Manohar edged towards the window and was baffled. A skeleton was standing on the veranda carrying a bundle of firewood pieces on its head. Manohar turned pale.
“Are you sure that you are not afraid of ghosts?” Suseela smiled teasingly.
Manohar was rather nervous, but somehow gathered strength. “No, not at all. I’m not afraid of ghosts.”
“Do you want to speak to the ghost?” Suseela asked.
“Yes, but I don’t know the ghost’s language.”
Suseela laughed. “English is the global language. Suppose an Indian ghost wants to speak to an American ghost. What language do you think they speak?”
“English of course.”
“So, all the ghosts must have a fair knowledge of English,” Suseela said.
Manohar didn’t know what to say. Suseela looked at him intently as if she were studying his feelings and then ran to her father saying, “Wait a minute, I’ll be back.”
Manohar took out his hanky and wiped his face. Rishikesh must be a strange place, he thought. He wanted to run to the hotel where he had put up with his uncle, but the ghost was standing near the entrance. He waited for Suseela. Holding a few bills in her hand Suseela ran towards the ghost. Manohar watched with bated breath. The ghost accepted the bills and then put the bundle it was carrying on the floor. The skeleton now changed into the form of a woman. Manohar watched the woman with bewilderment as she walked away.
“Can you help me?” Suseela looked at Manohar. They both brought the bundle inside the guest house.
“Do you want to transform into a ghost?” Suseela asked.
“I prefer human form,” Manohar said.
Suseela laughed and said, “Okay, I won’t trouble you, but you can watch me change into a ghost.” She untied the bundle and put on her head the pieces of wood one after the other. When she kept a small piece of wood, Manohar could see her skeleton. “You know, this herb has x-ray qualities. My father is an Ayurvedic doctor and uses this herb for diagnosing certain injuries. However, it is extremely difficult to identify the herb. Only some yogis in the Himalayas could identify it. Sometimes accidentally the firewood collectors pick up the herb and they sell it to my father for a high price.” She paused and said, “I’m sorry if I scared you. Are you angry with me? Did I offend you?”
Manohar said, “Oh, no, but you see…”
“I understand. I’ll give this herb to my father and be back soon. Won’t you wait for me? We will play chess.”
After his ninth move Manohar said, “Check.”
“When I opened with Queen’s Gambit you should reply with Slav Defense.”
“Interesting. For all these moves there are names. I hope that I’ll pick up some skills from you before you leave this place. When are you going back to Hyderabad?” Suseela asked.
“After two weeks. My uncle likes this place. He says, ‘We’ll come again during Dasara vacation.’ I hope he won’t change his mind. Did you buy your ninth- grade books?” Manohar asked.
“Not yet. My father says that ninth-grade mathematics is tough. We should work hard.”
Suseela and Manohar happened to meet at Neer Garh waterfall, a few days back. When Suseela saw Manohar’s uncle carrying a professional camera, she requested him to take a few photos of her with the waterfall backdrop. The next day Manohar brought the edited photos saved in a pen drive. During the conversation, when Manohar spoke about his participation in Chess Olympiad, she showed a lot of interest in playing chess. Manohar enjoyed his role as the chess guru and every evening he visited her and spent some time playing chess.
The next day Manohar went to the bank of the river Ganges with a fishing line. He caught a small fish. While he was looking at it triumphantly, he heard footsteps and turned back. Suseela was standing there. “Come, do you know fishing? The fish are clever. Sometimes you can’t catch even one fish for hours and hours,” Manohar said.
“Why do you catch fish anyway?” Suseela asked.
“It’s a sport.”
“Do you call it a sport?” She paused and said, “How do you feel if an elephant lifts you high up with its trunk?”
“I love to watch elephants, but I don’t go anywhere near them. They may crush me.”
“Don’t you think that the fish too feels so bad when its life is in danger? Don’t you think that fishing is a cruel act? Don’t you think that it is against spirituality?”
Manohar released the fish into the waters. They started walking back to the house of Suseela’s.
“Divinity is the essential nature of every being though most of us ignore it. We can realize our true nature by practicing yoga. It can be either through devotion, service, meditation, or inquiry. My father is my spiritual guru. He reads a lot. He has some children’s books too. Do you like to read them?” Sussela asked.
“Yes, but I’m slow at reading. I may complete just one small book before I leave,” Manohar said.
“I think I can help you with the books,” Suseela said.
“Oh, thanks a lot.”
“Tomorrow morning I’m going to see Shivalik mountains with my uncle,” Manohar said.
“Oh, a beautiful place.”
“We’ll do some white water rafting too.”
“Think of visiting Sivananda Ashram and Yoga Veda Sala too.”
“Now, I know how to play against Ruy Lopez opening and Staunton gambit against the Dutch,” Suseela said.
“Middle game and the end game too are important,” Manohar said.
“Check.” Suseela laughed.
“Check!” Manohar said and found that everyone around him was laughing. The professor looked puzzled. Manohar was at the farewell party arranged by the Department of Psychology at Osmania University for those who were awarded doctoral degrees.
“Are you interested in academic positions?” the professor repeated the question.
“I’m leaving for England to attend a workshop on motivational speaking. When I return, I’ll plan my career,” Manohar said.
The chairperson introduced Manohar to the delegates at the workshop.
“Did you hear about Michelangelo?” Manohar waited for the response.
Many delegates raised their hands. One of them said, “He was a sculptor.”
“That’s right. One day Michelangelo was chiseling a rock. A friend who visited him said, ‘Why are you working so hard? Why don’t you go home and take a rest?’
Michelangelo replied, ‘I wish to bring out of this lifeless stone the living Divinity that is embedded in it.’ Most of us appreciate the brilliant reply of Michelangelo and we don’t think beyond it. Do we?” Manohar looked at the delegates for a response. “My spiritual teacher Sri Sathya Sai in his discourse said, ‘If that sculptor could create out of an inanimate piece of stone a living image of God, cannot human beings, vibrant with life, manifest Divinity that resides in them?’ With this perception we should carry on with our activities in the world,” Manohar said.
“Can you join us for lunch tomorrow, by any chance?” asked the workshop organizer Mathew.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. Yes, I can visit you,” Manohar said.
“My daughter Sally will be happy to speak to you. She is doing research on writing.”
“Oh, interesting,” Manohar said.
“I’ll pick you up. My house is in South London, two hours- drive from here,” Mathew said.
Manohar noticed that Mathew had the habit of tapping the table with his fingers before saying anything. He was in his early sixties and was tall and agile. Sally was 25 years old, and she was tall and slim like her father. Neither Mathew nor Sally mentioned her mother. “I took up the job of events management after I retired from the army,” Mathew said.
Serving fruit salad to Manohar, Sally said, “Your childhood experiences are fascinating. A chance meeting or an act outwardly inconsequential may have a lasting impact on our lives changing our attitude towards life in relation to the universe. Did you ever meet Suseela again?”
“No, my father suddenly died of a heart attack and my uncle, and I rushed back to Hyderabad from Rishikesh. One month later I enquired about her but learnt that her family moved to the United Kingdom.”
“Here in the UK!” Mathew said.
“Yes, but I’m not sure whether she is still living in the UK. No one could give more details. At every conference, I mention my childhood experiences hoping that one of the audience would raise her hand. I don’t know whether they are still in the UK or have moved to some other country.”
“Can you recognize her after all these years?” Mathew asked.
“I hope so.”
“I’m curious. What would be your first words if at all you meet her?” Sally asked.
Manohar stopped eating and stared at her. “I don’t know.”
“Did she ever give any hint about her career plans?” Mathew asked.
“Oh, dad, your question is interesting. She could be so spiritual at that young age. What kind of career suits her?”
“Oh, it’s beyond my imagination,” Manohar said.
“If we can fix her profession, I mean it may give some clue about her whereabouts,” Mathew said.
“Should we look for her in convents or other religious institutions?” Sally asked.
“I’m planning to meet the Indian embassy officials. They may help me,” Manohar said.
“Good idea,” Mathew said.
“My classmate’s father is working as the second secretary in the Indian embassy. He must be able to tell us the details of all the Indian families settled here,” Sally said.
“You can collect their addresses and phone numbers and contact them,” Mathew said.
The second secretary at the embassy said, “I can’t provide you with the addresses of the Indian families here. They may not appreciate this idea of some stranger enquiring about them.”
Manohar got up from his seat and said, “Thank you.”
The secretary said, “Wait a minute. I want to solve the problem in a different way. Leave your friend’s details with me. If I get any positive information, I will speak to that family. If they are willing to contact you, I will inform you. How long will you be here?”
“One week. After that, I’ll leave for New York. Would you mind if I contact you exactly after one week, I mean just to thank you.”
The secretary smiled and said, “I know waiting is painful. I assure you that I’ll use all my connections to trace your childhood friend. After one week I’ll call you and let you know the position.”
Manohar lost all hope. He thanked Sally for trying to help him out and left for the airport. While he was standing in the queue for the boarding pass, his phone started singing.
Dr. Chaturvedi Divi is a columnist in Sanathana Sarathi, a spiritual magazine published from Prasanthi Nilayam, Puttaparthi. His short stories have been featured in Only Men Please (Anthology) and Reading Hour (Magazine). His poem, The High Street Beggar has appeared in America, the catholic magazine. He worked in the editorial department of Indian Express and translated a couple of spiritual books from English to Telugu. He holds masters’ degrees in Mass Communication and Journalism and Creative Writing. His doctoral thesis is on diasporic literature.