Lalu Causes a Scare!

(This is a poor translation of a story by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay. The objective is merely to acquaint readers with Sharatchandra's stories, and to exhort them to read the original or better translations)

A cold wave gripped our city, and there was a sudden outbreak of cholera.

In those days, cholera was a dreaded illness; people used to leave their homes and migrate to other places out of fear if a neighbour contracted cholera. If a patient died, there would be no one to assist the family with the funeral.

But, even in those dismal days, there was one person in our neighbourhood who showed no fear. We called him Gopal Uncle; his mission in life was to assure a decent funeral for the deceased. If anyone fell very ill, Gopal Uncle would personally inquire with the doctors about the patient's chances of recovery. If there were no hopes, he would cover his shoulders with a towel and, walking barefoot, make himself available near the patient's house. A few of us were his disciples. Gopal Uncle, wearing a glum expression, would tell us to be ready. "Boys, stay alert this evening; you must come out at my first call. Do you remember the verses from the scripture?" he would ask.

"Oh yes, of course, we remember," we would reassure him, "we will come out with towels over our shoulders at your first call".

"Fine, that's fine; this is a blessed work. There can be no greater work than this in life."

Lalu belonged to our team. He was a contractor. If his work did not require him to be away, he never said no when asked to assist Gopal Uncle in his humanitarian efforts.

One evening, Gopal Uncle came to us looking very sad and said, "Bishtu Master's wife is not likely to make it."

We were shocked. As children, we had learned our alphabet at school from Bishtu Bhattacharya, who lived in abject poverty. He, himself, was forever ill and was dependent on his wife. He had no other relative. I had never seen a more simple and helpless man than Bishtu Master in my life!

It was around 8 p.m. when we lifted the body. Bishtu Master watched the proceedings with tearful eyes. I can never forget the woebegone expression on his face.

"Who will light the funeral pyre if I don't accompany you?" he asked haltingly.

Even before any of us could say anything, Lalu reassured him, "I will do that Pondit-Moshai. You are our guru, and, in that sense, she was our mother."

Bishtu Master was so weak that we knew it would be impossible for him to walk with us to the burning ghat. The school where he taught was only five minutes walk from his home, but he took over half-an-hour to walk even that small distance and would be out of breath.

"Lalu, please apply a little vermilion on the parting of her hair," Pondit-Moshai said after a brief silence.

"Certainly, Pondit-Moshai," Lalu said, and immediately fetched a tiny sindoor box from the house; he emptied all the contents on the head of the deceased person.


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