Several generations of Punjabi students know Mohan Bhandari (1937-2021) by his classic story “Mainu Tagore Bana de, Ma” (“Ma, I want to be Tagore”), which featured for decades in Punjabi school textbooks. Bhandari was an acclaimed writer and recipient of several awards, including the national Sahitya Akademi Award, besides being the life and soul of literary circles of Chandigarh.

Born in Banbhaura village of Sangrur district in Punjab, Bhandari wrote his first short story while still in Class 9. There was no looking back after this. A prolific writer of short fiction as well as a translator, he has to his credit seven collections of short stories and five books of stories translated from Hindi and Urdu, besides a number of books he edited.

Bhandari won the Sahitya Akademi award for his collection of stories “Moon di Akh” in 1997, but in 2015 in solidarity with the nationwide protest by writers against growing intolerance, he returned the award, stating: “It pains me to see growing intolerance and communalism against which we writers have always raised a strong voice in our writings. Returning the award is a way of bringing attention to the disturbing conditions prevailing in the country today.”

~ by Nirupama Dutt

The smoke rose from the chimney like the sigh of a poor person. Lying under the lone tree beside the kiln, he gazed at the smoke. Then he looked down at his own dust-covered legs. As a child he had been plump, all round and cute, and now he was a mere bag of bones. For a moment he felt as if he was a chimney: the useless chimney of a shut-down kiln that had exhausted itself of everything, even smoke.

He felt annoyed with himself, and still more annoyed with the state that he was in. The greater anger that he felt was with the clerk at the kiln, who seemed to have vanished into thin air. He had been lying under the tree for the past hour, waiting for the clerk to return. If the clerk had given him the receipt on time he would have been halfway back by this time.

The clerk was such a nuisance. He sighed again and then looked at his donkeys. With sacks full of bricks on their backs, they were merrily grazing on the grass as though there was no worry at all. They were so busy grazing that they didn’t even seem to feel the weight on their backs. They were beasts of burden and used to their lot. It would have made little difference to them if the clerk did not return for another two hours.

Donkeys will be donkeys and nothing bothers them. Seeing them graze so happily he started laughing.

This is the difference between a human being and a donkey. A human being protests against injustice. But a donkey is just a donkey and nothing more. But even a human being treats the people who work under him like donkeys. So what if they protested? The protests seemed to go unheard. The donkeys were better in a way. They toiled day and night and did not seek any reward. His donkeys were still grazing blissfully.

Looking at them, he laughed again. But his laughter was not as carefree as laughter should be. A pain seemed to be lingering deep within him and he felt small. Lying under the tree, he was shrinking. He seemed smaller than even those donkeys.

“The rascal still hasn’t come. Donkeys!” He became restless again for he was human.

He had completed three trips while it was still cool. This was his fourth and last trip for the day. Then he had to go listen to the speech of the leader who was laying the foundation stone for the school today.

The clerk had said, “I will just be back.” But he seemed to have vanished into thin air.

The donkeys were still grazing without a care.

Small clouds had collected in the sky and a few whiffs of the cool breeze had soothed his tired eyes. Seeing the weather turn pleasant he broke into a folk song:

Palla maar ke bujha gayi diva, akh naal gal kar gayi.
(Putting out the lamp with the swish of her scarf, she made eyes at me.)

He laughed out loud again.

He was reminded of the old bearded poet who was journeying through Punjab’s villages collecting folk songs, and had run into his schoolmaster.

The schoolmaster also wrote some poetry. The old poet with his long loose hair said that when he sang this line to Tagore, the latter had been enthralled. He had been called to sing for the poet. He sang his songs one after another, and the old poet was thrilled. Then the old poet and his teacher kept reciting their poems to each other. He sat there listening in wonder and realised for the first time that poets too were just like other people.

Then one day, after much hesitation, he too wrote a poem. In fact the poem wrote itself. The schoolmaster was very happy when he read that poem. “The poem has the hue of Tagore. Such original thought. You will certainly become Tagore one day. Child, don’t ever lose heart.” That day he became convinced that he too could become Tagore.

He got hold of a copy of the Gitanjali and read it four times, but he could not comprehend much of it and he felt small. But the schoolteacher kept encouraging him, “You will certainly become Tagore one day. Your poem is better than any poem that old bearded poet, the one who came gathering folk songs, ever wrote”.

Now he could write a poem on any subject. However, the teacher refused to accept his poetry. He was a beast of burden and beasts did not write poetry. He recalled an awards function when he was in school. He won so many trophies that he had to ask his friend to carry some of them. He had come first in studies, first in races and first in the poetry competition. He was a beast of burden and beasts did not write poetry.

The leader who had come to give away the prizes said, “From among you there will be great leaders. Many Mahatma Gandhis and Tagores will be born from your midst. The great poet Tagore owed his greatness to his mother.”

He had come running home to his mother. He placed all the prizes in her lap and then putting his arms around her neck said, “Ma, I want to be Tagore, please make me Tagore.”

“What?” His simple mother could not quite make out what or who her son wanted to be.

Then he recalled the day his father suddenly suffered a stroke and had his right side paralysed. Badroo had to drop out of Class VIII and take up his father’s work. The schoolmaster pleaded with his father to let Badroo complete Class X. But his father said, “Masterji, when it comes to survival it is first food and then education. He has to earn the bread for the family.”

The schoolmaster left in disappointment and half the Tagore blossoming inside Badroo the potter died that day.

He awoke from his reverie and sat down. The donkeys were still grazing. He saw the clerk riding on his bicycle. He wanted to give the clerk a good thrashing. But he didn’t do it. He dusted his clothes, washed his hands and face and taking the receipt from the clerk, he got ready to go back home. The clouds had vanished and the sun was shining harshly. It was hot and he felt sorry for his bare feet. The veins on his legs protruded, forming a maze. It seemed as though he had been walking for centuries.

“Come, my lions, let’s move. And you, Nilia, don’t you fall on the way and insult me. I will give you as much fodder as you want when we reach home.” And Nilia, who was weaker than the other donkeys and had once or twice dropped the sacks of bricks, now happily trotted ahead.

He took out the ball of jaggery that he had tied in a corner of his turban and licked it a little before tying it up again.

“I will eat it on reaching the village and drink my fill of water. Then I will sit by the village well and listen to the leader’s speech.”

Badroo recalled what the schoolmaster used to say about Tagore. Tagore had told his mother that he did not want expensive clothes and jewels. He only wanted to play in the energising dusty soil of the earth.

“I was born and brought up in dust but I could not become Tagore,” he said to himself and burst out laughing.

The hot sand was scorching his feet and the breeze had stopped blowing. He recalled how his mother would go up to the roof and call out to the breeze to start blowing again. He too shouted for the wind and screamed at the sun, “You rascal, must you shine today? Don’t you know my feet are bare? You burn yourself in the sky and scald everyone on the earth below.” He taunted the sun and then cursed the clouds, “Oh you daughter-fuckers! Where have you vanished?”

Then he saw a slim cloud floating in the sky. The sigh pleased him but the cloud vanished soon after. Even the donkeys were trudging slowly.

“Oh, all of you will be the death of me!” He started beating the donkeys angrily. He wanted to jump up and sit on one of the donkeys but he did not do it out of fear that the donkey might collapse. He had reached a well by the tree. He stopped and refreshed himself with water, looking longingly at his piece of jaggery. “No, I will eat it once I reach the village. And then I will listen to the leader’s speech.” He stood under the tree for a while and then became anxious that the leader may finish his speech and leave. So he started off again across the hot sand.

He had drenched his feet in water but they dried soon. The hot sand was scorching his feet once again. He plucked a few leaves and, tearing a strip of cloth from his turban, tied the leaves under his his feet. He felt better and, putting one hand on his ear, he bellowed and then broke into a folk song:

Hakan maarde bakrian waale, dudh pee ke jayin Jai Kure.
(The goatherds are calling out to Jai Kur to drink a glass of milk.)

He could see the village now. Eagerly he entered. A welcome arch of mango and banana leaves had been erected by the school and decorated with colourful bunting, Students and teachers were bustling about doing small chores. He stood there drinking in the beautiful scene.

He was once again reminded of his schooldays. He recalled the schoolmaster who used to lovingly say that someday Badroo would become Tagore. He remembered the old bearded man who used to roam about the village collecting folk songs. Badroo had sung hundreds of folk songs to the old man.

The old man had promised to come again but he never did. If he ever came again, Badroo would sing to him the songs he had written. He wrote poems but the schoolteacher dismissed them for now he considered Badroo just a petty potter. Badroo was always covered with the dust that Tagore had once longed for.

Standing there, he was lost in his thoughts, one of which turned into a poem that no one had ever recited. Then he trembled and the poem was lost forever.

One curse followed another. One blow and then another.

“You dirty dog, you wretched porter, what daydream are you lost in? Were you watching some spectacle while your donkeys ruined my field!’ The farmer glared at him with red eyes and cursed him.

He stood there stunned.

The farmer picked up a shovel to hit him. Full of fear, Badroo started hitting his donkeys with a stick and, breaking into a run, he vanished in a cloud of dust.

The ball of jaggery tied to the end of his turban knocked against his shoulders as he ran.

Translated from Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt.