Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury
☆ Story – The Judge and the Judged ☆ Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury ☆
The train has touched the platform and we two are ready. Not many but just a few of us will alight from this compartment. This is the privilege of travelling in the first class. What to talk of the general compartments which are always filled beyond their capacity, even in sleeper coachs people have to fight for their seats. Even to get their reserved seats sometimes they have to run after the T.T. who, under certain circumstances, might put a mask like face and never bother. A great diplomat of everyday life! But away from all these chaos we enjoy all our journey quite peacefully even in an overcrowded train. This is the advantage of being the government’s right hand!
‘Namaste, Saab! Parnam, malkin (ma’am).’
The moment he saw me standing near the door of the compartment, Ramaasre addressed us. Also our driver was with him.
‘Everything fine here?’ I asked and said, ‘Pick up the luggage.’
They were carrying our suitcases and just a few other things.
My wife asked, ‘Everything alright at home?’
We followed them and reached the parking lot. The driver opened the rear doors of the car and we both were seated.
Maneuvering the ups and downs of the road our blue coloured Panther car starts running.
Truly he needs the vacation most who has just returned from a holiday. We really spent a pleasant holiday there in the lap of great Himalaya. Treading the path in the company of pines and deodars. Listening silently to the wind whispering through the leaves of the trees and the music of ever flowing streams. In the horizon the white capped mountain peaks would look like namazis sitting in a row offering their prayer in the courtyard of some mosque. During the sun rise or sunset they would exhibit a kaleidoscope of colours. Who would think of coming back to this place again? The same old city, full of potholes, the ever flowing murky drain waters, the life’s daily chorus of bickering and squabbling!
‘What happened? Again lost in thoughts?’ my wife asked.
‘Oh nothing. Just thinking about that place and our journey.’
But besides all the serene and glorious beauties of the king of mountains an incident had greatly shaken me and my heart was filled up to the brim with old memories. I met Shyam bhaiya there.
From Nazibabad town, near Hardwar, a single railway line goes up to Kotdwar. From that non-descript hill station, leaving the roads to Poudi or Lancedown we drove towards northeastern part of the hills. As such there was no city with a big name on our way. Only a few townships and rural markets on the road side. No TV shop, nothing. Some small sweet shops only, waiting for their customers till it’s dark. You cannot buy a book from anywhere, only a few magazines are available in some book corners.
When we reached our destination the sun was already bidding his farewell. A crimson red hue spread all over, from heaven to the mountain peaks, and we two were shivering in spite of our heavy woolen garments.
‘Right now I badly need a cup of really hot tea.’ I murmured to my wife. But even that was denied by the circumstances. Although the government guest house was already booked for us but the chowkidar was nowhere to be found. An old woman sitting nearby said, ‘He was waiting for you. But now he has gone to bazar for vegetables etc.’
Now what? We had to wait. My wife took shelter inside the car and I, rubbing both my palms, crossed the road to have a look at the river from the cliff above.
Far below the silver coloured waves of Gandhari were dancing. Bent like a sickle the river was running down stream. I was spell bound.
‘Saab, be careful. Don’t go near the edge.’ Someone called out from the stony path below.
I was alarmed and withdrew my steps. I heard the footsteps of someone coming very quickly. Next, the man was standing by my side, ‘Sir, its Gandhari River.’
‘Why Gandhari?’ the moment I turned my face towards him I was stunned.
The man too was startled, ‘You – oh, sir, your face seems to be quite familiar.’
I didn’t say anything. I just first wanted to read his thoughts.
‘You – your face just reminds me one of my cousins. My mamaji’s eldest son, Adi. Although for years we’ve not seen each other.’
Now, all doubts wiped off, I was pretty sure. Adi was my pet name. But presently there was no one to call me by this. The childhood memories overwhelmed in my heart. I clasped his hands, ‘For sure you’re our Shyam bhaiya. Isn’t it?’
‘Oh Adi! What a surprise!’ he took hold of both of my hands. Probably he very much wished to hug me tightly but by our dresses the difference between us was so evident that he restrained himself.
Both of our hearts were overflowed with the emotions and the memories of the past. For a few seconds we just kept on seeing each other without saying a word. Then I smiled, ‘So Shyam bhaiya, why this river is called Gandhari?’
‘Adi, you see, from the valley this flows into a cave and no one knows exactly where it comes out. Just like Gandhari, the queen of Hastinapur, who had blindfolded her own eyes, this river too has disappeared from human eyes. Willingly.’
‘Now tell me how did you come here? And where is Lajo bua (the father’s sister)?’
‘It all happened five years ago when ma breathed her last. Since then I’m all alone and roaming about this place.’
By now we had reached near our car. Silently I gestured to my wife to touch his feet but she didn’t pay any heed. Obviously she was hesitating because of the mark of poverty on his attire and appearance. In our society a book is judged more by its cover than by its content.
‘So you’ve brought her too. Welcome bahu. God bless you!’ Before she herself would pay him respect he cleverly managed the embarrassing situation.
In the meantime the chowkidar came running, ‘When have you reached sahib? I just went down to the bazar to look for you.’
‘And left us shivering here in the cold?’ Naturally my tone was not quite gentle. ‘Well, now can you get us some hot tea?’
‘Adi, wait a bit. I’ll bring it. You two just take a little rest till then.’ said Shyam bhaiya and then he turned to the chowkidar, ‘Dogre, in the mean time you make hot water for your sahib. They must be tired after such a long journey.’
‘Who is this man?’ My wife asked me as soon as we entered our room.
‘He is Shyam bhaiya, son of Lajo bua. I was a child when Lajo bua lost her husband and took shelter in our house with her only son.’
‘I see.’ She had no inclination to hear his story and she went for a wash.
I too was not interested in telling her every detail but who can rein his own thoughts? As if a strong storm broke in and it began turning the pages in my mind. Just like the scenes in a TV screen, all the happenings were visible before my eyes.
Ours was a prosperous family. We had agricultural property in our village, a big house in the city and tremendous social position and recognition earned by my grandfather and father. So when Lajo bua’s husband died in a road accident and her in laws treated her in the same way as is customary in all the villages of India, she, with her eight year old son, had nowhere to go except to beg for a refuge in our house, although she was not my father’s real sister, only a distant relative.
However my father provided her a shelter in the house. At first my mother and all the three aunts were not happy at all. But she became the family cook without any salary so they were all pleased as well.
Shyam bhaiya started going to a school, but he was more of a payless servant for everybody. My elder uncle, taking rest after returning from office, would suddenly make a call, ‘Shyam -!’ He would give him a five rupee note and say, ‘Go quickly and get me a packet of cigarette from Mangru’s betel shop.’
Closing his books Shyam bhaiya would run to the market. In the meantime Bhullan ahir, our cowhand, would appear in the inner courtyard and call out, ‘Bahuji, send the milk bucket.’
Next my grandpa’s voice would be audible from every corner of the house, ‘Shyam! Where is he? Who will now take hold of the calf? God knows where he is gone. Probably loitering with his friends. Does he ever touch his books?’
Without a word Lajo bua would bring the bucket and say to Bhullan, ‘Bhaiya, don’t worry. I’m here to help you. Now start milking the cow.’
‘Oh sister, why should you take this trouble? Where is Shyam?’
We the children too, were well aware of his position in our family. If during our studies someone would become thirsty, he would immediately ask him, ‘Shyam bhaiya, bring a glass of water for me.’
He would immediately put down his books and fetch it.
During our roof top cricket we would not hesitate to hit the ball with all our strength and the moment it would fly onto the other side of the road we would shout in a chorus, ‘Shyam bhaiya, see, the ball has gone there. Bring it soon.’
Still he loved us very much. Especially my younger brother Dhruva Narayan, was the apple of his eye. He would bathe and dress him up. When Dhruva would go to loo in the morning, unhesitatingly he would clean him. Whereas I, his elder brother, could never clean his nose even. He was Dhruva’s partner at play. His riding horse. After all these Dhruva would sleep in his lap only, ‘Tell me that story of yesterday.’
Mother complained sometime, ‘I’m nobody for Chotu. Shyam is everything.’
But she was happy and contented, ‘It’s nice to have some free hours.’
Lajo bua never said anything on his son’s behalf. A sinking man tries to grasp at a piece of straw and here she was afraid of drowning in the whirl pool of life, so …….
I still remember the incident of a Mahashivratri evening. Dadi (my grandma) came out with flower and belpatta (wood apple leaves) on a bronze dish and asked my youngest uncle to take her to the Shiva temple, ‘I must bow before Mahadev and offer milk to him.’
She kept fast on that day and not even a drop of water she would drink. But my uncle flatly denied, ‘Oh ma, I’ve got enough in my hands to do. I don’t have time.’
It was Shyam bhaiya again who ferried dadi’s boat to her destination. And I still remember that night my uncle went to see Rajkapoor’s movie ‘Sangam’ for the seventeenth time. It was the prevailing fashion in those days. There were people who had even made a silver jubilee of viewing it.
So, this way Shyam bhaiya was being groomed and reared in our family. Lajo bua had high hopes that someday his son would be capable to take care of his mother, but he was not interested in his studies and he could not pass high school in his first attempt.
‘How was the tea?’
‘Hundred percent milk tea. I know how much fond of milk you are. You used to drink a full glass of raw milk, no?’
I had smiled. Now while going home all the scenes from those childhood days and that spent on the Himalayas were moving like a live broadcast in my mind…….
That night the chowkidar had prepared baked brinjal and pulses of arhar for us but next day onwards Shyam bhaiya himself took the responsibility of the kitchen. During the day he would be our travelling guide. Someday he would take us to Kimkaleshwar temple situated at the hill top, next day to some fort made of stone and earth, built by some unknown Garhwali king. Then again a journey to the sun rise or sunset point.
While walking he would often ask me, ‘Adi, do you know the name of this tree?’
It had some berry like fruits on it.
‘It’s Kafal. The famous sweet and sour fruits of Uttarakhand.’ Next day again he would test my knowledge of Botany. Again I would fail and he would smile, ‘It’s Kinkopa!’
It was chowkidar who would prepare the morning breakfast for us. After that we three would go out and when we would return Shyam bhaiya would prepare various dishes. Someday gajar ka halwa, next day a vegetable dish of mountain chillies.
I’ve visited every nook and cranny of our vast country but nowhere was I bestowed with so much of love and affection! Nowhere ever have I enjoyed so much!
One day I had asked him, ‘Shyam bhaiya, what do you do for a living?’
‘Oh my Adi, there is nothing much to talk about me. Just let me know your achievements in life. You must be a big shot now. You were so good in your studies.’
I don’t know how much intelligent I was in my studies but life was always generous to me. Even when I would play ludo in my childhood the dice would turn and turn and most of the time I would get a six. Even if the other chaps couldn’t get a single piece out, my all four pieces would reach ‘Home’, the finishing point. In the same way when all the students, good or mediocre, were running after Biology because there was a huge unemployment among the engineers and suicide by unemployed engineer was an everyday news, I opted for History in High School. Got first division easily. There was no question of crossing the bar of PMT, the Great Wall of China. I did LLB instead and won the hurdle race of service examinations. Those days reservation was not such an issue. My progress in life was smooth indeed.
During our long and short conversations Shyam bhaiya once told me that he had worked in different places after going from our house. He had worked as a garage mechanic, then a truck driver. He had a natural skill in all these manual works. Later he took Lajo bua with him and the great Himalaya became his abode. Sometime a sadness echoed in his voice, ‘Adi, I regret that I’m such a worthless son that I couldn’t fulfil the hopes of my mother.’
The sense of despair choked his voice and the alpine dewdrops rolled from his eyes. His sorrows were buried under the snow covered bosom of Himalaya. As if a gust of wind blew the veil of night from the face of deodar and pines and to me the moaning of leaves became audible!
Silently I clasped his hands.
Shyam bhaiya was our play mate. The kites made by him had no parallel in our neighbourhood. He taught us the art of flying the kite and the kites made by him would frequently touch the sky! On the day of Makar Sankranti, the transition of the Sun into Capricorn in its celestial path, which occurs in mid-January, there was none who could give him a fight in kite flying.
It was the time when because of a happening his total life was changed.
May be, I was in class eighth and he probably had crossed the barrier of class tenth. One day Dhaniya bua, the house maid, had kept two ten rupee notes on a table to buy sweets etc. as she had a plan to visit the temple. But at the end of her domestic chores she found that the notes were gone, ‘O my god! Bhabhi, I had left here twenty rupees. Who has taken that?’
‘What happened? Why are you yelling like that?’
‘See Bhabhi, it’s a poor man’s hard earned money. If somebody has stolen it, he would have leprosy in his hand!’
In those days their monthly salary from a household was not more than thirty or forty rupees. Naturally it was a huge amount for her.
Dad too came out to enquire, ‘Why all this fuss?’
‘Bade babu, I had kept twenty rupees here on the table, but now I can’t find them.’
My dad frowned, ‘Who was here right now?’
Dhania bua herself answered, ‘A few minutes ago Shyam had brought the milk upstairs.’
Immediately my dad burst out, ‘Shyam -!’
Awfully shaken, Lajo bua came out of the kitchen, ‘What happened, Bade bhaiya? Why Shyam? Has he done anything?’
‘Must I answer that to you? Call him first.’
In this hullabaloo Shyam bhaiya appeared on the scene. Everybody was witnessing the drama silently. My father asked, ‘Dhaniya had left twenty rupees on this table, where are they gone?’
‘I don’t know, mamaji.’
‘You don’t, then who should?’
‘Except you who else had come here?’ My youngest uncle asked.
Shyam bhaiya was shaking like a leaf in a storm, ‘I tell you the truth. I don’t know nothing.’
Lajo bua couldn’t restrain herself. She ran madly towards her son and slapped him hard across his face, ‘You, a thief! How dare you do that? Oh, why don’t you die?’
‘Amma, I really don’t know who has stolen the money.’ He was fumbling helplessly.
‘He won’t cough up this way.’ Father took out his belt and started raining it on his back.
Lajo bua was no more in herself. She cried out like an insane, ‘Kill him. Yes, bade bhaiya, for heaven’s sake do it for me.’
Who can say it was a tearless cry of her heart or a futile outcry against her destiny?
Mother tried to stop my dad, ‘Want to take his life? Don’t forget he is none to you.’
No one bothered to ask who the real culprit was. Without caring for any evidence everybody had accepted him as the sinner. For a poor, the poverty itself is his greatest crime.
Anyway, the money was not to be found anywhere. Though dad was restrained by ma but it was now the turn of Lajo bua to beat and kick that unfortunate creature.
Ma gave some money to Dhania bua and she left the place.
Shyam bhaiya, with blood smeared all over his body, was left lying in a corner. No one asked him for the dinner. Lajo bua too didn’t eat anything that night.
Like a coward I hid myself in the adjacent room. I was trembling with fear and witnessing everything.
Many a times Shyam bhaiya had to bear with various insults but this time it was a sheer torture.
Next morning, he was not to be found anywhere.
My uncle commented, ‘Just look if the bird has flown with some other things as well.’
Not a single word was pronounced by his unfortunate mother. Next day onwards she kept a stony silence.
Well, when I grew up I came to know that my uncle had unscrupulously taken a larger share of the family property from my father. Only money was the oxygen for his existence. He wouldn’t even care to spare Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, if ever he could get a chance to cheat her. He was worthy of his name, Lakshminarayan.
None but Dhruva only wept for Shyam bhaiya. The rider had his horse gone. Throughout the day he would weep and call, ‘Shyam bhaiya, where are you? Come and be my horse, please.’
Lajo bua never shed a drop of tear in front of anybody. She kept her mouth completely shut. If his finger is cut off a man cries in agony but if the whole arm is severed he just collapses.
Probably my dad had made enquiries in our neighbourhood and other places. Two months had passed without any news about him. But nobody bothered.
Then one day a letter came to Lajo bua, ‘Amma, don’t worry about me. Let me settle a bit and then I’ll bring you here.’
After that no more letter, nor any thing. Who could guess what was going on in Lajo bua’s heart?
After six or seven months, suddenly one morning, Shyam bhaiya appeared. He bowed before my father and other elders. No one talked to him. When we two were alone I said, ‘Really you’re now a free bird. No studies, no exam, nothing. You have money in your pocket and you can do whatever you like.’
‘Don’t say that, Adi. Is it a life worth living? Well, you must work hard for your studies. You should earn name, fame and everything. You must be the worthy son of mamaji.’
By the evening he left our house with his mother. For ever. After this, who would bother to ask where they would be staying and who would care for a letter from them?
It was forty five years since. And now I had met him again. Now when I’m on the verge of my retirement, my heart is brimming with a carefree joy and rainbow of colours.
It was our last night in the lap of Himalaya. As the dusk fell, Shyam bhaiya said, ‘Let’s go into the jungle and you’ll see a thing which you can never dream of. There is a place on the bank of the river Gandhari where the wild animals come regularly to drink water. Standing on the edge of the cliff above the river you can watch it. Will you? Don’t worry, there is nothing to be scared of. It’ll be a life time experience.’
But my wife opposed vehemently, ‘Not at all. Is it the time to enter a forest? The night is so dark and there the animals are roaming all around.’
Shyam bhaiya tried to explain, ‘What you’re afraid of, bahu? I’ve been here for last twenty five years. I know pretty well how much we should fear the jungle and how much we should love it. Till I’m with Adi, you just don’t worry.’
I too was very much exited. From Corbett National Park to Periyar – I’ve visited many a forest but my luck didn’t permit me to see even a fox.
My wife’s whining continued. Silently she must be blaming Shyam bhaiya. I tried to make her comfortable and said, ‘Close the door behind us.’
The night time beauty of the forest can only be felt but can’t be expressed in words. It just gives a call to everybody, ‘Come on, if you can dare. Raise the veil from all my mysteries and secrets and see for yourself.’ The cold and breezy wind was biting. Even the hand gloves couldn’t protect the fingers from getting cramps. They became numb. Far off, the snow covered peaks were shining in the moonlight. The breeze was frolicking among the leaves. They were fluttering and the flakes of snow were falling from the trees like some white flowers. As if whole of the jungle was bathed in milk.
Shyam bhaiya had put on a sweater on him and a muffler worn around his face. I had a torch in my hand. Visibly he didn’t bother for the light. He was well acquainted with every corner of this jungle. With the help of torch I was looking if there was any ditch or a stone or a fallen branch of a tree. Or, was I afraid of putting my foot on a snake or something? He was moving ahead as usual. Effortlessly. When I queried him he smiled, ‘Adi, its winter, all the snakes are sleeping in their pits. They won’t come to welcome you.’
With my pen I can never express what I experienced that night. We two were seated between a tree trunk and a big stone. He cautioned me, ‘Keep absolute silence.’
Off and on, there was a snow fall and it seemed the moonlight was frozen on the leaves. Suddenly there came a sort of chuckling sound from the bank of Gandhari, below.
‘Look….’ he gestured in that direction.
Spell bound I was looking at. At last my wish was fulfilled in the lap of Himalaya. As little Dhruva used to do, silently I grasped Shyam bhaiya’s hands.
Just down the slope of the mountain a group of deer and chital was drinking from the river. They would look around to see if there were none and again they would bend their neck on to the water. The moment their brown skin quivered, the white spots there on would glide, as if the stars had descended from the sky and they were dancing in the falling snow!
‘Now we should return. Bahu must be worried at room.’
The experience was totally intoxicating. But one must return to his daily life.
‘I can never forget what you’ve have shown me tonight.’ I whispered.
‘So whenever you’ll think of this place you’ll think of me too?’
‘Don’t say like that bhaiya. How can we forget you?’
He just smiled silently and didn’t say anything.
Frankly, I just had no inkling of what was I going to say. Without any prior thought these words just slipped from my mouth, ‘Unfortunately that day you were accused and punished without anything committed by you.’
‘What else I could do? Could I tell someone else’s name?’
‘Were you aware of?’
I was startled. I looked at him. It seemed to me that as the river Gandhari had willingly disappeared from public eyes, Shyam bhaiya too, knowing everything pretty well, had disappeared. As the story goes in Purana, Shiva didn’t bother for amrit, the nectar of life. He chose the poison and kept it in his throat for ever. Yes, Shyam bhaiya too had to drink the poison of life silently.
‘Oh just forget it, Adi.’
That night when we reached the guest house he prepared aloo ka paratha and chutney of coriander leaves for us. Besides the taste, it was his affection for us that made it really superb.
Next day we had to come about one fifty kilometer down to catch our train. He insisted on accompanying us. I tried to explain it won’t be an easy job for him to cover the distance by bus while he would return. But he was adamant.
When the train started he smiled and said, ‘Adi, you must come again. There are lots of things to see here. You’ll really enjoy. Do come, my brother.’
‘Why don’t you come there to meet us?’
‘Me?’ To me it seemed the water of Gandhari was glistening in his eyes.
The train started moving ……
I simply could not move away from the door of the compartment. I kept on looking at him. My wife called out, ‘Why don’t you come in?’
But I failed to listen to her. It was not because of the clattering of the running wheels of the train but the sound of my father’s belt raining on Shyam bhaiya was reverberating in my ears. Like Neelkanth, the blue necked Shiva, he retained the poison of insult and dishonour within himself, in spite of knowing who had done it.
Actually during those days I had grown fond of cigarette smoking. I had lost a bet among my co smokers and I had to take them to a movie. I thought those were my mother’s money. I told my ma that I was going to the playground and reached the cine hall. Shyam bhaiya had knowledge of all my doings. Quite often he had tried to persuade me, ‘Adi, smoking is not a good thing. If mamaji will come to know of, it will be too bad. See, you’ve to become a respectable and well established man of the society.’
Today I’m well established. I’ve a beautiful bungalow, a costly car, social recognition and what not. But quite often my heart bleeds whenever I remember the happening of that fateful day. Why couldn’t I gather the courage to utter the truth? Probably father was so enraged that too because the maid of the house had lost her money. Moreover the incident took place in our house. It was against our social prestige. I was the sinner but Shyam bhaiya was punished.
And today ……..
‘Grandpa and granny are here! They’ve arrived.’ My grandchildren came out running in the portico. My eldest daughter in law was standing there to welcome us. She pulled her saree on her head.
Our car has reached our home. The guard is opening the gate. He salutes me. What’s written there on the side of the gate? Oh! Is my vision getting blurred? I just can’t read it ……..
Mr. Justice Aditya Narayan Singh!
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
© Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury
Contact: C, 26/35-40. Ramkatora. Varanasi. 221001. Mo. (0) 9455168359, (0) 9140214489 Tel. (0542) 2204504.
≈ Editor – Shri Hemant Bawankar/Editor (English) – Captain Pravin Raghuvanshi, NM ≈