(Translated by Astri Ghosh)
‘It is so unfair!’ said the boys. ‘We refuse to study a thing with our new teacher.’ The new teacher who was coming was called Kali Kumar Tarkalankar.
Some boys were returning to school from their homes by train after the holidays. One of the witty boys among them started to compose a silly rhyme playing on the name of the teacher. Kali Kumar became kalo kumror balidan—‘the sacrifice of the black pumpkin’—which had all of the boys shrieking with laughter. At Adkhola station, an elderly gentleman boarded the train with his bedding rolled in a kantha blanket. There were a couple of terracotta pots that had been covered with cloth, a tin trunk, and a few bundles.
One boy, whom everyone called Bichkun, called out, ‘There is no room here, old man, go, find another compartment.’
The old man said, ‘The train is crowded and there is no room anywhere. I will sit in a corner here, and I will not be a bother at all.’ He did not sit on the bench with them but found a place in the corner where he spread out his sheet and sat down. He asked the boys, ‘Baba, where are you going, what will you do?’
Bichkun said, ‘We are going to perform a shraddh, a funeral ritual.’
The old man asked, ‘Whose shraddh?’
And the answer was ‘Kalo kumro tatka lankar—Of the black pumpkin and green chillies.’ All the boys joined in and sang:
Black pumpkin and green chilli,
We’ll show you, you silly-billy!
The train stopped at Asansol, and the old man got off to have a bath. When he came back after his bath, one of the boys said, ‘Don’t stay in this compartment.’
‘But why not?’
‘There are a lot of rats here.’
‘Rats, why, what happened?’
‘Just look what a mess they have made of your pots.’
The old man saw that the pot that had been full of kodma sweets was now empty. And the pot that had held khoi chur, sweets made of parched rice, had not a grain left in it.
Bichkun said, ‘And your cloth bundles were tied in such a way that they picked them up and ran off with them.’
They had contained five or six ripe mangoes from his garden.
The gentleman smiled and said, ‘Ah, the rats were hungry, then.’
Bichkun said, ‘No, no, it is their nature to run off with stuff even if they are not hungry.’
The boys began to shriek with laughter, they said, ‘Sir, had there been more, they would have eaten that too!’
The gentleman said, ‘The mistake was mine. Had I known there were so many hungry rats, I would have brought more food.’
The boys felt deflated when they saw that the old man did not get angry at such behaviour. It would have been fun if he got angry.
When the train got to Burdwan it stopped. It would stop there for an hour to switch tracks.
The gentleman said, ‘Boys, I will not trouble you anymore. There must be room in another carriage.’
‘Oh no, that won’t do, you must stay in our compartment. If there is anything left in your bundles, all of us will keep watch over it. Nothing will get destroyed.’
The gentleman said, ‘OK, boys, get back into the train, I will be back.’
The boys got back in the carriage and soon a sweet seller with a cart came to their compartment with the gentleman. Handing a paper bag into each boy’s hands, he said, ‘This time there will be no shortage of food at the feast for the rats.’
The boys bounced for joy. A mango seller came by with a basket of mangoes—there was no lack of mangoes at their feast either.
The boys asked the gentleman, ‘Where are you going and what will you do there?’
He said, ‘I am looking for work. Wherever I get a job I will take it.’
They asked, ‘What kind of work do you do?’
He answered, ‘I am a tulo pundit, a school teacher. I teach Sanskrit.’
They all clapped and said, ‘Then you must come to our school.’
‘Why would the administration want to employ me?’
‘They will have to keep you. We will not let kalo kumro tatka lanka stay and teach us.’
‘This could be difficult for me! What if the secretary of your school does not like me?’
‘He will have to like you. Otherwise, we will all leave school.’
‘All right, baba, you must take me there then.’
The train arrived at their station. The secretary himself was there. When he saw the old man, he said, ‘Welcome, welcome, Mr. Tarkalankar. Your house is ready.’ And he bent down and greeted the teacher by touching his feet.
(Excerpted with permission of Hachette India from The Rats’ Feast: A Tagore Omnibus by Rabindranath Tagore and translated by Astri Ghosh. Paperback Rs 350.)