Atonement Island

Sundar was very proud of itself. His flowing black mane, shiny leather and elegant tail almost always attracted attention. The strong muscles ripping through the hind legs of this, Andalusian horse signaled his extreme power. Though coming from a family of war horses, Sundar had never seen a war but have had other types of adventures, no less exciting than fighting the enemy. Now-a-days he was trekking the treacherous terrain of Himalayas.

Sundar was the only worldly possession of Alok Tripathi or Alok Baba as he was fondly referred to. Babaji was no ordinary man. Though in his late thirties, he looked more like a young model in his twenties. His long, silky hair neatly assembled in a ribbon, an upwards pointing strong chin and a long neck resting on a well sculpted body gave him a princely look. Even if Babaji, who wore only a white dhoti at all times, was aware of his beauty and physical strength, he did not show.  But the first thing that catches your attention about this young ascetic was not his looks but the blessed look on his face. He seemed to be in a state of everlasting pleasure. The one when you get when you have nothing left to achieve, when you are in no hurry to get somewhere, when you live for the moment.

But the journey of Babaji has not been so easy. This extraordinarily intelligent man had seen tough times in life. Tumultuous experiences coupled with a spiritual inclination urged the young Alok to renounce the world and materialism. After acquiring his masters in Mathematics from Delhi University, Alok completed his PhD from Stanford University. He was enjoying his job as a professor at the same institute but he left everything to come back to India when his mother was diagnosed with final stages of cancer. After losing his father at an early age, Alok was brought up by his mother. She has been his emotional anchor and life guide. But in the harrowing six months that followed his return, Alok witnessed and experienced his mother slowly slipping into the well of death, as if a black hole was swallowing her and even with all his might the strong willed mathematician was not able to hold on to the most precious thing in his life.

Alok was hurt after his mother moved to the other world. He felt cheated by the God. He felt like a dumped child. Why was he singled out for this especial treatment by the almighty? But unlike most others in such situation, this dejection did not dissuade him from God. Instead he was drawn towards him in a hypnotic way. Alok gave up everything. He sold off all his worldly possessions and purchased Sundar. A beautiful black Andalusian horse, which cost him almost every rupee he had. It had been his childhood dream to own a horse. And with him he set out on his voyage through the spiritual centers of India. He visited and often stayed for months at various ashrams, monasteries and pilgrimages, read religious books; met spiritual stalwarts and consumed the ancient Indian religious philosophy. Soon he was known as Alok Babaji – the young, recalcitrant and erudite sage. Though Babaji has progressed greatly in his spiritual endeavor he was still waiting for the real divine intervention in his life; waiting to hear directly from the God, which he was sure would happen.

Babaji was on his to Kathmandu from Gorakhpur, where he had been anchored for few weeks. Sundar was galloping effortlessly though the perfidious Himalayan terrain, when suddenly its hind legs were caught in something. Sundar fell sideways with a jolt and Babaji was thrown up in the air. Everything happened with such celerity that Babaji did not get any time to think. One moment they were cruising and then this accident happened. Babaji could see Sundar falling and he was headed into a pool of mud. Babaji got up. His head was hurting from the fall. Mud covered his whole body. He opened his eyes slightly, trying to avoid mud getting into his eyes. He somehow dragged himself out of the pit and looked around for Sundar, but he was nowhere to be seen. Babaji rested on a huge root of a tree. He then heard a whining cry coming from the canopy of trees on the far side of the open ground that lay on the other side of the muddy ditch.

Such was the alacrity in the sound that Babaji ran towards the source of the sound fearing that his beloved four legged would be in a mortal danger. As he moved closer to the group of trees he saw his horse lying on the ground, his legs apparently broken from the fall. His head was placed on someone’s lap. From the outline of the figure, sitting with Sundar on its lap appeared to be a young person. Before he could reach the place or could take any action he saw the person, a young girl - now he could make that out - took out a dragger from her side and slit open the neck. She must have held the horse tightly by the other arm because except a huge cry and frantic movement of legs, the war horse couldn’t put up much of a fight. Amazed at the strength of the girl and furious with her cruelty towards his mute friend Babaji sprinted towards the scene with all the swiftness he could muster. By the time the young sage had reached the spot, the teenage girl was up from the ground and turned towards him. Babaji almost died seeing the strangeness of her appearance.

She tilted her head on one side and smiled - a childlike smile, filled with all the innocence existing in the world and said, “He was in pain, but not now.” After a pause added “Alok, you come with me. My name is Tulki”, and walked away.

But Alok couldn’t move. He dropped on his knees and started crying partly out of fear and partly from the loss. The young woman looked so strange. She was dark but with a very smooth, shimmering skin. She was tall, slim and healthy - health that you gain by working outdoors, in the field. Everything about her was beautiful but all her hair had turned grey. Grey hair when you turn old, very old. It almost seemed that she was carrying someone else’s hair on her head; as if she was wearing a wig. How come a young damsel with a cherubic smile and heart of steel has an appearance of an octogenarian? But she did not seem to be affected by the condition.

When Babaji stopped sobbing he looked around and he knew that he has come to a strange land. After falling into the pit and crossing it, he had landed him into some forbidden place. He couldn’t think clearly why he felt the way he did but he knew this is a land not known to mankind. Though his years of “tapasya” were not helping him now as he was reeling with fear but Babaji managed to call upon his gods and pull himself together. He walked in the direction where the girl headed and could hear her shouting to someone, “He has arrived.”

As Babaji dragged himself to the settlements, a middle aged man appeared. Had the appearance of Tulki not prepared him to see this detestable human species, Babaji would have fainted. The person had huge limbs. He resembled the fictional character Hulk. His tiny head and frame seemed to be artificially stitched with the limbs. He stretched his massive arm towards Babaji and slightly shook his shoulders and reading his thoughts said reassuringly “Do not worry; you are still not advanced enough to get such a condition. I am Zhen. Welcome to the Atonement Island. Wash yourself, you already scared Tukli appearing covered with mud. As a chief coordinator of this place, I do not want anyone else to experience your strange self”, he said laughing at his own joke.

“But I must protest killing of my horse by your men”, protested Alok Babaji, staring directly into his eyes, abruptly his anger taking precedence over fear at that moment.

Waving his right fist across Babaji’s face, the big guy asserted, “First, these are not my men and women. They are all greats, much more spiritually advanced than midgets like you. They do what they like, I am just a concierge. Second, as of now you do not know anything. I urge you to observe restrain until you absorb.”

Tulki poked her arm and directed them to a bunker like construction on a huge boulder nearby. She was still smiling, the same angelic smile and benevolent glint in her eyes. Her silver hair were touching Babaji’s arm gently. Babaji moved towards bunker. Seeing the dragger was still stuck on her belt gave him an eerie feeling.

After cleaning himself, Alok lay on the hard floor of the room where he was lodged. Quickly the happenings of the day took their toll and he was asleep. Alok did not know for how long he slept, but when he woke up, he felt recharged. He had a wonderful, dreamless sleep. He looked out from the window to see the sun was bidding goodbye. Babaji reflected on what has happened. Everything felt surreal. But he was beginning to understand the God’s design. He figured out that his falling into the pit and crossing over to this world was no mere accident. It was destiny. He was still not sure of the strange appearance of the people here.

Why everyone was afflicted? Why such benevolent group suffered a powerful curse? Why they live in isolation from the world? Has he landed into the land of undead? His head was spinning again. But he decided to be in control this time. After all, he was a true ascetic with a true purpose. Perhaps this was the answer from the gods of the innumerable questions, he had bombarded them with? An answer to his eternal thirst of finding the truth of this strange world! He felt that the world we live in is no less strange though it may not look scary because we were the demons there. Is it not his own infirmity not being able to look through the people beyond their physical appearance? He surely cannot allow the knowledge he has accumulated through great “tapasya” to come to naught. He sat down for this daily “dhyan” to concentrate and assimilate.

Babaji was not able to carry his dhyan for long; it was broken by the sound of someone cutting the woods. Usually when he enters dhyan such a sound cannot disturb him but today was an unusual day. He decided to come out. Once in the open he saw the reason of the sound. A middle aged person was standing with logs of woods and cutting them into smaller pieces.  His skin was wrinkled and looked like that of a 100 year old, though the work he was doing required the strength of a young man. The person waved excitedly to him and said, “I am Bula, Zhen is asking for you. If you are refreshed you would need to climb the hillock behind you but if you are feeling tired I can carry you on my back”.

“Thanks, but I will go there myself”, Babaji declined politely.

Babaji saw many people on the way to top of the hillock. Everyone had some strange physical deformity which usually looked repugnant. Few had their skins peeling off, some had excessive bodily hair, and some had blisters on their body. It was similar to visiting a colony of lepers.  Everyone was busy in some work. It looked like a community living. Babaji did not find any signs of a family structure. But one thing was common about everyone- in spite of the physical condition they were in, everyone looked happy, content and blissful. They were not bothered by what they were suffering from. They all looked at him benignly; encouraging him by gestures to move on and get on top of the hump.

“Shoot”, said Zhen without turning, as Babaji was approached him, staring far into the horizon which was turning darker every passing minute.

Babaji remained silent still evaluating the man and the offer.

“Alok, I know you have lot of questions, why do not we address them first”, explained Zhen.

“Is this real?” asked Babaji in a steady voice.

“Are you asleep or dead?” was the answer.

“Who are you?”

“Is this the top most thing on your mind?” as if guiding his questions.

“Why everyone here is suffering from some terrible disease, curse, affliction or malady?” said Babaji taking the cue.

“They do have strange appearances but they are not suffering. Have you seen anyone suffer?”

“Do not pose a question in response to my questions”, said Babaji slightly indignantly.

Zhen finally turned towards him and gestured him to sit down on the platform around a big Banyan tree. “Do you remember I told you this is the Atonement Island? We are repaying for the transgressions and misdeeds of humans so that the equilibrium between the good and bad doesn’t skew”. Seeing the dumb founded expressions on Babaji’s face Zhen explained further “All the people you see here are Mahatmas –exalted souls, they have volunteered for this land. They have decided to willingly share the burden of sins of fellow humans so that gods can continue their benevolence towards humanity as a whole”. 

“Do you mean humans do not have to bear for their own sins?” sounding incredulous.

“Remember I said they share. Majority of the burden is still carried by the individuals. Besides for some misdeeds, it is not easy to lay responsibility on an individual, what would happen to those actions? The balance has to be restored even in these cases. For example, during war, people kill people but they are still driven by the noble goal for fighting for their motherlands, so who do you blame. Still sin is being committed. Just think, you will find many other examples”.

“Like killing plants and animals or unknowingly committing wrong” added the sage coming to terms with the concept.

Zhen smiled approvingly.

“But isn’t such torture disapproved by the God”, asked Babaji.

“This is not torture, view this like a fast”, said Tulki who had arrived and was carrying utensils; preparations for the dinner were on. Her silver hairs were now glowing in the full moon night, like the beautiful waters of a pious lake.

Babaji just shrugged his shoulders still not convinced.

“Do you know why is celibacy regarded as purity? How can sex make you impure? It doesn’t. But it is a fast. One is saying no to a pleasurable experience. One is controlling ones senses. Same happens when you say no to a particular food. We are also giving up the love of our appearance. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of human life to move above the feeling of senses - to become one with the God?”

“So is everyone here suffering for a particular person, region or tribe”, asked Alok.

“Alok, you seek answers that are beyond your comprehension. Why bother? Let’s have some food”, interjected Zhen. “Letting the food wait is also a sin”, laughed Zhen, shrugging his massive shoulders.
Between bites Alok asked, “So the people on Earth who suffer from diseases like leprosy or deformed limbs are paying for their sins”.

“I do not know. Answers to these questions are beyond me. We just carry God’s order. But I know one thing for sure, even if it is; it is not for the individual’s deed. When our triumphs, success, failures, loss everything is shared, as innumerable souls affect us, how can our atonement be individualistic”? Zhen replied, in a long winding manner.

With stomach full, tiredness was taking over Alok’s alert mind. Somehow empowering over the stupor Babaji finally asked, “So what is the order for me?”

“We have no doubt that eventually you will reach the high levels of spirituality. We wanted to make you aware of this world. If you can ever overcome your pride about your good looks and intellect, do join us. We will work together for humanity. And that would be the ultimate service to the God”, ended Zhen placing his big palm on Babaji’s shoulder.

Alok Babaji suddenly woke up with a start and found his handsome Andulasian horse licking his hair. Babaji’s head was still hurting from the fall. He was lying under a tree, next to a pit with a hillock visible at some distance and smoke coming out from the top of it. 


More by :  Shekhar Misra

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Views: 3357      Comments: 2

Comment Am amazed at your power of thinking... the thought of sharing punishments and rather inflicting them upon self. You indeed have struck a chord with your reader. And yes, the narration is beautiful.

12-Jul-2013 07:30 AM

Comment The present story is of very high order. The writer's style and presenting the matter are marvellous. I like its language and the way of expression.
The matter of the story takes us to high zenith of thinking. It's start is different for the better and its middle part is far superior. The protagonist tries to solve problems of life and to understand the ways of God in regarding to human life.
Really I marvel at the writer's talent in revealing secrets of life. It is written after deep thinking.
It is a story with engages your attention along with interest from the beginning till end.

Shailbala Misra
12-Jul-2013 06:05 AM

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