It is a typical village. One of the thousands in Bharatavarasha which has a name but its existential truth is its anonymity. A self-sufficient hamlet on the skirt-frills of an imposing jungle with less than a hundred homes. The vast lake to its northwest is one boundary. A modest Krishna temple located at the southern mouth of the village is another boundary. Nobody knows when the village was established but the Krishna temple is its history book cum almanac. Apparently, some Sanyasi at some unknown period…perhaps two hundred years ago, perhaps five hundred…who knows?...the Sanyasi after meditating for long years, had a Darshana of Sri Krishna himself and went around from village to village begging for help and resources to build a temple for him. Eventually, this village grew around the temple. There’s really no way to verify this history but there’s no other evidence to disprove it as well. Almost everything in the village revolves around the Krishna temple. The names of all villagers are derived from some or the other variant of Krishna’s names.
One prominent family, which has been here almost since the village was founded is that of the second Archaka of the Krishna temple. His name is Keshava Bhatta and one of his ancestors apparently merged with Krishna himself one evening after finishing the Mahamangalarati. His lineage is highly regarded not just in this village but in more than twenty villages in the region. Like his ancestor, he is highly devout and performs all the prescribed Karmas apart from his daily Pujas in the temple. He has ten cows and no land. The villagefolk provide him provisions and some clothes and gifts as appropriate on various festivals, a custom that is as ancient as the village itself. He spends his free time teaching and is constantly engaged in self-study. People believe that like his illustrious ancestor, he will also merge with Krishna himself.
Keshava Bhatta has three children, two teenaged daughters and a ten year-old son named Gopala, a promising boy. He has a quick grasp, learns fast, and at his age, can recite substantial portions of the Amarakosha from memory and he can also perform minor Pujas and assists his father in all his chores. One of Gopala’s daily chores is to take the cows grazing to the grassland by edge of the forest and return home by the Godhuli hour. It’s not that they need any help to find their way back home but the forest is a dangerous place.
One day, it begins to rain quite heavily and Gopala strays into the forest even as he drives the cows in the direction of their home. The rain is now pouring in torrents, soaking him like a washcloth, blinding his vision even as he walks farther in the jungle. Gopala takes shelter under one of those innumerable tall, large, everlasting trees, shivering and hugging his knees close to his chest. He has now lost sense of time and direction. Darkness everywhere. The downpour simply doesn’t stop and for the first time in his tender years, he feels real fear and begins to sweat, the salty drops of fear-filled perspiration mixing with the sheets of rain beating on his body. He can barely keep his eyes open. His shivering trebles with the fright he experiences. And then he weeps uncontrollably. After a long time, amidst crying, he remembers his father’s words: if you’re in trouble, call Krishna. And that’s what he does, a choked wail of anguish, helplessness, a plea for succor: “Help me Krishna! Take me home!”
Nothing happens for a long time.
And then Gopala hears the familiar dull, slushy thud of hoofs to his left. The sound is almost muted but unmistakable to his ear. Cows. Maybe oxen. Maybe buffaloes. Unmistakable, yes. He wipes his face with his upper arm, vigorous clears the water from his eyes and turns left. In the darkness, he sees the boulder-like shapes languidly cruising towards him, the enormous, curved horns undulating with the rhythm he is so familiar with. The horns are beautifully painted with neat patterns resembling rows of anklets. Gopala’s heart quickens as he stands up and slowly moves towards them. Ten paces later, his eyes widen and then rapidly blink several times. He is sure he has seen some kind of…light. He stares. And then sees it fully. Amidst…how many? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty…cows and bulls and oxen, is a boy of his age wielding a flute, tapping the animals gently, prodding them to move. The light is not visible now but the boy is. Clearly. Distinctly. He wants to call out to the boy but no words come out but the boy looks at him and waves with his flute. The animals, unconcerned by any of this simply move forward until the boy is alone. Both of them look at each other and the boy walks forward and smiles and says, “who are you?” Gopala suddenly wants to cry but for some reason beyond his control, he takes a giant leap and lands right before the boy and asks in return:
“Who are you? Are you lost like me?”
The boys says, “You can never get lost in this jungle.”
Gopala doesn’t understand. He says, “But it’s raining so heavily, it’s dark.”
The boy says, “The cows enjoy the rain. They never get lost. I follow them.”
Gopala still doesn’t understand. He says, “What’s your name?”
The boy says, “Gopala.”
Gopala is happy: “Oh! You have my name! You’re also named after Krishna!”
The other Gopala smiles and placing his flute between his thumb and forefinger, shakes it like a long spoon and then says, “Am I? I don’t know. My father is the village chief. He knows how to raise fine cattle and nothing else and he will beat me if I don’t go home on time. It is already more than three Jamas since Godhuli has passed. I’m done for.”
Gopala is shocked when he hears this and begins to sob. The other Gopala laughs at him and suddenly plays his flute for about two minutes. He sobs harder but feels a strange sense of peace amid his tears and then blurts out, “Please take me home. I have lost my way.”
The other Gopala says:
“Which home? You can come to my village if you want. My father will beat me and my mother will sulk but in the end both of us will get lots of delicious food and all the butter we can eat.”
“No no no! My parents will be worried and by now, the Mahamangalarati would’ve been finished. I have never missed seeing Krishna in the temple till today.” More sobbing.
The other Gopala smiles, plays another tune on his flute, waves his hand and says, “How do I know where your village is?”
Gopala gives him a rough description of his village’s geography and its distinctive landmarks. The other boy smiles and says, “Oh! I’ve heard of it. But if you had only thought about it for a while, you could’ve found the direction by yourself.” Then he takes Gopala’s hands and says, “Come along!” Both boys walk together for about half an hour during which time the new Gopala regales him with endless stories about cows and snakes and the river in his village and how he takes great joy in annoying his mother. When they reach the outskirts of Gopala’s village, he says mischievously:
“So we’ve come to your village. Shall I go home?”
Gopala looks at him and says, “Yes. But you must meet me tomorrow afternoon at the same tree. I will be waiting for you there, friend. You have helped me, you have shown me the way to my village, you’ve taught me so many things today. Let me teach you some new games tomorrow.”
“You have addressed me as ‘friend.’ How can I not come?” he says with the same mischievous tone.
“Then you can go now.”
As he walks towards his home, it suddenly dawns on Gopala that he hasn’t realized when the rain had stopped.
Indeed, Gopala’s parents are worried and they hug him tearfully and fuss over him. His father takes him to the Krishna temple and performs a special Puja for his well-being and long life. A strange courage has now encompassed Gopala. He feels something new within him but doesn’t know what it is.
The next afternoon, the other Gopala meets him at the large tree as promised. Gopala teaches him new games…of closing your eyes and walking some paces and burying ten pebbles in the mud and confusing the other player by asking: “how many paces did I walk?” In turn, the other Gopala would teach him how to play the flute and how to make the cows jealous and compete for your attention.
As the days turned to weeks and weeks to months, an unusual change came over Gopala. He began losing interest in his lessons and would become restless to take the cows to the forest and spent more and more time there. And began returning home later and later. He showed a perfunctory interest even in the Mahamangalarati. His face constantly exhibited an expression of longing so long as he was in the village. Quite naturally, his father keenly observed these changes and began to get worried thinking that some evil spirit had possessed his precious son. He prayed to Krishna with greater devotion but nothing came out of it. Then he decided to verify matters for himself.
One day, he surreptitiously followed Gopala into the jungle and stood at a distance and hid behind a tree and watched his son. The other Gopala arrived at the appointed time and the two boys began to play their routine childish games….climbing trees, prancing with the cattle, competing with each other as to who would first finish drinking milk directly from the cow’s udder…Gopala’s father could only see his son doing all this. But he was talking and beckoning somebody and sharing anecdotes and laughing. After a while, Gopala’s little body lay down with his eyes closed, not in sleep. He was savouring the melody of the other Gopala’s flute.
The father’s worst fears had rung true. His poor boy was indeed possessed by an evil spirit. Tears flowed down his cheeks. Without a word, he turned back and returned home. For the next Mandala, he performed severe austerities to ward off the spirit, his devotion to Krishna intensifying each second. The Mandala was over but nothing changed.
Finally, he sat down with Gopala and asked him with great emotion, “Son, what has happened to you? You look dull and sad from the past eight months. You are not submitting your lessons properly and you always seem to be in some other world. Won’t you share your troubles with your own father?”
The boy was overwhelmed and told him everything about his new friend starting from that fearful rainy night. Keshava Bhatta was stunned when he heard this and although his entire being believed his son, human curiosity triumphed over this belief. So he confessed to his son:
“About three weeks ago, I followed you into the forest and hiding behind a tree, I saw you playing there. But you were alone. There was nobody with you.”
The boy’s reply was full of its natural innocence:
“But why did you hide? You could have come with me. I would have introduced you to my friend!”
“Oh! Will you? Shall I come with you tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course! My friend will be happy to take your blessings!”
And so the father and son set out the next day. Gopala’s friend did not arrive at the appointed hour. Or an hour after that. Or two hours after that. Or three. Or four. The father’s curiosity slowly transformed to disbelief and then to annoyance and then to mild anger. Gopala was now in tears. He knew his father did not believe him now. Maybe he had lost his friend forever. Even the mere inkling was intolerable to him. So he cried out, “Gopala, why haven’t you come today? Where are you, Gopala?” No answer. “Gopala, please come! Are you angry that I have brought my father? Come Gopala! I beg you. Your cows want to play with me. I know.”
Gopala looked around and looked up. The Godhuli hour had now approached. In a final desperate attempt, Gopala, his tears unabated, yelled:
“Krishna! Help me! Send me my Gopala. I want to play with him. Is he angry with me? Is he angry with my father?”
And then, a browny dust arose, bizarrely, in the midst of the stillness of this thick jungle and a voice rang: “My dear friend, I’ve been here all along, a little before you arrived. My cows are sad, they’re still waiting for you to pet them and drink their milk. Why can’t you see them?”
Gopala couldn’t fathom anything. His tears still didn’t stop. It was his dear friend’s familiar voice but he couldn’t see him or his cattle. But the father understood. He slowly knelt down until his face was level with his son’s and caressed the boys cheeks and wiped his tears away and hugged him tightly and wept. Then he said, in a choked whisper, “Son, please move back a few steps.”
Gopala obeyed him.
Then Keshava Bhatta stood up, closed his eyes, folded his hands and a minute later prostrated before a stunned Gopala, turned back and departed without a word. Gopala watched his receding form, still in a confounded state, and as his vision grew blurred and hazy, it was suddenly replaced with the sight of his dear friend, Gopala, smiling, now standing before him, ready with a new tune of his flute.
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