To mountains of the moon
Alvarez survived that night, and partly thanks to Shankar’s care, was on his feet within a couple of weeks. Another week later, he said it was time to move on. Shankar knew what he wanted. He said: Do you remember what you said that night? About the yellow diamond?
The old man had been silent about his past after the first night. In fact, most of the time Alvarez just sat there silently. He replied: You know, it’s not that I haven’t thought about it. But are you brave enough to chase the rainbow?
Shankar: May be I am, may be not. Only one way to find out. If you’re game then I’ll wire the company today to find a replacement for me.
Alvarez: Wire them then. But think about it first. Prospecting more often than not leads to nothing. I know an eighty years old who found nothing — but every time he claimed to have come close. Spent his entire life prospecting Australian deserts and African veldts.
The tale of brave Alvarez
Young man, what’s your age? Twenty-two? When you were just a toddler, back in 1889, that’s when my story begins. I was prospecting for gold beyond the forest and the ranges to the north of the Cape Colony. I was young then, and cared for no danger.
I started from Bulawayo, alone, with two donkeys carrying my luggage. I crossed the Zambezi, beyond which the maps were marked with the words ‘unknown region’. I’d cross rolling hills, tall grasses, small Bantu villages. Then eventually Bantu villages became less frequent. I had reached a place that was never before visited by a white man.
Wherever I saw a river or creek, or a hill, I looked for gold. How many had become rich in the southern part of Africa with gold or diamond? I had heard those tales since when I was a little boy. That’s what I came to Africa for. But I found nothing in two years of roaming around. Two years of hardship, and nothing to show for it. Actually, once I came very close.
Shankar was safe from snakes after that. But he faced another, more mundane, trouble. There wasn’t enough water. What he got from the train was barely enough for drinking, not for a bath. And with the summer heat, the well dried up. Then he was told that about three miles to the east there was a small lake, where the water was drinkable, and the lake even contained fish.
Fishing and a proper bath were incentives enough for Shankar to venture eastwards. He got fishing rods delivered from Mombassa, and a Somali coolie showed him the way. The lake was actually not that small, with tall grasses around it, and a hillock a few yards away. There was a lone baobab tree on the hillock. He enjoyed a long bath and swim — first time in Africa — before fishing for a couple of hours. He caught a lot of small fish. He was looking forward to frying them back at the station. He wanted to stay a lot longer, but duty called.
The black mamba station
It was about 3pm when an excited Shankar arrived at the station. The station ‘office’ was little bigger than a wardrobe. The ‘platform’ was just a barb wired area. Behind the office room was his ‘quarter’, a little bit bigger. After dropping him off, the train left for Kisumu.
There was a train in the morning from Kisumu, and one in the afternoon towards it. There are only two trains a day. It wasn’t much work, he would have a lot of time in his hand. And it didn’t take him long to take charge from his predecessor. The previous stationmaster was a Gujerati man, he spoke English pretty well. He made Shankar tea. There wasn’t much to explain to Shankar. But it appeared that the poor chap didn’t have anyone to talk to for a long while. He was very happy to see Shankar. After a cup of tea, the two walked around the station.
Previously: Shankar escapes the hum drum village life.
In the lion territory
Four months had gone by. It was the end of March.
The railroad runs from Mombassa to Kisumu, which is on the eastern banks of Lake Victoria. This line, or a branch of it, was under construction. The exact place was about 350 miles west of Mombassa, in the province of Nyanza in what is today Kenya. Shankar was the clerk and storekeeper in the construction camp there. He had a small tent of his own. There were many other tents. Indeed, everyone who worked there lived on tents as there was no village or township around. The tents were set in concentric circles in an open field — and the field was open, miles of open grassland, interspersed with trees. Actually, there was a large baobab tree near the tents. Africa’s famous baobab tree, something Shankar had seen many times in books, and now there was one just around the corner.
In this alien land, Shankar thought his dreams of adventure had been realised. At the end of every work day, he would set off to explore — he would just walk — all four directions. In each direction he faced tall grasses, in some places, as tall as him, elsewhere even taller.
The engineer in charge of the site one day told Shankar: Listen Ray, don’t go on a walk like that. Never go anywhere without a gun here. Firstly, you could very easily get lost in this grassland. People die of thirst if they are lost in the savannah. Secondly, East Africa is lion territory. May be they have run away because of our noise here, hell, the hammer blows are annoying enough for me sometimes. But can never trust them. Be very careful. This is a very dangerous land.
One fine afternoon, while everyone was working, there was a sudden yell from the grasses a few tens of yards away. Everyone ran towards the place. Shankar also ran. Everyone searched the place thoroughly. No one was found.
Who yelled then?
It is the early 20th century, well before the Great War engulfed Europe. Our protagonist, an athletic young man of about 20, has just returned to his village from Calcutta after finishing high school. His family expects him to become a clerk in the jute factory nearby, but he dreams of a less mundane life. He gets his wish when an acquaintance arranges a job for him in the East African railway. Thus begins a great adventure that involves man-eating lions, black mamba, volcanic eruption, Kalahari, cannibals, a mysterious apelike creature that doesn’t fear fire and a diamond mine deep in the heart of Africa.
I am talking about Chander Pahar (Mountains of the Moon). Unless you are Bengali, chances are that you’ve never heard of it. It is an adventure novel written by Bibhuti Bhushan Bondopadhyaya, a Bengali writer of the first half of the 20th century whose better known creation is Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). That book is better known because it is the subject of the Satyajit Ray classic Apu trilogy.
Well, anyone who has read Chander Pahar would agree that this book deserves its own Ray. It deserves to be made into a great action adventure movie. A Desi in the early 20th century facing an adventure like this, it has never been done — that kind of thing has so far been the white man’s monopoly. We just need a talented director and an astute producer, and we’ll have the first Bollywood action adventure epic.
And for anyone who hasn’t read this, over the fold is the first chapter translated.