Chapter Sixteen: Shelves Sixteen and Twenty-Four

19:01



Jami, Nira and I were on the terrace of the hostel. The sun was beginning to set and the banks of the Yamuna were bathed in twilight. I looked over the ruins of the old arched bridge of Khizrabad. There, long ago, the armies of Timur and Khizr battled the Lodhis for domination over Delhi. Today, it stood witness to the particularly hairy quandary I was in.
Nira had questions. I did not have all the answers. Silence, however, was not an option. Not when you were dealing with Meghnira Basu. And not when she was armed with a list of things she wanted to investigate.
‘So tell me this, guys,’ she said, ‘where do we stand on Udaipur?’
She was met with silence.
‘I mean, I thought you guys would have a picnic there and return with a hoard of gold or something. And what do we have instead? A burnt diary, dada-jaan gone for good and all sorts of unanswered questions.’
I should have expected it. Nira or anyone else, investor anxiety runs deep in any operation. And what she said was true. We had been hasty in rushing off to Udaipur. The diary was a good find, though. I was sure it would bring us one step closer to realizing our dream of finding the treasure. I said as much.
‘True, it was stupid of us to rush off to Udaipur. But not for nothing. The letters have already told us a lot. For one, we are now certain that there is definitely a fair amount of wealth involved. The burnt diary clearly talks of six chests full of gold.’
‘But the letter also says that this Ba’azuddin gave it all to this Harper fellow in Calcutta,’ said Nira.
‘To be deposited in Lloyd’s Bank. We need to look up where that is. And after that, he reached Udaipur, with fifty pieces of gold. This is corroborated in the letter dada-jaan showed us when we met him last. I am quite sure the letter was from Ba’azuddin. And he mentions in it that the treasure lies hidden in Udaipur. So to answer your question, we stand well on Udaipur. Everything still points to Udaipur. We need to look more closely at the meaning of the verses we found in the letter and on the ceiling.’
Nira made a clacking sound with her tongue, as if frustrated with the whole matter. What did she think? That finding the treasure would be easy? Of course, I didn’t say that. You can’t annoy your investor. Instead, I said, ‘The fragments of the burnt diary might be able to help us.’
Jami spoke for the first time in the last hour or so that we had been wondering about what to do next. ‘We seem to be at a dead end,’ he said gloomily.
‘I wish I could tell,’ I said. ‘I have read only the first entry so far. It adds something to what we know. Something very interesting.’
‘What?’ barked Nira.
Oh, impatient one, I thought to myself. I began to speak.
‘It is possible that the fakir was Ba’azuddin himself.’
Jami’s eyes narrowed into slits. ‘Meaning?’, he asked.  
‘I mean, from the first entry I decoded we know that the fakir was Ba’azuddin. Ba’azuddin was the fakir. The fakir that dada-jaan spoke of – the fellow who rebuilt the mosque.’
It was Ba’azuddin all along, hiding in the village in broad daylight.’
I continued, ‘This throws up some embarrassing possibilities, and interesting questions.’
‘Yes, it does,’ said Jami.
‘Why did he live for all those years in Haider Kalan as a fakir, and not Ba’azuddin himself? Why live in hiding?’
‘Why indeed?’ said Jami.
‘The rest of the entries might tell us more,’ I said.
‘So read them!’ said Nira.
‘That is the trouble,’ I said. ‘I can’t.’
‘What do you mean you can’t read the rest?’ asked Nira. ‘You have already read the first entry. What is the problem with the rest?’
‘See, it is like this,’ I replied. ‘The entry I have transcribed was unlike what I found in the letters. The letters were Bangla characters for Text written in Hindustani – or what we call Hindi. The diary entry is, instead, in English. The first entry was easy to read. It was a simple substitution code. The letters of the Bangla alphabet, substituted with the corresponding letters of the English alphabet. The rest of the entries follow a different code. I am trying to figure out what that is. So far I have not succeeded.’
There was an awkward silence. All three of us looked over the terrace parapet at nothing in particular. I tried to raise their spirits. ‘Look, I know there are more questions than answers. But a few things have also become clearer. One, it is highly likely that fifty pieces of gold lie hidden somewhere in Udaipur. Two, these diary fragments are of far greater value than they may seem. It is not every day that you acquire an account written over a hundred years ago and touch and feel words written by a person long dead.’
Nira sniffed. Or was that a snigger? She clearly did not share my enthusiasm for history. All that these morons appreciated was the treasure. No respect for scholarship at all.
‘Come on, Nira. We will find something,’ said Jami as he tried to support me. ‘And even if we do not, we will find a way of giving your money back to you,’ he said with valiant confidence.
Nira seemed to turn a deep maroon. ‘It is not about the money, Jami, you fool!’ she burst out.
It was not? Oh!
For a moment, I was glad it was Jami under fire. I was also about to bring up the matter of returning Nira’s cash but, thankfully, Jami took the bullet that would have surely come my way.
‘But,’ said Jami, continuing with his foot in his mouth, and Nira’s boot up his behind, ‘you told me . . .’
‘Screw what I told you! Yes, it is about money, but not for me! It’s for New York!’
At that moment, the two of them seemed to realize that I was also there. They abruptly clammed up about whatever they were talking of. There was clearly something interesting afoot there. I thought of asking Jami about it later. For the time being, I decided to stop being the convenient third wheel, and steered the conversation towards something else.
‘So what will you guys do with the money anyway?’ I asked. ‘If and when we find something.’
Jami gave a snort. ‘I really have not thought about it,’ he said.
‘It depends on how much we find,’ said Nira.
‘It does?’ asked Jami.
‘Yes, Jami,’ she said, turning on him with venom. ‘It does. I have plans and so do you!’
‘Uh . . .’ said Jami, mumbling something, caught between a rock and a hard place. The poor fellow just kept getting it from Nira. He asked me, ‘What will you do?’
I thought for a fleeting second about the number of books I would buy and the things I would do. First head back home to get Ma. I shoved those thoughts aside and said instead, ‘I haven’t really thought about it either. And I suppose it depends on how much there is.’
‘Fat good all this is!’ said Nira. ‘All this is daydreaming if we cannot figure out what is written in those diaries.’
I thought for a moment. ‘I think I know someone who could help us with the diaries,’ I said.
That caught their attention.
‘What time is it?’ I asked.
‘Six thirty,’ said Nira.
‘Can your driver take us?’ I asked her.
‘Where?’
‘It is time we paid Professor Venugopal a visit.’
They both recoiled in mock fear.
‘Bungalee Babu!!’ they said together.
That running joke would be the ruin of me. Once, just once, he had called me by that name in class, and it just had to stick with him and me forever.
‘Would it be okay for us to show up at his home just like that?’ asked Jami.
Nira added, ‘And you know where he lives?’
‘Of course,’ I answered both questions together. ‘You take us, I will tell you where to go,’ I told Nira.
‘You are such a professor’s pet,’ said Nira as we made our way down to the parking lot. Her driver saw us coming and dutifully stepped out. He handed Nira the keys. Jami sat with her in the front and I made myself comfortable at the back. The driver made himself even more comfortable next to me and promptly fell asleep.

***

‘But this is college,’ said Nira, when I told her to stop outside the Architecture Block.
I did not say anything. Instead, I took my bag and stepped out of the car. I gestured them to follow. The driver slept soundly in the back seat.
As I entered the building and walked up the stairs, I explained.
‘I found out last year, when the professor wrote to my parents. It was about a paper I missed turning in. Huge embarrassment for me at home. Anyway, it was then that I noticed the address at the bottom of his personal letterhead.’
‘He has a personal letterhead?’ asked Nira.
‘Yes. I mean, it is the university letterhead that all senior professors get. The residence address was a strange one,’ I said as we reached the second floor where the department library was. ‘It said Stack 16-24, Architecture Library. He lives here, apparently.’
I let that sink in for a moment. Then I continued, ‘I eventually asked the office. They confirmed that he does, indeed, live in the library. Official accommodation. Something to do with being close to his research material. All lies, of course. The department has been kind to him. His stature in academic circles, you see. He needed a place to stay. About seven years ago, his wife kicked him out of the house for reasons best known to her.’
‘This guy has a wife?’ asked Jami with a snort.
‘Evidently so. Anyway, I have visited him here over the last few months. We are working on a very interesting paper together. It is called ‘Exposition in Architecture of Religion – Literacy and Liturgy’,’ I declared with great pride.
‘What does that even mean?’ asked Jami.
‘You are getting to collaborate with him?’ gushed Nira.
Better. At least she had a bit of a brain. I nodded.
‘But yes, what does that mean?’
No, she did not.
I let the imbecility of lesser mortals pass. ‘Never mind that,’ I said. ‘But he has a very sharp and canny mind, if you can penetrate the fog. He might take an interest in our story, and our notebooks,’ I said, patting my bag. I knocked softly on the glass door of the library. There should be no one around during the vacations. But having been here dozens of evenings after hours, I knew better.
The old library watchman appeared behind the glass pane. He saw me and opened the door a crack.
‘The professor.’ I said. I had never ever gotten around to asking the watchman what his name was. ‘I need a consultation.’
The watchman did not say anything, but only looked at me and the others balefully. I pulled out the quarter bottle of rum from inside my bag and showed it to him.
That let us in.
The inside of the library was dark. Only the reading room was dimly lit. The watchman would enjoy his reward there in the light, while we went into the darkness of the stacks. Poetic as hell. I hoped there would be some illumination at the end of it all.
In the dark, the library stack room is a fearsome place. I reached the end of the stack room where a plyboard wall ran from the shelf numbered sixteen to the one numbered twenty-four. I knocked on the makeshift door in the middle of it, a pale crack of light illuminating it. Behind me I thought I heard Jami and Nira hold their breath as I knocked. Once, twice, thrice.
‘Come in,’ said a voice from far inside.
I opened the door and stepped in.
The sight was familiar to me, but it would have been new for Jami and Nira. Piles and piles of books surrounded Professor Venugopal, who was bent over a book at his desk. In the dim light of the single bulb that hung from the ceiling, he squinted at whatever he was reading through a cloudy lens. There was a cot somewhere in a dark corner. It would be occupied by books and papers as well.
We waited by the door as the professor continued reading. He was also taking notes into a tome of a notebook. I shook my head at Jami and Nira and asked them to remain put. Finally, he finished whatever he was doing, and looked up at us.
‘What is it, young man?’ he asked, addressing me.
I shuffled to him and brought out my notebook. I put it on the table in front of him.
‘There is something I needed your help with, professor,’ I said. Jami and Nira had also walked in closer tentatively.
‘It all began with a story I heard a few weeks ago,’ I started. I told the professor about the story dada-jaan had told me in Haider Kalan. From time to time, Jami interjected with a few details. I told the professor about the mosque and opened my notebook to show him the sketches and drawings. Professor Venugopal kept listening with a bored expression and without interrupting. From time to time he turned the pages of my notebook to look at the sketches of the verses. When I reached the part about Udaipur, he flipped to my sketches of the temple at Jagat and then the Jag Mandir. I told him about the letters dada-jaan had showed us in Haider Kalan. I showed him the transcribed letters as well as the original letters. For the first time, I saw interest in his eyes. He fingered the original folded letters that I had carried back from Haider Kalan. When he heard about the diary Mirza had given me, he gave me a sharp look. Then, with almost religious reverence, he opened the diary. I told him how I had figured out the substitution cipher. I showed him the transcription of the rest of the diary – the part I was unable to decode. I finished my account of the past few days. ‘You see, professor, I think it is vital that I decipher the remaining entries. I am sure the later entries will have some answers.’
Professor Venugopal kept running his fingers lovingly over the diary. Then he opened my notebook and glanced over my translation of the strange entries. He went through the diary. Then he looked up at me and said, ‘And what if I tell you how to read all this?’ There was a look of yearning on his face that I understood at once.
I felt Nira tense up. She must have been thinking that the professor wanted a share in the treasure as well.
‘Why, professor, you can keep the diary when we are done with it. Whether you can help us or not,’ I said at once.
He broke into a million-watt smile and said, ‘Spoken like a true man of letters.’ Somehow, hearing that from him made me feel better than I had in months.
He took another look at the scrawled words in my notebook and said, ‘Caesar Cipher. Look for e in the. You will have your key.’ Saying this, he got up and went to one of the shelves that lined the wall. He began to pull out one book after another, dusting them and stacking them on his arm.
Jami and Nira looked at me. I was looking at my notebooks, realization dawning on me. I turned to them and nodded. I had the solution!
 Professor Venugopal returned and placed the books on his desk. ‘Now be off, gentlemen and my dear lady. I have work that needs to be done.’
Jami and Nira made a hurried exit. I was about to follow them when the professor stopped me. ‘Please tell Abdullah on your way out that he can take off for the day.’
For a moment I was confused. Then I realized he was not talking about the Abdullah of Haider Kalan, but the library watchman. So his name was Abdullah, too.
I nodded and was about to leave, when another thought crossed my mind. A germ of an idea. ‘Professor,’ I said.
‘Yes?’ he asked.
‘Would you like to have lunch at my aunt’s place tomorrow?’ I asked with some hesitation. There were certain lines too dangerous to cross.
He did not say anything.
‘We are going there tomorrow in any case and I thought it would be a nice change.’ I gave an uncertain feeble wave at our surroundings.
A few seconds passed, during which he stared into my eyes and I shat a million shits in my pants, before looking down uncomfortably.
Then he said softly, ‘It will be my pleasure.’
‘E-29, CR Park, ground floor,’ I squawked, and fled.

***

I walked past the dark stacks and reached the reading room. It was still bathed in light. Abdullah was nowhere to be seen. Neither were Nira and Jami. I was wondering where they had gone off, when I heard them coming into the reading room from behind me. Behind me. What on earth were they doing there, I wondered. They were startled when they saw me waiting. Seeing their flushed faces and embarrassed grins, I knew. I thought of facilitating their romance for a little longer.
I put my notebook and the diary on a table.
‘Nira, can you guys do me a favour? Please hang around here a while. I need to sit here and transcribe the code.’
‘What did Professor Venugopal tell you? Caesar Cipher?’ asked Nira.
‘It is quite obvious, now that I think of it. The Caesar Cipher is another substitution, but with characters shifted a certain interval in the alphabet.’ I saw their blank expressions and thought it best to demonstrate.
‘Here. See. He asked me to look for the letter e and the word the. The letter e is the most commonly recurring letter in English, and the is the most common word.
‘Now see this page,’ I said, pointing to one in front of me. I scanned it briefly. ‘The most common three-letter word here is wkh, written as va-ka-ha in Bangla. This occurs seven times on this page. Now suppose wkh is the. This would mean . . .’ I calculated using my fingers, ‘e-f-g-h – four. There is a shift of four. Use this shift of four on the and you have . . .’ I started counting again.
Nira said immediately, ‘w, k and h!’ And the professor saw that in a matter of seconds?’
I was glad to observe the reverence in her tone.
‘And how do you know all this?’ she asked me. ‘Caesar Cipher and all?’
I shrugged. I did not know how I knew. I just did. Probably came from being a lonely kid. ‘No TV at home when I was growing up,’ I said. ‘I used to read instead.’
‘Ah.’
It feels embarrassing sometimes when your friends hold you in awe. Time to reward these kids. ‘I need some time to write all this down,’ I said. ‘Can you guys give me an hour?’
‘Sure,’ they said, together. A little too quickly.
I sat down and began to transcribe the letters. When I looked up a while later, they were gone. Good.
I kept writing till my fingers ached. I resisted reading as I wrote. I would read peacefully when I was done. That would be a while. I could, however, not resist taking a peek at the first few words. Haider Kalan, 11 January 1868. Barely two days after the first entry.


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