The Babus of Nayanjore by Rabindranath Tagore
Once upon a time the Babus of Nayanjore were famous landholders. They were
noted for their princely extravagance. They would tear off the rough
border of their Dacca muslin, because it rubbed against their skin. They
could spend many thousands of rupees over the wedding of a kitten. On a
certain grand occasion it is alleged that in order to turn night into day
they lighted numberless lamps and showered silver threads from the sky to
imitate sunlight. Those were the days before the flood. The flood came.
The line of succession among these old-world Babus, with their lordly
habits, could not continue for long. Like a lamp with too many wicks
burning, the oil flared away quickly, and the light went out.
Kailas Babu, our neighbour, is the last relic of this extinct
magnificence. Before he grew up, his family had very nearly reached its
lowest ebb. When his father died, there was one dazzling outburst of
funeral extravagance, and then insolvency. The property was sold to
liquidate the debt. What little ready money was left over was altogether
insufficient to keep up the past ancestral splendours.
Kailas Babu left Nayanjore, and came to Calcutta. His son did not remain
long in this world of faded glory. He died, leaving behind him an only
In Calcutta we are Kailas Baba's neighbours. Curiously enough our own
family history is just the opposite to his. My father got his money by his
own exertions, and prided himself on never spending a penny more than was
needed. His clothes were those of a working man, and his hands also. He
never had any inclination to earn the title of Baba by extravagant
display, and I myself his only son, owe him gratitude for that. He gave me
the very best education, and I was able to make my way in the world. I am
not ashamed of the fact that I am a self-made man. Crisp bank-notes in my
safe are dearer to me than a long pedigree in an empty family chest.
I believe this was why I disliked seeing Kailas Baba drawing his heavy
cheques on the public credit from the bankrupt bank of his ancient Babu
reputation I used to fancy that he looked down on me, because my father
had earned money with his own hands.
I ought to have noticed that no one showed any vexation towards Kailas
Babu except myself. Indeed it would have been difficult to find an old man
who did less harm than he. He was always ready with his kindly little acts
of courtesy in times of sorrow and joy. He would join in all the
ceremonies and religious observances of his neighbours. His familiar smile
would greet young and old alike. His politeness in asking details about
domestic affairs was untiring. The friends who met him in the street were
perforce ready to be button-holed, while a long string of questions of
this kind followed one another from his lips:
"My dear friend, I am delighted to see you. Are quite well? How is Shashi?
and Dada—is he all right? Do you know, I've only just heard that
Madhu's son has got fever. How is he? Have you heard? And Hari Charan Babu—I've
not seen him for a long time—I hope he is not ill. What's the matter
with Rakkhal? And, er—er, how are the ladies of your family?"
Kailas Balm was spotlessly neat in his dress on all occasions, though his
supply of clothes was sorely limited. Every day he used to air his shirts
and vests and coats and trousers carefully, and put them out in the sun,
along with his bed-quilt, his pillowcase, and the small carpet on which he
always sat. After airing them he would shake them, and brush them, and put
them on the rock. His little bits of furniture made his small room decent,
and hinted that there was more in reserve if needed. Very often, for want
of a servant, he would shut up his house for a while. Then he would iron
out his shirts and linen with his own hands, and do other little menial
tasks. After this he would open his door and receive his friends again.
Though Kailas Balm, as I have said, had lost all his landed property, he
had still same family heirlooms left. There was a silver cruet for
sprinkling scented water, a filigree box for otto-of-roses, a small gold
salver, a costly ancient shawl, and the old-fashioned ceremonial dress and
ancestral turban. These he had rescued with the greatest difficulty from
the money-lenders' clutches. On every suitable occasion he would bring
them out in state, and thus try to save the world-famed dignity of the
Babus of Nayanjore. At heart the most modest of men, in his daily speech
he regarded it as a sacred duty, owed to his rank, to give free play to
his family pride. His friends would encourage this trait in his character
with kindly good-humour, and it gave them great amusement.
The neighbourhood soon learnt to call him their Thakur Dada (Grandfather).
They would flock to his house, and sit with him for hours together. To
prevent his incurring any expense, one or other of his friends would bring
him tobacco, and say: "Thakur Dada, this morning some tobacco was sent to
me from Gaya. Do take it, and see how you like it."
Thakur Dada would take it, and say it was excellent. He would then go on
to tell of a certain exquisite tobacco which they once smoked in the old
days at Nayanjore at the cost of a guinea an ounce.
"I wonder," he used to say, "I wonder if any one would like to try it now.
I have some left, and can get it at once."
Every one knew, that, if they asked for it, then somehow or other the key
of the cupboard would be missing; or else Ganesh, his old family servant,
had put it away somewhere.
"You never can be sure," he would add, "where things go to when servants
are about. Now, this Ganesh of mine,—I can't tell you what a fool he
is, but I haven't the heart to dismiss him."
Ganesh, for the credit of the family, was quite ready to bear all the
blame without a word.
One of the company usually said at this point: "Never mind, Thakur Dada.
Please don't trouble to look for it. This tobacco we're smoking will do
quite well. The other would be too strong."
Then Thakur Dada would be relieved, and settle down again, and the talk
would go on.
When his guests got up to go away, Thakur Dada would accompany them to the
door, and say to them on the door-step: "Oh, by the way, when are you all
coming to dine with me?"
One or other of us would answer: "Not just yet, Thakur Dada, not just yet.
We'll fix a day later."
"Quite right," he would answer. "Quite right. We had much better wait till
the rains come. It's too hot now. And a grand rich dinner such as I should
want to give you would upset us in weather like this."
But when the rains did come, every one careful not to remind him of his
promise. If the subject was brought up, some friend would suggest gently
that it was very inconvenient to get about when the rains were so severe,
that it would be much better to wait till they were over. And so the game
His poor lodging was much too small for his position, and we used to
condole with him about it. His friends would assure him they quite
understood his difficulties: it was next to impossible to get a decent
house in Calcutta. Indeed, they had all been looking out for years for a
house to suit him, but, I need hardly add, no friend had been foolish
enough to find one. Thakur Dada used to say, after a long sigh of
resignation: "Well, well, I suppose I shall have to put up with this house
after all." Then he would add with a genial smile: "But, you know, I could
never bear to be away from my friends. I must be near you. That really
compensates for everything."
Somehow I felt all this very deeply indeed. I suppose the real reason was,
that when a man is young stupidity appears to him the worst of crimes.
Kailas Babu was not really stupid. In ordinary business matters every one
was ready to consult him.
But with regard to Nayanjore his utterances were certainly void of common
sense. Because, out of amused affection for him, no one contradicted his
impossible statements, he refused to keep them in bounds. When people
recounted in his hearing the glorious history of Nayanjore with absurd
exaggerations he would accept all they said with the utmost gravity, and
never doubted, even in his dreams, that any one could disbelieve it.
When I sit down and try to analyse the thoughts and feelings that I had
towards Kailas Babu I see that there was a still deeper reason for my
dislike. I will now explain.
Though I am the son of a rich man, and might have wasted time at college,
my industry was such that I took my M.A. degree in Calcutta University
when quite young. My moral character was flawless. In addition, my outward
appearance was so handsome, that if I were to call myself beautiful, it
might be thought a mark of self-estimation, but could not be considered an
There could be no question that among the young men of Bengal I was
regarded by parents generally as a very eligible match. I was myself
quite clear on the point, and had determined to obtain my full value in
the marriage market. When I pictured my choice, I had before my mind's
eye a wealthy father's only daughter, extremely beautiful and highly
educated. Proposals came pouring in to me from far and near; large sums
in cash were offered. I weighed these offers with rigid impartiality, in
the delicate scales of my own estimation. But there was no one fit to be
my partner. I became convinced, with the poet Bhabavuti, that
In this worlds endless time and boundless space
One may be born at last to match my sovereign grace.
But in this puny modern age, and this contracted space of modern Bengal,
it was doubtful if the peerless creature existed as yet.
Meanwhile my praises were sung in many tunes, and in different metres, by
Whether I was pleased with their daughters or not, this worship which they
offered was never unpleasing. I used to regard it as my proper due,
because I was so good. We are told that when the gods withhold their boons
from mortals they still expect their worshippers to pay them fervent
honour, and are angry if it is withheld. I had that divine expectance
strongly developed in myself.
I have already mentioned that Thakur Dada had an only grand-daughter. I
had seen her many times, but had never mistaken her for beautiful. No
thought had ever entered my mind that she would be a possible partner for
myself. All the same, it seemed quite certain to me that some day ox other
Kailas Babu would offer her, with all due worship, as an oblation at my
shrine. Indeed-this was the secret of my dislike-I was thoroughly annoyed
that he had not done it already.
I heard he had told his friends that the Babus of Nayanjore never craved a
boon. Even if the girl remained unmarried, he would not break the family
tradition. It was this arrogance of his that made me angry. My indignation
smouldered for some time. But I remained perfectly silent, and bore it
with the utmost patience, because I was so good.
As lightning accompanies thunder, so in my character a flash of humour was
mingled with the mutterings of my wrath. It was, of course, impossible for
me to punish the old man merely to give vent to my rage; and for a long
time I did nothing at all. But suddenly one day such an amusing plan came
into my head, that I could not resist the temptation of carrying it into
I have already said that many of Kailas Babu's friends used to flatter the
old man's vanity to the full. One, who was a retired Government servant,
had told him that whenever he saw the Chota Lord Sahib he always asked for
the latest news about the Babus of Nayanjore, and the Chota Lard had been
heard to say that in all Bengal the only really respectable families were
those of the Maharaja of Burdwan and the Babus of Nayanjore. When this
monstrous falsehood was told to Kailas Balm he was extremely gratified,
and often repeated the story. And wherever after that he met this
Government servant in company he would ask, along with other questions:
"Oh! er—by the way, how is the Chota Lord Sahib? Quite well, did you
say? Ah, yes, I am so delighted to hear it I And the dear Mem Sahib, is
she quite well too? Ah, yes! and the little children-are they quite well
also? Ah, yes I that's very goad news! Be sure and give them my
compliments when you see them."
Kailas Balm would constantly express his intention of going some day and
paying a visit to the Sahib.
But it may be taken for granted that many Chota Lords and Burro Lords also
would come and go, and much water would pass down the Hoogly, before the
family coach of Nayanjore would be furnished up to pay a visit to
One day I took Kailas Babu aside, and told him in a whisper: "Thakur Dada,
I was at the Levee yesterday, and the Chota Lord happened to mention the
Babes of Nayanjore. I told him that Kailas Balm had come to town. Do you
know, he was terribly hurt because you hadn't called. He told me he was
going to put etiquette on one side, and pay you a private visit himself
this very afternoon."
Anybody else could have seen through this plot of mine in a moment. And,
if it had been directed against another person, Kailas Balm would have
understood the joke. But after all he had heard from his friend the
Government servant, and after all his own exaggerations, a visit from the
Lieutenant-Governor seemed the most natural thing in the world. He became
highly nervous and excited at my news. Each detail of the coming visit
exercised him greatly—most of all his own ignorance of English. How
on earth was that difficulty to be met? I told him there was no difficulty
at all: it was aristocratic not to know English: and, besides, the
Lieutenant-Governor always brought an interpreter with him, and he had
expressly mentioned that this visit was to be private.
About mid-day, when most of our neighbours are at work, and the rest are
asleep, a carriage and pair stopped before the lodging of Kailas Babu. Two
flunkeys in livery came up the stairs, and announced in a loud voice, "The
Chota Lord Sahib hoe arrived." Kailas Babu was ready, waiting for him, in
his old-fashioned ceremonial robes and ancestral turban, and Ganesh was by
his side, dressed in his master's best suit of clothes for the occasion.
When the Chota Lord Sahib was announced, Kailas Balm ran panting and
puffing and trembling to the door, and led in a friend of mine, in
disguise, with repeated salaams, bowing low at each step, and walking
backward as best he could. He had his old family shawl spread over a hard
wooden chair, and he asked the Lord Sahib to be seated. He then made a
high flown speech in Urdu, the ancient Court language of the Sahibs, and
presented on the golden salver a string of gold mohurs, the last relics of
his broken fortune. The old family servant Ganesh, with an expression of
awe bordering on terror, stood behind with the scent-sprinkler, drenching
the Lord Sahib, touching him gingerly from time to time with the
otto-of-roses from the filigree box.
Kailas Babu repeatedly expressed his regret at not being able to receive
His Honour Bahadur with all the ancestral magnificence of his own family
estate at Nayanjore. There he could have welcomed him properly with due
ceremonial. But in Calcutta he was a mere stranger and sojourner-in fact a
fish out of water.
My friend, with his tall silk hat on, very gravely nodded. I need hardly
say that according to English custom the hat ought to have been removed
inside the room. But my friend did not dare to take it off for fear of
detection; and Kailas Balm and his old servant Ganesh were sublimely
unconscious of the breach of etiquette.
After a ten minutes' interview, which consisted chiefly of nodding the
head, my friend rose to his feet to depart. The two flunkeys in livery, as
had been planned beforehand, carried off in state the string of gold
mohurs, the gold salver, the old ancestral shawl, the silver
scent-sprinkler, and the otto-of-roses filigree box; they placed them
ceremoniously in the carriage. Kailas Babu regarded this as the usual
habit of Chota Lard Sahibs.
I was watching all the while from the next room. My sides were aching with
suppressed laughter. When I could hold myself in no longer, I rushed into
a further room, suddenly to discover, in a corner, a young girl sobbing as
if her heart would break. When she saw my uproarious laughter she stood
upright in passion, flashing the lightning of her big dark eyes in mine,
and said with a tear-choked voice:
"Tell me! What harm has my grandfather done to you? Why have you come to
deceive him? Why have you come here? Why—"
She could say no more. She covered her face with her hands, and broke into
My laughter vanished in a moment. It had never occurred to me that there
was anything but a supremely funny joke in this act of mine, and here I
discovered that I had given the cruelest pain to this tenderest little
heart. All the ugliness of my cruelty rose up to condemn me. I slunk out
of the room in silence, like a kicked dog.
Hitherto I had only looked upon Kusum, the grand-daughter of Kailas Babu,
as a somewhat worthless commodity in the marriage market, waiting in vain
to attract a husband. But now I found, with a shock of surprise, that in
the corner of that room a human heart was beating.
The whole night through I had very little sleep. My mind was in a tumult.
On the next day, very early in the morning, I took all those stolen goods
back to Kailas Babe's lodgings, wishing to hand them over in secret to the
servant Ganesh. I waited outside the door, and, not finding any one, went
upstairs to Kailas Babu's room. I heard from the passage Kusum asking her
grandfather in the most winning voice: "Dada, dearest, do tell me all that
the Chota Lord Sahib said to you yesterday. Don't leave out a single word.
I am dying to hear it all over again."
And Dada needed no encouragement. His face beamed over with pride as he
related all manner of praises, which the Lard Sahib had been good enough
to utter concerning the ancient families of Nayanjore. The girl was seated
before him, looking up into his face, and listening with rapt attention.
She was determined, out of love for the old man, to play her part to the
My heart was deeply touched, and tears came to my eyes. I stood there in
silence in the passage, while Thakur Dada finished all his embellishments
of the Chota Lord Sahib's wonderful visit. When he left the room at last,
I took the stolen goods and laid them at the feet of the girl and came
away without a word.
Later in the day I called again to see Kailas Balm himself. According to
our ugly modern custom, I had been in the habit of making no greeting at
all to this old man when I came into the room. But on this day I made a
low bow, and touched his feet. I am convinced the old man thought that the
coming of the Chota Lord Sahib to his house was the cause of my new
politeness. He was highly gratified by it, and an air of benign severity
shone from his eyes. His friends had flocked in, and he had already begun
to tell again at full length the story of the Lieutenant-Governor's visit
with still further adornments of a most fantastic kind. The interview was
already becoming an epic, both in quality and in length.
When the other visitors had taken their leave, I made my proposal to the
old man in a humble manner. I told him that, "though I could never for a
moment hope to be worthy of marriage connection with such an illustrious
family, yet... etc. etc."
When I made clear my proposal of marriage, the old man embraced me, and
broke out in a tumult of joy: "I am a poor man, and could never have
expected such great good fortune."
That was the first and last time in his life that Kailas Babu confessed to
being poor. It was also the first and last time in his life that he
forgot, if only for a single moment, the ancestral dignity that belongs to
the Babus of Nayanjore.