(Original in Bengali ‘Sampadak’by Tagore. Translated by Swapna Dutta)
I never worried about Prabha when my wife was alive. In those days it was Prabha’s mother that I was more concerned about. I was content just to see Prabha smile and play, to listen to her lisping words and enjoy her soft caresses. I carried her about as long as it suited me and returned her promptly to her mother’s arms the moment she started to cry. It never struck me that I might have to bring her up with a great deal of thought and care some day.
But when my wife died long before her time, my baby slipped from her mother’s arms into mine and made her place right next to my heart. But I am not sure whether I was more keen to bring up my motherless child with twice the affection of father and mother; or whether she was keener to care for her lonely father with all the love of her little heart. What I could plainly see was how coolly she took over the responsibility of looking after me from the time she was barely six years old. It was quite obvious that she considered herself my only guardian.
I smiled and surrendered completely to her care. I soon realized that the more helpless I seemed to be and the less I saw to my own needs, the happier it made her feel. If I picked up my own clothes or reached out for my umbrella she behaved as though I were depriving her of her birthright. She had never come across a doll larger than her father before. She was delighted to spend her time seeing to my meals, fetching my clothes and putting me to bed. The only time she allowed me to remember that I was indeed her father was when I took her for her lessons. The rhymes, the spellings and the tables.
There were times when I worried about getting her married. Finding a suitable boy also meant a great deal of money. From where was I to get it? I was educating her to the best of my ability. If I failed to find an educated boy for her she was bound to be downright miserable. So it was imperative that I should earn. I was too old to join a government office. I was not qualified enough to join a private one. After a great deal of thought I made up my mind to write a book.
If one makes a hole in a bamboo pipe it is no good as a container. It can neither store water nor oil because it is not meant for storing things. A pipe with a hole might be no good for household chores, but blowing it might turn it into a flute that could make music. What’s more, one could play it without having to spend money. I felt that since I was no good at anything else I might be able to write a book at least. With this faith in mind I managed to write a play. The readers liked it and put it up on the stage. This sudden and unexpected fame went to my head and writing plays soon turned into an addiction. I wrote all day long, thinking of nothing else but my creations.
Prabha came to me with her usual smile one morning and asked me, “Daddy, won’t you go for your bath now?”
Irritated at the interruption, I shouted at her, “Get lost! Get lost right away and don’t bother me again.”
I now know that her face must have darkened at my harsh words the way a lamp goes out when one blows out its light. I never even realized when she left the room with a heavy heart, silenced by my burst of temper.
There soon came a time when I threw out the servants whenever they came to my room and threatened to bash them up. I chased away beggars with a stick if they dared to disturb me. Since my study was right at the roadside, unsuspecting passers-by sometimes asked me for directions to a place and I unceremoniously asked them to go to hell. What a pity no one seemed to understand what a hilarious comedy I was working on!
My plays did give me fame and enjoyment but they didn’t help me earn any money to write home about. In fact, I didn’t even remember about earning at the time. All the prospective grooms that I had once kept in mind for Prabha turned their eyes in other directions, selecting their would-be brides elsewhere. But the knowledge no longer bothered me.
I came to my senses only after I confronted hunger in its starkest form. Just then an opportunity knocked at my door. The zamindar of Jahirgram decided to bring out a newspaper and invited me to be the editor with a proper remuneration. I accepted, of course. For the first few days I wrote with so much vim and vigour that people started pointing at me whenever I was out on the roads, making me feel as glorious as the midday sun.
Next to Jahirgram was the village of Ahirgram. The zamindars of the two villages were at loggerheads with each other. There was a time when every disagreement led to a bashing up. But now the magistrate had legally stopped them from getting at each other’s throats. So I had been brought to conduct the fight verbally. Everyone at Jahirgram declared that I had done them proud. My fiery editorials made the people of Ahirgram hang down their heads in shame. I had shredded the entire history of their forefathers into flinders, immersing it all in the inky doom of infamy.
It was a good time for me. My satisfaction made me grow quite plump and heavy. A constant smile lurked upon my lips. Every time I shot an arrow of scorn blackening some aspect of Ahirgram, the people of Jahirgram broke into delighted guffaws, bursting at the sides like an overripe melon. I really enjoyed those days.
Eventually Ahirgram also decided to bring out a newspaper. Their paper completely did away with all pretensions of satire and took to open abuse. Their slander was so rustic and strong-worded that even the printed words screamed out their venom. Nothing was veiled, nothing left to the imagination, so everyone plainly saw what they were getting at. Being more sophisticated and having an innate taste for decency, I always attacked my victims with a coating of irony, without actually spelling out my accusations. As a result not everyone understood all that I really implied. So even when I succeeded in hitting the nail on the head, people mistakenly thought it to be my defeat.
Ahirgram’s crude and coarse journalism ultimately drove me to write an article on the importance of good taste. But I soon realized that it was another major mistake. It was far easier to be satirical about something really good but not half so easy to be ironical about something deplorable. What’s more, it wasn’t simple for the former to get down to the latter’s level. Jahirgram, that had never hit below the belt before, was ridiculed for its good taste. Ahirgram’s blatant abuses seemed far more acceptable to the masses.
My master no longer made much of me like he did before. I was rudely ignored at cultural functions. People did not bother to come and speak to me like they once used to. In fact, some of them laughed at me quite openly. I soon realized that people had already forgotten all about my plays. I suddenly felt like a match stick that had burnt down right up to the socket after a short flash that lasted less than a minute. I felt so depressed and disheartened that I couldn’t write a single line despite all my efforts. It strongly made me feel that life was just not worth living.
Prabha was afraid of me now. She no longer came to me unless I sent for her. She realized that an idle father who had once been her playmate was far closer to her heart than the clever father who was now an expert editor.
One morning the realization dawned on me that Ahirgramprakash, the newwpaper of my rival village, had set aside its usual victim, our zamindar, and was now hell bent on “exposing” me instead. It had published a lot of scandalous lies about me. All my friends and acquaintances managed to pick up a copy of the paper and read it out to me, pretending to be highly amused. All of them said that no matter what the contents might be, the language was admirably explicit. No one could possibly doubt what the writer had meant to convey. In short, it was quite obvious that it was meant to be insulting. I heard the same comment in different words over and over again throughout the day.
My house had a little open space in front where I paced about with a heavy heart all alone after twilight set in. As the birds returned to their nests and stopped their chirping, blending gradually with the silence of the night, I realized that there was no place for satire in their parley and no controversy in the matter of good taste.
But I continued to worry about how to retaliate. The main problem with courtesy was that people did not always understand it. But there was nothing complex about a direct libel or abuse. I decided to retort in the same vein, stating plainly what they deserved. I was not going to be defeated by the editor of Ahirprakash, no matter what I had to resort to eventually. I was busy thinking of a stinging reply when I heard a soft, familiar voice in the darkness followed by the touch of a soft, warm hand. But I was so preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly realized what it was.
The very next moment the gentle voice stirred my consciousness. My hand tingled with the tenderness of the tiny hand that had touched mine. My little girl had come close to me after a long, long time and whispered, “Daddy”! But when I failed to respond she merely picked up my right hand and placed it on her soft cheeks for a moment. And then went back inside. Prabha had not called me for a very long time. Nor had she touched my hand or caressed me like this. The unexpected touch of love stirred my heart like never before.
I rushed back home to find Prabha lying in bed. She looked sick and helpless, with her eyes half closed. She lay listlessly, like a flower that withers and falls on the ground at the end of the day. I touched her forehead to find it hot with fever. Her breath was equally fiery. A vein throbbed at her temples. I knew then that the agony of illness had finally driven her to her father in the hope that he would love her, comfort her, and make her feel better. But alas! her father had been totally absorbed thinking of a stinging retort for Ahirprakash at the time and had not even noticed her.
As I sat by her side Prabha did not speak a single word but she clasped both my hands with her flaming ones. Then she laid her cheeks on them and lay down quietly.
I set fire to all my papers connected with Jahirgram and Ahirgram. I no longer cared about writing a stinging retort. Others might have called my silence my defeat but my decision filled me with inexplicable satisfaction, something that I had never felt before.
Long ago, when Prabha’s mother died, I had picked up the motherless baby in my arms. Today I cremated her stepmother – my papers – and took my little girl in my arms once again.