Translated from the original Bangla novel
Bholu Jokhon Raja Holo (ভোলু যখন রাজা হল)
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
Brahmagopal was having a problem lately. The problem was that he could sometimes hear God’s voice.
Of course he did not believe in such superstitions. He was a disciple of the pragmatist Atmaram who was also an extreme atheist. He did not believe in God, spirits, astrology or homeopathy. He even changed his old surname and called himself a rationalist. He had many disciples in the village. Brahmagopal was one of them.
But Brahmagopal was also rather weak minded. Even though he was supposed to be an atheist, he couldn’t help but offer a quick prayer if he happened to pass by a temple.
There was a fairly sizable area of jungle behind Brahmagopal’s house. Nothing scary, just an overgrowth of many plants and weeds. An occasional snake, monkey or a fox might have lived there, but nothing large like tigers or bears. In that wilderness was the ruin of an old palace.
Brahmagopal often walked up there in the mornings, while brushing his teeth. It was a pleasant, quiet place. There was a remnant of a garden too, now overrun with weeds. His favorite spot was the dried up fountain in the garden, where he could rest and enjoy the quietness, the gentle breeze and the birds singing.
About six months ago, while brushing his teeth by the fountain, he heard the Voice for the first time. A somber voice from the sky ordered, “Get that trident off the temple of Shiva!”
Startled, Brahmagopal looked all around. Nope, no one was there. A huge Bel tree was overhead, but nobody was hiding there either. He got up and looked closely in all the bushes and shrubs, but didn’t see anyone. Still, one never knew, perhaps some imp spoke those words and ran away.
There was a temple of Shiva to his left. It too was in sad state of repair. Weeds covered much of it. But there indeed was a trident on top of the spire. But why should anyone want it taken down? And why did he have to do it? Or was it spoken in random, and not specifically to him? But there was no other person nearby. He could not ignore it either.
Unfortunately, Brahmagopal was very impressionable but totally indecisive. He was not supposed to believe in God’s messages, but all kinds of strange things did happen in the world all the time. He was stuck in a dilemma.
In such situations, Brahmagopal always spent time in deep thinking. That was what he did now. His twig toothbrush was all chewed up. After about twenty minutes of deep thinking, he decided to obey the Order, come whatever might.
He didn’t believe in God, but that might not mean He was absent. And if He did give the order, it wouldn’t be nice to ignore Him.
He was out of practice climbing walls. Also he was over fifty. Could he do it?
He went near the temple and examined the wall closely. Though the spire was pretty high up, the walls were not very steep. And there were many vines growing along the wall to lend him support.
He threw away the brush and tied up his dhoti tightly. Then did a few stretching exercises to limber up those out of use muscles. At last he grabbed hold of those vines and started climbing. It was a fairly easy climb. He did scrape his elbows and knees, but nothing major. The last few feet were rather steep, but he managed it and grabbed the trident to rest a bit.
He was at a pretty good height and could see a good distance all around. The ruined palace looked dark and gloomy. Here and there were signs of digging by people searching for buried treasures.
After a few minutes of rest, he started shaking the trident to dislodge it. But it was planted solid. It took him good many tries to loosen it a bit. “Please come out. God himself has ordered you, you have to come out.” Brahmagopal tried to coax the trident. Perhaps getting tired of being shaken, the trident started coming out slowly. Brahmagopal realized it was quite heavy. Must have been at least a ton of solid iron.
It was impossible to carry such a weight down, so he just dropped it off on the ground.
After getting off the temple successfully, Brahmagopal proudly carried the trident home. People did ask questions, but he decided not to divulge any details. He just dumped the trident in a storeroom with other old furniture.
The next event happened after a couple of months. Monsoon season was over. Everything was green and beautiful. Scattered clouds dotted the clear blue sky. Shiuli and chhatim flowers perfumed the air. As usual Brahmagopal was brushing his teeth by the old fountain when suddenly the deep voice sounded from the sky again, “Dive in the center of the pond and bring up a handful of mud.”
As usual Brahmagopal was startled. And again he looked all around but didn’t see anyone.
Last time he had to toil quite hard to obey the Order. And all he got was a rusted iron trident. Not even gold or silver. Was it worth following this order again? He could not decide.
Again he did his deep thinking. He was not supposed to believe in all this, but he was not strong in his conviction to ignore it either. What to do?
There was a huge pond on the south side of the palace. Much of it had become muddy out of disuse. It was also dangerous now as there was real risk of getting stuck in the mud.
To go in or not?
After a long thinking, he dropped his twig brush and tightened his dhoti again. That message was calling him relentlessly.
The pond was hidden behind numerous trees and shrubs. He had to make his way through all that to reach it. The landing steps were long gone. The water was dense with water hyacinths.
He guessed the exact center of the pond. And with a quick prayer (even though he was an atheist), he dived in that muddy water.
Once the royal pond contained many huge fish. But the villagers had finished them all. Now perhaps there were some small fries, frogs and water snakes. Brahmagopal slowly made way through the water hyacinths and reached the deep water in the center.
He was already panting from exertion. He knew that the center was very deep. He took a deep breath and dived. It was inky dark underneath. He could not reach bottom on his first attempt. But he knew he could not disobey the divine order, so he tried again. Even after going fairly deep he couldn’t reach the bottom. The third time he was determined and went down so fast that his head got stuck in the mud. He grabbed a handful of mud and swam up as fast as he could. He was almost out of breath when he broke surface and took a few lungful of air. His head was buzzing. Slowly he swam back to the shore and got out. When he carefully opened his fist, he found something hard and shiny in his hand. It was a large brass key. He had to think some more. The message only spoke of mud, nothing about a key. Still, now that he got it, there must be some divine wish involved in all this.
Sopping wet and muddy, he walked home carrying a handful of mud and a key.
Only a few weeks ago, it happened once more. Brahmagopal was again brushing his teeth by the fountain, early one morning. The birds were singing, the breeze was breezing, all was as usual when he heard the same voice from above, “Twenty eight steps, go walk.”
Brahmagopal didn’t get surprised this time, because he had similar experience twice now. As usual he looked around and didn’t see anyone. This time the order was not difficult like the previous two. Walking twenty-eight steps was no big deal, but which direction he should walk was not clear to him. Should he walk straight in front? Or left? Or right? Or perhaps turn back?
Brahmagopal again had to think deep and long, and then decided to walk straight ahead. But that meant he had to walk right through the ruined palace and its heaps of bricks, and stones. But he could not disobey the divine order now, could he!
Again he tightened his dhoti and set off counting his steps, sometimes climbing over trash heaps, some times going round a pillar or a wall. A few times he stumbled and fell. In addition to the ruins, there were weeds of all kinds including poison ivy, and many thorny bushes. He never imagined walking twenty-eight steps would be so difficult. At last he took the last step and stopped. Looking around he found himself right in the middle of the old, dilapidated courtroom. And right in front of him was a solid iron throne.
Now he was in a fix. Did the voice want him to carry away the throne? Like the trident and the key? That would be impossible. As far as he knew, the throne had sat there for years. It was a huge thing made of solid iron. It must have weighed twenty or thirty tons. The legs were fixed to the floor. Many robbers had tried to steal it but could not even dislodge it. It was not fair that the divine voice wanted him to pick it up!
Brahmagopal prayed to God above for clarification, “Please Divine Voice, I have always carried out your orders, but I’m neither young nor strong enough to carry this throne away by myself.”
A lizard agreed as if in reply, “Tick tick, tick…”
He knew he couldn’t budge the throne. But he was hesitant to just leave right away. So he tried to clean it up a bit with the end of his dhoti, and then examined it in detail. There were not many decorations except a round disc stuck on the back of the throne. There was a blurred lion’s face etched on the disc. The back of the throne was solid four inches thick with a hole bored on the upper edge. It looked like a hole to support the stem of an umbrella to protect the royal head.
He had followed the divine order. Now he didn’t know what else to do. So he just sat on the throne, shut his eyes and started his deep thinking. All kinds of questions came up in his mind. First, was it really a divine message or just a hallucination? Second, did he do the right thing in following the orders, or should he have ignored them. Third, was he getting into some unknown but dangerous situation? Too, why was he selected out of so many people to follow these orders? He could not find any satisfactory answer to any of these questions and after awhile he dozed off. Then he heard as if in a dream, “Well sir, did you find anything in this ruin?”
Brahmagopal quickly opened his eyes. No, it was no divine message this time. A flesh and blood man was standing in front. He looked thin and narrow. Everything about him looked narrow, his limbs of course, even his face. He wore tall boots, a hat and shirt tucked in his trousers. He also carried a stick. Surprised Brahmagopal asked, “Who are you?”
The man gave out a sassy grin, “I am Baburam Aditya. I don’t live around here. Just landed up following the smell.”
“Smell? What smell?”
“Why? Can’t you smell it? It is quite strong.”
Brahmagopal tried to breathe in deep a few times, “Perhaps a mole or a skunk?”
Baburam grinned again, “Oh, no. It is the smell of treasures. Smell of gold and diamonds and other gems and jewels. I’m sure we will find something if we search all the corners.”
Brahmagopal shook his head, “No sir. People have been trying that for many years, but I haven’t heard anybody finding anything like that.”
The man looked disappointed, “Rats. Then I have lost a lot of money. Everyday I am paying fifty rupees as entree fee. In last four days I spent two hundred rupees. And all I got so far are a broken porcelain doll, three copper coins, a beaded necklace and a box with a few cowries.”
Brahmagopal was surprised, “Tickets? You don’t need any tickets to get in here.”
“Why? You didn’t buy tickets?”
“Never heard of it in my life!”
Baburam stared at him for some time, “Three or four days ago, when I was peering into the ruins, three goons chased me and threatened to beat me up. When I told them about my treasure hunt, they said ‘you think you can just walk in and look for treasures? You have to buy tickets for the permission to enter. They said their names were Gokul, Nitai and Nobu.”
Brahmagopal sighed, “I don’t know anybody of those names. And this palace has no caretakers. You are being cheated by some con men.”
“What?” the man flopped on the dusty floor and said tearfully, “I am ruined! Totally ruined!”
The original novel "Bholu Jokhon Raja Holo" (ভোলু যখন রাজা হল) by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay was first pubished in 2015 by Ananda, Kolkata.
Illustrated by Ananya Das. Author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.