An Incidence on a Summer Night
We are often unable to explain certain incidents in life. When you hear about a strange incident experienced by someone, you can choose to disbelieve, which largely depends on your own liking or dislike of the subject, or the nature of the incident.
However, you feel yourself to be in a difficult situation when a bizarre incident occurs in your own life and brings about a huge change in it, yet when you have doubts about certain aspects of the incident.
Twenty years ago, Nikhilesh Roy, an young engineer of twenty six had experienced such an incident which had changed the course of his life. He was, at that time, employed with the rural electrification corporation and worked in remote areas in the Eastern Ghat mountains of Andhra Pradesh. In 1992, Nikhilesh was working in the Ananthagiri hills in projects involving electrification of tribal villages in that region.
Nikhilesh enjoyed his work like all young, enthusiastic people to whom working for a project is not just a monotonous duty, but a sincere effort to fulfill a dream for the society. The beauty of the Eastern Ghat range was also a natural reliever of the stress for those with the ability to receive the gifts nature bestows on us silently everyday.
During that period, Nikhilesh and his team were working in villages near Borra Caves in Araku valley, and he had to visit the ancient caves regularly in connection with their electrification.
Nikhilesh, a thoroughly city-bred young man, often felt that the mystic charm of the mountains, the river flowing through the ancient caves and the simplicity of the tribal people helped him see and feel many things which were beyond the folds of mechanical city life.
On a day which had been particularly hard and tiring, Nikhilesh was preparing to return to Vishakhapatnam. His car was ready, but it was only little before sunset that he could finish his work and start the journey.
His driver Venkata Raju was a cheerful young man who spoke English in Telugu accent, and was familiar with all the bends of the mountain roads. As they were about to start, Raju informed that some road construction work was going on and they would have to take a route which was a little different than the usual one.
It was late summer but the weather in the hills was cool and pleasant. The road was smooth and they proceeded at a fairly good speed, the hills shone in the last rays of the setting sun till darkness descended on the valley. Nikhilesh was feeling tired and he leaned back, closing his eyes.
After a couple of hours, he felt the need for a cup of tea and a good smoke and asked Raju to halt. It was a full moon night, and the valley below was flooded with moonlight, as they got out of the car. The air was fresh and sweet in the summer night.
As Nikhilesh smoked his cigarette after he and Raju had tea from the flask they carried in the car, he treasured in his mind the pristine beauty around him which has been the same for thousands of years. The valley beyond offered the same view to him, a modern man of the twentieth century with his car beside him, as it did to a soldier or a tradesman a thousand of years ago when they had alighted from their horse on night such as this and stopped for a moment to rest.
The magical spell was soon broken and Nikhilesh had a rough landing from the heights of imagination as the car refused to start and a very reluctant noise came out from the engine. Raju worked hard to fix the problem. Finally, he could start the engine after at least 20 minutes. They drove on fast this time, as it was getting late and there was fear of the car getting out of order again. After the hard day’s work, both of them were looking forward to reaching home.
Nikhilesh had returned from the valley to the city at this hour, at least forty times. He was familiar with the route and had developed an idea of the time taken, which was more or less the similar on every occasion. Today, he was a little confused by the slight change in the usual route. At last, just when Raju said “half an hour, Sir”, the car stopped and this time it seems determined not to start again.
Raju took out his tool kit and tried hard to fix the problem, but all in vain. They were standing by the roadside with an expanse of hilly area in front of them, visible in the moonlight in a mysterious way. Bushes and shrubs grew all around in a dispersed manner, and far below the lights of the curved coastline marked the sea.
It was impossible to leave the car by the roadside and try for other conveyance to reach the city. Besides, it was quite late in the night and few vehicles passed by. Finally, they decided to spend the night in the car and walk for assistance to the nearest petrol station at daybreak. Of course there would be no dinner, but as Nikhilesh often had to go to remote places where ready food was not always available, he carried some dry food and biscuits with him in the car.
Some tea remained in the flask and there was enough water. “Come, Raju. Let’s have whatever is there. This is a bad day”. Nikhilesh tried to sound as cheerful as possible. They shared a simple repast of cheese, some slices of light cake, tea and biscuits.
“I’ll try again, Sir”. Said Raju after the meal and went to inspect the car again, while Nikhilesh looked at some objects in the distance which looked like small mounds. Had it been some other time, Nikhilesh would have inquired about the place, but he felt quite out of spirits at that moment. Soon they got into the car, locked the doors and fell asleep, Raju in his usual posture in the front seat – he was used to sleeping in this way often in daytime – and Nikhilesh with some difficulty in the back seat.
Sleeping in the car is not, after all, as comfortable as sleeping in your own bed. When Nikhilesh woke up and looked at his wristwatch, it was 3-30 am. He felt refreshed and decided not to sleep any more. Raju was fast asleep. Nikhilesh checked the lock carefully after he got out of the car. The moonlight was pale now. A faintly visible path led to the expanse where he could see the mounds he had noticed earlier and some other structures.
Looking more intently, he could suddenly discern the glimmer of lights. For a few minutes, the mystic charm of the summer night might have cast a spell on Nikhilesh, as he walked towards the direction of the lights, not quite sure of what he was doing. As he walked on, he became aware of a sharp aroma of incense in the air. Soon he came near the lights which he had seen gleaming from the distance, and was surprised to see an unexpected scene in front of him.
Three monks, with metallic urns in their hands, were performing some rituals in front of a stupa which appeared as mounds to Nikhilesh from the distance. Several wick lamps were gleaming in front of the stupa. The aroma was intense here. He could now hear a chanting of the combined voices of the three monks in a strange, continuous tone, in an unknown language. Mesmerized, he stood where he was, a few yards away from them, until some sound of astonishment from his lips caused them to stop and turn their faces together towards him.
They were tall, well built men dressed in golden yellow robes which Buddhist monks wear to this day. Their features were certainly not foreign, but a little unfamiliar. Their faces were calm and serene, and their eyes were fixed on him in an intent gaze which diffused serenity, composure, peace and a confident detachment from the material world.
The scene was visible only for a few minutes before fading away, and Nikhilesh came to his own self as if he woke from a trance. Suddenly, he found himself in the darkness which was a few shades lighter now, and the light of the setting moon was pale and feeble. Involuntarily, he turned around and took the path which led to the road below where his car was parked.
As he leaned against the car and thought of what he had just seen, the first streaks of dawn were visible on the horizon. Raju woke up and came out of the car immediately, and was a little surprised to see Nikhilesh looking at him in a dazed manner. He became more surprised when Nikhilesh said, “Raju, let’s go up that path and see what’s there”.
They took the winding path and reached the place where Nikhilesh had been a while ago. The first lights of dawn fell on a ruin of a vast complex of stone structures, apparently once a Buddhist monastery. They advanced through several miniature and big stupas, a huge stone reservoir and rows of stone compartments for the residents of the monastery.
Nikhilesh tried in vain to identify the spot at which he had witnessed last night’s scene. They looked around and found a signboard put up by the state Archeological Department and saw that excavations had been done to unearth the remains of an ancient Buddhist establishment which flourished in that place about 2000 years ago.
The scattered shrubs and bushes, the silent ruins of the ancient monastery, the calm sea far below which was a witness both to the past glory and the present decadence stirred a strange feeling in Nikhilesh. He sighed and turned to return. Raju had gone ahead of him and was working on the engine, apparently in a final attempt to restore it. To their surprise, suddenly the engine started and they were off in a couple of minutes to reach the city at daybreak.
Nikhilesh could not forget what he saw that night. The vision of the three holy monks from a past and forgotten era and the rituals they had performed so quietly on a summer night more than a thousand years ago had an immense effect on him. He quit smoking, gave up the occasional drink or two in professional gatherings and became a vegetarian.
He visited the Mahabodhi society whenever he was in Calcutta and read books on the life of Gautama Buddha and the philosophy of his religion. During one of these visits, he met Somrita, a young research scholar of ancient Indian history who was learning the Pali language in connection with her research and came to the society to study ancient manuscripts.
They became friends and she was the first person to whom Nikhilesh narrated his story before they were married about five years from that incident. They visited the place soon after their wedding. The site is visited by thousands of tourists every year now, but when Nikhilesh stood among the ruins with his wife, they could feel the presence of the holy people whose noble religion was once able to conquer half of Asia.
Contributing Story Teller:: Aditi Ghosh, I am a resident of Kolkata. I work as a Secretary in a real estate firm and write in between my work. I have a daughter (9 years). My husband is also based in Kolkata and is a senior accountant in a medical equipment company. [email protected]