Krishna Gopal Sircar, zemindar of Jhikrakota, made over his estates to his eldest son, and retired to Kasi, as befits a good Hindu, to spend the evening of his life in religious devotion. All the poor and the destitute of the neighbourhood were in tears at the parting. Every one declared that such piety and benevolence were rare in these degenerate days.
His son, Bipin Bihari, was a young man well educated after the modern fashion, and had taken the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He sported a pair of spectacles, wore a beard, and seldom mixed with others. His private life was unsullied. He did not smoke, and never touched cards. He was a man of stern disposition, though he looked soft and pliable. This trait of his character soon came home to his tenantry in diverse ways. Unlike his father, he would on no account allow the remission of one single pice out of the rents justly due to him. In no circumstances would he grant any tenant one single day’s grace in paying up.
On taking over the management of the property, Bipin Bihari discovered that his father had allowed a large number of Brahmins to hold land entirely rent-free, and a larger number at rents much below the prevailing rates. His father was incapable of resisting the importunate solicitation of others—such was the weakness of his character.
Bipin Bihari said this could never be. He could not abandon the income of half his property—and he reasoned with himself thus: Firstly, the persons who were in actual enjoyment of the concessions and getting fat at his expense were a lot of worthless people, and wholly undeserving of charity. Charity bestowed on such objects only encouraged idleness. Secondly, living nowadays had become much costlier than in the days of his ancestors. Wants had increased apace. For a gentleman to keep up his position had become four times as expensive as in days past. So he could not afford to scatter gifts right and left as his father had done. On the contrary, it was his bounden duty to call back as many of them as he possibly could.
So Bipin Bihari lost no time in carrying into effect what he conceived to be his duty. He was a man of strict principles.
What had gone out of his grasp, returned to him little by little. Only a very small portion of his father’s grants did he allow to remain undisturbed, and he took good care to arrange that even those should not be deemed permanent.
The wails of the tenants reached Krishna Gopal at Benares through the post. Some even made a journey to that place to represent their grievances to him in person. Krishna Gopal wrote to his son intimating his displeasure. Bipin Bihari replied, pointing out that the times had changed. In former days, he said, the zemindar was compensated for the gifts he made by the many customary presents he received from his tenantry. Recent statutes had made all such impositions illegal. The zemindar had now to rest content with just the stipulated rent, and nothing more. ‘Unless,’ he continued, ‘we keep a strict watch over the payment of our just dues, what will be left to us? Since the tenants won’t give us anything extra now, how can we allow them concessions? Our relations must henceforth be strictly commercial. We shall be ruined if we go on making gifts and endowments, and the preservation of our property and the keeping up of our position will be rendered very difficult.’
Krishna Gopal became uneasy at finding that times should have changed so much. ‘Well, well,’ he murmured to himself, ‘the younger generation knows best, I suppose. Our old-fashioned methods won’t do now. If I interfere, my son might refuse to manage the property, and insist on my going back. No, thank you—I would rather not. I prefer to devote the few days that are left me to the service of my God.’
So things went on. Bipin Bihari put his affairs in order after much litigation in the Courts, and by less constitutional methods outside. Most of the tenants submitted to his will out of fear. Only a fellow called Asimuddin, son of Mirza Bibi, remained refractory.
Bipin’s displeasure was keenest against this man. He could quite understand his father having granted rent-free lands to Brahmins, but why this Mohammedan should be holding so much land, some free and some at rents lower than the prevailing rates, was a riddle to him. And what was he? The son of a low Mohammedan widow, giving himself airs and defying the whole world, simply because he had learnt to read and write a little at the village school. To Bipin it was intolerable.
He made inquiries of his clerks about Asimuddin’s holdings. All that they could tell him was that Babu Krishna Gopal himself had made these grants to the family many years back, but they had no idea as to what his motive might have been. They imagined, however, that perhaps the widow won the compassion of the kind-hearted zemindar, by representing to him her woe and misery.
To Bipin these favours seemed to be utterly undeserved. He had not seen the pitiable condition of these people in days gone by. Their comparative ease at the present day and their arrogance drove him to the conclusion that they had impudently swindled his tender-hearted father out of a part of his lawful income.
Asimuddin was a stiff-necked sort of a fellow, too. He vowed that he would lay down his life sooner than give up an inch of his land. Then came open hostilities.
The poor old widow tried her best to pacify her son. ‘It is no good fighting with the zemindar,’ she would often say to him. ‘His kindness has kept us alive so long; let us depend upon him still, though he may curtail his favours. Surrender to him part of the lands as he desires.’
‘Oh, mother!’ protested Asimuddin. ‘What do you know of these matters, pray?’
One by one, Asimuddin lost the cases instituted against him. The more he lost, the more his obstinacy increased. For the sake of his all, he staked all that was his.
One afternoon, Mirza Bibi collected some fruits and vegetables from her little garden, and unknown to her son went and sought an interview with Bipin Babu. She looked at him with a tenderness maternal in its intensity, and spoke: ‘May Allah bless you, my son. Do not destroy Asim—it wouldn’t be right of you. To your charge I commit him. Take him as though he were one whom it is your duty to support—as though he were a ne’er-do-well younger brother of yours. Vast is your wealth—don’t grudge him a small particle of it, my son.’
This assumption of familiarity on the part of the garrulous old woman annoyed Bipin not a little. ‘What do you know of these things, my good woman?’ he condescended to say. ‘If you have any representations to make, send your son to me.’
Being assured for the second time that she knew nothing about these affairs, Mirza Bibi returned home, wiping her eyes with her apron all the way, and offering her silent prayers to Allah.
The litigation dragged its weary length from the Criminal to the Civil Courts, and thence to the High Court, where at last Asimuddin met with a partial success. Eighteen months passed in this way. But he was a ruined man now—plunged in debts up to his very ears. His creditors took this opportunity to execute the decrees they had obtained against him. A date was fixed for putting up to auction every stick and stone that he had left.
It was Monday. The village market had assembled by the side of a tiny river, now swollen by the rains. Buying and selling were going on, partly on the bank and partly in the boats moored there. The hubbub was great. Among the commodities for sale jack-fruits preponderated, it being the month of Asadh. Hilsa fish were seen in large quantities also. The sky was cloudy. Many of the stall-holders, apprehending a downpour, had stretched a piece of cloth overhead, across bamboo poles put up for the purpose.
Asimuddin had come too—but he had not a copper with him. No shopkeepers allowed him credit nowadays. He therefore had brought a brass thali and a dao with him. These he would pawn, and then buy what he needed.
Towards evening, Bipin Babu was out for a walk attended by two or three retainers armed with lathis. Attracted by the noise, he directed his steps towards the market. On his arrival, he stopped awhile before the stall of Dwari, the oilman, and made kindly inquiries about his business. All on a sudden, Asimuddin raised his dao and ran towards Bipin Babu, roaring like a tiger. The market people caught hold of him half-way, and quickly disarmed him. He was forthwith given in custody to the police. Business in the market then went on as usual.
We cannot say that Bipin Babu was not inwardly pleased at this incident. It is intolerable that the creature we are hunting down should turn and show fight. ‘The badmash,’ Bipin chuckled; ‘I have got him at last.’
The ladies of Bipin Babu’s house, when they heard the news, exclaimed with horror: ‘Oh, the ruffian! What a mercy they seized him in time!’ They found consolation in the prospect of the man being punished as he richly deserved.
In another part of the village the same evening the widow’s humble cottage, devoid of bread and bereft of her son, became darker than death. Others dismissed the incident of the afternoon from their minds, sat down to their meals, retired to bed and went to sleep, but to the widow the event loomed larger than anything else in this wide world. But, alas, who was there to combat it? Only a bundle of wearied bones and a helpless mother’s heart trembling with fear.
Three days have passed in the meanwhile. To-morrow the case would come up for trial before a Deputy Magistrate. Bipin Babu would have to be examined as a witness. Never before this did a zemindar of Jhikrakota appear in the witness-box, but Bipin did not mind.
The next day at the appointed hour, Bipin Babu arrived at the Court in a palanquin in great state. He wore a turban on his head, and a watch-chain dangled on his breast. The Deputy Magistrate invited him to a seat on the daïs, beside his own. The Court-room was crowded to suffocation. So great a sensation had not been witnessed in this Court for many years.
When the time for the case to be called drew near, a chaprassi came and whispered something in Bipin Babu’s ear. He got up very agitated and walked out, begging the Deputy Magistrate to excuse him for a few minutes.
Outside he saw his old father a little way off, standing under a banian tree, barefooted and wrapped in a piece of namabali. A string of beads was in his hand. His slender form shone with a gentle lustre, and tranquil compassion seemed to radiate from his forehead.
Bipin, hampered by his close-fitting trousers and his flowing chapkan, touched his father’s feet with his forehead. As he did this his turban came off and kissed his nose, and his watch, popping out of his pocket, swung to and fro in the air. Bipin hurriedly straightened his turban, and begged his father to come to his pleader’s house close by.
‘No, thank you,’ Krishna Gopal replied, ‘I will tell you here what I have got to say.’
A curious crowd had gathered by this time. Bipin’s attendants pushed them back.
Then Krishna Gopal said: ‘You must do what you can to get Asim acquitted, and restore him the lands that you have taken away from him.’
‘Is it for this, father,’ said Bipin, very much surprised, ‘that you have come all the way from Benares? Would you tell me why you have made these people the objects of your special favour?’
‘What would you gain by knowing it, my boy?’
But Bipin persisted. ‘It is only this, father,’ he went on; ‘I have revoked many a grant because I thought the tenants were not deserving. There were many Brahmins among them, but of them you never said a word. Why are you so keen about these Mohammedans now? After all that has happened, if I drop this case against Asim, and give him back his lands, what shall I say to people?’
Krishna Gopal kept silence for some moments. Then, passing the beads through his shaky fingers with rapidity, he spoke with a tremulous voice: ‘Should it be necessary to explain your conduct to people, you may tell them that Asimuddin is my son—and your brother.’
‘What?’ exclaimed Bipin in painful surprise. ‘From a Musalman’s womb?’
‘Even so, my son,’ was the calm reply.
Bipin stood there for some time in mute astonishment. Then he found words to say: ‘Come home, father; we will talk about it afterwards.’
‘No, my son,’ replied the old man, ‘having once relinquished the world to serve my God, I cannot go home again. I return hence. Now I leave you to do what your sense of duty may suggest.’ He then blessed his son, and, checking his tears with difficulty, walked off with tottering steps.
Bipin was dumbfounded, not knowing what to say nor what to do. ‘So, such was the piety of the older generation,’ he said to himself. He reflected with pride how much better he was than his father in point of education and morality. This was the result, he concluded, of not having a principle to guide one’s actions.
Returning to the Court, he saw Asimuddin outside between two constables, awaiting his trial. He looked emaciated and worn out. His lips were pale and dry, and his eyes unnaturally bright. A dirty piece of cloth worn to shreds covered him. ‘This my brother!’ Bipin shuddered at the thought.
The Deputy Magistrate and Bipin were friends, and the case ended in a fiasco. In a few days Asimuddin was restored to his former condition. Why all this happened, he could not understand. The village people were greatly surprised also.
However, the news of Krishna Gopal’s arrival just before the trial soon got abroad. People began to exchange meaning glances. The pleaders in their shrewdness guessed the whole affair. One of them, Ram Taran Babu, was beholden to Krishna Gopal for his education and his start in life. Somehow or other he had always suspected that the virtue and piety of his benefactor were shams. Now he was fully convinced that, if a searching inquiry were made, all ‘pious’ men might be found out. ‘Let them tell their beads as much as they like,’ he thought with glee, ‘everybody in this world is just as bad as myself. The only difference between a good and a bad man is that the good practise dissimulation while the bad don’t.’ The revelation that Krishna Gopal’s far-famed piety, benevolence, and magnanimity were nothing but a cloak of hypocrisy, settled a difficulty that had oppressed Ram Taran Babu for many years. By what process of reasoning, we do not know, the burden of gratitude was greatly lifted off his mind. It was a vast relief to him!