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  • The Atheist: Translation of A Short Story By Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay [Parabaas Translation] : Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
    translated from Bengali to English by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra




    The Atheist

    Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

    Translated from Bengali by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra




      When Loknath finished his studies and went to his teacher to bid goodbye, the teacher told him to always remember that his name Loknath meant ‘above many people’. He blessed Loknath to succeed in life and make his name above others.

      After the departure of his brightest, most talented student, the teacher remained silent for a few days.

    After leaving school, Loknath did not go to any royal court. Nor did he show any interest in teaching. He also remained silent about the matter of getting married and starting a family. After roaming around aimlessly for a few days, he chose a quiet place along the river Punyabhadra to erect a small hut and started living there. For this, most people called him crazy.

      Right from his childhood days, Loknath was a little different from everyone else. Early in the morning, boy Loknath would roam around in the fields and forests all by himself. He did not mix much with the boys of his age. In the late evening, when the small hill near their village would look like a huge grey cloud fallen off the darkening grey sky, young Loknath would stand at the edge of the forest for hours and stare at it. For a child, that hill was the end of his familiar world. “What if I pass that hill and go further and further away? Where would I reach? His young mind used to get overwhelmed trying to imagine that mythical place beyond the grey hill. He would forget about his own family, his siblings and parents, and immerse himself in the imaginary, hazy, silent land beyond the grey hill bathed in the evening light. Perhaps the stories told by his grandmother were the stories of that land. Perhaps Rama and Ravana were still there at their eternal fight. In the endless dark forest there, the headless monster was still groping his way. Perhaps that was the land of all that was strange and mysterious.

     But that was long time ago. As Loknath grew up, he became hard and harsh. As if to keep up with his increasingly dry, factual learning, his physical appearance too became rough and craggy. With his unruly long hair and flying beard, and his eyes flashing with steely sharp intellect, truly he looked rather fearsome. But there were times when those sharp eyes would calm down; in those moments he looked serene, handsome and generous.

      As Loknath grew old, his ever curious nature gradually opened up. Even before his thirteenth year, he started questioning the validity of the visible world around him. Was there any Supreme Creator of the world? Such questions frustrated him continuously. His goals too were strange to ordinary people. He had always dismissed any effort to gain material comforts and successes, now he became even more negligent in securing his name and fame. Once, his revered mentor sent him a letter inviting him to accept the job of the Chief Consultant in the royal court. The older consultant was dead and the king asked for the best of the students from the school. Loknath’s mentor was to send an elephant to bring Loknath to the court with appropriate pomp and circumstance. But Loknath summarily vetoed all the plans and sent one of his colleagues in his place. There was no way he could be talked into accepting the post. Soon after this, Loknath left his school and within a year, found himself in this small hut on the banks of Punyabhadra.

     

        It had been now thirty years since Loknath started living alone in his hut. The Jain religious community sent him some food grains and two garments every year. Any other garment Loknath made from the wild cotton that grew around his hut. Initially he started tutoring a few students. But soon the fame of his sharp intellect spread far and wide and more and more students crowded his hut. Loknath got irritated and stopped tutoring altogether.

     In those days, there were dense, lush forests on both the banks of Punyabhadra River. In many places there were groves of deodars and saal trees, in lower areas there were thorny bushes entangled with various wild vines. The narrow river bisected the hills on the south. Both banks were shaded by dense

       That is where Loknath’s hut was located.

       Loknath’s hut was a treasure trove of books. He had bound two pieces of thin wood as book covers and inserted large taal and bhurja leaves filled with his writings on Upanishads,Vedas, Smriti, Puranas, as well Panini and other grammarians’ works and even some works by the astrologers. These and other such books were piled up and scattered on the floor of his hut in such disorder that there was no place to step in.

       Every morning, Loknath would bathe in the river, then sit under the old neem tree and start reading with deep concentration.

       Some days, the exhausted hot afternoon breeze of summer would mix with the scent of the freshly blooming neem flowers and create something of unforeseen beauty. There was the white haired teacher Aryabhatta drawing imaginary lines in air, trying to teach student Shakatayan the exact positions of the stars and planets. In the middle of chirping and singings of the wild birds, Yaska would be discussing his theories on languages. Frowning, Parashar would stare absent mindedly at an anthill, thinking about some difficult geometric formula--- Loknath would suddenly realize that he was imagining the linguist Yaska’s face superimposed on the swan swimming in the river.

       At night Loknath would stare at the stars and wonder what they were. Here the Astrologers’ explanations did not satisfy him.  At last he figured out himself that the stars must be huge masses of bright luminescent crystals. They must be there to provide light at night. He also thought the moon to be an even larger crystal mass. He wrote down his theories in the books that were found after his death. About the source of light in the stars, he wrote that the crystals found in the stars must be much more luminescent than those found on earth. Many mathematical calculations and geometric drawings about these and other theories were left in his writings. These showed that Loknath was an extremely talented scientist and that he was not bound to any one way of thinking. If a better explanation came around, he would not hesitate to throw away his old theories. He openly accepted criticism and lack of his own knowledge. He requested everyone to read his writings and form their own opinions. What he hated was indecisiveness. He could not tolerate wishy-washy people who had no opinion of their own but readily accepted whatever came their way. He preferred full knowledge or total ignorance. Anything in between was anathema. Once he spent a few years working hard trying to write a treatise on Sankhya. After finishing he felt it was not exactly as he wanted it to be. He saw many flaws and could not correct them even after trying his best. So, one morning he took the handwritten tome to the bank of Punyabhadra. The reeds were shivering in early morning breeze. Loknath took the fruit of his many year’s of hard work and tossed it all in the river. The heavy book immediately sank like a stone. Only the surface showed a few wavelets startled by the sudden impact of heavy scholarship on the wild untamed river.

      

       Days went by. Loknath could not sit still in one place like before. He was losing his peace of mind. Some days, he did not eat anything at all but roamed along the river aimlessly. At night he did not stare at the stars anymore lest any one of them blinking from behind the clouds caught him like a school child guilty of not doing his homework. In the silence of the dark forests, thousands of questions beset him. Why weren’t there any answers in the Vedantas of Upasarga?

      Loknath tried to concentrate in the books again. But anyone looking at him would have seen irritation more than serenity on his face. Reading the philosophers’ advices on achieving happiness only increased his impatience. At night Patanjali from the dry leaves would cast evil eyes on Gautam, Kapil would sneer at Gemini. Vyasdeva resented being delegated to the ranks of imbeciles. In the middle of the night, Loknath’s tired, overworked, supersaturated brain would hallucinate a huge debate raging among the philosophers. The verbal fights among the translators and illustrators were almost becoming physical. Loknath could not fall asleep. The smell of dried old leaves would suffocate him. He then would come out of his cottage and stand under the ancient neem tree. Some days, under a slice of the moon, the huge forest looked mysterious. Some days the solid darkness would give way to the chorus of calls from the night creatures. The glowworms glowed on top of the trees. The sweet breeze from the river would cool his overheated brows, but soon those silent questions would seize him again. This time perhaps in the guise of darkness. If there were a maker of light, would there be one for darkness too? If darkness was defined as lack of light, then was it a self evident entity? Was it self generated?...Did it preexist Creation?

       Loknath would come back to his books again, reignite the dying lamp and tried to find his answers. Some days he would look up at the sky and sit in silence, thinking. The eternal mystery that he wanted to solve so badly, seemed to retreat further and further away. Nowhere could he find any help or a ray of hope.

       

       A few years before, Loknath used to think that some wise and fortunate man perhaps did unveil the mystery of life and creation in those very early days of human history. Those wise men had written down some hopeful clues for the future generations. “Eureka!”, “I got it!” He remembered the first time when he found a hint of it in those letters on a dry, fragile leaf; it was perhaps twenty years ago. It was a rainy night. Nobody was out and about except the lonely wind whooshing over the fields and forests. Sitting in his dimly lit hut, those words had made him shiver as if a snake had bitten him. When he closed the book and stared outside, it seemed the forests, the grass, even the river was shivering like him. Now that memory merely made him smile. Looking back, the naivety, and emotions of those young days seemed so raw, so fraught with misunderstandings. Human mind finds it difficult to step beyond a set boundary. One, who says that he knows, is either a self-deceiving fool or a cheating liar. He had no concept of what he was supposed to understand in the first place.

        Suddenly his eyes were riveted on the early spring blood red Palash blossoms coloring the far blue horizons along the hills.

               

     Many years ago, Loknath was about twenty-one years old.

      --“It is nothing, Maya dear. I will definitely return, in about seven years, it will not even take that long to finish the studies. Besides, do you think I can stay too long without you?

      Seventeen-year-old Maya smiled shyly, “ Only seven years? That is not too long.”

       Loknath replied eagerly, “ That’s what I am saying too,” then looking trustingly at Maya’s face, “It really isn’t too long, is it?”

       Maya tried to hide her smile, “Oh, not at all! Just morning and evening.” And then she burst out laughing.

      Loknath felt a bit embarrassed, “No, really Maya, I’m serious. I meant…”

       The young Maya who wiped her own tears and with gentle eyes and a sweet smile had encouraged him to follow his ambitions, perhaps had no place now in adult Loknath’s heart. At this point in his life, he did not care for such trivia anymore.

       His heart was changing right from the time when he started his studies. He forgot Maya. He learned to denounce all things of material comfort and pleasure. He focused his mind only on the scholarly discourses of the learned men and teachers. It was as if an entirely different world had opened up to him, revealing all its mystery. Against all that, Maya, a mere chit of a girl, stood no chance. Only ignorant fools derive pleasure from such inconsequential things. Perhaps because they had no other worthier cause to preoccupy their small minds.

      Yet, once in a while, in some unguarded moment, those memories would suddenly seize his mind like some nocturnal evil spirits and remind him how a twenty year old youth was once blessed with her sweetly shy smile. It was the very first gift of his youth.

       After many years, Loknath heard a vague news that Maya too had never married and that she denounced all earthly pleasures to enter a monastery as a nun. That too was many years ago. After that he never bothered to seek any news of her. Let her be wherever she went.

      Evening shadows darkened around the hut. Loknath looked up at the sky and prayed – “Oh All Seeing Power, I am the philosopher Loknath. I am not ignorant like ordinary mortals. But my knowledge is incomplete. I want to understand why this universe is made as it is. Is there something called God as the ordinary folks believe?  I do not just want to read other people’s descriptions. I want proof, myself. I do not know if You can hear me, but please let me know. And don’t try to make me forget with distractions. I shall not be appeased.” 

       In the Academy of Mahamandali, lived the chief philosopher Madhavacharya. Loknath went to him with all his unanswered questions. Madhavacharya started to explain about liberation, the many different types of liberations, the difference between liberation and salvation etc etc. He was getting so deep into various explanations and was quoting so many Shastras and Puranas to support his theories that Loknath felt the only way to achieve true liberation was to escape his verbosity.

      One day while bathing in the river, he felt something touch his back. Perhaps it was the tail of some animal. But when he reached behind and grabbed it, he found it was a leafy aquatic plant. He yanked it out and saw the lower part of the plant under water –what was tickling him—was quite different from the upper part exposed to sunlight and air. The lower part was more like fir trees whereas the upper part had large flat leaves.

      This was eminently suitable to the plant where it could float on the broad upper leaves and stay intact in the stream of water, which easily flowed through the hair like long leaves in the lower part. Loknath finished bathing while preoccupied with wondering about the smart arrangement of the plant. He sensed that this was a clue to something important.

       He felt that this presence of two totally different types of leaves on one stem was a proof of Nature’s consciousness. Otherwise who would make such an elegant design for an insignificant waterweed? How could it otherwise change the lower leaves to avoid being torn up by the fast current.

        Loknath also remembered that a few days ago he had prayed to the Almighty Creator for a proof of His existence. Was this then the answer to his prayer?

       Logically thinking, this type of conclusion was quite tenuous. Only ordinary people can easily be lured into it. He tried to dismiss such easy solutions and looked for more robust proof. Yet, everyday some thought inside his mind kept distracting him. That water plants dried up remains stayed in front of his cottage for many days. Loknath often forgot his books and was found looking for something in the banks of the river where the reeds bent low and flowed along the current, where many wildflowers bloomed in masses on the water’s edges, where many water birds laid their eggs and carefully hid them under the broad leaves near the riverbanks. Loknath intently examined them; He noticed many similarities among the different types of wild flowers. Most of them had five petals. In the wide valley, there must had been two millions to perhaps ten millions such tiny flowers, Loknath randomly sampled them and noticed that they all had five petals surrounding a central spot.

       The thirst to learn more grew and took over his mind like a disease spreading over the body of a patient. Hundreds of question beset him, unusual they were, terrible, huge, like fearsome ogres, these questions seized him day and night. Initially Loknath welcomed the questions, but soon he found them almost painful. It was as if in a large dark empty room a tiny ray of light had raised his hopes. Now he thrashed about for a glimpse of more of that light, more of the open sky. He could not sleep at night. He could only pray for more knowledge, more consciousness.

       In this state of mind, he still observed new things in nature. He noticed an insect gradually killing a smaller one by injecting something from his body into the smaller insect.  He picked up the larger insect to look closely and saw that it was using a hollow but sharp needle like syringe to deliver the poison and that this poison was coming out of his own body, from a hollow organ. What an efficient way of killing one’s prey!

       Loknath’s mind went blank for a second. Here was Creator in His cruelest form! The faithful ones foolishly think of Him as kind and benevolent.

       Loknath spent the rest of the spring and the entire summer in a trance. At last a strange incident put an end to his incessant quest, suspicion and impatience. It was the beginning of the monsoon season. After a long and hard summer, the grass was dry and colorless, the wind was like a gust of hot flame itself. In the evening the winds picked up and heavy dark clouds piled up in one corner of the sky. Loknath was lying among the tall grasses around the bend of the river and watching the arrival of the clouds, suddenly something bit him between his first and second finger. As Loknath turned and withdrew his hand he saw a poisonous viper raising his hood to hit him once more. Loknath lunged to catch its tail but missed and got a handful of grass only. The snake had disappeared by then.

       Loknath immediately tore strips from his clothes and tied at his wrist and arm. He tried to make them as tight as he could but it wasn’t enough. He tried to remember the medicines for snakebite—the roots of white Aakanda plants—he tried to look for them but couldn’t find any. The arm felt weak, the venom must be spreading in his blood. Loknath tried to remember other anti venoms, seeds of kusum flowers, and barks from red sandalwood tree, none of them were nearby. After some time, he could not walk or even stand. The venom had attacked his whole body. Loknath collapsed near a bush.

       Slowly, very slowly, a light brightened the farthest corner of his consciousness. The impending death while holding him in its grip also sounded a far away stream freeing out of its mountain prison, coming down to remove his blindfold, promising him freedom.

       Oh Lord, beyond the eternal space, from some unimaginable distance away, You have kept an eye on this most insignificant human. Is that why You gave me the clue of that water plant? I did not recognize You then, now I can see—You are in my soul, You are my soul, greater than the universe, nobler than heaven, beyond all materials… as the cloud is the life source of all plants, You are the source of my life. You can hear the cries of my soul. Well, show me the way now and I’ll follow you, beyond this dark kingdom, beyond that far horizon, beyond the end of this life…. I shall at last see Your eternal glory, Your infinite knowledge…

       Suddenly Loknath’s  philosopher subconscious balked. ‘You are losing your power of critical thinking. You can’t judge for yourself when you are almost dying. Get over this weakness. Forget all this simplistic devotions.’

       But Loknath could not make any decisions. He was too exhausted to fight with his thoughts. Like the effect of addictive opium, death gradually strengthened its stranglehold…

        Somewhere two small children were picking up wild dates under a date palm tree at the edge of some no name village. Their footsteps could barely be heard beyond the farthest reach of time…

       Near a Mou tree, a boy and a girl are picking the tasty mou flowers…the girl is giving all the juicy ones to the boy—here, try this, see how sweet it is…

       Far in space white bearded, luminous sages are going somewhere. One of them says to his friends, -wait, I can see a fountain of fresh water. Come, let’s throw this away and fill our bowls with this clean water. Some inky stuff is dripping from their bowls.…

       Near the corner of the lane, in one cloudy afternoon, someone had beaten a girl, her loose hair covered her face, her clothes are torn…she is sobbing,--why? Why would you beat me? Just because I come to your place? I won’t come, ever, you’ll see…

       Loknath’s dying eyes raptly stared at the universe, just as two young eyes once had stared at another, many years ago, in a nameless small village. The darkening world again posed a huge question in front of him but found no answer.

    Published in Parabaas, February 2015



    The original story The Atheist (নাস্তিক) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was first in the magazinePrabasi (প্রবাসী) in the Paush, 1331 issue (CE Dec 1924-Jan 1925), and later included in Bibhuti Rachanaboli (Vol.8) ('বিভূতি রচনাবলী', ৮ম খণ্ড; মিত্র ও ঘোষ; ১৪০৪) (Mitra Ghosh, Kolkata).

    Illustrated by Ananya Das. Author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.

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