• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Buddhadeva Bose | Memoir
  • The Land Where I Found It All : Buddhadeva Bose
    translated from Bengali to English by Nandini Gupta

    Chapter 5: A Solitary Madman on a Dark Night

    Nandita Debi
    The other day Nandita Debi said, ‘One day under the Chhatimtola …….’
    She stopped suddenly and we asked, ‘What happened?’
    ‘They saw Dwijendranath. Actually, they frequently see him.’
    ‘Have you seen him?’
    ‘No, but once a young man…, but I had better stop, it would scare you.’ (This last was to Makshirani).
    Makshirani smiled wanly and said, ‘Never mind, go on.’
    ‘The young man had just arrived and was staying in the guest house. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he appeared on Nandalalbabu’s doorstep. What was the matter? He said, “I was lying down, I saw Gurudeb walking round my bed--- just as he was about to lift the mosquito net and look in, I ran for my life. What’s all this?” Then they told him, “You are mistaken. He is not Gurudev, but his elder brother.” ’
    ‘Well, I never knew Dwijendranath---wouldn’t be a bad idea to meet him now.’
    ‘And then you know, a few years ago, in that house that lies on the way to Surul…’
    When she finished that story, Nandita Debi said, ‘No, I had better stop here. But you know, once a very funny thing happened in Dadamoshai’s Silaidaha home.’
    One after another, many ghost-infested anecdotes were recounted. When we were preparing to depart, she said, ‘Wait, listen to this…’

    Dwijendranath Tagore
    So the hair-raising stories continued. It had grown dark by then, and Makshirani looked pale. She was the perfect target for such ghostly stories, because she was always prepared to be scared out of her wits. After this became apparent to Nanditadebi, she would, at the slightest pretext, launch on a blood-tingling tale, and then say, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t, I might scare you.’ Various stories would follow, but she always saved the grisliest one for the last. As she left, she would say, ‘Don’t be alarmed. These are only stories, none of them true.’

    Pratima Debi
    After one such evening of ghost stories and dinner at Pratima Debi’s place, we returned home. I sat on a deck chair on the veranda. It was about ten-thirty in the night, a cool breeze blew, I was full of cheer. We sat around talking. In the silences that intervened, a loud voice could be heard from the direction of the fields. There was a road there normally used by the Santhals. The Santhals spoke loudly, their words strung together like in a song. We first thought it was one of them passing by, and did not pay much heed. But then it struck us that the voice appeared to be stationary, neither advancing nor receding. Nothing was visible in the darkness; we strained to pick up the words. It sounded as if someone was rehearsing a play. We could make out lamentations, some in prose and some in poetry, uttered in a melodramatic voice, ‘Mother, am I not your son, will you not give me food?’, etc. Sometimes the voice stopped, and then started again. We listened quietly for a while, and then decided it did not bode well. The matter needed looking into before we went to bed. So we turned up the Petromax and placed it on the edge of the veranda; then Jyotirmoybabu and I went out with flashlights. Not that we ventured very far, certainly not beyond the lit area. We stood at its edge and addressed the invisible and unexpected visitor, ‘Who is it? Who are you?’ We attempted to sound brave but I am not sure how well we succeeded. The reply came, ‘It’s me.’ ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Slowly the man approached. A wasted frame, ragged clothes; a pair of handcuffs dangled from his hands, but they were unlocked. Just as we had suspected; he was mad. It is often said that the madman and the poet belong to the same generic species, but in this silent desolate night I could not welcome him as a kindred soul, nor feel pleasure at his arrival. I asked, ‘What do you want?’ ‘I have come to see Thakur.’ ‘Thakur who?’ ‘Rabindranath Thakur.’ We said, ‘He doesn’t live here. See that big house; we’ve been told that’s where he lives.’ I said so in the hope that if he approached Uttarayan, he would be intercepted by one of the sentries; but it seemed to dampen his enthusiasm. He asked, ‘Will you give me some food?’ ‘Ok, come with me.’

    Without daring to take my eyes off him, I climbed onto the verandah and said, “Sit down. I’ll get you something to eat.” We gave him a few mangoes. I sat down on the deck-chair and wondered what to do next. The man looked harmless, but how would I go to sleep with a madman outside my door? The servants did not sleep in the house, there was nobody around to carry a message. It did not seem that the man intended to depart soon. Having finished the mangoes, he settled down comfortably. I would have been happy to keep him busy with some more food, but there was nothing more in the house. What were we to do now? We decided to wait for the guards to arrive on their nightly rounds around Santiniketan. They should have come, but tonight when we needed them, they were late. The minutes passed; we could see neither their flashlights nor hear their whistles. I sat there. Not far away, Miss Petit slept on peacefully. Jyotirmoybabu tried to rouse her, but she only said, “Oh, he is mad, he won’t hurt us”. Then she turned over and went back to sleep.

    But our dark night’s visitor showed no signs of leaving. Nor did it seem a good idea to let him go without ascertaining his destination. If pleased with our services, how long would it be before his return? Faced with no other option, we decided to enlist Miss Petit’s help. This time, Makshirani woke her up and explained the situation. She immediately appeared, dressed in a black kimono. She jumped off the veranda and briskly went up to the intruder, ‘You want to meet Rabindranath Thakur? Come with me, I will take you to him.’ At first, the man stood silent and motionless. Saying ‘Come, come, come with me’, the fearless woman almost dragged him away and disappeared with him into the dark fields. We two intrepid knights of Bengal, stood aside and watched.

    Ultimately Jyotirmoybabu accompanied Miss Petit, though it served no purpose other than saving face, and I stayed to guard the family. They soon returned, having turned him over to the watchman at Uttarayan. We slept restfully that night, heartened by the presence of a very brave woman next door.

    From then on, it was arranged that a gardener would sleep in the house; we also realised that the guards had been instructed to keep a close watch over us. But we did not have to suffer such a night-time intrusion again. Insanity though seemed to be in the air, for another mad person graced Uttarayan with her presence the next day, a woman this time. She came from Burdwan by train, carrying a cat in her arms, covered with her sari like a baby. She sent message, “Go tell Bouthan that Sarala Debi has come from Jorasanko.” She took Pratima Debi by surprise. Though mad, she was still in possession of some sense, and seemed well-informed; her eyes rested with keenness on many of the articles lying around the house. She did not seem prepared to go away with empty hands, so she was given some money, taken to the Bolpur station and put on the train.

    One day we heard that a cobra had its den below a neem tree near the Ratan Kuthi kitchen---the servants saw it all the time; once Kashi had only just missed stepping on it. Almost on cue, we began to be showered with innumerable stories about local snakes. Once, a certain gentleman was staying in the same room that we were in now. He was working at the table one day when something fell from above with a thud. Startled, he looked up to see a snake. When he looked up at the ceiling, he saw another one peeping out.
    Kshitimohan Sen
    Another morning, Kshitimohanbabu woke up and turned on his side when his hands encountered something cold and soft. It turned out to be an enormous snake sleeping blissfully beside him. We heard many more such stories. A girl said, ‘One night when I went to bed, I found a snake curled around one of its legs. I shooed it away and got into bed, but then it did not seem a good idea to fall asleep with a snake in the room. So I got a lamp and searched it out. I couldn’t find anything else, so I beat it up with one of my slippers and killed it. Only then could I go to sleep.’ We asked, ‘Aren't you afraid of snakes?’ She rolled her eyes and said, ‘Oh, very much. People can actually die of snake bites’. Snakes were actually commonplace, and people did not live in fear of them. If they needed to go out in the dark, they used a flashlight; apart from that, they did not give them much thought. There were also people who did not even bother with flashlights. If they came across a snake in the cupboard, on or under the bed, nobody was surprised, nobody thought twice about it; but if the snake happened to be poisonous, they killed it with great fanfare. Kids carried grass snakes to school in their pockets, and often put them to various inappropriate use. The lack of fear, in the inhabitants of a place, easily transmits itself to the visitors. If I had heard so much about snakes anywhere else, I would surely have been perturbed; but in Santiniketan, even a snake-fearing person like me remained unworried---life there seemed safe and secure, as if one could come to no harm. Besides, in Santiniketan’s history, no one had ever died of snakebites. Nandalalbabu and Sudhakantababu had both been bitten, but by rather inconsequential snakes, and had not been harmed in any way.

    Even so, the news that we had a poisonous creature for a neighbour did bother us somewhat. I jokingly mentioned the fact to the Poet. He smiled gently and said, ‘They never hurt people.’ The words ring in my ears, for they were uttered with remarkable tenderness. I did talk to other people, and indicated that snakes and humans were not meant to share such close quarters. We were told that there was a snake-charmer living nearby who could lure snakes out of their holes. I had heard of such people, but had never seen it done. I summoned the man, not so much out of fear of a venomous death as out of curiosity. A couple of mornings later, he arrived. There was a pile of bricks near the neem tree I have mentioned earlier. Like bamboo-groves, brick-piles were known to be favourite haunts of snakes; the snake-catcher made some calculations and said, yes, there was a snake in there. Would he be able to catch it? Certainly. He began work, while we all watched excitedly. That any moment a huge snake might strike out was a thought that kept us at a distance initially, but when in the space of an hour nothing but a few moles emerged, we moved nearer. People poked among the bricks, moved them around, and whenever something seemed remotely visible under the bricks, our hearts jumped with expectation and fear---now! Some of the holes were smoked with burning paper, Sudhakantababu even poked his hand into one, exciting collective audience admiration,--- but where was the snake! It seemed that it had divined our evil intentions and fled. We waited in the hot sun till eleven in the morning, and then went in exhausted. Miss Petit waited some more, camera in hand. The moment the snake raised its hood and the snake-charmer grabbed him, she would click the shutter. She already had quite a number of photographs featuring snakes in her collection, this one last shot would complete the series. She would then embark on a photo-essay for an English language magazine. But she too was disappointed. Digging and delving for the snake continued for some more time, but I have been told that to this day the snake has not been persuaded to see the light of day near Ratan Kuthi.

    In the meantime, news reached the Poet that we were digging up the place looking for snakes. He spoke to us neither lightly nor in jest. He was concerned that our mental peace had been violated, and he assured us in many ways. He said, ‘I will not say that if a snake hisses at your feet, you should not be afraid. But they truly keep to themselves. They do not come into the presence of people, in all these years they have not harmed anyone. I have not lived in the house you are in now, but apart from that I have lived in most houses here. I have seen plenty of snakes, but have never found them dangerous. Dispel the snakes from the memories that you take away from here.’

    We were shamed by his words. We felt guilty. To drag a creature out of its natural habitat and subject it to danger appeared rather mean, this we honestly realised. Lawrence’s poem about snakes puts it perfectly; the behaviour of civilised mankind towards the lords of life undoubtedly smacks of an inherent pettiness.

    I do not know if Rabindranath has read this poem by Lawrence, he would like it. But I did realise that he loved animals. He is not an animal-lover as we understand the word, nor merely charitable towards them. It was not pity, nor mere fondness. Rather it was an acceptance of the fact that every manifestation of life deserved respect. It is the same sense that lies behind Lawrence’s poetry about beasts birds insects. People keep pets, love animals, some people, have an uncanny gift for taming wild animals, weaving their magic over the beasts; then there are the protagonists of non-violence who leave their own bodies open to the ravages of flea and lice. But this dispassionate yet inherent benevolence towards all creatures is rare amongst educated people; it is a trait probably more natural to a poet than a religious man or an animal-lover. Everyone knows that birds ate off Dwijendranath’s hands, and squirrels climbed over him. Rabindranath too possessed a deep sensibility for the animal kingdom. He recounted an incident. In Europe, a sculptor made Rabindranath’s statue, and put a dog on the shoulders. ‘Why, because I love animals.’

    After talking to the poet about snakes, I realised he did not like them being killed. Once a snake climbed the walls of Anilbabu’s house; the poet was then living in Shyamali. When people chased it with sticks, the poet said, ‘Let it be. It will go away.’ People desisted for then. But as soon as the poet went in for his bath, the attack resumed, and it goes without saying that the snake’s life came to a quick end.

    Published March 20, 2007

  • Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 8 | 1: Earlier Memories | 2: Ratan Kuthi and Other Houses | 3: Holidaying | 4: Summer, Rain and Children | 5: A Solitary Madman on a Dark Night | Chapter 13
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