“I’ve a feeling that such a book exists. It must be there somewhere. And if it is not there, it will not be long before it is written.”
Sadhu said as if divining my thoughts. Wonderful! Does he have mind reading abilities? I looked at him with bewilderment, but his response was a cool smile. The train had slowed down. A station, I presumed.
“There could be a ‘gospel of deceit’. The possibility of that is very high,’ Sadhu said.
“A ‘gospel of deceit’?”
“Or something with a similar name. There is bound to be a book of that kind capable of leading this world into the future. But if you do some hard thinking, can you give it any other name other than the ‘gospel of deceit’?”
He was certainly not expecting any response from me.
Few minutes later, the train reached a station neither too small nor big. However it had no halt there. So it reduced the speed, had a look at the station and then sped away. Those on the platform seemed to gape at the speeding train as if in awe of the long distance travelers.
“In fact I’ve been in the hunt for it, for quite some time.” Sadhu continued from where he had left off. “The gospel of deciet. But so far it has eluded my grasp.”
“Where do you search for it?” I was curious.
“I’m proceeding on assumptions. Certain individuals, organizations, even certain communities…I’m sure they will be in possession of it. Their working style and methods are indications to that. Otherwise how could they carry on without a wrong step and with such confidence? I’ve spent some time on them and so I can say with certainty that they have the book with them. But I’m not getting hold of it. That’s why these days…” He stopped and took out a water bottle from his shoulder bag and had a gulp.
“These days I’ve been thinking about the content of such a book. What would be the topics? What kind of experiences will be highlighted in it? Or what would be its style…On the whole, I’ve been in deep thought about it. In the background of my contemplations and my experiences to date, the chances are that my conjecture is quite accurate.”
“Can you explain…?”
“Suppose, that book comes my way at some point of time in life, there couldn’t be anything in it that I’d not have thought of. Because it is impossible to inscribe the gospel of deceit in any other manner.
I was not getting the full sense of what he was trying to tell. Talking about a book merely based on conjectures, visualize it, predict that that book will get to him sometime in the future…and also have clear ideas about its contents. This was all beyond me.
“I think so much about the content and the format of the book that at times I feel I might be the one to write it.”
And then Sadhu laughed out loud and long. Throughout he was smiling or laughing; but I hadn’t seen him laugh like this. However it was as soft as the smooth flow of a stream. He became absolutely calm afterwards. The furrows on his forehead had vanished.
As night fell, I opened my suitcase, took out the mineral water bottle to which some vodka had been added and had couple of swigs. All the while I did not glance even once in Sadhu’s direction. When travelling long distances, I had this habit of carrying some liquor with me to overcome boredom. And if it was vodka, chances of others noticing it too was quite remote.
“You must lock your suitcase and also secure it with a chain,” Sadhu reminded me as we were about to turn up for the night. “A train coach after all, no? Can’t say who all come in and who all get out as we sleep.”
“I don’t have a chain with me. Forgot to pack it.”
“Oh, that’s risky. You are carrying money and documents, no? Have to be vigilant.” He then dug into his shoulder bag and came up with a chain and lock. He helped me to fasten the chain to the hook underneath the seat and handed over the key to me. His chain, his lock and now he was giving me the key…I hesitated.
“No, no. you should keep the key. It is not very prudent to trust a stranger,” he said.
I laughed accepting the key from him.
“That is a lesson,” Sadhu said, laughing along with me. “That is a very important lesson in the gospel of deciet. Don’t trust anyone. Perhaps that could be the very first chapter.”
Then he told me in hush-hush tone. “Another thing is not to drink when you are in such an alien setting. Liquor will block our rationality even if temporarily.” I was astounded. This man sees all.
“I don’t mean that one should be anti alcohol. Liquor and intoxication have vital possibilities in the gospel I was talking about. That could be of use to you as a tool in critical situations,” he continued. “Those who have understood what alcohol really is do not drink. They will instead induce others to drink. If at all they drink, it will be for tempting the other and trapping him.”
I lay down on the berth going over all that he had been saying. The lurching and jolting of the train was too much at times. Light beems from the stations which we passed by, peeped into the dark compartment. Sleeping was an off and on process. And sometimes it was as if the train had come to a standstill. But being on the upper berth meant no disturbance of any kind. I slowly drifted into slumber.
It was quite bright when I woke up. The train was ramming ahead at great speed. I got down from the berth.
Many of those who had been there the previous evening had vanished and new faces had replaced them. The landscape too had changed. No more greenery. Only fallow farm lands. Yet there were a few farmers with bullocks and ploughs. Small stations with huddles of parked bicycles. A line of huts for some distance. An air of deprivation and decay.
And now toothbrush and paste. But where is the suitcase? It was not there where it was kept locked. Kumar Sadhu too was not there on his seat. He had told me that he was also travelling to the same place as I was. What will I do now without the suitcase? Whom shall I complain to if the money and the documents are lost? My restlessness was mounting.
“I shifted the suitcase beneath the seat. We had kept it upright and it was wobbling.” I turned round hearing Sadhu’s voice. He had had a bathe and was dressed in fresh white clothes. The same calm smile was there on his lips. I felt bad that I had suspected his integrity.
While brushing, I learnt from the conversation among other passengers that the train was running late by four hours. It could be further delayed as there would be some sort of regulated running during the day. I recalled that the train was standing still for quite some time in the night.
“It seems there was a riot on the way. Must have been in the town near the station where our train was held up. There was a fear that the train could become a target for the rioters,” Sadhu clarified when I returned to my seat.
“We will be terribly late,” I said.
“There are no alternatives, no?” His face did not betray any anxieties.
“Which was the last station?” The person who was sleeping on the berth opposite to mine looked down and asked. Sadhu looked up towards him and mentioned the name of the station.
“O, I’m done for.” He shouted and jumped down and stared through the window, banging his forehead with his hand.
“Were you to get down there?” I asked.
“Yes. The train was scheduled to reach there at four in the morning. Now that the train is delayed, it will be at least seven by the time that station is reached, the conductor had told me. O, how terrible!” It seemed, he would cry.
“You can get down at the next station, no?” I tried to console him.
“That won’t do. I must reach there by nine. And this dammed train will now stop only after another hundred kilometers. What shall I do, o god!” I was not getting any ideas that would be of any help to him.
Sadhu stood up. “Don’t worry. We may have travelled another five kilometers, that’s all. If you get down here, you can reach your place by nine.”
He instantly pulled the alarm chain and sat down on his seat absolutely unperturbed.
The train slowed down and came to a halt. It was a small village. Urchins grazing cattle stared at the train with wondering eyes. A train standing still so close must have been a rare sight for them.
“Get down, friend!” Sadhu urged that passenger. “You must leave before the officials arrive.”
He collected his bags and jumped out and scrambled through the narrow lanes as if someone were in pursuit of him.
Two guards of the train reached the coach shortly. They looked quite annoyed.
“As it is, we are running late. Now what happened?” It was a general question not addressed to anyone in particular. No one replied.
“Who pulled the chain?” One of the guards raised his voice. Again there was no response.
“A passenger,” Sadhu told them with firmness. “He just got down and ran away.”
“Damnation! These guys want express trains to stop at their door steps!” They left the coach in agitation. It was quite surprising that no one else in the compartment spoke.
“The riot and arson were not of his making.” Sadhu told me with a chuckle as the train started moving.
The train got delayed further as I had feared. It slowed down occasionally and was even held back at a few stations to give way to other trains.
The boredom of waiting led to getting acquainted with other passengers. One had a pack of playing cards and we made a makeshift table with suitcases. When one of the players dropped out, Sadhu was invited to make up the quorum. I never expected a person like Sadhu indulging in cards. But to my surprise, he joined us with enthusiasm.
His style of playing was quite different and also astonishing. Sadhu was slick with the cards. Even as he concentrated hard on his hand, he seemed to be aware of the cards with the others. He kept on winning, but was quite dispassionate about it.
One of the players took out tetra packs of fruity from his bag and offered it to others, even as he drank from one.
“I don’t drink it,” Sadhu refused the offer. “I’m of the opinion that no one should accept offers of drinks from co-passengers.”
I had an instinctive feeling that that piece of advice was directed at me. Whatever it be, when I too refused the drink, he tried to lighten the situation by laughing it away as a joke. Maybe this is the second lesson from the gospel of deceit he was talking about the previous day. Don’t accept anything from anyone.
We continued the card game for some more time.
The afternoon crawled along drearily. I whiled away the time sleeping, drinking tea and discussing everything under the sun. It was eleven in the night by the time the train arrived at our station. Almost seven hours late. Bleary eyed passengers went out into the darkness of the night.
The compartment had practically emptied out. We got down leisurely.
“Where are you headed for?” Sadhu asked me while helping me to get my suitcase down.
“Girinagar in Kalashpuri,” I said.
“Oh, it must be about 20 kilometres. Will you get a bus this late?”
“I might, up to Kalashpuri…” I said. Maybe a long distance bus passing by.
The old man in the wheel chair whom I had seen in the train was being taken to a taxi outside the station by the same couple.
Sadhu came with me to the bus stand, which was about a kilometer away. He helped me with the suitcase by carrying it for me for some distance. Maybe because of the exhaustion of the journey, I felt the suitcase had become heavier.
The bus stand and the surroundings were quite deserted. Lights did not flicker from any of the parked buses. All the shops in the vicinity were closed. No signs of any long distance buses too.
“Shall I try to engage a taxi or a rickshaw?” I asked Sadhu.
“I don’t think anyone will take you,” Sadhu was thoughtful. “And even if someone is ready to drive you there, I’d say that you shouldn’t go.”
“You have to go through deserted areas. It’s risky. These are not the best of times. Quite often the stories we hear are not very pleasant. Caution will serve us better.” Then he asked me with some hesitation, “After this kind of discussion it is not very easy for me to ask you to trust me. However will it not be better if you stay at my place tonight?”
I looked at his face. The same calmness as always. Moreover I had no alternative.
We returned by the same road. There were a few people near the railway station even at that time of night. But thereafter it was all deserted roads and lonesomeness. It was a cloudy night. There were several lamp posts, but few had bulbs burning. It was like walking through a zone of shadows.
But Sadhu was quite familiar with the place. He was walking with firm steps, as if traversing through a well lit road. I had to struggle to keep pace with him. The road gave way to narrow lanes. Sadhu took over my suitcase.
While stumbling through a one-foot track by the edges of a massive building complex, he turned around and cautioned me; “Be careful. One wrong step and you will fall into the canal. It is the sewage from this building. It is quite deep.”
He waited till I caught up with him. Taking my palm he led the way.
Where pray, this man is taking me through this dirty sewage? The indications he had given me during the journey and the reference to the gospel of deceit crowded my mind. I was scared.
A pack of stray dogs came barking down on us. Sadhu stopped and raised his hand at the bounding dogs. The barking stopped. They retreated howling as if from a severe blow. The whole thing was so eerie.
We reached a small bridge after walking for some more time. The bridge connected the vast sewage area with the rest of the earth on the other side. The stench from the sewage was overpowering. It seemed to follow us as we reached a row of small houses in a straight single line. All with tin roofs. They were all closed from inside. There were no lights anywhere. One could make out people sleeping huddled together on the verandas.
Sadhu put down the suitcase, took out a key from his shoulder bag and opened the door lock of a room.
He unbolted the door. The sound of iron scratching on the wooden door made a strange effect in the darkness of the night.
One of the sleeping figures woke and jumped up. Reognising Sadhu, he moved to a side with bent head. Tattered clothes, unkempt hair and beard. Seemed to be a beggar.
“Go back to sleep. I’m slightly late,” Sadhu said as he stepped into the room.
Sahu switched on the light and invited me to sit on the coir cot. It was a small room. A small table and chair near a window which was closed. A folded mat under the cot. Some vessels in a corner and few pots in loops hung on the nails on the wall. Rest of the space in the room was occupied by books. Books, old and new, periodicals, diaries, written notes…
“Will it be okay if you have your bathe in the morning?” Sadhu asked. “I know you are tired and a bathe will make you feel fresh. But very little water is available now. Maybe we can use it for making some food.” He went out without waiting for my answer taking a small vessel with him. Feeble sounds of water falling into the vessel from a tap. I went through the books and the notes which were scribbled in a hand I was unable to decipher.
“They are all complaints and petitions I prepared for various people,” Sadhu said. He obviously saw me scanning through the notes. But he did not seem to have any objection to that. But I was slightly embarrassed on being caught peeping at what could have been personal papers.
Sadhu lit the stove and put the water to boil. Kerosene smell filled the room. He sat down on the floor and kneaded the dough for making rotis. He sliced potatoes and made a curry. The dinner was ready in minutes. We spread the mat and sat down to eat.
“So many books and papers…What kind of work are you engaged in?” I asked.
“I cannot specify my work. I do all kind of work.” Sadhu was obviously evading an answer. I recalled his telling a fellow card player that he was on the lookout for a job.
Dinner over, Sadhu took out a fresh sheet and spread it on the coir coat. “You can sleep here,” he told me. “I’ve some more work to finish. My plans have been upset because of the late arrival of the train. I’m not sure if I can complete it if I postpone it to tomorrow morning.”
He removed the books from the table and stacked them on the floor. Opening the window, he took out a writing board and papers and started writing.
“You are busy with the book you mentioned about, no?” I asked him recalling our conversations in the train.
He gave me a blank stare.
“That book. Deceit’s gospel…”
Sadhu just laughed and did not comment.
“You may switch off the light. It is just below the calendar. I’ve a table lamp here,” he said.
I got up and walked in the direction he pointed, but could not locate the switch. I glanced at the calendar and found that Sadhu had made notes- places, persons etc below most of the dates. May be it was his programme chart. I lifted the calendar and found a framed photograph. A fading black and white of a rustic man and woman. Elderly couple. One could discern a faint resemblance of Sadhu on the man’s face.
“Your father and mother?” I enquired. Sadhu who was busy writing with bent head, turned around and nodded and went back to writing.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Nowhere. Both of them are dead. He continued without raising his head; “that photo was taken after they were dead. You can make out that if you take a close look at it.”
A picture taken after death being displayed on the wall…I thought it strange.
“There were no earlier photos…” Sadhu said as if to dispel my doubts.
“Did they die together?”
But how could that happen? Suicide?
“They were shot dead,” Sadhu said. He did not raise his head from his writing board.
“By whom?” I asked anxiously.
“The police. There was a riot in the town that day.” Sadhu’s tone did not betray any emotions.
I switched off the light.
All that remained was the bent head of Dahu in the spherical light of the table lamp, like a framed picture.
The tedious train journey and exhaustion quickly took me to sleep. When I once woke up I saw that the table lamp was still on. Sadhu was immersed in his work. I changed sides and drifted to sleep.
I woke up again after sometime. But this time it was all dark. I didn’t know what the time was. I stared into the darkness.
After I got used to the darkness, I looked around. There was no sign of Sadhu. Not to be seen anywhere. I got up from the cot.
Something stuck my feet. I bent down.
He was fast asleep on the mat, on his back. Left arm tucked under his head like a pillow. His face was as tranquil as that of a yogi.
I walked up to the table without making any noise. The writing board was stacked with written papers.
I looked out through the small window. In the dull light of the street lights, I could see the narrow streets we had trudged through the previous night. Beyond, the sky scrapers, the sewage canal, the bridge, row of small shops, rickshaws parked on the streets, small vehicles. It looked like the margins of the city.
And silence was all pervading.
In that mystifying silence, under the gloomy light of the skies, I witnessed the world sleeping, like a tattered book.
Translated from Malayalam : P.N Venugopal
Original title : Neecha Veda
E. Santhosh Kumar is one of the leading contemporary Malayalam writers. He has won numerous awards, including that of Kerala Sahitya Academy. Andhakaranazhi, published in 2012 and recipient of 2012 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Novel, is considered as one of his best.