Short Stories >> The Boy With Desire
By: Sundri Uttamchandani
Translated by: Hashu Kewalramani
WHEN even her third son died in infancy, Putli turned almost otherworldly. She paid homage to all the Pirs and Fakirs she knew, burnt incense an threw rice in the sacred river Sindhu, consulted doctors and quacks - indeed, she prayed day and night that her next child should live long and perpetuate the name of her family.
On the sacred day as Putli was returning from the river, she was attracted by the crowd of devotees outside Bawa Gurbamal's temple. The Bawa was busy delivering his sermon, interspersed with the verse, "They alone live through all the ages who surrender themselves before the Guru!" When the sermon was over and many devotees had left after receiving their share of the sacred food, Putli also joined other women in narrating before the Bawa her one great longing.
Patting her on the back, Guruji blessed her, "Your wish shall be fulfilled! And what will then be your offering before the Guru?" Putli replied innocently, "The boy shall be yours. May my family's name thus shine in glory!"
When Khema was born, Putli lavish in her offerings. Would it not be sheer madness to part with her only child? But she was bound by her plighted word, and the boy had to be surrendered after exactly twelve months. On the appointment day, she parted with not only her own flesh embodied in that little baby, but also a good deal of her worldly possessions. The temple was now resplendent with silken cushions, silver utensils and other costly presents. She visited the temple daily, though it meant a long walk from her home.
The birth of the second son made her forget that she had ever borne Khema who was now being brought up in the temple.
Twelve years passed away. Khema was not given any formal education because the Bawa considered it evil. The disciples living in the temple were generally greedy and full of cant. What they pretended in the Bawa's presence would be revealed in a different light as soon as his back was turned. They would flock like flies to swallow any offerings of fruit or sweets which reached the kitchen.
Khema learnt all these bad habits. Lying or stealing was for him a routine affair. Often he was caught redhanded. The Bawa let him off in the beginning. But when Khema was caught once in the dead of the night stealing the entire offering of pistachio sweets, he was thrashed mercilessly. This also became a routine affair. Khema got used to it.
The Guruji would often preach, "Self-realization can never come to those who are born of ignorant parents." And Khema accepted it as scriptural truth. While Guruji dilated on spiritual enlightenment, Khema would be busy looking at the lovely clothes of the children sitting with their devout mothers. The Bawa would at once look downwards shamefacedly. But he really could not repress himself when his
distant aunt turned up one day with her smartly dressed boy. The Bawa kept staring at him but Khema's eyes were glued on that gaudy, linen bush-shirt and navy blue trousers.
Controlling himself, the Bawa said gently, "Son, your cousin has come for blessing after passing his examination. But you have drunk deep at the feet of holy saints the nectar of Divine Wisdom which is the biggest test of all. The boy is shackled in his attachment for his mother, but your mother was truly an enlightened soul."
The aunt interrupted, "Poor Khema's mother died only six days back. She was really a goddess. I am an ignorant woman attached to my children and family. May your blessings help me to cross this ocean of illusion and fear!" She touched Guruji's feet and passed the palm around her face.
"Surrender yourself before the Guru." The Bawa exhorted. "Look at this Khema! How serene he looks even after hearing that this mother is dead!" Turning round to the smartly-clad boy, he asked, "Son, would you not cry your heart out if your mother died?"
Kishore replied, "Guruji, my mother who adores me like the apple of her eye would not let me remain away even for a moment. If poor Khema never knew the love of his mother, why should he weep at all? There is no question of spiritual enlightenment or ignorance in this!"
Taken aback, the Bawa asked tauntingly, "Why not? You love your gaudy clothes. But my Khema - see, how sweetly contented he looks in his simple, saffron-coloured robe!"
The precocious boy sharply retorted, "My dear Sir, just because he is silent about it, does it mean that he has no liking for nice clothes? My daddy always says that so long as the distaste for worldly desires does not come by itself, all the talk about renunciation is like throwing water down the greased glass!"
The Bawa's eyes flared up for a moment and then closed down in a silent prayer. The shocked mother rebuked her boy for talking too much. "See that you also do not turn into an atheist like your father." She admonished, "Son, the more you live in fear, the more you prosper!"
Khema could not sleep that night. His ears were resounding with the words, "All the talk about renunciation is meaningless unless one is really fed up with the worldly pleasures." And as he thought of his cousin, what a sharp contrast he could perceive! Here was a boy, his own cousin, smart and handsome, educated and full of self-respect! Who would say that they belonged to the same pedigree? Humiliated, struck with the sudden awareness of his own inferiority, Khema was full of tears. And through those tears, he could clearly perceive that dazzling bush-shirt and pants!"
The brutal treatment to which he was used in the temple had made him thick-skinned, pig-headed, greedy and uncouth. But now the new longing convicted him that all his defects, his fallings could be covered by just one thing: that wonderful bush-shirt and pants!
A woman devotee one day with her newly-wed daughter-in-law who kept her purse on the shelf as she took off her shoes. The linen bush-shirt suddenly hovered in front of Khema's eyes and his longing for it drowned all the pious sermons he had heard. Full of perspiration, Khema retired too his little cell.
That night a hefty disciple dragged Khema by his neck and hurled him before the Bawa. All assembled to see what he had been stealing. They received the shock of their life as they saw three ten -rupee currency notes concealed in the folds of Khema's dirty clothes. What a scandal! Where did he steal all that money? Poor Khema kept pleading that God had appeared before him and presented the money so that he could buy a fine dress. But who would believe this story? Khema got the thrashing of his life. He kept protesting all the same, "Does not God provide Guruji at night, While he is asleep, with halwa and puri, and even rock him in the cradle?" But who would listen to this argument? Khema was beaten all the more for it, but he kept repeating the same plea.
They now called Khema a thief and addressed him as such. He could no longer bear it. One fine evening, he disappeared from that temple for good.
He sought shelter with his uncle. The aunt was even more reluctant to have him. "How can we take back the boy who was surrendered to the temple?" She whined, "Guruji's curses will be on our house!" But his cousin Kishore, who had a heart of gold, insisted that they could employ the boy for domestic help.
And when they eventually migrated to Bombay, Khema was also with them. In that city, he needed better clothes. As an act of kindness, he was given Kishore's cast-off sleeping suit. However, he knew little happiness. He did not mind if his uncle was sometimes harsh because Kishore also shared similar rebukes. But that woman! How she kept nagging and ill-treating him while her favours were reserved only for her
own son! Bereft of mother's love, this discrimination hurt him the most. What a scene the aunt created one day as he asked for an extra chapati!
That night, as Kishore was playing with his mother, Khema sat silently on a cot with his head dug deep into his knees. He was weeping. He never wept in the temple where he was beaten so often. Here, tears would float in his eyes as he saw the same woman who was so gentle with Kishore snapping at him as a matter of
habit. That night, he was crying his heart out.
What was the reason? In the evening as Kishore returned home in his best dress and took it off for Khema to brush it and arrange it on the hanger, something dreadful happened. Living in a city full of bush-shirts, poor Khema had not yet succeeded in satisfying his great longing. He just could not resist the temptation. As he took the hanger inside the back room, he put on Kishore's clothes to see what he looked like. How he smiled as he saw himself in the mirror looking smart in that bush-shirt! Yes, it was long since he had visited a barber. He combed his hair - but what could he do about those barbs sprouting out of his adolescent chin?
He was caught redhanded by the woman who came in abruptly. Striking him on the head, she shrieked, "You ailing cur! Look, what have you done to these lovely clothes? You dirty, wandering beggar, how dare you touch these clothes!"
Kishore who witnessed this scene was roaring with laughter, and that hurt Khema even more. He wept as he had never wept before.
In the middle of the night, all were disturbed by some noise. As Kishore's father got up and switched on the light, he found nothing wrong. Khema was quietly sleeping on his cot. But the old woman suddenly spotted a small bundle of clothes lying near Khema's belly. Snatching it, she opened it only to discover Kishore's bush-shirt and pants clumsily wrapped inside. Beating her forehead, she howled, "Come, Kishore's father, come and see with your own eyes the serpent we have been rearing all this time!" Khema was trembling.
And Khema was beaten with shoes and thrown out of the house with the words, "Go where you wanted to run away with our clothes!" Kishore alone was pleading. "What is the harm if he took away just one dress of mine?"
Khema, now a boy on the street pavement, wondered what fate had in store for him. Who would give him a job? He never had a job, nor could he read and write. He felt lost in the vastness of that city. But he felt gratified to secure employment as a hotel-boy with a daily allowance of two annas and free meals.
What varied desires would haunt Khema's mind for spending even that pittance of two annas! He could buy sweets, spicy eatables, aerated drinks, some juicy fruit. But all these desires titilating his palate would be drowned in his transcendent passion for - a bush-shirt and long pants!
Eight months passed away. One afternoon, while there were few customers in the hotel, the proprietor suddenly called him and asked, "What have you stitched in that shirt-pocket?" Khema's hand automatically went up to grip his pocket as if somebody were trying to rob him.
Fortified in his suspicion, the proprietor caught him by the hair and roared, "So, you have been stealing! Open that pocket." He kept chanting, "No, sir, I am not a thief!" An avalanche of blows descended upon the weeping boy. And in the bustle, none cared to hear the boy whining, "I am not a thief.this is my pocket.I saved it.for my bush-shirt and pants!"
A crowd of spectators - a police constable holding a tight grip on the boy - blows and more blows. Somebody rushed to Khema's uncle to tell him that his boy was in trouble. The uncle rushed in a taxi to see what was all about. The crowd reassembled. The uncle saw the constable, appraised the boy with a wrathful glance and whined, "Who says that he is my boy? Never saw this thief in all my life!" The taxi started
moving and the constable handed over the money to the hotel-proprietor.
Khema's eyes were burning hot like a furnace. Beads of perspiration marked his tense brow. His face was flushed red. His lips were tightly pressed, while he stared hard at his feet. Khema, the hotel-boy who started as a temple-boy, felt as if he stood stark naked in broad daylight, in the face of the whole world - stripped of his shirt and long pants!