When Nabendu Sekhar was wedded to Arunlekha, the God of marriage smiled from behind the sacrificial fire. Alas! what is sport for the gods is not always a joke to us poor mortals.
Purnendu Sekhar, the father of Nabendu, was a man well known amongst the English officials of the Government. In the voyage of life he had arrived at the desert shores of Rai Bahadurship by diligently plying his oats of salaams. He held in reserve enough for further advancement, but at the age of fifty-five, his tender gaze still fixed on the misty peals of Raja-hood, he suddenly found himself transported to a region where earthly honours and decorations are naught, and his salaam-wearied neck found everlasting repose on the funeral pyre.
According to modern science, force is not destroyed, but is merely converted to another form, and applied to another point. So Purnendu’s salaam-force, constant handmaid of the fickle Goddess of Fortune, descended from the shoulder of the father to that of his worthy son; and the youthful head of Nabendu Sekhar began to move up and down, at the doors of high-placed Englishmen, like a pumpkin swayed by the wind.
The traditions of the family into which he had married were entirely different. Its eldest son, Pramathanath, had won for himself the love of his kinsfolk and the regard of all who knew him. His kinsmen and his neighbours looked up to him as their ideal in all things.
Pramathanath was a Bachelor of Arts, and in addition was gifted with common sense. But he held no high official position; he had no handsome salary; nor did he exert any influence with his pen. There was no one in power to lend him a helping hand, because he desired to keep away from Englishmen, as much as they desired to keep away from him. So it happened that he shone only within the sphere of his family and his friends, and excited no admiration beyond it.
Yet this Pramathanath had once sojourned in England for some three years. The kindly treatment he received during his stay there overpowered him so much that he forgot the sorrow and the humiliation of his own country, and came back dressed in European clothes. This rather grieved his brothers and his sisters at first, but after a few days they began to think that European clothes suited nobody better, and gradually they came to share his pride and dignity.
On his return from England, Pramathanath resolved that he would show the world how to associate with Anglo-Indians on terms of equality. Those of our countrymen who think that no such association is possible, unless we bend our knees to them, showed their utter lack of self-respect, and were also unjust to the English-so thought Pramathanath.
He brought with him letters of introduction from many distinguished Englishmen at home, and these gave him some recognition in Anglo-Indian society. He and his wife occasionally enjoyed English hospitality at tea, dinner, sports and other entertainments. Such good luck intoxicated him, and began to produce a tingling sensation in every vein of his body.
About this time, at the opening of a new railway line, many of the town, proud recipients of official favour, were invited by the Lieutenant-Governor to take the first trip. Pramathanath was among them. On the return journey, a European Sergeant of the Police expelled some Indian gentlemen from a railway-carriage with great insolence. Pramathanath, dressed in his European clothes, was there. He, too, was getting out, when the Sergeant said: “You needn’t move, sir. Keep your seat, please.”
At first Pramathanath felt flattered at the special respect thus shown to him. When, however, the train went on, the dull rays of the setting sun, at the west of the fields, now ploughed up and stripped of green, seemed in his eyes to spread a glow of shame over the whole country. Sitting near the window of his lonely compartment, he seemed to catch a glimpse of the down-cast eyes of his Motherland, hidden behind the trees. As Pramathanath sat there, lost in reverie, burning tears flowed down his cheeks, and his heart burst with indignation.
He now remembered the story of a donkey who was drawing the chariot of an idol along the street. The wayfarers bowed down to the idol, and touched the dusty ground with their foreheads. The foolish donkey imagined that all this reverence was being shown to him. “The only difference,” said Pramathanath to himself, “between the donkey and myself is this: I understand to-day that the respect I receive is not given to me but to the burden on my back.”
Arriving home, Pramathanath called together all the children of the household, and lighting a big bonfire, threw all his European clothes into it one by one. The children danced round and round it, and the higher the flames shot up, the greater was their merriment. After that, Pramathanath gave up his sip of tea and bits of toast in Anglo-Indian houses, and once again sat inaccessible within the castle of his house, while his insulted friends went about from the door of one Englishman to that of another, bending their turbaned heads as before.
By an irony of fate, poor Nabendu Sekhar married the second daughter of this house. His sisters-in-law were well educated and handsome. Nabendu considered he had made a lucky bargain. But he lost no time in trying to impress on the family that it was a rare bargain on their side also. As if by mistake, he would often hand to his sisters-in-law sundry letters that his late father had received from Europeans. And when the cherry lips of those young ladies smiled sarcastically, and the point of a shining dagger peeped out of its sheath of red velvet, the unfortunate man saw his folly, and regretted it.
Labanyalekha, the eldest sister, surpassed the rest in beauty and cleverness. Finding an auspicious day, she put on the mantel-shelf of Nabendu’s bedroom two pairs of English boots, daubed with vermilion, and arranged flowers, sandal-paste, incense and a couple of burning candles before them in true ceremonial fashion. When Nabendu came in, the two sisters-in-law stood on either side of him, and said with mock solemnity: “Bow down to your gods, and may you prosper through their blessings.”
The third sister Kiranlekha spent many days in embroidering with red silk one hundred common English names such as Jones, Smith, Brown, Thomson, etc., on a chadar. When it was ready, she presented this namavoli (A namavoli is a sheet of cloth printed all over with the names of Hindu gods and goddesses and worn by pious Hindus when engaged in devotional exercises.) to Nabendu Sekhar with great ceremony.
The fourth, Sasankalekha, of tender age and therefore of no account, said: “I will make you a string of beads, brother, with which to tell the names of your gods-the sahibs.” Her sisters reproved her, saying: “Run away, you saucy girl.”
Feelings of shame and irritation assailed by turns the mind of Nabendu Sekhar. Still he could not forego the company of his sisters-in-law, especially as the eldest one was beautiful. Her honey was no less than her gall, and Nabendu’s mind tasted at once the sweetness of the one and the bitterness of the other. The butterfly, with its bruised wings, buzzes round the flower in blind fury, unable to depart.
The society of his sisters-in-Law so much infatuated him that at last Nabendu began to disavow his craving for European favours. When he went to salaam the Burra Sahib, he used to pretend that he was going to listen to a speech by Mr. Surendranath Banerjea. When he went to the railway station to pay respects to the Chota Sahib, returning from Darjeeling, he would tell his sisters-in-law that he expected his youngest uncle.
It was a sore trial to the unhappy man placed between the cross-fires of his Sahibs and his sisters-in-law. The sisters-in-law, however, secretly vowed that they would not rest till the Sahibs had been put to rout.
About this time it was rumoured that Nabendu’s name would be included in the forthcoming list of Birthday honours, and that he would mount the first step of the ladder to Paradise by becoming a Rai Bahadur. The poor fellow had not the courage to break the joyful news to his sisters-in-law. One evening, however, when the autumn moon was flooding the earth with its mischievous beams, Nabendu’s heart was so full that he could not contain himself any longer, and he told his wife. The next day, Mrs. Nabendu betook herself to her eldest sister’s house in a palanquin, and in a voice choked with tears bewailed her lot.
“He isn’t going to grow a tail,” said Labanya, “by becoming a Rai Bahadur, is he? Why should you feel so very humiliated?”
“Oh, no, sister dear,” replied Arunlekha, “I am prepared to be anything—but not a Rai-Baha-durni.” The fact was that in her circle of acquaintances there was one Bhutnath Babu, who was a Rai Bahadur, and that explained her intense aversion to that title.
Labanya said to her sister in soothing tones: “Don’t be upset about it, dear; I will see what I can do to prevent it.”
Babu Nilratan, the husband of Labanya, was a pleader at Buxar. When the autumn was over, Nabendu received an invitation from Labanya to pay them a visit, and he started for Buxar greatly pleased.
The early winter of the western province endowed Labanyalekha with new health and beauty, and brought a glowing colour to her pale cheeks, She looked like the flower-laden kasa reeds on a clear autumn day, growing by the lonely bank of a rivulet. To Nabendu’s enchanted eyes she appeared like a malati plant in full blossom, showering dew-drops brilliant with the morning light.
Nabendu had never felt better in his life. The exhilaration of his own health and the genial company of his pretty sister-in-law made him think himself light enough to tread on air. The Ganges in front of the garden seemed to him to be flowing ceaselessly to regions unknown, as though it gave shape to his own wild fantasies.
As he returned in the early morning from his walk on the bank of the river, the mellow rays of the winter sun gave his whole frame that pleasing sensation of warmth which lovers feel in each other’s arms. Coming home, he would now and then find his sister-in-Law amusing herself by cooking some dishes. He would offer his help, and display his want of skill and ignorance at every step. But Nabendu did not appear to be at all anxious to improve himself by practice and attention. On the contrary he thoroughly enjoyed the rebukes he received from his sister-in-law. He was at great pains to prove every day that he was inefficient and helpless as a new-born babe in mixing spices, handling the saucepan, and regulating the heat so as to prevent things getting burnt-and he was duly rewarded with pitiful smiles and scoldings.
In the middle of the day he ate a great deal of the good food set before him, incited by his keen appetite and the coaxing of his sister-in-law. Later on, he would sit down to a game of cards—at which he betrayed the same lack of ability. He would cheat, pry into his adversary’s hand, quarrel—but never did he win a single rubber, and worse still, he would not acknowledge defeat. This brought him abuse every day, and still he remained incorrigible.
There was, however, one matter in which his reform was complete. For the time at least, he had forgotten that to win the smiles of Sahibs was the final goal of life. He was beginning to understand how happy and worthy we might feel by winning the affection and esteem of those near and dear to us.
Besides, Nabendu was now moving in a new atmosphere. Labanya’s husband, Babu Nilratan, a leader of the bar, was reproached by many because he refused to pay his respects to European officials. To all such reproaches Nilratan would reply: “No, thank you,—if they are not polite enough to return my call, then the politeness I offer them is a loss that can never be made up for. The sands of the desert may be very white and shiny, but I would much rather sow my seeds in black soil, where I can expect a return.”
And Nabendu began to adopt similar ideas, all regardless of the future. His chance of Rai Bahadurship throve on the soil carefully prepared by his late father and also by himself in days gone by, nor was any fresh watering required. Had he not at great expense laid out a splendid race-course in a town, which was a fashionable resort of Europeans?
When the time of Congress drew near, Nilratan received a request from head-quarters to collect subscriptions. Nabendu, free from anxiety, was merrily engaged in a game of cards with his sister-in-law, when Nilratan Babu came upon him with a subscription-book in his hand, and said: “Your signature, please.”
From old habit Nabendu looked horrified. Labanya, assuming an air of great concern and anxiety, said: “Never do that. It would ruin your racecourse beyond repair.”
Nabendu blurted out: “Do you suppose I pass sleepless nights through fear of that?”
“We won’t publish your name in the papers,” said Nilratan reassuringly.
Labanya, looking grave and anxious, said: “Still, it wouldn’t be safe. Things spread so, from mouth to mouth—”
Nabendu replied with vehemence: “My name wouldn’t suffer by appearing in the newspapers.” So saying, he snatched the subscription list from Nilratan’s hand, and signed away a thousand rupees. Secretly he hoped that the papers would not publish the news.
Labanya struck her forehead with her palm and gasped out: “What—have you—done?”
“Nothing wrong,” said Nabendu boastfully.
“But—but—,” drawled Labanya, “the Guard sahib of Sealdah Station, the shop-assistant at Whiteaway’s, the syce-sahib of Hart Bros.—these gentlemen might be angry with you, and decline to come to your Poojah dinner to drink your champagne, you know. Just think, they mightn’t pat you on the back, when you meet them again!”
“It wouldn’t break my heart,” Nabendu snapped out.
A few days passed. One morning Nabendu was sipping his tea, and glancing at a newspaper. Suddenly a letter signed “X” caught his eye. The writer thanked him profusely for his donation, and declared that the increase of strength the Congress had acquired by having such a man within its fold, was inestimable.
Alas, father Purnendu Sekhar! Was it to increase the strength of the Congress, that you brought this wretch into the world?
Put the cloud of misfortune had its silver lining. That he was not a mere cypher was clear from the fact that the Anglo-Indian community on the one side and the Congress on the other were each waiting patiently, eager to hook him, and land him on their own side. So Nabendu, beaming with pleasure took the paper to his sister-in-law, and showed her the letter. Looking as though she knew nothing about it, Labanya exclaimed in surprise: “Oh, what a pity! Everything has come out! Who bore you such ill-will? Oh, how cruel of him, how wicked of him!”
Nabendu laughed out, saying: “Now—now—don’t call him names, Labanya. I forgive him with all my heart, and bless him too.”
A couple of days after this, an anti-Congress Anglo-Indian paper reached Nabendu through the post. There was a letter in it, signed “One who knows,” and contradicting the above report. “Those who have the pleasure of Babu Nabendu Sekhar’s personal acquaintance,” the writer went on, “cannot for a moment believe this absurd libel to be true. For him to turn a Congresswalla is as impossible as it is for the leopard to change his spots. He is a man of genuine worth, and neither a disappointed candidate for Government employ nor a briefless barrister. He is not one of those who, after a brief sojourn in England, return aping our dress and manners, audaciously try to thrust themselves on Anglo-Indian society, and finally go back in dejection. So there is absolutely no reason why Balm Nabendu Sekhar,” etc., etc.
Ah, father Purnendu Sekhar! What a reputation you had made with the Europeans before you died!
This letter also was paraded before his sister-in-law, for did it not assert that he was no mean, contemptible scallywag, but a man of real worth?
Labanya exclaimed again in feigned surprise: “Which of your friends wrote it now? Oh, come—is it the Ticket Collector, or the hide merchant, or is it the drum-major of the Fort?”
“You ought to send in a contradiction, I think,” said Nilratan.
“Is it necessary?” said Nabendu loftily. “Must I contradict every little thing they choose to say against me?”
Labanya filled the room with a deluge of laughter. Nabendu felt a little disconcerted at this, and said: “Why? What’s the matter?” She went on laughing, unable to check herself, and her youthful slender form waved to and fro. This torrent of merriment had the effect of overthrowing Nabendu completely, and he said in pitiable accents: “Do you imagine that I am afraid to contradict it?”
“Oh, dear, no,” said Labanya; “I was thinking that you haven’t yet ceased trying to save that race-course of yours, so full of promise. While there is life, there is hope, you know.”
“That’s what I am afraid of, you think, do you? Very well, you shall see,” said Nabendu desperately, and forthwith sat down to write his contradiction. When he had finished, Labanya and Nilratan read it through, and said: “It isn’t strong enough. We must give it them pretty hot, mustn’t we?” And they kindly undertook to revise the composition. Thus it ran: “When one connected to us by ties of blood turns our enemy he becomes far more dangerous than any outsider. To the Government of India, the haughty Anglo-Indians are worse enemies than the Russians or the frontier Pathans themselves—they are the impenetrable barrier, forever hindering the growth of any bond of friendship between the Government and people of the country. It is the Congress which has opened up the royal road to a better understanding between the rulers and the ruled, and the Anglo-Indian papers have planted themselves like thorns across the whole breadth of that road,” etc., etc.
Nabendu had an inward fear as to the mischief this letter might do, but at the same time he felt elated at the excellence of its composition, which he fondly imagined to be his own. It was duly published, and for some days comments, replies, and rejoinders went on in various newspapers, and the air was full of trumpet-notes, proclaiming the fact that Nabendu had joined the Congress, and the amount of his subscription.
Nabendu, now grown desperate, talked as though he was a patriot of the fiercest type. Labanya laughed inwardly, and said to herself: “Well—-well—you have to pass through the ordeal of fire yet.”
One morning when Nabendu, before his bath, had finished rubbing oil over his chest, and was trying various devices to reach the inaccessible portions of his back, the bearer brought in a card inscribed with the name of the District Magistrate himself! Good heavens!—What would he do? He could not possibly go, and receive the Magistrate Sahib, thus oil-besmeared. He shook and twitched like a koi-fish, ready dressed for the frying pan. He finished his bath in a great hurry, tugged on his clothes somehow, and ran breathlessly to the outer apartments. The bearer said that the Sahib had just left after waiting for a long time. How much of the blame for concocting this drama of invented incidents may be set down to Labanya, and how much to the bearer is a nice problem for ethical mathematics to solve.
Nabendu’s heart was convulsed with pain within his breast, like the tail of a lizard just cut off. He moped like an owl all day long.
Labanya banished all traces of inward merriment from her face, and kept on enquiring in anxious tones: “What has happened to you? You are not ill, I hope?”
Nabendu made great efforts to smile, and find a humorous reply. “How can there be,” he managed to say, “any illness within your jurisdiction, since you yourself are the Goddess of Health?”
But the smile soon flickered out. His thoughts were: “I subscribed to the Congress fund to begin with, published a nasty letter in a newspaper, and on the top of that, when the Magistrate Sahib himself did me the honour to call on me, I kept him waiting. I wonder what he is thinking of me.”
Alas, father Purnendu Sekhar, by an irony of Fate I am made to appear what I am not.
The next morning, Nabendu decked himself in his best clothes, wore his watch and chain, and put a big turban on his head.
“Where are you off to?” enquired his sister-in-law.
“Urgent business,” Nabendu replied. Labanya kept quiet.
Arriving at the Magistrate’s gate, he took out his card-case.
“You cannot see him now,” said the orderly peon icily.
Nabendu took out a couple of rupees from his pocket. The peon at once salaamed him and said: “There are five of us, sir.” Immediately Nabendu pulled out a ten-rupee note, and handed it to him.
He was sent for by the Magistrate, who was writing in his dressing-gown and bedroom slippers. Nabendu salaamed him. The Magistrate pointed to a chair with his finger, and without raising his eyes from the paper before him said: “What can I do for you, Babu?”
Fingering his watch-chain nervously, Nabendu said is shaky tones: “Yesterday you were good enough to call at my place, sir—”
The Sahib knitted his brows, and, lifting just one eye from his paper, said: “I called at your place! Babu, what nonsense are you talking?”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” faltered out Nabendu. “There has been a mistake—some confusion,” and wet with perspiration, he tumbled out of the room somehow. And that night, as he lay tossing on his bed, a distant dream-like voice came into his ear with a recurring persistency: “Babu, you are a howling idiot.”
On his way home, Nabendu came to the conclusion that the Magistrate denied having called, simply because he was highly offended.
So he explained to Labanya that he had been out purchasing rose-water. No sooner had he uttered the words than half-a-dozen chuprassis wearing the Collectorate badge made their appearance, and after salaaming Nabendu, stood there grinning.
“Have they come to arrest you because you subscribed to the Congress fund?” whispered Labanya with a smile.
The six peons displayed a dozen rows of teeth and said: “Bakshish—Babu-Sahib.”
From a side room Nilratan came out, and said in an irritated manner: “Bakshish? What for?”
The peons, grinning as before, answered: “The Babu-Sahib went to see the Magistrate—so we have come for bakshish.”
“I didn’t know,” laughed out Labanya, “that the Magistrate was selling rose-water nowadays. Coolness wasn’t the special feature of his trade before.”
Nabendu in trying to reconcile the story of his purchase with his visit to the Magistrate, uttered some incoherent words, which nobody could make sense of.
Nilratan spoke to the peons: “There has been no occasion for bakshish; you shan’t have it.”
Nabendu said, feeling very small: “Oh, they are poor men—what’s the harm of giving them something?” And he took out a currency note. Nilratan snatched it way from Nabendu’s hand, remarking: “There are poorer men in the world—I will give it to them for you.”
Nabendu felt greatly distressed that he was not able to appease these ghostly retainers of the angry Siva. When the peons were leaving, with thunder in their eyes, he looked at them languishingly, as much as to say: “You know everything, gentlemen, it is not my fault.”
The Congress was to be held at Calcutta this year. Nilratan went down thither with his wife to attend the sittings. Nabendu accompanied them.
As soon as they arrived at Calcutta, the Congress party surrounded Nabendu, and their delight and enthusiasm knew no bounds. They cheered him, honoured him, and extolled him up to the skies. Everybody said that, unless leading men like Nabendu devoted themselves to the Cause, there was no hope for the country. Nabendu was disposed to agree with them, and emerged out of the chaos of mistake and confusion as a leader of the country. When he entered the Congress Pavilion on the first day, everybody stood up, and shouted “Hip, hip, hurrah,” in a loud outlandish voice, hearing which our Motherland reddened with shame to the root of her ears.
In due time the Queen’s birthday came, and Nabendu’s name was not found in the list of Rai Bahadurs.
He received an invitation from Labanya for that evening. When he arrived there, Labanya with great pomp and ceremony presented him with a robe of honour, and with her own hand put a mark of red sandal paste on the middle of his forehead. Each of the other sisters threw round his neck a garland of flowers woven by herself. Decked in a pink Sari and dazzling jewels, his wife Arunlekha was waiting in a side room, her face lit up with smiles and blushes. Her sisters rushed to her, and, placing another garland in her hand, insisted that she also should come, and do her part in the ceremony, but she would not listen to it; and that principal garland, cherishing a desire for Nabendu’s neck, waited patiently for the still secrecy of midnight.
The sisters said to Nabendu: “To-day we crown thee King. Such honour will not be done to any body else in Hindoostan.”
Whether Nabendu derived any consolation from this, he alone can tell; but we greatly doubt it. We believe, in fact, that he will become a Rai Bahadur before he has done, and the Englishman and the Pioneer will write heart-rending articles lamenting his demise at the proper time. So, in the meanwhile, Three Cheers for Babu Purnendu Sekhar! Hip, hip, hurrah—Hip, hip, hurrah—Hip, hip, hurrah.