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Srikanta (Part 1)/Chapter 1

 

SRIKANTA


WHAT memories and thoughts crowd into my mind, as, at the threshold of the afternoon of my wandering life, I sit down to write the story of its morning hours!

From my childhood to the present day it has always been the same. My friends and kinsmen with one accord have kept up a running comment on my life, summed up in an invariable 'Fie!' or 'Shame!' Nor has my mind ever had the hardihood to challenge this estimate as anything but just and fair. But to-day, as I sit down to unravel the memories of long ago and investigate how even the morning of my life came to have a prefacing 'Shame!' affixed to it, I am suddenly assailed by an unwonted doubt. I feel that perhaps this degradation into which, by universal report, my life has sunk, may not after all have been necessarily so low as my contemporaries have always thought. May it not be, so the question shapes itself in my mind, that those whom God summons to the heart of His wonderful creation, are not the people who have had the opportunity to shine as the best boys at school and pass examinations, nor those gentlemen who sweep grandly through life in a coach and pair with pomp and retinue, finishing up with the publication of their 'Memoirs' at the end? Providence endows its favorite children, it would seem, with some amount of sense, but not what men of experience would call sound common sense. The desires and curious longings which pursue them through life are so incongruous and strange, so way¬ward and fantastic, that a description of them would probably evoke unmeasured derision from the wise. History does not record how the bad boy grows up, unloved and uncared for, led into evil ways by the attraction of evil, hit and knocked about by unpleasant experiences, till one day, at last, he slips off unnoticed, with the burden of universal contumely and evil repute on his shoulders, into the eternal silence and oblivion of the land without a name.

But no more of this. Let me tell you just what I have got to tell, though that, you must know, is easier said than done.

Before I describe how my wandering life began, I must introduce the person who initiated me into its joys. His name was Indranath. Whether he is alive or dead to-day I do not know. Many years ago he passed out of my life. One day very early in the morning he left his home and his people and everything he possessed, with nothing on him but the clothes he wore: and he never returned again. But I shall never forget the day I met him.

It was at a football match between Hindu and Moslem students on our school playground. It was growing dark. and I was standing engrossed, watching the game. Suddenly, all in a flash, came sounds of beating and blows, and cries of 'At him! Catch him! Down with him!' The game had turned into a riot. In two or three minutes the whole crowd had fled leaving only a few rioters, while I stood dazed and surprised. It was only when I found the stick of an umbrella broken on my back with a thwack and saw two or three other umbrellas raised above my head, that I came back to my senses. Five or six Musalman boys had surrounded me, leaving no way of escape.

Another umbrella fell on me, and yet another. Just at that moment somebody made his way at lightning speed through the human wall around me and stood by my side. It was Indranath.

He was a dark boy, with a finely chiselled nose, a broad, well-modelled forehead, and a few smallpox marks on his face. Though older than I, he was about my height. 'Don't be afraid,' he said: 'come right behind me out of this.' The courage and chivalrous spirit of the boy were remarkable enough, but the first thing I noticed was the extraordinary power of his arms. I am not speaking merely of physical strength; his arms were long enough to reach below his knees. Indranath's great advantage in fighting was that his opponent never dreamt that, in case of need, this short young man could suddenly shoot out an arm four feet long and bring down a fist of proportionate size on an unwary nose. One would rather call it a tiger's paw.

In about two minutes I had come out, following his lead, to a comparatively safe place. 'Run,' said Indra without further comment. As I began to run, I asked, 'And you?' But he answered rudely, 'Run, you ass: don't argue.'

But, ass or no ass, I remember distinctly, I turned round all of a sudden and said, 'I won't.'

'You won't?' Indra replied. 'Do you mean to wait till you get a good drubbing, my boy? There, they are coming from that side. Come, let us run.'

That was a thing that I could always do to perfection. When we came upon the main thoroughfare, the evening was already dark. Lamps had been lit in the shops, and the municipal kerosene lamps on the road had begun to glimmer on the tops of their iron posts, one here and one far away, twinkling at an unconscionable distance; it was possible for a person blest with keen sight, standing near the one, to make out the other. We had left our pursuers far behind. When Indra spoke, it was with the most natural voice imaginable. My throat had become dry, but I had not even once heard him breathing hard. It was as if nothing had happened. 'What is your name?' he asked.

'Srikanta.'

'Srikanta,—good,' and, thrusting his hand into his pocket, he brought out a handful of dry leaves. He put some of them into his mouth and gave me the rest, saying, 'I've given them a good drubbing. Chew these.'

'What are they?'

'Siddhi.'[1]

I was greatly surprised and said, 'Siddhi? I don't chew siddhi.' Indranath looked still more surprised. 'You don't?' he said. 'What an ass you are! Just chew the leaves and you'll get intoxicated. Chew them and swallow them.'

Not knowing at that age the fascination of intoxication, I declined his offer and returned the leaves to him. He put them into his mouth, chewed them, and swallowed them.

'Well then, smoke a cigarette.' So saying, he took two cigarettes and a box of matches out of his pocket and, giving me one cigarette, lit the other himself. Then, holding it in a curious manner between both his palms, as one would smoke a chillim,[2] he began to draw in the smoke. And oh, what vigorous pulls! At one pull the flame reached from one end of the cigarette nearly to the other. There were people all round us and I asked timidly, 'What if anyone sees you smoking?'

'What if they do?' he answered. 'Everybody knows.' He disappeared round the corner of the street, smoking with a nonchalant air, leaving a profound impression on my mind.

To-day I can recall many a detail of the happenings of that day. But I cannot remember whether I loved that strange boy or inwardly despised him for having dared to chew siddhi and to smoke cigarettes in public.


A month had passed since the day of the match. The night was dark and warm: not a leaf was stirring. We had all had our beds made on the roof of our house; it was near midnight, and yet no one could get to sleep. All at once the music of a flute floated to our ears. What sweetness that simple Ramprasadi[3] tune scattered in the darkness! It was a tune I had heard times without number, but I did not know, coming from a bamboo pipe, it could be so sweet, so entrancing. Towards the south-east of the house was a large garden full of mango and jack trees. Nobody bestowed any care on it, and it had grown into a rank jungle through which the hoofs of cattle had marked out a thin path. It was along that path that the music was approaching.

My aunt sat up and addressing her eldest son, said, 'Nabin, is that the Rays' boy, Indra?'

Yes, all of them knew the player of the nocturnal music, and my cousin answered, 'Who but that scapegrace could play such music or would enter that jungle?'

'Then it is he. Is he really coming through the Gossains' garden?'

Nabin replied that he was. Perhaps my aunt felt a tremor of fear as she thought of the thick jungle in that impenetrable darkness. With fear in her voice, she asked, 'But doesn't his mother forbid him? Any number of people have been bitten by snakes in the Gossains' garden. What takes him there, I wonder, so late at night?'

'Well,' said my cousin with a laugh, 'that is the short cut between his part of the village and this: that's all. Do you think, mother, that he who has no fear and no care for his life will come by the roundabout way? All he wants is to come quickly; it matters little whether on the way he has to cross rivers or meet snakes or face tigers!'

'What a dare-devil boy!' said my aunt, and with a sigh lapsed into silence. The sound of the flute grew gradually clearer and then slowly faded and faded till it died away in the distance.

That was Indranath. The first day I met him I had thought, 'If I could only possess his strength and fight like him!' And this night the one thought that kept revolving in my mind till I fell asleep was, 'Would that I could play on the bamboo flute like Indranath!'

But how was I to strike up an acquaintance with him? He was far above me, and was not even at school. I had heard that, being aggrieved by the headmaster's perverse decision to put the 'donkey cap' on his head, he had contemptuously scaled the railings of the school-compound and had gone home, never to return to school again. Long afterwards I learnt from his own mouth that his offence had been very trivial indeed. It had been a habit with the up-country Pundit to go off to sleep in his class-room. On one of these occasions Indranath with a pair of scissors curtailed the length of the Brahminical rat's tail on the Pundit's head. Not much harm had been done: for the teacher, on his return home, had found the lost tuft inside the pocket of his own long coat. Indranath had failed to understand why the Pundit had been unable to forgive him and had even made a complaint to the headmaster. He knew, however, that for one who had left school by the original procedure of scaling the railings, the school-gates hardly remained open in welcome. Nor did he greatly care whether they remained open or closed to him. In spite of the efforts of the numerous elders in the house, to whom Indra's attitude should have been one of implicit obedience, he never turned his face towards the school again. He exchanged his pen for an oar, spending whole days on the Ganges in a canoe. He had a small dinghy of his own: in rain and in storm, by day and by night, he was always to be seen alone in his boat. Suddenly, one day, he would float down the stream in his dinghy sitting still at the helm, and for fifteen days he would not be heard of again. It was when he was starting on one of these rovings that I got an opportunity of cementing our acquaintance into something closer.

It had rained the whole day and was still raining. The heavy sky of July was overcast with dark clouds, and thick darkness had come on before it was fairly evening. My cousins and I had taken our meals early and according to our invariable custom had sat down before our books on a bed spread out in the sitting-room, to study by the light of a castor-oil lamp. Outside, my uncle was taking his evening siesta on a canvas cot at one end of the verandah, and at the other end old Ramkamal Bhatchaj, after his usual dose of opium, was smoking a hookah, his eyes closed in the gloom. The up-country servants in the portico outside were reading Tulsidas's Ramayana in a sing-song drawl, and we three cousins were attending to our studies in silence under the strict supervision of Mejda.[4]

Chhotda,[5] Jatinda, and I were students of the third and fourth classes, and our Mejda of grave aspect, having failed in the Entrance Examination[6] twice, was now, with solemn application and profound attention, preparing for it the third time. Under his iron rule none of us could waste a single moment in idle distractions. Our study time was from 7-30 to 9 P.M. In order that we might not disturb Mejda's serious studies by talking during this period, he used every day, as a preliminary measure, to cut twenty or thirty small slips of paper somewhat like railway tickets. He would then mark some of them 'Out', some 'Spitting', some 'Blowing the nose', some 'Thirst', and so on. Imagine Jatinda dying for a drink. He would take a ticket. Mejda would sign it and endorse 'allowed from 8-33 to 8-34½', meaning that this was the period within which the thirst was to be satisfied. As soon as Jatinda went out with the ticket in hand, Chhotda presented a ticket for 'Spitting'; but, by an endorsement of 'No', Mejda signified his disapproval. In consequence, Chhotda sat still with a grave face for two minutes and then brought up a petition for 'Thirst'. This time Mejda accorded his sanction, writing, 'Allowed from 8-41 to 8-47'. As soon as Chhotda had gone out beaming with the permit, Jatinda returned and presented his ticket to Mejda. Mejda compared the time noted on the ticket with the clock, took out a book, and pasted down the ticket on one of its pages. All the requisite materials for these varied operations used to be kept close at hand. At the end of the week, if on some occasions we had overstayed our leave or if our requests for tickets had been too frequent, we were called upon to explain.

Thus, under Mejda's extremely vigilant and orderly government, neither we nor he wasted a single instant of our allotted time for study. Every night when we proceeded to bed after such intense application to books the Goddess Saraswati[7] must certainly have escorted us as far as our bedroom door. It is easy to imagine with what laurels we returned home next day after school was over. But it was Mejda's peculiar misfortune that his examiners could not appreciate him at his true worth. In spite of his possessing such an overpowering love of learning and such an exacting sense of responsibility as regards the true value of time, the examiners went on 'ploughing' him year after year. Such is the blind judgment of fate! But let that pass. What will it profit us to inquire further into his sorrows now?

On that particular night we four sat deep in our books in the mild lamplight of the room, while outside on the verandah the two old men drowsed in the deepening gloom.

As soon as Chhotda returned from outside I began to feel parched with an uncontrollable thirst. Consequently I presented my application in the prescribed form and waited expectant. Mejda opened the book pasted over with tickets, and his face bent down over it as he began a rigorous scrutiny to see whether my thirst was lawful or not, that is, to what extent I had satisfied my thirst on the days immediately preceding.

All at once there was a growl, like 'Hoom', close to my back, and simultaneously deafening cries arose from Chhotda and Jatinda, uttered in unison in voices full of alarm, 'My God, I am killed!' Before I could turn my head round and see who or what it was that was killing them, Mejda raised his head, and all at once, with a terrible unearthly sound, shot out his legs with lightning rapidity, overturning the lamp-stand. Then in the darkness began a reign of terror and chaos. Mejda was subject to fits. The last that I saw of him was when he overturned the lamp and fell upon the floor, groaning inarticulately.

When, after much jostling and pushing, I at last forced my way out of the room, I found my uncle holding a son under either arm and shouting with even greater vigour than they; it looked as if the sons and father were having a competition as to who could open his mouth the widest.

A cry was raised that a thief had been seen running away and that the up-country servants at the gate had caught him. My uncle began to bawl out at the top of his voice, 'Beat him, beat the rascal to death!'

Lights were brought, and in an instant the courtyard was filled with servants and neighbours. After the up-country servants had nearly beaten the life out of the thief, they dragged him towards the light, and threw him down. But when his face was seen, there was a sudden revulsion of feeling. 'Good God! but this is Mr. Bhatchaj!'

Then some ran to bring water, some began to fan him. Inside the room others of us were similarly occupied with Mejda.

When, after much dashing of water on his face and strenuous fanning, Ramkamal Bhatchaj was restored to consciousness, he sobbed out, 'Holy God! It wasn't a tiger, but a huge bear. It came out of the room at a single bound.'

'It wasn't a bear, father,' said Chhotda and Jatinda again and again. 'It was a wolf. It growled 'Hoom' and sat on the doormat on its curled tail.'

When Mejda revived sufficiently, he heaved a deep sigh, with his eyes still closed, and ejaculated, 'The royal Bengal tiger!'

But where was it? Whether royal Bengal tiger or wolf or bear, how could it have come into the house, and where had it gone? When so many people had seen it, there must certainly have been something.

Some of us believed and some of us remained sceptical; but all began to search, lantern in hand, the fear of the unknown imprinted on every face.

All of a sudden, Kishori Sing, the wrestler, said, 'There, there he sits', and with one bound he flew to the verandah, followed by a pushing, jostling, elbowing throng, each one anxious to squeeze himself into the verandah, and none able to wait for a moment. There was a pomegranate tree at one end of the courtyard. Beneath its bushy branches a big animal was plainly seen; yes, it was exactly like a tiger. In the twinkling of an eye the verandah became empty and the sitting-room was filled with a panic-stricken crowd. From the midst of this crowd came the excited voice of my uncle, 'Get some spears—get some guns.' By guns he meant an old match-lock affair, with a ramrod, belonging to our neighbour Gagan Babu. There was certainly no objection to getting it, but who was to bring it? The pomegranate tree was close to the first gate: and there the tiger was sitting quietly. The up-country servants had grown dumb, nor did one hear any offer from the neighbours who had come to see the fun.

While we were in this predicament Indra appeared suddenly, Heaven knows from where. Perhaps he was passing along the road in front, and had come in on hearing the hubbub. In an instant a hundred voices cried, 'Look out! there's a tiger! Come away at once, you foolish boy!'

Startled at first, he ran into the verandah. But when, shortly after, he had heard everything, he took a lantern and went down, nothing daunted, to look for the tiger.

Behind the windows upstairs were the ladies in breathless silence, taking the name of the Goddess Durga as they looked on this reckless boy. My aunt broke out into sobs from sheer fright. Below, standing in a close phalanx in the crowd, the up-country servants began to encourage Indra in his exploit, and even hinted that they would come down too if they could secure any weapons.

When Indra had had a good, long look at the beast, he said, 'Dwarika Babu, this is no tiger.' No sooner had he finished the words than the royal Bengal tiger put his two forepaws together and broke into a human cry. In the clearest Bengali he protested, 'No, sir, I am no tiger. I am neither tiger nor bear: I am Chinath the mimic.'

Indra laughed aloud. Mr. Bhatchaj, wooden shoes in hand, was the first to advance towards the masquerader. 'You rascal,' he cried, 'can't you find any other place for frightening people out of their wits?'

In terrible wrath my uncle passed the order, 'Drag the scoundrel here by the ears.'

Kishori Sing, who had seen the intruder first, had naturally the right to carry out this order; so he seized the wretched fellow's ears and ruthlessly dragged him into the centre of the courtyard.

Mr. Bhatchaj, in the heat of his indignation, dealt a blow with his wooden shoe on the back of the 'tiger', and began to stutter in execrable Hindustani, 'I have got all my bones broken on account of this rascal. I have been beaten to a pulp by these up-country roughs . . .'

The mimic Chinath's home was at Baraset whence he came once a year to earn a few rupees by his profession. Only the day before he had come to our house disguised as Narad, the divine ascetic minstrel, and had treated us to his songs. He now fell at the feet of Mr. Bhatchaj, and then of my uncle. He said that he too had been frightened by Mejda's overturning the lamp and starting the terrible uproar, and had run and hidden himself behind the trees, thinking that he would show his performance later when the confusion had subsided; though now events had taken such a turn that he had no courage left for anything. But though he prayed and entreated, my uncle was adamant and showed no signs of relenting.

Suddenly my aunt from her vantage point upstairs took a part in the discussion. 'It is lucky for you that it wasn't a real tiger or bear, for you're a brave lot, you and your sturdy door-keepers. Let the poor wretch alone, and don't forget to send those up-country good-for-nothings about their business. The whole lot of you haven't got half the courage a little boy possesses.'

My uncle made no reply but assumed an aspect meant to suggest that it would be the easiest thing in the world to refute his wife's taunts, if he were so minded, but that it would be beneath his dignity to pay any attention to the remarks of a mere woman. In a still more wrathful tone he passed the order, 'Cut off his tail.' Chinath's long tail, composed of straw wrapped in coloured cloth, was then cut off and he was turned out of the house, while my aunt, who saw everything, simply remarked, 'Yes, keep it for yourself: you will find it useful.'

'Well, Srikanta,' said Indra to me as we stood together apart from the crowd, 'so this is where you live.'

'Yes,' said I, 'but where were you going so late to-night?'

'So late!' he answered, laughing. 'Why, it's only just evening. I am going to my dinghy to catch fish. Will you come?'

'In your boat?' I asked timidly. 'On such a dark night as this?'

He laughed again. 'Cheer up, that's just what makes it great fun. And, besides, you can't catch fish, you know, except in the dark. Can you swim?'

'Rather!'

'Come along, then,' and he caught hold of my hand. 'I can't row so far up-stream alone: I've been looking for someone who would not be afraid.'

I did not say another word. Holding his hand I went with him silently out to the road. At first I could hardly believe that I was really going on a fishing expedition in a canoe. I had little power then of realizing what a tremendous attraction it was that made me defy the stern discipline of our house, and that brought me out on the road in the deepening gloom of the night. We soon came to the path leading to the awful jungle of the Gossains, and I followed Indra through it, like one hypnotised, till we came to the bank of the Ganges at the jungle's end.

It was a steep, gravelly bank. Above our head spread the branches of an old pipal tree in ghostly silence, like the features of 'darkness visible', while forty feet below, in concentrated gloom, the swollen torrents of mid-July dashed against the bank, swirled up into whirlpools, and then rushed madly by. I could dimly see Indra's little canoe tied below. From above, it looked like a tiny sauce-boat, dashed helplessly against the bank by the force of the mighty currents. I was not altogether a coward, but when Indra pointed to a rope below and said, 'That rope is tied to the boat: hold fast to it by your feet and slide down carefully. Mind, if once your feet slip there will be nothing left of you', my heart gave a jump. 'Impossible' was the word that leapt to my brain. But yet I had the rope to cling to. 'And what about you?' I asked.

'As soon as you are in I shall untie the rope and get down. Don't be afraid, there are lots of roots and grasses by which I can hold on.'

Without saying another word, I clung to the rope and with infinite difficulty and care I landed in the canoe. Indra then unloosed the rope and climbed down. I do not know to this day by what he supported himself as he descended. My heart began to beat so violently that I could not even look at him. For two or three minutes I heard nothing but the wild roar of the immense waters. A little laugh suddenly made me turn my face, and I saw Indra pushing the canoe with both his hands and leaping into it at a bound. The little dinghy swerved sharply round in a circle and then sped swiftly forward like a shooting star.

  1. A common intoxicant, dry leaves of Cannabis sativa.
  2. An Indian pipe made of clay.
  3. Ramprasad was a folk-poet of the later eighteenth century.
  4. 'The middle senior brother or cousin', i.e., brother or cousin just younger than the eldest.
  5. 'The little senior brother or cousin', i.e., the youngest senior brother or cousin. 'Da' is a contraction of 'Dada' which means elder brother.
  6. Now Matriculation Examination.
  7. Goddess of Learning.