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VII


AFTER Didi's disappearance I did not see Indra for a long time. Whenever I went to the river I saw his dinghy lying tied to the bank, tossed on the water in the blazing sun, but Indra was not to be seen. However he and I were to have one more trip in the dinghy, though only one.

It was an intensely chilly evening: showers during the day had given a special edge to the piercing cold. A full moon rode high in the clear heavens. Indra suddenly appeared, God knows from where. 'Will you come to see a play?' he asked. A play was such a rarity to me that I jumped at the offer. 'Well then, get dressed and come along to our house at once.' It took only a minute to wrap a shawl round me and run out of the house. We had to make the journey by train. I thought we were going to the station in Indra's father's carriage and that was why he wanted me to lose no time. However Indra announced that we should have to go in his dinghy. This damped my ardour considerably. We should have to go against the stream, which meant hard work and a great deal of delay. We might even be too late for the play. 'Never fear,' said Indra; 'the wind is strong and we shan't be late. My Natunda[1] has just arrived from Calcutta; he wants to go by the river.'

Having hoisted the sail and got the canoe ready I waited for Indra and his Natunda. They came very late, and my first glimpse of Natunda was not reassuring. He was a Calcutta dandy, that is to say a dandy par excellence. He came attired in silk socks, shining pumps, and a heavy overcoat, with a woollen muffler round his neck, gloves on his hands, and a cap on his head: there was no end to his precautions against the biting, cold wind. Having graciously remarked that our dinghy was 'rotten', he got into it with great difficulty, leaning on Indra's shoulder and supporting himself with my proffered hand, and with great care sat down in the centre of the canoe, the picture of condescending dignity.

'What is your name, eh?'

'Srikanta,' I said timidly.

'Srikanta!'[2] he said, contemptuously, showing his teeth. 'Say only Kanta. Just prepare a smoke for me, will you? Indra, where have you kept the hookah and the chillim? Give them to this boy: let him prepare a smoke.'

The lordly hauteur of his gesture terrified me and abashed Indra. 'Come here and hold the rudder,' said Indra to me: 'I'll prepare the smoke.'

Without a word I began to prepare the chillim. For Indra's Natunda was his mother's sister's son and was a resident of Calcutta, who had recently passed the Intermediate Examination in Arts. But his demeanour had permanently disturbed my peace of mind. When I had handed him the hookah his face relaxed with the pleasure of smoking and he asked, 'Well, where do you live, Kanta? What is that black thing you have got on you? A shawl, is it? What a fine shawl, to be sure! It has got a smell of grease about it that would make the dirtiest Arab run! Just let me have it, will you? I'll be more comfortable if I sit on it.'

'Take my shawl, Natunda. I am not feeling cold at all', and Indra quickly threw his shawl to him. Natunda sat down comfortably on it and went on smoking in a far more contented humour. It was winter and the Ganges therefore was not very wide; we reached the other side of the river in half an hour. But the wind dropped at once, and Indra said anxiously, 'Natunda, we are in an awkward fix: the wind has dropped and our sails are useless now.'

'Let this young fellow row, then,' Natunda replied. Indra smiled at the inexperience of his town-bred relative, as he said, 'Row! no one could row against this current. We’ll have to go back.'

Natunda suddenly blazed into anger at this proposal. 'Why did you ever bring me in this damned dinghy of yours? You must take me there somehow. I tell you, you must! I've got to play on the harmonium! They've specially asked me to do it.' 'They've got people to play on the harmonium all right,' Indra replied. 'The play won't be postponed if you can't go, Natunda.'

'What, who can play on the harmonium in this beastly, barbarous place of yours? No, you must take me there somehow, I tell you.' He made a grimace that made my gorge rise. Later I had the privilege of hearing him play on the harmonium, but the less I say about that the better. Realizing the sad plight of Indra, I said, almost in a whisper, 'Indra, what about towing the boat along?' I had hardly finished speaking when I was startled by a terror-inspiring grimace as Natunda snarled, 'What about trying, eh? And when will you set about it, pray? How long will you sit there like a sheep?'

After this, Indra and I began to tow the canoe in turn. Over high banks and low, at times having to pass quite close to the ice-cold water, we towed the little canoe along. At intervals we had to stop to refill the hookah with tobacco for our exquisite who never offered us the slightest help in our exhausting labours. Once Indra suggested his holding the rudder; and he replied that he would catch pneumonia by taking his gloves off in the cold. 'I did not mean you should take them off,' Indra explained.

'Just so! You meant I should spoil them for good, of course, you silly ass!'

In fact I have seldom had the misfortune to come across a man so utterly selfish and ungrateful.

All the pains that we took to gratify his paltry whims did not affect him in the least, though his age after all was not much greater than ours. Afraid of catching cold and spoiling his valuable overcoat, he sat motionless in the canoe, wearing us to death with his incessant orders.

And now another complication arose. The brisk night air had given our passenger an appetite, which was fanned into a roaring blaze by his incessant shouting. It was already ten o'clock, and the information that it would be two before we could arrive at the theatre made him perfectly wild. At about eleven o'clock Natunda asked wearily, 'Isn't there any village hereabouts? Can't we get a bit of fried rice or something to eat?'

'There's a big village a short way up, Natunda: you'll get everything there.'

'Then let's stop there. Go on, why don't you pull, you kid? Can't you press on? What a sheep you are! Indra, will you tell him to walk a bit faster?' Neither Indra nor I made any reply. Proceeding at our former pace we soon came to a village. The bank was sloping and had spread out as it came down to the water. We pulled the canoe into a small creek and heaved a sigh of relief.

'One must stretch one's limbs a bit,' said our dandy. 'I must get down.' So Indra took him on his shoulders and set him down on the white, sandy bank where he proceeded to pace up and down in the moonlight.

We set out for the village in order to find means to appease his hunger. Though we knew that it would not be at all easy to get eatables at that hour in such a small place, we also realized that to protest or argue would be futile. Natunda seemed unwilling to be left alone. 'Then why not come along with us?' asked Indra. 'You'll probably feel afraid here, all alone. Nobody is likely to take away our dinghy. Come on, Natunda!'

'Afraid!' said Natunda with a sneering grimace. 'We boys of Calcutta don't fear death, my dear fellows! But it is more than we can do to go near the dirty houses of these low people. The very smell of them makes me sick.' What he really wanted was that I should stay with him and prepare his chillim for his smoke. But I had been so much disgusted by his behaviour that even though Indra once hinted at his wish, I paid no heed to it, being determined not to remain in his company. Indra and I went away together.

The exquisite of Calcutta began a song, clapping his hands to keep the time, 'Let us drain our wine cups—'

For a long time, as we walked toward the village, we could hear his effeminate voice trilling forth the song with a nasal twang. Indra was ashamed of the conduct of his cousin and said slowly, 'He is a town-man, you know, and cannot stand this cold country air as we can, don't you see, Srikanta?'

'H'm!' said I.

Indra, hoping perhaps to enlist my sympathies in his cousin’s favour, then began to discourse regarding Natunda's great intellectual attainments, informing me that he would soon pass his B.A. Examination and become a Deputy Collector. I do not know what district he graces now as Deputy Collector or whether he ever succeeded in becoming one; and yet I must believe he did, otherwise how is it that at times I hear so much of the Deputy's good deeds in Bengal? He was just attaining manhood then, a season when by all accounts one's heart becomes liberal and broad, and one's sympathies become wide and expansive, as they never do at any other period of life. And yet I have been unable to forget the samples of these qualities that he showed within the few hours of our intercourse.

Indra knew all the lanes, by-ways, shops, and houses of the village, and soon found a grocer's shop: but it was tightly closed and the grocer was fast asleep inside. It is impossible for me to convey an adequate notion of the depth of these country people's sleep to anyone who has not known it at first hand. They are not dyspeptic or lazy landholders, nor are they members of the Bengali bourgeoisie, restless and disturbed with cares and anxieties, the chief of which is the worry of getting their daughters married. They therefore know how to sleep. Once they have stretched themselves out on their rough cots, at the end of their day's toil, it is almost impossible to waken them by the ordinary methods of shouting and knocking at the door: it seems that nothing short of setting their houses on fire will arouse them from their slumbers.

We stood outside the shop, and after shouting at the top of our voices for nearly half an hour, and doing everything that we could think of to awaken those inside, we returned unsuccessful to the river bank. But . . . . Heavens! Where was he of Calcutta, our hero? As far as we could see, there was not a single soul beside ourselves in sight. The dinghy was still there, but where had Natunda gone to? Both of us shouted with all our strength 'Natunda!' Our own voices answered us, echoing back from the high banks, right and left. We knew that people had seen wolves in these parts on winter nights, and all at once Indra said, 'What if wolves have fallen on him?' My hair stood on end. Natunda's outrageous behaviour had certainly angered me, but even for him I could never have desired such a terrible fate.

Both of us suddenly saw something shining in the moonlight on the sands at some distance. Going up to it, we found that it was one of Natunda's much valued pumps. Indra threw himself on the damp sands, crying, 'Srikanta, his mother is staying with us too. I can't go home.' Everything was as clear as daylight to me. I remembered that while we were holloaing over there in our futile attempt to rouse the grocer, we had heard the barking of dogs. They were, no doubt, trying to bring to the notice of the village the tragedy that was happening before their eyes. Even now we could hear their barking at a distance. We had no doubt in our minds that they were howling over the spot where the wolves had devoured Natunda.

Indra suddenly stood up and said, 'I'm going over there.' I caught hold of his hands and said, 'Don't be a madman, Indra.' Indra made no reply but came back to the dinghy and took out the pole. With this on his shoulder and his open knife in his left hand he started, saying, 'You stay here, Srikanta. If I don't come back, go home and tell them what has happened. I am going.'

His face was very pale, but his eyes were glowing with excitement and determination. I knew him very well. This was no boyish boast, easily brought to nothing at the first sign of real danger. It would be impossible to turn him back. How could I prevent him, who had never known fear, from going? When I saw him leaving me, I took up a piece of bamboo and began to follow him. Indra turned around and, catching hold of my hand, said, 'Are you mad, Srikanta? It isn't your fault at all. Why should you come?'

'It isn't your fault either,' I retorted in rather a quavering voice: 'so why should you go?'

Indra pulled my bamboo out of my hand and threw it into the canoe, saying, 'No, it isn't my fault either. I didn't want to bring Natunda with me. But I can't return without him, and I must go.'

So must I too. For I was no coward either. So I took up the piece of bamboo again and without further discussion we both pushed forward. 'Don't try to run over sand; it is no use,' said Indra: 'if you want to get away any time, jump into the river.'

There was a sand-dune in front of us. As we mounted it, we saw five or six dogs barking at some distance from us close to the water. Except for the dogs no other creature was in sight, no wolf, not even a jackal. As we approached cautiously we saw that they were guarding some black object in the river. Indra shouted, 'Natunda!'

'I am here,' came a sobbing voice indistinctly from the water.

We ran as fast as our legs would carry us. The dogs stood aside and Indra jumped into the river. VVhen he dragged his Calcutta cousin, in a half-swooning condition out of the neck-deep water, Natunda still had on one of his pumps, besides his overcoat, gloves, muffler, and cap, all soaked and swollen.

After we had left him, the village dogs, attracted by his musical voice and excited by its nasal melody and by his wonderful costume, had made a shameful assault on our hero. He had run thus far, and, seeing no other means of defending himself, had jumped into the river. Standing neck-deep in this icy-cold water for half an hour on an intensely cold night, he had done sufficient penance for his previous sins. But it was no easy task for us to revive him from the effects of the penance. What is most strange and surprising, however, is that the first words he spoke after we had landed him on the bank and pulled off his waterlogged garments, were, 'Where is my other pump?'

As soon as we told him that it was behind the dune, he forgot all his sorrows, roused himself, and started off with the intention of securing it with the least possible delay. On the way he expressed repeated regrets for his coat, his muffler, his socks, and his gloves, by turns berating us, fools that we were, for having stripped them off him in such a hurry. If we had only left them on he complained, they would not have been soiled by contact with dust and dirt. We were no better than rustic clowns; we had never seen such things; this was the burden of his refrain as he poured out his grievances. In his grief for his gorgeous clothes he forgot the claims of his body which a short while ago he had been afraid of exposing to a single drop of water. He was a striking instance of how the means often overshadows the end.

It was after two o'clock when our dinghy came back to our landing-place. Apparelled in Indra's shawl, and girded with mine, the foul smell of which he had previously remarked upon, Natunda hurried home, repeatedly giving it as his deliberate opinion that my shawl was too nauseating to use as a door-mat. However that may have been, we were full of joy at the thought that instead of falling a prey to wolves he had returned intact. Submitting to his reiterated abuse and unceasing insolence with smiling faces, we concluded our eventful trip by returning home clad only in our dhotis and trembling in every limb in that frosty, winter night. Thus ended our last trip in the dinghy. We were never to set foot in it again.

 

  1. Literally New Brother. When Big Brother, Middle Brother, Little Brother have arrived, it is not uncommon to call the next one just New Brother. Indranath must have had several cousins older than Natunda.
  2. Srikanta is rather a rustic name. A Bengali prefixes his name with 'Sri', which is considered auspicious. For Srikanta, however, 'Sri' is not this prefix, but a part of the name itself. This is what the young dandy from Calcutta did not understand.