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     Snake Maiden or Nagmati by Prafulla Roy: Translated by Aruna Chakravarti

Prafulla Roy is a Bengali author. He traveled all over the country to experience the struggles of the people. He lived for some time among the indigenous people of Nagaland,  the untouchables of Bihar and the rootless people of the mainland of the Andamans. He has written 150 books, received multiple awards like the Sahitya Akademi and the Bankim Puraskar. About 45 telefilms, tele-series, and feature-films were made based on his novels. He lives in Kolkata. Nagmati was first published in 1956.

Snake Maiden                                                                              

Sonai Bibi’r Bil.  A low-lying fen in a remote corner of the earth far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life…   

In the bitter cold of winter, when winds from the north blow hard and dry, Sonai Bibi’r Bil shrivels into herself like the rotting carcass of an old woman. All that is visible are her skeletal remains. Patches of water, green with scum, shimmer between masses of earth risen from her breast. And around them, as far as the eye can see, are unending sweeps of wild reeds, bulrushes and tussock grass. There are deep shadows here. Shadows and silence. Water and verdure are locked together in restful sleep.

When the first monsoon showers fall upon the earth Sonai Bibi’r Bil awakes. Shaking off her torpor, she raises her face to the sky and drinks great gulps of pelting rain. Her contours change. She stretches and expands. Her newly awakened limbs unfurl and spread in all directions. To the north, south, east and west… all the way to the horizon. The river Meghna helps her. Swelling and frothing in a demonic dance she bursts her banks and makes her way into the fen. Wrapping her in a fierce embrace sheturns her into a great sheet of waving water. Sensuous, joyous, seductive…

Then, after autumn has waned and the fierce frosty winds of hemanta[1] have raped and battered her voluptuous form, Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sad, withered replica of her once glorious self. The sap of youth drains away from her limbs and, who knows from what dark depths, stretches of virgin soil appear.

Winter follows. And now flocks of birds…katora, imli, jalpipi, and innumerable others come flying in from distant shores. They have many names. Many colours. Descending on her in sweeps, they turn Sonai Bibi’r Bil into a rainbow. With them come other migratory creatures. Bedeys, nomadic snake charmers, anchor their boats in her shallow waters. The sound of rushing wings and soft footfalls enters her ears. Delicious tremors rise from deep within and her land and water sway and shiver with ecstasy.

That they are here this winter, too, is evident from the many tents that have blossomed like land lotuses all over Sonai Bibi’r Bil. Other flowers can be seen. Along with the krishnakali[2] that dapples the breast of the fen with clutches of purple stars are snake maidens, winsome creatures in motley-coloured skirts rippling seductively from narrow waists to slim ankles. Bunches of golden flowers wave coyly from tangled locks. Their eyes are long and languorous. But, at times, a sudden flame can spurt into a dark iris and flicker and dance like the head of a deadly cobra. They wear ornaments made from the bones of snakes and birds. Imli wing necklaces and kuchila spine bracelets adorn long necks and arms. Danglers, fashioned from the delicate neck bones of a shankha nag, swing from tiny earlobes.

The short days of winter provide a welcome rest for the nomads… a brief diversion in their wandering lives. A time to suspend floating over turbulent waters and experience the joy of putting down roots. To revel in the comfort and security enjoyed by the householder. Nagmati bedeyni’s snake maidens sit all day long, basking in warm sunshine, weaving trays and baskets. The men squatting beside them peel reeds and twine feathery tussock into ropes. They are young men with stone-hard limbs and staring eyes…crimson from mahua wine. Their rough tawny manes are tied with lengths of entrails pulled out of chakrachoor snakes and dried to ribbons. Dark lips are parted in foolish smiles. But not all are employed thus. Some pursue more arduous tasks. Stealing sheaves of mustard, sesame and kaoon paddy from the waving fields on three sides of the fen, is one of them. Stalking wild geese and bringing them down with skilled throws of sharp-edged harpoons is another.

They come every winter. Winter stretches into Springon the wings of mellow breezes. Summer follows. The parched earth bakes and cracks, raising swirls of scorching dust. Still, the call to resume their roving lives doesn’t reach their ears. But when the first monsoon clouds rise from the horizon and cool winds laden with moisture come wafting into Sonai Bibi’r Bil, they shake off their languor and ready themselves for their tryst with the waiting waters. Sails are unfurled and oars mended. Towing ropes stretch and tighten in muscled palms. Muttering fervent prayers to Allah and Bish hari[3], their preferred name for the snake goddess Manasa, they set sail once more. Frail barks ride high on the waves as the ferocious Meghna comes swaying and swerving into Sonai Bibi’r Bil.

Reeds, bulrush, tussock and broom disappear. Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sea of black water. Boats fly over foam tipped waves and down again. From the Meghna to the Padma. From the Padma to the Kalabadar mooring, from time to time, on alien banks. Then sky and water resonate with the echoes of sharp, sweet voices. “Bish pathor Ma! Khanti bish pathor! Bish hari’r doai shob bish uithya aashbo. Dudhraj, Chandrachud, Aalad, Gokkhur… Jodhi booti niba Ma? Jodhi booti?”

 (Poison stones Mother! Genuine poison stones! Blessed by Bish hari herself. Guaranteed to draw out every trace of poison… be it that of adder, krait, python or cobra. Herbs and roots, Mother? Herbs and roots?)

Snake maidens hawking their wares. Calling out to the village women. To wives and mothers…

Hopes and dreams rise in heaving breasts. The nesting instinct pulls at their heartstrings.  A slumberous numbness creeps into their veins and blood flows slow and heavy as though scented with opium flowers. The mind begins to send out roots and tendrils. But as soon the sky darkens with cloud and rain comes pelting down, they remember their ancestral promise to the waters of the earth and resume their drifting, roving lives.

.

This winter morning, as on all others, they sit with their backs turned to the sweet warm sun weaving dried grass and reeds into bins and baskets to be sold by the men at the weekly market in Kamalaganj. Their hands work swiftly for soon it will be time for them to walk down the village paths with their pouches of poison stones and baskets of snakes. To persuade wives and mothers to buy their herbs and roots, potions, charms and amulets. To entertain the villagers by making the deadliest snakes dance to their pipes. To return with fistfuls of silver joy…

Sonai Bibi’r Bil resonates with quick voices and shrill laughter. Mohabbat looks up from his task of peeling a bamboo cane and turns to one of the younger girls. “Ki lo Palanki?[4]” he asks with a mocking smile, “Where’s Shankhini this morning? She’s not to be seen anywhere. Has her position of Amma turned her into a star in the sky?”

Shankhini is the mistress of this band of bedeys. The Queen Bee. Comments like these are tantamount to treason. Besides no one has the right to take her name. She must be addressed as Amma. She can, if she wishes, split any heart in two with a deadly thrust of her javelin. But Mohabbat is foolish and reckless. Quite often he forgets his place.

Palanka darts a timid glance at Mohabbat. There is something about her that sets her apart from the other girls. She is like a wildflower, small and humble, that knows it was born in the dust. Her eyes are misty with a faraway look in them. A scent, faint and sweet as a musk deer’s, rises from her limbs. It spreads around and beyond her like a cloud, soothing and calming all those who come near her. Eyes grow soft when they meet hers and the soul is filled with tranquility.

She has no answer to Mohabbat’s question. Her heart beats fast and she lowers her eyes. Another woman is quick to respond. A cackle of fierce laughter bursts from Atarjaan’s lips … so loud and bitter that the heart of the fen trembles with fear. Atarjaan’s body is tight and well formed, but her face is black and crumpled as though ravaged by a phantom fire. “O re Mohabattya! Spawn of a slave!” she shrieks, her ugly mouth twisted in contempt, “The nesting fever has gripped our Shankhini. Don’t you know? She has worn a red sari and smeared sindoor[5] on her brow and parting. She’s standing before a mirror admiring herself. Go take a look. Hee Hee Hee!” Turning to the girl she screeches with laughter, “Ki lo Palanki You’re pining for a home and husband too…aren’t you? Go … go. Turn yourself into a wife and mother you slut. Hee Hee Hee!”

Five boats containing all the necessities of a nomadic life stand anchored in the shallow waters. An angry  growl is heard from one of them. “Ke? Ke?[6]” Shankhini’s voice hits the ears like a clap of thunder. “Ei Mohabbatya, you dirty jinn! Ei Aatar… you whore! I’m coming…Just wait and see what I do. I’ll slaughter you two instead of a hen and drink your blood.”

 Shankhini storms in, her young body swift as a flash of lightning. The sindoor in the parting of her hair blazes like a streaking flame. Deep red silk flows around her limbs like a river of blood. Her magnificent breasts, heaving with passion, move up and down with every fierce breath. Her long eyes glitter like the spitting tongue of a deadly krait.

The fire goes out of Mohabbat. Aatarjaan trembles and turns pale. The rest of the band are struck dumb with terror. Only Palanka gazes at Shankhini with wistful eyes. An intense yearning rises from deep within her at the sight of Nagmati bedeyni’s fiery daughter in a sari and sindoor. The humble flower’s eyes fill with tears. Her heart is consumed with longing.

A scent, fresh and earthy, comes wafting into her soul as though from a vast distance. It brings promise of love and protection. Of peace and stability. Somewhere, in some alien village, someone is waiting for her. A man with a broad chest on which she rests her head in sweet surrender.A child is suckling at her breast. She feels his soft damp mouth tugging at her nipples; sending tremors of joy running through her frame. She sees a tiny hut with a vine growing over the thatch. Bunches of beans speckled with gold dust dance in the breeze. A yard, neatly swabbed with cow dung is surrounded by mango and lemon trees. Doves fly in and out of their shadows and sing from their branches on warm somnolent afternoons.

Walking through the villages bordering the Meghna, Padma and Ilsha[7], Palanka has seen these scenes. She has heard the legend, integral to their worship of Manasa, of how Behula had sailed over these waters with her dead husband Lakhai till she reached the abode of the Gods and persuaded them to bring him back to life. This great stretch of land and water is rendered holy, to this day, by Behula’s chastity.

Palanka’s dream of a peaceful nest in some obscure corner of the earth; of lifelong faith and trust in a man she calls husband, has made her drifting blood yearn to drop anchor. Perhaps the same dream has begun to haunt Shankhini, she muses wistfully. To beckon to her with shadowy fingers. Even so, Palanka knows there is no escape for her. She’s a slave to Shankhini’s will. Dozens of eyes guard her all the time.

Shankhini glared at the assembled men and women. Her brows were knitted together like a pair of scorpions. Her slender limbs, swathed in crimson, raged like a forest fire. Tongues of flame darted from her eyes. She looked like a wild bird ready to swoop on her detractors and tear their flesh into shreds with her talons. But before she could do anything, a whirlwind came spinning through the bushes. “Amma! Amma!” A fearful voice pierced her ears as Sikander came charging in, his flying feet trampling reeds and grass. “Disaster has befallen us,” he cried, “Another band is in the fen. They’ve anchored their boats on the opposite side. I saw them myself…”

The irises of Shankhini’s eyes changed colour. They took on the tawny hue of a tigress lurking behind a clump of keya with spiky leaves and towers of flowers exuding a pungent sweetness.

 “Zulfikar!” she hollered, her voice echoing like a roll of thunder.

Zulfikar, Chief of Shankhini’s warrior band, was lounging some distance away in the shade of some screwpine bushes. He had been drinking a local brew since morning and by now his stomach had swelled up like a barrel. He heard his mistress call out his name. There was something so immediate, so urgent, in her voice that his dim drowsy senses were shocked into a sudden awakening. The bottle got knocked out of his hand and its contents spilled out in spurts on the grass.

He rose to his feet. He was a huge hulk of a man. His face, which seemed cut out of a giant slab of coal, was devoid of brows and lashes, and his jawbones jutted out like mountain crags. Hibiscus red eyes glared malignantly. Grrrrrrr… a roar, like that of a lion rudely aroused from sleep, gathered in his throat and burst from his mouth.It was a war cry. The peace and serenity of the winter morning were shattered. Hands stopped their work and senses tensed at the sound.

 In this land of swamp and river there was an unwritten law. No one knew who had thought of it first, or when, but it was part of a code of conduct followed by all bedeys irrespective of where they came from. No band ventured into a space already occupied by another.

Zulfikar had arrived on the scene by now. Mohabbat, Sikandar and the other men stood up. The women had risen too. The air was filled with hissing sounds as the angry breath left their nostrils. Snake maidens had turned into snakes…

 The golden glory of the winter morning dimmed as though dark clouds had swooped on it with clashing wings. Everyone rushed to the boat where the band’s weapons were stored. Shankhini forgot her threat of tearing Mohabbat and Aatarjaan, limb from limb, and drinking their blood. Only Palanka sat immobile beside a heap of broom and dried grass. Conflict of any kind terrified her. Her heart quivered like that of a new-born egret. She shut her eyes in fear.

A sudden commotion startled Palanka. She opened her eyes to see Zulfikar marching towards the other side of the fen, a mighty lance held aloft in his hand. Shankhini was behind him followed by Aatarjaan, Dohor Bibi, Moina and the others. From Sikandar and Mohabbat to the youngest boatman…she could see the entire band. A contingent of men and women armed with weapons. Spears, axes and javelins glittered in the sun. Lengths of bamboo swung from powerful hands. The smell of death was in the air. Palanka held her breath till Zulfikar and his army disappeared behind a screen of trees.

The other group of bedeys had arrived only a couple of days ago. They hadn’t found time yet to put up their tents and settle down. As they stood surrounded by piles of bamboo and canvas, baskets of snakes and bundles of cooking vessels, a menacing roar reached their ears. “Ei bandi’r poot. Abba Amma’r shaadi dekhtey aichhos? Kalija phainrha dimu. (Sons of slaves! Have you come here to celebrate the nuptials of your parents? I’ll tear your hearts into shreds.)”

They looked up startled. A man of colossal dimensions stood before them. His mighty head nearly touched the sky. He was whirling a lance whose glittering edge seemed to be slavering at the mouth for blood. Some of the men ran towards the boats anchored haphazardly in the shallow waters. Others stared at the black mountain with bewildered eyes.

Now another voice rang in the air. ‘Sons of whores!’ Shankhini let out a yell that matched Zulfikar’s in power. ‘This is our fen. We come here every year. If you don’t disappear this minute, we’ll slit your bellies and pull the guts out.’

A deafening silence followed. But it didn’t last long. Shankhini’s adversaries had armed themselves in a twinkling and now they marched towards her with fire in their eyes and spikes and iron bars in their hands. The two armies advanced. Both were ready for battle.

A deadly combat could have followed. Heads, sliced from bodies, could have rolled on the forest floor. The waters of the fen could have turned crimson with blood. Hearts, lungs and livers could have been cut to pieces.

 But the clash was averted by a voice from one of the boats, deep as thunder but astonishingly musical. Both groups froze in their tracks as a man came walking towards them, arms raised in command. He was six and a half feet tall with limbs that shone like burnished gold. Raven black hair fell to his shoulders in sleek shining waves and the vast expanse of his chest looked as though carved out of granite. A rare courage and strength radiated from every pore of his body. Yet his eyes had a faraway look in them. A look that was not of this world.

“Why take up arms?” the deep voice boomed. “Can’t we settle the matter amicably?”

Before anyone could respond, what seemed like a flaming meteor whizzed past Zulfikar and stopped before the dazzling presence. It was Shankhini. Ten years had passed. Ten summers and winters had gone by but she had no difficulty in recognising him.

“Raja saheb?” she murmured. There was a catch in her voice.

“Who are you?” A pair of arched eyebrows came together.

“I’m Shankhini. Don’t you recognise me?”

“You’re Shankhini! Is this your band?”

“Yes,” Shankhini’s eyes passed slowly over the stranger’s frame… as though seeking something.

“Isn’t it extraordinary?” A radiant smile lit up his countenance, “that we stand here today as enemies with sticks and lances in our hands?” Then, addressing both groups, he said in a commanding voice, “Drop your weapons. There’s no need to fight…”

Shankhini stood staring at him. Her mind had left the present and reverted to the past. When she and the man before her were in the first flush of youth. When he could leap into the swirling waters of the Meghna, split a crocodile’s heart in two with his lance, and swim to the bank carrying the creature on his back. When he didn’t fear to venture into the densest forests to hunt the spotted leopard and bring the carcass back slung from a pole. When the hint of a conflict made his blood simmer with pleasurable anticipation and a roar, like a storm cloud’s, gather in his throat. When every muscle of his beautiful body swayed and rippled like the hood of a deadly cobra. Those days were history now. Like fairytales heard long ago. Today, he cringed from a simple fight between two bands. Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter gazed at him with wonder in her eyes.

 How he has changed… she thought…What divine snake charmer’s flute has subdued the snakes writhing and hissing in his blood?

They had both been members of Asmani’s bedeyni’s band… so long ago…it seemed as though aeons had passed. A time when Raja saheb’s hard, gold, tiger-eyes had softened, as though misted with a film of wine, whenever they met her long dark ones. And Shankhini’s heart had hummed, like a young bee’s hovering over a flower, whenever he came into her presence…

And then… disaster struck. A terrible storm in Daulatpur, where they were spending the winter, shattered their fleet of boats. Torn to pieces, they sank to the floor of the raging Padma. Swept away by the current, the members of the band got separated and were carried to who knows what unknown destinations…

Shankhini had tried to forget this painful period of her life and succeeded. But she couldn’t forget Raja saheb.

“Look Shankhini,” Raja saheb said peaceably. ‘You were here first. The right is on your side. We’ll go away. First thing tomorrow we’ll set sail towards Char Sohagi and pitch our tents there. Happy?’

“No. Never!” A sharp exclamation, more like a cry of pain, escaped from Shankhini’s throat. “Don’t think of leaving. I’m seeing you after so long. S-o-o long. Can I let you go?”

“But two rival bands can’t stay in the same place. I don’t like squabbling and fighting. Those days are over…”

“I’m the leader of my band.” Shankhini’s eyes blazed with triumph, “What I say counts. No one from my side will challenge your presence in Sonai Bibi’r Bil.”

Raja saheb shook his head and remained silent.

“Let me ask you a question. What has changed you so? Since when has the thought of conflict become so fearful? Only a few years have gone by since we…”

“I’m weary Shankhini.” A melancholy smile appeared on Raja saheb’s lips, “I’m weary of this roving life. Here today, there tomorrow. Endlessly warring and killing one another! And for what? A little space in which, by the rules of our nomadic forefathers, we are forbidden to put down roots. Ordinary folk hate us. Snake charming and selling poison stones don’t provide a living any longer. If we steal, we end up in prison. Of what use is this existence? Far better to farm a bit of land somewhere, build a hut and live in peace.”

Shankhini was startled. So were all the others. What was he saying? How could he even dream of disregarding the edict, laid down by Bish hari herself, and followed by the nomadic race from time immemorial? What terrible blasphemy! Even hearing such talk was sin! The snake goddess would be outraged!

“Don’t utter such words,” Shankhini shuddered, “Don’t utter them ever again! Beware of Bish hari’s wrath. She’ll send her deadly, conch-skinned snakes to destroy you. Jai[8] Ma Bish hari!”

Jai Ma Bish hari! Loud voices echoed hers till sky, water and land resounded with the sound.

 Raja saheb’s wan smile faded. “I understand your feelings Shankhini,” he said quietly, “but I can’t lie to myself any longer. This rootless drifting is not for me.”

“What has come over you?’ Shankhini broke the uneasy silence that had descended. ‘Are you ill? Or in some trouble? Come, open your heart to me.”

“I’m not the Raja saheb you knew. I’m a different man.”

Shankhini burst out laughing, “Don’t worry. I have a cure for your ills.”

“What cure?”

“I’ve learned the black art from a tantric sannyasi.” Peal after peal of merry laughter rang like bells from Shankhini’s lips as she continued, “I can change you to what you were with a handful of magic dust. Come to my boat tonight. We’ll dine together. And we’ll talk. I have so much to say to you… my heart brims over with ten years of unspoken words.”

Thoughts of Raja saheb kept Shankhini occupied for the rest of the day. What a fine figure of a man he had been in the past! His heart, mind and body intrepid and unflinching as though made of steel.  The world had been his for the taking. She remembered the time he had murdered twelve men, buried their corpses on a bank of the Kaldighi river, and returned with one hundred rupees tucked in his waistband and a smile on his lips. That blood had cooled. The same heart yearned to put down roots. For a quiet peaceful life. Alas! Shankhini knew no charms that could change him back to the man she had known and loved.

It wasn’t as though she, herself, was not lured by the prospect of putting down roots. As though she wasn’t consumed with envy at the sight of a woman flaunting the badge of wifehood. Didn’t she drape a sari around her form, in secret, and fill her parting with sindoor? But she couldn’t give up the power and privilege of being the queen of a band. She wanted Raja saheb as her husband but was not prepared to pay the price he wanted. She had to do something to bring the simmer back into his blood. To revive the old ruthlessness and lust for power. But she didn’t know how…

Raja saheb is coming. Raja saheb is coming. A thousand bees hummed in Shankhini’s heart. Looking out of the window of her hajarmoni boat she felt her senses sway in harmony with the lapping water. The sun was about to set. A cloud of red gold dust was clinging to reeds and bamboo clumps, tussock and broom. Suddenly she felt a wave of love for everything around her. For the changing hues of the sky. For the emerald-tailed kingfisher sitting on the arjun tree. For her own sensuous body. Music welled up in her throat and she sang…

Shaap er bishe jemun temun; prem er bishe du gun dhai

Gourango bhujango hoye dangshiyachhe amaar gaye

Bish er jwala jemun jwala; prem er jwalai aagun dhai…

(Snake poison is but little; love’s poison is twice cursed

The fair one, turned serpent, has lashed my limbs and heart.

Snake poison may sting; love’s poison is a flame)

Shankhini rose. Scrubbing her face with fuller’s earth she washed it clean. She smoothed her cloud of unruly hair with fragrant oil and stuck a green beetle’s wing between her brows. ‘Palanki!’ she called, her voice ringing with delight, “O re O Palanki! Come here. Come quick you foolish girl. Braid my hair and put it up in a khonpa[9].

Hurrying to Shankhini’s boat, Palanka combed out the long, tangled hair with a wooden comb then, braiding it in seven strands, twisted it in an elegant coiffure. She watched wide eyed as the older girl lined her eyes with surma, decorated her forehead with sandal paste and tucked a cluster of scarlet mandar behind one ear. Clothes and ornaments came next. Securing her heavy breasts with a green and gold kanchuli, she hung a long skirt of saffron silk from her slim waist.

Shankhini had spent all afternoon weaving a chain of diamond teeth plucked from the jaws of a shankhamoni snake. This she wore around her neck. A topaz flower glimmered from one nostril and bunches of blood-red stones hung from her earlobes. Her wrists were heavy with mirror-shard bangles and a band of kunchila bones rippled over her rounded hips. On her feet, brass anklets jingled and jangled. Her shapely body dazzled and glittered, with every movement, like shafts of lightning.

Palanka was gazing at Shankhini with awe in her eyes. The snake maiden had turned into a being from another world. She was as beautiful as the apsara Tillottama[10].

Ki lo!” Shankhini smiled. Palanka’s unconcealed admiration pleased her, ‘Do you like the way I look?’

Hunh.” Palanka answered in a dazed voice.

“Oh! my little bird…you like me…do you want to marry me?” Bursting into a peal of brazen laughter, she added, “The trouble is you can’t marry me even if you wish. I’m a woman.”

Palanka hung her head and was silent.

“You want to turn yourself into a wife…don’t you, littlebird? To build a nest of your own?”

Palanka raised her eyes and shot a timid glance at her mistress.  A faint sound, which might have been an affirmative, escaped her lips.

At any other time, Shankhini would have snarled with fury at this admission. She would have threatened the girl with severe punishment. Even death. But this green and gold evening was magical. It was meant for joy and laughter. She blew an indulgent kiss at Palanka.

“Listen Palanki,” Shakhini broke the silence that had fallen between them, “I know you dress like a bride in secret. You think no one is looking. But I’ve seen you. You look so pretty that sometimes I wish I could marry you. But beware. My lover is coming tonight. Don’t dare cast your eyes on him. If I catch you even…”

Shankhini stopped short. As suddenly as if she felt the forked tongue of a takshaka[11] lash her mouth. She was alarmed. Why had she uttered those words? Did she feel threatened by the lovely young girl? Her face hardened. Her indulgent tone became severe. “Go,” she commanded, “Get out of this boat.”

Shocked at Shankhini’s change of mood, Palanka hastened to obey.

The glimmering twilight faded. Dusk started to fall. Silhouetted against a sapphire and amethyst sky, a stream of ocean birds flew slowly towards the horizon. Shankhini stood by the window of her hajarmoni boat[12],waiting for her lover, as the shadows of night closed around Sonai Bibi’r Bil and the sound of rushing wings filled her air…

Mohabbat and the others had lit a fire on the bank into whose leaping flames they were throwing masses of waterbirds they had brought down with their harpoons earlier in the evening. Jalpipi, bakhari, dahuk and balihans — the flesh of these birds was plump and juicy.

 Ha la la la! Ha la la la! Bedeys and bedeynis yelled in excitement. Hui dhinak dhin! Hui dhinak dhin![13]Some danced around the fire while others played drums and flutes. Zulfikar looked on with bloodshot eyes. In his arms, clutched with protective care, he held a dozen bottles of heady wine. Raja saheb was coming tonight and Shankhini was holding a feast in his honour. What could be a happier prospect? The drums beat harder and harder as the night advanced; the tunes from the flutes grew wilder. A drunken voice laden with nostalgia sang…Kemon koira thaki lo soi Shyam er bihaney[14]. An icy wind blew in gusts. But no one felt its bite.  Ha la la la! Ha la la la! The night sky rang with intoxicated voices.

The long wait was over at last. At the sound of Raja saheb’s footsteps, Shankhini moved from the window and glanced at herself in the mirror. A deep blush rose from her neck and stained her cheeks. Her glowing eyes grew misty. A tremendous happiness surged through her limbs like the waving waters of the fen. Stepping out of the boat, she walked towards her guest and took his large cool hands in her small, fevered ones. “Come in Raja saheb,” she whispered, “It’s terribly cold outside…”

 Hand in hand they walked into Shankhini’s hajarmoni boat. After the biting chill of the bank, it felt warm and welcoming. A double wicked lamp cast a soft orange glow on the two as they lay on a carpet, backs resting against silk cushions. Cuddling up to her lover, Shankhini whispered amorously. “I’ve been looking out for you since evening. You took so long in coming. S-o-o-o long.”

She waited for a reply then, receiving none, she added fretfully, “You don’t love me anymore. Some wicked woman has ensnared you. Changed you. But don’t forget that I’m Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter; well versed in black magic.I know how to dispel the witch’s charms and win you back. This night will be our night…”  

 At her words Raja saheb felt the old love of lust and power, bequeathed to him by generations of his nomadic ancestors, stir slowly in his blood. His eyes fell on the woman beside him. A snake maiden of incredible beauty! Sitting close…so close her scent filled his nostrils. The warmth of her limbs pervaded his. An unknown mystique clung to her like a gossamer web. She was saying something, but he couldn’t hear a word. The clash of cymbals and the beat of drums from his own heart filled his ears. He turned to her with infinite tenderness and drew her to his breast.

“Ten years have gone by,” Shankhini whispered ruefully. “Ten long years. If the storm hadn’t separated us; if we were still in Asmani bedeyni’s band, we could have been together for all time to come…”

 Raja saheb had just opened his mouth to reply when Palanka walked in. Behind her were Atarjaan, Gahar and Dohor bibi. They carried wine bottles in their hands and clay pots full of different kinds of meat. There was khashi korma in one; roasted jalpipi in another. Imli bird curry, fried dahuk wings, juicy chunks of tender waterfowl cooked with garlic and spices, kunchila snake kababs. So much variety! So many flavours! Dohor Bibi spread a piece of cloth on the carpet and arranged the dishes with loving care.

Raja saheb’s eyes wandered all over the deck. To the bunches of roots and herbs piled on one side and baskets, full of deadly snakes, on the other. It was a picture he had seen many times before; typical of the way bedeys lived. Suddenly, his roving eyes fell on Palanka who stood behind the other women. A sweet, pretty girl in a red striped sari and hijal flowers in her hair. There was something about her eyes that made him think of a humble cottage at dusk. His own grew misty with yearning. It was through this girl, he realised suddenly, that his dream could come true. In the quivering shadows of her gentle soul, he would find sanctuary… 

 Two women…Shankhini and Palanka. He looked from one to the other. Shankhini fired a man’s blood; intoxicated him. Set his nerves on edge like a bow, strung taut. In Palanka he found a cool shadowy bower in which to rest them. Raja saheb’s gaze grew soft; his heart melted with love. Shankhini was lightning. Palanka a humble flower.

 “Ei Palanki!” Shankhini’s voice, like the sudden growl of a wounded tigress, shattered the silence. “You whoring bitch! Get out of here. Get out this minute.”

 Palanka had been gazing dreamily, all this while, at the man before her. She had read the message in his eyes and surrendered heart, mind and soul to him. Shankhini’s harsh command broke into her reverie, and she hastened to obey. But she was stopped. Putting out his hand Raja saheb gripped hers “Why do you run away dearie?” he smiled at the girl, “You’ve brought so much delicious food and wine. Stay and share some with us.”

“Let her go.” Shankhini laughed uneasily, “She doesn’t drink wine. And she has given up eating meat. The pretentious harlot has turned herself into a Boshtumi[15]. Hee hee hee!”

“I too have given up wine …”

“What?” Shankhini couldn’t believe her ears. Were they playing tricks with her? She sat dumbstruck for a few minutes, then burst into a peal of hyena like laughter. “Then you and the skinny myna-bird will make a wonderful pair. Boshtom[16] and Boshtumi! Hee hee hee!”

 Raja saheb was startled. Shankhini’s laughter lashed at his eardrums like the deadly tongue of a hooded cobra, and he released Palanka’s hand. She hastened out of the boat with Dohorbibi, Gahar and Aatarjaan close behind.

Hours passed. The winter night grew colder and darker. The wind shrieked and howled like the agonized cries of a soul in torment. The fire outside had burned down and the men and women sitting around it huddled together for warmth. Their excitement had waned by now. Heads were lolling on breasts and the thunderous voices that had set the heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil quaking with trepidation, were mute.

Shankhini moved closer to her lover and wound her arms around his neck. Her voice was drowsy with mahua[17] fumes as she murmured dreamily, “I can’t live without you Raja saheb. Be mine… only mine.”

“Do you really mean that?”

“I do. Ask me to swear on Allah or Bish hari… whoever you consider holier…and I’ll obey.”

“If that’s the truth; the way you truly feel,” Raja saheb sat up in excitement, “let’s build a home together. You’ve seen how village folk live. A deep bond of loyalty and faith binds couples till death. The husband loves and protects his wife. She serves him, bears his children and raises them. Doesn’t such a life attract you?”

“It does. But I love my life as a bedeyni even more. The danger and excitement of sailing over tumultuous waters, making snakes sway in rhythm to the tunes of my flute, preparing potions and working magic with poison stones…these things send a thrill through my bones and make my blood dance in ecstasy. We have been nomads for generations. A love of roving is in our blood. Don’t even think of another way of life, Raja saheb.  If you deny your heritage, you will invoke Bish hari’s curse and all you hold dear will be destroyed. Be your old self again. Become the man you were when I saw you first.”

“I don’t believe in Bish hari.” Her companion said dismissively. “I have wanted to give up this wandering existence for many years. I haven’t been able to… so far. But I can’t wait any longer. I have to leave.”

Shankhini froze at these words. She lay in her lover’s embrace, limp and lifeless. She could scarcely breathe. She was a bedeyni; a devotee of Bish hari. Every muscle, tissue, cell and fiber of her being yearned for freedom. Freedom to sail her boat on uncharted waters. To weather storms and tempests. To feel the sun on her limbs and the wind on her face. Impossible for her to build a nest and stay confined within it. She couldn’t do it. No… not even for the man she loved.

Raja saheb stirred. “It’s time for me to go back,” he murmured, disengaging her arms gently, “Goodbye Shankhini.”

“But you haven’t eaten anything!”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’re leaving!” A cry of pain escaped Shankhini’s lips. “One night! You refuse to be mine for even one night!” Tears clung to her eyelashes, like dewdrops on grass.

“You don’t need me.”

“I need you. More than anyone or anything else. But what do you want from me?”

“You must leave the band. The bedeyni must turn herself into a farmer’s wife.”

Shankhini was in a quandary. One half of her heart was drowned in love for Raja saheb. The tug of her roving blood and the rights and privileges she enjoyed as mistress of a band swamped the other. The two were mutually exclusive. She had to make a choice.

“Give me time to think,” she said, “You’ll come to my boat again, won’t you?”

“Of course, I will. I’ve discovered another love here.” A low, mysterious laugh escaped Raja saheb’s lips.

Shankhini shivered. An unknown fear took possession of her. She shut her eyes and tried to overcome it. There was something in Raja saheb’s voice. An insinuation. What was it? She mulled over his words for a long time but couldn’t fathom it.

She opened her eyes, after a while, to find him gone. She was alone. The boat was empty. As empty as her heart. She felt a bitter rush of bile in her throat. It corroded her mouth and set fire to her limbs. Suddenly a name rose to her lips.She spat into the food spread before her as she uttered it. Palanka. Every drop of her blood burned with hate. Her body swayed like a wounded snake with the pain of envy and thwarted love…

Raja saheb made his way carefully in and out of tussock clumps that stood as high as his chest. The merry chirping of crickets, alternating with the joyous croak of frogs from waterholes, came to his ears. Sonai Bibi’r Bil was wrapped in a shroud of dark mist. The only light came from clusters of glowworms glittering, like sparks of emerald fire, from trees and bushes. The air was so cold it cut into his skin like a knife. He had a long way to go. He had to cross several streams and acres of kasharh jungle before he reached his boat and found the comfort of a warm bed. He redoubled his pace.

Passing a piyal tree he stopped in his tracks. “Raja saheb,” a soft voice had called out from the dark.

 “Who is it?” He looked this way and that.

“I’m Palanka.” A slight figure slipped out of the shadows and stood before him. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”

The light was so faint that he felt rather than saw the eyes fixed on his face. They were glowing like lamps. A pungent wild-flower scent, rising from her limbs, suffused his being.

Raja saheb felt as though he was in a dream. “I knew I would find you again,” he murmured.

“I heard what you said to Shankhini.” Palanka moved closer, “I hid behind the boat and heard every word. I want a home too. A home and a husband. I’m tired of drifting from bank to bank. Will you take me away from here? We’ll live like peasant folk do. Build a little hut and …”

“You’ll come with me?” Raja saheb felt the blood leap joyfully in his veins. Before he realised what he was doing he put out his arms and drew Palanka to his breast. Hours passed before Raja saheb released her. “I must go now,” he said, “The night is almost over.”

“You’ll come again?” Palanka’s voice throbbed with longing, “When will l see you next?”

“Every day. I’ll come to your band, every day.”

“Un hunh. Not to the band. Shankhini will be there. Come here again tomorrow. At dusk. I’ll be waiting. If you fail me, I’ll kill myself. I swear by Bish hari… I will.”

Raja saheb gazed at her wild-flower face with love. The love, untouched by lust, he had kept hidden in his heart for the one who would be his soul mate. She’s a bedeyni, he thought, yet the blood runs pure and free in her veins. Untainted by the venom of her inheritance…  

“I’ll come,” he said, “if that’s what you wish. I’ll meet you here tomorrow.”

Raja saheb walked away. Palanka’s heart felt as light as a bird’s. Spreading her arms, like the wings of a dove, she flew through patches of light and shadow, over grass and water, towards the fleet of boats that belonged to Shankhini.

Next evening, in the green-gold dusk, Raja saheb met Palanka under the piyal tree. He came again the next day and the day after. Every evening. The scent of their love filled the air like fumes of heady wine.

“Come closer bedeyni.” Raja saheb held out his arms. “Come straight into my heart.”

“I am always in your heart Raja saheb. But don’t call me bedeyni. Call me wife.”Palanka whispered against his lips, “When will you make me yours?  I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Like a love-sick bird I long for my mate.”

“A few more months. We’ll leave after the rains. I’ll marry you and take you away. Far away.”

“Where?”

“To Char Behula. Some farming folks are setting up a village there. We’ll join them…”

“What will you do with your band? Your men, your boats, your snakes and weapons…?”

“I’ll give them all to Shankhini. She loves me but she’s unwilling to leave her band. It is more important to her. What can I do? Besides,” a shadow fell on Raja saheb’s face, “I’m taking you away from her. I must pay the price…”

“It is true that she loves you. Every evening, before I come here, I see her all dressed up waiting for you. She has begun to suspect me. She has set up spies everywhere. I have managed to evade them so far but only Bish hari knows with what difficulty! I’m afraid Raja saheb. Mortally afraid. She’ll kill me if she catches us together. She’ll tear my limbs to shreds.”

“Why?”

“Why not? I have taken from her the man she loves. Can she forgive me?”

.

Another evening comes. Palanka stands under the lengthening shadows of the piyal tree locked in Raja saheb’s arms. “I can’t bear being parted from you any longer,” she murmurs. Her tears fall on her lover’s chest like a monsoon shower.

“I can’t bear being parted from you.” Her own words accompanied by a screech of mocking laughter sizzles Palanka’s ears as the lithe form of Shankhini slips from behind the piyal tree, where she had been hiding, and stands before her. “Haramjadi! Whoring wench!” She mutters between gritted teeth. Her mouth is twisted and ugly. Palanka’s dream shatters into shards. Springing apart, the lovers stand like stone figures and stare at Shankhini with frozen eyes…

.

“Zulfikar!” Shankhini roared like a tigress whose cub has been snatched from her breast. The black mountain bulk of her right-hand man materialised from the shadows. His eyes sprouted columns of fire like twin peaks of a volcano. His giant fists clenched and unclenched with fury.

Bajaan go[18]!” Palanka screamed and buried her face deeper in Raja saheb’s breast. Her frail body trembled like a leaf in a storm.

Bajaan go!” Shankhini’s voice, hissing like an adder’s tongue, echoed through the trees. “No Bajaan can save you from my clutches Haramjadi[19]! I dress up every evening and wait for my lover and you, you loathsome spawn of a worm, dare to lure him away? You’ve struck a cruel blow at my heart. I’ll exact a terrible revenge. No, I shan’t kill you. It would be too easy a death. I’ll have vultures feed on your living limbs; gouge your eyes out with their beaks. Oof! So much venom lay concealed in your heart! I’ll drain every drop of it out of your blood. I’ll pull out your poisonous fangs from their roots. Take her away Zulfikar. Take her to my boat and keep her tied to the mast till I come.”

The suddenness with which all this happened had left Raja saheb in such a state of shock that he looked on, paralysed, as Zulfikar flew at the girl like an enormous bird of prey and snatched her away from his breast. Minutes passed. The feral glare in Shankhini’s eyes dimmed. Her heaving breast calmed and stilled. Her eyes turned dewy as she murmured in a honeyed voice, “Raja saheb.”

Raja saheb turned to her. She looked dazzlingly beautiful in saffron silk and snake-bone ornaments. The statue came slowly to life. “What is it?” he asked, his voice slurred as though still in a dream.

“Is Palanka more beautiful than me?”

“No.”

“Then why did you give her your heart? Be mine…only mine.” Shankhini came close, so close, he could feel her breath, hot and moist, against his lips.

“I will be yours. But you must be mine first. You must come with me to Char Behula.”

Shankhini’s limbs turned rigid. The colour left her face. “But what about our bands?” she asked in a frightened voice. “Our heritage, our livelihood, Bish hari… won’t her curse fall on us if we abandon them?”

“That’s the trouble,” Raja saheb’s voice was cold. Detached. “You are a bedeyni to the core. You cannot be a wife. You’ll never be able to leave your band…”

“Let me think about it. Give me a few days.”

“It’s no use. You are not made for a humble life.” Raja saheb took her soft hands and gripped them in his own hard ones, “Palanka is. Give her to me Shankhini,” he begged.

Suddenly, something like a bolt of lightning struck the snake maiden’s veins and, branching out in roots and shoots, struck her heart. She snatched her hands from Raja saheb’s grip and ran out of the forest with the speed of a fleeing doe. Raja saheb looked on. A little smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.

A week went by. The rising sun continued to spread a soft, red-gold radiance across the sky. Mellow afternoons followed. Then, with day’s end, a sad wan darkness fell like a mist over Sonai Bibi’r Bil.

 That night, after Raja saheb begged her to give Palanka to him, Shankhini had fled like a hunted creature and, flinging herself on the deck of her hajarmoni boat, had broken into great shuddering sobs. Her lungs felt ripped and lacerated. Her heart burned with humiliation. Tears rained from her eyes, till there were none left. She was a bedeyni. She had been taught to endure the vagaries of nature. The assaults of the elements. Pain, sickness and fear. But she couldn’t… she wouldn’t endure defeat. Palanka’s small wild-flower face came before her eyes. To think that she with her timid eyes and tiny bird body had stolen her lover! That she was her rival! The thought was too painful to be borne.

It was true that Raja saheb had started tiring of the life their kind had lived from time immemorial. He wanted to put down roots. But Shankhini could have stalled him. She knew she could. It was Palanka who had stirred his emotions and encouraged him to follow his heart. The wretched harlot had tempted him; had offered to be his wife. She had to be punished. Shankhini knew that the slightest gesture from her would send Zulfikar charging towards Palanka. He would twist her head from her body, as easily as plucking a flower from its stem, and bring it to her. He would scatter her torn limbs over Sonai Bibi’r Bil as lightly as dron petals. But Shankhini bided her time. For the present she kept the girl locked in a dim dark cabin in the boat that housed the panha ghar …a temple dedicated to Bish hari. Every band had a panha ghar in one of the boats. Let the wretched creature spend a few days starving and pining for her lover she thought. She would think long and hard before deciding what to do with her.

Vengeance! What she needed was to wreak a terrible vengeance on the vassal who had betrayed her queen’s deepest trust. The girl was unaware of what she had done. She had stretched her hand out towards the cruelest, fiercest of fires. Shankhini would make every inch of her flesh burn with mortification; every drop of her blood turn to liquid flame.

A few days later Shankhini stood on the deck of her hajarmoni boat and called out to Zulfikar. It was a cold night. Dark and bitter, with a whistling wind. Instructions were given in sharp hissing tones.

An hour later the two stood outside the room in which Palanka had been confined. In his right hand Zulfikar held a metal rod the tip of which glowed with scarlet fire. In his other was a basin filled with coarse boiled rice. Shankhini unlocked the door. A lamp burned feebly in one corner. Palanka’s naked body crouched close to it, arched like a bow; half dead with cold.

‘Ei!’ Shankhini turned the girl over with her foot, ‘Get up.’

Palanka rose to her feet. What followed was a volley of agonized screams as Zulfikar drew a line across her brow with the burning rod. Again and again, seven times, till it was furrowed with crimson streaks.”Ki re!” Peals of demonic laughter burst from Shankhini’s lips, “Will you try to snatch my lover from me again… spawn of a serpent? Will you? Answer me. Is your mouth still slavering for a home and a husband? With the marks I’ve drawn across your forehead you look like a Boshtumi beggar. Not even a whore.” Shankhini dropped down beside the weeping girl. “I’ll bring a mirror tomorrow,” she said laughing, “You can see your face for yourself. Do you think Raja saheb will bother to cast another glance at you? Tell me little bird. Are you still in love with him?”

“Of course, I am.” Palanka raised her head and looked at her tormenter. Her eyes were still streaming but, with a fearlessness she hadn’t even known she possessed, she added, “And I’ll continue to love him till I die. You’ve lost him because there is no love in your heart. No…not for anyone. All you can do is take out your frustrations on others.”

Arre arre! The worm turns into a snake!” Shankhini’s lips twisted with scorn. “You haven’t learned your lesson yet, I see. You need a little more teaching. Remember one thing. I’m the daughter of Nagmati bedeyni. I can root out every kind of venom. Be it snake or human.”

Leaving therice on the floor Zulfikar and Shankhini walked out of the room. Shankhini turned the key in the lock and looked at the sky, a dim sky streaked with mist. How Palanka had changed she thought with a pang in her heart. What was the source from which the broken bird was deriving her strength? Could it be Raja saheb’s promise of a nest? What if she, Shankhini, followed her example? If she allowed her lover to lead her by the hand to a tiny hut in an obscure village by the bank of some distant river? If she turned herself into a loving wife and caring mother?

.

Next morning three men arrived with a message from the leader of the Barui community of Bajitpur. A snake had bitten a worker in his betel grove and Shankhini’s expertise was required to save his life.

Shankhini made haste to obey the summons. One of the tenets of their faith was rushing in answer to such a call. It was Bish hari’s implicit command. With a bag full of poison stones slung from one shoulder, a basket of roots and herbs on her head and an earthen plate in her hands, Shankhini came to the panha ghar.Dohor bibi accompanied her. Before venturing on an important task, members of her band came here to pay obeisance to Bish hari and seek her blessings. A clay image of the goddess they had moulded themselves, was set atop a coil of seven snakes. The giant hood of a kaliya nag formed an umbrella above her head. An udai nag hung from her neck like a garland and a khoijati was her bracelet. A kanchuli formed from the intertwining bodies of a chakrachud and a shankha nag covered her voluptuous breasts. Takshak and laudaga wove themselves into a skirt for her lower limbs and shuto shankha, thread-snakes, wound themselves into rings for her fingers. A couple of deadly danrash were her anklets and swinging merrily from her ears were the fanned-out hoods of white sada chiti. Incense burning in a censer filled the room with fragrant smoke.

Shankhini prostrated herself and touched the ground with her forehead. Her hands were folded in a humble plea. Drawing out snake venom was arduous; even dangerous. She could do it, she had done it often, but she needed the goddess’s blessing. She shot a glance at the image. And what she saw shocked her. The tender love that irradiated Bish hari’s face had vanished. A stern, cruel gleam had replaced the benign light in her eyes. Even the snakes around her coiled and uncoiled their bodies in agitation, fanned their hoods and spat venom from angry tongues. The air was full of hissing sounds. The incense burning before the image gave out clouds of evil smelling smoke. Shankhini’s limbs grew numb. Her senses swam. The blood running in her veins stood still.

“Make haste Amma,” Dohor Bibi’s voice came to her ears, as though from a vast distance. “We are very late as it is. Who knows what we’ll find on reaching Bajitpur.”

Shankhini shut her eyes and ran out of the panha ghar. She dared not stay there any longer. Any moment now, she thought with dread in her heart, the snakes will come streaking out like meteors and crawl over me. They will lash my face with their hoods and dig their fangs into my limbs. Sweat ran down her body like rain. In her heart was the roll of distant drums. She realised the truth. Bish hari had turned away from her; had taken away the right to utter incantations in her name. Shankhini had lost her power. A scream, trapped in her chest, did not reach her lips…

Meanwhile, the men from Bajitpur were getting restless. “Make haste bedeyni,” they said, “We have a long way to go.”

Shankhini was in a quandary. She couldn’t refuse to go with them. It would mean disobeying Bish hari’s express command. She had to shed all her misgivings and rush to save a victim of snake bite. But could she do so without the goddess’s benediction? As though in a dream Shankhini followed the men, Dohor Bibi walking by her side, into the wilderness of thorn, tussock, screwpine and bulrush, till they reached the piyal tree. Here her footsteps stopped. Her eyes widened with horror. For what she beheld was another world. A world one entered only after death…

She had been trying all this while to compose herself. To clear her mind of doubts and fears. To concentrate on the incantations that would enable her to do her task. But the figure waiting under the piyal tree, as though on a lover’s tryst, drove everything out of her head. Raja saheb’s large dark eyes pierced into hers; held them with an unflinching gaze.

“Where is Palanka?” he asked her, “I haven’t seen her for a long time.”

The anger and frustration she had been trying to subdue all this while came gushing out of Shankhini like steam from a boiling kettle. Her fears vanished. Her listless spirit sprang to active life as though lit with a blazing torch. “Palanka is in her grave,” she muttered through clenched teeth, “Listen Raja saheb. You cannot stay here any longer. I’m on my way to Bajitpur. I wish to see the fen cleared of you and your band on my return.” She walked away without a backward glance. But, no matter how hard she tried to dispel it, a thought kept tearing at her heart. Torturing her. Did she really want Raja saheb to leave Sonai Bibi’r Bil? If so, why had she entreated him to stay that first day? Why? 

Shankhini returned two days later, her limbs burning with fever, her eyes the flaming red of hibiscus flowers. Her hair was a tangled nest and her clothes soiled and disheveled. Like one possessed she ran to the panha ghar and threw herself on the floor at Bish hari’s feet.

It was late afternoon. The sun’s rays, hard and glittering like mica, enveloped the earth in white-hot light. The members of Shankhini’s band stood waiting outside the panha ghar. A little distance away Dohor Bibi stood weeping and trembling. All eyes turned to her. “Ki lo Dohor!” Mohabbat muttered uneasily, “You went with her to Bajitpur. What happened there? I don’t understand…”

Dohor Bibi threw a fearful glance in the direction of the woman in the panha ghar. Shankhini lay curled, like a snail afraid to come out of its shell. Her body shuddered with sobs. Tears streamed out of her eyes in an unstoppable flood. “Bish hari’s curse has fallen on her,” Dohor Bibi answered, “She was unable to utter a single mantra. She was speechless, unmoving, like a block of stone. She just sat by the boy’s side and watched him die.”

The faces around her turned pale. Eyes popped out of their sockets. “Bish hari appeared to her in a dream,” Dohor continued, “I heard her pacing up and down the room, all night, weeping as if her heart would break. By morning her body was shaking with a raging fever. Her eyes were fire-red. She ran all the way here swaying and staggering like a drunken woman. I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen to a word. What could I do? I ran after her as fast as I could.”

 Shankhini lay on the floor of the panha ghar all through the day, so still … life seemed to have left her limbs. Then, with the falling dusk, she rose to her feet. She had spent her tears. Her eyes burned like smouldering coals. But her mind was clear. She knew that she had committed a grievous sin and Bish hari had meted out a terrible punishment. She had taken away her powers. For the first time in her life Shankhini saw herself for what she truly was. A cruel, thwarted woman in the throes of an unrequited love. She realized that Raja saheb was a distant star she could never hope to reach. She had thought she could, through force of will. But it was only an illusion.

 Outside, in the darkening forest, a pair of jackals were yelping love calls to one another. Between them, they sent eddies of sound across stretches of reeds and humps of earth that rose from the shallow water. Dohor bibi, Moina and Atarjaan sat outside the panha ghar with Shankhini in their midst. She had ripped off her skirt and kanchuli. Theylay by her side in a discarded heap. Her jewels she had flung all over the floor. The snake maiden’s nude body, lay coiled like a golden snake, in hibernating slumber.

Presently she rose. Taking up an enormous censor of burned clay in both hands she commenced waving clouds of incense smoke before the image of Bish hari. Dancing and genuflecting she offered obeisance. She had sinned. She had allowed herself to stray from the path laid down by the goddess. She had put her love of a mortal above that of the divine. She had desired her lover with so much passion that she hadn’t stopped to reflect on the cost. Stripping oneself in body before the goddess, surrendering all thought and feeling at her feet, was the way bedeynis had atoned for their sins from time immemorial.

The dancing went on through the night. Smoke from the censer clouded the room. The air in the panha ghar turned opaque and acrid. Then, with the first pearling of the east, Shankhini fell to the floor in a dead faint. The censer crashed and broke into shards. Pieces of burning husk flew about the room and dropped on her motionless form, scorching the silk-smooth skin; blistering it.

 Her eyes opened to a flame of the forest dawn turning to liquid gold. She sat up. A deep peace, such as she had never known before, pervaded her being. She lifted her face to the sky and sang:

It is at Her bidding that the sun rises from the east.

Lakhai wakes from the dead, sits in his boat and smiles.

Ah me! So great is Bish hari’s mercy…

The sound of footsteps brought her out of her trance. Raja saheb stood before her. She felt the blood leap and whirl in her veins. A hundred joyous chords jangled in her ears. But only for a minute. Then her pulse fell into a gentle rhythm and her heart was still and tranquil.

“We would have left the fen just as you wished,” Raja saheb said, “Only…”

“I know what kept you,” Shankhini stopped him in mid-sentence. She felt a strange disconnect. As though she was speaking to a stranger. As though there had never been anything between them. “You’ve come to ask me for Palanki.”

“Yes,” Raja saheb exclaimed, his voice eager, “Let me have her. I’ll give you everything I possess in return. My band, my boats…”

“I don’t want anything. Except to be relieved of the burden I carry. The girl who never ceases to remind me of you. Take her away from here. Save me from Bish hari’s wrath. Only promise me one thing. That you two will never come into my presence again.”

“Do you really mean it? Do you? Swear on my head…” He moved towards her.

 “Don’t come near me,” she shrank involuntarily from his touch. “You smell different. Of home and hearth. Go to Palanki. Tell her you’ll marry her tomorrow. I’ll make all the arrangements.” Seeing his bewildered eyes fixed on hers, she added, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my word. A bedeyni does not lie.”

Raja saheb stood transfixed for a few moments. Then turning, he fled as though on wings into the forest. Shankhini watched him go. Waves of pain lashed against her heart, but she subdued them. Never again would she allow herself to weaken; to go against the laws framed by her ancestors.

Raja saheb and Palanka stood on either side of a waterhole the bedeys had dug earlier that day. A muga curtain separated them. Surrounding them in a ring were men and women from both bands. The bride’s petite form was wrapped in deep red silk. Sandalwood etchings marked her brow. A garland of white lotus swung gently on her breast and snake teeth jewels glittered from her neck and arms. Raja saheb was equally resplendent in a kingfisher blue silk lungi with peacock feathers waving from his raven locks. The two faces glowed in the amber-gold light of the setting sun. From the deck of the panha ghar, Shankhini watched the scene.

Homra bedey from Bhataar Mari’r Bil had been invited to perform the ceremony. His hair was the colour of straw, his eyes fogged with liquor fumes, and his skin so dry, it seemed to flake with every movement. A bow was fitted at his waist and a quiver of plumed arrows hung from one shoulder. Puffing out his stomach with self-importance he said,”The moment of Shanazar (the auspicious exchange of glances) has arrived. Are the bride and bridegroom willing?” Raja saheb swayed his head solemnly and Palanka trembled in response. Homra bedey lifted the curtain and the lovers saw each other’s face reflected in the clear water.

“The nuptial ceremony is over,” Homra announced, “The couple are married.”

 A volley of delighted exclamations accompanied by bursts of song rose from the crowd. Sonai Bibi’r Bil shared their joy. Her trees swayed from side to side and her leaves and grass rippled with ecstasy.

Shankhini covered her ears and ran into the panha ghar. She sat, for hours afterwards, gazing at the goddess. Imploring her to take away her pain…

Outside, around a glowing fire, members of both bands were celebrating. Dozens of empty bottles rolled about on the bank. The sky reverberated with drumbeats and the music of flutes grew wilder with every passing hour. The heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil rumbled with ecstasy akin to fear.

The bride and bridegroom sat in a vast grass boat, surrounded by bedeynis in motley-coloured skirts and kanchulis. The smiles on their faces glittered sharp as knives. Lightning darted from kohl lined eyes. Each was wrapped in a dream. A beautiful dream that had seemed unreal; unachievable so far but was no longer so.

Shankhini walked out of the panha ghar towards the group. Her eyes were fixed on Raja saheb as he sat among the women. Shafts of light flashed from his form as though from the petals of a diamond lotus. There was something strange about him. Unreal. As though he had appeared to her in a vision. Currents of illicit passion ran through her blood. All the vows she had made to the goddess receded. Bish hari’s warnings disappeared like lines drawn on water. ‘Listen Palanki,’ she whispered feverishly in the girl’s ears, ‘Come out for a moment. I have something to say to you.’

Shankhini’s breath, hot and stormy, blew in the girl’s face as they stood on the bank facing each other. Her eyes glittered like pieces of burning glass. Her limbs quivered as though snakes were wriggling in her blood stream.

“What is it Amma?” Palanka’s voice was a frightened whisper.

“I’ll give you my boats, my band, my jewels… everything I have. All I want in return is Raja saheb. Give him to me.”

“No. Never,” Palanka covered her ears and ran towards the boat. “I can’t. I can’t.”

Shankhini stared at the retreating form. “You think you’ll lie in my lover’s arms tonight, don’t you?” she muttered out of clenched teeth. “Be prepared for a shock.” She strode into the forest, determination stamped on every line of her face. She needed something. She had to find it before it was too late…

 An important ritual of a Hindu marriage is the exchange of floral garlands by the bride and bridegroom. It is called mala badal. Nomads from the river-swamps of Bengal follow a similar custom. The only difference is that what the couple hang on each other’s neck are living snakes.

The night turned dense and dark. And now the women who had been humming like bees around the bride and bridegroom sat up. “It’s late.”  Aatarjaan said yawning, “Time for the mala badal. Bring the snakes Dohor.”

“I’ve brought them,” Shankhini appeared suddenly in their midst, a basket balanced on each shoulder. “I’m the queen of this band. It is for me to do the honours.” The women noticed the secretive smile on her lips and the two tiny flames that flickered from the pupils of her eyes. They stared at one another in horror, but no one had the courage to utter a word.

“Come Raja saheb. Come, my little blackbird.” She held out a basket to each. “Take out the snakes and garland each other. The bridegroom, first, as is the custom.”

Palanka glanced fearfully at her mistress. Raja saheb appeared unfazed. His lips parted in a pleased smile as he took the basket from her. But the moment he pried open the lid the smile vanished. For, what shot up from the depths of the basket was an enormous kalchita, caught fresh from keya clumps growing in the heart of the fen. Swift as a blazing meteor, it stood on its tail hissing viciously, then, with a dart of its fanned hood, dug its fangs into Raja saheb’s brow. Two drops of blood, like glittering rubies, appeared on the golden skin as Raja saheb’s body swayed and fell to the floor. Palanka stood, as though paralyzed, watching her husband’s limbs turning blue from the deadly poison. Her throat was choked. She could neither speak nor weep. An eerie silence fell on the wedding party.

It was broken by a peal of cruel laughter that tinkled like breaking glass. “Ki lo Palanki!” Shankhini mocked the hapless girl. “You wanted to take my lover from me, didn’t you? Take him. He is all yours. Embrace him. Enjoy his kisses.”

 A moment later she threw herself at Raja saheb’s prostrate form with a blood curdling scream. “What have I done? Ma go! What have I done?” She leaned over him and shook him violently. But the man she was so desperately trying to bring back to lifelay motionless in her arms.She rose to her feet and looked this way and that, her eyes blank. The venom of kalchita isn’t so swift to act, she thought wonderingly, then why did Raja saheb succumb to it so quickly? Was the poison the reptile spewed in Raja saheb’s veins not its own? Was it mine? Was it I who gathered all the venom, that burned like fire in my heart and limbs, and thrust it under the kalchita’s tongue? Was it I who turned myself into the fanned hood of the creature I caught from the depths of the fen? Were those my deadly fangs that lashed my beloved’s brow?

 Wave after wave of guilt and bitter regret passed over her as her body became as cold and lifeless as the one which lay at her feet.


[1] Late autumn

[2] A tropical wild flower

[3] The god who conquers poisons

[4] What ho!

[5] Vermilion powder used by married Hindu women.

[6] “Who? Who?”

[7] Rivers in Bengal

[8] Praise be to

[9] Coiffure

[10] Heavenly nymph Tillotama

[11] The tree snake

[12] A boat weighing a thousand maunds: a maund is about 40kg

[13] Drum beats

[14] ‘How do I live this life my friend bereft of my Shyam.”—translated by Aruna Chakravarti

[15] Vaishnavi – followers of Vishnu who pursue vegetarianism and do not drink alcohol

[16] Vaishnav – masculine form of Vaishnavi

[17] An intoxicant

[18] Short form for Abbajaan or father

[19] Female bastard

(Translated and published with permission from the author)

Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors, Suralakshmi Villa have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince is her sixteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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Down the Stairs by Nabendu Ghosh

Translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay, edited by Nabendu Ghosh’s daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta, to mark his birth anniversary, Siri Beye Nichey (Down the Stairs) was first published in the Bengali weekly, Sharadiya Bartaman (1998) and subsequently in the anthology, Paresh Mandaler Laash ( Paresh Mandal’s Corpse, Publisher: Mitra & Ghosh).

“This does not feel like Bangur Hospital, Jibu,” Judhistir said to his son.

Jiban was leading the way. Sunayani was following with her husband, holding his hand to lend him support.

Jiban replied in a very low voice, “This is Bangur…”

“Can you again see with your eyes?” Sunayani snubbed her husband. On hearing this Judhistir fell silent. 

But he was right: it was not Bangur, it was Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital.

Jiban and Sunayani did not utter ‘Cancer’ lest the word put a scare in Judhistir and he refused to go for the required tests. Of late Judhistir would cough continuously and groan, feeling pain on the right side of his back. So initially he was taken to Bangur Hospital. After the preliminary tests they referred him to this hospital for the final detection. That’s how they were all here this morning.

Judhistir was not blind by birth. He lost his eyesight when he was sixty — a fallout of Glaucoma. But he has implanted in his mind whatever he has seen over the last sixty years, so he can still make out where he is and which way he is going.

It took about four hours to finish all the tests. The results would be known to them in another three days. They all came out of the hospital.

At around two in the afternoon, they returned to their single bricked home in a Jadavpur shanty. A rented space where they’ve been living for the last thirty years, paying Rs 50 a month. 

Their poverty set in when Judhistir went blind some fifteen years ago. That’s when they rented out two of their rooms and a small corner of the veranda to Shibnath for Rs 30 a month, to supplement their income.

Jiban’s four-year-old son, Nantu, was playing in the courtyard with Shanti’s eight-year-old daughter, Ritu. As soon as he saw his grandparents he ran up to them, hugged his grandma and asked, “What have you brought for me Thamma?”

With a smile Sunayani brought out a small parcel of sweets from her bag and gave Nantu and Ritu a piece each. She had bought these on her way back. It made both the kids very happy.

Judhistir coughed a couple of times and flopped on the bench in the veranda.

Shibnath’s widowed sister Shanti came out. Casting a glance at Judhistir she asked Sunayani, “What did the doctors say, Mashima?”

“They carried out the tests,” Jiban answered. “Nothing serious or to be scared of.” As he spoke, he looked at his mother, then at Shanti. Eye to eye they had a silent communication. Then Shanti said, “Well then Mashima, finish your bath and have your lunch. It’s already very late.”

“Yes Ma, I’m going in,” Sunayani said stepping towards her room. “Let me arrange for your Mesho Mashai’s bath first.”

When Jiban and Sunayani were by themselves she whispered to her son, “I’m scared for your father Jibu…”

“If you fear from now Maa, how will you survive?” Jiban smiled. “We will worry about fear after three days.”

*

After lunch when Sunayani brought the medicines to her husband, Judhistir said slowly, “Because of me both Jibu and you had to skip work today.”

Sunayani placed a hand on his shoulder as she said, “One of us stayed away for his father, another for her husband, so don’t you worry.”

Judhistir smiled. And repeated the words he always uttered, whenever he was happy or sorrowful: “Hari Hari Hari!”

*

Judhistir had been blind for the last 15 years but before that he had seen and enjoyed life. So even now, when the light was switched off he could feel the darkness deepen and when the sun rose he can feel that too, and his dull eyes shimmered with life. Slowly he rose from his bed and called out, “Jiban’s Maa, d’you hear me?”

“Coming dear,” her trembling voice answered.

The sweet smell of something frying in the pan entered his nostrils — it signalled that a new day had started.

Sunayani came and stood by him. The heat of the stove imparted a blush of pink to her fair skin. Her forehead gleamed with beads of sweat. Her face, though lined with wrinkles, showed that she was once a beautiful lady.

“Awake? Are you feeling well?”

“Yes dear, I am fine.”

Combing his unruly hair with her fingers, Sunayani said, ” Wait, I’ll get you your tea.”

“Is Jiban up?”

“Still lying in. I will wake him up with his morning cup.”

“Where’s Nantu?”

“Sleeping in Shanti’s room, next to Ritu.”

“Hari Hari Hari!”

*

The clock hands were racing. Judhistir realised that Jiban was up. Shanti’s brother Shibnath, his wife Jaba, Nantu and Ritu were all awake. 

Shibnath worked as a salesman in a stationary shop at Gariahat. He was ready to leave. Jaba served as a maidservant in three houses in Jadavpur itself. She too would leave to be back by five in the evening. Sunayani would finish her cooking and go to one Sanjay Chatterjee’s house where she supervised the kitchen. Jiban, a peon in an advertising firm, was also preparing to leave. Sunayani and Jiban respectively brought home Rs 500 and Rs 800. This 1300/- was their total source of livelihood.

Sunayani helped her husband to wash up and take a bath. Then she fed him some roti and tea. She finished all her chores and kept lunch ready for him. Shanti had become like their daughter. All through the day she took care of not only Judhistir but also of Nantu. In her spare time she made paper bags. Every Saturday a man stopped by to collect them. The  profit wasn’t much but even Rs 100 was not to be sneezed at.

By this time Jiban and Sunayani were ready to leave. “I’m off Baba,” he said to his father. “All right son — Hari Hari Hari!” “I’m off too — you take care.” 

“Hyan, you too. Hari Hari Hari…”

*

Mother and son headed out of the house together. Once on the main road, they took a bus to Lord’s Crossing. Within five minutes they arrived at the junction. From there they reached the Lake Gardens Super Market where Sunayani sat down under a leafy tree near the eastern gate.

“Okay Maa, I’ll carry on now,” Jiban said to her.

“Hyan,” Sunayani nodded to him, “but be very careful while on work.”

“Yes Maa,” Jiban went his way.

Sunayani had come in a worn out, soiled sari. She pulled the pallu over her head and sat down. The bindi on her forehead was bright crimson. She leaned against the wall with the palm of her right arm stretched out. The passers-by, in a rush to get to the market, didn’t even cast a glance at her. But those coming out with their hands laden with purchases all noticed her saddened, poverty stricken beautiful face. Some of them stopped to drop ten paisa, 20 paisa or a quarter too in her outstretched hand. At times some of them moved on and then came back to give her something. 

This was a daily occurrence. Sometimes two or three shoppers dropped even a rupee each while five-six others happily parted with 50 p coins. “May God bless you!” Sunayani gratefully muttered. Or she varied the blessing: “May you be victorious!”

In other words, Sunayani neither cooked nor supervised the kitchen in any house. She had taken to begging because she did not get a suitable job. But she did not tell this to Judhistir whose self-respect was intense although Shibnath, Jaba and Shanti were aware of this. This job easily earned her 300 to 400 rupees every month.

*

By now it was around 8 am. Jiban could be spotted in Lake Gardens. He had come out of the house wearing a dhoti and kurta. Now he had put the kurta away in a plastic bag and in its place, covered himself with a thin white cotton drape. His hair was ruffled. He’d not shaven since the previous day. In his underarm he was holding a rolled straw mat. He had grief writ over his face.

He entered a three-storeyed building and climbed up the stairs. 

There were three flats on each floor. He pressed the first bell. 

A lady opened the door. “What d’you want?”

“I’ve lost my mother Madam! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of mourning.”

With sharp eyes the lady looked at Jiban. The sadness on his lean and tender face touched the mother in her. “Wait,” she told him and went indoors. A minute later she emerged with an almost-torn two rupee note.

Jiban bowed low as he took the money and slowly walked towards the staircase. As soon as the lady shut her door he turned around and pressed the bell on the second door.

“Who’s there?” A heavy voice floated out moments before the door opened. A thickset Punjabi gentleman in his mid-fifties came out.

“What do you want?” The gentleman asked with a frown, then repeated the question in Bengali, “Ki chai?”

A charming teenaged girl came and stood behind him. Jiban repeated what he’d just phrased: “I’ve lost my mother Sir! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of Matridaay.”

“Matridaay?!” The Punjabi gentleman could not comprehend the term. 

“Papa, his mother is dead,” the girl helpfully interpreted. “He needs money for her shraddha. He seeks some help.”

“Rubbish!” The man uttered and went in. 

The girl stepped forward and asked in unaccented Bengali, “When did your mother die?”

“Day before yesterday sister.”

“What happened?”

“She had cancer.”

“Oh!” she said, and shouted, “Papa, his mother died of cancer.”

“Okay okay…” Once again the man stood framed by the doorway. He handed his daughter a two-rupee coin and said, “Go give it to him.”

The girl gave him the two rupees and said, “Our sympathy is with you.”

“Thank you sister, thank you.”

The girl closed the door. 

*

Now the third flat. The door was opened by a bespectacled Bengali gentleman in pajama kurta. He would be in his forties. 

The moment he saw Jiban he harshly demanded, “What d’you want? Help? Money?”

“Yes sir, for my mother’s last rites I need some help.”

“Help? No hope of that here.”

“Have pity on me sir!”

“No, I never pity anybody. Asking for pity is your business but not showing pity is my belief. Go, get lost.”

Jiban looked at the man as if crestfallen. He shut the door with a bang.

Defeated, Jiban slowly started to walk away. Just then the same gentleman opened the door again. 

“Hey, come here.”

Giving him a rupee coin he ordered, “Scoot!”

Again the door closed with a bang.

*

Jiban climbed one floor down.

The door to the first flat was opened by a Bengali youth. He smiled as he asked, “Mother’s dead, isn’t that so?”

“Yes sir, my mother…”

“Oh what a truthful Yudhisthir!” he mocked. “Get lost!”

The door closed on Jiban’s face.

The next flat was opened by an elderly lady. She was saddened by Jiban’s mourning uniform and grief stricken appearance. “Wait,” she said before disappearing inside. She returned with a five rupee note.

The lady in the third flat also gave him a rupee.

Finally Jiban came to the ground floor. An elderly Marwari opened the first door. Patiently he listened to what Jiban parroted, then with a stern face and a quiet voice he said, “You cheat! Bolt – or I’ll call the police.” The door banged shut.

The next flat yielded Re 1, and a paan-chewing Marathi in the last flat also parted with a rupee.

Coming out of the building he counted his earning — Rs 13. 

From one building to another, Jiban roamed about in the Lake Gardens area till 12.30 pm. Then he halted – “All the ranting will start now,” he thought to himself. So he counted his net collection of the morning – Rs 30.50. Not bad at all. Satisfied, he returned to the supermarket where his mother was waiting.

*

“Had your lunch?” Sunayani asked.

“No. What about you?”

“No. Come let’s eat together.” Both of them took out their tiffin boxes filled with three rotis each, some dry vegetables, and molasses. They ate, then had their fill of water. Aah! Deep satisfaction. 

“How much did you earn this morning?”

“Good intake Maa, about Rs 30. And you?”

“Rs 11.”

A moment’s hesitation, then Sunayani said, “Sometimes I fear for you… This profession…”

“Maa, people are still kind,” Jiban reassured her, “if they hear something has happened to your parents they take pity on you.”

Sunayani fell silent. Then both of them rested under the same tree. It was 4 pm but the market was still dozing, the shops had their shutters down. Sunayani would stretch out her arms again at 5 but Jiban carried on. He tried his luck in ten-twelve other houses and stopped after sunset. This round fetched him another Rs 15. It would take another week to complete Lake Gardens. This was a classy area, and people still respect the word ‘Maa’. So his earning was bound to be good despite all the abuses.

*

It was late evening when Jiban returned home. Shanti was at the door, she gave him a sweet smile. At about twenty eight Shanti was lean, carelessly dressed, had no time for grooming and still was nice looking. They stared at each other for a few seconds, conveying their feelings to each other through their eyes. Then Jiban went in.

Judhistir heard Jiban’s footsteps and asked, “Jibu, hasn’t your mother come home yet?”

“No Baba but she will any minute now.”

“I was just a little worried. It’s a bit late today, isn’t it? Past 7…”

“No! It’s just 6.30…”

Judhistir kept quiet.

Jiban washed, bathed, put on a rather old but cheerful lungi and a fresh shirt. Cautiously he went out of the house, came to the main road and sat in Anil’s Tea Stall. “Come friend!” Anil invited him in. Jiban sat in a corner, picked up the day’s newspaper and started going through the headlines.

Half an hour later he asked his friend for a cup of tea. Like every other day Anil put two cups of tea next to him at one go. Jiban sat there till 9 pm. In between he lit up a cigarette, his one luxury. He sat there listening to all the conversations between the other customers. He set out for home when Anil closed shop for the day. This has become his daily routine.

Back home he played with Nantu and Ritu, he chit-chatted with Shibnath and Jaba, had small talk with the others. Then came dinner. After washing up, it was time to go to bed.

But for some reason Jiban couldn’t sleep. As on other days he woke up in the middle of the night. The fears that were buried deep within now started to haunt him. Images of his past life surfaced on the screen of his mind like scenes from a movie.

Jiban had studied up to class nine when he landed his first job — in a decent steel factory. In four years he mastered the job but just as he was to be made permanent in employment the Employees Union declared a strike. Jiban had played an active role in the strike. The labourers won after a month of striking work but six months down Jiban was laid off for a small mistake. The Union sympathized with him but did not come to his help as he was a “casual worker.” He was twenty six then.

After this he got a job as a peon in an office at Dharamtala. Around this time he married Shipra from his neighbourhood. His mother did not consent to the marriage but he was adamant. A year later Nantu was born and two years later Shipra eloped with the local hooligan, Paresh. What shame! No one knew their whereabouts now.

From then on his life changed. Unsuccessfully he tried his hand at different jobs and several businesses — all in vain. At last when he found no other way he took to earning by deceiving others. But now what?

His blind father’s condition was deteriorating by the day, his mother’s health was failing yet she had taken to begging on the streets under the open sky. And Nantu was growing up. What does the future hold for him? 

The thought made him restless. Edgy. He got out of his bed and lit a cigarette — the second luxury of the day.

*

Old people don’t easily fall asleep, either.

From his bed Jiban could hear his parents talk.

Judhistir was whispering to his wife, “I feel nervous when you are gone from home for so long. I get depressed. I can’t see you even when you are at home but I feel…”

“Don’t I know that!” Sunayani placed a hand on his mouth. “And am I happy staying away from home for hours on end? But now please be quiet. Sleep…”

*

The next morning Jiban went to the Cancer Hospital to collect his father’s test report.

A long queue.

After about half an hour the doctor summoned him.

“Who are you to Judhistir Das? Any blood relation?”

“Yes, I’m his son.”

The doctor was sympathetic. “I’m sorry to inform you,” he shook his head, “your father has cancer in his right lungs and it has reached the terminal stage. You should have started the treatment long ago. Now he has a very limited his time span.”

Jiban gulped twice before speaking, “Even so, how many more years doctor?”

With a sombre face the doctor replied, “Six to seven months, at the most a year.”

It took Jiban some time to find his voice, “Any possible treatment?”

“Your father is beyond any treatment,” the doctor said, “but if, for your peace of mind, you wish to go for an operation, it would cost approximately Rs 20-25,000 here in Kolkata and about Rs 60-70,000 in Mumbai. It is for you to decide. Anyway, here are the reports and a prescription of the medicines he will need right away.”

As he took the reports Jiban felt as helpless as his blind father. When he staggered out of the hospital it was 11 am. It was late, still he went about his business as usual. He did the rounds of 10-12 houses in Lake Gardens repeating the same story of his mother’s death and managed to earn Rs 16.

Sunayani was anxiously waiting for her son. The moment she sighted him she eagerly asked, “Got the report?”

“Yes Ma,” he flopped next to his mother.

“What is ailing him?” 

Jiban could not utter the ‘Cancer’ word.

“Why aren’t you answering? What’s wrong?”

Jiban recounted everything he’d heard from the doctor. Sunayani stared vacantly at him, then lay down on the ground.

“Maa!”

Sunayani did not respond.

“Maa it won’t do to break down. Oh Maa!”

“Let me get my breath back son…”

“Don’t breathe a word of this to him,” Jiban said, “not even by mistake.”

“But we must try to save him.”

“Yes Maa, we must. But if we break down who will try?”

Sunayani nodded, “Right.”

*

As soon as Sunayani entered the house in the evening Shanti rushed out and told her, “Mashima some relative of yours had come today — he saw you begging in the Lake Gardens Super Market and gave the news to Mesho Mashai. Since then he is livid and ranting like a madman.”

Sunayani thought it would be better not to face Judhistir then. She wanted to talk to Jiban first and decide how to deal with the situation. 

Judhistir’s voice could be heard calling out, “Shanti! Ma Shanti!”

Shanti walked up to his room, “What d’you want Mesho Mashai?”

“Isn’t your Mashima home yet?”

“Shanti looked at Sunayani who shook her head to say “No.”

Shanti replied, “No Mesho Mashai.”

“And Jiban? He isn’t back too?”

“No Mesho Mashai, Jiban Da isn’t back either.”

“Hari Hari Hari! Oh god, please take me to you!”

Hearing his anguished cry Sunayani was reminded of the report from the hospital and tears welled up in her eyes. Somehow she controlled herself.

Nantu and Ritu were still playing in the courtyard. Shibnath returned from work followed by Jaba. In a low voice Shanti told them not to ask Sunayani anything.

After a while Judhistir again called out, “Shanti! O Ma Shanti!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai?”

“Your Mashima…”

“Still not back — nor is Jiban Da -“

“Why is Jiban’s mother so late today?”

At that very moment Jiban entered the house. Sunayani gestured to him to be quiet, drew him aside and told him all the developments. “What will happen now Jiban?” she asked him in despair.

Jiban thought for a while, then said, “We’ve lied to Baba all these years but now it’s time to tell him the truth.”

Again Judhistir called out, “Shanti! O my Shanti Ma!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai, tell me…” She came out of her room and spotted Jiban.

“Aren’t they home yet? Jiban? His mother?”

“Yes we’re home!” Sunayani spoke up. “What’s the matter? Why are you so agitated?”

“Both of you come to me right away,” the blind man’s voice resounded with sternness.

“Yes we’re here,” Sunayani came and stood near her husband.

Judhistir couldn’t see her but his sense of smell recognized her presence. Rudely he asked her, “Have I ever sinned against anyone? Have I committed any crime? Did I ever steal or pick any pocket?”

Sunayani stiffened, “Why? What happened?”

“Answer me first!”

“No you’ve not. True to your name you are truthful, pious.”

Jiban came and stood behind his mother, behind him stood Shanti. “Indeed!” Judhistir’s stern voice rose a pitch higher, “now you’re spewing sarcasm! Tell me, did I ever beg before anybody on the streets?”

“Never.”

“Then why do you?”

“Who gave you this news?”

“Sudhir, my first cousin. He saw you with outstretched arms. Tell me, is that true?”

“Yes, I was begging. But not just today, I’ve been doing that for the last two years, stretching out my hands to arouse pity in passers-by. Every human has God inside him, I spread my arms to that God. Because I want to live. I didn’t get any other job and I don’t have the strength to roam about in search of a new job. I have done no crime. If begging was a crime, people would not give me any money.”

Judhistir was dumbfounded. He remained speechless for some time, then said, “You… Are you preaching to me?”

“No, only you men can preach — tell us what to do and what not to do. You taught me all these years, and I lived the way you wanted me to. Now I will do as my conscience dictates. Yes I will beg — and you don’t say one more word on this.”

Judhistir suddenly screamed out, “Jiban!”

He stepped forward, “Yes Baba?”

“Do you know about your mother’s job?”

“Yes I do,” Jiban replied. “I also beg but in a different way, to earn our upkeep,” he went on. “We didn’t tell you because it would not be to your liking.”

Speechless, Judhistir stared vacantly into air.

Jiban continued to speak, “Baba don’t carry on like this, don’t be angry. This is where Fate has taken us. Now even if you want us to stop, we’ll carry on doing the same work.”

“What are you saying?!! You…y-o-u…”

“Yes, we’ll continue to do whatever we’re doing. I haven’t done what so many others are doing out of sheer necessity — hooliganism, thievery, hijacking, murder…”

Judhistir saw red. “Go away, get lost!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “You too go away, go away. I will not say a word more, not a word..”

Jiban moved out of the room, Shanti too returned to her room.

Sunayani stared at her husband for a few seconds, then she too slowly walked out.

*

Jiban didn’t care. Like every other day he put on his cheerful old lungi and a fresh kurta; went to Anil’s Tea Stall, stayed there till 9 pm and returned home. 

Judhistir now started on a new track — hunger strike.

Sunayani came asking him to have his dinner and he declined. The more she asked him to have his meal the more vigorously he refused it, “No – no – no.”

Then Shanti came to plead with him, “Mesho Mashai don’t be angry, not with food!”

Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “No!”

Shibnath and Jaba came with the same request, and got the same reply, “No.”

“Oh Mesho Mashai…”

Before they could say anything else Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “My dears, please don’t ask me to eat. Why worry? I am not committing hara kiri — but I simply can’t swallow a morsel today.”

*

Only Jiban didn’t utter a single word.

Like every other day he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. The chronology of his failures danced before his eyes like a movie and then evaporated in thin air with his cigarette smoke.

Today he tried to listen in but couldn’t hear his parents talk. Instead he could hear his father cough. He was coughing incessantly. He must collect money for his father’s treatment. By hook or crook. He has made some friends in Anil’s Tea Stall — three of them were daredevils. They’re crazed by want — poverty — and greed. What if he planned with them to rob a bank in the suburbs of Kolkata? 

But what if he could not do that? His father’s death would draw closer. It would be sooner, faster. “But what can be done?” Jiban thought philosophically. Humans came into this world and, like any creature big or small, like mosquitoes, house flies, cockroaches or ants, they die…

Irrelevant, but he also thought, “Will it be appropriate to marry Shanti before robbing the bank?”

*

In the morning Sunayani brought a cup of tea and sat next to her husband. Judhistir turned his face away from her. “What happened? You won’t have tea? Still angry?! Okay,” she said, “if you don’t, I’ll stop eating and drinking too. But do remember that I will not stop doing the work I do, because I’m doing it for our grandson.”

Sunayani stood up to go. Suddenly Judhistir reached out and caught hold of her hand. “Give me the tea,” he said.

Though Judhistir started to eat he didn’t speak with anybody. He simply couldn’t accept the fact that his wife was begging on the streets for a livelihood.

*

For ten days Jiban begged with everyone to help him in his ‘mother’s death’. After ten days he shaved off his beard. Now started another chapter of his life: he was collecting money for ‘Sri Gourango Ashram of Basirhat.’ 

This time around he was to be spotted in the Paikpara and Lake Town areas of North Kolkata. He was donning a white dhoti and a handwoven khadi kurta. He had a namavali – a folded stole printed with the name of gods – over one shoulder and on the other a white cotton sling bag. Inside the bag he had two receipt books and a pen. He sported a sandalwood tilak on his forehead and was singing the Vaishnav chant in praise of ‘Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam’.

In this avatar Jiban collected donations from more or less everyone — even aetheists give him a rupee! When he plays this role Jiban went by the name of ‘Gobinda Das.’  He was very professional about the job: he signed a receipt for whoever donated some money, big or small. Then he folds his hands and humbly salutes like a born Vaishnav, “Jai Nitai Gaur!” 

He spent ten days in this manner and then stopped. Next Jiban thought of another way to earn money. With his father’s cancer report and the prescriptions for medicines he went from door to door in the aristocratic area of Alipore. And he collected quite a bit of money. On the last day he did not shave. The next day he went back to the original strategy of seeking money on the pretext of “Matridaay”. “Mother’s funeral… Please help!” This time he chose to operate in the upper crust area of Ballygunge.

*

Jiban pressed the bell on the first door. It was opened by a handsome man in a dressing gown. “What d’you want?” he asked in Bengali. Jiban lowered his head, “My mother passed away the day before yesterday. I’m in mourning…”

“Silent!” The man roared like a blood hound. “Not a word more — just go out!”

The next door was opened by an aged lady. She heard Jiban out and handed him Rs 2. 

A sober Punjabi gentleman emerged from the third door. On hearing what Jiban said he sighed. “Mother! Oh! Hold on son.” He went indoors and came out with a fiver. Handing it over he said, “May your mother find peace.”

The fourth door was opened by a Bengali youth in his twenties. Soon as Jiban uttered the word ‘Maatriday’ he lost his cool. “You cheat! Aren’t you tired of lying?” he shouted.

“What’s the matter Apurbo?” Another young man of his age came out.

This guy who lived in the Lake Gardens area recognized Jiban — he’d seen Jiban in his house in the same attire. “Yaar this man had come to our house a month back. What’s he saying now? His mother’s dead and he needs money for her funeral?”

“Correct. He’s saying he needs help for her shraddha.”

“No Apurbo, we must do a funeral for this cheat,” the boy angrily spewed out. “His mother’s been dying through an entire month!”

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” Jiban said with an innocent face.

“Cheat! You’ve the gumption to say I’m mistaken!” The Lake Gardens boy came out aggressively.

Sensing trouble, Jiban retreated and broke into a run. Now the Ballygunge boy came out.

“Grab him! Don’t let the cheat get away…” The Lake Gardens boy chased Jiban saying, “He deceives people by saying his mother’s dead and swindles them out of money!” 

As the cousins ran after Jiban some boys on the street also joined the chase. Before they could lay their hands on him Jiban felt a stab of pain in his chest. He stopped running, tumbled, fell on the road and lost consciousness.

*

Jiban did not return home that night. When he remained missing the next morning Shibnath set out to lodge a ‘Missing’ diary at the Police Station. Just then a young man came with the news that Jiban was admitted in Dr K Basu’s private clinic. He’d suffered a heart attack but at present he was stable.

This worried Sunayani. She joined Shibnath and they followed the youth to Dr Basu’s clinic at Gariahat.

On seeing his mother Jiban gave her a wan smile.

Sunayani and Shibnath met Dr Basu. Before they could reveal their identities Dr Basu explained, “Yesterday I witnessed some commotion on the road and then saw this man lying on the footpath. I went to him and realised he’d had a heart attack. He would have died on the spot if he’d not been taken to a hospital. Since the government facilities were at quite a distance I brought him here to my clinic. Now his condition is under control. You can take him home after two days.”

The doctor continued to speak, “From his attire I can see his mother’s dead. I can also make out from his condition that he’s not well off. So you don’t need to pay me anything. But make sure he gets complete rest for at least two months. And he must be given proper food and medicine. He must undergo some tests as well.”

After two days Jiban came home in a taxi. He entered to see Nantu and Ritu playing in the courtyard. He kissed them both, went to his room holding Shanti’s hand and lay down in his bed.

Judhistir rushed out of his room to meet his son and collided against the wall. Sunayani led him by his hand and made him sit on Jiban’s bed. Judhistir scrambled around and placed his hand on his son’s head.

Two days passed.

Sunayani returned to her normal routine. She gave Judhistir and Jiban their morning tea, and their medicine; she finished cooking, fed her husband, gave some instructions to Shanti, then stood at the door of Judhistir’s room. “We’re in need of money,” she told him. “So I’m going to work, okay?”

Judhistir did not reply. Sunayani turned around to leave. But before she could cross the threshold Judhistir suddenly called out, “Listen Jiban’s Maa…”

*

Two boys in late teens were entering the Lake Gardens Super Market. Suddenly one of them started searching his pocket for his shopping list. 

” Did you misplace it somewhere?” the other boy asked.

“No, here it is. Got it.”

Hearing their voices a beggar spoke from the corner, “Have mercy on me sons!”

The boys turned around to see the beggar.

“New face?”

“Blind.”

“Is he really blind or just acting?”

“Yes sons, I’m really blind,” the beggar said.

“Really?!” Suddenly the first boy swished out a knife and made to strike him on his nose. But the beggar did not react. He didn’t draw back or turn away his face. No expression.

“Oh, he’s really blind,” the second boy said.

” Then we must give him some alms.” The boy fished out a coin, “Here grandpa, stretch out your hand.” 

They placed the coin in his palm.

Judhistir felt a deep satisfaction as he held the 50 p in his hand. It was his earning after long years, he sighed. And he thought to himself: “All these years my wife and my son have begged for my sake. Now on I will beg for my son and grandson.”

Glossary:

Thamma — Grandma

Mashima — aunty

Mesho moshai — uncle

Hyan — Yes

Pallu — the loose part of a sari, can be worn over the head or just left hanging over the shoulder like a scarf

Maatriday, Shraddha — Death rituals

Judhishtir or Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharta, was known for his legendary honesty.

Nabendu Ghosh & his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta.
Photo shared by Ratnottama Sengupta

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.

Sarmishtha Mukhopadhyay is a retired teacher who has taken to translations and to writing travel blogs.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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

Categories
Stories

Give Me a Rag, Please!

Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta from Bengali, Nabendu Ghosh’s short story brings out the absolute deprivation of basic needs of the common people during the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Old man Ekkori was closing in on sixty. For two years his sight has been halved by cataract – in fact he’s as good as sightless. By doing this the Preserver of People’s Dignity had protected Harimati from the indignity of standing in the nude before her father-in-law – even her husband Teenkori admitted this.

Nude? Yes, what else but nude? The two saris that Harimati had been alternating on a daily basis had become so threadbare that, forget outings, it would be tough to maintain decorum even indoors if her father-in-law still had his power of vision. And this, even though they’re not gentlefolks, they’re mere peasants.

Harimati didn’t step out of the house until sundown. Fetching water, doing the dishes, washing the clothes – everything had to wait until darkness sets in. Yes, they’re from the lower strata but her sense of decorum and shame was not a mite less than that of a refined woman belonging to genteel society. It could actually be a bit more since Harimati had always been proud of one thing: Her father had studied till the Minor (primary) school examination – something beyond her husband Teenkori and his father Ekkori.

Still, she was managing. She was determined not to be bothered by embarrassment or chagrin. But things came to a head when an uninvited guest showed up with the claim of an uncalled for kinship. There was a time when a guest was worshipped as God but those times were long past. Time had taken that culture too with it. Now if things came to pass, a father disowned his son, a husband abandoned his wife, a mother sold her offspring. Even that could be excused – they may not have had any other option.

In a peasant’s family, even dire poverty did not deprive them of a coarse variety of rice and some greens that grew in their own courtyard. The bottle gourd climbing up their fence was about to blossom, the other end of the narrow stretch fenced off had a drumstick tree that caught attention with its healthy growth.

A distant cousin from Nandangachhi had showed up unannounced. Teenkori’s maternal aunt’s paternal cousin’s son Nandalal. Some work had drawn him to their town – he would go back the same evening. He was accompanied by a helping hand – belonging to the Tili community, a notch lower than them in social standing.

That wouldn’t be a problem. They’re guests for half a day – they could and would be taken care of. They would even be served a bowl of milk – borrowed from Tarini Mondal’s family who lived next door. But trouble arose when it came to serving them lunch.

It had been decided that Teenkori’s eleven-year-old sister Protima – the motherless Pooti – would serve the meal. But when it was time to seat the guest on the floor mats, she left on the pretext of fetching water from the nearby pond. Fact was, she too felt shy. A tense Harimati had called out to her two or three times but the girl didn’t look back. Consequently Harimati couldn’t avoid the task she was planning to all this while: she had to take upon herself the onus of serving food to the guests.

Teenkori started fidgeting halfway through the meal. A glance at his wife, and the food stuck in his throat. An old old sari soiled with time, torn in places and patch-worked at spots – she was trying to cover her body with the rag. Teenkori hasn’t forgotten the pedigree of the sari. Before the War broke out, before his stillborn son came into the world, when Harimati was given a shower in the seventh month, he had purchased a pair for two rupees and one anna. One of the duo had gone months ago, this one was worn occasionally and so had lasted a while longer. Since the last year, she was reduced to wearing it every single day, and now it was threadbare. Harimati had carefully draped it over her body, yet you could clearly make out the contours of her body. Her arms, her shoulder, fleshy bulge near her chest — they refused to be subdued by the rag. Had she the cover of a chemise, she would not feel so discomfited. But in a family where procuring a coarse sari barely five yards long was itself a feat, a chemise was a luxury they did not waste time thinking about.

Teenkori’s fidgeting could be traced to one more reason. All the men seated to lunch were focused on the meal, but the eyes of the boy accompanying Nandalal were restless, untamed. Even as he was gulping the mouthfuls, his oblique stare was devouring every part of Harimati’s body. She may not have been an eyeful, nor was she repulsive. Her youthful healthy body had an innate appeal. Earlier, she was even more healthy, even more sprightly. But the efforts to evade the decimation of the horrendous famine had taken a toll. She has withered, shrunk.

There was another reason. The famine that spared not a grain of rice, no food, not even greens that could sustain them, took with it the cynosure of her eyes, her two-year-old Khokon. But if Death is an inevitable truth, so is Life. Hence Harimati lived on. And at twenty-two she is not old enough to think of Death. So, youthful vigour was still overflowing her body. Naturally Nandalal’s helping hand would eye her every now and then. The effort to hide her nudity seemed to add to her appeal for the boy.

Harimati also realised that. That is why when she came in with the repeats, she took care to drape her father-in-law’s worn out gamchha over her chest. Teenkori looked at her, it seemed to him that tears had welled up in her eyes.

*

Precisely so.

Harimati did not touch her food. She was waiting for Teenkori. The minute Nandalal left with his help, and old man Ekkori surrendered to his siesta, Teenkori went indoors. Harimati came out of the kitchen and stood before him. The tears that she had so far kept within the guard of her eyelids now flowed over.

Teenkori took Harimati’s hand in his own. Trying to stem the hot spring of unhappiness with the palm of his right hand he asked, “What’s the matter bou?”

Harimati bit her lip so as not to break the silence.

Teenkori suddenly felt irritated. It was the monsoon month of Sravan halfway through the English month of July. There was so much left to do in the fields. It was just that there were guests at home, else he would have spent the whole day in tending to the fields. They held the key, the hope and happiness for the rest of the year. Rest, the unhappiness of the womenfolk, the need to love and be loved – now was not the time for all this. His debt was mounting at he moneylender’s who could now claim every hair on his head. With barely two rupees left to pull along till Diwali in November, he would have to borrow some more. Was this the time to cry?

“Why don’t you spit it out, woman?”

“Don’t you know what’s the matter? Can’t you see with your eyes?” – Harimati hissed at him like an angry serpent. She found it difficult to keep a hold on herself since their son died. At such times, the usually quiet woman terrified Teenkori.

“What? What’s the matter? How will I know if you don’t tell me, am I omniscient?”

“Your cousin’s help was gobbling me with his indecent eyes – didn’t you see that?”

“I did,” Teenkori hung his head low.

“Then do something about it. It’s better to go around nude than to be covered in revealing clothes!”

“What can I do about it?” Teenkori didn’t want to understand. And what could he actually do even if he did understand?

Sari! Sari!!” Harimati impatiently stretched out her arms to her husband, “give me a piece of cloth, a sari… It’s so long since I asked you for one, don’t you remember? It is more than a year since you gave me one, for the pujas – can it last an entire lifetime? So many times I brought up the subject, you kept postponing it, ‘Not tomorrow, day after surely!’ ‘It’s very costly, prices have gone up, once the prices come down I’ll get you on…’ Words, words, words to fill in for inaction. You’ve caused me to go around semi-naked. Now? Now it’s impossible to go around. You get me a sari at any cost.”

The force of her words made Teenkori lose track of his thoughts. An indescribable impatience made him angry. So he spurned logic and picked on a phrase of Harimati, to vent his bitterness. With reddened eyes he glared at Harimati, “I’ve caused you to go around semi-naked?” he roared.

“You, you, you have. You’re the man of the house, can’t you get me a sari?”

“Where will I bring it from if there’s none in the market?” he demanded..

“I don’t care where you’ll get it from – just get it. I MUST HAVE IT. Issh! What an able husband, mine! Don’t they say…”

Tthaash!

Before she could say another word, Teenkori slapped Harimati hard on her cheek – he simply couldn’t take it any more.

“Hit me..! You hit me?!” Harimati’s fury fizzled out like water poured over a stove. Only tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Yes I hit you.” Teenkori grit his teeth and sat down to rummage through their trunk.

Old man Ekkori’s voice floated in, “What’s on with you guys, hunh?!”

“Nothing – go to sleep.” Teenkori shouted back at him.

“If you say so, son!” The old man’s voice echoed the dejection of the Blind King Dhritarashtra of the Mahabharat.

Teenkori extracted a few coins wrapped in a piece of rag kept safely in one corner of the trunk. They added up to some seven rupees, he counted before stashing them away in his waist. Then without a word he stepped out of the house.

*

But soon as he stepped out, he caused another uproar.

Pooti had just returned with a pitcherful of water poised on her hip. She was draped in an old gamchha around her waist, covering only the lower half of her body. That was all.

The sight of her stoked his asperity. Where was the need for the lass to go fetch water? Always evading work, always looking for fun.

“Pooti!”

“Yes?”

“Come here.”

Pooti put down the pitcher on the kitchen veranda and walked up to him. She could not fathom the reason for the summon in a grave voice.

The minute she stood by him, Teenkori traced the outline of all his five fingers on her cheek. “Where did you disappear, you brat? Didn’t your boudi tell you not to go, hunh? Went to fetch water!! Why did you go, hunh? WHY??”

The unexpected slap stunned Pooti. Pain and hurt choked her voice. She could not say a word in reply, only tears welled up in the large eyes like a dumb animal.

The reply came from Harimati. She was trembling with rage.

“So what if she had gone, why are you bossing?”

“Why should I not?”

“No, you cannot. You don’t have the right to. If you can, cast a glance on her chest.”

Teenkori cast a glance. It made Pooti swiftly retire into the kitchen. But that momentary glance was enough for Teenkori to ralise something that made him shut up.

He’d forgotten that Pooti has completed eleven. He’d forgotten that, in Bengali homes, this age spelt a lot of metamorphosis in a female anatomy. He only remembered that Pooti was his younger sister, much younger to him, even now.

But Teenkori does not know that there are glances other than a brother’s – glances that pierce through layers of clothings, so what to say of bare bodies. These glances do not make any concession for the innocence of a pre-teen girl.

Harimati chewed out every vowel, “She’s no longer a lass, she’s on her way to becoming a maiden. At this green age she’s more shy than I. Don’t you realise that?”

“Ayn?!”

Teenkori scurried out at the speed of an arrow released from the bow.

*

Teenkori walked some way at a very fast pace. Why, which way, he’d not stopped to think. He was still fuming in his mind. If his head were made of clay, then it might have let out steam into the air. Fortunately for all, his head was not made like an earthen pot.

Nibaran Dutta’s son Manish was walking down the mudpath. A young man of about twenty-six or –seven, he’d been incarcerated for five years for his involvement in the Nationalist movement. On his release three years ago he’d returned to the village. He still engaged in Nationalist activities. Dressed in a pleated Khadi dhoti, a half-shirt and a leather sandal on his feet, he had a cross-chested bag dangling by his side. It always held an assortment of books and papers. Every now and then he summons them, discusses various things about their well being, about the country’s well being. During the recent Famine and the epidemic he worked so hard – amazing! This was something to remember him by forever.

They – Manish and his partymen – were also agitating about the rationing of cloth, Teenkori was aware. At that moment he was like light at the end of a tunnel for Teenkori.

“O Manish Babu!”  

“What’s new, brother?” – Manish smiled at him.

“I need something,” Teenkori’s vice bubbled with agitation.

“Tell me. But before that, come under the shade of that tree. I’ve been walking a long way you know, all the way from … Nimdanga.”

They walked under the banyan.

“Tell me what you want.”

“It’s become impossible to do without a sari.”

“That, I do know,” he smiled feebly. “That is exactly why I am going in every direction. Tomorrow we will take out a procession. All the boys and girls from poverty stricken families in the neighbouring villages will walk to the city to file an application. You must also join us without fail.”

Teenkori could not wait to communicate his own woes, he broke in, “Yes yes, I will but I must have one right away Manish Babu.”

Manish looked at Teenkori without speaking a word.

“You’re doing so much for the nation, and you can’t do this much?” – Teenkori’s voice lost its bite and sounded pathetic.

“Nation?” Manish smiled. “Yes, I am striving for the nation but Teenkori, it is still not swadesh, my country.”

“It might be so but you have to do this favour to me Manish Babu. You simply HAVE TO. If you don’t believe me, just go and take a peep at Pooti and her boudi.”

“No need,” Manish protested. “I don’t wish to add to your woes and humiliation. But what is the matter – haven’t you been to Fakir Miya’s yet?’

Fakir Miya was the president of the Union Board and secretary of the Food Committee. He’s the one who gives out the permit for clothes.

“Yes I’ve been to him. Several times. My shoes have worn out, so many visits I’ve made. But I haven’t got the permit.”

“Really? Come with me, let me see what can be done.”

*

At every step Teenkori thought to himself, “Something will surely materialise now.” Because, like everyone else in the village, Fakir Miya also had a lot of respect for Manish.

But nothing worked out.

Fakir Miya shook his head and said, “There’s no way to give a permit, because there is NO CLOTH.”

“Nothing at all can be done?” Manish asked with gentle smile.

Fakir Miya took a deep puff of his hookah and said, “How can it be? You’ll understand once you hear me out. There are 813 families in the village and the total of dhotis and saris we have received is 65. Now you tell me, who do I give and who do I deprive?”

“Whom have you given?”

“Those who came first.”

“And those who have references, and influences, isn’t it so?” Manish softly added with a grin.

A reddish tint played on Fakir Miya’s visage for an instant. He gave a gentle twist to his mehdi-tinted goatee, then said, “See Manish, I really hold you in deep regard, that is why I am not taking any offence at what you just said. But you have indeed spoken the truth. That is why I have decided that I will distribute the next lot only among the destitute and the needy. I will care for the poor first. This time I can’t help you – you really have no idea how helpless I feel.”

Manish smiled again. “I do understand, everything. I hope you will actually carry out what you are planning to do next time. Never mind: for the time being, do give me a permit, whether you have the stock or not. I have promised it to Teenkori, let me at least keep my word to him. Besides, his family is really finding it difficult to continue in society.”

Fakir Miya glanced at Manish, then at Teenkori who was waiting pale-faced and in all humility. Fakir Miya said, “I’ll honour your word Manish. I’ll write a permit.”

Manish went homeward. And, with the permit in his hand, Teenkori raced towards Chhaganlal’s shop, his heart beating fast, now with hope and now out of fear.

*

Chhaganlal Marwari has come to this village all the way from the deserts of Rajputana. From that distant corner of the land too he had learnt about the shortage of clothes in this unmapped village of Bengal – and in answer to that he had come via Kolkata with one lota and a bundle of clothings. In the weekly fairs that dot this and so many outlying villages, he personally carried such bundles of saris and dhotis for four full years. Then gradually, with the blessings of the Elephant-Faced God with a Big Belly he earned the benevolence of Goddess Lakshmi and prospered enough to own a double-storey building at the very front of the market – just like the Englishmen who came to trade with one ship full of goods and eventually built Fort William at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

This very Chhaganlal was reclining on a bolster post-lunch. Having loosened the knot of his dhoti around his tummy, he was glancing through the previous day’s accounts.

“Sethji!” – Teenkori called out softly.

Sethji looked up, “Yes? What is it?”

Teenkori brought up the permit, with the deference of a devotee offering flowers at the feet of a deity.

“What d’you want?” Sethji demanded again.

“Cloth – I mean a sari.”

“There’s none.”

“Here’s the permit. Fakir Miya himself gave it.”

Extremely irritated, Chhaganlal stood up. “So what if Miya has given a permit? If there is no sari in the stock where can I materialise it from? Leave now – come back next month.”

“I can’t go without one Sethji, please give me one.”

“Have you gone out of you mind, ayn? None – there is not a single sari, don’t you see all the almirahs are absolutely empty?”

“Yes I see that. Still, do give me one – it will be a big favour.”

“D’you want me to take off what I’m clad in and go naked?”

Teenkori could say nothing. He could think of nothing to say, he only looked around him vacantly.

His eyes fell on the colourful saris displayed from the hook at the shop window.

“Those – those are handloom saris?”

“Yes.”

“Price?”

“The lowest priced one costs twelve rupees and four annas.”

“Can’t you give for less than that?”

Chhaganlal lost his cool. “Go, leave now, go home right now… This isn’t a vegetable mandi, just go.”

Teenkori couldn’t buy a sari.

*

He walked some way, then sat down under a semul tree. The sun was strong. His temper was mounting too. Sitting there, under the semul tree, he tore up the permit into tiny pieces. In the depth of sorrow he felt like laughing. It wouldn’t be wrong on his part to laugh aloud – all the others who were passing that way were probably laughing at him! The difference was that Teenkori’s laughter was a distorted version of crying.

The village priest Mahesh Bhattacharjji was coming his way. He proudly displayed the twisted, unwashed sacred thread around his neck, his pigtail too was bobbing happily to declare his unadulterated Brahminhood. But he was clad in a lungi. Quite an example of how dearth helps people break tradition and adapt to new ways!

“Bhatt’charjji Sir, regards – pranam!” Teenkori strode up to him.

“May you prosper son! What news Teenu, all well?”

“How can things be well Sir?? But what’s this – Bhatt’charjji Mashai in a lungi!”

Bhattacharjji shook his head and smiled, a wan smile born of pain. His voice shook with emotion. He wanted to drape his wife’s sari but she warned him, “This is dearer than gold and gems now, it’s not for you to even touch.” Naturally he had to resort to this way of preserving his dignity – “can’t go out without a stitch on you, can you? And is this inexpensive? I had to kowtow to Manik Miya, go on pleading ‘Big Brother – you’re like my father!’ Only then I got it for four and half rupees. But I am not ashamed Teenu – the God who makes a lame climb mountains and a mute speak reams, is the same almighty who’s making a Brahmin dress like a Mullah!”

“Why, don’t you get offerings of sari and dhoti when you conduct pujas?”

“Ashes! Bananas!” Mahesh Bhattacharjji waved his right thumb in the air. “How many people organise pujas at that scale where you offer saris and dhotis? And even if they do, they just pay eight annas or a rupee saying, ‘Please buy yourself a cloth Sir!’”

Teenkori, though in deep anguish, couldn’t help but laugh.

They kept walking side by side. One of the village elders, Kalimuddin Sarkar was coming their way with something wrapped in a gamchha held under his armpit.

“How d’you do Morol {headman}? Where are you coming from?” Bhattacharjji hailed him.

“From the bazaar,” Kalimuddin grinned.

“You are laughing because I am in a lungi, aren’t you? Well, go on, laugh. But what’s that in your armpit, eh? So carefully you are clutching it – what’s it?” Bhattacharjji narrowed his sharp eyes.

Kalimuddin hesitated a bit before replying, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No dear, no –“

“Just bought a pair of dhoti from the Marwari.”

“Let’s see – let’s see –“ Bhattacharjji and Teenkori both said at once.

A pair of ordinary mill-produced dhotis.

“Did you get a permit?” Bhattacharjji enquired.

Hunh!” – Kalimuddin pulled a face. “The permit is still in my pocket. This I bought in the black market. That too because he is known to me. These days you don’t get these even if you have the money.”

“How much did he charge?”

“Fifteen for the pair. He’d asked for twenty rupees.”

“Bastard! Thief!!” Bhattacharjji’s face went pale.

“And d’you know the price of saris? The mill-made ones are for 25, 30… the handloom ones are no less…”

Teenkori let out a sigh. If one had the money to pay for it, one could buy everything even when the situation was to the contrary. One who did not save money had to go without food and clothing – this is what Lord Almighty had ordained. At least in today’s world!

He would organise some money.

But money wasn’t for the asking!

The moneylender Ramkanta shook his head. “Ten rupees you want – but what else do you have to mortgage? Have you kept track of the balance still due to me? When will you clear that?”

“I remember – five rupees six annas. Apart from the interest.”

Teenkori went to many other people. Everyone shook his head just like Ramkanta. “No.”

Experiences and realisations build up the philosophy of our lives. Hence Teenkori had no hope, only hopelessness; no happiness, only unhappiness. Hence his life view was tragic, wrapped in a cover of ink-smeared darkness.

Manish turned grave on hearing the full account. He kept silent for quite a while, then said, “This is why we will take out the procession tomorrow. Be patient for some more days brother – there has to be some resolution.”

Teenkori spent the rest of the day going hither and thither. The whole day was wasted. There was work to be done in the fields – all had been undone. The next day also he would not be able to attend to the work, he had to join the procession. The nationalists were right: neither Teenkori by himself nor others like him – alone they could gain nothing. The strength of the poor and the deprived lies in their union, their coming together.

The procession would not draw immediate result; joining a party or raising slogans would not get Teenkori a sari for his wife. Still, would it all be wasted effort? Everyone would hear, everyone would know that nudity was forcing them to shed tears day and night.

*

Teenkori felt small going home. After darkness, he returned like a thief, stealthily. He felt relieved. Nandalal and his page had left in the evening.

Harimati entered the room after a while. Teenkori did not have the will to lift his head. Harimati fixed him with her gaze, then laughed a satirical smile and said, “Didn’t get it, did you? If you simply can’t, then this rag will have to be carefully donned – for a year, what d’you say?”

Slowly she walked out of the room.

Teenkori’s humiliation and remorse went up manifold at night. Harimati shut the door to their room, turned down the lamp and said, “Turn your face the other way.”

“Why?”

“There’s a reason…”

In the darkness she peeled off the torn yardage clinging to her body. With great care she folded it up and carefully she hung it on the clothes rack. She covered herself with the discarded gamchha of her father-in-law and came to bed.

The moment his hand touched Harimati he exclaimed, “What’s this?”

In a grave voice Harimati replied, “Can’t you imagine what will happen to the rag if I sleep in it?

Teenkori started sweating in the depth of the night.

*

At daybreak Teenkori showed up in the school playground. That’s where everyone was to assemble.

Manish was already there, and another 150 villagers. A few elderly women and a handful of girls too were in the crowd. People from the lowly communities of Bagdi, Jele (fisherfolk), Tili, poor peasants from both Hindu and Muslim communities were present. The dearth of clothes and of food did not differentiate on religious grounds.

Before setting out Manish and another young man gave them placards – slogans mounted on bamboo sticks. In English and Bengali, they said more or less the same thing: ‘We want clothes’ ‘Down with hoarders!’ ‘End the Shame of Nudity’ ‘Down with Black Market’ ‘Perish, Profiteers!’

Minutes later they started the march.

Intermittently they bellowed – “We want Saris! We want Dhotis!”

One voice shouted out: “Hoarders!” All others refrained: “Perish! Perish!”

“Down With…”

“Hoarders! Profiteers!”

While crossing the market Teenkori looked at Chhaganlal’s shop. It had yet to open, but along with others who sought to be entertained, Chhaganlal too was crowding the balcony. A sly smile of disdain hung from the corner of his lips. The bright beams of the baby sun shone brightly on the gold chain around his neck, casting an aura around him.

As they kept progressing, four or five other groups from two-three surrounding villages joined them. Their numbers now totalled at five hundred. It took about an hour to reach the city. It was almost eight by then.

Manish with all his men arrived at the bungalow of the District Magistrate. A policeman had joined forces with the watchman at the gate.

“Raise your voices brothers!” Manish urged. Before anyone else could respond Teenkori screamed, “We want cloth!” Everyone else joined in, “We want Cloth! We want Cloth!”

“Profiteers must perish!”

“Stop the black market!”

“Magistrate Sahib, give us justice!”

“We want clothing! Give us cloth!”

The policeman and the durwan barked something in unison. But, just as a river’s song would drown in the roar of the ocean, so too was their command drowned by the “We want clothing!” demand of the crowd.

At that moment District Magistrate Carter was discussing international politics with his wife and daughter. The slogans reached him like the sound of waves breaking on a distant shore.

“What’s that dear? Let me check,” Mrs Carter said.

“The same old story of naked men – they want clothing,” Carter replied.

Mrs Carter parted the green raw silk curtains and peeped outside. Their daughter Joanna came and stood behind her. Beyond the green lawn fenced by rose bushes, beyond the iron gate, a crowd of uncouth, underclad men were clamouring loudly. What were they crying out for? Mrs Carter and her daughter could not comprehend. But the numbers and the loud expression of their want filled them with panic.

“How pitiable!” Mother and daughter both agreed.

Durwan Ram Singh came in and saluted them.

“What is it Ram Singh?” Carter enquired.

“They’re asking for clothes Huzoor!”

“Why here?” Mrs Carter flared up. “Is this a shop for clothes?”

“Father is not a Marwari cloth merchant!” Joanna commented. “Ask them to go to the shop.”

Carter stood up. “Let’s go,” he said, lighting up his pipe.

Mrs Carter stopped him. Her blue blue eyes gleamed from fright. The August of 1942 was still fresh in her mind. “Carry your pistol darling,” she pleaded.

“Yes daddy,” Joanna echoed her, “do take that.”

“Nonsense!” Carter laughed. “People who don’t lift  a finger even when they die of hunger, surely will not kill me for clothings!” He went off laughing.

Mrs Carter wasn’t pleased. These days you can’t trust Indians any more – the’ll go to any limit. What ought she to do? The sound of slogans was gradually rising outside.

“Mom – Mamma!”

“Yes?”

“Call the police please!”

“Right dear. I was also thinking of doing that.”

The sound of the phone being picked up filled the room.

Mr Carter stoutly stood at the gate. His pipe was ceaselessly blowing out the strong smell of tobacco while his other hand was twisting a white kerchief. On either side, stood a policeman and his personal guard, Ram Singh.

The assembly burst out like thunder, “Give us clothings!”

Chup raho, silence!” Mr Carter roared at them. “Tell me peacefully what you want.”

“Clothings – that’s all we want,” they bellowed again. “Just organise that…”

“What?” Carter scanned the faces. “Aye you – come here, HERE…”

Teenkori was at the forefront, he was shouting his lungs out. Carter summoned him. With a high jump Teenkori tried to lose himself among the crowd at the back. Gora Sahib! Englishman!! Magistrate!!! Oh God!

Manish strode forward in his place. Carter scanned him from head to toe and asked, “Are you the leader?”

“I am not a leader, but I will tell you what they are here to tell you.”

“Then say – tell me.” Carter put the pipe back in his mouth.

No good came out of the effort. Meaningless assurance was all Carter could give them – they had to go back with the vague assurance that something would be done. But when? What? No word on that.

Teenkori wasn’t pleased. Walking the distance, shouting at the top of his voice – what result did that yield? They ambled through the city’s thoroughfares for another hour and then dispersed. It was almost 10 by this time.

Teenkori thought to himself, “I should try the city shops, may be I’ll get something within my means.”

But that wasn’t to be either. The black market crafted by profiteers and cheats had created a stock that was not available to anyone who did not have a certificate stating “My Candidate”. And what was available to those privileged was beyond his pocket.

Teenkori returned home empty handed.

*

Pooti was down with fever in the evening. Malaria. She was lying in a delirium, wrapped in a torn quilt.

After lunch, Teenkori went off to the fields with his bullocks. The sight of them brought tears to his eyes – both shrivelled, their ribs showing through their hide, they were unlikely to survive too long. What will be their fate then? Perhaps the Master of their Destiny too has no idea.

Harimati was in a jam. The dishes needed to be washed, there was no water at home, and Pooti was in the clutches of fever. No option but for her to go out.

But draping a piece of cloth doesn’t cover everything. The bulge of the breasts stands out, and the abdomen? That too remains visible.

Of course the pond wasn’t too far. Harimati didn’t go to the one frequented by most of her neighbours. Shame! She chose the one less frequented so that she could be away from human gaze. It had rained plenty in October, the ponds were still overflowing. She only had to reach out.

She’d almost finished washing when someone wolf-whistled right behind her. Startled, Harimati turned around. The good-for-nothing village loafer Avinash was oggling the exposed parts of her body with wolfish eyes.

Harimati tugged at one end of her sari to cover herself but the old wornout fabric gave way.

Ahaha!” Avinash cackled, “you just tore your sari out of shame!”

“I’ll beat you lame, you monkey! Let Pooti’s brother come home from the fields…” Harimati retaliated.

Avinash cackled some more. “Damn all he can do. Why? What wrong have I done? I’ve not embraced you, not said anything indecent to you. I’m only gazing. God has given me eyes, and you have given things to gape at – so I’m looking. What’s wrong?”

Harimati swiftly gathered the vessels, filled up the bucket and took to her way.

Avinash called after her, “You need a sari, and I can get you one. Will you take it? Hear me!”

Harimati broke into a run, “God! Oh God!” she kept repeating.

The entity thus addressed did not reply.

Harimati started howling.

*

Teenkori’s veins were about to burst. “Quiet!” he said, not a word more! Just be quiet.”

Harimati’s wailing gave way to yelling. “Quiet?! What d’you mean, ‘Quiet’? I won’t shut up until you get me a sari.”

“How can I get one? Steal?”

“Do that.”

”All right, that’s what I’ll do.”

Teenkori stomped out of his house. It wasn’t too late at night, in fact they had not had their dinner yet. Only old man Ekkori had finished his dinner and gone to bed after dusk.

He actually went off?!

Harimati wiped off her tears, then went and stood outside. “Where are you?” she called out. “Where have you gone? I beg of you, come back and have your dinner.”

*

Teenkori did not ever come back to dinner.

In the middle of the night he was caught trying to steal a sari in Chhaganlal’s house.

Chhaganlal raised a huge hue and cry and gathered a large crowd. What a lynching Teenkori got! Slaps and kicks and boxing – it left him almost lifeless. The villagers who had gathered felt ashamed and sheepishly went back to their homes. In their heart they could not support Chhaganlal but openly they couldn’t let off Teenkori. All said and done, he had turned into a thief!

At daybreak Chhaganlal’s men took Teenkori all tied up to the police station. In that state he was left in their custody. His misery and despair had dried up his tears. His dejection and gloom made him only want to tear his hair.

*

The news reached Manish around 9 in the morning. “The docile, peaceable Teenkori could not keep a hold of himself!”

A few of the villagers pleaded with him to do something in the matter. Manish felt sorry for Teenkori. He felt it was his duty to do something, he hurried out.

When a man keeps asking for something basic and does not get it, what else can he do? Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him otherwise — today, how can he forget all that and accept nudity as normal? And, in terms of law too, how has Teenkori ‘erred’? How can age-old norms hold sway over changed circumstances and dire needs?

Manish went directly to Chhaganlal. He heard him out but refused to acquiesce. “That is not to be Manish Babu. He’s a thief, he ought to be jailed.”

Manish stood up, his eyes raining fire. “Don’t try to give a lesson in right and wrong. For the last time I’m pleading, with folded hands Chhaganlalji. Poor man, the lynching he has suffered has been punishment enough, please don’t send him to jail. If you destroy a family it will not bide well for you. Besides, I can prove that you are responsible for all this.”

Chhaganlal heard Manish speak and pondered over it. He has also been following the political trend, perhaps from afar, out of sheer curiosity, but yes, he has been following the trend. All of a sudden he felt that if the circle of time brings changes in history, when the present rule is over, perhaps he would find himself standing before these very people with folded hands. On that future date, it would not help to have these men as his opponents.

Chhaganlal also stood up. “Okay Manish Babu, I will do as you say, and let go of him. Come.”

Together the two went to the police station.

Not there. Half an hour before they got there, Teenkori had been transferred to the court.

Manish implored and took Chhaganlal with him to the court.

*

On hearing the news old man Ekkori had beseeched his neighbour Tarini and gone to the thana. The infirm, near-blind man had leaned on his walking stick and walked behind Tarini all the way to the police station and faced the policeman. He even met Teenkori. The son did not utter a word, only shed silent tears.

The station officer said, “How can I let him go, tell me? There’s a case filed against him. You better go to Chhaganlal.”

Oldman walked to Chhaganlal’s shop. Chhaganlal had just gone out.

Old man went back home, flopped on the floor and wailed, “I couldn’t, dear girl, I couldn’t bring him home!”

Harimati sat still like a corpse.

Ailing Pooti called out to her from inside, “Boudi I am starving. Give me a handful of puffed rice.”

Harimati made no reply. She went to the kitchen and tried to light a fire. She couldn’t, she just gave up. No fumes rising from the clay oven but her eyes were hurting, flooding with tears.

Harimati could almost see with her eyes that Teenkori had been sentenced to a long imprisonment. In the family that was already in dire straits, there was no one to bring home anything by way of livelihood. An emaciated father-in-law, a baby sister-in-law,  she herself with no capability. She had no mother or father, no brother, no one to fall back on. She had only her husband, now he was gone. Even if she mortgaged all she could, it would not sustain them for long. The nudity would have to come into the open. The hyena eyes would feast on her, the indecent proposals would go up manifold. One man’s adversity emboldens the beast in other men: this is an eternal truth as the history of mankind shows. Many will offer her a bellyful of meal and a cloth to wrap her body in but in lieu she’ll have to lose her all — dignity, home, fidelity.

What good would be such a life?

*

Manish returned at sundown with Teenkori. Yes, he had succeeded in freeing him.

As soon as they drew near Teenkori’s house, they could hear wailing and commotion.

“What’s happening?” Manish wondered. Teenkori couldn’t guess anything, “I know nothing.”

“Maybe they’re lamenting for you.”

“Possible.”

The minute they stepped into the courtyard, they could see Harimati’s semi clad body lying on the floor. Her dead eyes were wide open. She was surrounded by two-three elderly women, some men and a few children. Pooti and Ekkori were on the veranda.

Tarini was also present. He spoke, “She hung herself in the backyard of the Mukharjees. I found her an hour ago, on my way back with the cattle from the fields. Madhu has been dispatched to inform the police.”

Manish was speechless.

Teenkori was swaying.

Blind King Dhritarashtra had cried for a hundred sons – Ekkori was crying more than him for his only daughter-in-law. His weather-beaten face was swamped in tears.

Manish was immersed in thought. Are men and women governed by colonial rulers any better than dogs and wolves? So weak, so helpless, so pitiably helpless! Such tragedy befell them for the want of a piece of rag?! He turned his face away. The wailing, the howling, the half-naked body of Harimati – they were all taunting him, ridiculing his leadership, mocking his manhood.

A savage look had set in Teenkori’s eyes, the sort that descends in the eyes of soldiers when they confront their enemies. Many countless invisible enemies seemed to have aligned against him. His muscles swelled up. A desire to tear those enemies tingled at the tip of his fingers…

No, Teenkori would not cry.

Glossary

Anna — Currency. 1/16 of a rupee.

Gamchha — Coarse cotton cloth used like a towel.

Bou — Wife

Puja — Durga Puja

Boudi — Elder sister-in-law

Mandi — Market

Durwan — Security guard

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.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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