Original Marathi story ‘भेट’ by GA Kulkarni Translated by SD Pandit
Mr GA Kulkarni (known just as ‘GA’) was one of the wonders of Marathi literature.Wikipedia describes him as ‘…legendary author … who brought a new strength and vitality to Marathi short story and was admittedly the most distinguished exponent of that genre …’
His writing is marked by an astounding canvas which ranges from the wretched to the sublime, touching virtually everything in between – commonplace, exotic, philosophical, mystical…
“What an extreme of misery!” the price exclaimed in a trembling voice, “She emerged from the dark of her mother’s womb, and is now condemned to an eternal darkness of her own.”
He has the ability to take the reader suddenly by surprise with unexpected flashes of imagination and thought, unexpected but most apt similes and, often, a totally different light shed on things previously known in another context. He gripped the imagination of readers and critics alike during his lifetime and still continues to do so, twenty-five years after his death.
The young man, whose face bore the mark of royal birth, came out silently from the palace gates and looked around with the bewildered eyes of a newcomer. The City sprawled below, its roads looking like blood vessels in a body. Lives of unknown people, with unknown joys and unknown sorrows, trickled down their lengths like living drops. All this was new to the Prince. This was the first time he was stepping into this world unaccompanied by servants and friends. As he turned to leave, his face showed a keenness for new adventure.
Just outside the main gates, he ran into a man overcome with old age. His hair had turned completely white; and he had an unhealed wound on his forehead. There was such misery in the eyes of the old man as no man would ever have seen; an agony that no man would be able to bear.
May I come with you, Prince?” he asked. The prince was startled by this living picture of the extremes of old age and misery. For the first time, he realized that a man could grow to be so old. In the palace he was always surrounded by friends in the heady peak of youth and entertained with the music of the anklets of proud beauties. He was stunned to see the old man, bent with the burden of years beyond counting. The fire in his young blood froze a little and his soul was covered with the patina of age, as if in that one instant he had spent a score of years of his life.
“Though human life is full of misery, it has an end; and death is a friend of man,” the old man said, in the same dispassionate voice.”
Wordlessly, they started walking together along the road. A little way on, a blind girl was begging by the roadside, rattling her bowl. Seeing her, the prince’s steps faltered and a blood-red brand seared his consciousness. In the palace, children played around him; but their faces were as blooming flowers, the hope of a happy future in their eyes and the tinkle of golden ornaments lending their lives a note of prosperity.
What an extreme of misery!” the price exclaimed in a trembling voice, “She emerged from the dark of her mother’s womb, and is now condemned to an eternal darkness of her own.”
Yes, her misery is beyond measure, but it is going to end some time,” the old man said, his voice stone-like, steady and emotionless.
The prince, numb with agony, was walking on with leaden steps. The suffering of all mankind had become the burden of his soul and he now wanted to go away from that maddened, restless crowd. Unconsciously, his steps turned towards the funeral ground.
A solitary pyre was burning there and the mourners were sitting silently a little apart. The body on the pyre had a helpless, abandoned look. The man’s whole life, now become the shroud that wrapped him in isolation, was burning with him in a fiery envelope.
Who is this? Whose journey has ended today?” the Prince could not help asking. His face looked older and his voice was filled with infinite sadness.
The trader Lakshminandani” Someone answered with bowed head.
The Prince was speechless with astonishment and abruptly sat down under a nearby tree. Stoically bearing the pain of his wound, the old man too sat down next to him.
“This is the trader Lakshminandan!” the prince said sadly, “His treasure-filled ships sailed the seven oceans; in his alm-houses thousands had their fill daily; even the boundless power of the Ganges’ waters was tamed by the steps he built on her banks and every temple by the riverside was crowned with the golden spires that he donated. And now, at the end of his journey, he is lying, shrouded in a single cloth. This is the sum and substance of human life! This is its ultimate meaning! It was only today that I have come to know this, for till now I had spent all my life on a bed of lotuses.”
“Though human life is full of misery, it has an end; and death is a friend of man,” the old man said, in the same dispassionate voice.
The young man was roused, and turning to him, asked, “Tell me, old man, don’t these scenes bring tears of blood to your eyes? That girl, condemned from birth to living in eternal darkness; the anthill of age that keeps rising around one’s life even as one forgets everything else in the pleasures of youth and in the end, this helpless, meaningless full-stop! Don’t you think the entire human life is transient, and walks with the feet of misery and death?”
The old man said nothing; but his eyes shone for a moment with ancient memories, as if the seven suns had together risen and illuminated a boundless ocean of darkness. But renewed pain soon filled them again with misery, and the light went out.
“You have the gift of intelligence, O Prince,” he said, “Many before you have seen such scenes; but how many felt sympathy as you did? You have so far lived on a bed of lotuses; but one day you will have a lotus for your seatiiand sitting thus, you will enlighten others. I have endured all the misery there could be; listen to me. Even though all this is full of pain and misery, there is something yet more horrible. You are pained at death; at the transience of life. But that very transience, that very assurance of death in the end, is what makes human life attractive. That alone saves men from the hated shackles of an eternity of pleasures and the unbearable burden of endless suffering. As the novelty of childhood wears off, it turns shallow; then it is lost forever and gives way to the intoxicating passions of heady youth; when the body tires with the pleasurable fatigue that they bring, there comes old age with its wisdom and detachment; and when that is overtaken by a feeble and helpless state, death comes and gently snuffs life out. What more could a man look for in a happy life, young man?”
The old man’s words startled the prince. “Is there something more dreadful than this?” he asked in surprise; but once again he was overcome with distress at the thought of the girl’s unseeing eyes, the misery of old age and the lonely helplessness of the body on the pyre.
Yes, there is something more dreadful. Here the pleasures are fleeting, but so is the pain. Compared to such a life, permanence and immortality are unimaginably horrendous.”
But you too, old man, are tied – like all men, to the same wheel of transience. What can you know of the bane of immortality?” the Prince asked.
“I am not so bound – that good fortune is forever denied to me,” the old man said in a shaking voice and, unable in his agitation to remain seated, abruptly stood up. “Who, if not I, can have knowledge of that torture? Look at me carefully, O Gautama; I am Ashwatthamaiii.”
And having said these words, he once again picked up his weak old body and resumed his journey on the endless road.
(From the collection ‘सांजशकुन’
Lakshminandan: Lit.- The son of Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. Also, lakshmiputra with the same literal meaning was a term applied to a rich person.
ii … Lotus for a seat: A Lotus, in mythology, is the seat of Brahma, the God of creation and wisdom. It is also a symbol of enlightenment or knowledge of the Self/Brahman. Having the lotus for a seat alludes to attaining enlightenment.
iii Ashwatthama: (From the Mahabharata) Son of Guru Dronacharya who was Teacher to the Kauavas and Pandavas. He is one of the seven immortals on earth (the other six are: his maternal uncle Krupacharya, Bali the king of asuras, Maharshi Vyas, Hanuman, Bibhishan-Ravana’s brother and Parashuram the sixth incarnation of Vishnu) and was born with a jewel embedded in his forehead. At the end of the Mahabharata war, the jewel was removed by the Pandavas as a punishment for his crimes, since he could not be put to death. This left a permanent sore and he was condemned to live forever bearing it on his forehead.