Chapter Two: The Treasure of Haider Kalan


‘More than a hundred years ago, in this very village, there were three boys,’ began dada-jaan.
‘Like every boy who grew up in this village, they dreamt of a day when they would be soldiers. Soldiers in the army. Like their fathers. And their fathers’ fathers before them. These three – Akbar, Abdullah and Iqbal – grew up together, played together, ate together and dreamed together. When the time came for them, they hoped to fight together.’ He paused for a moment and then continued.
‘Like every boy in this village, they were waiting for the drumbeat. The call to take up arms and march to battle. It came one day when the crops had been harvested and the fields had just been cleared. The rissaldar-major appeared with a troop of cavalry. A ritual played out. The same ritual that had been playing out every year, for years. The rissaldar-major spoke of life in the regiment, as was the norm. He held out a silver rupee for every new recruit, as was the norm. He read out the terms of service, as was the norm. Then, like every year, he called the boys of age to step forward. They all did, like others had done before them. They took their silver coins and gave them to my grandfather’s grandfather, the venerable Rahat Ahmed-Ali Khan. He also happened to be Akbar’s father, so Akbar too is a forefather of mine. This was the tradition. The first rupee from the service was for the eldest family member. My grandfather’s grandfather took their silver, like another before him had taken his, and sent the boys off. All the boys who put their mark on the rissaldar-major’s register that day marched to duty, where they joined the others from Haider Kalan. Ninth Company of the Third Cavalry.’
Dada-jaan looked around, watching everyone listening intently. He noticed me and fixed me with a stare. I met his gaze and our eyes locked. He continued his story.
‘The three boys of our story were different from their predecessors. They were brighter and sharper. Even before they completed a year of service, they were called up by the regimental major and sent to Delhi There they were detached from the Third Cavalry and given other duties.’
Dada-jaan’s gaze left mine and he continued, ‘Their duties seemed strange and mysterious to everyone else. They did not wear the red coat of the Company any more. They wore mufti and went around like common people. They did not have to ask any sahib for leave. They came and went freely. More times than most, they were found here, in the village, still on duty, still drawing pay, but not having anything to do. When they were asked, “What do you do?” they laughed and replied, “We are ghosts!” When they were asked, “Whom do you work for?” they laughed harder and said, “The Devil himself! We work for the One-Eyed Shaitaan!”’
‘Years passed. Seasons changed. Eventually the times also changed. It was a time of defiance. A time of upheaval. A time of blood and gore. It was a time when the land was simmering with the rage of rebellion against the redcoat goras of the Company. It was a time when the land had become a powder keg, waiting for a spark. Soon enough a flame leapt up in far-off Barackpore. This flame spread far and wide and very quickly everything transformed.’
Dada-jaan took a deep puff from the hookah. He exhaled and the smoke travelled from his nostrils deep into his whiskers, emerging from his beard in wraithlike tendrils of fog. He paused for a moment and then continued.
‘Everything changed. The Third Cavalry was part of the garrison at Meerut. It chose the side of the revolt. The men of the Ninth Company, however, were built differently. They had their loyalty to the regiment, but the loyalty to our own ran deeper. They refused to mutiny and also to fight the mutineers. They came back here instead, to stay out of it all. The rest of the Third Cavalry marched to Delhi and seized the Red Fort. Every now and then we received news of fighting. Of terrible liberties being taken in the name of freedom. Of the rebels being besieged by English soldiers. Of a battle on the ridge of Delhi. Of the changing tides of battle. Our village did not know what would happen next. We had no part in this war, but our fates seemed tied to the events in Delhi.’
‘One night, when the moon was new and it was dark, four horsemen rode into our village. They were the three boys of our tale, accompanied by a friend. They might have dressed in mufti when they last left, but that day they returned dressed in the red coats of the Company. They stopped for a while to rest and water their horses. They had a hushed meeting with my great-great-grandfather. No one knows what was said that day, but it was apparent something very strange was afoot. At the crack of dawn, the four left as quietly as they had come. This time they headed in different directions. The three boys rode east to Agra. Their friend took the road to Delhi.’
‘A few weeks passed. In spite of himself, my great-great-grandfather hinted at what was happening. He mentioned a mission of great importance on which the four were working. Something involving a treasure. And a ransom for the emperor. Speculation began. Speculation about who the boys were working for. Rumours flew about the happenings in Delhi. Rumours of victory. Rumours of defeat. With the rumours, there was also dissent. The younger men of the Ninth Company wanted to ride to the aid of the besieged in Delhi. The elders wanted them to remain out of the fighting. There were whispers about cowardice, rumblings about treachery and pleas of loyalty.’
‘Soon enough the debate became irrelevant. We received news that Delhi had fallen under the cannon fire of the English. The emperor had been captured. It was at this time that our three boys – the ghosts, as they called themselves –returned. They kept to themselves and spoke to no one. The elders put out word to keep their presence a secret from all outsiders. Of their friend, there was no news. There was a rumour that he rode in to meet them all one night and left as quietly as he had come. After the news of the fall of Delhi, more news reached us. The two sons and the grandson of emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had been murdered. Accounts of retribution also trickled in. Men of the Third being tied to artillery and blown to pieces. There was uncertainty as well as an air of defiance all around. No one knew what would happen to the men of the Ninth Company.’
‘One night a company of soldiers surrounded our village. These soldiers seemed to be different from those we had seen before. White troops, led by two officers. Red coats, but different from the red coats of the Company. They were soldiers of the English Crown. All the men of the village were dragged out of their homes and lined up in front of the mosque. First, our three boys were singled out and questioned. They were beaten, whipped and questioned again. The English officers said they were keeping secrets that needed to be extracted from their bellies. Secrets about missing gold. They lined up the rest of the men and threatened death. The three boys only shook their heads in silence. My great-great-grandfather reasoned with the officers. No one here had any part in the rebellion or knew about the gold. But the officers showed no mercy. They shot him down like a dog. A riot broke out. There was mayhem. The English cavalry charged at the men. When the smoke had cleared, broken bodies lay everywhere. The soldiers looked at their papers and asked the names of everyone present – those who could still talk, that is. As they struck names off their lists – lists of men in the Third Cavalry – the two officers pronounced their sentence. Every adult male in the village, former soldier or not, was to be strung up from the nearest tree.’
‘Within a matter of hours it was all over. The trees sagged from their grisly burden. While leaving, for good measure, the English razed the mosque. It was all a warning of what happens when someone rears his head against the redcoat.’
Dada-jaan paused, eyes staring into nothingness. There was silence, the atmosphere grim and sombre. Then dada-jaan began speaking again.
‘One child, a boy, witnessed it all. He saw the brothers and fathers, uncles and elders of our village die that day. That boy was my grandfather. As he gathered the party of children and women to bury the dead, he swore a sacred oath upon the graves of the departed elders. He swore he would bring justice to the fallen whose loyalty had been rewarded with death. At the same time, he wondered about the secrets that had died with the three boys of our tale, who danced at the end of a rope that fateful night.’
‘But the secrets were not dead. Just sleeping. Eleven years after that dark night, a man rode into the village. A tall, dark man on a tall, dark horse. His clothes were covered with the dust of many miles of travel. My grandfather was a young man of only nineteen then. I was not yet born. There was something about the man’s bearing that a man of my grandfather’s age found magical. The curved sabre at his side, the musket on his back, the way he rode a horse like he was born to do so. That man was the fourth horseman who had ridden out that night with the three. He asked for them and for my great-great-grandfather. Then he met my grandfather. They walked together to the banyan tree where the three and my great-great-grandfather had been hanged together. They spoke in low voices, heads bowed, close to each other.’
‘This man went by the name of Bayaz-ud-din Bungalee. They called him Ba’az, the falcon. He was a man of many stories, but none of them mattered any more. The secret mission he had been on with his friends was of little consequence. The rebellion was broken. The emperor had been imprisoned and sent to far-off Rangoon. The country was under the rule of the English Crown.’
Dada-jaan paused for a moment and then continued.
‘Ba’az made this village his home. He started rebuilding the mosque which had been razed to the ground. Working with my grandfather and the other men of the village, he put the mosque back together, brick by brick. Once the structure was complete, he began covering the insides with patterns and writings in Farsi. People would often ask him what they were and he would reply, “The word of god.”’
One day, a year after his arrival, he mounted his horse and called out to my grandfather, saying, “Come with me. It is time.” Dusk was approaching and the full moon was low on the horizon. Ba’az rode ahead at a slow pace and grandfather followed on foot. Ba’az stopped at the foot of the tree in front of the rebuilt mosque – the same tree from which his three friends had been hanged. He sat in silence on the horse, head bowed, totally still, until grandfather began to think he was asleep. It was then, as evening turned to night, that grandfather heard the faint sounds of hoofbeats in the distance.’
The children around dada-jaan sat open-mouthed in anticipation. They had heard this story many times before and it seemed to me they knew what would happen next. Dada-jaan spoke again, but this time in a voice that sent a chill up my spine. In spite of myself, I shivered a little.
‘Grandfather saw three ghostly shapes come through the trees. They were three men on horseback, but their pale white images seemed to flicker – as if they were made of mist. Wide-eyed in fear, he saw that the hooves of the horses did not seem to touch the ground yet made faint sounds for he could still hear the hoofbeats. Probably only in his head, he thought. As the three horsemen came forward, Ba’az whispered, “Do not fear. They are our own.” Grandfather saw them clearly as they came closer. They were the forms of Akbar, Abdullah and Iqbal. The young men on horseback looked just like they did when they had died. They did not seem to notice grandfather and came up to Ba’az. In a hollow voice, Ba’azu asked them, “Who comes to meet me?” The figures raised their hands in greeting and each spoke his name.
“Dost Akbar.”
“Abdullah Khan.”
“Iqbal Mohammed.” 
Ba’az asked, “Where lies the treasure?”
The horsemen replied, as if on cue, “Locked up.”
 “How do I find it?”
The horsemen answered, “The key lies hidden.”
“Where?” asked Ba’az.’
Dada-jaan stopped. He raised his right hand to his right ear and turned his head towards the children, gesturing them to provide the answer.
‘Here. In Haider Kalan!’ said the children in unison.
‘Then grandfather heard Ba’az ask the horsemen, “How do I find the key?” They replied, “It is where it has always been. Look to the skies above the house of god. The stars will speak to you and tell you where to go.” The horsemen stood in silence, as if waiting. Then one of them said, “Go seek it, brother, and let our souls rest. We will meet again here next year.” Turning their ghostly horses around, they disappeared into the darkness.’
‘Grandfather was at a loss for words. He did not know whether he had imagined it all. Ba’az dismounted and said, “I am leaving. This time I may not come back. I have shown you all this for good reason.” Grandfather listened, unnerved and confused. “This village bears a terrible history. You have seen it with your own eyes. But this village also carries the secret to a great treasure which can make amends for what happened that day. The year my brothers died and Delhi was burnt by the redcoats, my three friends you just saw carried away thirty thousand gold mohurs from the loot of Delhi and hid it. No one knows where the treasure is hidden. The secret died with them. But every year, their restless ghosts come back here and tell me the same thing you heard today. Since I must leave, it is for you now to find the key to the treasure.” Saying this, he mounted his horse with a fluid, graceful motion. Grandfather stood there, looking up at his craggy face.
‘Ba’az continued, “Look to the skies above the house of god. Let the stars speak to you. Knowledge lies in them. The truth behind the secret treasure of a Badshah of India. A treasure worthy of an emperor’s ransom,” and then rode westward, soon receding from view.’
‘In the morning, grandfather called together all the men of the village who were boys when their fathers had been killed. He told them what had happened the previous day.’
‘A hunt for the treasure began in the village. There were muted whispers about the man named Bayaz-ud-din Bungalee. Everyone dreamed of the hidden treasure. Buildings in the village were taken down and the ground was dug up to look for clues. Nothing was found. There was talk of digging around in the mosque that Ba’az had rebuilt, but the fear of god far outweighed the greed for wealth. They did look into the well inside the mosque, though, and tapped all over the walls, but did not find anything anywhere.’
Dada-jaan looked around at his audience in the dim twilight, the darkness increasing every minute.
‘Many years have passed. Legend has it that every year, on a full moon night, as dusk turns to darkness, three horsemen come and wait under the tree outside the mosque. They have been coming every year since this story has been told. I have never seen them myself, but some say they have. They come and wait. And after a while, when no one comes to meet them, they turn around and leave.’
‘I have told you this story for many years, the same way I heard it when I was a child. From time to time, I have looked for clues about where the mysterious key lies – in the stars above the skies of the house of god. I have thought for long about this cryptic message that Ba’az left with my grandfather. But I have not been able to make any sense of it. My quest has come to nothing. The treasure has not been found. I tell you this story so that some of you may try to find it. This is the story of our village and the mystery in its history. Find this treasure if you can. If you cannot, tell this story to your children. Let our men who were hung from the trees of Haider Kalan not have died in vain. Their souls shall not rest until the treasure they hid has been found.’

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