Netaji’s Spectacles by Swyam Prakash
Translated from Hindi by Barnali Saha
On the fifteenth day of each month, Halder Sahib crossed the town on his company’s official business. The town wasn’t very large in itself. Only a handful of what could be called brick-built houses, and only one of what could be termed as a bazaar existed. The town also contained a girls’ school, a boys’ school, a small cement factory, a couple of open-air cinema halls, and a municipality office. The municipality was always engaged in some work or the other. Occasionally, it cobbled some road, constructed toilets, built shelters for the pigeons or organized a poets’ conference. And then one day some enthusiastic board members of the municipality or some administrative officer installed a marble statuette of Netaji Subhas Chanda Bose on the main intersection of the main market in the town. The story is about that statuette, or more exactly, it concerns a small section of that sculpture.
The full account isn’t available, but it seems that in the absence of proper knowledge about the best sculptors in the country, and the estimated cost being way higher than the available budget at hand, a lot of time must have been wasted in quandary and in exchanging correspondences, such that it may have been decided during the final moments of the administrative proceedings that the opportunity be given to some local artist, and so in the end, the job might have been assigned to the one and only drawing master in the one and only high school of the town —say Motilalji, who guaranteed the completion of the sculpture and its ‘installation’ in a month’s time.
It has already been mentioned that the sculpture was made of marble. From the pike of the cap to the second button of the coat, it may have measured some two feet in height. It was what we call a bust. It was beautiful as well. Netaji looked beautiful. He seemed a little innocent and tender. He was dressed in military uniform. No sooner one saw the sculpture than one remembered “Dilli chalo” and “Tum mujhe khoon do,” etcetera, etcetera. From this viewpoint, it was a rather laudable and successful effort. There was, however, one drawback that raised an onlooker’s suspicion. Netaji’s eyes were not bespectacled. I mean, the spectacles were there but they were not made of marble. A regular and real pair of broad black spectacles had been installed on the sculpture. A mischievous smile suffused Halder Sahib’s face when he observed this the first time he was passing through the town and had stopped at the intersection to have a paan. Wow, brother! This idea too seems all right, a stone-made statue with real spectacles!
Even when the jeep had crossed the town and had moved forward, Halder Sahib continued thinking about the statuette. He finally arrived at the conclusion that by and large the effort of the populace of the town should be considered commendable. The importance doesn’t rest on the statue’s color or beauty or on its stature but on its sentiment, otherwise even patriotism is slowly becoming a joke these days.
The second time Halder Sahib crossed the area he observed a change in the statuette. Upon looking closer, he discovered that the spectacles were a different one. Earlier there used to be spectacles with broad squarish frame, now there was a pair of wire-framed circular eyepiece. Halder Sahib’s amusement increased considerably. Wow, brother! What an idea! The statue it seems cannot change clothes but it surely can change spectacles.
It gradually became a habit with Halder Sahib to stop at the intersection every time he crossed the town to have a paanand to observe the statuette carefully. Once when his curiosity became indomitable, he asked the paan shop owner, “What is the matter, brother? How come your Netaji’s spectacles change so frequently?”
The paan shop owner had paan stuffed into his own mouth. He was a fat, dark, jovial man. Upon hearing Halder Sahib’s question, his laughed silently to himself. His paunch jigged. He turned around, spat under his shop and then revealing his thirty-two red and white teeth said, “Captain Chasmewalla does that.”
“What does he do?” Halder Sahib failed to fathom.
“He changes the spectacles,” the paan shop owner explained.
“What do you mean? Why does he change them?” Halder Sahib still couldn’t understand.
“Say a customer arrived and wished to have square framed spectacles. How could the captain arrange for them? So he would give him the glasses the statue had been wearing and put another pair on its place.”
Halder Sahib now understood a bit. There was a bespectacled man whose name was Captain. He did not like the statue of Netaji without his glasses. Rather it hurt him as though Netaji might feel inconvenienced without his spectacles. And so he would select a pair from among his limited collection of spectacle frames in his little shop to put on the statuette. But if some customer arrived and he needed a frame like the one installed on the statuette, then Captain Chasmawalla—presumably seeking Netaji’s forgiveness all the while—would extract the frame from the sculpture and give it to the customer and later return another frame to Netaji. Wow! Very good! What an idea!
“But brother, I still don’t understand something,” Halder Sahib said the paan shop owner again, “Where has Netaji’s orginal spectacles gone?”
The paan shop owner had already stuffed the second paan into his mouth. It was afternoon and there weren’t a lot of people in the shop. He again laughed silently to himself. He dropped the katha stick and turned around and spat on the ground and then smiling said, “The master forgot to make them.”
It was an amusing story for the paanshop owner, but for Halder Sahib it was a rather surprising and stirring revelation. It meant that he had been thinking on the right lines. The name engraved under the statue “Sculptor Master Motilal” was indeed a teacher in the town. May be the poor fellow had talked about the completion and installation of the sculpture within a month. He may have sculpted the statue all right, but he had no idea as to how to carve a pair of clear spectacles—with glasses, that is—in stone. He might have tried making a pair but had been unsuccessful and had therefore left the exercise. Or it may be that the spectacles had been broken by some nuances of the crafting process. Or he may have crafted the glasses later on and the pair might not have fit and had consequently fallen off. Uff..!
All this seemed strange and amusing to Halder Sahib. Feeling preoccupied by these thoughts, he paid the paan shop owner his due and then bowing his head to the patriotic spirit of the Chasmewalla, he began walking in the direction of his jeep. Then he stopped and turned around and walked to the paan shop owner and asked, “Is the Captain Chasmewalla a partner of Netaji’s? Or an ex-soldier of the Indian National Army?”
The paan shop owner was in the process of eating a new paan. Holding the paan one and half inch away from his mouth, he examined Halder Sahib, then exposing his thirty-two red and black teeth he laughed and said, “No Sahib! How could that cripple go to the army! He is mad, that’s what he is, mad! See there he comes; you go and talk to him directly. Why don’t you try and publish his photograph somewhere.”
Halder Sahib did not like a patriotic spirit being ridiculed in this fashion by the paan shop owner. He was surprised when he turned his head. A limp and scrawny old man with a Gandhi cap on his head and dark spectacles, came out from a lane carrying in one hand a small box and in another a bamboo stick with a number of spectacles hanging from it and now stood balancing his stick on the stutters of a closed store. So the poor fellow had no store! A peddler! Halder Sahib was in a fix. He wanted to ask why the man was called a captain. Was that his real name? But the paan shop owner had already mentioned in unequivocal terms that he won’t speak another work on the subject. The driver was also getting impatient. He had work to do as well. Halder Sahib sat on his jeep and drove away.
For the next couple of years whenever Halder Sahib crossed the town on his official business, he always stopped to observe the changing spectacles on the Netaji statuette. It sometimes had circular spectacles, sometimes square, sometimes red or black eyeglasses, sometimes sunglasses and sometimes Gogo specs with big glasses….but it always had a pair of glasses. In that dust-ridden journey it gave a few moments of pleasure and amusement to Halder Sahib.
And then one day it so happened that there weren’t any glasses of any kind on the statuette. The paan shop was closed that day. Most of the shops at the intersection had their shutters down as well.
The statue didn’t have any glasses the next time either. Halder Sahib stopped to have a paan and then gently asked the owner, “What’s the matter, brother? How come there aren’t any spectacles on your Netaji today?”
The paan shop owner seemed glum. He turned around and spat the paan in his mouth on the ground, he then touched his forehead and rubbing his eyes with the edge of his loin-cloth said, “Sahib, the Captain is dead!”
Halder Sahib couldn’t ask anything else. He stood somber for a few moments and then having paid the paan shop owner his due, he went to his jeep and drove away. He kept wondering time and again as to what would happen to a nation that ridicules even those who have sacrificed their home—household—youth—life for their country and searches for ways in which they could be sold for their sake. He felt despondent. After fifteen days he crossed the town once again. Before entering the town, it occurred to him that the statue of Subhas Chandra in the heart of the town would be installed like always, but there wouldn’t be any eyeglasses to cover Subhas’ eyes. …All this because the master forgot to craft a pair for the statue….And the Captain had died. He thought he wouldn’t stop there that day, wouldn’t even have paan, wouldn’t even look at the statuette, and would instead just drive ahead. He instructed the driver not to stop at the intersection saying he had a lot of work to take care of and would stop somewhere else to have paan. But his eyes accustomed to his habitual behavior of viewing the statuette, instinctively focused on the sculpture as he reached the intersection. Something he saw made him shriek, “Stop!” vigorously, the driver applied the brakes. The pedestrians crossing the streets looked at the scene. No sooner had the car stopped than Halder Sahib climbed out of the vehicle and in hurried steps ran in the direction of the statuette and stood before it at attention position.
Installed on the statuette was a pair of tiny spectacles made of reed, the kind children make. Halder Sahib felt emotional. This little incident made his eyes well-up.
Glossary of Non-English Words:
1. Paan - Betel leaves
2. “Dilli Chalo” - Let’s go to Delhi
3. “Tum Mujhe Khoon Do” - You give me blood
Barnali Saha is a senior research scholar at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, a creative writer, and translator. Her work has been published in several newspapers and magazines in India and in several e-magazines such as The Tribune, CLRI, Woman's Era, Muse India, The Statesman,The Indian Express, Mused-Bella Online Literary Review, The Smoking Poet, Fiction at Work, Parabaas, Palki, and elsewhere.