Goch’s sons never survived. Why didn’t they survive? Would Goch and his wife Dali never cuddle sons in their laps? Was it so destined that toddling boys would never prance about in their courtyard? Never raise a rumpus? What strange saga was this? Thrice have they borne a child, one after the other. Yet none of them had survived more than six months.
Why couldn’t they survive?
Who was to be held responsible for this?
Surely someone must be responsible.
For a long time after marriage no child had arrived in Dali’s womb. Every month during the menstrual period there was an unbearable pain in her lower abdomen. Goch had then gone to Nayan Haari. Nayan used to practise Kabiraji, he tried his hand at sorcery too sometimes. Nayan had observed, “It is the pain of obstruction, I can cure it in no time. But before all else it has to be determined who’s creating the obstruction.”
Then, chanting mantras, casting spells and calculating omens, Nayan had soon come to know about the person who had laid an obstruction to Dali’s womb. Still he didn’t take any names. He had merely said, “There’s no need to know.” He needed a brand new bronze pot. He would pour some charmed water in that. Dali would have to eat a special root and drink that water. Dali had dutifully eaten and drunk. It was only afterwards that the first child had finally arrived in her womb. The first child lived only for two months. The next one for four. The one after him had turned six months and died a few days ago.
Goch had said, “This can never happen without the evil eye of a Dain. I’m such a strong youth, Dali’s such a healthy girl, how can this ever happen to us?” The wizened old men of the Santhal community had nodded their heads quickly in agreement, “Oh yes, of course, that’s too well known a fact. We’ve all mentioned this before too. The spells cast by a witch can be countered by the spells of the Gunamaan, but a foksin is even more dangerous. It will surely cause some harm somewhere. Call Nayan Haari. Let him hold an oil smeared betel leaf over a lamp. Only then can we all know for sure.”
Nayan had come and performed many strange rites and rituals, carried out all the customs of a ceremonious worship too. He had drawn lines on the ground, drawn lines in the air. Chanted incomprehensible mantras while continually smearing oil on a betel leaf. Then he had lighted a lamp and held the leaf over it. A thick layer of black soot had soon accumulated on the leaf. Nayan had poured oil onto that soot again, with his fingers he had spread the black soot and oil on to the leaf.
Almost insane with the grief of losing her child, Dali had observed all these rituals with fear and wonder. Crowding on all sides were the people from the Santhal neighbourhood. Narrowing his eyes in concentration Nayan had searched for the face of the dreaded evil in the runny soot on the leaf. “Whoever is hidden, must be revealed. I’m Nayan Haari. I’ll search heaven, hell and earth and bring you out on this leaf.”
He had placed three betel nuts on the three points in his chequered squares. That gave rise to a triangular geometric design! With great care Nayan had put the betel leaf on top of that. “Where would you escape, my crafty one? You’d have to give in—
There’s a betel tree that has fine, glossy leaves
A girl’s there too striking as a streak of lightning.
The betel and the betel leaf collude in strange ways,
And sixty four witches come riding the betel!
Ah! Who’s face do I see, my people? Alas Ma Sheora Kali, do shut my mouth Mother! Ah, why it’s Sah—ah!”
On the leaf, the gradually thickening oily soot continually creased and crumbled, giving rise to strange facial lines. Those lines broke down, then again joined together in new formations. Nayan stared at these with intense eyes till he became certain. Then raising his eyes he said, “Come, Ma, see with your own eyes.”
He held Dali’s hands and brought her over. Trembling like a cane leaf in fear and wonder, Dali bowed down to look at the betel leaf.
Nayan said, “Speak up. Speak the name out loud. Tell the people here, whose face you see!”
Dali shrieked out the name and fell down unconscious immediately. Whose face was it that was mirrored on the betel leaf? That face was Saha Kisku’s.
The name that Dali had uttered, was the name of her husband’s elder brother.
Was this even possible? Could something like this ever happen? The words within Goch’s heart spilled out like intestines of a man cut open with a scythe. They quivered and twisted and got dirtied in the dust. Goch looked at the sullen faces of the people of his community. The people seemed to be shouting in silence. In their wordlessness they spoke some terrifying words. Not with his ears may be, but perhaps by some other sense organ Goch could hear their words clearly. Very clear words.
No one had really noticed when Nayan had gotten up and left amidst this dense, looming silence. Suddenly a young man named Kanu Besra shouted out, “This can never happen. I will not accept such dubious ways.”
Kanu worked as a school master. All pairs of wrathful eyes were then turned towards him.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because it’s all false, that’s why.”
“But the Gunaman saw it, didn’t he?”
“The Gunaman saw nothing. He told a lie.”
“What about Dali then? She saw it too, didn’t she?”
“Dali too had seen nothing. Dali is ill, she would see whatever you’d tell her.”
“You’ve become too intelligent, haven’t you?”
Then someone else said, “But Saha Kisku!”
Another one responded, “Saha’s a foksin? And he’d devoured Goch’s sons!”
The matter didn’t end there. The wise men then decided, “Alright then, call Simon Hembram.”
Well, that was surely for the better, let’s call Simon then. Simon was a Christian, but there was none who could compare with him in witchcraft within these three districts. Witches, foksins all cowed outwitted (delete??) before him. He lived at the Barakuri village in Gajol, some forty miles away from here. Dains were exposed quite often in Gajol, they were tried, and punished appropriately.
Simon came with his trusted disciples. Goch gave him a pair of pigs, and a sum of five hundred and one rupees. He slaughtered roosters, and tore away the heads of a few baby pigeons in quick succession. He poured the blood on Dali’s shoulders. He smeared the blood on Sal leaves and put some parboiled rice on top of it. And performed many such incomprehensible rites and bizarre rituals. He put some water in a stone bowl and poured a few drops of oil on it. The oil had been charmed with a spell. He asked Dali, “Do you see anything.”
Dali replied, “No.”
Simon commanded, “Look carefully, take in the minute details, observe well. Now?”
Dali responded, “Yes, I see!”
“Do you recognize?”
“Yes, I do recognize!”
“Speak out the name then, let all the others hear it.”
Dali uttered the name aloud.
Then Simon went and thrust a crowbar in front of the broken door of the shack abandoned by Saha. A clod of earth came up on the edge of the crowbar. Again he plunged the crowbar in and more dirt came up. A third time he plunged the crowbar in and a clump of human hair came up. Again he plunged the crowbar and a mud vessel was discovered. In it were a tuft of human hair and two pieces of bone.
Someone yelled, “Where is he now? Where is that Kanu Master?”
Kanu Master was nowhere to be seen.
Kanu was inside Sahadev Biswas’s house across the fast flowing Bamnir Beni river. They shared a similar name, and so Sahadev Biswas was a good friend of Saha Kisku. Moreover, Sahadev was a tough man. No one would dare do anything here. For all these reasons, Kanu had brought Saha two days ago and kept him there with Sahadev.
Even then Sahadev had asked, “Is there any way out?”
“Don’t let Saha Uncle get out.” Kanu implored.
“How long can I keep him inside?”
“Till the people come to their senses.”
“Will the people ever come to their senses?”
Kanu looked on in despair.
All of a sudden Saha wailed out, “I am a witch! Am I a foksin then! Those old wizards, haven’t they all told me once that I was his father, I was his mother! His father and mother had died when he was still at a senseless age, who had saved him then? Who was it? I will go to him. Let him say with his own mouth that I have eaten up his sons, that I am a witch!”
Sahadev got up and pulled him by his hand to make him sit. He said, “You’re shouting for no reason. Try and keep your cool first.”
But Saha was not to be calmed down. The machinery within his head had gone berserk. He went and stood at the river bank in mid afternoon. Where, where was his shadow on the water? He came back running and asked Sahadev, “Why doesn’t my shadow fall on the water?”
Sahadev replied, “The water is muddied, and the sky over your head, with its sun and moon, is hidden behind the clouds, that’s why!”
“Is that so?”
“That is so.”
“And here I was thinking such foolish what not!”
Again he awoke and went up to the riverbank at midnight. Suddenly the people of Beni woke up, a strange fear gripped them. From inside the river, a terrifying AAAN...AAAN sound rose up. From the other side of the dam the sound echoed and re-echoed—HAAN...HAAN.
Sahadev jumped up from his bed and rudely shook his nephew Sudarshan awake. “Go fast, beware, the crazy old man might jump into the river again!” he said.
Sudarshan ran and held him tight from behind. Saha asked, “Who is it? Sudarshan? Look here, listen carefully and tell me, Son, does my voice raise an echo?” Again he started making that horrible AAAN...AAAN sound like a buffalo. It resounded in an answering echo— HAAN...HAAN.
Sudarshan replied, “Yes of course it does. Come to the house now.”
“Does it really? Did you hear it right, Son? You are’nt lying to placate me, are you?”
“Aree, no, no, not at all. What crazy ideas you get, Uncle. Everything will be all right. Why do you worry so much?”
“Won’t I worry! He is my own brother, we’re born of the same womb!”
“Everything will be alright, you’ll see.”
“Everything will be alright, you say? Sudarshan, dear, do please focus the flashlight behind me, let me see my own shadow once.”
Sudarshan turned the flashlight on and said, “There it is, there’s your shadow, long and wide like you, don’t you see?”
Saha replied, “I don’t see anything, Son. No, not a thing? Do you see it?”
“Aree, there lies your shadow, don’t you see it at all?
“Well, Son, look carefully, I don’t see anything.”
Sudarshan brought him in and made him lie down on the bed. The next day, as per Sahadev’s orders, the small boat was kept locked up, chained to a tree. Perhaps he had some apprehension.
But, even then Saha couldn’t rest his mind. He wished to tear his chest apart and show his heart to Goch and say, “Look here, my brother, this isn’t black in colour, it’s red still”, and he actually went out to do something like that. No one had any inkling when he went away from Beni in the dead of the night. He swam across the monsoon river gushing in full spate, something only a man could do. Later, not only in the Santhal neighbourhood, but others too from Beni had said, “Was this feat humanly possible!”
Saha went adrift in the current and touched the other side of the bank some three or four miles away. Unable to get up, he lay there for sometime without energy. He then stood up, yet still he didn’t feel any strength in his feet. He fell down, got up again. Thus he went along. It was a dark monsoon night with moonless clouded skies. He progressed with the habitual instinct of an animal. Time and again he got injured as he fell down repeatedly. Blood streaked down from the corners of his mouth, thorns scratched his body bloody. In the utter darkness Saha advanced towards Goch’s home with a vast emptiness in his heart.
All night long a light burned in Goch’s house. It’s because Dali was afraid. She shrieked in fear as soon as she heard any sound. Goch now slept with a scythe under his pillow. Even if the flimsy palm leaf door shuddered in the wind, Goch’s grip tightened instantly on the handle of the scythe.
Dali stared at the emptiness with sleepless eyes. Sometimes she remained overwhelmed in a half awake state under a light drowsiness. A lot of smoke from the lamp circled round the tiny perimeter of the shack. It travelled beyond the mud walls to the makeshift leafy roof and descended again. The coiled shadow quivered. In that drowsiness, Dali had visions of countless naked children roaming and playing around on the mud wall and the leafy makeshift roof of her hovel, those very children, none of whom she had been able to keep for herself. Then suddenly amidst the darkness, there came the sound of feet sloshing in the muddy slush. The sound of those feet advanced steadily towards the shack. It came nearer and nearer.
Dali pricked up her ears. Where were those spectral children? In the desolate room the black smoke from the lamp only spread a bitter smell and coiled round and round. The sound of feet neared the door. Dali was terrified. On the palm-leaf door a strangely slithering khar...khar...khas...khas sound was heard. Did someone call out to Goch in a subdued whisper? Was it even a human voice! Dali shrieked out in a panic-stricken fear.
Goch leapt up with the scythe in his hand. The palm-leaf door moved slowly. He couldn’t believe his own eyes. Standing in the open door was Saha’s horrifying image, all bloody and muddied. As if someone had cut him up in a thousand pieces and then tried to put him together again, but the marks of the patch up were clearly visible!
Goch screamed out terrified. Saha extended his trembling shrivelled arms in front, the long pent up emotions had choked and roughened his voice. In a stuttering, imploring voice he said, “My brother—Goch—?”
Goch shrieked again. The scythe in his hand was raised, and came down. Again it was lifted, and came down once more.
Then in the darkness all the people from the Santhal community gathered together.
The wise old men said, “Well, isn’t this just as we had foretold?”