[Rural Bengal, in the 1790s]
1 – An artist gears up
Invoking the holy Goddess, Gopal Chandra Paul took a deep breath, and picked up the brush. He dipped it carefully in a bowl containing black paint. He tapped the brush twice, and dragged it slowly against the edge of the bowl once to ensure that just the right amount of the colour stuck to the bristles. With a satisfied look on his face, he brought the brush closer to the face of the idol, whom he had given shape to, lovingly, caringly, and with utmost devotion, using nothing but the best of the clay available in Bengal. Mercifully, his hands were still steady, despite his advancing years. He had been in this profession since his boyhood days, but chokku daan still induced goosebumps on his wrinkled skin. Artists who were entrusted with the task of sculpting the Goddess would paint her eyes at the final stage. This ritual not only heralded the arrival of Ma Durga with her four children to earth, but it was also the highest privilege accorded to a mortal human being – the gifting of vision to the divine Goddess herself. Gopal’s brush came into contact with the lower eyelid of Ma Durga, and he steadied himself one last time.
“Jai Ma!” he mumbled.
The bare contours of the eyes of Goddess Durga geared themselves for the masterstroke from the artist.
The bloodcurdling scream of a woman that followed meant that Ma would have to wait a little longer for her vision.
Gopal stiffened with fear. His pupils dilated. Breaths came in agonizing intervals. It was an all-too familiar voice.
Is it that girl? No! No! It cannot be. Huzoor himself had ……
He slowly turned back, trembling. Not a soul was to be seen in the thakur dalan.
It must be a figment of my imagination!
He waited for a moment. One could have heard the stirring of a leaf. Convinced that his weary brain was playing tricks on him, Gopal dipped the brush in the black paint again.
It was then he felt an ironlike grip around his right hand. His heart gave a lurch. Beads of sweat formed over his forehead. Guttural sounds emerged from his parched throat. Unable to move even an inch, his frail body convulsed with naked fear.
“You cannot paint the eyes of the Goddess!” the woman’s voice quivered in a shrill pitch.
It is the girl! There was not an iota of doubt about it. She had come back for her pound of flesh. Gopal dropped the brush on the floor. Oh no! Even during this time, his thoughts went back to the mistress of the house. She would be aghast. Being highly superstitious, she would blame him for this ill omen, and for any subsequent mishap that would befall the Sinha family. Hadn’t it always been like that? However, Gopal’s thoughts were interrupted when he felt a searing pain at the back of his neck. Darkness engulfed him, and he fell down, never to wake up again.
2 – She can sense it
At the westernmost end of the palatial Sinha Bari, in one of the rooms, a pale skinned teenager lay on the ornate king size bed, moaning in a state of delirium. A magenta coloured bedsheet covered him till the neck. In spite of that, his reed thin body broke into occasional shivers. Annapoorna Devi, his mother and the mistress of the mansion, sat on the edge of the bed, applying cold compress on his forehead. Fat tears threatened to breach the dam of her almond-shaped eyes, and her lips moved in an inaudible prayer.
The bedroom was spacious and opulent, befitting the stature of the only heir of the local zamindar. Crystal chandeliers hung from high ceilings; life-size portraits of illustrious ancestors adorned the pristine white walls. Men with handlebar moustaches frowned down from the frames, as if disapproving the weakling entrusted with the envious job of propagating their regal bloodline. A bunch of papers lay strewn across the teakwood table near the window. The curtains were drawn, but they fluttered from time to team in the gentle breeze, which made its way obstinately through the gaps in the shutters. Binodini, the housemaid, stood near the door, at the beck and call of her mistress.
The loud scream of a woman startled Annapoorna Devi. Clutching the cold compress, she turned to face the maid.
“What was that sound? Did you hear it, Binodini?”
The maid’s face had turned ashen. “Yes, I did.”
“Then what are you waiting for? Go on! Hurry! Find out where it’s coming from!” her mistress hollered.
Binodini stood rooted to the spot, shivering. “I… I… I am scared, my lady. I… I… c…can’t go!”
Annapoorna Devi stood up. “It’s better if a man goes out to investigate. She might be armed, that intruder. Who knows? Where is Surya?”
“He must be in the master’s room. He had been instructed by huzoor to dust some old oil paintings.”
Annapoorna Devi approached the door, and clearing her throat, called the trusted head servant of Sinha Bari. True to his reputation, Surya emerged in a minute. He stood outside the threshold, arms folded in front, in a bent posture.
“Did you hear a woman screaming, Surya?” the lady of the house inquired.
The man nodded, but said nothing. People of his ilk spoke only when needed. He knew when to keep quiet, and when to speak up.
“Why didn’t you try to find out who was it? And from where it’s coming?”
With downcast eyes, and in an undertone, the servant replied, “My lady! I had been entrusted with the task of dusting the portrait of the master. As soon as I heard the scream of the woman, I dropped my cloth in fear. The portrait was hanging precariously from the wall. I had to set that up straight. That was important. You know huzoor won’t like it. Thankfully, before anything untoward could happen, I could manage to prevent the portrait from falling to the ground.”
Annapoorna Devi nodded in agreement. Her husband was indeed fastidious when it came to his prized possessions. He wouldn’t hesitate to dispose of a worker if the work wasn’t done to his satisfaction. She opened her mouth to issue an order to both of them when a shrill voice penetrated the eerie silence of the Sinha Bari.
You cannot paint the eyes of the Goddess!
The lady of the house let out a loud gasp. “The thakur dalan! Oh Ma Durga! Quick! Something sinister is happening there. Go fast. Hurry!”
Binodini and Surya ran in the direction of the courtyard, where in a few days, it would play host to Goddess Durga and her four children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh.
“Ma Durga! Have mercy on me and my family!”
The wails from her trusted servants confirmed her unvoiced fears. Clutching the end of her saree, she emerged out of the room, and sprinted like a possessed woman through the hallowed corridors of Sinha Bari, where women never ever dared to be seen in a dishevelled state, let alone run around in a graceless manner.
Annapoorna Devi stopped in her tracks in front of the thakur dalan. At the feet of the incomplete idol of the Goddess, Gopal Chandra Paul, the artist, lay in a pool of scarlet blood. His throat had been slit. His eyes bulged out from their sockets. It was a gory sight to behold. But it was those lips! Weren’t they the root cause of all evil? The killer had, with dexterity, run her knife over the upper lip, nearly splitting it into two halves. The message was loud and clear! Annapoorna Devi instantly knew that her husband was going to be the next victim.
If only he had listened to her pleas on that cursed day!
3 – Demons from the past
“Utter Nonsense! Why am I even wasting my precious time listening to this balderdash?”
The baritone voice of Rudranarayan Sinha boomed in his quarters. Dressed in a spotless white dhoti and a beige kurta, he looked every inch the affluent landowner. Twirling his horseshoe moustache with his long fingers, which were adorned by precious stones of varying hues, his sharp and penetrating gaze could have sent shockwaves even amongst the dead.
“I go out for just half an hour, and this is what happens! Can one believe this? Do I have a bunch of nincompoops to serve me?” he thundered. His eyes sparked with fury. “An intruder sneaks into the thakur dalan, kills our artist, and escapes! And what do I get to hear? Lofty tales!”
Annapoorna Devi shivered, eyes downcast. She had sent Surya to Gopal’s house to ensure that his family received enough compensation to zip up their lips. In a small village like theirs, it wouldn’t take long before the tongues would start to wag. After all, the reputation of the distinguished Sinha family was at stake!
Rudranarayan Sinha got up from his chair. A strapping man of six feet, he towered over his petite wife. “I have already made an announcement that the Durga Puja will start as scheduled, and that the ceremony will be conducted on a grand scale! I am not going to compromise on that! Do you understand?”
Annapoorna Devi whimpered, “Why are you so obstinate? It is a bad omen. Chokku daan has been interrupted. You know the repercussions, right? And now this! Gopal has been brutally killed! You really think it’s the work of a robber? You should have seen his corpse! I tell you, it’s the work of that girl!”
“Which girl?” her husband raised his eyebrows and whispered in a raspy tone that sounded more carnal than curious.
The lady of the house went red in the face. Like every other zamindar, the Sinha family too had skeletons in their closet. And Rudranarayan Sinha indeed had a roving eye. He had himself lost count of the innumerable times he had brought women to his ‘special chamber’, often against their own will. The four walls of the mansion had remained mute witnesses to the pleas of the hapless victims, as he ravaged their bodies to satiate his unending manly urges.
“Come on, tell me!” he prodded, smirking.
“You know who I am talking about!” Annapoorna Devi mumbled, refusing to make eye contact with her husband.
Rudranarayan Sinha threw back his head and burst into laughter. “Let me go and inspect the thakur dalan!”
“Please! Don’t go! I beg of you!” Annapoorna Devi wailed. She fell down at his feet, in a feeble attempt to stop him from committing further sins.
The man of the house shoved her aside disdainfully with his right foot, and exited the room.
With slow deliberate steps, he made his way to the courtyard. The place had been cleaned up by the servants. Not a trace of the horrific incident remained. The idol of the Goddess stood neglected, bereft of any clothing.
“You are here!” the woman whispered hoarsely.
The master of the mansion paused. He looked around. He could swear that he discerned the blurred silhouette of a curvy woman behind him.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Even in desperate times like these, his voice didn’t falter one bit.
“I want you!”
Rudranarayan Sinha smiled. “Let’s go to my room then. I have a special chamber for women like you! Trust me, I will satisfy your raging desires!”
“Stop it! You characterless swine!” the woman shrieked in disgust.
The man took a couple of steps back, and in a swift motion, turned around, wanting to surprise her. His eyes took in the sight of the voluptuous curves of a young woman. A simple blue saree was draped around her slender frame. Her huge breasts heaved with fury, and courtesy the flimsy fabric of her garment, offered Rudranarayan Sinha a tantalising glimpse of what they could offer him. On any other day (or night), he would have sucked the hardened nipples and bit them. But, as his gaze travelled northwards, a hint of recognition and shock flashed across his eyes. If only those lips had been luscious! He could have taken her there itself. But by a cruel twist of fate, they were split at the centre. His wife had been right, after all! A voice inside him pleaded with him not to look up further. But he disobeyed it, as was his wont. And instantly regretted it! Like the slow trickle of a drying waterfall in an extremely harsh summer, a steady stream of reddish liquid oozed out from her eyes. Or at least, where they should have been!
“G…… Gowri….” he stuttered.
4 – Labelled as a witch
Under the gigantic banyan tree, Rudranarayan Sinha took his seat on the makeshift throne. The rays of the sun, try as they might, couldn’t cross the barrier posed by the dense foliage of the tree. Despite that, the landowner insisted that Surya, his manservant, hold a grandiose umbrella for him. He crossed his legs, and beckoned an elderly man to summon the young woman in front of him. Only too pleased to obey his huzoor, the man dragged her in front of the zamindar. Gowri wrapped the flimsy saree around her tightly, painfully aware of the voyeuristic gaze of young and old men alike. She didn’t make eye contact with Rudranarayan Simha, but looked down at the ground. Her raven black hair was let loose. Her cleft lips quivered. Tears rolled down her fair face. Chants of ‘kill the witch’ echoed throughout the place which doubled up as a place where the zamindar doled out justice to his people.
Gowri’s parents wept silently at the humiliation their daughter went through, but they could do nothing to help her out of this misery. To beget a girl child was nothing short of sinful in these parts of the world! But the worst part was, their daughter had been born with a defect which had rendered her useless for marriage. After all, which parent would give their son to a girl whose upper lip was split in quite a grotesque manner!
But the headstrong Gowri had done the unthinkable. Not only had she defied the society in which she was born in, but she had also gone ahead and dared to fall in love. The boy in question was the son of an artist. Gopal Chandra Paul sculpted idols of Durga and Kali. But the sympathies of the villagers lay with his only son Kesto. The young man had been destined for success, and was to follow the illustrious footsteps of his talented father, and had been entrusted the task of sculpting the idol at Sinha Bari. If only that witch hadn’t ensnared the innocent Kesto, the villagers opined. But it was too late! Drunk in Gowri’s love, he had declared his intention to leave for Calcutta after their marriage. However, misfortune followed Gowri like a faithful dog! A freak accident had snuffed the life out of the affable Kesto. And poor Gowri was blamed for his untimely end by the patriarchal society.
Rudranarayan Sinha glared at her. “She is a witch! She will be dealt with severely!” he bellowed.
“Huzoor! Have some pity on us!” Gowri’s father pleaded, bringing his palms together.
“Yes! She is our only daughter. Please spare us! We give you our word! We will leave the village and won’t show our faces again,” his wife added.
The zamindar laughed. The chants of the boisterous villagers grew louder.
Kill the witch! Burn her! Hand her over to us! We will deal with her!
“Huzoor! We have brought her up like a rose petal,” her father cried, amidst violent sobs which raked his malnourished body.
“Enough of this melodrama!” thundered Rudranarayan. “Your darling daughter is a witch! And such creatures don’t feel pain. Don’t you believe me?”
He looked at Gopal. “Tell me, Gopal, will Gowri feel any pain?”
Gopal replied in a firm voice, “No, huzoor!”
“There! You said it! Now, bring me my favourite knife.”
The wails of Gowri’s parents grew louder. Gowri raised her head once. Her eyes met Rudranarayan’s, and she squirmed. They gleamed with lust, as if telling her – Come to my mansion. I will set you free.
Disgusted, Gowri spat on the ground. Her parents gasped at her act of defiance.
Rudranarayan Sinha took the knife from Gopal, and approached her slowly. A deathly silence engulfed the village. He grabbed Gowri by her hair, and drew her towards him. As he did so, his fingers caressed her nape. The young woman tried to wiggle her way out, but her buxom body was no match for the sheer masculinity of the landowner. He smirked as he brought his knife closer to her face. Time stood still for a moment; the leaves stopped swaying in the breeze. Only the sounds of Gowri’s breaths coming in swift intervals broke the quietude. Suddenly, in a swift motion, Rudranarayan Sinha drilled the knife into Gowri’s right eye. As an earth shattering scream escaped her mouth and blood sputtered out like a fountain from her socket, her mother swooned, and her father fell down to the ground. Ignoring the chaos which he had just created, the landowner repeated the ordeal with her left eye. By this time, the girl had lost the will to even utter something as basic as a shriek As she fell to the ground, writhing in fear, a steady stream of blood pooled on the ground and mingled with the soil and the green grass. Rudranarayan Sinha flung the knife near Gowri. On his way out, he ordered his men to hang the girl by her neck until her death.
The verdict had been delivered! The village was safe from the curse of the witch. Rudranarayan Sinha went home, took a purifying bath, had an elaborate lunch consisting of rice and mutton curry cooked to his liking, and ordered Surya to send one of those nautch girls to his chamber.
Such a joyous occasion had to be celebrated in the arms of a beautiful woman!
5 – If only… if only
Annapoorna Devi got up from the floor, wincing in pain. She adjusted her saree, ran her right hand over her hair a couple of times, and made her way to her son’s bedroom. She dismissed Surya and Binodini, and ordered them not to go down to the courtyard at any cost.
She sat on the edge of the bed, and touched the forehead of the boy. The fever showed no signs of subsiding. She wiped a solitary tear from her eye.
You are here!
The mistress of the mansion stiffened with fear. That girl seems unstoppable. After a minute or two, her facial muscles loosened.
I want you!
Annapoorna Devi joined her hands together in a prayer, but didn’t budge from her position.
“M..Ma!” a feeble voice jolted her back to the present.
Putting on a brave face, she reached out for the cold compress. “Alok! You should take rest. Don’t try to exert yourself by talking!”
“I heard some voices. I am scared, ma!”
“Hush! I am there to protect you, my child! Now close your eyes!” Annapoorna Devi opened her mouth to utter something, but was interrupted by the shrill shriek of the woman, as she accused Rudranarayan Sinha of being a characterless swine. Muttering a silent curse, the mistress got up and closed the door softly. She then returned to the bed and began to sing a lullaby. The drone-like voice had a calming effect on her teenage son, and he drifted off to a deep sleep.
Annapoorna Devi leaned against the frame of the bed and closed her eyes. Memories came gushing in like water which had breached a dam. As a newlywed bride, she had sworn to protect the prestige of her family. It had been difficult initially, but she had managed it. It did hurt her to see random women entering her husband’s special chamber, and later coming out in a dishevelled state. The nights when gut-wrenching screams echoed across the mansion were the worst. A part of her wanted to reprimand her husband for violating the hapless girls, but the dutiful wife in her pushed the thought aside. After all, her husband was a virile man!
I should have stopped him that day! Gowri was innocent. She truly loved Kesto!
But Annapoorna Devi had kept mum. It had become a habit of sorts. So accustomed had she been to the atrocities of her husband, that she had carried out her duties befitting the mistress of the Sinha Bari in a trance-like state.
We forget all too soon the things we thought we would never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who were! We are the so-called respectable women of the Sinha family. We pretend as though nothing has happened. And we continue to fawn over our men! Do they even deserve it?
Annapoorna Devi let out a soft sigh. Her husband would suffer for his misdeeds. Of that she was sure.
6 – The wronged extracts revenge
The imposing and the regal-looking Rudranarayan Sinha whimpered like a puppy which had been kicked hard in its belly by a naughty boy. His body raked with naked fear, as the ghost of Gowri approached him. His steps were hesitant as he staggered and looked for something to hold onto. He flailed his arms around helplessly, like the parents of an unfortunate girl that cursed day. He tried to call Annapoorna Devi, but the words remained stuck in his throat. The zamindar whose baritone voice could send people scurrying around like frightened rabbits now struggled to call a woman for help!
An idea struck him just then, and he sprinted towards the thakur dalan in a rather ignominious way, hitching up his dhoti, lest it hindered his movements. After all, ghosts are scared of the divine. That’s what he had heard as bedtime tales from his grandmother. Chant the name of the Holy Goddess, my child, and ghosts would never dare to approach you. Flashing a toothless grin, the matriarch of the Sinha family had put her grandson to sleep on many an occasion, singing lullabies and narrating episodes from the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Rudranarayan Sinha decided to invoke every Goddess he could think of. Gowri laughed like a maniac and followed him. Her movements were deliberate, and every second seemed like a torture to the zamindar.
Will she, will she not?
Men like Rudranarayan Sinha who treat women like objects of lust often forget that the Goddess stands by her women. Forever! After all, isn’t the supposedly weaker sex the epitome of Shakti? The violated Draupadi ensured that she extracted her revenge by goading her husbands in fighting the Kurukshetra war. Gowri crossed the threshold of the thakur dalan effortlessly. Ma Durga was on her side that day. She wouldn’t let her child suffer a second more. To Gowri’s right was a polished teakwood table. The jewels which were to adorn the Goddess had been kept there. They were made of pure gold, and the yellow shiny metal seemed to have attained a halo around them, as if blessing Gowri and assuring her of their support. Next to the jewels lay the trident, with which Ma Durga had annihilated the demon king Mahishasura. It was a tradition at the Sinha Bari, which was adhered to strictly. The family members never used artificial weapons; or for that matter, even jewels. The silver trident had been made to order by Rudranarayan Sinha’s great-grandfather, Kandarpanarayan Sinha.
Gowri picked up the weapon. Her hands were as steady as a rock. As she approached Rudranarayan Sinha, he found his voice. “F… F… Forgive me.” He brought his hands together and prostrated himself before her.
“Forgive you? Really?” Gowri’s laughter grew louder.
Her perpetrator got up, shivering violently, and took a couple of steps back. In the milieu, his left foot got entangled with his dhoti, and he fell on his back, at the feet of the Goddess.
The trident met its target!
7 – The gift of vision
The sacrificial goat lets out a gut-wrenching bleat one final time, when its throat comes into contact with the sharp knife. After a moment, the neck gets severed, but the body clings on to dear life, flailing around, until it comes to a complete standstill.
The ear-splitting scream of Rudranarayan Sinha echoed across the hallowed corridors of his ancestral mansion. Servants who had been ordered not to enter the thakur dalan at any cost stood rooted to their spots. Should they come to the rescue of their huzoor? But what if nothing had happened to him? He would then berate them for poking their nose in his affairs. However, deep inside their minds, the fear of the uncertain lingered on.
Annapoorna Devi’s heart gave a lurch. A part of her whispered to her to stay right there. After all, this was something she had expected. Right? But she was also a Bengali wife! A good righteous woman! How long could she remain locked in her son’s bedroom? She ran her hand over Alok’s hair. The boy mumbled something, but didn’t open his eyes. Patting her boy’s shoulder a couple of times, she opened the door. She took a hesitant step forward. I am the mistress of the mansion! I have to behave in a dignified and graceful manner! She exhaled a gust of air, clenched her fists, and walked in a brisk manner towards the flight of stairs. Once there, her hands clutched the banister and she stood there for five minutes. Her knees seemed to have turned into jellies, and she wondered if she should call out Surya and Binodini for support. No! I cannot afford to be seen in a helpless state anymore!
“O Ma! Have pity on your daughter!” she whispered, looking up. But was the Goddess in a mood to forgive? After all, she had been a silent witness to her husband’s crime. Wasn’t that a crime too? She looked at her shaking hands. They smelt of blood. Gowri’s blood!
I can’t delay the inevitable! With that resolution in mind, she started to climb down the stairs. Slowly! With caution! Will Gowri kill me too? What will happen to Alok? Who will apply cold compress over his burning forehead? Who will call a doctor in his parents’ absence? A thousand questions swirled in her muddled up mind as she made her way to the thakur dalan.
Her knees gave way the moment she reached the holy place. Her heartbeat stopped for a nanosecond. Of its own volition, her right hand reached up to her mouth, and she screamed. Once. Twice. Thrice. Until the people inside the mansion lost count! Surya, Binodini and the head cook rushed to the spot, and stopped in their tracks.
Rudranarayan Sinha, the affluent landowner, lay on his back. His eyes had been gouged out. The splash of red that trickled out from a gap in his neck accumulated in front of him. His dhoti had come apart, but his private part was covered by a thin blue cloth, which looked like it had been torn off from a saree. It was Gowri’s parting gift to him. You may have treated women in an undignified manner, but I cannot sink to your level!
The bloodied trident lay next to him.
Not a soul stirred. Not a word was spoken. Annapoorna Devi’s keening was the only sound that could be heard that day. Out of pity for a wronged woman, the heavens opened up. But not a single person came forward to pour Gangajal in Rudranarayan Sinha’s mouth. Even their mistress, who was a stickler for rules and rituals, didn’t insist on it. She continued to wail.
“I told you! Don’t you hear? I told you so many times to control yourself! Did you pay heed to me that day? No! You never listen to me. Now, what will happen to me and our innocent son?”
The servants stood behind her, wiping the occasional solitary tear that trickled from their eyes. They felt no pity for Rudranarayan Sinha. But their mistress had always been kind. Just like her namesake! Always possessing a magnanimous heart! Not a hungry soul had left the Sinha bari without having a morsel of food. But she was culpable, in a way. She had been blind to the crimes committed by her husband. Judging by the look of it, she was paying a heavy price. The mother had given up on Alok. She knew deep in her heart that her boy wouldn’t survive the fever. She had sensed the presence of death in the room, as she had patted her son’s hair slowly.
The smell of the petrichor mingled with the aroma of the kaash flowers, and entered the Sinha bari. It continued its journey to the holy place which housed the Goddess, and wrapped itself around her still unclothed body, trying to draw the attention of the people to her. Having failed in its attempt, it settled down over her lips, on which a benign smile played. The Goddess was not angry with her children! How could she? Yes, she was missing her crown. And her gorgeous saree! But she had been yearning for those fish-shaped eyes that would mesmerise her countless devotees, and make them bow down in reverence to her. The Goddess Durga had finally got her vision. In a patriarchal world, it was ultimately a woman who performed the chokku daan to her Ma.
In rural Bengal, there were superstitions galore, the brunt of which were mostly borne by women. Cleft-lipped women were deemed inauspicious and were branded as witches.
Bari – Mansion
Zamindar – Landowner
Huzoor – Master
Thakur Dalan – A common sight in ancestral households in Bengal, it’s a spacious structure for hosting religious festivals like Durga Puja
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