The sun rose banishing darkness and spread around like the soft tendrils of the Madhabilata* flower. The vast expanse of the mela* ground broke into frenzied activity. Bamboo sticks were firmly planted, tarpaulin sheets hung and makeshift stalls erected within hours. Then came the people. Some on horseback. Some on feet and some on hired autos. By afternoon, the ground was an array of activities, colours and a cacophony of voices.
The authorities put up a banner on the main gate, which read ‘Mahashivratri: 138 years of Lingaraj.’
Far away from the commotion, under the shade of the centuries-old banyan tree, sat a saint. One hand rested on the gleaming Trishool (trident) and the other clutched a rosary of Rudraksha* beads. The fingers turned over each and every bead as the lips chanted a mantra. Every time he finished a round of chant, his voice broke into a thunderous ‘Om’. The long mass of grey hair was tightly braided and neatly coiled atop his head while a loose, unkempt beard hung from his chin, concealing the lips which were in constant motion. Eyes tightly shut, the mystic was a vision in saffron. Passers-by stopped to get a better look at him. It was evident he was not from the area around, for he was extremely fair and well-built unlike the dark-skinned, impoverished sections of the community who inhabited the pockets around.
Soon a queue formed. People from all age groups surrounded him, waiting for a chance to voice their troubles. “Baba…Baba…,” they whispered fervently.
Baba sat unflustered.
All of a sudden, a young boy of fourteen ran into the scene, took a look at the audience and disappeared into the ramshackle hut behind the tree. He soon came out, dressed in a saffron kurta-pyjama, dragging a huge sack. Keeping it beside the saint, he sat cross-legged as if waiting for a cue.
Bing Bong! Bing Bong! The clock tower bell rang. 6 AM! Time to begin!
The boy gesticulated to the first man in the queue to walk up.
The man rested his head on Baba’s feet.
Baba opened his eyes, looked around and then turned to look hard at the boy sitting next to him. He jumped from his seat and nudged the man. “Get up. Baba has opened his eyes.”
The young man broke into loud sobs and beat his chest. Suddenly, Baba caught him by his hair. Holding him steady, he said. “Bol ….”
“I am in deep trouble. I have messed up a business deal. I can’t figure it out.”
Baba’s fingers left his hair and smoothened it. He sat looking at the man for a while and then his fingers tapped softly on the man’s head, making circular movements on his scalp.
“Close your eyes, and concentrate on your problems. Think of how they began. Think of all that you did. Now think of ways you can sort it out.”
The man, like an obedient child, followed the instructions.
The audience looked at them with curiosity for the man who had been behaving like a maniac, calmed down and sat quietly. Baba’s hands moved to his forehead. The assistant knew what was needed for he passed on a potli* to the saint. Dipping his fingers into it, Baba smeared ash on the man’s forehead. He then, chanted a few verses and went back to his meditative stance. An hour passed. Both sat motionless. Awhile later, Baba opened his eyes and sprinkled some water on the man. He woke up with a start. Looking at everyone around him, his face broke into a wide smile.
“Baba……I feel much better. What magic did you cast on me?”
“Beta*. No medicines or herbs could have cured your ailment. All you needed was peace.”
Fishing out an ochre-coloured stone from the sack, he handed it over to the man. “Take this. Whenever you feel agitated, hold it in your palm and sit still. A precious stone, I found it in the Himalayas. I knew someday the stone would find its rightful owner.”
This time the man wept in happiness. “How do I thank you Baba? I have nothing.”
“Beta, that smile is enough.” The man bent down, lifted Baba’s feet, pressed them on his head and took leave.
The audience stood in silence.
No sooner did the man leave, a young couple threw themselves at Baba’s feet. “Oh Holy Man, please save our child.”
A little boy was carried in and laid on the ground. The parents sat on either side, silently grieving.
Baba stood up to his towering height and strode towards the spot where the child lay. He felt for the boy’s pulse. It was feeble.
“Baba, he had gone out to play in the morning and then suddenly passed out. His friends brought him home in this condition. We were passing by when someone told us about you.”
“Ramua….” Baba’s bellowed. The assistant handed over the sack to him. Baba took out a packet, emptied the contents into a cup, added a liquid and stirred it. A frothy liquid formed. Ramua was well-versant with his Guru’s practices. He opened the boy’s mouth and poured the contents into it. He then, lifted the boy’s chin and held his mouth tightly. Meanwhile, Baba finished applying a concoction on the child’s feet. The audience watched in awe.
An hour later, the scene hadn’t changed much. Baba meditated. Ramua cradled the boy’s head while the parents sat in a stupor.
Another hour passed. By then, the audience had swelled to a huge number. Hushed whispers floated around. Someone cried out, “Eh Baba, can you really save the child? Or did you kill him?” Another person shouted, “That Baba is fake. Stone him.”
Ramua’s head shot up. What if the people killed them? He looked at Baba. But he sat under the tree, unperturbed.
A sudden jerk alerted him. A steady stream of froth made its way out of the boy’s mouth. The boy coughed and sprang up from his position. The mother scooped him up in her arms while the father broke into loud shouts. “Baba…. has saved my son…my precious son.” Soon the audience cried out. “Baba…forgive us…. Baba…Hail Baba.”
The overjoyed parents embraced the child and wept. While leaving, they placed a bundle of notes at the saint’s feet which promptly vanished into Ramua’s pockets.
“Next,” Ramua announced.
A young woman came up hesitatingly, her face hidden in a veil.
Baba motioned her to spread out her palms. Minutes passed.
“Maa, I see a storm. It’s almost here. You have to escape before it reaches you.”
“The path is not easy. But you can outrun them.”
The woman rummaged her pockets.
“I don’t need anything. I care for your safety and happiness. Do not waste a moment.” Saying this, he dropped a coin in her palm and folded her hands before anyone could make out its worth.
The woman held the hands of the saint and kissed them. A shudder ran through the old man’s body. He immediately recoiled from the touch and in a faltering voice whispered. “Please go!”
Ramua was about to summon the next in line, when the tower bell rang announcing evening. It was late. They hadn’t eaten anything since morning.
Getting up from his seat, he addressed the audience. “All of you have seen the miracles our Baba performs. Such acts demand immense concentration and the optimal use of all his faculties. Please allow him to rest today. Tomorrow, come sharp at sun rise.”
“Jai Baba…,” the crowd chanted before dispersing. Ramua held out his hand towards the old saint and with the other lifted the heavy sack. Leaning heavily against the boy, Baba made his way to the thatched hut behind the tree.
Baba rested while Ramua prepared a meal.
A sharp nudge woke him up. “Baba…. get up fast. We have visitors. They look very rich.”
“Tell them to come tomorrow.”
“They won’t accept a No. And they have huge, muscular men with them. What if they kill us?”
“Oh Ramua. Stop getting scared. Bring them to the tree once I have taken my seat.”
Reluctantly Baba tidied himself up and strode towards the Banyan tree. Resting one hand on the trident, he let out a loud, “Bam Bholey…”
Ramua led a middle-aged woman towards the tree. The rustle of the shimmery white silk, the tinkling of the anklets and a whiff of a peculiar scent announced her arrival. The woman took her position near Baba’s feet. He felt her eyes on him, taking into account each and every detail. That made him uneasy.
Ramua whispered. “Baba, the Thakurain* from the next village….”
“What is the urgency that they can’t wait till morning?” The angry voice cut through the silence of the night.
“We won’t take much time.” The woman spoke up. “A small favour…that’s all.”
Baba opened his eyes. The woman was exquisitely beautiful. Behind her, sat a young man who refused to meet his gaze. Three burly men stood around them. One of them kept twirling his moustache.
“Its Mahashivratri day after. An auspicious day. We believe that a baby conceived on this night is an avatar of the Lord himself. Unfortunately, my daughter-in-law hasn’t been able to conceive since the two years. We are Kshatriyas and a child is important to continue the family line. I believe that the Lingaraj has sent you as his messenger. Only you can save our family.”
The woman folded her hands and looked at the saint.
Baba sat still. Not a word came out of his mouth. Sensing his predicament, Ramua spoke up. “He in deep thought. He will need to connect with his Master to ascertain his wishes. I will relay Baba’s message tomorrow morning.”
“Listen boy, we do not have much time. Tell your Baba that he has no option. I will send my men to pick him up tomorrow at this hour. Two nights are enough for a powerful man to complete the act.”
The woman turned around to leave. But stopped. “Tell him, I will reward handsomely. Jewels, cash…name them and I will give it. Even a house. But he has to impregnate my Bahurani. *”
The woman and her entourage left. Ramua stood staring at their departure. The demand was strange. How could she seek such a favour from a saint? But the assurance of a stable future was alluring.
Baba did not speak a word that night.
Unable to contain his excitement, Ramua spoke out. “If we earn good money, we will never have to visit these fairs again. We can live in a mansion, hire helpers, have good food. Sounds like a dream. Who knew this sleepy village was waiting to offer us so much.”
“Don’t let these dreams overpower you.”
“But we have nothing to lose.”
“We do! If I don’t agree, they will take us forcibly. Rich and powerful, do you think they will allow us to scot free? If I fail, she will kill us both. If I succeed, she will seal our mouths forever. And you, my boy, how could you think that I will stoop so low? For money?”
“We can always escape after that. And…and that impregnation, just an act Baba!”
“Yes Ramua, this is all but an ACT.”
Saying this, Baba pulled off his beard, took off his wig. Rubbing his face clean, he turned around. A strikingly handsome young man stood where the elderly saint had stood.
Ramua sat with a thud. His eyes grew large and seem to pop out from their sockets. “B…B… Baba…! But your skills…those miracles….? All a façade?”
“Ramua, listen. This is not a facade. But an art. The art of deception.”
“I have seen the miracles. I have seen how you have healed people. How can it be a deception?”
“Well, clever tactics and experience.
You see, I was orphaned in childhood. Destiny took me to Sadashiv Ashram where Guru Yogeshwar Rao enrolled me in the school run by the Ashram. After classes, I would sit and watch him. Guruji was a famous astrologer. He taught me how to study the movements of the celestial bodies and ascertain their impact on humans and their relationships. By studying the position of the stars and the planets, I can determine their effect on an individual. The remedy lies in the effect of precious stones.”
“For example, in your case, the impact of Saturn has a negative influence. No wonder, I found you in that wretched condition. The moment I gave you the Amethyst, your fate changed.”
“The blue stone…!” Ramu lifted his finger to admire the brilliance of the stone. “How can I forget that day. You found a scrawny little boy, fighting with the dogs for a slice of bread. Dispersing the dogs, you dragged him to your hut, gave him a bath, followed by a pot of chicken broth. Since then I have never known any worries.”
“Ramua, destiny brought us together. Soon, times will change and you will be on your own.”
“Never. I am not going anywhere without you. Baba, today you proved your magical powers.”
The saint patted the boy. “Guruji taught me the art of studying people. He taught me to read a human face. For example, the eyes – they reveal the inner turmoil. The size of their pupils, the squint. If the eyes constantly dart around, that’s indicative of discomfort. The lips – a pursed lip indicates tension and frustration building inside them. I can decide if the person is lying or is being honest. The nostrils – a flared nostril indicates pent-up anger. People even scratch their nose to express. Even eye brows are equally important. Wrinkling of the forehead works in tandem with the eyebrows. If the forehead wrinkles raising the eyebrows, the other person is probably suspicious of your behaviour. Oh, there is so much to study and decipher.
Sloping eyebrows suggest anger or frustration. Always look out for a horseshoe-shaped fold between the brow. It displays grief or sadness. People come here presenting to me myriad emotions. Some come in pretending to be happy. Some are sad. Some are over excited. Some have deadly intentions. And I have to decode them all.
I sit back and observe them. Look at the cases today. That young man today – his mannerisms were enough. The little boy – I knew it was case of a snake bite. And the young woman? She is a sex worker carrying the child of an influential man. They will kill her if they learnt of her state.
Only if the distressed were careful enough to hide those tell-tale signs of their troubles. Only if they did not give out too much detail. One nudge and they blurt it out. All it needs is a shrewd understanding of human psyche and human behaviour.
This Thakurain is a shrewd woman. Her scent gave her away. That awful mixture of sandal and Itar*….”
“Sandal is typically used by widows. But the itar that was present in her was a typically male scent. She is in an illicit relationship. And let me tell you that those men have stayed back…”
“Tonight, they are guarding the premises. We cannot flee from here. But I have a plan. At day break tomorrow, inform those men that I have accepted the Thakurain’s proposition. But we need to conduct a Yajna to please the Gods. Hand them the list I will give you and instruct them to assemble here sharp at 12am.
Meanwhile, your work will be to keep everything ready for flight. As soon as the fair closes tomorrow night, I will maintain vigil here. You will shave your head, change and take the route through the cemetery. Wait near Tomas Brown’s grave. The perfect cover. I will communicate through our code. You remember them, right?”
Ramua nodded. “Y… yes! What happens after that?”
“If the coast is clear, move towards the highway. I will meet you there.”
“If they catch us?”
“We are left with no option. To flee or to die. Now sleep. Tomorrow will be a rough day.”
Baba woke up Ramua sharp at 4 am. Reminding him once again about the entire plan, he went back to his usual spot. The loud ‘Om’ broke through the silence of the dawn.
Meanwhile, sighting the holy fire, people started pouring in. The word had spread about an enlightened mystic with magical powers. People landed up in droves in the quest of divine intervention. A couple came in. Followed by a family. Baba took one look at their distressed faces and knew what to do. The desire to know one’s destiny is an irresistible urge.
Baba meted out valuable advice, often prescribing various herbs and gemstones. The saint seemed to know it all. Relieved and excited, they touched his feet with reverence and left handsome offerings.
Later in the afternoon, Ramua returned. Thakurain’s men trudged along carrying a huge sack. The boy shooed away the devotees and made space for the Yajna.
With sundown, the gathering of people vanished. The fair started closing up. It became deadly silent.
At 12 am, the lights of the motor car and the whirring of the engine informed them of the arrival of Thakurain. The woman, followed by her son and the men walked up to the tree.
Ramua helped the saint climb down the platform built under the tree. Seating himself in front of the holy fire, he instructed Thakurain and her family to sit around the fire. He tied a yellow cloth around his head and initiated the proceedings.
“Ramua, get me the Vibhuti from Lingaraj.”
A packet secured with a red thread was brought in. “Now, scour the area. The first animal that crosses your path has to be brought in for the sacrifice. And no one should see you capturing the animal.”
Turning towards the woman, he spoke loudly. “Did you bring in the Dakshina*, Maa? I cannot begin the Yajna before appeasing the deity.”
The woman handed over a potli which he gave away to Ramua. “On your way, hand it over to the servitor of the temple. Now fast…bring me the animal.”
Ramua scampered away.
Spreading turmeric on his palms, Baba sprinkled the holy water around and started chanting. Every time he added a spoon of ghee, the fire rose higher. The chants grew louder. The singsong recital seemed like a lullaby, lulling everyone’s senses. At times, it reached a crescendo, sending goose bumps on that perfectly still night.
Thakurain and her mates sat still, eyes closed. Baba picked up a piece of thick yellow cloth and secured his nose and mouth. Pouring the contents from the sacred packet, he chanted. The fire rose higher. Thick, dense fumes emanated.
Dhong. Dhong. The tower cluck struck two. A bout of coughing followed. Yogi watched as the figures sitting around the fire slumped on the ground one by one. The moment, the last man fell, he got up, picked up the trident, grabbed his sack and raced through the fields. On reaching the temple, he let out a shrill Cooo which was immediately followed by a piercing reply. He shed his garments. Pulling on a fresh set of shirt and trousers, the clean-shaven, handsome man with shortly cropped hair strode towards the cemetery.
Awooo, somewhere a wolf cried out. Only he knew what it was. Waiting for a minute, he replied back. Awoo. There was Tomas’s tomb. The biggest in the area. An arch hung above it.
“Ramuaa…” Baba cried out softly.
The boy came out holding a gunny sack.
“Good boy. Now follow me. If I mew, you know it spells danger. Leave everything and run in the opposite direction. Got it?”
Ramua nodded his head. They broke into a run. The highway was twenty minutes away and the lights of the plying vehicles could be seen from afar.
A truck came to a halt on finding the two on the road. Baba explained something to the driver, handed him a few coins and gestured Ramua to board the vehicle.
They sat at the back of the truck, resting their limbs against the boxes. “Now Ramua, I will split our earnings equally. The truck will reach Adimnanagar in an hour. I will give you a friend’s contact. Find work and live your life.”
“But our paths are different. You are young. Study and carve a career for yourself. Also, I am not going to continue with this façade anymore. Maybe I will join an ashram or work somewhere.”
“Whatever it is, I am not going without you.”
Baba sat for a while and then leaned forward to embrace the boy. “From today, you are Ramnath. I am Yoginath, your brother. Let’s go. Let’s carve a path for ourselves.”
Sleep took over. No one noticed the white Maruti van that followed the truck.
- Madhabilata: The Rangoon creeper is a vine with red flower clusters which is native to tropical Asia.
- Mela: Fair
- Rudraksha: Dried seeds of a tree used as prayer beads.
- Potli: A small cloth bag
- Bahurani: Daughter-in-law
- Itar: Nature-based perfume.
- Thakurain: A title given to wives of landowners.
- Dakshina: Payment in lieu of services rendered.
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One thought on “The Facade”
What a beautiful tapestry of human celebrations and wishes and fun and laughter have you woven! The simple pleasures of community living and celebrating events and religious milestones with gusto and fervour are shown with a lot of tenderness and much needed human touch. I like your simple yet highly effective style of writing that manages to convey the nitty gritty of daily lives in such a stupendously impactful and heart warming manner. Kudos to you for writing this highly energising and warm story Sreeji.