A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was 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 fifteen published books. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore. Jorasanko one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.
You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?
I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.
When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?
It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982. At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.
It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.
You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?
No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations. I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.
But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.
Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?
My first translation, as I’ve just explained, was commissioned. But I would not have taken up the offer if I didn’t consider the original work a significant contribution to Bengali literature. My other books were self-chosen. For me the most important consideration when taking up a translation project has been the literary value of the piece. I had to enjoy the process of translation and could only do so if I thought the subject worthwhile. And, yes, I learned a lot. I learned how lyricism could be infused into prose from Rabindranath. I learned how to write with brevity and precision from Saratchandra and the art of simple, direct, almost colloquial communication with the reader from Sunil Gangopadhyay. The process also intensified my interest in Bengal and the evolution of its society, literature and culture. I was enthused to read and learn more.
Some awards nowadays ask for applications from authors. Did you apply for your awards? Did you work towards getting an award?
No. This is the first time I’m hearing that authors can apply for awards. I thought that was the publisher’s job. As for working towards getting an award — no, I’ve never even thought of it. Networking is a totally alien term for me. I admire people who can do it perhaps because I, myself, have very little skill at it. Whatever recognition has come my way has come as a surprise. I feel some of the books that have brought me awards didn’t deserve them. On the other hand, the ones that I think should have attracted them, didn’t do so. However, I suppose writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. Assessment of quality should be left to critics.
How long does it take you to churn out a book?
In the case of novels, it depends on the amount of research that has to go into it. For example, Jorasanko took nearly three years. But Daughters of Jorasanko was completed in a year and a half. That’s because most of the research had been done already. Translations take less time depending on the length. Srikanta, Those Days and First Light, took about two years each. The shorter ones The Way Home, Primal Woman and On the Wings of Music were done in less than a year.
Were your novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko impacted by your translation of Tagore? Did having done the translations help?
I suppose it did… at some level. Some of the lyricism and emotionally charged quality of Rabindranath’s language must have seeped into my consciousness while doing the translation. But its manifestation is present not only in the Jorasanko series. It is there in all my writing. The Inheritors is suffused with a Tagorean kind of heightened sensibility. So is Suralakshmi Villa.
In your latest novel Suralakshmi Villa you have drawn a very independent woman in the last century — so independent that it would be difficult to find people similar to her in today’s world. Is she modelled on a real person?
I had heard of such a woman from a colleague of mine. The lady, a relation of my friend’s, belonged to a conservative South Indian Brahmin family of Chennai. A few years after her marriage she abandoned her husband and infant son, for no apparent reason, left Chennai and started teaching in an obscure village school. This was way back in the twenties when such an action was unheard of. She never came back. But that was all I knew. I had never met her or heard anything more about her. My imagination provided the rest. So, the answer to your question is both Yes and No. Suralakshmi has been modelled on someone I have heard of. That too only in partial context.
The Inheritors was based on your own family’s past if I’m not mistaken. What kind of research went into it? How long did it take you to write the book?
You are right. The Inheritors is a semi-fictional reconstruction of life as lived by previous generations of my paternal ancestors. Though names have been changed, many of the characters are drawn from real people. Most of the events, too, are located in family history. Not all though. Some are purely fictional. Since everything I wished to describe happened before I was born, it has all been seen through the light of the imagination.
To answer your query about research–there was a lot of primary reading involved. But I had been doing that for years before I took up the project. The ambience was provided by my reading of the classics. Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashanker and many other writers provided sketches of rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all of which were invaluable to my understanding of how life was lived in a Bengal village at the time.
I had very little real material to rely on barring faint memories. Anecdotes heard from my parents, uncles and aunts. Family legends passed down the generations. But I did visit my ancestral village a couple of times. I was shown the house in which my forefathers lived, the location of the Adi Ganga — now extinct, and the temple, Vaidyanath Mandir, which bore the name of the village in an inscription on a terracotta tablet above the door. I also managed to get hold of a family tree, dating from our earliest known ancestor Srikrishna Tarkapanchanan, and an ancient map of the area.
It took me about a year and a half to do the actual writing.
Both in Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa, you have strong heroines. Can you tell us if you are doing so with an intent?
Well, I do believe that women of the past had a lot of inherent strength. Most of them kept it hidden because that is how patriarchal society liked its women. Silence and obedience were highly rated qualities and most women abided by family and societal expectations. Some, of course, were exceptionally ahead of their times and displayed courage and independence even at the risk of upsetting the applecart. But even those who were apparently meek and subservient were seen to display enormous inner reserves of strength at a time of crisis. I have shown both kinds in my novels.
What are your future plans? When can we expect a new novel?
I am working on something but it is still in the initial stages. The pandemic has made travelling impossible so field work has had to be postponed. It is too early to share details and impossible to tell when the work will see the light of day.
This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.
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A poignant story bySaratchandra Chattopadhyay translated by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti
Only seven days of fever and Thakurdas Mukhopadhyay’s wife passed away….
Old Mukhopadhyay moshai*, grown extremely wealthy from a flourishing business in rice and paddy, had four sons and three daughters — all with children of their own. Sons-in-law, grandchildren, neighbours and servants filled the rooms in a measure that befitted not a house of death but of jubilation. Men, women and children from the entire village crowded at the gates in the hope of catching a glimpse of the splendid funeral procession which would accompany the dead woman to her final resting place. Her weeping daughters lined her parting with sindoor and covered her feet with alta*. Her daughters-in-law dressed her in a resplendent new sari and adorned her brow with sandal paste. Then, wiping the last traces of dust from her feet with their sari ends, touched them reverently to their foreheads. Flowers, garlands and basil leaves, clouds of fragrant incense smoke and the resounding clamour and bustle turned the day of mourning into a joyous replica of the one, fifty years ago, when the mistress of the great house had first set out on her ceremonial journey to her husband’s home.
Bidding a last farewell to his companion of nearly a lifetime old Mukhopadhyay moshai dashed away the tears from his eyes with a surreptitious hand and assuming a serene expression tried to comfort the weeping women.
And now the magnificient cortege started on its way to deafening cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol*! As soon as it left the gates the assembled crowd of villagers scrambled after it. Only one woman hung back. She had stood apart from the rest all this while and now she followed fearfully keeping a discreet distance from the others. This pale shadowy creature was Kangali’s mother.
She had been on her way to the weekly haat* with a few aubergines she had picked from the bushes outside her hut when the marvellous spectacle caught her eyes, leaving her spellbound. She forgot the aubergines bundled in a corner of her sari. Forgotten, too, were her hopes of selling them and coming home with a few coins. Brushing away the tears from her streaming eyes she followed the crowd to the cremation ghat that stood on a bank of the Garud river. Standing on a mound, a little way off, she looked on with eager eyes at the huge wooden logs, stacks of sandal wood, ghee, honey, camphor and incense that lay beside the bier. She dared not go any closer. She was an untouchable, a Duley by caste, and even her shadow was shunned by the others.
She looked on stoically as the preliminary rituals were being performed but when the body was lowered on the wide platform, she could hold herself in no longer. A sob tore through her throat. A wild desire rose in her. She wanted to rush towards the alta covered feet and touch them to her head. Curbing the impulse with difficulty she gazed at the scene unfolding before her eyes. How beautiful it was! The high-born lady in her priceless sari, her parting thick with sindoor and her fair feet smothered in alta. Her eldest son took up the bunch of flaming jute stalks, purified by the chants of the priests, and touched them to his mother’s lips to the tumultuous cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol rising from hundreds of throats. Kangali’s mother was so moved that tears poured down her cheeks. “Ma*!” she called out to the dead woman, hands folded in reverence, “What great good fortune is yours! You are on your journey to Heaven leaving behind a grieving husband, sons and daughters, grandchildren, kinsmen, dependents and servants. You are a queen and I a lowly creature not fit to touch your feet. Still, waft a blessing towards me before you go. Grace me with the boon that I too, like you, may receive my last fire from Kangali’s hands.” Fire from a son’s hand! Her limbs trembled with ecstasy at the thought. Ah! the beauty of it. The glory of it! Her breast heaved with powerful feelings.
Standing on the mound Kangali’s mother strained her eyes on the newly lit pyre from which a column of smoke rose spiralling towards the sky. It stung her eyes rendering her vision blurred and hazy; playing tricks with it. She saw a tiny chariot, she could swear to it, at the tip of the bluish grey swirl just where it met the sky. Exotic images were etched in gold on the sides. The crest was entwined with flowering vines. There was someone sitting within. She could not see her face bur recognized her easily from the wide parting filled with sindoor; the feet covered with alta. She gazed at the woman in awe and adoration.
“Ma!” She felt a tug at her sari. A boy of about fourteen stood by her side looking at her with bewildered eyes. “Why are you standing here? When will you do the cooking?”
“I will, in a while, son. Look!” She pointed to the sky. “Can you see the chariot? Our chaste and holy mistress, our Bamun Ma*, is sitting in it. It is taking her to Heaven.”
“What chariot? Where?” Kangali’s eyes turned to the pointing finger. “That’s smoke,” he said dismissively. “Smoke from the pyre. You’ve gone crazy Ma.” Then, pouting like a child, he muttered, “It’s hours past noon. Don’t you know I am hungry?” Seeing his mother’s eyes fill up with tears, he added, “Why do you weep because the Brahmin lady is dead? What is it to you?”
Now Kangali’s mother came to her senses. She realised how foolish it was to stand for hours in the cremation ground shedding tears over someone else’s death when her own son went hungry. Besides, a mother’s tears brought bad luck to her children. Wiping her cheeks with a furtive hand she tried to smile, “Why should I weep son? My eyes are watering from the smoke and…”
“Watering from the smoke indeed! You were crying.”
The mother fell silent. Taking Kangali’s hand she climbed down the bank and took a few dips in the river. Making her son do the same she returned home with him. A small sigh escaped her. She would have liked to watch the beautiful ceremony to the end. But fate had ordained otherwise.
Parents are often injudicious in their choice of names for their children. The Creator smiles at their foolishness and dismisses it with the contempt it deserves. But sometimes He is angered and decides to teach the inane mortal a lesson. Then the name so carelessly given turns into a symbol of the innocent child’s fate. From birth to death she hears her name ringing in her ears; jeering, mocking, reminding her of what she can expect.
Kangali’s mother was a young woman. She hadn’t lived long in the world. But she had spent her years, few as they were, tottering under the weight of her name and its implications. Her mother had died in giving her birth. Her father, enraged at the bereavement of which she was the cause, had named her Abhagi — the ill-fated one. Hers had been a childhood with no mother and a father who spent all his time fishing in the river and hobnobbing with his friends with never a thought for the little girl left at home. Yet the tiny creature had not only survived she had grown to womanhood and, in course of time, given birth to Kangali. The man who had married her went by the name of Rasik Bagh. But Bagh, the tiger, had another tigress and one fine day he picked up his things and moved to the village in which she lived, leaving Abhagi alone with her infant son.
That son was now in his fifteenth year. He had just started learning to weave bamboo slips into mats and baskets. Abhagi yearned for the day when he would be earning enough to support them both. “Just another year or so,” she told herself frequently her heart lifting at the thought, “and my troubles will be over…”
Kangali ate his meal and went to the pond to wash his hands and rinse his mouth. Returning, he was surprised to see his mother putting away the leftovers in an earthen bowl.
“Why Ma!” he cried out, “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“The day is almost done,” Abhagi muttered, “I’m not hungry anymore.”
“Hunh!” Kangali snorted in disbelief, “Not hungry anymore! You haven’t kept anything for yourself. That’s the truth. Isn’t it?”
It was a trick Abhagi often played when there wasn’t enough food for them both. Kangali knew it. He insisted on examining the rice pot and found there was enough left for one person. And now, convinced that she really wasn’t hungry, he smiled contentedly and came and sat in her lap. It was an odd thing for a boy of fifteen to do but Kangali had been sickly for a large part of his infancy and boyhood and Abhagi had kept him physically close. Unable to romp and frolic with other boys he derived all his pleasure from his mother’s stories and the little games she played with him. Now, twining his arms around Abhagi’s neck and touching her cheek to his he got a shock. “Why Ma!” he exclaimed. “You’re burning with fever!” Then, with a tinge of anger in his voice, he added, “Why did you have to stand in the sun all those hours? And bathe in the river on top of it? What’s there to see in a burning corpse?”
“Chhi Baba*!” Abhagi scolded gently putting her hand on his lips. “You shouldn’t use those words. They are sinful. It was not a burning corpse. It was our chaste and pure mistress, our revered Bamun Ma, going to heaven in a golden chariot.”
“What nonsense Ma! As if people go to heaven in golden chariots!”
“I saw it with my own eyes Kangali. She was sitting in the chariot. Her feet were crimson with alta. Everyone saw it.”
“Everyone saw it?”
Kangali leaned against his mother’s breast, lost in thought. He believed his mother. He had been reared from infancy to have implicit faith in her. If she said she had seen this extraordinary spectacle and that others had seen it too, who was he to doubt her? “Then,” he said thoughtfully, “you will go to Heaven too. I heard Bindi’s aunt saying to Rakhal’s mother only the other day, ‘There’s not another woman in our Duley clan as chaste and pure as Kangali’s mother.’”
Abhagi was silent.
“When Baba* left you,” the boy continued slowly, hesitantly, “so many men tried to make you agree to a nikaah*. ‘No,’ you said, ‘Why should I take another husband? I have my Kangali. He’ll grow up and take care of me.’” Then, his eyes filling up with tears, he added, “What would have become of me, Ma, if you went away with another man? I would have starved to death.”
Abhagi put her arms around her son and pressed him to her bosom. “Ma go*!” she murmured thinking of those terrible days when the elders of the village were advising her, ceaselessly, to take another husband. But it wasn’t only advice that had been showered on her. She had been pressurized in so many different ways! She had been coaxed and cajoled, warned and threatened. Her ears had been filled with forebodings of her bleak future; of Kangali dying of starvation. But she hadn’t been intimidated. She had clung to her resolve. Kangali saw the tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks and felt his own eyes burn.
“Do you want to lie down Ma? Shall I make up the bed?” he asked gently. Abhagi made no reply. Kangali rolled out the mat and spread a kantha* over it. Plucking a pillow from the machan*, he smoothed it carefully and laid it down. The, taking his mother by the hand, he made her lie down.
“You needn’t go back to work today,” Abhagi said to her son. “Stay with me.”
The idea of skipping work and staying at home appealed to Kangali. But there was a hint of caution in his voice as he said, “They won’t give me the two paisa for today if I…”
“Never mind.” Abhagi smiled. “Come and lie down beside me. I’ll tell you a story.”
Kangali needed no further invitation. Dropping down on the bed he curled his body against his mother’s. “Tell the story of the rajputra and the kotalputra*. And the flying horse,” he said resting his cheek against hers.
Abhagi began her tale of the prince and the policeman’s son and their adventures with the winged horse. It was an old fairytale, heard over and over again, in her childhood. But after a few minutes the two protagonists vanished from her story. As did the horse. She started weaving a web of fantasy that was entirely her own; something she hadn’t heard from anyone at any time in her life. The higher her fever rose, the faster the hot blood pounded in her veins, the more impassioned the telling became and the more intricate her magic web of words. She spun tale after tale, without rest or respite, each more wonderful than the last. Kangali trembled with excitement and goose bumps broke out all over his slight frame. He pushed closer to his mother’s breast and twined his arms around her neck.
And now the sun started dipping in the west. The falling shadows fell faster and pervaded the earth. Dusk crept into Abhagi’s hut. But she did not rise to light the lamp or carry out the last duties of the day. Mother and son lay locked in an embrace, her voice crooning in his ears; sending shivers of thrill down his spine. It was the same story with variations, repeated over and over again. The story of the Brahmin lady’s death. Of the magnificent procession that had accompanied her to her last resting place. Of the chariot in which she had sat on her way to Heaven…her feet crimson with alta. Of her weeping husband bidding her farewell after touching the dust of his feet to her brow. The fervent cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol as her sons lifted the bier on their manly shoulders. And then…then…the final triumph! Receiving her last fire from the hand of her eldest son…
“That fire was no ordinary fire, son.” Abhagi explained, her breath coming hotter and faster. “It was Hari Himself! And the smoke rising up to the sky was not smoke. It was the chariot of heaven. Kangalicharan! Baba amaar*!” She cried out in an excess of emotion.
“If you light my pyre with your own hands, I’ll go to Heaven too like Bamun Ma.”
Her words made Kangali uncomfortable. “Jah*!” he said, “You shouldn’t say such things.” But, Abhagi went on as though she hadn’t heard him. “No one will look down upon me then. No one will shun me for my low birth. Oof!” Her face was flushed with excitement and her fevered breath came in gasps. “Fire from my son’s hand! Ah the glory of it! The chariot will have to come down for me. No one can stop it…for all that I am a poor untouchable…”
“Don’t talk like that Ma,” Kangali put his hand on her mouth. “It frightens me.”
“And Kangali,” Abhagi pushed it gently away and continued on her own train of thought. “Get hold of your father when my time comes and bring him here. Tell him he must give me the dust of his feet before I go. And…and my parting must be filled with sindoor and my feet lined with alta. But…but who will do all that for me? You will, won’t you Kangali? You are my son and my daughter. You are all I have.” Bursting into tears she kissed his cheek and laid her wet fevered face against his hair.
And now the drama of Abhagi’s life was nearing curtain call. Only the final scene was left. There hadn’t been much to the play. Her thirty years on the earth hadn’t been remarkable in any way. And neither was her end.
Kaviraj Moshai, the only ayurvedic practitioner in these parts, lived in another village. Kangali ran all the way, fell at his feet and begged him to come and see his mother. Met with a stony silence he went back home, pawned the bell metal pitcher out of which they drank water and paid him his fee of one rupee. Still the great man did not deign to come. He handed Kangali a few pellets of medicine instead.
Instructing him to grind them in a physician’s pestle and mortar, mix the powder with ginger extract, honey and the juice of basil leaves, he told him to feed the potion to his mother in small doses.
Abhagi was amazed at what her son had done. “Why did you pawn the pitcher without asking me Baba?” she rebuked him gently. Then, taking the pellets from his hand she touched them to her forehead and threw them into the kitchen fire. “If I’m fated to live I’ll do so anyway,” she said, “Has anyone in our Bagdi Duley community ever taken a physician’s medicine?”
Two or three days passed. Abhagi’s neighbours heard of her illness and came to see her. They left without any offers of help. But each one knew of a remedy guaranteed to cure the ailing woman. “Water in which a deer’s horn has been soaked just can’t fail,” one of them told Kangali. Another proposed burning cowrie shells and mixing the ash with honey. But the shells could not be ordinary ones. They had to be knuckled cowries. The mixture, fed to the patient, would bring instant relief.
Poor Kangali ran helter skelter in search of these articles till Abhagi caught him by the hand and forced him to stop. “If what the physician gave me was of no use, how can deer’s horn and cowrie shells cure me? Give over running here and there and come and sit by me.”
“But you didn’t take the pellets Kaviraj Moshai gave!” Kangali’s face crumpled like that of a child. “You threw them in the fire. How can you get well if you refuse everything?”
“I’ll get well. Don’t worry. Now wipe your eyes and listen to me. Put the pot on the hearth and boil some rice. Then sit by me and eat it. That will give me more comfort than any remedy in the world.”
Kangali rubbed his eyes with the edge of his dhuti and rose to obey his mother. For the first time in his life he was cooking his own meal. But he could do nothing right. His fire wouldn’t burn properly, his rice boiled down to a mush because he didn’t know how to drain the starch and he spilt half of it when trying to transfer it to his kanshi. Abhagi watched him with an ache in her heart. Once she even tried to rise from her bed, but her head swam and fell back on the pillow.
After the boy had gulped down some of the rice he had cooked, she called him to her side and tried to teach him how it had to be done. But her voice choked in her throat and she couldn’t speak.
Next morning Ishwar, the village barber, came to check Abhagi’s pulse. He was good at this and the villagers sent for him whenever anyone was seriously ill. Taking Abhagi’s limp wrist between his fingers he frowned in thought. Then, sighing and shaking his head, he left the house. Abhagi understood what that meant. But the knowledge brought no fear. When everyone had gone, she whispered in Kangali’s ear, “Go to him now and bring him here. Tell him…”
“Your… you know who. He…who has moved to the other village.”
Abhagi was silent. Kangali gazed on her face for a few moments and asked sadly, “Why would he come here Ma?”
“Tell him…tell him… that all I want is the dust of his feet. Nothing else.”
Kangali rose to go. Abhagi clutched his hand and said, “Weep and plead a little, son. Tell him Ma is going…” Then, pausing for a few moments, she added, “And on your way back, stop at the barber’s house and ask his wife for a little alta. She is a kind woman and loves me. She will give it to you.”
Abhagi was only partially conscious when Rasik Bagh arrived the next morning. The shadow of death lay dark on her face. Her eyes seemed to have seen whatever there was to see in this world and was opening out to another… a strange, uncharted, faraway world. Kangali wiped his cheeks and cleared his throat. “Wake up Ma,” he shook her gently by the arm, “Baba is here. You wanted the dust of his feet…”
Perhaps the mother heard. Perhaps she didn’t. But the intense desire, hidden deep within her soul, shook her out of her somnolence. The dying woman moved her feeble arm to the edge of the bed and opened her palm. Rasik gazed at her with bewildered eyes. He hadn’t, in his wildest imaginings, thought that the dust of his feet had any value; that anyone could desire it above all else in the world. He stood immobile with shock till Bindi’s aunt, who stood by his side, prompted gently. “Come Baba. Give the poor girl a little dust from your feet.”
Rasik moved forward. His head teemed with thoughts and his chest felt tight with guilt. He had taken this woman as his wedded wife but had given her nothing. Not love, not protection, nor any means of sustenance. He had deprived her of everything that was her due without a thought. Yet she, even on her death bed, wanted nothing from him but the dust of his feet. Rasik Duley burst into tears.
“Such chastity and steadfastness are not to be seen even among Brahmin and Kayastha women,” Rakhal’s mother exclaimed. “Why she had to be born amongst us is beyond me! But a task lies before you Baba,” she turned her eyes on Rasik, “You must arrange a cremation for her. Fire from Kangali’s hand! She has yearned for it throughout her illness. It’s almost as if death is nothing to her if only…”
The Creator who had chalked out the destiny of Abhagi, the ill-fated one, may or may not have heard the words. But they pierced young Kangali’s heart with the sharpness of an arrow.
The day passed and part of the night. Who knows if the chariot of heaven comes down to claim the souls of untouchables! Perhaps they are expected to hobble to their destinations, footsore and weary, in the darkness of night. Whatever be the truth, Abhagi did not wait for the dawn. She left the world before the sky had paled.
There was a wood apple tree growing outside Abhagi’s hut. Borrowing an axe from one of the neighbours, Rasik Duley proceeded to cut some branches from it. But before he could strike a single blow the zamindar’s guard came rushing to the scene. Landing a thundering slap on Rasik’s cheek he yanked the axe from his hand. “Saala!” he shouted, “How dare you touch this tree? Is it your father’s property?” Rasik rubbed his cheek ruefully without saying a word. But Kangali could not keep silent. “My mother planted this tree with her own hands darwanji*,” he protested, “why do you hit Baba?” Mouthing a string of abuses the zamindar’s retainer advanced aggressively. He raised a hand to strike Kangali but dropped it. He had remembered just in time that the boy’s mother had died, and he had, in all probability, touched the corpse.
His curses and threats had, in the meantime, brought some of the neighbours running to the scene. All of them admitted that it was wrong of Rasik to have cut the tree without taking the zamindar’s permission. But they entreated darwanji to use his kind offices and obtain the consent. It had been the dead woman’s earnest desire, they told him, that her body be cremated. She had expressed this wish, over and over again, to everyone who had visited her during her illness. But all these pleas fell on deaf ears. “Don’t try these tricks with me,” the Bihari stalwart waved them away like flies. “I know what I must do.”
The zamindar was not a local man and did not live in the village. But he kept a cutcherry here from which the business of the estate was conducted, and justice dispensed to the tenants. But being an absentee landlord, all magisterial power and responsibility had been vested in the person of the steward Adhar Rai. Now, while the neighbours were still begging and pleading with the durwan Kangali ran, not stopping for breath, all the way to the cutcherry. He had heard that the lesser minions of the estate were corrupt and expected bribes for everything they did. But if the story of this gross injustice reached the zamindar’s ears redress would surely follow. Thus he reasoned. But alas! Young and inexperienced Kangali hadn’t a clue to the true nature of the Bengali zamindar and his appointed officials. Trembling with grief and anxiety the newly bereaved, motherless boy dashed up the steps and stood before the lord and master of the cutcherry.
Adhar Rai had just concluded his morning prayers and eaten a light breakfast in preparation for the day. Coming out on the veranda he was shocked and angered to see the apparition before him. “Ke re?” he thundered, “Who are you?”
“I’m Kangali. Durwanji has beaten my father.”
“Rightly served. He must have defaulted on the rent.”
“No, Babu moshai*. My mother died last night, and my father was cutting the tree in front of our house when…” Unable to go on Kangali burst into tears. At this Adhar Rai lost his temper. “What are you doing here if your mother’s dead?” he snapped. “Get off those steps and stand in the yard.” Inwardly he shivered with alarm. The boy must have touched the corpse before coming to the cutcherry. Who knew if he had touched anything here? “Ore!” he called out to a servant. “Bring a pot of cowdung water and sprinkle it on the steps and veranda. The whole place is polluted.” Then, turning to Kangali, he asked. “What caste are you?”
Thoroughly frightened by now Kangali ran down the steps and answered meekly, “We are Duley Babu moshai.”
“A Duley’s corpse.” Adhar Rai muttered thoughtfully. “Where’s the need for wood then?”
“My mother wanted a cremation. ‘You must light my pyre with your own hands,’ she said to me over and over again. All the neighbours know. Why don’t you ask them Babu moshai? Everyone heard her…”
“If you want to cremate your mother you must leave five rupees in the cutcherry. That’s the price of the tree. Can you do it?”
Kangali knew he couldn’t. He had pawned the last vessel in the house, the brass kanshi from which he ate his rice, for one rupee to buy his mourning scarf. He shook his head. “No,” he said softly. Adhar Rai bared his teeth in a grimace. “Then go bury the corpse on the bank of the river as befits your caste. How dare your father raise an axe to the zamindar’s tree? Is it his father’s property? Good for nothing wretch! Rogue! Scoundrel!”
“But the tree grows in our yard Babu moshai. My mother planted it with her own hands.”
“Hunh! Planted it with her own hands… Pandey!” Adhar Rai called out to the guard. “Take the boy by the scruff of his neck and throw him out of the cutcherry.”
Pandey, in the manner of all faithful retainers, acted even before the words had left his master’s lips. Giving the boy a hard shove, he threw him to the ground mouthing a stream of curses for good measure. Kangali stood up, shook the dust from his dhuti and walked slowly away. His eyes were blank. What had he done to deserve such treatment? He hadn’t a clue.
Adhar Rai saw the expression on the boy’s face but it didn’t make a dent in his conscience. He was made of sterner stuff. Dusting his hands as at a job well done, he called out to the clerk. “Paresh! Find out if the father has defaulted on the rent. If so, go to his house and confiscate his household goods. Brass vessels, fishing nets…whatever you find. The bastard might try to escape.”
There were just two days left for the sraddha*. Old Mukhopadhyay moshai was busy supervising the arrangements. His wife’s last rites were to be conducted with all the pomp and fanfare owing to her as a rich man’s wife and the mother of many sons. There was a lot of work to be done.
“Thakur moshai*!” Kangali came and stood before him. “My mother’s dead.”
“Who are you?” The old man’s brow furrowed, “What do you want?”
“I’m Kangali. My mother asked me to cremate her.”
“Then go ahead and do it.”
Kangali stood silent not knowing what to say. The story of his treatment at the cutcherry had made the rounds, in the meantime, and many of the villagers were aware of it. “I think he wants a tree,” one of the men standing by ventured to explain, following it up with details of the boy’s encounter with Adhar Rai.
“What audacity!” Mukhopadhyay moshai cried out in shock, “Wants a tree indeed! That too at a time when I need all the wood I can find for my own event! Just two days are left for the sradhha. I’m neck deep in my own troubles and the brat sails in demanding a tree. Jah! Jah! You’ll get nothing here. Try your luck elsewhere.” The old man walked away with a furious clacking of wooden clogs.
Bhattacharya moshai, the family priest, was sitting a little distance away making lists of the articles he would need for the last rites. Looking up at the boy he said, “Cremation has not been prescribed for members of your caste. All you need to do is set alight a twist of dry grass, touch the flame to the mouth of the corpse then bury it on a bank of the river.”
In the middle of this scene Mukhopadhyay moshai’s eldest son walked in. He had been allotted several tasks by his father and he was rushing about seeing to them. He heard the priest’s ruling and observed caustically, “Do you see Bhattacharya moshai? How low born buggers want to ape the upper castes these days? Such are the times we live in.” He hastened out of the room without waiting for an answer.
Kangali stood silent for a while. The last two and a half hours had turned him from an eager, trusting child to an adult. A wise, wary, discerning adult. Head bowed, he walked away, came home and sat by his dead mother.
Now the men and women of the community took over. A pit was dug on the left bank of the Garud river and Abhagi’s body lowered into it. Rakhal’s mother took a knot of burning straw and put it in Kangali’s hand. Then, taking it in hers, she guided the flame towards the mouth of the corpse. That done the straw was thrown away and earth piled on her till every trace of Abhagi was obliterated.
The men sweated and toiled shoveling earth into his mother’s grave but Kangali had no eyes for them. He stood at a little distance his gaze fixed on the thrown away knot of straw. The flame had died down, but a tiny wisp of smoke still rose from it. Up and up it went… a faint thin wisp of bluish smoke. Kangali stared at it with eyes of stone.
*moshai — an honourific title
*Sindoor…alta — sindoor is a red powder used in the parting by a married woman . Alta is a dye used to colour the feet red
*Bolo Hari hari bol — a chant taken up by funerals asking people to take Krishna’s name. Literally, chant Krishna… Krishna chant
*Ma — mother
*Haat — market
*ghat — riverside
*Bamun Ma — Brahmin mother
*Chhi Baba — Shame son (baba is used for father and sometimes used for son as a term of endearment as here)
*Nikaah — wedding
*Ma go — an expletive expressive of emotional agitation.
*kantha — rug made of old rags
*machan — a shelf
*rajputra…kotalputra — prince…the policeman’s son
*Baba amar — son of mine
*Jah — expletive than means don’t or no
*dhuti or dhoti — a cloth worn as a garment instead of a trouser.
*Kanshi — a brass plate
*Baba — father
*Saala — swine
*durawanji — a respectful way of addressing a durwan, security guard
*Babu moshai — sir
*Sraddha — last rites
*Thakur moshai — Lordship
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyayor Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (15 September 1876 – 16 January 1938), was a Bengali novelist and short story writer of the early 20th century. Most of his works deal with the contemporary social practices that prevailed in Bengal. He often addressed social ills with his writing and in that sense was a reformer in his heart.
Aruna Chakravarti (India) has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels, The Inheritors,Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
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