Devyani woke up to the shrill sound of the alarm. Normally up at the break of dawn, she enjoyed the quiet early mornings, but today she had overslept. The unceasing pitter-patter of the raindrops through the night was to blame. Did this have to happen today? I hope Sarita and Beena forgive me.
She asked the driver to get the car and left for Chandwara. Joy blossomed in her heart on beholding the beautiful morning and a clear blue sky after the rain. The car entered the town’s main street, washed with rain and clean for a change, a few leaves stirring on the road in the gentle breeze.
An eerie silence enveloped the town this morning, the streets empty of life. The houses on both sides of the road stood silent with their windows either closed or the curtains drawn. The numerous kids frolicking in the playground down the road had abandoned it for some reason. The General Store as well as the Paan ki dukan*, full of people come rain or shine, had their shutters down. Silence hung heavy in the air. The serpentine head of anxiety uncoiled itself in her gut.
Where is everyone? Did someone die?
Devyani had been recently posted as BDO in Chandwara, a small town near Koderma in Jharkhand. Calling it a town was an exaggeration. It had two main streets running through the town. A post office, a police station, a school, and a small dispensary, all stood on either one of the two streets. She stayed in Koderma and came here when required.
As BDO, she had initiated many schemes and was proud of her pet project, the Mahila Mandal. The Mandal ensured help in government matters to women from various villages, usually administrative advice or clerical support. She was immensely pleased to see the women who came heartbroken and lost, go back full of joy and laughter. Sarita was one of them, and Devyani had come to Chandwara at her request.
The car proceeded down the path, the silence ominous and disturbing. Just at the corner, a girl dishevelled and wild-looking staggered onto the path. As the car came to a screeching halt, a shaken Devyani rushed out to find an exhausted Beena, lying half-dead at her feet. Shocked, she helped her into the vehicle.
Beena was in no condition to talk. Her indecipherable words and broken mutterings hinted at her traumatic night. Fearing that she had arrived too late, Devyani asked the driver to hurry towards Sarita’s house, rattling off the address from memory.
Fear and helplessness warred in Devyani’s bosom as they sped forward with an urgency unsuited to the narrow road. Sarita’s face, her relieved smile, her hopeful look, flitted in front of Devyani’s eyes as images flipping through a bioscope.
Sarita was barren, as barren as the rock-laden land of Chhota Nagpur Plateau surrounding the little town of Chandwara. Her husband had succumbed to his penchant for local alcohol six months back, leaving her a lonely widow with a small bit of land. She was not short of relatives though, with a huge extended family filled with cousins, uncles, and nephews, who were more hungry wolves than supportive kin.
She was aware of their glances following her while she worked in her fields growing vegetables. Luckily her wee bit of land was quite fertile. It yielded more fruit than she had ever done. She had no children of her own, but she loved kids and was lenient when they came looking for fruits and vegetables on her farm.
The soil’s fecundity made her generous. But she was unaware what bitter fruit this land was going to bear her in the future.
The land demanded hard work, and her days were spent in the field. Digging, hoeing, planting, fertilizing, picking, and carrying the fresh fruits and vegetables to sell them in the sabzi mandi* at Koderma. Her nights were spent worrying. The lust in the men’s eyes shadowed her thoughts. The words whispered in her ears at her husband’s funeral kept her company even in her dreams.
“A woman who is barren with land that is fertile. The best combination there can be for someone looking for some opportunity and fun.”
Was that a warning or a threat?
She would know that loud rasping voice anywhere. It belonged to Pintu Sah, a cousin of her husband. He craved her land like the parched soil craves water in summer.
Sarita lived in a small thatched hut built in her field. One night she was returning after answering nature’s call, the light of the moon sufficient to guide her sure steps. She heard the sound of drunken laughter and crept to her house, silent as a mouse. Pintu Sah and two of his friends stood knocking on her door. The knocks were loud, and their jokes louder. They left after throwing a volley of insults at the unresponsive door. The echo of their threats reverberated not in her ears, but in her soul.
All her entreaties to Pintu Sah to leave her alone fell on deaf ears.
“Can’t you leave me alone? Show some respect for your dead relative if you can’t show for a living one.”
His derisive laughter was the reply she got.
“Within one year I will possess both you and your land.” His boast sent chills down her spine.
The world supports the strong, and the weak are winnowed out like husk from the grain. The village elders and even the Sarpanch dispatched her requests with meaningless platitudes and empty words.
She didn’t expect her neighbours to help. The men looked at her, young and lissome, unclaimed as a wild berry, with open desire. The women witnessed their ogling husbands with mounting jealousy and as one were against her. Sarita decided to call her sister’s youngest daughter Beena to stay with her. Her presence would bring comfort and a stamp of respectability to her lonely existence.
The ten-year-old Beena arrived within a week as her absence meant one less mouth to feed for her parents. Her arrival put a spanner in Pintu’s plans. It was she who found those cursed things which brought untold misery into Sarita’s already wretched life.
Beena helped her pull up the weeds in her fields which sprang up with maddening regularity. They both were busy in their respective corners when Beena gasped. “Mausi*, how did these come here?”
Sarita hurried over to see a few humanoid figures made of black fabric, complete with hands, legs, and facial features, scattered around her feet. Some broken pottery, a few dried up bones, and some red sindoor* were lying nearby.
Who has put them here? What will someone think if they see these things?
Sarita was well aware of the danger the figures foretold.
The villagers didn’t take kindly to magic or those indulging in it. She quickly dug a pit and buried the offensive figurines, hoping no one had seen her. “Beena, don’t tell anyone about this.”
When she turned, she found a pair of furious eyes staring at her with hate and incredulity.
Kanta, her neighbour, stood before her. “Dakini,*” she spat and walked away.
Sarita ran after her.
“Kanta di*, what are you saying? I don’t know how those things came there. They are not mine, I swear. I am busy working on the farm. Please believe me,” she sputtered in her defence.
Women don’t give other women the benefit of doubt. Kanta, jealous of Sarita’s youth and independence, threw insults at her instead of showing compassion.
“I saw everything with my own eyes. It’s you who caused your husband’s death with your unholy magic. What else are you planning in your venomous heart, you childless woman? I know you lure young kids to take free fruits and vegetables from your field so that you can plan their deaths. I tell you, if even one child in this village dies, I will make sure you reap your just rewards.”
Sarita pleaded and begged, but Kanta wouldn’t budge. Sarita soon found everyone avoiding her. Silence was their greeting, and hushed whispers their goodbyes. The children who often came looking for a plump pumpkin or a juicy melon stopped coming to her. She felt ostracized.
Summer departed and brought rains on its heel with increased work and rampant sickness. Pintu Sah began intimidating her with renewed vigour- loud knocks on her door in the dead of night; his thugs following her on her way to the mandi. Things came to a head the day Sarita almost lost her life in Koderma.
She held her basket of vegetables on her head, ready to cross the road when someone pushed her from behind, right in front of an oncoming vehicle. The car swerved, and though she wasn’t injured, her vegetables were scattered around her and squelched to a pulp under the speeding vehicles. Sarita returned home with a heavy heart and a single thought beating a monotonous rhythm in her mind.
I can’t continue like this.
Sarita now realized Pintu wouldn’t hesitate to even kill her in his greed.
Isn’t there anyone I can turn to for help?
While in bed, her drowsy mind recalled the Mahila Mandal. Sarita had first heard of it from a chatty customer. There was some sarkari* madam in town to whom one could go to with problems relating to sarkari offices. She doubted the madam could help her situation, but she was clutching at straws. At the least, she would have tried.
Sarita made enquiries the next day in Koderma and found that the Mandal held their meetings every Saturday afternoon. The next Saturday, she selected two succulent papayas and went to the meeting with Beena. Sarita liked Devyani at first glance. She was mesmerized by her knowledge as she deftly handled everyone’s problems and her compassion when she couldn’t. After everyone left, she presented Devyani her meagre offering and her reason for coming.
Once she finished, Devyani pondered over Sarita’s words. Then she spoke, “This problem doesn’t lie under my purview. Your relative is eyeing your land and means to get it by hook or by crook. However, you have no proof. The elders in your family don’t support you. The most that I can do is talk to the village Sarpanch. I don’t see that helping much anyway.”
Sarita implored and begged, “Madam, it would help a lot. The people are simple-minded. A big sarkari afsar* like you on my side will deter Pintu from his schemes. Even the Sarpanch would have to speak on my behalf. You could even tell them I can go to the police. I have no one else to turn to.”
Convinced and eager to help, Devyani fixed Monday for going to Chandwara. Sarita and Beena left with a smile on their lips and hope in their hearts.
Fate has a devious way of lulling our senses before striking the grand blow. Sarita and Beena returned with a spring in their steps, unaware that two children from the village had fallen sick that day. The two battled valiantly through the next day. Treatment in the village was more superstitious faith than medical knowledge, and faith was a fickle healer.
With the children on the brink of losing the battle, Kanta remembered the dolls in Sarita’s fields. She lost no time in reminding the villagers of her sinister discovery. Each retelling of her tale added further provocative details, till everyone was convinced the sickness afflicting the kids was Sarita’s fault.
Pintu Sah lost no time and effort in fanning the flames of distrust and hatred. He got the villagers together at the chaupal* and spewed venom.
“There is no doubt that Sarita is a dakini. She goes out at night to perform her black magic. Even I found her missing from her house. Why would she go out in the night if not to perform some evil act?”
He paused to assess the effect of his words. Many of them were nodding, none wondering why he was there in the first place. Emboldened, he continued, “Kanta here has seen her with her own eyes. Do we want our children at the mercy of such a woman? Do we want such a woman living among honest, respectable people like us? I say, let’s make sure none of our children are lost to her hunger. Let’s make sure her shadow no longer defiles our innocent children. Let’s rid ourselves of this evil.”
The pandit*, a corrupt man in cahoots with Pintu, endorsed his words. He had been promised a huge sum. The gullible villagers shouted their agreement. A mob has no mind of its own. It is above questions of law and considerations of humanity.
Almost two dozen men carrying makeshift torches and baying for blood, egged on by their women, left towards Sarita’s house.
Meanwhile, Beena was out in the field looking for some succulent gourd flowers. Sarita was in a good mood after months because of Devyani’s upcoming visit. She had agreed to prepare gourd flowers pakora* for Beena on her insistence. Even though the sun had gone down and darkness covered the fields like a smothering blanket, Beena went looking for the yellow blossoms.
She had just gathered what she required when she heard the resounding cries. Hiding in the nearby bushes, she witnessed her world crumble in front of her eyes. How the men and women broke open their door. How they dragged a defiant Sarita outside. The glee with which they torched the little house. How cruelty trumped humanity. How greed eclipsed goodness. How superstition surpassed sense. When her young heart couldn’t take the terror and the violence anymore, she fainted.
Devyani and Beena soon came upon Sarita’s little farmland. The destruction and damage left them stunned.
The vegetables, arranged into neat rows earlier, had been squashed into unrecognizable mush. The little thatched house stood burnt and blackened, the embers doused by the rains, a silent witness to the night’s violence. Not even smoke could be seen emanating from that damaged and desolate dwelling.
Nearby, from a fruit-laden tree hung Sarita, the agony of her last moments clearly visible in her broken body and tortured face. The leaves of the tree swayed peacefully in the breeze, oblivious to the scene of death and destruction.
Devyani sent the driver to call the police. She knew the culprits would not be easily nabbed. The villagers were sure to shield their heinous crime behind their collective silence, as was evident from the empty streets and closed doors. She decided to take Beena with her until her parents could be contacted.
As they left, Beena asked her in a low strained voice, “Madam, can some women really become dakinis?”
“I don’t know, Beena. However, I do know that greed can turn some men into rakshasas*.” She replied as they left the town behind them, bowed down under its shared burden of a guilty secret.
Dakini: a witch accused of eating children’s hearts. Usually, childless women in villages have been accused of the same.
Paan ki Dukan: betel leaf shop
Sabzi Mandi: vegetable market
Mausi: Aunt, mother’s sister
Sindoor: vermillion, applied on women’s forehead. Used in magic.
Di: Elder sister, a term of respect for older women.
Sarkari: related to Government
Chaupal: The village square, where gatherings are held.
Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Arvind Sheke
Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.