Stories

Indigo

Synopsis

 

This is a story of revolution at the time of the early days of British India. This is the beginning of “the whole British imperial story – triumphs, deceits, decencies, kindness, cruelties and all” – (Jan Morris). This is the story of miracles and wonder, comical events, despair and destruction happen in the lives of the two women. One of who is Indian and married against her will to an English sycophant and the other, younger woman is an Englishwoman who has been sent to India to find a husband.

 

The story of Indigo unfolds the imperial story played out in 19th Century India over the ”new gold” – Indigo – by gangs of Indians and English buccaneers, by angst-ridden would-be thespians, social climbers and dacoits; as the two women work out their destinies.

 

Paul Teak

Chapter One

(1)

Minutes, hours, days, years pass and never return yet we believe in permanency. Contracts are forged – with lasting permanency in mind. Of all contracts that aim at and dream of permanency and cut across borders, peoples and religions is the marriage contract that is the most ephemeral contract. There was a time when marriage was considered as natural as birth – or death. Pyarelal Mohan Dutta belonged to the time.

He had a late and reluctant marriage because it was ‘natural’ to marry but secretly, he believed marriage to be a ‘unnatural’ economic burden for a man. He could not come to terms with the thought of financially supporting anyone other than himself and at a pinch, his widowed mother.

He had a late and reluctant marriage because it was ‘natural’ to marry but secretly he believed marriage to be an ‘unnatural’ economic burden for a man. He could not come to terms with the thought of financially supporting anyone other than himself and at a pinch, his widowed mother.

Pyarelal did not like sharing or spending money. His pleasure lay in running his fingers through his growing piles of shiny coins, in hearing the sweet melody of coins rubbing against each other.

His mother never could understand her only child’s powerful desire for money and money alone. She had proposed several wealthy marriage contracts to her son. But he had shaken his head, curtly refused the proposals and continued amassing coins and gold from the English East India Company and its officers. He did so by supplying them with the Indigo needed for dyeing the textiles shipped from Bengal, India, to distant England.

All was going rather well for the traders and buyers of Indigo till a few farmers began refusing to grow Indigo. They said that their land was being ruined by Indigo. This was when Pyarelal and a few other regular suppliers of the dye conspired with some officers of the East India Company to launch their own Indigo plantations.

Unfortunately, this was also the exasperating time when Pyarelal’s mother took to complaining about her age, her aching bones, her failing eyesight, and demanded that he marry. She said, “I need someone to massage my old legs ... I need some help at home,” she said.

But Pyarelal was then on the vanguard of the English rampage for money from Indigo. He could not pause. Not at a time like this. He brushed aside his mother’s complaints with a stern “You don’t have a sense of proportion! You cannot imagine the money I am about to make from the English. I don’t have time for marriage now!”

“But you are getting old. Who will marry an old man?” She wailed.

“Oh there are plenty of brides for rich men. I didn’t say I won’t marry, I just said I’ll marry in a while!”

Yet his mother complained. She said, “I am proud of you son, but I need a daughter-in-law … to oil my hair … to look after you by cooking your favourite dishes …” But Pyarelal was adamant about not marrying at the time.

The East India Company officers were growing impatient – and greedy. They demanded more indigo both for the official and the unofficial consignments of Bengal textiles that were sent in the six months long journeys to England. They said to Pyarelal and others of his ilk, “Come on, and get a move on! Where are the plantations you promised?  Whip the lazy farmers into shape and make them produce. We shall buy whatever is grown!”

At about the time Pyarelal’s mother went on the first of several hunger strikes to force her son to marry, Pyarelal performed an Indigo coup.

Scouring the green rice fields of Bengal, Pyarelal put his ears to the ground, found pockets of discontent, want, and need. He banded together several poor farmers who owned small crop-fields and coerced the men to cultivate Indigo instead of rice. Unhappy with their lot these farmers gave their lands over to Indigo plantations carved out with the gold that the petty officers of the Company had entrusted Pyarelal with. Before the year was out, the new Indigo plantation owners among the officers of the Company were very happy indeed with Pyarelal Mohan Dutta.

Eventually, just as his mother entered the seventh in the series of hunger strikes, the Company appointed him the Dewan or the chief clerk cum collector of one of the biggest Indigo plantations Pyarelal had himself founded. Dizzy with his accumulation of wealth on one hand and dizzy with dread that he would be held responsible for his mother’s death, on the other hand; Pyarelal Mohan Dutta, the Dewan, finally submitted to his mother’s will and agreed to marry.

His mother recovered miraculously and she speedily arranged the Dewan’s marriage to Satisundari.

The girl was fifteen years old, a little old for marriage but then the Dewan was quite old himself, nearing forty years. She was beautiful, spirited and quick of wit but Satisundari was also the youngest of seven daughters. Her father was a modestly well to do man who was willing to provide a substantial dowry, relieved at getting his last daughter off his hands.

Satisundari had always known she could treat her father’s home as merely a brief stopover. Trained since childhood for this inevitability, she came into marriage to be a support for her mother-in-law and to be dutiful towards her husband. She had no great dreams of romantic love. Yet she could not force herself to like, respect or even to care for the man who became her husband.

She often wondered when it was that she began to nurse a dislike for her husband. Was it at the first glimpse she had of him … under the bridal canopy when she had removed the paan leaf covering her face and for the first time seen his pale and blood less face and his blazing eyes? The only bit of colour in his face came from his burning eyes that coveted … not her, but her dowry – the bridal jewels she wore.

Paan leaf: a mildly aphrodisiac after-meal mouth freshener also used for Hindu sacred rituals 

Her mother had told her as she left her parent’s home “Always keep your husband happy.”

So it was that on their first night together, her husband burrowed into all her jewel studded chains and fell asleep, ecstasy on his face. She had lain stiff beside him and thought she had done well by her mother.

Every night for some months after that Satisundari had worn all her dowry – the ropey pearls, all the gold chains around her neck and slept a full and peaceful night’s sleep.

But then, one rainy dawn, her husband carefully arranged her necklaces on her chest, flipped her sari up and did something to her that made her hurt. Hurt so bad that she had wanted to kick out and scrabble to safety. But with his bony knees he had parted her legs and kept them parted. He skewered her hips to the bed till she bled. And his hard fingers had gripped her breasts and pulled at her nipples till she cried out in pain. Then he had grunted and suddenly let her go. With one careless hand he had pulled her sari down and said, “Better clean up the blood. The mess you have made!”

Satisundari was a new bride. Although she had been tutored to never speak back to her husband. In fact, never to speak with her head up, or head uncovered, she reacted with fury, “Clean up, my mess? My mess! How dare you hurt me and then expect me to clean up after you?”

The Dewan smiled his thin smile and turning his back to her, went back to sleep.

Satisundari eventually did have to clean up. She was embarrassed about the blood, wondering why her periods had suddenly appeared. But then, she soon realized what it was that had made her bleed. And she also realized the Dewan was going to torture her endlessly unless she did something to stop him. But what could she do? If she struggled he seemed to enjoy it. If she lay lifeless and still, he seemed to enjoy that as well. So, Satisundari, learnt to let him get it over with. Except that throughout her ordeal she glared at him with hard and angry eyes.

Some months later her mother-in-law eyed Satisundari’s slight belly and asked her, “When was the last time you had your periods?” This set Satisundari crying.

Satisundari bitterly complained about her husband’s nightly attacks on her. And that was when Satisundari received elementary information on human procreation from her sympathetic mother-in-law, who started her lecture with “Men are beasts...”

The very next day Satisundari slipped, fell and miscarried.

After the third such miscarriage her mother-in-law suspiciously eyed Satisundari and said, “It’s strange how you keep slipping, falling and having miscarriages.” But no sooner had she voiced her suspicion to Satisundari, the woman fell prey to snakebite and died.

The neighbours wondered how the viper had sneaked inside the house to bite none but the elderly widow. Soon after, Satisundari began to be considered by the neighbours as one of those unlucky ones - the sort of woman who can never hold a child in her womb “A barren woman she is too, the sort of female who invites death and misfortune!”

Satisundari of course could not care less about what was being said about her.

Two more miscarriages later, ten year old Puti came into her life.

The orphaned child of a distant and poor relation, Puti was placed in the Dewan’s home because the Dewan needed a maid at practically no cost. The neighbours considered Puti the just companion for someone like Satisundari. The villagers said, “That grotesque Puti and the Dewan’s wife are one of kind. With the combined ill luck of the wife and maid, the Dewan is in for a terrible time – the dreaded eyes of Saturn have now turned on the man!”

Puti was indeed one who seemed to have been wrenched out of her mother’s womb by the evil hands of Saturn. She remained of a height that she had been when she was about six years of age. Her face and head were much heavier than her body. Her hair was thin and tied in tight plaits that showed her scalp. But her eyes, they shone with kindness and laughter.

The eye of Saturn notwithstanding, the Dewan went from strength to moneyed strength. His power and influence grew with the English and in particular, with the Englishman Ferdinand who had been stationed in the district as the Company representative and master purchaser of Indigo. Ferdinand, the ‘Indigo Sahib’, was also, not so secretly, the owner of the vast Indigo plantation where Pyarelal lived with his wife and maid. Ferdinand had found a soul mate in the Dewan. Between the two they brought the cruel marauding spirit of the times to the Bengal countryside.

One night when Puti heard the jackals howling, an echo of their howl rolled over the Indigo fields, and reached their home, she asked Satisundari “Does that not sound like a man in pain?”

Satisundari bitterly replied. “It is a man in pain. My husband and the Englishman torture one farmer a week to make an example for others. To keep the farmers hungry and to make them slave to produce bigger crops those two, the Sahib and the Dewan, maim and even kill sometimes.”

Puti the orphan, remembered the lessons taught by her dead mother – a life as a human being, she had been taught, is one that comes from suffering through several cycles of life. Puti’s mother had also stressed that kindness and compassion help shut the door on suffering. And, Puti was determined to be kind.

Puti asked Satisundari, eyes shining with determination, “Can’t we save these poor farmers?”

Thus began their rebellion of kindness and compassion.

(2)

Satisundari paused behind the Cutchery, the counting house and office of the Nil Sahib Ferdinand, and that of her husband.

Rising on her toes she peeped into the room where her husband, sat with the Englishman Ferdinand. The two men were counting the day’s takings. The Englishman with his red flushed fleshy face, the bushy side-burn, hummed beneath his breath and added one more gold mohurs coin to the pile at her husband’s elbow.

By the dim light of the single wall scone and the candlelit lamp on the counting table, she could see her husband’s glee at the growing pyramid of coins in front of him.

In the deep silence of the Bengal night, the Englishman’s voice blended with the lighter voice of her husband’s, as he said “Ah, Pyarelal, what a wonderful piece of work this season’s crop has been. Great work! Great work!”

“It’s all due to you, Sahib, all your doing!” Her husband replied, half rising, bowing elaborately. But he was quick to slide a few coins from the table and onto his lap, unseen by Ferdinand.

Satisundari dropped back on to her bare feet. The soil peaked between her toes as they curled in distaste at her husband’s greed. Peering into the shadows where Puti stood hidden she signalled that all was safe.

They swiftly moved past the counting house and onto the clayey road that led into the Indigo fields. The moonlight shone palely on the narrow earth path that wound through the tracts of Indigo plants and stopped at the communal well.

From behind the well came loud moans of pain.

Puti whispered, “Poor man how loudly he moans...”

Satisundari frowned, “Yes, he is very loud. Too loud …” When she did actually see the man Satisundari smacked her hands across her mouth to stop a gasp from escaping. The man was a piteous sight, his bare chest bloody from the crisscross whip wounds.

She could visualize her husband cracking the whip, swinging it high above his head and then bringing it down on the man, repeatedly. She could see her husband’s bony face, his thin lips, his eyes lighting up at the sight of blood bubbling up on the cuts made by the whip.

Satisundari shuddered as she reached for the pail of water that sat beside the well and cupping water in her palms, fed water to the man. Her hands come away dark with blood. “Can you walk?” She asked him, her voice low and her mouth close to his ears, her stomach churning with the smell of blood and excreta. He nodded painfully.

Puti busily snipped the cords of rope wound tightly around the man’s hands and body.  Heavy with blood, the tired ropes fall away with a soft sound. The girl whispered “Do I give him the silver coin now?” The Satisundari nodded her permission and Puti tucked a dully-shining silver coin into the waistband of the man’s bloody dhoti.

“Can you try to get to your feet?” Satisundari asked the man. He did not reply. But gradually, painfully, he drew himself up on his feet mumbling, “God bless you. May you be the mother of a hundred sons as valiant as you…”

“Please go. Go! And God be with you.” Satisundari began to back away.

As the man limped into the darkness, the two returned the way they had come.

The two men in the Cutchery were still counting the money.

Puti and Satisundari shared a smile and slipped back into the Dewan’s house.

The Dewan’s wife and Puti secretly released tortured farmers from captivity, week after week. It was a well-kept secret in the plantation. The farmers and their families were grateful to their savior, the young woman whose womb refused to accommodate the Dewan’s spawn. And they loved her for it. Gone was the reputation of misfortune and ill luck, gone was the talk of being in the grasp of the evil-eyed Saturn. Satisundari and Puti became heroes.

For Satisundari it was at first the hatred she had for her husband that led her to the acts of defiance. It was a game – for a while. But then gradually, the act of saving lives became more meaningful than the simple act of vengeance against her husband.

Perhaps one of her greatest satisfaction was when she dipped into the Dewan’s hoard of coins. The more coins her husband hid, the more she stole. The coins were not only for the prisoners she released, but also to help a struggling farmer’s family, for a sick child or for food for the starving farmers.

Later that night when the Dewan returned home, he saw his young wife fast asleep. On the floor by her feet was Puti, asleep. Satisfied that they were asleep he tiptoed to the small altar for the Gods in one corner of the room, there he secreted a little pile of gold and silver coins in a hidden drawer under the altar.

It is only after that the stealthy secreting was done; the Dewan elaborately yawned and loudly demanded his dinner.

Over dinner the Dewan told his wife “We caught another rebellious farmer today. A scoundrel he was, too. I gave him a taste of the Sahib’s whip and left him at the well.

Sahib and I suspect that someone is stirring the farmers up. There is trouble in the air. That Bishu dacoit was going around inciting the farmers to fight the Indigo sahibs, and look what he got for his pains! The English should hang more thugees like Bishu!”

Satisundari burst out, “Bishu wasn’t a thugee! The English called him that and hung him because he was coming in their way!”

The Dewan stopped eating and stared at her with his cold eyes, “And what would you know about a man’s world, pray?”

Satisundari mumbled something.

The Dewan looked satisfied and returning to his food and continued, “Sahib and I think there may be some upstarts in our area releasing those farmers we punish – of late. There are many who have escaped … maybe it is a person that Bishu dacoit trained … who knows? But we are planning to nip this in the bud! Yes, right at the bud.”

Then seeing Satisundari’s ashen face he laughed, “Don’t worry little wife, I am here to protect you from dacoits!”

Nil -Indigo in Bengali

Mohurs- the gold coin of the Mogul era, prior to the English rule

(3)

Pyarelal stared disbelieving at the land that lay before him. Gulping, swallowing the hard knot of bile that surged up his throat Pyarelal Mohan Dutta, the Dewan of the largest Indigo farm in Bengal, reverted to the lifetime habit of the false ingratiating tone used for the English – and exclaimed, “All this land … for me!”

The red-faced Englishmen beside him noted the subtle ribbon of falsity, but ignored it. For, the time had come to reward the faithful among the natives. And the Dewan had to be rewarded to secure his unswerving loyalty in the troubled times.

The Dewan silently thought, “All these years of grovelling and all I get is this swampy land?”

Ferdinand, the Indigo Sahib, patted the Dewan on his back and said in the voice the English reserved for the natives, “So, Dewan, you are finally a titled landowner, a zamindar, at last, eh?”

The Dewan bent low, passing his hands in the air above Ferdinand’s muddy boots, he bowed and said “Thank you, O thank you!”

The land that faced them was as thickly overgrown as any vacant land in Bengal. There were gnarled trees, thick branches of which were heavy with green leaves, at the foot of the trees stood knee high grass with the white feathery tipped kaash flowers. Beneath the trees were the deep holes in the ground where vipers nested, hissing, spitting, and rising on their tails. A little beyond the trees lay the river that flowed fast and clear. Near the banks of the river was swampy land treacherous with slush.

The English had no desire for land such as this.

But then the land had also rejected them. These foreign invaders had tried to sink bricks, tried to build foundations but the soil caved in and swallowed every brick laid. What the English had no use of, they gifted to those who served them. Thus, the Dewan by the strength of one document written at the Writer’s Building was now the zamindar of land that stretched along the riverbank.

As the group of Englishmen and one Indian stood at the edge of the land, the Dewan heard his wife Satisundari’s voice sing in his head, “Here today … gone tomorrow…” And the Dewan wondered with superstitious fear, why of all times, at this precise moment he should think of his wife. The Dewan wondered if by the very thinking of her he was invoking a curse. He shivered.

On that sunny day, when the English handed the Dewan his document of ownership, all who stood there had shivered in the sudden wind. Their skins puckered in tiny goose bumps as a wind rose from nowhere and wrapped them in a sudden chill.

The Dewan started at the wind. And Ferdinand placed a firm hand on the Dewan’s back and said “Ignore rumours, my good man. You may hear the thugees had once been here. But there’s no evidence of that now. Don’t worry the thugees are gone. And you are much too sensible to be superstitious, aren’t you? So build yourself a mansion here, Dewan. Build a palace and damn the rumours!”

This is where it began.

The Dewan who practiced all manner of torture and cruelty, succeeded in building a palace on this land of ruinous reputation. A palace that was a shade grayer and a shade meaner than those the English built in the city they had conquered with trade

(4)

Then one night, back at the plantation, the Dewan and the Englishman Ferdinand laid a trap for those who were secretly releasing their prisoners.

They decided that it must be a member of the gang of dacoits that Bishu had bred - Bishu, the dreaded thugee who had been hung by the English. They said, “We have to catch this man who is helping the prisoners and then we too shall hang him as an example!”

They paid a farmer, a newcomer to the area, to pretend to be a victim. They tied him up at the far end of the fields and urged him with silver mohurs, to wail at the top of his voice. Not far from the place where they left the prisoner, were the Dewan and his pack of rag-tag soldiers, the lathiwals or the guards with their wooden staves and their clubs. They hid themselves in a copse, waiting.

That night Puti had a feeling that all was not going to be well – one of those uncomfortable feelings that Satisundari had come to trust.

When the cries of pain of the fresh victim rolled across the moon silvered crops to reach their ears, Satisundari set about packing food in a leaf bag, picking out a coin from the hoard her husband hid and some roots as a quick first aid, if needed.

Puti watched Satisundari uncomfortably, and said, “Didi, don’t go. Not tonight.”

“Why?”

“I have a feeling. The full moon doesn’t bode well. I just saw a white owl fly towards the field – it’s not a good sign! Listen, can you hear the owl? Don’t go!”

Satisundari paused. She had come to trust Puti’s feelings. But then the man howled and the sound overwhelmed her as she stood at the open door. Satisundari cast a fearful look at the Cutchery - the light from the window of the counting house brightened the ground outside, deepening the shadows beyond. “I can do it, Puti, it’s not too late. They are still busy.”

“Don’t go. Please, please don’t go.” Puti clung to Satisundari’s legs.

“Puti, you must understand, I have to do it. They depend on us, Puti. You must let me go.” Satisundari gently freed herself, assuring Puti, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.”

Puti burst into tears as Satisundari slipped out.

It was late, but the Englishman was still playing with his coins and humming in the Cutchery. She could hear him. This time Satisundari did not peep in, she was in a hurry to do her deed and return before the Dewan got back home.

Satisundari decided not to take the path but to cut across the fields. Halfway through the fields her anklets became heavy with mud, weighing her down. The hem of her muddy sari was also slowing her down. She felt a catch in her under-belly and wondered whether it was time to arrange another fall and miscarry.

Her breath caught in her throat and she panted as she hurried through the slush. Now her breasts began aching. It was almost as if her unborn child who she had just become aware of, was deliberately trying to slow her down.

The full moon cut a silvery blue swathe across the crops and bathed her in an eerie blue light. The silence of the night was not the usual comforting blanket of peace but had a fearful stillness. Just then, there was another sharp catch in her belly. She bent

over to ease the pain and from the corner of her eyes she caught a movement. Her breath now ragged, Satisundari fell on her knees and narrowing her eyes, peered at the spot where she had glimpsed a movement. That is when she saw them, her husband and his group of lathiwals trying to blend into the dark shadows of the trees.

Experienced in the art of camouflage and escape, Satisundari fell on her hands and knees and began to crawl back the way she had come. Over and again she blamed herself for ignoring Puti. After a while, her hands and knees began sinking into the wet earth. Her unborn child seemed to whisper, pleading with her to save his life by falling flat and lying on her back. She did that. Later, she was to tell her son, “I knew then, that you had to be born.”

It was said later, that it had been the Devi, had appeared in the Indigo fields. It was on that fateful night when Satisundari’s womb spoke that the Devi revealed herself in her majestic and spectacular glory sowing the seeds of revolution. So it was said.

In Bengal, the Devi always arrives when there is sorrow in the land. Devi – literally goddess or the incarnation of the power of the Female Deity

As she lay there in the mud, with the moonlight on her face, she heard Puti arrive.

Little Puti had shaken off her fearful feelings and stolen into the fields to see the lathiwals and the Dewan hiding among the trees. She raised her voice and called out, “Is that you, Sir? Why do you lurk among the trees? It is well past your dinner time.”

The Dewan snarled, “Silence!”  But the deed was done.

Satisundari shook off the mud and got to her feet. The silver blue moonlight washed over her muddy body. A body that looked like the clay images the potters make of the gods and goddesses. Her hair had come undone and rippled in snaking muddy trails down her back.

And Puti fell to her knees with her hands clasped in front and screamed “Devi! You have come! Devi! Forgive these evildoers!”

The lathiwals were merely brawny superstitious villagers whom the Englishman and his Dewan paid to be aggressive. When Puti pointed at Satisundari and called out “Devi”, they too dropped their staff and daggers and fell to their knees. Then when Puti scrambled to her feet and rushed towards the Dewan’s home, they too scattered, muttering prayers, fearful that the Devi’s wrath will visit them.

Why Puti ran homewards was unknown even to her. Later she told Satisundari “It felt like it was the right thing to do at the time.”

The only one who was untouched by the fear of the Devi was the Dewan. He had recognized his wife. He dragged her home by her hair and beat her. He locked her without food or water in the dark little thatched hut used to store coal some distance from the main-house.  His thin lips lifted in a snarl as he hissed to Satisundari, “I cannot admit to Sahib that it was my wife who was going about freeing the knaves. But you will pay for it. You will.”

The Dewan thrust his wife into the coal shed and locked the door.

(5)

Satisundari remained locked in the coal shed for some time and then, when the Dewan ran a check on her and found his wife plumper, a shade more glow to her skin; he extended her imprisonment in the shed.

How was the Dewan to know that the farmers and their family were all helping to keep Satisundari alive and healthy?

It was Puti who had rallied help. The morning after Satisundari was locked, she waited for the Dewan to leave home and then she began her visits to the homes of the farmers to ask for help for her mistress. So it was that every farmer’s family took on the responsibility of sharing their own meager rations with Satisundari.

As soon as the Dewan would leave home for the Cutchery Puti would pick the lock to the shed and release Satisundari from her prison. There, in the open air Satisundari ate the farmer’s food and began her lessons on rebellion. With Puti beside her Satisundari taught them the idea of freedom. She said, “Remember, the English are not here to stay. They are here today but will be gone tomorrow. You must reclaim your land. You must enjoy the fruits of your labour…”

Meanwhile, her child grew in her belly. This was one life that Satisundari knew was her reward for all those times she had slipped, fallen, and sworn never to permit the Dewan to gloat over the child as flesh of his flesh. So it was that the baby grew till even the Dewan who sometimes remembered he had a wife locked in the coal shed, wondered whether for the sake of his unborn child his wife had to be released.

The Dewan of course would gladly have his troublesome wife die at childbirth in the coal shed. However, Sachi or Sachindra Mohan Dutta was born on a chilly winter’s day attended by Puti and the farmer’s wives in the coal shed. To the Dewan’s chagrin the mother and child both looked healthy. That was the first and the last time, for months to come, that the Dewan was allowed to see his son.

Satisundari knew how to conduct stealthy rebellion. She knew how to tend those wounded by her husband, but she did not know how to mother – at least, not initially.

Satisundari had had a very easy birth, her baby had merely slipped out and wailed. But it was after that simple slipping out, that things became complicated for Satisundari. She had never before felt as lethargic, as afflicted by ennui. And she who had never before felt a speck of self-pity, found herself weighed down by sadness and indulging in frequent bouts of weeping. Her legs hurt, her back ached, and her breasts felt sore and tender. She lay on the mat in the coal room, her infant beside her, refusing to bathe, comb and oil her hair, or even to clothe herself. When the farmer’s wives peeped into the room she would pull a thin sheet over herself, for the sake of modesty. She lay in a corner of the dank and dark room and allowed none but Puti to enter.

Mostly, learning from the farm animals, Satisundari, managed to nurse her child in a way that alarmed Puti and set the farmers wives laughing. She lay with her breasts bare for her son to suckle on whenever he was hungry. Puti who knew so little of these matters, protested, “How can you behave like the cows on the field – with your udders hanging free for your calf to feed on?”

The farmer’s wives giggled and suggested a bath. They suggested some oil on her hair and some for her son’s thatch of hair as well. They laughed and said she should sit up to feed him, with a pillow underneath her breasts to avoid losing shape. And when Satisundari, shouted from within the room “I don’t care if my breasts hang to my knees!” and burst out crying; the wives reassured her that this crying bout shall also pass.

The worst times were after sundown. A faint glow from the hanging lamp outside the room made the gloomy shadows press in on Satisundari. That was also the time of day when the Dewan made his futile bids to visit his son. And Satisundari became convinced that the Dewan was there to deal death to her. She refused to allow him into the room or even to see her son, shouting from her dark corner “Go away! Leave us alone!”

Eventually, one evening, after a particularly tearful day for Satisundari, a particularly hungry day for the baby and a particularly exhaustive day for Puti – it was Puti who once again started yet another chain of events.

(6)

That evening, the Dewan came to stand by the dark coal room, and began his usual weary repetition of, “I demand to see my son!”

Perhaps Puti had had enough of her mistress for the day. She suddenly whisked the baby from where he was lying beside his mother. Stumbling through the dark Puti reached the door and extended her arms, presenting the baby to the Dewan. For a nonplussed moment the Dewan stared at his peacefully sleeping child. Then by the dim shine of the oil lamp that hung from the sooty beams outside the room, the Dewan examined his son’s toes, fingers, ears, nose, mouth and finally the genitalia. The baby suddenly woke up as his mother screamed in rage from within the room. He began wailing and wriggling in father’s arms. The Dewan raised his voice and said, “Why, there is nothing wrong with him, after all! Why has she kept him hidden away, then?”

That is when Satisundari appeared at the door.

A thin cloth was barely draped over her waist. A drop of milk at the end of a taut nipple, blue veins swelling on her full breasts – that is what the Dewan first noticed. Her pubic hair darkly pushed against the thin cloth. Her hair coiled down her bareback. Her mouth parted to reveal savage little teeth, Satisundari hoarsely cried out “Give me my baby back!”

An alarmed Puti rushed to the Dewan, snatched Sachi from his arms and scurried back into the room, baby in her arms.

The Dewan stood rooted at the spot, staring at his wife. A sudden lust mixed with hatred, overwhelmed him. Just as Satisundari turned to return to the room, the Dewan lunged for her.

Her breasts were hard under his hands. As he squeezed, a spurt of milk hit his face. Satisundari tried to push him away, kicking, scratching and even biting. The Dewan elbowed her mid-riff and for a moment she was winded. The rough, hard earth packed floor caught one end of her cloth and as Satisundari tried to roll away from him, it slid off her. The Dewan had never before seen his wife naked. A fresh wave of hunger for her washed over him, as did a sharp rage at the humiliation she had made him suffer. He leaned over and bunching her hair with one hand, with his free hand he slapped her. Little specks of froth gathered at the corners of his mouth and he shouted, “Humiliate me, will you? Betray me, will you? Defy me, will you?”

 

The sounds of the violence escaped past the walled porch outside the coal room and into the Bengal night. From inside the room the baby cried. Soon Puti’s sobs mingled with that of the baby, huddled as she was in the darkest corner of the coal shed with Sachi tightly held to her chest.

The farm was familiar with the Dewan’s rages. The sound of the beatings was nothing new. Nor were the words that the Dewan shouted – those too, were familiar words because the Dewan used the very words with the farmers he tortured. However, this time, when the baby’s cries and Puti’s sobs were heard, they realized that it had something to do with Satisundari. Some of the farmer’s wives made to go towards the coal shed. But their men stopped them. When the Dewan was in one of his rages, it was better to cower in their huts, said the farmers. Then again, they said they could not hear Satisundari. If something were seriously wrong, said the farmers, their saviour Satisundari, would have called for help, would she not?

Satisundari was battling silently. For every blow the Dewan dealt her, Satisundari hit him back. But then, finally, her body surrendered. She lay lifeless, as she had lain so many times before, and allowed the Dewan to drive into her, over and again. But, it was not as before. This time the revulsion rose in her so, that before she could stop herself she retched and vomited. The Dewan sprang up. He looked so alarmed and disgusted that Satisundari looked at him with her swollen face, her cut lip, her bruised jaw and one broken tooth and began laughing. She laughed till tears ran out of her eyes, falling on her cuts, stinging.

He stared at her. Then he drew back a leg and kicked her in her belly. She fell back, slamming her head against the ground. As she lay dazed, and faint, the Dewan stepped over her and entered the room. From a distance Satisundari heard him saying in his authoritative voice, “Puti, get my son home at once!”

And that was how in an effort to shake her mistress out of her ennui Puti had Sachindra Mohan Dutta or Sachi, entering his father’s house.

And that was also how Satisundari re-entered her husband’s house.

After the Dewan left with Puti and his son in tow, through the dark corridor of bamboo trees that led to the Dewan’s house from the coal shed, some of the braver wives of farmers found Satisundari. They covered her, clucked over her, smoothing pastes of herbs on her cuts, cleaning her, combing her hair, oiling and taming it. Even though the moon had risen, even though Satisundari could hear her son’s cries from the Dewan’s house, even though the water in the pond was chilling, Satisundari cleansed herself there. Scrubbing herself, she washed her bruised body over and over, stopping occasionally to sniff at her skin so that not a trace of her husband remained. The women sat on the steps leading down to the pond and told her:

“No man is patient, more so the Dewan.”

“No man likes to be defied.”

“Be thankful that he has not burdened you with children every other year – or with a second wife!”

“When a man has a need it is our duty to fulfill his needs.”

Satisundari paid no heed to what was being said. She merely rubbed her aching body dry. Then draping a clean sari, she silently took the path to the Dewan’s house.

Puti was sitting with Sachi on her lap. Sometimes singing, sometimes sobbing, sometimes bouncing him up and down, Puti was trying to soothe the baby. The Dewan was sitting on the bed, staring at his son, impassively. When Satisundari entered the room the Dewan smiled, not at her, not in welcome, but in triumph, acknowledging the fact that she had nowhere else to go.

Satisundari took Sachi in her arms and gave him her breast. He suckled hungrily in noisy gulps, while Puti seeing Satisundari for the first time in the light of the oil lamps that illumined the room, whispered, “O what has he done to your poor face!”

Satisundari looked up at her husband from the floor where she sat with Sachi. He still had a smile on his face. Satisundari told him, “With every drop of my milk I will teach my son to hate you, to disobey you, humiliate you, and betray you and to throw over your English masters.”

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