The train arrived in Amritsar leaking blood. It had started its journey crammed with Hindu and Sikh refugees in Sialkot on the Pakistani side of the border. It had rumbled into Amritsar Junction three hours later.

Railway Constable Sukhbir Singh boarded the train with an impending sense of dread. There were no waving hands, nodding heads, wailing babies or excited shouts. In fact, there was no sound at all. The eerie silence was the first sign of things to come. The second indication of what lay within was the swarm of buzzing flies.

Inside compartment after compartment lay slaughtered bodies tangled together grotesquely, almost like a tossed salad of human corpses. Bodies hanging out of windows, piled upon each other, stabbed, decapitated, mutilated or with throats slashed. Men, women and children—no one had been spared.

When the train departed from Sialkot Junction, the people on board had foolishly heaved a sigh of relief. They were blissfully unaware that a hastily formed band of avengers was awaiting the train’s arrival at the bridge over the river Ravi. By the time the train rolled off the bridge, it carried a cargo of human death. The river beneath the bridge had turned pink with bleeding corpses that had rained into it from the train above.

On both sides of the hastily drawn-up border, there had been ruthlessness and depravity by all communities – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Shooting and stabbing of victims seemed almost humane when one considered the ghastly catalogue of other horrors that had been perpetrated. Previous communal riots paled in comparison to the unprecedented brutality that India’s Partition had thrown up. Over fifteen million people had been left homeless, with Muslims fleeing India for Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs abandoning Pakistan for India. The eventual death toll of India’s Partition would exceed a million souls.

Constable Sukhbir Singh entered the death train in Amritsar, calling out to his colleagues for help. He began the process of looking for survivors although his instincts told him that no one had been left alive.

Luckily, Sukhbir Singh’s instincts were often wrong.

Within a few minutes he struck gold. What was that sound? Was it someone sobbing? Sukhbir began shoving aside corpses like a man possessed. If there was even one survivor left on this train Sukhbir would find him.

A few minutes later he pulled out a small, frightened boy from underneath a bench seat. The boy’s kurta was stained with blood from a corpse that had fallen on him. His cheeks were stained with tears and soot. The boy trembled as Sukhbir reached for him.

“Hush, little one, I’m not going to hurt you,” whispered Sukhbir as he lifted the whimpering boy into his arms. He hugged him gently, attempting to drive away the memory of the demons that the boy had witnessed and been possessed by.

Unfortunately, he knew that the demons would plague him for the rest of his life.

Drenched in sweat and blood, Sukhbir Singh was about to exit the train with the child when he heard a groan. Were his ears deceiving him? Was it yet another human voice? And then it came again.

Sukhbir called out to his colleague Chandprakash. “Chand, I need you to take this boy to the retiring room. Find him something to eat and drink. I have to find the other voice.”

250 BCE, Patliputra

The streets of Pataliputra lay quiet. Even the late-night taverns had packed off their last customers.

The sixty-four gates built into the massive walls that surrounded the city had been shuttered for the night. Five hundred and seventy sentries stationed in individual towers along the perimeter maintained vigil for intruders from across the surrounding moat.

In the centre of town stood the magnificent royal palace nestled in a bed of splendid gardens and lakes. The massive doors to the palace lay locked, having been secured by the royal guards. But a secret entrance remained open. It was used only once every full-moon night.

By nine specially chosen men.

Inside the palace, the emperor was still at work. He barely ever slept. It meant that everyone else around him also remained sleep-deprived. He sat at the head of the meeting chamber. floor-mounted flaming torches through dancing shadows that bounced off the walls as the monarch deliberated with the nine men.

Ashoka was not a handsome man. In fact, most people found him rather unattractive. In the past, though, he had always exuded a spirit of unbounded energy, which seemed to have entirely vanished these days.

Kalinga had changed him.

Kalinga had been the proverbial thorn in Ashoka’s side and he had finally succeeded in plucking the federal republic out several years ago. Ashoka’s great triumph at Kalinga had eluded even his father and grandfather. The victory should have been cause for grand celebration.

So why had it felt so hollow?

Ashoka had conquered Kalinga by sending a 100,000 of his own warriors to their deaths. Twice that number of Kalingans had died. The River Daya that bordered the battlefield had turned red for several months after the gruesome war.

And then, there had been a transformation in the emperor. Ashoka the Wicked had morphed into Ashoka the Righteous.

The emperor looked at the nine men in the room. Each one of them was seated on a throne that was identical to that of Ashoka. No single man was greater than the other inside this chamber. Ashoka was lost in thought. Could he trust them to do what was required? Would they honour their word to him? Realising that he had no alternative, Ashoka took a deep breath and spoke.

“I have called you here because I am very worried,” he began. The oldest among them, the Preserver of the Secret, knew better than to show any reaction. He awaited his instructions while holding his bulky folder. The folder was stitched from fabric and had jellyfish-like emblem embroidered on the cover.

“Over the years, we have almost perfected our research,” continued Ashoka. “The voluminous folder before you contains a body of inquiry that is pathbreaking. Emperors would willingly give up their kingdoms to acquire such incredibly empowering knowledge. Your research has helped make the Mauryan Empire prosperous. It has enabled us to win wars, subdue our enemies and provide a better life to our people.”

He paused. His mind was struggling to find appropriate words for the occasion.

“But look at what I did with your work! I annihilated a third of a million people in my lust for power! I am wracked by shame, guilt and remorse. And you know what? There is nothing inside your folder that has a solution for my condition.” Ashoka droppped his gaze to the floor.

“Your highness, the Kalinga War was a decade ago. In subsequent years you have done much to play the role of father to your people,” said the Preserver of the Secret. He was the oldest among them. His name was Kalapasika. Ashoka looked up as Kalapasika spoke.

“You have established free hospitals; you have supported universities and monasteries; you have built rest-houses; you have planted thousands of trees; you have kept taxes low; you have ensured that government officials deal with citizens in a caring manner. No emperor has ever done so much for his people in such a short span of time,’ said Kalapasika – without a hint of flattery in his voice.

Everything that Kalapasika had said was absolutely true. Ashoka smiled a weary smile. “Thank you for trying to cheer me up, Kalapasika,” he said. “Try as I may to bribe my way out of karmic damnation, I shall not succeed. Eventually, I too shall have to the pay the price for my sins!”

He paused yet again.

“As you know, knowledge is power,” he said. “Power can be used for good. It can also be used for evil. Under no circumstances can we afford to let our knowledge fall into the wrong hands.”

“What are you suggesting, Devanampiya?” asked Kalapasika using Ashoka’s preferred title – beloved of the gods.

“We need to ensure that your scholarship is preserved for generations to come without ever allowing it to be wrongly used,” replied the emperor.

The thoughts running through the minds of the nine men were almost identical. How do we bury such powerful knowledge? Almost as though he was reading their minds, Ashoka asked, “So how does one bury such powerful knowledge? I suggest that our wisdom should be vested in a single person. Who could that person be?”

Ashoka looked at each of the nine men before he spoke. “Kalapasika, would you be willing to take up this onerous responsibility? After all, you are the Preserver of the Secret as also the oldest in this group. You would need to guard this knowledge with your life. You must not let the outside world know anything about what you possess.”

“But I am mortal,” said Kalapasika. “How shall I preserve the information for posterity? How will we improve upon the research? What will happen when I die?”

“When death is near, you shall choose an appropriate successor to preserve the material,” replied Ashoka. “Your successor does not have to be your blood relative although you may choose to appoint one. Merit, honesty, loyalty and strength should be the key criteria in choosing your successor. Your knowledge shall be passed down to your successor accompanied by an oath of complete secrecy.”

Kalapasika nodded.

“As you can see, Kalapasika, your role is particularly critical. Greed is a terrible motivator of men. You shall have to take extraordinary precautions. It is vital that the information in not to further the aims of individuals. We have jointly perfected our research up to the seventeenth step. We must reach the eighteenth.”

“Devanampiya, as suggested by you a year ago, I have entirely memorised the notes – like a student in a gurukul. Every successor of mine shall do the same.”

Ashoka nodded. “Good. Can you recite all eighteen steps?” Kalapasika began reciting.

“Svedana… Mardana… Murchana… Uthapana… Patana… Rodhana… Niyamana… Sandipana…”

Ashoka closed his eyes, almost meditating on the words.

“Gaganagrass… Carana… Garbhadruti… Bahyadruti… Jarana… Ranjana… Sarana… Kramana… Vedhana… Bhaksana.”

Ashoka opened his eyes. “Please recite the mantra,” requested the emperor.

Kalapasika folded his hands in mental supplication to Shiva and began chanting in Sanskrit.

“Om tryambakam yajaamahe
sugandhim pushti-vardhanam,
Urvaarukam-iva bandhanaan
mrityormuksheeya maamrataat!”

The ancient passage from the Rig-Veda was an exceptionally powerful mantra. Kalapasika paused.

“Now the conclusion,” instructed Ashoka.

Kalapasika began in Prakrit, the preferred language of the Mauryan court.

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
Food that is sweet can be bitter
Eyes meant to see can be glossed.
Seeing eyes are children two
But the discerning eye is the mother.
Potions and chants, it is true
Are complemented by one another.”

Ashoka then spoke to Kalapasika and the eight remaining men for the final time that night. “Until today, I used to refer to you as my Nine Special Men. Henceforth, you shall be called the Nine Unknowns. This is our last and final meeting. It is now time for you to disband and return to the far-flung places whence I had requested you to come. I am thankful for your time and efforts. May god be with you.”

1950 - 1960

Bombay lay inundated with refugees in 1950. Over a million people displaced from Sindh and the Punjab were now sleeping on the city’s streets. Shivaji Park, the nucleus of Marathi-speaking, middle-class Bombay, was densely packed. More than half a million souls had gathered to hear Jawaharlal Nehru speak.

Hours before his plane arrived at Santa Cruz airport, shops had started downing their shutters and people had started lining the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of their living deity. The police had a difficult time keeping the throngs in control as Panditji’s open maroon car drove by.

The government had set up five refugee camps in Bombay but they were hellish places. Each family had to live within thirty-six square feet of space. There was no electricity. Twelve water taps were allocated to serve 10,000 people.

A young Muslim couple, Ayub and Shabana Sheikh, with their son in tow, had begun their trek from the Dongri area of the city. It had taken them several hours to reach Shivaji Park. They had jostled their way into the venue to hear the man who was no less than a god to them. Ayub, a dockworker, had hoisted his son, Arbaaz, on his shoulders so that he could have a better view.

Panditji began speaking. “Since I first unfurled the national flag on the Red Fort, three years have been added to India’s long history, which began thousands of years ago. During these years, we have seen achievements and failures, we have experienced joy and sorrow. The good work we have done will remain even though we pass away. So will India, though generations come and go.” The tumultuous crowds were enthusiastic in their response.

“We must constantly remind ourselves that whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people,” said Panditji. To the young Muslim couple, Ayub and Shabana Sheikh, Panditji’s words gave them hope for Indian Muslims.

Ayub looked up at little Arbaz who sat on his shoulders. He seemed entirely oblivious to the importance of Jawaharlal Nehru. The boy was busy surveying the crowds around him, almost imperiously.

It was probably a sign of things to come.


For most people, the name conjured up visions of the epic battler between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. For the moment, though, the ill-fated plains of Kurukshetra had been converted into a huge refugee camp, the largest among the 200 that had been established to accommodate the flood of humanity from Pakistan.

The Bagadias were not refugees. Brijmohanlal Bagadia was from Calcutta, where he ran a small jute-trading operation. The family had been attending a wedding in Delhi that winter of 1950 and had heard that Mahashiva Baba was visiting the nearby Kurukshetra camp.

Mahashiva Baba was a sadhu from Varanasi whose devotees believed that he had been alive for over 300 years. Brijmohanlal’s mother had received darshan of the holy man many years ago and she had always kept his photograph in her prayer corner.

“If only we could meet him once and seek his blessings for Arvind,” said Brijmohanlal to his wife, Shakuntala. The poor woman was valiantly attempting to keep with Brijmohanlal while firmly dragging Arvind by his hand.

While claims of the baba’s immortality could be doubted, his ability to organise relief work could not. Mahashiva Baba had created an organisation of thousands of devoted followers who came to be known as “Jeevan Prakash”. Besides operating universities, schools and hospitals, Jeevan Prakash also took up relief work wherever it was needed. The camp at Kurukshetra consumed hundreds of tonnes of flour, lentils, rice and cooking oil. The refugees had to be fed, clothed, housed and provided medical facilities. People like the baba were saviours. The armed forces were working overtime at the camps but they needed all the help that they could get. Mahashiva Baba and his devotees had been welcomed with open arms.

The Bagadias wandered through the camp at Kurukshetra and were stunned by its size. Over 300,000 souls inhabited the camp, many of them having travelled in long caravans on foot or bullock cart from Pakistan. More than ten million people had fled their homes, a migration that reduced the exodus of the Jews from Egypt to a minority.

After an hour of wandering in the hot sun, the Bagadias finally reached the tent occupied by the baba. The baba wore only a loincloth and sported thick matted hair above his ash-smeared forehead. He sat on a square piece of cloth that was little bigger than a kerchief. No one knew his age but he looked like a man of forty. There was a glow on his face and the muscles of his chest and arms rippled as though he had worked out for every day of his life. His face was accentuated by a prominent jaw. Next to him was a smoking chillum made of clay and a copper pot filled with bhasma – holy ash. A musky-sweet smell permeated the air. The baba rarely ate. His energy came from meditation and weed.

His eyes picked out the Bagadia family instantly. He asked one of his followers to guide them to him. “How is your mother? Does she still keep my photograph in her prayer corner?” he asked Brijmohanlal. Brijmohanlal stared at the baba with his mouth agape. The baba had never seen him before and yet seemed to know everything about him. Both husband and wife prostrated themselves before him.

“Place the boy in front of me,” instructed the baba softly as they got up. Shakuntala placed the eight-year-old in front of the sadhu. Arvind sat cross-legged before the baba, playing with a toy soldier. He was oblivious to the holy man.

The baba smiled at the boy. Arvind did not return the favour. The baba then took some ash from his copper pot and smeared it lightly on the boy’s forehead as he chanted:

“Om tryambakam yajaamahe
sugandhim pushti-vardhanam,
Urvaarukam-iva bandhanaan
mrityormuksheeya maamrataat!”

Looking up at the parents, he said, “Take care of this boy. He is destined for many big things in life.” The parents stepped forward and touched the baba’s feet, grateful for his blessing.

As the Bagadias walked out of the baba’s tent, they noticed a pervasive air of gloom. “What’s the matter?” asked Brijmohanlal of one of the baba’s disciples. The man had tears in his eyes.

“Sardar has passed away,” he said softly. The iron man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had died following a heart attack. Patel had gifted 565 princely states to the Indian union.

Earlier that year Babasaheb Ambedkar had gifted 395 Articles to make up the Constitution of India. Probably the longest in the world.

Key moments in Indian history were being created. The moment passed was history, the unborn moment a mystery.

Dusk had descended on the congested streets of Dongri. On the pavements, steaming hot kebabs freshly grilled or pulled out of bubbling oil were the main attraction for those who were breaking their fast for Ramadan.

The house that Ayub and Shabana occupied with little Arbaaz was certainly not a house. It was more of a room on the second floor of a decrepit building that overlooked Hazrat Abbas Dargah on Palla Gully.

From dozens of matchbox windows, families peered out to catch the spectacle of the mohalla below. One of the faces peering out was that of the ravenous nine-year-old Arbaaz. It was his very first Ramadan fast.

On the street below, the situation was chaotic. The country’s first general elections had been announced for October 1951 and Chief Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen had the unenviable task of getting 175 million adult Indians to cast their votes in the biggest experiment in democracy. Politicians of all hues were busy holding iftar parties to woo the Muslim electorate of the area that sweltering June.

Inside the ten-by-ten room, Shabana tried her best to make their home look presentable. Ayub would be home soon. She felt terrible for him – having to labour in the docks while fasting.

She placed the earthen water pot on the corner stool and carefully arranged a few dates that would be needed for iftar. She had not cooked. Ayub would be taking them out to the streets to sample the delectable fare on offer.

She looked inside the matka and checked the copper wristlet at the bottom. Little Arbaaz would often ask what it was there for. She would simply tell him that copper was good for the health.

“Come on, Arbaaz, wipe your hands and face,” she said, handing a small damp towel to him. “You got into so much trouble at school for being dirty.”

Arbaaz obediently started scrubbing away the sweat and soot from his face, neck, arms and hands. It had been an exceptionally hot and muggy day. Arbaaz looked at the grimy towel as he handed it back to his mother. ‘It’s not worth the effort,” he said to her.

“What’s not worth the effort?” asked Shabana.

“Cleaning up,” replied Arbaaz.

“Why?” asked Shabana, indulging him.

‘Now I’m clean but the towel’s dirty. There’s simply no way to get something clean without getting something else dirty.”

Excerpted with permission from The Sialkot Saga, Ashwin Sanghi, Westland.