1956 was an especially poor monsoon year, the drought which had gripped our region intermittently over the past few years was now starting to take a more dire turn. Our village in rural Bengal comprised of largely farmers cultivating paddy, a crop which coveted both attention and standing water, making things worse. Despite that, our village was fairing better than most others in the district. Most villagers would also acknowledge this, however, not with humility which is often derived when you know you got lucky, but with pride. This pride came because our village was the home to The Maa Bhavatarini Temple, a temple whose origins were mostly unknown due to poor documentation and immense faith, which often went hand in hand in our village. As legend would have it, Lord Shiva in his crazed romanticism and grief carried the corpse of his wife ‘Sati’ on his shoulders, following her death and started doing a mad dance of destruction, ‘Tandava’. The other Gods fearing the end of the world pleaded on Lord Vishnu to intervene and stop Lord Shiva. Vishnu, to then pacify Lord Shiva, would go on to use his weapon, Sudarshana Chakra, which cut through Sati’s corpse and various parts of her body fell all through the Indian subcontinent and eventually these places would become important pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Our village happened to be where Goddess Sati’s glabella fell, thus giving us substantial doses of both faith and business. The villagers firmly believed that the existence of the temple would always safeguard them from harm, whether it be the earthquake in the late 1890’s which ravaged every house except for the ones closest to the temple, or the cyclones of the 1940’s which had killed so many in the neighbouring villages but was unable to extinguish the lamp inside the temple. The unyielding belief of most villagers, including my own father, was that the drought no matter however devastating could not lead to irrecuperable losses. The temple’s mystic was well supported by its extra-ordinary exterior, the tallest in our region, a majestic two-storeyed structure rising to about 30 feet. Each storey had four spires, with the top finished off by a faded rustic red colour, with a spectacular crimson flag atop the tallest one. The exterior had ornate carvings which often made even my parents blush and the Sanctum Santorum housed the idol of Maa Bhavatarini, standing on the chest of her husband Shiva with her three bright red eyes and red tongue sticking out from her otherwise pitch-black figure. The temple was headed by a Trust which also acted as the primary lending agency of the village. Any farmer looking to rent land, any father trying to get his daughter married and any wife trying to pay the medical expenses for an ailing husband would go the temple trust. Thus, long queues of debtors and worshippers, who were often the same people could be seen outside the temple on their daily pilgrimage.
My father was a farmer in the village and rented about two acres of land from the Temple Trust but made less money than my mother who sold flowers and incense sticks near the temple. He never went to school but made sure that I would never miss a day, besides making sure that I join him in the fields in the morning. He had been part of the freedom struggle in the ’40s and would often tell me and my sister stories about it. He was also a firm worshipper of the Goddess but contained himself to worshipping the earthen replica idol we had at home, he and most others believed that only the higher castes should be allowed inside the main sanctum of the temple and be allowed to worship the deity. Growing up, the temple for me signified an escape from working on the two acres, a place to go and buy sweets and crisps, visit my mother’s shop which was essentially a basket and her rickety chair and play with the other kids who would gather there every evening. Every week we would see and admire at least two wealthy ‘babus’ coming to worship the temple, nobody seemed to care about caste, if you came in a motorized vehicle from Calcutta. The temple was also the site for festivities and celebrations with free food, attracting thousand from far and wide. Thus, in a way, the temple did look after the village but not through divine intervention but through good economics.
My friend and companion to the daily escapades to the temple but for completely different reasons was Bamon. Bamon’s forefathers had been the head priests of the temple and the temple trust for as long as anyone could remember. He was not the most athletic, had a large mole on his chin which made him stick out and was often picked last on the ‘gilli-danda’ team. Despite his thin built and slight stutter, he could recite verbatim, passages from both the Vedas and the Gita, with the Upanishads not far behind. This made him a mark of ridicule by most kids of our age in the village but was apotheosized by everybody else. I remember my father often saying to me “Kashi, please be more like Bamon”. I guess it helped when your father was the head priest at the Maa Bhavatarini temple, a man who mostly wore red owing to his duties but on Sunday, without fail, would wear his favourite shirt with a palm imprinted on its back with our tri-color in the background. It also helped that his grandfather, now a village elder, revered by all would be the first person to enter the inner sanctum of the temple every day. He would be invited to bless lands which were doing poorly and any wedding he attended would signify eternal bliss for the married couple. It was his great-great-grandfather, however, who the villagers would often name in their prayers along with Maa Bhavatarini. I remember my father often saying “Joi Maa. Joi Devlok Baba” (Glory to Maa, Glory to Father Devlok) before starting his work on the two acres. Nobody could remember how he looked which only seemed to add to his mysticism. What we heard and believed in were stories of the many miracles he performed. One story stuck out in my head more than others. Our village had been ravaged by floods that year and the Britishers had failed to send in any help by way of food or water. Baba Devlok cooked a meal with the ingredients he had at home and that food was enough for the entire village for a whole week. It was a widely held belief in our village that Maa Bhavatarini herself would instruct him to act in her stead and how he was as close to God as we would ever get.
I guess it was a Panchayat meeting on a Sunday, when it all started. Bamon’s father told the villagers of how Bamon would sit in his is great-great-grandfather’s room for hours and even remember where certain things were kept, knowledge a boy of six could never possess. A closer analysis of his horoscope would go on to reveal how he was born in the same constellation as Baba Devlok and how his Jupiter and Saturn conjunction was placed at remarkably the same house. The proof was insurmountable and irrefutable. Bamon was the re-incarnation of his great-great-grandfather. When my father told me this, I understood very little of what I was supposed to do. Eventually, it meant replacing my friendship towards him with faith in his higher being and purpose. My father would also expect and encourage me to touch his feet besides never failing to do it himself.
I remember jesting with Bamon one day about this, “You are Baba Devlok, I suppose. Please tell me when I should start serenading you with my songs”.
He was largely quiet and eventually said, “My father asked me not to speak to people who don’t have a thread around their body”.
All this propelled Bamon to a new zenith of reverence and meant that he spent almost all his time in the temple, as his father’s shadow and that we lost the final member of our gilli-danda team. The temple which often did better when our lands were not, started attracting more people. Most still came to worship the idol but they would make it a point to visit and issue donations to Bamon. Eventually, even a newspaper reporter from a leading daily in Calcutta came by and wrote an article about Bamon and how the western influences of science could not stop miracles of re-incarnations taking place in our holy lands. As Bamon learnt and memorized almost all religious texts, the customs of the temples and the hierarchies which defined our Hindu society, we read up on Indian history and the principles on which our Constitution was based on. We read up on Science, Mathematics and on the rich philosophies that were shaping the destiny of so many countries around us.
As months passed into years, the droughts got worse and the debts even more severe. Armed with a college degree and logic, I understood how we could not blame the Rain God for our misfortune nor wait on Maa Bhavatarini to fix things, even though the Temple Trust now owned almost all the land in the village. This means that no matter how hard we worked on it or how much the rain helped us, we would never be able to pay our debts and fill our stomach at the same time. The philosophies that my father inculcated in me when I was next to him on the fields, seemed to now go against the very fabric of my individual thinking. The five-minute-long prayers I used to make at the gates of the temple, as taught by my mother, had now turned into a simple bow, that too only when she was looking. My salary from teaching at the local school was barely enough for us to get by and pay off a fraction of the debts we owed to the temple, the other families not wearing a thread around their bodies were not that lucky. My sister’s wedding and the subsequent donation we were required to make at the temple had also taken a toll on us. The discontent and vexation against the system and our debts, found an ever-louder voice in the Panchayat meetings as more of my contemporaries had replaced their fathers at the Sunday town gatherings. Bamon now in his mid-twenties had not only followed in his father’s footsteps in heading the Panchayat but also in wearing a shirt with a palm and our tri-colour in the background. Despite the heat, he would often complement it with a sleeveless white jacket with a mandarin collar reaching the hip. Despite not having a formal education, his face glowed with a sense of pride at the new temple lodging that had been inaugurated a few years back and how The Chief Minister of our state had become the foremost patrons of the temple trust. The pride on his face made him stick out even more than the mole on his chin. To all our complains and arguments, he would simply reply by asking us to trust in Maa and remind us of our debts to the temple and when the minimum amount had to be paid to avoid more interest. In our hearts, the people of the town knew that our debts could never be repaid, not because of poor monsoons, not even because Maa Bhavatarini and Baba Devlok had forsaken us but because of the archaic system which had now been at the helm for decades.
I would often return angry and frustrated from these meetings, but it was probably what my father said and my own recollections of a six-year-old Bamon that would somewhat recede my anger. My father now confined more to his bed, would remind me that how Baba Devlok’s wrath would fall on us if we didn’t listen to Bamon and how that would only serve to further deteriorate his health. The dissensions however only grew with time and were not confined to our village and there were rumblings of similar issues coming up in other regions and even reaching the doors of the Writer’s Building in Calcutta. It had now become clear that the step forward was to abandon the archaic system of the privileged owning all lands and for the state to intervene. A system for the lessee of the land to now own it and thus escape unjust eviction was over-due. We were made aware of this not through newspapers, which still primarily advertised an India test match, a political rally or a new Rajesh Khanna movie, but through the works of unknown writers in the many pamphlets pasted on our village walls. Those of us who could read and appreciate found solace in the writings which even in their subtleties were able to explain our helplessness. We never saw their faces, but it was as if their hungry words were enough to haunt and admonish us for our inaction, even with the knowledge that challenging a system was possible, but challenging the system shown by God was incomprehensible. If anything, we took comfort in the knowledge that we were not alone in our fight against entitlement and debt and many others were fighting similar battles. With patience and faith running thin, the whole village seemed to be on a tenterhook over our debts and how little the temple seemed to care about the welfare of its worshippers.
I would not be sure if it needed to happen that way but what happened next would change the way our village would look at desperate men and their problems. It also started with Bamon screaming at the top of his lungs in the morning near the village square. Having gone to the temple, he found Maa Bhavatarini’s idol to be missing her precious necklace, a gift from a local politician, it was worth thousands. Threats were issued, rationality deserted, and abuses hurled towards anybody who had a debt to the temple. Eventually, someone put two and two together and noticed the temple gatekeeper missing. A thorough investigation of his ten feet by eight feet hut which had housed six people only a week ago, with malaria having taken his wife, revealed the necklace to be under the straw bed. Bamon quickly misunderstood the gate keeper’s desperation for sacrilege and took matters in his own hands and on recovering the missing necklace proceeded to beat and brutalize him. The shrieks of his mother and young daughter were oblivious to his ears. The gate-keeper a much larger man than Bamon, proceeded to simply accept the beat down, perhaps overcome by his own guilt or having fallen prey to the hierarchy of our caste system. An ill-placed shot to the head quickly resulted in a steady stream of blood and before anyone could even call the police or the hospital, the man was struggling to breathe his last. Poems, tears or even hunger could not do what a man’s dying breath proceeded to awaken within us. A few of the younger men who were already holding sticks and chisels in their hands were the first to act. They quickly followed their shouting with slurs and proceeded to attack the temple trust authorities who had gathered and had been watching Bamon beat the gatekeeper. Shocked at how decades of social hierarchy and financial dominance had completely fizzled out in the ensuing confrontation within a matter of seconds, the Temple Trust proceeded to make a hasty retreat.
Before, I knew it one of the younger men who had started the first wave of attack proceeded to hand me a stick and said, “Lets go Kashi Da, we need to get Bamon”. I chased behind these men and could see Bamon and a few other scurrying away in the distance, making their way towards the temple. Revenge laden hungry minds and farm hardened feet were no match for Bamon and his retreating gang. We quickly caught up to the group and two amongst them now breathless from the running, laid flat on their backs with their hands raised, started cursing at us for being stupid and crazy. Over a dozen men running on barren village pathways had kicked up substantial dust and in the consequent melee, it was hard to make out what was even happening. When the dust settled, I realised that two men from the Trust who were now on the ground had stopped shouting and were lying lifeless with their arms and legs in unnatural angles. Bamon was not one of them. Having finished their job with the two men, the first group of village youth now proceeded to run forward to see if they could manage to catch the others. I held back, exhausted, my legs turning to lead, even though I had barely used the stick I held in my hand, gripping it even more tightly. I realized I was walking slowly, trying to follow the group of men, still trying to make sense of what had happened. It was a large rock, I guess, from behind which Bamon slowly emerged when he saw me. He looked distraught with a haunted look in his eyes and I could make out that his bone-dry lips were quivering. He stopped me and started crying, talking and gasping all at the same time. I could only make out bits and pieces of what he was saying, “Take the land”, “No more debt”, “Help!”. The pride and bravado he displayed while reciting the Vedas or when he lectured the villagers during the Sunday meetings had completely deserted him. My friend, the village head and all our debts were suddenly in front of me, calling for mercy. A man who was the re-incarnation of a God-man had unfortunately become the victim to its own expectations and necessities. That was the last I saw him and all I hoped for him was in his next life, he would not get such a heavy burden to carry.
Photo by Hadley Jin on Unsplash