-A story by S. Ulhas Bhat.
Chance Encounter: what does it mean? Meeting someone by chance resulting in a change in perceptions or a change in destiny. It can be anything. But it means meeting someone unexpectedly, without having previously planned such an encounter.
But is it Chance, or are some things destined? To what extent are things pre-determined?
While not attempting to answer said questions, I am just sharing one such chance encounters. The reader can make appropriate assumptions.
I was in my late twenties and who had just started practice as a chartered accountant at Mangalore. Attending a given number of conferences was a must for renewing our licenses, and a specified number of hours of conferences had to be compulsorily attended for updating our knowledge. I had to attend one of such conferences scheduled at Chennai. In that connection, I had to take a journey by train that evening.
The train had arrived fifteen minutes late, and was waiting for the whistle of the Station Master for departure. My parents had accompanied me to see me off. The bogey was almost empty. It was night 9:00 PM when I boarded the Chennai bound train at Mangalore Railway Station. I had booked a first class AC ticket for Chennai. It was the rainy season, and the whole of west coast was in the grip of heavy rains, as usual. For those in the interior parts of the country, rains may seem welcome, but it wreaks havoc in the coastal areas.
My parents had not liked the idea of my traveling by train as it was raining very heavily and there were two derailments in the coastal area earlier. But I managed to lay their anxiety to rest by promising to visit Goddess Durga Temple at Kateel, near Mangalore, should I return safely with Goddess’s protecting blessings.
I located the bogey and the seat reserved for me. After that I came down and stood near the entrance talking with my parents. They asked me to be careful and take care of my belongings. My colleague had bought me a book named ‘ENCOUNTERS OF DIFFERENT KIND’ written by one Mr.Raghuvaran, a leading chartered accountant of Chennai . A month back I had read a good article on ‘Double Taxation Agreements’ authored by the same writer. So a book of this kind naturally roused my interest. We heard the whistle of the stationmaster signaling the departure of the train. My parents waved at me off as the train left Mangalore Station. I straight away returned to my seat. The first class compartment was almost empty; I could see only four or five passengers in all. Perhaps it was the effect of the rainy season. The sound of the train picking up speed was louder now and I was swaying to its rhythm. The first class AC compartment was quite clean compared to its more economical cousin, the second class. It was a sleeper class as the travel from Mangalore to Chennai by rail takes something close to 20 hours on an average. My cabin was also as empty, with me being the only passenger there. The AC had been put off as it was cold due to the rains.
The coastal side is pleasant throughout the year, but you do have mixed feelings for the rainy season. The rain lashes with a ferocious intensity. You can see street dogs standing on pavements, soaked in rain and braving the weather, with their faces looking abject and miserable, a sight that would evoke pity in the hearts of even stone-hearted people. However wherever you go in coastal Karnataka or Kerala, the streets, pavements and so on are all clean and seem dry washed, no matter how severe the rain. The laterite mud absorbs all the rain. There are dangers of rail derailment during the rainy season in the coastal areas as the tracks are quite slippery. I was uneasy about traveling to Chennai by rail, as there was a derailment just a month back, somewhere in Konkan Railway Route near Karwar. As many as fifty people had died and scores were injured.
The train had picked up speed and had perhaps crossed the limits of Mangalore city. The lights were on. As the rain intensified, I pulled down the shutters and glass of the windows. It was quite cold due to lashing rains and I shivered. A cup of tea would do but I knew not when the next stop would come. I pulled out the heavy blanket and small pillow that I had brought along for the purpose, from the big suitcase. I took the book ENCOUNTERS in my hand for a leisurely reading. But I could not enjoy the book properly as I was having uneasy sensations. I was afraid of the train coming off the tracks, and every odd sound of the locomotive made my heart thump. I prayed to the Goddess for her protection. The emptiness of the compartment with only me a living entity around added to my fears. I was already thinking about which route was best if the train derailed. Whether I should crawl out of the entrance or hold the sleeper for dear life. The problem with me is that I always think of the worst and start making mental preparations for it. Many well wishers including my parents had advised me to think positive and be optimistic, instead of envisioning disaster scenarious. It also used to take a toll on my system, in that acidity and stomachache were very common for me.
–Around 11:00 PM, perhaps, I heard the door sliding open and someone came in. It was the TC (Ticket Collector). I unzipped the office bag and showed him the ticket, which he checked with his list and ticked it off. The train started slowing down and I could hear the loud voices of vendors selling eatables and the like. Perhaps, the Kanhangad (a place in Kerala about 90 km from Mangalore) Station had come. Some two-three vendors came inside, selling tea, coffee and eatables. I was feeling hungry. The snacks brought by me were chips and chaklis, which would not fill my stomach. A vendor entered my cabin, and asked, “Veg Biryani, Sir?”
I asked the price; it was twenty rupees. I bought it from the vendor. It was packed neatly in an aluminum foil and was hot enough. I opened it and proceeded to eat. The train started and picked up speed. Again the compartment was empty. I finished eating and walked to the wash basin to wash my hands. The cabins to either side of me were empty, as were the rest. I came back and sat in my cabin. I drank water from the bottle.
The blanket and pillow was on my side. Sleep dominated my wakeful fears I was asleep. Strange dreams came and went.
I half opened my drooping eyes and saw someone on the seat opposite me. I waited till the effect of sleep had fully receded. I could now see the person clearly. Perhaps he was a co-passenger who had boarded the train somewhere in Kerala while I was asleep. At least now there was company. I got up slowly, and smiled courteously at him. I have a habit of striking up conversation with strangers in train journeys. It beats the tedium of the travel. At the end of the journey we would go our separate ways. Many a time, I had struck up quite a good company with my co-passengers.
He smiled back. He looked about sixty to sixty five years old and was dressed properly with a grey blue shirt and a black pant. They seemed quite expensive. His eyes were brownish but had a deep and uncanny look in them. If he looked at you it seemed as if he was looking through you, and could gauge your deepest secrets. His hairs were grey and neatly combed back. Perhaps he used Brylcream which was a popular hairdo of the ’ 60s. He had a perfectly cut moustache which had a silver color to it. He seemed to be quite tall, possibly six feet. However his eyes were really intense. His face was a bit wrinkled, and he had somewhat aquiline features with a somewhat hawkish nose. Lips were thin. He must have been a handsome man in his youth. He had buttoned up his shirt up to his sleeves.
“Hello,” I greeted him, “it is a bit cold, isn’t it?”
“Yes, cold it is, but not as cold as in the open,” he said in a deep voice.
His luggage was nowhere to be seen. But I did not pay much attention to that fact.
“My name is Shivaram Hegde,” I said to him, and extended my hand for a handshake. However he did not shake my hand, and just folded his hands in namaste. I felt a bit miffed.
“My name is Mr. Mudaliar. Going to Chennai, are we?” he said.
I said yes and asked him if he too was going to Chennai. He just looked at me and said that he would get down somewhere in between, I forget the name of the station he mentioned.
As we started conversing, I found out that he was a Tamilian residing at Chennai. To my pleasant surprise, he was also a chartered accountant practicing at Chennai. I informed him that I too was a practicing chartered accountant from Mangalore. I felt that I had seen the person earlier. I asked him whether he knew of the CA conference scheduled at Chennai. He replied in the affirmative, but said that he would not be able to attend it as he had to be at Shoranur. There was some work he had to do there.
Shoranur. That was the station, he had mentioned earlier. It comes at Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. It is a crossroad of sorts and trains take different route from there on.
As both of us were from the same profession, our conversation veered towards the different sort of clients we had to deal with, the challenges facing our profession and so on. I admired his command over the subject of taxation. I had Many doubts, which could not be clarified by veterans and experts I knew, were cleared very lucidly by the person. I said so to him, and he modestly said that man is very small before the Almighty; before the expanse of His knowledge.
He resided in Chennai somewhere in Tembuchetty Street. He loved the weather of Mangalore, he said, and also commented on how hot Chennai was throughout the year. But nights brought in cool breeze from the sea. He was speaking throughout in English with me. His English was crisp and very fluent, devoid of any accent which we South Indians are wrongly attributed with.
“Did not bring your luggage along?” I asked him out of curiosity. I had noticed that earlier and it seemed strange to me.
“Oh, we don’t need it.” He said. I did not understand him but I did not ask further.
I always refrain from asking details of personal lives of people I meet. I hate sounding too inquisitive. Also, there may be some embarrassing details in their lives which they may not wish to disclose. If they by themselves say their intimate secrets I give a patient hearing, if not, I ask no further.
He had completed his CA in 1970, he said. He had been practicing for more than 30 years. Perhaps that was the reason for his command over the subject.
Suddenly the topic changed and he started speaking about spirituality and the essence of life. Ordinarily I avoid such topics, but what he said to me that day shall perhaps change my life and my perception about it for ever.
“Shivaram, life is a strange story in itself. We all pass through myriad experiences; to each his own. But the conclusions are never the less towards one direction. I have had an experience, the like which none may have or all may have one day, as you choose. We come to this earth, and start toiling from the day one. Learning to speak, learning to walk, learning to understand this world and learning to survive here. Though it has become clichéd to say that all of us have to go some day, our actions belie this fact. We try to push off the concept of death, remove it to some corner of our mind where it will stay, always tormenting us in our loneliness. What is there after this life, what is there before that, none of us knows. The Truth has been designed in such a way that its full face can be seen only when we cease to exist as this body.” He started saying, and his eyes started acquiring a strange far away look. It seemed as if he had started to go into another dimension, a dream time much far away from our reach. His demeanor compelled me to listen. A strange sensation inside me urged me to listen.
I had heard many people speak about spirituality and about the effervescent character of life. But I had seen those very people act contrary to their words. Their words did not tally with their deeds. Some of my acquaintances would start a discourse on spirituality after a peg or two of whisky had gone into their system. The next day there would be nothing but a hangover; and the eloquent thinker would be requesting me to manipulate the accounts to avoid income tax. The most ironic incident was when I saw one such person who I admired for his great thoughts, slapping his subordinate for an insignificant mistake. Hence I avoided such discussions. If the person was important to me and my work, I would act as if I agreed with his views. After all, bread is more important than ideology.
But this man was really different. His words seemed to come from the depth of experience, experience of life and something beyond.
And so I just listened.
He took a long deep breath and looked at me with his intense eyes.
“Young man,” he said, “the experience that I am going to narrate is an extremely strange one. To you it may seem ordinary at the first instance; but there are deeper connotations in it. Deeper meanings that we have to search for to understand it.”
“It was just two weeks back. I had a very strange invitation, an invitation to see a person dying.”
Suddenly I was all ears at this point of the conversation. Who in this world would invite someone to watch a living breathing person die? I raised my eyebrows askance.
He paused for effect and then continued:
“Yes. You heard it right. I was invited to watch a person die. A person I was very well acquainted with. A strange invitation, you would say. Normally for such events, one receives a message that Mr. So and so is seriously ill, and if he or she is among the nearest and dearest, you rush off to see that person. But this invitation was otherwise.
The venue was an old ancestral house in Palakkad. A successful person the dying man had been. The time was somewhere around late evening. At least that was the time the doctor had given. The house was in the periphery of the city and the surroundings were sparsely populated. Situated in a big coconut farm. Must have been quite big, something like 30 acres. The farm was situated behind the house. I knew it well as I had been there many times. In fact I had grown up here. You may know how the farm looked like as many farm houses in your side are much similar to the way they look in Kerala.
At the appointed time, I was at the entrance of the farm. A big iron gate guarded the farm house. It was open and a mud road led to the house, which was a furlong from the gate.
A decent concrete road came up to the gate. Two wheelers and four wheelers were haphazardly parked there. Perhaps many people had come to see the old man off, I thought. Some situations evoke a dark sense of humour in us.
At the entrance there were some four or five men looking quite solemn and grave. They were speaking in hushed tones among themselves. I could not gather what they were saying. When I entered the gate, they did not even look at me. So immersed in grief they seemed to be.
Still I continued walking up to the steps of the house. The house was a big one and seemed at least two centuries old. It was a tiled house, the likes you see in Kerala and coastal Karnataka. It had withstood the test of time, standing majestically in spite of periodic repairs. Seen many births and deaths. Many aspirations and despairs. There was a very big area to the front of the veranda in the middle of which there was a tulsi katte. That is what you say in Kannada, isn’t it?”
I nodded, not speaking anywhere in between.
Again he paused and taking another deep breath, continued the narration which flowed like a soft stream that flows when rains have stopped after ravaging the earth, going on and on till it joins a lake or a river:
“To my either side I could see big trees, of coconut, of jackfruit and what not. They too seemed ancient, could be forty to fifty years old. It seemed to have rained heavily the previous day and the ground was wet, the smell of rain was touching people’s noses, evoking deep memories of childhood, and of times spent there. There were many slippers and shoes scattered below the steps of the house. A few people could be seen here and there. All were whispering among themselves, and none seemed to notice me. I entered the house and narrowly missed dashing into a lady rushing out. In the front there was a big verandah. Here many more gentlemen and ladies could be seen. I entered a big room. Soft music could be heard, I could not exactly locate its source at first. It seemed like a hymns sung in praise of Krishna, to the soft backgrounds of veena and tabla.
Then I saw clearly. In the middle of the room there was a cot, on which the dying person was lying. His eyes were half closed but life seemed to still lurk in his body. Surrounding him were his family members. An old lady, whom I took to be his wife, was sitting in the corner sobbing inconsolably. Some ladies were comforting her. The persons surrounding him were men between the ages of fifteen to thirties. There could have been some five of them. They were his sons. Near the door and around the room many others were also standing, speaking in low voices among themselves, not wishing to disturb a dying man. The room was dimly lit. I started to see the room more clearly. Now, I could locate the source of the music. To the left side of the old man, some persons were sitting and performing.
A person near me said, “What a way to go! Listening to hymns of God and keeping one’s attention on Him. Such blessed people go to heaven. It was the wish of the dying man to keep his attention on God while leaving this world. What a great man he was.”
Another person dressed in a kurta pajama standing beside the first person added, “But sixty is not the age to die. He was great in almost everything he did- work, devotion, relationship and so on. The heart attack was the second in a row, too much for him to bear. I wonder how he failed to save himself. If I was as influential as he was, I would have used all my contacts to get the best medical care. In the United States, even terminally ill patients can be saved and made to live a hundred years.
I doubt if it is the heart. Seeing the extensive property holdings and wealth of the man, one cannot rule out wrongdoings.”
The last sentence was said in a very low and hushed tone, almost as if in a whisper.
Perhaps the speaker had not noticed me standing so close. Even the family members did not notice me.
The sons seemed grave. The eldest was standing near his father’s head. Suddenly I saw a young lady come along. In her twenties, she seemed distraught and her face was filled with tears. Still she looked beautiful.
She was the old man’s daughter.
A handsome man, also in his twenties, accompanied her till the bed of the old man. The family members gave way to her. I could notice a perceptible discomfort in them as she neared her father.
“Look, the killer of our father-in-law has come! He never approved of her marriage with that non-Brahmin. She is the reason for his death. What not has he done for her!” a lady in white sari standing near the old fellow’s wife was saying this in a loud whisper to another lady, a bit younger than her, who was nodding her head in approval. Possibly daughters-in-law of the dying man.
Inside me a strange feeling was going on. I could hear every whisper and every word spoken. Not only that I could also feel what was going on in their mind as well as that of the person in the death bed. Greed of property, hatred, and remorse- all sorts of emotions ran through the persons at that place. The dying man was oblivious to all this. His mind was in the soft music of Thiagaraj which was being played by the musicians as his last request. There is no better way for a man to bid adieu to this world.
I could clearly see through his mind, his soul even. His entire life flashed past his mind’s eye, starting from his child hood, his adolescence, adult and married life and old age to the present stage, the end, curtains down. He could not speak, his eyes were half closed. A doctor was nearby.
His daughter was distraught and clutching his feet, begging forgiveness incessantly. Her brothers could take it no longer and pulled her away. The eldest seemed to be admonishing her, as if he had had enough of her presence. They too seemed to hold her responsible. Her husband was indignant but stayed on for the sake of his wife.
All others continued to speak in hushed tones. The dying man’s wife was still sobbing uncontrollably. I could see through her mind too. There seemed to be no love for her husband. Throughout her life she seemed to have made only materialistic demands from her husband. Now her only worry was of the future. Her status was reduced from wife of so and so to that of a widow. Also she was worried of her sons. Whether they would continue to support her or treat her indifferently. She had been ruthless with her daughters-in-law so far, now the equations would be a bit changed. She did not seem to be concerned about where her husband was going to.
The second son seemed to be secretly happy. In fact the house was his, and he was managing its affairs in the absence of his father. There was a satisfaction of something done, as if he had succeeded in the death of his father. I immediately sensed it. He might have given poison to his father. Outwardly his demeanour showed nothing of the sort but a strong feeling inside me suspected him. The hushed opinion of the gathering was right; the old man was very fit physically, not one to die so suddenly. The family doctor was perspiring more than normal and I suspected him too.
The other sons were worrying about the changed equations. The eldest seemed to be distanced from all this. He did not desire anything. His wife was also away from the group of daughters-in-law. He did not seem to have the best of relations with his father but it was not bad either.
The second was the most cunning of the lot. Every bit of his outward emotions were so perfect and stereotyped that it could deceive anyone into thinking that he was genuinely distressed of his father’s impending demise.
The dying man was a city dweller from a long time. He had left his entire property in the care of his second son who had nowhere else to go. But he was ruthless about the maintenance of the property and kept all important decisions and rights to himself. He came periodically to enjoy the fruits of the property, a pittance of which he gave to the second son. He never trusted that man. However the extreme cunning of the second progeny had deceived him. Last heard, he had come to know of some wrongdoings on the part of this son, indulging in expensive gambling, unworthy friendships and pilfering heavily from his father’s property. He had come down from the city to have a word with his son. His Will favoured the son and he intended to divest him of his powers.
Perhaps he was too late. According to the people there, at least what I gathered from their mutual discussions.
I was seeing something else. Another world beckoned him, peaceful, calm unlike this world. Arrangements were being made for his welcome, something was waiting for him, and I could sense it. The colours, dimensions and realm of that world were different. Beings that existed there were also strange, not perceptible to the naked eye. A long tunnel opened to that realm. Here, some were worried about his departure, some eagerly awaited it, some were indifferent and some were thinking about what would happen thereafter.
It happened all of a sudden. Shivaram, important events in life happen all of a sudden. They are decided by some outside power, beyond our perception, trying to remind us that it exists. That we are not alone here. We are accountable to someone or something and I had the experience of that something as well. Not as written by our scriptures.
There was a strange sound, some may call it Om, and some may call it a sound akin to what the Big Bang may have sounded like.
A long breath escaped from the dying person’s body, and I definitely saw something come out of him. Not a light, but something different. It was full of energy, neither good nor evil. Hovering in the tunnel. Some message was there for it that it had still some time in Earth. Some work was there to do, what I know not.
The doctor hastily checked his pulse. In fact saying “his” would be an anomaly as “it” would be a more apt description. Him, he, his or her, hers – all these exist as long as that I exists, that energy thrives in the body. Without that life force, all biological matter becomes “it”.
The pulse had stopped completely. The doctor confirmed his (its?) death and the musicians stopped playing. The sobbing intensified. Some among the onlookers were also moved enough to cry. But I felt no sorrow. He had been freed and I had seen him freed. Only a work was left, on finishing of which he would go to that other abode, which I had been blessed to witness.”
My fellow passenger took a deep breath and looked at me again with his penetrating eyes.
On the one hand I was beginning to doubt the sanity of this man. Either he was spinning tall tales to impress me or he was genuinely in need of professional help.
But something inside me was compelling me to believe him in spite of myself.
He smiled and said, “I know what you are thinking, my boy. I am perfectly sane; I have no intention of impressing you with my experience. You may believe it or not, it is left to you. But I had the urge to narrate this incident to someone. Now I am free. A huge burden is off my chest.”
I was a trifle surprised that he could read my mind.
I could not speak; there was a big lump in my throat. I just turned my head towards the window to avoid eye contact with him, and began ruminating within myself.
The train started slowing down and my co-passenger got up.
“Your station has come, is it?” I said. I could not recognize my own voice. Perhaps his story had an effect on it. It came out hoarse. I cleared my throat.
He smiled again.
“Yes, it is Palakkad. I will take leave, my friend. Before I leave I wish to recite a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:
“atmaivaratmano bandhu, atmaiva ripuratmanah.” Meaning self is the friend of self and the same self is also the enemy of self at times.
With that he took a bow and slowly left the cabin. Strangely, he took no luggage along. The shutters were still closed and I was left to my loneliness. I kept on thinking about what he said, and did not get even a minute’s sleep throughout the journey.
The train reached Chennai quite late, around five o’clock in the evening. Chennai, as usual, was quite humid and hot, a far cry from the rainy Mangalore. I hired an auto to the hotel I usually boarded in every time I came to Chennai and checked in at the hotel.
The conference was scheduled two days after. I was considerably disturbed and did not go out of my room that much. I was in a trance all the while. Who was the person who spoke to me? Could his experience be real? Or was he only trying to impress me with a concocted story? Or was it a mere dream.
Perhaps I could gather more information about him at the conference. This was my first conference at Chennai, and I did not know the Chartered Accountants there.
On the day the Conference was scheduled; I got up early and completed my morning duties and pooja.
The venue was a big convocation hall near Kodambakkam. I seemed to have arrived a bit late as the outside of the hall was empty and I could hear someone speaking over the microphone inside the hall. It was around ten-thirty, morning. I entered the hall, taking care not to disturb the people who had gathered. The seats of the last row were as yet empty and I sat on one of the seats. The mood of the audience seemed somber. My eyes took time adjusting to the lighting of the room compared to the bright sunlight outside. Three dignitaries and speakers were seated in the seats given to them. There was a garlanded photograph of a person kept on an elevated pedestal beside the speakers. A person was speaking on the dais.
As I strained my eyes the person in the photo seemed familiar. Then I realized! It was the face of Raghuvaran Mudaliar, the gentleman I had met in the train! I recognized him at once, the same penetrating eyes, the same brylcreamed hairs and all. There was an inscription below: “atmaivaratmano bandhu, atmaiva ripuratmanah.”