I wrote a story sometime back and ever since, worried much about sharing it with the world. "What the heck!" - that is how people would react, I was sure! Then, one day I said to myself, bad reaction is better than no reaction at all- so let me share it. I will be sharing further chapters, if the audience insists on it! Before we begin, let me state: This is essentially a work of fiction- a story meant for young adults. No offence meant to any group or community or anyone living or dead. Just pure fiction!
The Zanskar Adventure
Early winter, 1992, India.
The elderly man in a coarse white gown took a few steps to the window. It opened north – to the Dhauladhar ranges. Setting sun caught its upper peaks in a contrast of autumn colors, as the valley lower down sank in a gloom. In Dharamshala, Dhauladhar comes quite close to north Indian planes – just one hour drive from green carpet like tea gardens of Palampur. Their sudden rise as a white insurmountable wall appeared like a high mysterious parapet, hiding many secrets behind.
This second storey room in a shabby little hotel in MacLeodgunj, half an hour above Dharamshala, had a great view north. In early nineties, MacLeodgunj was still a small non-descript suburb of Dharamshala. Only few enthusiasts used to walk up to this lonely road on clear mornings, in search of better views of Himalayas. A small colony of Tibetans lay huddled around this road, interspersed with half a dozen tea shops which doubled as hotels too. During tourist season and also when Dalai Lama would be in residence in Dharamshala, crowd of tourists, sometimes spilled over to this suburb.
The man stood erect as Dhauladhar, despite his age. He was in late sixties. His swarthy face was creased but gave no hint, as to his antecedents. He could be a professor, a recluse, a tourist - anything. His features stood on the borderline of orient and occident- more like middle eastern. His loose white gown was woven of a coarse sheep fiber, found in Tigris valley in southern Iraq. The sash of the same color and material, used to tie it, had a small wooden pendant, which appeared like a cross on a cursory look. A closer enquiry revealed significant differences: All the four arms were of equal length, something like a plus sign. Instead of customary “INRI” of the Christian cross, one arm had one word engraved on it – Theraputas, in a stylized unusual script – like the calligraphy used to adorn the margins of ancient texts. There was no image anywhere on it.
His thoughts were in turmoil. He represented a search, a journey – many centuries old. His face spoke of an “injustice” and a lifelong battle to undo it. No price seemed big enough in this endeavor.
There was a sound – and he turned- as the door opened and four Lamas entered the room, bowed and stood – as if waiting for further instructions. They were young men, in late twenties, dressed just like any other lama, so common in Dharamshala; Maroon long skirts and yellow uppers, sleeveless shirts, shaven heads. Of course their features lacked that mongoloid high cheek bones and jovial open expression characteristic of young lamas in these parts of Himalayas. Not very tall, may be 5 feet 4 to 6 inches. Rounded foreheads and dark hair. They could be middle eastern in origin. They had addressed the elder, as Rabbi, who had turned and faced them now:
“How did it go?”
“Security check is there. But we had no problem. Our Thai contact was there. Dalai Lama gave us his blessings and granted us our placement requests at the four gompas.” One of them, may be a couple of years older than the rest, answered for the whole group.
Rabbi motioned them to take a seat- then, looked up at the speaker for some time, as if he doubted him; Could everything have gone so smoothly? Apparently it had. Then suddenly his expression mellowed. He turned towards window and spoke with his back to the young men:
“I must leave tonight. Now it is up to you. Whether you live or die, remember, I want this key to our creed. For seventeen centuries our Elders have been persecuted for their faith. Now the moment has come. Our life means little, but the world must see the light – the light of truth. They gave their lives- now it is our turn. Do you understand?”
Suddenly the atmosphere in the room became still and oppressive. The four young men, turned in their seats uncomfortably. It was late autumn. Six winters they had spent away from their land, trying to master an alien culture, tongue and way of life in a Thai forest monastery- suppressing their true identity. Today they had passed just one test. The first test. How many more were there?
After a few minutes, the Rabbi turned to them and said –
“Before I leave, you must surrender all your personal belongings.”
The four lamas searched their pockets and small bits and bobs began piling up on the table: some letters, photographs, a small diary, some foreign coins, rosaries; The young lama who had been the spokesman so far for the group, inserted his hand in his ochre tunic and hesitated for a second; His fingers clutched a small wooden pendant attached to a rosary for a few seconds- then left it where it was, hidden in many folds of his tunic – his last tie with the past.
The last item to be surrendered on the table was a small faded prayer book; The title in a stylized script read: Theraputas: Doctrine of the Elders.
Spring 1993, Swizerland.
The four european men were dressed for business and this meeting in a house on 17th Boulevard, in Geneva, just across the lake, could have passed for a business meeting, except for the setting. It was a deserted coffee house and all the four men were meeting each other for the first time. None wanted it to lead to a second meeting. As far as their forged travel documents were concerned this meeting never took place. It was an unusual meeting: Three men claimed to represent three western governments but had nothing to prove it. Fourth, a fat short man with a fringe of brown hair on his shiny head, had passed off as a scholar most of his life but in his heart of heart knew that he was only a businessman after all. He knew that even the most useless information could be sold for gold – you just have to find right customer for it. Value is a subjective notion.
The three consulted among themselves before tackling the fourth, fat short man, known as Dr Frances:
“Dr Frances, we can not wait-” He pushed a cutting from an Archeology journal across to the fourth man, “We will have to go for direct action soon.”
Dr Frances, the “scholar”, did not pick up the cutting but looked at it with some interest:
“A Pali scholar from Banaras Hindu University has raked up the old controversy: Jesus not only survived crucifixion, traveled to India but wrote a book as well! Academics have declared it to be a hoax since nothing substantial has been found in the past to support similar claims; the Russian traveler in 19th Century Kashmir, Nicolas Notovitch claimed that Jesus was in India before crucifixion. Another Muslim scholar claimed same, but AFTER the crucifixion. This is the latest attempt to revive a controversy which adds little to Archeology and offends many, especially the Church in the west...”
The “scholar” calculated every word and chalked out his strategy in mind; His critics claimed that he started his career from a basement room, specializing in reproductions of medieval paintings and scrolls; What could not be stolen, could be faked expertly. Now he had a glass fronted office abutting the lake in that quarter of Geneva, which was better known for the offices of international organizations like United Nations. He was now well known in the academic circles, specially dealing with textual archeology, also known as Paleography. Dr Frances had achieved all this and much more through just one ability: He could think deeply and see the un-obvious.
“Monsieur, I will request you to reconsider that decision: To destroy something you have to find it first; And when you destroy it, you acknowledge two things: that it exists as an object and - that it is too dangerous to be left alone. Can we afford that?”
Everyone was lost in thoughts. Silence. Dr Frances continued:
“Looking for this manuscript is a specialized task; My men are best at it. Once it is in my hands, tempering it and proving it to be a latter day forgery, will be a simple job. THAT is better than destroying it outright. What do you say?”
Heads around him nodded.
“I agree that my approach takes some time. Yes, it takes considerable money too. But don’t forget, ancient text, fake or genuine, fetches ten times more money than your entire campaign in Qumran valley.”
The reference to Qumran valley silenced all the arguments; In sixties and seventies, dead sea scrolls were found in that region of Israel; These scrolls had unleashed a debate about the history of early church and its founder. The three men in black business suits again consulted each other and appeared to be in agreement about the fact that this was the only man they could deal with: nature of their business was such. The three had already dealt with Dr Frances over Q-scrolls, smuggled out of original find of Dead Sea scrolls. Qumran valley campaign was a reference to that earlier collaboration.
“How much more money do you want?”
Dr Frances did not have to think-
“Just a couple of million Euros, nothing more, Monsieur.”
The three men in business suit looked at each other- then nodded. The business settled, the four dispersed.