“Guruji, they are all gathering,” twelve-year-old Sumant, his cheeks covered with a fuzzy growth of beard, peered through the flap of the tent and informed the old man. He was skinny and looked as though he had recently shot up in height, and his clothes had not kept up.
The man addressed as Guru, or Teacher, sighed and stood up, his old bones aching. There was a time when he had considered the weather a non-issue. It had just been a matter of mind over body. But age had caught up, and he realized that even Japas could feel cold. It was freezing in the desert; he peered out of the tent at the full moon. He had read somewhere that the full moon in January was known as the Wolf Moon. How apt, he thought as he stepped out, his aged joints creaking. He felt a slight unease arising from his base chakra. He inhaled deeply and said, “I smell danger. This peace among them will not last the night, I know it.”
Sumant grasped his hand, “Then stay inside, Guruji; don’t conduct the homa.”
Guru Tapan smiled sadly and ruffled the young boy’s curly hair. “You stay back, Sumant. You have a young one to watch over.”
The boy looked reluctant. “Sumant, if I do not come back, take Mickey and leave.”
“Where do we go to, Guruji?”
“Delhi… to Sulochana Mohan. I have spoken to her. She will watch over you. Remember, the power is strong in you. Keep doing your chakra exercises, and see to it that the little one does them too. Promise me.”
“I promise, Guruji.”
Tapan Japa looked at the sand dunes around them. The atmosphere was still as though brooding. Something was going to happen tonight; he felt it in his bones, in his Kundalini. “Go, Sumant; go hide in one of the cars with the child. I will find you later.”
The boy looked at his teacher’s face, lined with experience and cares the octogenarian had shouldered throughout his life. He nodded and went into the tent to gather their meager belongings, and shook his younger brother awake. Four-year-old Mickey woke up and gazed at him sleepily. Sumant smiled and whispered, “We are going to Delhi!”
The boy’s eyes widened as he grinned excitedly, showing a gap where his milk teeth had fallen out. Delhi! The big city. Sumant started packing a small knapsack for them.
Guru Tapan went to conduct the homa or the fire ritual. The Japa clans were big on rituals like the homa. Leaders of the five clans, Jalaj or Water, Varuni or Wind, Bhumar or Earth, Pallav or Vegetation, and Agney or Fire, were gathered at the appointed place, an uninhabited oasis in the sand dunes of Rajasthan, along with their select warriors. As soon as the Rahu Kalam was over, the homa would be conducted to the Mother Goddess Kundalini, whom they worshipped as the source of their strength. They were praying for peace among the Japa clans. As long as they could remember, the clans had been at war with each other. If this continued, soon there would be no one left.
Guru Tapan stepped out of the tent to assume the role of Yajman, or the Master of Ceremonies.
“Pranaam, Japa,” the clan leaders intoned as he came to the upraised stone floor where logs of wood were arranged in preparation for the ceremony.
Every man with an awakened Kundalini was addressed as Japa, and every woman as Tai.
Tapan felt his age; time had consumed the flesh on his body and his bones had become stiff. At great personal discomfort, he sat still in the lotus position, chanting the mantras, invoking the Goddess to bless the prayers. As the five leaders took their seats around him, he drew a Kundalini in the sand. It was his personal interpretation of the force, with the serpent head lowered, dormant.
Then he slowly prepared the sacrificial fire by drawing lines around the homa vessel, west to east, south to north, with his wooden sword, or sphya, symbolically removing the dust, and then he picked up the holy water of the Ganges to sprinkle on the lines he had drawn. He sprinkled once and then paused. His companions sat betraying no change in expression but Tapan Japa’s Kundalini was alive, the serpent was sensitive.
Something had shifted in the energies. He sat still, eyes half open as he assessed the environment around him. He checked the aura of the five people surrounding him, but they were adept. Sinduri, leader of the Varunis, a fierce matriarchal clan, sat still, her eyes fixed contemplatively on her son-in-law, Siddhi, the leader of the Bhoomars. She hated the Bhoomars: they were so patriarchal! But she needed allies and so had arranged a marriage between her daughter Seema and Siddhi, their leader; even though she felt they treated women like dirt. Her gaze rested on her daughter, who sat close to her husband, her head lowered. She looked subdued, like other colorless Bhoomar women. To Sinduri’s left sat Chintan, leader of the Jalaj. The Jalaj were a fluid clan, just like the water element they were fond of. Kusumlata Siwan had ruled the clan, but now she was too old to travel. Chintan, her oldest son, had taken over in all but name. Unlike other clans, where the sexes were demarcated, among the Jalaj, anyone could be a warrior or hold any office. It worked for them. She had heard rumours of Chintan’s insecurity, his distrust of women with power. Perhaps it was just that, a rumour. After all, his mother was a great seer.
The Pallav leader, Kisna, looked inebriated. The Pallavs believed that alcohol was the supreme gift of God. Even children imbibed. The Agney leaders Pushp-Rajni, the conjoined twins, were holding a whispered conversation with Sikka Naqvi, a Bhoomar. Were the Agney and Bhoomar allying forces? That would be disaster. Earth and fire don’t mix.
All the chakras in Tapan Japa’s old body screamed danger. He reached out to the clan leaders but each of them kept their auras close to their skin. Then, there it was again, that slight ripple of energy.
He sprinkled water the second time. A gust of wind arose and the water scattered.
The Guru’s forehead was beaded with sweat now. He chanted his mantra louder and sprinkled water the third and final time.
By now, the gust of wind was strong, almost a gale. Tapan Japa paused, looked at the leaders angrily, and quoted from ancient texts: “While the Gods were engaged in performing homa, the Asuras and the Rakshasas forbade them saying ‘Ye shall not have a homa, ye shall not sacrifice’. Since they forbade (raksh), they are called rakshasas. We are descended from the Gods, we are Japas. Who dares interfere in this pious homa?”
The gust of wind gathered strength, scattering all the fruit, tambul leaves, jaggery, flowers, and other offerings kept for the gods.
Chintan, the de-facto Jalaj leader pointed an accusing finger at Sinduri, the Varuni leader, “Guruji, it has to be the Varunis who are disrespecting our homa. They play with the wind!”
“Sinduri?” the old man asked.
Ashok Mohan, one of Sinduri’s best warriors, swaggered forward, “Watch your tongue, Chintan Japa. Did you visit the Pallav camp before the homa? The Pallavs were getting everyone drunk, Guruji. Were they instigating mischief?”
Kisna sneered. “Look, it has started raining. Is it the Jalaj clan who are doing this?”
Chintan’s younger brother, Jorawar, snorted. “And the sand moves and flies. Bhoomars could be behind this, eh, Sidhi Japa?”
“Quiet!” Tapan shouted. “Stop this childishness. May I remind you we are gathered here for peace among the clans?”
Dust rose, stinging their eyes and choking them. Someone called, “Siddhi Japa, stop the circus!”
“Oh, look at the fruits and leaves scatter. Of course, you Pallavs have to jump in,” a woman taunted.
The old man yelled, “Quiet! Now!” They stood sullen, wary and distrustful. Someone had spoiled the homa, someone had vested interest in there not being peace.
“The gods have cursed us,” the old man said in a high-pitched voice that grated on the nerves. “This homa has been cursed. There will be no peace, until this distrust and hatred is purged. The end is approaching.”
His words ended in a scream as a strange figure, heavily masked with a shawl and turban, knocked him down, slashing his throat.
“Who killed the Guru?” Ashok screamed and stabbed wildly at the shadowy figure. That served as a trigger for a free for all. It was impossible to see clearly who was killing whom. Blood dropped freely, red, the color of the root chakra. Curses and screams rang out in the oasis. The sandstorm was shifting the dunes from one place to another. The battle spread out of the oasis into the sand dunes. Many of the fallen did not stand a chance; they got swallowed by the sand.
A young woman, her eyes wild with fire, was battling two men, a grin on her face. Her opponents were Bhoomars, adept at manipulating the earth. One of them channeled some sand at her. She laughed wildly as she raised fire, chortling, “I’ll burn you all. Eat some burning sand!”
Jorawar joined Ashok, “Go and pull that mad wife of yours out of this place, Ashok. Go! I’ll join you later when this settles.”
Ashok laughed, his eyes shining with excitement. He stabbed a man who was charging at Jorawar’s back. “What kind of fellow stabs a person in the back?” he raised a bloodstained sword in salute, and ran to his wife.
Jorawar stared at the fallen man, a Pallav. He yelled, “It’s the second time you’ve saved my life, Ashok. I owe you birathar!”
Ashok’s wild laugh made him smile. Both he and his wife were crazy, they lived for combat! He paid for that slight inattention as someone thrust a dagger at him. He dodged it but suffered a surface cut.
The dust made it hard to see who was a friend or foe. Sneezing heavily, he glanced around, trying to peer through the sand. He could make out indistinct figures retreating. Then he heard gunshots and froze. Another sacrilege, this was a night for them. Tradition and rules of combat clearly stated that no guns were to be used. They were Japas; they could fight with power and swords, and laths (wooden batons).
He jumped onto a moving sand dune and slid down, away from the shots. He waded through the sand and stumbled on another comrade. Like Ashok, Meera, and Jorawar, Sikka was also a Guru Guard. Right now he was lying in the sand, his face coated with dust, his features barely recognizable. He had deep gashes on his arm and leg, and his clothes were stiff with blood and sand.
“Are you okay, Sikka?” he asked bringing his water bottle to Sikka’s mouth. The older man drank greedily and then whispered, “Go, Jora, find Ashok and Meera. Tell them Sinduri wants them dead.”
“What? Are you sure? Ashok is very loyal to her.”
“This is a trap. We all are meant to die. Someone brought guns to the homa!”
“What about you?” Jora asked.
“I am Bhoomar, the sand won’t hurt me. I’ll hide. Go find them, and watch your back.”
He turned and looked around but the swirling sand made it hard to see. He glanced at Sikka but he had already submerged himself in the sand. He waded to the place where he had last seen Meera. There was no sign of her. In desperation, he started kicking the sand and found Ashok’s silver bracelet, with its distinctive turquoise stone set in a ring of chalcedony stones.
Pocketing the bracelet, he looked around. Shadowy figures were fighting all around him. He could hear cries of triumph, and grunts and screams of pain but could not see the people. The dust was thick now. He moved away, avoiding the voices. He had to warn Ashok and Meera; maybe ring them up but there were no telephones here, and it was a long way to town. He started walking in the direction of the town, his brow creased with worry. Someone had killed the Guru. Tapan Japa was the only person who held the fractious clans together. There would be hell to pay now.
He saw the private police of the Varunis rush in and hide behind a sand dune. Manan, or the private police, used by the clans was absolutely corrupt. They were ostensibly hired to protect the Japas, but each clan had its own. They bullied the ordinary law-abiding folk at the behest of the clan leaders and their relatives. And of course, they harassed rival clan members openly.
His pager beeped and he glanced at it. It was an order from his elder brother and clan leader, Chintan, “Joint clan meet at Bassi Fort Palace. 11 am. Be there.”
He wiped his sweaty face and grimaced as the sand that stuck to his hands and face, scratched his skin. It was going to be a long walk. He started kicking the sand searching for fallen or discarded water bottles. His was half-empty.
A soft snicker made him freeze. “Looking for your birathar, the Varuni, are you Japa?” He could smell the sweat and the strong scent of spirit; it was Akshat of the Jalaj clan. The problem with the Pallavs was that they imbibed too much alcohol.
“What about him, Akshat?”
“He was inconvenient. His number was up, and so is yours.”
“Is it?” he asked, weighing his options. “Who says?”
“There was a joint clan meeting just before we came here, and the decision was unanimous. The clan leaders feel that Tapan Japa and his small coterie of Guru Guards are inconvenient. You don’t fit with their plans, you see. Pity. I like you and Ashok too. Orders …”
“Pity,” Jorawar agreed, stiffening as he heard the distinct click of a safety. Akshat had a gun! Pallavs had a strict code of ethics—they refused to touch swords, and this man had a gun! His Kundalini came alive; he could sense the trigger being pulled back. He fell to his knee, feinting to one side, and threw some sand into Akshat’s eyes. Surprised, Askshat staggered back, and Jorawar knocked him down and straddled his chest, lunging for the gun. He grabbed it, and pointing it at Akshat’s head, asked, “Who gave the order to kill Ashok and Meera? And who brought guns here?”
Akshat looked at the nozzle of the gun and smiled, “I am not scared of death.”
Jorawar said conversationally, “This is the only thing that irritates me about us, Japa. Neither death nor pain scares us but then there are levels of pain.” He shot Akshat in the thigh. “There are four more bullets, and all the time in the world.”
Akshat just groaned, his Kundalini was strong. He had managed to shut out the pain. Grinning bravely, he spat out, “Not for you. Not for your birathar Ashok and his hellish wife. That churail (hag) killed four of us Pallavs. I wish I had not missed. We should have trained with guns.”
Jorawar shot the fleshy part of his arm. “What is happening at Bassi Fort?”
This time Akshat screamed in pain. “Death!” he gasped. “Everyone has guns. The Age of the Gurus is finished, over.”
Jorawar stood up and turned away; he had heard enough. “Yeah, and as per our scriptures, you know what comes next? The Age of the Japnis. Not a nice thought. My compliments to our clan heads, they brought it forward.”
Akshat called, “Birathar! Would you leave a Japa to die like this?”
Jorawar stopped, and considered. “You are brave,” he said, turning and taking careful aim. He was not used to guns, and he did not want to miss.
It was a clean shot in the chest, and Akshat died with a choking gasp. Jorawar walked to him, picked up his water bottle, and walked on, hoping to find his friends and some shade before the sun rose too high.
The age of the Gurus was over …
After that, the age of the Japnis was to come…
That is what every foretelling said. But why would the clan leaders push it forward? Japnis were powerful and temperamental. They would not listen to clan leaders. Did they think they could avert the age of Japnis? Did they think they could overturn something as vital as a foretelling? He laughed and shook his head. May all the gods and goddesses help us now!
He froze and looked around, his Kundalini alert. There was someone watching him. He looked around but saw no one, nothing but a sand haze. He fell face down in the sand with a searing pain in his back. He was shot!
Jorawar woke up with a start late in the night. He was being lifted and put into a jeep. “Good, he shut down most of his vitals. Pranic yoga is very useful,” the old woman said. He recognized her, Lata Irani, a renowned scholar, author of many books on the history of the clans. Her picture was on the jackets of many of the textbooks all the school kids belonging to the clans had to study. He had never met her in person, very few had. She was a recluse. He was convinced that he was dreaming, until she poured some liquid on his wound. It stung! He groaned and gasped. “Tai, I could not save the Guru,” he whispered.
“You did your best. It was an impossible task.”
“Sikka?” he asked. “He is near the oasis.”
“He is alive. Marjina, his aunt, took him away.”
Jorawar nodded. “Ashok and Meera?”
She looked away. “The Varuni, Sinduri, has taken their children to Delhi.”
He turned his face away, a Japa warrior like him was supposed to have more control on his emotions. Meera, brave, bold, and so full of life, she was the closest thing to a sister he had. It was hard to accept that she was dead. And Ashok was a birathar, his comrade in arms. They had watched each other’s back so often. He owed Ashok, and now he could not repay him. A tear trickled down his face.
Chakra (fiction) by Ritu Lalit is published by Author’s Empire Publications, India (2013). It can be bought from Flipkart.com.