“The Face on the Wall’ by E.V. Lucas, thought Venkat absent-mindedly. It was his all time favourite short story, perhaps the classiest piece of fiction he had come across. Venkat had read the story in his first year at college as part of the text book prescribed for the English language course. The gripping suspense built up and the disbelief and shock at the denouement…that final twist that made you catch your breath! Over the years it had become his touchstone, a personal benchmark to measure good fiction with. That was till he heard that bizarre tale from the man on the train ~ for want of a better name to address him with!
Venkat had taken a three days leave of absence from work for his annual pilgrimage to Tirupati. Mid week was always a more convenient time to visit considering the long queues of pilgrims over the weekends and holidays, and his ‘darshan’ had been rather satisfying. He had reached Renigunta junction a little after midnight to catch his return train, the Mumbai Special. It stopped there for 20 minutes so he had had enough time to board and settle down for his 17-hour journey back home to Pune. To his pleasant surprise, the other three berths of his first class compartment were empty. Ah, peace, he thought! Tiredness suddenly hit him and he lay down ready to sleep. Just as the train began to move, another passenger boarded and settled down in the berth across. An exhausted Venkat had simply closed his eyes and slept off.
He was woken next morning by the tea vendor who peeped in offering flasks of hot tea and coffee. The other passenger was already up and had opted for coffee. Venkat took his flask of tea and went out for his morning ablutions. Back in the compartment he poured his tea and took a surreptitious glance at his co-passenger. The man was well dressed, quite a gentleman judging by his laced, neatly polished shoes. He had his face buried in a magazine and had not acknowledged Venkat’s presence when he had gone out or even when he had come back. Suddenly he glanced up and their eyes met. To cover his embarrassment at being caught staring, Venkat gave a polite smile and asked a perfunctory question,
“Your first visit to Tirupati?”
The man politely smiled back and answered, “Oh no! I have been coming here for over twenty years now. I try to make at least two trips a year, sometimes more.”
“That’s wonderful!” Venkat beamed in response. “I have also been coming here annually but only for the last five or six years!”
They both laughed. The ice had been broken and they settled down to the kind of freewheeling conversation one often has with fellow travelers who turn out to be kindred spirits — informal exchanges on a wide range of topics with little or no pretense and no fear of any judgments. Venkat couldn’t recall specifically what all they had talked about, just that it had all flowed with comfortable ease. Nagesh Kumar, the name he had shared with Venkat, was a businessman from Gulbarga. He had a wife and two teenage kids. Venkat, who was proud of his ability to judge other people, had mentally categorized him as a god-fearing, gentle, compassionate human being. That was till he had asked him that direct question over coffee after breakfast.
“So how did you get into this business?”
The man’s eyes narrowed for a fraction and then he looked at Venkat and asked in a dull voice
“Would you believe if i told you that i began as a smuggler?”
Venkat was taken aback. This was like a bolt out of the blue!
Without waiting for a response the man continued,
“Let me tell you my story, one that i have shared with just two other persons. When i was a small boy, perhaps five or six years old, my parents moved from our village in Eastern Uttar Pradesh to Bombay. My mother told me that there had been some land dispute and my father decided to move out and make his fortune in the big city. He set up a cycle repair shop in Bombay’s Crawford Market and being good at his job developed a reputation that attracted a large clientele. We were not very rich but led a comfortable existence. Then when i was around thirteen my father died of a heart attack and my mother couldn’t really survive the shock. She passed away too within a couple of months.”
“Oh!” interjected Venkat, “but then…”
Like someone in a big hurry to complete what he has to say, the man ignored the intervention and carried on, “Adjacent to my father’s shop was the shop of a scrap dealer. He became good friends with my father. I called him “Chacha”. It was Chacha and his wife who took care of my mother and me in the interim; and after my mother too passed away, he helped me to continue running my father’s shop. We had a good workshop and i enjoyed tinkering around with the cycles that came in for repair. One day Chacha brought in a client, a ‘dear friend’ who needed some special work with the handlebars. He asked me if i could modify them so that something like small coins could be carried inside the tubular part. He paid well and soon i was modifying over a dozen similar cycles. Good money was coming in and i was excited by the thought of being part of a ‘secret mission’. Then they even started getting the coins~gold coins~ that needed to be hidden. One thing led to another and i became something of an expert. I could break apart a cycle, hide the gold and then reassemble it. I even started making deliveries to assigned addresses.”
He paused and let out a long sigh. “I was young and the success was heady. From cycles to motorbikes to cars, things moved in quick succession. I rapidly rose in ranks and my reputation at being able to make foolproof deliveries soon drew the attention of the gang leader. There was no looking back after that. I became his go-to man for the difficult assignments, the ones where you had to pass police check-posts and drive over difficult terrains. I never failed.”
“Then came a new police commissioner who had vowed to curb this smuggling going on right under the nose of the authorities. Police checks and searches became more and more thorough. A couple of the boys even got caught. Our worried boss one day gave me the responsibility of a big delivery that had to be made to a very important client. I chose a route that i thought would avoid any police checks. What i was not aware of was that the police had smartened up and decided upon a sudden change in the location of their check posts. My car was stopped and submitted to a thorough search. It was almost as if they had some prior tip-off. They examined every inch of the car, even the petrol tank. At the end of a frustrating two-hour search that yielded nothing, they let me go.”
His tone was subdued as he reflected, “That incident was my wake up call. The realization dawned that this—this life of sins would lead to ruin sooner or later. I remembered the childhood story of Sisupal my mother used to narrate. My time was definitely up.”
“After completing that assignment, i went back home, collected a few belongings and my money, boarded a bus and drifted from one city to another till i found myself one day on the train to Tirupati. In the one month that i spent in an ashram there, an elderly gentleman befriended me. He was like a father figure and i unburdened my entire story to him. He took me with him to Gulbarga and helped me start a new life there.”
There was a sudden silence in the compartment when he stopped speaking. For a minute or so both sat lost in their thoughts, the rumble of the moving train providing a rhythm for their whirling minds.
“Have you heard the story of Sisupala?” Nagesh broke the silence with his question.
Venkat was feeling dizzy, incapable of any kind of response.
“In the Mahabharata, Sisupala was the son of Damaghosa, King of Chedi and his mother was the sister of Lord Krishna’s father Vasudev. Legend says that he was born with three eyes and four arms. His alarmed parents considered casting him out but they were warned by a heavenly voice not to do so as his time had not come. The voice predicted that these superfluous body organs would disappear on their own when a certain person took the child in his lap. It also gave an ominous warning that the same person would be responsible for Sisupal’s death. When Krishna came to visit his aunt’s house and began to play with the child on his knee, the extra eye and arms disappeared. His alarmed mother pleaded with Krishna to spare her son. Seeing his aunt’s distress Krishna reassured her that he would pardon Sisupal for a hundred offenses and as long as her son’s sins did not cross the hundred mark, she had nothing to fear.”
He took a pause and looked at Venkat to see if he had his undivided attention.
“The story goes,” he continued “that when the Pandava King Yudhishthira performed the Rajasuya Yajna, he sent Bhima to obtain the fealty of Sisupala who had been crowned king after his father’s death. Sisupala accepted Yudhisthira’s supremacy without any protest and was invited to the final ceremony at Indraprastha. At the event, the Pandavas chose to anoint Lord Krishna as their honoured guest. This enraged Sisupal, who as it is bore a grudge against his cousin for marrying Rukmini whom he Sisupal had wanted to marry. Sisupal started hurling insults at Krishna calling him a cowherd who did not deserve such an honour. Krishna cautioned him that he was dangerously close to violating his limit of a hundred sins but he refused to listen. The vain and conceited Sisupal continued his vituperative out burst. When he went beyond to his 101st insult, Krishna released his Sudarshan Chakra and killed him on the spot.”
“My mother had narrated the story of Sisupal so many times but that day i understood its true import. You could call it my Sisupal-moment. Govinda gives us a hundred opportunities to make the right choices, but we humans in our false egos continue to abuse this freedom. Never ever cross that hundred mark…this insight has guided my life from that point onwards…” he trailed off into silence again.
The train slowed down, almost as if it was approaching a station. The man looked at his watch and exclaimed, “Time flies! We’re about to reach Gulbarga! I get off here, so let me say goodbye and wish you a good journey forward from here and in life henceforth.”
He collected his bag, put in the magazine and his spectacles and took a final look around to see if he had left anything, even as the train slowed down to a halt at Gulbarga station. Venkat seemed to wake up from his stupor as he blurted out the thought that had suddenly surfaced,
“So if they couldn’t find it, where did you hide it…the gold i mean?”
The man was almost at the door, he turned around and said
“Oh, didn’t i mention it? The two number plates in the front and at the back had letters made of gold…”
Before he could say anything else, other passengers had come on board in the corridor waiting to get inside. He smiled at Venkat and left.