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“C’mon, its just a few more steps to the top,” he laughed and pulled my hand. I was already parched and my leg muscles were throbbing with protest at so much exercise. I should have never agreed to his proposal of this trip. The crazy traveller that Abhi is, he discovered this god-forsaken place called Devinarayanpur from some off-beat travel magazine and immediately sweet-talked me into this. “We should take this trip just to spend some quality time with each other,” was his way of charming me. Even though I realised that his romance for this place was more than his romance for me, I had readily agreed to accompany him, just to be with him for three days. A number of excuses at respective homes and we both set off for this quaint village in the district of North Dinajpur in West Bengal last Friday.
As soon as we landed here, even I fell in love with this place. It was steeped in history and every nook and corner had a story of its own. The local people were most forthcoming with the explanations and the forgotten history of the dilapidated mansions and we got to hear some really wonderful stories from the past.
Our host for those three days was an old man of 65 years, who was extremely concerned about our different surnames 🙂 We carefully avoided giving any explanation, lest it would become fodder of a huge village scandal. He was the one who told Abhi about this old temple on top of a small hillock, some 10 kms away from the village. “Its a must-visit for any adventurous soul,” he had told Abhi, who simply jumped with full excitement at the “a” word!
The uphill climb proved to be quite difficult for me. I had been huffing and puffing after Abhi, who was eager to reach the temple on the top. There was something else in his mannerism, apart from excitement, which I failed to read. “Hey, can you please slow down a bit?”
“We are almost there. Now, don’t stop here to take a rest.”
“Just let me take a swig from the water bottle,” I pleaded. “Not now, I have been waiting to come here for a long time; now that I am here, I don’t want to waste even a second.”
I was surprised at his tone. “Really? I thought you came to know of this place just last night from Mr. Manna.”
“Of course, I heard of this place just last night. But I don’t know why I feel that I have been meaning to come here for a long time. This place seems familiar somehow,” Abhi said in a low whisper.
By now, we had reached the temple. From close quarters, we were both surprised by the enormity of its structure. Even though it was completely dilapidated otherwise, the pillars were still standing strong. It was strange to see just six pillars amidst rubbles, covered with overgrown bushes everywhere.
“This is the temple of Maha Kali. Its difficult to imagine that there was a time some 100 years ago when this was the main temple of Devinarayanpur, thronged by hundreds of devotees each day.”
“I wonder what happened to the deity,” I said.
“She was stolen by two fellows from the village,” Abhi replied.
“Really? now that’s a real shame… wait, when did Mr. Manna say this?” I asked, surprised at this piece of information.
“He did. No, I think he didn’t. But I don’t know how I know all these,” Abhi looked at me alarmed. “I think I have come here before. I think I know this place every well.”
I asked him, “Have you visited this place as a child?” “No, I am sure I haven’t. You know I was born and brought up in Delhi. We never came this far for a holiday.”
The sun, which had been blazing all this while, was preparing to take our leave for the day. It suddenly dawned upon me that we should start the return journey. “Abhi, its 5-30 pm already; let’s go back. It will be dark soon.”
Abhi was absolutely not interested in going back. He was staring intently at the pillars. There was a curious mix of unexplained emotions being reflected on his face. I went and touched his arm. He gave a shudder.
“Do you know how poor my family was?”
I was taken aback. What was Abhi talking of? The son of an IAS Officer father and college principal mother was anything but poor. I shook him hard. “Have you lost it? Or this is another of your joke?”
“I didn’t study beyond class IV in the local school. I didn’t know who my father was. My mother worked as a labourer in the construction site so that she could bring up my younger four sisters, a brother and me.”
“Abhi, isn’t this going too far now?” I had always known Abhi’s quirky sense of humour very well.
“When Thakur Das family decided to build this temple here, five thousand workers were commissioned to create the architecture; and ten thousand labourers to do the job. My mother was one of them. I remembered how excited she was at the prospect of extra earning. After toiling relentlessly for four years, this temple was finally finished. Then came the day when the whole village was invited to the inauguration of the deity by Ramjiban Das, the head of the Thakur Das family.”
By now, I was interested in the story, which was being narrated by Abhi. I realised that my nut-case boyfriend had either read it in somewhere or was making up all of that, as part of a practical joke on me. And I was not to be easily fooled.
“I was just eleven years old, then. I still remember the unveiling ceremony of the deity. She stood naked, with her teeth biting her tongue and with eyes full of wrath. Whoever sculptured it, had done the eyes really well. One could just feel the anger emanating from her eyes and her body of solid gold. Yes, the deity was made of solid gold.”
I interjected, “No wonder it was stolen.”
Abhi suddenly looked at me with wonder in his eyes. “You think it was stolen because it was made of solid gold? Of course not, you silly. The gold was of no consequence. It was the symbol of prestige of the great Thakur Das family that was stolen alongside the deity.”
By this time, it was completely dark. I tugged at Abhi’s sleeves. “If you are done with your cock-and-bull story, can we please go down now? Its getting chilly here.”
“Its the month of June, how can it be chilly at this time of the year?” Abhi’s voice was hard.
Suddenly I realised that the weather was really cold. I started shivering and not all of it was due to the unexplained change in weather around me. Something in Abhi’s manner felt so wrong. I was determined to climb down, away from that torn down temple on the hilltop. I pulled Abhi towards me and started walking down fast.
“Mr. Manna, what is the story behind that temple? Where is the deity?”
“There’s no definite answer to that. Nobody knows the answer; everybody just has theories about the whole incident. Two brothers of a poor family vanished from the village right after the theft. So naturally they were under suspicion. But nothing definite could be proved. But equally disturbing was the fact that Ramjiban Das, head of the family that had built and established the temple died of a massive heart attack within a week.”
I was silently looking at Abhi’s face, trying to ignore the goose bumps in my flesh.
“There was a hint of a scandal, though. Some insider of the family, may be a maid or servant… the ones who are always gossiping.. went around telling the villagers that the patriarch had an illicit relationship with the mother of those two. The elder brother was actually his child. But it all could be untrue. That man was known to be a real gentleman. All these working class women will do anything to associate themselves with the zamindars of those times.”
In the dim candle light, Mr. Manna could not see my horrified face, which had gone white. Abhi spoke in a strangled whisper, “Would you know the time of the year when the theft happened?”
Mr. Manna replied, “I have heard it was some time after the Kali Puja; so it would be around December, may be.”