God is not listening, because not a single prayer is bringing what’s expected of it. But if there’s a time for prayer, Seth knows, this is it. Over the last three months, without any warning, without heed, China has captured most of India. Millions of people have been killed. Lalbag is one of the last standing frontiers and, at any given moment, a bomb is expected to fall on it.

It’s almost midnight and the ceasefire is minutes away. So, the townspeople are praying. They’re praying to their beloved Lord Shiva, for it is Maha Shivratri, the holiest day of the new moon month of Maagha. Seth watches their eyes shut tight in devotion. War does not change you, it reveals you, Seth thinks. He admires their piety, the surrender that it brings. But has a single man prayed himself out of the life meant for him?

Seth hears the ring of a large brass bell and watches Swamiji rotate a lamp throwing fire two feet into the air. The sandalwood scent of the incense, the rhythmic chant of Om Namah Shivay, and the gentle breeze flowing in from the North ensconces the temple into a calm that can lull the fear in every heart. Standing atop Mount Akaho, the temple casts a golden glow on the town of Lalbag. No wonder man created God.

Seth is here, to show his support to the townspeople, but he cannot bring himself to pray. He possesses neither the fear nor the devoutness of a devotee. He looks at Ram, Urmila and Manu, standing next to him, deep in prayer. Seth’s own family has chosen to stay at home, still shaken, still distraught.

Faith is like the sea, it throws back double of what’s thrown into it. So is fear.

Suddenly something black darkens the night sky. A shadow falls on the half moon of Seth’s face. On the Shiva Linga, glistening with milk and vermilion paste, Seth sees the reflection of a dazzling blaze of light. Light: the colour of blood and ice.

Seth looks up to see that the dark night has revealed something insidious. His mind becomes red hot. He peers into the vast emptiness where the earth joins the sky and sees a light churning the air behind it. What is it? A star with a tail? A comet? No, the light is slashing the air with angry welts. Its fury is as bright as the skin of Shiva. It is …

“A bomb!” Seth screams, his tongue like scorched water. “Run. Everyone get out of here.” The devotees open their eyes in alarm. They look at each other in confusion. Does anyone believe the rich? No. They turn to Swamiji, where their faith truly rests.

“Save yourselves,” Swamiji says slowly as if God is whispering in his ears. “Run.” The earth begins to quake. The temple bells tremble and crash to the floor. The devotees look up to see that the hot summer moon has swallowed its own light. The vaults of hell have been let open. They drop their bilva leaves and rudraksha malas, their bananas and marigolds. They get up in the commotion, ready to flee. But their feet! They find that their feet can’t move. The heavens are lost. What is happening?

They look at each other in panic. Many begin to sob. A man faints.

Seth too finds himself glued to the temple floor.

Ram leans over and puts his arms around him.

“I will not let anything happen to you, Mai Baap,” he says.

Urmila and Manu look at Ram with the full force of hurt, till he pulls his arms away.

“Save us, Shiva!” says Urmila, clasping her hands in prayer, tears streaming down her face. “I vow to spend the rest of my life filled with your thoughts and to never speak a human word again.”

Seth thinks of Ida, within whom his happiness always finds a heart. He hopes the bomb does not make its way to her gentle life.

From behind the Shiva Linga, where the cannonball tree grows – bearing sweet-scented blooms in winter and shading the devotees in summer – there comes a strange noise. Seth sees the buds of the cannonball flowers, twelve in all, quiver, as if gathering their strength. And then – Seth gasps, as do all the devotees – the flowers begin to open their petals, like the hood of Shiva’s serpent. They throw columns of shining golden light into the sky. What supernatural thing is this?

Then the Shiva Linga, black and crowned with the Naga, starts to grow. It grows and grows. Longer and longer, wider and wider, crashing through the roof of the temple. This time the shock is too great. Seth can’t even gasp. He just stares, mouth open, as the Linga begins to take the shape of Shiva. It is a shape that he knows but does not expect. And then, right before his disbelieving eyes, Shiva turns into a fiery column of light. The Lord has come alive!

Like leaves falling at the foot of a tree, everyone drops to their knees.

“The Neelkanth has arisen,” they gasp. The fear in their hearts is gone.

The bomb shows no such reverence. It hurtles towards them, impatient, as if it’s a blessing the devotees have long prayed for. And it falls, wreck and fury, in all its destruction, and it falls upon the light of The Lord.

“No!” cry the devotees.

There is a single dazzling explosion. Mount Akaho rattles as if its core has exploded into the sky. A tempestuous wind sweeps through the land, whirling dust in an eddy, shaking trees by their roots, forcing homes to crumble, sending the good earth into that heaven where gods convene.

Seth shields his face from the flying embers and shrapnel he expects. His ears ring. He feels a powerful force lift him up and drop him to the floor. He hears his body crunch.

Hai Ram!

Then there’s silence. Seth opens his eyes. Everything is the same. The temple. The people. And he’s alive! Through the settling gold dust he touches his arms, his legs, his body. He’s neither dismembered, nor bloodied, nor killed; only his right leg seems to be broken. Yet, he has no feeling of pain. How is this possible? He looks around. Every single person in the temple is rooted to the spot like seaweed in a tsunami. Every person is touching their body for broken bits and parts. Every person is unharmed.

“How are we not dead? How is this possible?” someone asks Swamiji.

Swamiji looks up at the sky, which is once again concealing its secrets with darkness, and says, “Ours is not to question.”

An unseen powerful force has saved them all.

Excerpted with permission from The Man Who Lost India, Meghna Pant, Simon and Schuster India.