Thursday, December 6, 2007

On the banks of Khando

It was the seventh day of Dashami (the greatest Hindu festival), the day preceding the sacrifice of animals to Durga, the Goddess of Power. The incessant rains had stopped and the sky was partly clear with patches of black clouds hovering, signalling the rains still to come. Among the clouds peeked the moon, gaining its full form day by day for the coming full moon day. The entire village slept in serenity. Bamboo leaves swayed to the light breeze and bats moved stealthily in search of prey. An owl hooted in the distance. The banks of river Khando were dry and the sands glistened silver in the partial moonlight. Recent floods had brought more alluvial soil, and the banks had widened, the sands scrubbed clean. A crab crawled towards the receding water.

Two lights flickered at a distance, approaching the bank from the village one and half kilometres away. The glow became more visible and as they approached the bank, the silhouettes of two women could be seen. They carried small earthen oil lamps on their heads. They were clad in white saris, their faces veiled. Suddenly silence swept over the scene. The crickets’ chirping stopped, and it seemed as if the wind itself had stilled. The women put down the lamps on the bank and started dancing. The wind gusted again and the flames in the lamps flared. They danced and danced, till they were tired to the bones. Faces etched with worry and anxiety, they sank to the sands. They seemed to be waiting for something, somebody. The younger woman’s face glistened with fear, the older woman trembled. In the darkness of the night, they had only each other. The older woman’s tattoos, around her forearms, legs and chest, looked as if she was wearing long gloves, socks and blouse. Indigenous people believe that since a woman takes nothing with her after dying, the tattoos are her only companion from this world to the next. The younger woman wore heavy kadas (bracelet like ornament worn around the foot near ankle) of silver.

Time crept towards morning The two women could wait no longer. They whispered among themselves and the younger woman went nearer to the river water. She trampled on the fresh deposits of alluvial soil, searching for something. The older woman pointed to a spot nearer to the bank. The younger woman reached the point and took out a khurpa (a small digging tool) from the folds of her clothes. It seemed she had recognized the place. Then she started digging furiously. As deeper she went, her pace slowed. And when the thing she was digging for appeared, mixed feelings of anguish and victory appeared on her face. She was perspiring heavily. She took out the bundle and hugged it tightly in her arms. She started crying, and would not stop. The older woman came near her and consoled her. Then they took something from the bundle - a baby boy! The child was of around seven months. The corpse had not decayed, but the flesh had lost its lustre. It was white and numb. Ants had started their work and had eaten a large chunk of flesh on the back and the ears. The women brought the baby near the lamp and started massaging him with the oil from the lamp.

Then all of sudden, five boys appeared from nowhere. One of them took away the baby. Four boys seized the women and dragged them towards the village. The older woman was stronger than the boys - she escaped from their hold and ran away towards the river. crossing the stream and darting into the darkness.

It was around three in the morning. A huge crowd had gathered in the village chautari (the village meeting place). They had hung a lantern on the branch of the peepal tree, and in its light the young woman wept by the side of the dead baby. The people gathered were furious - some even tried to manhandle the woman. The village elders were calmer and tried to sort out the problem. The woman was made to speak out the truth. Her name was Palti, aged just 20. This baby was her own child, her first child. It had died of pneumonia seven days ago. Her husband had been to Malaysia to earn money to take them out of penury. The older woman was her mother-in-law, whom the villagers accused of being a witch. And now they were accusing Palti of learning witchcraft by sacrificing her first born baby. However, her side of story was totally different. She named five people of the village as witch-doctors, who had promised her and her mother-in-law that they could bring back her child from the grasp of death. The women had just followed what they had been told to do. But they were caught in the act by the young boys, who had been deputed by those same witch-doctors.

The villagers searched high and low for the five men, but they were nowhere to be found. Word had spread, and lots of people from neighbouring villages poured in. It was like a mela (village fete). Some were demanding that she be punished, some were asking that the witch-doctors be found and punished. Some even insisted she be hung. Finally, a document was prepared, stating that Palti would not be involved in witchcraft from now-on-wards, and also listing the names of five absconding witch-doctors. A little black ink was applied to her right and left thumbs and she put her thumb-prints on the paper as she was an illiterate.

A night of excitement and hope, a night of anxiety and a night of despair. She cried relentlessly, her eyes red, but there was nobody to console her, nobody to empathize. At home again, she fed the newly born calf and the two little kids born to her favourite goat. She closed the doors of her room and put on the heavy latch. She had so much to say - to her husband, to her mother-in-law who had run away, to her baby who was reburied in the sands of Khando and to all her loved ones in her maiti (maternal home). She would have written a whole book had she been able to. Quietly, she moved around the room and prayed to the gods looking down from the picture frames on the walls. Then she took out a small bottle from the cupboard, looked at it carefully and downed its contents in one gulp. Within minutes, she was dead.

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