It happened when Neelketu was attempting to capture the columns of Pantheon digitally. In order to get all the eight Corinthian style pillars in a single frame, he had stepped back by about two hundred feet from the main entrance. Just when he was about to press the camera button, lower portions of the columns suddenly metamorphosed into a sky blue Alfa Romeo.
A good looking young man (a rubicund David a la Michelangelo, thought Neelketu at that time), wearing a friendly smile, was gesticulating at him out of the car’s rolled down window.
`You Indian?’, he asked, pronouncing the `d’ as `thee’.
Neelketu nodded and stepped forward towards the neutral geared Alfa Romeo.
`I like Indians. Had fun recently in Bombay. International Fashion Week, you understand’, he brought all his fingers of the right hand together and quickly kissed their tips before flinging them out.
`Me Donato, a fashion designer from Milano.’
`I am Neelketu, a historian.’
`Aah, that’s why you interested in Pantheon. But you young to be in history‘, he said with a flourish.
`You see Raphael’s tomb inside?’, asked Donato, flicking his thumb out at the Pantheon.
`Sure. Who would miss paying tribute to the creator of `The School of Athens’?’, replied Neelketu, with a distinct emphasis on the name of the Renaissance era painting.
‘I like your speech style. Visit Milano, you must. It is more beautiful than Roma’, said Donato, throwing a north-westerly flying kiss with passion. Appearing magnanimous, he said, `Look here, Professor. You good man. I gift you two leather jackets, fresh from my company.’
He displayed two glossy plastic covers containing black colored jackets inside, after picking them up from the side seat.
That made Neelketu feel, inwardly flattered and interested in the gift. Ostensibly, however, he launched a protest by waving his hands wildly, `I can’t accept your offer. These look awfully expensive!’
`No, no, I give you free. I come here on company work, you see. I advertise my product. Job done. I return back to Milano. Not want to carry free samples back,‘ pointing to the packets.
Neelketu continued the appearance of vigorous protest.
`You not like favors, I can tell. But wait. I have idea. You got 50 euros?’
`Y..yes’, murmured Neelketu in an uncertain manner.
`Give me 50 euros only. I use that money for petrol. Milano, long distance. And you accept my present. Have girlfriend or wife? Here, I give one more jacket. Brown-yellow, see. For her.’
Neelketu was in a quandary. But not willing to appear cheap, he took out his wallet and slowly pulled out few banknotes. The car’s logo depicting a green serpentine dragon swallowing a red man with his arms stretched out caught his eye when he was handing over the money to the ruddy David.
`Grazie. Have a great time in Roma. Ciao.’
Donato took the money and sped away.
Wee bit crestfallen, Neelketu took out the jackets from their plastic wrappers one by one, and realized that he had been had. They were musty smelling, worn out jackets. He felt stupid and angry. At that very instant he heard a giggle on his left. Turning towards the source of mirth, he spotted a fairly pretty brunette, perhaps in her late twenties, grinning at him. Her hazel colored eyes with long eye lashes made her attractive. She was wearing a mauve colored t-shirt on a pair of grey faded jeans.
Damn, his face must have given away his discomfiture, Neelketu thought.
The stranger approached him somewhat awkwardly and, raising her palms at the chest level, said apologetically,`I am sorry. I could’nt help laughing. That was rather gross of me.’
She spoke with a clear cut diction, throwing her voice out softly but with intensity. From the sharp t’s and d’s in her energetic manner of speaking, he guessed that she was British.
However, her words did not assuage his punctured ego. Neelketu still felt irritated. He eyed her with a sullen expression.
The dewy lady continued, `I happened to watch the entire sequence. I was in a dilemma as to what to do. Before I could sound out warnings, you had slipped over the bills to the confidence trickster!‘
Struggling to find words, Neelketu spluttered, `Tricked…first time… never before.’
The brunette shrugged, `It can happen to anyone. I have gone through such experiences in the past.’
Hearing that, he almost said `then we are quits’, but stopped short of acting silly the second time.
She stretched her right hand out, `Hi, I am Agnes.’
Her name reminded him of the angelic character in David Copperfield. Letting out an embarrassed smile, he shook the offered hand and murmured, `Neelketu.’
`I am an evolutionary biologist from Cardiff.’
`I specialize in ancient Indian history. I belong to Puri,’ mentioned Neelketu.
`Oh! I know Puri. Its beach, from where you can view sun rise as well as set, is always so crowded with tourists, unlike our Penarth beach.’
`But Penarth foreshore has these rows of mysterious stakes. No one seems to know what they were meant for’, said Neelketu in a friendly tone, and quickly added, `I have only read about them. Never been there.’
He had begun warming up to her.
`And you have Lord Jagannath’s temple of antiquity along with its associated annual car festival. Not to mention the magnificent Sun temple of Konark closeby’, she argued.
Neelketu was pleasantly surprised by her knowledge about his hometown. He looked at her questioningly.
Agnes explained, `Neel, I was in Puri as a participant of a science conference several years back. I was a PhD student then, and was quite amazed to learn that the enormous chariots of the car festival gifted a word to my mother tongue – juggernaut.’
And then, with a twinkle in her eyes, she quipped, `I don’t mean the eponymous British film starring Richard Harris and Omar Sharif!
Neelketu gave out a short laughter. Parodying the climax of the film, he said, `Cut the blue wire!’
`Does’nt Neel in your name mean blue?’, she retorted.
Taken aback, he asked, `Yes, but how do you know that?’
As they started sauntering in the direction of Trevi Fountain, Agnes elaborated.
`During my trip to Odisha, I had found out that Puri, many years ago, was also called Neelachal or the blue hill, on which Lord Jagannath’s temple was erected. I had also wondered whether Neel, the word for blue, had anything to do with the river Nile,’ and she immediately made a dismissing gesture saying, `Just a crazy thought.’
Then, she asked,` What does ketu stand for?’
`It refers to a comet. The body of a serpentine dragon that participates in causing solar and lunar eclipses, according to Hindu mythology, is also called Ketu’, he replied. At that moment, the logo of Donato’s car flashed across his mind.
`Blue comet. Nice name’, saying that Agnes drew an arc in the air with her right forefinger.
`Now, don’t say `Cut the blue comet!’, he exclaimed laughing, and tried teasing her by saying,
`Agnes sounds very much like Agni, the vedic fire god. I hope you are not a fiery lady!’
But she had turned contemplative. She murmured, as though speaking to herself, `Sun, moon, comets, etc. had so much influence on the primitive human psyche. Scholars surmise that our Stonehenge was meant for winter and summer solstice rituals.’
Neelketu, eager to display knowledge of his field, stated in a pedantic manner, `Though built over a long period in Salisbury, England, when Pharaohs were busy ruling the Nile and erecting Pyramids, blue stones found at Stonehenge were actually transported from Preseli mountains of your Wales, Agnes.’
`Why would anyone go through all that trouble?’, she asked.
`The same reason why people built Sun temples, I guess. Sun worship had been prevalent in the past. And religion can drive humans to shift mountains’, he replied.
Agnes turned serious and said, `And yet, surprise, surprise, I was duped within the Sun temple complex. It was worse than what happened to you few moments ago.’
He was not prepared to hear this. Neelketu became concerned. He queried, `At Konark?’
`I was bamboozled while I was admiring a long necked African mammal. Just imagine, giraffe in the precinct of Black Pagoda!’
It was becoming curiouser and curiouser. Although Neelketu wanted to know more about the conning, he disliked appearing to be a prying type. So, he did not utter any word and kept walking with her silently. He had noticed that Agnes did not have an easy gait but nevertheless it was enticing.
They were passing by the Piazza di Pietra that overlooked Temple of Hadrian. In front of the Corinthian columns, a small crowd had gathered. A turbaned man of Indian-origin, wearing shiny and flowing yellow robes, was floating in the air. His only terrestrial contact seemed to be a stick in his left hand that pointed downwards with its lower end touching the ground.
Neelketu wondered whether the tourists who had flocked around the hovering yogi, posing for pictures, knew the secret behind the levitation. What appeared to be an ordinary stick was in reality a tough steel rod emerging almost vertically out of the ground with its upper end dovetailed to a horizontal steel frame (hidden from view because of the bright overflowing garment all around its edges) on which the smiling yogi was well ensconced.
`Splendid! Although I would have preferred him performing the Great Indian Rope Trick of antiquity’, she said tongue-in-cheek.
`I doubt whether such a hoary illusion was ever performed in the daylight,’ he advocated.
`Peter Lamont, a professor in Edinburgh university, has written a fascinating book on the history of Indian rope trick, linking it with the bamboo pole acrobatics that Indian street jugglers perform during the day,’ she championed.
Neelketu opined, `Here is my take on the trick: Long long ago, a non-Indian witnessed a snake charmer inducing a cobra that was quietly coiled up in its basket to rise vertically up. Naturally the stranger was bewildered to see a long rope like creature coming out of a small basket, standing tall and hissing. His anecdote must have undergone gradual embellishments over thousand of years. Simply a reverse case of Adi Shankara’s rope-snake confusion!’
`Hmm. Yes, snakes like King cobras can indeed be fifteen to twenty feet long,’ she agreed.
Few moments later, as they strolled along, she stated, `Magic tricks shown by street jugglers in India with their limited resources are exceedingly clever and creative.’
Then she added, `It is interesting to observe enterprising small time artisans, tailors, vendors, street conjurors and so on, eking out their living by introducing novel elements in their products that eventually bring about a positive change in the society. They are no less than your celebrated software engineers making millions in the Silicon Valley.’
`There is a word in north Indian languages for such unorganized, small scale innovations – jugaad,’ he grinned.
`At times such `jugaad’ have impact world over. Have you heard of a craftsman named Ram Chander from Jaipur?’, she asked.
`Who, the Jaipur Foot guy? But to set the record straight, Agnes, he developed the artificial limb by collaborating with established surgeons and doctors.’
`You are missing the point, Neel. It was Ram Chander who felt the need for an innovation when he saw that imported prosthetic limbs were not only very expensive but also extremely inconvenient for certain postures prevalent in India. Struck by a bright idea while getting his bicycle tyre repaired, he decided to employ soft rubber and light wood available locally to create Jaipur Foot.’
`I thought only Rama Chandra of Valmiki’s epic is famous. I had no idea that Ram Chander and his innovation are equally renowned,’ said a smiling Neelketu. He continued, `Interestingly, the oldest literature of Indo-Europeans, namely the Rig Veda, composed by aryan seers, speaks of an artificial limb.’
Agnes looked at him with an animated expression. Neelketu was thoroughly enjoying the moment. He gestured her to wait for a minute. He jogged up to a stall, located at a corner, and bought two cups of gelato from a kind old Italian lady. After offering her a cup, he resumed his dialogue.
`There are several verses in Rig Veda which refer to a warrior woman named Vishpala whose leg was severely injured in a battle. Seers extolled the virtues of vedic twin gods Ashvins who replaced her damaged leg with an iron limb.’
Then he added tongue-in-cheek, `First surgery in the history of mankind!’
Agnes winced. Her spoonful of gelato stopped halfway. She wanted to change the subject. Looking down at the pavement, she asked as she walked,
`Who is Adi Shankara, Neel?’
Somewhat surprised, he uttered, `Oh, Adi Shankara was a Hindu philosopher born in the present day Kerala state sometime between 800 and 900 CE. You may find it interesting that he had not only visited Puri when it was a great buddhist centre but had also established a vedic monastery there which is still quite active.’
`But what about the rope-snake stuff?’, she asked.
Neelketu replied, `Shankara had posited that the perceived world is only a Maya or an illusion and, as an illustration, he had written about mistaking a rope for a snake when it is dark. According to him, Truth or the Ultimate Reality resides in one’s own consciousness.’
These words acted as a trigger. Agnes stopped walking. She stared at Neelketu with an unusual intensity. He felt uncomfortable. There was a firmness in her voice when she spoke,
`Do you want to know what happened to me at Konark?’
Without waiting for his reply, she narrated the entire incident.
A fortuitous post-Christmas weekend, falling in the middle of the conference, had opened up a sightseeing possibility for Agnes. She had been eager to explore parts of Kalinga, an ancient name of Odisha. She boarded a tourist bus from near her hotel in Puri, early in the morning, to visit few historical monuments scattered in and around Bhubaneswar, the state capital. There had been a nip in the air. When she got down at Khandagiri, the clear blue sky and the winter sun made her cheery.
She took out the well wrapped chutney sandwiches and a slice of Chhena podo (baked cottage cheese – a delicious, exclusively Odisha dessert) from within her locally purchased backpack and started rapidly walking up towards the Khandagiri-Udaygiri caves. She began nibbling at the sandwiches when she reached a cave.
`Yumm…’, she mentally bestowed a `thumbs up’ to the superb chefs of the hotel where she was put up.
King Kharavela, a zealous Jaina, along with his queens, had got these austere caves dug out on the Kumari (virgin) hill around 150 BCE for the benefit of Jaina monks. Living systems are extremely sacred to the ardent followers of Jainism. They abhor inflicting pain on anything alive. So much so that they would not even pluck fruits to quench their pangs of hunger, instead wait for the juicy bulbs to fall naturally from the trees. Fasting is a common ritual amongst the Jains even today, leading at times to fatality.
`This is antithetical to life’, thought Agnes.
Naturally she was surprised after perusing the translated version of Kharavela’s inscriptions at Hathi gumpha (elephant cave). This king of Mahameghavahana (the great one who rides on clouds) dynasty was an aggressive conqueror who boasted in his wall writings about his victorious campaigns – how he had attacked the Greeks in the northwest region, and how after ransacking regions of southern India, got donkeys to plough the land in order to humiliate the local rulers. And he claimed himself to be a Jaina!
`Why was his dynasty called Mahameghavahana? Did the cloud in this word symbolize an elephant? Could it be that his dynasty owed its origin to a family that had domesticated elephants for the first time? After all, the rain causing dark clouds were often likened to elephants by poets,’ she mused.
It was getting late. Agnes entered the wide open mouth of Bagh gumpha (tiger mouth cave), gave a cursory look and hurriedly went down. She did not want to miss her bus that was scheduled to leave for the Sun Temple shortly.
Agnes was very keen to explore the Black Pagoda at Konark. She had read somewhere that king Langula Narasingha deva (Man-lion god) of Puri, who lived in the 13-th century and was a devotee of Lord Jagannath, developed suddenly a deep veneration for the Sun god after he was cured of leprosy through regular sun basking. So, as a tribute, he built a magnificent temple in the form of a gigantic stone chariot standing on twenty four exquisitely carved wheels and driven by powerful stone horses.
Speculation is rife on his epithet `Langula’ , as it refers to a tail. A legend speaks of Narasingha deva having an unusual tail like growth at the base of his back bone.
Agnes was fascinated by the intricate sculptures portraying the king receiving precepts from his guru (teacher), dancers, musicians, erotic acts as well as Lord Jagannath along with his siblings being worshipped.
`Were the chariots of Puri car festival inspired by the Sun temple architecture or was it the other way round?,’ she was curious to know.
The time was about five in the evening when her eyes fell on a relief on the plinth of the temple. It depicted a small size giraffe facing a mounted elephant. A person of regal bearing, sitting on the howdah of the tusker, was pointing a bow at the giraffe. She was intrigued by the sculpture.
`Where on earth did the giraffe come from?’, she asked herself.
`Did Narasingha deva earn the epithet `Langula’ for being fond of exotic animals’, she wondered while taking out a camera from .her backpack.
She was shooting the scene when a man’s voice from behind said,
`Madam, many believe that this relief speaks of the flourishing trade that ancient Odiya people had with other countries.’
She turned around and saw a portly middle aged Indian, in a cream color safari suit and neatly combed hair, addressing her in an accent common to eastern region.
`Are you an artist, madam?’, he asked her politely.
Upon learning that she is a biologist, he pointed to the sculpted African mammal and declared with a serious face, `I strongly believe that this image is that of a dinosaur of the sauropoda family, and not of a giraffe.’
He appeared to be a knowledgeable, well mannered and an affluent person. Agnes let out a brief laughter of dissent, and shaking her head stated, `I doubt that.’
He snapped his fingers and asked,`Then, how do you explain the existence of a stegosaurus image on a relief?’
Blurting out a `What!’ incredulously, she almost jumped up.
`I will show you pictures, madam’ he said and started fumbling with his backpack which was remarkably similar to the one that Agnes was carrying.
`But hang on! I can show you the relief itself. It is closeby’, he added and urged her to follow him further south.
He ushered her towards a dilapidated sandstone structure, about ten feet high – a remnant of a badly damaged pillar with floral designs carved on it. Chunks of broken stones were lying scattered all around. The relic was located not very far from the Mayadevi temple that boasts of an impressively chiseled chlorite crocodile clasping a fish between its jaws.
`Madam, the stone fragment bearing a sculpted stegosaurus is now lying on the top of this pillar. Let us slowly climb up using these rubble as stairs. We can leave our backpacks here,’ he uttered, lowering his backpack on a pile of stones.
Agnes replaced the shooting camera in her backpack, and put it down near the stranger’s backback. She followed him, balancing herself carefully as she walked up. Sun sets fairly early during the winter in the eastern region of India. The western sky had already developed orange stripes of various hue.
When they reached the top, the man pointed his finger towards a broken piece of relief as he stood there panting. It was turning chilly and the sky had started assuming a darker shade of greyish blue. Agnes took her cellphone out of her trouser pocket to use it as a flashlight. She commenced her inspection of the fragment. A raised portion of it seemed to depict an oval body with petal like shapes carved on its rim. Agnes became excited. `Is it really the back of a stegosaurus?’, she asked herself and resumed her investigation with gusto.
A moment later, pulling out his cellphone, the safari suited man whispered, `Madam, I have to make a quick call.’
Agnes was totally absorbed in studying the relief. So, she gave an unmindful nod and the man excused himself. She was focussed on obtaining hard evidence of a short neck emerging out of the oval body. But there was none. Moreover, all the four petal like images with intricate inner decorations were of same shape and size, unlike the bony fins on a stegosaurus.
She was fully convinced that the relief simply depicted a floral design. She stood up and looked for the man to give him a piece of her mind. He was nowhere to be seen. It had already started becoming dark. She could spot her backpack below but his seemed missing. Taking help of her cellphone flashlight, she came down in an unsteady manner. When she reached the ground level, she realized to her horror that it was her backpack that was gone.
Her heart started pounding. All her money was in that backpack, both British as well as Indian currencies. Her camera, laptop, pendrive, few souvenirs, a bottle of mineral water and two paperbacks, all gone. Thank god, her passport was still in her trouser pocket.
Anxiety started making inroads into her mind. Did he deliberately switch the packs? Or, did the man mistake her backpack with his? She frantically searched his sack in order to obtain his address and contact number. Instead she found bundles of old newspaper cuttings, pieces of stones and a packet of biscuits in the swindler’s pack.
The descending shroud of cold darkness added to her misery. She became delirious. Was it possible that her backpack was somehow still on the top of the pillar? Light from her mobile phone was becoming fainter as it badly needed recharging. Using whatever glow that was emerging out of her phone, she ran up the pile of stones, stumbling time to time.
She looked around. There was no sign of her sack. Then her flashlight went into hibernation. It was pitch dark. In the absence of light, Mayadevi temple appeared frightening to her. Her mind started imagining nightmarish figures akin to Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. She felt as though some unknown danger was closing in.
Mustering courage, she decided to get down to the ground level carefully. But her sense of direction was adversely affected. She took few steps towards where she thought his backpack was lying. Suddenly she tripped. Before her reflexes could recover her balance, she fell on the jagged pieces of stone. Her body was badly bruised and there was blood here and there. Her head hurt, and there was an excruciating pain in her right foot. The sharp dip in the temperature made her shiver.
A strange thing happened then. The severe physical pain and discomfort that she was enduring, kicked her delirium away. Fear of the unknown had got displaced. She regained clarity of her thought processes. She understood that she had to take another bus to reach Puri, as the tourist bus most likely had left. Somehow she managed to get out of the Sun Temple precinct to reach a nearby bus stand.
The simple local folks who were waiting there were very kind and helpful to her despite the language barrier. As she suspected, the bus by which she had come had already left. On enquiry, it turned out, to her misfortune, that none of the buses that would arrive shortly would take her to the hotel where she was staying. But few of them would go to the Puri bus stand.
After about an hour, a bus, with Puri as its destination, arrived. Agnes had no money but she had a plan. She entered the vehicle and explained her situation to the young bus conductor. He was very understanding and he empathized with her condition. She promised that she would hand over the ticket fare to him as soon as the bus touched Puri. After about an hour and a half, the conveyance reached its destination. She alighted from the bus and immediately hired a cycle rickshaw that was waiting near the bus stop.
She borrowed some money from the poor and good natured old rickshaw puller to pay for her bus ticket. From the bus stand, it took only half an hour to reach her hotel. She requested the hotel reception to lend her some money to repay the kind rickshaw puller. Seeing her poor health condition, which was getting aggravated with time, the hotel staff immediately got her admitted in a nursing home closeby.
Agnes had to be shifted next day to a good hospital in Bhubaneswar for proper treatment. Fortunately the conference organizers along with her compatriots lent her sufficient money to cover the medical expenses. However, to add to her woe, several of her injuries had turned septic. She spent nearly three months in the hospital before she could get her strength back and walk.
Neelketu noticed that her beautiful eyes had welled up. He touched her arm gently. He felt an urge to comfort her. Agnes put her head on his shoulder and sobbed silently. After a while, they started walking hand in hand. There was a huge crowd in front of the Trevy Fountain. The exquisitely sculptured marble structure poured out crystal clear water causing a blue-green pool to form in front. There was gaiety all around. Young girls and boys had gone down the steps wishing to feel the life giving water.
Neelketu too went down few steps and beckoned Agnes to follow suit. She involuntarily moved a bit forward but then stopped immediately. She shook her head. His gaze instinctively got directed at her feet.
`Oh God! You don’t mean to say… ’, he had to abruptly break his sentence. There was a lump in his throat.
There was no sadness in her eyes then. She smiled and murmured, `Yes, Neel. Jaipur Foot.’
He walked up to her and put his right arm around her shoulders. He observed that some of the tourists were throwing coins into the water and making wishes. Neelketu pulled out his wallet and took out a coin. He stared at Agnes with great affection. She appeared serene and lovely, with a radiant forehead.
A courageous and beautiful warrior, he mused. Closing his eyes, he tossed the coin into the blue water below.