I happened to be in Kerala when the news of Cherian’s murder reached me. Cherian was what I would call a friend of mine when I was working as a teacher in Assam. It took some time for me to realise that he had not considered me a friend, however. For him I was a kind of entertainment. He loved to call me to the residential school of which he was the proprietor, director, manager and principal. He would give me brandy to drink and food to eat. And even a place to sleep if I wished not to go back home. I had none waiting for me at home and hence could spend the night anywhere. I was a gypsy of sorts who considered it the sign of an intellectual to claim a cosmopolitan nomadism for one’s identity. Cherian thought I was a like a buffoon in a circus troupe: born to entertain, though I perceived myself a very serious thinker, a philosopher, and even an intellectual. I put the intellectual at a higher level because the intellectual thinks he has a duty to save the world while the others in the list are less harmful. Entertainment is sure to follow when there is such a contradiction in perceptions. Cherian entertained himself with the buffoonery that emanated copiously from a personality that was not restrained by any sense of social niceties. I was, on the other hand, under the impression that jettisoning social niceties was the ultimate sign of the intellectual.
Life teaches us lessons the hard way when we refuse or fail to learn those lessons from parents, teachers, religion, and other easy sources of facile wisdom. Cherian was one of the many people who taught me those lessons eventually. They taught me that life was a very serious affair and I could not sail through it with the facile mirth of a moron playing in a rubber coracle watched over by parents standing on the side of the shallow pool. By the time I learnt those lessons I had become such a laughing stock in the town that I thought it wise to put into practice my cosmopolitan nomadism and I migrated to Delhi.
While I perceived myself as the intellectual with the potential to provide all kinds of panacea for the world’s ills, people like Cherian acted as the Messiahs who redeemed the souls of people like me. That’s why the news of Cherian’s murder made me shudder. He was killed by one of his workers, James told me.
Bejoy, the worker, was from Assam. He had come to Kerala along with many others from his native land in search of jobs. It was not only Cherian’s knowledge of Assamese but also Bejoy’s nature that brought the young man closer to Cherian. Bejoy was a soul to be redeemed in Cherian’s Messianic vision. “Bejoy was what you would describe as amoral,” said James. He was innocent and crude, like children who were not brought up properly. He loved the earth and was earthy. Nothing beyond the earth mattered to him.
“He had some notions about god, however,” James went on. His father had taught him that their tribe had descended directly from some God. The tribe’s celestial flight had descended in Varanasi. But they soon found out that the flight had landed on a wrong turf and started moving northwards. Later many kings and conquerors expanded their kingdoms and drove the tribal people more and more towards north and pushed them uphill.
So, Bejoy is a nomad by the legacy of his tribe, I mused.
“Bejoy’s father had taught him that their people were always pushed around by someone or another,” James was telling me. First the God, then the various kings, followed by whom they later called the plainspeople. Then came new kings like tea estate owners, oil diggers and business people all of whom had much to take away from the land and gave little in return.
Bejoy’s people adapted themselves to their new worlds as they descended on them. “Probably they became meek and submissive in the process,” said James.
“But there has been a lot of militancy among the tribal people in Assam in the last three decades,” I pointed out.
“True. But militants form a tiny fraction of any community. What about the majority?”
James contended that the majority of people are peace lovers. “Who creates strife, riots and wars? A handful of people with political ambitions or those with criminal proclivities. The majority want to live in peace. That’s why they keep moving away from disturbances. Look at the number of Assamese tribal people in Kerala. You’d be amazed to see them even in the remote villages of Kerala doing all sorts of works.”
Bejoy was rather peculiar, said James. He did not differentiate between good and evil. People are what they are because they are born as what they are. A man does not become a wanderer; he is born a wanderer. Thieves are born. So are saints. Some people may pretend to be religious but may be thieves. Some may pretend to be atheists but may be deeply spiritual.
“Did Bejoy say such things?” I was surprised.
“Oh no. I’m describing it in my own words based on my observations of Bejoy and what Cherian told me occasionally.”
“Why did he kill Cherian?” I was more interested in that.
“Yes, let me come to that. Cherian turned to religion towards the end of his stay in Assam. He began to interpret the Bible rather literally and thought that the Armageddon was at hand. He viewed Islamic terrorism and American counterterrorism as the final war between evil and good.” James paused and then said in a low voice, “People say that Cherian was getting funds from America to set up his new church.”
“Yes, he founded a new church when he reached Kerala having sold his school in Assam. The Church of Revelation, he called it. He built a huge church building and gathered quite a lot of followers too. Again, people say that he bought the followers with American money.”
“Where does Bejoy enter this story?” I was becoming impatient.
“Bejoy did not become a member of Cherian’s church much as he was persuaded to. If you believe in god, you’ll have to believe in the devil too, he said something like that.”
“Amazing,” I blurted out. “You remember Zorba, the Kazantzakis character?” I knew that James was familiar with the novel.
“I knew you would get that parallel. Yes, Bejoy was somewhat like Zorba; he had an instinctual dislike of all theories and theologies. People should not pervert themselves with such things, he seemed to think.”
“You understand things, that’s your problem,” I remembered Zorba telling his master. “If you did not understand so much you’d see things more clearly.”
“Bejoy was not happy with the way Cherian was expanding his church. Cherian was buying up more and more land. It was something like the conquests made by the old kings. But the problem seems to have risen when Cherian wanted to buy up one particular plot of land whose owner was not willing to sell it however high a price Cherian would offer. John, the old man, lived alone in a house on that plot. His children are all in America and they never visit him. Cherian seems to have tried all kinds of strategies, tricks and knavery to persuade John to shift to another place. The old man did not budge. A few months back he was found dead in his house. It was taken as natural death. A few days after the death Cherian’s bulldozer entered the plot.”
“I know you’re impatient to know about why Bejoy killed Cherian. It seems Bejoy knew something about John’s death that nobody else knew. It was not a natural death probably.”
“You mean... He was done in?”
“I’m not sure. But something went wrong between Cherian and Bejoy a few days back. Cherian’s servants, none of whom understand Assamese, say that there was a loud argument in which John’s name was mentioned a number of times and Cherian pulled out a pistol from somewhere. The sight of the pistol infuriated Bejoy. He snarled at Cherian like an enraged animal and sprang on him before he could even realise what was happening. It was Bejoy who pulled the trigger.”
“No one knows why?”
“The police will find out, let’s hope. But somebody translated what Bejoy said as he was taken away by the police. He said pointing at Cherian’s dead body, ‘He died because he taught me morality.’”