An Excerpt

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.


A Tale from the Backyard

I have tried to understand why the idea of felling the trees in our garden sounds so catastrophic to me. A mix of a number of reasons suggests itself. The four main, large trees that stand there today seem to have been always there, ever since I can remember. It’s not that I have taken any special care of them, for I have never taken any care of them at all. But that is what gets to me: the fact that we have never done anything for them, except perhaps planting the seeds, half in earnest, and then they grew up, tall and strong and majestic and beautiful, all on their own. People have stolen their fruits, bent and broken their branches, threw litter at them, but they have never spoken a word. Once, half of a tree crashed down; turned out it had been infested with pests. We thought it wouldn’t survive. After some very basic treatment, it recovered and went on to give hundreds of delicious fruits for which we earned thanks.

The one at the south-east corner of our garden was out-of-reach tall and awe-inspiringly strong. Some months ago I noticed fibre-like things protruding out of its trunk. It looked diseased. I may or may not have reported it. Either way, we did nothing to help it. Neither did we realise the implications of some people burning dry leaves at its foot, so that its mighty trunk became charred black. And then one day, I happened to look up at its foliage and there was no foliage left.

It was peak summer, but every single leaf on its many branches, those that were still sticking to the arms, that is, were dried brown. Beside the other three in full bloom, the sight was not only unexpected but unnatural—uncanny and ominous.

A confused drama and blame-game followed. Everyone thought everyone else had misunderstood or was misunderstanding. I, I think, behaved inexcusably with my parents for letting this happen. Because it is always easier to transfer the responsibility. Then I decided to at least try to do something. I tend to be drawn to lost causes.

The trunk was charred five to six feet from the ground up. Around the foot of the tree was cinder and dry, grey sand-like soil. I scraped away the ash-like dirt from the foot. Then I started watering the dead tree.  My idea, I suppose, was more to apologise to the tree than anything else.

A friend is tenant to the vice-principal of an agricultural university—a very amiable gentleman. I sought his advice through the friend. There was the possibility, after all, that the tree had died because of that undiagnosed disease or both because of that and the fire. I could not ignore a fantastic hope either, that the fire had actually killed the pest or the poison that had been infecting it and that after a period of untimely shedding, the tree would start afresh. But these were distant hopes. The gentleman advised me to keep an eye on the branches. If any fresh leaf appeared, he would prescribe a medicine. Someone else suggested some kind of fertiliser. I stuck to my routine of watering it and the others. For the first time in my life, I was going to our patch of a garden regularly and doing any iota of work for the trees. Occasionally, my cat would follow me, try to play with me, be discouraged by the splashing, wait at a distance and then come back with me. It was peace.

Around a week or so ago, the wonderful happened. No, wrong guess, I did not spot fresh leaves on any branch. I don’t think there are any, though I’ll have to look more carefully. The tree has outsmarted us all. A few inches away from the still-charred trunk, on the now wetter soil, sprouted a little sapling, shiny green in colour, looking as if it has never known what flames are. A few days later, there were two more.

“Will you look at this? How beautiful is it?” I asked my cat, who was rubbing her back against the wall of the house.

Perhaps there was some life left in the roots, and finding the normal channel burnt, it brought itself out through a new channel altogether. Perhaps this too, will not survive. Perhaps it’s not even the same plant. Perhaps it’s a really bad idea to have the plant in that part of the garden, so dangerously close to the foundation of the house. Perhaps it will have to be felled one day.

Perhaps so many things.

Right now, the rains are coming to do their bit.

Image: Pixabay


Sunday is a bad day for a cat to get attacked by a dog or dogs. ‘Get attacked’, I say, following the phrasing one sometimes finds in case of other violences, like, ‘don’t get raped, women, be careful’. But to get back to the cat.

The kitten was playing in the garden, and then it went missing, and its mother began to sound a bit anxious. Couple of dogs were barking somewhere nearby. I saw the dogs. Yes, they could be fighting among themselves, but as I looked, I thought I detected the other pattern. One of the dogs was barking furiously at something hidden behind a clump of bush-and-tree-trunk-and-rubbish. They were also growling occasionally. Is it the kitten, I thought. I don’t know why I didn’t rush instantaneously. Perhaps because I knew that if it was the kitten then everything would be over except the long-drawn-out death, blood, pain, dulled eyes, wailing mother-cat and so on. I think it was pure escapism that made me delay for a couple of minutes. Then I stirred myself into walking hurriedly to the spot.

I wonder if you have ever seen a cat being attacked by dogs. This is at least the second time I have had the privilege. This is the second time I saw the cat completely off the ground, in air. The first time I saw this, the feline victim was in the midst of a toss or a jump. This time, it was between the teeth of two dogs, being torn apart. I almost mistook it for a piece of rag.

I didn’t even have to shout or brandish the walking stick I was carrying. Or I may have done both, unconsciously. Either way, the dogs fled as soon as I reached the spot.

A white cat with light brown patches; the commonest kind in these parts. Now smeared with dirt and mud. Or some of it may have been blood. Eyes already dulled. Mouth full of dark blood. I tried to hush it into some kind of comfort. I felt hopeful. It was not dead. It was moving a little. It could be saved. Right? I called a pet clinic, knowing it was almost hopeless. It was Sunday evening and everyone deserves a weekly off. My phone could not even connect to the number. I called another vet, hesitating a little at the prospect of asking him to come see an injured stray cat on a Sunday evening. I need not have hesitated. The number was unreachable. As I said, Sunday is a bad day for a cat to get attacked.

I rushed to the gardener of the park beside which the incident happened. It must be one of his many feline guests. He would know how to take care of it. I was reluctant to leave the injured animal alone, but I had to. As I hurried the few steps to the gardener’s shed, I saw the people in the park, children and adults, sitting, walking, playing, talking, relaxing, enjoying – in blissful oblivion. Why would anyone care or even notice if a cat was cornered, clawed and mauled by two dogs and then lay dying? Why, indeed.

The gardener did not spring into action. He kept asking whose cat was it. His, I assured him; I have seen it in the park. (Sure I don’t know all the individual cats, but it’s got to belong to his brood, and even if it didn’t, so bloody what?) Rather reluctantly, he came quite a few steps after me. When he saw the cat, he asked for my stick and then poked the cat with it. Why the hell would he further poke a severely injured cat I don’t know. Perhaps he had his reasons. Perhaps he was trying to ensure it was alive. Perhaps he was trying to goad it into action. Be that as it may, he then said that it was not his cat.

Take it to the park and I will bring cotton and medicines, I said. I just did not have the courage to try to pick up an injured, unknown animal. Maybe someday I will.

He will go and ask if the cat belongs to that house, he said, and walked off, not showing the urgency I felt. He was gone a few minutes. I watched the cat gasp and bleed through the mouth. I called the vets again. If it did belong to some family, maybe they would come and take care of it and the wait would be worthwhile, I thought.

After a few long minutes, the gardener called out from a distance to say that it was not the family’s cat, neither was it his. Take it to the park and I’ll bring medicines, I repeated. Can you just take it to the park? But he mumbled unintelligible counter-arguments and disappeared.

I made three trips to my house to bring mugfuls of water to gently pour on the cat’s body, hoping to wash away the dirt which I thought must be aggravating its wound. I also tried to pour some water into its mouth, but it jerked its head every time. The third time, I put some antiseptic into the water, hoping to clean the wounds better, not at all sure if it was suitable for cats and taking care to not pour it this time in its mouth. But the third time the animal had stopped moving. The second time it had uttered a few unnatural cries. They must have been a sort of death rattle.

Yup, the third time, it was dead. I poured the antiseptic water over a dead body, I think. Dusk had fallen and it was getting more and more difficult to see if it was breathing. But its immobility, its quietness told the tale. Till then, it had been trying to move restlessly, in hope of a shelter perhaps, or to find comfort.

Even at this minute, if you walk along that turn beside the park, you’d miss it. Only if you peered closely at the lighter patch in the dark grass and grounds, you would see what even this afternoon had been a cat in search for food.

I like to think it suffered less than an hour. I am glad and relieved that our kitten is alive and well – as of now. I still cannot bring myself to hate dogs. All my cats have gone this way. I have not seen any of them draw their last breaths, except one baby, two years ago. I am not sorry to have seen the sad inevitability of it all, this time. I wanted the animal to have someone nearby who would witness – and acknowledge – how it suffered. I like to think that I tried. I don’t like to think how grossly inadequate was the effort. I’ll get there someday. Someday, I pray that I’ll actually manage to heal one.


The Order

I sat, waiting. Nervous eyes, frozen body, pounding heart. I sat waiting in a pool of blood. Why do they scream so, I wondered, my friends and family and strangers, while they are butchered? Did they not know it was coming? But then a hand reaches for me and I feel like screaming, too. No, not yet. They want me alive. So they tie my feet and hold the bunch in a tight grip and as I hang upside down, I start my scream. I don’t know how long or far we travel. I’m always tied-feet-up-head-down, and always screaming, except when I am too exhausted. Once, they stop and put me down sideways, and I freeze again, wondering. Wondering. What now?

Nothing but a recommencement of the same. An upside-down busy world and automatic screams. Finally, after the longest and giddiest journey, we stop, and it comes. At the softest part of my neck.

I hope you enjoyed the kebabs.


There was this girl in a TV show who could not ‘get over’ (detestable parlance) her ex, and was being pathetic enough to entertain all his nonsense, to the extent of giving him a lift when he was going to see his current girlfriend (with whom he cheated on this one) and so on. But then, in the midst of this suspension, she happened to realise that the ex had not watered her plants. And suddenly, all at once, she was ‘cured of him’.

And there was this guy in a film who had lost his love to all intents and purposes, fought with his best friend… but he kept the upper lip stiff. Till the hour when he meant to call one friend and ended up calling another. By mistake. (Except that there are no mistakes, as he says.) And then this guy broke into tears.

Suspension is when the dust has settled and you realise that the bomb was dropped on your floor. Or perhaps your floor fell when it had no business to fall. Stupid, selfish floor. Suspension is when you need straws. Suspension is not crossroads because crossroads suggests two or more roads to choose from. Suspension is a lack of anything resembling a road, a path, a track, a route. That is why straws indicate the possibility of a way. Or. They may at least indicate which cannot be the way – which is the no way. To break the donkey’s back or to clutch and survive hangs upon a straw.

But straws are also unreliable – even treacherous. Too often (or is it always?) they move the way the wind blows. You cannot feel the wind if it is too light, but straws being straws will take even a breeze’s direction. And hence. When you have to go towards, every straw will usher and urge. And when you have to go away…

When you have to go away, even straws acquire the audacity to shove you. Or at least pinprick. And pinpricks may well break your back.


Image: pixabay.

A Futuristic Romance

Citizen Phaal of Planet E had always liked to think of himself as a great appreciator of female beauty. Which is why, when he met Citizen Ilka from Planet V in the Inter-Planetary Youth Carnival, he did not fail to appreciate her charms. They spoke different languages, but that did not bother Phaal. Conversation was not his immediate concern. He knew plenty of other ways to express his interest in a girl. And Ilka seemed to understand him well enough. When Phaal led the way to a passing tent, she seemed in no way reluctant to have a little fun. Again, when Phaal brought out the protection and the girl brushed it off with a look of puzzlement, he did not complain. She must have been on pills.

The complaint burst forth a few months later, at the doctor’s chamber. Phaal had been feeling perpetually tired, hungry and pukish. He hoped that the doctor would not ask him to cut down on the booze. However, the doctor seemed to give a dry chuckle (which made Phaal feel hopeful), and said, “Congratulations.”

Incomprehension, bewilderment, fury and expletives; consolation, explanations, reassurances and sympathetic nods followed. The patient even shed some not unmanly tears. But a few hours down the line, the polite doctor’s patience was wearing thin. He had explained many times to the protesting man in front of him why both an abortion and a caesarean delivery were not safe options. There was only so much you could put up with from a grown man.

For the nth time, however, Phaal was struck with a new argument. “But how?” he exclaimed shrilly, “How in the name of you-know-what will it happen? It’s not possible, see? That’s why women do it. They are meant to do it. There’s a reason why men don’t do this s***. How will it come out?”

By now, the doctor was too irritated to elaborate. His reply was cold and brief: “A******e.”


(Image: pixabay)

Faces in the Crowd

At night, before going to sleep, he asked his younger child to rub a bit of the pain-removing balm, the one with the wonderful scent of eucalyptus and a household brand name, on his forehead. And that is what triggered off the memory – this story.

As he sat outside the grocery store where they were compiling his orders, he was approached by a young girl, younger than his younger child. She was a salesgirl who had taken up her position for the day outside the pharmacy beside the grocery store. She was selling a spray version of the balm. Newly launched, the product was available at a discount if bought at the spot. Although young, she had had the common sense to approach elderly men as the most potential customers for pain-removing sprays. “You must be suffering from some ache or the other?” she asked him. It was a good guess, but he replied gently and untruthfully, “No, not really.” If you used this spray, you shall not only not have to rub it, like the old balm, but also, the pain won’t recur, explained the girl. He didn’t think he needed it, he explained. “Then you won’t take it?” asked the young salesgirl, younger than his younger child. “All right.”

But it wasn’t all right, he admitted later to his child, as the latter rubbed the balm on his forehead. “Younger than you,” he said, sadly, “and standing outside shops these hot days, trying to sell… Who knows how many she manages to sell? How much or how little commission does she earn? Does it even pay for a snack? I caught sight of her face as she said ‘All right’. I saw the disappointment in it. I cannot forget it.”

It reminded his child of a similar incident. Several years ago, a salesman had come to the door. It had been a sweltering summer afternoon. He had been selling incense sticks, the man, sweat pouring down his face, skin black under the sun. Out of sheer habit, the habit of automatically refusing salesmen and women without even ascertaining what was being sold, because nothing that was on offer was ever bought anyway, the child had shook the head, hardly opening the door fully. “No?” the salesman had asked, with an attempt at a smile, and the door had been closed. Within minutes, the child had been tormented with remorse. How much would incense sticks have cost? How poor could have been their quality? Why hadn’t there been a moment of thought, of consideration before the automatic ‘no’? But the salesman had disappeared.

Now, the child recounted the incident to the father, who could not get over the remorse of having refused a little salesgirl. “Had I needed it at all, I would have bought it. But I didn’t, not with all the pain-removing sprays already in the house,” he shook his head. “She approached another elderly man after me. He agreed to have it sprayed on his wrist, unlike me. Maybe he bought it,” he added hopefully. “Don’t worry, buy one the next time you see her,” suggested the child. “Even if I do, how much will that help her? How hard she must have to work. How terribly hard so many people must have to work for so terribly little. I don’t want to let my mind turn that way. For the questions are too difficult. One must be hard-hearted, my child, to survive in this world. Turn away from other people’s sufferings. For, once you start thinking: is this life all about me and my happiness, you cannot find an answer, a solution. You get lost.”

His child remained silent, knowing how little the speaker endorsed his own words. The child hoped, rather, that the man will find the young salesgirl some other day and buy a spray and feel better. Unfortunately, even if the salesman with the incense sticks reappeared, he wouldn’t be recognised.

A Story of Hope

For a long time, there was the room and someone waiting inside it. Usually lonely, often sad, sometimes delighted, almost always waiting. And also, nurturing. Nurturing and protecting and caring for something that no one else had any use for. Thus the loneliness. Then, one day, suddenly and quietly, the room was empty. When there was a knock on the door, there was no ready answer. The response had been so immediate and certain for such a long time that it had seemed as if it will always be like that, but today, something was different.

For a while, the room remained empty. Everyone thought it will never be occupied again. This was only to be expected, they thought; of course it’s empty – at last. And though it was expected (as they said), it was also curiously sad.

Which is why, when the one living in the room reappeared, they shook their heads, but they were, in truth, also relieved and pleased, though they would never have admitted it.

But something had changed in the room and in the one living in it. Something had gone out of the room, of the one, and of that which she had been nurturing. This time, when there was a knock, the door was opened, yes, but instead of an answer, there was such a question in the eyes that the one who came to knock didn’t know what to say.

They both looked in silence at each other and at the solitary plant struggling for survival. Was it really going to die?

The Wise King

“I am like Buddha,” said the king. “Have you heard of Buddha? He couldn’t tolerate sorrow. And neither can I. The sight of gloomy faces, the sound of sobs… I cannot stand it. And that is why,” he continued after a suspenseful and impressive pause, “I have decided to put an end to Sorrow.

“Summon everyone,” ordered the king. “Everyone who claims to be sad; and I shall see what is it that they are crying about. Who claims to be heartbroken? For, you have to face it: too many people actually indulge in melancholia. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s how the world is – unfortunate and uncomfortable. I mean, a child will wail if you take away his toy. Well? A dog will howl for no earthly reason. You see what I mean? So call everyone, everyone who says he has a sorrow, and then we’ll see. I have a plan.” And he gave a small but satisfied snort.

On a special day, the king introduced a special council to his people. Anyone who claimed to be sad was to bring his (so-called) trouble to this council, made entirely of very dignified men with proven record of Wisdom. The council followed a policy which was beautiful in its simplicity. A basic and exhaustive list of Recognised Reasons for Sadness, prepared by the king himself, with suggestions from his trusted wise men, was announced but not revealed to the people. (Just as democracy isn’t for everyone, the details of state policies aren’t either.) If one claimed a reason for sorrow not found within the list, it was considered a special application and usually rejected, for the king was, obviously, thorough, and the applicant warned as a Time Waster. However, for the vast majority, the council simply found a reason ranked higher in the list than the applicant’s specific trouble, and thereby proved that a) he hardly had a right to complain, with so many people so worse off and b) he should in fact be thankful for not being worse off. Being professional and kind, they allowed him a Prescribed Period to Grieve, and additionally took the trouble to prepare a list of things that were Perfectly Alright in the applicant’s life, and with mild reproach, asked him to memorise it.

The beauty and the infallibility of the plan lay in not publishing the list to the ignorant masses, so that no one knew exactly where their problems ranked, and could never compare. Most importantly, no one knew what the unbeatable Reason Number One was (which, theoretically, the Council could not compare away), and so no one could claim to suffer from it.

Unsurprisingly, the king’s plan was very successful. Not only did complains and grievances drop drastically within a few months, eventually, there were no applicants – no one who officially claimed to be sad at all. The king had established utopia.


*The first jarring note in this happy State was struck when one of the trusted wise men, with special access to the list of  Recognised Reasons for Sadness, turned rebel, claimed to have had his world shattered, and openly defied the king’s beautiful and philanthropic policy, but that is a different – and needless to say, sad – story.




(Image by author. You too, can make it; so why copy it?)