It was a balmy morning, with temperatures hovering around the mid-20s. A gentle breeze ruffled the leaves of trees and shrubs of the Victoria Memorial gardens. Haashi coolly stared at the long blades of grass to her right, as she sat on the lawn next to a marble statue. A few feet away was seated a frosty Toby, flicking away dried autumn leaves from time to time. Weston stood in front of them, staring at the statue of the elegant gentleman, togged up in glad rags, distinctly British in appearance, whereas the plaque mentioned a native name.
To break the ice, he enquired to no one in particular, ‘Who is this gentleman, then?’
Haashi said, ‘This is Rajendra Nath Mookherjee, a pioneering industrialist of Bengal. He was an engineer by training and later became a contractor and businessman. Among his myriad achievements was the construction of the Victoria Memorial and the Howrah Bridge, the two most famous landmarks of Kolkata.’
‘I thought William Emerson was the architect of the Victoria Memorial,’ piped Toby.
‘Actually, while Emerson got the credit, it was Emerson’s assistant, Vincent Jerome Esch, who designed the building and created the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, a mixture of European and Islamic styles prevalent in the late nineteenth century, in the process.
Rajendranath Mookherjee had the memorial constructed, as I clearly mentioned before. The gardens we are sitting in right now, were designed by Lord Redesdale and David Praine. Shows what little learning can result in,’ Haashi shot back. Weston sighed. He had thought that he had picked a safe topic.
Haashi, Toby and Weston had proceeded to the quiet and pleasant environs of the Victoria Memorial gardens to think things over and decide on the next steps after the shocking turn of events at the St John’s Church an hour ago. The last of the morning walkers were disappearing, and it was still too early for the lovers and picnicking families to descend upon their city’s most famous landmark. With the weather cooperating so well, it was an ideal space wherein one could sit and ponder. Maybe not for academics, who would rather have pointless arguments, rued Weston. It all started with a dispute regarding the author of the intimidating verse found at Job Charnock’s grave.
Haashi and Toby had almost yelled the presumed poet’s name simultaneously after reading his dire message. ‘Hastings?’ screamed Toby just as Haashi hollered ‘Radhamohan!’ Weston shushed them, asking them to continue at a lower volume. ‘Who? But it is in English!’ said Toby unthinkingly. Haashi’s eyes had narrowed dangerously into slits. ‘And therefore, my ancestor, the erudite polymath and grandson of Nabarun Datta, who was but a native, could not have composed it, right?’ she hissed.
‘You are being deliberately difficult. I did not mean it that way. I simply meant to say that the only other person that Clive may have trusted was Warren Hastings, his protégé and eventually his successor. Hastings was also intimately involved with the conspiracy around the Battle of Plassey, acting as Clive’s secret emissary from time to time,’ explained Toby, getting quite exasperated with Haashi’s petulance.
‘English was the simplest language that Raja Radhamohan Datta knew,’ retorted Haashi, still smarting from the insult that had rolled off so easily from the secretly racist Toby’s tongue. ‘He was also an expert in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic while contributing to the development of modern Urdu and Bengali,’ she added.
‘If I recall correctly, you were ambiguous about his scholarly talents as he had opposed the abolition of sati, an inhuman practise by all accounts,’ was Toby’s rejoinder.
‘Yes, and his conservatism was a flaw in his character. But he never asked any ladies of his own family to practise sati and in his later life, he actively promoted the cause of education for women. With borrowed funds from his wealthy father Gourmadhab Datta, he founded Asia’s finest educational institute in 1818, the Hindu College, later called Presidency College, my alma mater,’ fumed Haashi.
‘Being the founder of your precious alma mater makes him the most qualified person to find the Aasma-i-Noor?’ asked Toby incredulously.
‘Don’t be obtuse, Toby. He was a highly educated person with an incisive mind. He had access to our archives. What makes you think you are the only smart person ever, to be able to solve the riddle of Nabarun Datta’s doctored letter along with the clues strewn across other letters and documents left behind by him?’ asked Haashi coldly.
‘I still maintain that it must have been Hastings...’ began Toby, his voice rising in irritation.
At that point, Weston had intervened and begged to go somewhere quiet, so that their argument could continue undisturbed by the pesky tourists who were approaching Charnock’s tomb. So here they were, sometime later, in the gratifyingly beautiful locale of the Victoria Memorial gardens, on a gorgeous autumn morning, and he was trying to make peace between two recalcitrant academics, who were acting like five-year-olds.
‘Assuming it was your ancestor, miss, where would he have hidden it afterwards?’ Weston asked Haashi. In response, Haashi read the most mysterious lines in the poem aloud, ‘To the novel cirche, I bequeath; The peccant gaud, shall lie beneath. Hmm...it seems to indicate another church, a new one, for that time. I cannot imagine which one, because many churches continued to be built in Calcutta under the British Raj. One way is to search each and every one of them, at least starting with the six or so that were in existence during Radhamohan’s time...’ she said uncertainly.
‘We don’t have time for that. What is the other way?’ asked Weston. ‘The other way is to take a day or two and go through Radhamohan Datta’s letters and documents back at our family archives,’ she answered. Weston nodded and excused himself to make the call to Naser Mirza. He came back within a couple of minutes, looking chastised and harried.
‘Please hurry and do what you have to do, miss. I have extended my stay for another two days. Let us meet later today, after which I shall have to report progress, and this is non-negotiable, to my employer,’ he stated flatly.
‘I was thinking...’ began Haashi and fell silent, looking contemplative.
‘Yes?’ prodded Weston.
‘It’s just that there might be a possibility that Radhamohan may be sending us on a wild goose chase on purpose. He seems to be admonishing the finder of the fake jewel through his poem, in no uncertain terms, for being foolishly impudent and adventurous. Further he mentioned the word “birthright”, so he assumed that it would be one of the extended family’s descendants, as he had no children of his own. So, I wonder if he had hidden the real jewel within his own mansion, maybe under the nabaratna (nine jewels) temple he had built at the Boro Rajbari premises. The word “cirche”, an old English term for church, may be loosely interpreted as a place of worship. Or it could even be under the Nat Mandap, the structure added in 1830 by the same Radhamohan Datta, infront of the temple. Besides, there are many tunnels underneath the mansion which could have secret hiding places. But...’
‘But?’ asked Weston dutifully.
‘In that case I will need the elephant’s trunk to locate the Aasma-i-Noor. Could you lend it to me for today, please?’ asked Haashi nicely.
Weston was hesitant. So Haashi added quickly, ‘It is okay if you cannot, maybe we can search the Boro Rajbari at a later date. You may have to return soon, empty-handed, but I can continue the search’.
Weston looked alarmed at the prospect of returning empty handed and agreed to lend his cherished gadget to her. ‘And what will you do, Mr Armitage?’ he asked Toby, who was trying to look uninterested.
‘I had best be going to the Asiatic Society Library at Park Street. Incidentally, it was set up in early 1784, the same year Warren Hastings laid the second foundation stone at St John’s Church. I am told it has a veritable treasure trove of old maps, building plans, letters, documents and books from the era we are looking into. Toodle-oo!’ he said casually and got up to leave.
Weston was in a dilemma. If the treasure hunters were going off in two different directions, who would he follow? Then he remembered Naser Mirza’s express instructions, not to leave Toby out of his sight, while the fellow was out and about in the city.
The trio made their way to the car park where Weston reluctantly handed over his gadget to Haashi and packed her off in a cab. Toby settled in the rented SUV quite comfortably and did not even have the courtesy to wave goodbye to the lady, he noticed.
Both men were politely but firmly evicted from the library by about 7.00 p.m. that evening. Toby had behaved as if he was in a Disneyworld for an antiquarian and had happily sneezed through long and fun-filled hours amongst the dusty tomes. At 6.15 pm, it was the official closing time. Toby had begged for an extra 15 minutes in adorable Bengali and had melted the old librarian’s heart. But it was getting dark and the poor man could not see very well, even with his thick glasses, so he had turned uncooperative after three gentle reminders.
Not that the extra 45 minutes had yielded any clue about what Warren Hastings would have done with the world’s most precious jewel. Thoroughly dejected, they rode in silence till they reached 53, Raja Nabarun Street, and parked outside the Chhoto Rajbari. Weston dialled Haashi’s number to ask about her progress and, more importantly, to retrieve his treasure hunting device from her.
Haashi sounded ecstatic to receive his call and said she would come down to meet him. Within a couple of minutes, she walked, queen-like, out of the main door, swinging the guitar case in her
hand as she approached the car with jaunty steps. Others may pray for world peace, but Weston had been praying all day, that people would be very careful with borrowed, expensive equipment.
Excerpted with permission from Aasma-i-Noor: The Cursed Jewel, Sudipta Sen Gupta, Rupa Publications.