Chapter 1: A Murder
THE GANGES, the great river sacred to Hindus, emerges from the snowy mountains of the Himalayas and flows through the rich provinces of Kashmir, Delhi, Agra, Benares, Patna and Bengal, giving life to some of the most populous cities in India. Three hundred miles from the sea, it divides in two, forming within its branches a vast delta unique to the world.
A multitude of streams emanate from those imposing arms; large and small canals crisscross an immense tract of land bounded by the Bay of Bengal, creating an infinite number of islands, islets and sandbanks, known to the world as the Sundarbans.
No place is stranger, more desolate or more frightening than the Sundarbans. No cities, no villages, no huts or hovels; endless jungles of thorny bamboo stretch from north to south, east to west, the tops of their tall stems swaying in the wind among a deadly miasma rising from the rotting foliage and human corpses set adrift upstream in the Ganges.
By day, a dismal silence reigns supreme, unnerving even the bravest of souls, but once darkness descends, the air fills with a frightening cacophony of howls, roars, and hisses that make the blood run cold.
Ask a Bengali to set foot in the Sundarbans and he will refuse; an offer of a hundred, two hundred, five hundred rupees, will not sway him. Ask a Molanghi and he will refuse just as adamantly, as to set foot in those jungles is to ask for death.
A thousand dangers lurk beneath the foliage among the mire and sallow waters. Large and ancient crocodiles patiently await their prey, hiding by ponds and riverbanks; tigers stalk passing boats, ready to pounce upon the first sailor that strays too close to shore. Rhinoceroses roam and attack at the slightest provocation; snakes abound in infinite varieties, from tiny poisonous serpents to enormous pythons large enough to grind an ox within their coils. But perhaps the deadliest threat are the Indian Thugs, men that skulk in the shadows, searching for victims to strangle and sacrifice to quell their goddess’ thirst for blood.
And yet, despite these dangers, on the evening of May l6, l851, a large fire blazed in the southern part of the Sundarbans, about four hundred paces from the three mouths of the Mangal, a wide-banked, muddy-watered branch of the Ganges that empties into the Bay of Bengal.
The flames shone brightly against the dark sky, illuminating a large bamboo hut before which slept a man wrapped in a large dupatta, a cape made from coarse cloth. He was a handsome Bengali, about thirty years of age, with muscular limbs and dark bronze skin. Three horizontal lines of ash streaked his brow, marking him as one of Shiva’s devotees.
Though he slept, his dreams must have been troubling, for he frowned at times, and his forehead beaded with perspiration. His strong chest heaved against his dupatta, as mumbled whispers escaped his lips.
“It’s almost time,” he smiled. “The sun is setting, the peacocks have fallen silent, the marabous have flown off… a jackal cries… Where is she? Why isn’t she here?… What have I done? Isn’t this the place?… Come, sweet vision… I long to see you… I must see you… even if only for a minute…
“Ah, there she is, there she is!… Looking at me with those dark eyes, a smile on her lips… Such a beautiful smile! Divine vision, why do you stand before me in silence?… Why do you look at me so?… Don’t be afraid; I am Tremal-Naik, Hunter of the Black Jungle. Speak, let me hear your sweet voice… the sun is setting, it’s growing dark… No! Don’t go! Don’t go! Please!”
Suddenly the Bengali let out a sharp cry, his face twisted in anguish.
Drawn by the noise, a second Indian ran out of the hut, a shorter agile man with strong powerful legs. His proud bearing, dark eyes, earrings and the languti about his thighs, indicated he was a Maratha, a warrior from a tribe in Western India.
“Poor master!” he muttered, studying Tremal-Naik. “Another nightmare!”
He stirred the fire then sat down beside the hunter, taking up a fan of peacock feathers.
“What a mystery!” mumbled the sleeping man. “Is that blood!?! Are those nooses? Run, sweet vision, run… it isn’t safe!”
“Blood, visions, nooses?” muttered the Maratha, surprised. “What a dream!”
Suddenly the hunter opened his eyes and sat upright.
“No, no!” he exclaimed, “Don’t…!”
The Maratha looked closely at him.
“A bad dream, master?” he said, a note of compassion in his voice.
The Bengali closed his eyes, opened them once again and fixed them upon the Maratha.
“Ah, it’s you, Kammamuri!” he exclaimed.
“Watching over me?”
“And keeping the flies away.”
Tremal-Naik took a deep breath and wiped his brow.
“Where are Hurti and Aghur?” he asked.
“In the jungle. They found some tiger tracks last night and went off in search of it this morning.”
“Ah!” Tremal-Naik replied dully.
He sighed heavily and frowned.
“What troubles you, master?” asked Kammamuri. “You seem ill.”
“Nothing, I’m fine.”
“You were talking in your sleep.”
“Yes, master, you spoke of a strange vision.”
A bitter smile spread across the hunter’s lips.
“I’m suffering, Kammamuri,” he said angrily. “I’m suffering terribly.”
“I know, master. I’ve been watching you for the past sixteen days. You’ve grown melancholy, taciturn, and yet not so long ago you were not like this.”
“Have you grown tired of the jungle?”
“Of course not, Kammamuri. This is where I was born and raised; this is where I’ll die.”
“Well then? What’s caused this sudden change?”
“A woman, a vision, a spirit!”
“A woman!” Kammamuri exclaimed in surprise. “A woman?”
Tremal-Naik nodded then pressed his brow as if to stifle a disturbing thought. Silence fell between the two men, broken only by the murmur of the stream and the cries of the wind.
“Where did you see this woman?” asked the Maratha after a few minutes had passed.
“In the jungle,” Tremal-Naik replied darkly. “I’ll never forget that night, Kammamuri! I was hunting for snakes along the bank of a stream when a vision appeared just twenty paces from me, among a thicket of blood-red mussaenda. She was radiant, superb. I never thought the gods could create such beauty. She had large dark eyes, fair skin, and long black hair.
“She stared at me for a moment, sighed sadly, and vanished. Stunned, I stood there, unable to move. Once the shock had faded, I went to look for her, but it had grown dark and she was nowhere to be found. Was she an apparition? A woman or some kind of spirit? I’m still not certain.”
Tremal-Naik fell silent. He was shaking visibly and Kammamuri wondered if his master had been taken with fever.
“That vision affected me deeply,” Tremal-Naik added angrily. “A strange feeling took hold of me, as if I’d been bewitched. Since that day, I see her everywhere, dancing before me in the jungle, swimming before the bow of my boat when I’m on the river; my thoughts always turn to her; she appears in all my dreams. I think I’m going mad…”
“You’re scaring me, master,” said the Maratha, looking about nervously.
“Who was she?”
“I don’t know, Kammamuri. She was beautiful though, very beautiful,” Tremal-Naik exclaimed passionately.
“And you’ve never seen her again?”
“I’ve seen her several times. I returned to that stream at the same hour the following night. When the moon rose over the forest, that divine apparition appeared amongst the mussaenda bushes once again.
“‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘Ada’, she replied. Then she sighed sadly and disappeared, as she had the first night, as if the ground just swallowed her up without warning.”
“Ada?” exclaimed Kammamuri. “What kind of name is that?”
“Not an Indian one.”
“That’s all she said?”
“It is so strange; I would never have returned.”
“Yet, I did. A powerful force kept drawing me towards that place; I tried to resist it several times, but no matter what I did, I always went back. It was as if I’d been bewitched.”
“How did you feel in her presence?”
“My heart beat wildly.”
“And you’ve never felt like that before?”
“Never,” said Tremal-Naik.
“Do you still see her?”
“No, Kammamuri. She appeared for several nights, always at the same time, always in the same mysterious way. She would look at me in silence then disappear without a sound. Once, I waved to her, but she did not move; another time I tried to speak, but she put a finger to her lips and signalled me to be silent.”
“You never followed her?”
“Never, Kammamuri, that woman frightens me. Fifteen days ago, she appeared dressed in a red silk sari and remained longer than usual. The next night I waited for her again; I called out to her several times, but to no avail; I never saw her again.”
“A strange adventure to be sure,” mumbled Kammamuri.
“It’s terrible,” Tremal-Naik continued hoarsely. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, it’s like I have a fever; I long to see her once again.”
“I think I understand your problem, master.”
“You’re in love.”
Several sharp notes sounded from near the vast swamp south of the hut. The Maratha shot to his feet.
“A ramsinga! ” he exclaimed, terrified.
“What of it?” asked Tremal-Naik.
“It heralds misfortune, master.”
“The only other time I’ve ever heard a ramsinga sound in the jungle was on the night poor Tamul was murdered.”
The hunter frowned at that sudden recollection.
“Don’t worry,” he said, forcing himself to appear calm. “Playing the ramsinga is a common skill; you know the odd hunter ventures into the jungle from time to time.”
He had just finished speaking, when they heard a bark followed by a roar.
Kammamuri shook from head to toe.
“Master!” he exclaimed. “Did you hear that? There’s trouble nearby.”
“Darma! Punthy!” yelled Tremal-Naik.
A superb Bengal tiger came out of the hut and fixed her eyes upon her master. She was followed by a black dog with sharp ears and a long tail wearing a large collar bristling with metal thorns.
“Darma! Punthy!” repeated Tremal-Naik.
The tiger grunted then leaped and landed at her master’s feet.
“What is it, Darma?” he asked, gently stroking the great feline’s back. “You seem uneasy.”
Instead of running to his master, the dog pointed his nose towards the south, sniffed the air and barked three times.
“Could something have happened to Hurti and Aghur?” the hunter mumbled uneasily.
“I fear so, master,” said Kammamuri, eyeing the jungle nervously. “They should have returned by now.”
“Did you hear any shots during the day?”
“Yes, a few in the middle of the afternoon, then nothing more.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Have you seen anyone suspicious roaming about the jungle?”
“No, but Hurti told me that one night he spotted several shadows lurking about the shores of the island of Rajmangal, and then Aghur reported hearing strange sounds emanating from inside the sacred banyan tree.”
“From inside the banyan tree!” exclaimed Tremal-Naik. “And you haven’t heard or seen anything?”
“No, nothing. What are we going to do, master?”
“There’s not much we can do. Best we wait here.”
“But they could be—”
“Shh!” said Tremal-Naik, squeezing Kammamuri’s arm tightly.
“What is it?” the Maratha whispered uneasily.
“Look over there; something’s moving among the bamboo.”
“Someone’s coming, master.”
Punthy whimpered a third time as more sharp notes from the ramsinga filled the air. Tremal-Naik drew a pistol from his belt and quickly loaded it. Suddenly a tall man dressed in a dhoti and armed with an axe, rushed out from among the bamboo and ran towards the hut at full speed.
“Aghur!” Tremal-Naik and Kammamuri exclaimed simultaneously.
Punthy ran towards the man, howling sadly.
He reached the hut in a flash. Eyes bulging, limbs trembling, he moaned softly and collapsed among the grass.
Tremal-Naik immediately rushed to his side and cried out in surprise.
The Indian appeared to be on the verge of death. Numerous cuts lined his blood-streaked face and his lips were covered in bloody foam; he looked about wildly, panting heavily.
“Aghur!” exclaimed Tremal-Naik. “What happened to you!?! Where’s Hurti?”
At the sound of his companion’s name, Aghur’s face twisted in fear. He tore at the ground, clawing up the dirt around him.
“Ma… ster… ma… ster,” he stammered, deeply terrified.
“I’m… suff… occ… I… ran… ma…ster!”
“He’s been poisoned,” whispered Kammamuri.
“No,” said Tremal-Naik. “The poor devil ran here at full speed, he’s just winded; he’ll be fine in a few minutes.”
As the hunter had predicted, Aghur grew calmer as he caught his breath.
“Now tell me what happened,” said Tremal-Naik, once the Indian had rested. “Why did you come back alone? Why are you so afraid? Where’s Hurti?”
“Master!” the Indian mumbled with a shudder. “What a tragedy!”
“I knew that ramsinga was a bad omen,” sighed Kammamuri.
“Continue, Aghur,” urged the hunter.
“If only you’d seen the poor wretch… I found him lying on the ground, as stiff as a board, his eyes wrenched from their sockets…”
“Hurti’s been killed!” exclaimed Tremal-Naik.
“I found his body at the foot of the sacred banyan tree.”
“But who could have done this? And why?”
“I do not know, master.”
“We must avenge him! Start from the beginning; tell me everything.”
“We’d set off to look for the tiger and spotted the beast in the jungle about six miles from here. It had been injured by a blast from Hurti’s carbine and was heading south, trying to escape. We tracked it for four hours and came upon it once again near the shore, not far from the island of Rajmangal; however, before we could kill it, it spotted us, leaped into the water, swam to the island and hid somewhere beneath the great banyan tree.”
“I wanted to return to camp, but Hurti refused. He said the tiger had already been injured and was easy prey so we swam to the island then split up to go look for it.”
The Indian stopped. He had turned pale with fear.
“Night had begun to fall,” he continued gloomily. “All fell silent as darkness spread over the jungle. Suddenly, I heard a sharp note from a ramsinga and my eyes met those of a shadow half hidden in a bush just twenty paces from me.”
“A shadow!” exclaimed Tremal-Naik. “A shadow?”
“Yes, master, a shadow.”
“Who was it? Tell me, Aghur, tell me!”
“Yes, I’m almost certain it was a woman.”
“It was too dark to tell.”
Tremal-Naik put a hand to his brow.
“A shadow!” he repeated several times. “A shadow on the island! Continue, Aghur.”
“It looked at me in silence, then raised an arm and gestured for me to go. Surprised and scared, I obeyed, but I had not gone more than a hundred paces when a cry of agony reached my ears. I recognized the voice immediately: it was Hurti.”
“And the shadow?” Tremal-Naik asked excitedly.
“I didn’t turn to see what had become of it. I ran through the forest, carbine in hand, and soon reached the great banyan tree. Poor Hurti was at the base of it, lying on his back. I called his name, but he did not respond; I touched his arm, he was warm, but he had no pulse!”
“Are you certain?”
“Where had he been hit?”
“There was no wound on his body.”
“Yet, that’s how it was.”
“And you didn’t see anyone?”
“Not a soul and I did not hear a sound. Frightened, I dropped my carbine, jumped into the river and swam back as quickly as I could. Once ashore, I raced back towards our hut, never once looking back, never once stopping to take a breath! Oh, poor Hurti!”