INDIGO - Chapter 5

Paul Teake

Eventually, one evening, after a particularly tearful day for Satisundari, a particularly hungry day for the baby and a particularly exhaustive day for Puti, it was the little woman who once again inadvertently started yet another chain of life changing events.

That evening, the Munshi came to stand by the dark coal room, and began his usual weary repetition of, “I demand to see my son!”

Perhaps Puti had had enough of her mistress for the day for she suddenly whisked the baby from where he was lying beside his mother. Stumbling through the dark Puti reached the door and extended her arms, presenting the baby to the Munshi. For a nonplussed moment the Munshi stared at his peacefully sleeping child. Then by the dim light of the oil lamp that hung from the sooty beams outside the room, the Munshi took his son in his arms and examined his son’s toes, fingers, ears, nose, mouth and finally the genitalia. The baby suddenly woke up as his mother screamed in rage from within the room. He began wailing and wriggling in his father’s arms. The Munshi raised his voice and asked Puti, “Why, there is nothing wrong with him, after all! Why then has she kept him hidden away?”

That is when Satisundari appeared at the door.

A thin cloth was precariously and barely draped over her waist. A drop of milk at the end of a taut nipple appeared at her baby’s cry, blue veins swelling on her full breasts. That is what the Munshi first noticed, and he stood with the wriggling baby clamped in his arms, his mouth agape as he stared at his wife.

Satisundari hoarsely cried out “Give me my baby back!”

An alarmed Puti rushed to the Munshi, snatched Sachi from his arms and scurried back into the room, baby in her arms.

The Munshi stood rooted to the spot, staring at his wife. A sudden lust mixed with hatred, overwhelmed him. Just as Satisundari turned to return to the room, the Munshi lunged for her.

Her breasts were hard and heavy under his hands. As he squeezed, a spurt of milk hit his face. Satisundari tried to push him away, kicking, scratching and even biting. The Munshi elbowed her mid-riff and for a moment she was winded. The rough, packed earth floor caught one end of her cloth and as Satisundari tried to roll away from him, it slid off her. The Munshi had never before seen his wife naked. A fresh wave of hunger not for her specifically, washed over him, as did a sharp rage at the humiliation she had made him suffer. He leaned over and bunching her hair with one hand, he slapped her with his free hand. Little specks of froth gathered at the corners of his mouth and he shouted, “Humiliate me, will you? Betray me, will you? Defy me, will you?” His eyes narrowed in a maniacal gleam.

The sounds of the violence escaped past the walled porch outside the coal room and into the Bengal night. From inside the room the baby cried. Soon Puti’s sobs mingled with that of the baby, huddled as she was in the darkest corner of the coal shed with Sachi tightly held to her chest.

The plantation was familiar with the Munshi’s rages. The sound of the beatings was nothing new. Nor were the words that the Munshi shouted – those too, were familiar words because the Munshi used the very same words with the farmers he tortured. However, this time, when the baby’s cries and Puti’s sobs were heard, they realized that it had something to do with Satisundari’s child. Some of the farmer’s wives made to go towards the coal shed. But their men stopped them. When the Munshi was in one of his rages, it was better to cower in their huts, said the farmers. Then again, they said they could not hear Satisundari. If something were seriously wrong, said the farmers, their saviour Satisundari, would have called for help, would she not?

Satisundari was battling silently. For every blow the Munshi dealt her, Satisundari hit him back. But then, finally, her body surrendered. She lay lifeless, as she had lain so many times before, and allowed the Munshi to drive into her, over and again. But, her surrender was not as before. This time the revulsion rose in her so, that before she could stop herself she retched and vomited. The Munshi sprang up. He looked so alarmed and disgusted that Satisundari looked at him with her swollen face, her cut lip, her bruised jaw and one broken tooth and began laughing. She laughed till tears ran out of her eyes, falling on her cuts, stinging and burning her fresh wounds.

He stared at her. Then he drew back a leg and kicked her in her belly. She fell back, slamming her head against the ground. As she lay dazed, and faint, the Munshi stepped over her and entered the room. From a distance Satisundari heard him ordering, “Puti, get my son home at once!”

And that was how in an effort to shake her mistress out of her ennui Puti had Sachindra Mohan Dutta or Sachi, entering his father’s house.

After the Munshi left with Puti and her son in tow, through the dark corridor of bamboo and other trees that led to the Munshi’s house from the coal shed, some of the wives of farmers found Satisundari. They covered her naked and bruised body, clucked over her, smoothing pastes of herbs on her cuts, cleaning her, combing her hair, oiling and taming it. Even though the moon had risen, even though Satisundari could hear her son’s cries from the Munshi’s house, even though the water in the pond was chilling, Satisundari cleansed herself. Scrubbing herself, she washed her bruised body over and over, stopping occasionally to sniff at her skin so that not a trace of the Munshi remained on her body. The women sat on the steps leading down to the pond and told her:

“No man is patient, more so the Munshi.”

“No man likes to be defied.”

“Be thankful that he has not burdened you with children every other year.”

“… Or with a second wife!”

“When a man has a need it is our duty to fulfil his needs.”

Satisundari paid no heed to what was being said. She merely rubbed her aching body dry. Then draping herself in a clean sari, she silently took the path to the Munshi’s house.

Puti was sitting with Sachi on her lap. Sometimes singing, sometimes sobbing, sometimes bouncing him up and down, Puti was trying to soothe the red-faced wailing baby. The Munshi was sitting on the bed, impassively staring at his son. When Satisundari entered the room the Munshi smiled, not at her, not in welcome, but in triumph, acknowledging the fact that she had nowhere else to go.

Satisundari took Sachi in her arms and gave him her breast. He suckled hungrily in noisy gulps, while Puti seeing Satisundari for the first time in the light of the oil lamps that illumined the room, whispered, “O what has he done to your poor face!”

Satisundari looked up at her husband from the floor where she sat with Sachi. He still had a smile on his face. Satisundari told him, “With every drop of my milk I will teach my son to hate you, to disobey you, humiliate you, and betray you and to throw over your English masters.”

* * *

Satisundari’s hatred of her husband could not quite expend itself through the years, on the drops of milk she fed her child. As she held his hands, Sachi gurgling with laughter and took the first tottering steps, she tried to talk him into hating the English, but she eventually failed because her hatred was not sufficiently strong to take away her child’s laughter. As he grew older, as she held his plump fingers around a chalk piece and guided his hand to write the first letter of the alphabets; she tried once again to enrage him against persons such as his father and yet, once again, she failed to do so. As Sachi grew so too grew her rage against the Munshi and the Sahib, more so as she could not take away Sachi’s childhood by introducing him to hatred.

The rage was compounded with the two and more years of her nightly imprisonment, with the Munshi latching the door to the Zennana from outside, each night. Every night he drew the latch and turned the keys in the heavy padlock and every morning he gave the keys that had lain under his pillow nightlong, to Puti, to set her mistress free.

Meanwhile, her school of rebellion was tiring. After a hard day of labour farmers were ill equipped to stay alert as Satisundari held a hushed meeting, teaching them the series of “how-to” lessons of freeing themselves if imprisoned. The lessons were fast, furious and practical. The farmers listened to her, but with a sinking heart Satisundari realized that they were merely being polite in listening, well mannered in keeping their eyes open and gracious in stifling the growls of their hungry stomachs.

One day when Sachi was just two years and a few months old, Satisundari plaintively asked Puti, “It is not enough, is it?” Puti was trying to scoop up a struggling Sachi as they returned back to the Munshi’s house, after yet another lesson in rebellion to half a dozen farmers.

Puti understood what her friend was referring to and said, “Perhaps the timing is wrong. The farmers are too tired after work to listen to you.”

Satisundari nodded and with a distant look said, “I don’t know where I am going with my lessons.” She took Sachi from Puti’s arms and over his head told Puti, “Is that all I am good for? Releasing prisoners when the Sahib and Munshi have locked them up? And now I am not even able to do that what with the Munshi locking me up each night. I am feeling suffocated. I have to do something or...” She wanted to say how desperate she felt, how close she felt to death, but she knew Puti would ask for her patience as she had been doing through the two years that she had been in her husband’s house.

Puti was beginning to look worried. She said, “We will talk later, we had better get started on dinner before the Munshi arrives home.”

Satisundari defiantly said, “I am fed up of cooking and cleaning for that man.”

Puti gently replied, “Didi, you don’t have to do all that, you look after Sachi, that’s all you need to do, leave the rest to me,”

They had reached the house by then. They fell into the routine of housework as they entered. Puti went to the kitchen. Satisundari bathed Sachi and put him in clean clothes, lit the evening lamp in the Tulsi stand in the garden outside the house and going into the kitchen began chopping vegetables for dinner. She picked up the thread of the conversation she had been having with Puti. They spoke in hushed voices so the Munshi could not suddenly come upon them and hear what was being said. “Do you realize that in the years that I have been imprisoned, the village has gone back to the old days of fear and terror?”

Puti was stirring the lentils in the black iron pot sitting on the low clay hearth fire built against one wall of the kitchen. She nodded, softly replying, “It angers me as well...” She stirred the pot of lentils savagely till it began splashing out and falling on the burning coals of the kitchen fire with loud hissing sounds. She turned to face Satisundari and said, “I can’t stand it any longer, either. Didi do you think …” Puti broke off what she was saying.

“What? Finish what you were about to say, Puti.”

“I was thinking … I know of herbs that help one sleep soundly, should we try to drug the Munshi at night?”

“Drug the man? But of course! O why didn’t we think of this earlier?” Excited, Satisundari forgot to lower her voice. Just then the Munshi returned home and peered into the kitchen. However the Munshi did not betray any signs of being aware of what was afoot and the women went through a few very tense hours, till bedtime.

That night the Munshi decided to demand his conjugal rights. These demands were regular as clockwork, and Satisundari had learnt to find new means of escaping his attention almost each time. As she did not talk to him, she had instead plotted with Puti to create situations that would dampen the lust of a fastidious man such as the Munshi. He disliked any bodily secretions therefore Satisundari ran the gamut of “natural” diseases from nausea and vomiting to dysentery and of course, in between was copious days of bleeding and stomach ache.

The few times she could not arrange an illness she refused to be “awakened”, keeping her legs crossed tight in the dark room where the Munshi imprisoned her at night. Little Sachi had always, instinctively, come to her rescue when excuses and cover-ups had run their course. Satisundari often thought her small son was truly her saviour, for whenever the Munshi was about to rape her, Sachi awoke with a loud cry and refused to go back to sleep. A few times the Munshi had tried to have Sachi handed over to Puti for the night, but no sooner was Sachi carried out of the room he would awake and kick up a commotion. It gave Satisundari great pleasure to know, at least on one count, she had won, for in the years that she had stayed in his house after Sachi was born, the Munshi had not been able to rape her even once.

But that night when the Munshi entered the bedroom and shut the door, Satisundari realized with panic that Puti and she had been so involved in making the sleeping potion they had not come up with a plan to ward off his sexual advances. Wondering whether she should launch a surprise attack, she retreated, scrambling behind Sachi till she had the wall behind her and her sleeping son in front of her. However, the Munshi clambered up on the bed, crossed over Sachi’s legs and just as his bony hands grabbed her own legs there came a hammering on the door. Irritably, he looked over his shoulder at the door, while Sachi stirred in his sleep at the noise. The Munshi’s grip loosened and in an instant Satisundari was up, leaping past the Munshi and reaching the door, throwing it open.

Puti was at the door with a glass of warm milk. Puti entered the room with the silver glass of milk that she offered to the Munshi. He growled, “Didn’t you see the door locked? Why did you have to make a noise and awake the poor boy?” By now Sachi had not only awakened but seeing his father on his knees before him, was ready to play. Drinking down the milk in one gulp, the Munshi made some moves to appease his son, all the time watching his wife under lowered brows. Fortunately it did not take very long for the drug to work. Before Sachi could tire, the Munshi yawned a few times, muttered something under his breath and stumbled to bed in his room outside the Zennana. That was the first night Satisundari and Puti were free. But that was also the night when, miraculously, there were no imprisoned farmers to set free.

The drug they continued to administer to the Munshi was doctored with care so that no suspicion could enter the man’s mind. Some nights the dose was strong, some nights it was light. Puti made it a point to latch Satisundari’s room from the outside and lie in front of the locked room when the light dosage had the Munshi awaking in the middle of the night. Irate Munshi would demand to know who had locked Satisundari in and Puti always assured him that it was he who had locked her mistress in before he retired. Satisfied, he would go back to his drug induced sleep.

In the meantime, Satisundari had to appease the farmers when she could free no more than two farmers a week, “You see the Sahib and his sycophant mustn’t realize we are once again going about helping you. Some of you must take their punishment, if not we will be in trouble, again.”

All was going quite well till the Sahib commented to the Munshi, “I think the farmers are learning to free themselves, Munshi. Have you noticed?”

As a matter of fact the Munshi had not noticed. After a few weeks of observation, he had to admit to the Sahib, “You are correct, Sir. But I wonder how?”

Ferdinand smirked. By the lamplight in the Cutchery Ferdinand’s red face looked rosier still. Unmindfully the Munshi thought that it was little wonder that ordinary Indians called the Sahibs “Lal Mukhos” or the red-faced ones. Ferdinand stroked his sideburns and said, “Let us say that there is a little bird who is keeping me informed.” The comment made the Munshi’s own face redden in embarrassment. It had become common knowledge that recently Ferdinand had taken Bina, the widow of a troublemaker farmer, as his maidservant. The Munshi knew that the entire village had turned against the widow when after the first time that the Sahib had raped her she had turned up at Ferdinand’s door and begged to be taken in, even if it was as his maidservant.

When the villagers grumbled about the widow Bina, Satisundari commented, “Look at the gains. If the Sahib were kept busy with the poor widow he would not try to ravage your women every night. But take care to keep information from her.” Because Puti was the only one who spoke to the woman she would deliberately feed the widow Bina wrong information. Judging by the actions taken by the Sahib based on Puti’s “information”, Bina was indeed carrying things to the Sahib’s ears. One such “information” was that the farmers had their easy freedom because they had discovered some magic that dissolved the ropes they were tied in.

“India is teeming with black magic, Munshi. Find out what it is, will you? Just as there are magic potions, there is an antidote!” Said Ferdinand, and earned a caustic look of cynicism from the Munshi. The Sahib however believed Bina and he kept the Munshi very busy for a while in searching for that magic meltdown of hemp ropes. Meanwhile the Munshi employed more outsiders to join his troop of lathiwals. But neither was the magic discovered, nor could the lathiwals surprise Satisundari while freeing the prisoners, for by this time Satisundari had formulated a plan.

Diversion was the key to success of her plan and Satisundari selected a few young villagers to divert the lathiwals by mimicking the calls of wild animals and birds. Bloodcurdling were the calls that came from somewhere close to where the lathiwals would position themselves at night. As soon as the fearsome cries came, the lathiwals would flee their policing job, fearful of falling prey to a wild animal.

The Munshi and Ferdinand almost gave up on imprisoning farmers. Ferdinand said, “What’s the point, let’s do our worst by day and dump the peasant at his hut at night.”

Satisundari was daily growing stronger. Her hatred for the Munshi had hardened to an iron resolution to prevent cruelty, and her fear of discovery lessened each day. A day came, in fact, when she could not remain in the same room as the Munshi without being wracked by violent thoughts. She began a school for the young in the village with Puti as her assistant, in which Sachi also studied. Her school of rebellion became an educational revolution with the young, old and sometimes even women, taking lessons in reading and writing. But at night, while Puti and she cooked in the kitchen, Satisundari confessed, “I am merely reacting. I need to do something concrete … something that is not sort of accidental or dependent on the actions of the two horrible men.”

Strange are the ways of destiny, for within a week of Satisundari expressing this wish reports began filtering into their village and to Satisundari’s ears, of what was happening in other indigo plantations. It appeared that the cruelty of the Sahib and his Munshi was becoming prevalent elsewhere, too. It seemed that the demand for indigo was rising daily. The owners of indigo plantations, mostly the English, and a few native Zamindars too were mistreating the farmers to raise the produce. Panic-stricken farmers were on the run from the lands that they had tilled for decades and more, to escape the escalating brutality. Sahibs were riding down emaciated farmers, whipping them to submission, evicting those who refused to do their bidding and replacing them with an endless supply of hired hands. The wives and daughters of the farmers were the bargaining articles; some were kidnapped and held till the farmers agreed to impossible crop demands. As punishment of a rebel farmer his women were raped and their dead bodies left under the open sky as food for the scavenger birds. The indigo farmers began escaping to the city where they eked out a living as beggars.

Satisundari heard all this and one day told Puti, “Pack up Sachi’s things; we will go for a day trip.” The two women and the baby visited a Zamindar who was a distant relation of Satisundari’s now dead father. There, she made a passionate appeal against the rising violence but the Zamindar was an old man and in a voice aged by the years of citified indolence far from his village, he said, “I cannot promise anything. But I shall speak to the others and see what we can do.”

Thus, began Satisundari’s Zamindar campaign.

Meanwhile, one day in the village some women came running into the school that Satisundari held and whispered, “Didi come quick! The widow Bina is lying bleeding by the pond...she doesn’t look like she will make it!”

By the time Satisundari and Puti reached the women’s pond, Bina was breathing laboriously as she lay at the top of the steps that led into the water; a wet patch of blood beneath her hips was growing alarmingly. Her face and body was hideously disfigured with puffy purple bruises and cuts. Puti cried out “Did that evil Sahib do this to you?”

Bina told them haltingly “I am childless … I wanted a child. I was not asking for anything more from the Sahib. I just wanted my own baby… someone to call my own…I am pregnant.” But when Ferdinand was told about Bina’s condition, he had turned away from her and in her hearing ordered his men to look after the “problem”. Bina was carried far from Ferdinand’s house. At the edge of the pond that the women of the village habitually used; the men beat her and kicked her and punched the belly that carried Ferdinand’s child. When Bina fainted the men must have thought her dead and tossed her body into the pond area where she was found the next morning.

Eventually none of the women could save Bina, despite their efforts.

The villagers said, one should not speak ill of the departed, but Bina had invited her own death. Puti had cried out, “How can you condone what that Sahib did?” The villagers said as a widow, Bina should have gone on penance after being raped, not begged the Sahib to take her in.

Satisundari rounded on them. Her eyes blazing, she said, “A woman has to pay for being raped? She has to do penance? Did any of us offer shelter to Bina after the Sahib raped her? Who would desperate, dirt-poor women turn to? For a rape victim such as Bina, the only one who acknowledged her existence was her rapist! Tell me if that should happen to any among us, what options would you have? Will it be suicide? Or perhaps murder? What else? Tell me!” The villagers were not convinced, but they respected her and they remained silent. Satisundari loudly said to Puti as they left, “Ferdinand will pay for this, I promise!”

That night Bina was cremated by the villagers and a bundle of her bloody clothes found their way to Ferdinand Sahib’s front door.

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