In spite of the haphazard details that had been made available, almost everyone agreed that Vishwamitra Joshi was a great man. Heroes were often obscured by the opaque murk of history. It took great diligence and perseverance to draw them back into the light. Gradually, over the last few years, Vishwamitra Joshi had assumed a discernible form; every month a new biographical illumination adding to his lustre.
These matters were of importance even in a small city with only three multiplex cinemas, two universities, one ancient fort, and no airport. In the staff rooms of schools and during adjournments in the court complex, over cups of tea at the railway station canteen, the conversation would occasionally turn to Vishwamitra Joshi. There could be no doubt that he had been a vital actor in the fight for independence, managing to hoodwink everyone from constables and tehsildars to Chief Commissioners and Inspector Generals. His absence from contemporary accounts by prominent British and Indian figures could only be recognised as a sign of the success of his subterfuge. The most remarkable of his campaigns involved the derailing of trains by placing barrels filled with rocks on the tracks. In each barrel, he left a signed scrap of paper, his elegant penmanship only serving to further infuriate the colonial authorities.
The fact that his name did not appear in any textbooks for decades and was absent from all recognised scholarship was hardly surprising. Everyone knew that the older historians were all charlatans who would go out of their way to neglect or malign great figures. Not satisfied with having diminished Vishwamitra Joshi, they had disappeared him. But the younger, cannier historians, goggle-eyed at new opportunities, were making amends. Among other triumphs, they chronicled Vishwamitra Joshi’s formation of a militia to repel attacks from Afghan marauders. Once again, while precise details were scant, oral accounts of his valour and wiliness had been passed down through generations, leaping into the mainstream just as campaigning for the last parliamentary elections began. Sometimes on his own, he managed to ambush troops of invaders on remote hilltops. He would wait behind boulders, imagining them tearing meat off the bone with their teeth and trying to catch the eye of beautiful maidens, these enraging images spurring him on to greater acts of bravery. The new volumes of his exploits described how he collected trunks full of turbans as souvenirs of his vanquished enemies before turning the fabric into garments for the poor.
It was around the time that the local press became aware of the misappropriation of funds designated for a government hospital that the city’s municipal authorities mooted their demand for a statue to commemorate the neglected hero. The clamour grew. Tales of Joshi’s bravery enraptured millions online but there existed no physical testament to his many sacrifices. Not only would a permanent monument mark the re-emergence of this forgotten victor, it would also be a welcome boost for the reputation of the city, its last appearance in national media coverage being reports of an illegal cockfight that had turned into a huge riot.
The accounts of Vishwamitra Joshi’s benevolence proliferated. He housed orphans, he tended the sick, he educated widows, although not excessively. He set up a string of residential schools where young men would strengthen their minds with scripture in the mornings and harden their bodies with sword fights in the afternoon. The most cited account of his regard for the needy was his encounter with a beggar on a chilly December night. Joshi had spotted the man shivering in a doorway, dressed in a thin cotton shirt and pyjamas. Almost as a reflex action, Joshi had taken off his jacket, purchased in England, where he had lived as a student. It was his only extravagant purchase, although hardly even that as he would not have been allowed into the college dining room without a jacket. He helped the astonished beggar into the jacket, buttoned it, and smoothed down the lapels. Then he waved him on his way, folding his arms across his chest as the wind tore down through the trees. For years, the beggar would seek alms dressed in Joshi’s fine tweed, crafted by Worsley and Anderson of Jermyn Street.
Sculptors from around the country were invited to submit their ideas for a suitably commemorative piece. After a period of deliberation the commission was awarded to the Mayor’s brother-in-law. His statue of a woman nuzzling a fawn, their eyes identical, had earned widespread praise, and his busts of the owners of Gupta Steel Works remained on display in all the Gupta family gardens. Funds were diverted from the sanitation department to this important commission and the sculptor was offered a small room in the administration block of the municipal corporation building if his studio proved in any way inadequate. He declined the offer.
Excitement about the statue continued to mount. It was known that the finest Rajasthani marble would be used and that the statue would be over six feet tall. Other than that, all the talk was speculation.
“I have heard he will be sitting on a chair, with a book, like a studious fellow.”
“No, someone saw through the studio window. He is holding a gun over his head with both hands. Like a weightlifter.”
“No, no, he is standing in a garden in that famous jacket. The one stitched by a darzi in England.”
As the sculptor chipped away at his creation, the city’s residents paid their own tributes to the great man. Students at the engineering college designed an app that would allow people to access Joshi’s teachings in an approachable way. The jets of the musical fountains in the city’s parks rose and fell in time to film songs repurposed to describe Joshi’s achievements. Every branch of Tip-Top Bakery now sold cakes and buns iced with an image of his favourite bird, the peacock. The elite Harvard Intercontinental School held a Vishwamitra Joshi fancy dress competition. Boys presented themselves in everything from military fatigues to the robes of an ascetic, and one zealous young man appeared in a raincoat covered with peacock feathers. Since the school staff were unable to find any photographs or portraits of Joshi, all the entrants received first prize.
The rains came in short spurts and continued well into September. They were followed by still, cloudless days of relentless heat. In the markets spinach and mustard greens wilted in a few hours and the election posters on walls around the city faded to a grubby pink. The river shrank from its banks and the musical fountains were switched off to preserve water.
Finally, it was the day of the inauguration, Vishwamitra Joshi’s presumptive birthday. A tent was set up in front of the municipal corporation building, where the statue would be unveiled in front of some of the most influential people in the country. It would then embark on a tour of twenty-five cities before settling in its permanent home, the courtyard of the city’s sole museum.
In the makeshift kitchen behind the tent, giant bags of besan and sugar were slit open, their contents heaved and poured into battered aluminium pots. A junior cook accidentally spilled an extra-large bag of cloves into the laddoo mixture. Panic-stricken by his mistake, he stirred the cloves into the besan until they were barely visible. Since no one seemed to have noticed, he backed away from the stove, washed his hands, and in about twenty minutes was on a bus that would take him to the next town.
Guests arrived from all over the country, their stomachs still churning from the state of the last fifty kilometres of the road into town. Even the Mayor’s wife had returned from Dubai, where she had been learning to ski. Silver bunting glinted high above the scrubby patch of grass in front of the tent. Laddoos and plastic cups of sugary tea were passed around. Raucous crows in the neem trees did their best to overpower the drone of chatter from the crowd and the contained argument unfolding in the kitchen.
The VIPs were led to their seats and the tent began to fill up. A nose in the second row twitched: someone a few seats away was peeling an orange. Near the steps leading up to the side of the stage, a stray dog settled down to lick its balls.
“I really thought this day would never come,” said the Assistant Mayor, laddoo in hand.
“It is a miracle,” said the Mayor, extracting a couple of cloves from his mouth and dropping them on the ground.
A hot breeze whipped grit and grime into the air but even as the audience clapped handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths, their spirits remained high. It was as though their actions had managed to literally raise the dust off their history.
As instructed, albeit two hours late, teachers from the government medical college scattered rose petals from the first floor of the municipal corporation building on to the path leading to the tent. The dhol players picked up the tempo, the seated guests fanning themselves with their invitations in time to the rhythm. The rose petals slowly drifted to the patch of grass behind the tent to mingle with the many cloves discarded there earlier by the guests.
The Minister of Cultural Affairs had been afforded the honour of unveiling the statue. The precise nature of this unveiling had been the subject of prolonged discussion with his aides. If he whipped the covering off in a flash, he might resemble some street magician brashly revealing a monkey in a cage. If he were to tug slowly at the covering, inch by seductive inch, he feared a lascivious element would creep into these momentous proceedings: this was not a striptease.
When the time came to reveal the statue, the speed and gravitas of his actions were perfect. He beamed. He executed a little bow. He handed the covering to an underling and awaited the sounds of jubilation. But for the first time that afternoon, there was silence in the tent. The dignitaries closest to the statue took in its pristine pearly features and then turned to look at its creator. The sculptor’s face was inscrutable. They gazed at the statue again and this time turned to look at the sculptor’s three daughters, seated in the second row, all of whom resembled him closely. Father and daughters had the same protruding eyes; the same nose with nostrils that looked flared even when in repose; the same delicate mouth, as though pursed in pre-emptive disapproval. The dignitaries shifted their gaze from the daughters back to the statue. The sculptor had rendered the statue in his own likeness. The protruding eyes, the flared nostrils and the delicate mouth, all appeared again, this time hewn in marble.
The Minister of Cultural Affairs cleared his throat and looked up at the red and yellow swirls on the ceiling of the tent. A child at the back began to bawl. One of the mikes on stage emitted a ghostly murmur. After a few seconds, the sculptor’s face showed some signs of life: he blinked and turned towards the dazzle of daylight far beyond the tent poles. One of his daughters blinked too.
Someone in a middle row began to clap. The clapping rippled across the row and over the central aisle. A man stood up near the front and pulled his neighbour to her feet. The applause grew louder. More people stood up, there were loud cheers at the back, and the bawling child was hoisted on to broad paternal shoulders. The Mayor put his fingers in his mouth and a sharp whistle cut through the tent. Almost the entire audience was on its feet now. The sculptor stood up, faced the assembly and humbly put his hands together. The ovation grew thunderous, a kind of feral euphoria sparking through the air. Loud acclamations settled in the thick atmosphere, already rich with the sense of old wounds being healed. The stray dog fled from the roars. In a circle of blazing light, the statue glowed. The noise pulsed towards the stage, its beat making its way into the bones of the people in the crowd. The pitch grew so frenzied that it seemed likely that the flimsy tent poles would soon snap and bring the entire tent crashing down.
Mahesh Rao is the author of the novels The Smoke Is Rising (2014) and Polite Society (2018), and a collection of short stories, One Point Two Billion (2015).