the-south-asian.com January 2003
JANUARY 2003 Contents
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'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
A BRITISH RAJAH
But the piece de resistance came when the Colonel led us to the other side of the pit where we could observe at close hand the climax of the ritual. The Indian who had first walked the hot coals now stood entranced while a skewer was run through his cheek and tongue and out the other cheek. Until then I had observed it all with the same comfortable degree of detachment I had often observed surgery, but this sent a shock wave of queasiness through me. I would have turned away had not the skewer been quickly withdrawn and Baburam, the obvious leader of the group, summoned us closer for inspection. The Colonel asked Captain Jaffee to examine the skin for bleeding, which, like a doubting Thomas, he did with tentative touches of his fingertips. When he finished, he stood back, silent and solemn.
The scene that followed, as brutally impressive as it was, seemed somehow anticlimactic. The other initiate, waiting his turn, was pierced by a hook through the gathered flesh of his back and hoisted a few feet off the ground with a rope thrown over an overhanging branch. Suspended only a few seconds, he was lowered to the ground with no visible injury.The Colonel entered into a conversation with Baburam in his own dialect, and Baburam turned to Captain Jaffee and me with a kind of bobbing bow and smile.
"I thanked Baburam for letting us see this," the Colonel said, "and he thanks us for coming."
The Colonel smiled when the Captain and I, with wordless gestures, awkwardly tried to express our thanks. He assured us that Baburam, though he knew very few English words, understood our gestures of appreciation.
We followed the Colonel back to the edge of the grove where the jeep was parked. Coming from the sheltered coolness of the grove out again into the burning noonday was a shock of reality that made all we had just witnessed seem all the more unbelievable. I could feel the prickly heat begin its dance of a thousand needles on my back. That was one discomfort, no matter how long I stayed in India, I was sure I would never become accustomed to. I adjusted the band of my topee to take the wind of the drive back to the base, especially since the Colonel had already demonstrated his belief that faster was better.
On our way back -- without asking us if we wished to go the Colonel took us on a short side trip to another interesting site; another isolated grove at the edge of an Indian village in which sat the ruins of a temple, almost obscured by the encroachment of vines and weeds. It was most ancient, he explained as he led us on foot to observe it; a temple to Kali, the goddess of destruction. A family of monkeys jabbered at us and then skittered away as we approached. Again I felt the pulse of primeval India as we walked around those silent ruins, only a few yards away from the typical village scenes of women balancing brass water jars on their heads while others gathered cowpats for fuel.
It was late afternoon when we arrived back at the base. We went directly to Captain Jaffee's tiny office where he left us to check on any medical needs that might have occurred in his absence. He returned immediately, and took from a drawer in his desk a bottle of Scotch, a rare American acquisition for that time and place. He poured it into paper cups and handed them around. With uncharacteristic silence, he merely gestured a toast. I knew that he was taken aback by all he had seen, and so was I. "For our next jaunt," the Colonel said briskly, assuming we were eager for another such adventure, "perhaps I can show you the cobra ritual."
"What is that?" I asked.
"Rather rare, indeed," he said, "but I think I can arrange it. A small sect who make a deity of the cobra. A rather elaborate ceremony that culminates in kissing the cobra's hood. One chap's written a rather Freudian book about the whole thing. Anyway, there's a place about fifty miles from here in the hills, called 'The Cave of the Cobras.' If you'd like to go --" His attention turned to Captain Jaffee.
"What about it. Captain?" I said.
On the spot, he hesitated. "I don't know. I'd have to look into arranging another trip. Depends on the work here --"
It was clear to me that the captain had already had enough of mysterious India, and was not eager to have his credulity challenged further by the weird and unusual.
"Something to think about," the Colonel said. "If you decide on it, let me know. I spend the monsoon in Mirat, so we still have some time if you decide on it."
Captain Jaffee made no reply. After the silence that followed, I engaged the Colonel in a subject that had intrigued me since first hearing his name. I was immediately reminded of the American writer, Thorne Smith, author of the Topper books and other then-spicy novels. But that conversation came to a quick end when the Colonel, never having heard of his namesake, found no particular interest or amusement in the matter.
When the Colonel rose to leave, the Captain and I thanked him for giving us the opportunity of such an experience, and we walked with him to the entrance of the hospital where his jeep was parked. He took off in a flurry of gravel and sand, waving us a last good bye. A week or so later I received from him a reply to a letter of thanks and a book I sent. He invited me to visit him in Mirat, if ever I were there. But that, like my planned visit to Santiniketan, was not to be.
That night I heard the jackals on their nightly prowl. They sounded very close with their shrieking bark that always sent a tremor of fear through me. I always thought of these scavengers of the night as the hounds of hell, let loose if for no other reason than to annoy us with their unearthly howls. Everybody complained of the noise they made, and the Gurkha guards were told to drive them away, but I could see little change in the frequency of their unwanted visits.
In a mood to do something about it, I decided to go to the gate and see if the guard there was making any effort to follow his instructions. A large hedge near the gate was where I had most often seen the guard at his watch. But as I approached no guard was visible. I say visible, because experience had taught me that the Gurkhas seemed to have the uncanny ability to be invisible one moment and visible the next.
The howling of the jackals had stopped momentarily, and after circling the hedge I was quite disturbed that I found no guard in view. I walked along trailing my fingertips on the mesh of the metal fence until I saw in the dim light of the moon the shadowy figures of the pack -- some five or six, as I recall -- standing like silent sentinels in the dusty road just outside the base. Their silence seemed now as strange as the disturbing cries moments before, but nothing so strange as the figure of an Indian boy standing alongside them. Only dimly visible in the shadowy light/ he was -- I am convinced of it to this day -- the boy we called Rum Rum.
I watched for a few minutes through the safety of the fence until they moved on, silently at first and then with increased pace until the howls began again.
Retracing my steps, I came to the hedge where I saw the Gurkha guard standing by, a smile on his dark face.
"Good evening. Sahib," he said his brown skin contrasting only slightly with his uniform.
"Good evening," I replied, suppressing an urge to ask him where he had been, and why he had not driven away the jackals. They were, I decided, futile questions. As I started away, I did turn to ask one question. "Did you see a boy just outside the gate when the jackals were howling?"
"I see." I nodded to him. "Good night."
"Good night. Sahib." And as I walked away, he called after me. "Maybe a boy from the village. Sometime they come here looking for baksheesh. But I run them away. Sahib."
I thanked him and walked back toward quarters, thinking that perhaps I had been mistaken in what I had seen. But I reasoned to myself that if I had seen the jackals so clearly, I had also seen the boy.
I rather wished that Colonel Thorne-Smythe were still around. It was a subject I knew, if I were to discuss with him, he would not have found strange.
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