Among Dear Little Doves
The luckless fellow I’m talking about was Ram Khilaban Pandey, a sorting assistant in a certain mail office. He was at the doorstep of his middle age, say on the right side of forties. Had he not come face to face with this deadly disease he would have served another twenty years. He was a person of robust build and more than his physique his moustache endowed him an imposing personality. Ferocious—honestly, one could use the word for a precise description of Ram Khilaban.
God only knew it, what else did he wish to do during his twenty years of service? He was not a soul to be satisfied with the salary he used to receive at the end of every month. So paltry it was! He practised moneylending, became a leader of a group and as there was need to terrorise others in those pursuits, he did not hesitate to resort to that. In this way, he managed to register a powerful presence in his circle. He ever hated to join the issue as to which one was moral and which one was not. Like all practical persons in this world, he just believed in the popular adage: End justifies means. And for him anything that was practical had got to be moral! So much clear was he in his mind about what he thought or what he did that he did not care a damn as he took pigeons out of their nests to eat them. Well, he was not eating them raw but saw to it that the birds were made into savoury dishes first before he actually relished them as his food.
There were many among his colleagues who did not approve of the style of Ram Khilaban, but only a few of them could muster courage enough to actually dissuade him from this. Especially his senior colleague Prabhudayal used to advise him, ‘What’s that you’re doing, Ram Khilaban? Poor little birds they are, and what harm have they done to you so that you’re killing them almost one every week? And eating them so brutally?’
Despite his unrestrained disposition, one good quality about Ram Khilaban was that he did not retort in reply to Prabhudayal’s words of advice. He was the only person that received the respect of Ram Khilaban. So, faced with the vigilant watch of Prabhudayal, he had to change his plan of stealing pigeons from the office. He used to patiently wait for the day Prabhudayal would be on leave so that he could take pigeons from the mail office without any restrictions.
It was not a fact that supervisor Prabhudayal wielded so much power over Ram Khilaban only on account of his seniority. Rather, as a person he was the possessor of a cultivated religious temperament. He used to advise Ram Khilaban on religious lines too. Sometimes, he would not hesitate to sanctimoniously remind Ram Khilaban about his caste.
‘Oh, Ram Khilaban, you're a Brahmin, aren’t you? And does it behove you to indulge in all these? Your entire clan is vegetarian but you don’t hesitate to relish the flesh of a pigeon?’ once the supervisor Prabhudayal exhorted.
Ram Khilaban did not respond to what Prabhudayal said in the spirit of mild reprimand. Rather he chose to remain silent. He was not interested in opening a stultifying session of Q & A, not in the least. As for him, there was no answer for the question that Prabhudayal posed, in that the world was also the abode of millions of meat-eaters. Then he thought, ‘When a pigeon is not a human being, why then should there be so much fuss about my killing it?’
But one day realisation was to dawn on Ram Khilaban. In fact a ray of knowledge illuminated the dark cell of his mind all of a sudden. The event that happened was something like this. That day Ram Khilaban stole a pigeon and per chance the supervisor Prabhudayal was on duty. On other days he used to twist the neck of those birds a full round that killed them instantly, but on that day he had forgotten to complete that formality. He just hid it inside the bag and came to Prabhudayal.
‘Sir, may I go out for half an hour?’ Ram Khilaban sought for permission from Prabhudayal.
‘But why? Don’t you know mails will arrive at any moment now? What’s so urgent with you that you want to go out at this moment?’ asked Prabhudayal.
‘I hate to remain absent at this moment but then what to do? I’ve some unusual rumbling in my stomach and I want to go home and swallow some pills.’ Hardly had Ram Khilaban finished his words than a pigeon managed to set itself free out of the bag and reached Prabhudayal. Exhausted and panting, the poor little bird sat on the table.
Ram Khilaban could have managed the situation had he not reached out to the bird to take it on grip. But what else could he have done when his hands acted so compulsively?
Now Prabhudayal understood everything. Why did Ram Khilaban ask for permission to go out of the office for a spell of half an hour, where from did an exhausted and half-strangled pigeon come to perch on his table, why did Ram Khilaban take the bird in his grip—everything was clear to Prabhudayal. He became crestfallen. It was his realisation that despite all his efforts, he had miserably failed to exert any influence on his wayward colleague. All these years he could not kindle in his mind even a spark of compassion towards living beings.
Just in a matter of minutes Prabhudayal was out of his mood of despondency. He was now agog with new optimism. Why can't he make another attempt? Having spent all his life in experimenting and meditating, he was by now spiritually matured. In fact he was too matured to be let down by this temporary setback. He believed that there is always an abundance of goodness in human beings, ready to bloom at any moment. That is why we are all humans. The only prerequisite for such efflorescence is the company of spiritually awakened souls. One should wait for the arrival of one’s moment of spiritual break.
‘Do you know, Ram Khilaban, who these pigeons are?’ asked Prabhudayal in a tone that was soft but profound. He was calm and serene, unperturbed at the vicissitude of the banal world.
Ram Khilaban was shocked. He began to ponder, ‘Well, a pigeon is, after all, a pigeon. What else could it be if it’s not a pigeon?’
Finding his colleague greatly confused, Prabhudayal said, ‘Look my dear, don’t think that these birds are simply pigeons. This one was a sorting assistant in this very office in his previous birth. His name was Brijbhushan who died of a massive heart attack. Aha, the poor old soul didn't stay away from his letters and parcels till he breathed his last.’
Prabhudayal's words were pregnant with meaning, nay full of profound spiritual content. And they were powerful too. Had it been a different moment Ram Khilaban could not have understood them. But now there was receptiveness all around: his internal self was clearly ready to receive and internalise those spiritual strokes. Until this moment Ram Khilaban had discarded many things as either too banal or too abstruse, but now rays of new light fell on them just to illuminate them afresh. The lovely little pigeon sitting before him was not a simple bird; it was reincarnation of human soul. Thus Ram Khilaban could not help being submerged in the surge of his new realisation. And he wondered, ‘Eek! Were those hundred-odd pigeons I’ve eaten so far my great ancestors? Have I been so blithely unaware that what I was eating all these years was the flesh of human beings? Am I such a demon?’
Back home Ram Khilaban fell ill. It was all shock and shriek for him. He took leave from office. Then he consulted doctors, from the family doctor to the specialists of the town; got hospitalised and moved from the local health centre to the district headquarters hospital. And finally he reached Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital, Mumbai. By that time cancer had already spread from stomach to other internal organs. There the doctors sprang into action and chemo vials were injected into his body one after the other. Some result definitely came to be seen, improving the quality of life greatly, but that was only for a few days. Finally doctors advised Ram Khilaban to go home. And the fighter in him understood what the doctors meant by that.
Lying on the same bed continuously for two months, Ram Khilaban was bored to a hilt. Now he was not afraid of death. He had arrived at his own findings about life and death. People are afraid of uncertainties. And death for him was not going to be an uncertain eventuality any longer. He was ready to fight any attempt to tut-tut at him, for he had begun to imagine his way ahead. Even he would share it, in case anybody would benefit by that. He thought, ‘Shouldn’t I go to my office, even for a while? After all, I’ll be living there even after my death, won’t I?’
He sent a word to Prabhudayal through one of his relatives. And Prabhudayal visited Ram Khilaban without any loss of time.
It is often seen that spiritually immersed people love to adore people who are about to die, for the one who is going to die will be meeting God soon. Prabhudayal was for choosing the right words, a manner of articulation that would best console Ram Khilaban. More than medicine, moribund Ram Khilaban needed consolation urgently and Prabhudayal was there to reel that out.
Lo and behold! Ram Khilaban was totally fearless. Prabhudayal suspected the fellow had already known the secret meaning of human life which had eluded him so far despite his rigorous penance all through his life. How else a person so painfully enduring the death throes could adopt such a lofty posture of fearlessness?
‘Sir, I wonder if I could go to office just for once,’ pleaded Ram Khilaban.
‘Oh yes, by all means,’ agreed Prabhudayal without so much as a twitch of hesitation.
When both of them reached office, it was already night. All drafted for night duty were busy disposing their work. There were heaps of mail all around. Seeing Ram Khilaban everyone was drawn towards him. All wanted to know his wellbeing and he, too, replied to those friendly queries smilingly.
Finally Ram Khilaban went near the pigeons, resting snugly in their nests for the night. The birds could recognise his presence by moving their heads, some of them even crooned briefly but they were far from being afraid of him. Had it been the case of any other day they would have shown panic reaction. They would have fluttered their wings and taken a desperate flight in all directions to escape the doom. But today no such thing was necessary. The birds knew everything: they knew only a friend was standing before them.
Ram Khilaban came home and returned to his bed. Just two days later he breathed his last.