Indigo

Paul Teake

This is the first of the stories selected to run as a serial. This is to declare that this work is bound by the laws of Copyright and no one can reproduce any part of it, without permission.

  Table of Content

 Chapter 1

 Part 1

 Part 2

 Part 3

 Part 4

 Part 5

 Part 6

 Chapter 2

 Part 1

 

...Chapter One

Part (1)

She held her breath as she paused behind the Cutchery or the counting house. This was where her husband and Ferdinand, the English owner of the hugely prosperous indigo plantation closeted themselves every evening to count their money. It was not till the two male marauders of money, the purveyors of casual violence had sunk themselves in their ill-gotten wealth; could Satisundari embark on her act of secret rebellion.

Night had fallen and the overhead sky glowed with the light of the bright stars and the pale moon. Wispy ropes of thin mist rose from the fields and crept across the grounds towards the Cutchery. The frogs were stridently croaking in the quiet night, a pale night bird flew past just above Satisundari’s head, noisily stirring the still air with the slow flapping of its large wings and Satisundari felt that as always, nature was her partner by providing cover for her... From beyond the fields, from somewhere near the large community well there came a barely human sound, a strangely lowing cry of someone in deep pain.

Satisundari heard the sound and knew that she had urgently to reach the well without further delay. But she also needed to see if she had the time to get her work done. She ducked into a crouch under the sole window of the Cutchery. Then stealthily and very gradually, she straightened to stand on her toes to peep into the room where her husband sat with Ferdinand.

Satisundari saw that the two men were sitting on either side of a central table, counting a pile of glittering coins. The Englishman with his flushed fleshy face and bushy side burn, hummed beneath his breath as he ran his thick fingers through the gleaming little mounds of gold mohurs heaped in front of him. The candle lamp on the counting table, and the light from the single wall taper shone on his coppery golden hair, picking out the man’s plump red lips and his heavy lidded greyish green feral eyes.

Carefully keeping her eyes level with the window sill she turned her head to look at the man who was her husband and she could see his glee at the stacks of gold coins before him. His face had not changed in the five years that she had been married to him, only his hair grew a little scanty now. She remembered her wedding and how it was under the bridal canopy, she had for the first time seen her groom’s bloodless pale face and his blazing eyes. The only bit of colour in his face came from those burning eyes of his that coveted not her, but her dowry of the bridal jewels she wore. He still had the same bony face, and the same, the very same, greedy eyes.

In the deep silence of the night, the Englishman said “Ah, Munshi, what a wonderful piece of work this season’s crop has been. Great work! Great work!” He scooped up handfuls of coins and noisily dropped the coins back onto the table.

“It’s all due to you, Sahib! It was you who fetched this price for our crop at the auction in Calcutta.” Her husband replied, half rising, bowing elaborately. As he bowed, unseen by Ferdinand, the Munshi quickly slid a few coins from the table onto his lap, to be whisked under the folds of his dhoti into his secret bag.

Ferdinand said, “I do know how difficult it is to get the lazy black rice farmers to grow cash crops. You did the impossible, congratulations my good man.”

Satisundari’s husband did his entire bowing and scraping routine once again and replied, “They claim that the cash crop is destroying their soil. Said without rice they face famine. I told them to buy their rice from your shop on the plantation. They almost burnt me alive when I said this. Had it not been for your army, my lord, I would be a dead man.”

Ferdinand said, “I don’t understand. You pay the bastards so well and all you get is ingratitude! That’s life, eh Munshi? Well, what are we waiting for, my dear man? Lets roll back the rug, and quietly, quietly, into the bowels of the earth we go!” As Satisundari watched, she saw the two men drag the chairs and table to a side, roll up the rug and heave up a trapdoor set in the floor. Then holding up the table lamp, her husband, followed by Ferdinand began descending into the underground vault where they stored the gold coins.

Satisundari dropped back on to her bare feet, her calves ached from standing on her toes for so long. The dew wet soil peaked between her toes and she quickly rubbed the ground smooth of her footprints. Peering into the shadows where her little maid Puti stood hidden, she signalled that it was now safe to join her. When Puti was with her they swiftly moved past the counting house and onto a path that led into the indigo fields.

The moonlight shone on the plants and like a sea in turmoil the row upon row of plants tossed and swayed in the sudden breeze that seemed to sweep up from nowhere. Satisundari, hand in hand with her tiny maid, in their shin length thin sari shivered in the sudden cool. For a second they paused to draw their sari over their bare shoulders and realised that they could no longer hear the man’s cries. Just once before Satisundari had not been able to reach a victim of the Sahib and his Munshi in time and the next day the village had discovered the dead farmer’s mangled body. Ever since, Satisundari lived in dread of not reaching a victim in time to save him.

The Sahib and the Munshi used such terror tactics to keep the pressure on the farmers to ceaselessly produce ever higher quantities of the cash crop. And as they picked on a farmer to make an example of him, so did Satisundari and Puti release him. Just then with relief they heard a low moan that seemed to be wrenched from the guts of the poor farmer and Puti whispered, “Poor man how loudly he moans...” They continued their trek but with greater speed now. Satisundari frowned, “Yes, he is very loud. Too loud …”

They stepped off the high earth ridge separating one plot from another and ran down the track to the communal well. Initially as they rounded the well they had seen an untidy heap of what looked like dirty rags. It is only as they drew close they saw the rags were yet another victim of the casual everyday variety of indigo cruelty in the plantation. When she did actually see the man she smacked her hands across her mouth to stop a gasp from escaping. But a shocked Puti drew in a loud breath. The man was a piteous sight; his bloody and bare chest had crisscross patterns of whip wounds. Satisundari could immediately visualize her husband cracking the whip, swinging it high above his head and then bringing it down on the man, repeatedly, savagely. She could see her husband’s bony face, his thin lips drawing back against his teeth in snarling ecstasy at causing the blood to bubble on the cuts made by his whip.

Eventually they freed the farmer. Puti, with the knife she had brought with her, snipped the cords of rope wound tight around the man.  Heavy with blood, the ropes fall away with a soft sigh. Satisundari reached for the pail of water that sat beside the well and cupping water in her palms, fed the man. Her hands come away dark with blood. “Can you get up? Can you walk to the boundary wall to escape?” She asked him, her voice low and her mouth close to his ears, her stomach churned at the smell of blood and excreta that came from the man. He could not reply. Puti nodded at her and Satisundari drew her sari over her head and face and turned her back on the maimed victim. Shadowy figures suddenly appeared from the mist as Puti signalled.

The girl whispered “Do I give him the silver coin now?” The Satisundari nodded her permission and Puti tucked a shining silver coin, into the waistband of the man’s bloody dhoti.

As they bore the farmer away - very gradually, painfully, he mumbled, “God bless you. May you be the mother of a hundred sons as valiant as you…”

“Please go. Go! And God be with you.” Satisundari began to back away. She whispered to Puti, “I wonder how the farmers know when to come to a man’s help?”

Puti replied, “The farmers take turns to stay up and keep watch. They stay in the shadows. Naturally they don’t want to show themselves to you, they can’t offend your modesty.”

Satisundari laughed, “Huh, modesty, indeed! A lot of modesty my revered husband has left me with. Do I have any other option but to go prancing about at night, freeing those poor men he tortures by day?” The two women swiftly returned the way they had come.

Meanwhile the men in the Cutchery were still counting money, their voices floated out into the night. Satisundari waved Puti on as she once again stood on her toes to peep in. The trapdoor was still open and gold coins were being packed away in leather bags for keeping in the underground vault. Satisfied that yet one more act of rebellion was a success, Satisundari was about to return to her husband’s home, when she heard her husband say to Ferdinand “We caught another farmer today. A scoundrel he was, too. I gave him a taste of the whip and left him at the well. But, I suspect that someone is stirring the farmers up. There is trouble in the air. Almost all the hotheads among farmers whom I punish are being freed at night. I interrogated the rascals in the plantation but no one could give a satisfactory explanation.”

Ferdinand nodded, “You are correct. I think there may be some upstart … a dacoit or a trained thug in our plantation … we must nip it in the bud! Right at the bud…”

She heard her husband warn, “Sahib, say no more, the windows are open, voices carry at night.” As Satisundari heard her husband approach the window, she dropped to the ground and crawled as fast as she could to round the corner. She heard the window being about to be closed and then her husband sharply asked, “What are you doing here?” Satisundari thought he had caught her out, her throat dried as she slowly raised her head to look at him. Then she saw that it was Puti who stood under the window. Relieved, she pulled herself into the shadows, and she heard Puti say, “Nothing, it’s getting late and I was wondering when you will be home.”

After a short and heavy silence, the Munshi said, “Why this sudden concern?” At the same time Ferdinand asked whom the Munshi was speaking to. The Munshi replied over his shoulder, “No one my lord, just that dwarf maid of mine asking when I’d be home.” Satisundari sprang to her feet, and make a dash for the house.

As she ran she heard Ferdinand laugh and say, “Hey Munshi, dwarf bitches are like pit bulls, they can bite your balls off if you aren’t careful.” The slamming of the windows cut off the uproarious laughter of the Englishman.

Then Puti was by her side, hurrying her, running past the bamboo grove, warning her never again to run such risks for the sake of eavesdropping and how, had it not been for her, Satisundari would surely be in for a thrashing or worse, from her husband. As they entered the house, Satisundari hugged Puti and said, “Don’t know what I would have done without you.”

 

Part (2)

It had all started just recently. One night Puti heard the jackals howling and what came after was a human echo of the howl. The maid, who had not grown even an inch since she was six years old, asked Satisundari, “Does that not sound like a man in pain?”

Satisundari bitterly replied. “It is a man in pain. My husband and the Englishman torture one farmer a week to erect an ‘example’ for the others. The two, the Sahib and the Munshi, maim and even kill sometimes to make the farmers slave to produce bigger crops...”

Puti asked Satisundari, eyes shining with determination, “Can’t we save these poor farmers?”   Puti the orphan remembered the lessons taught by her dead mother; that kindness and compassion helps shut the door on suffering. Thus, compassion became Puti’s life force.

And so began an unlikely revolution, an unheard of rebellion based on kindness and compassion and which made folk heroes of the two.

But that was later, much later.

For now, to return to our tale:

Satisundari, the Munshi’s wife and her maid Puti, secretly released tortured farmers from captivity, night after night. This was a well-kept secret in the plantation, among the farmers and their families who were very grateful to their saviours. Particularly so was their gratitude to the unlikeliest saviour of all, the wife of their torturer. Thus Satisundari and Puti became heroes.

For Satisundari, the act of saving lives gradually became much more meaningful than what it had started as.

The first time she set free a farmer tortured and bound by her husband, she had thought it to be a simple act of vengeance against her husband. As she broke the lock of the room where a farmer was imprisoned; or snipped off the bloodied ropes binding a man, she would mentally tick off, “And this is for the time you kicked me … and this is for the slap that made me deaf for a week …” But then when she closely saw the victims of torture, she began to change. The inhuman pain that could be inflicted by one human being on another shook her and with that grew a sense of injustice, within her. Very gradually she began to realise that in this little world of the plantation village there were unjust situations that she need not accept. And that by her act of refusing to accept such traditions; she felt that to some extent she was helping to change her world.

The Dom section of the village where the untouchables lived was where no one of a different caste can visit without losing caste and being forever ostracised from their own caste. Satisundari, who had never been one for rituals or was at all conscious of her caste or the consequent economic status, had one evening followed the dirt track that led away from the main area of the plantation where the Munshi had his house. This had been when her mother-in-law was still living and Satisundari spent the early evening hours in discovering the village for herself. That dirt path was an inviting road to nowhere, especially as the cattle were returning home just ahead of her and the setting sun had painted golden the dust that clouded up from the cattle hooves; Satisundari had followed the herd till the path dipped to a dried stream. Across the now dry stream bed were a cluster of hovels. One of the first lean-tos she came upon after crossing the bed of the stream, belonged to a potter. An old man with a turban on his head and bare bodied, was spinning a large wheel from which emerged a clay glass, almost miraculously, felt Satisundari. That evening she learnt how to make clay cups, she learnt not through words but by carefully following what the potter did. He ignored her and merely grunted when she asked him questions. As the shadows lengthened, the potter looked up towards the darkening sky and spoke for the first time “Go home” he said to her.

She ran back through the gathering darkness to the house where her mother-in-law stood blowing a conch shell repeatedly, desperately, almost as if her conch shell would draw Satisundari back home. The older woman stood with a worried look, by the Tulsi plant where the little brass diya seemed to have already dried of the oil that kept the blackened wick still burning. When the older woman saw Satisundari with her clayey hands, her bare feet cloaked in dust, she cried, “O dear, what have you gone and done you foolish girl? Were you at the potter’s village?” Her voice rose in a quavering wail, “O God, you have lost your caste!” Later, a thoroughly scrubbed Satisundari had Ganga water dashed over her and a lecture on the different Gods, who were angered if one tried to break ranks.

After that incident all that Satisundari learnt was subterfuge, because she continued visiting the village where potters and the Dom community lived. In time they became her friends but Satisundari began searching the Vedas, Upanishads for such rules of segregation as sanctioned by the gods, but in vain. Eventually she found the rulings in the later Shastras but by that time she was convinced that it was men such as the Munshi and the Sahib and someone called Manu who had made such regulations; therefore, she reasoned she did not have to abide by these unfair laws.

That this caste system was an unreasonable ruling even her much put upon mother-in-law agreed on, “I know it is unfair, but who are we females to question the great sages of the past?”

“The sages were all males?”

“Of course, they were. Who has heard of female sages?”

“Proves my point,” said Satisundari and earned a dazed look from the older woman.

Everyday Satisundari learned that such prejudice ruled rampant in the village-plantation where she lived. There were fresh discriminations that she discovered with alarming speed. If the Dom was unacceptable, the Buddhists were even more so. The few Buddhists who accidentally wandered into their village with their long flowing robes, begging bowls and shaven heads; would be chased by children reciting, “Hey shaven-heads have an egg” and “Come into my bower said the coconut to the shaved heads”. They would be given food and water by Satisundari and escorted out of the plantation by Puti all the while glaring at the rings of children till they were chastened and the Buddhist Bhikku was safely away. And when it came to the Muslims, they lived in neighbourly peace but not a glass of water would be shared by the members of the two communities and for most Hindus the Muslims were on par with the Dom. All except among the Dom community for whom the Muslims were untouchable.

Satisundari found such untouchable strictures completely incomprehensible and giggling told Puti, “Since I can’t understand what the gods want and who I am to touch and whose mere shadow makes me dirty, let us make up our own rules. Let us touch who we wish, perhaps play a game of tag, and see what happens!”

Eventually, all the prejudices became nothing other than just that to her – “Puti, all this untouchable meaningless nonsense is just a pile of rubbish that is meant to be ignored. So forget about it. We will come and go as we wish.” When she saw Puti’s wide and a trifle frightened eyes, Satisundari continued, “We can’t change the thousands of years old rules, but we can change ourselves, no? Meanwhile the village lives in terror of the Sahib and his Munshi and that needs our attention.” Puti vehemently nodded in agreement. Thus the act of saving lives became the sole focus of her life and became much, much larger than any act of vengeance.

That was also the time when she learnt self defence – if it could be called that.

One afternoon the Munshi returned from the field muttering about the difficulty of meeting production targets and stripped off his half kurta that bore blood spots, threw it toward Satisundari and said, “Give this a wash. The man died on me! I barely touched my whip to him and he passed out.” The Munshi was self righteously complaining to no one in particular, “And now what do I tell the Sahib? That I cannot meet the production target because the farmers have refused to do so? Because one farmer died although I had barely touched him?”

Satisundari was suddenly suffused with rage. “You killed him.” She said in an expressionless voice. He did not hear her at first. When he did, he came at her, hands raised to strike her. Puti threw herself in his path but he pushed the midget girl aside and reaching Satisundari he stood over her with fists that shook, crying, “Repeat what you said! Let’s hear you repeat it!”  

When with a trembling voice Satisundari repeated “You killed him”, the Munshi hit her. Perhaps because he was genuinely shaken that he would not be able to meet the production target, the Munshi’s blow lacked force. He made a disgusted sound and turned away. At the wall alcove with its stone shelves the Munshi began emptying his Kurta pockets, still muttering, with his back turned to his wife. That is when Satisundari in a red haze of rage ran at him and pushed him from behind. Startled, the Munshi lost his balance and struck his chin on the edge of a shelf. When he turned around to face her, there was blood in his mouth from the cut on his lip. The blood fell in a red dribble down his chin and past, on to his throat. He bellowed “You dare to touch me! Me, your lord and husband, you hit me?” Even Puti, the usually brave Puti who stood up to him countless times, now shook in fear and hid her face. Satisundari suddenly darted at him. Taken aback, the Munshi stopped in his tracks. She came at him till there was a bare foot separating them and just as suddenly she veered, she ran behind him and beyond him, past the open door and the open gate and out, in the open village. He lumbered after her, this rake thin, tall, balding man with a beard of blood; until he realised that he cannot make common knowledge his wife’s un-wifely behaviour and was forced to retire within.

That was the first time she hit him. From that time whenever the Munshi hit her, she hit back and then ran as far as she could and hid somewhere safe till the man had spewed out his rage, had gushed out in a storm of words the violence he felt; till he searched among the furniture and the rooms of the house and among the corners and niches of the outhouses; and among the sharp edged bamboo leaves in the thick grove and once, even within the green scum covered lily pond behind the house. He would peep inside the well, shouting, “Come out, you coward, come and meet your destiny!” and hope that she who was his wife had done the dutiful wifely act of jumping into the well and drowning, because she had lost the right to call him her husband. He would throw back his head and howl at the sun or the moon “Behold, the unnatural act, she dares, dares to lift a hand against her husband!” But the howl was not too loud in case to his utter shame the plantation heard about his unnatural wife’s attempts to cause him bodily harm.

She usually hid till his rage spent itself. The Bengal countryside had plenty of hiding places; the leafy temple area was her best refuge. The grove of trees that looked like just another thicket of growth to those who viewed it from the outside; beyond the shiny and curved green leaves of the spreading Banyan trees, beyond the gnarled brown boughs and aerial roots lay a centuries old terracotta red brick temple. And it is here that Satisundari, after breaking the hoary old tradition of never defying the man who is her husband, after breaking the rule that no matter what the husband does to the wife, she is never to retaliate; after having evened the score – this is where she escaped. It was a place where the man could never find her because the Munshi may know the tracts of land where the indigo grew, he may know the long and low roofed buildings where the sacks of indigo are stored; he knew the Cutchery and where to hide the money - but he did not know the plantation, no, not at all.

When Satisundari was beaten, she would try to slip in a slap or a blow, but she never had the courage to stay to see where the blow landed. She hit out, blindly, then turned tail and ran. She would be out of the house and on to the winding village road and then turn left and right in blinding succession till she reached her refuge. Only Puti knew where she could be found and this is where Satisundari stayed till the Munshi was safely calm. At the far end of the plantation, on the other end of where the Dom community lived, was a grotto. Deep within the grotto lived yet another one of Satisundari’s causes, the old women or wise women who were called “witches”. These were the medicine women who were held in disdain by most, except during an emergency when the witch “medicine” worked magic. This is where Satisundari found her refuge from the Munshi. The thick growth looked impenetrable from outside for all those who did not wish to enter. Only those who sought to meet the “witches” knew just the branch to move aside to gain entry. Within this cave of green was the temple now in disuse. This is where Satisundari ran to after her tit-for-tat lifting of hands against the man who her father had bought for her for life, the man who she was forced to call her husband, the man who she should never raise her eyes to and look towards. The man to whom she should be grateful for the food she ate, except that she was gradually learning to subsist on charity and avoid eating the fruits of his sycophant’s labours.

Her sense of personal vendetta was satisfied only when she dipped into the Munshi’s hoard of coins and gave these to his victims of cruelty. The more coins her husband stole from the Cutchery and hid in the house, the more she stole. The coins she stole were not only for the prisoners she released, but also to help a struggling farmer’s family, for a sick child or to help the starving farmers buy food from the single highly priced weekly shop in the plantation run by Ferdinand and her husband’s lackeys. Perhaps it was because the coins he stole were hidden all over the house, perhaps because the number of coins was so large, that the Munshi had never caught her stealing.

 

Part (3)

Satisundari often contemplated on how the minutes … hours … days … years pass and never return yet everyone resolutely believes in permanency. What she could not know at the time, because she had not yet taught herself Geography, but that countries are carved from lands without boundaries and borders are permanently erected in one decade and eroded the next. Fortunes are made and unmade. Mansions are built and ruined. Contracts are forged. Yet life itself does not last, thought Satisundari how then can anything be considered eternal?

For instance Satisundari had always known she could treat her father’s home as merely a brief stopover. Trained since childhood for the inevitability of marriage, she came into the marriage as contracted by her father on the payment of dowry, to be a support for her mother-in-law and to be dutiful towards her husband. She had no great dreams of romantic love. Yet sometimes, as the months passed, as the years went by, she wondered how different life would have been if she were not beaten so often; if she were not shouted at all the time. Satisundari knew that society ruled that this man she was married to was to be with her till death. She really did not have any other choice, even so she could not force herself to like, or even to respect, Pyarelal Mohan Dutta. Then, as the years passed by she stopped wondering about or even to hope for a different life.

She began to fear in the inevitability of permanency.

Pyarelal Mohan Dutta, he of the covetous eyes, belonged to the time, in 19th Century India when marriage was considered as natural as birth, or death. He had eventually agreed to a late and reluctant marriage because it was “natural” to marry but secretly, he believed marriage to be quite an “unnatural” economic burden for any man. He could not come to terms with the thought of financially supporting anyone other than himself and at a pinch, his widowed mother.

His widowed mother on the other hand was one of those who never fought fate and accepted all the ills in her life as karmic destiny. For her there was neither want nor plenty, convinced that all was impermanent, life to her was a divine dream or a play of Maya. That she will awake one day to another reality, perhaps less harsh, was the only real hope she had. She never could understand her only child’s powerful desire for money and money alone. She could not understand why her Pyarelal, who was passionate about money, did not like sharing or spending it. His pleasure lay in running his fingers through his growing piles of shiny coins, in hearing his own especially created sweet melody, that of coins rubbing against each other. He had tried to make his mother appreciate this music, but she had merely stared at him with wide eyes and declared that she had no ear for music, not at all.

Widowed early, Pyarelal’s mother had been given shelter in his dead father’s large extended family and by the unspoken terms of being given shelter, she had been put to work as the unofficial head cook for the large household. Pyarelal had a childhood of want, wearing hand-me-downs and studying as the free-student- on- sufferance in the village school. As he grew older he developed a powerful attachment to money, while his mother developed as powerful an attachment to the Gods.

As soon as Pyarelal could afford it, they moved out, but habits do not die and his mother refused to employ servants, “What do I need servants for? It’s only housework for the two of us. And any way you will be marrying soon and I will have a daughter-in-law to help me I can wait till then.” She proposed several wealthy marriage contracts to her son. But he curtly refused the proposals and continued amassing coins and gold from the English East India Company and its officers. He did so by supplying them with the indigo needed for dyeing textiles, shipped from Bengal, India, to distant England.

All was going rather well for the traders and buyers of indigo till a few farmers began refusing to grow the plant. They said that their land was being ruined by indigo. This was when Pyarelal and a few other regular suppliers of the dye conspired with some officers of the East India Company to establish their own indigo plantations.

Unfortunately, this was also the exasperating time when Pyarelal’s mother took to complaining about her age, her aching bones, her failing eyesight, and demanded that he marry. She said, “I need someone to massage my old legs. I need some help at home,” she said. But Pyarelal was at the time on the vanguard of the English rampage for money from indigo. He could not pause. Not at a time like this. He brushed aside his mother’s complaints with a stern “You don’t have a sense of proportion! You cannot imagine the money I am about to make from the English. I don’t have time for marriage now!”

“But you are getting old. Who will marry an old man?” She wailed.

“Oh there are plenty of brides for rich old men. I didn’t say I won’t marry, I just said I’ll marry in a while! Why can’t you be proud of me, as I am?”

Yet his mother complained. She said, “Of course I am proud of you son, but I need a daughter-in-law … to oil my hair … to be my companion … to cook your favourite dishes …” But Pyarelal was adamant about not marrying at the time.

The East India Company officers were growing impatient and greedy. They demanded more indigo both for the official and the unofficial consignments sent in the months long journeys to England. They said to Pyarelal and others of his ilk, “Come on, and get a move on! Where are the plantations you promised?  Whip the lazy farmers into shape and make them produce. We shall buy whatever is grown!”

At about the time Pyarelal’s mother went on the first of several hunger strikes to force her son to marry, Pyarelal performed a coup.

Scouring the green rice fields of Bengal, Pyarelal put his ears to the ground and found pockets of discontent, want and need. He banded together several ryots or tenants of the land they tilled; or poor farmers, who owned small crop-fields and coerced the men to cultivate indigo instead of rice. Unhappy with their lot these farmers were happy to be transported to indigo plantations carved out from the gold that the petty officers of the Company had entrusted Pyarelal with. Before the year was out, the new indigo plantation owners among the officers of the Company were very happy indeed with Pyarelal Mohan Dutta.

Eventually, just as his mother entered the seventh in her series of aborted hunger strikes, the Company appointed him the Munshi or Moonshee in Arabic, the chief clerk cum secretary cum collector of one of the biggest indigo plantations. Pyarelal had founded this plantation with a clear set of informal instructions from the Company that the Chief Indigo Procurer of the district, Ferdinand Blake should co-own the plantation with the Company. That all the Company expected from this plantation was a certain number of sacks of indigo every season and whatever else is grown becomes the property of Ferdinand, no questions asked. For this “clear set of instructions”, the Munshi was given a great deal of money indeed. Dizzy with his accumulation of wealth on one hand and dizzy with dread that he would be held responsible for his mother’s death, on the other hand; Pyarelal Mohan Dutta, the Munshi, finally submitted to his mother’s will and agreed to marry.

His mother recovered miraculously and she speedily arranged the Munshi’s marriage to Satisundari.

The girl was fifteen years old, a little old for marriage at the time, but then the Munshi was quite old himself, nearing his forties. She was beautiful, spirited and quick of wit but Satisundari was also the youngest of seven daughters. Her father was a modestly well to do man who was willing to provide a substantial dowry, relieved at getting his last daughter off his hands.  

Her mother had told her as she left her parent’s home “Always keep your husband happy.” And then the mother had wept so hard at the final leave taking of her last child, perhaps a daughter, but her child all the same; that the mother was carried away on copious tears from this world. Needless to say, Satisundari was not permitted by the Munshi, her husband, to return home to grieve.

On their first night together, her husband burrowed his head into all her jewel studded neck chains and had fallen asleep, ecstasy on his face. Keeping her mother’s instructions in mind to keep her husband happy, she had lain stiff beside him and thought she had done well by her mother. Every night for some months after that Satisundari had worn all her dowry, the ropey pearls, all the gold chains with studded gems, around her neck and slept a full and peaceful night’s sleep.

But then, one rainy dawn, her husband carefully arranged her necklaces on her chest, flipped her sari up and did something to her that made her hurt. Hurt so bad that she had wanted to kick out and scrabble to safety. But with his bony knees he had parted her legs and kept them parted. He skewered her hips to the bed till she bled. And his hard fingers had gripped her breasts and pulled at her nipples till she cried out in pain. Then he had grunted and suddenly let her go. With one careless hand he had pulled her sari down and said, “Better clean up the blood.”

Satisundari was a new bride. Although she had been tutored to never speak back to her husband. In fact, never to speak with her head up, or head uncovered, she reacted with fury, “How dare you hurt me and then expect me to clean up after you?” The Munshi smiled his thin smile, casually swung back his arm and slapped her then turning his back to her, went back to sleep. Satisundari eventually did have to clean up her blood and her tears, remembering the next-door neighbour at her father’s house who would regularly beat “sense” into his wife and daughters. She was convinced the Munshi was going to torture her endlessly unless she did something to stop him. But what could she do? As the days went by she learnt that if she struggled he seemed to enjoy it. If she lay lifeless and still, he seemed to enjoy that as well.

So, Satisundari, learnt to let him get it over with. Except that throughout her ordeal she glared at him with hard and angry eyes. Some months later her mother-in-law eyed Satisundari’s slight belly and asked her, “When was the last time you had your periods?” This set Satisundari off crying.

Satisundari bitterly complained about her husband’s nightly attacks on her. And that was when Satisundari received elementary information on human procreation from her sympathetic mother-in-law, who started her lecture with “Men are beasts...” But the older woman also looked immeasurably happy, mollycoddling Satisundari and coyly speaking of the “pitter-patter of little feet.”

The very next month Satisundari slipped, fell and miscarried.

After the third such miscarriage her mother-in-law suspiciously eyed Satisundari and commented, “Its strange how you keep slipping, falling and having miscarriages.” But no sooner had she voiced her suspicion to Satisundari, the old woman herself fell prey to deadly snakebite and died. The Munshi had cried for his mother, but Satisundari had wept, wept and wept continuously for the next seven days.

The neighbours wondered how the viper had sneaked inside the house to bite none but the elderly widow. Gradually, the whispers resulted in Satisundari being considered one of those unlucky ones, the sort of woman who can never hold a child in her womb “A barren woman she is too, the sort of female who invites death and misfortune!” said the villagers eyeing her askance.

Satisundari of course could not care less about what was being said about her. She missed her mother-in-law and she disliked the man she was married to. Of late, the Munshi’s beatings of his wife had become almost perfunctory, even the reasons for the beatings usually proclaimed at the top of his voice, now became inaudible; he would mutter something and begin to beat her. Clearly the Munshi’s mind was not on the job of keeping a wife like Satisundari in place. Now that there was no mother-in-law to protect her, to pull her away to the safety of the women’s quarters the Munshi’s beatings became longwinded, as if he too were waiting for his mother’s ghost to appear and put an end to his labour.

Finally, Satisundari found an escape in the zennana portion of the house, an area of the house where the Munshi could not enter, without the unlocking of the door. And the keys were always with Satisundari. This area contained the bedroom that had been her mother-in-law’s, as empty of material possession as it suited one who merely waited to leave the present life. The quarter also had the pantry, a dark and cavernous room where spiders with eyes that gleamed, lined the wall. This was the room that Satisundari as a bride had hated to enter but her mother-in-law had relinquished the keys to the room to her and provisions had to be fetched from the pantry everyday. Often in the early days of her marriage Satisundari fantasized pushing the Munshi in, locking the door, tossing the keys into the bushes outside and leave him to be devoured by the spiders with the gleaming eyes. This fantasy at least won her a night or so of peaceful sleep. Then there was a little library, next to the pantry. Here unknown to the Munshi, but to the approving silence of her mother-in-law, Satisundari had pursued education from the books that she had filched from the rest of the house and which were periodically and silently added to, by her mother-in-law. The library had a scent of dusty palm leaves pages and on summer afternoons when the single high window let in faint rays of the hot sun outside, Satisundari would sit in this the coolest room in the house and remember all she had learnt from her grandfather, who had thrown caution to the winds and educated the last of his seven female grandchildren, Satisundari. And the very last room in the zennana was the puja room where lately, her mother-in-law spent most of her days and all her nights. This room had all the deities that could possibly be propitiated to, and there was a lingering scent of sandalwood here. Satisundari usually rotated her hours in the zennana between her library and the puja room where one could enjoy an afternoon nap on the cool marble floor, wrapped in fragrance. In the long corridor outside was where Satisundari tried to eat away the daytime by swiftly dicing vegetables for the Munshi’s meals and dreaming of sprinkling Datura seeds on the food, which the Munshi could eat and finally go publicly mad, she fantasized.

With evening fall, Satisundari rattled the keys to the zennana and making her noisy protest and resentment clear, would unlock the doors. Once before when she had refused to open the doors to this portion of the house that she could call her own; the Munshi had shaken the locked door and bellowed like a bull till Satisundari had to unlock the door and earned herself hard cuffs and some rough handling.    

Two more miscarriages later, ten year old Puti came into her lonely life spent in the zennana.

The orphaned child of a distant and poor relation, Puti was placed in the Munshi home largely because the Munshi needed a maid at no cost. The neighbours meanwhile considered Puti the just companion for someone like Satisundari. The villagers said, “That grotesque Puti and the Munshi’s wife are one of kind. With the combined ill luck of the wife and maid, the Munshi is in for a terrible time, the dreaded eyes of Saturn have now turned on the man!”

Puti remained of a height that she had been when she was about six years of age. Her face and head were much heavier than her body. Her hair was thin and tied in tight plaits that clearly showed puckered up stretched scalp. But her eyes, they shone with kindness and laughter.

The eye of Saturn notwithstanding, the Munshi went from strength to moneyed strength. His power and influence grew with the English and in particular, with the Englishman Ferdinand who had found a soul mate in the Munshi. Between the two they brought the cruel marauding spirit of the times to the Bengal countryside.

 

Part (4)

Back at the plantation, one night, the Munshi and Ferdinand laid a trap for those who were secretly releasing their prisoners. They decided that it must be a member of the gang of dacoits that the thugee tradition had bred. They said, “We have to catch this man who is helping the prisoners escape and then we shall hang him too, as an example to others!”

They paid a farmer, a newcomer to the area, to pretend to be a victim. They tied him up at the far end of the fields and urged him with silver mohurs, to wail at the top of his voice. Not far from the place where they left the “prisoner”, were the Munshi and his pack of rag-tag soldiers, the lathiwals or the guards with their wooden staves and clubs. They hid themselves in a copse, waiting to nab the thug who set their prisoners free.

That night Puti had a feeling that all was not going to be well. It was one of Puti’s “uncomfortable” feelings that Satisundari had come to trust.

When the cries of pain of the fresh “victim” rolled across the moon silvered crops to reach their ears, Satisundari set about stuffing food in a leaf packet, picking out a coin from her husband’s hidden hoard and packed some powdered roots to be used as first aid.

Puti watched Satisundari uncomfortably, and said, “Didi, don’t go. Not tonight.”

“Why?”

“I have a feeling. The full moon doesn’t bode well. I just saw a white owl fly towards the field; it’s not a good sign! Listen, can you hear the owl? Don’t go, please!”

Satisundari paused, though she had come to trust Puti’s feelings the man outside howled and the sound overwhelmed her as she stood at the open door. Satisundari cast a fearful look at the Cutchery where the light that shone from the window of the counting house illuminated the ground outside, deepening the shadows beyond. “I can do it, Puti, it’s not too late. They are still busy.”

“Don’t go! Please, please don’t go!” Puti clung to Satisundari’s legs.

“Puti, you must understand, I have to do it. They depend on us, Puti. You must let me go.” Satisundari gently freed herself, assuring Puti, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.”

Puti burst into tears as Satisundari slipped out.

The Englishman was still playing with his coins and humming in the Cutchery. She could hear him. This time Satisundari did not peep in, she was in a hurry to do her deed and return before the Munshi got back home.

Satisundari decided not to take the commonly used path but cut across the fields. Halfway through the fields her anklets became weighty with mud, weighing her down. The heavy hem of her muddy sari was also slowing her down. She felt a catch in her under-belly and suspected that it was time to arrange for another fall and miscarry.

Her breath caught in her throat and she panted as she hurried through the slush. Now her breasts began aching. It was almost as if her unborn child who she had just become aware of, was deliberately trying to slow her down.

The full moon cut a silvery blue swathe across the crops and bathed her in an eerie blue light. The silence of the night was not the usual comforting blanket of peace but had a fearful stillness. Just then, there was another sharp catch in her belly. She bent, In trying to ease the pain and from the corner of her eyes she caught a movement. Her breath now ragged, Satisundari fell on her knees and narrowing her eyes, peered at the spot where she had glimpsed a movement. That is when she saw them, her husband and his group of lathiwals trying to blend into the dark shadows of the trees.

Experienced in the art of camouflage and escape, Satisundari fell on her hands and knees and began to crawl back the way she had come. Over and again she blamed herself for ignoring Puti. After a while, her hands and knees began sinking into the muddy earth. Her unborn child seemed to whisper, pleading with her to save herself by lying on her back. She did that. Later, she was to tell her son, “I knew then, that you had to be born.” As she lay there in the mud, with the moonlight on her face, she heard Puti arrive. Little Puti had shaken off her fearful feelings and stolen into the fields to see the lathiwals and the Munshi hiding among the trees. She raised her voice and called out, “Is that you, Sir? Why do you lurk among the trees? It is well past your dinner time.”

The Munshi snarled, “Silence!” But the deed was done.

Satisundari shook off the mud and got to her feet. The silver blue moonlight washed over her muddy body. A body that looked like the clay images the potters make of the gods and goddesses. Her hair had come undone and rippled in snaking muddy trails down her back.

It was said later, that it had been the Devi, who had appeared in the indigo fields. It was on that fateful night when Satisundari’s womb spoke that the Devi revealed herself in her majestic and spectacular – albeit a trifle muddy glory. So it is said that in Bengal, that the Devi always arrives when there is sorrow in the land.

And Puti fell to her knees with her hands clasped in front and screamed “Devi! You have come! Devi! Forgive these evildoers!”

The lathiwals were merely brawny and thoroughly superstitious villagers whom the Englishman and his Munshi paid to be aggressive. When Puti pointed at Satisundari and called out “Devi”’, they too dropped their staff and daggers and fell to their knees. Then when Puti scrambled to her feet and rushed towards the Munshi’s home, they too scattered, muttering prayers, fearful that the Devi’s wrath will chase them home.

Why Puti ran homewards was unknown even to her. Later she told Satisundari “It felt like that was the right thing to do at the time.”

The only one who was untouched by the fear of the Devi’ was the Munshi for he had recognized his wife. After all his guards had fled, he dragged Satisundari home by her hair and beat her. He locked her without food or water in the dark little thatched hut used to store coal and which was some distance from the main house. His thin lips lifted in a snarl as he hissed to Satisundari, “I cannot admit to Sahib that it was my wife who was going about freeing the knaves. But you will pay for it. You will.”

The Munshi thrust his wife into the coal shed and locked the door.

* * *

Satisundari remained locked in the coal shed for some time and then, when the Munshi ran a check on her and found his wife plumper, a shade more glow to her skin; he extended her imprisonment.

How was the Munshi to know that the farmers and their family were helping to keep Satisundari alive and healthy?

It was Puti who had rallied help. The morning after Satisundari was locked in, she waited for the Munshi to leave home and then she began her visits to the homes of the farmers to ask for help for her mistress. So it was that every farmer’s family took on the responsibility of sharing their own meagre rations with Satisundari.

As soon as the Munshi left home for work, Puti would pick the lock to the shed and release Satisundari from her prison. There, in the open air Satisundari ate the farmer’s food and began to teach her lessons on rebellion. With Puti beside her Satisundari inspired in them the concept of freedom. She said, “Remember, the English are not here to stay. They are here today but will be gone tomorrow. You must reclaim your land. You must enjoy the fruits of your own labour...”

Meanwhile, her child grew in her belly. This was the one life that Satisundari knew to be her reward for all those times she had slipped and fallen and sworn never to permit the Munshi to gloat over the flesh of his flesh. So it was that the baby grew till even the Munshi who sometimes remembered he had a wife locked in the coal shed, realized that his unnatural wife carried his child and wondered whether for the sake of his unborn child his wife should be released.

The Munshi of course would gladly have his troublesome wife die at childbirth in the coal shed. However, Sachi or Sachindra Mohan Dutta was born on a chilly winter’s day attended by Puti and the farmer’s wives in the coal shed. To the Munshi’s chagrin the mother and child both looked healthy. That was the first and the last time, for months to come, that the Munshi was allowed to see his son.

Satisundari knew how to conduct stealthy rebellion. She knew how to tend to those wounded by her husband, but she did not know how to mother, at least, not initially.

Satisundari had had a very easy birth, her baby had merely slipped out and wailed. But it was after that simple slipping out, that things became complicated for Satisundari. She had never before felt as lethargic, as afflicted by ennui. And she, who had never before felt a speck of self-pity, found herself weighed down by sadness and was puzzled but could not stop her frequent bouts of weeping. Her legs hurt, her back ached, and her breasts felt sore and tender. She lay on the mat in the coal room, her infant beside her, not bothering to bathe, comb or oil her hair, or even to clothe herself. When the farmer’s wives peeped into the room she would pull a thin sheet over herself, for the sake of modesty. She lay in a corner of the dank and dark room and allowed none but Puti to enter.

Mostly, learning from the farm animals, Satisundari, managed to nurse her child in a way that alarmed Puti and set the farmers wives laughing. She lay with her breasts bare for her son to suckle on whenever he was hungry. Puti who knew so little of these matters, protested, “How can you behave like the cows on the field with your udders hanging free for your calf to feed on?”

The farmer’s wives giggled and suggested a bath. They suggested oiling her hair and using some for her son’s thatch of hair as well. They laughed and said she should sit up to feed him, with a pillow underneath her breasts to avoid losing shape. And when Satisundari, shouted from within the room “I don’t care if my breasts hang to my knees!” and burst out crying; the wives reassured her that this crying bout shall also pass.

The worst times were after sundown. A faint glow from the hanging lamp outside the room made the gloomy shadows press in on Satisundari. That was also the time of day when the Munshi made his futile bids to visit his son. And Satisundari in her fragile state of mind became convinced that the Munshi was there to deal death to her son. She refused to allow him into the room or even to see her son, shouting from her dark corner “Go away! Leave us alone!”

 

Part (5)

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.

Part (6)

That evening, the Dewan 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. 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 Dewan. For a nonplussed moment the Dewan stared at his peacefully sleeping child. Then by the dim shine of the oil lamp that hung from the sooty beams outside the room, the Dewan 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 father’s arms. The Dewan raised his voice and said, “Why, there is nothing wrong with him, after all! Why has she kept him hidden away, then?”

That is when Satisundari appeared at the door.

A thin cloth was barely draped over her waist. A drop of milk at the end of a taut nipple, blue veins swelling on her full breasts – that is what the Dewan first noticed. Her pubic hair darkly pushed against the thin cloth. Her hair coiled down her bareback. Her mouth parted to reveal savage little teeth, Satisundari hoarsely cried out “Give me my baby back!”

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

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

Her breasts were hard 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 Dewan elbowed her mid-riff and for a moment she was winded. The rough, hard earth packed floor caught one end of her cloth and as Satisundari tried to roll away from him, it slid off her. The Dewan had never before seen his wife naked. A fresh wave of hunger for her 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, with his free hand he slapped her. 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?”

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 farm was familiar with the Dewan’s rages. The sound of the beatings was nothing new. Nor were the words that the Dewan shouted – those too, were familiar words because the Dewan used the very 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. Some of the farmer’s wives made to go towards the coal shed. But their men stopped them. When the Dewan 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 Dewan 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 Dewan to drive into her, over and again. But, it was not as before. This time the revulsion rose in her so, that before she could stop herself she retched and vomited. The Dewan 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.

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 Dewan stepped over her and entered the room. From a distance Satisundari heard him saying in his authoritative voice, “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.

And that was also how Satisundari re-entered her husband’s house.

After the Dewan left with Puti and his son in tow, through the dark corridor of bamboo trees that led to the Dewan’s house from the coal shed, some of the braver wives of farmers found Satisundari. They covered her, 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 Dewan’s house, even though the water in the pond was chilling, Satisundari cleansed herself there. Scrubbing herself, she washed her bruised body over and over, stopping occasionally to sniff at her skin so that not a trace of her husband remained. The women sat on the steps leading down to the pond and told her:

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

“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 fulfill his needs.”

Satisundari paid no heed to what was being said. She merely rubbed her aching body dry. Then draping a clean sari, she silently took the path to the Dewan’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 baby. The Dewan was sitting on the bed, staring at his son, impassively. When Satisundari entered the room the Dewan 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.”

...Chapter Two

Part (1)

For the Munshi Satisundari represented all that was inimical to him. When he watched wives, any wife, be they of the farmers or of the Zamindars, he marvelled at their dedication, at their biddable subservience to their husband’s needs and desires. Whereas his wife …

Satisundari, to the Munshi’s absolute disgust was not only gaining in stature among the farmers but was also becoming known among the Zamindars for her rebellious nature. Or so the Munshi was given to understand. At first he had scoffed at the gossip. Then together with the gossip, he became aware that his wife with Puti and Sachi in tow was making too many visits outside the plantation. When asked by the Munshi about who they were visiting, Puti described the visits as “Your wife’s relations. Your wife says as you don’t have any living members of your own family, it is her family that Sachi must be acquainted with.”

The Munshi had to acknowledge that his wife, who was no wife to him, was at least a cautious mother in introducing Sachi to her moneyed and powerful relations ... So he permitted their trips. He arranged for palanquins and bearers and sometimes out-riders to accompany them. Only after the gossip started that Satisundari was visiting the Zamindars to campaign against indigo plantations, he realised that once more his wife had made a fool of him. That he should be actually have made their passage easy, made him gnash his teeth in rage and he immediately forbade the trips to “relations”.

The Munshi did not know how this gossip of Satisundari’s wooing of the Zamindars had reached Ferdinand. But the Sahib confirmed that he knew about Satisundari’s nefarious activities one monsoon night at the Cutchery. That rainy evening Ferdinand told him “So, Munshi, what is your wife’s view on all the murmurings we are hearing?”

The Munshi was startled “What murmurings?”

Ferdinand shot him a keen look from under his bushy eyebrows. “Absurd little talks about defying the Company about indigo shipments...”

The Munshi studiedly began putting away the coins they had been counting in the Cutchery. Faintly he said, “What does that have to do with my wife?”

Ferdinand sat back and took a sip of his drink, “It’s related, Munshi, it’s related.”

The Munshi leaned forward, “Yes Sir, perhaps Sir, but unless I hear all the details that you know and are hinting at, I can’t comment. You still have not said what this has to do with my wife.”

Ferdinand chuckled “Still keep her locked up, eh Munshi?”

“Yes.”

“Spirited woman, your wife. Saw her the other day, she was teaching some of the children of farmers. Didn’t know she was educated.”

Saw her?” The Munshi echoed. He tried to hide his chagrin at his wife displaying herself to the notorious Englishman. Ferdinand had a wife in distant England whom he visited once in three or more years and the rest of the time the Englishman preyed on village girls. Everyone knew about Ferdinand and the women of the plantation hid or were hidden from him. And what had happened to the widow Bina, made the Sahib even more notorious. Why had his unnatural wife not hidden herself from the “Indigo Sahib” thought the Munshi, did she harbour any designs on the Sahib, thought he.

“Don’t worry Munshi. She did not see me at first. But when she did do so, she continued teaching and ignored me.” He chuckled again and then Ferdinand did the unforgivable, he asked the Munshi, “She is considerably younger than you, eh Munshi?” Then catching the Munshi’s expression, Ferdinand hastily added, “Yes, as I was saying. The other day in the city I was astonished to hear that your little wife, Munshi, has earned a reputation for helping those very farmers we punish.”

The Munshi’s mind was reeling. He croaked, “That is nonsense! My wife was troublesome earlier, but ever since my son was born she has changed.” Ferdinand did not say anything for a long and uncomfortable moment while the wind howled outside the Cutchery and tore into the room and the candlelight guttered and dimmed and finally went out, leaving the two men sitting in the dark. Ferdinand said “I would watch her, if I were you, Munshi. I would watch her like a hawk. It never does to educate a woman, and that too a native woman!”

Perhaps because the words were spoken in the dark as the rain fell in a roaring cascade outside ... perhaps because the lightening streaked across the dark skies and sent a flash of light into the room, paling Ferdinand’s pale face further; the words of the Englishman sounded like a warning to the Munshi. He said to himself that he was not going to sacrifice everything he had fought for, because of a woman whom he need not retain as a wife any longer. He determined to set her out the very night. But aloud, he said to Ferdinand, “I am not seeing what you are getting at, Sir.”

By Ferdinand’s silence he knew that he had to do the deed tonight. This was to be the night that Satisundari’s rebellion would end, forever.

That night the Munshi reached home and beat his wife in frenzy.

Puti tried to save her, but the girl was no match for the enraged Munshi and was swatted away. It was then that Sachi once again came to his mother’s rescue.

The Munshi had done no more or any less than a husband of the time, to maintain the equilibrium of a marriage. It was Satisundari who went against the tide because she demanded nothing from the man she was married to. He did not exist for her. And nothing the Munshi did could get her to acknowledge him; the riches, the beatings, the rape, not even the bearing of the flesh of his flesh could sway her. As Sachi grew and demanded a place for himself in his father’s life, the Munshi with considerable relief turned away from the woman who happened to be his wife. His regular punishment of her was unmindful, mechanical and ultimately just a necessary deed to remind her that he was her master, after all.

But that night was different. Holding the thick palm leaved umbrella over his head, the Munshi stumbled through the blinding rain towards his home. By the time he reached his home he was drenched. Sachi, his mother and Puti were in the kitchen, laughing over something the boy was saying. The dying fire in the clay oven cocooned the three in a warm light. Sachi looked up and saw his father and exclaimed, “You are completely wet!” He got to his feet saying, “You must get out of your clothes or you’ll catch a chill.”

The Munshi ignored Sachi and stared at his wife. Satisundari rose and made to leave the room. Puti said to the Munshi, “Sachi was waiting for you to have dinner together.” And she bustled about laying out the food. Satisundari, as was the tradition of the time, drew her sari to cover her face and as she passed the Munshi, he shot out a hand and grabbed her arm. “It is charming to see your modesty, wife. I wonder if you bothered to pull your sari just so, when you stood before Ferdinand!”

Then before Satisundari could say anything, or Sachi could leave the room to get dry clothes for his father, he began beating his wife. It seemed that the very fabric of his being was collapsing in a fury. Every blow that he dealt her fanned his fury further till all he remained conscious of was the sound of his breathing and his rapid heartbeat.

Sachi dashed a pail of water on the Munshi. With a roar, the man turned towards his son and that is when Satisundari at last found her voice, “No. No Sachi. Leave the room. Please.”

The water that Sachi had thrown at the Munshi dripped in pink drops onto the kitchen floor. The Munshi’s hands were dull with pain. He turned them over and found his knuckles bloody. It took a while for the Munshi to realize that someone was shaking him. It was Sachi. His face was wet with tears and he was screaming, “You cannot hit my mother! You cannot!”

Satisundari lay crumpled on the floor. Puti was attending to her, trying to staunch the blood. The Munshi found himself pushed against a wall. Sachi was slamming his body against the wall and sobbing, “You cannot! No! You cannot!” A part of the Munshi’s mind was registering that his 14 years old son was taller than he. His son was stronger than he.

Suddenly Puti cried, “Sachi! Your mother’s not breathing!” Sachi whirled around and ran to his mother. But the Munshi tried to restrain his son, tried to make him understand, why he needed to do what he did. Sachi snatched his arm away. As Sachi bent over his mother he told the Munshi, “I shall never forgive you! Never!”

But Satisundari survived. Though she took months to recover, recover she did.

Later, when she was able to speak, when the village bonesetter had corrected the injury that the Munshi had dealt her, Satisundari announced, “Eventually Puti, the Munshi is but my karma from my past life so I have to work that karma out of my system.”

Puti stared at Satisundari, the woman who had never before spoken of destiny and fate, speaking of Karma? Puti cried out, “Didi, this is the first time I have heard you speak like the other ignorant women of the village!”

Satisundari took a little time to answer, and then in a low voice she said, “I sometimes wonder if I am wrong. Why can I not accept all that he does, or all that the English do? Everyone else accepts this reality. There is no stopping the English. And there is no stopping that man. Perhaps it is all karma. Yet, I haven’t learnt to accept this.”

A shocked Puti exclaimed, “I can’t believe my ears! This is not you speaking. This must be the result of the beating. Just because he is a man and he can beat you, you forget all you have sworn to do?”

Satisundari said with a wan smile, “Perhaps I am tired.” Puti let it go. But she took more care to nurse Satisundari back to health and all the while, she spoke of the injustice in the plantation, every little scrap of rumour about small acts of defiance by a farmer was reported to her mistress; till she saw the light return to Satisundari’s eyes. It took a while and Puti was not quite certain that Satisundari was herself as yet, but gradually her mistress began recalling what she had set out to do.

As for the Munshi, the night’s events decided for him that his son had to be separated from his mother. He had tried to teach his son to listen to the sound of music a cache of coins made, but like his long dead mother, Sachi too was deaf to this music.

When Sachi was old enough to accompany his father on his rounds of the village, the Munshi would take his son to the Cutchery to run his hands through the piles of coins. “All this is yours, son. All this” would say the Munshi to his son and watch Sachi closely with glittering eyes, “Can you understand what that means?” Then without waiting for Sachi to reply, the Munshi would continue, “Imagine, all this will be yours one day. One day, you will be a very rich man, indeed.” However Sachi as a child would run his hands through the coins obediently, trying to enjoy the sounds of coins tumbling against each other only for a while, and then would get bored.

The Munshi would often take Sachi by the hand and walk him about the farm, around the warehouse where the indigo plants were kept stored, the English farmhouse that Ferdinand had built in the Bengal countryside, and to the land where indigo grew, and say “See? Sachi, see? All this … everything will be yours one day!”

Little Sachi, not quite ten then, pointed at Ferdinand’s house and said, “Will this be mine, as well?”

The Munshi had started and in a rage recognized his unnatural wife’s training. “Why do you want the house the Englishman built?”

“Because you said all this would be mine, one day. That’s why” replied Sachi.

And the Munshi, in a panic, said, “Listen Sachi, you should not lay claim to what the English have set up. It is foolish, extremely foolish to do so. Despite what others say! Remember I am what I am today because of the English.” And when his son looked at him, silently expressionless, the Munshi repeated, “Don’t stray into territories that you are too young to understand.”

From that time onwards, the Munshi went against the norms of the time and began to battle his wife for the possession of his son. But unlike Satisundari, the Munshi had not taken into consideration Sachi’s own personality. The boy did not contradict his father, nor did he defy his father, but in his silence, Sachi communicated his refusal to toe the Munshi’s line of genuflecting to the English, whatever the reward may be.

From the day after beating Satisundari and determining to change his son’s attitude, the Munshi employed carpenters and masons to build a wooden lodge in the land gifted to him by the English. And this was where Sachi was exiled. Satisundari knew as an Indian mother she had no say in her son’s future and for the first time after being beaten by the Munshi she experienced a resurgence of rage. She was dry-eyed when Sachi wept as he left with his father. As soon as they left Satisundari packed her few belongings and returned to the coal shed. There in the little hut, she swore vengeance and plotted to engage the Munshi and the Sahib in a battle that broke all conventions of warfare. She told Puti, “Now that my son has been taken away from me, I shall do just as I please. Now that I don’t have to be a mother to my son, I can stop being a wife, a woman in purdah as society demands, and I will ready myself for the battle.”

- - -

MAGAZINES