4

The snacks seller was in a dilemma. If he removed the cash from the basket Panditji would feel hurt that he didn't trust him. If he left the cash behind, you can never say what was in this man's mind; a person's intentions could not be relied upon to be always good! After hesitating thus, the hawker decided to leave the basket behind; "Let fate take its own course," he thought to himself. He went away to buy oil for the lamp.

Panditji ran his eyes over the wicker basket and was disappointed. There were very few sweets left; just five or six of them were there. He couldn't take very large helpings from any of them, else there was the risk of being found out. "what's the use of taking small portions?" Panditji thought to himself, "it will only intensify the hunger. The situation is akin to a tiger tasting blood but finding nothing else to eat. No, it isn't a risk worth taking!" Panditji returned to his mat.

After some time, however, the craving for the sweets increased. Even a small portion is certain to give some satisfaction, he thought. Food, whether in large quantity or in small quantity, is food after all! He rose once again, and removed some sweets from the basket. But the moment he stuffed a laddoo into his mouth he suffered another setback! The snacks seller was returning with the lighted lamp in his hand! It was imperative that the sweets should be consumed before he reached. Pandiji immediately put two more sweets into his mouth. He was in the process of munching them when the nocturnal man approached still nearer. A few more sweets went into the mouth, and Panditji had to gulp them down without indulging in the pleasure of munching them slowly so as to enjoy their taste. Panditji held six more sweets in his hand; the hawker had reached the gate. Now, all the six pieces went into the mouth and filled it to such an extent that Panditji could neither bite into them nor could he swallow them. Meanwhile, the wicked man approached nearer and nearer relentlessly like a motor car shining the lamp as a headlight! He had come very near now; Pandfitji managed to gulp down the sweets. But he was a human being after all and not a crocodile! Panditji's eyes streamed tears, his throat was choked, he started getting goose bumps, and then he broke into a violent fit of coughing.

The hawker handed him the lamp and said, "Here, take the lamp and look around carefully. You have undertaken a fast unto death and, yet, are scared of death! Why should you feel so worried? Even if you die, the government will take care of your family."

Panditji boiled with rage. He wanted to give the impudent fellow a piece of his mind; but not a word would come out of the choked throat. He took the lamp without uttering a word, pretended to look around for the slithering creature, and returned the lamp back to its owner.

Hawker: What caused you to support the government? The traders will hold their meeting tomorrow, and they will arrive at a decision only late in the evening. By that time, you will have butterflies floating before your eyes.

After hurling this final invective, the snacks seller departed. Panditji had another fit of coughing and, then, lay down and fell asleep.

The traders began preparations for their meeting next morning. There was great excitement among the Congress workers as well. The peace committee officals also kept their ears open. Members of the priestly community held a separate meeting which passed a resolution that Pandit Moteram Shashtri had no business meddling in political affairs. "The community has got nothing to do with politics," the resolution read. Various groups thus spent the day in deciding their own course of action in the matter with the result that no one bothered to inquire after Panditji. By now people had begun openly alleging that Panditji had accepted one thousand rupees from the government to sit on hunger strike.

Poor Panditji had spent a restless night; when he woke in the morning he felt like a corpse. He attempted to rise but couldn't focus his eyes, and his head reeled. It felt as though someone was sitting inside his abdomen and scraping the entrails. He kept a wistful eye on the road hoping that someone would come along and plead with him to take food. The usual time of his evening prayer was, thus, spent waiting for that elusive someone. It had become a second habit with Panditji to take some refreshments after the evening prayers. But, today, he had not been offered even a glass of water! Panditji longed for happier days! He felt a sudden anger against his wife. She must have slept well after a hearty dinner, and now must have partaken of some refreshments; but she did not have the courtesy to visit him and inquire after his well-being. It would have been a simple matter for her to prepare some sweet dessert and bring it over clandestinely on the pretext of talking to her husband. But, no! She cared nothing for him! She had grabbed the advance payment, and was certain to take away the final payment too! Made a fool of me, Panditji seethed.

The long and short of it was that Panditji waited the whole day but not a soul came to plead with him. The suspicion that Panditji must have accepted money from the government to stage this drama and that this fast-unto-death was just an act of hypocrisy to serve his own selfish end, deterred people from coming to him and pleading with him to take food.

It was 9 pm. Sheth Bhondumal, who was the leader of the traders' community, said firmly, "Even if we agree that Panditji has forsaken food for selfish reasons, that does not lessen his suffering which results from going without nutrition. It is against our religion that a brahmin should give up food for our sake while we go to sleep on a full stomach. If he has done something wrong he will suffer the consequences; but, why should we turn away from our duties?

A Congress leader said in subdued voice, "I have already said what I had to say. You people are the leaders of the community; whatever decision you take we will respect that. Let's go, I will also accompany you. But I have a request ..... allow me to meet him alone for ten minutes while all of you wait at the gate; when I return after meeting him, you may enter." Who would have had any objection to this request? It was granted.

The Congress leader had served in the police department for a long time. Owing to this fact he understood the frailties of human nature. He went to the market and purchased five rupees worth of scented sweets; wrapped the sweets in decorative silver foil; filled a jug with cool, sweet, and scented water. The Congress leader, then, proceeded on his mission to coax the upset brahmin. The scented sweets and water left a trail of fragrance. Who doesn't know that fragrance has the power to excite the senses? Under its influence even a person who isn't hungry craves for food! So, you can well imagine the state of a person who is hungry and who suddenly finds himself in an aromatic heaven!

Panditji was lying on the ground unconscious of the world around him. He had eaten nothing in the previous night other than the few pieces of sweets which he had managed to obtain from the snacks seller. He had eaten nothing this afternoon, and, now, even the hour of dinner had passed. The hope which he held for food had now given way to despair. His whole body had gone limp and he could not even open his eyes. He repeatedly tried to open his eyes but they would close on their own at once. His lips were dry. The low moans which escaped his lips from time to time were the only signs to indicate that there was life yet in the body. He had never faced such a calamity in his life ever before! It is true that indigestion troubled Panditji two to four times in a month; but he tamed it with herbs. Even when confronted by indigestion, Panditji had never ever remained hungry!

So, that was the state of affair, and Panditji lay on the ground after having cursed to his heart's content all those who deserved to be cursed: The people, the peace committee, the government, God, the Congress, and his wife. He, now, did not have even the strength to rise and go to the market. Panditji was certain that his life would leave the body tonight; life, after all, is held to the body by a thread and not by a strong rope that you can tug at will without fear of snapping.

"Shastriji!" the Congress leader called.

Moteram opened his eyes with difficulty. There was so much sorrow in those eyes! Just like the eyes of a child whose sweets have been snatched away by a crow!

The Congress leader placed the sweets and the jug of water on the ground, very near to Panditji, and asked, "How long are you going to keep lying here?"

The scent of the sweets worked wonders on Panditji's senses. He sat up and replied, "Let's see what decision is taken."

Congress leader: Nothing is likely to be decided. There was a day-long meeting today but it could not reach a consensus. The Viceroy will arrive tomorrow evening; by then, what will be the state of your health! You already look so pale.

Moteram: If I am fated to die, how can I avoid it? I can smell "kalakand (creamy sweet)"; do you have "kalakand" in the plate?

Congress leader: Yes, there are different kinds of sweets; I had them specially prepared for a relative.

Moteram: Ah! That's the reason they have such wonderful scent! Can you open the wrapper a bit?

The Congress leader obliged smilingly and removed the wrapper. Panditji devoured the sweets with his eyes! A blind man, who is miraculously gifted with sight all of a sudden, wouldn't have looked around him with so much wonder as Panditji looked at the sweets! His mouth watered.

Congress leader: I would have offered you some just for the sake of tasting; but, unfortunately, you have vowed not to touch food. I paid five rupees for a kilogram of these sweets!

Moteram: Really! Then they must indeed be the very best! I haven't tasted "kalakand" for a long time.

Congress leader: You have unnecessarily got yourself in this mess. What is the use of wealth if there is no life to enjoy it?

Moteram: What can I do? I feel trapped!

Panditji fondly ran his hands over the sweets and said, "You know, I am used to eating this quantity of sweets at breakfast! Have you purchased them from Bhola's shop?"

Congress leader: Would you like to taste a few of them?

Moteram: How can I eat them when I am trapped in such a difficult situation!

Congress leader: Come on! Taste a few pieces. Who will ever come to know!

Moteram: I am not scared of that. Here I am dying of hunger and thirst but no one has even bothered to inquire after my health. Why, then, should I feel scared of being discovered? Here, give the plate. Tell everyone that Shashtriji has ended his fast. To hell with business and trade! When no one is bothered and everyone has forsaken his religion, why should I alone take up the mantle of protecting the religion?

Panditji pulled the plate nearer and started eating with relish; within minutes half the sweets had disappeared! The traders were waiting at the gate. The Congress leader went up to them and said, "You may come now; you will get to see a grand spectacle. You people don't have to keep your shops open, nor do you have to cajole him. I have solved all your problems. You have to thank the Congress for this!"

There was bright moonlight. The traders went inside and saw Panditji devouring the sweets with an ecstasy matching the ecstasy of a sage in samadhi.

Bhondumal said, "Panditji, I touch your feet in reverence. Why did you have to break your fast in such great haste when you knew we would be coming to meet you? We would have suggested an admirable strategy by which you would not have had to break your vow, and, at the same time, it would have allowed you to fulfill your purpose.

Moterram: My purpose has been fulfilled. This is pure bliss; no amount of wealth could have provided such bliss. If you have any regard for me, you will get me some more of these sweets, and from the very same shop.

(Author's note: We forgot to mention that the Congress leader had to pay four annas to the policeman for bringing the sweets inside the premises. The demand for money was against all rules. But the Congress leader did not like to argue on this matter and he paid)

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