She: A Story Of Devotion And Realisation
The room was small and so were the doors. Even as Ramakanth was telling me to be careful with the door-beam in his broken English, I was rubbing my forehead. "When returning should remember to be careful".
In that stuffy room, an old, white man with a flowing beard sat cross-legged. He was lean, in a fragile way. A not-so-clean saffron robe carelessly rested on his excuse of a chest that was barely a rib cage covered by skin. His eyes were closed. His face was wrinkled. In front of him was a small Kali idol. There was a little lamp burning. A few shells were around the idol. A beam of the sun entering through a small gap in the ceiling highlighted the dust particles caught in the smoke still left over from the morning puja.
The Kali idol, in typical Bengali style, naked and with her protruding tongue, was standing on a small concrete platform which was a later addition to that room. The red hibiscus flowers all over her further brought out her black colour in a disturbing way, at least for me. The old man was still. He was so still that I was tempted to place a one rupee coin on his forehead. Ramakanth nudged me slightly. "He would remain the same way till the evening. Come let us go, we can come back in the afternoon". I made a slight movement with my head, a show of bowing without actually bowing.
Ouch... how did I forget to be careful with the door beam!
Outside that one-room house, the sudden burst of sunlight blinded me. Slowly Ramakanth and I walked through the dusty road.
The rumour is that the box is not here, Ramakanth told me. I walked ahead even as I acknowledged what he told me with a slight nod of head. Never talk directly to your informers. There should be an aura of subtle superiority, they taught me in informal sessions.
‘There is a hut on the other side of the stream, you know the Rup Narayan stream.’, I did not know and I did not care. But he did not notice my irritated indifference, and continued. ‘ It is always locked except during Puja’- that was what I could make out of his incoherent broken English delivered a heavy Bengali accent.
There, under the statue of Kali, was the trunk.
At this point, I need to tell about me, myself and I. I am a research student from Murford School of Divinity. Yes, the great Murford University of the United States also has a divinity school. I am a research student there. I am an ethnic and religious minority student in that divinity school and that brings me a few important advantages. In my two years there, I have understood this untold privilege. If you know what your superiors expect from your unique position and if you know how to package it and give it to them, you can go places.
You should know exactly how to get it and more importantly how to package it. (No, the author writing on idol thefts should not be excited now. I am not talking about ancient antiques from India. There are others who do that. I do not). I bring the religion and culture of India in packages the academic masters want to have. Let me explain.
I first identify a popular tradition in India. Then gather information around it. My brown skin and Hindu ancestry help me here. After an intensive period information-gathering, I package them through Western frameworks—Freudian, Marxist, subaltern, Postmodern, feminist etc. etc. I make sure that the phenomenon is deconstructed and decoded. My works dissect the religious phenomena of India, strip them of its exoticism and show them as constructs from an ancient past continuing because of class interest or gender suppression and of course priest-craft. My name? Oh... that is not important in this story. You can find my papers in leading social science journals from around the world- from Murford University to JNU.
Enough of me. Let us come back to the present.
I heard about an age-old white man who was worshipped by the locals as a monk in this village. You cannot see it yet on Google maps. Kalikapur is an insignificant speck of dust even in the government files. It was interesting that a white man living in a small room unfit for even cattle, should be worshipped by the local Hindus.
I did some background search. The guy who is now in his 90s, came to India during World War II as a soldier in his early twenties. One day when stationed here somewhere, he saw Kali right before his eyes, or so the story goes. He became a mendicant.
The issue went up to Churchill and Churchill ordered that he be court-martialed and shot dead but Kali, it seems, had miraculously saved him. When the Bengal famine came, this ex-soldier-now-monk cooked favours with Kali and helped this village alone escape the tragedy. A typical 'miracle' stories printed in a cheap paper, it ended with the usual, 'if you could send money...'. It was an old pamphlet. No more pamphlets now.
This was the only material I could get about this soldier-turned-monk.
Beyond this, I used my Communist comrades. Now that the cadre comrades are not in power they have to find ways to earn. With their network, they could get any information for … mmm how do I put it? … for a few dollars more. After months of no information, it was Partip Majumdar who came up with something. I opened the email. He had written—that old man was as mad as any other old monk, only his madness is love – and his lover…’ I sensed a good thesis at this point. I read, ‘…was a prostitute from Kalikapur.’
Now I smelled a book published by the very Murford University Press. That prostitute was his Kali. It contains it all. A Western soldier in love with a local prostitute and that prostitute becoming his Kali – a great Freudian insight into how religious myths evolve in India.
But ground work is important. I needed more material, more sleazy and explosive material that I would sanitize into an academic thesis. Is there more? To my next email, after two long days, Partip answered ‘yes’.
The old man has a trunk and it contains a diary. If one can get it … But how? Unfortunately, Partip informed me, almost all the original inhabitants of the village were gone and what we had now were Bangladeshi refugees from 1971 or after. They had settled here and the monk alone seemed to be the original inhabitant compared to them. He was not disturbed by the new villagers because he would be dead soon anyway.
So, here I am. Partip is a logistics genius. It is a real pity that the red party lost in Bengal despite such people. He had assured help. ‘I know exactly the person, he is also our party comrade. He could sneak in and get it out. None would know. You just scan it or photograph it and then we can put it back also, that is if you want. Or you can keep it too.’ Rs 50,000 was agreed upon as the fees for the job. And I would like to visit the place too.
So here I was. In this shitty hole of a village with only an old Second World War-garrison-turned-pathetic-lodge. Nothing works and am here. I have seen the old man. No need to visit again I thought. Let me cancel the afternoon visit. Ramakanth was still lingering like a bad odour, trying to make small talk. He came inside the room. With increasing irritation, I looked at him or rather gave him the look. He turned around nervously, giggling in a meaningless way. Then he went near the almost-broken window and said ‘look sir, you can actually see that locked hut temple from here. ‘
I saw the unimpressive hut that looked more like a typical Indian municipal roadside toilet than a temple. I took out a five hundred rupee note and gave it to Ramakanth. He disappeared. My back ached from all the travel through the road-less paths into this edge of humanity. Only the cannibals were missing. I came to my dusty room. Tiredness got the better of my sense of hygiene and I fell into my bed. And I slept.
I woke up to the knocking. It was evening. I had slept like a log. Ramakant was standing framed against the setting sun in the most unromantic way and grinning away. But, in his hand, was what seemed to be a notebook covered in different coloured old papers with vermillion and sandal paste dots here and there. The diary! I almost hugged that grinning thief – quite efficient these comrades are. Had they not changed into electronic voting machines, with professionals like him, the party would have never been defeated. I gave him extra Rs 2500. He left. I called the old man who was in the same corridor as my room. He was the owner, manager and room service. I gave him a hundred rupee note, seeing which his eyes expanded like a saucer, and asked him to get tea and some meals to my room.
I went back inside. Fortunately the light bulb was working while the fan croaked for some time before it went dead. I opened the papers and inside was a diary an old diary, the diary!
I delved into the past of the ‘old monk’ –pun indeed intended!
After packing him off quickly, I locked the door and in the dim flickering light, I unpacked the package containing a few old letters, some very brownish old letters and a diary that could at any time self-destruct to dust.
As I went through it, a general picture of the monk's previous iteration started becoming clear.
Reginald McGovern was born in a conservative loyal-to-Royals British family. Naturally, he went to the military academy. At the commencement of the Second World War, he was sent to India as a junior officer. Waiting to protect the Empire from the invading 'Japs', he had to battle against the mosquitoes, bad weather and frequent fevers. Apart from all these, there started emerging yet another problem. The diary was of the year 1943.
Though we are here to protect the Indian part of the empire of his royal highness and democracy from the Jap barbarians, we are still waiting. It is a long wait and we at times have to function like provincial police against the local political mischief makers.Reginald Diary entry: March 2 1943
You don’t have to be a Murford historian to guess that the 'political mischief' McGovern mentions in his diary was the Indian Independence movement which was gathering momentum after a lull. Some of the paper-cuttings from old English newspapers from Calcutta made it even clearer. And through the pages I saw a transformation in the young military officer’s perspective.
What I discovered today makes me uncomfortable. We are not here for the Japs. We are here to help collect at least eight tonnes of rice for the military granaries. Our role is to quell the opposition expected from the villagers. Major Jones gave me a rough translation of a song I have heard village urchins used to sing with a funny face from a safe distance whenever they saw us. It went something like, 'the soldiers of His Royal Highness the Imperial Majesty are actually rice thieves stealing from Bengali villagers.' I should say I did feel a bit more ashamed than annoyed.Reginald Diary entry June 17 1943
After a week of this I saw the entry.
From where we are stationed, I could see that small river stream and the hut by its bank. Outside the hut are a few hibiscus plants with bright red flowers. She comes every morning and plucks some flowers. She has sharp features. That white saree with red border line further highlights the copper colour of her body in an attractive way. Even that barbaric religious symbol that looks like a round blood dot on her forehead gains a kind of beauty when seen in her face. Major Jones noticed me observing her like a lovesick puppy. 'Annapoorna...' he told her name with a mischievous smile, 'full of food that is the meaning... beautiful but a local prostitute. Beware of syphilis.' Oh Jesus! What shocks lurk even inside even the small joys shown to us!Reginald Diary entry dated 18-August-1943
Now I needed to read carefully. Did Reginald meet her? Did they do it? Did he get enamoured by her or did he get syphilis and got relieved from the military.
The next entry was dated 21 September 1943.
I cannot forget the night. I am writing this between late night and early morning. There is every possibility that if anyone reads this they would take it for delirium induced gibberish. This evening Major Jones called me. Gandhi's Congress agitators are planning to raid the barracks and take away the rice which are meant to be sent to Chittagong front. Major Jones looked a bit furious than usual. 'Nonviolent agitators? My foot! They are the worst hypocritic bastards. They are as fake as their religion. The coffee skinned scoundrels! Never trust these effiminate cow urine drinking Hindus. Their non-violence is a pretense. Their real plan we would never know. So ...when they come tonight, that hut is the signal.' Major Jones now winked at me. Your Annapoorna's hut. Just give a customary warning shot. Do not wait for them to disperse. Just give the orders for shooting.'
The skies were dark with clouds and the crescent was passing in and out of those clouds throwing weird moving shadows. We were silently waiting in the barracks. Soon we saw small movement of human bodies. We could see random human dots now forming a coherent crowd. They were moving slowly and steadily towards the barracks. We waited. If we cannot meet the yellow skins all these days then at least let us have a go at these bastards. Suddenly there was a high-pitched cry - 'Bande...' and the entire crowd in single voice responded '...Mataram.' Major Jones had already warned us about this cry. It was the cry they addressed to their Kali the blood thirsty Goddess. It is a covenant they make that they would give her the blood of the British. The next second I automatically raised my pistol and fired the warning shot. The crowd had just reached Annapurna's hut. Now the crowd looked at our direction. The eyes even in the darkness for a moment showed surprise and then determination. They were coming steadily towards us. They were now singing a song with the same words Bande Mataram. The song was kind of melancholic for a mob song. We started firing our rifles now. I put aside my pistol and took the rifle, aimed at the crowd and started shooting. Soon there were cries of pain mixed with their Bande Mataram. I could see the bullet entering their chests and for some their knee bones shattering with blood and tissues. They started falling by the stream. Some were gasping for breath with pain. Bodies started writhing in the swampy banks of the stream under that oppressive Bengali night sky. Then suddenly the doors of the hut opened. I saw her. Annapurna! She was in the same white saree with red borders and a bright red dot in her forehead. She had a small water pot in her right hand and a typical Kali scimitar in her left hand. For a moment our eyes met and I saw something out of the world. It was unbelievable love which was also unbearable ferocious anger. She came and poured the water into the mouths of those who lay there dying with bullets in them. I saw a few of them folding their hand as she did it. She walked slowly through the falling bodies progressively, pausing and bending only to pour the water into the mouths of those dying. I instinctively understood it to be a kind of final ritual of passing. Then she was coming. In her left hand the scimitar and in her eyes the rage of the worlds. At that time from somewhere a bullet struck her - right into the round red mark on her forehead. She uttered a laugh that was not human at all and then she fell down. It was then I saw - from where she fell, She arose. I understood Her at once. She the Mother Kali She this land. We are robbers. We are thieves unworthy of living. We are robbing what is the food Kali has given for her children. Shame coursed through my veins. My heart beat with shame. Every particle of being was and is filled with shame. We are what the Hindus call Asuras in their puranas and we are going to be slain by Kali. There is no escaa...
After this there are a few attempts to write but the lines are simply spiraling into meaningless random lines. It was the longest entry and ran into a few more dates' space.
Then inside the diary there were some dog-eared brownish documents. I gathered that Reginald resigned the next day. He was admitted in a hospital because he was running a temperature. But when he resigned and said that he was ashamed to be a thief in military uniform, they thought of court martialling him. He was diagnosed with mental problems and was relieved from active duty.
In the pages of the diary there after there were just the words Kali and Kali and Kali – both in English and in Bengali (so, I presumed). Then they too stopped.
Then there were a few bits and pieces of information scribbled, consolidating which I gathered as much that he had become a disciple of a sadhu and the villagers somehow allowed him to settle here in the village itself. Every Mahalaya, he would go inside the hut and meditate and would receive some supernatural instruction or so he believed. The last entry was in the last page. I could not be sure if it was on the date it was written. It read: Mother appeared as Kali and Annapurna. She ordered to seek her in every backyard to escape the horror of coming days.
After these there was a paper cutting – from Amrita Vihar Patrika an Anglo-Indian newspaper of that time. Date was missing. But no problem. I could get it through Google.
Even as entire Bengal is in the grips of famine, in this small village Kalikapur even people from nearby villages are getting fed. The rumour is that the Hindu goddess Annapurna - Goddess of food, is feeding the people who come to that village in a mysterious way. But many officials have dismissed this as mass hallucination borne out of local superstition and trauma of famine. When a reporter of this newspaper reached this village almost hidden for the rest of Bengal what we saw was no miracle. Almost every house sports a vegetable garden in its backyard. The produce is collected and all are taken to a local small shrine of a Kali. A middle aged Britisher is sitting there in torn saffron robes in utter silence. From there the vegetables are distributed. It is quite an extraordinary phenomenon but there is no goddess involved as alleged by superstitious rumours.
So that is it.
I raised my head from the heap of papers and diary before me and looked sideways.
Through the window I could see that small concrete structure on the other side of Rup Narayan stream. Suddenly it dawned on me, in a surreal way. From where I sit, that should be where he would have been and that should have been the hut of Annapurna. Next moment I felt it. It was no guess. I knew it. This is exactly from where Reginald should have got her vision or Her vision.
Even as I realized it, I felt a sense of shame took over me. It was the same shame Reginald should have felt but it was more. It was guilt. I saw the Dark Mother arise from around that building. She filled the world with abundance and filled my being with benevolent horror. Who am I before Her? Her own child but yet a traitor of Her children? Who am I? I shivered in utter shame and disgust even as Her form was expanding, slowly engulfing the distance between me and the banks of the stream.
Then I felt the pain. I felt the pain of bullet lodged in my chest. I could not speak. I gasped. I needed water suddenly I needed water, very desperately needed water.
I saw myself falling down even as I saw my entire being cry for the waters to cleanse me - the water of Ganga from the waterpot She carries, from Her hand.
Then it was all calm.
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