“Waaris”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Sampatti Samarpan”, aka “The Trust Property” [1] (1891-92), is a mordant tale of madness and desolation brought about by overweening greed.  This story served as the basis for the 16th  episode, “Waaris”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

This could almost be considered a horror story, but one that is more focused on the plane of human  feelings rather than on external circumstances.  It begins by showing middle-aged Yagyanath Kundu (played by Rammakant Daayama) laughingly playing with his four-year-old grandson Gokulchandra.  At the same time, Yagyanath is carelessly unmindful of the life-threatening medical condition of his son Vrindavan’s wife in the same household.  A village doctor comes and prescribes some medicine for Vrindavan’s wife, but the selfish and stingy Yagyanath refuses to spend the money on it.  The woman soon passes away, and horrified by his father’s unfeeling behavior, Vrindavan announces to him that he is going to take his son, Gokul, with him and leave the home.  But Yagyanath is unfazed by his son’s departure – it will just mean that he can save some money on his household expenses.  And Yagyanath’s village neighbors, steeped in the traditional customs, are equally unsympathetic towards Vrindavan and think that the son should  not have moved away from his father.  After all, one of them tells Yagyanath, “if your wife dies, you can always get another wife, but you can’t find another father”.  (A similar traditionally misogynist sentiment was expressed in another Tagore story in this series, “Punishment” [2].)

Although Yagyanath is miserly and hardly a good social companion, he misses playing with his little four-year-old grandson Gokul. That’s the one kind of unbalanced relationship he was able to cope with.  Now he is lonely and miserable.  As time passes (which we can discern by the greying of his hair), he becomes a crotchety and eccentric old man, known for his miserly and antisocial ways.  Increasingly he appears to be a lunatic, and he finds himself an object of derision by naughty young village boys, who run by and poke him as he walks down the road.

One day Yagyanath observes among his youthful tormenters a new rascal who seems to be their new leader and who is even more impudent than all the others.  This cheeky boy, Nitai, even boldly comes up to Yagyanath and rips the man’s garment as a rude way of insulting him.  But since the boy is willing to talk to Yagyanath, the lonely man invites him to his home.  Soon Yagyanath  learns that Nitai has away from home, because his father wanted to send him to school.  So Yagyanath invites the impertinent boy to stay with him, and Nitai readily agrees. 

Nitai enjoys being spoiled by Yagyanath, but after awhile he becomes bored and threatens to leave.  Yagyanath panics over the idea of losing his only companion and offers the boy everything he has if he will only stay.  Later a neighbor warns Yagyanath that a man named Damodar Pal has been looking for his runaway son, Nitai, and if the authorities discover the boy at his place he could go to jail.  It is Nitai’s turn to panic now, but Yagyanath assures the boy that this very night he can hide the boy in a place where noone can find him.

Then in the middle of that night, Yagyanath wakes the sleepy boy and ushers him out into the jungle.  He takes Nitai to an abandoned temple and upon entering the main chamber loosens a floorboard, which turns out to be a hidden trapdoor to a secret chamber below.  After the two of them climb down a ladder into the dark, hidden room, Nitai can see pots full of jewels and gold coins.  This is where the miserly Yagyanath has been hiding his great wealth!  And now this will be Nitai’s undiscoverable hiding place.      

But in this connection Yagyanath has a crazed plan.  He madly intends to convert Nitai into a tantric yaksha nature-spirit to guard over his hidden wealth [3].  So he coercively orders the sleepy boy to repeatedly recite a mantra-like declaration that if his grandson, Gokul, or any of Gokul’s heirs, ever appears at the temple and wants the hidden treasure, Nitai  must hand it over to  him.  Nitai is now frightened by these ghostly developments, but he is now in something of a trance and is repeating his mantric declaration over and over.  Then with Nitai still chanting, Yagyanath climbs the ladder and exits the secret chamber.

In the morning, Yagyanath is awakened by his son Vrindavan, whom he hasn’t seen since Vrindavan and Gokul departed his home years ago.  Vrindavan tells him that he is looking for Gokul, who recently ran away from home and who, rumor has it, may now be staying with his grandfather.  He also reveals that, because of Yagyanath’s embarrassingly bad reputation in the area, he had changed his name to Damodar Pal, and he had changed Gokul’s name to Nitai.

With this news – that the naughty boy that he had condemned to be a yaksha in the temple dungeon was actually his beloved grandson Gokul – Yagyanath slips into complete madness.  He absently looks off into space, asking to noone in particular if anyone can hear a child calling.  At this, Vrindavan, in turn, panics and runs off in the wrong direction searching for his lost son.  As the story ends, Yagyanath continues to stew alone in his delirium.

At the close of Tagore’s original story “Sampatti Samarpan”, it is clear that Nitai did not survive his grim imprisonment, but in this filmed episode, “Waaris”, Nitai’s fate, though dire, is left somewhat open.  We are just left to mull over the vengeful trick fate has played on Yagyanath and his demonic scheme. 

Indeed this ironic twist at the end constitutes the appeal of this story, which otherwise suffers from the weakness of having a deranged main character with whom it is difficult to empathize.

Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Trust Property”, Mashi and Other Stories, The Literature Network, (1918).   
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Punishment’, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)”, The Film Sufi, (6 March 2018).  
  3. Malabika Roy, “Chapter - III: Myths, Symbols and Imagery of Tagore’s Short Stories”, The Poetic Counter-point in Rabindranath Tagore's Short Stories : a Critical Study, University of Gauhati, (Guwahati, Assam, India) (PhD, 2011).  

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