An avid reader pays tribute with a translation of one of Tagore's timeless children’s stories
(Translated by Utpal Chattopadhyay)
The little Prince is traveling, leaving behind his own princely state, to a place where there is no king and no kingdom.
The story is taking place in an era which has neither a beginning nor an end.
Most people living in cities and villages go to markets, do daily errands, attend to their families, perhaps pick a quarrel or two; but the one who is our Prince belongs to all ages and he is always leaving his kingdom behind.
Why does he do that?
The water in a well stays in there. The water in ponds, small and big, stays still within the confines of their edges. But the water at the summit of a mountain does not stay there, the water in the clouds does not remain within.
Who can restrict the Prince within the narrow confines of his kingdom? He is not happy until he sees the vast ground beyond the horizon, the lands that lie beyond the seven seas.
All through human history, children are born to listen to this old tale again and again. The evening lamp does not even flicker as the story is told; the boys listen quietly and each one of them thinks "I am that Prince. I am."
When the vast stretch of land, the uncharted territory, ends, it ends at the edge of an ocean. There is an island in the middle of the ocean. In that island, in that land of the demons, a Princess is waiting to be rescued.
The world is full of busy people running helter-skelter in search of money, fame, or comfort. And then there is our Prince who has set out to rescue the Princess from the land of demons. There is a storm raging across the ocean, no boat in sight to carry him there, and yet he keeps searching for a way.
In the history of fairy tales, this one is the oldest and also the latest. The new arrivals to this world, the new born babies, must get the news from their grandmothers that there is a Princess imprisoned in an island, that the ocean is unpassable, the demons invincible, and yet the little ones promise to themselves as they grow up: "I have to find her and set her free". In the woods outside their homes, rain keeps pouring down in dark nights, the crickets chirp incessantly, and the little boys, quiet and thoughtful, keep looking for a way to get to the demon's palace.
The endless ocean stretches ahead, like a blue world of dreamy waves. The Prince who’s come to the shore riding on his horse presently stops and dismounts.
As soon as his feet touches the ground, a miracle happens, thanks to the power of a great magician.
The ocean in front of him is no longer there. Instead, a busy, bustling, sprawling city now lies ahead. Tram cars are moving slowly. The roads are crowded with people rushing to their work places. A flute seller is moving along the foot path enticing the street urchins with his bag of toys.
And oh my, is this our Prince? What kind of dress is he wearing? Where is his princely manners? He is wearing a crumpled shirt with buttons missing. His clothes need a wash and his shoes have holes in them. A newcomer to the city from a remote village, he manages to live here and meet his expenses by giving tuition.
What about our imprisoned Princess? Where is she then? Oh, She lives right next door.
She is not as beautiful as the champa flower. No gems are seen sparkling in her hair. She is not like a twinkling bright star in the sky. She is more like a nameless flower that blooms after the new rain but stays hidden in the grass.
Her mother had died when she was only a child. She was the apple of her father's eyes. The father was of rather modest means, but he was unwilling to use that excuse to get her married off to just anybody who would appear before them. While her father kept waiting for a suitable prince, time marched on. The daughter got older, all grown up now. The neighbors did not condone her state of being unmarried as it was way past the age of marriage that social customs mandated.
Then the father too passed away. She took up residence with her uncle. He found a groom. Finally! The prospective groom was not only very rich but also much older too, and in fact, he already had grandchildren thanks to a previous marriage.
But the uncle insisted: "My niece is fortunate. The groom is a great catch."
And then suddenly when the pre-marriage religious rituals were about to start, the girl was nowhere to be found. The boy from the village who was living next door was missing too.
Eventually, it transpired, that they had eloped and gotten married. Their castes did not match, though there was a meeting of their minds. Everyone spoke ill of them.
The prospective groom who missed out on a wife prayed to his God. He promised that he would bring God many gifts; among other things, the gift of a new throne made of gold if the young man who took away his wife could be taught a lesson.
They caught the boy, now husband of the girl, and put in a fake criminal complaint of kidnapping against him. Paid off witnesses. The young man was sent to jail.
Promises made to God were kept. There was much to celebrate in the neighborhood. Everyone felt happy. "This is the age of sins and sinners. But God is keeping a watch. No sinner will be spared."
Many months passed. The young man served his sentence. He was released from jail. But his journey had now become even longer and unbearably endless—more than the one he had undertaken long ago as the Prince galloping across vast fields on his horse. In friendless nights, he could hear the demons hovering around him, threatening to kill and make a feast out of him.
A road does not end. But there comes a day for every traveler when he hangs up his boots.
There was no one to look after him on that fateful day. Only Yama, the God of death, kept vigil, biding his time.
And as soon as the king of death touched our man with his wand of justice, another miracle happened.
The city disappeared.
In a flash, the Prince was back to the bygone age. His forehead was decorated with a prince's insignia. He looked more determined than ever before. He knew he would break down the prison door; he had to set the Princess free from her demonic fetters.
Age after age, small children get this timeless message while sitting in the laps of their mothers: The Prince is out there moving toward the Princess. In front of him is his last hurdle: The Raging Sea.
In world history he comes in various forms. But beyond the narratives of history, he remains the same.
He is the Prince and he is on his own mission.