We continued our journey, and this time we talked for sometime during the ride. The cart driver, Bansi, comes from a nearby village called ‘Sarengi’ and he collects a load of wheat twice a week from the market, some seven kms further north of Banghaat, in a small village called ‘Kanerpara’. He would usually return to his village the next day, since he did not like to ride after sundown. His plan was the same for this trip and early morning tomorrow, when the market opened, he would collect the wheat bundle, and set off for Sarengi again. Bansi was a little surprised, when he learned that I was not sure where I wished to go or who I was planning to meet in Kanerpara. He explained that there was an old Shiv temple which was supposedly very ‘jagroto’, indicating that it had served numerous miracles for its devotees. There was an innocence about Bansi, which made me feel that his entry in this play was a mere coincidence, and I refrained from telling him more, so not to pique his interest unnecessarily. 

In less that another hour, we reached a small village with small mud houses and thatched straw roofs. I was finally happy to see something that resembled a locality with human beings around. Bansi brought his cart to a halt next to the Shiv mandir and announced;

– “This is Kanerpara Babu, hope you find who or what you are looking for. If you want to eat something, there is a small hotel run by ‘Bilas’ which serves very tasty ‘maachher jhol’. And if you need a place to stay the night, ask for ‘Rahman’, who is a nice chap and I will be putting up at his place myself. We will find a way to arrange for your stay there. If you want to return to Banghaat, come meet me here before 11 am tomorrow.”

I thanked him profusely for his help and kindness and started walking towards the village center, while Bansi shooed his oxen and departed for his own destination. I looked around and spotted a tea stall not far from where I was standing, and decided to have a cup of ‘gorom chaa’ [Hot tea] to pep up my spirit and make my brain function again. 

The small shop had a couple of customers sitting apart from me, and I sat next to a young guy in his mid twenties and asked for a tea, which was served right away. As I was into the last sip of this warm sugary tea, the young guy next to me softly asked me;

– “Khub klanto?” [Very tired?]

I looked around to make sure he was talking to me and since the third person did not even respond, I smiled back and nodded in the affirmative. By now, I had come to terms with the fact that strangers will walk up to me and say something, as if we had known each other since our childhood, so I didn’t show much of a surprise this time. He calmly finished his tea and signalled me to follow him and I, like a puppet pulled by an invisible string, did exactly so. On my way out of the tea stall, I asked,

“how much for the tea?”

The man at the counter smiled and replied,

– ”Don’t bother Babu, It’s already paid for!”

The young guy introduced himself as “Rontu” and asked me if I had ever come to Kanerpara before. I told him that not only is this my first time, but I didn’t even know what I was doing here and he chuckled;

– “I am sure you will find out, when you meet ‘Bihari Baba’; he is waiting for you.”

– “Bihari Baba? Who is that? What makes you think I want to meet him?”

I was not only curious, but this was the first time since morning that I had the opportunity to ask a question to someone, in a proper manner. 

He nodded his head dismissively and responded; 

” I am an ordinary guy Babu, Bihari Baba has instructed me to pick you from the tea stall and bring you to him. I don’t know anything more!”

I followed him quietly for another fifteen minutes or so, and we left the village center to a more sparsely populated area, with fewer houses and even fewer people. In fact, we took a small pedestrian path without any houses around it, and after walking for a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of a small mud hut ahead of us, standing in all isolation. The hut was somewhat peculiar as I noticed four poles, two on each side of the establishment, with red cloth hoisted on them. Something made me feel this was to be my final destination, and so it turned out to be.

We approached the hut and at the entrance, Rontu instructed me to take off my shoes, which were pretty muddy and tattered, even in my own view. He entered the hut and I followed suit, stooping a little before entering since the door was lower than my height. The room seemed sizeable, despite being almost half dark and full of smoke, and it took me a while to adjust to the dim light inside, from a single kerosene lantern. There were no visible windows or avenues for natural light and in fact, it was the darkness around the room, that made it feel bigger that what it might have actually been. It was broad daylight outside, but inside the room, it felt like midnight. 

I counted three people inside, and they were in the act of smoking ‘ganja’ [marijuana] from a “chillum” [A mud pipe] and one of them, wearing a saffron robe, looked up at me and with what could have been a smile, signalled me to come closer. As I approached him, I saw his full bearded face and his facial hair was more black than grey, but the wrinkles near his eyes indicated he could well be into his fifties. His eyes were blood red, even more so in the dim light, but he had a  smile on his face that was impossible to miss. As I came near, he patted the ground next to him for me to sit and I obeyed without a question. The ‘chillum’ was passing hands as Bihari baba warmly spoke his first words;

– “Itna der kyun kiya aane me?” [Why did you come so late?]

I fumbled with the right words as he received the chhillum back, took a long, deep puff and offered it to me, which I declined, being a complete non-smoker. I looked around the room and while I couldn’t make out anything in the darkness, I spotted something which sent a shiver down my spine. There was something whitish in the corner and it seemed like a human skull. Baba passed the chhillum to the next person, let the feeling of the ganja sink it for a moment, and then looked at me and spoke in chaste Hindi;

– “You must be very tired today, you should rest a bit. We will leave tomorrow early morning, just when the sun rises.”

It occured to me, that there was nothing for me to tell or ask “Bihari Baba”. This was just a part of this story where I was supposed to take him back with me. Or maybe, he was supposed to take me with him. I control nothing in this story, I was just another character here, and the script was already written for me to follow. I felt like I was just a puppet in the play and this big, burly man in saffron attire, had all the strings in his hand, and could move me whichever way he wanted.

Soon after, a middle aged lady came in carrying a tray with some food in it and while it was a simple meal with some rice, some daal [lentil soup], some cabbage and fried bitter gourd, it really tasted delicious. Baba was observing me while I was eating, and I could hear him telling me that he was expecting me since last week. But as I was listening to his deep voice, I felt my eyes become heavy and his voice started to sound more and more distant, and even before I could finish my meal, I toppled over and fell into a deep slumber!

Coming up next: CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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