"Man Singh was returning from Delhi. He had just conquered Bengal. He came this way and since then we have been living here. "
It is the village Matangi. The place is lighted by the dazzling light of six large chandeliers. A red carpet is spread on the floor of the natmandir. On the dais there is the one and a half foot image of the Singhabahini goddess Durga, made from the alloy of eight metals. In the air hangs a mild smell of kerosene mixed with the fragrance of Voodoo, Intimate , zarda, whisky. On the floor in a circle sit members of the Sinha family. The tape recorder, in low volume plays Anup Jalota.
"Mahananda Sinha was Man Singh's right hand man, a great general. Yet he liked this spot so much --- `No , I won't return to Delhi, said he,' So here he obtained a jagir and here he made his home. ... Be are hiss doscondants," said Suryanarain Sinha, paan in mouth. Suryanarain is the seniormost in the family.
The descendants of the historic Mahananda Sinha are sitting on the blood-red carpet --- They have congregated from far and near for the Durga Puja festival. They have come from Ballygunge, Dhakuria, Jodhpur Park, Jamshedpur, Patna. The second scion of the juniormost ancestor has come from as far as Jabalpur. His daughter Pinky is with him.
"A shword ij laying there, see, see !" So saying Suryanarain points to a sword lying on the silver dais. It is covered with blood-red hibiscus. Looking at Pinky and his other grand children --- the jeans-and-kurta-clad English-medium-school-educated bunch, Suryanarain speaks in English : "That there shword waj ujed by Hij Highnesh Mahananda Sinha", and then switching over to Bengali he continues, "That is why everyone honours that dagger. "You'll see just now --- what a bloodshedding `siremony' we'll have!"
Suryanarain Sinha lives in Matangi. Besides the land belonging to the goddess `Singhabahini' there is the land belonging to the different shareholders--- it is quite a vast spread. Suryanarain and Ambujanarain were enjoying an extensive property comprising Matangi and six or seven villages, ten to twelve ponds, bamboo groves, paddy fields and this seven-winged mansion. The other shareholders, those whose work has taken them far afield in different places, seethe in discontent, which not infrequently is expressed quite openly. So, while Suryanarain delivers this speech in English Ajitnarain of Jabalpur gives Birnarain of Jamshedpur a sharp nudge.
This year Manisha has come from Calcutta for the Durga Puja festival. She had come here only once before, and that too as a child, with her father. A few days back her Jabalpur uncle arrived in Calcutta with daughter Pinky and said, "Let us go Manu to our native village." Manisha's family does not have much property left in the village. Her father while he lived had sold off some of it. Her mother thought they still owned part of the ancestral house and eight or ten bighas of paddy fields; all this too she wanted to sell.
Manisha did not have much cash on hand just then. She'd much rather not go. Besides it would be a bit awkward for her to get away from the hospital duty she had as part of the House Staff. Manisha had got through the M.B.B.S. exam.
But cousin Pinky refused to go without Manisha. Thought it would be boring. In the end Manisha could not but agree to come, but only for a few days.
A bald man, sitting on the red carpet suggests they sing. Suryanarain clicks his fingers. A munish appears with a harmonium. Bringing the chewed remains of the paan close to his lips Suryanarain signals to the man who almost automatically places his hand near the babu's lips. All at once the babu spits out the crumpled discoloured piece of chewed betel leaf upon the palm of the man's hand.
The resounding notes of the harmonium fill the air. In the light of those huge lamps three enormous jewels glitter on the fingers that ply the keys. Manisha does not know the man. But then she does not know most of them; although her Jabalpur uncle did introduce her to many of her relations.
They start singing. Away from the red carpet behind the row of pillars stand the munish and the lathials. Ten songs are sung --- beginning with Nijhumo sandhaye klanto pakhira (in the stillness of evening the weary birds) to Biral bole machh chhobo na (I won't touch the fish says the cat) . Keya baudi has just sung Tagore's Oi asantale matir pore (in front of thy seat on the ground) . Ten years ago on the night of her marriage she had sung the same song, Manisha remembers in a flash. Amitabha the Commerce student, imitaing Kishore's voice sings, Mushkil hai tera (it is difficult for you) and immediately after this begins to sing another song : Manbo na badha manbo na khati/ chokhé juddher drirho sammati (neither obstacles or losses will I heed / the eyes express my determination to fight) . Amitabha the college-union activist. The audience beat time upon their knees. "What a lively song! " says Suryanarain.
The priest has arrived. Behind him an emaciated man wearing a blood-red dhoti and wreathed with blood-red hibiscus. He is Abhiram. Abhiram is now lighting up the dry husks of the coconuts in preparation for the arati. The priests begin the rituals of the puja. The singing therefore has to stop.
Wearing a plain cream coloured silk sari with a red border (the type that is associated with the ritual of worship), a big round spot of vermilion on her forehead, her bare feet bordered with red alta, Suryanarain's wife is quite a sprightly lady. "Here, listen you all, listen, my grand children! " she intones in her country accent, "You have studied so much, passed so many exams, can you get the answer to a riddle?" And with eyeballs dancing, she recites :
"Word has just got around, hum, ahoy,
armpit of that girl out came a baby boy."
People start laughing : Pinky, not understanding a word, turns up her lips and licks it rather foolishly. Manisha, the budding doctor thinks it could be `Enlarged arm joint lymph glands!' Laughing at herself she does not speak out. Everyone is racking their brains hard for the answer ... A voice from behind the pillars blurts out in rural accent , "Plaintain!" "Here what's this! Stop playing the fool, " scolds the revered first lady of the family, looking towards the pillars. "Here's another one. Now no one should give away the answer.
Eight legs and sixteen knees
Latu goes fishing
On dry land he spreads the net
And fishes through eternity."
None of those on the red carpet can answer. " I give you one day's time for that one," says grandma , "Think hard! "
Abhiram is performing the arati. A screen of smoke. Drums beat. Flash, flash! goes Pinky's camera. The fingers that click the shutter still reek and smell of mutton and remind Pinky of the late lunch she has had that day. The ritual sacrifice of a goat was performed today. But Abhiram has not had anything to eat. He must not. It's not done. For he is a dhanatkanni. For three days he has had boiled atap rice with ghee. Today, Navami, the third day of the festival, there was only fruit prasad for him to eat. On Dashami day, the last day, he would offer his blood. Blood taken from his own chest. With this blood the sword will be washed. Mahananda Sinha's ancient sword.
Abhiram is dancing. His dishevelled hair, flying. Flash, flash, flash goes Pinky's camera. Suddenly Abhiram falls. From his hands falls the incense stand, the lighted sticks scattering on the floor. People on the carpet, all helter-skelter. The drums stop beating. Abhiram lies unconscious. Manisha examines his pulse, says, "He's had nothing since this morning, right? Give him some sweets, batasha, or something, at least. Hypoglycimia. He has eaten so little ... The sugar level has fallen. He should be given something to eat. " "How now?" objects Rangamashima, one of the grannies. "He is supposed to eat only once today." "Then he won't live," says Manisha.
Two batashas ground, with just a little water, revived Abhiram. He sits up. Strange! "The power of the prasad, you see, " says Napishi, one of the aunts.
The drums have been beating since the morning. In the middle of the stone paved courtyard, on the as yet dry harikath falls the sunlight, like a woman draped in cream coloured, red-bordered silk sari. The ancestral sword rests on its silver stool in front of the harikath. Someone is holding up a huge umbrella on the sword. Blood is to be offered. Two workers carry a large basket of sweets ---- 'rasakadamba' --- and put it down before the deity, the goddess 'Singhabahini', to celebrate the occasion. The priest, with his hand on Abhiram's head, recites the mantra. Abhiram is adorned with vermilion on his forehead, red hibiscus in his hair. Suddenly the drums thunder and the gongs are beaten. Abhiram is coming; he turns his head and looks around him. Behind a pillar he can see his wife and children. Abhiram does not know that in Pinky's Japanese camera the Fujicolour film is turning, turning.
Manisha whispers to Rangapishi, one of the aunts, "That man is not well at all, you know; I don't think it's quite okay to go on like this." "With the goddess's blessings nothing will happen, you'll see," says her aunt. "Tomorrow he'll be out digging in the fields. They're not like us. They have been donating blood like this for generations." Now Manisha turns to her Jabalpur uncle and says, "Abhiram seems quite anaemic. What if something happens to him?" The drums are beating so loud that the Jabalpur uncle has to take his mouth close to Manisha's ears, "Don't worry, we'll be off tomorrow," he says.
Abhiram does obeisance to the sword. The atmosphere is charged with emotion---
"Hail Mother Singhabahini Durga, Redeemer of all woe!
Hail Babu Mahananda Sinha!
Hail the Sinha family of Matangi!"
Only Abhiram's son from behind the pillar, in a lone voice salutes his father, "Hail to Abhiram Bagdi !"
Manisha now goes up to Suryanarain, "Let him go after a few drops," she says, "he is anaemic." "Holy Mother knows best. Will she demand too much!" was the answer. Abhiram has brought with him some sort of a paste of herbs wrapped up in an arum leaf. He puts it down beside him. He is sitting in front of the harikath now. Taking the sword out of the scabbard he promptly twists the blade into his own breast. The sword is bathed in deep red blood as it emerges from his chest. "Hail to Mahananda Sinha ..." Abhiram adorns the middle of the harikath with a red spot--- his own blood. Drums beat, drummers dance; dances the autumn sunshine. Oh, dance, dance.
Abhiram is given fruit mashed in milk and served in a lotus leaf. He folds it up saying softly, "I'll eat this at home." His son has come up to him. Putting his hand on his son's shoulder with a tender smile he starts for home, supported by the boy. The priest performs ablution. Dipping a mango leaf in a pot of sanctified water of the holy Ganges he scatters the water on all those standing before him and all around--- "Om shantih! Om shantih! ..." The water has been brought from Katwa.
When Manisha had come here with her father a long time ago, she was very young. Her father had pointed out the trees, told her what they were called. The amlaki, emblic myrobalan --- the fleecy quivering shadow of its leaves; the pair of yellow birds sitting on the cornice; they are called 'ishtikutum'; wandering among the groves of bamboo she had slipped her hands up and down along the smooth stems of the young bamboo. The nostalgia of a dawn filled with the smell of shefali flowers; it all comes back to her. She remembers a somewhat thin man sitting in the back verandah all through the Durga Puja days. He used to be bare-bodied and wore a garland of red hibiscus. He was Abhiram's father. When this old man was in the centre of the crowd of devotees, the drums creating a maddening din, Manisha's father had taken her out through the back door to the edge of the pond. The water was bright with shapla flowers. Grasshoppers hovered over the dense growth of shapla. Suddenly from a distance there echoed, "Hail to Mahananda..." "It's started ... the blood-offering!" cried Manisha's father.
And after so many years this day. Just at this moment, the night of Bijoya Dashami, everyone is sitting along the verandah surrounding the courtyard of the inner wing of the house, celebrating the occasion. They all had plates full of sweets--- malpoa, mithai, etc. In the midst of animated discussion centering on whether the malpoa contained thickened milk or not, Manisha suddenly hurls a question, "I wonder, for how many generations have the family of Abhiram been offering blood?"
"From Mahananda Sinha to myself, that would be eighteen generations. But their life-span is shorter, so from Panchanan Bagdi to Abhiram, that would be twenty-four or twenty-five generations, I suppose ...", says Suryanarain.
"Suppose those people stopped offering blood? "
"Such words do us no good," bursts out Rangakakima, " It's the command of our Mother. "
Ambujanarain adds in a solemn tone, "This Puja is not ours alone, it is for everyone in the village. Look at these low caste untouchables; one can't even take from them water to drink. But this blood-offering ceremony confers upon them a status. The family of Abhiram is looked up to in the village, is respected, and they even wield a certain authority. They are the Dhannatkanni. In their community no social ceremony can be performed without their participation."
"I wonder how it all started, the reason behind the custom?..."
Suryanarain regards Manisha with a frown. "You know nothing," says he, "I wrote a book, I even sent it to your father; seems you have not read it." he gives her a small yellowed-with-age slim volume, 'The Sinha Family of Matangi by Suryanarain Sinha, M.A., Written in free Verse.'
Manisha finds her answer in a passage of free verse, in one of the tawny pages :
When pestilence spread throughout the land
And men at all hours were journeying to Death's domain
Vomiting blood, crematorium and kingdom becoming one
The people all pray to Mother Durga, saying,
"Why this curse upon us, O Mother, what is the reason?"
Lord Bhimnarain Sinha was asleep
When Devi Durga in a dream
Incarnated herself to him
(Oh, what peace!) Her crown glittered with gem and pearl
Thus spake She --- "The one who has eaten
The meat offered to me before
My puja had been performed,
If that sinner on Dashami morn
Can worship the sword of
Mahananda with his own blood
For generation after generation
And for fifty-one generations
Know thou, only then will penance be done. "
Panchanan Bagdi the veteran lathial
Came and confessed, "My son
Is the sinner; he stole the meat
While skinning the goat for the sacrifice. "
"The eldest son of the family has to offer blood? " asks Manisha, "And suppose there is no son?"
"Then we make them marry again," came the answer.
"Suppose there are no children?"
"That never happens, with the Mother's blessings."
Finding her way to Abhiram's house the next morning Manisha finds Abhiram's wife and son digging up an arum from the ground.
"Where's your father?" she asks, lightly touching the boy's shoulder.
"Resting in his room. Shall I call him?" says the boy in his raw country accent.
"No, no, I'll go in."
Manisha could hear the child whisper to his mother, "This is the big sister from Calcutta ... that daktar; so soft it felt, her hands, on my shoulder."
As Manisha enters the hut Abhiram sits up quickly, re-arranging the gamchha he has wrapped around his loins.
"I have come to see you. Are you okay?" She examines the whites of his eyes, pursing her lips anxiously.
"Do you take milk?"
"Then you should have figs, bananas and things like that, in good quantities. Had it been Calcutta I could have given you some medicine."
Two baskets, one suspended frame made of cane, and some dirty clothes, almost rags, hang from a clothesline. The call of the khanjana, or wagtail, is heard outside. Abhiram is lying on his back. Manisha can see some black scars on his chest. The wound is bandaged with a half clean rag.
"Those scars, you get them by offering blood, isn't so?" The man nods.
"How many scars are there?"
"Fourteen, counting this one. Father had thirty-eighty. As a boy I learnt to count that way; by counting my father's scars."
"Don't let him work for some time now," says Manisha.
"What's your name?" she asks the boy.
"My name is Sri Paban Kumar Bagdi."
"Pabankumar... Do you know what it means?" The boy nods in the negative.
"You don't know the meaning of your own name, ... How?"
The boy scratches his head... "I mean, well... you too couldn't solve that riddle, you know..."
Eight feet and sixteen knees
Latu goes fishing
On dry land he spreads the net
And fishes through eternity. "
"Ah yes, that one. Do you know the answer?"
Paban points to the corner of the ceiling. "Cobwebs."
Manisha notices the insects stuck in the middle of the cobweb, and the spider seated among them like a king. Eight legs sixteen knees. "Do you go to school?" she asks.
"Yes, when they give me bread."
"Calass thiree. "
"And you are going to eat that arum? Won't your throat itch?"
"That is a big arum; two rupees per kilo. Why should I eat that? We are going to sell it. We eat the small arum. Eighty paise kilo."
"Do you have an elder brother?"
"I have that one son," says Abhiram, "Got two daughters; they are married off. "
"Then after you on Dashami day he will have to..."
"Don't you feel bad?"
"What if I do sister?"
"Why not leave this place?"
"Tsh... we mustn't think of it even."
"Do you have your own land?"
"I cultivate seven bighas of the land your people have allotted for the deity and the temple. I give the babus half the produce, to be used in the puja and I take the other half. "
"Have you legalized the deal? Registered it with the Land Records Office?"
"The babus told me not to bother about all that. "
"And what does the Gram Panchayat say?"
"They say that I am the babus' chamcha, so I won't get any fudfarak."
Manisha comes away followed by little Paban who holds his slippers in his left hand. She places her hand on his shiny brown back. Under her touch he seems to crumple like a snail.
"Will you come to Calcutta?" she asks the boy, lightly pressing his shoulder.
At first Paban cannot look Manisha straight in the eyes. When he does, his own eyes are brimming with tears.
"Yes, yes, I want to go. Take me?"
Right then Manisha feels like taking him with her, putting him into school, telling her mother... But then, no, that cannot be, for when people will come to know, they'd bring Paban back here. Will Manisha then be able to defy them, say to them like Rajani in the TV serial, "You can't take him. He is my protége. How dare you? I don't give a damn for my share of the property."
Manisha goes back into Abhiram's hut. She puts down her address on the back cover of Paban's Bengali text book. "Write to me whenever you think it necessary," says Manisha.
On the way back from Matangi, Manisha had tried to reason with her Jabalpore uncle. "Now look, in this age of modern science, space shuttles, electronics, is it right to continue with this ancient ritual? It's not merely a question of the 200 or 250 cc. of blood that is shed; a lot more is lost on many occasions. But this cruel custom, isn't it a discredit to the Sinha family?" Her uncle had replied with conviction, "But this is India; here we respect our religious tradition..." The discussion however was cut short because at this point Pinky decided to circulate a packet of crisp, hot puffed rice. Manisha Sinha kept biting her lips in angry disdain.
The Abhiram affair kept gnawing into her mind. But even her mother was indifferent: "What's new about the story?" she observed. "But Abhiram is anaemic. I don't think he'll live long." Argues Manisha, "Paban, his son, is still a kid. Can't we take him away from there?" "What'll happen then on Dashami day?" remarks her mother, nonchalant.
Manisha had a friend whose fiancé was a journalist. In desperation she spoke to the gentleman about Paban : since he knows so many important people, can he do something for the boy? "Please Manisha, can you give me some photographs of the happening? It will make such an interesting feature, please!" was what she got in response.
Manisha's cousin, a doctorate in Anthropology, said he would like to visit Matangi the next year. He believed the deity must be some primitive mother goddess. There must have been human sacrifice at that spot in ancient times. The spot of blood put on the sacrificial block is meant to symbolize that ancient ritual. Or so he thought.
Manisha's sister-in-law the anthropologist's wife said, "Please Manu fetch that boy. You know your dada... always going after this project and that, while I'm managing home all alone. A helping hand is needed... an innocent boy from the village is what I want; the ideal thing! And they are so trustworthy."
At the hospital Dr Sen Gupta was Manisha's boss, supervising her housestaffship. He was supposed to be associated with quite a few social work organizations. "Send him to me. Something can surely be arranged," he said.
One fine morning without the least warning, Paban appears, a bundle on his head. A strange spectacle. Manisha notices that Paban's head is shaved. He has his Bengali textbook in hand, open at the page that has Manisha's address on it.
"Here, what's the matter?"
"Baba is dead; I ran away."
"When did it happen? Where is your mother?"
It's a month now. Ma is in the village. She will work there. I will bring her later, secretly."
Manisha takes him out and buys some samosa and jilebi for him to eat. Then she takes him straight to Dr Sen Gupta.
"Sir, could you arrange something? ... could he be given some training, an apprenticeship perhaps?"
"Well leave him; we'll see what can be done."
A few days later in the hospital ward 'sir' draws Manisha aside, "You've supplied a wonder boy," he says, "Very hardworking. He's with me. I won't send him anywhere. Very honest. He cleans my car, does odd jobs. I have kept some poultry on my roof. Your Paban looks after them. When I came to know he can also milk cows I partitioned my garage and bought him a Jersey. You won't know him if you saw him. He looks so spruce and fresh. What with the lovely pure milk he gets to drink."
'Sir', usually so serious and withdrawn, is actually laughing now. "Won't you go in for post-graduation? Apply for the D.C.H. Let's see what I can do."
A month goes by. Then one day, much to her surprise, Manisha meets Paban in the hospital 'free bed'. A hen had escaped from the cage and perched on the cornice of the roof. The much-too-smart boy fell off the roof-top trying to catch it; 'sir' whispers the explanation to Manisha.
A few days later Manisha is sitting beside Paban's bed in the hospital. He has an oxygen tube stuck into his nostril. His mother is still in the village and must be working hard. In Matangi. Manisha puts her hand upon Paban's forehead; but the boy does not feel its softness now. It was for Manisha that he was here in the city. It was she who had asked him to come, hoping to do him some good. Manisha fingers Paban's hair gently. She can hear the tumult within her own breast. 'Sir' approaches.
"Ninety by fifty."
"The left side is becoming numb, sir."
"Paralyzed. Give steroid along with the drip."
"Sir, should I send for his mother?" Manisha sobs.
"There will be great chaos. We'll see about that later," Dr Sen Gupta almost whispers before he goes away.
Manisha pinches herself again and yet again. Her heart is pounding away. It is as though a drum is beating within her. She feels nauseous. She shakes her head, desperately trying to be normal. Checks the boy's pulse. Drop by drop the saline water enters the boy's body. Drop by drop. Drop by drop. Beside the bed hangs the BED NO and the Observation Report.
Paban, my dear brother don't remain as a Bed Number, not as 16B, please! With your half paralyzed left leg please kick off the Observation Report and get up, please! Get up and go, save me!
The saline water enters his body. Drop by drop. Drop by drop.
Paban's mother needs to be informed. She should be sent for most certainly, thinks Manisha. "Paban's mother, your Paban is serious. Come sharp. Vllage Matangi. District Bankura." Manisha frames the telegram in her mind. But what is her name, the name of Paban's mother? Manisha does not know. She knows other names. The name of Suryanarain Sinha of the village Matangi: that of Ambujanarain. Yet she has spoken to that woman, Paban's mother. But still ... Manisha can only sit and wait, chin in hand.