CHAPTER - 3
When Jitendra arrived at the Benares railway station, quite a number of his friends, relations and the deputies in charge of his properties and many well-wishers had come to receive him. Many a time he had advised against so huge a gathering. Every time he had felt annoyed, but every time it happened. It had become a routine.
As he walked to board the car, he suddenly remembered that he had not read the day's newspaper. Someone was bidden to buy one in English and one in Hindi. As the car moved he began reading them. He was startled to find a news column in the Hindi daily.
It said that certain influential local gentry were going to start a cultural center in a suburban town called Shyam Nagar. The inaugural function was to take place in a month. The center was going to be named after Jitendra's parents. It would be called "Gulabi-Gopilal Cultural Center". They proposed to invite Swami Jitendra to preside over the inaugural function. He would also lay the foundation stone for the new buildings. Almost the entire funds were donated by Gopilal six months before his death. The check signed by his wife Madam Gulabi was handed over to them by Madame Gulabi herself. They could not open the center earlier because the site they had selected had rival claimants, and the dispute was settled only few months ago. And they had now taken possession of it.
It was a surprise to Jitendra. He had never known about it, nor any of his friends or relations. But it was natural. Gopilal was a liberal donor to public causes. But he did it in absolute silence. He hated publicity. He hated praise.
But what pained Jitendra most was a few lines in the column that referred to him as an Avatar of Lord Krishna. And that he possessed superhuman powers and that he was a worker of miracles. It said that the Cultural Center in the making was sure to grow and prosper when a Godman and a chosen celebrity of the divine powers like him took part in the ceremony. All that was otherwise impossible would become possible with his divine presence.
There were many people who believed it. And there were persons in important circles who promoted such belief. This was a recurrent embarrassment for Jitendra which made him very angry. Times without number he had denied it most emphatically. He had told such people that he was one of the most ordinary of men and that he was just like any one of them, a humble seeker of God and Truth. Neither was he an Avatar of Lord Krishna, nor did he possess superhuman powers. Some people sometimes got his blessings. Some good happened to them. But it was not because of him. It was because of God or some blind chance. There were coincidences in life. But whenever some good happened, it was not right to ascribe it to his supernatural power. Even without him and perhaps even despite him it could have happened. There were cases of people too who got his blessings but their hardships continued as ever. Whenever possible he had condemned this superstition, but it persisted. He would talk to the organizers of this Cultural Center celebrations when they met him.
After the death of Jitendra's parents, there was none in the ancestral, parental home of the Sanyasin except a caretaker. Whenever Jitendra went and stayed there, the caretaker who was a distant poor relation of his who stayed with his family in the premises would attend on him. One or two disciple secretaries would also accompany him and stay with him in the house. Otherwise the house looked like an exaggerated hermitage, empty and silent.
It was a house that stood on a two-acre plot with about thirty spacious rooms and six large halls, three gardens and any number of indigenous and exotic trees ornamentally arranged in the back gardens and the forecourt. The house stood within a compound and it was one of the biggest residential buildings in Benares, built in the style of a palace. It was a residence, replete with all possible modern amenities, illuminated by more than three hundred lights and a domestic staff, both men and women, of thirty to forty. And there were dozens of relations coming, dining and merrymaking and leaving which happened everyday. Then there were friends and their families. The place had always been one of the liveliest and most festive one.
Jitendra, the Sanyasin, was now on a routine visit to Benares, and he stayed in this building. He had already made a legal transfer of this building to the Ashram. And it was now Ashram property. Formerly the name of this place was "Arcadia". Jitendra had now renamed it as "Light Celestial". It was generally known as the Benares Hermitage of Swami Jitendra. It contained a well-stocked library.
It was in this library Jitendra now sat bent over a book entitled "Narada Bhakthi Sutras", a work of devotional aphorisms by the sage Narada. He was preparing an article on the subject of 'Bhakthi' to be published in the next issue of his journal. The work was of such a gripping interest that he had become oblivious of the many visitors that waited outside in the lobby to see him.
One of them was a young Dutch woman by name Georgina Maxie, a travel- writer, whose books had become very popular in Western Europe and the States. She made frequent visits to India to study historic and religious places, and make them known to the westerners through her very interesting books and articles. She was a devotee of Jitendra, and never failed to see him and take his blessings whenever she came to India. She also kept a steady correspondence with him. At the moment Jitendra had altogether forgotten her waiting in the lobby. He knew she had come.
But he was too preoccupied with the famous Hindu classic on hand. The book was a tract on Bhakthi. Bhakthi in this work had been treated as a single-minded intensive devotion to God to the exclusion of everything else. The devotee identifies himself with God, becomes God-minded and God-intoxicated, and eventually himself becomes all of the God he worshipped. It made for the liberation of the soul. This Bhakthi was impossible unless the devotee loved God and it was a love in which he wept and cried like a sweetheart desperately weeping for a union with her lover. When it transcended everything one tasted pure bliss, and that bliss alone remained. It was an ambrosial experience. It was a Love-Bliss doctrine. Such a devotee needed no religion, no rites, no temples, no books and no prayers. That kind of Bhakthi and the experience one got out of it was a subjective phenomenon and it passed beyond words and could never be translated through the senses.
Jitendra had finished writing the article. Though it was a subject for religious scholars, Jitendra had written it in such a way that anyone who was interested in religion could easily grasp it. Could he make a few changes in it in order to make it a little more understandable to the general reader ?, he wondered. He thought he could show it to Gokul Bhattacharya who had made a special study of the great work and had even written a commentary on it which was much in vogue in religious circles. He could discuss it with him and incorporate a few more ideas.
Gokul Bhattacharya was a versatile scholar working in the local Sanskrit Academy. Jitendra had delivered many lectures in it. Suddenly Jitendra remembered the visitors that were waiting. He came into the lobby, talked courteously to each, spent a few minutes and then saw them off.
Georgina Maxie was the only one now left. She always used to grab a lot of the Swamiji's time. He also loved to talk to her because she was a good talker and talked very impressively. She was a very agreeable companion. She was an intellectual woman that spoke a lot of stunning sense at times. And that would start in Jitendra's mind a whole train of useful ideas. Sometimes she would put very embarrassing questions, and sometimes she made him burst with laughter. She was a woman well read in Hellenistic literature and discussed with him Italian Renaissance Art. She was an Art fancier. Her husband occupied a high position in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. She had an ultramodern air, and was most fashionably costumed, her thick bobbed hair fell in ringlets around her milk-white shoulders. She was glib of tongue and spoke in a singing voice. She was a young woman around thirty. Her intellectual acquisitions were great, but still, for all that, she was a woman with a dew-like innocence. Despite her being thiryish, she still looked like a teenager. Jitendra and she both talked and moved with each other in a sort of intimate familiarity. She was a regular reader of the Swamiji's journal Madhura Vauhini. After she came to know him she had begun to take a lot of interest in Hinduism. She had already covered a lot of Hindu lore.
Jitendra now met Georgina and apologized to her for having made her wait. And he told her that he was writing an article that had to urgently go to the press. He asked about her latest programs of tour, and talked familiarly and jokingly about many things they were together interested in. They always loved to meet each other. It was always a relief to Jitendra from his strains and worries. Of course Jitendra was not in one of his most expansive moods at the moment because the article he was at filled his mind. All the same Georgina was a welcome visitor, quite a lark. Always welcome, most welcome.
Georgina asked about the article he was writing. He explained it to her at some length. He spoke to her for a few minutes on the theme of Bhakthi. She was much taken up. She felt suddenly exercised. The already voluble woman, now in a bout of soaring excitement, spelt out an idea. "Swamiji, after reading your journal I have almost become half a Hindu. You know I am a contributor to leading journals in Holland, Germany, England, and the U. S. Give me a copy of this article. I will get it reproduced in all those magazines. You are already well known in these countries. Your journal is selling in all those places. I will also buy a copy of this book "Narada Bhakthi Sutras". I will make my own commendation of this book in the literary columns of these journals with which I am so closely associated"
"Thank you Georgina, thank you so much. What are the places you are going to travel in India this time?"
"Tomorrow I go to Aurangabad, and from there I take off to Ajanta and Ellora. I propose to study all the cave paintings. After that I am making a dash to Saranath. Before that I will meet you. Shall I now take my farewell, Swamiji?"
She touched his feet and took his blessings. She was one of those who believed that Jitendra was an Avatar of Lord Krishna. Much as he had tried, Jitendra could never disabuse her mind of this morbid fixation. She had found his blessings remarkably effective and she had told this to many of the people she knew. She always carried in her bag a copy of his photograph which she had already got blessed by him. There were photographers in many places who were making a good trade in it. She had averred that the photograph was to her a very protective amulet to whichever part of the world she went. She gave instances when it had worked wonders for her.
Jitendra stood up, shook hands with her, walked with her up to the doorstep, and warmly saw her off.
Next day Jitendra met Gokul Bhattacharya at the Academy. They sat and discussed the article. Bhattacharya found it an excellent piece of writing on the subject. However he suggested a few small changes.
All the while, a large painting of Adi Shankara which hung on the wall had been attracting Jitendra's attention. It was a rare work of Art in which Adi Shankara, who had ceased to be a mortal long since, had again come back to life. He sat under a tree in a forest in the posture of a preceptor, Guru, with his disciples around him. The illustrious sage who was reborn on the canvas, entranced him and thrilled him. He could almost hear the very words he spoke to the disciples. He had an urge to go and seat himself in his front and experience the nectar of his words. He could inhale the odor of heaven from the canvas. He had no wish to get up from the place and take leave of Bhattacharya, nor he had he the power to disengage his eyes. He waited for the divine Adi Shankara to suspend his teaching for a moment and cast a loving glance at him. He then would take his blessing and take his departure if he could. The picture was a wildly infectious one, a phenomenon of vivid life. He could almost catch its breath and hear the breathing of the sage. There was life beneath life in it and deep down yet more of breath and endless stores of it. It came up surfacing all the time and making, Adi Shankara, more and more of a pulsating divinity and bringing his own humble self within his aura. Jitendra felt the sort of Bhakthi the sage Narada spoke of in his book of aphorisms. It was a sort of absolute Para Bhakthi. All the bliss the sage Narada held up for the all-surrendering devotee now seemed to heave up in surge after surge in all his being. A sudden blending of the mortal and the immortal in the twinkling of an eye.
"Who painted this picture, Mr.Bhattacharya?"
"One artist by name Vidyapathi ".
"Can you please tell me when he did it and where he is now? He was at one time my teacher in painting. I learnt my first lessons in painting with him".
"I have no idea, Jitendra. I know him only slightly. I saw him about five years ago. He looked a very broken and miserable man. He had lost all his looks and a great deal of his flesh too. He looked much eroded and like one in the grip of some misfortune. I saw him in the northwest bazaar of Kohinoor Extensions."
"Where did he say he lived, Mr.Bhattacharya?"
"That Mr.Jitendra I couldn't positively tell. He said the rents in the city were madly shooting up, and he couldn't afford even a cubbyhole. He said he had shifted out to a suburban place. The name of the place", Bhattacharya started prodding his memory again, making an impatient gesture now and then as if it verged up and then vanished.
"I don't get it Mr.Jitendra. But what of that? It is his present address that matters. Do you think he would still be living at the address he gave me five years ago?"
"No, Mr. Bhattacharya, but who knows, he might still be living there. Some people stick hard to certain places all their life.".
Bhattacharya nodded his head a few times while making another desperate effort to rattle up all the faded old stores of memory in his head. Suddenly his face lit up. He said he had got it.
"The name of the suburb is Vaadhapi Nagar. He said he lived within hundred feet of a Kali temple in the fourth street"
Jitendra then thanked Mr.Bhattacharya, He was Jitendra's professor when he did his studies in the university.
Jitendra then spent some time with all the familiar members of the Academy, took tea, and promised to come again. Then he left. Jitendra's father, Gopilal, was one of the three founders of the Academy. More than half the funds was donated by Gopilal.
Vidyapathi had said to Bhattacharya that a good many of his paintings lay unsold in his house. A man who had painted such a masterpiece as Adi Shankara could never have painted mediocre ones. He might keep them all in some rotten place treating them as junk. Were they now lying in his home worn-out, cob-webbed, mossy and mildewed ?.
Next day Jitendra set out in his car to the particular suburb to search out the artist. Jitendra was reminiscent. He tried to piece together whatever lingering remembrances he had of the artist. It was more than fifteen years since he had met him last. The first thing that came to his mind was that he had a clumsy boorish air. What came next was his alpaca coat that hung loosely on his person. He was a chunky solid man of a little more than middle height. He was of the color of dull wax. His head rather disproportionately large, his hair closeout with little patches of gray. He was decidedly, an old-fashioned character in looks and way of talk. He would have passed for a simpleton in circles that didn't know him. He had a square face with thin lips. He had incessantly roving eyes that perambulated his subject till he could get at the core. He painted not merely what he saw of his subject, but what he felt of it and also what he did not see but what he thought was there. On his outsized nose sat a pair of outsized spectacles that had a perennial downward tendency every now and then. A man so thoroughly painstaking was hard to come by.
When Jitendra thought of the artist Vidyapathi he could not keep from thinking of the famous Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch born French artist. He was no more good-looking than this poverty-ridden Vidyapathi now driven to the wall. Van Gogh, when he was alive, had loitered for bread, and had starved many days and nights. He had lived for days on end on mere water and tea. He had an awkward presence and was often clothed in tatters. When he walked with his sunken stubbly face in the streets, his half dead eyeballs peering or blinking away helplessly into the voids from their hollow sockets, the men and women who laughed at him, would never have thought that the miserable man that walked before them was an incomparable artist and that he was going to rule the world of Art posthumously with his genius. Would a kindly fate extricate Vidyapathi from his present morass!.
Jitendra then remembered how Vidyapathi considered art as the most sacred thing on earth. When Jitendra took his painting lessons with him, Vidyapathi was far ahead of every one else in the field. He had been making a lot of money. He was head and shoulders above every other artist who were then in vogue. Still he was singularly free from complexes. He had a healthy pride, but conceit was unknown to him. He adored Art and expected everyone who came to learn to do the same. In the case of Jitendra it was he who laid the foundation of Art in him. Vashatkar was responsible only for the superstructure.
Vidyapathi's conviction was that, in every object, good or bad, God had planted his own perfection and rhythm. In some objects it was close to the surface and in some it was deep down. In the case of the former, just scratch, it will come out. In the latter one would have to dig and labor. The artist in a sense was an excavator and geologist in the spiritual field. Vidyapathi could pick up even objects coarse and profane, and turn them on the canvas in to something estimable, virile, and considerable. He could impart to them new dimensions and make them look immense and sometimes even unreachable. He would make it with so much of skill and genius that one would see only that which the artist had highlighted and nothing else. A subject might be ‘good’ in a small part and ‘bad’ otherwise. If the artist had highlighted the Good in his work, then one's eye caught in the subject only the Good and nothing but the Good. And vice versa. He would mine for the divine and haul it up on to the canvas. His canvas would then become the sanctum of something to which a discerning observer would feel himself spiritually related.
But Vashatkar was of a different description. He had a genius for making sensuous objects look far more sensuous on the canvas, a mass of carnal feed for the appetite of the libido. He could introduce sensuousness in objects where there was nothing sensuous at all. But it would contain esthetic taste. He was a Hedonist in Art but of a degraded order as many thought. But there were many excellent works too which he had painted. He could make an ugly woman look irresistibly voluptuous on the canvas and make her light a fire in your blood. Vashatkar's theory was that God entered the life of Man through the senses. That was why God made the senses. As far as mortals were concerned that was the rule. A good many of his pupils specialized in the painting of the Nudes, and earned a comfortable living. But Vidyapathi could light the subliminal fires of God in one. That was what gave his canvases a greatness of their own. But it was the senses generally and not the soul that predominated.
The artist did not live at the address which Bhattacharya gave. Jitendra made enquiries. They told him that he had shifted to a place farther off. They pointed to a coconut grove that loomed indistinctly from afar. They said he lived there in that coconut stretch. It lay outside the periphery of this suburb and merged into the rustic surroundings of another outlandish village. It looked a place not easy of access. But he didn't want to detract from his purpose. Any way it was going to be a sort of minor odyssey into a bleak and forbidding landscape full of rocks, prickly bushes and rank growth of wild grass and jungle vegetation, all roasting in the hot sun. The suburb petered out into the stinking squalor of a marshland which ended up in a vast tract of withering cornfields. He came across a continuing medley of oppressive sights. He could see any number of half-naked urchins screaming and making merry in the dusty lanes where the gutters overflowed. There were meditative buffaloes in and around a stenchy pond with dripping deposits of dirt, on their backs where sat a great number of crows picking at the mud, cawing mournfully and monotonously. The scene had something ghoulish in it. The crows had a vicious look. The meandering and tortuous tract, as far as his eyes could reach, seemed ominous and perilous. The crows looking like visitants from the Hades on some devastating mission added to the intriguing sensations he felt. It was hard and exhausting to take the vehicle forward through ups and downs. He was now set on a cart-track which went winding over and over. A bullock cart that moved ahead sluggishly gave off now and then a jarring rattle that echoed through all the vicinity.
Jitendra now landed right on a small hamlet which had a moribund air. There seemed to have been an overnight rain. There was a wet wind that heavily dragged through the clutter of trees. It was about 11 A. M. A hot sun pelted over the rusty grass roofs. A colony of hungry mosquitoes, issuing out of a stagnant gutter, seized on him and sang about his face a vociferous greeting. Jitendra already troubled with unpleasant forebodings saw in their music the dirge of a funeral march. But he drove on. The cart-track now broadened and evened out. In the next few minutes the car made an easy ingress into the coconut grove.