Srikanta (Part 1)/Chapter 8
AS I write down these records of my past life I often wonder who gave the chaotic elements of my experience the order and the arrangement that they possess in my memory. They did not all occur in the order in which I am now relating them. Nor can I say that all the links are there. Some have dropped, and yet the chain of my memory has not snapped. Who is it that repairs the breaches and keeps it intact as ever?
A second wonder is that here, in the region of my memory, the big things do not crush the little things. If they did, one would remember only the big and important incidents of one's life. But that is not the case. As I think of my youth and childhood, many small and paltry matters come into my mind, things that somehow have taken a disproportionately tenacious hold of it, while bigger things have withered and faded out of existence. Thus in my narrative many a trifle has bulked large, while other events much more momentous have entirely passed into oblivion. It is not for me, however, to explain these anomalies of the human mind; I content myself with merely commenting on them.
I recall to-day how one of these insignificant events, occurring most casually, led to one of the most significant experiences of my life. Many years had passed since Didi had disappeared, and her image was growing dim in my memory. At first the recollection of her face had been a curb to the wild impulses of my early youth, but now it was growing distant and vague.
At the time, I was a guest at a shikar party given by a Raja's son. I had been his school-mate and had often secretly done his mathematical exercises for him; so we had been great friends. After the matriculation class we had separated. I knew that Rajas' sons had proverbially short memories, so I never dreamed that he would write to me. We met by the merest chance. He had just attained majority, and a large fortune, the accumulation of many years, had come into his hand, when someone told him that I was a crack shot with a rifle, and my skill was painted in such glowing colours that he decided that I was a fit person to belong to the circle of his intimate friends. As our shastras tell us never to disobey the summons of kings and princes, I could not but obey. I went. An elephant sent by the prince awaited me at the station. After a ride of some twenty miles I came upon an encampment which even the most fastidious could not but count worthy of a prince who had risen above the trammels of his minority. Five tents had been pitched: one for his highness, one for his friends, one for the servants, the fourth to serve as a dining-tent, while the fifth was set apart at some distance for the use of a baiji and her retinue of attendants.
It was night already, and on entering the prince's tent I could see that the entertainment which was going on had commenced some time earlier. The prince accorded me a very warm welcome, but, when he attempted to rise from his cushion to show me greater honour, he was unfortunately forced to sink back upon it 'dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing'. His friends welcomed me with indistinct murmurs of emotion. I was a complete stranger to them, but they, in the condition they were in, stood in no need of formal introductions.
Piari, the baiji, who was singing, had been engaged from Patna for two weeks. The prince had to pay well for her services, but I must admit that his choice did credit to his taste and judgment. She was beautiful and sweet-voiced, and really understood her art. The song stopped as I entered. Then, after the inevitable interchange of polite remarks appropriate to the occasion, the prince requested me to call for the music that I liked. This embarrassed me at first but I soon realized that I alone possessed any ear for music in a company where all the rest were, so far as any aesthetic appreciation was concerned, no better than buffaloes.
Soon the baiji brightened up. It is possible of course to do almost anything when it is adequately paid for. But I could see that in this assembly of dolts it was really painful for her to give an exhibition of her art. She seemed quite relieved to get one person who could appreciate it at last. From then on until late that night she seemed to be employing all her art, her exquisite voice, her flowerlike beauty for my sake alone, keeping down with her liquid melodies the foul atmosphere of crude and ugly animalism that surrounded me. And then at last her song died away and stopped. Perhaps never in her life had she sung with a deeper emotion or finer sincerity than on that night; and I had listened as one entranced. When she stopped I could only say, 'Very fine.'
Piari looked down and smiling put her folded palms to her forehead in acknowledgment of the bald compliment; she did not salaam me, Musalman fashion, as is customary with most singers. The musical soirée had come to an end.
Some of those present were asleep, some drowsy, most of them were half-seas over with drink. As the baiji was going out of the tent with her attendants, I could not help saying, in the excess of my delight, 'Baiji, I congratulate myself that I shall have the privilege of hearing you sing every day for two weeks.' I spoke in Hindi, for I took her to be an up-country singer.
She stopped abruptly, and then, coming towards me a little, said in a very low voice and in clear Bengali, 'I must sing, for I have been paid. But how can you attend on him for a fortnight? I would advise you to go away to-morrow.'
I was taken by surprise at this reply. Before I could think of anything to say, she had left the tent. Next morning His Highness issued forth in great state on a hunting expedition. Ten sportsmen were to accompany him, the guns numbering fifteen, of which six were rifles. There was a great hustle and to-do in camp as preparations, most of them having to do with food and drink, were made for the day's sport. Before long we reached our hunting ground, the banks of a river which had almost dried up. On one bank was a village, the other bank was a sandy reef. On the nearer bank there were large silk-cotton trees, extending over two miles, and on the sand of the reef, a few shrubs of kash and clumps of kusha grass scattered about. Here our sport was going to begin, with our fifteen guns. I saw a few doves on some of the silk-cotton trees, and a couple of creatures, probably Brahminy ducks, swimming in the moribund stream close by.
A lively discussion followed as to which direction each gun should take, in the course of which all took the opportunity of infusing fresh vigour into their systems by quaffling a glass or two of drink. I put my gun down on the ground. The baiji's taunt had already made my mind uneasy and now the scene of our sport aroused my profound disgust.
'What a dull fellow you are to-day, Kanta, to be sure,' said the prince. 'What are you doing? Why do you put your gun down?'
'I don't kill birds.'
'What's that? But why, why don't you?'
'I haven't handled a shot-gun since I grew a moustache: I have forgotten how to use it.'
His highness the prince was convulsed with laughter. How much of his glee was due to drink is hard to say.
Saraju was the leader of the shikar-party that day and the chief ornament of the prince's scarlet retinue. I had heard, soon after my arrival, of his unerring marksmanship. He asked me angrily, 'Is there any shame in shooting birds?'
My temper was not quite under control, so I replied, 'Not to everyone, but to me there is.' I said hurriedly to the prince, 'Your highness, I don't feel very well', and returned to the tent without caring to notice who smiled or grimaced behind my back.
I had just lain down on the mattress spread out on the floor and had lighted a cigarette after ordering a cup of tea, when a servant entered and respectfully informed me that the baiji desired to have an interview with me. This was what I was hoping for.
'Why does she wish to see me?' I asked.
'I do not know, sir.'
'Who are you?'
'I am her butler, sir.'
'Are you a Bengali?'
'Yes, sir, paramanik by caste. My name is Ratan, sir.'
'Is the baiji a Hindu?'
'Should I, sir, have served under her otherwise?' Ratan answered smiling.
Ratan accompanied me as far as his mistress's tent and after showing me the entrance disappeared. Raising the curtain I went in and saw that the baiji awaited me alone. The dancer's gown and scarf that she had worn on the previous night had deceived me, but now I had no difficulty in seeing that, whoever she might be, she was a Bengali. She sat, dressed in a silk sari, on a carpet of great value. On seeing me enter, she got up and, indicating a seat with a smile, said, 'Please sit down. No, I won't smoke before you. Ratan, take this hookah away! Why, won't you sit down?'
Ratan came in and removed the hookah. 'I know you smoke,' the baiji said, 'but what can I offer you? What you may or may not do at other places is no concern of mine. But I could not offer you my own hookah. I will get you some cigars. Ratan!'
'Don't trouble, I don't need any cigars; I have got some with me.'
'You have? Well then, just sit down quietly, please, for I have much to tell you. Nobody knows how God gets people to meet at unexpected places: nobody could dream it. You went out to the shikar : what made you return so soon?'
'I didn't like it.'
'Just so: you wouldn't. What a cruel race men-folk are! They know best what pleasure they get in killing harmless creatures for nothing. Is your father well?'
'Father is dead.'
'I am very sorry. And your mother?'
'She went before him.'
'Oh, that is how—' and the baiji heaved a sigh and fixed her eyes on me. I seemed to feel that her eyes, for one brief instant, grew moist in sympathy. But perhaps that was an illusion. Yet when she next spoke I could not mistake the fact that the frivolous and coquettish voice of this keen-witted woman had really become tender. 'Then,' she said, 'you haven't got a soul who really cares for you and looks after you. Are you still with your aunt? Where else would you go, after all? You haven't married, I can see that. Are you studying at college? Or have you finished?'
I had borne with her curiosity and her string of queries in patience. But her last question annoyed me. 'Well, and who are you?' I asked rudely. 'I don't remember ever having seen you before. Why do you wish to know so much about me? Will it profit you anything to know all this?'
Piari did not get angry at this outburst of mine: she merely smiled. 'Are profit and loss the only things in this world? Is there nothing like natural feeling, affection, or love? My name is Piari: but since you cannot recognise me by my face, could you do so if you heard the nickname of my childhood?'
'Where is your home then?'
'No, I won't tell you that.'
'Won't you tell me your father's name?'
The baiji pressed her tongue between her teeth, and said, 'He is in heaven now. Alas, how can I utter his name with this sinful tongue of mine?'
I grew impatient and said, 'If you can't, perhaps you can say how you came to recognise me?'
Piari saw the state of mind I was in, and smiled archly. 'No, I don't mind telling you. But would you find it possible to believe me?'
'Let me hear it first.'
'My evil genius made me recognise you: what else could it be? It is fortunate for me that the sun has dried up all the tears you made me shed or they would have formed a pool, a big pool. Can you recognize me now, my good sir?'
Indeed, I could not recognize her. But that was my own fault entirely. My memory was to blame. I noticed that Piari's lips had a way of curving up, giving an impression that everything she said was in banter and that she was laughing inwardly. I felt that I had seen those lips before, but I could not remember where. As it was, I could say nothing.
After a few moments' silence Piari laughed aloud, and it seemed to me all of a sudden that her laughter concealed embarrassment. 'No, sir, you are not so foolish as I thought,' she said. 'It has not escaped you that I have my own way of speaking, but many people with cleverer heads than yours have been taken in by my words. And if you are so clever, why have you adopted the profession of a parasite? The noble profession of a hanger-on is not for such as you. Go, leave the place instantly!'
Hot anger surged up within me, but I refrained from giving expression to it. 'Well,' I said quietly, 'I must regard myself as fortunate so long as I am in somebody's service. Something to do is better than nothing, don't you agree? Now I'll take leave or people outside will really suspect something.'
'After all,' the baiji answered, 'why should you worry? If people do have such suspicions, I hardly think you would find it a matter for regret.'
I stalked to the door without answering her. As I reached it she suddenly burst into a peal of laughter. 'Don't you forget, my dear,' she said mockingly, 'to tell that story of my pool of tears! Properly told in the circle of your friends or before his highness the prince and his satellites, it might even turn the scale of your fortune.'
I left her tent without saying another word, but the woman's coarse banter and shameless laughter continued to torment me like the bite of a scorpion.
Going back to my tent I drank a cup of tea and lit a cigar. As my brain cooled, I began to think, 'Who is this woman?' I could distinctly remember the facts of my life as far back as my fifth year, and yet, so far as I could see, there was nothing to suggest her. At the same time it was clear that she knew me well; she even knew about my aunt. She knew also that I was poor. What designs could she have on me? It was equally clear, however, that she wanted me away with all her heart. And yet why was she interested in my staying or going? She had said, 'Are profit and loss the only things in this world? Is there nothing like affection or love?' I could not help smiling at the thought of these words which she, whom I had never seen before, had uttered so glibly. But, most of all, her parting words of derision pricked and irritated me remorselessly and incessantly.
Towards evening the prince and his friends returned from their sport. I heard from an attendant that the bag consisted of eight doves. The prince sent for me but I feigned illness and lay in bed, whence, till late at night, I could hear Piari's songs and the drunken appreciation of the prince's party.
After this, three or four days dragged by in almost uninterrupted monotony. I say 'almost' because everything except the daily sport was invariably the same. I soon observed a rapidly waning enthusiasm for sport among all: whether this was out of consideration for Piari's distaste for it, I cannot say. No one seemed willing to stir out of the tents. But they did not want me to go away. There was no special reason for me to wish to bolt except the disgust I had conceived for the baiji. Her presence affected me like a physical assault: I only felt relief when I could get away from her. If I could not do that, I had to look somewhere else, talk to someone, or in some such way distract my attention. I could feel that every moment she was trying to meet my eyes. The first day or two she had attempted a few jokes at my expense, but my attitude made her give up all levity.
It was a Saturday. Everything had grown perfectly intolerable to me. As I had made up my mind to go after dinner, music had been arranged for the afternoon. The baiji had grown tired, and suddenly somebody began the pick of all stories, ghost stories. In an instant we all gathered around the speaker.
At first I was not much attracted by the story but soon I sat up and was listening greedily. The speaker was an elderly gentleman from the village. He knew the delicate art of story-telling to perfection. He was saying, 'If any gentleman here disbelieves in the spirit-world, let him have all his doubts set at rest for ever to-night in this very village. To-night will be a moonless Saturday night, and, whatever kind of man he may be, a saint or a sinner, a Brahmin or a Sudra, whether he goes alone or in the company of others, if he visits the cremation-grounds of the village to-night, he will not go in vain. Not only will he see wandering ghosts, he will also hear their voices and can, if he likes, hold converse with them.' I remembered the exploits and adventures of my boyhood and burst into laughter. The old man looked towards me and said, 'Please come here.' When I went to him he asked me gravely, 'You do not believe in ghosts?'
'Why do you not? Is there any special reason for your disbelief?'
'Well, then, there are holy men in this village of ours who have seen them with their own eyes. And because you have read a few pages of English, you think fit to disbelieve me and laugh in my face. I had forgotten, though, that Bengalis are atheists and unbelievers.' I was surprised at the turn the matter had taken. 'My dear sir,' I said, 'I do not wish to argue about this matter. My belief is my own. Whether I be an atheist or not, I do not believe in ghosts. Those who say they have seen them have either been deceived or are liars: that is my belief.'
Suddenly the old gentleman caught hold of my right hand and asked, 'Will you go to the cremation-grounds to-night?' 'I will,' I replied laughing. 'I have gone to many cremation-grounds on many nights since my boyhood.'
Hot with anger, the old gentleman began to relate the terrors of the local cremation-ground, a description that seemed to freeze his audience to the very marrow. 'These cremation-grounds,' he said, 'have a terror-inspiring quality all their own. One can count human skulls by the thousand there. Every night the dread goddess, Bhairavi, whose name means the Terrible One, comes with her ghostly attendants and plays with the skulls. And many a time have the resounding peals of their grim laughter stopped the heart-beats of unbelieving Englishmen and of white magistrates and judges.' He went on recounting his awful stories with such consummate art that many of us felt our flesh turn cold, though it was broad daylight and the tent was full of people. Glancing sideways I found that Piari had come up close to me and was drinking in the story-teller's words with greedy ears.
After he had finished his account of the cremation-ground the speaker looked at me disdainfully and asked, 'Well, sir, do you intend to go?'
'Of course I do.'
'You do! Well, as you please: but if you lose your life—'
'No, my dear sir, no,' I said laughing. 'If I lose my life the blame will not be yours. You needn't worry. But I will not go to an unknown place unarmed: I shall take my gun with me.'
After this, the conversation was directed against me, and, as it was becoming personal, I left the tent. The topics under discussion were hardly congenial: my aversion to killing birds coupled with my partiality for shooting ghosts; the fact that Bengalis read English and flouted the Hindu shastras; their impiousness in eating fowl and chicken; their boastfulness in word and cowardice in action; their tendency to faint with fright at the merest bluster,—these and kindred subjects now occupied the attention of the company. In other words, they devoted themselves to the type of argument that brings delight to the souls of our princes and chiefs, 'supremely intellectual' and yet not too subtle to keep them from adding their own contributions to the discussion.
There was still one hour before I was to start, and I was pacing to and fro in front of my tent and turning the matter over in my mind. My master in adventure had early taught me to discard all fear in matters like this: I remembered that night when I was still a boy and Indra had said to me, 'Srikanta, take the name of Rama mentally: that boy is sitting behind me.' I had lost consciousness on that night, but never afterwards. I had rid myself for ever of all fear of ghosts. But if the stories I had heard were true, what did they mean? Indra believed in ghosts, but even he had not seen any. However much I entrenched myself behind my scepticism I could not deny that, at times, particular places at particular hours had given me sensations that could only be described as eerie. As I looked at the impenetrable darkness of the night I was suddenly reminded of another moonless night. That also had been a Saturday.
Five or six years earlier, when our neighbour, Niru Didi, a young widow, lay on her death-bed, there was no one to attend to her except myself. She lived alone in a mud-built hut inside an orchard. No one in the village was so unselfish as she, so quick to help others in any kind of trouble. She had taught many of the village girls reading and writing, needlework, and other domestic arts. Every one loved her for the quiet sweetness of her life, and for the integrity of her character. But when one day she slipped accidentally and became at the age of thirty a helpless cripple confined to her bed, none of her neighbours came forward to do anything for her in her distress. Immaculate Hindu society shut all its doors and windows in her face. Niru Didi, after an illness of six months which she silently endured in ignominy, neglected by the very neighbours whom she had so often helped and cared for, at last passed away in the middle of a dark, rainy night, without the slightest medical aid to alleviate her pain.
No one but an old maidservant and I knew that my aunt helped Niru Didi in secret. She called me to her one day at noon and said, 'Srikanta, my boy, it is not unusual for you, I know, to attend on sick people: I should like you to go and see that poor girl now and then.' After that, I visited her from time to time and supplied her with a few necessaries which I purchased with the money my aunt gave me for the purpose. I was the only person who was with her at the time of her death. I have never seen in anybody else at the hour of death such a strange combination of hallucination with full possession of the faculties as I saw in her. I will tell the story to show that though one may not believe in anything uncanny or supernatural one cannot help instinctive reactions of fear.
It was a dark night of rain and storm: after midnight the howling tempest seemed ready to uproot the foundations of the earth in its fury. All the doors and windows had been shut. I lay on a half-broken easy-chair not far from Niru Didi's bed. She called me to her in her naturally low voice and, drawing my hand close to her mouth, whispered, 'Srikanta, go home.'
'What, Niru Didi, in this storm and rain?'
'Yes, your life before everything else.'
Thinking that her mind was wandering, I said. 'I'll go: only let the rain abate a little.'
She became terribly anxious and cried, 'No, no, Srikanta, you must go at once. Don't delay any more. You must go. You must flee.' Something in her voice startled me. 'Why do you want me to go?' I asked.
In reply she drew my hand closer and, looking at the window, cried aloud, 'Won’t you go? Are you bent on losing your life then? Don't you see those black men who have come to take me away and are threatening me because you are here?'
Then began her screams. 'There! under my bed! They're going to kill me! They're taking me away! They're seizing me!' Her screams were incessant and stopped only towards the end of the night, when she had very little life left in her.
That terrible and pathetic night is still engraved in my memory in images of fire. There is no doubt that I experienced inexpressible fear, and that I thought I saw nameless things and shapes.
It is true that the recollection becomes laughable now. But on that night I would have made a wild dash into the tempestuous night outside, had I not had the firm belief that outside the door I should run into the battalions of black men that Niru Didi saw. I knew that such things could not be, that such terrible presences existed only in her delirious brain; and yet—
It was Ratan who was addressing me.
'What is the matter?'
'Baiji is desirous of an interview with you, sir.'
I was not merely astonished, I was annoyed. Not only did I think this sudden desire of hers damaging to my self-respect, when I remembered what our attitude towards one another had been during these three or four days; it also struck me as being unwarranted presumption on her part. But I managed to repress all signs of agitation before the servant, as I replied, 'I have no time to-night, Ratan; I am going to start at once. Tell her we can meet to-morrow.'
Ratan was a well-trained servant, expert in all the arts of diplomacy and etiquette. In a respectfully low voice he said, 'The necessity is very urgent, sir: I beg of you to come for a minute. If you don't, sir, she has said that she will come here in person.' Heavens! here in this tent, at this hour of the night, with so many people about! 'Explain to her, Ratan,' I said, 'that I will see her early to-morrow morning. Under no circumstances can I go to her tent to-night.'
'Then,' said Ratan, 'she will come herself, sir. I have known her for these five years, sir, and I have known her always true to her word. If you don't go, sir, it is certain that she will come here.'
This appeared to me to be sheer unreasoning obstinacy. 'All right,' I said, 'I am coming.'
Entering the tent, I found that, in consequence of their lively bouts, all were asleep. In the servants' tent only two or three were awake. I hurriedly pulled on my boots and put on my coat. Then, taking my rifle, which I had kept ready, I followed Ratan to the baiji's tent. Piari was standing waiting for me. She looked me over from head to foot several times, and then said bluntly and angrily, 'You can't go to the cremation-grounds to-night. You must not go there on any account.'
Surprised, I asked, 'Why not?'
'Why not, indeed! Do you really think that there are no ghosts, that you venture to go on a night like this? Do you think that if you do, you will come back alive?' She suddenly burst into tears. I stood there bewildered, unable to think of anything to say. And who would not be embarrassed at being summoned by a strange lady at the dead of night to witness her weeping to save his life? Not getting any reply from me, Piari wiped her tears away and said, 'Will you never know what it is to be reasonable? Will you always remain as obstinate as ever? Let me see the way you take: I'll accompany you.' And she picked up a shawl with the evident intention of throwing it round her shoulders. I merely said, 'All right, come along.' She blazed up at the hidden taunt in my words. 'Yes,' she retorted, 'a fine reputation you would earn that way! "He came to hunt, and went out with a baiji at midnight looking for ghosts!" Have you placed yourself definitely beyond the pale of all decency? Have you banished for ever all sense of shame and self-respect?' She stopped, and then, struggling with some repressed emotion, said in a low voice, 'In the old days you were never so lost to all sense of propriety. No one would then have thought that you could descend so low.' Her last words, which on any other occasion might have provoked my anger or annoyance, had a different effect on me. Suddenly I seemed to recognise Piari. 'And how much value,' I replied, 'do you attach to the opinion of others? VVho would have thought that you too could fall so low?'
For a fleeting instant I saw the flash of a tearful smile on her face, like moonlight on the light clouds of autumn. But the next moment she asked in an anxious voice, 'What do you know about me? Can you say who I am?'
'You are Piari.'
'Then a lot you know, indeed!'
'Would you be glad if I were to tell you what others don't know but I do? If so, you would have hastened to tell me about it yourself. As you have chosen not to say anything about yourself, you won't get anything out of me either. You can think over the question, whether it is worth your while to reveal yourself. But I have no time to stay now: I am going.'
In a flash Piari stood in my path, saying, 'And if I don't let you go, will you use force with me?'
'But why shouldn't you let me go?'
'Why should I?' she asked. 'I believe in ghosts and can't let you go simply because you want to. I swear that I will scream and shout and waken everybody here if you attempt to go.' She tried to wrest my gun from my hands. For some time past my annoyance had been giving place to a feeling of amusement. Now I laughed aloud and said, 'I can't say whether ghosts actually exist or not, but I can say that there are false ghosts who do exist. They speak to you, weep, and stand in your path—and, when the occasion arises, they wring the necks of their victims and drink their blood.'
Piari grew pale and seemed to be much too taken aback to be able to speak. At last she said, 'So you have recognised me, I see. But that is a mistake of yours. Those false ghosts are capable of doing a lot of things, it is true: but they don't obstruct your path for the pleasure of wringing your neck. Even they have a sense of what is due to those who have any claim on them.'
'Well,' I said laughing, 'you are speaking of yourself. Are you a ghost?'
'Of course I am,' said Piari. 'Those that die and yet are not dead, are ghosts, to be sure. Didn't you mean the same thing?' She paused for an instant, and then continued, 'In one sense it is true that I am dead. But whether that is false or true, it was not I who spread the report of my death. My mother got her brother to circulate the rumour. Will you hear the whole story?'
At the mention of her 'death', all my doubts vanished: I recognised without a shadow of doubt that she was Rajlakshmi. Many years ago she had gone on a pilgrimage with her mother and she had never come back. Her mother, on her return home, announced that she had died of cholera at Benares. Though at first I had not been able to think of where I had seen her before, I had from the beginning noticed her trick of biting her under-lip when she was angry or annoyed. I felt that I had seen somebody, at some time or other, somewhere or other, with that particular trick, but I could not remember by any effort of my memory who had shown this trait, or where, or when. When I realized that Rajlakshmi had become Piari, I was overpowered with wonder.
Years before, in the days when I was the senior pupil in our village school, her father, a famous kulin, married again and turned her mother out of his house. The mother, with her two daughters, Suralakshmi and Rajlakshmi, returned to her parents. Rajlakshmi was then eight or nine years of age; Suralakshmi was twelve or thirteen. Rajlakshmi was very fair, but frequent attacks of malaria had made her a quaint little figure, thin and pale with scanty, copper-coloured hair. She was so afraid of a beating from me that every day she would go into the thickets of bainchi trees and make a garland of their ripe fruits for me. Sometimes I would ask her to repeat her old lessons, and if she made the slightest mistake, I would slap her to my heart's content. Rajlakshmi's only remonstrance at such times was to sit in silence biting her under-lip. She never told me how difficult it was for her to gather the ripe bainchi fruits. I had always thought that her only reason for doing it was her fear or my beating her, but now, for the first time, I wondered if there might have been another reason . . . Then she was married. It was a strange affair. Her uncle passed many sleepless nights because he could not secure suitable bridegrooms for his nieces. One day he learnt by accident that Birinchi Datta's cook, whom he had brought with him on his transfer from Bankura, was the son of a 'low' kulin Brahmin. At once Rajlakshmi's uncle besought Mr. Datta to secure his cook as joint husband for the two girls as, if he did not get them married off immediately, he was in imminent danger of losing his high Brahmin caste. All knew that the Datta's cook was a quiet fellow, obliging and mild to the point of idiocy, but on this occasion he showed himself the equal of any one in worldly wisdom. At the mention of fifty-one rupees as the dowry, he shook his head vehemently and said, 'My dear sir, you can't do it so cheap. Find out first what the present-day rate is. You can't get a decent pair of rams for fifty-one rupees, and yet you expect to find a bridegroom for that sum! Let me have a hundred and one rupees, and I will marry both the girls without demur; that will relieve you at one stroke of your worries concerning them both. When you come to think of it, a hundred rupees is no more than the price of two bulls: surely you don't consider that an extravagant demand?' No, his demand was certainly not excessive. After much argument and discussion, higgling and haggling, the parties compromised on seventy rupees, and that very night the girls were married. Two days later the bridegroom took seventy rupees in cash from their uncle and, deserting his brides, left for Bankura. He was never heard of again. One year and a half later Suralakshmi died of fever, and eighteen months after that Rajlakshmi's death at Benares was reported. This was briefly, the history of Piari, the baiji.
'Shall I tell you,' she asked, 'what your thoughts are?'
'Try,' I said.
'You are thinking, "How I made her suffer in her childhood! I sent her everyday to the thorny bainchi thickets and beat her again and again for her pains. Never in all that time did she ask anything of me. Now that she at last makes this request, let me grant it, and not go to the cremation-grounds to-night." Tell me, aren't those your thoughts?'
I burst out laughing.
'You see!' she cried, laughing triumphantly. 'How could one forget the playmate of one's boyhood? How could one refuse to grant her request? Who indeed could be so heartless? Come, let us sit down: I've got such an immense lot to tell you. Ratan, come and remove this gentleman's boots. But why are you laughing?'
'I laugh to see how you women use your spells to make men do your will.'
Piari also laughed. 'Indeed,' she said, 'I may be able to cast my spell over others, but how could I ensnare him who has bound me by his spell ever since I could think? You may say my words are my spells. But did I ever speak a word when I used to make garlands of ripe bainchi, even though the thorns scratched and tore my hands? I suppose you think that I kept silent for fear of your beating. Don't deceive yourself: Rajlakshmi was never so timid a girl. But fie on you! You had forgotten me so utterly that you could not recognise me when you saw me!' And in the wild toss of her head that accompanied her laughter I could see the diamonds in her ear-ring swinging as if in uncontrollable merriment.
'But when did I take the trouble to keep your memory sacred,' I asked, 'that I should never forget you? On the contrary, I am surprised that I was able to recognise you. Well, it is getting on for twelve. Good-night!'
Piari's smiling face at once became pale and colourless. She paused for a moment and then said, ‘If you don't believe in spirits, you must believe in snakes and reptiles, tigers, bears, and wild boars in such an out-of-the-way place as this.'
'I do believe in their existence, certainly,' I answered, 'and I am always on guard against them.'
When she saw that I was going, she said, 'I know what kind of a man you are, and I had my fears that I should not be able to dissuade you. Yet I thought I might succeed in keeping you back by my tears and entreaties. But I see that the end of all this has been my tears and entreaties alone.' Not getting any reply from me, she continued, 'Well, go then. I won't spoil your luck by calling you back. If anything happens. your friends, the prince and his cronies, will hardly be of any use to you; it's I who will have to suffer for it, in this strange country. You know me little; you have thought fit to play the hero before me, but I, who am only a woman, shall not be able to say, if the question is raised, that I don't know you.'
She suppressed a sigh. I turned back smiling awkwardly: I felt a heaviness in my heart. 'Why, baiji,’ I said, 'even that would be a great gain to me. I had thought that I was absolutely friendless in the world: now I shall know that there is some one who cares for me, and who won't leave me neglected if anything happens to me.'
'Do you mean,' asked Piari, 'that you never realized that before? However much you insult me by calling me 'baiji', you know at the bottom of your heart that Rajlakshmi could never desert you if you wanted her help. It would have been a good thing, perhaps, if I could: I might have taught you a lesson. What a stupid race women are! If they've loved once, they are done for.'
'Piari,' I said, 'do you know why even the best sannyasis don't get alms?'
'Yes,' said Piari, 'I know. But your joke is not pointed enough to wound me. My love is my treasure from the hand of God. It belonged to me before I could tell right from wrong. It is not the growth of a day.'
'Very well, then,' I replied, softened, 'I hope that something may happen to me to-night, so that you may have a clear test of your "treasure from the hand of God".'
'Holy Durga!' she cried in sudden terror, 'you should be ashamed to say such things. May you come back as you are! I want no "clear test". What have I done to deserve the good fortune of nursing you back to health and strength with my own hands if you should happen to fall ill? If that glad service were ever awarded me I should have at least one act of my life to be proud of!' She turned her face away, but in the dim light of the lantern I could see her tears.
'I can only hope that some day your wish may be fulfilled,' I said, as I left the tent. I little knew in what a terrible way my jesting hope would be realized. I could hear Piari's tearful voice, 'Holy Durga! O Durga!' coming from inside the tent. I took the path that led to the cremation-grounds without further delay.
All the way my mind was filled with thoughts of Piari. I hardly noticed the long, dark path through the mango orchard or the embankment that I had to cross by the side of the river. All the way I thought of the strange and mysterious world which we call a woman's mind. The thought that the frail little girl of my boyhood days had brought me her daily garlands of bainchi fruits as tokens of childish love, that she had silently worshipped me then, and that she claimed to have loved me ever since—all this was a surprise to me. But it was something else that perplexed me, not that she could love me, for I knew that love often takes unexpected forms, but that in her ignoble life, so full of falsehoods and insincerities, she should have been able to keep a corner free for the love which she called her 'treasure from the hand of God'. How had she kept it alive? And how could she bear all the artificial poses and false utterances of her daily life?
I was startled out of my thoughts. Looking in front of me, I saw an immense plain full of grey sand, through which a narrow stream meandered into the distance. Throughout the plain were scattered clumps of kash plants. All of a sudden my mind fancied them to be men, invited on that terrible, moonless night to see the dance of spirits, taking their seats on the carpet of the sands and waiting in silence. Overhead, in the dark heavens, were countless stars, also wide awake in anxious silence. No wind or breeze, and no sound. Except for the beating of my heart there was no stir or response from any living thing as far as my eyes could see. The night-bird that had cried 'Bap!' had not opened its mouth again. I advanced slowly towards the west, the direction in which the cremation-grounds lay. A few days before I had noticed some silk-cotton trees that stood like grim gate-keepers of the place, and when I had advanced a little further I saw their dark branches. As I passed under them I heard a faint stir of life, which became more pronounced as I advanced. It was like the sobbing of a tired child whose cries have failed to rouse its mother from sleep and who has become weak and feeble through excessive sobbing. It came from one corner of the cremation-grounds. He who does not know what this cry means, and who hears it for the first time in the dead of night, will refuse to advance another step. I will bet anything on that. If he does not know that the sobbing thing is not a human child but a young vulture, he will have no means of guessing it. Advancing still further, I saw a flock of vultures sitting on the branches of the silk-cotton trees; the disconsolate crying must have come from a naughty child among them.
It went on crying as before. I passed the tree and stood in a corner of the cremation-grounds. I saw that the statement that one could count a lakh of human skulls there was not so much of an exaggeration as I had thought. Nearly the whole of the locality was strewn with human skeletons. The skulls with which the ghostly presences were to play were there in plenty though the players had not yet arrived. I could not discover, however, whether there were any unearthly spectators present. As it was then the darkest hour of the night I sat down on a small sandhill, hoping that the play would commence without much delay. I opened my gun, examined the cartridge, replaced it in the breach, and then, laying the gun on my knees, sat ready for action.
As I waited I thought of Piari's words, 'If you really don't believe in ghosts, why take the trouble to make this foolish trip? And if you are not sure whether they exist or not, I won't let you go.' She was right. What had I come out to see? It was useless to try to conceal my foolishness from my own mind. I had not come to see anything; I had merely come to show what a brave fellow I was; to prove to those that had said, 'Bengalis are cowards in action', that they were really a race of heroes.
For a long time past I had been convinced that death is the end of everything for man, and I now thought that even if he survived death, it would be neither natural nor fitting for him to come back to the place where his body had been subjected to the undignified rites of cremation, in order to kick and roll his own skull about. At least such a wish would hardly have inspired my ghostly breast after my dissolution. But then, of course, tastes differ, and there might be spirits to whom this type of sport would appeal; if so, my having come so far might not prove fruitless. At any rate the elderly gentleman from the village had held out hopes for me earlier in the day.
A sudden gust of wind blew a volume of dust and sand over me: before it had subsided, another gust came, and yet another. 'What is this?' I thought. 'There was no trace of any wind a few minutes ago.' However much we may argue and reason, the instinctive faith that there is something unknown after death is bred in our very bones. It exists as long as our bones exist, whether we admit its existence or not. These gusts of wind, therefore, not only blew dust and sand over me, they also roused that secret and instinctive faith as well. By and by the wind grew stronger. Now when the wind blows through a skull, a sound very much like a sigh is produced. In a few minutes I became the centre of sighings without number from all sides, to my right and left, in front and behind. It seemed as if hundreds of men surrounded me, sighing and sighing in helpless despair. An uncomfortable, uncanny feeling took possession of me and twice I shuddered convulsively. The young vulture was still sobbing behind me and now it seemed to moan with redoubled force. I realized that I was on the verge of hysteria and that, unless I could control myself, death itself might overtake me in those grim surroundings. I had never before come to such a terrible place alone. He who could come here alone without a tremor of fear was Indra, and not I. I had accompanied him to many dreadful places, and so had thought that I too could go anywhere with cool head and undaunted heart. But now I could plainly see that what I had thought was courage had been mere hot-headed vanity. Did I possess his unflinching breast or his unswerving conviction or his irresistible armour of faith in the efficacy of Rama's name? It was Indra, and not I, who could stand alone on this dreadful plain and see the spirits play with human skulls. I felt that it would be a relief to see even a live tiger or bear. Suddenly I felt a breath on my right ear breathed by somebody behind me: it was so cold a breath that it seemed to congeal into frost. Without turning my head, I seemed to see plainly that the nostrils through which this breath had issued had no skin or flesh, not even a drop of blood: they were a bony cavern. In front of me, behind, to the right and to the left of me, darkness reigned: the still, silent night palpitated with the breath of desolation. The moans and sighs of despair seemed to be closing in upon me from all sides. And the cold, frosty breath on my ear would not stop or cease. It was this that did most to break my nerve. It seemed to me that all the cold blasts of the spirit-world were blowing on me through that bony cavern near my ear.
Throughout all these events I had clung to the idea that it would be fatal to lose consciousness, and that its loss would mean death. I found that my right leg was trembling visibly: I tried to keep it still, but without success; it appeared to be someone else's. Just then I heard several voices crying from far away, 'Babu-ji! Babu-sab!' My hair stood on end. Who were these? Again I heard a cry, 'Please do not shoot!' This time the voices were nearer, and, without moving my head, I could see out of the corner of my eye a faint streak of light. One of the voices seemed to be that of Ratan, and a little later I perceived that it was really he. Advancing a little further, he stood behind a silk-cotton tree and shouted, 'Sir, wherever you may be, please don't shoot! We are Ratan.' One could tell by his grammar that Ratan was really a barber by caste.
In my joy I tried to respond by a shout, but no voice came out of my throat. There is a saying that when spirits leave a place, they signalise their departure by breaking something or other. He who stood behind me must have broken my voice when he left.
Ratan and three other men came up to me with big sticks in their hands and two lanterns. One of the three was Chhattulal who played Piari's accompaniment on the tabla, another was Piari's door-keeper. The third was the village watchman.
'Come with us, sir,' said Ratan; 'it is nearly three.'
'All right,' I said, and began to walk back with them.
'What grand courage you have shown, sir!' exclaimed Ratan. 'We can't tell you how afraid we were to come.'
'But what made you come?'
'Greed, sir, love of money,' Ratan replied. 'Each of us has got a month's pay to-night, sir.' He came up close to me and added in a lower voice, 'When you went away, sir, I went to my mistress and saw that she was crying. "Ratan," she said, "what shall I do? I will give you a month's pay: you must all follow him!" I answered, "I can take Chhattulal and Ganesh with me, madam, but none of us know the way." Just then we heard the watchman's cry, and she said, "Call him here, Ratan; he is sure to know the way." I went out and called him in. He got six rupees and consented to show us the way. Did you hear the cry of a baby, sir?' and Ratan shivered visibly and clutched the tail of my coat. 'Our Ganesh Pande is a Brahmin,' he said, 'and that's why we have been saved to-night. Otherwise—'
I said nothing. I was not in a condition to protest or to correct anybody. I walked as one dazed or hypnotized, in absolute silence.
After a few minutes Ratan asked, 'Did you see anything to-night, sir?'
'No,' I answered.
This curt reply evidently perplexed Ratan, and he asked, 'Are you angry with us, sir, because we came? If you had only seen her weep—'
'No,' I said hurriedly, 'no, Ratan, I am not angry in the least.'
When we reached our encampment, the watchman went away, and Ganesh and Chhattulal went to the servants' tent. Ratan said to me, 'Mother has requested you to see her before you go.'
I paused. I seemed to see Piari plainly, sitting in the lamplight, anxiously waiting for me, with tears in her eyes. My whole soul rushed madly to meet her.
'Come, sir,' said Ratan with respectful entreaty. I closed my eyes for an instant to steady myself. I realized that I was not in a normal frame of mind. All my faculties had suddenly become intoxicated as with some exquisite wine. Could I, with this ecstasy in my heart, visit her tent at such an hour? No, I could not.
'Why are you standing there in the darkness, sir? asked Ratan, perplexed at my indecision. 'Please come this way.'
'No, Ratan,' I said hurriedly, 'not now: I am going.'
'But Mother is waiting,' said Ratan, evidently aggrieved, 'she is awaiting your return.'
'Awaiting me? Tender her a thousand compliments, and tell her that I will see her before I go away to-morrow. I cannot see her now. I feel extremely sleepy, Ratan; I am going.' And, without giving poor Ratan time for a reply, I hurriedly walked off towards my tent.
- Paramanik, barber. It is an occupational caste in Bengal, but they do not confine themselves to the barber's profession alone.
- Gown and scarf. The dress generally worn by up-country Musalman women singers.
- To show the delicacy or shame she felt in uttering his name.
- Because her physical misfortune was considered to be the penalty for sin in a previous life.
- The highest class of Bengali Brahmin.
- It is considered derogatory for a kulin to marry into a non-kulin family.
- Because the whole profession is distrusted. The garb of sannyasi is often a cloak for laziness or greed, or is used by a man whom the police want. Srikanta is here reminding Piari that though she may be sincere in her words, she belongs to a class who make their living by traffic in 'love'.
- A name of Parvati, Shiva's consort; taken to ward off evils and to make an undertaking auspicious.
- Lit. 'father', an exclamation of startled horror.
- lakh, 10O,000.
- Babu-ji and Babu-sab may be rendered by 'Sir' or 'Your honour'. Babu is the honorific title prefixed to names in Bengal and Bihar; ji is an honorific suffix. Babu-ji is also used alone, in addressing a person respectfully. Sab, a contraction for Sahib, meaning 'master' or 'gentleman', is also used as an honorific suffix here.
- 'We are Ratan', is characteristic of this caste's indifference to grammar.
- A small tambourine.
- 'Mother': this is how a servant often speaks of his mistress.