Story: Befriending Bhangarh
By: Natalia Suri
In the Dausa haveli of Thakur Umaid Singh, that morning in June was chaotic. The servants ran through the long passages, carrying rice bags, milk cans and flower baskets. Some were busy decorating the main hall. They hung garlands from one corner to the other. The smell of roasted jaggery wafted from the kitchen into the main hall. It mixed itself with the fragrance of the rose and the marigold flowers.
The servants wiped every table twice, obeying the order of Thakurain Umavati, who was instructing them from the adjacent kitchen.
“Hurry up, you lazy bones! You people still have to sweep the main hall,” she hollered. “Kunwar Amar Singh will be here any time. He is coming after six months. I just want everything perfect in this haveli.”
Her excited voice reverberated in the high walls of the haveli, while her hands were busy frying the bread in the hot oil.
After a few minutes, the Thakurain walked out of the kitchen. Her orange saree was sodden, and it stuck to her curvaceous figure. She wiped the sweat on her tanned face with the corner of her saree. Her hair was matted with sweat. As she sat down on the sofa in the hall, she remarked, “Oh! Summer these days is like an open oven in Rajasthan. I read the newspaper and it said this will be the hottest year in the last fifteen years.”
She took a sip of the orange juice that a servant had brought for her, and looked at Bhuwar Singh, her brother- in- law, who sat in front of her. Bhuwar Singh appeared spruce after a shower, wearing a T-shirt that hugged tightly his well-toned body, accompanied with blue jeans. In his mid thirties, he was ten years older than the Thakurain, but looked very young. He was still a bachelor and never wanted to marry anyone, because the scars of being cheated in love had left him with the opinion that women just bring trouble in life.
Bhuwar Singh stopped reading the newspaper. He put it down on the coffee table and said, “Bhabi, I can see how happy you are that Kunwar Amar Singh is coming. I have no words, how much love you have showered on Kunwar as his step-mother.
“No, Bhaiyaji,” she said, “he is my own son, and I am delighted he will be eighteen this month. An adult. All these havelis and lands will be his. He has become a perfect gentleman, after finishing school from one of the best boarding schools.”
There was stillness between the two.
“Me and you, Bhaiyaji, are just care takers,” the Thakurain smiled and said, “we don’t own anything here. Thakur Umaid Singh has bequeathed all this to his elder son, Kunwar Amar Singh, his heir. After all, I am his second wife.”
Bhuwar Singh noticed the color drain from the Thakurain’s face. But she quickly recovered and changed the conversation. “It must be very cool in Nainital? Oh, I must switch on the air- conditioner in Kunwar’s room.” Saying this, she left abruptly.
The Thakurain had left the main hall. Just then, Thakur Bhuwar Singh’s mobile rang.
A hoarse voice on the other end said, “Kunwar Amar Singh is with us. If you want him alive, bring two crore rupees, to the Gopinath temple of the Bhangarh Fort. At 10:00 pm tomorrow.”
Bhuwar Singh, ranted, “You fool, stop joking with me. We are Thakurs, you will have to pay a price for this joke.”
“Listen, I am not playing games with you. Why don’t you talk to your nephew?”
“Chachu…chachu…” Bhuwar Singh heard his nephew’s voice on the mobile. “Please give them the money and save me…please…”
The hoarse voice returned. “Now listen, bring the money to the Bhangarh Fort. We want the money in front of his grave. Bring the Thakurain also. And if you inform the police, you know what we will do to your nephew.”
“In front of whose grave?” asked Bhuwar Singh.
But the phone line went dead.
Bhuwar Singh felt the earth had sucked the life out of him, leaving him motionless for a few minutes.
And then a loud cry was heard in the haveli. The words that echoed were, “Bhabi!” “Bhabi!”
The Thakurain ran into the hall, breathless. She saw tears flowing down Bhuwar Singh’s face. “What happened?” she asked.
The only word that he stammered was, “Bha…bi.”
She gripped his shoulders hard, “Bhaiyaji, what happened? Why are you screaming?”
“Yes?” Deep lines creased her forehead. Her lungs sucked in the air, leaving her gasping.
“He is kidnapped. They have asked for two crore rupees. We have to take the money inside Bhangarh Fort, outside the Gopinath temple.”
“Bhangarh.” The word was a whisper. Thakurain Umavati took a deep breath. Her hazel eyes filled with tears.
“Why? Why Bhangarh?” she asked, as she sat with a thud on the sofa. “Nobody goes there after sunset…” The unstoppable tears made her voice heavy. Her lips quivered, droplets of perspiration formed on her forehead and her hands trembled.
“If they take Kunwar there! Legend has it, the ghost of the dead Princess of Bhangarh still lives in the Bhangarh Fort. People have seen the Princess wandering. And nobody return’s from there after sunset.
With hands folded in front of Bhuwar Singh, she pleaded, “Please save my son.”
“Bhabi, don’t worry it’s just a story, there are no ghosts in Bhangarh.”
She looked at Bhuwar Singh and asked, “Two crore is a very big amount. How will we arrange the money so quickly? Should we call the police?”
“No, we can’t call the police. That would put Kunwar’s life in danger.”
Bhuwar Singh swallowed the pooled saliva in his mouth. His broad frame stood in front of the Thakurain. She looked up at him from the sofa, hoping for some calming words. He picked up his mobile to call the accountant, Bhajan Lal.
He ordered Bhajan Lal to come at once to the haveli.
After an hour, a gangly young man in his early thirties walked inside the hall. He held three red account books in his hand. He saw the Thakurain and Bhuwar Singh seated on the sofa as two statues. Expressionless. Motionless.
Bhajan Lal readjusted the books in his hands, and said, “Hukum, you had remembered me? What can I do for you?”
“Bhajan Lal, I want two crore rupees by tomorrow morning.”
“Two crore. But how is that possible, Hukum?” He saw the Thakurain crying, “What has happened?” he asked.
“Kunwar Amar Singh has been kidnapped.”
“What? How is that possible?” he said. Seeing the look on their faces, he did not waste any time. He folded the long sleeves of his shirt and sat cross-legged on the floor, taking out the pen from his shirt pocket. He began paging through the account books. Bhajan Lal had become the accountant of the Thakur family, seven years ago. It was coincidently the same year the Thakurain married Umaid Singh and came into the haveli.
There was a silence in that hall, as though it was alive, and it was seated with them, making the tiniest noise in the haveli the biggest one.
After fifteen minutes, he said, “Hukum, the only way we can arrange the money is by selling the piece of land near the well on the outskirt of the city.”
“But who would buy the land so fast?” Thakurain asked.
“Only Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh,” he answered. He stared at them, “He can buy that land in a day and give you two crore rupees.”
Bhuwar Singh’s strong fist hammered the coffee table as he rose. “Never him,” he said in an angry voice. “My elder brother Umaid Singh, though paralyzed, would have never allowed to sell the land to his rival, Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh.”
Bhuwar Singh paced the hallway. He ran his hand over his French beard, and tightly rubbed his palms together as though the neck of Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh was in hands, and he wanted to throttle him. “How can we forget that they had thrown our sister, Vishali, out from their haveli, because she could not give her husband, Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh, a son!”
Bhuwar Singh passed fingers through his gelled hair. “I can still see Vishali’s body floating in that well when she committed suicide. I will never sell the land to that son of…” He banged his foot on the floor with all his might as though beneath his feet lay the body of Chowdhary Raj Veer Singh, waiting to be crushed.
The Thakurain went upto Bhuwar Singh. She whispered,” Bhaiyaji, you must understand the situation. Kunwar Amar Singh is most important right now. If we can’t arrange the money they will kill him.”
She lowered her gaze to the marbled floor, “If your brother was well, he would have killed his ego to sell the land to them and save his son.”
The Thakurain’s words had ripped Bhuwar Singh’s self esteem. Dejection settled in his eyes as he nodded his head to Bhajan Lal, while the Thakurain ordered, “Sell the land.”
“Hukum, I will arrange the money by tomorrow morning. I will come today afternoon for your signatures.” And the accountant collected his books and left.
In the evening, in Thakur Umaid Singh’s room, his wife Thakurain Umavati, sat next to him. She held a glass of water in her hand and was putting the water in Umaid Singh’s mouth with a spoon.
She saw from the first floor window of the Thakur’s room the sun was setting, and with its setting, it had muffled the exhilaration of the haveli that existed few hours ago.
She could hear footsteps approaching Thakur Umaid Singh’s room. Then, at once, they stopped. The Thakurain, sitting at the corner of the bed, turned back to look. Bhuwar Singh stood at the threshold. His face was blank; his cheeks had caved in. It was as though the few hours had made him a few decades older.
Gloominess had settled deep in Bhuwar Singh’s eyes. He lumbered inside the room. He sat on the armchair next to his brother’s bed. He looked at his brother, and then he turned his gaze to the Thakurain and said, “Bhajan Lal had come for the signatures. He will bring the money tomorrow morning.”
Thakurain asked, “Why would anyone want to kidnap Kunwar? We don’t have enmity with anyone in the village.”
“I don’t know, Bhabi. But I am sure the same people were responsible for Bhaiya’s accident. They want to ruin our family. When six years ago, you, Bhaiya, and Aina, his first wife had gone to Vaishno Devi, and Aina Bhabi fell from the horse in the trench, she was an ace horse rider, then how could she have fallen? Bhaiya jumped to save her, but he could not and she died, leaving Bhaiya paralyzed.”
“Yes, I know,” the Thakurain said. “Later, I saw blood on the horse’s white stomach and discovered that there was a small iron trap under his saddle. We couldn’t do anything much about it. The police came and kept asking the horse owner. They had beaten up the poor fellow, but he kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’”
Bhuwar Singh, stood up to leave the room. “Bhabi, please put the dinner early today.”
He turned back to see that the Thakurain was still sitting on the bed, massaging Umaid Singh’s hand. Bhuwar Singh smiled as he thought, “How much my Bhabi loves my brother. She cares for him so much.”
At the dinner table, as both Bhuwar Singh and the Thakurain sat, Bhuwar Singh looked at the rice and dal. “Bhabi, it is very difficult for me to swallow the food. I don’t know if they would have given Kunwar any food?”
“Bhaiyaji, please eat, don’t punish your stomach.”
“Bhabi, I have never seen my mother. She died after giving birth to me, but I am sure she would have been like you.” He poured himself a glass of water and said, “Seven years ago, Bhaiya married you, because your father Thakur Bharav Singh, could not pay back the loan to us and died of a heart attack.”
“Bhaiyaji, this is not the time to talk all this. Let it be,” said the Thakurian.
“No, Bhabi, I always thought, Bhaiya Umaid Singh, had done a mistake, marrying a girl twenty years younger to him. You proved me wrong. You are just perfect for this haveli.”
“Bhaiyaji, this is my family. I want you to eat well tomorrow is a very important day for us.”
The next evening, Bhuwar Singh lifted the bag full of money, placed it on the back seat of his open jeep, and came inside the hall. He saw the Thakurain had taken a revolver and was hiding it in the folds of her saree.
“Bhabi, what are you doing? You give that revolver to me, these things are meant for men.”
“No. Bhaiyaji, I must take it. They will never think I have one. And my father had taught me how to use the revolver, you don’t worry.”
Bhuwar Singh nodded his head in agreement, and said, “Bhabi, it is very late, we must leave.”
The Thakurain sat in the front seat in the jeep. She saw Bhuwar Singh had kept three torches.
The drive from Dausa to Bhangarh took them half an hour. It was pitch dark on the way. The Thakurain felt as though Bhuwar Singh was driving inside a hollow, dark cavity.
When they entered the gate of the Fort, the sweet smell of jasmine suddenly assailed them, making the Thakurain remark, “How can this fragrance come in this deserted Fort, where nothing grows?”
Bhuwar Singh stopped the jeep and they stepped out. He picked up the bag full of money. They began to walk inside the Fort, towards the cluster of the ruined buildings. One amongst those disintegrated buildings was the Gopinath temple. It was blindingly dark. They held the torches in their hands. The beam of light from Bhuvar Singh’s torch unexpectedly revealed the beheaded body of a man. The Thakurain gripped Bhuwar Singh’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Bhabhi,” he said, “it is just a statue.”
The torchlight revealed a clear path. Boulders were haphazardly stacked one on top of the other all along the sides. They were placed this way after the earthquake that ruined the Bhangarh village in the seventeenth century, killing all the ten thousand inhabitants inside the Fort city.
Just then there was a chiming of bells. The Thakurain, stopped, “Did you hear that, Bhaiya?”
The skin on Bhuwar Singh’s face crinkled, “Yes, I did.”
Bhuwar Singh, standing next to her, heard her panting and said, “Calm down, Bhabi, we just have to take Kunwar, and we will be out of the Fort.”
They walked a few more steps. The Thakurain kept turning back to look.
“Bhabi, why are you turning back again and again? What are you looking at?”
“I feel someone is following us.”
Bhuwar Singh turned the torch and saw nothing but an empty path. But then, he suddenly shuddered. “Did you see her? Di…did you see her? She just passed in front of us, wearing a white saree. She has gone to the other side.”
“No…no, Bhai…ya,” the Thakurain stammered.
The long stone corridor that stretched on their right, had faces on every pillar. Bhuwar Singh repeatedly turned his torch towards the pillars. He felt each human face on the pillar was alive. Some did not have an eye, others did not a nose. He even saw a burnt face. He did not say anything to the Thakurain and continued walking with her, but continued moving the torch light from the path to the pillars. He wanted to see the faces. Suddenly he saw Umaid Singh, his brother’s face.
Umaid Singh’s face was dangling in the air. He did not have a body. His tongue was hanging out from his open mouth, cut from a corner. Grubs crawled out through his one and only eye; the bone of his skull was bare and naked without skin and hair.
Bhuwar Singh wondered if he was hallucinating. Was it the spirit of the dead princess who haunted this place or his fear? He felt a weight on his feet, as though something was solidifying in them.
He looked at the Thakurain, wondering if she had also seen the same thing, but she was silently walking, looking straight ahead into the darkness. Bhuwar Singh knew if he told the Thakurain what he had seen, she would go into a panic attack.
With uncertainty in his voice, he asked, “Are we on the right track, Bhabi?”
“Yes, Bhaiyaji, I have come here many times, with my friends after school during the day. In daylight you can see few young children of the village playing cricket here.”
They spoke in muted tones, but their voice was like a ball hitting those Fort walls and bouncing back. Suddenly, both of them stopped and the Thakurain whispered, “I can see two eyes on my right. It is as though they have been following us since we entered.” She pushed the torchlight to the right. They saw him sitting, on a stone. His hands rested on his knees. It was a monkey. She sighed, “Monkey.”
At the end of the sinuous path they saw a light. A small light. It was like a lamp burning in some corner. They had reached the Gopinath temple.
Bhuwar Singh said, “Bhabi, there is no one here.”
And then they heard a whining sound. It came from inside the temple. They ran in to see Kunwar tied to a pillar, struggling and crying. Bhuwar Singh rushed to untie him.
Then he heard Bhanja Lal, the accountant’s voice. Bhuwar Singh turned back to see that Bhajan Lal stood next to the Thakurain, pointing a gun towards her head.
“What are you doing here, Bhajan Lal?” Bhuwar Singh asked. Sudden realization dawned on him. “ You bastard, you are pointing the gun towards the Thakurain. You traitor. You kidnapped Kunwar, I won’t leave you.”
“Stop. Don’t move.” Bhajan Lal screamed, “I am not your servant here. I will shoot the Thakurain.”
But Bhuwar Singh didn’t listen; he began walking towards Bhajan Lal.
“Stop,” shouted Bhajan Lal again, “or I will shoot her.”
“No. No.” Bhuwar Singh withdrew his steps and stood still.
And then there were three gunshots. They duplicated each other in the deafening sound. As though life again was born in a spur of a moment in the Bhangarh Fort and died within a fraction of a second.
And then everything was lifeless again. Dead.
Two bodies lay in front of the Thakurain. She smiled; touched their foreheads, where the bullet shots had made holes. Her palms smeared with blood, she came out of the temple. The one who was still alive followed her, picking up the bag of money.
The Thakurain walked towards the left of the temple, leaving it behind. She stopped at a tombstone and rubbed her hands on it. The man standing with her said, “Your work is done. Your father, buried here, would be very proud of you.”
The Thakurain wiped the tears from her eyes and said, “They did not even give him a place to be burnt and rested. I had to put him to sleep here… where no one comes.”
“Give me the mobile,” she said to him. She ripped the blouse of her saree from her shoulders, scratched her face, untied her hair. Then she called the police to the Bhangarh Fort.
The next day at the haveli, everybody was dressed in white. Two bodies lay in the main hall.
The following week, the Thakurain walked into Umaid Singh’s room. Umaid Singh still lay in his bed.
A man standing next to his bed, held a newspaper in his hands. He turned to the Thakurain and asked, “Jaan, did you read this? I want to read it to you, ‘Thakur Bhuwar Singh kidnapped and killed the heir of the Umaid Singh haveli and tried to assault his sister-in-law, Thakurain Umavati, driven by greed for money and power.’”
The Thakurain laughed aloud. She spat on her husband Umaid Singh’s face. “I started thinking of your ruin since the day I stepped into this haveli. I never wanted to marry you, a man of my father’s age.”
She turned and hugged the man who stood next to her husband’s bed. A man she had truly loved since her childhood.
Bhanjan Lal held her close. He said, “I love you. Now everything will be ours.”
Natalia Suri has lived most of her life in New Delhi. She teaches Spanish at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Her passion to travel has taken her to numerous countries. Her globe-trotting experiences have been great moments of education apart from the fact that it also contributed to becoming the most important lessons of life. She loves to play the piano. She also loves dogs whom she sees as angels as they are always there for you. Her favorite authors are Khaled Hosseini and Jeffery Archer. She sees the talent of writing as a gift. Every life, she says, is a story. It just depends on how it is narrated. Though she agrees that life cannot be mapped, she looks forward to her journey as a writer.