Under the Shadow of Kamakhya

PART I
he year was 1930. Aghora Bhagwati lived on the slopes of the hill leading up to the Karnakhya temple. It was the rainy season. Rain poured down in torrents. The large boulders strewn across the path leading up to the temple were dark green with moss. When the sun shone after the rains, these stones looked like partly peeled water chestnuts. Children, on their way up to the temple, clambered up these boulders, only to tumble down again. There were easier paths to the top but those were seldom used by the children. They preferred this thorny, overgrown path. Padmapriya stood looking out of the window at the pilgrims trudging up the hill to the temple. In the distance, she could see a group who had probably come from Cooch Bihar. Their loud cries and even the rustle of their crisp clothes could be heard from where she stood. The group consisted of three old men, three elderly women and two children. The children were bursting with energy. Whenever they tried to climb one of the boulders, their elders would shout at them. The children, however, remained oblivious of their cries and climbed wherever they pleased. The elders climbed laboriously, with

T

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their backs bent forward at the waist. They looked like a flock of adjutant birds balanced precariously on their slender legs .... This group was followed by a newly-wed couple. Even from this distance, Padmapriya could see the red vermillion mark on the bride's forehead gleaming brightly. As if someone had melted down the red sun and poured it in a straight line along the parting of her hair. She watched as the groom reached out for the bride's hand to steady her as they climbed the precarious path. The bride, in her confusion and embarrassment, hastily pulled her hand away and hid it in the folds of her dress. Thrown off balance by her sudden movement, she desperately clutched at some bushes to regain her foothold. Padma could see from the bride's rich garments that she was the daughter-in-law of some important family from Upper Assam. She could not have been from Cooch Bihar or Gaur. A bride coming from those parts would have been dressed in a sari with a red border. Her feet would have had red alta colouring. A sudden harsh voice recalled her to the present-"Stop staring out of that window. Why don't you lend a hand around the house, there's so much to be done." The tone of her father's voice drove her out of the room. Of late, she had begun to perceive a coldness in her father's voice. That rich warmth and sympathy which had been present earlier, after the Shastri's family had sent her back to her maternal home-that tone was now often missing. She felt unwanted, as if she was a burden to her family. Coming out of her room, Padilla saw two men. They had been summoned to study her horoscope. They were standing outside her father's prayer room. She recognized them as old attendants of her father, jajmans who assisted her father when he performed his 'yagyas'. Both wore dhotis. The elder of the two wore his dhoti loose. One end of it was stuffed into the pocket of his deep blue shirt. His hair was parted at the

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centre. His companion was a much smaller man. And younger too. A man in the prime of his youth. He too had his hair parted down the middle but he combed it differently. Padmapriya hastily brought in two 'morhas' from the courtyard and placed them before the gentlemen. The older gentleman sat down. Then, with a benevolent smile he asked her, "Daughter, aren't you the one who lives in Routa? The one who was married to the Shastri family? Hari, Hari. What a terrible calamity to have come down upon your poor shoulders." He brooded silently for a while. "What to do, it is all the cruel workings of fate. There is nothing we can do to erase what has been etched into our foreheads. I have even heard that he now has some other woman living with him. Some woman from around Bangara village, I hear ... " The younger man could restrain himself no longer. "This is gross injustice," he said. "Nowadays people everywhere have begun to stand up against such things, you know. We can't just sit around doing nothing. We should be prepared to even take the matter up in the courts." "In the courts!" Padmapriya cringed inwardly and slipped out of the room to escape from their voices. She hurried back to her room and slammed the door shut. Everybody seemed to know. All the people living around the temple, and even people living far away. Everyone knew. Once in the privacy of her, room, she reached up and removed the small mirror that was hung on the wall. Then, she took off the blouse, which she was wearing. She stood there in her flimsy chemise. Slowly, almost in a daze, she slipped out of her chemise and knelt down on the floor. The chemise was folded carefully and placed on the bed. She shivered as the cool breeze touched her bare skin. Then she

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twisted around, with the mirror held out behind her, and strained to catch a glimpse of the small spot on her back. She found it impossible to see anything clearly. Her mother, she remembered, had stripped her down to the skin before she could see the spot. "So this is the mark the Shastri's family calls leucoderma, white leprosy," her mother screamed. "This is the reason they sent you back in disgrace." A middle-aged man was slowly walking up the slope using his folded umbrella as a walking stick. Behind him followed the bent, misshapen form of the midget-Saeng. Saeng was officiously ushering the brahmin 'jajman' up towards the temple .... Padmapriya hand kept moving down to the small of her back, as if it had a life of its own. Saeng walked painfully, with a pronounced limp, as if he was lame. Once again, she felt her hand moving to her back. To the small slender portion of her back. Was she really so slender? Yes, that was where the white spot was. Was she too slender? A strange sensation gripped her. Her throat felt dry and constricted. Several of her blouses had split around the back because of this persistent clawing. It had almost developed into an unconscious habit now. Often, she would begin to scratch at the spot with her nails until the blood oozed out. Hot, sticky blood. She rushed to the closed window and flung it open. The black boulders on the path to the temple looked even more black. Like the headless carcass of buffaloes sacrificed at the altar in the temple.

A sharp rebuke jolted her out of her reverie. "What have you been doing here the entire day? Why do you bury yourself in this dark room? Come out. Immediately." Her mother's words sliced into her like sharp knives.

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"Here, take these glasses to the gentlemen who have come to see your father. ... And stop staring like an imbecile. What wrong with you?" Padma picked the brass tumblers and put them on the tray one by one. Then, going down on her knees, she reverentially placed the glasses before the gentlemen. As she stood up, she could feel the two pairs of eyes staring at her. She felt as if she was being stripped naked. Exposed, Their eyes seemed to scrutinize every inch of her body, searching for the white spot. Yes, they were searching her naked body for the white spot. Until just the other day, an experience like this would have had her scurrying back into her room. But today she hardened herself. "How do you pass the time? Don't you get lonely?" One of the gentlemen asked slyly. Lonely? This word always hurled itself at her like a rock. Exploding into her, shattering her body into jagged splinters. Lonely. She remembered one blissful day just before her marriage. Her friend Lawonya, Panda's daughter, had been giggling into her ears, "Now is the time to decorate your hair with flowers .... Once you are married you will never have the time." "He, he", giggled Lawonya. "I've heard that these men chew your body like they chew sugarcane. And once they have sucked the last drop out of you, they spit you out." Everyone had burst into laughter. "I've heard that your in-laws' house is full of people. You will have a really tough time with your nephews and nieces. Can you imagine yourself washing their bottoms after they defecate? He, he," continued Lawonya. "And while you are busy with your chores one of these brats will tear out the flowers from your braid. And then, what about getting to visit

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home during the festivals? Do you expect them to let you go home during the Durga puja in Autumn? Or during the Spring festival of Madan Saturali? Or during Sathbarat?" Lawonya teased her playfully and all the girls joined her. ... Those carefree days are gone forever. Now she has neither the time nor the inclination to decorate her hair with garlands of gutimali flowers. She has even stopped threading flowers into garlands to be offered to the goddess on the hilltop. Have you offered the garlands to the goddess? Have you offered the garlands? Have you? Someone seemed to whisper incessantly into her ear. "He, he, he," someone cackled at the window. Padmapriya almost jumped out of her skin, quite overcome with surprise. It was Saeng, that deformed midget. "Go away, go away," she shouted; and tried to shut the window. But Saeng just stood there, grinning broadly with his big yellow teeth. His head was far too big for his body, she noted. The hair on his head stood out in all directions. He wore a tattered shirt and loose shorts. She turned away from the window and, picking up a bota for offering betelnuts to the guests, returned to where the gentlemen were sitting. Another gentlemen had joined the group. All three of them were hotly discussing her case. "We must seek justice. We must demand justice. They can't simply send her back home like this. We must do something. We can't just sit here with our heads buried in the ground." "What can we do? It is fate. It has been all preordained," said Bhagwati, her father, beating his forehead with the palm of his hand. Seeing her enter the room, the three of them paused. But the younger jajman, the one with his hair parted down the middle, and a pair of old fashioned spectacles slipping down his nose; his mouth ceaselessly munching betelnuts, without

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lifting his eyes from the charts which he was examining carefully, said, ''Are the Laws so powerless that it can't protect a poor woman from being struck down by thunderbolts such as these? You must have all heard of the Gosain of Rani Boha village. How she was cheated of her lands and reduced to a virtual beggar? By sending your daughter home like this they are making you look like a fool. They are humiliating and disgracing you." Bhagwati raised his hands up appealingly to the skies. "They stood there, in that very courtyard. They spat on my face .... They ... They charged me. They accused me of trying to cheat them. They threatened me .... At my very doorstep they threatened me. That my daughter is diseased ... that 1 cheated them." Padmapriya stood watching in horror as her father rushed towards her. Just as he was about to grab her by the arms, her mother rushed in from the courtyard and intercepted him. "What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?" "I want to show them. 1 want to show them her back," he shouted. "Let the people see. Where is the disease? Let the people see." Her mother pushed her away fiercely, almost losing her balance and falling in the process, but she stood her ground. She stood before her husband with a look of incredulity spread over her features. The sudden violence of Bhagwati's action and the commotion it had caused had thrown the three gentlemen into confusion. They did not know how to react. One of them turned to Bhagwati and said, "Please control yourself. You must not lose your hold over yourself. Remember your responsibilities as a priest." After the jajmans had left, an eerie stillness-the stillness of the burial place-descended on the house.

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Padma returned to her dark and lonely room. Her hand unconsciously returned to that spot on her back. And her nails returned to their futile task of trying to erase the mark. Opening the window, Padmapriya saw some gramsevikas, three of them, climbing up towards the temple. They were dressed in white, bright, sparkling, white. They looked like three white lotuses floating towards the Devi's temple.

the three gramsevikas visited their house. They were Gandhians. It was said that Gandhiji himself had blessed them. When it was time for them to leave, they gave Padmapriya some books and some cotton to spin. Padmapriya had shown them her skill with the spinning wheel and they had praised her talents. They patted her on the back. "You spin beautifully," they said. ''Anyone who can spin so well can easily earn enough to support herself. You need not be dependent on anybody." Before they had left, they had taken their tea utensils to the nearby stream. There, using dubari grass and sour manimuni leaves, they had scoured the brass utensils so well that they shone like gold. She was just drifting off to sleep when someone knocked on her door. "Who is it?" she asked. Her voice sounding like a scream in the empty room. "It's me, Lawonya." Padmapriya sprang up from her bed and rushed to the door. She hastily opened the door and let in her friend. Her friendship with Lawonya stretched back over many years. And now, when many of the girls hesitate, cringing to come near her, Lawonya remained unchanged. Lawonya entered the room and hugged her. Then with a meaningful look she said, "I've got some fantastic news for you."

In the afternoon,

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"Fantastic news!" "Yes, yes, Fantastic news .... " "Do you think there is anything fantastic left in my life?" Lawonya hugged her again and held her tight. Teardrops glistened on Lawonya's eyes and coursed down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, but you must listen to me. Even if what I've got to say hurts you, you must listen. Listen, Bhuvaneshwar is coming to my sister's wedding-and his new 'woman' may also be coming with him." "New woman?" Understanding came to her like a physical blow. She slowly bowed her head. Lawonya watched the emotions fleeting across Padma's face. Then, still holding Padma close, Lawonya sat down on the bed and pulled her leg up, making herself more comfortable. A strange fragrance wafted up to Padrna's nostrils. The fragrance of a newly married woman. The fragrance of Lawonya's body. It made her feel dizzy. It was like the soft smell of a newly blossomed fig tree. She felt a pang in her heart, as if something being twisted. "Listen," said Lawonya. "You must inside her was try and meet

Bhuvaneshwar. I've got it all planned out." Padma stared vacantly into Lawonya's face. Lawonya glanced quickly towards the door. The coast was clear. Nobody here would ever suspect her. "You can't allow yourself to rot away like this. They've cast you away as though you were filth. Has he even seen you closely?" "What do you mean?" "I mean, has he seen

your ... hands ... your

heaving

bosom ... your. .. Men are like wolves. Once they turn into man-eaters. Anyone who has night with you... Haven't you heard how swallow even the blood-soaked clothes of their

they taste flesh spent even one the man-eaters victims. Human

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flesh is intoxicating. And the craze for human flesh is even more powerful in humans than it is among animals." "Che, che! Have you no shame? How can you talk like this?" "I've learnt a lot you know," said Lawonya. "I've learnt how the mind of a man works!" The wooden window was flung open by a breeze coming in from across the Brahmaputra. A newly-wed bride and her groom climbed slowly up the path to the temple. Two palanquin bearers walked ahead of them, balancing their empty planquin on their burly shoulders. The bride chose not to use the palanquin. She probably felt that being carried up in a palanquin would be disrespectful to the Devi, the Devi who feeds on buffalo blood. Instead, she trudged bravely uphill. Her head veiled by the long end of her pallu. Her silk garments shone like the phosphorescent foam on the turbulent waters of the Brahmaputra during the monsoon. But wait! Who is that following them? The disproportionately large head. The hair standing up in all directions. The gamocha tied tightly across the waist. Unmistakable. Saeng the midget. The moment Saeng saw well-to-do pilgrims, he would immediately trail after them. He would do anything to be of service to them. He could often be found shuffling uphill with a reluctant ram, trying to drag it up to the temple, where it would be sacrificed to the Devi. Lawonya, always mischievous, yelled out: "See, see how Saeng begs Greedy for goat's legs." The bride and bridegroom turned around to look in their direction. So did Saeng. They could see him saying something. But neither of them heard him. The hair on his head stood up like quills. His face was completely disfigured by pockmarks. His complexion was that of burnt copper.

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"Padma, listen. Saeng can be very useful for our purpose. Do you understand?" Padma looked up at Lawonya, a look of uncertain apprehension in her eyes. "Do you understand?" repeated Lawonya. "Understand?" Lawonya took leave of Padrna after having minutely explained her plan. She held on to Padma's hand for a while. She could feel the tremors running through Padma's body, and see the blue vein on her forehead pulsating. This pulsating vein grew more vivid. It stood out like a forked trident .... The vein on her forehead became a trishul.

Excellent. Very good. Keep yourself occupied. Padma was busy digging in the garden. Her mother stood nearby and encouraged her. Saeng the midget crumbled the lumps of mud with his hands and smoothed the soil in the flower beds. Lawonya knew just how to placate him and get him on their side. It was simply a matter of filling his pockets with sweets and coconut balls-offerings taken from her father's prayer room. Saeng was immersed in his work.... His small hands looked tinier when compared to the size of his head. His father used to carry wood for the crematorium attached to the Kamakhya temple. His mother died soon after giving birth to him. It was a long time ago. Someone had given him this name, Saeng, nobody remembered who - must have been somebody at the Devi's temple. Somebody mischievous. He had always been a part of the temple. He lived there, ate there. The fragrance of incense and joss-sticks floated out of her father's puja room. Some people from the north bank had come early in the morning. They wanted to perform a Sani puja. She could hear her father's sonorous voice recite the familiar slokas.

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Suddenly, Padmapriya turned to her mother, who was standing nearby and asked, "There are some white flowers growing on the western side of the Bhuvaneshwari hill. Can I go there for some saplings?" "Certainly, my child," replied her mother. "But do take

Saeng along." Her mother was very happy to see her finally showing some enthusiasm. In the past two years, ever since her in-laws had sent her back to her parental home, she had lost all her enthusiasm for life. For an instant, Padmapriya stood framed against the

doorway. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Yes. Yes! In those days when Sankaracharya came to the shrine, such women of voluptuous beauty had made sheep out of infatuated But she is altogether different. men.

Padmapriya

carefully

climbed

down

the

slopes

of the

Bhuvaneshwari Hill, Saeng keeping close beside her. Both of them kept their eyes peeled for the white flowers. Saeng was a reluctant accomplice. He was frightened. The idea of roaming about like this in the middle of a dense forest scared him. But Padmapriya strode resolutely on. With one hand she held tightly on to his hand. She had lost all sense of fear. ... They were now completely alone. The heady fragrance of wild flowers surrounded them on every side .... Far away, a flock of herons sat on a boulder on the river bank. The Brahmaputra flowed silently on. Padmapriya strained to pull out a jasmine plant by the roots. It was a full-grown plant. Both Saeng and she heaved mightily. Suddenly, the plant gave way and the two of them were flung on to the path. Straight into a gentleman who

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happened to be coming along. All three of them tumbled down in a heap of arms and legs. "Oof, who is this mad girl!" Complaining bitterly, Sambhudev, the priest responsible for performing the sacrifice in the temple, groped about for his ritual sacrificial knife, the khargah; and a grapefruit. Saeng found the grapefruit. It had rolled down a long way, almost to the bank of the river. Saeng was returning with the fruit held out across his stomach like a baby, saying something that sounded like bhoum, bhoum, bhoum. Only after regaining possession of his khargah did Sambhudev look up to see who had collided against him. His eyes looked into those of the girl and a look of incredulity spread across his face. He had never seen such striking good looks anywhere in the vicinity of the temple. Who could she be? Saeng grinned apologetically, showing his entire set of teeth, and pointed in the direction of Padmapriya's house .... Sambhudev remained perplexed for several moments. Suddenly, it all fell into place. He remembered having seen the girl at the temple watching him perform his ritual sacrifice. But the curvaceous, sinuous girl who stood before him seemed some other person altogether. He marvelled at how the tiny slip of a girl had been transformed into this breathtaking beauty. It was almost as if another body had been lying dormant beneath the old one and one day the girl had shed her old body and metamorphosed into this. Amazing.

One week later, Padmapriya and Saeng were back again, looking for white flowers .... She usually chose the afternoons for her forays. That dull, drowsy period when, having finished their midday meals, everyone retired to their beds to chew

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absently on their betel nuts. It was during one such siesta hour that she stole away silently towards the river with Saeng .... Her father, already half-asleep, casually asked his wife, "Has she gone out somewhere?" "She has gone out with Saeng to look for white flowers." "White flowers?" "Haven't you noticed how she has begun to devote herself to gardening? She has started planting white flowers all over the garden." "But why only white flowers?" It was indeed a strange co-incidence that on her second outing too she should run into Sambhudev, the priest in charge of the ritual sacrifices. Sambhudev was already at the river. He was standing in the river with the water up to his waist. He had taken a sack full of grapefruit with him. He would float one of the fruits on the water and then slice it in two with the khargah. Saeng and Padma watched with bated breath. Sambhudev was a well-built man. He was strong and muscular. His muscled body rippled when he moved. It was as if the very idea of masculinity had crystallized and lodged itself within his body. He had the shoulders of a lion. His arms appeared to have been cast out of iron. The hot blood pumping inside him could almost be felt even at this distance .... Padmapriya could not suppress her curiosity any longer. "Sir," she burst out. "What are you doing?" Sambhudev jerked around. The khargah slipped out of his grip. And unconsciously, unknowingly he began to utter the mantra. "Owm! Loh Duttayai namah." Sambhudev slowly bent down to pick up his knife. Without looking up he asked, "Why have you come to this haunted placed at this lonely hour?"

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Padma remained silent. "Why have you come?" he repeated. "Sir, what are you doing?" "Penitence." Replied the man. "Yesterday, I had to strike three times at the buffalo before .... I'm practising so that such a thing does not happen again." All three of them remained silent for a while. ''Apart from the ritually prescribed penitence, I want to make sure that I'm correct-in every possible way." Keeping his khargah on a nearby boulder, Sambhudev came up out of the water. The river gave off a smell like that of raw meat .... It was springtime, the month of Baisakh.... Perhaps somewhere along the upper reaches of the river the water was already swallowing up the land greedily .... Perhaps this was just the smell of mud mixed with the decomposing roots of trees. Holding on to Saeng with one hand, she knelt down on the ground and asked, "How many buffaloes have you ... dispatched?" Sambhudev stared at her for a long moment. ''About three thousand." "Three thousand!" Padmapriya remained silent. "Just this very morning, the craven merchant, in mortal fear of his enemies had offered a buffalo to be sacrificed to the Devi. I had to strike at its neck three times before ... " "The Garo villagers have been sitting on the temple steps since early in the morning. They had heard ... " This big broad shouldered man looked up into the sky and spoke as if to himself, "... I've been reciting the Bakhshyaman mantra ... " he said within himself, as though he was still repeating the mantra in his head. "... Hail, Oh buffalo! May you destroy my enemies in the same way that you destroy the horse and attack even Devi Chandika's mount, the lion. Oh, bless me .... "

----------------

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" ... To emerge victorious over my enemies, with this aim alone do I behead you ... " " Within you have I transferred the life of my enemy through this sacrificial rite .... " "Oh! And yet ... and yet I had to strike three times. Oh Devi, Oh Mahamaya ... " "The Garo villagers are busy cutting up the buffalo. They are distributing the pieces amongst themselves. If it is a spectacle you want to witness, why don't you go and watch them? .. It is a virtual festival over there." Once again all three of them fell silent. "Sir, is it true that the Devi accepted human sacrifices? Was human blood ever spilled on the Devi's shrine?" "Human sacrifices? Yes, it is mentioned in the sacred texts. A human sacrifice, performed strictly according to the prescribed rules, and offered to the Devi, gives her supreme satisfaction lasting for several years. Three humans, if sacrificed to the Devi, would give her pleasure for lakhs of years The relish of human flesh lasts for three thousand years Only after mastering the prayers evoking the sacred powers of the sacrificial knife, learning their proper enunciation and manner. ... I have trained hard for several years .... " Even as he spoke, Sambhudev tossed a grapefruit into the water and sliced it in two. "This is a rehearsal so that my sacrifice is not rejected .... " Holding on to Saeng's hand, she walked on along the narrow and twisted path. The path snaked along under trees and thorny shrubbery until they came to a huge banyan tree .... Here, the forest was thick and extremely dense. The creepers hung down from the trees and entwined themselves in her hair. ... Something sticky fell on her forehead. It was wild honey, dripping down from some hidden honeycomb. There were some stones shaped like the footprints of the Devi, some pilgrims had placed vermillion and tulsi on these

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stones and Padmapriya had to hop over them so that she did not step on them by mistake. After all, who knows, perhaps she was accidentally stepping on some portion of the original temple, which had been destroyed by Kalapahar. Finally, the two of them stopped under an old banana tree. The Garo villagers were making preparations to carry away the skinned and cut carcass of the buffalo. Blood was splattered all around, staining the grass and the leaves of the bushes ... the innards were lying twisted and bloated a little further away-she could vividly imagine how the buffalo would have been pulled up to the temple ... he would have found the stone steps difficult to climb .... Oh God! How he would have looked around with terror in his eyes! Now there was he scattered all over the place. Ah! Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! What has happened? What has come over her now? .. She has fallen down on to her knees and bitter sobs are tearing out of her. Saeng was at his wits end. He did not know which way to turn now. Sambhudev had stopped slicing his grapefruits and stood looking at them .... For the next two days she did not go out in search of her white flowers. She bolted the door to her room and remained there in the darkness, alone .... Often, she would stand before the mirror and try to examine the white spot on her back .... In that dark room she could hardly see anything at all, but still she would persist .... The white spot appeared to have remained unchanged. It had not increased, nor had it decreased. Slowly, rhythmically, she began to rub at the spot, her nails bit into her skin .... She lay down tossing and turning on her bed.

A week later, Lawonya and two other girls came down to Padmapriya's house. Padma's mother, Yashobai, was very pleased to see them. Padma had not stepped out of her room

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for the past two days. Who knows what is preying on her mind, Yashobai thought. Padma would certainly be pleased to see the Panda's daughters. "Go ahead, she's inside," encouraged Yashobai. Lawonya strode right in, but the two girls who were with her hesitated. "What's the matter? Come on in!" she repeated. The girls said nothing but they would not come inside. "Go in ... Padma lacks company-it would cheer her up if she sees you." Yashobai spoke with an angry spark in her eyes. The two girls still remained uncertain and hesitant. Suddenly, all Yashobai's restraint snapped. "Bastards," she screamed. "So you have come here to see the fun, have you! You think that my daughter has been struck by leprosy, eh? And that is why those dogs, her in-laws have sent her back. Well, let me tell you, you are wrong. They are wrong. You are all wrong. You can see for yourselves. Look, look, see with your own eyes." Saying so, Yashobai rushed inside the house and came back dragging her daughter with her. There was chaos everywhere. Yashobai was yanking at her daughter's blouse, trying to tear it off. Just then, Bhagwati rushed in to stop her. "Stop it! Stop it!" The girls who had come with Lawonya ran back to their homes on the hill. Lawonya stood rooted to the spot. She was aghast. She felt personally responsible for what had happened. Meanwhile, Padmapriya, panting and sobbing helplessly, ran back into her gloomy room and collapsed on her bed. Lawoyna tried to embrace her ... but Padma felt something cringe inside her and she held herself back. Her mother, Yashobai, sat on a pira beating her breasts and wailing aloud. Yashobai cursed her daughter's in-laws in unmentionable language and abused them.

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-"Die, die, you demons, you .... " "Keep quiet! Keep quiet!" hissed Bhagwati, who was standing near her. "Can't you see, the jajmans can hear you. Have you no control over yourself?" Just before she left, Lawonya whispered "Remember, brahmin's daughter into Padma's ear, That only twenty days left for the marriage.

from Cooch Bihar has not yet conceived, she's with

and it has been two years already. It is also being said that she is not very easy to get along with, and moreover said to be as thin as a stick. How can she be compared you? You have breasts like citrus fruits!" "Stop! Stop!"

Early in the morning,

Padmapriya

saw Saeng the midget

standing atop a huge boulder, the size of an elephant's belly. He clutched a bunch of white kunda flowers in his hand and looked towards the small window of her room. He held out to say something. But what? What the the flowers and attempted did he want to say? Several groups of pilgrims had gone past, towards temple, tall, short, slim, stout, young, old, little children. The piteous bleating of the sacrificial rams could be heard a long way off. The midget was not following them as he usually did, in the hope of getting some alms. Instead, he stood there clutching his bunch of flowers and looking wistfully towards Padmapriya's window. Soon it was noon. Saeng was still atop the boulder shaped like an elephant's belly. After having served her parents their midday meal, Padmapriya washed the utensils, mopped the kitchen, and turning to her mother, sought permission of flowers. "Mother, can I go out to gather flowers, which the Devi likes?" to go out in search

some flowers? White

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Yashobai looked surprised and turned to cast a puzzled glance in her direction. Padmapriya gestured towards the midget on the boulder and said, "I won't be going alone. There is Saeng sitting on that boulder over there. He has become quite an expert at finding white flowers. He will go with me." Her mother looked up towards where Saeng was sitting, and a smile slowly lit up her face. "Go ahead", she said. "Better than being cooped up inside that dark room. Go on ... " Look, a flock of wild geese have settled on the bank of the Brahmaputra. The sound of the beating of their wings mingled witli the slapping sounds of oars coming from the north. It could be heard a long way off. Padmapriya rushed along the overgrown path towards where Sambhudev had been rehearsing the other day. When she burst through the thick shrubbery and the over-hanging creepers, she saw that Sambhudev had not come that day. Suddenly, Saeng spied Sambhudev sitting under an imli tree. A thick creeper climbed up around the tree like a python. Saeng the midget started cackling in excitement. He leaped from one boulder to another and headed towards Sambhudev who was sharpening his knife on a stone. Meanwhile, Padmapriya hopped from stone to stone and came to where Sambhudev was standing. Without turning around to look at her, he said, "This sacred knife that you see is my very own knife! It does not belong to the temple." He seemed to speak to himself, almost as if no one else was present. "Only one kind of knife can be used for the sacrifice, and that is the khargah, a double-edged knife that curves sinisterly. Swords, lances, arrows are not considered appropriate. A sacred sacrifice performed with any of these weapons would

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rebound on the person performing the sacrifice and may even cause his death." Saeng gingerly felt the sharpened edge with his fingers and let out an excited yell. He eagerly mimicked the manner in which the sacrificial rite was performed and proudly awaited Sambhudev's approval. Sambhudev turned towards Padmapriya with a smile. Absently plucking at some leaves from the creeper, Padmapriya suddenly turned to Sambhudev and asked, "Sir, I want to offer my own blood, I want to worship the Devi with my own blood. I have only two desires, two ambitions. " Sambhudev looked up into her eyes. Holding her gaze, he replied dispassionately, "Offering one's own blood, this can be used in the worship of Chandika and Bhairavi. But you are a Brahmin. How can you offer your own blood to the Devi? You have to consider the sin attached to suicide." Sambhudev glanced down at his hands and balled his fingers into a fist. He must maintain a firm grip. The shape of the huge black buffalo haunted him ... three strikes, he had to strike three times! The devotee who had offered the sacrifice was struck dumb with terror. The sacrifice was supposed to strike down his enemies, but ... ! Then, suddenly, the import of what the girl had asked dawned upon him; and he looked again at the young girl who wished to offer her own blood to worship the Devi. He could sense the warm blood pulsing through her body. Her dense black hair reached down to her knees like the Devi's. Its lustre seemed to emerge from and dissolve itself into the divine luminosity. And her feet? Her delicate feet ... tantalizingly visible under her muga mekhala. He now imagined the stiff hair of her vagina. The hair that the tantrics touched during the Vasikaran ceremony.

[

,,,-,

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And she wished to worship the Goddess with her heart's blood ... blood drawn from those breasts ... like twin suns emerging from the mist-covered Brahmaputra's lap.... Branding the waters crimson with the heat of his passion rose the sun ... and her chad dar rippled over her breasts like the waters of the river. Padma, Bhagwati's daughter Padma, he repeated to himself. "Haven't you come here to gather flowers? Come, let me show you where you can find the most fragrant white flowers." He led the girl, and Saeng the midget leaped and bounded ahead of them, yelling and yawling happily. A little further on, they saw a group of Garo villagers hacking up the carcass of the buffalo which had been sacrificed to the Goddess earlier that morning ... their rhythmic heave-ho could be heard far away over the hills .... A flock of crows raucously fought over the spattered blood, gristle and fat ... over the hooves, tail and innards, cawing fiercely. This is where they must have cut up the body. The pieces of flesh now resembled the black stones covered with red vermillion which lie scattered before the Devi Bagala and Chhinamasta. In his deep voice, Sambhudev remarked, "The severed head of this sacred buffalo had been facing the north .... This foretells good fortune and wisdom for the devotee. Do you know what the sacred texts tell us about human sacrifice? ... that if the severed head of the man sacrificed to the Devi should fall with a smile on his face, then the enemy will certainly be destroyed ... if the severed head of the sacrificed buffalo shows tears streaking out of the eyes, then the devotee is blessed with good fortune .... " The heave-ho, heave-ho of the villagers, who were carrying away the flesh of the buffalo, could be heard once again. Suddenly, Padmapriya burst out in a voice filled with anguish. "But don't you see, the tears streaking out of the buffalo's eyes means that it had been suffering; that the poor animal had been suffering."

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Sambhudev looked into her face again, this time with more intensity. He remained silent, lost in a pensive mood. This part of the temple's sacred precincts were a dense jungle. Trees of every kind could be found here. The jungles here had a different feel, a different character. Saeng, who had earlier been dancing and leaping-leading the way at some distance ahead of them, now grew subdued. He crept closer and closer to Padma, he was holding on close to her. "Although I've been born here, within the sacred premises of the temple, I don't remember ever coming this way," remarked Padmapriya. "You may not be very familiar with these parts but your father knows this place very well," replied Sambhudev. "I remember once your father had resolved to offer the sacred bel leaves and a garland made of the ghantakarna flowers to a tantrik who had been 'visited' by the Devi. This tantrik had chosen not to live near the temple; instead, he lived somewhere near this part of the forest. Unlike other hermits, this one did not live on fruits-he drank the fresh blood of pigeons! And he lashed himself with canes until his entire body was a welter of bruises. Do you know why I remember all this? Because, one day the same tantrik had sliced his leg in half while dancing on the edge of a sword in front of the temple." "He, he," laughed Saeng the midget. "Boung, Boung, Boung," he yelled. A group of pilgrims were climbing up the forest path, the sacred prayer of the Devi on their lips"Kamakhya Yarde Devi Neel Parbat Bashini" (Hail to thee Kamakhya Devi, Who Dwells on the Blue Mountain.) At length, the three of them reached the entrance to a cave. This part of the forest was so dense that they could only move forward by crouching on their hands and knees.

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"Those sacred Kunda flowers that I've been telling you about are here, inside this cave." "Inside?" "Yes, inside here." Suddenly afraid." Saeng began to howl. "It's dark inside. I'm

Afraid? Yes, it is so dark inside. The trees, bushes and creepers, the moss-covered claustrophobic. rocks, they've made the place so dark and Yes! Yes! Here, probably here, the pandas of from the massacre of Kalapahar. to them, come, come

the temple took shelter

But the jasmine flowers beckoned Meanwhile,

inside, come, like the light that beckons at the end of a tunnel. Saeng the midget began to squirm in terror. He refused to step inside the cave. Therefore, leaving Saeng at the mouth of the cave, Padmapriya and Sambhudev decided to go into the cave in search of the white kunda flowersthose flowers which shine like lamps even in darkness. Saeng the midget remained squirming outside at the mouth of the cave as if he had been stung by poison ivy. Thick thorny bushes, wild flowers, dangling ferns and trailing creepers grew in a dense mass all over the cave. Padmapriya and Sambhudev groped their way into the cave, searching for their white kunda flowers. A wild fragrance filled the air. A mysterious fragrance, somewhat like the fragrance given off by the perfumed waters in the one-hundred-and-eight earthen pitchers used at the purification ceremony after the ambubasithe four days in the month of July (asadha) when the earth is supposed to have been menstruating. But where could this strange fragrance be coming from? Where? In their heightened state, they could feel the Devi's blood present in all things. A spring could be heard gurgling somewhere near by. Glug, glug, glug, glug, it sang musically. In the distance, they

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could see the Brahmaputra, it lay spread out on the floor of the valley like the chaddar discarded by a newly wed woman in a moment of abandon. Saeng, who had been squirming, after having been stung by poison ivy, was now on the ground, twisting and rolling about.

When Padmapriya emerged from the cave holding a tiny sapling of the white flower, her face was covered by her dishevelled hair. She rushed over to where Saeng the midget was rolling on the ground and stood before him. Sambhudev was still inside the cave-they could hear his deep voice from within the cave saying, "Here there are little saplings of the golden fig tree as well, whose golden flowers are used by Devi to adorn herself when she dances. I'll clear off this thick undergrowth with my khargah. You will remember the way to the cave, won't you? Will you remember the way?" Was it the pollen of some unknown flower on her body? Or was it the fragrance-that fragrance like the fragrance of the water used to bathe the divine Goddess, the Goddess who has the heavy menstrual flow. Oh, what was that perfume? That strange fragrance? Like the fragrance of raw blood, blood from the sacrificial site which flows to the bosom of Brahmaputra. Holding the kunda sapling in her right hand and dragging the poison-ivy-stung Saeng with her left, Padmapriya hastened home.

She saw the look on the faces of the men preparing the buffalo for sacrifice. The buffalo was lying sprawled on the ground. Its hooves and horns were tied to the ground, tied LO little

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pegs in the ground. Some of the men were pouring pitcher after pitcher of water on the buffalo's neck to soften it for the knife's stroke. She felt a sharp pang of sympathy for the struggling animal, its horns bound, hooves secured, the poor helpless creature. Look, look, suddenly she lunged towards Sambhudev; just as Sambhudev's khargah spun out of his hand. In a frenzy, she gouged deep furrows over Sambhudev's chest with the sharp nails of her fingers. "Cruel, thoughtless, how can you be so thoughtless," she screamed. Sambhudev's blood was dripping down her two hands. Padmapriya sat up with a start. What a terrible nightmare! What was this terrible dream that she had seen? She went and stood near her mother's bed. She parted the mosquito net, shook awake her mother and crumbled on her mother's shoulders, crying in great bursting sobs. Her mother, still halfasleep, groped for the small earthen lamp and pushed up the wick to make it burn brighter. "What's the matter, my child? Why are you crying so? Is it the spot on your back? Has it grown? Let me see, show me. If that is what it is, don't worry, my child. We will send you to the best doctors for treatment. You will be cured. Don't cry, don't." Gripping tightly on to her mother's hand, Padma sobbed"I'm scared, mother! I'm scared." "What for, my child?" The commotion had woken up Bhagwati who was sleeping near by, and he too peered out from under his mosquito net. Seeing her father awake, Padma held on tightly to her mother's neck. "If she is afraid to sleep alone in that dark room of hers why don't you go and sleep with her," said Bhagwati. "No. I'm not afraid. It's not that I'm scared. I just ... " Bhagwati and Yashobai could not sleep after that. They stayed up talking about it all night. They even thought of summoning Padma's brother, Chandranath, from Benaras. He

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was studying Sanskrit in that holy city. But as dawn broke they still had not been able to come to any definite decision.

PART II
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, beat the drums. The sound of the bugles filled the air. A procession was winding down the hill from the Devi's temple. The sound of conch shells, brass bells, and bugles thundered in the air. The sound had brought the people in the valley rushing out of their homes to watch the spectacle. There was Nandkumar Doley at the head of the procession. He was holding a tulsi mala in his hands. He had just performed the shradh ceremony for his ancestors at the Devi's temple and was now coming down to the river to offer the pinda. Nandkumar Doley was a huge man, tall and fair of complexion. His people had earlier kept to themselves, only recently had they begun to interact with people from the plains. His daughter, Bhanumati, was one of the few who would be married into a family of settled cultivators in the plains. Her in-laws were affluent landowning people. A considerable crowd had gathered to witness the process. Some were carrying the ceremonial umbrellas and others were waving red flags. A dwarf was playing kalia, a wind • instrument made of buffalo horn. Some of them were excitedly considering the prospect of the wedding feast. "Looks like it's going to be a big wedding, a really big wedding. People have been trooping uphill all day, like ants, following each other interminably, in a straight line." Meanwhile, Yashobai had already gone up to the Doley's. The two families had been friends for a long time. Padmapriya and her father stood outside their home, watching the procession.

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Suddenly, with a loud cry, Padmapriya rushed indoors. Bhagwati immediately understood what must have happened. She must have seen Bhuvaneshwar among the people in the procession. Yes, there he was. The same well-fed looks. His thick hair was still dark and shiny. A thick moustache adorned his lips. Bhagwati could even see the detailed jari work on the border of his son-in-law's dhoti. He cringed when he remembered with what eagerness he had made that man his son-in-law! How they had spent hours discussing theology together. Or the pros and cons of prescribing gomed to counter the influence of certain malevolent planets. He even remembered their discussion over whether gomed, which was a remedy for jealousy, hatred, anger and rage, would be more appropriate for women or for men. Their debate had lasted for hours. Gomed, the colour of ox's blood .... He had gifted a gomed to Bhuvaneshwar, mounted on a gold ring. Perhaps it was even now gleaming on his fingers .... After all, had he not seen it all quite clearly in Bhuvaneshwar's birth charts? Had he not noticed the malevolent influence of Rahu-which produced infidelity? The memories came flooding back to torture Bhagwati. There, there he was, look how he was trying to turn his face away. Trying to hide himself in the crowd. Bastard! Bastard! You dog, Bhagwati screamed inwardly. May your entire family perish. With a tremendous struggle, he tried to drive these vengeful thoughts from his mind. He was too old to allow such thoughts to pollute his mind. The pealing of bells and gongs floated down into the valley. The murmur of many voices humming like bees also floated down. A mad despair seized hold of Bhagwati. If Padmapriya remained cooped up in that gloomy room of hers any longer she would become a human skeleton, a mere bag of skin and

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bones. Listen, he told himself, he has come, Bhuvaneshwar has come, so why not take advantage of the situation ... initiate a reconciliation. After all, have not the Gossain's 'women' been living together in harmony? They are happy ... aren't they?

Bhagwati was quite taken aback when he learned that Padmapriya would be going to the marriage. He could hardly believe his eyes. There was Padmapriya standing at the doorstep, all dressed up and ready to go. The silk garments she had worn especially for the occasion had made her look radiant in her beauty. And was that a phota on her forehead? The kind of phota which that matted-haired Vaishnavi Saadhika had taught her to sketch. It was supposed to attract men, to bewitch them. And wasn't that vermillion? Vermillion, which preserved the husband's sacred affection for his wife. It is red like the blood drawn from one's own heart. Was she taking that Vaishnavi Saadhika's witchcraft seriously? With a catch in his throat Bhagwati asked, "My child, have you really decided to go?" He ran the palm of his hand over her head and said, softly, "I was only joking, my child." Padmapriya stood silently, her head bowed low. She did not reply. Instead, she walked forward with bold, confident steps. No one had seen such assurance in her during these past two years. Bhagwati stood rooted to the spot, as though he had been struck by lightning.

All eyes turned wedding hall.

towards

her the moment

she entered

the

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... She had not attended even a single wedding during these two years. Everyone looked at her as if they were seeing her for the first time. She was the first woman to have been abandoned by her husband. The first in the vicinity of the temple. Their looks burned through her. She felt as if they were stripping her clothes off and parading her naked before everyone. Just at the moment came Lawonya. "Come along! Come along! What are you doing here with the guests. Come inside." Lawonya took her inside to a small separate enclosure where the areca nuts and betel leaf were being readied before being served to the guests. There was nobody about. This small enclosure was quite close to the path along which the ceremonial procession would proceed to the Brahmaputra to collect pitchers of water to be used in the marriage rituals. Steps were cut into the rocks along the path. The cooks and their helpers were running about busily, preparing for the feast. A ram had been slaughtered for the feast and someone had left the hide spread out on the path. The sun had already set, it was rapidly becoming dark. Drum and trumpets were being played lustily. The din of the voices was making it difficult to hear the sound of one's own voice. The two girls started down the steps. The bright full moon rose up into the sky looking like the naked breast of a fair complexioned young girl of sixteen as she stepped out of the Brahmaputra after her bath. They heard the loud thrill of a bugle near by and stepped aside to make way for a priestess who was blowing the bugle. She held a pitcher at the waist, probably containing the sacred water from the Devi's puja. They could just get a whiff of its divine fragrance as the priestess passed by. On her head, she wore a bead made out of tulsi,

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They could still hear her bugle long after she was gone. The enclosure for cutting betel nuts was still empty. Lawonya asked her to sit on a morha and said, "It's getting dark. Not too many people would be coming this way. Listen, I'll bring him here. He'll definitely want to talk. Say whatever is on your mind, be frank. Remember, even if it is written in our fate we should not take such injustice lying down." The bugle echoed faintly from somewhere far away. Lawonya drew closer and whispered into her ears. "Don't use words. Try to speak with your body. When a young girl speaks to her lover in this way all his pride, anger, rage, everything disappears. The tiger gets transformed into the sheep." Padmapriya remained silent. Lawonya went off in search of Bhuvaneshwar. The moonlight had transformed the sacred temple precincts into a magic fairy land! The Devi herself appeared to be dancing upon the silver water. The gurgling water sounded like her anklets. Her bosom was veiled in a cloud of white flowers ... flowers everywhere, white kunda flowers, veiling the Devi's bosom. The priest was returning from the river carrying the sacred water for the rituals. The sound of drums and trumpets filled the air. Suddenly, Lawonya and Bhuvaneshwar rushed down the steps like some predatory animals attacking a prey. "Go, all of you go up right now", ordered Lawonya, sending away all the helpers and their assistants who had been busy preparing the betel nuts. The two of them sat facing each other. Bhuvaneshwar had .his head bowed. He could not bring himself to look into her eyes. "Why have you brought me here?" He asked Lawonya. "Padrnapriya", said Lawonya, "Say what you want to say.

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Speak frankly. And if you feel like it, you can even slap him across the face." "What do you mean by all this!" cried Bhuvaneshwar angrily and stood.up to leave. But Padmapriya! She took them all by surprise. She rushed forward, and without saying a word grabbed hold of Bhuvaneshwar's hand. The touch of her hand caught Bhuvaneshwar off guard. He was fascinated by this new woman he saw before him. He slowly sat back on his morha. Lawonya took advantage of this charged situation to step out unnoticed. Padmapriya slowly lifted up the hand she was holding and pressed it to her heart. Her eyes brimmed over with tears and she broke down into uncontrollable, tortured sobs. Time passed slowly. Gradually her sobs ceased. With a catch in her throat she said, in a voice trembling with emotion. "Look, the white spot on my back has not increased. Everyone here has been assuring me that is not a disease. Look, look." Without another word, she started to take off her clothes. He watched in stunned silence as the garments began to fall around her feet. The bright moonlight and the soft glow of the earthen lamps transformed her skin to molten gold, which gleamed and shifted magically before his eyes. But, no, no, he must not. He hasn't got much time. Everyone will know that he has been left alone with Padma. There, listen. People are coming. The sounds and activities of the outside world began to flood into his consciousness. Listen. There blows the trumpet, signalling the procession of the priest descending the stone steps to the river. Gone to bring the sacred river water in the copper pitcher for the marriage ritual. And there, he could see the rocks in the river. The dark mass of the rocks sat on the water like

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hippopotamuses. The waves of the Brahmaputra had transformed into silver swords, chopping away again and again at the rocks. Padmapriya and Bhuvaneshwar remained in that small enclosure well into the night. Until the marriage ceremony was over and the bride and her groom had left.

Presently, Bhuvaneshwar came to see Bhagwati. Yashobai and a couple of jajmans who were present couldn't believe their eyes. And not just Yashobai. All the neighbours were taken aback. They rushed out of their houses and gathered around Bhagwati's courtyard. One of the jajmans brought out a seat for Bhuvaneshwar and placed it in the courtyard. Bhagwati was down at the river, having his bath and readying himself for his worship. When he heard of Bhuvaneshwar's arrival he rushed up immediately. His body still dripping and wet. He pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered and stood before Bhuvaneshwar. "What do you want this time?" he asked angrily. Bhuvaneshwar said nothing. "So you spoke to each other at Nand Daley's daughter's marriage." "Yes, Sir." ''And now you have decided to take back my girl." The old jajmans standing about were staring with their mouths wide open. What would Bhuvaneshwar say now? Bhuvaneshwar pulled out a purse of money from his pocket and placed it at his father-in-law's feet. Yashobai cried out in a shrill voice. "This isn't right. This is just not right. Do you think you can bring in one girl through the front door and throw the other one out through the back door? Do you think women

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are sheep and goats that you can buy and sell as you please? Do you?" The neighbours who were watching this unusual scene with their mouths agape began to murmur in agreement"This isn't right. What has the world come to?" Bhuvaneshwar lifted his hand and tried to pacify the agitated crowd. In a soft but deliberate voice, he said, "I've come to take back Padmapriya. But I need time. When Padmapriya had gone I brought another woman from Bangara village. I need to talk to her, to convince her. She will agree. She is a simple woman. She could not bear me a child in the last two years." The people nodded and murmured in sympathy. Their hearts went out to the other woman as well. Bhuvaneshwar remained silent for some time. His brows creased in thought. Bhagwati pointed to the purse and asked, "What's in this?" "Some money. For covering her expenses." The people who had gathered began to laugh bitterly, mocking him. "It's taken you two years to remember her expenses." On this first occasion, Bhuvaneshwar did not stay for long. After tea and betel nuts he excused himself and took his leave. He couldn't even meet Padmapriya, not even to say farewell, because of the crowd of neighbours who continued to gape at him.

Slowly, Bhuvaneshwar began to drop by more often. At first, he would sit in the courtyard and talk to Padmapriya. But gradually, he became a part of the family and it wouldn't be unusual for him to drop into Padmapriya's room.

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Things became easier as time went by. Often, Bhuvaneshwar would bring a few friends along during his visits. Sometimes it was the young healer Mahendra, or the elephant contractor Dayaram. They would sit for hours over tea and betel nuts, discussing everything under the sun. Often it was well past midnight before they left. Padmapriya willingly brought them their tea and betel nuts. But how much can people talk? So gradually, Bhagwati's verandah turned into a place for playing cards. Some young men from the neighbourhood also joined in. Padmapriya's tea became their wine. And the young men began to saunter about affecting the mannerisms of the babus in Kolkatta's Rashbehari Avenue or Mirzapur Street with their shawls thrown carefully over their shoulders and their hair parted fashionably in the middle. The cemetery-like silence which had fallen over the house seized his opportunity room more freely. and began

during the past two years was now replaced with a flood of new levity. Bhuvaneshwar to drop into Padmapriya's

One

moonlit

autumn

night

in the

month

of Kartik,

Bhuvaneshwar

and his cronies were sitting in the verandah

playing cards. A lantern spread its bright light around the group. Just then, Padmapriya rushed out of her room and hastened towards the rear portion of the house, but before she doubled over and What has happened she was half way through the courtyard, "Oh my god! What has happened? to my daughter?"

threw up in the middle of the courtyard. cried Yashobai as she pulled her daughter

towards the well to clean her up. A hushed silence fell on the group. Then men who were playing, slowly put down their cards. All eyes turned towards

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Bhuvaneshwar. Bhuvaneshwar stood up suddenly, a determined look in his eyes, and rushed to Bhagwati's room. That day the game of cards continued under a blanket of heavy silence. Their usual banter and jokes were missing. They all realised that events had now taken a serious turn. A very serious turn indeed.

Bhuvaneshwar confessed before the elders that the child in Padmapriya's womb was his own. He prostrated himself before the elders and confessed that the child was his. Then, after offering a black ram -as a sacrifice to the Devi, a symbolic atonement for his lapse, he came downhill. He came down looking proud and happy. Bhagwati followed slowly, looking worn and worried. His health had broken under the strain of the recent events. He could hardly believe that everything had finally got sorted out so easily. That the strain that had been eating away at him over these past two years had disappeared. What a fallen age! What an unheard of .... Who would have ever imagined ... Ah Devi, Ah Mahamaya. Yashobai had already brought out all the luggage and placed them on the verandah. She had cooked the ram that had been sacrificed and had distributed it among the neighbours. Once again, their courtyard was milling about had

with people. Finally, when all the preparations been made, Padmapriya turned "Mother, call him!"

for her departure and said,

to her mother

"But why?" asked Yashobai. "Please, just call him," replied Padmapriya. made her stop.

Her mother face

was about to chide her but the look on her daughter's

-Under the Shadow of Kamakhya 75

Yashobai found Bhuvaneshwar in Bhagwati's room, where he was chatting with the jajmans. She stood at the door and motioned for him to come out, "She wants to tell you something." "Tell me something?" "I don't know what she wants to tell you. Perhaps her sorrow at having to leave home again." Bhuvaneshwar went to her room. She was all dressed and ready to go. A large vermillion mark shone on her forehead, it was red like the fresh blood on the Devi's shrine. "What is it?" "I wanted to tell you something. Please close the door." The sound of drums and cymbals floated down from the temple. Preparations were probably being made for the sacrifice of a buffalo. Now the people must be pouring bucket after bucket of water over the buffalo's neck. Bhuvaneshwar stood near the door. She walked to the far side of the room and leaned against the wall. Her hair, which had been tied up in a chignon, came loose and cascaded down over her cheeks and shoulders. Her large collyrium-adorned eyes seemed to grow larger. Her chest heaved up and down. Her breath came in heavy pants. felt as if he was in a trance; and that the before his eyes. Bhuvaneshwar

several forms of the Devi were materializing

"Kali, Tara, Mahavidya, Bhuvaneshwari ... Chinnamasta!" She said, "So you have confessed that the child is yours." "Yes I have. I have admitted past two months." "The child isn't yours." "What?" "This child isn't yours." "Isn't mine?" it. It is the truth. In these

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He swooped upon her, and grabbing her hand, shook her violently. "Whose is it? Then whose is it?" "The child's father is Sambhudev." "Sambhudev!" Bhuvaneshwar collapsed in a heap near the door. Translated from Assamese by Apratim Barua

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