Kaku, an Indian aged 30 years was seen giving chase to Shibu aged 7 years across a greenish empty football ground. Shibu was the only son of Kaku's elder brother who spent Tuesdays and Wednesdays of the week in the big city of Calcutta teaching Sanskrit in a higher educational establishment. Kaku had a younger brother who worked as a moulder in the steel foundry of a huge British engineering company. A very large industrial town called Hiri Piri grew up around this engineering works where Kaku worked as a clerk in the wages department. All the three brothers with their families lived in a large terraced house provided rent-free by the company. There were free electricity and piped water and the company looked after the maintenance of the house.
Hiri Piri was situated on the western edge of what today is known as the Indian state of West Bengal. Calcutta was about 150 miles east of Hiri Piri. The top management was always British. By British of course, in 1930's India one meant the white Anglo-Celtic races whose natural habitat was Great Britain. They lived exclusively in spacious bungalows in their own colony away from the Indians who were the skilled and unskilled workers. The clerks were entirely Indian. Every department, whether on the shop floor or administrative matters was headed by an Indian section leader who was directly responsible to the manager who was invariably British.
That morning Shibu ran only fast enough to stay about 10 yards ahead of his uncle. The boy zigzagged so that from the easterly direction he turned left to the north followed by a perpendicular move to the west and so on. After about 15 minutes Kaku gave up panting uncontrollably. Shibu stopped and smiled with satisfaction at his unfailing scheme of tiring out an older man having to put in an extra effort at running and changing directions so frequently.
At the eastern edge of the football ground there was an unmetalled road which bordered a man-made lake that supplied piped water to all the residents of Hiri Piri.
As his uncle accepted defeat and sauntered back home, Shibu went down the sloping embankment, chose a spot and laid back on the grass to finish the four cigarettes in the packet of five he bought with the money he stole from the pocket of his uncle's shirt which was hanging in the veranda while kaku was having his customary evening bath yesterday. The uncle was going to cane him firstly because Shibu was caught in the act of smoking and secondly, by deduction, for stealing money from somewhere in the house. The boy did not enjoy smoking so he threw the packet with three cigarettes into the lake and went home with the certain knowledge that kakima, his auntie and kaku's wife, will intervene if his uncle tried even just to admonish his nephew verbally.
Early next morning, Shibu went to the opposite end of the lake and headed for the mound created by slag from the foundry and ash generated from the power house boilers. The foundry slag was largely oxides and silicates from steel and iron making plants while the latter was the residue from burnt coal from the boilers producing steam for the turbines. Women carried baskets of such by-product and dumped them on the mound frequently so that it grew into a hillock over many years. A second dump already started a few yards from this hillock.
Shibu sat facing east on the high hillock. The sky lost its blueness, the stars retreated to give way to multicoloured sheets of condensed water vapour; magenta, yellow and light purple. The crimson sun soon appeared and dazzled as it headed towards the southern sky. The boy recited 'Tat Sabitur Varaniam', my reverence to that sun. He knew quite a bit of Sanskrit which he learnt enthusiastically from his father, who had a high degree of proficiency in that language. His father was not very sure whether the boy should bother with that ancient language because the sahibs of Hiri Piri treated him irreverently. In fact he was classified as an illiterate coolie, not having any knowledge of the English language in spoken or written form. He was, however, secretly proud of his son having mastered so much of the language at such an early age.
The boy got lost in thought. He recalled his father saying that the visible objects of this phenomenal world, whether animate or inanimate, are mere actors in a play produced by Bhagavan Visnu. Pran, life breath, enters the geometry of certain objects giving rise to living entities, jivs, from jivanu, bacteria, to homo sapiens. The jivs become activated to carry out karma and then cease to be.
“Would I then never be as I cease to be?” asked Shibu.
“Some say,” replied Shibu's father, “That one comes back many thousands of times as some form of animate or inanimate objects according to the laws of karma. I say we never were but suddenly come to be. We then cease to be never to become again.”
Each time the boy asks, the father gives a different answer. The last was that a being is but an emergent spark in the cosmic fire of our indifferent and inscrutable Universe that burns for billions of years and then extinguishes. The spark is an irrelevant entity whose geometry and brilliance are immeasurably small compared to its source that is infinite in size and ferocity.
A particular spark appears only once in the lifetime of the Universe.
Sundays were the days of freedom. Kaku will generally visit his parents in their ancestral village 30 miles east of Hiri Piri.
A joyful Shibu became a boy that day and spent most of his time with his small
group of friends in the neighbourhood.
At eight one morning, Shibu shouted, “Who goes?”
His mates replied loudly in chorus,
Shibu asked, “Whose tummy?”
Pacha is a Bengali word meaning, that which has decomposed. Babu could be translated as Mr.
“Where is Pacha babu?” shouted Shibu.
“Behind the tummy.”
Pacha babu had enough. This had been going on for the last couple of months. He knew that the whole banter was composed by Shibu and he trained his friends to act it out with him. He reported this regularly repeated harassment to kaku. It had the desired effect. The uncle caned the offender in public while letting the assembled spectators know that the boy was being punished for disrespecting a teacher, a guru. Shibu stayed indoors for a day because of the mirth the process of caning created for his peer group in Hiri Piri. The older generations laughed at the whole situation. Even the sahibs wanted a translation from the Bengali version and fell about the place laughing.
Almost every month Shibu's uncle caned him in public. He got caned for being cheeky to his elders; for stealing money from the family; for gambling with fixed games of marbles; for using bad language in company; for singing rude songs; for eating snacks from a poor pedlar and running off without paying.
Time passed quickly; came 1937, Shibu's 14th birthday. He did not change and kaku still punished him with the same cane he used year after year. The teenagers of Hiri Piri were looking forward to their matriculation examination next year but Shibu spent his time in studying the esoteric texts on Hinduism and, as his father suggested, he started to question about life and society; about humans and society; about the role, if any, of inanimates in the world of animates.
The teenager went every sunday long before sunrise to sit on the slag hillock. He was convinced of his immortality. He said to himself, “I cannot die because I do not wish to die.” To prove his conviction, one morning as the sun rose Shibu ran down the slope of the mound of slag and ash. It was a relatively steep slope. He bounced like a tennis ball, somersaulted and fell at the bottom of the hillock. He lost consciousness.
The boy was bloodied with gashes in his legs. His right arm was broken and he remained unconscious in the company hospital at Hiri Piri. Kaku was broken hearted as the doctors could not promise his recovery from the injury sustained. The uncle became restless and neglected all his responsibilities to such an extent that his younger brother had to step in. On the third day of his nephew's injury, kaku himself took to bed with high fever. On the third day after kaku bcame bed-ridden the doctor showed concern. He said, “He is delirious”, and gave him an injection.
Kaku in a state of trance said, “Mrityu dev, have you come for me?”
Mrityu, Death, was indeed standing in front of him. In answer to kaku's question, the devata said, “No, you sent for me. What can I do for you?”
“I want my nephew to live. It looks as if he has accumulated debits because of his bad karma but his father, my brother, is a pious and learned man.Take the credits of his karma and transfer those to his son. Let my sick nephew get better. Let him have a long life.”
“The boy's father's karma is unfavourale for credits,” said Mrityu. “To use your terminology, his karma is bad, that is, not good as you think.”
Kaku was totally puzzled. At this Mrityu deva explained that his elder brother did not fulfil his dharma, duty. As the eldest member of the family, he should have taken control and relieve kaku of all the responsibilities he has been burdened with.On the other hand kaku took over the responsibility of pursuing dharma and sacrifice his own interests. His karma has given him full credits which if transferred to the boy will mean certain death for Shibu.
“Death,” said the devata, “will assure him of nirvan and he will not be entangled in sansar during the lifetime of this vishwa, Universe. What is it that you want? Let him be the recipient of bad karma of his father and go on living ensnared in sansar or shall I arrange for your good karma to be gifted to your nephew and let him die?”
Kaku was dumbfounded. Surely, he thought, dada, elder brother, being such a pious man must be a man with good karma. All that kaku does is go to work and keep order in the family. Is caning his nephew and humiliating him in public not very bad karma? The side effect of concentrating on his family is clearly attachment to his family. He wants all of them to have a good life. Additionally, being the oldest, Shibu will take over from kaku in due course. Hence his effort in trying to mould him to grow up with a sense of responsibility.
Mrityu emphasised attachment but is this not what all living creatures do? A human
being is attached to his near and dear ones. One is also attached to material possessions, to one's friend and country. Nations go to war for material gain at the cost of the one which is weak. Do the invaders not say that it is their patriotic duty to keep in check other nations in case they attack and take their freedom away one day soon. The militarily strong kills and enslaves weak and unsuspecting people of far away land under the guise of civilising groups of barbarians. A nation becomes a super power, a maleficent world hegemon but the leaders, their associates and family become powerful and wealthy. Was their karma not bad? Should they not suffer? Kaku lost confidence in the concept of karma, the principle of causality. Nevertheless, kaku pleaded with Mrityu to help and ensure the exact amount of karma transfer so that his nephew lives to be a nonagenarian. Mrityu disappeared as a flimsy layer of fog does with the appearance of the morning sun.
Kaku opened his eyes and saw the rising sun through the window. He sat up and asked kakima who was entering the room for rice, dal and fried shag, spinach. He was given instead a mildly spiced green banana stew and rice with a small quantity of anchovy in a tamarind sauce. That was the customary first meal for a recovering patient and kaku enjoyed it. He went for a gentle walk in the evening. As he returned home he was elated at the news that Shibu was getting better.
In no time came the day when youngsters of Hiri Piri became busy with revision for their matricultion examination. Kaku noticed that Shibu stopped going to school and made no attempt at preparing for such an important examination.
One sunday, Kaku went fishing in the lake
as many others did. He could do so because his parents, uncles and aunts from the ancestral village came to stay in Hiri Piri. Unusully Shibu came and sat beside his uncle. He was growing up so he dressed in very fine ankle length dhoti fom Shantipur and a silk kurta. Kaku showed him the large rui fish he had already caught. He said to Shibu that he would go home once he had caught a number of them to provide for lunch for the whole family.
Shibu was deep in thought to the point of, one might say, being pensive. Kaku caught the predetermined amount of fish. The sun shone brightly. Kaku stood up but his face betrayed deep disappointment at what his nephew said. The boy told his uncle in unambiguous term that he never passed his final annual examination throughout his life as a student in his present school.
He used to copy ideas of answers after the annual examinations from the best boy in the class. His youngest uncle, a failed matriculate, now a competent artisan, was proud to announce to his family and friends how clever his little nephew was.
Naturally, since he failed every year, according to rules he should have repeated the year and take the final examination again. He did neither. Instead he forced his way and sat through many lessons in the next higher class and took the examination as well. Year after year Shibu repeated the same procedure. The Headmaster dutifully reported Shibu's academic results but Shibu always intercepted the reports and destroyed them before anybody had a look at them.
To the astonishment of the youngster, his uncle did not react outwardly. He gathered his fish and fishing rod to be on his way home. Shibu stood up and from the fold of his dhoti he brought out the cane which so often lashed the back of him. He handed it over to kaku who held the ends of the elastic cane with his two hands in a vain attempt to break it. He threw it in the lake
with as much force as he could muster and hugged his wayward nephew; rubbed his back with his right hand as if to abrade away the pernicious layers of pain and humiliation the man inflicted on the boy over so many years. Kaku whimpered, “Ah my Shibu; Shibu, Shibu, Shibu.”