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A Feast for Rats, by Rabindranath Tagore

The Puffin Book of Holiday Stories contains a great collection of stories of brave adventures, hilarious misadventures, boisterous families, intimate friendships and facing fears that is sure to keep you entertained during your break. It features tales penned by some of the finest children’s authors, including Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty, Paro Anand, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Nayanika Mahtani, Himanjali Sankar and more.

Here is an extract from the book, the short story titled A Feast for Rats by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Radha Chakravarty

‘This is unfair!’ the boys complained. ‘We refuse to be taught by a new pundit.’

The new punditmoshai they were expecting was named Kalikumar Tarkalankar.

After the holidays, the boys were returning to school by train from their respective homes. One of them, a witty fellow, had composed a poem about the new pundit, called ‘Kalo Kumror Balidan’ (the sacrificial death of the black pumpkin), which all of them were reciting at the top of their voices. Just then, an old gentleman boarded the train at Arkhol station. With him he carried his kantha-wrapped bedding roll, two or three earthen handis sealed with rags, a tin trunk and a few bundles. A tough- looking boy, known to everyone as Bichkun, called out: ‘There’s no room for you here, old man. Go find another carriage.’

‘It’s too crowded,’ the old man replied. ‘There’s no room anywhere. I’ll just take this little corner; I won’t bother you at all.’ With these words, he left the bench to them and moved to a corner of the floor, where he spread out his bedding.

‘Baba,’ he asked the boys, ‘where are you all going, and for what purpose?’

‘To perform a sraddha,’ Bichkun declared. ‘A funeral ceremony.’

‘Whose sraddha is it?’ the old man enquired. ‘Kalo-Kumro-Tatka-Lanka’s’ was the reply. The boys chorused in a loud, sing-song chant:

‘Kalo-Kumro-Tatka-Lanka, black-pumpkin-green- chilli,
We’ll teach you a lesson and make you look silly!’

The train halted at Asansol. The old man got off to have a bath. As soon as he returned to the carriage afterwards, Bichkun warned him: ‘Don’t remain in this carriage, sir!’

‘Why, may I ask?’
‘It’s infested with rats.’

‘Rats! How’s that possible?’

‘Just look at the mess they made when they got into those handis of yours.’

The gentleman found that the handi full of sugary kodmas was now completely empty, and the one containing khoichur had not a grain left in it.

‘And they even ran off with whatever was inside your rag bundle,’ Bichkun added.

That bundle had contained four or five ripe mangoes from his garden.

‘The rats are famished, I see,’ remarked the gentleman with a faint smile.

‘No, no, it’s their nature to devour things even if they’re not hungry,’ replied Bichkun.

The boys laughed uproariously. ‘Yes, moshai,’ they guffawed, ‘if there had been more, they’d have eaten it up as well.’

‘I made a mistake,’ the gentleman observed. ‘Had I known there would be so many rats travelling together in the train, I would have carried some more stuff.’

The boys were disheartened to find that the old man did not lose his temper in spite of so much teasing. If he had been provoked, it would have been fun.

The train stopped at Burdwan. It would halt there for about an hour, to switch tracks.

‘Baba,’ said the gentleman, ‘I won’t trouble you any more. There will be room for me in another compartment.’

‘No, no, that won’t do. You must travel in the same coach as us. If there’s anything left inside your bundles, we will guard it together, all of us. Nothing will be lost.’

‘All right,’ the gentleman assented. ‘Get into the carriage, all of you. I’ll join you in a little while.’

So the boys got into the carriage. A little later, the sweet seller’s cart came and halted before their compartment, accompanied by the gentleman. Handing a paper bag to each of the boys, he said: ‘Now there will be no shortage of food at the rats’ feast.’

‘Hurrah!’ shouted the boys, jumping up in glee. The mango seller also arrived there, with his basket of mangoes.

There was no dearth of mangoes either, at their feast.

‘Tell us,’ the boys asked the gentleman, ‘where are you going? What will you do there?’

‘I am going in search of work,’ he replied. ‘I’ll get off wherever I find work.’

They clapped their hands, all of them, and said: ‘Come to our school then.’

‘Why would your authorities want to keep me?’

‘They must. We won’t let Kalo-Kumro-Tatka- Lanka set foot in our neighbourhood.’

‘You have put me in a difficult position, I must say! What if the secretary doesn’t approve of me?’

‘He must approve—or else we shall all leave the school.’

‘All right, then take me with you.’

The train arrived at their station. The secretary was there in person. Seeing the old man, he cried: ‘Welcome, welcome, Tarkalankar-moshai! Your house is ready and waiting.’ With these words, he bowed at the old man’s feet to offer his respects.

A version of this story first appeared in The Land of Cards: Stories, Poems and Plays for Children. Grab your copy of The Puffin Book of Holiday Stories!

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