Sampadak : by Rabindranath Tagore || Short Story

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      When my wife was alive, I had no worries about Prabha. I was then more preoccupied with Prabha's mother rather than Prabha.

      At that time, the sight of Prabha playing or smiling or babbling, and the way she caressed me was enough to delight me. I played with her as long as I felt like, but the moment she started crying I returned her to her mother and found relief. lt never occurred to me that a lot of thought and effort was required to bring her up.

This led me to concentrate on making money. I was now too old to work in a government office, and didn't have the qualifications to look for work in any other office. After much thinking, I chose to take up writing books for a living.

      In time, as my wife passed away prematurely, Prabha dropped, as it were, from her mother's lap into mine, and I took her up to my heart. But I could never figure out whether I felt more deeply the responsibility of bringing up a motherless child with double the affection and care, or she felt more fervently the duty of protecting a widowed father with tenderness and love. She began to act like the woman of the house from the age of six. Soon it became quite obvious that this little girl was trying to become her father's guardian.

      I was amused by her actions but readily submitted to her control. I noticed that the more idle and useless I appeared to be the more delighted she felt. I found out that even fetching my own clothes or umbrella was enough to offend her. She had never been gifted with as big a toy as her father! That is why, feeding him, clothing him or putting him to sleep gave her such joy. Only when she was doing her arithmetical tables or reading nursery rhymes did I have to keep my fatherly instincts somewhat alert.

      From time to time, however, the thought that I would need a lot of money to find a worthy groom for my daughter, when she grew up, worried me. Where would I get so much money from? I was giving her the best education I could, but what if she were to end up with a complete idiot?

      This led me to concentrate on making money. I was now too old to work in a government office, and didn't have the qualifications to look for work in any other office. After much thinking, I chose to take up writing books for a living.

      When a bamboo rod has a hole at its base, it becomes useless because it can hold neither water nor oil. It can no longer act as a receptacle, and is of no use for the tasks that one needs to do with it daily. However, blown from the mouth like a flute, it can still produce sweet music. Similarly, I knew that anyone who wasn't smart enough to perform any of the chores and needed to run a family could still write books. Encouraged by this thought, I wrote a farce. Those who read it praised it, and it was soon performed on stage.

      Overwhelmed by this sudden taste of fame, I could no longer keep myself from writing farces, and concentrated on doing it all day long. One day Prabha came to me and asked affectionately, with a smile on her face, 'Father, won't you take a bath?' Go away. Don't bother me now,' I snapped at her. The girl's face darkened instantly like a blown out lamp. Immersed in my work, I even failed to notice that she had left the room, heartbroken and silenced by my outburst.

      I began to abuse my maids too and started shouting at my servants. Whenever beggars came to my door for alms I would shoo them away with a stick. My house was next to the highway and so lost wayfarers would often ask me for directions. But When they did, I would tell them to go to hell. Alas! Nobody could understand how I was in the midst of writing the most hilarious farces imaginable.

      The money I was earning from my writing was nothing, although I was having a lot of fun and becoming famous through it. I was no longer driven by my original motive of making money, so that I could marry Prabha off. Eligible bachelors everywhere were being snatched away by the daughters of other gentlemen!

      I would probably never return to my senses without the pang of hunger, but an opportunity suddenly came my way. The zamindar of Zahir, a neighbouring village, who had started publishing a newspaper, invited me to be its editor on a salary. took up the offer. For a while, I wrote with such zeal that in no time the villagers came to see me as a celebrity. I began to feel like the blazing sun and my ego was all puffed up.

      Next to Zahir was another village called Ahir. The zamindars of these neighbouring villages were feuding constantly. Skirmishes used to break out between their men frequently in the past, but now that had stopped because of a pact signed by them at the behest of the local Magistrate. In this changed circumstance, Zahir's zamindar had replaced his fierce stick fighters with my poisoned pen! Everyone thought I was discharging my duties and upholding my position with distinction. My columns were so fierce that I managed to crush the village of Ahir with my pen. Through those columns I vilified the ancestry of the men of the village, and rubbished the history of the village itself.

      Things were shaping up well for me. I had even started to put on weight. I had a radiant smile on me all the time. Every now and then I would spoof the ancestors of the people ot Ahir an the entire Zahir village would explode with laughter, marveling at my wit. I was really having a ball.

      Eventually, the people of Ahir began to publish a paper too. There was no mincing of words in it. Obscene remarks were hurled at us through the paper with such zest that even the printed letters seemed to screech out at the reader. That is why the people of Ahir and Zahir had little difficulty in understanding their meaning.

      But in my customary way I used to ridicule the enemy with such tact and circumspect that in the end, neither friend nor foe, could figure out what it was that I was trying to say.

      As a result, although I was really the victor, people considered me to be the vanquished. Caught in a fix, I wrote an essay on good taste. This was a big mistake because laughing at something good and virtuous is not as easy as it is to sneer at something silly. Good people are never effective in ridiculing bad people as bad people are in ridiculing the good. Therefore, my essay on good taste only helped to uproot and banish it from the town. I was no longer treated kindly by my employer. People no longer flocked to hear me in assemblies. No one came to chat with me on the street. A few people even began to laugh at me when I went out.

      In no time people began to forget my farces completely. I felt like a used up match. It was as if after lighting for a moment, I was consumed by the same fire. I was so frustrated that it seemed impossible for me to write even a line, no matter how hard I tried to produce something. It seemed to me that there was no happiness in life anymore Prabha was now afraid of me. She would not come to me unless I asked her to. She realised that a clay doll was a far more reliable companion than a father who fancied that he could write funny things.

      In the meantime, the newspaper published from Ahir began to target me, leaving aside the zamindar of Zahir. It printed some prety offensive pieces about me. My friends and acquaintances were so amused by these pieces that one by one they came to read them out to me. Some of them said that although they didn't agree with the content, the writing was simply dazzling. That is, it was clear from the way these pieces were written that was being slandered. All day long these people kept on saying the same thing over and over again to me.

      There was a small lawn in front of my house, and one evening I was strolling there with a troubled mind. As the birds returned to their nests and stopped twittering, surrendering themselves spontaneously to the calmness of the evening, I suddenly realised that there were no gangs of wits among them, nor did they cackle over what constituted good taste.

      All I could think of was sending a rejoinder to the Ahir paper. One problem with decorum is that there are places where people don't understand what it is all about. These people were relatively better acquainted with the language of slander. Unable to swallow defeat, I now contemplated writing something in the kind of language that they understood best. Just when I was thinking of all these things, I heard the very familiar voice of a little girl and felt a warm but tender touch under my palm. But I was so preoccupied with vindictive thoughts and so distracted that though the voice and the touch seemed familiar I couldn't figure out whose they were.

      In a moment, my ears slowly responded to her voice. Her gentle touch rejuvenated my fingers. The girl had come to me and whispered in a faint voice, 'Father. When I failed to respond, she took my right hand and touched her forehead with it lightly and then went back into the house. Prabha hadn't called me 'Father' so affectionately or shown her love for me of her own accord for a long time. That is why her touch stirred my heart and left it eager for more of her love.

      After a while, I went inside the house and found Prabha lying in bed. She looked worn out. Her eyelids were half shut. She was lying there like a flower shed at the end of the day. I touched her forehead and found it very hot. Her breath too was warm, and the veins on her forehead were throbbing realised then that, distraught from a high fever, the girl had come to her father with a heart parched of love, seeking comfort and reassurance but he had been too preoccupied with his spiteful thoughts to have time for her.

      I sat down beside her. Quietly, she took my hand into her feverish hands and put them over her forehead.

      I made a bonfire with all the Zahir and Ahir papers, I gave up the idea of replying to any criticism. I had never felt as happy as I did accepting defeat from this time onwards, After the girl's mother had died, I took her up to my bosom. Now that I buried the stepmother who had distanced me from her during the interim, I took my daughter into my lap once more and stepped into the house.

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