“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…”
— John Keats (1795-1851), To Autumn
For long writers have associated autumn with “mellow wistfulness”. That loss of spring, or loss of youth is not bleak or regretful has been captured not just by Keats but also been borne out by historical facts. Anthropocene existence only get better as the human race evolves … If we view our world as moving towards an autumn, we perhaps, as Keats suggests, need to find the new “music” for it. A music that is ripe and matures with the passage of time to the point that it moves more towards perfection. Though sometimes lives fade away after autumn gives way to winter as did those of Queen Elizabeth II (April 21st 1926 – September 8th 2022) after a reign of seventy historic years and Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd March 1931 – 30thAugust 2022) with his admirable efforts to bridge divides. Both of them have left footprints that could be eternalised if voices echo in harmony. Thoughts which create bonds never die – they live on in your hearts and mine.
Imagine… ten thousand years ago, were we better off? Recorded history shows that the first war had already been fought 13,000 years ago. And they have continued to rage – but, at least, unlike the indomitable Gauls in Asterix comics – not all jumped into the fray. They did during the last World Wars — which also led to attempts towards institutionalising humanitarian concerns and non-alignment. Yes, we have not had a perfect world as yet but as we age, the earth matures and we will, hopefully, move towards better times as we evolve. Climate change had happened earlier too. At a point, Sahara was green. Continental shifts split Pangaea into seven continents – that was even earlier. That might have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. But I am sure mankind will find a way out of the terror of climate change and wars over a period of time, as long as we believe in deciphering the sounds of autumn as did Keats in his poem.
Tagore had also sung of the joys of autumn which happens to be a time for festivities. Professor Fakrul Alam has translated three such songs, reflecting the joie de vivre of the season, The translation of a small poem, Eshecche Sarat, brings the beauty of the season in Bengal to the fore. We have a celebration of youth and romance in a Balochi folksong, an anti-thesis to autumn and aging, translated for us by Fazal Baloch and also, poetic prose in quest of God and justice by Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed. Lost romance recapitulated makes interesting poetry is borne out by Ihlwha Choi’s translation of his own poem from Korean. But the topping in our translation section is a story called ‘Nagmati’ by eminent Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, translated by no less than a Sahitya Akademi winning translator – Aruna Chakravarti. This story illustrates how terrifying youthful follies can lead to the end of many young lives, a powerful narrative about the snake worshipping community of Bedeynis that highlights destruction due to youthful lusts and an inability to accept diverse cultures.
When this cultural acceptance becomes a part of our being, it creates bonds which transcend manmade borders as did the films of Satyajit Ray. His mingling was so effective that his work made it to the zenith of an international cinematic scenario so much so that Audrey Hepburn, while receiving the Oscar on his behalf, said: “Dear Satyajit Ray. I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”
This and more has been revealed to us in a book,Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much, authored by a protagonist from Ray’s film, Barun Chanda. This book brought out by Om Books International reflects not just Ray as a person but also how he knitted the world together with his films and took the Indian film industry to an international level. Barun Chanda has been interviewed with a focus on Satyajit Ray. Keith Lyons has also interviewed a man who has defied all norms and, in the autumn of his life, continues his journey while weaving together cultures across, China, India and Thailand by his ethnographic studies on tribes, Jim Goodman. Goodman says he left America when speaking for a war-free world became a cause for censorship. This makes one wonder if war is a game played for supporting a small minority of people who rule the roost? Or are these ramblings of a Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of narcotics?
Poetry also brings the season into our pages with an autumnal interpretation of life from Michael Burch. More poetry from Sunil Sharma, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Gayatri Majumdar, George Freek, Ron Pickett, Sutputra Radheye, Marianne Tefft brings a wide range of concerns to our pages – from climate to the vagaries of human nature. Poetry by an Albanian writer, Irma Kurti, and photographs by her Italian spouse, Biagio Fortini, blend together the colours of humanity. Rhys Hughes as usual, makes it to the realm of absurd – perhaps voicing much in his poetry, especially about the environment and human nature, though he talks of woodpeckers on Noah’s ark (were there any?) and of cows, yetis, monkeys and cakes… He has also given us a hilarious cat narrative for his column. Can that be called magic realism too? Or are the edges too abstract?
A leader who quested for freedom and roamed the world after being passed over by the Congress in favour of Nehru, Netaji raised an army of women who were trained in Singapore – not a small feat in the first half of the twentieth century anywhere in the world. His death in an air crash remained an unsolved mystery — another one of those controversies which raged through the century like the Bhawal case. In his review, Parichha spells out: “Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters.”
Our non-fiction also hosts humour from Devraj Singh Kalsi about his interactions with birds and, on the other hand, a very poignant poetic-prose by Mike Smith reflecting on the vagaries of autumn. From Japan, Suzanne Kamata takes us to the Rabbit Island – and murmurings of war and weapons. We have the strangest story about a set of people who are happy to be ruled by foreign settlers – we would term them colonials – from Meredith Stephens. G Venkatesh delights with a story of love and discovery in Korea, where he had gone in pre-pandemic times. Paul Mirabile travels to Turkey to rediscover a writer, Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954). And Ravi Shankar gives us an emotional story about his trek in the Himalayas in Nepal with a friend who has passed on. Candice Louisa Daquin has written of the possibilities towards integrating those who are seen as minorities and marginalised into the mainstream.
The edition this time is like Autumn – multi-coloured. Though I am not able to do justice to all our contributors by mentioning them here, my heartfelt thanks to each as every piece only enriches our journal. I urge you to take a look at the September edition.
I would like to give huge thanks to our readers and our team too, especially Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious for their artwork. We could not have come this far without support from all of you.
 The men in the indomitable Gaulish village (which the Romans failed to conquer) in times of Julius Caesar loved to jump into a fight for no reason…Asterix was the protagonist of the comics along with his fat friend Obelix
Prafulla Roy is a Bengali author. He traveled all over the country to experience the struggles of the people. He lived for some time among the indigenous people of Nagaland, the untouchables of Bihar and the rootless people of the mainland of the Andamans. He has written 150 books, received multiple awards like the Sahitya Akademi and the Bankim Puraskar. About 45 telefilms, tele-series, and feature-films were made based on his novels. He lives in Kolkata.Nagmati was first published in 1956.
Sonai Bibi’r Bil. A low-lying fen in a remote corner of the earth far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life…
In the bitter cold of winter, when winds from the north blow hard and dry, Sonai Bibi’r Bil shrivels into herself like the rotting carcass of an old woman. All that is visible are her skeletal remains. Patches of water, green with scum, shimmer between masses of earth risen from her breast. And around them, as far as the eye can see, are unending sweeps of wild reeds, bulrushes and tussock grass. There are deep shadows here. Shadows and silence. Water and verdure are locked together in restful sleep.
When the first monsoon showers fall upon the earth Sonai Bibi’r Bil awakes. Shaking off her torpor, she raises her face to the sky and drinks great gulps of pelting rain. Her contours change. She stretches and expands. Her newly awakened limbs unfurl and spread in all directions. To the north, south, east and west… all the way to the horizon. The river Meghna helps her. Swelling and frothing in a demonic dance she bursts her banks and makes her way into the fen. Wrapping her in a fierce embrace sheturns her into a great sheet of waving water. Sensuous, joyous, seductive…
Then, after autumn has waned and the fierce frosty winds of hemantahave raped and battered her voluptuous form, Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sad, withered replica of her once glorious self. The sap of youth drains away from her limbs and, who knows from what dark depths, stretches of virgin soil appear.
Winter follows. And now flocks of birds…katora, imli, jalpipi, and innumerable others come flying in from distant shores. They have many names. Many colours. Descending on her in sweeps, they turn Sonai Bibi’r Bil into a rainbow. With them come other migratory creatures. Bedeys, nomadic snake charmers, anchor their boats in her shallow waters. The sound of rushing wings and soft footfalls enters her ears. Delicious tremors rise from deep within and her land and water sway and shiver with ecstasy.
That they are here this winter, too, is evident from the many tents that have blossomed like land lotuses all over Sonai Bibi’r Bil. Other flowers can be seen. Along with the krishnakalithat dapples the breast of the fen with clutches of purple stars are snake maidens, winsome creatures in motley-coloured skirts rippling seductively from narrow waists to slim ankles. Bunches of golden flowers wave coyly from tangled locks. Their eyes are long and languorous. But, at times, a sudden flame can spurt into a dark iris and flicker and dance like the head of a deadly cobra. They wear ornaments made from the bones of snakes and birds. Imli wing necklaces and kuchila spine bracelets adorn long necks and arms. Danglers, fashioned from the delicate neck bones of a shankha nag, swing from tiny earlobes.
The short days of winter provide a welcome rest for the nomads… a brief diversion in their wandering lives. A time to suspend floating over turbulent waters and experience the joy of putting down roots. To revel in the comfort and security enjoyed by the householder. Nagmati bedeyni’s snake maidens sit all day long, basking in warm sunshine, weaving trays and baskets. The men squatting beside them peel reeds and twine feathery tussock into ropes. They are young men with stone-hard limbs and staring eyes…crimson from mahua wine. Their rough tawny manes are tied with lengths of entrails pulled out of chakrachoor snakes and dried to ribbons. Dark lips are parted in foolish smiles. But not all are employed thus. Some pursue more arduous tasks. Stealing sheaves of mustard, sesame and kaoon paddy from the waving fields on three sides of the fen, is one of them. Stalking wild geese and bringing them down with skilled throws of sharp-edged harpoons is another.
They come every winter. Winter stretches into Springon the wings of mellow breezes. Summer follows. The parched earth bakes and cracks, raising swirls of scorching dust. Still, the call to resume their roving lives doesn’t reach their ears. But when the first monsoon clouds rise from the horizon and cool winds laden with moisture come wafting into Sonai Bibi’r Bil, they shake off their languor and ready themselves for their tryst with the waiting waters. Sails are unfurled and oars mended. Towing ropes stretch and tighten in muscled palms. Muttering fervent prayers to Allah and Bish hari, their preferred name for the snake goddess Manasa, they set sail once more. Frail barks ride high on the waves as the ferocious Meghna comes swaying and swerving into Sonai Bibi’r Bil.
Reeds, bulrush, tussock and broom disappear. Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sea of black water. Boats fly over foam tipped waves and down again. From the Meghna to the Padma. From the Padma to the Kalabadar mooring, from time to time, on alien banks. Then sky and water resonate with the echoes of sharp, sweet voices. “Bish pathor Ma! Khanti bish pathor! Bish hari’r doai shob bish uithya aashbo. Dudhraj, Chandrachud, Aalad, Gokkhur… Jodhi booti niba Ma? Jodhi booti?”
(Poison stones Mother! Genuine poison stones! Blessed by Bish hari herself. Guaranteed to draw out every trace of poison… be it that of adder, krait, python or cobra. Herbs and roots, Mother? Herbs and roots?)
Snake maidens hawking their wares. Calling out to the village women. To wives and mothers…
Hopes and dreams rise in heaving breasts. The nesting instinct pulls at their heartstrings. A slumberous numbness creeps into their veins and blood flows slow and heavy as though scented with opium flowers. The mind begins to send out roots and tendrils. But as soon the sky darkens with cloud and rain comes pelting down, they remember their ancestral promise to the waters of the earth and resume their drifting, roving lives.
This winter morning, as on all others, they sit with their backs turned to the sweet warm sun weaving dried grass and reeds into bins and baskets to be sold by the men at the weekly market in Kamalaganj. Their hands work swiftly for soon it will be time for them to walk down the village paths with their pouches of poison stones and baskets of snakes. To persuade wives and mothers to buy their herbs and roots, potions, charms and amulets. To entertain the villagers by making the deadliest snakes dance to their pipes. To return with fistfuls of silver joy…
Sonai Bibi’r Bil resonates with quick voices and shrill laughter. Mohabbat looks up from his task of peeling a bamboo cane and turns to one of the younger girls. “Ki lo Palanki?” he asks with a mocking smile, “Where’s Shankhini this morning? She’s not to be seen anywhere. Has her position of Amma turned her into a star in the sky?”
Shankhini is the mistress of this band of bedeys. The Queen Bee. Comments like these are tantamount to treason. Besides no one has the right to take her name. She must be addressed as Amma. She can, if she wishes, split any heart in two with a deadly thrust of her javelin. But Mohabbat is foolish and reckless. Quite often he forgets his place.
Palanka darts a timid glance at Mohabbat. There is something about her that sets her apart from the other girls. She is like a wildflower, small and humble, that knows it was born in the dust. Her eyes are misty with a faraway look in them. A scent, faint and sweet as a musk deer’s, rises from her limbs. It spreads around and beyond her like a cloud, soothing and calming all those who come near her. Eyes grow soft when they meet hers and the soul is filled with tranquility.
She has no answer to Mohabbat’s question. Her heart beats fast and she lowers her eyes. Another woman is quick to respond. A cackle of fierce laughter bursts from Atarjaan’s lips … so loud and bitter that the heart of the fen trembles with fear. Atarjaan’s body is tight and well formed, but her face is black and crumpled as though ravaged by a phantom fire. “O re Mohabattya! Spawn of a slave!” she shrieks, her ugly mouth twisted in contempt, “The nesting fever has gripped our Shankhini. Don’t you know? She has worn a red sari and smeared sindoor on her brow and parting. She’s standing before a mirror admiring herself. Go take a look. Hee Hee Hee!” Turning to the girl she screeches with laughter, “Ki lo Palanki You’re pining for a home and husband too…aren’t you? Go … go. Turn yourself into a wife and mother you slut. Hee Hee Hee!”
Five boats containing all the necessities of a nomadic life stand anchored in the shallow waters. An angry growl is heard from one of them. “Ke? Ke?” Shankhini’s voice hits the ears like a clap of thunder. “Ei Mohabbatya, you dirty jinn! Ei Aatar… you whore! I’m coming…Just wait and see what I do. I’ll slaughter you two instead of a hen and drink your blood.”
Shankhini storms in, her young body swift as a flash of lightning. The sindoor in the parting of her hair blazes like a streaking flame. Deep red silk flows around her limbs like a river of blood. Her magnificent breasts, heaving with passion, move up and down with every fierce breath. Her long eyes glitter like the spitting tongue of a deadly krait.
The fire goes out of Mohabbat. Aatarjaan trembles and turns pale. The rest of the band are struck dumb with terror. Only Palanka gazes at Shankhini with wistful eyes. An intense yearning rises from deep within her at the sight of Nagmati bedeyni’s fiery daughter in a sari and sindoor. The humble flower’s eyes fill with tears. Her heart is consumed with longing.
A scent, fresh and earthy, comes wafting into her soul as though from a vast distance. It brings promise of love and protection. Of peace and stability. Somewhere, in some alien village, someone is waiting for her. A man with a broad chest on which she rests her head in sweet surrender.A child is suckling at her breast. She feels his soft damp mouth tugging at her nipples; sending tremors of joy running through her frame. She sees a tiny hut with a vine growing over the thatch. Bunches of beans speckled with gold dust dance in the breeze. A yard, neatly swabbed with cow dung is surrounded by mango and lemon trees. Doves fly in and out of their shadows and sing from their branches on warm somnolent afternoons.
Walking through the villages bordering the Meghna, Padma and Ilsha, Palanka has seen these scenes. She has heard the legend, integral to their worship of Manasa, of how Behula had sailed over these waters with her dead husband Lakhai till she reached the abode of the Gods and persuaded them to bring him back to life. This great stretch of land and water is rendered holy, to this day, by Behula’s chastity.
Palanka’s dream of a peaceful nest in some obscure corner of the earth; of lifelong faith and trust in a man she calls husband, has made her drifting blood yearn to drop anchor. Perhaps the samedream has begun to haunt Shankhini, she muses wistfully. To beckon to her with shadowy fingers. Even so, Palanka knows there is no escape for her. She’s a slave to Shankhini’s will. Dozens of eyes guard her all the time.
Shankhini glared at the assembled men and women. Her brows were knitted together like a pair of scorpions. Her slender limbs, swathed in crimson, raged like a forest fire. Tongues of flame darted from her eyes. She looked like a wild bird ready to swoop on her detractors and tear their flesh into shreds with her talons. But before she could do anything, a whirlwind came spinning through the bushes. “Amma! Amma!” A fearful voice pierced her ears as Sikander came charging in, his flying feet trampling reeds and grass. “Disaster has befallen us,” he cried, “Another band is in the fen. They’ve anchored their boats on the opposite side. I saw them myself…”
The irises of Shankhini’s eyes changed colour. They took on the tawny hue of a tigress lurking behind a clump of keya with spiky leaves and towers of flowers exuding a pungent sweetness.
“Zulfikar!” she hollered, her voice echoing like a roll of thunder.
Zulfikar, Chief of Shankhini’s warrior band, was lounging some distance away in the shade of some screwpine bushes. He had been drinking a local brew since morning and by now his stomach had swelled up like a barrel. He heard his mistress call out his name. There was something so immediate, so urgent, in her voice that his dim drowsy senses were shocked into a sudden awakening. The bottle got knocked out of his hand and its contents spilled out in spurts on the grass.
He rose to his feet. He was a huge hulk of a man. His face, which seemed cut out of a giant slab of coal, was devoid of brows and lashes, and his jawbones jutted out like mountain crags. Hibiscus red eyes glared malignantly. Grrrrrrr… a roar, like that of a lion rudely aroused from sleep, gathered in his throat and burst from his mouth.It was a war cry. The peace and serenity of the winter morning were shattered. Hands stopped their work and senses tensed at the sound.
In this land of swamp and river there was an unwritten law. No one knew who had thought of it first, or when, but it was part of a code of conduct followed by all bedeys irrespective of where they came from. No band ventured into a space already occupied by another.
Zulfikar had arrived on the scene by now. Mohabbat, Sikandar and the other men stood up. The women had risen too. The air was filled with hissing sounds as the angry breath left their nostrils. Snake maidens had turned into snakes…
The golden glory of the winter morning dimmed as though dark clouds had swooped on it with clashing wings. Everyone rushed to the boat where the band’s weapons were stored. Shankhini forgot her threat of tearing Mohabbat and Aatarjaan, limb from limb, and drinking their blood. Only Palanka sat immobile beside a heap of broom and dried grass. Conflict of any kind terrified her. Her heart quivered like that of a new-born egret. She shut her eyes in fear.
A sudden commotion startled Palanka. She opened her eyes to see Zulfikar marching towards the other side of the fen, a mighty lance held aloft in his hand. Shankhini was behind him followed by Aatarjaan, Dohor Bibi, Moina and the others. From Sikandar and Mohabbat to the youngest boatman…she could see the entire band. A contingent of men and women armed with weapons. Spears, axes and javelins glittered in the sun. Lengths of bamboo swung from powerful hands. The smell of death was in the air. Palanka held her breath till Zulfikar and his army disappeared behind a screen of trees.
The other group of bedeys had arrived only a couple of days ago. They hadn’t found time yet to put up their tents and settle down. As they stood surrounded by piles of bamboo and canvas, baskets of snakes and bundles of cooking vessels, a menacing roar reached their ears. “Ei bandi’r poot. Abba Amma’r shaadi dekhtey aichhos? Kalija phainrha dimu. (Sons of slaves! Have you come here to celebrate the nuptials of your parents? I’ll tear your hearts into shreds.)”
They looked up startled. A man of colossal dimensions stood before them. His mighty head nearly touched the sky. He was whirling a lance whose glittering edge seemed to be slavering at the mouth for blood. Some of the men ran towards the boats anchored haphazardly in the shallow waters. Others stared at the black mountain with bewildered eyes.
Now another voice rang in the air. ‘Sons of whores!’ Shankhini let out a yell that matched Zulfikar’s in power. ‘This is our fen. We come here every year. If you don’t disappear this minute, we’ll slit your bellies and pull the guts out.’
A deafening silence followed. But it didn’t last long. Shankhini’s adversaries had armed themselves in a twinkling and now they marched towards her with fire in their eyes and spikes and iron bars in their hands. The two armies advanced. Both were ready for battle.
A deadly combat could have followed. Heads, sliced from bodies, could have rolled on the forest floor. The waters of the fen could have turned crimson with blood. Hearts, lungs and livers could have been cut to pieces.
But the clash was averted by a voice from one of the boats, deep as thunder but astonishingly musical. Both groups froze in their tracks as a man came walking towards them, arms raised in command. He was six and a half feet tall with limbs that shone like burnished gold. Raven black hair fell to his shoulders in sleek shining waves and the vast expanse of his chest looked as though carved out of granite. A rare courage and strength radiated from every pore of his body. Yet his eyes had a faraway look in them. A look that was not of this world.
“Why take up arms?” the deep voice boomed. “Can’t we settle the matter amicably?”
Before anyone could respond, what seemed like a flaming meteor whizzed past Zulfikar and stopped before the dazzling presence. It was Shankhini. Ten years had passed. Ten summers and winters had gone by but she had no difficulty in recognising him.
“Raja saheb?” she murmured. There was a catch in her voice.
“Who are you?” A pair of arched eyebrows came together.
“I’m Shankhini. Don’t you recognise me?”
“You’re Shankhini! Is this your band?”
“Yes,” Shankhini’s eyes passed slowly over the stranger’s frame… as though seeking something.
“Isn’t it extraordinary?” A radiant smile lit up his countenance, “that we stand here today as enemies with sticks and lances in our hands?” Then, addressing both groups, he said in a commanding voice, “Drop your weapons. There’s no need to fight…”
Shankhini stood staring at him. Her mind had left the present and reverted to the past. When she and the man before her were in the first flush of youth. When he could leap into the swirling waters of the Meghna, split a crocodile’s heart in two with his lance, and swim to the bank carrying the creature on his back. When he didn’t fear to venture into the densest forests to hunt the spotted leopard and bring the carcass back slung from a pole. When the hint of a conflict made his blood simmer with pleasurable anticipation and a roar, like a storm cloud’s, gather in his throat. When every muscle of his beautiful body swayed and rippled like the hood of a deadly cobra. Those days were history now. Like fairytales heard long ago. Today, he cringed from a simple fight between two bands. Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter gazed at him with wonder in her eyes.
How he has changed… she thought…What divine snake charmer’s flute has subdued the snakes writhing and hissing inhis blood?
They had both been members of Asmani’s bedeyni’s band… so long ago…it seemed as though aeons had passed. A time when Raja saheb’s hard, gold, tiger-eyes had softened, as though misted with a film of wine, whenever they met her long dark ones. And Shankhini’s heart had hummed, like a young bee’s hovering over a flower, whenever he came into her presence…
And then… disaster struck. A terrible storm in Daulatpur, where they were spending the winter, shattered their fleet of boats. Torn to pieces, they sank to the floor of the raging Padma. Swept away by the current, the members of the band got separated and were carried to who knows what unknown destinations…
Shankhini had tried to forget this painful period of her life and succeeded. But she couldn’t forget Raja saheb.
“Look Shankhini,” Raja saheb said peaceably. ‘You were here first. The right is on your side. We’ll go away. First thing tomorrow we’ll set sail towards Char Sohagi and pitch our tents there. Happy?’
“No. Never!” A sharp exclamation, more like a cry of pain, escaped from Shankhini’s throat. “Don’t think of leaving. I’m seeing you after so long. S-o-o long. Can I let you go?”
“But two rival bands can’t stay in the same place. I don’t like squabbling and fighting. Those days are over…”
“I’m the leader of my band.” Shankhini’s eyes blazed with triumph, “What I say counts. No one from my side will challenge your presence in Sonai Bibi’r Bil.”
Raja saheb shook his head and remained silent.
“Let me ask you a question. What has changed you so? Since when has the thought of conflict become so fearful? Only a few years have gone by since we…”
“I’m weary Shankhini.” A melancholy smile appeared on Raja saheb’s lips, “I’m weary of this roving life. Here today, there tomorrow. Endlessly warring and killing one another! And for what? A little space in which, by the rules of our nomadic forefathers, we are forbidden to put down roots. Ordinary folk hate us. Snake charming and selling poison stones don’t provide a living any longer. If we steal, we end up in prison. Of what use is this existence? Far better to farm a bit of land somewhere, build a hut and live in peace.”
Shankhini was startled. So were all the others. What was he saying? How could he even dream of disregarding the edict, laid down by Bish hari herself, and followed by the nomadic race from time immemorial? What terrible blasphemy! Even hearing such talk was sin! The snake goddess would be outraged!
“Don’t utter such words,” Shankhini shuddered, “Don’t utter them ever again! Beware of Bish hari’s wrath. She’ll send her deadly, conch-skinned snakes to destroy you. Jai Ma Bish hari!”
Jai Ma Bish hari! Loud voices echoed hers till sky, water and land resounded with the sound.
Raja saheb’s wan smile faded. “I understand your feelings Shankhini,” he said quietly, “but I can’t lie to myself any longer. This rootless drifting is not for me.”
“What has come over you?’ Shankhini broke the uneasy silence that had descended. ‘Are you ill? Or in some trouble? Come, open your heart to me.”
“I’m not the Raja saheb you knew. I’m a different man.”
Shankhini burst out laughing, “Don’t worry. I have a cure for your ills.”
“I’ve learned the black art from a tantric sannyasi.” Peal after peal of merry laughter rang like bells from Shankhini’s lips as she continued, “I can change you to what you were with a handful of magic dust. Come to my boat tonight. We’ll dine together. And we’ll talk. I have so much to say to you… my heart brims over with ten years of unspoken words.”
Thoughts of Raja saheb kept Shankhini occupied for the rest of the day. What a fine figure of a man he had been in the past! His heart, mind and body intrepid and unflinching as though made of steel. The world had been his for the taking. She remembered the time he had murdered twelve men, buried their corpses on a bank of the Kaldighi river, and returned with one hundred rupees tucked in his waistband and a smile on his lips. That blood had cooled. The same heart yearned to put down roots. For a quiet peaceful life. Alas! Shankhini knew no charms that could change him back to the man she had known and loved.
It wasn’t as though she, herself, was not lured by the prospect of putting down roots. As though she wasn’t consumed with envy at the sight of a woman flaunting the badge of wifehood. Didn’t she drape a sari around her form, in secret, and fill her parting with sindoor? But she couldn’t give up the power and privilege of being the queen of a band. She wanted Raja saheb as her husband but was not prepared to pay the price he wanted. She had to do something to bring the simmer back into his blood. To revive the old ruthlessness and lust for power. But she didn’t know how…
Raja saheb is coming. Raja saheb is coming. A thousand bees hummed in Shankhini’s heart. Looking out of the window of her hajarmoni boat she felt her senses sway in harmony with the lapping water. The sun was about to set. A cloud of red gold dust was clinging to reeds and bamboo clumps, tussock and broom. Suddenly she felt a wave of love for everything around her. For the changing hues of the sky. For the emerald-tailed kingfisher sitting on the arjun tree. For her own sensuous body. Music welled up in her throat and she sang…
Shaap er bishe jemun temun; prem er bishe du gun dhai
Gourango bhujango hoye dangshiyachhe amaar gaye
Bish er jwala jemun jwala; prem er jwalai aagun dhai…
(Snake poison is but little; love’s poison is twice cursed
The fair one, turned serpent, has lashed my limbs and heart.
Snake poison may sting; love’s poison is a flame…)
Shankhini rose. Scrubbing her face with fuller’s earth she washed it clean. She smoothed her cloud of unruly hair with fragrant oil and stuck a green beetle’s wing between her brows. ‘Palanki!’ she called, her voice ringing with delight, “O re O Palanki! Come here. Come quick you foolish girl. Braid my hair and put it up in a khonpa.”
Hurrying to Shankhini’s boat, Palanka combed out the long, tangled hair with a wooden comb then, braiding it in seven strands, twisted it in an elegant coiffure. She watched wide eyed as the older girl lined her eyes with surma, decorated her forehead with sandal paste and tucked a cluster of scarlet mandar behind one ear. Clothes and ornaments came next. Securing her heavy breasts with a green and gold kanchuli, she hung a long skirt of saffron silk from her slim waist.
Shankhini had spent all afternoon weaving a chain of diamond teeth plucked from the jaws of a shankhamoni snake. This she wore around her neck. A topaz flower glimmered from one nostril and bunches of blood-red stones hung from her earlobes. Her wrists were heavy with mirror-shard bangles and a band of kunchila bones rippled over her rounded hips. On her feet, brass anklets jingled and jangled. Her shapely body dazzled and glittered, with every movement, like shafts of lightning.
Palanka was gazing at Shankhini with awe in her eyes. The snake maiden had turned into a being from another world. She was as beautiful as the apsara Tillottama.
“Ki lo!” Shankhini smiled. Palanka’s unconcealed admiration pleased her, ‘Do you like the way I look?’
“Hunh.” Palanka answered in a dazed voice.
“Oh! my little bird…you like me…do you want to marry me?” Bursting into a peal of brazen laughter, she added, “The trouble is you can’t marry me even if you wish. I’m a woman.”
Palanka hung her head and was silent.
“You want to turn yourself into a wife…don’t you, littlebird? To build a nest of your own?”
Palanka raised her eyes and shot a timid glance at her mistress. A faint sound, which might have been an affirmative, escaped her lips.
At any other time, Shankhini would have snarled with fury at this admission. She would have threatened the girl with severe punishment. Even death. But this green and gold evening was magical. It was meant for joy and laughter. She blew an indulgent kiss at Palanka.
“Listen Palanki,” Shakhini broke the silence that had fallen between them, “I know you dress like a bride in secret. You think no one is looking. But I’ve seen you. You look so pretty that sometimes I wish I could marry you. But beware. My lover is coming tonight. Don’t dare cast your eyes on him. If I catch you even…”
Shankhini stopped short. As suddenly as if she felt the forked tongue of a takshaka lash her mouth. She was alarmed. Why had she uttered those words? Did she feel threatened by the lovely young girl? Her face hardened. Her indulgent tone became severe. “Go,” she commanded, “Get out of this boat.”
Shocked at Shankhini’s change of mood, Palanka hastened to obey.
The glimmering twilight faded. Dusk started to fall. Silhouetted against a sapphire and amethyst sky, a stream of ocean birds flew slowly towards the horizon. Shankhini stood by the window of her hajarmoni boat,waiting for her lover, as the shadows of night closed around Sonai Bibi’r Bil and the sound of rushing wings filled her air…
Mohabbat and the others had lit a fire on the bank into whose leaping flames they were throwing masses of waterbirds they had brought down with their harpoons earlier in the evening. Jalpipi, bakhari, dahuk and balihans — the flesh of these birds was plump and juicy.
Ha la la la! Ha la la la! Bedeys and bedeynis yelled in excitement. Hui dhinak dhin! Hui dhinak dhin!Some danced around the fire while others played drums and flutes. Zulfikar looked on with bloodshot eyes. In his arms, clutched with protective care, he held a dozen bottles of heady wine. Raja saheb was coming tonight and Shankhini was holding a feast in his honour. What could be a happier prospect? The drums beat harder and harder as the night advanced; the tunes from the flutes grew wilder. A drunken voice laden with nostalgia sang…Kemon koira thaki lo soi Shyam er bihaney. An icy wind blew in gusts. But no one felt its bite. Ha la la la! Ha la la la! The night sky rang with intoxicated voices.
The long wait was over at last. At the sound of Raja saheb’s footsteps, Shankhini moved from the window and glanced at herself in the mirror. A deep blush rose from her neck and stained her cheeks. Her glowing eyes grew misty. A tremendous happiness surged through her limbs like the waving waters of the fen. Stepping out of the boat, she walked towards her guest and took his large cool hands in her small, fevered ones. “Come in Raja saheb,” she whispered, “It’s terribly cold outside…”
Hand in hand they walked into Shankhini’s hajarmoni boat. After the biting chill of the bank, it felt warm and welcoming. A double wicked lamp cast a soft orange glow on the two as they lay on a carpet, backs resting against silk cushions. Cuddling up to her lover, Shankhini whispered amorously. “I’ve been looking out for you since evening. You took so long in coming. S-o-o-o long.”
She waited for a reply then, receiving none, she added fretfully, “You don’t love me anymore. Some wicked woman has ensnared you. Changed you. But don’t forget that I’m Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter; well versed in black magic.I know how to dispel the witch’s charms and win you back. This night will be our night…”
At her words Raja saheb felt the old love of lust and power, bequeathed to him by generations of his nomadic ancestors, stir slowly in his blood. His eyes fell on the woman beside him. A snake maiden of incredible beauty! Sitting close…so close her scent filled his nostrils. The warmth of her limbs pervaded his. An unknown mystique clung to her like a gossamer web. She was saying something, but he couldn’t hear a word. The clash of cymbals and the beat of drums from his own heart filled his ears. He turned to her with infinite tenderness and drew her to his breast.
“Ten years have gone by,” Shankhini whispered ruefully. “Ten long years. If the storm hadn’t separated us; if we were still in Asmani bedeyni’s band, we could have been together for all time to come…”
Raja saheb had just opened his mouth to reply when Palanka walked in. Behind her were Atarjaan, Gahar and Dohor bibi. They carried wine bottles in their hands and clay pots full of different kinds of meat. There was khashi korma in one; roasted jalpipi in another. Imli bird curry, fried dahuk wings, juicy chunks of tender waterfowl cooked with garlic and spices, kunchila snake kababs. So much variety! So many flavours! Dohor Bibi spread a piece of cloth on the carpet and arranged the dishes with loving care.
Raja saheb’s eyes wandered all over the deck. To the bunches of roots and herbs piled on one side and baskets, full of deadly snakes, on the other. It was a picture he had seen many times before; typical of the way bedeys lived. Suddenly, his roving eyes fell on Palanka who stood behind the other women. A sweet, pretty girl in a red striped sari and hijal flowers in her hair. There was something about her eyes that made him think of a humble cottage at dusk. His own grew misty with yearning. It was through this girl, he realised suddenly, that his dream could come true. In the quivering shadows of her gentle soul, he would find sanctuary…
Two women…Shankhini and Palanka. He looked from one to the other. Shankhini fired a man’s blood; intoxicated him. Set his nerves on edge like a bow, strung taut. In Palanka he found a cool shadowy bower in which to rest them. Raja saheb’s gaze grew soft; his heart melted with love. Shankhini was lightning. Palanka a humble flower.
“Ei Palanki!” Shankhini’s voice, like the sudden growl of a wounded tigress, shattered the silence. “You whoring bitch! Get out of here. Get out this minute.”
Palanka had been gazing dreamily, all this while, at the man before her. She had read the message in his eyes and surrendered heart, mind and soul to him. Shankhini’s harsh command broke into her reverie, and she hastened to obey. But she was stopped. Putting out his hand Raja saheb gripped hers “Why do you run away dearie?” he smiled at the girl, “You’ve brought so much delicious food and wine. Stay and share some with us.”
“Let her go.” Shankhini laughed uneasily, “She doesn’t drink wine. And she has given up eating meat. The pretentious harlot has turned herself into a Boshtumi. Hee hee hee!”
“I too have given up wine …”
“What?” Shankhini couldn’t believe her ears. Were they playing tricks with her? She sat dumbstruck for a few minutes, then burst into a peal of hyena like laughter. “Then you and the skinny myna-bird will make a wonderful pair. Boshtomand Boshtumi! Hee hee hee!”
Raja saheb was startled. Shankhini’s laughter lashed at his eardrums like the deadly tongue of a hooded cobra, and he released Palanka’s hand. She hastened out of the boat with Dohorbibi, Gahar and Aatarjaan close behind.
Hours passed. The winter night grew colder and darker. The wind shrieked and howled like the agonized cries of a soul in torment. The fire outside had burned down and the men and women sitting around it huddled together for warmth. Their excitement had waned by now. Heads were lolling on breasts and the thunderous voices that had set the heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil quaking with trepidation, were mute.
Shankhini moved closer to her lover and wound her arms around his neck. Her voice was drowsy with mahua fumes as she murmured dreamily, “I can’t live without you Raja saheb. Be mine… only mine.”
“Do you really mean that?”
“I do. Ask me to swear on Allah or Bish hari… whoever you consider holier…and I’ll obey.”
“If that’s the truth; the way you truly feel,” Raja saheb sat up in excitement, “let’s build a home together. You’ve seen how village folk live. A deep bond of loyalty and faith binds couples till death. The husband loves and protects his wife. She serves him, bears his children and raises them. Doesn’t such a life attract you?”
“It does. But I love my life as a bedeyni even more. The danger and excitement of sailing over tumultuous waters, making snakes sway in rhythm to the tunes of my flute, preparing potions and working magic with poison stones…these things send a thrill through my bones and make my blood dance in ecstasy. We have been nomads for generations. A love of roving is in our blood. Don’t even think of another way of life, Raja saheb. If you deny your heritage, you will invoke Bish hari’s curse and all you hold dear will be destroyed. Be your old self again. Become the man you were when I saw you first.”
“I don’t believe in Bish hari.” Her companion said dismissively. “I have wanted to give up this wandering existence for many years. I haven’t been able to… so far. But I can’t wait any longer. I have to leave.”
Shankhini froze at these words. She lay in her lover’s embrace, limp and lifeless. She could scarcely breathe. She was a bedeyni; a devotee of Bish hari. Every muscle, tissue, cell and fiber of her being yearned for freedom. Freedom to sail her boat on uncharted waters. To weather storms and tempests. To feel the sun on her limbs and the wind on her face. Impossible for her to build a nest and stay confined within it. She couldn’t do it. No… not even for the man she loved.
Raja saheb stirred. “It’s time for me to go back,” he murmured, disengaging her arms gently, “Goodbye Shankhini.”
“But you haven’t eaten anything!”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re leaving!” A cry of pain escaped Shankhini’s lips. “One night! You refuse to be mine for even one night!” Tears clung to her eyelashes, like dewdrops on grass.
“You don’t need me.”
“I need you. More than anyone or anything else. But what do you want from me?”
“You must leave the band. The bedeyni must turn herself into a farmer’s wife.”
Shankhini was in a quandary. One half of her heart was drowned in love for Raja saheb. The tug of her roving blood and the rights and privileges she enjoyed as mistress of a band swamped the other. The two were mutually exclusive. She had to make a choice.
“Give me time to think,” she said, “You’ll come to my boat again, won’t you?”
“Of course, I will. I’ve discovered another love here.” A low, mysterious laugh escaped Raja saheb’s lips.
Shankhini shivered. An unknown fear took possession of her. She shut her eyes and tried to overcome it. There was something in Raja saheb’s voice. An insinuation. What was it? She mulled over his words for a long time but couldn’t fathom it.
She opened her eyes, after a while, to find him gone. She was alone. The boat was empty. As empty as her heart. She felt a bitter rush of bile in her throat. It corroded her mouth and set fire to her limbs. Suddenly a name rose to her lips.She spat into the food spread before her as she uttered it. Palanka. Every drop of her blood burned with hate. Her body swayed like a wounded snake with the pain of envy and thwarted love…
Raja saheb made his way carefully in and out of tussock clumps that stood as high as his chest. The merry chirping of crickets, alternating with the joyous croak of frogs from waterholes, came to his ears. Sonai Bibi’r Bil was wrapped in a shroud of dark mist. The only light came from clusters of glowworms glittering, like sparks of emerald fire, from trees and bushes. The air was so cold it cut into his skin like a knife. He had a long way to go. He had to cross several streams and acres of kasharh jungle before he reached his boat and found the comfort of a warm bed. He redoubled his pace.
Passing a piyal tree he stopped in his tracks. “Raja saheb,” a soft voice had called out from the dark.
“Who is it?” He looked this way and that.
“I’m Palanka.” A slight figure slipped out of the shadows and stood before him. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
The light was so faint that he felt rather than saw the eyes fixed on his face. They were glowing like lamps. A pungent wild-flower scent, rising from her limbs, suffused his being.
Raja saheb felt as though he was in a dream. “I knew I would find you again,” he murmured.
“I heard what you said to Shankhini.” Palanka moved closer, “I hid behind the boat and heard every word. I want a home too. A home and a husband. I’m tired of drifting from bank to bank. Will you take me away from here? We’ll live like peasant folk do. Build a little hut and …”
“You’ll come with me?” Raja saheb felt the blood leap joyfully in his veins. Before he realised what he was doing he put out his arms and drew Palanka to his breast. Hours passed before Raja saheb released her. “I must go now,” he said, “The night is almost over.”
“You’ll come again?” Palanka’s voice throbbed with longing, “When will l see you next?”
“Every day. I’ll come to your band, every day.”
“Un hunh. Not to the band. Shankhini will be there. Come here again tomorrow. At dusk. I’ll be waiting. If you fail me, I’ll kill myself. I swear by Bish hari… I will.”
Raja saheb gazed at her wild-flower face with love. The love, untouched by lust, he had kept hidden in his heart for the one who would be his soul mate. She’s a bedeyni, he thought, yet the blood runs pure and free in her veins. Untainted by the venom of her inheritance…
“I’ll come,” he said, “if that’s what you wish. I’ll meet you here tomorrow.”
Raja saheb walked away. Palanka’s heart felt as light as a bird’s. Spreading her arms, like the wings of a dove, she flew through patches of light and shadow, over grass and water, towards the fleet of boats that belonged to Shankhini.
Next evening, in the green-gold dusk, Raja saheb met Palanka under the piyal tree. He came again the next day and the day after. Every evening. The scent of their love filled the air like fumes of heady wine.
“Come closer bedeyni.” Raja saheb held out his arms. “Come straight into my heart.”
“I am always in your heart Raja saheb. But don’t call me bedeyni. Call me wife.”Palanka whispered against his lips, “When will you make me yours? I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Like a love-sick bird I long for my mate.”
“A few more months. We’ll leave after the rains. I’ll marry you and take you away. Far away.”
“To Char Behula. Some farming folks are setting up a village there. We’ll join them…”
“What will you do with your band? Your men, your boats, your snakes and weapons…?”
“I’ll give them all to Shankhini. She loves me but she’s unwilling to leave her band. It is more important to her. What can I do? Besides,” a shadow fell on Raja saheb’s face, “I’m taking you away from her. I must pay the price…”
“It is true that she loves you. Every evening, before I come here, I see her all dressed up waiting for you. She has begun to suspect me. She has set up spies everywhere. I have managed to evade them so far but only Bish hari knows with what difficulty! I’m afraid Raja saheb. Mortally afraid. She’ll kill me if she catches us together. She’ll tear my limbs to shreds.”
“Why not? I have taken from her the man she loves. Can she forgive me?”
Another evening comes. Palanka stands under the lengthening shadows of the piyal tree locked in Raja saheb’s arms. “I can’t bear being parted from you any longer,” she murmurs. Her tears fall on her lover’s chest like a monsoon shower.
“I can’t bear being parted from you.” Her own words accompanied by a screech of mocking laughter sizzles Palanka’s ears as the lithe form of Shankhini slips from behind the piyal tree, where she had been hiding, and stands before her. “Haramjadi! Whoring wench!” She mutters between gritted teeth. Her mouth is twisted and ugly. Palanka’s dream shatters into shards. Springing apart, the lovers stand like stone figures and stare at Shankhini with frozen eyes…
“Zulfikar!” Shankhini roared like a tigress whose cub has been snatched from her breast. The black mountain bulk of her right-hand man materialised from the shadows. His eyes sprouted columns of fire like twin peaks of a volcano. His giant fists clenched and unclenched with fury.
“Bajaan go!” Palanka screamed and buried her face deeper in Raja saheb’s breast. Her frail body trembled like a leaf in a storm.
“Bajaan go!” Shankhini’s voice, hissing like an adder’s tongue, echoed through the trees. “No Bajaan can save you from my clutches Haramjadi! I dress up every evening and wait for my lover and you, you loathsome spawn of a worm, dare to lure him away? You’ve struck a cruel blow at my heart. I’ll exact a terrible revenge. No, I shan’t kill you. It would be too easy a death. I’ll have vultures feed on your living limbs; gouge your eyes out with their beaks. Oof! So much venom lay concealed in your heart! I’ll drain every drop of it out of your blood. I’ll pull out your poisonous fangs from their roots. Take her away Zulfikar. Take her to my boat and keep her tied to the mast till I come.”
The suddenness with which all this happened had left Raja saheb in such a state of shock that he looked on, paralysed, as Zulfikar flew at the girl like an enormous bird of prey and snatched her away from his breast. Minutes passed. The feral glare in Shankhini’s eyes dimmed. Her heaving breast calmed and stilled. Her eyes turned dewy as she murmured in a honeyed voice, “Raja saheb.”
Raja saheb turned to her. She looked dazzlingly beautiful in saffron silk and snake-bone ornaments. The statue came slowly to life. “What is it?” he asked, his voice slurred as though still in a dream.
“Is Palanka more beautiful than me?”
“Then why did you give her your heart? Be mine…only mine.” Shankhini came close, so close, he could feel her breath, hot and moist, against his lips.
“I will be yours. But you must be mine first. You must come with me to Char Behula.”
Shankhini’s limbs turned rigid. The colour left her face. “But what about our bands?” she asked in a frightened voice. “Our heritage, our livelihood, Bish hari… won’t her curse fall on us if we abandon them?”
“That’s the trouble,” Raja saheb’s voice was cold. Detached. “You are a bedeyni to the core. You cannot be a wife. You’ll never be able to leave your band…”
“Let me think about it. Give me a few days.”
“It’s no use. You are not made for a humble life.” Raja saheb took her soft hands and gripped them in his own hard ones, “Palanka is. Give her to me Shankhini,” he begged.
Suddenly, something like a bolt of lightning struck the snake maiden’s veins and, branching out in roots and shoots, struck her heart. She snatched her hands from Raja saheb’s grip and ran out of the forest with the speed of a fleeing doe. Raja saheb looked on. A little smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.
A week went by. The rising sun continued to spread a soft, red-gold radiance across the sky. Mellow afternoons followed. Then, with day’s end, a sad wan darkness fell like a mist over Sonai Bibi’r Bil.
That night, after Raja saheb begged her to give Palanka to him, Shankhini had fled like a hunted creature and, flinging herself on the deck of her hajarmoni boat, had broken into great shuddering sobs. Her lungs felt ripped and lacerated. Her heart burned with humiliation. Tears rained from her eyes, till there were none left. She was a bedeyni. She had been taught to endure the vagaries of nature. The assaults of the elements. Pain, sickness and fear. But she couldn’t… she wouldn’t endure defeat. Palanka’s small wild-flower face came before her eyes. To think that she with her timid eyes and tiny bird body had stolen her lover! That she was her rival! The thought was too painful to be borne.
It was true that Raja saheb had started tiring of the life their kind had lived from time immemorial. He wanted to put down roots. But Shankhini could have stalled him. She knew she could. It was Palanka who had stirred his emotions and encouraged him to follow his heart. The wretched harlot had tempted him; had offered to be his wife. She had to be punished. Shankhini knew that the slightest gesture from her would send Zulfikar charging towards Palanka. He would twist her head from her body, as easily as plucking a flower from its stem, and bring it to her. He would scatter her torn limbs over Sonai Bibi’r Bil as lightly as dron petals. But Shankhini bided her time. For the present she kept the girl locked in a dim dark cabin in the boat that housed the panha ghar …a temple dedicated to Bish hari. Every band had a panha ghar in one of the boats. Let the wretched creature spend a few days starving and pining for her lover she thought. She would think long and hard before deciding what to do with her.
Vengeance! What she needed was to wreak a terrible vengeance on the vassal who had betrayed her queen’s deepest trust. The girl was unaware of what she had done. She had stretched her hand out towards the cruelest, fiercest of fires. Shankhini would make every inch of her flesh burn with mortification; every drop of her blood turn to liquid flame.
A few days later Shankhini stood on the deck of her hajarmoni boat and called out to Zulfikar. It was a cold night. Dark and bitter, with a whistling wind. Instructions were given in sharp hissing tones.
An hour later the two stood outside the room in which Palanka had been confined. In his right hand Zulfikar held a metal rod the tip of which glowed with scarlet fire. In his other was a basin filled with coarse boiled rice. Shankhini unlocked the door. A lamp burned feebly in one corner. Palanka’s naked body crouched close to it, arched like a bow; half dead with cold.
‘Ei!’ Shankhini turned the girl over with her foot, ‘Get up.’
Palanka rose to her feet. What followed was a volley of agonized screams as Zulfikar drew a line across her brow with the burning rod. Again and again, seven times, till it was furrowed with crimson streaks.”Ki re!” Peals of demonic laughter burst from Shankhini’s lips, “Will you try to snatch my lover from me again… spawn of a serpent? Will you? Answer me. Is your mouth still slavering for a home and a husband? With the marks I’ve drawn across your forehead you look like a Boshtumi beggar. Not even a whore.” Shankhini dropped down beside the weeping girl. “I’ll bring a mirror tomorrow,” she said laughing, “You can see your face for yourself. Do you think Raja saheb will bother to cast another glance at you? Tell me little bird. Are you still in love with him?”
“Of course, I am.” Palanka raised her head and looked at her tormenter. Her eyes were still streaming but, with a fearlessness she hadn’t even known she possessed, she added, “And I’ll continue to love him till I die. You’ve lost him because there is no love in your heart. No…not for anyone. All you can do is take out your frustrations on others.”
“Arre arre! The worm turns into a snake!” Shankhini’s lips twisted with scorn. “You haven’t learned your lesson yet, I see. You need a little more teaching. Remember one thing. I’m the daughter of Nagmati bedeyni. I can root out every kind of venom. Be it snake or human.”
Leaving therice on the floor Zulfikar and Shankhini walked out of the room. Shankhini turned the key in the lock and looked at the sky, a dim sky streaked with mist. How Palanka had changed she thought with a pang in her heart. What was the source from whichthe broken bird was deriving herstrength?Could it be Raja saheb’s promise of a nest? What if she, Shankhini, followed her example? If she allowed her lover to lead her by the hand to a tiny hut in an obscure village by the bank of some distant river? If she turned herself into a loving wife and caring mother?
Next morning three men arrived with a message from the leader of the Barui community of Bajitpur. A snake had bitten a worker in his betel grove and Shankhini’s expertise was required to save his life.
Shankhini made haste to obey the summons. One of the tenets of their faith was rushing in answer to such a call. It was Bish hari’s implicit command. With a bag full of poison stones slung from one shoulder, a basket of roots and herbs on her head and an earthen plate in her hands, Shankhini came to the panha ghar.Dohor bibi accompanied her. Before venturing on an important task, members of her band came here to pay obeisance to Bish hari and seek her blessings. A clay image of the goddess they had moulded themselves, was set atop a coil of seven snakes. The giant hood of a kaliya nag formed an umbrella above her head. An udai nag hung from her neck like a garland and a khoijati was her bracelet. A kanchuli formed from the intertwining bodies of a chakrachud and a shankha nag covered her voluptuous breasts. Takshak and laudaga wove themselves into a skirt for her lower limbs and shuto shankha, thread-snakes, wound themselves into rings for her fingers. A couple of deadly danrash were her anklets and swinging merrily from her ears were the fanned-out hoods of white sada chiti. Incense burning in a censer filled the room with fragrant smoke.
Shankhini prostrated herself and touched the ground with her forehead. Her hands were folded in a humble plea. Drawing out snake venom was arduous; even dangerous. She could do it, she had done it often, but she needed the goddess’s blessing. She shot a glance at the image. And what she saw shocked her. The tender love that irradiated Bish hari’s face had vanished. A stern, cruel gleam had replaced the benign light in her eyes. Even the snakes around her coiled and uncoiled their bodies in agitation, fanned their hoods and spat venom from angry tongues. The air was full of hissing sounds. The incense burning before the image gave out clouds of evil smelling smoke. Shankhini’s limbs grew numb. Her senses swam. The blood running in her veins stood still.
“Make haste Amma,” Dohor Bibi’s voice came to her ears, as though from a vast distance. “We are very late as it is. Who knows what we’ll find on reaching Bajitpur.”
Shankhini shut her eyes and ran out of the panha ghar. She dared not stay there any longer. Anymoment now, she thought with dread in her heart, the snakes will come streaking out like meteors and crawl over me. They will lash my face with their hoods and dig their fangs into my limbs. Sweat ran down her body like rain. In her heart was the roll of distant drums. She realised the truth. Bish hari had turned away from her; had taken away the right to utter incantations in her name. Shankhini had lost her power. A scream, trapped in her chest, did not reach her lips…
Meanwhile, the men from Bajitpur were getting restless. “Make haste bedeyni,” they said, “We have a long way to go.”
Shankhini was in a quandary. She couldn’t refuse to go with them. It would mean disobeying Bish hari’s express command. She had to shed all her misgivings and rush to save a victim of snake bite. But could she do so without the goddess’s benediction? As though in a dream Shankhini followed the men, Dohor Bibi walking by her side, into the wilderness of thorn, tussock, screwpine and bulrush, till they reached the piyal tree. Here her footsteps stopped. Her eyes widened with horror. For what she beheld was another world. A world one entered only after death…
She had been trying all this while to compose herself. To clear her mind of doubts and fears. To concentrate on the incantations that would enable her to do her task. But the figure waiting under the piyal tree, as though on a lover’s tryst, drove everything out of her head. Raja saheb’s large dark eyes pierced into hers; held them with an unflinching gaze.
“Where is Palanka?” he asked her, “I haven’t seen her for a long time.”
The anger and frustration she had been trying to subdue all this while came gushing out of Shankhini like steam from a boiling kettle. Her fears vanished. Her listless spirit sprang to active life as though lit with a blazing torch. “Palanka is in her grave,” she muttered through clenched teeth, “Listen Raja saheb. You cannot stay here any longer. I’m on my way to Bajitpur. I wish to see the fen cleared of you and your band on my return.” She walked away without a backward glance. But, no matter how hard she tried to dispel it, a thought kept tearing at her heart. Torturing her. Did she really want Raja saheb to leave Sonai Bibi’r Bil?If so, why had she entreated him to stay that first day? Why?
Shankhini returned two days later, her limbs burning with fever, her eyes the flaming red of hibiscus flowers. Her hair was a tangled nest and her clothes soiled and disheveled. Like one possessed she ran to the panha ghar and threw herself on the floor at Bish hari’s feet.
It was late afternoon. The sun’s rays, hard and glittering like mica, enveloped the earth in white-hot light. The members of Shankhini’s band stood waiting outside the panha ghar. A little distance away Dohor Bibi stood weeping and trembling. All eyes turned to her. “Ki lo Dohor!” Mohabbat muttered uneasily, “You went with her to Bajitpur. What happened there? I don’t understand…”
Dohor Bibi threw a fearful glance in the direction of the woman in the panha ghar. Shankhini lay curled, like a snail afraid to come out of its shell. Her body shuddered with sobs. Tears streamed out of her eyes in an unstoppable flood. “Bish hari’s curse has fallen on her,” Dohor Bibi answered, “She was unable to utter a single mantra. She was speechless, unmoving, like a block of stone. She just sat by the boy’s side and watched him die.”
The faces around her turned pale. Eyes popped out of their sockets. “Bish hari appeared to her in a dream,” Dohor continued, “I heard her pacing up and down the room, all night, weeping as if her heart would break. By morning her body was shaking with a raging fever. Her eyes were fire-red. She ran all the way here swaying and staggering like a drunken woman. I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen to a word. What could I do? I ran after her as fast as I could.”
Shankhini lay on the floor of the panha ghar all through the day, so still … life seemed to have left her limbs. Then, with the falling dusk, she rose to her feet. She had spent her tears. Her eyes burned like smouldering coals. But her mind was clear. She knew that she had committed a grievous sin and Bish hari had meted out a terrible punishment. She had taken away her powers. For the first time in her life Shankhini saw herself for what she truly was. A cruel, thwarted woman in the throes of an unrequited love. She realized that Raja saheb was a distant star she could never hope to reach. She had thought she could, through force of will. But it was only an illusion.
Outside, in the darkening forest, a pair of jackals were yelping love calls to one another. Between them, they sent eddies of sound across stretches of reeds and humps of earth that rose from the shallow water. Dohor bibi, Moina and Atarjaan sat outside the panha ghar with Shankhini in their midst. She had ripped off her skirt and kanchuli. Theylay by her side in a discarded heap. Her jewels she had flung all over the floor. The snake maiden’s nude body, lay coiled like a golden snake, in hibernating slumber.
Presently she rose. Taking up an enormous censor of burned clay in both hands she commenced waving clouds of incense smoke before the image of Bish hari. Dancing and genuflecting she offered obeisance. She had sinned. She had allowed herself to stray from the path laid down by the goddess. She had put her love of a mortal above that of the divine. She had desired her lover with so much passion that she hadn’t stopped to reflect on the cost. Stripping oneself in body before the goddess, surrendering all thought and feeling at her feet, was the way bedeynis had atoned for their sins from time immemorial.
The dancing went on through the night. Smoke from the censer clouded the room. The air in the panha ghar turned opaque and acrid. Then, with the first pearling of the east, Shankhini fell to the floor in a dead faint. The censer crashed and broke into shards. Pieces of burning husk flew about the room and dropped on her motionless form, scorching the silk-smooth skin; blistering it.
Her eyes opened to a flame of the forest dawn turning to liquid gold. She sat up. A deep peace, such as she had never known before, pervaded her being. She lifted her face to the sky and sang:
It is at Her bidding that the sun rises from the east.
Lakhai wakes from the dead, sits in his boat and smiles.
Ah me! So great is Bish hari’s mercy…
The sound of footsteps brought her out of her trance. Raja saheb stood before her. She felt the blood leap and whirl in her veins. A hundred joyous chords jangled in her ears. But only for a minute. Then her pulse fell into a gentle rhythm and her heart was still and tranquil.
“We would have left the fen just as you wished,” Raja saheb said, “Only…”
“I know what kept you,” Shankhini stopped him in mid-sentence. She felt a strange disconnect. As though she was speaking to a stranger. As though there had never been anything between them. “You’ve come to ask me for Palanki.”
“Yes,” Raja saheb exclaimed, his voice eager, “Let me have her. I’ll give you everything I possess in return. My band, my boats…”
“I don’t want anything. Except to be relieved of the burden I carry. The girl who never ceases to remind me of you. Take her away from here. Save me from Bish hari’s wrath. Only promise me one thing. That you two will never come into my presence again.”
“Do you really mean it? Do you? Swear on my head…” He moved towards her.
“Don’t come near me,” she shrank involuntarily from his touch. “You smell different. Of home and hearth. Go to Palanki. Tell her you’ll marry her tomorrow. I’ll make all the arrangements.” Seeing his bewildered eyes fixed on hers, she added, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my word. A bedeyni does not lie.”
Raja saheb stood transfixed for a few moments. Then turning, he fled as though on wings into the forest. Shankhini watched him go. Waves of pain lashed against her heart, but she subdued them. Never again would she allow herself to weaken; to go against the laws framed by her ancestors.
Raja saheb and Palanka stood on either side of a waterhole the bedeys had dug earlier that day. A muga curtain separated them. Surrounding them in a ring were men and women from both bands. The bride’s petite form was wrapped in deep red silk. Sandalwood etchings marked her brow. A garland of white lotus swung gently on her breast and snake teeth jewels glittered from her neck and arms. Raja saheb was equally resplendent in a kingfisher blue silk lungi with peacock feathers waving from his raven locks. The two faces glowed in the amber-gold light of the setting sun. From the deck of the panha ghar, Shankhini watched the scene.
Homra bedey from Bhataar Mari’r Bil had been invited to perform the ceremony. His hair was the colour of straw, his eyes fogged with liquor fumes, and his skin so dry, it seemed to flake with every movement. A bow was fitted at his waist and a quiver of plumed arrows hung from one shoulder. Puffing out his stomach with self-importance he said,”The moment of Shanazar (the auspicious exchange of glances) has arrived. Are the bride and bridegroom willing?” Raja saheb swayed his head solemnly and Palanka trembled in response. Homra bedey lifted the curtain and the lovers saw each other’s face reflected in the clear water.
“The nuptial ceremony is over,” Homra announced, “The couple are married.”
A volley of delighted exclamations accompanied by bursts of song rose from the crowd. Sonai Bibi’r Bil shared their joy. Her trees swayed from side to side and her leaves and grass rippled with ecstasy.
Shankhini covered her ears and ran into the panha ghar. She sat, for hours afterwards, gazing at the goddess. Imploring her to take away her pain…
Outside, around a glowing fire, members of both bands were celebrating. Dozens of empty bottles rolled about on the bank. The sky reverberated with drumbeats and the music of flutes grew wilder with every passing hour. The heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil rumbled with ecstasy akin to fear.
The bride and bridegroom sat in a vast grass boat, surrounded by bedeynis in motley-coloured skirts and kanchulis. The smiles on their faces glittered sharp as knives. Lightning darted from kohl lined eyes. Each was wrapped in a dream. A beautiful dream that had seemed unreal; unachievable so far but was no longer so.
Shankhini walked out of the panha ghar towards the group. Her eyes were fixed on Raja saheb as he sat among the women. Shafts of light flashed from his form as though from the petals of a diamond lotus. There was something strange about him. Unreal. As though he had appeared to her in a vision. Currents of illicit passion ran through her blood. All the vows she had made to the goddess receded. Bish hari’s warnings disappeared like lines drawn on water. ‘Listen Palanki,’ she whispered feverishly in the girl’s ears, ‘Come out for a moment. I have something to say to you.’
Shankhini’s breath, hot and stormy, blew in the girl’s face as they stood on the bank facing each other. Her eyes glittered like pieces of burning glass. Her limbs quivered as though snakes were wriggling in her blood stream.
“What is it Amma?” Palanka’s voice was a frightened whisper.
“I’ll give you my boats, my band, my jewels… everything I have. All I want in return is Raja saheb. Give him to me.”
“No. Never,” Palanka covered her ears and ran towards the boat. “I can’t. I can’t.”
Shankhini stared at the retreating form. “You think you’ll lie in my lover’s arms tonight, don’t you?” she muttered out of clenched teeth. “Be prepared for a shock.” She strode into the forest, determination stamped on every line of her face. She needed something. She had to find it before it was too late…
An important ritual of a Hindu marriage is the exchange of floral garlands by the bride and bridegroom. It is called mala badal. Nomads from the river-swamps of Bengal follow a similar custom. The only difference is that what the couple hang on each other’s neck are living snakes.
The night turned dense and dark. And now the women who had been humming like bees around the bride and bridegroom sat up. “It’s late.” Aatarjaan said yawning, “Time for the mala badal. Bring the snakes Dohor.”
“I’ve brought them,” Shankhini appeared suddenly in their midst, a basket balanced on each shoulder. “I’m the queen of this band. It is for me to do the honours.” The women noticed the secretive smile on her lips and the two tiny flames that flickered from the pupils of her eyes. They stared at one another in horror, but no one had the courage to utter a word.
“Come Raja saheb. Come, my little blackbird.” She held out a basket to each. “Take out the snakes and garland each other. The bridegroom, first, as is the custom.”
Palanka glanced fearfully at her mistress. Raja saheb appeared unfazed. His lips parted in a pleased smile as he took the basket from her. But the moment he pried open the lid the smile vanished. For, what shot up from the depths of the basket was an enormous kalchita, caught fresh from keya clumps growing in the heart of the fen. Swift as a blazing meteor, it stood on its tail hissing viciously, then, with a dart of its fanned hood, dug its fangs into Raja saheb’s brow. Two drops of blood, like glittering rubies, appeared on the golden skin as Raja saheb’s body swayed and fell to the floor. Palanka stood, as though paralyzed, watching her husband’s limbs turning blue from the deadly poison. Her throat was choked. She could neither speak nor weep. An eerie silence fell on the wedding party.
It was broken by a peal of cruel laughter that tinkled like breaking glass. “Ki lo Palanki!” Shankhini mocked the hapless girl. “You wanted to take my lover from me, didn’t you? Take him. He is all yours. Embrace him. Enjoy his kisses.”
A moment later she threw herself at Raja saheb’s prostrate form with a blood curdling scream. “What have I done? Ma go! What have I done?” She leaned over him and shook him violently. But the man she was so desperately trying to bring back to lifelay motionless in her arms.She rose to her feet and looked this way and that, her eyes blank. The venom of kalchita isn’t so swift to act, she thought wonderingly, then why did Raja saheb succumb to it so quickly? Was the poison the reptile spewed in Raja saheb’s veins not its own? Was it mine? Was it I who gathered all the venom, that burned like fire in my heart and limbs, and thrust it under the kalchita’s tongue? Was it I who turned myself into the fanned hood of the creature I caught from the depths of the fen? Were those my deadly fangs that lashed my beloved’s brow?
Wave after wave of guilt and bitter regret passed over her as her body became as cold and lifeless as the one which lay at her feet.
(Translated and published with permission from the author)
Aruna Chakravartihas been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors, Suralakshmi Villa have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince is her sixteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Escaping the Land (2021) by Mamang Dai is a gripping saga of turbulent times in Arunachal Pradesh from the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) days to the present times. Padmashri and Sahitya Akademi Awardee, Mamang Dai, is an anglophone poet and novelist from Arunachal Pradesh.
In Escaping the Land, Mamang Dai weaves the history, myth and politics of Arunachal Pradesh across time. Maying, the narrator returns to her homeland from Delhi to do a project on the land of her birth and its people. Dai uses Maying to recount the story, blending fiction and history from when the state was governed as the NEFA to becoming the twenty-fourth state of India as Arunachal Pradesh in 1987.
Maying meets Lutor, the ageing veteran politician and the son of a shaman, who is loved by the people and has had a long and successful career in politics since the formation of the state, to share “the story of a long ago when everything had been different and full of possibilities”. As she runs through the flow of time from the past to the present, Maying ruminates over Lutor’s idea of the “original obsession” that all of us are born with and the power of “dreams” and “instinct”. As the story begins, Maying picks up an old journal marked NEFA notebook and shuffles through the old piece of memorabilia to reflect, “The lives of people in every village and district had changed since the time this piece of fern had been so carefully pressed in between the thin pages of the book”.
Dai divides the book into five sections. The story opens with the view of a traditional house that stands on a hill with thick bamboo thickets and mountainous region. The author talks of the essence of dates and calendars in the lives of the people of a close-knit community in a remote part of the state, where tradition and family mattered. Time is an overarching theme in the novel. “Time had a method”, where everything happened in stages and history was written as it came. Dai’s novel recounts changes in time and history in the place and culture of the people of the state with emphasis on Pasighat, which was also her hometown.
Dai’s story interestingly accommodates an avalanche of landmark incidents in the history of the north-eastern state of India including battles against oppression starting from 1911, the Achingmori incident (1953), the India-China War (1962), the liberation of Bangladesh (1971) and its impact on the state, the passing of the infamous Bill for Control of Organised Crime Act (APOCO), and also, on migration and infiltration of outsiders. References to attending boarding school in Shillong, going to Delhi for higher education, or taking long hours of ferrying across the tumultuous tributaries of the Brahmaputra river that flow in the region for a sarkari job, Dai reflects through the fiction the sea of change experienced in the lives of men and women in terms of education and perceptions of security in moving in or out of their homes.
Experiences of the horrors and violence in the face of insurgency, militancy and atrocities in the times of war that the people faced are vividly incorporated in some sections of the story. In times of uncertainty in the story, dreams and reality collide in a delirious mix of magic and mystery. Dai fuses myth as a consolation to the harsh realities of history. A mystic rain man heralds that change and loss of solitude cannot be halted. Though it is often reiterated that “We are safe in the hills” speedy changes in time made Lutor and his close friends rethink the credibility of this remark. Dai explodes beautiful metaphors that are specific to the culture, cross-cultural references to the exchange of people and culture from outside India, other parts of India and of the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur.
In the shifting times, money and greed have engulfed traits of love and loyalty for one’s land and people. Time moved to stages of no return from how it was in the mythical time of the ancient civilization of the Kojum-Kojaof the land, to when politics seemed to overtake every move in the place. The story highlights the sentiments of the people in the midst of the politics of inclusion and exclusion in the periphery.
As candidate for the office of Chief Minister, Lutor promises of development, “caught between a feeling of great humiliation and a pitying love for his homeland” but lost to his corrupt and crooked political rival Tanik, who had more money and men. Varied interesting characters add flavour to the story. With the non-retreating timber trade, where greedy traders, politicians, local middlemen and forest mafia no longer care to uproot the whole of the virgin forest in the state, the ecology at stake is echoed in the corruption portrayed in the story. Lutor in a dire strait between the memory of a lost time acknowledges that times have changed but continued to believe and live in anticipation of a pan-Arunachal unity and hopeful idea of home.
Dai through Lutor’s nostalgia for a peaceful land and longing for a homeland devoid of greed and corruption, implicates that love can heal and restore the state to a humane land as it had been in the past. Time brought changes and the world infringed by investing more money into the state. While business boomed, Lutor, as the title suggest, looked outward to escape from the land not as one defeated but with a hope to explore newer possibilities so that he could return with a better tomorrow.
In the engrossing historical novel, Escaping the land (2021), Dai works on a huge canvas to lyrically voice a tale of time, geography and changes that leads to a cohesion with the larger world.
 The North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), originally known as the North-East Frontier Tracts (NEFT), was one of the political divisions during the Raj
 Kojum-Koja was supposed to be an ancient civilisation that established villages, part of the ancient tribal lore.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
It was a raw, blustery morning in late January. A small knot of people could be seen standing near the Buckland Bund, an embankment on the Buriganga river. The river, which swirled and foamed along the edges of the city of Dhaka, was especially turbulent this winter.
All eyes were fixed on a man, a stranger to these parts. He had been sitting cross-legged on the Bund, gazing into the distance day and night, for the past three months, impervious to the cold gusts of wind and spray that rose from the agitated waters below. There was something odd about his appearance. He could be a Bengali, the locals surmised, judging by the shape of his face with its somewhat square jawline, wide nose and high cheekbones. His body was covered with ash but the patches that were visible were as fair as a European’s and his eyes, hooded by dark, heavy lids, a greenish brown. Masses of tawny hair fell in dreadlocks down his sturdy back and shoulders and a matted beard almost touched his navel. A tattoo—a word in some strange language—could be seen on his right arm. He was naked except for the strip of coarse orange cloth that covered his genitals. The men standing around stared at him with unabashed curiosity and exchanged glances. Once in a while someone would fling a question at him. They had been doing so from the first day they saw him sitting on the Bund.
‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ A middle-aged man in a silk lungi and woollen vest asked in a stern voice.
‘Main Bangla nahin jaanta.’ The stranger’s lower lip twisted to the right as he answered in Hindi.
A barrage of questions followed in a Hindi thickly accented with Bengali.
‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Nothing. Just sitting.’
‘That we can see. But why here?’
‘No reason. I just … just came here …’
‘Are you a sannyasi?’
‘Yes. I’m a roaming sadhu.’
‘You look quite young. Must be in your mid-thirties. Am I right?’ The stranger shrugged his heavy shoulders and turned his eyes northwards on a massive structure looming in the distance. It was the zamindar’s mansion locally known as the Rajbari. The zamindars of Bhawal were rich and powerful beyond ordinary landowners and had been dignified by the title of Raja. Their sons were addressed as Kumar, each according to his position in the hierarchy.
The man in the lungi moved aside. Another, an elderly gentleman in a dhuti and shawl, took his place.
‘You are too young to abandon the world. When did you become a sannyasi?’ The old man leaned forward and examined the stranger’s face and head closely. There was a puzzled look in his eyes.
‘I ran away from home in my youth and joined a group of holy men.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Where did they take you?’
‘To the mountains. I spent many years there.’
The old man nodded. But the answer didn’t seem to satisfy him.
The crowd ebbed, melted and swelled once more. Others took up the interrogation.
‘Do you have parents?’
‘Are you married?’
The man, calm and unruffled all this while, stiffened at this question. As though alerted to some hidden hostility. He had a prominent Adam’s apple which jumped up and down his throat.
‘Um …’ he hesitated, ‘yes … n-no. Yes. I had a wife … once.’
‘You left her too?
‘Why do you keep looking at the Rajbari?’
‘No reason.’ The answer came pat as though he had prepared for the question. ‘There’s nothing else to see …’
The men walked away and stood a little apart. They exchanged meaningful looks and nudged and whispered. Snatches of their conversation came floating through the air.
‘Exactly like the mejo kumar. The same height and build. The same small hands and feet. Even the tiny wart on the lower lid of the right eye. What do you think, Taufique?’ The elderly gentleman turned to the man in the lungi.
‘Yes, indeed, Kashi kaka. I never did believe the story.’
‘You think anyone does?’
‘I don’t know about the family. The subjects certainly don’t. Not one.’
‘The man seems to be about thirty-five or thirty-six. Exactly the age the mejo kumar would have been today. Have you noticed the way he sits? Hunched forward like a bull.’
‘And his complexion! What man other than a royal could be that fair? His body is covered with ashes but I noticed his hands and feet. Particularly the feet. Rough and scaly but shell pink. Like new milk with a drop of vermilion mixed in it.’
‘The colour of his eyes? And the tiny angles sticking out from the tops of his ears? The resemblance is uncanny. The mejo kumar too had …’
‘There are marks on his back and legs. And tiny patches on the scalp in between the dreadlocks. I looked at them closely …’
‘Yes, I noticed them too. The mejo kumar’s body was ridden with syphilis when he was sent to Darjeeling. These must be the scars.’
‘He seemed a bit rattled when I asked if he was married.’
‘He did indeed. He couldn’t decide what to say.’
‘He is the mejo kumar,’ a chorus of voices joined in. ‘The story we have been told is bunkum.’
‘Mark my words, brothers,’ an old man wearing a skull cap observed darkly, ‘this man is pretending to be a sadhu, when he is in fact the mejo kumar – the second prince of the royal family. Now that both his brothers are dead, he is the sole heir of the estate. The real ruler. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll never venture another opinion as long as I live.’ He moved his head solemnly from side to side.
About the Book:
In the winter of 1909, Ramendranarayan Roy, the ailing second prince of the Bhawal zamindari, proceeds to Darjeeling with his wife Bibhavati, brother-in- law Satyendranath and a retinue of officials and servants, after being advised a change of air by his physicians. Three weeks later, a telegram from Satyendranath arrives at the Bhawal estate, carrying news of the prince’s demise and subsequent cremation.
Soon peculiar rumours start circulating around Bhawal and the surrounding town. Some say that the prince was poisoned, while others suspect that his body was taken to the burning ghat but not actually cremated. There are also whispers about an incestuous relationship between Bibhavati and her brother. The story takes a bewildering turn when, twelve years later, a mendicant comes to Bhawal, claiming to be the long-lost prince and the heir to the estate.
With no resolution in sight, matters reach the court, where the so-called prince and some family members face off against Bibhavati and her brother, aided by the British Court of Wards who are keen on maintaining ownership of the zamindari. The breathless legal drama that ensues will culminate in an incredible series of events, permanently altering the course of the estate’s history.
Inspired by the legendary Bhawal sannyasi case and evocative in its recreation of pre-Partition Bengal, The Mendicant Prince is an intriguing tale of dual identity and the inexplicable quirks of fate.
About the Author:
Aruna Chakravarti has been 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 fifteen published books to her name. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko and Suralakhsmi Villa, have sold widely and received rave reviews. She is the recipient of the Vaitalik Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sarat Puraskar.
Rakhi Dalal reviews Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of the Hindi novel by Nita Kumar
Title: Mai, Silently Mother
Author: Geetanjali Shree, Translator: Nita Kumar
Publisher: Niyogi Books
To live in a South Asian country means to grow up with an absolute idea of a mother. A mother is always giving, nurturing, sacrificing and working. Her day begins and ends with looking after the household. In context with India, this notion also seems to be defined by the structures of caste and class. Although an opinion of her position, based upon the ideas imbedded in conscience, takes on different interpretations when seen broadly from the lenses of patriarchy or feminism. With the former, it is more of a responsibility or duty that is taken for granted and in many cases not even given a second thought. In the case of latter, it might be considered as oppression in some situations, where the mothers are deliberately subjugated into drudgery of family grind by the patriarchal structure.
Mai by Geentajali Shree presents to us the complexities brought about by the conflict between both of these ideas in a domestic realm. However more than that it compels us to think when we talk of a mother, exactly whose opinions are being discussed and whether we also explore it from the point of view of the mother herself.
It is the debut Hindi novel of the author and is centred on the world of a mother as observed by her daughter. The English translation of Mai by Nita Kumar had won Sahitya Academy Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award in 2001. Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, whose English translation Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell won International Booker this year, also has at its centre a mother.
Shree writes stories and novels in Hindi. Her much acclaimed novels Tirohit and Khali Jagah have also been translated into English. She has written a biography of Premchand in English and is also associated with theatre. Nita Kumar, the translator of Mai, is a Brown Family Professor of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California. She has also authored several books and is engaged in innovative education in Varanasi since 1990.
The household in Mai is a typical middle class in a small North-Indian town where the patriarch set the diktats rolling for a joint family. Governed by the binaries of outside and inside, the roles of each member are clearly defined. ‘Outside’ is a world to be conquered by the men whereas the confines within the house are to be looked after and cared for by the women. Three generations of a family living under the same roof offer resonance with confirmations and contradictions inherent to the structure they are bound by.
With this backdrop, the author successfully pulls strings to present an image closer to the familiar realities of such a household. Silently mother, the subtitle of Mai, is the identifier which Sunaina, the third generation daughter, associates with her mother. From her early childhood, she has watched her mother attending to the call of her family silently. Always bent, always working, from behind her purda, the mother seemed weak. Slowly however, and with much subtlety, Shree offers the reader certain glimpses into the character of silent Mai. Instances which, as Kumar suggests, mean that her silence does not equate with being speechless. At the most crucial points, we witness the mother speaking up for her children, even if it is only a single word or sentence is being uttered. She never questions their choices or decisions, thereby giving them freedom to get on with their own lives, something which makes them closer to her than to their father or grandparents.
The reader also finds that mother does have her own moments of joy when she retires at night to the bedroom she shares with her children, lets go off her veil and laughs at their jokes, when she appears in the forbidden courtyard humming a song or when she takes on the responsibility of entire house after her husband meets a tragic accident.
For Sunaina and her brother Subodh however, her silence equates with oppression. They are obsessed with the idea of rescuing her from the fetters which they believe are afflicted upon her. So much so that it becomes the sole purpose of their lives. With passage of time, their mission nevertheless remains unaccomplished as they realise in frustration that their mother doesn’t need to be saved. It is only towards the end that they realise her strength and contribution in building their lives.
In the afterword, Kumar says, “We do not know ‘what’ mothers are, we do not know if a given mother is ‘fulfilled’ in what she does, or what else she ‘wants’. But we could progressively know whether to ask certain questions, how to ask some others, what any of them might imply, how to refrain from asking and retrack, how to pause and begin to comprehend little glimpses better. We could start evaluating silence differently from what we do in our dichotomous, rationalist world, like Subodh and Sunaina’s tells us to. We could question agency, strength and weakness anew.”
With an impressive 50 page critique of Mai, the afterword is an added treat to the reader. Kumar writes on the matter of mother and looks at it from the point of history and anthropology. She discusses the challenges associated with the task of translation and her discourse engages the reader, bringing focus on her work which is done exceptionally well.
This splendid novel by Geetanjali Shree, with its nuanced portrayal of sensibilities across class, gender and age, invites the reader to look closely into the preconceived as well as acquired notions around ‘mother’. It stresses profoundly that the mothers are not only made invisible by the veil which patriarchy forces upon them but also by the partial and opinionated understanding of their desires. Maybe if we try to catch the little glimpses better, we may start seeing her coming out of shadows.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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Translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal, this satirical skitwas part of Hasyakoutuk (1914) or Humour by Tagore
A village road
Chaturbhuj Babu has come to his village after passing his M.A. exams. He had expected the entire village to be exuberant. He has a stout Kabul cat with him.
Nilratan: So here is Chatubabu. When did you come?
Chaturbhuj: After appearing for my M.A. examination in college –
Nilratan: Oh! This cat is very exquisite.
Chaturbhuj: The examination this time was –
Nilratan: Sir, where did you get this cat?
Chaturbhuj: Bought it. The subject I had elected this year –
Nilratan: How much did you pay for it, sir?
Chaturbhuj: Can’t remember. Nilratanbabu, has anyone graduated from our village?
Nilratan: Plenty. But there is no such cat in the vicinity.
Chaturbhuj: (to himself) Oh God! He only speaks about cats. He does not talk about my success in the exams.
Enter the Zamindar
Zamindar: Oh, here is Chaturbhuj! What did you do all this while in Kolkata, son?
Chaturbhuj: Sir, just came after my M.A. exams.
Zamindar: What did you say? Meye? Given a girl to somebody? To whom have you given?
Chaturbhuj: No, not that. After B.A.—
Zamindar: You have got your daughter married? Her biye? But we did not get to know about it.
Chaturbhuj: Not marriage, but B.A. –
Zamindar: Oh, it’s the same thing. In the city you call it B.A., in our village we call it biye. Ok. Let that be. This cat is very beautiful.
Chaturbhuj: You are mistaken. My –
Zamindar: What mistake? Go and find a similar cat in this whole district.
Chaturbhuj: No, sir. I am not talking about cats –
Zamindar: Yes, we are talking about cats. I am saying that we can’t get such cats.
Chaturbhuj: (to himself) Goodness gracious!
Zamindar: Come with your cat to our locality in the afternoon. The children will be very happy to see it.
Chaturbhuj: Yes, they will surely be happy. They haven’t seen me for a long time.
Zamindar: Yes, that’s true. But I am saying that if you cannot come, then send it through Beni. I want to show it to the children.
Uncle Satu enters
Uncle Satu: Here you are. Seeing you after a long time.
Chaturbhuj: Won’t it take long? So many examinations –
Uncle Satu: This cat –
Chaturbhuj: (annoyed) I am going home.
[About to leave]
Uncle Satu: Here, listen to me. This cat –
Chaturbhuj: No sir, I have work at home.
Uncle Satu: Here, at least answer one question. This cat –
[Chaturbhuj does not reply but walks out hurriedly]
Uncle Satu: Oh God! These children have become very clever after being educated. They have many attributes but too much pride.
The inner domain of Chaturbhuj’s house
Maid: Mistress. Dada has come home very angry.
Maid: How do I know?
Small boy: Brother, I want this cat –
Chaturbhuj: (slapping him) Day in and day out only cat, cat, cat!
Mother: Poor son. Is he annoyed for nothing? He has come home after such a long time and the children are pestering him too much. Go! All of you go from here. [To Chaturbhuj] Give it to me, son. I have kept rice and milk for it. I’ll go feed your cat.
Chaturbhuj: (angrily) Take it, mother. All of you only feed the cat. I will not have food. I’m leaving.
Mother: (earnestly) What sort of statement is that? Son, your meal is ready. Just go and take your bath.
Chaturbhuj: I am leaving. In your country only cats are admired. There is no place for geniuses. (He kicks the cat)
Aunt: Oh, don’t beat it. It has done no harm.
Chaturbhuj: All your affection is for the cat. You don’t have any pity for the human being. (Exit)
Small girl: (pointing offstage) Uncle Hari, come and see. Its tail is so thick and bushy.
Hari: Who’s tail?
Girl: There, his.
Hari: Is it Chaturbhuj’s?
Girl: No, the cat’s.
The road. Chaturbhuj with a bag in hand. No cat with him.
Sadhucharan: Sir, where is your cat?
Chaturbhuj: It’s dead.
Sadhucharan: Oh! How did it die?
Chaturbhuj: (Disgusted) I don’t know, sir.
Paran: Sir, what happened to your cat?
Chaturbhuj: It is dead.
Paran: Really? How did it die?
Chaturbhuj: Just as you all will die. With a rope around your neck.
Paran: Oh my god, He is too angry.
A group of boys follow Chaturbhuj. Clapping themselves they tease him shouting
“Kabuli Cat,” “Kabuli Cat.”
 [Translated from “Abhyarthana” (Bhadra 1292 B.S.) by Somdatta Mandal]
Somdatta Mandalis a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, in conversation with legendary actress Deepti Naval, on her penchant for words at the unveiling of her memoir, A Country Called Childhood, at an international literary festival in Shimla, India.
“Where’s the session?”
That was the question on every lip as I entered the beautifully restored Gaiety Theatre – the Gothic architecture that was designed 135 years ago by an English architect following examples of Victorian Britannia, to be the Opera in the Town Hall complex built for the British rajas who’d shift the capital from Delhi to Shimla to escape the oppressive Indian summer.
It was the second day of Unmesh, and I was to conduct a conversation with Deepti Naval whose appearance on the Hindi screen with Shyam Benegal’s Junoon(1978) had given every young girl like me a new icon – one we could readily identify with, since the doe-eyed beauty was so Indian! Not overwhelmingly dolled up, not westernised, not running around trees mindlessly, the personas she essayed were so close to life! If anything, here was an actor who’d come back from the US armed with a training in Fine Art – but spoke like us.
The literary face of Deepti Naval is not so well known, though. In fact, some of the youngsters in the audience – which was studded with stars of Indian Cinema like Sai Paranjpye, Goutam Ghose and Atul Tiwari – didn’t expect the actress to be there, in the International Festival of Literature organised by the Sahitya Akademi, and hosted by the Ministry of Culture to mark 75 Years of Independence. “Who’s this writer? The actor Deepti Naval? Didn’t know that!”
So, although I cherish every memory of Miss Chamko in Chashme Baddoor (1981, As Far be the Evil eye); of Sandhya Sabnis in Katha (1982, Stories); of Mahatmain in Damul (1985, Bonded Until Death); of Ek Aur Panchavati (1986, One More Panchavati) where she acted with my father, Nabendu Ghosh; of Memories in March (2010) and Listen..Amaya (2013), I decided to ignore the actress and bring to the fore the writer Deepti Naval, of whom Gulzar wrote in the Preface to Black Wind and Other poems (2004), her poetry collection: “She has her brains in her heart, or her heart in her head. She lives the experience twice. First, when she actually lands in a situation and takes the full experience of life. The second, when she filters it, takes the essence in a poem and relives it.”
RS: I’ve heard some of your poems on YouTube; I’ve read some of your stories, and though we don’t have the visa yet, we will soon have entry into that country when your memoirs are launched: A Country Called Childhood — I love the name!
All your stories and certainly your poems come out of your lived life. Is it always your own life or does your aesthetics sometimes follow what happened to another person? I know you’ve directed a television serial, so – d’you sometimes become the camera and simply watch the characters in action?
Deepti: Yes, all my stories come from real life. Most of the stories are my own experience and the rest either happened to friends or I heard the story, perhaps three sentences, that has stayed with me for some reason. It has registered and never left me. So, when I got down to writing, I thought, ‘Why don’t I recreate what could have happened?’
Obviously, there’s an element of imagination in recreating the stories but they’re real episodes that have happened to real people. There’s only one story – The Morning After – which is completely fictional. The rest of the stories are all somebody’s or the other’s experience.
RS: Just taking up on that expression — completely fiction: Does ‘fiction’ come out of the air or does it come out the soil?
Deepti: Always from somewhere — in life, in this world. Something has got rooted in your mind, and you feel that you can develop it. If you write about it, you can share.
RS: I know at least one story that I read – ‘Thhulli’– has come out of the homework you did for a film that probably never happened.
Deepti: No, the film never got made. The film, Red Light, was to come out of a script that was given to me by Vijay Tendulkar. It was about a girl who stands under the lamppost in a red-light district, and then whatever happens… I was to play that girl. So, I felt I should do some homework.
Actors love to indulge in things like that. So, I went to a red-light district with three of my colleagues. And that experience, of that one night in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Bombay, what happened that whole night… How I met this girl called Thhulli, up in one of the brothels. How I pursued her — I wanted her to give me time. I wanted to sit and chat with her, and that was managed. I got that space with her — until things got a little rough. The whole ambience became very tense, and I had to be salvaged from that situation into getting out. It was an eye-opener.
RS: The portion that first grabbed me was your first encounter with Kamathipura.
Deepti: Yes, I’m particularly drawn to this one experience. It was a dark monsoon night when we first stepped into that area. And you know what the monsoon in Bombay is like — if it starts to pour, it is unending. So, it was one of those nights and we’re in my Ambassador car. We were just cruising along the red-light district. You don’t see many people because it’s pouring, and it’s very late in the night.
Reading from ‘Thulli’ by Deepti Naval
The street we had now entered was completely dark, the only source of visibility being the headlights of our car. It was an eerie feeling driving through a lane where you could see nothing, just the sense of something not being right. We drove slowly into the uncanny silence of the waterlogged avenue, broken only by the sound of ripples caused by the whirring of car tyres.
‘Something tells me we should turn back,’ Tanvir spoke gravely. No one said a word. Inayat drove cautiously up to the end of the lane, then switched gears. Slowly the Ambassador started to swerve, heavy with the water in its wake. This is when I began to get my bearings.
Thrown suddenly into the floodlights as the car made a gurgling U-turn, on both sides of the street, were women – standing behind the bars, their powdered-to-white faces alternately Illuminating in the shifting light. They were neither soliciting customers nor bargaining. They just stood there, languid, confined within their cages, each occupying a separate, dark world.
“Why are they locked behind bars?” — I spoke under my breath, not believing what I saw.
“These are cages,” answered Tanvir. “Women here are not allowed to get out.’
‘They’d be killed if they did,” declared Inayat.
“My God! So, they do exist, the famous Cages of Falkland Road!”
Excerpted from The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now
RS: But let me read a few lines from the portion where you’re recognised as an actress. That must be quite a common experience for you…
Reading from ‘Thulli’ by Ratnottama Sengupta
“No, no more Ikkey! Go…go! No more! The girls are tired and sleeping. I cannot wake them up now.”
“It is not a customer Thhulli!” he said in a hushed tone, then moved aside to reveal me standing nervously behind him. The woman saw me, and for a moment there was in her eyes… not instant recognition, as I had expected, but disbelief.
She suddenly looked perplexed. “She is… she is…”
“She is a film star…” and he whispered my name to her, bending real low, as if he was the only person who knew about my dark secret.
“She wants to talk to you. They want to make a film on your life.”
I shot a glance at him — a clever little fellow, I thought.
“At this time?”
“Just for a few minutes…” I quickly pleaded, the ‘please’ carried forward with my eyes.
The woman relented. The man stepped aside allowing me to enter through the half gate. “Yeh Thhulli hai!” he said, introducing me formally to the woman from the window.
The greater part of the room was in darkness. I walked into my grim surroundings, grateful for being let in at this unearthly hour.
I looked about the room. It was just a single room, very small, cramped with two giant sized wooden beds with bright coloured curtains hanging around them. Underneath the beds, sprawled all over the floor were girls. Nine of them, Thhulli informed me as she asked me to follow her.
She adroitly crossed over to the other side; I hesitated a bit, looking at the bare legs zigzagging the floor. Knees jutting into knees, hair enmeshed with hair, the girls slept soundly, huddled into each other. I followed Thhulli avoiding placing my foot on braids collaged against the burnt grey cement floor.
Suddenly, I stood face to face with a distorted version of myself in the huge mirror tilted against the green wall. Appearing strange in this setting, I saw myself slanted in the mirror — a cotton stole wrapped around my head, blue jeans and a white top, wearing my trekking shoes, the old olive Timberlands that refuse to wear out. A low night lamp turned to lime green the corner where the cupboard was cemented into the wall. Both of us now stood in the only space left in the room — the window.
“Baitho,” said Thhulli, looking around for something for me to sit on.
From under a heap of bedsheets she pulled a red plastic stool spilling sleazy magazines about the floor. I tried not to look. She dusted the stool with it, then fixing her own hair in the mirror, moved down on the floor, gracefully. I looked at the stool at first, then, decided to sit down on the floor next to Thhulli — at the window.
Thhulli curled up and smiled, the innocent smile of a child. A woman of thirty or so, she looked older than her years. Her face had great beauty, I could see, with clear skin and gentle features. “Assamese?” I inquired. “No, Nepali,” she replied, her legs pulled up against her chest.
For a long awkward moment we looked at each other, then she spoke in awe, “You are very famous.” Her Hindi had a falling forward tilt to it. “I have seen you,” she said gently.
“In a film?” I asked, my hopes rising. This was my chance of connecting with her instantly.
“No, not in film. On the wall, on a poster… and on that!” She pointed towards a small television set, a grimy fourteen-inch B&W perched on a heap of aluminium trunks at the other end.
“You were singing,” she said shyly.
“Singing?” I tried to restrict my voice to a whisper.
“Yes, under a waterfall… with… with Mithoon Chakraborthy… your song Uthaile ghunghata… chand dekh le!” 
“Oh my God! You watch that stuff!”
“The girls watch it all the time! They love that song. They love seeing films. We get to watch them in the afternoons. The minute they wake up, they switch on the TV set. I let them… they are young.”
“And you don’t go to the cinema hall?”
“We hardly go out!” Thhulli became quiet almost as soon as she said that. Dressed in a lungi and kurta, her knees pulled up on one side, she was far from the pan-spitting, hard faced kaddak madams of kothas that we see in Hindi films. This was a face you would never expect to see in a brothel. I quickly revised my pre-conceived notion of prostitutes.
Excerpted from The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now
RS: The rest of it is also full of sensitive moments. And this is a story that we would not hear if she were not an actor. The amazing thing is this seems timeless! Recently we saw a similar situation in Gangubai Kathiawadi, which is set at least half a century ago, in Nehru’s time. There too the girl says, “We see the actors only on the posters, because we are never allowed to go out.”
Deepti: That’s a hard-hitting reality. They Are Behind Bars… and never allowed to go out!
RS: Deepti you’ve travelled widely, across the globe. After your studies you came back to Mumbai. You’ve travelled across India. You’ve also travelled through the arts. You’ve studied Fine Art in New York, you’ve seriously done photography, you’ve been in films, you’ve taken to writing. Lamha Lamha (Moment to Moment), your first book of Hindi poems, came out almost 40 years ago?
Of course, I’m going to ask you to recite one of your poems. Again, I won’t ignore the actress all together. In fact, one of my favourites is about Smita and you. It’s again an experience that you can share only with another actor.
Deepti: Smita and I? That’s from my second book of poems, Black Wind. By the time it came out, I had lived life. Lamha Lamha was all about romantic ideas about life, about love, those tender feelings you have before you really start living the harsher realities of life. And Black Wind came out in 2004 – it was a dark period, when things were not going well. So, the poems turned out… a bit dark (smiles). But there’s this nice poem addressed to my friend Smita Patil. It kind of describes Smita’s and my relationship. I wrote this poem after she was gone.
SMITA AND I
Always on the run,
Chasing our dreams…
We met each time
At baggage claim
Stood a while together
Among gaping crowds.
Spoke unspoken words.
Yearning to share
Afraid of ourselves.
All around us people
And we, like spectacles
Amidst the madness.
Trying to live a moment,
A glance, a touch,
A feeling to hold on to –
And move on…
The last time we sat together
Waiting for a flight,
I remember I'd said,
“There must be another way
Of living this life!”
For a long time you remained silent.
And I’m still running…
To prove you wrong.
R.S Deepti, you’re a woman. And by that very definition you’re an artist. An artist who speaks in many voices. Do you still do photography?
Deepti: That’s taken a back seat since writing took over. But painting I still do, yes.
RS: So, in the title story of the collection, The Mad Tibetan, you’re relating your experience of travelling in Ladakh with the camera. You’re looking at your protagonist through the camera aren’t you?
Deepti: When I first went to Ladakh in 1993 there weren’t too many Indians there. Leh was full of foreigners. It was as if I’m in Europe. As a photographer it had fascinated me. About four years later, I wanted to see that landscape during winter. In summer you see these patches of green, a cultivated green patch between two houses. I thought, let me see how the landscape changes in winter, how it turns grey and brown and black.
So, after a Film Festival at Siri Fort [Delhi] I got onto a flight with some faujis – military men flying there from Jammu. Then I looked for a taxi. In summer I’d seen many tourists – foreigners toh bhare pade thhe. But now I didn’t see a soul, taxis too were difficult to come by. So one fauji said, “Ma’am you wait here, we’ll organise a vehicle for you. Where d’you want to go?” “Leh,” I said. But Leh was deserted. No hotels in sight, the streets were deserted. I knew one co-actor, Phunsook Ladakhi, lived in Stok, some 13 kms away. I asked if they could take me there.
Phunsook was not there but his wife, her sister and a child were there. I stayed with them. They didn’t speak Hindi and I didn’t speak their language, but we could communicate. There I would take my camera, take some rajma — kidney beans — rolled in a dry roti in the pocket of my parka jacket, and go around Stok and Choglamsar. There I saw this Tibetan man in an open tent by the river Indus. I found it fascinating that a man was living in a tent that didn’t have a roof – it was tied down with bamboo poles but had no roof! ‘This is weird’ I thought and started taking photos. Pictures of him. A few kids were playing around him, calling out ‘Nyonba! Nyonba!’ – the word means crazy.
Meanwhile it started to snow. I was taking pictures – and I realised that in that wide open, with the kids gone, I was alone with the camera and this man! He was then posing for me with animated gestures, and I thought, “Wow! What a study for a photographer!” Then, once I realised that there was something off with the man, I started to retreat and get back on the tar road which is the old highway. And he ran after me for quite a bit. But he ran up to the point where there was a barbed wire. Perhaps that was symbolic: I managed to pull it up, got under it and came out on the tar road. He stayed there, and his expression was one of a child. Like, ‘Now you were playing with me, and now you’re running away! Game over?’
In the night, in the place I was staying in Stok, I could hear some sound: Ta-tar-tar-ta… It was a scary sound that I’d been hearing over the past couple of nights. I came down and didn’t see the women or the kids. I knocked on their door and got no response. There was no sign of life. And the sound had come really close. So, I said to myself, “No good being scared.” So at three at night, I opened the window and tried to confront the source of the strange sound. “Who’s there, trying to bother me?” I called out.
And then I see this Nyonba. The mad Tibetan had strung together a whole lot of Coca Cola cans and was dragging them on the tar road like a rattle – going this way and then going that way…!
It was an amazing sight, and sound. I ran for my camera, but it was nighttime, there was hardly any light on the road, and I was on the first floor. So, I said, forget the camera, let me just be in this moment. The camera cannot capture all the beauty that we experience!
RS: Sometimes we don’t have the time – or the opportunity – to read but the experience is shared when the screenwriter narrates it so vividly like you just did. And clearly you have the eye for details. We see this in all your stories. Also, as I have already mentioned, most of your stories are about women – as was the series you directed, Thoda Sa Aasman.
I was touched by the story, ‘Sisters’, about the two pre-teen siblings who live with their alcoholic father because their mother has left them. And the father decides to shave off their hair because it’s full of lice. And the agony the loss of hair causes – only a woman can realise what it is to be forcefully deprived of their hair! It’s not vanity, it’s something deeper, it’s the crowning glory of an Indian woman.
Deepti: Yes, this story is set in Joginder Nagar, a small place in remote Himachal Pradesh where my mother had lived. When the father shaves off all their hair, and they have to walk back bald-headed, they are so embarrassed. Everybody is staring at them, the other kids are jeering at them. These Pahari women had beautiful long hair and now they were takla munda, a shining bald pate! The humiliation of being heckled at, the agony, is too much.
RS: But even at that tender age, and in such a disturbed state, the girls are so sensitive! They plan to leave their father and go away to the city where he won’t find them…
Deepti: They try to take the last train at night and get away from the misery of facing their neighbours after the unbearable loss. But then they think of their father, so forlorn without them. One of them gets on the train, but the other says, “Wait… what if mother comes back?” So, they both stay back!
RS: But Deepti, there’s at least one story – ‘Bombay Central’ – which is entirely from the male perspective. It’s also happening primarily between two men. It’s not only a man’s point of view, it is a masculine experience too. How did you come by it? It was also the first story I read because, being born and bred in Bombay, I was lured by the title – I expected to see some of my city in it.
Deepti: I’d heard the story from an Assistant Director(AD) during one of my film projects. We were talking about who came to Bombay – now Mumbai — from where and how. This AD told me later, “I couldn’t bring it up in front of everyone, but I was only fifteen when I came to Bombay. And something strange happened…”
This boy was on the train coming from some place in Madhya Pradesh. Sitting across him in a starched white kurta-pyjama was this very proper slim man who kept looking at him, as if sizing him up. “Why is he staring away at me?” the boy started to wonder. As the train approached the Bombay Central station, the man started to make small talk with the boy. The conversation continued and when they alighted at the station, he brought the boy home.
The boy gets his first glimpse of Bombay, its downtown area, and is struck by it, and the house where he lands up. And through the night he spends there, he realises that he was brought home by the man for his wife! It so happens that she kind of seduces him – and he is made to sleep with her while the man is in the verandah across, lying on charpoy with his face the other way while the full thing happens here! The boy realises that he is probably impotent, but he loves his wife so much that he doesn’t want her to leave him… so he brought home a naïve young person who wouldn’t fight!
When I heard this, I felt I had to write it. I wrote some of it from imagination, building some of the description on what I was told – whatever he had conveyed to me… Yes, it is a male story!
RS: But as I finished reading it, I thought to myself, what if we change the gender? Would anyone be surprised if an elderly woman takes home a naïve young girl for her husband? I think we’ve all heard some such thing happening, being experienced so many years back and perhaps even now. But this was so startling, it reminded me of Roald Dahl.
I must mention two other things about the story. First, this is also happening on a monsoon night – the boy decides to stay in the man’s house because it is pouring when he arrives in a new city late in the night…
Deepti: Yeah! My stories are full of the Bombay monsoon! The rest are all in the pahar, mountains…
RS: The other thing is that the boy was also lured to the city by the moving images of the tinsel town on the silver screen. Of course, this guy was not coming to be an actor…
Deepti: No, he was coming to assist in filmmaking, to learn to eventually be a director and make his own movies…
RS: And what was the final resolution in life? Did he achieve his dream?
Deepti: Yeah, he became a filmmaker and made three-four decent films (laughs).
RS: Wonderful to know that Tinsel Town is not always heartbreaking, full of shattered dreams! Now, with A Country Called Childhood, we are in Amritsar…
Deepti: Yes, we will go there but before that – I will go back to my book of poems, Black Wind and Other Poems. There’s a section here called The Silent Scream. This came out of my curiosity, and deep interest in psychology and the aberrations of the so-called sane mind.
While I was writing these poems, I was also writing a script called Split. This was about an actor who gets a script where she has to play a mentally disturbed woman. I wrote about how the actor goes into that role for which she’s shooting in Ranchi. How she goes to the asylum, spends time in the women’s ward, comes to know some of them and imbibes all that into her work. But eventually her own ghosts start popping out from the closet – and in a cathartic moment she breaks down in front of the camera.
Yes, it turned out to be a dark script. Nobody wanted to put in money on a subject like this – so that got shelved. But what happened is that despite writing that script, there were many images that were floating around in my head, “this hasn’t been woven in… that too got left out…” Those came out in the form of these 22 poems.
What happened was, when I was shooting Hip Hip Hurray for Prakash (ex-husband Prakash Jha) I came to know that there’s a very big mental institution there – Ranchi Mansik Arogyashala.
At this time, I was offered a role by Amol Palekar in Ankahee where I play a girl who is slightly off the rocker. I told Amol, “I can’t do the scene – hallucinating, convulsing and all that. I need to see how some of the patients behave.” Amol said, “No no don’t – you’ll come up with all kinds of strange ideas.” But since I was in Ranchi, I decided to go. On one occasion, I went with Goutam Ghose – I wanted him to direct the film.
I went in planning to go there 2-3 days, and I spent 23 days. After the first four hours I spent there, I was so zapped, so enervated! I felt, “My god! Just one visit and I’m feeling so drained – what if I were to do an entire 30 days of shoot! What would it do to me as a person? And if an actor has to stay for 30 days in that character’s state of mind, would she remain unaffected? That was the seed of the script Split. The mirror image, but there’s a split.
So, I took permission and spent the whole day inside the ward, on the verandah with all the women. I came to know them at close quarters and ended up with a deeper understanding of their minds. Some of the women were clinically not even mad, but if someone came and wrote “her mind is not stable,” they can put you there. He can go frolicking and nobody comes to take the girls back. They can be excluded from property and everything, totally discarded. There were so many girls like that.
So, here’s a girl I used to watch every night. I’d be sitting in the verandah and she’d come out – I could see her trying to deal with herself…
She stands at one end of the verandah,
A naked bulb glows at the other end
Staining the dark floor with dull yellow light.
Beyond the empty ward
Drag echoes of the autumn night.
From pillar to pillar, in severe silence
Skulk slithering shadows.
Out alone in the cold she stands
Night after night
Fighting her demons!
Her body, frail and brittle,
Flaps leaf-like, on two glass feet.
The torched face, broken
Then tacked together, so bluntly
The ragged joints show.
Hounded eyes that do not blink
Frozen in a deathlike glaze.
Her fragile spirit, splintered.
These are not the features
She was born with.
This is the face we gave her.
Another poem is about a girl who’s different from the rest of us. She’s different, but delightfully confident. She has this flight of mind which the world doesn’t easily accept…
‘I’m DURGA! I’m KALI!
No one can conquer me!’
She pulled the crown off the idol’s head
And wore it on herself.
The crowds were aghast!
They swore at her,
Chased her with sticks, stones, screams…
But she slipped into the wilds
Flying beyond their reach.
At the magic hour
When sun and rain dazzle the earth,
She danced and skipped,
Jumped and leaped,
Chasing a single rainbow…
Light-footed, she glided
Through the celestial landscape
Wearing her cheap silver crown
She tripped the light, luminous.
“I am DURGA! I am KALI!”
A frog leapt in the slush –
She lunged towards it, caught it!
Croaky frog twitching in her left hand
Stick in the right,
A tinsel crown aslant her forehead
She was one with the elements.
With earth, with sky, with slush,
With trees, with breeze…
Dancing! Mesmerising her Gods!
Her laughter gurgled in the wind
Her feet spinning the good earth.
And then the villagers got her.
Caught her by her feet
Dragged her through the sludge.
Frog, stick, crown dragged behind,
Straggled on the muddy track.
‘She’s too dangerous to be left free!’
They signed on a piece of paper,
Dumped her in the loony bin,
Wiped the vermilion off her forehead
Chopped the long black hair
Razed it to scalp
Locked her behind the solid grill.
Left her squalling, on the cold dank floor.
Now, when the sky is overcast
And the earth is wet and brown,
She walks down the courtyard,
Blue-templed and dead-eyed,
The cardboard crown trails behind her,
None make a sound.
There’s another aspect to this. I was working on the script, taking notes, talking to the women. And there was one girl, she was mad on seeing me there. She was livid, she just didn’t want me there. She would come up and tell me, “Chiriya ghar hai kya? Is this a zoo? Ka dekhne aaye ho, tamasa? Have you come to see a spectacle?”
I knew what she was feeling. She thought – and it wasn’t tamasha, people just walk in to see us, “What are we? Creatures to be stared at?” She would confront me whenever she got a chance. Her state of mind I have tried to put down in this poem which is addressed to me – the so-called sane world.
THE STENCH OF SANITY
There’s something rotten inside of you.
In your flesh, the stench of sanity!
It breathes in your eyes, this thing…
Something decadent in your flesh
It will be too late,
You will die of it.
This thing that sleeps with you
Night after night,
Like an ageing wanton woman,
Spent, but not quite spent.
And she waits for you to dump her
In some dark street corner.
Yet she follows you, drunken whore!
There’s no getting away for you
You will die of it,
This thing, that breathes…
Inside of you, in your flesh
The stench of sanity!
The anthology Black Wind got its name from the lovely poem of that name. That was at a time when everything I was going through was dark. Between 1990 and 1995, I was going through depression, and suicidal attacks. It’d come every 20-25 days and I had to fight it. And I did!
One has gone through all kinds of ups and downs in personal life, so my poems are autobiographical. There’s not much to hide – nothing that I am embarrassed of, nothing that needs camouflage. What I was reluctant to talk about, that is also in this new book, so I’m very comfortable with myself now.
RS: So now it is time for celebration… We’re about to enter A Country Called Childhood. What made you think of this title?
Deepti: I was writing and sharing my chapters with my editor, David Davidar of Aleph Book Company. Somewhere I’d written a sentence that these were the sound, the smell, the feel of a country where I grew up, a country called ‘Childhood’. He caught on to that phrase and said, “This will be the title of your book.”
Yes, childhood is a country where we’ve all been and at some point, we leave that country – ‘that museum of innocence’, as Goutam Ghose just mentioned – for good. And we leave with no return ticket! We only live with the memories of that place.
RS: Surely your childhood was in an actual geographical landscape?
Deepti: My entire childhood was spent in Amritsar. That’s where I was till I turned 19, then I went to America. But all the 18 years until then had been spent in Amritsar and growing up there left vivid imprints in my mind. The rest of it I’m a little vague. Sometimes a colleague says, “Arre we were there in such-n-such festival, together we did this, or that.” And I think, “This person remembers all this so distinctly, but I don’t!” But my childhood I remember.
The first four chapters were written 20 years ago, and since then I’ve been jotting down even the smallest incident that comes back at odd moments. Later on, I would recall it and write it the way I remember it.
Then of course there was this whole element of research. Because family history se jo suni-sunai baat hai — all that I’d heard or was part of family lore — had to be cross-checked to make sure they have a foothold on the ground. There was a lot on the Partition, there was the Japanese Invasion of Burma during WWII when my mother’s family walked over the Assam Hills and came into India over months. All these stories rooted in historical events needed cross checking.
And looking for photographs! From whichever source I could think of, any relative I met, I’d say, “Aunty you must be having some pictures? Please look for them!” “Y-e-s, there are some lying somewhere upstairs!” I’d coax them and chase them and get them to bring down the suitcase from the attic or wherever, dust it, tease them out of envelopes… And if I saw anything that was of interest to me, I’d plead, “Give this to me, I’ll get it professionally scanned… and cleaned!”
This went on endlessly. Off and on, I was also involved in [film] shootings. Only when the publisher came into the picture some five years ago that I said to myself, “Now this is a project, I have to complete it before I do anything else.” I did a couple of web series and a film too, but these were a distraction for me. I was dying to get back to the book. Because when you’re writing, if you do anything else, it takes so much more effort to pick up from where you left. Woh wapas itni aasani se nahin hota — it’s not easy to get back to the same state of mind. It’s a discipline I have to learn from people like Atul (Tiwari) here. Sai (Paranjpye) also has written her memoirs — A Patchwork Quilt, is a wonderful book. Sai’s the sole reason for people knowing me as Miss Chamko – that’s why my writing has been overshadowed by my on-screen essays (smiles).
RS: Is there anything on Sai in A Country Called Childhood?
Deepti: No, my next book will have a huge chunk on Sai. This is only about my childhood. I started to write it as a homage to my parents. But it took me so long to finish this book, they have both gone. That’s the only thing that’ll hurt me about this book.
RS: Are you a single child?
Deepti: No, I have an older sister and a younger brother in America.
RS: So what will you read out to us today?
Deepti: Let me read the opening of my book. I’ve tried to recreate my childhood as vividly as possible, the way I remember it visually. And I want the reader to come with me… through my childhood.
Prologue — Reading by Deepti Naval
Memory rushes back. At times it pulls me by my finger, eggs me on, saying, “Come, let’s go inside those dark chambers where you stood in the light, rejoicing a life yet to unfold.”
It’s getting dark in the city of Amritsar. Shops are shutting down, street lamps come on, casting dim, yellow light. Rickshaws and bicycles hustle to make their way home. A handcart loaded with gunny bags wobbles down the street. Even Dwarka’s wine shop is closing. The old salwar tailor pulls his rickety shutter down, gets on his bicycle and paddles away. Shahani’s voice can be heard – she’s urging her buffaloes home. Grubby little boys, the mochis, play outside in the gully and behind the threshold of the phatak, the big iron gate, two little sister, Bobby and Dolly go about their lives…
This scene seems like it is from hundreds of years ago but it actually dates back to the year 1956. It’s one of my earliest memories, in which I’m almost four years old. It’s the street I remember the most, the street on which I lived.
So now I go into third person and I see myself there.
A litte girl darts out of a house, crying, “I want to go to my Mamma.”
“Your Mamma has gone to the cinema. You get in here at once.”
“I will also go to the cinema,” she retorts and runs down the street.
Suddenly something stirs in the air. There’s a muffled grunt in the sky and the breeze changes. The sky turns red. Tin sheds begin to flap and rattle. The smell of wind on earth. It’s a dust storm. Stray pieces of paper littering the ground outside the book binders shop fly up and float in the air. Bicycles fall in a slow, studied motion along the wall of the cinema hall. The wooden shutter of Gyan Halwai’sshop tilts and slips out of its clamp. He stands with his arms outstretched, holding it with all his malai lassi strength against the wind, his lungi threatening to fly off. A rickshaw puller pedals backwards and sideways. The world seems to slant at the edges. Dust storms the streets.
My Sardi’s voice cuts through the mayhem. “Stop, I say. Get back girl. It’s dark!” she yells.
The girl is not coming back. She runs all the way to the end of the street and suddenly finds herself in the middle of Katra Sher Singh Chowk in front of the Regent Talkies, surrounded by huge cinema posters. The posters begin to tear from the whiplash of the wind. Sarr… sarr… sarr… faces of actors and actresses fold up and slap against the dry whitewash of the decrepit cinema.
Unable to keep her eyes open from the dust, wind and tears, the little girl hides her face in her sleeve. At her feet swirl particles of dust-torn scraps of paper; bright orange and pink trimmings from the tailor’s shop gather momentum. She stands still for a while, watching the little merry-go-round go around her dotted booties, until her eyes fall upon something.
Across the street, the Plotwala is doing a Tandav. He’s the skinny man who sells little leaflets with the plot and songs of Hindi films printed on them. A strong gust wisps away the sepia-coloured leaflets from his hands and flings them into the wind. They soar in the air, going up and up in circles, dodging the poor man’s attempts to retrieve them. Tossed into the wind, the yellowed sheets somersault, now diving to his feet, now rising as if in sudden applause. He leaps and plunges by the side of the road, flapping his arms around, hurling himself at the musical notes. One leap slips into two and two into four till the songs dance above his gaunt, lanky frame. He dances with the songs, the poor Plotwala, trying in vain to hang on to his only means of livelihood as it slips away into grainy air.
No one notices the little girl as she stands in the middle of the road, enthralled by the dance of songs. Her large eyes filled with tears but she forgets to cry.
“There you are Marjani!” – my Sardi steps forward, scoops me…Now I’m back to first person: … scoops me in one sweeping movement, lodges me onto her hip, strides down the street, puts me back inside the house where I belong.
As we enter, my grandmother rises from a chair, pointing a finger at me, “No little girls from good homes go out to cinemas on the street.”
Excerpted from A Country Called Childhood by Deepti Naval
RS: One question in the mind of those who’ve been hearing you: Is poetry closer to your heart, than prose/ fiction?
Deepti: Writing is close to my heart. I look at life through both. I’m always looking for the little things that make life so interesting. At the end of the day, I would like to be known as an artist. Somebody who just felt compelled to express herself any which way, whichever form comes in front of me. Work is joyous, interesting work more so.
RS: One of our listeners here feels that the actor in you is talking when you are writing – because your writing is very vivid and visual. Does it come from your experience as an actor? Do you pay greater attention to details in life because you have to act?
Deepti: I think being an actor does train us to observe life. And when you notice something, you grab that and keep it somewhere in your emotional reservoir – perhaps for future use! But as a child too, I was very observant. I used to observe my mother very keenly. So yes, looking into the shadows helps me be Miss Chamko, and definitely it helps me in my writing.
RS: So which expression is more satisfying to the artist in you – acting or writing?
Deepti: It is immensely satisfying for me to put down something in writing. Because, as an actor I’m carrying to the audience a concept that is the director’s, and the writer’s. Then there’s an editor there who has put it together in the best way to take the emotion of the moment to the audience. I’m a tool in chiseling the portrait – Miss Chamko – that people love…
But we – artists — continually interpret life through our work. Even acting. Acting isn’t a camouflage either, you have to bare yourself, your inner self. There’s no work that is not autobiographical. Writing is perhaps more so.
 Translates from Hindi as ‘Awakening’. This is the name of the festival in Simla in June where Deepti Naval’s book was launched in 2022 June.
 Film based on Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons (1978), set in 1857 against the backdrop of the revolt.
 The forest where Rama built a hut and stayed during his exile in Ramayana
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The Oldest Love Story, edited and curated by Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao published by Om Books International, 2022, carries multiple voices across cultures on a most ancient bond and nurtures pertinent questions and observation, which hope to redefine the role.
Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.
-- Nabanita Dev Sen, The Oldest Love Story(2022)
The Oldest Love Story, curated by two eminent authors and journalists, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, is an anthology that not only describes a human’s first love, their mother, and their lives, but also explores the social and psychological outcomes and ramifications of motherhood with powerful narratives from multiple writers. They range from eminent names like the late Nabanita Dev Sen, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das to Bollywood personalities like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza and contemporary names like Amit Chaudhuri or Maithili Rao herself.
The anthology has narratives clubbed into three sections: ‘Being a Mother: Rewards and Regrets’, ‘Outliers’, ‘Our Mothers: Love, Empathy and Ambivalence’. The headings are descriptive of the content of each section. These real-life narratives, some of which include translations by editors Roy and Rao among others, make for interesting and fresh perspectives of the age-old story that is as natural as water or air. More than two dozen diverse voices as well as Roy’s powerful “Preface” and Rao’s exhaustive “Introduction” paint motherhood in new colours, giving it an iridescence that glitters with varied shades. Stories of what mothers faced — bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome, a child who drove his roommate to suicide and yet another daughter who marries a man old enough to be her father — bring us close to issues we face in today’s world.
One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of this book is at the end of each essay is a takeaway from the narrative where the writers write about themselves. This is not a biography but a description of the writers’ perception about their mother or what they learnt from their experience of motherhood. The most interesting takeaway is given by Shabana Azmi, who wrote of her dynamic mother Shaukat Kaifi (1926-2019).
“I am cut from the same cloth as her. But who am I?
“I would say I’m a woman, an Indian, a wife, an actress, a Muslim, an activist, etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity but today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, at the absence of all other aspects. This is not the truth about India. India’s greatest truth is her composite culture.
“The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other because of their ‘Kashmiriyat’ than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu in spite of them sharing a common religion. To me, my cultural identity is much stronger than my religious identity.”
And she concludes: “My mother taught me that identity must not be a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. It should be a beautiful mosaic in which each part contributes to a larger whole.”
Major social issues are taken up in multiple narratives. Mirza used the epistolary technique to describe how his mother discarded her burqa forever in Pre-Partition India.
“You were emerging from the hall of the Eros theatre and were about to wear your burqa in the foyer when Baba popped the question to you.
“‘Begum, do you really want to wear it?’
“You told me you paused for a moment, and then you shook your head. And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I am trying to imagine that moment. The year was 1938 and you had been wearing a burqa ever since you were thirteen years old.”
Mannu Bhandari’s spine-chilling narrative of her mother, a child bride around the time when Mirza’s mother shed her burqa, shows a young girl punished and abused for accidentally tearing her sari. It showcases a conservative, abusive culture where women turn on women. An extreme contrast to the bold maternal outlook described by Mirza or Azmi, the narrative highlights the reason why women need to protest against accepting familial abuse bordering on criminality. That these three mothers lived around the same time period in different cultures and regions of India only goes to enhance the large diaspora of beliefs, customs and cultures within one country.
Dalit writer, Urmila Pawar’s reasserts her mother’s belief, “A woman is a wife for only a while/ She is a mother all her life.” “Screams Buried in the Walls” by Sudha Arora dwells on the abuse borne by women to pander to societal norms. Narratives of abuse of women who could not stand up to social malpractices seem to have turned into lessons on what not to do for daughters who condemn patriarchal norms for the suffering their mothers faced.
On the other hand, Shashi Deshpande tells us: “Motherhood becomes a monster that devours both her and her young; or, when the children go away, there is an emptiness which is filled with frustration and despair. I have been saved from this because of my work. My children no longer need me, but my life does not seem empty.” While Shashi Deshpande found her catharsis by writing her stories, Deepa Gahlot, justifies her stance of remaining unmarried and childless by espousing a voice against motherhood. She contends that the only reason to perceive motherhood as a viable alternative would be propagation of the species. But concludes with an interesting PS: “Does it even make sense to bring a child into such an ugly, nasty, brutal world?” As one hears of senseless violence, wars and mass shootings in the news, Gahlot’s words strike a chord. She has actually researched into the subject to draw her conclusions. But one would wonder how would humankind propagate then — out of test tubes in a bleak scenario like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would humans really want such an inhuman existence?
I would rather go with Dev Sen’s outlook. While she emoted on motherhood in her poems on her daughter Antara, she has given a powerful prose narrative elucidating her own perspective. Antara, the daughter to who these poems are addressed, has given a beautiful takeaway on her mother at the end of Dev Sen’s narrative. Despite being abandoned by her husband, Amartya Sen, who later became a Nobel laureate, Dev Sen not only fulfilled herself as a woman and a mother but threw out an inspiring statement that well sums up motherhood for some: “[C]ould I do anything to make this planet worthy for my kids?”
Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, one of the editors of this sparkling collection and author of a number of books, especially on the legendary film maker, her father, Bimal Roy (1909-1966), had published an earlier collection on a similar theme called, Janani (Mother, 2006). She agreed to tell us more about the making of this meaty and gripping anthology, The Oldest Love Story.
Motherhood as a concept that is ancient, natural, and yet, not fully understood nor explored. What made you think of coming up with this collection that highlights not only stories of mothers and how it influenced women but also discusses the process of being a mother?
The present collection, titled “The Oldest love Story” goes back several decades. This is mentioned in my preface. It began when I woke up to the fact that I was redundant as a mother. By the time the children had grown up one-by-one and left home. I began to explore the situation with other women to understand, why we give so much importance to motherhood? Foolishly, I felt. Motherhood as a concept is indeed natural but taken for granted. I have a problem with that. My maid, Laxmi, is a classic example of a mother who is exploited to the hilt by her children. She is blind to their exploitation and refuses any change that will help her live with comfort or dignity. As if women are just mothers and nothing else?
Was it a personal need or one that you felt had to be explored given the current trend towards the issue where women are protesting the fact that looking after children saps them of individuality? Can you please explain?
I answered this issue as have others in this book. The deep resentment that follows after raising kids who then go away to find greener pastures, is an extremely common, and collective experience for most parents. Particularly in the Indian context. Parents cannot let go. The main reason, I think is, the parent’s fear. The fear of who will light the funeral pyre if not the son? In the event of not having a son, a close male relative takes over. Do you see the gender bias, the patriarchal assumption? Daughters are not considered legitimate enough to light the pyre?! Yet it is daughters who care for elderly parents in most cases.
This is not the case in Europe, nor the West, where children are expected to become independent very early. In fact, European teenagers seize their independence at the earliest opportunity. It is the expected thing, and no one resents that inevitable shift.
You had an earlier collection called Janani (Mother). Did that have an impact on this book?
I am glad you referred to Janani, published by Sage books in 2006. That collection is the cornerstone of our new book. In this collection, we have included eight extraordinary essays from Janani. We have retained, for example, Kamala Das and Shashi Deshpande to name two. And guess what we discovered out of the blue? In the oldest love story, we have several Sahitya Akademi winners amongst our writers, including these stalwarts. This raises our book to a huge literary stature.
How was it to work jointly on a book with Maithili Rao? Did you both have the same vision for the book?
Working with Maithili was fantastic, and it was great fun. She is the most generous of people and shares without fuss. Ours was a good partnership. I could not have produced this book without Maithili. She has been and continues to be a rock.
You have done many translations for the book. Why is it we did not find an essay from you as we did from Maithili Rao?
Yes, I did. I helped fine-tune Mannu Bhandari’s story It ranks as one of my personal favourites. Her narrative is beautifully visual. I find it cinematic. I also translated Sudha Arora’s poignant essay. Sudha is a noted Hindi writer. It was, however, difficult for me to write my personal story. But the hope is, our next reprint will carry a story I wrote on my son Aditya’s birthday in 2021. In this I have given graphic details of how childbirth robs women of their dignity in the so-called natural process of birthing children. My essay is entertaining and somewhat satirical in style.
You have written a beautiful preface to the book, reflecting your own experience with your children. Were you, like the other writers, impacted by your mother?
I take that as a compliment. Yes, I wrote a heartfelt preface. My relationship with my mother, admittedly, was a strained one. Our age difference was just eighteen years…whatever the reason, I have not been able to fathom or pinpoint it. So, I thought it was best to refrain from the troubled territory.
Would you say that Bollywood had some bearing on the book as a number of writers are from within the industry? Also, your father, the eminent Bimal Roy, made a movie called Maa in 1952. If so how. Please explain.
I do not see any bearing from Bollywood. The fact we have eminent personalities from the world of cinema, for example, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, and Lalita Lazmi do not make it a Bollywood-driven work. My father, Bimal Roy’s Bombay debut was with a film called Maa. Apparently, Maa was inspired by a Hollywood film titled Over the Hills. The main protagonist was an elderly mother of two sons. Maa bared a socially relevant issue, elder abuse, that has been globally recognised and is prevalent. My father’s empathy for the elderly is well documented in this fictional account. In day-to-day life, my father supported the elderly. His widowed aunt in Benaras was maintained by him. His brothers were educated and helped by his generosity. Compassion was his second nature. From him, I learned that a silent, discreet way to support others is the best way to reach out.
There are so many women in the anthology who reiterated the huge impact their mothers had on them, and they were quite critical of their ‘patriarchal’ fathers. Do you think this is true for all women? At a personal level, did your father or mother have a similar impact on you?
I am glad to hear that these woman are critical of their patriarchal fathers…while most women tend to overlook the patriarchal aspect. In general, women tend to ignore or even neglect, their mothers. In my case, it was distinct. My cultural upbringing was instilled by my father’s secular and inclusive vision and social values. These played a decisive part. Much more than my mother, who was a gifted photographer. My parents, by the way, were a made for each other couple. Rarest of rare in the movie industry. My father is my mentor. If you contemplate his well-loved films, let us take Sujata, for one. I have yet to see another film that speaks so eloquently of social boycott. It is not just the caste issue of Sujata, which doubtless is the main thrust. It is the combined forces of class, caste, and gender that play havoc with human relationships as portrayed compassionately in this work.
Yes, Sujata is indeed a beautiful film and your book has taken up many of the issues shown in the movie through the voice of mothers, whether it is caste or religion. Was this intentional or was it something that just happened?
The voices of our contributors in the book are of individuals who write with exemplary honesty and spontaneously. Nothing is contrived in their writings. We did not brief our writers to take up any specific issue. They wrote from the heart.
One of the trends that emerged from my reading of the book was that educated and affluent mothers through the ages had it easier than child brides and less educated mothers, whose children also reacted with more vehemence, looking for a better world for themselves. Do you feel my observation has some credence? Please comment on it.
I do not agree entirely. Bearing children, and raising them in our complex, the confusing socio-economic culture is a challenging matter for all mothers. For all parents in fact. Child brides are subjected to it more intensely than others. There are no shortcuts, nor ready-made answers.
There is an essay against motherhood in this anthology. Do you agree with the author that it is a redundant institution and can be replaced by test-tube babies? Do you not think that could lead to a re-enactment of what Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World?
I think, you mean Deepa Gahlot’s essay. This was from the earlier collection. Deepa is entitled to her views. As are others. I think many younger women would agree with Deepa. Balancing motherhood with one’s professional life is a knotty business. I know women who have opted for one or the other to do full justice to it.
Yes, it was Deepa Gahlot’s essay. As you have rightly pointed out in your preface, motherhood can be interpreted variously. What do you see as the future of motherhood in India, and in the world?
Motherhood, remains subjective. Interpreted differently in each case. Every childbirth is a different experience. It may be life-threatening. A case to note is my dear friend Smita Patil’s. She died giving birth. But, I doubt women will stop being mothers, or abandon stereotypical mothering options that live up to that Deewar [Wall, 1975] dialogue: “Mere paas maa hain [I do not have a mother]”. There is a change, a shift, nonetheless, it is slow. Women are afraid to rock this entrenched image of motherhood. At least in India. I know successful women filled with guilt that they failed to be good mothers.
Well, that is certainly a perspective that needs thought.What books and music impact your work?
I read both Bangla and English. After leaving Calcutta where I read the children’s Ramayana, Raj Kahini, or stories by Tagore and Sukumar Ray. But there was an interruption when I got into an English medium school. Culturally I moved out of Bengal. During that phase, my mother introduced me to Agatha Christie. I was 12 years perhaps…I devoured her works. And I still do. Christie fascinates me.
I fell in love with the piano and began to learn it. As a result, Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt were my musical inspirations. I also learned Rabindra sangeet and Manipuri dance in Calcutta…. there was no dearth of cultural grooming. We are especially fortunate that our parents enjoyed the best in performing arts. Pandit Sivakumar Sharma, the great santoor maestro who just passed away, played at home. Sitara Devi danced for private programs. We were wrapped in a rich tapestry of culture.
What is your next project? Are you writing/ curating something new?
I am a compulsive writer, always itching to write. I believe that writers do not age…they mature and get better. Currently, I am compiling non-fiction episodes about some of the most celebrated artists from Indian cinema who I was privileged to meet…the collection may be titled, Brief Encounters. Writing keeps me creatively busy. Before I sign off, we have to thank our editor Shantanuray Chaudhuri for his unconditional support to make this book a reality. He has been marvellous.
Thank you for taking our work seriously.
Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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Translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal, this satirical skit was part of Hasyakoutuk (1914) or Humour by Tagore
Ray Krishnakishore Bahadur is lying on his deathbed. His three sons Chandrakishore, Nandakishore and Indrakishore are busy consulting each other. A doctor is present. The women are close to tears.
Chandra: Who are the people we should write to?
Indra: Write to Sir Reynolds.
Krishna: (With great difficulty) What will you write, son?
Nanda: The news of your death.
Krishna: But I am not yet dead, son.
Indra: You might not die right now, but we have to fix a time for the event and write that down…
Chandra: We should collect the condolence letters from all the Englishmen here and get them published in newspapers. No point in publishing them when all the excitement is gone!
Krishna: Patience boys; let me die first.
Nanda: We can’t wait, father. Let’s make a list of the letters to be sent to the people in Shimla and Darjeeling. Come on, let’s get all the names down.
Chandra: The Governor, Sir Ilbert, Sir Wilson, Beresford, Macaulay, Peacock –
Krishna: Boys, what names are you chanting so close to my ears? Chant God’s name instead. When the time comes, He is the only one who can save us! Hari –
Indra: Yes, good thing that you reminded us, we forgot to include Sir Harrison.
Krishna: My sons, say Ram, Ram –
Nanda: Really, I had forgotten about Sir Ramsey.
Krishna: Narayan, Narayan!
Chandra: Nanda, write down the name of Sir Noran also.
Skanda: So, you people seem so relaxed! You still haven’t done the real thing!
Chandra: And what is that?
Skanda: We have to inform in advance all the people who will be part of the procession going to the funeral ghat.
Krishna: Sons, which one do you consider the real thing? First, I’ll have to die, only then –-
Chandra: No worries on that account. Doctor!
Doctor: Yes sir!
Chandra: How much time is left for father to go? When do the public have to be here?
The women start wailing.
Skanda: (Disgusted) Ma, will you stop it? You’re creating quite a scene! It’s better to sort out everything in advance. When doctor?
Doctor: Most likely this night at—
The women start wailing again.
Nanda: This is a huge problem! You shouldn’t disturb us during work. What do you think your crying will accomplish? We are planning to publish condolence letters sent by important Englishmen in newspapers.
The women are sent out.
Skanda: Doctor, what do you think?
Doctor: From what I can see I think he will expire around four a.m.
Chandra: Then there is no time – Nanda, go quickly, get the slips printed at once right in front of your eyes.
Doctor: But first mustn’t the medicine—
Skanda: Look here! Your medicine shop will not run away. On the other hand, we’ll be in trouble if the print ring shop shuts down.
Doctor: Sir, the patient might not —
Chandra: That is why you must hurry. For who knows what might happen if the slips are printed before the patient —
Nanda: Here I go.
Skanda: Write down that the procession will begin at eight tomorrow.
Skanda: What, doctor? It’s already seven now instead of four.
Doctor: (Apologetically) Yes, yes, amazing the pulse is still strong.
Chandra: You are a fine one doctor to have got us into this mess!
Nanda: Everything went wrong when I was late in bringing the medicine. In fact, dad began to recover as soon as the doctor’s medicine was stopped.
Krishna: All this time you were so very cheerful, why is everyone looking so glum all of a sudden? I am feeling fine now.
Skanda: We aren’t feeling that great. We had already finalized all preparations to go to the funeral pyre.
Krishna: Is that so? I guess I should have died.
Doctor: (Feeling irritated) Do one thing and that will solve all problems.
Doctor: Instead of him why don’t one of you die when the time is ripe.
A lot of people have assembled in the outer house.
Kanai: Hello, It’s already eight thirty. Why are you all late?
Chandra: Please sit down. Have some tobacco.
Kanai: I’ve been [chewing] tobacco from the morning!
Bolai: Where is everybody? I can’t see signs of any arrangements being made.
Chandra: Everything is ready – it’s not our fault – now only—
Ramtaran: Hey, Chandra, we shouldn’t waste any more time.
Chandra: Don’t I understand that – but—
Harihar: What is causing the delay? We’ll be late for office, what’s the matter?
Indra: Don’t be impatient. We are almost ready. In the meantime, why don’t you read the condolence letters?
He distributes them.
This is from Lambert, this from Harrison, this is Sir James’s—
Skanda: Here take them. In the meantime, read the obituary notices on father in the newspapers. Here is The Statesman, here TheEnglishman.
Madhusudan: (To Yadav) Isn’t this typical? Bengalis won’t ever learn what punctuality is all about.
Indra: You’re absolutely right. They will die and yet never learn to be punctual.
The guests shed tears reading the newspapers and the condolence messages.
Radhamohan: (in tears) Oh God, the poor man’s friend!
Nayanchand: Alas! To think that even such a good man has his share of troubles.
Nabadwipchandra: (in a deep breath) Lord! Everything is your will!
Rasik:‘The lotus that blooms in the heart’ – I’m forgetting what comes after that –
‘The lotus that blooms in the heart
Has been plucked untimely
The lotus heart sinks in the sea of sorrow!’
This is exactly the case here. The lotus heart in the sea of sorrow. How sad! Add esquire. Otempora! O mores!
Tarkabagish:Challchittang challadbittang, challajiwan – The mind is inconsistent, wealth is transitory and one’s life is perishable. Oh how sad!
Nyayabagish:Yadupathe kri gata mathurapuri, raghupate – Where is the city of Mathura that belonged to the Lord of the Yadavas (i.e. Krishna), to the Lord of the Raghus (i.e. Rama Chandra)? (chokes)
Dukhiram: Oh Krishnakishore Bahadur, where have you gone?
A faint voice can be heard from within: I am here. Please, don’t shout.
 [Translated from “Antyashti-Satkar” in the Hasyakoutuk series Bhadra 1293 B.S. by Somdatta Mandal].
 “Oh the times! Oh the customs!” – Latin phrase, first recorded to have been spoken by Cicero
Somdatta Mandalis a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The rasp of sand on sieve,
in rice grains on heat,
an entourage to the jangle
of her dozen green translucent dreams
sold to her at the village fair
wafting of love
in sherwanis and seheras alike
matched with mannequin reds
conceding to a horoscoped fate
like the men in her new home,
who take turns
to unveil her at nights
by the hypostyles
of power and precedence,
polyandrous as Pandavas
fading in the daylight
that ripens guavas, pickles, needlework
in the barefoot corridors
while the granular language of being
her framed mesh
—the penury of silence.
Antara Mukherjee’s poems and stories have appeared in Kitaab, Sahitya Akademi, Muse India, The Chakkar, Joao-Roque Literary Journal, Usawa Literary Review, The Chakkar, The Alipore Post and Verse of Silence among others.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL