The concluding part of the Dying Monk series. Read the first part here.
Murali recovered his canvas shoes from a hollow in the trunk and slipped to the ground on his toes. Moving quickly, he broke into a half-crouching run through the mustard fields till he reached the abandoned tube-well shed. Looking up at the starlit western sky, he paused to steady his breath. A faint dirt track snaked through the brambles and thickets of grass fluttering softly in the wind. He knew better than taking the road and being pounced upon. He had seen enough to be wary of the prowling butchers for the rest of his life.
Murali recalled with a twinge of pain how he had first met Radha at this very place. One serene morning of the summer last year, the clang of a stone on his tin roof had jerked him out of his prayers. Swiftly opening the door, he caught a brief glimpse of scampering figures. He ended up facing a young woman after a hot chase, hiding behind the broken door of the tube-well shed. They kept staring at each other in dismay when her face broke in a pretty smile.
‘Aren’t you ashamed pilfering fruits from someone else’s trees?’ Murali demanded.
The smile vanished. She thought for some moments before she answered. ‘Pilfering, Baba Ji? Does anyone pilfer morsels out of one’s own plate?’
‘You own plate? Of course you know the orchard belongs to the Roys.’
‘The orchard belongs to the Roys as much as the moon and the stars belong to them! The truth is, it belongs to the common lands of the village of Ambia. The Roys are a foul bunch of land grabbers.’ The woman said.
‘Stop that gibberish!’ Murali’s anger surged.
‘These must be terrible times when facts sound gibberish to a monk, of all people,’ the woman said. ‘We have had free rights to the mangoes from our childhood days when those trees were guarded by black-faced langurs. Then the Roys chased away the langurs and kept installing guards to force people off, and look who they have found now! Instead of working in the fields like the fine young man you are, you are playing the monkey.’ She flung the mangoes she was clutching to her stomach and jerked away to her village.
The village of Ambia housed people from all walks of life. Most of them owned tiny farm lands and boosted their income by carpentry, masonry and other cast-based jobs. Some of the families had sons in the army and the police; some had people working for hospitals and schools. Then there were the landless farmhands and the smug shopkeepers. The house of Roys, the local loan sharks, was an abode of ruffians and goons.
Pundit Ramvir had retired from the railways and had a deep love for books and literature. It was said that his collection of holy tomes spanned across languages and religions. If he was well versed in Hindu scriptures, he had a fair vision of the Bible and Quran too.
Murali plucked a bunch of ripe mangoes one evening and sauntered off to the village to pay a visit to the learned man. Pundit Ji turned out to be a brooding soul and Murali was well received at the house. His daughters had all left for their own homes after marriage. His lone son worked for some bank based in Jaipur.
If Murali was discreet in his enquiry about the Roys, the old man was even vaguer in his reply, ‘One shall receive the fruits of one’s sins, along with interest in due course.’
Murali thanked him for the refreshing cup of tea spiced with basil leaves. But just as he got up to leave, he froze as he saw the very woman he had chased the other morning, coming in a with a huge wicker basket. The shock was mutual; she also stopped dead in her tracks.
‘She is Radha. Bhura’s daughter.’ Pundit Ji nodded kindly. ‘Their family has been nice enough to work for us since long. Radha looks after us like one of our own.’
Radha rushed inside the house, mortified that the monk had come to share her misdeeds.
There was a gentle knock on Murali’s shanty at the daybreak the following day. He was stunned to find Radha standing there in the translucent morning light when he opened the door. Although not for the first time, Murali realized that Radha was a very pretty woman.
‘Look, I have not come to seek forgiveness….’ She faltered. ‘Pundit Ji’s wife told me you were enquiring about the Roys. I am not worried about that too. But his son who is a banker somewhere hates the Roys like poison. Don’t ever tell Pundit Ji I’ve been talking about the Roys.’
Murali smiled. ‘Why don’t you come in?
She peeked around nervously before she entered the shanty. They sat on the cot in an awkward silence.
‘I’ll cook some tea for you,’ Murali said after long.
‘Oh, no! It is too early for tea,’ she said. Then she looked at him searchingly, ‘Why did you become a monk?’
Murali looked away into the trees. ‘It is a sad story.’
Hers was a tragic tale too. Two years ago her husband died driving a lorry on the highways. The transport company didn’t put a single dime of the insurance claim on her palm. Her husband’s brothers and the father-in-law tried to unload their lust on her. She had returned to her parents house but life was not the same anymore. Her brother was trying to marry her off again to an ageing merchant from the town.
Then they met again one day, and still again, till Murali couldn’t stop himself and folded his arms around her. She laid her head on his shoulder. The door to the shanty closed. Folks started gossiping and they were not far from the truth. He and his Radha were nearly caught in the act by Pundit Ji’s son when they’d closeted themselves in the pouring rain. Forever the hot blood, her brother had gone rabid.
And then Radha simply vanished.
Murali was repeatedly grilled by the police but let off the hook because of Pundit Ji’s influence. Roys asked him to clear off as soon as possible.
As long as we breathe the air, we take it for granted, not knowing the trauma its absence will cause. The moment it peters out, we wriggle in pain, wondering wildly why we didn’t care more. Bitterly cursing himself for not taking care of Radha while he still could, Murali trudged towards the station up and down the ravines of a dried up nallah. He remembered once she had asked where would she find him, should he were to be gone. He had laughed out saying of course it would be the monastery, and then he had meticulously described the path. Strange that it never occurred to him that she could be gone too! Did he care enough for her? A chill spread in his veins as he had a vision of the hunters making mincemeat of Radha. The newspapers were choking with such trivia and yet not missing a beat. A pack of jackals started howling as if to confirm the worst.
Hustling past the shadows of night Murali ploughed his way in the half lit night till he could see the silhouetted building of the railway station. The diffused hollow of the tall sodium lights further to the north was fusing with the graying up sky. Finally, Murali clambered up the regular road and kept trudging ahead staring into nothing, with a ballooning void in his heart. His heart lurched when the train pulled away. He was leaving behind the only patch of happiness he had ever known after his parents died. Yet, he felt a strange lightness in his steps as he found his way out of the milling mass of passengers, hawkers and devotees at Banaras Junction. He hired a rickshaw for the riverbanks but stopped it in the midway when he saw a roadside barber.
The barber was flummoxed when Murali asked him to trim his hair and shave off the beard. But he did as he was told. He felt like a glistening serpent that had cast off its slough. His mouth watered as he walked past the puri-subzi stall. He had never eaten before his prayers for over a decade. But he found himself sitting at one of the tables. A boy eight or ten years old set a stack of puris on his plate made of dried leaves and then returned with a serving pan and a ladle. Murali never looked up till he wiped his plate clean –relishing in the whiff of the compressed leaves. The boy appeared again with an earthen cup steaming with tea. This time Murali looked carefully at the boy. ‘Where is your home?’ The boy looked at him with doleful eyes and moved away without replying. Murali quietly pressed a hundred rupee note in his hand before he left.
Murali was wondering at the ripples he will generate at the monastery but he was past caring. Swami Churamani was the first to recognize him. ‘We have been waiting for you, Murali!’ And then, he did set off a commotion.
Churamani asked him to follow to the attic. ‘Swami Mahim has given up eating since the Makar Sankranti this year. Today is the hundredth day and he is not expected to last long. He has said you will come.’
The windows of the attic were shuttered close. A thick curtain of straw hung on the door. A shriveled skeleton lay flat on the floor in loincloth, his skin just a layer on the bones. The stomach rose and fell feebly with each breath.
Swami Mahim opened his eyes and Murali wondered how large they seemed.
‘Murali, my boy!’ His rasping was barely above a whisper but it echoed in the attic. ‘I have been living to see this day. Come closer!’
Murali inched nearer to his face and kneeled.
‘Before it is too late, my boy, drop some holy water in my parched mouth.’ Swami Mahim laboured.
Churamani offered the copper vessel of water from the Ganges to Murali. Swami Mahim needed long minutes to absorb the trickle from the spoon. Murali was struggling with emotions, his hatred turned to despair. The old questions were banging their heads in his mind but what good was asking them of a half-dead man?
‘Yes, those questions, Murali!’ Swami Mahim opened his eyes again. ‘I will answer them all and more. It is a joy to see you have already cast off the dead skin of monkhood. It was never meant for you.’
Murali’s heart skipped a beat. He knows them already!
‘Yes, I have been a vile monk. But hold your breath, I have been a viler animal!’ Swami rasped. ‘You have known that your parents died in the stampede of Makar Sankranti, eighteen years ago. The truth is, although your mother was hurt, none of them had died.’
Swami Mahim paused to muster up his breath.
‘Murali, the truth is fouler than rotting cadavers. I was young when my mother died and my stepmother treated me worse than a dog. My father withered away soon and then I got a stepfather too. They used to beat me black and blue and one day I just followed a group of monks to this monastery.
‘I had a sharp brain and I managed to cram an unbelieving number of scriptures. The scholars were wary of me. I’d be often invited to religious meets and seminars and it was at one such gathering I met your father and he took me to his home.
‘I’ve had an insatiable lust for the female flesh and I believe it is not unknown to you. I cast an evil eye on your mother. I seized the chance when your mother got hurt.
‘That fateful day, while your mother was resting in this attic here, I tried to violate her honour.’ Swami fell silent.
Murali could hardly breathe.
Swami spoke again, ‘But she was a devoted wife and put up a fierce resistance. She managed to break free but slipped on the stairs and broke her neck. When your father realised what had happened he tried to choke me to death. I was a strong man and quickly overpowered your father who kept shouting for the police. I was terrified out of my senses and smothered your father to silence.’ Drops of tears rolled from the corners of his eyes. ‘Churamani alone was a witness to this madness and he is a sinner to that extent. We told the others when they returned from a banquet that the guests had succumbed to their injuries.’
Murali’s heart was pounding in his mouth. Suddenly he could neither hear nor see. Visions of his parents roasting in the flames surged like a tide. A man with a crowbar raked his father’s pyre and then turned to his mother’s. Waves of heat and smoke baked him like mudcakes. Flecks of burnt ash clogged his windpipe and he was convulsing in the dust.
Gradually, Murali became aware of Swami Mahim’s finger patting his hair. He rose from the ground like a wounded lion. ‘You filthy krait! How dare you touch me?’
‘I’d be feeling the same in your place, my boy, probably worse –’ Swami Mahim said weakly. ‘I never wanted to reduce you to the puppetry of monkhood. I secretly encouraged your other friends to run away but you never picked up the cue. I kept sending you out into the world on pretexts of employment and I am happy you have reentered life.
‘I’ve been flailing in a sea of repentance but I’ve been hurting to sink for good. Come, my boy! I’ve been waiting for you to set me free from my abominable carapace. Please strangle me now!’
‘I won’t even touch you!’ Murali growled. His trembling face was awash with tears.
‘Yes, I don’t deserve your touch, Murali. But, think! Think of the grisly rape and murder of your parents. Think of the rape of your childhood. My boy, your parents still roam the riverbanks for want of revenge.’ Swami Mahim closed his eyes.
Churamani raised his bowed, florid face. Folding his hands in supplication, he whispered, ‘Do it, Murali, for the deliverance of them all.’
Murali covered his face with his palm and burst in a howl. Suddenly, his fingers leapt to Swami Mahim’s throat. A placid look overtook the withered face of the monk and he was gone like a bird. But Murali won’t let go off his neck for interminable minutes. In the end, Murali spat on his face in disgust and stood up.
‘Wait, Murali!’ Churamani said. ‘You may kill me too if you feel like it. And I neither hate nor love my life. There are important matters to be settled without further delay. Four days ago, a visitor came upon us in the dead of the night. She said she was looking for shelter and that you too will return to the monastery soon. When Swami Mahim learnt of it, he told us that the day had come when we did our bit for you. We have had our donations stored with Seth Kashinath for years and it had grown to a sum of twelve lac rupees. He asked me retrieve it all and hand it over to you.’
Churamani walked out of the door in a mourning gait. The monks rushed into the attic and carried away Swami Mahim’s body downstairs. Murali got up slowly and forced open the window that looked out to the Ganges.
‘Murali!’ A familiar voiced rang at his back. He turned to face Radha and Churamani who held a black bag in his hand. Before Murali could react, a pair of pigeons flapped past his shoulders into unknown skies.