On the eve of Christmas in 1892, a young monk from Kolkata jumped into the shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean off the shores of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu at the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. He swam across to a rock perched in the middle of the rough waters, but what did he want to gain?
The twenty-nine-year-old yogi reached the monolith wading through the tempest unscathed. There, like through some sheer divine inspiration, he sat to meditate for the next three nights and days, under the starlit sky, with lashing sea mist on his face, only to rise once he found the purpose of his existence.
A century later from the very same spot on the same shores, jumped into the water, another young man with intentions perhaps very same. The night was very similar to the one a hundred years ago. He struggled to swim. There was something wrong with him. It seemed he was not as good a swimmer like his predecessor. He swam unnaturally slow, like deadwood drifting on the wave. The strong undercurrents pulled him down many a time. He, however, rose above the waves over and over again.
Both the young monk and the young man lived and grew up in the same place, only in different timelines with a gap of one hundred years between them. Both of them learned to swim in the same urban lake situated in the heart of North Kolkata surrounded by iconic schools, colleges, mansions, slums, temples, and churches.
This urban lake fenced by a thin park had always been known as the ‘Hedua Talab’ to the communal populace of North Kolkata’s traditional streets and bylanes. Talab being the Hindi word for pond subtly suggests a non-Bengali influence in this otherwise hardcore Bengali domain. The name was most probably coined and popularised by non-Bengali migrant palanquin bearers, labourers and later rickshaw pullers who bathed in the pond since the genesis of the city’s existence.
Though in 2001, as part of the state Government’s drive to rechristen all British bestowed anglicised names into Bengali ones, its name too was changed. Like Calcutta being changed to Kolkata, this midsized city pond was now renamed ‘Azad Hind Bag’ not appreciated by all but applauded by some, I guess.
Bengali kids Dhoda, Bente, Monikanchan, and Shiben all grew up in the early nineteen seventies and eighties around this place. Like their fathers and forefathers before them, they too learned to swim and love water in this ancient Hedua Talab lake. During those days’ parents did not have to take their children to learn swimming. Friends casually jumped and pushed each other into the water and learned to swim within just a couple of days, splashing around in the shallower regions, before venturing into deeper waters going on to become local swimming legends.
Those were the days when kids used to wear their shorts above the navel region, while the pant legs merrily stretched below their knees, in a style perceived today as extremely unfashionable. Clothes were bought only when torn or once a year before the family’s most important religious festival. They were called long-term-investments, handed down from parents to children, uncles to nephews, aunts to nieces, brother to brother, and sister to sister, lasting for decades.
Wearing such motley pants, the four friends would jump into the Hedua Talab lake every night sharp at twelve, practising a rigorous swimming routine, which looked no less than preparing for the Olympic games, but why did they do it and to what end? They started doing this midnight swimming from one summer night in 1985, prior to which they were casual swimmers like many others living in that region.
Midnight swimming had its advantages. Firstly, there was hardly anyone around at the wee hours to distract or disturb their swimming routine in any way. Further at midnight the weather and water were much cooler as compared to the hot and humid summer days. In winter, it helped them build resistance to wade colder waters that they might have to face in the future someday. A solitary watchman though aware of their presence, snored away tumbled on a green wrought iron park bench as the four kept on practising their relentless swimming routine, night after night, time and again.
Bente was the worst swimmer among the four. Though he shared the same passion as the others, he, however, gave up most of the times falling prey to his lazy bones. While the other three mastered freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and sidestroke, Bente preferred the doggy paddle frolicking in the water lost in a world of his own.
The year was 1985, and the four were around fifteen years of age. It was around six in the evening, and they had gathered at their favourite spot on the fourth storey of the giant concrete diving tower at the southern tip of the lake. They loved it there, from where they could have a birds-eye view of the entire swimming pool and park while remaining hidden from the eyes of the hundred teaming souls that exercised, sat, walked, moved, chatted, ate, swam and spent time in and around the Talab region.
Shiben pulled out a newspaper bag of masala sprouts from his baggy pants. He had bought the savoury condiment from a third-generation pushcart-stall vendor outside the South-east gate of the Talab. While the seller sold this food to Shiben, a hundred years ago his father sold it to the young monk, served in the same timeless flavour of secret masalas prepared through a family recipe much hidden.
Dhoda jumped on to Shiben’s bag of sprouts, being the group’s glutton, he could not resist the mouthwatering smell infused with lime and spices. The two scuffled for a while until both burst out in laughter, sharing the condiment. Bente sat at the edge of the diving board dangling his legs and humming the recently popular song ‘Jee Le Le, Jee Le le’ from the Bollywood blockbuster Hindi movie Tarzan.
All this while Monikanchan sat with eyes glued to a book, that to him was no less than a Bible. The book was called ‘Powers Of The Mind’ containing the mindblowing speech by the same young Bengali monk delivered 85 years ago on the evening of 8th January in the year 1900 at the Payne’s Hall, 330 1/2 South Broadway, in the city of Los Angeles, in the Southern California state, of the USA.
Monikanchan read the words “Arise Awake and Stop not till the goal is reached” over and over again. The others knew this line too. All four of them had come to believe in it as the motto of their life. It helped them in everything they pursued, their studies, hobbies and especially in swimming. Like millions all over the world, who had come to draw inspiration from the monk’s words, the four were highly influenced by the yogi’s teachings too.
Hailing from the same Bengali ethnicity, and growing up in the same locality as the monk, walking on the same streets that he walked in, eating food from the same stalls that he ate from, breathing the same air that he breathed in, and swimming in the same waters that he swam in, the friends felt it as their legacy to learn and live by the yogi’s philosophy of life.
The book spoke about man’s psyche as the storehouse of extraordinary power and how, unfortunately, most of the times humanbeings remain unaware of this tremendous potential. In just the thirty-nine years of his mortal life, the monk had left behind a treasure trove of philosophical work.
His books compiled from the lectures he gave around the world on the four yogas – Raja yoga, Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga and Jnana yoga moulded the minds of the four friends. While Monikancha among them, was most influenced, Bente was the least serious, distracted by things at baser levels.
The young man stopped for a moment; he had been braving the waters for more than an hour now. Was it a shark that he just saw, or was it a figment of this disoriented brain? Gaining his composure, he looked beyond the rising waves. He was at about the midway of his watery voyage of ultimate human endurance. He could see the rock shimmering under the light of a million stars and the melancholy moon. For a moment he doubted his resolve, and then remembered the young monk’s words again – “Arise Awake and Stop not till the goal is reached.” He found inner strength and started to swim once again.
On top of the giant concrete diving tower, rising and flinging his arms outwards, Monikanchan bellowed “eureka.” Startled, Shiben and Dhoda let go of the licked-clean paper bag of masala sprouts, and it floated away from the diving deck, slowly descending to settle on the green waters of the lake below. Bente stopped humming ‘Jee Le Le’ and came closer to investigate.
“I just realised what we need to do. All our swimming training and the monk’s teachings had to mean only one thing,” reflected Monikanchan in a sombre tone of sudden realisation. “What on Earth are you talking about,” said Bente somewhat irritated, having to abruptly cut short singing ‘Jee Le Le’.
Over the next hour, Monikanchan went on to convince his friends that they too should do the same death-defying swim that was undertaken by their hero-monk ninety-three years ago. After hours of back and forth debate, the four friends agreed that on the midnight of 24th December in 1992, seven years from then, on the one-hundredth anniversary of the monk’s swim the four would repeat history and brave the waters of Cape Comorin to reach and meditate on the same rock. From where they would not move until they too found the purpose of their existence.
With relentless motions of pull, breathe, kick and glide the young man swam slowly towards his goal, piercing the icy cold waters like an arrow released from an archers bow, only focussed at the bullseye, unstoppable and undistracted by any force known or unknown.
After two hours of battling against the currents, his fingers kissed the jagged shores. He had reached the rock and pulled himself above the water. He slowly crawled and climbed clinging to the slippery slopes, till he reached a desirable spot on the stony steep shore. He sat there waiting for the darkness to go.
At the first tinge of the golden dawn, he took out an earthen pot wrapped in layers of plastic, which he had brought along with him, tied to his back the whole time he swam. As the day broke and the dimmed sun slowly rose in the horizon, it gradually revealed the tear-filled face of a legless young man.
Four years before this day, in the summer month of 1988, after seriously training for three years in swimming, the four friends had decided to take a break and go on a road trip to the hill station of Darjeeling. All of them had turned 18 years of age within the past few months and wanted to celebrate a joint birthday in the mountains. The spent a total of three nights and days in the scenic hilly region, taking photos, discussing philosophies, and forging memories of a lifetime.
While returning to Kolkata, their bus met with a dreadful accident. Losing control on the treacherous mountain roads, it fell into the roaring Teesta river below. There was only a single survivor, an eighteen-year-old boy, with both of his legs amputated.
The young man gently removed the layers of plastic and moved his fingers across the words that he had etched on the earthen jar – “Arise Awake and Stop not till the goal is reached.” He carefully untied the lid of the urn and stretched as straight as he could with his amputated legs, and poured what looked like ashes from it, and the fragments of grey dust ebbed away into the air, while some fell to the stones, some floated away in the ocean, becoming one with the universe – from dust to dust ashes to ashes.
Resting the empty urn beside him on the rock, with much satisfaction and peace of mind, like having achieved his life’s aim, the young man dangled his amputated legs from the cliff humming the tune “Jee Le Le, Jee Le Le, Ayo Ayo Jee Le Le.”
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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