Characters who live. Whose breath conjoins ours from the printed pages on which they appear. Who stay with us long after the book is closed, the story is forgotten. Abiding Characters. A new series.
From Khokababu’s Return by Rabindranath Tagore
First Signs: Hardly anything strikes about Raicharan at first. He enters the household of his masters as a servant boy of twelve. His job is to look after a one-year-old baby. When this baby boy, Anukul, grows up into a man, Raicharan still remains his servant. Although his rights over his master wane once the latter gets married, the space for his unreserved affection is filled in by Anukul’s little son.
What Endures: Even though he is the quintessential servant, ever devoted to his master’s family, Raicharan's unwavering love for Anukul’s toddler, marked by rustic simplicity and endearing awe tugs at the reader’s heart again and again. There is no end to Raicharan’s marvel when the little boy learns to cross the threshold of his room even as he crawls. The servant is even more amazed when the baby utters his first words calling his ma "Ma", his pishi "Pichi" and Raicharan, "Channa". He had in fact declared within months of the little boy’s birth that upon growing up, he will be a judge for sure.
The decisive turn in Raicharan’s life and indeed in the short story comes when the servant accompanies his little master astride his stroller for a late-afternoon promenade. A clear day turns murky as the little child is lost to lure of the Padma River even as Raicharan is busy picking up flowers as demanded by his young boss.
When the child’s mother sends people to look for the child-servant duo the same evening, they find a hapless Raicharan’s yowl—calling out for his junior commandant—tearing through the monsoon winds. However, the judge-to-be isn’t found, his mother accuses Raicharan of stealing her son, and the old servant leaves the household, unable to bear the burden of his guilt of leaving the child alone while plucking flowers.
Soon after his return to his village home, Raicharan is blessed (or cursed as the perspective may be) with a son. Even though his wife dies during childbirth, Raicharan pays no attention to the newborn baby. As a reader, I was at once incredulous and shocked to read this part of the story. For who could think the affectionate man, who went out of his way to fulfill the tantrums of Anukul’s son, could be so dispassionate toward his own child? However, that’s exactly the cause of Raicharan's indifference; to him the child epitomizes deception, trying to claim the love that was the birthright of his previous master.
Only when his son, named Phelna (meaning “rejected”) by his sister, starts crawling across the room’s threshold and demonstrates other signs of intelligence, does Raicharan take note of him. From this point, he begins seeing striking parallels between Phelna and Anukul’s dead son. Convinced that his son is a reincarnation of the dead child, he starts bringing up his son in grand style—buying him expensive clothes and toys and preventing him from befriending other village boys. As the boy grows up, Raicharan takes him to the city and enrolls him into a good school, while taking up a measly job himself. All this while, he raises his son like a prince. The boy takes a liking to Raicharan as well, but not quite in a son-like way. For, as Tagore writes in the story, “In his affection Raicharan was a father and in his service, a servant.”
Years later, when Phelna reaches the age of twelve, Raicharan takes him to Anukul’s home. There, to everyone’s astonishment, he admits to having stolen Anukul’s son and presents Phelna as that stolen child. This dramatic revelation, while delighting the parents of the dead child, turns Anukul hostile toward Raicharan. The most ironic point in the story comes when Anukul orders his old servant to get out of their household and young Phelna, standing proudly along side his ‘parents’, asks his ‘father’ to forgive Raicharan. The boy’s suggestion to keep sending a modest stipend to the former servant is upheld by Anukul. Only, the money comes back from Raicharan’s village address. Nobody is found to live there any longer.
I like Raicharan despite: his obsessive commitment to his master’s family, his near exasperating spirit of sacrifice, and his invitation to emptiness in his own life in order to fill the vacuum in his master’s household. I like him for the humanity he represents. Even if it remains unsung in the end.
Khokababu = Term of endearment for little boy.
Pishi = Aunt (Father's sister).