Episode 3/Chapter 21: What, If Our Dreams Come True!
The eclipse started at about nine thirty in the morning and lasted nearly two hours and fifteen minutes. The Sun went behind and there was gloom everywhere. People believed that Rahu and Kethu, the two ‘snake constellations’ were swallowing the Sun during eclipse and so the eclipse period was considered inauspicious. I waited for the eclipse to be over. When the Sun appeared again to signal the end of the eclipse, I was ready on the river to take a bath. There were priests waiting near the river bank, offering their services to those who wanted to perform ‘tarpan’ and these priests were usually offered a small ‘dakshina’ for their services. (Dakshina is a small fee paid to a priest). When I was about to finish my bath, Adhi Kesavan too came running to join me and pleaded with me to wait for him for the tarpan. We finished our bath, changed our dress and went into the mandap on the banks of the river. The mandap looked cleaner for that day’s ritual. We joined a small group of people who were about to begin their tarpan. When the tarpan got over and peoplestarted dispersing after offering their small dakshina to the priest, we too approached the priest to offer ours. As we neared the priest, I was aghast with what I saw.
There, where the priest was sitting, just from above his head, a beam of sunlight passed through the ceiling and fell exactly on the crown of his head. His head was completely shaved except for a small tuft at the back. He, probably, felt the heat of the sun rays on his head. For a moment he looked up, raising his right hand just below his eyebrows as a cover, squinted, murmured something to himself and moved a foot to his left. Where the sun rays fell on the floor, we saw a two by two foot stone slab fixed to the ground and on this stone slab, was cut a small sculpture of a Brahmin prostrating before the Sun. And the sun rays fell exactly on this stone.
I looked at Adhi Kesavan and he also noticed this. His face brightened like thousand Suns. We knew what it meant. We quickly went out to a secluded place along the river bank, to work out our strategy.
We allowed things to rest for a few days. Then, we chose a full moon day for our operations. When the village had gone to sleep, we slowly crept to the river side. During the intervening period, we had silently uprooted and cleared many bushes, for our easy passage to the mandap on the river side and we had also practiced moving through this passage even in darkness.
We went inside the mandap and located the small, two by two foot stone slab, cut with the sculpture of a Brahmin prostrating before the Sun, fixed to the ground. We had carried with us a chisel and a hammer besides a stick wound with cloth wig on one end to be used as a torch and a few other commonly available sundry items that we felt might be needed for our job. We chiseled along the edges of the stone slowly and steadily, but in the silence of the night, the noise was deafening. It appeared our forefathers were great engineers and they had far superior technology. The binding material was very strong and didn’t come out easily. We didn’t want to break the stone slab and make a shoddy show. We didn’t want people prying into our operations. Our bodies hurt, as we tried harder to separate the stone slab from the adjoining ones. It was past midnight and we hardly had two or three more hours at our disposal, as we knew most villagers would come out of their houses in the early morning hours to ease themselves in dark corners of the river side.
We tried and tried. We froze for some time when we suddenly heard the sound of a bullock cart moving on the roadside. ‘Would the farmer driving the cart have heard the noise of our chiseling?’ Probably not!
If he had, he would have responded with a loud shout. He ought to have been half asleep; the only sound that came from him was calling forth the bullocks ‘hei, hei’ to keep them on their track. From the distance, we heard the feeble sound of the bells tied to the neck of the bullocks. Nothing more!
Once the cart moved away, we continued our operations. Something crawled close to my legs and I jumped frightened. It could have been a snake, I didn’t know. Luckily no damage was done. My heart pumped feverishly and I breathed heavily.
‘Am I committing a mistake?’ I wondered for a moment.
Adhi Kesavan seemed to be stronger than what I originally thought. We were in the middle of peak summer and the air was damp. He was sweating profusely, as he concentrated on the job. I felt sorry that I couldn’t provide much physical help.
Suddenly, Adhi Kesavan raised his both hands jubilantly, signaling he had succeeded partially in disjointing the stone slab. It took some more time before he could completely remove it and we could touch the soil below it. With great urgency, we removed the subsoil. It went deeper and deeper until we hit with something.
‘Was it a lid of a box?’ We moved our hands slowly on the crest and tried to determine what it was. We avoided lighting the torch unless it became essential. After several minutes of inspection, it dawned on us that it could probably be a lid for something below. Could it be a trap door to a tunnel? It was made of metal. We tried to locate any bolt or handle, but there was none. We moved our fingers slowly along the edges and tried to lift it. It didn’t budge. We tried several times, but in the darkness we couldn’t find a way to open the door.
We noticed the wee hours lighting on the horizon and we knew soon people would be out of their homes. Feeling dejected, we hurriedly dumped the soil back into the pit, covered it with the stone slab and left the place.
“I am sure there would be a passage or tunnel below the trap door.” I told Adhi Kesavan. The map pointed towards such a possibility.
“Will it be accessible?”
“I don’t really know. But there are some issues involved.”
“You know, if at all we locate something beneath the ground, whatever that be, we need proof that it was retrieved from such and such place. People want proof. Anything underground is government property and we can’t claim private ownership. Besides, people might say that whatever we found was a hoax. So, we need witnesses that we indeed recovered something from there. And that witness must be irrefutable.”
“So, what should we do?”
“I have an idea. People tend to believe anything that is Western. We don’t seem to trust our own abilities, heritage, and talents unless an Englishman or an American vouchsafes for it. Many good things about us need to be lauded from abroad, for us to recognize. Our self-esteem had fallen so low these days, thanks to our subservience to Mogul, Europeans and British for centuries. So, I am planning to write to one of my friends over there. He is a very trustworthy person. He is now in England.”
Adhi Kesavan was looking undecided and confused. Then I explained to him about my association with William who gave away all the money he received from the sale of his estates for the construction of dams in Papanasam area. I also told Adhi Kesavan about Jhia, the street gymnast and acrobat, who had since married William and was now in England. They were happily married, before William finally left India and they now had a daughter.
“What can William do?” Asked Adhi Kesavan.
“He has contacts there. He can arrange for a television crew who would film our entire operation as a witness. If we find anything, they will telecast it as a story and discovery. The whole world will know. Then our rulers will tread cautiously in dealing with the issue, whatever might come up. We may have some defense and protection. If something very valuable was found, I am sure we are bound for a long legal battle.” I told him.
He was still unsure, but nodded his head - may be due to his realization that after all he had no choice in this matter.
William’s mail arrived after a few weeks. It said he was trying to pull strings with a few influential people over there, to arrange for a TV team from a popular international television channel. He added that he needed to be extremely discreet about revealing details of our operations and that as soon as he succeeded, we would be intimated. He also wrote with pride that his daughter Dweepa had now picked up several words to speak and she had carefully learnt to pronounce my name too. The letter also said Jhia was very particular that Dweepa spoke Tamil too. Dweepa looked very cute and sweet in the photograph attached to the letter.
After a suspenseful wait for a month, his next mail arrived. Within the next couple of days, I was in Madras to receive the television crew. The crew arrived by a British Airways flight. We met at the airport and introduced each other. Welsch was a national broadcasting corporation’s reporter and he was accompanied by Donald, the cameraman. Welsch was once a cameraman too and so he too could cover the event if needed. We reached Ambasamudram by train, after changing over at Tirunelveli and they were put in a hotel that came nowhere near the standards they were used to. But they were quite accommodating and were excited about the work we were about to begin. I briefed them about what we might expect from our operations. I also briefed them about the legalities of the issue to the extent I knew.
Within the next couple of days, we left for Brahmadesam.
“Shall we hire a car?”I offered to Welsch and Donald.
“No, we shall use that…..” His fingers pointed out at the bicycles parked outside the judicial court complex. So, we hired bicycles from a cycle shop for a few days and we pedaled our way to Brahmadesam. It was hot during the day and we were sweating profusely. But the Englishmen seemed to be enjoying the hot weather and the cycle ride. A few onlookers wondered what we were up to.
I introduced Adhi Kesavan. Once again we briefly narrated the history of the place and the history of our apprehension about the possible evidence that might lie buried underneath somewhere that might entitle Adhi Kesavan to the ownership of properties that were endowed for public good several centuries ago. We reiterated our commitment that if such evidence was ever found during our operations, we intended to recover the properties and put them to good use benefitting people at large. We also explained that in our country many properties that rightfully belonged to several public trusts, temples, mutts or even peromboke lands belonging to the government had been usurped and that we had no personal agenda in the whole exercise.
Our entire conversation was video-graphed and recorded. We had to decide upon the timing for our operation.
“Do things that people least expect you to be doing,” said Welsch after inspecting the mandap. Initially, when the Englishmen arrived, the locals looked on with great curiosity. Many were eager to photograph themselves with the Englishmen. Donald liberally obliged them. Many villagers invited them to their simple houses for morning breakfasts that invariably happened to be some porridge made from cereals and vegetables. The Englishmen enjoyed their breakfasts. Donald was particularly very accommodating about the food, people and village atmosphere, though Welsch was much different.
“We have two choices. Either do it when everyone is asleep. Or do it during broad day light when no one bothers about us. Personally I would prefer the latter. That is during broad day light. The mandap and the riverside are deserted during the mid-afternoon. No one seems to notice anything. That is the ideal time. Besides, we may have better lighting, if we really have to go under the ground.” told Welsch.
We all agreed.
One fine afternoon, when Sun was at its peak, we went to the mandap. By now, many in the village had seen us together going around in bicycles, taking pictures, sitting at odd places, sleeping under the trees, doing nothing in particular and th villagers gradually learnt not to take us seriously.
We removed the stone slab and once again removed the earth beneath. We hit the lid. We examined the lid carefully in the broad day light. We found a small slot which could be used to lift the lid. We all tried, but it didn’t come off. The edges seemed to have been sealed with some kind of chemical and it stuck without budging. Where did they find such binding chemicals centuries ago? Or, had they become rusted and sticky over time?
“We might better bring in a welder to cut it open,” said Welsch.
“But the problem is - the news would go out,” feared Adhi Kesavan
Undecided, we abandoned our operations for that day and we all returned back to our places.
That night, I had a severe stomach pain and I struggled for long to get sleep. When I finally slept, I had a dream. In that dream, I saw someone resembling Sudalai, the one who was in charge of cremation ground at Papanasam, laying his hand on the lid under the stone in the mandap and the lid coming off. I saw him stepping inside the opening and disappearing for long. I was jolted and woken up. I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night, though my stomach pain disappeared mysteriously.
That day, there was a postcard for me from Papanasam and the sender was none other than Sudalai. Someone had written the letter on his instructions.
“Respected Sir,” thus began the letter. “I had served in the cremation ground for more than five decades and have now decided to take retirement. Burning dead bodies, day in and day out, all my emotions and feelings seem to have frozen. Now I want to go on a pilgrimage, to lighten my heart and I wish to see you before I proceed. My son Marimuthu, who started off helping the workshop people when the dams were under constructions near Papanasam, is now a professional welder and he has his own shop now. He has asked me to convey his enquiries and regards to you. I am coming to see you in a week’s time.”
What a coincidence!
‘Thank God! We now have our welder who we can trust to maintain discretion.’ I immediately dispatched Adhi Kesavan to Papanasam to find Sudalai and his son Marimuthu and bring them here.
When they arrived, I explained the job on hand and the need for secrecy.
“Probably, my first pilgrimage would begin under the ground inside the tunnel, if there is one,” Sudalai commented promptly. He continued saying, “If my guess is correct, the tunnel might lead us to the temple. I have heard people saying that in old days, the temples and palaces had secret exits under the ground through tunnels for the safety of kings and queens and also to bury valuables.”
Marimuthu went back to bring a complete welding set. We began our effort once again enthusiastically. Sudalai cut open the heavy lid. The strong hands of Sudalai and Marimuthu lifted the lid. They stepped back quickly to avoid the heavy dust and pungent fumes that came out of the opening.