S Venkatesh's 'Kaalkoot' Revives A Forgotten Himalayan Legend In the Backdrop Of India's Freedom Struggle

A plague threatens to wipe out millions in S Venkatesh's 'Kaalkoot'.

January 1944

Near Kausani, Kumaon Division, United Provinces (current Uttarakhand), India

Manohar Rai winced as a dart of pain shot through his wounds. The steep uphill climb had left him gasping for breath, and the suddenness of the departure from the previous hideout made him feel quite disoriented.

But none of this concerned him in the least, consumed as he was by a rapidly rising panic.

The fate of millions rested on his tired shoulders, and he was feeling hopelessly inadequate to the task.

His mood was in stark contrast to the surroundings. The dimly lit hut stood on a hill facing a picturesque valley. The meandering streams and snow-capped Himalayan peaks epitomised tranquility, as did the villages dotting the landscape. At this hour of the night, the vista was dreamlike, almost magical, as distant lights from the valley complemented the glow of village lanterns.

But all this was lost on Manohar.

A million deaths, maybe more, on his conscience. It was just not fair.

He had scrupulously followed orders all his life, never stopping to question his leaders, not even when the orders had involved braving police bayonets or enduring weeks in prison.

But having to decide for millions of people was not a burden that he had signed up for. Yet here he was, thrust by history into this role in the seventh decade of his life.

There was a loud bang in the background, echoing across the hills, jolting Manohar from his ruminations.

He shuddered. It was a grenade explosion, probably at their previous hideout. Had his compatriots made it out in time?

This was not the time to worry. He had to decide. Fast.

He swallowed hard as he hobbled nervously around the hut. It was indeed a dark hour. The World War was dragging on, the Japanese knocking menacingly at India’s door. Within India, the freedom movement was in shambles; ‘Quit India’ in disarray. It had now been over a year since Gandhi-ji had been incarcerated in Poona, his communication with the outside world restricted. An entire generation of freedom fighters was behind bars: Sardar Patel, Pandit Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, everybody.

Manohar wondered whether Bapu would approve of the secrecy. But with so much at stake, perhaps he would understand?

A burst of gunfire sounded from a distance, sending a shiver down Manohar’s spine.

He turned to look, almost as if seeking reassurance, at the only other person in the hut—a young man of just over twenty. He was six feet tall, with broad shoulders, a firm gait and a steady gaze. For all of Manohar’s anxiety, the young man had not displayed any sign of nervousness. In fact, he had not moved an inch in the entire time that Manohar had shuffled around the hut.

For the first time in the last hour, Manohar permitted himself a sigh of satisfaction. Wherever else he might be going wrong, he was confident that he had not erred in his choice of person for the task.

Manohar opened his mouth to speak, but his voice failed him. Millions of lives at stake. Who was he to decide? He wished to somehow reach the leaders in jail and pass on the responsibility to them. Or, by some magical toss of fate, come face-to-face with Ram Manohar Lohia, who was broadcasting over underground radio from an unknown, hiding place.

But then his memory took him to the village that the young man and he had visited recently. The sunken eyes, the shrivelled bodies, the sheer horror of everything, and he knew that he had to act.

With supreme effort, he summoned up some energy and croaked, ‘Beta, the time has come.’

The collective weight of history had just been transferred to the young man’s shoulders. However, he did not even bat an eyelid. That, in fact, was precisely why he had been chosen.

‘And Beta,’ Manohar added as an afterthought, ‘remember, you need to wait till the last of them is gone. Till the danger is no more.’

The young man merely nodded and bowed as he left the hut in two swift steps.

Excerpted with permission from Kalkoot, S. Venkatesh, TreeShade Books