The lost child

Debasis Tripathy

Fiction by Debasis Tripathy


One fine day, a young boy was found outside the panchayat office in Baidipada village. He would have been around five or six. The village sarpanch, a kind man in his fifties developed a liking for the boy and took care of his food and other needs, while allowing him to sleep in the only room of the office, during the night.  
The child did not remember anything much from the past except that he had been stolen by a guniya few months back and had been wandering ever since he escaped from his cruel custody.
Four weeks passed and yet no one came to claim the boy. There was a farmer couple who were childless. The sarpanch called the old farmer to the office and suggested to him “Chakara, you two have no one the world and it seems to me that God has sent this child for you. Why don't you bring him up as your son? He will take care of you when he grows up."
Chakara was undecided. They had got used to life without a child of their own. He said “We are poor people. We rarely get two meals a day. How can we take care of a third person?”
The sarpanch replied “I urge you to go and speak to Lakhi about this boy. There is no hurry. As such, he has a home in panchayat office.”
Chakara and Lakhi, his wife sat up very late that night, not knowing what to do.  Finally Lakhi said “If we wait to have our own child, we will die childless. But now if we take a plunge into parenthood, there will be someone to lit fire to our bodies when we die”
The decision was made. The next day the boy entered their house as their own and was given a new name – Bimbadhara, Bimba in short. They both loved and cared for Bimba, enwrapping him in a closeness which you will associate with grandparental love, pampering him as much they could. They were unwilling to let him be out of their sight.
Bimba was sent to the village primary school, where impressed with his learning curve he was given a double promotion to class 3 after just a year. Two summers passed and he was in class 5.  That summer a Jatra party came visiting and set up their tent just outside the village. After staying awake one night and watching a play, Bimba was utterly captivated by the performances. Not finding their son in the house, one day, and after Chakara had made a lasting search for him, he found him among the Jatra actors, who were enjoying their beedis, outside the village temple.
Chakara slapped him for the first time ever and dragged him back to their hut. Lakhi rebuked the young boy threatening to beat him to death with the broom that she grasped tightly in her hand. It was quite a scene that followed for the next couple of hours before the sad sun drowned and the family went to sleep after a meager dinner.
Two days later, just as they were waking up to a new day, Chakara and his wife found that their son was not in the house. They looked for him in the fields, near the river, in the panchayat office and the rest of the village. Not encountering him anywhere, Chakara ran to the outskirts of the village where the Jatra was camped shouted at the top of his voice, “Bimba…”
But there were no tents, no Jatra performers. What remained were ashes from the makeshift hearth and the wheel marks of the truck that had carried away the troupe to some unknown address.
Chakara started running to each door, each house in the village calling endlessly “Bimba, Bimba re Bimba, hey Bimba”. There was no reply. 
He was not willing to accept that his son, the gift of god could vanish like this. Illiterate and not knowing how to read the writings of fate, he decided to seek the help of the person who had passed on the child to him. He rushed to the sarpanch who was equally lost and clueless as him. Chakara felt more helpless than anyone else. 
He sprinted along, his wife chasing him, like a madman until cockcrow, when the broken night had lost hope of finding his son. Even the light of the day could not discover the lost child. Together with his wife, seated on the clay steps of their home, they sobbed until the night appeared again.
They did not find their son. Each day, thereafter, seemed like a year and they both aged posthaste in their deathlike dejection.
Someone told them that the Jatra party was in Bhubaneswar, where the owner of the troupe was based out of. They made a distress sale of their land and their house and set out to the town in a quest for their son.
They inquired about the troupe and with the police and other authorities and at the hospital in the town but seemed their boy had been lost to them forever and no one had any clue about him or the troupe. After a long spell of hopelessness, when a little hope sneaks in and that is lost, it induces a kind of hopelessness which has no cure. Finally, you yield in. The parents wept in silence, having lost all hope.
The town was an expensive affair for the poor villagers and they had no heart to return back to their village, where anyhow they had nothing left. Ahead of time, all their money came to an end. To ward off their hunger, the occurrences of which had turned rare, they did menial work was offered to them. In days, they became so discouraged and depleted that people mistook them as beggars and got something to eat without actually having to beg.
In this miserable state, they reached a temple, near the hill in the suburbs. The temple was small and not very popular with the worshippers who were spoilt with many choices within the convenience of the town’s boundaries. This place became their new home, albeit a roof and walls.
Monsoon came, it started raining heavily. The temple priest who by now had come to know the hapless story of the couple gave them shelter in a tin house adjoining the temple. They spent their days in the temple premises, gazing at the very few people entering and leaving - their eyes still searching for that one familiar face.
On few occasion Lakhi would shout out “Wait, Bimba, stop”, only to realize a little later that it was again a case of mistaken identity.
Chakara would scold her "O sterile woman, stop these histrionics. Allow me some peace"
Eleven monsoons later, the couple had not entered the temple once. By now they knew that that god is one which creates illusions of false hope in human minds. No matter how much ever faith you put in god, he will always do what he feels like. He derives pleasure out of human disappointments.
The old couple had got used to their new life – near the god, yet so far. They liked the silence surrounding the place. They didn’t wish to break the silence and rarely spoke to each other.
One unusual day, there was a lot of activity, a stir of people around the temple. No one asked the priest, but he spoke unsolicited "In a couple of days, we'll celebrate Megha Mela and this year they are arranging a Jatra completion here in the open ground, behind our temple
The mention of the festival brought back a swarm of memories to Lakhi’s mind.
The next day, a group of people came visiting the temple to seek blessings of Maa Chanddi, the reigning deity. They were the Jatra actors.
As they were leaving Lakhi felt she had sighted Bimba.
She exclaimed “Haiyo, Did you not see Bimba? I am sure it’s him!”
Chakara stayed unaffected. He had heard his wife say this many times before. But this time her reaction was way more hysterical and besides she had not said anything like this in the last few years. She had accepted and got used to the loss.
Not getting any acknowledgment from her husband, she went to the priest. The priest, not in a mood to disappoint the poor woman said “The Jatra owner has invited us to today’s show. Let’s go and check for ourselves”
The priest ordered Chakara to join them and the three of them were welcomed by the owner and allotted the front seat with the best view.
The play started after some singing and dancing to pre-recorded music. There were constant and loud cheers. But the loudest cheer was yet to be herd. Then entered the lead female character and the crowd went berserk.
The girl on the stage looked so beautiful. Yet she reminded her of Bimba, a farmer’s rustic son. Lakhi uneasily and headstrongly tried to rewind her frail memory.
She finally gathered courage and whispered to Chakara “Did you see him? I am sure. If our Bimba grows up it will be like him … but this is a woman!”
Chakra looked again on to the stage. She did look like Bimba. Lakhi was right.
The old couple was so affected that they could not speak for the next few minutes. Lakhi looked intensely at the pretty woman ruling the stage.
“There he is, my son Bimba” suddenly shouted Lakhi in frenzy. With her blurred vision and with a showery screen of colored paper bits, the mother could still spot her son. 
“You mean the heroine?” queried the priest.
“Yes, yes. I am sure that’s my Bimba” retorted Lakhi, with a conviction like never seen before.
“Ok, ok, we will find out” the priest added, happy for her and confused himself.
The play seemed to last for an eternity, but it had to end. The three of them were backstage even before the play finished.
After some wait, they got a chance to meet the actors.  All of them had washed their faces and appeared more believable without makeup. All of them were male!
The old woman, who was shuddering in anticipation blurted:
“Bimba!”
One young man paused and looked back at her with an expression that oozed familiarity. She raised her voice, now more sure of herself “Bimba!”
The others around them looked at them, bewildered. An actor in the group tried to correct Lakhi “This is Radha Rani”
Radha Rani, the man with his face close to Chakara and Lakhi, and as a memory of his childhood flashed on him said “Bapa, Bou
He had forgotten many things from his past but there was no way he could forget his Bapa and Bou.  He continued while sobbing “I’d come back but you’d left the village by then”
He knelt down to the floor, on the old man’s knees, and he wept, then holding both his father and mother, completing the triangle, in a shock of excessive elation.


***


Legend
Sarpanch - the head of a village in India
Guniya – an occultist who claims to be a believer of Kali, the dark Indian goddess and in the existence of the secret, mysterious, or supernatural agencies.
Jatra (also Mancha, opera) - is a style of moving theatre performance in the Indian state of Odisha, performing play, music, and dance. The troupe travels to villages and places. When this story is set, often the female roles were portrayed by male actors who were the main crowd-pullers.
Beedi - is a thin cigarette filled with tobacco flake and commonly wrapped in a dried leaf

Magha Mela – A festival celebrated in Odisha during the Indian month of Magha (roughly in January) for around ten days, when the Jatra party kicks off as a part of the fair and festival.
Haiyo – An old form of addressing husband by the wife in Odisha, where the wives are not supposed to take their husband’s name.
Bapa – father in Odiya
Bou – mother in Odiya

~~~~~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~~~~~

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