The thirsty traveler

Once a rich man who always took pride in his possessions that he had accumulated and his rising status in society looked disturbed. He could not get quality sleep, could not enjoy much as of old and therefore decided  to do a solo ride to a far off place to meet a Guru who he thought would help him attain some peace of mind. The Guru’s Ashram was hundreds of miles far away from the city and was at a place which was unknown territory to him. Almost an hour to the destination guided the support voice from the vehicle. He happily drove ahead for some more time.  The vehicle navigation stopped momentarily as he  came across a place where the path ahead twisted into opposite directions. On the left was a muddy patch that looked like leading into the desert. The other was a better path leading into a shade of trees at a distance. There he saw a  traveler on foot with torn clothes and a dirty  bag in hand. He stopped his vehicle and inquired of  him on which   path he should take ahead.

“I am walking with only one destination in mind said the smiling mendicant. But you may take the left one”. He offered some water to the rich man which he refused saying he had enough of it with him. “It is a wonderful vehicle that you have got here. Hope it will take it to your intended destination. I can accompany you if you like me as a guide“, to which our man replied “There is no need for your guidance. This has inbuilt navigation. I can manage myself alone“.

The rich man thought of the man as a crazy old man and continued on the path on the right  which was well laid out and was happy he had not taken the foolish advice. After having gone some time, the road suddenly disappeared beneath the desert sands and the trees he had been seeing in the near distance had also vanished. His vehicle navigation was of no use in the desert terrain. Huge dunes of sand greeted him. He travelled over them each time narrowly missing being stuck in the loose sand. He stopped his vehicle as it had got heated. He drank from his rations of water and offered some to the vehicle.

It was hours since he had met the mendicant and cursed himself for not having taken him on board. After travelling again for some time, he came to the same place where he had met the mendicant. There was no trace of him. This time he took the left one and within an hour he reached an oasis which was lined up with the same trees that he had seen before. He reached the Ashram having hundreds of seekers sitting in attention to what the guru was saying.

“Always remember that there is no rich and poor among us. We are all seekers traveling through the limited time gifted to us. Seekers of joy, seekers of wealth, status or power. But there is a cost to such seeking. You lose your glow as you make compromises, do not listen to your inner guiding voice, do not heed good advice given externally and thus lose your way in the desert of life. If you had sought your creator all along and lost yourselves in his glory and attained bliss, there would be no need to drive yourself here to take the advice of this foolish man. The Lord is busy yet he has time for each one of us. When we are about to dwell on the wrong path, he sends us good advice in many forms. It could be your parent,  your sibling, a friend or a stranger. Take a pause in your stride and listen to such good advice”.

Saying so, the guru looked at the lone standing rich traveller who was looking at him to guide him to some seat to sit. When their eyes met, the rich traveller could recognise the smiling mendicant in the Guru…

A Kadali Tale

On the occasion of Onam I wish all my dear readers a very happy, healthy and prosperous year ahead! They say after a sumptuous feast on Onam, children should listen to a story or more…

Hope you enjoy this Kadali Tale from my archives.

kadali

Reghu chanced upon a small cottage while on the run away from the nearby Chartusra city and in his travails, hungry and famished and with a bag laden with stolen valuables, the robber makes his arrival known to the inmates by coughing and gasping at their door. Vedha, the small time jeweller traded in his jewellery which was made at the cottage with Bhanu, his helping hand welcomed the tired robber not knowing his exact credentials. On inquiring as to why he looked so tired and out of breath, he said he was a trader from Chartusra and had been followed by robbers while coming this way to Patali, the port city, the same place where Vedha used to sell his home made jewellery.

Reghu was welcomed as a guest and was told, he could stay for a few days before he could gain enough strength to go to Patali. One day Reghu’s eyes fell upon the golden bunch of 4 Kadali kept in front of the Lord and worshiped by Sree, Vedha’s wife, Reghu was thinking of adding it to his collection. The old caretaker and help, Bhanu to whom Sree was just like a daughter took good care of them all. Bhanu was not happy about Reghu but Vedha dismissed his fears and allowed Reghu to stay. With stolen silver and gold coins he impressed upon the jeweller to make a replica of the Kadali saying it would fetch him a good price at Patali. The jeweller obliged and took a week before finishing one, an exact replica of the one which he had made earlier on Sree’s request.

Once the work was completed and Reghu getting impatient and tired of the stay with the lovely couple, one day kills them and flees but not before taking the work in progress jewels and the two Kadali bunch. After walking for two days and night he came across a plain land with not much human habitation near a placid river. As dusk was approaching he thought of burying the 2 golden priceless Kadali. He chose one huge old jack-fruit tree to bury one near it. As he was in the process, a fearful spirit came down the tree and asked him what he was doing. Reghu told her that he was hiding this Kadali which he had in his hand and said he would return in a week to claim it. She agreed and asked him about the other banana jewel he had in his bag. Reghu on second thought thought of burying the other one too there, but she told him to hide the second one, a hundred yards away as she could not stand the sight of the divine jewel. Do claim this one in a week otherwise you will forfeit it and I will not allow anyone who comes in possession of it, any peace, was her parting words.

Reghu walked a hundred yards and came upon a mango tree near the river bank and as instructed started burying the Lord’s Kadali there. A benevolent spirit came down the tree and asked what he was doing…. He said that he was burying the Jewel in his possession and showed it to her. So be it, she said with a smile, I will guard this till it reaches the rightful owner and help him in any test that he is put to, she murmured to herself..and went back to the tree.

The river was in full flow and had submerged most of the land when he came back after selling the stolen jewels and the coins with a few workers to set up a home. To his surprise he found the landscape had changed thanks to the flood. The marked trees had got uprooted and he knew not where his twin treasure lay buried. He was seen digging most of the time but never told his servants as to what he was looking for. They deserted him soon after his money got over. He was now a man gone mad…

Years had passed by with the jewels remaining hidden where they lay for a few generations. The land had changed much and it was a small village now. Jinu was a landless worker who got a tract of land on lease from the greedy village officer to plant banana plantains. Half of the produce he would need to give to the officer as per the deal struck between them. As expected and to Jinu’s happiness, the first crop turned out well. One day while digging a canal to water the plants in the land, he came upon one of the golden plantains. He took it to Jayaram the local jeweler who had a good look at it and gave a small token to Jinu assuring him the rest of the money, but as a law abiding citizen, he had to talk to the village officer first about its antiquity before he could sell it as the laws had changed. He showed it to the village officer the same day who kept it with himself though he told Jayaram and Jinu that he would be handing it to the higher officials in the government and had no plans to keep anything to himself. The next day he told Jinu he had other plans and asked him to stop using the land for his planned second crop.

Jinu was out of work and was finding it difficult to sustain himself after whatever money he had on him ran out. He could see that the tract of land was fully dug up by the village officer in the hope that he would get some more of such golden Kadali, but his search for more treasure turned futile. Meanwhile Jinu again approached the village officer after a couple of weeks to use the tract of land for plantation, but he was driven out.

The village officer’s wife was fascinated by the golden fruit so much that she took it daily out of the strong box to marvel at it. The fascination increased so much that the officer had to hide it in another room and lock it. Meanwhile Jinu thought of planting a few banana plantains around his small home near the river bank where he was forced to retire. At least it will keep him from hunger once his efforts bore fruit. He prayed to Krishna at his home that the first fruit from his land will be gifted to him. As he dug another canal he came upon another golden plantain which was the exact replica of the first one he had got, but this time he made good his promise and bestowed the golden marvel to Krishna. Whenever he prayed, the golden jewel would change to real bananas and he would take one as prasadam(offering from the Lord).

One day he chanced upon Tulsi standing nearby who happened to watch him at his plantation work. He inquired of her and came to know that she was jeweler Jayaram’s daughter. One day she asked if she could assist him at his work in the plantation. He replied on one condition that she should accept her fair share of the produce once it materialized to which she gladly agreed.

The officer came to know that Jinu had a small plantation around his house. Somehow be didn’t like it but also couldn’t do much about it. Jayaram paid a visit to Jinu and saw the bunch of 4 bananas with a golden hue kept near Krishna’s idol. Oh! how marvelous a sight and so golden, said he after tasting the one from the bunch offered to him by Jinu. Can I have one more..Why not sir…take two, one for Tulsi too, smiling at her, who was standing at the door. The much pleased Jayaram had never had such a tasty fruit and he expressed the same while having it. Sir, my Krishna’s prasadam is always like his love. The more you love Him, more sweet will be your offering to Him and so, his prasadam in return. Being a devotee himself, Jayaram was no doubt thrilled by Jinu’s company. He and his daughter became frequent visitors. One day Jinu revealed to Jayaram, his wish to marry Tulsi. But Jayaram first decided to put Jinu to the test before he could approve his request.

Krishna

Jayaram asked Jinu. This bunch of mini kadali that you offer to Krishna daily…can you show me the plantain which yields such sweet bananas to you. Jayaram was sure no plantain could yield a bunch daily, in fact not more than one in its lifetime and with Jinu having not more than a dozen odd plantains, there seemed to be a mystery about them which he wanted to unravel.

Jinu was in a fix as to what he should say when an old woman came that way and asked for some ripe banana as food to be given. Jinu said I can give you some rice and vegetable but I doubt I can give you a banana at this time as it was well last noon and his kadali prasadam could yield real banana only before noon based on his experience.

The old woman laughed a bit loudly, much to Jinu’s and Jayaram’s consternation. You call yourself a planter? There, yonder. I can see a bunch of fine kadali. Jinu rushed to his garden and much to his surprise there was one ripe kadali bunch awaiting them. He took it down and gave to the woman. No, I don’t want all of this, maybe you can give the better share of this to your guest here, smilingly pointing at Jayaram. Saying so, the woman took leave.

Jayaram was a bit disturbed and left with a perplexed mind. The next day he sent Tulsi to bring a bunch of fresh Kadali. Tulsi came in the morning as was her wont, to Jinu’s house, prayed to Krishna, took two of the prasadam kadali and there were only two left for the day. Father has sent me for a bunch if you could provide it. Jinu at a loss went to the same tree and there, lo another bunch of ripe bananas was waiting to be taken down.

This went on for a few days. Jayaram came on the fourth day himself and examined the tree. There was none. He was going to win he thought when another woman appeared asking for something to eat. Jinu asked what he could give her. Don’t bother I will go inside and take what I need. She went inside and was not to be seen for sometime. Both went in to see her feasting on a bunch of freshly plucked kadali. Jayaram was at a loss of words and failed to understand what was going on. He asked Jinu from where this bunch came when Tulsi appeared in the doorway saying I plucked it in the morning before you two had even got up and kept it here.

The woman had her fill and after blessing Jinu and Tulsi and laughing at Jayaram went her way. It was a matter of a few weeks time before Tulsi and Jinu got married on an auspicious day.

The village officer couldn’t sleep on many a night as he could hear someone pounding on the closed door. The noise from the room where he kept the golden Kadali, the disturbance from the roof as if someone heavy was trampling upon the tiles…the fearful shadow behind the curtains, the poor sight of his wife already at her wits end when she could not see the golden fruit anymore, now out of sight behind the closed door of the cursed room. It was just a matter of time before the officer too went mad after he saw the room ransacked, one day, by some robber and the golden Kadali missing…

The treat

Pravin and Raju both had to go to Matunga this week for some purchases. The roasted ground coffee at a wholesale shop had popular reviews so Pravin thought of adding it to his list of items at his shop. Raju used to visit Matunga where he got his medical supplies from a supplier there. So on a Friday, they decided to shut their respective shops and made off to Matunga by train.

On getting down Pravin hurried to Bhimani Street to get his coffee and Raju took a cab to Maheshwari gardens area to place his new orders and hand over his check payments. It was a brisk walk for Pravin across to the shop selling varieties of coffee and with the ground coffee aroma, he thought he would swoon down in ecstasy. He made a few purchases from different varieties the shop had to offer and asked the shopkeeper to pack them up while he would go around the market to fish for other unique South Indian items that were on offer.

Raju luckily was able to place orders, without wasting time on the supplies he needed for his medical shop. He circled the Maheshwari Udyan as he loved walking and soon he was at the Asthika Samaj Temple on Bhandarkar street, went inside and offered his prayers and came out and continued walking towards the Matunga market. He had to find out Pravin fast. They had decided upon the post office as their meeting point exactly two hours after they had parted their ways.

Raju paused as he passed the flower shops on the western side of the street, went into one of the shops that sold meetha paan. Took it and dumped it into his mouth. He loved this paan (sweet betel) from this shop and made it a habit to have one on his monthly visits to the place. Slowly chewing and savoring it, he walked gulping down the contents and was soon at the meeting place where he waited for Pravin near the letter box.

Before long, Pravin walked with two big bags that seemed heavy for him to manage by himself and gave one to the tall and well built Raju. They both walked slowly to the Railway station which was a few hundred metres away. That’s when Raju realised he was hungry and it would be good to visit the Irani restaurant that invited them, a few steps away.

Being a Friday and that too around 11 am there were not many customers in the rickety wooden chairs surrounding a few marble topped tables at the shop. There was some old Hindi song playing on the radio which appeared to be a prized possession of the Irani gentleman sitting at the cashier desk who had a welcome in his eyes as they stepped in. Some part of the shop had the sun streaming its shine and therefore our chaps decided to take position at a table in the shade and below one of the three ceiling fans which to the observant Pravin appeared as old as the gentleman smiling at the desk.

What would you like to have, Raju? asked Pravin as both of them placed the bags down. I would go for a toast omelette with special tea. I would settle for a veg cheese omelette. They placed the order with the serving boy who appeared at their desk from  nowhere. Where was he when we came in? We didn’t notice him, a smiling Pravin asked. Raju looked at the young chap and gave the order and asked him to make it fast, if he wanted a generous tip. He disappeared just as he had appeared, into the kitchen. Pravin tapped his fingers on the table to the music and looked around. Raju was a bit engrossed looking at the medical supplies order copy in his hand.

A poor man walked in, a bit fidgety, placed himself at the far end on the sunny side and drank a cup of water from the water container kept on the table. He took a couple of currency notes and a few coins from his pocket on the table and went through the menu kept on the table. Pravin was watching the person closely now. It appeared there was nothing he could buy except perhaps a cup of plain tea. He went through the menu once again and made quick calculations by looking at his scant store. With moist eyes he placed an order for plain tea and waited for it.

What Raju, you are looking at those order forms and keeping so quiet. It is time to have a small celebration today. What’s the occasion, a gleaming Raju asked. Not because Pravin was a miser but very rarely his grocer friend gave treats. You don’t know? Come on, it is my wedding anniversary he proclaimed as he stood up while making a bit of a show with his hands spread. He walked across to the cashier and loudly said cha-cha today is my wedding anniversary. Mubarak ho beta. What can I do for you? asked the old man at the desk.

Please serve a cream roll and a coconut cake on my behalf to all others sitting here. And yes, a special tea too. The Parsi gentleman looked around. There was only a poor man sipping tea at the other occupied table. Alas! If only a few more customers had come that time of the day, he would have sold more cream roll and cakes!

The Ants and the Snake

Once, there lived scores of  ants in an ant hill. They had built the hill over years of labor from the mud on a slope away from the paths men frequented. It was a desolate place with a lot of shrubs and grass. Not many creatures frequented this way except for one who had lost the way and therefore their location was not known to many.

Their fort was well protected by the myriads of soldiers in the nearby vicinity who were ready to pounce on any intruder or predator including some men who wanted to bring it down whenever they chanced this way. Soldier ants and the regional chiefs co-ordinated every hour and discussed the weather and the wind which were also a risk to their stronghold. From the ground, for tiny them, the hill looked as tall as a mountain which might take an hour to climb, even for the swiftest among them.

The Queen had to be protected at all costs. If there was an invasion and the commander in chief thought they and the fort would not be able to survive the onslaught, there was a small army kept within the palace to transport the queen to a safer destination in minutes. For that a couple of forts at a distance were already prepared and maintained daily. The food and water rations were stored at appropriate locations at various places in and around the hill for the army of ants. Special squads were sent far to detect any smoke or bush fire that might pose a risk to their lodgings.

On one side of the mound, a couple of rats burrowed their holes and decided to stay put there. Since they didn’t mean harm to the inhabitants of the fort, they were not attacked. In a few weeks time, a snake that meandered that way, chanced upon the rats stay. It decided to make an attack on the fortress. It circled the hill, crushing many soldier ants who tried to bite the intruder as he wriggled upon their ramparts and made a run to the many holes dug by the rats. The rats ran into the bushes and disappeared.

The snake thought of pitching his tent in the hill though every day he met some resistance from the soldier ants who were dead against this slimy creature putting the fort at siege. Daily hundreds of ants died or got injured from the snake’s movement who used to go in and out as if he owned the place.

A group of children from nearby homes who had thought of making this place a playground for their vacations, cleared some of the bushes and the grass. At first they met high resistance from the ants but who then retreated to the fort lest they meet with lethal consequences from them or their parents. Every day they started playing games metres away from the ant hill which was well hidden among the bushes.

The snake also was aware of the children playing at a distance but ignored them as they didn’t seem to threaten him. Oblivious to him, he continued dealing deaths and injuries to the ants on his meanderings. The ants sometimes irritated him but for the cool comfort of this mud hill, he could tolerate them till the rains arrived.

This could not go on for long this way. The snake has to be driven out and the children too since they might wreak the hill if they ventured into the bushes, thought the commander in chief. He sought a meeting with the queen and the elders group. I don’t know why the queen persists with this group of elders. They just pamper her, eat and drink and while away their time. And the queen calls them worldly wise. I, in my lifetime haven’t heard any wise words from them except citing issues with the way I operate!

The meetings with the queen and her group of the advisory board was either short or a long drawn out affair. There were times when he was dismissed in minutes and days when he used to sit hours and get audited on his actions. But this time it would be different. He would strike terron in their hearts and ask for more batallion and thereby increase his stature while trying his best against the snake and the children.

The court was already assembled as he stormed in with his bodyguards and took his seat. After the initial customary greetings they came to discuss the safety of the fort. The queen cast a glance on him which was a signal for him to voice his concern. He gave a lengthy speech often trying to embed fear in the group if immediate steps weren’t taken to get rid of the imposter snake and the children.

We will make an attack on the snake with 5000 soldiers and another 10000 would be needed to drive away the children. He made his point and sat down. That is the size of our full army including those who guard our backup forts. One of the elders remarked and continued. We cannot put at risk losing 15000 of our men sending them on a mission where there is a feeble hope of winning. But we can’t stand idle when daily we lose hundreds of our soldiers. This way we would lose either way before the rains, said the commander trying his best.

The queen asked of the eldest ant in the group. Is there no other way, Sir? The eldest closed his eyes as that was his habit while trying to arrive at the solution. After a couple of minutes he opened his eyes and said that there was one. Tomorrow morning nobody will bother the snake.  Let a hundred soldiers march back and forth every day morning until further orders to the eastern fort which is the nearest to the children’s play area. Let the queen be shifted tonight to the western fort deepest in the bushes. Let us abandon this fort tonight and let the remaining thousands assemble at the west until further orders with the queen.

What do you have in mind, asked the Queen. Your majesty, the queen, you must have faith in me but the strategy will be disclosed later. Please arrange to issue necessary orders since we have to act on this immediately.  The Queen made the orders and put the commander and his deputies into the act. They murmured a bit as to what good would come of this but they obeyed the orders to the word for that was how they were brought up.

The next day morning, the snake woke up to see there were no ants to disturb him. He peeped out of the hole. Yes there they are, he was amused but at the same time curious. They are all marching to the smaller ant hill. Why would that be? Maybe the rats are there after running from here. No, they would never come within 100 metres of me. He surveyed the other parts of the fort. Yes the ants have made a transition to their new place. But why?

The question came to him again and again without an answer. Then a fear crept into his mind. The weary ants, did they sense any danger here for them to abandon this well built fortress. The children had come today but only two of them were there. He could dodge their eyes and quietly scramble into the smaller ant hill and see what the ants were upto. He wriggled quickly towards the play area and that is when the children saw him go into the nearby ant hill. When they realised the danger they fled towards their houses raising an alarm. The chain of ants were asked to stop the marching and asked to immediately get back to the western fort as soon as they saw the snake at the eastern fort.

All the ants were at the western fort and asked to bide their time till further orders from the commander. All were looking at the play area and getting bits of information from the few sentries posted  at the gates. There was a lot of commotion when a group of people came running with sticks and a bag. They destroyed the Eastern fort in a minute to unearth the snake who made a run to the central fort but was beaten, caught and secured in a bag. Some of the men came into the bushes and found the towering but now deserted ant hill and destroyed it also and went back. On the way back they were heard rebuking the children for selecting this area for their play.

The same day evening the queen had assembled a quick meeting to discuss future plans and congratulate everyone on the turn of events in their favor. The elderly advice had saved them from daily casualties and impending doom. They put up plans to build a big fort after the rains. Till then the queen and her army would continue their stay at the western fort as per the meeting minutes. If only they had asked for elderly advice earlier, many more lives would have been saved, some soldiers were heard saying to each other. The commander wiser from this experience now understood that Every problem with our enemies may not have a military solution always…

The Caretaker

Vinu came up to the cinema booking counter. Gasping for breath, he requested ” 2 tickets please“. It was the fifth day the new movie was playing at the theatre. Reji at the cash counter asked him “All alone today?” to which he replied ” she is not keeping well“. Reji gave the change back but before he could ask why two tickets, Vinu had vanished into the crowd.

A few days back while coming from the weekly market hosted by the neighboring town, Vinu was getting worried as he still had 2 long miles to cover before he could reach the fields where his village was. It was getting slightly dark although the rising moon seemingly bigger than usual, heralding a full moon night comforted him. The next 15 to 20 minutes would be treacherous, he thought. He was also thirsty and cursed himself for not carrying a bottle of water on him. He had heard a few stories from the villagers about these woods and they came to him now, he hurried almost breaking into a run. This was the place where robbers used to trouble weary travelers and the poor villagers who went this way to the weekly market. In the morning, he had gone with Hari and Shyam, but they had returned back early, he had said he would be right behind them, but had lost a lot of time in the market loitering around all the stalls making those several item purchases which was asked of him.

What is the hurry comrade, are you afraid of the darkness or is it that you are carrying something valuable that you don’t want to share with us?” came a whispering voice at close quarters. Very soon a hand on his shoulder and a knife placed on the other prompted him to turn slowly. There were two of them with handkerchiefs tied around their mouth. “You are a good lad. Let us relieve you of the burden that you have carried so far safely to us. Now will you run across the fields to your home where your people would be worrying about you. Tell them your goods were stolen here and they will believe you, since this is not the first time it has happened“.

Vinu, of 15 years although a brave lad, started crying. How could he face those who had given money to his volunteering for small purchases on the eve of the festival. Dinakar his wealthy neighbor had gifted him 50 extra rupees for bringing his ordered goods. How he and Vimla, his childhood friend had planned to see the new movie that would be shown in the theatre with this prize money. Now as he walked alone crying thinking about his impending loss of face on his arrival back home, he hated going home and decided to stay put in the woods. The fear of the woods and the thieves had vanished. How one fear, the fear of facing them all had become the primary one and banished all others out of his mind.

What if he loitered around and found the robbers den and recover his goods if they had let their guard down. It was not only easy but risky too if they saw him or sensed his motive. A second meeting would turn out to be a sour one and mighty unpleasant. “What can I do alone against the might of two grown up thieves. Who knows if there are more of them in the den. Oh if there was some goodness in the forest let it come now to help me out“, he cried out to no one in particular but hoping that someone in the dark woods might take pity on him.

What are you doing here at this time of the hour. Don’t you know that I frequent this path on the new moon day and why are you crying“. The harsh tone suddenly changed soft. Vinu looked up to see a goddess form standing in front of him. “Who are you?”, in all innocence, he asked. “No I am not that
which you are thinking. I can assume any form I wish and to you I would look like how you see me now. I am the caretaker of the woods here. I see that no harm comes to it and no one disturbs the sanctity of these good old trees. Now can you tell me your story that made you cry
?”

Vinu recounted all that he had experienced in the last hour and how his hopes of seeing the movie with his earned money seemed to have dashed to the ground. “Don’t worry about the movie now whatever it is. Let me handle your case. How do you want your goods back. Do you want to smoke them out or drown them all“. “No, no.. Nothing of that, just let us go and get my goods and if they see us, can you frighten them out of your magic prowess which I assume you must have“, he paused looking at her.

The smiling spirit said, “So be it. Let your imagination run wild but keep holding my hand firmly so that no harm comes to you. At the forest shrine at the outskirts, a lot of your villagers had come to me with complaints for the past few months. Some of them have given me small presents and promised
more if I can get rid of these gang of thieves”
.

They walked hand in hand and at every step Vinu kept looking at the face of the forest caretaker who had appeared to him as a goddess and also to assure himself that every moment of it was real. When the caretaker of the place walks with you why should one fear. The spirit said to him. “I will give all
what you lost, what will you give me in return”. “I will, I will…” nothing came to his head all the more because he wanted to gift something valuable in return. Lost for words, he put a question back. “Ask
me. What do you want me to give and if I am blessed , I surely will?
“. “You truly are blessed little one, or else why would the wonder of time make us cross each other’s paths today. I will ask my gift when I have helped you with the return of your goods. Come on now, and as we walk, tell me all about the village, the villagers, the theatre and the movie that you intend to see”. Vinu though tired went on rattling everything he knew like a tourist guide that made even the spirit sigh and whisper, “How I wish to be a part of your sweet little village“.

They had come to a clearing in the forest where a few trees had met the axe and logs were arranged in a circle with a small fire lit at the center. The gang of four now were resting and one or two wandering off to sleep. “There it is! my sack of good things. Let me go and get it”. But the spirit
holding on to him said they will walk together into the ring. As they walked into the ring, there was everything that would warrant a fight. One of them noticed the lone Vinu and started laughing at which the other got up and started towards the boy with a stick. “Unless he gets a sound beating,
he will not remember to go home
“. Vinu at the sight of the stick thought of running away but the forest spirit invisible to others held on to his hand and whispered to him that he would not be harmed. 

All of a sudden, a pack of wild dogs descended on to the place and started fighting with each other barking ferociously at the party of thieves who didn’t know how to contain the animals who had come uninvited. They beat a hasty retreat with the pack close on their heels. “I don’t think they
would come back here for a few days or so, and then I would deal them in my own way”.
Vinu, all smiles, tired and famished thanked her when she picked a bunch of fruits from a tree which he ate in no time sitting on the ground. “Now pick up your sack and let me come with you till the outskirts in case you fall into another situation. Why don’t you come with me to the village, stay with us and enjoy the festivities? I will also take you to the Cinema and we can watch the new movie”. She smiled, “Good lad, I have a lot of work here, but yes, whenever you go to your theatre for the movie, have a seat beside you for me, so that we can watch it together. And make me a promise, you wouldn’t tell anyone what happened here and about me helping you”. Both of them hand in hand walked across the tall mighty trees spread out like a procession and the moon light so very bright peeped into the dense foliage lighting up their path to the fields. All the way back, Vinu was telling the spirit how glad he was to get out of the forest that night without any injuries, thanked her at the perimeter of the fields where she stood still, till his diminutive figure vanished into one of the houses.

When Vinu arrived that night, half of the village was awake looking out for his arrival and how glad they were to see him walking back across the fields, especially Hari and Shyam who had arrived earlier without him and subjected to a lot of scolding from the elders for not taking care of the boy on the way back. Heaping blessings on the boy and a lot of thanksgiving to the forest deity, they all retired to their houses. The next day, a lot of people came back for their goods and were glad to see him having picked the finest at best rates. But towards the evening, he developed high fever and was in bed for a few days, though now and then few came to enquire about his wellbeing especially Vimla.

After 4 days into the festival, the fifth day he went to Vimla’s house wanting to ask her out to see the new movie which had run for four days and might disappear on the seventh day. But it seemed he had passed on his fever to her and she was not all in a position to accompany him that day or the next. A sad Vinu, ambled across to the theatre all alone. At that point he remembered what the forest goddess had told him, she will come and sit beside him if he had a vacant seat reserved for her. With a rush of happiness coming back, he ran to the cinema and bought tickets for both of them.

The cinema hall was always packed during the Navratri festival, as most of the villagers was seeing it many times over; he hurried across the hall searching for the seats, as his eyes was getting adjusted to the darkness. He seated himself and waited for her. Within a few minutes, he sensed her hand in his, her typical fragrance but couldn’t see her because of the darkness. “So you came, just as you promised!“. “Yes, I never break my promise“, she replied in a sad way. The movie started immediately and Vinu was all eyes and ears into the movie and enjoyed it thoroughly. As the movie ended, he looked at the forest spirit, she was almost invisible, though he knew she was there. “Why cannot I see you now?” “You will, whenever our paths cross next time, but for now, you will have to content with my presence“. They walked out hand in hand just as they had walked through the woods. Vinu was silent, he had broken his part of the promise as he had confided to Vimla about the encounter in the woods. She bade him a whisper of a goodbye with Vinu hoping that they would meet in the near future, the dense woods willing…

 

Son of the Soil

A poor man cared for his family, worked for his landlord all the while but never cared a bit about himself. He worked in the fields from dawn to dusk. His skin weathered the elements, the seasons and the taunts of the landlord on whose fields he worked. His shirt and dhoti was all torn. He never cared for foot wear. His feet had developed corns and these days he walked in pain.

One day it was the village festival and he went to the village fair with his wife and daughter. He was in search of a young man for his daughter. He had come to know of Chandan who worked in the village office. He would be an ideal suitor for his daughter. But his parents were middle class. He had once mooted about it to Shri Dinanath who did not give any reply to him at that time. How could Shri Dinanath, Chandan’s father agree for a poor farmer’s daughter. This had been his worrying thought for a few months and when he passed the village shrine, he would talk about it to the diety there in the evening at the temple gate. Yes, he could not enter since his whole body and torn shirt was soaked in mud while coming home from work.

With his family in tow, Girish walked in front wearing a clean dhothi and light blue shirt. But the layer of sand laid out at the village fair was not favourable to his feet. It was paining and it was really getting difficult to walk. He told about his situation to his wife and all the three decided to go to the temple which was nearby and walk back home.

As they were leaving the fair, a hawker selling footwear was calling out for prospective customers. He also appeared poor to Girish’s eyes, when their eyes met. His call seemed desperate. Who would buy footwear when there was so much else on display to buy. Why don’t you buy one for yourself, his wife said. Maybe I should, more for this poor fellow than for myself, murmured Girish.

There were many varieties on display to Girish’s confusion. Sensing that, the hawker looked at Girish’s feet, measured it and went around looking for one that would give him comfort. Finally he got one to his satisfaction and put it on Girish’s feet all the time looking at him with a pleasant smile. Girish paid more than what the poor hawker asked, thanked and bade him goodbye and walked towards the temple with his family.

After leaving their footwear behind, they ascended the steps and prayed for the wellbeing of all in the village. As they came out after taking the prasad from the old Pujari, Vaishnavji, who had been serving the temple for  decades, they found that Girish’s footwear was missing.

It was really unfortunate Girish thought. More than the loss, he had taken a liking for it and the comfort it gave. Simple people were content with simple treats like these in life. Maybe this luxury was not for me, thought he, as he tread his steps slowly due to his pain. Since it was getting dark, he asked his wife and daughter to hurry home as he would take time walking across through the freshly laid gravel.

Before long, Vaishnavji having finished his duties at the temple caught up with the slow walking Girish and enquired about his feet. Girish told him all what had happened. Vaishnavji comforted Girish and gave him company till he reached his house. That night there was thundershowers which gave a welcome relief to the villagers from the heat.

The next day morning, when Vaishnavji climbed the steps of the shrine he found it dirty with mud. It was as if someone had walked with footwear not only on the steps but everywhere outside and inside the sanctum. And there just below the feet of the diety was a pair of muddy footwear. Who could have done such an act, he muttered, getting angry. I am sure someone who came to the village fair from far would have done this.

Tendering an apology to the Lord, he started to clean the inner sanctum and was shouting curses at that ruffian who had the audacity to do this. Did he hear someone giggling or was that a laugh. Did he really hear or his old mind was playing tricks. Never mind, thought he and continued on with his work and it was then he remembered that the muddy footwear was still inside the sanctum. When he started removing it, a voice boomed. “Do not remove it, dear Vaishnav. It is dear to me. It was I who danced around with it last night amid the rains. Do not bother, as from now on, it will be my footwear” .

Vaishnavji was enthralled with what he had heard. The Lord had talked to him after all these years to him. Girish had woken up early and started to tread his way to the fields. Surprisingly he did not feel any pain today while walking. He had thought of taking a longer route instead of the gravel filled village fair path, but since it was not paining at all, he decided to take the short route and thank the Lord on the way. It was still dark and dawn was still a few moments away.

Girish climbed the temple steps along with Chandan’s father who was also a great devotee of the Lord and both of them saw Vaishnavji in a trance. When they enquired, he told them all what had happened. To set their sight on the divine footwear, they hurried to the inner sanctum and  was Girish surprised when he saw that it was the very footwear he had worn the last night. He prostrated before the Lord crying out how thankful he was to see that the very good  Lord had taken a liking for it.

The booming voice came again. “Girish, I was twice lucky yesterday. To touch your feet and adorn this footwear on your feet and then like a thief snatch it and play around here wearing it that gave me so much joy. Let it remain here with me and in barter I have taken away your painful corns from your feet”.

How glad the three were that morning to hear the Lord’s voice. Dinanath with tears in his eyes embraced Girish remarking, “you are the true son of the soil and I will be glad to have your daughter grace my home  after our children’s wedding at the next auspicious muhurat here in  the temple”.

I fervently hope, the good Lord who inspired me to write this, bestow upon my readers, simple gifts and the best of health as we walk across the paths in life which may not be comfortable at all times…

Paths in Life.. It is your choice. Thanks to Rupali who has a photography  blog at mazeepuran.wordpress.com for allowing me to use this lovely picture.

Pondering ponds

Once upon a time in a pond lived many fish. During summer they used to live in fear of the storks and the thought of the pond running dry. Then came the monsoon and they lost their fears and enjoyed their stay. A group of fish led by their young leader was not happy though. This way of living in fear did not appeal to him. They wanted to explore new ponds if there might be any, in the near vicinity.

So during the next rains when the pond overflowed, this group led by their leader decided to venture out. It was decided that the leader would lead while others would follow in an arrow formation one behind the other so that they could retrace in case if they did not meet new ponds. All agreed and one day they forged ahead through shallow waters. They met many a puddle on their way. Many of his followers afraid and tired of the long journey resigned themselves to small pools on the way. The leader however not aware of the state of his followers went ahead through very shallow waters living dangerously. It seemed the land was running dry wherever he went. That is when he looked back only to find he was alone. He swam back but there was no lead to help him. It was getting difficult for him as he was getting tired. Still he swam forward following his gut feel and found hitting a slope again. It is the end he thought.

His idiotic followers did not heed him. There was a small puddle. He took some rest there. Evening was fast approaching. That is when he thought of his elders back in his home pond who had advised him not to venture out but had also told him that if he still needed to go, to try resting and noting the puddles and small pools as a backup on the way. That night it rained again and he was so happy.

The next day he went by the flow of water and he chanced to land in a different pond. After that followed dry days. Most of his followers died in the small puddles and pools thinking that to be their final destination. With his experience and lessons learnt he transformed himself into an elder and lived the rest of his days giving advice to the youth at his pond.

The Urchin

Every day people who frequented the CGS market would spot him for his mischievous but endearing nature. Sometime he would be seen selling  few fruits  in a basket whereas the next day, he would sport as a flower seller. He had a smile for every buyer whether they bought or not, any of the items he sold. Just when one thought they knew all his chores, he would surprise them by employing himself at Karim’s workshop or any of the other shops in the market for a few days.

Ramu as he was fondly called, was a jack of all trades and did have shades of good nature in him. Most of the women folk would stop to inquire and have a chat with him before they vanished in the vehicles that brought them. He knew which shop had good vegetables and which among the displayed fish had come fresh from the river that day. In fact he knew the minds of the shopkeepers in that market as well as the customers who flocked to the market.

He was barely 14 having seen school for a few years before he ran away from where he belonged after which he was sighted at this place. It had been a couple of years since he was a part of this market, in this remote small township nestled near the western hills far away from the affluent cities.

One fine day Ramu was not to be seen. Also, some shops were ransacked that very night and certain merchandise and money went missing. Everybody blamed it on him or a gang of thieves who might have enrolled his services. The police made inquiries and all fingers pointed to him since he he had gone missing.

After the initial animated talk that lasted few days, everything seemed forgotten which is when Ramu the urchin made his appearance. The news spread like fire and the shopkeepers whose shops were ransacked came running to thrash him. Fearing for his life and well being, some customers and other kind shop owners shielded him from their wrath. “I had gone to the the next town to witness an annual festival” is all what he could repeatedly mutter before the police who were by now alerted took him away.

Ramu was in a poor state after he could not reveal anything or be of any use to the police about the robbery and after having beaten him black and blue he was disposed off near the thick woods at a neighborhood forest. He went hungry for a couple of days though the steady rains gave him enough water to drink. Slowly he dragged himself to the precincts of an old dilapidated temple. There he decided to put up shelter till the rains ceased.

In the morning he saw a old man worshiping at the shrine of the goddess. Among the items of worship was a plate of fresh flowers and fruits.After the puja was over, the person left the place or so he thought. He crawled to the plate intending to partake the offerings when he saw the same old man coming back again. “You may take whatever is left after an hour has passed” he suggested and disappeared again. Famished that he was, Ramu counted some minutes before he fell asleep. When he woke up he was surprised to see the flowers and some of the fruits gone. There were a bunch of bananas still left from which he ate and drank from the water that was part of the offerings.

A couple of monkeys descended from nowhere and made off with some bananas to his consternation. At least they could have sustained him in the evening. He tried getting up but the bruises all over and a couple of broken ligaments did little to help him.

What brings you here?” Ramu jumped at the question. A sweet lady in a red sari sitting on the parapet was looking at him with a smiling face.

As was his playful nature and despite the pain Ramu replied, “I was dumped here by the law thinking me to be an outlaw. They lost interest in me after a couple of days and I do not know where I shall go now that some of my friends in the market have turned enemies as he recounted his tale”.

Don’t worry about them. Here are a few silver coins. Distribute them to all those whose shops were ransacked and they will be happy. But before that you should regain your health. Come with me “as the lady got up and held a hand to Ramu to lift himself up. Together they descended the steps and entered a grove where existed a pond. “Why don’t you take a bathe in that pond all this pain that you experience will subside”. Like a loving son obedient to his mother’s call he slowly entered the pond with feeble steps and bathed himself. When he emerged from it how surprised and thrilled he was as all his ailments had left him.

Now listen son, to all the other shopkeepers you must tell about this temple that exists deep in the dangerous woods and this trunk pointing to an old iron heavy trunk. It has a heavy padlock. Nobody can lift this from here but only the sadhu can open this and others could only break it open if they feel so. I guess there are a few hundred such coins in there. A few lucky and needy people do come this way that is when I get the chance to give away some of these” as she handed a few more. This is for you to open a shop of your own when the time is ripe. Which shop would you open dear son?” . “What about a flower and incense shop”  Ramu wondered aloud, the first thought that had come to his mind.

I would like you to sell a bit of everything with less margin so that poor people can depend on you. Will you do this for me in return for this favor, and yes do sell flowers and incense for I would grace the temple next to the market and people from all sections would throng your shop to get the flowers for worship”.

Ramu never felt so happy and yet sad to leave her.  “Where do you live and who is that old sadhu who prays here”, was his parting question. “I am the caretaker of these woods and that person found me here when I rested once in my journeys through the length and breadth of this forest. It is an old story for which we will find some other time”. “Meanwhile hurry up and get going now and plan accordingly as I told you”. Ramu kept looking back at her wondering how they could live in the midst of that thick forest as he traced back his way to the road on the outskirts and from there on to the market.

The shopkeepers rejoiced to see him back in his usual self and were glad he could be of some help to recoup their losses with the coins he gave them. Others who had faith in his goodness were glad to see him hale and hearty and blessed him. Some were sure that he had the divine’s blessings during his stay in the forest. He recounted all what had happened to him in the last few days but only Mukha who had setup a oil shop last month came to him again and pressed on him to retell the story as if he didn’t believe the innocent Ramu.

One day Mukha did not come to open his shop. People who came for their weekly oil needs had to go back disappointed. In fact, Mukha never came back from wherever he had gone to and even while the police like the others made a half hearted attempt to search him, they too failed. After a month, it was Mulchand, the vegetable grocer, who suggested that Ramu use the vacant shop to setup a small business of his own and true to the promise given to the sweet lady at the temple, he set up a shop which had everything what others had including the flowers and the incense for the shrine at the market roundabout.

It was a matter of few months before news started pouring that the goddess at the market shrine was powerful enough to grant blessings and remove many ailments of those who flocked to her so much so that the shrine became popular in no time and Ramu’s was the only shop which was selling flowers and worship items at the market. After a couple of years the CGS shrine could host its own festival.

Reach to the Poor

Pravin and Raju were friends since college days. They used to play not only lots of cricket at a nearby playground in their locality but also a lot of naughty pranks at others, such much so, that most people used to avoid them whenever they saw them coming their way. Though the general perception about them was so, there was no doubt they were good at heart. Pravin having the rare O-ve blood group was always a call away in emergencies that required his blood group, and many a time he was disturbed from his sleep by someone who was referred to his house in such cases. Raju never lost an opportunity to help the old and infirm. He was a bit short tempered but used to laugh uncontrollably at himself when someone pointed out his mistake. Pravin was always smiling when you met him and it seemed he had a solution to every problem that his visitor had, in his welcome smile.

After college, both decided to set up shops in the nearby town center, a distance of a kilometer walk from their homes. Raju set up a medical shop with his DPharm License and Pravin a Grocery shop next to it. Though both shops were not that expansive, it seemed it had everything any buyer would want when they started frequenting these shops. There were a few as I said who stayed shy away from these two shops and the owners wondering what new pranks they would play on them during their visits.

They had a fair share of critics and cynics who were not happy about how they had settled themselves in life since their earlier predictions about the duo had gone haywire and also wary about what and how they sold. This was one of the topics of the so called group who whiled away their time in the shade of a poor banyan tree who could not but help listen to all their negative conversations.

It was not that there were no other grocery and medical shops in the town and our PR brothers knew it would take some time for consumers to come to their shops from afar. Knowing that the local community would not fail them, they reposed their faith and trust in their businesses and got going. Both had stocked only the bare necessities in their shops since they did not have a big capital while starting their ventures. Having studied the buying habits of the people in their place by frequenting the other shops, whatever they had on their shelves they could sell fast.

One evening on a dark night when Pravin was about to close for the day and down the shutters of his shop while calling out to Raju to do the same, an old woman came up to him asking for a kilogram of rice and half a kilo of tur dal. She was perhaps over seventy with wrinkles adorning her features with a stick in hand. She looked at peace with herself and yet so out of place in the middle class locality. Pravin was wondering where he had seen her and it was then a fragile piece of memory dawned upon him. She lived in a small house with her daughter in law, her son having passed away a couple of years back near the playground. He had gone into their small courtyard once to retrieve the cricket ball that Raju had struck for a Sixer. She, her daughter and her granddaughter subsisted on a pension that amounted to a meager 2000 rupees as per the all knowing banyan tree group.

Son, should I go back or will you be kind on this old woman in the dark“, she said with a smile mirroring Pravin’s smile. Oh Dadi! how could I be so cruel to have turned away such a beautiful woman away from my shop, was the instant reply that came out from Pravin. Old habits die hard, he muttered as he bit his tongue. How is your granddaughter doing? “Oh, she is not keeping well, down with fever since yesterday. Only when I wanted to prepare some gruel for them was when I came to know there were no provisions at home to prepare one”, with a chuckle came her reply. Gita is also sick since morning otherwise she would have come for this.

Hey Raju, don’t close your shop yet. There is a customer for you. “Dadi do you have some medicine for their ailment or should you need one, you can ask Raju here for one, he is dying to help people recover their lost health”. As Pravin gave the packed rice and dal in her cloth bag in the dim candle light, he waited for her to pay him. She took out her small purse which had a few small denomination rupee notes and quite a lot of coins… In the dim light, since the electricity was out just as as the old lady had reached the place, she was taking a bit of time counting the notes to pay a smiling and observant Pravin. Raju having heard the conversation had come with a strip of Paracetamol and he looked to Pravin with a twinkle in his eyes.

It is okay Dadi if you don’t have enough money to pay us now. You should hurry as I sense rain some minutes away from here, and we don’t want you too, to fall sick. “It is okay sons”, she said, “I think I should have enough money to pay you” as she went on counting her notes and coins to make it tally…

What Dadi? how can your counting tally since each time you are dropping a few notes and coins, as Raju sat down and picked up a few notes and a couple of coins and gave it to her. “That is so kind of you son to have noted it and helped this old lady. I am a bit nervous and hence fidgety with my fingers”. When Raju counted back the money and handed over to Pravin his share and took another 10 rupees for his Paracetamol strip, there were a couple of notes given back to the woman, saying this time also, your counting was wrong. “Come we will give you company, give me the bag, it will be heavy for you”, said Pravin, as the trio traced their steps to her house. Would you want a cup of tea here before you reach your homes was her parting remark. Don’t bother Dadi, some other time, said they, in a single voice and waited outside till she had entered her house.

Raju you were quick to switch off the light, in fact I think you saw her before me. What is our gain today, remarked a laughing Pravin, Well, she got fifty five rupees from me, said Raju. Hmm, and half a kilo more of gram and rice from me. Each patted the other on the back as they walked back, contented towards their homes. Their well devised prank and well rehearsed reach to the poor, who counted their meager store of money in the dim light had worked out well, this time too…

Cabuliwallah – A Masterpiece from Tagore

The Cabuliwallah   

~ Rabindranath Tagore  (Tagore won the Nobel prize for literature. It is the first Nobel prize won by Asia.)

Note: I am sure most of us would have read this, at some point in life, but a second reading is really worth it. Hope you agree after reading this work from the great Tagore of yore….. This post is for my global readers, who may have missed reading this….Sunith

The Cabuliwallah in Rabindranath Tagore’s unmistakable style.

My five-year-old daughter Mini cannot live without chattering. I really believe that in all her life she has not wasted a minute in silence. Her mother is often vexed at this, and would like to stop her prattle, but I would not. For Mini to be quiet is unnatural, and I cannot bear it long. And so my own talk with her is always lively.

One morning, for instance, when I was in the midst of the seventeenth chapter of my new novel, my little Mini stole into the room, and putting her hand into mine, said: “Father! Ramdayal, the door-keeper, calls a kak (crow) a kauwa!

He doesn’t know anything, does he?”

Before I could explain to her the difference between one language and another in this world, she had embarked on the full tide of another subject. “What do you think, Father? Bhola says there is an elephant in the clouds, blowing water out of his trunk, and that is why it rains!”

And then, darting off anew, while I sat still, trying to think of some reply to this: “Father! what relation is mother to you?”

With a grave face I contrived to say: “Go and play with Bhola, Mini! I am busy!”

The window of my room overlooks the road. The child had seated herself at my feet near my table, and was playing softly, drumming on her knees. I was hard at work on my seventeenth chapter, in which Pratap Singh, the hero, has just caught Kanchanlata, the heroine, in his arms, and is about to escape with her by the third storey window of the castle, when suddenly Mini left her play, and ran to the window, crying: “A Cabuliwallah! A Cabuliwallah!’ And indeed, in the street below, there was a Cabuliwallah, walking slowly along. He wore the loose, soiled clothing of his people, and a tall turban; he carried a bag on his back, and boxes of grapes in his hand.

I cannot tell what my daughter’s feelings were when she saw this man, but she began to call him loudly. “Ah!” thought I, “he will come in, and my seventeenth chapter will never be finished!” At that very moment the Cabuliwallah turned, and looked up at the child. When she saw this, she was overcome by terror, and running to her mother’s protection disappeared. She had a blind belief that inside the bag, which the big man carried, there were perhaps two or three other children like herself. The peddler meanwhile entered my doorway and greeted me with a smile.

So precarious was the position of my hero and my heroine, that my first impulse was to stop and buy something, since Mini had called the man to the house. I made some small purchases, and we began to talk about Abdur Rahman, the Russians, the English, and the Frontier Policy.

As he was about to leave, he asked: “And where is the little girl, Sir?”

And then, thinking that Mini must get rid of her false fear, I had her brought out.

She stood by my chair, and looked at the Cabuliwallah and his bag. He offered her nuts and raisins, but she would not be tempted, and only clung the closer to me, with all her doubts increased.

This was their first meeting.

A few mornings later, however, as I was leaving the house, I was startled to find Mini, seated on a bench near the door, laughing and talking, with the great Cabuliwallah at her feet. In all her life, it appeared, my small daughter had never found so patient a listener, save her father. And already the corner of her little sari was stuffed with almonds and raisins, the gift of her visitor. “Why did you give her those?” I said, and taking out an eight-anna piece, I handed it to him. The man accepted the money without demur, and put it into his pocket.

Alas, on my return, an hour later, I found the unfortunate coin had made twice its own worth of trouble! For the Cabuliwallah had given it to Mini, and her mother, catching sight of the bright round object, had pounced on the child with: “Where did you get that eight-anna piece?”

“The Cabuliwallah gave it to me!” said Mini cheerfully.

“The Cabuliwallah gave it to you!” cried her mother greatly shocked, “O Mini! How could you take it from him?”

I entered at the moment, and saving her from impending disaster, proceeded to make my own inquiries.

It was not the first or the second time, I found, that the two had met. The Cabuliwallah had overcome the child’s first terror by a judicious bribe of nuts and almonds, and the two were now great friends.

They had many quaint jokes, which amused them greatly. Mini would seat herself before him, look down on his gigantic frame in all her tiny dignity, and with her face rippling with laughter would begin: “O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah: What have you got in your bag?”

And he would reply, in the nasal accent of the mountaineer: “An elephant!” Not much cause for merriment, perhaps: but how they both enjoyed the fun! And for me, this child’s talk with a grown-up man had always in it something strangely fascinating.

Then the Cabuliwallah, not to be behindhand, would take his turn: “Well, little one, and when are you going to your father-in-law’s house?”

Now nearly every small Bengali maiden had heard long ago about her father-in-law’s house; but we were a little new-fangled, and had kept these things from our child, so that Mini at this question must have been a trifle bewildered. But she would not show it, and with ready tact replied: “Are you going there?”

Amongst men of the Cabuliwallah’s class, however, it is well known that the words father-in-law’s house have a double meaning. It is a euphemism for jail, the place where we are well cared for, at no expense to ourselves. In this sense would the sturdy peddler take my daughter’s question. “Ah,” he would say, shaking his fist at an invisible policeman. “I will thrash my father-in-law!” Hearing this, and picturing the poor discomfited relative, Mini would go off into peals of laughter in which her formidable friend would join.

These were autumn mornings, the very time of year when kings of old went forth to conquest, and I without stirring from my little corner in Calcutta, would let my mind wander over the whole world. At the very name of another country, my heart would go out to it, and at the sight of a foreigner in the streets, I would fall to weaving a network of dreams… the mountains, the glens, and the forests of his distant land, with his cottage in their midst and the free and independent life, or far away wilds. Perhaps scenes of travel are conjured up before me and pass and re-pass in my imagination all the more vividly, because I lead an existence so like a vegetable that a call to travel would fall upon me like a thunder-bolt. In the presence of this Cabuliwallah, I was immediately transported to the foot of arid mountain peaks, with narrow little defiles twisting in and out amongst their towering heights. I could see the string of camels bearing the merchandise, and the company of turbaned merchants, some carrying their queer old firearms, and some their spears, journeying downward towards the plains. I could see…. But at some such point Mini’s mother would intervene, and implore me to “beware of that man.”

Mini’s mother is unfortunately very timid. Whenever she hears a noise in the street, or sees people coming towards the house, she always jumps to the conclusion that they are either thieves, or drunkards, or snakes, or tigers, or malaria, or cockroaches, or caterpillars. Even after all these years of experience, she is not able to overcome her terror. So she was full of doubts about the Cabuliwallah, and used to beg me to keep a watchful eye on him.

If I tried to laugh her fear gently away, she would turn round seriously, and ask me solemn questions:

Were children never kidnapped?

Was it not true that there was slavery in Cabul?

Was it so very absurd that this big man should be able to carry off a tiny child?

I urged that, though not impossible, it was very improbable. But this was not enough, and her dread persisted. But as it was a very vague dread, it did not seem right to forbid the man the house, and the intimacy went on unchecked.

Once a year, in the middle of January, Rahman, the Cabuliwallah, used to return to his own country, and as the time approached, he would be very busy, going from house to house collecting his debts. This year, however, he could always find time to come and see Mini. It might have seemed to a stranger that there was some conspiracy between the two, for when he could not come in the morning, he would appear in the evening.

Even to me it was a little startling now and then suddenly to surprise this tall, loose-garmented man laden with his bags, in the corner of a dark room; but when Mini ran in smiling, with her “O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah” and the two friends, so far apart in age, subsided into their old laughter and their old jokes, I felt reassured.

One morning, a few days before he had made up his mind to go, I was correcting proof-sheets in my study. The weather was chilly. Through the window the rays of the sun touched my feet, and the slight warmth was very welcome. It was nearly eight o’clock, and early pedestrians were returning home with their heads covered. Suddenly I heard an uproar in the street, and looking out saw Rahman being led away bound between two policemen, and behind them a crowd of inquisitive boys. There were blood-stains on his clothes, and one of the policemen carried a knife. I hurried out, and stopping them, inquired what it all meant. Partly from one, partly from another, I gathered that a certain neighbour had owed the peddler something for a Rampuri shawl, but had denied buying it, and that in the course of the quarrel Rahman had struck him. Now, in his excitement, the prisoner began calling his enemy all sorts of names, when suddenly in a verandah of my house appeared my little Mini, with her usual exclamation: “O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!” Rahman’s face lighted up as he turned to her. He had no bag under his arm today, so that she could not talk about the elephant with him. She therefore at once proceeded to the next question: “Are you going to your father-in-law’s house?” Rahman laughed and said: “That is just where I am going, little one!” Then seeing that the reply did not amuse the child, he held up his fettered hands, “Ah!” he said, “I would have thrashed that old father-in-law, but my hands are bound!”

On a charge of murderous assault, Rahman was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.

Time passed, and he was forgotten. Our accustomed work in the accustomed place went on, and the thought of the once free mountaineer spending his years in prison seldom or never occurred to us. Even my light-hearted Mini, I am ashamed to say, forgot her old friend. New companions filled her life. As she grew older, she spent more of her time with girls. So much, indeed, did she spend with them that she came no more, as she used to do, to her father’s room, so that I rarely had any opportunity of speaking to her.

Years had passed away. It was once more autumn, and we had made arrangements for our Mini’s marriage. It was to take place during the Puja Holidays. With Durga returning to Kailas, the light of our home also would depart to her husband’s house, and leave her father’s in shadow.

The morning was bright. After the rains, it seemed as though the air had been washed clean and the rays of the sun looked like pure gold. So bright were they, that they made even the sordid brick-walls of our Calcutta lanes radiant. Since early dawn the wedding-pipes had been sounding, and at each burst of sound my own heart throbbed. The wail of the tune, Bhairavi, seemed to intensify the pain I felt at the approaching separation. My Mini was to be married that night.

From early morning, noise and bustle had pervaded the house. In the courtyard there was the canopy to be slung on its bamboo poles; there were chandeliers with their tinkling sound to be hung in each room and verandah. There was endless hurry and excitement. I was sitting in my study, looking through the accounts, when someone entered, saluting respectfully, and stood before me. It was Rahman, the Cabuliwallah. At first I did not recognise him. He carried no bag, his long hair was cut short and his old vigour seemed to have gone. But he smiled; and I knew him again.

“When did you come, Rahman?” I asked him.

“Last evening,” he said, “I was released from jail.”

The words struck harshly upon my ears. I had never before talked with one who had wounded his fellow-man, and my heart shrank within itself when I realised this; for I felt that the day would have been better-omened had he not appeared.

“There are ceremonies going on,” I said, “and I am busy. Perhaps you could come another day?”

He immediately turned to go; but as he reached the door he hesitated, and said, “May I not see the little one, sir, for a moment?” It was his belief that Mini was still the same. He had pictured her running to him as she used to do, calling. “O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!” He had imagined too that they would laugh and talk together, just as of old. Indeed, in memory of former days, he had brought, carefully wrapped up in paper, a few almonds and raisins and grapes, obtained somehow or other from a countryman; for what little money he had, had gone.

I repeated: “There is a ceremony in the house, and you will not be able to see anyone today.”

The man’s face fell. He looked wistfully at me for a moment, then said, “Good morning,” and went out.

I felt a little sorry, and would have called him back but I found he was returning of his own accord. He came close up to me and held out his offerings with the words: “I have brought these few things, sir, for the little one. Will you give them to her?”

I took them, and was going to pay him, but he caught my hand, and said: “You are very kind, sir! Keep me in your memory. Do not offer me money! You have a little girl. I too have one like her in my own home. I think of her, and bring this fruit to your child not to make a profit for myself.”

Saying this, he put his hand inside his big loose robe, and brought out a small and dirty piece of paper. Unfolding it with great care, he smoothened it out with both hands on my table. It bore the impression of a little hand. Not a photograph. Not a drawing. Merely the impression of an ink-smeared hand laid flat on the paper. This touch of the hand of his own little daughter he had carried always next to his heart, as he had come year after year to Calcutta to sell his wares in the streets.

Tears came to my eyes. I forgot that he was a poor Cabuli fruit-seller, while I was…. But no, what was I more than he? He also was a father.

That impression of the hand of his little Parvati in her distant mountain home reminded me of my own little Mini.

I sent for Mini immediately from the inner apartment. Many difficulties were raised, but I swept them aside. Clad in the red silk of her wedding-day, with sandal paste on her forehead, and adorned as a young bride, Mini came, and stood modestly before me.

The Cabuliwallah seemed amazed at the apparition. He could not revive their old friendship. At last he smiled and said: “Little one, are you going to your father-in-law’s house?”

But Mini now understood the meaning of the word “father-in-law,” and she could not answer him as of old. She blushed at the question, and stood before him with her head bowed down.

I remembered the day when the Cabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahman sighed deeply and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown up, while he had been away so long, and that he would have to make friends anew with her also. Assuredly he would not find her as she was when he left her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded and the mild autumn sunlight streamed round us. But Rahman, standing in our narrow Calcutta lane, saw in his mind’s eye the mountains of Afghanistan.

I took out a hundred rupee note, gave it to him, and said: “Go back to your daughter, Rahman, in your own country, and may the happiness of your meeting bring good fortune to my child!”

Having made this present, I had to curtail some of the festivities. I could not have the electric lights I had intended, nor the military band, and the ladies of the house were despondent about it. But to me the wedding feast was all the brighter for the thought that in a distant land a long-lost father was going to meet again his only child.