The Little Master's Return

(This is only a feeble translation of a short story by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The objective is merely to exhort readers to read the original, or better translations. A short summary of the story has been included on the last page.)

When Raicharan first came to work in the house of his master, he was only a twelve-year-old lad with long hair and large eyes. Raicharan's primary duty was to assist in the protection and care of the Babu's one-year-old child.

Over the years, the child flew out of Raicharan's care to go to school, graduated from college, and found employment in the judiciary. Raicharan is now his servant.

Anukulbabu has brought home a wife. Naturally, whatever claims Raicharan had over his master in the past has now been taken away by the lady of the house as her right. But she has compensated for this loss of influence by entrusting Raicharan with a new responsibility. Anukulbabu has become a father, and Raicharan, through sustained efforts and perseverance, has won over the child's heart.

Raicharan carefully rocks the cradle, expertly lifts the child towards the sky and brings his face close to the baby's face, and carries on a one-sided conversation without expecting any replies. The little creature is so delighted by these acts that his face lights up on seeing Raicharan.

The child has learned to leave the safe confines of the cradle and crawl on all fours on the floor. He scurries away, gurgling in joy, to find a hiding place whenever someone tries to catch him. Raicharan used to be amazed at the child's cleverness, and he would go and tell Anukulbabu's wife, "Ma, your son would one day become a judge and earn five thousand rupees." That any human child of such small age should exhibit this kind of cleverness was beyond Raicharan's imagination; only a child destined to become a judge could do this!

From crawling on all fours, the child has now learnt to take baby steps. It was the most amazing sight to see the child take wobbly steps. The baby has learnt to address his mother as "Ma", and he calls Raicharan "Channa" much to Raicharan's wonderment. How can such a small child have so much intelligence to address me as "Channa"? Raicharan wondered, and he told one and all about his bewilderment. The child held all promises of becoming a judge!

After a few months, Raicharan had to assume the role of a horse and carry the child on his back. He was also required to wrestle with the baby and drop down on the floor defeated. If Raicharan refused to drop down, a great tumult would ensue.

Meanwhile, Anukulbabu was transferred to another district on the banks of the Padma river. Anukulbabu purchased a pushchair for his son, Nabakumar, from Kolkata and carried it with him. Every morning and evening, the child sat majestically in the pushchair, wearing a satin shirt, a lace cap, and gold bracelets and anklets. Raicharan's duty was to push the chair through the countryside for a breath of refreshing air.

The rainy season arrived, and the incessant rains swelled the Padma river. The hungry river swallowed everything that came in its way. The angry growl of the gushing water and the thuds of the ever-crumbling river banks were the only sounds to be heard far and wide. The nearby tamarisk forests were submerged.

After battering the earth continuously, the rains took a break and, although it was cloudy, it seemed that the rains would take a rest for the day. Having remained cooped in the house for long, Raicharan's little master wanted to go out for the usual stroll, and no amount of cajoling could budge him from his resolve. He sat in his pushchair and pestered Raicharan to take him out. Raicharan, exercising extreme caution, pushed the pushchair along the paddy field and arrived near the river banks. There was not a single boat on the river, and not a soul was to be seen. The sun, which was only just visible behind the dark clouds, was preparing to set.

The child suddenly drew Raicharan's attention to some Kadamba flowers on a tree at a distance. "Channa, flowels," he said in his baby lisp.

Raicharan saw that the flowers were growing on a high branch, and he did not feel inclined to walk through the sludge to pluck the flowers. "See those birds there," Raicharan said while pointing in the opposite direction to divert the child's attention. He wheeled the pushchair faster in order to get away from the spot.

But a child, destined to become a judge, cannot be fooled by such means. Besides, the child could not be kept distracted for long on the pretext of sighting imaginary birds. The child wanted the flowers.

"Okay, I will go and get the flowers, but you must keep sitting in the pushchair; don't go near the water," Raicharan told the child and went away to bring the flowers.

But Raicharan's warning not to go near the water only heightened the child's curiosity, and it was the water rather than the Kadamba flowers that now held more attraction for him. He saw the water gushing away while making a loud gurgling sound, just like thousands of mischievous children running away to hide from someone much larger than Raicharan.

The tantalizing sight made the child restless, and he slowly climbed down from the pushchair and went near the water. He picked up a stick lying by and, imagining it to be a fishing rod, dipped it in the water to catch fish. The gushing waters made an uproar as if urging him to come and play with them.

There was a sound of something dropping into the water. But such sounds are commonly heard on the banks of the Padma river during the rains. Raicharan plucked a large number of flowers and climbed down the tree. Coming near the pushchair, he saw that the child was missing. Raicharan's blood froze, his world turned into a hazy smoke. He screamed, "Babu, my little master - my darling master."

But there was no reply; Raicharan could not hear the mischievous laughter of a naughty child. The only sound he heard was that of the gushing waters of the Padma river. The water continued to flow unmindfully, as though unaware of anything, and as though it had no time to bother about such trivial worldly matters.

When Raicharan did not return late in the evening, the mother was concerned and sent people to fetch him. The searchers came with lanterns and found Raicharan walking along the banks frantically, and all the while crying out, "My little master, oh my little master!"

Finally, Raicharan returned home and threw himself at the feet of the child's mother. To all her questions, he just answered, "I do not know anything, mother." Everyone felt certain that the Padma river had swallowed the child. But a needle of suspicion also pointed towards a band of gypsies who had settled at a remote part of the village. The child's mother suspected that it was Raicharan himself who had stolen her child. "Return my child, and I will give you all the money you want," she pleaded with him. On hearing this accusation, Raicharan could only slap his forehead in distress.

Anukulbabu tried to remove this unjust suspicion from his wife's mind. "Why would he steal our child?" he asked her. "It is for the gold jewellery the child was wearing," she replied.


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