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