Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Lady of Lake Barapani

remember this as if this happened just yesterday. Not many remember an incident that occurred such a long time ago. The minor flutter that it had created in the local media at that time has long receded from popular memory. But I was thick in the middle of it and feel that this truly is a story that needs to be told lest it be forgotten.

It is not often that one actually comes face to face with what can only be called a Ghost, stare at sure death or experience mind numbing fear that changes ones world view. Such a tale must be told if only for us to realize that there are still things for which we have no rational explanations.

But along with all that this is also heart-warming story of unity of different faiths that bears to be recounted and remembered.

The year was 1974, the Sankirtan movement of Lord Chaitanya had all but died in Shillong. Gone were the days when Bengalis and Kashis alike swayed in the divine beat of the Mahamantra as the Sankirtan processions swept through the beautiful lanes of this hill paradise. The refrain of Hari Bol that could once be heard everywhere in Shillong of my boyhood had been all but silenced.  The steady stream of money that flowed from the West, the strategic marketing of an all forgiving Saviour had turned many Khasis towards a new belief system, away from the simple path of Bhakti that only promised Krishna-Prem or Love of Krishna as the means and end. 

We were a motley bunch of 30-something self-proclaimed and wannabe intellectuals who were still holding out against what we could recognize as the turning of an innocent populace from the way of Bhakti to the way of plain material barter with Divine. As a group of Professors, Doctors, and small business owners we were committed continuing to chant Krishna's name with the firm belief that sooner or later the nectar filled name of Krishna (Madhumay Krishna Naam) would draw back all true seekers.

Those days I was a young Surgeon at the Shillong Civil Hospital. The state of Meghalaya had just been formed and since many of the senior doctors had chosen to move to Gauhati (that's how it was spelled those days), we were left in charge. I was the HOD of my dept. with all my residents being fresh graduate doctors. The hours were long, our duty cycles almost back-breaking but we took our charge as a command from the Lord. Was it not Swami Vivekananda who had said - Jive Prem Kore Jai Jon, Shai sabache Iswar - “It is verily he who has served Mankind, who has truly served the Divine.”

Before long the peddling of the Saviour had turned its attention to Assam. In front of every temple or Naam Ghar, overnight would mushroom a House of Healing or an Altar of My Lady of Unfathomable Grace. We took it upon us to frequent the Naamghars that were within our reach, on every possible occasion, in a bid to either promote or in some cases even restart the Kirtans. Such participation in the Kirtans for most of us would require a drive down from Shillong to the plains of Assam.

My encounter with The Lady of Lake Barapani happened during one of these trips.

It was late one August evening that I finished my last operation for the night. Since I was off-duty the next day I had promised to drop by to a Naamghar which was managed by the father of one of my erstwhile seniors.

Prabhu Achinta Kumar Sharma came from a long line of Shankardev Vaishnavites. After retiring from the Railways he had taken over the management of the Village Naamghar. He was a widely respected person and within the first hour of my first meeting I became a fan. What touched me was his devotion, knowledge, humility and sense of humour that comes so easily to the people of Assam. In his village too, lately people proclaiming Good News had started their foray.  We had re-doubled the effort from our side in ensuring that Naamghar remained a beacon of hope for all seekers.  Prabhu somehow had developed a tremendous fatherly affection for me and often would ask his son to send me for the Kirtans.

Today was one such occasion.

As I started my trusty Ambassador it was almost 10.30 at night.  A light drizzle had started. Still I expected to make good time and reach Gauhati in about 5 hours give or take. (It takes much less time these days).  I was famished but decided that rather than stopping for dinner at the hospital canteen, I would grab something at Nongpoh from some still-open eatery.  

By the time I reached the outskirts of Shillong the rain had become rather heavy.  For a moment I did contemplate whether I should turn back but continued onwards since few things were more rejuvenating and life affirming as a Kirtan session with Prabhu and his disciples. Since I had lost my father a few years back, I also craved the paternal affection that I received from him.  Of course there was Aparajita, his youngest daughter who had just completed her MSc in Botany. With her my budding friendship held the promise of something more in a not too distant a future.

At Mawlai the rain turned torrential, slowing me down to a Snail's pace. My car loudly protested the frequent braking and moving that I was forced to resort to. By the time I reached in the vicinity of the Umsaw Madan area near the Barapani Lake, my trusty Ambassador, a friend of so many journeys, sputtered to a complete uncharacteristic and unexpected stop.  Much as I tried I couldn't get the engine to restart. 

I was stranded in the middle of nowhere in a dark rainy night!

I quickly took a stock of my surroundings.  It was pitch dark everywhere outside broken occasionally by the flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder that inevitably followed.  There was not a single vehicle on the road from what I could see. The Barapani Lake which is normally a source of pleasure due to its beauty stretched on one side of the road like an ominous expanse of unknown dread. Its dark waters looked angry and agitated by the torrents of water that fell from the heavens. Everything else was just black. No moon, no stars, no people. I was alone submerged in an ocean of darkness, with my headlights making a feeble attempt stay lit.

Before long I too switched off my headlights to conserve my car battery.  The rain pounded heavily on my car roof making the sound like someone was incessantly beating a drum, while I sat kicking myself for having left Shillong in such an inclement weather.

It was about then that I saw her first.  For some reason my eye had strayed to my rear view mirror during the flash of a lightning.  On my back seat was sitting a lady with wearing a white sari and some kind of white head gear.  With complete deadpan eyes she was staring back right into my eyes through the mirror. My heart froze at the suddenness of her appearance. In the dying light of the lightning flash I looked back at the mirror to see that she was still staring at me. Without blinking.

I gathered by courage to turn on the cabin light overhead and looked back.

There was no one in the back seat.

I chuckled softly  to myself at how situations could even make doctors see things. As I mused on the workings of the brain and its relation to the elusive entity called Mind, I saw her again.  Another lightning flash. No mistaking this time, there was someone else in the car.  And she was staring at me like there is no tomorrow.  There was an unspoken message in that cold hard stare that I couldn't read.

I switched on the cabin light again. Again no one. I even peeped behind my seat to see if she had ducked. But no, there was no one in the car that I could see.  Though the weather had gotten quite chilly, I was literally sweating by then.

Without another minute's thought, I rushed outside into the torrential rains. I locked the car and started walking back fast towards Shillong.  In a few steps one of my shoe laces came undone.  As I bent down to tie it, my spine chilled when I realized the same entity who was with me in the car was standing right behind me!


I broke into a mad run on the dark road, unmindful of what I went. The only thought in my mind was that I had to get rid of the entity that was following me.  As I ran for dear life I could hear the foot falls of the entity as it kept pace behind me.  This went on for about 10-15 mins, though at that time it seemed like an eternity.  Finally I had to stop out of sheer exhaustion. I didn't know which way I had run or where my car was.  The ground was slushy under my feet so I definitely was not on the highway anymore and neither was the lake visible in my immediate vicinity.

Just then I saw what could be my salvation.  A dim flickering dot of a light at far distance at some height on a hillock. Never before had I have such a feeling relief. If only I could reach there I would be back in company of humans.

I knew not what lay in between me and that dot of light but I cared not. I leaped headlong toward that.  No sooner had I done so, I felt a wave of anger flowing at me from the entity behind.  Heaven's my witness but the roar of the thunder got louder, every two step I would slip and fall headlong into the slush, the trees around me were swaying wildly.  I could swear that there were hands trying to retrain me from moving ahead.

Suddenly it clicked to me, the famous lines from Hanuman Chalisa -

bhūta pishācha nikata nahi āvai
mahābīra jaba nāma sunāvai

Evil spirits (bhūta) and meat-eating ghosts (pishācha) do not come near those chant the Mahāvira name of yours.

With every bit of piety I could summon in my state of utter terror I started chanting the hymn loudly. Lo and Behold, I actually felt the entity fall behind me.  I could still hear the swaying of trees and the noises but my progress towards the light was unhindered.

By now my eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I could make some sense of where I was going.

Before soon I came up a small clearing on which stood a small hut from whence the light emanated. As I neared the hut I could almost hear a wail of frustration all around me but still at some distance. My reverential prayers to Lord Hanuman, hadn’t left my lips even for a moment.

Desperately I went up and frantically knocked on the door of the hut…

(To be contd....)