Stories of Bengalee Life/The Danger of being Wrongly Taught

THE DANGER OF BEING WRONGLY TAUGHT

MY people were insisting upon my spending the Christmas vacation at Madhupur, where we possessed a small bungalow. So I put my things together, and went to Howrah Station to catch the three o'clock afternoon train.

What a crowd there was that day! But, fortunately, it was composed of the gentry only—for the most part young men in fair white raiment, pleasantly perfumed; their faces joyous, lit up with smiles. They looked as if they were young husbands going by this train to the houses of their fathers-in-law. Such an assemblage was not tiresome, but the contrary.

The train started. The young men filled the air of the compartment with loud laughter and the smoke of their cigarettes. The train continued to be thronged as far as Hooghly,—after that the crowd began to lessen. At Pundooah, a stout old man entered our carriage. On his head he wore a black woollen comforter twisted round like a turban, and on his nose a pair of silver-framed spectacles. A couple of old-fashioned shawls covered his person. He wore English shoes over warm socks. He seemed about fifty years of age. Quite a number of people had come with this gentleman and there was much luggage, which was now filling up the compartment. From below, somebody called out—"Have all the things have been put in? Count them over and see." At these words the Babu began to count the articles one by one in a loud voice, while at the same time the departure bell rang. After twice counting them over, he said—"Why, there are six only—weren't there seven?"—and the train began to move. The Babu suddenly thurst his head out of the window and called vociferously—"The handi! The handi!" A man was running with the train bearing the article to place it in his hand, but the Babu could not grasp it, and the earthenware fell to the ground. We heard the noise of the crash.

The gentleman—furiously angry—then sat down on the bench. Noting me as a senior amongst the young men present, he addressed me, saying—"Did you see, Sir? Did you see the whole business—he gave the handi and let it go?"

I felt amused at the man's appeal to me, and with difficulty repressing a smile, I asked—"What did the vessel contain?"

"Sir, there was food in it. A potful of food—two rupees worth of provisions fallen upon the platform and smeared with dust, and I have enioyed none of it. As I came from home I said repeatedly, 'Mind the handi'—'Don't you forget handi.' And then they did forget it. A potful of food, Mahashoi, gone! I cannot eat bazaar food, it does not agree with me. Wherever I go I take my own supply with me. My father's sister was up at five this morning preparing these loochees. (Here the Babu began to count upon his fingers) There were loochees, kachowris, fried potatoes, fried byguns, mohonbhog, a pound of Mollnai balls—have you ever tasted Mollnai balls?"

From the beginning of this speech the young men had been pressing their faces to hide their smile, but at this question they burst out laughing. Preserving a becoming gravity, I answered—"I don't remember having tasted them."

"If that is so, be sure you have not tasted them: it is not a thing to be forgotten."

"Very probably."

"Have you never heard of Mollnai balls?"

"No."

"Where do you come form?"

"Calcutta."

"Where do you live?"

"At Calcutta."

"Oh! you are a downright Calcutian I see. Well I'l tell you a story about the Mollnai balls; but first, let me prepare some tobacco."

And he addressed himself to the task. During the whole course of my travels, never had I met a man such as this. Pity, such a speaker has found no place in the arena of Bengal politics! It occurred to me that this was a fine chance for me. The train arrived at Madhupur at a very inconvenient hour, a time when one is apt to fall asleep; and if you do so you risk passing the station. By favour of this prince of talkers I might be able to keep awake. As he prepared the tobacco the old man said—"What is your name, Sir?"

"Mahananda Chatterii."

"My name is Sri Madan Gopal Dev Sarma Mukerji. I live at the village of Ilchoba, near Mollnai, in the Burdwan District. We are decendants of Jogeswar Pandit. Jogeswar Pandit had seven sons—Shankar Janoki Nath being one of them—We are the descendants of that Janoki Nath."

The speech was thus abbreviated, because Madan Gopal Babu had now begun to smoke. The expression of his face had been somewhat sad a little while ago, I fancy because of his loss—now a little pride beamed from it, probably at the memory of the renown of his ancestors. I studied his face with much curiosity.

Now the train stopped at Burdwan. My supply of cigars being exhausted, I alighted to purchase some more at the hotel, and to ease my limbs by walking about until the last bell should be struck. When the train started I perceived that all the passengers had left but our two selves. Madan Gopal Babu, glacing at me, said—"Well Sadananda Babu—"

I interrupted him—"My name is Mahananda."

"Yes, to be sure! Well, Mahananda Babu, how far do you travel?"

"To Madhupur."

"I go to Kasi (Benares). You will soon arrive at your destination—a few hours only. But I must keep on through the night and all to-morrow. What can I live on through all the time I ask you? I shall not reach Kasi till the evening. Is not my mother staying there? She has lived there these three years. She has become old—past seventy—but she still rises early every morning to bathe in the Ganges at the Ghat of the Ten Horse Sacrifice, in winter, in summer, and in rain. Since last August she has been having slight attacks of fever. There is no cause for anxiety—still, hearing that she is ill, how can I stay at home? Our preceptor's second son is a professor at the Benares College, and dwells there with his family, so I have placed my mother in his care. He is a very worthy man. They say he has no equal in Kasi on qucstions of Logic. He is of my age—we played together. Even at that age the sharpness of his intellect displayed itself. It reminds me—"

To check the flow of his talk, I asked—"Do you smoke cigars, Sir?"

"Cigars? Sometimes, yes—sometimes I do. When I studied English in my youth at Calcutta, I smoked many a cigar. Your bird's-eye cigarettes were not then in existence. Are they good cigars?"

"They are not bad. Try one." And opening my cigar case I held it before him. He selected one. I also lit mine.

The train had now passed Raneegunge. On both sides were many coal mines. In places there were heaps of coal burning, giving a brilliant light. Near by coolies were sitting in temporary huts built of loose bricks. Others were cooking.

I felt hungry, and thought it would be a good time to eat. I had with me my tiffin basket stocked with provisions. With difficulty, I extracted it from amidst Madan Babu's luggage. Then I thought—Can I eat while my fellow traveller fasts? Yet even if I ask him, I do not know whether he will consent, because my provisions are not strictly orthodox.—At length I determined to ask him: if he consented, good; if not, what could I do? So placing the basket on the seat and raising the cover, I said—"Madan Babu, the food you brought is gone. I have some here and if you have no objection, we will share it."

Madan Babu, looking ardently at my basket, said—"What is there in that thing of yours?"

Not counting on my fingers, I replied—"Loaves, eggs, two or three kinds of meat, butter, and other things."

"Hindu meat? Not meat from the European hotel?"

"Hindu meat. Cooked by our Brahman cook. Only the loaves are from the European hotel; everything else is prepared according to Hindu custom."

Madan Babu said—"That will do, I don't mind hotel bread: I ate plenty of them when studying English in Calcutta. All sorts of things did I eat![1] The students in those days were very disorderly"—and he began to laugh.

Without further words I took out the provisions and arranged them on plates; then I asked—"Do you use knife and fork?"

"No, brother, I can't be troubled with all that. I'll use fingers instead."

When we had finished the meat, I said to Madan Babu—"There is more bread, butter, jam and marmalade. What will you have?"

"Marmalade! Marmalade! Give me a taste of that, I have never eaten it."

I gave him. When he had finished, he washed his mouth and fingers with a tumbler of water, leaning out through the window; then draping himself with the shawls he sat down, squatting on the bench. I was about to give him another cigar, but he said—"No, I will prepare my hookah. Nothing can compare with the hookah, brother!"

When he had filled the bowl, I said—"You did not tell me that story of the Mollnai balls."

"True, I was forgetting. This is not a story of our time, but of days gone by. The Maharaja of Burdwan had a great relish for Mollnai balls, so he gave an order that the best confectioner at Mollnai should be brought to Burdwan, and told to prepare the balls. A king's order cannot be disputed, so the chief confectioner arrived at Burdwan with his pots and pans. He prepared the balls, but they had not the same flavour. The Maharaja said—'Well, Confectioner, these are not like the others.' The confectioner, folding his hands together (here Madan Babu illustrates the action with his own hands) said, 'Shall I speak plainly, Maharaja—without fear?' The Raja answered—'Speak fearlessly.' The confectioner said—'Maharaja, you have had me brought here from Mollnai, but you have brought neither Mollnai soil nor Mollnai water."—And here Madan Babu was seized with a convulsion of laughter and coughing, and finally said—"Good! Wasn't it?"

When he had fully recovered, he said—"As you have not eaten Mollnai balls, you can't even imagine how good they are. Well, you wait until I return from Kasi. Can you not come there some Saturday or Sunday?"

"Easily."

"Very good, then come when I send you an invitation. I will send a bullock-carriage to the station to meet you. From Pundooah to Ilchoba is not far. I will give you Mollnai balls, and treat you to some country marmalade too."

Astonished, I exclaimed—"Country marmalade! What is that? I do not know it."

"Ah,"—said Madan Babu, laughing—"you are indeed a Calcutian, knowing of nothing beyond the Ditch. I fancy you have never seen the rice tree! It bears a red flower and the trunk of it is sawn into planks,"—and he fell into another fit of laughter and coughing. When better, he said—"Marmalade is only jam made from the bael fruit. You can obtain it in Calcutta also."

Taking a long pull at my cigar, I said—"Pardon me, but marmalade has nothing to do with the bael fruit."

"What do you say?"

I repeated my assertion.

"How? What is the meaning of marmalade then? Is it not jam made from the bael fruit?"

"Of course, not."

"Do you expect me to believe that? In boyhood we learned that the meaning of marmalade was, as I say, jam made from the bael fruit."

"The master taught you wrong."

"But of what fruit is it the jam then if not of the bael?"

"If you call it jam, it is the jam of the orange."

At these words, Madan Babu was astounded. In accents of fear, he repeated—"Jam of the orange?"

"What is the meaning of this?"—I thought; aloud, I said—"To be sure, the jam of the orange."

"If it were of the orange it would be entirely sweet. Why is there a bitter taste mixed with the sweet then?"

"It is not made from our ordinary oranges. There is an orange growing at Seville, in Spain, that looks like this, but has a bitter flavour. The marmalade is made from this kind."

The expression of fear in Madan Babu's face gave place to one of disgust. He said—"Are you certain of what you say?" His voice was a little hoarse.

"I am quite certain."

Madan Babu, mocking me, said—"Quite certain!"

Greatly astonished, and also very angry, I said—"Mahashoi, grimacing is not regarded as an act worthy of a gentleman." I rested my back against the window shutter, put my feet up on the bench, and sat gazing at the roof lamp.

Madan Babu said—"I am much obliged to you for the information. Was there any enmity between us? For twenty years I have not eaten an orange. Why did you make me do so?"

"Why, an orange is not a poisonous thing."

"It may not be poisonous to you, it is poisonous to me. Why did you make me eat it?"

Disgusted, I said—"Had you told me beforehand that you did not eat oranges?"

Again distorting his face, Madan Babu said—"Had I told you that beforehand! Why did you not tell me at the time what was in the marmalade?"

Burning with anger at the man's behaviour, I said—"You are exceeding the bounds of good manners."

"Go, go! I have seen plenty of Calcutta Babus of your sort; 'exceeding the bounds of good manners,' indeed. You have come to teach me good manners! Knowing the use of a knife and fork does not constitute good manners. Fine manners, indeed, to force upon an unguarded man a sort of food he does not eat."

"You were starving. I gave you to eat of what I had, and this is my reward."

"I was starving, indeed! Did I come crying to you for food?"

"Oh, say what you like"—I cried angrily, and wrapping myself in my rug I lay down on the bench.

The Babu scolded on without interruption. Gradually, his voice softened. The memory of his earthen pot lost at Pundooah station returned to his mind, and he said—"If I had had that food with me, this misfortune would not have occurred,"—and so forth. I thought to myself that the man was half mad. By continually talking he calmed himself; then I recognised by the sounds that he was preparing his hookah; then he smoked. I covered my face with my rug and tried to sleep, but sleep would not come. Madan Babu prolonged his smoke.

At length the train stopped at Asansole. Putting his head out of window, he called—"Chuprassi! O Chuprassi!"

A man approached and was asked—"Can you tell me the hour?"

"Half-past eleven, Sir"—the man answered.

"When will the train reach Madhupur?"

"At twelve o'clock."

I reflected—"The man is so angry with me that until I leave the train—until he has got rid of the sinner—he cannot rest."

The train started. A little later I felt the touch of a hand on my rug. "Sadananda Babu—wake up!"

My name not being Sadananda, I took no notice.

"Brother! Sit up, they say we approach Madhupur. Get up! get up!"

I threw the rug from my face.

"Brother, are you angry?"

I sat up—and said, drily—"Have you a monopoly of anger?"

Gently patting me on my back, the old man said—"Do not be angry. I am an old man. If a couple of words are said, do we need quarrel further? I am a hot-tempered man, and I fancied the fault was all on your side. Forgive me."

It struck me that this was truly the man's nature. He had said—"I fancied the fault was all yours," and it was evident he still thought some of the blame was mine—if not all. But the old man's tones were so gentle and pitiful, that my former anger against him departed. I smiled in sign of reconciliation. Madan Babu said—"If I were to tell you fully why I do not eat oranges you would comprehend."

Madan Babu's eyes were clouded; after some coughing, he said—"Will you listen?" He spoke in a very low tone.

"Say on,"—I said.

He began—"It is now twenty years since I killed a man."

I shivered. "Killed a man?"

"Murdered! Certainly. That is called murder. Listen! In the December of a certain year I went to Calcutta to make purchases, with a view to giving my eldest daughter in marriage in January. I alighted at a boarding house used by college students. There was no vacancy in any room except in one occupied by a fever patient. His brother-in-law shared it with him. The sister's husband's name was Kedar, the brother-in-law was named Prabodh. Kedar was a man from East Bengal, of about twenty-two years. Prabodh was two or three years younger. Pradodh neglected attendance at college, and assiduously nursed his brother-in-law. Hour by hour he gave him his physic, took his temperature, pressed his head and limbs, and rose several times in the night to attend to him. For some days the patient was very restless, then there came a day of ease. The fever visibly decreased. I was to return home on the evening of that day. In the morning I had bought a hundred oranges in Madhab Babu's bazaar. I said to Prabodh—'As there is a sick man here, would it be prudent to store the oranges in this room?' Prabodh said—'Oh, it doesn't matter at all, just place them on one side.' I placed the oranges there and went again to the bazaar. Prabodh, seing his brother-in-law somewhat better, went to his class after many days of absence. Returning to the lodgings in the evening I saw that destruction had come upon us. Alone in the chamber and unable to resist the temptation, Kedar had eaten voraciously of the oranges, and was now in a raging fever. I put away the thought of returning home, and stayed to nurse the patient. With the money intended for my daughter's marriage expenses, I called in the most experienced physicians to be found in Calcutta. Fasting and sleepless I nursed him through three days and nights, but in vain, we could not save him."—And the old man fell silent.

I had sat like a statue listening to this mournful story. Without, great darkness reigned; the train sped fast. The light in the lamp above was dying, the wick was cumbered with soot. In the dead of night we two living beings sat in the compartment.

Throwing off a deep sigh, I said—"How are you to blame for that? You didn't do it with intention; especially as the brother-in-law—when you asked him—"

"The brother-in-law was a boy. I was of the age of his father. If he made a mistake, had I the right to act upon it?"

"It was a very sorrowful matter"—I said—"but that you should blame yourself so severely is entirely wrong. A sin is measured not by its results, but by the intention of the doer."

Madan Babu said, in feeble tones—"I cannot console myself with that argument. I am responsible. If you had seen Prabodh's grief! He said they were five brothers and one sister. This one sister—so much beloved—of about 13 years, was the victim of this calamity. My own daughter was then thirteen. I went home and gave her in marriage, but I could not look her in the face. When I looked at her, the thought of the other maiden, whose happiness I had destroyed, clouded my mind."

The train slackened speed; we had arrived at Madhupur. What consolation could I offer to the old man? "Madan Gopal Babu"—I said—"it is in vain that you blame yourself. Life and death are in the hands of the Almighty, not in those of man. Do you not believe in our sacred writings?"

Madan Gopal Babu replied not. His eyes were wet.

The train stopped. The sleep-laden Khalassis called out feebly—"Madhupur! Madhupur!"—I saluted Madan Gopal Babu and alighted.

 

  1. To eat European bread was to infringe upon caste rules.