside the Dhankar Gompa monastery.
Then his eyes got closed and felt the mat he was sitting on was getting warmer. Soon it became unbearably hot. He started sweating profusely; the white sheet of cloth fell off his body.
Thereafter he forgot everything; his personal life, his people and his ambition. Nothing existed but a cool blue light before his eyes; blissful and serene. All his strains had disappeared; there were no questions, no doubts remained in his mind. There was a smile on his gleaming face.
Sudarshan felt he was levitating in the air.
The Head Lama came down from the podium and gave him a golden rob to put on. Sudarshan wanted to stay for some more time in the monastery in front of the large Buddha statue but the words wouldn’t come to him. .
“You can stay here until evening prayers,” the Head Lama told him without his asking.
Sudarshan was not surprised now.
He bowed before the senior Lama and the Head Lama. He shared lunch with the inmates and then joined the evening prayer with other bhikshus. After incanting of mantras was over, there was absolute silence.
Everyone in the monastery took his seat and started meditating with eyes closed. Sudarshan followed. It was a genuine effort on his part this time.
It was blissfully quiet, pin drop silence in the monastery. Sudarshan had no idea how long it was. He experienced a glowing light passing in front of his eyes and when he opened his eyes, he saw himself sitting in front of the Buddha statue.
And then he realized he was all alone. There was not a single human being in the monastery. Sudarshan smiled. It reflected his inner happiness.   
He came out of the monastery.
It was pitch dark outside save the twinkling of the stars high in the sky. Walking alone in the dark over the dangerously precarious path didn’t bother him not did the Pin River, swishing past the rocks.
He crossed the river devoid of fear and walked to the lodge he was staying in the Dhankar village.
Next day Sudarshan was on his return journey. Travelling past the valley, he was reflecting over his experience at the Dhankar Gompa Monastery and debating within himself.

Was my mission successful?      

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

THE LAD AT KATOL RAILWAY STATION


I had a week long stay in the twin city of Secunderabad and Hyderabad to negotiate and select a wholesale dealer for our new product, an electronic household appliance for the region covering the states of Telangana and Andhra. Three bidders had been short listed by the company; I was asked to inspect their showrooms and assess their fiscal worth and report to the board of directors. 
I visited all the three dealers and found all three of them nearly good. All of them were fiscally sound and experienced in handling household appliances. It was now for me to recommend one of them following the benchmarks set by the company. I completed the exercise recommending the best of the three bidders.

I was scheduled to return to Nagpur, the next morning. Thus I was free in the evening. I therefore decided to go to Hussain Sagar and take a ride in a speed boat. I just wanted some thrill.

After an exciting time at Hussain Sagar, I reached back my hotel by seven. I had a shower and as I was about to step out for dinner, there was a bell boy at the door.
“Sir, this packet has been delivered for you,” he said handing it over to me.

I was a bit surprised for I knew no one in the town who would send me a gift. I opened the packet and found a classy pearl necklace and a silver hip flask. And to add to my surprise; the hip flask was full of whiskey. I read the card; it was from the bidder who happened to be the one I had recommended.  

I was in two minds whether to accept the gifts or not and then I decided to accept them. My logic was simple: I neither favoured any one nor did I ask for them; my conscience was clear.

I made a drink from the whiskey in the silver flask and relished it. I had another drink and then proceeded to the dining hall. My spirits were soaring.

After dinner it suddenly occurred to me that since my work was finished, I could return to Nagpur by one of the night trains. I knew couple of express trains touching Secunderabad late in the evening. I decided to take a chance and rushed to the railway station and bought a ticket for Nagpur.

It is not very uncommon to see trains running late in India. It was therefore pleasantly surprising that the train had arrived on time; big relief in a cold winter evening.

As the Delhi bound super-fast train rolled in, I got into one of the reserved bogies even though I was aware that only passenger with reservation were entitled to enter it. I was confident that I will   manage a berth by tipping the conductor.

The conductor was very unfriendly; he grumbled and asked me to wait. However, on his second round he asked me to follow him. We came to the farther end of the coach and before he could open his mouth, I took out a five hundred rupee note and thrust it in his pocket.
The result was that I got a berth. I stretched myself on the berth; happy that I could sleep comfortably. It was ten in the evening; by then most of the passengers had settled; soon I too fell asleep.  

And then many of the passengers and I woke up as the train croaked, screeched and stopped with a jolt.

It was dark outside. We learnt that the train had stopped at a way side small station. Everyone was anxious to know the reason.  The coach attendant told us that the engine had developed a problem and was required to be replaced and that we may have to wait till a replacement engine arrived from Nagpur, about hundred and fifty kilometres away. That meant we were to wait for three hours after the engine left Nagpur.  
It was anyone’s guess as to how much time it might take to find a replacement engine and prime it into active mode.

The station master came out from his small cabin and apologised but had nothing to offer. Since none of the premier trains stopped there, there were no kiosks or vending stalls at the station.
The railway station we had been stranded was Katol; a very small town in the state of Maharastra. 

Slowly, the passengers started trickling out.  There were very few lights on the low level platform, which even didn’t have cemented flooring. Though I am a lethargic person, I also came out reluctantly.
There were a couple of iron benches on the platform. As I proceeded towards one of them, I saw a man sleeping on a mat by its side, covering himself with a coarse blanket.

“What naivety? Why can’t this bumpkin sleep on the bench?” I was a bit amused.
“Well everyone to himself,” I thought and sat on the bench and opened my lap top.

Might as well play a game to pass the time. I thought.

As more passengers thronged the small platform, there was commotion; the folks cursing the railways for its inefficiency. The man sleeping on the floor woke up; in fact, he was a young lad.

“Sorry, we have disturbed you.” I said apologetically.
“What happened? This train doesn’t stop here,” he said grudgingly.
“Engine trouble. Have to wait for the replacement engine,” I was brief.

The young man smiled. “Get prepared to spend the night here.  The replacement driver must be sleeping with his wife. He has to be extracted from his bedroom ... not very easy.” He chuckled.

I was amused at his sense of humour.
“I say, now that we are stuck at this forlorn place, is there any scope of getting tea or coffee?’
“No way sir. You have to wait for another eight hours. The vendors come only after eight in the morning since the first train stopping at this station comes at eight thirty in the morning.”

I was disappointed but just to keep the conversation alive, I asked him, “What’s your name?”
I am Birj Kishore; Birju in short.”
“Well Birju! Do you live nearby? I mean how far is your village from here?” 
“Not very far, just one mile.”
“Tell me, why do you sleep here?” I was awkwardly inquisitive.
“Sir, my father was a mazdoor - a factory worker in a sugar mill at Nagpur. The sugar mill was closed dawn because of labour trouble and the mill owners didn’t pay the wages. My father had taken a loan for building a small house from a money lender. Since he could not repay the loan, the money lender arrogated the house. My father who was suffering from lung infection died of the shock.”

Birju waited for a few moments and then continued. “Sir, would you believe? My father had repaid the loan amount but the interest itself was whopping 36% per annum.”

Birju paused, stretched his arms and then continued his story with a smile. It was a childlike smile.

“We are left with our old mud hut. There is my mother, my sister and my newly married brother. My mother and sister sleep in the cow-shed of the same money lender. In lieu, my mother works in his farm during day time.
  
I was speechless.
Birju seemed to be compulsively garrulous. He started again.

“Sir, you would agree that I have to be considerate towards my brother. I want him to enjoy the marital bliss. So I come over to this place and sleep under this platform. Better than sleeping in the open barn and always be worried of snakes.”

I was moved by his story and it surprised me that the lad had no animus towards the money lender or his fate. He was all smiles talking to me.

He picked up the threads once again. “I cook meals for the station master. The poor guy is away from his family and he is a clumsy cook. I therefore cook his meals in the morning. He allows me to share the left over. The station master is a holy cow; a thorough gentleman; the poor soul never questions me.”

Birju had a passive listener in me and perhaps he felt I deserved something to drink.

“Sir, wait. I will ask the station master if I can make a cup of tea for you - only for you.”

I was selfishly happy for I badly wanted to have a hot cup of tea.  
Birju came with a kettle of tea and a glass tumbler. The tea was too sweet for me but I had no option. And he brought two paranthas and some pickles also. I was simply delighted. It was no less than having a dinner in a five star hotel.


There was some activity on the platform. Birju told me that the replacement engine was about to arrive. Passengers started returning to their compartments. And then I realized that I had spent five hours in the company of this village lad.

I wanted to give Birju some money. I took out a hundred rupee note and extended it towards him.
Birju smiled.
“Sir weren’t you hungry?” He suddenly asked me.
“Yes, I was.”
“You wanted something to drink, right?”
“Of course, I did.”
“The tea and paranthas were from station master’s kitchen. I just brought them from there. So if you want to pay for your them, please give it to the station master.”

I was stunned. What a clear headed and principled approach this village bumpkin had. He was dismally poor and yet he was not willing to accept the money.  

I was stranded for words. To save face, I asked him, “Tell me, why you were sleeping on the ground, when there are benches on the platform?”
Birju laughed. It was laughter of a crystal clear soul. I looked at him, waiting for him to speak.
“Sir, the benches are made for the passengers who buy tickets and travel on trains. How can I sleep on a bench when I don’t pay for it?”

I felt as if I had been slapped on face.

I felt mean and low. It dawned to me that my conscience had turned opaque by the festering blisters of self deceit. I felt as if the expensive necklace I had accepted was a string of poisonous berries, and the silver flask, a faecal pot. 

Birju must have read the dark shades crossing my face. The village bumpkin wanted to part with a cheerful note.

“Sir, frankly speaking, I prefer to sleep on ground because the benches are too old; they squeak and whine a lot,” he said winking at me with a glittering smile.





 


 














Monday, January 2, 2017

THE FORGOTTEN LETTER

That forenoon, Abhijit Verma was alone in his small house in the suburb of Allahabad. His wife had gone to Sultanpur, a nearby town to attend the marriage of her niece and was expected only after two days. Normally, Abhijit would have accompanied his wife but for their pet dog who could not be left unattended. A problem, typical of the dog lovers.  Abhijit wanted to make most of his freedom. He made a cup of coffee for himself and decided to sort out old redundant papers; files, office manuals, old reports, books etc., which were virtually littered all over the place.  He has been thinking to undertake this exercise since his retirement nine months ago. May be it was lethargy or craft of procrastination that he had not taken up the much desired task.
Now this is the best opportunity; no one to disturb. Let me do it now. He thought.
Amongst the pile of books and manuals, he saw a blue coloured paper jacket. He remembered it. He had been keeping all the letters he received from his father in that blue jacket. He would read the letters sent by his father once, sometimes twice and then stuff it in the jacket. He had done this for forty years since he joined his first job at Nagpur way back in 1960 and until his father’s death thirteen years ago. Abhijit had not opened the jacket after the death of his father; there being no occasion to do so.  
Abhijit opened the jacket for he had an urge to have a look at the letters and put them seriatim in a file. There was a typical format in which his father wrote to him. It always started with a Sanskrit mantra on the top and at times a short commentary of the same. There would be a brief description of the day to day events and then some quotes from scriptures. Never would he ask anything from Abhijit or give him any advice on his personal matters.  And there was an unmistakable identity of his father’s letters. They were all in the ‘inland form’ where contents were written inside, folded and then the address of the recipient written on the outer fold. Abhijit had preserved his father’s all letters for he was emotionally attached to them and he considered their content of high philosophic value.   
He was sipping coffee and working leisurely, enjoying his freedom and was happy that he had progressed well. Now he wanted to weed out the unwanted books.  Unlike spacious racks and shelves in the government bungalows, he had to manage them in a small house.  And then he saw a book, ‘An Autobiography of a Yogi’. He took hold of it. In a flash, he remembered the person and the occasion it was presented to him.
Abhijit was lost in memories. He shuffled the pages of the book and then there was a surprise to follow; there fell a letter from it. It was written on a blue ruled paper, most probably torn out of an exercise book of a child, folded twice and inserted in to the book. Its colour had paled. He unfolded it and saw the date on top of the paper.
It read 17 May1982. That was the day he had sailed out of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands more than three decades ago.
A streak of pain chilled his spine. He felt giddy and nearly collapsed in the chair. He lay still for some time and then managed to get up from the chair, walked slowly to the refrigerator and took a bottle of cold water. As he sipped the water, he swooned to his days in Andaman Nicobar islands.
II
It was 1979 that he was posted to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; an idealistic, young officer full of energy. Even though he had to work often beyond office hours, he found time for his hobby of reading and writing and by virtue of his official position he was elected as the president of the cultural club of Port Blair.   Mr. Lalit Ratnakar, the Director of Port Blair All India Radio Station was the Secretary of this club. Ratnakar was very energetic for his fifty odd years. He had an inimitable quality of approaching people and befriending them. And in sync with his profession, he had a flair for cultural activities.  In practice, Ratnakar was the life and soul of the cultural club with Abhijit as its titular head. Ratnakar would arrange musical evenings or cultural programmes on the eve of major festivals and whenever any VIP came from the main land.
Abhijit was sinking deep in to memory lane. Yes it was February 1982, a few months before he was to revert back to his parent department.  The festival of Holi was only a month away. Ratnakar suggested staging a three act play of the famous Hindi writer, Upendra Nath Ask titled, Taulye: The Towels. The play is a comedy and a satire on the neo-rich middle class on being finicky in the use of towels. The wife decrees that every member of the family will use his own towel and no towel will be used second time. But there is always a terrible mix up.  The family members forget the rule and often use the used towels - that creates the rumpus.
Ratnakar had worked out all details; finalised the main cast and other supporting actors and had kept Abhijit informed. He requested Abhijit to come to the club after office even if it were for few minutes. “Your presence will encourage the boys to perform better,” he had pleaded. Abhijit had obliged unless he was held up due to any official or social commitment.  All seemed to be going well. Funds had been arranged through some local businessmen who were too glad to oblige so long it was brought to Abhijit’s knowledge. 
The play was scheduled to be staged a week later in the auditorium of the administration. One evening, Abhijit was about to get out of his office at the close of the day when Ratnakar rushed in, all ruffled; very unlike of him. He had literally run past the stairs leading to Abhijit’s office on the first floor. He was panting.   
“What’s the matter Mr. Ratnakar? You all right?” Abhijit asked him, a little concerned.
“Sir, very serious problem,” Ratnakar managed to say gasping for breath and then continued after pausing a little. “Anupam Choudhury, the lead character of our play has to leave by tomorrow’s flight. He has lost his father.”
That surely was a serious problem; disturbing in fact. Ads had gone in the local newspaper and AIR was reminding the people every day, requesting them to come and see the play. Even ferry timings had been altered to facilitate spectators’ returning home.
Worried by the sudden impediment, they proceeded to the rehearsal venue. Ratnakar had requested all actors and support crew to be present in the club. The matter was discussed in length; majority wanted the play be abandoned.
“What can we do when the lead character goes away? How can we replace him in such a short span?” That was the majority opinion. Abhijit was restrained but Ratnakar was adamant to stage the play.
“The show must go on. The prestige of the club is at stake.” He argued.
“What about the credibility of the club? Who will play the lead role? And even if you hunt someone, how can you make a raw horn to play the lead role? There are not many people in Port Blair acquainted with theatre nuances let aside performing before a crowd.”
The discussions carried on and on.   And then Ratnakar got up and requested the gathering to calm down. I have a suggestion. Everyone looked at him askance. Ratnakar paused and said, “May I request on behalf of all of you; Mr. Verma should play the lead role.”
There was a mixed reaction but everyone nodded. Abhijit was startled; shocked in fact. “How can that be? I have not even read the script properly and there is hardly any time.”
“Sir, if anyone can salvage the situation; it is none other than you. The reputation of the club is at stake. Sir, you can do it. Please accept the challenge. We are with you. Let this be your parting gift to the club and the people of Port Blair.” This was Ratnakar echoing his sentiment.
One person who was a quiet listener so far was Mrs. Soumya Bhardwaj, the leading lady of the play. She was looking at Abhijit and at her script off and on. The situation had rattled her since she was one of the most affected persons. But she wanted the play to be staged and she wished Abhijit played the lead role.
Soumya was Abhijit’s ardent admirer. She had attended all the functions wherever Abhijit had presided or recited his poems. Her husband, Anil Bhardwaj was a Hindi typist in Abhijit’s department. She had obtained and preserved the copies of all the poems Abhijit had recited and she had prevailed upon her husband to get her a copy each of all the manuscripts Abhijit left with Anil.  
Abhijit was tall, fair and handsome young man and he was aware of ladies glancing at him admiringly and he enjoyed the attention. But that was social admiration and it was true that he didn’t know many of them individually. For him, Soumya was also just one of them.   
Ratnakar handed over a copy of the script and dialogues of the lead role to Abhijit. The opening scene had Soumya washing the towels and hanging them on the twine for drying. And while doing so, she is to censure the family members for being careless in the use of the towels. Abhijit watched her perform while holding the script. 
Next six days were a melee of events. Abhijit was rehearsing the dialogues to himself even during office hours. The ordeal was putting him under terrific stress. On the first day, while Soumya was perfect in remembering her lines and delivering them, Abhijit was flabbergasted.  And time and again he saw Soumya looking at him intently; it baffled him more. He could feel the strong vibes emanating from her, and he was finding it difficult to ward them off.
Following days were equally turbulent. Whereas Abhijit had got hold of himself as far as the play was concerned, he could make out that Soumya was inching towards him. Even though no words were exchanged; her looks were impacting him. During the short breaks in between the rehearsal, he would see from the corner of his eyes; Soumya looking at him intently.
He was getting unnerved; her looks with a thin smile were driving him crazy. Soumya was beautiful, curvaceous and her long tress, fondling with her waist line was stirring him. True enough, Soumya was appealing and charming to make any man lose his equanimity. 
The show was a great success. Bouquets were presented to Soumya and Abhijit for their performance. The audience went home complimenting the lead pair. Back in the green room, Abhijit went to Soumya and thanked her for the success of the show. “You carried the show. I was very diffident when I was assigned the role but you saved the day for us.”  While saying so Abhijit had unknowingly taken Soumya’s hands in to his and pressed them softly.  Then he looked up and saw Soumya standing before him, tears rolling down her cheeks.  She didn’t even thank him; there was a lump in her throat. Ratnakar and Anil came up and congratulated Abhijit and Soumya. Abhijit exited hurriedly and joined his family.
The chief commissioner had invited all the artists and crew members to dinner at his residence. Abhijit looked around to locate Soumya; he couldn’t see her. Nor was Anil present there. Ratnakar who could sense Abhijit’s consternation came over and told him that Soumya felt too tired to stay back for dinner and therefore Anil had taken her home. “She wanted me to convey her apologies to you,” Ratnakar added. It was now Abhijit, missing Soumya.
She should have been here to share the moments of glory. He thought.
Next two months were hectic. Office work followed by social engagements and then winding up the household and getting them packed for shipping. It was a mess of events. Those days there were no professional packers. It was left to amateur jetty labourers to do the packing. Abhijit often remembered Soumya and her tranquil looks, which were so expressive. He wished Anil had invited him to his place. Unfortunately, the poor steno could never think of that. It would have been sheer audacity on his part besides many tongues would have wagged.  
The day arrived when Abhijit was leaving the islands. A deluxe cabin had been booked for him, his wife and his young son in MV Harshvardhan. The friends and colleagues had come and gone bidding them farewell. Anil was there helping him to stack the bouquets and gift packets and standing at a corner was Soumya listening quietly to Abhijit’s wife and the prattle of his young son.
The ship had hooted twice. As is the norm, after the third hoot the gangway is removed. Non passengers are required to clear the deck before that. Abhijit told Anil to leave. He hugged Anil, but his eyes were stilled on Soumya.
Soumya came forward and presented him a neatly wrapped packet. “You may like this book,’ she whispered handing it over to him... She could speak no more.
“Take care and keep in touch,” Abhijit whispered as they came to the deck.  Abhijit stood at the deck as he saw them going over the gangway.
The final hoot pierced the atmosphere. Abhijit standing on the deck saw Anil and Soumya standing at the jetty waving at him. As the propeller churned water, the ship started getting separated from the jetty. Large ship of MV Harshvardhan size took good half an hour to be tugged away from the shores. The jetty was near empty by now except that there was a lone couple still looking at the departing ship and Abhijit looking at their silhouettes. 
III
One tends to be selfish with the passage of time as one strives to adapt to new responsibilities, new people and new environment; official and social.   Abhijit forgot Anil. He forgot Soumya and he forgot Andaman Islands and he also forgot the book presented to him by Soumya. He did open the cover once; it was the autobiography of Swami Yoganand. He gave it a look and then stacked it in his book self.
That was over thirty years ago. He had risen in the hierarchy; had a share of glory, accolades and criticism and finally retired and settled in his small house in Allahabad. He had lot of spare time now. The invites had dwindled over the time and one possible reason was that he avoided driving at night.
It was that forenoon when he was free from house hold chores that it occurred to him to sort out his old papers and he saw the letter forgotten for three decades; and that too it was by sheer chance. He read the letter once, twice and thrice and he was shaken. He loathed himself.
Oh God! What a wretched person I am. It took me more than thirty years to see this letter. Where would be she now and in what condition? What agony she would have suffered? Can I be pardoned ever?
The letter read:
Dear Sir ji
Pardon me writing this letter to you. Even after innumerable sleepless nights, debating whether I should or I should not; I could not restrain myself and have mustered courage to write these few lines. I know full well that I cannot explain the propriety of my action.
The very first time I saw you, I was drawn towards you. Since then, my body was captive but my soul was always with you.  I am God fearing and religious yet I do not feel any guilt or shame in admitting it. The more I saw you, more I yearned for you; not doing so was beyond me.
Now you are going away and I see no hope of seeing you again.  But your picture is etched in my heart and it will remain so until my last breath. Left to suffer in these islands I am like a tulsi (basil) plant, which is adorned but never given a place inside the house.
In last Holi, you played colours with all of us. I can never forget your applying orange colour on my face. Sir ji! Can I make one request: whenever you play Holi, please put a tinge of colour on the tulsi plant of your house. I will feel your presence within me.
Be God with you.
Abhijit took the letter, folded it and kept it in the blue paper jacket along with his father’s letters.
Three months later it was the Holi festival.
Abhijit’s folks had gathered at his place. His brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, his grand children and his wife; all had gathered to celebrate the festival of colours. There were snacks, sweets and there were packets of colours of different hues. He being the eldest, all family members waited on him to start the ritual of applying the colours. Abhijit got up quietly, picked up the plate with orange colour and walked to the tulsi plant at the other end of the lawn and smeared it around its stem.  
Everyone thought he was getting senile. Abhijit but smiled inanely; he knew he could not explain it to them.