The river has its own language. An inexperienced ear merely hears the incessant gurgles. But she has stories to tell, stories she has been witness to since thousands of years. Alas! For the most, she remains elusive. She speaks only to those who care to listen. You have to befriend her, lend her a patient ear, and when the sun seeks refuge in her bosom at the gloaming, when time stands still for a while between daylight and nightfall, when the enchanting red aura enamours the world, she’ll whisper her secrets to you…
1720 : Somewhere in rural Bengal…
The comeuppance for life
The sun was drowning in the river that bled orange. People had flocked at the distant bank. Narayani sighed. Her mind travelled back to a similar late-afternoon of winter three years back on the very banks of the Mayurakshi. The contrast was stark. Of course, it had to be! She hadn’t agreed to be the virtuous wife. Each of the vile adjectives and curses that her in-laws had showered on her, burned fresh in her mind…
“Shameless woman. How dare she speak up?”
“Look at her cry! Pretending to pine for my brother, when all she wants is a new husband!”
“Haven’t I always said, education ruins women? See for yourself! All these young girls in the village , and he had to settle for this old hussy!”
“If you loved him so much, why didn’t you go join him? What else do you have to live for?”
“Rakshashi, you’ve eaten up my son. Now you’ll rot in hell!”
Fifty-year old Ramsharan, Narayani’s husband of two years, had died the previous night in his sleep. Narayani was all of fourteen, quite past the marriageable age for girls in the village, when she had been married off to the rich old widower. The marriage was a life-saver for Narayani and her mother, who had literally been starving to death after her father’s demise. Not that Narayani had had a dearth of suitors since she was nine, her little frame could hardly conceal her flourishing beauty. But her Pandit-father’s zeal to educate his daughter, and Narayani’s abhorrence towards being a child-bride had kept marriage at bay. An year after her father’s death, Narayani was in no position to refuse a match. Her mother, however, died within a year of her marriage. And with Ramsharan’s death, Narayani was left alone in this world.
In no time, the barber-women had snooped in like vultures and carried her outside into the courtyard.
“Where’s everyone?” She had sobbed.
“Foolish girl. No one is supposed to be around you. No one is supposed to touch you. Do you want to curse them with the same fate?” they had retorted.
Apprehension about the ‘fate’ that awaited her had made the sixteen year-old widow scream in fear, as the women went about weaning the jewellery off her body with impatient hands – they tore her earlobe, smashed some fingers while they broke her bangles with stone and scrubbed her sindoor off. The pain must have made her unconscious, for when she’d opened her eyes next, they were dragging her along the road. Once they’d reached the cremation ground, they dumped her on the ghaat.
“Go stand in the water, and don’t turn until this is over.”
Hours had passed as she stood and shivered in the cold water of December. When the barber-women finally came for her, her limbs had grown numb.
The months after had passed in a painful haze. She’d since been exiled to a life of austerity – shaved head, white saree, occasional starvation and forced isolation in an outhouse by Ramsharan’s courtyard. Anyone who chanced upon her, routinely cursed her to hell, even if her plight melted their hearts, for pitying a widow was a sin.
“Keep away from her evil shadow,” women always warned their children.
Until yesterday, she had slaved away at Ramsharan’s house for two meals a day. Her evil shadow, however, hadn’t stopped her brother-in-law’s occasional visits to the outhouse at the dead of the night to sate his bodily hunger. It was a miracle that Narayani still had the zeal to live. There were widows who had jumped to death. Perhaps Narayani would have followed suit, if not for Niranjan, the young master who came to teach the children at the house every week. The kind man had fallen for her. Love had blossomed in Narayani’s wilted garden. But no sooner had the words of this ‘blasphemy’ spread, than Niranjan was driven out of the village. And Narayani? Last night, they had dragged her out in the open, beaten her black and blue, spat on her and then banished her to the woods.
Sitting by the forest now, with a battered body and a bruised soul, she watched the smoke from the distant pyre cloud the sky, wondering if she should have said ‘yes’ to the Brahmin years ago.
On the chariots to Heaven
“Clink-clink!” The new bangles jingled. Parvati was elated. What was the occasion, she wondered? She hadn’t seen her husband Raghav since last night. Fulmanti, their maid, was decking her up in a red Benarasi saree and gold ornaments, with a sombre face.
“What’s the matter? Tell me. I’m your Devi-Maa.”
Some other time, Fulmanti would have laughed, for Parvati was all of ten. She had been married to Raghav, the younger son of Madhav Seth, the richest merchant of Gundoba, last year. Madhav Seth had woken up one fine morning and declared little Parvati as the incarnation of Devi-Durga.
“The Goddess herself appeared in my dreams to tell me, and we all should worship her from now on. I’ll have a temple built in her honour.”
He did as he said. People from near and far occasionally came to seek Parvati’s blessings. Young Parvati understood little. She was just happy with all the love and attention that people showered on her. The only three people who seemed displeased with the arrangement were Raghav, his mother and Fulmanti.
“This doesn’t make sense, father. This is insane.”
“Raghav is right, Parvati is no Devi. There’s no need to turn her head with all these.”
But Madhav Seth paid no heed. Every morning he would start his day by touching the feet of his daughter-in-law, “Maa, bless your old son.”
Fulmanti dared not say anything in front of the others, but she’d mock Parvati when they were alone, “Devi-Maa are you now?”
But today, it was different. Raghav had been killed by a snake-bite on his hunting-trip last night. His mother had fainted on hearing the news. The neighbours had started pouring in. Parvati hadn’t been told yet. Madhav Seth had clasped her hands in front of the Brahmin, and told her, “Maa, just say ‘yes’ to his questions.” Parvati had nodded.
The Brahmin asked, “Do you love your husband?”
“Will you travel with him, like the virtuous devoted wife even in afterlife, and purge the sins of the seven generations and be venerated as a true Sati henceforth?”
Parvati didn’t know what this all meant, but she trusted her father-in-law. She’d been rushed to this room thereafter, where Fulmanti was waiting with a saree.
As the daylight dimmed, Fulmanti held Parvati’s hand and they trudged towards the river bank. A few women followed. Parvati saw her own parents in the distance. Surprisingly, they were crying.
“Don’t worry Maa, Baba, it’s just another Pooja, I’ll be back soon.”
At her words, her mother wailed in despair and fainted. Parvati grew restless. But Fulmanti held her tight.
As they reached the cremation ground, Parvati had a sudden premonition.
“What’s happening?” She sounded scared.
Who was that on the pyre? The face seemed familiar…Raghav? Her heart pounded.
Something suddenly tugged at Fulmanti’s heart. She bent down to Parvati’s level.
“Maa, Raghav-Baba is dead. They want you to go with him, they’ll put you on the pyre when they light it.”
“No…ooo!” Parvati screamed, and suddenly broke free with all her might. She ran for her life, tears streaming down her face. The men ran after her.
“Catch her!” Madhav Seth’s deranged voice was the loudest in the uproar.
The little feet soon lost to the big ones. They dragged the struggling bundle and bound their ‘Devi-Maa’ on the pyre. Her screams gave way to wasted moans, that tore through Fulmanti’s innards. For the first time, her unbelieving heart willed the presence of a real Devi in little Parvati who could break free of the shackles. But they lit the fire soon. High-pitched feminine screams filled the air. The sounds of bells and conch-shells, that attempted to drown out the helpless agony, somehow sounded Satanic. As the smoke unfurled in curls, Madhav Seth knelt on the ground in veneration, “Look, there goes our Sati-Maa on her chariot to heaven.” The others mirrored him.
The fire that failed to scald
Lakshmi’s fair skin was something any village belle would die for. But her cleft-lips marred it all. There had to be something about her red-brown eyes though, why else would a man like Mrigen fall for her? She craned her neck to scan the crowds that had come to seek entertainment. The trial was under way. Lakshmi knew it was a farce, her death-sentence was imminent the day Mrigen had betrayed her.
The ropes were cutting into her wrist. The blood was rushing to her head. It was difficult to think when hung upside down from a tree, but she tried to listen to the scribe who read out the details before the Nawab.
“Lakshmi, daughter of the late weaver Sukhi, is accused by one and all here, to have dabbled with black magic. She’s a witch. She practices witchcraft to kill people, a skill she had learnt from her late mother, and…”
Lakshmi’s groans interrupted the speech – they had gagged her! The scribe continued after a pause.
But Lakshmi wreathed in vain. How dare they vilify her mother? Angry tears escaped her eyes.
Her life flashed before her – the taunts and teases from the village people for her peculiar looks, her father’s sudden death, her mother’s suicide… The women had talked for months about how poor old Sukhi had doubled over in the middle of the road, his limbs bent in excruciating pain that could only be imagined from his contorted face, as all his essence had gradually been sucked out of his body by Lakshmi. In no time, she had been branded as Daini , a witch, and expelled from the village to her little hut at the outskirts. She remembered how Mrigen had dismissed all these.
“These ignorant fools! You had nothing to do with your father’s death, Lakshmi. I’m sure it was the deadly tetanus, Sukhi must have been wounded by a rusty nail on the road.”
Poor Lakshmi, who had been wallowing in doubt and self-loathing, had felt relieved.
Mrigen was a Pandit from the neighbouring village. The villagers pitied him, “Look how the witch has ensnared a wise man.” Though people avoided him for fraternizing with Lakshmi, he was often summoned to the Nawab’s court for debates with learned men from abroad. Word ran rife that he’d been offered a position as the Nawab’s adviser – an offer he’d declined. It was Mrigen who had taught Lakshmi how to read and write. And Lakshmi had been nothing short of brilliant. In a few years, she had mastered the subjects so well that she could defeat Mrigen in any debate with elan. Mrigen felt proud of her. He brought her food everyday, and passed on books he’d received as gifts from around the world. He slowly fell in love with her intellect, and with the very features that the villagers had deemed fit for a witch. She was always full of ideas. One of them was improvising her father’s hand-loom. Little had she known it’d bring about her doom. She’d already dismantled her father’s loom long back, and with Mrigen’s help, gathered wheel bearings and shafts that could speed up the process. But the assembly made her bizarre-looking loom too heavy to operate by hand. She needed someone powerful to spin the wheels. Lakshmi had read about the immense potential of falling water. What if she could…
Mrigen and Lakshmi had spent hours by the hot springs nearby trying to harness the water’s force to drive her wheels, and by the monsoon three years later, Lakshmi was able to weave the finest yarns overnight, a feat that would have required ten skilled weavers a week!
Word spread about the witch of Gundoba, who was using her witchcraft to achieve impossible feats of weaving, that would put the weavers out of business. But Mrigen was adamant, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to the Nawab.”
He hardly got a chance! The two had arranged for a demonstration of the new loom for the people, last week. But before they could start, fate had played a cruel trick. Mrigen, suddenly overcome with seizures, had keeled over on the ground, his face distorted in an agony that was reflected in Lakshmi’s horrified face, as the villagers watched.
“Nooo… you can’t die. Don’t die, please,” she’d pleaded.
But Mrigen breathed his last, paying no heed to her.
“There you go! The witch has killed her lover!”
“We should burn her!”
First came the angry curses, and then the shower of stones. As Lakshmi cowered in pain, she saw people setting fire to her loom.
“No….oo!” Her screams had split the sky.
The scribe’s voice trailing voice snapped her back to the present, “She’s the devil incarnate. Her harelip is evidence of the evil communion of her mother with the Satan. There’s no…” As they unbound her mouth and set fire to her limp body, Lakshmi felt no pain. In fact, she welcomed death. Death was better than this charade of a justice. She laughed.
And the people murmured, “See how the witch laughs. The fire doesn’t hurt her at all!”
Year 2020… In the middle of nowhere
The river knows it all
Twilight – the most beautiful part of the day! The mist had clouded the distant trees, the sky was a dark crimson, the air was red, from the dust raised by the cows returning home. Not for nothing do the Bengalis have the perfect name for twilight – ‘Godhuli’, dust from the cows’ hooves, Richa sighed. She basked in the mellow orange, her legs half-dipped in the cold waters of the Mayurakshi, away from the cacophony of city-life, away from unrealistic deadlines, away from the constant scrutiny of her work and personal life. Richa had forsaken it all and sought refuge in the lap of nature, in this obscure village of Bengal.
But had her past really forsaken her?
The river seemed to drone in mockery, “What are you running from?”
She felt, not for the first time, that there was something about this river, something that was capable of breaking through her barrage of emotions, crumbling the walls of her fortress, and speaking to her soul, whenever she sat on the banks before nightfall, sipping on the bliss of tranquility. It had been one such evening by the Mayurakshi, when she was possessed by this insanity, of unraveling the stories behind the hilarious old legends that the people here gossiped about – the weaver-witch that killed, the Devi-Maa whose blessings guaranteed a ride to heaven, the black widow who lusted after men! Richa, of all people, knew there were true facts, modified and exaggerated over years to give shape to these folktales. And though she’d bade farewell to her career, in the past few months, she’d spent hours in the local library, unearthing old documents, talking to old families, and gathering bits and pieces, to uncover the plight of the women behind the lore. Now, sitting on the stone steps, she heard in the hum of the river, Narayani’s pleas as they dragged her along the road, Parvati’s anguished screams as they set her ablaze, Lakshmi’s stifled appeals trying to reach out for a patient ear! Perhaps it was the twilight, that had magically stopped time, for the pain, the torture, the ridicule from 300 years ago suddenly seemed all too familiar for Richa in 2020.
Wasn’t she herself ostracized by her family for marrying outside her religion? Wasn’t she herself sneered at when she announced her second marriage two years after a bitter divorce ? Even for the most celebrated historian of the country at 37, her personal life had held more interest for people than her professional achievements. Someone had even fished out an old picture of her from her modelling stint back at college, rendering people a free pass to slander her character. She recalled the anonymous messages on social media…
“She knows dark magic. No wonder she has trapped another rich businessman. Gold-digger!”
“How quickly these women move on!”
“What do you expect ? Women these days are cheap, with loose morals, spoiling our culture and traditions! She should learn from the women of the past…”
And here she was, learning from the women of the past – how they had been shunned and suppressed to death by the self-proclaimed torchbearers of ‘culture and traditions’ whenever they had dared to exercise their free-will. Things had changed over 300 years, but the patriarchal disciplining remained.
The last straw was the sudden dropping of her name from the board of advisers at her university. She allegedly made the other members uncomfortable. There it was, her ‘controversial’ conjugal choices had overshadowed her professional brilliance! It had come as a rude shock – a blow that had forced her to shelve her marriage-plans, uproot her attachments and hide in oblivion.
But now, she’d made up her mind. As the river murmured to her soul, of the fight the three had put up 300 years ago, and the fight she must put up herself, the twilight bolstered her resolve to return. She’d rather be remembered as one shameless witch, like her predecessors, than someone who acknowledged defeat too soon!
- Mayurakshi : A river flowing through Bengal.
- Rakshashi : A female demon.
- Pandit – Wise men in the profession of academics in the-then India.
- Sindoor – A vermilion red powder traditionally worn at the hair parting by married Indian women. The sindoor usually implies that the woman is married.
- Ghaat – The embankment of a river.
- Saree – An Indian attire for women, usually a drape of 6 yards or more.
- Brahmin – A member of the highest Hindu caste, traditionally priests, who performed all religious rituals back then and does so to this day.
- Benarasi saree – A saree made in Benaras in India, famous for its lavish design.
- Devi – Goddess.
- Maa – Mother, often alternatively used as a term of endearment for a younger boy, or as a mark of respect for a woman in a position of power.
- Devi-Durga – A goddess worshipped by the Hindus of India.
- Sati – chaste woman/ ‘good’ wife.
- Pooja – the ritual of worshipping.
- Baba – Father, often alternatively used as a term of endearment for a younger boy or as a mark of respect for a male in a position of power.
- Nawab – Title bestowed upon semi-autonomous Muslim rulers of smaller provinces by Mughal Emperors in India.
The story follows three fictional characters of 18th century whose sufferings as described, might not have been too fictional. Child marriage, the practice of witch-hunting/burning, a misogynistic norm for blaming a mishap on a woman who possessed out-of-the-ordinary looks or did something extraordinary, the inhuman practice of Sati, where a widow jumped into the burning pyre of her dead husband, and the deliberate barbaric marginalization of the widows who chose to live, when their male counterparts could very well continue to lead a life unscathed were rampant till the early 19th century in India. A cleft-lip was considered a sign of evil, and death from tetanus (fairly common in those days for people hardly wore shoes and there was no vaccine) was often construed as an act of witchcraft. Sati Abolition Act and Widow Remarriage Act were passed only in 1829 and 1856 respectively by the British Government in India, with support from a handful and against severe protest by many eminent Indians! Even though banned by law, the last-heard act of Sati had occurred as late as 2002. Prohibition of Child Marriage Act came to force only in 2007. Funnily enough, restriction on witch-hunting hasn’t yet been brought under the purview of any centralized law, though several states have passed their own laws, the earliest being Bihar in 1999. Sadly, the practice still continues in many Indian villages, secretly, or in the garb of modern misogyny, the latest ‘known’ case being that of Debjani Bora, a national athlete in Assam brutally assaulted for witchcraft in 2014!
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