Djinns in the fields
Dr Sanhita Kanungo
Shyambali peered through the living room window. Rinki di was watching the television program intently. He felt puzzled , seeing the photo of a burning pyre and people arguing intermittently. What was so interesting about it ,he wondered. He resorted to his extreme measure of tapping on the window pane. He was the gardener and had finished his work. Nobody knew how he kept time. He wore no watch but managed to be uncanilly punctual at each of the bungalows where he tended to the gardens for an hour slot. He was entitled to a cup of tea and snacks after his duty. He usually signalled his departure by coughing and hacking ,if the sound of washing up and closing the shed failed to attract the attention of the maid or the memsaabs. Once that failed, he tapped window panes, something he disliked doing. Rinki di rushed out and smiled at him. Wait Mali bhai.. I didn’t hear you. She started making the tea hurriedly. Who died Rinki di? Anyone from here, he enquired. Rinki di then told him that it was a young girl who died at Hathras,a place in UP. Bad men had harmed the girl and the police instead of helping had forcibly cremated her at the dead of night..her parents couldn’t even do the last rites.She angrily abused the people and system..as she put a steaming hot cup of tea, biscuits and a banana in front of him,in the veranda where he sat haunched on his knees. Shyambali looked sad and thoughtful as he sipped his tea. Old events flashed through his mind as he finished his tea ,washed his dish and placed in in the allotted shelf. He had finished for the day. He had to fetch the goats from the hill behind his quarters, feed his hens and then take his bath before heading home for the day. The image on the TV perturbed him and he sat on the hillock and lighted up a bidi. He was a Harijan, in fact that was his surname. That girl was also from the backward community. No last rites, her soul would wander. Ram Ram..he thought. He too hailed from a village near Buxar. Was it Bihar or Jharkhand,he wondered. Everything had changed. He had been there thirty years ago. The last time, he had promised and he had kept his promise till date. It had been years since he had gone to the village to fetch his wife. He was dark and plain and was amazed to see his pretty and fair wife. His bhabhi had grumbled that they had got a cheap bargain, only a thousand rupees and a gold ring and the bride was definitely subnormal. Shyambali didn’t mind. He was over the moon and came back to Assam with his bride. He was proud to have two quarters. They were cramped, damp and dark but home nevertheless. He didn’t mind that his pretty wife was slow. But for years they had no offspring. They had visited all the nearby shrines and temples in vain. Finally they were blessed with a daughter, Kamala. To his dismay she was dark unlike his pretty wife but with time her sharp features and beauty became apparent. She was smart ,a chatterbox and a born gardener. Books however puzzled her. She could barely make it to the third grade and then played truant, going fishing and hunting for berries with her disreputable friends in the other quarters and local farms. In despair Shyambali hired tutors to help her but besides beatings and tears , nothing productive came of it. She was then hired for light housework by one of the memsahibs and so began her life as an earner. Kamala’s mother had started nagging him to find a match for her. She was nearly 10 and her unmarried state would bring shame to their community. They could send her to her in law’s later, she said. After letters and exchange of photos to and fro from the ancestral village, Shankar Balmiki was chosen for her. He was fair, to Shyambali’s satisfaction and was still in school. A sum of five thousand rupees and gold ring was agreed on and a bike to be given later,after the Gouna ritual. Shyambali and his family took the train to Buxar. His wife had been cooking for days and had bought gifts for her family from the travelling salesmen. He shuddered to think, how much he would have to pay back to them later. The memsabs had given some money to him but most were disapproving of the child marriage. Kamala was excited at the prospect of the travel to the unknown places and at being the centre of attention. She was happiest at the thought of coming back with her parents. Though her adolescent husband looked like a hero, she had heard about in laws making the wives work like slaves. The wedding was soon over and Kamala was bewildered amidst the crowd of relatives,the unfamiliar dialect ,the snide remarks at her dark complexion and tomboyish behavior. She enjoyed wearing bangles, mehendi and the sparkly lehenga but slept through the wedding held at the auspicious but late hour. Shyambali enjoyed meeting his family but they seemed rustic and rigid, now that he had seen the world outside. He had hardly seen his wife and was eagerly waiting to go back home. He liked his son in law. He was educated and wanted to join the army. Shyambali woke up to a hushed commotion one morning a few days later. Both the men and the women folk had to go to the field for their ablutions. Something had happened to one of the women. Shyambali had gone to enquire but he was sent away. Kamala came to him in tears saying that her mother was unconscious. Shyambali was in a panic and tried to go inside the house but his bhabhi and the others reassured him saying that it was a woman’ s problem and they were looking after her. Sometimes there were evil spirits and djinns in the fields and they had got to her. They had called the ojha and he would see to it. All his pleas about doctors and hospitals were waved away. Shyambali and Kamala spent the day worried ,yet helpless in their ignorance. In the evening, his brother and an elder accompanied him to the upper caste area. A Seth, whose fields they tended to and his wife came out to meet them. They were concerned about his wife. They too reassured him that evil spirits sometimes caused illness and all would be well soon. They advised him to take her back to her familiar surroundings as soon as possible. A sum of a thousand rupees in crisp notes was pushed in his hands. As they returned to their part of the village in eerie silence, Shyambali remembered two young men, relatives of the Seth smirking and he knew that something was wrong. He was frustrated at his inability to help her but helpless not knowing what to do. He and his family were put on the train in unseemly haste. His wife was in a trance. Silent and zombie like,she ate nothing and never spoke a word throughout the journey. Kamala seemed confused and it was an uncharacteristically sombre return from the wedding. His pretty wife changed completely. She talked seldom and started washing her hands and feet compulsively. She would clean the house and herself all day. Her ghunghat touched her knees almost and nobody could see her face.He was not allowed inside the quarter and had to sleep outside or in the other one, where he kept his goats. In the incessant cleaning, there was no fixed time for lunch and dinner. Shyambali could not be angry with her. He felt guilty and embarrassed at failing her with her battle with the djinns. He often asked her to go to the company hospital where there were good doctors, but she refused. He had taken her once by force but she refused to communicate and doctor saab had prescribed a tonic. But the tonic was too weak for the djinns who captured his pretty wife and left a shell of a woman who haunted his home and his life silently. Shyambali made a promise to himself then. Kamala would never return there. His son in law would have to come here and live with them or she would remain single. He could not lose his beautiful daughter to spirits. And after years of conflict with the people of the village and his in law’s, Shankar had finally settled here with them. He was working as a driver in the company. Kamala was a trusted help at Rinki Di’s house and they were blessed with a son and a daughter. Shyambali now knew that there were djinns at Hathras too..the kind that destroyed his wife. He wished that there had been TV people back then too ..to help him out but then a sobering thought came to his mind. His wife was still there,a flesh and blood person. She washed compulsively, was not a good homemaker but she smiled and talked with her grandchildren and with her family too. There were bad days but good days too. Time had healed the curse of the spirits and they were still a family. In Hathras the girl was in a pyre. One could never win with the djinns. After his dinner,as he warmed his hand in the fire outside,he saw Kamala’s mother come out and sit outside. He went to his room and from his battered trunk took out a plastic wrapped thousand rupees bundle of old and yellowed hundred rupee notes. He beckoned his wife and silently put the notes one by one into the fire. His wife stared at him and tears ran down her sad but still pretty eyes. As the greedy flames died down after gorging down the offering, Shyambali hoped that the djinns were sated and would leave their family alone.
Dr Sanhita Kanungo lives in Kolkata and is a medical professional. She is an avid reader and is an observer of the complexities of modern life.