Joseph Kaval is a freelance writer since 1960. He writes both in English and Malayalam his mother-tongue. He writes essays, criticisms, book-reviews, short stories and novels. He has published so far 200 short stories and five novels. He conducts classes on creative writing for college students. He edits and publishes Katha Kshetre an international literary quarterly in English from Bengaluru since 1999.
The young couple sat on a boulder atop a hillock in the Lal Bagh garden facing a pond five meters below them. They appeared very calm and enjoying the evening breeze and the panorama around. But their minds and hearts in fact were like a turbulent sea in a summer storm.
Inadvertently they picked up small pebbles and threw them aimlessly into the murky pool. The stones neither stirred nor swelled the greenish water. The little lake, stagnant and sluggish, radiated a stony stillness.
After a while Joe whispered,
"Panchu, I'm leaving for New Delhi day after tomorrow. I'll stay with my father for a couple of days. Then I fly to New York. I love you, Panchu. I wish you to come with me."
She stared intently at the millpond.
"Panchu, please understand,” he said, “Even if I become a Brahmin, a change ritually and literally impossible, I'm afraid that your parents will not consent to our marriage and the community in your Agrahara will not accept me as a Brahmin. You know well that the Chatur Varnnyam is a religiously ritualized social system of watertight compartments. There is neither inner nor outer mobility in it. We will certainly be choked in such a set up. What did your father say to me? 'Never show me your face again.' You remember that. Don't you?"
She did not open her mouth though she wished to comment upon his words.
"If you become a Christian, your people will not let us live in this city. They will surely kill both of us. I'll meet with an accident and be gone for ever. You'll end up in a lunatic asylum for life. You know what Swami Vivekanand said of Kerala years ago. He called it a mad house. This country of yours is becoming a mad house, religiously intolerant and politically incoherent with factionalism and with too much provincialism."
As if frightened by his words Panchami suddenly turned and faced him. Her eyes were welled up. Warm tears streamed down over her dark brown cheeks. Her lovely bosom heaved. She couldn't utter a word.
"My dear Panchu," he said, looking squarely at her, "My parents will love you. Our people will accept you. Come with me. You have an M.A degree in Yoga Application. I've an M.Phil in Upanishads. We have a lot more potential in my country than in any other in the world. You have a passport. Let us elope. Within no time we will be in New York, at my home safe and secure… What do you think?"
She knew she was trapped between the devil and the deep sea. She had many things on her mind that she wanted to convey to him. She didn't know where and how to begin. She needed a savior to deliver her from her current predicament. She drew closer to him and leaned on his shoulders.
But suddenly, before he could hold her tightly and assure her that everything was going to be fine, Joe was hit from behind on the head with a wooden plank. He fell. His leonine body crumbled and rolled down. He lay unconscious at the foot of the boulder. Panchami was stabbed several times from the back and sides. She died instantly. She collapsed on the rock bed bleeding profusely, a crushed purple rose.
The assailants in white vests and khaki trousers sneaked out of the bush nearby just as they had sneaked in.
Deep silence and solitude blanketed the area. The red sun went down weeping.
Before dark fell Joe regained consciousness. He got up and then saw his beloved Panchu lying dead in a pool of blood streaming on all sides. Cry for help? Carry her to the hospital? Inform the police? Conflicting thoughts swirled in his brain.
'You can do nothing for your beloved. She's gone. You will be caught, trapped and interned for years within the labyrinths of the law of this country. Get out. Take care of your self.'
Just as any other foreign student from the West would feel, he was scared. He panicked and ran for his life.
George Michael, the First Consul in the US Consulate General in New Delhi, was shocked to see Joe, his only son, physically exhausted and mentally wrecked. The boy told what had happened. He was given emergency medical aid. He was then immediately flown back home. There he got admitted into the special ward of the Psychiatric Department in St. Luke's Medical College Hospital. He spent six months undergoing treatment for acute mental disorder. Then he became an out patient in the Psychology department for another two months. Medication, therapies and prayers eased him out of his trauma. The doctors saw to it that he got some distance from Pancham’s memory burying her deep in his mind. They certified that he was mentally and physically fit for a new life and could pursue higher studies. They strongly suggested to his parents that he change his name and assume a new identity. So Joe became Tom.
Tom George Michael joined the State University of New York as a research scholar on Vedic culture focusing on the correlation between rituals and human behavior. He made deep and extensive studies on the subject under the guidance of world renowned Indologist Dr.Raymond Panicker. He devoured volumes of books and periodicals related to Indian cultures. He visited Taxila in Pakistan, Somapura in Bangladesh, Sharadha Peeth in Kashmir, Varanasi in Utter Pradesah, Nalanda in Bihar, Puspagiri in Orissa, Kanjipuram in Tamil Nadu, and Kalady in Kerala, Shrengheri and Manyyakheta in Karnataka. He spent days in Uttaradi Math famous for Saint Jayathirtha and in Battarak Math famous for its idol of Yakshi. Within two years he submitted his thesis. He was awarded a Ph.D and appointed Asst. Professor of Asian Studies at the same university. He married Jane, daughter of his guru Raymond Panicker. On the campus among his colleagues he was known as Vedic Tantri, an expert on Vedic mantras and tantras.
There were uproars, rallies and meetings by the student community in the university campus following the brutal murder of Panchami, a quiet, cute and brilliant student from the untouchable Community called Paraya. The media had headlines for days arguing for her case and cause. The police found out the knives used for the murder. They searched for clues everywhere - in hostels, canteens and the campus. They questioned students and teachers. They rounded up local goondas and goons. They could not extract anything verifiable or meaningful from any one of them. They watched Panchami's family and her relations but with no luck. They reached even New Delhi and stopped there dead. Who could have murdered her? And why? The police had no definite answer. She was a serious and a hardworking student, liked by all. What motive could there be? As days rolled by the student agitation tapered off, media headlines disappeared. The public began to forget the incident. The police shelved the file since they were clueless, even after a hard and tedious search for years. The case died a natural death.
The narrow and winding footpath leading to the boulder was named Pachu Veedhi by demand of the Dalit Vidhyarthi Parishat. One of her friends sculpted her likeness on the boulder. It looked like a live goddess, a Yakshi.
The pathway Panchu Veedhi, adorned with flower pots on both sides, and the rocky terrain around it, soon became a solitary haven for the lovers and couples visiting the garden. The people visited the shrine where a young dalit woman was slain for no fault of hers. They offered flowers in her honor. But no one dared to sit on the boulder tainted with innocent blood. The visitors left the area before dark. The workers in the garden did not disturb the area for fear of Panchami's ghost. They believed that she would be lurking around. She might even enter someone’s body to search for her slayers.
"Tom, there's an opportunity for you in the Oriental mad house called Hindustan. You can inject some sense of rationality into those academics still suffering from age-old religious spells. I think you're the right person to speak on East-West acculturation, on the orthodox East and the liberal West. You must accept the invitation from the Bangalore University to deliver the Veeranna Sastri Memorial Lecture." Raymond Panicker suggested.
"Thank you, sir. Let me think about it."
"It is your alma mater. Please accept the offer. We’ve heard enough of the so-called 'Clash of Civilizations'. Do you really believe in that?" Panicker turned to him quizzically.
"No, but I do believe in acculturation, convergence of ever so many cultures fusing into a new culture, a novel way of social life transcending the boundaries of caste, color and creed, not by confrontation but by concurrence. As we say in ancient Sanskrit: Vasu deva kudumbakam. ‘The whole world is a family.’
“That’s an excellent idea. You shall weave it into your main theme. Son, I insist that you accept the assignment."
After a month Tom and Jane arrived in India.
The Senate hall on campus on Dr.Ambedkar Veedhi street in Bangalore was packed with professors, lecturers and researchers from the university and from nearby colleges as well.
Tom delivered his marathon lecture on East-West acculturation, focusing on Indian culture and Western philosophy, Oriental Orthodoxy and Occidental liberalism, religious fundamentalism and scientific freedom. He denounced the practices of the religious leaders, who sanctified merely human behaviors, responses to nature's demands, who gave them a religious stamp and beatified them into sacred rites and rituals, divine precepts and wills. He demanded that religious practices should be rational and that the academics have a role to play in uncovering the truth hidden in myth and folklore. His lecture was well received by the audience. Exchange of ideas, questions and answers that followed the speech was lively.
While Tom and Jane were leaving the hall and entering the foyer after the lecture, the caretaker of the Senate Hall, Akkamma, a middle-aged lady, greeted them in Kannada language.
Before Akkamma could finish, she was pushed back by the surge of admirers. Everyone wanted to have a word with the guest of honor.
After the pleasant and personal interaction with academics and the media during the tea break, Tom and Jane were driven out of the campus towards Lal Bagh garden to view the grand annual flower show. He moved along with the crowd of flower lovers looking at the tapestry of flowers, beautifully designed and decorated. The statue of the goddess of flowers erected in one corner of the exhibition glass house fascinated him. He gazed at it intently for a while and said, as if stricken by Cupid,
"Jane, look at this flower girl. Her hair, eyes, cheeks, breast … How lively and lovely! She looks like Panchu standing there. Doesn't she?"
"Oh Tom, you must know, these people have gods and goddesses representing each and every thing in the world. Of course that flower figurine is alluring, fascinating and marvelous."
Tom's eyes were glued to it for a long time. Without a word he quietly moved out of the glass house. Jane was bewildered. She followed him. He looked around. His eyes seemed to be searching for something. He turned towards the hillock, walking on the Panchu Veedi. He saw the boulder from afar. He walked steadily, climbing up. He saw a woman offering flowers at the foot of the rock. Standing behind her, he stared at the painting. As he viewed it he shivered, panted and sweated. He murmured, "Jane, I feel dizzy". He began to totter. Jane immediately held his hand. Hearing the commotion behind, Akkamma turned around. She saw them and helped them. She made him sit on the boulder. There were mild tremors. The flower pots and plants were shaking, the skies turned cloudy. All of a sudden strong winds blew from below. It then thundered and rained. They all got drenched.
Tom lay on the huge bed in the VIP suite of Hotel Leela Palace. His temperature was high. He was under strong medication.
Doctors from St. John's Hospital directed, "Let him rest for the day. We will see him tomorrow if necessary. Most probably he should rest for three days. The sudden change of climate has affected him badly but nothing serious. You should know, here the weather is like a beautiful, highly unpredictable lady. In a minute she can become hysterical."
"We feel he is exhausted and mentally disturbed. But there is no cause for alarm. He will be all right within a day or two." The doctors from the National Institute of Mental health in Bangalore were sure of their diagnosis.
How fast their life had taken a turn! A confused and confounded Jane kept vigil over him. She scanned the day's events. She recollected the words of Akkamma and the response of Tom. Joe knew Kannada. How could Tom speak Kannada and talk of Panchami? She was not sure. She could not figure out anything. Puzzled, she dozed off.
In the middle of the night the jumbo jets roared into the skies, shaking the towers around. Super-fast express trains zoomed past, their roar vibrating through the hotel.
Jane was woken up by cries and screams. She found Tom thrashing restlessly on the bed. She heard him talking:
'Joe, I was yearning for your return. Thank you for coming back. Joe, I'll not leave you until you find my killer and avenge my death. Deliver me from the curse of fate. Only then I will be at peace. Then I shall cross the seas and will accompany you. Don't leave me here alone to wander around forever; don't let me rot within my bondage. Please…Joe…please.'
Jane was perturbed at hearing a female voice coming from Tom’s mouth in his deep but disturbed sleep.
'No, Panchu, no. I can't do that. Do you want me to become a murderer? I am no vigilante. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth? No…I'm not an executioner. See, you are no longer a woman under a curse like Ahalya in the Ramayana, turned to stone. You're an absolutely free spirit. That's why you could come to me…Right? I tell you. Forgive and forget. I know. Now no one can touch my Panchu. Oh God, you’re really a Yakshi!’
Jane listened to his murmurs. She was frightened by his talk. Is he going mad? She held the rosary in her trembling hand and prayed 'Our Father' fervently. She feared that the spirit of the slain girl had entered him.
She sat beside him holding his hand. His body was limp. His breathing was even. She stared at his stony face. She shook him. He did not respond. Was he possessed by an evil spirit? Or was he having a nightmare? She saw his lips moving. Words gushed from his mouth…
'Joe, I can't go with you until you deliver me from the evil spell…'
'Panchu, please understand, you are in me, not under the spell of any evil…
'Joe… I can't stay with you for long. You’re married, aren't you? There’s no place for me …So where do I go? I've no place to go. I'll never leave you.”
The shutters opposite the bed suddenly blew open with a wild screech and a warm wind gushed in. It whiffed past Jane's face, blowing her curls and hair. A sense of strength came into her, she gathered courage. She made the sign of the cross on Tom’s forehead and shouted: "In the name of Jesus, I ask you. Who are you?"
'Don't you know? I'm Panchami, Joe's girlfriend. You people buried me in the well of his mind. Now I have broken the seal and have been resurrected. I want him. I want him to search for my assassins.'
Jane pleaded, "Panchami, please leave him alone. Don't you see he's suffering because of you…You are a nice girl, an intelligent soul. If you really love him …I pray, be gone!"
'I'll go. But I'll take him away with me. We have a job to do…We will look for the murderer. We will find him and finish him. Then I will be freed from the curse. I will then attain Mukti.’
At that moment there was a knock at the door. Jane screamed. It was the room boy.
"Yes, M'am, You called me?"
Jane shouted: "Me? No. Not at all. Please, go away."
"Some one rang up for us from your room. Sorry." He closed the door behind him but it slammed with a bang. Jane stood petrified.
Suddenly, Jane remembered the brown envelope, Akkamma’s envelope. She took it from her hand bag and began to read:
"My dear Joe, I really do not know what to do. I cannot make up my mind. I'm afraid of my father. He is a fanatic. He is a shrewd magician, a mantric. He knows ancient magic, the Manthravaadam, ancient sorcery. He wouldn't mind killing both of us by his witchcraft. He could assume any form –human or animal. He can reach us. He was against my birth. He was against my growing up. He was against my studying. I went against all his wishes but for his wife Pattammal. You know I am not her daughter. My real mother was a Parakkalli, a pariah woman. One day she jumped into the well. People said she was pregnant again. I believe my father killed her through his sorcery. He will kill me too. He can never think of my marrying you, a foreigner. Let us get away from here."
Jane held the letter against her face for a long time. Then a moment of insight came to her. She looked at Tom. He lay there motionless. He appeared to be in a sound sleep. She felt his forehead. It was cold. She covered him with a woolen blanket, walked up to her desk, opened her laptop and forwarded the content of the letter to the Consular Office in New Delhi and to her father in the United States.
The visitors to the city had the route map. They reached the dilapidated house at the Agrahara in Gunashekara village five kilometers away from the city. There they saw a few people standing in front of the ancient building and peeping into the house.
"Is this Swami Narendra's house?" One of them asked
"Yes" someone replied.
"What's going on here?"
"The Swami is dying of his madness. He has been in his closed room for a week without water, food and light. We often heard crying, shouting, chanting, and cursing. We did not dare enter his house. Since yesterday there has been no sound from his room. This morning we broke open the door. The room was in a mess. We found him lying naked on the ground. He seemed to have lost control of his bodily functions. The astrologer said that he might depart at any moment. Don't you see an eagle over your head in the sky?"
They looked up and saw a brown eagle with white collar circling over the building.
"That's Yama, the god of death. Look at the pinnacle of that temple, a dark pigeon and a raven peeking into the house. Be mindful. It's Yakshi and her Gandarwan to snatch away the ailing man's life. Om! Nama: Sivaya! By the way, are you tourists?"
"Yes..." they said, “Can we talk to his wife?"
"To Pattammal? Oh! She is dead and gone. It's been two years now."
"Can we talk to any one of their children?"
"Only one, a daughter. She…ah, she, what can I say, she is also dead."
"Died or killed?" the older of the two asked.
The people kept quiet but their puzzled faces betrayed their thoughts. Before they could probe further they heard chanting of Vedic mantras for the dead Brahmin. 'Asato ma….
They snaked through the small crowd to the front. They made sure for themselves that the man inside was really dead. Then they slipped out. They did not wait there any longer.
It was extremely strange that Tom slept for two days. He woke up only to relieve himself and to eat food. The following day he was quite normal. As the doctors had predicted, in two days he had recovered, fit to return home.
A handful of well-wishers from academic circles including officials turned up at the departure lounge to say good bye to Prof. Tom Michael George and his wife Jane. They apologized for the inconveniences and the troubles they underwent during their short stay in Bangalore. Tom raised his hand and thanked everyone. Then his eyes recognized Akkamma. He walked towards her, taking Jane with him. He smiled.
"Hi, Akkamma, how’re you?"
"I am fine. How are you, sir?"
"Just fine, Madam.”
Akkamma offered him a small packet.
**He asked, En idu, Akkamma?”
“Aadhu oondhu chikka bhandde kalluna thundu.”
“Eeddhanu neenu hettukko.”
"Thank you." He pushed it into his trouser pocket and pulled out a $100 bill from his coat pocket and shoved into her hand, "Just a small gift. Please take it."
Jane squeezed his hand. Her eyes were tearful, her face joyful.
"Honey, look out there" Jane pointed to a white pigeon with dark brown spots perched on the sill of the column near the ceiling, "Beautiful. Isn't it?"
"Yes, as lovely as a maiden Yakshi."
They waved their hands at it and entered the checking area.
The pigeon flew out of the terminal building. She climbed ever higher, heading towards the wilderness of the Nandi Hills. There she would search for a permanent abode on one of the huge, tall palm trees that sway in the lonely nights.
Agrahara = A place where Brahmin families live together
Chatur Varnyam = The caste system. Brahmins (priests), Kshetrias (Kings), Vysyas (Tradesmen) and Sudrans (Labourers)
Dalit Vidyarthi Parishad = Dalit Student Assembly, an organization that fights for the rights of the dalit ‘untouchable’ students
Goonda = Hindi word for ‘hooligan’
Lal Bagh = Famous large botanical garden in Bangalore, India, with various ponds
and a lake. Annual flower show is world famous. A tourist spot
Mukti = Final liberation of the soul
Panicker, Raymond = Possibly a reference to Rev.Dr. Raymond Panikkar, a famous South Indian Jesuit scholar of Hinduism and advocate of Hindu-Christian dialogue
Paraya = A marginalized dalit ethnic community in Kerala and Karnataka in South India
Upanishads = Philosophical Discourses, part of ancient Hindu scriptures after Vedas
Yakshi = A kind of beautiful female demon in South Indian folk belief
Namaskara, Saar, Chanakitera? = Greetings to you, sir. How are you sir?”
Audhu. Audhu. Naanu chhannagidhini. = Yes. Yes. I am fine.
Nemmage nananu guruthuedhiya? =Do you recognise me?
Audu, Madam. Neevu manageru.. = Yes , Madam. You are the manager...
Aadhare nemmanu nanage chanakide gothayithu. = But I know you very well.
Sar, Panchami edhhanu nemage kooddake hellidhalu. = Panchami had asked me to give this to you long time ago
Sar,Panchami... = Sir, Panchami...
En idu, Akkamma. = What’s this, Akkamma?
Sar aadhu oondhu chikka bhandde kalluna thundu. = Sir, it's a small piece from the boulder.