Pulin, my maternal cousin, his ten-year old son, Paltu and I were staying in the big front room of the inn located on the banks of the Ganga, at Hrishikesh. Our servant Tahalram and four white mice were also living with us. We did have serious objections in bringing along the mice but Paltu said, 'Who will feed them if I don't take them along? The six house-cats will most certainly gobble them up.' Unassailable arguments! Besides, no train fare would be required for the mice. So, they too were brought along. They spent their nights in a cage-like box, and the days in Paltu's pocket, or in his hand, or roamed all over his body. The entire morning we wandered around the town.
Now it was eleven o'clock, and we were ravenous. We had an arrangement for tea but there was no facility for cooking. And truly speaking, all that trouble of cooking did not really suit us. So we bought a basket of thick wheat puris, some nondescript vegetable concoction made up of wild roots and leaves and a seer of stone-hard pedas, from the shop. We finished our bath and sat on the charpais, with Saal-leaf plates spread out on our laps. Tahalram was just about to serve us, when, at that very moment, a rough and hoarse voice floated in from without, 'Ayamaham Bhoh!' (It is I).
I had a feeling that I had heard those words before. I opened the door and saw an old decrepit sadhu. His complexion must have been fair at one time but now it was copperish. He was tall, lean, the matted bun on top of his head was small but original, the moustache and beard on the cheeks were somewhat frayed and gave the impression of having been nibbled at by a goat. But the beard on the chin was fairly thick and long, tied into a large knot at the bottom extremity. It seemed that the knot had never been opened. The saffron cloth that he was wearing and the blanket on his shoulder were extremely dirty. His entire body was covered with dust and the holy thread was oily and sticky. He was carrying a shoulder bag and a well-dented water-pot. But he did not have the typical paraphernalia of a sadhu, that is, a garland of Rudraksha, make-up of ash, cannabis-pot, long pincers and a kamandalu.
I asked him in Hindi, 'What do you want, Sadhuji?' Without replying, he straightaway entered the room and sat down on my charpai. Tahalram, having spent some time in the company of Bengalis, had become a bit of an atheist. He did not have much respect for unknown sadhus. So, he addressed the sadhu pretty curtly, ' Arre, what kind of a man are you! Get up at once from the charpai!'
The sadhu frowned and launched forth a few choice expletives in Hindi, which were unhearable,
unspeakable and un-printable. Pulin got very angry and was almost ready to throw him out by the neck. I had to use considerable force to restrain him. I said, 'Hold it! It may be a good idea to speak to him a little longer.'
Promod Chatterjee had spent considerable time in the company of sadhus. Therefore he knew a lot about their character. He had done a lot of research on various types of sadhus, like, yogis, avadhuts, bamacharis, tantriks etc. I gathered from his writings that expletives were the principal weapon of defence for sadhus as horns were for cows, spines in case of porcupines and bad odor for skunks. Unworthy pseudo-disciples could not withstand the force of their expletives and soon fled; only the determined and unadulterated seekers of salvation could and stuck on. The quality of his expletives convinced me that, yes, he had substance in him. So I said to him in Hindi, with all the politeness I could muster,
'Please instruct us of your pleasure, Baba.'
Baba said, 'I want food. I find that you are Bengalis; so why the hell don't you speak in Bengali?'
I was very glad to hear him speak in our mother tongue. I said, 'Will this puri, vegetable and peda
satisfy you? '.
'Oh, it will do very well. But how can such a small quantity be sufficient? I am there, the three of you
are there and on top of it you have that demon of a servant. Bring another couple of seers.'
Tahalram was again sent to the market. Pulin was a lawyer by profession but mostly remained brief-less. So, he satisfied his urge of questioning by grilling anyone and everyone whenever an opportunity arose.
So, he said, 'Are you a Bengali Brahmin?'
' How does that concern you? Are you going to marry your daughter to me? My language is Sanskrit, but you won't follow that. That is why I am speaking to you in Bengali.'
'Which sect do you belong to - Giri, Puri, Aranya, Bharati or something else?'
'I don't belong to any of those stupid sects. My original ashram is in Brahma's abode. I am a
' May I know your name?'
'Since you are not dumb, you certainly may. But will you believe it? I am Mahamuni Durvasa.'
We were dumb-founded. After a while, I offered my pranams and said,
'We are blessed. Yes, you do fit the description we have heard. But you don't seem as irascible as you are famed to be. You sure are talking to us very pleasantly.'
'Why should I be irascible? But yes, once upon a time, I did have a temper. But that horrendous woman has finished me.'
I folded my hands and asked, ' O great sage, if it is not highly confidential, then kindly satisfy our
curiosity. You belong to the Satya, Treta and Dvapar yugas. How did you manage to land up with sinners like us in this Kaliyuga?'
'Father Atri appeared to me in a dream and told me,
'My son, go to the inn on the bank of the Ganga at Hrishikesh. Your predicament will be over'.'
'But Lord, how can you have any problem? It is you who are supposed to create problems for others.'
' I will tell you all. But first, food. You too eat.'
Pulin said, 'Won't you take a bath?'
'Oh, I have finished that long back. I have taken a dip in the Ganga early at dawn.'
'But your hair and beard are considerably filthy. You could use a bit of soap. And I find that a large
number of lice are roaming about your body. If you permit, I can spray a little DDT. We have some with us.'
'Take care! Don't try all that! If some helpless, innocent creatures have taken refuge in my hair, beard and clothes, so what? Let them be. Who are you to
drive them out?'
Tahalram arrived with food. With Mahamuni Durvasa's permission, we also had our lunch with him. After lunch, I offered a tin of cigarettes to him,
'Lord, will this do? I don't have better smoke-producing material than these.'
He picked up one cigarette and said, 'This will do. Ganja does not suit me. It increases my neurosis. How about you? Won't you smoke?'
I bit my tongue in embarrassment, 'Heh, heh, how can we smoke in your presence?'
' Don't be a hypocrite. It did not embarrass you at all to eat like a glutton in my presence and all the
embarrassment is concentrated on smoking, eh? Come on, light up!'
So, Pulin and I also lit up our cigarettes. And, seeing that we were all eagerly waiting to hear his
story, Durvasa began his narrative.
'I hope you know about Shakuntala. Kalidas has written all about her in his play. The girl did not respond to my hail, so I got irritated and cursed her, 'The one who you are thinking about will not recognize you when he sees you.' But she was so engrossed in her thoughts that she did not hear any of my speech. But one of her friends did. She rushed to me, fell at my feet and pleaded with me in all earnestness. Her name was Anasuya. It is also the name of my mother. So I was pleased and diluted the curse to a large extent. But that friend of hers was a crook. She cackled about me to Shakuntala's mother, Menaka.
'Ten months passed after this incident. I was living at the time at Gangotri with my disciples. One day, when I was sitting on the banks of Bhagirathi, one of my disciples came and reported to me that an extremely beautiful woman wanted to meet me. I said irritably, ' Oh what a nuisance! Must we have beautiful women here too! There is no way that a man can think of God quietly. Send her here.'
'I recognized Menaka, the celestial nymph, the moment I saw her. Has no idea about civility. Came to me chewing on a twig. Perhaps she imagined that she was looking very pretty like that. I barked, 'What do you want here? Do you know that I am the mighty sage, Durvasa? Don't think that you can tempt me with the tricks of your trade as you successfully did with that lecherous Vishwamitra.'
'Menaka made a vile face at me and said, ' Forget it! As if there is no one else in the world that I should come to tempt you. I have come to meet you for your own good. It you aren't interested, then I am going. Don't blame me later if you get into trouble.' Saying this, Menaka pirouetted, pivoting on a heel.
'What an impertinent woman! She had the audacity to address me so disrespectfully! I was going to curse her, 'Become a caterpillar,' but then I thought that I must get to the bottom of the matter. So, instead, I said, 'Tell me quickly, why you have come.'
'Menaka said, 'Mahadev is very angry with you ever since he came to know that you had cursed Shakuntala so unfairly. He would have burnt you to ashes by now, had I not pleaded with him to spare you. So, this time, you are saved.'
'Normally, I do not care about any god or man. But I am somewhat scared of Mahadev. I asked her, ' What did you tell him?'
' 'I said, 'Oh, he is a foolish Brahmin and moreover, he is slightly soft in the head. He has just shot out a curse without thinking of the consequences. Shakuntala won't suffer for long, so excuse Durvasa this once.' Mahadev is very fond of me since I bear the same name as his mother-in-law. He said, 'OK, I'll excuse him. But get him to do some penance'.
'Don't be scared, Brahmin, it is a very easy one. Shakuntala is now staying at Prajapati Kashyap's
ashram, at Hemkut. I have heard that she has recently given birth to a son. Kashyap has said that this boy would become famous as Bharat and would rule the world. I had thought I would go and see the child myself but I find that that cannot be done. Indra has called all the nymphs. His son is getting wayward - not surprising, he has taken after his father - so Indra is getting him married in a hurry. For the next two months there will be singing, dancing, eating and drinking. I have to go today. Since sixty god-days are equal to sixty human-years, Shakuntala's son will be an old man by the time I return. That is why I want to send you to him.'
'I thought, this was not a tough job. On top of it, if I went and blessed Shakuntala's son, it would look very proper. So I told Menaka, 'I am ready to go. But what is the penance? What do I have to do once I reach the place?'
'You have to do something. Give this rattle to the boy and then caress him on my behalf. But you are very dirty, so wash your hands well and then touch the chin of the boy and kiss him lightly.'
'I asked, ' How does one do that?'
'It is something like this.' Menaka said this and touched my beard with her hand, and then took the hand to her lips and made a peculiar sound - whether it was 'Chooh' or 'thooh,' I really couldn't get. Then she said, 'Take this rattle. Don't lose it. If you do, you will see the fun.'
'I took the rattle and said, 'Why should I lose it? I shall keep it very carefully. Oh, I am sorry that you
will not be able to see your grandson. Look here, Menaka, if you want to get a boon from me before you go, this is the time to ask for it.'
'No, I don't need any boon.'
'I said, 'Why not? If you want, I can plant a son in your womb. If you want three or four or even a
hundred, that too I can give.'
'Menaka grimaced, 'My, my, aren't we ambitious! Who do you think you are, - Kartik or Kandarpa? Your son will be a goat in beauty and virtues.'
'Controlling my anger with difficulty, I said, 'OK, OK, it does not matter to me a bit if you do not want
a boon. In any case, I do not give boons to undeserving fellows. Now, get lost. I will find an auspicious day and go to Shakuntala.' '
Pulin asked, 'How old would Menaka be?
Durvasa said, 'You are very stupid. Nymphs don't age. Moonlight, lightning, rainbow etc. do not have any age. Listen to what happened then. Menaka left. I too got ready for my journey after three days. Call her by any name you like - nymph or divine damsel, Menaka is only a prostitute of heaven. She may not be having any sense of decency but I am a responsible person. Carrying only a rattle will not look nice, I have to take some foodstuff also. So, I collected a healthy arum dug out from the nearby forest and a seer of large tamarinds and put them in my bag.
Pulin said, ' Would a one-month old child eat wild arum and tamarind?'
I said, ' Why not? The Kshatriya children of yore used to digest even stone. They never bothered about powder milk.'
Durvasa said, 'You are all morons. Why should the child eat these? These would be eaten by the men and women of the ashram."
Listen to what happened then.
In due time I reached Hemkut and paid my respects to Lord Kashyap and his wife, Aditi. Then I went to Shakuntala. Most probably she did not know that I had cursed her because she seemed to be quite happy to see me. I gave her the arum and the tamarinds and then blessed and caressed the child, following Menaka's directions. I said, 'Shakuntala, your son, Sriman Sarvadaman - Bharat will conquer the entire country stretching from the sea to the Himalayas and become an emperor. The land on which his subjects will live will be named Bharatvarsha'Varsham tad Bharatam name
bharati yatra santatih. You too will unite with your husband soon.' And then, as I put my hand in my bag to take out the rattle, my eyes jumped.'
I said, ' What happened? Didn't you find the rattle?'
'No. I didn't. I hunted through my dress, blanket, bag, water pot, even my matted hair - I went through everything with a fine comb - but there was no sign of that rattle. Shakuntala's face became lugubrious. All said and done, it was a gift from her mother. Even though Menaka was a troublesome woman, yet she was her mother after all. I said, 'Don't be sad, Shakuntala. I shall bring a better rattle.'
Two old female ascetics were with Shakuntala. One of them said,
'Don't be daft. A grandmother's gift and your trash - are they the same? You are very careless, sage. It must have fallen from your pocket while you were taking bath and a fish must have swallowed it up. Go, catch all the Rohus and Katlas in the world and cut open their bellies to find it.'
'The other hag said, ' What are you saying, Sister? Why only Rohus and Katlas? How about Mirgel, Chital, Boal, Kalbos, SoI, Sal, Chai, Dhai -it can be there in the belly of any of these fish too, can't it?' '
Pulin said, ' It could be there in the belly of a tortoise also.'
I said, 'Sharks, crocodiles, dolphins, sea-horses or hippopotami also cannot be put beyond the realm of possibility.'
Durvasa glared at us and continued with his narrative.
'I did not wait any longer and fled without uttering another word. I retraced my steps and searched every inch of the way, but no, there was no sign of the rattle. I am a forgetful man but I was sure that I had tucked the rattle safely away in my pocket. It must have fallen while I was bathing. So I searched every place where I had taken a bath. I got down into the water and mucked about in search of the rattle but met with no success. The Rohu fish must have swallowed it, as it had with Shakuntala's ring. Of course it could have been a Kalbos, Boal, Chai, or Dhai too. I called the fishermen and asked each of them, ' Did you find a rattle in the belly of a fish? Please produce it and I will bless you'.
The blasted fellows said, 'Rattles are not normally found in the belly of a fish but bladders are', and bared their teeth and laughed.
I cursed them, 'May all of you become toothy crocodiles,' but nothing happened.
'Oh, I was in deep trouble as a fallout of the promise made to Menaka. A rattle is a trifle but not
keeping a promise is a sin. Thousands upon thousands of years have passed; I have searched at countless places countless times, but no rattle! I have lost my peace of mind, I have lost my Brahminic powers, my curses are futile, I have become a poisonless water-snake. My disciples have deserted me. I am now roaming on the streets like a vagabond.'
I said, ' O great sage, calm down. You are suffering needlessly. Bharat has attained heaven long back; he does not need the rattle any more. You should get back to your ascesis, etc., with peace of mind. Or write your memoirs for the education of people or write about the confrontation between the hirsute and powerful sages and the glamour-girls of heaven - the newspaper chaps will lap it up. Forget about the rattle.'
'Alas! Alas! How can I forget? The rattle is Menaka's curse, Shakuntala's revenge. My brain has gone haywire ' all the time, the sound of the rattle keeps ringing inside my head.'
Suddenly, Durvasa started screaming and dancing, flinging his hands and feet in all directions. And at the same time, Pulin's son, Paltu, fell at his feet and screamed, ' He is killing them! He is killing all of them!'
The matter was indeed serious. While Paltu was deeply engrossed in listening to the history of the rattle, the mice, taking advantage of the situation, escaped from his pocket and attacked Durvasa. Two of them were on his shoulders, one got into his underwear and of the fourth one, there was no trace'it could not be found anywhere. However, three of them fell on the floor, dislodged by the force of Durvasa's dancing. Paltu somehow saved them from being trampled by the dancing feet of Durvavsa.
Durvasa said, ' You are a very insolent boy.'
Pulin said, ' Take care, great sage. If you curse my son, it will bode ill for you.'
Durvasa said, ' Keeping rats as pets is a great sin. Even Chandals do not do it.'
Paltu angrily retorted, 'How about you? You are nurturing lice on your body. Is that very nice? Look
father, so many lice have dropped on our bed from the body of the sage. Where is another mouse? I can't find him --------.'
Durvasa again screamed and resumed his dancing.
Paltu said, 'There, there. It has entered his beard.'
Without waiting for his permission, Paltu straightaway shoved his hand into Durvasa's beard and pulled the mouse out.
Then he said, 'Why do I hear a rattle - rattle?'
I jumped, 'Rattle-rattle? Lord, kindly shake your beard.'
Durvasa shook his beard. Rattle - rattle - rattle! A sound, though very weak, seeped through that
impenetrable jungle of a beard, like the distant jingle of the anklet-bells of the dancing Menaka.
Pulin experimentally pressed the knot of Durvasa's beard. Then he started untying the knot.
Durvasa said, ' Oh, it's hurting! It's hurting! '
But who cared? I held his head by force and Pulin tore open the knot and brought out a rattle. It was not very clear whether it was made of gold or silver. A lot of dirt had collected on it but it was still rattling.
Paltu whispered, 'It could have been found long back if an X-ray had been taken, isn't it, father?'
Paltu had experience. He had swallowed a coin a couple of years back.
Durvasa released a long sigh, 'This is what is called a knotty problem. That I had kept the rattle carefully tucked away in my beard, I had completely forgotten.'
Then he put his hand on Paltu's head and blessed him, 'My son, I bless you. May you become a king!'
I said, 'That blessing won't work, Lord, since kings have now disappeared. Instead, grant him such a boon that he can become a minister, at least for five years.'
'All right. I give him that boon. But if there is no king, how can administration function?'
'These days it is possible. Modern science says that even if the 'subject' is not there, 'verbs' will still operate.'
Durvasa said, ' I take your leave now. I want to get rid of my responsibility quickly by rendering unto the person what is his and depart to Brahma's abode.'
'Who do you want to give it to?'
' Why? Doesn't Maharaja Bharat have any successor?'
'None whatever. Bharat-dynasty or the dynasty of Yudhisthir and Parikshit has evaporated. Their
successors, the Nandas, Mauryas, Sungas, the Moghuls, the English - they have also died. India is now divided in two parts'the bigger one is called the Republic of India and the smaller one is known as IsIamic Pakistan.'
'But there must be an emperor?'
'No longer. There are two Presidents, one is at Delhi and the other at Karachi. Legally, they are Bharat's successors; therefore they have a claim on this rattle. But whom should you give it to? If you give it to one, the other will lodge a complaint with the U.N.O. or else, he will assume a belligerent posture and say, ' Ladke lenge Jhumjhumma (We will take the rattle by force)!'
Durvasa contemplated for a while. Then he broke the rattle in two and said, ' I will give to one this
piece which has the stone chips and goes rattle - rattle and to the other, the handle that goes pi - pi
when you blow into it. Give me ten rupees as my journey-fare.'
Durvasa took the money and hurriedly left.