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Two Family Stories by Sivasish Biswas


Captain Gurbaksh Singh Atariwalla! My father’s best friend from the Military. Whenever he would visit our place, he would shout : ‘Biswas darling!’ in his loud, nasal voice from the gate ... and my father would run out like a school-boy and straight into the out-stretched arms of his friend! It was a sight to see! Two big hefty ex-army officers – locked in a tight embrace outside the gate right on the road! with generous back-slapping and even more generous tangy Punjabi gaalis freely exchanged! All for love...the Army mess comraderie! Accusations and allegations – ‘why havn’t you saala written to me so long?’ ‘You didn’t reply to my letter why should I write again?’... the more spicy gaalis cannot be reproduced with due reverence to the Heavenly status of the two dear friends!

By that time a bunch of children and some curious neighbours would have collected to enjoy the spectacle!

So close at heart were these two friends that one post-card with a terse ‘Biswas come immediately!’ was enough to make my father jump onto a train and travel 36 hours towards the border town of Atari. And my school vacation being on, he took me along.

We were received in style by Captain Gurbaksh Singh Atariwalla himself with a jeep at the station and taken to his house. As we approached, the neighbourhood seemed excavated. He spoke to my father in hushed tones : ‘Tell you everything after nashta ...’ Entering the sprawling house – we were greeted by Aunty, fat and matronly, and an army of girls. Gurbaksh Uncle joked that he had one son and only one dozen daughters! A cricket team with one extra to carry the drinks! And gave me a bone-crushing slap on the back : ‘Changa hai!’- and declared that I can pick and choose! The girls giggled...some turned away ... I believe I turned red too.

There was an imposing painting of a Sardarji in the hall. ‘My grandfather – General Shyam Singh Atariwallah!’ announced Gurbaksh Uncle. He was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s General, and Atari was his jaigir from the king. Half the land is in Pakistan now. Whenever the army was victorious in battle, the lion’s share of the loot would go to the General, with due tributes paid to the king. And Maharaja Ranjit Singh was so satisfied with his fierce General that villages and land kept on getting added to Shyam Singh’s jaigir! And Shyam Singh looked real war-like and grand, sitting on a white horse, wearing white kurta pyjamas with a white turban and black nagra shoes! But most impressive was his sword – hung from his broad shoulders by a black belt, the hilt of shining gold, and the scabbard of shining gold. Even the horse looked proud and war-like!

This General Shyam Singh had hoarded a huge treasure from his military campaigns, and like the olden days, he kept it with his person always under heavy guard. But towards the end of his life, when he understood that his treasure would be looted away, he very wisely buried it in some secure and unknown place. He never told anyone the secret in his life-time. But on his death-bed, he gave his eldest son a Guru Granth Sahib, his famous sword of many campaigns, and a piece of paper with a diagram and a riddle written in Gurmukhi Punjabi. The riddle gave the directions of how and where to find the treasure. Underneath was a threat : ‘If anyone dares to access my treasure before time, my curse on him : may he die a pauper! I am leaving it behind for the grandson of my grandson!’

General Shyam Singh’s sons presumably never tried to find out the hoard. The peril of their father’s curse was too strongly dreaded in those days. But Gurbaksh Uncle was his grandson, and at that point of time, his grandson, too, had been born...Shyam Singh had uttered ‘I am leaving it behind for the grandson of my grandson!’ Gurbaksh Uncle’s son Major Bansi Singh was in the Army posted in Kashmir. Bhabi used to teach me Hindi and now and then change the nappies of the grandson of the grandson of General Shyam Singh Atariwallah!

That piece of yellowing paper with fading writing and a diagram was Gurbaksh Uncle’s emergency that had brought my father to Atari without notice! It was beyond Gurbaksh Uncle’s power to decipher the riddle, nor could he work out the position from the diagram. Knowing his friend Biswas to be a genius, he had sent the SOS!

Reasoning with Gurbaksh Uncle was meaningless! His grandson was born...he was trying to find the ancestral treasure for his grandson’s future! Only he knew about the existence of it, and only he believed it. To him, his son Bansi was a fool and would do nothing about it...and the treasure would remain lost for ever, without serving the sacred desire of the Grandfather! And Biswas was the only friend Gurbaksh could trust with his life! And he knew how to convince Biswas with sentiment! Of course, Biswas would help Gurbaksh!

So the two friends pored over the yellow paper with its sketch and riddle and threat. My father started making calculations on paper. Gurbaksh Uncle brought out a bottle of Hercules Rum, Military supply! Treasure hunt and no Rum? Impossible! ‘Ho Ho Ho and a bottle of Rum...!’ Even as I remembered those brave old days, I got myself a ‘Chhota-peg’ of Rum as I write about the hidden treasure!

That was when I got friendly with Gurbaksh Uncle’s daughter Guddi. She had two nick-names : Papa called her Guddi and Mamma called her Munni. She was such a sweet girl! She was some where near about my age. At that age no one really is careful about verifying the age! She showed me her tiny plot of land where wheat plants were sprouting. She told me that Biswas Uncle had told her about the Japanese who use fish as manure. And she was collecting left-over fish and using as such. Her shoots were very healthy and green. I had no attraction towards agriculture, but I gazed at her cute pony-tail, and remember it around 40 years later as she clasped my hand in hers, and showed me the cows, the buffaloes, the chicken.

My father and Gurbaksh Uncle kept roaming the area, often stopping in front of a house, re-reading the precious yellow paper which held the clue to the treasure if true. Sometimes Guddi and I would follow them. Then, bored at staring at houses (all of which belonged to the Atariwallah clan), we explored the fields, the fruit trees, or rode on tractors. Agriculture, under Major Gurbaksh Singh was an industry with military discipline : 8 hour shifts, and all members of the family, men, women and children had to pool in, if busy during the day then at night! Generators lighted up the fields, pumps gushed out water, and tractors kept on working 24 hours a day! No doubt Punjab achieved Green Revolution!

After 3-4 days or may be more, 3 rooms in the main house were identified. Gurbaksh Uncle had already carried out excavation, but failed, and now it started again in earnest. As room after room was dug into and to no avail, the lines of my father’s forehead deepened. Then the last room adjacent to the road. Everyone was tense! Even Aunty had come over herself with the lunch : parantha, achar and lassi. After 4 hours of digging yielded nothing, father kept on murmuring ... ‘It has to be here! It has to be here! Now let me see...yes! it is here. But why do we not hit iron?’ In the Gurmukhi riddle which father could read like his mother-tongue being born and raised in pre-Independence Lahore, it was mentioned that ‘iron will hit iron.’ As he scratched his bald head, Aunty casually mentioned :’May be it is the next room Biswas saab? You know, previously this was our dining room. But it was too big a room, so we divided it into two.’ My father sprang up! ‘That’s it! Why did you not tell me before Gurbaksh you fool!’ And along with the two trusted labourers, the two friends also started digging with gusto. Aunty wailed that her precious moolika paranthas remained untouched...she shouldn’t have mentioned it before lunch! Just at that moment, loud and clear, rang out the crisp sound of ‘iron on iron’!! Even Gurbaksh Uncle gasped! Then clasped my father in a terrific embrace!

An iron trap-door emerged. It took a lot of effort to prise it open. And then as it swung open creaking and complaining, it revealed a flight of steps leading down. This is it! This is real treasure hunt!

Torches and mashals were brought. The outside doors were all sealed and trusted chowkidars posted outside. An eerie feeling gripped us as we descended. Guddi reassured me that Papa was carrying his gun – so there was nothing to worry. Thick cobwebs brushed against our faces and Guddi would shriek and clasp me tightly. I tried to pretend to be a man and be brave, though the musty smell was not at all to my liking! The stairs were spiral. Here and there the earth had fallen from above almost blocking the way. But nothing could stop Gurbaksh Uncle when on the threshold of achieving his dream! And then the tunnel stopped in front of an old, old door. It was very heavily built and had very heavy padlocks. Now what? Where were the keys?

Can a few ancient padlocks on a wooden door stop the Artillery Officer Gurbaksh Singh? Immediately the gun was on his shoulder, and he blew the locks away! But even then the door would not give way...and a lot of earth had to be scraped away while the entire party was waiting anxiously. As the door creaked open on its rusted hinges, everyone gasped! It was a sight to dream of...not to tell! I saw something too incredible for words!...half-buried in the ground, there were around 10-12 caskets, and at the centre was a huge casket, almost like a throne! And on this throne was perched one white cobra, hood inflated, hissing in anger, threatening...but royal, very very royal!

Instantly the gun was on his shoulder again, and as Gurbaksh Uncle pulled the trigger, my father hit the barrel, and the bullet went past the snake without any harm. And then I saw my father really explode with anger! And the gaalis that came out hot and fast are too hot and unpolitical for reproduction here. And he hauled his friend and ran up the stairs and didn’t stop till he reached the hall with the painting of General Shyam Singh Atariwallah. ‘Now see for yourself you empty-headed dunce! See if you have eyes! Can you not understand even now? That white cobra is your grandfather, protecting his treasure! We call it bastu-saanp or the guardian snake of a house. And you want to kill it?’

My father had a very curious mix of engineering and metaphysics. At my age then, I worshipped my father and his word was truth. Today, when he is no more, I worship him and believe that there are many strange things in life which cannot be rationalised. Whether his belief was true or false, it was a belief. And belief systems operate on faith and not on logic. Whether Shyam Singh’s spirit was there in the snake or not, the snake, that also a rare white cobra, presumably albino, coiled and hooded on the major casket, did look like being the guardian of the treasure. Animal lovers would agree that it would have been a sacrilege to kill it. Some pungent acid or fire would have driven it away, or a snake-charmer would easily have captured it.

But the rash Gurbaksh Uncle was in tremendous haste! Next day morning we came to know that at night he had gone down again and shot the majestic snake.

My father was shocked. He was penitent that he ever helped his friend. For one whole day, all the friendship of Gurbaksh Uncle could not make my father condescend to go down the tunnel to the underground dungeon. And Gurbaksh Uncle at least had this bonding that he would not touch the caskets unless Biswas was with him. Ultimately, in the late evening, it was Guddi’s cajoling that made my father relent. We went down. I was almost sobbing. I felt the grandeur and mystery of the treasure room was lost with its best ornament! The white cobra, coiled and hooded, hissing warning, perched atop the biggest was a sight that will live on in my dreams...

When Gurbaksh Uncle opened the caskets one after the other, it was for Guddi and me fairy tale coming true! Sparkling gems of varied colours! Gold mohurs! Necklaces! Bangles! Rings! Chains! Of all the gems I could identify diamonds – because my grandfather had a diamond ring which passed down to me. And of course I knew that diamond emits different lights. And believe me...there were lots of diamonds! As I write today, I question the method of acquisition of these treasures. War and loot. Drenched in blood and tears. But at my young age then, I was living the stories of The Count of Monte Cristo and Treasure Island that father would tell me every night.

Gurbaksh Uncle wanted to send a tohfa of a small bag crammed with jewels and gold coins for my mother. Father refused. Gurbaksh Uncle wanted to send it for my sister. Father refused. Gurbaksh Uncle insisted on giving me a ring. Father refused.

We left the next day. Gurbaksh Uncle migrated to Canada. He took to horse rearing. His letters used to come very regularly. He was not successful...and presumably, went bankrupt. Then one day, the letters stopped. And my father, so explosive in his anger, so expressive in his chaste gaalis, suffered in silence. And he communed internally. He knew. He never tried the normal methods of trying to contact the sons and daughters at Atari for news of their father’s demise.

Did the curse of General Shyam Singh Atariwallah take effect?

And I live on with the memory of my father, his ingenuity, his love and capacity for friendship and sacrifice, his ethicality. I live on with the memory of the royal white cobra who seemed to be guarding the treasure for the grandson of the grandson of General Shyam Singh Atariwallah. And my loss in the treasure hunt was, I never saw Guddi again.