An Unfinished Song/Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

I have not so far disclosed the name of the place where our family lives; it is in the district of Dacca. My father has a small estate, but his income is mainly derived from service under Government. As long as he could attend to this at home we were very comfortable, but when I was about 8 or 9 years old he was transferred to another place. I mentioned before that my sister lived with an aunt in Calcutta, but I had not so far ever lived apart from my father, nor could I have borne the separation. Father accordingly took me with him to his new district. Here the only sort of school was at the house of the Zemindar of the village for the education of the children of his family, but many of the children of the neighbourhood attended it as well, myself among them. This is a custom generally adopted in India in country districts. In this school I made many warm friendships, but the warmest of all was with Chotu (little one). I did not learn his correct name. Possibly he was called Chotu because he was the youngest of the family, but it never occurred to me that he had another name. He was the nephew of Babu Krishna Mohan, in whose house the school was. The boy had lost his father and was therefore dependent upon his mother's brother. One reason for my friendship with Chotu was his superiority in age. He was the eldest of the pupils and might have been twelve or thirteen years old at the time. There is a strange fascination for children in one of superior age. He was the chief pupil of the schoolmaster, and that worthy used to lighten his labours by entrusting him with the duty of superintending the younger ones. The school was conducted in one of the outer apartments of Babu Krishna Mohan's house. It began at half-past seven in the morning and closed at ten. But the pupils were usually on the spot at half-past six, and found Chotu seated on one of the benches. The master did not appear as a rule until an hour after the school had opened, and it was Chotu who took charge of us in the meantime. He explained our lessons to us, wrote the alphabet into our copy books, distributed sweetmeats from a supply in his pocket, and spent the rest of his time getting his own lessons by heart, perhaps humming a song while he did so. This seemed to be a characteristic habit of his. At times we used to press him to sing louder for our benefit, but that would end the matter immediately. Only once we heard him distinctly sing a line or two or a song. It was one morning as we were about to enter the schoolroom. One of the little girls, the naughty one, Prabha, had an idea. "Listen," she said, "Chotu is singing. Let us wait and hear him awhile, and after we have learnt what he sings, we will tease him and sing the song before him."

A day or two before there had been a theatrical company from Calcutta at Babu Krishna Mohan's house on the occasion of his son's marriage. I went to their performance with my aunt, but, unfortunately, I slept through more than half of it. Once I was roused from my sleep by a tremendous noise and saw a Prince dressed in brocade stamping his foot upon the stage in a furious passion and flourishing a wooden sword. I was very frightened but fell asleep again. Later on my aunt woke me to see a number of houris suspended in the air, a scene that pleased me. I thought Chotu might have learned his song at this performance:—

". . . . Alas, we met
When moon and stars had faded,
Springtime had fled and flowers withered lay,
Garland in hand through the dark night I awaited. . . ."

Having heard Chotu sing thus far we entered the room giggling and laughing at him. Later I regretted I had not listened to the song until it was finished, and looked through numbers of books of poems, but could never find it in print. But now poor Chotu had to endure his tormentors: "We heard you, you thought we would never hear you sing, but we have." Chotu was greatly abashed, but as for me I never forgot those lines, although I only heard them that once.

Chotu gave away sweetmeats, as I said before. They were not specially good, only what we got every day at home, but when received from his hand, they were like the sweet cakes at horiloot that are thrown broadcast among the people and are supposed to contain special merit.

Now these sweetmeats were supposed to be the reward of good conduct, but soon became the reverse in my case. If Chotu had occasion to chide me for any naughtiness my eyes filled with tears and my gaiety changed very suddenly. This seemed to be more than Chotu could bear, and contrary to all rules he would give me a much larger share of the coveted sweets, adding caresses to the bountiful gift. This unfortunately did not make a better girl of me. I do not know whether the sweets or the caresses were at fault, but certainly my caprices increased. I would give a wrong answer even when I knew my lesson well. If Chotu came to examine my writing I would spill a drop of ink on his hand and laugh outright at what I had done. If he explained a sum on the blackboard, I considered it a special joke to rub out the chalk and wipe it over him. If on these occasions he showed any annoyance, I invariably resorted to tears, but if he entered into the spirit of the thing and retorted with further pranks my merriment knew no bounds. The result of it all was that Chotu's position as a schoolmaster must have been wellnigh unbearable to him, for all the children gradually followed my example, and there used to be lively scenes in the little schoolroom.

My father no longer received the choicest flowers, for one bunch was given to Chotu every day in return for his sweetmeats and kind treatment. When I questioned in my own little heart which afforded me the greater pleasure, the gift of flowers to father or to Chotu, I was unable to answer. If in the early morning I found a bud that specially pleased me, the thought of father and of Chotu entered my mind at the same moment. I was anxious to see Chotu every morning, but at dusk I waited as eagerly for my father's return. I seemed to love him most with whom I was for the time being. I became more emphatic in assuring my father how deeply I loved him, at which he was evidently amused, for he usually replied by saying,

"Do you really?"

"Truly, father, I mean it."

Then my father would smile and kiss me. Now Chotu had never yet kissed me, so surely it was father who loved me most. Then why should I bestow so much affection upon Chotu? For love expects love in return; of this I was convinced even in my infancy, although no one had told me so.

Thus passed two years, years so happy and full of childish delights. Often in later life how I recalled those days when I studied with Chotu in the little country school. Ten years have passed since then. I have known the fiery passion of youth. Mighty joys and sorrows, ambitions and aspirations have come and gone, yet lingers still the memory of those days, the memory of the love of my early life, when such happiness was mine as I have never known since, because it was unmixed with any sorrow. But life has ever been a vast riddle to me.

After two years my father was again transferred, and about that time my sister's marriage took place.