The boy who was born a Grandfather

MAURICE DeCUNHA May 1 1965

The boy who was born a Grandfather

MAURICE DeCUNHA May 1 1965

The boy who was born a Grandfather

In the northern Indian town of Sirsaganj there is a boy named Rajiv, a normal, quite ordinary boy apparently, except for one thing — he’s the reincarnation of a dead man. Or so everyone believes. Here is his curious story, told by a former police official, now a resident of Canada, who investigated it

MAURICE DeCUNHA

IN INDIA, VIOLENT encounters between families, caste groups and even whole communities can flare up so swiftly and for such a variety of reasons, often trivial, that a police officer soon learns to stop the quarrel first and ask questions afterward. So when, as police superintendent of Mainpuri district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. I received a report of trouble brewing between two castes at a place called Sirsaganj, I took off by Jeep without waiting to learn the details.

In the police station the local inspector gave me the brief details of a fantastic situation: a five-year-old boy was being claimed by two communities. To a family of the Agarwal caste in Sirsaganj, he was Rajiv, their youngest child; to a family of the Kachi caste in Daulatganj. he was the reincarnation of a forty-year-old man named Sumer Singh, who had died five years before.

“What gave the Kachis the incredible idea?” I asked.

“Rajiv himself. For nearly three years he has been insisting he is Sumer Singh. This talk has reached the Kachis, and there could be trouble if they come here and attempt to take him back to Daulatganj.”

I sent for the boy and his parents. He soon arrived, accompanied by his uncle and a couple of neighbors. His father was away, so his mother had sent her brother along, because women in India do not usually go anywhere unaccompanied by their husbands. Rajiv turned out to be a small nervous child with large intelligent brown eyes. To set him at ease I gave him a banana and some candy, and he reacted as one might expect any five-year-old to. Meanwhile I decided to get as much of the story as I could from his uncle, Mahesh, a man in his middle twenties, neatly dressed as befitted his caste. The Agarwals are a sub-caste of the Baniyas, who are merchants and shopkeepers and usually well-to-do. This particular family owned several grocery and cloth shops in Sirsaganj.

Mahesh was a little apprehensive, because, as I learned later, he thought that I had come to take the boy av/ay from the family.

I asked him to tell me the whole story, and he told me that when Rajiv was a little over two years old, he was seen one day running down the road toward the north. An older boy caught him and brought him back. When his mother asked him where he was going, he said he was “going home.”

“But, Rajiv,” his mother said, “this is your home.”

“No.” replied the child, “I am going to my own home.”

“Where is that?” he was asked.

“In village Daulatganj.”

This incident was passed off as a

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childish whim, until it happened again a few days later. Then it happened a third time, and the boy’s mother, to humor him, began asking him questions about his “own” home. The child seemed very positive in his answers. He said his name was Sumer Singh, and he lived in Daulatganj. He had five acres of land, and had built his own home in the village. He had a wife and one daughter. Ram Kali, whom he had married to a boy from the nearby village of Bara Kalan. They had had two children.

The other members of his family were highly amused at the boy's flights of fancy, but when he continued his attempts to go “home” they became a little worried. They consulted the family pandit, who for a fee recited a few mantras and told them not to worry. The child, however, persisted in his attempts to go “home” and seemed to answer quite rationally all questions put to him. He also appeared to have considerable knowledge of adult matters, including particular caste customs of the Kachis. with w'hom, being a member of a higher caste, he had never come in contact.

The boy’s story was checked

By the time the boy was four, the v.-^ry had spread all around the neigh>rhood and the people would come very day to see the child and ask m questions. His answers w'ere so jonsistent and so positive that many earned men in the area began to relieve that the boy actually was remembering his previous life.

Hindus believe in the transmigration of the soul. They consider the soul to be a part of God, and that it endeavors during its various lifetimes to return to the Parent Being. Only the good are reborn as human beings, w'ith another opportunity of coming nearer to God and salvation. In this case it was believed that the subconscious memory was carried by the soul of Sumer Singh into his next physical existence.

Friends of the family formed a committee to check on the boy’s story. First, the elders learned, there actually was a village named Daulatganj, about forty miles to the north, where a community of Kachis lived. Members of the committee visited as village. They found that the statenents made by the child were correct in every detail. The contents of the house and the names and ages of all the members of the household of Sumer Singh were as Rajiv had described them. The committee looked for “the little black trunk” that the boy had said “I bought in Bhogaon town, and had my name painted on it for eight annas.” They found it.

Sumer Singh’s parents, his widow, daughter, son-in-law', and two grandchildren were all living in the house the boy had described. The committee spoke to the village moneylender from whom Sumer Singh had borrowed two hundred rupees many years

before, the interest on which was still being repaid by the family, though the capital had been repaid many times over. He confirmed the details of the transaction that Rajiv had described. The village chowkidar (constable) confirmed the story of a burned mango tree exactly as the boy had told it: Sumer Singh had had a quarrel with the owner of a neighboring field, and one morning he woke up to find his mango tree burned. He accused his neighbor of this act of vandalism. This led to another quarrel in which the two men came to blows. The matter was eventually decided by the village council, Sumer Singh's neighbor being “sentenced" to provide a feast for the whole village.

The committee returned to Sirsaganj. greatly impressed and quite convinced that young Rajiv w;as a reincarnation of Sumer Singh. This annoyed Rajiv's parents and grandparents. They were Agarwals, and much higher in the social scale than Sumer Singh's family, who were Kachis. a much lower caste.

At the same time. Rajiv’s family were extremely agitated lest Sumer Singh's family, finding the boy in well-to-do circumstances, claimed him as their own. They therefore did their best to hush up this story and refused to allow Rajiv to see anyone outside their family. Rajiv's grandmother even tried to make the child lose his memory by seating him on a grinding stone, and spinning him round and round as fast as she could. But this treatment only made the boy very dizzy, and had no effect upon his memory. I mention the attitude of Rajiv's family to show that, far from seeking publicity, they were doing their best to avoid it. (It was being suggested that the whole thing was a hoax, and that Rajiv's parents were teaching the boy to say these things to gain local popularity and some cheap publicity. They w'ould have refused even to send the boy to the police station to see me, except that they did not dare to disobey the order of the district superintendent of police.)

It was only w'hen I gave Rajiv’s family my assurance that my interest w'as purely for the purpose of preventing any possible trouble in the future, that they co-operated in these inquiries. Having got Rajiv into a good humor, I questioned him, with the help of his uncle. It was like questioning any five-year-old. His attention kept wandering and many questions he just would not answer. Sometimes a question would elicit a flood of reminiscences. I asked him how he died.

“I died in the government hospital in Fathegarh” he replied.

“Why were you in hospital?” I asked, “and why so far away as Fathegarh when our own hospital in Mainpuri was very much closer?”

"I had a bad pain in my ear,” he said. “I had been treated by Dr. Sharma in the district hospital in Mainpuri, but it had done me no good, so I was advised to try Fathegarh Hospital, which is not only bigger, but also has a« ear-nose-andthroat specialist.”

This was definitely not five-year-

He would answer questions eagerly—then grow silent

old talk, even though spoken with a decided lisp. Later I confirmed that about five years before a Dr. Sharma

was the medical officer in charge of the district hospital at Mainpuri, and that cases that required the attention of a specialist were referred to the Fathegarh general hospital.

“How long were you in hospital?'* I asked.

“Eleven days,” he answered without hesitation. “It cost me four hundred rupees, including the operation.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I died on the operating table," he replied, in the most matter-of-fact way. After that he would tell me nothing more. His uncle said that this was the way it always was. He would answer a few questions quite well, sometimes even eagerly with a quantity of detail, and then suddenly would

withdraw into his shell and answer no more. Another peculiarity noticed was that sometimes he would remember some things, and at other times, others. On some occasions he would even deny knowledge of certain events that he had remembered in great detail on other occasions. It seemed as though he was permitted to peep behind the curtain covering past events, on certain occasions and not on others. The past seemed to appear to him in flashes, which became dimmer and fewer as he grew older. A similar phenomenon had been noticed, I came to know later when I discussed this case with some university professors, in other known cases in India, where memory seemed to grow

dimmer as age advanced and where by the age of about eleven the child had lost all memory of the past, and would not even believe that he or she ever had remembered a previous existence. Rajiv's uncle told me that the boy, at five, was already less talkative about his “other life” than he had been previously.

Other duties took me back to my office, so I deputed a detective subinspector to continue to investigate the case thoroughly and to record the statements of all the persons concerned. He took pains over this investigation and recorded the statements not only of the immediate family of the late Sumer Singh in Daulatganj, but also of other responsible persons of the village such as the pram sahhapati (president of the village council whose duties correspond in a smaller way to those of a mayor) and the chowkidar (village constable).

I also asked the detective to question the boy several times over a period of time, on the same points, to see if he contradicted himself. Finally, I asked him to arrange a meeting between Sumer Singh's entire family:— whom the boy had never seen — and to see what the boy’s reaction was.

Who would know but a dead man?

At about this time I was promoted, and in the rush of wider responsibilities forgot this case for a while. I was reminded of it at one of my crime conferences by the new superintendent of police. The results of this investigation, when I finally got them, amazed me. The records of both hospitals and the statement of the nurses, ward boys, and doctors, corroborated in every detail young Rajiv’s story of Sumer Singh’s illness and death. These details could not possibly have been known to anyone but Sumer Singh himself. Sumer Singh’s family may have known the broader facts of the illness and treatment, but they could not possibly know what happened in the operating theatre, for example. Added to this, Rajiv never contradicted himself once on any point of fact.

The result of the meeting between Sumer Singh’s family and young Rajiv seemed to put the clincher on the story. Rajiv's parents were most reluctant to allow such a meeting. The whole Agarwal community was up in arms. It was quite certain that Rajiv had never, in his young life, heen outside his village. It was equally certain that Sumer Singh’s family had never gone beyond the nearby town of Bhogaon, except when they took Sumer Singh to hospital at Mainpuri and Fathegarh. Curiosity, and the will of the local pandit, eventually persuaded Rajiv's parents to agree to this meeting on the express condition that no matter what the result, Rajiv would not be taken away from them.

Sumer Singh's entire family, consisting of his parents, widow, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren were brought to Sirsaganj. Rajiv was not told anything about this. The

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family was assembled in a room. Rajiv’s parents, tíñele and other relatives, family friends, local pandits, and the detective were also present.

Rajiv was brought into the room. He looked around in surprise, and then a change seemed to come over him. The change was not physical but was in fact a complete transition of his demeanor from that of a child to a dignified adult. He walked up to Sumer Singh’s father, slowly hut deliberately, and touched his feet in India’s ancient gesture of veneration. He then touched Sumer Singh’s mother’s feet and called her mataji (mother). He then looked at Sumer Singh’s widow, who was now in her middle forties, and turned his face away with a gentle smile. When asked who the lady was, he appeared embarrassed and kept his head down. When the question was repeated, he replied with a shy smile, “Ram Kali’s mother.”

This behavior was absolutely typical of a man of Sumer Singh's class and circumstances, when any reference is made to his wife in the presence of his parents. A man never discusses his wife, or even acknowledges her presence, in front of his parents. His wife is also not referred to by name, but as the mother of his eldest child.

Sumer Singh’s daughter, Ram Kali, now a matronly woman of about thirty, was pointed to next. Rajiv’s manner changed at once. He looked up, smiled confidently, and said, “That’s my bittia (little daughter).”

He was asked how he knew.

“Look on her right forearm,” he said. “You’ll find my name tattooed there. I had that done when she was thirteen, just before she was married, at the fair in Bhogaon.”

Ram Kali’s face was a picture of amazement. “I saw other women being tattooed,” she whispered, “I was not a child any more. I was going to be married soon. I wanted to he tattooed. My father allowed me. I did not know what to have tattooed. I loved my father very much, so I had his name tattooed on my right forearm.”

She slowly put her bangle-encased

“God sent him back again to enjoy once more the innocent joys of childhood”

right arm out, with a look of awe on her face, and there on her forearm was the tattoo, dimmed by age but still readable. She rushed forward suddenly, knelt before young Rajiv, and put her forehead on his feet crying, “Bapu! Bapu! (Father, Father),” quite piteously.

She then got up, grabbed her two teenage sons who were standing uncertainly near her. and pulled them down at Rajiv’s feet.

“Touch your grandfather’s feet!” she ordered, and meekly they obeyed.

Rajiv smiled benignly on the two boys more than twice his size, who were prostrate before him, and touching their heads said a dignified, “Jeetay raho!" w'hich, roughly translated, means, "Long may you live." This was the correct gesture and response of a father or grandfather (or any older person), accepting graciously the veneration of a younger person.

There did not seem to be any doubt whatever in the mind of any person in that room that Rajiv's body did indeed occupy the departed soul of Sumer Singh. From the hospital death certificate it appeared that Sumer Singh's death took place approximately two hours before Rajiv was born, almost a hundred miles away.

After the meeting, events took a happy turn. Instead of the expected trouble between the tw'o families over possession of Rajiv, there was harmony between them, due largely to the wise head on the old stooped shoulders of the late Sumer Singh's father. This venerable gentleman got up. and with the authority of age, addressed the group.

“Sumer w'as a very good son to me,” he said. "He was also a good husband to my daughter-in-law, and a good father to Ram Kali. He was respected in the village as an honest man. His death was a loss not only to my family, but to the w'hole village. God is however wonderfully wise in His w'ays. He knew that the doctor killed my son before his allotted years on this earth were over. He therefore decided to send him back again to enjoy once more the innocent joys of childhood. And because

Sumer had led a good clean life, God in His wisdom decided to send him to a richer and better home. We are grateful to God not only for sending Sumer back, but for improving his condition in life. We would be doing Sumer a disfavor if we took him away now, as my wife wants us to do. We cannot give him such fine clothes.

or such a good home, or even a good education.

"Keep my son. sir." he added, turning to Rajiv’s father, “only allow me in my old age sometimes to see him and to inquire about his welfare. And. when my time comes to leave this earth, as it soon will, will you send my son to light my funeral pyre.

according to the dictates of tradition?"

Rajiv's father agreed to this, and the meeting ended happily. Rajiv soon reverted to his own shy childish self, and to the best of my know ledge is still playing around in Sirsaganj. a normal, healthy, happy child in a good home, who is perhaps not even aware of the storm he created. ★