Stories

The Ghost of Lalbagh

400 years of nothingness and now, here I was. The entire landscape had changed. The small garden of Kemputhotta was huge now. Next to me, perched on the small granite hill, was one of Kempe Gowda’s four watchtowers. Kempe Gowda, a chieftain under the Vijaynagar empire, had founded the fledgling town of Bengaluru. The towers were built on his orders to mark the boundaries of this upcoming town. This one marked the southern boundary. On all sides of it, deities were carved — Shiva in the south, Ganesha in the east, Karthikeya in the north and Vishnu in the west. Out of the four towers, this one is my favorite! It is also the one I gave my life for, 400 years ago!

Bengaluru, a small part of the grand Vijaynagar empire and I, a poor stone mason in it. I lived with my wife and son in a tiny mud hut and worked tirelessly all day so that we could survive.

You could always recognize a stone mason by his deep racking cough, eyes red and swollen from the stone dust and blistered hands. We would lug rocks over the steep granite hill all day. Whenever it rained, as it often did, the rocky hill would become even more slippery. People didn’t last long in this job. One day, you would begin to notice that the rocks seemed to be getting heavier. You would ponder at this mystery for some time till suddenly the answer would strike you one night, chasing away all traces of sleep. It wasn’t the rocks that were getting heavier, it was your strength that was ebbing away. In a few years, things would start becoming blurry as you started to lose your sight.

Those who lasted longer would develop a nagging cough that gradually deepened into a deep protest that shook the entire body. They would learn to keep a cloth with them at all times to hide the blood that had started to come up when they coughed. At night, away from prying eyes, they would wash the cloth clean of the life that had bled out during the day.

The work broke the body. But it could never break my spirit. I had a dream and the fire of it gave me strength. My forefathers had been poor and so were we, but one day, my son would have a better life! That was the purpose of my life, and I was willing to bear anything to achieve it.

In the evenings, people often sat together and sang songs of the great Kempe Gowda. The songs celebrated his journey of founding Bengaluru from scratch and growing it into a flourishing town. There were stories, real and fictional, of his wisdom and kindness and poems on how he had brought great honor to his family and people. I would get lost in the sagas till the ache of my bones slowly disappeared. In my dreams, I was like Kempe Gowda, the savior of my family line! I would change the trajectory of my family’s life and I was willing to go head-to-head with fate for it.

I had begged and bribed my way to LaxmiNarayan Shetru, the biggest trader in Bengaluru. He had agreed to take my son as an apprentice if I deposited six  silver coins as a guarantee. It was a huge sum for someone like me, but I didn’t hesitate. I worked even longer and harder and saved every paisa. The other laborers would often get drunk in the evenings to forget the drudgery of our work but I stayed away from all that.

Day after day, I ate a lunch of dry rotis and raw green chili. My wife would sometimes cry as she sewed in more and more patches in our clothes. Just like the world, even she thought I was crazy. She would often tell me “Poor people shouldn’t have such big dreams!”. But no one could deter me.

That day is still vivid in my mind. Hunched over a big rock, I kept coughing up blood. Finally, I fell and lay there, gasping through the dust in my lungs. I knew it was the end, but I was at peace. I had saved enough to get those coins. My wife would take them to LaxmiNarayan Shetru and a new life would start for my son. I died peacefully knowing that I had won.

And today, I was back to see my victory. I didn’t know who had brought me back and why had they done so 400 years later. But I wasn’t about to complain. This chance was a huge blessing. I only wanted a glimpse of my descendants and their affluence. I knew that if I had been brought to this spot, there must be a reason behind it. One of my descendants was bound to show up sooner or later. I just needed to be patient.

I looked all around me and marveled at the strange metal carts going on the roads below. They seemed to be getting pulled without a horse or a bull. What sorcery was this? I shivered, chanting the name of Shiva in my mind. These were odd times indeed and I didn’t want to linger any longer than I had to. Even the people were funny. They were carrying something in their hand and seemed to be talking to themselves. It seemed like everyone had gone crazy in the future. Even their attire was bizarre.

There were some people who looked like me. It is ironic how the poor always look the same no matter how many centuries they are separated by. The poor didn’t have those magic carts. That seemed to be a privilege of the rich.

Suddenly, one of the magic carts stopped right below the hill. A tall, young man got out wearing crisp, white clothes and a turban like thing on his head. With a shock I saw that he looked just like my father — the same build, the same features. The resemblance was uncanny, except he had my wife’s eyes. My eyes moistened as I realized that he was the one I was waiting for.

I looked at his big, shiny magic cart, his spotless clothes, the turban-like thing on his head and tears of joy flowed freely from my eyes. My family line was rich.

I, a humble stone mason, had achieved what Kempe Gowda had for his family. I had battled fate and won. If only that young man knew what I had done for him, he would sit at my feet and worship me.

The back door of the magic cart opened, and a short, heavyset man stepped out. He seemed to be in his 50s. I looked closely to see if I recognized him, but he looked very different. This second person was definitely not related to me. All of a sudden, he slapped the young man and started shouting at him. My palms clenched, but the young man just stood with a bowed head, hands folded in front of him. Just like I used to stand in front of my supervisors all those years ago. The young man was begging now, pleading his case. A poor man pleading to the rich. A weak man forever at the mercy of the powerful, just like I had been.

The world started to reel around me. So, all my sacrifices had been for nothing? Were we still so poor, so miserable, that we were not even entitled to basic dignity?

My head was spinning. My wife’s words echoed in my ears — “Poor people shouldn’t have such big dreams.” I wanted to scream in anguish but how could I? I was as devoid of a voice in death as I had been in life. As devoid of a voice as the young man was today! In the silence of my scream, I could hear Fate laugh harder and harder. I started to dissolve into thin air, carrying the harsh sounds of the laughter and the sting of the slap. This is what I had been brought back for. So that fate would have the last laugh!
 

11-Dec-2022

More by :  Priya Khanwalker

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