Extracts from Mamoni Roisom Goswami
Translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma
Extract from ‘Breaking the Begging Bowl’ (Bhikhar Patra Bhangi)
Phuleshwari had promised herself on number of occasions – she would never stand next to the river Dhaleshwari again. During the last agitation, at this very spot, she had found the dead bodies of two students. Riddled with bullets, their bodies lay in a heap, like two deers killed by hunters. Ah! There were more memories…
Brushing her teeth with a twig, Phuleshwari walked towards Dhaleshwari. She had promised herself often, she would never visit the riverbank again. Yet, her legs invariably brought her to the same spot.
Standing near the sacred fig tree with a giant hollow next to the river, Phuleshwari saw several military vehicles pass by, blowing dust on the pebbled road. In the ensuing racket, the egrets on the tree flew away.
…Phuleshwari had forgotten many things. Yet, some stories were ever-present, like rock carvings on her mind. The story of the military was one such story – a story that filled her heart like a dark blot.
After the vehicles left, the smell that pervaded the air remained the same – the smell of german grass and petrol. Forty years ago, the same smell was everywhere in Kakabori. Was it just forty years? Or more? No, no, she did not remember. Perhaps, it was more. Six or seven years more. All those years ago, that ungainly smell permeated the atmosphere making the people of Kakabori forget the soft scents of bullet wood tree, blackhorm and even the kagazi lemon flowers.
Phuleshwari walked toward the point where the three roads converged and sat under the old sacred fig tree next to the road. Ah! Blowing dust, they just passed by her. She wondered if she should follow the vehicles. Yes, where did they go? Those military vehicles?
Usually, Phuleshwari woke up before everyone in Kakabori. For sometimes now, the family was going through such hardship that Phuleshwari was forced to collect leafy vegetables that grew wild on the roadside, from pennywort, green amaranth, spiny amaranth to fiddlehead fern, elephant ear and sessile joyweed to cook for three persons twice a day. After rinsing her mouth in the river, she usually finished collecting her vegetables. The neighbours were aware that she had now started eyeing their vegetable patches as well. Just the other day, there was such brouhaha after two gourds were stolen from the roof of the garden of the fisherman’s house next to Dhaleshwari.
Crossing the road, she went down to the river through the ‘leak’ made by the wheels of bullock carts and washed her face and hands. As she started to wipe her face with the dirty gatala that lay on her bosom, she started to shiver. …Yes, this time winter had arrived before the month of Magh. Or was it because she was getting old?
The fog enwrapped the hills faraway. On the bamboo grove on the other side, dewdrops lay like a flowery spider’s net.
… Phuleshwari heard a hok, hok sound amidst the sickle-like grasses. It was the sound of a wild duck. Amidst the green grasses, she noticed the black wings of the bird. Hiding her hands behind her gatala, she stood there for a while, waiting for a chance, but was it easy to catch a short-tailed wild duck? Footsteps did not matter; even at the scent of a human, they flew away. She had tried to catch wild ducks next to Dhaleshwari numerous times. She knew how delicious the flesh of the bird was. Even now, she would crave for the meat, even when she was as poor as the famine-affected.
…Slowly, it dawned. Like the flesh of a rabbit cut into nibbles, scarlet pieces of cloud surrounded the sun. Oh! The military vehicles were back. It was time to return home. But no, she left the riverbank and sat under the sacred fig tree with a giant hollow. These days, when she walked, her kneecaps made a kat, kat sound. Yet, she waited in anticipation, there might be more vehicles coming.
The burden of her age could not crush that anticipation. Memory was like the golden deer. Mysterious. Somewhere in her flesh, the golden deer endured. It thrived despite the storm and the lash of the whip, and in a moment, it appeared, dazzling the vision. Phuleshwari felt like that. From the dark recesses of her heart, in a fraction, the deer jumped out.
….It was 48 years ago. Kinaram Satriya had married her from Kaldiya and brought her to the banks of Dhaleshwari. That year, the Gohain Adhikari of the Kakabori Satra, Hridayananda Deb Adhikari, had gone to visit his disciples on the banks of the river Kaldiya. Kinaram was an orphan. He farmed on a piece of land belonging to Gohain Hridayananda. Kinaram Satriya was a man of strength. Why in Kakabori, in the entire south side of the river, there was not a single man as handsome as Kinaram.
…Phuleshwari daubed the corners of her eyes with her gatala. Yes, with great hope she had arrived here from Kaldiya. Kinaram followed Gohain Hridayananda Deb everywhere, like a shadow. After returning from the field, freshening up and changing his clothes, and after having a snack of rice powder and jaggery, he went to the residence of Gohain Mahaprabhu. Yes. Yes. Most of the times, Phuleshwari was alone. The day, when that terrible incident took place, that day too, Phuleshwari was alone.
Though Kinaram had asked, the old bhakat, Dhaniram, who usually stood guard in the household in absence of Kinaram, was missing that day. On other days, he arrived before dusk and spread his bed on the floor next to the bhakheri, where grains were stored. Sometimes, he prepared his nightly dose of opium next to the smouldering fire of rice husks, in the dhekhal, where the dheki, the wooden instrument used to pound rice grains, was.
That day he was not there. There was a function at someone’s house in Dompul. There, it started raining. He could not return home during the night. Even Dahi Mistiri’s daughter, who sometimes gave her company when Kinaram was not home, could not come that night because of the rain.
It was a terrible downpour. Water dripped from the thatched roof of the house and created a puddle next to her bed. She had never heard that kind of noise from cloud and thunder. She lay on the bed and listened to the heavy sound of the pomelos falling behind the house. She was terrified that the tamarind tree that stood next to the house would uproot and fall on her roof. She was trembling with fear. She waited impatiently for the rain to stop.
Suddenly, the deafening sound of a thunder burst shook her and she fell on the floor face down.
Just then, she heard someone knock on the door. She was not sure whether the storm made the sound, or whether there was actually someone behind the door. She perked up her ears and sat there in a trance.
But just for a moment; someone opened the door with a kick of his boot. …Like a wild animal, drenched in water, a soldier, with a gun in his hand, stood in front of her.
Yes! Yes! A soldier!
A gun in his hand. The water that dripped from his body made the floor of her hut muddy.
Yes, yes, it was the dress of a paltan, a hat on his head, and a gun in his hand. A pair of boots smeared with mud. …He saw her and quickly closed the door. Immediately, placing the gun next to the wall, he mumbled something. No, no, there was no attack on her. He did not have the look of a crude rapist. He looked like someone in trouble. …The sound of the rain had not stopped yet. Quivering with fear, she kept thinking just one thing, if she could just reach the door, she would be able to flee. …No, no, it was impossible. The man was standing just in front of the door and he was strong. Now, what was he doing? He removed his boots, then his soaked shirt plastered to his skin. With the nozzle of his gun, he pushed the items towards her and told her something, using wild gestures.
Now, Phuleshwari was certain that a runaway soldier was standing in front of her. His face was soft. He was very young.
Leaving the boots and the shirt, and carrying the gun on his shoulders, he left the way he had come, in the middle of the rain, with naked feet.
… Slowly, the intensity of the rain slowed down. She got up from the floor. …What would she do? What would she do now with the shirt and the mud-smeared boots? They lay in front of her like terrible evidence of a murder. This evidence could turn her into a criminal as well. Yes, yes, it could turn her into a criminal. Though illiterate, this much Phuleshwari knew. Though young, this much she knew.
There were strands of german grass and leaves on the boots. The shirt lay crumpled like a dry banana leaf.
What would she do? …Would she hide them near the dhekhal? No, no, everyone would see them there. Then where? In the bhakheri?
A soldier’s boots in the bhakheri?
Somewhere, her heart crumbled.
As she was still wondering what to do, there was a sudden convulsion. The entire village woke up to the sound of bamboo sticks and heavy boots; the entire camp of the paltan was there… crossing the Three-Road Chowk, they were marching towards the village.
…Phuleshwari, who was about to step out, took shelter inside her hut again. What was it? What was happening? Shouting and screaming, the party of paltan ransacked each household. There was the dham, dham sound of the boots and the clunky sound of household items tossed away. Hearing the screams of young children and howling of women, who had stepped away from the paltan like grasshoppers, Phuleshwari started to tremble. She thought of taking the items to the backyard. She thought she would do it fast, but hearing the sound of the boots on her courtyard, she stood there like a statue. A paltan kicked open the door. The way she stood there, it was suspicious enough. Her behaviour carried the seed of suspicion. …Unlike the other women, she did not run away to the verandah, screaming and shouting. A paltan lifted the bed; another bent down to see what was underneath. Then, with a loud cry, he pulled out the pair of boots smeared with mud and the rain-soaked shirt.
…There was, meanwhile, a small gathering in her courtyard. A soldier carried the boots and the shirt outside. Oh! She felt a dead body had dropped in the midst of everyone present.
The gathering crowd created a melee to witness the shirt and the boots of the deserter soldier.
…It was not just the shirt and the boots of the runaway soldier – there, outside Phuleshwari’s house, there lay an actual soldier. It felt like everyone was trying to tear his clothes to undress him. Soon everyone’s eyes were on Phuleshwari, who was standing in the verandah, holding onto a post. The gaobura, who was yet to brush his teeth, pointed his finger towards her and screamed, ‘Speak, swear and speak, did the paltan enter your house before?’
Holding onto the post in the verandah, Phuleshwari was so surprised that she could not utter a single word.
Now, all the important people in the village shouted together: ‘Tell us the truth. The paltan is waiting. Speak, aapi, speak.’
Even then, nothing came out of her mouth. An old woman, who had blacked her teeth with jamuki, revealing them like a beaten fox, cried, ‘You, the consort of twelve husbands, you have brought shame to the whole village. Confess. Confess the truth. I think you are a woman used by everyone.’
Another woman shouted, ‘What the public did not do when they found that Bhikhu Koomar’s daughter from Dakhala grew a tummy with a paltan! Tell us. Swear.’
Confused, she sat next to the post and started to weep.
Daringly, the soldiers went inside the hut again. The bed, the mattress, spinning wheels used for the loom, pots and pans, they spared nothing. …No, there was nothing else. They only found a saucepan with a handle, used by soldiers. …Not just in her house, these saucepans with handles, designed like an elephant’s head, they were in everyone’s house. The paltan knew those saucepans, used by soldiers, were to be found even in the kitchens of the Gohains and the Brahmins of the Kakabori Satra.
Leaving with the shirt and the boots of the runaway soldier, the paltan said in funny-sounding Asomiya, ‘We will come often to take stock of the situation. If anyone of you can find any information about the runaway soldier, inform us immediately. We will reward you.’
Making distinct sounds with their boots, the paltan took a short cut through the jungle filled with bamboo, german grass, castor oil plant and four o’clock flower, and reached the main road.
One by one, the gathering crowd started to disperse from Phuleshwari’s courtyard. Nobody came and stood next to her; even the women, who were late for their morning chores, failed to talk to her and find out the truth. After all, she was not from Kakabori. She was from the north side of the river Brahmaputra. She did not have any friends here.
While leaving, they said:
‘Beti, barabhateri, she destroyed the reputation of the village.’
‘Now, will the paltan leave the young girls of the village alone?’
‘Now, will the young girls be able to go shopping to Three-Chowk Mirja? The wench has shown the way.’
She had forgotten nothing. Everything was clear in her memory.
…Did she really see that runaway soldier somewhere before? While going to the weekly market in Mirja? On the riverbed on the day of Suwari festival? Yes, yes, even when the paltan visited this side, looking for ducks and chickens, she had never seen a face like that.
After bath, she entered the hut and standing next the upturned bed, she could not move. What a terrible thing had happened? What a terrible thing!
One day, the Babaji, who had come down from the Garo Hills and was staying at the temple under the bullet wood tree, had said: ‘These guys, who are staying in tents near the river, these military people, they themselves do not know whom they are going to kill. They were kidnapped and were forced to join the paltan. They will have to shoot at whomever the Gora government points their fingers. Now, you tell me – if you do not have a fire inside you, can you murder a human being? You will have to make the Gora government your God. You will have to set fire on yourself. Then only you will be able to fight a war with guns. Not everyone can do this. Haven’t you heard a paltan from Mirja had run away? They finally caught him the jungles of Ukiam. …Yes, yes, these are runaway paltan, paltan who failed to kill and then ran.’
In spite of her tumultuous state of mind, Phuleshwari felt a kind of affinity for the runaway soldier. …No, no, he did not even look at her properly. In a hurry, he just readied himself to run.
Then, there was a piercing cry to break her heart into two: ‘Oh, my dear mother, why did he come and suck my life blood away?’
… Everything, Phuleshwari remembered everything.
The Gosain Mahaprabhu had returned from visiting his disciples in the north. Kinaram was one of the boys who helped the Gohain get down from the elephant at the Three-Road Chowk and then carried him to the Satra in a palanquin.
At Three-Road Chowk, he heard the news how the paltan’s clothes.
On top of it, on his shoulder, he carried a festering wound.
After reaching home, like a man suffering from brain fever, he lay on the bed. Blood and pus from the wound on his shoulder fell on the pillow. Looking for a straight answer, he asked her.
‘For how long were you seeing the paltan?’
‘Speak, since when he had been coming here?’
With a straight face, she too answered, ‘He came just once on the rainy night. I had not seen him before.’
Without blinking, Kinaram looked at Phuleshwari for a long time. Then he got up with a start, like a man bitten by a snake. ‘With so many houses around, how come he decided to come and hide under your bed? …Or is this the same tale as that daughter of Bhikhu Koomar from Dakhala…’
He was a young man; suddenly blood rushed to his brain. Like a wild buffalo, with a mad intensity, he grabbed her hair. He dragged her to the courtyard and then started to kick her.
There was a skirmish. The courtyard, once again, was crowded. At that very moment, Phuleshwari’s father, Narahari Mandal, who had came from the north to invite his grandfather for Bihu, reached the courtyard. Pleading, he grabbed Kinaram’s hands: ‘What are you doing? What? Do you want to kill your wife?’
They spent their days in discontent. Even then, in the span of seven years, they had three children.
…The wound, which continued to fester as Kinaram continued to carry the palanquin on the same shoulder, continued to give off blood and pus. Kinaram fiddled with it, and made it spread and one day the wound became large and beyond healing. Then the unhappy man passed away.
Annobala’s wedding, the death of her drunk husband even before the wedding anniversary, after finishing his school education, how, searching for a job everywhere, her son finally disappeared to become a terrorist – all those events took place one after another.
This happened many years later. When someone tried to clear the teak forest on the east of Kakabori to farm the land, he found an old well used by the people going to the cremation ground. When people cleared the well, they found a skeleton. With it, there was a wet, odd-shaped gun. When someone touched the wooden butt of the gun…
Extract from ‘The Blood of Devipeeth’ (Debipeethar Tej)
‘…Very nice. Very nice. The garden looks very soothing…’
…With a spade, Padma was cleaning the roots of the flowering plants. After offering her the words of encouragement standing next to her, her mother went to the kitchen.
…The dwarf Seng was breaking the lumps of soil with his bare hands. Lavanya knew the tricks how to handle him and she had taught all the tricks to Padma. She filled his pockets with the batasa and the coconut larus that her father’s Jajman left to offer during puja.
…He was cleaning the soil with his bare hands. Compared to his large head, his small hands looked like it moved faster.
….His father worked as a helper in supplying wood to the crematorium at Kamakhya Dham. His mother was dead soon after his birth. Nobody knew who started calling him Seng. Probably, it was some wily men from the temple. His received his sustenance from the temple.
…The scent of incense wafted from her father’s puja room. A pair of Jajman from north had arrived early morning, to perform Shani Puja. The sound of her father’s baritone, chanting the mantras, spread everywhere.
Shanayshwara mahabhaga lokanu grahakarak
Mool shakti samudvata namaste suryasambha
Namaste shoolahastiya palahastiya dhammine…
Then, standing next to her mother, Padma said, ‘I have heard that there are saplings of white flowers on the west of Bhubaneshwari. …I’ll go and take a look.’
‘Go, go, aai. Take Seng with you.’
Her mother approved her plan enthusiastically. Truth be told, for the last two years since her father-in-law left her here, she had hardly shown any interest in doing anything.
…Standing near the threshold, her mother looked at Padmapriya. What a beauty! Not a single girl from Kamakhya could compete with her in beauty. Yet? Yet? She pressed her eyes with the corner of her chador. Then, why did this happen? Why?
With Seng following, she descended from Bhubaneshwari. Both reached the plain where blossomed the saplings of white gutimali flowers.
…Seng did not want to be there. He was desperate to leave. He was terrified to be in this haunted forest alone.
But Padmapriya? Holding his hand, she walked ahead. She did not have any fear. There was scent of wild flowers everywhere. …On the large stones on the banks of Brahmaputra, she noticed was a flock of egrets.
…Padmapriya was trying to pull out a sapling with its roots. It was part of a bigger gutimali plant. As she and Seng, using all their hands, tried to uproot the plant, it suddenly came undone and the forced pushed her onto a man who was walking by.
‘Iss, iss, iss, whose daughter! Whose daughter!
Making a clamour, Shambhudev, the deo who performed the sacrificial rites, spent a long time looking for his kharag and the pomelo, which fell from his hand during the impact. Seng followed the pomelo, which was rolling down towards the river, jumped on it to catch it, and making a bham, bham sound with his mouth, returned to Shambhudev.
…Only after he had found his kharag, his sacrificial sword, he looked into the eyes of the girl. He could not believe in his own eyes.
There was none as beautiful in Devipeeth as she was.
Who? Who was she?
Revealing his large teeth, Seng made a smiling gesture and pointed his hand towards Padmapriya’s house.
For some time, Shambhudev stood there witlessly.
Yes. Yes. Now, everything was clear. Now he remembered. He saw the girl once or twice near the sacrificial enclosure. Then nothing. …That girl, that full-bodied girl, just passed by him. He had never seen her like this before. There was a new body on her old flesh. The girl who stood next to the sacrificial enclosure and cried during the sacrifice had turned into another girl. Wondrous! Wondrous!!
One week later, carrying a spade and a curved knife, with Seng in the tow, she again started out in search of flowers.
In the afternoon, after lunch, munching on areca nuts and leaves, when other people took refuge on their beds, she, with Seng, started their journey to the river. Bhagawati asked his wife sleepily, ‘Has she gone somewhere?’
‘Perhaps she has gone with Seng to look for white flowers.’
‘Haven’t you seen how she has filled the garden with white flowers?’
Surprisingly, on the second day too, Padmapriya noticed the bali kata deo Shambhudev near the river. Using his sacrificial sword, he pushed a pomelo from the gunnysack to the water and then, with his kharag, he sliced the floating fruit into two in one single blow.
With great curiosity, Padma and Seng observed the scene.
Shambhudev was full of muscles. The veins of his hands and legs were protruding. On his entire body, there was a visible manifestation of masculinity; his shoulders were like a lion’s, his arms like iron. The blood under his calf was visible from the distance.
Failing to sustain her curiosity, Padmapriya screamed, ‘Bali kata deo, what are you doing? What are you doing?’
Shambhudev turned. The kharag fell from his hands.
Involuntarily, he started to chant: ‘Om, louha dattaye namah. Om, lauha dattaye namah.’
Shambhudev Shikdar picked up the fallen kharag.
‘Why do you come to this haunted place at midday?’
She and Seng did not answer.
‘Why do you come?’
‘Bali kata deo? What is this talim?’
‘Redemption. Yesterday, during the buffalo sacrifice, it took me three blows. I am doing the talim so that this does not happen again.’
…All three remained quiet.
‘Besides following the redemption rituals prescribed by Devipeeth, I want to come clean, in every which way.’
Keeping the sword next to a rock, Shambhudev walked up from the water.
From the river, there wafted a smell like the smell of raw meat. It was the month of Bohag. Perhaps some hills had fallen on Brahmaputra in the flood. It was a mixed smell of damp clay and tree roots.
Holding onto Seng, she sat on her knees.
‘How many buffaloes have you scarified so far…?’
Shambhudev looked at her face for a long time. Then he said, ‘Three thousand buffaloes.’
‘Three thousand buffaloes?’ Padmapriya screamed.
‘Today morning, it took me three blows on the buffalo that the Mahajan, paralysed with fear from his enemies, had offered…’
People from the Garo village were sitting on the stairs of the Good Luck Pond since morning. They had heard the news.
Mumbling to himself, the giant man with lion’s shoulders, looked towards the sky, and said, ‘I recited the bakkhyaman mantra…’
In his mind, he started chanting the mantra.
Yatha vahang bhabana dwesthi yatha
Tatha mama ripunag hingsha shubhang
Waha lulapakasamashya vahanastunthu bararapasharabyaya
Aturbitong yasho dehi kashyabaya
Namo hante te…
…Oh Mahish, the way you carry Chandika on your back, you defeat my enemies. Bless me.
The buffalo was sacrificed to fulfil the wish to defeat enemies. …The enemies were invoked in the sacrifice. Oh, yet, it took three blows. Ah, Devi. Ah, Mahamaya.
‘The people from the Garo village are now cleaning the kill under the banyan tree. Go, go, and see. They are carrying the meat home.’
For a while, Padmapriya and Seng remained silent.
‘Deo, does Devi accept human sacrifice. Does she drink human blood?’
‘Human sacrifice? It’s in the scriptures. If a human is scarified with all the prescribed rules and rituals, the Goddess is satisfied for a thousand years. With three human sacrifices, one-lakh years… with human flesh, the goddess is satisfied with three thousand years. …Listen, to understand the right way to pronounce the mantra to offer oblation to the sacrificial sword, I have toiled for many years…’ Saying this, he again tossed a pomelo to the water and then sliced the floating fruit with the kharag.
This was the rehearsal for a sacrifice. This was a rehearsal not to waste a sacrifice.
Holding Seng’s hand, she walked ahead through the small track, and crossing the teak, ceylon olive and bishop wood trees and thorny bushes, they stopped under a giant gooseberry tree. Here, the creepers on the trees were hanging so low that the leaves entangled with her hair bun. On the way, bees from a honeycomb somewhere flew in and sat on her forehead. Elsewhere, she had to skip and jump over the stones that looked like the Goddess’s feet, as devotees had smeared them with sindoor and covered them with garlands of tulsi leaves. …Yes, it was possible that she could step on the dismembered body of the Goddess, which was perhaps destroyed by Kalapahar. Finally, they reached the old banyan tree and stood under it.
…The people from the Garo village had already cleaned the buffalo and now, they were all set to carry the meat back to their village. Look, how the blood splattered all over the grass. Look, there is one discarded hoof. Padmapriya remembered. Oh, when the buffalo was hauled to this place, how it found it difficult to climb the stairs. Oh, oh, how fearfully it looked everywhere. Look, the dismembered flesh of its body now lay scattered in front of her.
Oh! Oh! Oh!
What happened? What happened to her? Falling down on her knees, she started to cry. The dwarf Seng jumped around her and started to whimper. Look, now Shambhudev, instead of slicing the pomelos, was looking at her.
For two days, she did not climb up searching for white flowers. She bolted the doors and stayed inside the dark room. …Intermittently, she tried to stand in front of the mirror and inspected the white spot on her back. She did not see anything clearly in the dark room. Yet, she continued to struggle. No, no, the spot remained the same. It did not increase. It did not disappear. As usual, she started with smoothering her back. Then, she started to scratch it. …Then, in pain, she lay on the bed.
Extract from ‘Delhi, 5 November 1991’ (Delhi, 5 November 1991)
5 November 1991. Early morning, some people from the party paper started knocking on Vimala’s door. When the mother-daughter duo opened the door, they saw Habib photographer and several others outside. Habib worked in Awaaz. He came forward and said, ‘So far, we have heard that more than hundred have died just in Hindu Rao Hospital alone.’
Vimala screamed, ‘Died?’
The other two men with Habib screeched, ‘Liquor, jehrila daru.’
Vimala got ready in a minute. Her mother said, ‘Don’t worry, go.’
Even her dumb brother stood near the doorway. Saliva dripped from the corners of his mouth.
Wearing a khadi sari and carrying a large khadi bag, she stood on the GT Road bus stand with Habib and the other reporters. Vimala was convinced that this was just another accident that kept happening in Delhi. They got down near Hansraj College and took the road in front of the Sabji Mandi post office towards Hindu Rao Hospital.
Her heart started to flutter once they reached the hospital. It was full of people running around, screaming and shouting, whining and crying. There was not an inch of space around the Emergency.
A mob was arguing with the police whether the bodies of the two men who died on the way to the hospital should be shifted to the morgue or should be taken to the crematorium directly.
Vimala ran towards a doctor busy in the Emergency and accosted him, ‘How many died so far? Sir, how many died so far?’
‘We have admitted 119 people. A lot of them died. One hundred and five of them are fighting for their lives. Look, they keep coming, keep coming. Don’t disturb. …Don’t disturb.’
A large mob pushed her towards the corner of the Emergency. One of the sick, who was carried by his relatives, started to vomit uncontrollably outside the hospital and passed away on the spot. Pushing through the noises, the screams, and the jostle of the half-naked relatives of the victims, who looked like beggars on the street, Vimala inched towards the eye wards on the first floor. The eye ward of the Hindu Rao Hospital had been turned into an emergency ward for the victims of the poisoned hooch. Somehow stepping out of the melee, she stood outside the ward that looked like a cave.
There, Vimala came face to face with the terrible sight. All the patients who lay on the beds in the ward had gone blind. A police officer was on guard outside.
The nurses, who were busy at work, did not allow her to enter the ward. On everyone’s face, there was suppressed excitement and fear. It was, as if, the poison affected half of the population of Delhi. After she brandished her identity card and requested profusely, she was finally allowed to enter the ward. She walked towards the beds.
However, Habib photographer was not allowed to follow Vimala. There were police photographers.
Look, there, one patient was about to die just in front of her. The doctor, who was giving him mouth-to-mouth CPR to revive him, stood there helplessly.
…The man died in front of her. The screaming and howling of the man’s family members made Vimala numb again. What was this? What was happening?
…No, no, she had to walk ahead and collect the news. Even during the riots in 1984, she went to Jehangir Puri and Kalyan Puri to see the blood-soaked turbans of the people who died in the massacre. She herself took the pictures of ransacked houses, the skeleton of a torched motorbike…
But this? This was an impossible sight… More than impossible.
‘What’s the name? What was his name?’ Vimala asked the young man who stood next to a patient with his eyes bandaged with cotton.
‘What’ the name?’
‘How many siblings do you have?’
‘He used to drink every day?’
‘Yes. In one sitting, he finished on quarter bottle.’
‘From where did he buy the liquor?’
The boy did not answer.
‘What did he do for a living?’
‘He used to carry gas light with the band party.’
Then Vimala asked the woman with a baby clutched to her arm, who was standing next to another blind patient.
The woman was so surprised at the question that instead of answering, she squeezed the baby hard.
‘What he did?’
‘When did this happen?’
‘After two hours.’ Saying this, she started to whimper. ‘This one quarter bottle took my husband’s life.’
Immediately, the two men, who were standing guard next to another blind patient, screeched, ‘The police are helping those who sold the poison, because they too get their shares from them. …Write everything in the paper, sab likho, so that people’s eyes are open, so that they know what others are doing.’
Now, the police who were everywhere in the ward, started to make noises. There was chaos everywhere. The nurses pushed Vimala out of the ward.
An old nurse admonished, ‘These paper people have no other intention than to increase the sale of their paper. They will follow wherever there are dead bodies. If you have the courage, then go, catch the real criminal …’
Crossing the wards that looked like tunnels, she came out of the hospital. The entire premise was filled with people. They pushed and shoved each other to collect the dead certificates from the police PCR van. There was confusion at the verification. Yes, yes, unbelievable confusion. The police distributed dead certificates the way food is distributed among the famine-affected.
Vimala stood away from the police van. Habib photographer and the other two men had already disappeared. As she tried to find a way to the police van, she noticed members of two parties shouting against the government, like vultures above dead bodies. From a group of people who were mourning the death of a family member, someone shouted, ‘There is no point shouting slogans here. If you have real courage, then call the harami ka pilla, who is the real owner of the shop. Don’t shed crocodile tears here.’
The words hit Vimala’s eardrums. …There is no point shouting now… Bulao woh harami ke pillon ko… She paced towards the morgue. Brandishing her identity card, as she crossed the impenetrable police cordon, her head began to spin. A woman, who was there to identify a body, fell on Vimala and started to scream, ‘He would drink every day. Who knew, who knew, he would drop dead on the night of Diwali.’ Even two nurses could not control her. She was alone. She started to pull on Vimala’s clothes, and the clothes of the nurses, and then she lost her conciseness and fell on the ground.
…Look, those were the dead bodies placed on top of each other, like gunnysacks. On the chests of a few of them, there were slabs of ice like slabs of concrete. A rotten smell of blood and pus emanated from the clothes of a few of them. Vimala covered her face with the end of her sari.
…The situation turned worse. The relatives of the dead people jostled with each other to collect the requisition forms after identifying the bodies. …Flies hovered over the bodies. Only if they would take the bodies and perform the last rites! The living, meanwhile, were filled with sadness, anger and rage. What would they do? What would this mob do?
The number of people and the police started to swell. Leaving the doorway of the morgue, Vimala stood outside and tried to inhale some fresh air. Holding her stomach with her hands, she started to retch. Then she pulled a notebook from her bag and wrote down the descriptions of the events unfolding before her. In the jostle of the crowd, she could barely hold her pen. …Two police officers carrying a dead body passed by her and dumped it on the morgue, as if it was not a human, but an animal for the slaughterhouse.
Again, she held her stomach with her hands and retched. From the interiors of her heart emerged a word, which had no definition.
Look, they have come again. The police were carrying more dead bodies for the morgue. Holding onto her khadi bag, pushing the crowd, she walked along. Someone pulled the end of her sari, ‘Madam, aap likhe-padhe ho, madat karo. My brother died at seven last night. Since last night, we haven’t received the body…’
Whom will Vimala help? Whom will she help?
The woman pointed her towards the police officers who were sitting behind a table out in the open. She said again, ‘You are an educated woman. Please help. My brother started to vomit last night at 10. I bought him to Hindu Rao. His number came after one hour. By then, he was dead. Now, it’s eight in the morning and the police are not returning the body.’
Vimala screamed, ‘Flies are hovering over the bodies. Why wouldn’t they return them?’
‘Say they have not received any papers from the hospital. Ten hours have passed. I have not eaten anything. Even my two legs have given up.’
Somebody came and put up a list of dead bodies on the wall of the PCR room. The people, who were standing in groups outside, surrounded the list, like flies on a ripe mango.
The woman, who tugged on Vimala’s sari, screamed again, ‘Hamara laas.’
The two young boys, who were roaming about purposefully among the crowd, stood next to the woman and whispered on her ear, ‘What do you think? We can get you the dead body immediately.’
‘Laas dilwa sakte ho?’
‘Saheb logon ke liye chai-paani ka bandobast karao. You know it is required for every kind of work, when you apply for ration card, when you want to release someone on bail… Is there any place where work can be done without cash?’
Screamed Vimala, ‘Tell me what you want to say.’
The two teenage gundas disappeared in the crowd. Vimala followed them. She heard the loudspeaker announcement from the Delhi Police PCR van near the Sabji Mandi post office: ‘Whoever has the bottle of the drink, please deposit it with us. These are not drink. These are poison.’
She met Habib photographer near the post office. He said, ‘Please also get a report from the morgue in Baraf Khana.’
She was not in a condition to answer Habib. Holding her tummy with her hands, she started to retch again.
Habib said sympathetically, ‘You don’t look well. I have just heard that in Haiderpur, some people have been buried in secret. They may be poor, but they have their honour. That’s why. What’s why. Who knows perhaps they will dig up the buried bodies.’
Without waiting for Vimala’s answer, the excited photographer ran towards Sabji Mandi on the right side of the post office.
Holding her tummy, Vimala coughed for a long time. Will she walk to the Baraf Khana morgue in Sabji Mandi or will she take a three-wheeler?
She started to walk. Meanwhile, the news had spread all through Delhi. Standing in groups under lampposts, shops and road crossings, people were discussing the same thing.
‘Garib ka hi maut hain.’
‘Even they are the same people who drink.’
‘More people will die.’
‘They are still being sold as local medicine.’
There was a rush at the Baraf Khana morgue in Sabji Mandi as well. It was filled with people from JJ Colony, Malka Ganj, Shravan Park, Anand Parvat. There were some unclaimed bodies in the morgue. Even six-seven people failed to pacify a howling old woman. Her son was the only earning member of the family with five daughters. Now, the government will give just Rs 10,000 as compensation. What will they do with just Rs 10,000? Working on a cycle factory, the dead man took care of six people in the household.
The old woman howled, ‘Now, to save the household, I will have to start cleaning dishes of other people. Taking care of this family, I have aged even in my youth.’
From the crowd, some stray statements hit Vimala’s ears. Somebody screamed, ‘To save our honour, we should have performed the last rites just there. Twelve hours have passed without any food. We do not know when we will get back the body…’
…It was the same scenario here as well.
Vimala posed her question to a group of men, who sat on the verandah, ‘Where are you from? Where?’
‘How many died?’
‘Our own man passed away, who cares about the others.’
Shooing away the flies on their faces with a piece of cloth, they answered emotionally. Vimala asked again, ‘Didn’t you inform the police about the shops selling poisonous liquor?’
For a while, they looked at Vimala with their unblinking eyes. Then one of them answered in despair, ‘Policewale khak karenge? You are from newspaper. The police are your big brother. They just talk and do nothing.’
…Fishing out a handkerchief from her khadi bag, Vimala wiped the sweat from her face. She had heard the same thing when she was in Jehangir Puri after the riot.
‘The police did not do anything?’ She asked again.
This time, no one answered. The black van of the municipal corporation stood next to the morgue. There was a rotten stench. Everywhere, there was a rotten stench.
Pushing though the crowd, she left the place. The sun was a ball of fire above her head. Vimala thought of her old mother, worried that she was alone. However, whenever Himmat Singh was home during his leave, he would come visit Vimala’s mother every morning. Perhaps, he went to see her today as well. There was nothing to worry. Whenever Himmat Singh was home on his leave, she had nothing to worry. From making chapattis to taking her mother to her favourite doctor, Qutubuddin, on Singh Sabha Road, he would do everything. He would even play with her autistic brother…
She jotted down the scene at Sabji Mandi Baraf Khana. Now, only Nigambodh was left on her itinerary. How would she go there? Getting on a bus at this hour was not advisable. They carried people like gunnysacks of salt.
Vimala hailed a three-wheeler and started towards Nigambodh. The rotten stench of the cold storage was everywhere on the body of the three-wheeler. It had the same stench as rotten rice.
Will she throw up?
Someone was beating the insides of her with something, like a hammer beating on a piece of iron. The veins surrounding her heart hardened.
Khak, khak, khak… she continued to cough intermittently.
A gust of wind from outside chilled her bones. The wind came from the river Jamuna. Look, there lay the river, like a dry bone, with the colour of chicken feathers discarded by butchers.
Paying the three-wheeler, when Vimala stood outside the gate of Nigambodh, all she saw was the crowd of people and police. There were also gun-wielding soldiers. Perhaps some minister was visiting. Look, at the high platform, someone’s last rites had already begun. Perhaps the minister was here for this person. God, God, on small platforms surrounding the big one, the bodies of the poor people, who died from the drinks, were ablaze.
Nigambodh was filled with young boys and girls, men and women. Vimala did not understand why an entire village, with women and children, would come to Nigambodh to witness these burning pyres.
From the high platform pyre, and from the rudimentary pyres, emanated the same smell. There was no difference in the stench of singed human flesh. She had felt the same stench near the kathi kebab shops in Majnu Ka Tilla, Chandni Chowk or Katra Ghashiram. Vimala walked ahead.
There was a commotion to bring a dead body under the chhatri to perform the last rites. Look, there was another dead body being washed in the water of the river. Behind it, there was a group of dazed children…
Vilama had never seen so many people in Nigambodh before. Even when she had visited Nigambodh earlier for the newspaper, she had never encountered such rush.
Vimala heard someone say, ‘Chale, everyone will go scot-free. The factory owner from Ghaziabad said it was from a unit in UP. It is all the doing of the UP police. What will Delhi Police do? Now, it’s a hot news. There will be some noises in the newspapers. There would be some drama to catch the culprits. Then the government officials will take bribe and everyone will go scot-free. And people will forget everything.’
Vimala decided now she would have to finish her job fast. Himmat Singh will take care of her mother. There was no doubt. But she did not feel well. The retching feeling was more acute than ever. Vimala thought it would have been nice if Himmat Singh were with her right now.
Pulling the notebook from her bag, she jotted down a few things about Nigambodh. She sat on a wooden bench outside and wrote. Then she walked ahead and stood near the huge godown where firewood was stored. The door was open. The firewood, stored in stakes, was depleting fast. Today, there was a mob outside this shop as well. This she had heard at Hindu Rao Hospital.
She heard that there was a skirmish concerning the inflated price of firewood at the Azadpur Crematorium. Men had turned to beasts. How could they let go the chance to earn some profit?
Now, Vimala tried to enter the first room of the office. Today, there was a rush here as well. There was no way she could enter the room. She stood outside the door for a long time.
‘Rs 380 for three quintal of firewood.’
‘Pucca receipt, ration card? Permanent residence?’
‘If the man did not have a job, keep the space under employment blank.’
‘Signature of the informant? Deputy registrar’s signature?’
The sentences flew around. There was the rotten smell. Most of the people who lived in jhuggis came barefoot. Only a few wore rubber chappal, dirty pajamas-kurtas. Some wore tehmat like lungis.
Even pushing and shoving, Vimala could not reach near the wooden desk. The crowd spilled over the old, discoloured desk. …Look, from the very spot, Vimala noticed a dead body on a boat. She averted her gaze. She was exhausted. She was fighting the whole day.
Faraway, she noticed another group making their way towards the crematorium. Her eyes darted away. Somebody had written on the wall: ‘Do a good deed every day and you will receive a boon from gods.’
Some people on the ground looked at the writing. Look, look, the mob was coming this way.
Some had returned after the fire on the funeral pyre had exhausted. Though the tree stamps were still burning, there was a layer of white ash on them. She counted on her fingertips. There were 72 concrete platforms for funeral pyres. Today, all the dead were the victims of the poisonous hooch, the unfortunate men, who wanted to enjoy during the Diwali, tailors, sweepers, vegetable vendors, rickshawallas, construction workers, labourers, cobblers, three-wheeler drivers… Only the bullet of a terrorist killed the man placed on the high platform. The minister had not left yet. The police and the civilians jostled together.
Look. Who was that coming towards her breathlessly? Arre, the man was coming towards her. Behind him were other people; they were about to crash on her.
Vimala was surprised. This, this was Ismail Sheikh. He was delirious.
‘What happened? What happened?’ Vimala screamed.
Ismail screeched, ‘Madam, Himmat Singh mar gaya. Himmat Singh is dead. …Diwali ke din bohut piya, bohut piya. Around 11, we brought him to Hindu Rao. He died on the way.’
Vimala started to shake all over. Look, there was his father. Daya Singh mochi, bereft of a part of his intestines. And his hair? His hair? Vimala could not stand anymore. She sat down.
Life was like this. Those were the true scenes from Nigambodh in Delhi. Whimpering, Vimala said, ‘Yes, yes, this is the truth. The truth.’
Next to her was Ismail Sheikh. What was he saying? What?
‘What was he saying?’
‘Himmat Singh’s dead body has arrived.’
Extract from ‘Ishwari’s Doubt and Desire’ (Ishwari’s Sangshay Aru Prem)
As the Ramayan Mandali returned to Raxaul, Dharma Bahadur sat on her right side. The brahmachari sat on her left.
To be able to sit next to Dharma Bahadur like this, Ishwari felt a kind of happiness she had never experienced.
The gods had afforded her the opportunity. The keys to happiness and peace were with her right now. Yes, it was on her hands. Her heart beat faster in excitement. This was the chance… This was the chance… Someone whispered on her ears, you would never get a chance like this again. At this age, you will never get a chance like this again.
…Another door to life will open again. There will no longer be the exhaustion of this brazen hellish suffering. She will now receive the proof of his acceptance.
…The golden sunshine of the evening filled the fields. The straws of the rice field turned into the colour of gold dust. There was a rush on both sides of the road. Some families were on tongas as well. With every family, there was a goat. Yes, with every family there was a goat. Some of the goats, dedicated for sacrifice, forced themselves onto the laps of the women, the way children go to their mothers’ laps for comfort and shelter.
How could they sleep so peacefully on the laps of their killers?
What was that river? Feeding Janak-nandini with milk, made holy by the Kamdhenu cow, was it the Dugdhamati River? Or, was this the Goirika River? The holy site to perform the last rites of the ancestors?
…No, no, she did not remember anything anymore. Like the veins on the calf of a muscular man, the river flowed ahead.
…There were sand islets on the riverbed like pieces of meat on a butcher’s shop. Ducks of different hues sat in circles on the riverbed like fishnets.
Hari, Hair, Dharma Bahadur’s reverberated breathe on her chest. …From top to toes, she was drenched in an indescribable feeling, as if her body wanted to enter inside another body without leaving a trace. This exchange of bodies was painful, yet heavenly. Was this love then? But love was beyond physical pain; love resided in the soul.
What was soul? What was soul? No, no, Ishwari had never found the answer to the question.
…Yet, at this very moment, all her thoughts, all her feelings were flowing towards the body, as if the body was falling in a river, like the eroding banks. Ah, like a body what was this river? Each limb of her body started to speak and their voices mingled together. She felt a sharp pain on her bosoms. The veins of her two breasts were alive and awake. The flesh of her bosom tightened.
The bus moved towards Birganj. …The river showed its face again. Look, someone was butchering a goat near the river. The meat was on the bloodied skin of the dead animal.
Its own flesh on its own skin!
Ah! Was the same happening to her? Was her own butchered flesh gathering on top of her soul? …Uh, Atma! Dharma!!
…Again, the muscles of her breasts hardened.
Suddenly, Ishwari noticed the brahmachari sanyasi from the Dhanurdhar Charturbhuj Ram Mandir who sat on her left. She was between them. …This sanyasi, who said, who said, this sanyasi had performed tapasya on a dark cave in the Vindhya hills for 10 years. Did he achieve something, something great like the ability to conquer the body?
He sat with his body touching hers. All this time she had not noticed that her shoulder was touching the brahmachari…
Siih, siih, this brahmachari sanyasi now knew everything about her… Did he really know? People say these sanyasis can read minds. Did he find out about her desire for Dharma Bahadur? …Then he must consider her an immoral woman.
At the Ramayan Mela at Chitrakoot too, she had met a sanyasi from Giribraj. With skin-and-bone body, the deadlock on his head looked like fishnet hung out to dry. Everyone called him Hanuman sanyasi, for, wherever there was Ram Kirtan, he would be there. He lived on a masan in a tree.
That time, Ishwari was not in a right state of mind. It was not long ago that she had become a widow. Climbing up the masan, she had sought the blessing of the mysterious sanyasi. Holding his hand up, he had blessed her. …What was surprising that a few days after receiving the blessing she had regained the stability of her life…
Since that day on, she had a sense of respect and curiosity for sadhu-sanyasis. Since then she had received the blessings of numerous sanyasis at Uttar Kashi, Ratna Sagar, Ujjain, and now, now, rubbing shoulder to her was the deadlocked sevak from Dhanurdhar Ramchandra Mandir…
He knew everything, everything, the storm stomping her body and her soul. He had learnt everything. Whatever he must be thinking? That these sorts of people come to events like these as well?
What else could she do? Pushing away all other rational thoughts, a strong, meaningless feeling washed over her body and soul…
Her body was disappearing in the flesh of Dharma Bahadur Rana…
Look, look, one of his hands was resting on her thighs. She could not dare to look. A scavenger bird was on an uncovered piece of flesh.
The body was now the language. Rana, who was speechless, quiet, now, now, with the language of his body said the words for which she had waited eagerly at Chitrakoot, Ujjain, Ayodhya, at each Ramayan Mela.
Ah… The road to this journey in transforming from one body to another! What pain and beauty was this?
A finger with a ring on it rubbed on her knees… What was this ring Dharm Bahadur wearing? What ring? Climbing up towards her body, the hand would come down again… The ring would again hit on her knee… like a mountain of sand on a river, a mountain slowly starting to collapse. With great restrain, Dharma Bahadur stopped himself from crossing that mountain of sand. …That mysterious mound of flesh tightened again.
Issh, Issh, the Sanyasi was sitting so close to her! She could smell his deadlock, which smelt like dry figs…
Ah… The mound of flesh on her chest…
And this sanyasi?
On one side, there was a dry, barren desert and on the other, there was a pleasure garden drenched in rain. On one side, there was an ancient ruin destroyed by war and on the other, there was a tavern filled with revellers.
Uh… He knew everything! The sanyasi, who was sitting next to her, shoulder to shoulder, knew everything. After so much of hard tapasya, perhaps he had come to gain this knowledge.
Again, the ring hit her on the knee.
What was this ring Dharm Bahadur wearing? What was this ring?
The ring that rubbed on her knee!
It was dark now. It was dark everywhere!
A loud noise among the passengers jolted Ishwari out of her reverie. Everyone screamed at the same time, ‘We are lost, we are lost. This is not the way to Birganj and Raxaul.’
This was not the way to Raxaul? …All the lights came to life all at once. The interiors of the bus lit up like a day.
Slowly, the light revealed a hand and an iron ring the hand was wearing… Light… The light plunged a knife on her heart.
This ring, Dharma Bahadur was not wearing this ring… This ring, the sanyasi was wearing this ring…
This ring did not belong to Dharma Bahadur… It belonged to the sanyasi with the deadlock.
The knife that the light brought forth went deep and deep into Ishwari’s heart.
Art-work: A Modern Day Illustration by Reetuparna Dey
Dibyajyoti Sarma, a writer, poet, translator, teacher and journalist, has published two volumes of poetry (Glimpses of a Personal History, 2004; Pages from an Unfinished Autobiography, 2014), and co-edited an academic volume for Sage India (Whistling in the Dark, 2009), besides various writing credits in various journals.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.