Brindaban Kundu came to his father in a rage and said: ‘I am off this moment.’
‘Ungrateful wretch!’ sneered the father, Jaganath Kundu. ‘When you have paid me back all that I have spent on your food and clothing, it will be time enough to give yourself these airs.’
Such food and clothing as was customary in Jaganath’s household could not have cost very much. Our rishis of old managed to feed and clothe themselves on an incredibly small outlay. Jaganath’s behaviour showed that his ideal in these respects was equally high. That he could not fully live up to it was due partly to the bad influence of the degenerate society around him, and partly to certain unreasonable demands of Nature in her attempt to keep body and soul together.
So long as Brindaban was single, things went smoothly enough, but after his marriage he began to depart from the high and rarefied standard cherished by his sire. It was clear that the son’s ideas of comfort were moving away from the spiritual to the material, and imitating the ways of the world. He was unwilling to put up with the discomforts of heat and cold, thirst and hunger. His minimum of food and clothing rose apace.
Frequent were the quarrels between the father and the son. At last Brindaban’s wife became seriously ill and a kabiraj was called in. But when the doctor prescribed a costly medicine for his patient, Jaganath took it as a proof of sheer incompetence, and turned him out immediately. At first Brindaban besought his father to allow the treatment to continue; then he quarrelled with him about it, but to no purpose. When his wife died, he abused his father and called him a murderer.
‘Nonsense!’ said the father. ‘Don’t people die even after swallowing all kinds of drugs? If costly medicines could save life, how is it that kings and emperors are not immortal? You don’t expect your wife to die with more pomp and ceremony than did your mother and your grandmother before her, do you?’
Brindaban might really have derived a great consolation from these words, had he not been overwhelmed with grief and incapable of proper thinking. Neither his mother nor his grandmother had taken any medicine before making their exit from this world, and this was the time-honoured custom of the family. But, alas, the younger generation was unwilling to die according to ancient custom. The English had newly come to the country at the time we speak of. Even in those remote days, the good old folks were horrified at the unorthodox ways of the new generation, and sat speechless, trying to draw comfort from their hookas.
Be that as it may, the modern Brindaban said to his old fogy of a father: ‘I am off.’
The father instantly agreed, and wished publicly that, should he ever give his son one single pice in future, the gods might reckon his act as shedding the holy blood of cows. Brindaban in his turn similarly wished that, should he ever accept anything from his father, his act might be held as bad as matricide.
The people of the village looked upon this small revolution as a great relief after a long period of monotony. And when Jaganath disinherited his only son, every one did his best to console him. All were unanimous in the opinion that to quarrel with a father for the sake of a wife was possible only in these degenerate days. And the reason they gave was sound too. ‘When your wife dies,’ they said, ‘you can find a second one without delay. But when your father dies, you can’t get another to replace him for love or money.’ Their logic no doubt was perfect, but we suspect that the utter hopelessness of getting another father did not trouble the misguided son very much. On the contrary, he looked upon it as a mercy.
Nor did separation from Brindaban weigh heavily on the mind of his father. In the first place, his absence from home reduced the household expenses. Then, again, the father was freed from a great anxiety. The fear of being poisoned by his son and heir had always haunted him. When he ate his scanty fare, he could never banish the thought of poison from his mind. This fear had abated somewhat after the death of his daughter-in-law, and, now that the son was gone, it disappeared altogether.
But there was one tender spot in the old man’s heart. Brindaban had taken away with him his four-year-old son, Gokul Chandra. Now, the expense of keeping the child was comparatively small, and so Jaganath’s affection for him was without a drawback. Still, when Brindaban took him away, his grief, sincere as it was, was mingled at first with calculation as to how much he would save a month by the absence of the two, how much the sum would come to in the year, and what would be the capital to bring it in as interest.
But the empty house, without Gokul Chandra in it to make mischief, became more and more difficult for the old man to live in. There was no one now to play tricks upon him when he was engaged in his puja, no one to snatch away his food and eat it, no one to run away with his inkpot, when he was writing up his accounts. His daily routine of life, now uninterrupted, became an intolerable burden to him. He bethought him that this unworried peace was endurable only in the world to come. When he caught sight of the holes made in his quilt by his grandchild, and the pen-and-ink sketches executed by the same artist on his rush-mat, his heart was heavy with grief. Once upon a time he had reproached the boy bitterly because he had torn his dhoti into pieces within the short space of two years; now tears stood in Jaganath’s eyes as he gazed upon the dirty remnants lying in the bedroom. He carefully put them away in his safe, and registered a vow that, should Gokul ever come back again, he should not be reprimanded even if he destroyed one dhoti a year.
But Gokul did not return, and poor Jaganath aged rapidly. His empty home seemed emptier every day.
No longer could the old man stay peacefully at home. Even in the middle of the day, when all respectable folks in the village enjoyed their after-dinner siesta, Jaganath might be seen roaming over the village, hooka in hand. The boys, at sight of him, would give up their play, and, retiring in a body to a safe distance, chant verses composed by a local poet, praising the old gentleman’s economical habits. No one ventured to say his real name, lest he should have to go without his meal that day—and so people gave him names after their own fancy. Elderly people called him Jaganash, but the reason why the younger generation preferred to call him a vampire was hard to guess. It may be that the bloodless, dried-up skin of the old man had some physical resemblance to the vampire’s.
One afternoon, when Jaganath was rambling as usual through the village lanes shaded by mango topes, he saw a boy, apparently a stranger, assuming the captaincy of the village boys and explaining to them the scheme of some new prank. Won by the force of his character and the startling novelty of his ideas, the boys had all sworn allegiance to him. Unlike the others, he did not run away from the old man as he approached, but came quite close to him and began to shake his own chadar. The result was that a live lizard sprang out of it on to the old man’s body, ran down his back and off towards the jungle. Sudden fright made the poor man shiver from head to foot, to the great amusement of the other boys, who shouted with glee. Before Jaganath had gone far, cursing and swearing, the gamcha on his shoulder suddenly disappeared, and the next moment it was seen on the head of the new boy, transformed into a turban.
The novel attentions of this manikin came as a great relief to Jaganath. It was long since any boy had taken such freedom with him. After a good deal of coaxing and many fair promises, he at last persuaded the boy to come to him, and this was the conversation which followed:
‘What’s your name, my boy?’
‘Where’s your home?’
‘Who’s your father?’
‘Why won’t you?’
‘Because I have run away from home.’
‘What made you do it?’
‘My father wanted to send me to school.’
It occurred to Jaganath that it would be useless extravagance to send such a boy to school, and his father must have been an unpractical fool not to have thought so.
‘Well, well,’ said Jaganath, ‘how would you like to come and stay with me?’
‘Don’t mind,’ said the boy, and forthwith he installed himself in Jaganath’s house. He felt as little hesitation as though it were the shadow of a tree by the wayside. And not only that. He began to proclaim his wishes as regards his food and clothing with such coolness that you would have thought he had paid his reckoning in full beforehand; and, when anything went wrong, he did not scruple to quarrel with the old man. It had been easy enough for Jaganath to get the better of his own child; but, now, where another man’s child was concerned, he had to acknowledge defeat.
The people of the village marvelled when Nitai Pal was unexpectedly made so much of by Jaganath. They felt sure that the old man’s end was near, and the prospect of his bequeathing all his property to this unknown brat made their hearts sore. Furious with envy, they determined to do the boy an injury, but the old man took care of him as though he was a rib in his breast.
At times, the boy threatened that he would go away, and the old man used to say to him temptingly: ‘I will leave you all the property I possess.’ Young as he was, the boy fully understood the grandeur of this promise.
The village people then began to make inquiries after the father of the boy. Their hearts melted with compassion for the agonised parents, and they declared that the son must be a rascal to cause them so much suffering. They heaped abuses on his head, but the heat with which they did it betrayed envy rather than a sense of justice.
One day the old man learned from a wayfarer that one Damodar Pal was seeking his lost son, and was even now coming towards the village. Nitai, when he heard this, became very restless and was ready to run away, leaving his future wealth to take care of itself. Jaganath reassured him, saying: ‘I mean to hide you where nobody can find you—not even the village people themselves.’
This whetted the curiosity of the boy and he said: ‘Oh, where? Do show me.’
‘People will know, if I show you now. Wait till it is night,’ said Jaganath.
The hope of discovering the mysterious hiding-place delighted Nitai. He planned to himself how, as soon as his father had gone away without him, he would have a bet with his comrades, and play hide-and-seek. Nobody would be able to find him. Wouldn’t it be fun? His father, too, would ransack the whole village, and not find him—that would be rare fun also.
At noon, Jaganath shut the boy up in his house, and disappeared for some time. When he came home again, Nitai worried him with questions.
No sooner was it dark than Nitai said: ‘Grandfather, shall we go now?’
‘It isn’t night yet,’ replied Jaganath.
A little while later the boy exclaimed: ‘It is night now, grandfather; come let’s go.’
‘The village people haven’t gone to bed yet,’ whispered Jaganath.
Nitai waited but a moment, and said: ‘They have gone to bed now, grandfather; I am sure they have. Let’s start now.’
The night advanced. Sleep began to weigh heavily on the eyelids of the poor boy, and it was a hard struggle for him to keep awake. At midnight, Jaganath caught hold of the boy’s arm, and left the house, groping through the dark lanes of the sleeping village. Not a sound disturbed the stillness, except the occasional howl of a dog, when all the other dogs far and near would join in chorus, or perhaps the flapping of a night-bird, scared by the sound of human footsteps at that unusual hour. Nitai trembled with fear, and held Jaganath fast by the arm.
Across many a field they went, and at last came to a jungle, where stood a dilapidated temple without a god in it. ‘What, here!’ exclaimed Nitai in a tone of disappointment. It was nothing like what he had imagined. There was not much mystery about it. Often, since running away from home, he had passed nights in deserted temples like this. It was not a bad place for playing hide-and-seek; still it was quite possible that his comrades might track him there.
From the middle of the floor inside, Jaganath removed a slab of stone, and an underground room with a lamp burning in it was revealed to the astonished eyes of the boy. Fear and curiosity assailed his little heart. Jaganath descended by a ladder and Nitai followed him.
Looking around, the boy saw that there were brass ghurras on all sides of him. In the middle lay spread an assan, and in front of it were arranged vermilion, sandal paste, flowers, and other articles of puja. To satisfy his curiosity the boy dipped his hand into some of the ghurras, and drew out their contents. They were rupees and gold mohurs.
Jaganath, addressing the boy, said: ‘I told you, Nitai, that I would give you all my money. I have not got much,—these ghurras are all that I possess. These I will make over to you to-day.’
The boy jumped with delight. ‘All?’ he exclaimed; ‘you won’t take back a rupee, will you?’
‘If I do,’ said the old man in solemn tones, ‘may my hand be attacked with leprosy. But there is one condition. If ever my grandson, Gokul Chandra, or his son, or his grandson, or his great-grandson or any of his progeny should happen to pass this way, then you must make over to him, or to them, every rupee and every mohur here.’
The boy thought that the old man was raving. ‘Very well,’ he replied.
‘Then sit on this assan,’ said Jaganath.
‘Because puja will be done to you.’
‘But why?’ said the boy, taken aback.
‘This is the rule.’
The boy squatted on the assan as he was told. Jaganath smeared his forehead with sandal paste, put a mark of vermilion between his eyebrows, flung a garland of flowers round his neck, and began to recite mantras.
To sit there like a god, and hear mantras recited made poor Nitai feel very uneasy. ‘Grandfather,’ he whispered.
But Jaganath did not reply, and went on muttering his incantations.
Finally, with great difficulty he dragged each ghurra before the boy and made him repeat the following vow after him:
‘I do solemnly promise that I will make over all this treasure to Gokul Chandra Kundu, the son of Brindaban Kundu, the grandson of Jaganath Kundu, or to the son or to the grandson or to the great-grandson of the said Gokul Chandra Kundu, or to any other progeny of his who may be the rightful heir.’
The boy repeated this over and over again, until he felt stupefied, and his tongue began to grow stiff in his mouth. When the ceremony was over, the air of the cave was laden with the smoke of the earthen lamp and the breath-poison of the two. The boy felt that the roof of his mouth had become dry as dust, and his hands and feet were burning. He was nearly suffocated.
The lamp became dimmer and dimmer, and then went out altogether. In the total darkness that followed, Nitai could hear the old man climbing up the ladder. ‘Grandfather, where are you going to?’ said he, greatly distressed.
‘I am going now,’ replied Jaganath; ‘you remain here. No one will be able to find you. Remember the name Gokul Chandra, the son of Brindaban, and the grandson of Jaganath.’
He then withdrew the ladder. In a stifled, agonised voice the boy implored: ‘I want to go back to father.’
Jaganath replaced the slab. He then knelt down and placed his ear on the stone. Nitai’s voice was heard once more—‘Father’—and then came a sound of some heavy object falling with a bump—and then—everything was still.
Having thus placed his wealth in the hands of a yak, Jaganath began to cover up the stone with earth. Then he piled broken bricks and loose mortar over it. On the top of all he planted turfs of grass and jungle weeds. The night was almost spent, but he could not tear himself away from the spot. Now and again he placed his ear to the ground, and tried to listen. It seemed to him that from far far below—from the abysmal depth of the earth’s interior—came a wailing. It seemed to him that the night-sky was flooded with that one sound, that the sleeping humanity of all the world was awake, and was sitting on its beds, trying to listen.
The old man in his frenzy kept on heaping earth higher and higher. He wanted somehow to stifle that sound, but still he fancied he could hear ‘Father.’
He struck the spot with all his might and said: ‘Be quiet—people might hear you.’ But still he imagined he heard ‘Father.’
The sun lighted up the eastern horizon. Jaganath then left the temple, and came into the open fields.
There, too, somebody called out ‘Father.’ Startled at the sound, he turned back and saw his son at his heels.
‘Father,’ said Brindaban, ‘I hear my boy is hiding himself in your house. I must have him back.’
With eyes dilated and distorted mouth, the old man leaned forward and exclaimed: ‘Your boy?’
‘Yes, my boy Gokul. He is Nitai Pal now, and I myself go by the name of Damodar Pal. Your fame has spread so widely in the neighbourhood, that we were obliged to cover up our origin, lest people should have refused to pronounce our names.’
Slowly the old man lifted both his arms above his head. His fingers began to twitch convulsively, as though he was trying to catch hold of some imaginary object in the air. He then fell on the ground.
When he came to his senses again, he dragged his son towards the ruined temple. When they were both inside it, he said: ‘Do you hear any wailing sound?’
‘No, I don’t,’ said Brindaban.
‘Just listen very carefully. Do you hear anybody calling out “Father”?’
This seemed to relieve him greatly.
From that day forward, he used to go about asking people: ‘Do you hear any wailing sound?’ They laughed at the raving dotard.
About four years later, Jaganath lay on his death-bed. When the light of this world was gradually fading away from his eyes, and his breathing became more and more difficult, he suddenly sat up in a state of delirium. Throwing both his hands in the air he seemed to grope about for something, muttering: ‘Nitai, who has removed my ladder?’
Unable to find the ladder to climb out of his terrible dungeon, where there was no light to see and no air to breathe, he fell on his bed once more, and disappeared into that region where no one has ever been found out in the world’s eternal game of hide-and-seek.