Tales of Bengal (S. B. Banerjea)/A Brahman's Curse

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Despite his lack of training Samarendra Babu had great capacities for business, and seldom lost a chance of profit-making. He saw that people around him stood in constant need of funds to defray the cost of religious and family rites, and were ready to pay 60 per cent. for loans—at least they undertook to do so. It occurred to him that if he lent money on unimpeachable security at something under the market rates, he could not fail to make a large fortune. Soon after he had set up as a banker, the neighbours flocked to him for advances, which he granted only to such as could offer substantial security; his charges by way of interest being 30 to 40 per cent. He also started a business in lending ryots rice for their seed-grain and support till the harvest should be reaped. It is needless to add that his clients paid heavily for this accommodation. So rapidly did his dealings increase that he sought an agent to represent him at the district headquarters; and particularly to buy up defaulters' estates at the auctions which are held periodically under Government auspices. His choice fell upon one Bipinbehári Bhur, who had a widespread reputation for acuteness. It was not belied. In less than a year Bipin had secured for his master estates yielding a net income of nearly Rs. 1,200, which had cost a mere song at auction. Samarendra Babu never failed to reward him for such bargains. On one occasion he had such a slice of luck that it is worth while to narrate it in some detail.

He had just retired to rest for the night, when a servant knocked at the door to say that Bipin had come on very urgent business. Samarendra Babu went downstairs to his parlour, clad in a wrapper, to find his agent pacing up and down in evident agitation. After the usual compliments had been exchanged, he asked why Bipin had called so late.

"I have bad news for you, Mahásay," was the reply. "You remember buying the Shibprakásh estate at last auction? Well, that property may slip through your fingers." He paused to watch the effect of the announcement on his master, and then went on: "The late proprietor has lodged an objection to its sale, on the ground that no arrears were due, producing a receipt to substantiate his contention. The Collector has just called on us to show cause against the cancellation of the sale and will take the case up the day after to-morrow."

Samarendra was thunderstruck by this information, the Shibprakásh estate being one of the best bargains he had ever got. After pondering a while, he asked, "What would you advise me to do? I am afraid it is hopeless to contend against a receipt in full!"

Bipin was not so easily disheartened. He replied, "Let us consult our pleader, Asu Babu, who is sure to have some plan for upholding the sale. He won't ask more than Rs. 100, which is not a tenth of the annual profits for Shibprakásh." This course commended itself to Samarendra, who sent his headman back to Ghoria, promising to follow next day, with the necessary sinews of war. He arrived betimes at Bipin's house there, and took him to the Bar Library, where Asu Babu was sure to be found when not engaged in Court. A few minutes later the limb of the law came in, and asked what business brought Samarendra to Ghoria.

After hearing the story of Shibprakásh and its vicissitudes of ownership, he asked:—

"How much will you pay me if I win your case?"

Glancing at Bipin, Samarendra answered hesitatingly, "Well, I might go as far as fifty rupees ".

"Nonsense," was the rejoinder. "I won't take a pice less than Rs. 100." After several minutes wasted on haggling, it was agreed that Asu Babu should be paid Rs. 40 on the nail and Rs. 35 more if he won the suit. The pleader pocketed this first instalment, and assured Samarendra that he would prove the sale to have been perfectly valid. Then the trio separated, Samarendra returning to Bipin's house where they passed the day in forming plans for further purchases.

At 10.30 on the morrow, both attended at the Collectorate and found that the Shibprakásh objection stood first for hearing. It was opened by the appellant's pleader, who rose armed with a huge account book and bundle of receipts, in order to prove that his client owed nothing to Government, and that the sale proceedings were a blunder from beginning to end. Asu Babu waited till his turn came, and then informed the Collector that he would find, on examining his books, that the appellant was Rs. 1 11. 0. in arrears at the date of the sale. The Collector ordered his head clerk to produce the ledger account of payments on account of the Shibprakásh estates, and, sure enough, they showed a short payment of the amount stated. This was a thunderbolt for the appellant, whose pleader vainly tried to pick holes in the accounts, but was at last obliged to confess that a mistake had been made. The only course open to him was to sue for mercy. The Collector, however, was inexorable, and indeed he had no power to mitigate the Draconian law of sale. That of Shibprakásh was duly confirmed, and its new owner adjourned to the bar library to settle matters with his pleader. The meeting was joyful indeed. After congratulating Asu Babu on his unexpected success, Samarendra asked how he had managed it. The pleader at first refused to gratify his curiosity, but yielded to entreaty. "The tiger has a jackal," he said, "and I, who cannot stoop to dirty tricks myself, have a certain mukhtiár (the lowest grade of advocates) who is hand-in-glove with all the amlas (clerks) and can twist them round his finger—for a consideration. I gave him Rs. 10 out of the advance money and promised as much more if he could persuade the Collectorate clerks to cook the appellant's accounts, so as to show a short payment. You see how well he has succeeded, and now I think the least you can do is to refund the douceur to me." Samarendra agreed and handed Asu Babu Rs. 55, prophesying that he would have a brilliant career at the bar.

He had to stop for a fortnight or so at Ghoria, in order to get possession of his purchase from the Collectorate názir (bailiff) who, according to custom, planted a bamboo thereon, as a symbol of its transfer. While waiting for this formality he attended another sale for arrears of revenue, in the hope of picking up some profitable bargains. He was not disappointed. The last lot was the whole of Jayrámpur, a small village quite close to his house, inhabited by hardworking and submissive ryots, who paid their rent punctually. Samarendra was all agog when the názir read out the names of its proprietors, the amount of arrears, and the boundaries, calling on the crowd to bid. A dead silence followed, which was at last broken by a timid offer of Rs. 1,000. Samarendra promptly bid Rs. 6,000, which he knew was hardly three years' purchase of the net rental, and the rise was so tremendous that it choked off all competition. Jayrámpur was knocked down to him; but his exultation was tempered by the discovery that he had not nearly enough to meet the amount of earnest money which had to be paid down at once. A mukhtiár came to his aid by whispering offers of a loan, and the requisite amount was forthcoming in five minutes, on Samarendra's giving his note of hand with a bonus of 10 per cent. payable next day.

His star continued to be in the eleventh heaven; for this was one of a series of profitable purchases. In seven or eight years he owned estates yielding an income of Rs. 8,000, while his dealings in grain produced half as much again.

Samarendra's ambition rose with growing prosperity. Visions of a title hovered in his brain, and being a man of resource, he hit upon an ingenious method of converting them into realities. Close to his house there was an extensive bil (marsh) peopled in season by swarms of wild-duck, teal and snipe. It was visited occasionally by Europeans from Calcutta, who are always on the alert for a day's sport, but they were inconvenienced by the total lack of accommodation. So Samarendra built a neat bungalow, equipped it with European furniture, and placed an old Khánsámá (Mohammadan butler) in charge, who was versed in all the customs of Sáheb-log (Englishmen). This menial had orders to report the arrival of white visitors and offer them hospitality. His courtesy was highly appreciated, and there was scarcely a Sunday during the cold weather which did not bring a couple of sportsmen to the bungalow. Samarendra attended personally to their comforts, thus making many friends. Through their influence he secured carte blanche in the matter of guns and ammunition—a boon which seldom falls to the lot of middle-class Indians. At their request he subscribed to various European clubs, winning the reputation of being "not half a bad sort of fellow". All this hospitality, however, was terribly expensive, and it soon exceeded Samarendra's income. But he went on spending money like water, in the assurance that one day it would yield a golden return.

On a bright morning, in January, 18—, he was sitting in his bungalow, in the hope of welcoming guests, when a European entered it, attended by two orderlies; and seeing a well-dressed Indian, was about to retire. Samarendra introduced himself as the local Zemindar and offered to send a shikári (gamekeeper) with the visitor in order to show him some sport. His overtures were gratefully received, and the European, on returning at noon with a heavy bag, was delighted to find an appetising tiffin ready for his acceptance. Samarendra kept out of the way until it was finished, and then asked whether his guest had enjoyed himself. The latter was profuse in thanks and, ere leaving for the neighbouring railway station, asked whether he could be of any service, tendering a card inscribed, "Mr. Charles Bernardson, Indian Civil Service". He was none other than the Chief Secretary to Government.

Such an acquaintance was not to be lost sight of. A week later Samarendra went to Calcutta and called on Mr. Bernardson at his chambers in the United Service Club. He was received, so to speak, with open arms, questioned about crops, crime, sport, and other commonplace topics, and again assured that Mr. Bernardson would serve him in any way within his power. The latter hint was promptly taken. On receiving permission to quit the great man's presence he timidly suggested that he would like to be an Honorary Magistrate. Mr. Bernardson took note of the wish, and a few weeks later the Gazette announced Samarendra's nomination to the Ghoria Independent Bench, with power to try cases singly.

The next point was to attract the attention of the district authorities. Samarendra pored over the Penal and Procedure Codes, took lessons in law from Asu Babu, and soon mastered the routine of a petty Court of Justice. He never missed any sitting of the Bench and signalised himself by a rigorous interpretation of the law. Offenders had short shrift from him; and the police moved heaven and earth to get their cases disposed of in his Court. His percentage of convictions was larger than that of any honorary magistrate. Such zeal deserved a suitable reward, and it soon attracted the attention of the authorities. On New Year's Day, 189—, the Calcutta Gazette came out with its usual list of honours, amongst which was seen a Rái Bahádurship for Samarendra. This dignity answers to the English knighthood, and it is usually made an excuse for rejoicings shared by all classes. Samarendra, however, thought it unnecessary to waste money on junketings. He preferred subscribing to movements favoured by the "little tin gods" of Darjiling.

Towards the end of the same year, he was accosted, while leaving Court one afternoon, by a chuprássi (orderly) attached to the magistrate-collector's person, who salámed obsequiously and said that the Bara Saheb wished to see him at once. Hastening to the district chief's bungalow he was graciously received, and in the course of conversation a remark fell from the great man's lips, which made the blood course wildly through his veins. It seemed that a fund had been started in Calcutta for the purpose of erecting some permanent memorial to the late Viceroy, and a hint was thrown out that if Samarendra subscribed liberally, he might possibly find himself gazetted a "Rájá Bahádur". He assured the magistrate that the Memorial Fund would receive a handsome donation from him and asked for a few days in order to decide the amount.

On returning home, he made a rough calculation of his assets and liabilities. The latter amounted to nearly a lakh of rupees (£6,666), or about five times his net annual income. Common prudence suggested that he ought not to increase the burden; but ambition prevailed, and the only question which Samarendra set himself was, "What is the least amount I can decently give?" After thinking over pros and cons for a whole night, he decided that Rs. 10,000 would be enough; raised that sum at 12 per cent. by mortgaging some landed property, and sent it with a flowery letter to the District Magistrate, as a humble donation to the Viceroy's Memorial Fund.

A few days later Samarendra was preparing for a visit to his favourite rest-house, in the vague hope that Mr. Bernardson might turn up again, when a strange Brahman entered the courtyard and thus addressed him:—

"Sir, you are an Amir, and I am a beggar. I have a request to make."

"Cut it short," replied Samarendra testily. "Come to the point—what do you want?"

"Sir, I have a grown-up daughter who positively must be married; but I cannot raise a sufficient dowry. Will your honour give me a trifle towards making one up?"

"No, I won't; if you belonged to this village you would know that I cannot afford to fling money about. My expenses are enormous!"

"Now, please, don't refuse me, Rái Bahádur; surely you can spare a couple of rupees to a poor Brahman!"

Samarendra was exasperated by the man's importunity. He replied sharply, "You and your kind seem to think that I am Kuver (the God of Wealth) incarnate, who is able to satisfy every human need! I won't give you anything!"

"Only one rupee, Rái Bahádur," pleaded the Brahman with folded hands.

"No! no! Get out of my house at once!" bellowed Samarendra; then turning to his doorkeeper, he ordered him to "run the fellow out of the yard by the neck ".

The Brahman was deeply incensed. Drawing himself up to his full height, he looked scornfully at Samarendra, and said:—

"Babu, you dare to order me, a Brahman, to be ejected with violence from your house. Is there no religion left in this world? Mark my words, a day is coming when you will be poorer even than myself. I have spoken." Then he strode out of the courtyard in high dudgeon. Samarendra merely laughed aloud and hurled mocking epithets after his retreating figure, to which no reply was vouchsafed.

Next morning he received a letter from the District Magistrate which filled him with mingled joy and terror. It contained a curt request to call at once on a matter of great importance. He drove to the great man's bungalow arrayed in his best, but was kept waiting for nearly a quarter of an hour in the porch. When he was ushered into the magistrate's study he saw intuitively that something was wrong. His salám was returned by a mere inclination of the head and a request to be seated. Then the Magistrate spoke in tones of chilling politeness:—

"Rái Bahádur, I've sent for you to say that a subscription of Rs. 10,000 is wholly unworthy of your position. If you wish, I will send it to the Secretary of the Memorial Fund; but I warn you plainly that the most you can expect in return is an expression of the Lieutenant-Governor's thanks in the Gazette. I could not possibly recommend you for a title for such a paltry sum."

Poor Samarendra's heart beat more loudly than the clock on the magistrate's mantelpiece. He stammered out: "I need only assure your honour that I have given as much as I could afford; but if your honour thinks the amount insufficient—er—er—er—I am quite willing to give—twice as much". So saying he awaited a reply in trembling apprehension. It was satisfactory.

"Now, Rái Bahádur, you are talking sense. Send me Rs. 10,000 more for the fund and I'll undertake to submit your name to Government for a Rájáship. It will be just in time for the New Year's Gazette. Now you may take leave."

Samarendra bowed himself out with precipitation and, on returning home, sent for his factotum, Bipin, to whom he related this momentous interview, with an injunction to raise Rs. 10,000 more by hook or by crook. Bipin shook his head ominously and feared that no moneylender would advance any considerable sum on estates already over-burdened. However, he promised to do his best and negotiated so successfully that Rs. 10,000 were procured at 24 per cent. in less than a week. This additional subscription was gracefully acknowledged by the District Magistrate, and a fortnight later Samarendra's drooping spirits were revived by the appearance of a notification in the Gazette thanking him warmly for his "munificence and public spirit". There was nothing for it but to count the days of the expiring year.

On 31st December, 189—, his impatience could brook no further delay. Hurrying to Calcutta by train, he sent a trusty servant to the Government printing office with orders to obtain the earliest copy of the Gazette at any price. He slept not a wink on that fateful night and rose betimes to intercept the messenger.

At last the bulky document was thrust into his hands. He unfolded it with trembling fingers and glanced downwards through an interminable list of newly-made Máhárájas, Nawáb Bahádurs, Rájá Bahádurs, and Rájás—in the hope of finding his own name. Alas, it was conspicuous by its absence. Oh, the pangs of hope deferred and wounded pride! Death seemed to Samarendra preferable to a life of poverty and despair. He returned home crestfallen and nursed his disappointment until it landed him in a severe attack of brain fever. As soon as he felt strong enough to leave the house, he drove to the magistrate's house for explanation and comfort. He was courteously received, but the Chief hinted that there might be a hitch about the title, as he himself had enemies in the Secretariat, who would be glad of an opportunity of placing him in a false position. He counselled patience and expressed a conviction that the birthday Gazette would contain the notification so ardently desired.

This was comforting, but Samarendra resolved to push his own interests. He remembered the promises made by Mr. Bernardson and took the next train to Calcutta in order to secure his influence. On reaching the Secretariat he learnt, with deep annoyance, that Mr. Bernardson had taken sick leave to England and was not likely to return. So the only course open was to wait for 24th May. Again he was disappointed, the list of birthday honours ignoring him completely. Samarendra had not even the resource of consulting the official who had lured him into extravagant expenditure. The District Magistrate was transferred to a distant and unhealthy part of the province, and his successor disclaimed all knowledge of the bargain.

Samarendra's long suspense and repeated disappointments told severely on his health. He neglected business, leaving everything in the hands of Bipin, who was more anxious to feather his own nest than extricate his master from difficulties; so the interest in mortgages fell into arrears. One creditor bolder than the rest sued him and foreclosed; then others were encouraged to attack the ruined man. In less than a year, Samarendra was stripped of every bigha (one-third of an acre) of land he once possessed, and attachments galore were issued against his moveable property. Too late did he see the depths of folly into which he had fallen.

Grief and despair brought on a second attack of brain fever, which exhausted his failing strength. After tossing for several weeks in delirium he regained sense only to feel assured that the end of all worldly ambition was fast approaching. Then he remembered the Brahman's curse, and knowing that it was the cause of all his misfortunes he endeavoured to make some reparation; but the holy man was not to be found. One evening he fell into a deep slumber from which he never awoke, leaving a wife and several helpless children in comparative penury. Then a hush fell on the land, and people whispered that Brahmateja (the power of Brahmans) was by no means extinct.