Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Saheb Dadai - a short story
The rectangular drawer of the old wooden chest seemed to have got jammed in an awkward way and was refusing to slide in smoothly. The little boy who was pulling it with all his might wasn’t too pleased with this sudden interruption in his enthusiastic rummaging of his grandfather’s chest of drawers. He paused for a while from his struggle to straighten the drawer and crouched to peep inside. His eyes lit up as he peered closely into the dark cavern of the drawer and seemed to find what he was looking for.
He stretched out his hand into the crevice trying to grasp the contents which lay hidden in the far corner of the drawer. His fingers brushed across a stack of papers of different feel. The little boy continued to run his fingers through the stack, but he could only make out that the papers were of different sizes and textures and some of them were tied up in bunches by cloth strings. So engrossed was he in his process of discovery, that he didn’t hear the faint sounds of footsteps that had come into the room by then.
“Andy! ….what are you doing there?” a voice sharply called out, startling him suddenly.
The little boy quickly glanced over his shoulders to find his mother standing a few steps behind him, inside the room. He quickly withdrew his hand from inside the drawer and looked sheepishly at his mother.
“Did I not tell you to go and take rest in your room? And instead of that, what are you doing here?” Andy’s mother said, looking at him, her voice somewhat firm.
“And why are you rummaging through these old and dusty drawers again? Haven’t I told you not to play with these things… see, you have jammed the drawer now!”
Andy’s mother continued her scornfulness toward her son, as she bent down and with a thrust and jerk straightened the drawer and slammed it shut in the chest. Brushing the dust off her fingers, she caught hold of the boy’s arm marching off with him to the adjoining room for the routine afternoon siesta!
It was a summer afternoon and the house lay silent, with its occupants mostly asleep in their respective rooms. The occasional squeak of the ceiling fans could only be heard as they furiously spun, making the rooms cooler. Lying beside his mother and his eyes transfixed on the ceiling fan circling above, Andy lay wide awake! He was so close to his discovery today. His mind wandering over to his favourite web of thoughts…his Saheb-dadai!!
The more he thought about this man, the more intrigued he felt. By relation, his great uncle, but Andy felt directly connected to the man even though he had never seen him. But there was no dearth of stories about him in the family and Andy just loved to hear them over and over again! And his curiosity was readily satisfied on lazy afternoons and sleepy nights by his grandmother and grandfather and sometimes by his father too!
This less-seen but much spoken-of character in the family was called by more names than one! To Andy’s father and aunts he was their loving ‘Guli-kaka’ while an elder cousin sister of Andy had coined the name ‘Saheb-dadai’ for him, as he lived in far-off England which for the children was always the land of ‘Sahebs’! Guli-kaka carried a different aura about himself in this otherwise quiet and orthodox Bengali family and the way he was revered and spoken about, truly lent a dash of colour and enigma to his personality. And it was this aspect that had charmed the eight year old Andy. He longed to find out more about this man who had travelled the seas like Sinbad unleashing his flamboyant adventurous spirit!
There was another reason why Andy felt specially attached to his ‘Saheb-dadai’ and that was his own name: Andy! It was certainly an uncommon one for a name in an orthodox Hindu family and sounded quite out-of-place at times. But he had learnt from his grandmother that it was Saheb-dadai who had christened him with this name and as per his wish the name stayed forever. The story of his birth had already become legendary in the family and Andy loved to hear it over and over again from his grandmother! The aura around the legend was not about him being born but that the occasion was the last time that the family saw Saheb-dadai amongst them! And something that everyone in the family spoke of was how Saheb-dadai had himself carried the newborn child from the nursing home in his arms to the family house, christened him with this very uncommon name and then returned to England soon after.
Lying on a mat, snuggled close to his grandmother, on many a moon-lit night, Andy would request her to recite this story once again. His grandmother, whom he and other children of the family fondly called ‘Mum-mum’, would then lovingly smile at him and start her recital of the tale probably for the umpteenth time! Often as she brought the tale to a close, she would let out a sigh and say:
“I wish he would come back once again to see you grow up! How much we all miss him… and I am sure he misses us too…” Her voice would trail off and taking a glance at the wrinkled face of his grandmother, Andy would probably see her eyes moistening.
“Tell me more about my grandfathers Mum-mum…” Tugging at her arm Andy would cut through her thoughts and say.
“Your grandfathers were three brothers you know… Sailen, Jiten and Satyen!” Mum-mum continued, looking up at the dark starry night sky as they lay on the mat on the terrace.
Andy knew about this fact already; his own grandfather was Jiten an accomplished professor of Sanskrit and author of many books. Andy loved listening to stories and doing all kinds of word activities with him sitting on his bed! Andy also knew that his grandfather’s elder brother Sailen had passed away just few months before he was born. Sailen was a doctor and a much revered man in the social circles within which the family mingled. He was Mum-mum’s husband and ever since his early childhood recollections, Andy had seen a large framed photograph of him seated on a chair, kept in the central square lobby of the house. And Satyen was the much loved ‘Guli-kaka’ of the family and his ‘Saheb-dadai’!
“No No… I know all that! Tell me from where you had left off the earlier day!” Andy hurriedly interrupted his grandmother.
Mum-mum smiled at him and looking at the night sky seemed to recollect the thread of the story. She had a fantastic skill of weaving tales out of the history of the family and its characters.
“You were saying about the many concerns that Saheb-dadai’s letters would not reach his brother from across the seas due to the World War that had disrupted life in many countries across the world” Andy impatiently said, trying to connect the lost threads of the story to his grandmother.
“Yes, that’s right..” Mum-mum continued in an enthusiastic voice.
“What did they write in these letters, Mum-mum?” Andy asked innocently.
“Oh they used to write a lot of things. Saheb-dadai used to tell his brother where he was and the situations of the place, how he was managing his work, his stay and travels. And Jiten also used to write back keeping his younger brother informed about the family here and how much all of us missed him…”
“You must read some of those letters when you grow up. Your grandfather has kept most of them with him.” Mum-mum said.
In the next few hours, Andy listened intently to his grandmother’s story as the character of ‘Saheb-dadai’ gradually unfolded in his imagination till he was softly lulled to sleep!
‘It must be some of those letters only, that are stacked away inside the drawers’, Andy thought as he lay awake on his mother’s bed that summer afternoon.
‘Maybe I should ask Grandfather directly about the letters and he can read them to me’. Andy thought and mentally decided that he would do it once he got back from school the next day.
As he closed his eyes and snuggled closer to his mother, his mind wandered to imagine Saheb-dadai, sitting in an arm-chair in the drawing room of a quaint old house, down a tree-lined street, in a city called London, miles away!
Andy tried hard to imagine…he had only heard the name ‘London’, that’s where his Saheb-dadai stayed, but young Andy knew nothing more about the place!
Andy never quite got the opportunity in the following few days to get back to the search of his ‘Saheb-dadai’s’ letters. Something or the other kept coming by to stall his endeavour but that did not deter the young mind from pursuing his quest. He did ask his grandfather about it one evening, but his grandfather only smiled at him and ruffled his hair.
“You are too small now to understand all this”, his grandfather Jiten told him lovingly.
“But yes, when you grow up you must know about your Saheb-dadai, for he is indeed a man of great character and a truly inspirational personality”, Andy’s grandfather said softly, his eyes looking out of the window. “Wait, I will give you something!”
As Andy looked on inquisitively, his grandfather bent down and opened the same drawer which he was trying to open the other day! From inside, his grandfather took out a leather case and carefully opening it took out a small piece of paper, brown in colour.
After having put the case back in the drawer and having shut the same, he turned towards Andy and extending his hand held out the small brown paper to the young boy. Andy took a few steps ahead and took the paper from his grandfather. It was a folded piece of paper, brown in colour and looked quite old and almost brittle. As Andy slowly opened the single fold of the paper, he looked down and saw that it contained a small photograph. The picture was a black-and-white one, almost as small as a postage stamp and was pasted to the brown piece of paper. The young man whose photograph it was needed no introduction to Andy: he knew him very well already … his Saheb-dadai!
“You know, I always used to keep this photograph of my brother Guli in my work-case. It has been there for many years, ever since he left home.” Jiten’s voice was almost a whisper and was audible only to himself and his dear grandson. As Andy listened intently, Jiten spoke along…
“Whenever I looked at his photograph, I felt that he was close to me. Our mother had passed away when we were very young, and Guli was only a boy then. He always used to be close with me and would ask me for everything. When he left, it was such a heart-burn for both of us, as we had never stayed without each other ever before that. But it was a big and bold decision that he took in his life…” Jiten’s voice trailed off as if he had got transported to those days of separation with his dear brother.
“When Guli left home there was utter chaos in our house and many people were saying a whole lot of things. But Guli came to me and said: ‘Dada, don’t worry, I will return in a few years. It is just that this assignment which I have earned is so important an opportunity for me that I don’t want to throw it away. And when I return, all the people will be happily surprised!’ Honestly, I did not doubt his words, but somewhere at the back of my mind I was apprehensive that he may not actually return too soon.”
“But I had felt very happy for my brother. He was an ambitious man with a lot of courage and someone who could almost write his own destiny by his own hands! And see, he has actually done that! Only that his parting words on that day did not come true for us. So many years went by but Guli never returned…”
Jiten paused for a while and took a deep breath. And then smiling at his grandson, who was looking up expectantly at his face, he continued.
“But I have no regrets, though I miss him very much even today. And such a man has never come by in our family. Even though he has been away for so many years, we have kept in close touch as far as possible through letters. Even Guli visited us few times; the last time being when you were born!” Jiten lightly placed his hand on his grandson’s head.
“Now I have grown old and do not go out anymore, so this photograph lies locked in my work-case. So, you can keep it with you.” Jiten nodded to his grandson, who looked up wide-eyed. “As you grow up, this photograph will remind you about me and my brother Guli, one of the most courageous and inspirational members of our family! But you must keep it very safely and not lose it”. Jiten said to the young Andy who nodded his head as if to assure his grandfather.
“Dadai, can I ask you something?” Andy softly asked as he slid off his grandfather’s lap sensing that the Saheb-dadai story was over for the time being. Jiten smiled and looked at his grandson questioningly.
“I want to read the letters which Saheb-dadai wrote to you.” Andy put forth his request.
“But you are too young now and you may not understand everything. You can read them once you grow up a bit. And the letters are kept in my drawer only and will remain there.” Jiten smiled again and said, pointing to the dark brown chest of drawers that stood at the corner of room across the bed. Andy nodded his head and glanced at the picture of Saheb-dadai in his hand and smiled at his grandfather.
“Being the youngest of the children in a large family in those days also often meant that you grow up on the sidelines!” Mum-mum said, looking up at the starry night sky. As usual, she was there on the terrace with some others of the family, enjoying a post-dinner relaxation time lying on a mat, and needless to say little Andy had snuggled close to her with his request for stories. And like most of the times, Mum-mum had started to tell Andy the story about his Saheb-Dadai.
Looking at Andy’s face which sported a quizzical look, Mum-mum decided to clarify her statement.
“Guli was the youngest of the lot, but not necessarily the most pampered one! When I was married to his elder brother and came into the family, he was about fifteen years old and I have seen him since then. Even as a young lad, Guli was on his own and hardly depended on anyone else to take care of him. He was particularly fond of Jiten, his middle brother and the two shared a very special bond ever since. I can say, Guli grew up in the shadow of his brothers.
For a family that came with a lineage of teachers and professors of Sanskrit down the ages, Guli’s decision to study engineering was quite a surprise for all.
“But, no one in the family has ever been into engineering! Are you sure Guli….?” His father, a renowned professor of Sanskrit at the Government College, asked with concern for his youngest son.
“No problem father…” Guli’s elder brother Sailen spoke up even before Guli could open his mouth. “No one in the family had ever been a doctor either!” Sailen was a doctor by profession and well-established at that. Jiten of course had chosen to follow his father’s footsteps and was a professor of Sanskrit.”
Andy turned over on the mat and propped himself up on his elbows and added, “That was nice indeed. All the three brothers chose different careers, so we have a doctor, a professor and an engineer in the family!” Mum-mum laughed aloud at the little boy’s comment and nodded in the affirmative.
“So, very soon Guli got himself admitted into one of the reputed Engineering Colleges of the city.” Mum-mum continued. “And you must remember, those were the times when the British still ruled over India and their centre of control was our city Calcutta. So, in most of the colleges we had professors and teachers who were Englishmen and they followed the western methods of study and used all mechanics of the western world to teach their students. And our Guli also started to learn those mechanics gradually.”
Mum-mum smiled at her little grandson and said, “It just seems like the other day, even though it is now so many years and our Guli is away in some far away land…” Andy tugged at her arm once again, fearing that the flow of the family story might wander away.
Andy did not hear the ring of the telephone in the first instance. Though he was fascinated by this unique instrument, black in colour, which stood all wired up, he would rush towards it whenever it let out its shrill ring, but he was never allowed by the elders to pick up its receiver or speak into it.
That day when the phone rang it was evening time and Andy was with his mother inside the room, trying to focus on practicing sums which were a part of his weekend homework. The phone rang incessantly as there was no one present in the hall where the instrument was placed. It was quite some time before Andy’s father came rushing out of his study and picked up the receiver minutes before the call could get disconnected.
By that time, some of the other family members had also rushed into the hall: Andy’s elder aunt who was busy in her room with her guitar musings, Andy’s mother who left her son with the sums and rushed to attend the telephone and Andy’s grandmother who was sitting at her evening religious rituals and recitations in the puja room. But what none of these people had noticed in their rush was that the telephone ring was significantly longer than usual, signalling that this was an International Trunk Call!
“Hello…hello..!” Andy’s father almost shouted into the mouth-piece of the instrument as he pressed the receiver hard against his ear. After a short while, it seemed that the line had stabilized and the communication was able to flow smoothly. Andy in the meantime had slowly got off his study table and proceeded towards the door of the room, observing the scene unfolding in the hall.
Peeping from behind the curtain and unobserved by others, the little boy noticed his father’s face change expressions every minute as the telephone conversation ensued. He saw his father speak animatedly with the caller on the other end trying to gather as much information as he could. Though from the unfolding of the scene Andy couldn’t really make out much then, he could sense that this was certainly an important call and an unusual one, for his father spoke all through the conversation in English, which he had hardly ever heard in the past in his house.
After a few minutes, the conversation ended and he saw his father put down the receiver back onto the telephone cradle and turn to face the others waiting expectantly. Andy was shocked to see his father’s face. It bore a deadly gloom and an expression of grief. He understood that something terrible had happened. Andy saw his father speak in a whisper to his aunt and mother and from the look of the expressions on their faces, his fears were confirmed.
Within minutes Andy saw his father and elder aunt also walk into the room and following them was his youngest aunt, whom he loved dearly. She bore a questioning look on her face, quite oblivious of the international trunk call that had landed on their telephone and the news that it had heralded. The conversation between the four adults continued for a while ignoring the presence of the little boy in the room who continued to look on intently. As they all turned to leave the room, Andy could not hold himself back any further.
“What has happened father?” He softly asked, still standing beside his study table, but his eyes glued to his father’s face all the while.
As the others left the room, Andy’s father stepped back hearing his son’s voice. He came close to Andy and picked him up in his arms. Andy looked closely into his father’s eyes and could sense a feeling of shock and grief in them. His father comfortingly put his hand on Andy’s head and caressed him softly. Then as if in a whisper he spoke.
“Andy… Remember your Saheb-dadai in England? We have just got the news that your Saheb-dadai has passed away today morning in London… His son had called to convey the news to us…”
Andy trembled within as his father’s words hit him and he tried to fathom the realization. He saw his father’s eyes grow watery and his face seemed in deep anguish, as his father put him down from his lap.
“We don’t know how we will break this news to your grandfather and others in the family…” Andy’s father spoke as if to himself, as he quietly ruffled his son’s hair and then gradually went out of the room.
Andy stepped back and quietly sat on his chair, his palms folded on his lap, his head bowed and his gaze fixed on his palms. This was his first interaction with any news of ‘death’ and he tried his best to realize the impact.
Slowly he got up and opened the last drawer of his study table, the place where he usually kept all his personal stuff which his mother loved to call ‘junk’. His small diary which his father had given him was right there on the top amongst other things stuffed in the drawer. Andy took out the diary and closed the drawer. He flipped through the empty pages till he came to the middle of the book.
There lay on the page a small brown piece of paper, almost gone brittle, but with a photograph pasted on it. It was the same item which he had received from his grandfather a few days back and had kept as one of his most precious possessions.
The picture of his Saheb-dadai looked up at him, as Andy opened the fold of the brown paper and held it in his palm. A handsome young man with a smiling face, his hair neatly combed and parted at the side, his Saheb-dadai shone bright and inspiring as he looked directly at Andy from the photograph.
“I will never get to meet you Saheb-dadai…never in my life!” the thought raced through Andy’s head as he looked on at the tiny photograph in his hand.
This then was what ‘death’ meant…an infinite separation!
Andy suddenly felt his heart burst inside his chest and his eyes well up. Warm tears slowly rolled down his cheeks, as beyond the door curtain he heard the voices of his parents, aunts and grandmother in commotion: His father had broken the terrible news to the family!
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