In the recesses of a brown city – almost as old as time, some say – in a home for the dying by the River Ganges lives an English-speaking Tamil Brahmin, his elder brother having sent him there to be healed of a mental affliction, or die. From the windows of his room on the first floor, through the dying branches of a Gulmohar tree, he could see the river that would, one day, wash his remains away.

If one were to examine the median of this species that is the Tamil Brahmin, they would find that this species exhibits qualities that, while having allowed them to thrive, have also helped ensure their exile from the state of Tamil Nadu. Shrewd and frugal, the Tamil Brahmin is a lover of anonymity: he works behind the scenes and never gets too close to the big man, because when the barbarians leap over the fort walls and the next batch of heads roll, there will always be a market for good accountants.

The Tamil Brahmin aspires to be the master of his private life, which he fills up with numerous comforting rituals and strictly vegetarian dietary choices, all carefully chosen for eventual transcendence.

His home is a fortress of sorts, and is built following that ancient household layout where the space gets increasingly sacred as one moves further into the house, approaching the centre. He is rarely adventurous and prefers to think methodically, following prescribed routes that have stood the test of history, ritual and grandfathers; he is not one to lose himself in the forking paths of his own worried imagination.

Mr Iyer is one of those Tamil Brahmins who keeps a bamboo staff and a litre bottle of coconut oil under his bed, and listens to MS Subbulakshmi’s rendition of Venkatesha Suprabhatam every morning, much to the consternation of the formerly robust army major he shares his room with. Iyer’s most precious possessions are his books and Naadi scrolls, many of them left to him by his grandfather.

South Indian dosas and idlis, curd rice, vatha kuzhambu, a Brahmin cook, and a Sahiwal cow kept on contract for undiluted milk consume one fourth of the monthly allowance his brother regularly sends Khanolkar, the proprietor of the home Mr Iyer occupies, even though Khanolkar’s doctored food receipts claim otherwise. The rent for rooms and other amenities vary in these Kashi establishments, which were especially built to allow people to avail themselves of the honour of dying by the Ganges; most of them are run by charities and are heavily subsidised, to say the least.

Khanolkar’s home boasts of not just one of the nicest locations overlooking the Ganges, but also of regular visits from a doctor – educated in America, no less – TV, and cleaners and helpers who live on the premises. Iyer is Khanolkar’s favourite patient even though Khanolkar really does not like him very much; his payments come in regularly and Iyer’s family, who live in a village further down the river, never seem to scrutinise Khanolkar’s bills as closely as some of the other patients’ families do.

Ryan Lobo
Ryan Lobo

Iyer’s complexion is weathered, and his beard flecked with grey.

He suffers more from activity than sloth: most of his muscles and tendons are flexible from years of yoga, but the cartilage of his left knee has been giving him trouble. He conducts his prayers and pranayama faithfully, rising for his breathing exercises just before the sun peeps over the bare eastern bank, illuminating the corpses floating along the western bank of the river.

In the home, he makes friends with those who have come there to die and gain release from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It is in this climate of generosity, where men have nothing to lose and help sew each other’s clothes, and spend their days discussing cancers or sharing inhalers, that Iyer pores over his Naadi scrolls and more recent translations of the Hindu epics with much devotion, finding hidden meanings in the lines and between them, especially when they concern transcendence.

Those who have conquered themselves live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.

Iyer spends sleepless nights trying to gauge the meaning of these phrases, which Vyasa himself, were he to come back to life, would have trouble deciphering. He reads late into the night, and again from dawn. The effort of it, coupled with the lack of sleep, make him melancholic.

I will never be young again. He sometimes walks down to the Niranjani Akhada – that home of learned sadhus – where he has discussions with Himalayan hermits, graduates of much rocking back and forth and meditation in caves. But he always leaves dissatisfied. The answers he seeks come serendipitiously, from unlikely sources like Krishna, the home’s doctor or the poetry-loving Bencho, whose ancestral profession of cremating the dead brings him to the home often. Upon meeting him, Iyer reads out bits of sacred texts or some English classics to him, of which Robinson Crusoe is Bencho’s favourite. Often, Iyer goes to the ghats to look for him.

Iyer finds Bencho’s perspective invigorating and untainted by conventional beliefs, while Bencho is thrilled to be taken seriously by an English-speaking Brahmin who seeks his, a Dom’s opinion, no less! It also does not hurt that Iyer loves a rapt audience wherever he finds it. “It means you’re supposed to forget about yourself and do what you have to do,” ventures Bencho, condensing Iyer’s reflections on Lord Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna while he was on his way to battle with his cousins.

Thrilled at Bencho’s explanation, Iyer cries out “you are cent per cent correct”, raising his forefinger to the heavens and speeding back towards the home to reconsider the text in the light of this bracing perspective.

Hurrying along the ghat, lost in his thoughts, he collides en route with a fat Marwari in the middle of his prayers. Thrown off balance, Iyer teeters before rolling down the stone steps of the bank, twisting his knee, hitting his head on a Shiva lingam and knocking himself unconscious.

The blow that has struck him on the back of his head is dull and surprisingly painless. He feels as if he has been electrocuted: his legs have gone slack and the world is gently fading from his view. When he looks back at this momentous event later, he feels that he had been transfixed, suspended in the air while the horizon rotated around him. As he loses all control, a flaming white rose blooms up in his mind.

And this is how Damayanti, who lives in a house nearby, finds him – crumpled under a buzzing streetlight that the municipal authorities have forgotten to turn off this morning. Recognising him from the home, where she assists from time to time, she rushes to help him, wetting the hem of her sari and wiping his face to revive him.

The next day, a nasty bump swells up on one side of his head. The extent of the impact goes further. He stops using coconut oil, letting his hair and beard grow long and unkempt. He gives away his tape recorder, fires his cook, cancels his contract for the cow, and starts eating jalebis, naans, rotis, and even an egg on occasion. He starts having vivid nightmares where he is battling demons, sticky with blood from head to toe. He wakes from them all fevered and shaken, and writes down what he remembers in his diary.

He is growing prone to losing his temper, and is becoming unbearably cantankerous.

He spends long hours all by himself, and flies into rages when disturbed. Sometimes he throws things at Mattroo, the ward boy, for wearing leather sandals in his presence, certain that they’ve been flayed from the corpse of a dead cow. He becomes, in the words of Khanolkar, completely mad.

When the swelling subsides and he still doesn’t improve, Dr Krishna prescribes Sizopin.

The pills dull his senses; he sleeps a great deal. He still reads his books, but the task seems to have lost its urgency for him. Laid up with little appetite for food or life, and with his knee in a painful brace, Iyer sinks into depression.

One day, he spits out his pills on impulse after the doctor leaves the room. His dreams return that night, but this time his dream world begins to merge with the waking day.

To begin with, Iyer falls in love with his rescuer, the half- beautiful widow Damayanti. She is called half beautiful because one side of her face bears acid burns, though some say she is called half beautiful because of her dark complexion – lustrous as anthracite. To Iyer, her face represents the eternal duality of life: one side scarred, the other luminous.

He searches for a name that will do her justice. A word rises up to him in a dream. He decides to call her Panchakanya after the iconic mythological heroines. To him, the name is filled with truth and significance.

Iyer hovers downstairs when she comes to the home to help one of the patients with her daily bath and prayers in the river, though he cannot muster the courage to speak to her beyond a few words of greeting. In spite of his knee, he starts going down to the ghats when he can manage, hoping to see more of her. He is filled with joy when he spots her in the holy Ganges, her sari cleaved to her skin and her scars visible only if one comes close. Iyer is keen that Damayanti remain unaware of his affections, concerned that its chaste radiance would sear them both.

One night, unable to sleep, Iyer finds his diary lying by his bed. Disturbed from reading it, he throws it out of the window. It splashes into a puddle, drenching a low-flying crow, which veers into a tangle of electrical wires, which short-circuit and cause the transformer to explode. The bird falls, wings folding, unfixed from life. In the momentary darkness lit only by the sparks from the transformer, Iyer realises who he was in a past incarnation.

The sky has a comet.

He was Bhīma, the strongest of the Pandavas, known for his battle skills and integrity.

Iyer realises that for the sake of his own salvation he has to become a warrior brahmachari: a transcendental soldier in search of the ultimate truth. He would need to walk the earth seeking out and engaging in adventures that brahmacharis got themselves into – such as battling the all-consuming demon Bakasura – and that would be the only course worth taking. Already he feels in touch with his otherworldly origins – ever-present but just beyond that which is visible – like knowledge gained in a dream and lost on waking up. He lies back in his bed, wondering when his knee will heal so he can get on with the business of immortality.

Excerpted with permission from Mr Iyer Goes To War, Ryan Lobo, Bloomsbury.