Circa 1991, much against my wishes, I was asked to handle the sales management functions in addition to the marketing function for which I was hired in the first place and a job I knew well. My geographic area of operation was north to east i.e. Punjab, Haryana, UP, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Assam. The product we were marketing was a bunch of ready-to-eat snacks. I had just got married but have been touring the country side for almost 20 days a month. I was sick and tired of this job and had a talk with my boss about it. He advised me to have patience for couple of months and he will do something about it, typical management style and he was the master.
The month was September when I embarked on 3 weeks tour of the eastern territories beginning with Bihar (undivided) to be followed by West Bengal and Assam. Luckily, the product being very urban, the travelling was restricted to class-I cities/ towns. I started off from Patna to Muzaffarpur to Ranchi to Jamshedpur in the first week. The dealers or wholesalers appointed by my predecessor was ill-equipped to handle food products and were never given any guidance in that area. As a result, there were huge damages and claims that needed settling. By the time I finished the first leg of the tour in Jamshedpur, I was exhausted and badly wanted to get away but the distributer there, Ashish Agarwal, a young guy just out of college insisted that I have dinner with him and catch the 10:45 pm train to Kolkata. Ashish over the last two days had become a good friend, primarily because of his amiable nature and enthusiasm to make the products a success in his territory, so I couldn’t refuse and ended up at his (family) bunglow in Kadma area. The Agarwal household was joint-family; as such it was full house with all his uncles, aunts and cousins living under one roof. The food was vegetarian but delicious and I over ate. After dinner pleasantries done, I was ready to leave for the station and Ashish volunteered to drop me at the station. We left in his Ambassador car not knowing what fate has in store for us. A short distance from his house near the water tank, the ambassador suddenly started spluttering and finally stopped. My first thought was fuel has run out but the fuel gauge showed half-tank is still available. Ashish tried his best to bring the car engine to life but it simply refused to start. I was panicking now as Tatanagar Railway Station was still quite a distance and alternative transport was not in sight. After a frantic search we finally traced an auto rickshaw with the driver soundly sleeping in the back seat. With much cajoling he agreed to drop me at the station. I bade farewell to Ashish and got into the auto rickshaw. The vehicle had clearly seen better days and now was on its last leg. Even with full throttle, it refused to move beyond 10 km speed. It finally entered the station premises at 10:43 and trudged along to the main entry gate.
I left the bewildered auto rickshaw driver with balance change of the Rs.100/- note and ran towards the platform. But I was late by the whisker as I helplessly saw the tail end of the train from Jamshedpur vanish towards Howrah……
I was at my wits end in that completely unknown place. There was not a single soul on the platform except a few sleeping figures in the distance. I walked towards the Station Master’s cabin to check the next available train. The station master was Bong and was sympathetic to my woes but was helpless. The next train was at 4:45 am and he endorsed my existing ticket for that train. He also directed me to the First Class waiting room.
The FC Waiting Room contrary to my expectation was very clean and empty. There was not a soul in that large room. I found a nice comfy single sofa and put my luggage – a suitcase and a leather office bag on the side table, bought a bottle of water from the vendor on the platform who was about shut shop for the day. I made myself comfortable in that sofa and took out the book – Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth which I had bought from the New Delhi Railway Station. I always buy a book whenever I make a journey on train or plane, it is a habit. Most of the time, the book is finished by the time I return.
After a while, the Station Master came and introduced himself as Mr. Abani Sarkar, originally from Burdwan but posted here for last 2 years. He said he has fallen in love with place and might settle down in Jamshedpur only. He also said in case I need anything like tea or coffee, just hop in to his office any time during the night. I thanked him and requested him if he can wake me up just in case I am not already up by 4 am. He said, “Sure, I will come and wake you up and get you some tea as well to refresh you.”
Once Mr. Sarkar departed, I concentrated on the book and soon was engrossed in it in so much that did not realise than another gentleman had come inside the waiting room and sitting a away from me. The man seemed to be from the armed forces with a very thick moustache and wearing a blue tweed blazer over a grey trouser and a striped tie. The tweed blazer was a bit awkward as it was not that cold in September to wear a woollen jacket. May be the person is old enough to feel the night chill… in the insufficient light of the room, it was difficult to figure out the age.
I smiled at him and said, “Hello, you too missed the train?” He smiled back and said, “Yes, I missed it too.” Thereafter, there was an awkward silence, as I wanted to continue with my reading and it seemed rude to just going back to my book. I was in a dilemma but the gentleman only broke the silence, “You want to read your book, you may please carry on or on the other hand I can tell you a real story. By the way I am Colonel (Retd) Rudrapratap Roy.” I introduced myself and said, “Yes, a real war story would be great. Before that let me get us some coffee.” I got up to go out in search of coffee but Col Roy stopped me and took out a flask and two stainless steel glasses. He gave a hearty laugh and said, “I always carry my coffee with me, just in case…” He poured the two glasses and handed me one of them and came over to where I was sitting making himself comfortable in the other single sofa. Now that he was closer, I could make out that he is in late 50’s or early 60’s but still very fit and strong.
We both finished our coffee and he began his narrative thus….
The year was 1986 and I was posted at IMA, Dehradoon as an instructor. As part of the training, we did regular excursions to the lower Himalayas around Yamunotri and Gangotri. In one such excursion to the Gangotri region, I was leading a fresh batch of 20 cadets who had aspiration to reach great heights physically and intellectually. The young guns were physically very fit and were trekking to the higher altitudes with ease. Our trek was progressing smoothly and we had hoped to reach our summit spot at Gangotri by 1700 hours.
At around 1300 hours we stopped at clearing to have our frugal lunch and to re-energise ourselves. Thereafter, we continued our trek to the Gangotri.
Gangotri, the origin of the River Ganges and seat of the goddess Ganga, is one of the four sites in the Chota Char Dham pilgrimage circuit. The original Gangotri Temple was built by the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. The river is called Bhagirathi at the source and acquires the name Ganga (the Ganges) from Devprayag onward where it meets the Alaknanda. The origin of the holy river is at Gaumukh, set in the Gangotri Glacier, and is a 19 km trek from Gangotri.
Places to visit near the Gangotri Temple
- Bhagirath Shila is believed to be the holy rock where King Bhagirath prayed to Lord Shiva.
- Pandava Gufa, located 1.5 km from Gangotri, is the place where the Pandavas are believed to have meditated and rested en route Kailash. Pilgrims will have to trek up to the Pandava Gufa.
In the pilgrimage journey of Chota Char Dham, Gangotri is often visited after Yamunotri (located on the western region of Garhwal Hills). Pilgrims generally make Uttarkashi as their base camp. The time taken from Uttarkashi to Gangotri temple is about 4 hours by road.
We were about an hour away from our destination, when things started to go wrong. First, one the cadet Tarkesh Kumar, tripped and sprained his ankle badly then all of a sudden, the weather took an ugly turn with black clouds engulfing the entire horizon. I wanted to speed up and reach the summit urgently but couldn’t with a limping cadet in tow. Soon enough, it started to rain and with each move forward, the intensity increased. There were no places to stop and shade ourselves from the incessant rain. There was lightening happening, practically every second and one could hear terrifying sound of cloud bursts. All of a sudden, I could hear another sound fast approaching towards us – the sound of water gushing at great speed. I shouted to the cadets to get hold of whatever they can find nearby as the flood waters minutes away from blowing us away. I was little late in my instructions as the flash flood in the hills are much ferocious compared to the plains and it swept us in a matter of seconds. I had no doubt that very soon I will be meeting my makers and as a soldier, the only thought on my mind was, “This was not the way to go. I would have liked a bullet in my heart or stepping on a landmine.” I desperately tried to catch any moorings but there were none in the path as the water at over 100 Km surface speed swept me away and few of my cadets, soon after I blacked out.
I woke up with a shake and found one scantily clothed Sadhu was shaking me to see if I am alive. I sat up with a startle and felt my throat was completely parched, I couldn’t even speak. The Sadhu held up his Kamandul (a kind of jug) and gestured me to drink from it. Hesitantly, I took a swig from it, the water was very cold but it somehow brought warmth in the body. The Sadhu spoke first and said that it is going to get dark very soon and if I am feeling good, we should hurry and trek down to the nearby temple to spend the night. I agreed and we started to move towards the temple. The temple door was closed but he pushed it open and we went inside, leaving my shoes outside. There was an idol of indeterminate deity which gave out a mystic feeling in the dim light of the earthen lamps and made the atmosphere very eerie with more shadows than lights.
The Sadhu momentarily moved away from my sight only to appear again with some fruits and offered them to me. The smell of the fresh fruits made me hungry and without much thought I devoured them in no time. The Sadhu had been looking at me intently with his deep gaze as I was eating but all the time there was a smile on his lips. He asked me where I am from and I narrated the incidences since that morning. As I was telling him, I instinctly reached into my pocket for the cigarettes but realised they are gone, probably in the flood water somewhere, I looked at wristwatch but it was gone too. No cigarette to warm you up and no way to know the time. I asked the Sadhu how long he has been living there. With a smile, he said “I don’t live here, I come and go”. “You mean you have other places to stay”, I asked hoping he will elaborate his statement. He thought for a moment and then asked me, “Do you believe in God?” My first reaction was to say NO but not to offend my saviour and host of the night I said “I really don’t know but yes I definitely do not believe that God lives inside a temple. The temples are places to exploit the people with fear or greed.” He was nodding his head in affirmation and clapped in joy, hearing me. He said, “I keep telling people the same but still they throng to the temples looking for God. You are different and I knew it when I saw you the first time.”
The Sadhu continued, “The God created different species and plants for a purpose, Humans were created as a superior species to take care of all the others but it seems there have been some manufacturing defect in them!!” He chuckled like a child. Then on a more serious note, said “The very idea of a religion is not of the God, it is the creation of humans for their own selfish agenda. God wanted the humans to take care of the nature in all its form and not destroy it. Initially, the people would worship the nature because they had realised that it is the Nature that helps them in their survival. But slowly over period of time, they, the humans became greedy, greedy of power, greedy of materialistic life, greedy of becoming overlord of their surroundings. And that brought the miseries. One set of humans started exploiting the others and situation came to such an extent that the exploited revolted and refused to accept the God they have been forced to follow till then. They felt their existing God doesn’t care about them. They looked for solace in another God and started following it, worshipping it and then fighting fellow humans in the name of their God. It became fashionable to project – My God is Better than Your God. Alas, they forgot that the God is One only.”
He stopped for a while to compose his thoughts, and then said, “You know, the people who throng to the temples do not go there because they love their God but they have an inherent fear of God in their heart perpetuated by years of exploitation by the priests. I feel ashamed of them.”
The oil lamps started flickering giving the signal that the oil it is in the verge of finishing and the lights may go off any moment. The Sadhu got up and to the other side of the deity and brought to blankets and offered them to me saying, “The lights will go off very soon, why don’t you make yourself comfortable and try to sleep. We will talk again, perhaps in the morning.” I was definitely feeling sleepy, so I took the blanket to make myself cosy and then I slept.
I woke up by sound clanking of chains and rustles of feet outside the temple. I got up and looked for the Sadhu but couldn’t find him anywhere in the still dark temple. Then with a bang the temple door opened and flash of bright sun light filtered through the open door. A posse of people in the attire of the temple priests came in and looked at me in total surprise. They seemed stupefied and speechless looking at me. I was still adjusting my eyes in the sudden bright sun light by guarding the eyes with my hand when one of the priest, presumably the head of the group, asked me, “Who are you and how did you get inside the temple?” I told him about yesterday’s flash flood in the upper regions and how as a castaway I was rescued by a Sadhu and brought to this temple. I also told him that I couldn’t find the Sadhu when I woke up this morning and that he must have left very early in the morning. There was a clear commotion amongst the congregated people and everyone was talking animatedly at once. The head priest raised his hand to silence them and said something that made my head spin violently.
“I do not know how you entered the temple. There are neither any akhara nor any hermitage anywhere in the nearby. The flash flood you are talking about happened six months ago, the same day that this temple closed for the winters. We unlocked the doors just now after six months and if you, as you are saying, had come on that day, then you have been sleeping inside for six months!” The head priest then held my hands and touched his forehead to them in a gesture of naman or obedience and said, “You perhaps, is unaware but you have been rescued by the God himself and brought here. It was his blessings that you are alive without food or water for this long.”
I had a lot of explaining to do to my commanding officer at the IMA when I finally reached there. But that is not part of the story, the Colonel said with a mysterious smile on his lips. He asked me, “So, young man what you have to say?” I said nothing but just gave him a salute.
Well, the story should have ended here but it didn’t….
I was awakened by the Station Master Mr. Abani Sarkar. He said, “Get up Mr. Bhattacharjee, the train is about to come, it has left the last station.” I got up and checked my watch, it said 4:25 am. I looked around for Col (Retd.) Rudrapratap Roy but he was nowhere to be seen. I asked Mr. Sarkar, “Where is Col Rudrapratap?” Mr. Sarkar looked at me with bewilderment and said, “There is nobody else here, Sir. You are the only passenger that utilised this First Class Waiting Room last night. I even got you a cup of coffee when you were reading your book. Thereafter checked on you on my usual beat and found you soundly sleeping, so I did not bother you.” I protested, “But there was this gentleman who introduced himself as Colonel Rudrapratap Roy. He even offered me coffee and narrated a very nice story or rather life experience too.” I remembered he was smoking a cigar and looked for the ashes on the floor. And it was there, clear tales tell sign of the existence of Col (Retd.) Rudrapratap Roy. I showed the ashes to Mr. Sarkar but he was adamant that there was nobody in the room except me. In a last ditch effort, I checked the attached bathroom but there was nobody there either. I packed-up my bag and followed Mr. Sarkar to the platform and looked around in the hope of finding the Colonel but he was nowhere to be seen.
Till date I have found no plausible answer to this escapade of mine. I refuse to believe that my mind played games with me that night because I had no external inputs like a book or incidence to trigger such narrative. Rest I leave it you to decide.
One thought on “One Night with a Stranger”
Nice story. Interesting!