‘Forbidden entry’: Tagore’s Bengali short story in translation

“Making a stranger a neighbour” was William Radice’s goal as he moved Rabindranath Tagore into English. This selection showcases Tagore’s humour and irony as he places the other worldly within an ordinary and realistic frame.

Published : Apr 15, 2021 06:00 IST

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the author of this short story, was a versatile genius. Primarily a poet in Bengali, he wrote a large number of short stories, novels and plays. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his Gitanjali (Offering of Songs). He founded the famous university, Visva Bharati, at Santiniketan, West Bengal, with promotion of India’s native culture as its primary goal.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the author of this short story, was a versatile genius. Primarily a poet in Bengali, he wrote a large number of short stories, novels and plays. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his Gitanjali (Offering of Songs). He founded the famous university, Visva Bharati, at Santiniketan, West Bengal, with promotion of India’s native culture as its primary goal.

One morning two young boys were standing by the roadside laying bets on an extremely daring enterprise. They were debating whether it was possible to take some flowers from the madhabi-creeper in the temple compound. One of the boys was saying that he would be able to do it, and the other was saying “You never will”. To understand why this was easy to talk about but not so easy to do requires a fuller explanation.

Jaykali Devi, widow of the late Madhabchakra Tarkabachaspati, was the guardian of the temple, which was dedicated to the Blessed Lord Krishna. Her husband had received the title “Tarkabachaspati” (Master of Debate) in his capacity as teacher at the village tol, but had never had a chance to justify it to his wife. Some pundits were of the opinion that the title had now come into its own, because talking and arguing were his wife’s preserve: it was she who was now enjoying the full fruits of it. Actually, Jaykali did not say very much; she could stop even the mightiest verbal torrents with a couple of words or by saying nothing at all.

Jaykali was a tall, strong, sharp-nosed, tough-minded woman. Her husband had frittered away the money due to them as Brahmins. His widow, by collecting all the arrears, fixing new limits, and recovering claims that had lapsed for many years, had managed to get everything straight again. No one could do her out of a single paisa.

Also read: ‘The lies my mother told me’ by Ashita

Because this woman had many of the qualities of a man, she had no female friends. Women were terrified of her. Gossip, small talk and tears were all anathema to her. Men were afraid of her, too, because she could rebuke the bottomless idleness of the men of the village with a stare so fierce and silently contemptuous that it pierced their fat inertia, cut them to the quick. She had a remarkable capacity for contempt and a remarkable capacity for conveying contempt. Anyone she judged to be at fault, she could blast with her manner and expression, with a word or with no word. She kept close tabs on everything that happened in the village, good or bad. She effortlessly dominated all its affairs. Wherever she went she was in charge: neither she nor anyone doubted it.

She was solicitous about the sick, but her patients feared her as much as death. If anyone broke the treatment or diet she prescribed, her anger was hotter than the fever itself. Her tall, strict presence hung over the village like the Judgement of God; no one loved her, yet no one dared to defy her. She knew everyone, yet no one was as isolated as she.

The widow had no children, but she had brought up two orphaned nephews. No one could say that the lack of a male parent had made them indisciplined, or that they had been spoilt by blind affection from their aunt. The elder of them was now eighteen. From time to time the question of his marriage arose, and the boy was not averse to the bonds of love. But his aunt’s mind was shut to that that happy prospect. Unlike other women, she did not find the loving gaze of a young married couple particularly pleasing. On the contrary, it was to her unpleasantly likely that, like other married men, her nephew would sit about the house, growing fatter by the day as his wife pampered him. No, she said, Pulin had better start earning—then he could bring a wife into the house. Neighbours were shocked by her harsh words.

Also read: ‘Ma reads’ by S.R. Harnot

The temple was Jaykali’s most precious possession. She was never remiss in tending, dressing and bathing the deity. The two attendant Brahmins feared her far more than the God himself. Formerly the God had not received his full rations, because there was another object of worship living secretly in the temple, a “temple-maid” called Nistarini. Offerings of ghee, milk, curds and butter were shared between heaven and hell. But under Jaykali’s iron rule, offerings were enjoyed in full by the deity. Lesser gods had to find other means of support.

The widow made sure that the courtyard of the temple stayed spotlessly clean—not a wisp of straw anywhere. On a trellis to one side there was a madhabi- creeper: whenever it shed dry leaves, Jaykali removed them. She could not bear the slightest invasion of the purity, cleanliness and orderliness of the temple. Previously, local boys playing hide-and-seek had hidden inside the courtyard, and sometimes baby goats came and chewed at the bark of the madhabi . There was no chance of that now. Except on festival days, boys were not permitted to enter the courtyard, and hungry little goats, beaten by sticks, had to run bleating to their parents.

Unclean persons, however virtuous, were not allowed to enter the temple yard. Her brother-in-law, who liked eating chicken meat cooked by Muslims, had come to the village once to see his relations, and had wanted to visit the temple; Jaykali objected so violently, there had nearly been a complete rift between her and her elder sister. The excessive zeal with which the widow watched over the temple seemed quite crazy to ordinary people.

In all spheres Jaykali was harsh and haughty and independent; but she was completely self-sacrificing in her care of the temple. To the image inside it she was mother, wife and slave: she treated it with watchfulness, tenderness, grace and humility. The stone temple with its stone image was the only thing that brought out her femininity. It was her husband and son: her complete family.

Also read: "Seemantha" by H. Nagaveni

Readers will now appreciate what limitless courage was required to steal madhabi blossoms from the temple courtyard. The boy concerned was Nalin, her younger brother’s son. He knew what his aunt was like, but was not amenable to discipline. He was drawn to anything risky, and was always eager to break restrictions. It was said that in childhood his aunt had been like that too.

Jaykali was, at that time, sitting on her verandah telling her rosary, gazing with motherly love and devotion at the image of the deity. The boy crept up from behind and stood underneath the madhabi . He found that the flowers on the lower branches had all been used for puja. So he gingerly started to climb the trellis. Seeing some buds on a high branch, he stretched with the whole length of his body and arm to pick them; but the strain on the frail trellis was too great, and it noisily collapsed. Boy and creeper fell sprawling on the ground together.

This glorious feat brought Jaykali running: she grabbed him by the arms and wrenched him up from the ground. He had been knocked badly by his fall, but one could not call this a punishment, because it had not come from a living thing. So now Jaykali’s living punishment rained down on the boy’s bruised body. He suffered it in silence, without a single tear. His aunt then dragged him into a room and bolted the door. He was given no food that afternoon. Hearing this, the servant girl Mokshada begged, tearfully and with trembling voice, that the boy be forgiven. Jaykali would not be moved. No one in the house dared give food to the hungry boy behind Jaykali’s back.

The widow sent for men to repair the trellis, and once again took her seat on the verandah with her rosary in hand. A little later Mokshada came up to her and said timorously. “ Thakurma , the young master is weeping with hunger: shall I give him some milk?”

“No”, said Jaykali with her face set. Mokshada withdrew again. From the room in the hut nearby Nalin’s plaintive whimpering gradually swelled into wails of anger—until, much later, he was too exhausted to go on, and only on occasional panting sob reached the ears of his aunt as she sat telling her rosary.

Also read: ‘They fell silent’ & ‘They turned into water’ by S. Ramakrishnan

Nalin’s distress had subsided into exhausted near-silence when the sounds of another unhappy creature—mixed with the distant noise of people running and shouting—loudly disturbed the road outside the temple. Suddenly footsteps were heard in the temple yard. Jaykali turned and saw something heaving under the creeper. “Nalin!” she shouted furiously. No one replied. She thought that Nalin must have somehow escaped from his prison and was trying to enrage her again. She stepped down into the yard, with her lips grimly clenched. “Nalin!” she shouted again as she neared the creeper. There was still no answer. Lifting up a branch, she saw an extremely dirty and frightened pig lurking in the thick foliage.

The creeper that was a modest substitute, in this brick-built courtyard, for the groves of Vrindavan, the scent of whose blossoms recalled the fragrance of the gopis and evoked a gorgeous dream of dalliance along the banks of the Yamuna —to think that the sacredness of it, tended by the widow with total devotion, had been suddenly desecrated by this sordid event! An attendant Brahmin came with a stick to drive out the pig, but Jayakali rushed to stop him, and bolted the gate of the temple from inside.

A short while later a crowd of drunken men arrived at the temple gate and began to clamour for the animal they intended to sacrifice. “Clear off, you scum,” shouted Jaykali from behind the closed gate. “Don’t you dare besmirch my temple.”

The crowd dispersed. Even though they had as good as seen it with their own eyes, it was beyond belief that Ma Jaykali had given asylum to an unclean animal inside her Krishna temple.

The great God of all moral creatures was delighted at this odd little episode, even if the petty God of mean and narrow social custom was mightily outraged.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Penguin India

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