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Inspector Bloemendal was already at the café when I arrived. He did not smile, and we did not shake hands. I just sat down across from him, removed my mask and he began to talk.
It had been a long story.
Three years ago, to the day, a woman had been a murdered in public, in front of the bank headquarters not far from the quaint old town centre and train station. A pedestrian bridge in fact connected this spot to newer residential parts of the town and thus at all hours there was a steady flow of people walking by. At peak rush hour, a 41-year old woman had been stabbed as she had turned around the corner from the bank and was heading towards the steps of the bridge. In the rush, the assailant had got away. The victim had continued walking for some time, and then finally collapsed into the arms of an oncoming pedestrian. Witnesses remember a helicopter arriving within minutes.
The case had been in and out of the news for three long years and the assailant was never found, nor a motive established. I myself walked by the same spot daily on my way to and from work and once in a while reflected on what could have happened here that fateful evening. For a week after the stabbing, people had left flowers on the spot and notes in Dutch that I could not understand.
The day before it was on the television again. A photograph of the victim, taken in happier times, smiling and looking over her shoulder in a green high-collared jacket, and it was flashed with the news that the investigators had reached a dead end, and the case was being closed.
I am not sure what roused my attention in the first place. Was it the green jacket, or the smile? Perhaps it was both. It was a Friday evening, and I was heading straight to a neighbourhood pub where some of the neighbourhood men met for what could be called a boys’ night-out. Late in the night and after a few glasses of red wine, during a lull in the conversation, I remember blurting out, “Did you see the picture of the girl who was murdered across the street? I think I met her once.”
There was indeed silence now, and I was expected to continue.
It was at this very pub, I explained, that we met. A friend had called one morning and asked for a special favour. Emma, an acquaintance and an archaeologist, wanted some information about Indian languages and, being Indian, could I perhaps be of help? I had agreed.
Like good Dutchmen, the two women arrived on time. We ordered drinks and Emma already had her laptop open. After a few clicks on the mousepad, she turned it towards me. On display was an ancient text, which she suspected to be Indian.
I immediately recognized it as being a Dravidian script with its characteristic curls for the consonants and diacritical marks above and below for vowels, but not being a native South Indian, I had difficulty in discerning whether it was the Tamil, Malayalam, Telegu or Kannada script. After looking at it closely and matching it against what we could find via Google searches, we jointly concluded that it was Malayalam. However, I could also see that the text was interspersed with numerals.
I also gave her the reference of one of my friends, Professor Gopal Nair, whose native language was Malayalam. With this we concluded the discussion about the Indian language, finished our drinks and left. It was then that she had turned around slightly and smiled, in her green coat with high collar, just like the picture that was shown on television.
A week had gone by and I had not heard back from Emma, but the text that I saw on her laptop screen had aroused my curiosity. In fact, I got in touch with Gopal and asked if Emma had got in touch with him. She had not and so I described to him the text she had showed me. It was a Zoom call, and I could see him getting mildly excited.
Gopal asked me to check with Emma if this document had been unearthed in the Netherlands. If this is so, he explained, then it could be important.
A week later, Emma had still not returned my messages and calls. Then one Sunday evening she called back and promised to meet at a café on the Oudegracht, the old sunken canal in the old town that was now ringed with restaurants and cafés, both at the street and canal levels. It gave the town its characteristic atmosphere that had been in existence for at least 800 years.
When we met, she seemed preoccupied, but began the conversation by explaining, rather overawed, that the café was part of an old house that belonged to Admiral Steven Van der Hagen, the first admiral of the Dutch East India Company fleet and at the end of 1603 had set sail for India. In May 1604 he sighted the Cape of Good Hope and by September arrived in India; Goa first and then Calicut in Kerala, and immediately got himself and his fleet embroiled in local politics. The Zamorin kings of Calicut wanted to keep the Portuguese at bay and thought it a good idea to use the Dutch for that. Dominance of the spice trade between India and Europe was at stake.
By November, after a short bloody battle he established himself near Calicut and then went on to India’s east coast, Indonesia and, some said, even sailed past the far lands of Australia, a century and a half before Captain Cook. Emma explained that she had been part of routine archaeological excavations around the Hagen house by the Oudegracht. She explained in a low secretive tone that in one of the vaulted cellars they found strange foreign objects that were finally identified as being of Indian origin. However, it was an old ornate maritime chest that really caught their attention. Inside it were old parchments with text presumably in an Indian language, a sample of which Emma had showed me on her laptop during our first meeting. This had been from hurriedly taken photographs. The material was still to be removed from the cellars, catalogued, examined and then studied in detail.
When I narrated this to Gopal, he looked even more excited and, in a few days, called back to explain what might have happened. Do you know, he elucidated, these papers might have been looked at by René, the important enlightenment philosopher.
With my elementary knowledge of all things profound, this sounded exciting enough. Emma was extremely busy that week, but we had a quick telephonic conversation. She was able to confirm that René indeed lived in Utrecht at that time and was an acquaintance of Admiral Hagen.
By then my imagination was running wild. At pubs, I would discuss this with total strangers and often heard interesting stories in return. Someone said one of Admiral Hagen’s men had fallen in love with an Indian woman and brought her to Amsterdam. She talked in a strange language and only when they found an interpreter, an Arab who worked for the company, was it established that she spoke an Indian language. Soon it was apparent that she talked of high mathematics that was far advanced by European standards. Someone it seems had taken her to Leiden and introduced her to a mathematics professor. At that time, René too was teaching there, and came to know of her. Later when he moved to Utrecht, she might have followed him and that is how she finally arrived in the town with the sunken canal.
By then Gopal had confirmed that the Malayalam manuscripts were from the famed Kerala school of mathematics that had flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The bulk of their work was presumed lost, but the names of some of the accomplished scholars had survived in local historical records. Bhattathiri was one of them. There was also the mention of him having a female student, which was rare in those days. Her name was recorded as Jayalata. She is said to have left abruptly when Calicut was overrun by the Europeans.
Could it have happened that as Kerala became increasingly embattled, among the Zamorins, the Portuguese and the Dutch, Jayalata decided to flee to Europe with the manuscripts? Emma had no idea how any of this could be verified and thought perhaps that all this was a bit over the top. For some time, she stopped taking my calls.
However, during my evenings at the pubs in Utrecht, I reconstructed my story in meticulous detail. For this I even read up about René, about his life and times in The Netherlands. In France, despite powerful friends, he felt that persecution by the Catholic orthodoxy was imminent. The Netherlands was more liberal. A large number of Arab manuscripts about Indian mathematics had also freshly arrived here, describing zero and infinity, limits and infinitesimals, concepts that would ultimately go into the invention of calculus.
When I tried to imagine how the destinies of René and Jayalata might have collided, I found that I was holding two small pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle.
First was the fact that, for a short time, René had a mistress about whom very little is known. Could it have been Jayalata? Could she have shown him the invaluable Kerala manuscripts, that were at least a hundred years more advanced than what they were studying in Europe?
Second was the epiphany, when he claimed that knowledge was revealed to him in a single night. A single night, can you believe it? Soon after, he wrote his treatise on geometry that made him world-famous and is used even today.
Frankly, when I tried to put together the dates, they were all muddled up. The mistress came earlier and the epiphany much later, but historians too are not perfect and could have got the dates all wrong.
To me, if all this really happened, it could mean that René took unfair advantage of Jayalata’s love and concocted a convenient way to appropriate the knowledge of the Kerala school that she had so readily shared with him, and betrayed her trust. When she confronted him, things really got out of hand. At that time, René was staying as a guest in Admiral Hagen’s house. Late that night, the servants remember hearing her screams, as though she had been dragged down to the cellars under the house, along the sunken canal. These cellars, originally constructed for storage of merchandise, formed a complex interconnected maze where it was easy to get lost.
How could I imagine all this, really!
Was she murdered and her body dumped in the cellars? Was she locked up alive and left there to die? It is certain that Jayalata was never seen again. But nothing is known of what happened to the Kerala manuscripts. Maybe she too knew the underground cellars of the Oudegracht well and was able to hide them away safely. René is known to have wandered aimlessly in the cellars for many years. Maybe he too was looking for them, but obviously she hid them well and they were found only now, or so I imagined, almost 400 years later.
At the pubs, where they were now familiar with my tales, someone added one evening that Jayalata perhaps returned to India on one of the company ships, or else went further west to America. Some said no, she killed herself in the cellars. But I countered that no skeleton or any evidence of death had been found there. I tried ringing Emma and tell her how the story was developing, but she never replied. She could have confirmed if a dead body had ever been found in the excavations. Finally, I wrote it all down, posed my questions and emailed it all to her.
I paused now for a moment and I could see the boys on their night out, positively spellbound by my story so far. We ordered another round of drinks and before I could continue, someone asked if I had reported all this to the police.
What is the use? It is just a story, imagined by me and others. There were no facts and no explanation of a possible motive. Where would it lead the police? In fact, they might even accuse me of misrepresentation and leading them down a dead end. But one of the mates was adamant and rang up the police right then, and this is how I landed up in front of Inspector Bloemendal the next morning, with a strong hangover, wondering where I should start and which parts should I tell.
But at this moment, late in the winter evening, as we sat huddled around the only large wooden table in the pub, I returned to my story and explained that one afternoon, my phone rang and it was Emma, sounding frantic, at the other end. I offered to meet her the next morning, but she insisted that it had to be tonight. I arrived at the café and waited, but she never turned up. She neither called again, nor answered my emails: ever.
After I had narrated all this to the Inspector, he got up, walked out of his office without a word but returned in a few minutes with a metallic box in his hand. He laid it on the table before us, opened it and pulled out a strange dagger, which he stated was the murder weapon. It was the Indian style katyar which has a handle perpendicular to a sharp and short blade. The police had never seen such a weapon before. It had been found with the blade deep inside Emma’s abdomen. The shape of the handle was such that the stabbing action could be forceful and firm.
That same afternoon the Inspector fixed a meeting with the archaeology department where Emma worked. Right after the murder, he had also met her colleagues and the head of department. They had reported to the inspector that she was in charge of the routine excavations around Admiral Hagen’s house, but there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, or anything that could be even remotely connected to her unnatural death.
The head of department was a reputed archaeologist with a busy schedule, who specialised in Roman ruins and had been instrumental in the excavations around the Dom many years back that proved beyond doubt the existence of a Roman encampment from the second century BC, where Utrecht now stood.
As I narrated my story, she listened impassively and, in the end, concluded that it was unlikely that such a stream of events and evidence could have escaped the notice of historians. However, as this was part of a murder investigation, she arranged for the police to visit the excavations around Admiral Hagen’s house the very next afternoon.
Besides the café where Emma and I once met was a narrow staircase that led to a basement. From the basement, short tunnels have been dug out to a number of arched cellars in the area. The cellars were located at multiple levels and were largely empty. We went to the lower levels, presumably below the canal, which were dark, dank and enveloped in silence broken only by the faint sound of water drops. It was eerie. Before long, I felt a shiver down my spine and my palms broke out into a sweat.
We finally reached a section that seemed to have been freshly dug out and consisted of more passages and chambers constructed out of the same brickwork that marked the construction around and beneath the canal. At a chamber that seemed to be the last, the archaeologist accompanying us explained that whatever had been found here had been recorded on inventory and taken away to their lab building. However, there was nothing of Indian origin as described by me, and never a chest with Indian manuscripts. Somewhat disappointed, I walked the few steps to the far end of the cellar and felt the walls. The archaeologist perhaps guessed what I was thinking and explained that behind these walls were smaller chambers, a thicker wall with special waterproof plaster and then the canal. Any breach would let a deluge of water into these cellars and completely fill them up. One such breach had occurred during the excavations and had flooded some of the smaller chambers. After that they had been extremely careful.
For a moment we were all silent, the archaeologist, the inspector and me. I thought I heard the dull rumble of water, perhaps from across the wall. My hand was on the wall and suddenly I was conscious of it being damp and then wet. The rumbling grew louder. I could sense the alarm now on the faces of the others as well. All of us walked away and with a quickened step headed for the exit at the other end. We were surrounded by darkness, with only the narrow passages being dimly lit. It seemed for ever as we walked behind one another, me at the tail-end, panting slightly and having broken into a sweat.
It was then that I heard the footsteps behind me. For a moment I thought that there were others in our group that afternoon. Then the footsteps got closer. From somewhere not far away, we heard the brickwork collapsing and water gushing in. We broke into a run. Just as we rounded a corner there was a loud crash right behind us. I turned around to see the bricks had come tumbling down right in the passage where we were, just moments ago.
It was then that I sensed a shadow across the heap of bricks, barely a couple of metres from where I stood. I could clearly see the figure now. It was an Indian woman, standing calm and erect as more bricks came down around us and as the sound of gushing water got nearer. I do not remember anything clearly after that, except that I was shaking uncontrollably and trying to scream, but only choked and gasped for breath. The falling bricks finally closed off the passage, and in the cloud of dust I clearly saw the eyes of a woman and strange vermillion marks on her forehead and somewhere closer to me, almost in my ears, I heard an unintelligible whisper. Then there was silence, and the passage was now completely sealed off.
I turned around and ran to catch up with the others, all the time wondering what the whisper meant. At best it sounded like a word or a name that I had never heard before – pēāvārunt.
In another week, Emma’s murder case came up for its closing, and I attended this final hearing at the Utrecht courts on Sint Jacobstraat. I heard Inspector Bloemendal present the findings and conclusion. My testimony had not even been taken on record.
Soon after the hearing, I walked back to my apartment past Croeselaan. I walked by both the café situated in Admiral Hagen’s ancient house and then the spot where Emma had been stabbed. I shuddered as I imagined Jayalata, having escaped from her dungeons just this once on a summer evening and killed the one person who had come too close to her secrets. Emma could have been killed in the cellars too, but perhaps Jayalata did not want to draw attention to the sacred spot that she had inhabited now for over 400 years, guarding her secrets and treasures.
I too had trespassed on them, but was given a stern warning. Pēāvārunt, Gopal Nair told me a few weeks later meant “go away” in sixteenth century Malayalam.
That evening at the pub with my mates on our night out, it was wet outside from the soft incessant rain that occurred in Utrecht all the time. We had little conversation, and everyone seemed immersed in his own private thoughts. I watched the shadows outside in the rain, as they passed by the glass windows of the pub. Each of them became a person for a moment under the lone streetlight, and then dissolved in the darkness once again. But now I knew that one would remain a shadow and keep an eye on me, for the rest of my life.
Read more about author Sanjay Dharwadker here