Tilu said, “You are so late today. Your food has gotten all cold. Nilu, come here, please set the place, where is Bilu?”
Nilu came over rubbing her eyes. While sweeping the open space in front of the kitchen she said, “Bilu has fallen asleep. Where has the lover boy been so late? Has he got a new something?”
Bhabani Banerjee replied glumly, “Really, you girls—”
“Sure, giggling will solve everything.”
“What else will?”
“Go see what people are doing. You are born a human being. Can’t you do something worthwhile? Or just eat and talk nonsense?”
“Dear, please don’t preach to us. You are everything to us in this life and the next. You go do for us whatever needs to be done. We will just eat rice with fig curry and quarrel with you. That is our heaven. Now finish your dinner and hold your son.”
Bhabani finished his meal and cuddled with his son for a long time. He was a beautiful boy of eight months. Tilu’s son. He looked at his father with big surprised eyes. Then gave a toothless smile for no reason and said, “Ga-ga-ga.”
Bhabani said, “Right, right!”
“Right, my child.”
Khokon moved his hand in front of his face and looked at it with wonder, as if it was the most surprising thing. There was a slice of the endless sky in front of Bhabani. Fireflies were blinking in the bamboo grove. In the deepening dark, ripening scent of bokul mixed with jasmine and arum. A few stars shone in the sky. This huge sky, the innumerable stars—the rising third day’s moon brightening the eastern horizon, the flowers, this darkness, this innocent baby all were created by the same hands as parts of a much larger picture, Bhabani too stared in wonder just like his son.
Tilu asked, “When will you do his ‘first rice’ (first solid food for the baby) ceremony?”
“At the time of his sacred thread ceremony.”
“Oh, no! No way. That will never do. Please look for an auspicious day—”
“You Bangals are like that. We Nadia-Shantipur folks do things differently. Here, play with your son.”
Tilu brought her beautiful face close to Khokon’s and played with him swinging her earrings, “Khokon, my best little boy. Who do you belong to my baby? You are mine, and who else?” Khoka immediately grabbed his mother’s long dark hair in his miniscule fist and tried to eat it. Then gave her a big toothless smile.
Bhabani looked at the sky, star studded endless sky above and below the picture of a mother and her child. There had always been a loving Mother in nature, otherwise there wouldn’t be this mother or this love here.
Bhabani had roamed in many places, searched for the hermits in many mountains, done many meditations, but none of it was as significant as the deep connection between a mother and her child. In that all pervading, ever protective love he could glimpse the mystery of the entire universe. Wasn’t this that path of coming and going of the eternal immortality what poets and yogis, mystics and earnest devotees had been seeking for centuries?
God exists, that is why there are mothers and sons, flowers and affections, sacrifices and cares, lovers and loves.
Bhabani remembered listening to a famous classical vocalist singing in Kanpur. His name was Kanhaiyalal Santara. He was also a fellow student of the famous singer Hanumandas-ji. He would expertly establish the base of the melody first and then start the exquisite ornamentation on top of it. That sweet music, like an expert’s veena, was still in his mind. He could close his eyes and hear that incomparable voice of thirty years ago singing raga Darbari Kanada.
Real artists could easily steal inside your heart without you being aware of it and insert their immortal messages into your innermost soul!
Bhabani realized with a surprise. That message from the Eternal Artist was written large in this scene of the mother and her child too. A few could read it, most could not.
Outside a nocturnal bird called from the bamboo grove. Perhaps it was going to sip the nectar of the flowers in the jiuli (*) tree. The fishermen fished at night with the help of lanterns. He could hear the tic-tac sounds they made on the boats. It was to attract the fish to the lights. Bhabani Banerji learned all this after coming here. Nice country! The sweet stream of Ichhamoti had washed away all the impurities of his mind. Whoever wanted to gain wisdom in this world could do so only by keeping his eyes open all the time; for that, he didn’t have to discard family life, he could do so easily by remaining within. The river Ichhamoti had blessed him with this wisdom. This splashing, tumbling stream of life-giving Ichhamoti had given him the message of hope and joy. Without it no message was divine.
Tilu reminded again, “Really, tell me when you plan to do his ‘first rice’?
“You are something. We are poor folks. To keep up with your family, we will have to invite so many people. It will be a big to-do. I just don’t like all the hassle.”
“I will take care of everything. You don’t have to worry.”
“Do whatever you wish. But how about the expense?”
“I’ll bring rice and lentils from my family, two rupees for a cartful of vegetable, five pieces of jaggery for five quarters, one rupee for half a maund of milk and fifteen rupees for one and half maund of fish. That’s all.”
“How many to be invited?”
“About two hundred. I have done all the calculations. Dada loves arranging such feasts. It is a regular ritual in our family. It will not cost more than thirty rupees.”
“Easy for you to say. Thirty rupees is a lot. You are from a rich family, you can easily say it.”
Tilu obstinately turned her face, ”I will not listen to that. We must have a feast for Khoka’s ‘first rice’.”
Nilu too appeared from nowhere, “You don’t want to do this? Then why did you marry us?”
Bhabani tried to scold her, “Why are you butting in? We were trying to have a discussion—”
Nilu said, “Why not? Isn’t he my son too?”
“OK. So what?”
“So this. You must invite the guests for Khokon’s ‘first rice’ on the very next date.”
It was the ‘First Rice’ celebration for Bhabani Banerjee’s newborn son. The night before, Tilu and the girls from the neighborhood had cooked five basketfuls of sweet coconut balls. Khokon was an adorable child. Everyone loved him. Tilu asked her brother and got a gold necklace made for Khokon. Rajaram himself put it around his nephew.
Tilu’s family was not all that rich but Bhabani Bhanerjee did not leave anybody uninvited. The day before the event, the ladies had chopped and diced a mountain of vegetables. Then they stayed up all night to clean and cut all the fish and fry them.
Kushi Thakrun was the expert chef in the village. She came before dawn and started cooking. The widowed wife of the Mukherjis and other elderly ladies helped her.
The rice was cooked in a long trench dug outside. Chhiru Rai and Hari the barber fried the rest of the fish in baskets. The rice cooks refused to help the fish cooks because they were too busy and the fish cooks should dig their own trench and fry their fish. That set off a loud quarrel between the two parties which ultimately had to be resolved by the elder Bireshwar Chakravarti.
A distantly related nephew of Rajaram had come to visit from Calcutta. He was an copyist in Amuti company. He wore his sacred thread like a garland and with a colorful gamchha on his shoulder walked around supervising the cooking. He talked big with much gesturing. He was telling everyone the stories of Calcutta—the sahibs were using a new type of fuel oil there. They called it ‘mete’ oil. It smelled something awful.
Rupchand Mukherji asked, “Do they light lamps with it?”
“No. They light something different, with glasses. Who would buy that here? Very expensive.”
Hari Ray said, “Don’t show off about your Calcutta. Whatever comes to Calcutta first comes here, in our indigo plantation. You won’t find sahibs like these guys in Calcutta.”
“Oh yes? Have you ever been to Calcutta? Come. I’ll take you by boat.”
“Say, I’ve heard there are motor engines in Calcutta? Naderchand Mandal heard from the Chhoto-sahib in the plantation. They even got pictures of it printed from Sahib’s country. Motor engine!”
Bhabani Banerji went to make a round of the village with Khoka in his arms. Rajaram walked behind him scattering flowers and parched rice. Dinu Muchi went along beating a drum and his son played the flute. Bhabani carried the little boy through the Ray’s neighbohood, the Ghosh’s neighborhood and the eastern communities. Women blew conch shells and crowded to see the baby.
During the feast of the Brahmins, there were competitions to see who could eat the most amounts of black lentils, or how many pieces of fish. The dessert was the coconut balls only. Many praised it highly and said that they never tasted anything like this before. It was not customary to have any other sweets. Some folks easily ate up twenty to thirty coconut balls, even the fried Anandanarhus made for the occasion.
The feast was almost over when the infamous Hala Peke entered and prostrated himself at Bhabani’s feet. Bhabani had never met him before but everyone else was greeting him. Rajaram said, “Come in dear Haladhar, come and have a seat.”
Phoni Chakravarti said, “Haladhar dear, hope all is well with you?”
Haladhar was the leader of a fearsome group of robbers, he was expert in escaping capture by running up to eighty miles overnight on stilts. He had killed and robbed many and had recently been released from jail. He humbly folded his hands and replied, “Yes, Sirs, by your good wishes and blessings—”
“When did you return?”
“ Saturday morning, Thakur. Coming here to get some offerings of you Brahmins.”
“Sure, sure. Have a seat.”
Hala Peke was sentenced to three years in jail by the Plantation Court for robbery. The villagers saw in consternation that he had returned in good shape. His appearance was quite intimidating. He was dark, tall as well as broad, a huge hulk of a man; he could spin a thresher in one hand, and was an expert in using the beating stick. He was completely fearless. Once he flipped Moody Sahib’s carriage upside down near the field of Ghoramari. His only saving grace was his deep respect to Gods and Brahmins. He had never robbed a Brahmin, though the local Brahmins were not too assured by that.
Everyone surrounded him as he ate. They all kept saying, “Eat well, take some more.”
Haldhar of course did not wait for their permission. He gulped down two kathas of rice, two large pots of black lentil, one pot of rice pudding and ombol (*), seventy-two odd coconut balls, and washed it all down with two large bowls of water.
After the meal, he wanted to see Khokon.
Tilu was petrified, “Oh no! He is a murderous robber. I’m not taking my baby near him.”
At last Bhabani Banerji himself carried his son and placed him in Haladhar’s lap. Haradhar pulled out a gold necklace from a knot on his waistband and placed it around Khoka, “This is all I had my brother, and I offer it to the Brahmin. This is my puja to God Narayan.”
Bhabani looked at the necklace suspiciously, “No, don’t give the necklace. It is too expensive. Better buy some sweets in his name—”
Hala Perke smiled, “Baba-thakur, it is not what you are thinking. It was not looted. It belonged in my family. The owner is in heaven now twenty-two, twenty-three years. It was buried in a jar. Yesterday I got it out and scrubbed it well with tamarind skin. I know I have committed many sins in my life, I haven’t even respected the Brahmins. They too are all sinners. But this child is like God, pure and innocent. Giving him this gift will help me in my next life. Bless me.”
Everybody applauded Hala Peke. Bhabani still felt very uneasy. When he showed it to Tilu she too urged him, “Please return the necklace. I don’t want Khokon to wear it”.
“He won’t accept. Think I didn’t ask him? He will be hurt. He pleaded.”
“Let him. Please go return it.”
“That’s not possible. However great a sinner he may be, when he bows down and pleads for forgiveness for his sins, how can I refuse him? If you really feel that way, we can melt the gold and donate it to a good cause.”
Tilu didn’t protest anymore. But her expression remained unconvinced.
From that day on Hala Peke started coming to Bhabani’s house everyday. He never said a word, only looked at Khokon.
One day Bhabani called him, “Have a seat—”
It had rained a little that evening. The moist air carried the scents of bakul flowers. Hala Peke sat down, arranged his own tobacco and smoking pipe and offered first to Bhabani. Whenever he came here he acted like a different person. He himself spoke about many of his misdeeds, but not braggingly, rather in a rueful way.
“What ever is done is done Babathakur, what can I do now? Once I climbed with a bamboo stick to the second floor of Goshai’s house. On the roof I saw the husband and wife sleeping. The man was strong and came at me with a spear. I threw my baton at them. The woman died first, the husband fell down. Blood spewed from his mouth. Both were dead.”
“Yes Babathakur. I have already committed these acts, what’s the harm is admitting to them? I was young and rash then. I didn’t understand. Now I do feel bad about it.”
“How do you use the stilts? How far can you go?”
“Don’t use them much anymore. Once went to rob the Ghoshs in Haludpukur. Started on stilts around midnight and came back home before dawn. Twenty two miles.”
“Any further than that?”
“Once went about thirty miles. Nandipur to Kamarpenrhe. Robbing the village head Murshid’s house and granary.
“Now quit doing all this. Start praying to God.”
“That’s why I’ve been coming to see you. I don’t know what it is but every time I see you, my heart says you are the man. You will help me find a way.”
“There are ways of course, but you have to completely quit all the robbings and killings. Otherwise I can’t help you.”
Hala Peke suddenly fell at Bhabani’s feet, “You are too kind, Babathakur. With your blessing I would not fear death even. I can put on my stilts and go chop the head of the God of Death. Just as I once brought the head of Tushtu Kol of Ghorerdanga. Want to hear that story?” He roared with laughter.
Bhabani Banerji saw not the humble Hala Peke, scared of his next life and the punishment for his sins, but a fearless, unbeatable, strong and proud man who played with men’s heads as little boys played with fruits of pituli (*). This immense sized man was not ready to listen to any quotation from Mohamudgar. He was and still remained a killer at heart.
Within a year and a half Bhabani Banerji fell in love with this village and the area. He had never seen such a shady place anywhere. Boinchi, bamboo, neem, rarha (*), golden shower trees and kunch plants made a dense forest. There were birds all the time—myna, babbler, nightingales and magpie-robins. All kinds of flowers bloomed every season. No month was without flowers—dhundul, honeysuckle, keya (*), snuyo (*), banchatka (*), natakanta (*), mango, wood apple and so many more.
There were no houses on the banks of Ichhamoti. Only dense forests and jungles. Right after his marriage Bhabani had wanted to build an ashram for meditation on the riverbank. But most of the lands along the river were marked by the Amin for indigo planting. It was hard to find any unclaimed land. Bhabani was not a business minded person. He would rather sit quietly under a cluster fig tree by the river and not get into the hassle of real estate at all. Life was only temporary. Why mess with land claims and stuff. He was doing just fine.
One of his fellow students taught by the same Guru lived in an ashram at the foothills in the West in Mirzapur. He was a famous scholar of the Vedantas. His name was Chaitanyabharati Paramhansadev. His previous name was Gopeshwar Ray. He had studied Sanskrit grammar for many days with Bhabani in a village school. After that Gopeshwar worked under a landowner in the well-known estates of the Rays in Patuli-Balagar. Why he suddenly left everything and became a hermit was not known to Bhabani, but he did get an occasional letter from the ashram in Mirzapur.
This hermit Gopeshwar alias Chaitanyabharati Paramhansa suddenly arrived at Bhabani’s house one day. His face was full of salt and pepper beard, he wore a saffron robe and carried a pair of tong in one hand and a small bedroll under his arm. Tilu greeted him warmly. He would not stay inside the house but insisted on sitting on a blanket outside in the bamboo grove. Bhabani warned, “Paramhansadev, you may get snake bitten. Don’t blame me later.”
Chaitanyabharati said, “Nothing will happen, Brother. This is just fine.”
“What would you like to eat?”
“Non vegetarian too?”
“I have no objection but I’ve stopped eating those nowadays. Indigestion.
“Is it all right if my wife prepares the food?”
“I cook my own food.”
“Whatever your wish.”
Upon hearing that Tilu folded her hands and humbly asked him, “Dada—”
“Would you not eat my cooking?”
“I don’t eat from anyone, Didi. But if you really insist you may cook my meals, but vegetarian only.”
“Koi fish? Dada.”
“You are insistent. OK, do whatever you wish.”
From then on Tilu cooked his meals after washing and being clean and pure. Bilu and Nilu prepared the seat and plates with much care and called him to dine. All three sisters lovingly served both Bhabani and his guest.
Both the friends were sitting one evening under the cluster fig tree on the bank of Ichhamoti. Paramhansa said, “Say, one wife is bad enough, and you got three—”
“You know how hard it is to get Kulin Brahmin girls married. I feel so sorry for them. If I can’t do prayers and meditation in this life that is fine. I can do them in the next life. At least I will relieve some hardship of these girls. It is such a sad, hard life for Kulin girls in our society.”
“All three girls are very nice. And your son too. I really enjoyed meeting them.”
“I am fifty two. If I live long enough I would like to make my son a pundit.”
“More important than that, teach him the lesson of devotion.”
“That is unexpected talk from a Vedanta pundit!”
“It is not easy. To understand Vedanta, one must learn the philosophies of Nyaya (*) and Mimangsa (*) to properly master Vedanta. Otherwise the basic propositions of Vedanta remain unresolved. It is really hard to achieve all this knowledge of Brahmajnan, the True Reality—
“Why don’t you teach me for a few days?”
“It is not a job ‘for a few days’. Logic alone will take many days. You study that, I’ll come later and give you lessons on Vedanta. But it needs dedication. Just reading alone is not enough. If you get busy with family, you won’t have time for mediation and prayer in this life.
“No problem. That’s why I have taken the path of devotion.”
“Is that any easier? It is even harder than the Path of Knowledge. You can achieve knowledge by trying yourself but for devotion you need proper state of mind, which is most difficult to attain. Neither path is easy, my brother.”
“So we just give up and sit back?”
“Teshang satata yuktanang bhajatang preetipurbakam.
“In Gita Shree Krishna has said, ‘If you keep your mind on Him, He will show you the path to reach Him—Dadami buddhiyogang tam—‘”
“You just answered my question.”
“You have created a problem by getting married. Not one, but three! You will get so entangled—”
“Let me give it a try. It is only this life. I would also test the extent of His blessings. Shukdev has said in Bhagabat—grihayrdarasutaishanang—rid yourself of the carnal desire to enjoy wife and family. That’s what I am trying to do.”
“In that case why did you roam around as a hermit for so many years? If you really wanted to marry and have a family?”
“I thought I could get rid of the desire, but I found it was still there. So I keep trying. Quoting Shukdev again, Tyaktayshanah sarbey yayurdhirastapobanam— get rid of all desire before entering the tapoban, (*) not while with desire. But who says you shouldn’t pray to God while living a family life?”
“Nobody says you shouldn’t, they only say that it is very hard. You end up attaining neither devotion nor knowledge.”
“Fine, we shall see. I don’t think God is as unforgiving as you think. At least I for one do not believe that you can’t achieve devotion while leading a family life. Otherwise why did God create family? Why should He deceive His ignorant devotees? They are utterly helpless and He, their Father, deliberately set temptations to snare them? Answer me.”
“Eshabritirnam tamogunasya—The power of ignorance, tamas, is like a shield. It hides the realities and lets the illusions shine through. That is why tamoguna’s (*) other name is ‘briti’ (cover). Don’t blame God. Why are you thinking of Him that way? If you read Vedanta, it will be clear. God does not act like that. He has done nothing. It is merely the fault of your own perspective. One of Maya’s (*) power is distraction. It has transfixed you and preventing you from seeing God.”
“I’ll give myself up to Him and see what happens. Like I said, we shall see the power of His blessings. His power must be greater than the power of all the desires and mayas. Besides, is Maya (*) without God? In this universe everything is His creation, He is in everything. How can Maya exist without Him? It does not add up.”
“It very much does. You didn’t understand what I said. It is written in Svetasvetar Shruti that ‘ajamekang’ absence of knowledge is not created by anyone. He who is God in the entirety is also in each man individually. Advaita(*) Vedanta teaches us that the consciousness present in the whole is the same as actions in each. In other words, God is the acting force and man is the result of that action. Both are same, both are one. Only the names are different. You are your own God. Otherwise who else is God?”
“Earlier you said one thing by quoting Gita, now you say something else by bringing in the Advaita Vedanta?
“Was I wrong in quoting Gita?”
“Gita is the book of devotion. Advaita Vedanta is the book of knowledge. Don’t mix the two.”
“Don’t say that. Now you really hurt my feelings. Brahma is the main topic in Vedanta. All other philosophies do not even accept God. Only Vedanta keeps holding up Brahma. And you call it atheistic?”
“I didn’t say it is atheistic. I just said it is not devotional.”
“You know nothing. I’ll have to teach you ‘Chitsukhi’ and ‘Khandankhanda Food’. You’ll see how single-mindedly the scholars have searched for Brahma. But these are very difficult books. Hard to understand without reading the Tarkashastra (*) properly. You will see how they have closed all possible loopholes of doubts and false arguments. And you just said—”
“I didn’t say anything. You and I are very different. You are a great scholar and I am just an insignificant family man. How can I refute your statements? Perhaps another time we could discuss what I think about it.”
“Please do. You are an educated listener and speaker. I enjoy talking and listening to you.”
“I too enjoyed talking about such lofty topics. This village is completely submerged in darkness. Every one is interested only in indigo farming, the sahibs, the farmlands and paddy harvests—that’s all. Take my brother-in-law. He is the Dewan of the indigo plantation. Sahibs are his Gods. He is also very harsh and punitive. But my eldest wife is just the opposite—a lotus rising from the muck.”
“And the other two?”
“Good but still rather childish. Pampered sisters of the Dewanji. But otherwise they are honest and good.”
Bhabani Bannerji and Paramhansa were often seen sitting near the river. It was decided that Paramhansa would give Diksha (*) to Tilu, Bilu and Nilu. At night Tilu asked her husband, “Have you got a Guru (*)?”
“Don’t you want Diksha too?”
“You are so smart! How can he be my initiated brother if I didn’t have Diksha?”
“Oh, that’s right. Anyway, I don’t want Diksha.”
Tilu didn’t answer. Just smiled and stayed silent. In the lamplight she turned her bracelet round and round, staring at it. In a small incense burner she had crumbled some incense. This was one of Bhabani’s whims. Because he had no other habits, demands or fashions, Tilu was very affectionate to such small requests. Every night at bedtime she lit some incense and repeatedly asked, “Are you getting the smoke? Nice smell, no?”
Seeing her ready to leave Bhabani stopped her, “You are leaving? Where is Khoka?”
“Today is Nilu’s turn. He is with her. Remember? Today is Wednesday. Nilu will come and bring Khoka with her.”
“No. Today you stay with me. I have something to tell you.”
“No, that is not fair. Nilu has been waiting, wearing her best dhakai sari, with Khoka in her lap.”
“It would have been better if you could stay. Well, tell her to come and bring Khokon.”
After a while Nilu entered carrying the sleeping boy. He was wearing Hala Peke’s necklace. He looked just adorable. Bhabani had never seen such a beautiful child, and so good-natured too. Sometimes he wondered if all parents thought the same about their children, even the parents of really ugly children? So, there was nothing false in it. Nilu carefully put the child down on the bed. Bhabani stared at him, how beautifully those wide eyes were closed in sleep. He quietly made him sit up. Khoka kept sleeping with his eyes closed, just like Buddha in meditation. Bhabani held on to his neck from behind as it tended to lean on one side. Nilu said, ”What are you doing? You’ll break his neck. What is this?”
Bhabani was very amused. Khokon kept on sleeping like a Keshtanagar’s doll, without waking up or crying at all.
He asked Nilu, “Go call your sister, call Tilu—”
“Oh, poor thing. He is trying so hard to sleep. Why are you torturing him? Please, lay him down—”
Tilu came in, “What—”
“See Khokon is looking so sweet!”
“Not crying. Not making any sound.”
“Of course, he is fast asleep. He has no idea that he is made to sit up.”
Nilu said, “Please let him lay down now. He must be so uncomfortable. Didi won’t say anything in front of you.”
After putting the boy down, Bhabani thought that this was right. After all who could appreciate a child’s beauty more than his parents? Child and parents were all tied in the same golden thread. Each appreciated the other. That was the rule of nature. You couldn’t omit yourself. This too was the immortal saying from Vedanta—Dashamastwamasi. You were the tenth. You couldn’t exclude yourself from counting.
Next day Hala Peke arrived in the morning. Along with him came his closest aide another powerful robber Aghor Muchi. Tilu and her sisters were happy to see Aghor Muchi. Aghor used to play with them when they were kids.
Tilu welcomed him, “Come in Aghor Dada, when did you get released from jail?”
“Yesterday, my sisters. Just come to see you all. And touch the hermit Thakur’s feet. It will grant me as much piety as bathing in the holy Ganges. Where is he?”
“When is he ever home? Must be in that bamboo grove, sitting around the incense smoke. Come, sit both of you. Would you like some jackfruit?”
“Want to see Khokon, sister. But let me first touch Thakur’s feet.
Chaitanyabharati was sitting quietly in the bamboo grove. There was no incense burning. Aghor and Hala went and prostrated themselves at his feet. The hermit said, “Who?”
“We, my father!”
Hala Peke said, “This is my disciple Aghor Muchi. Just got released from jail. He lives in this village.”
“Why was he in jail?”
“Won’t hide it from you Thakur. We both went to jail for robbery.”
“You both are very strong. Any problem using that strength in some good cause?”
“No problem Sir, just that the fingers itch. Can’t help myself.”
Chaitanyabharati said, “Let the fingers itch, but keep your mind busy in good work. It will help you get better.”
Hala Peke listened obediently, but Aghor Muchi didn’t like such talks. He was thinking of the ripe jackfruit that Tilu had offered. Just then Nilu came in, “Hermit Dada”
“Shall I bring some ripe bananas and papayas? Have you had your bath?”
“No, not yet. But you can bring those. Say, why do say ‘bath’ like that?”
“Never mind. Go get the food. Bangals from Jessore!”
“If you call me names Dada I won’t bring any fruits.”
Hala stood up, “Shall I wear my stilts?”
The hermit smiled, “Why stilts?”
“I can quickly go get those fruits. Nilu Didi is mad at you.”
Aghor said, “And the jackfruit for me. Didi, I’m really hungry.”
Nilu said, “Go home and ask the eldest Didi, she will give you.”
“No Nilu Didi, you come with me. Tilu Didi will yell at me. I’ve come from the jail, she would ask why I was there and what did I do and all those questions. Everyone knows I’m a robber. If I had enough food I wouldn’t have to do all this. But now I see in the village—one katha rice is two annas and ten paisas. Seems like it was better inside the jail. How am I going to get such expensive rice? What can I feed the kids? What do you say Thakur?”
“Do whatever you feel is the best, but don’t kill people. That is not right.”
Hala Peke was listening quietly. At the mention of killing he sat up. Hala was a murderer. He had beheaded many. Talk of murder excited him.
He said to Chaitanyabharati,”With all due respect Babathakur, I would like to say something, if you don’t mind. It was the time when I went to rob the head of the Panchite village. When I was climbing the stair to the second floor, the junior boss stopped me. He was carrying a fish-killing harpoon. With one strike of my stick, I threw away the harpoon. How could he beat me in plying the stick? Next he picked up a brick and came at me. I warned him to step aside and not fight with me. But his days were numbered, he didn’t listen. He called me a nasty name and I immediately split his head in two by my stick. His body rolled down the stairs just like a rolling pumpkin.”
Nilu said, ”Oh! My God!”
Chaitanyabharati said, “Then what happened?”
“Listen to what happened next. The daughter-in-law of the senior boss, quite a sizable beauty, perhaps eighteen to twenty years old—stood with her hair loose, carrying a tall spear in her hand, at the top of the staircase near the door to the hidden stairs.”
Chaitanyabharati had not lived in a house for many years. He asked,” What is a hidden stair?”
Nilu said, “You haven’t seen one before? There is one in my parents’ house. While climbing stairs when you step on the landing, there is a secret trapdoor that will drop the hidden stairs on your head, the door is usually overhead. That way the robbers could not get into upstairs.”
“But why not?”
Hala Peke answered, “She couldn’t explain it properly. After dropping the stairs, it becomes very difficult to climb upstairs. You can break ordinary doors by an axe but the hidden door is above your head and difficult to hit with axe. Understood?”
“Anyway, then what happened?”
“I stared at her, Babathakur, she looked exactly like Goddess Kali. Open hair, her stature, carrying the spear just like Mother Durga. Her face was shining in sweat, eyes were glowing like lightning. Truly Babathakur, I’ve seen many women, but none like this one. And she was an expert in using the spear too. She was holding it slightly crooked and if she hit you hard, all the intestines would fall out slithering. I had to admire her aim and power.”
“Then? What happened?” Chaitanyabharati became very excited and sat up straight in front of the hermit's fire.
“I first thought of engaging her in fight but later decided to back track. Something did not look right. As I stepped back Biro Hari said—”
Immediately Hala stopped and apologized, “Oops, sorry. I shouldn’t have said any names. Nobody knows that he was in our group. Anyway, at least you folks wouldn’t tell the indigo Sahibs—”
Bharati Moshai said, “Why? What would the Sahibs do?”
“What are saying Babathakur? They are the ones who do all the judging and sentencing. The chief Sahib is the one who put me and Aghor in jail…. Anyway, listen next---
Biro Hari came forward, told me ‘Shame, too scared to fight with a woman?’…He stomped up the stairs. I turned around and was going to say, ’I’ll see how you dare touch that woman—“ Suddenly Biro screamed ‘Help!’ and fell flat on the landing. Immediately he tried to sit up and started pulling at something like a bloody rope from his lower abdomen. I was wondering what on earth it was. When I stepped closer I saw the huge hole in his abdomen and from there the tip of the spear had pulled out his intestine. More that woman pulled at the spear more of the intestine came slithering out. I quickly picked him up and carried him outside.I was looking for some water to give him. I knew he was not for long.”
Bharati Moshai said, “And his intestines on the spear?”
“I tore it right away by my stick. Otherwise how could I bring him out? Still Hari was alive for some time. He was tough. Kept asking for water. Just wouldn’t die. I didn’t know what to do. Soon people would come out; already there was much noise outside. I carried him behind the house, near a swamp. He was moaning and trying to say something. The ground was soaked in blood. Soon people would follow us. I just asked Bemo Muchi for a knife and in one strike separated his head and threw his body into the swamp. I carried the head with me so they couldn’t identify his body. Biro Hari’s head kept looking at me with wide-open eyes—as if scolding me. I still can see those eyes, looking at me and trying to tell me so many things—“
“What happened to the woman?”
“No idea. But after two months I went there again, dressed up like a fakir, just to see her, ‘Give me some alms Ma—’ As I called she came out and gave me some alms. It was afternoon. I had not seen her well that night. Now I could see her in daylight, she was really like a Goddess. Large figure, fair complexion. I felt respect. I said, ‘Ma, I am hungry—’
“Ma asked, ‘What do you want?’
“I said, ‘Whatever you can give.’ She went inside and brought out some pressed rice and murki(*) and poured them in my bag. I wanted to touch her feet but that would look suspicious as I was dressed like a Muslim, so I just said ‘Salaam Ma,’ and came away.”
Nilu was standing still like a wooden doll and listening.
Now she spoke up, “He is already dead, so why did you apologize for speaking his name? Nobody yet knows how he died.”
“Didi you don’t understand. Sahib’s folks may go and harass his two sons, ask about their father. Now it has been six or seven years since. People think Biro lives near the Ganges with another woman. My folks had spread that story. Now his sons can harvest their crops peacefully. The older one is already grown quite strong, just like his dad.”
“You haven’t seen that wife anymore?”
“No. After that I had to go to jail for two years. That was for something else. This murder has not been solved yet.”
Chaitanyabharati said, “Hearing your story makes me want to meet this wife. What caste are they?”
“Sadgope, milkman caste.”
“I’ll go see her. Powerful women are like Goddess Jagaddhatri’s incarnation. You are quite right.”
“Babathakur, you perhaps have never lived or visited these areas. There are quite a few such women. But she is the only one I’ve seen among the higher castes. But there are many women among the bagdi, duley, muchi and namashuddur--the lower castes--who can use spears, harpoons, coulters and knives.”
Nilu said, “I know. Dada has seen himself that time during the riot at the plantation. Two low caste Duley women hiding in a small thatched cottage shot their arrows so well that the soldiers of the plantation had to run away.”
“Wonderful! I’m so pleased to hear all this Didi. Visiting such women would be like seeing Brahma Himself. Hail Mother Jagadamba!”
Bhabani Banerji arrived just then with a water jug in his hand, “Hey Brother. What do I hear? Already Ma Jagadamba? Looks like you guys have completely messed up this Vedanta scholar.”
“Brother, it is all His creative play. It doesn’t disqualify the Vedanta. Didn’t I tell you the other day? Vedanta is not that straightforward. The Advaita Vedanta will take you a long time to understand. Jeeb Goswami’s Vedanta is a bit easier.
“Let it be. What were you talking about?
“Creative play, Leela. The strength and abilities of women of this country. It is all Mother’s wishes.”
Nilu spoke up, “Oh yes. Didi is an expert with lathi and shield too. Once she competed against the lathi expert Akbar Ali. He is the chief baton fighter in the plantation. Didi blocked him so well that he could not make one strike against her. She is strong too. She can carry two full large pitchers of water on her head and hips. Even now.”
Bhabani Banerji entered his house with Hala Peke and Aghor Muchi and called, “Tilu, come here for a sec—”
Tilu was feeding Khokon. After a while she came out with Khokon in her arms, “Oh my goodness! Why is there a horde of robbers in my house?”
Hala answered, “Didi, we’re very hungry. Feed us now or we will start looting.”
Tilu smiled, “I know how to fight with the stick.”
“That we know.”
“Shall I get them out?”
“What wood is your stick?”
Aghor Muchi asked, “Really Didi? Are you still good at it?”
“Want to try me? Remember that arena in Rathtala? How old was I then? Seventeen or eighteen?”
“Oh, that was a long time ago. We used to practice a lot in that arena. I remember well.”
“Have a seat, I will be right back.”
After a while Tilu came back carrying two large jackfruits by their stems. She put them down in front of the men, “Here, eat'em. Let’s see how much you can finish.”
Hala asked, “Which tree are these from Didi?”
“Juicy or crunchy?”
“Half juicy. Now with the rain in Asharh (*), none remained crunchy anymore. Eat, both of you.”
Within ten to twelve minutes Aghor finished his jackfruit and looked at Hala, “Well, Guru? You haven’t finished yours yet?”
“Had a couple of sers of mutton last night. Not very hungry today.”
Tilu said, “That will not do Dada. No wasting. You have to finish it all. Aghor dada, shall I bring another one for you? It won’t be from that tree though. I have about four jackfruits from the Khoirkhagi tree, a bit more crunchy.”
“OK. But a small one.”
Hala Peke said, “Eat it all up Aghor. Such a jackfruit will cost at least an anna in the market, especially now, out of season. I won’t be able to eat after finishing a whole one. . Also I’m older than you. Didi, give me some water with a bit of jaggery.”
Tilu said, “So, Dada you lost to your student! Why just plain water and jaggery? I’ll bring you two brown coconuts also. Break them and eat with it, both of you. But I won’t be able to give too much jaggery. We are running low. I had bought ten, now have only two left. My husband eats it a lot.”
The day went by in fun and laughter.
Before leaving, Hala and Aghor prostrated themselves at Chaitanyabharati’s feet once more
Bhabani Banerjee and Tilu went to bathe every evening in the river. Today was no exception. In the deep groves of reeds and bulrushes at the quiet corners of the river, the fishermen searched for pearls. (Some expensive freshwater pearls used to be harvested in Ichhamoti.) Last winter they had made a narrow path to the river where under the cluster figs, thorn acacia, pituli and annatto plants Bhabani and Tilu made a small landing (ghat) to get into the river. There the yellow acacia flowers dropped in the water clear as a crow’s eye, narrow vine of moonseed dangled overhead from the annatto branches, small fries of techoko (*) fish swam close to Tilu’s breasts and disappear in a flash when she tried to catch them, all kinds of birds sang in the deep, dark bushes. Nobody could see them from the banks.
Bhabani got into the water, “Come, let’s swim to the opposite side.”
Tilu said, “Let’s. We can pick some pointed gourds from the farms.”
“Shame! That would be stealing. You are so simple. Don’t you understand stealing?”
“Whatever you say. We used to do that so often.”
“Want to swim?”
“Which way? Towards Go-ghata? Or near that big Peepul tree?
--Tilu swam beautifully. Her slim figure silently cleaved through the water. Bhabani swam by her side.
Suddenly in the deep dark water Bhabani cried out, ‘”Tilu, Tilu!”
Tilu had swam ahead, she turned back, “What? What’s happened?”
Bhabani helplessly raised both arms and cried, “Run Tilu, Get away. A croc has got me. Save yourself, Look after Khoka.”
Tilu was stunned, “What’s happened? Tell me—”
Bhabani was drowning. He raised both arms and cried, “My son! Look after my son—”
Tilu shivered in fear. Would the dark water turn red now with the blood of her beloved? Would all her happiness and joy of life come to an end so soon?
Without thinking she immediately dived under water. She had thought of freeing her husband from the crocodile or die trying. But in the clear water she immediately saw that his clothes had gotten badly entangled in the thorny branches of a huge kapok tree submerged in the river. She snatched off part of the clothing. Then floated up and reassured her husband, “Don’t worry. It is a kapok tree—”
Again she took a deep breath and dived below, tearing off some more cloth. It was getting dark and she couldn’t see well under water. She had to come up, breathe and dive again three or four times before she could completely free her husband. At last she helped an exhausted Bhabani into the shallows.
Bhabani took a long breath, “Thank God—”
Tilu’s sari had come open, her hair came loose, she tied up everything with both hands. She too was panting. But her wary eyes were on her husband. He might have been aged but still had a beautiful body. It was a near disaster today.
She smiled at him, “Goodness! What a disaster early in the evening.”
Bhabani too smiled.
“Enough swimming. Come on, let’s go home.”
“It is so lucky that you dived in to see what it was. Who knew there would be a kapok tree right under? I was so sure it was a croc. I had almost given up—”
Both of them walked along the narrow dark path.
Tilu was thinking, ‘Oh God. If something really happened to him—’ She shivered again. She could have never lived without him.