The Red Ring

We listened to the words of that stout man, feeling lost with context of time and space.

The Red Ring
Photo by Syed F Hashemi / Unsplash

by Maheshwar Narayan Sinha

We often used to come out of the school campus after finishing our lunch-meal during the day break. In fact, we had a government school and the school campus, as seen in today's public schools, was missing. Literally, our campus was our class-room only, and it was so long as the teacher was present in the class.

That day we also turned towards the main road. It was certain that there would be something present to entertain us. To change the taste of the mouth, Golgappas, native sweets, peanuts, and ice creams would be present as usual. There was an SBI bank adjacent to the school compound and the bus stand in front. Rather, it would be more correct to say bus stoppages; buses would stop and leave for their destination for a few minutes. There were two or four dense trees nearby, in that small space, items of entertainment would run. Entertainment in our views, for them, it was a means of subsistence. Often, the people selling indigenous medicines would attract their crowd by putting pictures of wrestlers and macho men. When a good crowd had gathered, Vaidya (one who knows about herbs and medicines) would itemize the benefits of his medicines. There was magic in his speech. Once we would come within his sphere, then time would stop running. Even though there was nothing for us to do. On the way to the factory, the workers would stop holding their cycles. This was their lunch time as well. Often the crowd would become so dense that even a corner could not be found to peep into.

We used to have a lot of fun when we got to see the game of Madaari (a man usually shows games with animals) waving snakes, monkeys, or similar magic. Then we would forget the three post-lunch periods and the factory workers their duty!

The display of that day was different. We made our place around the circle of the crowd when the gathering was less. We occupied our seats far ahead to view everything clearly. They were two people. Motorbike, Enfield Bullet – I remember it very well. This man was stout and the one with him was thin. That lean fellow was in a black shirt, in black pant. For some time both kept on taking round the crowd. The stout man opened his briefcase; put the bullet bike on the stand in the midst of the crowd. In no time the man in the black shirt-paint lay down on the bike. He looked comfortable. The stout man, who appeared to be strong in gait, body language, confident in himself, began to address the people. The crowd had gathered quite a bit. He started making a circle, addressing the people by moving around the bullet. Then we didn't realize it at all, but by making his man sit in the middle of the crowd, he started hypnotizing him like a master. What was the meaning of his words, today I do not remember anything. Maybe even at that time I could not get any meaning, just as usual, we used to be part of the crowd for the display or game. Yes, for children like us, it all was a game. I think it was the same with most of us.

There was definitely no meaning in his words. There was a great passion in him. All his gestures, postures and activities happening in that circle would arouse curiosity in us. Thrilled us. Our feet stopped. We listened to the words of that stout man, feeling lost with context of time and space. However, his words were meaningless and had made us dead. Magic ! Hypnosis! We had just stayed there.

It was not known to us when the crowd had gathered. All his talk had a meaning that he had something which was powerful. He was talking about people's sorrows, pain, diseases, desires, success, love, children, etc. He had something that a person could get the success he wished for. He was trying to tell us not the power of his magic thing, but the charismatic power which he got. He appeared there for the salvation of the people that said, for us.

We had forgotten everything: where my feet were, the teacher’s sticks, and even the world around the crowd. Frequent buses whistled in the bus stoppage, the sound of a siren announcing the end of lunch time at 2:30 PM. The chirping of birds coming from the dense trees nearby! Everything! Then there were only two things in our existence - one that stout man and the other, his thin man in black robe sitting on a bullet-bike, who was now completely covered in black sheet. Some red magic thing was kept in his hand.

The whole crowd was listening to him in awe. In a display of great passion and enthusiasm, the stout man went to a good man in the crowd and stopped. Taking out the note from his pocket, hid it in his fist and asked his Shargid (disciple), that his fellow man almost stretched out on the bike.

"Tell me what's in my hand...?"

There was silence for a while. People were in silence. It was really a miracle. Eyes closed, face hidden in a sheet - will he be able to tell!

"There is money,” said the person with the black sheet who was still stretched on the bike. His master asked by shuffling around a corner of the crowd, "How much money?"

Then silence. The crowd was engrossed in this wonder, the whole world had forgotten.

"It's a note of two rupees!”  He shouted.

The master opened his closed fist and showed it to everyone. Amazing! It was a red note of two rupees only. Correct. Absolutely right.

He waved the note in the air with double zeal and started circling the crowd.

"Tell me what the number of this note is?"

After thinking for a while, that black robed Shargid once again told the correct note number. The master investigated it. He went among the viewers, showed them -- "Look, the two rupee note which number was told exactly. Be at ease."

Wonder! Wonder! This was charisma!

Magic was in our heads. He further said, "Do you know where you get this power? Just because of this stone. This red colored stone! This stone is rare and this is the charisma of nature. Grace pours down so it is available to him due to the grace of God! It is not for sale, no, it will be an insult to the absolute Master, the magical effect of this stone will go away if sold. It's free. This is the order of that Supreme. It ought to be spread to the world. Take away people's grievances and sorrow and not their money. Now fulfill your wishes. This is that miraculous stone!”

Saying this he opened his leather briefcase which was full of red rings. Filling his palm, he started distributing the ring among the people. He said, "Rings for five rupees only! Only five rupees! No money for red stone.”

The red ring sold out very quickly. Immediately. I don't know what I would do if I had five rupees in my pocket. Five rupees? In those days we used to eat five Golgappas for five paisa. Five rupees was a dream for us.

Harivansh - a neighbor of mine, was standing right next to me since the beginning of the game. He also took out five rupees and bought the ring. I used to call Harivansh Tau, which means uncle. He was a college going man, then. I also looked closely at the ring. Red stone and white ring! No, then I was not of age to differentiate between silver or copper. I had just heard of silver and gold.

I can say with certainty, whoever in the crowd who had at least five rupees, they bought the ring. Now I think how you would define that wonder market. There were no ads, no brands! But amazing results! Absolutely magical!

But the next scene of this show was captivating and painful, at least for the stocky master and his thin disciple. Really, it would so happen, hardly any of us would’ve ever imagined then!

Suddenly a fat, gross person appeared out of the crowd. His voice silenced everyone.

"Can you tell me what's in my hand?"

His voice was loud. Very high!

''Yes! I am asking your Shagird. Tell me what's in my clenched fist?

People came in silence. What was it! After all, what's going on! Until now we were witnessing the miracle of the Ring. The charisma of that red stone. There wasn’t a doubt in people's minds. But it just woke everyone up, like a ruthless alarm clock! Or like the brave one who blows the whistle of “Be Awake- Jaagte Raho”.

Stay awake. Attention! Alarm! Beware!

Sometimes the meaning of words extends to the other end of the universe. Then, I was a failure student of class VI, who used to get a total of five marks in mathematics just because my answer-sheet used to be clean, which means a total blank. 5 marks for cleanliness! Would such a student then know the meaning of those words?

That fat man disturbed our sleep. We were all flying in the sky of dreams. We had magical powers. We were flying in the air and walking over a river.

Clearly, the Master retaliated strongly to this unexpected situation.  He began stumbling. “This is not like that… it is like this…. It is this, it is that… but not 'this' and not 'that'… but this one….” And, so on and so forth…!

But these arguments went in vain. This fat man did not come here to peel the grass. His liver was steely and started playing like a heavy stone on the master's head. "You're bullshit! When you can take money out of someone's pocket and tell how much note is there, what is its number, then why not tell what is in my fist?”

It was a different kind of scene, we had never seen this happen. Absolutely unimaginable. It was possible that neither the mob, nor this master, nor his father or his forefather would have thought so to be happening.

The black robed man was still sitting on the bike, Enfield Bullet, leaned forward a bit now.

"Watch..." That's all he said.

The attention of all of us was drawn towards that black shadow. I saw the muscular master, who was trying to handle the wrath of the fat man's words, looked at his disciple, the thin man, somewhat surprised!

We were all surprised. The fatty’s clenched fist held a watch. He released the watch, threw it like a ball in the air and said, "What type of watch is this and what is the time?"

We understood that he did not come down to lose the ground, he had come down to play and win the match.

There was a wrist watch in his closed fist – that's right, but how did that Shargid come to know from inside the black sheet! For a while we were amazed. But that fat man did not give us a chance to be more surprised and kept on tossing his question in the sky along with the clock, catching himself. Tossed, kept catching.

"When you can tell the exact number of the note and how much rupees, it’s without seeing that the note is kept in the pocket, then why not the name of the company and the number of my watch?"

The master had got a sip of water to moisten his dry throat, he again began to throw words of “this and that” in a loud voice - “Same as, almost as, just now, a little while ago, exactly what he did – his postures, his language, his voice was saying something like this – look! Does not happen like this. That's how it happens. It's there, not 'that'. It is so, but not like that. It's not him. If not but. Jam is not jam.”

And so on and so forth!

Some moments passed like this. Many in the crowd must have thought that the disciple would tell the number of the watch and the name of the company, but he remained silent almost like a black idol.

The fat man said more powerfully, "Beware! Just pack up your sack-bed and return people's money. Right now. Otherwise, I will call the police and fuck you here in front of everyone and I will do that just unforgettable…!  You will forget the jewels and rings forever. Get lost!”  The fat man tied the watch to his wrist. In those days it was mostly leather belts, but I remember very well he was wearing a steel chain.

The master understood that he was busted. Quietly get out of here - that's good. The speed, with which his ring was sold hand-in-hand, was also returned with the same speed. He immediately returned the money to everyone and people with his red rings.

In a few minutes this show was over. All the rings were packed in the same leather briefcase. Then he removed the black sheet from the head of his disciple, still sitting silent. The black-robed Shargid stood up. He bowed his head, stealing his eyes from the crowd. We all saw it - as if he had woken up from a deep sleep, from a very deep sleep, his eyes twinkled.

Now some noises started coming from the crowd, the silence had broken. The show that we were just watching with so much amazement, we started thinking about time and space. The setting sun’s rays were falling on our faces. The school hour was also about to finish and we started hearing the sound of buses and the whistles of the helpers from the bus stop.

The two men took their briefcase, started the bike, and the crowd gave them a respectful farewell. Respectfully given the way. Until he left, I was surprised that no one asked any question except that one. While selling things or returning things, only people obeyed. Silently! Without any question or doubt!

No! It was not that no one disobeyed orders. I saw that our neighbor Harivansh Tau had hidden the ring he had bought in his pocket. He had not returned it.

Why? I had a natural curiosity to know. Why didn't he return the ring?

The crowd had dispersed and I started walking towards home with Harivansh Tau. The evening- dropped laborers were returning with us, they would ring the bell and sing some folk songs –

Lachke jab kamariyah saari duniyan hile la…”  When you (she) walk like meandering the entire world shakes…

Along the way, I kept playing around with the ring and trying to muster up the courage to ask him the question - why did you keep the ring, just like a thief! But I kept quiet. I did not have the courage or did not know what the invisible wall of his faith was which I couldn’t cross. Or was it respect for him? He was my neighbor's uncle. Often, on the day of Makar Sankranti, (a festival) he used to offer me dahi-chuda and laddus of laai. Maybe because he would equally share them with me, and I was an ardent fan of those country dishes. Or else, I knew in my mind that such questions would stab his heart. Maybe my mind knew this secret. Can't say exactly now. I could not ask anything about this and came home.

By the time we reached home the sun had set. Children were making a ruckus in the field and in the streets. Some old people were sitting on the foot-path- bench and were smoking tobacco, coughing at times and spitting.

I thought to myself, not now, tomorrow I would come to your house and ask my questions.

The same question kept haunting me till I fell asleep at night. What did Harivansh Tau finally find in that ring, what did he see that he had taken with him? I had almost forgotten about the fat man and the master and his disciple.

The next day came, and the next day after that. Now every day I used to mark my attendance at Harivansh Tau's house. Same question there!

I would imagine that I would look at his ring finger studded with red and white rings and then ask about it. But surprisingly, three days had passed and Harivansh Tau had not yet put on that ring. My curiosity intensified and I began to silently search the shelves of his house, his books-racks, table-drawers or his purse, his shirt-pants pockets, to find out where the ring was. Why did he not wear it? Where had that magic ring disappeared? Or was it all just an illusion of mine, like other people Harvinsh Tau must have returned the ring. But no… all the way, he took out the ring from his pocket and looked at it with great love. I did watch, too and was touched well enough.

No! Not a question of confusion.

The courage to take a clean tail was not entering me from anywhere. Where did that ring go? This new question destroyed all the old questions. Most of my sports and studies were happening at Harivansh Tau's house. My thief’s eyes were desperate to catch his theft and bring it to the front.

We used to talk about all kinds of things, but neither did I ask anything about the ring, nor did he say anything. We did not have a word about the ring and that show. In the meantime, I did enjoy the native fun-sweets made of jaggery, as before with him.

Months had passed. The question had gradually lost its sharpness. One day- the day was over, the evening was near. Then I saw something which I had neither imagined nor my father or my forefather.

Until then my imagination about that ring had gone far, at multiple levels. Many possibilities, many speculations, for example, 'this' must have happened with that ring, might be lost, and that’s why Tau would not wear the ring etc. etc.! But, the reality turned out to be different from all that. And I saw all this with my wide-open- eyes.

In the room of Harivansh Tau, there was a small shrine in one corner. There were pictures of two or four small Gods studded in the frame and a holy book of Ramayana wrapped in red cloth. Here Tau used to chant mantras every morning and evening by showing light sticks. I had seen him many times worshiping. But, I was not surprised at this; I was surprised to see that red stone ring which was kept on that holy Ramayana wrapped in red cloth with great sacredness. And, was being fed the smoke of light sticks, every day.

I was shocked as if my father was dead!

So, this was hell! Yes! So where was I looking for that ring in his pocket and purse?

That one scene answered many of my previous questions, but then a new question came along - what was it all about, and why?

Tau remained completely incomprehensible to me. I used to think at nights, what miraculous happened to Harivansh Tau since the day he got that red ring. It was clear that he was worshiping it. His house, the balconies of the house, walls, doors, windows were all the same. Safe in their place! Harivansh Tau was also safe in his place. Same kurtas, same pajamas, same mustache and same hair style. His stuff was the same. His shoes were the same. Waking up in the morning, I would look at his roof to see if any bird had laid golden eggs. Or did it rain that silver? I couldn't see anything there except the dried leaves on the roof. However, sometimes crows could be seen caving in and out on the balcony. I was still waiting for some miracle. Far more than Harivansh Tau had imagined to be. Miracles are only a moment's notion of knowing when it will happen.

But, years passed. I slowly forgot about these things. But yes, I didn't know why we never talked about this at any time. Neither did I ask any question, nor did anything happen from his side and one day Harivansh Tau went somewhere far away for higher education, probably Delhi. Neighbors used to say that he had to become a higher officer.  We also got a new quarter from the factory in some other colony. I grew young from a child and now have retired from my job. All the things of my childhood have almost disappeared from memory.

Once, while reading something somewhere, suddenly all the memories of Harivansh Tau became fresh in my mind. I read somewhere that solid trust is called faith. It doesn’t matter whether God exists or not. But it matters when you’ve faith.  Where is God without faith?

Faith! God!

It seemed as if all the childhood questions had been answered in those lines. Answers to all the questions generated through Harivansh Tau! I have seen unwavering faith in him! Yes. That's his ring. That was his worship spirit. Even if a miracle happened or not!

For me, it was nothing short of a miracle. Yes! I found the answers to the unanswered questions of my childhood! That's all right. Yes!

I gleamed with enthusiasm as if I had found a treasure hidden from the endless universe. Highlighted those lines of the book.

Faith! God! Unwavering faith!

Yes. That one line brought those scenes alive within me again. The red ring, the stout master and the thin man sitting in black robes and that fat steely man… That watch bouncing in the air! I started remembering everything.

That jumping watch… that watch explained a wonderful thing. It told us how a stone becomes God in an instant. It also told us how at the very second moment God can turn into stone again.

But that moment was silent about Harivansh Tau – what was it – unwavering faith or unwavering superstition?

I don’t know.

Maheshwar N. Sinha, a graduate (Arts) from St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi, Jharkhand, India- writes both in Hindi and English. More than 50 short stories have been published in Hindi literary magazines and anthologies including a novel. His works of English language (short stories, articles, interview) have been too published in journals like Lalitamba, Hitavada, CLRI (print and online), ShabdAaweg Review and other online platforms. Also a Self taught Artist, participated in solo and joint art exhibition in the country, and across like, Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Ranchi, Dubai, South Korea, Austria, London and Venice. His artworks have been published in national and international journals like Palooka, Cezanne’s Carrot (cover art), DVQ, DeJonDe Magazine, Arthole and Folio, Lemonsprouting, Zoetic Press, Rulerless, Typehouse, Ripe Lit. R., GFT press, Newfound to name a few. Recently awarded for his efforts to spread art and literature by Nisha Foundation, New Delhi in Parliament of India and approved by Government of India, a chapbook ( released on 5-20- 2022 by ShabdAaweg E-Press in English.  Recently, he has finished a Y/A literary novel and working on short stories, in English, as well. Currently working for C.G. government as a Distt. Excise Officer, lives in Bilaspur, with daughter and wife, Sharmila Sinha.