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- Mattie Stepanek
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I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered. He was unlike many other people, rather any other people who crowd the face of the earth, he was different, not like me, not like you, but was one of a kind, a kind that one might never see ever in life, the kind that does not exist perhaps, and with him, I guess, we have lost an entire race, and with the extinction of the race, we did lose the magic attached with that race, the rare magic, which I first saw when at night, when the ghats of Varanasi would go dim and quiet, he would sleep on his mattress, spread over the porch of the Man Mandir Ghat - while I would stealthily run about the ghats looking for any money, or any such valuables that the tourists might have dropped on their tours around the ghats - and I noticed that his mattress never touched the ground, it sort of floated in the air, an inch above the ground, and old Pandeyji slept peacefully - levitated - unattached with all the worldly activities, quite literally.
In the heat and busyness of the day, no one really noticed, but I - having seen Pandeyji levitated at night - did observe that his slippers too never did actually touch the ground. He walked around, an inch taller than he in reality was, doing random checks for tourists to give a boat ride to, like every other boatman did. But Pandeyji never bargained, he had his fixed price, for everyone, Indian or foreigner, he had his rate fixed, not a penny more, not a penny less. Unlike the many other motor run boats of the modern era, he still used oars to pull his boat. While the many new and small boats were caught napping, Pandeyji would be up, and as the sluggards attached to the earth slept on, the one who wasn’t could be seen doing his daily push ups and crunches and yoga and stretches, and then too I have seen, he did not touch the ground. At the age of no-one-knows-what, his head had a few strands of hair scattered hither and tither on an otherwise shining stretch of skin, from the shape of his mustache one could guess that he used to have a really thick forest of horseshoe mustache that has withered away with time, his eyes were deep and black, voice husky, veins out, as his muscular body still carried the enigma of that young Pandeyji who used to once help his father with finding the customers for a boat ride on the Ganges, and later on himself took up the job of both the scout and the boatman after, obviously, his father’s demise. All so good and great and truthful about Pandeyji, but no one saw the mysterious part of the story, except for me when I slipped on the ghat and fell right in front of the sleeping Pandeyji, and discovered - as my eyes were on level with the ground - that for a change someone chose the air over the ground for a bed.
That day onward I grew suspicious and everyday I saw him, both in the day and at night, and was astonished to see how he really managed to stay beyond the touch of anyone or anything earthly.
Even his boat was not spared. If one looked closely enough the water did not touch it, and when looked with some more scrutiny, I discovered that his boat was dry, yes dry! even the great Ganges failed to wet his boat. Everything about him floated in the air, but maintained the proportionate distance with each other, they went never out of shape.
Pandeyji was both the guide and the boatman. He also had a small shop which he used to run at times when he got tired of boating. He sold milk. He had a cow (but the cow’s feet touched the ground), that he used to milk himself. While the other sellers would shout, “Take this milk. This is the best milk you’ll ever get here. This is 100% pure cow milk”, meanwhile at Pandeyji’s, “If you want to bath that stone they call Shiva inside, then take this milk, it is forged. But if you want to feed it to the little one on your lap, memsahab, I prefer you take this milk. And in case you are having a bad stomach and need some dahi chira to cool your stomach down, I prefer you take this milk. It has already been shook quite a bit.” His honesty was the main reason for manipulating the customers to buy milk from him.
And again his low price was the reason why he got people to roam the ghats in his very boat. He had his fixed rate - 20 rupees per ghat, now it’s up to you how many ghats you want to visit - which was quite less than what the other boatwalas charged. Customers used to come to him like magic. He never ran out of people around him. But I wonder, did no one notice that he never stepped on the ground? What was the reason that he had severed his ties with the earth and decided upon this grand insult to the earth?
So that night - the one that was followed by the first rains of monsoon, the one where the wind was so strong that the flags atop the mandirs danced madly in the air and the big umbrellas fixed at certain points of the Dashashwamedh Ghat threatened to tumble over the people in front of them - when I saw Pandeyji getting row his boat, alone, at night, I ran and jumped in front of him and asked him if I could accompany him. “Oh yes, Rajababu, of course of course. Come join me”, I saw his teeth were all white and clear as he smiled when he spoke.
The appearingly old boatman loosened the ropes from the chain locks and let the wind play the boat along the waters of the Ganges. The lights from the ghats still flickered on the river surface like molten ripples of gold, and the small waves on the Ganges made even smaller shadows on those ripples of gold. The wind was magnificent, but yet failed to move even an hair on Pandeyji’s face, but his dhoti fluffed in the wind. He sat in front of me, facing on my right away from the ghats towards the vast expanses of the unknowns of the skies.
I wanted to ask him about the secret behind his displeasure with mother earth. So I asked him, “Tell me, Pandeyji, what is your first name?”
He burst out laughing, a clear ringing laugh, louder than the whooshing of the wind, “How do you even guess that my last name is Pandey, chhote babu?”
“They call you Pandeyji, everyone calls you Pandeyji.”
“They? Who are they?”, Pandeyji cried out with a smirk, “You mean the boys of yesterday? What can they probably know about me, chhote babu? They were not even born when I had lived twice their present age. You have gone to the wrong people, chhote babu. If you need to know about me, then come and ask me”, Pandeyji laughed aloud.
“Okay, then”, I said, “Tell me about yourself”, then wondering what to call him, and finally, “Pandeyji.”
“I am a conflict in myself, you see. A crack. I legally do not exist”, he laughed out again, “I have no documents in my name. But see here, I stand right in front of you, all good and very much alive”, he said spreading out his arms, punching the air.
Amazingly he has cut off all his worldly connections. He could be found by no one for not being legally present. He was living inside a bubble where no one can reach, a world of his own inside the very world of the madding crowds’ ignoble strife, a world right there in front of us, but can be penetrated by no one. And then came levitation. The severest of all disconnections. What was so wrong? Why was he so not in terms with our good old earth and its people? So I asked it, “Why are you always above the ground?”
Pandeyji made a grunting noise. “Oh, so you have noticed? But no one else saw. They are all blind men walking the earth.”
I sat quietly hunched on my back as the winds rippled my hair, anticipating a story from Pandeyji. And Pandeyji did not disappoint.
“You like this, eh?”, Pandeyji sounded displeased, “I hate it. This being in the air thing. You can feel nothing, no wind, no water, cannot touch anybody. It’s awful.”
“Were you born like this, Pandeyji?”
“Born like this? Are you crazy, chhote babu? Have you seen anybody being born in the air? I was born a normal and healthy child, like you and the rest have.
“My life has been quite tupsy turvy, chhote babu. And it will be wrong to say that I am where I should be. I should have been dead long back. But due to some reason lately, my passage to parlok is blocked.”
“What do you mean blocked?”, I asked, as I noticed that the ghats have almost become devoid of any people now.
“You know, chhote babu”, Pandeyji said, as he steadied the boat with his oars, “I have even forgotten my first name, and about the surname of Pandey, I can assure you that I was not born with it. I have lived a long life, chhote babu. But I can handle no more. It should end now, anyhow.”
“What is your age, sir?”
“Oh, don’t ask me that”, Pandeyji smiled, “I wasn’t very good with numbers then, nor am I now. I was always the body builder palwan type.”
“Okay. Still it did not reveal the secrets of you being positioned above the ground”, I said.
“I am not being able to touch the ground, or feel the wind, or the water, because I am not supposed to, chhote babu”, for some reason I do not know, he sounded very creepy, his voice became lower, and his tone was that of a taunt.
“You see, young sir”, Pandeyji continued in that same creepy tone, “Everyone is where they are supposed to be, everyone is doing what they are supposed to do and everything is happening as that was supposed to happen.
“And I, chhote babu, I am not even supposed to be alive right now”, laughed out Pandeyji. And then for once, in the darkness of the night, and the solitude of the empty ghats, as the black sky formed the roof, and the black river formed the floor of our huge hall room, Pandeyji’s laughter echoed in my ear a thousand times more than it should have in reality.
“What do you mean supposed to be dead yet alive?”, I asked shakily, a tinge of fear had already crept in and got itself a place alongside the thrill and elan in my heart.
“I told you, na, Chhote Babu, I am caught in a crack, a narrow loophole between the real and the fantasy. I should not be alive, but due to fantasy, I am. But reality does not support my being here, so I cannot feel anything, I am confined, rather caged in the open air.”
I sat there, just sat there. Looked at Pandeyji, and thought of all the other things that I could have done in the last hour instead of listening to Pandeyji blabbering. Fantasy and reality? Really? What is this man talking about? Is he drunk? What does he drink or smoke? Or does he take me for granted to listen to his bullshit stories? But again, I look outside, and find his boat still not touching the waters. So is he in reality, something else? Rather someone else. Not anyone amongst us. A rare breed?
“Rare indeed”, Pandeyji’s voice broke my trance, “But not so rare in those days.”
“What days?”, I asked, although I was doubting his words a while ago. Curiosity sure is a dangerous impulse!
Pandeyji looked up at the sky. Then he looked towards the ghats and without looking at me he said, “I have spent so many days here, chhote babu. Met so many people, tall and short, brown and white, thin and fat, atheist and agnostic, but no one seemed convincing enough to believe.”
“Believe what?”, I asked.
“The question, chhote babu, is”, Pandeyji paused, then looking at me and lowering his voice, “Do you believe?”
“But believe what, Pandeyji?”, I asked, confused.
“The world of fantasies rely on believers, chhote babu. If you believe it exists, it exists. But if you don’t, it won’t exist. Fantasy is not easily achieved, my friend, it needs years and years of practice and tapasya. Only then one attains the power of believing in the unseen.
“I had been the page of one such man, who believed, and through his prolonged meditations, he used to tell me, that he had built in his mind a world of his own, a fantasy world, that cannot merge with realism, realism is feeble and brittle in front of it. Fantasies are stronger than reality, he taught me, because the real world can be destroyed, but to destroy a fantasy world, a world that resides in a person, you have no power. How much you torture that man, you cannot take that virtual world away from him.
“But it has its vices too, dear son, if you get too much into that world, you can get completely lost and never be able to find your way back to the real world. Some people say the lost ones have gone mad, but my master used to tell me that no one is really lost, they are all there looking for something that the real world cannot give them, and once they had found that something in their own worlds of fantasies, they come back.
“The problem occurred when I asked guruji to show me his world. He agreed and I got trapped in the meditation. Years later when I woke up, I saw my guruji dead, and I was levitated. I could feel no breeze on my body, but I knew it was there. With my guruji dead, the way back from his mind-world was blocked, and at the same time, death of my guruji meant the end of his mind-world too.”
Pandeyji paused. “The only way out”, he said, “is only by telling someone from the real world of my situation.”
“So you haven’t told anyone of your situation yet?”, I asked.
“Yes, yes, I have tried hundreds of times”, Pandeyji exasperated, “But no one believed, and believing is important.
“So I again ask you, chhote babu, do you believe?”
I did not believe obviously. I mean, who would believe to some made up story of a senile old man? Even if the story is good, it - by no means - is believable. I did not answer to Pandeyji’s question. Because every time I thought of him being mad and just a good storyteller, his levitated self shattered my logic.
After a few moments of silence, Pandeyji got up, and jumped into the river. Holding his nose, he went up and down the surface of the river quite a number of times. He then swam up to the boat and from the water shouted out at me, “Thank you, chhote babu, thank you.”
“For what?”, I cried out to him.
“Because you believe. I can again feel”, saying this, he went back into the river.
Did I really believe? Or was it just another of the old man’s tricks? I looked down at the boat. It was wet.
A few days later Pandeyji went missing. After many rumors and stories the one that everyone believed was that he was murdered by some goons hired by the mandir authorities for his continued jeers and insults - of calling them mercenaries - thrown at the people who ran the mandir.
I never saw him again. Neither was his boat or milk shop there anymore. People said he died. But I believe he is still out there somewhere, walking some unknown path, and telling people his story, trying to awaken the world of fantasies in them.