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. This is a sad tale, all about human relationships. Raicharan is a simpleton who finds employment in the house of a well-to-do family. His primary responsibility is to take care of his master's child. The little boy, Anukul, grows into a well-educated man and becomes a magistrate. Anukul marries and becomes the father of a son. Raicharan is now entrusted the care of Nabakumar, Anukul's son. Nabakumar is very fond of Raicharan. However, Nabakumar drowns in the Padma river. Raicharan is not responsible for the mishap; but, he should not have left the child alone near a swollen river. However, the child had insisted that he fetch him flowers, and Raicharan had to submit to the child's wishes. Raicharan is overcome with a feeling of guilt; even the child's mother suspects that he might have stolen her son. Raicharan returns to his own village. Despite her advanced age, Raicharan's wife gives birth to a son; she herself dies at childbirth. Raicharan develops a tremendous hatred for his son because he believes that the boy was born to usurp Nabakumar's place from his heart. All children, by and large, behave in the same manner but to Raicharan's guilty mind it seemed as though his son and Nabakumar shared similar traits. The simpleton that he was, and perhaps to assuage his guilty feelings, Raicharan starts believing that Nabakumar had indeed been returned to him by God in the form of his son. The belief takes such a firm hold of him that Raicharan starts treating his son, Felna, as though he were Nabakumar. The boy gets the best education, the best food and the best clothes; Raicharan serves him as a servant. The immature boy, seeing life as it is presented to him and unable to fathom the complex nuances, also starts believing that Raicharan is a servant. Felna, of course, is fond of Raicharan but it is not the fondness of a son towards his father. Anukulbabu accepts Felna as his lost son with some reservations, but his wife is certain that Felna and Nabakumar are one and the same. The immature boy, made to believe from the start that Raicharan was not his father, is slightly angry that he was stolen by the faithful servant. The boy, little understanding the tremendous hurt he was causing Raicharan, urges Anukulbabu to grant a monthly pension to the faithful servant!)

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, passed out from college and, then, 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 perseverence, has won over the child's heart.

Raicharan rocks the cradle with great assiduity, expertly lifts the child towards the sky, and brings his face close to the baby's 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". This was also a cause for wonder to Raicharan. 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 certainly 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 defeated, a great tumult used to 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; it was Raicharan's duty to push the chair through the countryside for a breath of the 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 under water.

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, that 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 who is 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 were the waters 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 tantalising 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 a huge uproar, as if urging him to come and play with them.

There was a sound as if something had dropped 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, climbed down the tree, and coming near the pushchair 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 that he heard was that of the gushing water of the Padma river which 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 that Raicharan was walking along the banks in a frenzy, 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." Although everyone was fully convinced that the child had been swallowed by the Padma river, but a needle of suspicion also pointed at a band of gypsies who had settled at a remote part of the village. The child's mother also 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 be steal our child?" he asked her. "It is for the gold jewellery the child was wearing," she replied.


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