The tale of a girl who rises to symbolize a revolution that Bengal forgot. The Matsanyaya revisited.
A Village in Bengal: 739 AD
The coat of water that had formed a smooth layer on the dirty utensils reflected the sunlight onto Gauri’s face. The silence of the lazy afternoon was broken only by the constant waves of the running water, and the birds that deemed fit to hum, undaunted by the stillness of the season. The mosquitoes had formed a swarm over her head. Cleaning the utensils had been her ritual since her mother died; her mother had done this throughout her life, at least from the time she knew her. She used to follow her around with a rag doll she had named Sonamukhi – then one fine day she dropped dead. The mourning period was short-lived and she was summoned to work the very next day. The Baniks expressed their remorse over her mother’s passing, but followed it up with the fact that her absence had caused a lot of difficulties for them – they had asked her, “Why didn’t you come yesterday?”
Her answer had always been inconclusive; cleaning the utensils was her mother’s job – not hers. How could everyone just assume that she would do the same thing her mother did? Times however were not in favour of asking opinions from those deemed fit to persecute. Gauri was perhaps subtly cognisant of this unwritten law – she never asked for it as part of her was afraid of the answer. There were far worse fates that claimed people like her. Her routine consisted of arriving at the banks at noon mainly to avoid the curious questions and scandal seeking behaviour of the local housewives who were all too eager to know the comings and goings of the local tax collectors; and then doing her job before departing. Gossip wasn’t something that she had a taste for. In the eerie silence of the river bank, she could be herself and not worry about the possibilities that frightened her. However, this strategy didn’t always work.
The silence of the lazy afternoon was broken only by the constant waves of the running water, and the birds that deemed fit to hum, undaunted by the stillness of the season.
Such a day as today, when it didn’t work became more apparent with a boy approaching from the distance. Not paying attention in such circumstances often solved the problem for her. But, this time his trajectory clearly spelt out that he was going to talk to her. She continued scrubbing the colander, as she slid her long locks away from her forehead with the gentle flick of her fingers. She held her gaze against him; normally boys behaved awkwardly when she locked eyes with them, but this one smiled back exuding a reassuring aura of confidence.
“That’s a lot of pots and pans,” he exclaimed, perching himself on a nearby boulder.
“They aren’t mine, they are Chandramani Banik’s.” she replied, rather curtly.
“But that lot is enough to feed a small army!”
“He has guests over!”
“From the north?” the boy asked with an air of nonchalance. Such words were often taken by those with less than pure intentions. She had been subjected to them before as well – by her father’s friends. It didn’t take long for small talk to mature into that indecent proposal.
“Yes, from Karnasuvarna!” She said, “And who are you? You haven’t introduced yourself!”
“I am just part of this trading caravan that’s passing by. I am also from Karnasuvarna, and we are going to Tamralipti. My name is Mitresh.” His smile was infectious, for she too broke into a smile of her own.
“I am Gauri” she replied, although it seemed he wasn’t really interested in her answer. He was too busy staring in the direction of the Banik Mansion. “What are you looking at?” she asked.
“You’ve worked here for long?” he asked, turning to look at her.
“Since my mother died.” She had a speech prepared for such situations. People were classified into three categories in her mind after she passed this bit of information – there were those who were old enough to be her parents or were married; they normally expressed their concern for her, felt sorry for her, tried to console her, and then asked her whether they should help her find a husband. Then there were the bachelors closer to her age; if it was a boy, they would declare how they could protect her and she should marry him! And if it were a girl, that was worse; they expressed their concern, but then started blurting out experiences where they themselves had gone through a similar loss – how they had recovered and learnt to deal with it, even if it was the loss of a pet.
The animal kingdom has no concept of the seven sins; it’s only humans that do! We made them up, to tell ourselves this is unnatural for any human being. The fact that we had to make them in the first place means that they are there, lurking in the depths of our conscience.
“Was it a painful death, or was it quick and painless?” The response caught her off-guard. She definitely wasn’t expecting this.
“She died overnight; she went to sleep and never woke up. I think my father killed her.” Saying this was not her intention, but it was the sudden slip of tongue which made it the betrayer. There were thoughts that crossed her mind in this regard. But then that was the end of it; they were just thoughts – fleeting and momentary by nature. Her suspicions were her own, and the resulting opinions and hypothesis were never expressed or explored. Such thoughts had potential – too much potential. And whenever anything has too much potential, it incites fear.
Silence engulfed them as they sat, looking at each other; such disquiet was usually accompanied by a sense of unease. This one time however, the way he sat himself down on a boulder, resting his back to a tree letting his feet get swallowed by the unkempt green grass below, it was one of those rare moments when even silence broke character.
Finally, he nodded. “Do you know where these guests are staying?” he asked.
“The guest chambers are at the far end of the estate, behind the garden. It takes around 10 minutes to go there through the main mansion.” She stalled; a bit irritated as she normally dreaded conversations where her mother came up. This time, she wanted him to come back to that topic.
“Was your mother a nice person?”
“Yes. She was the kindest and nicest woman of them all – I loved her! Why would you even ask that? Mothers are always nice!” She had a complaining tone.
“No. Mothers are humans; everyone in the world – they’re all human. And as humans, we are all bound by desires, lust, anger, emotions! The animal kingdom has no concept of the seven sins; it’s only humans that do! We made them up, to tell ourselves this is unnatural for any human being. The fact that we had to make them in the first place means that they are there, lurking in the depths of our conscience. Be that of a mother, father, child, sibling, each and every one of us. Just like your father! But what puzzles me is why you’re still with him. Why don’t you run away?”
The mood had changed; the calming breeze that was so gently rocking the plants and grass stood still. “What will I do if I leave him? Where will I go?” replied Gauri.
“You choose to trust the devil you know than the devil you don’t. That’s also a human trait. I am not surprised.”
“You are also human. Stop acting as if you’re better than me. I am sure you have your flaws too.” She tried to draw his attention. The calmness with which he was just looking around, and his disinterested demeanour was mocking her, albeit subtly.
“I’d say you should leave this place before…” He stopped, and turned to look at her.
“Before what?” asked Gauri.
“Before the demon’s run.” Mitresh stood up. That was a short yet stern reply following which he walked away. She couldn’t ask any more questions.
It was evening when Gauri finally finished her chores. She was going to have to stay late – the mistress of the mansion had ordered her to. There was going to be a lot to do as another party was going to come after this one. She sat, surveying the assortment of fresh vegetables in the kitchen – another maid, Pahal, was busy cutting them.
“So how is your father?” Pahal’s sudden comment caught her off-guard.
“What do you mean?” asked Gauri, trying to act normal. She knew what Pahal was hinting at and she dreaded the topic.
“I hear he is sick.” Pahal looked at her with her eagle eyes; she was waiting to catch the tiny bit of hesitation on Gauri’s part, allowing her to stitch a story out of her delicate movements.
“No. He is just down with a fever.”
“Do you know about Suryakant? He was your father’s friend right? Died last week; the Vaidyas said it was Yaksman. Look out for symptoms.”
Gauri knew what Pahal was implying -Yaksman was infectious, and falling victim to it meant death. “I will.” she said – dismissing the conversation. She walked out to the animal pen, lest the Pahal’s curiosity increased. It was a 5 minute walk, and she used to go there when she needed to collect her thoughts. She could see the sun shine a beautiful orange over the horizon as its rays shone against the undulating surface of the pond that was in front of her. The ducks were wobbling back – she sat on the grass with Mitresh’s words ripe in her mind. She contemplated her life. What could have happened had she ever resisted? Would she be killed, like her mother? She had thought of getting married a few times before, and each time her father hadn’t taken the initiative. Would she be better off if she were married? Her mother told her of marriage; she promised that she would find a great groom for her, and that how she’d run a household and have children. She never really allowed herself to think about it, but now that she did, it was unlikely that any of that was going to happen. ‘Yaksman’ she thought as her breath deepened; she thought of losing her father and life after. Marriage wouldn’t be an easy option -trying to find a groom for an orphan was a fruitless occupation. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t envision a future that was vastly different from what she was doing now; only that instead of giving her salary directly to her father it’d be given to her, and that way she wouldn’t have to ask him for her hard earned money and be rebuked for it. Perhaps her father wanted to keep her around just for the money she was making. Her lips curved into a smile. If anyone could hear her thoughts, they would give her a scolding and then explain why fathers are to be respected and how they can do no wrong. Her father wasn’t keeping well, but it wasn’t Yaksman – it couldn’t be. If it were, why wasn’t she infected? Her eyelids grew heavy and finally all those thoughts left her.
She felt herself drawn to it; she felt herself drawn to Mitresh – What was he? Was he human? Was he a demon?
She rose up, startled by a smell – a mixture of burning wood and flesh. The sun had retired, and the moon had taken his place. Thick smoke emanated from the mansion and the shrieks from inside were being swallowed by the smoke that was billowing into the skies. The sky was now shielded by a veil of darkness as the smoke swallowed up the whole sky. It was utter confusion – she found that the cows had torn apart their harnesses and were running towards her. For a minute, she was ready to be stomped by them but they all ran past her. What was happening?
Her path into the outhouse, where the permanent servants stayed, was dark. As she tiptoed inside, her naked feet felt the touch of a dark and warm liquid. There was the odd frame of Nilratan, turned to his side with his back towards Gauri. Her mind went numb. She swallowed her spit and pressed on the hand, rolling it to its back. She almost puked. It was Nilratan – the cut was through the nose; half of the head lay attached to the spine; the other half separated itself and was sliding away, held by the thin strand of skin and cartilage at the back. She fell on her bottom; her legs straddled as she tried to collect her thoughts – suddenly Mitresh’s words came back to her. ‘The Demons Run’ – Was this it? She was almost sure Mitresh was at the mansion. All rationality left her and curiosity took its place, for curiosity is perhaps the one primeval urge that is stronger than them all – the one that caused a million years of evolution. Her soft footsteps blended perfectly with the pandemonium that was surrounding her. Soon, there was a cry that made her blood run cold – Adrenaline rushed through her veins – fight or flight, stand or run? -She felt herself drawn to it; she felt herself drawn to Mitresh – What was he? Was he human? Was he a demon? As she neared, she brought herself to a side, where the dense mangrove could give her some cover. And through the branches she could clearly see.
There were the guests, all wielding their weapons. They were about seven in total. Mitresh stood, sword drawn, in battle stance. Two guys, much older than him stood behind him – their stances were defensive. They were separated by the grass lawn. It was strange – the wall behind had thick dark smoke coming out tearing through the verdant woodland. There were unfettered flames, devouring hungrily, licking and lapping at the coppice, twisting and swaying in a dance without rhythm. A fiery mass of burning flesh suddenly ran out of the massacre behind them -it was the mistress of the house. Gauri recognised that sari. Two guys, similar in age to Mitresh ran behind her. She was screaming and burning as the flesh peeled off her skin. She was going straight for Mitresh, but before she could reach him, he reached for his sword and sank it through her heart. He grabbed her burning head and pulled her off the sword as it tore through her intestines. Then he kicked the body away. His sleeves burst out in flames but he stood, as if it didn’t bother him; calm as ever, he shook his hand against the bark of a tree, dousing the fire.
“We are the emissaries of the Kingdom of Vardhaman, your insolence will be punished!” one of the guests roared.
The night fell silent – the fire crackled behind them, bellowing, casting long flickering shadows. The light cast by the flames danced across the dark trunks of the trees, twisting and curling in obscure shapes thereby providing a sombre radius of light. “I bear you no ill will,” Mitresh stated, “The Matsanyay is upon us, and by the time I am done, the so called feeble commoners will be inheriting the earth, and the strong like you, will have to find a way to be common.”
“There are just three of you and there are seven of us – you should’ve done the math before spewing out tall words.” A man on the other side smirked, slowly sliding his sword from his sheath. His jaw movement hinted that he hadn’t finished devouring whatever he had put in his mouth.
“You should do as I say, and run away, for then you can preserve a little bit of the riches for yourself.” Mitresh’s stance changed. “But I guess that won’t happen.”
“You can’t be more than 15 years old. And you think you can stop us?”
“The Puratan Sena says hello. Soon, the land between Gaud and Tamralipti will be unified, and there is nothing that your lords and their petty politics can do about it.” There was a whisper in the wind. To Gauri, the whole scene seemed choreographed – the metallic instruments clashed against the other – Mitresh’s silver gleamed – there was a quick roll back, and as his opponents sword ricocheted against his, his blade seeped through his opponent’s shoulders and tore through his heart.
No more pleasantries were exchanged. Mitresh had reduced the opposition to three and a non-combatant. There were body parts strewn around the floor as the smoke turned black imitating the embers from a funeral pyre.
There was a minute of utter confusion – among the three warriors standing – two ran, along with the emissary that they vowed to protect. The other, eldest of them, stood firm. “I will not go easy on you boy.” His coarse voice showed no signs of cowardice, but Gauri knew it wasn’t the same voice that ordered her to serve the food earlier in the day.
The two men behind Mitresh followed after the runaways, but Mitresh stood. The size difference was amazing. Mitresh was young, not more than 15, and the other man was well above 40.
“The strong shall rule, the weak shall serve, the Matsanyay has established that, don’t you think? The big fish will eat the smaller ones which in turn will be eaten. Right now, I am the biggest fish out there.”
“You see these scars son – I’ve been fighting since before you were born.” He slid his sword out – it was huge, bigger than Mitresh’s. “You are still young. I don’t know what this Puratan Sena has told you, but if you come with me, I will take you to Vardhaman where you will be recognised for your talent. I don’t want to kill a talented lad like you.”
The answer he received was a cackle. “And in Vardhaman, what do I do? Serve under a lord? The strong shall rule, the weak shall serve, the Matsanyay has established that, don’t you think? The big fish will eat the smaller ones which in turn will be eaten. Right now, I am the biggest fish out there.” He adjusted his stance again to the same one from before. He held his blade even, perfect and undaunted, levelled with his nose before slowly pulling back.
“And for god’s sake…” Mitresh continued, “Don’t show off your scars. They just tell of all the times you failed to stop a blade from breaking your skin.”
The attack was immediate; when the best fight it out it doesn’t take a lot of time to decide the winner. The first attack was predictable – Mitresh stepped to the left trying to secure an opening, his swing was caught in between by the sword. Mitresh’s body was soaked with blood; the droplet that was clinging dangerously to the dishevelled locks of hair that was dangling upon his forehead broke free and kissed the ground. Another blow was coming, but it was blocked and deflected – here turned for a kill but he wasn’t fast enough; the microsecond that was spent in deflecting Mitresh’s sword and realigning for another blow was enough – his sword hand was severed, and he fell on the ground and that was when a gasp escaped Gauri. It was a murmur against the raging inferno’s embers that leaped and twirled in a fiery dance, but it did not escape Mitresh. She knew what had happened, and adrenaline sprayed through her as she felt her lungs almost burst and her feet launched her in a random direction. Mitresh had given chase, but she had been running this tract since she was a little girl – she jumped the creaks and crevices which were all too familiar to her, her young legs filled up with blood as she leapt through the muddy unkempt road like an antelope with Mitresh close behind. Her loose hair fluttered in the wind behind her and alas that was her undoing. She felt a tug and she stopped; it was the end of the line.
“Where do you think you are going? To your father? The one who killed your mother? Why?”
“Please let me go, I won’t tell anyone, I promise!” Her lips quivered. She was sobbing by then.
“I don’t care who you tell it to; I’ll just kill them all, but remember this – you’re not doing anyone a favour by being the weak little girl you are.” And with that, the grip on her hair loosened. She didn’t wait; she ran, but after a few yards, she slowed down and her frantic flight turned into an amble. The moon was wary of this event it seemed, for it intensified its radiance, illuminating her path with a golden brown hue. Her feet’s affair with the road was an old one – she had never worn any sort of footwear in her life, and as a result, her feet remembered all the curves and crevices that decorated the road; they moved almost automatically, navigating the dust road and the unflattened rocks that stood out against the terrain couldn’t do enough to even earn themselves a tiniest speck of attention. The soles of her feet knew the terrain by themselves, each time her bare soles kissed the earth embracing its roughness it exchanged secret messages with them. The moon followed her, peeking through the branches of the few banyans and peepals that stood scattered across the grassland. The tall shadows of the grassland flickered along the path in front of her, adorning its brownish bright path with dark uneven stripes. Unconsciously, she wedged her anchal between her hips and the sari, as she tried to retain her pace. She took a fleeting look at the huts as she passed them by, and that was all it took to ascertain that they didn’t have any signs of movement, or light for that matter. The darkness inside was repulsive. There was a strange sensation that crept up her spine each time she noticed one, however it was not fear, of that much she was sure. It was just a trigger that heightened her sense of vigilance. The howls continued and the twigs rustled. By now, she felt a strange rhythm emerge from the crickets as their seemingly haphazard cries came together to form a symphony. She sauntered to her hut.
The soles of her feet knew the terrain by themselves, each time her bare soles kissed the earth embracing its roughness it exchanged secret messages with them.
That night, Gauri found herself in a precarious situation. She sat cross-legged on the steps of her cottage. Calling it a cottage would be an overstatement – it was a just an assembly of mud and straw, and a poor one at even that. The kalbaisakhis had taken most of the mud layers with it; the straws and reeds of the roof rustled at the sudden breeze, threatening to give in, being held together scarcely by the ropes. But barring that, the night was remarkably still. She slid her legs, stretching them on the earthen porch, as she let her back rest against the wall just beside the door. It was difficult to say what she was thinking; again was she thinking about anything at all? The fence around the house was worn out. The disrepair that had set in wasn’t an overnight phenomenon, but then again it couldn’t be avoided. A fresh round of crickets started chirping their song, as she lifted her eyes to take in a glimpse of the magnificent sky above. It was a long time since she had taken the time to watch the stars so inquisitively. When she was young she used to give each of these stars names, and watch them while dissecting their movements. Those were the abodes of the gods, her mother had told her, and she was convinced that they were moving because some god was having a banquet and had invited the others, but then why didn’t they converge? It must have been some mystical reason that she wasn’t meant to know. Initially, she kept up her inspection hoping that a god might stray one day and descend; she had heard in the epics that one could bargain with gods to get boons and that was exactly her plan. But to her dismay the gods seemed to be too professional for they never diverged from their intended paths! Now, though, she knew better. The hoot from a distant owl broke her reverie; she shook her head, scrubbed her eyes as she let out a yawn as her hazy gaze fell upon the undergrowth that had been growing on the land just outside the fence. The path that led out of the hut had almost completely been obfuscated by it. She collected the end of the anchal that was carelessly scraping the ground and draped it around her breasts as she took to her feet. She stretched her neck, hoping to see any activity at the Nilratan’s hut, which was at least half a kilometre away. Whatever little was visible against the banana grove gave her a picture of complete stillness. She closed her eyes, said a prayer and turned around to catch a glimpse of what was going on inside her own hut; she had been ignoring the groans that were coming from it long enough now.
The hoot from a distant owl broke her reverie; she shook her head, scrubbed her eyes as she let out a yawn as her hazy gaze fell upon the undergrowth that had been growing on the land just outside the fence.
As she stepped inside, she took great care so that she didn’t step on anything; she had the scheme of the hut firm in her mind but she didn’t like taking chances, for after her father became delirious, he would throw whatever he could find wherever he would feel. She would not be surprised if she stepped on the old man himself. She lit a small lantern. The light was faint, barely able to ward off the darkness inside. Her father’s eyes were half closed as he lay in the middle of the hut. His ribs turned visible as he inhaled slowly, trying hard to capture every last bit of air as if it were a rare luxury. As he groaned and coughed, any other girl of her age would shiver at the sight, but not Gauri; she had seen this way too many times before. The same sight, the same sequence of events – she had seen in almost every hut in the village. At first the occasional chest pains developed, depriving the individual of normal activities, then came the coughs followed by irregular fevers and before long the snot turned reddish. And well, it always led to the same finale! But this time the situation was supposed to be different. This time, the victim was her father. She tiptoed past him; the gentle flame flickered as she shook her hands to balance herself; the golden yellow light was proving to be a disturbing combination against the bluish hue of the moon that made its way through the small window at the corner.
She silently went over to the dirt bed that held up a small clay model of a one eyed goddess. She noticed that the offerings of fruits and flowers in front of the idol had gone bad. But it failed to concern her; she sat beside the miniature bastion, which also held other smaller depictions of gods in clay. With her back against the wall and her legs pressed against her chest she gawked at the panting skeleton of a man in the centre, she realized that it was only a matter of time before death claimed him. Now that she thought about the inevitability of it, a strange sense of calmness overcame her. He was holding onto Sonamukhi, her half burnt rag doll; God knows why; its head had been torn off, a result of his frequent destructive fits of rage. She remembered it vividly even to this day. It was one fine evening in Maagh and he had stormed in after a drinking session with his friends. Her mother gave her a small pitcher and asked her to go fill it up. As she returned she could hear her mother pleading with him. She slowly strode towards the outer fence. In the yard lay her mother’s best saris, all going up in flames as her mother frantically pranced around the fire trying to set it off. She clearly remembered the red one. It was the one that her mother had promised to give her in marriage. She left the pitcher and rushed to lend her mother a hand. That was when her father, knowing Sonamukhi was her favourite, tore off her head and threw it into the fire as well.
For curiosity is perhaps the one primeval urge that is stronger than them all – the one that caused a million years of evolution.
“Gauri” her reminiscing came to an end with the call of her name. She shook her head, startled at the sudden disruption of the silence, “Get me some water!” Her father’s voice was hoarse, broken beyond recognition yet it tried to be intimidating; there wasn’t much movement in his posture, the tick-tock sound that emanated as his elbows shook uncontrollably hitting the earthen floor, was the only indication that he wasn’t dead yet. She sat up, hesitatingly; the same black pitcher was sitting at the corner just below the window. Her eyes met her father’s as she made her way to it. She halted in between to examine his half eyed gaze. Now that she thought about it, her father had never apologized for what he did over the years; perhaps it was this apology she was searching for that was keeping her here. She looked in his eyes hoping to find it, but she couldn’t make anything out of it. His face was too expressionless. It was perhaps the longest she kept her gaze against him. If it were some other time, he would have slapped her. She finally arrived at the pitcher, as she reached around for a glass, the man started off again, “What’s taking so long you whore!”
Something in Gauri broke; she had retrieved the glass by now, but she found her grip loosening involuntarily. She watched as the glass slipped from her hand and rolled over to the makeshift cabinet, disappearing in the darkness. She turned around to look at him; he was mumbling now; some she understood, others were incoherent, but it was obvious the words weren’t pleasant to hear. At first she thought what she felt was rage, but then realized it wasn’t rage. Rather, it was a sense of exhilarating triumph, suddenly she no longer felt intimidated, no longer felt bound to what she was told to do. She lowered the mouth of the pitcher, very carefully without making any sound, for any sound other than the ripples of water was harmful to the aura she suddenly possessed. As the pitcher’s mouth touched the ground a stream of water flowed out onto the floor, and obeying the law of the slope made its way to the near corner of the hut. A sense of victory came upon her as the sombre expression on her face suddenly changed making way for a triumphant smile; she had won, she was standing when all around her had fallen; she felt indestructible as she broke the stream of water with her toes and dragged, changing its course so that it went just past her father’s face.
At first she thought what she felt was rage, but then realized it wasn’t rage. Rather, it was a sense of exhilarating triumph, suddenly she no longer felt intimidated, no longer felt bound to what she was told to do.
“Help yourself old man.” She said, the mockery clear in her tone as she went over to the cabinet from before and took out a box lined with ivory, which was the last of what she owned. She took great precaution as she wiped away the dust that had accumulated on it over the past few days. She opened it to review its contents, turning the bottles that it contained with great affection.
“I knew you were the spawn of the devil you…bitch…I will…” Her father’s voice was cut off by another series of coughs.
“I know father, and guess what? It’s Matsanyay, and I am the last one standing! How could I have asked for anything more?” She deliberately sweetened her voice, as she turned around for the final time and picked up her pace. She didn’t turn back once. It was over, and she had won.
Bit of History:
Karnasuvarna, present day Murshidabad. It was also the capital of Anga, the territory handed over to Karna by Duryodhana, in the epic Mahabharata. Tamralipti: Present day Tamluk, one of the richest ports of Bengal at that time, famed for exporting silk and spices to the Roman empire.