Atithi: short story by Rabindranath Tagore

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      Atithi - The Guest is a short story written by Rabindranath Tagore in his story collection Golpoguccha. There are so many film and TV shows made on it.

Atithi - The Guest is a short story written by Rabindranath Tagore
Atithi

Short Story :-

      Motilal Babu was traveling along the river with his family to Kanthalia, a place in rural Bengal the of which he was the zamindar or landlord.

As his boat halted at mid-day, and everyone got down to cook and lunch by the riverside, a brahmin youth of about fifteen or sixteen came up to him.

He wanted a lift up to Nandigram which the boat would be passing. Motilal Babu agreed and offered him lunch as well.

The youth, named Tarapada, had large eyes and a most pleasant look although his dhoti was old and faded. He had easy ways and immediately joined in the cooking. Then he took a dip in the river and got into a fresh dhoti.

Motilal Babu now took him inside the boat. His wife Annapurna and his nine-year-old daughter Charushashi were there and Annapurna's heart went out to Tarapada. How can his mother stay apart from this beautiful child of hers!' she thought to herself.

She placed two mats side by side for Motilal Babu and Tarapada. She pressed Tarapada to eat a lot but found that he resisted all the pressure - most pleasantly. He was neither shy nor obstinate but ate only as much as he wanted to. After lunch, Annapurna tried to extract some information about his background. All that she could gather was that at the age of seven or eight he had left home of his own accord.

"Isn't your mother living?"

"She is"

"Doesn't she love you?"

Tarapada considered this question so strange that he laughed. "Why shouldn't she love me?"

"Then why did you leave her?" asked Annapurna.

"She has four other sons and three daughters", said Tarapada.

"What a thing to say!" Annapurna was hurt. "Because one has five fingers, can one let one go?"

Tarapada was the fourth child of his parents and had lost his father very early in life. Even though he had several brothers and sisters, Tarapada was a very well-loved child. Not just his mother and siblings but neighbours too were most affectionate to him. Even his teacher at school spared him the rod.

Under such circumstances, there was no need for Tarapada to run away from his village. But he did do so, with a traveling theatre group that had come to perform at his village.

The villagers searched him out and brought him back. His mother and sisters wept to get him back, his elder brother reproached him affectionately. Neighbors too were very glad to have him back.

But Tarapada had an inborn urge to break out of bonds, bonds even of affection. So he ran away again and again till his family and neighbours gave up on him.

First he had joined a theatre group. The owner soon became very fond of him and even the households that invited the theatre group to perform before them took note of this lovely child and specially invited him over. But one fine morning Tarapada just vanished.

He joined a group of traveling minstrels. The leader of the group taught him several songs and came to regard him as his own. But Tarapada disappeared again. At a village fair, Tarapada began to assist a vendor, and then a gymnastic group from Kolkata. Tarapada had taught himself to play the flute. At the gymnastic displays, his job was to play the Banshee or bamboo flute at a fast rhythm, as an accompaniment to the performance of the gymnasts.

It is from this gymnastic group that he had escaped last. He was on his way to Nandigram, where the landlord was setting up a new theatre company and then he ran into Motilal Babu. Although Tarapada had seen a lot of the world, he had an innocence of his own that was untouched.

Charmed by that innocence in his looks, mature and worldly-wise as Motilal Babu was, he welcomed him in with open arms.

As the boat journeyed along the river, Tarapada went up to the sail and watched the landscape on either side. He soon became friendly with the boatmen and even joined in the rowing. When the boatman needed to smoke, he took over his job and even did it ably!

In the evening Annapurna asked him what he liked to have for dinner." Whatever I get", Tarapada said with a kind of indifference. "Sometimes I don't even have dinner."

Annapurna got milk and sweets from the village they were passing. Tarapada took a very limited dinner and actually refused the milk. Even to Motilal Babu's pleading, he said:" I don't like milk."

A couple of days went by on the boat. Tarapada joined in the activities of getting provisions, cooking and rowing the boat. He did so spontaneously and efficiently. Whatever he saw, he looked at with interest. Whatever task came up before him, he took up with keenness. His eyes and his fingers were ever alert and active. But at the same time he was indifferent and unattached to the world around him.

He had a good memory because his brain was uncluttered by thoughts. He remembered the scenes he had seen enacted by the theatre groups he had joined and could act them out, songs and all.

One evening, Motilal Babu was reading out the Ramayana to his wife and daughter. Tarapada was so enthused at this that he came down from the roof of the boat, and said: "Keep the book down. Listen to me as I act out the story of Kush and Lav."

With a flute-like voice he sang and enacted the scenes. The boatmen were attracted and gathered in the room. People from passing boats tried to listen as long as they could. Annapurna felt like hugging the child and Motilal Babu felt that if he could make Tarapada stay, it would fulfill his need for a son.

Only, small Charushashi's heart felt like bursting with envy and resentment.

Charushashi was the only child of her parents and the only claimant to their affection. She was most whimsical and often threw tantrums over any dress or hairstyle that she did not fancy. At other times she was most denmonstrative of her affections, kissing and hugging her mother to distraction.

She was a riddle.

Towards Tarapada, she developed a sharp and forceful antipathy. She made her parents quite worried as well. She would push away her food, almost crying. She criticized the cooking and hit the maid. She complained unnecessarily about everything. The more Tarapada's qualities attracted and pleased her as well as others the angrier she grew.

The day Tarapada sang from the Ramayana, Annapurna asked her daughter, "So, Charu, how did you like it?" Charu shook her head hard. No, she had not liked it one bit, and was never going to like it either!

Realizing that Charu was growing jealous of Tarapada, her mother stopped praising him before her. Only when Charu fell asleep, did she, with her husband, sit at the door, while Tarapada performed on the deck of the boat. Even then Charu would sometimes get up from the bed and come out crying. "Ma, what a racket you are all making! I can't go to sleep." She found it intolerable that her parents were entertaining themselves with Tarapada's songs after sending her off to sleep.

This bright-eyed girl intrigued and amused Tarapada. He tried to win her over by telling her stories, playing the flute to her or singing her songs. But somehow he never was successful. The only thing that Charu seemed to like about him was his skill at swimming. At noon, when his fair body played among the blue waters, Charu would surreptitiously look up from the knitting she was doing sitting on the boat.

Tarapada did not even notice when the boat passed Nandigram by. After ten more days of journey, the boat reached Kanthalia. At the return of the landlord, the village held a big welcome ceremony. While it was on, Tarapada quickly got down from the boat, made a quick survey of the village and familiarized himself with the place and its people. Within a few days he stole the village's heart away.

This he did with the naturalness of his behaviour with all. He was a kid with kids, and mature yet respectful with the elderly. As he sat, say, in a sweet shop, he would wave away the flies from the sweets. As he sat with the potter, he would take a turn at the wheel. He knew a little of everything and brought the whole village under this control.

But Charushashi did not come under his control and perhaps that is why Tarapada stayed on in this particular place far beyond his usual number of days at any one place.

Charushashi had a friend named Sonamoni, a child-widow. She had been ill and unable to visit Charu for some days. When she finally came, Charu began to tell her of their newly-acquired jewel. Perhaps she had intended to impress her friend and arouse her curiosity. But she learnt that Sona was already quite familiar with Tarapada, who had often visited her, plucked fruits and flowers for her and even made a small bamboo flute. She called him Dada' or elder brother. Tarapada called her mother Mashi (Aunty) in the easy way he had. Charu felt the tingle of jealousy all over her body. She had regarded Tarapada as their very own, very private possession, with which she could sometimes favour others. Why should he be already available to Sonamoni as her Dada'?

On a most minor issue, Charu quarreled badly with Sonamoni. Then she went into Tarapada's room, threw his flute upon the floor, and jumped up and down on it. Just then, Tarapada came upon the scene. "Why are you smashing up my flute?" he asked in surprise.

"I'm doing the right thing", cried Charu, red-faced and red eyed. Then she jumped upon it some more times, burst into tears and ran away. Tarapada picked up the flute and burst out laughing at the condition it was in. With every day that passed, Charu became more of a mystery to him.

Tarapada could not read English but felt drawn to the beautifully illustrated volumes of books in Motilal Babu's library. He used to turn their pages and look at their pictures with such interest that Motilal Babu asked: "Do you want to learn English?"

"Yes" said Tarapada eagerly.

He threw himself into the study of English with fervor, giving up interaction with people. He did not go out much. Sometimes the village kids saw him walking up and down the deserted riverside, trying to memorise poetry. They were too scared of him to interrupt him. Earlier he used to eat with the family and Annapurna took delight in feeding him. Now he requested for food to be brought outside so that there was less of a break in his studies. Annapurna objected but Motilal Babu saw a point in it.

Charu suddenly threw a tantrum. She too would learn English from a tutor! But she had no concentration and only created a disturbance in Tarapada's study. She never learnt her own lessons but cried and sulked if Tarapada mastered his own and went on to the next. She had to be taught the same even though she was way behind. In his leisure hours Tarapada sat and practiced his lessons in his own room. Charu secretly entered the room and spilt ink upon his exercise books, tore off pages from his book or stole off his pen. Tarapada treated all this with amused tolerance and hit her when he could not bear any more. But he could not bring Charu under control.

One day he found pages of his exercise covered with ink, and sat silent and sad. Charu came at the door and hovered there, expecting to be beaten. But Tarapada just sat, silent and sad. This was a very effective punishment. Soon Charu wrote out an apology and tried to draw Tarapada's attention to it. At the sight of those big unformed letters saying she was sorry, Tarapada burst out laughing. Charu ran away in anger and embarrassment.

A couple of times Sonamoni had come and peeped into the study, which was in the outer part of the house. Charu was still a friend, but not in respect of Tarapada. So Sonamoni chose to come only when Charu was inside the house. Tarapada would ask affectionately, "What news, Sona?"

"My mother has asked you to drop in one day", Sona would say timidly.

"Tell Mashi, I will", Tarapada would say. Suddenly Charu would turn up and scare Sonamoni away:" How dare you come and disturb him? I'll complain to my father that you are creating a racket while he is studying!"

Tarapada did pay Sonamoni's mother a couple of visits. But after that Charu locked his door from outside, opening it only at dinner time. An enraged Tarapada threatened to leave without having his dinner. With folded palms Charu then pleaded him to stay. When that did not work, she burst into such wild weeping that Tarapada had to give in.

Two years went by in this fashion. Tarapada had never allowed himself to be tied down anywhere as long as this. Perhaps he had got really interested in his studies, or was developing the usual tenderncy to settle down and be comfortable in life, or perhaps he had started to have feelings in his heart for his unruly classmate. But he was staying on.

Meanwhile Charu Shashi reached the age of eleven years, in those days and circumstances, a marriageable age. Motilal Babu began to look for suitable bridegrooms, and as was the prevalent custom, restricted Charu from going out and studying English.

Charu rebelled, and her mother said to Motilal Babu, "Why are you looking here and there for a bridegroom. Tarapada is quite suitable and your daughter too likes him."

"But I know nothing of Tarapada's background", protested a surprised Motilal Babu. "How can I marry my only child off like that? I want a good match for her."

He did find a good match but the day the bridegroom's party came to see Charu, she refused to appear before them. To prevent a scene, Motilal Babu had to cook up some excuse. He now began to think that Tarapada would not be such a bad choice for Charu. That way, he and his wife would be spared the pangs of separation from their daughter, and she, any criticism from in-laws.

Enquiries were made about Tarapada's family. The report was that it was a good family but very poor. A formal proposal was then sent to Tarapada's mother and older brothers who did not think twice about accepting it and accepted it most happily.

At Kanthalia, wedding arrangements began to be made, although Motilal Babu, a circumspect man, did not let it spread.

But Charu could not be contained. Like a gang of robbers, she would sometimes descend upon Tarapada's study and disturb its peace sometimes affectionate, sometimes angry. But now Tarapada began to feel an electrifying thrill in such doings. Ever light-hearted, ever-unattached, now he began to get unmindful and have daydreams. Sometimes he left his textbooks and went into the library and turned the pages of books with colourful illustrations, dreaming dreams of his own that were even more colourful. It never occurred to him to laugh at Charu or beat her up when she pestered him. This subtle change of attitude, this feeling of being bound and attached, seemed a new dream of himself.

Deciding upon a particular date, Motilal Babu sent people to fetch Tarapada's mother and brothers by boat. But he did not let Tarapada know about it. He asked his lawyer in Kolkata to arrange a musical band to play on the occasions and also sent him a list of required provisions for the ceremony.

Monsoon arrived. The river was swollen with rain-water. This was the time for a big annual fair at Kurulkata, the next zamindari area. Going to the river on a moonlit night, Tarapada saw numerous boats floating along it towards Kurulkata. One boat carried the giant wheel, another carried goods for sale, and yet another, a traveling theatre group. From some boats came the music of some concert party from Kolkata, from some there came the clash of cymbals from some singing group beyond Bengal. The air was charged with excitement. Soon it became even darker with rain clouds covering up the moon. The village of Kanthalia slept on in that darkness.

Next morning Tarapada's mother and elder brothers arrived. Three other boats too arrived, carrying wedding gifts and equipment. Carrying some sweets and pickles Sonamoni too came and peeped timidly into Tarapada's study.

But Tarapada could not be seen the next morning.

Before the bonds of love, affection and domestic life could completely encircle him, the guest of Kanthalia had left with the heart of everybody at Kanthalia.

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