At that time the perpetrators of anarchy had complete control over the state administration. Days and nights were rocked by unexpected tyranny. Daily activities were enmeshed in nightmares; common people turned to gods for succor and their minds were filled with apprehensions of evil. It was difficult to believe either in man or God; the only consolation was tears. The dividing line between good and evil deeds was tenuous. At every walk of life, men stumbled into troubles.
In such circumstances the presence of a beautiful girl in a family was rather a curse of providence. The relatives would say, "Sooner this unlucky woman is married off the better." Such a trouble came to Banshibadan, the landlord of three estates.
Kamala was very beautiful, though her parents were dead. The family would have welcomed her death too; but that did not happen. Her uncle Banshi brought her up with great affection and extreme caution till now.
However, her aunt would often complain to her female neighbours, "Look, her parents left her to add to my burden. Nobody knows what can happen to her any moment. I've children of my own, and among them she's like a burning torch of destruction. She can't escape the evil gaze of wicked fellows. She alone will sink my boat. For this reason I can’t sleep at night”
Somehow days passed in this manner; then came a proposal for matrimony. She could not be hidden from the public gaze by the pomp and splendour of marriage ceremonies. So her uncle said, "For this reason I'm looking for a bridegroom whose family can protect her."
The bridegroom was the second son of Paramananda Seth of Mochakhali. He was destined to inherit huge wealth which would evaporate in no time as soon as his father died. The boy was very extravagant; he found a facile way of splurging money on hawk-flying, gambling, bulbul-fights. His wealth was huge and so was his pride. Famous musclemen from Bhojpuri with stout sticks were on his payroll. He used to brag – in his locality no man worth his salt could dare to touch him. He was a habitual womanizer though he had a wife at home, and he was now looking for a younger one. He came to know about the attractiveness of Kamala. The Seth family was very rich and very powerful. They vowed to take her as his bride.
Kamala cried, "Uncle, where are you packing me off?"
"You know, my child, if I had the power to protect you, I'd have held you to my heart forever!"
The groom came proudly to the marriage ceremony, accompanied by endless extravaganza including musical bands. The uncle said humbly with folded hands, "My son, it isn't good to show off. It’s bad time now!"
Hearing this, he challenged the audacity of any opponents, "Let me see if anyone dares approach me."
The uncle replied, “Our responsibilities end with the marriage ceremonies. Then the bride would be yours—you should escort her home safely. It's not within our power to take such responsibility. We’re weak."
With an inflated chest the groom said, "There's nothing to fear."
Twirling their moustaches, his Bhojpuri guards stood up with their big sticks.
The bridegroom set out with his bride through the infamous field of Taltori. The leader of the brigands was Madhu Molla. Around midnight he attacked the wedding party with his gang with torches in hand. None of the strongmen of Bhojpur were traceable. Madhu was a notorious brigand; none could escape his onslaught.
Rushing out from the palanquin, Kamala was about to hide in a bush. Then old Habir Khan emerged behind her. Everybody revered him like a Paigambar ii Standing erect, Habir Khan warned, "Sons, move away. I am Habir Khan."
The brigands said, "Khan Saheb, we can't refuse you anything, but why have you spoiled our business?"
Nevertheless, they had to quit.
Habir told Kamala, "Don't be afraid. You're my daughter. Now, let’s leave this dangerous place."
Kamala became very embarrassed. Habir said, "I understand—you're a daughter of a Hindu Brahman, so you're hesitating to go to a Muslim's house. But remember, those who are true Muslims know how to respect a pious Brahmin. You'll stay in my house as a girl of a Hindu family. My name is Habir Khan. My house is very near. Come with me, I'll keep you safe."
Kamala was a Brahman girl; she could not give up her reservations. Habir noticed it and said, "Look, none can touch your religion in this area. Come with me. Don't be afraid."
Habir Khan took Kamala to his house. Surprisingly, one of the eight mahals iii of this Muslim mansion had a Shiva temple with complete arrangements for observing Hindu rituals and ceremonies. An old Hindu Brahman came and assured her, "My child, it's just like a Hindu household. Your caste is in safe custody."
Kamala cried, "Please inform my uncle; he'll take me back."
Habir said, "Child, you're mistaken. Nobody from your family will take you back now. They will desert you on the road. However, you may try."
Habir Khan took her to the backdoor of her uncle's house and said, "I''ll be waiting here."
Inside the house Kamala embraced her uncle and said, "Uncle, please, don't desert me."
Tears rolled down her uncle's cheeks.
Her aunt came and shouted, "Drive out -- drive out this vicious woman. Are you not ashamed of returning from the house of the casteless?”
The uncle said, "I'm helpless. We are a Hindu family. Nobody will accept you. On the other hand, we'll lose our caste."
For some time Kamala stood with her head bent down. Then slowly she left through the rear door and set out with Habir. Now, the doors of her uncle's house were closed forever.
Arrangements were made for the observance of her religion. Habir Khan said, "No male member of my family will enter your chamber. With the help of this old Brahman priest, you can perform puja and other Hindu rituals."
This house had an historical background. This particular chamber was known as Rajputani’s mahal. In the past a Nawab of this family had brought a Rajput woman but allowed her to lead the life of her caste. She worshipped Shiva, and sometimes went on pilgrimage. In those days the aristocratic Muslims used to respect the devoted Hindus. That Ratputani’s mahal sheltered many deserted Hindu wives whose cultures and customs remained intact. According to the legend, Habir was the son of that Rajput woman. Though he did not embrace the religion of his mother, he worshipped her from the core of his heart. His mother was now dead, but to perpetuate her memory, he made it a mission of his life to shelter the oppressed and the outcast Hindu women.
The kind treatment Kamala received there was unknown to her even in her family. There her aunt always nagged and abused her—she had to hear that she was unlucky and brought with her destruction and misfortune to the family. The family would prosper only when she died. Her uncle sometimes bought her new clothes, but she had to keep it a secret for fear of her aunt. In the Rajputani’s chamber she was treated like a queen. Abundant care and affection were showered on her. She was attended to by female servants who came from Hindu families.
At last, youthful passion got the better of her body. A boy of the family began to visit her mahal secretly, and she became emotionally involved with him.
Then one day she told Habir Khan, "Father, I've no religion of my own. The man I love is my religion. I could not find the grace of God in the religion which deprived me of all love and dumped me to the garbage heap of neglect. The deity there humiliated me every day. I can't forget such insults. Father, I discovered love for the first time in your house. I realized that the life of a destitute like me has some value. I worship the deity which has sheltered me through the respect of such love. He's my God—he's neither Hindu nor Muslim. I've accepted your second son Karim; my life and my religion have mingled with him. You can convert me to Islam, I've no objection—maybe, I belong to two faiths."
Thus she passed her time. There was no possibility of keeping in touch with her former relatives. On his part, Habir Khan tried to establish that Kamala no longer belonged to her former family—she was renamed Meherjan.
In the meantime her uncle's second daughter reached the marriageable age. Arrangements were made as before, and the danger came in the same way. On the road the brigands attacked with a war-cry. Once repulsed, they nursed a grudge for losing their prey; now they were bent on revenge.
But next came another shout, "Beware!"
"Look, the followers of Habir Khan have spoiled it again."
When the companions of the bride ran helter-skelter leaving the bride in her palaquin, the tip of Habir Khan's spear with a crescent-moon flag came into view. It was a woman who bravely held the spear.
She addressed Sarala, "You need not be afraid, my sister. For you I've brought the offer of shelter from the One who provides shelter to all. He doesn’t bother about one's caste..."
"Uncle, my pranamiv to you. Don't be afraid, I won't touch your feet. Now take your daughter back home. Nothing has made her untouchable. Tell my aunt I had to take her grudging food and clothes for long, and never thought I could repay your debt like this. I've also brought for Sarala a red silk sari and this brocade sitting mat. If my sister is ever in trouble, let her remember that she has a Muslim elder sister to protect her."
June 24-25, 1941
iBhojpur: a district in the state of Bihar famous for wrestlers and bodybuilders.
ii Paigambar: A revered Muslim leader.
iii mahals: Mahals are separate wings or chambers of a large mansion.
iv Pranam: The Hindu custom of bowing down before God and elderly people to show respect.
Translated by Swapan Kumar Banerjee.