The Greedy Stones

(This is but a poor translation of "Khudito Pashan", a short story by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The objective is to urge readers to read the original or better translations. The story revolves around the fatal supernatural attraction a cotton tax collector feels for a marble palace. The story has two narrators - the main narrator, who is skeptical about the supernatural, introduces the cotton tax collector to the readers, and from there on the latter takes over and narrates the story. After the tax collector has told his tale, the main narrator comes back to inform the readers that he did not believe in the story; his relative, a theosophist, however believes. This causes a bitterness between the two! Why should believing in something or not believing in somethings cause bitterness between people? Perhaps, it is the writer's way of suggesting that society will always have people with opposing viewpoints, and each will feel their viewpoint is sacrosanct and refuse to tolerate the views of others.

The tax collector begins by saying he took up the job in Barich, and resided in a marble palace that had been built by Shah-Mahmood II 250 years ago. Karim Khan, the longest-serving clerk in his office, cautioned the tax collector against living in the palace. "You may go there during the day time if you wish, but never spend the night at that palace," Karim Khan told him. But the tax collector did not heed the advice.

All kinds of strange things start happening. The tax collector hears sounds of footsteps on the river stairs, but can see no one; he feels maidens are bathing in the river and splashing water at one another, yet he can see no one! While spending the night in the palace he experiences the strangest scene - a scene right out of the pages of the Arabian Nights. An Arab servant maiden escorts him to the presence of a Persian girl whose face he cannot see. He could only catch a glimpse of the lower portion of a saffron-coloured puffed pajama and a pair of beautiful feet, adorned with laced slippers. Then the illusion evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared.

The illusions continued to visit the tax collector, and he cursed the arrival of nightfall. Yet, when night fell, he would inexorably be drawn to the palace. He would, then, wear a red-coloured velvet fez cap, loose pajamas, and a long silk choga with a colourful handkerchief dabbed with perfume like some Persian prince. At such times he would catch a glimpse of the Persian maiden in the mirror. Things reached a flash point when the tax collector hears sobs of the Persian maiden who wants him to rescue her. The tax collector decides he had enough of all these strange happenings and would avoid the palace at any cost. But as evening approaches he is once again drawn to the palace like a moth attracted to fire. He goes through the same experience once again, and this time he certainly believes that two tear drops had fallen from above on his forehead; he feels that a maiden is lying on the carpet on the floor tearing at her hair. The illusion evaporates once again, and the tax collector finds Meher Ali, a mad man, going round the palace shouting, "Stay away, stay away. Everything is false." The tax collector had often seen Meher Ali going round the palace and calling out in this same fashion. The tax collector realizes that Meher Ali, too, might have fallen prey to the attractions of the palace at one time and turned insane. The tax collector realizes that the same fate may lie in store for him. He rushes to his office and seeks an explanation from Karim Khan, the long-standing clerk. Karim Khan offers an explanation, and he also suggests a way in which the tax collector could escape from clutches of the marble palace.

At this juncture of the tale however, the tax collector and the main narrator have to part ways, and the remainder part of the tax collector's story remains untold.)

A relative and I were returning to Kolkata after touring the country during the puja vacations when we met the man in the train. He was dressed in the style of a Mohammedan from the West. After striking a conversation with him, I was left bewildered. He spoke of everything under the sun with such authority as though God had created everything only after consulting him. Until then we had been very complacent, being unaware of the happenings across the world: the progress of the Russians, the secret motives of the British, and the complex situation of our own native kings. Our new acquaintance said with a wry smile: "There happen more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are reported in your newspapers." We had been out on a tour for the first time in our lives and, so, were impressed by the man's ways. At the drop of a hat he spoke authoritatively on science, sometimes delved into an analysis of the Vedas, and as suddenly quoted from the Persian language. We were no authority in science, Vedas, or Persian; his conversation and demeanor, therefore, had us admiring him more and more. My theosophist relative was convinced that our fellow-passenger had some supernatural connections: some sort of magnetism, some supernatural prowess. He listened devotedly to even the man's most trivial words and secretly made notes of them. I felt that the extraordinary man had realized this and was quite happy about it.

The train halted at a junction, and we made ourselves comfortable in the waiting room while awaiting the connecting train. It was 10.30pm and we learned that our train would be delayed owing to some problems en route. I decided to take a quick nap, and had just spread my sleeping bag on the table when the extraordinary person began narrating a tale. I could not sleep that night!

Displeased with certain issues pertaining to the administration in Junagadh, I left my employment there and took up services in the Nizam's government in Hyderabad. Since I was young and strong, I was appointed to collect cotton tax in Barich.

Barich is a very scenic place. The Shusta River, like an expert dancer, courses along rapidly in twists and turns, beneath the remote mountains and through thick woods. Right on the banks of the river, above the 150-step river stairway of stones, stands alone a palace in white marble. There is no habitation nearby; the cotton market and village are situated far away.

Shah-Mahmood II had constructed the palace at this remote site around 250 years ago for his own enjoyment and comfort. The fountains in the bath-houses spouted rose-scented water, and dainty damsels, with their hair let loose, sat by the fountains playing on the sitar and singing ghazals. The fountains don't spout water and you cannot hear the ghazals anymore. Gentle feet do not step on the marble stones any longer; it is now a solitary residence for tax collectors like us who have no female companions. Karim Khan, the longest-serving clerk in the office, had cautioned me and tried to dissuade me from taking up residence here. "You may go there during the day time if you wish, but never spend the night at that palace," he told me. I laughed away his concerns. The domestic helps said they were willing to work till evening but would under no circumstances stay there in the night. I agreed to their condition. The palace had gained such a notoriety that even thieves did not dare come anywhere near it.


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  • Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi -
  • Central Institute of Fisheries Nautical and Engineering Training -
  • Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad (Deemed University) -
  • Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi -
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