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The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Strumming a guitar promises a note of success and a rush of adrenalin. Otherwise, there is no reason for young men with brawny biceps attired in sleeveless vests to sit beside the grilled window with creeping money plants on the balcony to invest their time and energy to impress the girl next door. Instead of handsome returns, the well-orchestrated operation often draws the unwarranted attention of the girl’s bifocal father who sniffs an ulterior motive while speed-reading the nasty headlines of the newspaper in hand and patrolling the antiskid balcony space in visible anxiety to crack a strategy to foil the covert takeover bid before his innocent girl slips for the nerd rock star.

Despite the long-drawn, dedicated mission of playing popular romantic numbers to woo the girl, my dear friend did not have any stroke of luck. But the girl’s father did suffer an unexpected stroke, leading to the untimely demise of the romantic misadventure. Assailed by the remorse of having stressed out the old fogey with his musical renditions and clandestine romantic intentions, he decided to punish himself by hanging the guitar on the wall. 

Years later, the girl’s mother visited my friend’s house one evening. That she was up to some mischief became evident when she disclosed to my friend’s bride how he played music for her teenage daughter every morning before she left for school. All hell broke loose when he returned home from the tailoring shop to face an angry spouse who picked up the guitar from the wall as if it were a royal sword and presented it to him with a solemn request to strum it and croon something for her. He tried to duck it by saying he had made a vow, a gentleman’s promise to abstain from playing music again. But she spilt the beans, charging him with how desperately and unsuccessfully he once tried to lure the neighbour’s daughter with his musical foray.   

Shocked by this disclosure, he found no escape route from the mess. He had to either recapitulate the long story long forgotten from his point of view or play the instrument and let his wife be instrumental in reviving his defunct musical career. Instead of denying what his wife accused him of doing many moons ago, he added a divine dimension as he decided that musical pursuit could be  another way of attaining God. The fact that he chose the wrong instrument for that purpose was not pointed out by his wife. She was eager to see him perform live and exclusively for her – in front of her smouldering kohl-lined eyes dying to blink in symphony with his heartbeat. She sat on the cushioned swing suspended from the balcony ceiling, with her long, lustrous hair thrown open, with a blooming pink rose plucked from the painted pot kept nearby and tucked neatly in her straightened tresses. He dithered and fine-tuned the guitar and then decided to select a few lilting numbers from his vast repertoire to play for her in the incandescent light of the paper lantern bulbs setting the romantic mood for the musical soiree.  

The story of this guitar began in Delhi when my friend accompanied me on what is called a business cum pleasure trip. Reaching the capital from Kolkata was a historic visit for my friend who was keen to pose in front of the Red Fort and go on a shopping spree in Connaught Place (CP). While walking on the CP pavement, similar to the Grand Hotel Arcade in design, my friend suddenly entered a music instruments store and quoted an incredible budget for an imported guitar. The bewildered shop owner remained quiet and scanned him for a while before asking him the difference between boiled rice and basmati rice. Taking it as an affront to his dignity and knowledge about the price of musical instruments, he shot back in accented Hindi with a quick reply to salvage his self-respect by claiming that his Ustad had taught many Indian classical legends and he knew several of them personally in Kolkata. 

Many other customers inside the store began to label us as pretentious ignoramuses from another planet. The smart-alecky shopkeeper asked us to identify the portraits on the upper portion of the wall right behind his counter. They were the leading lights who patronised his shop to buy instruments and agreed to get clicked with the owners of the music store that had been in existence for more than a century. My friend cast a quick look but failed to recognise any of them. So, the shopkeeper schooled us further by conducting a master class.

We had to either buy the guitar we had asked for or disappear from the store. I took small steps and reached the exit when I heard my friend holler in a stentorian voice: “Pack this guitar for me. Here — take the money.”

The price was well beyond his budget, but he saved our image and came out of the store with the guitar and a cash memo in hand. It was evident from the facial expression he had picked up a costly instrument he was not ready to buy. But the joy of silencing the shopkeeper and mellowing his tenor was a resounding victory, and he claimed he did not argue much regarding music since he respected elders. But an hour later, when he again felt pricked by this expenditure, he exploded in a language devoid of an iota of respect and issued threats of teaching that bald, grinning shopkeeper a proper lesson had this incident occurred in Bengal. The remarkable story of saving dignity became the dominant aspect of purchasing this guitar. I felt he had risen to the occasion though he had to cancel plans for his shopping spree as his money had gone into this guitar. 

He sat with the guitar and posed with fake smiles for my camera to capture. He did not appear comfortable holding it in his hands and passed it to me after a while. I found it a huge responsibility and took extra care of the guitar as we were proudly taking home something pricey. It was nothing less than a trophy won in a tough competition.

This imported guitar regaled many local listeners – including my friend’s wife at present. She had no idea that how her husband had acquired the prized beauty, saved our self-respect, and preserved the prestige of our state known for culture and music by shelling out an enormous amount to grab something rare that few people in our country can afford even today. Although his father never cut anything other than a piece of cloth, he had big dreams of cutting a music album someday, of inviting the Delhi-based shopkeeper to his launch event as the chief guest for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. This would prove that those from a non-privileged background also had the right to contribute to the enrichment of music was music to his ears.     

After returning home, my friend toyed with the idea of forming a music band, got his ears pierced to wear rings to connect with trendy youth, and offered to engage my services as a lyricist. Within the year, even before I could take a call on this offer, the band he had formed with much fanfare was disbanded due to the sudden exit of the lead vocalist poached by a more resourceful rival music band. He soon realized though he was getting offers to perform in local community functions with a limited budget, it was impossible to sustain this ambitious musical venture. Soon, he joined his father’s tailoring unit and restricted his role as a musician to woo the girl he loved. But some people, like my dear friend, are perhaps naturally attracted to failures and their dreams suffer from a chronic motivational deficiency syndrome that leads them to quit at the earliest pretext.

When his mother pressurised him to settle down as he pushed into his mid-thirties, her history of myocardial infarction made him agree to her proposal. And that is how the lady who was now making him sing live for her breezed into his life. In one of her disclosures after marriage, she revealed to my friend that she had agreed to marry him only because she had seen his photograph where he was strumming a guitar. The direct benefit she expected would be the opportunity to listen to his music after a tiring day in the kitchen. But she hesitated to make it explicit so long as her father-in-law was alive. The arrival of the mother of his lost love simplified the matter for her. 

After listening to his live performance for half an hour, she gave her verdict and a standing ovation with thunderous applause. She regretted such a talent could not deliver anything substantial. Even if half of her praise was a pure exaggeration for her doting husband, there were traces of truth in her observation. When she threatened to leave him forever if he did not resume his journey as a guitarist, he agreed to reconsider his earlier decision to give up music for the sake of his lost love. While this was her loving way to resurrect the failed artist and get him back on track, music had the power to make him a divorcee. The prospect of stitching together his life once again looked remote. So, he succumbed to her demands by resuming his practice sessions on the balcony. Unlike the earlier occasion when he sat on the windowsill and performed for the girl outside the house, this musical foray was for the kitchen queen regaling herself with Bollywood numbers and soothing her frayed nerves with the fragrance of tuberoses he brought home for the bedroom vase every evening.  

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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

Categories
Poetry

Lines Written at Nalanda

By Sourav Sengupta

LINES WRITTEN AT NALANDA 

The fanatics of every day and age
Are known to fear the inquisitive mind. 
One such was Bakhtiyar who came to wage
A campaign of a very savage kind.
Here, witnessed by these time-encrusted walls,
A thousand helpless monks he set ablaze; 
While o'er these hills a cloud of smoke so tall
Engulfed the skies that darkness reigned for days.
The knowledge of eight hundred years contained
In countless parchment scrolls, in flames was tossed;
And when the fires died all that remained
Was human ash and ash of wisdom lost.
     Today, a tale survives in these relics:
     Of mankind’s folly told in blackened bricks.

Sourav Sengupta is an architect by training and a human resource manager by profession. His poetry has been published in literary journals like Revue {R}évolution, Society of Classical Poets and Better Than Starbucks. He lives and works in Kolkata, India.

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Categories
Contents

Borderless, October 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

The Sky … Click here to read.

Conversations

Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India. Click here to read.

VR Devika talks of the dynamic Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly who sought justice for Devadsis and prostitutes and discusses her book, Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights published by Niyogi Books. Click here to read.

Translations

Daridro or Poverty by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Browless Dolls by S.Ramakrishnan, has been translated from Tamil by B Chandramouli. Click here to read.

Two poems from Italy by Rosy Gallace have been translated from Italian by Irma Kurti. Click here to read.

Flowers of Love Bloom Everywhere, a poem for peace, written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

Aalo Amar Aalo (Light, My Light) a song by Tagore, has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali. Click here to read.

Pandies Corner

Songs of Freedom: Moh-Reen is an autobiographical story by Amreen, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These stories highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Ron Pickett, Saranyan BV, George Freek, Pramod Rastogi, Mike Smith, Gayatri Majumdar, John Grey, Vandana Kumar, Ahmad Al-Khatat, Rhys Hughes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Crossing the Date Line, Rhys talks of his fascination with this imagined construct. Click here to read.

Essays

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind

Asad Latif explores if homeland is defined by birth. Click here to read.

The Wabi-Sabi of Making a Living

Aditi Yadav calls for taking a break from hectic work schedules. Click here to read.

Just a Face on Currency Notes?

Debraj Mookerjee writes of Gandhi’s relevance and evolution. Click here to read.

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?

Meenakshi Malhotra checks out the festival of Durga Puja, declared the a heritage festival by UNESCO. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

Candice Lousia Daquin explores festivals and the God gene in We had Joy, We Had Fun…. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

KL Twin Towers near Kolkata?

Devraj Singh Kalsi visits the colours of a marquee hosting the Durga Puja season with its spirit of inclusivity. Click here to read.

A Five Hundred Nautical Mile Voyage to Tasmania

Meredith Stephens writes of sailing to Tasmania when the pandemic had just started loosening its grip. Click here to read.

Keep Walking…

Ravi Shankar recommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world. Click here to read.

The Matriarch of Hirronk

Ali Jan Maqsood introduces us to a strong matriarch from a Balochi village. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Drill, Fill, Just Chill, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives us humour while under a dentist’s drill. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

Suzanne Kamata writes of her A Ramble on Bizan, focussing on a writer, also by the surname of Moraes, who lived on Mount Bizan more than century ago, moving to Japan from Portugal having fallen violently in love. Click here to read.

Short Stories

Half-Sisters

Sohana Manzoor explores the darker regions of human thought with a haunting psychological narrative about familial structures. Click here to read.

Homecoming

Rituparna Mukherjee gives a poignant story about missing home. Click here to read.

The Phosphorescent Sea

Paul Mirabile journeys with his protagonist into the depths of the ocean. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Deathless are the Words, Sunil Sharma explores madness and ideators who believe in the power of words. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee. Click here to read.

An excerpt from A Handful of Sesame by Shrinivas Vaidya, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed BM Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakir. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, a collection of the maestro’s writings and illustrations. Click here to read.

Categories
Slices from Life

KL Twin Towers near Kolkata?

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

On Panchami, the Fifth Day of Durga Puja, around noon, I was stopped by a small girl riding a pillion on her father’s motorbike. In a polite but hurried and restless voice, she asked me the way to reach the ‘Twin Towers’. Usually, I am not comfortable while offering directions, and often goof it up by saying left when I mean right. On this occasion, I exercised caution and pondered over the easiest and quickest route before advising her father to enter through the next lane and then turn right to find what was nothing short of a wonderland for the schoolgirl. She smiled and waved for prompt assistance while her father accelerated the two-wheeler. It was apparent they were new to this small town that had suddenly grown big in stature within weeks and emerged as a hotspot because of the replica of the Twin Towers from Malaysia as one of the Puja pandal themes here.   

The Puja organisers were surprised as the turnout surpassed their expectations and broke all previous records. Some analysts explained this unprecedented wave was the public response to the pandemic that had kept them indoors for two consecutive years. With people sharing images and reels across social media platforms, the ‘Twin Towers’ went viral, generating a big buzz among pandal hoppers to include it in the must-see list. The sea of humanity in this small town surged from neighbouring towns, far-off districts, and even other states.  

The grandeur of tall towers led to a google search for architectural wonders, modern and ancient, from around the world as likely themes for the puja pandals next year. The appeal of tall and towering structures offers a valid reason to see the lavish artificial mounts to be dismantled within a few days of idol immersion. Painstakingly built over the months, the hard work of artisans and craftsmen has paid off rich dividends – without any special efforts by the organisers. The public informed fellow citizens of all faiths, through every possible means of communication, to visit the Twin Towers and make the Puja celebrations complete.

It was much bigger than the crowds milling at any cadre-driven political rally organised in Bengal. Missing this marvel was a loss for devotees and non-believers who thronged the Puja pandals to see art and creativity in full bloom. “Have you seen the Twin Towers?” became the common refrain that gained currency among local people drawn from all sections. Tens of thousands of people stood in queues that moved at a snail’s pace, their floral and musk fragrances overpowering their perspiration. Driven by faith and the desire to see the architectural marvel and the Goddess, the crowds showed patience for hours, braving thunderstorms and intermittent showers without complaints, standing with umbrellas for their turn, without any attempt to jump the fence. 

Droves of people – armed with camera-flashing mobile phones – were busy capturing the Twin Towers from various angles, looking for a different click for their feeds, slowing down their pace to capture the images without blurring. The volunteers brandished batons to keep the crowds moving toward the exit gate. The entire process of entering the pandal and exiting was over within two minutes. The wait outside the pandal took a couple of hours at least.  

Although I had visited other pandals where the turnout was modest, I intended to see the ‘Twin Towers’ after Dashami, the last day of the festival, after the crowds thinned. I wanted to be bedazzled by the lights, so I did not venture during the daytime. I chose to go during in the late evening for a fully lit-up view of the colossal towers, to stand behind the crowds discussing bus routes and means of transport available at night, apart from momos and biriyani outlets in the vicinity. It was the last day after the week-long festival drew to a close. But the turnout remained steady and suggested it was perhaps the first day, showing once again that aesthetic appeal allures people and creates a hangover that refuses to subside even after the curtains are drawn.  

I came out of the premises and checked the random clicks on my phone. I was overwhelmed with the pride of having seen the replica. I had captured the precious moments, posing against the backdrop of the Twin Towers forever. 

Whether this Puja inspires people from Bengal to travel to Malaysia to see the towers is pure speculation. But it has made people complacent, and they happily declare they have seen the Malaysia ‘Twin Towers’ in Bengal. Crossing borders, oceans, countries, and continents to select themes, the Pujas in Bengal offer people the vicarious pleasure of seeing the global wonders come alive in the art form.  

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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

Categories
Stories

     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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Categories
Poetry

Poetry by Ratnottama Sengupta

SUN DAY

I gifted myself a
Sunday morning
Today.
When I opened my eyes
The sun was racing
To get a hold
Of the sky.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
I hold up that sky
For my world.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday,
I outrun the sun.
I outshine the lamp,
I stay up
Half the night,
There's a story to send.
I wake up and jump
To my feet,
There's tiffin to be made,
A wedding -- or a funeral
To attend;
Dents on the car 
Clogged drains
Flickering lights
CESC, KMC, TataSky*,
Landline, WiFi
Bills to be paid,
Fines to be avoided...
Today I will give a miss
To all that.
Today I will not answer calls,
Today I will not be
At any seminar.
Today I will stay in bed
And look out of the window
Today I will gift the sun
The whole run
Of the sky.

*CESC: Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation
KMC: Kolkata Municipal Council
TataSky:  An Indian direct broadcast satellite service provider

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. 

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Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

A Bone in My Platter

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

The customer polished off the chicken biriyani – leaving behind no trace of a single grain of polished saffron rice on the ceramic plate with golden borders. The solitary bone relaxed in spacious palatial comfort but soon became the bone of contention. He complained to the manager about the poor taste while making the payment. 

The young waiter, a lad of eighteen, standing nearby, heard everything. He went and took the bone from the plate and lobbed it at the shining bald pate of the customer while he was walking out with a toothpick clamped between his fingers. It hit him right in the middle. He quickly turned back to see what missile was that. He found close to his feet the same chicken bone he had left behind in the ceramic plate. He picked it up, took a studied look, and sprinted to the counter to lodge another complaint with the manager, alleging he was hit on the head by some crazy staff with the chicken bone, hoping for prompt, punitive action.  

Like a forensic expert, the manager took time to identify the piece of evidence, perhaps wondering whether the clever customer had brought it in his bag to levy a false charge and create a scene. There were endless possibilities, and the manager was in no mood to hastily accept the charge without cross-examining the customer.  

Sensing that the manager was employing delaying tactics to let the culprit chicken out, he rushed to grab the collar of the prime suspect and sought a confession under coercion. Accusing the young waiter of insulting and assaulting him, he dragged him to the manager’s cabin, threatening to get him arrested for causing physical harm intentionally with a lethal weapon that could crack his skull or lead to severe brain injury. He threatened to shut down the operations unless the manager tendered an apology.  

The manager explained the waiter had no such sinister intent as he was trying to throw the remnants out of the open window for stray dogs. Somehow it turned out to be an odd in-swinger, moving inside in the wrong direction and landing accidentally on his head. The customer remained defiant and unwilling to buy this defence. Finally, the young waiter had to mumble an apology before serving other customers, placing clean dishes, and pouring water into glasses. The angry customer flagged an alert regarding the violent streak observed in the waiter — but he sported a fixed and deceptive smile to ward off such grave charges.    

The customer staged a demonstration in front of the manager’s fancy table, thumping it with his fist and refusing to accept the diluted version: unintentional mistake. Finally, the manager stood in front with folded hands and begged forgiveness to wrap up this matter before it snowballed further. The aggrieved customer was adamant and sought a complete refund, or else he would report it to the local politician. To stave off further aggravation, the manager refunded the entire amount paid for the chicken biriyani plate but cursed him in his mind with digestive issues like unstoppable bowel movements at night.   

When the pacified customer finally vamoosed from the eating joint, the manager summoned the waiter to explain his behaviour. He told the bald customer gave incorrect feedback as there was nothing wrong with the food. Because the customer lied about quality, he got miffed. He confessed he was surprised he was so good at hitting the target. He had hoped it would land in some other direction or edge past his ear like a bullet. 

Many customers relished stale food and paid generous compliments on the rich taste. Whenever the chicken was served fresh, customers had complaints regarding the fare. Sometimes it was not spicy enough, or the taste lacked something they could not express in words but feel on the tongue. Such vague feedback was responded with an ersatz smile and an earnest promise to serve better fare next time. Most negative comments poured in when the bill value crossed the expected mark. There were several examples of customers who ate more than they could pay. They came to the manager and quietly promised to clear the deficit balance the next day. But they did not turn up for several months, hoping the manager would forget the matter. Dealing with such clients was always a challenge.  

There was a demand for cabins with curtains from couples, married or otherwise. The waiters exercised their discretion to overcharge for privacy. The manager was helpless in getting it vacated because the food was served late — and they ate very slowly. Even after an hour, the couple would not finish a fish cutlet while others sitting in the open zone gorged on a full plate of chicken and Badshahi Mughlai. The romantic busybodies tipped the waiter and ordered a bottle of cold drink when pressurised to vacate the cabin. Some new customers came and stood shamelessly in front of these cabins. The curtains — flying high in the breeze generated by the ceiling fan — revealed what the couples were up to. They had to quickly get up and clear the table without bothering to empty the cold drink bottle or finish the cutlet on the plate. Eating was an excuse for love birds as their hunger was not food-related.

Managing the restaurant included managing the kitchen as well. There was a tendency to poach the cook with extra salary and perks by rival restaurant owners. It was a big headache – unethical poaching like horse trading in politics. On many occasions, the chefs used to run away and join a rival restaurant without informing just after the day of salary credit. As a result, the slot fell vacant, leading to the cancellation of several specialty dishes till a new chef was hired. Customers returned disappointed, but dishing out excuses did not work, resulting in a steady decline in customer loyalty.  

When the new chef came on board, his quality was not always up to the mark. There was a litany of complaints from customers who missed the earlier fare. There was nothing to be done except serving a formal assurance of improving the quality as soon as possible.  

The overhead costs of operating a restaurant were high. The profitability dipped. The tipping point reached when the reputation hit the nadir. Customers did not get the menu of their choice. They had to wait before being served. A couple of years of running and ruining a family restaurant made me realise I had no potential to become a manager and manage a business well. I pulled down the shutters of the family-owned restaurant and presided over the end of its glorious run after two decades. The flop outing did not fill me with the passionate drive to prove detractors wrong – like being the author of an unsuccessful book has egged me to bake another one.  

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

Shopping for My Funeral

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Frankly speaking, I am bored of shopping for festivals and marriages every season. The similar, predictable choices inside the stores put me off. I do not want to see myself in the full-length mirror wearing that premium suit. This narcissistic balderdash shrinks my zeitgeist. I cannot fashion myself in that dapper three-piece with padded shoulders to look broader and fuller while the truth abstains from voting in favour of my suave appeal. 

I am seized with spinning new legerdemain that topples all established notions of going on a shopping spree. Since life is all about gathering new, amazing experiences, I am dying to hit the fashion street to grab chic stuff for my D-Day (to be read as Departure Day). 

Almost all the leading brands have announced mega discount offers, but I am not allured to Buy 2 and Get 2 free. The sales pitch flounders to grab interest. I have no intention of taking some other people along with me to the world beyond. I prefer something like 60% off or an even more handsome discount. I am still not sure whether I would like to wear something traditional like a kurta-pajama set or the usual trouser-shirt combination. I am also quite okay with considering athleisure[1] because they say the soul has to travel a long distance to reach heaven. I would prefer comfy wear that enables me to run faster to meet my Creator. 

I entered one store selling branded traditional wear. I asked the salesman following me to show me a funeral wear collection. Stumped, he looked at me and then at the salesgirl, perhaps waiting for some sort of clarification. Perhaps I was the first customer who walked into the store asking for funeral wear. Before he pressed for my size, I disclosed my right fit. There was some kind of scramble and a rushed attempt to pull out the sober pieces for a somber occasion. I said I am perfectly okay with flashing a bright red or golden look. So, the idea of sticking to white and cream[2] should be abandoned.

I wanted to be sure of what I would wear on the day of my death. Instead of the full-length mirror, I felt like lying down straight as if in a coffin – right on the display counter with a marbled top and asking one of those sales guys to click me in that flat posture wearing my new apparel. My imagination was turning wilder and wilder and I needed to rein myself in or the lackeys would lend their shoulders to carry me out of the shop and drop me on a towing vehicle parked somewhere nearby. This trial episode of being raised on four shoulders would give me the rare experience of what it feels to be lifted for the last journey. 

Switching from traditional wear, I went around the store for something trendy. The casual shirts, with floral print, offered 80% off. The size was perfect and the fabric was pure cotton. I was dazzled by the rust-brown shirt with green flowers and made up my mind to go for this before the sales guy disclosed two buttons were missing. Since this was going to be my last wear, I should not behave like a perfectionist and informed the salesman with a glum face that this would be one-time wear for me as it would be consigned to flames with me. Before the nervous guy pressed the fire alarm, I needed to clarify how the fire thing crept into the conversation. Softly, just for his ears, I said I am shopping for my funeral. He almost fainted on hearing my disclosure, but I chose to proceed to the billing counter. I was a living example of the truth that there are all kinds of crazy people in this world.

My next stop was a premium store for trousers, with the tagline of something like smart dressing for the successful male. Well, I had never been after success and this is perhaps why I was excited to try out something that successful men wore. The tapered fit was difficult for me to wear but the store man insisted this was in vogue. Maybe soon in the morgue as well, I said to myself. I checked out the one with a fabulously smooth, soft texture. The store man offered discount vouchers for shopping again.

I asked him if he had anything immediate to offer. He said it was 50% off now and additional 25% off was given on the next purchase. I recycled the cliché: life is too short. And added I do not know whether I would be alive to visit again for the next shopping trip to redeem the coupon. He wished me a long life with a wide smile and claimed he was always right in his predictions.

I was left with the task of buying shoes. Death is always a stealthy affair and makes no sound when it arrives at the doorstep so I wanted to try something that made no noise when I said goodbye to this world. I should certainly be a good match. I opted for the hush-hush variety before saying Ta-ta. The pure leather shoes were comfortable to wear and I felt like I wore nothing. I was impressed with the hefty 70% discount on the leather pair and picked up white socks as well.  

With these three shopping bags, I felt I had done a hell lot of good shopping and had a gala time alone. I ducked into the nearest fast food outlet and ate junk food and ice cream. I was keen to pack more calories and enjoy a loaded brunch. 

When I looked at the items I had bought for my funeral, I felt I was not dying today and the urge to wear them grew. Death is still a long way to go and I have experienced the pleasure of shopping for death. But I cannot keep these items in my wardrobe without wearing them now. The temptation grew and the coming weekend bash at a friend’s place saw me wearing the coolest combination. The beautiful people there noticed my iridescent presence. I surprised them and regaled them with my shopping plans for my funeral and these latest grabs were meant for that farewell journey. 

A friend of mine said you are not going to die so soon. Yes, he was right, and this is why I did not have the patience to wait so long to try these on. My crazy shopping gig excited many others to go on a similar shopping binge.


[1] A type of hybrid clothing typically worn during athletic activities and in other settings, such as at the workplace, at school, or at other casual or social occasions.

[2] Indian and Chinese funeral wear is often white or cream.

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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

Categories
Poetry

Poetry by Anasuya Bhar

DUSK
The line of dusk makes itself visible
Not in orangish yellow, but in sullen grey, 
And confused white – 
I yearn towards my tea,
Sip in its golden warmth,
Feel it surging down my parched throat
Along the cold tissues. 
It wizens me -- 
Making me quietly aware 
Of all the days gone by
And how slowly my own sun 
Has passed its noon
And is veering towards its dusky route,
Mostly in grey abandon – 

CODES
There are codes
Unsaid arrangements
Making you act, talk and move
In a pattern specific
Rendering facile, redundant, peripheral
The presence of the other,
Called the outsider,
Who seems to intrude 
Into your closed circles
Of intimacy or conspiracy.  
It is the codes
That determine loyalty and staying – 
Beyond which, there is hardly any saying

DISCOVERY
Again and again
Into the cesspool 
Of confusion, desire and hurt,
Of misgivings and disbeliefs too, 
Sinks the sad heart – 
Until one discovers how
The deliverer is the destroyer. 
Again and again 
One realises
The slips so made and,
In the clarity
One perceives
The dynamics of play. 

Dr. Anasuya Bhar is an academic teaching English literature in St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College, Kolkata, India. She would also want to be known as a poet.

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