It used to be the task of the cuckoos to herald the advent of spring into the valley of Kusumpur. Almost the first coo emanating from the grove of the Chowdhuries made a dozen voices restless. The boys raised a sporadic riot of songs; the girls hummed, smiling at one another.
And those smiles looked terribly meaningful though none ever dared to set their meaning into words.
A fairytale world seemed to begin at the southern end of the village where the colony of mud houses petered out on the silver sands stretching into the sea, the cluster of Krishnachura trees marking the frontier bursting into blood-red flowers. Nobody could
view this sudden transformation of the otherwise modest trees without some awe – the sort of it one felt at a sudden upsurge of a passion hitherto concealed from oneself.
Soon coveys of those flowers migrated onto the locks of the village maidens who looked extraordinary, but somewhat alarming too until the eyes got accustomed to their newly acquired aura. That was the season for the unsuspecting boys to realise how those girls, so far taken for granted, could be unpredictably different.
Time was when the spring at Kusumpur was welcome by musicians singing or playing on the sehnai Rag Vasant – the nostalgic mode of love and loneliness – atop the high podium raised for the occasion in front of the mansion of the Chowdhuries. The veteran director of the defunct village opera party could still hum a tune which he remembered from the last performance on the podium by a celebrated maestro. That was three decades ago, a few years before the sole surviving scion of the house, Hari Chowdliury, went bankrupt.
The whole village looked bewildered the day the Krishnachura trees were felled. They lay like demigods vanquished in an invisible battle, their flowers glowing red with a vengeance after an untimely shower.
But the villagers forgot them in a short time as the roaring road-rollers rocked the earth and trucks carrying stones and steel, steered by colourful strangers sporting twirled moustaches and elegant turbans, jammed the horizon.
he village elders met time and again – and each time they sat late into the night – in a bid to resolve the mystery of the alien activities along the outskirts of their valley. They knew of a great war being fought in the land of the Sahibs and far above the clouds and deep in the sea. They suspected that the hustle at their doorsteps had something to do with that remote event.
Inscrutable, even for the gods, was the way of the Sahibs, and mortals like them could do nothing but wait and see, they concluded.
They held another series of meetings on receiving the intelligence that the Government proposed to construct an emergency airstrip and an establishment to experiment with munitions right on the southern stretch of sands. The meetings were marked by long spells of silence, occasional clearing of throats, and sighs which grew awfully poignant during the last session when someone dared to observe that their only safety probably lay in their leaving the village en masse.
A small colony of officials grew up along the seashore in an incredibly short time. The villagers viewed the unfamiliar faces with misgivings and kept off them. It was rumoured that there were explosions of lust in the stare of the strangers the moment their eyes fell on a woman. This was confirmed when, one summer evening, a fellow strayed into the village and mistook an undersized veiled granny to be a shy damsel – that is how the seniors interpreted it – and was audacious enough to make as romantic an overture as, “Will you take me home, girlie, for I’m thirsty?”
But as time passed, curiosity got the better of a few villagers and, of the rest, an urge to respond to the demand of the changing times. Stories of the outsiders frolicking on ringing coins and rolling on crisp cash gained currency. The villagers, most of whom had nothing much to do with money beyond small change, began to peek at them like kids viewing a stranger holding out lollipops, not sure whether to smile and befriend him and win the reward or to gulp down the surging temptation and remain safe.
The first to explore the new colony was Rajni, the vagabond, who sported an impudent hairdo and wore his clothes in a style that was worse. He was in the highly embarrassing habit of looking straight in the eye of men and women of any age and status and that he did with a sort of super-masculine appeal in his eyes.
Rajni had served in the city in odd positions for a number of years. He had also served a term in jail. While according to gossip his incarceration was due to his stealing from his employer’s enterprise, Rajni himself claimed that to be the result of his elopement with a certain Judge-Sahib’s grand-daughter, as charming as a peahen. The village boys who considered it a privilege to enjoy a stroll with him in the evenings when he hummed film songs and narrated his daredevil exploits in the city, felt flattered to have a daredevil amidst them, even if he were half of it.
As the grove reverberated with the rumble of the trucks and the green foliage flanking the road sprayed with reddish dust looked crestfallen, the cuckoos were hooted into silence.
The spring, nevertheless, was announced by Rajni.
The sky behind the setting sun was eerie red when he emerged from the colony, drunk. Shouting and gesticulating, he entered the village and staggered towards the mansion of the Chowdhuries. He held a bottle with half its content still saved. He raised it from time to time and dared his listeners to answer: “Who but Hari Chowdhury could qualify for sharing this stuff with me? We’ll drink together, the noble Chowdhury and I, and be chums!”
He seemed to cast a spell on a small throng that followed him, tense and flabbergasted.
Never before had Kusumpur witnessed a drunk. The old folks of the village saw in this phenomenon one the signals for the ultimate dissolution that awaited the rapidly degenerating mankind. But to a few optimists among the young, it marked the dawn of a thrilling new era, though they would not say so openly.
But young or old, all were shaken at Rajni’s resolve to make a gift of the bottle to Hari Chowdhury. True, the Chowdhuries, like most of the feudal lords, were given to drinking. Hari Chowdhury too used to drink, but that was years ago. For long he had learnt to remain content with opium.
Half a bottle of good drink ought to be a welcome treat for him. But that to be offered by, of all, Rajni, and in that bizarre manner, gave everybody the creeps.
As the buoyant Rajni drew nearer the Villa, disquiet grew more and more evident on the faces of the seniors in the throng.
Rajni was growing wilder by the minute.
“Who but Hari Chowdhury – hic – can appreciate this? True, his father – hic – had slapped my grandfather – hic – hard – and had toppled one of his teeth. But Hari Chowdhury – hic – loves me – hic – smiles at me – while fools frown on me. He would have let me – hic – marry his daughter – hic – had he any – ha ha!! She, of course, had to be a nymph-like beauty!”
The throng came to a halt in front of the crumbling archway. Many were not sure if the mysterious draft had not really secured for Rajni the status he claimed. Neither were they sure of its effect on one’s will and vigour.
Rajni paused for a second and then crossed into the compound. He gazed up at the mossy tower for the musicians, now a huge scarecrow with plants and creepers jutting out of it and, turning to his audience, declared, “Had I married Han Chowdhury’s daughter – hic – beautiful as a nymph – you’d have listened to the Sehnai once again!”
He then tried to entertain his audience with mimicry of a musical mode, his fingers playing on the invisible instrument and his eyes showing the ecstasy he expected his listeners to experience.
The sun had set and the western sky was uncanny with a sea of vermilion splashed on it, as if in a bid to cover up some ominous prophecy. The twilight, as usual, had spread a shade of melancholy on the colourless and desolate mansion.
The silent throng sneaked into the compound.
Rajni ascended the weathered brick steps leading into the spacious audience hall across the spacious verandah. There was nobody to check him, Chowdhury’s faithful manager Brindavan and the solitary servant-cum-cook being away at the weekly market.
The faces of the people staring from below betrayed a mood similar to the impact of the last scene of a tragedy.
Rajni disappeared into the house. His cracking voice shouting for Hari Chowdhury resounded in the empty corridors, halls and rooms. Pigeons that had just settled down in the turrets fluttered and were flushed out by the echoes of Rajni’s shouts and laughter.
It was evident that Hari Chowdhury who rarely stepped out of his compound had slipped away in time to avoid the encounter. People heaved sighs of relief.
“Chowdhury Sahib! Come out and see what I have secured for you. Let us drink together,” Rajni yelled out time and again. He then abandoned his search and emerged on the verandah, panting and sweating.
He cast a sad look at the crowd, sat down on the steps mumbling something inaudible, emptied the bottle in a gulp, and collapsed. His body came rolling down to the ground below.
-- Two --
Almost the whole village gathered in front of the mansion. Rajni’s was a death of untold import. Many found in the occurrence an occult endorsement of their belief that all was not lost with Dharma, that one could not just launch into execution a horrendous whim and get away with it.
Hari Chowdhury might not have meant much to a passer-by. But for the people of Kusumpur and some twenty nearby villages which constituted the Zamindari of his forefathers, he was still a sacred symbol, like a maimed sculpture from a shrine licked away by time.
It was a particularly sombre dusk. The voices were kept low. The cowherds who generally sang aloud or called out for their cows on their way home, returned quietly. The news of the death at dusk had reached their meadows.
The ominous silence was at last broken by the equally ominous noise from the thickets on the river-bank. It was the second round of collective howling by the jackals since the sunset and this generally coincided with the priest opening the brass-plated doors of the shrine of Kalika facing the western portico of the mansion. The goddess who protected or destroyed with equal compassion was the family-deity of the Chowdhuries and had continued sharing their decline as undisturbed as ever.
On an average only a dozen devotees used to be present for the evening rituals of the deity. Some of them had duties to perform, like ringing the bell, playing the cymbals and blowing the conch. The one who did nothing except sit with his back against a wall facing the shrine, legs stretched, and look on vacantly at the ceremony, was Hari Chowdhury. Over the years his immobile presence outside had assumed a weight equal to that of the burning butter-lamp or the brazier inside the sanctum sanctorum.
Most of the people who had come rushing to witness the undreamt of dramatic death that Rajni demonstrated, had stayed on for the Puja. While all of them looked grave, some looked alarmed, as if in the sound of the cymbals and the conch they could decipher this gloomy warning dropped by the occult guardians of the world: “Beware of insolence, O petty mortals of Kusumpur! Behold what befell Rajni. Providence sees though waits.”
Many tarried there even after Rajni’s relations, wiping a few drops of reluctant tears, had carried the corpse away. They waited till the owl in the hollow of the shrine hooted, indicating midnight. Only then they dispersed.
They were waiting for Hari Chowdhury to appear. But he was not to be seen even the next day. His manager, Brindavan, and several elderly villagers, were untiring in their search for him. They began to look pensive and pale.
Sandip was summoned from the town. He came leaving his belongings in his college hostel, hopeful of an early return. But Brindavan, with éclat, announced to all and sundry that his young master had already taken charge of the estate. Sandip realised that Brindavan meant to detain him indefinitely.
Days passed, but the people were not tired of discussing the riddle that was Chowdhury’s disappearance. Had he left for the town, someone or the other would have seen him on his way to the bus-stop ten miles away. Had he gone over to the forest, he would have crossed the river and could not have avoided the ferryman. Even then a group of villagers, armed with lathis, crowbars and scythes, combed the forest.
A week passed and someone mustered courage enough to observe that Hari Chowdhury was perhaps gone forever. Nobody contradicted him. The search was given up. During the weeks that followed they talked of him less and less and then only shrugged or shied off when the topic came up.
But it was not easy for them to install Sandip in the vacuum created by
Chowdhury’s disappearance. The young Sandip was as soft-spoken and gentle as Hari Chowdhury and his shyness even verged on melancholy that was also the former’s trait but, after all, he was not Chowdhury’s own son. In fact, his out of the blue arrival in the Chowdhury household continued to be an enigma.
Hari Chowdhury’s first wife, Durgawati, the only daughter of a ruined noble man commanding a cluster of five consorts, was a lady of numerous virtues, but with a pair of faults: she was rude to her husband, and she bore him no child. In her sober moments she attributed her first failing to her pampered upbringing by five indulgent mothers, and the second to the Almighty’s callous indifference.
Generations of Chowdhuries were known for their skill at balancing extravagance with worldly prudence. Even Hari Chowdhury’s father indulged in myriad revelries. He had the usual number of wives and concubines, but an unusual fancy. He maintained nearly a hundred graceful cows and adorned them with magnificent trappings on the festive days associated with Krishna. He had excellent horses too and rarely a day passed without his throwing a gala banquet in honour of some guests, or to celebrate the birthday of a favourite or a ‘wedding’ between his pets. He was an adept in the science of transferring to his personal coffer, when urgency so demanded, the last pie his subjects earned, and the art of still passing himself for the most magnanimous Zamindar in the region.
Bad days set in only at the last phase of his life when senility dulled his capacity for earning while the custom of extravagance continued in full swing. Hari Chowdhury, then in his late teens, was in the city squandering his father Ugranarain’s money. The father was under the impression that the worthy scion had almost become as learned as a Sahib and that there would be nothing surprising if one day the governor clamped a wig on his head and declared him a judge!
Ugranarain died happily, confident of the glory his son would earn for his dynasty. His chief and only surviving wife, suffering from a socially loathsome disease, shut herself up in an isolated room at the rear of the mansion. No sooner had Ugranarain’s funeral been over than Hari’s buddies, descending from the town, closed in on him. They inspired and led him to explore more and more exhilarating and novel avenues of pleasure and soon stripped him of all his money as well as the jewellery of his mother and grandmother and several other valuable heirlooms.
Hari Chowdhury had inherited neither the science nor the art of his adroit father. Before long began the process of the liquidation of his estate, chunk by chunk, for paying off the debts incurred by his father and uninterrupted continuance of his own profligacy.
He was then supplied with a new council of advisors which took upon itself the task of making good with a vengeance all his losses. The operation was carried out with commendable precision and swiftness in both its phases. In the course of the next few years the left over of his estate had to be pledged with money-lenders or neighbouring landlords, never to be redeemed.
Meanwhile he had been married. Durgawati, beautiful and brave, decided to sacrifice her customary modesty within weeks of her arrival and try save whatever was left of her husband’s assets By then the mansion was almost empty, the establishment barely able to sustain the rump of the large squad of servants.
Durgawati’s time was divided between nursing her disabled mother-in-law and cursing her husband. Hari Chowdhury slipped away to the city again and again on one pretext or another. He was not at home even when his mother died. Nobody knew
address. It was his duty to light his mother’s funeral pyre and the crisis, caused by his absence, was averted by the priest quoting some obscure scripture approving the daughter-in-law of the deceased performing the rite.
Soon thereafter a report reached Durgawati that her own mother lay in a critical condition. She braved torrential rains and covered fifty miles, partly by boat and partly on foot, to reach the old lady just before she breathed her last. Durgawati then went down with pneumonia. While convalescing, she received the message that her husband, satisfied that a period of five years had been enough to prove that she would never be
able to present him with an heir, was marrying for a modest second time. He urged upon Durgawati to realise the sanctity of the cause and appreciate the step he took and not to create a commotion.
Durgawati, it appeared, did not care. She moved to a distant cottage, a solitary farm-house of her late father, and chose to live in isolation.
But when five years had passed and Hari had no greater success with his second wife, she struck.
Out of the blue came her message to Hari: she had given birth to a male child,proving beyond doubt that it was not she who was at fault for not producing an heir for the Chowdhuries. If ever Hari’s dear second wife became a mother, Hari ought not to be under the illusion that he had any hand in it.
Hari’s reaction was never known. The decade that followed peeled him to his bones. His second wife, a melancholic, died, passing on her malady to him in its entirety. The last chunk of his Zamindari went up in auction. All he was left with were few acres of land, small properties willed to the family deity, the dilapidated mansion and its spacious compound given to a free growth of wild bushes.
Keeping pace with his misery, Hari grew so haggard that he looked sixty at forty-five and so nervous that it seemed he would have his last heart-attack the moment a dog snarled at him.
It was a moonlit night. As usual Hari sat leaning against the wall looking blankly at the floating clouds. The evening rituals of the deity had been over and the priest had locked up the shrine and gone.
Hari was in the habit of sitting like that till midnight.
It is doubtful if he took notice of the woman advancing towards him through the mist.
“Huzoor!” she called out in a whisper. “Will you please follow me to the river-bank? You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”
Hari rarely questioned any suggestion that was made with some force. He stood up.
The woman turned and began walking. As Hari’s steps would be slow and hesitant, she would stop and look at him askance. Hari would speed up in silence.
A small boat lay anchored a furlong away from the ghat, close to a dark bush. Two men on board were desperately trying to protect a lantern from giving away to the erratic breeze.
“Chowdhury is here, Ma!” the woman announced in a subdued tone, stepping onto the wooden plank leading to the boat.
Another woman in veil emerged from the thatched cabin and crossed over to the bank and unveiled her face.
“You recognise me, don’t you?” She was in tears.
Hanri gave a start. “Durga! You!” he fumbled out, “I least expected you…!” “Naturally!” quipped Durgawati, smiling through her tears. “However, I’ve very little time. Our boat must leave with the tidal current. The child is slightly ill, but he is asleep and my maid will carry him into our house. You are childless. Your second wife, I
understand, is no more, and you are not likely to find yet another father to sacrifice a daughter to you…”
Her voice got choked, but she managed to resume, “Take Sandip, my boy, for your son.”
“Your boy! I mean… of course it can’t be yours!”
“You couldn’t have been that enormous a fool to swallow my story!” Durgawati was her old self. “No use discussing the child’s origin. I adopted it, say, on your behalf. Now, I must depart.”
“No, Durga, I may be a donkey, but don’t I know that you are a goddess? Forget the past Durga, be gracious and come home. Don’t, you think that I’ve suffered enough for my sins?” mumbled Hari and he took a step forward to be bit closer to Durgawati. But
she stepped back. Hari broke down and wept like a child. Durgawati too was struggling with her sobs. The two boatmen and the maid stood like statues gleaming in the moonlight.
“Listen. I cannot live with you nor can this boy I’ve taken for our son live with me. Try not to be shaken; I’ve got that loathsome disease from your mother. I must live incognito, self-ostracised at one of those holy spots on the Ganga, till death takes me into its bosom.”
“Oh no!” cried out Hari. “I’ll nurse you back to shape. Nobody need know about the malady. Durga! Don’t forsake me.”
Durgawati’s smile was as shattering as her weeping.
“Whatever be the society’s or your own estimate of yourself, you are my husband. I was stupid. I was rude to you when I should have humbly served you and been in empathy with you. Must I also prove a curse to you now with my rotting flesh? I should do what tradition prescribes; devote myself to penance as long as Providence chooses to
keep my soul in this body. Maybe I’m atoning for my sins of an earlier life or for the sins of our forefathers. Be that as may, I know what I must do now.”
Hari, still in tears, was groping for some contention when Durgawati asked her maid to fetch Sandip. The maid came ashore with the sleeping child held close to her breast.
Durgawati advised Hari to leave the child in the mansion first. He could come back if he so wished.
Putting the boy in his own bed and asking his two mystified servants to stand guard upon him, Hari hurried back to the river-bank.
Durgawati prostrated herself to him and, without a word more, retreated into the boat. The boatmen withdrew the plank.
“Take me with you, Durga!” Hari cried out like an abandoned toddler.
The boat sailed away. Mist had dimmed the moonlight. Hari ran along the marshy bank trying to keep pace with the boat. But after a while, the boat seemed to dissolve in the haze.
After the mysterious disappearance of Hari Chowdhury his adopted son Sandip leaves his study and returns to his village, Kusumpur. In no time he has become dear to all. The rivulet Kheya that passes by the village is to be filled up by the authorities for sake of a war-time project. The villagers are agitated about it. Sandip picks up a violent quarrel with the contractor who is doing the job and at night the latter is murdered. Though Sandip did not have even the remotest link with it, he is suspected and was likely to be arrested. His well-wishers lead him into the forest, to the Ashram of Sage Soumyananda.
In the meanwhile Reena, daughter of a wealthy businessman-cum-politician, who had visited Kusumpur as a member of a relief party had been enamoured of Sandip. She visits him in the Ashram.
Sandip wondered if the normal law of time held good in the forest – in the hermitage in particular. Everybody was active, but nobody betrayed any tension. One could forget time but for the inevitable transition of the day into night and vice versa.
And the moments when Sandip could avail of Soumyadev’s company were like tasting drops of ambrosia, but, thanks to the hermit’s life style, it could all together rarely be more than half an hour a day, that too passed mostly in silence.
Leaving Sandip in the security of the hermitage Ravi had left for the town – to report the events to Kamal and Reena.
But Sandip regretted allowing Ravi to go, for Vikashananda pounced upon his loneliness like a hungry hound. Sandip hit upon the idea of avoiding him by feigning meditation. Soon it caught his fascination. He was amused that his pretence helped him to experience a bit of the real.
If he showed any eagerness to take up some work for the hermitage, he was given sundry light jobs, but not enough to keep him occupied for long. He was surprised that he was not bored. Also, his response to matters and issues began to change very fast. Even the most commonplace things surprised and delighted him. He could keep gazing at a tree and feel his participation in its trance. A flock of flying birds was magic par excellence. He looked on till it was reduced to dots and vanished in the blue.
And he could easily tide over an hour merely watching a fleeting butterfly or a frolicsome squirrel.
The sun could be seen only for a few hours daily, during the higher phase of its passage. In the forenoon and the afternoon the sunlight had to negotiate with the flora which changed it into flecks of tender glow.
Among the inmates of the hermitage were two or three singers. They greeted the dawn with Rag Bhairavi – unfolding in Sandip’s mind the covert import of the morning – the promise it held out for those who aspired to unfold within as the day unfolded. Sandip’s transition from sleep into awakening had this gentle backdrop. He continued to enjoy it lying in his bed till the music ended, the void filled by the voice of varieties of birds.
His blissful existence, however, was jolted on the fifth day.
He had passed the greater part of the previous night outside his hut, leaning against a rock, absorbed in witnessing the play between the moon and the clouds. He had fallen into a deep sleep in the afternoon. But a volley of exhortations trying to thrust mysticism into an unwilling mind shattered his peace.
Sandip came out and peeped into the next hut where Vikashananda was building up his oration to its crescendo. But his lone listener broke away from the spell most unceremoniously and reached Sandip in a bound.
“No, it is not your midsummer-noon’s dream, Sandip-ji, it’s real Reena, probably a bit more real than Sandip-ji in his sylvan Avatar.”
Reena laughed. “You surely don’t question my existence! If you wish to know how I came, well, I came by a jeep, myself driving.”
“You’ve never known one, I’ll bet. It is a vehicle originally designed for military use. Father had just managed to get one, I don’t know how. But such is your hiding place that even that tough vehicle had to be left two miles away. I enjoyed my trekking, nevertheless, our good Ravi leading the way.”
Sandip noticed Ravi. He was talking to his acquaintances in the Ashram.
“But it was raining intermittently and…”
“Sandip-ji, do you believe that I had never been exposed to any season but spring?”
“But I never wished you to bother in this manner!”
“Did I ever sign a document giving up all rights to my personal wish?”
“All I wished was to inform you of the unexpected developments. My anxiety was more on account of Shyam. The police took him away, as you must have known. I’m happy that Ravi is still at large.”
“I arranged for Ravi to appear before a magistrate and obtain anticipatory bail. He came as my guide. But against you there is a non-bailable warrant.”
“What about Shyam?”
“His condition is far from satisfactory and the police have admitted him in the hospital. I’ve not been able to find out anything about his family or relatives. So far his friends are concerned, he seems to have alienated all. I spoke to his party boss. He told me point blank that Shyamji went ideologically astray when he tried to hinder a project that would have contributed to the growth of working class population, a necessary condition for a revolution. He shrugged off any responsibility for Shyamji’s actions and their consequences.”
Sandip was anxious to offer a seat to Reena. She understood and sat down on a slab of stone. “I used father’s influence to ensure Shyamji receiving proper medical attention. But he is obstinately un-cooperative. He disregards his doctors’ advice, is rude towards the nurses and, if in a worse mood, chucks out his diet and medicines. His grudge is against all and everything.”
Sandip was appalled that Reena should have to plead with the insolent Shyam to be kind to himself!
“I wish my premonitions were wrong. I’ll be happy if he survives his suffering compounded by himself.”
“Shyamji is dying. You are underground. I was destined td go without friends!” She sighed.
Sandip groped for some apt words of sympathy, but when he found some, they came out more like a challenge to Reena than any consolation: “But you have Kamal after all – a brother and a friend! Who have I? None!”
Reena reacted with sparks in her eyes. She fidgeted with the flowery border of her Sari, her silence asserting that she could tear his assumption to shreds only if she cared to. Her meaningful smile, however, indicated that she had settled down for a restrained protest.
“Sandip-ji, do you know how lucky you are? You live amidst people who love you and, what is more, they don’t ever hammer you with proofs and reminders that they love you – as if that were a sacrifice on their part. But proofs and proclamations alone matter in the order to which I belong. They drum their love for me and expect me to dance for them. It is like living amidst fragile dolls. A moment’s slackness – and you smash one of them. Isn’t a mock surveillance over one’s own conduct most disgusting?”
“But I was speaking of Kamal. A brother like …”
“You’re an authority on his character, are you?” Reena blurted out, suddenly throwing her reservations to the wind. “Do you forget that first and foremost he is the heir to an ambitious business house, of course with lots of pretensions to patriotism? That is a heavy enough demand and, after meting it, very little is left of one to make one a brother or a friend or a husband, except dutifully.”
“I’m afraid, it’s too sweeping an observation. It may be unkind of us to apply it to Kamal.”
“I have tried to be kind to them in response to their eyes glittering with kindness, only to realise that the glitter was that of stones, even if gem stones.”
Sandip sat down near Reena. A hurrying mongoose stopped near them and stood erect on its hind legs, staring at Reena. Then it scurried off as suddenly as it had appeared.
“Why don’t you ask him to come near us?”
“But the creature is gone!”
“Who?” Reena broke into a laugh.
Sandip looked around and saw Vikashananda leaning against a tree, obviously eager to join them, but hesitant. Sandip was about to call him.
“Wait!” said Reena in a low voice. “Let me finish talking business. I hope you’ve guessed the purpose of my mission. Once the police come to know of your hiding place, to nab you will be as simple as grabbing a man fallen into a deep slumber. But I can find any number of places for you to hide in the town. Get ready. I will wrap you up in a shawl and sprinkle a little powder on your hair and you will look like an aged uncle beside me shivering with malaria.”
“But why should I be a burden on you?”
“Because to keep worrying about your safety, if I let you be here, will be a far greater burden on me.”
“Please let me continue here.” Sandip was apologetic but also determined in his tone.
The mongoose reappeared and repeated its feat. Reena saw it, but did not seem amused.
“I was almost sure that you will not concur with my submission. Nobody does.” She buried her face in her palms.
Sandip knew that he must do something imaginative to soothe Reena’s feelings, but found his faculties in a stupor.
“You’re exaggerating. Not only does your opinion prevail over others, but also you dominate the situation wherever you are.”
“As I do now!”
Sandip recognized the futility of his trying to match Reena’s sarcasm. He decided to be frank.
“How little, alas, I know what to do. At times I wonder if I was not a weightless toy consigned to the sea by some unknown hand, floating and tossing on the waves.”
Reena showed no reaction, but sat looking towards the sky.
“If I had any will of my own,” he resumed, “1 grow conscious of it only when it was thwarted. But how can I rebel against the turns and tides of events when I remember how so many of such chance-occurrences in my life had done me good? One day, quite unexpectedly, you came into my life. I alone know how much rewarding that has proved to me! Similarly, Soumyadev. It wouldn’t be easy for me to tell you how much the association means to me. Honestly, I cannot leave his shelter without his sanction. I do not know if I sound naive.”
“You do.”* * *
The sunset had begun bringing birds back to their homes. There was much bustle on the tree-tops.
Soumyadev sat reclining against an ancient banyan tree. Its shoots hanging from robust branches looked like a supernatural fortification around him.
He looked at Reena kindly when introduced by Sandip. She made a brief courtesy to the sage and sat down before him, close to Sandip.
“You propose to lead Sandip away to your town. But not in the habit of hiding, he may be in a continuous state of apprehension,” observed Soumyadev.
Reena’s face betrayed displeasure. Soumyadev’s argument was too down-to-earth to be expected of a sage.
“Sadhu Baba, what is he doing here if not hiding?”
“He has something more to live and look for here.”
Soumyadev’s answer thrilled Sandip. It was like a flash of light revealing the state of affairs within himself. But he felt alarmed looking at Reena.
“What’s that something?” she demanded.
“The possibility of his making contact with his inner being. That’ll help him, sooner or later, to realize the ultimate goal of his life,” Soumyadev replied in the same mater-of-fact tone.
After a moment’s sullen silence Reena asked, “Sadhu Baba, have you seen God?”
Reena gave a start, but she asked with redoubled vigour, “Can you show God to me?”
Soumyadev smiled, but did not answer.
“Why can’t you show him to me if you have seen him? I certainly wish to see him!”
“My child,” answered Soumyadev tenderly, “God should also wish to see you!”
Reena nodded awkwardly.
“Well, Sadhu Baba, can you show me some miracle?” Reena seemed determined to embarrass Soumyadev, but she only embarrassed Sandip.
“So that I could develop a faith in God.”
“Would it do if, with a sleight of my hand, I materialise a handful of sand or a gem – or if I fling this pebble upward and it remains suspended in the air?”
“That should be enough.”
“Then, my child, why don’t you begin marvelling at the fact that the earth with all its sand and stones and gems had materialised out of nothing? Why don’t you begin marvelling at the fact that the sun, more than a million times bigger than our earth, remains suspended in nothingness? Aren’t miracles far superior to the worthless ones you had in mind staring you in the face all the time?”
Soumyadev stood up and smiled at Reena. She did not seem to care. She kept sitting even after Soumyadev had left, her head resting on her knees. Sandip stood undone.
She rose minutes later, ready to leave. Sandip offered to escort her up to her jeep, but she would not like that – she told him bluntly.
Sandip looked for Ravi, but Reena did not wait. She advanced alone.
From nowhere Vikasnananda stepped forward and offered to give her company.
Sandip, back in his village to comply with a dying woman’s wish, is unwittingly caught up in the communal frenzy that overtook the country on the eve of independence. He succeeds in restoring harmony between the two communities, but the police formally arrest him on the basis of a warrant issued earlier. He is taken to the town. However, he is out on bail and proceeds to the city, instead of returning to the village, to immerse the ashes of his real father in the Ganga.