A Short Story by Siva Gopal Ojha
It was a Saturday morning in the weekly market at Rampur, a remote settlement
in interior South Dinajpur. A few people sat on the wooden bench beneath a
Banyan tree adjoining a teashop in between bouts of marketing.
Tapan waited there seeping a cup of tea for his farmhands to appear so that he
could make weekly payments to them. They came to the market for buying
essentials for the entire week.
The sprawling market covered a wide area on the southern side of the state
highway connecting Malda and Balurghat, two adjoining district towns of West
Bengal, India. A couple of rice mills on the other side of the road formed the
nucleus of the township of Rampur.
Innumerable make shift shops on raised earthen pedestals with black polythene
covers supported on bamboo poles dotted the weekly market. A newly
commissioned railway line connected the two district towns.
Rampur, the nearest railway station was merely a stone's throw from the market
place. The market was thus ideally located with the new railroad on the south.
The shops in the weekly market sold vegetables, cereals and pulses, spices,
edible oils, clothes, utensils, mosquito nets, agricultural implements, seeds,
fertilizers, pesticides, common medicines and everything else that an agricultural
community depended upon.
A man in his late fifties, clean-shaven, fair complexioned and having serene
disposition appeared near the teashop in tattered white robe befitting almost a
A long begging bag made by stitching rejected cut pieces from a tailoring shop,
hung from his shoulder declaring his profession. Such a person generally sang a
few songs to entertain the rustic audience and invite largesse from them. This
man didn't do any such thing.
Tapan looked at the man and took away his gaze considering him not worth a
second glance. The man went away to the make shift shops looking for alms.
quot;Who is this man, Gautam?quot; Tapan asked his friend sitting next to him.
quot;He is an outsider and looks like a Vaishnavite.quot; Gautam said.
Every one here knew every one else. An unknown man evoked some interest
and that was about all. People from neighboring Bangladesh sometimes sneaked
in to buy essentials through the porous border, which lay a couple of miles to the
Though he didn't want to look at the man, Tapan's gaze wandered time and
again to stick to the tramp. Something strange attracted him towards the
Vaishnavite again and again.
The man came back after some time and sat down on one corner of the bench.
Tapan still occupied the other corner waiting for his people. He had to pay them
to ensure their return to work next week.
He couldn't remain silent. Something in the man compelled Tapan to speak out,
quot;Would you like to have a cup of tea?quot;
quot;No, thanks. I don't take any food or drink outside.quot; The man firmly said. Tapan
knew that there would be no use requesting the man again. He observed the
man's shirt was torn at places. Some one had carefully stitched them.
All of a sudden the stranger asked Tapan, quot; Can you recognize me?quot;
quot;Not at all. I don't think that I have ever seen you. You don't belong to this place.quot;
Tapan said emphatically.
The man smiled. His eyes danced with joy as he looked at Tapan and spoke to
him in a friendly manner. His words betrayed some prior intimacy with Tapan.
quot;Don't you remember that you went on pilgrimage to Hardwar after your father
died in 1985? You met me there. I took you round so many temples at Hardwar
and explained their significance.quot; The stranger tried to rekindle Tapan's memory.
quot;Yes, now I remember everything. I was so young and mentally disturbed after
my father's death. Are you Swami Chidananda? Did you tell me that we would
meet again?quot; Tapan had many questions now.
quot;That's right. I promised you to meet again but I didn't know it would take twenty
two years for that to materialize.quot;
quot;I didn't tell you my home address because you never asked me. In that case
how did you...?quot; Tapan was confused as he tried to connect today's meeting with
The Vaishnavite didn't reveal anything more.
quot;I found you asking for alms from a handful of shopkeepers and some of them
even refused you. You collected a few vegetables only. Why didn't you approach
some more people? There were hundreds of them in the market.quot; Tapan wanted
an answer to this fallacy.
quot;I seek alms from only five persons in a day. I refuse anything from the sixth man.
If none of the first five give alms I go without food on that day. That is my
penance. Whatever is offered to me is sufficient to keep me alive.quot;
quot;I saw that you got a brinjal and two tomatoes only. Will it be sufficient?quot;
quot; I take self cooked meal once a day. I'll cook these vegetables tonight.quot;
quot;Don't you need some cereals?quot;
quot;God gave me only these today because I deserve this much. Desiring anything
more is a sin for me. You can see how healthy I am even after consuming such
small quantity of food.quot;
quot;Why did you come to Rampur today?quot;
quot;While traveling on my way back from Puri to Hardwar I broke my journey first at
Kalna to pray at the Krishna temple at Agradoot and then came to Malda to visit
Gour, the ancient capital of Bengal. I boarded this newly introduced train from
Malda to Balurghat but disembarked at Rampur out of curiosity.quot;
quot;But why did you do that?quot;
quot;Any place is good enough for me. I liked the greenery of the countryside, which
appeared to me as my Shyam (Krishna), who told me to leave the train and touch
the dust. Later on I found the grounds here as good as the grounds of Vrindavan,
where Lord Krishna played with the Gopinis (milk maids).quot;
Tapan, a down to earth man couldn't follow the subtleties of Krishna's illusory
ways. He wondered aloud who paid for the Swami's fares?
quot;What about the fare? Who paid for it?quot; Tapan asked.
quot;The government has issued me a free pass to travel by railroad to any place in
Tapan remembered that this man was a qualified chartered accountant when he
left his wealthy father's home at Guwahati and embraced Vaishnavism. He
stayed at Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna and belonged to the Giri
Govardhan ashram, head quartered there.
quot;Will you please oblige me by staying at my house overnight?quot; Tapan wanted to
sanctify his household by the touch of this pious man.
quot;I am a free bird who willingly renounced all materialistic pleasures. Therefore I
can't enter any home.quot;
quot;Why do you tour the length and breadth of the country, Swamiji?quot; Tapan wanted
quot;I do it to forego my ego. I move from place to place and beg from a diverse
cross section of people. You can calculate that at the rate of five persons per day
it comes to 1825 persons a year. I don't beg twice from the same person.
Naturally I have to move.quot;
quot;Even then, you needn't travel so much.quot;
The ascetic smiled now and said, quot; I want to savor the charity from as many
people as possible, of course limiting my begging from five persons per day.
Krishna has infinite number of hands in as many numbers of people. I want to
realize God's blessings through His entire creation.quot;
quot;Its difficult for me to understand high theology, Swamiji. I am surprised to find
that you have overcome greed. What did you gain by your penance?quot;
quot;Nothing spectacular. It's a natural process of cleansing the soul. I am going
through a phase of penance to wash off my sins so that I can get a glimpse of
quot;Is it like polishing a glass mirror?quot; Tapan asked.
quot;You're right. The more you polish, the dirtier it becomes initially. Suddenly it
clears one day as you cross a particular threshold.quot;
quot;You have to accept a new shirt from me, Swamiji.quot; Tapan insisted.
quot;It's not necessary. This one is fine. Once it gets unusable a new shirt will come.
Don't worry about it.quot;
Tapan felt sad because the Swamiji didn't accept anything from him. He wanted
to know, quot;Would we meet again, Swamiji?quot;
quot;Yes. I want you to come to Mathura on a pilgrimage. Please come to my ashram
there. Bring your wife and son with you because pilgrimage must be made with
Tapan wondered how Swamiji could know that he got married in between and
had a son. He didn't know how their presence could help him in his pilgrimage.
quot;Why do you say that, Swamiji?quot;
quot;They'll protect you from evils. They are your guiding light. I'll take you atop the
hill at Mathura at dead of night. If you're lucky, you'll hear the musical sound of
the small bells tied to the Lord's feet as he walks. He wants you to visit Him. How
can you otherwise explain my meeting you again after twenty-two years?quot;
Then he abruptly announced,
quot;I've to avail the last train to Malda at 5.30 P.M. Please excuse me.quot;
Swamiji folded his hands and walked away briskly towards Rampur railway
station keeping Tapan gasping for breath.