The Custodian

“I can see the car!” shouted the gatekeeper. “Get the borondala*. Uma, light the prodeep*.Hari, open the gates wider. Where is the shehnai*?” Amma shouted. People rushed out from every corner of the palatial building. The house was decked up with flowers. The fountain had been switched on sprinkling water on the lush, green lawn around. 

As the soulful tunes of the Shehnai filled the air, the car crept up the narrow lane, which was thronged with people who had walked all the way to catch a glimpse of the new bahurani*

The newly- married Chhota-Bahadur was arriving home. Amma -his mother hadn’t been able to attend the wedding. How could a widow participate! The Hindu Shastra doesn’t permit a mother to witness her son’s wedding. Despite her progressive views, Amma had chosen to stay back. She had had enough of the tragedies…! Not again!

She strode out to welcome the new entrant. Amma urged the bride to step out. Her head concealed in the pallu*, she had trouble manoeuvring her steps. The matriarch held her by her elbow and guided her. Bahurani dipped her feet in the alta*and walked towards the entrance, leaving behind red imprints on the marble verandah. The villagers blew conches and ululated in a rhythm.  A grand entry and a smooth one, thought Amma to herself. 

***

Chhota followed the din. He was pleased with the warm welcome meted out by the villagers. It had been years since the household had erupted into such a fanfare. Amma needed it. The tragedies had left her devastated.

He was the only surviving heir of the huge estate left by his father, the Rai-Bahadur*. Years ago, his elder brother, the Bada-Bahadur and his wife had been murdered by the dacoits. Their only child, Meethi, was never found. The details were still vague. Chhota had immediately been packed off to a residential school. It had been a long time that he had seen his mother smile. Even the villa looked festive and joyous. His wedding had finally heralded a therapeutic phase in the history of the Rai-Bahadurs. 

Chhota, who had been educated abroad, was one of the emerging faces in the corporate scenario. It was during one of the CSR* activities that he had met Preeti, an enthusiastic social worker. Their company was running a series of projects in the tribal villages in Bengal. He had taken upon himself the task of supervision. The young girl had taken him around the villages and given him a thorough presentation. She had narrated case studies and presented data, which intrigued him. Preeti was a dedicated and passionate worker. As he listened to her trying to build a case for the tribal people, he couldn’t help but fall for her. The project got his approval over a hearty meal prepared by the tribals that night. Chhota stayed back. Resting himself on the charpoi*, he watched Preeti dance with the tribal women.  

She was the one he wanted in his life. She had to be pursued! 

The young man made frequent trips to the project areas and ensured that Preeti took him around. But how would he proceed with her. Would she consider him aggressive if he proposed? Or should he buy some more time and ..…end up losing her? 

That’s when Amma came to his rescue. She decided to spend a couple of days at the project site. That would give her ample time to familiarize herself with the girl and facilitate the relationship. Amma spent the next few days in the village, trying her best to broach the topic. The fortnight was almost over. The night before she left, she requested Preeti to stay back with her. 

*

“I know Amma will bring up the topic tonight. I have seen love in his eyes…the way they light up.” Preeti sighed. “But how do I tell them about my past? Will they accept me? ” 

 Amma did broach the topic. Preeti remained silent. She needed time to sort her inner turmoil. 

“I need time. I will let you know once I arrive at a decision.” 

The matriarch had hugged her in reply. 

Born into the Oraon* tribe, she had never known a moment of happiness. Alcohol had claimed her father. As long as he was alive, it was only merciless beatings for them. She lost her kid sister when father beat them one night. Mother steadily deteriorated since then. She would be sane on some days. On other days, she would rave and rage like a lunatic, reporting visions. The word soon got around. The public branded her mother a mad woman! Yet the same public thronged their hut when mother went into a trance…for her prophecies always came true! 

One fateful evening, mother had a vision – the vision of a little child dying. That night, the Sarpanch lost his granddaughter to an unknown ailment. The villagers came in hordes. They dragged mother out, shouting ‘daakini’*. In front of her eyes, they set her alight. She tried her best to save mother. She was no match to the raging mob. The helpless girl stood transfixed, watching her mother go up in flames. By the time, the police arrived, mother was badly burnt. The villagers had escaped. As mother breathed her last, she clasped Preeti’s hands and whispered, “You have the gift. It will reveal when the time comes.” 

And then the nightmares had begun. Was it  a nightmare or a dream? If it was a nightmare, why wasn’t she scared? If it was a dream, why did it make her uneasy? 

She dreamt again that night. The visions were getting vivid and coherent. It was always that little girl. Very fair and pretty.  Her arms stretched out, beckoning her to move. At times, she would sit and simply stare at her. Those eyes. Luminous and green like emerald. They were often clouded with tears. At times, she would be desperate, crying and pulling her pallu. Every time Preeti dreamt of her, she woke up with a start. It was too real. 

The week was about to end. Preeti was yet to decide. That night the child appeared again. She showed her hands. On her elbow was a tattoo. ‘Rai-Bahadur’. That was the titular name of Chhota-Bahadur. Was that a sign? Was she leading her on? She recalled her mother’s words. “Take charge of your dreams. You have the power. The power to dream and translate them into reality.” 

Preeti spent the night ruminating. By morning, she had arrived at a decision. It hadn’t been easy. How could she ignore the love that she had received from Amma. How could she ignore her heart for she had indeed fallen in love with Chhota-Bahadur. She gave in to destiny. 

*** 

“Amma, can we visit our ancestral palace in Alamganj? I want Preeti to visit the place where I grew up.” Chhota placed his request tepidly.

“No!” Amma retorted. 

“How long will you keep the palace sealed? It has nothing to do with the deaths. Just a coincidence.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the room. 

“Also, isn’t it customary for the new daughter-in-law to visit the ancestral house? She has to pay obeisance to our ancestors.”

Chhota was right! It was a norm. No one had ever dared to disrespect it. But how could she grant permission. She had lost everything there. She couldn’t afford to lose more. 

Amma agreed on a condition. “We will all go. But we won’t spend a night. A day trip. That’s all.”

*** 

A day later, they left for their ancestral place. An hour away, nestled amidst the lush, green meadows was the tiny, nondescript village. Chhota pointed out the area of the vast estate to his bride. The pride in his eyes was apparent. Soon, the mansion came into sight. A sprawling structure supported by huge pillars, a pair of lions adorning the entrance, it was intimidating. The lions, pointed out Chhota, symbolised their power and lineage. 

A musty smell greeted them as the rooms were opened one by one. Chhota gave her a tour of the palace. A huge hall greeted them. “That is where the Rai-Bahadur held his court. This hall used to accommodate nearly three fifty people.” Lined along the walls were portraits of their ancestors. Preeti went past the pictures while her husband continued his commentary. Chhota did not notice that she was not following him anymore. She stood riveted in front of one portrait.  

“W..wwwho is this?”

“Meethi- my niece.”

“Wwhat happened to her?”

“We don’t know much. She simply vanished one night. The night Dada* and Boudi* were murdered. What is it? Are you not feeling well? Preeti… Preeti…?”

The girl had passed out. 

***

“I think its tiredness. She needs rest. Amma, we should stay back.”

“NO! No we can’t.”

“We can’t make Preeti travel all the way.”

Preeti could hear Amma and Chhota arguing. She had a nasty headache. Then she remembered! The…the girl in the portrait. She was the one who appeared in her dreams. The same green eyes. The aquiline features. She got up with a start. 

“Amma , Amma…..I need to know about Meethi.”

Amma rushed to her side. “Please don’t exert yourself, my dear! Some other day. We should move now!”  

“No Amma, I need to know. NOW! Please.”  

Taken aback, Amma sat down. 

“Meethi was my seven-year old granddaughter. Bada-Bahadur’s only child. That summer they decided to visit us. The Rai-Bahadur was not keeping well. Age was catching up fast. He insisted that they stay back for some more days. I seized the opportunity to visit my folks in Kolkata. If I had stayed back…maybe..I could have averted the tragedy.”

“Whhhat…happened Amma?”

“Everything was fine when I left. Two days later, a call came asking me to return without haste. A gory sight greeted me. I learnt that the dacoits had attacked our property. My son and daughter-in-law had been brutally murdered when they tried to prevent them. Huge quantity of gold, silver and cash had been looted. Meethi was never found. We searched for her….everywhere. The dacoits took her. Maybe they killed her. All was lost that night. Your father-in-law was a broken man. And then one morning, I woke up to see the Rai-Bahadur lying dead and cold in his bed, his eyes wide open in fear. Your father’s loyal servant, Shambhu  also lay dead. Four deaths in a row… I sent Chhota far away. But I could no longer live here. It…It was impossible. I went back to our Kolkata house.”

Amma brushed away her tears. 

Returning to the city was impossible that night. A storm was brewing. The suite upstairs was opened up for them. Amma slept in the adjoining room. 

***

It was late in the night when Preeti woke up. She felt cold. She saw her. Pale as always. Tears streaming down her eyes. Her pale hands stretched out, beckoning her to draw nearer. 

The girl was no one but the Rai-Bahadur’s lost granddaughter. The hands reached out and grasped hers. Cold…too cold! She recoiled, shocked.  

“Meethi, let me go.” The child ignored her pleas. She led Preeti past the corridor, through the hall, down the staircase. The air became mustier. It grew darker. This part of the property had no lights. Like emeralds, Meethi’s eyes shone lighting up the way. “Slow down, child, slow down.” The child paid no heed to her. Preeti did not fall. The tiny hands held her carefully. The corridor became narrower. Bending down on her knees, Preeti crawled. The walls were closing in on her. The hole was getting narrower. She had to lie down, while Meethi pulled her on. It was claustrophobic. All of a sudden, the space widened. They had reached a broad, flat area. And then Meethi jumped pulling her down with her. The sharp descent coupled with the darkness and claustrophobia finally staked its claim on her. She passed out. 

***

The household was in an uproar. Chhota had woken up to find Preeti missing. He called out to her. There were no replies. He went out into the garden. No luck! The head guard was called in. People volunteered from the village. She remained untraceable. 

Amma was livid. “I warned you Chhota. This house will claim another life.” Chhota set out with his team. They had to find her before night fell. The day was almost gone. Word had filtered out about the missing Bahurani. A dejected Chhota came home. The house had gone silent. 

“Malkin*”, a feeble voice called out. Amma whirred around. “Ramu!” There stood an old man. Hobbling on a stick, bent at an odd angle, an eye tightly shut with a patch, he preened through the door.

“Malkin, if you remember, I helped build this palace. There are many hidden rooms. I can help in the search.”

The team followed him. He knew the exact map of the house. They went past the very landscape that Meethi had taken Preeti through. Mashals* were lit as they approached the dark mouth of the corridor. Chhota looked at it amazed. What else lay hidden in the house? Where did it lead? Why did Raio-Bahadur get it made? What was there to hide?

Crouched on his toes, Chhota moved with his team. Ramu led the way. Surprisingly, he was agile for his age. They had lost track of time. The tunnel ended abruptly to reveal the mouth of a huge crater. It was totally dark. Ramu signalled them to jump in. No one dared. “More lights,” Chhota ordered. A rope with a metal container attached to its end was thrown in to gauge the height. Another rope was attached. Some more followed in. Finally, it hit the floor with a clang. Chhota was dropped in. The men followed suit. The descent was sharp. It was a huge room. A tiny door was spotted. It lay partially closed. Opening it wider and with great care, Chhota emerged into a tiny space. The ceiling hung low. The walls were brightly painted. Weird symbols etched all over them. That’s when he noticed them. Tiny scratch marks. Someone had tried to claw the wall with all its might. The room was heaped with huge boxes. He opened them and stood in shock. Gold, gold, gold….everywhere! He found her at last. She lay cold. Her pulse was faint. Picking her up, they moved fast. 

It was a race against time. 

***

Preeti leaned against the cushions. Amma and Chhota sat beside her waiting for her to speak up. 

“Tell us in details, bahurani. We need to know what happened.”

“Let me start from the beginning. I have had recurrent dreams of a little, green-eyed girl. Yesterday, when I came upon the portrait of Meethi, I was shocked. She is the girl in my dreams, Amma. Last night, Meethi woke me up. She wanted to show me something. She took me past everything into a hidden cellar. The sudden drop did not hurt me for she had held me with great care. But the darkness was tough to bear. I woke up to find my head resting on her lap. Such an affectionate child, Maa. She planted little kisses on my forehead and told me a story.” Preeti sobbed. Regaining control she added, “The Rai-Bahadur had over the years amassed a huge quantity of gold and cash. He was fiercely possessive of it. Dacoity was also on the rise. He needed to keep it safe. He had an idea -the idea of Jokkho

“What?”

“Yes Amma, he decided to keep a “Jokkho’ to safeguard his wealth. Chhota, I don’t think you have ever heard of it. It was a wide spread practise in earlier times. Children, who were selected as Jokkho,  were worshipped one last time and sealed with all the wealth in a dark dungeon. They would ultimately die of fear, suffocation, and hunger. The spirit would remain entrapped in the dungeon. The angry spirit would become the custodian. They would cause harm to anyone who tried to steal it. This spirit was known as ‘Jokkho’. Little Meethi was forcibly taken away from her parents that night, drugged, worshiped one last time and then buried with the wealth. Her last days were sheer agony.” 

“How did my brother die?” 

“ Bada-Bahadur caught the kidnappers red-handed. He and his wife were silenced by Shambhu. The scene was made to look like a dacoity. Meethi’s spirit would have spent her time in entrapment had it not been for Shambhu’s greed. He tried to steal the wealth. The ‘Jokkho’  killed him and then appeared to your father. The very sight of the little spirit was enough for your father to have a cardiac arrest. She chose me as I was tied to your family by destiny. The skeleton that you found beside me is hers. We have to cremate her and pray for her soul. Free her, Chhota, free her.” Preeti pleaded. 

Amma broke done into sobs. It was unimaginable. The Rai-Bahadur had sacrificed his own progeny to greed. 

***

Amma sat trying her best to drape the red Benarasi on Meethi. She knew it was the child’s favourite. The gold jewellery was also put on her. Thinking of how the child loved to drape a sari and look her best, she visualised her beautiful granddaughter. The skeletal remains were assigned to the flames. The sentinel was freed.  

***

Preeti woke up drenched in sweat. She had dreamt again. The green-eyed girl was back. This time she looked happy and had a gift for Bahurani. Placing the pouch in Preeti’s hands, she vanished. 

Three months later. 

The mansion was brightly lit. The fountain sprayed water around. It was the baby shower ceremony of Bahurani. Preeti knew her unborn baby well enough ‘cos that was the gift Meethi had left her. 
____________________________________

Glossary
Prodeep : An earthen lamp
Bahurani: Daughter-in-law
Alta: A red solution which is used to welcome the new bride.
Pallu: The end of a sari that hangs loose
Rai-Bahadur: A title given by the British to men who have rendered exemplary service
Charpoi: A four-legged bed strung with ropes.
Oraon: A group of tribals inhabiting Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand
Daakini: A witch
Dada: Brother
Boudi: Sister-in-alw
Malkin: Mistress of the house

Mashal: Huge oil lamps
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One Thought to “The Custodian”

  1. Amazing story. Right out of the big league! The writing style is eloquent and keeps you glued. Kudos

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