THE LOST CHILD
Mulk Raj Anand
It was the festival of spring. From the wintry shades of narrow lanes and alleys emerged a gaily clad humanity, thick as a swarm of bright-coloured rabbits issuing from a warren.
Mulk Raj Anand (1905 – 2004)
They entered the flooded sea of sparkling silver sunshine outside the city gates and sped towards the fair. Some walked, some rode on horses, others sat, being carried in bamboo and bullock carts. One little boy ran between his parent’s legs, brimming over with life and laughter. The joyous morning gave greetings and unashamed invitations to all to came away into the fields, full of flowers and songs.
‘Come, child, come,’ called his parents, as he lagged behind, arrested by the toys in the shops that lined the way.
He hurried towards his parents, his feet obedient to their call, his eyes still lingering on the receding toys. As he came to where they had stopped to wait for him he could not suppress the desire of his heart, even though he well knew the old, cold stare of refusal in their eyes.
‘I want that toy,’ he pleaded.
His father looked at him red-eyed, in his familiar tyrantly way. His mother, melted by the free spirit of the day, was tender, and giving him her finger to catch, said: ‘Look, child, what is before you.’
The faint disgust of the child’s unfulfilled desire had hardly been quelled in the heavy, pouting sob of a breath, ‘m-o-th-er,’ when the pleasure of what was before him filled his eager eyes. They had left the dusty road on which they had walked so far. It wended its weary way circuitously to the north. They had came upon a footpath in a field.
It was a bowering mustard field, pale like melting gold as it swept across miles and miles of even land-a river of yellow liquid light, ebbing and falling with each fresh eddy of wild wind, and straying in places into broad rich tributary streams, yet running in a constant sunny sweep towards the distant mirage of an ocean of silver light. Where it ended, on one side stood a cluster of low, mud-walled houses, thrown into relief by a dense crowd of yellow-robbed men and women from which arose a high-pitched sequence of whistling, creaking, squeaking, roaring, humming noises, sweeping across the groves to the blue-throated sky like the weird, strange sound of Siva’s mad laughter.
The child looked up to his father and mother, saturated with the shrill joy and wander of this vast glory, and feeling that they, too, wore the evidence of this pure delight in their faces, he left the footpath and plunged headlong into the field, prancing like a young colt, his small feet timing with the fitful gusts of wind that came rich with the fragrance of more distant fields.
A group of dragon-flies were bustling about on their gaudy purple wings, intercepting the flight of a lone black bee or butterfly in search of sweetness from the flowers. The child followed them in the air with his gaze, till one of them would, fold its wings and rest, and he would try to catch it. But it would go fluttering, flapping, up into the air, when he had almost caught it in his hands. One bold black bee, having evaded capture, sought to tempt him by whining round his ear and nearly settled on his lips, when his mother gave a cautionary call: ‘Come, child, come, come on to the footpath.’
He ran towards his parents gaily and walked abreast of them for a while, being, however, soon left behind, attracted by the little insects and worms along the footpath that were teeming out from their hiding-places to enjoy the sunshine.
‘Come, child, come,’ his parents called from the shade of a grove where they had seated themselves on the edge of a well. He ran towards them.
An old banyan here outstretched its powerful arms over the blossoming jack and jaman and neem and champak and scrisha and cast its shadows across beds of golden cassis and crimson gulmohur as an old grandmother spreads her skirts over her young ones. But the blushing blossoms freely offered their adoration to the Sun in spite of their protecting chaperon, by half covering themselves, and the sweet perfume of their pollen mingled with the soft, cool breeze that came and went in little puffs, only to be wafted aloft by a stronger breeze.
A shower of young flowers fell upon the child as he entered the grove and, forgetting his parents, he began to gather the raining petals in his hands. But lo! he heard the cooing of the doves and ran towards his parents, shouting: ‘The dove! The dove!’ The raining petals dropped from his forgotten hands. A curious look was in his parents’ faces till a koel struck out a note of love and released their pent-up souls.
‘Come, child, come!’ they called to the child, who had now gone running in wild capers round the banyan tree, and gathering him up they took the narrow, winding footpath which led to the fair through the mustard fields.
As they neared the village the child could see many other footpaths full of throngs, converging to the whirlpool of the fair, and felt at once repelled and fascinated by the confusion of the world he was entering.
A sweetmeat seller hawked: ‘Gulab-jaman, rasgula, burfi, jalebi,’ at the corner of the entrance, and a crowd pressed round his counter at the foot of an architecture of many-coloured sweets, decorated with leaves of silver and gold. The child stared open-eyed and his mouth watered for the burfi that was his favourite sweet. ‘I want that burfi,’ he slowly murmured. But he half knew as he begged that his plea would not be heeded because his parents would say he was greedy. So without waiting for an answer he moved on.
A flower-seller hawked: ‘A garland of gulmohur, a garland of gulmohur.’ The child seemed irresistibly drawn by the implacable sweetness of the scents that came floating on the wings of the languid air. He went towards the basket where the flowers lay heaped and half murmured, ‘I want that garland.’ But he well knew his parents would refuse to buy him those flowers because they- would say they were cheap. So without waiting for an answer he moved on.
A man stood holding a pole with yellow, red, green and purple balloons flying from it. The child was simply carried away by the rainbow glory of the silken colours and he was possessed by an overwhelming desire to possess them all. But he well knew his parents would never buy him the balloons because they would say he was too old to play with such toys. So he walked on farther.
A juggler stood playing a flute to a snake which coiled itself in a basket, its head raised in a graceful bend like the neck of a swan, while the music stole into its invisible ears like the gentle rippling of a miniature waterfall. The child went towards the juggler. But knowing his parents had forbidden him to hear such coarse music as the jugglers played, he proceeded farther.
‘There was a roundabout in full swing. Men, women and children, carried away in a whirling motion, shrieked and cried with dizzy laughter. The child watched them intently going round and round, a pink blush of a smile on his face, his eyes rippling with the same movement, his lips parted in amazement, till he felt that he himself was being carried round. The ring seemed to go fiercely at first, then gradually it began to move less fast. Presently the child, rapt, finger in his mouth, beheld it stop. This time, before his overpowering love for the anticipated sensation of movement had been chilled by the thought of his parents’ eternal denial, he made a bold request: ‘I want to go on the roundabout, please, father, mother.’
There was no reply. He turned to look at his parents. They were not there, ahead of him. He turned to look on either side. They were not there. He looked behind. There was no sign of them.
A full, deep cry rose within his dry throat and with a sudden jerk of his body he ran from where he stood, crying in red fear, ‘Mother, father!’ Tears rolled down from his eyes, hot and fierce; his flushed face was convulsed with fear. Panic-stricken, he ran to one side first, then to the other, hither and thither in all directions, knowing not where to go. ‘Mother, father!’ he wailed with a moist, shrill breath now, his throat being wet with swallowing the spittle. His yellow turban came untied and his clothes, wet with perspiration, became muddy where the dust had mixed with the sweat of his body. His light frame seemed heavy as a mass of lead.
Having run to and fro in a rage of running for a while, he stood defeated, his cries suppressed into sobs. At little distances on the green grass he could see, through his filmy eyes, men and women talking. He tried to look intently among the patches of bright yellow clothes, but there was no sign of his father and mother among these people, who seemed to laugh and talk just for the sake of laughing and talking.
He ran hotly again, this: time to a shrine to which people seemed to be crowding. Every little inch of space here was congested with men but he ran through people’s legs, his little sob lingering: ‘Mother, father!’ Near the entrance to the temple, however, the crowd became very thick: men jostled each other, heavy men, with flashing, murderous eyes and hefty shoulders. The poor child struggled to thrust a way between their feet but, knocked to and fro by their brutal movements, he might have been trampled underfoot had he not shrieked at the highest pitch of his voice: ‘Father, mother!’ A man in the surging crowd heard his cry and, stooping with very great difficulty, lifted him up in his arms.
‘How did you get here, child? Whose baby are you?’ the man asked as he steered clear of the mass. The child wept more bitterly than ever now and only cried: ‘I want my mother I want my father!’,
The man tried to soothe him by taking him to the roundabout. ‘Will you have a lift on the horse?’ he gently asked as he approached the ring. The child’s throat tore into a thousand shrill sobs and he only shouted: ‘I want my mother, I want my father!’
The man headed towards the place where the juggler still played on the flute to the dancing cobra. ‘Listen to that nice music, child,’ he pleaded. But the child shut his ears with his fingers and shouted his double-pitched strain: ‘I want my mother, I want my father!’ The man took him near the balloons, thinking the bright colours of the balls would distract the child’s attention and quieten him. ‘Would you like a rainbow-coloured balloon?’ he persuasively asked. The child turned his eyes from the flying balloons and just sobbed: ‘I want my mother, I want my father.’
The man, still importunate in his kindly desire to make the child happy, bore him to the gate where the flower-seller sat. ‘Look! Can you smell those nice flowers, child? Would you like a garland to put round your neck?’ The child turned his nose away from the basket and reiterated his sob: ‘I want my mother, I want my father.’
Thinking to humour his disconsolate charge by a gift of sweets, the man took him to the counter of the sweet shop. ‘What sweets would you like, child?’ he asked. The child turned his face from the sweet shop and only sobbed: ‘I want my mother, I want my father.’