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Panun Kashmir

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The Saint and the Witch

Harikrishna Kaul

Translated from Kashmiri by Neerja Mattoo

Tarachand died at five-thirty in the morning. The news reached Ramjoo's residence at seven. Immediately after, Ramjoo,  Sonamal and Heebatani left Jawaharnagar for Bana Mohalla.

    "Salutations to such a death!" said Ramjoo. "No pain, no illness. It was only the other day that I met him at Habbakadal. And we stood there a long time, talking of this and that. Do you know what he said to me that day? 'Let the weather hold a little, I'll come and spend a few days with you all at Jawaharnagar.' Ramjoo heaved a deep sigh and added, "only goes to show you - how near death is!"

    "A fine release for him, nothing but snubs and knocks for the poor woman left behind", Sonamal said, "even the ones born from your own womb do not bother these days, what can you expect from an adopted son? Dear God, let me not live a day without my husband -  let me go into Your arms with all the marks of my marriage intact!", she wiped a tear with a corner of the long veil covering her head.

    "Poor fellow, such a saintly soul he was! So obliging - always ready to help, be it friend or stranger. So good to everyone! And then he weilded such influence too - seemed to know everyone who mattered, and they held him in such high esteem", Ramjoo elaborated.

    "He looked like Lord Indra himself", Sonamal gushed, "his parrot-green  turban, almond-coloured shervani, tight-fitting white trousers and feet shod in fine moccasins - how well they suited him! I have never seen his footwear unpolished."

    "Well, he was certainly a 'gay cavalier' in his time," Ramjoo chuckled, "don't you remember the stylish angle his turban had? When Gasha was getting married, I - as the husband of his eldest aunt - was the one who had tied the bridegroom's turban. But the wretch had it untied and declared that he would not step out for the bride's place unless his turban was tied by Tarachand!"

    "They say that even at this age he would walk up to Hari Parbat every morning," Sonamal touched upon another aspect.

    "Not only that - he would spend every Saturday night at the feet of the goddess Chakreshwari; every Ashtami would find him before the Devi at Khir Bhavani."

    "What a voice he had! One day I heard him singing bhajans at Khir Bhavani - it was just like so many bells ringing at once."

    "He was a Raj Yogi, in fact. While seeming to enjoy all the luxuries of this life, he had attained a spiritual plane too high to comprehend by us. Who knows what secret mantras he chanted?"

    "That is exactly what stood by him at the end. They say that all great souls relinquish their bodies in this very manner: one minute they are there and the next, gone!"

    "Didn't I say that one should salute such a manner of dying?"

    Heebatani heard her brother and sister-in-law's comments in silence. Their words seemed to torment her. She wondered why they could not observe even a minute's silence. How could they be rushing off to Bana Mohalla with such enthusiasm? One would think they were going to a party. Did they not feel even a shred of sorrow at this sudden death - Tarachand's death? She herself was devastated, numbed with grief. Had she had even the least suspicion that Tarachand would be gone so soon, would she not have rushed to him, touched his feet and sought his forgiveness? Would she not have fallen at his feet and confessed that truly it was she - she alone - who was guilty of harbouring the sinful thought at that fateful time when she had almost destroyed a life-time's achievements of a Tapasvi, a rishi like him. She was a sinner, she would have said, and asked for absolution from him. But alas, he had not even given her the opportunity for such penance; Tarachand's death had dealt her a blow the anguish of which would stay with her till death.

    "There's no denying that Tarachand was a saint," Ramjoo continued  to eulogize the departed soul.

    "A saint indeed! A god, I would say," Sonamal corroborated heartily.

    "Pure heart, pure eye and handsome like a god - that was Tarachand. And his wife? Ugly as sin. Yet he doted on her, ready even to hold out his palms to receive her spittle!"

    "How right you are! A woman like Tarawati? What an absurd match for a man like him. The like of her does not deserve to be called a wife. No looks, no brains, no grace of any kind. Just a lump of flesh trailed by a veil."

    "That may be so, but you can't deny that she is the real victim of this blow. Who can tell how Natha will treat her now, whether she will have any comfort from him?"

    "What comfort did she ever give him? As she has sown, so shall she reap."

    "What can you expect from such a relationship? It is always the same in such cases: the mother never contented with the adopted child and the child equally disgruntled."

    "How can you say that?" Sonamal countered, "Nathji is a real gem. And his wife Shanta - meek as meek can be. The two of them would not allow Tarawati to lift a finger for any work. More likely than not, it is your own offspring who is ready to pluck out your entrails these days" Sonamal tied the sash round her pheran a little more tightly.

    "But Tarawati has raised Natha as her own from his infancy."

    "As if I know nothing!" Sonamal contradicted her husband, "I did not always live in a bungalow at Jawaharnagar (bless my Saiba for it!). Wasn't I their tenant for all those years? I know every bit of the goings on in that household. Not once have I seen her brow free from a frown - always a sour face, that one. Well, God also treated her the way she deserved. Better be a bitch than barren, that's what I think."

    "How does it matter now? Our relationship was all with Tarachand - he is in heaven and the story ends."

    "Yes, it was only he who knew how to maintain relations, the courtesies and graces of hospitality," Sonamal had still not exhausted herself talking. She continued, "As for her - the very sight of a guest would send her into mourning - as if her father had just died!"

    "Tarachand enjoyed life to the full, not only enjoyed all the luxuries for himself, but ensured that others had them too. Actually he was in government service at a time when it meant something to be in it. Wherever he was posted, he received royal treatment. He did not have to suffer the indignities of this 'People's Raj' too long either - he retired soon after it was imposed on us."

    "Oh yes, he certainly did relish all the pleasures of this world. This must have been his only sorrow."

    "To tell the truth, Tarawati is not so bad, only she is rather dumpy."

    "I did not mean her looks alone every woman cannot have the beauty of a part, but this one seems to be a case apart. Knowing full well that her husband was a man of refined taste, delicate feelings, a lover of cleanliness, tidiness and neatness, she should have paid some attention to her own grooming at least. But she seemed to find even washing her face a chore. Dressed in a rag of a pheran, there she would sit at a window, mourning God knows what. Her hair always tangled, the tresses lank with grime, she looked like a witch indeed - God save us from Evil!"

    "But Tarachand never complained at all," Ramjoo said.

    "Never!" Sonamal agreed, "he looked after her so well. You won't find such devotion even among the most modern of husbands."

    "He was certainly a god incarnate, but his life was wasted and ruined by this witch."

    Tarachand's life had been wasted and ruined - the realization of this had dawned upon Heebatani before everyone else; perhaps because her own life had also been wasted and ruined. She had just completed fifteen years of age when she was married. Within five years she found herself a widow. But even out of those, more than three must have been spent in her parents' home.

    All that was a thirty year old story. Today Heebatani could not even remember the face of the partner of that brief companionship. With the greatest effort, she could only stir a dim recollection of a vague form: an eighteen or nineteen year old Kashmiri Pandit youth, thinly built, shy. When she used to go up to the store-room to bring down rice or spices, he would follow, stalking her. But the loud shout of, "Damodaraah!", from his mother's powerful lungs would send him scurrying like a dog with docked ears into the small room next door. How stern, how formidable his mother was! Far from giving the couple the privacy of a room of their own, she did not even allow them to exchange a few words with each other. The moment Heebatani  returned from a long visit to her parents' house, her husband would find himself despatched to his maternal grandparents' place -  so apprehensive was the mother of losing her grip on her son. But in spite of all her efforts, lose him she did in the very fifth year of his marriage, for ever. The mother herself did not survive the son more than a year. For a long time after, Heebatani could see nothing but desolation wherever she turned. After her mother-in-law's death, her brother brought her home. For about a year she was looked after very well, but soon her sister-in-law put her to work, scrubbing and washing in the kitchen. Heebatani thought that this was what she had been made for. Accepting the finality of her fate, she plunged wholeheartedly into the drudgery and chores of her brother's house- hold. Soon after, Ramjoo's relations with his collaterals soured, and as a result of the family dispute, he moved out and became a tenant in a portion of Tarachand's house. You could say, without fear of any contradiction that it was here that a new life was breathed into Heebatani, thanks to Tarachand. He gave up going out in the evenings  after returning from work, taking up the task of imparting religious education to Heebatani instead. He would read out the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagwat and Shiva Purana to her. He bought her copies of the Bhagwadgita and Hanuman Chalisa to study. Instead of sweeping and mopping the floors in the mornings, Heebatani now went to the temple, gently pouring water on a Shiva Linga. She also began to follow Tarachand's practice of observing the Ashtami, Amavas and Purnima* as days of fasting and prayer. On these holy days, she would cook the ritual food - rice and vegetables - for Tarachand herself,  simmering the sweetened milk till thickened, frying pakoras and potato chips and making halwa and sago kheer according to strictly laid down religious prescription. After he had been served and fed, she too would eat the same food. Tarawati could not have been too happy with Heebatani taking over these duties from her, but she could not say anything.

    Heebatani went on pilgrimages to several holy places with Tarachand. On a number of Ashtamis, she went to Khir Bhavani with him. It was Tarachand who was responsible for her going to Bhavan in Mattan where at long last, she had the shraddha of the poor dead Damodar performed. Once when news came that a Sadhu of great spiritual power had taken up residence in Chandigam, Tarachand took her along to seek his blessings. They stayed at the Sadhu Babaji's ashram for a night. The next afternoon they left for Sogam on their way home.

    The memory of that fateful day sent shivers down Heebatani's spine even now. On the way, it had started to rain - a sudden deluge that seemed to crush stones into sand with its fierce power. Drenched to the bones, their clothes dripped wet as though they had both had a dunking in the river. And to top it all, there was no bus for the town at Sogam. Luckily Tarachand found an acquaintance in the overseer of the area. The overseer himself was away in Srinagar, but Tarachand had the chowkidar open his official residence for them. The chowkidar lit the iron stove and hugging its warmth, they dried their wet clothes. At about five, Tarachand went out and bought some meat and asked the chowkidar for some rice, oil and spices. Heebatani went into the kitchen and cooked a meal. After they had eaten, she spread the overseer's bedding for Tarachand. For herself, she took a couple of blankets and lay down. But sleep eluded her. There was not a moment's lull in the rain. The month of July had become as bitingly cold as December. She tossed and turned on the cold floor for a long time, unable to find restful sleep. And then she quietly slipped under Tarachand's quilt. As her arm fell across his back, he woke up. Finding Heebatani in his bed, he leapt out, went to the pitcher of water, washed his hands and feet and sat down in the classic asana for meditation. Heebatani ran into the kitchen. In that refuge, she dug her teeth into her flesh. How she wished that the earth would open up and she jump into the abyss and disappear for ever. Her eyes turned into crumpled, dried apricots with incessant weeping. For a long time afterwards she could not meet Tarachand's eye. It was God's grace that soon after, they shifted to Jawaharnagar permanently. As they were leaving, there was a bitter altercation with Tarawati for some trifling reason, with the result that interaction between the two families ceased for the next few years.

    A long time had passed since then. Heebatani was almost fifty now. Many a time the thought had occurred to her that she should go to Tarachand and seek his forgiveness for her sin. But perhaps the shame was too deep for her to face him - something always prevented  her from carrying the thought out.

    The road from Jawaharnagar to Bana Mohalla seemed too long even now. She was in mortal fear that they might have taken him away before their arrival.

    It was eight by the time they reached Bana Mohalla. Tarachand's body was still there. A flower-bedecked plank had been prepared, and it lay waiting in the yard. There was a large gathering of people sitting on mats around, everyone of them relating the good deeds of the departed. Ramjoo sat down among them, Sonamal and Heebatani went in. Seeing them, Tarawati and a few other women set up a loud wail. Sonamal went close to Tarawati and pressing a handkerchief to her lips, stopped her from crying. Heebatani did not go near Tarawati. She went up to where Tarachand had been laid down on a bed of grass. Taking hold of the dead man's feet she wept profusely, emitting loud cries of, "Oh my father, brother, guru!"

    After a while she rose, prostrated herself before Tarachand's body and said, under her breath, 'It is true that I was the one enfolded by darkness. Please forgive me my sin. This life of mine was a complete waste and ruin, let not the same happen to my next one. I must have your forgiveness.'

    Tarachand's body, laid on the plank, was carried away at about eleven, elaborately decorated with wreaths and garlands of fresh flowers. Just before the pall-bearers lifted the plank, an expensive shawl was spread on it. Tarawati followed the funeral procession into the alley, weeping and wailing loudly. She was brought back, a couple of women supporting her. Once inside, she sat quietly for a long time, stunned into silence. Then, all of a sudden, she burst out to the women gathered before her, "Forgive me, my sisters - for fifty years the seal on my lips has not been broken, but now that he has left the house, I must speak. Look at me, even now I am that seven year old, untouched, unravished child bride!"

    Heebatani seemed to fall from a great height. It was as though a light had begun to shine upon many a dark corner, an answer given to many an old puzzle. She rose and took the other woman in her arms, and the two women howled together.

     The eighth day of the lunar fortnight, the night of the new moon and the full moon night respectively.

 

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