The Offspring

Pitambar Mahajan was sitting in front of his house. His shoes were covered with a thick layer of mud, but he did not remove them. He looked at them with pride-only he and the Gossain of the Satra possessed shoes in this remote village.
Pitambar was in his early fifties. Once a robust man, his worries had slowly emaciated his healthy body. Folds of skin hung loose beneath his chin. He talked to others with eyes averted and head bowed. His gaze was always directed to the ground beneath his feet as if he were looking for something.
Heavy rain had soaked the ground and water had collected on both sides of the village. Half naked children played in the water or stood here and there, fishing with bamboo poles in their hands. With the rains, there was a rank growth everywhere of all sorts of plants and creepers like halechi and nalakochu. Flying frogs leapt from puddle to puddle and sometimes hit against the legs of passers by.
Pitambar was staring intently at a chubby, naked boy trying to disentangle his fishing line from the leaves of a nalokochu plant. Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by the grating voice of the village priest, Krishnakanta: " You have no child to call your own! Why do you devour that child with envious eyes? Each time I have gone to and returned from the temple, I have seen you sitting there like this! What about your wife? Is she better now?"
Pitambar replied hesitantly, " Several times I have taken her to Civil Hospital at Gauhati but it is useless. Her whole body is swelling up now."
"So there is no hope of an issue, is it? Very sad, indeed. There will be no one to continue your family line."
Pitambar remained silent. The priest stood near him for some time. He was wearing an old dhoti well above his knees, and a punjabi made of endi cloth, the colour of dried sheepskin. His shoulders were covered with a cotton chaddar. As Krishnakanta had only two teeth left in his mouth, his cheeks had caved in and created two hollows in his face. When he spoke, his face presented a peculiarly comic expression. His small eyes always shone with a cunning glint. His sparse hair was parted in the middle. He bent down and whispered in Pitambar's ears, " What about another marriage, eh?"
Pitambar removed his chaddar and wiped his face with one end. Before he could reply, the eyes of the two men were drawn towards a young woman passing by. She was Damayanti, the widow of a young priest from the Satra.
Her rain drenched clothes clung to her body. The colour of her skin was like the dazzling foam of boiling sugarcane juice. Though her figure was rather ample, she was immensely attractive. People said all sorts of things about her. Some even called her a prostitute. Perhaps the first Brahmin prostitute of the Satra!
Krishnakanta called out, " Hey, Damayanti, where are you coming from?"
"Can't you see these cocoons?"
"So, now you have started mixing with that crowd of Marwari merchants, eh! When the need arises, one stoops to washing even goat's legs as the saying goes, is it not?"
Damayanti did not reply, but bent down to squeeze out the water from the wet folds of her mekhala. Her blouse had stretched tight and was pulled up, revealing the white flesh which, to the two men, looked as tempting as the meat dressed and hung up on iron hooks in a butcher's shop! Krishnakanta turned his eyes away almost immediately, a little self-consciously, but Pitambar kept looking, enthralled by the sight. Damayanti straightened up and, without glancing at them, walked away, her mekhala rustling.
" I hear that she eats meat, fish, everything."
Krishnakanta nodded and said, " This girl has brought disgrace to Bangara Brahmins. She has thrown to the winds all restrictions and rituals prescribed for widows."
As Krishnakanta went on, Pitambar did not say one word either of assent or dissent. All the while, his mind hovered about the brief glimpse he had had of Damayanti's white flesh. He had never seen such soft burnished flesh before. It was not as if he had not seen or touched a woman's flesh. There was his first wife, then he had brought a second one with the hope of getting a child. Now she lay bedridden with rheumatism. Her whole body had become rickety - she was like a bundle of bones dumped in a corner of the bed. He had trodden the road to the hospital at Gauhati so many times that the soles of his shoes had worn out. He was numbed by the fear that he might have to die without an issue to continue the family line.
This gnawing fear had been further heightened by the constant nagging of the priest and others, rubbing salt into his wounds. All this had upset his mental balance.
Pitambar's ailing wife, lying in bed in the mud-walled house, could see the priest standing outside. She signalled with a movement of her eyes to a servant standing nearby, that he should carry one of the mooras outside for the priest to sit on. Pitambar, absorbed in himself, neither noticed the moora nor knew when and how it came to be there.
Krishnakanta stood up and said, "People of the village are gossiping about you, that you have gone off your head. What do you think? Don’t you know that there are many people in this world who are childless like you? Just try to look at it in a different way. After all, it is all maya, illusion!"
Pitambar's head drooped. The priest could see the grey hair on it. His clothes looked worn and untended. Only his shoes, though muddy, were intact. He felt a kind of pity for this man. Once upon a time he was so handsome that people called him gora paltan. Now he had money, a granary full of paddy, everything. Still he was not happy! Suddenly Krishnakanta was struck by a thought. He looked around. He could see the open door of Pitambar's bedroom and the reclining body of his wife. He could even see her eyes, burning like those of an animal in a dark jungle, as if she were straining with all her might to catch what he was saying to her husband. The intensity of those glowing eyes, even after traversing that long distance, was heartrending! The priest would not have believed it possible.
He made up his mind. Bending down, he whispered into Pitambar's ear, " I can help you out of this agony."
" Another solution again?"
" Yes, this time it is absolutely pakka!"
" I don’t understand you…"
" This time there is no question of an unsuccessful pregnancy! She has gone through four abortions and every time she has buried those evil things in the bamboo grove behind her house."
Startled, Pitambar cried out, " Are you talking about Damayanti?"
" Yes! Yes! Nowadays Brahmin girls are even marrying fishermen. The daughter of the Gossain on the Dhaneshwari riverbank married a Muslim Boy! Gandhi Maharaj has shown us the path. That’s why I am telling you.."
Pitambar exclaimed in a surge of excitement, " What is it you are saying?"
" If you want, you can make Damayanti your own?"
Krishnakanta again cast a glance at the invalid woman. This time her eyes were shut tight probably in a spasm of pain. Pitambar knelt down near the priest's feet and entreated him earnestly, " Only you can do it! Please help me with this girl! She is a Brahmin. I will keep her in all comfort."
A cunning smile played for a moment on Krishnakanta's toothless mouth. " Hum, well.. er! I'll see about it. I'll have to come again a couple of times. Then there are two little daughters to be taken care of."
Pitambar got up with confused emotions and made his way to the bedroom. When he entered, he saw his wife open her eyes and look at him. She now saw him opening the wooden box where they kept money and other valuables. A little later, he closed the box and went back to the priest.
Krishnakanta took the money, Rs. 20 in cash, and went away humming under his breath.
A week had passed. Pitambar waited anxiously for the priest, his whole being on tenterhooks. In these past seven days, he had seen Damayanti passing by his house on her way to Gossain's place, carrying cotton for making sacred threads. The sight of her body heightened the turmoil in his mind. His obsession for her created strange hallucinations. Before his maddened eyes, Damayanti's clothes seemed to disappear each time revealing more and more of her beautiful white fleshed body.
Pitambar started sitting outside his house every day. At this time of the year, Damayanti came regularly to gather kollmu and other vegetables which grew wild along the drains bordering the road. Her two little daughters, skinny and naked, usually trailed behind her. Their thin and undernourished bodies looked incongruous against their mother's healthy and voluptuous body. Damayanti's long and reddish brown hair often caught Pitambar's eyes.
One day, Pitambar gathered enough courage to go near her when she was plucking green leaves and said, " You will catch cold if you stand like this in muddy water every day."
Damayanti looked back, her eyes opening wide with astonishment. But she did not reply.
Pitambar said again, " I'll send the servant. You tell him to collect as many greens as you want and…"
But his sentence remained unfinished. She looked back and Pitambar's eyes fell before her intense, disdainful gaze. He left the place hurriedly and went and sat down on the tree stump in front of his house.
Pitambar got up to go inside and give her the medicine. He removed his shoes and placed them in a corner. As he was about to cross the threshold, he heard a coughing behind him. Krishnakanta at last! He ran back and put on his shoes. His wife's eyes had followed him, expecting her medicine, but now she closed them wearily again. The fire in her eyes was extinguished, only the ashes remained.
Pitambar asked impatiently, " Bapu! What news have you brought for me? Tell me quickly!"
In his excitement he even forgot to offer him a seat.
" Tell me! What is the news?"
He whispered into Pitambar's ears, " Just listen! I have dug up some information. Right now her womb is empty - it is not even one month since she buried the evil fruit of her last adventure. Her little daughter said that this time her mother had used a crow bar given by that student who goes to Saraili college on bicycle, to dig the grave. He is a boy without character from a very rich household. During college hours, he used to go straight to Damayanti's place and hide his textbooks in the basket of rice. His college fees went for her cosmetics."
The priest lowered his voice still further and barely whispered, " On the bare floor! In front of the little girls! Hari! Hari! They copulated shamelessly. This time it was obviously that student's child."
Pitambar heard everything in cold silence.
The priest continued, "I told her about you. She was infuriated! She spat out. "That pariah! How dare he send this proposal to me! Doesn’t he know that I am from the jajamani Brahmin caste and he, the vermin, is a low caste Mahajan? I told her that when she was wallowing in the slime of sin, how could she talk of high caste or low caste? She was not getting any proposals for marriage from Brahmin boys. Who will marry a widow? That too with daughters? At least you are prepared to marry her, who is like a piece of sugarcane, chewed and thrown away. I told her straightaway that you would take the Panchayat's consent, arrange a havan and marry her with due formalities. She questioned me about your wife. I told her that your wife was like a straw which may be blown away any time; that you would keep her in great comfort. I even told her you were the only man in the Satra who wears a pair of costly shoes! Suddenly she started crying. I don’t know why she cried. Then she wiped away her tears with her chaddar and said, ' Nowadays, I don’t keep well. I would like to lean on something solid and permanent.' I told her, "How can you remain in good health? I have heard that you have got rid of those evil things from your womb four or five times. If the Panchayat takes up this matter, it will be terrible thing for the Satra. Even if somebody goes to the door for a glass of water, he will be fined twenty rupees. You have been spared only because you are a Brahmin. But for how long? She replied, 'What can I do? I had to live. They even stopped their orders for sacred threads and puffed rice. They considered me impure, contaminated! And those tenants! They have turned thieves and don’t give me my share of paddy. They take advantage of my helplessness. In these circumstances, where should I have gone with my two tiny daughters? I have not paid the land revenue. The land, too, will be auctioned off! What can I do?"
Pitambar grew impatient. "What about my proposal?"
"Yes,yes! I am coming to that. She wants to meet you. On the full moon night. At her dhekal, the room in the backyard for pounding the paddy."
Damayanti was observing his movements from the dhekal. She called out, "Hey! Here! This way!"
Like a duty bound soldier, he turned round on the quick and went towards her. A clay lamp of mustard oil was burning near the pounding horse. She was leaning against a ramshackle wall. Pitambar did not dare look into her eyes : he was afraid. Suddenly it struck him that it was all an illusion! Her figure before him in the dim light was also an illusion. But his thoughts were cut short. He heard her say, "Have you brought some money?"
He was stunned. He did not expect her first question to be this. He said quickly, "Here! Take this! Whatever I have is yours now." He took out a small string purse from his waist and put it in her hand. Damayanti thrust the purse into the cleavage of her blouse. Damayanti then took Pitambar to an adjacent room, damp and dark. In it was a low cot, made of guava wood. It had been given to her deceased husband at the time of Gossain's funeral ceremony. She blew out the lamp…
Two months had passed. It was late evening. Pitambar left the dark in haste to get back to his house. Damayanti went to the well languidly and started to take a bath. Just then, the priest entered the courtyard. He remarked sarcastically, "You never used to take a bath after sleeping with the Brahmin boy. What has happened now?"
Damayanti did not reply.
"Eh! He is from the lower caste, is that it…?"
Suddenly Damayanti came rushing out as she saw, in drenched clothes, and rushed to the far corner of the courtyard. She bent over and started vomiting. Krishnakanta stood still for a moment, stupefied. Then he shuffled up to her and said gently, "This must surely be Pitambar's…"
Damayanti still remained silent. "Ah! This is good news indeed! That man was yearning for a child."
Even now she did not say a word.
"So I will go and give him the good news. He can now wed you openly."
He came up to her and whispered, "People are shocked and horrified by what is going on in this house. There was talk, off and on, of calling a meeting of the Panchayat. And listen! There was another thing. Something very serious! That three-month-old foetus you buried behind the bijulee bamboos..one day a fox dug it out, swallowed part of it and left a half-eaten limb in the Gossain's priest's courtyard. You know, the one who washes the Gossain's Murlidhar. He had a hard time getting himself purified - had to swallow two glasses of cowdung water."
Damayanti started vomiting again making sounds of auk, auk, her mouth wide open.
The priest continued, "Knowing all this, Pitambar is prepared to marry you. Listen, with my hands on the sacred thread, I tell you, this time if you do not save yourself from sin by taking this chance, you will surely burn in hell-fire!"
After giving the best news of his life to Pitambar, Krishnakanta said, "So, at last, your dreams may come true. If she does not destroy this child, then you can rest assured that she will marry you."
Pitambar was sitting on the tree stump in front of his house, as usual, wearing his prized possession-his shoes. When he heard Krishnakanta's words, his whole body trembled. Was it really true? Could it be his own, his very own child in that woman's womb? It must be the truth! This Brahmin could not possibly utter lies. It is really my child!
He stood up, restless and agitated, and started pacing up and down in front of his house.
Krishnakanta said, "At this age! To become a father! It's really a fortune, a miracle!"
Pitambar knelt at the priest's feet and entreated, "Please, Bapu! Don’t let my hopes be shattered. You know my background. My forefathers were brave warriors. They fought those Burmese invaders. You know that! If this lineage is snapped, if there is no son to carry it forward, only this doomed sufferer knows what tortures my soul will go through. And now this seductive sorceress holds my life in her fist. Oh Bapu, tell me! What should I do?"
Krishnakanta lifted one hand in consolation and said, "Like the vulture keeping vigil over a corpse. I'll guard that woman. Not only that, I'll issue a strict warning to that old hag not to give her any of her evil herbs and roots for an abortion. But all this is not possible without money. I'll require lots of money!"
Three months passed. Now almost every day Pitambar strolled along the banks of the Dhaneshwari with the youthful son of his hallucinations. The dream pursued him persistently, day and night.
It was the month of August. The storm had broken in the afternoon and it was raining heavily. Pitambar went to the room near the dhekal to close the door. His wife was staring at him. He stood still. The wide open eyes were like shining snakes in the dark. Suddenly, the storm lashed out. All the oil lamps flickered and died out. It was pitch black. Over the roar of the storm, he heard crashing sounds. What was that? Surely lighting had struck a tree in his courtyard and split it in two. Which tree was it, he wondered? He rushed out helter-skelter. His servants were already there shifting the heap of coconuts from the verandah to the dhekal.
Gradually the thunder and lightning abated but the rain continued to come down in sheets. Suddenly Pitambar heard somebody calling out to him. Lantern in hand, he rushed out to see who it was. A figure loomed into view, completely drenched, dhoti held high above his knees. He had an old torn umbrella in his hands. The man was very thin, almost skeletal. He came towards Pitambar. What was it now? Holding the lantern higher, Pitambar looked closely at him. It was Krishnakanta! Pitambar who exclaimed. "Bapu, you? What is it? What have you come in this foul weather?"
With great difficulty the priest reached the verandah and shut his umbrella. His hands were trembling. He looked extremely agitated. He squeezed out the water from his dhoti and said, "Your first wife died under an inauspicious star, Pitambar. That must be the reason for what has happened now."
"What? What did you say? What is wrong now?"
"It is said in the Shastras that when a person dies under this star even the shortest blade of grass in the courtyard burns to ashes. For you now, everything has become ashes!"
Pitambar cried out in alarm, "What has happened? For God's sake, tell me quickly!"
"Alas! She has destroyed it. She has got rid of the unborn child. She will not carry the seed of a low caste. She is a Brahmin of Shandilya Gotra. Oh, Pitambar! Pitambar! She has destroyed your child!"
The youth walking along the Dhaneshwari had suddenly slipped and fallen into the river….
One day, in the middle of the night, Damayanti woke up with a start, disturbed by some sounds coming from the backyard, as if someone was digging up the earth. Alarmed and frightened, she woke up her elder daughter. Both strained their ears. Yes, yes, there were distinct sounds of digging coming from the direction of the bamboo grove behind the house. That was the very spot where both mother and daughter had, some nights before, dug a pit for the aborted child! Yes, that was the night when both mother and daughter were terrified by the frequent howling of the foxes as the daughter held the earthen lamp and Damayanti dug the earth with a crow bar in jerking movements and scooped out the loose earth with nervous hands.
Thuk! Thuk! Thuk!
They opened the window cautiously and looked out. They saw a man digging in the dim light of a lantern hung from a bamboo tree nearby.
Damayanti's heart started beating fast. Was it Pitambar out there? Yes, it was! He was digging the earth with single-minded determination. Gradually, the tempo of the digging increased. The Mahajan's whole body and face assumed a terrible, violent aspect. He dug and clawed the earth frantically with frenzied energy.
Damayanti's body started trembling from head to foot. Her heart beat violently. What should she do? Should she shout? Should she keep quiet? A terrible thing was happening!
"Mahajan! Mahajan!"
There was no repsonse!
Thuk! Thuk! Thuk! Thuk!
"Why are you digging, Mahajan?"
Pitambar looked up, but did not reply.
Thuk! Thuk! Thuk! Thuk!
Damayanti became frantic. She shouted furiously, "What will you get from there? Yes, I have buried it! It was a boy! But he is just a lump of flesh, blood and mud! Stop it! Stop it!"
Pitambar raised his head. His eyes were burning. "I'll touch that flesh with these hands of mine. He was the scion of my lineage, a part of my flesh and blood! I will touch him!"

Translated from the Assamese original, “Sanskar” by the author. Anthologized in The Shadow of Kamakhya, Rupa and Co, Ansari Road, New Delhi, 2005.(Second Edition)

Courtesy: Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature