Preksha Sharma belongs to Jammu and Kashmir. She has worked as an Associate Editor for a design magazine based in Bombay. Her poem has been published by British Council and Sampad Press in a book, Inspired by Tagore. Currently, she is travelling in her home state, discovering the local literature, and working towards finishing her short stories.
Destiny of a Sin
The obituary appeared in the Sunday edition of The Excelsior:
With profound grief and sorrow on hearing of the sad demise of our beloved Coorko, a true disciple and caregiver, at the Raghu Samadhi, Darbargarh, on 23rd September, 1965. Your presence and service will be greatly missed.
Parishad Mandir Trust
On top of the obituary, there was a grainy black-and-white photograph of an old man. Two algae-coloured canines stuck out over his lower lip like stubs. The flaky, bald head lolled over a balloon-like bulge of skin on the neck. The morbid photo was reused from the previous day’s issue in which this picture of Coorko’s lifeless body was, somewhat insensitively, published along with the news of his death.
The loyalists of the old city carefully cut out the obituary, folded it and saved another chapter of history with a sigh.
The residents of Darbargarh, the mohalla of forgotten nobilities and royal servants, behind the old palace complex, were glum. They had lost a fellow resident, Coorko, and with him the only mortal connection they had with their beloved ghost, Raghu. On that mellow night, they talked in the soft, lilting tongue of the region, about things to be talked about after death. They spoke of Coorko’s life and his strange destiny that had compelled him to become the servant of a ghost.
Coorko was an assiduous servant. His servitude had the character of a surrendered prisoner. He rose in the dark hours of the morning to begin cooking, cleaning, and washing, moving about the small veranda, one hand dedicated to the impending tasks and the other supporting the pulsating mass on his neck.
Raghu and Coorko, master and servant, only had each other. Their conversations were rare yet exactly the same each time. If anyone could hear them when they spoke to each other, their words would seem scripted. Raghu reminisced about his experience in the other world, Coorko about his guilt, gluttony; after which, to lighten things up, Raghu always steered the conversation to their first meeting in the apple orchards.
Time and togetherness had made them friends now. Otherwise they were just two souls beached by the same turbulent tides.
These moments of nostalgia were the only times when Coorko let go of the mass on his neck. In every other moment, it took over Coorko’s mind, body, and heart. Even during quiet, meditative walks, his hand unconsciously kneaded the fleshy mass. It never occurred to him, though, to acknowledge his deteriorating body, protruding bones, or his anorexic frame.
Long before death came to him, Coorko was prepared for it. He had confined himself to a cell in the old palace complex. When devotees visited Raghu’s samadhi, scared and cautious, bringing with them watered milk and rations as offerings, Coorko would watch them worship from his damp, dark chamber. On a few unavoidable occasions, when he would totter out of his self-imposed prison, seeds of apricots or oranges fired from slingshots would hit the bulging mass and it would quiver on impact. How many rotis are you hiding in there, you glutton! older children would shout, the slingshots revolving around their triumphant fingers. At these instances, Coorko would hurriedly limp into some deserted alley.
But on the day the obituary appeared, children sat wide-eyed on their beds well past midnight, quietly staring at the Gol Ghar, a dilapidated portion at the far end of the palace complex where the ghost of Raghu resided. A gloomy shadow lurked over the its whitewashed domes.
Coorko’s destiny, like most extraordinary things in life, had an unassuming beginning.
It was a time when this part of the world was in a shift. The British had placed themselves as paramount rulers of India and sought to control the Himalayan state where Coorko was born and raised. Cooko’s father, a soldier himself, had forced Coorko to enlist in the Maharaja’s private security force. On an hunting expedition, when the party’s cook took to illness, Coorko jumped in and impressed the Maharaja with his culinary skills. Maharaja appointed Coorko as his personal chef.
One day soon after, bittersweet desperation pickled the air at the palace, brought by the news of a boy being born to the Maharaja’s younger brother, a British loyalist. The birth of an heir apparent ensured that the notorious Doctrine of Lapse could not be exercised; the kingdom would not slip into the hands of the British.
Yet, in his dim-lit private office, the Maharaja mourned the news with English liquor and devilled duck hearts prepared by Coorko. Kingship had severed blood ties to the extent that the Maharaja felt sadistic pleasure fantasising the death of his newly arrived nephew. After a decade of extravagant royal indulgence to reduce the frustration caused by a powerless rule, the Maharaja didn’t care if the kingdom became part of the Raj anymore, but the thought of his younger brother’s lineage seated on the throne had stirred in him the desperation for a son, whom his two marriages had failed to produce.
The journey of Coorko’s sin perhaps started with the Maharaja’s decision to marry a third time in the hope of conceiving a male heir. The would-be queen was selected after exhaustive research by a team of priests and astrologers, who, after months of calculations, ensured that the womb of the girl in consideration indeed had a male foetus in its destiny. With a small entourage, the Maharaja travelled a hundred kilometres to the foothills of the Himalayas where the young would-be queen waited for her middle-aged groom. And Coorko, then a youthful plum man, accompanied the royal entourage, in-charge of preparing the royal wedding feast.
The stars were fading into a brightening sky when the couple took its vows around the sacred fire in the central courtyard of the haveli. Done with his kitchen duties, Coorko couldn’t resist the sight of the apple orchards owned by the bride’s family. On the way to the royal wedding, Coorko, emboldened by his position in the court, had openly stolen fruit and grains from gardens and farms along the way, and used the surplus to prepare meals for himself. Away from the ceremony, he was now busy making trips to the expansive orchards that were known to produce the best apples in the entire Himalayan valley. As he ran back and forth between the orchards and the royal campsite, returning each time with bolster covers full of red apples, a few men who were still awake at that hour laughed and quipped at him, ‘O, Coorko! Collecting your share of the dowry?’ Among each other, they said, ‘The bastard has such a weakness for food.’
On one such trip, which also proved to be his last, he didn’t realise the weightlessness of a spirit that had mounted him until he unloaded the apples in an empty cask on a cart, and felt his back crumble under an invisible pressure.
The spirit was of a man named Raghu who guarded the orchards. Raghu, once the most loyal servant of the bride’s family, had died an untimely death in an accident some years ago, but his soul had stayed back and wandered around in the orchards. It was only after Raghu had started watching over the apple trees that the orchards began producing the best apples anyone had ever tasted. When the bride, who was then a toddler, started telling her mother about a friendly guard at the orchard, the villagers knew that Raghu’s spirit had returned from the world of the dead.
When Coorko heard Raghu’s voice threatening him for stealing the apples, he let out an ear-splitting cry, jolting the horses tied to the cart from their deep-slumber. A river of apples gushed out of the toppling casks loaded on the cart. The whole entourage, animals and men, were thrown into a panic. In a brief tussle during the commotion, Raghu fell off Coorko’s back and inside one of the casks. When one of the soldiers placed the lids on the barrels and put them back on the cart, Raghu got trapped and transported to the palace along with the royal entourage.
The royal kitchen at the palace was busy preparing the newlywed queen’s reception feast, but the Maharaja’s personal chef was nowhere to be seen. Late in the night, a cleaner found Coorko convulsing violently on the floor of the pantry and was rushed to the shrine of Baba Jeevan Shah on the royal hakeem’s advice, who said he did not deal with matters of the spirits. Raghu had pounced on Coorko and possessed him in the kitchen when the chef was checking each and every cask and container to retrieve his loot of apples.
Baba Shah, the state’s beloved Sufi saint, tried for one whole week all the measures he knew to free Coorko’s body from Raghu’s spirit but Raghu was stubborn and unforgiving. When nothing worked, the Baba called his close friend Pundit Shivmani Ganmat, a brilliant mathematician and numerologist, to discuss the strange case.
“An innocent spirit in a corrupt man, Ganmat. Two stubborn spirits in one body,” he sighed.
Pundit Ganmat was instantly drawn to the case. He interrogated both Coorko and Raghu for hours. The questioning would last until Coorko’s body would exhaust and pass out. To keep Coorko awake, the Pundit would feed him and study how the two souls received nourishment from one physical body. In sheets of paper he made copious notes, drew meticulous charts and tedious diagrams, and read ancient literature on the world of dead till dawn broke.
Baba Shah grew deeply concerned about his friend’s blasphemous obsession and guilty that he had contributed to it, he came up with another plan. One night, the Baba brought in the newly wed queen to convince Raghu to forgive Coorko and leave his body. Even as foes, Raghu had become used to co-existing with Coorko’s soul, in his company, in wrangles and arguments. And years later, Raghu would feel the same emptiness at Coorko’s death that he felt upon leaving his body that night in Baba Shah’s shrine.
The queen happily accepted Baba Shah’s suggestion to employ Raghu as her personal servant. The Maharaja was baffled at this development, though. A male, even if it was a ghost, would be allowed in the zenankhana, and in that too near his newest queen’s room, he said, incredulous, to which Baba Shah quipped, “Maharaj, he has come in your dowry.”
Coorko was bitter when the Maharaja made the appointment. Rewarding his tormentor with the post of a royal servant, Coorko thought, seemed to show him his place in the scheme of things. And often after smoking afeem, he cooked plans to eliminate Raghu, to trap him like a genie for thousands of years. But unsure of how to execute his plans, the only thing he ended up cooking was more food for him to eat.
Back at the shrine, Pundit Ganmat had left a note for Baba Shah. ‘I am leaving for my tapasya, Jeevan’ was all it said. Baba Shah, however, discovered a pile of sheets where the Pundit had scribbled his numerological and astrological observations and when he read them, he felt a shiver run through his marrow. The Baba had recognised the equations and diagrams on the first glance. The Pundit was studying the cosmic patterns and planetary positions that govern the life and death of human beings. On a roll of paper, Raghu and Coorko’s astrological charts and equations were drawn side by side, as if to compare them. Baba Shah made a mental list of places that his friend could have considered for tapasya and left the shrine to search for him.
Meanwhile, a competition had started in the zenankhana between the queens to prove the worth of their womb. Prayer meetings were held, temples were built, doctors consulted, diets altered, and coituses were meticulously planned according to astrologically favourable planet positions so a son could be conceived. None but the youngest queen succeeded. Months later, on a winter night, the youngest queen’s chilling shrieks echoed in the palace. Hours later, a premature but healthy son was pulled out of the exhausted young mother’s womb.
The next morning, the state’s prime minister issued the notice of the arrival of the Maharaj Kumar Shri Yuvraj ji Bahadur. If an account of a servant is to be believed, the state’s British Resident tore the note bearing the news many times over and tossed the tiny pieces out of his window. In the kingdom, official holidays were declared for three days, schools were closed, sweets distributed. The whole state was thrown into frenzied celebrations.
Sahaj Patrika, a handwritten newspaper published from the capital of the State, reported:
The birth of the heir apparent in the princely state was seen as the victory of the rulers over the almighty Viceroy and triggered a series of celebrations that lasted over a week.
The air around the palace was heavy with monsoon moisture and grief. The infant prince had died in his sleep. “He simply stopped breathing,” the ayaah had stuttered in between sobs. When the lifeless body of the baby was placed in the queen’s arms, she slipped in to a state of deep sleep, never to wake up again, and died after a year.
At Maharaja’s private office, an urgent meeting was held. Baba Jeevan Shah was sad and stared outside the window with tired eyes. Pundit Ganmat, back from his tapasya, anxiously paced on one side of the room. The two friends had had a long argument. Pundit Ganmat had decided to conduct an occult experiment through which he would transport Raghu’s soul in to the other world to bring back the soul of the dead prince.
“I have proved the experiment theoretically by three different principles, Jeevan. You see, I will redefine death and life forever,” he said.
Baba Shah knew well the insidious ways of sins. “That you have invincible power is the first impression they create, before they destroy you. Between life and death, there are stages far, far worse, where one could be trapped,” the Baba warned his friend.
The Pundit had supreme confidence in his theorem. The experiment needed three parameters: two human bodies and a spirit. The spirit would travel to the other world guided by the consciousness of the first human body, the Pundit explained. The second human body would provide mortal energy for the first body’s consciousness and, more crucially, the strength to bring back the spirit to the world of the living.
The Pandit volunteered his consciousness and said he knew the perfect pair to support him on the mission: Raghu and Coorko. The Pundit had studied their bodily compatibility years ago at Baba Jeevan Shah’s shrine.
The Maharaja was overwhelmed that the true heir of their kingdom might return after defeating death. Pundit’s elaborate work had inflated him with hope.
“After thirteen days, the soul of the prince will start its journey to the other world,” Pundit Ganmat said. “We have to get the prince back before that and preserve the boy’s body till then.”
Baba Shah looked on in a stern-silent protest.
“All I need is that chef of the Maharaja’s. And a team of cooks,” the Pundit concluded.
Coorko was summoned and sternly ordered to cooperate with the Pundit in his outrageous experiment. He was livid but expressing emotions was a rare privilege that royal servants of his stature did not get.
Pundit Ganmat spent the rest of the day on the terrace of Gol Ghar. When the sun rose the following morning, an elaborate setting was in place. Complex geometrical shapes were marked with Sanskrit texts on the floor, and Pundit Ganmat sat in padmasana in the centre of a triangle inscribed in a circle. Coorko was seated opposite Pundit Ganmat, their palms resting over each other’s. The adjoining room was converted into a temporary kitchen where a team of cooks were preparing meals with urgency. Stacks of papers in which Pundit Ganmat had made elaborate notes, observations and analysis of Raghu and Coorko’s co-existence lay abandoned in a corner.
Raghu crossed the boundary of the two worlds and started his journey on the other side.
“Only you can go unnoticed in that land. On the other side, the spirits walk towards their ancestors in oblivion, without a burden of a thinking mind. Coorko’s mortal energy will bind my consciousness to you and it will guide you in to the other world,” the Pundit had told Raghu earlier.
After three days of searching, Raghu found the prince’s soul. “Travelling free, and happy,” he would tell Coorko in their conversations later.
But Raghu’s journey back to this world turned out to be far more painful than his own mortal death.
In the living world, Coorko’s body was consuming copious amounts of food to produce mortal energy for the bond between Pundit’s consciousness and Raghu’s spirit. A team of cooks cooked day and night and fed Coorko every hour. Yet, no matter how much he ate, he felt famished. Coorko was known for his voracious appetite. He had never stayed hungry even for even a few hours in his life. After days of near starvation, he refused to pass on the energy of his food to his partners.
For a whole day, Coorko sat cross legged, eyes closed, withdrawn from the experiment, relishing food that was being offered to him every hour while Raghu and the prince struggled in the other world. With the mortal energy binding them reduced, the Pundit’s consciousness started evaporating in the world of the dead and Raghu began to stumble, unable to navigate.
While Raghu began to collapse in his search for the boundary between the worlds, Coorko savoured every delicacy being fed to him, chewing the food slowly, morsel by morsel.
Disoriented and desperate, Raghu fed parts of his own spirit as energy to the prince so that at least the prince could reach the world of the living even if Raghu’s spirit was annihilated. Each step Raghu took towards the boundary between the two worlds, he could see his soul disintegrating, washing away like mud on a river bank. Whatever little energy he drew from Coorko’s body, he passed to the soul of the prince. But frail and burdened by the prince’s soul, he ended up consuming some of his own soul to keep going.
“The last memory I have is of echoing shrieks of the prince. I can’t recollect when I entered this world,” he would tell Coorko.
In the Pundit’s plan, the union of Raghu and Coorko, who had earlier shared one human body, through him was the final solution. But in his equations, he had not accounted for human desires and emotions.
On the terrace of Gol Ghar, rivulets of colours flowed that day; crushed flower petals were strewn all over; in the centre of the room, Pundit Ganmat lay drenched, unconscious. A reputed doctor, H N Crawley, was flown in from Bombay to treat the half-dead Pundit but the doctor proclaimed the Pundit had slipped into a coma. Coorko, on the other hand, had started developing a lump on the side of his neck and was asked to test for iodine deficiency.
No one knew if the soul of the infant prince had made it to the world of living, but the secret of vesting the soul in the dead body of the infant prince was lost with Pundit Ganmat anyway. The Maharaja buried the frozen body of his infant son in the palace grounds, not aware that the prince’s soul had made it through after all, and had now set out to wander the world. After months of wandering, the infant’s soul took to a fully developed foetus in the womb of the third wife of a cottage factory owner. The boy born was remarkably tall, a camel in the mountain valley, his step-brothers joked.
Coorko spent the rest of his life in a dingy chamber in the palace, witnessing events that were shaped by one man, himself. His service to Raghu was penance for his sins that he felt were bundled in a lump on his throat. The Maharaja died on his nephew’s twenty first birthday, days after he was made to hand over the kingdom to the nephew. The British Resident did not let him swear his adopted son as the heir. The Maharaja died with desire of seeing his own son, who would send his nephew in exile, on the kingdom’s throne alive in his heart. But Coorko lived to see a man from the valley, a man as tall as a camel, overthrow the entire kingdom and end the princely rule in the state once and forever.
Coorko spent a lifetime waiting for death, which came only when he had seen the consequences of his sin.