Muktir Upay : by Rabindranath Tagore || Short Story

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I
      Fakirchand had been a sombre person even in his childhood. He never seemed out of place in the company of old people, and could barely tolerate cold water, winter or humour. First of all, he was of a serious nature, and besides, he used to cover his neck with a black woollen scarf for much of the year. Therefore, he looked like a very dignified person. On top of that, his upper lip and cheeks were covered with a thick growth of beard and moustache from an early age, so that there was not even the slightest room for a smile to flourish on his face.

His wife Haimabati was a young girl, and her mind was absorbed in worldly pleasures. She liked to read Bankim's novels, and derived no satisfaction from worshipping her husband like a god.
Muktir Upay

      His wife Haimabati was a young girl, and her mind was absorbed in worldly pleasures. She liked to read Bankim's novels, and derived no satisfaction from worshipping her husband like a god. She was a lively person, like a blossoming flower eagerly awaiting the undulation of the wind and the fresh light of morning. She had anticipated much affection and entertainment from her husband in her adolescence, but the husband took every opportunity to teach her Bhagavad Gita, and routinely recited the scripture to her in the evening. Sometimes, he punished her physically for her spiritual advancement. The night Fakir would discover Bankim's Krisnakanta's Will under Haimabati's pillow, he would find peace only by making the frivolous young woman cry all night. Reading a novel and deceiving the husband-lord too! However, through constant advice, instructions, lectures on piety, and coercion, the high and mighty husband eventually succeeded in eradicating all smiles from Haimabati's face, destroying her peace of mind, and draining away every bit of her youthful exuberance. But for austere people there are too many obstacles in the society. By and by, Fakir became the father of a son and daughter, and so his social ties multiplied. Prodded by his father even a dignified person like Fakir had to go from office to office to find a job, but the prospects of getting one looked faint. Then he thought, Let me renounce society like the Buddha', and left home in the middle of night.

II

      Another incident needs to be narrated here. Sasthicharan, a resident of Nabagram, had one son; his name was Makhanlal. Soon after his first marriage, when no children were born to his wife, he married again to meet his father's demand, and for the 'excitement of change'. After that wedding, seven daughters and one son were born from his two wives, one after another.

      Makhanlal was a very frivolous and playful person; he was reluctant to shoulder any serious burden. There was the burden of so many children, and when two navigators of the family started steering the ship in different directions, unable to take it anymore, he too ran away from home late one night. There was no sight of him for many years. It was rumoured that to find the bliss of having a single wife he had secretly married again in Kashi, and that the wretched fellow had indeed found some measure of peace. But now and then he restlessly longed to return home but dared not for the fear of being caught.

III

      After loitering in several places for many days, Fakirchand showed up in the village of Nabagram. Sitting in the shade of a banyan tree by the roadside, he said with a sigh, 'Supreme is the life of a religious mendicant. Wife, wealth and children are but illusions. Where art thou, my wife in scarlet sari, and my children!" Thereupon he started singing:

"Listen, O listen, my foolish heart,
Listen to the sayings of the saint,
On how to find salvation,
And follow that counsel.

Break the shell of worldly ties,
To seek out the pearl of freedom,
Oh erring spirit,
Thou oblivious soul."

      Suddenly he stopped chanting and muttered, Who's that? Is it my father? Is he on the trail? What a disaster! He'll drag me back to the black hole of family life. I must flee right now!

IV

      Fakir rushed into a house nearby. The old householder was sitting quietly and smoking a tobacco pipe. Seeing Pakir enter, he asked, Who are you? Fakir replied, 'My good sir, I am a hermit. A hermit? Come, come into the light, my son,' exclaimed the old man.

      With that he dragged Fakir near the lamp, bent close to his face, scrutinised him like an old man studying a religious text, and began muttering, This is my own Makhanlal! The same nose, the same eyes, only the forehead has changed a bit, and that same beautiful face covered with a bushy moustache and beard.

      Then the old man affectionately stroked the bearded face of Fakir a few times, Makhan, my son!', he said, outright. Needless to say, this old man was Sasthicharan. Bewildered, Fakir shouted, Makhan! My name was never Makhan! Whatever my previous name, now people call me Chidananda Swami. If you like, you could also call me Paramananda.'

      Sasthicharan replied, 'Call yourself Chire or Paramanna flattened rice or sweet rice dessert, or whatever you like, but how can I not recognise you as my son, Makhan! Why on earth did you have to run away from home! What do you lack? You have two wives; even if you don't love the first one, there is the younger wife. You also have no lack of children. Against all odds, you have seven daughters and a son. I am your old father how much longer will I live? This household will be yours.'

      How dreadful!', exclaimed Fakir in alarm. The very mention of that frightens me. Then he understood the situation and thought to himself, What's the harm if I hide here for a couple of days pretending to be the old man's son? I'll flee as soon as my father leaves this place after his unsuccessful search.' Fakir's silence removed all doubts from the old man's mind. He called his servant Keshta and said, 'Go and announce to the village that my Makhan has returned.'

V

      Very soon a huge crowd gathered in front of the house. Most people of the neighbourhood agreed that, indeed, it was Makhanlal. Some expressed doubts, but people were generally so eager to believe the story that they were incensed at the sceptics. As if the cynics were there to deliberately spoil the fun, to read a fourteen syllable line intentionally as seventeen. The sooner these people could be gagged, the sooner the neighbourhood would find relief. They neither believed in ghost stories, nor in exorcism; when other people were struck dumb by a strange story, they would resort to nitpicking. In a sense they were infidels. No harm if they were sceptical of ghost stories, but to express doubt about the identity of a old man's lost son who had just returned home was utterly cruel. Anyhow, scolded by the villagers, the protestors fell silent.

      Without paying the slightest heed to the conspicuously sombre ature of Fakir, the villagers circled around him babbling, Look, look, our very own Makhan has become a swami, a saint; all his life he was so facetious, but now, all of a sudden, he has become a holy man.'

      Proud Fakir found the statements offensive but accepted them willy-nilly. Someone moved very close to him and said playfully, 'O Makhan, you were black like ebony, how did you make your complexion so light?' Fakir replied, Through yoga.'

      Everyone said in unison, How amazing is the power of yoga!' Someone from the crowd retorted, What is there to be surprised about! In the scripture, it is stated that when Bheema tried to lift Hanuman's tail but failed repeatedly, what made it possible? Yoga.'

      Everyone had to acknowledge this truth. Just then Sasthicharan walked in and asked Fakir, 'Son, let's go and visit the inner quarters. This prospect hadn't occurred to Fakir earlier; it now struck him like a shaft of lightning. After remaining silent for a while, and withstanding much vulgar mockery from the crowd, he finally said, Father, I have become an ascetic now, I can't enter the zenana.

      At this, Sasthicharan said to the crowd, 'In that case you'll all have to leave the room. Ill ask my daughters-in-law to come here. They are very anxious.

      One by one everyone left. Fakir thought, I should take to my heels now.' But realising that, the villagers would chase him like a dog the moment he stepped out, he remained sitting there motionless.

      The moment Makhanlal's two wives walked in, Fakir bowed, greeted them by touching their feet, and said, 'Mothers, I am your son.

      Instantly a bangle flashed like a glittering knife before Fakir's eyes and a voice rang out, like a gong struck with a thick rod, You wretched man, who did you call your mother!'

      A second voice followed in a higher pitch, shattering the peace of the entire neighbourhood, 'Have you gone completely blind! why can't you die and leave us in peace! Not used to hearing such abusive language from his own wife Fakir meekly answered, with folded hands, "You are making a mistake. Let me stand in the light, and look at me carefully.

      The two wives shrieked in succession, 'We have seen enough We have almost gone blind with your trickery. You are not a little boy, nor were you born the other day. You cut your milk teeth years ago. Do you have a fountain of life inside you! just because the regent of death has forgotten you, that doesn't mean we have.

      No one could tell how long that one-sided conjugal talk would have lasted, because Fakir was standing there totally speechless hanging his head. Hearing the uproar inside the house and noticing that people were stopping by to eavesdrop on them, Sasthicharan stepped in and said, 'All this while my house was so quiet, there was not the slightest noise. Today it really feels like my Makhan has come back.' Fakir pleaded with folded hands, Sir, save me from the clutches of your daughters-in-law. Sasthi replied, 'Son, you have come back after a long time, that's why the first few days may seem somewhat unbearable. Very well, my daughters, you may go in now. Makhan will remain here from now on; we'll not let him go anywhere.

      After the two women took leave, Fakir said to the old man, Sir, I now fully understand why your son renounced society. Please accept my obeisance, I am leaving.' At this, the old man began wailing so loudly that everyone in the neighbourhood thought Makhan had assaulted his father. They all rushed to the scene and warned Makhan in the sternest tone that no such pseudo-saintliness would be tolerated in tne village. He would have to live like the son of an honest man. Someone commented sarcastically, 'He is not a great sage, but a first-rate fraud.'

      Fakir never had to listen to such obscene language before because of his lofty appearance with the lush beard covering his face, and the scarf girdling his neck. However, lest the fellow would run away, the villagers kept a careful watch on him. Even the local zamindar gave his full support to Sasthi.

VI

      Fakir realised that the watch on him was so strict that they wouldn't let him out of the house except in death. Sitting there all by himself, he began to sing:

O listen to the sayings of the saint,
On how to find salvation,
And follow that counsel.

      Needless to say, the song's spiritual significance had faded somewhat. Days would have passed somehow even in that situation. But at the news of Makhan's return, a host of siblings of his two wives arrived at the house.

      First, they started pulling his beard and moustache, protesting that they were not real but merely glued on to his face as a disguise. When someone starts pulling the moustache, even as nobles person as Fakir found it difficult to retain self-control. Moreover, his ears were severely assaulted, first by being pulled and, second, through the use of such foul language the ears grew red without twisting.

      Later, they began asking him to sing songs for which even the most modern and erudite music scholars would fail to give a spiritual meaning. They also smeared the tiny visible part of Fakir's chin with lime paste and soot while he was asleep; fed him worthless vegetables like arum instead of edible roots, water from the hookah in place of green coconut water and in lieu of milk, at mealtimes; made him slip and fall by putting areca nut under his low wooden seat; fastened a tail on his buttocks; and in million other ways they razed Fakir's lofty solemnity to the ground.

      Fakir tried in every way to frighten the hecklers; by ranting at them, swelling and heaving with rage, threatening them, and trying to chase them away, but in no way could he arouse fear in their hearts. Rather, he became more and more the butt of public ridicule. Meanwhile, now and then he could also hear peals of loud, sweet laughter from the inner house, which sounded familiar, and made him more desperate.

      This familiar voice is, however, not unfamiliar to the reader. It will suffice to say that Sasthicharan was a distant maternal uncle of Haimabati. After her marriage, being routinely oppressed in her marital home, Haimabati, an orphan, would often take refuge in a relative's house. Visiting her uncle's house after a long time she had been witnessing an extremely amusing charade from behind the scenes. Whether some vengeful instincts incited her naturally fun-loving nature, only psychologists can tell; we are not in a position to make that judgement.

      Mockers might occasionally pause for breath, but it is difficult to find respite from those who are related to one by tender love. The seven daughters and one son did not let go of Fakir for a moment. The two mothers kept them constantly engaged in demanding the father's love. The mothers too had their rivalries and each wanted her own children to get more affection. Both continually kept instigating their children to outdo their rivals in hugging and kissing their father and occupying his lap.

      There is little need to point out that Fakir was a callous person by nature; otherwise he wouldn't have so calmly abandoned his own children. Children are not pious, nor are they awed by the presence of saints, hence Fakir didn't have the slightest measure of love for them; he was inclined to avoid children as if they were worms and insects. Of late, with his children constantly swarming all over him like a plague of locusts, ne had begun to resemble a history essay cluttered with footnotes of varying sizes, marked with diverse letters of the alphabet. These children were wide apart in age, but they all seemed lack the civility and propriety of adult men. This often broug ears to the puritanical Fakir's eyes, and they were certainly tears of joy.

      When a stranger's children called him 'father in various tones to express their love, he felt like exerting his brutal force upon them. But he couldn't do so out of fear, so he just sat there inert, his face disfigured with hatred.

VII

      Ultimately, Fakir began to scream at the top of his voice, I'll leave; let's see who will stop me!' Then the villagers brought in a lawyer, who began to interrogate him. 'Are you not aware that you have two wives? Fakir: Yes, I came to know about it first on coming here. Lawyer: 'And you have seven daughters and one son, two girls are of marriageable age. Fakir: "Yes, I notice you know much more than I do.' Lawyer: If you don't take the responsibility of clothing and sheltering your family, your deserted wives will take the legal course; let me remind you of that.

      Of all things, Fakir feared courts the most. He knew that lawyers didn't care for the honour and prestige of saints during their cross-examinations, and insulted them openly, and these things were reported in the newspapers. Tearfully, Fakir tried to explain the details of his real identity to the lawyer. The lawyer repeatedly praised him for his cunning, presence of mind, and ability to lie. Hearing this, Fakir felt like biting his own hands and feet in outrage.

      Seeing Fakir trying to escape yet again, Sasthi was overwhelmed with grief. The neighbours came and rebuked Fakir in innumerable ways, and the lawyer threatened him so fiercely that Fakir was left utterly speechless. After that when the eight children hugged Fakir from all sides with great affection and almost choked him, Haimabati, watching it from the inner rooms, didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

      Finding no other alternative, Fakir had in the meantime written a letter to his father explaining the whole situation. His father, Mr. Haricharan, arrived at the scene on reading it. But him then villagers as well as the zamindar and the lawyer, refused him access to his son.

      They produced many conclusive pieces of evidence to prove the that the man was Makhan and not Fakir. They even called in the old nanny who brought up Makhan. She came and lifted Fakir's chin with her trembling hands and scrutinised the face carefully. Then she wept on Fakir's shoulder so profusely that a stream flooded his beard.

      When even that didn't stop Fakir, the two wives came out and stood before him with their veils removed. The assembled crowd quickly stepped out. Only the two fathers, Fakir and the children stayed in the room. With aggressive gestures, the two wives asked him, "What hell, what gate of death do you fancy?"

      Fakir didn't have an exact answer, so he kept silent. But his body language indicated that he had no special liking for any of the gates of death. For the time being any exit would suffice, leaving this place anyhow would be enough for now. Then another female figure walked into the room and submissively touched Fakir's feet. Fakir was surprised at first, but then he cried exultantly, 'Isn't it Haimabati?

      Fakir's eyes had never been filled with so much love at the sight of his own wife or any other. It appeared as though the very embodiment of salvation had arrived.

      Another man was observing everything from the inner quarters, his face covered with a shawl. His name was Makhanlal. He was ecstatic at the sight of another man installed in his place, but when he saw Haimabati arrive, he reckoned that the innocent man was his own brother-in-law. Stricken with pity, he now walked into the room and announced, No, it's a deadly sin to put someone who is related in danger. Pointing at his two wives, he said, These are my scaffold, my curse. Everyone in the neighbourhood was amazed by Makhanlal extraordinary courage and generosity.

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