A hullabaloo surrounds me as soon as I walk out of the Delhi Airport. Taxi drivers push against each other to grab my attention so that they can ferry me around and charge an exorbitant amount of money; why do they think every goddamn white-skinned fellow is a tourist. I push them aside and find my way towards the prepaid taxi counter.
I wasn’t amused to be visiting Delhi, that too in the middle of such an important literary festival back home in London but here I am fulfilling the last wish of one of my authors, whom I had published way back in 1995 and the book wasn’t one of those that I should remember for fetching me some very good money. Soon, I will be on my way to Haridwar to immerse his ashes in Ganga.
Sounds funny right!! Let me get a taxi and I will narrate the whole bloody fiasco into which I was entwined without the slightest of idea as to why???
Now, before I tell you anything about the mess, let me tell you little bit about me. My name is Jason Shaffer. I am the owner of one of the finest publishing house of London called Shaffer Publishing. It’s an old publishing house, my father started it way back in 1972 and I took over the reins in 1991. We have published almost a total of two hundred and fifty writers, some of them pretty popular in the writing circuit. And let me tell you, we are one of those few publishing houses who have been on the profit side of the balance sheet since its inception. Though I have to go through fire and water to keep it that way but it’s worth the exertion. Moreover, one of our books got the Booker last year, the best year so far.
Coming back to the story, Mr. Ralph Chopra, a British writer of Indian origin had published a fiction called ‘The NRI Groom’ with Shaffer Publishing, where the protagonist goes to India to get married and gets entangled into troubles due to the culture conflict. Though the book wasn’t an out-and-out flop but it wasn’t one which would go for a second edition. This happened in 1995, twenty-five years ago.
A couple of months back, one fine evening, as I was seated in my sprawling Lombard Street office, I got a phone call. It was from the Coventry Central Police Station. They informed me that Ralph had committed suicide and he had mentioned my name on the suicide note. I was like ‘what the fuck?’
When I asked ‘who was Ralph’ about whom I had completely forgotten, the guy on the other side of the phone started laughing. He laughed for one complete minute before he said, “Get down here ASAP. You are in a filthy mess.”
The next day, I took a flight to Birmingham and then a taxi to the Coventry Central Police Station. As soon as I reported, I was ushered into a cabin where an officer sat opposite me with a small table in between for the purpose of ‘God knows what’. But one thing I was sure of, that he would definitely use it to bang his fists.
But I was wrong. He looked at me and started laughing again, this time, till his eyes were wet and he had to hold his stomach to laugh further. I was clueless but highly embarrassed. When he controlled his laughing somehow, he pulled up a copy of ‘The NRI Groom’ and turned the book to its last page. There, in big bold letters, my name JASON SHAFFER was written with intelligible handwriting. I was shocked to see the other part of the note. It read, “Please immerse my ashes in Ganga at Haridwar and before that please donate the earnings of my book which I haven’t yet collected from you to ‘Swarna ashram’ in Rishikesh.”
The guy on the other side of the table grinned, making me uneasy on my chair. Then, very cleverly he said, “It seems that Ralph had gulped numerous sleeping pills. As he said you will be carrying his ashes to India, we got him cremated in Hindu style in Birmingham and got his ashes in this pot” and he handed me a brass pot covered with a red cloth.
He continued, “As we don’t have any other contact person except you, you have to pay for his funeral services, and if at all you want to, you may carry out his last wish. However, if you wish to forgo the whole travelling, you may do it in Thames if the ‘Thames water’ guys permit. But let me tell you, these Hindus are a bunch of magical people. They believe in souls and rebirths kind of stuff. Be careful.”
“How much do I have to pay?” I asked.
I paid the amount, even though it was a lot and barged out of the Police station.
I tried hard to figure out why he chose me to be the charioteer of his journey to heaven but I couldn’t find a single reason. We have never been in direct touch ever (he dealt with the editor), it was in 1995 I last heard of him and I have only seen his face on the author photograph of the book that I now hold on to and which had jeopardized my life. I had felt an urge to know the truth but with the packed engagements scheduled for the following days, I couldn’t get myself to embark on the journey. Many times, I had the yearning of dumping everything in the Thames. That would have ended the anticipation but without any logical end and being a sucker for stories, I could not opt for it. I even considered sending someone else in my place but I am a God-loving man, in fact a God-fearing man and I didn’t want to irk the numerous Hindu Gods ready to unleash their wrath on me. Hence, getting time out of my busy schedule, I am on my way to Haridwar to immerse his ashes, and hopefully return without visiting the ashram. I have already paid 50 pounds, Ralph’s royalty for his ‘The NRI Groom’ and I don’t owe him anything. Thank God! The police didn’t probe harder on that part. Moreover, I had already paid a hefty amount for his funeral.
Okay! I admit 100 pounds for a book on which I had made about 16000 pounds is not justified but I had given him ten author copies too. So I, being a profit-making publisher, think it was justified. And, he, being alive for all these years should have come to me if he wanted any help or more royalty. His writing my name on his book just before killing himself means that he had me in his mind all the whole time. There was no point in tagging me on some suicide note… I can’t do anything now.
The road is getting narrow; I think we are approaching the hills. The weather has also changed a bit, it’s cooler now. Hopefully we will soon reach Haridwar.
I ask the driver, “How far are we from Haridwar?”
“About thirty kilometers” he said.
“How much in miles?”
“I don’t know Sir. I am just a driver. My math is very poor.”
It’s afternoon here in Haridwar and Ganga River runs right next to the road. A surreal feeling has emancipated within me as soon as I breathe in the unblemished air. Everything is so pious, so spiritual that the anxiety and tension I had harboured this whole time has given away. I feel at peace, sitting at the bank of the river, watching people bathe, doing rituals, children playing in the water, people collecting water and praying to the river. I had never experienced this peace till today.
I ask the driver, “Do you know where this Swarna Ashram is? They say, it’s somewhere in Rishikesh.”
He replies, “It’s on the way, right before the entry to Rishikesh town. Do you want to go there?”
“I don’t know. What is there to look at?”
“It is an ashram for the old and the vulnerable- orphans, urchin girls, elderly people without a place to live. An Englishman named Ralph started it in around the late nineties. He was an Indian-born English man. He came here to learn Yoga but didn’t leave. He also stays there with the inmates.”
I am stunned, “Are you sure he still lives with the people there?”
He replies, “Yes. I met him three months back.”
How can a man be alive if his ashes are there in my luggage? The truth is getting obscured by every passing minute. Without knowing the truth, I won’t be able to live the rest of my life in peace. I take out the book from my handbag to read his note once again. He has specifically mentioned visiting the ashram before I immerse his ashes. I have to go to the ashram.
I can see the ashram from a distance as we take the turn towards it, diverting from the main road. It is a quiet, small nondescript three-storey building, with a front lawn where a few elderly people are soaking themselves in the evening sun. Some children are frolicking around them. I walk up to the lady at the reception. She is a middle-aged woman, rotund with hair oiled and plaited. As soon as she sees me, a drop of tear rolls down her cheek.
Her name is Sunita and she has narrated me the truth of Ralph’s life and how I was made a part of it.
Ralph moved here in 1997 and learnt Yoga staying in a shack at some place further called Laxmanjhula. He was attracted to the serenity of the place and, one fine day, out of the blue, he decided to live here forever. He bought the building at a throwaway price as the owner moved to Delhi and started the ashram. Initially it was a Yoga learning center where he got clients from UK through his friends and relatives. But, it was later turned into an ashram for the poor and the needy. It happened by chance. Sunita had been the first one to move here with her grandmother after her uncle and aunt duped them of their property and rendered them homeless. Since then, she had been the caretaker of the ashram. Ralph taught Yoga at various centers and the remuneration he got was sufficient in the beginning. But when the mouths to feed increased, he started seeking donations. Everything was fine till four months back when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
The inmates of the ashram were shattered on the news. But he kept strong and started to find ways to keep the ashram running. Then, one day, about two months back, he gave Sunita, the manuscript of a book, asked her to wait for me and hand the manuscript over to me where I arrive. He said that I will take care of the rest. He showed her my photograph on Instagram and left that very day for London.
When I open the manuscript, right on the front page, there is a note, “This one will be a bestseller but only if you find it after my death. It would not mean much if I don’t believe in what I wrote. You pay the royalty of this book to the ashram and please write the prologue of the book.”
The book is named ‘Euthanasia- the Dying Story of a Cancer Patient’ and it says how Ralph executed euthanasia on himself to evade the painful death of cancer.
I feel like thanking myself for this journey to Haridwar in quest of the rationale. Now, I am on my way back with a bestseller and this prologue for the book.
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