Bhola Grandpa and his wife lived at the western end of our village. Their hut was overshadowed by a large bokul tree which, with the advent of spring, grew luxuriant and continuously showered its tiny red fruit on their courtyard. The tree had become the permanent abode of a small troop of monkeys. Bhola Grandpa and his wife did not mind that.
I vividly remember the moonlit night when we were returning from the festival in honor of Lord Shiva. Still considered a child, I had chances galore to travel perched on the shoulders of able-bodied villagers. The road was long and, far above the fog, the moon looked like suffering from a bad cold. I nodded off on the village Chowkidar’s shoulders.
Father was looked upon with awe and reverence, and the villagers considered it a privilege to walk in his company. Bhola Grandpa, senior to him by a few years, was always more prompt than the others in expressing his agreement with whatever Father uttered.
But suddenly Bhola Grandpa gave out a loud wail.
Taken aback, our party came to a halt. Anxious enquiry revealed, by and by, that Bhola Grandpa had led his daughter’s son, who was of my age, to the festival. He piloted the grandson through the jostling throngs with two of the boy’s fingers held tightly in his grip. He did not realize when those fingers slipped out. His grip, however, continued intact.
It was when someone queried about the content of his grip that he remembered the grandson and gave out the wail.
Father chose two keen-eyed escorts from our party and directed them to go back with Bhola Grandpa to the festival site. The grandson, who had found a congenial shelter under a cow’s belly and kept blinking at the unfamiliar people passing by, was rescued before long.
I remained alert for the rest of the journey and heard Father recount the following anecdote:
Bhola Grandpa, whose father and grandfather too had been in our employment, spent most of his time in our house. One afternoon, decades ago, he was found sprawling in a corner of our veranda with his tongue stretched out. A shiver ran through those who found him in that bizarre state. They took him for dead.
What, however, had happened was this: an hour earlier someone had broached to him a proposal for his wedding. Modesty had made him stretch out his tongue. He had just forgotten to withdraw it while falling asleep.
I remember Bhola Grandpa blushing and hanging his head while Father narrated to an amused audience on our terrace the next day yet another episode of their younger days:
That had been a wet afternoon. Bhola Grandpa, looking wild with excitement, confided to Father and his friends that he had spied upon a gang of pirates burying a large box under one of the sand dunes on the lonely seashore by our village. He had also watched the gang disappear into the sea, their sleek dinghy shooting like an arrow into the mist.
Father and party at once began exploring the possible spots for the hidden treasure. Evening gave way to night. There was no light save for the moonbeams filtering through the clouds, and no sound except for the wind’s moaning and the hooting of an owl from the hollow of a palm tree struck dead by lightning. A pack of jackals howled, indicating that it was past midnight.
Suddenly Bhola Grandpa was seen collapsing on the sand. His friends rushed to him. Bhola Grandpa never spoke a lie. He soon composed himself and confessed that it was all a dream which he had had during his midday nap. He had somehow mistaken the dream to be a fact.
The locale of the most significant incident in Bhola Grandpa’s life had been the Sundarbans where the great river Ganga, flowing all the way from the Himalaya, divided into a hundred surging streams and dashed into the sea. The region was marked by clusters of thick jungle. Royal Bengal tigers stalked the picturesque islands between the narrow serpentine branches of the Ganga. My forefathers, though belonging to Orissa, were among the few landlords who owned chunks of estates in that dangerous region of Bengal.
Bhola Grandpa was periodically sent there to manage the property.
In the Sundarbans of those days nobody would walk alone even in daytime. Tigers apart, alligators frequently sneaked in from the swamp. People took care to move about only in groups, particularly after sundown. Often they were led by a necromancer who, from time to time, gave out a piercing yell that could not be imitated by the uninitiated. The eerie sound was believed to drive away or immobilize all beings, natural or supernatural, hostile to man.
Bhola Grandpa was returning from the weekly market in the company of a group of people belonging to the neighborhood of our camp. He did not remember when he had fallen behind the party.
He woke up to the fact that he was alone when, at a distance of about five yards in front of him, a full-grown Royal Bengal tiger gave a jolly growl, fixing his bright gaze straight on his face.
Bhola Grandpa, a swift climber, instantly clambered up a banyan tree at hand. The tiger roared and circled the tree innumerable times. Then it settled down under a bush and continued in that position without taking its eyes off its slipping prey even for a moment.
With nightfall the forest grew dark and silent. Bhola Grandpa could hear the bored tiger beating its tail on the dry leaves and scratching the ground from time to time. He could see its bluish-yellow eyes rolling all over the tree. Hours passed.
Dawn broke out with the cooing of a couple of doves. Bhola Grandpa came down. There was a hamlet of Santhals on a mound less than a furlong away. Bhola Grandpa climbed the mound and requested the first man he saw for a little fire to light his beedi.
The man had been a witness to all that passed between the tiger and Bhola Grandpa. In fact, he had spent the whole night sitting at the threshold of his hut, waiting to see what would happen next.
He eyed Bhola Grandpa with perfect bewilderment. ‘What is your secret, Sir, that you walked past that hungry beast and it just gaped at you and did nothing more?’ he mumbled out his question at last.
Bhola Grandpa remembered the tiger and looked askance towards the bush. The tiger was seen stretching its limbs and yawning and preparing to leave the place as though its bewilderment was giving way to a sense of disgust against itself.
Bhola Grandpa is said to have passed out for a moment.
Half a century later, one winter morning Bhola Grandpa was found to have died peacefully in his sleep. He was ninety-five. Even then we shed tears and lamented his death volubly.
But the most original of the laments came from the eighty-year-old granny, Bhola Grandpa’s wife. ‘The old man must have forgotten to breathe!’ she murmured with a sigh.
(From Selected Fiction of Manoj Das, Penguin Books, New Delhi with permission from the author.)