By Rabindranath Tagore
(Translated by Ruma Chakravarti)
Photik Chakravarti, the leader of the boys, suddenly had an idea – lying on the river bank, just waiting to be made into a mast was a huge saal log, so he and the others decided that they would try to roll it along.
When the boys realised how much the real owner of the timber would be amazed, annoyed, and inconvenienced in his hour of need, they all agreed to the plan.
As they were about to push the log along, Photik’s younger brother, Makhanlal, went and sat down on the log with a serious look on his face. The others felt slightly disconcerted by his strange air of nonchalance.
One of them went and half-heartedly tried to push him off, but he sat steadfast; a precocious philosopher with his mind silently focused on the futility of all kinds of sport.
‘Look, I will thrash you! Get up before that happens,’ Photik reproached, but Makhan, frustratingly enough, seemed to settle into his seat even more.
In this case, Photik should have saved face before the others by slapping his obstinate brother’s cheek without further delay but he did not dare to do that. Instead, he adopted an attitude that seemed to say that he could have taught his brother a lesson but was choosing not to, as he had decided on an even better game which would be more fun. He suggested that they roll the log with Makhan still seated on it.
Makhan thought this would add to his stature, but neither he nor the others realised that with pride comes an increased risk of falling.
The boys began to push the log with great spirit, rallying each other with cries: ‘Let us push, for we are strong!’ However, as soon as the log turned once, Makhan fell to the ground with all his solemnity, pride, and philosophy.
The other boys were overjoyed to see these results almost before the games had started in earnest, but Photik became very anxious. Makhan scrambled up immediately and attacked Photik, hitting him with blind rage. He left his face and nose scratched and bleeding and stormed off home crying. The games broke up.
Photik picked a few stems of grass and climbed up on a half-submerged boat, where he sat quietly chewing on them.
Soon a strange boat from another village arrived and moored at the bank. A middle aged man with a head of white hair but a dark moustache climbed out and asked the boy, ‘Where do the Chakravartis live?’
Photik replied, chewing the grass stalk, ‘Over there.’ However, it was not clear to anyone where he meant.
The gentleman patiently asked, ‘Over where?’
Photik replied, ‘I don’t know,’ and kept chewing the stem.
The visitor asked someone else and went off to find the Chakravartis with their help.
Bagha Bagdi came over a short while later. ‘Photikdada, your mother is calling you home.’
‘I won’t go home,’ remarked Photik.
Bagha forcibly picked him up in his arms and carried him home, Photik kicking and protesting in vain all the while.
As soon as his mother saw him, she flared up, crying, ‘You hit Makhan again!’
‘No, I did not hit him,’ replied Photik.
‘You are lying again.’
‘I never hit him. Ask him.’
When she asked Makhan, he verified his accusations, saying, ‘Yes, he did.’
Photik could bear it no longer. He crossed over to Makhan in a trice and gave him a resounding slap saying, ‘You are lying again!’
Their mother, siding with Makhan, roughly shook Photik and dealt him a few quite hard slaps on the back.
When Photik pushed her away, his mother screamed at his impudence.
‘What! You raised your hand at me!’
While all this was going on, the gentleman with salt and pepper hair came in and asked, ‘What are you doing?’
Photik’s mother, overcome with amazement and joy, said, ‘My brother! When did you come?’ and bent down to touch his feet.
While he had been kept occupied with work in the west for a lengthy period of time, she had given birth to two children who had grown up, and her husband had passed away. And during that time, not once had she seen her brother. As he had returned to the village after many years, he had come to see her.
The following days passed in great happiness. Eventually, a day or two before leaving, Bishwambharbabu asked his sister about the academic and moral prospects of his nephews. He heard all about Photik, his incorrigible waywardness, his unwillingness to study and also about Makhan’s obedience and love of books.
His sister added, ‘Photik is the bane of my life.’
He proposed that he would take Photik to Kolkata and make sure he received an education. The widow agreed to this easily.
‘Do you want to go to Kolkata with your uncle?’ she asked her son.
‘Yes!’ cried Photik, jumping up in joy.
Even though she had no problems with sending Photik away – for it was her perennial fear that one day he might either drown Makhan or crack his skull open – she was still slightly hurt when she saw how eager he was to leave.
‘When do we leave?’ ‘When do we go?’ Photik drove his uncle crazy with questions, for he could barely sleep at night.
At the moment of departure, he was so overcome with generosity and joy that he donated his kite and his fishing rod to Makhan for him to use for generations to come.
When he arrived in Kolkata, he met his uncle’s wife for the first time. I did not think that she was pleased at this unnecessary addition to her family. She had been happily raising three sons of her own all this time, and, now, to have a strange uneducated thirteen year old boy from the village suddenly let loose on them, was almost an incitement to revolution. Her husband was advanced in years but where was his sense?
There is nothing as likely to be a source of annoyance in this world as a boy of thirteen or fourteen. They are not pleasant to look at nor are they useful. They do not engender love and their company is not desirable. If they lisp it seems affected, mature words sound impertinent and, in fact, any word at all is a word too many. They suddenly seem to outgrow their clothing and this is deemed an unpleasant liberty by those around them. The softness of childhood and the sweetness of voice are suddenly lost, giving way to an awkward angularity and certain hoarseness; others blame them for this as well. Many of the transgressions of childhood and youth may be forgiven, but the natural and inevitable lapses of these in between years are somehow unbearable.
He too can sense that somehow he does not really fit anywhere; this makes him continually ashamed and apologetic. Yet this is the age when the need for some affection is actually felt more acutely. If he can have some affectionate consideration from a kindhearted person, he will be eternally bound to them. Sadly though, no one dares to approach him with affection, because most see that as leniency and therefore bad for him. This is why they become like an unloved stray dog, both in appearance and in manner.
As a result, any new place outside their mother’s home is hell for these boys. The loveless dislike that surrounds him stings him like barbs. This is also the age when the female species starts appearing like an unattainable being of some superior heavenly sphere and, therefore, any neglect from them is utterly unbearable.
The fact that to his aunt’s unsympathetic eyes he was an ill omen was most hurtful to Photik. If she ever asked him to do something, he would do much more than needed out of sheer joy; she would finally curb his enthusiasm and say, ‘That is quite enough. You may stop doing that now. Go and do some of your own chores. Perhaps study your books.’ His aunt’s excessive attention to his mental advancement always mortified him.
Added to the neglect within the house was the fact that there was nowhere he could escape to. All he could think of within these walls that caged him was the village he had left.
That field where he ran about with his huge kite fluttering, the river banks where he wandered idly singing strange songs of his own making, the narrow rivulets where he would jump in and swim whenever he felt like it, and most of all, that despotic and unfair mother – these drew his helpless soul all the time.
A kind of inexplicable love like that of a pet, just the need to be close, the unspoken anxiousness of not seeing, the heartfelt calls of a motherless calf at darkness – these were the feelings that continually shook the very core of that shy, frightened, thin, tall, unsightly boy.
There was not another boy at school who was as stupid or unmindful. When asked a question, he simply stared back with his mouth open. When the teacher started striking him, he bore it in silence like an over-burdened donkey. When the boys went out to play, he stood near the window and watched the distant houses, his heart growing eager for a glimpse of a child playing on the roof under the midday sun.
One day, he steeled his heart and bravely asked his uncle, ‘When will I go to see my mother?’
His uncle replied that it would be during the Puja holidays, but this, being during the month of Kartik, was still a long way away.
Sometime after this, he lost his school books. He had already been finding his studies hard, and now it became well-nigh impossible. The teacher hit him and abused him daily. Such was his situation at school that even his cousins felt ashamed to admit he was related to them. They seemed to show more glee at his discomfort and shame, than the other boys.
When the situation grew unbearable, he went to his aunt and said apologetically, ‘I have lost my books.’
‘What an achievement!’ she pursed her lips, saying, ‘I cannot be expected to buy them for you five times a month!’
Photik came away without another word. The fact that he was wasting someone else’s money made him very cross with his mother, and his own ordinariness and poverty made him feel lesser than he had ever felt.
That night, after he returned from school, his head started aching and he began shivering. He knew he was feverish. He also understood that if he became ill, it would be a great burden on his aunt, who would see this as an unnecessary annoyance. Such was the turmoil within this idle, unusual, ignorant boy that he felt a sense of shame at the thought someone other than his mother would have to nurse him during his illness.
The next morning Photik was nowhere to be seen. A search of all the neighbouring houses failed to find him.
On the night Photik had gone missing, it started raining heavily, and the downpour resulted in the search party getting far wetter than was necessary. Finally, after failing to find him in the places they had looked, Bishwambharbabu went to the police.
The following evening, a car came to a halt in front of the house. Incessant rains meant the roads were flooded.
Two police officers helped Photik off the car and took him to his uncle. The boy was completely drenched and covered in mud, his face and eyes were reddened and he shook from the fever and the cold. Bishwambharbabu had to literally pick him up and take him inside.
On seeing him, his aunt immediately said, ‘Why invite these hassles over someone else’s son, just send him home!’
In all honesty, she had not eaten properly the whole day out of anxiety and had been upset with her own sons, too.
Photik cried out, ‘I was going to see my mother; they brought me back.’
His fever had increased greatly, and all that night, he was delirious. Bishwambharbabu fetched a doctor.
Photik, opening his bloodshot eyes once and looking blankly at the beams, asked, ‘Uncle, have I been given leave?’
Bishwambharbabu wiped his tears away on a handkerchief and affectionately held Photik’s delicate feverish hand as he sat by his side.
The next day Photik seemed to seek someone as he opened his eyes and looked around the room. Disappointed, he silently turned towards the wall.
Bishwambharbabu understood his look and whispered close to his ear, ‘Photik, I have sent for your mother.’
The following day passed. In a grim and worried manner, the doctor said that the situation was extremely grave.
Bishwambharbabu waited for Photik’s mother to arrive as he sat by dimmed lamp light next to his bed.
In tune like the boatmen, Photik counted aloud, ‘One oar deep? Not yet! Two oars deep? Not ye-e-e-t.’ On his journey to Kolkata, he had come some of the way on a river steam-ship, where the boatmen would measure the depth of the water with this song. His delirium was making him repeat what he had heard. The child was searching for the shores of the sea where he was afloat without much success.
Suddenly storming into the room, his mother started to lament his illness at the top of her voice. Bishwambharbabu calmed her down with great difficulty, upon which she threw herself onto Photik’s bed and cried out, ‘Photik, dear, my darling boy!’
‘Yes?’ replied Photik, quite easily.
‘Photik, my dear child,’ said his mother.
He slowly turned on his side and said softly, and to no one in particular, ‘Ma, I am on holidays now. Ma, I can go home now.’
Ruma Chakravarti was born in Africa, had her schooling in India and has lived in seven countries. A high school mathematics teacher in her other life, Ruma is an avid blogger, writer and people watcher. Her interests include Rabindranath Tagore, reading, folklore and music, crafts, gardening and films. She currently lives in Adelaide, Australia, with her family which includes three children, one dog and one rabbit. Her blogs include: Translations of Tagore & Translations of other Bengali writers.
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