By A D Sarkar
Raghu was becoming quite a valuable employee for John Company. They were thinking of appointing him as the section leader of the accounts department in their Kasimbazar factory with a substantial increase in salary and generous expense account whenever he had to travel. It suited him very well because he had to visit Agradip every week from Calcutta to keep an eye on the manager and to see that his house remained in good order. Also Kasimbazar was very near Agradip. At any rate he did not really have an alternative. Although his son, now in employment with John company, was indifferent about Agradip his wife and daughter refused to stay in Calcutta. If his family lived in Agradip and he worked in Kasimbazar, he would be able to come home every weekend instead of the monthly visit he did in the past from Calcutta. Early morning therefore Raghu took a bullock cart with his family to visit his brother in Falta, some 15 miles south of Calcutta before moving on to Agradip. It took them five hours to reach Falta, a malarial swamp. After spending a few hours with his brother, Raghu sailed up north with his family. Their destination, Catwa, was a long way but they were all excited to go back home. It was a hot day being the end of May but the breeze made life bearable as the boat moved upstream.
Raghu did not tell his family that the factory at Kasimbazar was sacked on the 21st of May by General Rai Durlabh, a top military officer of the nabab. He was not unduly concerned about that because he knew the sahibs would restore it to its previous state. He was extremely worried, however, by the news that the nabab was on his way to attack Calcutta with a huge army of elephants, horses, foot soldiers and French gunners.
The boatmen unaware of the ensuing catastrophe rowed upstream with rythmic loud panting. They came to Mayapur,
Budge Budge, Thana Fort and then Calcutta. Raghu turned his head away and sighed. “Look,” he exclaimed, “there is Govindapur.” He shouted again as the boat kept on moving, “That is Chandpal ghat. See that canal. John Company had it dug. I don't know why.” Raghu drew his family's attention each time something of importance came to his view. The boat passed Governor's ghat, Crane ghat, Cruttenden's ghat, Court's ghat, Jackson's ghat and Great Bazar ghat. “See that” said Raghu with great enthusiasm, “that busy stage; that is Nabab's ghat. If you land there, you will come to Barobazar. Further up there is Maniktala.” They were far away but Raghu knew them all. Raghu sighed as Calcutta disappeared in the distance.
Certainly news was very bad for Raghu. On sixteenth June 1756 while the sun was still punishing India, Nabab's huge unwieldy army reached Chitpur bridge. The bridge was not wide enough to cross for the comissariat carts, ox-wagons carrying ammunition and heavy cannon, cavalry and elephants. The engineers directed the army to move south for about six miles and catch the road to salt lakes and proceed in the westerly direction. They bivouacked in Halsibagan, also known as Omichand's garden. Omichand was a very wealthy merchant who was admired by the British top brass because of his wealth. Halsibagan was at the edge but inside the white town, a rare privilege bestowed upon an Indian by the sahibs. Fort William was less than a mile away.
The British suffered a humiliating defeat and fled to Fulta where life was dull and dangerous. There was no trading to transact; no dancing girls; no women in fact. Even a drink of arrack was difficult to obtain and there were persistent rumours of the nabab's men marching on again to throw them into Bay of Bengal. There were the French ready to step in once the British were gone.
Raghu stopped day dreaming. He started to plan the future of his family. He met Mukhopaddhai Mosai in Kasimbazar who was a merchant of some standing. Raghu learned from him that actually the nabab had nothing to do with the sacking of a factory in Kasimbazar. It was the work planned jointly by Rai Durlabh and the suba's granduncle, Mir Jafar, the commander-in-chief of the Bengal army. They simply wanted to loot the valuables they could lay their hands on. In fact the nabab is furious with both of them because they looted the French factory by mistake. Jean Law, the Frenchman, was as close to the Suba as Mir Madan and Mohan Lall. Raghu was overjoyed at the thought that he could start work soon and concentrate on the backhanders he used to procure from all those who wished to trade with the company. His friend called by everybody simply as Mosai was always generous in the amount of unofficial commission he gave Raghu who reciprocated by practically obtaining the monopoly for him for the supply of all kinds of food-stuff to John Company. In fact Mosai was very impressed with Malati, Raghu's daughter, and wanted her to be married to his only nephew, Bankim. He invited Raghu to visit him with his immediate family at his home in Palashi which was a village across the river from Catwa.
It was November so the flight of the sahibs to Falta was just a memory to Raghu. Around midday one weekend he took a hackery and headed north with his wife and the two children. The sky was clear blue but the temperature was low so the sun was very welcome. They changed carts a few times until they arrived opposite Palashi where they took a boat to get across.
As the four of them sat on the boat with shawls around them, they noticed a lot of activity on the river. Unusually busy the river was with barges going up and and down. The boatmen sang, some accompanied by drums and flutes. The flutes played melodious, often sad tunes. The not distant bank of Palashi looked misty with the smoke from a burning ghat, a cremation ground. The family folded their palms in respect for the unknown whose karma, hopefully, ended with the probability of no more rebirths. Green parakeets flew over their heads, homing to their nests possibly in the nabab's mango groves. Snow white cranes glided past them gracefully.
Mukhopaddhai mosai was a precise man. A bullock cart was waiting at the landing stage for some time to trasnport the travellers to his village. Their accommodation was spacious and comfortable and dinner was tasty but Mosai appeared the following morning after his guests finished their breakfast.Bankim arrived soon after and he did pranam to both Raghu and Savitri by touching their feet. Gopal said gleefully, “I came to your house before on my business trip for John Company but you were far away in Rajmahal. Do you always travel about?”
“Oh no,” replied Bankim with a broad smile. “Only when we have to arrange with merchants or other agents about shipping paddy and other commodities. All that is done and I am a man of leisure now.”
“Who is she?” asked Bankim jocularly. “Looks like we have got a Miss shyness herself here.” Malati was unusually quiet. She felt inimidated as the young man made his remarks dressed in a long robe,Calcutta style. Neither of them were aware of the conspiracy being hatched by the others.
“Listen,” said Gopal, “those distant drums.” There were drum beats from somewhere; a kind of two quick booming beats followed by four short dull ones- doodoom doodoom ta ta ta ta.
“That's where we are heading this morning” replied Bankim. Bankim explained that they were going to a village inhabited by the santals, one of the indigenous tribes of India. These tribes were often described by other Indians as adibasis, the first-dwellers.
“Look,” exclaimed Raghu's wife, “the paddies now look like the long necks of horses.”
“It has happened a little sooner this year,” said Mukhopaddhai. “The stalks usually curl up around Agrahaon.” The Indian month of Agrahaon begins around the middle of November so these paddy horses came about ten days too soon.
Gopal asked, “So would harvesting be sooner this year?”
“May not be,” replied Mukhopaddhai Mosai. “We will have to wait and see.”
A number of parakeets flew away noisily from the paddy fields, their attempts at a delicious feast disturbed. Here and there a mouse or two hopped across the ledges. Little sparrows tried in vain to support themselves on the paddy horses. This is nature's way of protecting the grains until they ripen and are ready for consumption.
“Show you something,” said Bankim to Malati. “Have a look at the water in the paddy field.” They all squatted on the ledges and observed the dark water with occasional disturbances caused by moving crabs. They were small, buff coloured and in great abundance. “The santals come and catch them,” said Bankim. “Just crab and chilli with a bit of dal makes the rice go down nicely.” They all swallowed. Bankim added, “But we will have chicken tonight. You will never forget the taste of it; the way our thakur, cook, prepares it; bright red gravy with the faint smell of garam masala.” Malati felt hungry. River Bhagirati with its tributaries seemed to gush out all over her mouth.
As they arrived at the edge of a village, someone shouted, “Mosai- O mosai.” The visitors walked towards the porch of a hut, the walls painted with patterns of sun flowers, birds and antelopes in illogical colours of red, white, blue and yellow. An old man with stubbles of white hair on his face was eating breakfast. She was his wife, slightly bent, who was calling after them. As they approached, she folded her palms and the man nodded smiling generously showing the food particles in his mouth. The woman brought a few low cane stools and squatted beside her husband who by now was busy attacking his food again.
Mukhopaddhai mosai told his guests that the man was the Head of this santal clan and the woman was his wife. He asked sincerely, “How are you?”
The man kept on eating but his wife answered, “Thanks to your blessing mosai, we are very well.”
“What is for breakfast today?” asked mosai.
“Panta bhat,” came the immediate reply. Bhat is boiled rice and the word panta probably means something left over from the previous day. Actually, the boiled rice is stored carefully in a container filled with cold water overnight and by the time it is ready for eating the following day, the cooked rice has fermented a controlled amount.
There was a problem regarding communication. The old woman spoke and understood Bengali quite well but her husband could speak only his own language.Mukhopaddhai mosai understood and spoke their language but with great difficulty. Once the old woman finished her breakfast, Savitri asked what was happening today. The husband and wife exchanged glances to record the ignorance of the lady but the santal woman replied, “Today is the day when we honour one of our male deos, Abe-Bonga.”
The word deo is a modified version of the Sanskrit term deva but it is difficult to fully appreciate what bonga is to the santals. A bonga to an adibasi is the apparition of a dead being which is invisible and of course formless. The words used by some to describe a bonga are bhuts and prets. A bonga can be malevolent or benevolent and strangely a deva is also called bonga by many santals. A superior deva for the santals is the sun who is described as Sing bonga. Although a superior deo, Sing bonga is powerless and indifferent to the tribes. He never had a family except Chandu Omol, the moon, his wife. He is one of those rare bongas who does not need food. Nevertheless the santals offer him goats and cocks as a mark of veneration. Help is solicited but the deo never responds. Upon which he is reproached by the villagers but they are careful not to annoy Chandu Omol.
The old woman fetched a stool from inside and sat by Malati. She gazed at her for a while and then stroked her head twice and asked abruptly, “Who is this girl?”
Mukhopaddhai introduced his companions quickly. “A beautiful girl,” said the woman. “Get her married to young Bankim before somebody else runs away with her!” Both Malati and Bankim became bashful but glances were exchanged between mosai, Raghu, Savitri and Gopal.
The old girl hit her palms together and said, “Look at them. Look how coy they are.” She laughed a chesty laugh, her toothless mouth beaming with mischief. The Head majhi, as a santal is called by the Bengalis, slapped his right knee with his right hand and exposed his gingiva. He said, “Bankim is Aryan like our Sing bonga. But the girl is us. See her colour; see her eyes! See how thick and black her hair is!”
Malati was dark skinned and Bankim was her opposite.
“Who is Sing bonga?” asked Gopal.
“You don't know who Sing bonga is!” The old man appeared irritated.
His wife smiled and answered, “He is the chief deo; the bonga of all bongas. He is the sun. Fair-skinned Aryan he is.”
A request came from Mukhopaddhai mosai. “Why don't you tell us about your bongas?”
“You tell them,” suggested the old girl to her husband, now busy decorating Malati's hair with white flowers. The Head majhi narrated the story of the santal deos as he knew it but Mukhopaddhai while interpreting asked for forgiveness in case he mis-translated anything.
'Chief Sing bonga you now know about. We also have, among others, Da bonga-the river deo, Daddi bonga-the well deo and Bir bonga-the forest deo, but our greatest benefactor is Marang Buru, the great mountain.
The majhi filled a clay funnel with tobacco and lit it with a piece of burning twig from the fire. Mukhopaddhai mosai filled in. He said that the mountain Kailash, the abode of Mahadev Shiv up in the Himlaya is revered by all Hindus. The
Vedas embody the esoteric religion of Hinduism, if it can be classified as a religion. Mountains, like other visible components of our universe are the exoteric aspects which become manifest due to concatenation of fundamental material particles. For the santals, the adibasis, the inhabitants of India from ancient times, the great mountain is the Fons et Origo.
Raghu looked at him as did Gopal. They knew that Mukhopaddhai mosai had a working knowledge of the English language and knew quite a bit about the British character but knowledge of Indian
philosophy! The Head majhi put down his funnel and continued with his narrative.
'In times long ago, Marang Buru stood alone among the waters. After an unimaginably long time, in the clear blue sky, one midday, a conch blew four times,
ex mero motu. Two ducks and two drakes flew over to Marang Buru and touched him. The great mountain was delighted to have company. He welcomed them and put them down lovingly on an oversized water lily. Soon after, one thousand and one huge mythical beings in the form of prawns rose from far beneath the water level and offered respectful greetings to Marang Buru. The deo asked them to find large rocks and place them around him so that they protrude and form the earth surface. They did that in no time and fetched a few million worms. Marang Buru commanded them to cover the surfaces of the rocks with earth which they did quickly for fear of incurring the wrath of the great mountain. The very important deo of the adibasis, who had yet to be manifest, smiled with satisfaction to see the living worms and, especially the earth covering the rocks; the good earth which gave life to the birds and worms and will take it away any time it pleases.
Chandu Omol was also pleased so was her husband the deo of all deos. She shouted, “Now you must sow some grass.”
The great mountain puzzled over how to do that. The ducks and drakes found out about Marang Buru's predicament. They told the deo of the waters that they came from a vast island in the southerly direction to Hihiri Pipiri. Their island is ancient so that it is covered with grass, trees and all kinds of vegetation and animals. The ducks and drakes were endowed with immence physical prowess. The great mountain had not noticed it but they went there every day to eat. They came up here because their land was running short of water and water was plentiful here. Marang Buru asked them to cover the earth around him with grass, vegetation of other kinds and above all trees.
In exactly two days a storm blew and thousands of ducks, drakes and a variety of other birds appeared over the great mountain and sprayed the earth with seeds and flew back to their own habitat in the south as clouds gathered. It rained for seven days and Chandu Omol was pleased to see the new earth being covered with grass, vegetation and trees.
Years passed. The trees grew taller but the four ducks died. Marang Buru was grief stricken but he noticed two duck eggs hidden among the tall grass. He kept an eye on them and to his surprise a boy appeared from one of the eggs. Another baby appeared from the other egg in two years' time. The little boy and the deo were pleased because the new baby was a girl. Marang Buru did not notice before that he himself was covered with grass and trees. He was amused. 'Naughty ducks and drakes', he said to himself and sighed.
The boy and the girl were first small. The moon was gone; the moon came back. The moon was gone; the moon came back again. Came the month of Baisakh, as hot and inhospitable as the kingdom of Mrityu deva, Death, also known as Yama. Came rain, came the winter and they all went and came back again many times over. Marang Buru watched with great affection as the boy and the girl grew bigger and bigger but one day Chandu Omol spoke angrily. She said to the great mountain, “Have you not noticed that they are totally naked? This is unacceptable to the council of deos.”
So upon her command, the great mountain summoned a few birds from the south. Very quickly they produced cloth made of the leaves of the water lily. The great mountain gave the man ten cubits of cloth and that was sufficient to cover him. He gave the woman twelve cubits of cloth which was not sufficient to cover all of her body.
After clothing them, Marang Buru gave the pair a handful of leaven and told them to put this vivifying matter in a pitcher of water and asked them to come back in four days. The water turned into an intoxicating drink which is still a favourite with the santals. The young ones were given leaves with which they made cups. They were told that they could drink the liquid in the pitcher but, before that, they are requested to offer a cup to Marang Buru first for his enjoyment because he cannot produce it himself. They should simply pour one cup of the fluid on the earth and that would be satisfactory.
The pair did not drink much but they simply roamed about and slept and roamed and slept.Marang Buru looked at them. The great mountain said to himself 'Hum!' He looked at them again; the man with his exposed chest and the woman with nearly a bare upper body. He said to himself, 'Hum.' Then he felt sad. He said to himself, 'The earth is; the grass is; the man is; the woman is. But what if these two die?'
He said to himself,'Hum.' He kept on saying that. The moon rose and sank. It did so thrice. Suddenly, the great mountain shouted to the man and the woman,'Drink to your hearts' content the liquid from the pitcher.' They did just that and became merry. They chased each other running naked and they drank. They then ran into a cave much to the relief of Marang Buru because they engaged in coitus. They made love all day and all night. They loved till the moon waned to nothing and came back full; waned to nothing again and came back full; thrice. Seven children were born to them.
After that Marang Buru noticed eggs and eggs and eggs; scattered all over the now green earth which in due course became full with people. In like manner came bipeds, quadrupeds, fish and all kinds of living creatures. Once empty Hihiri Pipiri became overcrowded. Mass migration followed and they arrived south some ninety miles away but it was a malarial swamp and generally inhospitable. All of them moved again and arrived nearly one hundred and fifty miles west. The land was ideal for them and they called it Hihiri Pipiri in nostalgic memory of the home they left not so long ago. When this new Hihiri Pipiri became overpopulated, many went to Chae Champa. From there, because of the same reason, some went to Silda; then to Sikar; to Nagpur and then to the north; even to Sir.'
The drums and the flutes were alive again. The old woman said, “It will go on all night.You come there yonder where the trees are dense. Come before the sun goes down.”
Mukhopaddhai mosai bought a few chickens from the woman. “I will send someone soon to collect them,” he told her as they got up to go home.
They returned after sundown and noticed the forest aglow with smoking torches. The women were dressed in white saris with red borders hanging about six inches
below their knees. They noted that they did not wear any chemise perhaps because Marang Buru gave them twelve cubits of cloth only. They had dark brown skin and thick round buns at the back of their heads. They wore flowers on their heads, round their wrists and in the form of garlands. The men decorated their heads with plumes and their dhotis were short. Their upper bodies were bare. They were of medium height, had round skulls, round faces and their eyes were not slanted. Their lips were a little thicker than those of an average Bengali man. They had high cheekbones but not as high as those of the Mongolian races.
Mukhopaddhai said, “Have you noticed their physique; how supple their movement!”Raghu said, “I remember from one of the lectures of Brahmin sahib in Calcutta, you know the Englishman who speaks Bengali and reads Sanskrit, the kings of Bengal were devoted to Gautam Buddha and were non-Aryans; quite probably santals. Being interchangeable they call themselves Hindus now.”Mosai added, “We Brahmins are not held in high esteem- the Bengali Brahmins I mean- by those from the northwest and south. “ For eating chickens you mean,” retorted Malati's mother. Raghu said, “According to Brahmin sahib the Aryans looked down upon the adibasis.They used to call them 'the raw eaters' because they ate flesh without cooking. They were also called 'rejectors of Indra', the chief of all devatas; not carrying out the fire rituals; without rites generally. Gopal added enthusiastically, “I remember one of his lectures; this was just before the nabab came to demolish the British establishment in Calcutta. He said that King Adiswar of Gour, that is Bengal, brought a group of Brahmins from Conouj, about seven hundred miles west of here, to carry out rites properly. These were fairskinned people who had liaison with adibasi women. Scholars think that their children are today's kayasthas. Then came Brahmin women from the west who became the wives of these Conouj Brahmins. Bankim is probably so fairskinned for that reason. All this happened some seven or eight hundred years ago.”The drums held in front of the drummers by straps round their necks went doodoom doodoom ta ta ta ta. The young men and women danced around a wood fire holding hands. The older adibasis joined occasionally. They all drank the rice wine frequently but the guests were not offered any. It was not necessary and indeed unmannerly because the upper caste Bengalis did not indulge in intoxicating liquor.The Head majhi and his wife sat with their guests explaining things when asked. The circle dance stopped for a moment. Instead men and women formed in groups and started dancing around chosen trees. The old man explained that they were appeasing the bongas of their ancestors because for an adibasi the link between a person and this earth remains even after death. So the living is surrounded by unseen apparitions who must be placated. If pacified, the ancestors look after their progenies with critical benevolence but they can inflict horrific punishment, such as leprosy, if ignored.The old man said that all the villagers had to keep two other bongas happy. One of them is Abgi who eats men if angry. The other named Pargana bonga can also be vicious. They live in trees or caves between their wanderings. Bankim said jocularly, “Head majhi you are not dancing with your wife I notice.”“Our dancing days are bye,” replied his wife smiling with her gums.“Besides,” added the old man. “I have to look after our family deo, Ora bonga. If I don't, my family will be struck with misfortune at once; why my family! He might vandalise the rice fields and damage the animals. I must placate Ora bonga to protect everything and everybody.” “And you know,” added the old girl, “nobody but he knows the secret mantra with which to propitiate Ora bonga. He will whisper the mantra to his eldest son at his own deathbed only. It must not be known by anybody else; that includes even me!” As he looked at her gums, Gopal wondered what would happen if he died of an accident but he had the good sense not to ask.
He observed Bankim glancing at Malati, a few furtive glances which,he hoped, nobody else would notice.“Look,” said Raghu's wife, “they have spread jaba flowers on the ground.” The ground in front of the santals looked red with a carpet of the flowers. “And see,” continued Gopal's mother, “they are looking up at the sky with folded palms Why is that majhi?” The old man was asleep but his wife answered, “You see they should offer goats or cocks to Marang Buru. If they don't, they must give him something the colour of blood. Marang Buru, you see, is the same as your Mahadev, Rudra.”The old girl did not know that their great mountain, Rudra, wanted admission in the Aryan Olympus. The devas and devis asked Rudra who he was. The reply was that he was the most ancient superior deva. Rudra then took his seat among them. He was not regarded as a newcomer but similar to Agni deva, fire, one of the most ancient members of the Aryan devatas.A group of young boys and girls came over and dragged Bankim, Gopal and Malati away. Malati held the hand of her brother and of Bankim as they moved with the crowd hesitantly with faltering steps first. Their shyness overcome, the three of them danced rhythmically with the others.They soon returned to the Head majhi and sat down exhausted. The drums and the flutes gathered momentum. The men made a circle facing the outside. The women formed a concentric outer ring facing the men. The men simply rolled forward and backward. The damsels went round them in quick steps, their hips swinging sharply to the right and a fraction to the left.In that torchlit forest, the bongas seemed contented. Mrang Buru watched everything in stony silence. The chimerical ghosts of the adibasi ancestors seemed to possess all.