Stanley Coutinho

In a spirit of do-your-worst, Ashley accepted his transfer to Katni, in the district of Jabalpur, State of Madhya Pradesh, and jumped into the first available seat on the Calcutta Mail. The ETA at Jabalpur is about three in the afternoon. When the train is on time. He reached at 4.30 the next morning.

Blinking fiercely to adjust to the dim light around him, he moved out of the Railway Station and, was amused to see large tricycles standing in a sort of queue. Waiting for passengers. He shuffled over to a wiry old man who sat proprietorially on the driver’s seat of one such contraption, reeking of pungent beedi smoke; he nonchalantly directed Ashley to another, which made Ashley realise that there was order in this apparently chaotic parking. The charge from the railway station to the bus-stand was a grand sum of ₹5. Okay, let’s admit that it was in 1989! So, it was a grand sum anyway. It reminded him of the time, when, on an impulse, he had taken a ride in Calcutta on those human-pulled rickshaws; having considered it an inhuman practice by any standard (which successive “communist” governments could not stop), he had decided to “experience” the ride and pay whatever was asked for; it was an experimental journey of about half a kilometre. He had paid ₹10 and come away feeling good.

At the end of the ₹5 trip, he found himself amidst a cluster of dimly lit sheds that made up the bus-stand. The harsh, though inadequate, light from the halogen lamp at the far end of the complex, reflected off the streams of water of doubtful origin flowing along the cracks and hollows in the asphalt, and off the globs of sputum. And even at that time of the day, the place was noisy. Raucous. Announcements could be scarcely discerned over the business-as-usual din. While he would have welcomed a cup of tea (even in these surroundings), he dashed towards the “platform”, where a dilapidated set of metal sheets that went under the description of a State Transport bus, stood. It was to leave in ten minutes. In a half daze, he climbed its rickety steps and, since it was almost empty, he took his time surveying his mode of transport. The seats were upright benches with rexene cushions attached to tubular metal frames. He took a window seat and pushed his suitcase under it. The aisle-side of the bench had been dug into by some very creative passenger: the rexene had been torn and the sponge inside had been hollowed out. He was sure that no one would care to sit there, and thus, he would be spared of a companion on the trip, with his early morning breath, …or worse.  

The distance was about 90 kilometres, which would be covered in about two hours of the bus trundling along. So, estimating that he would reach his destination by about 7 am, he decided to relax and catch up on his lost sleep. Which was impossible. The bus roared into action, literally, and continued its roar relentlessly. It had started off with just about ten passengers and the internal echo of the engine was deafening. As he gradually settled in to the motion and the noise, he felt himself dozing off now and then. It was at about 6.15 am that the bus halted for a few minutes near a board saying: Sleemanabad.

He was suddenly wide awake! Sleemanabad! Named after the famous William Henry Sleeman. Major-General, and Commissioner for The Eradication of Thuggee. Ashley had a huge grin on his face as he looked around excitedly with his discovery. Sleeman-a-b-a-d, he mouthed the word. I must come here and learn more about this place. His excitement was, however, lost on his fellow passengers. They were as unconcerned with this place as they were with the preceding village-stop at “Dhundi-Pipariya”. 

For the rest of the journey, he was lost in thoughts of this British Officer whom he had idolised ever since he had read “The Deceivers”, a novel by John Masters. Thereafter, Ashley had gone ahead and read several other books and articles printed in various old magazines about Sleeman and his daredevilry in eradicating a menace of central India, something that was said to have plagued unwary travellers for at least 450 years.

It was said that they (the thugs, as identified by Sleeman) were a cult of sorts which had no religious barriers; but they, all of them, offered obeisance to the goddess Kali. Legend has it that there was an asura or demon called Raktabeej who could not be killed because a new demon arose out of every drop of his blood that touched the earth; the goddess Kali, in her frantic attempts to annihilate this asura, sweated. From these drops of sweat arose men who would be taught the tender art of deception and strangulation. The method was simple: befriend the travellers, gain their confidence, find out what they are carrying, strangle them with the white scarves. A cult was born: they “sacrificed” travellers to their goddess – the financial gains were incidental to their devotion.

Whether there was a cult or it was just another case of opportunism among the ordinary people in the middle ages, is a question best left to historians to ponder over. It should be remembered, however, that the area of infestation was Bundelkhand which lay between the old governable regions of the northern and central kingdoms and principalities; today it lies roughly along the State borders of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. This was always a heavily forested hilly tract which was difficult to govern. Therefore, waylaying of merchants, messengers/runners, and later, even pilgrims and women, were rife; these stories were re-told lipsmackingly laced with mystery – the ritual killing, a universal set of secret signals that transcended the limitations of language and dialect, and the absence of barriers of caste or religion. This juicy story was fed to the West that hungered for horrifying tales of the Mysterious East in the same frame of mind as George Orwell’s fretful declaration that “you never seem to get a good murder nowadays” (“Decline of the English Murder”, 1946). In fact, Mark Twain in his “Following The Equator – A Journey Around The World”, published in 1897, in which he devotes some twenty-three chapters to his travels in India, says:

“On top of all this [India] is the mother and home of that wonder of wonders – caste – and of that mystery of mysteries, the satanic brotherhood of the Thugs.”

Satanic? The penchant for mystery is seen also in Sleeman’s references (in the book mentioned below) to wolves nurturing human babies in their dens. A veritable feast for a mind that had grown up on Romulus and Remus! Ever wondered how and why Rudyard Kipling created “Jungle Book”?

And yet, Sleeman tirelessly worked for the eradication of “thuggee” in India, though the main credit went to Lord Bentinck – who stands tall between his “eradication” of thugee and sati! But it was Sleeman who dared to travel on horseback throughout the troubled regions and record his observations in his book: “Journey Through the Kingdom of Oude in 1848-1850”. After having needled the goddess for several years and exterminating the scourge, Sleeman decided to return to his family in England.

Ashley had always believed that the goddess could never have let him go so easily, anyway! The ship had hardly left Colombo – when Sleeman had another of his severe asthmatic attacks. He died before he could leave the sub-continental waters and was given a sea burial.

And here was Ashley speeding away from the village in a rattle-tin of a bus. He found, on reporting at the office, that his personal secretary, Dilip, was a resident of Sleemanabad. The very first week-end he got himself invited over. Dilip’s grandfather was a grand old man, with huge handlebar moustaches that he kept tugging at and twirling. When Ashley told him of his interest in Sleeman, he had a twinkle in his eyes. He asked Dilip to take Ashley to the temple dedicated to Kali; he was informed that descendants of the honourable Sleeman (that’s how they still addressed him) come to visit the place about once in two years or so. When Ashley said that he would love to meet them, the grandfather said: you might be lucky! That twinkle was intriguing though.

Taking advantage of their hospitality, he had the evening meal with them, and after a long chat around a little bonfire, Ashley went to sleep. In a short while, he heard the sounds of heavy drumming. He woke up and went to the window. The rain was coming down in sheets. The lone light outside the temple cast an eerie glow through the rain. Each gust of wind seemed to bend the light towards the temple door. In that semi-darkness that seemed to catch the intermittent glow of the bending light, he could see the outlines of a horse. In full regalia. The boot in the stirrup was shining. Ashley tried hard to make out who it was, sitting on the horse. A sudden gust of wind, pulled the hanging light out of its bearings – and there was darkness.  The drumming stopped. The rain stopped. He crawled back to the bed and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning, he woke up with his clothes and the bed totally sogging wet. He sat up, distressed, wondering what had happened. He looked towards the window that he had peeped through last night. There was no window there. The single window in the room was on the opposite wall. And that was tightly closed. No way he could have opened it in the night. Dilip came in and was quite disturbed over Ashley’s condition. He immediately got him a towel and temporary change of clothes. When he was fairly presentable, he went out to see the temple. The lamppost was intact. He could see his footsteps of the previous night deeply imprinted on the muddy road, and, yes, there were light hoof prints at the edge of the pavement leading to the temple.

He returned, ignoring the slight shiver up his spine, and noticed the muddy footprints on the floor inside the house, leading to his bed.

In the mean time, the grandfather had been up and about. During the hasty breakfast of a mountain of poha (flattened, or beaten, rice) and milky tea, Ashley was greeted with the twinkle in the eyes of the grandfather. “Please come again,” he said, “you could meet the descendants also, sometime!”

But, during Ashley’s entire tenure of two years in Katni, none of them came.