Came across this short story by Rabindranath Tagore while browsing through his works online, and couldn't resist the temptation to translate it. Is it just me, or do the people of heaven really look vaguely familiar?
The Wrong Heaven
The man was simply jobless.
He had no work, only a multitude of hobbies.
He used to pour earth into small wooden squares and then arranged small shells on it. From afar they looked like untidy paintings, with flocks of birds or uneven fields with cattle grazing; or undulating mountains with a stream flowing down, or perhaps a small walking-trail.
His family never ceased nagging him. Sometimes he vowed to let go of this madness, but the madness never let go of him.
There are some students who shirk studies all year round, but pass the exams by fluke. A similar predicament befell this man.
His life was spent in useless work, but after death he came to know that he had been granted entry in heaven.
But a man’s fate doesn’t leave him even when he is going to heaven. The messengers mixed up their records and put him in the hardworking people’s heaven.
In this heaven they have everything, only no leisure.
Here the men constantly say, “We don’t have time to breathe.” The women say, “Must go now, we have a lot of work pending.” Everyone says, “Time is expensive.” No one says, “Time is priceless.” Everyone grumbles, “Can’t work so hard” and they feel very happy saying it. The complaint “This hard work is killing us” is music to their ears.
Our poor man does not find a place here, he does not fit in. If he walks absent-mindedly on the road, he gets in the way of busy people. Wherever he spreads out his sheet to rest, he finds it is agricultural land and crops have been sown there. Constantly, he has to get up, he has to move away.
A very busy girl comes to fetch water from the heavenly water-source everyday.
She walks on the road like quick-rhythm music played on the sitar.
She has hurriedly tied up her loose hair into an untidy bun. Still, a few naughty locks are peeking down over her forehead to see her black eyes.
Our heavenly jobless man was standing at the side of the road, motionless like a tree by the restless spring.
The girl felt pity for this man, just as a princess feels pity seeing a beggar from her window.
“Don’t you have any work on your hands?”
The man sighed and said, “I don’t have the time to do work.”
The girl did not understand anything at all. “Do you want to take some work from my hands?” she asked.
The man said, “I am standing here just to take some work from your hands.”
“What work can I give you?”
“It would be nice if you could give me one of the pots of water that you carry at your waist.”
“What will you do with a pot? Fill water?”
“No, I will paint on its surface.”
The girl replied heatedly, “I don’t have time for this. I’ll go now.”
But how can a busy person be a match for an idle person? Everyday they met at the spring, and each day he said the same thing, “Give me a pot from your waist. I will paint on it.”
Finally she relented. She gave him a pot.
Around that pot the jobless man started painting multi-coloured loops, multi-lined patterns.
When he was done, the girl picked up the pot, turned it around and looked at it from all sides. She arched her eyebrows and asked, “What does this mean?”
The idle man said, “This has no meaning.”
The girl went home with her pot.
She secretly observed it in different lights, from different angles. At night, she left her bed to light a lamp and sit silently to look at that picture. In all her life, this was the first time she had seen something that had no meaning.
When she came to the spring the next day, the busy rhythm of her feet had a slight disturbance. It seemed as if while walking, her feet were absent mindedly thinking about – about something that had no meaning.
The man was again standing by the side of the road.
The girl said, “What do you want?”
He said, “I want more work from your hands.”
“What work can I give you?”
“If you agree, I will weave a ribbon for your hair from colourful threads.”
“What good will it do?”
Many different coloured ribbons were made, of many different designs. Now the girl spent a lot of time braiding her hair in front of a mirror. Her work remained unfinished, hours passed by.
Soon, the work in the hardworking people’s heaven started filling up with large gaps. Those gaps were filled up with songs and sobs.
The heavenly elders became worried. They called a meeting. They said, “This is the first time such a thing has happened in the history of heaven.”
The messenger came and confessed his mistake. “I delivered the wrong man to the wrong heaven,” he said.
The wrong man was summoned to the meeting. One look at his colourful turban and flashy belt was enough to convince everybody that it was indeed a big mistake.
The chairman said, “You will have to go back to earth.”
He tied his bag of paints and brushes to his belt and breathed a sigh of relief. “All right, I’m leaving then.”
The girl came and said, “I’ll go with him too.”
The elderly chairman became absent-minded. For the first time in his life he had seen something that had no meaning.
(Translation by Sugata Banerji.)