Title: Footprints in the Bajra
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: Cedar Books, 2010
We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”
Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.
“It’s a challenge to take a political play to people here,” Suryakant Sahay tells us during one recess. “Some can really get angered by it.”
An orphan boy who lands up as a bonded labourer in a carpet factory breaks loose and also sets other children free. Denied compassion and justice, they form a group to retaliate on the system that refuses to change. This philosophy can lead to a flashpoint I am told. At one of the fairgrounds outside the village after the show is over, one sturdy man comes forward accusing us of propagating radical ideologies. As it is the Maoists have made our life hell, he grumbles. What more do you folks want now? We show him counterpoints. This way I’m sure this feudal society is shaken up in some way.
Most fascinating are local women who have rarely encountered a city woman before, other than in B-grade Bollywood movies that run in the crowded bazaars. Women go out only with their families. After initial curiosity subsides, these women approach me, run their course fingers on my arm, and make sure I am not made of fragile porcelain. “She is not even fair skinned! So unlike actresses! Such short hair she has!” they exclaim. Emboldened, they laugh. Often I have problems understanding their dialect, but they nod and smile and examine my palms. “She has never cooked, she has never held firewood,” the refrain goes, but they still smile at me. Muskaan comes to my rescue at these moments. “Halo, halo,” she shoos them away in the local dialect. “Learn from her play, you miserable wenches! You’ll be stuck with your heads inside clay ovens while she’ll go study in America.” She winks at me after delivering the concluding comment. She accompanies us to several places despite her nearly endless chores of crushing grains, fetching grocery and running sundry errands that require her to be away from home for hours. We’ve come to realize that Muskaan is also the right hand of Headmaster Sahay. He heeds her opinion in many things. Although eighteen or nineteen, she’s capable of assuming the sudden demeanour of a forty-year-old from time to time. Sombre. Reflective. Angry. At those times, I feel troubled.
Past three weeks, I’m no longer afraid of sleeping alone with the window open while the bajra rustles outside, or with a musk shrew darting through a hole in the roughly plastered walls startling alley cats waiting for mice. The shock of seeing a kangaroo court – I haven’t told my troupe members about it – has worn off by now. I’m almost reconciled to the idea that villagers don’t always trust the government, the police. Corruption is so rampant. Muskaan still accompanies me around the village. I even did a theatre workshop with the kids and another with the women. I no longer imagine dead bodies in the fields, although Muskaan keeps sounding her warning now and then.
“Why do you still say that Muskaan?” I look at her from the corner of my eyes while keeping notes of my travel in the country.
We have this post-dinner chat almost every night when she tells me startling tales of rural India I’d never encounter once back in the city. In turn, I speak about my dreams of a life not subject to predestined mores. My question elicits undefined facial gestures, pleasant or angry I don’t know.
“Don’t you think you should fine-tune your play a bit now that you have seen life here firsthand?” In a snap she sounds very grown-up.
Muskaan plans to attend her evening college the following day. She invites our troupe to come along, insisting it’d be a useful experience. I wonder what we might see there other than a few surly adult students, underpaid teachers, and broken blackboards.
“Muskaan knows a lot of people even outside Durjanpur,” Headmaster Sahay says proudly, encouraging us to go with her.
The so-called college is in a dingy little town called Banka, a few miles away by bus. Her classmates include a union fellow, a commercial painter, a widow and a social worker aspiring to find a job in Delhi. Maybe we can enrich our play and help them too. We take the morning bus. It’s a day trip doing some necessary shopping, eating at a place where electricity is not considered a rare commodity and maybe visiting a cinema theatre. Tired of doing shows we sing and clap in the bus. Too long we’ve been contour-less forms in dim kerosene or paraffin pressure lamps, too long travelling over hard dirt roads where rugged jeeps routinely busted their tires and rattled our bones, and too long walking on mud banks between slushy paddy fields to reach our destinations where macadamised roads are a perpetual myth. A picnic it is.
The town of Banka with its jostling cycle-rickshaws ringing their bells in a bid to outdo each other, blaring bus horns and paan-spitting boisterous crowd, looks a nice change. Chaotic. Cathartic for some of us after spending weeks in the village where the only local telephone is located in the headman’s house, the health centre is miles away – as is the police station – and the television is news of the twenty-third century.
“Sheherwali,” Muskaan jibes. “So this is what you like, a crowded town? Dirty, smelly and pushy. Did you enjoy the movie?”
“Yeah, well,” I shrug, feeling good with my freshly shampooed hair.
“What about the greasy restaurant meal? I am sure those electric fans overhead were a bonus?” Of course!
“And you went berserk buying toiletries and what not.” She starts laughing.
“Muskaan,” I say. “I can’t live among the bajra all my life. Do you know I haven’t seen my reflection clearly in a mirror in electric light for nearly a month now? Maybe I got blackheads on my nose, thousands of them, yet I can’t do a thing.”
She leads us into a weathered building near the busy Banka market, its sorry state highlighted by gloomy yellow walls patchy with peeling plaster. We climb a crumbling staircase and enter a damp-smelling small room with some desks and chairs, most of them unstable as we try to sit or lean on them. The walls are bare, save for a crumpled calendar depicting a workman-type fellow smilingly holding up a wrench-spanner-hammer type of instrument in his grip. Hovering in the background is presumably the wife in a red sari, carrying an infant. Happy family. Ideal society. Muskaan introduces us to the union guy whose looks befit that of an office executive or a businessman – tall, smooth and persuasive. His handsome jaw – sporting a starched shirt collar underneath – and his bluish shaven cheeks don’t betray any angst characteristic of union leaders I remotely know. His probing glance scans my face for fleeting moments, oozing city sleekness. He’s not a villager. I start reasoning. No man in Durjanpur has looked at me like this for weeks.
“This is Avadhut.”
He uses only one name. We nod and greet each other.
“Meet our sheherwali … a brave woman. Her name is Nora.”
I hope Muskaan is serious about the introduction. I’m grateful she remembers my real name although calling me ‘city woman’ is her pet jeer.
“She and her friends are here with their play. She plans to study creative writing, uh, in America, am I right?” Muskaan looks at me, patronisingly.
Avadhut – the name totters on our tongues – doesn’t seem to be impressed by the mention of America. Thirty-ish, suave and slow speaking, he sizes up our lot with eagle eyes. Among the adult students the widow is a good-looking thirty-year old. Probably she comes here for the alert dashing Avadhut with his prominent sideburns, I think rather slyly. The commercial painter and the social worker chat in a low voice, they don’t seem interested in us. I’m a little surprised for there are hardly any books around. Probably evening colleges are like this all the time. I’ve never been to one.
“Where’s your teacher Muskaan?”
The teacher is absent today. Avadhut will lead the class, she informs me. Is he a qualified teacher? No, but he does such part-time teaching. Apart from union leadership.
“Shouldn’t we be going?” Safdar nudges.
But Avadhut has something to say. He requests us to do a show in a place close to Durjanpur. We haven’t been there because we were told it’s a trouble spot. Known for political skirmishes in the past. No one might come to our show there, Sharan argues.
“No, that‘s not true,” Avadhut raises his eyes and repeats. “Please come there. That’s a meeting ground for peasants, traders, potters, weavers – both villagers and townspeople. I’ll personally make sure you have the best audience ever.”
Fine. As long as it’s not too far from Durjanpur, our base camp, it should be fine. Sharan gives in and nods. We all nod.
“Now go eat more golgappa or chaat. You won’t find all that in Durjanpur. And come back in an hour, okay?” Muskaan hurries us out. Not waiting for us to say yes.
Later in the bus, sitting next to me, she hums a tune. I feel sleepy.
“Just a one-hour class?” I mumble drowsily, under the influence of a butter-naan-chicken-tikka lunch. “Is that enough for you? You need to be in a full-fledged college.”
“I will, I will.” She stops humming, and stares in the style of Avadhut. Probingly.
In green clothes she’s like a tender bajra shoot. I want to ask more but doze off.
Avadhut didn’t lie. The place where we have come to do our show seems well attended. I’m told it’s a junction between the village of Durjanpur and a weekly market called Chhinnamasta – “the headless one”. Although the name of a Hindu deity, it creeps me out to hear such a name.
“So, sheherwali, do you know there used to be a temple of Goddess Chhinnamasta over there? In olden times, they performed human sacrifices. The British colonial rulers got it stopped. Even then for many many years dacoits and thugs made the derelict temple their hideout, to pounce on passers-by,” Muskaan says.
“Now?” I wrap around my bright scarf protectively. I deemed that piece of fabric to be necessary at this new venue, attended by hundreds, nearly all male.
“Now there’s nothing but the name,” Muskaan says. “You can rename your play Ghost at the Chhinnamasta Temple if you want!”
She’s obviously joking. Knows I’m a chicken, scared of whispers or shadows. Our nightly chats have familiarized her to the vulnerable sides of city women like me.
Avadhut has made sure there’s enough light all around. Those archaic things called paraffin pressure lamps, or simply ‘petromaxes’ to the locals, glow with their sizzling bright white auras. We stand in a clearing with mammoth trees hovering at a short distance. Someone can even climb those trees and watch us – or easily, pounce on us like in the olden times. I let my imagination rest and start concentrating on the play. I have three roles. First, a mother who dies leaving an orphan boy, then, a socialite who fusses on bonded labourer kids being freed, and finally, I become the metaphor of an uprising or an angry goddess or time – whatever one may interpret.
“Uncle Sahay – your mausaji – didn’t come,” I casually comment before I leave Muskaan’s side.
“Ah, yeah, for him this place is a little too volatile. If something goes wrong it’ll be tough for him to handle. Anyway, you go start your play,” she virtually commands me. “Don’t expect me soon after it’s over. I got to watch a couple of things.”
She vanishes. I squint my eyes to see which way she goes, catching a glimpse of Muskaan – she’s wearing yellow again today – and her helplessly twitching braid. I also look around for Avadhut. He was seen a moment ago checking the lights, shouting instructions at people. Our eyes did meet once. I tried to figure out if there was something from the other day because I never met him after that evening. He looked very focused, as if he had prepared for an exam or something, forehead slightly taut and the handsome mouth pressed tight together. I can’t see him again, but he must be watching us perform.
Our voices ring in that empty clearing and bounce back from the looming trees and the massive human border of the arena as we sing and say our lines. The audience oohs and aahs. The petromaxes on bamboo poles hiss as their flames burn noisily, like snakes coiled over those posts. Our shadows hop, skip and jump over the red terrain and suddenly I lose my concentration. I see the Chhinnamasta’s shadows, headless and menacing. But wait, I am the goddess in this play. I am the symbol of human spirit and boundless time. I’m quite sure it’s an illusion that takes over my mind, when a burning arrow swoops into the arena and hits a wooden box, one of our meagre props. It bursts into flames. Commotion spills all over. Light and shadow jostle to find an escape route as people circling the arena heave, push and run in all directions. Our whole team stands frightened in an unscripted freeze.
“The landowners’ army has come, run!” Screams a man picking up a stick.
I want to imagine this as an extension of our play, a dramatic sequel. Nazim and Sharan pull me. Others scamper. Another burning arrow swoops down, this time striking down a petromax lamp. It bursts like a bomb. Seems I’m watching some corny Western without the customary “yee-haw”.
“Move on, come with me!” Avadhut comes rushing from nowhere. His handsome stern face sweaty and angry. He shouts back instructions in the local dialect and a mass of people behind us rise like a giant wave at unseen enemies in the darkness that dwells outside the lighted arena. The primordial trees not so far away actually shake violently, as if possessed by a spirit. I actually see men leaping off branches with machetes in hands. Now I shudder. Are these the loyal men of Goddess Chhinnamasta, the headless one? The medieval dacoits Muskaan was talking about? Where is Muskaan in this melée? Avadhut ignores my concern and escorts us, urging us to whisk up our pace. I can’t hear my own voice against screams that seem to chase us like a twister. We run clear of the arena to wherever Avadhut takes us. My scarf slips behind me.
“Don’t look back, don’t look back …” Avadhut pants.
We speed past the great trees, past red mounds of soil and pebbles that feel like roller blades under our feet and before I realize, we enter a bajra field.
At once dense and dark.
The shoots spear the darkness to rise above. I feel moist soil underneath my feet and slip every so often. The rustling sound within the crop that greets us reminds me of a vast sea busily sifting sand. We helplessly drift inside the tossing dusky mass.
“Are these Hindus come to hunt out Muslims?” With blood curdling shouts falling behind us, Safdar at last finds his voice.
“No, no!” Avadhut doesn’t slow down.
“What’s this landowners’ army?” Sharan’s words tremble. “Who are they attacking? Are the Maoists here too?”
The bajra plants spin around us in a trance of dervish dance, we with it. The sharp leaves scratch my cheeks.
“Don’t talk,” shouts Avadhut in a whisper. “We aren’t out of danger yet.” He looks back.
As if to complement his comment, pandemonium ensues behind within the dense bajra field where we passed. A flare soars too, maybe another fire arrow.
“Damn, can’t be they caught up with us here,” his face a black orb in the moonless night, he swears heavily. For a second he stands still and tries hearing something. Then he whistles. We huddle together fearing marauding men swarming over us. A whistle floats back and we run again, pushed by Avadhut.
I start whimpering, almost weeping. A scuffle probably takes place not far behind us on the moist soil. “Oh my god, oh my god!” I finally let my tears and words flow and feel howling is the only way I can remain safe.
I miss home, the electricity, my carefree city life, seeing my face again in the mirror, and even Muskaan for some confounding reason. Like mad horses, all these thoughts trample my forehead. Just then, a gunshot goes off nearby deafening me momentarily. A yellow flash – recognizable even in the dark – sweeps by me into the ominous bajra crops. I choke on the smokiness and the suddenness of what I see. I ignore Avadhut and follow the direction of the bullet sound and get deeper inside a territory where I’ll never go again. I see a small dark form inside the crop, illuminated only by its lemony attire. A country gun smokes from her hands. She crouches like a tiger with its tail not thumping, her long black braid resting by her.
“Sheherwali,” she whispers. “Now that you’ve found me out, stay with me.”
I have no idea what has happened. I’ll know later. Shivering by Muskaan’s side, I hear whistle after whistle float back and forth, birdcalls in the dark of night with only fire shots flying over my head. Finally the shots dwindle and fireflies replace the space above our head. Muskaan relaxes from her crouching position.
“Man, this was tough, but we can’t let our mission fail.” She wipes her forehead with her sleeves, and adds scowling, “Why didn’t you go with Avadhut?”
I stare at the gun. What mission is she talking about? Is she … a Maoist?
“You need to run faster sheherwali.” Muskaan tugs at my wrist. “We must find the right direction and get away before dawn.”
We have been in the labyrinth for hours going round and round.
I find myself scurrying again through the great tangle this vast bajra field is. Darkness before dawn is always so imposing, I feel it for the first time, for it doesn’t betray there could ever be a trembling morning waiting, grateful in collecting the soft light thrown its way and with happy realization that it has another day to pass. Brambles tug at my feet while Muskaan keeps running, hardly looking back. She seeks out the alleyways inside this green cover of fearful deeds, darting between shoots and leaves and stalks. I try hard to keep up but I miss her footprints. And then I fall, actually slip. I lie face down on puddles of water or slush. I spit mud.
“What have you done!” Hearing me go down Muskaan turns.
I totter and wipe my face. I taste saltiness with the mud – a saltiness I’m not used to. Clammy, bitter and animate. Fresh human sap.
“We could’ve got you an early bus to the train station. Now you’ve stained yourself with blood all over,” she hisses. “You don’t want the police after you.”
We can’t return to Headmaster Sahay’s house. We must find Avadhut and the others. We believe the fireflies will lead us to wherever they are. Away from the inert corpse lying on the damp soil. Away from Chinnamasta’s country. I follow Muskaan like a wounded tigress, this time without tears or fears.
About the book:
Struggle. Revolution. Change. Are these words simply meant for chanting or do they emerge as real agents of social justice in a country where the divides stand taller than the towering shopping malls and sky-licking urban ghettos? Footprints in the Barjra by Nabina Das is a novel about the dark realities that even today hound India. a thriving modern democracy in the eyes of the world. It is also a coming-of-age story about a young Maoist recruit named Muskaan from Bihar who meets Nora, a student-activist from Delhi. The story of Muskaan’s transition in belief and action unfolds in this work that travels with ease across idioms and identities to engage with the personal interests the author has in popular culture, myths and histories.
More on the book:
About the author:
Nabina Das is the author of five books of fiction and poetry. Sanskarnama (Red River) is her latest poetry collection. Nabina is a 2017 Sahapedia-UNESCO fellow, a 2016 Commonwealth Writers feature correspondent, and a 2012 Charles Wallace creative writing alumna (Stirling University). Her work has been published in Poetry (Poetry Foundation), Prairie Schooner, Caravan, Economic and Political Weekly, Indian Literature, Dhaka Tribune, Indian Quarterly, Scroll, Hindu Business Line, Cha – an Asian Literary Journal, etc. Hailing from Guwahati, Assam, Nabina is the co-editor of 40 under 40, an anthology of post-globalisation poetry (Poetrywala).
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