Friday, April 8, 2011

The ring of fire - final part.

Damru Kalandar got on the six-o-clock bus. The conductor was surprised when Damru asked to be seated on the roof where farmers carrying poultry and goats were usually asked to sit. Damru did not want a lot of prying eyes looking at his sack. In a few minutes, the bus started and he was relieved. Soon, he would be out of the forest area. He was tired and with the rolling motion of the bus, he dozed off.

Someone shook him awake. It was a policeman who had climbed up on the roof at a check post!

"What is in that sack?" asked the policeman. 

"Mahua flowers, Sahib." That was a very common response from villagers at this time of the year. And, the policeman would have let him go had the bear cub not stirred inside the sack at that moment. When the policeman saw the movement in the sack, all hell broke loose. They had received a warning about a Maoist guerrilla leader in the vicinity and anything suspicious could end up costing them their lives.

Before Damru could say a thing, he was in the police station. And then, when they found the bear cub, he was no longer their headache. Very quickly, he was in the custody of the forest department and an extremely annoyed forest officer who had spent three years on an unsuccessful bear fertility program. To him, the bear cub was worth more than its weight in gold.

And Damru Kalandar was in trouble. Big trouble.


Before the reverend could ask his question again, Raju threw him a quick one, "Are you a missionary?" Sometimes, answers have to be given before questions can be asked. The reverend knew this from his years of training on conducting negotiations as a spy. So, he played on. "Yes, I am. But how does that matter to you?".

"Well, then you must work for the poor and the downtrodden. Do you not?", asked Raju. "Yes, I do."

"Then, let me introduce myself as someone, who works for the poor and the downtrodden. I am a revolutionary, and I think you work for the greatest revolutionary of all times, who changed the world. Don't you work for Jesus Christ?"

"Yes, I do. But Christ did not preach violence. He did not go around with a gun trying to convince people that his way was the right way. He won hearts with love, not guns. And I believe that guns are all that you believe in. Don't you?" If this was a discussion on philosophy, it was going to be a long night. But, if the alternative was getting mauled by a bear, what was the harm?

"We don't like violence as well. But we have found that it is the only way to counter violence. You should see how peaceful protests from tribals are treated. We are helping people fight for their rights. We don't hurt people unless we really have to."

The reverend asked with a very disarming voice, "Have you ever killed anyone?" Raju hesitated. Then, very calmly, he said, "Sometimes, people deserve what they get." 

"How many?", asked the reverend. "How many have you killed?" "That is irrelevant", said Raju. "But, I can tell you that every single one of them deserved it."

Changing topics completely, the reverend said, "Do you believe in hell? A place you will go to, when you die and where you will be judged for your sins?"

Raju was familiar with the idea of hell. And he often wondered if there was an afterlife, since he had seen many of his comrades fall in encounters with the police. Suddenly, his demeanor changed, and he asked rather softly, "Do you think I will go to hell for killing people, even if they deserved it?"

It was time to stop being a spy with negotiations training and start being a missionary. So, the reverend said very quickly, "Not if you accept Christ as your savior. All your sins will be forgiven."

Raju pondered over the statement for a second, and then, with a voice that was almost a whisper, asked, "What do I have to do to accept Christ as my savior?".


The forest officer had almost reached the spot where Damru had last seen the female bear. He looked around for tell-tale signs of the presence of a bear, and there were several. At this time of the year, it was hard to make out bear tracks on dry soil. But, tree-twigs broken in a certain way, claw marks on tree bark and heaps of Mahua flowers scattered with a characteristic signature, were like fingerprints. And, to someone who knew this forest like the back of his hand, it was not very hard to conclude, that the big bear was close by.

The forest officer picked the cub up. He put it in a small cage and set it down in an open area where the wind was strong. He was hoping that the mother was downwind, and the wind would carry the cub's scent to her. Then, he sat  in the open jeep and waited. Above the din of  the chirping crickets and the eerie sound of the wind through the dry leaves, he was hoping that he could forehear the presence of the big bear, so he would have enough time to let the cub out and quickly drive away when the furious mother arrived.


This was the reverend's first baptism in a while. And, performing the rites without a stream to dunk the head in, was rather unconventional. To top it all, the reverend did not even have a Bible with him, and his theological knowledge was as good as what comes with being a spy for years. But, improvisation was the need of the hour. Of course, there was no harm in using the cliche, baptism by fire, since they were surrounded by fire on all sides.

"Raju, do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Say this with purity of heart and the knowledge that you will be free of all sins when you accept Him as your savior." 

Yes I do. 

"Raju. I welcome you to your new life. You are born again!" 

After the quick conversion, they talked about Raju's "past" life and how  the doors of heaven would open for him since he was a changed man now. Then, as they saw the fire waning, they decided to climb up the Mahua tree, since there was every possibility that the bear could attack again if the fire died out. Sitting on two adjacent branches, they talked for a while. 

"Reverend, I have a request for you," said Raju. "Would you please come with me to our stronghold and convert my comrades as well? They have committed many sins and their souls need to be saved." 

Raju had a twinkle in his eye as he said this, but suddenly, the spy in the reverend was back. So, this is what this was all about.  This was a trap! Raju would lure him back to his den so that they could make a hostage out of him. As the reverend knew from his past experience saving missionaries, the phrase missionary zeal was the biggest disadvantage for them. With a bemused smile, the reverend said," Of course Raju. Of course I will. First thing tomorrow!"

In a few minutes, they both fell asleep.

A strange hissing sound woke the reverend up. It took him a couple of minutes to realize where he was and what had happened in the last few hours. The fire had died down, though the embers were still glowing. In the light of the moon, the forest was looking strange, but beautiful. And, he saw a small patch of black in the distance moving away from his tree. It was the sloth bear!

The bear was making a loud hiss. And, it was sniffing quite audibly. Then suddenly, it jumped above a tall bush and disappeared in the forest. Its sniff had turned into a wail that sounded like the scream of a woman. And gradually, the wail became fainter.

The reverend looked at his tree-mate. Raju was fast asleep. This was a good time to disappear! The reverend gently got down from the tree and tip-toed his way across the dying ring of fire. Then, he broke into a run towards his jeep. It was about twenty minutes away.


The forest officer watched from a distance as the female bear approached. He had already let the cub out of the cage. As the wails of the big bear got louder, he started his engine. He could see it approaching the cub. As it got close, he started the engine and drove away. He had a content smile on his face.


As the reverend was driving back to his church, he was trying to recollect the events of the last few hours. He had accomplished something that even seasoned missionaries would be proud to achieve. He had saved the soul of a communist guerrilla! But, as a spy, he knew very well that the conversion was just a big sham, acted out by Raju with such finesse that many actors at Broadway would be ashamed. But, who was the reverend to complain! He was a spy himself, masquerading as a missionary. And, he was pretty sure that with all his experience in life, he was either an atheist or an agnostic as far as personal faith went. He too was putting up a nice show. While he was trying to convert people to a faith, he didn't know if he had any left in him.

But, he had made up his mind about one thing. People like Raju believed in violence, and they had to be stopped. He needed to go back to his old job, because that is where he could make a difference. It was time to pack his bags.


It was noon in the forest. The female bear was keeping herself close to the cub. They were munching on wild berries. She looked content with her cub close to her. Suddenly, she smelled a strange smell. It was the smell of the man she chased in the forest last night. Then, she heard the sound of footsteps approaching her. She was furious. She would protect her cub with her life. And, she would kill anything that threatened it.  


It took the reverend a whole day to wind up his work in the mission. A helper in the church was going to drive him to the nearest rail head, and he would change trains thrice to reach the city of Calcutta. From there, he would take a flight back home. And there, he would get a new assignment from Langley. Hopefully.

As the jeep was winding its way through the serpentine road between the hills, he saw that the sun was setting. This would be his last sunset in the beautiful forest he called home in the last few years! Then, he saw a large crowd of villagers at a distance. Some of them recognized his jeep and waved him to a stop. The reverend got down from the jeep and walked towards the crowd. They were all standing around, looking down at something. As he got closer, he saw that someone was lying on the ground.

It was Raju, the guerrilla! He was lying down in a pool of blood and one of his arms looked like it was yanked off by a large animal. An old man, who was a member of his church, walked up to the reverend.

"He was attacked by a bear. She had a cub with her. Normally, they don't attack even if they have cubs with them. He must have done something to provoke her, or she must have been scared of something."

"Were you here when he was still alive?" asked the reverend.

"Yes, I was. He asked for water and I gave him some. Then, he asked for you. He said that you had saved his soul and his faith would take him to heaven. He wanted you to do the same for his comrades. They live beyond that hill."

The reverend got down on his knees and bowed his head in prayer. Right when he was beginning to question his own faith, it seemed like he had convinced someone else to have faith. In salvation or heaven, whose existence he did not know about.

"Forgive me lord, for I have sinned."

That was the only thing he could remember at the moment. If they expected him to say a prayer, they would have to wait for later. Right now, the fact that he was silently kneeling, would have to do. In death, Raju had conquered his crisis of faith, but the reverend had just begun his very own.

As the reverend looked up from his prayer, he saw that the sky had turned darker, with the colors being swept away by a wide brush of black. And, thin columns of smoke were rising from the distant hills. His eyes moved to the hill where he had performed the baptism. A solitary column of smoke was going up from a patch of green and brown.

And around the dark column, was a bright ring of fire.


  1. Thank you Desi Babu... So Damru Kalandar saw the last of his bear-cub hunting days I presume...

  2. Dear Hdaran: For the time being, yes. But the laws against poaching are quite weak in India, and I am pretty sure that he will be out in just a few years...

    Who knows, he might take to writing short stories as a new career :-)

  3. That would make for an initially interesting read...