Part 19: Angels of the river.

From the second floor window of our Brisbane townhouse, I could get a tiny glimpse of the blue waters of the bay, half a mile or so away on the other side of the highway. Whistling pacific wind blowing to the bay whipped up choppy waves; their breaking pointy tops, like the hoods of venomous snakes, shredded into spraying mists. These were not same as the baby waves that used to romp in the river past my grandparents’ home in East Bengal. The waves there were tame; they used to break on the sandy shore with a calm ‘cholat’, ‘cholat’ sound, the rhythm of which used to envelope me in those childhood nights. My grandparents’ house was between two bends of the river: one to the south where the peasants lived; and the other where the kheya-ghat, the ferry terminal to cross the river was. And further north along a narrow path next to the river bank was where Malanchi-mashi lived with her parents. Malanchi-mashi was a ‘para-tuto mashi’, an aunt of no blood relation. Her family was my mother’s maternal uncle’s neighbor. When we used to visit my grandparent’s home in those days, we used to go to visit my mother’s uncle as well. And then Malanchi-mashi would carry me on her waist along the river. She loved children and I believe my mother would enjoy the break of having someone else taking care of me.

There were high and low tides in the river every day; murky brownish water with whirlpool showed the depth of the river and power of the current. And boats used to go up and down the river all the time; mostly small ferry boats but every now and then some large ones with colored sails with many quilt patches all over. Sometimes when the load was heavy and the current strong, the boat hands would pull the boat by the ropes, called ‘goon’, along the bank. The captain, often an old haggard man in a lungee, a sarong, and a shabby under-shirt, would stand on a wooden platform at the elevated end and would slowly push back and forth a big long black paddle at the back of the boat. Every now and then you would see shiny grey river-dolphins come up to the surface above the brownish water and then dive back fast underneath. They called them sisu, short for sushuk, the river dolphin.

“You know what?” Malanchi-mashi then told me the story of the river dolphin one day. “She used to be a young girl like me.”

Long time ago the girl used to play happily along the river bank with her friends. She would swim in the river during the hot summer afternoons and play kith kith, hopscotch, with playmates on squares they drew on the soft sandy walkway on the bank. The girl’s parents were very poor and they could not afford to raise her at home. So her parents married her off at a young age. But in her in-laws’ house, because she was still young and childish, she would sometimes sneak out to play with other girls of her age and would sometimes forget to do the daily chores. And for that, her cruel mother-in-law used to torture her all the time. Then one day, after she had cooked for the family and everyone was finished eating except her, the mother-in-law started disparaging the poor girl for the taste of her cooking. She then hit her with a khunti, the frying spatula. The blow was so hard that there was a deep gash in the girl’s back and the khunti got stuck there. In pain and humiliation the peasant’s daughter ran off from the house and jumped into the river, crying, with the spatula still stuck in the soft skin of her back, blood oozing out. But the jol-pari, the river angels took pity with the girl and turned her into a dolphin. That way she did not have to face her cruel mother-in-law anymore and she would live in the river forever.

“If you look carefully”, Malanchi-mashi told me, “You can clearly see the khunti still stuck to her back.” I believed her. And for many years I tried to look for the khunti on the shishu’s back. Then as I grew older, I realized that that was just a story. But deep down, I remained stuck to the warmth of the tale, like a baby remains attached to his favorite toy.

Malanchi-mashi grew up fast. The last time I saw her she was in her teens and had that ‘dagor chokkh’ – those deep big eyes and she was at that age when a girl all of a sudden becomes mature, every nook and cranny of her body fills up – ‘shorire bhadrer dhol naame’, and she becomes very beautiful. But my mother did not take me to their house that time. Suddenly my mother did not like her anymore: she felt that carrying me around was Malanchi-mashi’s ploy to get her favor. I did not know then what favor Malanchi-mashi was after from my Ma.

Beside my mom’s uncle and aunt in that house there was also her cousin brother, my mama, a tall, dark and lanky man with a chiseled face pocked with small-pox marks. But he had a pair of sharp bright eyes and a head full of thick curly hair and he looked striking. Many times while walking down the river bank I heard him whistling the soft tune of “Nishite jaio phoolobone re bhromora, nishite jaio phoolobone….” Mama, to me, was a master whistler. Eventually I became very curious about him because my mother used to talk about him with her relatives in a hushed voice, as if he was involved in some not-so-approved affair. And it was true: he was in love with Malanchi-mashi, the girl next door and he insisted on marrying her. But love marriage is a social taboo in that society. And surely their parents did not approve of their relations. Then against her wishes Malanchi-mashi’s parents married her off to another man in a distant village. But in a society like theirs, the news of that young love did not remain secret for very long. And when the in-laws came to know about her past, Malanchi-mashi was brought back to her parents’ home and was abandoned. She had no prospect of getting married off ever again. And the only person to whom she could fall back on was my mother’s cousin-brother, my mama. But his parents would not accept an abandoned married girl as a legitimate wife in their family. In the eyes of the society that would have brought dishonor to the family. And so the pair became the talk of the little place. My mother used to speak about Malanchi-mashi in shame and disgrace as if that was the appropriate fate of a girl of bad character. And she was particularly angry at her because she thought that it was through her actions alone that my mother’s cousin brother got into this mess.

Then one day while fishing in the river with large nets, the fishermen hauled up Malanchi-mashi’s body; a large pitcher filled with water was tied around her neck. People in the village said that she had committed suicide. I cried in pain and sitting on my mother’s lap I kicked her in anger. I suffered for her death. Mashi was so young!  Her only fault was that she fell in love. Though angry with her for bringing down the honor of her uncles’ family, Ma went speechless at the extreme outcome. The horror was much beyond her belief and I saw her wiping her tears behind others. “Porer jonme aar meye hoye jonmash-ne (Don’t be born a girl in your next life),” I heard her muttering.

Mama did not marry after that. I heard that in his later years he lived with an unmarried lady of some not-so-socially-permissible character – whatever way the society attested the virtues of character; and he lived a not-so-socially-acceptable life – however society determined the norms of living.

And then many years later after I moved to America and finished my studies and I got a job – many really – and married and I have a child and Ma, then old and frail, came to visit us at Brisbane. We took her for a Satyanarayan pujo at a friend’s house in Gold Creek, a gated neighborhood, posh and picturesque and not that far from our house. The lady of the house hired a priest from the Hindu temple of a nearby town. We Bengalis in this area normally invite a retired Bengali engineer, who turned himself into a pujari Brahmin in his retirement days. But being an educated engineer, he had lost the age old girth of the old country priests with their adherence to ceremonial rituals. And for that the lady of the house did not like the Bengali priest. The temple priest, from north India, came to the USA with a religious R-1 visa, after being denied several times. He was a dark, skinny man. His pan stained teeth with shiny black intervals – an indication that he had never been to a dentist – a brown shawl and a monkey cap on his head (even though it was summer) conveyed an image of an old pujari.

He appeared to be a level-headed man, aware that his service was being rendered to rich and foreign-educated professionals (most of whom are believed, right or wrong, to be full or semi-atheist by less degreed folks). The priest never seemed to look at the ladies who sat around him, a virtue that goes well with his profession. He was thorough with his ritualistic paraphernalia. He carried a jute bag with a red logo with pictures of peacock feathers around it and the name of an Indian fabric company written under it in capital letters. In the bag he carried a brass bell, a seating pad made with colored jute fabric, a deep brown bottle containing (supposedly) Ganges water, an old slate and a white chalk, and some wood turnings to create fire and a can of sands that would create the base of the fire (the house may not have any soil nearby). The bag also held a thin, crumbly book with cheap cover paintings. The book was short in height but long sideways, imparting, in vain, an air of old religious scripture. All these materials and the priest served as a package deal, convenient to the customers.

As the puja continued in the wide family room, filled with smoke from stacks of incense sticks and an old style lamp, burning pure mustard oil – it is after all a puja – the home owner was busy entertaining the guests, who sipped regular or diet colas and orange or pomegranate juice, in the living room. But the guests excused themselves of any alcoholic beverages out of respect to the solemn occasion. I must admit that some of the male guests were not aware of the puja ceremony till they had arrived in the house and were informed specifically. Deprived of enough sleep, they merely followed their wives to the weekend gatherings. When long chanting and other rituals inside the house were finished, it was time for the yogna, which had to be performed outside for the fear of fire hazard. The priest poured sand from his container on the backyard concrete section, then stacked the wood turnings on the sand layer, lit those with a match and poured some ghee. The ghee produced quite a sooty flame. When the flame was burning, he procured and opened the seating pad from his jute bag. He placed it near the flame on the concrete, sat on it and then recited prayers for the yogna. He did all those devotional duties by himself, alone, outside the house. The housewife had gotten tired of the extent of the rituals by then; she had not had enough quality time with her friends. But the lady guests were satisfied with the priest’s performance.

“Very nice purohit”, someone commented, “onek kichu kore (he does lots of things).”

Jano-to,” commented the house-lady seriously, “mon-e hoy poisa-ta ooshool hoye elo, (he is my money’s worth). Not like the Bengali priests: bhokti shroddha kom (not religious enough),” She looked intently towards her guests with an uncomfortable smirk – she herself being a Bengali.

ee-e-esh, aar bo-lo-na go!” one of her sympathetic friends cooed approvingly; her eyes widening, face acerbic and her head slowly swinging one side to the other.

When the yogna was finished, the priest brought the brass lamp with its sooty flame being lit by a piece of camphor. He went to every guest. We spread the inside of our two palms together over the flame and then rubbed the palms on our heads – a sign of being blessed by the ceremonial fire. When everyone was done, the priest brought out his long script book, dog-eared and dirty over many uses, to the male guests. He gave it to one of them. It was written in Hindi. “Sorry,” the man was embarrassed, “I forgot my Hindi.” The book then moved on to the next person. Fortunately, this second gentleman was in Kanpur for his engineering degree and his Hindi was still impeccable. Accepting the book, he slid down from the sofa and sat on the carpeted floor cross-legged, a position of reverence, and started reading the story respectfully aloud from the book: it was about a rich man who became too proud of his wealth. He treated his subjects rudely and forgot his duty to perform the puja to the lord. The rich man’s wife, on the other hand, was very pious. And the God wanted to teach the proud man a lesson … .

When he finished reading his section, the book was supposed to move on to the next person. But knowing his subjects (the pujari appeared to have been in the valley long enough) he took the book away realizing that the message has been passed on. This rescued the remaining hapless guests, who with meek smile on their faces, were waiting like animals in the slaughtering line. Thus prevailed an air of relief. And the hunger for loochi and aloor-dom for the late lunch, for which us the mere mortals were all silently waiting, became acute.

The pujari was given the fruits and part of the Prasad, the ceremonial food; he took his pronamee, the service fee. “Ektu dhore diyechii (I was liberal with tips),” declared the lady of the house. He also accepted extra money in lieu of a new dhoti, the old custom and that has been replaced in this new age. It makes sense, as no one in the USA ventures out in a dhoti. The priest had to be driven back to the temple – he did not own a car, nor did he know how to drive. So the home-owner left with him.

“Will be back soon,” he coyly excused himself.

We had our late afternoon lunch. The loochi and the aloor dom were there. There were fried eggplant, daal, mixed vegetable curry, steamed rice, mango chutney and roshogolla. All vegetarian – it’s a religious occasion. Ma enjoyed the puja.

Ma’s visit compelled me to look for all the temples in the area. And there were quite a few! We went to the Hare Krishna temple on Mt Madonna on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. There was the Vedanta temple in North Bay. These are the ones we commonly link with Bengali connection. Just Hindu is not quite good enough! People from all the states in India have built their own communal temples in every city in the USA. The Guajaratis, with their superior money sense, are ahead in their temple building. The Sikhs are the same with their Gurudarwas. Bengalis, being poor in business, and thus money, had not been able to construct one of their own in this area – yet. One person had contributed a decent sum towards a temple. There was a conflict between the organizing committee members and the donor and the money was returned.

One day we all went to the Livermore temple with Bharat Raj and Judy, his pretty American wife. While crossing the bay over the San Mateo Bridge, Ma asked me if I had seen any sishu in the bay.

“Nope,” I told Ma, moving my head slowly left and right, “never seen one in the many years that I have crossed this bridge.”

Keno re (why is it so)?”

“Hmm, I don’t know Ma,” I replied. “You know things here in America are different.”

But I really I did not know if that was so, and as we drove, I kept looking at the romping waves on the blue waters and searched for a dolphin.

“Look at the road!” Shoma cautioned me from the passenger seat. “We have a kid in the car.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “I am careful.”

“Ha! Careful!” I heard the voice of her hopelessness. “Then why did you have that accident with the eighteen-wheeler?”

“It was not an accident Shoma! It was just a scratch. Besides …”

“Ok, enough,” she commandeered me. “Look at the road please.”

I do respect her never ending attention of me and I did look at the road. But I was also surprised at myself for never once thinking about the river dolphins over all these years. I never once mused if Malanchi-mashi might have turned into a dolphin somewhere in the rivers of the world. She was the one who told me the story of the river dolphins to begin with. I know that really does not happen – I am old enough to know that – but somehow the dreams that I once had have since died along the way. Maybe the complexities of my modern life have robbed me of my soft senses. May be that’s why I have not even wondered if the married young girls in America ever get tortured by their mothers-in-law and end up becoming the dolphins of the river. America, as you know, is a new country and the folklores of the white people here have not trickled to us yet – maybe.

Then one evening, as we watched the television for a while and reminisced about old days, I was at pain to ask Ma about Malanchi-mashi.

Kee jani (I forgot)!” Ma said, less expressive as she has been over time. “You still remember her?”

“She used to carry me on her waist along the river bank,” I told her. “Remember, she committed suicide?”

“Yes!” Ma went quiet for a while, looking far through the window as if to remember those days. “That’s what everyone said.”

“What?” I gasped. “What are you saying Ma?” I was horrified. “Was it not true?”

She looked propitiated with her destiny – old age instills the wisdom of time. Her eyes glistened; I could feel she was roaming a distant past: walking down a narrow sandy lane, between grassy edges, along a river bank in her younger days; boats with multicolored sails gliding by the current. “Her parents might have just strangled her,” she said in a controlled voice; calm and cold, like it comes only from experience. “And then threw away the body in the river to look as if she had committed suicide!”

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