I jerk awake to the beeping of the charge-counter asking for more money. Sonorous chanting is insidious; I have already lost two hours. I feed in another note, then replay that somewhat promising segment in Valmiki’s text.
The tablet remains a cipher. If it is a portion of the Ramayana, then it pattern-matches none of the versions I have spent the last three days painstakingly converting to textaudio. I’m running the same analytics the Prague-Harvard team used to crack the Voynich in 2087; a flaw in the algorithm is unlikely. The most likely outcome is that there is no pattern. The most likely outcome – me not getting paid. I pull out the single highrez holo of the tablet Jay sent me, and stare at the image.
“What a wonderful age,” whispers a voice behind me.
Instinctively, I put my hand over the holo as I turn around.
A middle-aged Asian is standing not two feet away, peering at my screen with admiration. “Even the machines,” he continues, heedless of my glare, “chant the glories of Shri Ram!”
Dammit, I’ve bought my privacy with good hard Yen. “Can I help you?” I ask.
“No, no, please continue,” he says.
“This is a research lab.” I put all the weight of long stripped academic credentials into my voice. “You really can’t be here.”
His eyes crinkle at the corners. “How can I not be here? Your computer’s chanting called to me.”
“Quite the hearing you’ve got.” He’s missing the saffron robes and the tambourine, but Rama-Rama crazies don’t always stick to a uniform.
“It really was quite loud. I heard it a long way away.” He spreads his hands in apology, as if to say, ‘What could I do?’
His voice has a musical lilt reminiscent of the soft-syllabled speech of my youth. I start to fidget with my papers, afraid that I don’t have enough money to furnish the inevitable bribes for security if I call them.
“I see I’m disturbing you,” he says quietly, “But I would be grateful if you would let me listen in for a while. I won’t look at your research, I promise.”
“I was about to leave,” I say. The stack of pressed Yen-notes in my wallet has grown very thin. Something about his crestfallen look prompts me to add, “If you want, I can leave the audio running for you.” If he’s not allowed to be here, it’s the lab’s problem. He nods eagerly. The charge-counter grudgingly allots me my last five minutes as I pack up, but gives a satisfied beep as he sits down on the chair I have just vacated. He obviously has a subscription account. Wonderful world indeed; I try not to feel too resentful as I walk away from the terminals. The strident shlokas of the Yuddha Kand fade slowly behind me.
“Time’s up, honey baby,” says Jay over the viddy. He looks good.
“There’s just not enough of the source,” I reply. “Sorry.” I’m hoping he still feels enough residual affection for me to forward Yen for lab access without anything to show for it.
“Too bad. I’ve got a buyer for the whole wall, but it would have been such a sweet deal if you’d managed to get something from the fragment.”
“There’s more cipher-text?”
“Oh, tons of it baby. Literally.”
I crinkle my nose in disapproval, not least for the pong in the Yen-a-minute viddy booth. “You should know better than to hold out on me.”
“Do you know how hard it is to ship a single holo from India to you?”
“Yeah well,” I try to keep my tone even. He must be under pressure; Jay is usually tactful. “I could have done something if you’d sent more.”
“We got two weeks before the buyer moves. Wanna come down here?” He imbues his words with a leer. I can’t stop the blush from spreading.
“Um…I really don’t have the resources…”
He waves his hands dismissively. “I’ll front the ticket and the border-cost. Courier’s fee?”
“If I’m caught border-crossing with artifacts…” Repeat Class-A Cultural Offenders can hope to meet a swift end if they have the bribe-money for it. I don’t.
“How could you think I’d endanger you like that?” he asks. Something in me warms to the hurt in his voice.
“We’ll talk after you get here.”
The scooter-rickshaw’s proximity sensors have been jimmied with a little piece of foil wedged between the outer contacts. Driving in brotherly closeness, expressed via affectionate exclamations of ‘Chuutia’, is a way of life here in the warrens of Old Nai-Dhilli. The green-white-orange painted surveillance vidders hanging from random streetlamps fail to inspire the old childhood feeling of safety. Surveillance in Regulated Territories is put in place to watch people like me. The pink and gold pattern on my headscarf suddenly feels too loud.
The scooter lets me off at the Safdarjung Budget Hotel. The streets are old here; I jump the first time the ground shudders when a train passes underneath. There has been no public transportation in the Unregulated Territory of Beijing since the days of the communists. But budget hotels I’m plenty familiar with. The large red swastika on the door is very Indian, the red tobacco spittle staining the front step even more so.
Once in the lobby, I punch the confirmation number into the front desk. As promised, it doesn’t ask me for a pass or money, just gives me a bed code and a “Namaste, Dr. Hunt,” in a cultured North-Indian synthavoice. I don’t bother with the bed, going straight up the stairs to the first floor.
The meetup consists of Jay, one academic type, a suited businessman, and a slew of young people with the harried-absent air of graduate students. Most don’t even look up as I enter. Jay walks towards me with a smile.
“Good timing Val,” he says, giving me a peck on each cheek.
“Indeed,” drawls the businessman, getting smoothly to his feet and walking towards us. The man ignores Jay, and extends his hand to me. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Dr. Hunt. Dr. Chaturvedi here is very excited about the possibility of authenticating the carvings.”
Dr. Chaturvedi? He had been Jay Rehman the last time I had seen him. Then again, I had still been Valerie Chatterjee. Egos are harder to subdue than inconvenient names, and Jay is not bristling at being ignored…this businessman, then, is our buyer.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” I say, without any particular inflection. Protocol with buyers: no questions. Old habits are coming back to me with the ease of a well-worn coat.
“I’m a curator for the Museum of Hinduism in America,” he says. And I’m the Queen of England. My wit goes unvoiced; our ‘curator’ is hardly likely to appreciate the anachronism. Neither is Jay, for that matter, who has casually draped an arm over my shoulder.
“Dr. Hunt is going to take care of shipping our priority packages,” he says. The man nods, then wanders away. Jay leans closer towards me. “And Val, please pick up something for me?”
We’d had terrific fights about this back in the day. The habitual agreement is no less distasteful now, but I cannot refuse.
“Do you know your way around Delhi?” he asks. Jay’s a user, but he’s not uncaring.
“Twenty years,” I say.
“I’ll get you a guide then. Little gurkha boy, knows the streets. Just watch your purse with him.” Jay doesn’t wait for a response from me, just opens the door and yells down the stairwell. “Oi, Chotu! Chotu!”
“Hai Jai Babu!” comes a high voice from the next story above, followed by the unmistakable flip-flop sound of feet in over-sized chappals barrelling down the stairs. 'Chotu' casually tucks a hoover-broom under his arm as he comes into the room. A hotel servant? Very illegal. But the knowing grin on his face belies his apparent age.
“Chotu, this is Memsahib Hunt. You take her to the dockyard depot, then to Meherauli bazaar, then back here quickly ok?”
“Quickly,” agrees Chotu, and turns his ear-to-ear grin on me. “Don’t you worry pretty Memsahib, I’ll keep you safe.”
I stifle my snort, and nod at the boy. “I’m sure you will. Jay, what am I actually shipping at the depot?”
“Documents,” says Jay shortly. “I’ll have them loaded into a taxi for you.” I’ve grown very cognizant of the worth of things. A taxi means ‘valuable artifacts’. And if Jai is having them loaded, he doesn’t want me to be too curious. Either that or the box is too heavy for me – gurkha or not, Chotu certainly won’t be doing any heavy lifting.
By the time the taxi pulls away, I’ve already heard all about Chotu’s six unmarried cousins: ‘The satnet is ruining those girls. Viddy dramas, Virtual dramas, Quizzy dramas all day!’. He sounds like a wizened dehathi, the worried seriousness of his words, all the more endearing in that high child’s voice. A calculated effect I’m sure, but it’s working. He has managed to make me smile.
I’m still smiling as I hand over one of my carefully hoarded hundred-rupee notes for two coka-colas from a street vendor. The shipment has been sent off safely, Chotu proving to be an effective distraction from my curiosity about the crate’s destination. The only time his constant chatter stills is when a transport full of javans honks at us, and the crowd clears a path for the truck. Chotu has squeezed his eyes shut, and is whispering under his breath. I reach for his hand, and hold on tight as he chants the Hanuman Chalisa non-stop till the sound of the truck’s engine disappears.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I was born in Assam,” he says. I can talk about the maoist atrocities till I am blue in the face, but to a child born in Assam, Indian Army soldiers are still the bad guys.
“When I am scared,” I say, “I simply remember all of my favourite things – chocolate, and cold water and…” I trail off. Chotu looks confused. Obviously The Sound of Music is not a reliable source for child-therapy advice in the twenty-second century.
“When I am scared,” he says, “I call for Shri Hanuman. He removes all fear.” The confidence in Chotu’s voice makes me bite back my comment about the relative real-world merits of monkey gods versus solid European milk chocolate. “He’s immortal, you know,” Chotu whispers to me as an aside. “And he comes whenever we sing the Ramayana. He has to. He promised.” I pretend to search for a good place to cross the street as I roll my eyes.
Jay is livid that I’ve forgotten the drugs.
“I couldn’t very well take a child into an adda.” A drug den is the last place Chotu should be exposed to.
“Are you mad woman? That’s what I sent him for! You certainly didn’t need a goddam guide to take a taxi to the shipping depot! The kid’s probably on a first-name-uncleji basis with half the dealers in this city.”
I remain silent.
“You’re going to go tomorrow,” he states. “Val, honey, please. You know I’d go, but they’ve got those vidders on every street corner now.”
Two days. The permits come through faster than I expect, and the entire team is ushered onto a rattling old bus. Jay is critical of the peeling paint and the yellowing H2Cells. I look for a seat away from anybody else, especially the grad students. Unfortunately, the Professor is one of the last people on the bus, and he makes a point to come and sit next to me, forcing me to pretend interest in the view out the window.
As we get deeper into the dehat-ville at the outskirts of Noida, the professor pulls out a datavid. I will my face to turn away and look out the window again. It's no use; There is very little you can't get in Beijing's black market, but somehow I had never been able to find anyone who could hook me up with access to AJA. Soon the professor notices my interest.
"Are you an archaeologist?" he asks.
There is no polite way to avoid this conversation. "Crypto. Was."
"Oh," he says, then thinks for a moment. "So you are Valerie Chatterjee."
"Was," I answer shortly. "I'm Valerie Hunt now."
"We do many silly things in our youth, don't we?" he says. "I danced at a dirtybar during my undergrad days."
I choke, not sure whether to laugh or not. The image of this wizened old man in a glitterthong...
"True story, true story," he says, his eyes twinkling.
"The relative magnitude of our...indiscretions...is somewhat different, Professor." I say.
"True enough," he agrees, then casually places the datavid on my lap. "An ill-informed archaeologist is a bad archaeologist," he says. "Maybe you should read up." He allows me my stunned paralysis for a full minute before he moves to take the vid away. I clutch at it, and he smiles.
The bus stops for lunch at a roadside tourist spot, a lovingly recreated 21st century dhaba. There are three vidders attached to the bus-port outside. I forgo lunch, pretending to doze. As the bus starts again the professor returns to his seat, and hands me a warm foil-wrapped bundle. Inside are two fresh-from-the-tava gobhi parathas. My traitorous hands tremble as I eat. The professor courteously looks away.
The next day I bring out the holo. Carefully, shielding it with my body, I show him the inscription. He is silent; my fingers grow restless as I wait for him to speak.
"Do you know what this is?" he asks.
"Jay said the locals believe it's a version of the Ramayana."
"Well, Jai Babu..." begins the Professor, and the derision in his voice is clear. The professor hands back the holo reverently, reaches for his datavid. In a few short queries he has pulled up an old holo of a small palm-sized piece of rock lying on a bright green backcloth. There are symbols carved on it, and two of them are so very familiar...
"What is this?" I whisper.
"It was found in a 2103 dig on the outskirts of Ujjain. In a hermitage's tulsi-shrine.
We look at each other, then quietly put the holo and datavid away.
I allow myself the luxury of eating at a McAmbani on the third day. The professor's McCurry-and-Veg looks decidedly more appetizing than my own Eighthkilo. He wipes his face neatly with a napkin before speaking. "You know, there would be no Ramayana without Hanuman."
I nod around my burger.
"If there was any Ramayana to be considered the Ramayana, this would be it."
I finish chewing. "Um...you don't actually believe Hanuman wrote it, do you?"
"There is more to heaven and earth..."
"Yes, but unlike Horatio, we must deal in fact, not fantasy."
"When you get older, my girl, you'll realize that most things touted as 'fact' are just a more provable set of fantasies than the other kind." I swallow my arguments for the moment. "The Hanuman Ramayana," he says, his gaze intent. "This is a sacred charge, Valerie Hunt, for our profession and our country and our humanity. You must see it through properly, to the end."
Jay is planning to sell the wall in pieces once I've got my holos. The archaeological permits, the grad students, the professor - convenient cover, nothing more. Professor Gandalf is going to get his heart broken.
We arrive at the dig site just as a series of blasts can be felt through the ground, plumes of dust fountaining into the air. Screaming, the professor almost jumps out of the moving bus. Nobody but the grad students look at the raging Professor or the blast-pads. Jay loves those things, little two-by-two meter pads used for mining and road clearance. I've heard chemical explosives are more destructive, but doubt that will satisfy any archaeologist.
Jay has led the professor off to one side of the dirt road...call...stop...minister. The professor is ranting into dangerous territory now, and my feet are urging me to run away from this place and never come back. I cover my head and walk towards the abandoned haveli meant to serve as the dig's HQ. Double-tires have made deep ruts in the dirt road, filled with stagnant water and flies. Lorries have passed by this way recently. People like us never wait for the permits.
Jay comes into my room very late; almost dawn. His breath smells sickly sweet.
"Did the Professor agree to cooperate?" I ask.
"No longer a problem," he says.
"But he said he'd call..."
"Not. A. Problem."
There is a faint remembered taste of gobhi parathas at the back of my mouth.
I wake up at noon to see Jay on the viddy with the buyer.
"...Impressed," the buyer is saying, "with your initiative. Regrettable, and all that, but some academics don't understand the necessities of the job."
"So can we discuss the figure?"
"I think some hazard bonus can certainly be considered."
Jay turns to me with a smile. "I think Dr. Hunt probably deserves the hazard bonus more than me," he says. The buyer smiles politely as I try to cover the bruises on my arms.
The haveli is stiflingly hot, but I keep my shawl wound tightly around me as I make my way to the courtyard. The grad students are milling about, and Chotu is squatting beside a small H2Stove. There is a man beside him. I stop, blink, blink again. It is the same Asian from the lab in Beijing. Chaos and coiencidence; I approach the two, my face schooled to impassiveness.
"Hello Chotu, who's your guest?" I ask.
"This is Lalbabu!" Chotu beams up at me. I quirk an eyebrow at the man.
"Zhōng Chénglal," the man says, and extends his hand to me. "I think we've met before."
"You have?" asks Chotu, his eyes round.
"In Beijing," I reply. Zhōng Chénglal? Not a Bengali name at all.
"Beijing!" trills Chotu. "You do get around, Lalbabu!" the boy turns to look up to me. "Lalbabu saved my life, my life, at the hill-station where I was little.
The man ducks his head, as if embarrassed. "I heard Chote-baba calling, that's all."
"Well, Mr. Lal, your presence was lucky for him, and for us," I say. 'Mr. Lal' seems to be a good compromise between the Bengali accent and the Taiwanese name; Chotu obviously adores this mild little man.
Just then Jay appears at one of the doors to the courtyard, and beckons to me. I walk over to him, tightening the shawl around my arms.
"Who's the Iranian?" Jay asks, gesturing behind me.
"Iranian?" I look over my shoulder. Just Mr. Lal and Chotu in the courtyard now.
I'm confused, but it's best not to confuse Jay. "Oh, that's one of Chotu's unclejis. Harmless."
"I don't trust him," mutters Jay. "I want to keep the boy happy, but you watch them both, ok? For me, hai?"
"Why do you care about the boy?"
"He's invaluable." Jay raises a hand to stroke my cheek. I control the flinch. "Almost as invaluable as you, Val. The boy has an inbuilt sense of direction. Never gets lost. I've used him twice before. Invaluable. So watch them."
"Of course. Where are you going? When can I see the wall?"
"I'm going to the other dig. Don't know when I'll be back. We'll figure something out later, ok Val honey?"
The next day I wake long after dawn, and find Chotu in the courtyard, boiling chai on his little stove. The haveli looks deserted, not even Mr. Lal in attendance.
"What's going on, Chotu? Where is everybody?"
"All the foreigners left after the Professor...and Jai Babu left very early with his workers for the other site."
"Oh. Damn. I needed to get into the dig today, but I don't..."
"I can take you Memsahib!" he says with an eager grin on his face. "I never get lost!"
"So I heard," I say. "Alright, let me get the setup."
In the end he helps me drag the three large holo-boxes out of the haveli and onto a wooden cart the grad students had been planning to use. Before we leave I fill my canteen with water from the courtyard well, and drop an Antibacti into it. The water fizzes.
Legend says that after the War, Hanuman retreated to the Himalayas, and carved the story of Rama into the rock with his fingernails. And that when Valmiki saw what Hanuman had written, he wept with inadequacy. Legends are always better than real life, but if there is reverence to be found in me for anything, it would be found here, before this wall.
There is a lot more of the text than Jay realized. The writing extends right to the roof and walls and floor of the cave, characters cut off by the encroaching rocky accumulations. I haven't seen the experts or the equipment Jay would need to properly date this. Blast-and-run. Right. I sigh and turn away, reaching for the holo-setup. Something is missing... Chotu is nowhere to be seen. Damnit. Leaving the setup where it is, I walk deeper into the cave system, following the small string of lights laid by Jay's people.
A few hundred meters into the cave, the lights start to flicker violently. Just as I reach out to the wall for reassurance, the entire corridor reverberates, the lights go out. A fist of sound and dust throws me to the ground.
A breathless child-voice chanting the hanuman chalisa wakes me. There is something sharp digging into my side. Blast. Rock. Chotu. I pull myself up, begin to walk in the direction I think his voice is coming from. Hiccuping sobs punctuate the shloaks. How long has he been chanting like this?
"Chotu?" I call.
"Durgaam kaj jagat ke jete...Sugam anugraha tumhre tete..."
He's close now. My feet scrabble for purchase, and I make it to the source of the sound on hands and knees, groping in the dark. The chanting has stopped. "Chotu?"
"Memsahib?" he says. My relief is short lived as he says, "I think some rocks fell around me. I can't get out. I can't see."
"Did the rocks fall on you? Are you hurt?"
"No...no, not really."
What does 'not really' mean to this boy? I'm afraid to find out. "Ok, ok, wait here, I'm going to get the torch, ok, I don't want to move the rocks without seeing what I'm doing."
"Please don't leave me," he cries.
"I'll be right back." No, I'm going to get lost in the dark. But, somehow, I get lucky. My questing hands encounter a carving on the wall just as I spot a dim light bobbing its way towards me.
"He...Hello?" I call out.
"Dr. Valerie?" asks a voice, a familiar soft voice. Of all the people that I could have wished for...By now he has reached me, holding my torch out in front of me. His eyes widen a little as he takes in my appearance. I snatch the thin metal cylinder out of his hand, and start making my way back towards the rockfall.
"What happened?" he says, bounding to keep up as I slip-slide on shards of rock.
"Blast. Rockfall. Chotu is trapped." I don't have breath to spare for more.
"I heard..." he says.
"The blast could be heard outside?" I ask. Could Jay hear it? Would he come?
Mr. Lal looks sidelong at me. "The blast was very loud," he says.
Disconnected pieces of the Hanuman Chalisa echo up ahead. Mr. Lal speeds up yet again. It is I who can't keep up now, and by the time I make it to Chotu, Mr. Lal is already kneeling beside the rockfall. The light from my torch reveals dark gaps in the rocks; I don't have the first clue of how to clear a space without crushing Chotu.
"Here," says Mr. Lal, and before I can caution him, he lifts a piece of rock. Just like that, no straining, no grunting. He tosses it aside, goes for the next one. In a few breaths, he has made a large opening in the collection of rocks. Quietly, in what I assume to be Assamese, he says something to Chotu. Bit by bit the boy crawls out. I rush forward and give him a short, sharp whack on his head, then crush him to my chest in a hug.
"You stupid boy," I say, then smack him again for good measure. I expect censure from Mr. Lal for hitting the child, but he seems to be indulgent for now. I don't let go of Chotu as we trace our steps back through the cavern. I don't let go of him till we reach my mural and holo-setup, till I have enough light to check that all his limbs are in place, till I am satisfied that there is no blood anywhere.
If Jay's men are blasting through the night, this is the worst place for us to be. But I need my holo of the wall before it's destroyed, and my setup isn't cooperating. It was on the ground, on its side, when we returned to the wall, and no matter how much I fuss around the machine, the little orange light won't turn green. If wishes were charcoal and paper, to make rubbings like the old days.Meanwhile, Chotu and Mr. Lal are sitting in a corner, speaking softly.
"Why can't Memsahib just write down what the wall says? She can read and write! If I could, I'd do it for her," he says. A task for tomorrow: teach Chotu how to read.
I glance at Mr. Lal, and he gives me a smile that makes me think he's having similar thoughts. Then he turns to Chotu, raises his hand, and traces a short curved inscription on the wall.
"See, Chote-baba, this means 'Prince Ram'," he says.
"Prince Ram," Chotu repeats dutifully.
My world stops.
"Mr. Lal," I say into the sudden quiet, "You know how to read this?"
"Yes," he says. Nonchalantly.
"A dialect of my people."
"So it is a language." My thoughts are chasing each other round in circles. Double-think. Truth and untruth. Chaos and Coincidence.
"A dead language, I think you would say," he replies. "Very few native speakers around."
"Doesn't that make you sad?" I ask. The stupid question is the first thing that pops into my head. But his answer surprises me.
"All things pass," he says. "All people, all kingdoms, all suns and stars."
"Perhaps. I wouldn't know."
"But this is the Ramayana? The Hanuman Ramayana?"
"It is a Ramayana," he says. "There are a number of particularly good Ramayanas out there; why would you want another one?"
I'm incredulous. "Because...Because if this is the Hanuman Ramayana...Obviously nobody believes that Hanuman wrote it, but someone did, and if it predates Valmiki's account..."
"Just one more version, Dr. Valerie, but I think you are very wrong about nobody believing; enough people would, I think, that the Maharishi's work would suddenly be demoted to second place. That would be...distressing."
"Too fucking bad. Can you read all of it?"
He doesn't answer me. I walk forward, and kneel in front of him.
"Please, Mr. Lal, if you can read it. Please help me. If we bring the Hanuman Ramayana to the world..." visions of money are dancing in my head, to be replaced by even more powerful visions of vindication. How would my ex-peers, so uncharitable after my fall, react to a legend wrapped in plaintext?
Mr. Lal looks up at me sadly. Then Chotu makes a case.
"There is no Ramayana without Hanuman," the boy says authoritatively. "I think you should do it, Lalbabu."
'Lalbabu' breaks eye contact with me, and reaches out to ruffle Chotu's hair. "Perhaps," he says. A 'perhaps' is better than a 'no', but it's not good enough for Jay's deadline. As if in response to my thoughts, the ground trembles.
"They're blasting!" I start to move towards the holo setup, but am yanked back roughly. "No! Let me go!"
"Look!" Mr. Lal says. He points to the wall. Sand and dust are falling from somewhere above it, and the entire wall is vibrating.
"No...no...no..." I try to throw myself towards it, but his grip is unbelievably strong. My vision is blurring with helpless fury and frustration and fright as I feel the ground shake. The walls are collapsing, and I can hear small sharp staccato blasts echoing through the cavern. My body is being dragged backwards; Chotu is tugging valiantly alongside Mr. Lal, and a sense of betrayal clogs my throat. I struggle; the roof collapses behind us with a deafening crash. A storm of rockshards and dust and pressure slams into us a moment later.
I come to myself sitting on the edge of a tunnel, a hand holding a canteen of water out to me. Mr. Lal's hand...I'm supposed to be very angry with him. Why? Wall. Right. Anger requires energy I don't have.
"Ai, you alright now Memsahib?" asks Chotu, his face looking very small and scared.
"I...I think so?"
"Ok good. Because it is very hard to argue common sense with a madwoman when we're all deaf," he says, with the air of a veteran of a hundred such battles. I look questioningly at Mr. Lal.
"I believe your doctors would call it a case of 'temporary insanity'," he says. He doesn't sould like he is joking. There are deep scratches in his arm, and blood under my fingernails. I don't want to know. It's all gone now. The wall. The way out. I sigh and take the canteen with a nod of thanks.
The torchlight is growing weaker and weaker. Beijing habits made me buy cheap lithium-ions instead of the H2Cells, even on Jay's tab. Chotu and Mr. Lal stop, and Mr. Lal cocks his head to one side. Only then do I hear the sea.
"We will have to wait for the tide to go out," Chotu says, pointing to a splotch of darkness on the far wall of the cavern. "That tunnel leads out, but it's filled with water now."
I don't question how he knows this, and just sink down to the ground. Chotu follows.
After a long silence, Mr. Lal speaks."So why does an unbeliever like yourself care so much about a rock inscription?"
"The money was good"
"That explains why you came here, not why you weep silently in the dark, Dr. Valerie."
I draw my legs up to my chest, rest my head on my knees. This man's vision is a bit too good for my taste.
"Habit, I suppose. Some last attempt to emulate the dream of a cryptoarchaeologist I had wanted to become."
"So it is the puzzle in that stone that draws you?" he asks.
"I don't know." At least in this I can be honest, "My motivations are hardly clear, Mr. Lal, even to myself. There is certainly no hope for scholarly laurels, not anymore. Life has left me nothing worth living for, and I haven't left myself enough integrity to have something worth dying for." Chotu has fallen asleep, his head against my arm.
"Let me tell you a story," says Mr. Lal
Anything is better than listening to the distant pounding of the surf.
He clears his throat. "There was once a robber by the name of Ratnakar. Violent, ruthless. One day Ratnakar encountered a wandering sage on a crossroad outside the forest. Heedless of the immorality of it, Ratnakar divested the sage of his belongings. Misfortune upon misfortune befell the robber from that day. He lost his wealth, his family, everything. Finally Ratnakar was driven to the same crossroads upon which he had attacked the sage, and found the man still standing there.”
Mr. Lal pauses, as if to gauge my reaction to this startling piece of information. We all know the story; I smile ruefully. It comes out twisted. He shrugs, and continues.
“Ratnakar knew then that the man in front of him was not all he appeared. He demanded to know how his fortunes could be reversed. The sage said, 'Chant the name of Shri Rama, and all your wishes will come true. All the wealth of the world will be yours.' Ratnakar laughed. He said, 'I do no believe in any Rama. If there is such a god, then he is my enemy, and I shall certainly not chant his name.' Hearing this, the sage smiled. 'All right,' he said, 'Then you should chant Mara...Mara...Mara'. Dead...dead...dead, for that was what Ratnakar was, in mind and soul. Ratnakar agreed, and spent many years in the forest, chanting the word 'Mara'. His hair became matted, his body wasted away, and an anthill grew around him till there was nothing visible of Ratnakar except his eyes, burning with rage.”
Somehow Mr. Lal manages to breathe life into the tired tale. My skin crawls with the sensation of a hundred ant-feet. Thankfully, the story's end is in sight; soon everything will be quiet again. But for now there is that soft voice in the dark.
“The wealth and power he imagined, were nowhere to be found, and he grew angrier and angrier, thinking that the sage had lied to him. Just as Ratnakar was about to break free of the anthill and abandon his tapasya, he realized something - that all this time when he thought he had been chanting 'Mara...Mara...Mara', he had in fact been saying 'raMa...raMa...raMa'. And in that moment he attained enlightenment."
"And became known as Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, the greatest piece of Sanskrit literature in existence," I finish for him. "Everyone's familiar with some variant of that tale, Mr. Lal. Fairytale would be a better description. Bandit to Maharashi? Salvation without repentance? I see no vehicle in the story to justify that."
"Grace, Dr. Valerie," says Mr. Lal, amusement in his voice. It's a very heavy subject to be amused about, in my opinion. "Even in the darkest of places, for the most unrepentant unbeliever, there is grace. That much, I can promise you."
"I wish I could believe that."
"Truly? he asks. The flickering torchlight picks up a particularly simian grin on his face.
The roof of the tunnel is sloping downwards, and it looks like it will touch the floor somewhere in the dark in front of me. The weight of the rock above becomes a tangible presence, an unrelenting pressure on all sides. The torch is long dead. Suddenly, I bump into something. Chotu has stopped, and I hear harsh, panicked breaths. The wheezing rattle in my lungs tells me they are my own.
"Almost out, Memsahib," he whispers. I hear him sliding along the rock, then nothing. Like a crab I scuttle forward; there is a change in the quality of the air. My hand gropes for the roof above me, and encounter space.
My brain finally draws my attention to the fact that I can see. The light is diffuse, weak - dawn is leaking into this place. All around me lie large pressure-crates. On impulse, I walk towards the nearest one, and undo the pressure-locks.
"Lalbabu, Memsahib," whispers Chotu. "There's people up ahead."
"We want to avoid people, Chote-baba," says Mr. Lal.
"There's another way out," says the boy.
I lift the lid, and it rises silently, without the telltale hiss of a pressure release. The crate is full of Plasti-foam sprayed oblongs. It takes effort to scratch away a small lump of foam from one of the pieces. There is black stone underneath; the weathering does nothing to hide the exquisite detail; graceful fingers shaped around a lotus blossom. For a moment something in me frets about the damage to be caused when the statue will be unpacked. They will dip everything into vats of solvent, and wait for the foam to dissolve.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lal is busy with another crate; he has somehow managed to scrape away the foam from a large lota. Even in the dim light I can see the butter-yellow gleam.
"At least half of these are filled with gold," says Mr. Lal. "Very heavy to move."
"Half?" I ask. Half. Jay's secrecy, his brutal insistence...at the back of my throat I taste gobhi paratha, mixed with bile.
Mr. Lal drops the lota into the crate and turns away. Chotu is standing impatiently at the mouth of yet another tunnel. The voices beyond the chamber are getting louder, and in the middle of them, that familiar tone of command...
"Let's go," says Mr. Lal.
I shake my head. "I...I can't..."
"Truly?" he asks wryly.
"No!" says Chotu. "Come on Memsahib, please Lalbabu, tell her. Those are bad men."
I look into Mr. Lal's eyes. They are filled with something that might be called compassion, if I had more experience with that emotion.
"I think," he says, "I think Dr. Valerie will be alright."
No, I won't. But I dare not beg them to stay. They just might. Still protesting, the boy is propelled into the tunnel. Mr. Lal turns around to look at me one last time, and raises his hand to wave goodbye. It feels like a benediction.
The light is getting brighter, and I notice a dark reddish stain on the ground where Mr. Lal had stood minutes ago. His chappals are the local rubber kind; he must have injured his feet walking all night. In the predawn light, the stain looks like sindoor smeared on the rock in the shape of a footprint.
Almost, I reach for it. But my hand is paralyzed by the whispering of how strange the world would become if touch it. The more I look at it, the more certain I become that it is not blood. The voice in my head is gibbering now, so incoherently that it is almost easy for me to turn back towards the familiar danger. Towards Jay.
He sees me first. "Val? You found your way through that labyrinth? The gurkha is really something, nai?" There is no surprise on Jay's face, just a sort of calm indifference. Not all of the men around him are working to load the two garishly painted lorries parked on the sand; some of them hold rifles - rifles and machine guns. All the men with guns are looking at me.
"Where's the boy?" asks Jay.
I can't help but glance behind me, trying to find the words, the right words to keep Chotu safe from Jay's men. But he draws his own conclusions, as always. "Blast or rockfall?" he asks.
"You knew I was in there, and you kept blasting?" The words out of my mouth surprise me. Defiant, belying the cold knot in my chest that makes it hard to breathe the seafoam air
Jay's face twists into an ugly parody of amusement. "God you're a stupid cunt."
I'm expecting something like this from him, but the crudity still manages to shock me. He laughs; I can only imagine what my face looks like. "Crime committed," he says, pointing to the crates and the lorry. "Criminal," he says, pointing to me. "Crushed. Case closed."
I'm ashamed he actually has to explain it. My body has known all along, with every sweat soaked nightmare over the past ten years, every furtive glance towards the vidders. I hear sirens in the distance, and for a moment I think my paranoia is making me hallucinate. But the 'workers' are rushing now, hoisting the last of the crates onto the truck, tying everything down with cheap carb-fib rope. Jay is smirking, the trademark twist of the lips he has always reserved for me.
"Archaeologists are surprisingly easy to eliminate," he says gently.
I don’t even feel the rifle-butt slamming into my head.
Pain drags me awake, onto the cold floor of some thana. The days are counted by how many times they pull me from my cell for interrogations, consisting mostly of an interminable series of “I don’t know”s from me. The police are surprisingly professional, but I still vomit all over the inspector’s shiny boots.
All the surveillance resources at India's command can unearth no trace of Mr. Zhōng Chénglal. And there are millions of eight-year-old children with a nickname of “Chotu”; unregistered, illegal, impossible to track. There is a trial, and they move me to a lifetime in Tihar Women’s.
The sun is a dim memory here, surrounded by hard-eyed women and harder-eyed gaolers. Unrepentant…Unbeliever...This is a place beyond fear, a strange undiscovered country that reminds me, a little, of sindoor smeared on rock. In this little metre-squared world reeking of urine and despair, I begin to chant.
Lalbabu has promised. That even for me, in the darkest of places, there will be grace.
written by Aradhana Choudhuri