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Illustrations by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustrations by Jayachandran/Mint

The Time Capsule

Ratan felt the familiar migraine setting in. Since he had given up fighting it, he preferred to time travel in comfort. He kicked off his shoes, and looked around for a cushion...

Ratan you can’t do this." As Radhika spoke, the network of scars on her face knuckled up angrily in purple corrugations.

“I don’t want to," shrugged Ratan.

Radhika’s face changed.

It was like watching some crazy cybermorphing, the scars fading under Yashoda’s warm intelligence. He should be used to it by now, but it still quickened him with delight. And Yashoda laughed indulgently. “The old man must have his reasons."

“Old?" Ramratan growled. “I’ll show you old, woman!"

But this morning, the challenge did not end in the usual romp.

It was the sixth of December.

Twenty-three years to the day Radhika watched her lover Anwar burn to death.

The day Ratan Oak’s submerged life had burst into the open. The life of Ramratan Oak.

Now Ramratan chuckled in Ratan’s skull, beginning the conversation that would catapult him into Ramratan’s life.

Ramratan Oak, surgeon to the dead, was Ratan’s great-grandfather—but that explained nothing.

“Don’t explain," Radhika whispered in his embrace. Now that she guessed where Ratan’s decision came from, she no longer opposed it and this made him jealous sometimes.

“That Chikhalkar," said Ramratan, “complete humbug that he was, he couldn’t humbug us, could he?"

“What do you mean?"

“Why ask me? You were there. Nineteen fifteen."

“No, you were there, not me."

“Never mind, we’ll both be there at the Centenary."

“I’m not going."

“Like hell you’re not."

So he, Ratan Oak, had accepted the invitation from the slime-ball Shakha Pramukh. This had enraged Radhika.

*****

Radhika was the reason for the invite.

She had done nothing to conceal her scars. After a few operations to give her limbs full mobility again, she had refused any further plastic surgery. She used her scars as a weapon.

“My parents did this to me," she would say quietly.

It amazed Ratan how seldom the exchange varied.

“Your parents? What did you do to deserve it?"

“My lover was Muslim. I am Hindu. My parents hired a man to burn Anwar to death. I burned too. But I lived. It happened on 6 December 1992."

Someone would invariably say, “You’ll never forget the date..."

And Radhika would shoot back, “Can you?"

The question would confuse her listener. “I?"

“What happened that 6 December? Yes, this happened to me. What happened to you?"

“Nothing. Nothing happened to me on that day."

“No? The day our nation plunged into fire? Surely, you burned too? These are my scars. Tell me, what happened to you?"

Usually, that ended the conversation.

And it killed him.

“Must you?" he asked each time.

“I must. It’s what I do."

*****

Over the years, the neighbourhood’s perception of Radhika’s scars had changed. She had gone from hero to health warning.

“Earlier, people use to tell me, ‘Forgive your parents.’ Nowadays they say, ‘Time heals everything, na? By now your parents must have forgiven you.’"

The local Right was celebrating the birth centenary of Pandurang Chikhalkar, and so that the heartbeat of Bharatvarsh could resound in the ears of aliens and barbarians, invitations were sent to “troublemakers" too.

It was typical of them that the invitation should be addressed to Ratan Oak, with and family crossed out in red ink.

*****

Ratan was not as easily persuaded as Radhika.

No matter what Ramratan’s view of Chikhalkar was, he would have to sit through an hour or more of cringe-making adulation, and then one more of listening to the poet’s propagandist effusions recited, or even worse, sung relentlessly off-key.

“I’m not going," he let Ramratan know. “Why should I care if a third-rate poet turns a hundred?"

Ramratan laughed. “A hundred? He would be my age if I were alive. It’s not a birth centenary, it’s the centenary."

“Of what?"

“The celebrated poem Chikhalkar wrote in anguish. He gave it to his son sealed in a porcelain bottle on 6 December 1915."

“How do you know it was a porcelain bottle?"

“Our Kaviraj couldn’t swallow his bhakri without a dab of Patum Peperium."

“What on earth is that?"

“Some kind of fish paste. Nasty, expensive stuff. Nusser saves his jars for Yashoda. Neat round porcelain screw-top jars."

“Why not seal the poem in an envelope?"

“Ha! Chikhalkar wasn’t looking for convenience. His quest was always for immortality."

“Time capsule."

“The term is new to me, but yes. Time capsule. Gentleman’s Relish as time capsule." Ramratan chuckled. “Can’t miss that, can we?"

“What’s in the poem?"

No answer was forthcoming.

Ratan felt the familiar migraine setting in. Since he had given up fighting it, he preferred to time travel in comfort. He kicked off his shoes, and looked around for a cushion. He hadn’t noticed till now how annoyingly his neck ached...

6 December 1915

He hadn’t noticed till now how annoyingly his neck ached. He seemed to have lived with this excruciating pain all his fifty-five years. Would the ride never end? His fingers itched to tear the wheel from Nusser. Or perhaps, he should strangle him first. If it hadn’t been for the humbug in the back seat, he would have done one or the other. Ramratan clenched his teeth as Nusser hit another pothole and told himself the Silver Ghost had it much worse than his neck.

“…the chassis has been especially developed for Indian roads," Ramratan quoted silently from the luxurious brochure, but both Rolls and Royce had reckoned without Nusser.

The expedition was all his own fault.

He had wanted to visit a marvel Darayus Surveyor had shown him when he was thirteen. Nusser, a sickly boy, never made it to these field trips with his geologizing father, but Ramratan accompanied Darayus every summer.

Darayus was a wonderful teacher. He would bring alive the Sahyadris like a storybook without an ending.

Nusser had missed it all.

He couldn’t care less, but Ramratan had felt the entire weight of the ghats oppress him after Darayus’ death, and never lost an opportunity to restore Nusser’s patrimony. So when Nusser had announced a “country jaunt" to break in the Silver Ghost, still gleaming untouched in his bungalow at Aundh Gaon, Ramratan suggested they drive down to the Kukadi riverbed. Despite Ramratan’s pleading, Wilson was given the day off, and they set out at dawn.

“We’re picking Chikhalkar up on the way," said Nusser after a bumpy mile. “Flows like silk, doesn’t she, Ramratan?"

“Why?"

“It’s all about the engine..."

“Why Chikhalkar? Why that insufferable bore?"

“I know, I can’t stand him either. He begged, Ramratan, and I can’t stand that too."

“Yes, but what for?"

“He said he’d never been in a motor, as he calls it."

“Isn’t it against his principles? This is a Western invention."

“Not at all, according to him. He says Henry Royce got the blueprint for his engine out of the Ramayana."

“No, those were the Wright brothers. They stole the pushpak viman."

“Don’t rile him, Ramratan. Promise me you won’t."

“That’s a bit much, Nusser. First I must endure him, and then I must promise not to rile him? Why?"

“Because if you do, he’ll start reciting his stuff."

That silenced Ramratan.

They found Chikhalkar waiting for them at the Koregaon-Bhima naka. He was holding forth to an adoring audience of chelas, young ardents all.

“Hop in! We’re in a hurry," said Ramratan unguardedly.

Nusser groaned.

On cue the chelas struck up Chikhalkar’s popular, Where so fast, O traveller?

The punchline:

Twenty horses to your engine?

What, twenty?

My chariot has just two and that’s two aplenty!

was delivered with fine irony.

“Does that mean you’ll walk?" Ramratan asked.

Chikhalkar ignored him. He silenced his chelas and trotted them around the Rolls-Royce. “Today we will call this a motor car," he declaimed. “We may even concede it to Rolls and Royce. But the time is not distant, my friends, when it will be called by its true name. Vidyut Vahan! So, don’t say RR, say VV!"

“VV!"

Nusser took this as a signal to rev up and the chelas fell back in alarm.

Chikhalkar was posted into the back seat complete with umbrella, cloth bag and shining brass kamandal.

For the first ten miles or so, the sheer tumult of the journey silenced Chikhalkar’s muse, and he mercifully nodded off.

Ramratan divided his irritation between Nusser’s driving, his aching neck, and the long miles ahead.

They halted for lunch at noon.

Wilson had done them proud: rugs, cushions, a tall canister of water and, not one, but two, wickerwork hampers that promised all sorts of delights.

“Two hampers, Nusser?" asked Ramratan. “Isn’t that excessive?"

Silently, Nusser pointed to the poet who still snored, huddled in Nusser’s shawl.

Shuddha shakahari, no doubt.

Ramratan stretched his legs gratefully. Nusser tore off his goggles and cap and travelling coat and languidly settled himself down on a rug.

“We should let him sleep," suggested Ramratan.

But Nusser, the kindly host, would have none of it.

Chikhalkar trotted off into the bushes, kamandal in hand, and returned with a brisk air of appetite.

He waved away the shuddha shakahari hamper as a childish affectation.

“The road has its own dharma," he proclaimed as he tucked into the sandwiches. Wilson had relied on the Royal’s very British largesse.

“Roast beef," Ramratan warned.

Chikhalkar nodded happily and took one more.

He was lavish with mustard and pounced on the little pot of Patum Peperium with a cry of joy.

“This is my favourite," he confided, as he slathered it indiscriminately on everything he ate, and, as he ate everything, the pot was soon wiped clean.

Wilson had indulged Ramratan by providing little ramekins of his delectable crème caramel.

“Such tiny servings!" Chikhalkar complained. So they gave him theirs too.

“I’m taking a walk." Ramratan set off brusquely, but before long Chikhalkar joined him.

“Nusser is taking a nap," he said. “Really, it is most stupefying to the brain, and leaves one in tamasik gloom."

“I suppose your satvik glow comes from all the rajasik things you’ve eaten?" Ramratan was caustic in response.

“Listen, don’t get me wrong, but will your friend mind if I take two of those dabbas of ghee?"

“Foie gras? Ask him, I’m sure he won’t mind."

“It is highly recommended in Ayurveda."

“No doubt. So too are elephant testicles and tiger pizzle."

“For advanced cases only. In my case this ghee induces poetic fire."

“Really? The fat engorged failing liver of a goose does that to you?"

“You’re the doctor, not me. And there is nothing satvik about poetry."

“The other two, eh?"

“Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Look at those women now. I may stare at them and though I am on fire, my gaze is blameless, for I am a poet. You, on the other hand, can have nothing but lust in your gaze, you not being a poet."

“Still, I would suggest you stop staring unless you want a thrashing."

“They’re going to thrash me? Those little chits?"

“No. I will."

Then Ramratan stumbled over something and nearly lost his balance.

It was a slab of stone, half buried in the grass and weeds.

It was recently fallen, and had crushed a thick green vine under it.

The carving on the stone arrested him. A woman’s upraised arm, displaying the unbroken bangles of conjugal felicity.

A sati stone.

Judging from the crude unembellished carving, the sati was a humble villager, her life rendered significant by the manner of her dying.

Sati stones were common in the countryside, but he could never stop the dread that overcame him when he saw one. There but for the grace of God...

“How shameful to let it lie where our feet touch it!" said Chikhalkar angrily. “Those women just walked this way! They should be worshipping this punyavati, lighting a lamp, anointing it with haldi and kumkum, garlanding it with flowers. They will earn the wrath of this pure soul."

“Let’s go, Chikhalkar."

“You carry on. I won’t till I’ve shown these women the error of their ways!"

Ramratan was strongly tempted to return to the car and urge Nusser to take off and leave this nuisance behind, but he was also worried about Chikhalkar saying or doing something offensive.

Chikhalkar was in mid-harangue when Ramratan caught up with him. The three women looked too frightened to respond with anything more than looks of distress. They were very young, barely in their twenties.

Ramratan managed to get a word in and pressed his advantage by asking them about their village.

But Chikhalkar’s rebuke had awoken something deeper than alarm in them.

“Is that why you’ve come?" one of them spoke hesitantly. “For the ceremony?"

“What ceremony?" Ramratan’s mouth was suddenly dry.

“That." The girl pointed to the fallen sati stone. She couldn’t bring herself to utter its name.

“Is there such a ceremony today?" asked Ramratan. “For whom?"

“In the Patil’s house. They say it’s his daughter-in-law. But we don’t know anything about it."

“No, we do." Her friend was suddenly brave. “We watched them build the hut."

“Hut?"

Chikhalkar seemed to know all about it.

“The hut is good," he said with approval. “With the hut, everything goes off well."

“We aren’t going to watch. If you want to, we’ll show you the way."

It couldn’t be happening...

Ramratan was already running, heart in mouth, in the direction the girl had pointed.

It couldn’t be happening, but he knew it could.

Chikhalkar came loping after him, pointing importantly at the knot of people gathered in the distance. “That must be it."

Ramratan, who had paused for breath, set off again, with Chikhalkar close on his heels.

It crossed his mind that Chikhalkar’s motives might be very different from his own.

“Slow down, Oak! I can tell you there’s plenty of time."

“How would you know?"

“I say—you’re not going to do something foolish, are you?"

“I’m going to stop it."

“It is a noble act, sanctioned by the scriptures. You have no right to stop it."

“It is murder. For your information, it is not sanctioned by any old scripture. And, what if it were? If you die tomorrow, would you want your wife to burn herself with your body?"

“I would. She probably won’t. It is her will. Look, there’s the hut now."

“What’s this hut for?"

“The dead body is placed inside the hut. The woman is led in, and the thatched roof is weighted down with logs. Then the door is barricaded with more logs. The true punyavati will light it herself from inside. So I’ve heard. I’ve never seen one myself. Bruce Carlisle Robertson made the hut famous, you know."

“Who’s he?"

“Used to be the Sahib here a century ago. He tried to stop it. Naturally, the people didn’t like his interfering. So he tried another trick. He got them to alter the hut in such a manner that the logs wouldn’t fall in at once, and the woman could escape, if she wanted to. He witnessed what happened when they tried it his way. The hut exploded within seconds! He became the laughing stock of Poona!" Chikhalkar was laughing heartily.

Ramratan hadn’t felt such revulsion towards any man, and yet he grabbed Chikhalkar by the arm and said earnestly, “We’ve got to find her."

The poet tried to shake free, but Ramratan dragged him along in his stride.

A purohit was readying the grass hut. He stopped Ramratan angrily.

“You’re perfectly aware you’re committing murder. I’m a government official and I will have you arrested within the hour," Ramratan announced.

Several voices shouted back. “We don’t know you. You have no authority here."

“I do." Nusser stepped forward. “I’m a magistrate. When I say stop, you stop. Dr Oak and I will have the police here before you know it."

Ramratan was surprised by Nusser’s sudden appearance, but not by his quick grasp of the situation. It took a crisis to bring out his genius.

“We’re not forcing her," said a young man. “She’s doing it because she wants to. Isn’t that the truth, vahini?"

The woman he addressed, a stout girl in her thirties, nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, it’s always been her intention. And now, none of us can stop her."

“How did her husband die?"

“Snakebite. She will be very upset if you stop her now."

“Let me speak with her."

They were led, unwillingly, into a house some distance away.

“She’s in there." Their guide pointed to a darkened room. The others fell back, suddenly disinterested.

Ramratan pushed open the windows when he entered the room. Behind him Chikhalkar gasped in disbelief.

Ramratan froze.

The child was barely fifteen.

She cowered and shrunk some more under their scrutiny.

“Don’t be frightened, little one," soothed Ramaratan.

“How long will it hurt?" she asked in a whisper. “They say it won’t hurt. It won’t burn me. I’ll go straight to swarg. Do you know if that’s true?"

“No, it is a lie. It will burn you. It will hurt you worse than the worst pain in the world. That’s why I won’t let it happen to you. Come on! I’ll take you home to your parents."

“No! They’ll be angry with me! I’ll bring shame on them!"

The old argument. That canard. Would it never stop?

“Come on, now." He raised her in his arms and carried her out. A sobbing woman was being led towards them. She took the child wordlessly from Ramratan.

“The police will be here to make inquiries," Nusser told the spectators. Nothing could have made them disperse quicker.

“Let’s go home," Nusser suggested.

Chikhalkar stumbled after them.

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“Tell me," he demanded. “Why have you draped a sari over the devi?"

The purohit answered with a scornful look.

“Why?" persisted Chikhalkar.

“Why? For decency, what else?"

Chikhalkar, quite satisfied with that answer, caught up with them and they set off at a bone-rattling pace.

All three men were silent.

Nusser’s abstraction made him drive better.

Ramratan, battling his own demons, ignored both his aching neck and Chikhalkar’s attempts at conversation.

At Koregaon Bhima, Chikhalkar insisted they visit his house for a few minutes as he wanted them to witness something important. Wearily, they agreed.

Chikhalkar invited them to be seated on the stone bench in the veranda and called for his son.

“Bring my desk!" He barked out the order when the boy turned up.

His desk was brought.

The poet scribbled a few lines on a piece of paper.

“Now, my friends. I would like you to witness this. I have just written under your scrutiny the most important poem of my life. It contains not my dreams, but my conviction of what these dreams will accomplish. Not today or tomorrow, but a hundred years from now! So, in your presence, I’m sealing this poem."

And from his pocket out came the emptied Patum Peperium jar from Nusser’s picnic.

The poet folded his poem and put it into the jar still cloudy with fish paste. Then, taking a stick of red wax from his desk, he sealed it securely.

“There, Madhav! This is your responsibility. And your son’s. In the presence of these honoured gentlemen, I entrust you to open this one hundred years from today. On 6 December 2015! Then the world will understand the burden on my soul today."

Without further ado, he politely thanked his visitors, and sent them away.

“The arrogance of that man!" Ramratan gnashed his teeth.

Nusser guffawed. “He’s a poet, Ramratan, forget him."

But they were to remember him, after all.

6 December 2015

“He blamed me for his suicide," Ramratan’s voice continued in Ratan’s brain.

“He committed suicide?"

“Within the month. It was called an accident, naturally. He was cleaning a pistol. That was seen as political, and if the gun hadn’t gone off in his face, Chikhalkar, and not Mohandas Gandhi, might have been the Mahatma responsible for free India."

“Why blame you? Did he leave a note?"

“No. He blamed me long before that. The letter came on Christmas Day, I’ve kept it somewhere, you’ll find it. A lot of blather about Bharatvarsh, but the lines meant for me said: On you rests the entire responsibility for my despair. In that one afternoon you cremated all my dreams. Scorched by their embers, my fingers have written the truth at last, but you will not be around, my friend, to read those lines."

“The Patum Peperium bottle?"

“Yes. You see now why we must go for that Centenary?"

Ratan was received at the entrance by a bevy of young women all clad in colourful nauvaris.

An arati was waved at him, a tilak bestowed, a rose offered as boutonnière, his hair sprayed with rose water.

He was faintly surprised to identify among these apsaras a couple of his own students.

Escape was now impossible.

Young men in tasselled dupattas and saffron phetas bustled around importantly.

One of them approached Ratan with folded palms. “We’re greatly honoured by your presence. Please take your place on the stage."

Pinioned between two other boys, Ratan was literally dragged to the podium.

“Why are you so important all of a sudden, Ratan?" Ramratan sounded alarmed.

The guests already seated on the podium all rose to greet Ratan.

“That’s the grandson." Ramratan identified the youngest Chikhalkar. “I’d know that snub nose anywhere."

In a daze, Ratan subsided into the plastic chair. He registered nothing till his name boomed back at him from the microphone.

“...and we are privileged to have with us Dr Ratan Oak, the torch-bearer of none other than that fearless champion of truth, Purushottam Nagesh Oak! Here is the man who will restore to our Hindu Rashtra the great, the glorious Tejo Mahalaya! Yes, the sacred temple we have been swindled into calling the Taj Mahal! But that must wait. On that day, Ratan Oak, we will greet you with our hearts in our extended hands. But today’s ceremony is no less important. I will now ask Shri Mohanrao Chikhalkar to introduce the Time Capsule."

“Sit down!" Ramratan whispered furiously.

Ratan, who had every intention of bolting, stayed.

Chikhalkar’s grandson, a man in his eighties, swayed on his feet and was persuaded to deliver his speech sitting down. It took a while to get him started.

“My father has often spoken of the day when my revered grandfather wrote this poem," Mohan began. “He had spent the day on a padyatra through our glorious countryside. As you know, every grain of soil of our punyabhumi was a syllable to him, every blade of grass a punctuation mark, every flower a song..."

Tremendous applause greeted this effusion.

“So, it happened like this. That day my grandfather had walked many miles, supported by his friends, who hung eagerly on his every word, urging him to write a new poem. Can that be done on order? Never! But my grandfather told my father that this poem, the one that will be revealed to the world today by my unworthy self—this poem was compelled by what he had seen and heard that day. You know how the simple joys and sorrows of humble people made up the lifeblood of his poetry."

Overcome, Mohan Chikhalkar mopped his forehead.

An ornate casket of gilded cardboard was now placed before him and opened to great applause.

He took out a small porcelain jar and held it up.

“I want you to see this! The sealing wax is undisturbed. It has been undisturbed for a hundred years! From 6 December 1915 till today. I ask you, have I kept this sacred trust to the people’s satisfaction?"

“Yes!" roared the audience.

“Then I have not lived in vain. It has been my life’s endeavour to see this day complete."

“Get on with it you idiot," hissed Ramratan.

Shouts of “Open it!" urged Mohan’s fumbling attempts to break the seal.

The master of ceremonies and other worthies crowded him, and under their joint efforts the Patum Peperium jar fell to the floor and shattered.

The folded scrap of paper fluttered in the current of the fan.

Ratan dived for it and handed it to Mohan, who was being restored with a glass of water and a box of tissues.

Mohan settled his spectacles and in taking the paper he retained his hold on Ratan’s hand, and drew him in to the chair next to him.

Ratan was concerned about the man. He was breathing uneasily, his forehead was pouring out rivulets of sweat. But he grasped the mike with greed and cleared his throat as he opened the paper.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Over his shoulder, Ratan read the poem with disbelief.

Ramratan chuckled. “Here comes my absolution, Ratan."

Mohan laughed.

It was a short, scornful laugh that transformed him.

He rose energetically to his feet and spoke in a strained yet steady voice. “The poem is in English. Does that surprise me? No! No man is a prophet in his own country. So he wrote his prophecy not in the sweet tongue of his birth, but in the brutish language of the tyrant. It is a short poem, only four lines. He told my father that it would be the song of the times, shouted from rooftops, lisped by infants in their classrooms. Yes! Listen carefully and judge for yourselves—

We battled long, and awfully,

To lose the past we loathed—

Mohan repeated the lines with growing fervour till the audience chanted it with him.

His thin voice swelled to a rich baritone as he declaimed the quatrain entire:

We battled long, and awfully,

To lose the past we loathed.

Brides may now burn lawfully,

And all our gods are clothed!

A stunned silence followed.

Ratan wondered if Mohan Chikhalkar had quite grasped the lines he had read so powerfully.

As if in answer, his voice rang out, and the audience joined in.

Soon they were all chanting, like a mantra of redemption, Chikhalkar’s anthem for a lost dream.

We battled long, and awfully,

To lose the past we loathed.

Brides may now burn lawfully,

And all our gods are clothed!

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan are Mumbai surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. Ratan and Ramratan Oak first appeared in their novel ‘The Quarantine Papers’ (2010). They will feature again in the forthcoming ‘East Of Kailash’.

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