I woke up with a start. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweaty. A vague sense of terror after being woken up from a nightmare unremembered left a bitter taste in my mouth. I blinked. As reality slowly seeped back onto my consciousness, I saw the smirk. It was the sadhu. Damn these imbeciles. They’re everywhere! They board trains without tickets and no one asks them anything. They’re filthy but somehow worthy of adulation? What’s he smirking about anyway? And what on earth is doing being awake as this unearthly hour? Thoughts raced through my tired mind, more questions than I cared to keep track of.
“Had a nightmare, bandhu?” asked the Sadhu, clearly he was in the mood for conversation. “Yes” I replied tersely, hoping he would shut up. “You should be careful what you wish for, bandhu. Sometimes God grants your darnedest wishes!” What is he ranting about? Are all of these guys raving lunatics? I tried to collect my thoughts as I said “With all due respect sir, neither do I believe in god nor did I wish for anything.” I sincerely hoped this would be the end of our conversation. “Ah, I wouldn’t be so sure! I wish you well with your newly awakened sense!” At this point, I didn’t know whether I should pity this fool or be afraid of him. Are Sadhus dangerous? “I don’t know what you’re talking about…” I said as I saw my watch, it was 3 AM or thereabouts “…and besides, it’s late and I’m trying to sleep” I said, hoping he’d leave me alone after this. “Har har shmambo!” croaked the Sadhu, showing no regard to other sleeping passengers. To my annoyance, the Sadhu’s facial expression returned to his previous inexplicable smirk but he had a glazed look in his eyes. Is he high?
Thankfully, our little conversation failed to awaken my friends. Left alone, I tried to sleep in peace. But it eluded me. I slept in fits and starts. In what felt like an hour or two, the train stopped at a non-descript station. I turned to see if the Sadhu was around. He was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief and dozed off.
I woke up later that morning from another nightmare. I had vague remembrances of this one and it haunted my vision. Adela was up and feeling sprightly. Felix was his usual dour self. Train journeys through the fertile plains of north India are always fascinating. But this one was particularly so – for, after years of working as an expat I was back in India, backpacking with my buddies. “What’s wrong, you look tired? Didn’t sleep well?” Adela asked me. “Well, I had some pretty strange dreams; not to mention a weird Sadhu kept pestering me last night.” I then went on to explain yesterday night’s incident to both of them. “Do you think the Sadhu was with us in Bholenath temple?” Adela asked. “No, I thought we were alone there.” I replied.
Adela’s line of thinking wasn’t without merit. Bholenath temple was this small but beautiful temple we had explored by the banks of Ganga. We were told that the deity was well known to grant one heartfelt wish of anyone visiting the shrine. Of course, like most myths in India, this one was taken way too seriously. The Sadhu who had narrated the myth to us, back in Varanasi, had insisted that we go see the temple.
I remember the conversation we had in the temple. Adela was being her playful self and was trying to get me to wish for something. “If I could have anything, I’d wish for all of Warren Buffet’s money”, I had declared. “C’mon Ketu! Surely that can’t be heartfelt” she had chided. All the while Felix had been serious and thoughtful. “OK, I guess my wish would be to understand people better. I’ve always felt a mask when interacting with people and wished to peer behind it.” I had said. “There! Was it so hard?” she had inveigled. Of course, we were absolutely by ourselves in that temple that day and it made no sense to think this train Sadhu was with us that day.
“So what did you dream about?” Adela asked. “Well, I’m a kid and am walking with this barrel chested man in the snow. I’m happy. I throw snowballs. Later I’m in a large room. I can see disembodied deer heads on the walls. There’s a fire going at the fireplace. All of a sudden, I hear a blood curdling scream. A bloodied woman rushes into the scene. In walks behind her, the same barrel chested man. I recognize the woman as my mom. I rush to protect her, but the man smashes my face. I smell the foul stench of alcohol as the man breathes down profanities at me. My forehead is torn open and I am bleeding profusely. There is a deep throbbing pain on my forehead across my right eyebrow. I woke up as I started to scream in pain.” Adela is transfixed. Felix is staring at me with an intensity I haven’t seen him display.
“Say Felix”, I said as it dawned on me, “How did you get that gash across your forehead?”
“Are you sure?”
“What are you insinuating? If you say one more word, I swear I’m gonna cut you up!”
I woke up with a start. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweaty…