She held her breath as she paused behind the Cutchery or the counting house. This was where her husband and Ferdinand, the English owner of the hugely prosperous indigo plantation closeted themselves every evening to count their money. It was not till the two male marauders of money, the purveyors of casual violence had sunk themselves in their ill-gotten wealth; could Satisundari embark on her act of secret rebellion.
Night had fallen and the overhead sky glowed with the light of the bright stars and the pale moon. Wispy ropes of thin mist rose from the fields and crept across the grounds towards the Cutchery. The frogs were stridently croaking in the quiet night, a pale night bird flew past just above Satisundari’s head, noisily stirring the still air with the slow flapping of its large wings and Satisundari felt that as always, nature was her partner by providing cover for her... From beyond the fields, from somewhere near the large community well there came a barely human sound, a strangely lowing cry of someone in deep pain.
Satisundari heard the sound and knew that she had urgently to reach the well without further delay. But she also needed to see if she had the time to get her work done. She ducked into a crouch under the sole window of the Cutchery. Then stealthily and very gradually, she straightened to stand on her toes to peep into the room where her husband sat with Ferdinand.
Satisundari saw that the two men were sitting on either side of a central table, counting a pile of glittering coins. The Englishman with his flushed fleshy face and bushy side burn, hummed beneath his breath as he ran his thick fingers through the gleaming little mounds of gold mohurs heaped in front of him. The candle lamp on the counting table, and the light from the single wall taper shone on his coppery golden hair, picking out the man’s plump red lips and his heavy lidded greyish green feral eyes.
Carefully keeping her eyes level with the window sill she turned her head to look at the man who was her husband and she could see his glee at the stacks of gold coins before him. His face had not changed in the five years that she had been married to him, only his hair grew a little scanty now. She remembered her wedding and how it was under the bridal canopy, she had for the first time seen her groom’s bloodless pale face and his blazing eyes. The only bit of colour in his face came from those burning eyes of his that coveted not her, but her dowry of the bridal jewels she wore. He still had the same bony face, and the same, the very same, greedy eyes.
In the deep silence of the night, the Englishman said “Ah, Munshi, what a wonderful piece of work this season’s crop has been. Great work! Great work!” He scooped up handfuls of coins and noisily dropped the coins back onto the table.
"It’s all due to you, Sahib! It was you who fetched this price for our crop at the auction in Calcutta." Her husband replied, half rising, bowing elaborately. As he bowed, unseen by Ferdinand, the Munshi quickly slid a few coins from the table onto his lap, to be whisked under the folds of his dhoti into his secret bag.
Ferdinand said, "I do know how difficult it is to get the lazy black rice farmers to grow cash crops. You did the impossible, congratulations my good man.”
Satisundari’s husband did his entire bowing and scraping routine once again and replied, "They claim that the cash crop is destroying their soil. Said without rice they face famine. I told them to buy their rice from your shop on the plantation. They almost burnt me alive when I said this. Had it not been for your army, my lord, I would be a dead man."
Ferdinand said, "I don’t understand. You pay the bastards so well and all you get is ingratitude! That’s life, eh Munshi? Well, what are we waiting for, my dear man? Lets roll back the rug, and quietly, quietly, into the bowels of the earth we go!" As Satisundari watched, she saw the two men drag the chairs and table to a side, roll up the rug and heave up a trapdoor set in the floor. Then holding up the table lamp, her husband, followed by Ferdinand began descending into the underground vault where they stored the gold coins.
Satisundari dropped back on to her bare feet, her calves ached from standing on her toes for so long. The dew wet soil peaked between her toes and she quickly rubbed the ground smooth of her footprints. Peering into the shadows where her little maid Puti stood hidden, she signalled that it was now safe to join her. When Puti was with her they swiftly moved past the counting house and onto a path that led into the indigo fields.
The moonlight shone on the plants and like a sea in turmoil the row upon row of plants tossed and swayed in the sudden breeze that seemed to sweep up from nowhere. Satisundari, hand in hand with her tiny maid, in their shin length thin sari shivered in the sudden cool. For a second they paused to draw their sari over their bare shoulders and realised that they could no longer hear the man’s cries. Just once before Satisundari had not been able to reach a victim of the Sahib and his Munshi in time and the next day the village had discovered the dead farmer’s mangled body. Ever since, Satisundari lived in dread of not reaching a victim in time to save him.
The Sahib and the Munshi used such terror tactics to keep the pressure on the farmers to ceaselessly produce ever higher quantities of the cash crop. And as they picked on a farmer to make an example of him, so did Satisundari and Puti release him. Just then with relief they heard a low moan that seemed to be wrenched from the guts of the poor farmer and Puti whispered, “Poor man how loudly he moans...” They continued their trek but with greater speed now. Satisundari frowned, “Yes, he is very loud. Too loud "
They stepped off the high earth ridge separating one plot from another and ran down the track to the communal well. Initially as they rounded the well they had seen an untidy heap of what looked like dirty rags. It is only as they drew close they saw the rags were yet another victim of the casual everyday variety of indigo cruelty in the plantation. When she did actually see the man she smacked her hands across her mouth to stop a gasp from escaping. But a shocked Puti drew in a loud breath. The man was a piteous sight; his bloody and bare chest had crisscross patterns of whip wounds. Satisundari could immediately visualize her husband cracking the whip, swinging it high above his head and then bringing it down on the man, repeatedly, savagely. She could see her husband’s bony face, his thin lips drawing back against his teeth in snarling ecstasy at causing the blood to bubble on the cuts made by his whip.
Eventually they freed the farmer. Puti, with the knife she had brought with her, snipped the cords of rope wound tight around the man. Heavy with blood, the ropes fall away with a soft sigh. Satisundari reached for the pail of water that sat beside the well and cupping water in her palms, fed the man. Her hands come away dark with blood. “Can you get up? Can you walk to the boundary wall to escape?” She asked him, her voice low and her mouth close to his ears, her stomach churned at the smell of blood and excreta that came from the man. He could not reply. Puti nodded at her and Satisundari drew her sari over her head and face and turned her back on the maimed victim. Shadowy figures suddenly appeared from the mist as Puti signalled. The girl whispered “Do I give him the silver coin now?” The Satisundari nodded her permission and Puti tucked a shining silver coin, into the waistband of the man’s bloody dhoti.
As they bore the farmer away - very gradually, painfully, he mumbled, “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. She whispered to Puti, “I wonder how the farmers know when to come to a man’s help?”
Puti replied, “The farmers take turns to stay up and keep watch. They stay in the shadows. Naturally they don’t want to show themselves to you, they can’t offend your modesty.”
Satisundari laughed, “Huh, modesty, indeed! A lot of modesty my revered husband has left me with. Do I have any other option but to go prancing about at night, freeing those poor men he tortures by day?” The two women swiftly returned the way they had come.
Meanwhile the men in the Cutchery were still counting money, their voices floated out into the night. Satisundari waved Puti on as she once again stood on her toes to peep in. The trapdoor was still open and gold coins were being packed away in leather bags for keeping in the underground vault. Satisfied that yet one more act of rebellion was a success, Satisundari was about to return to her husband’s home, when she heard her husband say to Ferdinand “We caught another farmer today. A scoundrel he was, too. I gave him a taste of the whip and left him at the well. But, I suspect that someone is stirring the farmers up. There is trouble in the air. Almost all the hotheads among farmers whom I punish are being freed at night. I interrogated the rascals in the plantation but no one could give a satisfactory explanation.”
Ferdinand nodded, “You are correct. I think there may be some upstart … a dacoit or a trained thug in our plantation … we must nip it in the bud! Right at the bud…”
She heard her husband warn, “Sahib, say no more, the windows are open, voices carry at night.” As Satisundari heard her husband approach the window, she dropped to the ground and crawled as fast as she could to round the corner. She heard the window being about to be closed and then her husband sharply asked, “What are you doing here?” Satisundari thought he had caught her out, her throat dried as she slowly raised her head to look at him. Then she saw that it was Puti who stood under the window. Relieved, she pulled herself into the shadows, and she heard Puti say, “Nothing, it’s getting late and I was wondering when you will be home.”
After a short and heavy silence, the Munshi said, “Why this sudden concern?” At the same time Ferdinand asked whom the Munshi was speaking to. The Munshi replied over his shoulder, “No one my lord, just that dwarf maid of mine asking when I’d be home.” Satisundari sprang to her feet, and make a dash for the house.
As she ran she heard Ferdinand laugh and say, “Hey Munshi, dwarf bitches are like pit bulls, they can bite your balls off if you aren’t careful.” The slamming of the windows cut off the uproarious laughter of the Englishman.
Then Puti was by her side, hurrying her, running past the bamboo grove, warning her never again to run such risks for the sake of eavesdropping and how, had it not been for her, Satisundari would surely be in for a thrashing or worse, from her husband. As they entered the house, Satisundari hugged Puti and said, "Don’t know what I would have done without you."
It had all started just recently. One night Puti heard the jackals howling and what came after was a human echo of the howl. The maid, who had not grown even an inch since she was six years old, 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 erect an ‘example’ for the others. The two, the Sahib and the Munshi, maim and even kill sometimes to make the farmers slave to produce bigger crops..."
Puti asked Satisundari, eyes shining with determination, "Can’t we save these poor farmers?" Puti the orphan remembered the lessons taught by her dead mother; that kindness and compassion helps shut the door on suffering. Thus, compassion became Puti’s life force.
And so began an unlikely revolution, an unheard of rebellion based on kindness and compassion and which made folk heroes of the two.
But that was later, much later.
For now, to return to our tale:
Satisundari, the Munshi’s wife and her maid Puti, secretly released tortured farmers from captivity, night after night. This was a well-kept secret in the plantation, among the farmers and their families who were very grateful to their saviours. Particularly so was their gratitude to the unlikeliest saviour of all, the wife of their torturer. Thus Satisundari and Puti became heroes.
For Satisundari, the act of saving lives gradually became much more meaningful than what it had started as.
The first time she set free a farmer tortured and bound by her husband, she had thought it to be a simple act of vengeance against her husband. As she broke the lock of the room where a farmer was imprisoned; or snipped off the bloodied ropes binding a man, she would mentally tick off, “And this is for the time you kicked me … and this is for the slap that made me deaf for a week …” But then when she closely saw the victims of torture, she began to change. The inhuman pain that could be inflicted by one human being on another shook her and with that grew a sense of injustice, within her. Very gradually she began to realise that in this little world of the plantation village there were unjust situations that she need not accept. And that by her act of refusing to accept such traditions; she felt that to some extent she was helping to change her world.
The Dom section of the village where the untouchables lived was where no one of a different caste can visit without losing caste and being forever ostracised from their own caste. Satisundari, who had never been one for rituals or was at all conscious of her caste or the consequent economic status, had one evening followed the dirt track that led away from the main area of the plantation where the Munshi had his house. This had been when her mother-in-law was still living and Satisundari spent the early evening hours in discovering the village for herself. That dirt path was an inviting road to nowhere, especially as the cattle were returning home just ahead of her and the setting sun had painted golden the dust that clouded up from the cattle hooves; Satisundari had followed the herd till the path dipped to a dried stream. Across the now dry stream bed were a cluster of hovels. One of the first lean-tos she came upon after crossing the bed of the stream, belonged to a potter. An old man with a turban on his head and bare bodied, was spinning a large wheel from which emerged a clay glass, almost miraculously, felt Satisundari. That evening she learnt how to make clay cups, she learnt not through words but by carefully following what the potter did. He ignored her and merely grunted when she asked him questions. As the shadows lengthened, the potter looked up towards the darkening sky and spoke for the first time "Go home" he said to her.
She ran back through the gathering darkness to the house where her mother-in-law stood blowing a conch shell repeatedly, desperately almost as if her conch shell would draw Satisundari back home. The older woman stood with a worried look, by the Tulsi plant where the little brass diya seemed to have already dried of the oil that kept the blackened wick still burning. When the older woman saw Satisundari with her clayey hands, her bare feet cloaked in dust, she cried, “O dear, what have you gone and done you foolish girl? Were you at the potter’s village?” Her voice rose in a quavering wail, “O God, you have lost your caste!” Later, a thoroughly scrubbed Satisundari had Ganga water dashed over her and a lecture on the different Gods, who were angered if one tried to break ranks.
After that incident all that Satisundari learnt was subterfuge, because she continued visiting the village where potters and the Dom community lived. In time they became her friends but Satisundari began searching the Vedas, Upanishads for such rules of segregation as sanctioned by the gods, but in vain. Eventually she found the rulings in the later Shastras but by that time she was convinced that it was men such as the Munshi and the Sahib who made such regulations; therefore, she reasoned she did not have to abide by these unfair laws.
That this caste system was an unreasonable ruling even her much put upon mother-in-law agreed on, "I know it is unfair, but who are we females to question the great sages of the past?"
“The sages were all males?”
“Of course, they were. Who has heard of female sages?”
“Proves my point,” said Satisundari and earned a dazed look from the older woman.
Everyday Satisundari learned that such prejudice ruled rampant in the village-plantation where she lived. There were fresh discriminations that she discovered with alarming speed. If the Dom was unacceptable, the Buddhists were even more so. The few Buddhists who accidentally wandered into their village with their long flowing robes, begging bowls and shaven heads; would be chased by children reciting, “Hey shaven-heads have an egg” and “Come into my bower said the coconut to the shaved heads”. They would be given food and water by Satisundari and escorted out of the plantation by Puti all the while glaring at the rings of children till they were chastened and the Buddhist Bhikku was safely away. And when it came to the Muslims, they lived in neighbourly peace but not a glass of water would be shared by the members of the two communities and for most Hindus the Muslims were on par with the Dom. All except among the Dom community for whom the Muslims were untouchable.
Satisundari found such untouchable strictures completely incomprehensible and giggling told Puti, “Since I can’t understand what the gods want and who I am to touch and whose mere shadow makes me dirty, let us make up our own rules. Let us touch who we wish, perhaps play a game of tag, and see what happens!”
Eventually, all the prejudices became noting other than just that to her – “Puti, all this untouchable meaningless nonsense is just a pile of rubbish that is meant to be ignored. So forget about it. We will come and go as we wish.” When she saw Puti’s wide and a trifle frightened eyes, Satisundari continued, “We can’t change the thousands of years old rules, but we can change ourselves, no? Meanwhile the village lives in terror of the Sahib and his Munshi and that needs our attention.” Puti vehemently nodded in agreement. Thus the act of saving lives became the sole focus of her life and became much, much larger than any act of vengeance.
That was also the time when she learnt self defence – if it could be called that.
One afternoon the Munshi returned from the field muttering about the difficulty of meeting production targets and stripped off his half kurta that bore blood spots, threw it toward Satisundari and said, “Give this a wash. The man died on me! I barely touched my whip to him and he passed out.” The Munshi was self righteously complaining to no one in particular, “And now what do I tell the Sahib? That I cannot meet the production target because the farmers have refused to do so? Because one farmer died although I had barely touched him?”
Satisundari was suddenly suffused with rage. “You killed him.” She said in an expressionless voice. He did not hear her at first. When he did, he came at her, hands raised to strike her. Puti threw herself in his path but he pushed the midget girl aside and reaching Satisundari he stood over her with fists that shook, crying, “Repeat what you said! Let’s hear you repeat it!”
When with a trembling voice Satisundari repeated “You killed him”, the Munshi hit her. Perhaps because he was genuinely shaken that he would not be able to meet the production target, the Munshi’s blow lacked force. He made a disgusted sound and turned away. At the wall alcove with its stone shelves the Munshi began emptying his Kurta pockets, still muttering, with his back turned to his wife. That is when Satisundari in a red haze of rage ran at him and pushed him from behind. Startled, the Munshi lost his balance and struck his chin on the edge of a shelf. When he turned around to face her, there was blood in his mouth from the cut on his lip. The blood fell in a red dribble down his chin and past, on to his throat. He bellowed “You dare to touch me! Me, your lord and husband, you hit me?” Even Puti, the usually brave Puti who stood up to him countless times, now shook in fear and hid her face. Satisundari suddenly darted at him. Taken aback, the Munshi stopped in his tracks. She came at him till there was a bare foot separating them and just as suddenly she veered, she ran behind him and beyond him, past the open door and the open gate and out, in the open village. He lumbered after her, this rake thin, tall, balding man with a beard of blood; until he realised that he cannot make common knowledge his wife’s un-wifely behaviour and was forced to retire within.
That was the first time she hit him. From that time whenever the Munshi hit her, she hit back and then ran as far as she could and hid somewhere safe till the man had spewed out his rage, had gushed out in a storm of words the violence he felt; till he searched among the furniture and the rooms of the house and among the corners and niches of the outhouses; and among the sharp edged bamboo leaves in the thick grove and once, even within the green scum covered lily pond behind the house. He would peep inside the well, shouting, “Come out, you coward, come and meet your destiny!” and hope that she who was his wife had done the dutiful wifely act of jumping into the well and drowning, because she had lost the right to call him her husband. He would throw back his head and howl at the sun or the moon “Behold, the unnatural act, she dares, dares to lift a hand against her husband!” But the howl was not too loud in case to his utter shame the plantation heard about his unnatural wife’s attempts to cause him bodily harm.
She usually hid till his rage spent itself. The Bengal countryside had plenty of hiding places; the leafy temple area was her best refuge. The grove of trees that looked like just another thicket of growth to those who viewed it from the outside; beyond the shiny and curved green leaves of the spreading Banyan trees, beyond the gnarled brown boughs and aerial roots lay a centuries old terracotta red brick temple. And it is here that Satisundari, after breaking the hoary old tradition of never defying the man who is her husband, after breaking the rule that no matter what the husband does to the wife, she is never to retaliate; after having evened the score – this is where she escaped. It was a place where the man could never find her because the Munshi may know the tracts of land where the indigo grew, he may know the long and low roofed buildings where the sacks of indigo are stored; he knew the Cutchery and where to hide the money - but he did not know the plantation, no, not at all.
When Satisundari was beaten, she would try to slip in a slap or a blow, but she never had the courage to stay to see where the blow landed. She hit out, blindly, then turned tail and ran. She would be out of the house and on to the winding village road and then turn left and right in blinding succession till she reached her refuge. Only Puti knew where she could be found and this is where Satisundari stayed till the Munshi was safely calm. At the far end of the plantation, on the other end of where the Dom community lived, was a grotto. Deep within the grotto lived yet another one of Satisundari’s causes, the old women or wise women who were called “witches”. These were the medicine women who were held in disdain by most, except during an emergency when the witch “medicine” worked magic. This is where Satisundari found her refuge from the Munshi. The thick growth looked impenetrable from outside for all those who did not wish to enter. Only those who sought to meet the “witches” knew just the branch to move aside to gain entry. Within this cave of green was the temple now in disuse. This is where Satisundari ran to after her tit-for-tat lifting of hands against the man who her father had bought for her for life, the man who she was forced to call her husband, the man who she should never raise her eyes to and look towards. The man to whom she should be grateful for the food she ate, except that she was gradually learning to subsist on charity and avoid eating the fruits of his sycophant’s labours.
Her sense of personal vendetta was satisfied only when she dipped into the Munshi’s hoard of coins and gave these to his victims of cruelty. The more coins her husband stole from the Cutchery and hid in the house, the more she stole. The coins she stole were not only for the prisoners she released, but also to help a struggling farmer’s family, for a sick child or to help the starving farmers buy food from the single highly priced weekly shop in the plantation run by Ferdinand and her husband’s lackeys. Perhaps it was because the coins he stole were hidden all over the house, perhaps because the number of coins was so large, that the Munshi had never caught her stealing.
Satisundari often contemplated on how the minutes … hours … days … years pass and never return yet everyone resolutely believes in permanency. What she could not know at the time, because she had not yet taught herself Geography, but that countries are carved from lands without boundaries and borders are permanently erected in one decade and eroded the next. Fortunes are made and unmade. Mansions are built and ruined. Contracts are forged. Yet life itself does not last, thought Satisundari how then can anything be considered eternal?
For instance Satisundari had always known she could treat her father’s home as merely a brief stopover. Trained since childhood for the inevitability of marriage, she came into the marriage as contracted by her father on the payment of dowry, 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 sometimes, as the months passed, as the years went by, she wondered how different life would have been if she were not beaten so often; if she were not shouted at all the time. Satisundari knew that society ruled that this man she was married to was to be with her till death. She really did not have any other choice, even so she could not force herself to like, or even to respect, Pyarelal Mohan Dutta. Then, as the years passed by she stopped wondering about or even to hope for a different life.
She began to fear in the inevitability of permanency.
Pyarelal Mohan Dutta, he of the covetous eyes, belonged to the time, in 19th Century India when marriage was considered as natural as birth, or death. He had eventually agreed to a late and reluctant marriage because it was "natural" to marry but secretly, he believed marriage to be quite an “unnatural” economic burden for any man. He could not come to terms with the thought of financially supporting anyone other than himself and at a pinch, his widowed mother.
His widowed mother on the other hand was one of those who never fought fate and accepted all the ills in her life as karmic destiny. For her there was neither want nor plenty, convinced that all was impermanent, life to her was a divine dream or a play of Maya. That she will awake one day to another reality, perhaps less harsh, was the only real hope she had. She never could understand her only child’s powerful desire for money and money alone. She could not understand why her Pyarelal, who was passionate about money, did not like sharing or spending it. His pleasure lay in running his fingers through his growing piles of shiny coins, in hearing his own especially created sweet melody, that of coins rubbing against each other. He had tried to make his mother appreciate this music, but she had merely stared at him with wide eyes and declared that she had no ear for music, not at all.
Widowed early, Pyarelal’s mother had been given shelter in his dead father’s large extended family and by the unspoken terms of being given shelter, she had been put to work as the unofficial head cook for the large household. Pyarelal had a childhood of want, wearing hand-me-downs and studying as the free-student- on- sufferance in the village school. As he grew older he developed a powerful attachment to money, while his mother developed as powerful an attachment to the Gods.
As soon as Pyarelal could afford it, they moved out, but habits do not die and his mother refused to employ servants, “What do I need servants for? It’s only housework for the two of us. And any way you will be marrying soon and I will have a daughter-in-law to help me I can wait till then.” She proposed several wealthy marriage contracts to her son. But he 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 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 the plant. 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 establish 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 at the time 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 old men. I didn’t say I won’t marry, I just said I’ll marry in a while! Why can’t you be proud of me, as I am?”
Yet his mother complained. She said, “Of course I am proud of you son, but I need a daughter-in-law … to oil my hair … to be my companion … to cook 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 sent in the 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 a coup.
Scouring the green rice fields of Bengal, Pyarelal put his ears to the ground and found pockets of discontent, want and need. He banded together several ryots or tenants of the land they tilled; or poor farmers, who owned small crop-fields and coerced the men to cultivate indigo instead of rice. Unhappy with their lot these farmers were happy to be transported to indigo plantations carved out from 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 her series of aborted hunger strikes, the Company appointed him the Munshi or Moonshee in Arabic, the chief clerk cum secretary cum collector of one of the biggest indigo plantations. Pyarelal had founded this plantation with a clear set of informal instructions from the Company that the Chief Indigo Procurer of the district, Ferdinand Blake should co-own the plantation with the Company. That all the Company expected from this plantation was a certain number of sacks of indigo every season and whatever else is grown becomes the property of Ferdinand, no questions asked. For this “clear set of instructions”, the Munshi was given a great deal of money indeed. 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 Munshi, finally submitted to his mother’s will and agreed to marry.
His mother recovered miraculously and she speedily arranged the Munshi’s marriage to Satisundari.
The girl was fifteen years old, a little old for marriage at the time, but then the Munshi was quite old himself, nearing his forties. 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.
Her mother had told her as she left her parent’s home “Always keep your husband happy.” And then the mother had wept so hard at the final leave taking of her last child, perhaps a daughter, but her child all the same; that the mother was carried away on copious tears from this world. Needless to say, Satisundari was not permitted by the Munshi, her husband, to return home to grieve.
On their first night together, her husband burrowed his head into all her jewel studded neck chains and had fallen asleep, ecstasy on his face. Keeping her mother’s instructions in mind to keep her husband happy, 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 with studded gems, 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.”
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, “How dare you hurt me and then expect me to clean up after you?” The Munshi smiled his thin smile, casually swung back his arm and slapped her then turning his back to her, went back to sleep. Satisundari eventually did have to clean up her blood and her tears, remembering the next-door neighbour at her father’s house who would regularly beat “sense” into his wife and daughters. She was convinced the Munshi was going to torture her endlessly unless she did something to stop him. But what could she do? As the days went by she learnt that 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 off 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...” But the older woman also looked immeasurably happy, mollycoddling Satisundari and coyly speaking of the “pitter-patter of little feet.”
The very next month Satisundari slipped, fell and miscarried.
After the third such miscarriage her mother-in-law suspiciously eyed Satisundari and commented, “Its strange how you keep slipping, falling and having miscarriages.” But no sooner had she voiced her suspicion to Satisundari, the old woman herself fell prey to deadly snakebite and died. The Munshi had cried for his mother, but Satisundari had wept, wept and wept continuously for the next seven days.
The neighbours wondered how the viper had sneaked inside the house to bite none but the elderly widow. Gradually, the whispers resulted in Satisundari being considered 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!” said the villagers eyeing her askance.
Satisundari of course could not care less about what was being said about her. She missed her mother-in-law and she disliked the man she was married to. Of late, the Munshi's beatings of his wife had become almost perfunctory, even the reasons for the beatings usually proclaimed at the top of his voice, now became inaudible; he would mutter something and begin to beat her. Clearly the Munshi’s mind was not on the job of keeping a wife like Satisundari in place. Now that there was no mother-in-law to protect her, to pull her away to the safety of the women’s quarters the Munshi’s beatings became longwinded, as if he too were waiting for his mother’s ghost to appear and put an end to his labour.
Finally, Satisundari found an escape in the zennana portion of the house, an area of the house where the Munshi could not enter, without the unlocking of the door. And the keys were always with Satisundari. This area contained the bedroom that had been her mother-in-law’s, as empty of material possession as it suited one who merely waited to leave the present life. The quarter also had the pantry, a dark and cavernous room where spiders with eyes that gleamed, lined the wall. This was the room that Satisundari as a bride had hated to enter but her mother-in-law had relinquished the keys to the room to her and provisions had to be fetched from the pantry everyday. Often in the early days of her marriage Satisundari fantasized pushing the Munshi in, locking the door, tossing the keys into the bushes outside and leave him to be devoured by the spiders with the gleaming eyes. This fantasy at least won her a night or so of peaceful sleep. Then there was a little library, next to the pantry. Here unknown to the Munshi, but to the approving silence of her mother-in-law, Satisundari had pursued education from the books that she had filched from the rest of the house and which were periodically and silently added to, by her mother-in-law. The library had a scent of dusty palm leaves pages and on summer afternoons when the single high window let in faint rays of the hot sun outside, Satisundari would sit in this the coolest room in the house and remember all she had learnt from her grandfather, who had thrown caution to the winds and educated the last of his seven female grandchildren, Satisundari. And the very last room in the zennana was the puja room where lately, her mother-in-law spent most of her days and all her nights. This room had all the deities that could possibly be propitiated to, and there was a lingering scent of sandalwood here. Satisundari usually rotated her hours in the zennana between her library and the puja room where one could enjoy an afternoon nap on the cool marble floor, wrapped in fragrance. In the long corridor outside was where Satisundari tried to eat away the daytime by swiftly dicing vegetables for the Munshi’s meals and dreaming of sprinkling Datura seeds on the food, which the Munshi could eat and finally go publicly mad, she fantasized.
With evening fall, Satisundari rattled the keys to the zennana and making her noisy protest and resentment clear, would unlock the doors. Once before when she had refused to open the doors to this portion of the house that she could call her own; the Munshi had shaken the locked door and bellowed like a bull till Satisundari had to unlock the door and earned herself hard cuffs and some rough handling.
Two more miscarriages later, ten year old Puti came into her lonely life spent in the zennana.
The orphaned child of a distant and poor relation, Puti was placed in the Munshi home largely because the Munshi needed a maid at no cost. The neighbours meanwhile considered Puti the just companion for someone like Satisundari. The villagers said, “That grotesque Puti and the Munshi’s wife are one of kind. With the combined ill luck of the wife and maid, the Munshi is in for a terrible time, the dreaded eyes of Saturn have now turned on the man!”
Puti 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 clearly showed puckered up stretched scalp. But her eyes, they shone with kindness and laughter.
The eye of Saturn notwithstanding, the Munshi went from strength to moneyed strength. His power and influence grew with the English and in particular, with the Englishman Ferdinand who had found a soul mate in the Munshi. Between the two they brought the cruel marauding spirit of the times to the Bengal countryside.