Jun 14, 2015

The man in the wall mural...




This post has been published by me as a part of Blog-a-Ton 55; the fifty-fifth edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. In association with ​Rashmi Kumar, the author of Hooked, Lined and Single and Jyoti Arora, the author of Lemon Girl.



 'THE CITY OF BUNARUS. Surveyed by James Aubert- 1822.', said the lithograph adorning the central wall of the small foyer. He stood there patiently studying the map, for there was nothing else to keep him occupied or entertained while he waited to be ushered into Colonel Henry White's office. Though the entire Crawford Market building was lit up by electricity, the waiting room was a dimly lit space with only a single dome-shaped light bulb that came on, at sun-down. There was nothing English about it; furnished with frugal wooden chairs along the western wall as seating arrangements, a small wooden table and another chair arranged against the central wall. Ideally, an office clerk should have been seated there but since he'd been waiting for more than an hour and it was well past the closing time, he shed all hopes of seeing anybody return to occupy that seat.


He went over to the line of small windows in the western wall. Surprisingly, there was a layer of dust on everything in the room, even the window sill. Timidly lifting the rusty, hook latch on one of the windows, he threw the double door open. Putting his head out, he took in the cool evening sea-breeze. He was thanking his luck that in this part of Bombay people kept working late into the evening. The sight of lamps burning in other offices was heartening. He could see there were plenty of passersby in the street, probably hurrying home. His Tonga and the driver were also waiting for him patiently, on the paved road outside. He was not entirely alone.

He began wondering whether he should wait any longer and if there was any hope for the British officer to finish whatever work he'd been preoccupied with and step out of his chamber. He had breezed into the office without an appointment, expecting to see Colonel Henry White and now it seemed so wrong. He didn't knock on his chamber door for fear of disturbing the British officer and turning him irate. He contemplated visiting again, some other day after prior intimation. Despondent, he was so engrossed in his pondering that he jumped in his shoes when he felt a presence, right near his heels.

"Vithoji Rao Pradhan, welcome!" the voice boomed in the small room. Vithoji pulled his head in and turned around to see Colonel Henry White extending an energetic handshake with a warm smile, flashing a set of yellowing teeth. He stood at least a foot taller than the short statured Vithoji.   

"Good Evening Colonel!" Vithoji responded with an equally broad smile. He thanked God once again that the British officer had appeared in the nick of time. Tired of waiting, had he decided to exit, he would have missed him.

"You still remember me by name?" Vithoji asked, surprised. "Why, it's been a decade since we last met. Your memory is commendable!" Vithoji put his palms together in a Namaste- the Indian way of expressing gratitude.

"Haha! Vithoji, Of course I do!" Colonel Henry White said, "And I also remember the special request you made. Come this way, please!" Vithoji followed him readily.  

'He must have an elephant's memory.' He thought to himself, in utter disbelief for it seemed like ages ago that they had had but a brief interaction. He himself did not remember having asked for any specific favour. Vithoji's happiness knew no bounds. It looked like he was about to get what he wanted, far easily than he'd imagined.

As the duo moved towards the inner chamber, Colonel Henry White strode over to the frame on the wall, as if he knew that Vithoji had been fascinated by it.

"That's my uncle- James Aubert's work. He had documented and illustrated many detailed and accurate maps like this one of Bunarus- drawn at the scale of 8 inches to a mile.", he informed, gloatingly.

"Indeed impressive! It has given me a clear mental picture of the landscape." Vithoji was quick to compliment.

"Good! I know you had been studying it for quite a while and thought of sharing some more trivia!" With that the British officer led Vithoji into his spacious office chamber and asked him to take a seat.

"Without further ado," Colonel Henry White said, bringing out a pen and ink pot from his desk drawer.

'What a truly pale faced man Colonel Henry White is!' Vithoji observed and smiled to himself at the pun while the officer quickly scribbled something, callously tore the page out of his diary and handed it to Vithoji.

"Go meet Mhe-ro-thra." Colonel Henry White instructed, genuinely trying to pronounce the silk brocade weaver's surname correctly. "I've been a resident of Bunarus for so long that I know every inch of the city."

Vithoji decided that Henry White was the only generous Englishman he'd ever met but refrained from saying it, lest the officer should take it as an offense against his lot. Thanking him profusely, Vithoji took his leave. Colonel Henry White had promised that he was leading him to the most remarkable silk cloth market of North India.  

"I couldn't have asked for more!" Vithoji declared aloud, to nobody in particular, as he was being driven home in his horse carriage. His happiness knew no bounds and he was trembling with glee. Vithoji began imagining how his trade poised to be the best trade of the 19th Century, would soon be flourishing like never before!

'How unbelievably perfect the meeting had been! Almost like Colonel Henry White could read my mind.' Vithoji reminisced, as he set off for Banaras the very next day.

'I wonder how the poor Banarasi will ever decipher that!' Vithoji looked down at the rectangular, shabby edged sheet of paper with Colonel Henry White's slanted, cursive handwriting in blue ink that was hardly legible. There was no date, no stamp, neither a seal, nor an envelope for the letter. Vithoji folded it neatly and tucked it into the front pocket of his jacket. Switching many modes of transport, braving the changing weather, the journey had been quite back-breaking and tedious. However by the grace of God, both Vithoji and the letter had survived the ordeal.

'Chauk Road, Kunj Gali, Bunarus' Vithoji had not only memorised the address but also read the casual letter of affection multiple times, during his long journey, from Bombay to Banaras. Locating Mehrotra at his looms in an unfamiliar land, was the tough task that lay ahead. The boat ride over the Ganges was over and Vithoji had finally reached Rajghat. The afternoon sun was bearing down with all its heat. With the back of his hand, Vithoji wiped off the bead of sweat trickling down his left brow and readjusted the turban on his head. He clutched his leather bag as tightly as possible because it held quite a lot of money.

"Beware of fraudulent touts, thieves and generally be very careful. Keep your eyes, ears and your mind open, otherwise," Vithoji's mother had been worried and very wary on his behalf. Even though he had turned a ripe 40, her aging eyes still saw him as her youngest son. "God be with you, my little one!"

The embankment was a flight of steps made of stone slabs, laid all along the river bank. It took Vithoji quite a while to get to the top, climbing a step at a time because the left knee had started hurting again. He gathered the fall of his dhoti pulling the cloth way above his ankles, bunched it up and tucked it in at the front waistline to keep himself from tripping on its length and falling. As he watched some pilgrims make their offerings to the holy Ganges, he contemplated performing the pooja rituals too but ultimately put it off for later.

"If I crack a good deal I will pay my obeisance at the Adi Keshava Vishnu Temple!" he promised.

A scholarly looking man clad in saffron was resting under a tree. Vithoji wondered if the holy- man would be able to point him towards the cloth market. Walking up to him, Vithoji cleared his throat to draw his attention. He was still constructing the question in his mind for he was unable to speak Hindi fluently and had hardly opened his mouth to ask, when the scholar spouted out an answer.

"Oo jaat hav!" he said, pointing to a boy who had briskly walked past them.

Vithoji didn't understand the regional language at all but deciphered from his frantically flailing hands that the scholar was coaxing him to follow the boy.

'He must be a psychic!' thought Vithoji and this amazed him to no end! After all there were many of that kind in the holy land.
The boy who was leading Vithoji looked like he was just about ten years old. From time to time, the young boy kept turning around to look over his shoulders and gestured Vithoji to keep walking. Vithoji realised they were moving away from the riverside and weaving their way through lanes that the boy seemed thoroughly familiar with.

'Vithoji Rao Pradhan, is he really taking you where you want to go?' Doubts began to surface in his mind but Vithoji's feet seemed to blindly trust the boy for they had fallen into a perfectly rhythmic march after him.

'The psychic scholar hadn't spoken to the boy, then how is it possible that they both know whom you want to meet?' Vithoji's body was still aching from all the travelling but his mind sprung back to its usual sharp self. His mother's face flashed before his eyes like a foreboding.

"Stop! You are walking into some kind of a trap." Vithoji told himself and stopped in his tracks, in the middle of the road.

They had entered a densely residential area of Banaras where the streets were too narrow for any kind of wheeled carriage. In the slack afternoon hours there weren't many people around, either. About one-third of the houses in the locality were pakka- solid brick structures. While Vithoji was taking in the surroundings, the boy had come to a halt, too. He must have realised that their game was up when Vithoji turned and glared menacingly at him. He immediately took off down the lane and disappeared around the bend, without looking back.          

Before Vithoji could figure out what he should do next, huge drops of water plopped down on the top of his nose and within the blink of an eye, it started drizzling. Huge grey clouds were moving in overhead, threatening a downpour with a clap of lightning.   

Monsoon by Yann  
Vithoji hurriedly stepped in through the gate of the nearest house and ran across the exterior courtyard, to seek shelter. He raised the heavy iron knocker on the wooden double door of the entrance and brought it down, twice. A voice from within, bade him enter. Finding the door ajar, Vithoji pushed it wide open. What he saw was an open inner courtyard to a lofty two storied structure, richly embellished with a wide veranda, galleries, projecting oriels, windows, potted plants and an old tree of rich green foliage. The house clearly belonged to a well-to-do family.

One particular wall caught his fancy. It was painted prominently in a deep red colour. Every inch of this wall had hand-painted designs of richly clad men and women, elephants and horses in a royal procession. Even from a distance, Vithoji could see that each man in the wall mural was carrying something either on his shoulders, in his hands or on the head. The group of women similarly followed suit. Vithoji was shocked to see that there was a British officer in the painting too and if he wasn't mistaken, the painting had a striking resemblance to Colonel Henry White. Though the colours used were all cheery and bright, Vithoji could not help feeling that all the figures in the painting looked sad. Vithoji looked at his pocket-watch that said it was only early evening but it felt like it was twilight already as the skies turned an ominous dark colour.

'The bad light must be playing tricks on my eyes.' Vithoji thought for he suddenly sensed one of the lady's eyes were following his movements. Vithoji thought of taking a closer look at the intriguing wall painting. He'd hardly taken two steps further when he was taken aback by the sudden appearance of a delicate hand. Jingling with bangles, the hand held out a towel for Vithoji. At the other end of the outstretched milky white hand, beautified with Henna drawings was a young maiden clad in a simple orange saree. The pallu was veiling half her face but Vithoji was sure, she seemed to have a beautiful, soft halo around her. He was so smitten by this mysterious damsel that he forgot to investigate about the painting further. Without a spoken word, she disappeared through a  door to their left, as quickly as she had arrived.

His heart had skipped a beat at the sight of the veiled maiden and a smile spread across his face; the first during the entire length of the sojourn. Rubbing his face dry with the towel, Vithoji wondered what other tricks his eyes were going to play on him. Spotting a spacious jhoola, Vithoji made himself comfortable on the swing suspended from the ceiling of the veranda.

Soon an old man dressed in a plain white banyan- sleeveless undershirt and a loose muslin dhoti arrived and sat down beside him. As Vithoji rose to introduce himself, he cut him short.

"Baitho, sit down! Vithoji Rao Pradhan, a sumptuous meal is being prepared for you. We will eat in just a while." Informed the old man. All was well until Vithoji heard his name roll of that stranger's tongue. Dumbfounded, he felt goose bumps all over his body. Vithoji sensed an unmistakable air of something strange about the old man. Save for the three of them, the gigantic house seemed desolate and everything about it appeared eerie.

"Thakurbari?" Vithoji enquired in a feeble voice, pointing to the small shrine at the farthest end of the inner courtyard. He searched the old man's face for confirmation but the old man continued to rock the swing, back and forth, lost in his own world. He was trying to fight the fear in his heart that was slowly growing by the minute.

'Maybe a small prayer to the temple deity will chase away my silly doubts.' he thought. Ignoring the weird old man, he rose to pay obeisance there but was almost immediately pulled assertively back.

"Baitho!" instructed the old man, once again. Vithoji protested but the deafening thunder and the torrential rain drowned his voice.

"I know everything about you!" The old man's voice was distinctly clear. "You are just like the many who visit us, time and again! Your greed and foolishness got you here but you will not escape the consequence of your own choices." The old man hissed. His cold, staring eyes sent a chill down Vithoji's spine.

"What do you mean?" he stuttered. And only heard a gurgling laugh, in response, rise above the noise of the droplets on the roof and the courtyard.

"The ones who step in here, stay for good. You will never leave these precincts!" The old man looked crazily happy with the terrified look on Vithoji's face when he stumbled off the swing and fumbled to rise from the floor of the porch.

"Please don't despair. All is not in vain!" The old man offered a mock reassurance.

"Look over there, on that red wall, you will find immortality among all those people. They strayed in and became a part of our growing family; a permanent feature of this house. So will you!" Vithoji could not believe all that was falling on his ears but his eyes met the gaze of the tall and lanky figure of the British officer in the wall painting. Vithoji's heart began hammering against his chest.

"What nonsense are you jabbering? You are some kind of a maniac!" Vithoji was hysterical.

"I am leaving this very moment!" he declared and raised himself on trembling legs but it felt as if something was weighing him down.

"Suit yourself but I was offering you the best route to freeing yourself from living a burden upon this earth, fool!" The old man chided him in a cool and complacent voice. Even if Vithoji imagined he could actually leave, he was unable to move even an inch. 

While the old man was speaking, the beautiful maiden came back in the line of sight. She floated towards them holding in each hand a thali- gigantic plate laden with a wide array of tempting food.

"We live by the primary principal that a guest should never go hungry." The incessant rain and the long journey had indeed left Vithoji's tummy rumbling.

"Khao!" The old man ordered Vithoji. Try as he might, Vithoji could not refuse him. His tongue drooled, his tummy yearned for the sumptuous food and the aroma had gotten the better of his senses.

Both the old man and he began to partake of the meal, to the sound of the raindrops. The satisfying feeling of a hearty meal in the tummy, calmed Vithoji's nerves down a little. Once they were done, the maiden reappeared with a basin and a tumbler of water, for them to wash their hands. A clean towel was presented to dry their hands too.

"Thank you for the truly great food but I will go now." Vithoji said hopefully but she just put a leaf and some betel-nut in his palm.
"You think you can?" came the old man's voice and with that he had vanished into thin air, leaving only the two of them standing there at the veranda.

"You must be some kind of a sorcerer!" Vithoji squeaked. Her bangles jingled. She gave a short tinkling laugh. And he heard her speak for the very first time.


"Come sit with me on the porch swing and lets watch the rain." 




The fellow Blog-a-Tonics who took part in this Blog-a-Ton and links to their respective posts can be checked here. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton. Participation Count: XX. Image Credits: Monsoon by Yann (Wikimedia Commons). Shared with GNU Free Documentation License CC Attribution-Share Alike.


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