She stopped suddenly and we asked, ‘What happened?’
‘They saw Dwijendranath. Actually, they frequently see him.’
‘Have you seen him?’
‘No, but once a young man…, but I had better stop, it would scare you.’ (This last was to Makshirani).
Makshirani smiled wanly and said, ‘Never mind, go on.’
‘The young man had just arrived and was staying in the guest house. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he appeared on Nandalalbabu’s doorstep. What was the matter? He said, “I was lying down, I saw Gurudeb walking round my bed--- just as he was about to lift the mosquito net and look in, I ran for my life. What’s all this?” Then they told him, “You are mistaken. He is not Gurudev, but his elder brother.” ’
‘Well, I never knew Dwijendranath---wouldn’t be a bad idea to meet him now.’
‘And then you know, a few years ago, in that house that lies on the way to Surul…’
When she finished that story, Nandita Debi said, ‘No, I had better stop here. But you know, once a very funny thing happened in Dadamoshai’s Silaidaha home.’
One after another, many ghost-infested anecdotes were recounted. When we were preparing to depart, she said, ‘Wait, listen to this…’
Without daring to take my eyes off him, I climbed onto the verandah and said, “Sit down. I’ll get you something to eat.” We gave him a few mangoes. I sat down on the deck-chair and wondered what to do next. The man looked harmless, but how would I go to sleep with a madman outside my door? The servants did not sleep in the house, there was nobody around to carry a message. It did not seem that the man intended to depart soon. Having finished the mangoes, he settled down comfortably. I would have been happy to keep him busy with some more food, but there was nothing more in the house. What were we to do now? We decided to wait for the guards to arrive on their nightly rounds around Santiniketan. They should have come, but tonight when we needed them, they were late. The minutes passed; we could see neither their flashlights nor hear their whistles. I sat there. Not far away, Miss Petit slept on peacefully. Jyotirmoybabu tried to rouse her, but she only said, “Oh, he is mad, he won’t hurt us”. Then she turned over and went back to sleep.
But our dark night’s visitor showed no signs of leaving. Nor did it seem a good idea to let him go without ascertaining his destination. If pleased with our services, how long would it be before his return? Faced with no other option, we decided to enlist Miss Petit’s help. This time, Makshirani woke her up and explained the situation. She immediately appeared, dressed in a black kimono. She jumped off the veranda and briskly went up to the intruder, ‘You want to meet Rabindranath Thakur? Come with me, I will take you to him.’ At first, the man stood silent and motionless. Saying ‘Come, come, come with me’, the fearless woman almost dragged him away and disappeared with him into the dark fields. We two intrepid knights of Bengal, stood aside and watched.
Ultimately Jyotirmoybabu accompanied Miss Petit, though it served no purpose other than saving face, and I stayed to guard the family. They soon returned, having turned him over to the watchman at Uttarayan. We slept restfully that night, heartened by the presence of a very brave woman next door.
From then on, it was arranged that a gardener would sleep in the house; we also realised that the guards had been instructed to keep a close watch over us. But we did not have to suffer such a night-time intrusion again. Insanity though seemed to be in the air, for another mad person graced Uttarayan with her presence the next day, a woman this time. She came from Burdwan by train, carrying a cat in her arms, covered with her sari like a baby. She sent message, “Go tell Bouthan that Sarala Debi has come from Jorasanko.” She took Pratima Debi by surprise. Though mad, she was still in possession of some sense, and seemed well-informed; her eyes rested with keenness on many of the articles lying around the house. She did not seem prepared to go away with empty hands, so she was given some money, taken to the Bolpur station and put on the train.
One day we heard that a cobra had its den below a neem tree near the Ratan Kuthi kitchen---the servants saw it all the time; once Kashi had only just missed stepping on it. Almost on cue, we began to be showered with innumerable stories about local snakes. Once, a certain gentleman was staying in the same room that we were in now. He was working at the table one day when something fell from above with a thud. Startled, he looked up to see a snake. When he looked up at the ceiling, he saw another one peeping out.
Even so, the news that we had a poisonous creature for a neighbour did bother us somewhat. I jokingly mentioned the fact to the Poet. He smiled gently and said, ‘They never hurt people.’ The words ring in my ears, for they were uttered with remarkable tenderness. I did talk to other people, and indicated that snakes and humans were not meant to share such close quarters. We were told that there was a snake-charmer living nearby who could lure snakes out of their holes. I had heard of such people, but had never seen it done. I summoned the man, not so much out of fear of a venomous death as out of curiosity. A couple of mornings later, he arrived. There was a pile of bricks near the neem tree I have mentioned earlier. Like bamboo-groves, brick-piles were known to be favourite haunts of snakes; the snake-catcher made some calculations and said, yes, there was a snake in there. Would he be able to catch it? Certainly. He began work, while we all watched excitedly. That any moment a huge snake might strike out was a thought that kept us at a distance initially, but when in the space of an hour nothing but a few moles emerged, we moved nearer. People poked among the bricks, moved them around, and whenever something seemed remotely visible under the bricks, our hearts jumped with expectation and fear---now! Some of the holes were smoked with burning paper, Sudhakantababu even poked his hand into one, exciting collective audience admiration,--- but where was the snake! It seemed that it had divined our evil intentions and fled. We waited in the hot sun till eleven in the morning, and then went in exhausted. Miss Petit waited some more, camera in hand. The moment the snake raised its hood and the snake-charmer grabbed him, she would click the shutter. She already had quite a number of photographs featuring snakes in her collection, this one last shot would complete the series. She would then embark on a photo-essay for an English language magazine. But she too was disappointed. Digging and delving for the snake continued for some more time, but I have been told that to this day the snake has not been persuaded to see the light of day near Ratan Kuthi.
In the meantime, news reached the Poet that we were digging up the place looking for snakes. He spoke to us neither lightly nor in jest. He was concerned that our mental peace had been violated, and he assured us in many ways. He said, ‘I will not say that if a snake hisses at your feet, you should not be afraid. But they truly keep to themselves. They do not come into the presence of people, in all these years they have not harmed anyone. I have not lived in the house you are in now, but apart from that I have lived in most houses here. I have seen plenty of snakes, but have never found them dangerous. Dispel the snakes from the memories that you take away from here.’
We were shamed by his words. We felt guilty. To drag a creature out of its natural habitat and subject it to danger appeared rather mean, this we honestly realised. Lawrence’s poem about snakes puts it perfectly; the behaviour of civilised mankind towards the lords of life undoubtedly smacks of an inherent pettiness.
I do not know if Rabindranath has read this poem by Lawrence, he would like it. But I did realise that he loved animals. He is not an animal-lover as we understand the word, nor merely charitable towards them. It was not pity, nor mere fondness. Rather it was an acceptance of the fact that every manifestation of life deserved respect. It is the same sense that lies behind Lawrence’s poetry about beasts birds insects. People keep pets, love animals, some people, have an uncanny gift for taming wild animals, weaving their magic over the beasts; then there are the protagonists of non-violence who leave their own bodies open to the ravages of flea and lice. But this dispassionate yet inherent benevolence towards all creatures is rare amongst educated people; it is a trait probably more natural to a poet than a religious man or an animal-lover. Everyone knows that birds ate off Dwijendranath’s hands, and squirrels climbed over him. Rabindranath too possessed a deep sensibility for the animal kingdom. He recounted an incident. In Europe, a sculptor made Rabindranath’s statue, and put a dog on the shoulders. ‘Why, because I love animals.’
After talking to the poet about snakes, I realised he did not like them being killed. Once a snake climbed the walls of Anilbabu’s house; the poet was then living in Shyamali. When people chased it with sticks, the poet said, ‘Let it be. It will go away.’ People desisted for then. But as soon as the poet went in for his bath, the attack resumed, and it goes without saying that the snake’s life came to a quick end.
Published March 20, 2007
Send us your feedback