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Kumar Bhimsingha

Kumar Bhimsingha by Swarnakumari Devi, the sister of Rabindranath Tagore, was published in Bharati & Balok, a magazine run by the Tagore family, in Boisakh 1293 of the Bengali calendar, April 1887 according to the Gregorian one. It has been translated by Chaitali Sengupta.

Swarnakumari Devi. Courtesy: Wiki

The king of Mewar, Rana Raj Singha, was resting alone in his sleeping chamber. Dusk had set in. As per the orders of the king, the servants had kept only one fire-lit lamp. The rest had all been extinguished. The soft light had created an ambience that gave a pleasant hue to the king’s thoughts. The day of the coronation was almost upon them, the day when prince Jayasingha would be anointed his heir, the next king of Mewar.

Rana Raj Singha’s mind was full only with the thoughts of how elated his royal queen would be on that special day and the happiness of the crown prince. He was not bothered about his subjects’ reactions at all. The gates of his royal chamber opened slowly, and his second queen Kamal Kumari entered inside. Startled, the king sat up on his bed, surprised to find her there. He indicated she sit on a seat near him. Once she was seated, the king asked, “You, at this late hour?”

The queen replied, “There’s no option left for me. You never show up, when I ask for you.”

A bit embarrassed, the king remembered that throughout the day, a couple of messages did come from the queen, requesting him to visit her in the inner chambers of the palace. Slowly, he said, “My dear queen, I forgot.”

Her mind hissed, yes indeed, such is my fate, that you’ve regularly forgotten me, there’s nothing new in it. Keeping her face expressionless, she only asked, “I just came to confirm; are the rumours that are brewing true, my King?”

Something forced the king not to come out with a direct reply. He simply asked, “Which rumours do you mean?”

The Queen responded: “Rumours, that says that your throne is going to be taken over by Jayasingha, during your kingship. Looks like our land is following the Muslim rulers in this regard.”

This sneering remark, aimed at Jayasingha was not lost upon the king. He said, “Rumours are gossip. Not the truth. My throne is not being usurped by Jayasingha; on the contrary, I’m bestowing it upon him.”

The queen laughed harshly. “Ah, so you’re passing the throne to him. Why such a haste to abdicate and retire, may I ask?”

Holding his surging anger in check, the king replied, “My dear queen, there’s no reason to laugh like that. A king must think a hundred times and act with deep consideration. Just think, the well-being and suffering of his subjects are so much dependent on his decisions. If I, the reigning monarch, do not take a decision now, then there is a chance is that in my absence, the question of succession would lead to a fight among the brothers, and ruin the kingdom.”

The Queen said: “But my observation is, that in trying to find a solution, you’re in fact, instigating one brother to fight the other. In the name of protecting your kingdom, you’re leading it towards destruction. If you wish to decide on your successor, in your presence, then, pray, why do you not declare your eldest son as the next king? Why are you usurping his rightful eligibility to the throne unlawfully and relinquishing it to the younger one?”

The words rang true, but they did not please the king. Sometimes, it was difficult to bear the truth. With supreme irritation, the king said, “Bhimsingha and Jayasingha were both born almost at the same time. The difference is their time of birth is so minute, that on the basis of that, Bhimsingha cannot claim to be the successor to the throne, just by virtue of being elder by a few seconds. They’re born on the same day, at the same time. Under the circumstance, the one who is more capable has a right to inherit the throne. I believe Jayasingha to be more capable of the two.”

Laughing, the queen said, “It seems like you want to turn the wheel of time; or, else, why would you accept the younger one, to be equal to the eldest one? I’m happy that just your mere words did not change the dictates of time. Even if a person is marginally older by birth, he deserves to be considered as the eldest. Lav and Kush were twins; but then why, did Lav succeed his father to the throne? Besides, let me ask you, on what grounds do you think Jayasingha is more deserving than Bhimsingha? Is Bhimsingha any less than Jayasingha in terms of bravery, honesty, intelligence, prowess? Who is admired by the army? Whose honesty enchants the nobles in your court? Whom do the subjects want as their future king? You’ll get your answer, if only you ask others. However, if you believe Jayasingha to be more deserving since he’s born of your favourite consort, and is, hence, your dear prince, of course, that is a different story.”

Her words, like sharp quills, invaded his heart. Angered, he said, “So be it.”

The queen, too, could hardly restrain her anger. “Then say that clearly. Why be pretentious and hide behind false words? Being a king, are you afraid to voice the truth?”

The king answered, “Nobody ever wanted to know the truth from me. None can claim that I’ve been untruthful.”

The queen replied, “Do you remember the day they’re born?”

She paused, her words were caught in the web of time, as she travelled back almost twenty years, remembering that day. The difference between the simple, trusting, young bride of yesteryears and today’s middle-aged woman, neglected, exploited, devoid of husband’s attention, was too great. The young Kamal Kumari of those days, who after giving birth to her first born, had waited with love and patience, for her husband to come, and to take her son in his arms, exulting in happiness. In the expectancy of his arrival, she completely forgot the pains of childbirth and in her heart, there flowed a stream of bliss. But when the moments changed to minutes, and then to hours, and still the King did not come, she felt neglected and hurt. Dejected and sad, she heard one of the maidservants saying, “Queen Chanchal Kumari, too, has given birth to a prince around the same time. The king is with her and he has tied the amulet of immortality, on the feet of the newborn. Later, he will come here.”

It had been a tradition of the Royal house of Mewar that at the birth of the firstborn, the king tied the amulet of immortality on the tiny feet. It was a symbol, whereby the king declared his firstborn, to be his successor. On hearing, that the king had unfairly put the precious amulet on the feet of his younger prince, instead of his elder one, a raging fire swelled fiercely in her heart. The tears from a mother’s eyes anointed the newborn on that day.

The queen clearly understood that her husband didn’t love her anymore. In the past too, such thoughts had assailed her, like frail doubts, but they never lasted long. She had reprimanded herself for doubting her husband. But, that day, the doubts that had only temporarily intruded, took root as the truth in her mind. Shell-shocked, the queen felt like dying.

When her husband came finally, to visit the newborn, she did not utter a word. Within a few days, she heard rumours within the palace walls, that claimed that because of the mistake on the part of the servants, who miscalculated the time of birth of Chanchal Kumari’s firstborn, the king had tied the amulet on her boy, thinking him to be the eldest.

Kamal Kumari did not have the heart to judge the veracity of this rumour. She had no trust on the king’s love for her, and his proximity only became another cause of pain and agony for her. How on earth would one engage in such talks with him? Many a times, she’d attempted to broach this subject, to question him, and each time, her misery had been so immense, that she came back before she could get her answers.

But after so many years, when she had almost no reason to disbelieve his very reason for tying the amulet on Jayasingha’s feet, she stomped with wifely hurt. She only remembered that she was Bhimsingha’s mother. She felt that it was only because he was born of her ill-fated womb, his luck forsook him, meting out grievous injustice by depriving him of his natural right. Deadly anger replaced the feeling of hurt then, and she stood against the king, to fight for justice, to fight for her son’s rights.

When the incidents around his birth flashed before her eyes, once again, it made her weaker; the fire of anger that lighted her eyes, at once turned tearfully misty, with the remembered hurt. But, not for long. Soon enough, the queen spoke angry words: “If you aren’t afraid to speak the truth, then why could you not come up with the real reason for tying the amulet on the feet of your younger son, when all the while, it was your eldest son, who deserved it?”

Angered, the king replied, “It’s not my duty to explain my decisions or the reasons behind them to the subjects. And if people misinterpret my actions, I can hardly be blamed. Right? If I’d hidden the truth on that day, fearing the public backlash, then I’d have hesitated to give him the throne, even today. If people had any wrong assumptions, let it be dismissed by this action of mine. This is my kingdom, and I reserve the right of bestowing it to whomsoever I please. I’m neither afraid of the public and nor should they have any right to comment on this.”

Unable to tolerate further, the queen stood up from her seat, and in an agitated voice, said, “No, don’t you dare think like that, O King. It might be your kingdom, but you’ve no right to bestow it upon anyone you deem fit. You may be the judge, but that doesn’t give you the right to be unjust. Your kingship doesn’t give you the right to break laws. And if a king does that, then he’s not a king – he is a despot, an unrighteous ruler. Such a king’s bounty will surely not be accepted by my son. The day he claims this kingdom as his rightful domain, it’ll be his. Even if you wish to bestow the kingdom upon him now, he will not accept it from you. Remember when your unfair decision results in bloodshed. It will take the lives of millions of innocent people, bringing huge destruction to this land. When bloodshed between brothers will bring the legacy of Mewar to ignominy, don’t blame them or others. Do remember then, O king, that this is the consequence of your sin. You’re a descendant of the famous Raghu clan, whose patriarch King Dashrath didn’t hesitate to banish his favorite son Rama to forest just to uphold justice. Despite being born into such an illustrious family, today, you defamed your family name. But, as long as this world exists, and the planets revolve, you will not be able to suppress justice with injustice. Truth shall triumph, O king, you would not be able to stop its march.”

Her words were clearly laced with deep hatred. Having spoken them out, the proud woman went out of the king’s bedchamber, in slow, graceful steps. She didn’t meet Bhimsingha that night and decided to have a talk with him the next morning.

2.

The queen departed. She left behind a cacophony of censure and her words continued reverberating in the Rana’s head, pounding like thunderbolts. His mind echoed back the words of his queen: “You are the descendant of the famous Raghu clan, whose patriarch King Dashrath didn’t hesitate to banish his favorite son Rama to forest…”  He felt dizzy. His majesty, the great Rana Raj Singha became as restless as a small child. “Oh, what have I done? I’ve compromised truth at the feet of fraternal love, despite being born in a family that upheld truth at all costs. Oh God, was this the purpose of my unlucky birth, only to tarnish the unsullied name of my family?”

It was, as if his closed eyes, were suddenly opened. Never before, had he thought about the matter in this manner. In his mind, since Bhimsingha and Jayasingha, both were born on the same day, neither of them had precedence on the throne. It was his kingdom, and he thought to bestow it upon whom he deemed fit. Blinded by one-sided love, he had, so far, failed to ponder upon the other aspect of the issue. But, today, he was cured off such an illusion, such an oversight, in a harsh way.

The night passed sleeplessly in a restless state. At the crack of dawn, he asked the guard, “Ask Prince Bhimsingha to come here at once.”

“Prince Bhimsingha?” The guard expressed surprise, for they all knew Jayasingha to be the crown prince. Checking his surprise, he went out to inform Bhimsingha.

The fact that he has been called to meet his father surprised Bhimsingha no less. It was a novel occasion, for he could hardly remember ever to be called by the king, his father. He thought, “Is this some new trick? Is he calling me to attend upon Jayasingha, to be his servant? But does he not understand that, as long as Bhimsingha has faith in his own prowess and bravery, the throne can never belong to Jayasingha.”

Remembering his father’s partiality angered him afresh. He was in a dilemma. He pondered on how he could turn down the invitation to meet him. However, he decided not to disobey the royal command. “On the other hand, today, in his presence, I’m going to speak out my heart,” he thought.

His heart seething with anger, Bhimsingha went to his father. But his anger melted as he glanced at the king looking for an escape route. Depression was written large on the king’s face and his eyes, although troubled, were deep with love as he looked at Bhimsingha. Anger and revengeful feelings vanished in a moment. In its place, there was a strange emotion of unexpressed pain.

The king, too, was surprised to see Bhimsingha’s calm, forbearing, respectful demeanor, just the very opposite of the image he’d conceived in his mind, in which Bhimsingha seethed with deep seated anger, frowning to demand fairness from him. Bhimsingha behaved like a loving son. Seeing his son’s respectful demeanour towards his father, embarrassed the king. His son’s respect, forbearance and calmness filled the king’s heart with deep contrition, a feeling which no amount of anger on Bhimsingha’s part would have aroused in the Rana’s troubled heart. In deep shame and repentance, the king could hardly glance at him.

Slowly, he said, “Son Bhimsingha!”

His affectionate tone surprised Bhimsingha. Never before, had the king expressed such tenderness towards him. Slight and neglect had been his lot from his father. The memory of a day when both the brothers were playing in the garden invaded his consciousness. The Rana had caressed Jayasingha fondly, but for him he had not spared a word of endearment. Hurt with his behavior, the boy had left the place, found his mother’s lap to shed his tears, without telling her the reason of his sorrow. Growing up, at every step, he’d observed the unfairness of his father. And by bestowing his throne to Jayasingha, he’d, finally, shown the height of unfairness. It had led him to believe that the king did not love him.

And so, after long years, when the king called him with such tenderness in his voice, it roused strong emotions in his heart, overwhelming him. In a trembling voice, he replied, “Father.”

All these years, Bhimsingha had addressed him as Maharaja, the king. Looking at him, the king confessed, “Son, I’ve wronged you grossly, please forgive me.”

Tears coursed down Bhimsingha’s eyes, tears of hurt and pride. The fact, that his father realised and acknowledged his unfair behaviour towards him, washed away his hurt. In his heart, he said, “I’ve lost your affection, for I stayed away, aloof from you, doubting your affection for me. For this reason, I seek your forgiveness, forgive me, father.”

He stood speechless in front of the king; the Rana, observing his silence, continued, “I know it is difficult for you to forgive me, but I’ll atone for the crime I committed, and thereby ask forgiveness from my conscience, from my God. You’re my firstborn; to you, shall I bestow my throne, on your head, the crown shall glitter. But even if I do so, Jayasingha would always stand as a barrier on your path, an impediment. It is because of my fault that he’s dreaming of possessing that which is not his. The greed of the kingdom would turn him to cause anarchy in the land. And there is, but only one solution to this problem.”

Saying so, he unsheathed the sword that glittered brightly against the rays of the sun. Holding it in front of Bhimsingha, he said, “Take this, and pierce this sword through his heart. Let one death ward-off thousands of deaths, let justice prevail at the downfall of injustice. Don’t panic, on the face of cold responsibility. No relationship is important enough.” His voice shook, as he uttered the words, realising their onus, in essence, within his heart.

Like a statue, carved in stone, Bhimsingha stood. In a flash, he understood what the king was going through. To uphold his duty, he was sacrificing his most valuable, loved treasure. Bhimsingha witnessed the intense loftiness of his father’s ideals. His greatness impressed his to the core. His love for his father increased a thousand-fold. Bhimsingha clearly understood, that in piercing the heart of his brother, he would in fact, be stabbing his father. He could hardly say anything. His mind only whispered, “You’re a god, a divine being.”

Watching him standing quietly, the king again reiterated, “Son, don’t shiver at this thought. You’d be committing this act to uphold justice, for the well-being of the land, there’s no sin in this act of yours. And even if you commit a sin, it would be not yours, it would be mine. Follow my command and fulfil it.”

Bhimsingha took the sword from his hand and kept it at the king’s feet. He said, “Father, take back your sword. I’ve no need for it. You’d indeed wronged me, but you’ve repented profusely for it. You’ve fulfilled your duty to the letter. Now let me fulfil mine. I’ll make sure, that there will not be a drop of bloodshed because of me; that Jayasingha would not commit anything untoward because of me. The right that you’ve bestowed upon me today, I grant that right to Jayasingha. From today onward, this kingdom shall rightfully be his. I’ll leave Mewar, to prevent myself from getting tempted, in future, by the greed of attaining the throne. Carrying the affection and the lofty ideals that you imparted to me today in my heart, I’ll leave my motherland Mewar tonight. If I fail to do this, let me not be known as your son.”

Not giving him a moment to respond or desist, Bhimsingha touched his father’s feet and was gone. Astounded, the king stood there.

That very day, Bhimsingha himself crowned Jayasingha. Then, along with his loved soldiers and nobles, he left Mewar. He never came back.  Many years later, when his companions returned to Mewar, they carried with them, the news of his death.

Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932) was five years older to her sibling, Rabindranath Tagore. She was one of the first women writers of Bengal. She was also a social activist who fought for women’s liberation. Among Bengali women writers, she was one of the first to gain prominence. She helped orphans and widows. She opened an organisation to help women and opposed the evil of sati. In the 5 July 1932 issue of the Bengali newspaper, Amrita Bazar Patrika, just days after her death, she is  remembered as “one of the most outstanding Bengali women of the age” who “did her best for the amelioration of the condition of the womanhood of Bengal.”

Chaitali Sengupta is a writer, translator and journalist from the Netherlands. Her published works include two translations “Quiet whispers of our heart” and “A thousands words of  heart”. Recently her first prose poem collection Cross- Stitched words was published. Her poems have also been anthologized in many international collections and she writes for many print and online journals. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Flash Fiction: Fat!

By Supriya Rakesh

So, it is my college re-union this evening. I don’t even want to go, I really don’t!

But then I think, what the hell, it’s been ten years! Will be nice to meet all the girls… may be even some of the boys.  They will all have turned into paunchy dads. Most of them, may be not all of them. The girls are of course skinny and what not. I know; because they’re all over my Instagram. With their GM diets, avocado smoothies, and egg whites. Their svelte sculpted bodies in their hot Yoga pants.

I approached the venue all, all cautious, like a crab calculating its distance and plotting its moves. I know I have done okay in life. Decent job, check. Boyfriend and marriage, check. Travelled around the world, yes even to Czech. Published my short stories, check and mate!

Still, I first stand in a corner and watch from a distance. They all look so smug in their designer outfits — eating, sipping, laughing, catching up.

“Oh! Is this food vegan?”

“I don’t eat gluten any more…”

“Can I have some low-cal champagne?”

I observe them like a birdwatcher studying a rare species. Pretty much how I got through four years of college. I stand my ground, waiting for my friend, Sally. I need a buffer, I really do.

Until one of them spots me.

“Oh my God, Mandy…,” she coos in her high-pitched voice. “There you are! Come on over.” The bait is ready. I approach unsteadily, just as the group gets ready to devour me.

“Oh wow, you have put on! Looking just a bit fat!” A unanimous guzzle.

Fat! From that moment on, things start to blur. Is it the fresh trauma or memory of older ones? Perhaps, it is low blood sugar. I did skip my post-lunch tea and muffin in anticipation of the food here.

I strain to take in all the jibes and counter-jibes. Only the most important information is digested. Yes, there is clear consensus. I have packed in some kilos, 5 to 10 is the guesstimate. I neither confirm nor deny anything.

Then, a platter of suggestions. My responses rise up like reflux but never escape my lips.

“Completely cut out carbs.” I veto the keto!

“Just eat every two hours!” Ummm, why not more often?

Then well-meaning Veena and sharp-tongued Shapira close in on me.

“Hey girl, loving your curves.”

“Yea! Love-handles mean more action!”

Being touched inappropriately under my shirt snaps me out of my reverie. I excuse myself, saying I need to look for Sally.

It’s been ten minutes and Sally is no-where to be seen.

I have gulped down two glasses of strawberry sangria and have no choice but to head for the buffet. I definitely do not want to return to the herd. To have more pity or information stuffed down my throat. A rumbling stomach confirms my decision.

I pick up the plate and stand in the line. I manage a polite smile at a few faces I remember vaguely. But inside, I am fuming.

What the hell do these women think? That I am clueless of my own weight? I haven’t looked in a mirror since what? 2008? Even the clothes I had to throw out gave me no clue! They are doing me a favour, by their astute observations and wise revelations?

Grinding my teeth, I load up my plate… comfort food is what I need right now. I skip the weirdly brown lentil soup (how can I eat it standing) and approach the hearty tomato spaghetti with parmesan cheese.

Or should I go for the veggie brown rice pilaf? The ‘healthier’ choice?

Ugghh, it’s all their fault! Causing such gut-wrenching dilemma in my otherwise sorted brain. My grad school, published author brain. Again, did they expect me to look exactly the same ten years later? All the things I’ve done, achieved, mean nothing against my slightly bulging waistline?

I find myself a table in the corner, and tear into my spaghetti.

Yes of course I’ve gained weight, but only a slight bit– couple of dress sizes at most. I’m not technically fat. Just full-bodied. A real woman. Living in a normal, healthy way. No fad diets or surgeries. Why do we swallow up these beauty standards dished out by fashion, media, society? I slurp my arguments down with my vanilla-bean smoothie.

My plate is almost empty now. I do feel a little better.

Yup, cold dairy as always soothes my nerves. Complex carbs give me perspective. A happy buzz in my head from the strawberry sangria. It’s just one evening, after all! Plus, Sally will be here soon. She’ll get me. Sally’s beyond everything. She’ll have some sage advice for me, some philosophy or the other about self-acceptance.

My phone pings as I head towards the dessert counter. Thank god she’s almost here! It’s a tough choice, but I pick up a bowl of fresh caramel custard (gooey brownies are for little children) and walk towards the door.

She wants me to wait outside so we can meet first, then walk in together. Looks like she needs a buffer too. I’m so excited, I haven’t met Sally in the longest time!

There’s a slight drizzle outside but I’m distracted by the zesty orange drizzle in my bowl. As I dive in to soak a last sumptuous bite, there is a slight tap on the shoulder. I turn to greet her with a full-mouthed grin… My jaws drop, as does the spoon in my hand.  

“Wow, Sally” I gobble unwittingly. “You are looking so fat!”

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Supriya Rakesh is a researcher, educator, author with a PhD from IIM, Bangalore. Her fiction explores gender and relationships in contemporary India, with recent publications in Kitaab, Muse and Setu Bilingual. Further details at www.supriyarakesh.com.  

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Shoes in the Forbidden Attic

By Vidula Sonagra 

Unlike kids her age, Kaju was never very excited about summer vacations. For her it meant no school, no math class, no meeting Rani and Pooja, no playing hopscotch. Several of her aunts and cousin aunts from across Madhya Pradesh and few from Maharashtra spend the entire summer vacation with their children. It meant more work for her mother and kakis*. Which in turn meant more household chores would be assigned to Meena didi*, Heeru didi and herself. Nonetheless she looked forward to meeting her cousins — Tina, Babli, Ankita, Neelu, Pintu, Rahul, especially Nikita and Avni.  Nikita and Avni were daughters of Chand bua, who was her father’s first cousin.

 Chand bua always received a grand welcome by her brothers, cousins, and sisters-in-law. She lived in Bambai (Mumbai) where Nikita and Avni went to English medium Convent school. They wore readymade clothes and always wore colourful socks with their shoes. Kaju was a year younger to Nikita and a year older to Avni. They had difficulty in adjusting with the toilet system, yet they seldom complained about it. They were a bit snobbish, but they were often bullied. Sometimes Kaju protected them and sometimes she participated in bullying them.  Kaju wished, she was just like them, some days she wished she could punch them in their face. 

 When they arrived, both wore lemon yellow dresses with black hair-bands and shoes with matching socks and mushroom haircuts. Kaju was thrilled to see them. But also, a tiny bit envious of them, especially of the shoes Nikita wore. Nikita wore the shoes all the time. The label on it said, ‘Made in USA’. To Kaju’s annoyance, Nikita without fail mentioned it to everyone. She bragged how her father got those for her when he went abroad. Truth be told, her father never travelled out of the country. Her mother had bought them from the flea market outside Ghatkopar station. After patiently exploring and skillful haggling, Chand bua had a knack of finding and buying classy clothes. 

  Kaju and her cousins spent the summer like most other summers. Playing, fighting, pulling each other’s hair, stealing dried berries and imli*, forming and reforming teams, plotting against each other, learning to fly kites, playing challas* and simply making memories that would someday be cherished by them or haunt them.  When no one was looking, Kaju wore the ‘Made in USA’ shoes. They fitted her so well.  She walked across the room like she was a movie star. She dreamt of wearing them to school and flaunting them to Rani and Pooja. She wanted them so much so that she hatched a plan to steal them and hide them till her school reopened.

 A day before Nikita and Avni’s departure Kaju took the blue shoes which she had thought of during the summer. She meticulously planned when she would steal them and also where she would hide them. The attic would be the best place to hide her steal. Except Seema kaki, Hiroo didi and Meena didi, Kaju had not seen anyone access it. She had seen them going to the attic only a few times in the wee hours. When she asked Hiroo didi and Meena didi to take her to the attic, both forbade her to go to the attic and spoke. They had only gone there to feed the monster who came in their dreams when he was hungry. They warned her against going to the attic as the monster was not fond of children. Kaju knew they were fooling her. But didn’t have the heart to go to the attic till that day. She had heard somewhere; monsters are only wake up in the night. If she went in the daytime, she could still hide it. 

 Just after lunch, Chand bua was busy packing for her return. Nikita and Avni were fast asleep as they were tired from meeting relatives all morning to bid adieu and have sumptuous meals and sweets prepared especially for them.  Kaju slowly entered the room where dadu* and Viju kaka* were napping. She picked up the shoes and went to the middle room hiding it under the frills of her layered frock. It was one of the darkest rooms with one clerestory window borrowing light from the kitchen. It had the door to the attic. Boo was lying on the bed. Kaju thought, Boo too was napping. But to her terror she was wide awake. Staring. Staring into nothingness. Boo has been that way since Magan dada* — her stepson died last winter. They were just eight years apart. She had taken care of him like a kid brother since he was two years old. She never doubted that she would be the first one to go. She wasn’t prepared to live in a world without him.  Kaju soon realised, even if Boo was staring, she wasn’t seeing anything.  

 Kaju slowly climbed the table that had the tailoring machine and unlatched the door from the top. She climbed the steps like a cat. The attic was stuffy and dusty with pigeon feathers all around. Proximity to the iron roof made the dung floor even hotter.  Window at the end of the attic was on source natural light. Kaju, three feet two inches, could barely stand straight in the middle of the attic that had slanting roofs.

On the one side there were two large, rusted trunks, with several bundles of cloth. On the other side there were heaps of stove woods, few chipped pots, a large rat cage, a string on which several stained cloth pieces were hung. It was nothing like she had imagined it to be. In her mind the attic was a room with a large bed for the monster, cupboard, table, TV, and a large pot of drinking water. Kaju was terrified with the setting and aura of the attic. Before she could find a clean and convenient spot for her shoes, Kaju heard some rattling from the opposite end of the attic, she hurriedly left her shoes at the window, and quickly climbed down the stairs. When she entered the room, Boo was still staring, Staring into nothingness. Kaju with a racing heart got on the tailoring machine table. Carefully latched the chain at the top. Dusted off her layered, frilled frock. Still a bit shaky, Kaju tried her best to pretend everything was normal.

 Next morning, when Chand bua with all her bags packed was ready to leave for the station with Nikita and Avni, Nikita frantically started searching for her shoes. While Laxmi dadi* and Chand bua were still crying, everyone else started to look for the shoes. About fifteen minutes later, Chand bua firmly suggested Nikita wear spare shoes, or else they will be late for their train. Upon hearing this Nikita threw a fit and started crying. But Chand bua was in no mood to waste time mollycoddling her. She slapped her instead and asked her to wear the spare shoes. Nikita tried hard to stop crying, but tears continued to roll down her cheeks.  She quietly wore the spare shoes and got into the tonga.  

 Kaju felt guilty. Not only did she steal Nikita’s shoes, but Nikita was also slapped by her mother in front of everyone. Though she couldn’t forget the crying face of Nikita for many days, she brought herself to confess the fact that she not only stole the shoes but had hidden them in the attic. She was terrified that her mother would thrash her for stealing. Stealing something from Chand bua’s daughter. Kaju was so petrified and ashamed of her act that she could never muster up the courage to take another trip to the attic. Not until the incident had faded in her memory.

Glossary

Kaki – Father’s younger brother’s wife

Didi – Elder sister

Bua – Father’s sister

Imli — Tamarind

Challas – Ludo, a board game

Dadu — Grandfather

Kaka – Father’s younger brother

Dada – Elder brother

Dadi – Grandmother

Vidula Sonagra is an independent researcher, writer and translator who is interested in society, literature and music and loves reading fiction and petting street dogs and cats. 

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The Beggar

By Shouvik Banerjee

Madhu and the children had been insisting on a family outing for a long time. So last week, we finally decided to watch a movie at New Empire. We would later shop at New Market and then gorge on spicy street food from the nearby food stalls. The children also insisted on visiting the museum. They had always wanted to see the ‘mummy’. This time I complied.

When we reached, a thick crowd of curious souls greeted us. They huddled around the 4,000-year-old dead body and inspected it from every angle. Madhu and the kids joined them while I stayed by the swinging door and watched.

As I scanned the room, my eyes rested on the guard standing in a corner. He was wearing his emerald uniform and his right thumb dangled from his belt. Under the cap, his face was clean-shaven, and his eyes moved quickly around the room. He was invisible except for the way his wrists flicked. It looked familiar.

For a moment I paused and denied the thought. It could not be. But I had to know. I edged along the wall until I was standing beside him. I inched closer and tried to meet his eye. My suspicion and the thought I had been denying were now a fact. He pretended not to have noticed me and continued to avoid my gaze. Finally, I said, “Excuse me, I have seen you somewhere?”

This time, he looked at me. The expression of mild surprise on his face hinted neither at shock nor bewilderment. Instead, he went into a denial mode, “I’m sorry but I don’t know you.”

What a rascal!

“Remember you were in Dalhousie, near the chowmein seller, you wanted to eat some chowmein? Remember?”

“Dalhousie? Chowmein? I’m sorry sir but I do not understand.”

He slithered through the thick crowd and disappeared.

Of course, he understood!

The week before, I was sitting at one of the innumerable fast-food stalls spread around Dalhousie when he had approached me with a yellowish toothy grin.  Except then, he was a beggar and not a security guard.  He was bare-chested and held up a corner of the torn khaki trousers with a dirty hand. It dangled from his slim waist, threatening to fall any second. In his other hand, he held a small bowl which jingled with a flick of his wrist.

The shopkeeper rebuffed and shooed him away.

It was hard to recognize him in the museum since the beggar’s face was a mess of dark repulsive hair. But I knew it was him. There was a spark in his eyes which was hard to ignore. It was not the eyes of someone who should be begging. That was what intrigued me about him.

The next day when he arrived, I bought a plate of chowmein to appease both parties. He sat down against the wall and devoured the food from an old newspaper.

“Do you live nearby?” I asked.

The beggar shook his head. “I don’t live anywhere.”

“So, you never had a home?”

“I had one, a long time back. My brother used to beat us – my mother and me. My father had already died. Then one day, he came home drunk and pushed us out of the small house. My mother died in a ditch and I kept wondering. You know, I have a BA and was part of a theatre group. But no one cares about degrees or talent. All they care about is money. Money, money, money…”

Under the mess of dirty hair, he did have a young face and was perhaps in his mid-thirties.

After that brief encounter, I had not seen him for many days. But I, too, was partly responsible for the disunion. Madhu was packing lunch as retaliation against my growing blood pressure and waistline. I was now spending my afternoons with colleagues. I listened to their gossip, and occasionally took sides in office politics. My workload had also increased. So, I found less reason to visit my beloved food stall.

The other day, Mahesh, the office peon, had piled a stack of files on my desk. “Dutta da wants this by tomorrow,” he had announced fastidiously before scrambling off. After working for six years, I had acquired one vital piece of knowledge about my boss – Raghubir Dutta. When he said next week, he meant this week; If he said tomorrow, he meant today.

Sometimes, when files were not coveting for my attention, I wondered why I slogged so much for so little. Other times, I romanticised the impossible idea of finding a better paying job. But almost immediately I dismissed such thoughts, remembering well that my father never had the luxury to send me to a business school.

I needed money to make money.

*

The next day, I took an early leave during lunch. I cited an important meeting with a customer as an excuse. Thankfully, Dutta was too preoccupied to have noticed the lie. I went over to the same stall and hid behind a bunch of bodies. His appearance, though, made me doubtful after my confrontation.

I was right. After waiting for half an hour, I went to lookfor him. I scanned the countless stalls, shops, and the streets packed with people.

It was a futile search. But just as I was about to board a bus, my eyes fell on a sugarcane juice seller at the far end of the street. And there he was, hunched on the ground, relishing the sweet juice and ecstatically smacking his lips!

I waited. He got up and dumped the plastic vessel in the dustbin. Then, he briskly walked till the end of the road and turned a corner. I followed. The beggar entered a small public urinal that was surprisingly clean. A few minutes later, the museum guard emerged in his crisp green uniform and cap, looking sharp and, I suspected, perfumed as well.

I ran and caught him by the shoulder as he waited for his bus. He turned around with a flabbergasted look.

“I know about your dual life,” I said, agitated and angry that he still feigned surprise. “The police might find it interesting. Why are you acting and fooling people?”

The guard gave me a wide smile and politely replied, “Aren’t we all?”

The bus arrived. He got up and I watched as the vehicle roared away leaving a cloud of black smoke in my face.

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Shouvik Banerjee is the author of Seven Sundays (Hay House, 2019) and has been published in literary magazines and journals like The Bombay Review and The Universe Journal.

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Orang Minyak or The Ghost

A Jessie Michael explores blind belief in a Malay village

The nerves of Kampong Semut were aquiver with anxiety, fear and excitement, all melded together. The haven of wooden houses several miles from the nearest town and surrounded by coconut groves and padi fields, which were more and more a rarity, now had its slow, meandering peace shattered and its people shaken awake.  Adrenalin flowed fast and they jumped at shadows.

A hysterical village girl claimed that she had seen, against the light of the moon, the shape of a naked man climbing through her window. When she sat up, the shape slid out again and vanished. The village religious body initially put the claims down as the imaginings of a frustrated young woman but when more girls made similar claims, the villagers decided that there might be some truth to the matter. The village elders claimed the sightings could be that of an Orang Minyak, (Oily Man) — that grease covered, naked, dark, male malevolence that prowled villages, seeking to molest and rape virgins. This entity had long been quiet in the whole country and was beginning to be dismissed as myth.

 The village police first looked suspiciously at the village boys but could find no evidence. No fingerprints, no grease trails. Their parents, some of whom were in the police force too, could vouch for the male members of the family being home on the nights of the intrusions. It must have been a male from a neighbouring village; but, increasingly, by the very nature of these apparitions, they were prone to believe the old myth. The apparition came on moonlit nights and never in the rain. The police could only advise stop-gap measures. The girls were told to sleep close to their mothers or grandmothers and barricade all the windows. The men set up night patrols.

The ‘prowler’ stopped for a couple of months and then struck again when the villagers had dropped their guard a little to enjoy their evenings with family meals and chatter. This time, the Oily Man attacked Pak Din’s daughter as she was going to the outhouse nearby late at night. The light of the moon was bright enough so she carried no torch or lantern. The outhouse was clearly outlined as were the clumps of vegetation around. She could leave the outhouse door open for the quick visit.

 He succeeded in raping her as she was returning. Her family could only glean scraps of information from the shattered girl — a naked, oily, masked, man, the whiff of a strange incense and passing out. By the time she recovered to find herself half naked and screamed, the intruder had disappeared without a trace.

As usual the village descended on the village headman’s home. As usual Tok Baharuddin was not yet home. Tok Baharuddin was village headman, businessman cum politician, all rolled in one, who had to travel to town daily to drum up grass root support as well as business. As everyone knew, politics and business go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. He was good for the village, getting them a decent clinic, school, roads and always writing job recommendations for school leavers even if most did not land the jobs. He was so busy with meetings that he was out every day and often travelled out station for a few days. He was a feather in the village cap for the mention of his name put Kampung Semut on the local map.

When he returned that evening, Tok Baharuddin was apoplectic that the police were so negligent as to let this crime happen and not have any clues or suspects. He visited the victim’s house for a first hand version of the incident. “I’ll talk to the Police Chief,” he declared. “I’ll make sure this criminal hangs.”  As village chief he must be seen to take action to secure the safety of his village and naturally his own effectiveness and reputation.

The villagers listened to him respectfully. He was a good leader but he straddled the old world and the new and more and more he leaned into the new. He tactfully avoided, meaningless rituals and shunned dabbling in the occult.

The village men gathered again in each other’s homes to study the situation from another perspective.  Ariffin, a retired police officer who had served in other states, gave some hair-raising information. “You know, the Indians and Chinese also have this spirit phenomenon. Another being or spirit can enter a person and completely alter the personality and behaviour of that person until the spirit decides to leave. The spirit can speak in strange languages, make the host sick and harm others. When the episode of possession is over, the person reverts to normal but cannot remember anything of what happened.  In the most idyll of places, evil preys; it roams to feed its primal lust.”

Ariffin’s audience looked at each other. Was he saying it could be any of them? Perish the thought. One of the men burst out, “This is evil let loose. It is not human. The police can’t do anything. We will have to call the bomoh (local shaman /medicine man) from Trengganu to exorcise this village”.

Such practice was publicly declared to be pagan and unIslamic, so, a little argument arose if this was even allowed. The village Imam was soon outvoted and persuaded that all old customs could not be thrown out at the risk of harming their daughters and that they were to resort to this without blaming God for what was going on. The Imam bowed out gracefully, since his prayers all these months had proven ineffective. They did not worry about the headman who they knew considered himself a little too advanced to believe in shamans and bomohs. So, he could be expected to close an eye to their plans and not attend the exorcism exercise out of political correctness.

The exorcism was to be an expensive affair, for even a bomoh needed to make a living. And he had to exorcise the evil entity not only from the victims but from the whole village as well, which meant a visit to each house and building and there must have been fifty buildings at least. Every household contributed; at least RM200 each. Life was disrupted for two days over the weekend. The bomoh arrived from across the state border with his paraphernalia of keris (dagger), frankincense, pots, roots, oils and herbs. The village women sourced flowers and limes to make large pots of infusions.

Tok Baharuddin tactfully took a two-day business trip out of state, leaving his wife to attend to all the rituals.

 The main ceremony began at the village hall where the bomoh lit a small bonfire in a pot, fuelled with the herbal leaves and roots. He held a silver keris hanging on a chain over the flames and declared that the swing of the keris indicated the presence of an evil spirit lurking in the village. Someone had sent this entity from the nether world and it was unlikely to leave until it had claimed its prey of seven virgins to satiate its lust if the exorcism was not performed. The bomoh threw incense into the flames and a great cloud of smoke enveloped him and most of the room. While the smoke billowed and the attendees choked on the pungent odour of the incense, he muttered incantations and occasionally gave an almighty shout, commanding the evil spirit to leave the village.

The exorcism in the hall lasted an hour, ending with the medicine man sprinkling water infused with flowers and cut lime and into which he had blown and spat vehemently. No corner of the hall was spared. A similar but shorter, smoky ceremony was enacted at every house after which the occupants were instructed to bathe in the flower and lime infusion which they had prepared and into which the Bomoh had blown spells. Unmarried girls and women were given amulets to wear around their necks to ward off all harm. The following day all the public buildings were exorcised – the school, clinic, the police station, and as an extra precaution, the little mosque too. The villagers gathered at every building, the older ones, nostalgic for the practices of their forefathers and fearful of missing out on something, the younger ones fascinated by these old rituals they never knew existed in their culture. It was quite a spectacular performance at each stop. When it was all over, the bomoh was gratefully sent off with his tools and stash of cash. The villagers finally breathed in relief.

The exorcism gave the village two weeks of peace. Then the bold, daring, greasy phenomenon struck again in the dark, to attack Muna, the twenty-year old only daughter of the widower Pak Som.  Fortunately, Pak Som had not let his guard down. He boarded the windows and doors and kept a long pounding stick next to his mat. He gave a knife to Muna to keep beside her. They regularly burnt incense in the house to ward off evil. But that night Muna felt a slimy hand smelling of car engine oil trying to smother her. She could not scream but her hand clutching the knife obeyed her father instructions. She swung the knife hard against the thing’s back and it yelped. Her scream had her father out, swinging the pounding stick but he hit only air. The thing was gone. He rushed out and could not spot anything. The moon was shining full and looking up he saw, silhouetted against the silver orb, a black dog flying.

Allahu Akbar,” he muttered repeatedly. The neighbours were alerted and they came with their lanterns. They could only see the gap on the floor of the raised house where the Orang Minyak had removed a plank, and traces of blood on the knife, nothing else.

It was mid-day by the time Tok Baharuddin rushed over. He had been delayed arriving home from one of his late-night meetings in the town. A crash between his car and a buffalo had landed him in hospital to tend to his minor wounds while a mechanic tended to the car’s wounds and made in drivable. The villagers were too distraught to bother with his misfortunes. They were on a warpath. “The bomoh has been useless — not powerful enough. This evil had to be fought with evil. Someone has set a curse on the village and that person has to be found and destroyed by a stronger evil entity!”. Muna’s father was distraught. Black magic had the propensity to attract all the jinns and dark forces to the place where it was practiced and to the people who practiced it. Already he felt its tentacles tightening around his chest. He was quite sure his death was imminent. He had seen the ominous sign – the flying black dog.

The headman complied with their request. There was no other way to appease them except to let them fight fire with fire. He also had to show concern for his daughter just returned from the University in the city. Her polish and elegance might make her the next target. His wife was super vigilant, barricading the doors and windows, covering the wooden floors with linoleum and nailing planks against the eves so there was no entry to the rafters. What more could one do?

Tok Baharuddind’s daughter, Hasinah, while respecting the fears of the villagers was thoroughly bemused in private. She was quite sure it was a case of mass hysteria, the kind that occurred with village girls confined in boarding schools; only here they were confined to their village. To appease her mother, she agreed to keep a big stick next to her. As a precaution, despite her doubts, she took her camping flick knife to bed too

“I’ll be back at midnight. Be careful to lock up properly,” Baharuddin announced to his wife and children as he left for yet another business/political meeting.

His daughter played with the flick knife while waiting to sleep. She imagined the many ways in which she would attack an intruder and surprised herself with her imagination.

It was at midnight, when she drifted between sleep and wakefulness that Hasinah felt a hand slide up her thigh and another smother her. As she struggled against the naked being mounting her, she flicked the switch knife clutched in her outstretched hand and transferred all her strength into plunging him deep in the neck.

It was definitely blood, not oil, that spurted out of the Oily Man, warm and musty, mingling with the suffocating smell of grease and oil. He sprang up and ran to the front door, stumbling. She chased him and grabbed his arm but he slid from her grasp as the grease was intended to allow. She followed him out, shouting for the sleepers to awake. She looked around and saw a black dog flying, silhouetted against the moon.

The neighbouring men brought out torches and hurricane lamps and followed the clear trace of blood but could not track it beyond the front door. Still they persisted, fanning out their search. No one could bleed so much and go far, and spirits don’t bleed. Half an hour later they found the village headman, naked, oil covered and masked, bleeding to death in a ditch. Next to him, a dead black dog.

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems She has been published in anthologies and literary journals online.

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Flash Fiction: Saved

A story of 1950s indiscipline related by Brindley Hallam Dennis with a soupçon of humour

The cathedral doors were massive. They towered above them. Even the keyhole and the iron ring handle were above their heads. And you would think it was the youngsters’ fault, the way they got a severe reprimand when the headmaster and his group arrived on the riverbank. Perhaps he had a word with Mr Stephens too, on the quiet in the coach on the way home.

Sound travelled oddly in big old buildings like that cathedral. Something whispered in one place at the other end of the cloisters could be heard quite clearly, yet something spoken in a quite normal voice above the heads of the children couldn’t be heard in the middle of the nave. What was heard perfectly clearly by the children was the instruction to go back inside through the huge wooden doors because you were with Mr Stephens’ group. And what stuck in the minds of at least one of them for decades afterwards was the shock of seeing that vast, empty grey space when they did. Mr Stephens and his group had simply vanished. Perhaps there was another door out of the building, somewhere down towards the choir stalls, or behind the pulpit.

It was Bryan who poked around behind the candles and the rood screens and in several other gloomy places, but he found no-one. It was Bryan who suggested that they should go back outside and tell the headmaster that Mr Stephens and his group had disappeared. It was Bryan who went outside and came back in saying that the Headmaster and his group were missing too. Then they had all gone outside and stood at the foot of the Cathedral doors wondering what to do.

What memory hasn’t recorded is the life of the city that must have continued to pass by, to and fro, in front of the building where they stood, whatever the Headmaster and Mr Stephens and their groups were doing. All sorts of people must have gone by and noticed the five or six adult-less seven-year-olds huddled against those doors like medieval supplicants denied entrance on account of some unforgivable sin or unacceptable affliction. Perhaps even policemen on their beats passed by without intervening, along with Samaritans and other travellers.

It was Bryan, probably, being a precocious but thoughtful child, who suggested, that they should go down to the river where they were scheduled, after their picnic lunch, to go on a boat trip. Mr Stephens and the Headmaster and their groups would be bound to show up there, obviously. Bryan had a watch, perhaps, or maybe they looked up at the Cathedral clock, if there was one. I think Bryan would have been the sort of boy who would have had a watch. Perhaps several of them did. And perhaps too, children being more observant often, and attentive to adult memes, they had taken in the oft-mentioned half past twelve of the planned lunch break at the wooden tables down by the landing stage.

It would have been Bryan, if anyone, who guessed or even knew that if you want to find a river, going downhill is as good a strategy as any. Or it might have been blind luck of the good sort, as one must suppose the abandonment by Mr Stephens, or the Headmaster, if wilful neglect or lack of attention or plain unruliness in the children were not to blame, had been the bad luck.

Whatever the explanation for the recovery of the situation it came to pass that the children moved safely through that urban jungle and found themselves on the riverbank where boats plied for hire. There they waited the half hour or so that it took for Mr Stephens and the Headmaster and their groups to circumnavigate the city’s ancient walls. Which of these two arrived first, memory does not record but what remains clear is that the Headmaster was very cross and flustered. He may have wished that there had been enough parental volunteers among the group to have prevented the occurrence. Or maybe, he did not.

With a voice sharper than they were used to hearing, the negligent children were told, that, seeing as they had already consumed their picnics, and before the appointed time, he, the Headmaster, would take them personally around the walls as that been the major educational objective of the trip, before they embarked on the boat. This he did at a pace remarkable for such small legs, and the walls passed beneath them in a blur.

By the time they got back to the riverbank, the Headmaster had cooled down, and made it plain that there would be no more mention of the children’s momentary lapse of concentration, and that they should be glad that nothing untoward had come of their irresponsible behaviour. They were advised, for their own sakes, if they wanted such trips in the future, not to talk about their misdemeanour with their friends or brothers and sisters back at school, and certainly not with their parents. Such indiscipline was not to be tolerated, and though it need not be dwelt on, it might serve as a useful lesson to us all.

Going back a lifetime later what was most surprising was how small those Cathedral doors really were.

Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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The Saviour

  A translation from Bengali to English by Dipankar Ghosh of Nabendu Ghosh’s Traankarta, a story set during the Partition riots

Nabendu Ghosh

The bad news reached here too, the news of the rioting. The roads looked tense and empty. Even the pariah dogs that usually roamed the streets had disappeared. Only a few brash teenagers were bunched up in a group at the head of the lane, swaggering around with cigarettes hanging from their lips.

On the other side of the city, fires were raging, severed heads rolling on the blood-bathed streets; teenaged girls had their breasts cut off and little babies had been thrown head down into concrete floors. Tonight they were paying homage to Satan in the stygian darkness, on the other side of the city. The news wafted in the gentle breeze, and the horrifying tales of the day’s events spread through the grapevine to every household.

Gloom descended on everyone. They felt benumbed, paralysed, by a tidal wave of fear.  Fear, unspoken fear.  Fear that made the heart palpitate madly in the breast. Fear that made you seek the company of a crowd. Awful fear. The kind of fear that deprived one of the will to live.

The ladies proceed silently with their chores. Not too many items on the menu for tonight. Rice and boiled vegetables. The children don’t understand much, occasionally they were bursting out into giggles, running noisily up and down the stairs, squabbling amongst themselves.  But, now and then, an older person would burst out like a sentry, “Silent! Or I’ll behead you with a smack!”

But they could think of very little that they could be done to save their own heads from the approaching holocaust. Everyone was discussing behind barred doors, what to do. Not just bad news, but terrible news that the people from the other side intend to attack them tonight. A cold wave of fear ran down their spines when they got the news. What to do, what on earth should they do?

The house of Mr Bose, a barrister who was the local leader, was brightly lit up. Arun was planning to quietly slip out, how long could one possibly stay cooped? But Mr Bose had his searchlight eyes on every possible exit, making it impossible for anyone to either enter or leave his fortress of Lanka without his knowledge.

“Where do you think you are going?” he asked in his deepest voice.

 “Just out – for a dekko.”

 “Just out! Forget it. Are you not aware of what’s going on in the heart of this city?! Go, get back and stay put in your room.”

Arun returned to his room.

His daughter Ruby came out. There were dark circles of anxiety under her large almond eyes. Her curly black tresses were floating in an unruly fashion, her usually healthy pink glow was replaced by sallow pallor. She was depressed, and fear had put its mark on her. Movies, parties, and picnics were suddenly out of question, the desire to fly around the flowers and taste their honey at will had suddenly flown out of the honey bee. Ruby was lost.

“Daddy –”

“Yes?”

“Will you take us to uncle’s house?”

Meaning Bhawanipore. Meaning a predominantly Hindu area, where perhaps she could put on her crepe silk sari and wander around at will, shaking her long coil of hair.

Mr Bose shook his head in frustration, “Uncle’s house? Now? Impossible! The roads are barren, not a man or a car about, we will have to cross many localities, driving through corpses and rivulets of blood, and more importantly, sudden unprovoked attacks! That important thing called life that we are trying to save, could very easily be ended en route! Stop making silly suggestions, go up to your room and stay there Ruby –”

But how on earth could Ruby sit calmly in her room! She felt frightened out of her mind. Occasionally the sound of shouting was floating in from afar. Awful noises. Last night she had seen the sky flare up in the east. She had heard all the beastly tales. It had all left a fearful imprint on her mind and every now and then, a spark of fear would set off a burst of anxiety in her mind. The nervous pulsating of the vessels under that pink alabaster skin of hers bore witness to her angry, frightened state of mind.

Now, it was one thing browbeating Arun and Ruby, but Mrs Bose?  Perpetually conscious and tense about her obese abundance, she was an entirely different proposition. No doubt the dreadful news of the riots would put her in a fairly explosive state of mind — of that Mr Bose was certain. Therefore, when the substantial lady made her appearance Mr Bose felt a bit intimated, fairly aware that if he tried to browbeat her, the result could be counter-productive.   

“Listen, I can’t go on like this — this suspense, this danger, it is unbearable.”

“But what — tell me what am I to do dear?” Mr Bose protested weakly.

“Do something, for Heaven’s sake! Don’t just sit still, quietly—”

“I am not sitting still. I am trying to think. Besides, we have two rifles, five hundred rounds of ammunition, we have a sentry, a bearer, a man servant and also a chauffeur, so what are you worried about?”

Mrs Bose collapsed on the sofa, there was a glint of fire in her bluish eyes, sharply she said, “Spare me a list of your rationale, please — your little group would disappear in front of a massive crowd. I’d like to see you stop them with those five hundred rounds. You don’t consider that an unending supply, do you? No, I’m sorry that is not enough to reassure me — I’ll faint any moment under the strain!”

Knock, knock. Somebody at the door.

“Sir,” the sentry’s voice outside the door.

“What is it Tiwari?”

“Some people of the community want to meet you Sir.”

“Offer them seats,” he spoke aloud, then continued to assure Mrs Bose, “Now listen, don’t get overexcited. Let’s wait and watch. We are due to have a meeting of the local defence committee. It is such a large community I am sure they are all willing to fight to protect us all. Don’t be nervous dear. If the situation deteriorates then of course we will have to take a risk — but the car will be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”

*

In the margins of the so-called civilised society, at the end well-to-do side of the neighbourhood, separating them from the Others on the opposite side, lived a group of people who considered themselves a part of the same community. They were the untouchable Doms. Living in pigeon hole sized tiny hovels, they just about carried on living. They swept the roads, carried water for folks, washed their drains and lavatories. They collected night soil, got into manholes and extracted rubbish from them, they cleaned refuse bins and manned the garbage carts of the municipality. Their hovels were plastered with mud, and they ate from chromed metal plates of their dirt mixed rice. They sat in the light of little kerosene lamps and got boisterously drunk in the evening. And although they considered themselves to be part of the community, to the more genteel and affluent part of the community they were always a bit of an embarrassment. 

These people in the no man’s land between the two communities numbered some two hundred. And the only man who had the absolute obedience of these two hundred odd bods was called Jhagru. Such was his hold over them that, if he chose to call daylight as night his men would do so without batting an eyelid. He was their unopposed and unanimous chief, their sardar.

Jhagru’s men had come to him. They had seen bits of what had happened on the other side, heard most of all the atrocities that had taken place, they had even helped the frightened people who had managed to flee from the fortress-like bounds of the place, and taken them to safety. But the question was, what would they do today? If what they had heard on the grapevine was proven true, then how were they to react?

Having binged on some onion bhajis (fritters) and the potent rice-wine of Tari, Jhagru was feeling content. The capillaries of his eyes were bloodshot, and in the cool evening breeze his large figure deemed ready to take off like a well inflated balloon. He eyed his wife’s, Suratiya’s, generous proportions as he was preparing himself for some decent basic entertainment for the evening, his men all descended on him with the bad news, and spoilt his mood.

 “Bugger off !” he said crossly in Hindi. “What will be, will be. So what if they attack?”

Ranglal said, “But surely we must do something -”

“You buggers have ruined my drinking,” Jhagru barked at them.

Waving a hand, he demanded, “What the hell is there to worry about? If they attack, we will fight. What else? The main thing is, be prepared with your weapons, when the gong is rung, jump on them — end of story –”

“But sardar–”

“No buts, you all run off. Sitting here with my toddy, let me enjoy my drink — you blighters get back to your homes.”

They all left.

Munching his onion bhaji, he sipped from his earthen cup. Slowly but surely the warmth off the stinging spirit made his ears ring, his breathing got heavier, his eyelids drooped, his sight got hazy. Jhagru was drunk. In that state he was pleasantly surprised to notice that Suratiya had turned into an exceptional beauty, like an unattainable princess of a fairy tale.

“Suratiya dear –”

“What?”

“Come on, over here –”

“Unh-hun –”

“Have a bit of tari?”

“NNo – I won’t –”

In his stupor Jhagru was suddenly enraged by this rejection, and got headstrong.

“You coming here or not — you bitch!”

“No I won’t — I’ve enough work still to finish –”

“Then suffer the consequences –”

Jhagru got up. Walking with unsteady gait like a child, he reached Suratiya, caught hold of her and lifted her in his arms.

“You’ll kill me,” Suratiya screeched, “you’ll break every bone in my body!”

Pulling his wife close to him Jhagru guffawed loudly, “You frightened? Don’t be, woman. Go on, sit in my lap.”

Jhagru was drunk like a lord. No way could he hold on to a strong woman like Suratiya in his drunken state, let alone have his way with her. Giggling loudly, Suratiya ran away.

Ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. If it were an ordinary day, Jhagru would be up to his neck in work. But since the rioting was a good excuse not to be at work, why not have some fun. 

 “Ran away,” Jhagru laughed. “Bloody woman.” Got to do something, he thought to himself.  The tari was finished, he was drunk, and Suratiya was gone. So he needed to do something. But what?

Suddenly in a dusty corner he noticed his forgotten dhol (drum). He pulled it out and started to beat it enthusiastically. He would sing. Never mind, if it scared the daylight out of people, Jhagru could not desist. He was in the mood for some singing, and sing he would.

Vigorously beating the drum, Jhagru started to sing widely. Amongst the incoherent lyric the audience could have deciphered only one line, which he kept repeating in a refrain:

Chhappar par kauwa naache, Bug bugoola/ Hanh hanh bug bugoola…

(The crow dances on the rooftop, bug bugoola)

 Ya, Ya, bug bugoola

What wonderful tune! What incredible control of voice! What melody and feeling in rendition! The entire slum of untouchables woke up to fact that Jhagru was drunk and was singing.

Respectfully they whispered, “Sardar is singing, by jove he is singing.”

*

The Defence committee meeting was on at Mr. Bose’s house. He himself was the chairman.

Almost all the important folks of the locality were gathered there. Venerable teacher Nibaran Mukherji, solicitor Haridas Mitra, Dr. Santosh Dutta (MBE, RCS), and iron merchant Sukumar Roy.  There were also the young representatives of the Saraswati Orchestra Group, Youth Body-Culture Samiti, and the Evergreen Dramatic Club. A large blanket had been laid on the floor of Mr Bose’s inner courtyard. Seated on it, all the members were earnestly discussing the situation.

In a room across the corner Ruby had drawn the curtain aside to watch the proceedings. Sheer curiosity. Unable to get out of the house, the lack of parties, movies and picnics was getting unbearable. The meeting was an interesting diversion. If nothing else, she would see a wide spectrum of people. Ruby did not watch them passively, she tried to instinctively assess them. It pleased her to do so.

Mr Bose started in a deep, appropriately grave presidential voice. “You are all aware of the reprehensible events that have started in our city yesterday. Some of you may have witnessed the carnage. This is not the time, and I’m not the person, for long drawn speeches. Suffice it to say that we, especially us Bengalis, are witnessing the beginning of an evil period. Today we must bind together against this medieval barbarism. We have to fight it and stop it — meaning, we have to stop this aberration. We must forget the differences of our castes, our classes, high or low, who is untouchable and who isn’t– remembering only one thing– that we are Hindus and nothing else.”  

Mr Bose stopped for a moment, took a hanky out of his pocket, wiped the tension-induced sweat off his forehead. Opening his cigarette case, he offered the expensive ‘Black and White’ cigarette to the assembled elders and lit one for himself. There was a murmur of appreciation in the gathering for his opening speech, Ruby was flushed with pride.

The iron merchant said, “Absolutely, there’s great merit in what you have just said. The time for squabbling about class, caste et cetera is gone — from now on we are all equal, we are all Hindus.”

Mr Bose said, “Now let us determine how we should go about it.”

“Right, right,” they said in unison, and leaned forward.

The venerable teacher said, “Let’s divide the neighbourhood into four parts, each one keeping guard in their side of the four directions.”

The solicitor said, “Let’s use a siren or conch shells to signal danger to others.”

The doctor said, “A group of youths should stand guard, by rota, and blow on a conch three times at the first sign of danger. The siren should go off then. There should be red beacons in the last row of houses in the four main directions, and if danger approaches, the beacons should be lit up to let the others know which direction the danger is approaching from.”

The industrialist said, “The women, children, and the elderly should remain in the top floor or in the terrace armed with bricks and stones. The men should stay on the ground floor, armed with sticks and other weapons.”

All the suggestions were passed. The defence committee meeting was progressing nicely, but suddenly, a young lad called Jatin, created a problem. He wore clothes of hand woven khadi, which meant he was a nationalist, he had short cropped hair, and he was rough-spoken.

He said, “You have arranged everything. But if they really do attack us, then who is going to engage in a hand to hand fight?”

It seemed like a bomb had been set off. Everything felt hazy and nebulous like smoke. Not for a moment had they considered this! Really worth thinking.

The industrialists said, “Why, won’t we all fight them? Let all of us get to grips with them.”

The teacher shook his head in dissension, “That does not sound reasonable. It would mean that a group of people would always have to be outside to fight the enemy. In other words, they would have to be prepared to sacrifice their lives. Can all the able-bodied men do that, or be willing to do that?”

Another explosion. Really, who should fight on ground, if there were a fight?  If their worst fears materialised and thousands of people attacked them suddenly, then would people in individual houses, like disparate little islands, battling the enemy with bricks and sticks be able to save themselves?

Jatin said, “So, in spite of our well-organised meeting, and all our arrangements, we will not be able to save ourselves. So consider what ought to be done–”

Mr Bose was an intelligent man, having passed his bar at Law in the distant land across the seas had sharpened his instincts even more. He realised that since Jatin had raised this insoluble problem, it was fairly certain that he had pondered on the answer to it. And truly it was a serious point. He said, “I really have no solution to the problem Jatin has set before us, so I must request Jatin himself to show us a way out of this dilemma.”

Jatin smiled. “Fine,” he said, “I will resolve the problem. Have you any idea knowledge of the poor people who live between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’?”

“The Doms?”

“Yes. They don’t belong to the other community, they consider themselves part of us Hindus. And, although they cannot enter the Shiva temple at the other end of our colony, they worship the idol in that temple. Meaning, they are Hindus –”

Mr Bose smiled appreciatively at him, “The idea.”

 Jatin continued, “They might earn little and eat less but they are hardy and strong. The instinct that we have lost, which is presently making us timid despite our numbers, is fully active in them. So if you really want to perform as a defence committee, and live on, then you better bring them into this meeting. And raise a fund-immediately!”

The mention of money made the industrialist take note, “Fund for what?”

“It is best to give some salted yeast to the cow when it’s in milk,”Jatin smiled.

“Meaning what? Cough a bit freely, son –” the industrialist said, testily.

“The meaning is self-evident. We must give them weapons, good food, and a decent flow of liquor.”

“That is true. Those who are going to put their lives on line must be well tended,“ Mr Bose agreed with Jatin.

“Don’t waste time in thinking,” Jatin stressed. “Atrocity has to be stoutly countered with ferocity, so we must be prepared. And let there be no doubt in your minds that they will attack us tonight.”

There was a rustle of notes and coins changing hands. Then and there a collection of fifty rupees was raised, more funds would be forthcoming later. Who could object to a bit of wise investment when one’s life was at stake? Nothing is quite as deep as one’s life — so let the blighters have good food and potent country liquor. Not a lot to pay for the bargain. They might attack this very night. If the cruel pack of animals descend in the dark of the night, then these men will pour out their life blood for our protection. Wasn’t this the least one could do for them? Surely they would serve them. It would be a good deed. Not just the joy of being alive but also the gratification of doing a good deed, by giving the money. So let them eat, let them get drunk.

*

Jhagru suddenly tired of the drum and put it down. He kicked it to a corner, swearing, “Hell, I think I’m sober –”

No work today. How long can a person enjoy staying within the house? It would be fine if there was toddy around. That was gone. A bit of monkey business with Suratiya might have been fun, but she, wretched girl, had scampered. Maybe she really had work to do. Even bonking wasn’t much fun any more, but what he did enjoy was good liquor. This approaching sobriety, clearness of vision, reality creeping into the drowsy stupor of alcoholic haze was most disagreeable to Jhagru. What was termed as normal life was totally abnormal as far as Jhagru was concerned. To him normalcy was epitomised by gallons of drinks followed by drunken fisticuffs, singing and dancing bare-assed, puking the guts out and lying down inebriated.

This was rotten. Must get some more toddy. Must get back into the mood.

“Suratiya –O Suratiya–”

“What do you want?”

“Give us a couple of annas, dear.”

“Don’t have any.”

Jhagru jumped up and roared, “You going to give me the money without hassle, Suratiya?”

Suratiya answered back in the same pitch, “No hassle, no tassle — simple fact, I don’t have the money.”

Suddenly, Jhagru lunged at Suratiya — pulling her by her short pigtail he thumped a few hefty blows on her back, “You ungrateful slut–”

 “Oh my Ma — he’s killing me!” Suratiya wailed out loud. There was no need for the wailing, but Suratiya had talent for dramatic exaggeration.

“Are you gonna gimme the money or not, you wretched witch?”

The people of the hovels took note, and respectfully whispered amongst themselves, “Sardar is giving his wife a thrashing, a good hiding.”

It was at that moment they heard two or three voices call out, “Jhagru? Is Jhagru in?”

The voices were barely audible above Suratiya’s caterwauling. Again the voices were heard, this time a notch higher, “Jhagru? Jhagru sardar— are you in? Jhagru–”

Suratiya stopped her yowling, looked out and said, “Some people looking for you –”

“Me?”

“Yes, some gentlemen.”

“Gentlemen?!”

Caught unawares, Jhagru tried to collect his thoughts as he came out to meet the three ‘gentlemen’. Jatin was one of them.

“Are you Jhagru?”

“That’s me.”

“You have been sent for.”

“Who has sent for me?” Jhagru was a bit puzzled.

 “Bose Saheb, the barrister– don’t you know of him?”

 Jhagru’s pupils dilated anxiously, shaking his head vigorously he said, “Sure I know him sir, of course, yes.”

“He has sent for you — now–”

“Me? Oh my lord, what would he want with Jhagru Dom?”

“He needs you. Won’t you come?”

“Yes, yes, certainly I will come, sir. Barrister Saheb has sent for me, goodness–”

Salaam squire, salaam babus–”

Jhagru stood in front of the defence committee. He was still rather drunk, he swayed a bit on his feet as he waited. They all gazed at him. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his hairline pate, and the pupils of his small eyes flickered a bit anxiously. He was wearing a dirty torn loincloth and a thick loose shirt, an angry boil on his left cheek. That was Jhagru.

Ruby stood close behind the curtain. Her nose in the air, she muttered to herself, “How ugly and dirty!”

All the inspecting keen eyes seemed to pierce Jhagru like needles.

He smiled a bit uncomfortably, blurting out, “Forgive me sirs, I am a bit drunk on rice wine–”

Mr Bose leaned forward to ask, “So you are Jhagru?”

“Yes sir, Jhagru Dom.”

“And you are drunk?”

“Yes sir.”

“You enjoy your booze?”

Hanging his head, Jhagru said, amused, “Certainly do sir.”

A bit more forcefully, Mr Bose asked, “Are you the leader of the Doms?”

“Yes sir.”

 “Well then, listen Jhagru. We will let you, and your comrades, have as much drink as you want. And not just drinks, we will give money for food too.”

Jhagru wondered if he was dreaming. He looked all round, somewhat warily. No, everything looks quite real. He wondered if he was he awfully drunk. Never, he had barely wet his snout. It wasn’t false, it was all true, real.

“You are very kind sir, but –”

Mr Bose interrupted, “I’ll tell you. You have heard about the disturbances, haven’t you Jhagru?” 

Jhagru nodded, yes.

“Tonight they might attack us here.”

 “Yes sir.”

“We are Hindus, and you all are also Hindus.”

“Sir.”                  

“If Hindus don’t save Hindus then who will save them?”

“Certainly sir, absolutely right.”

“If they attack us, you will all fight? We — we shall certainly join you, we will fight together.”

 Suddenly, Mr Bose noticed that amidst the seated gathering Jhagru was the only one standing up. In  an excited voice he said, “What’s this Jhagru, why are you still without a seat? Come take a seat, sit.”

Jhagru’s was stunned. The sudden, unexpected cordiality overwhelmed him, he uneasily said, “But –”

“No buts, no formalities, don’t be shy, take a seat.”

 “I am an untouchable Dom, sir.”

 “Dom?” Mr.Bose lifted his eyes to heaven, his voice quivering with feeling he said, “Dom so what? Untouchable?! You are a human being just like us. A Hindu just like us. Sit down, brother.”

Suddenly, to emphasise that he meant what he had uttered, Mr.Bose walked up to Jhagru, took the astounded man’s arm and sat him down on a chair.

Jhagru tried to say something but his chocked vocal cords would not cooperate. The man who could talk nonstop even when he was completely inebriated, was struck dumb through a combination of amazement, gratefulness, and a feeling of unprecedented happiness.

The soft crackling of notes being counted could be heard.

Moments later Jhagru came out of the house.

On his way back home, as he passed by the temple of Lord Shiva, Jhagru stopped short. He went up to the temple, moved his calloused hands over its mossy wall, and chuckled, “Lord Shiva, you are so kind, so good.”

*

All at once an air of festivity engulfed them all in the slums. Ramprasad Singh’s distillery of illicit liquor was drained within the hour. Banwari’s Confectionery shop had empty shelves, so had Tiwari’s eatery.

Occasionally the sound of a clash in the distance would float in. The battle-crazed sound of destruction, “Allah-Ho-Akbar!” It sounded like the sea from a distance, like waves the sound overpowered the senses.

Every now and then, a dog or two would respond to the danger of the distant noise. In the deepening silence of the dark night, the leader of the slum-dwelling Doms sat awake and alert. His eyes pierced the unknown before him, his ears pricked, attuned to every sound and echo.

At about one o’clock in the morning They declared war.

Allah-ho-Akbar–”

Pakistan zindabad–”

Jhagru started to beat his drums. Doom-doom-doom-doom. Every slum-dweller was awake. Without a word, they all ran out to the meeting point.

They came playing a band, with torch flares alight. A feeling of hellish surreality descended with them. Like a mass of primitive malevolent spirits, some blood-thirsty phantoms seemed to have taken possession of their dark souls.

The main assault was aimed at the Shiva temple, the purpose being its destruction and after that,  the colony beyond.

The entire neighbourhood was overcome with fear. Sirens were blaring, the blood-red lights at the top of the buildings sent out a morse flicker of fright, children could be heard crying as windows banged and doors rapidly closed.  The sound of fleeing feet was challenged by the conches.

The whole colony in fear roared, “Vande Mataram* –”The battle cry that was used to liberate the country from foreign rule was the very one they now used to strike at their own countrymen.

Jhagru had stopped beating his drum by then. Quietly they waited.

“Make no noise brothers– let them get close–” Jhagru directed them.

Allah-ho-Akbar–”

Suddenly they descended like floodwater. In the bright light of the torches their knives and swords gleamed wickedly.

Jhagru was swaying to the beat of the band music, now he shouted, “Go strike now brothers– let’s clear this rubbish–”

The slum-dwellers let out a roar.

The Shiva temple whose walls had never granted them entry, the deity whose blessings they sought merely by touching its moss-covered walls, whom they prayed to and sought solace by beating their head in despair, the unresponsive stony God who never objected to the poverty and deprivation of His people, in His name, Jhagru joined the battle today.

Har har Mahadev– Jai Shivji ki jai—” Glory to the God of Gods–victory to Lord Shiva.

Then, it seemed as if two mountains had clashed. Not soft mud-hills of earth but two primordial masses of rocks.

Blood flowed in streams. Arms, legs, and decapitated heads fell and floundered on the soil. Shattered skulls poured out their contents like an outpouring of ghee. The sharpened knives pierced a chest or belly and emerged victorious, dripping blood.

Overhead, in the dark blue of the eternal sky the stars flickered weakly. Scraps of cloud floated noiselessly. Somewhere in the sooty night surely flowers were opening their petals, some child was peacefully sleeping, a lover was holding his beloved to his chest motionlessly. Somewhere, surely people were dreaming, someone was singing, making love. And yet…

*

The rioting stopped. They accepted defeat and retreated. Jhagru’s band had cooled their ardour for battle. The Shiv temple stands untouched.

But many had lost their lives. On both sides. On this side, only the Doms. All the genteel folks were watching the rear end of the battlefield, but the battle did not extend that far. If it had done, of course they would have pitched in, sacrificed their lives.

In the deserted battlefield only the corpses remained. The stench of spilt blood and decomposing bodies was stifling the breeze.

Outside Mr Bose’s house the car stood with its engine idling in the semi-dark of early dawn. Next to it stood an army truck, with four armed soldiers.

“Are you all ready, Ruby?”  Mr Bose urgently called out. “Hurry up, the military escort will not hang about much longer.”

 Ruby nodded in assent, “Yes, we are ready, let’s go. You know Daddy, Maa is still in a shock.” They all came out.

“Quite natural,” Mr Bose said, “Do you think I am my own self? The good Lord saved us so we are alive to talk about it. Now hurry up.”

 Mr Bose got into the car. It sped off. They were going to the safety of Bhowanipur.

Arun said, “Jhagru was our saviour, dad! The man put up some fight.”

Mr Bose lit up a cigarette, until now he did not have the state of mind to do so. Letting off a mouthful of smoke, he said, “Hunh — it was their kind of work. Do you think you all could have done that? Certainly not. Anyway, we did not fail to compensate with money, he was well paid.”

Ruby heaved a sigh of relief, what a close call. Thankfully picnics, parties, and movies would not go out of her life, the butterfly had not come to the end of her days.

The car disappeared into the distance.

In the slums of the untouchable community, the women mourned their dead.

Numerous women had lost their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Their cries of mourning rose like a flame into the morning sky.

Suratiya wept. Jhagru was dead.

Yes, Jhagru is dead, but then people like him are born to die so that may save the Mr Bose of this world. Without five sacrificial deaths in the highly combustible lac house of Jatugriha, the five Pandav princes of Mahabharat could not have been saved.

.

*Vande Mataram — A song by Bankim Chandra written for his novel Ananda Math in the nineteenth century and used during the Indian independence movement widely.

(Published with permission of the translator’s and writer’s families.)

Nabendu Ghosh‘s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Dipankar Ghosh (1944-2020) qualified as a physician from Kolkata in 1969 and worked as a surgical specialist after he emigrated to the UK in 1971.  But perhaps being the son of Nabendu Ghosh, he had always nursed his literary side and, post retirement, he took to pursuing his interest in translation.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

She Lived Down the Lane

A mysterious woman in a lonely house… a story by Sohana Manzoor

The ride from the train station to their old house would take about fifteen minutes. Tana’s eyes tried to understand the changes which did not seem to be too many. Things in the cities change fast, but here, in the backwaters of their old town, the houses and the narrow alleys seemed pretty much the same. There were a few changes, of course. The famous Neeldubi Pond seemed to have shrunk in size and the waters did not seem as clear as before. She also noted that even though it was around noon nobody was washing at its banks. Tana could understand that the old custom of washing and bathing at the pond was probably gone.

The auto-rickshaw turned to the very familiar lane where her grandparents’ house was. And her heart stopped beating for a few seconds. The small brick house of the red witch down the alley was there still.

Tana had not been to Tushapur for over ten years now and even this visit too was purely out of necessity. Their old ancestral house was being sold. It has been many years since she and her siblings had moved out. After her grandmother died about eleven years ago, Tana had not had a chance to come back. The years went by too fast, but the memories of Tushapur were frozen in a globe of timelessness. The shuttered house made of red bricks where once upon a time a lone woman lived did the magic of opening the memory box.

Tana had not thought about her any time in the recent past. She had lived there as far as Tana could remember. When Tana was a little girl, the woman never came out of the house. But once every month a man used to visit her and buy packets of things. He would also deliver some large packages and boxes. Once, someone had whispered that she used to sell herbs and magic medicines. She did have a small garden at the back of her house where she grew vegetables, flowers and strange smelling plants.

Tana and her friends found this lonely woman really strange. Everybody knew her but avoided her for no palpable reason. Moreover, she lived just by herself. There were no children, no husband and no elderly parents. In those days, there was no other woman in their vicinity who lived all by herself. It was strange indeed. There was some kind of secret, the children could sense it, but nobody told them anything. The adults and children might have lived side by side, but they always had their very own secrets which they jealously guarded against the other.

Hence one dove-cooing noon, three curious children jumped over the mossy brick wall to walk around the strange grove. The cluster of mango and tamarind trees had cast a spell of shadows and light in the garden. A tall acacia seemed out of place with sunlight reflecting on the topmost branches. There was a bushy bokul at the corner of the garden with small pale-coloured flowers which one could smell from afar. They wondered what the creeping vines of orange and blue bulbs were. Then there were those herbs that emitted strange smells– some pungent, some intoxicating and some dizzyingly sweet. They all recognized amla and bay leaves. Shojon whispered the named the haritaki tree because his grandmother used to have the fruit on a daily basis. But what were the others? Then, Husna, who was always a bit jumpy, noted the bats hanging upside down in the branches of a shaggy tree. And a strange voice said, “Wookkuuu!”

They ran for their lives. Tana looked at the house one last time and saw a black cat sitting on the sun shed as if keeping vigil of some kind.

Later Husna swore that she saw a small dome-like thing sticking out of the ground. Stories grew after that– strange stories that made no apparent sense. Rokon said that creatures walked upside down in that garden. Piyal was sure he had seen a large caterpillar the size of a side-pillow crawling on its walls. Nobody wanted to go around that house after dark. They called her ‘the woman who lives down the lane’. Mushfique was ready to swear that when he was passing by that house late one night with his father, both of them had heard sounds of crying. His father had later said that it was either a kitten or a bat, but they all sat silent with apprehension as Mushfique regaled them with his tale. Some went as far as calling her ‘the red witch’.

As years passed, the stories grew longer and darker. However, no matter what they said, the adults seemed either unconvinced or oblivious to their fears. But she was nobody’s aunt and only once Tana’s mother had mentioned casually that her name was Surma and in a long forgotten past they used to go to school together. Then Tana’s grandmother hushed her up. The information sounded so foreign to little Tana that she pretended not to have heard it. She certainly did not want to destroy the web of enchantment they had woven around her. So, the little shabby house down the lane grew shabbier and darker while its lone inhabitant continued to be an enigma.

Tana reached the two storey-house, where she had spent her childhood. Two of her cousins still lived nearby. Tana was supposed to live with them till the papers were signed. Her other siblings lived abroad, and Tana was carrying documents that gave her the power of attorney to sign on their behalf. Ruby, a daughter of her phuppi (paternal aunt) had mentioned that she had a few trunks that belonged to her parents and Tana would have to go through them to see if there was anything valuable. Tana went to stay at Ruby’s house that was right beside their old home.  After lunch, they sat down for a cup of tea at the veranda. Tana asked, “Does she still live in that house at the end of our lane?”

“What house and who?” Ruby seemed to have forgotten all about the red house.

“That old red brick house. Remember, we used to call her ‘the red witch’?”

“Oh, her!” Ruby said. Then she shook her head. “She died two years ago.”

Tana said, “And her house?”

“The house has been sold. They are going to demolish it soon and turn it into a fancy cottage we hear.”

“Who sold it?” was Tana’s quizzical question.

Ruby knitted her eyebrows as she said, “There was quite a hubbub, actually. It seemed that she was a cousin of Mahbub chacha(uncle). But for some odd reason, there was no connection. But after she died, his mother started to cry claiming her as her niece. And some of the older people seemed to know all about it. So, they buried her in their family graveyard and Mahbub Chacha’s sons later claimed the property as theirs.”

Tana was suddenly at a loss. All those stories of ghosts and witches around that house suddenly had such an ordinary ending!

“But why were they estranged?”

“I have no clue,” Ruby shrugged.

Tana looked at her cousin a little distastefully. Ruby never had any imagination. Even now as she was telling Tana the tale of the strange woman, there was no excitement.

“Such a bore!” Tana muttered to herself.

The few days that Tana stayed at Tushapur were devoid of any extraordinary events. People seemed to have accepted that the mysterious woman whose real name was Shahanara Khatun, and who went by the name Surma, was a cousin of Mahbub Talukdar. Apparently, there was some kind of family feud. Then her husband died as did her baby boy. But she continued to live alone.

Tana felt there was a missing link somewhere. And what about all those weird creatures and crying in her house?

As Tana was going through the trunks, she wondered at the discolored brass trinkets with greenish hue. Some of them were ashtrays and ornate cups. An antique coffee pot with turquoise stones raised its head from the mass of junk. There were some wooden dolls and boats. She touched the trays of dull silver and wondered if they were real silver. At this point, she espied a diary. A leather-bound diary that was faded with age. The front cover was badly discoloured, as if someone had spilled liquid on it. Tana’s eyes widened as she opened and saw the name on the first page — Gul Nahar Sultana. It dated from the 1980s, more than thirty-five years ago. Gul Nahar was her mother’s name. But Tana could not recall ever seeing the diary before.

Finally, when Tana left Tushapur, she had reduced the three trunks into one. She still was not sure why she was even taking this one back, but she did. The relics of the past were not easy to give up.

After another month and a half, Tana finally found some time to look into the things she had brought back from Tushapur. The first thing she picked up was the diary. Two poems. A fragment of a story. There were some sketches of human figures. Tana felt a pang as she knew her mother once wanted to be an artist. Most pages were clean, just slightly yellowish. She thought that was it. But then she saw some pages at the end, filled up with closely knit writing.

The name “Surma” caught her eyes.

“I went to visit Surma yesterday. Amma tells me not to go again. She is an outsider now. A high price to pay for marrying a man of a different religion. But I had to go and help her with the last rituals of her baby. They did not allow her to bury the child in the graveyard because his father was not Muslim. With Tapan dada gone, what can she do by herself? She buried the poor thing under the Bokul tree in her garden. I can hear her cry at night. And all those cats in her house wail through the night too. Sometimes I think, I can hear the baby cry. She could not even get a doctor for the mite. Am I going crazy? Perhaps I should not go. Sometimes, it is wiser to shut our eyes and not see others suffer. That’s the only way to be happy, they say.”

Tana sat there immobile. The mystery of the woman who lived down the lane was finally solved. But how will she ever remember the magical childhood now without feeling guilty? The days of innocence are not so innocent after all.

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Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts bangladesh. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

The Dark House

A Balochi folktale translated by Fazal Baloch

Once there lived a king who ruled a certain land. He had a son, whose mother passed away during his childhood. The prince was so handsome that no boy or girl in the land surpassed him in good looks. Time passed and the prince became a young man. The king looked forward to his wedding with wedding songs, drumbeats and dance. He gave a picture of the prince to one of his most trusted slaves and assigned him the task of finding  an equally beautiful girl for his son in the neighbouring kingdoms.

The slave took the picture and set out on his mission. After travelling for several days and nights, he finally reached another land and spent the night at the hut of an old woman. Next morning, he resumed his journey and went from door to door till at last he found a beautiful girl in the house of a poor man. The beauty of the girl stunned the slave. When he regained his senses, he pulled out the picture of the prince and compared the two — once gazing at the girl and then at the picture. He believed the girl was worthy of being the prince’s bride.

At last, he turned to the owner of the house and addressed him: “I’m the slave of the king so-and-so. He has given me the task of finding a bride for the prince. I have been wandering from city to city and house to house looking for a beautiful girl. The beauty of your daughter surpassed that of all other girls I’ve seen so far.”

He presented the prince’s photograph to the girl’s father who after looking at the picture said: “How can a poor man like me dare to compare himself to a rich prince? I think you are making fun of me.”

The slave turned to him and said: “I swear by the honour of your chaste daughter that whatever I told you is true. I believe your daughter is worthy of being my master’s bride.” He then asked him for a picture of his daughter and urged him to accept the proposal.

The man took the prince’s picture from the slave and gave him one of his daughter in return. Early in the morning, the slave took leave of him and set out for his own home. After having travelled for half-a-day, he reached a small hamlet and went into a house to rest. It was the house of a maidservant. She welcomed him. After exchanging greetings with him, she inquired: “Where have you been and where are you heading?”

The slave confided  the details and the purpose of his journey. In the middle of the conversation the maid expressed her desire to see the photograph of the prince’s would-be-fiancé. Actually, the maid was the paramour of the prince. But the slave did not know that. The moment her eyes fell on the photograph she went almost numb with trepidation. She had never seen such a beautiful girl in her entire life. She feared the prince would discontinue his attentions to her after he tied the knot with the pretty girl. The prince would most likely not spare her a single glance.

A myriad of thoughts flooded her mind. Hideously envious of the girl, she gave the photograph back to the slave and excused herself and strolled out of the door. Sometimes later, when she returned, she found the slave fast asleep. She surreptitiously took out the photograph from his pocket and cunningly left a scratch mark on the picture – on one of the eyes of the beauty — and slipped it back into his pocket. When the slave woke up, he took leave of the woman and resumed his journey.

Late in the evening he finally reached his destination and gave an account of his journey before the king, presenting him the photograph of the girl as well.

When the prince returned from a hunting trip the king told him that they had found for him a beautiful girl and within a few days he would be married to her. The prince happily returned to his bedroom. Dreams and desires blossomed in his heart. But the moment he took out the picture from his pocket, his glowing face almost turned pale. The girl was exceedingly gorgeous but alas she looked blind in one eye. Anyhow, the prince submitted himself to his father’s will. Soon  drum beats, the sounds of shehnais and wedding songs reverberated in all corners of the land. Amidst music and dancing, the prince was conducted to the nuptial chamber. However, he was not happy with the marriage and thought it to be a burden unleashed by his father on him. On the very first night he ordered the maidservants thus: “Lay my bed away from that of the bride’s and put out all the lamps and lights.”

 The lamps were blown out and the prince and the bride slept separately in the dark house. It became the routine with the prince. He spent the day outside hunting and, at night, he slept away from his wife in the darkness.

The girl was worried about the strange behaviour of her husband. She was desperate to please, but she couldn’t ask him anything. She was worried. She thought something might be ailing the prince and he didn’t want to disclose his illness. And that was the reason for his sleeping separately and blowing out the lamps. She also wondered if she had made a mistake or the slave had told him something against her.

People began to whisper and gossip about the king’s daughter-in-law for not giving the prince an offspring. Sick of people’s gossip, the young girl began to devise a plan. Secretly, she wove winnowing baskets and sold them door to door. One day she happened to go to the house of the maidservant who was responsible for the agony she was going through. She was shocked to see her husband sitting with the maidservant. The maidservant was almost stunned. The prince had his eyes fixed on the beautiful lady. He took pity on her as he thought poverty had forced her to sell straw-baskets. He couldn’t help but call out to her: “O basket-seller! Come here.” She strolled forward.

He asked her: “Do you live in this city?” The girl replied in affirmative.

The prince asked her again: “Where do you live by the way”?

“I live in a dark house somewhere in this city,” replied the girl.

“Dark house?” The prince slipped into deep thought. A moment later he turned to the girl and said: “Anyhow, I’ve to discuss something with you. Where shall you meet me?”

“I shall wait for you by the riverbank tomorrow,” the girl responded.

Next day, she asked her maidservant to accompany her to the river to wash her hair. She picked up the mirror, hair oil and soap, and, together with her maidservant, went to the river bank. Through the strands of her open hair covering her face, she saw the prince ride up on his horse. She turned to the maidservant and said, “Give me the bottle of hair-oil.”

The next moment, she broke the bottle and pierced her hand with a shard. She began to cry. In the meantime, the prince went to her. When he saw blood dripping from girl’s hand, without any hesitation he tore his chador and dressed her wound with the strip of cloth.

The girl turned to the prince and regretted, “Today our meeting was spoiled by this unexpected incident”.

The prince said, “We shall meet sometimes in the future.” The prince rode back to the palace. The girl and her maidservant took a different route back.

At night, as usual the prince blew out the lamps and slept on his bed. When his wife was sure he was fast asleep, she dragged her bed near to her husband’s. The prince turned on his bed and his hand touched his wife’s wounded hand. The girl cried out aloud:

“O God! Ah! My wounded hand. You touched my wounded hand.”

He asked him what happened to her hand. The girl replied: “Didn’t the shard pierce it on the riverside?”

“A shard?” The prince was taken aback.

“Yes, it did,” replied the girl.

The flabbergasted prince got up. He was surprised to see his wife’s bed placed by his own. He asked his wife: “How do you know a girl’s hand was pierced by a shard on the riverside? She was someone else”.

The girl said, “She was none but me.”

The prince could not believe his ears and said, “You are telling a lie.”

The girl said, “If you don’t believe, turn on the lights and look for yourself.”

He asked all her maidservants to go away that very instant. He turned on the lights. The moment he saw his beautiful wife he was mesmerised. He cursed himself in his heart. He pulled her into his embrace and apologised, “Forgive me my beloved! I was mistaken. Rather I’ve been betrayed.  I… when I saw your photograph, I noticed a blemish in your eye… I didn’t know…”

In the morning, the slave was summoned to the court. He told his entire story. The maidservant with whom the slave had stayed that night was summoned to court.  The king warned her with dire consequence if she did not tell the truth. Finally, she was forced to admit her wrongdoing. And the king ordered the maidservant to be hanged and adjourned his court.

(This folktale retold by Rahman Murad, originally appeared in Quarterly Drad Gwadar, Dec 2001-Jan 2002).

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated several Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2017 and in India.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Stories

Magic Afloat in the Air

A Short story by Gauri Mishra

Paharganj. Photo credit: Wiki

She had never thought it would end like this. A chance meeting in a food trail which culminated in the lanes of Paharganj was quite an ordinary occurrence for Sagari. She considered herself a foodie and anything to do with eating captured her attention. Not that she minded any adventures…in fact just the thought of staying at home for a prolonged period of time depressed her. However, this particular day had a lot more in store than just a food trail…

She had been careful not to crush her crisp cotton dupatta when she boarded the metro in the morning. The shared auto ride till the station had messed up her hair a little but she liked that unkempt look. The bright pink kurta was a sign of her enthusiasm and complimented her dusky look. The kohl rimmed eyes were mysterious and honey-coloured giving her an air of aloofness. Just the prospect of meeting a whole bunch of strangers filled her with excitement.

The food trail had already begun when she joined the motley group of people, old and young including a gray-haired man who looked a little out of place with his crisp white shirt and dark trousers, a couple of middle-aged women whose idea of coming on a food trail had little else beyond food and a bunch of over-enthusiastic teenagers who couldn’t stop talking even while the others strained to hear what the guide was telling them about the sweet shop in Chandni Chowk.

The only other person who had come alone besides herself was a young man who had a quiet demeanor and reminded her of the lanky hero in those early Amitabh Bachchan starrers. He had noticed her immediately but seemed in no hurry to strike a conversation. She kept asking questions and the others looked disenchanted with her curiosity about the origins of dhabas (street side eateries) and their owners’ pride in hoarding family recipes. She loved everything about the walk and the little discoveries of secret recipes, the smells and the aroma of spices and the delectable food that filled her senses with a pleasure that was hard to resist.

The young man who had shown no interest in her so far intrigued her. His lack of enthusiasm acted as a trigger for her to take it up as a mission. The pattern was the same always, the more a man ignored her, the more interested she became in knowing how to get his attention. It is not too hard to decipher that she succeeded nine out of ten times. For her, this too was an adventure…unraveling the enigma behind the ordinary exterior and then getting to know the person.

The trail ended before time as the sun had already set and the cool breeze had lulled everyone into silence. The chaiwala (tea stall owner) at the corner of the street was definitely a temptation and she decided to walk up to him for a strong cup of tea. As if on cue, the young man followed her to the bench which didn’t seem too inviting and served more as an indication of the chaiwala’s existence. That is when she noticed the steady gaze which seemed to linger on her.

Immediately conscious of her hair, she made a cursory attempt to look a little more presentable. By then he had taken both their teas from the chaiwala and was holding on to them, waiting for her to reclaim hers from his hand.

“Thanks …you didn’t have to do this.”

“It’s all right, thought I’ll wait for you to finish.”

That is when she realized that her bag’s zipper had come undone and she was still struggling to close it.

Why do these clumsy things happen when you are in decent company? She thought to herself.

The tea had become inconsequential by now. It was almost as if they had both been aware of the ploy which had finally brought them this proximity.

By now, she had gained her composure. It was strange how naturally they both hit it off and the leisurely walk in one of the Paharganj lanes seemed like the most obvious choice of activity. Neither of them was in a hurry. On the contrary, the prospect of spending the next few hours in each other’s company was exciting enough. He kept listening to her incessant chatter about her little room in a shared flat and how it seemed insufficient for her adventurous mind with its creative thoughts and ideas.

She loved to go out, alone mostly and explore the city which had given her an identity. She seemed to know a lot about Delhi, considering the short span of her stay here. She looked eager, starting a new sentence before the first one had finished…laughing at the little jokes which he made with a straight face. Her eyes were full of the joy that comes from living your own life your way and there was no way he could not be fascinated with her charming figure which wasn’t slim but had an interestingly voluptuous look which his male imagination had assessed much earlier in the day.

They decided to eat, and a curiously winding staircase fascinated them into climbing up to a roof-top restaurant which had a quaint look and a wide terrace with stray benches strewn around giving it a strangely nonchalant air, as if the atmospherics were least interested to know who the occupants were. A plate of momos followed by a few beers were enough to make them comfortable with each other.

He cajoled her into a space where she just wanted to live in the moment. He was not the kind of man who looked threatening, instead he had an easy air about him, almost as if there was very little in the world that could jolt him out of his composure. She was equally relaxed, almost on the verge of putting her head on his shoulder, the beer making her feel lighter and happier. The wrought iron bench in the corner of the terrace, with an adventurous branch of the Neem tree winding up to it seemed to offer an invitation and they eased into it, both anticipating an interesting end to this day.

The very essence of this night was the silence around them…most of the people in the restaurant had left and there was nobody to check on them or even ask them to leave…it wasn’t that kind of a place where people intruded into your conversations to ask you to leave. It was the kind of place which let you be and trusted you enough to find your way out.

They talked about life, relationships, travails of living in a big city, and about their dreams which always seemed to be round the corner but remained elusive. She had never imagined she was capable of this. Talking through the night with somebody she had met a few hours ago.

It surprised her a little…her comfort zone and how easily she could treat herself to an adventure. In fact, when the dawn broke, and she took a cab home, deciding to drop him to the next metro station, he didn’t seem too averse to the idea. It was pretty clear to both of them that the romance of the night was over…the magical rapport they had felt with each other seemed to fade away in the sunlight. Their realities had shaken hands and said their goodbyes.

She was quite sure she wouldn’t see him again. What she couldn’t figure out was her own impulse and that carpe diem spirit which ruled her mind on most days.

This happened to her a lot and her consciousness berated her each time she thought about her seven-year-old relationship with her boyfriend who worked in the US. It seemed to her a minor factual detail in her bemused existence. It was almost as if she wanted to have a fill of her stray encounters with men, she found interesting. Was it her way of finding the truth about her committed relationship or just a series of casual adventures?

She had no clue and although these questions kept popping up like little droplets of water on a windowpane, there was never an immediate need to clear the surface and peep into her mind.

Life can be quite uncertain, she told this to herself often enough. The thought of marriage and moving to another country was going to happen at some faraway juncture.

For now, she was pleased with the way her career at this startup was shaping up, she was content to go on her solitary walks in this beautiful city, listen to her favorite melodies in the rain, enjoy her food trails and take innumerable pictures, read to her hearts’ content on lazy weekend mornings. If life had anything more to offer, she was in no immediate haste to get there. She told herself often…tomorrow is another day.

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Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.