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Sharat often slapped Neelkanto and wrung his ears. But the boy, who was used to a harsher discipline, having grown up that way, did not feel offended or hurt by such treatment. Neelkanto firmly believed that just as the world was made of land and water, human life was all about food and blows; life offered more blows than food.
It was difficult to guess Neelkanto's age. If he were 14-15 years old, his face looked older for his age; if he were 17-18 years old, his face looked childish for his age. He was either prematurely developed or underdeveloped.
The truth is, Neelkanto had become a member of the theatre troupe at a very young age and played the role of Radhika, Damayanti, Sita, and Vidya's companion. The theatre group owner needed a young face; the almighty granted his wishes by halting Neelkanto's growth after the boy had grown up to some extent. Everyone regarded him as a child; Neelkanto had also come to think of himself as a child. He never received respect appropriate to his age from anyone. For these natural and unnatural reasons, even at 17, he looked more like a precocious 14-year-old instead of an under-developed 17-year-old. The wrong impression about Neelkanto was strengthened because he did not have even the faintest trace of a mustache; moreover, either because of his habit of smoking or using language inappropriate to his age, the corners of Neelkanto's mouth had drooped like that of an older person. But his two large starry eyes oozed simplicity and childishness. I think Neelkanto was tender deep inside, but life as a theatre artiste had hastened the maturity of his external appearance.
Nature's laws began to work normally on Neelkanto as he continued to stay under Sharatbabu's refuge in the Chandanagar house. The boy, who had, unnaturally, stopped growing after reaching the doorway to adulthood, crossed over to the other side some day without being aware of it. His behavior began to reflect his true age of seventeen or eighteen years. Nobody could notice the change from the outside. But the first signs of change started to appear when Neelkanto began to feel uncomfortable and hurt whenever Kiron treated him like a child. One day, when light-hearted Kiron asked him to dress up as her female confidante, Neelkanto felt a sudden rush of agony, but he could not say why. Nowadays, he disappeared from sight if she asked him to do a theatrical performance. He could not bear the thought that he was nothing but an unfortunate theatre troupe boy.
Neelkanto decided to learn to read and write from the estate manager. But the estate manager could not tolerate Neelkanto because he was Kiron's pet. And besides, being unused to study with concentrated attention, the letters only swam before Neelkanto's eyes. He would sit leaning against a champak tree on the banks of the Ganga for hours together with an open book on his lap. The water made a gentle splashing sound; boats floated past; restless and inattentive birds perched on the branches and passed comments by chirping noisily. Neelkanto kept his eyes on the book, thinking of something he alone knew, or maybe even he did not know. He never could manage to complete one sentence and go on to the next; nevertheless, the thought that he was reading made him feel smug. Whenever a boat went by carrying passengers, he picked up the book with a flourish and muttered to himself, and made a great show of reading it. As soon as the observers were out of sight, he lost interest in the book.
Earlier, he used to sing the songs he had learned without giving them any thought, but now the melodies of the songs caused great turmoil in his mind. The words, even when trivial and filled with alliterations, were beyond Neelkanto's comprehension.
"O swan! Though twice-born,
Why are you so cruel?
Tell me why in this forest,
Do you threaten the life of the princess?"1
Now, when he sang this song, he felt he was getting conveyed to a different world. The familiar world around him and his insignificant life suddenly assumed new dimensions. The swan and the princess' story evoked extraordinary images in his mind; it can't be said what he imagined himself to be at such times, but it was definitely not as an orphaned helper boy in a theatre troupe.
When a helpless and dirty child, born to a family living in abject poverty, lies down on the bed in the evening and listens to stories about the prince and the princess and the boundless wealth of the king, the child's mind breaks free from all bonds of poverty and helplessness. Even in the darkness of the dimly lit and shabby home, the child's mind floats into a fairytale kingdom where everything is beautiful, bright, and possible. In the same way, this boy from a theatre troupe created a new world for himself through the medium of the songs. The sound of the water, the rustling of the leaves, the chirping of the birds, and the smiling face, benevolent arms full of bangles, and the soft, pretty rosy feet of the goddess who had provided shelter to this purposeless boy, transformed into music by some mystical force. Some days, the mystical music would stop abruptly, and shock-headed Neelkanto of the theatre troupe would be rudely awakened from his reverie after receiving slaps on his face. The slaps would be delivered by Sharat who a little while ago had to listen to complaints from the neighbour, the mango orchard's owner, about the sorry state of his mango trees. At such times, Neelkanto, as leader of his band of little urchins, would set out to find new adventures elsewhere on land, water, or branches of trees.
(NOTES: 1. This verse tells the story of King Nala and Princess Damayanti, a great love story from Indian mythology.
King Nala had only heard of the beauty of Princess Damayanti. Once, he caught a swan. The swan pleaded for his life. He promised that if the king spared his life, he would go to Princess Damayanti and sing the King's praises.
The swan kept his promise. He went to Damayanti and sang such praises of Nala that she fell helplessly in love with the King.)
Some useful links for
- Union Public Service Commission - www.upsc.gov.in
- IIT-Kharagpur - www.iitkgp.ac.in
- Indian Statistical Institute - www.isical.ac.in
- Indian Institute of Technology Madras - www.iitm.ac.in
- Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad - www.iimahd.ernet.in
- Indian Institute of Mass Commission - www.iimc.nic.in
- IIT Bombay - www.iitb.ac.in
- Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad - www.ismdhanbad.ac.in
- Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi - www.bitmesra.ac.in
- Central Institute of Fisheries Nautical and Engineering Training - www.cifnet.nic.in
- Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad (Deemed University) - www.iiita.ac.in
- Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi - www.cmfri.com
- Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai - www.tiss.edu