A Place in the Sun
A Historical Fiction
At the beginning of the last century, Calcutta, the seat of the British Empire, outwardly
appeared very different from the city that it is now – when one considers Viceroy Lord
Curzon calling the shots in place of the modest looking dhoti-clad marxists, landaus,
phaetons, broughams and an occasional oldsmobile ruling the streets instead of the Altos,
Zens and the Safaris. The city was segregated into Black Town (native quarters) and White
Town ( European quarters) with many of the present day hot spots being desolate suburbs
where people ventured out only in broad daylight and that too in groups for fear of armed
But underneath, the basic human emotions were still very much the same as they are now.
The aimlessness of the masses, the addiction of wealthy young scions (babus) towards
drinking and dancing girls (baijis). One such baiji was Gauhar Jan, and one such babu was
Rudranarayan Singhi. One day, while the two were entwined in an ecstasy of togetherness,
news reaches Rudranarayan that his wife Radharani, who has just given birth to a son, is
critically ill. An unruffled RudraNarayan continues with his merrymaking even while wife
lies between life and death and remains so even when Radharani is pronounced to be
inauspicious by the family preceptor and discreetly disposed of by his mother.
But Radaharni doesn’t die. The same river endowed with the responsibility of eliminating
her, shelters her in her flowing bosom only to restore her in the loving arms of an elderly
European couple. And Radharani gets a new lease of life - in the company of Sister Nivedita,
against the background of a land burning with a sudden spurt of swadeshi spirit rekindled by
an infuriated Viceroy bristling with revenge, the trigger being a seemingly insignificant
One wintry afternoon at the annual Fancy Fair in Calcutta, Lord Curzon had raised his hat to
Gauhar Jan, mistaking her to be an aristocratic lady. Later on, he realized his mistake and to
prevent a recurrence, issued a circular banning the entry of ladies in the fair, a decision
challenged by Gauhar Jan, when she emboldened by the patronage of the Bengali babus
decides to organize another fair coinciding with the Fancy Fair.
When the news reaches Lord Curzon, he decides to teach the Bengais a lesson they will not
forget in a hurry- he gives a go-ahead to the plan of partitioning Bengal. And a trivial
incident changes the destiny of a land and its people- like it has many times across the ages.
Author’s Note: The novel is a mix of fictional and historical characters and happenings.
Calcutta, January 1902.
It was just light.
The stars, weary with their non-stop night watch, were s-l-o-w-ly dropping off one by one.
The river lay still as sheet glass, her placid bosom barely making any move.
A flight of moss-covered steps went down straight to the river. Raghu stood on the last one
and looked all around. The ghat, otherwise crowded, looked strangely empty now. Not a soul
was in sight. Even the beggars, who normally slept on the pavements, had shifted to the
porches of the surrounding houses.
He wrapped the shawl tightly, for the predawn chill was mercilessly biting into his bare skin
at the slightest exposure and stooping, tenderly dipped the tip of his forefinger into the river.
And shot back.
The water felt like ice. He stood still for a while, mentally preparing himself for the plunge.
Then suddenly, he threw back the shawl and with an impulsive determinedness, dived
headlong into the river.
The first impact was terrible. He felt numb, as if an electrifying effect had suddenly disabled
all his senses. The entire system of his body seemed to have momentarily shut down as he
bobbed like a log in the freezing suspension.
The insensate state lasted for barely a few seconds. Then slowly normalcy returned and he
could savour the latent warmth of the ice-cold waters. The muscles loosened their strain, the
nerves abandoned their amassed stress, and blood gushed through unbridled from top to toe.
Soon, every bit of his body was revelling in an ethereal ecstasy.
By then, the day had already broken. Raghu, chanting his daily quota of the sacred distich,
positioned himself in knee-deep water and facing east, paid homage to his ancestors before
he began his day.
He filled his pitcher and climbed up. Just beside the ghat, beneath the spreading boughs of an
oversized Banyan tree, was a giant lingam of Lord Shiva, its original jet-black colour long
eroded under the impact of ceaseless devotion - vermilion marks, withered petals, dried
specks of sandal paste, all vying with each other for every inch of the godhead.
Raghu too poured the entire contents of his pitcher on the deity and devotedly placed
a handful of bel leaves at the base. Then leaving behind a shivering Shiva, he entered the
Akrur Mistri lane.
Akrur Mistri, the man who had lent his name to the lane, was a humble carpenter by
profession. He had shot to fame after rescuing a child who had accidentally fallen into a
manhole in the lane. In the process, Misrti had died of asphyxiation, but the incident
immortalised him for since then, the lane universally began to be referred to as " Akrur Mistri
lane”, though there had been no formal re-christening. The narrow serpentine alley
somewhere, along its length, displayed a spurt of protuberance as it crossed Singhi bari -the
palatial house of the Singhi family-generally referred to as Singho-bari in the locality. This
corruption in name, was largely due to the presence of a pair of stone lions or singhos ,
guarding the entrance in hunched back pose who had been in that position since centuries-
from the day JayNarayan Singhi, the founder of the family, had built this sprawling mansion
almost 300 years ago.
Raghu opened the side gate and went in. He lived in a room at the back side of the mansion
and two discoloured steel trunks, tucked underneath a rickety bed, were the only chattels
adorning his modest space. He was tempted to lie down, but on second thoughts, abandoned
the idea and closing the door behind him, set out in search of sarkar mashai, one of the key
administrative machineries of the family’s huge estate spread over a substantial part of the
At the other end of the mansion, a mischievous sunbeam stole in through a half-open window
and struck straight at the eyes of the person fast asleep on a magnificent four-poster
mahogany bed in the centre of the room. The warmth of its touch woke up RudraNarayan. He
took out his watch from under the pillow, took a look at the time, and immediately called for
his personal servant Ananta.
“Tell Raghu I have sent for him!”, RudraNarayan ordered without opening his eyes and
turned on his side, his mind going back to the fireworks on the maidan last night.
Raghu, sitting in sarkar mashai's room, too was recounting the celebrations of last night to a
wide-eyed audience, intentionally exaggerating at times.
“What rich assortment of bajis! I have never seen more fascinating fireworks in all my life!
There were all kinds of them, atashbaji , chuchobaji, byangbaji, chorkis,……."
"But one thing I always fail to understand, Raghu-da", Rakhal was saying "Why do the
sahibs make such a fuss over the arrival of a new year? What is so special to celebrate in
that? It is just a normal happening, the passing of time!"
Rakhal looked after the accounts of the Singhibabus and in accordance with the nature of his
job; he insisted that all actions should be accountable and logical.
"You don’t understand, Rakhal", Sarkar mashai volunteered to explain; "God has given the
sahibs only two occasions to celebrate -Kismis (Christmas) and Burra din (New Year). They
do not have so many festivals like us. But then, they are very enterprising people. So what
did they do? They went ahead and created their own festivals…" he stopped abruptly seeing
Ananta standing at the door.
"Raghuda Choto Kumar has sent for you. Come quickly!”
The palatial mansion of the Singhis stood glowing in the clear morning light. It had
withstood the brunt of nearly three centuries; still it wore its age with the craftiness of a
mellowing actress. A huge spread- out house it was sectioned into a series of mahals.
Occupying the entire frontage, was the bahar-mahal, an open-to-sky structure with a central
courtyard surrounded by rooms on three sides, the fourth flanked by a flight of steps
ascending to the thakurdalan, a hall with bamboo-like pillars clustered in quartets and
blossoming into cinquefoil-headed arches.
Behind the bahar-mahal was the andar-mahal, bahar-mahal’s plain prototype, minus the
thakurdalan. The women of the family lived here, the male members being permitted
selective entry. The kitchen along with the stores was the last one in the row- a bare one-
storied building, spaced quite apart from the main house. Again the distance was intended
and justified, as it was always the hub of perpetual hullabaloo.
A long linear veranda served as the connecting link between the bahar-mahal and the andar-
mahal. As Raghu hurried along it, his attention was drawn to a lean figure stationed
diagonally above, leaning on the window bar, with a far away look in his eyes. That was
SuryaNarayan, RudraNarayan’s elder brother.
Right from his childhood, SuryaNarayan had proved in many ways that he was not the
typical Singhi-babu, all unbridled and unfeigned. At an age when his brother was busy
flirting with every girl he could lay sight upon, his favourite place in the entire house was the
library and his only companions were the termite-eaten dusty books and ancient manuscripts
stacked there. Nobody disturbed him. He was a recluse, quietly relishing his reverie.
Years rolled on. Then one day, in spite of his extreme unwillingness SuryaNarayan was
married to a beautiful girl called Kusumkumari and a year later, a daughter was born to them.
The event unexpectedly brought about a radical change in his nature. He shed off his earlier
introversion and became extremely outgoing and jovial. But the days of celebration were
short-lived. The child died mysteriously and her mother followed suit soon after. And
SuryaNarayan, too shocked and shaken beyond belief, again returned to from where he had
“So Raghunath-maharaj has at last found time for his poor subject!” RudraNarayan remarked
in jest, seeing Raghu entering the room.
“Why have you got up so early?” Raghu asked, ignoring the comment outright. "We will be
going out only in the afternoon! "
He had been with RudraNarayan since the last two decades and such a long association had
involuntarily accorded him an authority over Choto Kumar. Raghu had started his career in
the Singhi-bari 30 years ago as the personal assistant of ChandraNarayan, RudraNarayan's
father. He had seen RudraNarayan being born, swayed him in his arms, played horse-horse
with him. And when the mantle of babugiri passed on to RudraNarayan after his father’s
mysterious death five years ago in the house of a nautch girl, there was no change in Raghu’s
position except for the fact that instead of keeping the father company, he started
accompanying the son on all his outings.
Raghu loved RudraNarayan with a fierce passion that far surpassed his love for his own son.
His family lived in a faraway distant village, whom he visited once every two years and was
content with the arrangement.
“I have to go to Gauhar's house”, RudraNarayan said, "She will be waiting for me. I have
promised to take her to the circus."
Baijee Gauhar Jan was one of the prominent rages ruling the city and RudraNarayan
devotedly frequented her place at least once every two weeks. There was no power on earth,
which could make him abort this fortnightly pilgrimage.
An hour and a half later, dressed in a crackling white dhoti-punjabi with a heavily
embroidered Jamewar shawl spread over his shoulder, RudraNarayan was ready. Waiting
under the porch for the landau to be brought, he unmindfully stared at the unclothed fairies
encircling the wrought iron fountain in the garden. There had been rumours that they too had
once been human - nautch girls brought by his grandfather from Lucknow. One day, while
they were strolling in the garden, they happened to taunt a passing by mendicant, whose
curse had frozen them to stone forever. The incident had however stopped the practice of
bringing other women into the house, once and for all.
Still, on clear starry nights when the moon rose in full and the place resembled a fairyland,
RudraNarayan had yearned many a times for a magic wand with which he could infuse life in
them. Once. J-u-s-t once…………
The clip-clop of approaching hoofs over the cobbled path broke his thought and transported
him back to the present. RudraNarayan gathered his shawl and was about to get into the
landau, when Raghu softly reminded him that Kartama, his mother, wanted him to pay a
visit to his expecting wife before leaving.
RudraNarayan changed his direction.
The glow of late morning filled the room where Radharani lay on a bed, her back to the door,
eyes closed and the quilt partially covering her face which was as pale as the bedspread
“She has just gone to sleep”, Jamuna, the mid-wife who had been looking after her,
whispered to RudraNarayan. "She was in great pain last night! "
"Why didn’t you inform the kaviraj-mashai?" he asked in a demanding tone, all of a sudden
sounding the archetypal dutiful husband.
"There is no need for it, Choto Kumar ", she stated quietly. “Such pain is absolutely normal
for the child is due very soon." The hypothesis was Jamuna's own deduction from past cases.
RudraNarayan stood up. His duty was complete and he was free to depart.
As his footsteps died in the distance, Radharani removed the quilt from her face and stared at
the door in the direction of her just-departed husband.
“Thank God, he didn’t stay for long!” she murmured and a sad sarcastic smile slightly arched
her pale lips. “He wouldn’t have, at any cost. His mind had already left!”
“But still you shouldn’t have avoided him!” Jamuna unhesitatingly voiced her opinion.
“I don’t feel like seeing his face when he is on his way to that woman’s den!” Radharani
blurted out, staring at the blank wall.
“You are very adamant Boumoni! Women should not be so headstrong. Whatever he might
be, wherever he might go, after all, he is your husband! And tell me, which man doesn’t go
after other women if he has the chance? My man is over three dozen and ten. Even at this
age, he has the tendency to stray at the slightest pretext! " she rattled off quite unashamedly,
trying to reason, as if it was something absolutely normal. She had been with the Singhis for
the last 45 years and had almost become a part of the family. Both RudraNarayan and
SuryaNarayan had been born on her hands and she nursed a sophistic affection for them.
But Radharani was not listening…she was thinking of the fateful day three years back when
Kartama had seen her, an incident which had unknowingly sealed her fate, once and for all.
Radharani was hardly eleven then. She had just had her bath and a Brahmin was printing
sandal marks on the long of her hand.
“What a beautiful child!” Kartama exclaimed, staring admiringly at her long black tresses
and affectionately holding up the small of her chin. “Ma, what’s your name?”
“Radharani." And the little girl hurriedly added”Kumari Radharani Debi.”
Her intelligence and presence of mind impressed Dayamayi and in an impulse, she decided
upon making this girl the bride of her son RudraNarayan.
Radharani’s parents had died soon after her birth. She lived with her paternal uncle and his
wife. Her grandfather had been the head-pundit of a sanskrit tol and after his demise, his son
had taken over the cudgel.
AT the beginning, Radharani’s uncle was strongly against the match for they were a family
of pundits, whereas, the Singhis though extremely wealthy, had no education, barring the
bare introduction to alphabets which had made him apprehensive if his niece would be able
to adjust there.
But his wife did not see eye to eye with him in the matter.
“Are you mad that you want to turn down such a proposal? If our Radha is married there, she
will never even have to get up to fetch herself a glass of water!” She was determined to get
the girl married there, not because she was really concerned about her well-being, but for the
2000 rupees that the old lady, Kartama had promised them as dowry.
Radharani did not know anything then. For her, it was all like a dream. It was only when
RudraNarayan renewed his nocturnal excursions within a month of their marriage that she
came to know of the transaction. But by then, it was too late. The damage had already been
"Boumoni! Again you are brooding!" Jamuna mildly rebuked her "Haven't I told you to keep
cheerful? Or else your son will also be like that! Always sulking and in a bad mood!"
“How are you being so sure that it is going to be a son?” she suddenly asked “I will be happy
if I have a daughter!”
“You are really strange Boumoni!" Jamuna stared at her in disbelief "In my whole life, I
have never seen anyone wanting a daughter so willingly! A son will carry on the family line.
He will look after you when you are old. But of what use will a daughter be? Sooner or later,
she will have to go away to another house!"
"Jamuna, want to know why I really don't want a son? " Radharani took a deep breath ,
"Because, as soon as the faintest streak of moustache appears, he will start going out to
women, like the custom in this house. All the wealth will ruin him completely and there is no
way in which I can prevent him from becoming what I don’t want him to become! Whereas,
with a daughter it will be so different! She will be with me till she is married. I will bring her
up in the way I want to, play dolls with her, teach her how to sew and perhaps also send her
to that school in Bagbazar (she was referring to the school started by Sister Nivedita)…I have
heard that it is a Hindu school and perhaps Kartama won’t object to sending her
granddaughter there…" she looked up at the ceiling dreamily.
"Boumoni, a daughter has no birthright in this house.”
“What"? Radharani asked, unable to understand.
“Yes”, Jamuna whispered after looking around her and ensuring that no one was listening
(for even walls have ears), “Do you remember how Bara kumar’s khuki died?
She was referring to SuryaNarayan’s infant daughter, who had died within a month of her
"Why, she died of high fever!"
"Wrong! She was suffocated with a pillow! That is the reason why her mother committed
suicide! And look how Bara kumar has become!"
"Who ordered it?"
"But why?" Radharani asked in a rising pitch.
“Sssh……Boumoni, please don’t talk so loudly. If Kartama comes to know that I have told
you all this……" she trailed off.
The incomplete sentence was enough to indicate the measure of authority the old lady
enjoyed over everyone in the house.
The landau made its way through a labyrinthine of lanes and by-lanes and stormed into
Chitpur road. It had to slow down soon, for the narrow thoroughfare was a stream of
multifarious humanity that late morning-frail looking locales loosely wrapped in coarse
chaddar and their fairer up-country counterparts seeming all the more stouter in tight fitting
chapkans and imposing turbans.
Shops standing in cheek-by-jowl fashion cluttered the roadsides, the dingy interiors crammed
with all types of saleable wares-brass, bronze, and bell metal displayed in pyramidal fashion
and reaching right up to the roof. In one shop, an old woman was engaged in ceaseless
bargaining with a pot-bellied shopkeeper over a bronze pitcher. She had lost hers the other
day at the riverbank, when in a fit of stoicism, she had temporarily abandoned it. In the
vicinity of the Chitteswari Kali temple, lepers lay in untidy ill-wound bandages, shouting for
alms and threatening with eternal penury if their demand went unheeded. Like most of their
patrons, they too believed that their acceptance of the pie pieces reduced the givers’ quota of
Quite a crowd had collected in front of a shop selling glass bangles, the brilliant shades
brighter than even the peacock's plumes. A rustic village belle with the veil drawn over her
forehead was shyly trying out a set of cucumber-green lac bangles, while the young man
beside her (in all probability her husband), stood staring admiringly amidst all the dust and
din. They had come to the Kali temple and were on their way back, when these colourful,
sparkling circles had waylaid them.
Suddenly RudraNarayan cried out "My God, isn't that our Chunilal !"
“Where?" Raghu leaned out of the landau, trying to locate him.
"Over there," RudraNarayan pointed to a roadside shop selling betel-leaf and other allied
"Go and call him! ", he immediately ordered Raghu.
Chunilal was standing absentmindedly in front of the shop, engrossed in his own thoughts.
He had not seen them. He had returned home last night in a jovial mood, after watching the
fireworks in the maidan, only to find that his nine year old daughter Jaba was down with a
sudden bout of fever. Chunilal, who was still in a besotted state, initially had not paid much
attention to his wife’s repeated requests to call a doctor.
“It is just ordinary fever and will subside on its own. Don’t worry!”, he had casually assured
her before settling down for the night, not willing to spoil his mood.
But when he woke up in the morning, Jaba was already in a delirium. Her face was very red
and there was a vacant look in her eyes. Alarmed, Chunilal wasted no time in rushing to the
house of the physician. But as his luck would have it, kaviraj mashai was not at home. He
had gone out on an early morning call. Chunilal had been anxiously awaiting his return,
when he was spotted by RudraNarayan.
“Chunilal! O Chunilal!” as a familiar cry floated into his ears through the din, he turned
around and sighted Raghu.
“What's the matter, Chunilal? Why are you loitering here? Have you forgotten the way to
your own house?” RudraNarayan jokingly put in.
“But how can that be! We dropped him right at his doorstep last night!” Raghu was quick to
add his own bit.
“Chunilal, come with us", RudraNarayan generously invited him. “We shall be going to the
“Which circus, Harmston’s?” Chunilal asked, momentarily shedding his fatherly concerns.
“No, not that. There is a new one. It is called Prof. Bose’s The Great Bengal Circus!”
“A Bengali circus?" Chunilal exclaimed "But what is a professor doing in a circus? Teaching
dogs arithmetic? And lions poetry?” he asked, screwing up his mouth. That was Chunilal’s
specialty. He could squeeze laughter out of any situation.
“Get in if you want to witness a man wrestling with the biggest tiger in captivity!”
RudraNarayan impatiently motioned to him to board the carriage. "We can talk on the way.
Already we are late!"
Chunilal was very much tempted to join them. But the flushed face of his daughter flashed
before his eyes.
“But Choto Kumar, I can’t come today,” he spoke pleadingly ”My daughter is very ill.
Actually I had come to get kaviraj mashai ………”
But RudraNarayan was in no mood to listen to the details of his domestics.
”Let’s go”, he impatiently turned to Raghu.
“Yes”, Raghu slyly suggested with a wink, “We have to pick up Aghornath on the way. He
was raring to go with us the other day!”
Aghornath! Aghornath will be accompanying them! Chunilal gnashed his teeth in anger. The
mere mention of the name of that bulbous faced devil with protruding teeth was enough to
initiate his dormant enthusiasm. Aghornath was sure to indulge in all sorts of ear wigging and
try his best to prove to Rudra Narayan that he was better than Chunilal in everything. In a
trice, Chunilal changed his decision. Knowingly, he would not allow Aghornath to rule the
But what would happen to Jaba? Chunilal pondered for a while. Well, he had
left a message with the kaviraj! And anyway if he did not return within an hour or so, Jaba’s
mother would surely make some alternate arrangements. She would not wait for him. She
was too familiar with his ways.
He climbed into the carriage.
The busy thoroughfare that began its journey amidst the tinkle of temple bells towards the
southern suburbs of the city, rested on its way a bit where it crossed the palatial house of
Gauhar Jan. Then, considerably rejuvenated by the soft strain of ghazals, it once again
resumed its journey.
Born to an Armenian father and Indian mother Gauhar Jan’s actual name was Edilian
Angilina Edward. When she was barely eight, her mother fell in love with a Muslim
nobleman and deserting her husband, eloped with him, taking her daughter along with her.
They came to the city of Calcutta where she took up residence under the name of Bibi
Malikajan. Gauhar Jan grew up in Calcutta. From an early age she learnt singing and dancing
under tutelage of the best masters and in course of time, became adept in both. Soon, her
fame as a baiji spread like wildfire and men of all ages from every corner of the society
flocked to her place.
Nevertheless, the baiji was quite choosy. Not everybody who knocked at her door, managed
to gain entry into her domain.
RudraNarayan was one of the lucky few.
Just outside the palatial mansion of Gauhar Jan was a big babul tree. A common
belief prevailed in the locality that the tree was the favourite abode of spirits- frustrated
mortals who had failed in their lifetime to get close to baiji , took up residence there after
death. Eerie things often happened when one passed under it, especially late in the night. At
times when the disturbance became too much, exorcists had to be called in to pacify the
spirits- they poured water at the base of the tree continuously for 13 days together and the
spirits residing in it would come under control, till a fresh bout of excitement made them
Stepping out of his landau and looking up through the dense maze of verdure, RudraNarayan
was instantly reminded of the rumour, though till date, the spirits of the tree had never
obliged him with an appearance.
"Send message to the baiji that I have come,” he ordered the man who had come out to attend
“Both of you wait here! I shall not be late today!” he looked at Raghu, who naively nodded.
But the moment his master’s back was turned towards him, he and Chunilal swiftly
exchanged sly meaningful glances.
Chunilal stared outside at busy Chitpur road and his thoughts returned home. Had the kaviraj
come? Or was Jaba still lying unattended? His house was just a ten minutes walk from there
and for a moment Chunilal was tempted to rush home and be back before RudraNarayan
emerged from his encounter with the baiji. He toyed with the idea in detail and then very
reluctantly abandoned it, for Raghu was sure to report his temporary absence to
RudraNarayan. The Choto Kumar of the Singhis demanded complete execution of his
instructions and was absolutely uncompromising in all these matters.
One of the prime reasons why Chunilal could not afford to loose Rudranarayan’s favour even
in times of acute domestic crisis was money. His daughter Jaba, suffered from a serious flaw
that had greatly marred her matrimonial prospects, in spite of the fact that she was fair
looking and proficient in all sorts of household work. She was born dumb and because of this
physical imperfection, Chunilal had been finding it difficult to get a match for her. Lately, he
had been holding talks with a party who had agreed to the marriage but they had demanded
an astronomical sum as dowry.
Chunilal’s financial state of affairs did not permit him more than a modest existence- a
humble roof over his head and two square meals a day for himself and his family. But he
yearned for more, much more. And for that he had only one option- RudraNarayan, who in
spite of all his shortcomings showered his so called friends and followers with money and
allowed them the liberty of every extravagance at his expense. And that was the reason why
Chunilal, and many others like Chunilal clung to him like a leech.
Gauhar Jan’s room was divided into two parts by an ogive arch with a floral border running
all along its length. The sitting area, where the baiji held her mujras and other performances
was very modestly furnished, whereas in contrast, the bedroom was an extravagant affair.
The entire area exuded exuberance-velvet drapes, satin bedspread, silver hookahs on brass
stands, gilded panels of intricate ponkh work on the walls- and above all a huge Bohemian
chandelier with a rain of crystal droplets adding to the garish glitter of the room. In the
centre was an elaborate four poster bed. Almost all who gained entry to this chamber ended
their journey there.
Seated in front of a huge Belgian mirror, Gauhar Jan was deeply occupied in a dressing a
betel leaf with liberal coats of chunam, when RudraNarayan entered the room. A
multicamerate silver tray filled with the numerous ingredients lay on her lap and she was
taking a pinch from one and a dash from the other and gently rubbing it on the spread out
betel leaf. Squatted on the floor, a young girl was simultaneously painting the edge of her
toes with alta, and the combination - red border against her pearly white feet looked deadly
even from a distance.
RudraNarayan stopped at a wayside wall mirror just opposite the door. He was still in his
early twenties, yet he had already begun to bulge in the middle, in the manner of his
predecessors. He stared approvingly at his own reflection.
“Singhibabu why are you standing there?” Gauhar Jan called out. “Come here, near me!” Her
kohl-rimmed eyes beckoned him to a settee beside her.
“Selina, bring a glass of that scented sharbaat for Singhibabu” instructing her maid, she
folded the betel-leaf in conical fashion and tucked it inside her mouth, the gently-masticated
betel exuding a deliciously refreshing juice. A well-made paan was like a perfect cocktail,
tingling the ears, soothing the senses in addition to generously stimulating to the palate.
RudraNarayan sat down on her bed and looked all around. He was not a newcomer, still the
place never ceased to fascinate him. The soft glow of the tinted windowpanes imparted a
romantic glow to the room, making it seem totally cut off from the rest of the world.
Gauhar Jan picked up a silver goblet filled with fragrance and lightly rubbed her finger on it.
The liquid had frozen in the chill.
“This year it looks to be unusually cold!” she commented, pointing to the solidified mass.
“Selina!” she called out again “Will you melt this?”
“Give it to me!” RudraNarayan stretched out his hand.
“What will you do with it?” She was a little puzzled.
“Let me melt it for you!”
He didn't reply. Instead, fumbling in one of the pockets of his punjabi he pulled out a thick
wad of notes. From the other emerged a matchbox. With the two he struck a fire and held it
beneath the goblet.
"What are you doing? Have you gone out of your mind?” she cried out in alarm, trying to
snatch the notes from him.
But he held them well out of her reach.
“What kind of madness is this?” She again called out sharply.
The note by then had been reduced to ashes.
He pulled out another from the bundle. In a matter of minutes it too was gone. He took out
another. And another.
Note followed note, bundle followed bundle into the fire.
Soon the room was filled with ashes and the air was heavy with the smell of smoke and burnt
paper, a few half-burnt ones flying around haphazardly.
The fragrance too finally melted and with a winning look, he handed the goblet back to her.
Gauhar Jan took it dumbly, too stunned to say anything. She too lived lavishly and liked to
splurge on exquisite jewels and delicate gauze draperies embroidered with real gold lace.
When her cat had a litter she had thrown a lavish party which had been the talk of the town
for quite sometime. Also she had had a fair chance of witnessing many a crotchet but the
present one surely surpassed all. It almost physically hurt her to helplessly stand and see
money (whose ever it might be) being destroyed like this. True, she was extremely wealthy
now, moved about in a fancy Victoria Buggy drawn by four horses with a lifestyle to match,
but she alone knew the history of toil and tears that had accumulated in her chest to fill up
“Now what happened to you?” RudraNarayan looked at her, irritated at her
unresponsiveness. He had expected amazement and then appreciation for his unique feat. But
instead of applauding him, she looked quite miserable as if it was her money that he had
“Nothing!” Quickly regaining her composure, she forced a broad smile and dipping her
forefinger in the melted perfume, lightly rubbed it on her cheeks.
In a beige-coloured brocade sari with silver zari work shimmering in the border, she looked
deadly. The aquiline features accentuated by her almond eyes and lustrous lips made her look
all the more alluring.
“Gahar!” he whispered, holding her by the waist and drawing her towards him “You seem to
be growing more beautiful with each passing day.” He stared admiringly at her shapely
contours, inundated by a strong desire to explore them all over again.
"Leave me” She fidgeted a bit, feigning to free herself “Won’t we go to the circus!”
In reply he only tightened his grip, feeling her all over and nibbling her in the nape.
"I don’t wish to go anywhere. I just want to be with you,” muttering, he lifted her in his arms
and kissed her lightly in the moon-like navel floating on the surface of her smooth satiny
“You are the flame in which I have no regrets in burning myself out,” he whispered,
voluntarily immersing himself in the effervescence of voluptuous fondness.
He was breathing heavily.
She was breathing deeply.
Suddenly there was a sharp knock on the door.
"Who's there?" RudraNarayan yelled out in irritation.
"Its me, Choto Kumar" came Raghu's voice from other side of the door. " Sarkar mashai has
come with the news that a son was born to Boumini a short while ago!"
"That is great! " RudraNarayan sounded jubilant. "Tell sarkar mashai to distribute sweets
among everyone!” And after I get back I will …..”
“But Choto Kumar, Raghu interrupted him, sounding strangely subdued, “Boumini's
condition is very critical. Kartama wants you to go home."
For a moment RudraNarayan was involuntarily reminded of the woman who was his official
wife and had just become the mother of his son. But that was all. The piece of news did not
affect him beyond that.
"What will I do there? I am not a doctor!" he shot back, shrugging his shoulders. "Tell Sarkar
mashai to get the best physicians in the city, instead of wasting time here. Go away now!”
As his footsteps died in the distance, RudraNarayan attempted to return to what he had been
engaged in earlier. But somehow it didn’t feel the same and he could sense the discordance
even in Gauhar’s attitude.
“Singhibabu, I think you should go home now. Merrymaking can wait. But a life will not.”
She sat up and tying her loose hair into a knot stepped out of the bed.
“I think it would have been better if you didn’t give me sermons about what I should do and
what I should not!”
Gauhar Jan said nothing. But it was clear that she did not approve of his behaviour.
People voluntarily come to us. We don’t tell them to abandon their wives, yet in the end it is
we who are blamed for ruining their lives. Their wives curse us, perhaps even spit at the very
mention of our names. But are we really to blame?
“Gauhar, why are YOU getting so upset at the news? She is my wife and look I am not
worrying!” he impertinently boasted.
“No! Don’t touch me, at least not now!” she instantly shrank back as if struck by lightning as
he tried to draw her towards him.
RudraNarayan was bewildered. Women were really an enigma; sometimes he could not
make head or tail of their behaviour!
Chunilal was returning home. The lane was dark and still. It was late, later than he had
expected it to be. He had planned to return earlier, but RudraNarayan for some inexplicable
reason had detained him.
With the initial excitement and thrill of being exposed to all kind riches beginning to wear
out, Chunilal had begun to get tired of this business of being a puppet in the hands of
RudraNarayan. He was now just waiting for Jaba’s marriage. After it was over, he would
leave the city and retire to Kasi, spending the rest of his days in peace by the banks of the
He put his hand inside his pocket and felt the coins. Jaba had a knack for them, she would
surely be thrilled by today’s collection, all new and shiny and sparkling.
He rounded a corner and stopped in front of his house. The inside was dark and quiet.
"Jaba" he called out, knocking softly.
There was no sound.
"Jaba" his tone was a little louder this time.
Still, there was no response.
He impatiently knocked again. He was feeling uncomfortable and a little irritated, standing
like a stranger outside his own door.
Jaba, who unfailingly waited for him most of the nights, would probably not be in a position
to open the door today, but what had happened to her mother? Or was she intentionally
keeping him waiting?
"Open the door!” He called out, almost shouting.
A bed creaked inside. Then approaching footsteps came to the door and there was a sound of
bolts being drawn.
His wife stood blocking the doorway, her dishevelled hair like a halo round her head. Even in
the faint starlight he could sense that her eyes were gleaming.
“Let me go in!” he tried to get through “How’s Jaba? Did the kaviraj come? I had some
urgent work, but I remembered to leave a message at his house!”
His wife walked away, without answering, leaving the door ajar.
He hesitatingly entered and as his eyes got attuned to the darkness he could make out the
familiar figure of his daughter at the far end of the bed, sleeping peacefully.
Chunilal heaved a sigh of relief. The sense of guilt, which had been clinging to him till then,
was suddenly gone. He climbed on to the bed beside his daughter and was shocked at the feel
of her forehead. It felt strangely chill. He shook her a little. She didn't respond.
"Listen!" he urgently summoned his wife, getting down from the bed “Jaba seems to have
fainted. I am going out to call the kaviraj!”
"There's no need for all that now!" she spoke in a steely tone, finally breaking her reticence.
"Why?" he inquired in a shaken voice.
She remained silent and suddenly a shiver went down his spine as the meaning of her words
dawned on him. His legs began to crumble as the world sank under his feet and he looked
"Why did you come home? Go and enjoy!" Abandoning her earlier restraint and hissing
hysterically, she pounced on him like a tigress, bent on tearing him apart. Her claws sunk in
his chest and she gripped him with all her might.
Chunilal, gasping for breath, somehow freed himself from her clutches and ran to the other
side of the room. Then all of a sudden, the woman’s wrath was transformed to wail and she
flopped on the lifeless body of her daughter with repeated sobs.
Chunilal remained rooted to the ground, stunned with remorse as the coins in his pocket, set
into motion by the sudden impact, went on jingling incessantly.
A few miles away, in another part of the city, quite a crowd had collected in front of the
room where Radharani had recently given birth to a son. But it was strangely silent, only
once in a while a hush-hush could be heard, as a newcomer arrived on the scene and was
updated about the condition of the mother and the newborn.
A little later the door of the birthing room opened and everyone waited with baited breath for
Jamuna emerged. She looked tired, but considerably relaxed.
“Boumoni is now out of danger!” she declared to a visibly tensed Kartama who immediately
let out a sigh of relief, touching her forehead with the string of rosary.
“And how is the new born?” she enquired in a quivering tone.
“Oh! He is fine. I have rarely seen such a healthy baby.”
“Gurudev has saved us!” Kartama mumbled, “I feared that he would be motherless right
from birth!” She murmured in an undertone.
Slowly the tenseness in her face disappeared and she was about to get up and retire to her
room when Sarkar mashai entered, his head hung low.
“Choto Kumar refused to come. He is with baiji Gauhar Jan.”
He didn’t say anything more. He didn’t need to say anything more.
Inside the room Radharani who had just regained her consciousness too heard the words. She
closed her eyes and steadfastly clasped the tiny bundle close to her heart as firmly as she
Immediately, a shrill cry accompanied by a slight movement emanated from the bundle. The
heir was authoritatively announcing his arrival on earth.
In her earthly incarnation, Ganga, the river of heaven, was born in an icy cave as a thin feeble
creek, high up in the lofty mountains. The new-born rivulet playfully skipped over rocks and
rugged terrain and reached the foothills, where her infancy ended and she expectantly
stepped into the outside world with an air of dignity.
But once out on the plains, as she painstakingly carved her way through the maze of human
habitat, she found herself in the midst of a hypocritical world. People called her mother-
"Ganga Mai ", but often treated her quite the otherwise, polluting her as per their selfish
requirements, dumping all their undesirables, filthy things in her flow. She was treated worse
than a whore, used and abused by all.
Ganga was soon disillusioned with the human society. But still she ran on and on, through
fields and forests and gorges, eager to meet her Godmother-the Sea. The mature, much-
mellowed down river longed to take leave of her task, merge into the limitless blue and lay
there in peace forever.
The confluence of Ganga and Sagar( the sea) is called the Gangasagar. A fair –the
"Gangasagar Mela" is held there every winte,r when people from all over the country
assemble on the auspicious occasion of the makar sankranti , to take a dip in the holy waters
and wash away their sins.
ChandraSwami, the family gurudev of the Singhis too had come all the way from Kasi to
participate in the event and on the way back; he had break-journeyed at Calcutta at
Dayamayi's special request to bless her grandson.
Seated on the wooden floor on a woollen rug, ChandraSwami was bent over a low height
wooden desk, deeply absorbed in examining a sheet of paper with a magnifying glass. Beside
him, lay a few half-open scriptures, the pages flip-flapping in the light breeze that blew from
He got up to close the window. The breeze seemed to be fast growing into a gale. Was a
storm on its way? He looked out of the window. The sky was imbued with a reddish glow.
All the stars seemed to have suddenly disappeared.
Suddenly, there was a soft knock on the door.
"Who's there?" he asked, raising his voice.
"It's me Gurudev! " sounded Dayamayi and entered, her head wrapped in a black shawl. In
her hands was her grandson, fast asleep.
ChandraSwami gently lifted the baby in his arms and opening its cupped palm held it near
the light of the lantern.
Dayamayi looked on. A faint clamour of voices came from the scullery, where the cooks
were quarrelling with the storekeeper over the share of daily ration or some other equally
Clip-clop, clip-clop- floated the faint clatter of horse hooves, as a carriage cantered by on the
faraway Chitpur road.
A little later, ChandraSwami finished his inspection and turned back.
"Now there is not the slightest doubt!" he soliloquised, handing the baby back to its
"What is the matter gurudev?" Dayamayi who had been silently watching him all the while,
could not contain her curiosity any longer.
"Your grandson will come to grief on account of his mother, which might even lead to his
"What?" she gasped in disbelief.
He again repeated the verdict, slowly, stressing on every word. And this time, there was no
room for any doubt.
"Is there no prevention?" She asked in a shaky voice.
"Of course there is! Like every disease has its cure, every situation, however difficult it might
be, definitely has a solution! This child must never be allowed to come in contact with his
Dayamayi sat stupefied, unable to think clearly! Send Radharani away forever for no fault of
her own! Already she had a soft corner for her younger daughter-in-law and it had increased
tremendously after she had gifted the family an heir.
"I will send the poor girl to Kasi as soon as possible!” she stated with a sigh, sounding
"But that is just a makeshift settlement!" her gurudev pointed out "The danger still remains.
When your grandson grows up, can you stop him from meeting his own mother?"
"I will tell him that his mother died soon after he was born!"
"He will know the truth sooner or later. Then what will you do?"
"What will I do?" she mechanically repeated after him, unable to think anything clearly. The
unexpectedness of the situation had left her completely dumfounded.
"Don’t get carried away by emotion Dayamayi!" He glanced at her, sounding extremely calm
and composed. "Unfortunately, as destiny dictates, there is no place in this world for both
mother and son. One has to go to make place for the other!”
"What are you saying, gurudev?" She almost stammered as the full implication of his words
dawned on her.
“Who is more precious to you, this baby or his mother? You can easily get another bride for
your son. But an heir is the gift of God!" ChandraSwami stated, stopping for a while to allow
the implication of his words sink in her mind.
Dayamayi glanced at the sleeping bundle. There was a completely unworried look on the tiny
face, as if it had bestowed itself to the custody of someone it trusted with its whole heart.
“I will protect you from all harm!” she whispered, her eyes filling up as she continued to
stare at the elfish face. The baby went on sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the
complexity its presence was causing.
Flying pigeons was bestowed with a special pedigree as compared to other forms of sport, for
the very sight of birds circling and tumbling in the infinite azure created an esoteric impact in
the minds of the onlookers. RudraNarayan had a keen forte for the sport and his aviary had a
rare collection of the best breed. Most were of the Rampur Kalsira variety with long white-
spotted head, luminous eyes and black spots in the tails, acquired from Sher Nawab Khan's
pigeonary at Ferozpur. RudraNarayan’s personal favourite was a pair of blue rock pigeon
called Hira and Moti who lived in a special niche just outside his room. They had
participated in many competitions and won him many laurels.
Radharani too was fond of them and since the day she had stepped into this house, she had
voluntarily taken it upon her to feed them every morning. Taking a handful of gram in her
hand, she would call out to them in a sweet sing song voice and in no time they would appear
from no where, fearlessly perching on her shoulder and swiftly picking from her outstretched
palm. After that they would circle her and swiftly fly away again, till they were no more than
two tiny specks in the boundless blue.
Standing on the terrace and watching them, Radharani's fantasy too would take flight and she
would momentarily imagine herself to be one of them, flying free, soaring and sinking and
soaring again, exploring unknown lands, gliding over and fields and forests…. And she
would unknowingly shiver in the ecstasy of the feeling.
That day too, after feeding her son, she had come up to feed the birds only to find
RudraNarayan already there, mashing something in a bowl very attentively.
"Oh you have come!" He turned round hearing her footsteps. "There is just two months left
for the race. The birds need to be put on a special diet from now on. Just grams will not
suffice. They should be fed this" he showed her the mixture in the bowl.
"What is it?" she asked, staring at the colourless paste.
"This is mashed bajra mixed with almond powder, silver leaf, cardamom seeds and butter.
To this you can add iced rose water if you want to improve the taste. The idea is to reduce the
pigeon's body weight, so that it becomes lighter and can fly for a longer period of time with
greater nimbleness." RudraNarayan was an expert in all these matters.
He attempted to hand her the bowl, but she refused.
"No, you feed them today!”
Hira and Moti were sitting nearby watching the proceedings with sharp eyes. As soon as they
saw that their meal was ready, they hopped on to his stretched out hand and noisily lapped up
Radharani looked at the grams in her hand. They were no longer needed here. Perhaps she
could give them to the pigeons down below in the loft. She turned around, when seeing her
leave RudraNarayan caught hold of her arm and gently pulled her towards him.
"Leave me!" she tried to break free "Someone may come up any moment and see us!"
The day when RudraNarayan had refused to return home in spite of knowing that she was
virtually on her deathbed, had been an eye opener for her. Till then, she was aware of his
feelings (the lack of it, to be precise) towards her as well as the reason behind it (her well-
wishers had enlightened her about Gauhar Jan at the very first opportunity) and had slowly
reconciled herself to her fate, but had failed to realize how very insignificant her existence
was to him!
He noticed her unresponsiveness and pretended to be perturbed.
"You are still angry with me!" in an apologetic tone, he eyed her, trying to gauge what was
going on in her mind. “How many times have I told you that when sarkar-mashai brought
the news of you being seriously ill, I had got up to go home, but at that moment the baiji , to
purposefully prevent me from leaving, gave me such a sharbaat, after drinking which, I lost
all my senses! Still, forgive me, if I have hurt you even unknowingly!" he gently squeezed
her palm. "I promise it will never happen again!"
Radharani had mentally decided to distance herself from her husband, so that his actions
would cease to have any impact on her. But now, standing under the clear blue sky on the
sun-caressed terrace, she was unable to hold herself back. To her dismay, she discovered her
resolve weakening. She found herself wanting to forgive him and forget all his misdeeds. At
“Are you going out again?" she asked, after a little while.
"Yes, on a cruise. I will be back in a fortnight."
"Where are you going?
"Oh! We will just sail down the river, stop wherever we feel like.”
"Take me with you!" she looked at him imploringly.
"What? Have you gone berserk?" he remarked, glaring at her, "How can you even think of
such a thing? There will be other men with me, the Lahas and that sahib who lives in
Chandannagore. I am trying to get the contract for that colliery and also enter into a
partnership with them for the tea gardens. This trip is just a trick to get intimate with them
and win their confidence.”
"Is that baiji also going with you?" she asked sharply, cutting him short.
"Who Gauhar? Of course she will go! Or else, how will I entertain my guests?"
"But why are YOU getting so worked up with all these trivial details?" he tried to pacify her,
“My relationship with Gauhar is purely based on give and take; I pay her and she performs
for me, whereas you are my wife, the mother of my son. Our relationship is not restricted to
just this birth, but we will be together for seven births! What more do you want?”
Seven births! Six more births of similar suffering! Radharani unknowingly shuddered at the
At that moment there was a shout from below and RudraNarayan hurriedly went down,
leaving her all alone on the terrace.
Radharani leaned onto the parapet and gazed at RudraNarayan’s Mayurpankhi barge
anchored to the private ghat of the Singhis, all ready to set sail. Extremely elegant looking,
with peacock-tailed rear and a shapely stern shaped like the bird’s head, the barge with sides
of teakwood sheathed with copper, commanded an impressive sight as it stood rocking
lightly on the lap of the river.
Radharani had never set foot inside it but various accounts and anecdotes had given her
ample idea of the interior. From the deck as one went down the wooden stairs was a big
saloon fitted with expensive Morocco furniture. RudraNarayan was a typical sybarite and all
these were an essential part of his existence, no matter wherever he went. His private cabin,
(it served as his bedroom too), which was on the upper deck was very lavishly furnished. The
wall panels were punctuated with brilliant bursts of colour and interlocking strips of sliver
circumscribed the ceiling. Even the bathroom was not left out. It had a marble bath
dextrously executed in semi-precious stone marquetry work -malachite, cornelian, and
Suddenly the green Venetians were thrown open and standing on the roof Radharani could
see the ornamental bed perched proudly on the parquet floor in the centre of the room. She
unknowingly squirmed as she visualised her husband sharing it with a bejewelled figure in
swishing silk a few hours from now.
Oil your hair -Kuntalin/ in your paan put-Tambulin;
Use perfume-Delkosh/and remember the great Bose
The middle-aged dowager was humming softly as she sat behind Radharani on the Venetian-
blinded veranda, oiling the latter's lustrous locks and arranging them into neat streamlined
Radharani had long curly tresses that filled her back in a serpentine manner, and everyday it
was quite a tedious task to straighten them out and arrange them into any kind of knots or
knits. But the maid, endowed with enormous tenacity, never gave up till she had succeeded in
taming the curls.
"Boumoni, I have finished making the plaits. Now tell me what kind of ball shall I make?”
"Do whatever you feel like." Radharani replied absentmindedly, gazing outside through the
myriad perforations in the chik at the rapidly retreating gloaming. She was observing the
shodo brata for the wellbeing of her son, and as per the rules of the quasi-religious ritual as
she had been on a fast the entire day, her throat was cracking with thirst.
The last strains of the receding daylight filtering in through the chik created a strange
checkerboard of shade and shadow on the veranda floor. Staring at the pattern, Radharani
was suddenly reminded of Kasi, where, as soon as the sun set, a thousand temple bells would
ring in the evening and the aarati by the river would begin, myriad earthen lamps lighting up
the dusky water with their soft glow.
"Boumoni, let me make something special. After all, today is an auspicious day.”
Radharani deeply engrossed in her own thoughts, just nodded in agreement. In Kasi, she
along with her friends too had observed many bratas. Just a few days before her marriage,
she had observed the belpukur brata to eliminate all possibilities of a co-wife in her marital
life. In that particular ritual, with a paste of powdered rice, one makes a drawing of a Mayna
bird on the floor and holding a flower to the bird prays:
“Mayna Mayna on your life
Let there be no rival wife”
But did it really make any difference? Radharani wondered. For though, she did not have to
share the house with another woman, it was equally true that her husband's heart was not
Her friend Saraswati too used to austerely observe the ritual. But in her case too, nothing
fruitful ultimately emerged out of the entire exercise. Her husband had remarried within six
months of their marriage and she was sent back to her parents’ home. Still Saraswati refused
to give up. She remained firm in her belief that one day her husband would call her back and
every full-moon day, using white paint made from powdered rice and water, she would draw
an alpana depicting a square with two motifs inside it, symbolizing her husband and the
other woman. Then she would draw a ferocious looking camel-cat just outside the square
and holding a flower to the figure fervently pray:
"Camel cat, camel-cat, go in to sup
Spare my love but eat her up"
A few months later, the second wife incidentally died of fever and Saraswati was extremely
hopeful. But alas! Destiny turned a blind eye on her as her husband brought in a third and
some years later a fourth wife. Henceforth, on the days of the brata a very subdued Saraswati
would sit on the doorstep of her the prayer room, mechanically muttering the lines. It had
become more of a habit, which she went through mindlessly.
Having witnessed all these, Radharani no longer believed that the bratas were endowed with
any divine power to impact any event. She was keeping the shodo brata just for satisfying
Kartama, her mother-in-law.
"Boumoni, are you ready? Kadam, Kartama’s chief maid appeared. "Kartama has asked me
to accompany you to the ghat.”
After taking a bath in the river and performing a puja in the family temple, Radharani's
ordeal would end and she would be eligible to eat and drink something once again.
She instructed Kadam to wait for a moment and disappearing inside her room, stopped in
front of a statue of Lord MadanMohan installed on a lapis lazuli tabletop by her bedside. She
had brought Him with her when she had come to this house from Kasi. MadanMohan was the
other name of Lord Krishna, the God of eternal love but in this house he had no place. The
Singhis were devoted worshippers of Shakti and Kali was the preferred deity of the family.
She knelt before the statue and closed her eyes.
A little later, two figures could be seen scurrying along the veranda. They reached the
entrance of the andar mahal, but instead of taking the usual direction, as Kadam turned the
other way, Radharani stopped short.
"Where are we going? This is not the way to ghat!" she exclaimed.
"Boumoni, since it is already dark, Kartama has instructed me to take you to an alternate
place where your purpose will be fulfilled and yet it will be safe!"
She started walking again, and Radharani was left with no other choice but follow her. They
walked in and out of many rooms and passages and finally came to a long dark corridor with
rows of locked rooms on either side. The place was unusually quiet and seemed to be
abandoned. Cobwebs festooned the discoloured walls and bats slung from the ceiling in an
upside down posture, in supposed reverence to their king who dwelled under the earth. A few
of them began flying hither thither, miffed at being disturbed in their slumber.
"This is the original part of the house that your great grand father-in-law had built!" Kadam
mildly brushed aside a stubborn cobweb and continued.
“Before the sahibs had firmly entrenched themselves in this country, there was a lot of
anarchy. Everywhere there was unrest and disorder. People used to live in constant fear of
Bargi invasion. It was then that your great grand father-in-law had constructed a secret
underground passage, which was used as an escape route in times of emergency. Later on, as
the river shifted course, this passage became useless as the water used to come in during high
They reached the end of the corridor and stopped in front of a room. Taking out a giant
rusted key from the folds of her sari, Kadam inserted it into the lock and gave the door a
push. It responded by emitting an eerie creaking sound, but did not open. Decades of
collective disuse had sealed the doorway with dust and made it hostile.
The first few attempts proved to be futile, but finally with a heavy grumbling sound, the door
The inside was dark and damp. There was a curious repugnant odour-smell of a space, which
had remained untrodden for years together. Radharani stood at the doorway, staring at the
uninviting interior, initially blinded by the intense darkness. Then slowly her eyes got
accustomed and she could figure out the faint frame of a door at the far end. Unbolting it was
a comparatively easier affair, as sheltered from the external elements, it offered lesser
opposition. Beyond it was a flight of steps that descended to an underground chamber with a
sloping floor and a slanting ceiling.
A semicircular channel was punched into the skirting at the far end of the floor. It looked
wide enough for a man to crawl through.
“That is the secret passage!” Kadam put own the smoky lantern and squatted on the ground
beckoning Radharani too to sit down.
The lantern glimmered, throwing shimmering shadows on the damp walls. The wet slippery
floor shone dimly, emitting a faint pungent smell.
“Kadam let us go up. I am getting suffocated in this dungeon!”
“Why are you getting so panicky boumoni?” she comforted her. “When the tide comes in, all
you have to do is to just go down and standing on the last step, sprinkle a handful of water on
your head. You don’t even need to even take a proper bath!”
She stooped a little. A thin sheet of water had already trickled in and the floor was no longer
“Boumoni” Kadam nudged her. “Go down quickly. The tide will soon come in full force and
submerge all the steps."
Radharani appeared hesitant. She closed her eyes and was reminded of the night outside, the
sequinned sky canopying the courtyard and the soft caressing breeze. They had never
seemed so dearer before.
Seeing her hesitating, Kadam glanced at her disapprovingly "What kind of a mother are you
Boumoni? You are not prepared to endure this much for your son's well being!" she spoke in
a shrill and sharp tone.
Her words had the desired effect and Radharani, without saying anything more, began to
descend. She reached the last step and as her feet touched the ice-cold water, she shivered
unknowingly. There was a slithery feeling in the black moving mass, which menacingly
embraced her feet. She slowly bent down and scooping a handful sprinkled it on her head.
Suddenly, on hearing a clinking sound, she turned back and froze at what she saw. The door
had been shut from outside.
Like lightning, she ran up the steps and began hammering at the door.
"Kadam! Open the door!" she frantically screamed, beating the door desperately.
"Boumoni !" came Kadam's voice from the other side. "I can't. Forgive me. I am only
carrying out Kartama’s instructions!”
Radharani could hardly believe her ears.
"But why?” she spoke in a feeble tone.
"Gurudev has warned Kartama that your son will die because of you."
“Impossible! I don’t believe it! Take me to her. I want to hear it from her own mouth!”
There was complete silence on the other side.
“Kadam have pity on me! The tide is rising rapidly! Well, if that is so, I promise to go away
this very moment and never come back again! Please open the door!” she spoke,
simultaneously beating the door with all her might. Her hands were bruised, but still she did
Kadam, in the meantime, had retreated to the courtyard and with a thud, slumped on the
floor. The starry sky looked down on her. A scalloped canopy hung menacingly over her
head, fluttering in the draft.
The tide, in the meantime, had sunk most of the steps and was swiftly moving up. As it
touched the topmost one, the lean figure leaning against the wall lost its balance and toppled
headlong into the adjoining waters, a sharp splashing sound instantly ripping apart the
stillness of the room.
A little later silence, again returned to the enclosed space. Only small ripples playfully paced
the placid water. The tide had touched the ceiling and lay still.
A few miles upstream from the bustling city of Calcutta, the linear river while
crossing RupNarayanganj took an abrupt U- turn and changed its course, chiselling out a
conical piece of land in the process. The country-house of the Singhis stood on the index of
this snout. The forefathers of RudraNarayan had built it as a hunting lodge in the days when
the surroundings were thickly forested and home to a wide variety of wild fauna. Slowly,
with the passage of time and population pressure, the jungles had vanished and with it their
inhabitants too, but the tradition of hunting continued to live on, though with a difference.
Whenever RudraNarayan came here, he would instruct his attendants to bring all the young
good-looking girls they could spot in the village to the hunting lodge. Even those who were
married and had children, were not spared.
And, when the girls were sent back after a week or so, another ordeal was in store for them.
The people of the village declared them outcaste and they were left with only two options -
either end their lives or flee to some unknown far away place. Many a family had been
shattered in this manner; many innocent lives had been lost to feed the flames of a rich man's
In the beginning, the villagers had protested. But the pecuniary powers of the Singhis had
slowly muffled their cries, which were anyway, not loud enough to he heard by the fair-
skinned rulers seated far away in the cosy confines of the city. And slowly, with the passage
of time, the villagers had accepted the arrangement.
This time however, RudraNarayan had brought Gauhar Jan along with him and the people of
the village had heaved a sigh of relief. His barge was anchored midstream and the duo spent
most of the time aboard, occasionally setting foot on land for a short stroll.
Full moon was just a few nights away and the entire earth was awash in an ethereal
brilliance. The silvery sphere, cloaked in a shadowy embrace by rainless clouds was reigning
in the sky, its luminance considerably paling the presence of stars and other elements. Trees
on the far bank stood like silent sentinels in the silvery light that permeated everywhere,
flooding the bare earth and even overflowing the burrows in the fields. All around it was
extremely still, except for the occasional plaintive call of a cicada.
On the deck of the bajra two figures sat closeted, their shadows almost overlapping.
Reclining in a chaise lounge, RudraNarayan was relaxingly smoking a hookah, with the gold
rimmed nipple lightly placed between his lips, the aroma of roasted tobacco wafting and
wading in the still night air. Precariously perched on the handle of the chair, with just the
railing between her and the river was Gauhar Jan, her arm coiled round his neck for support.
The end of her sari fluttered in the mild breeze, playfully tapping him on the cheek every
now and then.
A sudden squall almost dislodged her and she squealed in alarm, causing RudraNarayan to
immediately pull her towards him. Then noticing that she was shivering, he unwound his
shawl and gently wrapped it round her.
“Don’t" she tried to stop him. “You will catch a cold.”
“Let me. I am ready to do everything for you.”
He longingly eyed her. Dressed in a bluebell chiffon sari and heavily jewelled from top to
toe, she looked gorgeous. She shook a little and the jewels immediately jingled in response.
The moonlight mirrored in her diamond diadem created a coruscating effect.
"Are you really ready to do everything for me?” she asked, with a meaningful smile between
"Yes everything!" he eyed her deeply, sensing a challenge in her voice.
"I need your help in a certain matter, but for giving it you might have to risk the rage of the
"I don’t care." He retorted audaciously. "What happened? Is anyone troubling you, some
white-skinned pig?" he asked after a little while, stung with curiosity.
Gauhar Jan didn't answer. Instead she asked again "Have you heard that the baralaat Lord
Curzon has banned the entry of women in the Fancy Fair at Chowringhee?”
RudraNarayan reflected on it for a moment. He remembered Raghu mentioning something of
that sort two days ago. Nevertheless, how did it affect her? He was somewhat bewildered.
“It happened because of me!" she explained, as if reading his thoughts, “I came across the
baralat at the fair and he, thinking me to be an aristocratic lady, raised his hat. Later on,
when he learnt about my real identity, he must have thundered like anything at this self-
inflicted humiliation. And hence this ban to rule out the possibility of any such mistake in the
“But he will get a fitting reply” She began again in right earnest “From next year, coinciding
with the Fancy Fair, I am also starting the Mohini Mela, which will be an even more
elaborate affair!” she sounded extremely confident and determined.
"Singhibabu", she looked at him earnestly, gripping his hand "I will look forward to your
support. You are one of my pillars of strength."
"I, I will have to think a bit. " he stammered, "I cannot give you any commitment right
Instantly she let go of his hand.
"Never mind" her lips curved in a sarcastic smile "I am not forcing anything on you. Abhay
babu has pledged to do everything possible to make the fair a success."
Hearing that name on her lips RudraNarayan sat up.
"You mean Abhay Mullick!" the strain of envy in his tone was clearly palpable.
Abhay Mullick was his arch rival and expectantly RudraNarayan did not approve of his
proximity with Gauhar Jan. Many a time, he had also openly expressed his disapproval, but
the baiji too was equally adamant. She always made it clear to him that she was not his wife
on whom he could enforce his quirks and quibbles.
Still, as she noticed RudraNarayan sitting silently, she felt bad for she had no intentions of
spoiling his mood that moonlit night.
"Singhibabu, why you are still brooding over all these? She took his hand once again, trying
to break the deadlock. "Forget it. It was my fault. I should not have broached the topic now."
He withdrew his hand.
"I am ready to give you whatever assistance you need in organising this fair. But you have to
keep Abhay out of this!" He stiffly declared and gathering his shawl, proceeded to retire to
the saloon below.
Gauhar Jan stared at the slivery landscape and sighed. How could she turn away Ahbaybabu
when he had voluntarily promised her unconditional support in this matter? He was a
passionate singer and respected her for her art and to him, perhaps only to him, she was not
merely a young and beautiful woman, but an artist too. She remembered the nights they had
spent discussing the different raags and raaginis. Both of them had even planned to put up a
special performance at the Mohini Mela! Ahbaybabu's wife had died long ago and since then
he had not remarried, deciding to remain immersed in music and only music. How could she
shut her door on such a person?
But on the other hand, it was equally true that Abhaybabu was an intensely impractical
person when it came to worldly matters. RudraNarayan would perhaps be more effective.
And it was risky to earn his displeasure, for he had the capability to mar her plans too, if he
“So what did you finally decide?” RudraNarayan had come up and was standing behind her.
In a trice Gauhar Jan made up her mind.
"If I get all what I want from you, then why would I need to go to anyone else?" she looked
at him flashing a forced smile.
At this remark his face lighted up in satisfaction.
“Gahar enough of arguments!” He was back to his former self. “Why don't you perform the
lotus dance? It’s been a long time since I last watched it."
She nodded in agreement and a little later, two men carrying a circular copper plate climbed
on to the deck and set the stage for the performance. It was filled with red powder and a
milk-white sheet placed on it, the three corners clamped to nails while the fourth one was left
Gauhar Jan appeared. She had, in the meantime changed into a deep red voluminous ghagra
and a heavily embroidered blouse. Her georgette veil studded with spangles was sparkling
like a flight of fireflies.
She stepped on to the sheet and remained still for a brief moment, her right arm raised to her
forehead. Perhaps, she was remembering her master and paying a silent reverence to him.
Then she began to dance and the jingling of her ankle bells instantly shook the night out of its
slumber. With nimble steps and elegant swan like movements, she danced, confining all her
movements to the plate which shook and vibrated with the impact of her performance. She
looked like a raging flame in her fiery attire and RudraNarayan watched on breathlessly. For
a brief moment he felt as if he was in heaven, in the court of God Indra and a nubile
nymphet, the most beautiful female in the entire universe was performing for him. And as he
looked on, he was tickled with a rising desire, a desire to hold her close to his chest and make
her his very own. The magic in the soft moon-bathed surroundings all the more upped his
Gauhar Jan took a swirl and stopped. The faint strains of the accompanying music too came
to a halt. The sheet was taken off the plate and on it was clearly imprinted a blushing lotus in
RudraNarayan got up from his seat, still spellbound, and taking off his golden chain
garlanded the lotus dancer.
Soon everything was still once again. As the man made sounds died down, the usual songs of
the night resurfaced. A crow could be heard crooning at infrequent intervals to the waning
moon. From far off floated the monotonous pecking sound of a woodpecker. A caressing
breeze lightly rustled the sleeping trees and raced through the fields in boundless glee,
knocking the sleeping weeds out of their nap.
On the deck of the bajra, the two shadows moved closer and closer till they had
merged and become one. The sequinned sky looked down on them. The lean silhouettes
fringing the far banks looked away. And below them all, an inky river, rippling in the ebbing
moonlight effortlessly inched its way towards the sea.
The sun had climbed quite high in the sky and was pleasantly beaming down upon everyone
and everything it could manage to lay sight upon. The insolation was normally suave and
soothing and whenever it became a bit too intense, a mild breeze from the river immediately
fanned it down. A steamer was effortlessly gliding along the midriff of the river. On the
deck, stretched out on a camp chair, was Mr. Sturdy taking in the sun along with the
surrounding sights and sounds on offer. The associate editor of the “The National Daily” was
returning from the village of Kusumpur where he had gone to investigate about a recently-
Sutee, the ancient practice of a wife immolating herself in her husband's funeral pyre, leading
to the mystic union of the two souls for eternity, had originated as a voluntary choice of the
grieving widow. But the custom, over the ages, had transformed into a barbaric rite forced
upon the ill-fated woman in the name of religion. Like the incident in Kusumpur, where an
eleven-year-old girl had been married to an ailing old man just three months ago and after his
death, her “children”(her late husband’s sons) objecting to her legal right over the land and
property, which they considered to be solely theirs, had decided to eliminate her in the name
of Sutee. Eyewitnesses had reported that the unfortunate girl had been literally dragged to
and thrown into the ignited pyre.
Lord William Bentinck had abolished the inhuman practice way back in 1829, but
nevertheless, even after more than seven decades of its official termination, it continued to
occur discreetly in far flung villages which were too far away from the long arm of law.
As it is, the Hindu lawgivers had left no stone unturned to make a widow’s life as miserable
as possible by enforcing and reinforcing the strictest regulations on her.
Shrouded in a perpetual attire of mourning - twelve yards of borderless naked white, which
along with her bareness of jewels, unfailing announced her identity to the entire world. Made
to practice never-ending austerities, she is debarred from participating in all auspicious
occasions, as everything about her- her touch, her presence is considered ill-omened.
Were these not enough? Why the society was so cruel that even after levying all this
humiliation it was no content till it eliminated her very existence?
Chastity, Piousness, Virtue- Why was women and only women regarded as the sole
custodian of all theses values? Had anyone ever heard of a man committing sutee or
denouncing all worldly pleasures because of his wife’s death?
“David, look there! What’s that?” a shrill cry from his wife snapped his string of thoughts
and in a trice, transported him back to the present.
He looked to where she was pointing, and for a moment he too was astounded at what he
saw. A girl appeared to be lying on the shore, her long tresses indicative of her gender. He
hurriedly went down to fetch his binocular, and looking through it only confirmed his earlier
“Take to the shore!” he ordered the boatmen in a booming voice as his wife Rebecca, a nurse
in Calcutta’s Mayo hospital, hurriedly went down to fetch her medical kit which was her
It was low tide time and on the shore where the waters had recently receded, lay a young girl,
her jet-black tresses splattered with mud and debris, and forming an irregular halo round her
head. Her original fair complexion, had become considerably tallow due to prolonged
contact with the water and over exposure to the elements of nature. To call her a woman
would have been an exaggeration, because though she was dressed as one, the expression on
her face was that of a child who had unknowingly strayed into her teens.
“Maybe we can still save her!” Rebecca commented, as she knelt down beside the
unconscious girl and after a lot of effort was able to detect a feeble pulse “The inside of the
mouth too is warm, though only slightly.”
David looked all around. That part of the riverbank seemed deserted and desolate, with no
sign of any human habitation.
“She looks to be married!” he commented pointing to a faint streak of vermilion in the
parting of her hair.
His wife nodded in agreement, simultaneously drawing his attention to the sankha or white
conch bangle adorning the left wrist, a must-wear for all married women in Bengal. Her
profession required intensive interaction with the native people, which had helped her get
acquainted with the local ways of life and lingua.
In between them, they carried her back to the steamer, stepping precariously, for beneath
their feet was no firm ground, only sticky mud which bogged them and emitted a horrid
squelching sound when they pulled out their feet.
Three days later.
Radharani s l o w l y opened her eyes and discovered herself lying on an alien bed in a
completely alien room. An ornate pankah hanging from the ribbed ceiling stared back at her,
as she tried to straighten and streamline her chain of thoughts. Straining her mind, she tried
hard to figure out what had happened, where was she and most importantly how did she
Initially she could not remember anything. Like an empty canvas, her mind had become
blank, erased of all memories and every effort of thinking back proved to be futile. Then
suddenly, she caught sight of the amulet on her upper arm, which her husband had gifted her
after childbirth and in a flash it all came back- the sinister water first stealthily touching her
toes, then creeping up to her thighs, caressing her waist and continuing to climb, up, up and
further up. The wet devilish touch, a baleful bullying blackness slowly swallowing all her
She shuddered and unknowingly let out a sharp shriek, which immediately brought Rebecca
rushing to her side from the other room.
Seeing Radharani shaking involuntarily with unbridled terror, she immediately put an arm
around her, trying to calm her down.
“Don’t panic! You are safe now!” at her reassuring touch, the intensity of tremor lessened,
growing weaker and weaker till it was no longer there.
Radharani tried to get up, but a pair of firm hands immediately interrupted her effort.
"No! You are still not strong enough to try anything of that sort!” Rebecca rebuked her
mildly, her authoritative tone tinged with affection and anxiety.
Though the firingi lady was speaking in broken Bengali, due to the peculiarity of her
pronunciation, Radharani was not able to get the exact words, but nevertheless, she
understood and abandoning her attempt, returned to the bed. The excitement had exhausted
her and soon she drifted back to sleep.
When she awoke again, she felt much better and more stable. The blinds were drawn and
there was absolute silence around her, punctuated only occasionally by the shrill cry of some
bird in the adjoining garden. Sleep, sleep and more sleep had finally stabilized her system
and she was at last able to think clearly and decipher what had happened - that she was not
dead but unfortunately alive! Letting out a deep sigh, she stood up and tried to make sense of
her new surroundings.
A solitary colonial bungalow stood pampered in the midst of a sprawling compound. The
windows of her room, donning a sanitary white, opened onto an arched veranda covered with
semicircular chiks. Now, since it was late afternoon, the chiks were rolled up and in the
dwindling daylight, she saw a gardener watering the flower beds with his bucket sprinkler -
the refreshing smell of freshly-wet mud floating in the early evening air and tending to
overpower the already-existing fragrance of the roses.
Amidst the parrot-green picturesque lawn fringed with bursting bulbs of dahlia, a lady with
her back to the bungalow was supervising a man tending the shrubs and as she turned around,
Radharani recognized her and smiled.
Later that evening, Rebecca briefed Radharani about the circumstances in which she had
been discovered and brought to their home. The week that followed was witness to an
unusual tug of war between two opponents – death unwillingly to give up such an easy
victim and Rebecca along with the doctors in the hospital equally determined not to let go of
her. Ultimately, death had accepted defeat and retreated.
“Why did you make such an effort to save me?” Radharani sighed “I am ill-fated, it would
have been better if I had died!”
“Every life is precious my dear. It is the gift of God! “ Rebecca assertively expressed her
disagreement at such a statement.
“But how did you land there?” she enquired, looking at her husband seated at the far end of
the room with a pipe in his mouth and intently listening to the conversation. “We were
thinking that you have been a victim of a boat mishap!”
Radharani since regaining consciousness had been anticipating this question. She did not
dare to reveal her actual identity to her saviours and was still thinking of an appropriate
answer, when the lady’s question unexpectedly provided her with an outlet.
She eagerly nodded, confirming the other’s assumption.
"We were returning from the Gangasagar Mela, my grandmother and I, along with the other
people of our village, when our boat overturned due to a strong wind!” she took a deep
“You look to be married!” Rebecca cautiously commented and asked in a soft sympathetic
tone “Wasn’t your husband with you?”
Radharani remained silent for a while, arranging her chain her thoughts and simultaneously
attempting to rein in the rising mass of emotion, as she touched the iron bangle on her left
“My husband deserted me for another woman and sent me back to my parental home just
after our marriage and since then, I had been living with my grandmother. I was the only
child of my parents who passed away soon after I was born.” She sighed, as she narrated her
story, a cocktail of reality and fabricated facts.
“So you have no one of your own left in this world!” Rebecca’s remark, more of an
inference, hit Radharani hard and immediately she remembered her little one, who by now
would be desperately searching for the familiar smell, the familiar voice, the familiar touch
which soothed his senses and comforted him the most. And her eyes filled up to the brim.
Who says I have no one of my own left in this world! There is still someone who is my mine,
just mine. But I have lost him, lost him for ever. My son will grow up knowing that his mother
is dead whereas his unfortunate mother will spend all her life pining for him!
At the realization of the cruel reality, her mother’s heart confined within the ribbed enclosure
kept on helplessly and hopelessly pounding against this injustice, but her emotionless
exterior did not even slightly betray her inner turbulence.
“So where do you wish to go now?” Rebecca asked and then suddenly realizing the effect
that her words might have on the already-disturbed girl, hastily added “Don’t think that we
are telling you to go away! You can definitely stay with here, you are like my daughter. In
this house, it is just the two of us; Robert, our son, is presently in England training to be a
Radharani remained silent but it was clear that she was uncomfortable at the prospect of
staying in a firingi home for ever, adopting to an alien way of life.
“I can no longer return to my village, for by living in your house, I have already become an
outcaste. But in the city, people are less rigid and if you could arrange for my stay with a
Hindu family ……………..”she looked at her saviour expectantly.
“Do you know how to read and write?” Rebecca asked her.
“Yes, both Sanskrit and Bengali! I used to read out the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the
ladies of the neighbourhood every noon.”
“Excellent!” she exclaimed “ Margaret has just returned to Calcutta and will be beginning her
school afresh. Maybe Rada could help her. What do you think of the idea?” She eagerly
turned to her husband, who instantly seconded the proposal.
“Margaret’s house would be just the right place for you Rada!” she triumphantly stated and
then becoming aware of the bewildered look on the face of the girl before her, realized the
need for further elaboration and clarification.
“Have you heard about Sister Nivedita! She is a disciple of Swami Vivekenanda, about
whom you surely would know! It is about her and her school for Hindu girls that we are
Radharani recalled the circumstances in which she had heard about the firingi lady and it
automatically reminded her of the life that she was trying hard to put behind her.
In the Singhibari, just the day before she had “died”, there had been a detail debate amongst
the maids on this matter in the afternoon, the ideal time to gather and gossip. Radharani was
feeding the birds when she had overheard!
“Sister Nibita! That brown-haired blue-eyed firingi woman!” Kadam had vehemently put
forward her point of view “From what I have heard, in Belaat ( England) her marriage had
been fixed with a man of her caste, when he developed some illness and died. She was still
in mourning when she met the Swami and was bowled over by him!”
“I don’t blame her! The swami, though he is a yogi, is really very handsome looking!”
Jamuna enthusiastically stated “Worlds apart from the typical infirm frail sadhus you
normally come see on the streets and in temples. But then what happened? Swami hasn’t
married her, has he? ” Jamuna eagerly asked.
“Swami will marry a firingi woman!” Kadam sneered at the very suggestion “If he really
harboured intentions of marrying and doing sansar (entering into family life), do you think
there would be any dearth of good Hindu girls?”
Kadam was also a voracious matchmaker and once had been the carrier of a matrimonial
proposal to the Swami’s mother. The girl’s family had promised her a gold chain if the match
materialized. Of course, as expected, the Swami had refused to be wedlocked and Kadam too
lost out on the promised quota of gold. The memory of frustration still had not left her.
“Why are you unnecessarily getting all worked up?” Jamuna tried to pacify Kadam “I was
asking about the firingi woman as I have heard that she has started a school for girls and my
son is planning to send my grand daughter there. It is rumoured that she will also be
conducting Saraswati Puja at her school!”
“Oh ! All these are just one of her stunts to extract praise from the Swami!” Kadam sounded
unimpressed “After having been turned down by the Swami Vivekannada, she is trying out
everything under the sun to woo him. She cleaned the streets during plague, wears sari , and
even went to the Kali temple at Kalighat to deliver a lecture, though God knows what she
talked about! But I doubt if all these will get her anywhere!
“Kadam !” at this point Radharani could not help asking “How come you know what all
happens inside the house of Sister Nivedita?”
“Boumoni, my own sister’s sister-in-law’s second daughter’s elder daughter-in law works as
a maid in that house!” Kadam triumphantly announced, sealing the slightest chance of any
doubt about the authenticity of her statements.
“Rada, where have you got lost?” Rebecca’s voice brought her back to the present, from
where she had unknowingly drifted away.
“Yes I have heard about Sister Nivedita’s school!” She replied recollecting her thoughts,
“But what will I do there?” hesitatingly.
“You could assist her in running the school!” Rebecca suggested “She will be more than
willing to take in anyone who wants to help!” then glancing at the watch she abruptly rose,
winding up the discussion as she had to leave for the hospital.
Swami Vivekananda’s plan for the upliftment of his countrymen had been primarily
education-focussed and rather than blindly copying from the west, he was in favour of
retaining the traditional essence, perfected by churning through the centuries. When his
English disciple Miss Margaret Noble, rechristened Sister Nivedita, started out in India, she
steadfastly and stringently stuck to that ideal.
Within the confines of an Indian home in Bosepara Lane, Baghbazar, she set up her first
school for girls, which involved no uprooting from familiar surroundings and where the
methods of modern education were moulded and modified to suit the needs of the eastern
During the initial days, when there was hardly any student, Sister Nivedita personally took
the initiative to talk to the sceptical guardians to convince them of sending their little girls to
her school, assuring them again and again that she had no hidden agenda, that she had not
come to convert like the Christian missionaries. On the contrary, to win their confidence, she
along with her other teachers, adhered to the age-old traditions of Hinduism as far as
Firstly, her school was inaugurated on the auspicious day of Kali Puja, the day earmarked for
the black-haired Black goddess, her hideous appearance accentuated by a necklace of severed
human heads and amputated arms girdling her naked waist. Sister Nivedita too had
developed a special reverence for the deity because of which she often used to chant -
"Is Kali, my Mother, really black? The Naked One, of blackest hue, lights the lotus of the
The Hindu Goddess had also managed to impress her friend Sarala Ghosal, born and brought
up amidst Brahmo influence, on whose writing table stood a picture of Kali alongside her
own, depicting her in flowing tresses, seeing which the Maharaja of Baroda had once
commented “Which Kali shall I look at, this one or that one!"
Secondly, the building where the school was housed, was not any colonial structure with
fancy arches and colonnaded porches. Rather, it was a pure Hindu0style dwelling, complete
with privacy-retaining louvered window shutters and cemented courtyards, where Saraswati
Puja, the annual festival of the India Minerva was devotedly celebrated.
Slowly, Sister Nivedita’s efforts yielded fruit. Her attitude and involvement, conquered the
heart of her Hindu-dominated neighbourhood. In the bazaars and by lanes of Bagh bazar, she
became a familiar face, and whenever she stepped out, the passers by would salute her with
an affectionate reverence. Her school too, which had begun as a tiny kindergarten, expanded
to accommodate a large attendance of Hindu girls up to the marriageable age. And later in
the day, after school hours, needlework classes were conducted for the wives and widows of
the neighbourhood, when the house would be out of bounds for any male visitor.
Recently, Sister had also started teaching English to a few young wives, the bous, , mainly
because of their enthusiasm to emerge as worthy companions of their well-read modern
The afternoon sun, tired out after playing hide and seek with the clouds, was resting in a
corner of the sky. Bosepara Lane too was nodding in slumber- the infectious late noon- early
afternoon drowsiness, which silently creeps in and casts its net when the surroundings are hot
and still and even the slightest sound is audible. Every now and then, a shrouded figure with
just the bare feet visible would emerge from one of the houses lining the lane, swiftly cross
the street and softly rattle the ring attached to the bottle-greenish door. In the in-between
time, as she waited to be let in, she would cast a glance at the plaque beside the door on
which was written “House of Sisters”. Tuitions in English, beginning with the introduction to
alphabets had just commenced, prompting the enthusiastic student to attempt a quick self-
scrutiny of her acquired knowledge.
Just opposite the house on the other side of the road was a Asoka tree, which had been
sleeping all through spring. It had woken up only when the flowering season was nearing its
end and in a bid to make for the lost time had hurriedly fired up, adorning the naked boughs
with an overload of crimson hued plume-like blooms.
Beneath the tree, royally snuggled on a carpet of freshly fallen blossoms, were a bitch and
her brood. The mother was in a sleepy mode but could not because of her playful over-
energetic pups who kept on constantly pestering her. At times, when their activities became a
bit too intense and rough, the mother emitted a low disproving growl, which would make the
puppies slow down momentarily. But endowed with reserves of raw unlimited energy, they
would soon engage in a fresh round of free play, leaping and squealing in glee.
Radhanrani was standing on the terrace, watching them play with a wet sari in her hand. A
little earlier, she had come up with a bucket full of laundry and hung them one by one on the
wafer thin horizontal wire propped up for this purpose. All had been accommodated, except
one and now she was in a dilemma where to spread it. Would the parapet be a proper place?
Wouldn’t it get blown away?
Several weeks had passed since she began life afresh in Bosepara Lane. Initially, she had
been apprehensive about staying here–she would have instead preferred to live with a proper
Hindu family- doing the things she was used to and comfortable with. But at Mrs Sturdy’s
repeated insistence, she had finally accompanied her one day to see the place.
As the carriage stopped in front of the house in Bosepara Lane, Radharani out of curiosity,
had parted the wooden shutters and peering through them had immediately seen Sister
without the latter seeing her. She observed that Sister was strong and well built with her
brown hair rolled into a neat bun at the back. Her blue eyes were firm, but filled with
kindness and compassion and Radharani had instantly liked what she saw.
In the house of Sister Nivedita every day passed in a flurry of activity, the diversities of
which occupied Radharani’s mind fully, not allowing any time to think back and brood.
Only, on the empty afternoons, when she came up to the rooftop and stared at the faraway
green of the tree tops, did she remember ………………helplessly remember every single
The sound of approaching footsteps ascending the terrace, pulled Radharani out of the well
of melancholy into which she had willingly dived momentarily. As she turned around, she
saw Sarala and with a smile, beckoned to her the canine circus going on down below.
The mother-dog, pieced off by the antics of her litter, had decided to leave the place and was
trotting off in disgust. The pups once they became aware of the new development, too
followed suit, darting behind her with little squeaks and squeals.
“Look Sarala didi, they are so human like!” Radharani pointed out. “Though the mother dog
is visibly irritated, still she is licking her pups with so much of affection! Maybe mothers are
always like this, the basic emotions are the same everywhere!”
“I don’t know Radharani! My mother is very different!” Sarala sighed, a pall of gloom
suddenly clouding her face, “I never remember her kissing or fondling me! She is always into
her own world of reading and writing, unbothered and indifferent to the reality around her!
Once when I was four, I fell down from the staircase, broke two teeth and lay drenched in
blood. Still my mother was not perturbed, she just came and had a look, but did not even pick
me up or comfort me! My mother is like the evening star – which you can admire from a
distance but never hope of getting close to!”
“You know Radharani, at times I wish I had just an ordinary mother in place of this well-
known well-respected literary figure! In my childhood, when I yearned for love and
affection, what I received was only sermons and strict discipline - ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do
that’. People feel I have achieved so much, but my soul still remains unnourished Radha !”
Sarala’s statement seemed to erupt straight from her heart, exposing the vacuum inside,
which made Radharani aware of the other side of this supposedly successful woman draped
in a light-hued Parsi border sari.
Sarala didi was approaching thirty, but had yet voluntarily chosen to remain unmarried.
Though many of her contemporaries, her childhood friends had children of marriageable age,
Sarala didi was perfectly at ease with her spinster status. With bold, sharp features and bright
intelligent eyes that looked straight and rarely stooped, she had managed to carve a niche for
herself- both by being born into the first family of Bengal and because of her own
achievements. Sarala was the favourite niece of the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore. Her
father Janakinath Ghosal was a prominent name in social circles. Her mother Swarnakumari
Devi was a successful and celebrated novelist. But all that apart, Saraladidi was also a
celebrity in her own right. After completing college, her determination to become financially
independent prompted her to dare what would have even deterred many men- she took up a
teaching job in far-off Mysore, two thousand kilometres away from Calcutta. And now,
though she had resigned from that job and returned to Calcutta, she had taken the initiative to
train young men in martial arts and had even hired an expert for that purpose.
For indulging in all sorts of unthinkable path-breaking activities, Saraladidi invoked awe and
admiration from not just women but also men, who often vied with each other to befriend her
for the sake of “status symbol!”
A woman, so highly distinguished, of such high calibre, too pinned for her mother’s love or
rather the absence of it !
Was mother’s love utterly irreplaceable?
Would her son pine for her too? Would his life too be impacted by her absence?
Silent tears grew on her eyelids as she looked away, fighting to camouflage the rising wave
emotion. In just a span of few days, she had grown extremely close to Sarala didi and at
times longed to confide in her, for she was sure that once Sarala didi came to know of her
true story, she would not remain quiet. She would immediately set about putting everything
right and she had sufficient clout and standing in the society to ensure that.
But the real barrier was within Radharani herself. What if the astrologer’s prediction turned
out to be true! What if really her son came to grief because of her?
Her tears mixed with the light drizzle that had suddenly begun to fall and a strong breeze
carried them in the direction of the river, towards the tall green-turbaned feathery heads of
cocoanut palms, hidden amongst which was the house where her heart lay.
“Sarala didi let us go down!” she said with a sigh. “It has started to rain!”
“I am coming a little later!” Sarala leaned lightly over the parapet, extending her arm to catch
the nibble-footed rain drops as they dived headlong into the arms of the earth “I so love this
rain which lightly caresses you but does not make you wet! It makes me feel as if I am
standing next to a waterfall, enjoying the spray!” and that reminded her of Radharani’s
impending trip to the Mayawati Ashram in the Himalayas along with Sister.
“On your way to Mayawati, you will surely see many waterfalls!”
Radharani had never seen any mountain in real life. The farthest extent of her exposure was a
picture in Sister’s room about a place called Kashmir, which showed a series of snow-topped
inverted cones standing on a base of green grass. Were the mountains really like that? Didn’t
people fall off the mountains while attempting to climb them? She was reminded of her
attempt to climb a small mound in Kasi and it had seemed such a tricky task! She hesitatingly
revealed her apprehensions and hearing them Sarala laughed aloud, brushing them away
“Why will you fall? The serpentine road while moving up, girdles the mountain. It is a totally
different terrain, no flats, just ups and downs!
Radharani listened, but was not still unable to visualize it. She looked away towards the
horizon and following her gaze, Sarala too turned, where a cluster of clouds rose and fell, the
afternoon flush gingerly touching their crests, creating the illusion of sunset on snow peaks.
“Mountains are much more beautiful than that!” Sarala commented, tenderly touching her
arm “The change will be good for you Radharani. The serenity of the mountains is so
beguiling that you will find yourself wanting to stay there forever!”
“Maa shall I make tea for you?” the jhee enquired, standing near the door.
Sister Nivedita glanced at the clock. It was almost four. Okakura alias Nigu had sent word
that he would be coming over in the afternoon to chart out the course of their work which
they planned to undertake during their stay at Mayawati.
“I am expecting a guest. I shall have tea with him!”
As the jhee walked back to the kitchen, Nivedita affectionately stared at her aged trusty
retainer. When the old woman first joined her service, it had taken Sister quite some time to
adjust to the idea that she would be addressing the old maid, more than double her age as
“jhee” or daughter, whereas to the other she would be “Maa” - mother. Also going by her
frail frame and lean look, Sister was initially somewhat reluctant to hire her, being
apprehensive about her effectiveness. But her ancient daughter had allayed all fears.
Everyday she was up and about from five in the morning till nine in the night, engaging non-
stop in a series of activities, one after the other, one of which was wholesale flooding of the
rooms, which she considered to be an essential ingredient for house-cleaning.
“Maa the Cheenaman Saheb has come. Shall I bring him here?”
Hearing the strange name which jhee’s had devised out of her own accord for referring to
Nigu, Nivedita could not help smiling. It was the old woman’s unique way of distinguishing
the kimono-clad, slanting-eyed, blunt-nosed, bald except for few isolated tufts Japanese sahib
from the other similar complexioned British sahibs who frequented her house.
“Yes!” she nodded and got up to receive him.
During his first meeting with the Japanese aesthete and art critic Okakura, Swami
Vivekananda had welcomed him with open arms, hailing the oriental man as his long lost
brother and at his insistence, the Swami even accompanied him to Bodhgaya, after returning
from which, Okakura got introduced to Sister Nivedita.
That changed everything, including Okakura’s equation with the Swami.
An instant kinship sprang up between Sister Nivedita and Senor Okakura and like the
proverbial house on fire, both got along very well. They spent a lot of time in each other’s
company, discussing, debating, and drawing from each other’s diverse experiences. Okakura
was planning to write a book on the ideals of the east and requested Nivedita’s help to which
she had readily agreed, even inviting him to accompany her to Mayawati where they could
work in peace amidst the serene environs.
The friendship which sprang up between Swami Vivekanda’s Irish born but now very-much-
ndian disciple and his Japanese friend irked him considerably and his earlier admiration for
Okakura began to erode.
Also recently, a handful of patriotic-minded men were plotting against the British and once
Nivedita got wind of the nascent nationalist fervour, true to her nature she plunged into it
headlong, ready to put everything at stake for the freedom of her adopted country.
Swami Vivekananda did not approve of Sister’s decision and had even explicitly expressed
his displeasure, but his disciple too was spirited enough not to be swayed by such opposition,
even if it came from her mentor and master.
And to make matters worse, she also got Okakura involved in the entire affair which made
Swami Vivekananda suspect that the soft spoken oriental was actually a Japanese agent who
had come here to quietly pursue some hidden agenda. Once, when Sarala apprised him of
Okakura too believing in the oneness of Asia, he had only smiled a little, sarcastically stating
“Yes, but under Japan!”
But what upset Swami Vivekananda the most, was the casual carefree way in which Nivedita
behaved with Okakura and the first time he learnt of this growing closeness between the two,
he was almost speechless with amazement and anger.
Seated in his room in the Math they, he and Nivedita, were discussing Bodhgaya when she
suddenly commented “I am sure Nigu would love to hear this!”
“Nigu !” Who is he?” Vivekanada abruptly stopped, staring questioningly at his disciple.
When he came to know that Nigu was actually Okakaura’s pet name, he could not hold
“Nigu ! You address Okakura as Nigu! You are so close to him!” he had sarcastically stated
after which he became cold and withdrawn.
But there was more! Some days later, he had been enlightened by his disciples that Nivedita
was addressing Okakura by multiple nicknames- Genghis, Banana Chief, Chieftain or simply
Chieftain! To Nivedita, Okakura was Chieftain!
But how could she even think of calling him “Chieftain!” Didn’t it cross her mind that she
addressed him, Swami Viavekananda, her Master as “King!”
Was then something seriously brewing up between the two?
Radharani sitting in her room, too had been thinking of the same thing. Was Swami
Vivekananda’s suspicion regarding Sister and her Japanese friend totally baseless and
unfounded? Can there be smoke without fire?
A little while ago, she had been to Sister’s room where she sat talking with Mr. Okakura. As
it was a Sunday, Saraladidi had suggested a short outing to the Maidan and she had gone to
ask Sister about it, who with her back to the door was engrossed in a deep discussion with
her Japanese friend. She was talking seriously in a passionate manner, but Mr. Okakura,
though he was looking at her, it was evident that his object of attention, just then, was not her
words. His face was glowing with a strange unmistakable radiance and the intense look in
his eyes, eagerly swallowing every expression on her face and every movement of her limbs,
Was Sister aware that unknowingly she had turned out to be a temptation to that man!
It was a clear cloudless night. The silhouette of the Mayawati Ashram loomed against an
inky sky, dwarfing waves of blackish blue contours that rose like camel humps from the
bosom of the earth. The sequinned bridal sky decked in royal blue sparkles was eagerly
awaiting the arrival of the lord of the ring – the moon.
The Advaita Ashram at Mayawati, in the heart of the Himalayas, was set up at the initiative
of the Saviers, the Swiss disciple-couple of Sri Ramakrishna. Mr Savier had recently passed
away and in keeping with his wish, he had been cremated in Hindu style on the bank of the
river. His widowed wife still lived in the Ashram. An ardent admirer of Sister Nivedita’s
activities, Mrs Savier too had aspirations of getting actively involved with the up-liftment of
the Indian women. But unfortunately, her fragile health did not permit too much of a strain
and she had to remain content by just lending passive support to the cause and leading a
peaceful spiritual life amidst the silence of the mountains.
Sister Nivedita too was waiting for the moonrise as she stood at the far end of the garden
fronting the Ashram, surrounded by the soft caressing breeze bending the sleepy flowers. It
had been quite sometime since she had come - yet everyday, everything all around seemed so
refreshingly anew. There was something magical about the mountains, just being amidst
them imparted a sense of sublime peace- soothing the weary soul and worried mind, totally
exhausted with the complexities of daily drudgery. In front of her, shrouded in haze and
mystery, were the snow peaks- eternal guardians of the land. In the moon light they looked
breathtakingly beautiful, it was such a divine sight that Sister Nivedita felt as if she could
spend her whole life just admiring them.
Sister Nivedita paced about the lunar landscape, looking sublime and serene. But the serenity
was superficial and just meant to camouflage the rising restlessness that was haunting her
deep inside. Where was Nigu now? Was he alright? Had he taken the rejection too seriously?
Since quite some time, she could sense that their relationship was heading towards a veritable
nemesis; the day he taken her hand and looked deeply into her eyes, wanting to say
something and yet withdrawn at the last moment, the day when he suddenly remarked that
her company and conversation had "opened out fields of love" to him which he had hitherto
not known- though Sister had failed to apprehend the exact meaning of his words, she could
well recognize the hunger out of which they were spoken………………..…… should she
have started distancing herself from him since then? His expectations about her were
impossible to meet, impossible even to consider. He was not content with just friendship, but
wanted her commitment for a deeper and more meaningful relationship! But how could she?
She had dedicated herself entirely to the Master and his work!
To her, Nigu was no doubt a good friend, but nothing more than that. And would never be!
There was complete clarity in her mind regarding her own feelings.
Nivedita sighed. If only Nigu had been born a woman, or she a man, then it could have been
a different picture altogether. Together they could have achieved so much!
She took a deep breath of the invigorating mountain air and once more looked up at the star-
studded sky. The fragrance of deodhar trees all around was reminiscent of the blackberry
odour of English autumns and involuntarily she was reminded of the young Welsh engineer,
her first love, who had succumbed to tuberculosis before their engagement. Had he been
alive today, her life would have charted a different course- marriage, children, domesticity
and its drudgeries………..
Nivedita sighed! What an anticlimax! The one and only person to whom she was prepared to
submit herself unhesitatingly, was unwilling to accept the offer!
Where would life finally lead to! What was written in her destiny?
Was the Swami destined to remain hostage in his self-made image of a sanyasi , struggling
with his unrealized manhood and attempting to attain idealized manliness?
Was she destined to remain oscillating between desire and distance?
“Sister there is a message for you!” the suddenness of Radharani’s appearance startled
Nivedita and caught her unaware. As she hastily tried to collect herself, for a brief moment
Radharani had a glimpse at the pensive face. Not wanting to embarrass Sister, she swiftly
looked the other way pretending to observe the starry sky.
“See how intoxicatingly beautiful the night is!” Sister cleared her throat and pointed to the
hazy sweep of the snow-capped Himalayas framing the far away horizon.
In the east, just where the horizon locked lips with the earth, a glow was getting brighter and
brighter, illuminating a tiny cloud cluster crowding the sky corner. Presently a buttermilky
crescent emerged from the back of the black mountains and the grey eastern skies got
enveloped in a transparent haze. The moon was rising.
“Sister, Mr. Okakura has sent a message from Dabidhura that he no longer intends to return
here, but instead proceed to the plains and from there to Japan.”
Nivedita stood silently, afraid to say anything, lest it expose her emotions. With a slight sigh,
she sighted the faraway hills, one of which could be the mountain top from which Nigu had
sent the message. Perhaps in the best interests of both, such an outcome of their friendship
Some 30 miles to the east of the Mayawati Ashram, as the crow flies, stood “Dabidhura” or
“God’s Mountain” with its three-roomed dak bungalow near the summit commanding one of
the most spectacular snow views in the entire region. The apricot-coloured light of the
waning day had long faded and a nascent moon was busy bathing the peaks in its
Okakura was standing on the veranda of the rest house, the breeze swirling around his short
silhouette and though he was looking in the direction of the moonlit snows, his mind was
Why was she so rigid? They were so similar in their thoughts, yet she refused to come closer.
She did not even consider his proposition, just turned it down outright. What had she gained
from her fruitless association with that ochre-attired monk who just believed in barking out
sermons but never even attempted to understand what was going on in her mind?
Leaving behind a failed romance in his home country Japan, Okakura, had come all the way
to India to objectively pursue the cause of restoring old temples, for which he had also
managed to secure a princely sum of one and a half lakh yen from his government. Art, art
and art had been his life- he lived art, breathed art, slept art, and drank art.
But meeting Margaret had changed everything. He had realized that living life as per the
dictates of the heart was the greatest art.
Margaret reminded him of the Jade tree-the symbol of a perfect world, and for a future with
her he was willing to forgo everything – fame, fortune………Was this love or infatuation?
He wished he knew.
Okakura blankly stared at the dark hills with a heavy heart. Just beside the bungalow, was a
temple nestling under the shadow of a big rock. The temple priest, leading a solitary
existence was always game for gossip, and what he required was just an ardent listener, for
he had grown to love the sound of his own words. He had dropped in for a smoke, and
attributing Okakaura’s lack of response to the language barrier, had enthusiastically
embarked on a speaking spree. During the course of their conversation (heavily aided by sign
language), he had warned him not to venture out after sundown, for a tiger lived in the
vicinity of the temple. Though till date it had never killed human beings but…………..
“It is better to be careful Sahib! One should never trust a tiger!”
Though the term “sahib” was originally coined for the Englishmen, people in India now used
it for all white-skinned people irrespective of where they hailed from, east or west.
“Many men including Carpet Sahib (Jim Corbett) have tried to kill the beast, but none of
their bullets could even grace the tiger. How can they kill it Sahib, for the deity of Dabidhura
herself is his protector and no one can harm even a hair on his body!”
The priest looked at Okakaura to judge if the sahib understood what he had said, adding as an
afterthought “Sahib, our deity is very benevolent. Whatever you ask with a clean and clear
mind, she will surely grant you!”
Okakura was hardly listening, but the last part of the priest’s story caught his attention.
Was it so? Were the divine powers capable of making a difference? Was there a possibility of
Margaret changing her mind?
A playful breeze blew from him to her, lightly caressing her chilled cheeks and blew back
again, carrying on its back her thoughts and sighs, of which he blissfully remained unaware.
And till late in the night, as the moon waxed and waned, the stars dimmed and the skies
paled, both of them stood like statues in the starlight, unknown to each other, under the same
sky with a sea of contours between them.
The rains had arrived in right earnest, and day and night it was pouring, pouring and just
pouring. The river was rising, flooding the banks; all the ponds and tanks were up to the
brim. A neighbourhood duck, which had been gasping for breath more than a week, died this
morning and reporting the incident to Radharani, the jhee had cheekily commented “Really
this is Kaliyuga, when ducks catch cold from damp and rain!” In the Math too at some
places, the rainwater stood several feet deep and the only one perhaps truly delighted at the
deluge was Swamiji’s huge stork.
The frowning sky emitted a low growl and the buildings in Bosepara Lane immediately
shook in trepidation as over them, an overcast sky loomed menacingly, threatening to
descend any moment in full force. The sun, after realizing that it was not its power to take on
the army of clouds, had quietly retreated for the day. The rumble also reached Radharani and
she hurriedly stepped out of her room, dashing for the terrace to get the almost-dry clothes
before they got drenched in the impending downpour. On the way, she peeped into a room at
the far end of the veranda and seeing Mrs Lockwood still peacefully snoring away, heaved a
sigh of relief.
Impressed by Swami Vivekanada Mrs. Lockwood, a rich American widow had donated
generously for the construction of the Math. She also nurtured a deep desire “to serve the
helpless women and children”, because of which she had been shunted off to this country by
one of the disciples of Swami Vivekananda based in America. But unfortunately, Mrs.
Lockwood turned out to be nothing but "a bundle of frenzied nerves let loose on this
country” according to even Sister Nivedita, who was usually extra patient and
accommodating with such newcomers.
Mrs. Lockwood, after alighting on Indian soil in the height of an Indian summer, had headed
straight to Mayawati, partly to escape the blistering heat and partly because of the yearning to
meet her long-time friend Mrs. Savier. But her over-exuberance and cackling tendency had
created too much of a ruckus there, upsetting the ambience of the Ashram. To her, almost
every thing - be it the monks meditating in the chapel, a village belle balancing water pots on
her heads, loin–clothed locals cutting logs for fire, a playful mongrel flirting with its own tail,
was either “Shooo Sweet” or “Shooo cute”, which she had no hesitation in openly voicing
out in a loud booming voice.
Finally Sister Nivedita, agitated at being unable to work in peace as per her pre-planned pace,
had managed to convince the American lady to descend from the heavenly heights to the
plains of Calcutta, by then considerably cooled by the first round of monsoon showers.
Radharani too had accompanied Mrs. Lockwood, silently bearing the entire brunt of her
overflowing outlandish notions during the entire journey. The lady, with her never-ending
list of questions, was equipped with an amazing capacity of draining one's strength. She was
of the notion that, Gita, the centuries’-old Bible equivalent of the Hindus was written just a
few years ago by Sri RamaKrishna, the guru of Swami Vivekananda. She also had the notion
that the greatest service she could render to the women of this country lay in teaching them
“how to lay the table in the right way” and other high-society etiquettes.
After reaching Calcutta, another problem cropped up. Mrs Lockwood vehemently rejected
Swami Vivekananda’s proposal of staying in the European part of the city amongst her own
people. She insisted on being based in the native quarters, expressing her eagerness to be
“where all the action is.” Finally the Swami, already burdened with his own failing health,
made arrangements for Mrs. Lockwood to stay with Sister Nivedita till a house could be
searched out and set up for her.
Sister Nivedita returned from Mayawati, totally taken by surprise at the new development.
She also voiced her displeasure to Swami Vivekananda about the entire issue, but finally on
second thoughts, decided to bear with the arrangement, assuming it to be a passing phase.
However her jhee, who refused to follow in her mistress’s footsteps, was in no mood to relent
even the slightest and declared war right from the very beginning. She protested against the
newcomer venturing anywhere near the kitchen, refusing to wash her cups and saucers,
though she did the same chore willingly for Sister. One day when Mrs Lockwood mistakenly
entered the “prohibited area” to get herself a glass of water, the situation almost spiralled out
of control. The jhee who was then busy in the kitchen, emitted a loud grunt of disapproval at
the violation and disappeared instantly, returning a minute later fully drenched, hurling the
choicest of abuses with the water still dripping from her wet sari. Mrs Lockwood stood
stupefied at this strange sight, and after she was explained the logic behind the ritual of
purification, she diligently avoided going anywhere near the jhee’s sanctum sanctorum.
Radharani came down from the terrace with the terrace.
“Is Sister still talking with Swamiji?” She softly nudged the jhee who sat nodding in one
corner of the courtyard, willingly indulging in the temptation.
Just two days ago, Sister Nivedita had returned from Mayawati and today itself Swami
Vivekananda had landed up at Baghbazar to meet his dear disciple. They were meeting after
a long gap of more than a month and the conversation had begun on a warm note, with the
usual exchange of pleasantries. But very soon it had assumed a different tone, as was
apparent from the high-pitched agitated voices of both wafting out through the window and
wandering all over the house.
“The Swamiji?” the aged woman arched her eyebrows “He left long ago!” and moving closer
to Radharani whispered “There were a lot of arguments between the two. I heard them
myself. My sister’s grandson is running fever and after the voices had downed a little, I
fearfully went in wanting to ask Maa if I could go there for the night. Maa was seated at the
table, her lips clenched as if she was trying very hard to control herself and prevent another
outburst. And Swamiji!” she paused, as if to recollect and recount her experience in the
fullest detail “At the sound of my footsteps he eyed me so forcefully that I got so scared and
scurried away, without managing to speak even a single word!”
“Yes he has very intense eyes!” Radharani remarked. The most striking part of Swamiji’s
fine personality was undoubtedly his gimlet eyes, which incidentally also had been
instrumental in him securing his first disciple.
During the course of his wanderings, Swami Vivekananda once came to a town called
Hathras, where the young station master spotted the young mendicant amongst the third class
passengers and was startled, for just a few nights ago, he had seen exactly those eyes in his
dreams and they had been haunting him since then. He pleaded with the Swami to leave the
train and accompany him to his quarters. His request did not go in vain and later on, when
Swami Vivekananda left Hathras, he was not alone, for with him was his first disciple the
young station-master, the now Swami Sadananda.
Later on, Sadananada had often confessed that he was drawn to Swami Vivekananda not for
the sake of religion, but because of his “devilish pair of eyes".
Swami Vivekananda had left a little while ago and now Sister was silently sitting in her
room, with not even the slightest sound betraying her existence.
Today, he had come to her house unannounced on his own accord and she had been so
delighted at the gesture. But the meeting, though it had started off on a cordial note,
unfortunately did not have a happy ending. The Swami had always disliked her closeness to
Okakura, and now he was insisting with a child-like stubbornness that she should live the life
a typical Hindu widow, her house being out of bounds for any male visitor except him! And
when she firmly stated her refusal to adhere to such irrelevant rigidity, he got extremely upset
and left almost immediately.
But what was the logic behind imposing such meaningless restrictions on her! Did he not
consider her mature enough or have faith in her actions!
As she sat pondering, she remembered a recently-heard incident involving Swami
Vivekananda, when he had visited the Mayawati Ashram to console Mrs Savier after her
It was extreme winter and with the foggy weather damping the logs, lunch got delayed. A
hungry Swamiji impatiently went to the kitchen and saw for himself a red-eyed Virjananda
struggling with the wet logs, trying to ignite them. Even after that when lunch was finally
served, he began to fuss and sulk like a child, refusing to eat, asking his food to be taken
away. Everyone was embarrassed and at a loss, not knowing what was to be done. However,
Virjananda who was familiar with his Master’s real nature, just asked everyone to remain
seated without passing any comments. And true to his words, Vivekananda soon cooled off
and started to eat, joined by the hungry and relived Ashramites.
The incident was indication enough that one needed to be patient with the Master, more so
especially now, when because of his failing physical condition, he tended to get upset over
insignificant things. Nivedita too had tried very hard to retain her cool, but had not been
successful! As she tried to console herself, another account involving Swami Vivekananda
and Miss Ellen Waldo, one of his New York based disciples flashed in her mind.
One morning on finding Miss Waldo crying, Swami anxiously enquired about the cause to
which she stated "I seem unable to please you! Even when others annoy you, you scold me
"Ellen I do not know those people well enough to scold them” the Swami told her “I cannot
rebuke them, so I come to you. Whom can I scold if I cannot scold my own?"
Hearing those words, Miss Waldo’s tears immediately dried up and since then she yearned
for his scolding, which made her feel all the more closer to him.
Did the same apply in her case as well? Was all this possessiveness actually a proof of his
nearness? With a tinge of remorse, she decided that she would go to the Math tomorrow itself
and submit herself to him along with all her imperfections. After all, he was her Master, her
What would he be doing now? Was he still angry with her? She closed her eyes and was
immediately transported to his room in the Math, which served as both his study and
bedroom, the large airy room on the second floor with its four windows and three doors,
where she had spent so many memorable moments, discussing with him, listening to him, he
rebuking her during a flash of impatience and then almost immediately attempting to comfort
her, …………those treasured moments, when they sat facing each other inside the confines
of the carriage and he was so close that their breaths almost ran into each other……………
The night was wet and windless. Radharani lay tossing and turning in her bed unable to
sleep, with tickling streams of sweat constantly running down her entire length- the saturated
air, which hung heavy from the ceiling, seemed to have solidified. Somewhere a grand father
clock struck nine, the sounds of the gong, dying away into the night.
It was just the first week of July and there would be minimum three more months of this
oppressive humidity before the weather took a turn for the better. All around, everything
suddenly appeared so soggy and repulsive - both inside and outside the house- those moss-
covered messy steps leading to the slushy streets overflowing with the sewer water, the sight
of plaster cracking and peeling off, slimy earthworms emerging from the earth’s bosom and
crawling all over the place. Then there were the small black beetles, commonly known as the
stink bug, quite innocuous unless one squashed it and then they really justified their name.
The weather did not spare even the books, making them moulder away and drop out of their
bindings. It was really incredible, the ingenious manner in which the climate paired up with
the bugs in pursuit of destruction - one cracking the bindings of books, while the other eating
up the insides.
Finally abandoning her horizontal position, Radharani got up and collecting her hair into a
haphazard bun, stepped out of the room into the courtyard. This place too, normally a fount
of coolness and playground of breezes, now felt like a black hole, scary and suffocating.
Sister’s room too was in total darkness. Since Swami Vivekananda abruptly left the other
day, Sister expectedly was not in the best of her moods. But the day before yesterday after
she returned from the Math, she was again looking happy, indicating that everything was
finally fine between her and her Master.
Suddenly a streak of blinding light raced through the overcast sky, momentarily diluting the
darkness and mercilessly ripping apart the cloud cover. Radharani looked up in awe! A
shooting star! Her uncle used to say that such a phenomenon usually signifies the death of a
holy man, for when a saint sheds his mortal garb, God himself sends a meteor to transport the
soul out of the earthly boundaries into eternity.
What had happened? Which sacred soul left the earth at his unearthly hour? She wondered
staring at the sky.
Sister Nivedita was sleeping very soundly, oblivious of the sultriness surrounding her. Time
had turned a somersault, rewinding by exactly four years and once more the idyllic days of
Kashmir had come back. She saw herself and her Master in various backdrops, sometimes
wading through a field of forget-me-not, the bursting pink and blue blossoms stretching up to
the sun-kissed snow peaks, sometimes sitting inside a houseboat which was gliding over the
placid waters so imperceptibly that at times they were scarcely conscious of the journey.
Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city with its criss-crossing of canals was so like Venice and as
they drifted about in their houseboats, sellers of many a small craft would row over to them
with their offerings. The novelty of the shopping experience further accentuated its charm
and the two American ladies accompanying her, Miss Macleod and Mrs Bull, almost ended
up acquiring everything that sailed their way.
When they desired to move up the river and anchor into a lake for a day or two, the boatmen
who also doubled up as their servants, would beforehand stock supplies of food especially
ducks or chickens for the American ladies. The lower part of the boat contained the birds of
meat, but as it was regarded unclean food by the orthodox Hindus, the intention of
consuming them was never disclosed to anyone. At times, the Kashmiri Pandits who came to
visit Swami Vivekananda would be perturbed by the constant cackling and clucking, and
would look around, trying to spot the source of the sound. But the Swami, though he was
well aware that they were hidden underneath, never gave away the secret and would just keep
on watching, with a twinkle in his eye.
The entire stay in Kashmir was like a symphony, so pleasing and perfect that one wished it to
just go on and on and on…………………..
Radharani too was lost in another world, dreaming about her childhood days in Kasi when
life was so simple and spontaneous, flowing by effortlessly just like the river which ran
alongside the ancient city. Once more she had become the young innocent girl, trudging
down at predawn, with the other womenfolk of the neighbourhood, to the chill edge of the
river. Like the others, she too is carrying a little flower-decked ship made from the shining
white core of the plantain-stalk, and arched from stem to stern with splinters of bamboo
piercing through the hearts of the yellow marigold flowers.
Her little ship is loaded with offerings to the Almighty –leaves of bel, consecrated fruits and
flowers, amidst which she precariously places a lighted earthen lamp. Then with a silent
prayer, she floats it upon the still-dark waters and watches, mesmerized, the flickering light
in the fragile craft which, with tide, would touch the main current and finally sail into the
That particular day, the last of the month of Pous, is a day dedicated for the well-being of all
wanderers, for all whose footsteps at nightfall shall not lead to their own door.
And every year, Radharani’s flower decked little ship used to sail away with silent prayers
for her childhood friend, Shekhar. They were neighbours and had grown up together but
once their age-count touched the double digit mark, the course of their lives changed
Radharani was restricted from playing with boys, as she was now of marriageable age and
any association with the opposite sex had a chance of tarnishing her reputation. Shekhar
hailed from a family of seafarers and in keeping with the tradition of his lineage, he had to
join his father and elder brothers as soon as he touched teenage.
But Shekhar could not think of leaving without meeting her and he had softly knocked at her
window one predawn, while the world around was yet to wake up.
“Radha, this time when I return, I shall bring you the purest of pearls extracted from the
untouched depths of the sea!” He had promised to her, but even before he could come back
and keep his commitment, Kartama had landed into her life and she had to leave Kasi on a
Radharani was still drowned in deep sleep, when the first flush of dawn romped into her
room, and almost instantly sounded a rude summoning knock on the front door.
She sat up with a start.
What was that sound? Had Shekhar returned from his maritime sojourn? Was he really
knocking at her door?
Slowly, reality dawned on her and peeping through the curtains, she caught sight of a grim-
looking man standing near the door. His was a familiar face, a face she had come across
many times at the Math.
Why had he come at such an early hour? Had something happened to Swami Vivekananda?
Was the shooting star she sighted last night symbolic of the unfortunate event?
She hurriedly proceeded to wake up Sister Nivedita, who was still asleep, lost to the
immediate world, with a blissful and contented look on her face.
The sun had long downed on another sultry day when sister Nivedita, feeling totally
anchorless and empty, returned from the burning ghat. The events had happened in such a
quick succession that they seemed apocryphal; the reality was yet to sink in. Early morning,
just as the day was beginning to wake up, she was awakened by a sharp knock on the door,
the urgency evident from the sound itself. And the very look on the face of the messenger
from the Math, made it amply apparent about the nature of the news that he had come to
deliver at that unearthly hour.
He silently handed her a note from Swami Saradananda which read
“My dear Nivedita,
The end has come. Swamiji has slept last night at nine never to rise again.”
Clutching the note, Nivedita stood, as if struck by lightening, her hands unconsciously
groping for support and finally managing to grab the door frame. She tried to read the
message afresh, but in the meanwhile, an unseen hand had let loose all the alphabets which
were now scattered at random against the white background of the sheet.
What was happening? Was her sense of sight failing her? Nivedita wondered, as she tried to
rein in the wandering words.
Minutes later, as she was hurrying towards the Math, she still found it difficult to believe
what had happened. That her Master, her King, who had given meaning and purpose to her
earthly existence, would never again rise to converse with her, rebuke her, comfort her.
To whom would she now look up to for support in the most trying times? Why did the anchor
of her life have to abandon her at a time when she needed him the most?
It was drizzling as she reached the Math. On the ground floor, the monks were decorating a
cot with flowers on which Swamiji would make his last journey on earth- the journey to the
cremation ground. Seeing her, there was a fresh outburst, amidst which one of the monks in a
choked voice asked her to go up to Swamiji’s room – the southeast corner room on the
second storey of the monastery building.
With heavy feet and a heavier heart, she dragged herself up the stairs and into his room filled
with the fragrance of burning incense. This was where he used to joyfully return from his
trips, eagerly looking forward to the familiar comfort of familiar company. This was where
he wrote, gave instruction to his disciples, conversed with friends and communed with God
in meditation. This was where he now lay, having entered into the ultimate ecstasy from
which he would never return to ordinary consciousness. His writing table with its load of
letters, pen, ink, paper, blotting-pad, the deer skin on which he sat during meditation, the iron
bedstead on the centre of the room and the small couch by its side where he preferred to sleep
occasionally -everything was exuding emptiness as if they too were mourning the demise of
With tears trickling down her cheeks, Nivedita touched her Master’s ice cold feet, and as she
sat down on his left, steadily fanning his head with a palm-leaf, one of the assembled men
erupted into a sonorous melody:
"O my mind, chant the name of Kali. If you say Kali, Kali, the fear of Kala (Death) will
In the afternoon, the body placed on the flower decked cot was taken to the spot which
Swamiji himself had chosen for his cremation. Everyone was treading cautiously, for the
monastery ground covered with spear grass had become wet and slippery due to the incessant
rains. The sky was quite cloudy and everyone was apprehensive about the rains hampering
the last rites of Swamiji.
Fortunately, nothing of that kind happened. The pyre was lit and the funeral fire, aided by a
favourable wind leapt higher and higher, extending its lolling tongues. Nivedita, along with
the other grief-stricken monks and devotees, sat watching the heart-rending scene, when she
suddenly noticed a strange thing. The fire had completely consumed the lower part of the
body; but his face with the serene Lord-Shiva like facial expression, eyes half-closed and
indrawn was totally untouched.
Then someone suggested shaking the body with a stick so that it would burn quickly. Hearing
this, Nivedita, overcome with grief and unable to control her emotions was rolling on the
ground, when suddenly the wind blew a piece of the ochre robe from the pyre into her lap.
The incident seemed to signal “Why are you crying? I am still with you! I have just shuffled
my mortal coil!”
The house was shrouded in a sacred silence which it seemed a sacrilege to break. The
surroundings were dark, rendered darker and gloomier by an overcast sky overhead. The
downpour had taken a brief break and the earth, soaked with oceans of rain was steaming like
a wet blanket. The breezeless air, pregnant with invisible salt and moisture sat on her cheek
like a stubborn wasp and multiple sweat streams trickled down her entire length, but Nivedita
stood still, in one corner of the courtyard, oblivious of all the obvious discomfort.
Just two days ago, she had been to the Math and spent so much time with him. As it was an
Ekadasi Day, Swamiji himself was fasting, but nevertheless, he got a meal ready for Nivedita
and insisted on personally serving it to her. It was a simple affair, just plain rice, boiled
potatoes, boiled jackfruit seeds and cold milk, but served with so much love and affection
that it tasted divine. And after she finished, he poured water on her hands and despite her
protests, had proceeded to dry them with a towel.
When a demurred Nivedita stated that it was she who should be serving him and not the other
way round, Swamiji, in justification of his actions had stated that even Jesus Christ had
washed the feet of his own disciples.
“Yes, but that was in his last moments," was the thought which spontaneously flashed in
Nivedita’s mind, though she refrained from saying it aloud.
That day after a long time, she had returned home, feeling contented and happy, for recently
whenever she went to meet him or he came over to her house, there would be a lot of
arguments and disagreements between them. Alas, little did she know then that it was her last
meeting with him! That her held-back words would backfire in such a way!
Now everything over, as she sat all alone in a darkened room, closing her eyes and shutting
herself off from the world, he once again became alive in front of her and she remembered
the first time she had seen him ………….
It was a wintry afternoon of 1895 at Lady Majerson’s drawing room in West End London.
Vivekananda clad in a saffron gown and wearing a red waist-band, was sitting with his back
to the fireplace, chanting Shiva Shiva’ in a rich baritone voice, the ethereal background glow
accentuating his mysterious appeal. His serene face, dignified bearing and divine voice had
cast a spell on her and at first sight itself Sister Nivedita, then just Margaret, had been
electrified by his appearance. There were many other people in the room that evening, many
of them well dressed and better looking than him, but Vivekananda’s presence completely
captivated her, and a voice within her clearly conveyed that this was the person she had been
waiting for, and what an anticlimax! Margaret had gone there out of mere curiosity to see the
much-talked-about Indian Yogi being mentioned in London’s social circles.
A few days later, during one of his discourses, she was listening to the Swamiji describing
the plight and the numerous problems plaguing the women of India.
"Most of our girls over there have not even seen the face of a school. That land of ours
cannot advance unless they are educated." He stated and then immediately turned towards
Margaret, "I have certain plans relating to the education and welfare of the women of my
country. I believe you can be of great service to me in translating them into reality!"
Margaret was overwhelmed by the invitation. Still, it had taken her some more time to decide
upon her future course of action……a few more months and a few more meetings with
Swami Vivekananda. For, though the Swamiji had initially suggested that she come to India,
promising her all the necessary help, he had also unfolded the real picture- he had described
to her in graphical detail India in all her poverty, ignorance, and problems, lest she harbour
any illusion about her future workplace.
The British milieu was sure to snub her. The Indians too would treat her with suspicion and
dislike; though it was to serve the women and girls of that very country Margaret was being
Was she ready?
Margaret finally took up the challenge and like a tributary merging into the main river; her
life flowed into his. She eagerly and unhesitatingly embraced his philosophy, beliefs, and
ideals, becoming one of his closest confidants and most devoted disciples.
But in the winter of 1899, when she first came to India, eagerly looking forward to a long and
fruitful association with him, a rude reality awaited her. The Vivekananda she had grown to
know in England, was poles apart from the person she met after setting foot on Indian soil.
There he had been so warm and open, intimate and friendly, but here he behaved in a formal
manner, always maintaining a distance; he seemed colder than the chilly winter and she was
extremely disappointed and disillusioned.
Had then she been wrong in coming to India after all? That was the thought which haunted
her day and night in the unfamiliar coldness of an alien country, as she bitterly yearned for
the soothing warmth of their old relationship….but Vivekananda was firm on his
stand…….he religiously and rigidly kept her away from him ……. it had taken her quite
some time to understand that the main reason for his unexpected behaviour was because in
the Indian society, friendship and free mixing between opposite sexes was totally
taboo………… a man and a woman unrelated by blood or birth were not permitted to be just
friends……… …….either they remained no more than mere acquaintances, or were united
under the institution of marriage……. Margaret had no objection in opting for the latter, for
she would have been most happy and fulfilled to remain her Master’s lifelong companion
……but Vivekananda had outrightly turned down her sincere and frank overture, refusing to
follow in his guru’s footsteps in this matter.
“No, Margot, though my guru married, he was a pure brahmachari……… he had conquered
kaam , he could abstain from all attractions of the flesh….But, I… I am not him, I am not Sri
Ram Krishna ….”
After that, she had accompanied him on many journeys and though at times there were just
the two of them, he always maintained a self-imposed distance from her. His resolve
regarding his celibate status too remained unchanged, though he admitted to Margaret that he
considered the husband-wife relationship to be more meaningful than that between a mother
and her child.
And finally during the sojourn to the shrine of Amarnath in the snowy highs of the
Himalayas, in front of the sacred lingam of Lord Shiva, he declared her as his spiritual
daughter and like a father giving away his daughter in marriage; he had dedicated her to Lord
Shiva. He was fully aware of the acme of her disappointment, but was determined to seal
once and for all, any future expectation had she might harbour regarding their relationship.
Perhaps he had taken the drastic measure after witnessing the burning desire in her heart for
Perhaps the ascetic vows of the monk had emasculated the male within, and the Swamiji had
been reminded about his self-confessed attempt at controlling lust, when disgusted with
himself he had sat on a pot of burning cinders!
Nivedita, too, though her soul revolted, had silently accepted the verdict and abided by his
But had that declaration in front of the divine put the lid on all her feelings for him?
Or his for her? Then why did he so strongly disapprove of Nigu? Was it merely a father’s
honest concern for his daughter’s well-being?
Nivedita silently wondered, staring at the bleak leaking landscape.
A sudden burst of breeze erupted through the half-open window, opening books and
scattering the papers on her table. One of them soared high, almost touching the ceiling
before finally settling down on the floor, a few yards away from her feet. As Nivedita bent
down to gather it and held it near the light of the lantern, she realized that it a letter from
Him, which he had written when she was yet to set foot here and become Sister
With trembling hands she read on……………
My dear Miss Noble,
A letter from Sturdy reached me yesterday, informing me that you are determined to come to
India and see things with your own eyes. I replied to that yesterday, but what I learnt from
Miss Muller about your plans makes this further note necessary, and it is better that it should
Let me tell me frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for
India. What was wanted was not a man, but a woman; a real lioness, to work for the Indians,
India cannot yet produce great women; she must borrow them from other nations. Your
education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination, and above all, the Celtic blood
make you just the woman wanted.
Yet the difficulties are many. You cannot form any idea of the misery, the superstition, and
the slavery that are here. You will be in the midst of a mass of half-naked men and women
with quaint ideas of cast and isolation, shunning the white skin through fear or hatred and
hated by them intensely. On the other hand, you will be looked upon by the white as a crank,
and every one of your movements will be watched with suspicion.
Then the climate is fearfully hot; our winter in most places being like your summer, and in
the south it is always blazing.
Not one European comfort is to be had in places out of the cities. If, in spite of all this, you
dare venture into the work, you are welcome, a hundred times welcome. As for me, I am
nobody here as elsewhere, but what little influence I have, shall be devoted to your service.
You must think well before you plunge in, and after work, if you fail in this or get disgusted,
on my part I promise you I will stand by you unto death whether you work for India or not,
whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it. 'The tusks of the elephant come out but never
go back'; so are the words of a man never retracted. I promise you that.
I will stand by you unto death…….. I will stand by you unto death………………. I will stand
by you unto death…………the words resonated in her ears as Nivedita clutched the piece of
paper close to her heart and broke down soundlessly.
Sareee!!! Sareee!! Want sari! Shuteee!!! Shantipureee!!
The faint lullaby of the wandering merchant riding on the still midday air entered the semi-
dark room through a half-open shutter. Hearing the cry, Radharani who was reclining on the
bed, got up and went near the window. An old man with an oversized bundle on his head,
was calling out his ware in a sonorous tone, his eager face expectantly scanning the building
facades in search of prospective customers. Radharani eagerly waited for him to come nearer
and positioned herself near the door.
She had thought of offering a Puja at Kalighat on the coming new moon day and needed a
red-bordered white sari for that purpose. Sister too had volunteered to buy it yesterday, when
after a fortnight of forced self-confinement, she had finally ventured out. But when she
returned empty handed at nightfall, Radharani, not wanting to cause embarrassment, had
refrained from reminding her about it. As it is, Sister was such a different person these days-
always absentminded and much-lacking in spirit, frequently lost in the memories of the past.
More than a month had passed since Swamiji’s demise, but his dear disciple was yet to come
out of the shell into which she had willingly withdrawn.
There had also been another unfortunate development. Because of Sister’s association with
the growing band of Nationalists, the Math management, unwilling to evoke anger of the
British and wanting to play safe, had sort of forced her to formally severe her ties with the
math, immediately after the days of mourning for Swami Vivekananda had ended. Nivedita
had complied without a protest, writing to the newspapers to announce her change in
standing, that henceforth her work shall be regarded as free and entirely independent of the
Math’s sanction and authority. But the decision had no doubt caused her a lot of mental
At times, Radharani would observe Sister sitting at her writing table blankly staring at the
blankness all around her- the blank wall, the blank paper in front of her, on which she wasted
hours without even writing a single word. But she was careful to never mention it to her on
any occasion, for she too understood the intensity of the pain when one has to live without
the one who matters the most. So many months had passed and yet there was never a single
day when Radharani did not remember her son.
How was he? He must have grown quite big by now, a six-month old baby and in all
probability, his annaprasan, the initiation ceremony for introducing him into the eating world
of adults too must have taken place by now.
He would have no memory of her. His father would have surely remarried by now and he
would grow up in the arms of another woman without knowing who his real mother was.
At this realization, an army of tears accumulated and began dropping one by one on the cold
Sareee!!! Shuteee!!! Shantipureee!!
The man squatted on the doorstep and untied his bundle, letting loose a riot of colours -bold
blue pollens embedded in a base of burning orange, golden grain streaks against a beige
background, a russet base merging into a border of bluish grey so strongly reminiscent of a
well-fed rock-pigeon, green as green as new born grass shining in sunlight……………
Radharani, stood mesmerized at the dazzling display, momentarily letting go of the heaviness
in her heart.
The man was quick to notice her admiration.
" Pujas are just round the corner, Maa," he tactfully put in, trying hard to tone down the fact
that the festive season was still several weeks away. "Have a look at this one", he handed her
a gorgeous copper coloured sari with soot stripes all over.
Pujas!!!!! Pujas just round the corner!!! The words unknowingly went on ringing in her ears
as she took the sari and absentmindedly stared at the stripes………..and
In the Singhibari, Puja was an extravagant annual affair. Always. At around this time of the
year, Tinkaribabu, the man from Kanjilal Brothers used to arrive unfailingly with his trunk
load of Benarasi sarees. After sending word to Kartama about the news of his arrival, he
would take up position in one corner of the inner veranda and download his ware before the
admiring eyes of everybody. But his stock suffered from one major drawback- for as per
Kartama's instructions, it contained saris of only one major shade- crimson, scarlet, cinnabar,
cochineal, maroon, madder, carmine, rouge, cerise, ruby and roseate shades, - all sub and
sister shades of the particular colour-RED.
Kartama widowed in the early years of her marriage, had an intense obsession for that
"Red is a lucky colour, the symbol of eternal coverture", she would say again and again,
while selecting a sari for Radharani.
Then after going through the entire collection, she would typically pick up a crimson
coloured one bedecked with brilliant zari motifs all over and turn to others for their opinion.
"Sarkarmashai, what do you think of this? Won't this look good on my bouma? You,
Tinkaribabu?" she would look around at everyone present, expecting only affirmative
responses. And she got them too.
Lastly she would turn to Radharani.
"Bouma do you like it? Speak out if you have anything else in mind. Don't hesitate to tell
And Radharani, with her head hung low, would play the part of the obedient bouma to
" I like it very much ", she would utter in a barely audible tone, (a little more than a
whisper), though given a choice she would have then no doubt gone in for other colours,
rather than that boring bloody red again and again. Year after year.
But Kartama's words were the absolute authority in that house and people rarely defied
With a sigh, Radharani swiftly severed herself from the past, getting back to the present.
Now, she had all the freedom in the world to wear any colour. Only the will was not there.
" No, I don't want this." She handed back the sari to the man, taking a deep breath. " Do you
have anything in plain white with red border?"
The man was visibly disappointed, but still not willing to give up.
"Oh yes!” he hurriedly brought out a sari, one with a stainless milky base and a ripe red
lustrous border. The very look of it revealed that it was a quite costly piece. Radharani took it
in her hand, hesitating and thinking hard. Should she buy it or opt for a cheaper one?
The man was quick to sense her indecision.
"Take it Maa, take it without any pinch of doubt. You do not have to worry at all about the
"What's the price?" Radharani asked, still unsure.
"The price!! The price might sound a little too high Maa, but then did you observe the
"What's the price?" Radharani asked again, a bit impatiently.
"Ten rupees eight annas. But you can pay it in instalments, if you like. You give me two
rupees today, and the balance you can pay me in another month or two.”
Radharani was in a dilemma about what to do.
"I supply saris on a regular basis to all the big houses in the city" the man put in forcefully,
"The Lahabari near Ratanbabu Ghat , that red Raybari on Chitpur road, the Mullickbari just
opposite Thanthania, then the Singhabari in Akrur Mistri Lane,…………."
The last part of the sentence immediately caught Radharani's attention.
"What did you say?" She immediately interrupted him, " You go to the Singhabari also?" she
was shaking involuntarily with a sudden spate of excitement.
"Ah! My Maa knows them then", the old man grinned in satisfaction "Yes, that house is one
of my regular customers".
"Do you go there regularly?", she enquired, desperately trying not to sound too inquisitive.
"Normally I make a round once every month. Sometimes, more!"
"When have you last been there?" she asked, pretending to examine the sari in her hand.
The man closed his eyes and thought for a while.
"Just a fortnight ago".
Then he suddenly grew very grim. "But it had been better had I not gone!” He beat his
forehead in a paroxysm of grief. "The house has now become a ghost's haunt!”
"Why? What has happened?" she asked, her pitch sounding abnormally shrill.
But fortunately the man, engrossed in his own narration, did not seem to notice anything.
"I see Maa doesn't know the latest news about them!" he observed. "Kartama is just a
shadow of her former self these days", the man sighed. “Who would have ever thought that
there was so much misfortune in store for her? And at this age!"
Radharani, afraid that her voice would betray her emotions, chose to remain silent though she
found it very difficult to control herself. She was getting exasperated with the man's habit of
delving into unnecessary exaggerations. The man sensed her irritation and the fear of losing a
potential customer, finally made him abandon all dramatics and swoop straight to the point.
"I hope you know that Kartama's earlier daughter-in-law got drowned while bathing in the
river and that his son married again?”
Radharani’s grip on the doorknob tightened. Something like this was inevitable. Still why
was she feeling so upset?
" When did the marriage happen?" she asked at last.
"Just a month ago. And do you know who supplied all the saris for that occasion?" The man
was his exuberant self once again. "Me." He thumped his chest proudly. " Kartama even
bought the Benarasi from me! It was a magnificent sari, deep vermilion with golden zari
"But all this is good news. Then what makes Kartama unhappy?" she asked sarcastically.
"Wait till you hear it all!" the man looked at her" After the marriage Kartama’s son had taken
his new wife to Gurudev's ashram to seek his blessings. And while they were returning, the
boat capsized and everyone was drowned. "
There was a short silence.
“And Kartama’s grandson, born to his earlier wife, what happened to him?" with a lot of
effort she finally managed to ask, fearing the worst and maintaining her calm with great
"He too was with them and most possibly, he also got drowned!” he confidently stated “After
all, he was just a baby, no more than few-months old, not even a year …".
But Radharani heard nothing more. Radharani could hear nothing more.
Initially, the middle-aged peddler did not suspect anything. Radharani had been talking to
him from behind a half-closed door and the sudden interruption of speech only signalled that
she had gone inside to fetch money. With the transaction having ended in a sale, though not
to his total satisfaction, he began winding up his merchandise, folding the saris and putting
them back into the bundle in the prearranged order.
Several minutes passed. Then the continued silence, coupled with the absence of any
movement on the other side, made him suspect that something might be wrong somewhere.
" Maa!” he called out “How long will you take ? I have a long way to go!”
There was no answer.
“Maa!” he called out in a louder tone, “Where are you?”
Still no response.
A little frightened, the man peeped in and instantly shot back at the sight which met his eyes,
shrieking unknowingly. Radharani had collapsed and was lying on the ground beside the just-
bought sari, the purchase of which had initiated the current state of affairs.
"Ram! Ram! In what trouble have I landed myself!” the man drew back, shaking in unknown
fright. He looked around to check if there was anyone in sight. Then, failing to spot none, he
immediately swung the bundle upon his back and took to his heels and soon, he was reduced
to a faraway figure cantering away as fast as his frail legs could carry him.
Radhanrani was still lying senseless, when a horse-drawn carriage stopped outside the house
and a tall well-dressed young man stepped out of it. He was Robert, the son of the Sturdies
who had recently returned to India after graduating as a full-fledged doctor from a prestigious
medical institution in England. He had an offer to join the Mayo Hospital in Calcutta, where
his mother too worked as a nurse, but he was still in two minds about his future course of
Ever since alighting at the city where he had been born and spend his early childhood, he had
been eager to meet his all-time favourite Peggie Auntie, whom now everyone called Sister
Nivedita. But, he had been purposefully postponing his decision, for he did not desire to
disturb her when she was already in such a disturbed state of mind because of the death of
However, when a few days ago he learnt from his mother that Peggie Auntie was
contemplating a tour of the country, he decided to come over.
As Robert alighted from the carriage, he somewhat puzzled to find the door ajar with no one
in sight. Soon his surprise increase manifold and he stopped short at the sight that greeted his
eyes. The sleeping beauty, with her angelic face and exquisitely-chiselled features, pitch-
black mane and creamy peach complexion, completely bowled him over and for a split
second he stood completely spell bound at the unexpected discovery. In the twenty five years
that he had spent on this planet, he had never seen a more beautiful woman.
Then suddenly, the shrill cry of a cicado which had been watching everything from a nearby
tree broke the spell and jerked him back to his senses. The doctor in him instantly sprang up
to take charge and he knelt down by her side, attempting to locate her pulse, his fingers
quivering in excitement. Finding it, he heaved a sigh of relief and on examining her in more
detail and with increased inquisitiveness, he was reassured that it was just a simple case of
becoming senseless for maybe not-so-simple a reason.
After drenching and drowning the earth for a whole season, breaking banks, choking creaks,
uprooting trees, the rain gods finally got exhausted and cried out C-e-a-s-e---fire!!!!!!
At once all downpour stopped. The expectant clouds, cinerous and sinister looking, were
ordered to retreat and very reluctantly they rolled away. Only the fluffy rainless ones were
allowed to remain, and they kept roaming aimlessly all over the endless azure like strips of
shredded cotton. Kaash flowers shot up in grassy fields, the slender stalks swaying in the
sweet smelling sunshine. Land lilies bloomed unlimited, white buds blushing in the ecstasy
of the sun-kiss. Tiny, jonquil-like Sheulis donned up the tree every early dawn, slowly
dropping to the ground blossom by blossom as the day gained momentum. With the sticky
sultriness suddenly gone, the air smelt fresh and crisp once again. And autumn arrived on
earth. Distant drumbeats bringing in the festive season gently shook up the languid earth out
of its slumber.
Like a bride on the verge of her marriage day, the Nayanpur zamindarbari too was
being scrupulously and painstakingly readied for the forthcoming Durga Pujas. The weedy
garden in front was trimmed and preened with careful precision, the stone fairies adorning
every nook and corner put through a rigorous facelift- and stripped of the slippery shroud
they began to sport a new look.
The thakurghar, or the private oratory, was sufficient for the needs of daily worship all round
the year. But during the four-day annual festival celebrating Goddess Durga’s brief stint at
her pre- marriage abode, all action got shifted to the thakurdalan , the colonnaded hall
fronting the main courtyard. This year too it was the centre of ceaseless activity, where
amidst mounds of straw and clay, Durga and her four children were slowly beginning to
blossom in the loving hands of artisans ungrudgingly working day and night.
A silent tussle eternally existed between Durga’s two daughters, Saraswati, the symbol of
austerity and intellectual excellence, and her bejewelled sister Lakshmi, the patron of all
pomp and wealth. The sisters always vied with each other in matters of the heart, both
demanding wholehearted affection and attention from those who sought their blessings,
because of which any mortal rarely managed to simultaneously appease both of them.
However, Durga’s sons her as compared to her daughters, were less difficult to deal with.
Katrik, the eternal bachelor and enjoyer of perpetual youth, never placed such a premium on
loyalty. The elephant-headed pot-bellied Ganesh too was a happy- go-lucky fellow, quite
unconcerned about how he looked or what others thought of his looks. The only thing in the
world he was concerned about was Kala Bou, his vermilion- smeared plantain wife, who with
her two wood-apple breasts, stood to his right draped in a red-bordered white sari.
All the arrangements were almost complete and the time for consecration was just a few
days’ away, when amidst the chanting of Sanskrit slokas , the clay images would be infused
with divine presence and power. However the zamindarbabu, Sibsankar Choudhuri was a
much-worried man these days. He was pacing up and down the veranda restlessly, a frown
forming and fading and again forming on his fair forehead –Satish, his one and only son, had
announced his intention of going to Calcutta for further studies. Since then, Sibsankarbabu
citing his own ill-health, had threatened, argued and finally literally begged Satish to drop the
plan and instead study at the neighbouring Madaripur College, but his stubborn son had
determinedly turned a deaf ear to his father’s fervent pleas. The prodigal had declared that he
was not prepared to settle for anything short of Calcutta and to make matters worse, he had
also managed to get a scholarship, which meant that he was no longer financially dependent
on his father!
Calcutta! Was it here! Sibsankar babu clenched his forehead! A full five days journey by
boat down the Madhumati, alight at Pirpur ghat, proceed to Munshiganj by bullock cart, and
from there board the Surma Mail for the last lap of the journey. Sibsankar babu had been to
Calcutta only once in his entire lifetime and was determined never to set foot again. What a
place!! All castes walked the same road, Brahmins freely sat and ate with non-Brahmans and
didn't even bother to bathe after that, expecting women went to strange places called
"hospitals" to give birth to babies!
What had stunned him the most was that in Calcutta, the dwellings of immoral women, were
not segregated to one side of the city, like it happened in the village. On the contrary, even a
prominent red-light area like Sonagachi had plenty of respectable residences with just a
notice on the front door "Grihastho Bari. Janasadharaner Probesh Nishedh" (Domestic
Dwelling: No Entry for General Public) to keep away the wrong kind of crowd.
Sibsankarbabu believed that boys generally needed to study to acquire a degree to procure a
decent job in a merchant office to enable them to marry and maintain a family. That was in
his opinion the sole utility of education. But Satish surely did not fall in this category, for he
already had everything that money could buy. The annual earning of the zamindari itself was
more than a lakh of rupees. Plus there were other sources of income.………the tea gardens
near Darjeeling, the coal mines at Datia, ………..and many, many more. Satish could easily
lead an easy, insouciant life and keep on the wheel of the progeny rolling like his ancestors.
Sibsankarbabu had even decided on a bride for his son. But his obstinate son who thought of
himself as an enlightened intellectual, harboured a strange idea that it would be proper for
him to marry before he became a graduate and was able to earn his own living.
Sibsankarbabu sighed. Sometimes his own son was an enigma to him.
" Sibu, what is the matter? You look worried!” That was Hemangini Debi, his elder sister.
Widowed within a year of her marriage, Hemangini Debi had returned to her father’s house
once and for all almost four decades ago and since then, sympathy coupled with an
exaggerated respect for celibacy to which the child-widow is ungrudgingly entitled to, had
ensured her a unique position in the entire household. Sporting closely cropped hair, which
enabled her to bathe n number of times during the day in constant pursuit of purification; she
lived in a world created by her own habits- consuming just one self- made meal at mid-day,
and only a slight portion of milk at nightfall, yet the energy with which she pursued her own
abstinence and the affairs of the house were really extraordinary.
Since the death of Sibsankar’s wife during child-birth, she had brought up the child single-
handedly. And as Sibsankarbabu had not remarried, she was not only his elder sister, but his
closest confidant and constant companion as well.
Hemangini Debi glanced at her brother and the wrinkled expression on his face gave her the
hint as to what he was so worried about.
“Thinking about Satish?" She asked, almost sure of what the reply would be.
He nodded, redirecting his worries to her.
"The question now is ", he looked at his sister, "Suppose we finally have to send Satish to
Calcutta, where will he stay?"
"Satish was telling me about some sort of an arrangement where all the students jointly rent a
house and stay together where there is a common cook and………." She began.
" Yes, that's called a mess ", he explained “ boys coming from a particular place, group
together and form a mess. Like there's a Dhaka mess, then there is a Sylheti mess………But
I have my own reservations about that. Who is going to check whether the cook there is a
real Brahmin or some chandal who has just bought the sacred thread from the market and
swung it round his neck?
"That is not impossible", she too mentally explored the possibility, "From what I have heard,
in Calcutta, people can do anything for money".
“The city people are quite clever in dodging an issue when it is a matter of their
convenience!” he remarked, relating a particular incident when water supply was introduced
for the first time in Calcutta and the pundits prohibited the high-caste Hindus from using that
water as it had flowed through hydrants, which may have been touched by people of lower
“But after much deliberation and discussion the same pundits who had enforced the rule,
withdrew the restriction stating that paying for the water was equivalent to a penitence for
violating the diktat!” Sibshankar babu threw his hands in disgust “Calcutta is a bad place for
boys, especially of Satish’s age. Plenty of temptations, wine, bad women……..and even
before he realises, they will have ruined him…….. Completely!".
“Wish I knew someone trustworthy in that city with whom my son would be safe and secure,
now that we have to let him go!” he sighed.
"At least if Satish had agreed to the marriage before going to Calcutta…………" Hemangini
Debi put in, unmindfully staring at the cloud clusters casually trekking across the sky.
Unable to understand, he looked at her "Why? What difference would it have made?"
"Jayabati’s own uncle lives there." Hemangini Debi pointed out," Satish could have easily
stayed at his place…."
Jayabati was the previously chosen bride-to-be.
They remained silent for a while, each inwardly trying to think of a feasible solution.
"Jatindranath is coming here tomorrow with Indu", she said at last. “Let us discuss with him.
Maybe he can suggest something.”
Indubala was Sibsankarbabu’s niece. Her husband Jatindranath Mukherjee was the
stenographer of Mr. Wheeler, the Chief Secretary of the Governor of Bengal.
“Pishima, where are you?" Someone called out for Hemangini Debi, "Sarkarmashai has
brought the sweets and is asking for the keys to the store."
" Sibu we will talk about this later." Hemangini Debi immediately stood up and with quick
steps crossed the entire length of the veranda in half the time it would have usually taken her.
As she began to climb down the stairs, her pace increased drastically. Puja was just round the
corner, and there were still a thousand and one things left to be done, scores of coconut cakes
to make, mounds of daal to dry and fry……………..The list was literally endless and there
was hardly any time left.
Satish was about to step out of his room into the veranda, when he caught sight of his father
standing at the other end, looking down into the courtyard below. Not exactly in a mood for a
direct confrontation just then, he swiftly changed his direction and departed through the other
door. True, he was determined to go to Calcutta and study in Presidency college (for he
considered his whole existence useless without it), but it was equally true that he did not wish
to strain his relation with his father over this issue. Pishima , the great Srimati Hemangini
Debi as he sometimes jovially addressed his aunt, was at least willing to consider, but the old
man appeared as obstinate as ever. But what could he do?
The very idea of aimless untroubled domesticity was appalling to him. He could not even
think of leading such a life. Like his father. Like his grandfather. Getting up leisurely late in
the morning, then sitting down to a spicy multi-cuisine lunch, contentedly stroking his pot-
bellied paunch while whiling away the afternoon in useless gossip in the company of even
more useless people, reclining cosily and watching with lustful eyes the baiji dance,
impatiently waiting to take her in for the night - this was definitely not his definition of life.
And that was where the entire gap in communication lay.
A week later.
With Saptami over and Ashatmi almost over, the four- day long Durga puja was on its last
leg. Though Nabami and Dashami were still left, but Dashami, the last day, the day of the
immersion of the idols in the river, was never counted as a full day. With not much time left
for her to return to her husband’s home, Ma Durga too looked sad and less radiant. Perhaps
she was brooding over the fact that her annual holiday - four carefree days of fun and frolic at
her father’s place was nearing its end and once more she would have to go back to Lord
Shiva, her dishevelled husband perpetually drowned in opium along with his equally untidy
mates. In one corner of the courtyard was a cage containing Neelkantha birds. Like every
year, this year too they would be set free on the day of Dashami, when the winged creatures,
blue-throated like Lord Shiva, would fly away to inform the God in advance about his
family’s impending return.
The moment for the auspicious Sandhi Puja was drawing near and the thakurdalan of the
Nayanpur zamindarbari was a frenzy of activity. People were hurrying in and out carrying
this and that , and through all the din and clatter the voice of Sibshankar babu rang loud and
In one corner of the thakurdalan was a water clock- a bronze bowl in a bucket full of water
representative of the age old yardstick for measuring the "Sandhikhan”. On the surface of the
bowl was punched a tiny hole in such a way that it took exactly one danda or 24 minutes for
the bowl to submerge in the water. The moment the bowl got submerged, a gun shot would
sound announcing the arrival of the moment for the auspicious Sandhi Puja.
Clad in a zari bordered dhoti with a Jamewar shawl hanging from his shoulder and quite
oblivious of the array of celebrations going on all around him, Satish stood in one corner of
the courtyard. There was a contented look on his face. At last, his dream of studying in
Presidency College was on the way to getting fulfilled. The credit was solely Jatinda’s,
Indudidi’s husband who had assured his father that Satish could stay at his uncle’s house in
Kolkata. The arrangement had seemed satisfactory to both Sibsankarbabu and Hemangini
Debi, and they had finally okayed the matter. Of course, in the process Pishima had cleverly
invented a big list of dos and do nots and had tactfully made Satish agree to a whole lot of
Satish had to promise that he would not ever eat in any non-brahmin’s house.
Satish had to promise that he would single-mindedly focus on just his studies and never get
involved in any sort of bad company.
Satish had to promise that he would not engage in any kind of conversation with the Brahmo
folk, the urbanized Hindus propagating oneness of God, promoting women’s rights and
protesting against the age-old practices of idolatry.
“Why Pishima?” Satish could not help asking and she continually tried to impress upon him
that they, the Brahmos were indeed a very dangerous tribe worse than the Mussalmans, with
their girls being nothing less than absolute man eaters- totally devoid of the slightest decency
and always on the prowl – searching for young unmarried rich Hindu boys like him whom
they could trick and trap with their shameless antics!
“Never even set foot on the streets where they live!”
Satish was significantly amused at her aged aunt’s eccentric concept of Brahmoism, but at
that moment he nodded obediently, asking if there was anything else on her list and she had
“Oh Yes! I have heard that in Calcutta, a lot of young boys are plotting against the sahibs,
the British Raj. You must have nothing to do with them. Remember, you must always be
respectful to the sahibs, the rulers of our land and give them their due dignity!”
This was one oath which Satish absolutely had no hesitation in taking, for the Nayanpur
zamindarbari was renowned for its loyalty to the Raj . Every winter when the British officers
came for duck hunting in the district, they put up at this place. Sibshankarbabu treated them
like revered guests and Satish, since he was the sole soul who could speak English, was their
only medium of communication.
“Be assured pishima ! This is one area where I will never be at fault, I can swear! he spoke
confidently and straight from heart “I too have a lot of respect for the British Raj. It is only
because of them that so many of our barbaric customs like sutee has finally been abolished,
or else who knows you too might have gone up in flames long ago!”
Last year Mr., Atkins impressed by my English, gifted me his own gold watch. Where in the
world can you find such a large-hearted race?…………Satish, anchored to the present
pandemonium, looked at the watch on his wrist and thought back in admiration.
The Sandhi Puja had just begun and the air was throbbing with wild drumming of dhaks
accompanied by the frequent blowing of conch shells. In front of the goddess, a giant-sized
frankincense was slowly burning itself out, the spreading smoke lines meandering up in a
leisurely manner. The hazaks and the hanging lanterns along with the chandeliers, churned
out a quaint chiaroscuro on the Corinthian-pillar supported ceilings. All palms were
steadfastly clasped in right earnest and all devotion-dripping eyes were fixed on the
auspicious aarti being performed before Maa Durga and her children decked in shinning
Suddenly, a hysterical bellowing seemed to surface above all the euphoria and the eyes of
everyone was at once drawn to a man dragging a reluctant buffalo into the courtyard. The
beast had smelt the stench of death and there was a hunted look in its almost human eyes.
During Sandhi Puja, ceremonial sacrifice before the deity was a must, performed to
commemorate the prehistoric event of Mahishasura’s (the buffalo-demon) death at the hands
of goddess Durga. However, the dumb dull-headed creature unbothered about the
significance of the sacrifice, which would send its soul straight to heaven, continued to wail,
desperately begging for mercy, but could not extract even an ounce of sympathy from anyone
in the crowd which had grown wild with anticipation of the impending cold-blooded killing.
Even the people who tended to the animal daily remained unmoved- they were more on
tenterhooks lest the beheading was not accomplished in one blow- in which case it would
which would spell doom for the entire village.
As the butcher raised his hand, Satish lowered his eyes. The very next moment, a dull
metallic sound followed by a standing ovation from the intoxicated crowd indicated that the
execution had been successful.
The falchion had done its duty and now lay on the floras a slow stream of fresh blood, oozing
out from the headless torso, began settling on the unpaved floor. Amidst loud applause, two
men, bare-bodied and their backs glistening with an overdose of oil, firmly tucked in their
dhotis and jumped into the courtyard. One of them picked up the severed head of the
sacrificed beast and wearing it like a crown began to dance, beckoning the other to snatch it
from him. His opponent immediately responded to the challenge. Soon the mock fight was on
in full swing. They rolled onto the ground in mud and blood, each trying to get the other in
his grip, and simultaneously making every effort to slip out of the other's grip.
The intoxication spread very quickly. Everyone lustily clapped and cheered. The drum beats
became bolder and more frequent. More numbers joined the two, rolling on the bloody
ground in frenzied glee. The evil spirit crushed by the deity seemed to have emerged afresh
and it was difficult to distinguish where the demon really was -.crushed under the feet of the
deity, or now let loose in the open.
And in the far end of the courtyard, Goddess Durga kept on staring stony-eyed at the
celebration of her homecoming.
Satish finally arrived in Calcutta.
On stepping out of the railway station, at the very first sight, he was overcome by the
enormity of the city. Having lived all his life in a small village, the rich variety of sights and
sounds rendered him completely speechless. Just outside the station were stationed a number
of ticca gharis ,shuttered horse drawn carriages to ferry the just-arrived passengers to their
preferred destinations. Both the horses and their harnesses were in an equally run down state
– the horses painfully thin with prominent ribs, but the coachmen in an attempt to cover up
the actual state of affairs, were constantly and confidently crying out their pedigree to the
passers-by "Real Waler horses! Best in the town! Will go like lightning!”
“Come Babu! Where will you go"? The questions was directed at Satish by a turbaned
coachman standing near him, who by noticing his bewildered looks had sensed that he was a
newcomer to the city, and taking advantage of his confused state of mind immediately
decided to take charge.
“This passenger is mine!” he proclaimed to his fellow brothers, as he laid an authoritative
hand on Satish’s luggage.
"Come babu”, he opened the door of his carriage and Satish got in. The cab driver picked up
his trunk and bedding, and bundling them on the roof of the carriage, too got up beside them.
"Babu, where will you go?”
“House of Rajaram Mukherjee, Sobhabazar street, near the Sobhabazar Rajbati” Satish spelt
out the entire address in almost one breath.
During the course of his journey from Nayanpur to Calcutta, due to the innumerable times he
had looked at Rajaram Babu’s letter to his father, the address had been ingrained in his mind,
but still, to be doubly sure, he took out the postcard from his pocket and again eyed it
Out on the road, Satish was again in for a string of surprises. Back home, the only pukka
house in entire village was theirs, but here almost every house small or big was pukka. Did
that mean every one here was a zamindar? Satish silently wondered. The streets were
swarming with a vast multitude of people, but strangely everyone seemed to be some great
hurry, for they rarely stopped and talked, just brushing past each other without pausing even
for a moment. Again this was something Satish was totally unaccustomed to. In the village,
time was always plenty and affordable and whenever two persons crossed path, they never
parted company without a proper conversation. Family problems, latest happenings in the
village, all were discussed in thread bare manner, with both exchanging opinions and airing
their individual views on everything under the world before parting ways. But here in this
city, it seemed people were bothered only with themselves, choosing to remain indifferent
about the existence of others around them.
Satish felt somewhat awed by the alien surroundings and was about to ask the coachman how
much longer it would take to reach his destination, when the carriage drew up in front of a
two storied building. As he peered out of the window, the first thing that caught his eyes was
a marble plaque beside the gate with the words “Rajaram Mukherjee” inscribed on them in
big bold black.
He heaved a sigh of relief and stepping out, enquired about the fare.
“Two rupees eight and eight annas” – the coachman, an adept and expert reader of minds,
quite confidently demanded four tines the normal amount. From Satish’s appearance, he had
assessed him to be a well-to-do newcomer, who would not be in a mood to haggle with the
fare, as at that moment his mind was already preoccupied with other anxieties.
He was right in his assumption. Satish, grateful and glad to have reached his destination
safely and in one piece amidst the confusion of the city, happily paid him the demanded
amount without even a second thought and opened the gate, his hands quivering with
excitement. His dream of coming to Calcutta was no longer a dream but was a reality!
Rajarambabu’s house where Satish put up, was the perfect picture of perpetual
pandemonium. Like a big banyan, home to a horde of winged species with each contributing
to the cacophony, what a cross section of diverse-natured humanity inhabited that house!
Rajarambabu was a quite renowned and established person and anyone who was anyhow
related to him in the faintest thinkable way, made use of this ever-open almshouse.
One of them was Nalinnakha, a nearing forty year old clerk in a private company. His wife
had gone to her parent’s house to give birth to their 18th child. He was almost a permanent
resident, for almost every year his wife made this annual pilgrimage to seek the grace of
goddess Sasthi. Then there Jadupati, the nephew of Rajarambabu’s wife’s elder bother’s
father-in-law’s youngest sister’s eldest son who had come to Calcutta to try his luck in the
paints business. Five students from Rajarambabu’s native village, by virtue of “village
collection” were also staying in the house and studying in the Metropolitan
institution……..and there were many more ……………
Of course, Satish did not exactly fall in the commoners’ category. His father was a zamindar
and in keeping with his elevated social status, initially a part of the first floor had been
vacated and rearranged for his use. But Satish refused to stay there. Born and brought up in a
village, he felt extremely claustrophobic in those dark rooms stuffed with heavy Victorian-
age furniture, where the aged air, abandoning its characteristic mobility had taken up abode
and the occasional sunbeam sneaking in through the maze of shutters was treated like a
trespasser. Even the windows in the internal walls had been turned into alcoves for better
functional utility, ending any possibility of cross ventilation.
He finally chose the rooftop room in spite of stiff opposition from Rajarambabu and other
members of his family. True, the quaint shaped room was extraordinarily small with a
slanting ceiling and windows reaching right down to the floor. True, it was somewhat cut off
from the rest of the house and for every little thing, one needed to go down. But the
availability of unlimited light and fresh air, the adjoining open terrace fanned by tree tops
throwing strange shapes of shade and shadows throughout the day, more than made up for all
And at night it was like standing under a deep purple dome lighted by tremulous stars, the
stillness of the surroundings occasionally broken by the long-drawn howl of the jackals from
the adjoining bamboo grove fading across the stretch of open land sloping away to the river.
Satish had never realized before how much all these had unknowingly become so essential
for his existence.
Satish's college was not very far from the house and on most of the days, if he was not
in a hurry he made it on foot. He liked walking, winding in and out of serpentine lanes,
slowing down before the quaint wayside temples, making a quick albescence before the
reigning deity and resuming his journey. He loved sipping the sweet strange-smelling
charanamrita which the priest gave him after he had displayed his devotion. Sometimes if he
was luckier, he also got a few pieces of fruit and even a full sweet.
On his route, under the spreading boughs of an ancient Aswatha tree stood an ill-maintained
miniature brick temple. And though the structure looked like a nonentity, the deity housed
inside was certainly not- for almost all those who passed by the spot, including Satish, made
it a point to stop and stoop in front of “Sani Thakur” –the much-dreaded black god of Black
Arts. Being flattered was not the sole monopoly of mortals only.
One day it was raining tremendously. Lazily stretched out on his bed, Satish was casually
gauging the mood of the weather and debating what to do. The very first thought was to take
the day off, but he finally abandoned the idea. Today there would be Prof Wyan’s class for
quite an extended period of time and he did not want to miss it at any cost.
Prof Wyan was worlds apart from the typical stereotyped teacher. To him teaching was far
more than just a profession; it was his passion in which he immersed himself completely. He
taught with so much emotion and ardour that whatever poem he taught, seemed to come alive
in flesh and blood. In his last class when Prof Wyan was reading from Sir Water Scott’s
“Lochinvar”, Satish could well visualize the young Scottish hero emerge from the pages of
the book and gallop away with his radiant bride through the open window out into the
sunshine. Such was the magic, which, only a professor like Wyan was capable of weaving in
the words which emerged from not just his mouth, but very heart.
Satish again stared outside and finding the downpour to have lessened in intensity and
decreased into a drizzle, energetically stood up.
The road was crowded and wet. Satish looked this way and that if he could spot an empty
ticca ghari , as the very thought of walking in this weather was a big put-off. A lot of them
sped by, but none stopped or showed any sign of slowing down at his call. All were full.
A pheaton ghari cantered by and then abruptly screeched to a stop a few yards in front him.
The window shutter downed and a bearded face peeped out.
"Are you going to college? Why don't you come with me? The man seated inside smiled at
Satish, who too stared back, the face in the phaeton seeming quite familiar, yet Satish was
unable to place him.
“I am in your class, but sorry, I do not know your name. By the way, I am Siraj.”
“Get up, we can talk on the way!” he warmly held out his hand.
Satish, stood, somewhat hesitant, his mind still busy trying to figuring out the identity of his
unknown friend. Then like lightning, it dawned on him. That trademark slightly feminine
sing-song tone, that carefully-cultured beard dyed with henna, those gold-rimmed spectacles!
Oh! How did he fail to recognize the face which he had noticed very often in the class sitting
diagonally away from him!
“Aren't you Roll no. 66?” Satish asked in an impulse. The suddenness of the remark and its
inherent spontaneousness, swept away all the initial hesitation and feeling of formality,
which till then had stubbornly stood like a barrier between the two classmates. Siraj
immediately broke out into a loud laughter.
The slight formal chortle, which till then had been hovering on Satish’s face, too gave way to
a broad and hearty uproar as he, folded his umbrella and climbed into the coach.
Like Satish, Siraj too hailed from a zamindar family of East Bengal, but the pedigree of his
family was at a much higher level. Siraj's father was the uncle of Nawab Salimullah of
Dhaka. His mother too was related to Bahadur Shah Zafar the ill-fated last Mughal emperor,
who, because of his involvement in the Sepoy Mutiny had been exiled by the British.
Because of this reason the whole of Siraj's maternal side was very unfavourably biased
against English education and anything that was in any way related to the Raj. Initially Siraj
too had forbidden to study in Presidency College, simply of it being an institution founded by
There was only one major difference between them. Till then Satish had managed to evade
all matrimonial ties. But Siraj was already betrothed to his cousin sister Manira, and their
relation had been fixed even before the sum total of their ages had crossed the double figure
"Where are you staying?” Siraj asked Satish.
“With a relative of my brother-in-law Jatindranath Babu.”
“What’s your brother in law’s full name?” Siraj asked earnestly, suddenly sounding
“Is he working in the Bengal secretariat?” Siraj asked, looking outside. The narrow road was
crammed with ticca gharis, and their sophisticated versions- phaetons, landaus all standing
cheek-by-jowl. Everything was moving at a snail’s place as the sudden unseasonal rain had
thrown everything out of gear.
“You know Jatinda? When did you meet him and where?” Satish asked, unable to contain his
curiosity. Jatinda was presently based in Darjeeling and Satish couldn't think of any common
field of acquaintance.
“Oh just like that. I had met him once, at a function in our college!” Siraj casually answered,
but didn't volunteer to elaborate.
Sensing his unwillingness Satish too decided against asking anything more. Instead, he took
out his watch from his pocket and noticing him looking at it, Siraj remarked “We are already
very late. Looks like we have already missed Prof Wyan's class!”
“You like literature?” Satish, noticing the tinge of regret in his tone, could not help enquiring.
“Literature is my literally my life!” Siraj stated “That is the very reason why I refused to
waste all my life in a small village just feeding on the ancestral property like a parasite and
“And Prof Wyan’s lecture is like my lifeline! That is the only class I really find interesting”
He further added.
Satish was quite startled at the commonness in their thoughts. It was bizarre to discover that
someone else too was capable of thinking like him.
Though it had been quite some time since Satish had shifted to Calcutta, still till date he had
not made any friend in the real sense of the term. He didn't mix much with his classmates, a
big chunk of whom hailed from in and around Calcutta, and moved around with an air of
superiority-typical of the city bred. They tended to look down upon those who came from the
small towns and villages. In particular those having their roots in the interiors of East Bengal
were the targets of constant mockery. They were wholesale referred to as "Bangals” and
everything different about them – their pronunciation, dressing sense, food habits were
pointed out and made fun of in public. The pure-Calcutta boys even dared to make fun of
their Principal Dr. Prasanna Kumar Roy, of course behind his back. Though he was the first
Indian to make it to the revered post, still he was not spared for the simple reason that he too
was a “Bangal.”
Because of all these reasons, Satish generally made it a point to avoid them as much as he
could and largely kept to himself- preferring to spend time in the library. And whenever he
wanted to take a break, he would roam the streets, observing the diverse mass of humanity
always on the move.
A large crowd had collected in front of the college, but in place of the usual pandemonium,
everyone was strangely silent.
“What can be the matter?” Siraj wondered aloud, as he stood up to get down.
“Perhaps a holiday has been declared because of the rains!” Satish stated hopefully, for in
normal course Prof Wyan’s class would have been almost over by now and only a sudden
unscheduled holiday could save them from missing it. Prof Wyan was extremely punctual.
He was sure to have come to the college and conducted his class, even if the whole city went
They didn't have to wait guessing for long for seeing Satish, Yogin one of his classmates,
who too hailed from East Bengal and hence was more of a friend as compared to the rest,
“Have you heard the news?” He yelled out.
“Why, what has happened?” Satish enquired, trying to locate a dry patch to alight.
“Prof Wyan passed away last night!”
“What!” at the suddenness of the news, Satish dropped all caution and instantly jumped
down and as he did so on a small mound of freshly wet mud, the sticky mass instantly
rebounded, clinging to his freshly pressed dhoti with all its might.
But at that moment, Satish he was hardly in a mood to be perturbed by the mess.
“Sounds unbelievable isn't?” Yogin morosely hung his head. “I too was shocked when I first
heard it this morning!”
“What had happened?” Siraj slowly asked in a trembling tone, leaning forward. He fervently
wished he had heard it wrong.
“Seems he had a heart attack and expired even before the doctor could be called!” Yogin
took a deep breath and looked at Satish “We are all going to his house for the funeral. Are
“I don't know. I can’t think of anything!” Satish mumbled and realized that his legs shaking,
unable to stand the strain any longer. He clumsily dragged himself to a nearby bench and
sank on it, and as he did so, he recalled having met Prof Wyan only yesterday while he was
going to the library. The professor was his usual jovial self and after enquiring about his state
of affairs, had extended an invitation to attend the christening party of Tracy, his latest pet, a
Persian cat, which he had rescued and adopted. The professor, a confirmed bachelor, lived all
by himself along his two dogs and three dogs, in his Beadon Street house, the doors of which
were open to all students at any time of the day.
The other thing about the professor which made Satish hold him in high esteem, was the
respect he unfailingly displayed for his and everybody else’s mother tongue. In an age, when
a handful of highly- educated foreign-returned natives were openly and shamelessly
canvassing the cause of English and beckoning everyone to embrace it ignoring Bengali, Prof
Wyan always encouraged his students to speak in their own dialect outside the class hours.
And as token of encouragement he too conversed with them in broken Bengali, stating that a
yet-to-be-independent race needed this moral booster to be rightfully proud of its lingua
franca, which in his opinion was one of the sweetest in the world. He was also a great fan of
Bengali sweets, with Nobin Moira’s Rosogullas being his all-time favourite. Only last week,
Satish on his way to the professor’s house had taken a tin-full of that lily-white, billiard-ball-
sized, fluffy syrupy balls and how the professor’s eyes had sparkled in delight at the sight of
the simple gift!
Satish bit his lips in a bid to push back the accumulating tears, which were threatening an
outburst any moment.
“Satish!” Siraj lightly tapped him on his back, “Do you want to go to his house now? If you
want, I could drop you there on my way back home!”
“Aren’t you going ?’ Satish asked in a choked tone.
“No!” Siraj’s voice too was quivering “I want to remember the professor as I have seen him
always, teaching in the class, light-heartedly cracking jokes in an empty moment,
occasionally getting irritated but recovering fast enough, forcing me to share his dinner if I
incidentally happened to land up at his house at that moment. But once I see him lying
lifeless, I know that scene would black out all these happy memories and always remind me
of his demise”……………………………..Siraj broke down unable to continue.
Hearing him, Satish was so stunned that for a moment he even forgot to mourn. Was Siraj
capable of reading his mind? Or else how could he say exactly what Satish too had been
thinking about all this while? How could he pin point what was precisely the reason why
Satish had decided against participating in the professor’s funeral? Like him, Siraj too
desired to remember the professor only in life and not in death!
As Satish stared at the bleak rain-drenched cityscape, for a split second a stray ray from the
unseen sun penetrated the cloud cover and hit him straight in the face. With one hand he
shielded his eyes, while the other unknowingly clutched the hand lying next to him.
With all his might.
As tight as he could.
Prof Wyan was gone but Satish had found a friend at last, someone with whom he could
The friendship that sprang up between Siraj and Satish, turned out to be a boon to both of
them. It brought Satish out of the cocoon into which he had voluntarily confined himself after
some of his classmates, the so-called-sophisticated Calcuttans had mocked him for being a
clodhopper, making fun of his peculiar “Bangal” accent.
Siraj was too was happy. A scion of one of the richest families of Bengal, he had effortlessly
accumulated around him a circle of sycophants, with whom he gossiped and played cards,
who accompanied on occasional outings to the Botanical Garden. But such relationships
were rarely more than skin-deep, as the intention of his so-called friends’ was to enjoy
themselves at his expense, because of which they always spoke to him in a guarded manner,
resorting to zero criticism and unadulterated flattery. Siraj, though sick of them was also
stuck with them, for he needed these hangers-on to ward off the feeling of loneliness in an
alien city. miles and miles away from home. In such circumstances, Satish seemed like a
Godsend and in him Siraj found the soul mate that he had been unknowingly searching for.
Both Siraj and Satish got on very well as they had similar interests, tastes and even
temperaments; they understood each other’s moods perfectly with and without the aid of
words. The major area of mutual interest was English poetry with only a minor difference-
Shelley was Satish's favourite poet while Siraj doted on Keats. This difference in opinion
provided them all the scope of engaging in unending friendly arguments- debating who of the
two poets was the greater and more gifted. Neither won nor neither gave up; nor did such a
verbal exchange strain their friendship, on the contrary only further strengthened it.
At times in the evening, after college was over, they would stroll to the river bank to watch
the sunset- the sun dying for the day and dyeing the placid waters with its last burst of
colours, which would then slowly spill on to their minds and bring back a much-loved long-
forgotten line. And long after dusk had descended, both of them would sit quietly side by
side for hours together, absorbing with every atom– ablaze of lights waved before a wayside
altar, the watchful stars shining against the purple blackness.
Siraj’s great grandfather had bought a sprawling country house on the banks of the river,
where he stayed with an old man, who was his caretaker cum cook cum guardian cum
companion –everything rolled into one. The house, a small one-storied structure, was
perched proudly in the lap of sprawling pampered grounds. The frontage, where a profusion
of weeds and wild flowers bloomed undisturbed, possessed all the potential of being turned
into a landscaped piece of art with proper grooming. But neither Siraj nor the old man was
interested in exploring its potential, as a result of which it looked like a jungle from outside.
The passers by got the impression that the house was less a house and more a ruin and they
too rarely stepped in. Only during summer time, the young boys from the neighbourhood
sneaked into the grounds, taking care to avoid the prying eyes of the old man- their target
being the litchi trees laden with the pinkish-red fruits of the season and the rare variety of
pineapple-scented mango tree at the far end of the garden.
Siraj’s great grandfather, a true connoisseur of the fruit, had managed to cultivate as many as
15 different varieties of mango in his garden, which he had very aptly named “Ambagh” or
“garden of mangoes.” He held mango parties for his friends and had also adopted a unique
preservation technique, wherein mangoes were coated with molten wax and then kept
immersed in honey and ghee. However with his death, the entire juicy affair had
disintegrated and only the name of the garden remained, as a reminiscence of the golden era
of the golden fruit.
One evening the two friends were sitting on the verandah, studying for their exams. A plate
lay in front of them and on it was spread out several slices of raw mangoes, skinned and salt
sprinkled. 0nce in a while one would pick up a piece, prompting the other to follow suit and
munching them leisurely, they would once more get engrossed in their academics. Though
summer had set in full swing, the air was unusually cool due to a just-happened
The cocktail of earthy aroma rising from the wet earth and the overpowering fragrance of the
shower-fresh flowers had created an intoxicating effect. Satish was feeling drowsy and was
just about to suggest that they take a walk to chase off the setting slumber, when Siraj took
out the watch from his pocket and stood up, glancing at the time.
“What happened?” Satish asked, looking up from his book.
“Err….I have to go out for a short while.”
“Remember, the other day I told you about my nani, my father’s distant aunt who lives in
Chitpore?” Siraj spoke simultaneously combing his hair, “I am going to her place. You stay
here, I shall be back soon.”
“Let me also come with you!” Satish offered. He too wanted to take a break.
“No, no!” Siraj’s instantaneous and fervent refusal at his friend’s proposal of accompanying
him to his aunt’s place took Satish by surprise. Normally they were used to going everywhere
together, due to which some boys in the college had nicknamed them “Manikjor” - a pair of
“Why? Am I an untouchable? Can’t I come with you to your aunt’s place?” Satish irritated
and upset, looked at Siraj straight in the eye.
“Please don’t misunderstand me!” Siraj seemed anxious to pacify his friend “Actually my
nani is an old and orthodox lady with outlandish notions of her own. She might not approve
of our friendship just because you belong to a different religion. She could be rude to you,
unnecessarily insult you and end up making a mountain out of a molehill!”
Satish fell silent, but somewhere deep down he could clearly sense that his friend was not
speaking the truth. And he secretly decided to follow Siraj and find out where he was
actually headed to that evening.
A few minutes later, two silhouettes could be seen scurrying down the street. Siraj was
walking very fast with long strides and it seemed as if he was in a great hurry. Satish,
shadowing him and careful of maintaining a constant distance between the both, had to
alternate between walking and running, lest he loose sight of his target. The sudden spurt of
unaccustomed activity left him panting for breath and he was already sweating profusely,
with the sultry weather and salty air adding to his discomfort.
Fortunately, his ordeal didn't last for long. Siraj turned a corner and disappeared inside an
ordinary looking house and at his friend’s actions, Satish became quite puzzled. Firstly, what
was Siraj doing in a house in Bagbazar when was supposed to go to Chitpore? And
secondly, Siraj’s nani was very wealthy and lived in a large palace like mansion and this
house could never be her residence! Satish was sure of that.
Then why had Siraj come here and most importantly to meet whom? And why was he
determined to hide the entire affair even from his closest friend? Satish wondered as he
patiently waited under the porch of a nearby house, waiting for his friend to emerge again.
Time ticked away, seconds making up minutes and minutes merging into an hour. When
almost an hour and a half had elapsed, Satish decided there was no point in waiting any
longer. However, before retracing his steps as he looked back for the last time, he noticed
Siraj’s shoes lying outside the door which meant that his friend was still inside the house.
The next day, early morning Satish was back again. As he climbed the spreading boroughs of
an Asoka tree facing the house, he found the door to be wide open with a woman standing in
the doorway and talking with a milkman. One glance at her and Satish was confirmed that
there was not the remotest possibility of her being Siraj's nani for she was a firingi, a white-
skinned woman, though instead of the customary skirt blouse or gown, the trademark dress of
their clan, she was presently wearing a black-bordered white sari. With Satish still on the
tree, the firingi lady disappeared inside and another woman came out. She appeared to be
much younger and though her complexion was fair, she was not one of the white-skinned
tribe but a confirmed native, a daughter of the soil. She was breathtakingly beautiful, the
appeal of her finely chiselled face considerably enhanced by arched eyebrows sheltering
large almond shaped eyes, radiant like the first flush of dawn. Her hair too had the sheen and
splendour of the dazzling radiant darts that the sun god showers upon the world.
The young girl, after gathering her hair into a bun stooped and began drawing an alpana on
the cemented ground fronting the just-washed doorway. Her body shapely and supple,
gracefully moved back and forth, synchronizing with the subtle swaying of her shrouded
bosom. The golden amulet adorning her bare upper arm, occasionally send out blinding
sparks of brilliance which was reflected back on her radiant face. Even from afar Satish
could make out the fullness of her form and the sensuous curves, the clear morning light
filtering through the flimsy sari, diluting the opaqueness of flesh and imparting an ethereal
glow to her entire being. It was evident that she was one of God’s masterpieces.
Then all of a sudden, a mischievous wind tugged at her aanchal , the free end of her sari
wrapped round the upper part of her body. The easily allured sari-part instantly unwound,
waving like a flag and wanting to fly away with the wind. The woman who was till then
engrossed in artistic exploits, suddenly became aware of the exposure and like lightning,
reined in her unruly sari , but not before Satish, seated higher up had a glimpse of her bare
back on which sunlight attempted to sit but continually slipped.
Satish, still mesmerised at the revelation, slowly climbed down the tree. He had deciphered
the entire mystery about his friend’s discreet nocturnal adventure, and seen much more than
he had ever dreamt of. He sighed as he remembered what Pishima had said about the city.
This city was really a most dangerous place for young men.
Now Satish was faced with a great dilemma. Should he confront Siraj outright and coax him
to backtrack or would it be better to write to his friend’s father incognito and inform him of
everything? If he chose the first option, there existed a possibility that Siraj might be
offended at this intrusion in his supposedly personal matters, which might even strain their
friendship. The second option was safer but Satish himself was not comfortable resorting to
it. But about one thing he was decided and determined. He just couldn't be a silent spectator
to his friend ruining himself. He needed to act. And fast!
The following evening while they were strolling by the river, Satish finally decided on a
direct confrontation, irrespective of the consequences.
“How did it go with your nani last night? You were there for quite a considerable period of
time!” Satish asked, taking in a deep breath, expecting to hear a lot of fabricated stuff.
"It went fine, err, we talked of this and that, she was her usual self, enquiring about college,
…………………” Siraj began to mumble, halting between the words. The lack of confidence
and fluency, attempt to avoid eye contact, made it amply apparent that it was all made up
then and there.
“But yesterday you did not go to your nani's house!” he blurted out point blank, looking at
his friend in the eye.
A startled Siraj looked at him and then without saying anything, slowly turned his face away.
For quite some time, both sat side by side with a stifling silence sandwiched between them.
Satish was clearly more uncomfortable of the two, for he had expected his friend to be angry
or defensive but had not anticipated this silence. He wondered if Siraj was rethinking their
friendship and for a moment he felt a tinge of regret for having brought up the issue. But he
had already taken the plunge and now there was no going back.
“How did you know? You followed me?” Siraj asked after a long stunned silence, to which
Satish nodded in the affirmative.
“Siraj, please do not misunderstand me! But after seeing you there last night I just couldn’t
stop myself from asking you! Who were those women? That firingi lady and the Indian
woman! Since when have you been going there?”
“Satish, it would be better if you kept out of this entire affair!” Siraj spoke at last with great
difficulty, looking the other way.
“But Siraj, how can you be so unfaithful to Manira? You didn’t even think of her before
giving in to the temptations of fair flesh?” Satish was suddenly angry at his friends’
indifferent non-regretful attitude “She is going to be your wife and if she comes to know
…………” he trailed off.
“Oh ! Stop all this stupid analysis!” Siraj nearly thundered “Don't make comments on what
you don't understand. You are misinterpreting the whole thing………………”
“What is there to misinterpret in this matter? What other business can be there between a
man and a woman inside a closed room so late in the night? Everything is as clear as
The accusations were fired in quick succession.
“Please don’t speak like that!” Siraj buried his face in his hands. “All right, since you are so
insistent, tomorrow I will take you there. Then you yourself will understand everything. But
promise me that whatever you see and hear there, you will not disclose to anybody!”
“Not an unusual request!” Satish silently thought to himself, as he conceded to the condition.
They both fell silent all of a sudden. Dusk was fast descending on earth. The river lay relaxed
and only the mild sound of water gently lapping the banks could be heard. From faraway
floated the faint tinkling of temple bells. Around them everything was extremely calm and
peaceful. It was nature's natural resting hour.
The next day both were unusually quiet. The normal vivacious exchange, which was a
constant feature of their presence, was strangely missing. It became so obvious that others in
the class too seemed to notice the discrepancy. Anadi even went to the extent of taking Satish
aside and asking -
“What’s the matter Satish ? You look serious and solemn all of a sudden! Is it something to
do with that mischievous Mussalman?!” He suggestively stated and after quickly looking all
around to ensure that Siraj was not near them, continued “I hope that cow eating scallywag
has not tricked you into eating anything forbidden?” He excitedly whispered, eager to
confirm his worst suspicion.
Anadi, hailed from a pure-blooded Brahmin family, amongst whom polygamy was one of the
primary occupations, undergone solely for monetary gain, with no intention of fulfilling any
of the duties which marriage involves. His father, an eighty-year old ailing man had hundreds
of wives, who mostly resided with their parents and were blessed with a darshan of their
earthly lord just once or twice a year. Anadi was the product of one such union. He had
enrolled in a college mainly due to his mother’s boundless enthusiasm to see him educated
and enlightened. But his mind was still ruled and restricted by the irrational rituals to which
he rigidly adhered and for which his mates had jokingly nicknamed him “Goshai Thakur.”
He prided on projecting himself as a pure Hindu to whom even a Musssalman’s touch was
taboo, leave alone making friends with him.
He bathed only in the Ganga River even in the peak of winter, as he considered the municipal
corporation water impure and unfit for use by a staunch Brahmin like him.
He stayed alone in a rented house and cooked his own meals, and was particular about never
eating in a non Brahmin house.
Satish was amused at his observation and for the first time since that day, a faint smile
appeared on his lips.
“Yes, you are right!” he looked at Anadi, pretending to appear crestfallen and morose.
“Siraj took me to Wilson’s hotel!”
“Wilsen ! My God! Why did you go with him?” Anandi impatiently cut him short, “Haven’t
you heard that saying………………………..
“Jaat marlo teen Sen ey
( A 19th Century proverb, stating that the caste divisions in Bengal have been destroyed by
the three Sens - Keshab Sen, the Pioneer of Brahmo Samaj; Wilson’s Hotel where young
men consumed liquor and forbidden food; and the station meaning the railways where men
of all castes sat in the same compartment.)
“I didn’t know that Wilson hotel would turn out to be such a hell of an experience!” Satish
said, feigning ignorance “And want to hear what we ate there?” An impish grin slowly grew
on his face “Beef steak, Kimar chop, pork soup…it was really delicious. Why don’t you
come with us one day? We will give you a free treat!”
Anadi stood up as if struck like lightning, and darted towards the door.
Beef steak, Kimar chop, pork soup …just the mention of the names was enough to make him
feel like throwing up……..with great difficulty he gulped down a vomiting sensation and
reaching the open ground, squatted and spat out with such vigorousness that for a moment it
seemed as if his entire inside would come out in the convulsion.
Satish joined by the other classmates, broke out into a hearty laughter. Teasing Anadi was a
favourite pastime in which all of them indulged at the slightest opportunity.
That afternoon, after the classes were over, instead of taking the regular route to the river
bank, they started walking in the opposite direction. Siraj was confidently leading the way
with Satish silently following him, quite baffled by his friend's bold unhesitating attitude. Till
then, he harboured the perception that when men are in the wrong about women, they appear
guilty and subdued. The foundation of his expectation was previous experiences regarding
his father for whenever Sibshankarbabu returned to the house, after a night out with his one
of his numerous concubines; he would normally try avoiding his son or other members of the
But Siraj moved about with such an unperturbed air that it seemed as if he had committed the
most sacred act in the world.
They were walking by the side of the Circular Road when the sight of an Oldsmobile
speeding by momentarily dragged Satish out of his thoughts– in the village itself he had read
about this strange kind of a self-powered buggy invented by a firingi in a far-off foreign land
where daytime there meant night here. And the first time he had seen with his own eyes, the
horseless buggy with its merry-go-round wheels and gracefully turned-up dashboard, he had
stopped in wonder. Whoever could have imagined that it would be possible for a carriage to
canter on its own without the aid of horses? He had also heard that the cost of maintaining
this funny machine was less than the annual costs involved in keeping a horse.
Leaving the Oldsmobile behind, they wound in and out of lanes and by lanes and finally
reached a nondescript looking house situated at a stone’s throw from the Circular road. In the
ground floor, facing the road was a line of shops and on the first floor veranda, a girl was
standing, staring at them with a comb in her hand, but it was obvious that all her interest at
that moment was concentrated on the two men rather than her mane. Satish turned his face
away and as he did so, he realized that this was not the same house where he had followed
Siraj the other night. The girl on the veranda too was an unseen face, though there was not a
quota of doubt about her identity, for decent girls never behaved like this, openly parading
themselves before the greedy gaze of strangers. Where had Siraj brought him? Had become
addicted to frequenting red-light spots?
He voiced his apprehension, but ignoring him, Siraj went in and Satish too had no other
choice than follow suit.
They climbed the stairs and crossing a railing-lined rectangular veranda running all round an
inner courtyard, entered a whitewashed room with mats spread out on the ground and a
blackboard hanging against a blank wall.
Satish looked all around in bewilderment, not able to make any sense of the entire setting.
“Let us wait here!” Siraj beckoned him to sit down, himself too stretching out on a mat.
“But this is a different house!” Satish having finally found his voice, managed to point out.
“I come here to attend classes!” Siraj stated and without venturing to elaborate, picked up a
book lying on the floor.
“What classes? Why have you brought me here? Where are the two women I saw the other
day in that house in Baghbazar?”
Siraj calmly took in the volley of questions. “Be a little patient and you will soon get to know
everything, what I have been doing, where and with whom………………” he trailed off
returning to the book in his hand.
Satish shut up, desperately trying to figure out the jigsaw puzzle………..those women there,
that girl here, classes………………….What does Siraj come here to learn? The art of
seduction, how to make love in the most perfect way………….?
“Siraj, how long have you been here!” a female voice made its presence felt, even before the
owner had entered the room. Seeing her Satish stood up in shock. It was the same firingi lady
that he had seen the other day, only now, she was dressed differently; in a full-sleeved white
flowing gown with her hair tied up at the back in a neat bun. A rosary of rudraksha adorned
her graceful swan-like neck and her clear blue eyes glowed with purity of spirit and strength
of character. One glance at her and Satish could feel that she was divinely different-
knowingly she could never be connected with anything immoral.
“Sister Nivedita , this is my friend Satish!”
Hearing her name, Satish almost jumped out of his skin and immediately shrank in shame as
he recalled his earlier thoughts about her. He had read a lot about the Irish disciple of Swami
Vivekananda who had dedicated her life for the cause of this country and its poverty-stricken
people, especially women. But even in his wildest dream, he had never imagined that he
would meet her here and in such circumstances!
But there was more surprise in store for him that summer evening.
Satish had hardly settled down, yet to recover from the “shock”, when he caught sight of
Jatinda entering the room along with a few other boys. Satish just couldn't believe his eyes.
He clutched his head firmly trying to make sure if he was awake or dreaming. He helplessly
looked at Siraj who was now grinning mischievously, relishing his bewilderment.
Jatinda came and noticing the perplexed look on his face, sat down beside him, patting him
on his shoulders.
“You did not expect me here, did you?”
Satish just nodded. He was so baffled by the quick turn of events that he could not even
“You also come here?” he finally managed to ask to which his brother-in-law smiled, a
gentle reassuring smile.
“I know you are still in the dark. But do not to be angry with Siraj, as each one of us who
come here is required to take a strict oath of secrecy that under no conditions will he ever
divulge anything to anyone, not even to one closest to him.”
“Jatin have all the boys have come? Will you start your class now?” Sister Nivedita came in
“Satish can you come with me to the other room? I would like to talk to you.”
The room at the end of the verandah where they sat down was the quietest of the lot, and as
Satish eyed the magnificent personality seated before him, he was filled with a sense of guilt.
If Sister Nivedita ever came to know what he had been assumed her to be!
“You have come here today for the first time, isn’t it?” Sister looked at Satish, observing
him. “Do you have any idea what happens here? Why all of us have gathered here? Has Siraj
told you anything?”
“Alright, I will explain to you!” she seemed secretly pleased at Siraj’s ability to act in the
manner in which he had been instructed. “But first tell me, whom do you love most in this
What a question! Satish was a little taken aback, but still he obediently attempted to answer.
Father, Pishima……………his world still oscillated between just these two
Hearing them it was Sister’s turn to be surprised.
“Why, you don't love your mother?” she couldn’t help asking.
“She died when I was born. My pishima, my father’s elder sister, is like my mother. She has
raised me all these years.”
“Oh I am sorry!” Sister took a deep breath and asked “And do you love your village? The
place where you were born? Grew up?”
“What Nayanpur? That ‘s undoubtedly the best place in the world” Satish firmly stated, and
for a brief moment, nostalgia took over.
One day he had desperately wanted to get away from it all- the familiar faces, the familiar
surroundings, never realizing how much they actually meant to him. Now far away he
yearned for every ounce of that soil!
“Now Satish, suppose a group of plunderers descended upon your village, destroying and
defiling everything, what would you do?”
“Fight with them and drive them out!” He promptly answered without the slightest hesitation,
though he could not understand why in the world he was being asked all these absurd things.
“Right, very right are you!” Sister sat up in excitement “That’s exactly what has happened to
Bharat Barsa, your motherland. She has been taken hostage by the British and as a son of the
soil isn't your duty to drive them out?” Sister looked at him eagerly.
“Satish don’t think of your country as it but her. Imagine the hills and mountains to be the
Mother’s bones, the rivers and streams her arteries and veins, and the vacant space her flesh!
Satish was so dumbfounded at the comparison, that he didn't know what to say.
“But the British are the rulers of the country” he stated feebly, trying to defend them, “They
have done a lot for this country, given us a strong and stable government, modern
“True, but they have done all that to secure their own position, to strengthen their hold on
this country and its people…………..all these are eyewash so that they can continue ruling
this country in peace for eternity!”
Satish did not say anything, but in his heart he did not agree with Sister, who too sensed his
hesitation and assumed it to be a lack of realization of the actual happenings.
“Well, let us for a moment, accept that the British want the good of this land. But that does
not in any way dilute the right of the people of this land to be independent, to be the
architects of their own fate! The point is simple and straight- the British will have to be
forced to leave the country and hand over the reins to its people!”
She spoke with such intensity that the array of fiery words, hit Satish straight like a shower of
arrows. He sat mesmerized. A whole new world was slowly unfolding before his eyes. A
dangerous world in which he was apprehensive to set foot on!
“Do you all intend to enter into a straight away encounter with the British?” He asked in
small voice “”But is it feasible, the British are so well-equipped and organised! What
happened during the Sepoy Mutiny was utterly a failure!”
“I know it is not possible today, but the preparations have to start. First and foremost, you
have to throw the fear of British out from your mind. And physical fitness is a must for
attaining mental strength and acquiring nerves of steel. There is a proverb which says that the
battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton. We too have started preparing
our boys, under the pretence of aakhras or fitness clubs. Jatin, your brother-in-law in too has
undergone training in wrestling!”
“Satish, you don't have to make any commitment right now. Go back home and think over
what I have just told you. Decide for yourself what you should be doing now, fighting to free
your motherland or lying low, leading a laidback secure life…………….Bharat Barsa is not
the only slave nation in the world. There are many like her which have suffered similarly
and successfully fought to free themselves. Read these books and you will understand!”
She picked up two books and handed then to him.
“They will tell you about two spirited individuals of Italy, Mazzini and Garibaldi, how they
spear-headed the revolution against the imperial forces in their country. Their efforts finally
resulted in the creation of a republic called the Roman Republic.”
“But these are books banned” she put in, as an afterthought “Keep them carefully. Don’t
show them to others!”
Satish felt as if he was holding a ball of fire.
“Come now! I will take you to meet the others!” she stood up in one go and marched out of
They came to a room, where a group of boys huddled together were engaged in an animated
banter alternating with loud guffaws. At the sight of Sister, the decibel level dropped
“What's the matter?” as she enquired, a bit irritated at the commotion, one of the boys rose to
“Sister we were discussing the accident which took place today at the Maidan during horse-
riding!” he stated and proceeded to elaborate “Palash had gone to learn riding with the horse
that Manohar babu has gifted us. But after making just two rounds, the poor creature, unable
to stand the strain fainted and collapsed on the ground taking Palash too with her.”
Hearing the narration, an impulsive smile momentarily flickered on Sister's lips. But she
quickly controlled herself and was serious soon again.
Palash was the fattest boy in the group, impressible both in terms of height and gait, whereas
the horse already a much-worn out creature was painfully thin with all the ribs exposed. Had
Manoharbabu gifted it for the good of the boys or for his own good, thinking it to be a good
way to get rid of the unwanted beast? But she didn't voice her opinion just then!
“I will talk to Manoharbabu about it!” she stated with an air of authority and calling out to
Barin asked him to introduce Satish to the others.
There were five boys inside the room of whom, he only knew Siraj, with the rest being
unknown unseen faces.
“Come!” Barin sat down pointing to an empty space next to him. “Brainstorming session
over?” He asked, sounding somewhat amused.
“And this is the homework!” Satish showed him the books in his hand.
“Don't worry brother; we all have been grilled in a similar manner. But then preparing for
freedom struggle is not a child's play! It involves a lot of large scale preparations!”
Slowly Satish was enlightened about everything. With an aim to put an end to the British
rule, a handful of likeminded enthusiastic individuals had joined hands to form the Anushilan
Samity- a secret revolutionary society set up with the sole objective of single-mindedly and
wholeheartedly pursuing the country’s independence. The leader didn't live here and nothing
much was known about him, except that he was Barin’s elder brother, Aurobindo Babu,
because of which everyone referred to him as A babu. And Barin, in the absence of the real
leader, by virtue of blood relation, seemed to have emerged as a staunch claimant for the
post. He imagined himself to the top-man, superior to everybody, thereby exhibiting sporadic
spurts of high-handedness.
But the real head of this centre was Jatindra Nath Banerjee ( not Satish’s brother-in-law) the
right hand man of Aurobindo Babu. He had served in the army of the Rajah of Baroda and
because of his expertise in tactics of warfare, everyone called him “Jandrel” or “general”
behind his back. The heavily-built sombre-looking Jatindranath too seemed tailor-made for
the title. He lived in another part of the house with his wife and another woman whom he had
introduced as his widowed cousin sister. But there was definitely a mystery surrounding that
woman, for even her relation with her “Jandrel” brother was not very clear.
As conversation picked up, the feeling of unfamiliarity too began fading. By then, Satish was
feeling more at ease in his new surroundings and began opening up with the others. Almost
all the boys were of his age, and were first timers to the city of Calcutta from the rural and
semi-urban pockets of Bengal with one common initial objective - further studies.
Only one amongst them HemChandra was a full fledged family man– everyone was calling
him Hemda and with him was a thin sharp looking boy with intense eyes that keenly captured
everything around him…………He was Khudiram , the youngest in the group and perhaps
one of the most spirited, for already he had a track record of engaging in a direct hand-to-
hand combat with the police, something which none of the other boys could yet boast of.
For some inexplicable reason, Khudiram took an instant liking to Satish right from their very
first meeting and the feeling was very much mutual.
It was quite late in the night when the group broke up, each going his way. Satish silently
walked beside his brother-in-law, question after question queuing up in his mind.
After they had come quite a way without speaking a word, each absorbed in his own
thoughts, Satish could no longer hold himself back. There were so many things he needed to
know, understand, clarify……………..
“Jatinda!” he began “since when you have been a part of all these?”
“Quite some time!” Jatin didn't specify the exact date of his association.
“And how do you happen to know Sister Nivedita?” Satish asked.
“Oh, that's quite a story! Some years ago, the city was scourged by the epidemic of plaque.
The scene was really bad; everywhere people were dying in large numbers and it was a
panicky situation. One day while I was passing through the infected area, covering my nose
to avoid the stench, I came across Sister cleaning the streets with a broom and basket in her
hand. Her dedication and determination stunned me and literally brought tears to my eyes
………………” his tone became choked at the memory.
Silence reigned for a while……..night had fallen long ago and the road was noiseless and
empty. This part of the city was still a half-village with its ponds and frequent bamboo
groves, with buildings being few and far between…….
A horse carriage stormed by ripping apart the stillness.
“Jatindada!” Satish put in fearfully “You are in a government job; if the British comes to
know of your involvement, then you will be in terrible trouble!”
“Don't worry!” Jatin assured him “No body will suspect anything. Like the darkest part in the
room is just below the lamp, where its shadow falls, similarly my job is my best
“Jatin dada” Satish put his next question, this time a bit hesitatingly “While we were entering
the house today, I saw a girl standing on the balcony above, intently watching us. Do you
have any idea who she could possibly be?”
“You must have seen Kusum. She is the sister of the other Jatin, Jatindranath Banerjee” he
stopped at that, not volunteering any further information.
“You mean Jandrel?”
“On your first day itself, you have unearthed one of the well-kept secrets?” He light-
“Jatindada, that girl’s behaviour seemed somewhat awkward, the way she was observing us
with her hair hanging in a dishevelled manner and without a veil on her head. I have never
seen girls of good families act like that!”
Jatin heard the comment, and sighed. There was undoubtedly something fishy about that girl.
Kusum’s intentions were quite questionable and appeared far from being honourable , the
feline like way she skulked about the entire house and made her presence felt…….a slight
flash of her aanchal here, a little feminine laugh there………she purposely fell in the way of
the young boys, tempting them with her fully-bloomed but-unfulfilled youth. Such a potential
danger needed to nipped right in the bud or it might assume dangerous proportions later on,
as most of the boys of the Anushilan Samity were young and unmarried. One day Jatin
himself had come across Barin conversing with Kusum, his eyes only on her and oblivious of
the world around him. And Kusum! Well it was amply apparent that she was returning from
the river after a bath, and with the wet sari clinging to her bursting bust, seemed to personify
Not that they were averse to feminine participation…Sister Nivedita was a part of the core
group and came regularly, with Radharani accompanying her at times, Sarala too was
actively involved, but none of their presence ever caused any problems.
But this girl was like fire, not the tender-lustre lamp lighting up the corner of the home with
its soft glow , but a raging flame capable of singeing all noble intentions ……………..
Destruction is always an easy affair.
Just one drop of lemon juice is enough to sour the entire milk.
“Jatin dada are all the Sahibs bad?” Satish suddenly asked, breaking the silence.
“No never, who said so? Our fight is against the British misrule, we don’t have any grudge
against any particular individual. A lot of the British too are secretly sympathizing with our
cause. I realized that while I was at Muzzaffarpur, employed as a stenographer to Barrister
Mr. Kennedy!” he paused as if lost in reminiscence of those wonderful days which had
enriched his life so much “Mr Kennedy was a man of rare spirit and it was he who inspired
me to strive for freedom, stating again and again that freedom is always the most cherished
thing on earth. Mrs. Kennedy also treated me like her own son. Even today, I have the
greatest regards for them!”
Satish sighed, silently remembering Prof Wyan and all that he stood for. Would the professor
have approved of the Anushilan Samity and its activities? Satish wondered.
After dinner Satish retired to his roof top room. He leaned on the parapet and closed his eyes.
It was a new moon night and the surroundings were drenched in an inky darkness. A
soothing breeze blew from the direction of the river every now and then, calming his worked-
In his head, many divergent thoughts were continually chasing one another and he needed to
sort them out clearly. Never before had he been forced to think in such lines. Till then, he and
everyone else in his circle of acquaintance had always unquestioningly accepted the British
rule as their destiny and had even been grateful for that. Like the sun rising in the east and
setting in the west. Did it ever cross anyone’s mind why it was that way or not the opposite?
Similar was the attitude towards the British rule. Leave alone opposing it, it had never even
occurred to him that there could be any other alternative. Even his father, the much-feared
zamindar of Nayanpur , appeared so meek and tame in the company of the sahibs, who were
looked upon as the mortal representatives of some immortal being reigning somewhere far up
in the sky.
But are the British always justified in their actions? Satish pondered and arrived at the
conclusion that NO, they too make unintentional mistakes- Like the last time when the
Magistrate sahib camping in the jungle near their village had mistakenly shot dead Ratan,
thinking him to be a tiger. But it wasn’t actually the sahib’s mistake!
Ratan was a bahurapi, a wandering performer who eked out a living by masquerading the
mask, accordingly modulating his tone to suit the role. One day he would be decked up as a
mythological god complete with all the accessories, while the next day he would don the get-
up of a tiger. On one such occasion, when he was journeying from one village to another
with a real tiger skin hanging from his shoulders, he was sighted by the sahib in the dim
twilight, who immediately fired at him more out of self defence. But then he had personally
apologized to the grieving widow and even paid her 500 rupees as compensation. Not one or
two, but full FIVE HUNDRED rupees. The poor woman, though it was her moment of
mourning, had momentarily stopped wailing in wonder-for till then she was not even aware
that so much money existed in the world………………………
Satish closed his eyes. To him, the British were still like demigods endowed with the divine
right to rule this land. He could not think of them in any other light. The other question
which had cropped up in his mind was - suppose the British were driven away and the
country became independent, who would step in to fill the void? The British administration
was so efficient and organised in their functioning and in their absence wouldn’t there be a
total break down of law and order? What would the structure of the replacement be like?
He had put all these questions to Barin, but hadn’t received any clear
answers………………all Barin said was that a junior level recruit like Satish need not waste
time worrying about those issues, which were the headache of the leaders like A babu and
would be appropriately addressed at the appropriate level at the appropriate time.
Sastish clutched his head. Unless and until he had an acceptable answer to his queries, he was
unable to take any decision regarding joining the Anushilan Samity.
Sister Nivedita returned from her pilgrimage of the country with a clean and doubt-free frame
of mind. Many of the issues that had been plaguing her earlier, making her restless had been
laid to rest.
True, Swami Vivekananda had been displeased with her involvement with the
revolutionaries and had categorically instructed her again and again to steer clear of them.
His attitude, though not forceful enough to pull her away from her premeditated path, had no
doubt left her very dispirited. But now, when she thought deeply about it, she realized what
his underlying intentions had been. Being a visionary, Swami Vivekananda had the
apprehension that Nivedita with her towering personality would overshadow the others and
be portrayed as one of the prominent faces of the freedom struggle. This was definitely not
desirable, for a foreign-born leading the Indian uprising had every possibility of sending out
wrong signals not only to the rest of the country but also to the entire world. Nivedita too
wholeheartedly agreed with this logic of her Master, and since then had decided to carry out
her mission of lending support to the movement as discreetly as possible. She had no craving
for name or fame and was content to work from the sidelines. She found fulfilment in doing
something fruitful for the people who were the kith and kin of her Master, for by being close
to them she felt as if she was near him; by serving them she gained the satisfaction of being
able to serve him. And now that she had discovered the solution…….that she could continue
her work without defying him, she was completely at peace with herself.
Radharani too had changed a lot in the last few months. The demure broken-spirited girl,
always brooding, always withdrawn, who left with Sister Nivedita for a tour of the country
did not return. In her place was a woman more mature and composed, more ready to accept
the challenges the life. She had learnt to look at everything in a new light. If God had saved
her from sure death and singled her out for inflicting so much of sorrow, then that was her
destiny. Sister too had encountered a lot of sorrow in her personal life – love had failed her
not once but twice still she had not crumbled or given up; her directionless life had finally
found a worthy anchor in Swami Vivekananda and even now though he was not there, her
work had not stopped. Sister Nivedita’s example made Radharani realize the extent and
expansiveness of life. Life was not just about getting married and living puppet-like with a
disloyal husband, surrendering herself reluctantly to his occasional bouts of lust, allowing
him to intrude her as per his whims and fancies. If to him, she was no more than a machine
for manufacturing heirs, then there was absolutely no logic why she should feel shattered at
his sudden demise!
She no longer thought of her husband, but found it hard not to remember her son. The mother
in her mourned him very often and whenever she thought of him, everything else around her
ceased to exist…………
Still, leaving aside for such intermittent pangs, she had finally managed to move on. Initially,
she had been quite unwilling to getting involved with things she had never done before, but
slowly as the days went by, she discovered new joy in her work. Earlier she knew only
Bengali, but now under the tutelage of Sister and Sarladidi, she became adroit in English too,
both reading and writing. Also she was good at sewing and knitting and took tuitions for the
elderly women in the neighbourhood. Even after that she was left with ample spare time, to
utilize which judiciously, she, at the suggestion of Sister, started taking part in the
proceedings of the Anushilan Samity. The association and exposure opened her eyes to a
whole lot of new things.
Satish was hurrying along. Almost a month had elapsed since Sister had lent him the two
books. Though she had not set any deadline, yet it was naturally expected of him to have
returned them within a week or a fortnight at the maximum. The inordinate delay on his part
would have invariably resulted in her developing a negative impression about him, assuming
him to be a most irresponsible fellow. Jatinda was away at Darjeeling, Siraj too was not in
the city, he had suddenly left for home after receiving an urgent telegram. Satish had waited
and waited for his friend to return, not wanting to go to Sister Nivedita’s house all-alone.
Satish quickened his pace. The afternoon was fast fading away, getting shorter with every
passing minute. It was stuffy and sultry. The usual breeze from the river blew lethargically in
an intermittent manner, only further adding to the discomfort instead of diluting it.
“Tulasi Tulasi Narayan
Thou Tulasi Vrindavan”
As Radharani murmuring the sacred chants, simultaneously pouring water at the base of
Tulasi plant (the Basil shrub), she remembered the legend surrounding the household-god
equivalent holy plant.
Once there existed a demon Jalandra who because of his virtuous wife Vrinda, had become
invulnerable, even to the Gods. Once the gods realized that they could kill Jalandra only if
they were able to ruin Vrinda’s character, Lord Vishnu assuming the form of the demon
Jalandra appeared before her and Vrinda, assuming that her Master had returned, embraced
him in the fullness of her affection. Then as Vishnu revealed his identity, a heartbroken
Vrinda tricked into losing her purity decided to commit herself to the fire. Lord Vishnu
overcome with guilt and grief, shedded tears over the ashes of the pious lady, and as he did
so, a lovely plant sprang from it. Vishnu named it Tulasi (asi and tula mean “thou art like”) in
the memory of Vrinda and since then, where ever the Tulasi grows is called Vrindavana ( the
garden of Vrinda).
Radharani all alone in the house, was preparing to light the evening lamp before the altar of
the tulsi when there came a knock on the door. She put the lamp down and wrapping the
aanchal firmly around her shoulders, opened the door to man with a bundle of books in his
One glance at her and Satish immediately recognized the woman whom he had discreetly
observed in great detail from the branches of the tree. The realization took him by surprise
and he found himself tongue-tied with embarrassment.
“Is this Sister Nivedita's house?” He asked fumbling, finally finding his voice.
Radharani arched her eyebrows in surprise. Didn’t he how to read? He didn’t seem illiterate!
The identity of the dweller was inscribed quite legibly and prominently on the plaque just
beside the door.
“Yes!” she stated firmly in a no-nonsense manner. “But right now she is not in.”
Satish was in a fix. Should he wait for Sister? Would it be safe to hand over the books to this
lady? But Sister had specifically instructed him against indulging in any such thing.
“When is she expected to be back?” He enquired clearing his throat “I had to meet her
urgently! In fact, she herself had asked me to see her!” he hastened to clarify.
Radharani thought for a moment, studying him carefully. He seemed to be from a decent
family and did not appear to have any dangerous intentions.
“You can wait! Sister will be back soon!” stepped aside from the door, she ushered him to a
room and disappeared inside.
Satish looked around the bare room and picked up a book lying on the corner table. He
recognized it to be none other than “Anandamath” by the celebrated last-century novelist
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Regarded to be the bible equivalent of the revolutionaries, the
book had given them their first war cry- Bande Mataram. Satish had read it before, but
more as a novel and not as a source of inspiration for indulging in freedom struggle. To
whom did he the book belong to? Sister Nivedita? Had she even mastered the art of reading
in Bengali? He sat down on the one and only chair in the room and turning over the familiar
looking hardcover frontage, stumbled upon the following
Smt Radharani Debi.
He had heard quite a lot about Sarala Debi, the fearless niece of the famous poet, but who
was Radharani? The girl-woman who let him in a little while ago! How was she related to
Sister Nivedita? Was she a Christian or a Hindu? And most importantly did she live here?
But even if she was a Hindu, it was amply apparent that she was unmarried, for even in the
brief meeting, he had noticed the absence of any redness in the parting of her hair! Or was
she a widow, as her hands too were bare and bangleless!
He stared at the print-like feminine handwriting and kept wondering.
After a while, Satish began feeling restless. He had walked fast without taking any break and
the sudden spurt of intense activity made his dried up his throat, much like drought-stricken
parched fields of paddy.
Where could he get water? He went to the door leading to the inner courtyard, hoping to sight
some servant whose service he might engage.
But he found none and deciding to attract attention of the girl (was she Radhanrani?) began
coughing, a series of long-drawn throaty coughs.
His actions had the desired effect.
“Could I have some water?” He hastily put in, extra cautious that she should on no account
misinterpret his intentions.
Radharani hurried towards the kitchen, feeling embarrassed. How could she have forgotten
the basic courtesy of offering water, especially in such an inhospitable weather?
But would it be proper to offer only water? Shouldn’t any eatable accompany it? What
choices did she have? Where were those rasgullas which the jhee had yesterday bought from
the shop of Nobin Moira? Those snow-white spongy balls, overflowing with sugary syrup,
were the favorite of Sister and were perhaps the only temptation to which she surrendered
willingly, without the slightest hesitation.
But right then, Radharani failed to locate them and had to reluctantly settle for the hardened
Tilkhaja , a kind of comfit prepared from a concoction of seasamum and sugar, which she
had chanced upon.
“Why did you take the trouble of bringing all these?” Satish pointed to the Tilkhaja. “Just
water would have been sufficient!” he picked up the glass and drank non stop to quench his
“Please have them, at least one, it is not proper to serve guests only water!” Radharani
meekly forwarded her request, feeling guilty once again as the realization dawned on her
how thirsty he had been.
“And is it proper that guests have to ask for water and even set out searching for it?” in an
unguarded moment, the teasing thought playing in his mind involuntarily shot out of him
even before he could stop himself. He comprehended that it would have been better had he
kept the thought to himself, but by then the damage had already been done and its impact was
Though Radhadrani refrained from countering the comment, her face grew grim and stiff
with what she assumed to be an intentional insult.
“Please, I didn’t mean any offence! It was just a joke!” He desperately attempted to clarify
to which there was no reply.
“I hope you are not angry with me!”
Radharani still remained silent and with no change in the expression on her face, Satish
decided that perhaps retreat would be the best way out, at least at that moment.
“I am leaving. Please give these books to sister!” He placed the books on the table and turned
towards the door.
Seeing him really leave, Radharani was forced to break her vow of reticence.
“But you said that you wanted to meet her! She will be back any moment! Since you have
waited for so long, why don't you wait a little longer?”
“I can’t stay here unless you pardon me. I simply don’t have the right to! But believe me, I
honestly had no intentions of upsetting you! ” he looked at her earnestly, his tone reflecting
his sincere humility.
Radharai smiled, a small forgiving smile and then as she was about to leave the room he
“Please sit here, otherwise I won't believe that you have really forgiven me!” he impulsively
This time though Radharani did not reply, she did not go away either. She just remained
where she was, standing near the door.
“I hope I am not being too demanding, holding you back from doing anything important, or
causing any inconvenience!”
“Even if it is so, I had better stay here! I don’t wish to give you another chance of
commenting that in this house it is customary to leave guests unattended!”
Satish glanced at her somewhat fearfully, but this time though she sounded solemn and
serious, the slight twinkle in her eyes reassured her that he had not erred again.
Slowly conversation began. Satish was initially inquisitive about Radharani, why she was
here, where was her family and things like that, but once he sensed her discomfort about
disclosing any personal information, he immediately refrained, for which she was thankful
and rewarded his thoughtfulness with a grateful look.
He then began telling her about himself, his father, Hemapishi, Nayanpur, the unhurried
hassle-free delightful life that he had left behind in pursuit of his ambition and which he was
missing more and more with each passing day……………….he got so engrossed in his
narration as if he was talking to himself, and not to the half-girl half-woman who sat in front
of him, eagerly taking in every word.
“The thing that I miss the most in the city is the Durga Puja.” And as he went on recounting
in the minute detail the celebration back home, in Radharani’s mind too, memories of another
world got instantly rekindled, a world where Kartama clad in a tasar sari would
commandingly move around in the courtyard overseeing the arrangements for the Durga
Puja, the crackling sound of the heavily starched fabric signalling her
approach…………Radharani sighed. She wanted to forget her past, but the past seemed
dead-determined to always impinge on the present! Clenching her pale lips, she tried hard to
checkmate the wave of emotion surging inside her.
The morbid look on the face of his listener brought Satish back to his senses. He had been
talking intoxicatingly without caring to check her reaction.
“Sorry, I must be boring you terribly!” he stopped in extreme embarrassment.
Radharani continued to look away, decidedly maintaining silence, fearing that her choked
tone might give away the real state of her mind, further aggravating his curiosity and
attracting unnecessary sympathy.
Satish was surprised. He hadn’t said anything which could be termed as derogatory. Then
what had suddenly upset her? He couldn’t figure out!
“Satish! What a surprise! When did you come! Sorry to have kept you waiting!” Sister
Nivedita’s vivacious voluble entry broke the uncomfortable silence ending the stalemate.
Satish heaved a sigh of relief.
“Just five minutes ago!” he found himself telling Sister, to his own intense amazement, for it
had been well over an hour that he had been there.
But what surprised him even more was that Radharani didn’t contest his claim.
“Sister I had come to return these!” he handed her the books which she accepted and passed
them over to Radharani.
“Rada! Tomorrow afternoon there is a meeting of the Anushailan Samity. You too will go
with me. There will be no sewing classes. Send word to the ladies’ so that they don’t turn
up!” and almost immediately she turned around and asked “So Satish! What is your decision
regarding joining the Anushailan Samity!”
“Sister I want to become a member! I too want to do what I can for my motherland!”
A decision which he had been postponing for days, unable to make up his mind, weighing the
pros and cons again and again, was taken in an instant.
Satish, still in a daze, stepped out of Sister's house. The night had cooled off and the
neighbourhood too had grown quiet. A row of intricately carved wrought iron gas lamps,
swung from wall brackets at infrequent intervals, lighted up the whitewashed house-fronts
that stood side by side as if precariously treading on each other's toes. The refreshing breeze
considerably soothed his worked up nerves as the impaction of his just-taken decision
dawned on him.
Tonight his life had taken an abrupt turn, the course of which would no longer be confined to
only academies. But he had not chosen this life; rather this life had chosen him. Perhaps that
was what one called destiny!
He looked up at the starry sky to offer himself and his future at the feet of the Almighty. But
as soon as he shut himself off from the world, a familiar face which he had seen at close
quarters for a considerable length of time today and would see again tomorrow, flashed
before his eyes.
Initially, Sister Nivedita had been very much impressed by Sarala's spirited personality and
regarded her as the right role model for the Indian women. Even Swami Vivekananda had
felt “Sarala's education is perfect" and he wanted every woman to be like her, educated,
independent and in control of their own lives. Once he had even toyed with the idea of taking
her to the west along with him, to clear their misconception about the women of his country,
though the plan had finally failed to materialize.
Sarala recently had embarked upon an initiative that was both novel and noble. There
prevailed a general notion that Bengalis as a race were physically weak, which she too had
also felt during her cross country travels. Whenever the train halted in any station other then
Bengal, the coolies would cry out in a booming raucous voice “E ll a h a b a a d!!!! Mu gh
a l Sa r a a i !!!!!!!
And once the train enters Bengal territory, the clarion call gets replaced by a feeble
So Sarala, to exhort the young men of Bengal to rise from their torpor, opened an aakhra or
gymnasium in her father’s house where the boys were taught and trained in various types of
martial arts like sword fighting and lathi play by experts in the field. She seemed determined
to dispel the calumny and prove that Bengali boys could be equal in valour and strength to
But when the same person, hailed to be Bengal’s Joan of Arc, declared that she was against
direct rebellion and refused to be involved in any type of formal political activity, Nivedita
was extremely disappointed. To make matters worse, Sarala also tried to quarantine her own
boys from the influence of the Anushilan Samity. The first time Nivedita came to know of it
she was stunned. Then what use were all these training and body building sessions?
She seemed unable to figure out.
Then that ruckus over Sarala hoisting the Pratapaditya Utsav!
One fine morning Sarala suddenly discovered that all other regions of the country had their
own heroes of the soil whom they could identify with and idolize, for example the Marathis
had Shivaji, the Rajputs had Rana Pratap; only Bengal had none. And Sarala immediately set
out to dig up the entire local history and finally manage to extract a king by the name of
Pratapaditya, a 17th century monarch who had resisted the advanced of the Mughal army. On
the first day of the Bengali New year, which incidentally was also the day of Pratapaditya’s
coronation, she kicked off a new festival “Pratapaditya Utsav” as a celebration of his heroic
But Pratapaditya, though he had been successful as a soldier, also had a lesser-known dark
side, which now shot into prominence. The man had committed patricide by murdering his
uncle, just because the later was a benevolent ruler who unlike Pratapaditya was against
battles and bloodshed. Pratapaditya also had mentally tortured his soft-spoken peace-loving
elder son for his lack of ambition and ruthlessness.
Sarala’s projection of Pratapaditya as the hero of Bengal created a lot of controversy. The
native editor of an English weekly snubbed her by stating “As necessity is the mother of
invention, Sarala Devi is the mother of Pratapaditya to meet the necessity of a hero for
Her own uncle Rabindranath Tagore, who in one of his novels had highlighted the negative
traits of Sarala’s hero, expectedly objected to her manipulating history and suppressing the
criminal nature of the personality. Wasn’t the human side of a patriot as important as his
heroic nature? He contested Sarala’s stand by saying that charity begins at home, and a
person who is insensitive towards his blood relations is incapable of committing himself for
the betterment of his countrymen.
But an unperturbed Sarala stubbornly stood her ground, candidly stating that she was just
interested in portraying her hero’s patriotism and political greatness and was unbothered if he
had failed to be an ideal moral mortal.
The strained relation with Sarala was not the only thing worrying Sister Nivedita, for with the
Anushilan Samity too things were not going as per plans.
It had been envisioned that the establishment of the Anushilan Samity at Calcutta would
serve as a source of inspiration, leading to mushrooming of such centres all over the country
and the youth, in hundreds and thousands, would willingly come forward to take part in the
Where was all of that? Leave alone flood, even a trickle was not visible. Recently Sister
Nivedita had been to a remote village to educate the locals about the current scenario and had
been extremely disappointed at the response.
First of all, there were very few people at the meeting and even they had come merely to
satisfy their curiosity about the speaker – as to them a memsahib, wearing their dress and
speaking their language provided a new form of entertainment to which they were till then
unexposed to. And strangely, everyone seemed quite content with the present state of affairs.
Where was the deep-rooted sense of humiliation at being subjected to foreign rule and the
intense yearning to be free? To the average man the issues of pressing importance included
solely those related to mundane domestics, such as his cow straying into his neighbour’s field
or marrying off his daughter at the right time in the right caste. But they weren’t one bit
bothered about what was happening to the country, who were ruling it and why. The spirit
was just lacking everywhere, yes, even in the Anushilan Samity, Nivedita was forced to
admit, at least to herself. A few days ago three boys had expressed desire to be members of
the Samity, but at the time of initiation, strangely none of them turned up. Later it turned out
that they harboured the misconception that being a member of the Anushilan Samity was
akin to entering a new religion into which they would be indoctrinated by a guru or preceptor
heading the order, and when they became aware of the actual facts they just backed out.
Nivedita sighed. Hindus knew the meaning of caste, Muslims knew the meaning of tribe, but
perhaps only the Europeans were aware of the true meaning of a nation!
Freedom was not a gift to be offered on a platter to a bonded nation, the people of the country
would have to earn it with their sweat and blood. But for that firstly the masses had to be
enlightened about the actual meaning of freedom and the pain one underwent in its absence.
Only then could they be expected to yearn for it, fight to achieve it and thereafter strive to
But when? How? She wondered and as she stared at the blank page in front of her, realizing
that once again she had unconsciously wasted a lot of time in brooding, fretting and fuming
over things which wouldn’t change overnight. She was prepared to put everything of hers at
stake for the success of the struggle, but what about the others? Were they ready?
"Sister you are still sitting here?” Radharani burst into the room, bustling like a bee. “Soon
everyone will be coming for breakfast!” she reminded and pointing to the loose strands of
hair hanging serpent-like all round the head remarked “Seems like you have even forgotten to
comb your hair after bath!”
Nivedita stretched out her hand and touched them, feeling was a little ashamed of herself
“Really I have become quite careless and absentminded these days.” She got up from her
writing desk to tidy up the room. Today both Mr. Sturdy and Mr Ratcliffe would be coming
and she looked forward to hearing from them the latest status of things regarding the
proposed partition of Bengal. Also there would be a newcomer, Babu Sukamal Chatterjee. A
junior of Mr Sturdy, he was a former Hindu who had recently converted into the Brahmo
order, and was eager about educating his daughter, the options and possibilities of which he
desired to discuss with Sister Nivedita.
Sunday-morning breakfast in Sister Nivedita’s house was a wonderful rendezvous, a much-
looked- forward-to event not only by inmates but also by many a wandering scholar and men
of repute who willingly walked into the warren of narrow malodorous lanes to partake in it. It
was simple affair, served in an extremely simple manner on the small verandah, but the
accompanying talk provided much food for thought. At times the conversation became so
animated and intense that when the group finally broke up, it was almost noon and one had to
grudgingly trudge back through the blazing streets, under the full blast of soaring sun.
“Rada, has the Misti Doi been bought from Nobin Moira’s shop?” Sister asked.
“Not yet Sister. Once the jhee went but the curd had not yet set. I will send her again once
more now, before anyone comes. ”
“Don’t! That was just for Robert! But most probably he won’t be coming today! Mr. Sturdy
will be coming alone!”
Radarani felt a distinct pang of disappointment as she slowly went inside. The interest that
had initially built up over the impending breakfast session suddenly plummeted, akin to a
full-blown balloon being pricked with a pin.
But fate is a wily old man who at times takes a good deal of pleasure in springing surprises
and this was once again proved when Robert in spite of earlier announcing that he would not
come finally turned up along with his father.
Radharani was in the courtyard when she heard him speaking to Sister and in a trice her heart
began to thump wildly. Her feet felt glued to the ground and she found herself unable to
move. Though their interactions had always been minimal and restricted to the bare
essentials, she didn’t know why she always looked forward to his visits with a great deal of
She hurried into the room and carefully scrutinized herself in the mirror…didn’t her hair look
dishevelled? Should she comb her head once more? Was the sari looking crumpled? Should
she change into a fresh one?
In the other room meanwhile quite a heated discussion had kicked off.
“Miss Noble, have you heard the latest news?” Mr Sturdy asked her “That the Viceroy Lord
Curzon is hell bent on partitioning the Bengal province!”
“I regarded it as a rumour!” Nivedita stated “But if it is true, the people will just go mad with
anger. How can he even think of indulging in something which will affect everyone? Is it a
“He tends to break Bengal like this!” Mr Sturdy broke the biscuit in his hand into two.
“Assam and East Bengal will form one half, while West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, where the
Bengalis are clearly a minority, will make up the other half. He actually wants to break the
spirit of the Bengalis.”
“The official reason being highlighted is administrative convenience; that Assam needs an
outlet to the sea which it presently does not have! But the real trigger what I have heard was
a nautch girl! The Viceroy always disliked the Bengalis and this incident just added fuel to
Sensing a spicy story everyone eagerly leaned forward.
“Miss Noble, have you ever been to the Fancy Fair!” Mr Sturdy asked Sister.
“No I haven’t, but have heard about it! Isn’t it held in Chowringhee sometime in the winter
“That’s right!” he nodded “Well there, Lord Curzon once happened to pass by a lady and
going by her graceful looks and dignified bearing, he took off his hat and bowed, assuming
her to from an aristocratic family. But later on, when he came to know that she was actually a
baiji that is, a nautch girl, he literally fumed at this self-inflicted insult. And to prevent a
future repeat of the extremely embarrassing experience, he passed an order banning the entry
of ladies in the fair henceforth.”
He paused for a while, took a sip of water and continued “The matter would have ended there
itself and everyone, including Lord Curzon, would have forgotten about it in due course of
time. But the baiji, instigated by the Bengali Babus began holding a parallel fair coinciding
with the one in Chowringhee. And her fair turned out to be quite a success! What not was
there! Jatras, magic shows, bioscope! The news infuriated the Viceroy and since then he has
been looking for an opportunity to teach the Bengalis a lesson! So when the plan of
partitioning Bengal was put before him, he literally jumped at the idea!”
“But who is this woman in question!”
“Baijee Gauhar Jan!” Mr. Sturdy revealed and added “She really has a rich melodious voice!
About two years ago, Fred Gaisburg, a famous recording engineer came from London
searching for Indian singers and the very first singer whose songs he recorded, was that of
Gauhar Jan. Her other contemporary singers refused, as they were apprehensive about the
technology, which they assumed to be a new-fangled fad. But this lady had no such
inhibitions! Haven’t you heard her records!” he asked Sister Nivedita, to which she nodded
in the negative.
“I once attended a concert of Gauhar Jan! She is a rare combination of beauty and brains!”
Sukamal babu, stated and as he did so, he was reminded of the bewitching beauty swathed in
whispering silks, the suggestive look in her black, kohl-lined eyes, her stately, perfumed
hands weaving a web of seduction as they moved back and forth effortlessly, and the
enthralled audience, including him and his friends encased in the enamoured darkness,
sighing a thousand sighs of longing…”
Radharani was coming to the room from the kitchen, after supervising the breakfast
arrangements when she froze on hearing the name, the mere mention of which seemed to
pour fire in her ear.
She stood still, her head suddenly burning with recollections of a nightmarish, not-so-distant
past.........On that fateful day while she was struggling to survive, he was away enjoying with
that baijee.......the Saturn of her life................
“What happened? Why are you standing here like this?” Robert who had come out of the
room into the courtyard stopped short, surprised to see her standing like that, looking pale
and electrified! Like blotting paper, her face had lost its colour and the corners of her mouth
“Are you not feeling well?” He anxiously asked, extending his hand to feel her pulse.
Immediately Radharani recovered her senses and withdrew.
“I am alright!” she fervently nodded, turning away her face. “Was just feeling a bit dizzy!”
And without offering any other explanation, she swiftly disappeared into her room leaving
behind a stunned spectator of her swinging moods.
She closed the door and pinned herself against the wall, her hands firmly clutching her
throbbing head which seemed as if it would burst…………How could she harbour the
impression that she had been able to bury her past? Only a mild scratch is sufficient to
unearth the old wounds and make them start bleeding once again! Would the ghosts of her
earlier life haunt her forever, till the very end!
It is a strange irony of history that the British arrived in India almost as an afterthought. The
primary aim of the East India Company or John Company, as the old East India Company
was formerly informally called, had been Indonesia and frustrated at finding that valuable
spice market under the firm control of the Dutch, they somewhat reluctantly turned their
attention to a secondary market — India.
British women in India had always been a rarity. The early charters of the East India
Company forbade women on its posts, forcing the merchant administrators to “go native”,
that is take Indian wives or mistresses. Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta married a
Hindu widow, a sutee, whom he had rescued from her husband’s funeral pyre. Major-General
Charles Stuart, influenced by his Hindu wife embraced her culture and the rituals of her
religion, which earned him the nick-name “Hindoo Stuart”. The founder of the Botanical
garden, Col Robert Kyd, had a Muslim wife. Sir David Auchterlony, another British General,
kept more than a dozen native wives and proudly paraded his entire harem on elephant back
during evening promenades.
But two apparently unrelated events changed all this -The Mutiny of 1857 and the opening of
the Suez Canal. The former sowed a seed of suspicion in the minds British about the motive
of the natives, thereby increasing the distance between the two, while the later drastically cut
down the distance (and journey time) between the two countries. India was no longer “once-
in-a-lifetime” experience, as the cruise which was once lasted months, was now just a matter
of weeks. And every autumn, before the advent of the “Cold Weather” in India, the ships
sailing from England began offloading on the Indian shores cargoes of marriage–minded
beauties, the “fishing fleet,” as they were unkindly but accurately termed in colonial
parlance. Back home, because of the shortage of suitable males, the only prospect for poor
girls without the gift of good looks was spinsterhood. But in India, the demand for women
was so great and their number so small that almost every unmarried girl stood a chance of
being snapped up, irrespective of her physical charms.
After the arrival of the “fishing fleet”, the next few months saw all possibly forms of forced
social intercourse, with well-known personalities of the settlement throwing parties and the
candidates for ‘wifehood’ ‘sitting up’, with the eligible bachelors, young and old, to try their
This year too, a shipload of fishing fleet had just embarked, containing maids of all makes
and shapes, with nothing in common except for the fact that they all were single and
desperate about changing their marital status. The first party of the season was tonight at
Captain Campbell’s and all the bachelors of the establishment, either eager to be affianced or
intending to flirt with feminine affection for a season, were expectantly headed towards the
venue. Amongst them was Dr. Robert Sturdy. Being young with ample time on his side, he
had come more out of curiosity rather than any desperation to secure a wife. Moreover, in the
party he was aware that the “prime catch” that is, the ones most wooed would be the men
hailing from the elite Indian Civil Service, “heaven-born- three hundred a year alive or dead”
as they were rightly referred to because of their high social status, healthy income, and a
guaranteed pension upon retirement. Military officers too were pursued with a lot of interest
and intensity, but the businessmen, disparagingly referred to as 'box-wallahs', were probably
the last choice of any girl.
Before the party began, the young good looking girls angling for a groom, would be
compulsorily brainwashed by the senior ladies of the establishment not to dance with anyone
below the rank of a first class civilian or military officer who could provide the things
essential for conjugal bliss in India: a massive silver teapot, a horse drawn carriage and a
retinue of servants for personal use. The Janus-faced British society in India was actually
nothing but a miniature replica of Victorian England, which though to the world outside
presented a united front, but within itself, was very much fragmented by social prejudice and
Where did a doctor like him, who didn’t have either the power of purse or pedigree to boast
of, stand in such a situation?
Captain Campbell’s splendidly proportioned colonial mansion, sticking out of a rich expanse
of verdure, was bestowed with an air of elegance and sumptuousness that exuded good taste
and gracious living. Once one entered the compound, the sound of the city gets muffled and
finally ebbs away only to be replaced by confetti of butterflies. The river Ganges flew within
boat hailing distance of the back garden, one corner of which was a pond is so overgrown
with water hyacinths that from a distance it resembled a mobile mass of solidified green jelly.
Lady Campbell elegantly attired in a self-coloured zephyr gown with white flowers
embossed in velvet stood under the porch admiringly eyeing the branches of a tree that
writhed and merged above the colonnaded porch, the velvety lawn ringed by trees and the
flower beds in the periphery bursting with all the flowers of the season – the bulbous bursting
dahlias, wine-red row of marigolds, the chrysanthemums. Despite her advanced years, her
carriage was still graceful and upright, her tread sure and firm ……So many years had
unknowingly whiled away in this land in which she had once come in the hope of finding
happiness, leaving behind a broken home, a drunken father and a mother busy in her own
The sight of a carriage rambling into the driveway snapped the chain of cheerless thoughts.
“Hello Robert! Good afternoon!” Lady Campbell enthusiastically stepped forward and
heartily greeted him “You look really handsome!”
Robert blushed a little, basking in the compliment as he straightened his tweed coat.
“How is Mrs. Sturdy?” she asked “It has been a long time since I last met her!”
“Mother has not been keeping well since quite some time!” his face grew somewhat serious
“She is just falling in and out of fever!”
Mrs Sturdy had contracted cough coupled with mild fever during the rains, and since then the
ailment seemed to cling to her like a leech. She would be fine for a week or so, and when
everyone was upbeat that she had “finally” recovered, the fever would relapse along with its
old ally, the cough. Robert, a doctor himself, had deployed all his expertise, and when he
seemed unable to make much headway, the best doctors of the city had been called. But, in
spite of all the attention given by the medical fraternity, none had been able to diagnose the
disease and come up with any sure cure.
A few days ago when he had been to Peggie Auntie’s place, Rada had suggested an herbal
remedy, a decoction of Tulasi leaves in honey and crushed ginger and even prepared a
bottleful for her much-loved much-adored Reba Auntie. And wonder of wonders! Mother
seemed to be getting better! The last fortnight was feverless and even the cough seemed to
have lessened! The magic of the age-old Indian Ayurveda seemed to be working!
“I shall come over next week to see her!” Lady Campbell sympathetically nodded and with a
suggestive grin, pointed to the double barrelled stairway romantically lit by tinted glass
window panes which led to the ballroom, the venue of that evening’s party.
“Good Luck young man!” she grinned.
The spacious ballroom with its elegant cut-glass chandeliers, antediluvian gas lamps,
brocaded drapes, dainty couches and marble-topped tables laden with handsome vases and
flowers of choicest hues was slowly filling up- the gorgeously attired military officers
contrasting pleasingly with the more sombre costumes of the civilian crowd.
Geisha girls, mostly members of the fishing fleet, dressed in their best, fluttered about like
butterflies. The home-fresh wholesome young girls, after having rested and recovered their
looks, were expectedly the most in demand, with even the most meticulously dressed middle
aged bachelors vying for their attention. Most of them adorned senior positions in the
administrative machinery; they had spent the prime of their life in dusty nondescript
mofussils where though native female company was abundantly available; because of their
meagre pay married life was a virtual impossibility. Now in middle age they could finally
afford the financial luxury of maintaining a wife and were determined to make the most of it.
The middle aged maids dressed to kill in frilly frocks flocked to these “young old boys”
eager to make a favourable impression, but with so many pretty young maidens around, they
didn’t seem to stand much of a chance.
But the most pathetic sight to behold was perhaps the frustrated old maids, shrivelled and
painfully-thin in an overdose of rogue vainly trying to cover up the lines and creases. Many
of them had spent the prime of their life as governesses with affluent families, living in a
kind of status limbo and looked upon as a sort of sexless creature –neither a maid who could
be seduced, nor a daughter of the house open to marriage offers.
In this gathering, they looked extremely awkward and out of place, for their time had run out,
completely, and it was this realization which had made them all the more desperate.
Whenever any young handsome newcomer made his entry, they literally fell upon him like a
pack of cackling goose, trying to outdo each other in cornering him with swift swish of their
skirts and tailored teenager-like tones.
Robert too encountered a similar experience the moment he made his entry. A woman, plain
as catfish and old enough to be his mother, if not grandmother, after ogling him from head to
foot ferociously quarantined him from the rest of the crowd and in a throaty undertone began
churning out her credentials – that she was related to the Earl of Manchester, that her father
had been an army officer in India and it was her love for the land of her childhood which had
brought her back and for which she had willingly given up so many worthwhile proposals of
matrimony back in England.
Robert stood there helplessly, pretending to listen but actually contemplating as to how to
extract himself out of her clutches. He felt genuinely sorry for the lone Priscilla long past her
prime and trying in vain to allure some wealthy suitor, but he was powerless - it was not
within his capacity to help her.
“Hello Robert!” sensing his plight Lady Campbell swiftly came to his rescue. “Robert can
you come with me for a moment?” she put in and taking the cue Robert promptly excused
himself, while the old lady looked on with helpless anger at seeing her prey fleeing from her
“Thank you Mrs. Campbell!” he looked at his hostess with gratitude when they were at a safe
“Seeing the right man in wrong company, I could not just hold myself back! Now let me
introduce you to some one you will enjoy!” she led him to a corner of the ballroom where a
young girl gown sat alone, with an aloof expression on her face. She was quite impressively
dressed in a lilac moiré gown with an overdress of sapphire blue lace finished with a spray of
violets – whole combination giving an orchid effect. In her left hand was a glass while the
other held a book and in between turning the pages, she was taking a sip.
At the sound of their footsteps she looked up.
“Agatha meet Robert, a promising young doctor! He is a pass-out from the prestigious
After introducing them to each other she moved on, leaving them to explore the possibility of
a conversation. She was very busy that day trying her level best to pair up as many as
possible. After all, these girls had come from far away England harping on the hope of
settling down in life and it was her moral duty to ensure that the number of “returned
empties”, that is, the unfortunate maids, who broken heartedly sailed back home at the
beginning of the “Hot Weather”, unable to hook a husband, was the minimum.
But though she could help get them husbands, there was no guarantee of “matrimonial bliss”
as she involuntarily reflected upon the miseries of her own married life.
True, she had obtained that for which she had once come to India –a husband, but the
process, as she soon discovered was a definite barter with happiness. For though her husband
was rich , rich beyond her wildest imagination, the long exposure to the tropical climate had
ruined both his health and temper, because of which he treated her his wife more as an object
of convenience rather than a companion. And at times, he transformed into such a tyrant as
if she was equal in rank to his palanquin bearers.
Frustrated with the present state of affairs, the only thing that she eagerly looked forward to
now was the next mortality, that might carry off her husband and enable her to return to
England to enjoy a widowhood of affluence and independence.
She sighed. What a situation, wherein the happiness of a wife depended upon the death of her
Robert stood somewhat uncomfortably. The girl he had just been introduced to, did not seem
at all keen on a conversation! He didn’t know what ought to be done- perhaps excuse himself
and seek company elsewhere!
Suddenly she looked up at him.
“Excuse me, at the very first, please allow me to clear you misconception – I am here just to
enjoy myself at the party and not exactly hunt for a husband. So !” she paused as if to
measure his reaction “ If you are interested only in matrimonial pursuits then you are plainly
wasting your time!”
Robert laughed out, suddenly feeling relaxed. “Thanks for the clarification, Miss Agatha! I
am also not too eager at getting myself a wife right today itself!”
“Then why have you come here?” Agatha asked “Aren’t you aware of the purpose of this
“For the same reason that you are here, Miss Agatha!”
Agatha gave a sudden smile, a natural one which seemed very refreshing amidst the crowd of
plastic ones put on by the majority of the girls hovering around him, trying to size him up.
“We can be just friends, without any other expectation, right?” she warmly asked.
“Definitely!” he smiled in agreement
“But tell me one thing? Aren’t you one of those who have come from England?”
“Who said so?” there was a sharp twinkle in her eyes “We live here at Calcutta. My father is
an officer in the army!”
She suddenly felt silent as her sight fell on a pretty young girl uninhibitedly flirting with an
infirm man almost thrice her age. The man, unusually red and thin as a reed with a parrot-
beak like protruding nose, was discreetly eyeing her caged bosom which was heaving up and
down very furtively. The girl had noticed his “centre of attraction” and as a note of
encouragement moved closer to him in an enticing manner, while just behind her a
portionless middle aged maid kept on glaring helplessly.
“But I wonder what has that girl seen in that stupid old fellow? With her looks and age, she
can surely secure a much better deal?” Robert remarked, observing the game.
“He is Mr. Fairweather, one of the senior most officers, which also automatically makes him
one of the eligible bachelors out here.” Agatha explained “He is suffering from a serious
ailment of liver and his retirement too is just round the corner! The girl, who has done her
homework, is eyeing the silver lining in the entire affair, that, in any case her tenure in this
land is set to be a short one and if she is lucky enough she might even be able return a rich
“But is this marriage? I can understand the desperation of the old ladies, but why on earth
should the young girls resort to such shows of shamelessness? This is worse than a cattle
His voice, agitated and ashamed at the blatant brazenness of his countrywomen seemed to
momentary rise above the soft background music which was being played to protect the
oratory privacy between the pairs.
This world is largely inhabited by two categories of people; one who follow the rule of the
heart and the other who listen to their mind. Satish undoubtedly belonged to the former, for
his decision to join the Anushilan Samity was more an emotional one taken in a moment of
impulse. But once he took the plunge, he was fully into it -both body and soul. The secret
induction ceremony at the dead of the night in front of a picture of the black goddess Kali
seemed to have worked wonders on his mind ….though he was attending college, still studies
no longer appealed to him like before...........freeing his motherland from foreign bondage
became his first and foremost objective and he wholeheartedly dedicated himself for the
success of the cause, not holding back any atom of his entire being. He had also met
Aurobindo Babu, one of the main members of the think-tank. The man didn’t have a majestic
presence like Jandrel, and with his lean frame and dreamy eyes he seemed more like a poet or
philosopher rather than the leader of the revolutionaries, but when he spoke - slowly and in a
soft musical tone, every word that he uttered came out distinct and firm, reflecting the
strength of his spirit.
Satish was now very much a frequent visitor at the garden house in the city outskirts, one of
the main addas or hubs of the revolutionaries – a ruined house surrounded by a tangle of
trees and shrubs, where shielded from the prying eyes of outsiders and curious onlookers the
boys engaged in bomb making and shooting practice.
There were about a dozen boys the “tried and tested ones” who resided permanently with the
rest like Satish who were yet to prove their mettle, being occasional visitors. The boarding
and lodging arrangements at the garden were extremely basic, the aim being to avoid all sorts
of unnecessary complications. Cooking was done just once a day by the boys themselves,
with the menu always almost beginning and ending with Khichri , which in proper hands had
the potential of emerging as a culinary delicacy, but here due to lack of expertise and interest,
had been reduced to a tasteless concoction of rice and lentils. The first day one of the boys
had enthusiastically offered it to Satish and that too in an unclean smelly earthenware
container; he had problems accepting it, only to realize a little later that he would face even
greater problems in swallowing the stuff.
The residents’ day began with readings from the Gita, the garb of spirituality being more of
an eyewash for all those happening underneath.
In the garden was an oversized mango-tree, quite disappointing in terms of the quantity and
quality of its yield and accordingly had been earmarked for an alternate use. Its bullet-ridden
trunk which silently bore the brunt of the boys’ enthusiastic efforts was capable of exposing
their intentions to the police and Satish had even pointed it out to Barin, but his apprehension
was just laughed away. “Police will never find out. When we strike it will be like a bolt from
the blue to them!” he had confidently boasted.
But Satish was not convinced. Then as the days went by, serious doubts began to surface in
Satish’s mind about the success of the operation.
He had been briefed by Barin that the entire group would be divided into two sections, one
“civil”, dealing with propaganda and recruitment, while the other, the “military” side would
comprise of a full fledged fully-equipped armed force.
But how was this feasible? There was no regular flow of funds; most of it was dependent on
donations and dacoity. For procurement of arms, the two main methods adopted were theft
and loot. In this manner, it might be possible to gather materials for terrorist strikes, but it
could hardly meet the needs of an armed rebellion. Wasn't it sheer day dream to even
imagine that the British could be so smoothly and effortlessly driven out of this country with
a handful of half-trained boys?
He was also against Barin bragging to all the potential recruits about the imaginary
achievements of the Anushilan Samity -that their example had instilled hope all across the
country and everywhere everyone was gearing up to overthrow the British rule. One day he
had even confronted Barin for a clarification, who instead of being embarrassed at this
exaggeration, had argued that they were not lies but “pious frauds” meant to inspire the
youths. Already there had been an ugly spat between Jandrel and Barin- both wanted to be
leaders and were unwillingly to listen to each other ………this was precisely the problem
everywhere- excess of leaders and severe shortage of dedicated workers...........
Satish sighed. There was a short break between two classes and they, he and Siraj were
sitting on the college greens by the side of a pond encircled by shady palms, the broad leaves
dancing to the rhythms of the dark waters. The weather was getting hotter and hotter with
each passing day. The last time he had been home, a sudden spell of malaria had
considerably delayed his return and he had finally managed to be back just a few days before.
Everything seemed so new and unfamiliar after such a long gap…he was still to catch up
…..so many things seemed to have happened in his absence.
"You had mentioned that there was a lot of commotion at the convocation?” He inquisitively
looked at Siraj “Tell me the full story!”
In the boring philosophy class, made all the boring by the professor’s monotonous lectures,
Siraj, to kill the time, had begun narrating an interesting incident which had occurred at the
recently held convocation. But in excitement, he had been unable to maintain the low decibel
level and frequent furtive glances from the professor had finally forced him to stall his
“Oh Yes!” he recalled and enthusiastically picked up the lost threads…
“Well Lord Curzon had come to the convocation and was delivering his speech as usual. He
had every right to, for after all, he is the Vice-Chancellor of our University!” Siraj remarked
with a taunt and continued “His talk was revolving around the usual stuff that students should
be like this, they should attempt to do that................. We were all sitting there but hardly
listening, softly talking to each other. Suddenly Curzon in the process of explaining the
difference between truth and untruth stated that Indians are all liars and Indian classics are
full of untruths. After saying so, he furthermore called upon the students not follow them, but
instead abide by the western ideology which is based on truth……”
“No one protested!” Satish asked in amazement “Everyone just sat through like puppets!”
“Immediately there was pin drop silence. The audience initially stunned was soon seething
with rage at this audacity, though right then no one said anything. Lord Curzon continued
with his speech and the very look on his face revealed that he had anticipated such a reaction
and had made the comment deliberately to offend the people of this country..............”
“We really are a nation of cowards!” Satish nodded in disapproval.
“Wait Brother!” there was a sly smile on Siraj’s face “You haven’t heard the full story! But
didn’t you read it in the newspapers?”
“No! At that time due to high fever, I was anyway not in a state of mind to be interested in
what was happening in the world outside!”
“Well, the very next day, the newspapers published an excerpt from the book “Problems of
the Far East” authored by Curzon where he has admitted to having knowingly lied to a
Korean diplomat about his age in order to create a favourable impression, furthermore
hinting that he was a bachelor interested in a matrimonial relation with the Royal Family.
And not only that! In another part of the book Curzon has also written about bluffing the
Amir of Afghanistan for getting his hospitality extended. So Lord Curzon, the great
advocator of truth, by his own admission is not adverse to practising little deceptions for
gaining entry into forbidden places and gaining favours!”
“That‘s really brilliant!” Satish sat up in excitement “But who unearthed this scoop?”
“It was a brainwave of Sister Nivedita! It seems just after she heard Curzon speaking at the
convocation, she immediately went to the Imperial Library and showed the book and its
contents to everyone!”
“Well hats off to Sister for locating the right thing at the right time!”
“Curzon’s convocation speech and the extract from his book appeared side by side on the
front page of the newspaper! It made such an interesting read that for the sake of the jest,
everyone was willing to overlook the insult!
“Good work Curzon the comedian! Keep it up!” Satish remarked and they both laughed out
“But the implication of the incident cannot be overlooked!” Siraj’s face grew serious “What
Curzon had intended as an insult, boomeranged onto him! He could not retort but that seems
to have made him all the more determined to go ahead with his plan of partitioning the
Bengal Province! And now he is trying his best to create a wedge between the Hindus and
“The evil man and his evil intentions!” Satish observed “But what he is up to?”
“Keep this to yourself and don't tell anyone anything yet!” Siraj lowered his voice “Lord
Curzon has offered Salimullah, the Nawab of Dacca a loan of one lakh at absolutely
negligible interest, if gives his consent to partition! And furthermore, the Viceroy has also
promised that post-partition Decca would be made the capital of East Bengal and Assam! He
is clearly trying to lure Salimullah for if he sides with the British, Curzon’s battle is half-
won! A substantial chunk of the Muslim population will agree to the partition plan…….”!”
“But how do you know all this inside information!”
“You have forgotten that my father is directly related to the Nawab of Dacca!”
“Can you imagine the consequences if Bengal is partitioned?” Satish exclaimed “So many
lives, livelihoods will be affected! It is like dividing a family, drawing a line between two
“Yes it will be a big setback for the people!” Siraj acknowledged with a sigh.
They fell silent. But youth is an age and stage which does not like to remain brooding for
long, and their discussion soon shifted to other optimistic topics……
“Are you planning to go home this summer?” Satish softly nudged his friend, looking up at
the sky, clear and spotless except for a few circling hawks drooping down and going up
repeatedly. He lowered his head and his eyes got stuck at a stray blossom lying on the
ground. In the city spring is so short lived, its throb felt only in the pale green and russet tints
, the soft translucent haze and the infrequent blossoms lighting up the
“Yes I have to go. Abbajan is not keeping well, his health is deteriorating fast and he wants
me to see settled as soon as possible. Will you be coming for my marriage?” He eagerly
looked at his friend.
“I would like to.” Satish stated, sounding extremely eager.
“I was thinking of inviting Sister Nivedita too!”
Satish sighed. The mere mention of Sister Nivedita rang a bell regarding
Radharani………she rarely came to the Anushilan Samity these days, always busy with the
school...........each day Satish went to the Samity hoping to meet her, but each time he
returned disappointed .......of course he could easily go over to Bagh bazaar, but a strange
restraint prevented him from doing so................
“And that reminds me!” Siraj looked at his friend “Sister has sent word that she wants to see
you!” Siraj informed him. “My strong feeling is that she wants you to accompany her to the
hills this summer. She seemed very worried about your health and was stressing repeatedly
that the fresh mountain air will do you good!”
Satish didn’t seem much interested in the proposal. After he had recovered from Malaria, his
father and Hemapishi too had suggested the same thing – going to a hill station for change to
fast forward the state of his health, but he had managed to thwart it citing that he had fallen
behind in academics and needed to catch up without further delay.
He wanted to be in Calcutta where everyone else was.......with Siraj, with Khudiram and his
other comrade cum friends of the Anushilan Samity........but most importantly this was where
Radharani lived and this was his Kasi, his Mecca, the best place on earth.
“I had been to her place last week after coming back from home, but she didn’t mention
anything of that sort!”
“Maybe it got decided after that! Why, aren’t you interested in the idea?”
“No really!” he unenthusiastically put in “Returning to Calcutta after such a long time is a
change in itself! And with Sister sometimes it gets so boring, she is always so serious and
whenever you open your mouth, it better be something distinctly productive or
“I understand!” Siraj sympathetically nodded “But inform her before she makes all the
arrangements! Most probably, they will be leaving soon! The other day I ran into Radharani
buying woollen socks at a shop in Sealdah!”
“Is she too going?” he asked his tone usually shrill. He had met her just two days ago, when
during the course of their conversation, she as a matter of fact had stated that she dreaded
going to the hills, for the winding journey up the contours made her violently sick, causing a
lot of headache and vomiting.
“That is what Sister told me!” he innocently looked at his friend, suppressing a smile.
Satish stood up in excitement.
“Where are you going?”
“Well, you only just told me that Sister wants to meet me!” He sounded unusually eager.
“Sit down my friend!” Siraj gently pulled him down beside him. “What is the hurry? Sister
will not be at home today. She said she had plans of going to the Kalighat temple. And in all
probability Radharani Devi too must have accompanied her!” there was a twinkle in his eyes.
“Darjeeling will be good for you!” he teased him “See just at the very proposal of going
there, you seem to have half-recovered ..........The colour is back on your cheeks, your eyes
too are no longer dull!” he observed with a sly smile.
The fairytale cottage with its sloping roof and symmetrical structure evenly spread out on
both sides of the central spine, when viewed from the top of the ridge, resembled a bird
frozen in mid-flight. It was conveniently positioned on the leeward side of the spur that
allowed the sun but shaded it from the freezing winds that blew from the faraway north. In
front of it rose rows of rolling hills, ranging in shades from green to grey till they merged
with the eternal snows guarding the faraway horizon.
The cottage stood at a slightly higher level than the town of Darjeeling and the cluster of
houses down below looked like toy houses made of painted cardboard. At night, the town a
diadem of myriad light, created an illusion that the stars of the sky had descended in unison
for an outing on the earth. And all round the cottage were rows of deodars and sentinel pines,
swaying and sighing throughout the short sunny day.
Radharani softly opened the door and stepped out into the still world, glancing at Sister’s
still-closed door. Should she knock and wake her up? Sister just loved to watch the sunrise
over the snow peaks and was up everyday sharp at dawn. Radharani pondered over the issue
for a while and finally decided not to. Sister had slept quite late last night and once she got
up, she would be constantly on the move, not resting again before nightfall.
She stared in front, at the patches of clouds wrapped in grey kimonos curled up in the cosy
hollows of the hills. Kanchenjunga and the other snow peaks, rising range above range were
still shrouded in deep haze. The treetops too were warped in misty shawls with only their
trunks visible. The unseen brush of a painter had begun expunging the thinning darkness and
the pallid sky was slowly transitioning into the transcendental glow of early dawn.
Then it happened. The sunrise.
A sharp little sunbeam from a still-to-rise sun lightly touched the tip of the Kanchenjunga
mastiff and as the icy maiden blushed in the ecstasy, a flood of rays rained upon her and the
surrounding snows till they were all gushing in the warm embrace-the glowing peaks seemed
to be floating on the horizon under a deep azure sky, separated from the lower hills by a
As the ecstasy of the experience dwindled, the peaks once again turned to hard grey steel. By
then, the whole world had woken up; chirpy magpies flew from tree to tree while a pair of
robin sang a sonorous duet as they circled the cottage. The mist was slowly sailing down
from the treetops and settling into the hollows of the valleys.
Radharani was precariously perched at the edge of the spur, the scenic serene surroundings
reminding her of Mayawati. A rarely-felt sense of sublime peace was slowly seeping into her
senses. She stood there, aware that she ought to return to the house to help with the breakfast,
but unable to make the move, for she knew that this magic would be vanish once she got
entrapped in the humdrum of daily routine.
Just beside the cottage, a meandering bridle path lazily snaked down to the bazaar below
through a maze of eucalyptus trees that rose behind her in serried row, the leaves sighing to
the soft caress of a vagrant breeze. The verdant hillsides were carpeted with wild profusion of
wild flowers which delightfully harmonised with brilliant red of the little homestead shining
out among the foliage.
She looked down into the valley at thin streak of silver meandering in and out of the green
spread. Was that a river debouching into the plains? She craned her neck for a closer look
and just then, a strong hand from behind firmly jerked her back.
“Why are you leaning like that? Don’t you know you might fall down!” Satish’s sharp tone
broke the trance.
“Satishbabu, I think you are unnecessarily worrying about me! Besides, I don’t think I am
fortunate enough to die in such a peaceful and beautiful death!” she stated in a sarcastic tone.
“Why do you want to die?” her indifferent attitude towards life pained Satish and overcome
by a sudden spate of emotion, he instead of releasing her hand only tightened his grip. “Every
life is precious, to someone somewhere!”
She did not answer. But she didn’t take her hand back and he too didn’t seem in a hurry to
return it to her.
Seconds shot by. The minutes too moved on. They stood like that under a sky of brightest
blue, locking hands and the feathery swirls of mist once more moved up from the valley to
embrace them. A thrush flew over their heads singing a sweet sad note. It was a beautiful
morning, sort of morning to entice an anchorite from his cell.
Then suddenly a dog- bark erupted from somewhere close by, the sound of which prompted
Satish to let go of his companion’s hand, albeit a little abruptly.
A large Tibetan mastiff with a pink tongue hanging out appeared up the path followed by an
old man dressed in rags. He was walking briskly because of which the bells tied to his
tattered dress were jingling non stop. The bazaar, the ultima thule- the farthest limit of their
wanderings, was his favourite hunting ground, where armed with a carved wooden begging
bowl and thrumming the weirdly shaped stringed instrument hanging from his neck, he
confidently collected alms, levying a tax on the charity of his more fortunate fellowmen.
“Hey man, come take this!” Satish holding out a coin, yelled out to the passer-by.
But the man continued on undeterred, without even turning his head.
"He is partly deaf. He can hear only whispers, but nothing louder than that!” their host Miss.
Austin, explained, watching them from her orchid-lined veranda.
“Where is he headed to so early in the morning?’ he wondered aloud.
“He is going to the Sunday haat.!”
The Austins had been in India for nearly a century. Miss Austins’ father was a reputed
doctor, who along with his colleague, Dr. Campbell set up a sanatorium in the cool climes of
Darjeeling for the British people, which as the days went by, also admitted high-born wealthy
natives. Dr. Austins’ daughter was born and brought up in the hill station. She had been
betrothed to an army officer posted in the dusty plains down below, but she refused to
divorce the simulating seclusion of mountains and voluntarily opted to spend her days in
their pristine lap as a life-long spinster.
“The haat! It must be an interesting affair! Satish remarked.
“It is!” she agreed “All the local people from the neighbouring village gather to buy and sell.
I shall be going there! If you want you can come with me!” she offered.
“I would love to, Mrs. Austin!” he eagerly agreed.
“Rada why don’t you too join us?” the old lady eagerly extended her invitation.
“Let me ask Sister!” Radharani replied hesitatingly “If she does not plan to pay a visit to Mrs
Sturdy in the morning, then may be I can come along!”
Satish gave her an intense pleading look, seeing which she sighed and biting her lips, stepped
inside thinking about her Reba Auntie- Mrs. Sturdy.
Mrs Sturdy’s lingering illness had gradually progressed into an acute infection of the lungs,
which made the doctors suspect that she had contacted tuberculosis, often fearfully referred
to as “white plague”. Subsequently, she had been shifted from the humid climate of Calcutta
to the Darjeeling hills, to an abundance of fresh air and sun, believed to be a restorative
against the dreaded disease.
The first day Radharani had been to the sanatorium to see Reba Auntie, she could not hold
back her tears. The slightly-plump ever-smiling lady, always so welcoming and full of life,
was now just a fading shadow of her former shelf, as she lay on a white-sheeted bed in a
white washed room, looking pathetically pale.
The long spate of suffering had also affected her internal mechanism and lassitude, which
earlier had never dared to venture near her, now seemed to be her constant companion,
closing in more and more with each passing day.
Would she get better? Or was this the beginning of the end?
She morosely pondered over, as she brushed her hair in the sweet smelling sunshine.
The haat, mostly an open air alfresco affair, nestled in a circular recess under the shadow of
pine and apricot trees. The dramatic sweep of the snowy mastiff soared above a deep blue
sky scattered with floating clouds of crinkled silver.
A multitude of stalls had mushroomed overnight, their content as diverse as the buyers and
sellers. The larger ones belonging to the solvent Marwari businessmen boasted of an awning,
the plastic sheets flip-flopping in the face of sudden winds and fluttering like prayer
flags…….while their poorer cousins, who were unable to afford the luxury of a roof over
their heads, were humbly making do with just the homely black umbrella.
Hawkers cried out their ware in stentorian voices, bells jingling in a ceaseless
accompaniment to their rasping tones. A persistent peddler of hot crispy grams and his rival,
dealing in ready peeled cucumbers were competing with each other, their cries punctuated by
occasional shrieks of laughter from the coolie women who had trudged from the
neighbouring tea gardens. The metallic click of horse shoe over stones, the tread of shod feet
and shuffle of stripped ones – a great murmur arose from the cocktail of all the sounds
adding to the prevailing pandemonium.
Men like the mules, which had carried them to the bazaar, were leisurely loitering about, both
seeming to in possession of all the time in the world. They came from remote villages high
up in the hills and this weekly market was their only window to the world outside. A man in
tattered robes and with a long pigtail of coarse coal-black hair, his short stature and features
unmistakable testimony of his Mongolian origin, was elaborating to an eager listener how the
leopard had nearly taken away his goat and how he had been able to retrieve it in just the
nick of time……he was not boasting about his bravery but his unexpected bit of good luck.
A few shaggy ponies and woolly donkeys were leisurely munching away in convenient
nooks nuzzling each other while exchanging news like they masters. A turbaned
Kabuliwallah, in voluminous white garments and tinsel decorated velvety waistcoat, was
selling dry fruits, his aquiline features more hawk like than ever and striking a sharp contrast
amidst the bluntness of the locals.
A Bhutanese lady with a gaily printed scarf covering her forehead and reaching down to her
bright, smiling almost nonexistent eyes, sat behind tall pyramids of rice and lentils. She was
heavily adorned from top to toe- circlets around head, bracelets circling wrists, numerous
necklaces and enormous girdles, all studded with amber, agate, coral, turquoise, jade and
other precious stones. Huge ear rings, five to six inches long, pulled down the lobes of their
ears. It seemed as if the entire fortune of the family was invested in her personal adornments.
Amidst bargaining with the customers, weighing the stuff and counting coins, she was
talking non stop to the women crowding around her. Her ware, like her words too seemed to
be much in demand, evident from the rapidly shrinking mounds.
Mrs. Austin stopped in front of a stall selling vegetables. Though her bearer bought all the
essentials, she too liked to shop, though because of her advanced age, she could indulge in
her favourite time pass only occasionally. She loved the smell of the fresh vegetables and
when she bought them herself, they tasted even better at the table …….she stared at the
heap……celeries, cabbages, red chillies and dusky purple beet, plump pumpkins and tender
lettuce leaves striking bright splashes of colour in the small shadowy enclosure.
Shoo! Shoo! The vegetable seller armed with a stick warded off a greedy mule, which in-
between wandering about, had attempted to grab a bite during the man’s momentary
The stubborn creature though diverted, remained undeterred. It soon returned to try its luck a
second time and this time it was successful.
“Radharani! Where are you?” the commotion made the old lady suddenly aware of her ward
and she anxiously looked around.
“Mrs. Austin, I am here!” Radharani waved from the opposite, from a shop selling beads
bangles and other paraphernalia. The shopkeeper, a coolie girl clothed in faded garments had
adorned herself with brightly coloured bead strings and glass bangles in a bid to add to her
looks, besides publicizing her ware. A child tied to her back was vigorously sucking a chunk
of dried milk which bore an uncanny resemblance to a grubby slice of old soap. Radharani
watched the duo and the scene brought back memories, painful memories of a time when she
was a mother too……………..she stood still, fondly reminiscing those brief moments with
her infant son, feeding him, cuddling him, playing with him, putting him to sleep with faint
strains of a lullaby………..
She sighed, tears streaming down her face! How ever hard time might try to wear the edge of
grief, memory seemed determined to turn back every leaf!
“Are you buying something?” Satish after a quick survey of the place returned and declared
in an enthusiastic tone "There is a fortune-teller over there. Want to come?” he pointed to a
tree at the far end of the ground.
She fervently nodded and turned her face away from him to in an attempt to hide the tears
tricking down her face. But Satish noticed them, and in a trice his tone changed.
“What happened? Has anybody told you anything? Where is Mrs. Austin?” he enquired
looking around for their group-leader who was nowhere in the vicinity.
“Why are you crying?” moving closer, he lightly tapped her shoulder, sounding genuinely
“Satishbabu, please leave me alone!” Her tone was grim and her statement sounded more
like an order than a plea, which left Satish perplexed, wondering what had happened all of a
sudden that had spoiled her mood. He was unable to make sense of such sporadic mood
swings, when she withdrew into a shell, severing all connections with the world around her.
Did she still think of her husband, that tyrant? Did she miss her life before marriage? Was
there anybody else in that? He wished he knew.
As Radharani he watched him walk away, she was stung with a feeling of guilt and remorse
for her unnecessary harsh behaviour. Turning him down, affected her
too…………………these days whenever she intentionally hurt him, it boomeranged on
her…….but then, she was afraid of getting too close to him. Already this trip had brought the
two of them quite close in a way she had never imagined, and she was not able to rein her
thoughts and feelings for him in a way she wanted to………………………..
She sighed and picking up a peacock shaped brooch set with multi-colour stones, stared at it
unmindfully. Could she present it to Mrs. Stiurdy as a “get-well” gift? Would she like it?
Should she buy something for Dr. Robert too? She desperately tried to divert her thoughts.
The crowd around the clairvoyant fakir had considerably thinned when Satish reached the
spot, as people after curing their curiosity of the future, had suddenly become aware of the
responsibilities of the present and had hurried away to fulfil them.
The fortune- teller was dressed in the remains of a leopard fur coat belted at the waist. His
cheeks and forehead were stained with ochre darts. He was ready to forecast the fate of every
enterprise which was disclosed to him and seemed apt in reading the past, in which he at
times, displayed startling accuracy. A string of coloured seeds circled his long crane-like
neck, which mildly hinged about as he took Satish’s hand and carefully studied the lines on
his palm with a magnifying glass.
“My son, the path that you are presently treading, is a very dangerous one. You will
encounter a lot of hurdles in whatever you are trying to do!” he announced, halting his
“Baba, what is there at the end of the path, success or failure?” Satish eagerly asked.
“Success will come, but it will take time my son! Presently your mind is very restless. And a
woman is the cause of all these conflicts within you!” he stated and piercingly stared at his
listener to gauge his reaction. The agitated look on Satish’s face, followed by a sudden flush
of embarrassment, assured him that he was on the right track.
“Tell me more Baba! Will she ever become mine?” Satish eagerly asked, his tone quivering
The man didn’t answer. His face had suddenly gone grim, and wrinkles surfaced on his
“ My son, I see a major turning point in your life shortly, say in another……….” He paused
to make a quick mental calculation “Three to five years at the most!”
“Will it be good or bad for me?”
“That I am unable to see, my son! Only time can answer that question of yours! If we could
foresee everything, then what would be the difference between us and the Almighty?” he
philosophically looked at his listener.
“But this I can definitely say, if you are successful in tiding over that crisis, then after that
life will be smooth! You will get what you want; all your wishes will be fulfilled! But till
then you must be careful!” the astrologer vehemently reiterated his prediction.
Satish was thinking deeply. Three to five years……wasn’t that the time period which the
leaders of the Anushilan Samity had anticipated was required to attain freedom?
After his motherland was free, Satish too would be freed of his promise and vows of
bachelorhood! Then he would be a free bird once again, eligible to marry Radharani!
But there was no doubt that it was an extremely uphill task! For though he was aware of
Radharani’s growing inclination towards him, he was not sure if she would be willing to
make him a part of her future scheme of things. But more than that, his father, the obstinate
old man, needed to be tackled who was sure to staunchly oppose the idea of him, his son and
future scion of Nayanpur marrying a widow! Hemapishi too wouldn’t take kindly to the idea,
but with an adequate dose of emotional blackmailing she could perhaps be won over!
………..Satish trudged along at a snail’s pace, dreaming in the broad daylight.
A little to the right of the Chowrasta junction, just where the road ran up to the Mall in one
go, was a majestic building, staring straight into the eyes of the ice maiden fence-sitting on
the faraway horizon. It was the haunt of the planters from the surrounding tea gardens who
religiously poured in every weekend to drown their drudgeries in drums of brandy as the
polished parquet floor reverberated to the tap of twinkle toes dressed in their best frills and
feather hats, linking arm in arm and swaying sinuously. It was here, stretched out on wicker
chairs on the long wide veranda that the men slowly slurped their late morning brew and
downed glasses of claret and London Porter, jogging their appetite for devouring the 12-
course meal, accompanied by the smashing of plates at the end of each course.
It was from here that only some months years ago Colonel Younghusband had put down his
brandy snifter and set off for Tibet along with his men and mules on an extraordinary
expedition- to coax the Grand Lama of Tibet for signing a treaty of commerce and good will
with the British.
The Colonel had been to Lhasa earlier on a friendly visit, but the Grand Lama refused to
receive him, rejecting his overtures without explanation, signifying his indifference and
contempt for England. But Lord Curzon was not a man who could be put down so easily and
Colonel Younghusband was resent, carrying provisions for two years. Though there were
strict instructions to avoid collisions, the mission turned into a de facto invasion, forcing the
rulers of the unknown, mysterious country to open their gates and admit British merchants
into that benighted land.
Satish stopped in front of the Planters’ Club and as he admired the primroses and poinsettias
adorning the garden, he remembered something which Miss Austin had once mentioned
about this building- that as it was built into the hillside, the roof top was at the same level as
the road and one needn’t necessarily take the stairs to get there.
You just went up the road and walked into the terrace!
Having lived in the plains all his life, Satish was naturally intrigued by the concept and
curious as to how this could be possible. Now standing in front of the building, his
inquisitiveness once again got triggered and he ventured in to explore.
He opened the gate and had just stepped under the portico, when there was a shout,
prompting him to halt
"Hey who are you? How dare you walk in like this? Clear out at once!”
Satish turned back and saw a red-eyed sahib with a bottle in his hand perched at the far end
of the veranda and barking orders at him.
Had it been before when he just the naïve son of a native zamindar, he would have meekly
obeyed and walked out, accepting the fact that the sahib endowed with the right to rule this
land was also entitled to impose his wish on his subject .
But now he was a different Satish altogether! The influence of Sister Nivedita, induction into
the Anushilan Samity, lessons in nationalism had changed his very personality and
perception about things!
“Why?” He shouted back “This is a club and not your ancestral property!”
“What!!!!!!” the sahib could hardly believe his ears. “Dirty Niger! You have the audacity to
answer back?” he hissed, purple as a beetroot with rage.
Satish felt his blood boiling. How dare that white-skinned devil call him a dirty niger! How
dare he insult a son of the soil!
“Chowkidaar!” the sahib shouted.
“Ji Huzoor!” a Nepalese guard immediately appeared and stood in a stooping pose with
folded hands, waiting for further orders.
“How could this fellow get in? Where were you?” he demanded, his eyes spitting fire.
“Throw him out at once!” He pointed to Satish, as if he was an untouchable.
Enough! The sahib and his servant both needed to be taught a lesson. Right now! Satish
began rolling up his sleeves and clenched his fists in anger.
But even before he could launch his offensive, the Nepalese pounced on him in full strength
and holding him by the collar, began dragging him towards the entrance, showering him with
slaps and letting loose a flood of vituperative oratory. He was joined by two of his
enthusiastic brethren, while the sahib stood at a safe distance, a crooked smile of content
glowing in his wicked eyes.
Satish struggled to free himself, but he was no match for the three brawny men. His lips
tasted salty, one eye felt bunged and there was a throbbing feeling in his head…..
…………..he would have passed out but for another sahib, who had appeared, attracted by
“Why, it is you Satish!” Robert cried in amazement and thundered “Stop! I say, stop all this
Because of the authoritative manner in which he spoke, the men paused but did not
completely withdraw. The first sahib was still standing on the veranda and they looked at him
“You are too hot headed Ted!” Robert mildly rebuked him. “You have blood pressure! Such
excitement is bad for your health! Please go inside! I shall tackle this trespasser!”
The sahib who had once again slipped into a state of drunkenness, dully stared at Robert and
downing a sip faltered inside. The Nepalese trio too were ordered to disperse.
Robert looked at the fallen boy. He was an old acquaintance, he had come across Satish quite
a couple of times at Peggie Auntie’s place, and initially their relation had been quite cordial
and friendly. Then one fine day, by chance he had become aware of the real reason for
Satish’s frequent trips to Bagh Bazar, and since then, unable to come to terms with the
discovery, he had cut down his communication to just an exchange of the bare formalities.
Here too, in Darjeeling the day he had witnessed Satish and Radharani walking side by side
along a pine-lined road lost in each other, the sight had silently set his nerves on fire.
And that was precisely the reason, when today when he first noticed Satish being beaten
black and blue, the initial reaction had been not to interfere. But finally, remembering Rada
he had been forced to, and momentarily casting aside his hostilities had stepped forward to
the aid of her preferred one.
“Shall I help you!” he extended his hand to Satish who accepted it and slowly got up, dusting
his clothes. He was more insulted and injured, though one of his eyes was swollen and he
could hardly open it.
“But why did you try to gatecrash!” Robert could not help asking once they were out of the
premises, “Hasn’t Miss Austin briefed you that the entry to the club is restricted!”
“This country is ours! We can go where we want to! The British are the outsiders!” Satish
vehemently stated, still fuming “I wish I had a few more boys with me today. Then I would
have given them a fitting answer!”
Robert watched him and waited for him to cool down before saying anything, as they
traipsed along the uphill road in the shadow of pines.
“Satish I know you are angry with what has happened and I apologize on behalf of Mr.
Teddy!” he put in after some time “But believe me, the rationale behind formulating the rule
is not racism as you are assuming it to be!”
He reinforced his statement with the logic that just like Non Hindus are debarred from
entering temples, similarly because of differences in culture and customs between the people
of the two nationalities, the club had been consciously kept out of bounds for most Indians.
“Are you aware that the Maharaja of Cooch Behar is a member of the club?” Robert pointed
out hearing which, Satish was clearly surprised.
“Satish, the main reason for keeping the club out of bounds for most Indians is because of
their queer sense of hygiene! People here chew a lot paan, and then go about spitting
anywhere and everywhere, on the pavements, on the walls of public buildings! Have you
ever thought how filthy those stains of saliva look, as if somebody had just suffered from a
haemorrhage! I have also seen people blowing their nose with their own hands and not even
washing them after that!”
“And you think you people are very hygiene conscious?” Satish sarcastically countered
“You blow into handkerchiefs and have no qualms about spending hour after hour with the
soiled stuff stuffed in your pockets!”
“Dr. Robert I don’t know if you have heard about the Mughal emperor Humayan and his
rakhi sister, but if you have, you will realize that chivalry in this country does not mean
merely breaking a lance in honour of the lady you love, but staking your all in defence of the
woman you had never seen in your life, but who solicited your help claiming the rights of a
“Shall I tell you more?” He went on, unconsciously venting out his pent-up anger “You walk
into the house without opening your shoes, shoes in which you have trod the entire town.
Instead you open your coat and hang it! Hats off to your crazy customs!”
For a moment Robert was dumbfounded as he struggled to come up with a valid explanation.
Really east and west were so drastically different! They were even unable to understand
each other’s stand point! The British specially were so stubborn in forcing their views on the
Indians without caring for the latter’s sensitivities!
Wasn’t that precisely the reason, which just half a century ago had acted as a trigger for the
At that time several so-called "reforms" had been introduced into the native army; they were
forbidden to wear caste marks and earrings, the new uniform with belts and cockades were
made from the skins of cows, an animal which the Hindus considered sacred, while the
cartridges for protecting them from the moisture were covered with lard derived from the
flesh of swine, considered unclean by the Mohammedans.
The changes were trivial in the eyes of the Englishmen, but were of great importance to the
sepoys who viewed them as intentional attacks upon their religion. Certain conspirators,
desiring to destroy British authority, exploited the rising discontent amongst native soldiers
to convince them that the new rules were a deliberate ploy on the part of the British to divest
them of their religion, which would eventually force them to embrace Christianity. When the
sepoys highlighted their grievances, the commanding British officers laughed in their faces,
refusing to treat their complaints seriously, which were all the more interpreted as positive
proof of the government’s evil intentions. What’s more, the British government, blissfully
unaware of the enfolding conspiracies, issued huge quantities of arms and ammunition to the
sepoys, at whose mercy the entire British population was left.
Had only they been more sensitive about the sentiment of the sepoys, then perhaps it would
have been an altogether different story! So many tragedies could have been averted! So many
innocent women and children could have been saved from dying such a dreadful death!
“Let us argue no more on that!” Robert tried to put an end to the discussion which didn’t
seem to be getting anywhere. And then suddenly, a thought flashed in his mind which he was
aware would infuriate and humiliate Satish, but against which he was certain to have no
“Satish, but what do you have to say about the men who were hitting you! They were not the
British but your kith and kin, your own countrymen!”
Satish gritted his teeth, refraining from making a reply. The realization, the lack of loyalty
amongst his own fellowmen had hurt him too, perhaps hit him more than the blows and
bashes, only he was reluctant to admit it to the man standing in front of him, to someone who
right now was a representative of the British Raj!
Sister Nivedita too was aware of this and was leaving no stone unturned in drilling the
concept of nationalism into the people of the country. She always told her students “Bharat
Barsha is your mother! Just as a son or daughter behaves or mixes with his or her mother
freely and intimately, so in the same manner should you love HER respect HER serve HER
and worship HER with the most reverential salutations! And lately she seemed hell bent on
projecting and popularising Sita, the wife of Lord Rama and not British-born Victoria, as the
real queen of this country!
As Satish remembered Sister Nivedita, he silently thought with wholehearted admiration
about the noble lady who had none of the impertinent curiosity of a typical European visitor,
elevating herself on a pedestal and passing judgement about everything with superior
aloofness. On the contrary, she had so completely merged herself with her adopted land, that
one never heard her use phrases like 'Indian need’ or Indian people: it was always 'our need,'
“Satish your own people are the most effective weapons of the British raj.” Robert remarked
afresh, appearing determined to drive home his point “Tomorrow if there is a rebellion, these
people will be the ones to first check mate those who have risen against the British! Your
own people are your worst enemies!”
Once again Satish was unable to offer any answer.
They came to the Mall where their paths parted. Robert went towards the sanatorium where
his mother lay, eagerly awaiting for her son to return with the books borrowed from the
Planter’s Club library.
Satish trudged alone amongst the pine scented hills, his ears burning with Robert’s last words
“Your own people are your worst enemies!”
The bungalow by the river was dreamily basking in the sun. The golden rays rained on the
green lawn, on the multi coloured flowerbeds, slid down the sloping roof and sneaked into
the veranda, at the farthest end of which sat a girl on a Rattan chair reading a book. A shower
of bougainvillea creepers shielded her from the direct view of anyone who opened the gate
and walked in. Agatha had chosen that spot with a lot of deliberation, for it enabled her to
see the visitors without letting them see her.
But in spite of all pre planned calculations, Agatha remained so deeply absorbed in her book
that she missed the entry of a well-dressed young man. Only when he had reached right up to
the veranda did the sound of approaching footsteps register, prompting her to look up.
“Robert!” she stood up and flashing a smile of pleasant surprise shut the book with the
pagemark. Robert looked a bit flustered, for he was apprehensive about the appropriateness
of landing up at the afternoon hour of resting, without giving adequate advance notice.
“I hope I did not disturb you!” he was a bit apologetic. “Ideally I should have intimated
before coming, but ……………”
“A friend has the right to walk in any time!” she immediately brushed aside his hesitation in
right earnest, adding as an afterthought “I know our society is obsessed with such elaborate
etiquettes, but personally I am not for them!”
“By the way have you received the invitation to my birthday party?” she asked and seeing
him nod in the affirmative seemed relieved. “Thank God, for a change, Hukumali has
remembered to drop the right thing at the right place! Such a clod this bearer is!” she looked
at Robert. “Do you know he once threw away a large block of ice, confidently stating that it
was yesterday’s ice and had gronwn stale? And can you imagine what he did last week?
Mother sent him to the market with a list of groceries and a letter. The fellow posted the list
and landed up at the shop with the letter!”
Agatha took a deep breath. The custom of keeping a retinue of servants often exasperated
her, but here in India, because of caste restrictions and several other prejudices there was
hardly any other option. It was always an inflexible system of one-man one-job with almost
no overlapping or interchange. A butler will wait on the table, warm the plates if necessary,
but on no account agree to wash the crockery, knives, forks and spoons, for which a masalchi
is a must. A coachman will only drive, and to take care of the horses another hand has to be
Then that never-ending vicious cycle between the dhobi and the tailor! One over-starches the
clothes so that they tear at the crease, calling upon the services of the tailor, while the other
invariably dirties the clothes and again the dhobi is needed.
And the bearer! Though the term had supposedly originated from the contention of a native
bearing the white man's burden, the reality was far from that, as the bearer tried every trick in
the book to hire others at his master’s expense to do everything he can avoid doing.
Hukumali was a perfect specimen of that. Yet initially he had portrayed such a different
impression about himself and his capabilities!
A swarm of candidates of all sizes and ages, castes and complexions had shown up for the
vacant post of the bearer. All were carrying "chits," -- certificates of work experience,
testifying to their intelligence, integrity and honesty, with each trying his best to justify his
Hukumali too was amongst them and stood quietly in one corner amidst the commotion, his
snow-white robe, spotless turban and hennaed beard exuding an unexpected dignity. He
spoke slowly and only when spoken to, conveying in a faltering tone that just a month ago
his house had been burnt to ashes because of which he had lost everything he had, well
everything except recommendations from previous employers.
He finally emerged as the chosen one, but it soon turned out that like the falsity he had
resorted to for extracting sympathy, his imposing spectacle too was a splendid illusion. He
could neither read nor write, was incapable of properly conveying a message or receiving
one. And at the top of it, at the end of each engagement, he considered himself a “fuss class”
bearer, expecting a dastur of minimum two annas for delivery of his services.
“He is always hanging around when he was not wanted, but when he is really required, there
is no trace of him!” she commented and suddenly became aware that Robert was not looking
his usual relaxed self.
“You look worried. How is Mrs. Sturdy?” she enquired, sounding concerned.
“Mother is better, though there is still a long way to go till she recovers completely!” he
sighed. “Because of her health I had requested for a posting at Darjeeling, and now as it
seems, I have to leave almost immediately! I will not be able to attend your birthday!” he
The unexpected suddenness of the news silenced Agatha. She had intended the birthday
celebration to be a grander affair as compared to the other years, a steamer party on the
Ganges when they, she and Robert would make a formal announcement regarding their
relationship. They had known each other for almost a year and now everybody, including her
own parents, was expectantly looking forward to an engagement.
Now all the grandiose plans suddenly seem to fall apart like a pack of cards.
“When do you have to go?” She finally asked in a small voice.
“Won’t you be able to come down even for a day for my birthday?” she eagerly asked.
Robert laughed helplessly. “Calcutta to Darjeeling is a long and tiring journey Agatha!” he
sighed, elaborating “You board the train today and travel for hours and hours through the
plains of Bengal. Then just before nightfall you get down, cross the Ganges on a steamboat,
alight on the other bank and again board another train, a smaller one this time, which will
take you to the foothills early next morning. The ordeal doesn’t end here for now you are
transferred to a tonga, a two-wheeled crude carriage open all around, in which you have to
endure a ten hour bone-jittery, bone-chilling journey up the hills!”
Agatha didn’t say anymore more, though her disappointment was quite evident.
“Are you free this afternoon?” he asked after dilly dallying for a while “If you are, can I
request you to accompany me to the Chowringhee?” he put in eagerly, hearing which
Agatha’s face brightened a little.
They walked down the garden path that led to a gazebo, where a little girl was busy patting
and putting her doll family to sleep. She was Anne, Agatha’s sister. Her ayah stretched out
on the ground beside and with the end of her sari serving as a bed sheet was snoring softly,
her bulky bosom gently heaving up and down to the rhythm of her snores.
At the sound of footsteps, Anne turned round and seeing Robert momentarily abandoned her
maternal occupations and came skipping towards him.
“Hello young lady!” he lightly ruffled her silken head.
“Have you brought candies for me?” She expectantly delved into a pocket of his tweed coat.
“I will give you, but before that you have to tell me a rhyme!”
“First I want the candy!”
“First you tell me a rhyme!”
“Alright!” the little girl a little reluctantly, agreed to the deal and reeled off like a wind-up
doll, the movement of her limbs perfectly synchronising with her speech and conjuring an
Hamti Damti chargaya chat
Hamti Damti girgaya phat
Raja ka paltan Rani ka ghore
Hamti Damti kabhi na jore
Robert was bemused. He couldn’t make head or tail of the whole narration. It sounded
familiar, yet so unfamiliar!
“Failed to recognize it?” Agatha standing behind him voluntarily decoded “It’s the
Hindustani version of Humpty Dumpy. Anne has picked it up from her ayah.”
“Now I am able to make sense!” he admitted.
“Anne, will you recite another rhyme for us?” Agatha softly requested her kid sister, who
agreed but not before she had successfully extracted a promise of securing an additional
candy from her eager listeners.
Ghas mein baithke khai
Jab bara sa makra
Uski sari ko pakra
Bhage mafti mai
“That was “little Miss Muffet”!” her big sister elucidated and at the same time expressed her
underlying fears “I am worried about its impact on Anne! She is picking up all sorts of inane
habits from the ayah!”
“Don’t worry!” Robert reassured her. “She will forget everything once she is exported to
England and begins her schooling. A child’s mind is like a blank page, registering everything
it comes across! When I was a small child, I too picked up strange things from my ayah, but
it has hardly impacted my upbringing!”
They kept on talking, amidst which, Anne employing all the concentration in the world, kept
on devouring the candies while her ayah kept on sleeping peacefully, not even stirring a bit.
The banks of the river, as it ran by the city of Calcutta, were lined for a long distance with
mammoth warehouses; beyond which were the buildings of commerce and government
offices bordering a big stretch of green, the Gorer Maath or Maidan. Spread over several
thousand acres and double the size of London Regent's Park, the Maidan was bisected with
drives and adorned with tree clusters and bronze figures of former viceroys, soldiers and
statesmen. Queen Victoria sat in the centre of the ground, surrounded by several of her ablest
and most eminent servants.
The Maidan was where at all times of the day, groups of natives could be seen sitting,
sleeping and wandering about, occasionally feasting on freshly roasted chanas tossed with
sliced green chilis and topped with a squeeze of lime, acquired from the vendors crying out
their ware in tuneful tones
The Maidan was where on fading summer afternoons, when the heat had moderated,
everybody who owned a carriage or was capable of hiring one, came out for a drive. This
included even the Viceroy Lord Curzon, who for a sip of the fresh air, would drive through
the rolling greens, often accompanied by his gorgeous wife and their two daughters.
That day too Curzon had been out for a drive and after a round of the green, was strolling on
the grass with his wife Mary. His stately carriage was parked on one side of the road and the
coachman, clad in gold sashes and gorgeous red livery, was patiently positioned in his seat,
attracting the attention and admiration of all the passers-by. The Viceroy’s bodyguards, a
squad of stalwart Sikhs in scarlet uniforms and bulbous turbans, sat on their horses like
centaurs, carrying long, old-fashioned spears.
As the carriage carrying Robert and Agathe crossed the spot, for a brief moment, they had a
fleeting glance of the handsome viceroy adorned in his trademark regalia of black and gold.
Beside him was his delicately-proportioned wife, who with her entrancing eyes and youthful
bounce, looked striking in a yellow satin evening dress trimmed with silk chiffon and
intricately embroidered with a pattern of oak leaves. Her glossy chestnut-brown hair was
drawn back into a loose knot at the nape of her neck, and in glow of the golden twilight, she
looked really resplendent.
“Isn’t Lady Curzon beautiful?” Agathe whispered “And did you notice the dress she is
wearing? It surely must be from the Paris fashion house of Worth!”
“I am not aware of the fashion trends followed by the first lady, but I have had the good luck
of tasting one of her culinary innovations!”
And Robert narrated how at a recent party Lord Curzon, had ordered a “drink free” dinner to
be hosted in honour of a guest who had a problem consuming alcohol. This placed the
hostess in a serious dilemma, for along with respecting the habits of the revered guest, she
simultaneously had to ensure the satisfaction of others --and no civilized Englishman would
be happy to dine without some form of libation. So what did she do? She debated and
dwelled on the matter and finally ordered the chef to put sherry in the turtle soup!
The Chowringhee area was choc-a-bloc with broughams, brownberry gharis, phaetons,
landaus, tikka gharis-all kinds of four-wheeled horse drawn carriages filled with all kinds of
people dressed in all kinds of costumes worn by the all kinds of races that made up the Indian
Empire. Amidst all the cacophony, a stalwart street sprinkler or bhisti , in a humble loin cloth
with his perfect anatomy and shapely outline laid bare before the admiring gaze of onlookers,
was silently spraying water on the wide, well paved pavement from a water-filled goat skin
bag hung from his back.
They entered into a departmental store where Robert, in view of his impending relocation to
the hills purchased flannel suits, serge suits, tweed shirts, dressing gowns. In addition,
Agatha insisted on gumboots and linwol suits, in case it rained. Like most men, Robert was a
quick non- fussy buyer devoid of any rigid choice, while Agatha like most of the womenfolk,
was just the opposite. She insisted on being shown all the available stuff in the shop,
revelling in keen analysis of their cuts and colours and soon the counter was overflowing …..
“Why did women give so much undue importance to such insignificant matters?” Robert
wondered, after the exercise had ended and they were strolling towards the river, skirting
perambulating couples and huge Victorians families moving like warships across the empty
expanse of the Maidan.
They passed the impressive premises of the famous silversmiths, Hamilton and Co. and
suddenly Robert remembered…………….
“What business do you have here?” Agathe inquisitively enquired as she followed him in.
A few weeks back Robert had been passing by, when in the shop window he had come across
a beautiful brooch being displayed. Star shaped and set with sparkling diamonds encircling a
central ruby, it was aptly and imaginatively titled “Rose of Cashmere.” As he noticed it once
again, he had a brainwave of gifting it to his companion for her forthcoming birthday.
“What was the need for all this?” Agatha weakly protested, as Robert put the gift wrapped
box in her hand.
“I shall be extremely obliged if you accept this as a gift for your birthday which I had wanted
to attend, but could not because of circumstances beyond my control. This will remind you of
me when I will not be here!”
“Robert, wherever you are, you are always in my thoughts! But I shall really miss you!” she
whispered to him, a smile of content curving her luscious lips as she visualized herself
adorned with the gorgeous jewel.
As they walked out of the shop, their eyes fell on the church on the opposite side of the road,
where a wedding had just ended and now the bridal pair arm in arm were gracefully
venturing out of the vestry. The bride, the cynosure of all eyes, looked stunning in a splendid
dress of ivory satin trimmed with exquisite real duchesse inserted Brussels lace arranged on
the bodice as a fichu and falling in robe fashion from the waist. The train of white satin was
trimmed with clusters of cherry blossoms, while her tulle veil too was adorned with a wreath
of the same flowers. A heavenly happiness illuminated her face, as along with her life
partner she walked underneath an archway of drawn swords made by the many military
officers gracing the venue in full uniform. Guests, gentleman in ruffles and wigs and ladies in
flounces and hoops, were lined up on both sides of the path, cheering the newly married
couple and showering them with flowers, till they got into a flower-decked carriage and rode
Agatha stood there imagining herself in that place. Her wedding gown, which would be from
the House of Worth, would be an iridescent white pearl-embroidered brocaded satin with a
chiffon sash and chiffon sleeves, the toilette very restrained and delicate ………she happily
glanced at Robert who too seemed to be momentarily lost in his own world. But had she been
endowed with the power of deciphering his thoughts, she would have been disappointed, for
the face just then that kept on appearing and re appearing in his mind was not hers.
The plains were burning. The plains were ablaze with the helpless rage of hundreds and
hundreds of people. Lord Curzon ignoring all pleadings and petitions, had determinedly gone
ahead with his decision to partition “Sonar Bangla” -the province of Bengal which would
henceforth be dissected into two parts- East Bengal and Assam with Dacca as the new
capital, while West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa would henceforth be a separate province.
The official announcement of partition, shattered the people’s long legendary belief in the
eventual fairness of the British and what was till then was only a rumour suddenly became a
reality, a harsh reality hurting their sentiments and affecting their lives.
The zamindars in possession of vast landed estates both in west and east Bengal, realized that
partition meant incurring additional expense in the running of their estate.
The intellectual Hindu community felt it to be a deliberate blow inflicted by Curzon at the
growing solidarity of the Bengali-speaking population, a plan purposely put in place to
encourage growth of a Muslim power in the eastern Bengal for countering the Hindus. They
also simultaneously feared that with the emergence of Dacca, the importance of Calcutta
would now dwindle, and along with it the prestige and privileges they had been accustomed
to enjoying. The lawyers of Calcutta High Court apprehended that the establishment of a
Court of Appeal at Dacca would diminish their status.
The business community of Calcutta, controlling most of the region’s commerce too had
their own reasons to be unhappy. Chittagong’s emergence as a principal sea port threatened
the prevailing privileged status of Calcutta, all the more since logically, the former location-
wise was the natural outlet for Assam. And to make matters worse, Lord Curzon, in order to
win support for partition, had already promised financial help for developing the port’s
facilities and Chittagong seemed all set to rise from its secondary position of a feeder port to
a premier port in the days to come.
Partition was instrumental in politicizing the hitherto neutral population and overnight
emotions shot up. People took to the streets protesting fiercely and shouting slogans against
the British government, but Lord Curzon could not be convinced to take back his decision.
He was determined to penalize those impudent Bengali Babus, who had dared to defy him
and join hands with a nautch girl! At reports of rising unrest in and around the city of
Calcutta, he only gritted his teeth in satisfaction, fervently hoping that the partition would
divide not just the soil, but also the spirit of the Bengalis!
The Government House, the imperial residence of the Viceroy with its stately council
chambers, series of drawing rooms in gold and white, banquet halls and ballrooms panelled
with brocade and tapestries, was the perfect embodiment of architectural excellence,
surpassing many of the royal residences of Europe.
It was the handiwork of Lord Wellesley, a Governor- general of India, who with his exalted
appreciation of the position he occupied, intended to replicate in India the elegance and
etiquettes of the British court. When the merchants of the East India Company expressed
their disapproval of this enormous expenditure, he had tried to justify his stand by stating that
India "should be governed from a palace and not from a counting-house, with the ideas of a
prince and not those of a retail dealer in muslin and indigo."
The first time the current Viceroy Lord Curzon had set his eyes on the edifice, he was
dumbstruck at its resemblance to Kedleston Hall, his ancestral residence. Was this mere
coincidence or was there some other significance of this similarity? He felt as if it God
Himself had singled him out to rule India.
Lord Curzon was pacing up and down, when from faraway floated a faint uproar which
seemed to grow n strength with every passing minute. Curious at the clamour, he went near
the parapet for a closer look and saw a large crowd passing by the Government House,
holding enormous black flags bearing messages, which he could not read because of the
distance. Also everyone seemed to be in a singing mode, which again because of the
distance, sounded like a faint din.
Another protest procession? He wondered.
“Your Excellency, Dr. Robert is waiting for you!” his secretary announced, hearing which he
instructed him to bring the doctor to the terrace and slowly ran his forefinger down his spine.
That dreadful back-pain was back again. He had never imagined that a fall from horseback
years ago would have such severe implications, haunting him all his life, making him
querulous during crucial moments of his life and career! The whole of last night he had been
unable to sleep. His stiff gait which lent such an awful majesty to his presence was actually
because of a steel waistcoat braced up with a girdle to protect his weak back, causing
constant discomfort and making him perspire when in the cold weather!
“Good morning, Your Excellency!” Dr. Robert’s presence made him turn around and
returning the greeting, Curzon drew the other’s attention to the mass of moving humanity.
“Your Excellency, if you observe carefully you will also find that many of their wrists are
adorned with yellow threads! That is raakhi, the symbol of universal brotherhood, which
they have been wearing since the day Partition formally came into effect!” Dr. Robert passed
on the piece of information, which he had received from his father cum editor of the
“Do you have any idea about the meaning of the song that they are singing?” Curzon asked, a
“Your Excellency, they are all pledging solidarity and reaffirming that henceforth Hindus
and Mohammedans are brothers!” a slight smile of sarcasm wavered on Robert’s lips even as
he spoke. Last evening itself, he had argued against the utopian idea, which was based on
only emotion and no logic.
Both the religions were worlds apart in all aspects, and weren’t it ludicrous to imagine that
by just tying a thread on each others’ wrists, they would permanently dissolve their
differences and lively happily ever after in each others’ arms? Already the Nawab of Dacca
had announced that he was for partition and a large chunk of the Muslims had pulled out of
the movement along with him. Robert was quite confident that all this hue and cry about
Hindus and Muslims embracing each other like long lost brothers and tying raakhi on each
other’s wrists was incapable of standing the test of time.
“Your Excellency had sent for me!” He forcibly cast aside the thoughts and attempted to
concentrate on the present.
Lord Curzon briefed him about his back pain, following which Robert examined him and
politely enquired if his patient was presently tense over any issue.
Lord Curzon was somewhat hesitant before answering ………
“Actually these days I am a bit worked up with all these demonstrations of anti-partition,
fearing for the law and order situation……………..these people instead of calming down,
seem only to be getting wilder and wilder with each passing day………….. When I hear all
the screaming and shouting, I can feel my blood boiling…You know what happened the
other day? Something like this has never happened before!............. A huge procession was
making its way towards Chowringhee and when a British sergeant politely tried to persuade
them to backtrack; they instead of heeding his request, started pelting him with stones! How
did these timid people become so fearless overnight?”
Robert just kept on listening without making any comment and when he took the Viceroy’s
hand to feel the pulse, he found that it was not beating but literally racing…………….. The
air was tense, the people were tense……… how could their initiator expect to be exempted?
The people became really wild with rage when the decision of partitioning Bengal remained
un-revoked. Did the British regard them as just spineless slaves, about whose sentiments
they could afford to remain so blissfully unbothered? The leaders surfaced and after a
thorough survey of the situation, gave the verdict that the British needed to be given a fitting
reply for inflicting this insult on the Bengalis. Tit for tat. But how?
“Well the British economy is largely dependant on the Indian market, and let us boycott all
bideshi or foreign-made goods, everything that is manufactured in England - textiles, soaps,
perfumes even salt and sugar!” one of the think-tank opined and his suggestion soon captured
the imagination of the masses, spreading like wildfire.
Regular bonfires of British cloth illuminated the street corners, and the sale of British goods
plummeted to an all-time low. Students refused to write exams on foreign paper, even little
girls refused to play with foreign dolls. Word went round that bones and blood of pigs and
cows were used in the manufacture of foreign salt and sugar, prompting both Hindus and
Mussalmans, even the die-hard Raj loyalists to reject them, more out of fear of being
disowned by their respective religions.
Swadeshi bhandars selling swadeshi or Indian-made cloth sprang up overnight all over the
city and it suddenly became fashionable to wear coarse dhotis and handloom saris rather than
Manchester cottons. Sister Nivedita too took to the streets for selling swadeshi soap and even
appointed a Charkha Ma in her school for teaching her students how to weave cloth with the
help of a charkha.
Initially the masses swayed by the patriotic fervour responded favourably, but as reality
overtook emotions, the craze began to ebb as fast as it had flared up…………the swadeshi
cloth was coarser than the mill-made ones and also costlier, the swadeshi soaps too were
nothing but lumps of sajimati , that is, fuller’s earth ………………….
What to be done now? Though the leaders acknowledged amongst themselves that swadeshi
produce were not a sustainable alternative right then, it was also crucial that the widespread
feeling of discontent stoked up by the present political situation did not die a natural death.
So once again they racked their brains and decided to deploy moral force to prompt people
embrace swadeshi products. Volunteers were posted in front of prominent shops to persuade
people to “go swadeshi’’ and stop them from buying anything that was
Satish was returning home after a session of picketing in front of Ramlal Bhandar. The
owner, a confirmed champion of bideshi goods, had after a lot of brainwashing finally
relented, promising that henceforth he would not sell anything except swadeshi things. But
when he had been requested to bring out the old stock stacked in his shop, make a bonfire out
of them and apply the ash on everybody’s forehead as a confirmation of his changeover, he
had staunchly refused, because of which Satish and his boys were keeping an eye on his
Picketing ideally meant dissuading people by moral force, but at times just words proved to
be insufficient and it was necessary to employ other means, which often resulted in a scuffle
between the picketers and the punitive police deployed by the administration.
That morning an old man dressed in a tweed suit, which had seen better times, had come to
Ramlal Bhandar. From the very looks he appeared to a Raj loyalist, which soon became
evident when he refused to listen to their sermons about swadeshi and marched into the shop.
But when he came out a little later, they were pleasantly surprised, for in his hand was a
swadeshi soap, seeing which they thanked him wholeheartedly for co operating with them.
The old man, nonplussed by the vote of thanks, was walking away, when he suddenly slipped
and fell down. Satish rushed to his aid and also retrieved the soap, when he noticed a strange
thing-the wrapper was that of the swadeshi “Kusum” soap but inside cleverly camouflaged
was a bideshi lavender. At first he was too stumped to say anything…………… then he was
furious with the shopkeeper, accusing him of deceiving them. The man initially tried to ague
that it was an unintentional mistake, but finally he lost his patience and lashed out ……..
"Why will I not sell? No one wants your swadeshi soaps! They are plainly a waste of money
containing nothing but khaar that burns the skin!”
The old man, whose falling down had triggered the entire incident, also nodded in agreement.
He furthermore named a prominent much-revered swadeshi leader, who he claimed had not
detracted from his earlier habit of was using bideshi soaps and perfumes.
"If you don’t believe me, please go to his house and find out for yourself! Why, even
yesterday, I saw him buying Vinolia soap and shampoo from Bathgate! If you still have any
doubts, come with me to that British-run departmental store right now and get it verified!” he
looked at Satish challengingly. “My boy, it is easy to preach, but not so easy to practice. And
if you really love your country, you should realize that the poor people are not in a position
to afford your costly swadeshi experiments!”
Satish stood silently, unable to counter what the other had just said.
“I too love my country, my boy!” his tone was softer now “But I don’t believe that you have
to prove it by burning foreign goods and buying substandard swadeshi stuff!” he walked off
in an upright manner, with the lavender soap openly displayed in the palm of his hand.
But no one dared to stop him this time.
Satish deep into his thoughts, was silently walking along the road. It was a fact that swadeshi
could not survive just on sentiments alone, if the goods made in India had to find acceptance
amongst the masses, then they needed to be capable of competing in quality with those made
in England. He sighed, wishing for the nth time that Siraj was there with him to share his
Siraj had gone home last summer and since then, there was no news of him. Satish had
written him a series of letters and when they remained unanswered, he had anxiously landed
up at Siraj’a nani’s place to enquire about his friend’s whereabouts. And though the old lady
had confirmed that everything was fine with Siraj, she was unable to throw any light on his
present engagements or future plans.
What could have happened? Why was Siraj not returning? Were the circumstances stopping
him from coming back? Satish absentmindedly pondered, as he trudged along.
“Satish Babu! O Satish babu!” A familiar cry made him stop and staring all around, he
noticed Radharani calling to him from the confines of a carriage which had screeched to a
stop on the opposite side of the thoroughfare.
His face unknowingly lighted up as he crossed the road.
“Will you come with us?” she looked at him eagerly “We are going to the Swadeshi Mela.
The students of Sister’s school have set up a stall there!”
Satish stood stumped, sensing a sudden rush of blood through his entire being. The euphoria
of the unexpected meeting and even more unexpected request, had left him totally dumb.
“Satish Babu, what are you waiting for? Come up!!” Radharani authoritatively held open the
door and Satish, still in a daze, just mechanically climbed onto the carriage.
The swadeshi mela , a pastiche of movements and colours, sounds and smells, had turned out
to be quite a crowd puller. Amongst the sea of humanity could be seen an occasional sahib
and his accompanying female counterpart, who had dropped in lured by the novelty of the
event. People were constantly moving in and out of the stalls in serpentine fashion, throwing
casual glances at the objects on display, at times stopping for a closer look at some item
which had momentarily captured their interest.
There were the expected stalls displaying Santipuri Tant, Murshidabad silk and Tangail
sarees from Fulia. The fabled and famous knives of Kanchanagar, which had found a place
even in the royal kitchen at Buckingham palace, proudly rubbed shoulders with a shop
selling swords in colourful scabbards from Amritsar, the sacred city of the Sikhs. The cute
clay dolls from Krishnanagar- a bridal pair, a dog licking its lips in contentment after a
glorious feed, a realistic reproduction of a collector’s court- glowed with an aura of their
own, frowning down in regal condescension on their wooden counterparts.
In one corner of the spacious ground, a temporary stage of bamboo had been erected for
enactment of Nil Darpan – a patriotic play highlighting the brutal practices and the inhuman
exploitation resorted to by the colonial cultivators of Indigo on the Indian farmers.
The indigo movement boasted of two prominent patrons- Harish Mukherjee, a native, who
with his brilliant writing roused public opinion and Rev. James Long, a sympathetic
missionary, who translated the play into English.
One died at an early age due to overwork, while the other was sentenced to imprisonment for
his anti-establishment stand, following which the unfortunate events found expression in a
Asamay Harish morlo,
Long-er holo karagar
Chasir ebar pran banchano bhar.
(Harish died an untimely death,
Long has been sent to jail
The farmers’ lives are in grave danger now)
There was till ample time for the actual play to begin, but a harmonium player seated on the
dais was singing this song again and again, his nerve stretching ululations aimed at
monopolizing the attention of the crowd. He seemed to be a seasoned professional as was
apparent from his contemptuous mastery over his instrument- like a young boy riding a
bicycle to show off, he would off and on hold the harmonium with one hand, while the other
would be engaged in fetching betel from his waistband and popping it into his mouth.
Then after satiating himself, he would force his fingers on the keyboard in an ecstasy of
abandonment, extracting an array of excruciating sounds with his antics.
The stall set up by the students of Sister Nivedita’s school was choc-a-block with hand
knitted woollens, soft dolls made from rags, an array of needlework- all made by the women
who were taught and trained under the tutelage of Sister.
“Santoshini please put the small things in the front and hang the baby frocks from the wall!”
Radharani was busy issuing instructions regarding stall arrangement……. “Satish Babu, will
you please insert these nails in the wall” and without even waiting for his consent she
confidently passed him a hammer.
“Satish babu it will be of great help if you can keep account of all the transactions, as our
girls are not so deft at handling finances!”
“Rani, what reward can I expect in return for the hard work?!” Satish enquired in mock
seriousness, after ensuring that there was nobody around them just then.
“What do you expect?”
Satish was about to say something, when he suddenly became aware of the presence of some
one behind him. He turned back and looked straight into the face of a sahib ,recognizing him
instantly as his saviour in Darjeeling.
“Hello Dr. Robert!” he warmly extended his hand and cast a brief glance at his companion,
dressed in a frilly blouse and long skirt, whom Robert introduced to them as Agatha.
Was this young lady just a friend of Dr. Robert? Or was she his fiancée? Satish wondered, as
he observed her engaged in an animated conversation with Radharani.
“Where is Peggie Auntie? Is she not here?” Robert enquired after a little while, looking all
“Sister is down with a bout of cold” Radharani informed “In spite of that she had wanted to
come but when all of us began to protest, she very reluctantly dropped her plan!”
She went on talking and Robert kept on staring at her …………..how graceful she looked in
just a simple black-bordered sari……the lights of the gas lamp fell right on her face and it
Agatha took a walk round of the stall, very much impressed with display. She took a
particular liking to a baby frock with a honeycombed front and wanted to take it for Anne,
but was not very sure about the size……………….
“Robert, have a look at this! Won’t it fit Anne?!”
“Even if it doesn’t fit Anne, in future it will surely come handy!” Robert jokingly
commented, lowering his tone. Agatha blushed, giving him a meaningful look.
Dusk had long matured into night when Satish finally set out for home. He felt drunk, drunk
with an inexplicable delight, today had been one of the memorable days in his life, a day
which would remain etched in his heart till the end of his days…….…After the fair was over
and while everyone was busy winding up, Radharani had requested him to accompany her to
a neighbouring stall …….…..and as they walked across the fair ground, bypassing naked
flames perched on bamboo poles created shifting spots of lights on the eerie earth, she had
suddenly clutched his arm and moved closer to him……….Satish had stood as if struck by
lightning, his senses numbed at her spontaneous touch, for which his heart had been aching
“A snake!” she fearfully pointed out to the slithering serpent just inches away from their feet,
still clinging to him. Then suddenly she became aware of her self-initiated act and abruptly
releasing her grip attempted to break away, but when Satish held her back and made an effort
to draw her closer, she gave in without any resistance. It was as if her whole being too had
been thirsting for this intimacy, this conformation of their closeness.
It was almost around midnight and the whole house was dowsed in deep sleep when Satish,
famished with all the excitement of the evening reached home. A drowsy servant, emitting
yawns of impatience waited on him, as he downed his dinner in the flickering light of a
lantern and handed him two letters as he proceeded to retire to his roof top room.
Satish looked at them – one was from his father, who ignorant of his son’s present
association and activities, had enquired about the exams which were just round the corner,
instructing him to steer clear of all distractions and concentrate only on his studies. He had
also volunteered a lot of insights into the present state of affairs at Nayanpur……
Hemapishi had slipped and sprained her ankle, but thankfully was much better now……..the
cow Shyama had recently calved and her little one was a real beauty……this year the rains
had been good and the green fields were literally bursting with their yields……….in the
bamboo grove near the end of their fields a fresh pair of boars had taken up residence and
were creating a lot of commotion in the entire village………..Satish stopped reading and as
he closed his eyes for a moment, the village of Nayanpur, hundreds and hundreds of miles
away from its actual existence suddenly became alive around him.
Finally his father had written…………………….
“After the exams are over, I expect you to come home. I am advancing in years and yearn to
see you settled in life before I leave for my heavenly abode. A friend of mine, who has a
school-going daughter has sent a matrimonial proposal for you. It is my fervent plea that you
see the girl for yourself. She is extremely fair, educated yet homely, modern but respectful
towards our tradition! I am sure she will be a worthy wife for you!”
Satish shook his head fervently. It was impossible for him to even think of marrying anyone
The other letter was from Siraj. With quivering hands, he intensified the light of the lantern
and began to read………….
You surely must be wondering what happened to me all of a sudden. I received all your
letters. -the seven of them to be precise (were there any more?), but was unable to reply just
because I did not what to write to you.
But now, I think the time has come to answer all of your questions, and also answer those
which have not asked. You have wanted to know when I plan to return. Well, never! I do not
think it is possible for me to go back to Calcutta again.
Abba died last month; he was seriously ill as you are already aware and the responsibility of
the family now rests on me. But it will be untrue, if I say that is the real reason why I am not
going back. The truth is that I don’t want to.
During my initial days in the Anushilan Samity I had once asked Barin that after
independence, what sort of rule the country would subsequently have. He had told me that it
would be a Ramrajya, which I had then interpreted as an ideal kingdom ruled by the ideal
king Rama. But I was wrong in my assumptions, my friend, for I have understood now that
by mentioning Ramrajya, Barin had meant not just an ideal kingdom but an ideal Hindu
kingdom ruled by the ideal Hindu king Rama.
I continued to be associated with the Samity, as I agreed with and appreciated its ideals of
nationalism. But when I desired to be initiated into the folds of the organisation, I was in for
another round of disillusionment.
During induction I was told that the to-be-members were required to swear by the Gita.
When I asked if I could swear by the Koran, the holy scripture of my religion, a senior leader
rudely rejected my proposal, stating that the rules could not be rewritten or modified to suit
my case. But why? But why was there absolutely no provision to accommodate people from
other religions who wanted to join hands for the common cause of motherland?
The attitude of the think tank of the Anushilan Samity towards our community is best
explained in “Paridarshan”, its organisational document, the concluding paragraph of which
So far as can be foreseen, it is our firm belief that within a year or two the entire
Mohammedan nation will become submissive to the Hindus. But if the Hindus then abandon
their firmness and national glory and sink so low as to court friendship with the
Mohameddans by being hand-in-glove with them, the Mohammedan will be puffed up and no
good but only evil will be brought about.
Satish, it was revelations like these which finally forced the realization on me that even if the
country does attain independence some day, the Muslims as a minority will always face
discrimination. Hence why oppose the partition plan? Here in East Bengal we are a majority,
and can at least hope to have some say in the state of affairs! More opportunity for education,
more opportunity for employment, but most importantly a voice! Which is so important for a
fair future! Already the Hindus are much ahead of the Muslims, in terms of both economic
status and education!
I have heard that these days in Calcutta, everyone is busy blaming Lord Curzon for
attempting to alienate the two communities. But the truth I feel is quite different my friend.
The crack was already there, and your leaders who in the name of promoting nationalism, are
actually promoting Hindu nationalism, have left no stone unturned to turn it into a crevasse!
One final word. Satish, though our paths have parted, you are still my friend and will always
remain so. The society forces certain decisions upon us, against which the heart rebels, but
the fact is that we have to abide by them.
Your friend for ever
The window shutter swung open, capturing a capsule of the deep blue sky, against which a
flock of birds flew away and away, the sunlight slipping from their white breasts and under-
wings. A headstrong breeze forced itself in through the opening, sprinting across the papers
lying on the shelf and playfully turned the pages of the table calendar. Immediately time
turned a somersault, rewinding and rewinding till it had completely exhausted all the time in
the present century.
Sister Nivedita looked up from her book and as she reset the date, she realized how almost a
decade had unknowingly sped by since she had first set foot on this land one winter, just as
the trees were getting into a leaf-shedding mode. Since then, she had seen this city in a
myriad of contrasting moods and manifestations- the mellow winter sun warming the cold
stone-paved streets, the blistering heat of summer when even the slightest movement seemed
an effort, the occasional pre-monsoon thunderstorms and the accompanying terrible
convulsions of nature followed by sessions of incessant rain, when it poured non-stop and the
cab horses remained immersed up to their girths in water, hour after hour.
Otherwise too, this world which was so strikingly different from the one in which she had
been born into! Here life revolved around an array of endless ablutions and prostrations,
meaningless caste-restrictions, where even eating is a great sacramental act and not just a
selfish self satisfying operation as she had learnt at her very first morning in a Hindu home.
She had arrived at dawn, dead-tired after a dreary journey spread over days of rail travel
through the dusty heartland, and dropped off to sleep on a mat spread on the floor. Then
sometime around eight o'clock, she awoke and at sight of the tea-basket beside her, was
about to open it and secure a bite when she saw a little boy standing near the door, watching
her. His large brown eyes were full of shock and surprise, as he asked in broken English,
emphasizing every word , "Have you said your prayers?"
Slowly, with the passage of time, she had grown accustomed to the quaint oriental world
which languidly flowed by outside her window in a rhythm of its own. A world upholding
different values aims and aspirations. A world in which loin-cloth clad bare bodied men,
actually renowned scholars, but their appearance never betraying even an inch of their
intellect, spend hours discussing Shakespeare and Shelley, perched on door-sills in dusty
lanes. A world where ever-ready neighbors, unquestioningly and unfailing pitched in with
household supplies whenever she had an unexpected guest.
A world in which she was initially not comfortable in, but had unknowingly grown to love.
A world where she now belonged to.
Outside her window rose the gnarled boughs of a neem tree, the Indian tree of healing
planted to ward off the malaria that comes with the east winds. A tiny tun-tun bird, smaller
than the house sparrow, perched on a feathery branch was pecking at the olive-like golden-
green acrid berries, camouflaged amidst the fern like leaves. A group of crows flew about
fearlessly, flapping, careering, cawing incessantly and throwing their shadows all across the
A bird sang a highly-pitched melancholy tune and as Sister went near the window to sight it,
she noticed an upside down pot at the base of the tree encircled by an array of blossoms.
Initially when she came here, to her unaccustomed ears it had sounded rather strange why
people never called small pox by its name but always referred to it as “Maer doya” ( Mercy
of the Mother). Then one day she learnt from Swami Vivekananda that here, the occurrence
of the dreaded disease is attributed to the goddess Sitala, who along with her six sisters
resides in the neem tree, sharing amongst them the entire bouquet of rashes and eruptions.
“That is why whenever a person is invested with small pox, the first thing that the women of
the family unfailingly do is to pray to Goddess Sitala. And part of the worship consists in
placing flowers on top of an inverted pot placed at the feet of the neem tree. If the flowers
flutter down, it is assumed that Sitala has accepted the offering, thereby raising hopes of the
patient’s speedy recovery. However if the blossoms remain as it is, then it is considered to be
an ill-omen in which case the result can hardly be bright!” he had patiently explained to his
A series of sonorous chants broke her chain of thoughts and made Sister aware of the
presence of a minstrel beggar at her door, appealing for alms in the strength of the sacred
She looked out of the window at a barefooted friar, robed in a cocktail of white and yellow,
with a huge rosary round his neck. The one-man band, armed with a one stringed lute,
contrary to his modest appearance was capable of arresting performances, his rich repertoire
comprising of pastorals, cradle songs and cantatas.
As their eyes met he called out unhesitatingly "Maa, give me food."
“Wait!” She gestured to him, calling out for the jhee and as she recalled that the old woman
was away at the market, she went to the kitchen herself, stopping by a loaf of bread sitting all
by itself on a solitary shelf. That was her first choice of alms but she finally backtracked, for
from previous experiences she knew that the bread, baked by a Mohammedan, and handled
by a Christian was sure to be right away rejected by a Hindu beggar, who was otherwise
humble enough to be content with a coin of the smallest denomination.
As she opened her bag, searching for an appropriate amount, she realized anew……….. This
country was so very different from England, where in acts of charity, food is always
preferred over money as alcohol consumption remains a constant temptation for the poor and
ill-fed. But here, because of caste barriers and other prejudices in the mind of the receiver,
the vice versa is always the safer and preferred option.
Nivedita glanced at the clock impatiently. Why was the jhee taking so long to return from the
market with the paper? It was already two hours since she had gone. Of course she had an
incurable habit of dropping dead at the sight of any wayside gossip in which she
wholeheartedly partook and refused to budge an inch until she had heard everything that was
to be heard and said everything that was to be said. But even taking into account that
possibility, she should have been back by now. Sister Nivedita had plans of leaving for
England in another few months and there were so many pending writings that she intended to
finish before that.
“Maa, why are you standing at the door like this?” the jhee and had returned and hearing her
Nivedita promptly turned around, thankful that she was back, at last! But why was she empty
handed? “Where are the things I told you to bring, the paper and ink?” she asked sharply.
“Surely you haven’t left them at the shop like you did the other day?”
“ When did I go the market?” she replied, and there was not the slightest bit of remorse or
repentance or regret in her voice.
“ You did not go the market? Then where were you all this time?” Nivedita was nearly
speechless with amazement. “Here I am sitting like a clod all the morning, unable to do any
work because I have completely run out of paper, and you coolly come back after two full
hours and tell me this!” her exasperated tone was clearly on its way up.
“No Maa……” the jhee’s tone was meeker and more subdued this time, as she realized that
she had started off in a wrong manner which had brewed the misunderstanding “ Actually I
was on my way to the market when I saw a strange thing and rushed back to inform you!”
“Another of yours cock and bull story I suppose!” Sister looked at her straight not taken in at
“ No Maa “ the jhee hastened to explain “Do you remember that pond on the way to market,
the big one by the roadside, besides the banyan tree?” she eagerly looked at her mistress to
gauge if the later was able to understand.
“Yes that smelly water body, well that has that got to do with your not going to the market?”
“ Maa something strange has happened, it is no longer stinking like before, but a sweet
fragrance is coming from the water….everybody is saying that last night the gods came to
“What rubbish are you taking about? Did you take an overdose of opium last night?” Sister
was loosing her cool at this apocryphal narration by the old woman who had a confirmed
habit of seeing “things”. There was a bo ( aswatha ) tree on the way to the river bank, under
which she never passed after the sun down for fear of disturbing the resident spirits and
invoking their wrath.
Nivedita was sure that this too would be something like that.
“ No Maa!! It is true, though it might sound unbelievable!” the jhee stated as if reading her
mind “Why don’t you go and see for yourself?”
“ I will, at this very moment!” Nivedita stood up with a sudden bout of determination. “And
if I find out that you have been bluffing me, you are going to have a very bad time.” She
declared in a stiff and stern tone.
Sister was walking with bold big steps and the jhee had to literally run to keep pace with her
mistress, because of which in less than ten minutes they covered the distance which in
normal course would have taken double the time.
Suddenly Sister stopped short. They were still quite some distance away from that eventful
pond, yet she could already smell it. The air was choked with an overpowering aroma,
bitterly sweet besides being a little intoxicating.
She was stumped. How on earth was this possible? How could any fragrance emanate from
that stale dirty water, where hordes of coachmen regularly washed their horses and carriages?
Had really any miracle happened?
A surging crowd had collected near the pond, around which its owner had very thoughtfully
erected a temporary barricade of bamboo to prevent the people from “polluting” the holy
water -which was suddenly being considered at par with the holiest of waters on this earth.
Equipped with a better-than-average sense of mind, he intended to exploit this unprecedented
godsend opportunity to the fullest; for he was bottling the holy water and selling it at a price
varying from 6 annas to ten rupees according to the size of the container. Three men, in all
probability assistants of the pond owner, were stationed there beside the moss stained steps
leading to the holy water, two were filling up the bottles, while the third man was engaged in
stock-taking and counting the cash. And the fanatical crowd, wholeheartedly convinced of
the transformation, had unquestioningly lined up for the transaction- paying an astronomical
sum for securing an ounce of the filthy liquid- which earlier they wouldn’t perhaps have even
dreamt of sticking their feet into.
Sister stood there watching the proceedings for some time, contemplating and trying to figure
out the mystery, when she noticed a man coming towards her. As he came closer, she
recognized him- the father of one her students and also the owner of the pond, the man who
was now minting money by milking the entire situation.
“What’s all this?”…Sister asked him sharply.
“All the mercy of the Almighty, Sister!” the man, clasping his hands touched his forehead,
looking up at the sky “Last night the gods have graced my pond, they descended, parked their
chariots under that tree before getting into the water!” he pointed to a banyan tree at the far
end of the pond.
“How are you so confident of your claims? Was there any witness to the divine bathing
session?” Sister asked sarcastically.
“Aghorbaba saw it with his own eyes” the man pointed to an ash-smeared matted-haired
mendicant seated in a cross legged fashion on a cemented platform beneath the banyan tree.
He was surrounded by a considerable crowd, apparently all eager to hear the story from the
horses mouth itself.
“But why are you selling the water? Sister asked outright “ Shouldn’t you be giving it for
free? Just because you own the pond, does it mean that you are the sole stakeholder of this
supposedly holy water? After all, you are a god fearing man and do you think the gods will
be happy if you turn their benediction into a money spinning venture?”
“Sister , I would have never even dreamt of selling the sacred water for my own gains!” the
man fervently nodded, lolling out a long unclean tongue which would have made even
Goddess Kali, the deity who is always seen with her tongue exposed, jealous of his feat.
“Aghorbaba has expressed a desire of raising a temple by the side of the pond. This activity
is only aimed at assisting a holy man fulfil his holy intensions.”
The pond owner proceeded to present Sister with a freshly filled bottle, and at his repeated
request she was finally forced to accept his gift. She opened the cork and held the container
close to her nose …………… yes, the smell was emanating from its contents. There was no
doubt about that.
Sister stood there, still confused, half-believing the man and his offered explanation. She
was sure there was some missing link in all this mystery, only she was unable to figure it out
then and there……
She had just turned to go when she spotted a familiar face in the crowd.
Wasn’t that Indubala? Jatin’s wife? When did they return from Hardwar? And what was she
doing here now?
An unexpected tragedy had recently struck the family when like a bolt from the blue Jatin
lost his first born, a three year old son. The immensity of the loss had swallowed everyone
especially the mother, who used to sit like a statue for hours together, rarely conversing and
with each passing day it seemed as if she was sinking deeper and deeper into a fathomless
Finally Jatin at the advice of Sister had decided setting out on a pilgrimage. Sister, who after
the death of Swamiji, was in a similar state of mind, to break out of which she had forcibly
set out on a tour of the country, was confident that in such a situation, a change of setting is
indeed an effective balm for the tormented mind.
Indubala had not shown any enthusiasm, but she had not refused to go either and puppet like,
she had mechanically accompanied her husband. But the change, coupled with a chance
interaction with a baba ( godman) at Hardwar, thankfully changed things for the better. After
the “baba” enlightened Indubala that death was not “the end” but leads to the liberation of
the soul into higher cosmic spheres, the explanation made her come to terms with destiny and
infused a sense of inner peace that she had been unknowingly been craving for.
Then why was Indubala looking so crestfallen and gloomy? Had any new calamity befallen
them? Sister hurried towards her and lightly tapped her on her back, simultaneously noting
with relief that the red mark of vermillion was still showing in the parting of her hair,
confirming Jatin’s mortal existence.
“Sister!” Indubala’s lips trembled and her tear stained swollen face looked as if she would
burst into fresh flood of tears. “Your brother is in the hospital!” she stopped and took a deep
breath “ In a very critical condition.”
“What happened to Jatin?” Sister shocked at the news enquired impatiently, anxiously.
“A few days ago he had gone to his native village where he was attacked by a tiger. Well,
your brother had only a knife with him, with which he did manage to kill the tiger, but in the
process he too was fatally wounded. Now he is in the hospital fighting for his life. The
doctors too are keeping their fingers crossed, not giving us much hope” she broke down
“Don’t worry, Jatin will surely recover. He has to get well. For the sake of his motherland.
For your sake!” Sister laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“But what are you doing here? You should be in the hospital………….”
“I came here to fetch this!” she exclaimed in a pulsating tone, as she held up a sample of the
bottled water “ Aghorbaba has put a special blessing in this holy water. He told me to keep it
by his bedside and everything will be fine!” it was clear that in the unprecedented moment of
crisis, her mind had stopped reasoning and she was frantically clutching to every single straw
of hope, placing her belief in anything which seemed to have the power of positively
impacting her husband’s critical condition.
Sister was extremely disappointed. If people like Indubala too believed in such silly
superstitious things, without even applying their mind, then what could be expected of the
ignorant illiterate mass! She gave a sigh of resignation, as she realized that considering
Indubala’s present state of mind, it would not be proper to counter her right then.
Sister was about to leave, when she saw………………………..
A young woman was prostrating before the godman to seek his blessing………….and as her
forehead touched his toe, he on the pretext of blessing her, raised his hand and rested it on the
back of her head and swiftly ran it down the entire length of her back, finally coming to rest
on her firm well-formed buttocks………the broad vulgar palm was discreetly sandwiching
the flimsy sari which formed the only barrier between her skin and his hungry fingers
……….… and all this was happening in full view of the crowd, with none perhaps even
noticing anything……………for, all their eyes were focused on just his face and not on the
actions of any other part of his anatomy…………
Nivedita swiftly turned her head away and walked out in disgust, feeling sick.
Jatin lay on the bed, the majority of his giant frame still wrapped in bandages……though the
excruciating pain had considerably lessened, the chances of infection was still very much
alive, because of which Dr Suresh Prasad Sarbadhikari, the leading surgeon of the city who
had operated upon him, insisted on personally dressing his wounds twice every day.
However, in spite of all the physical pangs and pains, he was still wearing a smile, the smile
of satisfaction at having successfully defeated a dreaded opponent, who was many more
times stronger than him………………..it proved once again beyond doubt that mental
strength and presence of mind mattered more than mere physical capabilities.
Jatin he had gone to his native village and was reconnoitering in the fields, searching for the
pug marks of a leopard reported to be frequenting the village, when he suddenly came face-
to-face with a huge Royal Bengal tiger. The beast charged at him and Jatin was left with no
other option than defend himself with the only weapon he had, the kukri, a short Nepali knife
he had bought from Darjeeling. With it he finally did succeed in slaying the ferocious animal,
but the fight too left him fatally wounded. However, this incident of killing a tiger single-
handedly with a single knife, had evoked much applause all around and some of his
colleagues were contemplating submitting a memorandum to the Viceroy, suggesting that
Jatin be awarded a citation on recognition of the bravery.
“Jatin how are you today?”, Sister Nivedita, accompanied by Radharani walked into the
room with a bunch of flowers in her hand. She placed them on the bedside table and sat down
flashing a warm acknowledging smile at Satish seated on a chair near the window. Hearing
the sound of footsteps, Satish had turned around and at the sight of Radhanrani, his heart
started thumping wildly, his face flush with sudden excitement.
“How do you find me?” Jatin with a twinkle in his eye, looked at her Sister, who before
voicing her opinion surveyed the gaunt jet-black horizontally placed frame, considerably
eroded as an after effect of the encounter with the beast.
“You definitely look much better from what I saw you the last time! “she remarked.
“Yes, just the news that the leg need not be amputated has been a big booster and maybe
that’s why I have started feeling a whole lot better.”
“Jotinda, how big was the beast?” Radharani asked, her tome tinged with awe and admiration
as she requested him to recount the incident afresh.
Jatin affectionately looked at the young girl, whom he regarded as his younger sister. She
too had weathered many a storm in her life and yet managed to retain her sanity and remain
upright and he secretly harboured a deep respect for her achievements.
“The tiger! It was nearly nine feet long!” his outstretched hands, enclosed half a circle
between them, as an expression of the enormity ………………………….the beast, a big one,
had almost sent him hurtling out the earth………….. during the fight when it struck at his leg
with all its might, for one split second he had felt as if he was loosing out, then he pulled
himself together and got back as forcefully as he could………………
“You are a marvel!” Sister remarked with renewed admiration. “ You really deserve to be
called Bagha Jatin (valorous like a tiger’) and not just Jatin …….”
Jatin smiled. Responding and rising up to a challenge, was nothing new to him. It ran in his
blood. Earlier too, at the age of eleven, he had dared to catch a restive horse by the mane and
tame it, as the others stood staring in awe and admiration.
“I too totally agree with you Sister” Satish, having recovered from the excitement of
suddenly seeing Radharani, came forward and wholeheartedly joined the conversation,
positioning himself in such away that whenever he looked at Sister, he could simultaneously
manage to steal a glance at the woman who sat right behind her, her lustrous lively eyes
intently watching him and silently communicating so much. He was aware that with so many
elders around, there was hardly any chance of conversation and tried to make it up as much
as he could by adopting other means.
“Indu is that the sacred water which I saw you procuring the other day?” she pointed to a
familiar looking bottle perched at the top of a low height wooden cupboard occupying one
corner of the room.
“Yes sister, the holy water proved to be very effective” she remarked “I did exactly what
Aghorbaba told me to, and thank God , now he is out of danger!” she stated, sounding happy
“What holy water?” a puzzled Jatin asked inquisitively, unable to make sense of his wife’s
“You don’t believe in all this, so I had no choice, but keep it a secret from you!” Indu readily
admitted and subsequently narrated the incident.
After hearing the whole story about the smelly pond and its sacred contents, Jatin burst out
into a loud hearty laugh.
“Hasn’t anyone of you seen the paper today?” he asked and taking it out from underneath his
pillow, pointed to the middle column of a middle page on which were printed:
The Gods leave leaving behind a trail of smell
A smelly pond in North Calcutta was accorded to have been touched by a miracle, when
overnight it started emitting a sweet fragrance. The belief was further strengthened by the
testimony of a sadhu, who claimed to have witnessed gods bathing in the pond the previous
The mystery was finally cracked when the Calcutta police last night arrested the sadhu alias
Jogen, a proclaimed offender and as per his confession recovered hundreds of empty bottles
of fragrance from the pond. No, these are not the property of any heavenly being, but belong
to the very much-mortal Hemendra Mohan Bose, the renowned manufacturer of fragrances,
who a few days ago had lodged a complaint with the police about some cartons missing from
The pond owner, a friend of the sadhu, who too was reportedly in the league, has also been
“I think you can now safely dispose it off!” Sister triumphantly proclaimed, pointed to the
supposedly sacred bottle and turning to Satish remembered that two days ago, while she was
returning from the Math, she had seen him walking on the road, in the company of another
She mentioned it to him and immediately Satish was full of praise for his companion.
“That was Khudiram! He is really a gem of a boy, Sister!”
And he related a recent incident in support of his statement.
Just a few months ago, the British had arranged a grand exhibition to create the false
impression that they were a benevolent race and doing so much for the betterment of the
people of India. There were puppet shows based on this theme, and quite a crowd from the
neighbouring villages had collected to watch it. Everything was progressing smoothly as per
their plans, when a young boy Khudiram, at the behest of the local outfit of swadeshis for
whom he used to run errands, began distributing handbills amongst the visitors. The handbill,
bearing the title 'Sonar Bangla' spoke about the true picture, a picture of oppression and
policy of tyranny practiced by the British.
In the crowd were a few native-friends of the British, who were enraged by Khudiram’s
actions. They tried to prevent him from distributing the handbills, and on failing to do so,
called a policeman who caught hold of the boy’s hand and tried to snatch the handbills.
“Take care, don't touch my body!’
In a booming voice, the frail looking lad firmly jerked himself free, and inflicting a well-
deserved punch on the nose of the guardian of the law, escaped with the handbills. And at
that time Khudiram was no more than just a boy of sixteen.
Nivedita silently listened. The vast British empire, dominating the length and breadth of this
nation and appearing so solid from a distance, was actually like a house without a foundation.
A strong push was sufficient to bring it down in fragments, which was not happening due to
sheer lack of action on the part of the people, who subjected to centuries of slavery, had lost
the very will to rise.
Maybe Khudiram could serve to be the ideal ammunition to shake off the fetters in minds of
his countrymen and ignite the dormant spirits!
Sister’s eyes sparkled at the idea and she enthusiastically leaned forward towards Satish.
“I want to hear about the boy in more detail. When can you come to my house?” She keenly
looked at him.
Satish too was equally, if not more eager to go to that house in Bosepara, for reasons of his
own. But he was cautious, lest his tone gave away his over-eagerness and made Sister
suspicious of his intentions.
Suddenly Radhanrani moved closer to Sister and in a tone, little more than a whisper and
audible to just the two of them, mentioned something hearing which Sister approvingly
nodded, simultaneously suggesting that Satish come to Bagh bazaar the next Sunday
Satish instantly agreed.
“Well then that’s final!” Sister declared, as she stood up to go. “That day Radha along with
the jhee will be taking the neighborhood children to the Botanical Garden. We will be able to
have a long and detailed discussion, without any disturbance!”
When Sister mentioned “disturbance”, she didn’t intend any pun as was evident from the
straight no nonsense expression on her face. But the implication of the word was quite clear
to others in the room.
Jatin, who because of his strong intuition and sharp observance, had sensed the growing
closeness between his brother in law Satish and Radharani was amused when he glanced at
Satish’s crestfallen face, to whom the prospect of engaging in a lengthy lifeless conversation
with Sister in an empty house, free of all disturbance didn’t sound at all inviting. He was
contemplating how to salvage the situation, when suddenly he found himself looking straight
into a pair of twinkling eyes, watching every expression on his face with a great deal of
About 200 kms north east from Calcutta as the crow flies, in a rugged rocky terrain, a feeble
stream painstakingly made its way through a haphazardly scattered mass of half-submerged
boulders, giving the impression that the water was flowing through the perforations in the
rock. And that is how the place came to be named as Chhendapathar ( hollow in the rock) .
The local zamindar, sympathetic towards the swadeshis , had allowed them to set up a secret
base here for imparting training in activities such as “target practice” and “bomb making”,
aimed at bringing the British empire down.
The latest target of the swadeshis was Kingsford, the Chief Presidential Magistrate of
Calcutta. The much-despised man had earned notoriety for doling drastic and severe
punishments to the young revolutionaries, due to which he had been very justifiably
nicknamed the “Butcher magistrate”. But the ultimate had been his ordering a young boy to
be publicly flogged 15 times, just because the enthusiastic patriot had shouted “Bande
Mataram” - the anthem of nationalism, in the court of Kingsford. After that incident, the
hardcore extremist-minded inner circle of “Anushilan Samity” had got together and secretly
sentenced the devil to death. For exterminating him, Satish and another boy, both disguised
as peons, had been sent to Kingsford’s residence, to deliver a deadly book bomb to the
condemned magistrate. The parcel, tied with a string, was made to look like a law book of
Kingsford, which one of his friends had once borrowed and was now returning to its rightful
owner. A part of the voluminous book was scooped out to accommodate a tin of picric acid
equipped with three fulminate of mercury detonators. Everything was planned in such a way
that once the magistrate cut the string and attempted to open the parcel, a spring would get
released, hitting a nail inserted in one of the detonators, resulting in an explosion.
This was Satish’s first assignment and understandably, he was expectant and excited. Even
though he was right now at Chhendapathar, his mind frequently wandered back to Calcutta,
wondering what finally happened.
The sun had long set and the lengthening shadows were slowly merging with the dusk when
Satish, fatigued and famished after a tiring day out in the open, trudged back to his den- a
makeshift mud-plastered rickety hut in an island of towering sal trees, by which flowed the
rivulet which have given the place its name.
The leaders of the Anushailan Samity propagated the virtue of self-sufficiency to their
recruits and accordingly, they had to grow their own food, toiling for hours together in the
infertile unrelenting land under an equally unrelenting sun.
To Khudiram (affectionately addressed as Khude by his seniors), orphaned in his early
childhood, sweating it out for food, had always been a part of life and he took it in his stride
sportingly. But for Satish, born and brought up in luxury and till then unaccustomed to any
sort backbreaking physical labour, it was an ordeal. Coupled with it, the land too was non co-
operating and just making it cultivable was itself turning out to be a backbreaking task.
“Khude! You are already back!?” Satish opened the door and voiced his exclamation at a
lean lad who sat in one corner of the dimly lit hut with a book on his lap. Even in the muted
half-light of the smoking lantern throwing eerie shapeless shadows on the walls, Satish was
able to recognize the identity of the book. It was 'Anandamath' a masterpiece novel centred
on a band of patriotic sanyasis (ascetics) fighting against the foreign misrule. In the story, the
novelist, intending to invoke patriotism in the minds of his countrymen, depicts the sanyasis
singing a song detailing the splendour of Mother India (Bharat Mata). It opens with the
sacred verse: “Bande Mataram” (I salute the Mother) which soon caught the imagination of
the swadeshis and became their catchword. Henceforth, whenever two swadeshis crossed
path, instead of the customary addresses like “How are you?” or “Is everything fine?”, they
greeted each other with a resounding ‘Bande Mataram'!
“Khude, what is there for dinner tonight?’ Satish asked as a pang of hunger suddenly shot
through his long-empty belly.
“Satishda! My God what a sight you look!” the lad exclaimed, momentarily looking up from
the book. “Do you know I managed to shoot a duck! We will have duck roast for dinner! The
zamindarbabu too has sent fruits and milk! It will be a grand meal!” his tone was ringing in
eager anticipation of a hearty meal, which he rarely had in his lifetime and hence always
looked forward to.
“I will be back soon!” Satish hurriedly went down to the stream to wash. Another boy called
Nalin too was there with them but he had taken a sabbatical to visit his uncle in the
neighbouring village and was expected to be back by tonight, with the news of things in the
faraway city of Calcutta.
As Satish striped and stepped into the flow, his thoughts went back to the events of the day.
Today while he was toiling in the field, a peasant from a nearby village had stopped by and
seeing him struggling with something which was like a child’s play to him, had volunteered
Later on, while they were plucking the weeds together, Satish had casually asked, more out
of courtesy, about the latter’s state of affairs.
“Babu I am very poor. I have ten mouths to feed. All the yield from the little bit of land I
have, gets exhausted in paying taxes to the zamindar, who will not let go of even a single
“Uncle, are you aware who is the root cause for all this misery?” Satish asked, thinking it to
be an opportune moment to educate the man about the ill effects of the British rule.
“Why the zamindar?” the man confidently replied. “The current zamindar is an extremely
unruly and ruthless person. The only thing that he is concerned about is timely collection of
taxes. His father was different - a large-hearted and benevolent soul and during this rule, we
had no worries. But then what can be done?” He sighed “It is in our destiny to suffer at his
“No, uncle you are wrong. It is the Sahibs and not the zamindar , who are responsible for
“What are you saying!” the peasant was totally flabbergasted, at what he thought to be a
most ridiculous explanation. He blankly stared at Satish for some time and then fervently
nodded his head to convey his disagreement.
“Uncle, the zamindar collects taxes from you because he too has to pay the British, the blood
suckers, who are hell-bent on squeezing everything from this land that they can!”
Satish then went on to explain everything, the pangs of suppression, how independence could
make things better, and finally how that man too could be a part of the process.
But the peasant, though he looked simple was not so simple in his thinking. He was not ready
to buy the logic, which apparently he found to be quite unacceptable, as was evident from the
expression on his face.
“Who wants independence? The British are better rulers than our people. Can you expect the
passengers to drive a train? I have heard from my father how bad the situation was when
many years ago, the sepoys revolted against the sahibs and managed to break free. All hell
was let loose, there was absolutely no law and order at all anywhere for few months, with the
soldiers all over the place, plundering, raping, killing………….….and they were none other
than our own people! Why willingly and knowingly call them back? No, no babu we are
definitely much better now!”
The words came back to Satish as he stood in the middle of the stream.
Were the path that they following, the right one? Had the leaders realized that the masses
also needed to be educated and involved in the struggle? Wasn’t revolution actually a four-
pronged effort comprising of the youth, army, peasant and the labourer? Would resorting to
isolated outrages and anarchism, enable them in achieving their aim?
“Satishda how long will you take?” Khude’s impatient call, riding on the early evening air,
broke the spell. The first thing that he remembered on his return to the present was the
waiting dick and eager to sample a much-heard-about-delicacy, to which his tongue had till
then remain unexposed, he quickly wound up the watery affair and with large leaps, retraced
his steps to the hut.
Nalin was just back and seeing him Satish eagerly asked “Nalin what is the news? What
happened to Kingsford?” hoping to hear that by now he was resting in his grave.
“Nothing! The devil is hale and hearty as usual! God seems to have blessed him with nine
lives!” Nalin exclaimed, throwing up his hands in disgust “What a luck! It seems he just put
the book away without opening it. And furthermore, to make matters worse, the government
somehow got wind that in Calcutta his life is under threat and has transferred him to
“So all our effort just went waste!” Satish too couldn’t hide his disappointment. Since the last
few days, he had been extremely tense and restless. He had been anticipating that following
the gruesome death of Kingsford, the police would try to track him and even had nightmares
on them descending on this den, but he was not prepared for this anticlimax! Instead of
Kingsford, it was their carefully hatched and executed plan which had got blown up!
“Don’t worry! We will get him even if he hides in the ends of the earth!” Khude confidently
stated “How I wish I was given the task of blowing his brains out with this!” He took out the
Mauser pistol, which had been issued to him for “target practice” and pretended to take aim.
“Be careful Khude! That is no toy! “ Satish warned, shifting away from the line of fire and
shielding himself with “Anandamath” jokingly asked “Khude, who inspired you to pick up
the gun? Those sanyasis in Ananamth? And going by the number of times you have read that
book, I presume you must have memorized it by now!” Satish exclaimed, as he glanced at the
worn out pages.
Khude put down the pistol and picking up the book, held it close to his heart. The cover page
had got tattered and lost its sheen, but the contents were as fresh and involving as they had
appeared when he had read the book for the first time.
“Satishda there is something magical about this book. Whenever I read it, it fills me with a
transcendental feeling. It makes me forget the drudgery, the oppression all around and instils
new energy and motivation to fight the British demon. Blessed be Bankim Chandra mashai!
The rudimentary hut had no window, just a crude ventilator type opening near the ceiling to
prevent asphyxiation. The inside was stifling and a little smelly, prompting the three of them
to step out for a walk in the moonlight. The surrounding jungle of sal was dark and still,
baring the faint rippling of stream water and the rustling sound made by a serpent scrambling
over the bed of the fallen leaves.
They came to an opening and sat down on the ground.
Khude took out the flute from his pocket and began playing it. Soon the melancholic soul-
enthralling rapture of the Bhatiali tune rent the air, ascending from the earth to the vast
expanse of nature around and descending to the earth again.
The long drawn out earthy tune, reminded Satish of Nayanpur and the moonlit moments
spent by the river bank, when stretched out under a shady tree, he would watch a boat
leisurely passing by with its overflowing burden of freshly reaped harvest, the boatman’s
lifting tune floating back to the shore and seeping into the sleepy surroundings.
Nalin, though he was with them, his mind too was away, roaming in the rooms of his uncle’s
house where he had been this morning. Today, on the pretext of visiting his grandmother he
had actually gone to bid farewell to childhood companion Nirmala, the niece of his aunt.
Theirs was a relationship which had grown naturally and unquestionably, blessed with the
approval of the family elders, even before they asked for it. Nalin’s widowed mother, the
typical thoracic epitome of Bengali women, who had borne eight sons but no daughter in her
brief blooming youth, doted upon the cute curly-haired girl as the daughter that she had
always yearned for, but God never gave. Nirmala’s aunt too clung on to the proposal,
considering it a god-sent opportunity to get her orphaned niece married into a respectable
family without requiring to part with a single penny of dowry. Ad right from their childhood,
whenever Nalin visited his uncle’s place during the summer holidays and winter breaks, he
and Nirmala would always pair up to play the husband and wife, with no one questioning the
legitimacy of their relationship.
But all plans went haywire once Nalin secretly joined the Anushilan Samity and the strict
dictates of the organisation forced him to take an oath of celibacy till the objective of the
society, that is freedom of the motherland, was fulfilled. Nirmala’s guardians patiently
waited for his mind to reverse, but when he finally declared that he intended to remain
unmarried and himself took the initiative to search out a groom for her, the elders took the
cue and finalized her marriage with another prospective candidate. The day for paka dekha,
the English equivalent of engagement, had been scheduled for tomorrow and when he visited
her this morning, he had mentally prepared himself for a violent outburst following which he
had thought he would tell her everything, his involvement with Anushilan Samity and
subsequently seek forgiveness for having failed her. But Nirmala had not given him any
chance to do so. When he finally initiated the topic, feeling quite uncomfortable at having to
do so, a strange indescribable look had momentarily laid siege to those shapely lotus-like
eyes which had always been so full of life and laughter - it was not anger, not hatred, not
anything that he knew of or was familiar with.
And now as he sat in the dark miles and miles away from her, that look on her face haunted
him and forced him to do a serious rethink.
It was true that he had taken the vow of celibacy by touching the sacred texts, with the sacred
fire as witness and the slightest violation of the vow would tantamount to him being guilty of
matricide besides forcing his dead ancestors to eternal hell. But what about the unspoken
vow that he had made to Nirmala long ago and which he had continually reaffirmed by all his
actions all these years?
As Nalin stared at the thin crust of darkness, he wondered why all rigidness was enforced
only on the new recruits! Many of the leaders of the Anushilan Samity were married and no
rule debarred them from staying with their family! Should he too have got married first and
then joined the Samity?
And now as he silently thought the whole thing over again and again, he realized that the
next time he came across Nirmala, she would be someone else’s wife and her changed
identity would impose many restrictions on her code of conduct. To her henceforth he would
be a stranger, some one unrelated by blood, with whom any type of interaction was a strict
no-no and in future, whenever their paths crossed, a veil would shield her from his hungry
He had callously squandered away his future happiness, without even being aware of the
implications of his actions!
“Khude!” He asked, desperately trying to distract himself from thinking further about the
matter “Why did you choose this life? Who prompted you to join the Samity?”
Khuriam looked at him and even though it was quite dark, Nalin could make out that the
young lad’s face lighted up on hearing his question.
“The great Bankim Chandra Mashai!“ Khude promptly replied, without even consulting his
mind as if the answer was waiting at the tip of his tongue. Right from the time I first read
Anandmath and realized what was happening all around me, I used to wonder -Our country is
so great. Elders say that this has been the seat of knowledge for thousands of years. What
then, are these red-faced white-skinned devils doing here? Why are the British not being
driven out! When will we be free? And I was so anguished and in so much agony, that I
found myself unable to eat in peace, sleep in peace.”
“One day I went to a temple and saw a few lepers lying on the bare ground in the courtyard.”
Khudiram looked at the both of them and continued “From one of them I learnt that they had
decided to lie like that, without food or water, till the God promised to free them of their
disease. That incident inspired me to forgo all thought about personal well-being and single-
mindedly focus on the freedom of my Motherland.”
“Believe me Nalin da, in the school though the teachers shouted at the top of their voices, I
did not hear any single thing. All my studies went for a six, for whenever I opened a book, in
place of the alphabets all I saw was a red-eyed, glaring Englishman. My mind used to be so
obsessed that whenever I saw any of that cursed clan, I felt like throwing stones at him.”
“You are a real patriot Khude!” Nalin patted him on his back applauding him “You are
different from the rest of the boys. Though I am too a part of this mission, I must confess that
I am not as dedicated as you!”
Satish was silent, but he couldn’t agree that one of the preconditions for being acknowledged
as a true patriot was simply hating the British. For loving and being loyal to your
Motherland, why should one need to be prejudiced against an entire race? Not all the British
are bad; there are many good men among them too! Like Professor Wyan! Like Barrister
Kennedy of Muzaffarpur for whom Jatinda had once worked! Even today Jatinda had
nothing but undiluted regard for the noble-hearted man who appreciated his patriotic zeal, to
further which, he himself coached Jatinda in politics and art of government. The Barrister
also revealed to his student the manner in which the British were secretly squandering the
Indian budget for safeguarding their other territories, the disclosure further strengthening
Jatinda’s resolve to free his Motherland from the humiliation of foreign domination.
But nevertheless, Satish was moved by the genuineness of Khudiram’s passion and the way
he felt so strongly about his Motherland. Also Khudiram spoke with so much intensity that
for a moment it seemed as if the trees encircling them had stopped swaying, the stars in the
sky had forgotten to twinkle, even the breeze had taken a break from blowing- all listening to
the lad with rapt attention.
“Satishdada who inspired you to become a member? Must be because of your association
with Jatindada!” Khudiram voiced his assumption, hearing which as Satish closed his eyes
and thought backwards, the face of Radharani immediately flashed before his eyes. He
recalled the first time he had seen her from a high when he had gone to spy on Siraj’s
whereabouts. The sight of sunlight slipping off from her uncovered shoulders, the fleeting
glance of her bare back, so perfect that it seemed as if God had diligently worked overtime to
And the next time when he had seen her, which was also officially the first time, when he had
gone to Sister Nivedita’s house to return the borrowed books. During the course of the casual
introductory conversation, Radharani had suddenly and consciously looked into his eyes and
he had felt as if he had been struck by lightning. Electrified, he had only mutely stared at her,
unable to take back his gaze.
How was Radharani? What would she be doing now? Did she think of him? When would he
again get to see her?
A few months back, just before Sister Nivedita left for England, she had arranged for
Radharani to stay at the house of Sukamal Babu, a government pleader and a prominent
Brahmo Samaj member. The job of Radharani entailed in imparting “enlightenment” to his
young daughter, who after severing connections with Hinduism needed to be moulded into
the modern way of life.
Satish’s mind unknowingly sneaked through the rocky confines and strayed back to the city
which he had left behind.
Serpentine Lane with its network of narrow winding by-lanes, branching out from the main
spine and frequently ending in dead-end gullies, made every effort to justify the christening.
At the end of the lane, just a few yards from where the tram track had firmly entrenched itself
into the cobble-stoned street stood a newly built house, proudly perched amidst a crowd of
shoddy hutments and humble mud-walled dwellings. The marble plaque bearing the identity
of the owner – Babu Sukamal Chatterjee, too was gleaming with proper polish and care. It
was just past the cowdust hour, and against the background of a sky dyed in a deep shade of
darkish violet, the liver-coloured house starkly stood out with scars on the facade looking
like lines of frown on the forehead of a beautiful face; its ornamental columns and intricate
brackets supporting overhanging balconies bearing a striking resemblance to the buildings of
Radharani unbolted a window and unmindfully stared outside, far removed from her
immediate surroundings. Her ground floor room was located just beside the road and once all
the windows were opened, the street with its cacophony of noises seemed to seep straight
inside. It was almost evening, yet she had not washed and freshened up. She had come here
one dark rainy afternoon just before Sister Nivedita left for England and since then had been
staying here as the teacher cum companion of Sukamal babu’s daughter Khusi.
Sukamal Babu, yearning for a heir ever since he got married, finally ended up fathering
nearly a dozen daughters but no son to continue his lineage as per the age-old beliefs of his
religion. With time, the girls grew up and the strict dictates of the society required him to
marry them off with huge dowries, resulting in him reluctantly mortgaging a major chunk of
his mortal assets. His built-up frustration at the rigid ways of Hinduism, finally found an
outlet, when in a mature age he denounced the religion in which he had been born into and
embraced the Brahmo cult.
When the news reached Sukamal babu’s parents in the remote rural heartland where they
lived with their daughter-in-law and youngest unmarried grand daughter, they were quite
dumbfounded. Then slowly, as the consequence of the conversion dawned upon them, they
quickly took a decision of disowning their one and only son, more out of the necessity to
safeguard themselves against the social backlash which such news was sure to evoke in the
orthodox Brahmin dominated village.
An unperturbed Sukamal Babu stubbornly stuck to his decision and decided to fetch his wife
Khiroda and youngest unmarried daughter Khusi from his native village, where till then they
had been leading a structured sheltered life under the tutelage of his aged parents.
To Khiroda it was a boon. Extremely enthusiastic about learning, she had studied in a
pathsala before marriage. But in the village society female edification is viewed with
abhorrence, as it is considered inauspicious, the prompter of widowhood. Also Lakshmi and
Saraswati, the goddesses of fortune and learning respectively, in spite of being blood sisters,
are eternally at logger heads and wooing one means incurring the wrath of the other. Hence
other than reading out epics to an elderly gathering and acting as a voluntary writer of letters,
her talent hardly had any outlet.
But things changed drastically once fate brought her to the big city of Calcutta. Her chained
thoughts, freed of the shackles of domestic drudgery, began flying in the ecstasy of new-
found freedom, and her literary zeal got rekindled. Left with a lot of spare time, she took to
the pen in a big way, churning out a non stop stream of stories, one of which she hesitatingly
sent to Bharati, one of the leading literary magazines. The editor immediately wrote back
with a note of acceptance and encouragement and this achievement immediately catapulted
her to greater heights, especially in the eyes of her husband. It was also a revelation to
Sukamal babu, for he had never imagined that his wife of twenty years, whom he had
assumed he knew in and out, had so much hidden talent. In an overdose of enthusiasm, he
bought several copies of the magazine in which his wife’s piece was published and needless
to say, whoever came to his house for whatever reason, never returned empty handed.
The most visible change took place in Khiroda’s appearance. In her earlier life in the village,
shielded from the prying eyes of the men, she wore nothing more than a sari loosely draped
around her without any other garment with or under it. In the winter a coarse chaddar got
added, wrapped round the upper part of her body. But here in the city, her new social status
which required her to step out of the purdah and mix with the opposite gender on an equal
footing, required her to dress differently and in a dignified manner.
Khiroda, in her passion to transform herself- both outwardly and inwardly into a true Brahmo
lady, took to her new dress code like a duck takes to water, without a care for comfort or
convenience. Even at home, in the height of summer, along with the sari she used to wear
long-sleeved elaborate coiffure western-style velvet blouses with ruffs at the wrist. The
aanchal or the end of the sari would be pulled tightly to accentuate the waist in a manner
similar to a fitted gown and finally fastened with a brooch on her left shoulder, a favourite
accoutrement introduced by the Brahmo women. Her feet were never bare but almost always
adorned with stockings. Also these days whenever Khiroda entertained and conversed, she
did so with a newspaper in her hand to convey the impression of being an educated and
enlightened woman, interested in the world outside.
But for Khusi, the change in setting was like a bolt from the blue. Till touching teenage, her
main occupation in the village had been gossiping and playing with girls of her age,
occasionally helping in the kitchen, while her grandfather and other relatives inspected and
short listed prospective grooms. Nothing much was expected of her, except basic proficiency
in household chores. Everything else could be learned later “on site”, that is, in her new
home after marriage.
Her new life in the city came packaged with an array of demands. She needed to be at least
presentable, if not beautiful and capable of conducting “intelligent conversation” with the
young men invited for afternoon tea by her father, who however modern he might appear to
be from the outside, deep within he was still the traditional father, worrying about his
youngest daughter’s marriage. Khusi was on the verge of exiting her teens, and at her age all
his other daughters had been seasoned mothers, contributing worthily to the continuity of the
family lineage. But he knew an educated and well-placed bridegroom would be unwilling to
marry an illiterate girl, and as Khusi was too old to be sent to school, he arranged for her
education within the confines of the home in the company of Radharani.
Education however failed to refine her character and she failed to meet the expectations of
the young men, because of which nothing was materializing on the matrimonial front. Her
vivacious childlike nature was termed as lack of maturity and sophistication by the young
men who visited her with a lot of initial enthusiasm, eager to see and sound out for
themselves their life partner.
Appearance wise too, she was quite a disappointment to the normal Indian male abnormally
biased in favour of fair skin. An overdose of rouge and fairness enhancing cream could not
hide the actual tone of her skin, which was nowhere near to the “milk and honey
complexion”, the adjective deployed by her father to describe her to potential suitors. Her
other similar-complexioned sisters, who had been married off at much tender ages
encountered no such stigma, mostly because in villages pedigree is accorded much more
importance than appearance, and in this aspect Babu Sukamal Chatterjee’s family, belonging
to the highest strata of the Brahmins, scored very high.
The latest in line of the suitors was a young Sub-Inspector of police called Nandalal
Banerjee. His elder brother, also employed in the detective department, was a neighbour of
Sukamal babu through whom the groom hunter father had located him and invited him to tea
at his house at the very first opportunity.
There were two fold reasons for Sukamal babu targeting Nandalal as a match for his
The first. An alliance with the young policeman would automatically ensure being under the
protection of the law free of cost, something essential in these turbulent times, when the
swadeshi hooligans seemed to be all over the place, striking anyone anywhere. Just a few
days ago, one of his friends, a government pleader like him, had been shot dead in broad
Secondly Nandalal was a pure Brahmin and though Sukamal babu had voluntarily abandoned
that identity, still he had not totally been able to let go of the caste prejudices and somewhere
deep down he wanted his daughter to marry a Brahmin, like his other daughters had.
So Nandalal was an extremely prized catch and was being handled with extra care and
“Radha didi are you busy?”
Hearing Khusi’s voice Radharani, temporarily abandoned whatever she had been doing and
as she turned around, she saw Khusi standing at her door with a handful of saris.
“Which one should I wear this afternoon? All are so beautiful that I am unable to make up
my mind! Ma is out so I thought of asking you!”
She carefully spread them on Radharani’s bed and together they went over them one by one.
One was an ivory georgette, with birds of paradise and parakeets in silver embroidery, and
the other was a bluebell chiffon furnished with black vandykes. The third one was a bronze
hued plain Parsi-bordered sari.
“Khusi, who is coming to tea this afternoon?”
“Nandalal Babu! He is working in the police department! Baba is very much impressed by
his credentials!” and puppet-like, Khusi rattled off the accumulated information.
“Wait!” Radharani swiftly got up and opening her trunk, brought out a coarse but beautiful
hand-woven swadeshi sari which Sarala didi had once gifted her. The borders on both sides
bore a continuous imprint of “Bande Mataram”, words much-feared and much-hated by the
native loyalists of the Raj.
“Khusi wear this today! It is a unique sari and once the young man sees you in this attire he
just will not be able to take his eyes off!” Radharani, suppressing a sly smile, handed her the
neatly folded fabric.
Four eyes met. There were changes in two souls.
And now I cannot remember whether he is a man and I a woman,
Or he a woman and I a man.
All I know is,
There were two: Love came, and there is one. . .
Radharani standing near the window looked up from the pages of the book and as she stared
at the royal blue cloud speckled sky, her mind went back to the time when she had first read
the verse along with Saraladidi.
One mid afternoon of winter Saraladidi was proofreading the draft of Sister Nivedita’s book
“The Web of Indian Life” when she had come across this piece of Persian poetry quoted by
Sister while describing the Hindu wife.
“Radha come here! Just listen to this!“ hearing the friendly summon, Radharani had come up
from her half-shade half-sun seat on the veranda sill, where she sat knitting a woollen scarf
Sarala read it out once again explaining the inherent meaning line by line, word by word. Her
face was flush with a sudden glow as the verse brought back reminiscences about a young
man called Loken Palit whom she had once befriended at Rajshahi, at the house of her elder
“Rajshahi is really a beautiful place. Maybe to me, it seems all the more beautiful because of
the beautiful moments I spent there.” Sarala wrapped up in fond remembrance revealed to
Radharani, “The Padma River which flows past the town is so wide that at places you can’t
see the other bank. You get the feeling as if you are standing on the sea shore. We used to go
for long walks by the river, Loken and I, especially on full-moon lights when the earth is at
its prettiest. One such evening we were sitting side by side, silently soaking in each other’s
company, surrounded by the glow of night-blooming flowers, the whisper of waving palms
and warbling of the nightingale, when this verse suddenly erupted from his heart. He spoke
with so much passion as if he really believed whatever he was saying. Even today so many
years later, on solitary moon-lit nights whenever I close my eyes, I still see Loken, his slim
silhouette shaking in the silvery light, the longing of his heart reflected in his eyes as his
spoke. He was such a wonderful friend!”
“Where is he now?’
Sarala sighed. “We were destined to be together only for a brief while before parting ways
and going along our previously demarcated paths. After Rajshahi we met again but it never
felt the same, the magic of those moments never returned. We are not much in touch now,
but I shall never forget our days in Rajshahi!”
Radharani sighed. So many months had passed since she had last met Saraladidi, who had
been forced to relocate to Lahore after a hurried hush-hush marriage.
After hearing about the scenic beauty and serenity of the Ashram at Mayawati, Sarala too
yearned to visit the place and finally went there in the summer of 1905. In her, absence her
family members who were extremely worried about still-spinster status, discreetly fixed her
marriage with a Bengali widower based in faraway Lahore. Sarala was urgently summoned
from Mayawati on the pretext of her mother’s illness and once she returned, she was whisked
away straight from the railway station to the venue of the marriage.
What an anti-climax! A rare-spirited woman like Saraladidi too had to ultimately accede to
an arranged marriage with a man whom she first met just hours before the sacred ceremony
When would she see Saraladidi again?
Though they communicated quite frequently through letters, still nothing could be a
surrogate for the feeling of closeness created by sitting face to face on the terrace and
conversing deep into the night under the weary eyes of a waning moon, the mild breeze
playfully flirting with their flowing tresses.
“Radhadidi! Are you ready?” Khusi restless as ever burst into the room and eagerly peered at
the book in Radharani’s hand.
“Poetry! You are reading poetry!” she exclaimed and gulping down the contents as fast as
she could, commented “But what kind of a poem is this! The lines do not rhyme!”
Radharani silently stared at Khusi. It was this thing about her- too much talk with too less
thought, which initially attracted men but prevented them from making any serious
Many a times, she had subtly hinted to Khusi about her shortcoming and the need to rectify
it, but the dim-witted girl failed to take the cue and act accordingly.
“Radhadidi! I really wonder how you can spend hour after hour in the company of these!”
she rattled off afresh, pointing to the shelf full of books which Sukumar babu had
accumulated to flaunt his newly-acquired intellectual status.
“That is no big deal Khusi! Tastes, temperaments differ from person to person! Just like you
find pleasure in playing cards, I prefer to read in my free time!” Radharani explained, getting
up to get ready.
They were scheduled to go to the Army and Navy stores, one of the biggest upmarket
departmental stores in the town.
Sukumar babu had recently been promoted to the head of his department and in keeping with
his updated social standing, had developed a fascination for anything having an Army and
Navy Stores provenance. The secret underlying reason was that the store offered a special
discount to the senior employees of the “National Daily” and Sukumar Babu was eager to
avail of the monetary benefit under the guise of projecting his cultured pedigree.
Earlier, at the beginning of his career his favourite haunt had been the “Whiteaway and
Laidlaw” departmental store meant mostly for junior officers and those with small purses,
because of which it had earned the nickname 'Right away and paid for.' His seniors used to
go down the road to the Army and Navy Stores, and since then Sukumar babu had been
secretly yearning for the day when he too would be in a position to shift his loyalty.
The red and white imposing edifice of Army and Navy Stores with its expansive ornamental
frontage bounded on three sides by the three principal thoroughfares of the city, stood
basking in the mellow winter sun. It had a right and reason to feel proud, for it catered to the
cream of the British establishment and supplied anything from nails to machine guns, and
almost everything in between. The store’s over-a-thousand page catalogue, including myriad
things like purveyors of the pith helmets and thunder-boxes, was a much sought after and
treasured piece, akin to the Bible.
As Radharani accompanied by Khusi alighted from the carriage, stalwart Pathans in
grandiose uniforms manning the door, bowed before them. Suddenly Khusi cried out “Why,
isn’t that Nandalalbabu!”
The young man exiting the departmental store, stopped at the shout and turned around.
Seeing Khusi, Nandalal smiled in recognition, who promptly introduced him to her
“Nandalal babu, this is Radhadidi!”
And seeing that he was still unable to place her, Khusi reminded him of the swadeshi saree
which had formed one of the main points of their discussion the other day. And in a flash it
all came back.
“My mother would have very happy to meet you!” He looked at her respectfully, with folded
hands “ She too is a staunch supporter of swadeshi!”
“But aren’t you a police officer?” Radharani could not help remarking.
“Yes unfortunately!” he agreed “My duty demands me to disown what my heart wants to
worship! But my mother is not bound by any such compulsion and it makes me to happy to
see her supporting the struggle of my countrymen!”
“Nandalal babu, I really had a very different opinion about you!” Radharani remarked,
looking at him with admiration.
“I know!” He admitted “because of my position people automatically assume me to be on the
side of the British Raj!”
“ I have heard from Sukumar Babu that you too had once actively participated in promoting
Swadeshi goods! My mother would have been very happy to meet you for both of you seem
to share the same passion!”
“I too would like to meet her!” Radharani eagerly stated.
“It is not possible!” Nandalal sighed “She lives in Muzaffarpur, which is situated more than
six hundred kilometres from Calcutta! Tell me, are you prepared to make that journey?” he
put in jokingly.
Hearing the name Muzaffarpur Radharani’s blood rushed to her face, imparting a sudden
glow. Why that was the place where the Anushilan Samity had send Satish babu on an urgent
Radharani was unaware of the details and Satish too hadn’t revealed anything in the letter he
had recently written to her from there except that like Calcutta, it too stood on the banks of
the Ganges. Yesterday she had been to the river and while taking a dip she had suddenly
become aware that it was flowing from the direction of Muzaffarpur……….perhaps he too
had bathed in this waters, which after embracing him was now flowing to her bearing his
essence…………… and she had unknowingly shivered in the ecstasy of the realization.
But Nandalal, unaware of what was going on in her mind was extremely surprised at the
sudden change of expression as he steadfastly stared at the unadorned face glowing with
inner purity and strength of character in the clear morning light.
The summer of 1908 had not augured well for the revolutionaries, especially, the Anushilan
Samity. To begin with, the plan of murdering the infamous Kingsford misfired; as the
revolutionaries deputed to Muzaffarpur to put an end to the doomed Magistrate, mistakenly
ended up killing two innocent European ladies instead, making the whole European
community clamouring for their blood.
Satish was the first to reach the dusty mofussil town well in advance. To keep a track on the
Magistrate’s movements, he took up a temporary job as a chuprasi or bearer at the European
Club, which Kingsford unfailing frequented every evening for playing cards, downing drinks
and engaging in other diversions. After Satish had consolidated himself and his position, he
was joined by two more boys Khudiram and Prafulla posing as “friends from his native
Satish and Khudiram who were old acquaintances, were extremely overjoyed to see each
other again, especially because they were unsure what fate had in store for them at the end of
the assignment. Prafulla was a new face, but the very fact that both he and Satish had their
roots in East Bengal made them bond instantly. Prafulla boasted of a background of being
expelled from the rolls of Rangpur Zilla School on charges of demonstrating against the
government. Barin during his trip to Rangpur, in search of fresh recruits, had unearthed this
gem of a boy and promptly brought him to Calcutta where he was initiated into the folds of
the Anushilan Samity.
After orientation and training, Prafulla Chaki was entrusted with the job of gunning down
Bamfylde Fuller, the lieutenant governor of East Bengal and Assam, but when that plan
failed to take off, he was sent to Muzaffarpur along with Khudiram to eliminate Kingsford,
who had been on the radar of the revolutionaries for quite some time.
In the week that the trio had at their disposal, they spend a considerable amount of time
gauging how to accomplish their assignment in a way in which the risks was the minimum
while the probability of success was the highest. Finally, they came to a conclusion that the
easiest way of elimination lay in throwing a bomb at the Kingsford’s carriage just as he left
the club for home in the evening. The new moon night of April 30 1908, the auspicious dark
night of Goddess Kali, when Mother nature too would step in to shield them from the prying
eyes of the British police, was zeroed in as the D day.
The plan was executed with perfection and witnessing the carriage being blown to pieces in
front of their eyes, the patriots happily parted ways as decided before to avoid being
identified. However, unknown to them, they had committed a major blunder. In the darkness
of the night, they had targeted a similar green coloured carriage assuming it to be that of
Kingsford’s, but which actually contained the Kennedy ladies. It was indeed a strange irony
of fate that Barrister Kennedy, the noble-hearted man who had once inspired Jatin to fight for
freedom, lost his wife and daughter in the hands of Jatin’s associates.
After throwing the bomb, the boys had been strictly instructed to discard all the arms and
ammunitions at their disposal, but none of the revolutionaries abided by it. What’s more,
Khudiram, who harboured a deadly obsession for firearms, insisted on taking with him two
revolvers, which was instrumental in him being intercepted. The next morning, while he was
purchasing puffed rice at a small wayside shop, he overheard people discussing the killing of
two English ladies at the Muzaffarpur club due to a bomb explosion on their carriage.
“Kingsford is alive!’ in extreme surprise, the ill-fated words unknowingly escaped from his
lips and that comment, coupled with the sight of revolvers protruding from his pockets,
proved to be his undoing. The onlookers became suspicious and handed him over to the
Prafulla’s fate too wasn’t much different. He was arrested in the train the very next day, by
none other than Nandalal, the patriotism feigning sub inspector of police. Prafulla initially
tried to put up a resistance, but when he realized that he had been cornered, he shot himself in
the temple to avoid being arrested.
And Satish! Where was he? Since that fateful evening, there was no trace of him and no one
seemed to have any knowledge of his whereabouts; he seemed to have simply vanished into
The Muzaffarpur carnage prompted the British police to swing into swift action. Raiding all
the hideouts of the Anushilan Samity, they confiscated huge volumes of seditious literature
and managed to arrest the majority of the members, which included the high-flying Barin and
his haloed brother, but Satish wasn’t amongst them. A few of the boys had been reportedly
shot dead by the police while attempting to flee, but Satish was also not one of them.
Then where was Satish babu? Was he still alive? That was the thought which constantly
haunted Radharani every awakened moment and even returned in her dreams- she would see
him lying lifeless on the road in a pool of blood and wake up with a start in the darkness of
the night, sweating and shivering, till the stillness of the surroundings soothed her frayed
senses and lulled her back to sleep.
But once in a while it would be different- the sweet memories of the past would return and
the two of them would be walking hand in hand in the mist–wrapped hills and even when the
first flush of dawn entered her room and nudged her, she would remain unaware, still reliving
and revelling in those intoxicating moments.
The clanking of used utensils being unloaded from the dining table and obscenely clashing
with each other, signified that Sukumar Babu and his wife were through with lunch and
would shortly leave for the wedding. A cousin of Khusi was getting married. Both the girls
were extremely close to each other, because of which since the last seven days, Khusi had
been camping there, excitedly participating in the pre-marriage ceremonies and shopping
expeditions. Radharani too had been invited, but had refused to go, as these days she didn’t
have the energy or enthusiasm to delve into anything extra other than the routine activities
expected of her.
Also Mrs. Sturdy was expected to be back from Darjeeling this afternoon and tomorrow
Radharani planned to pay her a visit. The English lady, who had been suffering from
suspected tuberculosis had spent the last few years away from Calcutta in the hills, hoping
that the rejuvenating climate might work wonders on her failing health. And though her
illness had not aggravated, she also hadn’t made any significant improvement either. Rather,
the prolonged phase of solitariness had made her extremely depressed and to improve her
mental state, the doctors had allowed her to spend the cool winter months in the familiarity of
the city, where she had once lived, loved and now longed to return.
A light rap sounded on her door, hearing which Radharani got up. Khiroda was standing in
front of her room draped in a bronze hued Jamdanee sari which beautifully blended with her
“We are leaving for the wedding! All of us will be back by tomorrow afternoon!”
She looked around the room and added “The jhee will stay with you tonight! Should you
need anything just send a word through her!”
The house was shrouded in intense silence. The cook, a lazy old woman, who only aim in life
was to sleep, sleep and sleep, was snoring away peacefully in the store room adjacent to the
kitchen. The jhee taking liberty of her mistress’s absence had freaked out into the
neighbourhood after a long period of confinement, for Khiroda was a tough task master who
believed in keeping her servants perpetually engaged with one thing or other.
It was late afternoon. The day was lazing beginning to pack up, when an unearthly orange
tinge descended from nowhere, forcibly shooing out the normal light. The last rays of the
setting sun shining on the frontal edge of the clouds, imparted an ethereal glow to everything.
Suddenly everything had become extremely still, with not even the leaves resorting to the
Sensing it to be the proverbial stillness before the approaching storm, Radharani hurriedly
got up to shut the windows, but before she could make much headway, the storm had arrived.
First the faraway treetops began to sway and in a trice, a gust of dusty air blasted into the
house through the still open windows, rushing to enter the hitherto untrodden spaces.
Radharani ran from shutter to shutter, trying to rein them, but they continued slipping away
from her grip and soon the floor, the bed, the table- all were covered with a thin film of fine
The storm subsided as suddenly as it had started off and everything was still once again.
Dark clouds laid siege to the sky and a premature dusk descended upon the earth eagerly
waiting for the first winter rains.
A soft rap sounded on the window which opened to a rarely-treaded lane segregating the two
houses, standing so cheek by jowl that one could almost hear the other breathe. Initially
Radharani didn’t pay any heed to the sound, assuming it to an act of truant indulged in by the
growing wind, but when it got repeated, she decided to inspect and unbolted the shutter.
At the sight which met her eyes, she almost forgot to breathe.
“You!” was all she could say. Satish stood on the other side, looking like a hunted animal,
all dishevelled and his eyes wild with agony.
They stood like that for what seemed ages and ages, as the clouds above closed in and the
wind around them grew wilder and wilder.
“It is not safe for me to remain standing out in the open!” Satish finally said with a sigh.
“Where will you go in this weather?” she asked anxiously, eyeing the frowning sky.
“I have instructions to leave the city immediately. But once I set foot on Calcutta, I could not
hold myself back from meeting you!”
A bluish blaze of sulphurous light streaked the concave surface of the sky, followed by the
loud clap of thunder, and almost immediately the drops began to fall, juicy drops lustily
licking the earth.
“Wait here! I will just be back!” Radharani assured him before leaving the spot momentarily.
It was not safe to open the front door and let him in lest he got noticed, but there was another
window on the ground floor, the wooden frame of which had been terminally weakened by
an army of termite. Out of the eight vertical rods manning the window opening, three were
on the verge of coming off and the rest too gave in without much of an effort, creating an
opening barely enough to allow entry. A big leafy tree just in front of the window provided
the necessary cover as Satish squeezed in through the unconventional opening.
By then it had grown quite dark and the drizzle had intensified. Radharani lit a candle and
placing it on the table, intensely eyed at Satish in a way she had never done before. But now
every minute was precious and there was no time to loose in exhibiting shyness or observing
protocols. The sight of his sunken frame, knotted veins pushing out of the skinny wrists,
brought tears to her eyes.
“Radha is there something to eat? I have not had anything since last night, when I was with
“You met him?” she asked.
He nodded. “He is also very upset with what has happened! We failed so terribly! Instead of
that devil Kingsford, we ended up slaughtering two innocent women!”
“But whatever you did, you did unknowingly!” She tried to pacify him.
“I know, but a life taken even by mistake, cannot be brought back! The guilt of the crime has
been eating me all these months!”
She sighed and leaving him to his thoughts, went to the kitchen.
Satish stared at the blank walls. He had never imagined that one day he would have to live
this life, the life of an absconder, not knowing even a moment of peace, always fleeing,
always on the move…………one night would be spent with a peasant on the pretext that he
was a journeying pilgrim, and the very next night he would have to take shelter in a the tree,
sharing his bed with the serpents and squirrels who dwelled permanently in the hollows.
Once he had even mistakenly landed up at the hut of an agori, a corpse eating ascetic,
initially assuming him to be a habitual hermit who wanting to meditate in isolation, had taken
up residence at the edge of the cremation ground. It had been such a frightful experience and
even now as he recalled the encounter, a shiver ran down his spine!
After a meal of fruits and milk, he was comfortably sitting inside the thatched hut, when the
frail old sadhu returned, dragging a bluish-coloured decomposed corpse which he claimed to
have fished out from the river. And silently trembling in horror, Satish had watched wary-
eyed, the man greedily biting off chunks of meat from the thigh. And after finishing his meal,
the seasoned cannibal, licking his lips in satisfaction, had congenially described the
experience of eating his own species, claiming that babies tasted the best, whereas flesh of
old people were desiccated and stringy like wood.
“But my favourite is young men – firm, yet so succulent!” he had emphatically stated,
hearing which Satish had been unable to sit still any longer. Promptly excusing himself on
the pretext of answering the call of nature, he had stepped out the hut and run like he had
never before in his life, determined to put as much distance as possible between him and that
The sight of Radharani entering the room with a plate in her hand broke his trance.
“I am sorry, but this is all that is there in the house at this moment!” she stated hesitatingly,
appearing distinctly uncomfortable, as she placed a plateful of rice and daal in front of him.
“In the present circumstances this is a feast!” he assured her with a mournful smile, as he
eagerly took in a mouthful. Driven by extreme hunger, he was eating ravenously, gulping
down large morsels without even waiting to chew them properly.
“This life is worse than hell!” he confessed “Whoever would have imagined that the police
would arrest almost everyone!
“Where will you be going now?” she softly asked.
“Jatinda has directed me to somehow reach Chandannagar, which is under French control.
He has given me the address of a school teacher who is sympathetic to our case and has
agreed to provide me shelter! Once I settle down, he will send me further instructions!”
Satish was almost at the end of his meal when all of a sudden, the howling storm forced
opened a shutter and very soon the candle, unable to withstand the powerful draught,
flickered for a while and gave in.
Radharani, perturbed at the interruption, attempted to rekindle the candle, an act which
brought her so close to him that their breaths almost ran into each other. Satish unknowingly
trembled, she was close like never before, but he was not satisfied. He wanted to get closer.
She ignited a few fires but before she could connect them to the candle, they got
“Shut that window!” Satish pointed to the partially opened shutter at the far end of the room
which she promptly proceeded to close, in the process partially exposing herself to the
onslaught of the ongoing downpour.
The candle was relit and in the glow of the naked flame against a background of half-light
half-darkness, the droplets sitting on her brow shone like a string of pearls. Then, as she
leaned a little, three of them began trickling down in a line, narrowly dodging the lips and
sliding down the entire length of her graceful swan like neck, where their journey was
abruptly interrupted by a pair of playful fingers.
“You are wet!” he whispered, as his quivering hand, lovingly lifted a strand of displaced hair
and put it back, behind the ear, where it belonged to.
Radharani shivered, closing her eyes in expectation. These days, as she lay alone on her bed
in the darkness of the night, she had often imagined herself being touched by him, wondering
about and yearning for the experience.
"Take me. I'm all yours." she looked at him pleadingly, saying with her eyes what she was
unable to communicate verbally.
The breath rushed out of his body and his mouth went dry at the realization of the invitation.
During his wanderings, he had often imagined the two of them entwined in an intimate
embrace and now intensely eyeing her, he accepted their destiny and with a fierce burst of
passion, reached out to touch her, feel her, love her.
His arms authoritatively crushed her, riding kinglike over the twin pinnacles of feminine
pride, where softness had been cuddling undisturbed for ages. Her body instinctively
responded with the subtle touch of his lips and hands, encouraging and guiding him to probe
further. Her inner sanctum opened up and overflowed, her whole being willingly
surrendering to the magic of his touch.
Seconds seemed like minutes, which just stretched on and on… then her back began to arch,
and they both exploded with silent echoes of ecstasy- the conscious consummation of their
closeness connecting their souls to the divine love, which is the fountainhead of all creation.
She lay submerged in euphoria - this was a journey she had made many times before, but it
had never felt like this; this was the first time she felt desired and not consumed, loved but
He too had been transported to another world - momentarily forgetting everything- that he
was a fugitive, that since the last few months he had been unable to communicate with his
family, the agony of which had been constantly weighing on his mind……………….
Only this moment was real - a moment which both of them had unknowingly yearned for
since a long, long time and now that it had finally arrived, they desperately clung to it,
wanting it to last for ever.
A series of rattles on the front door brought both of them back to the world which they had
momentarily left behind. Who could be at this evening hour? Radharani wondered, trying to
extract her mind still engulfed in the mysticism of the experience.
The jhee had gone to watch the jatra in the neighbourhood and would be back only much
later, after the show broke up. Had by any chance Sukumar babu or his wife returned,
suspecting something? She shuddered at the very possibility as she apprehensively unbolted
the door and held up the lantern.
“You!” Taken aback by the unexpected appearance of Nandalal Babu, the single word was
all that she managed to utter, and then, as if almost involuntarily her lips stiffened. “There is
nobody at home now. Please call later!” She stated in a stern emotionless tone, blocking the
door and trembling with trepidation.
Had he smelt the presence of Satish?
Ever since she came to know that Nandalal was the man responsible for capturing Prafulla, a
comrade of Satish, she had developed a deep-seated disgust for him, which now got reflected
in her reply. Because of his act of bravery, the young police officer had been promoted and
transferred to Calcutta with a prized posting in the detective department, and though the
development had overjoyed Sukumar babu, Radharani constantly maintained an indifferent
distance from him.
“I was passing by the house when I noticed one the windows flung wide open with the grills
missing, and as a well wisher of this family thought of alerting Sukumar babu!”
Has he seen anything else? The very prospect made her pale, which was immediately picked
up by the hawk-eyed young detective.
“Where is everyone? The house appears so still!”
“Everyone has gone to attend a marriage!” she replied, getting anxious as she noticed
Nandalal trying to look over her shoulder into the house.
“You are all alone in the house? Well, be careful! I am leaving for Muzaffarpur tonight, or
else I myself would have briefed Sukamal babu about the finding! These are bad times and
questionable characters are on the prowl!” his sarcastic smile was complemented by the
sudden sharpness in his eyes.
He had almost left when suddenly, as if remembering something he turned around and
looked Radharani directly into the eyes “I had always regarded you as a debi, someone
divine, who is above all worldly temptation. But, I had a false notion, for my goddess as I
have realized lately, is very much human!”
Radharani closed the door and as the severity of the situation dawned on her, she hurriedly
returned to her room and briefed Satish babu about the development, urging him to leave that
“First I will finish that sub-inspector!” he stated, loading his pistol “An opportunity like this
cannot be missed!”
“But!” Radharani feebly stated “What will happen to his mother! She is widowed and he is
her only child!”
“If I kill him only one mother will weep! But if I spare him today, he will make hundred
more mothers weep! Radha, Prafulla’s mother too was a widow!”
He was about to leave, when he suddenly glanced at the gold ring on his right fore finger and
“We despise the British, but actually everything about them is not bad! For instance, their
custom of engagement!” he light-heartedly stated, simultaneously slipping the ring into her
ring finger. “This will remind you of me, of our brief togetherness!” and he lovingly lifted
her hand and lowered his lips.
Nandalal Banerjee had just stepped out of his house and taken a few steps, when a series of
gunshots ran through the misty November night and rammed into him, silencing him forever.
Radharani silently witnessed the entire sequence of events from the rooftop- she saw the sub
inspector falling and rising and falling, trying to rise again and finally collapsing in a lump
near a lamppost, the dim light of which glimmered in his fading eyes. Then she saw people
alerted by the sound, running towards him from all directions and a shrouded figure
simultaneously scurrying away, diminishing in size and finally dissolving into the faraway
And through the long winter night she sat like a statue by her window, waiting, waiting and
It seemed to be a season of tragedies.
Almost two months had elapsed since that fateful night when driven by a rush of rage, Satish
had dashed out to teach the traitor sub inspector a fitting lesson, who had betrayed not just
Prafulla, but his own mother land. Satish had succeeded in his endeavour, but after that he
seemed to have just evaporated, with Radharani hoping that like the earlier time, he would
again turn up unexpected one night.
But all her hopes permanently plummeted when Jatinda managed to extract inside
information about her loved one from a trusted source in the police department. It seems a
week after shooting Nandalal, Satish had been shot dead by the police. But the government
had purposefully suppressed the information, fearing that the news, besides inspiring the
revolutionaries who were still at large, might also lead to a surging of the nationalistic
sentiments like it had after had after the recent execution of another revolutionary, whose
ashes were rumoured to have been sold in the open market at the rate of five rupees per
The news had shattered Radhrani both mentally and physically, but at the end of it all, her
concern for her unborn child surpassed her grief. What would she do now? Where would she
go? Who would give her shelter? All those close to her were so far, far away that she was
unable to reach out to them in this hour of crisis. Sister Nivedita was away in England,
Saraladidi was in Lahore, busy in her own world which she had created afresh around her.
Radharani knew she had two choices -the choice of life, and the choice of death. But she was
determined not to resort to the later - her first born had been snatched from her arms by a
cruel tryst of fate, and now she would do everything possible to bring her second child into
She was aware that because of her decision, the society would look down on her and even
personalities like Sister Nivedita would be sure to voice her disapproval, But Radharani was
undeterred. Her relation with Satish was a bond sanctified by faith, by love. During their last
togetherness, the very fact that he had expressed a desire to marry her if ever he got the
chance, held more meaning to her than scores of rounds around the sacred fire. She had been
through the experience of playing wife to an indifferent unfaithful husband, but that relation
sanctioned by society and sanctified by sacred vows, had proved to be insufficient of making
them soul mates.
Mrs Sturdy was still in Calcutta. Radharani had toyed with the idea of confiding in the kindly
lady who might be able to suggest a feasible and respectable solution for her present
situation, but whenever she tried to speak, the words refused to emerge from her mouth.
Finally, what she had been unable to verbally communicate, she put in a letter and posted it
before leaving for the health resort of Simultala along with Sukamal babu’s family.
Nandalal’s sudden death had dealt a terrible blow to Khusi. Encouraged by his frequent visits
to their house and preferring to overlook the fact that he was yet to make a commitment, she
had unknowingly begun dreaming of a future with the young sub inspector. A few days
before his death, when Sukamal babu placed the proposal of marriage with his daughter,
Nandalal had blushed (Sukamal babu regarded it as an unofficial conformation of his
feelings), finally stating that he needed to discuss the issue with his widowed mother at
Muzaffarpur. But the very evening, he was scheduled to return to Muzaffarpur, he had
breathed his last on the footpaths of Calcutta.
After his death, Khusi had contracted high fever and been in a state of delirium for quite a
few days. Finally she had recovered, but was broken-in-spirit, disillusioned with the
claustrophobic city which had shattered her dreams. The doctors too had strongly advocated
a change of place and finally during the Christmas holidays, Sukamal babu along with his
entire family and Radharani, left Calcutta for Simultala.
The Bengali has always been a great traveller. But whereas, for the older generation the
concept of travelling began and ended with pilgrimage, travelling for the sake of leisure,
travelling for the sake of learning, was definitely an idea borrowed from the British.
The spread of education and the custom of long vacations in schools, colleges and courts –
furthermore brought in the concept of ‘change’, that is travel undertaken for the improvement
of appetite. To an average Bengali, the yardstick of being healthy is directly proportional to
his capacity to consume and, having eaten, the capacity to digest the food in its entirety, so
that he can eat some more.
The Bengali traveller’s search for a ‘change’ in terms of miraculous digestive properties, led
him to the plateaus of Chottanagpur where the well-water was so appetizing that it was
possible to even ‘down a stone’, as was the popular proverbial saying.
The picturesque country with its vast vista of vales and hillocks, woods and brooks coupled
with the charm of its salubrious climate, soon attracted hordes of ‘changer babus’ from the
city and the quaint hamlets of Madhupur and Simultala being sprouting pretty holiday
homes. If the owner was an Anglicized Indian, the name engraved on the marble plaque
would be something like Rose Villa, The Retreat, – reflecting his obsession with the much-
heard-about and maybe recently-visited British suburbia. In sharp contrast, the
comparatively modest homes of the middle class who had never crossed the seas, would be
named Matri Smriti, Matri-Sadan, Matri-Bhavan, Matri-Dham bearing witness to the
Bengali’s overwhelming Oedipus inclinations.
The bungalow, where Sukalam babu had moved in along with his retinue, was a vast baroque
house boasting of an elaborate compound where roses sprouted effortlessly. The ochre earth
was carpeted with fallen blossoms – yellow, white in addition to all shades of pink and red
and at the back, there was a mini-orchard with a row of guava trees lined against the
boundary wall, bent with the weight of the fruit. Marble nymphs lined the gravel path leading
to the well; the water was which was reputed to be one of the best in the area.
It was a calm and delightful evening. The clear, cloudless dome of the sky was dotted with
innumerable twinkling stars. Radharani stood on a carpet of green sward shaded by tall
eucalyptus trees. The breeze, perfumed by the odour of the wild flowers, blew in soft cool
gushes and she was experiencing a sense of peace after a long period of time.
Dinner was about to be served and from the distance she could hear the clatter of dishes
being arranged on the table. Sukamal babu, like most of the Calcutta bhadralok ate only
maida at night which most of the times assumed the form of luchis –pearl white, paper-thin,
fluffy flour balls fried in ghee.
Suddenly a faint rustle broke the stillness and turning around, Radharani saw Khusi walking
towards her, who traversed a length of the gravel path and silently stood next to her, with the
jewelled vault of the sky weaving a spell around both of them.
“Radhadidi, how peaceful it is here!” Khusi sighed, taking a deep breath. The tragedy had
eroded much of her earlier effervescence, because of which these days, her company was
much more pleasant and tolerable. Simultala offered not much scope of sight seeing and at
times both of them would go for long lazy walks, trudging mile after mile through open
fields and tree-lined roads, rarely conversing, each drowned in her own world of thoughts.
“Budhia was narrating that in his village there is an aged sadhu who can foretell your future
merely by gazing at your forehead!” Khusi stated, referring to her conversation with the
tribal caretaker, who with his coal-coloured carefully-sculptured physique seemed to have
emerged straight from the pages of mythology. There was something mesmerizing about his
mystic bearing, glint in his unrevealing eyes that stroked a strong feeling of atavism for one’s
own ancient past.
Budhia along with his wife and children dwelled in a humble one-roomed quarter at the back
of the bungalow – looking after the house, tending to the garden, occasionally slaughtering
chickens. A few days ago, while returning from an excursion to a hilly stream, they had
stopped at his village for a brief while. Radharani had been struck by the neatness of the
village, the rustic beauty of the womenfolk reflecting their inherent simplicity and spirit of
contentment which somehow transcended her discomfort at their obvious poverty.
“Shall you go with me?” Khusi eagerly eyed her companion “I am tired with life! Wish I
knew what destiny has in store for me!” she sighed.
Radharani too was not adverse to the trip, as the lure of knowing the unknown unseen future
is something which appeals to one and all. But the very next day, the news of Mrs. Sturdy’s
demise reached them and Sukamal babu, keeping in mind the demands of protocol and his
future career prospects ( the deceased lady’s husband was his superior), immediately decided
to return to Calcutta before the memorial service. Khusi and her mother were unhappy, but
Radharani mourning for her Reba Auntie, was silently relieved at the decision.
The train sped through a green countryside overflowing with the bountiful harvest of the
season. Islands of palm-fringed quaint villages, alternated with green paddy fields
crisscrossed by a network of reedy pathways at a slightly higher level, resembling miniature
mud dams to retain the rainwater for nourishing the crops. On a branch of a tree sat a pair of
chakha chakhi – large reddish-yellow ducks with glossy beaks and greenish black tails.
Their legendary affection and attachment for each other was legendary and hailed as a lesson
in marital constancy- if one is shot, the other instead of fleeing the spot, keeps circling and
calling ceaselessly to its slain mate.
The inside of the trains in India, like the caste system of the Hindus, too had been subjected
to rigorous classification. The first class was exclusively for the British sahibs and ultra -rich
Indians. Second class, one step down the ladder along with “Inter Class”, were the preferred
options for the not-so-important Anglo Indian sahibs and the native bourgeoisie class. The
third class, meant for the vast majority of vox populi packed together like sardines in seat
less wooden carriages, was totally taboo for the Bengali bhadrolok and his family.
Radharani sat near the window, unmindfully staring at the constantly changing landscape.
Sharing their compartment were the female members of a marriage-party returning with the
new girl-bride to her new home. The girl, pretty and spontaneous, seemed not to be much
aware or in awe of her changed stature, which was amply evident in the manner she eagerly
and unabashedly stared at the policemen in khaki uniform and red turban patrolling the
station, the crowds rushing to fill their earthenware pots with drinking water, Hindu Pani or
Mussalman Pani depending upon their religious identity and the villagers with gaily painted
tin trunks on their heads scurrying towards the third class in great frenzy.
Observing her, Radharani was instinctively reminded of her past, when a bubbly young girl
dressed in a similar manner had made the journey from Kasi to Calcutta, her eager eyes
absorbing every new sight, not even having the slightest inkling about the future that awaited
her. Her eyes unknowingly filled up and as she wiped them with the end of her sari, she
became conscious of the elderly woman in front throwing curios glances at the display of
“My eyes are smarting due to coal dust!” Radharani stated and rolling the sari-end, breathed
over it and began fermenting the left eye with the pulp.
“My child, admittedly my age is ripe, but I have not yet contracted cataract that I will not be
able to distinguish which is the tear of coal dust and which is not!” At the sight of Radharani
in her widowed attire, she had logically attributed her rising emotions to her husbandless
state and sympathetically added “My child, I am aware of the state of your mind, for I too
have been through that experience myself! Initially you feel so empty and restless that
nothing matters, nothing in this world makes any sense!”
Radharani silently accepted the verdict. Khusi and her mother were at the other end of the
compartment, well out of hearing range. At the commencement of the journey Khiroda had
begun reading a book, partly to kill time and chiefly to project her intellectual status to her
largely illiterate co-passengers. But she had been unable to adhere to her plan for long, as the
rhythm of the train’s motions had unknowingly lured her into a state of drowsiness.
“How much time has passed since the demise of your husband?” The elderly lady asked
“Not even two months!” she sighed.
Her listener clicked her tongue in a show of sympathy. “It is a big blow to you especially at
such a tender age! The rest of your life is now nothing but as dry and dismal as a desert!
What about the children?” she asked sure of a negative answer, for had there been any, they
would obviously have been with their the mother.
Radharani didn’t know what came over her; she forgot her circumstances and impulsively
mentioned her present expectant state.
“Thank God that all is not lost!” She wholeheartedly exclaimed, sounding somewhat relived
“The Almighty is not as unkind as we at times assume Him to be! He takes with one hand
and gives with the other! At least now you have an objective in life, some symbol of your
husband to sustain you through the rest of your days!”
Radhrani stared out of the window, contemplating on the relevance of her words. This was
the first time she had actually admitted to anyone about her unborn child. The disclosure
lifted a big load off her heart and gave her a lot of strength, reinforcing her resolve to bring
her child into the world, irrespective of the adversities.
“I too got widowed just before my son, my only child was born! It is because of him that life
has been bearable! Seeing him grow up, tending to his tantrums, I didn’t realize how time
just flew by!” The elderly lady bit her lips, as if trying to control herself which prompted
Radharani to enquire about her son, more as a matter of curtsey.
“My son was studying in college when he got drawn into the swadeshi wave sweeping the
country! He was protesting against the selling of British goods, when the police arrested him!
I am just returning after meeting him in jail! I was crying, but he wiped my tears and told me
not to fret or feel sorry, for he was fighting for the rights of his motherland!”
“My little son, he suddenly seemed so grown up!” Her tone got choked but could not
suppress the feeling of pride.
“My husband too was a hardcore swadeshi! Radharani murmured, releasing a deep sigh “He
was one of the associates of the martyr Khudiram and because of his background, now
everyone is sceptical of providing me shelter!”
And Radharani narrated her stint with Sister Nivedita and the present situation, which
required her to seek shelter with a family with whom she could hardly connect.
“Why don’t you stay with me?” the elderly lady immediately and unhesitatingly extended an
invitation which genuinely seemed to spring from the core of her heart. “Inspired by my
son’s example, I too have decided to take up cudgels for the cause of female education. I
have plans to start a school for girls in my village. With your past experience and exposure,
you could be of a great help to me!”
Radharani eyes once again grew moist as she clasped her hands and offered her heartfelt
obeisance to the unseen supreme power. How true was the saying that the Almighty takes
care of every single soul he sends to this earth.
The memorial service had just begun, when Radharani accompanied by Sukamal babu and
his wife, reached the venue. Khusi had been intentionally left behind at a relative’s place, as
Sukamal babu feared that the extended session of mourning and remembrance might reverse
the effects of the trip to Simultala.
The venue was packed with people silently moving about with a solemn and serious
expression on their faces. Almost all, who had known the departed soul in some way or
other, were in attendance.
There were the familiar faces of the British establishment, who had come to pay their
reverence to a caring host, who always received them with a warm smile and personally
attended to all their wants, except for the last few months when she had completely retired
from social life.
The medical fraternity of Mayo Hospital- doctors, attendants and nurses were present in full
strength to pay homage to their departed colleague. There were also many former patients,
which was quite unusual, for generally the patient-caregiver relationship remains restricted
within the hospital premises. But Mrs Sturdy was of a different kind.
To the patients of Mayo Hospital and all those whom she helped to recuperate, she was the
very personification of love and compassion– and it was they who had now come to offer
their heartfelt gratitude and respect in memory of the noble hearted nurse.
Mrs. Sturdy had been inspired and initiated into the profession of nursing by none other than
the legendary Florence Nightingale, who was presently bedridden because of advanced age
and an attack of chronic fatigue syndrome. Whenever Mrs. Sturdy visited England, she
always made it a point to spend some days with her mentor, who too harboured a special
fondness for her worthy student.
A few years ago when Calcutta was plagued by the epidemic of plague, Mrs Sturdy has
joined hands with Sister Nivedita in bringing succour to the people- nursing non stop,
foregoing food and rest, running from home to home, hoping to overtake death. Sometime
she succeeded and sometimes to her great grief, death managed to forestall her, but failed to
make her abandon her mission.
Radharani sighed. She herself was a living proof of the noble-hearted lady’s concern for
others! And her son too had inherited these qualities from her mother- Dr. Robert had given
up his earlier well-paying job and decided to work in the tea gardens amidst the oppressed
bonded labourers, thereby voluntarily opting for a life low on comfort but more on
Radharani wished she too had a chance to lead a life like that, a peaceful life in the lap of
nature, a life showered by the blessings of both men and the mountains!
But would Dr. Robert’s would-be wife agree to such a solitary existence with just the pines
and cedars for company? Radharani wondered, for Agatha seemed to be the typical society
lady, addicted to shopping and its ancillary nuances.
But then maybe that is how God has made women, tailor-made to take the shape of the
container they are poured into!
She took a deep breath. In another few days, the course of her life too would once again
change- she was scheduled to leave Calcutta along with the elderly lady of the train to
another world which awaited her in a tiny village, tucked away in the interiors of Bengal.
Khusi had been reluctant to let her go, but Radharani had steadfastly refused to stay on in the
city, haunted by the painful memories of a not so distant past.
“Rada, my mother left this letter for you!” Robert handed her a white envelope after the
memorial service had ended and people had begun to leave. He was about to leave the room
when Radharani, in between opening the envelope, softly asked “I didn’t see Agatha! Is she
not in Calcutta?”
“She had left for England!” Robert stood back and gave her a firm stare, which stubbornly
rested on her face, refusing to shift. “She will be getting married to an English mill owner!”
Radharani was so surprised that for a moment she could not speak. She had been so
immersed in the complexities of her own life that she had been totally unaware as to what
was happening in the lives of others around her.
“But how could she?’ she stated in a soliloquy, as if to reaffirm what she had just heard “She
was engaged to you!”
“Matters of the heart are very tricky and touchy issues Rada!” Robert sighed “But I don’t
blame Agatha!” he gave a sarcastic smile “She had begun to realize that though I had agreed
to marry her, my heart was with someone else!”
Radharani puzzled at his reply, was about to enquire further but by then, Robert had already
left. She took a deep breath and began reading
My Dear Daughter Rada
This letter of mine is an attempt to express what I have always felt about you but never cared
to say in so many words. To me, you were always a daughter – a daughter gifted by the holy
river. I know you too love me deeply and it is this assurance, coupled with the authority
which you have unknowingly endowed me with that has prompted me to place a proposal for
your future - accept Robert in your life.
I know you will be shocked at the proposition and might even be wondering, if at the fag end
of her life your Reba Auntie is out of her mind.
No my daughter, I am fully aware of the implication of my statement, but perhaps you are not
aware how much Robert has always wanted you all these years, ever since the very first day
he was spellbound by an unconscious you lying on the doorstep of Margaret’s house. But he
has always believed in maintaining a dignified silence even as he helplessly watched you
drifting towards the one your heart desired. He respected your decision, but as his mother I
could see his inherent frustration and failure to commit himself to anyone else which made
Agatha walk out of their relationship, as you must have known by now.
I know you still love Satish, but it is a sad reality that right now he is a past. What both you
and your child now need is a secure and respectable future, which Robert would only be too
willing to provide. Don’t mistake it as a show of sympathy on his part; on the contrary, the
assurance of your life-long companionship would see his dream turn true. Before writing this
letter, I have confirmed with my son- he still wants you as much as he did before and your
past has not been successful in diluting, even the slightest, the purity of his passion.
I know you will still be in a dilemma about your future course of action- even if your heart
gives the green signal, maybe the invisible boundaries of society would attempt to pull you
down. Rada be realistic! Life is precious and it is not prudent to fritter it away just for the
sake of the perceptions of the people around you.
Rada, my dear daughter, I don’t demand from you the impossible task of loving Robert right
from day one- but maybe you can try to understand him and I sure it is this understanding,
which will bring you closer to him in the days to come.
When the letter reaches you, I shall have long left for my heavenly abode. But from high up, I
shall be watching you both embarking on the journey of life, silently showering you with my
It had rained in the morning and now though the drizzle had ceased, it was still cloudy. A
light wind, perfumed by the odour of wet earth, blew in soft cool gushes, running down the
flight of steps in one go to a visibly restless river.
Once a river of heaven, Ganga had long ago, consented to descend on earth at the behest of
king Bhagiratha. His ancestors had been incinerated by the fiery gaze of an angry ascetic and
only the purifying waters of Ganga, flowing over their ashes, could free their souls from
earthly bondage. Since then, Ganga has been flowing on the earth, cleansing sins, bestowing
purity to the pious and salvation to the souls of the departed. But was she destined to remain
a permanent prisoner of earth? Would she never get a chance to return to heaven, like her
sister Saraswati? She wondered, as she impatiently tossed and twirled.
Radharani sat on the edge of the ghat, her tense fingers tinkering with the flow, the feel so
soothing that it felt like a mother’s touch.
She stared at the river, the river of her life and nostalgic memories of the vast silvery expanse
flooded her mind. It was on the banks of this river that she had grown up; it was with this
river as witness that she had been uprooted from an idyllic childhood to be implanted into a
life of pompous artificiality.
"No praying, no eating! No bathing, no praying!" was the short strict rule to which she had to
compulsorily adhere to during her entire wifehood, a ritual which had only brought her closer
to the river. in the Singhibari, her day compulsorily began with a predawn bath in the river,
when, in the still darkness with the stars shining bright, she, accompanied by her attendants,
would leave the house barefoot, veiled to shield her face from the glances of the passers-by,
mostly piety-seekers like her, heading to or returning from the river after ablution. And at
every moment of the sanctifying immersion, she had felt a sense of release, as if all the
burdens of her heart had been lovingly lifted by a mother into whose arms she had
It was again into this river that she had been rejected, but mother- like, the river had not taken
her down, instead entrusting her existence into the caring hands of a kind-hearted couple.
“Rada we should leave now! There is not much time left for the train!” Robert, perched on
the bank, subtly reminded her, staring at the undulating tresses cascading down her back. The
refreshing lightly-moistened wind ruffled his hair and as he admirably eyed the river, he
admitted to himself that it was difficult to have lived life long beside the Ganges and not fall
under the spell of her personality.
“I won’t be long!” Radharani turned around and with a slight nod, acknowledged his
concern. Then getting up, she gingerly stepped into the flood, craving pardon with words of
salutation for the touch of her feet and lightly stooped, sprinkling the blessed water on her
“I am going away, but will surely return someday! Wait for me!” She silently whispered to
the restive river and walked away without looking back, leaving everything behind.
*********************** THE END *****************************