THE Jijamata Express sped along the Pune-Bombay* route
considerably faster than the Deccan Queen. There were no
industrial townships outside Pune. The first stop, Lonavala, came
in 40 minutes. The ghat section that followed was no different
from what he knew. The train stopped at Karjat only briefly and
went on at even greater speed. It roared through Kalyan.
Meanwhile, the racing mind of Professor Gaitonde had arrived
at a plan of action in Bombay. Indeed, as a historian he felt he
should have thought of it sooner. He would go to a big library
and browse through history books. That was the surest way of
finding out how the present state of affairs was reached. He also
planned eventually to return to Pune and have a long talk with
Rajendra Deshpande, who would surely help him understand
what had happened.
That is, assuming that in this world there existed someone
called Rajendra Deshpande!
The train stopped beyond the long tunnel. It was a small station
called Sarhad. An Anglo-Indian in uniform went through the train
The present story is an adapted version. The original text of the story can be
This is where the British Raj begins. You are going for the
first time, I presume?” Khan Sahib asked.
Yes.” The reply was factually correct. Gangadharpant had
not been to this Bombay before. He ventured a question: “And,
Khan Sahib, how will you go to Peshawar?
“This train goes to the Victoria Terminus*. I will take the
Frontier Mail tonight out of Central.
How far does it go? By what route?
Bombay to Delhi, then to Lahore and then Peshawar. A long
journey. I will reach Peshawar the day after tomorrow.
Thereafter, Khan Sahib spoke a lot about his business and
Gangadharpant was a willing listener. For, in that way, he was
able to get some flavour of life in this India that was so different.
The train now passed through the suburban rail traffic. The
blue carriages carried the letters, GBMR, on the side.
Greater Bombay Metropolitan Railway,” explained Khan
Sahib. “See the tiny Union Jack painted on each carriage? A
gentle reminder that we are in British territory.
The train began to slow down beyond Dadar and stopped
only at its destination, Victoria Terminus. The station looked
remarkably neat and clean. The staff was mostly made up of
Anglo-Indians and Parsees along with a handful of British officers.
As he emerged from the station, Gangadharpant found
himself facing an imposing building. The letters on it proclaimed
its identity to those who did not know this Bombay landmark
East India House HEADQUARTERS
OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
Prepared as he was for many shocks, Professor Gaitonde had not
expected this. The East India Company had been wound up shortly
after the events of 1857 — at least, that is what history books said.
Yet, here it was, not only alive but flourishing. So, history had
taken a different turn, perhaps before 1857. How and when had it
happened? He had to find out.
As he walked along Hornby Road, as it was called, he found
a different set of shops and office buildings. There was no
Handloom House building. Instead, there were Boots and
Woolworth departmental stores, imposing offices of Lloyds,
Barclays and other British banks, as in a typical high street of a
town in England
He turned right along Home Street and entered Forbes
“I wish to meet Mr Vinay Gaitonde, please, he said to the
She searched through the telephone list, the staff list and
then through the directory of employees of all the branches of
the firm. She shook her head and said, “I am afraid I can’t find
anyone of that name either here or in any of our branches. Are
you sure he works here?
This was a blow, not totally unexpected. If he himself were
dead in this world, what guarantee had he that his son would
be alive? Indeed, he may not even have been born!
He thanked the girl politely and came out. It was
characteristic of him not to worry about where he would stay.
His main concern was to make his way to the library of the
Asiatic Society to solve the riddle of history. Grabbing a quick
lunch at a restaurant, he made his way to the Town Hall.
Yes, to his relief, the Town Hall was there, and it did house the
library. He entered the reading room and asked for a list of history
books including his own.
His five volumes duly arrived on his table. He started from
the beginning. Volume one took the history up to the period of
Ashoka, volume two up to Samudragupta, volume three up to
Mohammad Ghori and volume four up to the death of Aurangzeb.
Up to this period history was as he knew it. The change evidently
had occurred in the last volume.
Reading volume five from both ends inwards, Gangadharpant
finally converged on the precise moment where history had taken
a different turn.
That page in the book described the Battle of Panipat, and it
mentioned that the Marathas won it handsomely. Abdali was
routed and he was chased back to Kabul by the triumphant
Maratha army led by Sadashivrao Bhau and his nephew, the
The book did not go into a blow-by-blow account of the
battle itself. Rather, it elaborated in detail its consequences for
the power struggle in India. Gangadharpant read through the
account avidly. The style of writing was unmistakably his, yet
he was reading the account for the first time!
Their victory in the battle was not only a great morale booster
to the Marathas but it also established their supremacy in
northern India. The East India Company, which had been
watching these developments from the sidelines, got the message
and temporarily shelved its expansionist programme.
For the Peshwas the immediate result was an increase in
the influence of Bhausaheb and Vishwasrao who eventfully
succeeded his father in 1780 A.D. The trouble-maker,
Dadasaheb, was relegated to the background and he eventually
retired from state politics.
To its dismay, the East India Company met its match in
the new Maratha ruler, Vishwasrao. He and his brother,
Madhavrao, combined political acumen with valour and
systematically expanded their influence all over India. The
Company was reduced to pockets of influence near Bombay,
Calcutta* and Madras, just like its European rivals, the
Portuguese and the French.
For political reasons, the Peshwas kept the puppet Mughal
regime alive in Delhi. In the nineteenth century these
de facto rulers from Pune were astute enough to recognise the
importance of the technological age dawning in Europe.
They set up their own centres for science and technology. Here, the
East India Company saw another opportunity to extend its
influence. It offered aid and experts. They were accepted only to
make the local centres self-sufficient.
The twentieth century brought about further changes
inspired by the West. India moved towards a democracy. By
then, the Peshwas had lost their enterprise and they were
gradually replaced by democratically elected bodies. The
Sultanate at Delhi survived even this transition, largely because
it wielded no real influence. The Shahenshah of Delhi was no
more than a figurehead to rubber-stamp the ‘recommendations’
made by the central parliament.
As he read on, Gangadharpant began to appreciate the India
he had seen. It was a country that had not been subjected to
slavery for the white man; it had learnt to stand on its feet and
knew what self-respect was. From a position of strength and for
purely commercial reasons, it had allowed the British to retain
Bombay as the sole outpost on the subcontinent. That lease was
to expire in the year 2001, according to a treaty of 1908.
Gangadharpant could not help comparing the country he
knew with what he was witnessing around him.
But, at the same time, he felt that his investigations were
incomplete. How did the Marathas win the battle? To find the
answer he must look for accounts of the battle itself.
He went through the books and journals before him. At last,
among the books he found one that gave him the clue. It was
Although he seldom relied on the Bakhars for historical
evidence, he found them entertaining to read. Sometimes, buried
in the graphic but octored accounts, he could spot the germ
of truth. He found one now in a three-line account of how close
Vishwasrao had come to being killed:
... And then Vishwasrao guided his horse to the melee where the
elite troops were fighting and he attacked them. And God was
merciful. A shot brushed past his ear. Even the difference of a
til (sesame) would have led to his death.
At eight o’clock the librarian politely reminded the professor
that the library was closing for the day. Gangadharpant emerged
from his thoughts. Looking around he noticed that he was the
only reader left in that magnificent hall.
“I beg your pardon, sir! May I request you to keep these
books here for my use tomorrow morning? By the way, when do
At eight o’clock, sir.” The librarian smiled. Here was a user
and researcher right after his heart.
As the professor left the table he shoved some notes into his
right pocket. Absent-mindedly, he also shoved the
Bakhar into his left pocket.
He found a guest house to stay in and had a frugal meal. He
then set out for a stroll towards the Azad Maidan.
In the maidan he found a throng moving towards a
So, a lecture was to take place. Force of habit took Professor
Gaitonde towards the pandal . The lecture was in progress,
although people kept coming and going. But Professor Gaitonde
was not looking at the audience. He was staring at the platform
as if mesmerised. There was a table and a chair but the latter was
The presidential chair unoccupied! The sight stirred him to
the depths. Like a piece of iron attracted to a magnet, he swiftly
moved towards the chair.
The speaker stopped in mid-sentence, too shocked to
continue. But the audience soon found voice.
Vacate the chair!”
This lecture series has no chairperson...
Away from the platform, mister!
The chair is symbolic, don’t you know?
What nonsense! Whoever heard of a public lecture without a
presiding dignitary? Professor Gaitonde went to the mike and
gave vent to his views. “Ladies and gentlemen, an unchaired
lecture is like Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the Prince of
Denmark. Let me tell you...
But the audience was in no mood to listen. “Tell us nothing.
We are sick of remarks from the chair, of vote of thanks, of long
We only want to listen to the speaker...
We abolished the old customs long ago...
Keep the platform empty, please...
But Gangadharpant had the experience of speaking at 999
meetings and had faced the Pune audience at its most hostile.
He kept on talking.
He soon became a target for a shower of tomatoes, eggs and
other objects. But he kept on trying valiantly to correct this
sacrilege. Finally, the audience swarmed to the stage to eject
And, in the crowd Gangadharpant was nowhere to be seen.
That is all I have to tell, Rajendra. All I know is that I was found
in the Azad Maidan in the morning. But I was back in the world
I am familiar with. Now, where exactly did I spend those two
days when I was absent from here?
Rajendra was dumbfounded by the narrative. It took him a
while to reply.
Professor, before, just prior to your collision with the truck,
what were you doing?” Rajendra asked.
I was thinking of the catastrophe theory and its implications
Right! I thought so!” Rajendra smiled.
“Don’t smile smugly. In case you think that it was just my
mind playing tricks and my imagination running amok, look
And, triumphantly, Professor Gaitonde produced his vital
piece of evidence: a page torn out of a book.
Rajendra read the text on the printed page and his face
underwent a change. Gone was the smile and in its place came
a grave expression. He was visibly moved.
Gangadharpant pressed home his advantage. “I had
inadvertently slipped the Bakhar in my pocket as I left the library.
I discovered my error when I was paying for my meal. I had
intended to return it the next morning. But it seems that in the
melee of Azad Maidan, the book was lost; only this torn-off page
remained. And, luckily for me, the page contains vital evidence.
Rajendra again read the page. It described how Vishwasrao
narrowly missed the bullet; and how that event, taken as an
omen by the Maratha army, turned the tide in their favour.
“Now look at this.” Gangadharpant produced his own copy
of Bhausahebanchi Bakhar , opened at the relevant page. T
The account ran thus:
... And then Vishwasrao guided his horse to the melee where the
elite troops were fighting, and he attacked them. And God expressed
His displeasure. He was hit by the bullet.
Professor Gaitonde, you have given me food for thought.
Until I saw this material evidence, I had simply put your
experience down to fantasy. But facts can be stranger than
fantasies, as I am beginning to realise.
Facts? What are the facts? I am dying to know!” Professor
Rajendra motioned him to silence and started pacing the room,
obviously under great mental strain. Finally, he turned around
and said, “Professor Gaitonde, I will try to rationalise your
experience on the basis of two scientific theories as known today.
Whether I succeed or not in convincing you of the facts, only
you can judge — for you have indeed passed through a fantastic
experience: or, more correctly, a catastrophic experience!
Please continue, Rajendra! I am all ears,” Professor Gaitonde
replied. Rajendra continued pacing as he talked.
“You have heard a lot about the catastrophe theory at that
seminar. Let us apply it to the Battle of Panipat. Wars fought
face to face on open grounds offer excellent examples of this
theory. The Maratha army was facing Abdali’s troops on the
field of Panipat. There was no great disparity between the latter’s
troops and the opposing forces. Their armour was comparable.
So, a lot depended on the leadership and the morale of the troops.
The juncture at which Vishwasrao, the son of and heir to the
Peshwa, was killed proved to be the turning point. As history
has it, his uncle, Bhausaheb, rushed into the melee and was
never seen again. Whether he was killed in battle or survived is
not known. But for the troops at that particular moment, that
blow of losing their leaders was crucial. They lost their morale
and fighting spirit. There followed an utter rout.
“Exactly, Professor! And what you have shown me on that
torn page is the course taken by the battle, when the bullet
missed Vishwasrao. A crucial event gone the other way. And its
effect on the troops was also the opposite. It boosted their morale
and provided just that extra impetus that made all the
difference,” Rajendra said.
“Maybe so. Similar statements are made about the Battle of
Waterloo, which Napoleon could have won. But we live in a
unique world which has a unique history. This idea of ‘it might
have been’ is okay for the sake of speculation but not for reality,”
“I take issue with you there. In fact, that brings me to my
second point which you may find strange; but please hear me
out,” Rajendra said.
Gangadharpant listened expectantly as Rajendra continued.
“What do we mean by reality? We experience it directly with our
senses or indirectly via instruments. But is it limited to what we
see? Does it have other manifestations?
“That reality may not be unique has been found from
experiments on very small systems — of atoms and their
constituent particles. When dealing with such systems the
physicist discovered something startling. The behaviour of these
systems cannot be predicted definitively even if all the physical
laws governing those systems are known.
“Take an example. I fire an electron from a source. Where
will it go? If I fire a bullet from a gun in a given direction at a
given speed, I know where it will be at a later time. But I cannot
make such an assertion for the electron. It may be here, there,
anywhere. I can at best quote odds for it being found in a specified
location at a specified time.”
“The lack of determinism in quantum theory! Even an
ignoramus historian like me has heard of it,” Professor
“So, imagine many world pictures. In one world the electron
is found here, in another it is over there. In yet another it is in a
still different location. Once the observer finds where it is, we
know which world we are talking about. But all those alternative
worlds could exist just the same.” Rajendra paused to marshall
“But is there any contact between those many worlds?”
Professor Gaitonde asked.
“Yes and no! Imagine two worlds, for example. In both an
electron is orbiting the nucleus of an atom...”
“Like planets around the sun...” Gangadharpant interjected.
“Not quite. We know the precise trajectory of the planet. The
electron could be orbiting in any of a large number of specified
states. These states may be used to identify the world. In state
no.1 we have the electron in a state of higher energy. In state
no. 2 it is in a state of lower energy. It can make a jump from
high to low energy and send out a pulse of radiation. Or a pulse
of radiation can knock it out of state no. 2 into state no.1. Such
transitions are common in microscopic systems. What if it
happened on a macroscopic level?” Rajendra said.
“I get you! You are suggesting that I made a transition from
one world to another and back again?” Gangadharpant asked.
“Fantastic though it seems, this is the only explanation I
can offer. My theory is that catastrophic situations offer radically
different alternatives for the world to proceed. It seems that so
far as reality is concerned all alternatives are viable but the
observer can experience only one of them at a time.
“By making a transition, you were able to experience two worlds
although one at a time. The one you live in now and the one where
you spent two days. One has the history we know, the other a
different history. The separation or bifurcation took place in the
Battle of Panipat. You neither travelled to the past nor to the future.
You were in the present but experiencing a different world. Of
course, by the same token there must be many more different
worlds arising out of bifurcations at different points of time.
As Rajendra concluded, Gangadharpant asked the question
that was beginning to bother him most. “But why did I make the
“If I knew the answer I would solve a great problem.
Unfortunately, there are many unsolved questions in science
and this is one of them. But that does not stop me from guessing.”
Rajendra smiled and proceeded, “You need some interaction to
cause a transition. Perhaps, at the time of the collision you were
thinking about the catastrophe theory and its role in wars. Maybe
you were wondering about the Battle of Panipat. Perhaps, the
neurons in your brain acted as a trigger.”
“A good guess. I was indeed wondering what course history
would have taken if the result of the battle had gone the other
way,” Professor Gaitonde said. “That was going to be the topic of
my thousandth presidential address.”
“Now you are in the happy position of recounting your real
life experience rather than just speculating,” Rajendra laughed.
But Gangadharpant was grave.
“No, Rajendra, my thousandth address was made on the Azad
Maidan when I was so rudely interrupted. No. The Professor
Gaitonde who disappeared while defending his chair on the platform
will now never be seen presiding at another meeting — I have
conveyed my regrets to the organisers of the Panipat seminar.”