European civilisation had not yet thrust its horns into our village; in other words, the railway line had bypassed us from a distance. So, to go home from Calcutta we still had to use traditional transport part of the way; the boat in monsoon and the palanquin in summer and winter were our mainstays.
The road and the river ran in opposite directions. I always took the boat home, so for a long time I did not encounter the land route. Then, in the year that I passed my BA examinations, I had to go home in May for some unfinished business. Today I shall tell you of the strange incident that took place on that journey.
Getting off the train at six in the morning, I found the palanquin-bearers waiting for me. I cannot claim that the appearance of the palanquin encouraged me. I estimated it to be some three feet wide and less than five feet long. Then, I was transfixed by the appearance of the bearers. Cadavers such as these could probably be seen in other countries only in hospitals. Almost all of them had protruding ribs and withered flesh on their limbs.
To be carried by these fellow humans for twenty miles had at first seemed rather unpalatable. Inflicting my weight upon these spindly, half-dead unfortunates seemed exceedingly cruel. Observing my hesitation, the servant who had accompanied them from my ancestral home smiled and said, “Get in, sir, you shall not find it uncomfortable. If you delay any more you will not arrive at your destination before four o’ clock.”
Hearing that twenty miles would take ten hours to traverse did not boost my enthusiasm in the least. Still, I crawled into the packing case after muttering a prayer, since there was no alternative.
At first, the glow and the breeze that filtered in from the east cheered me; the draught felt as wonderful to the skin as the radiance to the eye. My eyes as well as my heart were reborn along with the birth of the new day. I looked outside. There were only fields stretching out in every direction. No houses, no trees, only fields – endless fields – flat and identical, infinite and empty like the sky. Escaping from the concrete pigeonholes of Calcutta into this infinite expanse of nature, my soul experienced the bliss of deliverance. My mind shook off all worries and took on the clear, satisfied appearance of the sky with a faint red glow of joy.
But this happiness proved short-lived, for with the progress of the day the potency of the sun increased, as though nature had a fever – the temperature arose to 105 degrees. By nine o’ clock one could no longer look out, for the sun was blinding. My eyes salivated for a shade of green – a search over the horizon only yielded an acacia or two. They barely quenched my thirst, for whatever other quality this tree might have possessed, it offered no green loveliness, no azure shadow beneath itself. Between this treeless, leafless, shadeless plain and the sunlight-stricken sky bereft of clouds there gradually grew a great fatigue. Unable to stand this monotonous appearance of nature any longer, I opened a book. I’d brought Meredith’s The Egoist with me – I had the last chapter to finish. Having read three or four pages I realised the last chapter had become the first one – not a word made sense. I shut the book and requested the bearers to speed up a little, promising them extra money.
This worked. We reached the halfway point at ten-thirty – half-an-hour early. I cannot claim this village amidst the desert was a lovely and pleasing example of an oasis. A shallow tank in the middle, eleven or twelve thatched huts upon its one-storey-high bank, and a fig tree on one side. Setting the palanquin down under a tree, the bearers ran to the tank, took a dip in it and sat down to their meal in their wet clothes. We set off half-an-hour later.
The palanquin moved rather slowly now, for their lunch had made the bearers slower than a pregnant woman. In the meantime my body, mind and senses had become so weary that I shut my eyes and tried to go off to sleep. The afternoon sun and the rocking of the palanquin brought on slumber, but that slumber was not sleep. Just as my body had adopted a posture midway between lying down and sitting up, my mind had also occupied a position somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. A couple of hours passed this way. I was suddenly awakened by a tremendous jolt, so tremendous that it penetrated the layers of my body and struck at the very seat of the soul.
Looking out, I realised that the bearers had thrown their passenger down with a clatter beneath an enormous banyan tree and disappeared. When I asked why, the servant said, “They’ve gone for a smoke.” I took the opportunity to escape painfully from the palanquin and stretch my limbs. A little further away I found the bearers huddled together, raising a great din. At first I was apprehensive, wondering whether they were conspiring to go on strike against me, for many excited speeches were being delivered. But almost at once I realised that there was a different reason for all the shouting. What they were smoking was not tobacco – it was ‘king tobacco’, as was evident from the smell. Their enthusiasm, their cheerfulness, their leaps and cries made it obvious why cannabis is referred to in Bengali as ‘quickjoy’.
At first it was amusing to watch them smoke, but gradually I became irritated. The cannabis disappeared rapidly, but none of them showed the slightest inclination to get up. When I asked how much longer they would be, the servant said, ‘They won’t get up, sir, unless you force them – there’s danger ahead, so they’re trying to smoke up some courage.” I said, “What danger?” He answered, “It must not be named, sir. You’ll see for yourself soon.” I became so curious that I decided to galvanise the bearers myself. Their jaundiced eyes had turned red under the influence of the drug. I had to pull each one bodily to his feet, which forced me to inhale some of the smoke. Entering by way of my nostrils, it went straight to my head. I was overcome by nausea at once, my head spun, my eyes felt heavy – I took shelter hastily in the palanquin. It started moving again this time I didn’t feel in the least uncomfortable – for my body seemed to belong to someone else.
After some time – how long, I could not say – the bearers started shouting in unison, at the top of their voices. I had already found evidence that their vocal strength was more than their physical one, but for the first time I realised the extent of that strength. The one word that could be heard amidst the babble was Ramnam – now the leader also added his voice to the chorus, chanting, “Ramnam sat hai, Ramnam sat hai” continuously. It made me think I had died, and that spirits were taking me to their realm in their palanquin.
Whether the cannabis had anything to do with this impression, I cannot say. I felt a great curiosity to find out where they were taking me. Looking out, I saw that the sky looked as though the village were on fire, but the accompanying signs of a blaze – loud screams renting the air – were not to be found. It was so desolate, so silent, that the unbreakable peace of death seemed to have enveloped the world.
A little further on, what lay before us was a wilderness – not of sand, but of scorched earth; this earth was like a fragment of brown pottery, without a single blade of grass. There was no human habitation now on this scorched land, but countless signs remained to show that there had once been one. This was a kingdom of bricks, as far as the eye could see there were bricks and more bricks, some stacked together, some scattered on the ground, in thousands; and the bricks were so red that it seemed as though fresh blood had gathered there. What pushed upwards from this collapsed world were trees. But none of them was leafy, they were all barren, all dry, all dead. The skeletons of these trees stood in clumps at some places, and singly at others. And flames the colour of blood seemed to cling to every part of these bricks, of the wood, of the earth and of the sky.
It was hardly surprising that simple people like my bearers should be frightened at this sight, for I felt a bit shaky myself. A little later, the faint sound of sobs penetrated the silence and came to my ears. The tone was so soft, so pathetic, so distressed that generations of human agony appear to have been collected and concentrated in it. It filled me with compassion. In an instant I sensed the pain of all of humankind.
Suddenly a storm came up, the wind raged from all directions. The fire in the sky raced about like a lunatic, tormented by the wind. A typhoon seemed to rise above the sea of blood, waves of fire spread in all directions. And in that fiery deluge I saw thousands of people flailing and writhing. At this sight the elements clapped their hands in glee and shouted aloud. Gradually all these sounds coalesced into one universal laugh – its merciless, grotesque noise despatched waves of turbulence to the horizon. Then it waned gradually, being transformed into the same soft, pathetic, distressed sobs. The conflict between this grotesque laughter and these pathetic sobs brought out in me age-old memories of this abandoned town – whether the memories were from this life or a previous one, I cannot tell.
Someone within me seemed to say, here is the history of this village … This brick-and-wood wilderness was the ruin of Rudrapur. The Roys of Rudrapur had once been the principal zamindars of the area. The founder of the clan, Rudranarayan, had received his title by virtue of working for the nawab, and along with it he had earned ownership rights to three divisions of land. People said the family had in its possession a deed signed by the Emperor of Delhi himself, which gave them the power to execute anyone.
Whether they were empowered by the deed or not, there was no doubt that they did carry out executions. Legend had it that there had never been such indomitable zamindars in the land before. The strong and the weak bowed alike before them. Those who earned their wrath were destroyed in terms of both property and life. The number of people whose homes and lands they had wiped out was beyond count. There wasn’t anyone within twenty miles who dared disobey the Roys ‘ commands. Under their iron rule there was not the faintest trace of crime in the area, for all who could use sticks, spears or swords were enlisted in the army.
Just like their unbound ruthlessness, their benevolence was limitless too. Providing food and clothes to the poor and medicines to the ill was an everyday affair. Countless people lived under their patronage reverentially. All the priests in the area had become rich landowners on the strength of the rights that the Roys had granted to Brahmins. And they spent unstintingly on rituals – holi, Durga Puja and the like. In Rudrapur the sky would turn crimson during holi with abir – and the earth, with blood during Durga Puja.
In the guesthouses, there were arrangements to feed a hundred guests daily. No Brahmin saddled with a dead father or mother, or a marriageable daughter, ever went back empty-handed from the Roys. They would say that the Brahmin’s wealth is not for amassing but for spending on good causes. So if money for these good causes ever ran short, the masters did not shrink from looting it from traders and moneylenders. In brief, they did good and evil according to their own fancies, for under the reign of the nawab, no one ruled over them. Consequently, common people respected them as much as they feared them, for they neither feared nor respected the people. As a result of such untrammelled tyranny, their estimation of their own excellence increased in leaps and bounds. Ingrained in them was the pride of race, of wealth, of power, of beauty. All the males in the Roy family were fair, tall and strong, and the fame of the beauty of their womenfolk had spread countrywide. Because of all this it had become next to impossible for them to think of anyone else as a human being.
But even before the advent of the English the fortunes of the family had started falling apart, and later, in the era of the East India company, they were ruined. Those factions which had become penniless, because of the division of property over successive generations, found their lines dying out, for in their eyes earning one’s own bread by one’s own toil was a very inferior pastime indeed. On top of that were the disputes over the sharing of property. The Roy family worshipped the goddess Shakti – so much so that in Rudrapur young boys and old men alike were regular drinkers. Not even the women objected, for they believed that drinking was masculine. When the lords assembled after paying their respects to the family goddess and got down to the drinking, the enormous sandalwood-and-blood marks on their foreheads and their bloodshot eyes combined to resemble the enraged triple-eye of Shiva himself.
During this phase no task was too daunting for them. They would order their stick-wielding soldiers to plunder grains from one subject and to rape the wife of another. Bloodshed followed. This family rivalry took them forward along the road to extinction. Whatever property and assets remained was transferred by virtue of the ten-year settlement. It never occurred to them that unless the last instalment was paid by the due date they would become permanently bankrupt. Because they were not used to doing it, they never managed to pay up the revenue owed to the Company in time. As a result most of their property had to be auctioned off.
The clan of the Roys had also been almost obliterated. Where they had once occupied almost a hundred houses, only six branches remained about a hundred years ago. The property and assets of those six branches also went over gradually into Dhananjay Sarkar’s hands. This was because Dhananjay followed English Law as carefully as he knew it. The tricks of making money with the help of the law while staying within it were at his fingertips. Two or three years of practising as an attorney at the district court had earned him a great deal. Put into moneylending, these funds had accumulated interest and interest on interest, swelling rapidly.
Public opinion held that he had earned ten lakh in about ten years. Even if it wasn’t quite as much, there was no doubt that he had earned three or four lakh. After making all this money, he felt the desire to be a zamindar, and to fulfil it he started buying up the Roys’ property bit by bit – for he knew every acre of the estate like the back of his hand. His family had always worked for the Roy family, and in his younger days he too had worked six or seven years for the head of the eldest branch, Triloknarayan. But despite buying up the entire property and even the homes of every branch of the family, he had not dared visit Rudrapur, for Ugranarayan, the son of his former master, was still alive. Ugranarayan had sworn by his sacred thread, placing his hand on the family idol, that if Dhananjay set foot within the borders of Rudrapur in Ugranarayan’s lifetime, he would not return in one piece.
Dhananjay had no doubt in his mind that Ugranarayan would fulfil his oath to the letter. For he knew that no one as fearsome and courageous as Ugranarayan had ever been born into the Roy family. Some weeks after Ugranarayan’ s death, Dhananjay went to Rudrapur and occupied the Roys’ ancestral home. Not a single male of the Roy family was present in the village, so he could have taken possession of every house had he so wanted; yet he made no attempt to turn Ugranarayan’ s only, daughter Ratnamayee, who was a widow, out of her ancestral home.
For one thing, the subjects of Pathanpara, the village adjacent to Rudrapur, were determined to protect Ratnamayee’s rights and ownership. The village comprised generations of people adept at fighting with sticks; Dhananjay knew that if he tried to evict Ratnamayee, injury or death was inevitable. However, he was rather reluctant to face such a fate, for there wasn’t another person in Bengal as timid.
Secondly, Dhananjay harboured a modicum of fear and respect, arising from superstition, for the family that had provided sustenance to his own. Because of all this, Dhananjay left Ugranarayan’s portion alone, occupying the rest of the Roys’ family home – though only nominally. For Dhananjay’s family consisted only of his daughter Rangini and her resident husband Ratilal Dey.
After his shift of residence, Dhananjay went though a distinct change. While he had amassed money, his desire for wealth had deepened so much that greed was all he harboured. Under the spell of this desire, he had blindly gathered riches, by any means whatsoever – it had never occurred to him to find out for whom or for what. But after he installed himself as the zamindar in Rudrapur, he woke up to the fact that he had made money simply for the sake of making money, not for anything else, not for anyone else.
He recalled that when his seven sons had died one after the other, he had not been perturbed even for a day, had not neglected his business pursuits. The excessive love for money that he had harboured for a lifetime was now transformed to excessive possessiveness. He spent sleepless nights wondering how his amassed wealth could be preserved for posterity. Rudrapur itself was visible proof that even unlimited wealth could be lost over the ages. Gradually an idea took root in his mind – that man could accumulate riches by his own effort, but without the help of the gods those riches couldn’t be preserved.
Although he knew the laws of the English by heart, Dhananjay was essentially uneducated. His natural barbarity had not been defeated or disciplined by any form of education. His mind was ruled by every superstition and blind belief that a Shudra could subscribe to. He had heard in his childhood that if a Brahmin child were locked up with riches in a room and died of starvation as a result, the child would be transformed into a spirit and guard the wealth forever in this room. He was so obsessed with preserving his amassed wealth in this manner that he became convinced that doing this was his most important duty. In matters where Dhananjay had no doubts, he was used to getting his way in the face of every opposition. But in this case a great obstacle did arise. Hearing that Dhananjay meant to sacrifice a Brahmin child, Rangini gave up food and sleep. Consequently it became impossible for Dhananjay to fulfil his heart’s desire.
If Dhananjay loved anything in the world besides money, it was his daughter. Just as a tree might take root even amidst brick and mortar, this weakness for his daughter had taken root in some crack somewhere in Dhananjay’s hard heart. Though Dhananjay did not take the initiative himself, a certain turn of events fulfilled the last wish of his life.
Ratnamayee had a three-year-old son. His name was Kiritchandra. She lived alone with her son, never meeting anyone. No one was allowed into her inner sanctum. The people of Rudrapur would actually have forgotten her existence had she not visited the family goddess’s temple every day, after her bath, exactly at noon – guarded by two of Pathanpara’s stick-wielding citizens. Ratnamayee was twenty or twenty-one at the time.
Women as wondrously beautiful as she were extremely rare in the land. She resembled the family goddess. Her eyes slanted upwards like those of the idol’s – and, just like those eyes, hers too were still, immobile. People said they had never blinked. What burnt brightly in them was her total contempt for the men and women around her. Ratnamayee had inherited the ancestral arrogance accumulated over three centuries. Needless to say, she also nurtured fierce pride in her own beauty. To her, this beauty was clear proof of her nobility. In Ratnamayee ‘s view, the purpose of beauty was not to attract people, but to slight them, When she went to the temple people on the road stepped aside, for her very posture told them, in the silent language of her complexion and figure, “Go away. Even stepping on your shadow would mean having to cleanse myself.” She never glanced to left or right, with her eyes cast downwards she lit up the path on her way to and from the temple.
Behind closed shutters, Rangini watched Ratnamayee, and her mind and her body grew rigid with the poison of envy – for however rich her possessions might be, beauty was not one of them. And this deficiency pained her a great deal, for her husband Ratilal was extremely handsome. Rangini loved her husband the way Dhananjay loved money – in other words, this love was nothing more than a terrible hunger, and this hunger, just like physical hunger, was blind and ruthless. What relationship it had with the heart was difficult to say, for the hearts of creatures like Dhananjay and Rangini are not external to the body, but included within it.
Like Dhananjay, Rangini treated the object of her love as her personal property. The very thought that someone might set hands on it made her absolutely ruthless, and there was nothing in the world too cruel for her to do in order to preserve her property. A completely unfounded suspicion had risen in Rangini’ s mind – that Ratilal had been entranced by Ratnamayee’s beauty; that suspicion was gradually transformed into certainty. Rangini suddenly discovered that Ratilal went to Ugranarayan’s house secretly, loitering for hours. The real attraction was drinking bhang with the Brahmin who lived under Ratnamayee’s patronage. And then, the childless Ratilal had developed such a weakness for Ratnamayee’ s son that he couldn’t pass a single day without setting eyes on Kiritchandra.
Needless to say, Ratnamayee and Ratilal had never even exchanged glances, for the inhabitants of Pathanpara guarded her inner sanctum. But Rangini became convinced that Ratnamayee had decided to snatch her handsome husband from her. To take revenge for this, and to satisfy her innate envious mentality, Rangini decided to use Ratnamayee’s son to fulfil her father’s wish. She let Dhananjay know that not only did she have no objection to his plan, but she would also hunt for the boy herself.
This sort of thing had to be done very secretly, however. So father and daughter discussed it and decided to use the room next to Rangini’ s bedroom. In three or four days all the doors and windows of that room were sealed up with bricks. Then, very furtively, all the gold and silver coins Dhananjay had amassed were put into large copper pitchers and arranged in rows inside the room. When all of Dhananjay’s wealth had been put in there, Rangini told Ratilal that Ratnamayee’s son was so lovely she desperately wanted to hold him in her arms – and that he would somehow have to bring Kiritchandra to her. Ratilal answered that it was impossible, if Ratnamayee’s bodyguards got to know they would break his head But Rangini became so insistent that Ratilal soon managed to wheedle Kiritchandra into accompanying him to meet Rangini.
As soon as Kiritchandra arrived, Rangini took him in her arms and smothered him with kisses. Then she dressed him in red, put a garland round his neck, a red sandalwood-and-vermilion mark on his forehead and two gold bangles on his wrists. Seeing him dressed up like this, Ratilal’s face lit up with pleasure. Then Rangini suddenly led Kiritchandra out by the hand, pushed him into the sealed chamber and locked the door. Pushing against the bedroom door, Ratilal realised that Rangini had locked him in as well.
Although he tried to push, kick and hammer his way out and into the sealed chamber, he realised his efforts were futile. The door was so heavy and so solid that it would be difficult to break it down even with an axe. Shut up inside that pitch-dark room, Kiritchandra started sobbing at first, and then called out to Ratilal, “Dada, dada.” Two or three hours later his sobs could no longer be heard. Ratilal realised that he had cried himself to sleep.
Locked up in his room for three days and three nights, Ratilal could hear Kiritchandra – now banging his head against the door, now sobbing, now silent. At his wits’ end, Ratilal ran like a madman a thousand times to the door in those three days, but he couldn’t budge it an inch. Every time he heard the sobs he ran to the door to say, “Don’t weep so, dada, don’t be afraid, I’m here.” Hearing his voice the boy would cry out even more loudly, bang his head against the door even more often; Ratilal covered his ears with his hands and ran away to the other end of the room, screaming out to Rangini and Dhananjay at the top of his voice, calling them whatever name came to his mind.
He had become so bewildered by this fiendish business that it never occurred to him that there could be some other way of rescuing Kiritchandra – his entire attention was drawn by those sobs from the boy trapped inside that sealed chamber. After three days, the child’s sobs grew gradually weaker, fainter, and stopped altogether on the fifth day. Ratilal realised that Kiritchandra’ s little heart had stopped beating. He parted the iron rods on the window with his hands, jumped down and ran directly to Ratnamayee’s house.
That day there were no guards at the door, for all the people of Pathanpara were out looking for the missing lad. Taking this opportunity Ratilal appeared before Ratnamayee and narrated everything to her. For three years no one had seen Ratnamayee smile. Hearing of the cruel murder of her son, her face and eyes lit up, she seemed to be smiling. Ratilal found this so peculiar that he fled from her presence and disappeared. Then, in the middle of the night, while everyone was asleep, Ratnamayee set fire to her room.
The houses adjoined one another. Within an hour the fire spread like the wrathful flames of the gods and attacked Dhananjay’s house. Dhananjay and Rangini tried to escape, but at the front gate they saw Ratnamayee, surrounded by almost a hundred of Pathanpara’s inhabitants armed with swords, spears and shields. At Ratnamayee’s command they thrust their spears at father and daughter until they were covered with blood from head to foot, and threw them into the flames. Ratnamayee burst into laughter; her attendants realised she had gone mad.
Then the people of Pathanpara went berserk. Dhananjay’ s servants, maids, employees, guards, doormen – whoever they found were skewered on their swords and spears; the ancestral home of the Roy family was swamped by a river of fire above and of blood below. Then came a storm and an earthquake. When everything was burnt to smithereens, Ratnamayee jumped into the flames. Everything in Rudrapur stands in ruins today. Only Kiritchandra’s sobs and Ratnamayee ‘s insane laughter fill the skies.