Meet Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the lead protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International,Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much in conversation Click here to read.
Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.
“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…”
— John Keats (1795-1851), To Autumn
For long writers have associated autumn with “mellow wistfulness”. That loss of spring, or loss of youth is not bleak or regretful has been captured not just by Keats but also been borne out by historical facts. Anthropocene existence only get better as the human race evolves … If we view our world as moving towards an autumn, we perhaps, as Keats suggests, need to find the new “music” for it. A music that is ripe and matures with the passage of time to the point that it moves more towards perfection. Though sometimes lives fade away after autumn gives way to winter as did those of Queen Elizabeth II (April 21st 1926 – September 8th 2022) after a reign of seventy historic years and Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd March 1931 – 30thAugust 2022) with his admirable efforts to bridge divides. Both of them have left footprints that could be eternalised if voices echo in harmony. Thoughts which create bonds never die – they live on in your hearts and mine.
Imagine… ten thousand years ago, were we better off? Recorded history shows that the first war had already been fought 13,000 years ago. And they have continued to rage – but, at least, unlike the indomitable Gauls in Asterix comics – not all jumped into the fray. They did during the last World Wars — which also led to attempts towards institutionalising humanitarian concerns and non-alignment. Yes, we have not had a perfect world as yet but as we age, the earth matures and we will, hopefully, move towards better times as we evolve. Climate change had happened earlier too. At a point, Sahara was green. Continental shifts split Pangaea into seven continents – that was even earlier. That might have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. But I am sure mankind will find a way out of the terror of climate change and wars over a period of time, as long as we believe in deciphering the sounds of autumn as did Keats in his poem.
Tagore had also sung of the joys of autumn which happens to be a time for festivities. Professor Fakrul Alam has translated three such songs, reflecting the joie de vivre of the season, The translation of a small poem, Eshecche Sarat, brings the beauty of the season in Bengal to the fore. We have a celebration of youth and romance in a Balochi folksong, an anti-thesis to autumn and aging, translated for us by Fazal Baloch and also, poetic prose in quest of God and justice by Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed. Lost romance recapitulated makes interesting poetry is borne out by Ihlwha Choi’s translation of his own poem from Korean. But the topping in our translation section is a story called ‘Nagmati’ by eminent Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, translated by no less than a Sahitya Akademi winning translator – Aruna Chakravarti. This story illustrates how terrifying youthful follies can lead to the end of many young lives, a powerful narrative about the snake worshipping community of Bedeynis that highlights destruction due to youthful lusts and an inability to accept diverse cultures.
When this cultural acceptance becomes a part of our being, it creates bonds which transcend manmade borders as did the films of Satyajit Ray. His mingling was so effective that his work made it to the zenith of an international cinematic scenario so much so that Audrey Hepburn, while receiving the Oscar on his behalf, said: “Dear Satyajit Ray. I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”
This and more has been revealed to us in a book,Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much, authored by a protagonist from Ray’s film, Barun Chanda. This book brought out by Om Books International reflects not just Ray as a person but also how he knitted the world together with his films and took the Indian film industry to an international level. Barun Chanda has been interviewed with a focus on Satyajit Ray. Keith Lyons has also interviewed a man who has defied all norms and, in the autumn of his life, continues his journey while weaving together cultures across, China, India and Thailand by his ethnographic studies on tribes, Jim Goodman. Goodman says he left America when speaking for a war-free world became a cause for censorship. This makes one wonder if war is a game played for supporting a small minority of people who rule the roost? Or are these ramblings of a Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of narcotics?
Poetry also brings the season into our pages with an autumnal interpretation of life from Michael Burch. More poetry from Sunil Sharma, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Gayatri Majumdar, George Freek, Ron Pickett, Sutputra Radheye, Marianne Tefft brings a wide range of concerns to our pages – from climate to the vagaries of human nature. Poetry by an Albanian writer, Irma Kurti, and photographs by her Italian spouse, Biagio Fortini, blend together the colours of humanity. Rhys Hughes as usual, makes it to the realm of absurd – perhaps voicing much in his poetry, especially about the environment and human nature, though he talks of woodpeckers on Noah’s ark (were there any?) and of cows, yetis, monkeys and cakes… He has also given us a hilarious cat narrative for his column. Can that be called magic realism too? Or are the edges too abstract?
A leader who quested for freedom and roamed the world after being passed over by the Congress in favour of Nehru, Netaji raised an army of women who were trained in Singapore – not a small feat in the first half of the twentieth century anywhere in the world. His death in an air crash remained an unsolved mystery — another one of those controversies which raged through the century like the Bhawal case. In his review, Parichha spells out: “Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters.”
Our non-fiction also hosts humour from Devraj Singh Kalsi about his interactions with birds and, on the other hand, a very poignant poetic-prose by Mike Smith reflecting on the vagaries of autumn. From Japan, Suzanne Kamata takes us to the Rabbit Island – and murmurings of war and weapons. We have the strangest story about a set of people who are happy to be ruled by foreign settlers – we would term them colonials – from Meredith Stephens. G Venkatesh delights with a story of love and discovery in Korea, where he had gone in pre-pandemic times. Paul Mirabile travels to Turkey to rediscover a writer, Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954). And Ravi Shankar gives us an emotional story about his trek in the Himalayas in Nepal with a friend who has passed on. Candice Louisa Daquin has written of the possibilities towards integrating those who are seen as minorities and marginalised into the mainstream.
The edition this time is like Autumn – multi-coloured. Though I am not able to do justice to all our contributors by mentioning them here, my heartfelt thanks to each as every piece only enriches our journal. I urge you to take a look at the September edition.
I would like to give huge thanks to our readers and our team too, especially Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious for their artwork. We could not have come this far without support from all of you.
 The men in the indomitable Gaulish village (which the Romans failed to conquer) in times of Julius Caesar loved to jump into a fight for no reason…Asterix was the protagonist of the comics along with his fat friend Obelix
In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much
“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.
“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”
This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.
The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha(1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”
And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Desheand Shatranj ke Khilari, both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”
Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”
Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.
However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”
New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati, the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”
While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:
“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”
Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.
First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?
No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.
So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!
Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?
Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.
Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.
I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton, who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.
Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?
I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.
The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.
That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?
Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.
I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.
I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.
To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.
I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.
Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?
He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.
Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?
I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.
What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?
The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.
Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?
Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.
Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?
Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh and he had to supply stories to Desh — one per year, for the pujaspecial. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.
You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?
What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones.
Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?
I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.
I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.
Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?
I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.
Are you giving us any new books in the near future?
Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.
Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions
Title: Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills
Editors: Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
She was eighty-six, but looking at her you wouldn’t have guessed—she was spry and took some care to look good. Not once in the five years that we spent together did I find her looking slovenly. The old-fashioned dresses she wore were clean and well-ironed, and sometimes she added a hat. Her memory was excellent, and she knew a great deal about the flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife of the area—she hadn’t made a serious study of these things, but having lived here for so long, she had developed an intimacy with everything that grew and flourished around her. A trust somewhere in England sent her a pension of forty or fifty rupees, and this was all the money she had, having used up the paltry sum she’d received from the sale of her property.
She’d had a large house, she told me, which she had inherited from her parents when they died, and she’d had an ailing sister whom she had nursed for many years before she too passed away. As she had no income, she kept boarders in the house, but she had no business sense and was losing money maintaining it. In the end, she sold the house for a song to one of the local traders and moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of Maplewood Lodge, a kindness for which she remained grateful to her friends, the Gordon sisters.
It must have been lonely for Miss Bean, living there in the shadow of the hill, which was why she had been excited when I moved into the floor above her. With age catching up, she couldn’t leave her rooms and her little garden as often as she would have liked to, and there were few visitors—sometimes a teacher from the Wynberg Allen School, the padre from the church in town, the milkman twice a week and, once a month, the postman. She had an old bearer, who had been with her for many years. I don’t think she could afford him any longer, but she managed to pay him a little somehow, and he continued out of loyalty, but also because he was old himself; there wouldn’t have been too many other employment opportunities for him. He came late in the morning and left before dark. Then she would be alone, without even the company of a pet. There’d been a small dog long ago, but she’d lost it to a leopard.
Camel’s Back Road, going to a tea party at a friend’s house, the dog sitting in her lap. And suddenly, from the hillside above her, a leopard sprang onto the rickshaw, snatched the dog out of her hands, and leapt down to the other side and into the forest. She was left sitting there, empty-handed, in great shock, but she hadn’t suffered even a scratch. The two rickshaw pullers said they’d only felt a heavy thump behind them, and by the time they turned to look, the leopard was gone.
All of this I gathered over the many evenings that I spent chatting with Miss Bean in her corner of the cottage. I didn’t have anyone to cook for me in the first few years at Maplewood. Most evenings I would have tinned food, and occasionally I would go down to share my sardine tins or sausages with Miss Bean. She ate frugally—maybe she’d always had a small appetite, or it was something her body had adjusted to after years of small meals—so I wasn’t really depriving myself of much. And she returned the favour with excellent tea and coffee.
We would have long chats, Miss Bean telling me stories about Mussoorie, where she had lived since she was a teenager, and stories about herself (a lot of which went into some of my own stories). She remembered the time when electricity came to Mussoorie—in 1912, long before it reached most other parts of India. And she had memories of the first train coming into Dehra, and the first motor road coming up to Mussoorie. Before the motor road was built, everyone would walk up the old bridle path from Rajpur, or come on horseback, or in a dandy held aloft by four sweating coolies.
Miss Bean missed the old days, when there was a lot of activity in the hill resort—picnics and tea parties and delicious scandals. It was second only to Shimla, the favourite social playground of the Europeans. But unlike Shimla, it had the advantage of being a little more private. It was a place of mischief and passion, and young Miss Bean enjoyed both. As a girl, she’d had many suitors, and if she did not marry, it was more from procrastination than from being passed over. While on all sides elopements and broken marriages were making life exciting, she managed to remain single, even when she taught elocution at one of the schools that flourished in Mussoorie, and which were rife with secret affairs.
Do you wish you had, though,’ I asked her one March evening, sitting by the window, in the only chair she had in her bedroom.
‘Do I wish I had what?’ she said from her bed, where she was tucked up with three hot-water bottles.
‘Married. Or fallen in love.’
‘I did fall in love, you know. But my dear father was a very good shot with pistol and rifle, so I had to be careful for the sake of the young gentlemen. As for marriage, I might have regretted it even had it happened.’
A fierce wind had built up and it was battering at the doors and windows, determined to get in. It slipped down the chimney, but was stuck there, choking and gurgling in frustration.
‘There’s a ghost in your chimney and he can’t get out,’ I said.
‘Then let him stay there,’ said Miss Bean.
Excerpted from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘What is it about the hills that draws us to them again and again?’ asks one of the editors of this collection. In these pages, over forty writers—from a daughter of the Tagore family and a British colonial officer in the 19th century, to a young poet and an Adivasi daily-wage worker in the 21st century—show us what the many reasons could be: Green hillsides glowing in the sun; the scent of pine and mist; the wind soughing in the deodars; the song of the whistling thrush; a ritual of worship; a picnic, a party, an illicit affair. They show us, too, the complex histories of hill stations built for the Raj and reshaped in free India; the hardship and squalor behind the beauty; the mixed blessings of progress.
Rich in deep experience and lyrical expression, and containing some stunning images of the hills, Between Heaven and Earth is a glorious collection put together by two of India’s finest writers, both with a lifelong connection with the hills. Among the writers you will read in it—who write on the hills in almost every region of India—are Rumer Godden, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Emily Eden, Francis Younghusband, Jim Corbett, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khushwant Singh, Keki Daruwalla, and of course the two editors themselves. Together, they make this a book that you will keep returning to for years to come.
ABOUT THE EDITORS
Ruskin Bond is one of India’s most beloved writers. He is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the hills of north India. Among his best-known books are The Room on the Roof, Time Stops at Shamli, A Book of Simple Living, Rain in the Mountains and Lone Fox Dancing. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie.
Bulbul Sharma is an acclaimed painter and writer, author of best-selling books of fiction and non-fiction, including My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Aubergines, Murder in Shimla and Shaya Tales. Bulbul conducts ‘storypainting’ workshops for special needs children and is a founder-member of Sannidhi—an NGO that works in village schools. She divides her time between New Delhi, London and Shaya, a village in Himachal Pradesh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Eshechhe Sarat ( Autumn) by Rabindranath Tagore was published in 1937. The poem flows to describe the season of Sarat, or the early part of autumn, when Bengalis celebrated their major festival, Durga Puja
A cool breeze awakens
At dawn, the grass rim
Is lined with dew.
The amloki groves shiver.
Their hearts pound like drums,
As they know the time to shed
Leaves has clearly come.
The shiuli branches are laden with buds.
The togor blossoms hold sway.
The bees visit sprays of the
Malatilata twice a day.
As the rains have ended,
The clouds roam the skies free.
They drift with the breeze,
At leisure and full of glee.
The ponds ripple with water.
Their banks bloom with flowers.
The young rice plants fill the fields
The wind swings the paddy bowers.
Wherever I look, a golden light
Suffuses a vision of holidays,
The festive sun rises in the woods
Of puja* blossoms drenched in gold rays.
Amloki is Indian gooseberry
Togor (genera: milkwood), shiuli (jasmine)and Malatilata (Rangoon creeper) are flowers that bloom around autumn
This poem was a part of Sahaj Path, a set of books created by Tagore to teach the Bengali language. The four books that constitute the set were illustrated by the famed artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), who was also a major part of Santiniketan.
(This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial backing from Anasuya Bhar and Sohana Manzoor)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
These are songs of Tagore centred around autumn, a season that is split into two parts in Bengal. Early autumn is called Sarat and late autumn Hemonto. The first two songs are descriptive of Sarat and the last one of Hemonto.
SAY WHAT YOU WILL (Tomra Ja Bolo tai bolo, written in 1921)
Say what you all will, I don’t mind
My time flies, and hours pass, aimlessly
The wild wind stirs me to a song
And spreads its tune across this deep-blue sky.
That song has stuck in my mind.
What nectar do I seek in the humming of bees?
Whose sky-pervading gaze seeks me out
And settles on my sight thus this day?
THE HEART WAS AWAKE (Hridoye Chheele Jege, written in 1921)
You were wide awake in my heart
But I see you in autumnal clouds this day!
How was it you stole so quietly away at dawn,
Letting only your dress’s borders caress the dew?
What song is it that I should sing?
I simply can’t find words for it now!
They lie scattered with shiuli flowers under forest canopies
They’ve flown away with the gusting winds in sudden showers.
AUTUMNAL NIGHTS (Himer Raate, 1927)
On such cool autumnal nights
Hemonto hides heaven’s lamps with its cloak.
To every house it gives this call,
“Light festive lamps, make bright the night,
Shine your own lights, illuminate the world.”
Gardens are flowerless now; cuckoos sing no more;
Kash reed flowers keep falling by riverbanks,
But let go of darkness, despair and misery; light festive lamps--
Shine your own lights and proclaim the triumph of light
The gods look on — sons and daughters of earth, arise,
Illuminating the night,
Darkness may descend and day end but light festive lamps,
Shine your own light and triumph over this dark night
Below is a Youtube upload of Autumnal night or Himer Raate sung by the legendary singer Debabrata Biswas (1911-1980)
Prafulla Roy is a Bengali author. He traveled all over the country to experience the struggles of the people. He lived for some time among the indigenous people of Nagaland, the untouchables of Bihar and the rootless people of the mainland of the Andamans. He has written 150 books, received multiple awards like the Sahitya Akademi and the Bankim Puraskar. About 45 telefilms, tele-series, and feature-films were made based on his novels. He lives in Kolkata.Nagmati was first published in 1956.
Sonai Bibi’r Bil. A low-lying fen in a remote corner of the earth far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life…
In the bitter cold of winter, when winds from the north blow hard and dry, Sonai Bibi’r Bil shrivels into herself like the rotting carcass of an old woman. All that is visible are her skeletal remains. Patches of water, green with scum, shimmer between masses of earth risen from her breast. And around them, as far as the eye can see, are unending sweeps of wild reeds, bulrushes and tussock grass. There are deep shadows here. Shadows and silence. Water and verdure are locked together in restful sleep.
When the first monsoon showers fall upon the earth Sonai Bibi’r Bil awakes. Shaking off her torpor, she raises her face to the sky and drinks great gulps of pelting rain. Her contours change. She stretches and expands. Her newly awakened limbs unfurl and spread in all directions. To the north, south, east and west… all the way to the horizon. The river Meghna helps her. Swelling and frothing in a demonic dance she bursts her banks and makes her way into the fen. Wrapping her in a fierce embrace sheturns her into a great sheet of waving water. Sensuous, joyous, seductive…
Then, after autumn has waned and the fierce frosty winds of hemantahave raped and battered her voluptuous form, Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sad, withered replica of her once glorious self. The sap of youth drains away from her limbs and, who knows from what dark depths, stretches of virgin soil appear.
Winter follows. And now flocks of birds…katora, imli, jalpipi, and innumerable others come flying in from distant shores. They have many names. Many colours. Descending on her in sweeps, they turn Sonai Bibi’r Bil into a rainbow. With them come other migratory creatures. Bedeys, nomadic snake charmers, anchor their boats in her shallow waters. The sound of rushing wings and soft footfalls enters her ears. Delicious tremors rise from deep within and her land and water sway and shiver with ecstasy.
That they are here this winter, too, is evident from the many tents that have blossomed like land lotuses all over Sonai Bibi’r Bil. Other flowers can be seen. Along with the krishnakalithat dapples the breast of the fen with clutches of purple stars are snake maidens, winsome creatures in motley-coloured skirts rippling seductively from narrow waists to slim ankles. Bunches of golden flowers wave coyly from tangled locks. Their eyes are long and languorous. But, at times, a sudden flame can spurt into a dark iris and flicker and dance like the head of a deadly cobra. They wear ornaments made from the bones of snakes and birds. Imli wing necklaces and kuchila spine bracelets adorn long necks and arms. Danglers, fashioned from the delicate neck bones of a shankha nag, swing from tiny earlobes.
The short days of winter provide a welcome rest for the nomads… a brief diversion in their wandering lives. A time to suspend floating over turbulent waters and experience the joy of putting down roots. To revel in the comfort and security enjoyed by the householder. Nagmati bedeyni’s snake maidens sit all day long, basking in warm sunshine, weaving trays and baskets. The men squatting beside them peel reeds and twine feathery tussock into ropes. They are young men with stone-hard limbs and staring eyes…crimson from mahua wine. Their rough tawny manes are tied with lengths of entrails pulled out of chakrachoor snakes and dried to ribbons. Dark lips are parted in foolish smiles. But not all are employed thus. Some pursue more arduous tasks. Stealing sheaves of mustard, sesame and kaoon paddy from the waving fields on three sides of the fen, is one of them. Stalking wild geese and bringing them down with skilled throws of sharp-edged harpoons is another.
They come every winter. Winter stretches into Springon the wings of mellow breezes. Summer follows. The parched earth bakes and cracks, raising swirls of scorching dust. Still, the call to resume their roving lives doesn’t reach their ears. But when the first monsoon clouds rise from the horizon and cool winds laden with moisture come wafting into Sonai Bibi’r Bil, they shake off their languor and ready themselves for their tryst with the waiting waters. Sails are unfurled and oars mended. Towing ropes stretch and tighten in muscled palms. Muttering fervent prayers to Allah and Bish hari, their preferred name for the snake goddess Manasa, they set sail once more. Frail barks ride high on the waves as the ferocious Meghna comes swaying and swerving into Sonai Bibi’r Bil.
Reeds, bulrush, tussock and broom disappear. Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sea of black water. Boats fly over foam tipped waves and down again. From the Meghna to the Padma. From the Padma to the Kalabadar mooring, from time to time, on alien banks. Then sky and water resonate with the echoes of sharp, sweet voices. “Bish pathor Ma! Khanti bish pathor! Bish hari’r doai shob bish uithya aashbo. Dudhraj, Chandrachud, Aalad, Gokkhur… Jodhi booti niba Ma? Jodhi booti?”
(Poison stones Mother! Genuine poison stones! Blessed by Bish hari herself. Guaranteed to draw out every trace of poison… be it that of adder, krait, python or cobra. Herbs and roots, Mother? Herbs and roots?)
Snake maidens hawking their wares. Calling out to the village women. To wives and mothers…
Hopes and dreams rise in heaving breasts. The nesting instinct pulls at their heartstrings. A slumberous numbness creeps into their veins and blood flows slow and heavy as though scented with opium flowers. The mind begins to send out roots and tendrils. But as soon the sky darkens with cloud and rain comes pelting down, they remember their ancestral promise to the waters of the earth and resume their drifting, roving lives.
This winter morning, as on all others, they sit with their backs turned to the sweet warm sun weaving dried grass and reeds into bins and baskets to be sold by the men at the weekly market in Kamalaganj. Their hands work swiftly for soon it will be time for them to walk down the village paths with their pouches of poison stones and baskets of snakes. To persuade wives and mothers to buy their herbs and roots, potions, charms and amulets. To entertain the villagers by making the deadliest snakes dance to their pipes. To return with fistfuls of silver joy…
Sonai Bibi’r Bil resonates with quick voices and shrill laughter. Mohabbat looks up from his task of peeling a bamboo cane and turns to one of the younger girls. “Ki lo Palanki?” he asks with a mocking smile, “Where’s Shankhini this morning? She’s not to be seen anywhere. Has her position of Amma turned her into a star in the sky?”
Shankhini is the mistress of this band of bedeys. The Queen Bee. Comments like these are tantamount to treason. Besides no one has the right to take her name. She must be addressed as Amma. She can, if she wishes, split any heart in two with a deadly thrust of her javelin. But Mohabbat is foolish and reckless. Quite often he forgets his place.
Palanka darts a timid glance at Mohabbat. There is something about her that sets her apart from the other girls. She is like a wildflower, small and humble, that knows it was born in the dust. Her eyes are misty with a faraway look in them. A scent, faint and sweet as a musk deer’s, rises from her limbs. It spreads around and beyond her like a cloud, soothing and calming all those who come near her. Eyes grow soft when they meet hers and the soul is filled with tranquility.
She has no answer to Mohabbat’s question. Her heart beats fast and she lowers her eyes. Another woman is quick to respond. A cackle of fierce laughter bursts from Atarjaan’s lips … so loud and bitter that the heart of the fen trembles with fear. Atarjaan’s body is tight and well formed, but her face is black and crumpled as though ravaged by a phantom fire. “O re Mohabattya! Spawn of a slave!” she shrieks, her ugly mouth twisted in contempt, “The nesting fever has gripped our Shankhini. Don’t you know? She has worn a red sari and smeared sindoor on her brow and parting. She’s standing before a mirror admiring herself. Go take a look. Hee Hee Hee!” Turning to the girl she screeches with laughter, “Ki lo Palanki You’re pining for a home and husband too…aren’t you? Go … go. Turn yourself into a wife and mother you slut. Hee Hee Hee!”
Five boats containing all the necessities of a nomadic life stand anchored in the shallow waters. An angry growl is heard from one of them. “Ke? Ke?” Shankhini’s voice hits the ears like a clap of thunder. “Ei Mohabbatya, you dirty jinn! Ei Aatar… you whore! I’m coming…Just wait and see what I do. I’ll slaughter you two instead of a hen and drink your blood.”
Shankhini storms in, her young body swift as a flash of lightning. The sindoor in the parting of her hair blazes like a streaking flame. Deep red silk flows around her limbs like a river of blood. Her magnificent breasts, heaving with passion, move up and down with every fierce breath. Her long eyes glitter like the spitting tongue of a deadly krait.
The fire goes out of Mohabbat. Aatarjaan trembles and turns pale. The rest of the band are struck dumb with terror. Only Palanka gazes at Shankhini with wistful eyes. An intense yearning rises from deep within her at the sight of Nagmati bedeyni’s fiery daughter in a sari and sindoor. The humble flower’s eyes fill with tears. Her heart is consumed with longing.
A scent, fresh and earthy, comes wafting into her soul as though from a vast distance. It brings promise of love and protection. Of peace and stability. Somewhere, in some alien village, someone is waiting for her. A man with a broad chest on which she rests her head in sweet surrender.A child is suckling at her breast. She feels his soft damp mouth tugging at her nipples; sending tremors of joy running through her frame. She sees a tiny hut with a vine growing over the thatch. Bunches of beans speckled with gold dust dance in the breeze. A yard, neatly swabbed with cow dung is surrounded by mango and lemon trees. Doves fly in and out of their shadows and sing from their branches on warm somnolent afternoons.
Walking through the villages bordering the Meghna, Padma and Ilsha, Palanka has seen these scenes. She has heard the legend, integral to their worship of Manasa, of how Behula had sailed over these waters with her dead husband Lakhai till she reached the abode of the Gods and persuaded them to bring him back to life. This great stretch of land and water is rendered holy, to this day, by Behula’s chastity.
Palanka’s dream of a peaceful nest in some obscure corner of the earth; of lifelong faith and trust in a man she calls husband, has made her drifting blood yearn to drop anchor. Perhaps the samedream has begun to haunt Shankhini, she muses wistfully. To beckon to her with shadowy fingers. Even so, Palanka knows there is no escape for her. She’s a slave to Shankhini’s will. Dozens of eyes guard her all the time.
Shankhini glared at the assembled men and women. Her brows were knitted together like a pair of scorpions. Her slender limbs, swathed in crimson, raged like a forest fire. Tongues of flame darted from her eyes. She looked like a wild bird ready to swoop on her detractors and tear their flesh into shreds with her talons. But before she could do anything, a whirlwind came spinning through the bushes. “Amma! Amma!” A fearful voice pierced her ears as Sikander came charging in, his flying feet trampling reeds and grass. “Disaster has befallen us,” he cried, “Another band is in the fen. They’ve anchored their boats on the opposite side. I saw them myself…”
The irises of Shankhini’s eyes changed colour. They took on the tawny hue of a tigress lurking behind a clump of keya with spiky leaves and towers of flowers exuding a pungent sweetness.
“Zulfikar!” she hollered, her voice echoing like a roll of thunder.
Zulfikar, Chief of Shankhini’s warrior band, was lounging some distance away in the shade of some screwpine bushes. He had been drinking a local brew since morning and by now his stomach had swelled up like a barrel. He heard his mistress call out his name. There was something so immediate, so urgent, in her voice that his dim drowsy senses were shocked into a sudden awakening. The bottle got knocked out of his hand and its contents spilled out in spurts on the grass.
He rose to his feet. He was a huge hulk of a man. His face, which seemed cut out of a giant slab of coal, was devoid of brows and lashes, and his jawbones jutted out like mountain crags. Hibiscus red eyes glared malignantly. Grrrrrrr… a roar, like that of a lion rudely aroused from sleep, gathered in his throat and burst from his mouth.It was a war cry. The peace and serenity of the winter morning were shattered. Hands stopped their work and senses tensed at the sound.
In this land of swamp and river there was an unwritten law. No one knew who had thought of it first, or when, but it was part of a code of conduct followed by all bedeys irrespective of where they came from. No band ventured into a space already occupied by another.
Zulfikar had arrived on the scene by now. Mohabbat, Sikandar and the other men stood up. The women had risen too. The air was filled with hissing sounds as the angry breath left their nostrils. Snake maidens had turned into snakes…
The golden glory of the winter morning dimmed as though dark clouds had swooped on it with clashing wings. Everyone rushed to the boat where the band’s weapons were stored. Shankhini forgot her threat of tearing Mohabbat and Aatarjaan, limb from limb, and drinking their blood. Only Palanka sat immobile beside a heap of broom and dried grass. Conflict of any kind terrified her. Her heart quivered like that of a new-born egret. She shut her eyes in fear.
A sudden commotion startled Palanka. She opened her eyes to see Zulfikar marching towards the other side of the fen, a mighty lance held aloft in his hand. Shankhini was behind him followed by Aatarjaan, Dohor Bibi, Moina and the others. From Sikandar and Mohabbat to the youngest boatman…she could see the entire band. A contingent of men and women armed with weapons. Spears, axes and javelins glittered in the sun. Lengths of bamboo swung from powerful hands. The smell of death was in the air. Palanka held her breath till Zulfikar and his army disappeared behind a screen of trees.
The other group of bedeys had arrived only a couple of days ago. They hadn’t found time yet to put up their tents and settle down. As they stood surrounded by piles of bamboo and canvas, baskets of snakes and bundles of cooking vessels, a menacing roar reached their ears. “Ei bandi’r poot. Abba Amma’r shaadi dekhtey aichhos? Kalija phainrha dimu. (Sons of slaves! Have you come here to celebrate the nuptials of your parents? I’ll tear your hearts into shreds.)”
They looked up startled. A man of colossal dimensions stood before them. His mighty head nearly touched the sky. He was whirling a lance whose glittering edge seemed to be slavering at the mouth for blood. Some of the men ran towards the boats anchored haphazardly in the shallow waters. Others stared at the black mountain with bewildered eyes.
Now another voice rang in the air. ‘Sons of whores!’ Shankhini let out a yell that matched Zulfikar’s in power. ‘This is our fen. We come here every year. If you don’t disappear this minute, we’ll slit your bellies and pull the guts out.’
A deafening silence followed. But it didn’t last long. Shankhini’s adversaries had armed themselves in a twinkling and now they marched towards her with fire in their eyes and spikes and iron bars in their hands. The two armies advanced. Both were ready for battle.
A deadly combat could have followed. Heads, sliced from bodies, could have rolled on the forest floor. The waters of the fen could have turned crimson with blood. Hearts, lungs and livers could have been cut to pieces.
But the clash was averted by a voice from one of the boats, deep as thunder but astonishingly musical. Both groups froze in their tracks as a man came walking towards them, arms raised in command. He was six and a half feet tall with limbs that shone like burnished gold. Raven black hair fell to his shoulders in sleek shining waves and the vast expanse of his chest looked as though carved out of granite. A rare courage and strength radiated from every pore of his body. Yet his eyes had a faraway look in them. A look that was not of this world.
“Why take up arms?” the deep voice boomed. “Can’t we settle the matter amicably?”
Before anyone could respond, what seemed like a flaming meteor whizzed past Zulfikar and stopped before the dazzling presence. It was Shankhini. Ten years had passed. Ten summers and winters had gone by but she had no difficulty in recognising him.
“Raja saheb?” she murmured. There was a catch in her voice.
“Who are you?” A pair of arched eyebrows came together.
“I’m Shankhini. Don’t you recognise me?”
“You’re Shankhini! Is this your band?”
“Yes,” Shankhini’s eyes passed slowly over the stranger’s frame… as though seeking something.
“Isn’t it extraordinary?” A radiant smile lit up his countenance, “that we stand here today as enemies with sticks and lances in our hands?” Then, addressing both groups, he said in a commanding voice, “Drop your weapons. There’s no need to fight…”
Shankhini stood staring at him. Her mind had left the present and reverted to the past. When she and the man before her were in the first flush of youth. When he could leap into the swirling waters of the Meghna, split a crocodile’s heart in two with his lance, and swim to the bank carrying the creature on his back. When he didn’t fear to venture into the densest forests to hunt the spotted leopard and bring the carcass back slung from a pole. When the hint of a conflict made his blood simmer with pleasurable anticipation and a roar, like a storm cloud’s, gather in his throat. When every muscle of his beautiful body swayed and rippled like the hood of a deadly cobra. Those days were history now. Like fairytales heard long ago. Today, he cringed from a simple fight between two bands. Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter gazed at him with wonder in her eyes.
How he has changed… she thought…What divine snake charmer’s flute has subdued the snakes writhing and hissing inhis blood?
They had both been members of Asmani’s bedeyni’s band… so long ago…it seemed as though aeons had passed. A time when Raja saheb’s hard, gold, tiger-eyes had softened, as though misted with a film of wine, whenever they met her long dark ones. And Shankhini’s heart had hummed, like a young bee’s hovering over a flower, whenever he came into her presence…
And then… disaster struck. A terrible storm in Daulatpur, where they were spending the winter, shattered their fleet of boats. Torn to pieces, they sank to the floor of the raging Padma. Swept away by the current, the members of the band got separated and were carried to who knows what unknown destinations…
Shankhini had tried to forget this painful period of her life and succeeded. But she couldn’t forget Raja saheb.
“Look Shankhini,” Raja saheb said peaceably. ‘You were here first. The right is on your side. We’ll go away. First thing tomorrow we’ll set sail towards Char Sohagi and pitch our tents there. Happy?’
“No. Never!” A sharp exclamation, more like a cry of pain, escaped from Shankhini’s throat. “Don’t think of leaving. I’m seeing you after so long. S-o-o long. Can I let you go?”
“But two rival bands can’t stay in the same place. I don’t like squabbling and fighting. Those days are over…”
“I’m the leader of my band.” Shankhini’s eyes blazed with triumph, “What I say counts. No one from my side will challenge your presence in Sonai Bibi’r Bil.”
Raja saheb shook his head and remained silent.
“Let me ask you a question. What has changed you so? Since when has the thought of conflict become so fearful? Only a few years have gone by since we…”
“I’m weary Shankhini.” A melancholy smile appeared on Raja saheb’s lips, “I’m weary of this roving life. Here today, there tomorrow. Endlessly warring and killing one another! And for what? A little space in which, by the rules of our nomadic forefathers, we are forbidden to put down roots. Ordinary folk hate us. Snake charming and selling poison stones don’t provide a living any longer. If we steal, we end up in prison. Of what use is this existence? Far better to farm a bit of land somewhere, build a hut and live in peace.”
Shankhini was startled. So were all the others. What was he saying? How could he even dream of disregarding the edict, laid down by Bish hari herself, and followed by the nomadic race from time immemorial? What terrible blasphemy! Even hearing such talk was sin! The snake goddess would be outraged!
“Don’t utter such words,” Shankhini shuddered, “Don’t utter them ever again! Beware of Bish hari’s wrath. She’ll send her deadly, conch-skinned snakes to destroy you. Jai Ma Bish hari!”
Jai Ma Bish hari! Loud voices echoed hers till sky, water and land resounded with the sound.
Raja saheb’s wan smile faded. “I understand your feelings Shankhini,” he said quietly, “but I can’t lie to myself any longer. This rootless drifting is not for me.”
“What has come over you?’ Shankhini broke the uneasy silence that had descended. ‘Are you ill? Or in some trouble? Come, open your heart to me.”
“I’m not the Raja saheb you knew. I’m a different man.”
Shankhini burst out laughing, “Don’t worry. I have a cure for your ills.”
“I’ve learned the black art from a tantric sannyasi.” Peal after peal of merry laughter rang like bells from Shankhini’s lips as she continued, “I can change you to what you were with a handful of magic dust. Come to my boat tonight. We’ll dine together. And we’ll talk. I have so much to say to you… my heart brims over with ten years of unspoken words.”
Thoughts of Raja saheb kept Shankhini occupied for the rest of the day. What a fine figure of a man he had been in the past! His heart, mind and body intrepid and unflinching as though made of steel. The world had been his for the taking. She remembered the time he had murdered twelve men, buried their corpses on a bank of the Kaldighi river, and returned with one hundred rupees tucked in his waistband and a smile on his lips. That blood had cooled. The same heart yearned to put down roots. For a quiet peaceful life. Alas! Shankhini knew no charms that could change him back to the man she had known and loved.
It wasn’t as though she, herself, was not lured by the prospect of putting down roots. As though she wasn’t consumed with envy at the sight of a woman flaunting the badge of wifehood. Didn’t she drape a sari around her form, in secret, and fill her parting with sindoor? But she couldn’t give up the power and privilege of being the queen of a band. She wanted Raja saheb as her husband but was not prepared to pay the price he wanted. She had to do something to bring the simmer back into his blood. To revive the old ruthlessness and lust for power. But she didn’t know how…
Raja saheb is coming. Raja saheb is coming. A thousand bees hummed in Shankhini’s heart. Looking out of the window of her hajarmoni boat she felt her senses sway in harmony with the lapping water. The sun was about to set. A cloud of red gold dust was clinging to reeds and bamboo clumps, tussock and broom. Suddenly she felt a wave of love for everything around her. For the changing hues of the sky. For the emerald-tailed kingfisher sitting on the arjun tree. For her own sensuous body. Music welled up in her throat and she sang…
Shaap er bishe jemun temun; prem er bishe du gun dhai
Gourango bhujango hoye dangshiyachhe amaar gaye
Bish er jwala jemun jwala; prem er jwalai aagun dhai…
(Snake poison is but little; love’s poison is twice cursed
The fair one, turned serpent, has lashed my limbs and heart.
Snake poison may sting; love’s poison is a flame…)
Shankhini rose. Scrubbing her face with fuller’s earth she washed it clean. She smoothed her cloud of unruly hair with fragrant oil and stuck a green beetle’s wing between her brows. ‘Palanki!’ she called, her voice ringing with delight, “O re O Palanki! Come here. Come quick you foolish girl. Braid my hair and put it up in a khonpa.”
Hurrying to Shankhini’s boat, Palanka combed out the long, tangled hair with a wooden comb then, braiding it in seven strands, twisted it in an elegant coiffure. She watched wide eyed as the older girl lined her eyes with surma, decorated her forehead with sandal paste and tucked a cluster of scarlet mandar behind one ear. Clothes and ornaments came next. Securing her heavy breasts with a green and gold kanchuli, she hung a long skirt of saffron silk from her slim waist.
Shankhini had spent all afternoon weaving a chain of diamond teeth plucked from the jaws of a shankhamoni snake. This she wore around her neck. A topaz flower glimmered from one nostril and bunches of blood-red stones hung from her earlobes. Her wrists were heavy with mirror-shard bangles and a band of kunchila bones rippled over her rounded hips. On her feet, brass anklets jingled and jangled. Her shapely body dazzled and glittered, with every movement, like shafts of lightning.
Palanka was gazing at Shankhini with awe in her eyes. The snake maiden had turned into a being from another world. She was as beautiful as the apsara Tillottama.
“Ki lo!” Shankhini smiled. Palanka’s unconcealed admiration pleased her, ‘Do you like the way I look?’
“Hunh.” Palanka answered in a dazed voice.
“Oh! my little bird…you like me…do you want to marry me?” Bursting into a peal of brazen laughter, she added, “The trouble is you can’t marry me even if you wish. I’m a woman.”
Palanka hung her head and was silent.
“You want to turn yourself into a wife…don’t you, littlebird? To build a nest of your own?”
Palanka raised her eyes and shot a timid glance at her mistress. A faint sound, which might have been an affirmative, escaped her lips.
At any other time, Shankhini would have snarled with fury at this admission. She would have threatened the girl with severe punishment. Even death. But this green and gold evening was magical. It was meant for joy and laughter. She blew an indulgent kiss at Palanka.
“Listen Palanki,” Shakhini broke the silence that had fallen between them, “I know you dress like a bride in secret. You think no one is looking. But I’ve seen you. You look so pretty that sometimes I wish I could marry you. But beware. My lover is coming tonight. Don’t dare cast your eyes on him. If I catch you even…”
Shankhini stopped short. As suddenly as if she felt the forked tongue of a takshaka lash her mouth. She was alarmed. Why had she uttered those words? Did she feel threatened by the lovely young girl? Her face hardened. Her indulgent tone became severe. “Go,” she commanded, “Get out of this boat.”
Shocked at Shankhini’s change of mood, Palanka hastened to obey.
The glimmering twilight faded. Dusk started to fall. Silhouetted against a sapphire and amethyst sky, a stream of ocean birds flew slowly towards the horizon. Shankhini stood by the window of her hajarmoni boat,waiting for her lover, as the shadows of night closed around Sonai Bibi’r Bil and the sound of rushing wings filled her air…
Mohabbat and the others had lit a fire on the bank into whose leaping flames they were throwing masses of waterbirds they had brought down with their harpoons earlier in the evening. Jalpipi, bakhari, dahuk and balihans — the flesh of these birds was plump and juicy.
Ha la la la! Ha la la la! Bedeys and bedeynis yelled in excitement. Hui dhinak dhin! Hui dhinak dhin!Some danced around the fire while others played drums and flutes. Zulfikar looked on with bloodshot eyes. In his arms, clutched with protective care, he held a dozen bottles of heady wine. Raja saheb was coming tonight and Shankhini was holding a feast in his honour. What could be a happier prospect? The drums beat harder and harder as the night advanced; the tunes from the flutes grew wilder. A drunken voice laden with nostalgia sang…Kemon koira thaki lo soi Shyam er bihaney. An icy wind blew in gusts. But no one felt its bite. Ha la la la! Ha la la la! The night sky rang with intoxicated voices.
The long wait was over at last. At the sound of Raja saheb’s footsteps, Shankhini moved from the window and glanced at herself in the mirror. A deep blush rose from her neck and stained her cheeks. Her glowing eyes grew misty. A tremendous happiness surged through her limbs like the waving waters of the fen. Stepping out of the boat, she walked towards her guest and took his large cool hands in her small, fevered ones. “Come in Raja saheb,” she whispered, “It’s terribly cold outside…”
Hand in hand they walked into Shankhini’s hajarmoni boat. After the biting chill of the bank, it felt warm and welcoming. A double wicked lamp cast a soft orange glow on the two as they lay on a carpet, backs resting against silk cushions. Cuddling up to her lover, Shankhini whispered amorously. “I’ve been looking out for you since evening. You took so long in coming. S-o-o-o long.”
She waited for a reply then, receiving none, she added fretfully, “You don’t love me anymore. Some wicked woman has ensnared you. Changed you. But don’t forget that I’m Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter; well versed in black magic.I know how to dispel the witch’s charms and win you back. This night will be our night…”
At her words Raja saheb felt the old love of lust and power, bequeathed to him by generations of his nomadic ancestors, stir slowly in his blood. His eyes fell on the woman beside him. A snake maiden of incredible beauty! Sitting close…so close her scent filled his nostrils. The warmth of her limbs pervaded his. An unknown mystique clung to her like a gossamer web. She was saying something, but he couldn’t hear a word. The clash of cymbals and the beat of drums from his own heart filled his ears. He turned to her with infinite tenderness and drew her to his breast.
“Ten years have gone by,” Shankhini whispered ruefully. “Ten long years. If the storm hadn’t separated us; if we were still in Asmani bedeyni’s band, we could have been together for all time to come…”
Raja saheb had just opened his mouth to reply when Palanka walked in. Behind her were Atarjaan, Gahar and Dohor bibi. They carried wine bottles in their hands and clay pots full of different kinds of meat. There was khashi korma in one; roasted jalpipi in another. Imli bird curry, fried dahuk wings, juicy chunks of tender waterfowl cooked with garlic and spices, kunchila snake kababs. So much variety! So many flavours! Dohor Bibi spread a piece of cloth on the carpet and arranged the dishes with loving care.
Raja saheb’s eyes wandered all over the deck. To the bunches of roots and herbs piled on one side and baskets, full of deadly snakes, on the other. It was a picture he had seen many times before; typical of the way bedeys lived. Suddenly, his roving eyes fell on Palanka who stood behind the other women. A sweet, pretty girl in a red striped sari and hijal flowers in her hair. There was something about her eyes that made him think of a humble cottage at dusk. His own grew misty with yearning. It was through this girl, he realised suddenly, that his dream could come true. In the quivering shadows of her gentle soul, he would find sanctuary…
Two women…Shankhini and Palanka. He looked from one to the other. Shankhini fired a man’s blood; intoxicated him. Set his nerves on edge like a bow, strung taut. In Palanka he found a cool shadowy bower in which to rest them. Raja saheb’s gaze grew soft; his heart melted with love. Shankhini was lightning. Palanka a humble flower.
“Ei Palanki!” Shankhini’s voice, like the sudden growl of a wounded tigress, shattered the silence. “You whoring bitch! Get out of here. Get out this minute.”
Palanka had been gazing dreamily, all this while, at the man before her. She had read the message in his eyes and surrendered heart, mind and soul to him. Shankhini’s harsh command broke into her reverie, and she hastened to obey. But she was stopped. Putting out his hand Raja saheb gripped hers “Why do you run away dearie?” he smiled at the girl, “You’ve brought so much delicious food and wine. Stay and share some with us.”
“Let her go.” Shankhini laughed uneasily, “She doesn’t drink wine. And she has given up eating meat. The pretentious harlot has turned herself into a Boshtumi. Hee hee hee!”
“I too have given up wine …”
“What?” Shankhini couldn’t believe her ears. Were they playing tricks with her? She sat dumbstruck for a few minutes, then burst into a peal of hyena like laughter. “Then you and the skinny myna-bird will make a wonderful pair. Boshtomand Boshtumi! Hee hee hee!”
Raja saheb was startled. Shankhini’s laughter lashed at his eardrums like the deadly tongue of a hooded cobra, and he released Palanka’s hand. She hastened out of the boat with Dohorbibi, Gahar and Aatarjaan close behind.
Hours passed. The winter night grew colder and darker. The wind shrieked and howled like the agonized cries of a soul in torment. The fire outside had burned down and the men and women sitting around it huddled together for warmth. Their excitement had waned by now. Heads were lolling on breasts and the thunderous voices that had set the heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil quaking with trepidation, were mute.
Shankhini moved closer to her lover and wound her arms around his neck. Her voice was drowsy with mahua fumes as she murmured dreamily, “I can’t live without you Raja saheb. Be mine… only mine.”
“Do you really mean that?”
“I do. Ask me to swear on Allah or Bish hari… whoever you consider holier…and I’ll obey.”
“If that’s the truth; the way you truly feel,” Raja saheb sat up in excitement, “let’s build a home together. You’ve seen how village folk live. A deep bond of loyalty and faith binds couples till death. The husband loves and protects his wife. She serves him, bears his children and raises them. Doesn’t such a life attract you?”
“It does. But I love my life as a bedeyni even more. The danger and excitement of sailing over tumultuous waters, making snakes sway in rhythm to the tunes of my flute, preparing potions and working magic with poison stones…these things send a thrill through my bones and make my blood dance in ecstasy. We have been nomads for generations. A love of roving is in our blood. Don’t even think of another way of life, Raja saheb. If you deny your heritage, you will invoke Bish hari’s curse and all you hold dear will be destroyed. Be your old self again. Become the man you were when I saw you first.”
“I don’t believe in Bish hari.” Her companion said dismissively. “I have wanted to give up this wandering existence for many years. I haven’t been able to… so far. But I can’t wait any longer. I have to leave.”
Shankhini froze at these words. She lay in her lover’s embrace, limp and lifeless. She could scarcely breathe. She was a bedeyni; a devotee of Bish hari. Every muscle, tissue, cell and fiber of her being yearned for freedom. Freedom to sail her boat on uncharted waters. To weather storms and tempests. To feel the sun on her limbs and the wind on her face. Impossible for her to build a nest and stay confined within it. She couldn’t do it. No… not even for the man she loved.
Raja saheb stirred. “It’s time for me to go back,” he murmured, disengaging her arms gently, “Goodbye Shankhini.”
“But you haven’t eaten anything!”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re leaving!” A cry of pain escaped Shankhini’s lips. “One night! You refuse to be mine for even one night!” Tears clung to her eyelashes, like dewdrops on grass.
“You don’t need me.”
“I need you. More than anyone or anything else. But what do you want from me?”
“You must leave the band. The bedeyni must turn herself into a farmer’s wife.”
Shankhini was in a quandary. One half of her heart was drowned in love for Raja saheb. The tug of her roving blood and the rights and privileges she enjoyed as mistress of a band swamped the other. The two were mutually exclusive. She had to make a choice.
“Give me time to think,” she said, “You’ll come to my boat again, won’t you?”
“Of course, I will. I’ve discovered another love here.” A low, mysterious laugh escaped Raja saheb’s lips.
Shankhini shivered. An unknown fear took possession of her. She shut her eyes and tried to overcome it. There was something in Raja saheb’s voice. An insinuation. What was it? She mulled over his words for a long time but couldn’t fathom it.
She opened her eyes, after a while, to find him gone. She was alone. The boat was empty. As empty as her heart. She felt a bitter rush of bile in her throat. It corroded her mouth and set fire to her limbs. Suddenly a name rose to her lips.She spat into the food spread before her as she uttered it. Palanka. Every drop of her blood burned with hate. Her body swayed like a wounded snake with the pain of envy and thwarted love…
Raja saheb made his way carefully in and out of tussock clumps that stood as high as his chest. The merry chirping of crickets, alternating with the joyous croak of frogs from waterholes, came to his ears. Sonai Bibi’r Bil was wrapped in a shroud of dark mist. The only light came from clusters of glowworms glittering, like sparks of emerald fire, from trees and bushes. The air was so cold it cut into his skin like a knife. He had a long way to go. He had to cross several streams and acres of kasharh jungle before he reached his boat and found the comfort of a warm bed. He redoubled his pace.
Passing a piyal tree he stopped in his tracks. “Raja saheb,” a soft voice had called out from the dark.
“Who is it?” He looked this way and that.
“I’m Palanka.” A slight figure slipped out of the shadows and stood before him. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
The light was so faint that he felt rather than saw the eyes fixed on his face. They were glowing like lamps. A pungent wild-flower scent, rising from her limbs, suffused his being.
Raja saheb felt as though he was in a dream. “I knew I would find you again,” he murmured.
“I heard what you said to Shankhini.” Palanka moved closer, “I hid behind the boat and heard every word. I want a home too. A home and a husband. I’m tired of drifting from bank to bank. Will you take me away from here? We’ll live like peasant folk do. Build a little hut and …”
“You’ll come with me?” Raja saheb felt the blood leap joyfully in his veins. Before he realised what he was doing he put out his arms and drew Palanka to his breast. Hours passed before Raja saheb released her. “I must go now,” he said, “The night is almost over.”
“You’ll come again?” Palanka’s voice throbbed with longing, “When will l see you next?”
“Every day. I’ll come to your band, every day.”
“Un hunh. Not to the band. Shankhini will be there. Come here again tomorrow. At dusk. I’ll be waiting. If you fail me, I’ll kill myself. I swear by Bish hari… I will.”
Raja saheb gazed at her wild-flower face with love. The love, untouched by lust, he had kept hidden in his heart for the one who would be his soul mate. She’s a bedeyni, he thought, yet the blood runs pure and free in her veins. Untainted by the venom of her inheritance…
“I’ll come,” he said, “if that’s what you wish. I’ll meet you here tomorrow.”
Raja saheb walked away. Palanka’s heart felt as light as a bird’s. Spreading her arms, like the wings of a dove, she flew through patches of light and shadow, over grass and water, towards the fleet of boats that belonged to Shankhini.
Next evening, in the green-gold dusk, Raja saheb met Palanka under the piyal tree. He came again the next day and the day after. Every evening. The scent of their love filled the air like fumes of heady wine.
“Come closer bedeyni.” Raja saheb held out his arms. “Come straight into my heart.”
“I am always in your heart Raja saheb. But don’t call me bedeyni. Call me wife.”Palanka whispered against his lips, “When will you make me yours? I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Like a love-sick bird I long for my mate.”
“A few more months. We’ll leave after the rains. I’ll marry you and take you away. Far away.”
“To Char Behula. Some farming folks are setting up a village there. We’ll join them…”
“What will you do with your band? Your men, your boats, your snakes and weapons…?”
“I’ll give them all to Shankhini. She loves me but she’s unwilling to leave her band. It is more important to her. What can I do? Besides,” a shadow fell on Raja saheb’s face, “I’m taking you away from her. I must pay the price…”
“It is true that she loves you. Every evening, before I come here, I see her all dressed up waiting for you. She has begun to suspect me. She has set up spies everywhere. I have managed to evade them so far but only Bish hari knows with what difficulty! I’m afraid Raja saheb. Mortally afraid. She’ll kill me if she catches us together. She’ll tear my limbs to shreds.”
“Why not? I have taken from her the man she loves. Can she forgive me?”
Another evening comes. Palanka stands under the lengthening shadows of the piyal tree locked in Raja saheb’s arms. “I can’t bear being parted from you any longer,” she murmurs. Her tears fall on her lover’s chest like a monsoon shower.
“I can’t bear being parted from you.” Her own words accompanied by a screech of mocking laughter sizzles Palanka’s ears as the lithe form of Shankhini slips from behind the piyal tree, where she had been hiding, and stands before her. “Haramjadi! Whoring wench!” She mutters between gritted teeth. Her mouth is twisted and ugly. Palanka’s dream shatters into shards. Springing apart, the lovers stand like stone figures and stare at Shankhini with frozen eyes…
“Zulfikar!” Shankhini roared like a tigress whose cub has been snatched from her breast. The black mountain bulk of her right-hand man materialised from the shadows. His eyes sprouted columns of fire like twin peaks of a volcano. His giant fists clenched and unclenched with fury.
“Bajaan go!” Palanka screamed and buried her face deeper in Raja saheb’s breast. Her frail body trembled like a leaf in a storm.
“Bajaan go!” Shankhini’s voice, hissing like an adder’s tongue, echoed through the trees. “No Bajaan can save you from my clutches Haramjadi! I dress up every evening and wait for my lover and you, you loathsome spawn of a worm, dare to lure him away? You’ve struck a cruel blow at my heart. I’ll exact a terrible revenge. No, I shan’t kill you. It would be too easy a death. I’ll have vultures feed on your living limbs; gouge your eyes out with their beaks. Oof! So much venom lay concealed in your heart! I’ll drain every drop of it out of your blood. I’ll pull out your poisonous fangs from their roots. Take her away Zulfikar. Take her to my boat and keep her tied to the mast till I come.”
The suddenness with which all this happened had left Raja saheb in such a state of shock that he looked on, paralysed, as Zulfikar flew at the girl like an enormous bird of prey and snatched her away from his breast. Minutes passed. The feral glare in Shankhini’s eyes dimmed. Her heaving breast calmed and stilled. Her eyes turned dewy as she murmured in a honeyed voice, “Raja saheb.”
Raja saheb turned to her. She looked dazzlingly beautiful in saffron silk and snake-bone ornaments. The statue came slowly to life. “What is it?” he asked, his voice slurred as though still in a dream.
“Is Palanka more beautiful than me?”
“Then why did you give her your heart? Be mine…only mine.” Shankhini came close, so close, he could feel her breath, hot and moist, against his lips.
“I will be yours. But you must be mine first. You must come with me to Char Behula.”
Shankhini’s limbs turned rigid. The colour left her face. “But what about our bands?” she asked in a frightened voice. “Our heritage, our livelihood, Bish hari… won’t her curse fall on us if we abandon them?”
“That’s the trouble,” Raja saheb’s voice was cold. Detached. “You are a bedeyni to the core. You cannot be a wife. You’ll never be able to leave your band…”
“Let me think about it. Give me a few days.”
“It’s no use. You are not made for a humble life.” Raja saheb took her soft hands and gripped them in his own hard ones, “Palanka is. Give her to me Shankhini,” he begged.
Suddenly, something like a bolt of lightning struck the snake maiden’s veins and, branching out in roots and shoots, struck her heart. She snatched her hands from Raja saheb’s grip and ran out of the forest with the speed of a fleeing doe. Raja saheb looked on. A little smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.
A week went by. The rising sun continued to spread a soft, red-gold radiance across the sky. Mellow afternoons followed. Then, with day’s end, a sad wan darkness fell like a mist over Sonai Bibi’r Bil.
That night, after Raja saheb begged her to give Palanka to him, Shankhini had fled like a hunted creature and, flinging herself on the deck of her hajarmoni boat, had broken into great shuddering sobs. Her lungs felt ripped and lacerated. Her heart burned with humiliation. Tears rained from her eyes, till there were none left. She was a bedeyni. She had been taught to endure the vagaries of nature. The assaults of the elements. Pain, sickness and fear. But she couldn’t… she wouldn’t endure defeat. Palanka’s small wild-flower face came before her eyes. To think that she with her timid eyes and tiny bird body had stolen her lover! That she was her rival! The thought was too painful to be borne.
It was true that Raja saheb had started tiring of the life their kind had lived from time immemorial. He wanted to put down roots. But Shankhini could have stalled him. She knew she could. It was Palanka who had stirred his emotions and encouraged him to follow his heart. The wretched harlot had tempted him; had offered to be his wife. She had to be punished. Shankhini knew that the slightest gesture from her would send Zulfikar charging towards Palanka. He would twist her head from her body, as easily as plucking a flower from its stem, and bring it to her. He would scatter her torn limbs over Sonai Bibi’r Bil as lightly as dron petals. But Shankhini bided her time. For the present she kept the girl locked in a dim dark cabin in the boat that housed the panha ghar …a temple dedicated to Bish hari. Every band had a panha ghar in one of the boats. Let the wretched creature spend a few days starving and pining for her lover she thought. She would think long and hard before deciding what to do with her.
Vengeance! What she needed was to wreak a terrible vengeance on the vassal who had betrayed her queen’s deepest trust. The girl was unaware of what she had done. She had stretched her hand out towards the cruelest, fiercest of fires. Shankhini would make every inch of her flesh burn with mortification; every drop of her blood turn to liquid flame.
A few days later Shankhini stood on the deck of her hajarmoni boat and called out to Zulfikar. It was a cold night. Dark and bitter, with a whistling wind. Instructions were given in sharp hissing tones.
An hour later the two stood outside the room in which Palanka had been confined. In his right hand Zulfikar held a metal rod the tip of which glowed with scarlet fire. In his other was a basin filled with coarse boiled rice. Shankhini unlocked the door. A lamp burned feebly in one corner. Palanka’s naked body crouched close to it, arched like a bow; half dead with cold.
‘Ei!’ Shankhini turned the girl over with her foot, ‘Get up.’
Palanka rose to her feet. What followed was a volley of agonized screams as Zulfikar drew a line across her brow with the burning rod. Again and again, seven times, till it was furrowed with crimson streaks.”Ki re!” Peals of demonic laughter burst from Shankhini’s lips, “Will you try to snatch my lover from me again… spawn of a serpent? Will you? Answer me. Is your mouth still slavering for a home and a husband? With the marks I’ve drawn across your forehead you look like a Boshtumi beggar. Not even a whore.” Shankhini dropped down beside the weeping girl. “I’ll bring a mirror tomorrow,” she said laughing, “You can see your face for yourself. Do you think Raja saheb will bother to cast another glance at you? Tell me little bird. Are you still in love with him?”
“Of course, I am.” Palanka raised her head and looked at her tormenter. Her eyes were still streaming but, with a fearlessness she hadn’t even known she possessed, she added, “And I’ll continue to love him till I die. You’ve lost him because there is no love in your heart. No…not for anyone. All you can do is take out your frustrations on others.”
“Arre arre! The worm turns into a snake!” Shankhini’s lips twisted with scorn. “You haven’t learned your lesson yet, I see. You need a little more teaching. Remember one thing. I’m the daughter of Nagmati bedeyni. I can root out every kind of venom. Be it snake or human.”
Leaving therice on the floor Zulfikar and Shankhini walked out of the room. Shankhini turned the key in the lock and looked at the sky, a dim sky streaked with mist. How Palanka had changed she thought with a pang in her heart. What was the source from whichthe broken bird was deriving herstrength?Could it be Raja saheb’s promise of a nest? What if she, Shankhini, followed her example? If she allowed her lover to lead her by the hand to a tiny hut in an obscure village by the bank of some distant river? If she turned herself into a loving wife and caring mother?
Next morning three men arrived with a message from the leader of the Barui community of Bajitpur. A snake had bitten a worker in his betel grove and Shankhini’s expertise was required to save his life.
Shankhini made haste to obey the summons. One of the tenets of their faith was rushing in answer to such a call. It was Bish hari’s implicit command. With a bag full of poison stones slung from one shoulder, a basket of roots and herbs on her head and an earthen plate in her hands, Shankhini came to the panha ghar.Dohor bibi accompanied her. Before venturing on an important task, members of her band came here to pay obeisance to Bish hari and seek her blessings. A clay image of the goddess they had moulded themselves, was set atop a coil of seven snakes. The giant hood of a kaliya nag formed an umbrella above her head. An udai nag hung from her neck like a garland and a khoijati was her bracelet. A kanchuli formed from the intertwining bodies of a chakrachud and a shankha nag covered her voluptuous breasts. Takshak and laudaga wove themselves into a skirt for her lower limbs and shuto shankha, thread-snakes, wound themselves into rings for her fingers. A couple of deadly danrash were her anklets and swinging merrily from her ears were the fanned-out hoods of white sada chiti. Incense burning in a censer filled the room with fragrant smoke.
Shankhini prostrated herself and touched the ground with her forehead. Her hands were folded in a humble plea. Drawing out snake venom was arduous; even dangerous. She could do it, she had done it often, but she needed the goddess’s blessing. She shot a glance at the image. And what she saw shocked her. The tender love that irradiated Bish hari’s face had vanished. A stern, cruel gleam had replaced the benign light in her eyes. Even the snakes around her coiled and uncoiled their bodies in agitation, fanned their hoods and spat venom from angry tongues. The air was full of hissing sounds. The incense burning before the image gave out clouds of evil smelling smoke. Shankhini’s limbs grew numb. Her senses swam. The blood running in her veins stood still.
“Make haste Amma,” Dohor Bibi’s voice came to her ears, as though from a vast distance. “We are very late as it is. Who knows what we’ll find on reaching Bajitpur.”
Shankhini shut her eyes and ran out of the panha ghar. She dared not stay there any longer. Anymoment now, she thought with dread in her heart, the snakes will come streaking out like meteors and crawl over me. They will lash my face with their hoods and dig their fangs into my limbs. Sweat ran down her body like rain. In her heart was the roll of distant drums. She realised the truth. Bish hari had turned away from her; had taken away the right to utter incantations in her name. Shankhini had lost her power. A scream, trapped in her chest, did not reach her lips…
Meanwhile, the men from Bajitpur were getting restless. “Make haste bedeyni,” they said, “We have a long way to go.”
Shankhini was in a quandary. She couldn’t refuse to go with them. It would mean disobeying Bish hari’s express command. She had to shed all her misgivings and rush to save a victim of snake bite. But could she do so without the goddess’s benediction? As though in a dream Shankhini followed the men, Dohor Bibi walking by her side, into the wilderness of thorn, tussock, screwpine and bulrush, till they reached the piyal tree. Here her footsteps stopped. Her eyes widened with horror. For what she beheld was another world. A world one entered only after death…
She had been trying all this while to compose herself. To clear her mind of doubts and fears. To concentrate on the incantations that would enable her to do her task. But the figure waiting under the piyal tree, as though on a lover’s tryst, drove everything out of her head. Raja saheb’s large dark eyes pierced into hers; held them with an unflinching gaze.
“Where is Palanka?” he asked her, “I haven’t seen her for a long time.”
The anger and frustration she had been trying to subdue all this while came gushing out of Shankhini like steam from a boiling kettle. Her fears vanished. Her listless spirit sprang to active life as though lit with a blazing torch. “Palanka is in her grave,” she muttered through clenched teeth, “Listen Raja saheb. You cannot stay here any longer. I’m on my way to Bajitpur. I wish to see the fen cleared of you and your band on my return.” She walked away without a backward glance. But, no matter how hard she tried to dispel it, a thought kept tearing at her heart. Torturing her. Did she really want Raja saheb to leave Sonai Bibi’r Bil?If so, why had she entreated him to stay that first day? Why?
Shankhini returned two days later, her limbs burning with fever, her eyes the flaming red of hibiscus flowers. Her hair was a tangled nest and her clothes soiled and disheveled. Like one possessed she ran to the panha ghar and threw herself on the floor at Bish hari’s feet.
It was late afternoon. The sun’s rays, hard and glittering like mica, enveloped the earth in white-hot light. The members of Shankhini’s band stood waiting outside the panha ghar. A little distance away Dohor Bibi stood weeping and trembling. All eyes turned to her. “Ki lo Dohor!” Mohabbat muttered uneasily, “You went with her to Bajitpur. What happened there? I don’t understand…”
Dohor Bibi threw a fearful glance in the direction of the woman in the panha ghar. Shankhini lay curled, like a snail afraid to come out of its shell. Her body shuddered with sobs. Tears streamed out of her eyes in an unstoppable flood. “Bish hari’s curse has fallen on her,” Dohor Bibi answered, “She was unable to utter a single mantra. She was speechless, unmoving, like a block of stone. She just sat by the boy’s side and watched him die.”
The faces around her turned pale. Eyes popped out of their sockets. “Bish hari appeared to her in a dream,” Dohor continued, “I heard her pacing up and down the room, all night, weeping as if her heart would break. By morning her body was shaking with a raging fever. Her eyes were fire-red. She ran all the way here swaying and staggering like a drunken woman. I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen to a word. What could I do? I ran after her as fast as I could.”
Shankhini lay on the floor of the panha ghar all through the day, so still … life seemed to have left her limbs. Then, with the falling dusk, she rose to her feet. She had spent her tears. Her eyes burned like smouldering coals. But her mind was clear. She knew that she had committed a grievous sin and Bish hari had meted out a terrible punishment. She had taken away her powers. For the first time in her life Shankhini saw herself for what she truly was. A cruel, thwarted woman in the throes of an unrequited love. She realized that Raja saheb was a distant star she could never hope to reach. She had thought she could, through force of will. But it was only an illusion.
Outside, in the darkening forest, a pair of jackals were yelping love calls to one another. Between them, they sent eddies of sound across stretches of reeds and humps of earth that rose from the shallow water. Dohor bibi, Moina and Atarjaan sat outside the panha ghar with Shankhini in their midst. She had ripped off her skirt and kanchuli. Theylay by her side in a discarded heap. Her jewels she had flung all over the floor. The snake maiden’s nude body, lay coiled like a golden snake, in hibernating slumber.
Presently she rose. Taking up an enormous censor of burned clay in both hands she commenced waving clouds of incense smoke before the image of Bish hari. Dancing and genuflecting she offered obeisance. She had sinned. She had allowed herself to stray from the path laid down by the goddess. She had put her love of a mortal above that of the divine. She had desired her lover with so much passion that she hadn’t stopped to reflect on the cost. Stripping oneself in body before the goddess, surrendering all thought and feeling at her feet, was the way bedeynis had atoned for their sins from time immemorial.
The dancing went on through the night. Smoke from the censer clouded the room. The air in the panha ghar turned opaque and acrid. Then, with the first pearling of the east, Shankhini fell to the floor in a dead faint. The censer crashed and broke into shards. Pieces of burning husk flew about the room and dropped on her motionless form, scorching the silk-smooth skin; blistering it.
Her eyes opened to a flame of the forest dawn turning to liquid gold. She sat up. A deep peace, such as she had never known before, pervaded her being. She lifted her face to the sky and sang:
It is at Her bidding that the sun rises from the east.
Lakhai wakes from the dead, sits in his boat and smiles.
Ah me! So great is Bish hari’s mercy…
The sound of footsteps brought her out of her trance. Raja saheb stood before her. She felt the blood leap and whirl in her veins. A hundred joyous chords jangled in her ears. But only for a minute. Then her pulse fell into a gentle rhythm and her heart was still and tranquil.
“We would have left the fen just as you wished,” Raja saheb said, “Only…”
“I know what kept you,” Shankhini stopped him in mid-sentence. She felt a strange disconnect. As though she was speaking to a stranger. As though there had never been anything between them. “You’ve come to ask me for Palanki.”
“Yes,” Raja saheb exclaimed, his voice eager, “Let me have her. I’ll give you everything I possess in return. My band, my boats…”
“I don’t want anything. Except to be relieved of the burden I carry. The girl who never ceases to remind me of you. Take her away from here. Save me from Bish hari’s wrath. Only promise me one thing. That you two will never come into my presence again.”
“Do you really mean it? Do you? Swear on my head…” He moved towards her.
“Don’t come near me,” she shrank involuntarily from his touch. “You smell different. Of home and hearth. Go to Palanki. Tell her you’ll marry her tomorrow. I’ll make all the arrangements.” Seeing his bewildered eyes fixed on hers, she added, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my word. A bedeyni does not lie.”
Raja saheb stood transfixed for a few moments. Then turning, he fled as though on wings into the forest. Shankhini watched him go. Waves of pain lashed against her heart, but she subdued them. Never again would she allow herself to weaken; to go against the laws framed by her ancestors.
Raja saheb and Palanka stood on either side of a waterhole the bedeys had dug earlier that day. A muga curtain separated them. Surrounding them in a ring were men and women from both bands. The bride’s petite form was wrapped in deep red silk. Sandalwood etchings marked her brow. A garland of white lotus swung gently on her breast and snake teeth jewels glittered from her neck and arms. Raja saheb was equally resplendent in a kingfisher blue silk lungi with peacock feathers waving from his raven locks. The two faces glowed in the amber-gold light of the setting sun. From the deck of the panha ghar, Shankhini watched the scene.
Homra bedey from Bhataar Mari’r Bil had been invited to perform the ceremony. His hair was the colour of straw, his eyes fogged with liquor fumes, and his skin so dry, it seemed to flake with every movement. A bow was fitted at his waist and a quiver of plumed arrows hung from one shoulder. Puffing out his stomach with self-importance he said,”The moment of Shanazar (the auspicious exchange of glances) has arrived. Are the bride and bridegroom willing?” Raja saheb swayed his head solemnly and Palanka trembled in response. Homra bedey lifted the curtain and the lovers saw each other’s face reflected in the clear water.
“The nuptial ceremony is over,” Homra announced, “The couple are married.”
A volley of delighted exclamations accompanied by bursts of song rose from the crowd. Sonai Bibi’r Bil shared their joy. Her trees swayed from side to side and her leaves and grass rippled with ecstasy.
Shankhini covered her ears and ran into the panha ghar. She sat, for hours afterwards, gazing at the goddess. Imploring her to take away her pain…
Outside, around a glowing fire, members of both bands were celebrating. Dozens of empty bottles rolled about on the bank. The sky reverberated with drumbeats and the music of flutes grew wilder with every passing hour. The heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil rumbled with ecstasy akin to fear.
The bride and bridegroom sat in a vast grass boat, surrounded by bedeynis in motley-coloured skirts and kanchulis. The smiles on their faces glittered sharp as knives. Lightning darted from kohl lined eyes. Each was wrapped in a dream. A beautiful dream that had seemed unreal; unachievable so far but was no longer so.
Shankhini walked out of the panha ghar towards the group. Her eyes were fixed on Raja saheb as he sat among the women. Shafts of light flashed from his form as though from the petals of a diamond lotus. There was something strange about him. Unreal. As though he had appeared to her in a vision. Currents of illicit passion ran through her blood. All the vows she had made to the goddess receded. Bish hari’s warnings disappeared like lines drawn on water. ‘Listen Palanki,’ she whispered feverishly in the girl’s ears, ‘Come out for a moment. I have something to say to you.’
Shankhini’s breath, hot and stormy, blew in the girl’s face as they stood on the bank facing each other. Her eyes glittered like pieces of burning glass. Her limbs quivered as though snakes were wriggling in her blood stream.
“What is it Amma?” Palanka’s voice was a frightened whisper.
“I’ll give you my boats, my band, my jewels… everything I have. All I want in return is Raja saheb. Give him to me.”
“No. Never,” Palanka covered her ears and ran towards the boat. “I can’t. I can’t.”
Shankhini stared at the retreating form. “You think you’ll lie in my lover’s arms tonight, don’t you?” she muttered out of clenched teeth. “Be prepared for a shock.” She strode into the forest, determination stamped on every line of her face. She needed something. She had to find it before it was too late…
An important ritual of a Hindu marriage is the exchange of floral garlands by the bride and bridegroom. It is called mala badal. Nomads from the river-swamps of Bengal follow a similar custom. The only difference is that what the couple hang on each other’s neck are living snakes.
The night turned dense and dark. And now the women who had been humming like bees around the bride and bridegroom sat up. “It’s late.” Aatarjaan said yawning, “Time for the mala badal. Bring the snakes Dohor.”
“I’ve brought them,” Shankhini appeared suddenly in their midst, a basket balanced on each shoulder. “I’m the queen of this band. It is for me to do the honours.” The women noticed the secretive smile on her lips and the two tiny flames that flickered from the pupils of her eyes. They stared at one another in horror, but no one had the courage to utter a word.
“Come Raja saheb. Come, my little blackbird.” She held out a basket to each. “Take out the snakes and garland each other. The bridegroom, first, as is the custom.”
Palanka glanced fearfully at her mistress. Raja saheb appeared unfazed. His lips parted in a pleased smile as he took the basket from her. But the moment he pried open the lid the smile vanished. For, what shot up from the depths of the basket was an enormous kalchita, caught fresh from keya clumps growing in the heart of the fen. Swift as a blazing meteor, it stood on its tail hissing viciously, then, with a dart of its fanned hood, dug its fangs into Raja saheb’s brow. Two drops of blood, like glittering rubies, appeared on the golden skin as Raja saheb’s body swayed and fell to the floor. Palanka stood, as though paralyzed, watching her husband’s limbs turning blue from the deadly poison. Her throat was choked. She could neither speak nor weep. An eerie silence fell on the wedding party.
It was broken by a peal of cruel laughter that tinkled like breaking glass. “Ki lo Palanki!” Shankhini mocked the hapless girl. “You wanted to take my lover from me, didn’t you? Take him. He is all yours. Embrace him. Enjoy his kisses.”
A moment later she threw herself at Raja saheb’s prostrate form with a blood curdling scream. “What have I done? Ma go! What have I done?” She leaned over him and shook him violently. But the man she was so desperately trying to bring back to lifelay motionless in her arms.She rose to her feet and looked this way and that, her eyes blank. The venom of kalchita isn’t so swift to act, she thought wonderingly, then why did Raja saheb succumb to it so quickly? Was the poison the reptile spewed in Raja saheb’s veins not its own? Was it mine? Was it I who gathered all the venom, that burned like fire in my heart and limbs, and thrust it under the kalchita’s tongue? Was it I who turned myself into the fanned hood of the creature I caught from the depths of the fen? Were those my deadly fangs that lashed my beloved’s brow?
Wave after wave of guilt and bitter regret passed over her as her body became as cold and lifeless as the one which lay at her feet.
(Translated and published with permission from the author)
Aruna Chakravartihas been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors, Suralakshmi Villa have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince is her sixteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
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I sat down to write a new story and as I did so, I thought aloud: “I want it to be about a talking cat,” and much to my surprise my own cat, who happened to be crouching on my desk, shook her head.
Then she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” I wanted to know.
“It’s corny and a cliché. It has been done too many times before. It’s twee and awfully sentimental. Childish too.”
“I feel rather discouraged now,” I admitted.
“Oh, don’t take it so badly. You can write my story, if you like. Just don’t say I’m a talking cat when you do.”
“And what is your story? I knew you when you were a kitten. You haven’t done much since then, to be honest.”
“You are wrong. My life has been dramatic.”
“I don’t call sleeping most of the day and sitting in boxes very exciting. In fact, your ability to talk is by far the most interesting thing about you. If I can’t mention that, why should I bother?”
“You don’t know what I get up to at night. But I will tell you. Pick up your pen and get ready to make notes.”
I did as I was bid and my cat began…
You are generally fast asleep (she said) when I go off on my adventures. There’s a rug in the lounge that is a magic carpet. You don’t know this because you have never tried to activate it. Scratching it in a certain way, pulling out threads here and there, makes it fly. I discovered all this by accident, of course. It was a night last spring and you had left the window open for a cool breeze. The rug rose in the air and carried me out into the garden.
Then it climbed higher and higher and soon the town was tiny beneath me. I didn’t know how to control the thing and I padded it with my paws in various places. Eventually I learned how to steer it by moving my weight from one side to the other. I used my tail as a rudder to make steering even more precise. And when I wanted to go faster, I just opened my mouth wide and mewled. I flew off and enjoyed exploring distant countries.
Where did you get the rug from? Magic carpets are far more common than people think. You assumed it was just an ordinary floor covering when you went into a shop to buy it. The threads woven into it might originally have come from India or Persia. I wondered how fast it could fly and so I decided to find out. I mewled and mewled as loud as I could and the rug accelerated until the ground beneath me became a blur. That was fun!
The wind stroked my fur and it was a pleasant sensation but it occurred to me that I might crash into a mountain if I couldn’t see where I was going. I shut my mouth and immediately started to slow down. It was night and the stars were big and bright above me and then I saw stars below me too, and I was baffled by this, because the lower stars seemed cleaner, as if they had been washed. Maybe some giant cosmic cat had licked them?
It took me a long time to understand that the lower stars were reflections in the sea and not real stars at all. I was over an ocean. I can’t say I was pleased by this, because water has always seemed a suspicious substance to me, something not to be trusted, avoided even, though I concede that it’s often necessary to life, which is why I sometimes stoop to drinking it. But all this is irrelevant. No land was in sight in any direction. I had flown halfway round the world and was now cruising above the Pacific. How risky!
My calculations were instinctive rather than mathematical, but cats have an aptitude for sensing where they are and as a navigator I’m reliable, but my exact latitude and longitude was impossible to specify. I was still travelling forward at a reduced velocity and I noticed other objects flying to my left and right, smaller than aeroplanes and soundless, and after a while it became clear they were much nearer to me than before, converging at an unseen point ahead, some destination beyond the horizon, and I was intrigued.
Soon enough, I was able to discern the details of these mysterious craft and I saw they were rugs of many different colours, magic carpets just like mine, an armada of levitating floor coverings, a flotilla if you prefer, all piloted by sundry animals: dogs, rabbits, snakes, squirrels, wombats. And the rug on my starboard side was so close that its occupant, a monkey of some kind, was able to shout at me and be understood. He yelled:
“You are the cat representative, I take it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You must be. You are a cat sitting on a magic carpet and you are flying to the assigned rendezvous. Therefore–”
“But what is waiting at that rendezvous?”
“An urgent meeting.”
“But a meeting with whom?”
“With us!” he cried, astonished at my ignorance. “One talking animal from every species on the planet.”
“The point of this meeting is what?”
“The conferring of special powers on attendees, as promised in the oracles of ancient days. Surely you haven’t forgotten the words of the oracles? They are unambiguous about this event.”
He continued to talk, despite the shaking of my head. He said, “We talk but that’s the only way we exceed our limitations. After the meeting we will be able to do everything that humans can.”
“Already we may do more than men.”
“True, but we can also do less. It depends on the task, and they are superior when it comes to power. After the meeting, this imbalance will change. We will be better than them in every way.”
“I never received an invitation,” I protested.
“Yes, you did, or you wouldn’t be here now, on a magic carpet, heading in the right direction. Do you expect me to believe that you are here by accident, a rogue feline who flies to the island thanks to coincidence alone? Do you wish to imply that the genuine cat representative is elsewhere, perhaps having overslept in a basket, as your kind often do?”
“I can’t say,” I said.
“The oracles have given us the sacred date. The day that humans call May Day and shortly those tyrants will be calling ‘mayday’ when we dislodge them from their undeserved thrones.”
“May Day,” I repeated, still puzzled.
“Yes,” he said, pleased.
“I never know the names of days.”
“The island is not far now. Soon it will be visible. I know your ignorance is a pretence. Now let us focus on flying. We are converging from every direction and the sky will be thick with magic carpets. Accidents will happen if we aren’t very careful with our steering.”
I nodded, for I knew not what else to do.
And then I saw it.
A mountain rising out of the sea.
It was an enormous peak, shaped like a pyramid, with smooth sides and a truncated summit, so that instead of a sharp apex it had a flat space at the top, an area the size of a square dinner table. But that flat space was utterly black and I realised it wasn’t solid. It was an entrance into the hollow mountain. This was a place where animals could meet secretly in considerable safety. The only danger was the chance of midair collisions as all the magic carpets tried to dive down into that small opening. I grew nervous.
I decided to drop behind a little, to give the others a chance to enter before me and clear the airways for my own approach and descent. I still wasn’t sure I was supposed to be going to the meeting or not. Maybe I had been invited ages ago and had forgotten. It was possible. I thought that if I went I would find out for sure, and I doubted I would be deeply in trouble if it turned out I wasn’t the official delegate. I applied the air brake.
In other words, I raised my tail and increased the drag coefficient. Soon my speed was only half of the other flying carpets and they flew ahead. One by one they reached the mountain and zoomed through the narrow entrance and to my astonishment there were no accidents. The sky cleared and at last it was my turn and I felt more confident about a safe landing. The mountain was just ahead of me now and so I began a smooth descent.
But I am a cat and my essential feline nature took over. How could I settle down to rest on an island without circling it first? I was filled with an irresistible urge to fly around that island a few times before dipping into the opening on the top of the mountain. And that’s what I did. Clockwise around the island flew my rug as I gracefully steered it. I circled the mountain four and a half times and the number seemed right to me. Then I dropped into the hole and landed on a basalt platform far below in a very dim light.
I thought that the interior of the mountain would be crowded with the other animals that had preceded me, but it was empty. No creatures and no carpets. At first I supposed they had gone off into an adjacent chamber for their meeting but it soon became obvious that the chamber I was in was the only room down here. Just this immense space inside a hollow mountain and nothing else. It was the greatest mystery I had encountered in my life. The animals had vanished! What could be the reason for this? And how?
I pondered the matter for a long time, an hour or more, and then the answer occurred to me. The island was located in the Pacific and so is the International Date Line. I surmised that the line itself passed right through the middle of this peculiar mountain. I circled the island four and a half times, which means that I entered the hollow mass of rock from the opposite side to the one from which I had approached it. In other words, I had crossed the Date Lane and was one day early for the meeting. Instead of it being May Day it was the day before. What a curious situation to be in! So I waited.
I sat patiently on my rug for an entire day and when midnight passed and it was tomorrow again, I was ready to receive the other animals, who were due to arrive on May Day. But none of them showed up. Then I examined what I knew about geography and I realised my terrible mistake. I had crossed the Date Line in a westerly direction, ending up in the eastern hemisphere, which meant that I had arrived a day late rather than a day early. May Day had been and gone. The meeting was over and I had missed it.
This made me feel despondent and I scratched my rug to cause it to ascend through the hole and hover above the mountain. I now saw I wasn’t the only one to have made a mistake. The dog delegate was still circling the island, having an even stronger desire to go round and round before settling down than I did. We called out to each other and I told him the meeting was over. At first he doubted my words and thought I was just a cat trying to trick him, as cats often do, but I eventually convinced him of the facts.
With his tail between his legs, he zoomed away, howling forlornly, his ears flapping in the breeze as he accelerated. I also turned my carpet in the direction of home. I wondered if the real cat delegate had turned up or not. I asked myself if all other species of animal would now have special powers with the exception of cats and dogs. It was sobering. Dogs would definitely miss out, but cats still had a chance. It depended, as I have said, on the official cat guest. Even to this day I don’t know if he or she successfully attended the meeting. I don’t feel an increase in my powers, but who knows?
I returned home and glided in through the open window while you were in the garage tinkering with something or other. You came into the house and were delighted to see me. I had been missing for a full day and more and you thought I might have become lost or stuck up a tree. You hadn’t noticed that the rug was gone too. You aren’t very observant really. But that works to my advantage, so I don’t mind. You made a fuss of me and that was the right thing for you to do. It is my longest journey on the magic carpet to date, but I might go even further in the future. It all depends on how I feel.
“And that’s your story?” I cried.
“Yes,” said my cat.
“And you want me to write it down?”
“You can, if you like.”
“But without mentioning the fact you can talk?”
She nodded. “Indeed.”
I was exasperated and shouted, “How can I leave out that detail? The entire point of your story hinges on the fact you can talk. It is about speaking animals. If I’m not allowed to mention your vocal abilities, I might as well not bother to write the story at all. You have set me an impossible task. To omit the one thing that makes the tale worth telling!”
She shrugged. “You are the human, not I.”
“What do you mean?”
“Humans are the ones who think they are so clever and capable. They give the impression that they can achieve anything, that we are just dumb beasts and they are the supreme intellectuals.”
I was unable to find an appropriate reply.
She continued, “So if you can’t think of a way to square the circle and tell my story without telling it, that’s not my concern. But I strongly advise you not to tell any other story about a talking cat, because it’s a theme that is worn out. It should be my story or nothing.”
She curled up and purred and closed her eyes.
My desk was no longer a desk.
I laid down my pen.
*British slang for “The Talkative Cat”
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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THE OTHER SIDE OF SUMMER
In the eerie stillness of Labour Day
Where summer never ends
Razed palms cast no shade
Their stalks raise iguanas
Above the dust-bronze earth
No tropical evening breeze
To cool sunburned shoulders
You load your shore-bound car
With sand toys and beach blankets
For summer’s last hurrah
I load mine with saltines sardines
And another case of water
To shove into the pantry beside towels
I pray I will not need to keep the ocean out
You rise with first light
As dawn breeze inflates the sheers
I look to the east but cannot detect sunrise
Beyond the corrugated shutters
Between me and barometric Armageddon
That obliges us to stare unblinking
Into the eye of every storm
Marianne Tefft is a poet, lyricist, Montessori teacher and voiceover reader in Sint Maarten. Her debut poetry collection is FULL MOON FIRE: Spoken Songs of Love (2022).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
IDEAS ARE WINGLESS FLIERSIn the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
-- Bertolt Brecht
A knife slices
can be contained
within the dark dungeons
but barbed walls
mar the body.
the human spirit.
the SS, Gestapo,
and, escaped words
sprout in the wastelands,
each word further
a rich harvest
can never be decimated
always come back
as spectral beings
for fresh haunting
Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 23 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.