The Grecian Urn

“Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” — Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats.

Nana had just stepped out of the cottage when he saw Bhim Singh enter through the gate. Bhim Singh had just crossed the first row of roses which had started flowering the previous night, when Nana shouted, “Oye Bhim! By the time you start working, the roses will have died like Mumtaz. This is not Taj Mahal you are building!”

Bhim Singh muttered under his breath, turned around and started walking towards Bahadur’s cottage. Bimla, hearing Nana scream, walked out of the cottage to the 18th-century verandah where the old man was now seated and had picked up the newspaper.

Bimla approached with a cup of tea and placed it on the table in front of Nana. “Kya baba, you shout at him every morning. You are old and so is he. If he waters the plant after having tea, will it hurt the roses?”

Before Nana could say anything, Bimla had started walking towards Bhim Singh, who was now setting his 29-year-old watering pot and complaining about the old man to the sleepy Bahadur.

Life was slow at this small cottage property of Prof. Col. Chatterjee. In another five days, the four members of this 18th-century property at Samsing will complete 30 years of having resided here. Yet, years had rolled on like unfazed river meandering towards an ocean of tranquility.

Prof. Col. Chatterjee, or Nana as he was known to the locals, took voluntary retirement from the army after the death of his wife. Following the demise of his Juliet, he moved to Darjeeling and taught English till his retirement at the same school where he met his wife during their school days.

During his final years at Mount Hermon, he and his only daughter, Tiara, decided to spend their summer vacation at Nana’s friend’s place in Pelling. On their way, the dusty old ambassador had stopped moving in front of this old neglected house in Samsing mysteriously. And it was then that Nana decided to buy this property and live here for the rest of his life. Tiara never understood the whimsies of his old man but she too fell in love with the place. Or rather, felt a sense of home after many years. A day after his retirement, he along with Bimla moved to Samsing.

Bimla lived with the Chatterjees since Nana’s wife fell sick. Tiara was 11 when Mrs. Chatterjee passed away. And since then it has been Bimla who has taken care of the two children in the house — one who grew up at the blink of the eye and one who refuses to grow up.

On Sunday, Tiara and her eight-year-old daughter arrived at the cottage to celebrate the special occasion. Guinea spent most of the evening with her Nana and stayed awake even after Nana fell asleep on the porch. Guinea proudly had told her mother, “Nana can’t stay awake. Nana is a child. Guinea is a grown up.”

Bimla had returned to the verandah after consoling Bhim Singh, like every other day, and was now sipping her tea seated on the steps of the cottage. It was early December, but the mornings were unusually hotter than previous years, claimed Nana. Bimla nodded casually as Tiara walked out of the house on to the verandah.

Nana agitatedly said, “Tiara wear a sweater! It is so cold! You will fall sick.” Bimla immediately looked at Nana disapprovingly. After all, Nana felt it was hotter than previous years.

Bimla got up, removed her shawl and wrapped it around Tiara. Tiara reciprocated by wrapped wrapping her arms around Bimla. It was so natural but it appeared unusual to the wandering eyes.

For most locals, Bimla’s relationship with Tiara was a mystery. It was a mother-daughter relationship but in the eyes of the local, Bimla was a servant and Tiara the lady of the house. But for the Chatterjees it hardly mattered. Even to Tiara, it never occurred when the people of the small town were obsessed about the inner affairs of the Chatterjee house. Far more interesting tales floated around the town every now and then — stories of a young man, of lonely maidens and disunited celebrity couples — thronging the little town from time to time, escaping the chaos of metropolitan lives.

Bimla hugged Tiara and then walked inside to get tea when Bhim Singh approached Nana’s offsrping and handed her a bunch of red roses. Nana stomped towards Bhim Singh, put his hands on his hips with this nimble elbows out to the sides and said, “Oye! Where did you get these? Plucked!” Bhim Singh, irked by his oldest comrade, shot back at Nana, “Babuji, deduct money from my salary if you want!” And with that he turned and went away grousing about the old man and his antics.

“Papa be nice to him. He has been here with you for 30 years now. You know how hard it is to find good people these days?” Tiara compassionately looked at both Bhim Singh and Nana. Nana walked away grumpily. Tiara continued, “Besides, why do you call him Bhim Singh? And Bahadur? It is not their names.”

It was but a mystery on why Nana called him Bhim Singh. Bhim Singh’s real name was Madhav. He used to work at the army but lost his job when he was wrongly accused by a senior of stealing food.

When Nana heard, he immediately made a few calls and asked Madhav to work for him in Darjeeling. Madhav couldn’t refuse. He didn’t have any family. He had one brother whose wife didn’t want an unpaid family member in the house. So Madhav instantly accepted the job.

Upon arriving in Darjeeling a week after the call, Madhav became Nana’s Man Friday. He drove the car, paid the bills, bought groceries, cleaned the house and did all odd jobs which Bimla would ask him to do. However, when the family moved to Samsing, Madhav’s job role changed. It was mainly due to Bahadur.

Bahadur’s real name was Sihir. Sihir’s family had been taking care of the cottage since it was built. First lived an English merchant here who was shunted out of the village when he was found to have taken advantage of a local girl at the tea estate he managed. The management of the tea company in Calcutta didn’t want a repercussion and quickly restationed him elsewhere. Then an Armenian family lived there. But after a few years, the family moved to Calcutta and the cottage was left unattended.

Sihir was in his teens when Nana’s vehicle had stopped mysteriously in front of the house that day. And since Nana shifted here, Sihir, or Bahadur as he would go on to call him, have been the caretaker of the house and of Nana.

Sihir particularly adored Tiara. And even if he never liked Nana’s tantrums, it was only because of Tiara that he would stay on and protect this old cottage which hardly mattered for his wandering soul.

The clock at the drawing-room turned eight and Guinea came running out of the house towards her Nana. She was still in her sleepwear. It is something she picked up from her mother. There were no Bimla to protect the child from the December chill this time. But the young heart knows no boundaries. She quickly wrapped herself around Nana and started speaking nonchalantly, “Nana I want roses, I want the pink ones. Nana, I want coffee, not tea. Nana, will you take me to the market? I want the telescope. The new one, portable one. Papa said it is too costly. But will you give me? Celestron 70Az!”

Questions poured out of the innocent soul which was yet to be stirred by the entanglements of adulthood. And for Nana, it was the only soul in the whole planet that he felt helpless about. He loved Tiara, he adored Tiara but losing his wife early had distanced him from Tiara. While Bimla took care of Tiara, Nana poured himself into teaching. Even after school hours, he would teach the local children who couldn’t afford school education. And he continued it all these years.

But here was his own blood. Untethered to the moralities and principles of relationships, unknown to the complexities of being a human in this age. Guinea went about her demands. Nana heard her patiently. When Guinea was done, Nana called Bhim Singh.

“Ek Gulab ka guldasta leke ao (Bring a bouquet of roses),” was his demand.

Bhim Singh looked confused. But even he knew that there’s nothing but Guinea who could alter the man’s soul. Bhim Singh promptly appeared with a bouquet of red roses. But, Guinea wasn’t happy. “This isn’t pink,” she sighed.

“Guinea! Be grateful. Don’t be so demanding,” Tiara got up finally from her lazed down pose and walked towards her only daughter. Before Guinea could protest, Tiara had picked up her. “Let’s get ready and then you can ask whatever you want from Nana. But before that, hot bath and breakfast. Okay?”

Guinea thought of protesting. If there was anything she disliked the most in this world, then it was a bath in December in Samsing. But the idea of spending the rest of the day with her Nana with all the goodies and with her mother not watching over her like a hawk, Guinea settled for a truce.

Moments passed by like any other day for Nana. Tea, newspaper, usual brawls with Bhim Singh, pushing the lazy Bahadur, and being forced to go to the market by a demanding Bimla. However, with Tiara and Guinea in the house, a break from the normalcy was acceptable by all — Bimla, Bhim Singh, Bahadur and Nana himself.

The clock rolled on to half-past eight when the Lord of the cottage noticed a little boy walking towards the house. Nana left a huge sigh. He had totally forgotten. Minsk, the 10-year-old son of the local vegetable vendor, was on time for his English lessons.

It was a year back when Nana was in the market trying to get his hand on the best quality squash, Joao requested Nana if he could teach his son English. Over the next 30 minutes, a deal was struck — Joao would provide vegetables at half the rate to Nana and in return, Nana will teach Minsk.

Seeing a happy and spirited Minsk walk in, Nana remembered that he had completely forgotten to ask Joao to not send his son for at least a week. However, he couldn’t ask Minsk to return.

Minsk approached the verandah where Nana was seated and cheerfully said, “Good morning Professor Colonel Rustom Chatterjee. How are you this morning?”

As Nana greeted the young lad, Guinea stormed on to the scene. “Nana!” she exhaled.

Upon seeing an unknown face, Guinea tiptoed slowly towards her Nana and held her old man’s right arm tightly. Suddenly there was a calmness in the air which had been filled with the jovial appeals of a eight-year-old since the previous evening.

Minsk stood at the steps. He couldn’t move. He wondered around. His eyes met Guinea’s and then Nana’s. He had almost taken off his backpack when Guinea appeared on the scene. But now, he clutched it hard, feeling unsure about his presence.

A 72-year-old Nana for the first time in his life felt a little destitute, uncertain about how he would unite the two children.

Nana pulled Guinea and said, “Guinea meet Minsk. I teach him literature.” He then looked compassionately at Minsk and said, “Minsk, this is my grand-daughter, Guinea.”

Suddenly Minsk jumped from his chair and exclaimed, “Guinea like the coin?” Then suddenly he stopped and looked inside and said, “Grand-daughter like Bimla’s Tiara’s daughter?”

Nana smiled and nodded. The innocent soul can play mysteriously with the old heart.

A confident Minsk, not fearing recoil from Guinea, walked towards her, and extended his right hand.

Guinea looked suspiciously at the right hand but then with a sudden force moved his right hand towards Minsk. As soon as their hands met, the young souls busted out laughing.

A silent Nana observed this little moment with pleasure. The old heart has seen it all but watching his favourite student and his only grandchild warm up to each other, lit up his exhausted soul.

“There there, enough. Guinea go pull a chair. Minsk what have you got today?” Nana asked Minsk. The 10-year-old had now pulled out an old rustic diary from his backpack.

“Papa had gone to old Mr. Kapoor’s house yesterday to clear their things. The house has been sold. I found this there. It has things written in English.

It was an old personal diary but once opening it, Nana found poems from bygone era written in it with black ink. There were two pages whose top right corners were folded. Nana turned to the first one and before he could say anything, Minsk approached him and said, “No no, the second fold. I want you to teach me this.”

As Nana turned to the second folded page instructed by the youth, the name John Keats written on it came into view.

“Minsk, I cannot teach you this. It is for grown up,” said Nana.

An embarrassed Minsk, who didn’t like being regarded as a child, said, “But I am 10-year-old and I found the book and I like the painting. So you teach me.”

He continued, “You are supposed to teach me English. This is good English. So teach.”

Minsk didn’t care much about how the other townsmen treated Nana. He was respected but people were scared of him. However, this 10-year-old adored him and never regarded him as any different than his own grandfather.

Guinea had now joined his new friend and told Nana, “I also want to learn!”

Minsk, impressed by Guinea, walked towards the girl and held her right hand and smiled. Guinea smiled back and giggled and then the both of them settled near Nana’s feet, all ready in their youthfulness to hear about the lyrical poem by a romantic poet — who suffered from a hemorrhaged lung, died young, whose news of death reached his lover months later.

Nana sighed. He didn’t know how to explain such a poem of such intensity. He looked at the urn’s hand-drawn picture in the diary; someone who probably had his or her own share of bereavement to have written and drawn this urn.

He read quietly, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,/Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:/What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape/Of deities or mortals, or of both,/In Tempe or the dales of Arcady/What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?/What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

Nana looked at the two children. He finally broke his silence.

“Once upon a time, there was a boy. He liked a young girl. The boy’s name was Quietness. This girl was the daughter of Silence and Slow Time.”
Minsk started laughing. “Who would name their children Silence and Slow Time?” Guinea, impressed by the questions posed by Minks, also laughed.
Nana smiled. He continued, “There was this man, much like me. He was an observer of time. He could tell stories much better than anyone. One day this man found the boy and a girl playing with an urn.”
Guinea stood up and asked, “What is an urn, Nana?”

“It is like a flower vase. This special flower vase had drawings all over it.”

Nana showed the drawn urn in the diary.

He continued, “The man took the urn. There were pictures of men, women, etc. While observing the drawings he wondered what it could mean.”

He then read again, quietly, to himself, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;/Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,/Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:/Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare/Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

“There is a musician. He plays sweet tunes. The man who observes all these says that the musician is a wonderful artist and wonders that if the music which this musician is playing is so beautiful, then how beautiful will be the ones he is yet to play?”

Minsk and Guinea drew closer to each other as they heard Nana speak.

“The young boy in the poem likes this young girl. But, he can never tell her that he likes her.”
Guinea stood up and protested, “Why!”

Minsk, who appeared to have sulked having heard Nana narrate the young boy’s plight, lightened up when Guinea questioned.

Nana said, “Guinea, it is just a story. Now sit down and let me finish.”

Without protesting any further, Guinea withdrew.

“When the man in the poem saw that the boy cannot express his liking for the little girl,” Nana moving his right hand towards Guinea, indicating her not to protest any further, “the man asked the boy not to be said for he will forever like him and his love will forever remain.”

Minsk smiled and looked at Guinea. Guinea clapped.

“Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;/And, happy melodist, unwearied,/For ever piping songs for ever new;/More happy love! more happy, happy love!/For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,/For ever panting, and for ever young;/All breathing human passion far above,/That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

“In this story, in the poem, trees never shed their leaves, it is always spring, the boy and the girl are always in love, everything is happy and never sad.”

Guinea asked, “Can’t they say how the leaves of the trees never fall? You can then tell Bhim Singh how the roses will never fade.”

“Ah! For the young innocent heart,” thought Nana.

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?/To what green altar, O mysterious priest,/Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,/And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?/What little town by river or sea shore,/Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,/Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?/And, little town, thy streets for evermore/Will silent be; and not a soul to tell/Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.”

“The poem speaks of a holy day. There is this priest who was walking towards a temple to pray and sacrifice an animal for the gods. Many people have come from nearby villages to celebrate.”
Minsk looked at Guinea and said, “Ah! It is like Pashupati puja!” Guinea appeared fascinated.

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede/Of marble men and maidens overwrought,/With forest branches and the trodden weed;/Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!/When old age shall this generation waste,/Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st/“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.””

Nana looks at the two children. He somberly said, “The vase is very old. It has passed on to the man and the boy and the girl and soon they will pass it on to their future generations. Everything will change but the vase will never be destroyed. It is a beautiful object and it will be cherished forever throughout generations, even when the man, the boy, and the girl are not there anymore.”

With that, Nana shut the diary. Minsk looked sad. Guinea looked puzzled.

“This is a bad story. I do not like it,” Minsk said petulantly.

Exactly then Bimla walked out with a plate of paranthas and handed over to the two kids, who were dejected with the ending of the story.

“Minsk, Guinea, take the plate and give it to Bahadur and Bhim Singh and then come inside. Babu, I have arranged the table, we should eat now.”

Before Bimla completed her sentence, Minsk had grabbed Guinea’s hand and ran towards Bahadur’s cottage with the plate. Both of them giggling on their way. Nana looked at them tenderly and remembered, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness.”

1 comment:

Sandy said...

IS this going to go further? It seems to me you could. Do it!

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