India Treasures: a sample from the first few pages

The Mangarh Treasure

Rajasthan State, 19 June 1975 C.E.

As Vijay Singh drew nearer to Mangarh, the dread of being exposed as an imposter threatened to overwhelm him. He realized how tightly he clenched the seat’s sticky vinyl, and he forced himself to let go, to shove his hand onto his lap. Thrusting his face out the window of the raiders’ speeding bus, he concentrated on breathing slower and deeper, drawing in the cool, fresh smelling air of dawn.

The dust reddened sun was rising, illuminating a tiny whitewashed temple capping an arid foothill of the Aravalli Range, and a crumbling fort crowning the adjacent ridge. Awakening to another scorching day, children dashed from houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. At the edge of a field bordered by thorn fences, an orange turbaned farmer drew water from a well, his bullock hitched to a rope strung over a big pulley wheel.

Rattling and shaking as if intent on self destruction, the bus was managing to keep up with the jeep. The vehicles hurtled down the potholed highway like a charging cavalry troop, forcing everyone else from the narrow pavement: a line of camels; three bullock carts in a row; a tractor pulling a wagon full of villagers.

At a well sheltered by a neem tree, a young man brushed his teeth with a twig, while another, clad only in a white dhoti, splashed water over his bare chest and legs from a bucket. Vijay had bathed in a similar manner before leaving his village years ago, except that his caste did not have a well of its own, so water had to be carried from a most inconvenient distance. At least that had changed, now that a new well had been dug with the funds he had sent.

Shortly after 6:30 a.m., the bus labored up a grade in the shadow of a barren hill, and the twin towers of the massive medieval gate of Mangarh’s outer defenses appeared. The jeep and the bus both halted.

Vijay again drew several deep breaths, steeling himself, as he waited to be handed the envelope containing the detailed orders.

When he had learned their destination earlier in the morning, he felt as if he were being sent into a war zone where he might be ambushed at any moment with no place to take cover. The raiding party had finished breakfast long before dawn, but several officers still sat drinking chai in the dining room of the government rest house near Ajmer. The warm breeze from the ceiling fan bathed Vijay’s face as he rested his elbows on the table and sipped his chai, savoring the sweetness of the sugar and the milk in the thick mixture.

The kitchen door opened and the elderly, barefoot waiter padded in with a teapot. From behind him came the sounds of clattering dishes and a radio playing a Hindi film song. The old man’s face, lined with cracks like those in the nearby rocky hills, lit with a smile as he approached the table. Vijay always sensed that serving staff and room boys intuitively felt a rapport with him, despite his status as a government official. “More tea, sir?” asked the waiter in the local version of Rajasthani.

Although Vijay was still sluggish from being awakened at 4:30 a.m. after a restless night in a hot room, he returned the smile in an effort to be pleasant. He replied, also in Rajasthani, “Certainly. It was good of you to get up so early just to serve us.”

The creviced face glowed. “It’s my duty, sir.”

That was true, of course, but Vijay knew from his own earlier times when he labored in the fields that a few kind words could lighten a person’s burdens the rest of the day.

After refilling Vijay’s glass, the waiter hurried around the table to Anil Ghosali, who gave an abrupt nod. The old man served Ghosali, then moved to the next table.

Ghosali peered at Vijay from behind the thick lensed eyeglasses. He pulled his S-curved pipe from his lips and said, “We’re a full day out from Delhi, and you don’t know where our raid will be? Even though you are second-in-command?”

Vijay struggled to conceal his irritation. As usual for income tax officers on duty, Ghosali had spoken in English, so Vijay replied in the same. “Our normal practice, isn’t it?”

Ghosali shoved into position some strands of the graying hair worn straight back and pasted to his scalp. He drew on the pipe and let out a puff of smoke. “How else to prevent leaks? Nevertheless, I myself have known for two days where we are going.”

Vijay’s stomach tightened. An opening for another Assistant Director of Income Tax was coming up soon. If he got the promotion, the increased prestige and influence, but especially the added income, would help him considerably in aiding the lower caste people in his home village. Ghosali, a Brahmin originally from West Bengal, a few years older than Vijay’s own thirty-four, was the main competition for the position. Recently Vijay felt Ghosali was watching him carefully, as if hoping to catch him in some major error which could discredit him.

Ghosali often alluded to having connections with “big men” in New Delhi. Could he in fact have found out the target of the raid so far in advance? Vijay hesitated, debating whether to ask the question Ghosali obviously expected. But Ghosali apparently had the advantage this time anyway. Vijay forced out the words: “Would you mind telling me where, then?”

Ghosali shrugged, clearly enjoying his edge. “Can’t you guess? You’re Rajasthani. You’re in your home state now.”

Vijay rotated his chai glass as he considered. Maybe Ghosali really didn’t know. One way to find out. The most likely time for a raid was 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. It was now 5:30. What cities lay an appropriate distance away? Possibly Bhilwara. Maybe Beawar. Or beyond….He thrust the thought from his mind.

“I’ll tell you,” said Ghosali.

Vijay waited.

Ghosali smiled. “Mangarh.”

Vijay stiffened.

With a self-satisfied air, Ghosali thrust his pipe back into his mouth, scooted back his chair, casually stood, and left.

Vijay was scarcely aware of him going. True, Mangarh was the right distance. But he fervently hoped Ghosali was wrong.

Ranjit Singh, immaculate as usual in his tightly wrapped turban and gray European-style suit, returned from the room they had shared and sat in the chair Ghosali had vacated. The tall Sikh looked across the dining room to where Dilip Prasad, Deputy Director of Inspection, was apparently rising to leave. With the DDI were the two retired civil servants recruited as unbiased witnesses to the search. Ranjit glanced at Vijay. “It looks like we’re about ready to go. Have you found out where we’re headed?”

Vijay scowled. “I’m not sure. Ghosali thinks he knows.”

Ranjit raised his eyebrows. “How?”

Vijay shrugged, still annoyed that Ghosali could get the information before himself.

Ranjit asked, “Well, can you tell me where?”

Vijay gulped chai to moisten the dryness in his mouth. “He says Mangarh.”

“Ah, your native place.”

Vijay wagged his head yes.

“So you may have a chance to visit your family.”

Vijay tensed. “Hopefully.”

“And you can inspect the well you paid for.”

Vijay tended to forget he’d confided to Ranjit about the well; no one else in the department knew about the donations to his home village. “Right.”

“Whom are we raiding?”

“Ghosali didn’t say. Maybe he doesn’t know that.”

Ranjit grinned and said with mock seriousness, “And Prasad still hasn’t told you? Even though you’re in charge under him? How could you lead us if one of those monstrous overloaded trucks hits his jeep and he’s killed? You wouldn’t know whom to raid.”

“I suppose I could telephone Delhi and find out.”

“That assumes the phones would be working. You know how unlikely that is.” Ranjit laughed. His high pitched giggle normally amused Vijay, but not this morning.

Vijay sighed. “All right. I’ll ask him.” He drained the last of his tea.

The other officers were shoving back their chairs. Ranjit said, “While you’re talking to the DDI, I’ll go make sure our kits got loaded on the bus.” He stood and strode toward the door.

Vijay’s mind was still on the problems posed if they were indeed headed to Mangarh. He put on his navy blue sportcoat, tugged on the bottom to smooth it, and absently fingered his striped necktie to ensure the knot was centered.

He walked outside into the darkness. The air, scented by the profusion of jasmine in the garden, felt refreshingly cool after the stuffy dining room. Vijay stopped in the driveway while the dozen other raiders in the party crunched across the gravel parking area to the bus.

A jackal howled in the sparse jungle not far away. Vijay peered into the distance. The sun had not yet begun to lighten the horizon, and low in the east the tiny constellation of the Karttikas, the Pleiades, twinkled above the black outlines of the rugged hills. Vijay knew many people might think it odd that he would notice the stars at a time such as this. But he had grown up in a village without electricity, and much of his entertainment at night had involved watching and learning to know the sky. The seasonal shifts of the patterns of the stars had become as familiar to him as the changes in the crops in the fields.

The Deputy Director of Inspection, a small man with a pockmarked face and thinning hair, stood smoking a cigarette near the canvas topped jeep, his dark suit blending into the night. Vijay moved close and asked quietly, “Can you tell me now where we’re headed, sir?” He held his breath.

Dilip Prasad squinted in the faint light at the slender officer with finely sculpted features and black wavy hair. Vijay Singh had been with the Income Tax Department at least ten years. Although he seemed a little overly tense sometimes, he was loyal and honest, almost to the point of being a little naive in Prasad’s opinion. In that sense Vijay was quite unlike Ghosali, whose shrewdness and transparent self-promotion seemed more practical and realistic. But, Prasad thought, one could hardly blame Ghosali for wanting a higher income, burdened as the man was with having to provide dowries for five daughters.

Prasad was mildly amused by the rivalry that had developed between the two men, fueled mainly by Ghosali. It would keep both officers on their toes, pressing hard to show who could achieve the best results in the raid. Prasad knew Ghosali had somehow found out where they were going and was no doubt feeling smug. Maybe it was time to balance the scales a bit. He replied, “We’re going to Mangarh, Vijay. To raid the Maharaja.”

Vijay felt light headed; his heart pounded. So it was true.

And they would be raiding His Highness! He forced himself to concentrate on what Prasad was saying: “That’s one reason you’re in charge under me this time. Since you’re from the area you must know it well. Have you been to the Maharaja’s palace?”

Vijay stood rigid, struggling to think of how best to respond. Although in his earlier years assuming a new identity had seemed the best route to escape the poverty and humiliation of his childhood, it now seemed almost insane to have passed himself off as a Rajput, the high caste of warriors and landlords and princes.

For Vijay came from a family of Untouchable outcastes.

Was there any reason why, if he were indeed a Rajput of the same clan as the Maharaja, he should have visited the palace? Not necessarily. He cleared his throat and said, his voice hoarse, “No, sir, I never went there. My family wasn’t high enough…in the nobility.”

Prasad shrugged. “No matter. There’s a diagram of the building with your instructions. The search should be routine, except for the size of the place. The old fortress is another matter, but Ghosali will lead that part.” He lowered his voice. “Confidentially, Vijay, we have a lot of pressure on us this time. You know of Dev Batra?”

Still trying to decide how to deal with going to Mangarh, Vijay had managed with part of his mind to follow what Prasad was saying. “I’ve heard of him. A cabinet minister?”

“No formal office,” Prasad said. “But he’s in the Prime Minister’s circle. Handles a lot of jobs for the party, and doesn’t pay attention to legalities. Anyway, Batra phoned me, insisting we expedite this raid. Says he wants ‘results.’ As fast as possible.”

Vijay now recalled Anil Ghosali claiming to be acquainted with Batra, who was a crony of Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay. He did not know how to respond. Was Prasad telling him this because he expected him to somehow try even harder than usual in the search? Maybe even stretch the law?

“Still,” Prasad said, “naturally it goes without saying we’ll be strictly legal in everything we do.”

Relieved just a little, Vijay replied, “Of course, sir.”

An example of those legalities was directly in front of them; the two men recruited as panch witnesses, impartial observers of the search, were climbing into the jeep.

Prasad cast down his cigarette, ground it out with his foot, and turned to join them.

Vijay Singh remained unmoving. Although there had always been the remote possibility, he had never considered it likely he would have to go to Mangarh on a case.

He had built his life and his career around a lie. In the huge city of New Delhi, where his chances of meeting anyone previously acquainted with him were minimal, he had succeeded. But exposure was far more likely in the much smaller Mangarh, where so many residents knew him, and he could scarcely bear to think of how disastrous that would be if fellow tax officers were present.