Title: Suralakshmi Villa
Author: Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher: Macmillan, 2020
Links : Amazon
Two days went by. On the third, Ayub drew up at an ancient stone ghat slippery with moss and lichen.
‘Why are you stopping at this God-forsaken spot?’ Muneera exclaimed. ‘We’ll get nothing here.’
‘The next ghat is two and a half miles away. And it’s already past noon.’
Suralakshmi, Pratul and Tara looked around. All they could see was dense forest without a sign of human habitation. The trees had crept right up to the bank. Yet there was a wide stone ghat which, though crumbling in parts, had obviously been impressive once.
‘What is this area called?’ Pratul asked.
‘Noorpur,’ Ayub replied. ‘It used to be an important village, this side of the river, at one time. Noorpur er haat was famous, with farmers and sellers of livestock coming from far and near with their produce. It was the shopping hub for miles around. It had another honour to boast of: Pir Hafez Al-Salam Waidul, who preached a message of love and tolerance between Hindus and Muslims, who declared Ram and Rahim to be one and the same, was born here. He had an aakhara deep in the forest, where his followers congregated every purnima because it was on a full moon eve that he was born and, on another, ninety- three years later, that he attained samadhi. His disciples laid him to rest on the ground in front of the aakhara and built a marble tomb with his name carved over it. He seemed to have held the key to Noorpur’s prosperity. From the time of his death, the village suffered a series of misfortunes. Successive waves of pox and cholera swept over it. Worse followed. Plague, a deadly disease unknown in these parts, found its way from Allah knows where. Half the population died and the other half abandoned their homes and escaped to distant villages. Noorpur was ravaged and the jungle took over. Both aakhara and tomb were buried under weeds and thorn bushes. Babla and wild fig towered over the tomb and it disappeared without a trace. As did his memory.’
‘Stories won’t fill our stomachs!’ Muneera snapped at her husband. ‘There’s nothing to be had here. Neither fish nor fowl. What shall I cook? My head?’
‘Make khichuri and alu bhaja,’ Pratul said comfortably. He loved khichuri.
‘And omelettes.’ This came from Shushi, who couldn’t abide potatoes.
‘And omelettes,’ Pratul seconded the proposal. Putting an arm around his younger daughter, he drew her close. ‘Serve the khichuri with plenty of ghee, Muneera, and some of your chhada tentul. What do you say, Shushi?’
Pratul strode off into the woods taking the girls with him. The three lads had disappeared already. Suralakshmi and Tara stood undecided, wondering whether they should follow, when their attention was caught by a large boat drawing up at the ghat. It had about twenty passengers. There was a party of Muslim bauls, recognizable from their shaggy beards and motley coloured robes. Two of them carried chimtas – huge tongs with bells attached to them – and one had a drum strapped on his back. The others seemed to be ordinary villagers. Some wore dhutis and some, lungis with gamchhas on their shoulders. There were women in the boat as well as children of different ages. All had a festive air about them as though looking forward to a good time.
Getting out of the boat, most of the passengers offloaded something or the other. One dumped a sack of rice on the ghat; another, half a dozen clay pots. One woman carried a pumpkin at her hip and, another, a bundle of greens as large as a haystack on her head. Ayub, who was setting up the awning for Muneera, called out, ‘O hé Ramratan! Off to Bishu Pagli’s dera?’
The man called Ramratan looked up. Shading his eyes from the sun with his hand, he said, ‘Oh! It’s you, Ayub Bhai. Yes. We’re all on our way to the tomb. It’s Maghi Purnima tonight and there’ll be a huge gathering and a grand feast as soon as the moon is up. Why don’t you join us?’
‘I can’t … not tonight. I’m taking a babu and his family to Malda. If I don’t set sail in a couple of hours I won’t reach Durlabhpur by sunset. These winter evenings are so short!’
‘True enough,’ Ramratan nodded, then, stepping carefully on the broken steps he and the others walked into the forest, following a thin track that wound in and out of the trees.
‘Where are all these people going?’ Suralakshmi asked. ‘They are on their way to Pir Hafez Al-Salam Waidul’s tomb.’ ‘But didn’t you just tell us that the tomb had disappeared without a trace?’
‘Bishu Pagli discovered it. With her own hands she cleared the thorn bushes and weeds that had covered the tomb and brought it to light again.’
‘Who is Bishu Pagli?’
‘I’ll tell you her story. But let me first get a fire going.’ ‘What is there to tell?’ Muneera, still miffed at having to cook something as mundane as khichuri, said crossly. ‘A mad woman appears out of the blue and declares that a man, dead for two hundred years, is her husband. And people not only believe her but they also turn her into a godwoman.’
‘Really!’ Suralakshmi and Nayantara exclaimed together. ‘It sounds very interesting. Tell us the story, Ayub.’
Ayub spread a mat for the two under a wild chalta tree and sat a few yards away fanning himself with his gamchha. ‘The exact origins of Bishu Pagli are unknown,’ he began solemnly. ‘Some say she was Bishweshwari, the lost daughter of Chidananda Sapui of Bonkhuri village of Manbhum. Others claim that she was a bedeni called Bish-hari.’
‘What is a bedeni?’ Suralakshmi asked.
‘Bedés are snake charmers and bedénis their females. They belong to a nomadic tribe whose members, though many of them are namazi Muslims, worship Manasa, the goddess of snakes. Another name for Manasa is Bish-hari. Those who claim that Bishu Pagli is Bish-hari are of the opinion that, in one of their periodic migrations, Bish-hari got separated from the rest of her tribe and wandered in the forest for several years.’
‘And the other version?’
‘Bishweshwari, Bishu to her doting parents, was Chidananda’s only child. She was a perfectly normal girl till the age of twelve. She played with other girls, helped her mother with her housework and even went to the pathshala. Then … then when … she … she was …’ Ayub coughed delicately and darted an embarrassed glance at Muneera who gave a snort of disdain.
‘Go on, Ayub,’ Nayantara suppressed a smile. ‘We understand.’
‘A change came over her. She became very quiet and withdrawn. She stopped going to the pathshala. Her friends entreated her to join them in their games but she wouldn’t leave the house. She sat for hours together, thinking her own thoughts, ignoring her mother’s calls for help. Another strange thing started happening. Every purnima, as soon as the moon rose, she fell into a dead faint. All the splashings of water, rubbing of hands and feet and calling out of her name could not revive her. But, the next day, she rose at dawn and went about as usual, with no memory of what had transpired during the night. Physicians were called in. They examined her carefully, left brews and potions, roots and herbs with detailed instructions of how they were to be administered. But none of their efforts yielded any result. Then, one day, she disappeared.’
‘Disappeared?’ Suralakshmi exclaimed.
Ayub nodded. ‘She couldn’t be found anywhere. Her
distracted father ran from village to village looking for her. He even lodged a complaint at the kotwali in Murshidabad.’
‘She wasn’t found?’
‘No. This incident took place seven years ago. Then, one hot summer night, five and a half years later, a boatman passing this ghat thought he saw a fire in the woods. He was intrigued and somewhat alarmed. Forest fires in summer are dangerous and can spread in minutes. Tying his boat to a tree trunk, he walked through the jungle till he came to a clearing. There were signs of uprooted weeds and bushes and someone had obviously cut down some trees. He could see stumps all around. Suddenly, he spotted a human figure. A young woman was squatting on the ground, her eyes fixed on a slab of crumbling marble. It was a tomb, worn and yellowing with age and it had some letters carved on it. Being illiterate, he had no idea of what the letters said. At the foot of the tomb was a row of flaring stakes. This was the fire that he had seen.
‘“What are you doing here?” The boatman asked.
‘“Waiting to be joined to my lord.” The answer came promptly, as though she was expecting the question.
‘“Who is your lord?”
‘This time she did not speak, only pointed to the tomb. ‘“Who cleared the forest?”
‘“With what?” He looked around but there was no sign of any implements she could have used.
‘“My strength of body and mind. If one has the will, the way becomes easy.”
‘“Do you live alone in the jungle?”
‘“Aren’t you afraid?”
‘“Why should I be afraid? My lord is with me.”
‘“What do you eat?”
‘“My lord provides me with all I need.”
‘“Your lord lies in his tomb. What can he provide? You’re
mad!” He laughed.
‘“You are right” The woman laughed with him. A peal of merry laughter. “I am mad. My name is Bishu Pagli,” she waved a hand around the clearing, “and this is my dera.”
‘The boatman went back home and related his experience to his friends and neighbours. Word spread quickly. A strange woman had unearthed the tomb of Pir Hafez Al-Salam Waidul in the abandoned village of Noorpur. She was living alone in the forest guarding the tomb which she claimed was that of her husband in an earlier incarnation. That she possessed superhuman powers could not be doubted. She had cleared a large area of jungle tract, even torn down trees, with her bare hands. Curiosity was aroused. Men and woman from both communities, Hindu and Muslim, started coming to Noorpur to witness the phenomenon. But even those who came to scoff went back charged with other feelings. There was something about her that drew people. They came again and again and, gradually, a band of disciples was formed. The mahotsav on full moon nights was revived.’
Ayub took a deep breath and continued: ‘Bishu Pagli’s followers are poor rural folk but everyone brings something for the feast. Even the pots used for cooking are contributed. A huge meal is cooked and eaten by the light of the moon. There is singing and dancing. People place chadars on the tomb and seek Bishu’s blessings. It is said that her blessing works like magic.’
As Ayub was concluding his story, another boat drew up at the ghat and a dozen or so men and women got out and started walking towards the track in the woods. One woman carried a basket of hog plums at her hip, each the size of a large guava and bursting with sweet and tart juice. Suralakshmi’s mouth watered.
‘Let’s go with them, Tara.’ So saying, she rose to her feet. ‘We’ll pay our respects to the Pir and seek the blessings of Bishu Pagli.’
‘Would that be wise? What do you think?’ Tara shot a nervous glance at Ayub.
‘Yes, yes. Why not?’ Ayub set her fears at rest. ‘The dera is only half a mile from here and the woods are completely safe.’
‘But don’t take too long,’ Muneera warned. ‘My cooking will be done in an hour.’
The two women followed the boat party along the thin track that wound in and out of the trees.
‘Do you believe what the locals say? That Bishu Pagli cleared the jungle with bare hands?’ Suralakshmi asked her friend cautiously.
‘Of course not. These are all tall tales.’
‘But … the faith of so many people! Can it be swept away by mere logic? There’s something beyond logic … I only feel it … I don’t know.’
As they approached the clearing, sounds of lusty singing and beating of drums came to their ears. The bauls they had seen earlier were sitting under a banyan tree singing in loud rustic voices:
Mursheed dhono he, kemone chinibo tomare?
Kacche nyao na, dekha dyao na, aar koto thakibo doore …
Master mine, my precious gem! How will I know you?
If you don’t reveal your face,
if you do not draw me close,
if you keep me far away … Master mine, my precious gem! How will I know you?
The three boys from the boat were sitting with the group. Hamid was singing, tossing his head and flinging his arms in the air. Fakhrul was clanging a huge pair of cymbals, with Aftaab keeping the beat on the wooden frame of the drum with a stick. The trio saw them enter and grinned sheepishly.
Suralakshmi looked around. In the centre of the clearing was the tomb. It was covered with a green velvet cloth on which symbols of Islam were embroidered in silver and gold thread. A lamp burned at the foot and the air was hazy with incense smoke. A long pit in which faggots were burning had been dug at the far end. And over the rose-red embers, in a dozen clay tureens, khichuri was spouting clouds of fragrant steam. Labda, a stew of mixed vegetables, was bubbling merrily in giant vats. Pumpkin and brinjal fritters were being fried and stacked in huge baskets. In an enormous wok, fruits and berries were simmering gently. Suralakhshmi could see tamarind, chalta, hog plums and topa kul cooking together with lumps of date palm molasses. The place was bursting with people and the air was redolent with delicious odours. Colourful scarves of cheap silk hung from the branches of the banyan tree and fluttered from the stakes planted around the tomb.
‘Buy a scarf, Didi,’ Aftaab’s voice came to her ears. He had left the bauls and was standing next to her. ‘Tie it to one of the stakes after making a wish.’
‘Which is Bishu Pagli’s dera?’
‘The whole area is known as the dera. If you mean her hut it’s there next to the man selling scarves.’ He pointed a finger. ‘She is sitting right in front. You can’t see her because she is surrounded by people.’
‘Let’s go.’ Suralakshmi smiled at Tara, her eyes dancing. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans.’
‘What colour would you like, Didi?’ The man sitting before a heap of rainbow-hued silk looked keenly into her face.
‘Aha! Blue for the wide blue sky! Where birds fly and clouds float. Blue for release.’ Handing her a wisp of silk he turned to Tara. ‘And you, Boudi?’
‘Red for warmth, love and happiness.’ A smile lit up his face. A row of perfect white teeth flashed in a lean brown face.
The two women giggled self-consciously as they tied their scarves to the stakes. Each glanced at the other wondering whether she had made a wish. Then both went in search of Bishu Pagli. They tried to push their way through the crowd but it was difficult. Suddenly a voice came to their ears.
‘Make way for my daughters. They have come from very far …’ A passage opened up for them like magic and within seconds they were standing in front of a young woman. She was thin and dark with eyes so unnaturally bright that it was difficult to look into them. Her hair, which looked as though it had never seen a comb, hung in dreadlocks to her waist. She sat on the bare earth before a crowd of men and women, some standing, some squatting and some moving about. Suralakshmi and Nayantara were in a fix. They didn’t know what was expected of them. Were they supposed to touch her feet? But she was so much younger!
They glanced at one another in dismay.
Bishu Pagli saved the situation. Putting out her hands, she drew them forward. ‘You have the face of an angel,’ she smiled at Tara. Her teeth were stained with brown patches and one incisor was broken. ‘Your eyes, deep as the ocean, spread light and love wherever you go.’
She turned her eyes on Suralakshmi and gazed long and hard at her; as though unsure of what she was seeing. ‘You are special,’ she said at last. ‘You have a heart as wide and open as the skies above. And a mind that stretches beyond all the lines created by man. But the world you live in is not infinite. It is hemmed in by limits and divisions. Tread on it with caution, daughter. Measure your steps with care. Remember my words … caution and care.’ Her voice faded away. Suralakshmi understood that their time with her was over …
About the Book
Suralakshmi Choudhury, a gynaecologist based in Delhi, falls in love at the age of thirty-one, marries and has a son. Suddenly, five years after his birth, she abandons everything including the house gifted to her by her father and her flourishing medical career, to travel to an obscure village in Bengal and open a free clinic for women and children. She leaves her son behind but takes along a poor Muslim girl, she has adopted. What makes her take this strange decision?
Suralakshmi’s actions confound her relatives and it is from their accounts of the incidents, letters, memoirs, and flashbacks – from a more distant past – that the story comes together and the layers and nuances in the enigmatic character of Suralakshmi are brought to light.
In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti blends the narrative of the novel with history, legend, music, religion, folklore, rituals and culinary practices of both Hindus and Muslims, and creates a fascinating tapestry which reveals the syncretic nature of Bengal and her people.
About the Author:
Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
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