One Night: Rabindranath Tagore
I went to school with Shurobala, played husband-and-wife with her many a time. Whenever I visited her at home her mother took special care of me, and, pairing us together, said to herself, how well they’re matched.
Young though I was, I understood. I developed an ingrained belief that I had some special rights over Shurobala compared to everyone else. Intoxicated with that power, I didn’t hold back from exercising my authority and inflicting myself on her. On her part, she uncomplainingly obeyed me and bore my punishments. She was reputed for her beauty – but to the philistine boy there was no glory in that beauty – all I knew was that Shurobala had been born for the precise purpose of acknowledging me as her master, and hence was the object of special callousness on my part.
My father was the secretary to the zamindar, Mr Chowdhury. His ambition for me was to be trained in managing landowners’ businesses and build a career in that direction But I was opposed to the idea. Just like Nilratan from our neighbourhood, who had run away to Kolkata to get an education and become an aide to the Collector, I too harboured a similarly high aspiration – even if I couldn’t become an aide to the Collector, I was determined to at least be a judge’s head clerk.
I’d always seen my father being specially respectful to these abovementioned judicial professionals – from childhood I had learnt that one had to worship them with supplies of fish or vegetables or money, which was why even the low officials of the court – why, even the guard – held a special place in my heart. These were our gods in Bengal – small, new editions of the pantheon of 3 billion gods and goddesses. When it came to material gains, people had far deeper faith in them than in the god Ganesh – as a result, they were now the beneficiaries of all that used to go to Ganesh in the past.
Inspired by Nilratan’s example, I too seized an opportunity to run away to Kolkata. Initially I lived with someone we had known back in the village, subsequently my father also contributed to my education, and my studies progressed suitably.
I used to participate in meetings too. I had no doubt that it was absolutely essential to sacrifice your life for the nation. But I did not know how the abovementioned difficult act could be accomplished, nor were there any examples.
But that did not dampen my enthusiasm. Being village lads, we had not learnt to poke fun at everything the way the precocious Kolkata boys did, so our commitment was stronger. Important people would make speeches at our meetings, while we abandoned our meals to scour the roads with our subscription books, going door to door begging for money, distributing pamphlets on the street, arranging benches at the meetings, ready for a fight if anyone were to say the slightest adverse things about our leaders. Observing these symptoms, the city boys referred to us as country bumpkins.
I had come to be a clerk, but I prepared to become a Mazzini or a Garibaldi.
At this point my father and Shurobala’s father took the initiative to arrange her marriage with me.
I had run away to Kolkata when I was fifteen, Shurobala was eight; I was now eighteen. In my father’s opinion I would soon be past marriageable age. But I had pledged to myself not to get married ever, but to die for my motherland – I informed my father I would not get married without completing my education.
In a couple of months I heard that Shurobala had got married to Ramlochan the advocate. Busy raising funds for my fallen country, the news seemed trite.
I had passed my Entrance examinations and was about to take the first Arts examination when my father passed away. I wasn’t the only one in the family, there were my mother and two sisters. Hence I had to give up on college and return home in search of employment. After a great deal of effort, I secured a job as second master in an Entrance school in Noakhali district.
I decided that I had found a suitable vocation. I would use my advice and encouragement to turn my students into troop-leaders for the India that was to come.
I started work – only to discover that the compulsions of the coming examinations were far stronger than those of the India of the future. The headmaster would get angry if I spoke to the students about anything beyond grammar and algebra. Within a month or two, my passion waned too.
Untalented people like us dream up many plans, but when we eventually get to work we find ourselves satisfied playing the beast of burden, toiling patiently every day with our heads down, having our tails twisted when needed, happy to chew on our once-a-day evening fodder; we have no energy left for any other activity.
Because of the fear of fire, one teacher or another had to live on the school premises. Since I was by myself, the responsibility had fallen upon me. I used to live in a hut adjacent to the large one in which the school was housed.
The school building was at a little distance from the village. It was situated beside a large lake. There were different kinds of trees all around, and practically next to the school building, a pair of enormous neem trees provided ample shade.
What I have not mentioned, and it did not seem worth mentioning, was that the government advocate Ramlochan Roy lived close to our school. And I knew that living with him was his wife – my childhood companion Shurobala.
I was introduced to Ramlochan-babu. I had no idea whether he knew of my childhood connection to Shurobala, on my part I did think it appropriate to mention it as part of the introduction. Nor did it strike me that Shurobala had in any way been part of my life once.
It was a holiday, and I was visiting Ramlochan-babu at home. I do not recollect what we were discussing, possibly the plight of India at present. It wasn’t as though he was particularly worried or despondent about it, but it was the kind of subject you could spend an hour or two on, expressing casual concern continuously over a smoke.
Suddenly I heard the soft sounds of tinkling bangles, rustling clothes and footsteps in the next room. I realised that a pair of curious eyes were observing me through a window.
I immediately recollected her eyes – a pair of large eyes brimming over with trust, simplicity and childlike love, black pupils, dark eyelashes, radiant glances. Suddenly someone seemed to squeeze my heart in an iron fist and my insides ached severely.
I returned home, but the ache persisted. No amount of reading or writing could lighten the load; my heart suddenly assumed the proportions of an enormous burden that clung to my veins.
Calming myself down by the evening, I began to ponder why I felt this way. The answer came from within: where is your Shurobala now?
I replied, I let her go voluntarily. Why should she wait for me forever?
Someone said within, once she could have been yours whenever you wanted, but now not even your most desperate plea will give you the right to steal a glance. No matter how near your Shurobala lives, how often you can hear the tinkling of her bangles, or sense the fragrance of her washing her hair, there will always be a permanent wall between you.
I said, let there be a wall, Shurobala isn’t mine.
The answer I heard was, today Shurobala isn’t yours, but Shurobala could have been, oh so easily.
That’s true. She could have been. She could have been the one most intimate, the closest, the one who shared my joys and sorrows – but today she was so distant, so out of reach, I was not allowed to see her, talking to her was wrong, thinking of her was a sin. And suddenly this Ramlochan had arrived from nowhere; muttering a few ritualistic incantations he had snatched her away from everyone else in a moment.
I was not here to propound new philosophies, to tear society apart, to break all bonds. I was merely expressing the real state of my mind. Did every thought that occurred to one necessarily have to be reasonable? I simply could not get rid of the notion that the Shurobala who occupied Ramlochan’s home was more mine than his. I admit such a notion is inconsistent and incorrect, but not unnatural.
I could no longer concentrate on anything. In the afternoon, while the students buzzed, the heat baked everything outside, the warm breeze bore the fragrance of flowers from the trees, I would long for – I don’t know what I would long for – all I can say is that I did not feel like spending my life correcting the grammatical errors of all these young hopefuls of India.
When the holidays started, I could not bear to be alone in my enormous room, but if someone paid a visit that seemed unendurable too. Listening to the meaningless murmur of the trees beside the lake in the evening, human society seemed to me a web of complex errors. No one remembered to do the right thing at the right time, afterwards, the wrong desire at the wrong time killed them with longing.
You could have been happy all your life as Shurobala’s husband, but no, you went off to become Garibaldi and ended up becoming a second master at a rural school. And Ramlochan Roy was a lawyer, he had no particular need to be Shurobala’s husband; up to the moment of his marriage, Shurobala was no different from Bhabashankari for him, and here he was, having got married without a thought, now happily earning a salary as a government lawyer – when the milk got burnt he rebuked her, the day he felt cheerful he bought her jewellery. Plump, well-dressed, devoid of dissatisfaction, never spent his evenings by the lake, gazing at the stars and bemoaning his fate.
Ramlochan was traveling somewhere for some important litigation. Just like I was alone in my hut, so too must Shurobala been alone in hers.
It was Monday, I remember. The sky was overcast since morning. At ten in the morning it started drizzling. The weather forced the headmaster to close school early. Fragments of black clouds seemed to be parading up and down the sky in preparation for some gigantic event. The next afternoon, the torrential rain began, accompanied by thunderstorms. As night progressed, so did the intensity of the rain and of the storm. The wind had started from the east, it gradually shifted to the north and north-east.
It was pointless trying to sleep on such a night. I remembered that Shurobala was alone at home on this cataclysmic night. Our school building was far stronger than her hut. A hundred times I thought of fetching her here and spending the night myself by the lake. But I simply could not make up my mind.
When it was one or one-thirty at night, the flood could be heard. The sea was thundering in. I left my home and went towards Shurobala’s. The lake was on the way, even before I could get there, I was knee-deep in water. By the time I got as far as the lake, a second giant wave had arrived. The embankment by the lake was some twenty feet high.
As I clambered up on it, so did someone else from the other side. My soul, my entire body from tip to toe, knew who it was. And I had no doubt that she knew who I was, too.
Everything else was submerged, just the two of us living creatures stood on the five or six-feet high island that was left.
It was a night of apocalypse, there were no stars in the sky, all lights on earth had been extinguished – no taboo would have been breached in saying a wrod, but not a word could be said. Neither of us even asked after the other.
Both of us only stared at the darkness. Beneath out feet, the jet black furious stream of death roared along its way.
That night, Shurobala abandoned the entire world to stand by my side. She had no one but me. Way back when, when we were children, Shurobala had emerged from some other life, from the darkness of some ancient mystery, to be by my side on this well-populated planet, illuminated by the sun and the moon. And after so many years, she had left the well-lit world teeming with people, in this fearful desolate apocalyptic blackness, to be my side again, alone. The current of life had borne the virgin bud to me, now the current of death had once more borne the fully-bloomed flower to me – just one more wave could separate us from this extremity of the earth, pluck us from the stem, and make us one.
May that wave never come. May Shurobala live happily with her husband, family and people. I had tasted eternal bliss from this one night spent on the banks of the apocalypse.
The night drew to an end – the storm stopped, the flood ebbed – Shurobala went home without saying a word, so did I.
I reflected that I had become neither aide, not clerk, not Garibaldi – I was the second master of a broken down school, only for a fleeting moment in my life had an eternal night emerged – of all the days and nights in my lifespan, this one night was the only source of ultimate triumph in my insignificant existence.
(Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha.)