Monday, August 6, 2007

Ramesh and the Age-old Script

Part I: Joining the Pujas

“My dear Sharma moshoi! Welcome, welcome!” The worlds were spoken in Bengali-accented English with which Ramesh and I, though we had been in Kolkata for only four days, had already become familiar.

“Good morning, Mr. Mukherjee,” replied Ramesh’s uncle. “Meet my nephew and his friend.”

We were all standing on the steps leading up to Mr. Mukherjee’s ancestral house on Kolkata’s S.N Banerjee Road. The Mukherjee mansion was fronted by a row of shops but the huge entrance stood out prominently. Mr. Mukherjee, a middle-aged gentleman dressed in a white silk kurta and dhoti (the traditional Bengali dress favoured by men), was an office colleague of Ramesh’s uncle.

“Welcome boys, welcome!” beamed Mr. Mukherjee. “Come, have a darshan of Goddess Durga Ma!”

We followed our host, who had generously invited us to join his family in the annual Durga Puja festival celebrations in the Mukherjee joint family mansion, through the entrance and a narrow corridor and suddenly found ourselves standing in a huge hall. I instinctively looked up and saw that the hall extended right up the entire middle of the building, and its ceiling was three storeys above our heads. The first and second floors were bounded by railings over which people were leaning and gazing down. I lowered my eyes to see what they were gazing at. They were watching a raised marble platform at one end of the hall on which were placed five larger-than-life idols. The hall itself was crowded with people. Everybody was dressed in new clothes, and the women wore lots of jewellery. Mr. Mukherjee gestured in their direction.

“All my relatives are here today!” he declared proudly. “No matter where they are, in this country or even outside, in foreign lands, they always come home in October, during Durga Puja!”

I saw a boy of about my age detach himself from a group of people and come towards us. Mr. Mukherjee introduced him.

“Meet my son, Niranjan,” he said. “Niranjan, I leave these boys in your care.” And, so saying, he led Ramesh’s uncle towards a group of men a little further off.

“We’ve never participated in Durga Puja celebrations before,” I told Niranjan. “This is our first visit to Kolkata. It sure was kind of your father to ask Ramesh’s uncle to bring us over!”

“I am glad you’re here,” said Niranjan, smiling.

Ramesh looked about him. “Who do those idols represent, Niranjan?” he asked.

“In the centre, standing on a lion, her ten arms holding different weapons, is Goddess Durga,” replied Niranjan. “She’s thrusting her spear into the evil king of the demons, who had been terrorizing the earth. To her right is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and beyond her, with the elephant-head, is Ganesh, the patron God of businessmen. To Durga’s left is Saraswati, Goddess of learning and beyond her, Kartikey, the handsome God who represents beauty. All four, as Bengali mythology has it, are the children of the mother Goddess Durga.”

“How long has your family been celebrating Durga Puja in this house?” I asked Niranjan.

“Oh, for over a century!” replied Niranjan, a touch of pride in his voice.

Ramesh suddenly looked interested. “You mean this house is actually that old?” he asked.

Niranjan smiled. “Older,” he said. “This house was built around one hundred and seventy years ago!”

Ramesh’s spectacles began to glint excitedly. “Why, then this house is-is historical!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never been inside a house as old as this!” He looked at Niranjan and his eyes were almost pleading. “Could we explore the house a bit?” he asked.

I was shocked. “How can you make such a request, Ramesh!” I exclaimed terribly embarrassed by my friend’s presumptuousness. “You can’t go ferreting around somebody’s house as if it’s a tourist attraction!”

But, Ramesh, as usual, ignored my wet blanket treatment. He continued to look pleadingly at Niranjan.

“I’m flattered you find my house so interesting,” said Niranjan, smiling broadly. “I don’t think we’ll disturb anybody. They’re all down here watching the morning puja (prayer). Come along!”

I hesitated. My eyes wandered to the marble platform on which two priests sat, in front of the idols surrounded by huge plates full of fruits, sweets, gifts and offerings. The air was heavy with incense. Four drummers stood in front of the platform and beat a rapid-fire hypnotic rhythm. They were accompanied by the beating of gongs.

“Er…won’t they be serving Prasad soon?” I asked Niranjan, my eyes lingering longingly on the plates of fruits and sweets, which were being symbolically offered to the gods and would then be distributed amongst the worshippers after the morning puja (prayer) was over. “I think the puja is about to finish…”

Ramesh made a face. “Now, don’t be a greedy hog, yaar!” he exclaimed loudly, making heads turn and me blush with embarrassment. “The Prasad won’t run away!”

“Don’t worry!” grinned Niranjan. “I’ll make it a quick tour.”

We followed Niranjan up a huge marble staircase. On reaching the first floor, he turned into a large doorway.

We found ourselves standing inside a massive, high-ceilinged room. A gigantic chandelier hung from the ceiling in the exact centre of the room. Beautiful furniture, clearly of great antique value, was neatly arranged around the room. The walls were adorned with paintings and family portraits.

“Our drawing room!” announced Niranjan. “This is the room where we receive and entertain guests and family members gather together. Some of the furniture dates back to the last century!”

Ramesh whistled as he gazed around him. “This room was certainly built for a big family!” he exclaimed.

“Yes. We have lots of relatives, and they all made it a point to attend this Durga Puja.” Niranjan’s expression became sad. “It’s probably the last Durga Puja we’re going to celebrate in this house!”

Ramesh looked quickly at Niranjan. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Niranjan smiled wryly. “It’s a pretty expensive affair, you know,” he said. “And the family doesn’t have much money left. High taxes and increasing costs have eaten into the ancestral property. And my father certainly can’t afford to host such a festival on only his salary!”

“It’ll be a great pity if this family custom ends now!” I observed.

“I don’t think we’ve much choice in the matter,” murmured Niranjan softly. He quickly shook himself. “Anyway, we’re certainly celebrating this Durga Puja in style! Come on, let me show you the next room, now! If we don’t hurry through this tour, our friend here will miss his Prasad!”

The room Niranjan next took us to was clearly a library. It was a vast room with shelves filled with books lining all walls. Most of the shelves were dusty and the books looked old and little used.

Ramesh darted forward eagerly. He had the air of an archeologist who had just discovered another Mohen-jo-daro, India’s oldest excavation site. As he paused before a bookcase whose contents were coated with a layer of dust an inch thick, he uttered a noise that sounded like glue pouring out of a jug.

I recognized the symptoms. Sure enough, an excited Ramesh turned a pleading face to Niranjan. “Could I have a look at some of these old books?” he asked. “They don’t seem to have been touched for years and years! Maybe there’s a very valuable book lying forgotten in one of these shelves!”

Niranjan hesitated for only a moment. “Go ahead!” he replied. “It won’t harm the books to get a little dusting!”

The sound of the drums and gongs, which had been following us wherever we went, ceased abruptly. I looked at Niranjan. “Er…has the morning puja come to an end?” I asked meaningfully.

Niranjan smiled. “Yes,” he replied. “Should we go down?”

I nearly licked my lips. “Yes let’s do that!” I said, happy that Niranjan was so understanding.

We left Ramesh in the library and hurried down to the hall. When we returned, armed with packets of prasad, we found Ramesh sitting in front of a table piled high with books. He was holding a small wooden box. He looked up when we entered, his face flushed with excitement.

“Look what I’ve found in one corner of a bookcase!” exclaimed Ramesh, holding up the box.

“What’s inside?” asked Niranjan, interested.

“This!” announced Ramesh, and, in the manner of a conjurer pulling a rabbit out of his hat, he opened the box and carefully drew out a rolled up paper. Putting the box on his lap, he slowly unrolled the piece of yellowing paper then handed it to Niranjan. I craned my neck to look.

There were only four lines of thin, spidery writing, very faint. I couldn’t understand it, but knew the script was Bengali.

“It looks like a small poem,” said Niranjan slowly. “I’ve absolutely no idea who could have written it!”

“What does it say?” asked Ramesh quickly.

“Well, I’m not good at translating poems from Bengali to English,” replied Niranjan apologetically. “But I’ll try to give you the meaning of each line.” He raised the piece of paper closer to his face and peered intently at the words. “This is how it goes: ‘Neither summer nor winter…Mother has come home…beneath the peacock…number the petals…”

There was a brief silence.

“Sounds Greek to me,” I said, trying to be witty.

Ramesh ignored me. His brow had ceased into a puzzled frown. “Why has this poem been preserved like this in this box?” he asked Niranjan.

“I’ve no idea,” replied our host. “This is the first time I’ve seen this paper or the box. I don’t think my father knows about them, either!”

“You mean, there’s no way we can find out who wrote this poem and why it’s been preserved?” asked Ramesh, sounding very disappointed.

Niranjan scratched his head. “Well, perhaps my dadu – my grandfather - knows something about it,” he said hesitatingly. “Since the puja is over, he must have come upstairs and gone to his room. We can go and ask him.”

Ramesh jumped to his feet as if a spring had just been released beneath him. “That’s a good idea!” he exclaimed. “Let’s go!”

“Hey, hold it, yaar!” I cried agitatedly. “When are we going to eat the prasad?”

“Later, later,” said Ramesh impatiently.

“All right, let’s go” agreed Niranjan, handing the yellow paper back to Ramesh to roll up and replace inside the box.

We hurried out of the library. Niranjan led us down a long corridor and stopped before a small door. He knocked.

“Who is it?” We heard a soft voice from behind the door.

Dadu, it’s me,” replied Niranjan. “My friends would like to meet you.”

“Come in,” invited the soft voice.

We obeyed and found ourselves standing in a small room sparingly furnished with a bed, a desk and some chairs. On one of the chairs, by the window, sat an old man. He smiled at us.

“Welcome, boys,” said Niranjan’s grandfather. “I hope you are enjoying Durga Puja.”

“Yes, sir, we are,” replied Ramesh. He opened the box in his hands and took out the piece of paper. “We just discovered this in the library,” he said, handing the paper to Niranjan’s grandfather.

Niranjan’s grandfather unrolled the paper and ran his eyes over the words written on it. And, as he did so, his face brightened.

“I’d almost forgotten about this poem,” he murmered softly.

“Do you know who wrote it, Dadu?” asked Niranjan.

Nirnjan’s grandfather looked up. “Yes,” he replied. “My grandfather – your great-great-grandfather – wrote it. As far as I know, it’s the only poem he ever wrote. It was found amongst his possessions after he had died. The handwriting is his. It was preserved, as were all his other possessions, because, as you know, your great-great-grandfather is a family hero!”

Ramesh’s head jerked up. He looked like an infant who’s suddenly spotted an ice cream parlour. “Was your great-great-grandfather a freedom fighter or something?” he asked Niranjan.

Niranjan smiled proudly. “Well, he was one of the few who stood up to Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of that time!” He looked at his grandfather. “Dadu, isn’t there a story about hidden treasure connected with my great-great-grandfather?” he asked.

Niranjan’s grandfather looked thoughtful. “Well, yes there is a story,” he replied slowly.

Ramesh could hardly control his excitement. “Please tell us the story,” he implored.

Niranjan’s grandfather smiled. “All right!” he said. “I’ll tell you.” He shifted slightly in his seat and then began: “As you must have studied in your history books, in 1905 the then British Viceroy, Lord Curzon, virtually the British ruler of India, initiated a move to partition the state of Bengal, which was the seat of Indian Nationalism and anti British agitation in those days. Well, this sparked off a big agitation against the move in which my family played an active part. Word spread that the British were planning to arrest the male members of our family. So it was decided that the whole family should leave the city for a time and lie low in a house they had near Siliguri in North Bengal. The story goes that, before leaving, my grandfather – Niranjan’s great-great-grandfather – who was the head of the family then, hid some of the family wealth in order to safeguard it from possible looters. Unfortunately, he died before the family could return to Kolkata after things had quietened down and so nobody knows where he had hidden the treasure – if, at all, he did hide any such treasure in the first place!”

All through the narrative Ramesh had been sitting on the edge of his chair, tensely clasping and unclasping his hands. Now he exclaimed: “You mean that, at this very moment, there’s a treasure trove hidden somewhere in this house?”

Niranjan’s grandfather smiled. “I didn’t say that,” he replied. “Nobody knows whether the story is true or not!”

At that moment, the sound of a gong reached our ears.

“Ah!” exclaimed Niranjan. “The mid-day bhog (festival lunch) will be served now.” He looked at me and grinned. “I think you’ll find it delicious!”

I hastily got to my feet. “…Then, shouldn’t we go and…participate?” I indicated the packets of Prasad I was still holding in my hands. “We haven’t eaten anything since morning.”

Yes, you boys go downstairs and have your bhog,” agreed Niranjan’s grandfather.

The bhog (the special festival lunch which is served to all worshippers and guests during all the five days of the Durga Puja celebrations) was indeed, delicious. It was a mixture of rice, dal (lentils) and vegetables. Niranjan kept referring to it as khichri. It was followed by paish, a very sweet rice pudding. I ate heartily.

Ramesh, however, barely touched his food. He lingered over the khichri in an absent-minded sort of way and looked too preoccupied to pay much attention to the paish. Suddenly, towards the end of the meal, his head shot up with a jerk. He grabbed my arm, nearly causing me to drop my spoonful of sweet rice over my shirt.

“Hey! Watch it!” I exclaimed.

“Listen!” cried Ramesh breathlessly, his spectacles beginning to glint. “I’ve just got an idea about that treasure!” He turned to Niranjan. "I think your great-great-grandfather may have left a clue to the treasure!"

End of Part I

Next Part: The Clue

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Ramesh and the Age-old Script

Part II: The Clue

The story so far:

Ramesh and his friend are in Kolkata, the capital of the Indian province of Bengal, for the October holidays. They have been invited to celebrate Durga Puja in the old mansion of a friend of Ramesh’s uncle. All the members of this Bengali family have come home for the Pujas, as they always do, but Niranjan, the 15-year-old son of the house, explains sadly that it will probably be the last get-together since his father can no longer afford it. Ramesh excitedly explores the old house, and finds in the library a casket with a yellowing piece of paper inside. On it is written a poem in Bengali. Niranjan’s grandfather informs the boys that the poem was written by his own grandfather, during the colonial British rulers’ attempt to partition the province of Bengal. Niranjan remembers that there was a story about the family treasure being hidden in the house at that time. Later at lunch, Ramesh suddenly puts two and two together. He is sure that Niranjan’s great-great-grandfather has left behind a clue to that treasure!

Niranjan looked astounded. “What clue?” he exclaimed.

Ramesh put on his best Sherlock Holmes manner. “Didn’t your grandfather say,” he continued mysteriously, “that the lines written on the paper found in the library constitute the only poem your great-great-grandfather ever wrote in his life? Well, maybe he wrote it as a clue to where the treasure is hidden!”

My mouth fell upon. “Impossible!” I exclaimed.

“Why?” asked Ramesh quickly. “It’s certainly very possible and I think we should have a go at deciphering the poem.”

Niranjan nodded his head slowly. “How wonderful it’ll be if there really is a hidden treasure and we manage to discover it!” he exclaimed. “Let’s go up to the library!”

I made as if to protest, but seeing the determined look on the faces of the other two, decided to play along with them. Reluctantly discarding all thoughts of having a third helping of rice pudding, I followed Ramesh and Niranjan.

Once again we were in the library, Niranjan reading out the meaning of each line of the poem on the yellowing paper. “This is how it goes,” said Niranjan. “‘Neither summer nor winter…Mother has come home...beneath the peacock…number the petals…’”

There was a brief silence.

“Well,” I said, after a pause, “that sounds like a most unlikely clue to a hidden treasure.”

Ramesh looked pityingly at me. “Naturally, yaar!” he exclaimed. “If the message was obvious to one and all, then the hidden treasure wouldn’t be much of a secret, would it?”

Niranjan looked at Ramesh anxiously. “Can you decipher it?” he asked.

Ramesh put on his Sherlock Holmes manner again. “Well, let’s consider each line separately. What does the first line say? ‘Neither summer nor winter!’. The reference is clearly to the seasons. An in-between season, perhaps? There are two alternatives: spring and autumn. Maybe, the next line will make the picture clearer!”

“The next line says: ‘Mother has come home,” Niranjan repeated.

“Mother…” murmured Ramesh thoughtfully. “Whose mother?” His brow creased into a frown. “Reading the first two lines together, the poem is clearly referring to somebody’s mother who has come home either in the spring or in the autumn.”

My head was beginning to spin a little.

Niranjan broke in, his eyes sparkling. “Ramesh, what would you call the current season?” he asked.

“You mean now, in the month of October?” queried Ramesh. “Why, autumn, I suppose!”

Niranjan jumped to his feet. “Then the mother this poem is referring to must be Goddess Durga Ma!” he exclaimed excitedly. “She’s the mother Goddess who’s come to Earth. Every autumn, she descends from the Himalayas, where she lives with Lord Shiva, her husband, and comes to her father’s house for a visit. That’s what Durga Puja is all about!”

Ramesh stared at Niranjan and then his face broke into a wide smile. “That’s it, then!” he declared. “The message of the poem is clear! The treasure is hidden in the idol of the Goddess Durga!”

For a few seconds, nobody spoke. I stared at Ramesh in amazement. Niranjan broke the silence. “No” he said firmly. “The treasure is not hidden in the idol of Durga Ma.”

Ramesh looked puzzled. “How are you so sure?” he asked.

Niranjan smiled. “You jumped to the conclusion you did because you don’t know our customs,” he replied. “All the idols downstairs are only a few months old! Every year, on Bijoya Dashami – the fifth and last day of Durga Puja – all the idols, which have been worshipped during the previous four days, are taken to the banks of the river Ganges and immersed in the waters! This symbolizes Durga Ma’s return to her husband’s home after her short visit to her father’s house. So, you see, the idols used in my great-great-grandfather’s time have, long ago, sunk in the Ganges!”

Ramesh’s face fell. He looked like a cricketer who, having strode out jauntily to the wicket, suddenly discovers that he has forgotten to bring his bat. It was not often that Ramesh made a bloomer and the experience was clearly very painful to him.

“Anyway,” continued Niranjan, “from all accounts, my ancestors fled to Siliguri some time in the winter months. There would have been no idols then – either of Goddess Durga of her children – to hide treasures in!”

Ramesh looked apologetic. “I-uh-I didn’t know all this,” he said shamefacedly. “I was in too much of a hurry to jump to conclusions!”

“What does the next line say?” I asked. “Something to do with peacocks, I think?”

“Yes,” replied Niranjan. He looked at the yellowing paper in his hands. “It says: ‘Beneath the peacock’.” Niranjan looked puzzled. “What peacock?” he asked.

Ramesh’s brow creased into a frown. Then he snapped his fingers. “Do you have any pictures or engravings of peacocks in this house?” he asked.

Niranjan looked doubtful. “Not that I know of,” he replied. “If there was any such picture or engraving, I’m sure I would have noticed!”

“There must be!” insisted Ramesh. “And this peacock is, somehow, connected with Durga Puja!”

A sudden flash of light seemed to blaze upon Niranjan. He sat up with a jerk. “Of course!” he exclaimed.

Ramesh had the air of a policeman who knows that he is just a few minutes away from nabbing a gang of cat-burglars. “Where?” he asked quickly. “Where is this peacock?”

Niranjan composed himself. “I don’t know whether you noticed,” he began, “but each of the Gods and Goddesses downstairs is sitting is standing on some kind of a carrier. Durga Ma is on a lion. Lakshmi is on an owl. Saraswati is sitting on a swan. Ganesh is reclining on a rat. And Kartikeya, the God of Beauty, is sitting on a peacock!”

By now, even I had begun to feel the excitement of a hunter hot on a scent. “Wow!” I exclaimed. I looked at Niranjan excitedly. “What does the last line of the poem say?”

Niranjan once again raised the hundred-year-old scroll of paper. His hands, I saw, were trembling slightly. “The last line reads: ‘Count the petals’.”

Ramesh murmured to himself: “Beneath the peacock…count the petals…” He looked at Niranjan. “Tell me, what’s beneath the peacock downstairs?”

Niranjan slowly rolled up the scroll of paper in his hands. “The floor, of course!” he said finally. “What else?”

“No flowers?” asked Ramesh.

“Not that I know of.”

Ramesh got to his feet. “Well, I think we’ll have to take a close look at the idol of Lord Kartikeya,” he observed. “Let’s go down.

Niranjan quickly put the scroll back into its box and returned it to the bookshelf. We hurried down.

The afternoon puja (prayer service) had ended. Prasad (portions of sweets and fruits that had been offered to the gods) was being distributed to the worshippers by one of the priests. As we moved towards the marble platform on which the idols stood, the priest beckoned us to take some prasad.

Niranjan remembered his duties as a host. “Yes, take some prasad,” he said, and piloted us towards the priest.

I cupped my hands and received a packet of sweets and fruits. Ramesh also cupped his hands and the priest handed him a packet of prasad, too.

Ramesh did not move.

I stared in amazement at my bespectacled friend, who seemed to have suddenly frozen into a statue, his arms still upraised, the packet of prasad in his cupped hands.

“Ramesh!” I hissed. “What’s up?”

Ramesh was staring at the marble platform behind the priest. There was a glazed look in his eyes.

I nudged Ramesh. “What’s wrong?” I exclaimed.

Ramesh came to life. He pointed to the marble platform in front of us. I looked at the surface of the marble platform.

And then I understood.

Carved out of the surface of the marble platform was an intricate design of loops and circles and, at frequent intervals, beautifully engraved flowers. I grabbed Niranjan’s arm. “Look at the designs!” I exclaimed. “Don’t they cover the entire platform?”

“They sure do!” replied Niranjan, equally excited.

Ramesh quickly grabbed both Niranjan and me by the arms and motioned us to follow him. We quickly moved to a quiet corner of the hall. “Listen,” said Ramesh quickly, looking at Niranjan. “Are those idols always arranged the way they are now? I mean, every year – year after year?”

“Yes,” replied Niranjan, catching the drift. “Kartikeya is always placed to the left of Saraswati who is always left of Durga. And, the idols are always placed in the slight semi-circle that you see now.”

“That means,” concluded Ramesh triumphantly, “that earlier idols of Kartikeya must have covered the same flower which the present idol has been placed over!”

“Yes,” agreed Niranjan, nodding his head vigorously.

“Then that engraved floor is the one the poem is referring to!” cried Ramesh with a victorious smile.

“You must be right,” I agreed. “But the poem talks of counting the petals of the flowers. What’ll we achieve by doing that?”

“I don’t know,” said Ramesh impatiently. “Not yet, anyway. We must do things one step at a time.” He looked at Niranjan. “First, we must uncover the flower.”

Niranjan looked doubtful. “That will mean moving the idol of Lord Kartikeya. I’m not sure we’ll be allowed to do that.”

I broke in hastily. “There’s really no hurry, you know.” I said quickly. “The idols will be here for only four more days. Then, they’ll be taken to the river and immersed. After that we can spend all the time we want inspecting the engraved flower.”

Niranjan looked at Ramesh. “That makes sense,” he said.

Ramesh looked uncertain for a moment and then gave in. “Well, if there is a hundred-year-old hidden treasure,” he said, with a half-hearted smile,” I guess it can wait another four days to be discovered!”

The next four days must have been the longest Ramesh had ever lived through. Impatient by nature, he could barely control his excitement at the thought of being on the threshold of a major discovery. The delay irritated him and he wore the air of a wild beast straining at a leash.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed the Durga Puja festivities thoroughly – the morning and evening pujas (prayers), the drumming, the gongs, the chanting, the incense, the Prasad, the meals, the variety and cultural programmes, the people, the comings and goings and the visiting of other centres of worship in other parts of the city, all kept me preoccupied and in a sort of happy trance. I did not, of course, forget about our search for the hidden treasure, but I did not give it much thought during those four hectic days.

Finally, Bijoya Dashami, the last day of Durga Puja, arrived. Ramesh’s uncle, Ramesh and I accompanied the Mukherjee household, in procession, to the banks of the river Ganges. There we saw the five idols, along with hundreds of other idols from all over Kolkata, being immersed in the waters of the holy river.

We returned to the Mukherjee house, everybody a little sadthat the festivities were finally over. Ramesh, Niranjan and I immediately made a bee-line for the marble platform in the hall. We mounted the steps and rushed over to the spot where the idol of Kartikeya had stood. Sure enough, on the exact spot where the idol of the God of Beauty and his peacock had stood, was an engraved flower!

I stared at the flower and did a quick count. “The flower has nine petals,” I said. “What are we supposed to do now?”

You could almost hear the machinery of Ramesh’s brain working overtime.

“The poem tells us to count the petals,” he observed. “But the number of petals – nine—doesn’t seem to carry any message. My guess is that we’re supposed to do something while counting the petals!”

Nirnanjan looked thoughtful. “Maybe we’re expected to touch the petals?” he suggested.

Ramesh’s face lit up. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “That’s how hidden safes and trapdoors are opened in detective stories! We must press each petal! That’ll release the concerned springs!”

With Ramesh, thought is always quickly followed by action. He crouched over the engraved flower petals and pressed them one after the other.

Nothing happened. What an anti-climax!

“Try again,” urged Niranjan. “You might not have got the right petal to start with. Maybe there’s a certain sequence!”

It was on the third round that our patience was rewarded. Ramesh had pressed all the petals, one by one, in a different sequence than his earlier tries, when, suddenly, with a tiny whirring sound, a small portion of the marble floor a little above the engraved flower slid to one side revealing a gaping hole!

We could see three bags inside the hole!

Niranjan lowered his arms into the hole and lifted out of one of the three bags. The cloth bag, rotten with age, came to pieces in his hands and a glittering mass of gold and silver ornaments fell to the floor!

We stared at this dazzling spectacle for a few seconds, our breathing suspended. Then, Ramesh quickly lifted out another bag. This, too burst and a pile of gold and silver coins poured out!

Niranjan was lifting out the third bag when I heard footsteps and, raising my head, saw Mr. Mukherjee and Ramesh’s uncle hurrying towards us.

“Aren’t you boys coming up to have dinner?” asked Mr. Mukherjee. Then his eyes fell on the dazzling array of glittering wealth around us and both he and Ramesh’s uncle stopped in their tracks in amazement.

“What – what is all this?” stammered Mr. Mukherjee, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

Niranjan slowly got to his feet. He smiled broadly. “Father, we can celebrate Durga Puja again next year,” he said quietly but with a note of triumph in his voice, “and for many, many more years to come! The gods have shown us the way...”