The little girl was exasperated. She searched for her father upon waking up. The motherless child lived with her father in a large house, filled with a number of employees. Not all were needed; but her father did not care. He loved them all and was glad the property could support their families. The estate he had inherited was large, large enough and more.
She had raised a ruckus, tantrum like hue and cry, for her father. The men fanned out, in search of the master of the house. Shortly, one of them retuned with information. She rushed out, almost running, then on a trot as she tired. It at some distance, by the canal. Her anxiety was acute because, the man said, her father was asleep and would not wake up despite repeated calls.
It was still early and the autumn morning was mild. The golden sheen over the rural landscape, carpeted paddy green and dotted with tree clusters, was beautiful. The child’s heart was mesmerised by both the surrounding and her deeply conflicted mind. The birds chirped; but why wouldn’t her father wake up, she wondered. Why did he sleep over at the bank of the canal, in the first place ?
At the canal bank, she found her father still in deep slumber. The bottle he’d drank from was rolled out and away. That wasn’t new. It was an evening norm as far as she could remember. But it had never interfered with the routine : the dinner, and his care for her after, the slow paced, high pause conversation he invariably have with her before putting her to bed and retiring for the day.
And here he was, on the grass, without the comfort of a bed, without his dinner and his gentle words to her, without thing he never failed to do : see her in bed. She remembered how empty it had felt the previous night, how strange, uncomfortable and tiring, as she fell off to sleep.
“Baba (father) !” She shrieked once, out of anger. But her dearest father lay unmoved, his lovely face covered in blissful innocence. She moved up closer, by his very side, then sat beside him, gazing with a flood of emotion for the only person she knew, had ever truly loved and deeply cared for. She softly caressed his cheeks, sat cross legged and gently lifted his head to her lap, and called again, “Baba, wake up ! When will you, if not now ?”
The man woke up with eyes wide, as if already awake, shocking his daughter somewhat. He looked closely at her, as would we at a strange but loving soul. Relieved and already joyous, the girl bent down, held her little palms on his two cheeks and kissed his forehead. The man, middle aged with mixed hair on head and face, got up sharp and sat gazing at her.
“Mother, Great Mother,” he murmered. The child sat transfixed for a moment, watching her strangely distant father. “Baba,” she drew his familiar attention. “Yes…” But he spoke no more and did not reach for her, as she fervently wanted, and got up on his feet. He folded his hands, joined his palms, and bent his head a little, in a brief prayer.
“Come,” he said, reaching for her hand and helping her to rise. “We have work to do.” They both walked back with the men on tow. She tried to let out her cheer of the morning delight, and drew his familiar kindly look but no more than a smile. The distance was thence covered in silence.
At the house, father and daughter freshened up and sat together for breakfast. The man called the matron-in-chief of the house, Shuchi, who had accompanied his late wife to her husband’s house upon marriage…ah, twenty three years ago, he reminisced fondly. In addition, he asked the matron to identify the most trustworthy employee of the household. “It’s Surya, Lord,” she responded almost instantly. The man gave a thought to that young man of thirty two : he worked hard, faithful to his assignment; and he loved his family, with whom he lived in a small quarter on the estate. He could talk sober, read and write, and could even attend to jobs in district administration offices, land registry, and law courts.
“Send word to Surya, to meet me in half an hour. The matron complied, harking for one of the helps. The three had their breakfast. The man was serious but happily smiled at the very start of a question from his daughter. “Eat. Eat well. Study. Grow up, regard Shuchi as you would your own mother. Surya will take care of the estate, along with Shuchi, and will together protect you.” The little girl was dumbstruck. “Are you going somewhere, Baba.”
“Yes,” he said nodding, continuing uninterrupted with the morsel picked from his plate. “I will be away for a long, long time. There are matters I need to personally resolve and remain away for that reason. It can no longer be postponed.” The little girl could barely comprehend what it meant except an abscence she felt deep and dreaded. Only the conviction in her father’s words seemed equal to the hollowness in her heart. “I will wait, Baba,” she said shortly. “Please have no worry. I will eat better, study well, and grow up fine. And I will wait for you to come back, however long it takes.”
The three moved over to the sitting area. The man took a while writing on a sheet of paper. He took out his seal from a side drawer and stamped a little below where he had affixed his signature. He folded the document and put it in an envelope. He sealed its cover flap and waited in silence. No sooner, Surya’s arrival was announced. “Take it to lawyer Ramkumar. Hand it over personally and ask him to do the needful without a moment’s delay. He will know.” But he continued to hold the packet in his hand and briefly explained the circumstance to Surya. “Take care of the estate, its problems and needs, its lands and houses, it people both permanent and casually employed. Never allow waste of money but never withhold on what was needed and necessary. Discuss all important decisions with Shuchi and lawyer Ramkumar. And always arrange to protect the young mistress. Always,” he emphasised.
After Surya left, the man stood up. Shuchi and the child followed suit. Moving up to the child, he squat low, on his toes, and reached for her, gently pulling into his embrace. Time stood still but for their breaths and the tear welling in their eyes. The suddennes of all that had transpired since morning seemed surreal to both the girl and the matron. A few minutes later, he broke off and held the girl to his gaze. Planting a kiss of love and goodbye, he swiftly moved out of house and, without looking back, boarded the waiting carriage. The horses neighed in readiness. The coachman tugged at the reigns and the wheels turned over the ground. The entire group of employees moved up the unpaved street, Shuchi and her little mistress at the head, and inadvertently followed the receding coach till it passed out of sight.
They waited, hoping the lord will return to pick up something he had forgotten. But the emptiness hung heavier, putting hope to naught. The little girl turned back, treading on laden steps. People went to their stations, chatting sombrely and letting out sighs, to allow normalcy to return. In the house, the young lady stood pressed against the matron, face buried at her waist, and cried.
“Baba took nothing with him, no clothes nor toiletries. How will he manage.” Shuchi assured her, he will, though she did not know how. She sat down, comb in hand, sat her mistress on her left thigh, and brushed the child’s hair. She then wiped her face, ears and neck, with a wet towel and dressed her up in new clothes. She led the girl to where the other children on the estate were gathered, playing games…
That is all that I know of the story. The man was seen no more. The coach had dropped him at the railway station, with just a cotton cloth on his shoulders. Years passed. The little girl grew up into a fine young lady, kindly and capable, under loving care of her now elderly matron and the watchful presence of Surya, who had greyed. Lawyer Ramkumar often visited the manor to discuss matters and offer advice, but mostly to meet the lovely niece he never had. In time, the young woman married a budding lawyer, who had been an apprentice under lawyer Ramkumar.
Life at the estate was sorted and settled until Sage Vamadevananda called at the manor entrance. The lady of the house rushed out to greet him with due reverence and even greater affinity. He came every few months or years, while passing by on his way to Holy Kamakhya, or on return leg to Kashi.
The young woman ushered the old mendicant sage into the huge parlour. Both Shuchi and Surya came to offer their respects. He was led to bath, by the well outside, change clothes, and was led back to the cushion seat, specially laid in the sitting hall for the venerable sage, where food was served on a low table. Afterwards, the saint lay down on a bed placed on a far side in the parlour, and soundly slept.
The young lady sat on a chair by the bedside and fanned the body at peace with great attention, intently watching the innocent, bearded face. Serving him was for her a means to immense joy. Never could she say or share with others her deeply felt sense that the sage was familiar to her. Or, did it just seem to her ? She had never been sure and did not feel the least inclined to clarify. It was a happy day for her that anyway was rare. So what if it remained mysterious, she would tell herself, and went back to being happy.