Master Mahashai

A little more than fifty years ago there were two adjoining villages equally prosperous, Nandipur and Gosainganj, situated on the other bank of the river Damodar, sixteen krosh away from the town of Bardhaman. An ancient banyan tree stood to mark the boundary between them. Now those villages are no longer there, that banyan tree has also disappeared – all being swept away by the Damodar floods.

One morning in the month of Falgoon a leading raiyat and a village elder of the Kayastha caste Shri Hiralal Das Datta was smoking from his hookah. His neighbours, Shyamapada Mukhujje and Kenaram Mallick, both also big raiyats, were seated by him. They were deliberating about the manner in which the community Annapurna puja ceremony was to be observed in the ensuing month of Chaitra. In the neighboring village of Nandipur this puja is also held every year with a lot of fanfare. It is rumored that this year they will not only bring an open-air dramatic party like before but they have also made an advance to a singing and dancing girl. This will be something totally novel in this area. If this rumor is true then Gosainganj will also have to make similar arrangements. Informers have been engaged secretly to ascertain which particular dancer has been contracted by the villagers of Nandipur so that a more reputed singing and dancing girl at whatever cost either from Bardhaman or from Calcutta could be brought to Gosainganj. This is because the villagers are unanimous in their view that during the last three generations Gosainganj has never been beaten in any matter by Nandipur and this time also it should not be allowed to happen otherwise.

While those three village elders were thus deeply engaged in this important deliberation about the coming community puja, Ramcharan Mondal appeared there panting. He threw away his walking stick violently and sat down on the ground with a thud. His very look worried Hiru Datta and he asked, “Hello Mondal, what makes you sit down like this? What is the matter with you?”

With wide eyes and breathing hard he said, “Mr. Datta, you ask me what has happened? But will you tell me what can be worse than what has already happened? Alas! Why didn’t I die of the fever I had last autumn? Dear me, did God save me only to make me see this!”

Both Shyamapada and Kenaram also kept looking on at Ramcharan very anxiously. Datta asked him, “What has happened to you? Please tell us whence are you coming?”

“From Nandipur”, replied Ramcharan with a deep sigh. He struck his forehead with his palm and said, “At last we are beaten by Nandipur! Woe me!”

Datta asked him, “How, what have they done?”

“Yes, I have come to tell you just that and I am telling you everything. It is so hot yet I have come running all this distance of one krosh. My mouth is dry and I can hardly speak. First give me a big pot of water, please.”

Datta gave orders and a pitcher-full of water and a big water pot were promptly brought. Sitting at the edge of the veranda Ramcharan first washed himself and drank a little. He then wiped himself and sat down with his head hung in utter dejection.

Hiru Datta said, “Now tell us what has happened; don’t keep us in suspense any more!”

Ramcharan replied, “What has happened? The worst that can happen. Nandipur has done what many big towns cannot dare to do. It is something which none in the villages can even dream of. They have set up a huschool.”

All three asked in unison, “What is that again? What is a huschool?”

Ramcharan said, “Did I know either what huschool means? I heard it only today. It is a pathshala where injiri is taught.”

Datta said, “Oh, they have set up a school then.”

“Yes, they have. They have also engaged a master. The teacher of an injiri pathshala is called master. The school is housed in the hall attached to Dasu Ghosh’s chandi temple. I saw with my own eyes the master is teaching injiri to ten or twelve boys.”

Hiru Datta sighed and resting his head on his palm was lost in deep thought. After a while he asked, “Have you heard wherefrom they have brought the master?”

“Yes, I didn’t forget to collect that information. They have brought him from Bardhaman. He is the son of a Brahmin and his name is Haran Chakravarti. His monthly salary is fifteen rupees while his boarding and lodging are free. I have collected all relevant information.”

At this stage an uproar was heard outside. Within minutes a large number of people were found to swarm into the house through the main gate. On his way back home Ramcharan had widely broadcast the news of this unprecedented defeat of Gosainganj to Nandipur. The crowd began to clamor, “What a disaster indeed! Nandipur has put us to shame! Now what are we going to do to set up a school?”

Hiru Datta stood at the edge of the veranda and waving his hand delivered this speech --- “My fellow villagers! Do you think we are going to accept this defeat? No, never as long as we live. We shall also set up a school. And our school will be four times better than theirs. Please go back to your homes in peace. Right now after taking my meal I am leaving for Calcutta. A new railway line has opened and there is no question of delay. Their master is worth fifteen rupees, but we shall pay our master twenty-five rupees. I shall bring a master who can teach their master. Within a week as from today I shall set up a school in the hall attached to my Chandi temple and I repeat my pledge thrice. Now you go back to your homes, take your bath and have your meal.”

After this the crowd left, vigorously shouting, “Victory to Gosainganj! Victory to Hiru Datta!”


Hiru Datta found a master in Calcutta and came back to his village by the fourth day. Brajagopal Mitra was the name of this master. Aged about thirty years, short of stature and dark complexioned, he was very fair-spoken. He claimed himself to be an expert in speaking, reading and writing English. He had become so conversant with that language that very often he mixed it up with his native tongue – not forgetting of course to explain them forthwith in the vernacular for the benefit of those who were ignorant of that language. Once when his father was still alive, in course of his wanderings along the banks of the Ganges he met an Englishman with whom he had a conversation. Impressed by his English that Englishman recommended him to the Governor-General who sent for him and offered him a post of Deputy Collector. But he very politely declined to accept the offer as his father was still alive and he did not have to bother about earning any money. Fallen on bad times he has now to accept this job for a paltry sum of twenty-five rupees. Only great men experience such ups and downs in their fortunes! Hearing all this and observing his English manners the villagers were hypnotized.

According to Hiru Datta’s promise the very next day the school opened. The teacher started with fifteen to sixteen students. As an incentive Datta freely distributed among these students slates, pencils and the Spelling Book by Murray bought at his own costs from Calcutta.

Whenever people from two villages met they talked about their teachers. The villagers of Gosainganj used to say, “Your master is from Bardhaman, how could he learn English that he will teach it?” To this the villagers of Nandipur used to reply, “He is from Bardhaman it is true but he studied in Calcutta. When he was a student there was no school in Bardhaman and so he went to Calcutta to learn English.”

At the usual time the celebration of the community puja in both the villages took place and they invited each other to visit the image, to take part in the feasts and watch the dramatic performance and dance. It was on this occasion that both the teachers met and it was learnt that they were already known to each other.
But after the puja the villagers of Gosainganj were upset when they heard what the teacher of Nandipur had told about their teacher – “That Bejo is their master, isn’t it? But he knows nothing. In our childhood we used to study in the same class. He left school when we were reading the Second Book. He never studied English after that. He used to work as a clerk in a wholesaler’s godown in Burrabazar at a monthly salary of rupees seven. Last year I saw him in Calcutta doing that job.”

The villagers of Gosainganj asked Braja master, “What’s this we hear?”
In reply Braja master laughed aloud and said, “This shows that it is the height of kali age when only untruth prevails. Who left the school, he or me, when the Second Book was being taught? Let me tell you what really happened. Our teacher used to ask questions in the class every day, but he could never answer them. One day when I promptly gave the correct answer to a question which he had failed to answer, our teacher told me to pull him by the ear. When I did what I was asked to do his face became red in anger. He said, ‘I am a brahmin and yet being a kayet he dares to pull me by the ears?’ He felt highly insulted and that made him leave the school. I left that school five or six years later, not before I completed my course and become expert in all respect.”

Thereupon the people of Gosainganj began to protest against this slander. At last Haran master said, “The teacher who taught us is still alive. Let two leading persons from Gosainganj accompany me to ask him who is telling the truth.”
Hearing this Braja master laughed aloud and said, “What, is he telling like this? It’s altogether ‘false’ – it’s a lie. Is that master still alive that he will take you to him? The year before last he went to heaven. I perfectly remember because I was invited to the feast at his last rituals; he used to love me very much like his own son. His sons still respect me like their elder brother and call me Bejoda.”
The result of this reciprocal bandying of slander between the two was that people of both villages began to suspect their claim of vast learning.

At last it was decided that there should be an open competition between the two to see who comes out victorious.

The elders from both the villages sat together and had consultations; the ground under the banyan tree standing on the boundary between the two villages was fixed as the venue of the competition. As all the villagers of both the villages were totally ignorant of English language, it was felt that a simple procedure should be devised so that none could have any doubt about the outcome of the competition. It was unanimously agreed that the masters would ask each other to tell the vernacular meaning of some English expression. If both succeeded to tell the meanings they would be considered equally learned. But if one failed, the master who would defeat him would be declared victorious.

The competition was scheduled to take place on the coming Baisakhi Purnima (the full moon day in the month of Baisakh); its venue, at the foot of the banyan tree and the time, at sunset.


On the appointed day when the sun was yet to set with Braja master the leaders of Gosainganj started in a procession towards the banyan tree. Accompanying them were some drummers and one carrying a big bugle, for, if by the grace of God they won the contest they would go back to their village playing them in jubilation. On the way some of them asked Braja master, “Master, will you be able to save our prestige? Keep a difficult question ready which Haran master may not be able to answer.” Brajababu replied, “Please don’t worry, I shall ask such a question that will completely stupefy Haran master, let alone telling its meaning.” Datta told him, “If you succeed in saving our face today we shall increase your pay by five rupees.” Though none mentioned it expressly Braja master knew it well that if he were defeated today tomorrow he would have to leave the village.
Shortly before sunset the Gosainganj party reached the venue. Mattresses had already been brought and spread by servants on their side of the boundary. At a distance the Nandipur party was seen to be coming like a swarm of locusts. They were also carrying drums, mattresses etc with them. They spread their mattresses on their side of the boundary and took their seat. On either side the front seats were occupied by the leaders and only two or three cubits of vacant space separated the parties.

Now the dispute arose as to who would ask the question first. Each village demanded the privilege of asking first, none was ready to give up this demand. It was settled by the elders. They asked Hiru Datta to toss a stick in the air. The master of the village towards which the head of the stick will point will ask his question first. Many from both sides came forward and offered their sticks for the toss. Hiru Datta tossed the stick which he found near at hand. When the stick fell on the ground it was found that its head pointed towards Nandipur.

So with his breast puffed up Haran master of Nandipur came forward; Braja master also stood up with a palpitating heart which he did not betray outwardly with great effort. Then Haran master asked him, “Can you tell the meaning of ‘Horns of a dilemma’?”

Fortunately Braja master knew the meaning of this difficult phrase. He proudly replied with a smiling face, “It means ‘Ubhoy shankat’, isn’t it correct?”

Gosainganj began to shout, “He has told correctly, he has told correctly!” Their leaders could stop them with great difficulty. Now came the turn of Braja master to ask his question. He stood up and said, “Haranbabu, I don’t want to ask you a difficult question, it will rather be very simple. You will agree that here only two of us know some English. It is not my desire to defeat you by asking you to tell the meaning of something very difficult. This may displease the people of Gosainganj, but being myself an English-knowing man I cannot humiliate another English-knowing man in an open meeting. Well then, let me ask you to tell the meaning of something simple and please give your answer loudly so that all the villagers assembled here can hear you distinctly. Please tell the meaning of --- you must be knowing --- what is the meaning of ‘I don’t know?’ ”

Haran master correctly replied in a loud voice, “Ami janina” (I don’t know). As soon as they heard it the faces of all the people of Nandipur became pale. At the same time all the people of Gosainganj rose up together and began to dance and shout in great ecstasy, “Ho, ho, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, Nandipur has been beaten, shame, shame!”

In great distress Haran master tried to say something, but it was drowned in the noises which the people of Gosainganj now made with their drums and bugles. He did not get any chance of being heard. Some stout fellows of Gosainganj came forward dancing; one of them took Braja master on his shoulder and all came back to their village dancing around them and playing their musical instruments.

It was heard that next day Haran master had left Nandipur. There the school had been closed. In Gosainganj Braja master reigned supreme, enjoying all the best things that that village could offer.

Original story in Bengali is by Prabhat Mukhopadhyay (1873-1932) who was a barrister, became the head of the Law College of Calcutta University-- a prolific writer of novels and short stories. The present story was first published in the year 1326 of the Bengali calendar, roughly corresponding to 1920. Translated by Kumud Biswas.


More by :  Kumud Biswas

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