Chapter One: The Ancient Storyteller


The train jerked to a stop. I woke up with a start. I looked around, dazed, trying to figure out where I was. I could see Jami stuffing his belongings into his bag.
‘Hurry up, man. It doesn’t stop here for long.’
The haze in my head cleared a little. I remembered where I was.
I got up in a hurry, located my bag and lurched after Jami. Stumbling over legs, feet and other random appendages of humanity strewn all over, we moved towards the door. In a moment, we were out of the compartment and on the platform.
With a groan and a heave, the train began to move again.
After the train left, there was complete silence. A small shed stood in the middle of the platform, a dusty tree shading part of it. Underneath the tree was a water tap, which had run dry, over a tiled washbasin covered with dried leaves. My bladder gave a twitch. I needed to relieve myself soon.
‘What now?’ I asked Jami.
He did not say anything. Always a man of few words, our Jami. He only shifted his haversack from one shoulder to the other, looked at his watch and nodded.
I knew that meant we had to wait a little.
My bladder demanded attention. I saw a bush at the far end of the platform. It was as likely a candidate as any. After I was done, I looked around.
We were in the middle of nowhere, on the railway line between Ambala and Chandigarh. A tiny, nondescript station. The largest railway network in the world seemed to have forgotten its existence. A faded, yellowing signboard once had the station’s name written on it. Now it was a patch of peeled and cracked paint.
We made our way out of the station. Jami raised a hand to shade his eyes from the blazing sun and peered at the dusty road. After a few minutes of waiting, doing nothing, he said, ‘He should have been here.’
‘There he is!’ Jami pointed at a cloud of dust approaching at a distance.
With a clatter of hooves, a jangle of harness and a crack of whip, the cloud of dust came to a halt in front of us. As the dust settled, a four-wheeled carriage, drawn by a single mare, revealed itself. Perched on it was a giant of a man in a lungi and a knee-length kurta. His feet were splayed apart – one on the coachman’s seat and the other on the yoke – as he crouched to balance himself. His tasselled red cap and a long, black leather whip matched the red leather of the seats and the grease-blackened wheels. With a flick of his whip and a flourish of his cap the man turned to Jami, exhibiting a set of gleaming, ivory-white teeth.
‘Welcome home, Tiger!’ he bellowed. ‘You have grown taller since you were last here.’  He burst into a deep, rumbling laugh that made his belly quiver.
I stared at him, despite myself. He appeared to have emerged from the pages of an ancient book. The man standing on the carriage was perhaps even larger than his usual self, towering over the both of us. The white mare, the carriage, the settling dust – all seemed far removed from the reality I was used to.
The man sensed my thoughts. He laughed louder and harder.
‘Your friend – he should close his mouth, or else a fly will get in!’ he told Jami.
He leapt out of the carriage. Landing like a cat,he  enveloped Jami in a tight embrace.
After a few seconds, Jami managed to extricate himself. He slipped his bag off his shoulders and passed it on to the man. Then he introduced him to me.
‘This is Mirza kaku. Our ride home. He . . . well, he likes to make an entrance.’
And how! I thought.
Mirza kept the bag on the shelf at the back of the coach, before turning to me, You must be the Bungalee babu, our Jami’s friend.’
He hopped on to the coachman’s seat.
‘Come on, let’s go to Haider Kalan! An hour’s ride lies ahead. Nusrat will take us there like the wind.’
Nusrat would be the mare, then, I thought.
As we clambered into the passenger seats, Jami muttered under his breath,
‘He is a little cuckoo.’
The coach turned around and the mare broke into a brisk trot. Jami and Mirza launched into the easy conversational chatter of old companions on a long journey. Mirza spoke of adventures that Nusrat and he had had together, each tale wilder than the last. Jami rolled his eyes in mock disbelief. I listened with quiet disinterest. Jami spoke of life in Delhi and the architecture school.
As the countryside flew by, Delhi seemed far, far away. I thought of the grime and the noise of the city. The dread of failure. The plight of being broke and not knowing what to do about it. And then my mind wandered back to how we had reached here.


Baba exploded when the letter from the Dean arrived. I had not expected it to be sent home, where I had just landed, with a plan for a lazy vacation. It was only my first day, and I was looking forward to some peace and quiet.
‘What on earth is this?’ he yelled. ‘Why did you not tell me?’
The cat was out of the bag now. They now knew that I had been failing for the past two years. Instead of going into the third year, I would be repeating my first year. He screamed at me. He shouted some more. And then, he hit me.
I recoiled in surprise. Surprise turned to anger, and I stood up straight with hands clenched in fists of rage. But he carried on. ‘History! History! You’re no son of mine. I pay through my nose to put you through architecture school, and now you want to study… History!’
‘Yes! History!’ I barked. ‘I will have to do what I have always wanted. I never could. It is you who wanted me to be an architect.’
Baba stopped short at my sudden outburst. I pressed on, floodgates unleashed, ‘I am no architect! And like you say, I am no son of yours . . .’ I took a step forward, drawing level with his face ‘. . . YOU are no father of mine!’
He stood there stunned. I gasped at my temerity, sobbed, and ran out of the house that night.
When I came back the next afternoon, there was no one at home. Only a message from Ma stuck on the refrigerator door. Baba had been admitted for a severe ache in the back. I went to the hospital. He refused to speak to me. They wanted to keep him there for a few days. Observation.
 Bastard died the next day. In his sleep. Everyone said it was sudden and unexpected. Ma knew nothing of what had happened between us. She went about her tasks like a zombie, while I went about mine like another. Mashi came from Delhi. My mother’s sister, possibly our only living relative.
There are a million things that need to be done during a funeral. It took three days of continuous running around. Finally, everything was dealt with except the ritual feast after a month.
I left after that. I could not stay in that house even a day more than was absolutely necessary. Mashi would be there for a few more days to take care of Ma.
I had returned to the hostel early. It was still the middle of the vacations. I could have gone to mashi’s place, but I thought there would be no one in the hostel and the calm and quiet would be good for me. I could wallow in peace, without interference.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I found Jami in our room. Nira was there, too. She was standing, towering over Jami, as the he cowered in a chair. I seemed to have walked into some sort of a lover’s spat. ‘Oh!’ said Nira, cutting short whatever she was yelling at Jami. ‘You’re back?’ The unasked question was whether I would be staying or just passing by.
‘I could stay in Meghnad’s room,’ I replied. ‘I have his keys.’
‘No, it’s all right. I was just about to leave,’ said Nira, flushing a deep maroon. Jami looked the other way, saying nothing. Something was definitely wrong, and I had intruded at a bad time. But I didn’t care. I opened the cupboard and tossed in my bag. I carefully kept among my clothes the other package I was carrying.
‘Ciao,’ said Nira. ‘Nice hairdo, by the way. Looks good on you.’ I ran a hand over the recent growth on my shaven scalp and shrugged. Once she left, I turned to look at our room.
It was cleaner than I had ever seen it been before. Everything was in place – the beds, the bedclothes, the furniture, even my books were arranged in a neat little stack inside the smaller cupboard.
‘What have you been up to?’ I asked with a scowl. I hated anyone touching my books.
‘Not me,’ said Jami with a sheepish look. ‘It was Nira. She wanted to clean up the place.’
‘Everything all right?’ I asked, knowing fully well it was not.
‘Hmm,’ said Jami, not confessing anything. Fuck these lovebirds and their romance. ‘You are back early,’ said Jami after a while, as I rearranged my books. ‘Is everything fine back home?’?’
Yes it is.’ I replied. I was lying but I knew there was no point confiding in Jami. It was an uncomfortable few hours of silence. I wanted my space. Jami wanted a place to get his rocks off – I didn’t care. At long last he asked, ‘Coming to the TV room? Finals tonight.’
I had completely forgotten about the finals in the mess and misery of the last few days. Football could heal any wound, they said. I could might as well give it a shot.
That night Italia 90 finished with a whimper. West Germany extracted revenge on Argentina for the slaughter at Mexico four years ago. It ended with a single penalty shot. . Diego Maradona walked off the field, a shadow of his former self. . This would perhaps be his last World Cup. This would also be the last time West Germany would play as a country. Germania was on the path to reunification. The Berlin Wall had fallen a few months earlier. In four years, they would play the World Cup as a unified Germany.
If I was a betting man, I would have put my money on Soviet Russia not playing again either. Not as itself, in any case. Holes had appeared in the Iron Curtain as well.
We walked  back to our room, and I thought of the world as it was being re-built around me. Young men were hammering away at the walls of Checkpoint Charlie half a world away. People were making history and here I was, flunking year after year in architecture school, scraping through a deadbeat, broke existence.
My mind went back to Baba. I thought  about our last exchange and the derision in his voice.
‘History! Now you  want to study history?’
‘Like it or not, baba, history it is from now on,’ I muttered under my breath. My dearest wish to be remembered in history might also come true, in a warped sort of way. If word of how Baba died ever got out, I would go down in history for patricide.

With nothing else to do , I picked up one of my many dog-eared, much-loved books and began to read.
Jami, meanwhile, was listless. He growled in frustration, echoing my thoughts. I have nothing to do, ’ he whined.
He sat there brooding while I read. Finally he looked at the book and asked, ‘What is it?’
‘Malleson’s book on the mutiny,’ I said.
‘1857 stuff?’
So my companion knew a bit of our past. Life never fails to surprise you.
Yes. Written by this chap not long after 1857. A collection of personal experiences and English accounts. Fascinating stuff.’
‘The English bastards left India, but they left the likes of you behind,’ said Jami. I kept reading. After a while he said with finality, ‘It was not a mutiny. It was a revolution.’
It was an old dispute. ‘Perhaps. The debate still rages,’ I said, ‘and it doesn’t help that the only accounts of those times are written in English, by the British. All local accounts of the rebellion were destroyed by the English. Only the British versions remained. There have been oral narratives of history. Bards and storytellers reciting their tales, but only few of those remain. There is very little known or even heard from the other side. Only a few stories, long forgotten.’
Jami began to chant under his breath, ‘Bundele harbole ke munh humne suni kahaani thhi . . .
‘Correct,’ I said, ‘That famous song. But not many like those remain. Everything else is lost. So mutiny it is, unless we can prove otherwise. And anyone who can do so would be an overnight star in academic circles.’
I thought about it for a couple of seconds and said wistfully, ‘A find like that would be a treasure that would shed light on many buried truths.’I turned my attention back to my book. I was engrossed with the capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal and the nominal leader of the mutiny, wondering what drove Hodson to kill Bahadur Shah’s two sons and a grandson in broad daylight, when I thought I heard Jami say something.
‘What was that?’ I asked.
‘All is not forgotten,’ he said. ‘Some stories are still told.’
‘Say what?’
‘You said every other account is lost. That might not be the case.
Jami fidgeted and said, ‘See. . . My village. My ancestral village where I come from, that is. There is a story that my dada-jaan told us when I was young. He has been narrating it almost every day to anyone who cares to listen.’
I leaned forward, eyes narrowed. Jami continued, ‘He heard it from his father, and it is a thing about our village.’
I did a mental calculation and interrupted him, ‘So your dada-jaan’s father – he would have been alive during the time of the rebellion, right?’
‘I think so,’ said Jami. ‘So this story is about three men from our village who fought during the mutiny and how everyone in Haider Kalan was massacred by the English soon after.’
‘Haider Kalan?’
‘The name of our village. I don’t remember the exact details of the story.’
‘Where is it? The village?’ I asked, intrigued. If an oral account of the mutiny had survived, it needed attention.
‘Just a few hundred kilometres from here,’ said Jami. ‘A station before Ambala.’
‘Tell me more about the story,’ I said.
Jami shook his head in frustration. ‘I just don’t remember the details, man. It has been a while. There is something about redcoats killing everyone, some hidden treasure, and Zafar Bahadur of something.’
‘Bahadur Shah Zafar!’ I said, getting to my feet.
‘Yes. Maybe,’ said Jami. He saw my excitement and added, ‘You should go there with me some day and hear the story yourself.’
Now was as good a time as any, I thought. I sat down again and began putting on my shoes. ‘Let’s go then,’ I said.
‘Why not?’
‘We need to pack.’
You need to pack. I have not even unpacked,’ I said, rising to pick up my bag from inside the cupboard. I was ready. I saw him hesitate and sighed. ‘Look, man. It is the middle of summer vacations. No one is in the hostel except for you and me. Nothing to do. And it is not as if you and Nira have babies to make or something.’
Jami, flushed, raised a finger at me and said, ‘That. You won’t understand.’
‘I know,’ I said, pressing on, ‘so let’s go. Let’s hear this story that has been told for so many years. This village of yours. Haider Kalan.’
My mind raced with the possibilities. If I could hear the story, maybe document it, it would be ripe material for a paper. Perhaps, Professor Venugopal could help. Perhaps, I could find lateral entry into a history program. It could be a way out of where I was.
Jami, however, kept sitting. I exhaled and flung my hands in despair. ‘Look, man ... I need to get the hell away from everything. All this . . . will keep my mind off things.’
‘What things?’
‘You know . . . things. College, hostel, home, things . . . All is not well at home, man. Everything is screwed in college. And if there is something more to this story, it might give me a way out of this shit I am in.’
Jami looked at me, thinking, and then shrugged. He rose to his feet and said, ‘Cool. Let’s go then. But it is a pretty lame place, you know, my village.’
He stuffed a few clothes in his bag and we caught a train a couple of hours later. We would spend a few days in Jami’s village.


Jami nudged me awake. I opened my eyes. The sun was low on the horizon.
‘We have arrived,’ he said.
I felt stiff all over. The unsteady motion of the train. had given me cramps.I looked around as  I slowly moved my limbs.
The fields were now punctuated by an occasional single-storeyed structure, a rickety hut here, a burnt-brick shed there, or a solitary stack of hay.
A little ahead, silhouetted against the orange setting sun, was our destination. Haider Kalan. It was a tiny hamlet – a collection of single-storeyed houses. A few homes seemed to have an additional floor above, half built, seemingly abandoned.
As we drew closer, I took in the details. Most of the houses seemed to be low buildings, surrounding a courtyard. This was the pattern of village homes that was fast being replaced by an urban sprawl in most parts of the country. At the edge of the village, further away from the cluster of these houses, stood a structure that looked part mosque, part fort. It was a lime-plastered building, yellowed with neglect, the disrepair apparent even in the fading light of the evening. A solitary dome stood behind the slanting outer walls. The walls with bastions and weep holes made it look like the small outpost of a fort.
We stopped in front of one of the larger houses in the village.
Jami and I picked up our bags and got down. Mirza gave a crack of the whip and rolled away as we walked in through the door.
Jami said, ‘We have come at a good time. Dada-jaan will be starting his rambles now.’
We made our way to the inner courtyard. I was greeted by the splitting image of a painting I had in our hostel room – a gift from mashi long ago. Inside was an aged man in white robes and a turban on a cot, with a few wide-eyed children sitting cross-legged on the floor. The end of the half-lit hookah occasionally disappeared into the flowing white beard that covered half his face. The children had gathered around to listen to the story he told them almost every day. The women hovered around them, keeping an eye on the children but also listening to the story that no one ever tired of.
Jami gestured me to sit down beside him, among the children. As the group became quiet, dada-jaan cleared his throat and began speaking with the measured ease of someone who has done this all his life, and enjoys it.

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