It was the year 1953, as available research goes; and few are the tenacious men who have agreed to be lifelong passengers in this sail of mystery.

It had been but six years since the independence of India. The literacy rate was below 20%, and debilitating poverty was the norm. English was the language of the elite; speaking it was an aspiration. Indeed, if in the average neighbourhood of vernacular glory, there were to reside someone ungregarious, but if word were to spread that he spoke excellent English, he would become the object of curious eyes ever interested in him. His neighbours, unbeknown to him, would become the historians of his life in a matter of days; and their researches, imagined and genuine alike, would assume the form of wafting bruits.

The best source of local intelligence in any area is perhaps the beat constable assigned to it. If word of recent migration of a man of such erudition to his area were to reach the beat constable, he would do well to make discreet inquiries into the matter. And it might even interest the police inspector sufficiently to raid such a man’s residence.

The town of Basti in Uttar Pradesh is a remote area even today; an era of far greater connectivity than ever before. Conceivably, it must have been a back of the beyond area in the 1950s and 60s. Amid this scene of national penury and uneducation, a reclusive man made Basti his principal residence, living as a tenant, though the earliest of his clandestine days were spent in Mainpuri. His furtive habits always interested the neighbours. The man would never show his face; nor would he talk to anyone voluntarily other than the landlords. If at all a visitor should drop by, he would meet them donning a monkey cap. He would mostly restrict himself to one room. Any movement outside would, as a rule, occur at night.

But rare indeed are cloaks of impregnable secrecy; something of his character would invariably emerge. Some might overhear him and be awed by his stentorian voice. Some might accidentally behold his bearded face and be left with a gnawing feeling that the features were familiar. Some would notice that the reclusive man spoke rich Bengali, as though having hailed from the cultured city of Calcutta. And the fortunate ear might come across the man speaking perfect English. Word would invariably spread. Some would speculate as to the antecedents of the man. Perhaps he is a retired official of the coveted Indian Civil Service (ICS)? But the trait most commonly known to others would be his stentorious chanting of Sanskrit hymns, having seemingly turned to a life of religion.

Witnesses would later report that, in the dead of the night, government cars would quietly roll up to his residence, and depart with equal peace before first light. Among these visitors would be ranked someone of such high office as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh…..

So soon as the man, ever alert and discerning, suspected that some uncomfortable deductions as to his identity could be imminent, he would shift residence.

Soon enough, most who wished to hear him speak would refer to him as ‘Parde Wale Baba’ — the godman behind the curtain. For they were constrained to wait outside his room, either the entrance to which or the window of which would be draped, and from behind the shroud of which his voice would issue.

A close-knit circle of followers would be built over the years, among which were revolutionaries of erstwhile fame which, with the passage of time, subsided nearly into oblivion. But a rare follower or two would have the distinction of enjoying his confidence despite never having been close to the man in the days of yore when he was a popular figure — when crowds would be electrified by his speeches; when the country was abuzz with his slogans — and such followers would be astounded at the width of the man’s knowledge. It became transparent to them that the ‘holy man’ was a mere facade, or, at least, merely one aspect of a personality of plural shades — the man would make insightful comments on matters military, diplomatic, political, and even scientific.

Years before the clouds of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war had even begun to gather had he predicted an inflow into India of refugees from East Pakistan. Nor did he limit himself to this prediction: confidently did he assert that India would be embroiled in a war and that foreign powers would not be able to frustrate Indian action. In the same decade had he proclaimed that the Americans could fight in Vietnam for the next thousand years to no avail; for, it astounded his followers to hear, he claimed to have advised Ho Chi Minh to sodden the battlefields with heroin and cocaine. Decades before the existence of a Chinese underground city was divulged to the world had he spoken of it. On a wintry night in the early years of his nameless existence, his landlord had offered him a shawl, and swiftly did the proud voice aver his inurement to cold, invoking his long months spent in the hiemal wastes of Siberia.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the man was the kind of books he read. A few examples follow:

  • Novels by Charles Dickens.
  • Some issues of TIME Magazine.
  • Novels by P.G. Wodehouse.
  • Works by William Shakespeare.
  • The Dissenting Judgment by Justice Radhabinod Pal at the International Military Tribunal for The Far East.
  • Volumes of The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant.
  • Volumes of The Encyclopædia Britannica.

The town of Faizabad was his last residence. He would pass away on 16 September 1985. One of his followers, a local politician, would astound the public by disclosing the departed man’s identity. Inquiries followed suit, and among his possessions were found paraphernalia that should have ordinarily belonged to India’s long-lost and the greatest freedom fighter, Subhas Chandra Bose; lost from public life in 1945; who reigned and reigns on a billion thrones, erected in a billion hearts, as India’s lost prime minister.

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