During my life, I have had three encounters with Tantalus. These three encounters took place while I was studying in school, then in college, and then while I was working in the University as a Librarian. I suppose it is not unusual for men of imagination to have such experience. But I doubt if any of them could have created one in flesh & blood.
This is a bizarre, nevertheless true episode, and the background takes us to the days of the second world war, when the threat of bombs falling on our towns and cities had come to be very real.
I was then a student of class nine.We had our roots in the country and that was where my parents lived.But my more than average intelligence decreed that I should pursue higher studies in the town living with my uncle.So after passing my middle vernacular examination in which I obtained a scholarship, I packed my bags for town.And since there was no high school in our village, my emigration was justified all the more.Some boys of our village had to trek four or five miles to study in the nearest high school in a neighbouring village.I was not prepared to conform to the daily ordeal if I could help it.
However, the war terminated my stay in town quite prematurely.I packed my bags again & returned to the village, one of the many urbanites who were pushed towards the safety of the quite country- side, thanks to the threat of bombs from the so called enemy plane.
My homecoming was made pleasant by the discovery that our village had progressed some during my absence. Among other things a high school had been established which ensured that my studies would not be seriously affected.
So I got myself admitted in the village high school. I noticed something I was held in some esteem by teachers and students alike, a fact which could be attributed to the aura of sophistication which the town- life had perhaps thrown around my personality.
The Boys started almost worshipping the ground I walked on. Not that all this was totally undeserved. For did I not dress well, read prolifically, and talk smoothly and intelligently? None of them my country cousins could stand up to me in any aspect of living, nor claim at least to have had a measure of ‘higher’ education in the town.
I was anxious to keep up the image. At my instance a study circle was formed in the school and I became the President. Then I set about the task of bringing out a magazine and needless to say, I was persuaded to be the sole editor. Thus with great panache and zeal I mounted operations to elevate culture as well as my social status in school.
It was at this time that I came in contact with Navin. The articles meant for the magazine had naturally to pass my scrutiny and the article which impressed me most in those early days was written by this Navin Chandra Deka, a student of class eight.
It was a nice piece. If it was original the boy must have had, I thought, the taste of some good literature.
I was curious to know more about the boy, and once I threw a question casually at one of my class mates. Well, he gave me a brief life sketch of Navin. I listened with an attitude of feigned contempt. It seemed that the boy was not only inclined towards text books, he was also a voracious reader of books not within the range of our syllabus.(This classmate of mine had the good sense, at the same time, to stress that Navin did not come anywhere near me in reading habits). I was told that Navin went to the extent of going round other villages for collecting books and he had built up a miniature library for himself.
Somewhere in the middle of this narrative I asked him- “How is it that I had not heard of this Navin till now, even though I have been here for quite a while?”My classmate explained that Navin had not come to school for over a month as he was lying bedridden with typhoid.
Not many days later I met Navin in person. During a break when I was talking with the same class-mate about something or the other, a boy broke into our conversation. My friend gave a shout- “Hey Navin, are you fully recovered by now?” I looked back and made a quick appraisal of the boy, known as Navin. He was wearing a ‘dhoti’ of hand-spun yarn that reached a few inches below his knee. He was a very common looking specimen and had the sort of face you had to make a conscious effort to remember, after seeing it once.
After school hours, I met Navin on my way back home. In fact, he was waiting for me. He was hesitant and looked embarrassed, to say the least, but he did point out a mistake I had apparently made during the discussion in the course of which he had made his first appearance before me. Despite looking so timid and servile, he did dare rectify that mistake.
I was naturally outraged at his audacity. Yes that was what his harmless suggestion amounted to. Fortunately no one was nearby who could bear testimony to my intellectual humiliation at the hands of an ill-kempt country boy. However, one fact that made its way through the anger raging within me was that the fellow had chosen this quiet place, this quiet hour – without any of my friends nearby, to enlighten me. Otherwise my humiliation would have been public.
As one would expect of me, my response was proper and dignified. “It is quite possible” I said, “that I made the mistake you mentioned, but rest assured it was nothing beyond a slip of tongue.”
I did well to admit my mistake without appearing humble, because I did not want Navin to spread the story of my little failure. I had expertly guided my natural talent to raise me to heights of respect and popularity and I could not possibly allow a little thing s that to tarnish the image. The fall from grace would indeed be painful. So far I had reigned supreme as the one and only intellectual in this village where even literacy did not go beyond a modest sprinkling. But the emergence of this self styled scholar Navin did not augur well and I warned myself to watch my steps.
But I did not let civility slip from my conduct with Navin. I even visited their village Library at his request. Considering that it was rural, the Library was fairly good. Besides words of encouragement. I also donated few of my own books to the library. I was glad to notice that generous gesture went home and earned me quite a bit of admiration in school.
Towards the end of that year an event occurred which effectively put an end to Navin’s literary life. His father passed away and as the eldest of his children, the burden of maintaining the large family fell on Navin.
That day I did indeed express genuine sympathy for him on his misfortune. Did I allow my sympathy to be fouled by a grain or two of perverse satisfaction that the main obstacle in my path of glory had been removed by fate? It would not be fair to raise such questions, at this point of time.
After informing me of his father’s death, Navin lovingly caressed the books in my shelf and I was the unwilling witness to a sense of abject disillusionment and defeat. I playes the affectionate paternal role-“You have to take life as it comes, Navin. There is no other way. It’s no use of blaming your luck. Fulfillment always falls short of aspirations, does not it? Now don’t leave everything to fate. Try to make something out of yourself. Try to make sometime for keeping in touch with books. Academic knowledge is not everything, you know. Of course, you have read Rabindranath , so…”I had gone on and on.
The next year I went back to town.I left behind a life which had revolved around the village, the school, the study circle. The school magazine, the adorning friends and Navin.
The years were swallowed up by time.I passed B.Sc. with Honours.Very soon, I got myself a job and settled permanently in Guwhati.The job was that of a Librarian in Gauhati University.In due course I married and acquired a family.My father’s death has made me cut off almost all ties with the village.My mother and a dependant brother have also been living with me.My brother goes to the village once in a while for inspection of land and collection of money as our land has been leased out to sub-tenants.
One morning after breakfast, I was going through the morning newspaper as I smoked a cigarette.As I was about to turn a page, I noticed a man standing some distance away.I peered at him.The man came forward a few steps tentatively as it were, at my sudden awerness of his presence.With a sheepish smile he asked—“Do you recognize me?I am Navin.”
I had a good look this time.Navin-Navin.The name strikes a chord in my memory……………Yes!Navin, the scholar boy in that forgotten village during the good old days of the war.Indeed,this unshaven, shabby and authentic specimen of poverty that was standing before me was truly Navin, prolific reader,promising writer,promising something or other from the ancient past.
“Ah! Navin,it’s you, is it?Well then, how are things?What draws you to the town?”My tone was formal yet friendly.
That familiar expression of polite reserve and discomfiture.But it seemed to carry a new tone of urgency and desperation.His words rushed out: “ Wish I could speak well of my fortune.I have been managing somehow, always thinking about the next meal.Now I am in town, sir.But you are the jewel of our village, you are the pride of our village.So I thought I would approach you sir, perhaps you could manage some jobs for me.Please sir, don’t turn me away.”
“Sir!” Such a reverent tone!Listening to the petition of this miserable shadow of a Navin of the distant past I could not help but dwell on the appalling dimensions of the change.Circumstances had degraded an intelligent young man full of potentials to a sniveling cowering creature who thought of nothing better than the next meal.I saw this total waste before me & felt a pang of remorse.But again,I could but recall the day when this man had got the better of me by pointing out a mistake I had made.Could I ever imagine that the fellow who was so audacious would one day stand before me thus, groveling in this dust?
I was started out of my reverie by Navin’s tale of woe which had suddenly tailed off into a wail—“Please sir, you simply must manage a post for me!I would not have troubled you if we had not lost the past bit of land I had, in a court-case.”
“Jobs are hard to come by in town,Navin,You won’t get one in the twinkling of an eye.Could not you become a teacher in the village?”
“Did not I try?But not even a teacher’s post was vacant at that time, as ill luck would have it.”
“All right,please sit down and have a cup of tea.Don’t worry,I’ll try best for you.”With this elusive answer I went to the interior of my house to arrange for the the cup of tea.
When I came out again,I found Navin avidly gobbling up the contents of the newspaper I had been reading.The emotion that this sight evoked in me was a peculiar mix of compassion and jealousy.Could it be that with all that has happened tohim in life, he wishes yet to cling to that old habit?
He left after tea with the hope that I could secure job for him.
Navin kept coming, but as I told him,jobs were hard to come by.
Then one day I heard that the chowkider of our library, Ramprasad was leaving his job and going back to his home.I remembered my promise to Navin.Thanks to my efforts, Navin was appointed as the new chowkider of the Library of Gauhati University.
So Navin became the chowider of the Library of which I was the Librarian.I took time off from my work to see how he was getting along.In a rather listless sort of way, he accepted the books returned by the students and inserted them in the shelves.Similarly he handed over the books that were issued to the students on that day.He sat on the stool awaiting the arrival of the new students.However , not unoften his gaze would move around rest the treasury of books contained within the almirahs, and the acute longling and yearning in that gaze could not be missed.
His position was on the frontier of two worlds—-the outside and inside of the Library.His job did not permit him to step inside the Library proper.On that line of demarcation he spent his hours, his hands almost continuously touching the books he would never get the a chance to read.