As Girish stepped out of his tent on his way to the mess, a curious odour assailed him, as if some ancient tomb had exhaled its fetid breath from the innards of its bowels. Puzzled, Girish wondered whether he should ask Dr Raman, nicknamed the Devil, who was the leader of the excavation expedition, about it.
But, he soon forgot about it when at the mess entrance Thai, his anthropologist friend, waved to him excitedly.
“Hey, Girish,” he whispered in an conspiratorial tone, “something fishy is going on here. We’ve never been told about it. I went into the Devil’s tent yesterday to get some prism. I snooped around, couldn’t help it. I came across some ancient parchments. Guess what? They are manuscripts about the Thrishumbar dynasty, about torture rites, human sacrifices and a princess wedged into a crevice. I say, man, this is the Thrishumbur city remains we are sitting on!”
Girish laughed, “So what! Old places have old stories. Come, let’s eat this slop, and pretend it’s home food.”
They had dug and scraped and scooped for many months. It was only the Devil who plodded with endless energy. Some whispered that he had many avatars, and that the dedication to this excavation seemed as if one of them must have been in the 16th century to which this Thrishumbar dynasty belonged.
Girish swore under his breath as the chisel slipped and jabbed his finger. He swung the hammber harder. There was a muffled clang.. clang. The Devil’s eyes glinted through sweat and grims, as he said delightedly, “That’s it, that’s it. We are at the mouth of the cavern”. He picked up a large slab that had come apart from the rock. “This is a part of the cavern”, he said with suppressed excitement.
Girish wondered at the strange preoccupied look on the Devil’s face, who oblivious of others was muttering to himself, “destiny.. at last.. at long last”. Curiously, Girish also prised out of pieces. It fitted his palm exactly with its criss-crossing lines. An ominous shiver went through him, and again the strange, mouldy rancidity whiffed across his face.
The evening sun dipped, and the chilly wind began its mourning. But the Devil would not stop. All generators were vibrating, and every man was put to work. It was a long night of tick, tick-tick, till at last the rock began to emit grinding and whirring noises, as if moving on unoiled hinges. It began to rumble. Suddenly with a harsh grating it shattered into a thousand pieces. With the dust and rocks settling down, the team could make out the mouth of the cavern.
Exhausted, the team waited, while the pump went to work to exhaust toxic fumes. The Devil sat cross-legged, his usual immaculate self disarrayed, his eyes wide and trance-like. No one dared approach the grim-faced Devil.
When the sun dipped that evening, he rose, and went about giving orders in a subdued voice. Everyone was astonished. He usually barked orders “What’s with him”, whispered Thai. “What he wishes to discover is probably more visible in the dark,” commented Girish, wryly.
They followed him in silence, slithering in single file, holding on to slippery moss-streaked surfaces. Streams of water dripped ceaselessly onto the cavern’s floor, which looked darkly beneath. An eerie light floated in from the cavern’s mouth, and cast flickering shadows on the walls of the high doomed hall. Almost at once an echo floated around tinkling “eel.. eel.. eel.”
“This is the hall of judgment, the bell has been dislodged,” whispered the Devil, as his light fell on a rough hewn dias. Even before he finished, there was a rumbling vibration. Shocked, their torches showed a wide opening in the middle from which a wheel slowly cranked into appearance. Thai almost fell off his perch and as Girish grappled for a firmer rock, a tiny slab came off in his hand. By the light of his head-torch, he saw a metal piece, which he quickly slipped into his pocket. Simultaneously, the Devil let out a despairing wail, so unearthly that everyone shivered. Again, Girish felt the rancid odour brush across his face.
It was hours, when exhausted with the experience, everyone went back to their tents. Girish took out the metal piece. It was a scarab, but instead of an inscription, etched along its surface was the beautiful lines of a breathtaking woman, who seemed to speak vibratingly from within the mould. In fact, as Girish looked at it closer, it seemed so much like a replica of Geeta, his beautiful fiancée. Astounding indeed! He felt guilty. All finds were to be turned over to the Devil immediately. Only in the Devil’s present mood, something uncanny held him back.
Towards late evening, again there was a surprise. The Devil came out fresh and immaculate. Smilingly, he said, “Congratulations, men, you have done a fine job. It will go down in the archives of historical excavations as one of the finest. But, we still have a great deal of work to do.” He went around shaking hands cordially with everyone. At last he came to Girish. Shaking his hand he said with a smile which did not quite reach his eyes, “Good work.”
Girish approached the Devil’s tent, having tossed and turned all night. He had to get rid of the metal scarab. He stood outside, but from within came a strange mournful chant, and again the horrific whiff of the mouldy dead. He stumbled back to his tent, and decided to freshen up, but as he straightened his mirror, he saw to his horror, that his right palm was black. Ebony black! Try as he might to wash it off, with all the detergents, it wouldn’t go. His palm was red and blistered and he had to bandage it. That night Girish felt strangely groggy. “Psychosomatic”, he thought. “It’s because I’m putting off confession to the Devil.” He dozed off, waking up in fits and starts.
Thai sauntered in. “The Devil’s worried about you. He’s asked me to tell you, he’ll visit you tonight to cheer you.” Girish groaned and only turned his face away. Came late night, the Devil went into Girish’s tent. What transpired, no one knew. The Devil was still sprightly when he came out, and said as they sat around the fire. “He needs a change I think, it will do him good. Shall send him to Udaipur for a check up and rest, can’t have any bright boys falling ill. There’s much to do, but we shall all put our shoulders to the wheel.”
Thai said cheerfully, “Lucky beggar.” He’ll get to see his fiancee, Geeta. She’s a beauty, if ever there is one!”
“Is that so,” commented the Devil, as the fire glinted coldly in his bespectacled eyes.
The team had hoped to see Girish in the morning to wish him good luck. To their dismay, and much to Thai’s chagrin, he was bundled off early morning. The days came and went, there was no news of Girish, and everyone was getting anxious. The Devil, however, appeared in a good mood. He joined them at meals, and narrated several of his works. He was in the midst of telling them about the story of the dynasty, whose remains were being excavated; of how a beautiful princess, Ahilya, fell in love with a sepoy, when she was betrothed to a prince; of how she tried to escape; of how the princess was rescued, and of how her lover was tortured; by the grinding wheels, while she was forcibly made to watch.
Even while he was finishing the story, the weekly van bringing their groceries and much awaited mail arrived. They crowded around the Devil, who routinely did the distribution. The Devil tore open an envelope addressed to him. “Ahe… from Girish’s parents,” he said, and turned away to read it. Everyone waited. The Devil turned around and let out a sigh.
He said shortly, “No use beating about the bush, Girish is dead. His hand turned gangrenous, and it spread. The autopsy said it was a case of unknown infection, perhaps form his hand wound. Strange! We thought it was only a scratch!”
The stunned silence was broken only by Thai’s uncontrollable sobbing, as suddenly the air was filled with a sweet cloying fragrance as if from a perfume bottle, long stoppered.
A jackal howled, as in the dead of the night a shadowy figure came out of a tent. An arm was raised, a small object went whizzing over the far shadows. The moon came out of the clouds, and fell upon an opened tin can, marked, “incredible ink… lasts 72 hours.” The dunes would shift by the morning, and all traces of the can would be buried forever, in the desert sands.