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IV

AFTER walking along the banks of the Ganges with steps weighed down by an overpowering fatigue, I arrived home with red eyes and a blanched and haggard face. My arrival caused a sensation. 'Here he is,' 'Here he is,' shouted everyone in a wild chorus: and at the greeting I felt as if my throbbing heart were going to stop.

Jatinda was about my age; so it was he, naturally, who was most excited at my return. He suddenly came bounding towards me at a frantic speed, announcing my arrival with a deafening yell, 'Srikanta has come, Mejda. He has just come in', and, eagerly dragging me along, he made me stand on the doormat of the drawing-room.

Mejda was deep in his studies, just as he had been on the previous evening when the alarm of 'Tiger' was raised. He lifted his head and, after looking at me for an instant, resumed his reading without a word. His feelings must have been like those of a tiger that has secured its prey and that sits careless and nonchalant, not troubling even to look at it. It may well be doubted whether he had ever had an opportunity so pregnant with splendid possibilities of punishing a culprit.

Perfect silence reigned for a minute while I wondered miserably what form my punishment was to take, for punishment of some sort was, I knew, an inevitable sequel to my having spent the night away from home. Then suddenly, 'Will you look up the almanac, Satish,' said a voice at the side-door, 'and see whether brinjals are prohibited or not?'[1] and my aunt, the mistress of the house, appeared. She stopped abruptly on seeing me. 'So you have come at last, you vagabond? And when were you pleased to arrive? Where under the sun have you been? Good gracious, what a jewel of a boy you are, to be sure! I couldn't get any sleep last night, worrying myself to death about you. Fancy his slinking away with that rascal Indra without saying a word! Heaven knows what kind of food he has had and where. Where have you been, you scamp? Dear me, what a black face he has got, and red eyes too! I shouldn't wonder if he has got fever. Come here: let me see—' and rattling off one question after another, she came forward and felt my forehead with her hand. Then she exclaimed, 'Just what I thought: it is quite hot. One ought to tie up such boys hand and foot and whip them all over with stinging nettles. I shan't have any peace of mind until I have turned you out of the house, vagabond that you are. Come,—come and have your sleep out, you wretched monkey.' She dragged me along, forgetting all about the brinjals.

'He cannot go now,' said Mejda with a rumble of thunder in his voice.

'And what will he do here? No, he cannot study. He will first have to take a little breakfast, and then have his sleep. Come along with me', and my aunt started again.

The prey was about to escape from Mejda's clutches. Forgetting himself, he roared at me threateningly, 'Take care: I tell you, you mustn't go, Srikanta.' Even my aunt was taken aback at this outburst. She turned and said the one word, 'Sate-e-e'. She was a woman of masterful personality, and everybody in the house was afraid of her. In a moment her glance had withered up our Mejda.

My aunt had no liking for scenes; even when very angry she would never speak with unnecessary vehemence or loudness. 'Is that why he is standing here?' she asked quietly. 'Well, I have heard, Satee, that you have a habit of beating the boys in season and out of season. If I ever hear of your doing it again, I will just get you tied up to this post and beaten by my servants, do you hear? Impudent donkey that you are, you have been failing at every examination year after year and you must needs bully these little boys to death. Whether they do their lessons or not, don't you ask them a single question again, do you hear?' Taking me with her she went out through the door by which she had come. Mejda sat with a very black face. He knew that no one in the house had the courage to go against his mother's orders.

She took me to her own room and, giving me a change of clothes, made me eat a hearty breakfast of hot jilabis. She then bade me lie down and, with the remark that nothing short of my death would bring comfort to her old bones, she went out and chained the door from the outside.

About five minutes later the chain was noiselessly unloosed and Chhotda came in panting and flung himself flat on my bed. Struggling with the excess of joy that had evidently sent him to me, he said after a moment in which he seemed to take breath, 'Do you know what order Mother has given Mejda? He is not to interfere with us in any way. You and I and Jatin will have a room. Bar-da[2] will look after our studies. We won't care a rap for him now': and, putting his thumbs together, he moved them in tune with his violent excitement.

Jatinda too was not slow in making his appearance. He was evidently overcome with joy at his own cleverness. It was he who had given the glad tidings to Chhotda and had sent him to me. At first he let himself have his pent-up laugh out. Then, smiting his chest with his hand repeatedly, 'I, I,' he declared, 'it's I who am responsible for this. Do you realise it? Would mother have given the order if I had not taken Srikanta to Mejda? I tell you, Chhotda, I must have that clock-work top of yours.'

'Right you are,' said Chhotda in an access of generous zeal: 'you will find it in my desk.' Chhotda would not have given this top away for worlds an hour before, but in the joy of recovering those rights on which Mejda had wantonly encroached he did not hesitate to part with the thing which I know he prized no less than his life. Indeed the tyranny of Mejda had known no bounds. On Sundays we had to walk a mile in the blazing heat of noon to summon his friends to a game of cards. During the summer vacation one of us had to fan him while he took his daily siesta. On winter nights, when he sat reading his books with his hands and legs withdrawn, tortoise-fashion, under the quilt, we had to turn over the leaves of his book. And yet we could not protest or disobey, nor could we complain to any one else. If he heard of such a thing he would forthwith issue orders 'Keshab, bring your geography: I will examine you in your old lessons. Jatin, go and break a good casuarina branch and bring it to me.' That meant that castigation was inevitable. It is therefore little wonder that our jubilation on this occasion exceeded reasonable limits.

But great as was our joy, we had to curb these manifestations of our feelings, for it was near school-time. As I had fever I was exempt from the necessity of going to school, and, as a matter of fact, my fever kept me in bed for seven or eight days.

I do not remember how many days it was after this before I went back to school, and how many days later I met Indra again. But some weeks must have passed. It was a Saturday and we had returned early from school. The water in the Ganges had begun to run low. I was sitting on the bank of a ditch near the river, a fishing-rod in hand, trying to catch fish; there were several other anglers sitting near. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of one who sat behind a reed-bush and who was evidently bringing up fish after fish. I could not see him plainly, but could see his fishing. I was dissatisfied with my position and decided to go and sit near the successful angler. When I got up, rod in hand, and walked behind him, he said quietly, 'Sit down here beside me. Are you all right, Srikanta?' His voice sent a tingling spasm through my heart. I had not yet seen his face, but knew that it was Indra. It was as if an electric current had passed through my body, and in an instant all the blood from my veins, quickened by some vital impulse, began to beat violently in my heart. I could not utter a word. He whose memory I had been carrying like a hidden treasure, whose companionship I longed for with a passionate yearning, whom nevertheless I secretly dreaded to meet, he had flashed unexpectedly on my eyes and now asked me to sit near him. I went, but I could not find a word to say.

'Didn't you get a terrible drubbing, Srikanta,' asked Indra, 'after you returned the other day? I really shouldn't have taken you out: I feel very sorry for it now.'

'No,' I replied, shaking my head, 'I didn't get any drubbing at all.'

'You didn't?' said Indra, evidently pleased. 'Look here, Srikanta, when you left me I prayed—I prayed to Mother Kali—that nobody should beat you. Kali is a great goddess: if you pray to her, nobody will ever be able to beat you.' And he put down his rod and joining his palms together touched his forehead with them, as a grateful obeisance to the invisible goddess. Putting a bait on the hook and flinging it into the water, he said, 'I never thought that you would get ill; if I had, I wouldn't have let the illness come.'

'What would you have done?' I asked solemnly.

'Nothing,' he said. 'I would have just plucked a red jaba flower and placed it on Kali's feet. Whatever you pray for when you offer a flower, you get. Everyone knows that. Don't you?'

'Aren't you ever taken ill?'

'I taken ill?' Indra repeated in surprise. 'No, I'm never taken ill—never.' He seemed fired by a sudden enthusiasm and said, 'Look here, Srikanta, I'll teach you something. If you take the names of gods and goddesses morning and evening, they will come and stand before you, and you will see them plainly; and then you will never get ill. No one will be able to touch a hair of your head. You will find that it is so. You can go wherever you like, do what you like, just as I do; and nothing will ever happen to you. Do you understand?'

I nodded and said, 'Yes.' As I threw my baited hook into the water, I asked in a low voice, 'Whom do you take there now?'

'Where?'

'Over there, to catch fish?'

Indra pulled in his line and, putting his rod gently beside him, said, 'I don't go there any more.'

I was much surprised and asked, 'Haven't you been there again a single day?'

'No, not once.' Indra raised his head and tried to say something, but a sudden blush suffused his face and he lowered his head again. He plucked a reed and drawing it to and fro over the water said, 'Srikanta.'

'Yes?'

'Have you—have you got—any money?'

'How much?'

'How much? Say, five rupees?'

'Yes, I have. Will you take it?' I looked at his face in joyful expectation. I had just the amount he wanted, and I could not imagine a better use for the money than its being a help to Indra. But far from appearing pleased, Indra looked more embarrassed than ever. After a moment's silence he said, 'I shall not be able to return your money, Srikanta.'

'I shall not want it back,' I said, looking him proudly in the face.

He again sat silent for a minute or two, his head bent low; then he said slowly, 'I don't want it for myself. Somebody wants money, you know. They are very poor; they don't get enough to eat. Will you go there with me?'

All at once the thought of that night of adventure came to my mind. 'You mean those to whom you wanted to give money on that night?'

'Yes,' said Indra, nodding absent-mindedly. 'It isn't as if I can't get money for them, but Didi[3] won't accept anything from me. You will have to go, Srikanta; otherwise she won't take the money. She will think I have stolen it from my mother's safe. Will you go, Srikanta?'

'Is she your real sister?'

Indra smiled and said, 'No, but I call her sister. You will go there?' Seeing me silent, he added, 'There's nothing to be afraid of if we go by day, you know. To-morrow is Sunday; after your dinner you wait for me here, and I will take you and bring you back in no time. Won't you go?' And so wistfully did he look at me, holding me by the hand, that I did not have the heart to say 'No'. I agreed to go with him and then went home.

True, I had given my word to go, but I could not but dread the adventure to which I had committed myself. Throughout the day I remained in low spirits, and at night a sense of profound uneasiness mingled in my dreams and in my sleeping consciousness. In the early morning my first thought was that it would be a bad thing for me to go where I had promised to go. In case the matter became known, the punishment I should render myself liable to would probably be such as not even Chhotda could devise for Mejda. At length our dinner was over, and, taking my five rupees with me, I quietly slipped out of the house. Several times on my way the thought occurred to me, 'Better not go at all. What if I do not keep my promise?' but when I arrived at my destination and saw Indra sitting expectant in his little canoe in the thicket of reeds, he greeted me with such a smile that it was impossible for me to propose that our projected trip should be abandoned. I climbed down into the canoe in silence. Indra immediately unloosed it and we set out.

The day was not far advanced when, after tying our canoe to the roots of the banyan beside the narrow landing-place, we made our way towards the cremation-ground. After going a few steps we could see the suggestion of a foot-path through the jungle on our right. Indra struck out by this path, and after about ten minutes a hut became visible. As we came near, we saw that the entrance was barred by a gate. Indra carefully unloosed the knot of string with which the gate was held in position, and, after going in and drawing me inside, closed the gate, tying the knot as before. Never in my life had I seen such a human habitation. The jungle was thick all around the hut and overhead a huge tamarind and a pakur tree darkened the yard still more. On seeing us enter, a flock of chickens and hens screamed and two goats that had been kept tied on one side of the yard bleated together. And just in front of us I saw, great heavens! an immense python lying with its fearful coils spread all over the place. In half an instant I was scrambling up the fence, startling the hens still more by my exclamations of alarm. Indra burst out laughing, and cried, 'Oh, that's a good fellow; he doesn't mind you in the least. His name is Rahim.' He went near the creature and, lifting him by the middle, moved him to one side of the yard. When I got down from the fence, I saw, on looking to the right, a tall, thin man sitting on a number of broken mats and tattered mattresses in the verandah of the hut; he was panting after a violent fit of coughing. His long, matted hair was coiled on his head, and round his neck were a number of necklaces of beads and dried nuts. His coat and cloth were very dirty and dyed a dull yellow. As his long beard was tied with a piece of cloth to his matted hair, I did not at first recognise him, but, on coming near, I found him to be a snake-charmer well known to me. Five or six months before I had seen him almost everywhere, and he had even given one or two exhibitions of snake-charming at our own house. Indra addressed him as Shahji; he pointed to a seat for me and, raising his hand, indicated to Indra an earthen pipe and other materials for smoking ganja[4] Without saying a word Indra set about carrying out Shahji's silent directions. When the pipe had been charged and lighted, Shahji, in spite of his coughing and gasping, began to pull at it for all he was worth, and when he had finished he closed his mouth and nostrils with his left hand as if to prevent even the tiniest speck of smoke from escaping, and with a vigorous nod of his head said to Indra, transferring the pipe to him, 'Smoke.'

lndra did not smoke. He slowly put down the pipe on the floor and said, 'No.' Highly surprised at this, Shahji asked for the reason, but immediately, without waiting for a reply, took the pipe back. When, by continual puffs, he had entirely burnt out its contents, he put it upside down on the floor. After this Indra and he began to talk in low voices. Much of the conversation I could not hear, and much of what I heard I could not understand. But I noticed that though Shahji talked in Hindi, Indra spoke nothing but Bengali.

Gradually passion began to animate Shahji's voice, and all at once he began to rave like a furious maniac. I did not know who was the object of his filthy and vulgar abuse. After this outburst Shahji sat reclining against the wall, and in a minute or two he was fast asleep, his head bent down on his chest. After Indra and I had sat in silence for some time, I asked him with some impatience, 'Aren't you going? It is getting late.'

'Going where, Srikanta?'

'Won't you go to give the money to Didi?'

'Why, I am waiting for her arrival. This is her home.'

'This! Your Didi's home! But these people are snake-charmer Musalmans.'

Indra was about to say something, but suddenly stopped short: his eyes, as he looked at me, seemed dim with pain. At length he said, 'Some day I will tell you everything. Would you like to see me make a snake dance?'

Surprised at his words, I said, 'You make a snake dance? Won't it bite you?'

Indra went inside the room and brought out a small, cane box and a snake-charmer's bagpipe. The cane box he placed before him on the verandah, and, having unloosed its lid, played on the bagpipe. Petrified with fear, I shouted, 'Don't, please don't open the lid. There may be a cobra inside.' Indra made no reply, but, playing on the bagpipe and waving his head to and fro, he opened the lid of the box. In the twinkling of an eye an enormous cobra raised itself from the box. Spreading its hood, it stood up a foot and a half high. With a great sweep it struck savagely at the lid which was still in Indra's hand, and then jumped out of the box.

'Great God!' cried Indra in utter consternation as he leaped down from the verandah into the yard. I clambered up the fence again, while the enraged snake with another vicious bite at the bagpipe entered the room at lightning speed. Indra was livid with fright. 'This is a wild one,' he said, 'not the one I usually play to.'

I was on the verge of tears, overcome by fear, disgust, and anger. 'What did you do it for?' I asked. 'Supposing he comes out again and bites Shahji?'

Indra felt extremely ashamed. 'I'd better close the door,' he said. 'But then he may be hiding just behind it.'

'If he is,' I said, 'he is sure to come out and bite Shahji.'

Indra looked helplessly this way and that; then he said, 'It will serve him right! He keeps wild snakes in his house and he hasn't got the sense to take any precautions, ganja-smoking idiot that he is. Hullo, here is Didi. Don't come nearer, Didi, please don't. Stay where you are.'

Turning my head I saw Indra's Didi. There is an expression, 'fire under the cover of ashes': that was my first thought as I saw her. She looked like some one who had just risen from her seat of penance after having been engaged in age-long austerities. Under her left arm was a bundle of dry twigs and in her right hand was a basket, shaped like a flower-basket, with some vegetable in it. Her dress was like that of an up-country Musalman, dyed orange-brown, but not dirty like Shahji's. She wore a set of bangles made of lac and between the partings of her dark hair was a vermilion mark, the sign of a married Hindu woman. 'What is it?' she asked, putting down her bundle of twigs as she began to unloose the latch of the gate. 'Don't open it, I entreat you.' said Indra, greatly agitated. 'A big snake has got into the room.'

Didi looked at me; she seemed to be thinking something over. Then, with a smile, she said, in clear Bengali, 'Oh, is that it? A snake entering a snake-charmer's house—isn't that a wonder, Srikanta?'

I still gazed at her in silence, and wondered that she already knew my name: Indranath, I suppose, had told her. 'But how did the snake enter, lndranath?' she asked. 'He jumped out of the box,' Indra explained, 'and went inside: it is a wild one.'

'Is he asleep?' she asked, pointing to Shahji. 'Yes,' said Indra angrily. ‘he has smoked his fill of ganja and is now sleeping like a log. You couldn't wake him if you shouted yourself hoarse at his ear.' Didi again smiled slightly, and said, 'And taking advantage of the opportunity you wanted to show Srikanta a snake-dance, didn't you? Well, never mind. I'll go and catch him.'

'No, please don't: he will kill you. Make Shahji get up. I won't let you go.' And Indra spread out his arms before her, to prevent Didi's going into the house. She seemed to feel the depth of affection that rang in his anxious voice: for a brief moment I saw a glistening softness in her eyes, but she laughed as she said, 'You silly, mad boy, your Didi is not so fortunate; he won't hurt me. Just watch me catch him.' She took down a kerosene lamp from the bamboo loft and, having lit it, entered the room. A minute later she returned holding the snake in her hand, and, thrusting it into the box, closed the lid. Indra touched the ground near her feet with his forehead, and, taking the dust from beneath her feet, said, 'Oh, Didi, how I wish you were really my own sister.' She touched his chin with her hand, and, as she kissed the tips of her fingers,[5] she turned her face a little, perhaps to wipe her eyes unseen.

 

  1. The Bengali almanac gives information and advice for each day of the year, including what articles of food are prohibited for particular days and seasons.
  2. Eldest brother.
  3. Elder sister.
  4. Ganja: Indian hemp, a strong intoxicant.
  5. A form of affectionate benediction used by elders towards their juniors.