SARA BANERJI Shining Hero
Dedicated to Matthew Kneale, mentor and friend
THE MAHABHARATA IS AN EPIC POEM eight times longer than the Iliad, written in the third or fourth century B.C. It tells the story of a great war between two sets of cousins, the five Pandavas, the third of whom was Arjuna, and the hundred Kauravas, the eldest of whom was Dhuriodhana.
They fought for the kingdom whose capital city was Hastina-pura, which means city of the elephant, and to which the brave, heroic Pandavas were entitled. They had however been tricked out of their inheritance by the treacherous and devious Kauravas.
This poem is more than a story or a history. It describes the moral and ethical standards of the day and makes value judgements which are valid even in modern times. Anger, fear, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, envy, pride and arrogance are all experienced by the protagonists of the Mahabharata. Heroes are capable of acting badly. One of Arjuna’s brothers, the heroic Yudhistra, loses everything he owns including his wife and children as well as his kingdom, in a game of dice. Arjuna himself suffers weakness at the start of the battle. His chariot is driven by the god Krishna who instructs and advises him when Arjuna becomes filled with doubt because he realises he will have to kill uncles, cousins and even his old teacher.
In the Bhagavad Gita, meaning ‘The Song Of God’, Krishna, during the battle, reminds Arjuna that because he is a kshatriya, or of the warrior caste, he has a greater duty to fight than he has towards his relatives.
In the course of the song Krishna gives Arjuna precise instructions on how to silence his mind and reach the Absolute so that to this day those learning to meditate can find the instructions for transcending thought in the Bhagavad Gita.
Pritha, yet unwedded, bore him,peerless archer on the earth,Portion of the solar radiancefor the sun inspired his birth.
The river, Koonty thought, was like Soma, the liquid god. A limpid animal to whom she came for comfort and to be freed of pain, though now, as she let the sacred water tickle against her ankles she wondered if she had imagined the interior gnawing. Or perhaps this holy river, annually stocked with melting goddesses, had cured her. Half an hour ago she had been certain she was dying but now she was well again. She stirred the water with her toes, started to feel happy. When she was little she would never have touched the water in this way. Then she had been afraid, for she had been told the story of the elephant who was snared by water serpents. As it was dragged, drowning, to the bottom of the river, the elephant implored the high gods for help. Vishnu had heard its prayer and, riding on his vehicle, the angel bird Garuda, appeared at the waterside. The great god, four-armed, crowned with a diadem, did not need to act. His mere presence had been enough. The serpent king and queen rose to the surface of the river and balanced in the water, their great and weighty victim struggled out of their tendrils and the Nagas folded their hands and bowed to the Lord Ruler of the Universe. But Koonty had feared that, in her case Vishnu might not think her sufficiently important to be saved and it was several years before she would believe that this tale was only a myth.
The stones of the riverbank had been smoothed by the slaps and caresses of ancient currents until they had become like dull jewels studding a water bangle. Even when the river lost control and drowned its own banks as though it no longer loved them, its stones stayed warm. But the river was not only a magic water woman bestowing wet kisses that grew rice. It killed as well.
Every year since Koonty was born she had seen it spread its transparent and reflective body over the land till houses were flattened, fields vanished and cuddled banks were lost utterly.
That was when Koonty and the zamindar’s children got a new playground. Sitting astride floating banana logs they bounced over the lost fields shouting, leaping and splashing on their banana ponies and trying to shove each other off into the drowning rice crop, while the peasant farmers mourned the loss of their livelihood. Paddling with their hands or punting with passing bamboo poles, pretending to be walking on water like yogis or crossing the ocean like foreigners, the children explored a new, wet world that, yesterday, had been paddy fields, cabbage crops, the road to Calcutta. A mirror world where an enormous yellow sky shone on the ground and only the tips of plants were visible. Sometimes their rubber chappals got sucked off and were bobbed away like rubber boats to be captured in the spring, while Boodi Ayah, wheedling, threatening, urging, would try to wade through the slush to get at them. But the watery ayah had closed her extended world to adults.
Koonty’s mother would rush out shouting, ‘What is this crazy behaviour? Who will marry a girl who is seen acting like a peasant child? You will end up like your sister if you go on like this.’ Shivarani, Koonty’s older sister, would never get married because she was too tall and was a Communist.
‘Me. I will marry Koonty,’ whispered Pandu, the zamindar’s oldest son, while Koonty’s dry mother, the lady of the land, the un-magical woman, was telling her husband, ‘You must do something about that wild girl before it is too late.’
‘What harm can come?’ murmured Koonty’s father. He did not look up from his book.
‘She might lose her virginity, sitting astride like that. Raped by a banana tree. What a waste,’ wailed Meena, Koonty’s mother.
But this river, thought Koonty, is not only a woman. It is a man as well. A husband. Every year his wife, Durga, is thrown into his body, to mingle with his substance in a million muddy forms, re-emerging later in little bits, a manicured finger here, a nose ring there.
Koonty and Pandu dived for her earrings and came up with the goddess’ arm.
‘I bet you don’t dare keep that,’ said Pandu. ‘I bet you are afraid she’ll put a curse on you.’ He was always testing Koonty, trying to find out how far she would go. Her daringness excited him. Rolling the arm inside the hem of her blouse, she carried it to the rose garden and hid it there.
Several days later her mother saw the curling fingers beckoning from behind a Queen Elizabeth.
‘This will bring trouble upon you,’ she raged and beat Koonty about the ears with her supari cutters. Koonty leapt around the veranda to avoid the whacking scissors, while her mother shouted, ‘Now for certain the goddess will put a curse upon you.’ Now the fear came to Koonty. Was that what the pains had been? Durga’s late curse? Her mother had gone down to the river bank, and, ululating, had thrown the sacred arm back into the water then waited for long minutes in case celestial retribution was to follow.
Koonty could hear the sound of hymns coming from the village over the loudspeaker. They were worshipping the Durga there and this time tomorrow would be immersing the goddesses here. This time tomorrow the river will be filled with new goddesses, she was thinking, when the pain gripped Koonty again so that instantly she could not think of anything else but it. IT. Big IT pain hurling through her stomach as though she, like the deep parts of the river, had inside her body sharp stones and a tumbling current.
Her bare feet curled, her hands clenched. ‘Ouch, ouch,’ wailed Koonty and she tried to get away from the pain by squatting down into the water. She arched her back against it. Tried to duck out from under the burden of agony. But the pain was inside her, she could not escape it.
She had started feeling ill during the monsoon. She had been very sick and her mother had taken her to the doctor. But though he examined her all over he had found nothing wrong and said it must have been something she had eaten.
‘Keep her on rice and dahi for a day or two and she’ll be all right.’
But the sickness had continued.
‘Perhaps she is allergic to fish,’ the doctor said.
Koonty’s mother agreed. ‘I have noticed that it is after taking maacher jhal that she gets the worst nausea. But it is a very great pity because here in Hatipur village we get the best fish of all India. There is nothing to surpass the hilsa taken out of our own Jummuna river.’
Koonty gave up fish and sure enough after a month and a half of abstinence she suddenly became perfectly well again.
But now she was feeling worse than sick and the pain was so intense that she could not walk, but had to crouch, waiting for it to recede. She was desperate to get home but each time she tried to start on the half mile back, the pain grabbed again. She wished she had listened to her mother who was always warning her of the wrongness of wandering so far away from home.
‘What of it that the Hatibari estate is well guarded,’ her mother told her. ‘Even though there are tall brick walls all round and a stockade in the water, even though the people from the village are forbidden to come inside, yet still there are cobras in the jungly bits. And who knows, when the watchman is sleeping, dacoits might slip in from the river. You are to be married soon and a certain behaviour is expected of you. What a mess you are. It was bad enough when you were a little girl and went round with tattered clothes and untidy hair, but at the age of fifteen one expects something neater and more modest. You are a woman, Koonty, soon to be married, and it is time you began to behave like one.’
Koonty was betrothed to Pandu, the zamindar’s son. Pandu had given her a gold chain with a medal on it for her last birthday. ‘Don’t tell my father,’ he had laughed. ‘I should not even be talking to you now that we are betrothed, let alone giving you presents. But look.’
On the golden disc he had had inscribed, ‘Koonty Pandava of the Hatibari of Hatipur.’ She had giggled and felt thrilled at the words, for this was the first time she had fully taken in the full fact of what it would mean to be the lady of Hatibari.
‘To be married to the eldest son of the zamindar of Hatipur village is a tremendous honour and triumph,’ her mother would tell her at frequent intervals. ‘You must not let any breath of scandal taint your reputation or the Pandava family will call the marriage off.’ The zamindar had been very reluctant at first to allow his eldest son to marry the daughter of his estate manager.
The river flowed through land belonging to the zamindar, whose estate covered several miles in all directions and Koonty’s father lived in one of the estate houses.
That river. It ruled all their lives and even the zamindar was sometimes conquered by it. Koonty remembered the last monsoon when the golden, killing waters had lapped right up to the steps of her parents’ house and had even reached the Hatibari mansion. River had seeped into the beds of canna lilies and gaudy zinnias, softening their grip upon the soil till their roots broke free and floated away to join the garlands of the pauper dead. Koonty’s father had had to call the Hatibari servants out at midnight and get them to construct a mini dam of straw and clay to prevent the water entering the house. But in spite of all his precautions the water managed to mount the Hatibari steps and the wife of the zamindar, coming down to view the disaster, had to raise her sari above her ankles.
‘How stupid of the grandfather to have built this grand house so near the river,’ she told Koonty’s father, as he summoned yet more servants with mops and pails.
After the flood receded, the Hatibari garden was covered with river mementos; lotus leaves, boat bits, stranded fish, while the river bobbed with the memory of its recent association with land – parts of houses, drowned goats, ripped-out bits of trees. The liquid god left brown stains upon the purity of the Hatibari marble that took the servants, under Koonty’s father’s supervision, weeks of scouring, rubbing ferociously with twists of coconut rope and handfuls of sand, to eradicate.
Koonty tried to remember what she had eaten for the midday meal. Perhaps a chingdi maach had fallen into her dhall by mistake. Perhaps the cook had used fish stock when he made the mutton with kumro. It must be the fish allergy, for Durga was a mother goddess and no mother would punish so severely for the small offence of carrying away a single arm.
‘Oh, Ma, Oh, Ma,’ Koonty wailed. But the house was too far away. Her mother could not hear her though her cries were so loud that buffaloes lounging lazily, up to their shoulders in water across the river, stirred and opened their eyes and some of the mynahs, tick-picking on the buffalo backs, winged off.
She was only fifteen, she was engaged to be married and she was going to die at any moment.
Round the bend of the river and out of sight, she could hear village boys playing. From the sudden splash and laughing shriek she thought they must be hanging from the branch of an overhanging tree and dropping feet first, head first, bottom first, into the water as she and Pandu had done as recently as two years ago. The water buffaloes did not mind the boys’ shouts. They only flinched from Koonty’s screams.
Squatting low in the water, because this position seemed the least agonising, she gripped her arms around her knees and braced her body. Tilting her head back she could just see through the mango orchards and beyond the lake the great house that would have been hers if she had lived to be married. The Hatibari. Fifty windows reflecting the river. Stone lions larger than life-size on each corner of the roof. Her father was inside at this moment, preparing lists of wedding guests with the zamindar. He would never hear Koonty. The boys round the corner heard her. Laughed and shouted back. They thought she was laughing too, joining with them in their fun.
Ever since she was little she had kept coming here, though since she was soon to marry him and become a respectable wife, she no longer played on the water with Pandu. Koonty had been sitting here earlier in the year when she had first seen Suriya, the Sun God.
‘Keep away from the waterside,’ her mother kept warning. ‘That is the place from which trouble can come.’ For who can control water, who can put an impenetrable fence through a sacred river? The rest of the property was almost unassailable. The river was its only weakness in spite of the watchman who patrolled its banks. In the old days they had put up a brick wall seven feet high all along the bank but the first monsoon had washed it away so that not a brick was left standing and the bamboo water fence had to be replaced several times a year.
Koonty always sent the watchman away when she wanted to sit here. ‘If I see someone coming I will shout for you.’ She was going to be the new young mistress of the Hatibari. He did as she told him. But when she had seen a man come swimming into the Hatibari water she had not shouted for the watchman. She had kept perfectly silent the evening the Sun God came.
Koonty had first heard he was visiting their village from Boodi Ayah. Boodi had returned with the day’s food shopping, gasping and babbling with the excitement.
‘Dilip Baswani has come to the village.’
When the family looked blank she said, ‘The actor who plays the part of the Sun God in the film of the Mahabharata.’
Koonty had stared at the young woman in disbelief. ‘Dilip the glorious? There in our village? I must go and see him.’ With her parents she had seen the film five times in Calcutta.
‘He is making speeches in the tea shop. He is standing for the election,’ said Boodi Ayah. ‘I saw him with my own eyes.’
Dilip Baswani, dressed entirely in gold, had ridden into the village on a golden motorbike. His goggles were golden, he shone with gold leather and wore a plastic golden helmet.
‘He is even more beautiful than in the film, Koonty Missie. His skin looks soft as silk and his eyes are the colour of honey.’ The ayah’s excitement became so great that a cone of fresh ladies’ fingers fell from her arms and she nearly dropped the eggs.
‘Take that stuff on to the big house where they are waiting for it and stop filling my daughter’s mind with ideas,’ said Koonty’s mother sternly.
‘When can I go to hear him?’ cried Koonty. ‘I think we should go this very minute in case it is too late and he is gone.’
Koonty’s mother became stern. ‘You are only fifteen years old and about to become the wife of the young zamindar. How can you be seen among the ordinary people? A girl in your situation must stay modestly at home.’
‘What harm can it do for me only to go there and listen?’ Koonty had begged. ‘Boodi Ayah could come with me.’
‘That silly woman will be useless in such a mob,’ snapped the mother. ‘It is all her fault, with her foolish chatter, that you are so eager to see this man who is nothing but a C-grade film actor. Also a thousand people from fifty villages will be there to hear him. What will your husband-to-be’s family think if they hear you have been mingling amongst all kinds of untouchable people and gawping at a trashy film star?’
So Koonty had sat by the river instead, felt sad, cross, wished she was there among the village crowd which she could hear faintly from down the water. She imagined how impressed the girls at school would have been if she had told them she had actually seen Dilip Baswani with her own eyes like Boodi Ayah. His voice, drifting over the water, did not even sound the same as it did at the cinema.
All the girls at her school were deeply in love with one Mahabharata character or another. Koonty’s passion was Arjuna and she had a lurid poster of the actor in her bedroom.
‘Is this all you modern girls have to talk about? Cheap films and their cheaper stars. If you want to know these stories you should read the original texts,’ Koonty’s mother would reprimand.
‘Oh, Ma, what an old fuddy-duddy you are.’
In the evening she had gone back to the river just in case the Sun God started talking to the villagers again. As she sat there she had heard a commotion on the water, excited shouts, cries of awe, as though a thousand people were gathered there watching something wonderful.
‘Come and look, brother,’ she could hear one person cry to another. ‘It is the Sun God himself, here in our river.’
She heard later how the shout had spread over the countryside. People had leapt from bullock carts and run to see. Buses stopped and disgorged their passengers. The village streets emptied, shopkeepers hastily boarded up and ran to the waterside, labourers dropped their spades and rushed. Children flooded out of the school and raced their excited teacher to the river.
As the Sun God swam, he became surrounded by a hundred boys, dog-paddling alongside, and the crowds that gathered on the banks became ten deep. Trees on the waterside began cracking under the weight of people who had climbed them to catch a sight of the swimming film star and every house and hut that overlooked the water had people scrambling to the rooftops, trying to see him. Only the people of the Hatibari had remained inside, though from its upper windows could be seen the faces of the zamindar’s servants craning there, trying to get a peep but not wanting to risk the wrath of their employers by gawping openly.
Dilip Baswani swam as fast as he could, trying, hopelessly, to shake off the mob of village boys, till ahead of him he saw the bamboo barricade cutting into the water like a fence, beyond which were trees and a domed roof. This must be the border of the Hatibari estate, he thought, the great house the villagers had told him about. Private property onto which they would not dare follow him, but onto which he, the zamindar’s future MLA, would surely be welcome. He entered the stockade and felt gratified to see the mob of boys fall back. Inside he found himself gratefully alone.
He turned a bend and looked with pleasure onto groomed grassy banks planted with flowering shrubs and free of crowds. Then he saw one lone figure sitting, feet in the water, watching him, a young girl with untidy hair and a muddy sari.
She stared with sparkling eyes, her mouth rounded in an O of amazement.
‘Hello,’ he said, but the girl just stared at him in silence.
A servant girl from the Hatibari, but pretty enough, he thought. And the age he liked.
‘What’s your name, dear?’ he asked as he scrambled out of the water. But Koonty’s lips seemed to have got stuck in their gasp of surprise.
‘I need a little rest,’ he said. ‘There are such crowds everywhere else. I don’t expect the zamindar will mind if I get my breath back here.’ He stood looking down at her, smiling. Charming, he thought.
He was not wearing a golden helmet, a gold leather jacket, gleaming goggles. He wore nothing but golden swimming shorts slung just below his small corpulence. But all the same Koonty knew exactly who he was for she had seen his face at the cinema five times.
‘I always like to take a swim in the evening,’ he said, as he sat down at Koonty’s side. ‘It is good for my digestion.’
Koonty tried to say something, opened her mouth, moved her lips, but only a sort of croaking squeak came out.
River water dripped from the Sun God’s arms and ran down his chest in rivulets.
‘Well, my dear, haven’t you got a tongue?’ He touched her arm. Gently. A shiver ran through her as though a stream of gold swished down her veins.
The crowds that were packed so thickly round the bend peered and craned, but the film star had become lost to sight. They waited for a long long time, but he did not come back. After an hour and a half they began to move away.
Now the pains were following each other so fast Koonty scarcely had time to breathe between them. She squatted lower into the water, braced herself tighter as a great racking spasm seized her. A sudden warmth gushed out of her and the water round her ankles turned red. A second spasm, huger than the first, overtook her and she could feel something heavy thrusting between her thighs as though she was being torn apart. Spreading her knees she saw, emerging into the water, something round and hazed with dark wet fur. Then another surge and the rest was there. Arms, legs, a stomach to which was attached a long twisted cord.
It lay under the water for a moment then floated up, eyes closed, lips moving.
Koonty let out a little scream of shock and darkness came over her eyes as though she was about to faint. Through the daze she reached out a hand and touched the little creature that lay half submerged in water. Its limbs began to move, tiny desperate thrashings. Its mouth began twisting, pouting. Koonty ran her hand over the child’s face and felt the movement of its lips against her fingers. As she passed her hand along its arm, a minute and wrinkled finger clutched around hers.
She was not having some terrible dream. This was true. She had had a baby. She had given birth to the Sun God’s child. She was finished now. Truly finished.
She had been worried at first. The things he asked her to do, the things he was doing to her did not seem modest. But he had reassured her. ‘You trust me, don’t you, my dear? You need not be afraid of me.’ He had spoken in his deep and husky voice and it had not come into her mind for a single moment not to trust him, any more than she would have mistrusted her father.
‘Lie like that, there, let me pull up your sari. Now open your legs a little. Good, good, that’s right.’ The doctor had talked to her like that when she had jumped out of the banyan tree, missed the river and sprained her ankle.
‘Are you sure?’ she had whispered and felt dazed with the deliciousness of his nearness, the feel of his skin, the smell of his foreign toilet water.
‘Yes, yes, my sweet. Quite sure. Now close your eyes.’ He had told her, ‘You needn’t worry about anything I do, for after all I am a god, aren’t I?’ Then he had laughed as though he had made a joke. His voice had been very rich and loving.
That evening she had taken down the poster of Arjuna and put up one of the Sun God instead.
He had told her not to worry, to trust him, but all the same she had given birth to his baby and now the young zamindar would not marry her. No one would. She would live lonely and ashamed for the rest of her life. Her parents would feel such shame that they would forbid her to go on living with them. She would not be able to live in the village either, for everyone would know. Koonty had earlier feared that she was dying. Now she was even more afraid of living.
As the water surged round her clothes and legs, carrying the blood away, she crouched numbly, gazed at the baby and felt chills of terror running through her. Her mother might have heard her earlier cries and at any moment come here to find her. She listened, her heart cracking against her ribs, for the sound of Boodi Ayah’s bare feet, Boodi sent to look for her.
‘The queen so pleased a rishi that he gave her a mantra which would evoke any god she wanted who would then, by his grace, produce in her a child.’ Koonty remembered that verse from the Mahabharata. She understood. She had pleased some rishi and her life was now destroyed because of it.
The baby began to let out little mewing cries and she hastily picked it up, the umbilical cord trailing, and tried to silence it. Its skin felt soft as silk. Softer than the Sun God’s skin. She pressed her knuckle against its mouth and at once, like the grip of a leech, its lips began sucking.
But after a moment it let go of the knuckle and began mewling again. She held it closer to her body and the baby started writhing. Her breasts had become tight and were spilling milk. She could feel it running warm down her ribs, over the place where her heart kept so loudly pounding.
To silence the baby, to stop the sound that would at any moment betray her, she pulled back her choli and held the child close. In a moment the baby had clamped upon the nipple and the only sound was a high-pitched grunt at every suck.
‘Hello, Baby God,’ she whispered, then pressing her face against the top of the head felt the soft fluff of newborn hair against her lips.
After a while the baby fell asleep. Koonty could not move. Her body was raw. Her legs felt weak. She sat there, the baby in her arms, and did not know what to do next, while the rose-ringed parakeets swooped among the trees, screaming. One extra loud bird cry startled the baby. It opened its eyes and Koonty saw that they were the colour of honey.
After that, sometimes the baby slept and sometimes fed but Koonty did not know what to do.
Night fell suddenly, the sun extinguished in a few fiery minutes. The bats came out. Fireflies began to dance among the silhouettes of trees. Behind her the lights came on in the Hatibari. She began to hear people calling her from the house. Never before had she stayed here after dark. Footsteps running over the paths. People calling, calling.
She held the baby tightly to her body, kept quite still and waited. She did not know what to do.
Her mother and Boodi Ayah were coming closer, shouting, ‘Koonty, Koonty, Koonty.’ Her mother was saying, ‘Sometimes she goes down there by the river, but she surely wouldn’t be there now, in the dark, when you have no idea who might be on the water.’
The household had been so absorbed in the news they had heard on the radio that they had not realised that Koonty was still outside. There was a fear of all-out war with Pakistan who had, that day, made an illegal military attempt to grab the Indian state of Kashmir. But now the worry about Koonty had made them forget about war and rush panicking around the estate, searching for the missing daughter.
Their voices came closer and Koonty gripped the child and felt dazed with fear. Then they began to move off again, their voices growing distant. ‘Perhaps she’s in the rose garden. Go and look there, Boodi.’
A little later, hurricane lamps and men’s voices. Her mother talking too loudly because she was afraid. ‘The only place left is the river. I am terrified that she has fallen in. Even though she can swim, this river is deceptive. The current can be very strong even for a healthy girl.’
The voice of the young zamindar. ‘Give me the lamp. I will go and look there.’ Her husband-to-be coming to where she sat with the Sun God’s baby in her lap. She could see, reflected in the river water, the swinging light approaching.
‘Koonty, Koonty,’ called the young man who was to marry her. He was getting very close. She could tell them that she had found the baby at the river’s edge. She could tell them it was a villager’s baby and she was only holding it for a moment. He was quite near now. At any moment he would see her sitting here. She could hear his panting breath. She could see his face gleaming in the lamplight. The young zamindar found her there, standing knee-deep in the river.
‘Why are you crying, Koonty? What’s the matter?’ Pandu kept asking her as he helped her back to the house. ‘You are shivering all over and wet from head to toe. Whatever have you been doing all this time? We have all been worried sick about you.’ He tried to hug her but she shook his arms off. ‘Come on, Miss Koonty,’ he whispered. ‘Tell your Pandu what’s the matter.’
After a while, when she only wept and would not speak he became angry. ‘You are hiding something. It’s those village boys, isn’t it? I heard them shouting. Have you been talking to them? I should have listened to your mother. She always said it was not proper for you to be roaming round the estate without a chaperone. She always said you’d turn out like your sister.’ All the way back to the Hatibari and even after they got inside, he kept on, sometimes trying to console her incomprehensible grief, sometimes raging against the suspected deception or infidelity. ‘You are going to be my wife. You should have some consideration. Don’t cry, my sweet. Here, wipe your face on the corner of my shawl.’
Later he told her mother, ‘She was trying to rescue a kitten, I think, though I can’t get her to talk about it.’ He felt he was doing well, impressing the mother with what an understanding husband he was going to be. ‘I heard something. A sound of mewing in the water.’
‘She was always very kind to animals,’ said Koonty’s mother and secretly thought that perhaps the zamindar’s family would be satisfied with a smaller dowry, now that they had discovered what a compassionate bride they were getting. ‘She would sacrifice herself for some small creature.’
Later the young zamindar presented Koonty with a kitten, but at the sight of the furry mewling thing she began to cry and thrust it from her. ‘Take it away. I don’t even want to look at it.’
Bowed with drops of toil and languor, low, a chariot driver came,Loosely held his scanty garment and a staff upheld his frame. Karna now a crowned monarch to the humble Suta fled,As a son unto a father reverentially bowed his head.
The Emperor Aurangzeb suffered from a carbuncle until an East India Company official called Job Charnock found a physician who managed to cure it. As a reward, Job was granted a tract of land eighty miles up the Hoogly river by the Nawab of Bengal and there he founded the city of Calcutta.
By the end of the eighteenth century Calcutta was the capital of the East India Company’s government, with an opulent and lively social life and opportunities for making a quick fortune for a lucky few. To this day, throughout the town, grand Western-style buildings, now crumbling, point back to its imperial past.
Dolly, her impoverished parents’ eleventh child, was born in the house where once William Hickey had dined with his face covered with blood, because he had become ‘sadly intoxicated’ at a previous get-together and had fallen while dismounting from his phaeton.
At the time of Dolly’s birth, more than a hundred families were living in considerable squalor and poverty in Hickey’s one-time grand residence. But because the new baby was born in the year of India’s independence her parents said, ‘Perhaps the goddess is going to bless us at last even though this is only a female child.’ For this reason, when she was old enough, they sent Dolly to the local school although their other daughters had never been give such an opportunity.
Each evening Dolly would come home and as she helped her mother pick through the rice for stones or roll the chupatties she would chatter joyfully about the things she had learnt that day. ‘We did fractions,’ she would announce, as she crushed the spices on the great thick slab of stone. Splashing water from the brass jar onto the seeds and pods and barks, she would heave the heavy stone roller over the top. Rolling, splashing, crushing she would tell her mother, ‘Did you know that the Moguls ruled India before the British and that this is the first time for ages that we Indians have been free?’ Or, as she stirred the great pan of simmering milk, keeping the iron spoon going to stop the milk boiling over or burning at the bottom, she would tell her mother about trade winds, or magnetism.
Sometimes the father would say worriedly, ‘Do you think all this education is spoiling her? Perhaps she is getting too much of it and won’t be able to find a husband.’
‘She is not neglecting her domestic duties,’ said the mother.
Later, after her parents and her ten siblings slept, Dolly sat by the light of a kerosene lamp and did her homework. She was determined to do well. She planned one day to live in a proper house, not a room in the bustee. If she passed her exams and got a good job, when she was grown up her children would have a bed each and they would eat mutton curry every day. Sometimes one of the babies would wake and cry, disturbing her. Then she would take it on her knee and joggle it on one arm while going on with her writing.
‘My teacher says I will certainly get into university. He is sure I will get a scholarship,’ she told her parents.
Her father’s face was stern, her mother’s anxious. ‘What? What?’ cried Dolly, suddenly afraid.
‘All this education is not needed for a woman,’ said her father.
‘There are better things for a woman to do with her life than to study,’ said her mother.
They had found Dolly a husband.
‘But I don’t want a husband,’ wailed the girl. ‘I am only thirteen. I’m too young to get married.’
‘I was married at ten,’ said her mother.
Dolly pinched lips and refrained from saying, ‘I don’t want my life to be like yours.’ Instead she said, ‘Baba, Ma, please. I am doing so well at school and if I get into university I will get a good job. I will become a teacher, maybe.’
‘How long will this take?’ asked her father.
‘Four years. Five years.’ Dolly was shivering.
‘We cannot go on feeding so many,’ said Dolly’s father. ‘We cannot spend all this on one when there are so many others who have a need. Anyway you are only a girl and the money must be spent on the boys.’
‘I could earn some money from teaching now, maybe,’ pleaded Dolly.
‘Teach who? In this village?’ Her father was scornful. ‘Who can afford to pay a young ignorant girl to teach them? Anyway there is a school that costs nothing already. And after you have finished university you will be too old for marriage.’
‘You can go on studying after you are married. There will be nothing to stop you then. You will be living in a company compound with all kinds of facilities. There will be many opportunities open to you there,’ her mother consoled her. ‘As it is we have to make a great sacrifice for your marriage. There is the big expense of the wedding feast and also the dowry. A large amount of our savings will have to be spent.’
Cheered by the thought of going on with her schooling after marriage, and eventually going to university after all, Dolly agreed.
The young bridegroom, Adhiratha, was twenty-seven years old and a company car driver. ‘He even has a pension,’ her father told Dolly. ‘You are very lucky for you will be provided for all your life. Even after he retires. You will not be poor when you are old like your mother and me.’
‘In fact we need a daughter with such a husband or how will we survive in our old age?’ said Dolly’s mother.
Dolly laughed at the thought of caring for her parents, not being able to imagine such a role reversal.
‘He is everything nice,’ said Dolly’s mother, showing her daughter a photo of Adhiratha. She was happy to see the girl smiling again.
The picture showed a pleasant-looking young man with a thin face, a large moustache and glasses.
‘He looks clever,’ said Dolly. She was quite excited now, longing to meet the man, with whom she thought she had fallen in love already. As a Hindu wife-to-be, and therefore required to respect the husband, as was the tradition she did not use his name even in her mind.
‘He has a sensitive face,’ she thought and the ‘He’ to which she referred was now the central person of her life. All other ‘he’s’ she thought, must go by some other name from this day on.
Adhiratha looked like the kind of person who would appreciate education and Dolly visualised the two of them discussing books together, or even both attending night school. After all he would not be wearing glasses if he was not an intellectual.
If Dolly had known then the real reason for the glasses, would her parents have continued to insist on the marriage? Would Dolly have felt afraid?
Dolly fell wildly in love with Adhiratha the moment she set eyes on him.
‘How glad I am,’ she thought after their wedding, as they sat together in a proper electric-lit room to eat their meal. The company bungalow was a pukka stone and mortar affair with running water and glass in the windows.
They could not stop smiling at each other across the table. Sometimes before the meal was eaten, with only a smile for a signal, the two of them would leap up, overturning chairs, spilling misti and rush for their bed with its new sheet and dunlopillo mattress that had been kept wrapped in its cellophane for protection.
In bed they would lie naked, sweating under the slow turning fan, and explore each other’s beautiful bodies all over again. Adhiratha would bury his face in Dolly’s thick black hair that smelled of the spices she had been cooking. He would kiss the softness of her neck and whisper, ‘I love you, Dolly, I love you Dolly, I love you Dolly.’
He went to work each day wearing his smart chauffeur cap and a pristine white uniform with the company logo embroidered on the pocket that had been lovingly starched and pressed by his little new wife.
After he had gone Dolly would sing as she dusted her house, washed up the dishes, and swept her yard. She remembered how she had quarrelled with her parents when they had tried to arrange her marriage but now she was so happy. Her heart sang with joy because she loved Adhiratha so much and because everything she wanted in the world had been given to her. A hundred times a day, as she swept and polished their bungalow and made special delicious things for her husband’s evening meal, Dolly would say to herself, ‘How lucky my parents insisted I got married to Adhiratha.’ They even had a little garden and Dolly would pick hibiscus, zinnias and canna lilies and arrange them in a jug, then blush with delight when Adhiratha came home and praised her artistry.
Dolly was invited to continue her education at the company school and when term began, each day she would walk across the compound to her class, crossing shady yards, under trees planted by the company, past beds of flowers. There she revelled in the company of girls of her own age and she and her friends would sometimes get a chance to go to the bioscope, then later imitate the accents and behaviour of Ashok Kumar, or swank around pretending to be Meena Kumari.
But no matter how much studying she did, nor how much fun she had with her friends in the day, when Adhiratha got home in the evening she was always there, ready with his evening meal. Her mother had taught her to cook. Her chupatties puffed out like footballs, her parathas were as thin and fine as silk, her kheers and paish the best on the company compound. When Adhiratha invited fellow workers to a meal they would marvel that so young a wife should turn out to be such a marvellous cook. Pulling her sari over her head in deference, she would serve out the food for them, while the young men teased her until she blushed. ‘Hey, Dolly, those chupatties will float up like balloons if you make them any lighter.’ ‘Hey, Dolly. I think I will throw away my own wife and take you home with me instead so that I can eat sag like you make every day.’
‘No you won’t, you swine,’ Adhiratha would josh back. ‘She’s mine. She’s the best thing in my life and I’m not giving her up for anyone.’
‘But when are you starting the baby?’ Dolly’s mother kept asking and patted Dolly’s stomach, which sounded hollowly empty.
‘We are waiting for a year. Till I take my exams,’ Dolly told her parents.
‘How modern,’ said the father. ‘Let us hope that the gods will not take offence.’
‘What do you mean?’ Dolly was startled.
‘They give us children when they decide. It is not up to you to make such decisions.’ He spoke fiercely. ‘Exams are not an excuse for delaying children.’
‘Oh, Baba, you don’t know anything,’ laughed the modern Dolly, amused by her parents’ silly superstitious and old-fashioned attitudes. ‘These days women don’t just have to fill the house with babies like they did when you and Ma were young.’
‘But why take such risks?’ said the mother, trying to soothe the situation. ‘What difference will it make? Have the baby and when it comes, God will look after you. And look after the baby.’
‘I plan to look after my baby, myself,’ said the blasphemous, proud Dolly.
Soon after their marriage it was the time of the Durga Puja.
Goddess Durga is the giver of rice. She is the mother. But she is also yellow and terrible. She is Devi, one of the female aspects of the Absolute, that infinite, inert and creative Silence. Her serene and aloof expression does not change as she slays the demon who is trying to destroy the world. She shows no trace of rage or emotion because, for her, the deed, the Cosmos and her self are only illusions, only parts of the Cosmic dream. She rides a lion, holds weapons in her many arms, is cool as a dream and calm as an untroubled river. She is the inaccessible, the inevitable, for she knows that all this is an illusion. All this is Maya. And Durga is responsible for the illusion, she is the illusion and she is only playing at creation. Creation is the play of the gods, nothing to be really taken seriously. That is what her calm face says.
Each year great images are made of her all over Bengal. Wood armatures fifteen feet high are wrapped with straw, then covered with clay, which is modelled into the smallest detail. Lips rich with scarlet gloss, eyelids dark with lamp khol, fingernails manicured with crimson lacquer, her tiny waist belted in gold, her human hair glossed with resin. Her tinsel-trimmed sari glitters and her cut-glass jewels sparkle.
The puja lasts for four days, during which the images, which have taken so many months to sculpt, are worshipped by the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, who present the goddesses with flowers, fruit, garlands and sweets. For Durga is very powerful and has it in her power to grant life to the dying, health to the sick, children to the infertile and husbands to the hideous. There is no one so rich and privileged that they never need her help.
There was much competition, at Durga Puja, among neighbourhoods and companies, but year after year Adhiratha’s employers always came out with the most beautiful image of the goddess and the most impressive shrine. The company shrine was an exact replica of a Hindu temple and as large. It was made of cotton material stretched over a bamboo frame which in the dark glowed with the light of a thousand multi-coloured electric bulbs. It was painted so realistically that people who saw it from a distance thought a new temple of brick and stone had sprung up overnight.
On the first Durga Puja after her marriage, Dolly made a dish of the milky sweets called shandesh. They were the shape of little fishes and she decorated them with foil of purest gold. When they were ready she put on her best sari and decorated her forehead with scarlet kumkum, then she walked across the compound to the shrine. There, many other people were making offerings to Durga. Some were prostrate on the ground before the goddess. Even the directors of this company had come with gifts for their goddess, for the company was thriving.
Dolly put the plate at the feet of the austere towering image, then, placing her palms together, knelt and bowed till her head touched the ground and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
After the period of worship was over, Adhiratha was one of those given the honour of carrying the goddess to the holy river, where she would be ritually immersed. People cried out Durga’s praises as the gigantic figure, with her calm face and ornate attire, was jogged along the roads. Some people ran ahead of the procession and threw themselves in the goddess’s path as though she was the Juggernaut and they wished to be crushed to death by her.
At the river other Durgas were arriving, though none as large and lovely as that which Dolly’s new young husband and the other men were carrying.
The company had two long boats waiting, boards lashed between them to form a platform for the statue. It was hauled onto this, then held in place and steadied with poles and ropes.
Dolly and Adhiratha stood on the bank watching while the boat was punted to the centre of the river which was already bobbing with a hundred little boats and rafts carrying Durgas of every size.
There, with the lookers-on ululating and shouting holy praises, the goddess was tipped into the river. As she sank, people scooped up handfuls of water, that had become further blessed by contact with the deity, and threw it over their heads. And as the goddess disappeared from sight, men filled their mouths with petrol and, setting fire to it with cigarette lighters, blew great arcs of flame over the water.
Firecrackers were hurled from the banks and bridges. Little clay lamps burning oil were set bobbing away on the water like luminous ducklings. For a while the whole bubbling river was spattered with bursts and crackles of fire and the wild cries of the people calling out to the vanishing goddess.
Dolly took her exams and did well. She had been married for a year. In the evening when Adhiratha got home he told her, ‘They have promoted me. I am to become head driver and will get a raise of a hundred and fifty rupees a month.’
Dolly put her arms round him and hugged. She felt so happy she could not speak. Then she whispered something.
‘What? I couldn’t hear.’ Adhiratha was teasing her. Although he had not heard, he knew quite well what she had said.
Her eyes down and whispering a little louder, she said, ‘We can start our family this year.’
‘Did you ask for Durga’s blessing?’ he asked, laughing, as he hung his chauffeur’s hat on the rack. His wife’s devotion to Durga always amused him. ‘It’s only a statue,’ he would say. ‘I’m the one who does all the hard work, while she just stands there. It’s me you should be thanking.’
‘Oh, you,’ Dolly chided. ‘You must not talk like that about the goddess. She might put a curse on us.’
That night Adhiratha made love to her without using a condom and afterwards they laughed and embraced each other, certain that the baby was already made.
After three months when Dolly had still not become pregnant, the first little flicker of worry began to set in. Dolly, only half joking, told Adhiratha, ‘I said you should not have spoken disrespectfully about the goddess.’
‘Silly girl,’ said Adhiratha. ‘It is early days. Look how well everything is turning out for us.’ His new job had earned them a bigger bungalow and the allowance for a couple of servants. There was only one little trouble to shade their lives – Adhiratha’s eyes often ached.
He had always had trouble with his eyes and his glasses were not a sign that he was educated or particularly literate as Dolly had presumed from looking at his photo. He had worn them since childhood.
‘Don’t keep rubbing them,’ Dolly urged and made eye-washes for him out of herbs and spices, remedies that the people in the village used when they could not afford a doctor.
Dolly woke in the night sometimes, to hear him moaning softly. She would gently massage his forehead with her thumbs till the pain ebbed away.
‘You have to see the doctor,’ she demanded and went on insisting in spite of his protests.
‘I am a driver. If this company finds out that I have problems with my sight they may sack me.’ He tried to soothe her, ‘My eyes have given trouble all my life. I know how to cope with it,’ but she would not be calmed. She felt sure his eyes were getting worse.
In the end, at her insistence, and with many misgivings, he agreed.
The company doctor gave Adhiratha painkillers and made an appointment for him to see a specialist.
Dolly had still not conceived a child by the third Durga Puja after their marriage. She was getting worried, no longer soothed by Adhiratha’s assurance that ‘it’s early days’. Her mother had been pregnant with her third child at this stage. Dolly felt ashamed to go and visit her parents these days.
‘What is the matter with you? Are you infertile or something?’ Dolly’s usually gentle mother became quite angry at the idea. And worried. Would Adhiratha’s family take revenge on her daughter, if they began to think she was infertile? There were stories of such failed brides having kerosene thrown over them then being set alight by the parents-in-law.
At this year’s Durga Puja, Dolly prostrated herself before the haughty goddess and instead of saying, ‘thank you’ said, ‘please, please, please’. She rose at last, speckled with grit from the ground, having only implored, ‘Make me a baby, make my husband’s eyes better.’
The specialist diagnosed Adhiratha’s problem as glaucoma, a build-up of fluid within the eyeball. He gave the young chauffeur drops to put in his eyes that might, over time, reduce the pressure.
‘How much time?’ asked Adhiratha.
‘One or two years. This medicine retracts the pupils, affecting your sight, so you must not drive a car for a couple of hours after application.’ Adhiratha had to get up two hours earlier each morning to get rid of the effects of the medicine in time for his day’s work and he lived in a constant state of anxiety in case he was called upon for emergency jobs, when his vision was still blurred.
‘It is preying on your mind, my husband,’ Dolly said. ‘Isn’t there another job the company can give you that does not need good sight?’ Secretly she began to think that part of the reason for her failing to conceive was because her husband was so worried and tired.
Six months later Adhiratha crashed a company car.
‘We are sorry to see you go,’ said the manager. ‘You have been an excellent driver.’
‘Is there no other job you can give me?’ pleaded Adhiratha.
The man bowed his head and looked sad. ‘If this had happened a year ago, yes, we might have found some place for you in the packing department. But last year we made a loss. We are getting rid of staff. I am so sorry, Adhiratha, but there is nothing I can offer you.’
Adhiratha was given a farewell party and a lump sum.
Dolly cried the day she and Adhiratha had to leave their bungalow in the company compound. She moved in with her parents while Adhiratha dossed down with friends and hunted for a place to live that they could afford. Because he had only been working for the company for five years, although they had been as generous as they could, the severance payment was not enough for him to rent anything better than a short-term lease of a room in the bustee.
‘It’s home, though,’ he told Dolly when she arrived to join him. ‘And knowing you, you’ll make it nice.’
Dolly cried again when she saw the sordid room.
‘I’ll get a job, don’t worry, don’t be afraid,’ Adhiratha tried to reassure her, but she could hear the fear in his voice too.
Adhiratha had no skills apart from driving and for a while worked as a taxi driver. But a smashed taxi put a stop to that.
‘Don’t worry, my darling,’ soothed Dolly. ‘We still have a little money left, and something is sure to turn up.’ By now he had to accept that his driving days were over. No longer treated by the free medical service of the company and without enough money to pay for the expensive drugs, his eyes rapidly deteriorated. He could hardly see six feet ahead of him. And what work can an almost blind man find in a city with so much unemployment?
‘Don’t be sad, darling husband,’ sobbed Dolly. ‘I have got my school cert so I should be able to get a job while you are looking for something. I might become a hotel receptionist.’ She felt quite excited at the idea and visualised herself seated behind a smart desk, wearing a uniform, and meeting all kinds of interesting people.
But when she went out in response to adverts in the Statesman she found that she was competing for humble jobs with people much more qualified than she was. Men and women who had left university with first-class degrees were clamouring to become shop assistants, bus conductors, railway clerks and company secretaries. Dolly didn’t stand a chance.
After six months the severance payment was nearly finished. Soon, not only would they have nowhere to live, they would have nothing to eat either.
‘We will have to go to the village and live with your parents,’ wept Dolly.
Adhiratha shivered at the idea. ‘They have ten other children and are trying so desperately to raise enough money for the dowries so that my two sisters can marry. If there is no work in the city there is certainly none in the village. How can we possibly inflict ourselves upon them?’ He felt sick with shame.
Next day Dolly went back to the company where she and Adhiratha had once been so happy. She went from bungalow to bungalow offering to do the washing for the families there. At the end of the day she had the promise of five households of washing.
She came home and told him, saying, ‘We will have to buy a charcoal steam iron.’
Adhiratha was aghast.
‘Suggest something else then,’ said Dolly. ‘At least I will be able to make just enough so that we have shelter and do not starve.’ She added with deepening bitterness, ‘Now I understand why Ma Durga never gave us a child. Because she knew we would not be able to afford to give it a decent life.’
Adhiratha held her tight against him, hugged and hugged her till her miserable shivering stopped.
Later he said, ‘We haven’t even got running water. How are you going to wash all these clothes?’
‘In the river. Like the other dhobis,’ said Dolly firmly.
‘Oh God.’ Adhiratha groaned and put his hands over his eyes. ‘But you don’t know anything about being a dhobi.’
‘Don’t know anything?’ she mocked. ‘Darling husband, who has been washing your clothes these last three years, since your mother stopped doing them? Have you ever complained? Weren’t your collars and cuffs always crisp with starch? Didn’t I always get the last grimy traces off them? Didn’t I starch your uniforms and dhotis with boiled rice water till they were so stiff they could have stood up on their own? How can you say I don’t know how to be a dhobi?’
‘But that was different,’ said Adhiratha. ‘In the bungalow we had hot running water from the tap. A clothesline in the garden. Electricity for the iron. Here you have none of those things.’ In the bustee room the only light was from oil lamps and lanterns. Water came from a ruptured pipe along the road.
But Dolly was undaunted. ‘There is no other way. I will manage.’
She washed endless piles of clothes, all day long, standing ankle-deep in the shallow part of the river, among a line of other dhobis. Daily at dawn she would be at the riverside wetting the garments, rubbing them with strong yellow soap, then beating them against a stone already rubbed smooth and shiny by hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of dhobi wear. From the time the sun rose until it sunk again Dolly beat the washing then laid it to dry on the riverbank. At night, carrying the vast heap of dry, clean washing on her head, she would return home. There she would prepare the evening meal for her husband and herself on a chula, a stove made in a pierced bucket that had been lined with mud and which burned the cow-dung fuel that Adhiratha collected and dried each day. Their morning meal was only rice water from the previous night’s cooking.
During the weeks that followed Adhiratha tried to help Dolly in every way he could. He struggled behind her carrying the heaps of dirty clothes. Went round the bungalows collecting the washing in a basket. Even tried to assist his wife in beating the clothes against the stones. In the end she told him, ‘It is not your dharma to be a dhobi. Try to find some work that is more suited to you.’
‘I am no good at it, you mean,’ he said humbly.
‘That is what I mean,’ she laughed.
Adhiratha found a job at last. Pulling a rickshaw.
It was Dolly’s turn to be aghast. ‘You are to become a rickshaw wallah? I am to be the wife of a rickshaw wallah?’
‘Well, I am the husband of a dhobi woman,’ he laughed. ‘We are coming down in the world. That is all.’ Then he gave her a hug and said, ‘We have still got each other. We are still young. Who knows what will turn up.’ He picked up her hand, and caressed it. It was wrinkled like the hand of a dead person from so much immersion in water.
‘We would be better off if we had never had the good period in the company compound,’ she thought. Their present situation, a home surrounded by stinking drains and a single daily meal of rice and dhall, would have been easier to bear, she thought, if she had not experienced those happy days in the leafy compound, where they ate chingri and hilsa and bathed their rice in ghee.
That year, on the first day of the Durga Puja, as Dolly passed the company shrine on her way to collect the dirty washing, she turned her head the other way. And hoped the goddess noticed and felt ashamed, for by this time Dolly and Adhiratha had been married for five years and, in spite of all her prayers, there was still no child. In fact Adhiratha had begun to say that it would be a disaster if Dolly became pregnant now.
Dolly was tempted not to offer homage to the goddess that year. She wanted to punish Durga who had given her a happy life for a very short time, so as to be able to take it away and let Dolly see what she was missing.
But all the same, after she had gone round all the houses, and her basket was full, she made her way back to the shrine.
She had gone without her meal the previous evening and bought a small milk sweet with the money she had saved. As she unwrapped this, her stomach let out a rumble of hunger. She became seized with a strong temptation to eat the sweet instead of giving it to a goddess who was never going to listen to her prayer. All the same she put the sweet down on its peepul leaf and prostrating herself, begged aloud, ‘Oh Mother Durga hear my prayer and make me a mother too.’ She did not mention Adhiratha’s eyes. Perhaps she had been presumptuous, the last four years, in asking the goddess for two favours at once.
She reached the river late because of her visit to the goddess. The other dhobis were already laying their clothes out on the rocks to dry.
Dolly waded out into the water and, wetting the first of her sheets, rubbed the harsh yellow soap over it. All afternoon, up to her thighs in water, she beat the cloth against the smooth rocks.
‘You had better hurry,’ said the other dhobis in the evening, as they folded their already dried clothes and stacked them in the baskets. ‘They will be bringing the Durga down here for immersion soon and you mustn’t still be in the water.’ Dolly had to bite back tears remembering the previous years when she had been celebrating the company puja with her husband. Now she was not even allowed to stand in the water when the goddess came.
Frantically Dolly worked but the pile was huge and the clothes filthy. By the time the sun began to set the other dhobis were leaving and she had still not finished.
She would have to take the wet washing home, ten times as heavy, to dry in the tiny apartment.
She heard the shouts. People were yelling, ‘Oi, Ma, get out of the water. The goddess is coming.’
She looked up and saw the procession approaching. Men in fresh white carrying the gigantic figure of Durga on a palanquin on their shoulders. Not Adhiratha this year. Rickshaw wallahs don’t carry the goddess.
They were coming to this part of the river to immerse the Durga.
‘Out of the water, out, out,’ they cried as they approached. To immerse the goddess in water polluted by an untouchable dhobi woman would be a terrible sacrilege.
Desperately Dolly began to gather up her pile of washing, pulling still wet sheets and saris, shirts and pajamas out of the water, hurrying because the Devi was very close.
Something bumped her knee as she scrabbled up her wet washing.
It was a hand of last year’s Durga, huge, the arms of clay long since melted away. It lay palm up, its beautiful fingers curled round something sharply gleaming. Dolly bent to take a closer look and felt amazed that the nail polish should still be intact after so long in the water, thrilled because the knuckles and finger rings were almost unblemished. She was thinking to herself, this must be a miracle, when the shining thing lying on the palm began to move as though it was alive. For a moment the light reflected off the holy hand became so bright that Dolly had to look away, dazzled.
When she could open her eyes, she bent to take a closer look and saw, cuddled among the goddess’ fingers, some creature with tinsel twisted round it. A puppy perhaps, that had got tangled in the remains of Durga’s marigold garlands.
The shouts of the approaching Durga worshippers were growing ever nearer and more furious.
Dolly was the only one still in the water but instead of hurrying, she bent, staring fascinated at what lay in the palm of last year’s goddess. The glittering thing let out a sound like the mewing cry of a cat. The hand began to twirl as the current caught it again.
Dolly’s arms were full of washing. It was only a half-dead kitten, then. Round the weighty bundle she did a namaskar of respect to the hand of Durga then turned away as the current caught the hand with its living glittering burden and started to twirl it off.
Then Dolly realised what the sparkling mewling thing was, dropped her armful of clean washing into the water and grabbed. Snatched the shining thing from out of the middle of the hand just a moment before it was carried out of reach.
She held a newborn child, still attached to its placenta and tangled up in sparkling tinsel. The hand that had prevented the baby from sinking went speeding off along the river.
Dolly stood thigh-deep in water, dazed with joy, because the goddess Durga had, after all these years, answered her prayer. Everybody knew that goddesses do not do things like ordinary people. This child had been sent to her in an unusual way, but all the same it was what she had asked for and what the goddess had given.
Grabbing up the once again filthy and now dripping washing and thrusting it into her basket, pressing the holy child against her breast and ignoring the furious outcry from the Durga worshippers, she waded out of the river and began to stagger home.
She arrived ages late. Adhiratha was home already and shocked at the sight of Dolly’s catch.
‘How are we going to feed this child?’ he demanded as Dolly began unravelling the baby from the twists of tinsel. ‘Put it back where it came from. We have hardly enough for ourselves. Wait till we get a child of our own then it will be able to drink milk from your breast and will cost us nothing.’
Dolly was furious. ‘How dare you speak in such a way of the gift of the goddess?’
‘Well, she should have provided some food for the child. How can she expect us to feed it?’ All the same he could not help creeping over and peeping curiously into the face of the little newborn baby.
‘Getting things from the gods is not like going shopping,’ Dolly ranted on. ‘You don’t just go and say “I would like two kilos of baby” as though you were buying onions. You don’t say “I want a couple of breastfuls of milk as well as a baby”. You just take what you get.’ The last of the tinsel was unravelled and then Dolly let out a scream of surprise for hanging round the little boy’s neck she had found a golden chain from which hung a disc. Taking it to the window she read the words ‘Koonty Pandava of the Hatibari of Hatipur’.
She turned to her husband, her eyes filled with amazement, and repeated the words to him. Her surprise now became touched with a tiny chill of fear which Adhiratha echoed by saying, ‘That is some other woman’s child.’
‘It is not. It is mine,’ cried Dolly hugging the baby against her body, and wishing the disc had been washed away in the water.
As she carried the new child to the water spurt, she felt terribly tempted to sell the piece of gold and then pretend it had never existed. She felt a scald of conflict. Without the disc the baby would have no identity but the one that she and Adhiratha gave it. Without that disc she and her husband were the baby’s parents. But on the other hand this piece of gold and the information it gave were the baby’s only possessions. She had no right to take them from him and one day the little child might need to know who he was.
She shook her head and tried to dash away the worrying thoughts that the disc aroused in her as she rubbed the mud from the baby’s body. When she got back into the room with the now spotless baby, Adhiratha was rushing round, hunting for something. He looked up, laughing, at the sight of her holding the child against her chest. The baby was making little whimpering sounds and nuzzling its lips into Dolly’s choli.
‘What have you lost?’ asked Dolly. The desperation of the baby was troubling her.
Triumphantly he held out his hands. ‘I knew I had some paise hidden in this pocket. I’ll go out now and buy some milk for her.’
‘For him,’ laughed Dolly. Happy tears began to run down her cheeks because she knew everything would be all right from now on. Holding the now howling baby in one arm, she reached up and kissed Adhiratha.
‘You don’t know how much I love you,’ she said. ‘You just don’t.’
‘I won’t be long,’ he said as he rushed out. ‘I expect there will be some left over at the khatal.’
The cattle stall in the centre of their area was owned by the landlord and his tenants bought milk for their households and businesses from there as well as using the dung for fuel.
Dolly stood at the open door looking down into the darkness of the stairway, till she heard at last the sound of his footsteps receding.
The baby went on crying for a little while and then, exhausted, fell asleep.
Dolly waited, thinking, ‘He is being a very long time. Perhaps there was no milk left at the khatal. Perhaps he has had to go to the house of the Gwala.’
An hour later she was still waiting. The baby woke up again and once more began crying. Where could Adhiratha be?
After another hour, in which Dolly started to panic and the baby’s desperation was unendurable, she decided the only hope was to go from room to room, and hut to hut begging milk from someone.
Adhiratha never came back. He was hit by a lorry and died on the spot. It was two days of numbing dread and misery before Dolly found out.
Sankha’s voice, Gandhiva’s accents, and the chariot’s booming sound,Filled the air like distant thunder, shook the firm and solid ground. Kuru’s soldiers fled in terror or they slumbered with the dead,And the rescued lowing cattle with their tails uplifted fled.
Shivarani Gupta, Koonty’s eldest sister, was so tall by the time she was thirteen that her father began to worry that she might never find a husband.
Shivarani laughed, called him an old silly and accused him of knowing nothing about the modern world in which, she said, tall women were the fashion.
By the time Shivarani was sixteen she was taller than ever and her father’s anxiety was greatly increased. As was her mother’s.
The Guptas lived on a modern bungalow on the Hatibari estate that had been built ten years earlier to house the estate manager. Meena Gupta, Shivarani’s mother, went once a week to Calcutta to meet her friends at the Calcutta Club where they ate miniature samosas, drank flowery orange pekoe and played mahjong. And there Meena Gupta poured out her worries.
‘Shivarani is growing like this sort of giraffe because of the genes of my husband’s family. My sister-in-law is nearly six feet tall and if my mother had known about her, she would have forbidden the marriage for everyone knows what difficulties come to families whose daughters are too large.’
Mrs Gupta’s Calcutta Club friends smiled with sympathy, thinking how dreadful it must be for someone as fair and small as Mrs Gupta to have a dark giantess for a daughter.
The Guptas began to approach suitable families, hoping for a match for their lanky daughter while she still possessed one marriageable asset, the bloom of youth.
Three times Shivarani was paraded, wearing her prettiest sari and Meena Gupta’s most costly jewels, before the parents of suitable boys. Three times the Gupta family heard no more of the matter until receiving an invitation to a wedding. The suitable boy was marrying a shorter fairer girl.
‘So many boys wanting to marry Shivarani,’ lied Mrs Gupta to her Cal Club friends. ‘Boy after boy, from good family after good family brought before her for approval and like princess in fairy tale, she rejects them. Eeny meeny miney mo.’
There followed insincere commiseration on the unreasonableness of nubile daughters. ‘We all have such a girl at home, don’t we know it.’ They knew that in reality it was the boy, or his family, who was rejecting Shivarani. But then what good family would marry a girl like that?
Someone said helpfully, ‘I have seen a product for lightening the skin being advertised. Perhaps you can purchase it in Sahib Singh’s.’
The suggestion made Mrs Gupta unreasonably cross. ‘And why should I require such stuff? Are you saying my daughter is black, Leela?’
‘Have another little samosa, Meena. Don’t pay attention to silly Leela,’ the friends tried to soothe.
Meena Gupta, silently blaming her husband for his outsize sister, nibbled her samosa through a veil of tears and vowed, though there was nothing to be done about the height, she would try to lighten Shivarani’s complexion the moment she got home.
After the third rejection Shivarani, her face red with her humiliation, her eyes red with tears, said she would not allow herself to be paraded any more. Her parents, frantic with worry, because what sort of life was there for a woman without marriage, begged Shivarani to give the process just one more chance. Reluctantly the girl agreed. ‘But on condition, no jewels and no pretty sari. They must see me as I am.’ Shivarani’s parents shuddered. What hope was there for the girl, unless she was disguised in opulence and glamour? But those were Shivarani’s terms and she appeared before the aunts and mother of the prospective bridegroom wearing a plain handloom sari in beige and, ‘Oh no, my God,’ whimpered Meena, a pair of high-heeled shoes. ‘You said they must see you as you are, but you are not as high as that,’ mourned Meena Gupta but Shivarani insisted. Either she would appear thus dressed or not at all.
There came a little gasp from the assembled family of the prospective bridegroom that Meena knew was not of admiration. But all the same they continued with their questioning as though, in spite of everything, they were still interested.
A photo of the boy was produced. Meena accepted it with caution and for a moment hardly dared focus her eyes on it. There was sure to be something dreadfully wrong with the fellow or why was his family, even after seeing Shivarani in her khadi sari and high heels, still considering her? When Meena at last dared to look, she thought he was quite handsome.
When Shivarani saw the photo, for the first time in the husband-choosing process, she actually smiled. ‘He looks nice,’ she said.
At last Meena Gupta felt it was safe to tell her club friends. She was unable to keep the triumph out of her voice as she said, ‘He is good-looking, of high intelligence, from excellent family, and what more can any mother want for their daughter?’ Meena thought she saw a quick glance flash between two of her friends. ‘What?’ she asked. ‘I there something I don’t know?’
‘Of course not,’ said Leela hastily. ‘I have never seen the fellow and I am sure he is a very good match.’ She had been on the rough end of Meena’s temper once already and did not want to risk it again.
Meena went to have tea with the boy’s parents and to meet the boy himself while Shivarani waited anxiously at home. But when Meena, usually the most garrulous of women, returned, she hung her shawl on the hook and removed her outdoor slippers in silence.
Shivarani clenched her hands till her knuckles went white, and waited. After a long silent moment she asked, ‘What was he like?’
‘Very nice,’ said Meena. ‘Just as good-looking as in the photo. And he is clever too.’
‘Yes, but,’ pressed Shivarani.
Meena turned her back to her eldest daughter and looking into the hall mirror, began patting down her hair.
‘There is something wrong with him?’
Meena, her gaze on her reflection, shook her head.
‘But I know there is something,’ Shivarani pursued.
‘Well …’ said Meena.
‘What, yes? What?’ Shivarani could hardly bear it.
Meena shrugged gently and said, ‘He is young. Perhaps he will grow a little more.’
Shivarani, frowning, said, ‘Young? How young? I thought you said he was nearly thirty.’
‘That is young,’ said Meena stiffly.
‘What are you telling me?’ cried Shivarani. ‘That you are hoping a man of nearly thirty will keep on growing?’
‘But you never know. That’s what I am thinking,’ murmured Meena Gupta and winked a tear away.
Shivarani stared at her mother’s back and the colour drained from her face. ‘He’s a midget, you mean?’
‘Hush hush,’ soothed her mother. ‘Size is not all. He comes from a prosperous family. He looks like a very nice person. He has doctorates in three subjects. And most important of all, you are so tall and so if you have a short husband your children will come out the right size.’
Shivarani burst out in fury. ‘You want me to marry a dwarf so that your grandchildren come out the right size? That’s really amazing,’ she roared. ‘That is the end,’ she said. ‘No more bridegrooms. I will make my own way in the world.’
Meena Gupta knew then that the battle was lost and that Shivarani might never marry.
Her consolation became her youngest child, Koonty. Meena drew a pencil line on the frame of the door, measured the child weekly and each time felt reassured that Koonty was growing at a normal speed. Meena was not sure what she would do if her youngest child started sprouting too. Perhaps there were things she could do if the fault was discovered early enough. Maybe Sahib Singh’s, the Park Street chemist, had a medicine for slowing human growth. Meena was watchful of Koonty’s complexion too. She kept a photo of Shivarani at the same age, and at regular intervals held it up against Koonty’s cheeks, comparing for darkness although it is difficult to see skin colour properly in a black and white photo.
Shivarani’s parents began to feel despondent about the future of their big dark daughter. Meena, who could not think of anything more dreadful for a woman than to remain unmarried, said hopeful things like, ‘Perhaps your Papa could find the cash to send you to UK. I have heard that the men there are not all that fussy about what kind of woman they are married to,’ and could not understand why Shivarani suddenly burst out weeping.
‘What are you saying, Meena?’ cried Shivarani’s father, outraged. ‘That our darling should be shipped off to marry some undiscriminating gora?’ And to Shivarani, ‘Marriage is not all, my darling, no matter what your mother says. Perhaps you could join some religious community and devote your life to love of God. Mahadevi did so and she experienced constant holy bliss in spite of being without husband.’ Mahadevi was a Tamil saint of the middle ages who, abandoning all aspects of society, including clothes, wandered South India clad only in her long hair, devoting her life to Shiva and singing hymns to him. Shivarani’s father adored his eldest child, but felt he could not properly understand her because of the way her weeping intensified at his suggestion.
Shivarani went to college, put all her attention on her work and tried not to notice the way the young male students responded gently to other girls but not to her. She had friends, even among the men, but they treated her as though she was a friend, and like one of them. How else could have they been to a woman who was an inch or so higher than the tallest guy?
One of the young men was a joker. No matter how serious the conversation he would always spoil everything by some silliness or other. In the evenings when the young men and women gathered in the dark and grimy coffee house and were in the midst of a serious discussion about the fear of war with Pakistan, Bhima would ruin it all by making a funny face then chanting, ‘When I kiss a little Hindu I’m careful not to smudge her bindu. When I kiss a Pakistani I hold her tight and call her “jani”.’ The others, unable to stop laughing at such nonsense, would all the same get cross. ‘That rubbish has spoiled the important tone of our conversation.’
The students would talk for hours over a single bitter brew of dirt-cheap coffee-flavoured chicory, discussing the problems of India. There were those who said things would only be solved by a revolution after which corruption would be rooted out, education made available for all and equality created for Indians of every caste and either sex. To destroy the present society and rebuild it better was considered by some the only solution to the present problems of corruption and inequality. Others though disagreed, and felt that change could only come by building on what was already there and that killing people and destroying property would never solve anything. The arguments would grow increasingly heated as the night wore on and in the end they always seemed to turn to Shivarani for arbitration as if, though the same age as the rest, she was perceived as older and wiser. One evening it was only she and Bhima still left, still arguing. Darkness had fallen, fireflies started to sparkle in the trees and the mosquitoes started to bite. Bhima, instead of listening to her ideas on education for all, began trying to balance a glass of water on his head, an experiment ending with water gushing over his nose. ‘You look like Shiva catching the Ganges on his head,’ said Shivarani strictly. ‘And you have not been listening.’ She did not approve of such frivolity.
‘Your beautiful hair is on fire,’ said Bhima, wiping his face. He gently took a firefly from her head, and held out the little flashing light to her in his palm. Shivarani suddenly could not remember what she had been about to say.
When she came home for her vacation Shivarani was shocked at the frivolity of her younger sister, Koonty, who rampaged round the Hatibari estate playing with the local children as though she was one of them and whose bedroom walls were covered in posters of film stars. ‘Even here, in the village of Hatipur, there are children who don’t have enough to eat,’ said Shivarani. ‘You should be thinking about things like that instead of getting swoony over some film star. Tomorrow I am going to the village to see what help I can give the people there. You should come with me.’
‘Don’t get cross with me so soon,’ begged Koonty. ‘Tell me about the people in college? Did you fall in love?’
Shivarani hesitated for the smallest moment before saying, ‘No.’
Koonty could not come with Shivarani to the village. She had been invited to the Hatibari by the young zamindar. ‘I will come with you next time, I swear, Didi,’ she said.
Shivarani jumped, startled at the creaking stirring of a bush, thinking that a snake was about to emerge, and had told herself that if the brain-fever bird did not shut up, she would be driven mad. When she was halfway to Hatipur the bird did fall silent for a while, and then all she could hear were the squawks of mynahs, the high screams of the rose-ringed parakeets robbing the guava trees and the river slapping its banks like an arrogant hero beating his thighs. The air was peppery and stung a little, as though the leathery trees and the bushes with their dangerous-looking speckled leaves were gasping spice. She wished her parents had not chosen to live in such an out-of-the-way place.
As Shivarani arrived a cry went round for someone to bring a chair for the Hatibari manager’s daughter. Ignoring their protests and refusing the battered plastic seat she told the gathering crowd, ‘I have been studying for the past three years, learning about the problems faced by the villagers of India. Now that I am back, please tell me what has been going on here.’
At once a great babble of excitement rose. People, packing tightly round her, began to talk all at once. They waved their arms, beat their breasts and dramatically pulled at their hair as they told of the things they needed – a well so they would not have to go so far for water, a bus service, a health clinic and most of all electricity. ‘Also we would like our own cinema,’ they told her. ‘At present we must travel to Dattapukur three miles away to see the films and because we are from outside, we have to sit at the back while those from Dattapukur get all the good places. And also when it is raining there is only a small tarpaulin for shelter and we of Hatipur are forced to sit outside of it till we become completely wetted. Even those with umbrellas become wetted underneath because of the water running over the earth.’
Shivarani quickly turned the conversation to drains, school books, clean water and medical care but every now and again one or another of the young men would let out an ear-splitting yell of ‘yahoo.’ ‘They have been to see the film of Jungly,’ a woman explained. ‘Have you seen this wonderful film, Memsahib Shivarani? In this Shamee Kapoor is this wild man, who is constantly shouting in such a way.’
‘But although hanging from trees and such like he is of a very handsome type,’ said another. ‘Like the gopis and their passion for the blue god, Krishna, all the women of Hatipur are in love with this fellow though the married ones do not mention it to their husbands.’ The surrounding girls giggled protests and hid their faces in their hands while the men of their families looked at them accusingly.
Shivarani brought the conversation back to tangible problems that she might have a chance of solving.
A woman spoke up, ‘My name is Laxshmi. If you wish to be helpful then you should do something for me. I have three daughters already …’ she gestured to three little girls wearing starched frocks, with bows in their hair. ‘I am pregnant again. If this child is a girl as well, my husband has said he will leave me. So can you make this child into a male?’
Others began to pour out their problems. They began to tell Shivarani of the paralysed grandmother who had to be carried everywhere, the threatening mother-in-law, the child that did not thrive, the cow that had dried up too soon, the virus in the tomatoes. One man described his happiness because his cow had given birth to a female calf. Another expressed his dismay because his wife had given birth to a female child. And then there were the widows. There were fourteen of them. ‘Perhaps you can find some work for us, Shivarani Memsahib,’ they said. ‘For these days we hardly get enough to eat for even if the families of our husbands wanted to, they would be unable to spare enough for us after the children have eaten.’
‘The wife of the misti wallah has a trouble and needs your help,’ someone told her. Shivarani followed him.
The misti wallah’s wife was sitting on bolsters in the room at the back of the shop, pressing shandesh into little wooden moulds in the shape of fishes. The room smelled of sugar and buzzed heavily with bees and flies and the misti wallah’s back was visible through the bamboo curtain, as he sat cross-legged behind his piles of sweets.
‘I want my eldest sons, Rahul and Ravi, to go to school, but instead they are thieving around the village and their father does nothing to stop them,’ said the woman. ‘Ravi is the leader, and Rahul, though the eldest, follows him. I want the best for our children and my husband says he does too, but it costs money and the attention of the father to bring up children properly.’
The misti wallah’s back flinched as though he heard or guessed what his wife was saying about him. He worked very hard, getting up before sunrise to separate the curds and set the dahis. For hours, even on the hottest days he would be toiling over a vat of hot oil, dribbling in the batter to make jellabies, then dropping the hot crisp squirls into simmering sugar syrup. After his stall opened he would be sitting there all day long, serving customers with rosogullas, Lady Kennies, gulab jamans, shandesh. Spooning almond-spiked paishes and rose-flavoured kheers into terracotta pots. Packing jellabies into banana leaf and tying the bundle with thread. Even after the stall was closed his work would still not be finished. He would still have to seal the jars of warm curd with muslin and waxed paper before carrying them to the river to cool all night in the shallows there. The evenings in the drink shop were his relaxation. He looked forward all day to the hour when he would be able to sit in silence in the little concrete room of the arrak shop and down a few tumblers of arrak. Then, fully drunk, his worries about his out-of-control sons and his wife’s complaints forgotten, he would stagger home and sleep.
The misti wallah, on his way to the arrak shop, would sometimes pass the bullock cart on which his wife and children were squashed among the other villagers, on their way to see the film at Dattapukur. His wife, like the other women, wearing her brightest sari and with jasmine in her hair, his sons wearing oversized shorts, with their hair greased down and behaving properly for once, crammed among little girls in frocks embroidered with glittering thread and men in starched pyjamas. ‘Why don’t you come with us instead of getting drunk,’ his wife would cry as he squeezed onto the verge to let the cart rumble by. ‘The cinema will not give a headache and tonight is one very good film.’
Later, at the arrak shop, the misti wallah would settle onto the cool cement seat, glass in hand, and hear the shrill excited laughter and the creaking of the axle receding, as the cart made its way out of the village, and feel grateful for the silence that followed the departure of his family.
‘My children are getting a bad example,’ said the wife as she began to shake the shandesh fishes from their moulds and decorate them with silver leaf. ‘That must be the reason for their bad behaviour but I am hoping that, since you are college returned and therefore of a great cleverness, you will speak with my husband and ask him to desist from the drinking of arrak, and come instead to the cinema with us.’
The zamindar’s son, Pandu, had taken Koonty all down the long gallery, telling her about the family portraits. And now they sat on the verandah drinking nimbu pani with ice. Although he was so much older he talked to Koonty as though she was as grown-up as him, telling her of his plans to bring the Hatibari back to its former glory. ‘In the days of my grandfather there were fifty servants, and all the land you see in every direction belonged to our family.’ He was planning to buy a herd of Jersey cows, he told Koonty. ‘There are all these stables that my grandfather used for his pig-sticking horses and they will make good byres.’ He brought out photo albums. ‘Look how pretty my great-grandmother was. And this aunt, see her. Isn’t she beautiful? Though not as beautiful as you.’
Koonty felt a heat in her cheeks and, unable to work out how a modest woman was supposed to respond to such a compliment, said nothing. Kuru Dadoo, who was Pandu’s father, joined them and, pointing to a faded sepia photo, said, ‘That is me on the day I saved the life of a Calcutta box wallah. I was a hero in my time though you wouldn’t believe it now.’ Then he laughed till his big stomach shook, pinched Koonty’s cheek till it was sore and popped a sweetie in her mouth as though she was a little girl and not a woman of thirteen and said, ‘I hope you will be visiting us often because I need a pretty little girl around.’
Meena Gupta became very excited and hopeful when she heard of the visit. And a few days later when Koonty was invited round again Meena went nearly hysterical with hope. Kuru Dadoo had talked of Koonty’s marriage with Pandu.
‘Tell me word for word what he said.’
‘I’ve told you twenty times and I’m not going to say it any more,’ cried an exasperated Koonty.
‘Once more,’ pleaded the mother. These words were music to her after the dreadful business of Shivarani.
‘He said, “If she was a little less jungly and a bit more modest Koonty would make a suitable bride for you, Pandu,” but he might have been only joking. I don’t think he really meant it. And anyway I don’t want to be married. I want to go on being as I am.’ Being as she was consisted of swimming in the river with Pandu and his boy cousins or even going with them into the village and playing games of cricket with the village boys in the main street.
‘All this must stop instantly,’ said Meena, who felt as though Koonty had grown up into a young woman in a moment, and without anyone noticing. Whatever could she have been thinking of to let things come to such a pass? She forbade all further visits to the village, and put a stop to meetings with the Pandava and Kaurava boys unless there was a chaperone present. Koonty cried and begged, but Meena was filled with terror mixed with a marvellous hope.
Shivarani had managed to solve a few of the village’s problems. She had got money from Oxfam to dig a tube well, and had started a little industry for the fourteen widows. They now made blue-eyed, yellow-haired dolls which Shivarani sold to a Calcutta toyshop. But Meena was not impressed. ‘What is this, going around all day among those dirty people? I think that you are stirring up trouble where no trouble was before, and sooner or later it will come to the ears of the zamindar. Do you want your father to lose his work here? Then you will be in the state of these poor people of Hatipur that you are so sorry about.’
‘Don’t listen to Ma,’ Koonty tried to console. ‘I think it’s wonderful, all the things you are doing. I wish I was a good person like you but I just couldn’t do it. I know I couldn’t.’
When Koonty was nearly fifteen Pandu’s mother formally requested the union in marriage of Koonty with her son Pandu. Meena, nearly fainting with joy, reflected that the last year of Koonty’s sulks and rows had been a small price to pay for this wonderful reward.
Koonty now spent her days moping alone in the garden while the boys rushed around on their bicycles or went swimming in the river. ‘Of course you may not swim. Have you forgotten you are to be the wife of the young zamindar?’ ‘Certainly you may not go on a bicycle. That is not at all a suitable behaviour for a bride-to-be.’
Sometimes Shivarani, feeling sorry for her lonely sister, would sit with her and brush Koonty’s hair or rub mustard oil into her fingers, while Koonty told her sister the story of the latest film she had seen. ‘The Mahabharata. And the Sun God is absolutely gorgeous, though the one I like best of all is Arjuna. I’ve got a poster of him on my wall.’ Shivarani would tell Koonty about the things that were happening in the village, how Ravi, the misti wallah’s son, had broken the darjee’s sewing machine, how Laxshmi had given birth to a daughter and her husband had left her and how she was having difficulties in getting the doll shop to pay up. ‘The widows need the money so badly. You have no idea how poor they are. It’s not just a matter of having to wear white and being forbidden jewels. Their husbands’ families treat them as though surviving their husbands is a punishable offence.’
‘I would hate to be a widow,’ said Koonty. ‘I would kill myself if my husband died.’ And she touched the gold medallion that Pandu had given her the day before.
‘What a way to talk,’ cried Shivarani. ‘Here are you not even married and you are talking of your husband dying and you killing yourself. And you should not be accepting gifts from your husband-to-be at this time. Especially you should not accept something valuable like that so near to the wedding.’
Koonty crinkled her nose and hastily tucked the symbol of Pandu’s love back into her blouse.
‘Don’t screw up your pretty face like that,’ said Shivarani. ‘I know you are going to look beautiful on your wedding day but all the same you must be careful not to get a wrinkle.’
Koonty laughed. ‘And so will you look beautiful, Didi, because you’ll have to wear nice clothes and jewels for my wedding instead of those ghastly drab old saris.’
Shivarani shook her head and smiled. ‘It wouldn’t matter how I was dressed. Nothing will make me pretty. I will always be ugly.’
Koonty was appalled. ‘But Didi, how can you say such a thing? It’s because you don’t even try. Here. I’ll show you how to do flirting things with your sari. You never know. Some gorgeous man might come to my wedding and fall in love with you.’ Leaping up she demonstrated. ‘Just flip the palu like this, as though by mistake.’
Shivarani did a reluctant tweak.
‘Not like that,’ protested Koonty. ‘You’ve got to do it daintily and at the same time your eyes have to give a quick glance in his direction and then you have to look away.’
Shivarani was away during the months leading up to the wedding, travelling round the villages with her college friend Malti, seeing what could be done to help the villagers.
Villagers would instantly drop what they were doing when the two girls arrived, and stare, fascinated. Strangers were always exciting but the big one with the black face amazed them. Sometimes a whisper would go round among the children. ‘Where are her other arms?’ They thought that Shivarani was the goddess Kali. Malti was a type these villagers had encountered doing charity work at the health clinic or coming to instruct them on birth control. She was normal height, fair-skinned, wore gold earrings and her sari, though simple, was clearly expensive. They had never seen anyone like Shivarani before. It was not only her height and dark complexion. She wore no jewels and her wrists were bare, though even the poorest village woman wore at least a glass bangle. Her hair was short like a man’s and, in fact, although she wore a cheap handloom sari, they could hardly tell if this was man or woman. Perhaps it is a hirja, they whispered to one another. Hirjas were people of indeterminate gender, who wore women’s clothes and had the voices of men. They were frightening people, who appeared at the birth of a baby threatening to curse the child unless they were given payment. Shivarani’s voice was nearly as gruff as a man’s as she boomed out her party’s promises of education, clean water, and food, housing and transport for all.
Meena was horrified, and when she met her eldest daughter would scold, ‘Once more you are stirring up trouble where no trouble was before. You should be at home, in the Hatibari helping with the preparations for your sister’s wedding, not rampaging round the countryside and hobnobbing with all these dirty villagers.’
As the day of her younger sister’s wedding grew closer a letter from her mother persuaded Shivarani to return to Hatipur.
‘Although I have never known you give way to envy, anyone might think you are jealous of your sister now, in her time of joy,’ wrote Meena. ‘The Kaurava family are already commenting on your absence. Please come back at once, Shivarani. The wedding takes place in two weeks and there is much to be done before that.’
Shivarani felt ashamed as she reluctantly made her arrangements to go home. She hoped she would be able to look at her sister, wearing the red sari of the bride, without her feelings showing.
She arrived in the village to find the whole place a buzz of action and expectation. All along the main street, silk, chiffon, gold zaree and shadow appliqué poured from the needles of the squatting darjees’ ancient Singer sewing machines. The air steamed with the breath of garlic, chillies and palm tree jaggery as ingredients for the wedding feast arrived on lorries. The rickshaw wallah, who usually was unable to stand the sight of Shivarani walking, no matter how often she refused him, now trotted past her, his face hidden under banana fronds, his carriage laden with the potted trees purchased from Dattapukur that were to decorate the wedding pandal. He did not even notice the towering, striding figure of Shivarani Gupta in her dusty sari and her hacked-off hair. The pandal itself was arriving too, a lorryload of acres of gaudy cotton stitched with mirrors and fringed with little silver bells and fifteen-foot bamboo poles to form the frame. The great wedding tent, when erected, would tower above the Hatibari, be more brightly coloured than the cinema posters of Dattapukur. It was going to look more realistically like a glittering palace than the most voluptuous set from a Bollywood movie.
As Shivarani passed the Hatibari on her way to her parents’ house, Pandu’s brother’s wife and Boodi Ayah were crouching on the verandah floor, arranging presentations for the bride. Gadhari looked up at Shivarani’s greeting. ‘I hope your sister is going to like these things, though in all the years that I have known her I have never seen her with a handbag once, let alone with fifty-three.’ She told Shivarani bitterly that their task was to artistically arrange a matching set of blouse, petticoat, slippers and handbag onto each of fifty-three plastic trays. ‘With no sides,’ complained Gadhari. ‘And the weather so hot that the sellotape will not stick.’
Shivarani stayed and helped for a while, struggling with the slippery plastic and the unruly silk and leather, while Gadhari muttered things like, ‘They never gave anything like this to me when I was married.’ And ‘What woman can make use of fifty-three pairs of chappals?’ And, ‘Wait till she gets pregnant, then what use will these little blouses be to her? To me it is a perfect waste but Kuru Dadoo has insisted.’
Outside, Gadhari’s sons shouted and laughed as they pedalled new trikes among the rose beds, while from an upstairs balcony their grandfather, Kuru Dadoo, watched them with pleasure. ‘He gave them the trikes yesterday, but he is going to regret it when all his precious rose bushes have been destroyed,’ said Gadhari.
When Shivarani left at last, Kuru Dadoo called out from his balcony, ‘Good afternoon Shivarani, we have a great day to look forward to, have we not? And when are you getting married, my dear girl?’ Shivarani felt her face grow hot as she hurried on.
Meena came running out. ‘At least you are come at last. One would think that the unknown peasant women are more important to you than your own sister. And don’t tell me you walked all the way here from the station.’
‘Where is Koonty? She must be feeling terribly excited. Only a week to go,’ said Shivarani.
‘She’s in her room. Go and see her. She’s been a bit mopey lately.’
Shivarani found Koonty sitting, listless and pasty, on the edge of her bed. The wall was tattered with the remnants of ripped paper, as though the cinema posters had been dragged off wildly. ‘I don’t like the cinema any more,’ said Koonty dully. Her hair was lank as though she had not brushed it. She did not get up. And Shivarani, instead of feeling pleased that her sister had grown out of the frivolous stage and might now be about to take an interest in more serious things, felt worried.
‘What is wrong with her?’ she asked Meena later. ‘Has she been ill, or something?’
‘There is nothing wrong at all,’ said Meena. ‘Koonty is, as is to be expected, feeling somewhat apprehensive about the coming ceremony, which is due to be quite the biggest event this village has seen since the marriage of the old zamindar and at which very much will be required of her. I myself was rendered unconscious several times over during my own wedding and I was only marrying into a middle-income family, though of unfortunately large genes. So you may imagine how it must be for your sister. Also she is behaving, at last, with the dignity of a woman who is about to become the bride of the zamindar though you, with your cavortings round the villages, would not know anything about proper behaviour.’
‘Ma must be right,’ thought Shivarani, but all the same could not get from her mind that there was something more wrong with Koonty than dignity or apprehension.
After a while Meena admitted that Koonty had been depressed ever since the day she lost the golden jewel that Pandu had given her. ‘Even after I told her, don’t worry about that, for at the wedding she will be given a hundred times as much gold and that I am sure the young zamindar will not be angry but will give her another if he comes to know of the loss, she has not been made happy.’
‘Koonty is forever losing things. The last time I was here she had mislaid the sovereign piece that the zamindar had given her and she didn’t seem to mind a bit. You were the one who was furious,’ protested Shivarani.
‘Then there was the episode at the river,’ went on Meena. ‘When you were away she tried to rescue a kitten, or so we think, though she will not talk about it. However, it seems that the creature was carried away by the current and it is from that time that Koonty seems to have suffered from a lowering of the spirits. Perhaps you can talk to her and see if you can find the source of the trouble.’
Shivarani managed to persuade Koonty to come out of her room and be measured for a blouse to go with her wedding sari. Koonty emerged unsteadily and stood passive while Shivarani wound the tape measure round her body. ‘I think it’s stupid to be making more blouses,’ she said. ‘Considering how you told me they are sending me fifty-three new ones, stuck to trays with sellotape, from the Hatibari.’
‘Keep still,’ said Shivarani, her mouth full of pins. ‘Are you looking forward to the wedding?’
‘Yes,’ said Koonty in a voice that made it sound like ‘no’. Her thoughts seemed far away.
‘Why do you keep staring at the river? Can you see something there?’
‘No reason,’ said Koonty and looked down at her feet as though the question frightened her.
‘Do you know what happens on the wedding night?’ she asked. Koonty said nothing, but something wet touched Shivarani’s bowed-over neck and when she looked up she saw that there were tears falling from Koonty’s eyes.
Shivarani asked, ‘Do you want me to tell you?’ wondering how to phrase it if Koonty said yes.
‘No,’ said the girl. ‘I do know. You needn’t tell me.’
As the day of the wedding approached the activity of Hatipur reached fever pitch. From every side came the sound of hammering, as decorations were erected, the pandal completed, the ovens for cooking the feast erected. Meena had to take to her bed twice in the course of that last week, overcome by nervous exhaustion. Every man and woman and child in the village was occupied in some way with the preparations for the ceremony itself or purchasing or manufacturing gifts and overseeing the stitching of their own new outfits. The wedding was to last two weeks, and the richer people of the village planned to wear different clothes on every day. Goats, chickens and sheep were being fattened for slaughter and the flour for ten thousand chupatties purchased, for two thousand people would have been fed by the time this wedding was over.
These days every conversation in the village would sooner or later come to the subject of the wedding gifts. People tended to panic on hearing what someone else was giving, and would rush away and exchange what they had already bought for something more expensive. The widows were sewing a pair of three-foot-high dolls, dressed in UK bridal outfits, for their gift. Laxshmi was giving the bridal couple her best mother hen, who, when broody, had not left her eggs during the loudest fireworks of Diwali and had fought off a water buffalo that had come too near her chicks.
The misti wallah was creating a vast shandesh fish, big enough for five hundred people, and decorated with leaf of gold and pearls from Hyderabad. The rickshaw wallah, whose rickshaw had been painted gold, was going to transport guests free of charge.
A special tent was erected for the viewing of the bride and groom and on the day row upon row of guests poured into it, their eyes fixed on the two empty thrones which were soon to be occupied by the bridal couple. As they waited silver trays of sandal paste were circulated for the guests to ornament their foreheads, some Europeans among them eating this, mistaking it for a ritual snack.
There came gasps of delight when, at last, the bridegroom arrived. He had ridden from the Hatibari on a white Marwari horse, and had to be led to his chair, because the strings of jasmine flowers hanging from his pith helmet obscured his sight. Now all eyes were on the entrance for a first sight of the bride.
But she did not come. She could not be found. Though she had been kept inside her room and constantly surrounded by female relatives, when the moment arrived for her to be taken to the pandal in the golden rickshaw, she was not there. ‘I left her for a moment to get a glass of water,’ said an aunt. ‘She was there two minutes ago. I dashed off to get a safety pin, in case she pulled out the sari folds,’ said a cousin. The family wasted precious time beating on the locked door of Koonty’s room and begging her to let them in.
The guests waited and wondered what was happening.
Eventually a carpenter was called, and managed to break the door lock. The room was empty. Koonty’s wedding outfit that had taken such hours to arrange, was flung over the floor and the window was open.
Meena began to wail and accuse her husband, saying, ‘I told you we should have bars put on her window. My friends from the Calcutta Club will be filled with malicious pleasure when they discover.’
They must find her quickly, the family knew, before the guests discovered that the bride, moments before her wedding, had ripped off all her clothes, climbed out of the window and run away.
The guests were growing restless and the bridegroom kept looking towards the pandal entrance like someone waiting for a bus. The Calcutta Club ladies began to whisper delightedly to each other, suspecting and hoping for a scandal. Meena, overwhelmed with self-pity, shame and fury, wanted to go to bed and lie in the dark with an iced sponge over her forehead but instead ran this way and that like a hen who had lost her chicks.
It was Shivarani who finally found Koonty. The girl, wearing only her petticoat and blouse, was sitting on the river bank, staring into the water as though she had lost something. Shivarani sat down beside her and putting an arm round her, said, ‘Tell me what the matter is.’
Koonty stared into the water and was silent for ages. Then she said, ‘Didi, if someone put a newborn baby onto a floating goddess’ hand, how long do you think it would stay alive?’
‘That’s silly. Come back. All the guests are waiting, and Pandu is feeling very sad.’
‘And do you think that if someone saw a hand of Durga floating by, with a little newborn baby lying in it, that they would rescue the baby? Do you think that, Didi?’
Shivarani sat silent, as something totally impossible and terrible began to seem possible. ‘Tell me what happened,’ she whispered, though she did not want to hear.
When Koonty had finished Shivarani tried to speak but words would not come.
‘It was very dark and I do not know if it was a boy or a girl even though I held it in my arms for so long,’ Koonty whispered at last. ‘But I feel sure, from its gentle little movements, that it was a girl.’
‘I see,’ said Shivarani, and her mouth felt dry as though she had a fever.
‘It is because of this I cannot face these wedding guests.’
‘Why not?’ asked Shivarani.
‘Can’t you see, can’t you see?’ cried Koonty. ‘There are all those children coming to the feast and one of them might be mine, rescued from the hand of Durga. Suppose I saw my child, what should I do?’
‘If anyone had found that floating baby, the whole village would have talked about it by now,’ said Shivarani and thought to herself that the baby was surely dead.
‘But anyway, I cannot marry Pandu,’ said Koonty.
‘Why can’t you?’
‘As soon as I have told him he will not want me,’ said Koonty.
‘Then don’t tell him.’
‘But how can I not? And even if I say nothing, he will find out tonight. My body will let him know.’
‘Our young Indian men are so innocent that I think he will not know and you must never tell him,’ said Shivarani.
Half an hour later Meena, nearly weeping with relief and fury, saw Shivarani returning with Koonty, who was walking stiffly as though she was ill. Shivarani’s face was grim.
The wedding went smoothly after that. Koonty was put on display at last and sat silent and wilting under the weight of silk, gold and jewels. The villagers who thronged to see her were most impressed with the way this previously undignified girl had been rendered quiet and pale by the honour being done to her by the family of the zamindar.
Among the wedding guests were two Hatipur lads who, having returned from university, were unable to find jobs. Dressed in their best starched outfits they sat cross-legged on the ground to eat the splendid feast and said to all who would listen, ‘Why should these zamindars have so much, when we have so little? At our weddings will we have a thousand guests? In fact will we have any wedding at all, for we may never find a job, and no parents will allow their daughter to marry a man who is unemployed. And if we did manage to marry, would we receive so many wedding gifts that they had to be brought in a bullock cart? We would be lucky to even receive some pots and pans and two saris for the bride. Is this Pandu any cleverer or better-looking than we are? It is by no effort of his that he is sitting up there, well fed and dressed in jewels. We would look just as good if we had the money.’
The older men and women shook their heads. ‘Your problems are the consequence of your karma. Next time, if you do enough puja to Durga you will be zamindars yourselves and villagers will cook your food, plough your fields and clean your houses.’ As they mopped up mango chutney with their fingers they told the youths, ‘If you perform your dharma with regard to the zamindars, next time round it will be you who are living in a palace and driving through the countryside in petrol-driven vehicles.’
But the boys were not impressed. ‘This is old-fashioned thinking,’ they said. ‘We have become Marxists and we want these things now.’ Nitai Mandel, the village Communist leader, said, ‘Equality does not come from making envious statements and the people of India will not become equal with the zamindars by such complaining.’
‘You are saying we should sit in a small hut of mud, watching these rich people dining off maach and paish while we have only dhall with rice? I say that we should fight to destroy this corrupt and greedy society, so that a better, fairer one can be created. We should take away from the rich and redistribute to the poor and if they try to prevent us we should take violent action. That is the only way.’
‘You are right to say that we must fight for justice,’ said Nitai. ‘But your battles must be fought at the polls and this talk of killing and robbing is not the way to go about it.’
One of the boys said scornfully, ‘You say you are the leader of the local Communists and yet you continue to own half a hectare of paddy land with only a pair of baby bulls to plough it, while these zamindars own a thousand hectares. Your politics lack conviction.’ And as the boys walked away they muttered to each other, ‘Nitai Mandel is a dinosaur and people stopped thinking like him ten years ago. Now the Communist Party belongs to us who are young, disillusioned and determined.’
The younger boys of the village listened, thrilled and scared by the young Marxists. Ravi, the misti wallah’s nine-year-old son, said, ‘I am going to go up to Pandu Zamindar, while he is sitting there on his big gold chair and I am going to tell him that he’s got a silly face.’ The two older boys laughed kindly at the bravado.
Shivarani’s college friend, Malti, said, ‘What they say is true. The rich have too much and the poor too little and some of us from college are planning to do something positive about this.’ Apparently the students had heard Mao Tse-tung on Radio Peking and had become inspired to start a revolution in a village in North Bengal where landlords had seized the crop of one of the sharecropper peasants leaving the man and his family without even food to eat. ‘We have heard that this kind of thing is going on all the time,’ Malti told Shivarani. ‘Now several of us from college are going to Naxalbari to help the villagers get their due. Why don’t you come too?’
There was so much food during the zamindar’s wedding that even the pye-dogs thrived and hardly ever needed to be kicked. The village cows were garlanded with marigolds and for three weeks grazed from each other’s necks and gave marigold-flavoured milk. During the day joss sticks were pierced into the trunks of the banana trees, where they smouldered and perfumed the air with sandalwood and musk and each night a thousand oil lamps were lit and sent bobbing down the river, till the water sparkled with just as much light as the firefly-glittering trees.
For years after, people measured time by that grand occasion. ‘I was born in the year of the zamindar wedding.’ ‘My child ate his first rice in the month of the zamindar wedding.’ ‘My tube well was drilled the week after the zamindar wedding.’
Shivarani and Malti travelled by third-class train and even Shivarani, who was well used to squalor, gave a little shudder as they came into Naxalbari. Her first impression was of greyness. Everything, from the sore-ridden pye-dogs, the squatting children, to the rickety huts was filmed with a layer of dead grey dust. The place smelled of human faeces. There was only one adult in sight, a man so still and old that he looked dead already, sitting with his shrivelled legs stretched before him, leaning against a tree that had been robbed of all its branches and now consisted of only a single trunk pointing into the sky like a finger of accusation.
‘The other students are in the fields teaching the local people how to use hand grenades,’ the man told them. He had no teeth and his words were blurred. ‘There, that is them returning now.’ He pointed a wavering finger to the furthest horizon, and Shivarani made out through air that wobbled with heat, a group approaching, dark against the brightness of the fields. For a moment she thought she saw a man that was darker and taller than the rest but it was only a trick of the light. He was not among them.
Local men carrying bows and arrows, and a few with modern rifles accompanied the students as they arrived in the village at last. ‘You look half starved and what has happened to your faces?’ asked Shivarani, shocked.
The young men and women smiled mournfully. ‘Wait till you’ve been here a week. Once you’ve had three goes of dysentery and been bitten all over at night by mosquitoes and in the day by lice you will be looking just like us.’
‘For two months we have been helping the peasants seize cattle and rice from the jotedars and grab land for redistribution,’ they told Shivarani and Malti as they led them through the village. ‘We have raided the jotedars’ homes and offices, threatened them into giving up the title deeds to the land. At last justice is being done. The rich are being forced to be fair to the landless.’
‘And the police have done nothing to stop you?’ asked Shivarani.
‘Not till this morning,’ she was told.
The police had been in a quandary. Whereas they were sympathetic to the cause of the peasants, indeed many of them had families in the village of Naxalbari, the jotedars were rich and ruthless and the law was being broken. So on the previous day the police had been forced into action and a jeep was sent into Naxalbari to put down the violence.
‘There was a battle and we won,’ the students cried jubilantly.
‘You mean the police just gave in and went away?’
‘We killed one of the policemen and then they realised that they were beaten.’ The students laughed, punched each other triumphantly and danced about, mimicking the events of the day before.
That night Shivarani lay awake for ages and it was not only because of the iron-hard of the mud floor or the endless buzz and bite of insects. The killing of the policeman had been, she felt sure, a terrible turning point. Police attitudes always changed in an instant once one of their own was killed.
She woke next morning before the sun had risen. The others lay sprawled around her. What fools, she thought, to be sleeping so calmly as if that was the end of the matter. She rose and with the heavy cloud of anxiety still pressing on her, walked through the still dark village to the small scummy doba at the further end. The sun was rising as she reached there and a blue mist of early-morning fires hung like a pashmina shawl over the fields. A man was walking, visible from the waist up, through an invisible field. A koel called. Macaque monkeys woke, yawning and scratching, on the roofs of huts and lower branches. She walked slowly towards the pond, glad that the grey dust was hidden, relieved to be away from the others. Perhaps after all they were right, and nothing more would happen.
She was bending over the green water when a voice behind her said, ‘Shivarani?’ She straightened, water dripping from her face and there stood Bhima. He wore a check lungi and a vest. She could see the dark hair under his armpits. He had not shaved and the newly risen sun glowed in the short black stubble. She stared at him for a long moment before the realisation came to her that she was only half dressed. Her petticoat was crumpled because she had slept in it, and her hair had not been combed since yesterday. Hastily she covered her breast which was only barely hidden by her blouse. He stood gazing at her, his lips twitching as though he was about to smile. Or worse, laugh …
‘You’ve caught me at a bad moment,’ she said, her voice chilled from shame. ‘I’m a terrible mess.’
‘Oh, no, I don’t think so,’ he laughed. ‘I think you look beautiful.’
When the two returned to the hut and food was doled out, Shivarani hardly noticed the gritty rice and the hard floor because sitting opposite her was Bhima.
It was May, getting very hot. The students, used to fans and air conditioning, panted and sweated in the only shade, the airless hut. They lay inert and sweating, telling each other that there was now no doubt they had won. More than thirty hours had passed since the raid by the police and the killing of Inspector Soman Wangdi, and nothing more had happened. ‘Your worries were for nothing,’ they said to Shivarani.
At midday a lad rushed in and said the police were coming. The students were energised in a moment. Hotness and tummy upsets forgotten, they ran out to join the villagers who were already waiting with their bows and arrows. There was an air of excitement and expectation, as though having won once they could not fail to do so a second time.
‘Let them come,’ cried the villagers. ‘This time we will not kill just one but twenty.’
For the first time the students became a little alarmed, and urged, ‘No killing. Definitely no more killing.’ But the men were eager, like hunters who had sighted a plump herd of sambar. They pranced around, arrows at the string, waiting, ready, fearless. They were expert bowmen for the only meat they could afford to eat was what they shot, the occasional deer or monkey. Usually wild birds and even mongeese.
In the midday silence the sound of the approaching police cars grew and soon even the hopeful hunters realised that this was not just a jeep and a handful of constables, but a whole retinue of armoured vehicles. Even they realised that bows and arrows would not work this time. ‘Bring out the cows. Block the road with them,’ went round the call. ‘The policemen are Hindus. They will not hurt the cows.’ Now the police procession could be seen as a cloud of dust approaching like a slow grey ball. Putting their bows aside, men went running to the stalls and byres. Women dashed for their milking cows. Children emerged from huts hauling little calves. Field workers unhitched their bullocks and by the time the police arrived the road to Naxalbari was blocked with cattle.
The police rounded the corner. The first vehicle, a large armoured lorry, paused briefly. The villagers, watching from behind their cattle herd, began to feel smug and look triumphant. There came a shouted order from the rear of the police column and with a clatter of rifle fire, the first vehicle plunged into the cattle herd. There followed dull thuds as the jeeps and lorries banged against cows. The cows began rushing, swerving, falling, howling, galloping tail high, squirting shit, until they burst the thorn fences and escaped into the surrounding paddy fields and stands of maize.
There fell a small shocked silence from the watching villagers then the cry went up, ‘The women then. They will never dare to shoot women.’ Wives, mothers, daughters, grannies, urged by the men, came rushing to fill the gap left by the fleeing cattle. Shivarani thrust her way through the women till she got to the front and stood there. The sight of her, tall and fearless at their head, filled the women with greater courage and determination. They pressed around Shivarani, defying the oncoming police lorries that rumbled towards them. When the first lorry halted, policemen leant from it and pointed weapons at the women. ‘Stop this,’ yelled Shivarani. ‘Don’t kill women. What are you thinking of?’
There came the crack of a shot and Shivarani staggered as she felt pain pierce her shoulder. There followed a hail of bullets. In agony, Shivarani ducked and dodged as behind her she heard people screaming. She felt her strength going but forced herself to stay standing so that she could shield the bodies of the smaller women at her back. The pain was terrible but she forced her body to stay upright. She could hear a young girl crying. The women were scrambling to get away, and the police were still firing.
Then something came between Shivarani and the steady and menacing approach of the police. Behind, above, ahead she could hear the sound of shooting and screaming, could feel the desperate struggling of people trying to escape as Bhima put himself between her and the bullets. His body gave a heave as a bullet struck it, and then he crashed backwards, knocking her to the ground and falling on top of her. She felt warm fluid – Bhima’s blood – pour between her thighs.
The shooting stopped. The silence that followed was broken by screaming from the injured and the sobbing of women.
Koonty had joined a traditional Hindu joint family consisting of Pandu’s father, Kuru Dadoo, and his younger son known as DR Uncle. There was also DR’s wife, Gadhari, and their three sons.
Pandu told Koonty, ‘It is OK for you to laugh and run even when my father is there. He is very modern and won’t think you are being disrespectful.’ And when she still seemed sad, he told her, ‘Perhaps you don’t like to live in a joint family situation. Would you like us to go somewhere else? To a house of our own?’ The idea filled him with dismay, but he felt ready to do anything to make Koonty happy. She shook her head. It was not that. ‘What is it then? What is it? What is it?’ But he could not discover.
Kuru Dadoo was delighted that Koonty had joined his household and felt sure that he would be able to make her happy, even when her own husband could not. He had known her since she was little and continued to pinch her cheeks or pop sweetmeats into her mouth as though she was still a little girl. ‘What is the matter with my little Koonty?’ he would laugh. ‘Why is she looking so sad?’ He would pluck a flower from the hibiscus bush and hand it to her saying, ‘For your hair, my pretty little daughter.’ He had two sons and three grandsons. This was his first little girl and he was making the most of her. Gadhari watched with envy for Kuru Dadoo had never popped a dudh peda into her mouth. He had never given Gadhari flowers for her hair.
Koonty’s longing for the baby to be rescued from the river was tinged with fear because they would see the gold chain round its neck and discover her shameful secret. But days, then weeks, passed and this did not happen, and a few months later she became pregnant. To the relief of her family, her sadness lifted. ‘If this baby is a little girl,’ she thought, ‘I will know that the goddess has forgiven me. It will mean that Durga rescued my baby from the river and is giving her back to me in a miraculous way. I will not be the killer of my baby after all if this one is a little girl.’ She stopped waiting for the baby lost in the river to be brought back to her because the goddess had replaced it in her womb. She decided to call her daughter ‘Shobita’ because that means ‘Sun’, for this baby was really the child of the Sun God, and not Pandu’s at all.
When Koonty’s baby was born everyone laughed because it was a boy and there were three in the household already but then, as Kuru Dadoo pointed out, ‘You can never get too many boys.’ But Koonty’s dark mood returned. ‘Postnatal depression,’ Meena Gupta tried to console Pandu. ‘She will get over it, don’t worry,’ but Pandu was not convinced. In the end, to take his mind off his young wife’s gloom, Pandu, indulging in a lifelong dream, sold the Hatibari chandelier, took the money and travelled to South India, where he bought twelve pure-bred Jersey cows.
The villagers arrived in their hundreds to see the gold-haired, dark-eyed beauties being unloaded from the lorries. They laughed aloud at the sight of the wide, fair brows and hornless heads. They bent and giggled in wonder at the vastness of their bouncing udders.
‘Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,’ was all Pandu seemed able to say, overcome with awe at the gracious appearance and prospective vast milk yields. ‘We must all work hard to make sure these pretty creatures do not suffer in our heat.’
Ice, prepared in the fridge, was crushed, poured into hot-water bottles and tied on the heads of the twelve new Jerseys. They stood in a mournful row at the shady end of their byre, looking silly under their ice-water bottle hats, water trickling down their eyelashes, their tails whacking exhaustedly at the attacks of fierce flies that were quite new to them. The darjee was called and set to work on his pedal Singer, stitching hessian coats for the cows to stop the flies from pestering them and Pandu had them dressed up till they looked like European women in frocks and hats.
Kuru Dadoo was shocked by his son’s new enthusiasm. ‘A zamindar should be out there, shooting tigers and sticking pigs, not spending his day in the dairy like some gwala.’
‘They are so beautiful, Papa. Look how they have dark round their eyes as if they have been painted with kajal. And don’t you admire their golden colour?’
Kuru Dadoo snorted with scorn. ‘If you wish for a beautiful golden creature with painted eyes why not go to Free School Street and find yourself a Nepali prostitute like I used to do.’
‘I prefer the local girls. And these cows are like pets.’
‘If you wish to keep pretty creatures you should go for cheetahs. My father had a hunting pair of great beauty and danger. Clever also. He never had such hunting luck when he was only accompanied with dogs. Shall I contact the zoo and see if they can obtain some for you?’
Gadhari was furious when she found out about the chandelier. ‘It was family property and worth a fortune. Why did you let him do it? You should take legal action against him,’ she raged at her husband. But DR Uncle, whose greatest joy in life was poetry, only smiled at his wife’s outburst, and said, ‘I’m sure it will be better cared for in its new home.’
A new-rich Parsee, called ‘Sodawaterbottleopenerwallah’ after the gadget he had so successfully marketed, had bought the chandelier. It now hung, pristine and resplendent in a brand new concrete and marble house in Alipore. No longer did sparrows perch and shit on its hand-cut Venetian pendants. No longer did pendants fall like leaves to be gathered up by the sweeper in the morning. No longer did it dangle sideways like a drunk going home from the foreign liquor shop.
The village gwala turned up at the Hatibari to give Pandu advice on how to care for the new cows and use the milk. ‘You do not know how to make ghee, Sahib, so I will show you. First we make kheer, then we turn that into butter, then we turn that into purest ghee,’ he said and began a demonstration on the Hatibari stove that took such hours that the cook was unable to prepare the midday meal.
The gwala brought milk from his own herd of desi cows and Pandu was forced to watch while the gwala and his daughter boiled it, stirring it till it was thick as heavy cream, and clotted with skin round the sides.
‘Surely that’s enough,’ pleaded Pandu. But the old man was merciless. He had known Pandu as a little boy and was not the least in awe of him. ‘We go on till the milk is solid,’ he said. It happened at last and the crusty lump that had once been twenty litres of fresh milk was crushed on the spice grinding stone till it separated into butter.
‘But I have read of butter being made in Western countries and it is not done like this at all,’ said Pandu. ‘There they take cream and beat it till it separates from its buttermilk. It is a much quicker process than this.’
The gwala roared with scoffing laughter. ‘If we made butter by such careless techniques in this hot country our butter would be left with water in it and go bad in no time. Now we cook this butter, always stirring, slowly slowly, into purest golden ghee.’ This took another hour of stirring. ‘Now see how the solid has fallen to the bottom, Sahib, and on top the butter oil is gold and clear. We pour this off carefully and there we are.’
‘Now I show you how to make channa,’ he said, just when Pandu thought he was to be let off the hook. ‘After that you can get cook to make it into all Bengal sweets, rossogulla, Lady Kenny, Gulab jaman and so on and also channa. We heat up the milk then curdle with alum.’ Pandu remembered alum. His father had used it to stifle the bleeding of razor nicks.
The boiling milk swished into two parts almost at once, as the alum was poured in and the old man brandished a soft firm lump of snow-white curd. ‘Now we grind again then mix with a little soojee. Roll in little balls then boil in syrup flavoured with cardamom pods till the jamans rise to the surface …’
‘I am tired,’ said Pandu. ‘I never intended to become a sweet maker.’
Ignoring him the old man went on, ‘Or we fry this with some of the ghee, rosewater, cardamom pods and jaggery till it goes thick and stiff and press it into moulds till we have shandesh …’
‘As a small boy you were somewhat lazy and I see this has still not altered,’ said the gwala sternly. ‘Now we come to the feeding and the milking of the animals.’ He told Pandu that the animals must have hot feeds each evening of rice bran boiled with jaggery and that the cows would not let down their milk unless the calves were allowed first suck.
‘You keep a little muzzle on her baby during the day and at milking time you let baby have a little suck. Then mummy lets down milk and you give a pull. After a while mummy will find out it is your fingers and not baby taking the milk and she will pull it up again. Then you let baby have another, and so on.’
Pandu looked bemused, ‘But in the West they take the calves away from the cows at birth.’
The old man looked as though he was going to cry. ‘This is a terrible cruel thing. These poor Billaty cows. How much they must suffer. But then how do these foolish Billaty people get milk?’
Pandu shrugged. ‘I don’t know how, but they do.’
The old man went off at last, bemused and mumbling at the extraordinary ways of foreign cows, the cruel ways of foreign people and the terrible ignorance of the zamindar.
Pandu was thrilled with his new son, and when Koonty breastfed her child, Pandu would sit at her side, stroke her hair and murmur, ‘You two are the joys of my life,’ and think that he was the happiest man in the world. He would come each evening to watch with delight as Boodi Ayah bathed the new baby and pressed whiskery kisses on his body. ‘He is a big boy even now and when he is a man he will be magnificent like his Daddy,’ Boodi Ayah told Pandu. She was a hill tribe woman from Bihar with limbs like charcoal sticks that looked very black against the pure white of her short blouse and dhoti that exposed her bandy legs and large cracked feet.
After Adhiratha died Dolly wrote a letter to her parents, telling them what had happened to her and explaining about Karna. After a very long time her father sent her back a letter, written by the local scribe, in which he said that she should only come back to them if there was absolutely no other way she could survive. ‘For you are a widow and in this village such a person would, a generation ago, have been expected to perform suttee and even nowadays her being alive gives a certain offence in the villages. But as for this foundling child, we have barely enough food for our own stomachs and certainly not enough to feed another woman’s brat.’ He added, ‘I am speaking for myself and not your mother.’
Dolly cried when she read this letter, then she tore it up.
In the months that followed she would wake in the morning and sometimes her mind would trick her into thinking that Adhiratha was still there. She would reach out for him, her hand feeling around in the dark and it would be long moments before she would be plunged back into the sadness. There were happy nights when she dreamt that he was still alive so that during the day she would long for sleep, where she could find him. She tried for a while to continue washing clothes, but the money was not enough and the day came when she could no longer afford the room.
It was May and very hot the day she stepped out of the room where she and Adhiratha had lived together. She stood in the road, baby Karna in her arms, and did not know what to do next, or where to go. And as she hesitated, dazzled with the heat, the brightness and the hopelessness of everything, the realisation came upon her that even her work as a dhobi could not continue, for now she lacked anywhere to keep or iron the clothes. She had no income or home.
Holding everything she owned, including the precious baby, she began to walk along the pavement, not going anywhere, but not knowing where to stop. She walked like this for two hours until at last she sank down on the spit- and urine-spotted pavement because she was so tired and because the baby had started crying. She squatted in the dust with her child across her knees, while people going past jostled against her or stepped over her, as though already she had ceased to be part of the human race.
In the weeks and months that followed she lived on that piece of pavement, eking out the little money she had left from her dhobi work to buy the cheapest food and wondering what she would do when it was finished. At night she slept on the hard ground with only her straw mat under her, and a bedsheet wrapped round her and Karna to keep them from the mosquitoes. Karna was the only thing that made her life worth living. If it had not been for him she would have killed herself, thrown herself under one of the new underground trains, for there did not seem anything else in her life worth staying alive for. Often during those sad months she would take out the little golden disc on which was written what she had decided was the name of Karna’s mother. At first she had been tempted to take the baby back to this woman called Koonty of Hatibari, giving Karna back the life that was his right. Then, with Karna’s life ensured she would do away with her own. But a woman who has thrown a baby away once might do it again. In the end Dolly decided that the baby would be better off with her, in spite of the poverty, than being sent to a woman who did not love it.
When Karna was four months old, a charitable organisation that specialised in getting work for pavement people found Dolly a place as a live-in maid. Dolly was given a small room in the compound where she and Karna slept, but during the day she was forced to leave the baby alone. Dolly’s new employers did not allow children in their flat. ‘You are lucky that we are giving you this chance of a job but we can easily take on someone else without children if you do not want it,’ the wife said.
So whenever she had a little gap in her work during her fifteen-hour day, Dolly would race across the yard to feed the baby. As Dolly washed the cement floors with a piece of hessian, rubbed the utensils with charcoal or swept the beds with a short straw broom, her mind was always on her little boy. She would worry about him a thousand times as she scoured the dishes with coconut string, scrubbed the saucepans with sand in a tin bowl of cold water, or washed the floors with disinfectant. The moment her work was done she would run as though the goddess Kali was after her, to where her baby lay weeping in his cradle and only feel safe when she had him hugged tight inside her arms. And then, even though she was so tired that her legs shook, she would light her cow dung brazier, heat up water, and give her little boy his bath. It troubled her that the child was left so much alone, but at least she was earning a little money, they had a roof over their heads and as he grew older she would be able to give him decent food. Karna grew older, learnt to sit and then to walk. Dolly did everything she could to keep the toddler safe while she was out, but he was forever getting up to mischief and the room was not designed for a baby. Once Karna dragged a stool to the window, climbed up, fell out and had to be retrieved screaming and bleeding from the road. Another time he managed to find matches and nearly set their bedding alight. The final straw came when Dolly rushed in at midday to give him his meal and found the door open and the room empty. It was two hours before she found Karna toddling along on the main road. She seized him from the path of a lorry in the nick of time and sat sobbing, hugging and shivering, while nine-month-old Karna, thrilled to be back in his mother’s arms, beamed and prattled triumphantly. It was half an hour before Dolly could find the strength to get up and go back to her employers, carrying her exuberant child.
Her mistress was waiting on the stairs, her expression thunderous. ‘You are incapable of even looking after that single child, let alone performing domestic duties at the same time. Every day there is some new reason for you to abandon your work,’ she shouted. ‘And today, when my husband came home there was no midday meal for him. Now he has returned to his office with an empty stomach and a great anger. Things have gone too far. I do not want you in my service. I will pay you what I owe and you must be out of that room by tonight, because I have another maid coming already.’ Dolly threw herself at the woman’s feet, wept, begged, promised, but it was no good.
‘You have made all these promises so many times already and you have never been able to keep them. It is the fault of that child. He is more trouble than three children put together and as long as you are burdened with him you will never find anyone to employ you.’ Baby Karna beamed and chuckled as though he was being complimented. Just having his mother holding him was all he ever wanted and if it meant that some woman shouted at them at the same time, what did it matter?
That night Dolly and Karna were back on the pavement again. In a way she felt relieved, for now, although they were poor once more, she could keep her child with her all the time. She became a rubbish-heap scavenger, specialising in flowers discarded from women’s hair or from thrown away garlands that had been used for honouring gods or guests. She would also find overblown blooms that gardeners had discarded, or flower arrangements that householders had considered past their prime. There were usually a few blooms that could be salvaged from any bunch or garland, no matter how wilted and damaged they at first might seem. Dolly would sort through her finds and roll the good ones into a moistened piece of cloth, to be taken home later and woven into new garlands, a little more bedraggled than the originals, but cheaper.
Dolly scavenged among men, women, children, pye dogs, crows, cows, all making a living out of the filth of the rubbish heaps. There were people who collected string, carefully garnering the lengths then rolling them into tidy balls. Others worked with old tins, others with pieces of cloth, others gathered the tinsel from garlands. There were people searching for tin, for plastic, for paper. And there were the really desperate who relied on the heaps for nourishment, fighting with the crows, dogs and rats to eat some rotten discarded end of a banana or samosa. There would be a sudden scramble because a green coconut shell had been unearthed with a little flesh still adhering or someone had come upon a thrown out bread loaf. The little desi cows seemed to be the only creatures to thrive upon the heaps. They were plump and had shining coats as though old newspapers, in which greasy food had been wrapped, provided a better diet than all the care and scientific feeding that Arjuna’s father gave to his pure-bred Jersey herd. Pandu’s Jerseys would never look as fit at the little cows of Cal. The cows were rented from their owners by people in the bustees, who fed and milked them and used their dung for fuel. They were let loose all day to forage on the rubbish heaps or among the shops where shopkeepers and passers-by would give them fruit or a sweetmeat. In the evening the animals returned to the bustee for hot bran and jaggery.
The rubbish heaps, breathing out powerful odours of rot and gas, were cleared away a couple of times a year. The raw rubbish was carted in lorries to the wet lands on the outskirts of the town and there dumped on damp land where it acted as a fertiliser for fields of vegetables. Among the hectares and hectares of still stinking debris grew the largest whitest cauliflowers, enormous aubergines, cabbages nearly two feet wide and the best ladies’ fingers in the whole of Bengal.
A new British Deputy Commissioner found one such stinking heap toppling near the High Commission and contacted the council, complaining of the health hazard, the smell and the flies and requested it be removed regularly, but was told there were insufficient funds. In the end he offered to pay for it himself, but this generous offer was greeted with fury by members of the ragpickers’ union. They marched in vast and tattered numbers round and round the residency shouting that they were about to be deprived of their living until he was forced to withdraw his offer and had to continue to live in the proximity of the heap. Sometimes these heaps would grow to ten, fifteen feet high then suddenly topple. Several ragpickers had been killed or badly injured by being buried under a collapsing heap of rubbish.
In the evening Dolly would bathe Karna ferociously under the ruptured pipe till she had rubbed away every trace of stink and rot. To Karna’s mother the sight of her frail son, shining with water in a muddy puddle, was the best sight of her whole day. When he was clean she would seat him on the ground and serve him whatever food she had managed to scrounge, for he was, after all, the man of the house. Sometimes she would manage to get enough fuel together to brew up a tiny fire on the pavement and cook her little man a hot meal of rice and lentils and on very good days even give him a spoonful of achaar to go with it. She always waited till Karna had finished before eating anything herself and as his appetite increased there would be very little left over for her. Often nothing.
When he was two she looked round and could not see him. She ran wildly up and down the road screaming and found him at last tugging at passing people’s clothes, patting his stomach and lisping, ‘No Mama, No Papa, very hungry,’ copying a bigger beggar girl called Laika.
Dolly was furious. ‘How dare you. We are not beggars. We still have our dignity.’ But the moment her back was turned he was down in the street again, and the money he gave her was welcome. She could not deny that. But there came a day when she could not find Karna anywhere. She went to all the places where he might be, till someone told her he had seen Karna being carried away by a foreign lady.
‘Which way did she go?’ asked the weeping Dolly. ‘Where did she take him?’
People pointed this way and that. Someone told her, ‘The kid was screaming.’ Dolly ran even faster and felt despair. She asked everyone she met, ‘Have you seen my little boy? He’s got golden eyes and a foreign lady has taken him.’ Dolly kept running madly and shouting, ‘Karna, Karna, Karna.’ The idea even came to her as she ran that, though she longed for her child so dreadfully, he would be better off with this foreign lady who would be able to give him good food, nice clothes and a proper education. But all the same she could not stop hunting for Karna. Perhaps when she found the lady, she might agree to let her take Karna away.
She ran, sobbing, all up Park Street and along Free School Street. She raced, panting heavily by now, along New Market Street. She rushed along Chowringee, banging into porters with merchandise on their heads, ignoring the outraged cries of shopping memsahibs, crashing into sahibs with briefcases.
She found him outside the Grand Hotel. The foreign lady was looking discouraged.
‘He told me he was an orphan,’ she said to Dolly. ‘Otherwise I would never have carried him away. I was only hoping to help him.’
Dolly was afraid, after that. ‘Don’t beg from foreigners till you’re older,’ she warned. ‘Stick to people from Bharat for now.’ He, of course, did not listen to her but was more careful now.
Dolly, worried at her son’s lack of education, began to teach him to decipher the words on the enormous cinema posters. The first words Karna learnt to read were the names of film stars and the titles of films. He began to watch out for new advertisements on his own and would come home, thrilled, to tell his mother he had managed to read ‘Prem Pujari’ or ‘Johnny Mera Nam’, all by himself. Concerned that his education was so one-sided she looked for other teaching tools. She encouraged him to recognise the letters on car number plates. She began to collect bits of newspaper off the rubbish heaps and instead of selling them on, wiped them clean of filth and grease and used them to teach Karna a wider range of reading. She even had a newspaper that she had kept from the good days and would bring it out on special occasions reading him the story of a man who had climbed the Himalayas without proper clothes and had survived because he was a yogi. ‘If you are a yogi you can do anything,’ Dolly told him. ‘Yogis can make themselves hot or cold by willpower, and make their tummies full without eating any food.’ Karna liked to read about Bollywood most of all. ‘I am going to be a film star and then I will turn you into a Maharani,’ he told his mother proudly.
She was afraid of pride, though, feared angering the gods with it. ‘You must take care not get punished like Dhuriodhana,’ she warned him. ‘He was the eldest of the Kauravas. A powerful rishi warned him not to fight the Pandavas in the war of the Mahabharata, but Dhuriodhana was too proud to take advice and mocked the rishi by slapping his thighs in a show of strength. Later in the battle he was punished by having both his legs broken.’
‘It’s only a story,’ said Karna. He began to bring back presents for her – shandesh, oranges, saffron, betel nut, little pots of warm dahi, a handful of lychees, telling her that he had earned the money carrying a lady’s bag or showing a foreigner the way. ‘You must be earning well, my son,’ said Dolly with pride. ‘But please don’t spend so much of it on these luxury items. We need rice and another cloth to wrap round us at night.’
He did not tell her that the gifts he brought were really stolen. She had funny, old-fashioned notions about morality and he did not know what her reaction might be if she found out.
Cricket became the craze all over Calcutta and the streets were filled with boys and young men bowling, fielding, batting. Lorries, their drivers pretending they had broken down, blocked the entrances to streets, increased the traffic blocks, so as to allow cricket matches to take place in peace and untroubled by passing vehicles. Karna and other little pavement boys got great bowling practice and improved their batting skills, using rotten oranges for balls and an old box for a wicket just outside the New Market till they were shooed away by porters. For a short while Karna wondered if he would like to be a cricketer instead of a film star.
Dolly felt sad because, in spite of all her son’s hopefulness, he would probably amount to nothing because of her. If he had gone to school, she thought, he would have been playing cricket with a proper ball instead of a bruised orange.
As Karna grew older he started to help Dolly pick through the Calcutta rubbish heaps for something saleable, hunting through the debris and competing with other ragged and emaciated men, women and children. And with crows, pye dogs and rats. He began to fight to claim some reusable item, even taking on adults and sometimes winning. Dolly thought he would have been killed ten times over if she was not always on the lookout, and ready to grab him and hold him back when he got into one of these one-sided tussles.
At the time of Koonty’s engagement to Pandu it had been decided that Koonty’s father would seek another job as Pandu would find it awkward to have his father-in-law working under him. Koonty’s father had in fact long had plans to work in Canada, and now the chance had come and Meena and her husband were to emigrate. Shivarani, who had been touring the countryside for months, wrote to say that she would be coming to see her parents before they left and that she was bringing a male friend.
Shivarani arrived by car in the afternoon, and Meena, who had gone through every emotion possible since she woke in the morning, felt quite dizzy as she watched the young man emerge from Shivarani’s car. Her joy was overtaken by fluster as Bhima fully revealed himself. She seemed hesitant and reluctant as she ushered the young man to take a seat on the verandah, and told her maid to bring sweets and tea.
Laxshmi, a stocky, sensible woman, who had been abandoned by her smuggler husband on giving birth to a fourth daughter, Bika, hurried off suppressing a smile and wondering how Mem was going to handle this.
Meena did her best to be polite, inviting Bhima to help himself to yet another misti from the salver when Laxshmi returned and then sending the maid to make cold nimbu pani, ‘For I am sure, Mr Bhima, that you must be very hot after that dreadful journey from Calcutta.’ But she told her husband later, ‘I am really worried now. It will be worse if Shivarani marries this fellow than if she never gets married at all.’
‘She has never even suggested marrying him,’ protested the husband. ‘I expect he is merely a college friend or fellow politician. She talks to him quite coldly, as though she does not even like him.’
‘Are you blind, Ogo? She cannot keep her eyes from the fellow and when she looks at him it is as though there is not another person in the world. Of course she is thinking of marrying him.’
‘I can’t see there’s all that much wrong with him,’ the husband said. ‘His face is rather scarred but Shivarani said he got the wound because he was saving her life in Naxalbari.’
‘It’s not the scar,’ snapped Meena impatiently. ‘That is not the problem though it is certainly unsightly.’
‘I agree he’s a big young fellow, but that’s OK too, I should have thought. Till now the men have always been too short.’
‘He’s a dalit, Ogo. How is it possible that you could not see? He may be well-spoken and educated, but anyone can see from the blackness of his skin that he is an outcaste.’
The zamindar gave a farewell party for his departing manager during which he told Shivarani, ‘Pandu will be managing the estate from now on and I will not be employing anyone so the bungalow will be empty. You are welcome to take it over as your home if you wish.’
Shivarani was touched. When her parents told her that they were leaving the country she had felt worried for she did not have enough money to rent a place in Calcutta. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘That really takes a big weight from my mind.’
Pandu was so busy with his cows these days that he hardly noticed the matter of Shivarani’s friend or even the departure to Canada of his parents-in-law. His Jersey herd were causing great excitement in Hatipur. The local cows were sharply horned and half the size. Daily crowds gathered at the byre to look at the new cows, asking each other, ‘Are they buffaloes?’ Bending to peer at the Jersey udders, which were four times bigger at least than those of the local cows, they would emit gasps of wordless wonder. They stared, stunned with awe, as the mighty steaming buckets of yellow milk given by these Billaty cows were carried from stall to dairy. They had never seen anything like it. ‘We are lucky to get three cups a day from one of ours. These creatures are not of this world, but are provided by the gods,’ came the eventual village pronouncement. Pindu feared that these compliments were bringing down curses from an envious deity for each month there came a new bovine disaster, sending Pandu dashing to the gwala for advice. But these foreign cows did not react to the local medicines of turmeric, tamarind, and mustard oil. They developed sicknesses that the gwala had never seen. Three cows died of redwater. The cowman passed cow pox from teat to teat till all were too sore and lumpy to be milked. The heaviest yielder got mastitis and was treated with antibiotics squeezed up into her teats from a tube after which her milk was undrinkable for two weeks. Three quarters of the calves were male and were distributed among local farmers to be used as plough-pullers, till no more were needed and still more male calves were born.
‘In the West these surplus animals would be used for meat,’ sighed Pandu, ‘but here in our Hindu land I cannot think of an answer. There seems no end to the problems.’
At first it was difficult to sell the milk. The people of Bengal were used to pure white buffalo milk and looked on the golden cream of Jersey milk with suspicion. Eventually Arjuna’s father found a dairy in Calcutta which catered to a sophisticated sort of Memsahib. But after only a month of the arrangement there was a blockade. The Naxalites closed the road for a week in protest at one of theirs being murdered. The blockade was lifted. Pandu tried to get the milk into town again but on the following day the group who had committed the murder closed the roads in retaliation for the retaliation.
Pandu lost the market in Calcutta.
Before he bought the cows, Pandu had gone to see his friend, the minister for dairy development.
‘A government chilling tanker will collect your milk once it reaches a hundred litres,’ he was told.
Day after day, as the quantity rose, the hope of government salvation drew closer. At last the day came. A hundred litres was in the tank. Pandu contacted his friend, the minister.
It took a week of lost milk for Pandu to discover that the chilling tanker had been a figment of the minister’s hopeful imagination.
Pandu decided to deliver it to the chilling centre himself. This was at Barrackpur, on the outskirts of Calcutta, requiring the milk to be driven, unchilled, for four hours. They began milking the cows at three so as to get it to the centre before the sun rose and the weather grew hot.
At the end of the week Pandu went to collect his money. And found he had been fined for selling watered milk.
He protested, ‘I am with the milk from the moment it is taken from the cows to the moment I deliver it to you. There is no way water could have got in.’
‘Perhaps the cows are not of sufficient quality,’ suggested the manager.
‘These are Jersey cows. Their milk is the creamiest in Europe.’
‘Ah, Billaty cows, I have heard of this being a problem. Their milk is very low in butterfat.’
A government official was sent to test the milk at the moment of milking. He pronounced it well within the desired range. ‘Good for a Billaty cow,’ he said. ‘Though of course the milk of a desi cow is much higher in butterfat.’
Pandu returend to the chilling centre with his milk and once again was penalised.
This time the manager looked sympathetic. ‘You see, the system is that there are fellows putting water into their milk and taking credit from others.’
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