Monday, March 16, 2015

A Tenida tale

Dadhichi, Insects and Vishvakarma
Translation of a Bengali story by Narayan Gangopadhyay

Till now, I have been sitting rapt—meditating with all my mind in a deep forest. Just that, a whole lot of insects have been streaming across my nose and mouth, and I can’t describe how awful that is! They get into my nose and tickle it; into the innermost recesses of my ear to fathom what mysterious secrets, if any, lurk there. At one point, when swallowing, I even ended up eating practically a dozen. Their taste was quite a bit like sweet fennel—but what a terrible smell! I would have vomited, but that’s simply not done while in meditation. Shoo them away—that is also out of the question. At present I am still in samadhi[1]—I have to stay absolutely still.

I had guessed right in the beginning that something like this would happen. And I had told this to Habul. But he, having acquired the aspect of Lord Indra, was then occupied with thoughts of going to Shiva at Kailash, and just refused to pay any heed. He said, “go on with you, stop droning on and on about this and that. Forests have insects and they will get into noses and mouths. Bear it all quietly—or else how will you ever be a great sage?”
That is quite true. But, now I understand why great sages have temperaments as touchy as a hornet’s hive, and why they let loose curses of epic proportions at the drop of a hat. After all, there is a limit to man’s patience! Such an invasion of insects on one’s face and even a man as serene as Shantanu[2] would become as dour as Durvasa[3]. I have not the faintest doubt about this, not even as little as the size of a sesame seed.

Sure enough, I was in a fix. Truth to tell, what interest would I, Paillaram Bannerjee, a victim of jaundice getting by on the juice of Basak[4] leaves, have in putting my foot into the bewildering business of sages and rishis? I live in Patoldanga, and it is my fate to live on rice with patol [5] and fish stew, day in and out. Just a handful of chanachur[6] sets off my stomach into agonies, enough to almost send me packing! Poor me—as quiet as a cow, I fell into the clutches of Tenida, all of six feet tall and with a 42 inch wide chest!
And what that means, is impossible to imagine for those who haven’t ever had to deal with Tenida. He can make short work of anyone, from the whites on the Fort Maidan to the shifty smart-alecky shop owners of Chor Bazaar. Just by raising his hand, he effects the sensation of a big blow; the mere sight of his teeth seems as if he’s bitten off a piece of you.
It is because of the clutches of this fearsome Bhairava-like person that I sit here like a sage in meditation.
What else can I do!
It feels as if I have been sitting here forever. There is a hole in the forest—through it I can see that worthless Habul’s nose peeping out. Incensed by the insect-bites, I was wondering if I should or shouldn’t bash his nose in. Just then, my disciple, Dadhimukh, made his entrance.

Dadhimukh spoke up: “Oh Master, there is a request.”
I said: “Speak, child. It will certainly be heard.”

Dadhimukh said:
“At the close of a dark night,
I saw an astonishing dream—
The Master in god-like might,
On a fiery chariot, ascending did seem,
On the great void’s shadow-path astride.
In great fear I cried—
Yuck Yuck, thoo!”

Insects, what else? Grimacing loudly, Dadhimukh spat them out—all on to me. Such cheek, and him my disciple. I grew livid with rage. My plaited hair fairly stood up with the force of my fury. But to curse a disciple is to invite ruin. I thought to myself, just you wait, my boy, I will teach you a lesson.

I said, with a smile:
“Verily, it portends
A mystery most profound.
Your mind so dense
It would confound.
Come close to me
And I will whisper what it means, to thee.”

 Dadhimukh stared at me with his mouth open. This was not what he expected to hear. Helplessly, he looked around, uncertain what to do.

I said:
“Why then
Do you still stand afar?
Come close if you would want to hear
This secret most astonishing.
Bring your face further here,
Come child, a little near—
Why don’t you come?”

Dadhimukh was young and na├»ve. Completely flabbergasted, he brought his face close to mine. And I gave him a fitting answer. I opened my mouth and breathed in mightily, and a swarm of insects fell into my mouth. Then immediately, back they all went with the sound of my spitting—to Dadhimukh’s cheek, nose, face and forehead. The affectionate blessings of a guru to his disciple.
Dadhimukh cried out loudly. And then, the painted backdrop descended. The bamboo hit my nose first, splat, and then straight down. The end of Act 2, before the scene finished.

Immediately, Habul in the guise of Indra and Tenida in that of Vishwakarma[7], raced onto the stage.
Tenida demanded: “What was that, hey? What is the meaning of this, I’d like to know?”
I asked rebelliously: “The meaning of what?”
Tenida, gnashing his teeth, asked: “You good-for-nothing, you, are you planning to ruin the play? Why did you spit on Kaibla’s face like that? The scene has been ruined. Can’t you hear the audience laughing?”
I retorted: “It was Kaibla who first spat on me.”
Tenida exclaimed: “Humph! I will clip both your foreheads together like a pair of wood-apples. Anyway, whatever has happened has happened. Now, the remaining scenes must be dealt with properly—do you understand? Any more trouble from you, and I will give you a slap that will send your nose to Nasik.”

I said: “You say this and that is the end of the matter? But who is it who must sit there and digest insects, may I know?”
“You!” Tenida bellowed. “Undoubtedly, you. You will have to. You think you can do theatre and not eat insects? If the occasion arises, you will eat mosquitoes, you will eat flies—“
Habul joined in, “You will eat rats and bats.”
Tenida continued, “You will eat mats, and if you have to eat cots and beds, that will not be surprising either. Ho, Ho my fine friend, this is called theatre!”
“To do theatre then, does one have to eat all this,” I protested feebly.
“Absolutely. What do you understand of all this? Have you heard of Danibabu? Danibabu?[8] When he enacted Sita’s part in a play, he would eat the Monument and only then come down to the stage, do you know?”
“Eat the Monument[9]?”
“Yes, yes, the Monument on the Maidan. Go on with you, don’t make such a fuss. The curtain will rise in a moment. Scoot from here. Go learn your part by heart.”

With a frown on my face as dark as the blackened-pot on a scarecrow in a brinjal-field, I came and sat at the corner of the stage. Eat the Monument! What a story. How can a man ever do that? But, if I question this further it will mean a tight slap, so I have to swallow this tall tale.
If you have to do theatre, you have to eat insects. Indeed! As if by not doing theatre, I couldn’t stomach my fish stew. I, Paillaram Bannerjee with my stomach afflicted by jaundice—what need have I to stick on a mouthful of prickly beard and dress up as Dadhichi?
It is because I fell into the clutches of these rogues that I am in this state.

I was sitting happily on the Chatterjee’s roak—while they were all flinging their arms and legs around, as they rehearsed in the courtyard. But they could not find anyone to play Dadhichi. And then Tenida, his big saucer-like eyes swivelling around here and there, came and clapped his hand down on my shoulder.
I said: “Aiee, Aiee, what, what?”
Tenida roared like a tiger: “Not aiee, aiee, but aye aye! Yes, your face is very much like a sage, it has the look of a peace-loving goat. And once we fix a goat-like beard on your cheek, how beautifully it will become you. Aha! You will look just like old man Keshav at the Rai’s house.”
And this is the outcome of that.

I have no part in this Act, and continue to droop discontentedly in a corner. The beard is in my hand; I wave it with all my might to get rid of the mosquitoes. This is impossible. I simply cannot go on stage and sit in meditation with more insects. And what deadly insects.
But what to do?
My entire being burnt with rage. Not content with taking advantage of my kindness in agreeing to do the part, to then insult me in this gross way. Slap my nose to Nasik. Ha! Just because your nose is as pointed as a pyramid and mine horizontal as a Chinaman’s. Very well, just you wait, this same nose you have slighted will appear as high as Mainaka[10] when I teach you a lesson.
But what can I really do?
I just cannot think for the life of me; and there on the stage, Tenida is waxing eloquent. Every now and then he leaps so high that the old flea-ridden wooden divan of the Chatterjee’s wobbles dangerously. Difficult to say whether he is doing theatre or giving a high jump.

The stage manager, Habul Sen, passed by. He called out, “Hey Pailla, why are you sitting in the dark like a ghost?”
I pleaded: “Give me a little tea, brother Habul, my throat is as dry as a stick.” 
Habul twitched his nose disdainfully. “No, no, you had better not drink so much tea. Anyway, you have a nerve, wanting tea after the way you have been acting...”
Adding insult to injury! I bared my teeth and made a face at Habul, but it was too dark for him to see.    
Should I do the disappearing act with the beard? Go straight to my house? When they find no trace of me during the Dadhichi scene, then what fun it will be. But no—will that be wise? Who will save me tomorrow morning?
One slap from Patoldanga’s celebrated Tenida and I am as good as dead. No, no, that won’t work. I will need to contrive differently, so that the snake is killed without breaking the stick. I will have to set such a trap that Tenida will eat nails, and swallow them happily. And with all that, I must teach him a fine lesson so that he sprouts another tooth—the one they call the wisdom tooth. At the same time, I will also need to fix Tenida’s manager, Mr Habul Sen.
I called upon the Lord and asked him to illumine the darkness and show me the way.
And the Lord granted me light.

I told Habul I would be back in five minutes from my house. Habul questioned fiercely: “Why?”
“Oh this stomach of mine is a little, you know—“
Habul said: “That’s torn it. This is what comes of involving such puny stomach-afflicted creatures. You’ll ruin us all. Your part will be on in just a while.”
I said: “No, no, I will be back immediately.”
I thought to myself, we’ll soon see whose stomach will be in what state. You wanted me to eat the Monument, let me see what grave stuff you can digest.

I was back in exactly five minutes.
My doctor uncle’s medicine cupboard did not take too much time to yield to my hammer. I returned with just the medicine. I calculated that it was almost an hour before I was to go onto the stage. The work would be done in that time.
I went to where the big tea kettle was boiling on the oven. No one was paying any attention, everyone was watching the play from the wings. Tenida was leaping around to the dense accompaniment of claps. Just you wait, I’ll see how many claps you clamour for.

Tenida returned, his pyramid-like nose elevated even higher in the flush of victory. Smiling smugly, he enquired: “How did it go, Habul?”
Habul replied ingratiatingly: “Wonderful, wonderful! Who can do such a part but you? The audience is cheering you hoarse—well done, well done!”
I know why the audience is cheering. They have not understood that this was Vishwakarma’s part, not Bhimasen’s. But the real part is still to come, I said to myself.
Tenida let out a roar which shook the stage: “Tea, hey you—get tea.”
Habul took a deep breath and shot off.

The curtain has risen again. In the role of Dadhichi, I am sitting in a meditative pose and eating insects. My disciple, Dadhimukh, is standing at a distance now. He has not forgotten our earlier encounter.
Indra and Vishwakarma make an entrance. Tenida and Habul.
Habul spoke:
“Master, O Great one,
We have come
At the bidding of Shiva,
That from the bones you bear
May thunderbolts be hewn—[11]

Tenida said:
“The genius of Vishwakarma
Will be displayed
Such weapons will I raise[12]
That the universe entire,
And all its oceans will quiver
With a great cry.
Sentient and inanimate
Intensely will radiate
Charged as the glow of a lamp,”
After that, without slackening speed:
“Oh my, what a stomach cramp”.

Habul groaned softly: “My stomach feels funny too”.
I glanced at them just once from the corner of my eye. Now to see how strong is the digestion of those who claim that the Monument can be eaten!
I said:
‘Stay, stay—
While I pray
To my Lord and meditate
Awhile you must wait.
Be quiet, till I say
And then I give my word, my life I will give up.”

I continued to sit immobile. This meditation is not going to end so easily. The assaults of the insects continue unabated—but no matter. If I don’t suffer, how will Tenida and Habul attain salvation?
Hot tea with strong purgative—let’s see what happens now!
Tenida grimaced and said hastily from the corner of his mouth: “Quick, finish your meditation. Oh my aunt! My stomach really hurts!”
I said: “Quiet! Do not disturb my meditation
Or else I will lay the curse of Brahma on you.”

Of course, I was not actually sitting in meditation. I saw Tenida’s pale face from the corner of my eye. Habul was in a worse state. The Lord is compassionate.
Tenida spoke in abject tones: “Oh Pailla, I beg you, end your meditation quickly. I fall at your feet, Pailla.”
Habul groaned: “I am almost dead.”
I sat completely unmoved. “Contain yourself. The meditation of sages—a question of giving up one’s body—is this a simple thing to do?”
“Oh, I am gone”, and with one jump Tenida vanished. In the absolute darkness. And behind him, Habul.
And theatre?
What is the use of saying anything more about it?

[1] Samadhi, a trance like state of meditation achieved by sages after much discipline and practice
[2] Shantanu, the Kuru King, great grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas. Here, there is a play on the words, ‘shant’, or calm and ‘Shantanu’.
[3] Durvasa was a sage of very uncertain temper, famed for his propensity to fly into a rage at real or imagined insults. He is the one who cursed Ganga, banishing her to earth from the heavens, because she laughed at him. He is also the sage who blessed Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in Mahabharata, and granted her the boon to summon the gods at will to father her children.
[4] Vasaka or Shwetavasa in Sanskrit, Malabar nut in English, botanical name: Justicia Adhatoda or Adhatoda zeylanica, is a medicinal plant native to Asia. Its leaves are bitter and widely used in Ayurvedic medicine; their juice is believed to cure dysentery, diarrhoea, and glandular tumour.,, accessed 10.07.2014
[5] A vegetable of the gourd family                                             
[6] Fried/roasted and spiced whole gram, a favourite street food

[7] Vishwakarma, the divine architect, was one of the fourteen precious gifts of the Samudra Manthan. He is said to have constructed the holy city of Dwarka, where Lord Krishna ruled, and the wondrous Maya Sabha of the Pandavas. He also created many fabulous weapons for the gods. He is mentioned in the Rig Veda, and is credited with Sthapatya Veda, the science of mechanics and architecture.

[8] Danibabu is the popular name of Surendranath Ghosh, who lived from 1868-1932, and was a famous actor of Bengali theatre, and the son of the great actor Girish Chandra Ghosh; see The Bengali Drama: Its Origin and Development, 1930, by P. Guha-Thakurta

[9] The Ochterlony Monument is a column 48 m (157 ft) high, located at the Kolkata Maidan and a landmark of the city. With more than 200 steps that lead to its top, it is literally a tall order to scale it, much less digest it! Named after Major-General David Ochterlony (who led the victory of the British East India Company over the Marathas in the Battle of Delhi in 1804, and over the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepalese War), and designed by J. P. Parker, its construction in 1828 was paid for from public funds. Renamed Shaheed Minar orMartyrs monument’, it was dedicated to the martyrs of the Indian Freedom Movement in August 1969, but continues to be referred to simply as ‘Monument’.,_Kolkata accessed on 27 March 2014; p. 186, Stones of Empire, Jan Morris, OUP Oxford, 1983.
[10] A mountain in the Himalayas. In Hindu mythology, Mainaka is the brother of Parvati, and the most powerful son of the hundred sons of Maina (Mena) and Himavat, the Lord of the Himalaya. Maina, originally resided in heaven, but came to earth because she and her sisters did not recognize and greet some revered rishis, and were consequently cursed by them. Another instance of the hot temper of great sages! In the Ramayana, when Hanuman flies to Lanka over the ocean, Mainaka, pushes himself out of the depths of the waters and invites him to rest awhile on his peak.,
[11] Indra, the leader of the Devas, the lord of heaven, and the God of rain and thunderstorms. He wields a lightning thunderbolt known as Vajra
[12] As recorded in Puranic literature, the Asthis (bones) of Dadhichi, also known as Dadhyancha, were used to make the Vajra. This mysterious weapon of Vedic origin, was the Amogha Astra (unfailing weapon) used by Indra to kill the Asura Vritra, the demon of drought, and release life-giving waters for the benefit of mankind.  Dadhichi, revered amongst the greatest of sages, was from the clan of bhrigus, and one of the greatest devotees of Lord Shiva. At the request of Indra, he gave up his life by the art of Yoga, so that his bones could be used to make new weapons to defeat Vritra, the recipient of a boon whereby he could not be killed or harmed by any known weapon. The Vajra also serves as the motif for the Param Vir Chakra, the highest gallantry award of the Indian Army.  See Official Website of Indian Army, and


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