Netra and his younger brother Jhulan stood waiting on a small mound of rubble and squinted
against the scorching sun, laid bare after a downpour, to catch some harbinger that would
announce the arrival of the bor jatri, the celebrating clan of the groom. They wrinkled their nose
in anxiety; they were tired of waiting for the celebrations to begin. It was not very often that their
obscurely placed hamlet, set upon the south-west high rise in West Bengal would witness a
festivity of such a tall prominence. Their sister, Brinda, all of three, was getting married today on
Akshay Tritiya, an auspicious day in the month of Shravan. The entire village of Dhubhulia was
decorated with colourful buntings and balloons right up to Notun Bazaar, the heart of the village.
In their clan, girls were often married off to much older men and there was also a tradition of
giving away daughters in marriage to travelling Brahmins and priests who would come to visit a
family for a night. The hermits would marry a girl before moving on and leave her behind. The
myth that abounded was that Shiva had married Parvati when she was all of eight and this was
credulous enough for a tradition to follow. After all, religion validates every custom howsoever
‘Why are they taking so long?’ Netra grumbled, twiddling his thumb.
‘Perhaps…’ Jhulan attempted an answer, not really knowing what to say, he curled his lips and
shrugged his shoulders.
The two boys, Jhulan, now eight and Netra, six, were anxiously waiting for the festivities to begin.
Netra sat on a stray rock that the overflowing river had left behind and dusted the soil out of his
new footwear. Jhulan was still scratching his head in anticipation when they saw Arnab Dada,
their neighbour’s eldest son, running towards them, raising tiny dust storms with his hasty gait.
On spotting the boys, he shouted breathlessly, flaying his arms, ‘The bor jatri has reached Bottala
Haat.’ The boys looked at each other excitedly, grinning from ear to ear. Bottala Haat, the local
flea market, was not very far from where they stood. Their faces lit up, the boys turned and took
to their heels even before Arnab could catch up with them. They sped down the paddy fields and
raced against each other across the shallow stream spread over the pebbled scree bed, with not a
care in the world. Some boys sat astride logs, dangling their legs into water. They shouted out to
the excited boys.
‘Have they arrived yet?’
Heedless to the new attire that was dotted with mud, all they wanted was to outrun each other
to deliver the coveted news. They ran past the huge banyan tree, playfully pushing aside its lazy
branches that lamely hung from the canopy.
The male members of their household were squatting on the floor outside their hut that was
decorated with awnings of red- and gold-colour cloth upheld by scrawny bamboo sticks. Huge
cauldrons of brass, with soot-covered bottoms were simmering with spicy gravy and mounds of
savouries were spread over Netra’s mother’s old sarees. The villagers were excitedly discussing
the previous day’s Aashirbaad ceremony where the twelve-year-old Bisbaas’s family had come to
bless the little bride and it had not been missed by the villagers that a real gold bangle had
adorned the tiny wrist of the little girl. The entire village had gathered for Brinda’s Holud Kota and
her excited aunts were grinding a paste of turmeric and sandalwood in a mortar, curling their lips
in appreciation of the aroma that drifted from the pounded batter. Brinda’s mother, Moumita,
had pulled the gold bangle ahead of the shakha and paula—the red and white bangles worn by
married women—on her tiny arms. After all, the glittering bangle was a cynosure of all eyes. It
was just more often than not, that their village had witnessed such opulence. She and her
husband Malay were mere weavers who spun Tant sarees that they sold at the weekly Bottala
Haat. They couldn’t believe their luck to have found a match for their three-year-old Brinda, that
too amongst the Paschatya Vedikas in the nearby Ghurni village. Bibhuti, the groom’s father, was
known for his stellar benevolence and righteousness. He ran a shop in Mangala Bazaar in Ghurni
where the local produce of clay dolls was sold. Although the locals didn’t care much for them and
they seemed nothing out of the ordinary, the produce was greatly in demand in emporiums in
bigger cities and also fetched great income. Bibhuti had held talks with the Block Development
Officer to promote the merchandise. His twin daughters, Chuhiya and Chidiya as he fondly called
them, went to school and that augured well for his fortunes. They were as affluent as a village
household could be in their rather obscure settings.
Word had spread about Bibhuti seeking proposals for his twelve-year-old son Bisbaas and
suggestions had started pouring in. When Malay had gone to Ghurni he was more nervous than
excited on seeing the pantheon of gods and goddesses, statues of basket makers, umbrella sellers
and even rag pickers, as he amusedly noticed, lined on the wooden shelf of Bibhuti’s shop and the
eloquence with which they were being traded. There were piles of jute bags shoved in the corner,
bursting full of the merchandise that was ready to be taken away.
Bibhuti was a tall man with a soft and polite demeanour. ‘Swagata,’ he folded his hands in
respect as Malay entered cagily. Malay cursed under his breath for choosing a humble attire that
made him feel yet smaller. As was the custom he left his footwear outside the shop, all the while
conscious of the gaping hole in the black leather. He had pushed it out of sight so that Bibhuti
wouldn’t notice. He offered him a small box of pantua, a local sweet that his wife was especially
good at making. Bibhuti took it humbly raising it to his forehead in reverence and then laid it
calmly on the wooden cash box built under a sloping writing desk that he sat behind. There were
large drawers under the wooden slant for keeping cash. Malay imagined it to be thickly stashed.
He earnestly wished for Bibhuti to accept the proposal and then there was no doubt that his
daughter’s life was going to be teeming with rewarding fortunes. After brief pleasantries and
Bibhuti’s simple questions about Malay’s occupation and the age of the bride, Malay left. Malay
had not bothered or rather dared with even the faintest of queries lest it may not go down well
with the father of the groom. He already knew more than what Bibhuti could care to divulge and
hence his keenness to the arrangement.
Two weeks later, Malay had just finished his work and Moumita was still clearing the loose
shards of silk from the saree she had spun, when a visitor knocked on their door. Malay walked to
the door and on hearing the exchange that announced him as a messenger from Ghurni,
Moumita immediately got to her feet, frantically pulling the loose end of her saree on her head
and joined the men. They greeted him and asked him in as Moumita cleared the mat of leftovers,
pushing the spindle to the side and Deboo, the visitor, a short, portly man with an earnest smile,
sat on it in anticipation of generous hospitality and gifts that good news generally drew. As
Moumita rushed in to get water, he placed a set of brightly painted clay dolls, a Shiva and Parvati
as a mark of acceptance of the proposal, in Malay’s outstretched hands. With shaking hands and
eyes that had brimmed over in gratitude to God, Malay placed them in the indent in the wall
where many other idols were placed, an alibi of their prayers, both met and unmet. He called out
to his wife excitedly, ‘Moumita, get something sweet.’
Sweet! Moumita bit her lip in excited forethought of what was to follow. Deboo left shortly
afterwards as one needed to guard against the coarse weather during the monsoon, but not
before being lumbered with sweets and fruits that Malay could gather while Deboo had his meal.
When he was gone, Malay sent out his sons to seek Brinda who was playing with her friends. She
walked in sulkily; the interruption was not what she had appreciated. Malay lifted his daughter in
the air, shaking her from side to side, with her plaited hair inches from his nose and kissed her on
her forehead when he put her down. To a surprised Brinda none of this made any sense. At this
moment the situation was far graver than her father could imagine; she had lost the new
keychain that had come free with a new trunk case her father had recently bought. While her
mother was left to string the key in a thick, red thread, Brinda had made away with the bright,
white metal keychain shaped like a house, to show off to her friends. Her friends were rather
taken up by the shiny, glittery novelty and her friend Shubi’s new wooden doll was ignored over
much else. She had not taken kindly to Brinda’s modest keychain upstaging her possession. And
that it had come free made it all the more unworthy of the attention. Her doll after all was a gift
her mother’s brother had brought from Calcutta. Now that the keychain went missing it took
precedence over much else.
Both Ghurni and Dhubhulia had a custom of child marriage whereafter the bride went to stay at
her husband’s house for a few weeks. She returned to her parents’ house and stayed there until
of child bearing age. Brinda was a spunky little girl, dusky with gimlet eyes and a wide, vibrant
smile. Her curly hair was difficult to manage and wriggled out no matter how tightly her mother
braided it. It fell over her shoulders in thick cascades and she couldn’t care any less. Her wide
smile that left dimples in her chubby cheeks made her adorably free of all punishment, whatever
the fault. Her father’s heart melted with the toothy, cherubic smile and sent him reeling into a
content amnesia of his daughter’s naughty turns.
‘Put me down, put me down, Baba!’ she squealed. Her brothers tickled her mischievously. Jhulan
and Netra clapped excitedly as their mother joined in. These moments promised good days
ahead. In their humble setting, they could afford only some painfully simple wishes—lavish food
and new clothes. They couldn’t have asked for more.
The scenario at Ghurni village was not even remotely close to Brinda’s home. Although his
parents’ excitement had known no bounds, Bisbaas was still regaling under what had struck him.
His mother had cooked bhetki and rice. Father and son sat on the sisal mat Bithika had spread on
the floor. As Bibhuti and Bithika kept the conversation pivoted around the wedding, Bisbaas had
lost his appetite. The food, his favourite otherwise, had left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth. As his
father coaxed him to participate, his handful of macher jhal stood frozen halfway to his mouth.
He looked from his mother to his father, urging and hoping for a reprieve.
He went to school after all, how could he give it up for a custom that bordered on primitive and
was anything but acceptable?
‘But Baba, I don’t want to get married,’ he countered meekly. Almost a whisper, he wasn’t sure if
he heard himself or not. But his father was quick to catch the mood.
‘What?’ he almost spat the words at his son. ‘I got married at five and your mother was all of
three, I have still waited for you to turn twelve, isn’t that enough?’ Bibhuti said in a tone,
bordering on anger. His wife touched his arm lightly. She didn’t want this to get ugly.
‘No, Baba…’ The upheaval in Bisbaas’s reply faded against his father’s steely gaze.
‘It seems sending you to school has turned you into a rebel of sorts. You have been idling around
a great deal with those errant boys. No wonder, loose cannon of a tongue ….!’ Bibhuti swept the
rice and gravy on his plate with one angry swipe and the dexterity of his action spelt his anger in
no unclear terms. A teary-eyed Bisbaas looked at his mother who didn’t have the heart to go
against either of them. She well knew that they had fetched and agreed upon a decent proposal
but Bisbaas’s education would suffer in the face of an early matrimony. He was a precocious lad
and the idea of settling down like the rustic boys his age would anything but appeal to him.
‘Who told you that it is unlawful?’ she queried.
‘It is. I know it.’ Bisbaas was on the verge of tears. It moved his mother as she cradled his head
against her bosom.
‘But everybody in the village gets married like that, Bisbaas. Tell me who has drilled this nonsense
into your head?’ she asked worriedly, raising his teary face.
‘All the books say so. Even the team of white people who come every year stated that we should
learn to say no to it.’ He was referring to the YMCA that visited the villages of Bengal apprising the
youth about the obsolete tradition.
‘How do you know them?’ Bithika was horrified that her son knew people that they weren’t
aware of. Someone had cast a magic spell on him. It was most unlike of him to stand up against
his father. No one in the whole village dared to and being his son, Bisbaas had anything but
earned that right.
Bibhuti glared at his son as he noisily pushed away the metal plate he was eating from, clearly
showing his annoyance. And a distressed Bisbaas stifled his sobs against his mother’s sympathetic
embrace. The YMCA groups and the missionaries that accompanied them had shared pictures of
the students with their teachers from some faraway land and preached against the traditions of
child marriage. They seemed like people from another world. He wanted to be like the children in
those pictures—happy being just a child. Bithika was worried. She needed to go to the Pir Baba
urgently, to ward off the evil spirit that had possessed her son for she had never heard him
retaliate like that. The situation demanded an exigent concern and a concoction to ward off any
black magic spell.
Later in the evening, Bisbaas sat at the banks of the Jalangi river that coursed through the village.
He watched the fishermen cast off the moorings and prepare to leave with the nets swimming
lamely in the now quiet water. He angrily threw pebbles into the stream. As it hit the water, it
made circles that spread till the surface calmed. Bisbaas’s lips puckered as he angrily drew in a
sharp breath and threw another pebble into the calm river. His mind knew no peace. A lanky boy
with an unusual resemblance to his father, he had no patience with what the tradition held. The
YMCA team had left behind some literature pertaining to what they preached. The other boys in
the village didn’t seem to care much for it but Bisbaas had carried it home stealthily and hidden it
under the mattress. When everybody slept, his mind wandered into the unknown places that
pulled him from the glossy covers. He found it hard to believe that these cultures too were
present on the same planet as them. Where his parents were ecstatic about the forthcoming
celebrations, Bisbaas’s mien housed a troubled mind. The lines around his mouth were set in
‘Bisbaas…Bisbaas…’ his friends were shouting from far behind him, urging him to join in their play.
Every sultry afternoon , the boys would sneak out and play by placing flat slabs of stone or brick
one atop another and breaking the build by striking it with a piece of stone. Bisbaas was always
the winner and that drove his enthusiasm but today nothing could deter him from the abjectly
skewed calling that was set in waiting for him, his disapproval notwithstanding.
He knew he had no choice but to conform to the diktats of the long-standing custom. His friends
had also buckled under the pressure of rituals. Their protests were quietened in the face of
centuries of traditional anarchy. The young brides had come and left soon after to return only a
few years later. If fate had carved the same trajectory for him then he looked forward to that
‘lapse’ of few years, his only hope from the unsavoury relationship he wanted to refrain from.
As the bor jatri became visible at a distance, with the beating of the drums and the glistening red-
and-gold streamers against the sharp sunlight, the festivities picked up at Moumita’s house and
her sisters-in-law got into a fervid pace lighting the lamp and spreading the trefoil and husked rice
on a bamboo winnow for the bor boron. Malay got to his feet and hurried around to make sure
that the drinks and sweets were ready. He nervously shifted on his feet as the bor jatri
disembarked from the bullock carts and started towards the decorated marquee. The house had
a vibrant festive feel to it. Malay came forward, his hands folded in greeting and respect to the
celebrating clan of the groom. Bibhuti walked up to him, happily soaking in the din of the drums
and took Malay’s hands into his before hugging him.
‘Swagata, swagata!’ Malay could not contain his nervous excitement as he cleared the way for
the bor jatri to take a seat on the charpoys that were spread under the red pergola upheld by
bamboo sticks. The hut’s entrance was adorned with mango leaves strung on a red thread and
two pitchers filled with holy water were placed on either side of the entrance. Malay keenly
looked over Bibhuti’s shoulder and saw the groom, Bisbaas. He tenderly touched the boy’s
shoulder in affection. A surly Bisbaas didn’t look up as he trailed behind his father in a rather
unexcited way. He couldn’t wait for this nightmare to get over. His head was downcast, he didn’t
look up even once as his paper and shoal headgear, the topor, shifted to the side and it only
added to his melancholic state. He wore a crisp, silk dhoti and kurta and new footwear but he
couldn’t care any less. His irritation could be no less conspicuous and his discerning father had
clearly not missed it. Bibhuti carried a basket full of raw fish, turmeric, new sarees and pumpkin
as was the custom, as presents for the new bride. The villagers floundered around him to catch a
glimpse of the finery that the humble household in this forlorn hamlet was to receive.
‘Come, come son.’ Bibhuti cajoled Bisbaas, praying that on seeing the bonhomie some excitement
may rub off on him as well. Not to be coaxed so easily, the boy trundled after his father sulkily not
permitting his gaze to meet anyone’s.
Netra and Jhulan elbowed their way to the front and eagerly looked at Bisbaas, grinning in
anticipation of befriending him, but Bisbaas’s decadence stayed put. They looked at the guests
excitedly waiting for the coveted moment when Bisbaas would warm up to them. As of now he
seemed to be tired or shy or so they thought.
As Malay accepted the basketful of gifts from Bibhuti, the women in his household started
blowing the conch shell followed by ululation made by their tongues. The older ones were ringing
the bells but the ethereal moment was lost on Bisbaas. It made his hair stand on the back of his
neck. Malay’s relatives gathered around the bor jatri and started to sprinkle rice and yellow trefoil
on the groom’s family as Malay escorted Bisbaas to the chhandnatolla, the wedding altar, and
Moumita presented him with new clothes as a symbol of plenitude. Bisbaas’s eyes were glued to
the ground ahead of him and Bibhuti came ahead and humbly accepted the gifts on his son’s
behalf. Malay and Moumita didn’t miss the ill-tempered moment but as of now they couldn’t
afford to doubt their decision.
Malay hurried inside the hut and Jhulan followed on his heel knowing fully well that Brinda was
fast asleep oblivious to the conundrum around her.
‘Get up, Brinda!’ Malay shook her. Brinda lazily shifted in her sleep, turned over her back and
went back to sleep, revealing a spot on her pillow where drool had left a wet patch. The
embroidered pillow case had left an imprint on her tender cheek. Jhulan and Netra found it funny
and pulled her by her shoulders, made her sit up as her head fell from side to side. She opened
her eyes rubbing them wearily, smudging the kajal as it made lopsided dark lines from the corner
of her eyes to her cheek. She looked almost comical to her brothers who couldn’t believe how
their sister could sleep through such fervent excitement. She wearily looked at her father and
‘Did you find my key chain?’ she asked tiredly. A lump rose in Malay’s throat. The centuries’ old
tradition was inescapable. She was all of three with no idea where she was headed. He could not
say a word. He picked her up lovingly and carried her to the pidi, a low stool. She sat on it and
Brinda was carried by her brothers, eyes hidden with a betel leaf that she was to remove only
when she came face-to-face with her groom for shubho drishti. Bisbaas didn’t bother to cast a
glance at her. His indifference was rather uncomfortably palpable and Bibhuti was certainly not
pleased with the dour disinterest with which his son was treating the ceremony. Even when
Moumita and Malay offered him the potto bastra, his expression had not lifted fractionally. Netra
and Jhulan were called in to lift the pidi on which the three-year-old bride cagily sat and take it
around her groom for the saat paak. This was followed by blowing of the conch shell and
ululation, and the entire marquee burst with vibrant exchange of felicitations. The bride and the
groom exchanged marigold garlands that Brinda’s exuberant brothers made sure fell perfectly in
place on the rather tall groom as against their little sister. Bisbaas, on the other hand, let it drop
around her neck with one disinterested hand. Brinda too was aching to go back to sleep. On any
other day such attention and revelry would have found no equal but today all this was
insignificantly dry and tiring. She, like her groom, longed for it to hastily pass but for different
reasons altogether. Malay’s brother Shomu, emerged with a rickety old man from the hut, their
father, and escorted him to the chhandnatolla. He walked unsteadily with his crooked back, but
his limp notwithstanding, his agile gait and toothless grin with bubbles of tobacco spluttering
forth boded well for the approval that the custom was being religiously followed. He took
Brinda’s hand and placed it in Bisbaas’s who angrily wrenched it away. The entire crowd hollered
with laughter and brackish jokes at the groom’s behaviour but for his father who was having a
hard time trying to masquerade his annoyance. The crowd, that had floundered around them
was, however, used to such grouchy faces. As children they were ill at ease, with eyes for
everyone but their equally bored companion. The priest was in no mood for such debauchery that
repeated itself at every wedding. He gave them a disgruntled look as he drew out their hands
sternly and tied a sacred red thread chanting Vedic shlokas. The young bride, adorned in her sita
haar, maantasha, sankha-paula and hathphul, konkon and bracelets, that her mother had to
repeatedly adjust, seemed disinterested and bored.
‘Look, look Brinda, do this, no, no…your right hand, remember Durga Ma and throw…here…here.’
Brinda pouted and sulked but soon her edginess upstaged the patience and she started bawling
much to the chagrin of her disgruntled groom who couldn’t have it any worse than that. She
turned to her mother and pouted, ‘My keychain!’
‘She is just sleepy and probably hungry too, after all she had only some doi chire, that too before
daybreak.’ A flustered Moumita clarified. The smoke from the havan fire added to her tears and
she tried to rub her stinging eyes and further smeared the kohl that had already left marks across
the dusty cheek. Jhulan pressed his lips and covered his mouth with his hands to stop from
laughing. Malay eyed him sternly and his uncle Shomu smacked him on his head. Brinda caught
him in the moment and pulled a face at her brother as Netra joined in laughing. The hilarity of the
situation had, to an extent, abridged the sorrow of giving her away. The boys cast a sideways
glance at Bisbaas hoping that some of the lightness would rub off on him as well only to be
disappointed yet again.
Bisbaas’s mother Bithika and his sisters had not joined the bor jatri, as was the custom, and it
was left for Bibhuti to bring forth the tiny box of vermillion that was to be applied in the parting
of Brinda’s hair. Bisbaas sat there, angrily, refusing to listen. Bibhuti took his son’s hand and
forced a finger into the box and applied it to Brinda’s head. Specks of red powder fell on her nose,
she sneezed and rubbed her face again with the back of her hand, which only added to the
riotous red and black splodge and sent her mukut flying a few metres away. There was uproar as
the boys and the younger clout could not contain their laugher. Bisbaas looked up jerkily and
glanced at his clownish bride to seek the source of such chaos. He stifled his laughter, the first
reaction of the day. He quickly looked the other way for he didn’t want to be caught off guard
without his starchy demeanour. His sneer was the only silent weapon he had the luxury of
holding. Moumita came forward and lovingly cleaned her daughter’s face with the loose end of
her saree, clearly not approving of the caustic smirks her little one was undeservingly at the
receiving end of. She pulled the veil over her head and pecked her on her cheek with a heavy
heart. She was not to belong to her even for a year more. Too less for her daughter to remember
her as her mother; not even enough to sustain memories.
The ceremony had started and ended with equal fervour on the part of the families and with the
same index of disinterest and indifference of the bride and groom, who couldn’t care any less.
Bibhuti and Malay came forward and hugged each other. Moumita went around with a large,
round platter of homemade sandesh and pantua, receiving blessings and good wishes from the
guests. The bride and the groom just sat there disinterestedly. Brinda scratched her leg, her lips
pulled into a grumpy pout while Bisbaas looked at the ground ahead of him, cursing the moment
gone by. He was now to live with this buffoon; a riot of red and grey certainly made her look no
less than one. It meant leaving his studies and far worse the life he had yearned for…a life outside
his village…a life that held promise and hope. Tears of anger rose in his eyes and blurred
everything from his sight…his present and his future. After a sumptuous meal of macher laija
bhaja, curd rice and chire, the bor jatri walked to their carts to proceed back to Ghurni with the
Brinda clung to her father and would not let go of Jhulan’s hand. She cried and held on to his
sleeve, fearing the journey to the unknown and that too with strangers. A visibly moved Malay sat
her next to Bisbaas and pulled away. She bawled and tried to get off the cart which had started
moving and picked up pace all too quickly. She kept sobbing all through the journey and dozed
off, eyes weary of fatigue and unspent childhood dreams. All this while she had cried over a lost
keychain and no more.
They reached Ghurni close to dusk. Shoals of people celebrating the arrival of the new bride in
the patriarch’s family materialised within no time. They were beating the drums and dancing with
the bor jatri as the clopping carts made their way to Bibhuti’s house. The bullock carts swayed
with the weight they were carting along and raised dust against the angry sky. A storm was
raging in the gut of the heavy, grey clouds. The dry leaves skittered as thunder and lightning
roared in the sky. The Jalangi river had swollen with the rainstorm gone by. Bibhuti worriedly
gazed at the heavy sky. It could start pouring any moment again. Their village was prone to
floods, the rain bred mayhem that he had witnessed one too many times in his lifespan. He had
survived many and he prayed that this too shall pass. The bor jatri was greeted with fireworks and
an excited Bithika came forward with a large thaal of vermillion, rice and an earthen lamp.
Chuhiya and Chidiya stood on their toes to catch a glimpse of the new bride. Their clothes
fluttered against the rowdy wind and they were having a trying time to keep the thaal from
falling. As the bor jatri came closer, they placed a pot full of rice at the doorstep which Brinda was
told to topple over with her right foot before stepping into her new home. A bewildered Brinda
did as she was told. Bisbaas was made to place an idol of Parvati on the platter his mother was
carrying and was asked to write Brinda’s name on it. An excited Bithika sat between the children
and raised Brinda’s veil to catch her reflection in the mirror. ‘How lovely she looks!’ Finally,
sweets were distributed amongst the guests, while the bride and groom looked on grumpily lost
in an inner turmoil of confusion and isolation.
Suddenly Birija, their neighbour’s son, came running to the hut screaming, ‘Godnawala,
godnawala…’ announcing the arrival of the tattoo makers, itinerant peddlers who roamed the
village. As was the custom, the bride and groom’s names were to be tattooed on each other’s
arm. The girls ran out to catch the excitement. Bithika followed them. ‘Ahha, Gobind…it’s been
raining so hard… if we could do it tomorrow,’ she requested. The weather seemed anything but
accommodating, the wind was eerily buffeting the trees and fierce waves were hitting the river
banks. The previous week’s hefty downpour was barely behind them and she hoped that this was
the last of the watery spell. She had heard stories about her family in Murshidabad losing their
homes to floods; hence the wrath of the waters was not new to her.
‘Arre Bhagini, today is Akshay Tritiya, the day river Ganga descended on earth from the heavens.
It’s a holy day,’ he countered, eyeing the finery that was laid out for all to see. He delightedly
imagined the lofty share that he would be rewarded with. His own hands were almost covered
with tattoos of all shapes and sizes, deities and names of his family members. It served like a
referral for the customers to choose from. He started to assemble the seven needles into the
metallic cone that would be used to tattoo the bride and groom’s names on each other’s arm. He
started off with the village tattle, while blowing into the hollow cylindrical needles to slough off
‘Heard she is the daughter of a weaver? Never mind, as far as God willed it, who are we to fight
his plans?’ he remarked, trying to prod more gossip from her.
Bithika didn’t approve of his snitch and quickly changed the subject.
‘Arre, be careful, she is very young.’ She said patting Brinda’s head.
Bisbaas didn’t whimper even once, his anger had clouded every other emotion. A boy his age
couldn’t be seen dead bawling in the face of pain while Brinda whimpered endlessly as two older
women had to hold her tight. It was stinging and not before long her arm had started to swell.
The sting also brought with it utter isolation even amongst the people who were trying to
befriend her. Bisbaas’s family had taken her in but as a child of barely three she felt afraid and
lonely. She longed to be back with her own family. Chuhiya and Chidiya dressed in their best
finery, approached Brinda with their chirpy persona.
‘Bhagini!’ They squealed with delight. Brinda couldn’t have been happier to have chanced upon a
company to look forward to. She smiled back, ‘My name is not Bhagini.’ Shaking her head, she
whispered, ‘It’s Brinda!’ she added shyly. Chuhiya and Chidiya, barely a few years older, laughed.
‘No, no, we know that but Dada has married you so you are our Bhagini.’
‘I want to go to the toilet.’ Brinda whispered into Chidiya’s ear. Chuhiya squealed with laughter
covering her gaping mouth with both hands as if it were some outrageous proposition.
‘I will ask Ma.’ She got to her feet to look for her mother.
Meanwhile, Bithika was busy preparing for the feast that was laid out for the entire village. The
drizzle that had started again was adding to her woes. As it is there was enough to see to,
especially her sulking son. Bibhuti looked up at the sky for the hundredth time hoping that it
would not start to pour. His prayers a wee bit late in their prowess, as the drizzle soon turned into
thick pelting drops.
‘Brishti!’ someone shouted. The men hurriedly folded the charpoys and the women started
gathering the food and stuff that was laid out. The raindrops spattered on the rangoli pattern that
Chuhiya and Chidiya had helped their mother with and it soon turned into an unrecognisable
muddle. Chidiya started to sniffle. She couldn’t bear to see her hard work reduced to a muddy
splatter of coloured water that made its way into the low sides.
A word had reached the village that the Jalangi river had overflowed its banks in many areas in
Nadia district and till today morning there had been no let off. And going by Ghurni village’s
history, this news was sinister. Bibhuti swallowed hard as men and women huddled under the
canopy that had pooled enough water in its middle. Its bulging belly had started to drip as water
had begun to seep through. The crowd was rife with discussion.
‘The rain should settle, it’s windy, the clouds would blow over,’ someone said.
‘Aare, remember last year also, the rain was far worse than this…a flood is a far probability. Don’t
‘It had rained incessantly for two weeks at a stretch and then a bit of damage here and there, life
was back to normal…’ someone forced a laughter. An empty laugh….
They all knew that there had been an announcement on the radio from Murshidabad, that rains
could debauch into a flood in the making. The pounding river had swelled greedily. ‘Oh! All
hogwash, nonsense, haven’t we seen this more often than to believe a bloody radio
announcement?’ an old man quipped.
‘Yes…just a storm in the making. That’s all.’ A young man nodded absently. Denial was reassuring.
They all understood that having lived in Ghurni, such guesses were of no consequences. The hard
splatter turned noisier with the roaring clouds above them. They all looked nervously at the grey
sky above, which seemed a mile thicker now. The river ran angrily through the village, drinking up
the embankments as it recklessly shifted its course.
The sweet makers and the vendors scurried down the muddy pathways that had turned into
small rivulets. The plastic sheet that covered their carts was rustling at the edges. It had started to
give away, barely able to cover their belongings anymore. Within a few hours the rain had turned
into an unexpected yet dreaded outpour. Bibhuti raised the level of the cot on which Chuhiya,
Chidiya and Brinda sat by placing bricks and pieces of wood under its legs. The water had started
to stream into their hut and Bibhuti soon realised that the efforts to keep the river from
swallowing the village were turning wasted. The three girls started to cry. Bithika looked at them
nervously and patted her daughters’ hands. Their mouth had gone dry with fear.
‘No,’ Brinda shook her head. ‘I want to go back to Dada,’ she wailed. Bithika hurried towards her
and wiped her face with the free end of her saree, the only part that was not sopping wet.
Although, the deluge showed no signs of abating and she had no idea when it would end she tried
to comfort the children.
‘No Brinda, don’t cry. Look at Chuhiya and Chidiya. Look at Bisbaas, they are all so brave.’ She
brought the child’s head to her bosom, and patted it lovingly. Chuhiya and Chidiya snuggled close
to her. Bithika squeezed her eyes shut to keep away the tears, she had to lump her fear.
Meanwhile, Bibhuti and Bisbaas were trying to steer their boats off the river embankment,
frantically tugging at the ropes. The thick sheet of rain that was pelting down made it almost
impossible to manoeuvre the sails into the wind or even lift them. The boat was bouncing out of
control, rocking and shaking, hurtling upwards and downwards with the violent river. It seemed
impossible to breast the river and pull the boats to the shore. More clouds began to amass in the
sky, rain and thunder went pealing back and forth, echoing between the slopes and making
spooky whistling sounds. The children shivered as the plastic sheet on their hut fluttered angrily
making crackling sound. As the sluicing water ran down the declivity and the tarpaulin on
rooftops fluttered against the pounding wind, it took the older lot, no more a glance at the river
below and the sky above to size up the inevitable.
Meanwhile, Brinda’s arm had swollen with both pain and the moisture that the air was flushed
with. As the belief had it, Chidiya or Chuhiya would have to stand on her outstretched arm to
subside the swelling. Brinda couldn’t have imagined a worse ordeal as she shrieked in pain.
Outside, the cattle bleated hoarsely, kicking their hooves. Inherently sensing the aqueous
scourge, they arched their necks sideways, eyes bulging out of their sockets, pulling with as much
might at the wedge they were tied to, to free themselves. Bibhuti freed the animals to forage for
themselves as most of the chain linked fetters of their companions who had run astray, lay
abandoned. The river had become one with the land which had now failed to protect its territory
against the rising, arrogant water. Bithika, wading through ankle-deep water, placed the trunk on
the cot on which the children were sitting, huddled together with fear. She pulled out the gold
bangles, one ring and some money from the folds of clothing. She then tucked them furtively in
the folds in her saree and tied it into the loose end, knotting it over and again. Bibhuti looked at
her with defeated eyes. The air of festivity and the young bride’s welcome were as quickly
forgotten as the dry summer gone by. The only fear was if the summer would visit them ever
again. Everything in the present was the grossest betrayal of the past, the past that they longed
to hold on to and the future that seemed spitefully unfriendly. For now the only thing they were
sure of was that the night was going to be unwearyingly long.
As the day drew to a close, the absence of light made the fearful night more visible and somehow
more threatening. The rain would not let up and the water roared forth, gulping with it, people,
houses, cattle and whatever came in its way. People were rushing about, wading through waist-
deep water, pushing each other blindly, flailing their arms, running into directionless path that
could find them a dry patch of land but it was not before long that they had lost a valiant battle as
their belongings swam past them like strange objects. Screaming, shouting hoarsely and flaying
their arms trying to hold each other but that too only till their feet could find any ground
underneath the muddy water. Once thrown over, they floated away like idle driftwood, not aware
whether they were still over the land or the river. No clear headway seemed visible anymore and
all efforts to keep afloat were clearly unviable. They reached the surface gasping for air and flailed
about for pieces of wreckage but none were large enough to keep them afloat.
The next morning Bibhuti’s defeated eyes sought the shoreless waters, the soft mud frothing
with the dead, cupboards flung open, utensils, flashes of fabric swam past him as he clung to the
branches of a fallen tree. There was water as far as his gaze could tell. It was still drizzling and the
river seemed to have invaded Ghurni, there was no sign of land anymore, only the canopy of
some stray trees announced the presence of land a few metres underneath. Thorns tore at his
feet as he stumbled towards higher ground. He called out loudly, ‘Bi...Bithika,
B…Bisbaas…Ch…Chi…’ but could not go on. Hiccups and tears flowed unabashedly as he thought
of his little daughters. They had been dancing with abandon till sundown every day until last
evening and now he even flinched to imagine what had become of them. He precariously held
onto a dangling branch as it creaked under his weight and looked in all directions. He craned his
neck, shouted out to his kin but it didn’t take long for disappointment to wipe out all hope. He
stared at the water ahead, his teary eyes bore into the opaque sheets of brown water. Till he
heard a faint whimper or so he thought. He jerkily stood up, gulping down the lump that had risen
in his throat. He had heard it, he couldn’t be wrong; he pressed his palm against his left ear and
tilted his head towards where he had imagined the sound to have come from. He heard it again.
He shouted, ‘Yes…yes, who’s there?’ The cry repeated itself in response, a little sharper this time.
There was a faint rustling in a fallen tree where he had imagined that a piece of cloth had caught
between the thorny branches, somewhere in the middle of the watery grave. Resting her weight
on a frail branch was little Brinda, tear stricken, trembling with fear or cold, one couldn’t tell. Her
clothes had ripped apart, exposing shrivelled-looking skin, as she tried to balance herself on a
waxen branch. To his horror, Bibhuti realised that the moss could make her slip any moment, if
she dared a movement. Bibhuti was puzzled as to how to get to her.
‘Hold on, hold on, Brinda. I am here, your Baba. I am coming, don’t be afraid.’ She started bawling
even more loudly on spotting him. Fear is very naked in the face of unexpected comfort. Whether
it is relief or the sudden realisation of the lassitude it had fetches the same reaction. Bibhuti’s
heart fluttered with trepidation. The tree that she was perched upon would not support her for
long. She was clinging on to a twig that had started to tear from the trunk, revealing a fresh bark.
He broke a long branch from the tree he was on and sheared its leaves and dipped it into the
water. As it kept going further down his mouth went dry. He had not expected the water to be
that deep. Not only the six-feet-long twig, his arm was elbow deep into the water till it went no
further and the twig’s head found the ground. If Brinda were to fall from the tree she was sure to
drown. He looked up at the roaring dark clouds, which had no intention of mercy. The wind was
gusting along noisily making eerie whistling sounds over a village where life had been almost
snuffed out. He heard a creaking sound and jerked upwards to see Brinda hanging from the
branch whose one end was swishing along the water surface. The other end was scraping apart
revealing the fresh sap of the tree. She was screaming hysterically. A few moments more and
Brinda would be gone. It was endgame if he didn’t take the plunge that involved risking his life.
Such waters were rife with reptiles and scorpions. But without wasting a single moment, Bibhuti
dived into the muddy water and swam across to Brinda just to lunge at her in time as she hit the
water, her mouth agape with fright.
‘Brinda, Brinda, it’s me, Baba.’ He scooped her with his right arm as the left waded through the
water to make to some patch that could support them till the water receded. He came upon a
huge rock, perhaps a boulder; it had felt hard under his feet as he was still neck-deep into the
water. A large tree had fallen askew and had wedged itself between the stumps that separated
him from Brinda. Brinda was still down under in the water, still not able to hold up as she
coughed and struggled against the dark water. His feet plastered themselves onto the rock and he
brought Brinda up and placed her on his shoulder as she came up gasping for air with deep,
wheezy breaths. Bibhuti pinned her down with his right knee, pumping her chest with his fists till
she oozed and coughed out the muddy water that was choking her. He heaved a sigh of relief. He
was not the lone survivor and that augured hope that there could be others as well. He stood up
and looked as far as his sight could stretch. Objects were floating past him, both lifeless and
human which were just as bad. He looked up at Brinda who now seemed struck with a tearless
grief, shock and the realisation that it was all over.
They stayed there for a few hours more. It was only after sundown that the water had started to
recede. The rain had exhausted and dwindled into a trickle. The leeches had started climbing out
of the depths onto the rocks and reptiles slithering on the nearby branches did nothing to douse
his fear. But now there was nothing that he could see, there was not a speck of light anywhere.
Brinda had fallen asleep on his shoulder, her legs dangling weakly around his neck, her head on
his. She slept in lapses often waking up with tearful hiccups till she would wearily fall back to
sleep, snoring softly. He could not muster the courage to inquire about his family, if she had seen
them. Living in denial was at least reassuring hope rather than facing the gory truth. It was only
when the water had receded till his knees, he gingerly bent to keep Brinda from falling off. The
rock now felt slithery, with shards of fabric plastered onto its mossy surface. He brought Brinda
down as she woke up with a start. He seated her on his lap, lovingly stroking her hair. She
mumbled something. Her face had gone ashen. He let her head drop onto his chest while resting
his own weight onto the back of the rock and passed into a dull, shallow sleep.
The morning light that fell on his face brought the warmth to his body. He rubbed his eyes and sat
up. It took him a few moments to realise the infirmity of the gloomy morning that had risen to
greet him. The water had calmed and receded to reveal the corpses, brazenly laying bare the
tragedy. There were broken charpoys, clothes torn asunder, footwear, stiff animals with bulging
eyes and absolutely no life in sight. The abundance with which death had visited them had left
him numb. He stared at the village that lay dead before his eyes for what seemed like an eternity.
The shameless dance of destiny and the funeral-like stillness was stifling. He stared at it dazed
and motionless. His reverie was broken by his lone companion’s whimper and a slight tug at his
‘I want to go home.’ He picked her up and looked at her squarely in the eye realising fully well
that he would never see his daughters like that anymore.
‘Did you see anyone, Brinda?’ He asked her, yet dreading her reply.
She shook her head.
‘I was holding Chuhiya’s hand but then…then...I don’t know…I want to go home.’ She broke into
tears again as her chest heaved and trembled with the long, weary breaths she took.
‘Bisbaas? Bisbaas? Did you see him?’ he queried helplessly, his eyes darting across her face for
some hope. She shook her head. Looking sullen with snort dripping down her nose, she started to
cry again. Bibhuti sat down with a thump.
Someone far away had sent up a flare to draw attention. Bibhuti could see plumes of smoke in
the distance. He wondered how to respond. They were completely adrift in the flood and the
deluge was still as ravenous. Tree canopies looked like tiny uneven warts sprouting from the
aqueous skin that the land wore. For once he ached for the sun-baked, parched ground. He
caught a piece of stray cloth and affixed it to a high mast, made from a broken branch, to capture
attention. ‘I want to just go home, Baba.’ Brinda’s frail body shook with hiccups as she wiped her
face with the hand as it left a frothy swipe across her face.
‘I want…Dadaa…Ma…’ she was pleading.
‘We will, we will, my child. I will take you home.’ Bibhuti’s lips trembled as he tried to reassure
She put her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder. She cried for countless
moments and Bibhuti curbed his grief so that it wouldn’t add to her abject fear. Having realised
that it was a lost effort to look for any signs of life, for both the living as well as the dead had
buried themselves in the swampy grounds. The mud flatbed after the water receded laid bare the
dead and the nauseating stench had finally announced the end of Ghurni.
Once the flood cleared, he picked up Brinda and decided to cross over. One last time Bibhuti
turned to look at his village. God had been unbending on his decision to destroy. But there was no
time for an elegy. He had a lifetime to mourn. They walked the rain-sodden paths for miles as
villagers came forward with dry clothes, towels, food and water but Bibhuti didn’t stop. His feet
led him to Brinda’s village, Dhubhulia, his mind towing the body to hand over to Moumita and
Malay their three-year-old widowed daughter.
The pradhan of Birbhum, which was separated from Ghurni by a couple of miles, came forward
with folded hands, his expression solemn with genuine pity and more than half his village people
stood stoically behind him. Some women came forward and led Brinda away; they gave her food
that she vomited. Bibhuti didn’t touch the platter of rice and lentils that someone had brought.
He sat on the charpoy, hands folded, elbows on his knees and stared at the ground ahead. His
skin was shrivelled and pale, from staying in the deluge. The village elders were talking to him,
expressing their condolences but his mind didn’t register anything. Words were filtering into his
ears but nothing made sense anymore. Everything was finished. Talking about it was not going to
help bring back anything. After much cajoling, he changed his shirt, lungi and footwear which the
villagers of Birbhum offered.
Bibhuti took the bullock cart that the village elder had offered but grew uneasy as they were to
approach Dhubulia. He was not sure if Brinda would be accepted by her family any more. Child
widows were ostracised, sent to ashrams in Banaras or Vrindavan to beg and fend for themselves.
On reaching Dhubhulia, a crowd had started to gather and swell behind him till they approached
Malay’s hut. It indicated no support but an uncomfortable curiosity. Bibhuti suddenly grew
anxious, as the thronging mass looked on solemnly. He picked up Brinda and patted her clothes in
place. He took her hand and unsurely walked to her father’s house, much to the chagrin of the
elders who were seated on a charpoy outside the hut whose doors were tightly closed. The
young, child widow oblivious of her fateful future that awaited her broke loose from his grip and
ran towards her hut. ‘Ma…Ma…Jhulan…’ She ran to the hut but the door was tightly closed. She
heard a wail. She didn’t understand why the village was so deathfully quiet and worse still, her
father who was crouched on the ground in front of the panchayat, would not meet her gaze, like
he didn’t know her. She spotted her friends, peeping from behind their mothers but not coming
forward to meet her. A word had already reached Malay’s house before Bibhuti and Brinda did.
The village elders eyed them for a sizable moment and shook their head. Squatting on the ground
before them, Malay was sobbing, he had not lifted his gaze in the face of shame and helplessness.
He kept wiping his face with the loose end of the turban that he wore. No other family member
was in sight. On seeing her father Brinda excitedly turned and ran up to him.
‘Baba…Baba…I am back!’ She squealed with delight, although unsure of his reaction. Everything
seemed so strange. He didn’t raise his head. He averted her gaze, teary eyed, with shame and a
weak stance that didn’t permit him to stand up for his daughter. His land had passed on to a
moneylender and if ousted from the community he wouldn’t know where his next meal would
come from. He had a wife, Jhulan and Netra still. She came down on her knees and put her arms
around his neck.
‘You know, Baba, there was a flood, water, water everywhere, I….’
He didn’t move. She moved back to look at him. He burst into tears of shame and remorse, his
mouth twitching with agony. He looked at his daughter and brought his hands together in
forgiveness shaking his head in helplessness, the social stigma that had blighted her for life did
not permit him to have her back. She would be considered a bad omen. The bride, revered and
celebrated till a few days ago, was an outcast. She looked at him confusedly, also wondering
where the rest of her family was. She looked over her father’s shoulder, towards her hut.
Suddenly she didn’t fail to catch a pair of hands that had pulled a sliver of thatch apart, which
brought into her view a pair of eyes or several perhaps, the mute spectators of her oust. She
could hear a loud wail, perhaps her mother’s and then loud voices, maybe arguments she
couldn’t tell. She turned to look at the silent crowd, and saw only the downcast heads of the
village folk waiting for her to retrace her steps. The sooner she would leave, the easier will they
exonerate themselves of the crime they had committed. She bit her lip in confusion. She turned
to look at Bibhuti, his eyes were burning with rage. He darted across and lunged at Malay. He
rudely pulled him up and took him aside, his fingers digging into Malay’s flesh as he shook his
‘She’s your daughter, Malay, she is just a child. It is not her fault.’ He hissed.
Malay’s eyes were glued to the ground. He started weeping uncontrollably. He had no answer. A
shake of his head clearly alluded at his desperate helplessness and worse still, lack of courage. He
was up against staunch tradition and there wasn’t a worse enemy in a society so dictated by it.
‘Shame on you, Malay! You are her father. Had I been in your place, I would have been the first
one to come to my daughter’s rescue.’ Malay did not bother to fumble with an explanation. He
would be ostracised from the community if he dared to go against the diktat. The crops had failed
again this year and his land was not free. The pradhan had lent him money for the next harvest
and he was caught between a nexus of borrowing year after year.
Bibhuti turned to the village headman.
‘There is no need to be so sanctimonious in the name of myths and rituals. There is a child in front
of you. Please have mercy on her.’ He pleaded and kept his hand on Brinda’s head to draw their
sympathy. He had never ever bent like that in front of anyone and he had to collate all his
patience, put aside his ego to beg for some consideration. The oldest man looked at him with
stoic determination. ‘She is a bad omen, ashubha lakshana…she brought misery upon a
burgeoning, flourishing village. Moreover, Bibhutida, our village as well as yours, if you would
care to remember, has followed this tradition of sending them away to expiate for their sins.’ He
tried to explain. ‘You are a patriarch, you should know.’ Bibhuti balked at the thought of his so
called well-meaning logic.
‘She is not a bad omen… Arre she is just a child. She has not brought this upon Ghurni, it’s the
damn river. And what tradition? You would still worship the same river, immerse your idols in the
same waters that have swallowed the entire village. And this child? She is a bad omen? Suddenly
she is a burden to endure, huh?’
‘All this is pointless, Bibhutida. She can’t stay here.’ The old man’s dialogue had slipped into a
tyrannical tongue. There was no mistaking the finality of his authority.
Bibhuti was enraged. He spat on the ground next to the man’s feet.
‘And I am not going to leave her here either. Eunuchs!’ He shouted.
The headman’s eyes widened with disbelief and anger at Bibhuti’s accusation. How could this
man from another village disparage him in front of his own people?
Malay was startled at this display of insolence on Bibhuti’s part. He stood stiffly, nervously taking
in the inimical exchange between the two men. It would be censured for months to come, right
on his face and worse still behind his back.
‘I, too, have no intention of leaving this innocent child amongst such an insane and spineless
tribe.’ Bibhuti shouted back in banal distaste of the villagers’ character. He picked up Brinda and
walked away as hundreds of silent heads turned to see the gaunt man and his frail companion,
still weeping, pleading to be left behind with her family, ignorant that she was at the behest of a
hopeless prayer. Then the door of the hut opened suddenly and Jhulan ran out to see the silent
crowd and tore past them to run after Brinda and Bibhuti.
‘Stop, stop, Brinda…’
It was only till he was in a shouting distance of them that Bibhuti turned as Brinda diverted his
attention to the chasing figure. He was crying unabashedly as he charged after them.
‘Don’t take her away…’ he pulled at Bibhuti’s shirt. His face contorted with sobs, he spoke in
staccato splutters between hiccups. Bibhuti gathered he had been crying for some time.
‘I am not taking her away. Your family wouldn’t keep her.’ Bibhuti answered woodenly.
‘I will…I will...’ Jhulan pulled at her leg as Bibhuti put Brinda down. He pulled his sister close to
him and brought her head to his chest.
‘I can’t…I will have to make sure that she reaches a safe place where she can lead her life.’
‘Will she stay with you then?’ Jhulan asked, not letting go of Brinda.
‘Yes, she will…’ he said.
‘I will come for you Brinda…’ Jhulan raised her face to look at him and wiped her eyes.
As Jhulan comforted his sister, Bibhuti stood a silent testimony to a pure promise between a
brother and sister, an untainted exchange between children. Little did they know that for Brinda,
it would prevail upon every moment of her existence. But both didn’t know if she would have the
endless patience to wait or if his promise would be wasted to fate. But for now, it was the
promise Jhulan was most sure about.
‘We have to go…’ Bibhuti bent to pick up Brinda. Jhulan started to cry. He had no idea why his
parents had bent under the headman’s verdict. Helplessness was worn upon their meek strength
that did not let them rebel against a custom whose relevance no longer held any water. He was
too young to understand the complexity invited upon the matured lives for reasons best known
Bibhuti’s anger made him take away Brinda. He snatched her away from Jhulan who unwillingly
had to let go. Brinda looked over Bibhuti’s shoulder and started to weep, one arm outstretched
for her brother and he ran after them for as long as he hoped Bibhuti would finally leave her with
The ties hitherto considered to serve one’s lifetime had frayed owing to these obsolete traditions
and centuries of convenient ignorance. The child bride could not return to her parents’ house.
The tradition abetted the isolation of the young widow for once she grew up she could demand a
share in the fields and sometimes even the livestock. In some cases if the brother-in-law spent on
the funeral of the deceased then the widow had to obligingly part with her share of property as a
mark of gratitude towards the spending. In the illumination of the societal failure their lives were
destined to the dark dungeons of naked reality that had never changed its course. Their social
status decimated to a mere blotch of bad omen, they were relegated to spend their after years in
Banaras or Vrindavan by begging and singing hymns outside the temples. That the Rig Veda
allowed widow remarriage was a dictum conveniently forgotten by the society in favour of the
greed that selfishly stemmed from unfortunate misery of these young women. As for now, the
past and the present stood face-to-face and uncomfortably close. As for Bibhuti, the loss of his
family was still at the bottom of the emotional pile that he had a lifetime to sort through and
unravel. He never let go of Brinda’s hand for a mere second. They spent the night at Birbhum. The
headman had offered them a place for the night. Obliging any more than that could have led him
to social wrath, which he couldn’t afford. That night Bibhuti had vomited blood. A quack had been
sent for and he gloomily announced a disease that apart from being severely contagious was not
going to spare Bibhuti’s life for long. Bibhuti was aware of this. It had been years since the ailment
had been bothering him and hence he had decided upon settling his children in his lifetime. Now
the infection seemed to have worsened, almost taking a turn for the fatal for Bibhuti’s lungs had
soaked in a considerable amount of muddy deluge.
The pradhan had made a suggestion. His sister Vasanti ran an ashram in Banaras that would at
least ensure Brinda’s safety if not two square meals for the day. Bibhuti realised ironically how
fate had brought him to the same crossroads as Malay, one for the defencelessness and the other
for helplessness. Brinda, who was still confused from the spate of recent events, got off the train
at Banaras. Bibhuti held onto her tightly in fear that the moments that had bound them would
evaporate very soon. Burdened by a lost perspective, he had no choice. He hailed a rickshaw and
instructed him to take them to Manikarnika ghat, Nirmal Ashram.
The rickshaw puller, a tall, scrawny, dark-skinned man snuffed out his beedi as his eyes were
instantly riveted to Brinda. ‘Tch…tch…hey bhagwan!’ he muttered under his breath. Brinda, on
the other hand, was still disillusioned about the future that stood waiting for her with her new
‘Baba’. She couldn’t be surer that Jhulan would come for her in a few days. They had not spoken
much since their stay at Birbhum and Bibhuti did not have the courage to say anything to her. He
felt ashamed of leaving her in the circumstances that he had balked at barely a day ago. He could
not show his face to the crowd that would mock at him, jeer at his courage and anger that he had
exhibited a day ago. His tuberculosis was fast spreading and this disease being contagious, soon
he would not be permitted to have people in easy distance of him. Brinda’s future had to be
taken care of. No one had come after them except for silence and disappointment. Brinda had
turned to look at her home but the villagers had averted her gaze, weighed by the burden of the
guilt they inherently felt. The faster she would leave, the better for them to breathe easy.
Brinda sat beside him on the rickety rickshaw and embarked on the ‘end’ of the journey of a