Short Stories

Misplaced Hope: Rabindranath Tagore

Arriving in Darjeeling, I found the town enveloped in mist and rain. I felt little inclination to go out, and even less of an inclination to stay indoors.

After breakfast at the hotel, I went out for a walk in thick boots, wrapped from head to feet in a mackintosh. It drizzled insistently, and the curtain of dense fog everywhere made it appear that the Creator was intent on obliterating the canvas of the world with an eraser.

Pacing up and down in solitude on the deserted Calcutta Road, I mused on the unbearable nature of the featureless kingdom of fog, for my heart yearned for a mother earth whose wealth of sounds and textures and form I wished to grasp once again with each of my five senses.

Suddenly I heard a woman weeping pitifully. In a household wracked by illnesses, the sound of sobbing would hardly have been unexpected, I doubt whether I would even have turned a hair, but in this infinite realm of clouds, she seemed to be the only person weeping in the now-obliterated universe – I could not dismiss this as insignificant.

Following the sound, I went closer to its source to discover a woman in saffron, her golden yellow matted locks piled high on her head like a mountain-peak, seated on a rock by the side of the road, weeping softly; she was not grieving for a recent loss; many years of silent, repressed fatigue and weariness had burst forth in a torrent today, under the weight of the foggy bleakness.

This is excellent, I thought to myself; it has started just like a homespun story; in all my life, I had never harboured the hope of actually setting eyes on a weeping woman ascetic on a mountain-side.

I could not discern her origins. ‘Who are you, what is the matter?’ I asked compassionately in Hindi.

There was no answer at first, she only cast a tearful glance at me, her eyes glistening through the mist.

‘You need not be afraid of me,’ I continued. ‘I am a gentleman.’

At this she laughed, saying in chaste Hindustani, ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve been afraid, nothing can embarrass me anymore. Once upon a time even my own brother had to seek permission to enter the ladies’ chamber I lived in, babuji, but no curtain secludes me from the world today.’

I was irked; considering my deportment, entirely like a sahib’s, why had this wretched woman unhesitatingly addressed me as babuji? I considered ending my novel this very instant and staging a swift, emphatic exit, emitting cigarette smoke like an English steam engine with its nose in the air. But curiosity triumphed eventually. Loftily I asked, tilting my head, ‘May I be of help? Do you need anything?’

She looked steadily at me, then answered briefly after a few moments, ‘I am the daughter of nawab Ghulam Kader Khan of Badraon.’

What kingdom Badraon was located in, what kind of nawab Ghulam Kader Khan was, or what misery had forced his daughter to become a woman of religion and weep by the side of Calcutta Road in Darjeeling, was entirely beyond my knowledge or belief, but I decided not to ruin the atmosphere, for the story was turning most fascinating.

Saluting her gravely at once, I said, ‘Pardon me, bibisahiba, I could not recognise you.’

There were a number of logical reasons for not recognising her, primary among them being that I had never seen her in my life. Moreover, the dense fog made it difficult even to identify one’s own limbs.

Bibisahiba took no offence, and, gesturing with her right hand at an adjacent rock, she gave me permission in a satisfied tone. ‘Please take a seat.’

I observed that the lady possessed the ability to issue orders. Receiving her approval for occupying the wet, moss-covered slab of rock, hard and uninviting , was an unexpected honour. The daughter of Ghulam Kader Khan of Badraon, Noor-un-neesa, aka Meher-un-neesa, aka Noor-Ulmulk had granted me the privilege of sitting on a low, slippery rock not far from herself. When I had left the hotel in my mackintosh, I had not even dreamed of such a sublime possibility.

The tale of a mysterious dialogue between a wayfaring couple amidst Himalayan peaks sounds like a freshly-completed poetic narrative hot off the author’s pen. But although the sound of rushing torrents from distant, desolate mountain ranges and the exotic notes of music from Kalidasa’s Meghdootam and Kumarsambhava might come alive in the reader’s heart, we must all acknowledge that there are very few modern Bengalis in boots and mackintosh capable of retaining their full sense of self-importance while sharing a mud-spattered seat by the side of Calcutta Road with a Hindustani woman in rags. But the world was shrouded in a dense vapour that day, there was nothing anywhere to feel the slightest embarrassment over; in the unending realm of mist there remained only the daughter of Ghulam Kader Ali Khan, nawab of Badraon, and I, a freshly-bloomed Bengali Englishman – like two pieces of debris from the universe after the apocalypse, we sat on our respective slabs of stone, an incongruous juxtaposition whose extreme irony was visible to no one but destiny.

‘Who has done this to you, bibisahiba?’ I asked.

The princess of Badraon smote herself on the forehead. ‘What do I know of who is instrumental in such acts?’ she declared. ‘Who has cloaked these enormous Himalayan mountains behind a flimsy veil of mist?’

I accepted this without any philosophical argument. ‘True,’ I said. ‘Who can claim to understand the mysteries of fate? We are mere insects.’

I would have debated the point without letting bibisahiba off the hook so easily, but my linguistic skills would not have proved equal to the task. Whatever little Hindi I had mastered through interaction with doormen and bearers would have made it impossible for me to discuss destiny and free will cogently with the daughter of the nawab of Badraon – or of any other place, for that matter – by the side of Calcutta Road.

‘The astonishing saga of my life has drawn to a close this very day,’ announced bibisahiba. ‘If you so command, I shall narrate it to you.’

‘But of course,’ I replied, flustered. ‘Where’s the question of commanding? If you deign to recount it, I shall be gratified to be your audience.’

Let no one imagine I used these precise words in Hindustani, for I had the desire but not the prowess. When bibisahiba spoke, a sweet, temperate breeze seemed to waft over a soothing, verdant harvest with dew-soaked golden crests, such was the facile gentleness, the beauty, the untrammelled flow, of her words. And I could only respond in terse, direct fragments, like a barbarian. I had never acquired the well-rounded, uninterrupted, and natural grace of speech that she displayed; for the first time, while conversing with bibisahiba, I sensed my shortcoming at every step.

She said, ‘The blood of the emperors of Dilli coursed in my veins; it had become well-nigh impossible for my father to locate a suitable groom for my lineage to be preserved. A proposal had been sent by the nawab of Lucknow, which my father was hesitating over, when a battle broke out between the sepoys and the British Raj over the business of biting bullets; Hindustan was darkened by the smoke from cannons.’

I had never heard Hindustani spoken in a woman’s voice, especially in the voice of a lady of noble blood. Hearing it now made it obvious that this was the language of the aristocracy. The period to which this language belonged no longer existed; the railway, the telegraph, swarms of industrial workers, and the eclipse of the upper classes had made everything small and insignificant, without embellishments. No sooner did I hear the daughter of the nawab speak than a wonderful power made the imagined palace of the Mughal emperor materialise before my eyes through the impenetrable web of fog and mist there in the modern hill-station of Darjeeling built by the British – large marble pillars soaring into the sky, long-tailed horses adorned with finely-woven fabric, canopies with golden fringes on the backs of elephants, citizens sporting multihued headgear, dressed in diverse apparel of silk, wool, and muslin, curved swords dangling at their waists, the tips of their embroidered shoes curling upwards. Long hours of leisure; long, flowing garments; and an abundance of courtesy.

‘Our fort was situated by the Yamuna,’ the nawab’s daughter told me. ‘The general of our troops was a Hindu Brahmin. His name was Kesharlal.’

The woman seemed to pour all the melody in her feminine voice at once into her pronunciation of the name. Placing my walking stick on the ground, I stirred and sat up.

‘Kesharlal was an upright Hindu. Every morning at dawn I would observe through the window of the ladies’ chamber how he immersed himself up to his neck in the waters of the Yamuna, pivoting on his heels as he offered his prayers to the newly-risen sun with raised arms, the palms joined. Later, he would sit down on the steps of the ghat in his sodden clothes and count his beads before returning home, all the while singing devotional songs in the Bhairon raga in his clear, pleasant voice.

‘I was a Muslim girl, but I had never been instructed about my own religion, nor was I aware of the methods of worship that it demanded; the bonds of our faith among the men had been loosened at the time by debauchery, drinking and tyranny, nor were its tenets pursued actively in the pleasure chambers in the inner sanctum.

‘Possibly the lord had given me a natural longing for a religious way of life. Or perhaps there was some other hidden reason, I cannot say. But at the sight of Kesharlal’s prayers and rituals under the newly risen sun on the desolate ivory-coloured steps leading into the placid blue Yamuna every tranquil morning, my recently-awakened heart would be flooded with the indescribable sweetness of devotion.

‘The Brahmin Kesharlal’s regular, disciplined acts of self-cleansing made his fair, sprightly, ageless figure appear like a pure flame unsullied by smoke; the sacred aura of the Brahmin made the heart of this daughter of a Muslim defer to him with exquisite reverence.

‘I had a Hindu maid, who would bow in respect to Kesharlal every day, touching his feet devotedly, a sight that aroused both joy and envy in me. On auspicious occasions and festivals she would serve a ritual feast to Brahmins to signal her faith. Helping her with money, I would ask her, “Are you not going to invite Kesharlal?” Biting her tongue to indicate the impropriety of such an act, she would answer, “Kesharlal thakur accepts neither hospitality nor alms.”

‘Thus unable to display any direct or indirect sign of my devotion to Kesharlal, my famished heart felt discontent.

‘One of our forefathers had forcibly married a Brahmin woman, it was her sacred blood that I sensed in my veins there in the ladies’ chamber, and imagining a connection with Kesharlal by virtue of this lineage offered me a modicum of satisfaction.

‘From my Hindu maid, I used to hear the details of every single Hindu ritual, each of the wonderful stories about their gods and goddesses, the glorious history of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Listening to them there in the corner of my sanctum unveiled a wondrous image of the Hindu world to my mind’s eye. Idols and statues, the sonorous sound of conch-shells, the temples with their spires cased in gold, the smoke rising from the incense, the fragrance of flowers mixed with sandalwood and perfume, the miraculous powers of yogis and sages, the superhuman greatness of the Brahmin, and the wondrous play of the gods and goddesses masquerading as human beings all combined to put within my reach a vast, primordial, remote and supernatural world of illusion; like a tiny bird cut off from its nest, my heart seemed to flutter from room to room within an enormous, ancient palace at dusk. The Hindu world was like a charming fairytale to the soul of the young girl that I was.

‘That was when the battle broke out between the British and the sepoys. A revolutionary wave swept our little fort in Badraon too.

‘“It is time to banish the beef-eating British from the land of the Aryas and resume the game of dice between Hindus and Muslims for the right to rule Hindustan,” declared Kesharlal.

‘My father Ghulam Kader Khan was a cautious man; referring to the British in terms of unflattering kinship, he said, “They are capable of performing impossible tasks; the people of Hindustan cannot overcome them. I do not intend to lose my little fort for the sake of uncertain expectations; I shall not fight the British.”

‘At a time when the blood of all Hindus and Muslims in Hindustan was boiling, this mercantile prudence on my father’s part elicited condemnation from us all. Even my mothers, the begums, grew agitated.

‘An armed Kesharlal arrived with troops. “If you do not join us, nawab sahib, we will incarcerate you and I shall take command of your fort,” he told my father.

‘“You need not go to such trouble,’ answered my father, “I am on your side.”

‘“You must give us some money from the treasury,” said Kesharlal.

My father did not offer very much, saying, “I shall provide it as needed.”

‘Tying up every single ornament I possessed, from head to toe, in a cloth bundle, I sent them to Kesharlal in secret through my Hindu maid. He accepted them. My unadorned limbs thrilled in delight at this.

‘As Kesharlal prepared to scrub and clean the barrels of rusted guns and disused swords, one afternoon the Commissioner of the district, accompanied by British redcoats, entered our fort in a cloud of dust.

‘My father Ghulam Kader Khan had surreptitiously passed on information about the rebellion to him.

‘Such was Kesharlal’s magical influence over the troops of Badraon that they prepared to join battle with their damaged guns and blunt swords and die if needs be.

‘My treacherous father’s house seemed like hell to me. My heart was breaking with rage and sorrow and hatred, but not a single teardrop escaped my eyes. Disguising myself in my cowardly brother’s clothes, I left the women’s chambers, ; no one had the leisure to notice my departure.

‘By then the cloud of dust and the gunpowder fumes, the cries of the soldiers and the sound of the guns, had stopped, and the land and water and skies were in the grip of the terrible calm of death. The sun had set after painting the waters of the Yamuna a bloody red, a near full moon hung in the evening sky.

‘The battlefield was strewn with grotesque scenes of death. At another time my heart would have ached in compassion, but that day I wandered about like a person in a dream, searching for Kesharlal’s whereabouts. This was the only objective in my life; all else appeared unreal.

‘In the course of my search I discovered under the bright moonlight late at night the corpses of Kesharlal and his devoted servant Devkinandan, in the shade of a mango orchard on the bank of the Yamuna, not far from the battlefield. I realized that, grievously injured, the master had borne the servant – or the servant, the master – away from the battleground to the shelter of this spot and given him up into the arms of death.

‘My very first act was to fulfil my pent up desire for expressing my devotion. Throwing myself at Kesharlal’s feet, and releasing my hair which flowed down to my hips, I repeatedly wiped the dust off those feet and held his ice-cold toes against my heated brow. As soon as I kissed his feet, the tears I had held back all this time welled up.

‘Kesharlal’s body stirred, and hearing a sudden, stifled groan emerge from his lips, I released his feet in shock; “Water,” I heard him say, his eyes still closed and his voice parched.

‘At once I soaked the scarf around my shoulder in the water of the Yamuna and ran back. Wringing the water out of the scarf, I poured it drop by drop into Kesharlal’s parted lips, and bandaged the severe wound that had destroyed his left eye with the torn-off end of my sodden garment.

‘After I had fetched water several times from the Yamuna in this way and sprinkled it on his face and eyes, he regained consciousness gradually. “Do you wish for some more water?” I enquired. “Who are you?” asked Kesharlal. Unable to restrain myself, I said, “Your servant is your devotee. I am Nawab Ghulam Kader Khan’s daughter.” I had assumed that, death being imminent, he would depart with the knowledge of his disciple’s identity; no one would be able to deprive me of this joy.

‘As soon as he discovered my identity, Kesharlal roared like a lion, “Daughter of a traitor! Heretic! You have cut me off from my faith by offering water from a Muslim at the hour of my death.” With these words he struck a mighty blow on my face with his right hand. I almost fainted; a veil of darkness descended before my eyes.

‘I was sixteen then, having emerged from the women’s chamber for the first time in my life; the fiery and lascivious sun in the external sky had not yet robbed me of the glow on my tender cheeks. The instant I entered the world outside I received my first greeting from it, from the god of my universe.’

My cigarette extinguished, I had been listening transfixed all this time. I did not know whether it was the story or the form of the music that I was listening to, but I hadn’t said a word. Now I could hold myself back no longer. ‘Beast!’ I exclaimed suddenly.

‘Who is the beast?’ The nawab’s daughter said. ‘Can a beast in the throes of death refuse the water held to its lips?’

‘That is true,’ I replied, subdued. ‘He was a god.’

‘What sort of god!’ responded the nawab’s daugher. ‘Can a god reject the follower’s devoted offering?’

‘That is also true, ’ I answered, and fell silent.

‘At first I was shattered,’ continued the nawab’s daughter. ‘I felt as though the universe had collapsed around me. Regaining consciousness in an instant, I offered my respects, from a distance, at the feet of the harsh, unbending, cruel, indifferent, pious Brahmin. To myself, I said, you accept nothing, o Brahmin – the the humble man’s service, another’s hospitality, the rich man’s gift, the maiden’s youth and the woman’s love, none of it. You are unique, you are solitary, you are detached, you are distant, I do not even have the right to surrender to you!

‘I cannot say what Kesharlal thought when he saw the daughter of the nawab offering her respects with her forehead touching the ground, but there was no surprise or change of expression in his face. He gave me a single serene glance, then got to his feet slowly. Startled, I extended by arm to offer support, which he rejected in silence, and went up to the bank of the Yamuna with great effort. A ferry boat was moored at the spot, but there was neither anyone to row him across, nor anyone to be ferried. Climbing into the boat, Kesharlal untied it from the stake. The boat drifted midstream and then disappeared gradually. On that hushed night I wished, with all the burden of my soul and of my youth, with all the unacknowledged devotion in my heart, to join my palms in reverence towards this invisible boat, and like a flower fallen prematurely from its stem, give up my failed life in the tranquil waters of the Yamuna, joyous under the moonlight.

But I could not. The moon in the sky, the dense, black line of forest by the Yamuna, the deep blue unwavering waters of the river, the turrets of our fort shining in the moonlight beyond the mango orchard, all sang the symphony of death in silent harmony; on that night the three soundless worlds of land, air and water, studded with the stars and planets, ordered me in unison to die. Only a single invisible, ramshackle boat floating along the tranquil Yamuna, with not a wave disturbing its surface, prised me away from the embracing arms of dignified, soothing, eternal and universally enchanting death to drag me along the path of life. Like one entranced by a dream I walked along the Yamuna, passing through reeds as well as sandy beaches, traversing land that was cleft and uneven in some places, and overgrown with trees, weeds and vines in others.’

The speaker stopped. I did not say a word, either.

After a long silence, the nawab’s daughter continued. ‘The events that unfolded thereafter were complex. I do not know how to explain them clearly. I was passing through a dense forest, I could no longer determine the path I had taken. How should I begin? Where should I end? What should I purge and what should I keep? How do I tell this tale clearly and directly so that nothing appears impossible or improbable or unnatural?

‘But what I have learnt during my brief life is that nothing is impossible or beyond reach. To a girl brought up in the inner sanctum of the nawab’s home, the world outside might seem inaccessible, but this is an imaginary notion; once you have stepped outside, there is always a road to take. It is not the royal path, but it is a path nevertheless; mankind has always taken this path – it is rocky and strange and unending, it branches out in different directions, it is made difficult by joys and sorrows and obstacles and hindrances, but it is a path.

‘The details of the solitary nawab’s daughter’s journey along this path taken by everyday human beings will not make for pleasant hearing, nor do I feel any enthusiasm for recounting them. To put it briefly, many miseries and dangers and much humiliation had to be endured, but still life did not become unbearable. Like fireworks, the more I burnt, the more irresistible my pace became. All the time that I moved swiftly, I had no sensation of burning, but now that this flame of intense sorrow and extreme joy has been extinguished, depositing me in the dust on the roadside like an inanimate object, my journey is over, my story ends here.’

With these words, the nawab’s daughter stopped. Mentally, I shook my head; by no means could the story end here. After a brief silence I said in broken Hindi, ‘Pardon my insolence: if you could explain the end in greater detail, your servant would be relieved greatly of his anxiety.’

The nawab’s daughter smiled. I realized that my broken Hindi had worked. Had I been able to conduct the conversation in chaste Hindi, her reserve would not have been lowered, but the fact that I knew very little of her mother tongue created a substantial gap, drawing a veil between us.

‘I received news of Kesharlal frequently,’ she resumed, ‘although I was unable to meet him despite my best efforts. Having joined Tantia Tope’s group, he would strike without warning like lightning under the revolutionary sky, sometimes in the east, sometimes in the west, sometimes in the north-west or the south-east, and disappear instantly.

‘I had disguised myself as an ascetic at the time in Kashi, where I addressed Swami Shivananda as my father and learnt Sanskrit from him. All the news from everywhere in India would gather at his feet; I would study Sanskrit devotedly and follow the news of the battles with dreadful anxiety.

‘Gradually the British Raj ground out the flames of revolution in Hindustan under its feet. Suddenly, there was no more news of Kesharlal. The valiant figures from distant parts of the country who had become visible every now and then in the bloodied light of the apocalypse were eclipsed unexpectedly.

‘I could hold myself back no longer. Abandoning the protection of my teacher, I became a wanderer again in the guise of a worshipper. I travelled through the roads, to places of pilgrimage, to temples and hermitages, but nowhere did I find any trace of Kesharlal. One or two people who were familiar with him said, “He has been killed, either in battle or by royal decree.” My soul said, “Never, Kesharlal cannot die. This Brahmin, this flame that burns unbearably bright, has not yet found release; the fire in him is still blazing up to the skies in some remote spot readied for a holy fire ritual, awaiting my self-sacrifice.”

‘The Hindu scriptures say that knowledge and penance can turn a Shudra into a Brahmin, but they make no reference to whether a Muslim can become a Brahmin, the only reason being that there were no Muslims at the time. I knew that it would be a long while before I could be united with Kesharlal, for I would have to become a Brahmin first. One by one, thirty years passed. In my soul and in my appearance, in my behaviour and in my habits, I became a Brahmin in word and in deed; the blood of the Brahmin woman, my ancestor, flowed in my veins without impurity. Mentally establishing myself without reservation at the feet of the first Brahmin of my youth, the last Brahmin at the end of my life, the only Brahmin in my entire universe, I acquired a magnificent radiance.

‘I had heard many accounts of Kesharlal’s valour during the revolutionary battles, but none of them had been imprinted on my heart. The image I had seen of a solitary Kesharlal silently floating along in a tiny boat midstream on a placid Yamuna on a moonlit night was the one that had remained in my consciousness. Every day I would see the Brahmin rowing along the desolate currents day and night, towards an undefined mysterious destination, without a companion, without an attendant. He needed no one; a pure and self-absorbed man, he was complete in himself; the stars and moon and planets in the sky observed him in silence.

‘Then I heard that Kesharlal had escaped from prison and taken shelter in Nepal. I went to Nepal too. After a long sojourn there, I was informed that he had left Nepal long ago. No one knew where he had gone.

‘Since then I have been wandering around the mountains. This is not a land of Hindus – Bhutias, Lepchas and others are heathens, their daily acts follow no principles; their gods, their prayers, their rituals are all different. I began to worry about the possibility of the slightest defilement of the sacred purity that I had acquired after years of penance and devotion. With great effort I proceeded to protect myself from all manner of impure contact. I knew that my boat was close to the shore now; the ultimate holy destination of my life was at hand.

‘What more is there to say? The final chapter is brief. When the lamp goes out it needs only a single puff of breath. How do I elaborate on this?

‘Thirty-eight years later, here in Darjeeling, I found Kesharlal this morning.’

When the speaker stopped here, I asked, bursting with curiosity, ‘What did you see?’

The nawab’s daughter said, ‘I saw an aged Kesharlal living amidst the Bhutias with a Bhutia wife and the grandchildren she has engendered, harvesting corn in tattered clothes in their soiled courtyard.’

The story had ended; I thought it imperative to offer some consolation. ‘How can someone who has had to live thirty-eight successive years in fear for his life in the company of people of other faiths possibly adhere to prescribed behaviour?’

‘I understand that,’ said the nawab’s daughter. ‘But what about the illusion under which I had been living all these years? I did not know that the Brahminism which had conquered my adolescent heart was nothing but habit, nothing but practice. I had thought of it as dharma, as eternal, without beginning or end. If that were not so, why had I accepted the unbearable humiliation I had suffered from the Brahmin’s right hand on that moonlight night in return for the adoration which resonated within my blossoming mind, body and soul? Why had I thought of it as a rite of initiation from my mentor and acknowledged it with bowed head and redoubled devotion? Ah, Brahmin, you have exchanged one set of practices for another; but how will I get my youth, my life, back in exchange for another?’

With these words, the woman rose to her feet, saying, ‘Namaste, babuji.’

The very next moment she said, as though correcting herself, ‘Salaam, babu sahib!’ With this Muslim form of address, she seemed to bid her final farewell to the decayed, ruined Brahminism lying in the dust. Before I could say a word, she disappeared like a cloud in the grey fog gathered over the Himalayan peaks.

For a few brief moments I closed my eyes to see all these events taking place before my mind’s eye. I saw the sixteen-year-old girl comfortably seated on her fabric cushion at the window by the bank of the river, I saw the intent figure of the female ascetic brimming over with devotion during the evening prayers at the temple, and then I saw, too, the form of the woman of advancing years, weighed down by her broken heart and her misery, shrouded in fog here on Calcutta Road in Darjeeling. The wondrous, ardent music rising from the conflicting flow of Muslim and Hindu blood within the veins of a tender young woman melted into the self-contained beauty of the Urdu language to reverberate in my mind.

Opening my eyes, I discovered that the clouds had lifted suddenly, with the unsullied sky glittering in the pleasant sunlight. Englishwomen in carriages and Englishmen on horseback were out for some fresh air, interspersed by one or two Bengalis casting amused glances at me from faces wrapped in mufflers.

I rose to my feet quickly. At the sight of this uncovered world lit up by the sun, the story wrapped in layers of fog no longer seemed real. I believe I must have mixed the fog over the mountains with the smoke from my cigarette to spin an imaginary tale. The Muslim Brahmin woman, the revolutionary, the fort by the Yamuna – perhaps none of them had ever existed.

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