Tales of Bengal (S. B. Banerjea)/A Tame Rabbit

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When a penniless Hindu marries into a wealthy family he is sorely tempted to live with, and upon, his father-in-law. But the ease thus secured is unattended by dignity. The gharjamái, "son-in-law of the house," as he is styled, shocks public opinion, which holds it disgraceful for an able-bodied man to eat the bread of idleness. Pulin incurred a certain degree of opprobrium by quartering himself on Debendra Babu; neighbours treated him with scant courtesy, and the very household servants made him feel that he was a person of small importance. He bore contumely with patience, looking forward to the time when Debendra Babu's decease would give him a recognised position. His wife was far more ambitious. She objected strongly to sharing her husband's loss of social standing and frequently reproached him with submitting to be her father's annadás (rice-slave).

So, one morning, he poured his sorrows into Nalini's sympathetic ear.

"Mahásay," he said, "you know that people are inclined to blame me for living in idleness, and I do indeed long to chalk out a career for myself. But I don't know how to set about it and have no patron to back me. Do you happen to know of any job which would give me enough to live on? Salary is less an object with me than prospects. I would gladly accept a mastership in some high school."

"You are quite right in seeking independence," replied Nalini, "and I shall be glad to help you. But lower-grade teachers are miserably paid, and their prospects are no better. It is only graduates who can aspire to a head-mastership. Are you one?"

"No, sir, but I passed the F.A. examination in 1897."

"Ah, then, you are a Diamond Jubilee man—that's a good omen," rejoined Nalini, with a shade of sarcasm in his voice. "What were your English text-books?"

"I read Milton's Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden's Holy Grail, and many other poems, but I'm not sure of their titles after all these years."

Nalini suspected that his friend's English lore was somewhat rusty. In order to test him further, he asked, "Can you tell me who wrote 'Life is real, life is earnest,'—that line applies to you!"

Pulin fidgeted about before answering. "It must have been Tennyson—or was it Wordsworth? I never could keep poetry in my head."

Nalini thought that an F.A. might have remembered Longfellow's Psalm of Life, but he refrained from airing superior knowledge.

"Do you know any mathematics?" he inquired.

"Mathematics!" replied Pulin joyously. "Why, they're my forte—I am quite at home in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Please ask me any question you like."

"Well, let us have Prop. 30, Book I. of Euclid."

Pulin rattled off Proposition 13 of that book, without the aid of a diagram. Nalini now saw that the young man's mental equipment was of the slenderest description. He said, "Well, you may call on me another day, when I may be able to tell you of some vacancy ".

Pulin, however, would take no denial. He became so insistent that Nalini reluctantly gave him a letter of introduction to Babu Kaliprasanna Som, Secretary of the Rámnagar High School, who, he said, was looking about him for a fourth master. Pulin lost no time in delivering it and was immediately appointed to the vacant post.

English education in Bengal is not regarded as a key which opens the door of a glorious literature, but simply and solely as a stepping-stone in the path of worldly success. The Department seems to aim at turning out clerks and lawyers in reckless profusion. Moreover, academic degrees are tariffed in the marriage market. The "F. A." commands a far higher price than the "entrance-passed," while an M.A. has his pick of the richest and prettiest girls belonging to his class. Hence parents take a keen interest in their boys' progress and constantly urge them to excel in class. With such lessons ringing, in his ears, the Bengali schoolboy is consumed with a desire to master his text-books. The great difficulty is to tear him away from them, and insist on his giving sufficient time to manly games. When a new teacher takes the helm, he is closely watched in order to test his competence. The older lads take a cruel pleasure in plying him with questions which they have already solved from the Dictionary. Pulin did not emerge from this ordeal with credit, and the boys concocted a written complaint of his shortcomings, which they despatched to the Secretary of the School Committee. The answer was a promise to redress their grievances.

At 10.30 next morning Kaliprasanna Babu entered Pulin's classroom and stood listening to his method of teaching English literature. Presently one of the boys asked him to explain the difference between "fort" and "fortress". After scratching his head for fully half a minute he replied that the first was a castle defended by men, while the second had a female garrison! The Secretary was quite satisfied. He left the room and sent Pulin a written notice of dismissal. The latter was disheartened beyond measure by this unkind stroke of fortune. He shook the dust of Rámnagar from his feet and returned home to lay his sorrows before Nalini, seasoning the story with remarks highly derogatory to Kaliprasanna Babu's character. In order to get rid of an importunate suitor Nalini gave him another letter of introduction, this time to an old acquaintance named Debnath Lahiri who was head clerk in the office of Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop, one of the largest mercantile firms of Calcutta. Pulin was heartily sick of school-mastering, and the prospect of making a fortune in business filled his soul with joy. He borrowed Rs. 30 from Debendra Babu and took the earliest train for Calcutta. On arriving there he joined a mess of waifs and strays like himself, who herded in a small room and clubbed their pice to provide meals. Then he waited on Debnath Babu, whom he found installed in a sumptuous office overlooking the river Hughli. The great man glanced at his credentials and, with an appearance of cordiality, promised to let him know in case a vacancy occurred in the office. For nearly a month Pulin called daily for news at Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's, and generally managed to waylay the head clerk, whose reply was invariably, "I have nothing to suit you at present".

One morning, however, he was stopped by the darwán (doorkeeper) who told him gruffly that the "Bara Babu did not like to have outsiders hanging about the office". The baffled suitor reflected on his miserable position. He had just eleven rupees and two pice left, which he calculated would last him, with strict economy, for another fortnight. When they were spent, he would have to return crestfallen to Kadampur. But could he face the neighbours' sneers, the servants' contumely—worse than all, his wife's bitter tongue? No, that was not to be thought of. It were better to plunge into the river whose turbid waters rolled only a few feet away.

Pulin was roused from this unpleasant train of thought by hearing his name pronounced. It came from a well-dressed man, who was just entering Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's office, welcomed by a salám from the surly doorkeeper. Pulin was delighted to recognise in the stranger a certain Kisari Mohan Chatterji, who had taught him English in the General Assembly's College more than a decade back. In a few words he told his sad story and learnt that Kisari Babu had taken the same step as he himself contemplated, with the result that he was now head clerk in Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's export department. This news augured well for his own ambition, but poor Pulin was disgusted on hearing that no less than three vacancies had occurred in as many weeks, and that all had been filled by relatives of Babu Debnath Lahiri. Kisari Babu added: "A junior clerk is to be appointed to-morrow. Write out an application in your very best hand, with copies of your testimonials, and bring it to me here this evening at five. I'll see that it reaches our manager, Henderson Saheb." Pulin punctually followed his friend's advice, and dreamed all night of wealth beyond a miser's utmost ambition.

On arriving at Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's office next morning he joined a crowd of twenty or thirty young men who were bent on a like errand. His spirits sank to zero, nor were they raised when after hanging about in the rain for nearly two hours the aspirants were told that the vacancy had been filled up. Thereupon the forlorn group dispersed, cursing their ill-luck and muttering insinuations against Mr. Henderson and his head clerk. Pulin, however, lingered behind. By tendering a rupee to the door-keeper he got a slip of paper and pencil, with which he indited a piteous appeal to Kisari Babu, and a promise that it should reach him. Presently his friend came out in a desperate hurry, with a stylograph behind his ear, and his hands laden with papers.

"It's just as I anticipated," he whispered to Pulin. "The head clerk has persuaded Henderson Saheb to bestow the post on his wife's nephew. But don't be disheartened. I will speak to our Saheb about you this very day. Come here at five to learn the result."

Pulin did so and was overjoyed to find that he had been appointed probationary clerk in the export department on Rs. 20 per mensem, in supersession of Debnath Babu's nominee.

On the morrow he entered on his new duties with some trepidation, but Kisari Babu took him under his wing and spared no pains to "teach him the ropes ". Pulin spent his evenings in furbishing up his English and arithmetic, mastered the whole art of book-keeping, and, being naturally intelligent, he soon had the office routine at his fingers' ends. He grasped the fact that a young man who wishes to succeed in life must make himself indispensable. In course of time Pulin's industry and trustworthiness attracted the attention of Mr. Henderson, who confirmed him as clerk, with a salary of Rs. 35.

But every cup has its bitter drop; and Pulin's was the persistent enmity of the head clerk, who bore him a grudge for ousting his wife's nephew and seized every opportunity of annoying him. Leagued with the arch-enemy were two subordinate clerks, Gyánendra and Lakshminarain by name, who belonged to Debnath Babu's gústi (family). This trio so managed matters that all the hardest and most thankless work fell to Pulin's lot. He bore their pin-pricks with equanimity, secure in the constant support of Kisari Babu.

One muggy morning in August he awoke with a splitting headache, the harbinger of an attack of fever, and was obliged to inform the head clerk, by means of a note, of his inability to attend office. An answer was brought by Gyánendra to the effect that three days' leave of absence was granted, but that his work must be carried on by some other clerk. He was, therefore, ordered to send the key of his desk by the bearer. For three days the patient endured alternations of heat and cold; but his malady yielded to quinine, and on the fourth he was able to resume work.

Soon after reaching the office, he was accosted by one of the bearers, named Rámtonu, who told him that the Bara Saheb wished to see him at once. The moment he entered the manager's sanctum he saw that something unpleasant had occurred. Without wishing him good morning, as usual, Mr. Henderson handed him a cheque and asked sternly whether he had filled it up. Pulin examined the document, which turned out to be an order on the Standard Bank to pay Tárak Ghose & Co. Rs. 200, signed by Mr. Henderson. He was obliged to admit that the payee's name, as also the amount in words and figures, seemed to be in his handwriting.

"Yes," rejoined the manager, "and the signature is very like my own; but it is a forgery. Do you hear me, Babu, a Forgery!"

To Pulin's disordered senses the room, with its furniture and Mr. Henderson's angry face, seemed to be turning round. He gasped out, "I'm ill, sir!" and sank into a chair. The manager mistook the remains of fever for a tacit admission of guilt. He waited till Pulin had regained a share of his wits and said gravely: "I did not think that one whom I trusted with my cheque-book would act thus. Now you will search your books, to see whether they contain a record of any payment of the kind, and return with them in half an hour. But I must warn you that if this forgery is traced to you, I shall have to call in the police."

Pulin staggered back to his room in despair and observed that Gyánendra and Lakshminarain, who sat at the next desk, were evidently enjoying his mental agony. Alas! the books showed no trace of any payment to Tárak Ghose & Co. He wrung his hands in great distress and sat bewildered, until Rámtonu came to summon him to the manager's tribunal. In the corridor Rámtonu glanced round, to make sure that no one was within hearing, and said, "Don't be afraid, Babuji. You did me a good turn, and I may be able to help you now."

This Rámtonu was an office menial hailing from the district of Gáyá, in Behar. He was an intelligent man, but rather unlicked, and was the butt of the younger clerks, who delighted in mocking his uncouth up-country dialect. Pulin, however, had never joined in "ragging" him, and, on one occasion, he lent Rámtonu Rs. 7 for his wife, who was about to increase the population of Gáyá. Gratitude for kindness is a marked trait in the Indian character, and Pulin bethought him of the old fable of the Lion and Mouse. He asked: "Why, what do you know about lekha-para (reading and writing)?"

"Never mind," rejoined Rámtonu. "We must not loiter, for we should be suspected of plotting together. Come to the Saheb's room. I shall be admitted, for he knows that I don't understand English. All I ask is that you will clasp your hands as a signal when I may come forward and tell my story."

A European police officer was seated by Mr. Henderson's side, engaged in writing from his dictation. They looked up, and the manager asked whether Pulin had found any record of the payment in dispute.

On receiving a negative answer, he said: "Then I shall be obliged to hand you over to the police".

Pulin clasped his hands in a mute appeal for mercy, whereon Rámtonu stepped forward. Carefully extracting a folded sheet of foolscap from the pocket of his chapkan (a tight-fitting garment, worn by nearly all classes in full dress), he spread it out on the table and respectfully asked the manager to run his eye over it.

"By Jove," remarked the latter, with great surprise, "here's some one has been copying my signature—and Pulin's writing too!"

All eyes were now bent on the incriminating document. It was made up of many fragments of paper, carefully pasted on a sheet of foolscap, and bore the words, "Tárak Ghose & Co., two hundred rupees, 200," repeated at least twenty times. Below was "A. G. Henderson," also multiplied many-fold. The manager asked where Rámtonu had found the paper, and received the following answer:—

"Your Highness, Pulin Babu here did not come to office on Monday; and for the next few days his work was done by Gyánendra Babu, who got the keys of his desk. I knew that he and some other clerks detested Pulin Babu, so I watched their movements narrowly, to see whether they would try to get him into a scrape, and more than once I surprised Gyánendra and Lakshminarain whispering together. On Tuesday neither of them left the office for lunch with the other clerks, and I seized some pretext for entering the room where they sit. Gyánendra roughly bade me begone; so I went to the verandah outside and peeped through the jilmils (venetian blinds) of a window close to their desk. Lakshminarain was copying some English words from a paper on his left side, while the other clerk looked on, nodding and shaking his head from time to time. After writing in this fashion for a while, Lakshminarain took a sheet of notepaper covered with writing and copied the signature many times, until both babus were satisfied with the result. Then I saw Gyánendra unlock Pulin Babu's desk, take out a cheque-book, and hand it to the other man, who filled up the counterfoil and body of one blank cheque, glancing sometimes at the paper in front of him. He returned it to Gyánendra who placed it in a pocket-book. After tearing up the papers they had used and throwing them into the waste-paper basket, they left the room. I ran round, carefully avoiding them, picked the fragments of paper out of the basket, tied them in a corner of my gamcha (wrapper), and left the office quickly, asking the doorkeeper what direction they had taken. When he said that they had turned northwards, I guessed that they were off to the Bank, in order to cash the cheque, and sure enough I overtook them not more than a rassi from the office. Following them at a little distance on the other side of the street, I saw them stop outside the Standard Bank and look anxiously around. Presently a schoolboy passed by, whom they hailed and, after talking for a while, Gyánendra handed him the cheque with a small linen money-bag, and pointed to the door of the Bank. The lad went inside, while both babus waited round the corner. In a short time he came out and handed the bag full of money to Gyánendra, who gave him something and hurried back to the office with his companion. Putting two and two together I felt assured that those clerks had forged the cheque; and had I known where Pulin Babu lived, I would certainly have communicated my suspicions to him. Having to work without his help, I persuaded a student, who lodges near my quarters, to piece the scraps of paper together. It took him two hours to do so, and we then pasted them carefully on this sheet of foolscap. You will see, Saheb, that there are thirty-seven in all, and only three missing."

The story made a deep impression on Mr. Henderson and the Police Inspector, while Pulin was raised to the seventh heaven of delight by the thought that his innocence might yet be established.

"Could you identify the boy?" asked the Europeans with one breath.

"I don't know his name," was Rámtonu's rejoinder; "but I think I could pick him out, for he passes this office daily on his way to and from school. But this is just the time when he goes home for tiffin. With your Highness's permission, I will watch for him in the street."

"Do so by all means," was the Inspector's reply. "Meanwhile, I'll take down notes of your statement."

Rámtonu went out and in a few minutes returned dragging with him triumphantly a well-dressed lad of fifteen, who seemed terribly alarmed by the company into which he was thrust. The Inspector calmed his fears by assuring him that he would come to no harm if only he spoke the whole truth. "You have been unwittingly made the instrument of a forgery," he added, "and we want your help towards detecting it." The boy plucked up courage and answered every question put him quite candidly. His tale corroborated Rámtonu's in most particulars, with the addition that the tall babu had given him eight annas bakshish for cashing the cheque. He had not seen either of the men previously, but thought he should be able to recognise one of them owing to his unusual height.

"Now, bearer," said Mr. Henderson, "go and fetch both the clerks; bring in the tall one first, but keep an eye on the other outside and beyond earshot."

Rámtonu left the room with alacrity and presently returned ushering Lakshminarain into the dreaded presence. The newcomer was beside himself with terror; and when he was identified by the schoolboy as one of the men who had employed him to cash the cheque, he did not wait to be asked for an explanation. Throwing himself at Mr. Henderson's feet he begged for mercy, promising to reveal the entire truth. The Inspector would make no promises but simply adjured him to make a clean breast of his share in the transaction. Lakshminarain obeyed, and his statement, interrupted by many sobs, was duly recorded. His accomplice was next introduced. At first Gyánendra was inclined to put a bold face on the matter, stoutly affirming that it was a put-up affair between Pulin and Rámtonu. When, however, the Inspector read out to him the deposition of the bearer and schoolboy, he saw that the game was up and confessed his misdoings, accusing the head clerk of having prompted them. The culprits were taken in a ticcá gárï (four-wheeled cab) to the police station Pulin occupying the box, while Rámtonu ran behind.

Well, to cut a long story short, the prisoners stuck to their confession and refunded their ill-gotten gains. They were duly committed to the High Court on charges of forgery and conspiring to accuse an innocent man of the like offence. They both pleaded guilty, and the judge remarked that it was one of the worst cases of the kind he had ever tried. In passing sentence of two years rigorous imprisonment on each prisoner, he added that they would have fared worse but for the patent fact that they had been made catspaws of by some one who kept in the background. As there was no evidence against Debnath Babu, except that of accomplices, he was not prosecuted; but immediately after the trial, Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop dismissed him without notice. Kisari Babu was promoted to the vacant office of head clerk, while Pulin stepped into his friend's shoes. By unfailing application to duty, he won Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's entire confidence, and in fulness of time succeeded Kisari Babu as head clerk. Ten or twelve years later, Pulin was rich enough to build a pakka (masonry) house at Kadampur, which far eclipsed his father-in-law's, and had a well-paid doorkeeper in the person of Rámtonu. The once-despised gharjamái took a leading position among the local gentry.