The Yogi was tall and thin, so thin in fact that you could call him emaciated. His face was pinched and hungry, and there was something feline about his curved nose. He usually wore a saffron tunic, like all the godmen across the country who were demanding that a Mughal-era mosque in Ayodhya be torn down and a temple to Ram be constructed in its place.
A few months back, the Yogi had publicly declared his support for the cause and had promised a few lakh rupees to build the temple. He had also extended an invitation to the political leader travelling from Ahmedabad to Ayodhya on a chariot, to come to Calcutta and stay at his ashram. But the West Bengal government, led by the Marxists, had denied the politician and his entourage permission to enter the state, in a bid to prevent a communal flare-up. The Yogi was now planning his own chariot procession in support of the Ram temple…
The first time I saw the Yogi, it was his dark glasses that had caught my attention. They made it difficult to determine the true colour of his eyes.
He wore it at all hours, day and night, never appearing without them, at least in public. Though no one had the faintest clue about the motivation for this strange behaviour, there were many rumours in circulation: his eyesight had been compromised by an accident in his youth; that he was quite blind and you could see the entire universe if you looked into his hollow cornea; that there were black fires in there to burn your soul.
“It helps with surveillance,” said Tim. “With these glasses, he can look at people without them knowing that he is looking at them. Keeps them on their toes.”
“Surely, he can’t keep looking at everyone all the time,” I said.
“Of course not, and one doesn’t need to,” said Tim. “You should know this as a police officer. The idea of surveillance is not actually to keep looking at people, but to make them feel like they are being looked at. That keeps almost everyone in line.”
We were sitting in the police jeep. I had parked it at the seven-point crossing of Park Circus. We were waiting for the Vasant Sena procession that was headed this way.
Vasant Sena has been taking out the annual procession at least since 1977, when the ban on them was lifted. What? Yes, they were banned at the start of the Emergency. Anyway, over the years, as the support base of the Sena expanded, the size of the procession also grew. For the police, this was a worrying development as the Vasant Sena members had grown more and more troublesome with the increase in numbers.
Every year on this date, hundreds of Sena fanatics, doped on devotion, would pour out on the streets, feeling entitled to their celebrations. Many would be armed with rods and sticks and tridents. All of them were happy to die for their guru. How were we expected to keep them in check?
This was not a regular political rally where most people turned up for the boxes of biryani they would get after spending a few hours listening to vapid speeches by one politician or the other. Followers of Yogi Premananda were drunk on rapture. Their skirmishes with the police had grown more and more frequent over the years.
“You guys can do nothing about it,” said Tim.
“What do you mean?”
Tim lit a cigarette and stared out at the road. It was eerily empty. Over the static of my walkie-talkie, I could hear the cymbals and drumbeats of the approaching procession. It made me a little breathless; the muscles in my stomach contracted.
We had been sitting in the jeep, smoking one cigarette after another, for nearly two hours now. I had been assigned this duty by Ashutosh. He was initially very angry with me because of my disappearing act, but afterwards, when we compared notes, he had grown more and more excited. This was because something he seemed to have deduced on his own was also seemingly confirmed by the information I had managed to glean from Tim.
The Kiwi had come with me out of journalistic curiosity, and I was glad to have him. But now, he was making me impatient with his silence.
“Well?” I said.
“Your approach is all wrong.” Tim passed me his cigarette. “You respond to violence with counter-violence. You think the constable’s stick, if wielded effectively, can restore order in the streets.”
“It is mostly quite effective,” I said.
“Yes, but not in this case.”
I passed the cigarette back to him and waited for him to continue.
“The rule of the stick works very well when all parties are working within the limits of reason,” he said. “It is reasonable to fear the stick and fall in line. But what if someone was outside reason?”
All this philosophising was very frustrating. “We know all this,” I said. “The Vasant Sena members – at least most of them – have no reason at all. They are crazy. What we try to do is beat some into them.”
Tim looked at me and smiled. “But do you know what it is that drives them?”
“Love! But it is the same thing.”
A sudden burst of trumpets over the walkie-talkie interrupted our conversation.
“What do you mean?” I said, after the noise had abated.
The journalist put his hand on my thigh. “Love is difficult to discipline,” he said, “you cannot beat it into reason.”
“You are telling me that love is madness?”
“Exactly.” Tim chucked the cigarette butt out of the jeep. “If you respond to their madness with violence, everything will spin out of control.”
I was going to ask Tim to expand on this, but he didn’t let me. “Look, here they come,” he said, pointing to the procession that was now within our sight.
The first thing we saw was the chariot. It wasn’t really a chariot but a medium-sized truck that had been refashioned and decorated to look like the ornamental and historically inaccurate chariots of the mythological heroes in Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra TV epics.
It had a large cardboard umbrella, a cardboard quiver full of cardboard arrows, and even a dozen cardboard horses, their front legs up in the air. The truck, however, was driven not by a horse but a trusted driver. He maintained a pace that was neither too fast nor too slow. As it came nearer, we saw the Yogi in the chariot. He was not wearing his usual saffron gown, but a red one, covering him from neck to toe. He also had a monk’s cap of the same colour and a pair of maroon shades. Around his neck was a thick garland of red hibiscus.
Premananda’s hands were high above his head, as he greeted the onlookers, millions of whom appeared suddenly on the pavements, on balconies and rooftops to catch a glimpse of him. The relentless midday heat seemed to bother them very little, though most of them were probably hiding indoors or in the shade till now. As they saw the Yogi, the people cheered and cried his name, invoking him to bless them. If they had not been held back by the police barricades, some of them would have gladly jumped in front of his juggernaut.
On the chariot with him were his bodyguards, a gang of twenty six-feet-tall Caucasian women. They wore brown uniforms and carried automatic rifles. According to information we had managed to gather, all of them were supplied to Vasant Sena by a Soviet company that provided mercenary military services. Some of the Yogi’s guards had also reportedly served in Afghanistan.
At times, the chariot would go too far ahead and would be forced to wait for the mass of Vasant Sena devotees following it. While waiting, the Yogi would stand, arms crossed over his chest and an impatient look on his face. He was a man in a hurry to get somewhere but he also knew that there was no point in getting there alone.
Behind him was the riotous, tumultuous approach of the crowd. First came the musicians and the dancers, rushing ahead, relentlessly beating their drums and cymbals and blowing their trumpets. They made no music, but a lot of disorienting, confounding noise, like the roar of a distant ocean. The dancers were hysterical and uncoordinated. Many among them were not Indians at all, but Caucasians, hippies. The men were mostly bare-bodied, wearing only dhotis. The women had pleated their saris in a manner that allowed vigorous movement. I suspected that the vigour was fuelled, at least in part, by hallucinogens. The police escort with them could barely contain them or keep pace.
Next came Yogi Premananda’s private militia. According to intelligence reports, it was 20,000 strong, armed to the teeth with latest weapons including automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles, sniper rifles, and revolvers.
Their most invincible weapon, however, was an unwavering faith in their guru. On the day of the rally, they did not carry any arms, nor did they come out in full strength. About 500 of them — tall, well-built men in khaki uniforms — arranged according to rank, down the road in grim silence. The final column of the procession was a far less disciplined group. They carried firearms and were occasionally shooting in the air. The police escort bringing up the rear of the procession seemed to have little inclination to take any preventive action against them. They just hurried them along.
When the procession had passed, a strange silence descended on the streets. One could hear the ceremonial flags fluttering in the wind. A murder of crows had set up an orchestra from atop lampposts.
I put down the pair of binoculars through which I had been observing the procession and found that Tim’s hand was still on my thigh. It had only moved closer to my crotch.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“What?” Tim’s face was the epitome of innocence.
“Remove your hand.”
The sternness in my voice was also playacting; I felt deep erotic stirrings at the bottom of my stomach.
Tim did not obey my command. Instead, he said, “Why? You don’t like it?”
“You are crazy.”
“I think we have already established that love is crazy.”
“You love me?” My voice was dry, uncertain.
Bringing his face so close to mine that I could smell the tobacco on his breath, Tim Taylor said to me: “No, it is the lust I feel for your uniform.”
“Get away from me.” I pushed his strong shoulders with my hands. He threw back his head of dirty blonde hair and laughed.
“You know what they are going to do with us if they find out?” I said.
“You are the police.”
“I mean my bosses.”
“What will they do?”
“I don’t know. Throw us into jail for being perverts.”
“Perverts? That’s a bit too much.”
“This is not New Zealand. It’s illegal here.”
He smiled again; his hand returned to my thigh. “Well, if they do lock us up, I hope it is solitary confinement – only you and me.”
“Do you know what I will do to you when we get back to the hotel? I’ll use your handcuffs to restrain you to the bedpost and fuck you while you are still wearing that uniform.”
With that, he lit a cigarette, jumped off the jeep, and walked away at a brisk pace in the direction of the procession. I kept sitting behind the steering wheel, utterly, helplessly, breathless.
Excerpted with permission from Ritual, Uttaran Das Gupta, Pan Macmillan.