I arrived at Calcutta from my village and enrolled in a college. Sachish was studying BA. We must have been the same age.
Sachish looks like a luminary – his eyes are afire; his long thin fingers look like flames; his skin colour seems more like a glow. As soon as I saw Sachish, it was as if I saw his very soul; hence I loved him in a moment.
Strangely, however, many of Sachish’s classmates resented him terribly. Those who resemble the majority do not, without a reason, get embroiled in disputes with the majority. But when the radiant true Being inside a man rends apart the physicality and becomes visible, then some, for no reason, worship him with all their might, and some others, for no reason, insult him with all their might.
The boys at my mess had understood that in my mind, I revered Sachish. It always seemed to disturb their peace. Not a day went by without their speaking ill of him within my earshot. I knew that if a grain of sand falls in the eye, rubbing only irritates it further; where the words are coarse they are better left unanswered. But one day, such nasty rumours about Sachish’s character appeared that I could remain quiet no longer.
My problem was that I did not know Sachish. The others were either his neighbours or some kind of relative. With much force, they declared, “It’s the pure truth”. With even greater force, I said, “I don’t believe any of it.” Then everyone at the mess rolled up his sleeves and exclaimed, “What a rude man you are!”
That night, lying in my bed, I felt like crying. The next day, in a break between classes, while Sachish half-lay on the grass in the shade of Goldighi, reading a book, I blurted out to him – without any introduction – I know not what nonsense. Sachish closed the book and stared at my face for a few minutes. Those who have not seen his eyes cannot understand what that look is.
Sachish said, “Those who speak ill do so because they love slander, not because they love the truth. If that is the case, then what is the point in fretting to disprove them?”
I said, “Still, see, the liar – ”
Sachish interrupted, “But they are not liars. In our neighbourhood, the son of an oilman has palsy. His limbs tremble; he cannot work. One winter day, I gave him a costly rug. That day, my servant Shibu came to me, fuming, and said, ‘Babu, those shivers and trembles of that fellow are all an act!’ Those who dismiss the possibility of anything good in me are like that Shibu. They really believe what they say. An extra and expensive rug fell into my lot; all the Shibus in the country have decided definitely that I don’t have a right to it. I feel ashamed to quarrel with them.”
Without answering him, I said, “They say you are an atheist. Is that true?”
Sachish said, “Yes, I am an atheist.”
I hung my head. I had protested at the mess that Sachish could never be an atheist.
In the very beginning, I have received two great blows regarding Sachish. The moment I saw him, I had assumed that he was the son of a Brahmin. His face seems to be chiselled on white stone like a divine idol. I had heard that his surname is Mallik; there is an aristocratic Brahmin family in our village who are called Mallik. But I learnt that Sachish is gold-merchant by caste. We are a family of dedicated Kayasthas – as a caste, we hate gold-merchants with all our heart. As for atheists, I had known them to be greater sinners than murderers – nay, even worse than beef-eaters.
I stared at Sachish’s face without saying a word. Even then I saw that light in his face, as if a lamp of worship was burning in his heart.
Nobody would have thought that I would eat with a gold-merchant in this life or any other, and that in atheism, my staunchness would surpass that of my teacher. All of it I was fated to experience eventually.
Wilkins was our English professor at the college. He was as learned as he was scornful of the students. In his opinion, teaching literature to Bengali boys in a native college was equivalent to the wage-labour of teaching. That is why, even in a Milton-Shakespeare class, he would give us the synonym for cat: a quadruped of feline species. But Sachish was excused from taking notes. He used to say, “Sachish, I shall make it up to you for having to sit in this class. Come to my house; you shall be able to taste something better.”
The students said angrily that the British professor liked Sachish so much because the latter was so fair-skinned, and because he showed off his atheism to impress the professor. A few of the clever ones had gone to Wilkins to ostentatiously borrow books on positivism. Wilkins had said, “You won’t understand it.” That they were not even worthy of discussing atheism had only aggravated their grievance against atheism and against Sachish.
An excerpt from Play of Four by Rabindranath Tagore.