Excerpt: Learning from Loss by Renuka Narayanan
This extract from a collection of stories on death, heartbreak and loss from Hinduism’s many traditions retells one of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s parables
Not Even a Pan
Some calamities are like the sky falling on our heads for no discernible fault of ours. Other troubles are self-created by our own errors. This tale is taken from several parables of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. To err is human. But must a person suffer forever because of a mistake? Ramakrishna taught that it was not so. Many of his recorded parables are extremely short in length but vast and deep in content. It is up to the listener or reader to make sense of them and find the possibilities of recovery after a painful loss.
Haren was the poor relative of a rich landlord in Bengal. The landlord lived in Calcutta in a fine town house with carriages and horses at the back and an inner courtyard with roses, oleanders and English flowers growing in tubs and pots. He had a wife and two daughters. His wife was as fond of society as he was, and they lived a busy life with parties, soirees and picnics. Haren’s mother, a distant cousin of the landlord’s, brought him to town to ask the landlord for a job for Haren. Perhaps he could be a clerk at one of the landlord’s warehouses?
The landlord had a house and estate deep in the countryside. His old steward had recently died, and he needed a replacement. He offered Haren the job and said he could stay with him in Calcutta for a month to learn accounts from his munshi.
This proved to be Haren’s undoing. The glittering life he saw around him in Calcutta filled him with want. He took to closely observing the landlord when he had the chance, to learn how rich folk spoke and behaved. He learnt about the fine things in the Calcutta mansion from the house servants. There was so much to look at and learn about, including silk curtains, blue-and-white Chinese jars, marble-topped tables, vases of flowers, silver and porcelain.
He was too shy, and too lowly, to speak to the landlord’s family, staying as he did in the servants’ quarters beyond the back courtyard. But he observed how society men behaved with the ladies and made a note of the courtesies and flourishes.
Haren wanted to be their equal but knew that he could not be. He was sent off to the estate when his month was up, his head full of imaginings. All Haren owned, apart from two sets of dhotis and kurtas, was a small battered trunk with some pots and pans in it. His mother had assembled them for him with some difficulty.
Haren found that he had a free hand at the estate. The other servants – the sweeper, the gardener and the cowherd – were few and even lowlier than him. He chose a comfortable room, unpacked his shabby, dented utensils in the kitchen and thoroughly explored the house.
Finding a cupboard open, he discovered knotted bundles of the landlord’s clothes and helped himself to a number of fine kurtas, dhotis and shawls. He even found Russian leather slippers that fit. There was an ebony walking stick with strange figures carved on the head. Haren decided it would make a fine accessory to stroll around with in the garden.
His neighbours saw him out and about, and Haren told them he was the landlord’s nephew and the new owner of the estate. If a traveller stopped for a glass of water, Haren offered him buttermilk. “Whose house is this?” they would ask, and Haren would say, “It’s mine. This house and the gardens, they’re all mine.”
This continued for some months until the fateful day that Haren decided to catch a fish. There was a fine, large earthen pond on the estate well stocked with pabda catfish. Haren was partial to pabda macher jhol, a spicy fish curry, and his mouth watered for it. He carefully laid out all the spices he would require, ground the spice paste and stepped out to catch himself a fish. He took along the ebony cane with a flap of cloth tied on it to bring the fish home.
Stepping into the pond, Haren had just taken hold of a slippery pabda when he heard the sound of carriage wheels. It was the landlord who straightaway spotted Haren dressed in his clothes, catching his fish in his pond.
The landlord leapt out of the carriage in fury.
“You thief!” he shouted. ‘I was coming to give you your wages. Now take this!’
He grabbed the ebony cane, hauled Haren roughly out of the pond and began thrashing him scientifically. He drove him out of the gates and slammed them shut.
That was it. Haren was out on the road without his wages, his spare dhoti and even his dented pots and pans, his only possessions.
Haren wept in shame and humiliation as he stumbled along the road. “It was just a fish! Why did he kick me out so cruelly?” he sobbed, still refusing to see the point.
After a while, he stopped at a small roadside pavilion made by some charitable soul for travellers to rest in or shelter from the rain. An old sadhu sat there in monumental stillness. But his eyes were lively and bright as he took in Haren’s distraught face. Haren saluted him automatically and sat down in a morose heap.
“What is the matter, son?” said the sadhu after some time.
“Venerable sir, I am in big trouble,” blurted Haren, and with a little coaxing, poured out his sorry tale.
The sadhu did not say anything at first. After a while, he said gently, “Let me tell you a story.”
“Once, an ant discovered a heap of sugar. Just one grain filled its stomach. Carrying another grain, it set off towards its anthill. It thought triumphantly, ‘Next time, I will take away the whole sugar hill.’ Son, this is how ignorant minds think. They want everything they see. Whereas the real treasures are three. First, self-respect. It does not come from material things but from honourable conduct and lack of greed. The second treasure is honest effort. Work hard to make something of yourself. You will not be left without even a pan. Third, seek and find God in everything and everyone around you. When you realize you are part of a whole, you will not feel cheated and denied by things on the surface.”
Haren looked on, only half comprehending, so the old sadhu told him another story.
“There was a sadhu once who lived above the naubat khana, or music room, of the temple at Dakshineshwar. He never spoke to anyone and spent all his time meditating on God. One day a big, black cloud suddenly darkened the sky. But after a few minutes, a strong wind blew away the cloud. The holy man came out of his room and began to sing and dance on the veranda.”
When asked about this unusual merriment, the sadhu laughed and said, “Such is Maya, the illusion that covers life. First there is a clear sky, then there is a dark cloud and soon it’s a clear sky again, just as before.”
Haren understood this better. “So my misfortune is just a passing cloud, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Indeed it is, if you provide the strong wind of effort to blow it away,” said the old sadhu. “If you would care to take my advice, go back to Calcutta. Go to the Dakshineshwar temple and tell them you met me. Tell them the truth as you told me and say that you want honest employment. Perhaps they can help you.”
Haren thanked the old sadhu but was not immediately consoled. His pain and humiliation were so intense after his traumatic beating and expulsion that the only thing he felt capable of doing was to go home and lick his wounds. He made his way back to his village, hitching rides now and then on passing carts, brooding over the stories the sadhu had told him.
Back home, his mother’s reaction pained him immensely. “Is this what I brought you up to do? We can never show our face to them again,” she wailed when she heard the whole story. The next few months were very difficult and lonely for Haren, who was too ashamed to step out freely. His biggest grief was over the loss of his self-respect and honour.
“I was a fool,” he thought bitterly. “Why did I lay my greedy hands on what was not mine to take? I cannot blame him for his reaction. I would have been angry, too, in his place. I am left with nothing, not even my old pots and pans, the only things that were mine.”
A whole year passed in this miserable fashion. Haren’s mother grew increasingly annoyed over her son’s lassitude. One day, she lost her temper and spoke bluntly to him.
“You have wasted enough time at home doing nothing. I helped you in the only way I could. I cannot do more. We are poor and it is shameful that a grown-up son sits idling at home. Now go out and find yourself a job.”
Haren was shocked. His own mother was casting him out. He stumbled out of the house, weeping, and went to sit under the neem tree outside.
A green twig had fallen down, and Haren absently plucked a leaf and chewed it. Its bitter taste made him grimace. This is what truth tastes like, he thought. But just as the neem could cure ills, so could truth.
He had thought long and hard about the old sadhu’s stories, and now he remembered his friendly advice. Perhaps it was not too late? He would go to Calcutta and find out. Haren’s mother approved of his plan and blessed him. He set out on the road to Calcutta with only a few coppers, greatly fearing more rejection and humiliation. “I will drown myself in the Ganga if I am insulted again,” he thought wildly and rebuked himself the next instant for being cowardly.
It took a few days for Haren to reach Calcutta, and he stopped only to wash his face and smooth down his clothes and hair before asking the way to the Dakshineshwar temple.
Entering the big, beautiful temple daunted him at first, but he politely asked for the head priest and was taken to see him.
When he heard Haren’s unvarnished account of everything that had happened, the head priest took some time to reply.
“Jagat Seth is a great patron of the temple and likes to give people a helping hand,” he said at last. “Go to the temple kitchen now and be fed. You can stay the night here. We will see tomorrow about Jagat Seth.”
In what seemed like no time at all, Haren, to his unbounded relief, found a job as a clerk in one of Jagat Seth’s many warehouses by the Ganga. Never again did he take what was not his and worked very sincerely to keep the second chance that he had been given. Several years of hard work and irreproachable conduct paid off, and Haren found himself as secure as he could be. His mother came down to Calcutta to keep house for him, and by and by, began to talk of finding him a bride. But Haren was, strangely, reluctant. The story of the old sadhu who danced and sang about the passing cloud was burned in his brain.
“We’ll see, Mother. I’m not ready yet,” he said, and went off cheerfully to work, profoundly grateful to be employed and be respectable again after his terrible shame.
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