In a remote village in Bengal, in a small hut by the village pond, lived a simple widowed woman with her eight year old child, Gopi. She was poor and barely managed to earn a livelihood enough to feed and clothe her child and herself. Yet she was very keen that her child should go to school and learn. That was one thing that was very important. So she made sure that Gopi went to school everyday. But the school was far and one had to pass through a deep and dark forest on the way. She, therefore, accompanied Gopi to school for the first few days but then it became difficult for her to do as she had her own work to do.
So she told her child that he would have to go to school alone. Naturally, the boy was not very happy. The woods were so dark…
“Don’t you worry, son,” the mother said, “your elder brother lives in the forest and he will come to you whenever you lose your way or feel frightened.”
“My elder brother?” Gopi repeated slowly. “How shall I call him or know him?”
A certain image and a name flashed past the mother’s mind, something out of her own long-forgotten childhood.“His name is Madhusudan,” she said. “Just call for him!”
So Gopi left the next day for school alone. He walked through the forest strangely reassured that his elder brother was always somewhere nearby. But then he was so young, and soon his courage gave way to doubt and trepidation. Would he be able to make it all the way? The forest was so thick. And he could hear strange sounds. Suddenly he heard a movement in the distance and froze. What was that? Now he was frightened. So, shutting tight his eyes, he called out — “Madhusudan! Madhusudan!”
And, lo and behold, Gopi felt a soft touch on his shoulder. Startled, he opened his eyes. Standing right before him was a boy only slightly older than him, but strong and bright. He had a kind and friendly face, and the young boy felt reassured immediately.
“You live here, Madhu dada?” The boy asked innocently.
The older boy nodded, smiling. “And you are afraid of the forest?” He asked, teasingly.
Gopi felt embarrassed. How could he be afraid of the forest?
“Don’t worry,” the older boy said, still smiling. “We are all afraid. It is a very thick forest.”
“Are you afraid too, dada?”
“Sometimes,” the older boy replied. “But I don’t let the fear stop me. Come, I’ll walk you to your school.”
And so they started walking together.
“Do you really live in the forest, Madhu dada?” Asked Gopi, wondering how anyone could live alone in such a forest.
“I live in your heart, my brother. That is why I am there whenever and wherever you call me!”
“Wow! That’s magical, isn’t it?” Gopi exclaimed, his heart and voice full of wonder. “So we can always meet and talk and play whenever I call you?”
“Yes, of course!” Madhusudan replied. “It all depends on your call!”
And thus, speaking of many things, they reached the school. As soon as Gopi could see the school building, Madhusudan disappeared. Gopi, getting a little used to his elder brother’s magical powers, walked alone up to the school, very happy because he had found a brother and a friend almost his age.
After that, Gopi couldn’t wait to go to school just because he wanted to be with Madhu dada and walk with him through the forest. Day after day, as he walked through the forest with Madhusudan, he learned so many new things, about trees, animals, birds, wild fruits and flowers. Madhusudan had an answer for every question that the boy could ask. Sometimes they would even run up strange new paths, and explore parts of the forest Gopi would have never known. Every morning and afternoon became so delightful for him.
Gopi, of course, completely outgrew his fear of the forest. He would call Madhu dada now not because he couldn’t walk alone through the forest but because he wanted Madhu dada’s company. He not only felt safe in Madhu dada’s company but strangely uplifted, as if he was the strongest boy in the world and he could do anything he wanted to. Madhu dada was so kind and loving, and so wise!
One day, Gopi’s teacher, called Mastermashai by all his students, announced that he would be celebrating his birthday in two days and he wanted every child to bring him a gift. It was customary for the village children to bring gifts for the teacher on his birthday. When Gopi got home that evening, he sat beside his mother and and told her about his teacher’s birthday celebration. “I know we are poor, Ma,” Gopi said, “and we cannot afford a gift for Mastermashai . But everyone else will be bringing something or the other.”
Gopi’s mother felt sad and wished she could send something with Gopi. But she felt helpless.
“Should I ask Madhu dada?” Gopi asked suddenly, perking up as the thought struck him.
Gopi’s mother looked at her son with surprise. She knew there was no Madhu dada in the forest. It was all Gopi’s imagination. But before she could say anything, Gopi ran off, excited. His mother sat quietly, watching the evening sky.
The next morning, as he entered the forest, he saw Madhu dada waiting for him, a smile on his lips. “How is my little brother today?” Madhusudan asked playfully.
Gopi quickly explained the situation. Madhusudan smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Gopi. I’ll give you a bowl of delicious sweet curd to carry for your teacher. I assure you that he will love it!”
So saying, Madhusudan handed Gopi a bowl of curd that seemed to appear out of thin air. Gopi smiled to himself. He was enjoying dada’s magic tricks!
“Isn’t the bowl a bit too small, dada?” Asked Gopi. “But it doesn’t matter,” he quickly added, “Mastermashai will be happy!”
Everyone in the class was excited that morning. The teacher was receiving gifts from each child. And everyone had brought wonderful gifts. Mastermashai seemed so happy. Gopi felt somewhat ashamed, carrying such a small and inconspicuous bowl for Mastermashai. He kept the bowl out of sight. Mastermashai soon caught Gopi’s eye and smiled at him. “So what have you brought for me, Gopi?” He asked.
Gopi held out the small bowl, hesitant and embarrassed. Mastermashai took the bowl and looked at it for a few seconds. “Ah, looks like sweet curd! But what a small bowl! How will I feed my guests with this?” There was a note of derision in Mastermashai’s voice. Gopi wished he could melt away.
Mastermashai kept the bowl beside him on the table, amongst all the other delicacies and gifts.
Later in the afternoon, after everyone had left, the teacher’s servant started cleaning up the room. He noticed the bowl sitting on the table and drew the teacher’s attention to it. The teacher looked at the bowl and chuckled. “That poor boy,” he muttered to himself. “Give it to me, let me finish the curd.”
And so saying, he took the bowl and finished off the curd in a single gulp. And he stood transfixed for a moment. What a wonderful taste! He quickly licked off the last remnant of the curd and put the bowl aside.
As soon as he did that, the bowl filled up again. The teacher stared at the bowl in disbelief. He gingerly picked up the bowl again and tasted the curd in it. It was as delicious as before. He greedily finished off the curd in the bowl and kept it aside again. And again, the bowl filled up. The teacher couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He asked his servant to empty the bowl into a bigger one. The servant immediately did what he was told. But the bowl filled up again. The servant came back running to his master, excited and frightened.
“It is some kind of magic, Sir,” he said excitedly, “the bowl keeps filling up each time I empty it! I have filled up all the utensils in the kitchen, Sir!”
“This is amazing!” The teacher said, barely able to control his own excitement. “I must find out from Gopi where he got this from.”
The next morning when Gopi came to school, the teacher was waiting for him at the gate. “Where did you get the bowl of curd, Gopi? Who gave it to you?” He asked immediately.
“Madhu dada gave it to me, Mastermashai.” Gopi replied, a bit apprehensive.
“Where does your Madhu dada live?” Asked Mastermashai.
“In my heart, Mastermashai. But he meets me in the forest.”
Mastermashai looked at Gopi quizzically. “Meets you in the forest?”
“Yes, Mastermashai — he always walks me down to school and back home.”
“He must be a magician,” Mastermashai said, “can I meet him too?”
And so Gopi and his teacher went back to the edge of the forest where Gopi called out to Madhu dada. In a moment, Madhusudan appeared beside Gopi.
“Yes, Gopi?” Madhusudan said gently.
The teacher couldn’t see or hear Madhusudan. “Where is your Madhu dada, Gopi?” The teacher asked, a trifle impatient.
“Why, here he is!” Gopi pointed out to Madhusudan.
“But I can’t see him!” Mastermashai repeated.
“But here he is, Mastermashai,” Gopi again pointed to Madhusudan, who was looking on slightly with an amused smile.
“Your teacher cannot see or hear me, Gopi,” Madhusudan said gently, “because his heart is not as pure as yours, and his heart does not have love for me.”
Gopi repeated Madhusudan’s words to his teacher. The teacher understood at once what was happening. He knew in his heart whose presence he was standing in. Tears filled his eyes and deep remorse filled his heart. He handed the magic bowl back to Gopi and walked back slowly towards the school.
Gopi looked at Madhusudan. Madhusudan smiled back at him and disappeared.
And so the story goes that Gopi and his mother never had to go without food again. Whatever was needed, Madhusudan’s bowl would provide in abundance. Did Gopi understand who his elder brother, Madhusudan, was? We will never know because Gopi never spoke of Madhu dada to anyone again.
[Translator’s note: Dada is used as a term of respect for an elder brother in Bengali; hadi means bowl or pot; School teachers in Bengal are often addressed as Mastermashai and the word means ‘revered Master’; Madhusudan is one of the names used for Sri Krishna.]
Rendered into English by Nirankara.