DHANA GUPTA earned crores. But he had to sin a lot to make all that money. Following in his footsteps, several other merchants earned lakhs.

Dhana Gupta became old. As death crept nearer, fear of hell began to torment him. All his life, he had sinned without hesitation, and unless he did some good things in the little time left, he felt there was no way of escaping the eternal fires. A pilgrimage to a holy place would go a long way to reduce the burden of his accumulated sin.

Three other wealthy merchants wanted to accompany Dhana Gupta when they learned about his intention to pilgrimage. They, too, had lived a life of sin. Besides, it paid one to do blindly whatever the great man did, for he never undertook anything unless it paid back with interest. They could have a share in the profits. Dhana Gupta agreed to accompany him because the expenses could be shared among the four. Also, if one fell ill, three others would be to look after him.

They could not decide whether to go to Banaras or Rameshwar for a long time. As the saying goes, a trip to Banaras was a trip to the other world. Rameshwar was much nearer, the journey much safer, and, more, there was a man who could be a guide in their village. He was an untouchable called Ram. He had quarreled thrice with his people at home and had gone to Rameshwar each time.

On a perfect day, the four pilgrims started their journey with the untouchable Ram leading the way. They kept singing Lord Rama’s glory so that everyone knew they were on a pious errand. The trip went off very pleasantly and smoothly. Rameshwar was within a couple of days’ journey.

Suddenly, the sky became dark with ominous clouds, and a strong gale started blowing. This happened while the pilgrims were going through a forest. To their horror, they saw giant trees swaying in the wind and threatening to crash down. Overhead the clouds moved like big elephants and roared incessantly. Now and then, the sky was torn with flashes of lightning that blinded their eyes.

The pilgrims saw a small shrine and ran towards it as fast as possible to take shelter. They were no sooner within the shrine than a lot of thunderbolts began to fall like bombs. One crashed into a tree, destroying a part of it, while the rest failed. A few seconds later, another thunderbolt fell within fifty yards of the shrine.

The pilgrims were nearly dead with fear. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life,” Dhana Gupta said. “One of us is impure, and because of him, we will all be destroyed.”

“Look at this, Ram. He is untouchable. We made a grave blunder in bringing him along with us. Letting him enter the shrine was a still more grave offense. Why should he come inside? It is enough to drive God mad!” the others chorused.

Ram, the impure, was asked to leave the shrine at once.

“Respected sirs,” Ram implored. “It has started to rain heavily. Take pity on me. I shall freeze if I get wet. I am impure. But so long as I am with pure people like you, God will not touch me; He will not punish four for the sake of one.”

But Ram’s entreaties only made the pilgrims more merciless and hard-hearted. In the end, they physically pushed the poor fellow out. He ran to the nearest tree and stood shivering under it.

The next moment there was a blinding flash above and a crash that could have been that of the cracking of the sky itself. Ram closed his eyes tight. When he opened them again, there was no shrine, only a heap of stones. A single thunderbolt had wiped out all four pilgrims.

Chandamama December 1955 | S Appa Rao

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