Short stories by Bibhas De

Copyright 2006-2011 by Bibhas R. De. All rights reserved
Cover watercolor by Sanchari De ("Pooja"), Age 13

This eBook is provided free of charge for your reading pleasure!

Bibhas De ~ 1986

Welcome, welcome, welcome thrice!

Here are some of my free story collections on the Internet Archive. You can read these books online or download your own pdf copy. Click on the image.



(Twelve stories)
This is a full-length mystery-adventure set in British India:


(Click or scroll)

THE TEACHER STORIES: The night the stars spoke
THE TEACHER STORIES: A whisper in the deodars
Read a story from my book - a new one every month

Proceed to VOLUME 2:


Now I am not claiming that this story is true and I am not saying that it is not true.

My brother Bijoy and I had come to Shillong to visit our kid sister Chaitali who now had a kid of her own. This was a great opportunity to visit Silchar, after some 30 years, to reminisce on our childhood. So it was decided that the two of us would take the early morning bus from Shillong. It would arrive in Silchar in the evening. We would spend the night there and the whole of the next day and then catch the overnight bus back to Shillong.

My sister packed us all kinds of comestibles and bottles of drinking water. Early morning my brother-in-law drove us to the bus station and we were off. We would go over the Jaintia Hills and into Cachar District, grazing the boundary of Bangladesh. What a wonderful trip it would be!

Actually, the trip exceeded our expectation - it was one of my most memorable mountain road trips - and I have been on the high Andes and the Rockies and the Alps and so on. There were occasional stops for tea and comfort breaks. I was most tempted to try the street-side snacks available in endless varieties, but I had very strict instructions from 'home' to not engage in such health hazards. So we had to make do with my sister's homemade plum cake. At every stop, when we were all back on the bus and ready to leave, the conductor of the bus would be missing. Then the driver would call out, several times, Sylheti fashion:

"O Bashir, Bashir, Bashir-reba...."

In that open hill country that call airily reverberated:

O Bashir, Bashir, Bashir-reba....

This 'reba' is a signature Sylheti colloquialism but not a very translatable one. It means different things depending on the context. In the above usage, my guess is that it means "Yo Basir!", to use an American form. Anyway, presently Bashir would appear from out of nowhere in a most leisurely fashion and we would be off.

My other lasting memory would be the sheer precipices. As the bus traveled precariously close to what appeared to be drops of enormous distance, you could not help but feel a little queasy. Occasionally, you even saw an overturned vehicle way down in the ravine. There were other places where construction was going on, making the road, next to a precipice, even narrower. All in all, scenic beauty of the hills here had an edge of danger to it. I don't mean just the fear of the precipices, but through this, the deeper portentousness of a wild Earth.

I have a particular fascination about arriving in unknown cities by road at night. You see how the desolate highway gradually becomes populated, lights become more frequent and the streets and parks look more and more crowded; and then the garish city explodes before you. Such was our arrival in Silchar - and after all - by now it was nearly an unknown city to us.

We had no idea where to stay, so we asked a rickshaw-wallah to take us to the cleanest hotel in town. He took us to a hotel which I believe was called Geetanjali - across the street from Narsing High School. I attended Narsing High School once and I always thought that Narsing was a person's name, short for Nara-singha or Human-lion. However, when surfing the Net recently, I found that it was called Nursing High School. As far as I know, this school has nothing whatsoever to do with the vocation of Florence Nightingale. So why this strange spelling of the name? Another thing I found was that our then teacher Kabindra Babu, who once had young boys do some military-style exercises after school, had become a Member of the Indian Parliament! The exercise sessions were the precursors to what today is a formidable political movement in India.

We had a wonderful time in Silchar. All day we moved about the city on foot and on rickshaws. But I will confine myself to only one experience. We came to Aryapatti to look for my late father's once closest friend, nicknamed Putu Babu. We remembered the approximate portion of the street where Putu Babu lived. We came there and asked for the house of Nirmal Jyoti Purkayastha - for that was his official name. To our great delight people immediately pointed us to a house there. Just to be sure we asked if the gentleman had one daughter. Yes, we were told. This would be the young lady who used to treat us during Bhai Phota, a Hindu celebration that could be called "Brothers' Day".

When we knocked, a gentleman appeared. We told him the name of the person we were looking for and he said that would be him. Now my brother and I looked at each other. This gentleman looked nothing at all like the Putu Babu either of us remembered. What to do? We asked him if he remembered our father. He could not even recognize the name. Yet he was there in that house at the time period in question and his profession was what we remembered it was. Other small facts matched up also. As we were apologizing for our intrusion and were about to leave, there appeared from the inner sanctum of the house the mistress carrying a tray with two cups of tea and sweets. Now, that floored me. We were complete strangers who had just stopped to ask a few questions and it was decided that we were honored guests in the house! I would not have thought such old world customs could still be found in modern life. If I had appeared at a yurt in the Mongolian desert, may be. But here?!

All good things had to end and we came to catch our return bus in the evening. As my brother was buying the tickets a man sitting there asked me: "Going to Shillong?" I said yes. He said: "You will enjoy our Shillong. It is a beautiful place. I am from there. But I work here as a day laborer. I have not seen my family in Shillong in a year. A very long time to stay away. Tonight I am going - I will see them after a year."

"So we must be traveling in the same bus?"

"Well, no. See that lorry over there? The driver is a friend of mine. He will take me. So I can travel for free and save some money."

I saw a truck parked nearby, its flatbed laden high with cargo, covered in a khaki tarpaulin and secured with strings. Behind the cab of the truck was a white sign with red letterings. The sign said, in huge Bengali letters: "Ma-er Ashirbad". It could mean "Blessings of the Mother" where Mother refers to some goddess, or "Blessings of Mother" where Mother refers to the Driver's Mom. It works either way. The blessings are to protect the vehicle and the occupants from all harm.

We had our tickets and I wished the man a good trip and a happy reunion with his family. I then added: "May be we will run into each other in Pulish Bazar!". He said happily: "Yes, I am coming."

As we left Silchar and passed through Arunachal, the next town, I wondered how many people today knew that this poetically named town was once called Masimpur. Each town we passed invoked some memory. At length we were back on the mountains.

We were stopped at a checkpoint where some soldiers got in and started to search the luggage items in the overhead racks. We had none. So we were just observing this activity. Suddenly, a truck went thundering past us. I got a quick glimpse: Ma-er Ashirbad. So he would arrive in Shillong before us, I thought. How would he get home in such early hours in the morning? May be he will walk. Well, it does not matter. However he gets home, as soon as he arrives, he will be in wife's arms. It will all be worth it.

The soldiers were done and we were off. No Bashir this time. I looked out the window. It was a moonlit night, with good visibility. Only, the big leafy trees looked somewhat unnatural. It was as though darkness had avoided the open spaces and clung to the trees. The trees looked enlarged, with an extended dark mantle.

And that portent of danger could still be felt, the nighttime version of it. I kept looking down the sheer precipices. And then I saw it. Down, way down in the ravine, was an overturned truck. The khaki tarpaulin had come untied and the cargo was strewn all over. There was some smoke or steam coming from the engine. There was a sign behind the cab - not readable from this distance. But there could be no mistaking that white-and-red sign.

Hereafter the Shillong-Silchar Road for me would be something abstract, something beautiful and dangerous, something parenthetical that exists between two refrains - a call and an answer:

"O Bashir, Bashir, Bashir-reba..."

"Yes, I am coming."


Two views of the Shillong-Silchar Road: Top: A pit stop. Bottom: Rain-damaged highway, traffic moving most gingerly.

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Chaitali Roy


Now I am not claiming that this story is true and I am not saying that it is not true.

I would not say that Barun Chakraborty was a close friend. But in a way he was more. Close friends may separate after school or college. But Barun and I were fellow travelers for quite a distance. We were in the same residential high school near Calcutta. We lived in the same dorms there. Then we entered the same college and lived in the same dorm again. Both sets of our parents lived in Shillong. While my parents lived in Shillong for a time then, I myself never did. I only visited. But Barun was a 'Shillong Boy' through and through, having even attended Don Bosco. To top this off we were both Sylhetis - people who trace their roots to the Sylhet region of what is now Bangladesh. I don't recall that I had many long encounters with Barun. My main memory of him is of crossing paths here and there and him asking in Sylheti "Bhalani - Going well?". Barun to me was more family than friend.

Barun was dark complected and of a compact muscular build. His white teeth shone against his very dark skin when he smiled. His smile was what we call in Bengal a 'muchki hashi' - a bashful smile that breaks fully and turns off immediately. His face had a sweet aspect to it.

At school Barun was an average student (he chose Humanities subjects, or 'Arts' as we called it). Nothing particularly stood out about him. But all that changed when the results of the statewide Higher Secondary Examination came out. He had got the highest marks in our school in Bengali Language and the marks or also incredibly high in absolute terms.

Barun became a name on that day. Asked what the secret of his success was, he would say, rather mysteriously: "Grammar."

When we were in college, one day my parents were to arrive in Calcutta by train. The arrival time was at an ungodly hour of night and receiving them would mean pretty much forgoing the night's sleep. This of course was not a consideration for me. But I was astounded when Barun heard about this and wanted to accompany me to Howrah Station. When I pointed out the inconvenience, he said: "It is nothing. I want to receive them too."


I met Barun's parents only once. This was a summer vacation. I came to Shillong but Barun did not. It was considered good form that I should pay a visit on his parents. So early one evening I made my way to his neighborhood, Upper Shillong, and with little difficulty, found the house. His father was well-known in the area.

As I entered the portico-like outer room where visitors are generally received, I saw a gentleman exuding great gravitas, seated on a wide and low platform bed. This is an old-fashioned piece of furniture for visitors to sit together on, companionably. The platform was covered with a thin mattress and then a white sheet. There were a couple of other men sitting on the platform bed also - but there could be no doubt as to who the master of the house was. As I was about to introduce myself, he embarked upon a series of questions:

"Ki naam hoy - What would the name be?"

"My name is... "

"Kotha theke asha hoy – What would the place arriving from be?"

"I am coming from Laitumkhrah."

"Uddeshya-ta ki hoy – What would the purpose of the visit be?"

Before he could pose another rapid-fire question I quickly interjected that I was a friend of Barun. Upon hearing that, he became most upset.

"Then why are you standing here chitchatting in the outer quarters of the home, as though you were a stranger? You are family. You belong in the inner quarters." Then he looked at the curtained door that led to those inner quarters and called out to his wife - in that special way a Bengali husband of that generation called out to his wife (and vice versa), avoiding uttering her name.

"Ogo shunchho - D'you hear there? Look who has come to visit us! Come quickly. D'you hear there?"

Presently the curtain parted and there appeared from behind it a white-clad, veiled lady with a large vermillion mark on her forehead - that plainly-elegant, all-soothing image of a Bengali mother.

She ushered me to a small room with a chair and a desk and asked me to sit. Then she left. About fifteen minutes passed and nothing happened. Then a person - probably the maid - appeared with a huge tray: A cup of tea and two plates of snacks, one with salty items, and the other sweet. She laid these out on the desk and invited me to eat and left. I was alone again.

Now here was the dilemma I had. After you are served such fare, there is expected to ensue an elaborate bargaining process. The guest would refuse to take anything but tea and the hostess would press him to eat everything. There is a whole special phraseology and a mannerism in which to conduct these social proceedings. Eventually a compromise would be reached. Depending on who is more persuasive, the guest would eat more than half or less than half of what was offered.

When no one came for several minutes, I figured that the bargaining ritual was to be skipped. So I did justice to everything that was proffered. The wait resumed.

At last the hostess appeared and apologized. Some turmoil was going on at home, she said, and she was detained. I stood up to take leave. Then she stood next to me and put her right hand on my head. She said: "You are two sweet boys, you and our Barun. You two are living so far from home. Please look after one another. May God watch over you both."


It developed gradually, starting with a simple expression. It was noticed in the college hallways and dorm verandas that when some students met, they greeted one another with "Laal salaam - A red salute to you!". Everyone noticed this but no one made anything of it. One could think of many innocuous origins of the expression. Perhaps it was something that was spoken with great panache by the hero of a Hindi movie.

One day I came upon Barun on the staircase and instead of his characteristic "Bhalani?", he said "Laal salaam!" I replied: "Well...OK...Laal salaam." Then he said: "Let your salaam always remain red. Let it not change color." I asked what that meant. He said: "You will know soon. I hope you will be with us."

Around about mid-nineteen sixties the Naxalites - a subgroup of the communist movement in India and rooted in China - inducted some student communities. These students started to agitate and wreak havoc with normal student life. Numerous times scheduled university examinations were disrupted. Prominent professors were placed under siege right in their offices.

In this particular upheaval I speak of there was at first some student protestation surrounding the suspending of a few students, following a ragging incident in the dormitory. Soon, and I don't remember how the logic of this went, this flap became a burning communist issue and copies of the Red Book were waved. Struggles between haves and have-nots, the bourgeois and the proletariat, the ruling class and the peasantry, etc were being discussed most heatedly.

Shortly thereafter the Naxalites took over the dormitory and a sit-in was begun. Some leaders appeared from outside and took command. They maintained this siege for many days before the police finally moved in. The story was over as far as the dormitory and the college were concerned. But many students who joined in the movement had their student career disrupted or interrupted or terminated. Barun disappeared and I never saw him again.

I would be reminded of this period when I would set my eyes upon the preserved dead body of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Years after I left Calcutta, I met a classmate and was asking him about other classmates. The conversation turned to Barun. "And what is Barun Chakraborty doing these days?" I asked.

"You did not know?!"


The mountainous terrain here where India, China and Sikkim meet, is cold and inhospitable. The travel-worn hiker, carrying a large backpack, had positioned himself on a high peak to obtain good vantage for radio transmission. He was unshaved and unkempt. He had trekked long on this terrain. It reminded him of the rolling hills of Shillong and made him feel nostalgic. But on the whole he was happy. These were heady days. The adrenaline was constantly rushing. He was entrusted with a huge responsibility by the organization. He was to establish contact with the comrades over the border and relay certain messages. From being just a student inductee he had risen to this important position. The fact that he was an educated person and could speak English also must have weighed in. He achieved this important status and he was barely twenty.

Here his mind wandered for a fleeting second. He remembered language and grammar. A sudden warm feeling of pride swept through. But then he thought, somewhat sadly even: Grammar had become a metaphor for his life. His life had now become a sentence in the passive impersonal voice: subjectless, objectless.

He got a hold of himself. This was a completely safe spot for what he was about to do, he thought; there's not likely to be another soul within miles, this side of the border. He was in fact just about a hundred meters from the border line. He took out the walkie-talkie and hand-cranked the battery some just to make sure he had full power. He turned the device on and spoke into it. He repeated the codeword he was given, several times: "This is Daddy Longlegs, Do you hear me?"

Within seconds the response came loud and clear, with the expected codeword: "This is Yankee Doodre. Yes we heal you, Daddy Rongregs."

Now the hiker took out a sheet of paper containing the messages he was to relay. But he heard a sound behind him. He turned. There were two soldiers of the Indian Border Security Force standing just down the slope, wearing the white mountain uniform and dark goggles covering most of their faces. Their weapons were pointed at him. One of them spoke in that fossilized British Raj-vintage English that the Indian Military still spoke: "Drop that damn bloody walkie-talkie, I say. Drop it now!"

The hiker made a quick calculation. There was no way he could surrender and betray his organization. He made a dash for the border. The soldier shouted again: "Bloody stop now or I will bloody shoot."

The hiker continued. Shots rang out. It was over.


It will never be known, when the messenger came to deliver the news in that home in Upper Shillong, how he responded to that third question: "Uddeshya-ta ki hoy – What would the purpose of the visit be?"; or how the plainly-elegant, all-soothing Bengali mother soothed herself, if she did. And millions will continue to greet one another with "Bhalani?". Less one.

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Basab De


2006 Bibhas R. De

Watercolor by Sanchari De (Pooja), Age 13

Now I am not claiming that this story is true and I am not saying that it is not true.

Jhulon is basically the Festival of the Swing. Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, probably during their courtship period, are sitting romantically on a swing hanging from a tree branch, in a sylvan setting. They are conversing companionably as the swing is rocking gently. That is the basic theme. So, a toy swing with toy-size images of Radha and Krishna forms the entity to be worshipped. The festival goes on for several days, ending in Jhulon Purnima, a night of full moon.

Now I only speak of the festival as I knew it practiced in Silchar and as I have seen it practiced in no other place. The most salient feature of the festival was this: It was the only Hindu festival that was left entirely to the kids. Adults provided support and encouragement but did not interfere in any way. And what a project it was for the kids! The site chosen was usually the front porch or veranda of a neighborhood home. The swing would be hung from an improvised tree or even the rafter. It would be decorated with flowers but otherwise it would not receive much more attention. Arrangements would be made to rock the swing in some fashion.

The real thrill came in setting up the scene around the swing - a tableau that allowed for limitless imagination. It could be a mountainous terrain descending to a spring meadow, flowering even. On the mountains there could be water falls, feeding a stream running through the meadow. There could be a tree with an orangutan swinging from it. Through the meadow there could be train tracks complete with stations, signals, a bridge over the stream, ...etc. You get the picture. Add to this the fact that neighborhoods were tacitly competing to produce the most popular show and each to do better each year. In the timeframe I speak of, the resources were of a very non-technical nature. Nothing electronic and very few things electrical. So that taxed your imagination even more. For example, backstage personnel were needed to maintain certain effects like running water and smoking volcanoes.

One year the boys of Nutanpatti came out with a real teaser. The swing was moving continually, at times smoothly and at times erratically. But it was always in motion. There were no visible strings going to the backstage and no other obvious attachments for the movement. The platform of the swing was in the shape of a flat oblong box. So some suspected that there was some sophisticated machinery inside the box. When the science teacher Satyen Babu from Narsing High School came visiting, he thought magnets were somehow involved. Others thought air was being blown at the swing. Invisible strings were also mentioned. A very old lady said this was nothing less than a miracle and started to weep. And then came the Bagchi brothers.

The Bagchi brothers were two daredevil boys who would not let a challenge of any kind pass them by. As soon as they heard of this, they arrived on the scene. The two brothers walked up in lock step, looked at the phenomenon, looked at each other. Then, without saying a word to anyone, they left. All the spectators who had gathered on the news that the "Bagchi brothers are coming" continued their vigil - for they knew the brothers would be back. Sure enough, after about an hour, the two brothers reappeared, holding their pet cat. A few yards from the swing they let go of the cat. The cat stood still for a few seconds, then made a beeline for the swing. It pounced on the swing, causing Radha to be disheveled. Everyone understood. There was a trapped mouse inside the box. They surrounded the brothers: "How did you figure out?" The brothers silently pointed to some holes in the box, picked up their cat and left.

One year the jhulon of our neighborhood was staged in the SDO's bungalow in Itkhola. There was a small cottage detached from the main house and we would set up shop there. Not only was there a spacious porch, but the rooms behind it were available for staging. The Sub-Divisional Officer of the Public Works Department at that time was Jamini Roy. He had five children of whom the youngest two boys, Rontu and Shontu, were our age. An elder sister Nomita was about twenty and was in college. We addressed her as big sister, Nomitadi. She was so beautiful that you couldn't take your eyes off her face.

We lived across the street from this bungalow. Upstairs from us was the State Bank 'Mess'. This was a dormitory for the temporary employees from Calcutta, doing a stint in Silchar. If the employees were married they did not bring their family down here where they were basically roughing it. At any rate there was here a handsome bachelor in his early twenties we called Arun Babu.

Now, as the preparations for the tableau began (this would take several days of after-school activity), Arun Babu one day stopped by to see how jhulon was done in Silchar. While we were explaining things to him most enthusiastically, Nomitadi came out from the main house to talk to her brothers about something. After that Arun Babu became an ever-present advisor to us and coincidentally, Nomitadi was also there the entire time to give us a hand with this or that. We were glad on both counts. Imagine receiving such attention from adults! Our parents would not even set foot there until the finished product was displayed.

Then Arun Babu suggested that in conjunction with jhulon we put on a poetry recitation show. We were amazed - only a Calcutta Man could come with such refined ideas for us provincial folks. Everybody jumped headlong into this and got assigned a poem each. Rehearsals, conducted jointly by Arun Babu and Nomitadi, would now proceed late into the night. Our parents asked about the late hour and we told them about Arun Babu and Nomitadi coaching us children. Well, as long as there was adult supervision, it was fine - the parents said.

Now the opening day came. One thing you should know is that nobody wanted to be backstage personnel. Everyone wanted to be out front and bask in all the praise the visitors would bestow. The backstage was a boring lonely place with only a bench to sit on. So it worked out just fine when Arun Babu and Nomitadi offered to operate all the machinations for us. They sat side by side on the bench, not so unlike Radha and Krishna on the swing front stage. They pulled strings, lifted water from a low bucket to a high bucket and chitchatted. The evening poetry show also went very well. The neighborhood turned out in great numbers. So when the festival ended on a full moon night we were all a little depressed. The adrenaline had to stop rushing now.

Then Arun Babu said that, since the poetry show was such a success, we might consider putting on an entire play. He and Nomitadi would conduct rehearsals in the evenings. It will take months of rehearsal to perfect the gig. We jumped at the idea. Visions of celebrityhood were going through our minds.

In those days it would not have been proper for Arun Babu and Nomitadi to see each other by themselves or even visit each other's home socially. Quite simply, there was no way they could even talk to each other. The jhulon setting was a socially acceptable exception. And the play would also have been such an exception. But it was not to be. Shortly after that jhulon the SDO got his transfer orders. Many people - adults and children - went to see the family off at the railroad station. And there was also Arun Babu. He could not speak to Nomitadi. But they stole glances. The train took off. It gradually turned into a two-dimensional rectangle, then a point, then nothing. And Arun Babu kept staring at that nothingness.

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Sayan De


2006 Bibhas R. De

[Brass Rubbing by Gopa De]

There was a man. Early morning when the sun was red and no one was up, he walked near the pond. He looked at the red in the water. He looked at the red in the sky. He joined his palms and said silently: Abide with me O Lord. There was such a man.

There was a mosque. Directly across the road from the pond, there was a mosque. Early evening when the sun was red, its lone minaret caught the hue. Its vast empty courtyard caught the hue. But there was no one at this hour saying: Abide with me O Lord. There was such a mosque.


Now I am not claiming that this story is true and I am not saying that it is not true.

The road from Nutanpatti meets the Itkhola main road in a T junction. Now imagine this T. You are standing at the foot, looking towards the cross-bar. In its right right-angle, there were a cluster of houses with small courtyards sprinkled. We lived in one of these houses. In the left right-angle of the T, first there was a rectangular pond that fitted the angle. Round the other two banks of the pond were a cluster of houses with small courtyards sprinkled. In one of these houses lived the widower Aparisim Babu. Alone.

We saw Aparisim Babu mostly by the pond - standing or walking. He looked to us most aristocratic: fair of complexion, with a broad soothing face and hair brushed back. He mostly wore a white dhoti and a white genji, a collarless tee shirt. But if it was very hot, he did not have the tee shirt on. Then you could see his beautiful, well-proportioned torso - with the Brahmin's sacred thread crossing it diagonally. You almost felt that you now understood the place of the word sacred in 'sacred thread'. Aparisim Babu also smiled very beautifully, like the all-healing smile of the Buddha.

But there was something very dark about Aparisim Babu - something that caused us children to avoid him. Or rather we understood that we were to avoid him, although no one specifically told us to do so. We overheard adults talk of him in hushed, whispered voices. After hearing for a time, we pieced together that he was something dreaded, called a 'kominist'. He attended secret meetings in various places in Silchar with his own kind. And we sensed that Aparisim Babu also understood that the neighborhood wanted to avoid him. So when festivities took place - Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja and the like - and the whole neighborhood gathered and rejoiced in the large field of the SDO's bungalow, Aparisim Babu stood alone on the vacant street and watched from a distance. No one invited him to come and join. After a while he walked away.

One day I was returning home from visiting one of the houses near the pond and came face to face with Aparisim Babu. He stopped as if to greet me and smiled beautifully. I sternly looked away and walked on by. The right thing to do, I told myself. Everybody else did!

This very small incident then continued to bother me for a long time. There was no one I could talk to that I could think of. Until, that is, my grandfather came visiting from Sylhet. I told him everything. He first explained that a kominist was someone who wanted to run the society differently than it was run then and most that Indians did not agree with them. But, he said, there was absolutely no reason to avoid him. He said the best thing was for the two of us to go walking near the pond that afternoon and 'accidentally' run into him. So we did, and ran into him. He again smiled beautifully and I found the voice to introduce my grandfather. Then, most surprisingly, Aparisim Babu said to Grandfather:

"I am so happy and honored to see you again. I remember you well from the time when you were the SDO and lived in that bungalow."

Indeed Grandfather had been the Sub-Divisional Officer of the Public Works Department a long time ago then, and had lived there. The two really hit it off. The more they talked the more I felt healed. Eventually, it got dark and we took leave. By way of saying Goodbye, Aparisim Babu put a hand on my head. I was fully healed.


Now, imagine that T again. At the head of the T - above the cross-bar - was a mosque. So it was across the Itkhola main road from all the houses I spoke of. And the SDO's bungalow was next to the mosque, on the same side of the street. The mosque sat in a walled compound and the wall ran the full-length of the mosque alongside the road. It was a solid brick wall with no entry gate! To enter the mosque, you had to climb a set of stairs to the top of the wall, and come down another set of stairs on the other side. Then you would be standing in a huge, paved, open courtyard. Here's where the collective praying took place. On the far side of the courtyard was the main building of the mosque.

For some reason we understood the entry to the mosque was forbidden to the Hindus. And we never dared do this. We only peeked over the wall as if into a forbidden castle. I have never entered a mosque in India but I have entered many in Egypt and Turkey. Everybody can go into the grounds and the courtyards. To go into the prayer hall you have to take off your shoes as you do in Hindu temples. You have to be silent and respectful as in temples. You must not disturb any worshippers as you must not in temples. You could not enter during certain scared ceremonies, which is understandable. Men must cover their legs down to below the knees at least and women must cover their legs and shoulders and head.

There was an adult in our neighborhood whom we called Dhirukaka, Uncle Dhiru. He was quite a storyteller. If you asked him anything at all he started spinning a fantasy tale in answer. So when someone asked him about the ban on entering the mosque he told this story.

A long time ago everyone could go over the wall and visit the mosque. One day at noontime a Moslem man was praying in the courtyard alone. A small Hindu boy was standing nearby and watching him. The man had knelt down and was lowering his head to the ground. Then he was straightening up his torso and lowering his head again to the ground. The boy watched him do this three times. When the man lowered his head a fourth time the boy stood behind him and with his tiny hands pushed on the man's buttocks. The man, startled, turned around and saw the boy. He asked what the boy wanted. The boy said: "I've been watching you try unsuccessfully to do a somersault again and again. So I am giving you a little help."

Then the man explained to the boy that he was praying to Allah. The boy asked: "Where is Allah?" The man pointed skyward. Now the boy got confused and pointed to the prayer hall: "Then who is in there then?" The man then took the boy by the hand, took him inside and gave him a guided tour of the prayer hall. After that he sat the boy down and offered him a bowl of the typical consecrated holy food called Firni. This was a delicious sweet dish and boy relished it.

When the boy came home and described his adventure with great gusto, his mother became hysterical: "Hay Bhagaban, O God, what have they done to my boy?! He has become impure. Hay Bhagaban, what have they done..." After she was done lamenting an elaborate corrective procedure ensued. First the boy's mouth was washed with Ganges Water (many Hindu homes kept a supply in bottles). Then in that cold winter evening he was taken outside, made to stand stark nake&d, and buckets of cold water were poured on him. The next day the priest came and performed a purification ceremony, complete with fire sacrifice. The purification process required that you gave the priest a new set of clothes. Then the priest secretly gave the mother a prescription for one last step that had to be taken. When the boy sat for his next meal, unbeknownst to him, his mother added a drop of cow's urine in his drinking water. The boy had been purified. Since then no Hindu ever entered that mosque.


After that meeting with Aparisim Babu this matter more or less receded from the foreground for me and life went on as usual. But then another dark side of Aparisim Babu emerged. First I have to tell you about Paramita Devi.

In the same housing cluster where Aparisim Babu who was about 50 years of age lived, there also lived a 45-year old widow named Paramita Devi. She had been married at 21 and widowed at 22. Widows were required to live a very austere life (be a vegetarian, not indulge in any pleasures etc) and so did she . Paramita Devi was an exceptional beauty in the classic sense. It is a stately beauty that exudes dignity and grace. She stood and spoke and held her head with such poise that you would want to bow before her as to a queen. Her nose, her teeth, her lips, her eyes and eyelashes and eyebrows - everything was perfect. But she was alone.

Once again we kids caught the wisp of a rumor. After eavesdropping on adult conversations several times we got to the bottom of this: Aparisim Babu and Paramita Devi had been seen talking together by the pond. This is a civil neighborhood, the adults were fuming; such outrageous behavior will not stand. Bhimrati (an old-age related loss of sense of propriety) has got hold of them in their old age - they have taken leave of their senses.

The next outrage was when they were spotted not only talking together but actually walking together by the pond! What gall! What nerve! Old folks with one foot in the grave doing such 'fosty nosty'! They are defying the society's noble strictures on widows and widowers, said the neighborhood leaders. We have children here! What is this dirty business going on?!

Once again I came across Aparisim Babu one day. He again smiled - but a very very sad smile. He looked wan, spent, absent.

I did not get to see the end of this as I was sent to Calcutta to study. About six months later I came on vacation. I felt now that I had been in Calcutta the happening place I was not bound by local constraints. So I just smartly walked up to Aparisim Babu's door and knocked. A lady whom I did not know answered. I told her that I had come to see Aparisim Babu. I explained to her that I was a neighbor and a special friend of Aparisim Babu. She said: "Well, he does not live here anymore. He and Paramita Devi got married quietly in the Registry Office, without any public ceremony. And immediately they moved to Karimganj. They wanted to not face this place anymore."

I felt both happy and sad. There was another piece of unfinished business I had to attend to. At noontime next day when very few people were around, I climbed up those stairs and reached the top of the wall. As I was about to go down the stairs on the other side I saw a person known to me approach from the street. He said: "Taking a peek at the mosque, huh?!"

I came down the same side as I had gone up.

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Dr. Gopa De


Now I am not claiming that this story is true, and I am not saying that this is not true.

It was now 4 pm on a Sunday. Swapan had just arrived in his friend Moloy's house on Station Road in Tarapur. He had started at 2 pm from home which was in a small village on the road to Udarband. Swapan had walked an hour to the ferry terminal, waited for the ferry, crossed the river and walked the whole length of Trunk Road to where he was now standing. He knocked on the door, and Moloy's mother answered. "Didn't Moloy know you were coming?" she asked. "Actually no," he said, "I just took a chance and came." Then the mother took him inside and gave him sweets and a cup of Horlicks.

Moloy's mother asked about Swapan's family's welfare. So he told her that his mother had been seriously ill for sometime. But this morning she felt better and urged Swapan to go out for some fresh air. So he figured he would visit Moloy and be back by 6 pm while it was still light. He did not think to tell her about the book he had come to borrow.

Moloy had gone on a bicycle trip with some local boys. They were to picnic in Ghagra by the river. They should be back anytime. So Swapan decided to wait. He found the latest issue of Shuktara on a table, asked Swapan's mother if he could read it, and was promptly lost in it.

A couple of days ago Moloy, after having saved up just enough money, had bought Nihar Ranjan Gupta's latest Kiriti Roy mystery, Raktamukhi Dragon, The Red-mouthed Dragon. He had promised to loan it to Swapan at school Monday morning. But Swapan could not bear the wait, and decided to come today.

Such was the passion for reading among the boys growing up in Silchar then. But the pleasure of reading came only as the endpoint of a long and laborious process of procuring the book. Buying story books was hardly an option. Either you saved money in the form of two paises here, one anna there - a mystery book cost about a rupee, or sixteen annas. Or you established credit with your parents by studying hard, getting good grades etc. But you saved those credits for the time of Durga Puja festival when all the special big, fat issues of the magazines came out. So for the most part, you borrowed books from one another. There was a very brisk trade here.

The boys prided in having their own libraries at home - built up from books purchased in the manner described above. Generally, one had may be two dozen books. But the lucky ones who had indulging uncles and grandparents, had reached the fifty mark. That was something to brag about. One individual even had a formal check-out procedure where you had to sign out books.

Most boys of Swapan's class in Narsing High School belonged to middle class families - not affluent and not wanting for normal necessities. But Swapan was especially poor - a fact for which he felt ashamed. His father was an educated man who had fallen on hard times, and never recovered. He died early of broken health, lack of proper nutrition and medical attention. Now Swapan and his mother lived in a one-room hut amid squalor, and barely eked out an existence. Swapan could not afford the bus fare, which is why he walked the distance and spent three to four hours commuting to school each day. His father had managed to marry off Swapan's elder sister. The sister now lived with her family in Premtala, in the town. She helped as much as she could.

In the midst of all this, amazingly, even Swapan had managed to accumulate a personal library. It had six books. It was an incongruous luxury in his spartan home.


Moloy returned about 6 pm, and apologized for keeping his friend waiting. The he said: "Why didnt you tell Ma? She could have given you the book right away. You would be home by now." That was a mistake, recognized Swapan. Anyway, they talked for a bit, and eventually Swapan arrived at the ferry crossing about 8 pm. He found that for some reason the ferry service had stopped early today. He looked for the small dinghies that took passengers across for a little more money, but couldn't find any. And now the difficulty of his situation sank in. He was not going to be able to go home tonight, and there was no way to send a message.

Swapan saw he had no choice but to spend the night at his sister's. When he arrived there, he found the house empty. They were away. He asked the neighbors, but they did not know where the family had gone. Swapan sat on the porch. He started on Raktamukhi Dragon. The neighbors invited him to come and sup with them, but Swapan declined, saying he was quite full. But later, when his sister still had not returned at 10 pm, he accepted the neighbors' invitation to sleep in their home.

From there, after breakfast next morning, Swapan went straight to school. He thought to himself that his mother would have figured out what had transpired. He arrived home about six that evening, Raktamukhi Dragon in his hand. The full-color jacket of the book made it very much in evidence as he walked in.

Now he saw this unexpected sight: His sister Sharmila was sitting on the stoop, her infant baby in lap. Her eyes were red from crying. Her husband Dipak was sitting next to her, looking most dejected. As Swapan was about to inquire, the old lady from two houses down appeared, bringing a basket of fruits. She had always been judgmental and admonishing of Swapan. But now, when she saw him, she exploded:

"No sign of you all night and all day! Now you appear with that fancy book in hand! These books have turned you into a monster. Your mother died last night. This noon your brother-in-law and the neighbors carried her to the shoshan and cremated her. Your brother-in-law had to do that sacred last rite that was yours to perform: Light the pyre. What kind of a son are you? What good are these cursed books if they keep you from your mother's deathbed?"

The sister stood up, handed the baby to Dipak and accepted the basket of fruits, with faintly spoken words of thanksgiving. The old lady then turned and left, still muttering under her breath. The brother and the sister hugged, and both wept uncontrollably.

Next morning, after everyone had eaten breakfast that Minu-pishi, the lady next door supplied, they sat down to what may be called a family council. Dipak did not say much. Swapan had always liked him - he was a plain man, but a most generous and jovial one. Swapan never saw any kind of pettiness in him. He suspected that underneath that exterior of a simpleton, Dipak was a most genuine human being. He had once told Swapan he did not understand poetry, but he had great respect for those who wrote poetry.

The sister spoke now. "We will have to give up this place. You will come and live with us. We are not accepting you in our home out of necessity, but inviting you as part of our family. You will live with us as family - through times good and bad. Your brother-in-law also wants to have you live with us."

"Absolutely," said Dipak, "Most welcome."

The sister continued: "Now, however, there are certain issues we must clear up, and this is a good time to do so. As you know, we are not well-to-do. So there are limits to what we can do for you. In two years you will pass the Matric Examination. Then you will able to get a job as a postman. Father had friends in the post office, so this is practically a done deal. This is a government job, so you will be set for life. And who knows, you may even get the most lucrative beat and deliver mail to homes of powerful people like the DC.

"We will leave this morning. But tomorrow afternoon your brother-in-law will come to fetch you. So pack your things and be ready. Until then, you will eat at Minu-pishi's house. You can even sleep there tonight if you prefer.

"And finally, this damn bookworm habit of yours has truly become an ill omen for the family, like the old lady said rightly. These books of yours - what you call your library - I do not want these accursed things in my home. I have the welfare of my child to think of. I want you to get rid of these, throw them in the trash or burn them. Bring only your school books. From here on these are the only books you will read. And no more of this poetic stuff - walking by the river as if in a dream, with eyes glazed over. Just because father named you Dream does not mean you can go through life as though it were a dream. It is time for you to be a practical man. Do you understand?"

A stunned Swapan slowly nodded.

"Do you agree to all these?"

He nodded again.

The council was over. Before they left, Dipak took Swapan to a corner and, putting his arm around Swapan's shoulder, whispered in his ears: "Just hide the books somewhere for a while. I will work things out for you. Everything will be all right. There are open spaces near our home where you can walk all you want - any way you want. Don't worry about anything."


That evening Swapan lit the hurricane lantern, took the six books from the wall shelf - the Library - and sat down on his bed. He put the books in a stack in front of him and sat in the lotus position.

The first book he picked up, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, the collection of classic English poems, had belonged to his father since the latter's youth; and over his life, he had made copious personal observations on the margin. Swapan was just beginning to understand his father's thoughts there. The book was worn from use, but otherwise in good shape. He touched the book to his forehead, then clutched it in his chest, and set it down by his right side. The next book was Thakurmar Jhuli, Grandma's Basket of Tales, that was actually given him by his grandmother. She had read to him every story in that book. She had taught him how to rescue the beautiful princess from the lair of the dreaded Rakkhosh. The ogre would put the Princess to sleep, and detain her that way. You had to know the secret of how to awaken her. There was only one way to do this. There was a silver pin near the head of the princess, and gold pin near her feet. You interchanged their positions, and the princess awoke, fell into your arms, and forever became yours. Swapan lovingly set the book on top of the poetry book.

The collection of Tagore's poems, Sanchayita, he got as the first prize in a poetry recitation competition and it was inscribed as such. He had recited the poem Shahjahan. A faint smile came on his face as he remembered the emotions he had to invoke in his recitation. And Abol Tabol, the nonsense rhymes of Sukumar Roy, was a gift on his 10th birthday from his classmates who had pitched in. It had been inscribed: To Swapan the Dreamer of Dreams. Then everyone had signed it.

The book Indradhanu was actually an annual volume published by Deb Sahitya Kutir to celebrate the Durga Puja season. He had borrowed it from his friend Rajat. But Rajat's father got transferred, and Rajat wanted Swapan to keep the book as a memento. He wrote in the book: To my dearest friend Swapan - may we meet again soon - in this life!

The stack had now moved from his front to his right. Only one book remained. The thickest and the weightiest one.


It was just two days before the beginning of the five-day Durga Puja festival. The festival mood was already in the air, under the beautiful cirrus-clouded autumn sky. Everyone felt a little euphoric, a little buoyed. School was out for a month. Swapan was walking up Central Road towards Fatak Bazar. His mother had asked him to buy half a kilo of piping hot Jilipis from there, in the spirit of the season. Jilipis were the cheapest of sweets, but this was all they could afford.

As he came level with Kamala Book Store, he instinctively and even wistfully looked in - as he always did. He saw people crowding at the long counter. Then he spotted his friend and classmate Tapas. He cheerily entered the bookstore and called out: "Tapas, buying books?"

He immediately realized this was a mistake. Tapas was not alone. His entire family - his parents and his little sister - were by his side. How could he even walk up to to Tapas' father, Swapan wondered. What would he say? How would he act? He became weak in the knee. He started to leave.

While Tapas was a friend like any other friend, and family background never entered such friendships in Silchar then, facing his father was a different matter. The father was the most important and most powerful man in Silchar, known as Arun Chatterjee, ICS, DC-Cachar. The Indian Civil Service officer was the Deputy Commissioner of all of Cachar District, the supreme administrator. Not only that, he also looked grave and forbidding. He moved about in a motorcade with uniformed drivers. Swapan, standing as a part of a huge crowd, once saw him from a great distance. The DC-Cachar was standing on a dais and giving the inaugural speech at the Gandhi Mela, the town's annual festival. The man was most impressive, as was his speech.

But it was too late to escape. Tapas said: "Aare Swapan! Swapan - it's you! Come ahead and meet my parents and my sister."

The little girl looked at him and said: "I am Tripti Chatterjee. I am four years old." Swapan looked at the mother - a more elegant and graceful posture in a woman he had never seen, except in cinema. She said with a sweet smile, and very stylistically, Swapan thought: "Swapan!" She said it as though she had always known him. And now the father. The DC-Cachar was smilingly broadly. He said, with obvious admiration in his voice and his eyes: "So you are the First Boy in the class. We hear so much about you." Swapan almost fainted. Not only was the DC-Cachar talking to him like any ordinary man might, but was talking familiarly and giving him dignity and respect.

Not knowing what to say, Swapan came up with "I was just going to Fatak Bazar, and saw Tapas and stopped. I will go now." But the little girl piped up: "Papa, Doesn't Swapanda get a book for Puja?" And the father said: "Of course he does." Immediately, Tapas made room for Swapan at the counter, and said: "Look at these new Nihar Ranjan Gupta mysteries!" While they were busy thus, the father said something to the store clerk. He left and came back with a big, fat, elegantly bound book called Glimpses of World History.

The DC-Cachar spoke: "This is a book we got Tapas last year. It is a collection of letters written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter Indira Gandhi when he was kept in prison by the British Raj. It is not necessary to read or understand everything now. Read it over many years."

He then asked the clerk to wrap the book separately. When this was done, Tapas took it and handed it to Swapan with both hands. A stunned Swapan was now at his wit's end. All he could do is take two steps back, look at the entire family, touch the book to his forehead and bow very low. When he looked up, everyone was looking at him, smiling happily - as if in the spirit of the season. Then the little girl said: "Amader bari ekbar esho - come visit us at our home." Immediately, the mother added in her most cultured and pleasant voice: "Yes Swapan, come one Sunday morning and spend the whole day with us. Bring your mother also if she will come. We can send a car for her if you let us know in advance."

Swapan mumbled something, and took his leave. When he was clear of Kamala Book Store, he felt a great release of tension. He sat down on the stoop of the clothes store Jiten Factory for a few minutes to gather himself, and to take in the momentous event that had just transpired.


The Jilipis were bought and Swapan was on his way home. But his mind was not on anything immediate. He was thinking of a time several years into the future. If the DC-Cachar could be such an accessible and unassuming man in spite of being so highly placed, then that is what he wanted to be. He had heard that to become an ICS you had to pass an examination and appear for an interview. The examination was no problem for him at all. And he could develop himself to give a good account at the interview. So, DC-Cachar was not only not an unimaginable prospect, but squarely within his reach. Directly he obtained his Bachelor's Degree, he could enter the Civil Service. He gave some more reins to his vision. Could it be - could it be - that he could have a family like the one he saw today? Yes, he said to himself. All this poverty and squalor he was subjected to today were just a passage. A trial by fire.

From then on, every time he thumbed through Glimpses or read a few pages, he felt he was made a part of all these. The lofty ideals of a newly free India, the noble call to duty - all these, he thought, were addressed to him as well. As well as Indira Gandhi. He also had things to give. The dream-life that these books represented for him was his real life waiting ahead - and would gradually supplant the miserable life that he lived today.


The entire stack of six books had now moved from his front to his right. He took the stack, took it outside and put it in the courtyard, next to an empty drum used for catching rain water. He came back inside and reached for the last item remaining on the shelf - looking much like an expensive book. But this was actually a notebook in which he had written several poems and prose pieces. The history of how he came upon this notebook fleeted through his mind.

Swapan and his mother talked together a lot - more so than an average mother-and-son duo. They could talk about anything at all - things that interested either one interested both. Whenever they talked, they felt there was an invisible presence of third party, and they both acknowledged this within themselves. And they talked freely about him - about what he would have thought or done or said about something. Indeed, it was these talks that made that hut seem something much more than a poor man's shack. They made this a place Swapan longed to come back to at the end of the day.

One day Swapan spoke casually about his desire to have a nice bound notebook to put his poetry and other writings in. This was just thinking out loud, for buying such a notebook was not an option. As a brilliant student, Swapan got a small stipend from school that let him buy his essential school books and supplies. But anything beyond that was not affordable.

Swapan's mother had said only this: "How happy your father would have been to hear what you just said! He was also the literary type - and did a fair amount of scribbling of his own. He had so much to give to the world - but fate would not let him."

Then, unknown to Swapan, his mother had sold an old sari of hers and got one rupee. She then went to the town with a neighbor boy, and walked into a stationery store. They showed her a number of bound notebooks, all quite elegant. But none of them was within her price range. So she said she would come back in a few months when she hoped to have enough money to buy one of these.

The owner of the store had been watching these proceedings from a distance. He now came forward and asked: "Sister, may I ask you why you need the notebook?" She then told him proudly that her son was First Boy in Narsing High School, and he wanted to record his poems and such in this notebook. The owner asked her to wait a minute. He went to the backroom and reappeared, holding a most exquisite leather-bound notebook with gold embellishments, a buttoned strap, and a red tussle to be used as page mark. He said: "This is brand new. I got this as a gift from one of my grateful suppliers. Please take this with my compliments." The mother felt embarrassed, and protested. The owner said: "Please sister, it will be put to far nobler use in your house than mine. And besides, we all have to pitch in and support the flights of fancy in our young."

So that is how the notebook came in Swapan's possession. When his mother handed it to him and told the story, he hugged her and said: "At times like this I feel as though Father has not left us." Then both wept.

Swapan added the notebook to the stack, and put the seven items in the drum. He opened the side stopper of the hurricane lantern and poured some kerosene into the drum.


When the flame had leapt high, the neighbors saw them and came rushing. It was too late. That neighborhood's dreamy-eyed boy had hanged himself from a rafter. He had fashioned one of his mothers white widow's saris into a rope. His prized wall shelf lay empty. On the table was Raktamukhi Dragon with a handwritten note on top:

To be returned to Moloy Kumar Biswas
c/o Sri Mohit Ranjan Biswas
Station Road, Tarapur

Moloy Here is your book back. I did not have time to finish it. Can you imagine me leaving without finishing a mystery?!
Your friend Swapan.


As the gathered neighbors were speculating why he would take his life, Minu-pishi from next door, teary-eyed, explained: "He did not want to be a burden on his sister. He did not want to spoil her conjugal happiness by his intrusive presence. Such a brilliant boy. We had so much hope for him. Bhagaban please look after his soul."

Only one man came close to guessing the real reason, and he was a very plain man who did not understand poetry. He had noted his wife's clever use of the glorifying word postman when everybody knew the word was peon. It had been decided that the boy would be a peon in two years' time, and forever afterwards. Could such a dreamer of grand dreams, First Boy of Narsing High School, live with such a prospect? He thought not. He wondered the rest of his life if there was something else he could have said or done.

If this man had known a little more of the background, he might have got to the heart of the matter. Swapan was not one to look down on any profession, no matter how humble. He might even have reconciled with shattered dreams. After all, his father probably did. So what was it that he simply could not reconcile himself to?

Having to appear at the DC's opulent bungalow as a peon with the mailbag on his shoulder to deliver mail, instead of being there as an honored guest, an equal?

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Dr. Mondira Sinha-Ray

The night the stars spoke

I wish to say something about a teacher I had in the high school at Narendrapur. He truly was an idealistic dream-walker who was then perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties. This being a residential school, we saw a great deal of our teachers – in and outside the classroom – days and evenings. He taught English language, and saw great beauty in it. Our own language is Bengali and so we were here admiring another culture. He would read to you a paragraph from some classic book, and then go on about the beauty it held. He needed urgently to convey the beauty he himself sensed to you. He had then a sublime glow in his face. You could tell that he was truly happy doing this.

One time I brought to show him a fat paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that someone had given me. He took the book, thumbed through and found exactly the paragraph he wanted, and read it out loud. It was, he said, an example of very fine English prose (even though the book was a translation from the original Russian language). All I seem to remember today is that the paragraph had the big word unostentatious in it.

The teacher and his wife led a very simple life in the Teachers' Quarters in the village next to our school. He sometimes took me to his home, and his wife – an unusually quiet and dignified woman – served us tea or dinner most gracefully. He was exactly the same person in home as he was in the classroom, and also when he went to do the daily grocery shopping in the village market, or rode uncomfortably in an overcrowded bus, or was in some distress. There was never another persona or another mood that ever surfaced that I saw. He was a kind, generous, amiable, smiling person – just very grateful to be traveling through life. Nothing ever eclipsed that.

One evening I was visiting him at his home, and was about to start on my way back to the dorm. It was a pitch-dark night, and the walk, a shortcut, would take me through a newly harvested rice-field. The uneven terrain underfoot was most difficult to negotiate, unless you knew how to walk on the boundary ridge dividing the lots. There were no lights of any kind. Nor any lights could be seen in the distance from where we stood. Nor did we have any flashlights. So he escorted me through the field (which he was familiar with) up to the paved, lighted road.

Halfway in the field, he suddenly stopped and said, almost in an unfamiliar tone of voice: Look at the stars. You pay them no notice on moonlit nights. But tonight it is as though even they have some useful light to offer. It is as though they are pointing directly at you and saying emphatically, with some hauteur: "Look, we too have some light to light your path."

This was no momentous event, but for some reason I have always remembered that night. Even as a grown person, having lost all contact with him, I still remember that night and those stars. Was he saying something about beauty? Or was there after all a sadness in him that never surfaced? Was this a remarkable encounter between him and me, or between him and the stars? I think the latter. He touched my life in a lasting way.

When I think of him, I think of the Yeats poem GRATITUDE TO THE UNKNOWN INSTRUCTORS:

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

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Sona Datta of the British Museum in 2009 describing a painting to HRH Prince Charles, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, the Maharaja and the Maharani of Jodhpur, and other dignitaries at the exhibition The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur that she organized.


Now I am not claiming that this story is true, and I am not saying that this is not true.

The Irish-American poet Galway Kinnell romanticizes a levee thus:

A girl and I are lying
On the grass of the levee.

Just note the beautiful interplay of sounds between the vowels and the consonants. Think of the elevation of the levee over the grand vista of the river, the organic fragrance of a girl over nature's smell of grass, the light breeze, and so on. The levee indeed is a romantic place, and to me, nowhere more romantic than in Silchar.

Before the levee on the Barak was built, the annual floods were a fact of life in Silchar. Its severity changed from year to year. Each year, first there would appear just a thin layer of muddy water, barely inches thick, on the lower fields and the meadows and the courtyards. From then on, you anxiously watched its progress. Each morning would be the time to take stock. You might wake up and find that the water level had risen to cover the stoop. Then you kept praying: God let this be as far as the water would rise. Now an hourly vigil would be kept. On a good year, the water might start to recede. On other years, the level would continue to rise until there was knee-deep water in your living room. Gradually, one necessity of life after another would be drowned. Silcharites who remember those days would well relate to the famed Johnny Cash lyrics:

How high's the water, mama?
Five feet high and risin'
How high's the water, papa?
Five feet high and risin'

Well, the rails are washed out north of town
We gotta head for higher ground
We can't come back till the water comes down,
Five feet high and risin'

Well, it's five feet high and risin'

I will use the American convention in which what is called the ground floor in India is the first floor. Likewise, the first floor of India is the second floor. If you lived in the first floor of a two-story house (there were not many houses taller than this), your neighbors upstairs would accommodate your family during the flood even at great inconvenience to themselves. Such were the innocent days. But if you lived in a single story house, you had to shrink your entire living space to the platform beds and the tabletops. Imagine that for a moment!

Flood came also the RMS Quarters, housing for the local employees of the Railway Mail Service - a gigantic creation of the British Raj. From Trunk Road, a small lane proceeded towards the river. If you took it, you would come to a long strip of frontage to a long red brick building - built like a longhouse. This single building was actually a row of very small, individual family homes. One of these families had a boy named Shashi in his early teens, and another had a girl of about the same age, named Nomita. This was an age when boys began to discover that girls somehow held a little bit of extra fascination over boys. Shahshi was secretly sweet on Nomita. It was never clear if the girl knew. And Shashi had to be content with catching a glimpse of her perhaps once in a week or so, or whatever the frequency is with which two neighbors run into each other by random chance.

When the flood came, Shashi swung into action - to the great relief and thankfulness of the entire neighborhood. Sashi, you see, became the savior! He would fell eight sturdy banana trees with a machete. Then he would trim them to obtain eight large trunks – about eight feet long and a foot in diameter. He would lay them side by side without any gaps. Then, using a brick as a hammer, he would drive several bamboo stakes through the banana trunks, perpendicular to their length. And there! He had a very sturdy barge, which he could navigate with a long bamboo pole. It would accommodate three small people, easily.

As I said, this was nothing less than a lifesaver. You see, in many cases the outhouses then were really and truly outhouses. They were some distance from the living quarters, and built on a raised base. So, even if the space between the home and the outhouse were under water several feet deep, the latter was still useable - that is, if you could get yourself there. And only Shashi could get you there. I will tell you only what you already know - every human being needs at least one trip per day. I am sorry I cannot give this story a spin to make it less "prosaic" than the truth. I tried, but no substitute scenarios came to mind.

So it was that during the flood, Shashi was the most sought after person in the neighborhood. He was being constantly summoned (by loud shouts passed on from home to home to wherever Sashi's barge happened to be then), and more often than not, he had a waiting list. Schools were closed during the flood. So Shashi ran his ferry service round the clock. And there was that one trip per day that he especially looked forward to. But not a single word transpired between the two when they were on the barge together. I think I told you elsewhere that in that place in that time, the expression Thank you was not used in any form. When Shashi deposited his fare back at her home, he sometimes got a fleeting eye contact, with her looking straight and deep into his eyes. That was the Thank you. That look filled his entire day, and energized him and reinvigorated him. Did it mean something? Did she mean to say something? Shashi also got, at the close quarters of only a few feet, a whiff of her smell. That smell, over the smell of the freshly cut banana trunks, made an intoxicating combination that for him was the fragrance of Amaravati the romantic home of the romancing gods. He was living in another plane. He did not even take a break for noon rice, lest he fail that particular passenger when she needed him. Only after he had executed that fare did he take breaks.

Needless to say then that Shashi was one person who looked forward eagerly to the coming of a virulent flood.

Then came the levee on the Barak. It was an earthen dam. It had a flat top that in time became a fine riverside promenade. The sides of the dam sloped down from the edges of this walk. The constriction of the levee had been farmed out in pieces to various builders. My father had the charge of a portion paralleling Itkhola Road, and then extending to the back of the RMS Quarters. When the construction was completed, it turned out that the entire length of the levee looked nice and geometrical with sharp, linear edges, except the portion built by my father. This section had rounded, untrimmed edges. My father had dissolved his labor force before trimming the dam. Other boys used to tease me and my brothers saying that this represented poor workmanship. A few months on, however, the levee looked the same everywhere. The neat edging was just an unnecessary cosmetic thing. Decades later I met a person from Silchar who said that over the years there developed some breaches in the levee, but the portion my father built held well. As I think back on those days, I think that in some very small way, in a small corner of the Earth called Silchar, something of my father remains.

Naturally, in the early days of the levee, when it had not yet been grassed over or become a favorite promenade, I used to walk on the portion built by my father. One day I ran into Shashi. He was not at all pleased by the construction of the dam. Why, I asked. Everybody had welcomed it. Why not him? Then he explained:

"Before, we used to have a clear view of the river from our homes. We smelled the river. Now the sights and the smells are gone. Now it is as though something has been taken. And look at your father's section here. It is so shabby."

I did not argue with him because he seemed to have a point. Nor did I have any idea which sights and smells he was speaking of.

A year on, the levee had become a favorite promenade. Groups of fresh-air seeking men and women walked together, chitchatting happily. This was clearly a good thing, the levee. But what about Shashi's point? What about that which the levee had taken?

In time, Shashi found that Nomita would also walk on the levee at a very specific time of the early evening, by herself. That then became also Shashi's time to promenade, walking in the opposite direction. Not a word would pass between them when the crossed each other ever. Oftentimes, they were alone on the visible vista. Then Shashi would again get that deep, captivating, soul-stirring eye contact as he passed her. At times he even dared to walk so close that he would get a whiff of that familiar fragrance - now registered in the very core of his being. Only, the smell of banana leaves had been replaced by the smell of the grass. What is more, this contact was year-round, not just a few days a year. This was pure poetry. Clearly, if the levee had taken something, it had returned a great deal more. Shashi was indeed a happy boy. When I saw him one day, he volunteered in emphatic language: "Your father is a damn fine dam builder."

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Sanchari De


2006 Bibhas R. De

Watercolor by Sanchari De (Pooja), Age 13

Now I am not claiming that this story is true, and I am not saying that this is not true.

Gopesh Chandra Esh, Gopesh Babu to us children, moved into the apartment above us with his wife. He was a lowly clerk with the railroad system. He was an unremarkable man, but not so his wife. She was a spectacular beauty - tall, stately, radiant. Whenever anyone saw the couple for the first time, they would think: What an unlikely pairing! Or, What a lucky bloke! Or, She is so out-of-place!

But after you got to know the couple, and saw how nice people they both were, and how much they were in love, you did not think those thoughts anymore. You simply thought: So nice to have them as neighbors!

But what makes this couple the subject of a story is the strange - beautifully strange - conduct of Gopesh Babu towards his wife. He was so completely enamored of her and so taken by her that his visible, everyday life revolved festively around her. He was always hanging around her, serenading her, teasing her, kneeling before her in a worshipping stance. He was braiding her hair, adjusting her sari, wiping the sweat off of her forehead when she was cooking. When he left for work, he bade elaborate, even dramatic, goodbye. When he returned, he was positively ecstatic. It is as though his entire life, day in and day out, was an ongoing celebration of his good fortune. And he made no secret of it. Quite the contrary. He made great display of his adoration in public.

Gopesh Babu serenaded his wife with hit love songs from then current popular movies. He made motions with his hands, pretending to play a guitar or a violin. Sometimes he would use a short stick as a flute, and pretend to be Krishna to his wife's Radha. Sometimes he pretended to blow a horn. When he did all that, he would always kneel before her. And he did all that in presence of company, and when they were alone.

His wife in turn was most receptive to all this. She smiled pleasantly and indulgently. She never would say: O stop it!! Instead, she would make herself available for the full treatment.

Once a local entrepreneur invented a kind of an ektara a one-stringed musical instrument. He took a readily available rustic clay bowl, the kind used by sweet shops to dispense yogurt. He then took a bamboo cane about a foot and a half long, and split it partway along its length to form a vee. The ends of the two arms of the vee were then fastened around the bowl. Then a hole was drilled at the bottom of the bowl. The single string was strung from this hole to the apex of the vee. And there you had the ektara -simple, cheap, and apparently most effective. The vendor was walking along the streets of Silchar striking up beautiful movie tunes in their full glory, the sound as rich as from any full-blown ektara.

Many children bought this for mere four annas a piece, but nobody could make it work as well as the vendor. But one adult also bought this toy, and mastered it! From then on, he was serenading his wife with this – with voice accompaniment.

We children would walk freely in and out of their apartment. Such was how welcome we were made to feel. If it was teatime, we would be offered tea and biscuits. If the wife was cooking, we would be offered a small taste of whatever she was cooking. At other times we would be treated to marble-sized coconut laddoos. In time, we also became enamored of the wife. We would also serenade her if we could.

Thus it was that Gopesh Babu lived in seventh heaven. He was living in his small earthly hovel with a goddess, and well he knew it. There was nothing quotidian about his life. And there seemed not a dark cloud anywhere. There was no time that we saw him not ebullient. If he and his wife were sitting in a social gathering over tea, he would take the opportunity of any lull in the conversation to do something strange, beautifully strange. He would give out a silly giggle, and point to his wife sideways, and say: My wife. The wife then would smile approvingly. This was completely out-of-context and completely out of the clear blue. In time, people got used to this and even looked forward to this. Out of their presence, some couples even mimicked them in an amusing but complimentary way.


During the four day-long Durga Puja festivities, a drama would be staged one evening by the local talent in the grounds of the SDOs bungalow, just across the street from us. The entire neighborhood turned up, leaving all the houses desolate and dark. One such evening, nearly halfway through the play, I had to answer a natures call. So, shortly before the commotion of the Intermission (when it would be difficult to make an exit), I took the keys from my mother and slipped out, crossed the street and made my way home. There, as I was fumbling with the keys, I saw in the dark Gopesh Babu's wife going up the stairs with a tall and handsome man from the neighborhood. They were startled to see me. Then the man asked: " .., What are you doing here in the dark? Why are you not at the play? Are you all right? Do you need any help?"

I then explained that I was merely going to the bathroom. Then he said: "So are we, separately. We just ran into each other."

I was not old enough to understand the significance of what I saw, but old enough to know that this was an improbable sight. For this reason the scene became etched in my mind. Later I would understand.

As I was making my way back to the play, I saw a third person lurking in the dark, staring intently at the upstairs apartment which was still dark. The man was so engrossed he did not see me. The little I could see his face, it was anything but ebullient.


A great, visible change came over Gopesh Babu. He was grave, sad and downcast. His apartment was no longer a happy place to go to, and we stopped going. The couple started keeping to themselves, and very little of them was seen. They did not participate in the happy rituals of the post-Puja Vijoya Dashami - when delectable sweets are exchanged between families. A dark cloud had settled over everything. But this did not last long enough for tongues to start wagging. Within a month, the couple moved out. Gopesh Babu explained that he had found a place to rent in Tarapur, close to his work at the railroad station. After they left, we peeked into the emptied apartment. There was only one item left behind, on the floor - the toy ektara.

Several months later I went to see my friend Subhas in Tarapur. He was not home. So I thought I would loiter for a bit in the platform of the railroad station. There, I ran into Gopesh Babu. He looked emaciated and spent. But he seemed most happy to see me. It was as though I was a relic from his heavenly days. He took me inside the station and to his desk, and asked the tea boy to bring tea and biscuits. Then he kept pelting me with questions about the old neighborhood. Who had moved in into their apartment? Was this a happy couple? Did they fight? Did the man treat his wife nicely? I embellished my answers as much as I could with examples and anecdotes and he listened intently. He asked about everyone, except one certain, tall individual. Then it was my turn to ask him how Kakima, auntie, was. He said she had gone for an extended visit to her parents home in Shalchapra. He said he had not seen her nor heard from her ever since he moved to his new quarters. I asked how he managed with cooking etc. He said drank tea all day to ward off hunger, and in the evening, had a takeout meal of puri and potatoes. Then I spoke like an adult and told him this was no way to live. Surely he could cook some rice, boil some eggs and potatoes, and make a mash of all this with ghee and salt. That would be both a delicious and a nutritious meal. He said he would do that.

As I was leaving, he implored me to come again and to ask my parents to visit him. He said there were reasons he could not himself go to the old neighborhood. He explained where he lived now.

I told the story of this meeting to my parents, and gave them the invitation. A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning, my parents made their way to Gopesh Babu's home. But the house was empty, and the neighbors did not know what had become of him. Then my parents stopped at the railroad station and made inquiries. They learned that Gopesh Babu had asked for, and received, a transfer to the railroad station in Shalchapra.

Nothing more could be learned about the two. Perhaps they had reunited. But of one thing I felt certain: the serenading had gone out of Gopesh Babu, for good. He would no longer be able to play the toy ektara any better than us children.

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Antara Roy


Now I am not claiming that this story is true, and I am not saying that this is not true.

Shortly before I came to the US, my friends Benoy and Kajal and I set out from Calcutta for a train journey to Shillong, Dibrugarh and Pandu. In each place I had family, so we had food and lodgings assured. Our last stop was Darjeeling, where we were like any other tourists, without any local contacts. Benoy had written ahead and arranged for lodgings in some type of a guest house.

We arrived in Darjeeling in the famous toy-like train, and with little difficulty found the guest house. It was a seedy place with a large hall for communal sleeping, with communal bathroom facilities, and a few dingy backrooms in a labyrinthine scheme. Benoy pointed out to the proprietor that he had requested a private suite. Sure, no problem, said the proprietor. We were then shown into a large dark room with nothing in it but two very large wooden platform beds, completely bare. But in those days you carried your own bedding, in a piece of luggage called Hold-All. There was no attached bathroom to this room, but the three of us had lived in our High School dormitory together for three years, and were used to communal living as far as those facilities went. So we put the best face on things and spread out in our private suite, and started to unpack.

A little later the proprietor showed in another party of three people. Seeing the surprise on our faces, he said that they were meant for the other bed. A little debate then ensued, and he explained that private suite did not mean it was for just one party. Since we did not have any options on hand, we had to agree to this arrangement. At any rate, when we got talking to the other party, they turned out to be amiable and interesting people. We decided to enjoy the pluses and forget the minuses. Thus the day was saved.

Next day was a full day of sightseeing which we did all on foot. We went to the Mall, and from there, trekked out far. We also saw the Botanical Gardens. By this time we were ravenously hungry, and decided, to make up for our disappointing lodgings, to have a good lunch. As we were walking down a busy, narrow street lined densely with ramshackle two-story houses, we saw a little signboard that said CHINESE RESTAURANT (First Floor). To the right of the sign, a set of narrow wooden stairs went up. (Remember, first floor in India is second floor in the US.)

The stairs brought us to a balcony, from which a door let us into a largish room. In the middle was a rather small dining table with soiled dishes, newspaper etc. The rest of the room was filled with the signs of family living, and in fact many family members were lounging there. A mother was trying to calm a crying baby, and wipe its nose. I had a desire to bolt immediately, but Benoy was made of more adventurous stuff, and pursued the matter:

" this the Chinese restaurant?"

Nobody responded.

"Can we see a menu?"

Now a man came forward and said: "There is actually no menu, but we can offer only chow mien at this hour. You can have chicken or pork chow mien, with a salad."

The price he asked seemed to be unusually low. We ordered the chicken chow mien for three, and saw one of the ladies retire to the inner sanctum - surely the kitchen. The table was cleared, and we sat down.

Then the family started talking to us. They were of Nepalese descent, and lived in Darjeeling for generations. Seeing me make friendly gestures to the baby, now smiling, the mother got up and put the baby smack on my lap, and disappeared. I wondered if I would be relieved of this duty when the food arrived.

First, water was served in three different types of glasses one brass, one stainless steel, and one made of glass. Likewise, three assorted dinner plates were placed before us that looked like the type families use for everyday meals. Three misshapen, but useable, forks were also produced. Then the salad arrived. It looked fresh and clean. Presently, the chow mien arrived - a huge pile on a large platter, piping hot. It turned out to be most delicious, and the quantity was enough to serve as both lunch and dinner.

Fortunately for me, the baby was now removed from my lap. The family went back to their devices. Only the man who originally spoke to us sat down at the table and carried on a conversation. He told us how Darjeeling was changing for the worse. It was a good thing we came when we came, he said, for the scenic beauty was fast disappearing due to human encroachment. He regaled us with stories of his youth when he was something of a high mountain adventurer. And yes, he had broken bread with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

We finished, and asked for the bill. The man said there were no bills actually, but we just needed to pay so many rupees. It was a most meager amount. We paid, and also placed a large tip on the table. Then the whole family, which had been watching us eat all this time, rose to say goodbye - as though we had been dinner guests in their home. We took leave with a warm feeling inside. I pinched the baby's cheek. We walked down the stairs, discussing among ourselves that this would be a memorable experience from our trip.

As we came down to the street, Kajal exclaimed: "Look!" He pointed to that restaurant signboard I already mentioned. Underneath that sign was an arrow pointing to the left that we had missed before. To the left was a wide set of showy stairs, and following these, we saw upstairs a honest-to-goodness Chinese restaurant with a colorful frontage, festooned with all the usual adornments - red paper lanterns, red dragon scrolls, golden tassels etc. A large and extensive menu was also posted. Well-dressed patrons were happily going in with great expectation on their faces. The ones coming out were veritable images of happy satiety – like the Happy Buddha.

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Dr. Sona Datta

A whisper in the deodars

In a time of great strife in the land below, a high plains drifter on the snowy plateau of the great mountains came down to the foothills. He declared that he would set up a school for the young in the Ashram style. That meant that the classroom would basically be the wide open terrain, the hills, the forests, the rivers, the wind and the rain. The class period would be the entire day, and perhaps also the sleeping hours.

This was a holy man with no particular religious association – just a lone hermit. He was in fact not even interested in human company. But something impelled him to come down here and start this school. This was to a temporary arrangement, he said. He would take in a group of students from across the land, who would spend five years in the Ashram. At the end of five years this one-and-only batch of students would graduate. Following a convocation ceremony, they will leave and spread out over the country. The school would be dissolved.


When this idea spread by word of mouth, some parents around the land found it interesting and decided to send their young. Soon a group of about twentyfive students gathered there – in nearly equal numbers from the Hindu, the Moslem and the Buddhist citizenry. The schooling had began.

Or rather, these students set about constructing their own school from out of nothing. Rustic huts were made by a river in a deodar forest, entirely from ingredients available in the nature. Fruit and vegetable gardens were started. No actual classrooms were built. Sessions took place in the shadow of a particularly ancient and spreading deodar. A small altar was made of clay, right against the huge trunk of the deodar. The teacher sat there with his legs crossed in the lotus position, and his straight back pressed against the trunk. The students sat on the ground, forming a half-circle around the teacher. The hermit seldom spoke. Everyone sat in silence for the most part. This was the only formal part of the school. The rest of teaching occurred throughout the daily life.

As to this daily life there was a rhythm that was the nature’s rhythm. Students arose with the birds. They bathed in the river. The day grew with the sun. Nothing ever happened – activity-wise, food-wise, discussion-wise – to remind anyone of his own religious background. That attriubute receded nearly into oblivion.

Soon the manner of schooling became established: The hermit hardly ever gave any instructions. Sometimes he made gestures or even said a couple of words and then fell silent. Afterwards, the students discussed among themselves what the teacher meant by those gestures or words. Thus, in effect, the students were teaching themselves. It was almost as though the teacher was not needed. Sometimes the students wondered if this teacher was a real person and if he really was all there.

The years passed with the cycles of the seasons superimposing on the resonances of the forest. These in turn fell in tune with the cycle of life. Nothing of the original life the students were leading remained here. There was no contact at all with the outside world.


The five years were up. The students prepared to leave, but not with any great enthusiasm nor with any great reluctance. They did not want to part company – of themselves, of the hermit, of the deodars. And yet this had to happen. The students did not have much by way of possessions and so there was not much packing to do or other preparations to make for the departure. They got themselves mentally ready. The only thing that remained was the formal convocation – the graduation ceremony where the teacher would give his parting advice – the advice that would cap off five years of study.

That morning there was a gentle breeze in the forest. The students assumed their places on the ground. The hermit sat on his altar, his eyes closed. As he joined his palms in prayer so did the students. A long time passed in this way. Then the hermit opened his eyes and pressed the palm of his his right hand against his chest: A gesture of affection. The palm he now raised: A gesture of blessing. Then he placed his index finger across his lips: Silence! He pointed to the canopy and then to his ear: Listen to the wind!

Indeed the wind had picked up and by now, was making a whistling sound in the canopy of the deodar forest. It was a soft sibilant sound. As the students listened intently, the howling of the wind began to shape words. And then, clearly, the wind began to say: sh…, sh…, sh….. It was as if a whole word was being repeated, but on the beginning syllable sh could be heard.


The hermit was not anywhere to be seen. The students were concentrating so hard on deciphering the word that no one saw when or how he left. With that parting advice ‘sh…’ the students began their long walk together to the nearest village from where they would find transportation to their respective homes, spread all over the land. They would soon arrive in that world that they had left five years ago – an unfamiliar world to them by now.

As they walked, they discoursed on the the meaning of the message of the wind in the deodars . Slowly slowly, that discussion – homogeneous and amorphous at first – began to fragment and evolve into three segments. The Hindu segment, the Moslem segment and Buddhist segment.

At length, they started wrapping up the discussion as the village came in view. The spokesperson for the Hindus said: “Sh – it points to the sanskrit word Shantih, meaning Peace. Peace upon us, Peace upon the Teacher, Peace to all, Peace upon the forest, the river, the wind, the rain. Peace upon Peace herself.”

The Moslems gave their reading: “Sh stands for Shama, the Urdu word for a beacon, a lamp. A lamp to guide us, a lamp to light our path, the lamp the Prophet holds high for us to follow always.”

And the Buddhists had this to say: “Sh is for the Pali word Shravaka, the listener. A listener of nature, a listener of the Teacher, a listener of the Buddha.”

As they approached the village, they said their goodbyes. There was, oddly, no talk of their meeting up again or keeping in touch. And no one thought to take the discussion one step further: Put together the three shs.


High on the snowy plains amid a snowstorm an apparition walks, supporting his weight on a tall staff. As the storm gains strength, he murmurs: “Shravaka...Shama ...Shantih... So therefore listen to the beacon of peace.”

Then the storm engulfs the apparition.


*The theme of this story is borrowed from The Meaning of the Fable of Thunder in the Upanishads.


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