“ Who is this strange looking man? “ Kaberi asked her friends as she looked at the stranger with awe.That man appeared like BanJakhari to Kaberi.
Nobody seemed to know him ,though he matched the description of grandma’s legendary character.
He had a rugged body with shiny copper coloured skin and a mystical smile that made children run away to safety. He always had a smile on his face, but they could never gauge that smile— was it mocking , appreciating or trying to entrap . He had a piercing gaze that scared the hell out of the children. His short- sighted huge eyes protruding out of the thick glasses scared the children.
Nobody in the village knew where he belonged to . He tried to speak their language but it wasn’t easy to understand his accent.The villagers eyed him with suspicion and had warned the children not to go to the southern periphery of the village where he had built his hut. They also wondered how he sustained himself for he never seemed to work for livelihood.
He could be seen crouching under some bush, plucking and rubbing leaves on his palms and smelling these ,or climbing a tree trying to pluck flowers or fruit.He reminded her of scary tales that grandma told them everyday to stop them from going to deep forest all alone.
Grandma would sit in the courtyard of mud plastered house telling the children scary tales of the hills around their village. Most of the people here worked in tea plantations. She knew old legends about Jogi, Ban Jakhari , Rocky bhoot and many more supernatural characters.
Her tales would send chill down their spines .They could hear the haunting sound of a horn . Screeching of owls at night would frighten them . Their screeching was to indicate whether it was a good owl or a witch owl predicting death.But they were never able to distinguish.
As Kaberi slowly grew familiar with many sounds of the jungle. She knew that the sound of horn of the Jogi was the sound of grasshopper or crickets at night or it could be a cicada during the day.Shimmering lights visible at night were not Rocky-bhoot but a light posse of fire flies dancing a sparkling dance.
But the fear of Ban Jakhari and Ban Jakharni was embedded deep in her psyche. Grandma had etched a picture of these forest shamans deep in her mind. Superstitious people of her village protected their young boys carefully for the fear that they would be picked up by that forest shaman. Though he was supposed to be a benevolent monster who would return the child after making him a witch doctor — an expert in treating villagers with herbs and plants available in the forest.
But his wife, Ban Jakharni was monstrous and cruel.She had an earthly hue and long unkempt tresses. She would kill and eat up the children.
“ Grandma, do they take away girls too? “ “ No, what use are girls to them? They have to get married and look after the household. At the most they will pick tea leaves at tea gardens .They can’t be witch doctors .“
“Why ? I know much better than all the boys.I can run faster than them.”
“ Go help your mother,” grandma retorted whenever Kaberi argued with her.
She was right to a large extent. In the villages around Darjeeling. Only job that the girls and women were allowed to do was to pick tea leaves.
The month of Sraban had already begun. The wind was warmer and the sun bright . Men and women folk were busy in the tea gardens as new tender leaves appear during these months.
On one such peculiarly pleasant morning , the children of the village started for the forest early in the morning to pick berries.
Dark ominous clouds suddenly appeared from nowhere and a heavy downpour started making deep puddles and waterfalls.The hills appeared to give way and there was a fear of land slide .The children huddled together under a strong rock.
Then they saw a hazy figure in weird clothes coming towards them in the downpour. They knew who he was and were all the more terrified, but where would they go ?
“Come on children, move inside my hut, it is safe and big enough to accommodate all.”
“Go away,” Kaberi shouted. He smiled to see that courageous young girl trying to protect her horde but he knew he needed to get them inside. He was able to coax all other children to his hut. Kaveri refused. There was no way she was going to the hut.
Admitting defeat, the man guided the rest of the children to his abode. He didn’t want to risk the lives of all the children. Kaveri sat by the lee of the huge rock, shivering . Her eyelids began to close , either due to the cold or the exhaustion,
Through those half closed eyes, she could make out a figure coming towards her, definitely a woman dressed in long green robes and long soft tresses almost touching her ankles. Her complexion was golden brown something that reminded her of a freshly brewed pot of tea. The woman looked at Kaberi with calm blue eyes. Kaberi tried to scream but no sound came out.
“This sure was Ban Jakharni, the wife who ate children. But she is so beautiful! Unlike how grandma had described her. Oh ! Now I remember, these shamans can transform themselves,” a delirious Kaberi was musing . She hid her face in her palms and began muttering every single prayer she could remember.
The woman was amused. She touched Kaberi’s palms and looked into her eyes.
“ Kaberi, don’t be scared. Do you know who I am?” Kaberi wondered how she knew her name.
All Kaberi could do was nod. She knew she could not scream and call the rest of the kids for help.They were already in his hut “what if she ate them all?” She shivered to think of that .
Mustering all the courage she had, Kaberi replied
“ You are his wife.” She pointed frantically at the hut.
The woman laughed. Her laughter sounded soft like the ringing of silver anklets.
“ I am not his wife.I am his mother .”
Kaberi was confused. Grandma never described BanJhakari as a dutiful son to some earth complexioned mother . The woman here looked very young. As young as Debina , her eldest sister.
“ Kaberi, do you know who he is?”the woman enquired pointing towards the hut of the stranger.
“B b b ban jhakhari.” Kaberi stammered in fear. “He kidnaps boys to teach them to be witch doctors .”
Kaberi was sure Ban jhakari’s mother was an even more powerful shaman , who devoured young children like her notorious daughter- in- law and retained her youth.
The woman’s lips parted exposing her pearl white teeth in an enigmatic smile.
“ And why do you think he doesn’t take girls?”
“ what use are girls to him? They have to get married and look after the household. At the most they will pick tea leaves at tea gardens .They can’t be witch doctors” Kaberi repeated word for word what her grandma always said.
The woman smiled even as sadness crept in her eyes. But she knew she needed to get through to her.
“Kaberi, who takes care of you when you are ill?”
“why ? of course my mother .She always makes chicken broth for me and gives me turmeric tea and……” she stopped. The woman gave her a knowing smile.
“ Kaberi, a woman is born with compassion and care. If knowledge is added to the blend, she can be better than any witch doctor.”
Kaberi listened quietly. The fear she had in her mind had now been replaced by curiosity.” Why were girls not taken by Ban Jhakari? Was it because the villagers did not want a girl to be trained? Would it not be easier if women were trained? Perhaps the young woman next door wouldn’t have become bed ridden if she had been allowed to be examined and treated by a male witch doctor ? ”
The woman rose and lovingly stroked Kaberi’s hair.
The seed had been planted and in her fertile mind it was sure to fructify. Before she could look up, the woman had disappeared.
She could now hear other children calling out her name. She was too feverish and frail to respond. She lay there till that stranger or Ban Jhakari picked her up and carried her all the way to his hut.
Though Kaberi was terrified just like other children, she didn’t lose her presence of mind . Even in her state of debilitation and exhaustion, Kaberi began taking in the surroundings of the hut. She observed a huge stack of thick books . A table with the leaves and flowers of different plants. Potted plants in the window sills as well as some saplings in large glass jars. “ He sure is Ban Jakhri. That’s why he has collected all these plants.”
The man brewed some foul smelling concoction in a cup and urged Kaberi to drink. Kaberi refused. She was not going to let Ban Jhakari poison her. The man sighed and moved the cup away from her lips. He then covered her up with warm blanket and let her rest.
It seemed to rain endlessly.The forest was ravaged by the strong winds and heavy downpour. The villagers started searching for children as soon as they could.. They scanned the forest with lamps shouting and beating drums. Children came out slowly as they heard the villagers. Angry villagers were ready to attack the man ,but Kaberi and other children stood in between. They had tough time explaining his innocence .As Kaberi accompanied her father back home, she began pondering over the words of the strange woman she had met earlier.
She changed into dry clothes and drank chicken broth her mother had prepared.
An idea was brewing in her mind all this while.
When she awoke next morning, alpenglow had crept in colouring the eastern sky red and pink . Rising sun had set the tea gardens aglow. Kaberi lay still in her bed feeling too weak.
She saw through her window the same rugged man, dressed differently and with protruding eyes who had an uncanny resemblance to Ban Jakhri , who had saved the children, walking towards the woods. Scary image of Ban Jakhri of the legend was still in her mind but her heart now had no doubts as to this stranger’s identity. She remembered the words of his ‘Mother’. Was she just a fragment of her imagination?
Curiosity took the better of her and she rose from her bed tightly wrapping up her little self in a woollen shaw. Stealthily, she slipped out of the house and began following Ban Jhakari , her heart thumping with each step she took.
On reaching the destination, she approached the stranger and asked,“ Are you Ban Jhakari? I am ready to become your disciple to become a witch doctor. Do you mind teaching a girl this time?”
The stranger was amused. He had certainly heard of the popular folklore but was blissfully unaware of the ruckus and misunderstanding his attire and demeanour had created. He laughed out loud.
“ Dear girl, I am sad to inform you that I am not Ban Jhakari . I am a herbalist from a land far away to the west . I am not a witch doctor or a shaman but a herbalist, I can surely tell you about the medicinal properties and uses of the rich abundant endemic flora you have here.”
Kaberi smiled. She was relieved and happy that she did not let fear overpower her courage.
The next day onwards, before heading off to the tea gardens in the afternoons, Kaberi began apprenticing for the herbalist. A sharp and inquisitive student, Kaberi soon began to understand the basics of the craft.
Some months later as she helped the herbalist mix a complicated potion, she enquired,
“Where is your mother? ” The herbalist looked puzzled .
She told him about the tender hearted woman with deep blue eyes.
“Oh ! her ? Did you meet her? She is the most compassionate being. Wherever I go she is always with me. Through the roaring seas, the lush green plains, the deep valleys and the enchanting woods she always meets me, in her green robes of prosperous fields and long tresses of mountain ranges.
“ But where has she gone now? “
“ Nowhere ,She is always around us. She is the Mother Nature.”
Years later working as a journalist I had opportunity to visit Kaberi’s village. Kaberi was a messiah for the villagers .
The folklore of Ban Jhakari and Ban Jhakarini is still very much popular in the village and even Kaberi sometimes mentions them but it is always to laugh at her naïveté.
Team: Dew Drops
Writers Gargilaxmi Elkunchwar and Sarita Khullar