Divine Connections

Shivaji K. Moitra 

 

© Copyright 2015 by Shivaji K. Moitra  


 

2015 General Nonfiction Winner

 

Photo of Indian children.



The seaside town of Digha on the Bay of Bengal drew thousands of middle-class and budget tourists during the summer and winter months who descended upon the popular holiday destination every weekend for some unrestrained fun and sublime peace.

Having been posted at the idyllic place on government service I considered myself fortunate to be on a paid holiday. I was young and single and I loved the sea.

Every evening I strolled into the beach-side park and occupied a corner bench from where I got a fine view of the rolling waves, the frolicking children, the men and women in queer dresses and of course the beautiful ladies on the beach.

Quietly I shared their pleasures and their laughter and dreamt about finding a graceful beauty for myself.

But it was here that one winter afternoon I noticed for the first time an elderly gentleman who was dancing in the middle of a small crowd of bare feet and untidy street urchins.

I recognized some of the children. They were the children of fishermen, hawkers and small shopkeepers who looked towards the sea and the tourists for their livelihood. They had no schools to go and no playgrounds to play. The seashore was their playground and they loitered along the sea beach while their parents went about their work.

My curiosity about him was roused when I happened to meet him at least twice a month on weekends at the beach.

I found him dancing, singing and entertaining the poor children with chocolates and other gifts. The children made quite a din as they chased him over the beach and in the parks and he seemed to enjoy it too.

He was a tall man of medium build and fair and he donned a French-cut beard on his sharp chin that was dyed red. He had a somewhat long face with bushy eyebrows and he dressed up in a pair of neatly pressed white trousers and a striped T-shirt. A red cotton cap with a flat top covered his somewhat balding head while white sneakers protected his feet from the sand. I presumed he was in the middle of his fifties.

In the following time the children told me that their ‘Pagla Dadu’ or mad grandpa, as he loved himself to be called, had been coming to them for more than five years or so.

As we met each other more often, I allowed my curiosity to turn our acquaintance into something of a teacher-and-student relationship because he spoke like a man of profound education and refined tastes who mixed his philosophy and advice with a cool sense of humour.

No wonder, I began to venerate the man as a fatherly figure who could give me the lessons on life that none of my young friends could.

However, he did not reveal much about himself at first except that his name was Paritosh Paul and that he was a professional from Calcutta. He added that he enjoyed showering affection upon those poor children who were being denied the joys and the basic needs of their childhood for no fault of theirs’.

Paritosh uncle, you really have a soft corner for these poor kids,” I observed one day taking advantage of our growing acquaintance.

Son, happiness is a rare commodity. One must pursue it everywhere. These children of the sea may be underprivileged but their minds are fresh as the sea-breeze and their love for me is sublime like the sea. Small things make them immensely happy and they never fail to thank their benefactors. They understand the price of everything. You can contrast it with the obnoxious behaviour of the children from well-to-do families.”

There was a tinge of satire in his voice.

Sometimes when I ambled into the hotel where he usually stayed I found him examining some children and dispensing medicines at a corner of the garden.

When I asked him if he was a doctor by profession, he just smiled and nodded his head but did not elaborate.

Often I noticed scratches and bruises on his hands that were in various stages of healing and many a time I found him limping mildly and straining his back.

When it seemed to hurt him he would sit down to rest on the hull of some fishing boat lying on the sand for repairs and ask the kids to shower mild blows on his back to relieve the pain.

One Sunday afternoon in April dark Norwester clouds suddenly arrived from the sea and a strong gale chased us into the lobby of his hotel.

While I waited for the thunderstorm to end he sat down beside me on the sofa and reflected, “Brother, some people are destined to suffer for no fault of their own and no amount of good nature or dutifulness helps to get them peace and happiness.”

What is the cause of your observation uncle?” I inquired sheepishly.

I have spent my childhood and my youth battling the odds and studying hard to lift myself up from the quagmire of poverty. I craved for a decent life and happiness and wanted to travel around the world. I succeeded on the back of my tenacity.

But since you don’t get the time to chase girls if you spend much of the time studying you tend to do mistakes in later life.” He laughed.

As I tried to figure out if he really meant what I surmised, he began to elaborate.

Women have mysterious minds and since my experience about them in my youth was too little to be discerning I too made a mistake when I married a police officer’s daughter whose father happened to be an acquaintance of my father with the intention of setting up the home of my dreams where love and happiness could reign supreme.

My father-in-law had been a reasonably wealthy man and he had raised his family in style, giving them the warmth and comfort of which I could not even dream of in those days.

We had a fine honeymoon at Goa and I still vividly remember even four decades later what we had for dinner and how we danced late into the night.

I bought her a snug apartment with a small garden in the city with a home-loan from my bank. It cost me enough to make me worry about meeting my repayment targets for quite some time.

But soon, my expectations began to crumble when I found her totally incapable of respecting my humble wishes and my sentiments. She had an entirely different view of life and her mentality happened to be just the opposite of my own,” he sighed.

I understand uncle, I too come from humble surroundings,” I squeaked, not sure how to react.
He gazed at the rolling waves philosophically, rubbed his eyes and continued, “She loves to party and all the comforts and luxuries that money can buy. She is extravagant and hot-tempered. She doesn’t care a fig for my likes and dislikes and if that is not bad enough she is incorrigible and heartless. Her impetuous behaviour has been responsible for the waywardness of my two grown up sons. They too have also belied my expectations. They cannot even appreciate the pains I took in my school and college days to study and come to the point where I am today and the work I do to earn enough to keep them safe and happy.”

Do they worry you much?”

Oh yes, they failed to take the benefit of their education and have lost a fortune on the pretext of doing business and they never stop pestering me for more money to squander away. And their mother is stupid enough to support their preposterous proposals and demands.”

It is a bitter irony that a hard-working and pragmatic person has to sustain a reckless family”, I said in a barely audible voice.

He nodded sadly and said, “Brother, if you marry, find a humble girl who loves the ants.”

From his words I understood that he looked much younger for his age. When I knew how he was being treated by his own family I could not but wonder how he might have got those bruises and scratches and speculated about who could be responsible for his frequent backache.

Sometimes I felt ashamed for my wild speculations.

Two summers passed and it was winter again. The sea breeze had begun to grow cool and pleasant.
But after bathing in the cold sea for two consecutive weekends I caught a fever.

I saw the local doctor and took some medicines but the fever showed no sign of subsiding throughout the week and the next.

So on the next Sunday afternoon I sat on a wooden chair in the veranda of the old rented house which had been converted to a mess where I stayed along with five other young and middle-aged men who worked in the various government departments but had left their families back in their ancestral homes.

The lingering headache did not let me sleep for long. So I sat gazing at the coconut groves and the seashore from afar and also thinking about going home if the fever continued for another couple of days.

Suddenly, I saw Paritosh uncle approaching our gate. One of the teenage boys, the son of a fisherman who knew my place had shown him the way.

He walked up to me with a smile and said, “You’ve not been to the park since last Saturday. So I came to find out what is wrong with you.”

He heard me carefully and examined me like a doctor and frowned.

Brother, it is Typhoid. Bring me a paper.”

He scribbled some medicines and added, “Your physician failed to read the symptoms. Don’t worry, you will get well if you take these medicines regularly as noted.”

Still not sure I began to take the prescribed medicines hesitatingly and went home to be treated at the district hospital.
After some blood and other tests, the doctor at the hospital confirmed my disease and patted me for taking the right drugs at the onset. I was pleasantly surprised at the diagnosis made by Paritosh uncle.

A month and a half later I returned to Digha feeling almost fit to join my job.

The first thing in my head was to thank Paritosh uncle. I understood that he was an experienced doctor.

But five weekends elapsed and there was no sign of him. The children seemed anxious but had not a clue for his extended absence.

He had never before been absent for such a long period of time; I began to have ominous thoughts about his well being.

Then, next Sunday I spotted the familiar crowd of children on a half-submerged rock at a distance. And there he was in the middle of them.'

As I looked keenly I could discern his silhouette against the setting sun. But when I got closer I saw him holding something white on his lap. The children were crouching around him in a circle listening to something, perhaps a story.

When the white thing became clear to me I was horrified; his left hand was in a plaster which he cradled on his lap.

Uncle, how did this happen?” I asked in a concerned tone.

Oh! I just slipped on the staircase,” he said dismissively and asked, “Are you fine?”

I glanced at his wan face in disbelief and shifted my gaze at the children. But as I readied my response our eyes met again and his moist eyes conveyed to me something that his words tried to hide.

Uncle, your diagnosis was correct and your medicines did wonders for me. I had been waiting impatiently to thank you. I am so grateful to you,” I crooned.

Oh, that’s nothing; you’re like my son,” he remarked before the children mobbed him to complete the story.

I looked at his plastered hand and asked, “I hope it isn’t very serious.”

No, just a crack in the Ulna”. He invited me to dinner at his hotel.

I dressed up in my best shirt and trousers and knocked on his door.

He ushered me into the drawing room and lit a cigar. I had never seen him smoking before and I looked at the smoking thick brown rod with surprise.

He talked about the changing weather and the children. He told me who among them was intelligent and who was naughty and so on. He asked me about my ongoing preparations for job examinations and interviews and encouraged me to go for a better job.

Then, he paused for a minute, drew on his cigar deeply, expelled a stream of thick smoke and said, “We may not meet again for a while; I am going to London, for may be a year or two. Would you kindly do me a favour?”

In confusion I asked, “What favour am I capable of, Paritosh uncle?”

He opened a drawer and thrust a couple of bundles of currency notes into my hand.

My fingers trembled as I looked at it and there were in my hand two bundles of notes of a thousand denomination each. I had not seen so much money in my life and I felt nervous.

Before I could respond he said, “I hope you can take a little care of their small needs during my absence.”

Uncle, I don’t think I can step in your shoes and moreover the children would not accept me. Moreover, I do not know where I would be transferred after a couple of years,” I blurted out, somewhat worried about the bizarre responsibility.

Don’t worry, serve them as long as you can. They like you as much as they like me, they know where love and affection come from,” he said and squeezed my hand and almost dragged me into the restaurant.

Over an elaborate dinner of rice, dal fry, three choicest dishes of sea fish and chicken curry he reiterated that the task of entertaining poor kids was a very easy one since they could be happy with small and cheap things. Then, he had planned to return to the Glasgow Hospital where he used to work earlier as a specialist doctor a decade ago.

Are you taking your family along?”

It is them that I wish to get rid of for some time. I am fed up with their tantrums. They have squandered a lot of my hard-earned money; now let them suffer for a while,” he said with a derisive chuckle.

Sir, I had long believed that you are no ordinary person. But now I understand that you are a doctor of repute,” I said shyly.

Yes, I do not deny that I’m well known as a Gynecologist. But I am afraid I still have only a limited knowledge of my subject,” he said in the humble tone of a wise man.

He left early next morning.

The next Sunday morning I bought a bagful of chocolates, pancakes, pens and colour pencils and walked up gingerly to the street corner behind the market where the children usually loitered.

But I could notice none of the known faces and wondered how to begin my new role while being wary of the suspicious eyes around following my forced movements and gestures.

Luckily one of the grown up boys noticed me and called out the others. They flocked me and asked the questions that I expected them to ask.

When I told them the hard truth and struggled to explain my position, they sat down on the rocks to cry quietly, or may be not. The sound of their crying was swept under the moaning of the sea-breeze and the noise of the crashing waves.

But soon they accepted me as a workable substitute and tried to forget their grief.

In the following time I tried my best to do the humble work that Paritosh uncle had entrusted me with and I derived a certain sublime pleasure out of it. I got the children admitted to a school built months later by a reputed charitable organization for the children of poor families.

There were ups and downs in my life too. My father left this earth and some of my near and dear ones drifted away. But I got a promotion in my job and was transferred to another part of the state.
A considerable amount of money had still remained from the sum Paritosh uncle had given me, which I donated to the charitable organization.

The day I left Digha, the distraught boys and girls trooped along with me to the Bus Station carrying my luggage on their heads and shoulders to the utter amazement of the idling tourists and the local people alike. The arranged my dented boxes, bundles and bulging canvas bags in the luggage-hold of the bus with tender care as if those were some expensive pieces of luggage carrying some valuable property. There was heavenly love in every touch of their tender hands and every drop of tears in their eyes. I tried hard to keep my eyes dry but failed when they waved their hands and bade me the most precious goodbye of my life. The bus slowly rent us apart.

Eight years had gone by when one morning a newspaper headline caught my attention. It read, ‘Calcutta’s eminent Gynecologist shoots wife in a fit of rage and ends in the sea.’

In a breeze I went through the news item and there it was. The Doctor’s name was Paritosh.

In a flash the memories of Digha began to leap before my eyes vividly, its craggy shoreline, its landmarks, the fishermen’s shanties, the fabulous hotels and the forests hugging the seashore. I could almost identify the exact spot given in the picture in the newspaper.

I often used to go on a long walk over the solitary stretch of the beach almost a kilometer away from the spot most favoured by tourists. A stretch of Pine forest abutted a slivery slice of the steeply sloping shore. A huge board warned bathers to stay away from the dangerously dipping beach and the quicksands.

It was here that Dr. Paritosh’s lifeless body was reportedly found floating by fishermen returning to deliver their catch. His battered head was resting on a shallow rock and his body was being rocked gently with every hit of the foaming waves. Streams of blood still streaked into the sea water like the arms of an octopus.

I spent the entire day wondering when did Paritosh uncle return home from his self-enforced exile and what had prompted him to return to Digha for the last time.

As the Press kept speculating about the turn of events which could have lead him to shoot his wife and end his valuable life in a popular tourist spot, I shook my head in disbelief. I knew something about him that the Press may never find out, I mused.

He had been a wise man of divine virtues and a great doctor for his patients. But there was a child in him who was beckoned again and again by the eternal waves and the forsaken children of those waves. I tried to imagine how the children I knew looked eight years later and if they were still around to pay their last respects to him.

Uncle, I shall never forget you,” I whispered to myself and lit a candle for him that evening.

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