~ 1 ~
Nashu the village doctor sat feeling Balaram’s pulse for nearly five minutes. Balaram’s seventeen-year-old son Kanai stood near the patient’s head, staring fixedly at the doctor. His father had been ill for ten days now. Balaram had no appetite and ten days of starvation had withered him. His eyes were sunken, and his skin was pale. Kanai had tramped six miles to Nashu’s house, begging him to examine his father. He did not know what this disease was called. Did the doctor know? The frown on Nashu’s face made Kanai doubtful if he did. But the long and short of it was that if Kanai’s father did not survive, his world would collapse. He had no one else to call his own. Father and son lived in Nandigram, the sum of their possessions being an acre and a quarter of land and a pair of oxen. Whatever they managed to grow on their land sufficed for two frugal meals a day for the two of them. Kanai’s mother had died of smallpox about five years ago, and now his father had developed this strange illness.
‘Moonlight,’ said the doctor, shaking his head. Nashu’s fame had spread far and wide. Apparently his ability to read pulses was extraordinary. If he said that a patient was beyond cure, not even the gods could save him; and if he prescribed a medicine, the patient was bound to recover. But what on earth was chandni, or moonlight? ‘Excuse me?’ Kanai asked, frowning.
‘He has to be given the juice of moonlight leaves,’ said the doctor. ‘Nothing else will cure him. The classic name of this plant is Lunani. And the disease is called miseria.’
‘So moonlight is the name of a plant?’ Kanai asked, gulping.
Nashu nodded twice. But his frown did not disappear.
‘The moonlight plant is not to be found any and everywhere, my boy,’ he said at last.
‘You’ll have to go to the forest of Badra. There’s an ancient abandoned temple there. Twenty-five feet to its north is a moonlight plant. But it’s almost ten miles away, can you go all that way?’
‘Of course I can,’ declared Kanai. ‘I don’t mind walking.’
Another question occurred to Kanai.
‘But how will I identify the plant, doctor?’
‘It has small, pointed, purple leaves, yellow flowers and a bewitching fragrance. You can smell it twenty feet away. Its scent can beat the amaranth of paradise hands down. The plant isn’t more than three or four feet tall. Grate a single leaf and give your father its juice—that’s all you need. The illness will flee his body with cries for help, and he will be as good as new in just two days. But you have only ten days. If you cannot give him the medicine in ten days…’
The doctor didn’t finish what he was saying.
‘I’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning,’ said Kanai. ‘I’ll ask Ganesh-khuro to look after my father while I’m away. I don’t suppose we can force some food down his throat, can we?’
The doctor shook his head. ‘It’s no use trying. That’s the symptom of this illness. Can’t digest any food, and the patient just withers away. But the juice of the moonlight leaf is a surefire cure. And, er, we’ll discuss the rest after he recovers…’
Requesting his neighbour Ganesh Samanta to keep an eye on his father, Kanai left very early next morning for the jungle of Badra, packing some flattened rice and gur in his bundle. It would be evening by the time he reached, but Kanai didn’t care. He worshipped his father like a god, and his father loved him more than himself. How could a perfectly healthy man like his father have become so ill all of a sudden? He had shrunk to half his size in no time at all.
Since Kanai didn’t know the way, he had to keep stopping to ask for directions. Whoever he asked inevitably said on hearing the name of his destination, ‘What business do you have there?’ Kanai realized that the forest was obviously not a very safe place, but so what? He was willing to lay down his life to get the moonlight leaf for his father.
When the sun had started throwing long shadows, Kanai saw a dense forest beyond a paddy field. A farmer was returning home with a plough over his shoulder. He confirmed to Kanai that this was indeed the forest of Badra. Kanai walked faster.
There was barely any sunlight inside the dense forest of sal, teak, silk-cotton and many other trees. Locating a plant barely four or five feet tall in this enormous forest was no child’s play. But there was supposed to be a temple near where the plant grew, which would help him.
When he was twenty-five yards inside the forest, Kanai spotted a herd of deer. They fled as soon as they saw him. Deer were all very harmless, but what if he came face to face with a formidable beast of some kind? Anyway, there was no point worrying about these things. His first objective was to find the temple, and then to locate the moonlight plant.
But Kanai got the fragrance even before spotting the temple. Not particularly strong; quite mild, but so satisfying.
After passing a mohua tree, Kanai saw the dilapidated temple. It was almost evening, but because the trees around the temple were a little sparse, a few scattered beams of late afternoon sunlight were visible.
‘And who do you think you are?’
Kanai leapt into the air, startled. It hadn’t even occurred to him that someone else might be living here. Turning towards the sound, he found a man with a three-foot-long beard in front of a shelter of leaves, frowning at him.
‘You won’t get what you want here,’ the old man said, advancing towards him. Could he read minds?
‘Do you know what I’m looking for?’ asked Kanai.
‘Just a minute, let me try to recollect. I knew what it was when I set eyes on you, but now it’s slipped my mind. At a hundred and fifty-six years of age the memory doesn’t work as well as it did in my youth.’
Lowering his head and scratching his right cheek, the old man suddenly straightened his head again. ‘I remember! Moonlight. Your father is ill, and you’re here to collect moonlight leaves for him. It was there on the northern side of that temple till this afternoon, but it isn’t there anymore. Go take a look—someone’s taken it away complete with its roots.’
Kanai’s heart leapt into his mouth. Would all his efforts go waste? He advanced towards the temple. The north. Which side was north? There. There was the hole. That was where the tree had been. Someone had uprooted it entirely and taken it away. But who?
Kanai had tears in his eyes. He went back to the old man.
‘Who’s taken the plant? Who?’
‘The minister and soldiers of Rupsha have taken the plant away. Rupsha’s citizens are all ill with miseria. People die in twenty days of starvation after their limbs waste away. The juice of the moonlight leaf is the only possible cure.’
Kanai didn’t feel like talking anymore. The world seemed to have turned black. But then the old man said something strange.
‘The moonlight may not be here, but what I see is that your father will recover.’
Kanai was startled.
‘Really? Is that really what you foresee? But how will he recover without the medicine? Do you know where else this plant can be found?’
The old man shook his head. ‘It can’t be found anywhere else. This was the only place, but now it’s gone to the kingdom of Rupsha.’
‘How far is it to Rupsha?’
‘Let me think it over.’
The old man had probably forgotten again, which was why he lowered his head and began to scratch his bald pate in an attempt to recollect.
‘Yes, I remember now. Sixty miles away. An enormous kingdom.’
Now Kanai remembered too. ‘Rupsha — isn’t it famous for its handspun fabric?’
‘That’s right. The clothes they weave at Rupsha—saris and dhotis and shawls—are sent all over the land. Such gorgeous clothes are not woven anywhere else.’
‘How do you know all this? Who are you?’
‘I know the past, the present and the future. I do have a name, but I can’t recollect it right now. By the way, you have to go to Rupsha. You must search for the moonlight plant.’
‘But the doctor said if I cannot give my father the medicine within ten days he will die. I’ve already lost a day.’
‘So what? Do what you have to quickly.’
‘How can I? It’s sixty miles away. I have to get there, look for the plant, come back…’
‘Wait, I remember now.’
The old man went into his hut and came back with a sack. From it he pulled out three round objects—one red, one blue, one yellow.
‘Here,’ said the old man, holding up the red one. ‘This is a fruit. When you eat this you will be able to run thrice as fast as a deer. You can run a mile in a minute and a half. Which means you will reach Rupsha in an hour and a half. All three of these are fruits, and I’m giving you all three.’
‘But what do the blue and yellow fruits do?’
‘Now you’ve got me in trouble again,’ said the old man, once again lowering his head to ponder. Then, shaking his head, he said, ‘Uh-huh, I can’t remember. But they do something all right, something that can only help you. If I remember I’ll let you know.’
‘How will you let me know? I’ll be gone.’
‘There are ways.’
Reaching into the sack again, the old man pulled out a seashell almost as large as his palm. To tell the truth, Kanai had never seen a seashell as large as this one. Giving it to Kanai, the old man said, ‘Keep this with yourself. I’ll call your name if I have something to tell you. Your name is Kanai, isn’t it?’
‘You’ll hear my voice in this seashell. You’ll hear me even if the shell is tucked in your waistband. And then if you press it to your ear, you’ll hear me clearly. When I’m done saying what I have to, you’ll hear the roar of the ocean in it. Tuck it back then.’
Kanai placed the seashell in his waistband right away. Looking around, the old man said, ‘It’s dark already. There’s not much you can do at Rupsha now. I suggest you spend the night in my hut and leave early next morning. You’ll have the entire day to do whatever you have to. I have some fruits, you can have them for dinner.’
Kanai agreed. He wanted to eat the red fruit and set off at once; he wanted to test the old man’s claim. But he controlled himself. It would be best to go in the morning.
‘By the way,’ the old man said, ‘I remember now. Everyone calls me Jagai-baba. So can you.’