Once twenty-five years ago I visited Calcutta. I must have been ten or eleven years old. Near our house stood a grocery run by an old man. The way to our house ran by his shop. Seated on a mattress and chanting like a snake-charmer, he used to read from a thick volume. At the base of his head was a fringe of brilliant white hair, otherwise he was completely bald; perched on his nose was a pair of big silver-framed spectacles; his clean-shaven face was grave. He was the very image of a wise man. Every now and then a middle-aged man came out and sat by him to listen to what he read, getting up to attend to customers as they arrived. A boy of my age, bare-bodied, continued to sit with the old man. Next to him sat two young girls. All of them listened attentively to the old man’s reading. They seemed to enjoy the subject greatly.
I became very curious to know what the old man was reading. Leaving my residence I stopped at the grocery to listen. It was the story of how with the help of an army of monkeys Ramchandra built a bridge across the sea and reached the island of Lanka. Hearing of that strange adventure the children’s eager faces glowed with delight and excitement. I used to get so engrossed listening to that story that I would have to be summoned back home. I only learnt that the bridge was being built. I did not have the chance to know what happened next— whether Ramchandra ever crossed the sea by that bridge and if so, what he did thereafter.
After a few days I went back to my village. Since then I have been to so many places that I have lost count of them. Many changes swept over my life like the flow of an ever-changing river. The picture of the peaceful and innocent life of that old man and his brood was lost in some hidden chamber of my mind. I forgot their very existence. We forget so many such things every day.
Only the other day, by sheer accident in the course of my wanderings, I found myself once again passing by that same road. All the buildings and houses had changed. Large mansions have now come up where earlier small houses stood. Previously only a few rickshaws or horse-drawn carriages plied along that road; now big motorcars raced about all day. Where gas lamps used to flicker, now electric lights made night as bright as day. As I stood thinking about the inexorable changes of time I glimpsed that old grocery. It had not changed at all. Things were arranged exactly as before. From the roof hung a kerosene lamp, perhaps the self-same lamp that I had seen twenty-five years ago.
But what astounded me was the scene I saw within. An old man, very much like the one I had seen twenty-five years ago, was seated on a mattress and was reading from a thick volume, intoning like a snake-charmer. A middle-aged man, like the one twenty-five years ago,
was now and again coming up to him to listen to the recitation and going back to attend to his customers. A boy similar to the one of those days gone by, bare-bodied, sat gazing at the old man’s face. Seated beside him were two girls, similar to those I’d seen all those years ago.
What magic had brought back those days long gone by? Spellbound, I began to listen. The old man was reading the same story of Ramchandra’s building of the bridge-–which I had heard twenty-five years ago.
I couldn’t wait any more. Straightway I went to the old man and asked, “Sir, please excuse me. Twenty-five years ago I saw you reading this book to these children. During these long years haven’t they changed? Has there not been any change in you either? Is Ramchandra still building that bridge?”
The old man raised his eyes and looked at me. Taking off his spectacles he cleaned them with the corner of his dhoti and replaced them on his nose. Slowly and gravely his glance scanned me head to toe; then he asked me in amazement, “Did you pass by this place twenty-five years ago?” I replied, “Yes sir.” The old man said, “In that case you saw my late father reading this Ramayan. My children used to sit with him, listening. You see that boy has now grown up. He must be your age. My daughters are married. By the grace of God they are now managing their own houses with their husbands and children. This boy is my grandson and these two girls are my granddaughters – they are the children of my son you see there.”
Pointing to the book in the old man’s hand I asked, “How old is this book?”
A sweet gentle smile lit up his face, “This is the Ramayan of Krittibas. My grandfather had bought it from the bat-tala bazar. It was long time ago, before I was born.”
Saluting the old man I left the grocery. It seemed to me that I had been gifted with a supernatural insight. An immaculate picture of the real Bharatvarsa revealed itself before my eyes-–the same tradition continues uninterrupted; nowhere has it changed.
[Translation of the famous Bengali short story Bharatbarsa by S.Wajed Ali.]