|WHEN DEVI KALI BECAME KRISHNA
The Mahabhagavata Purana gives extremely interesting variations on the MBH story. The Purana is recounted by Vyasa to his pupil Jaimini. As in the case of the Bhagavata Purana, the account states that dissatisfied with the MBH and the Puranas he had composed, Vyasa desired the ultimate knowledge and went to the realm of Brahma who advised him to listen to the glory of the Supreme Creatrix who had created the trinity and everything else. With great reluctance, after being much praised by Narada and requested by Vishnu, Mahadeva agrees to recount who it is that the trinity worship. Chapters 49-58 contain the MBH story following the story of Rama (including the worship of Durga for Ravana’s destruction which Valmiki does not mention, but is found in the Bengali Ramayana of Krittibas).
Once Shiva told Parvati that he would like to assume female form and she should be male and be the husband. She agreed and said that her thundercloud complexioned form of Bhadrakali would descend to earth as Krishna, while her attendants Vijaya and Jaya would become Krishna’s friends Sridam and Vasudam. Shiva said he would descend in nine forms as Radha, daughter of Vrishabhanu and also as eight others like Rukmini and Satyabhama. When earth had approached Brahma to lessen the burden of the daityas who had been reborn as wicked kshatriyas, he had requested Jagaddhatri to intervene. She said that as her female form was worshipped by kshatriyas, she would not fight them. But her Bhadrakali form would be born displaying Vishnu’s signs to Devaki-Vasudeva and destroy them. Vishnu himself would be born as Pandava Arjuna. A portion of the Devi would be born as the wife of the Pandavas, KrishnA whom wicked Duryodhana would insult in the assembly hall, having deceitfully defeated Yudhishthira in a game of dice. In the war that would follow, the goddess would delude all warriors to kill one another and at its end the earth would be bereft of kshatriyas, with only the old and children alive besides the five brothers devoted to her. She directs Brahma to convey all this to Vishnu who took birth in two portions: as Vasudeva’s son Rama and as Pandu’s son Dhananjaya via the mediation of Indra.
Kashyapa and Aditi had pleased the Creatrix with severe ascesis and begged her to be born to them. She agreed to be born male with the complexion of newly risen rain clouds, her garland of skulls being turned into one of wild flowers, her appearance attractive, displaying Vishnu’s signs though with two arms and two eyes.
Finding that Kamsa had killed six newborn sons of Devaki, Brahma anxiously approached the Devi who bade him ask Vishnu to be born to Devaki as the Devi’s elder brother. She herself would split into two and be born from Rohini and Yashoda and as Devaki’s eighth son. In the fifth month, from Rohini’s womb she would enter Devaki’s, while Vishnu would migrate from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s. Kamsa would not be aware of the eighth birth. Vasudeva would bring Yashoda’s daughter—a portion of Devi—who would slip from Kamsa’s hand when he tried to dash her against a stone and rise to the heaven in the ten-armed, lion-riding form announcing that his killer was growing in Nanda’s home. All this would have to be done until Kamsa’s prowess got exhausted. Thus, Vishnu first enters Devaki’s womb, and the Devi enters Rohini and Yashoda’s wombs. In the 5th month Devi shifts from Rohini’s womb to Devaki’s, while Vishnu moves from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s who has been shifted to Nanda’s home in Gokul and gives birth to the fair Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. At midnight of ashtami under the Rohini asterism and Vrisha lagna the Devi is born from Devaki as a son. At the same time she is born to Yashoda as a daughter. To assuage Devaki’s fears, the son shows his true form as the terrifying four-armed Kali with three eyes, terrifying mien, astride a corpse, with hair free flowing and a crown, a skull-garland. At Vasudeva’s request, she changes to the pleasing ten-armed form.
After recounting Krishna’s childhood exploits including the rasalila with Radha (Shiva) and the killing of Kamsa, the narrative shifts to Hastinapura in chapter 55 stating that Vishnu took birth through Purandara from Kunti’s womb as Arjuna who was supreme in archery and all other disciplines, while his four brothers were also of great prowess. Wicked Dhritarashtra, Karna, Shakuni and Duryodhana plotted against them despite the advice of Ugrasena conveyed through Akrura, who informed Krishna of Dhritarashtra’s perversity. Krishna determined that this hatred would surely lead to the death of Dhritarashtra’s son and wicked Shakuni. Krishna shifted to Dvaraka with the Yadavas at this point. Then he abducted the daughter of Bishmaka king of Vidarbha, Rukmini (Shiva’s portion along with 7 other wives of Krishna).
Having got married, the Pandavas wished to perform a sacrifice and summoned Krishna who, in order to aggravate the hatred of the Kauravas and destroy kings, advised performance of the Rajasuya (this yajna has invariably been followed by destructive conflicts, enumerated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana by Vyasa). Krishna sent out Bhima to conquer all directions and by deceit got Bhima to kill the king of Magadha. During the yajna when Shishupala insulted Yudhishthira, Krishna and the yajna itself, enraged with the honors offered to Krishna, he was decapitated in that assembly of kings by Krishna. Aggrieved with the splendor of the yajna, wicked Duryodhana, cruel Karna plotted with wicked Shakuni to invite the Pandavas to a game of dice in which Yudhishthira was cheated and lost twice over and had to go into exile. Duryodhana insulted Draupadi in the assembly hall and was regarded by Bhishma and other kshatriyas as the thorn of kshatriyadom. They consoled Draupadi and restored her to the Pandavas, criticizing the Dhartarashtras. Krishna considered all this as the chief cause leading to removing earth’s burden, and returned to Dvaraka (this implies that from the Rajasuya yajna till the exile he was present in Hastinapura).
During the exile the Pandavas came to Kamakhya to beg the death of sinful Kauravas in battle and restoration of their kingdom. Bhagavati appeared and assured Dharma’s son of this and said to support him she had taken male birth from Devaki in the home of Vasudeva being prayed to relieve the earth of burden. She told him that at her bidding, for the same reason, Vishnu had taken birth as Arjuna. She would ensure the destruction of Bhishma, Drona etc. through Arjuna and Bhima. A long paean to the Devi follows by Yudhishthira in which she is repeatedly addressed as “Kameshvari” and “Kamarupa vasini”.
Bhagavati then asks him to beg another boon. He begs for her protection during the incognito period of exile. She tells them to live in the city of the king of Matsya. So they went to the city of Virata, keeping their dresses, weapons on a Shami tree. Carrying golden dice, dressed as a Brahmin, Yudhishthira came to the king of Matsya giving his name as Kanka. Similarly, Bhima was engaged in the kitchen, Arjuna—disguised as a woman—to teach dance and Draupadi as Queen Sudeshna’s Sairandhri.
By the grace of the goddess, none was recognized in the 13th year. When just a month was left for the year to end, Sudeshna’s brother, mighty Kichaka saw Sairandhri. He insisted on Sudeshna to let him have her on pain of suicide. Sudeshna told him Sairandhri had assured her that no man could approach her because of her five Gandharva husbands, when the queen was apprehensive that the king would leave her on seeing Sairandhri. Kichaka was not bothered and insisted. When Sudeshna asked her to visit Kichaka, Sairandhri refused saying he would die if he approached her. Sudeshna informed her brother of this who was enraged and determined to violate her by force. Afraid, the daughter of Drupada prayed to the Devi Jagaddhatri (invoked as Katyayani, Jagadambikey and symbol of chastity). Durga durgatinashini assures her that any lustful person who desires her will die.
For some special work she went to Kichaka’s apartments at night. He seized her hand. Draupadi pushed him away hard and fled, followed by furious Kichaka. Draupadi rushed into the Matsya king’s hall where the old king was dicing with Dharma’s son. Here Kichaka grabbed her hair and kicked her. Drupada’s daughter lamented and criticized the Matsya king, glaring with red eyes at Bhima and depressed king of dharma. Then, wiping her tears, she left, biding her time. Bhima determined to kill Kichaka and advised Sairandhri to invite him at night to the dancing hall where he would kill him, and she should then announce that the sinner had been destroyed by the Gandharavas. Draupadi did so and the citizens said the Gandharvas had destroyed Kichaka. Hearing this the Upakichakas came and lamenting took his body for cremation. Outside the hall they decided to burn Sairandhri with it and abducted her. Draupadi cried aloud, hearing which Bhima leapt over the walls and destroying the Upakichakas freed Sairandhri. The citizens said that the Gandharvas had destroyed the Upakichakas. Then the fearful king told Sairandhri to depart from his town. She assured him she would do so in a few days.
A few days later 13 years were over. So far Duryodhana’s spies had failed to spot them. Now, hearing of the death of Kichaka and his followers he decided that the Pandavas must be living there and consulting Bhishma, Drona etc. arrived with his army at the Matsya kingdom. There they fought Partha at the cattle stables and were defeated. Then, recognizing the Pandavas, humbly king Virata honored them and married his daughter Uttara to Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. Then the Panchalas and the king of Kashi and other kings arrived to help the Pandavas, who assembled for war at Kurukshetra.
To relieve earth of her burden, Devi KrishnA in the form of Krishna arrived to help Yudhishthira with his soldiers and Satyaki. Bhishma, Vyasa and others failed to dissuade Duryodhana from war. Depending on Karna’s views, he was determined on war. Both sides assembled at Kurukshetra. Yudhishthira approached the elders individually and touched their feet and obtained their permission to engage in war. Then the Pandavas descended from their chariots and prayed to Jagadambika for victory, recalling that by her grace Rama had destroyed the Rakshasas. Devi granted them the boon of winning back the kingdom and told them that for this she had taken the form of Vasudeva on Arjuna’s chariot.
Bhishma led the Dhartarashtras, Karna stepping aside out of hatred of Bhishma, while Bhima led the Pandava army. Bhishma destroyed an arvuda of soldiers in 10 days. On the 10th evening Shikhandi, with Arjuna’s help, felled Bhishma who awaited Uttarayan on a bed of arrows surrounded by a moat. Karna and others chose Drona as general and he fought for 5 days during which Subhadra’s son was slain in unjust battle. Arjuna took a vow and in the evening killed Jayadratha. On the 5th day Drona was killed by the son of Panchala. Karna fought for 2 days, killing rakshasa Ghatotkacha. Arjuna of the monkey banner slew Karna. King Yudhishthira, waxing angry, slew Shalya and Bhima killed Duryodhana in a terrible mace duel having killed the other Dhartarashtras earlier. At night, Bharadwaja’s son slew sleeping Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi’s five sons. Arjuna drove immortal Ashvatthama and Kripa with his arrows from the field. Thus in 18 days of battle 18 akshauhinis were destroyed. On the 8th day of the white fortnight of Magha Bhishma died. By the grace of Mahadevi the Parthas enjoyed their kingdom.
As earth’s burden had been removed, Brahma approached Krishna in Dvaraka and told him that at Shambhu’s request and for relieving earth, Devi had taken birth as a mortal. As the task had been completed, she should now return. Jagadishvari, in the lovely Shyama form, agreed to return. Calling the counselors he said that by the curse of Ashtavakra muni most Yadavas were already dead and only some aged were alive and he no longer wished to remain on earth.
Yudhishthira be summoned forthwith with his brothers. They arrived with Draupadi and other women determined to follow Krishna. Krishna asked Yudhishthira and Bhima to protect his citizens after his departure. All the Pandvas said that they had no wish to remain alive if he left. Krishna then smiled and asked Drupada’s daughter, born of his portion, whether she would stay back or follow him. Draupadi said, “I am your portion. You are the original Kalika. Like a bubble merging into water, I will merge into you.” Balarama asked Krishna to take all Vrishnis along. Krishna wore yellow garments and donating wealth to Brahmins left the city followed by all Vrishnis and Pandavas along with servants, mothers, women and reached the seashore. Nandi arrived in the sky with a jewel encrusted lion chariot, and Brahma with thousands of chariots. Flowers were rained by the gods. Suddenly Krishna became Kali and sped to Kailasa on that lion-chariot. Draupadi, touching the sea waters, merged into her before the eyes of all. Then Yudhishthira rose to svarga on a wonderful chariot. Balarama and Arjuna touched the sea waters and left their bodies and assuming dark complexioned, four-armed bodies, rode on Garuda to Vaikuntha. Bhima and other Vrishnis left their bodies. Rukmini and the 8 chief queens assuming Shambhu’s form left their bodies. The other women of Krishna re-assumed the form of Bhairavas. Sridam and Sudama became Jaya and Vijaya again.
STORIES, ESSAYS & POSTS
“Chakravyuha” by Manoranjan Bhattacharya, with lyrics and music by Kazi Nazrul Islam, first performed on 23rd November 1934. The play is unique for three reasons:
The novel explanation it offers for the traditionally accepted “motiveless malignity” of Shakuni, the set-piece villain of the Mahabharata, depicting an intriguing understanding between him and Krishna, who appear almost as partners orchestrating the Kurukshetra holocaust.
The entrancing picture of the David-and-Jonathan-like “love passing that of woman” between Lakshman and Abhimanyu, sons of Duryodhan and Arjun respectively, who make a pact to share the kingdom between themselves, irrespective of what their elders do, if they ever become heirs to the throne. Ironically, one kills the other and is himself slain in the deadly discuss formation of the Kaurav army.
An outstanding scene in which, after Abhimanyu’s death, Draupadi confronts Jayadrath and her husbands in flaming agony.
The extracts that follow relate to the encounters between Shakuni, Bhishma and Krishna, and Draupadi, her husbands and Jayadrath.
Act I Scene I
(Bhishma, Abhimanyu, Lakshman and Shakuni)
Vasudev? Such a good boy!
When we meet, only jests
saying, “Uncle, Uncle”
Didn’t come himself? Could not, I suppose?
Pandavs’ incognito time is over,
Many tasks on his shoulders!
He, perhaps, knows where’s Yudhishthir.
If only he’d whisper it to me,
secretly the tricks of dice I could teach him.
He knows nothing at all;
only suffers defeat after defeat!
Trained by me,
Duryodhan he could defeat.
On return, the game shall be held,
again kingdom he’ll lose at dice.
Had he learnt it, this time Duryodhan
would be forest-bound.
Do not mind, Lakshman.
Kings’ exile is but luxury!
Many Chandra-stories I hear in the Purans.
All forest-exiles are a fancy.
What would happen if one didn’t go
That I can’t understand.
The essence of vow-observance
passes your comprehension,
How true, Bhishma-dev
I had forgotten you are here
incarnate vow-observance yourself!
But, is it good to fulfill all vows?
That day, that moment
when father and brothers died
in the dark dungeon
like a fool
Kuru clan annihilation had I vowed.
But what is a non-Aryan’s vow?
That vow has been swept away
in the flood of Karurav love.
Hence, oblivious of all
I live only for dicing!
Dice, dice – dice is my bosom companion.
Ha! ha! ha! ha! (laughs demonically)
What these dice are made of
you’ll all laugh to hear.
My father died first.
In prison cremation wasn’t possible
flesh and skin melted; rotted, fell away
exposed pure white skeleton.
One by one fell ninety-nine brothers
I alone, eat, drink and pass time.
Time refuses to pass.
From father’s rib-cage
carefully breaking-off three firm bones
passed time grinding them on the stony floor.
Those bones turned into dice
Then Kauravs turned compassionate,
released me from prison.
When I die,
these dice will I leave Lakshman
to defeat Abhimanyu and send him to the forest.
Matters long past why recall?
Forget not, Gandhari’s brother are you . . ..
Act II Scene II
(Karna, Krishna, Shakuni)
Discussions are over.
I leave to salute father.
Most devoted to his father is Anga’s king:
In the tourney when Duryodhan
anointed Karna king of Anga,
leaning on a staff, barefoot,
Adhirath the charioteer
caught betwixt fear and wonder,
trembling in every limb, crying
“Son! Son!” burst into the royal presence,
Karna unperturbed fell prostrate
bowing lustrated head
in the dust at his bare feet.
Your devotion to your father too
I know well.
The burden of his bones
you bear on your breast.
Never have I got you, Krishna, by myself.
In the sabha you look at me and smile,
I myself laugh and try to make all laugh.
This restless agony of mine
who comprehends, who doesn’t
I know not, don’t worry about.
That you, Krishna, have understood
makes my bearing this burden
I realize, at long last it’s time
to offer father’s bones to Ganga.
Do so, son of Subala.
Let peace come to this Bharata.
First let peace come to this Bharata.
Subala’s bones will reach Ganga thereafter.
Father’s refusal to marry his daughter
to blind Dhritarashtra
only this the crime,
for that cause, prison;
for that, death in neglect,
with ninety-nine sons, – you know!
Me alone they all kept alive by their share
of the morsels to repay the debt!
Father’s bones keep lidless watch
over my repayment efforts
While that debt remains,
peace will come to this Bharata you imagine?
Can past crimes not be forgiven, hero?
I’d thought today I wouldn’t laugh.
Now you make me laugh, Keshav,
you speak of forgiveness?
Your father, too, was in prison;
in prison were you born
how much did you forgive Kamsa?
Kaliya, Putana, Chanura, Mushtika, Kamsa,
Shishupal and others
with stories of your forgiveness
Bharata’s history is replete.
Now it seems perhaps I was mistaken.
Then such mistakes commit some more.
Kurukshetra finish off,
then raise the question of forgiveness
Because of your hesitation
quenching of all flames is delayed.
Your vow not to take up arms in Kurukshetra
is senseless egotism!
Sudharshan at rest will only delay justice.
And then this repeated useless
enacting of peaceembassies!
All over today?
The attempt to bind you – Shakuni’s scheme.
Now speed your way to Virata’s city,
seven armies swiftly assemble
on the plains of Kurukshetra.
How much pain in how many quarters,
Great Creatrix of illusion!
Knot upon knot!
Will you not in compassion un-knot, Mother?
Knot upon knot,
revolutions of eras, of birth
Amba’s ascesis as Shikhandi targets Bhishma;
Drupad’s flaming agony birthed Dhrishtadyumna
to slay Dronacharya;
Draupadi’s flowing tresses – Bhim’s vow
against Duryodhan, Duhshasan;
Gandhar’s bones demand oblations
of Kaurav blood;
Amid eighteen armies, if you can seek out,
a wondrous skein
of flaming agonies interwoven
How many knots will you unravel?
Sever asunder with an adamantine stroke,
More the delay, more steely the stroke
will have to be tempered, Discuswielder!
So much you see, Shakuni!
Heart’s profound agony has honed wisdom!
I understand why Dharmaraj’s dharma
mankind can’t accept even today!
In ever-new forms, new and newer coils
will ensnare man’s heart.
New blows will be needed
to sever them time and again.
Then, one day, man’s love
will shine forth piercing the mists of hatred.
That day is still afar, Krishna.
Today’s task do today.
Yet, that day’s hope time proffers today;
even in this age see Dharmaraj,
even within Shakuni the touch of softness
awakens when I see Lakshman,
like Prahlad among demons, in the Kaurav clan.
That this weakness cause me no anguish,
this little grant,
you, whom all call Narayan.
[ Laughing] Being Narayan is very problematic,
the thief wishes not to be caught. (laughs)
But where’s Lakshman?
Again will you take him to Virata’s?
I find the art of enchantment you’ve
gifted all to your nephew!
Lakshman he’s turned almost into a Pandav!
Binding leaf to leaf
you won’t succeed in uniting trees
meaningless, to create a fresh anguish for me.
Astonishing! so much weakness in me
for a Kaurav child?
I have sped here for his sake!
It seems I’ve grown old.
Delay no more, Keshav!
It seems I’ve grown old.
Delay no more, Keshav!
Before death my life’s debt
must be repaid………….
Act III Scene 1
(Bhishma and Shakuni)
Who? Saubala? Where is Duryodhan?
You know the Kuru King’s ego is hurt
Bhishma’s vow stands broken in today’s battle,
that’s not Bhishma’s shame alone,
but counted as the Kuru king’s insult.
My vow alone is not fruitless today,
Keshav’s resolve is fruitless
him have I forced to take up arms in
And what did that profit?
The Pandavs weren’t slain.
Only a fresh fear arose of Krishna’s arms
in the Kaurav army
But where are your five arrows
with which you vowed to slay the Pandavs?
At night’s end stolen by Keshav-Arjun,
my resolve frustrated.
That’s why Keshav’s vow
had to be broken.
Stole away arrows!!!?
In Duryodhan’s guise stole the arrows.
And you couldn’t recognize?
Grown so senile?
Or, senile you’ve been since long
only, you’ll not admit it to yourself.
Know you with whom you talk, Shakuni?
With Bhishma’s spectre!
You threaten Gandhar with fear of death?
Ever seen any Gandhar afraid of death?
If you wish, kill me,
Unarmed, alone, I stand before you.
What is it you wish to say?
Let the death wish awaken in you.
That you’ve died long ago, realize.
False flatterers lift you skyhigh
with cries of “Bhishma! Bhishma!”
No longer truthvowed son of Shantanu,
nor Parashuram’s victor.
The unjust attack on Gandhar,
the torture in dungeons,
the day these occurred because of you,
that day you died.
Or Bhishma never would’ve tolerated
torture of woman in the Kaurav clan!
Or you, Bhishma, yourself could have stopped
the infantile rivalry of Kaurav-Pandav,
Or, in mockbattle over nine days in Kurukshetra,
destroying a few petty lives of mere soldiers
uselessly, never would Bhishma have done.
Such bitter words never have I heard
from any mouth!
Angry? Kill me.
You’re the general and armed.
Bitter surely my words
but true; think them over
if any sinews of thought remain.
The Pandavs you’ll be unable to destroy
or to defeat
then, to fight on Duryodhan’s side
is meaningless, senseless.
Stand aside, let Radheya come,
swiftly let the curtain drop on this play. . . .
Act V Scene 1
(Draupadi, Bhim, Yudhishthir, Jayadrath)
Death, give me death, you Sindhu hound!
(off stage) Oh you, lustcrazed, greedy for others’ wives!
(off stage) Draupadi I still crave for.
Life you’d gifted your relative,
death ask him to give me, O Dharmaraj,
from suicide’s sin save me.
Yudhishthir I see here?
By your generosity,
glory in today’s battle is mine.
I had gifted you life, Sindhu king,
in return I beg
open the vyuhadoor. We’ll enter
to protect the child in battle
only against injustice,
not harm any of the Kaurav side.
In the slaying of a helpless child
do not assist, O hero.
Hero I’m none.
Petty king of Sindhu, lustcrazed thief.
BhimArjun’s insults still etched on my body.
Only today have I found the chance
vengeance for the insult
I’ll extract to the hilt.
Tomorrow might be my death!
Death surely is yours tomorrow at Arjun’s hands, villain.
The vyuhaentrance I can leave open, Bhim,
if today you give me your Draupadi.
Oh, you wicked second Kichak!
Drop futile arrogance today, Vrikodar!
(stopping Bhim) Charioteer’s son bound you,
kissed your cheek,
Jayadrath defeated you,
yet empty vaunting won’t end even today?
But Krishnaa is wanton!
Menstruating, singlecloth clad,
being stripped in court
you watched unmoved.
Today of my own will
I’ll choose the Sindhu king,
more precious than life,
more dear then honor,
dearer than all
son’s life to save,
that you’ll be able to bear.
Come, let’s go, Jayadrath, where you’ll take me.
Open up the vyuhagate.
Go Dharmaraj, go Bhimsen if you can, save
Subhadra’s and Uttara’s life’s treasure.
For me the wareffort,
in my dishonor let it end!
Let peace be established!
repeatedly do not call me!
Dead or alive am I, asleep or awake?
Dharmaraj, command I slay this wicked female!
Prowess only in killing women!
Even than awaits brother’s command!
So incapable, Bhimsen,
had I known would I have unbound my tresses?
Come, Sindhu hero,
with your own hands you’ll plait my hair
Yes, oh yes! Go lovelyhaired one,
go, wed Jayadrath!
Heroic Jayadrath will open up the vyuhapath,
Abhimanyu I’ll bring back!
Then, thereafter! Thereafter?
No, no, what is this terrible dilemma?
Sindhubeast will bind up Draupadi’s flowing hair?
That flowing hair, that pennant
in joy and sorrow, victory and defeat
that led the Pandav expeditions!
That flowing hair whose history’s writ
in letters of blood in Bhim’s heart,
that flowing hair!
But within the vyuha imprisoned
lies five Pandavs’ life!
His life bought with mother’s dishonor
will heroic Abhimanyu ever forgive?
You, Yudhishthir, are still
unkind to Bhim ever!
Won’t you guide this imbecile to his duty
Determine your own duty,
I have determined mine.
Thus you inveigled Kichak into the dancing hall!
ensured his destruction.
Deception won’t fool me.
Your willing consent’s the most terrible!
Terrifying its flames,
even the Pandavs , I see, can’t bear!
Remain in the Pandavs’ home,
I’ve to attend to my duty. (Exit)
Then what will I do?
Kill me, Bhimsen. . . .
Act V Scene 2
(Karna, Krishna and Shakuni after Abhimanyu’s death)
I, King of Anga, Kauravally
slew in unfair battle son of the Pandavs!
What other son’s sacrifice do you desire,
Feel, now, the pain!
Pain today the Pandavs comprehend,
pain today the Kauravs understand,
pain today Virat apprehends,
pain today the Yadavs realize.
How much pain, exposed and secret
in every limb of Bharata,
concentrated in Kurukshetra
as explosive eruption
if you have understood, masterphysician,
delay no longer the ultimate surgery!…
Arise in fury, O Pandavs,
launch a night assault on the Kaurav camp.
Slay Drona, Karna, Duryodhan, Duhshasan,
All slew your son in unjust battle,
slay all today!
Mahakal, Lord of War, Annihilating Time,
at your feet we sacrificed our dearest treasure!
Pray to him,
may we not stray from Dharma in war,
we followers of Dharmaraj.
Whether Dharma or adharma is mine
Narayan, you know all.
Dharma will stay no more, Krishna!
Chakravyuha churning has engendered
adharmavenom in Kurukshetra!
Today the Kauravs have drunk it,
tomorrow the Pandavs.
Slaying Drona, Karna in fair battle
is that possible, you think?
Drinking Duhshasan’s heart’s blood,
breaking Duryodhan’s thigh,
gross violations of Dharma
are Bhim’s vows, you know,
yet “dharma, dharma” you chant in deceit?
Hence this terrible blow
had to be hit at you,
had to be hit at Parth!
Don’t turn today’s blows fruitless, Krishna;
swiftly quench the burning!
Fruitful or fruitless, whatever it be,
today’s effort is my last,
no more strength is left.
In the dicegame sabha
casting my father’s ribs
I raised a storm;
today, shattering my own ribs,
have I cast them in Kurukshetra!
Pushed Lakshman into death’s maw!
Gave Kauravs the scheme to slay Abhimanyu!
Unmasked the real face of war!
Now at its own pace will war move
towards its own goal.
must fulfil Abhimanyu’s last wish
light twin pyres in Kurukshetra.
I will light twin pyres in Kurukshetra today
in that fire let everyone’s pain burn away.
Pain not only of now,
The accumulated pain of the age,
The era’s collected sickness
burn them in that fire, Keshav,
Then, if you can, usher in a new yuga
to lift men’s hearts above war,
so long as war exists
the pain of war do not assuage.
The more excruciating the pain of battle
the sooner will mankind forget war,
that task is yours,
that worry is yours.
My work today is ended.
You had wanted it one day,
Today the time has come
to offer father’s bones
at the Ganga of your feet, Narayan!
(Places dice at Krishna’s feet)
Original Bengali Play by Manoranjan Bhattachrya
Transcreated by Pradip Bhattacharya, IAS
Hanuman rescuing Rama-Lakshmana. Terrocotta panel in Narayanpur in Bankura District
Vyasa had five disciples: Vaishampayana, Jaimini, Paila, Sumantu and his own son, Shuka. In the Adi Parva, section 63 of the Mahabharata, Vaishampayana tells Janamejaya about his guru:-
“He compiled the Vedas.
And was called Vyasa, the Compiler.
Next he taught the four Vedas
And the fifth Veda, the Mahabharata, – 93
To Sumantu, Jaimini, Paila,
His own son Shuka, and to me,
His disciple Vaishampayana. – 94
And the Bharata Samhita
He published through them
So, Vyasa had these five compose their individual versions. Only the one recited in his presence by Vaishampayana at Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice is extant in full as transmitted by Ugrashrava Sauti to Shaunaka and his sages in the Naimisa forest during intervals of their sacrificial rite. Of Jaimini’s version, only hisAshvamedha Parva exists in full where it is he who recites it to Janamejaya. The legend is that Vyasa rejected all the other compositions. According to Shridhara’s Marathi Pandavapratapa (17th century), Vyasa condemned Jaimini for introducing his own material.  This parva is of great significance because when Akbar commissioned Razmnama (Book of War, 1584, the Persian translation of the Mahabharata), for the Book of the Horse Sacrifice he chose Jaimini’s version over his guru Vyasa’s as is evident from the illustrations. We do not know if he made similar choices for the other parvas because his copy has not been studied, being locked away, inaccessible, in the Jaipur Palace museum.
Indications exist in Jaimini’s text that other parvas, preceding and succeeding this fourteenth one, existed. At the end (Section 68, slokas 14-15) Jaimini says,
“O lord of the people, I have narrated fourteen parvas. Now, O king, listen to the parva named Ashramavasa.”
Further, in Section 36, slokas 84-85.5, Suta (not “Sauti” who transmits Vaishampayana’s recital) addresses an audience of ascetics, presumably identical to Shaunaka and his community of sages in Naimisharanya:-
“Suta said, “O bulls among ascetics, I have described to you all that Jaimini had told the son of Pareekshit.”
The way in which the name of Janamejaya’s father is spelt (Pareekshit instead of Parikshit) provides a clue to Jaimini’s period, as this spelling occurs first in the Bhagavata Purana. It means, “to look around,” while the Vyasa version means, “remnant (of a ruined family).” Unfortunately, those other parvas are yet to be found.
The manner in which Jaimini’s Sahasramukharavanacaritam begins, with Janamejaya’s queries following the return of Sita and her sons to Rama, indicates that it is a sequel to Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva account of Lava and Kusha’s battle with Rama.
During research for editing the first English translation of the Jaiminiya Ashvamedha Parva,  exciting information was received from Professor Satya Chaitanya, visiting faculty at the XLRI Jamshedpur, that Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre of the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology had palm-leaf manuscripts in Grantha script ascribed to the lost Jaimini Bharata.
Of 15 manuscripts 2 that were complete, viz. Sahasramukharavanacaritram (The Thousand-Faced-Ravana’s Deeds), and Mairavanacaritam (The Dark Ravana’s Deeds) were critically edited and published with a sloka-by-sloka English translation in free verse by S.K. Sen and myself. Neither has been published previously. The Lava-Kusa manuscript was not included, though complete, as the episode was included in S.K. Sen’s translation of Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva.
The Enigma of Jaimini
Jaimini is the celebrated author of the Purva Mimamsa and also of the Jaimini Bharata, fragments of which are turning up. Mairavanacaritam appears to be an independent work included in the Jaimini Bharata not claiming connection with any of the parvas. On the other hand, Sahasramukharavanacaritram or Sitavijaya claims to be a part of the Ashramavasa Parva of the Jaiminiya Mahabharata.
The link with Vyasa is visible as both these manuscripts have Sita and Hanuman using mantra-infused grass to consume the demons. In Vyasa’s Udyoga Parva (94. 27-30) Nara demolishes the army of Dambhodbhava by launching ishikabhir, blades of grass. Again, in the Shanti Parva (330. 48) Narayna takes an ishika, transforms it into an axe with a mantra and flings it at Rudra. Jaimini seems to have taken this concept from his guru.
Further, the invocation to Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva repeats Vyasa’s with a significant difference: he adds his guru’s name in the introductory namaskar:
narayanam namaskrrtya naram caiva narottamam /
devim sarasvatim vyasam tato jayam udirayet //
Vyasa is said to have assigned him the Sama Veda. In the Markandeya Purana (c. 250- 550 CE), Jaimini is the interlocutor. According to Monier-Williams, Kautsais his other name.  However, in the Mahabharata, Sauti tells Saunaka that in Janamejaya’s snake-sacrifice, “The learned old Brahmin Kautsa became the udgatri; Jaimini the brahmana.”  In Yaska’s Nirukta Kautsa is a commentator questioning the meaning of Vedic mantras and his arguments are presented in Jaimini’s Mimamsa Sutra (4th to 2nd century BC). 
Bulcke  dates Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva to the period after the composition of the Bhagavata Purana (8th-10th century CE), which Jaimini mentions. It was translated into Kannada  in the 13th century. Its Kusa-Lava episode is very similar to that in the Padma Purana’s Patalakhanda (c. 10th century CE). There were different “Jaiminis” writing under the same name, as with Vyasa, creating different texts across the centuries following the time-honoured tradition of the guru-shishya parampara.  The author of Mairavanacaritam and Sitavijaya (if they are the same person) would be one such “Jaimini.”
The concluding chapter of Mairavana provides a clue towards the probable time of its composition. There is a reference to the “six syllable mantra” in sloka 6 of chapter 20. This is ram ramaya nama? found in the Ramarahasya Upanishad,which is possibly of the 17th century. In it, Hanuman instructs Sanaka and other sages on how to worship Rama. Again, the paean to Hanuman (sloka 24 of chapter 18) as adept in the Vedas and its limbs and the shastras is paralleled by Tulsidas (1532-1623) in his Vinayapatrika, where he calls Hanuman vedavedantavid.  His Ramacharitmanas contains the Ahiravana tale. There is also a Sitopanishadcelebrating Sita as Shakti but, unfortunately, its period cannot be determined. 
The language of Mairavana and Sitavijaya is quite pedestrian, strangely devoid ofalankaras and rasas. The flamboyant poetry characterizing the Ashvamedha is entirely missing. Though one does come across the usual similes like, “burnt like trees in a forest fire,” or bathed in blood “looking like an Ashoka tree in full bloom,” or “arrows raining like rain from clouds,” the Ashvamedha’s striking use of metaphors and rhetoric is absent. The unexpected juxtaposition of opposites, the conceits, which the Jaimini of the Ashvamedha merrily uses, appears to be unknown to the Jaimini of Mairavana and Sitavijaya. Consider this from the Ashvamedha Parva:
Nandi could not seize Garuda as an angry elephant cannot seize cotton-wool in a courtyard (21.32); or,
…armour destroyed, Sita’s son stood on the battle-field like the newly-sloughed king of serpents (34.6); or,
Rama’s glowing iron arrows were as useless as a poor man’s desires in a miser’s home (36.58).
Mairavanacarita and Sitavijaya are bereft of such interesting conceits. The only common feature is the use of hyperbole, especially in battle. The Jaimini of the Ashvamedha exaggerates outrageously. However, in Mairavana and Sitavijayapeople do not grow on trees, horses do not turn into mares and tigresses, and no rakshasi has eight-mile-long breasts, which she uses as weapons in battle! The Ashvamedha effectively uses all the nine rasas. In Sitavijaya and Mairavana, only vira and bhayanaka with a sprinkling of raudra are seen, with adbhuta ruling. In Mairavana, Hanuman increases and decreases his body at will, creates an impregnable fort with his tail, Brahma constructs an amazing defence for Mairavana’s palace, Mairavana shape-shifts continually in battle, like Mahisasura fighting Durga. In Sitavijaya, Ravana has a thousand heads and two thousand arms, his brothers have hundreds of heads, eyes, bellies and hands, the diseases fight a terrific battle, Hanuman is given five heads, grass columns turn into blazing missiles, and so on.
A major difference between the Ashvamedha and these two manuscripts concerns variety. The Ashvamedha has many side stories, tales within tales, e.g. Agni and Svaha, Uddalaka and Chandi, Malini and Yama, Chandrahasa, Bakadalbhya, the golden mongoose, the quarrelling Brahmins, Babhruvahana’s exploits, etc. Almost all the sections contain different narratives. The battle sequences, the mainstay of all the three texts, are singularly dissimilar. Those in Sitavijaya are monotonous. The characters change, but the sequence of events is more or less the same in all, except the last battle in which Sita slays Sahasramukharavana with a grass-missile. Hanuman also uses mantra-infused blazing grass against Mairavana, but ineffectually. Here the descriptions of battles read more like the report of a war correspondent than literature. We miss the exuberance and creativity of theAshvamedha’s Jaimini.
Besides the heroic, the other ruling sentiment of the Ashvamedha is Vaishnava bhakti. All the protagonists worship Krishna even as they fight him, their bhakti masked by the animus they display outwardly as they wish to receive death as his grace. The battlefield is their temple where they worship their deity with weapons. Krishna is worsted by them because the essence of the concept of bhakti is that the deity must be overcome by the intensity of the bhakta’s bhakti.
In Mairavana and Sitavijaya there is little bhakti. While the former is dedicated to the glory of Rama and the latter to Krishna, there is but a single paean to Rama at the beginning of the former and at its end. The latter has paeans to Hanuman and to Sita’s wondrous form towards the end. How can an author, so immersed in Vaishnava bhakti in one work, be almost completely bereft of it and extol Hanuman and Shakti in the two others?
An underlying current of Shaivism runs through the Sahasramukharavanacaritam. The crisis it deals with is precipitated by two insults: the first is by the Trinity to Anasuya; the second is to Shiva’s avatar Durvasa at Mandhata’s yagya. The latter parallels the insult to Shiva at Daksa’s sacrifice, which is destroyed by Virabhadra and Kali, routing all the sages and devas. The names of Durvasa’s sons, who rout the devas, are among the thousand names of Shiva in Section 284 of the Mokshadharma Parva of the Mahabharata. The presence of Shiva in Vyasa’s Mahabharata is quite significant, though understated. Therefore, Jaimini is not blazing an altogether new trail here. The dreadful destructiveness of Durvasa’s sons is of a piece with other demons originating from Shiva such as Andhaka, Bhasmasura and Jalandhara. Here Hanuman is a product of Shiva’s sperm and has five faces like him. However, the heads of lion, horse and boar represent avatars of Vishnu and his mount Garuda. This is, therefore, a Hari-Hara image, a fusion of Vishnu and Shiva. Parallel to the pair of Virabhadra and Kali, we have here the pair of Hanuman and the shadow-Sita.
There is a feature that indicates the somewhat casual attitude of the author of these two works. The names of the characters take different forms at different places. Matangi becomes Sita, Ustramukha becomes Osthamukha, Vakranasa becomes Vakranetra, and so on. This is a defect noticed in both the texts. The sincerity with which the Ashvamedha was created is missing in these. However, these could be copyists’ errors.
The Ashvamedha Parva is characterised by flamboyance of description, be it of a road, of a palace, or of nature. Consider the rhetoric of the passage in which Vrishaketu describes a lake to Bhima (4.11-14):
“…the enjoyment the elephants are getting from these waters is like the pleasure the lustful men get from making love to women. The life-giving water is tinted deep red with the vermilion falling from the temples of these elephants. Since the temples of the elephants are now bereft of charity, the bees have now forsaken them and entered the clump of lotus plants. There is no loyalty among the mean. Picking up the lotus-stalks, the swans are generously offering them to the bees, like those who know the principle of equity among beings. The fish are leaping in the lake as poor people do on getting riches…”
There are many such instances throughout the text.
In Mairavana, there are only two descriptions: one of Ayodhya (section 1) and the other of a forest in Lanka (section 10, verses 2-6), of which the latter is the better one:-
“Having gone up to thirty yojanas,
a maha-forest was
afar, filled with bears, lions, tigers and
other animals and birds,
Narikela, panasa, amra,
kapittha, jambunipa, jambira,
Filled with different trees it was like
Entering the forest, they saw a lake
of two yojanas,
Adorned with red and white lilies, crimson
and blue lotuses,
thousand-petalled lotuses and hundred-
All filled with cackling, teeming with
the lake appeared like a sea adorned with
leaves all around.”
In Sitavijaya, there is only one description, that of the palace that Vishvakarma built for Ravana (8.33-41):
“In width a lakh yojanas, double that
in length, a fifty-
yojana high excellent wall adorning it,
With four ornamented towers, four gates,
maha-roads, adorned with
ten million palaces each with a
hundred horned doors.
On four sides four lakh maha-markets stood
adorning. The maha-
royal road was provided with countless
Five thousand yojanas long was the king’s
with an unfathomable moat impassable
Many sataghns and equipped with
On four sides, placing Sudharma and the
other halls with care,
In the centre an immaculate
endued with wondrous attributes, with
a hundred gardens
filled with flags and garlands of pennants,
With qualities superior to the world
of devas, abounding
in markets and shops, mixed herds of maha-
the Meru and Mandara mountains,
Inhabited by divine horses swift
as thought, adorned
with lotus lakes full of swans and cranes,
Better than the Trinity’s abodes,
newly arisen Bhanu.”
The qualitative difference between the excerpts is obvious. How can a poet capable of describing so beautifully in the first instance hardly use his talent in two of his own works? So is it with the dialogues. In the Ashvamedha there is profusion and variety. Dialogue is used to establish characters and situations effectively. In Mairavana and Sitavijaya there is only martial talk and the occasional paean. These two texts cannot stand beside the poetic elegance and expanse of the Ashvamedha Parva. It is unlikely, therefore, that their author is the same, although they might belong to the same “Jaimini” school.
Is their Author the Same?
Were Mairavana and Sitavijaya composed by the same author? The language and the style seem similar. As in Mairavana Rama and Laksmana are abducted when asleep, so, too, in Sitavijaya are Bharata and Shatrughna. In both, mantra-infused grass is used as a missile and the supernatural prowess of Hanuman is celebrated.
However, an interesting difference in the colophons of these two works raises a doubt. The colophons in Mairavana mention Shri Jaiminibharata without stating the parva concerned. The colophons of Sitavijaya ascribe it to the Asramavasa Parva of the Jaiminiya Mahabharata. Would the same author composing two stories use different names in the colophons denoting the principal work of which these are parts?
It is pertinent to recall that Vyasa first composed the Bharata of 24,000 slokas, without the fringe episodes:-
“Originally the Bharata, without the fringe episodes, consisted of twenty four thousand slokas: this, to the learned, is the real epic.” 
caturvimsatisahasrim cakre bharatasamhitam /
upakhyanair vina tavad bharatam procyate budhaih // 
Is Mairavanacarita part of Jaimini’s version of the Bharata? But, then, is it not a fringe episode?
Parallels and Variations
Our tribes have analogous versions of both the stories Jaimini relates.  Writing on the Mundas of Chhotanagpur, K.S. Singh notes that they believe the vanaraswere forest dwelling tribes who wore part of their dhoti trailing loose as a tail, as the Mundas and Savaras still do on their dancing ground.  The episodes also occur in Ramayana retellings and plays in South East Asian countries. However, there is no mention of these two stories in the Rama tales of Sri Lanka, Tibet, Khotan, Mongolia, China, Japan and Vietnam (Champa).
Sahasramukharavanacaritam or Sitavijaya
The Agarias, an ironsmith tribe of Madhya Pradesh, have a tale in which Sita tells Rama about a thousand headed Ravana in Patala. He pulls out from his foot the arrow Rama shoots at him and despatches it to kill the sender. Rama falls. Sita, frightened, goes to Lohripur and asks Logundi Raja to send Agyasur and Lohasur with half an earthen pot of charcoal. By its smoke, she turns black. Carrying the pot in one hand and a sword in the other, she cuts off Ravana’s heads. Agyasur and Lohasur lick up the blood.  Thereafter, according to a tale in Braja literature, Sita becomes Kali-mai (mother Kali) in Calcutta.  The Marathi Shatamukharavana Vadha (19th century) by Amritrao Oak also narrates the killing of this demon. 
There are Tamil two tales relating to the hundred headed and thousand-headed Ravanas, Sadamuka Ravanan Kathai, Sahasramuka Ravanan Kathai, that do not not occur in Kamban.  In Telegu there is a similar Shatakantha tale, which occurs in Assamese, Oriya and Bengali Ramayanas too.  In the Uttarakandaof Ramamohan Bandopadhyaya’s Ramayana (1838), the tale is retold along the lines of Chandi’s killing of the demons Shumbha-Nishumbha.
In Sanskrit the Adbhut Ramayana  and Ramadasa’s Ananda Ramayana  (both c.15th century) relate how Sita kills the hundred and thousand headed demons. Rama Brahmananda’s Tattvasangraha Ramayana (17th century) has five-headed Hanuman helping eighteen-handed Sita to kill the hundred-headed demon. 
Jaimini’s version, running to fifty chapters, is very different. The interlocutor is Janamejaya and the narrator is Jaimini. However, in slokas 10-11 of the first chapter, the last verse of the second and slokas 30-31 of chapter 50 at the very end, there is someone else, nameless, who is narrating what Jamini told Janamejaya. This would be a suta, a wandering rhapsode. He is never named here.
Jaimini alone provides the cause for the birth of the thousand-headed demon along with his brothers, with hundred heads, hundred bellies, hundred tongues and hundred eyes, viz. the insult to Anasuya by the Trinity and to Durvasa in Mandhata’s sacrifice. Bharata and Shatrughna are abducted and married off (without any demur) to the demon’s daughters. In the battle the devas, monkeys, rakshasas, kshatriya kings with their armies, Rama and even the Trinity fall. That is when Sita takes the field, bestowing five heads on Hanuman with which he devours the demonic army. With fiery grass columns she despatches the thousand-headed demon. Rama is not terrified of her, as her form is not horrifying, though wondrous. After being paeaned at length, Sita joins Rama and all return to their abodes. The demon’s city is divided between Citradhvaja and Citraratha, the sons of Bharata and Shatrughna who are not mentioned in any Ramayana. There is no mention of Bharata and Shatrughna being accompanied by their new wives when the four brothers meet their mothers back home.
What is of great interest is that here Sita does not abandon Rama and her sons to disappear into the bowels of the earth. All kings condemn the washerman (there is only this cryptic mention) and praise Sita, whom Rama embraces. Brahma gives him a span of eleven thousand years to rule, as in Valmiki.
Janamejaya is eager to know what further deeds Rama did after the return to Ayodhya. Jaimini responds by telling Janamejaya that what he has been narrating so far is (part of) the story renowned as Ashramavasa Parva beginning from the victory of Sita till the death of King Dhritarashtra. The closing benediction dedicates the work to Krishna.
The tale is completed in twenty chapters. Jaimini’s creation is quite distinct from other versions. It is not an episode composed by Valmiki, but by Jaimini and is narrated by Agastya to Rama to celebrate a wondrous nocturnal deed of Hanuman. He rescued Rama and Laksmana who were overcome by an enchanted sleep and abducted by Mairavana to the nether world.
In Jaimini it is not Laksmana but Rama who, enraged with Shurpanakhi’s amorous advances, cuts off her nose as Ravana informs Mairavana. Indeed, in the entire story, neither brother has any role to play, being asleep throughout.
The story of Mahi (earth) or Mai (collyrium or black in Tamil) Ravana is a celebration of Hanuman’s prowess and intelligence. It was far more popular than tales about multiple-headed demons other than Ravana. Besides Sanskrit, it exists in Gujarati, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Nepali, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Hindi, Thai, Lao, Khmer, Malay and Burmese and has many tribal variations. It is not surprising that some manuscripts are entitled Hanumadvijaya, the victory of Hanuman. 
In Cambodia, on the walls of the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, extending for 642 metres, reaching a height of 3.65 metres, frescoes of scenes from the Ramayana were painted during 1903-04 by a team of 49 artists led by Oknha Tep Nimith Theak.  Among these is a huge fresco depicting Mairavana’s abduction of Rama and the rescue by Hanuman.
Many films have been made about the story since 1922 in Marathi, Tamil, Hindi and Telegu.  Not a single film, however, has been made about Sita and the Thousand-Headed Ravana. In the recent television serial on Star Plus channel, Siya ke Ram (2016), however, this incident features as episode 256. 
In Sanskrit, Advaita’s Ramalingamrita (dated 1608) and Ramadasa’s Ananda Ramayana recount how Ahirava?a and Mahiravana take Rama-Laksmana to the netherworld and how Hanuman kills them with the help of his son Makaradhvaja and a Naga’s daughter in love with Rama. 
The matter of Jaimini’s Mairavanacaritam is virtually the same, except that:-
The bard states that this narrative was not related by rishi Valmiki, who considered that the bringing of the medicinal herbs by Hanuman was heroic enough, but was narrated by Jaimini.
The final benedictory verses state that the Ramayana or the Mahabharata must be in every village, otherwise an expiatory vow must be observed. Hanuman’s twelve names are given as the mantra for success.
One would have expected the Hanumannatakam  or Mahanatakam to narrate these wondrous exploits of Hanuman alongside Sita and his rescue of Rama and Laksmana. Strangely enough, they do not feature in this Sanskrit play whose author is supposed to be none other than Hanuman himself.
Abridged version of K.K.Handique Memorial Lecture delivered by the author at The Asiatic Society, Calcutta, on 4th August 2017
All images photographed by the Author
 P. Lal: The Mahabharata of Vyasa: The Complete Adi Parva, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 2005, (the last two lines have been amended by me to make it a faithful translation).
The Sunday Statesman 11.03 2001, LITERARY (SHORT STORY)
Who is the Bara Babu?
Sitting down at my desk in the new office. I opened the dak file to find a flaming pink notice staring at me, announcing that as electricity bills of over Rs. 28000/- had not been paid in time, the power supply would be disconnected. Frantic, I called for a vehicle to rush to the electricity supply office.
“Saar, there is no vehicle”, stated my orderly blandly.
But why? I thought we had several!”
“Yes, Saar, but as the fuel bills have not been paid for the last three months, the petrol pump has stopped supplies. So the cars are off-road.”
Limply I sought to drown my anxiety in the newspaper.
“Saar, there are no newspapers.”
I looked at the wall calendar to check if today was a holiday—- what was I doing in office in that case anyway? —-and found the date in prominent black announcing its uncompromising work-a-day character. Mustering my wits I enquired. “But today is not a holiday. Why is there no newspaper?”
“Saar, the paper-wallah’s bills of many thousands of rupees have not been paid for many years. So he has stopped supplies.”
By now I had marshalled the facts and unerringly spotted the villain of the piece. The needle of suspicion pointed quiveringly at the chap who prepared bills: the Bill Clerk.
“Bill Clerk ko bulao!’ I ordered confidently.
The orderly peon did not stir. He stood there, meditatively scratching the calf of his right leg with the toes of the left.
“Why are you standing here?” I put it to him keenly. “I asked you to produce the Bill Clerk”
“Saar, koi Bill Babu nahi hai, there is no Bill Clerk,” he declared.
I was flummoxed. “To kaun hai? Who is there? Is there any other Babu?’ I asked.
“Baro Babu hai, Saar”.
How had I managed to forget that every office is ever blessed with the Baro Babu, the Head Clerk, to whom notes are usually marked with that cryptic anagram HC, gleaming with restrained power, like a high-spirited nag champing at the bit. For, his is the hand that rocks the administrative cradle.
“Baro Babu ko bulao!” I ordered smugly and leaned back, steepling my fingers, my eyes shut in preparation for a session of investigation to pin down the culprit responsible for the power being disconnected, cars being off-road and no newspapers to minister to the fevered brain and the soul sore-taxed. So what if load-shedding was endemic? The prospect of fans whirring occasionally was not a prospect to be denied lightly just because the HC had not prepared the bills. But, I mused, why was the powerful potentate stooping to so a menial task as drawing up bills ‘ a chore usually reserved for callow recruits to the lower echelons of the clerical cadre
Having collected my thoughts, when I opened my eyes I was startled to find the peon still standing before me, still scratching what must have been a very itchy calf. My consternation must have been obvious from my mouth hanging open. I did not have to ask the obvious question. He volunteered the explanation: “Saar, Baro Babu nahi hai, the Head Clerk is not there.”
Aha! But you said just now that the HC hai” I riposted sharply. If these chaps thought their new boss was soft in the head, they were mistaken. Things were not going to be that easy around here any more. Someone was in charge finally!
“Saar, Baro Babu is in High Court.”
By dint of intensive probing I was able to piece together the scenario. The HC had started a case in the High Court and was busy pursuing it on most working days, giving of himself to the office twice a week to attend to matters he considered urgent in nature.
So, the HC was in court. But surely there would be other clerks from whom details of the bills could be ascertained? The answer was dismaying: “Saar, koi Babu nahi hai, there are no other clerks”‘no upper division clerk, no lower division clerk! As I strove to clutch on to the shreds of my reason and decide whether I dared ask why there were no other clerks, my eagle eye fastened on a shadow lurking outside the frosted glass entrance to my room. “Woh Kaun hai?” I shouted, “Who is there?’
“Sir, I am the Head Clerk”, said an ingratiating smile capped by a bald pate.
“Aha! But you can’t be”, I said, shrewdly pinpointing the contradiction. “The HC is in court today.”
“But, Sir, I am the real Head Clerk!”
I gasped. Curiouser and curiouser: two HCs–the pretender and the real McCoy. The lurker-behind-the-door carried on: “Sir, you are so vastly experienced in administration. You know all the rules. Sir, So I need hardly remind you that the maximum period of lien on one’s permanent post while on deputation is three years. Sir, I was kept here for ten years. And then, one day, without the least consideration for all the blood, sweat and tears I had shed in service of this office. I was reverted to my original office. Naturally. I had to seek the shelter of the High Court against such rank injustice. And then, Sir, the chap junior to me here, a mere Upper Division clerk, who had learnt everything at my knee, called himself the HC and even filed a case in court demanding that they declare him as such.”
The Murky Mystery of the Missing Babu, Baro and others, was at last clear. Till the court pronounced on the status of the rival claimants, the posts of the other clerks could not be filled up. Serendipitously I had come upon that most rare of happenings: an office bereft of that wondrous phenomenon of whom Kipling wrote, “The Babu is a great man and, to respect him, you must see five score or so of him in a room a hundred yards long, bending over ledgers, ledgers and yet more ledgers ‘ silent as the Sphinx and busy as a bee. He is the lubricant of the great machinery whose ways and works cannot be dealt with in a single scrawl.”
Having nothing better to do ‘ the HC not having “put up” anything ‘ I wandered about the building and came across an air-conditioned, glass-panelled room. Squashing my nose against the glass door, I could make out several tables with shrouded upright blocks atop them. My helpful orderly announced this was the Computer Room.
Now computers are something I fancy I understand. So, I dared ask the computer assistants to unlock the room and take off the wrappings. The machines were unshrouded. “Switch them on!” I commanded. The switches were put on. Some monitors blinked; others went on staring darkly at me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Sir, they are full of viruses, we don’t know how to remove them.”
“But a couple are showing the correct display. Please make me a graphical display of the number of courses we are running this year.”
The silence was deafening. “Don’t you have LOTUS loaded?’ I asked.
“Yes Sir. I was the Storekeeper and got promoted to this post, as I was senior-most. Yeh lotus wotus kya hai, Sir?”.
I turned to the second computer assistant hopefully. “Sir, I was the Xerox operator, next senior-most.”
“Is there anyone who knows how to run the machines?” I enquired.
“Yes, Sir. But one is away attending theatre rehearsals and the lady has been away.”
“When does the lady get back?”
“We don’t know, Sir. She has not been coming for years.”
Intrigued, I made enquiries and found that we paid a computer firm over fifty thousand rupees a year to maintain the computers. Since no one could run them, there were no complaints for the firm to attend to. The missing lady had been on leave for over 800 days so far. Occasionally she dropped by to break a spell of absence that had become noticeably long, collected her pay, and vanished again. Since there was no fully functioning HC, there was no absentee-statement.
I called for a P.A. to dictate my amazing discoveries. “Saar, P.A. nahi hai,” informed the orderly. By this time I had got wise to the situation. “Is it that there is no P.A. or is he absent?” I asked, making the point forcefully. “I am supposed to be having two P.A.s you know,” I added, rubbing in my status. The orderly explained that in this office there were no P.A.s at all, only stenos. “All right, then call the senior-most steno.” Apprehensively, I noticed him shuffling away with reluctance. After some time a lady came in. Through pointed questions I was vastly relieved to find that she was so senior as to be actually drawing pay in the P.A.’s grade. My status was unimpaired! Shutting my eyes contentedly, I leaned back and launched into dictating my horripilating discoveries. After five minutes, pausing at the end of a paragraph, I found to my consternation that she was sitting with a blank face and a finger that neither moved nor wrote.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Sir, I am used to taking dictation only from Baro Babu, so I cannot follow your accent or manage your pace”, she answered.
Here was an HC indeed! One who dictated to the only stenographer drawing a P.A.’s pay.
Letting dictation fall by the way, I went round the campus. There was an imposing edifice still incomplete but with no signs of any work in progress. The Caretaker told me that this was to have been completed five years back. Work had stopped a year ago after the agency had received all the funds running to several crores, he whispered.
“Since it has not been handed over to us, I suppose I can’t take a look inside?” I asked.
“Oh, but you can, Sir! Since some doors and windows have been stolen, we can get in through the gaps.”
So we climbed in. Large cracks ran diagonally through every wall of the building from top to bottom. The Caretaker took me to another new building. This one had been handed over a few months ago. We entered. Electrical fittings newly installed on the walls and ceilings lay on the floor, broken. Some tube lights dangled precariously from the ceiling. This was the new library, in use as a godown for heaps of broken furniture and torn linen.
What about the old library? The last librarian had left quickly after being mercilessly ragged by the staff. The new one asthmatically wheezed that there was no accession register of books, no catalogue cards, and so it was not possible to ascertain how many books were missing. Whenever anyone left, he took along books he fancied a la Mark Twain. And the library peon was in the habit of staggering in and wagging a drunken finger threateningly at the Librarian should he dare to start cataloguing.
Next, the hostel-of-a-hundred-rooms! I entered through a seven-by-four glass door bereft of glass. The Caretaker explained that a cow had come charging through the corridor and dived swan-like through the glass. Cow pats several days old dotted the corridors ‘ evidence carefully preserved, with six safai karmachariscollecting monthly wages. Nearby several healthy cows smugly chewed the cud in the grounds, overgrown with undergrowth. Three malis were on the payroll. Stray canine population merrily chased one another’s tails along the corridors as chowkidars watched benignly and inmates cowered away.
There being a hostel, some arrangements for feeding the inmates I reasoned, must exist and got a immediate response.
“Saar, there is an employees’ co-operative which is bankrupt. They distributed the entire capital among the members as bonus, leaving marketing dues of several lakhs outstanding.”
I noticed a person with a shifty, hangdog look quickly flit by. “Who is that?”. I asked. “That is the co-operative member in-charge of marketing, Saar. He has to keep a sharp look-out to avoid being beaten up by the creditors.” The co-operative had employed people numbering a round dozen to feed the hungry trainees. While the trainees, fed up with paper-thin slices of fish, found their food elsewhere, the cooperative cooks fattened on free meals besides being paid most considerately according to government pay-scales.
“But why has the audit not remarked on this?” I asked.
“Because, Saar, the audit parties went back on finding no cash-book kept for the last ten years, ever since the co-operative was set up.”
“There must be office-bearers responsible for doing things properly?”
“Yes, Saar, the two Baro Babus, ”
“‘. Who fight in court but co-operate warmly in co-operative disorder,” I said to myself!
On the way back I noticed a reception desk. I was told that occasionally this was manned by the “Receptionist-cum-telephone operator”, when the telephone functioned. “What happens if she falls ill?” I asked. Silence. My orderly volunteered the information that there was a “PBX-operator-cum-Receptionist”, but since there was no PBX, she had never worked. “Are there any others like this?” I asked in bewilderment. “Yes, Saar, there is the Tape-recorder-cum-transcriber. Since nothing is taped, she has never transcribed. There are also ‘Programme Assistants’ who cannot spell their designation.”
Shaken, I came back to my room, collapsed on my chair and found myself staring at a blank grey wall. Turning back I found full-size glass windows looking out on rows of tall, majestic deodars swaying in the wind. Most of the window-handles were broken and the windows were tied together with string. The room was uncomfortably warm. My feet, however, were cold. Investigating the phenomenon, I found one air-conditioner next to my chair blowing cool air onto my toes. The other machine was feebly circulating warm air some distance away. The situation became crystal clear: because one machine was not working, the massive table had been dragged over to the only one that was cooling. After all, retaining one’s cool was far more important than looking out on verdant greenery.
There was an air-conditioning plant for cooling the largest classroom not in operation for many years, because enough water was not available for the cooling tower, the ferrules being jammed. Getting them cleaned would cost about a hundred rupees. As no fans had been installed, that room could only be used in winter. The cooling machines in the other lecture-halls had all been taken away for servicing months ago and never put back, leaving huge gaps in the walls for rain and wind to buffet those within.
“Why couldn’t the firm responsible be contacted?” I asked in irritation.
“Because the files are with the Baro Babu, Saar”.
I ought to have known better!
7 P.M., 4th April 1972 at Nawabganj Police- Station, Nawabganj Sub-division, Rajshahi District, Bangladesh. Clustered round a table are: Hafizur Rahman the young deputy magistrate holding charge of the sub-division; G. Chakravarti and P.K. Samaddar, West Bengal Junior Civil Service probationers at Malda, and myself, Our objective is to hand-over 19 UNICEF trucks to the Deputy Commissioner, Rajshahi District on 5th April, and thus bring to an end Malda’s responsibility for reaching relief materials into the heart of the district.
As we wait for the trucks to be ferried across the Mahananda, my thoughts wing back to the fourth of April 1961. That day Lt. Col. G.L. Bhattacharya of the Indian Army had been shot and kidnapped from the Bongaon border by the E.P.R.; and a few months later I had found my father sentenced to eight years’ solitary imprisonment in Dacca Central Jail. Now, exactly eleven years later, the police and the magistracy of the same country and pressing me to have rice and chicken curry; the officiating SDO has been waiting to receive me without having gone home after office hours; and orders have been sent to Rajshahi Circuit House to reserve the best rooms for the “the I.C.S. (sic) officer from Malda”!
Dinner over, Rahman takes leave with old-world Muslim courtesy and we cross over to the Sibganj side of the river where the trucks are lined up to be ferried across. After nine of them have been taken over to the Nawabganj side. I fine to my total consternation that the boatmen are walking away from the ferry. Peremptorily they refuse to work any more and turn a deaf ear to all arguments and pleas that these vehicles are sorely needed by their administration for speeding urgently required food grains to scarcity areas. Some of them remark cynically, ” This India, which is pretending to be so very helpful now, will stick a knife into our back at the slightest opportunity.” It is a comment that I have heard time and again in the course of my relief work in Bangladesh, and it no longer arouses anger and disgust as it used to. I send Chakravarty and Samaddar across to the Police station to see if anything can be done. The drivers have already left for dinner in the town. So there I am around midnight, sitting on the cool, moist, sandy banks of the Mahananda, whistling to keep up my courage and my fast-sinking hopes, and ‘guarding’ the precious trucks. Much good I would be if a gang of miscreants turned up! Suddenly I hear voices raised in argument: yes, it is the resourceful Rahman, successfully tongue-lashing and cajoling the ferrymen back to work. Finally, at 2 A.M. 5th April.1972, all the trucks have been ferried across, and we speed through the stygian darkness to Rajshahi. Half asleep, I recall how it had all begun a couple of months back.
I had first met my District Magistrate, Sri S. P. De, on 15th January,1972 the day after I arrived in Malda. He promptly prostrated me with the causal announcement that I was to takeover charge of repatriating 30,000 evacuees to Bangladesh. This I somehow managed to achieve satisfactorily thanks largely to his affectionate guidance, and as a ‘bonus’ he gave me permission to proceed to Rajshahi with 5 truck-loads of blankets on 31st January, the day on which the last evacuees left Malda. That is how I got linked-up with the Bangladesh Relief work.
In Rajshahi our Liaison Officer, Sri T. K. Das, IAS showed me the notorious Goalia Club, which had been the Officers’ Mess for the Khan Army. Prisoners used to be brought here, and after the officers had had their ‘fun’, the bodies used to be dumped into pits dug in the adjoining banks of the Padma. I saw one of these mass graves with pieces of rope, torn clothes, skulls and bones still lying in it.
Sri Das told me that for tackling the crucial problem of raped and pregnant women, our government had arranged facilities for abortions since this was still illegal in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, only a few women had come forward. What was required was a dedicated band of social workers who would help these women to overcome their natural reluctance to come out into the open. Luckily it seemed that so far no social stigma had been attached to their condition.
The Indian Army was being used extensively in cordoning operations involving the Bihari population. The Biharis had been isolated and squeezed into tiny pockets. At times as many as 3000 had been packed into a small primary school without any sanitary facilities whatsoever. In one cordoning operation the Indian Army Officer had to rush out of one such school, unable to endure the stench and the filth. He told me that there was actually an inch thick layer of flies over the whole area. It was a miracle how they were still surviving in such conditions.
This situation was further aggravated in February. The Mukti Fouj had, after liberating Dinajpur, killed off around 4000 Biharis who had sided with the Khan Army and summarily forced some 75000 into trains leave the district. These people had got off at Nawabganj utterly destitute, in a condition of near starvation. In, Nawabganj, I was frankly told that they saw no reasons why the new government should feed people who had sided against it, and hence no relief doles were given to these refugees. The situation assumed such proportions that people began to go up to the hitherto sacrosanct chamber of the SDO with corpses, begging for money to cover burial expenses. This much was not refused.
The two major needs faced by Rajshahi District were shelters for returning evacuees, and food grains. Initially the evacuees were being housed in schools, but on one of my visits to Sibganj I came across the unbelievable phenomenon of boys gheraoing the local Relief Committee with the demand that the schools reopen immediately ! To meet this crisis, we began dismantling the camps we had set up for the evacuees, and sent these bamboo structures by trucks to the afflicted areas. These areas were on two broad fronts: Sibganj and Bholahat police-stations to the south of Malda; and Porsha and Niamatpur police-stations due east of Malda; and Porsha and Niamatpur police-stations due east of Malda.
My first assignment after returning from the 31st January trip to Rajshahi had been to investigate the possibilities of sending relief materials to the eastern border of Malda, the river Punarbhava demarcating the international border. I reproduce my report with the D.M.’s comments –
“Today (10th February 1972), after meeting the BDO Habibpur who had got back this morning from Porsha, we proceeded to Nitpur (Porsha P.S.) where we talked with Sarvashri Abul Hasnat Chowdhury, Chairman of the local Awami League Unit; Ikram-ul Haque, Secretary of the unit; Akhtur-ul Islam, local family Planning Officer, and many other local people. Sri Basir Ahmed Chowdhury, the local MCA, was away in Rajshahi and so could not be met.
As a result of our tour and these discussions, the following conclusions can be reached –
- Trucks can proceed along the Bubulchandi-Kendpur-Agra-Harishchandrapur route. A little dressing of the last part of the road will certainly facilitate the operation by cutting-down time taken for the trips.
- The ferry across the Punarbhava cannot possibly take across any diesel truck unless bigger boats are found. In the alternative some small petrol trucks can be ferried across. The materials can be unloaded on the price of rice has shot up from Rs. 15-16 to Rs. 26-28 per maund. These trucks to the required spots inside Porsha.
- Some 30000 evacuees, according to them, have returned to Porsha, and nearly an equal amount is also homeless (these had fled to other areas of Bangladesh). The badly needed materials are: bamboo poles and mats and some sort of roofing since no tin sheets hay or tarpaulin are available. 80 per cent. of the residences, it was claimed, have been razed to the ground. People are at present either living in schools, or packing into whatever houses are still standing.
- Diesel is acutely required for powering the 106 irrigation pumps, otherwise the prospect of a decent ‘boro’ rice crop is bleak. This year only about 50 per cent. of the land has produced a good crop, so that the western side of the river, ferried across on boats, and be carried by Further, if the fuel is brought via Agra-Harishchandrapur, the cost comes to about Rs. 100 less than if it is routed via Rajshahi.
- Food-grains are the other major problem in this area. This may also be supplied, if possible, through the Agra-Harishchandrapur route.’
The D.M’s orders on my report were as follows–
“We had a meeting at Rajshahi on 10-02-72. P.O.L and food grains are being sent to Rajshahi, Nawabganj and Natore. They may obtain quota from there. BDO Habibpur may be advised to draw up programme for despatch of shelter materials up to the river ghat. SDO Nawabganj will send an officer who will receive the materials from us. Transport to be provided from our end. Sri Rupendra Roy Chowdhury, alias Bhutu Babu of Nawabganj will do the liaison with us, as arranged with SDO Nawabganj will do the liaison with us, as arranged with SDO Nawabganj and D.C Rajshahi and Dr. Mishbabul Hak, Secretary Awami League, Nawabganj and Chairman of the sub divisional Relief Committee”.
A few curious facts that I came across during my visits to Porsha were that the local M.C.A., Basir Ahmed Chowdhury, was so unpopular in his own constituency that he was rarely to be found there! I also met a Mukti Fauj officer who was arranging for stocking the arms that they were surrendering, consisting of rifles, sten-guns, anti-personal mines etc. curiously, the Pakistani Army did not kill local people within their locality, but always took them elsewhere for ‘disposal’ so that tracing the victims later became an impossible task. The total absence of the usually prolific palm trees was rather striking, and on enquiry I was told that the Pakistani soldiers had destroyed all of them because the explosive sound made by the ripe “tal” fruit falling set-off false alarms to their guards who thought that they were under attack! Throughout my visits to this area the sumptuous and eager hospitality shown was so effusive as to become painfully embarrassing.
“Bhutu Babu” to whom the D.M. referred in his orders above was an amazing man whose exploits read like extracts from Ripley’s ‘Believe it or Not’. He was a Hindu lawyer of Nawabganj in his early thirties, holding post-graduate degrees in Islamic and Modern history from the University of Calcutta and possibly the most popular Awami League worker in the area. What struck me was his totally selfless devotion to his country and his people, and the super-human energy and organising ability he displayed.
Single-handed, without any help from official quarters, he set up a camp of 580 families of evacuees at Baraghoria in the Sibganj police station with whatever shelter materials we could supply. When ration supplies did not arrive on time, and repeated requests to the SDO Nawabganj had no effect, he simply threatened to prevent the next convoy of food grain trucks from Malda from proceeding to Nawabganj, and he promptly received his quota!
A similar incident was related by Fazlur Rahman, who had been deputed by the Nawabganj Sub-divisional committee to receive all relief materials from us on their behalf. He was an inhabitant of the village Harinagar in Sibganj P.S., which used to be a very prosperous community of about 500 weavers. All that is left of it now is a mass of rubble. Every building has been systematically destroyed, including the temples. Miraculously, the straw effigy of the goddess Lakshmi has emerged unscathed, though the temple itself has been broken down. We used to urge the villagers not to lose hope, but to set about rebuilding their homes, and look forward to a prosperous future, for the goddess had not deserted them. Rahman had been the officer-in-charge of Dacca Airport till he had been forced to tender his resignation through the persistent harassment of the West Pakistani Civil Aviation Regional Manager who had undertaken a systematic campaign to weed out all Bengalis from the staff. Rahman’s entire family played a major role in organizing the relief work in the Harinagar area. Though a devoted and indefatigable worker, he lacked Bhutu Babu’s broader vision, and always wanted me to send everything we had to this area first. I was interested to see how this gentleman, who was at least ten to fifteen years Bhuttu’s senior and a retired officer, used to unhesitatingly take orders from him and always sought his advice when in any difficulty.
If only I had had similar workers in the Porsha area! Here I found the attitudes very disappointing. During one of my visits, I found the ex-secretary of the Awami League unit virulently attacking the circle Officer (Development) for failing to obtain enough food grains for the people. 1300 mds. were lying at Rajshahi, but lack of transport (even bullock-carts were not available) and controversy over who would bear the transport costs were holding up everything. There was no effort or willingness to organize funds from the local resources, though they proudly told me that not a single farmer in Porsha owned less than 100 acres of cultivable land. Not a single mud house was without tin roofing , and there was a massive 3-storey mosque to boot. When I asked them why they did not circumvent this transport problem by going to Rajshahi through Malda ( a regular bus service was running between Malda and Nawabganj, beyond which local buses were available), they gravely explained that it was because of the 6 mile strength between Nitpur (Porsha) and Kendpur (in Malda) which would have to be covered on foot! The look on Rahman’s face (he had come with me on this visit to synchronize the allocation of relief materials between Sibganj and Porsha), was eloquent beyond words, but it had no effect. There upon I offered to remove this problem by taking the Awami League Chairman, Abdul Hasnat Chowdhury, in my jeep to Malda, from where he could proceed to Rajshahi. There was no response, beyond pressing innumerable sweets, poached eggs and thick milky tea on us. I found them more eager to feed us and show us around than to organize themselves so as to use most profitably and in the least possible time whatever relief material they got. At first they were not even sending any representative to see to it that the truckloads of material we sent were unloaded forthwith, so that a larger number of trips could be made and they could get more material within less time. Where our trucks could have made 5 trips daily, they were not making more than 2! They pleaded lack of manpower; and yet 30000 evacuees had returned to Porsha and were waiting for shelter materials! It was left to an outsider, Bhutu Babu, to suggest that the Awami League unit should call the headmen of all the Santhals (who composed 90 per cent, of the evacuees) and ask them to organize teams for lifting the material. Finally an officer was sent from Porsha who camped at the riverside and began distributing the materials on the spot.
The attitude of the people we were trying to help was another curious amalgam of gratitude, distrust and apathy. For instance, wherever I went, however devastated the area might me, sweets of magnum sizes would appear from nowhere and I would be forced to polish them off on pain of wounding feelings (it is a measure of the pressure of the work that despite these massive doses of sugar and starch I actually lost 5 kg. between January and April!). Whenever I went to Rajshahi I was given V.I.P. treatment and, much to my embarrassment, referred to as “A.D.C. Malda ” despite all my efforts to set them right as to my designation. Of course, they do not have any such post as Assistant Magistrate &Collector and hence my designation never registered in their minds. Resigning myself to it, I used to strut around in borrowed plumes feeling very self-important and thankful for this confusion because it helped me immensely in getting things done fast in Bangladesh. I will never forget the generous hospitality offered to me and other officers from Malda when we visited Dacca on 17th March, just as the meeting addressed jointly by Mrs. Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was to start, by the District Judge of Dacca Sri Abdul Hannan Chowdhury, affectionately known as “judge-saheb” in Malda. The ‘pranhara sandesh’ and the sweet curb of the famous confectioners Maranchand-Kalachand, which he loaded us with were nothing but nectarous ambrosia (we were rather luckily of course as they had supplied the very same day the ‘Pranhara Sandesh’ which had been served to Mrs. Gandhi !).
But there was the other side of the coin too. Like ferrymen refusing to work at night to ferry across our trucks. Or that incident at the Nagarbari Ghat of Padma River, en route Dacca, Reaching there around 6.30 a.m., 17th March, we found a huge queue of relief-carrying trucks and private cars which had been lining up since last evening. It seems that there had been a big quarrel over letting Indian trucks carrying relief have priority in boarding the ferry-steamer, resulting in the stopping of the ferry service. There had originally been about 8 such steamers plying between Nagarbari and Aricha Ghats, connecting Dacca and Pabna districts, but we had successfully bombed and destroyed all but 2 of them, so that there was the inevitable long delay in services. Luckily for us, we managed to squeeze ourselves on to the very first ferry-steamer (each can carry about 6 large trucks and 8 cars) due to some vigorous ad-hoc priority system set-up by an ex-Mukti Fouj officer to whom I had discretely disclosed my identity. At both the ghats no arrangements had been made by the Government to impose any sort of order. There was total confusion and a general free-for-all, with the solitary policeman ( who just had a pair of khaki trousers to establish his identity) quietly effacing himself. And at these ghats I frequently heard irate Bangladeshis attacking India in no uncertain terms because the relief trucks insisted on being given priority (some had been waiting at the ghat for the last 3 days). Their reaction sounded curiously similar to what one hears from Indians about countries, which are pumping aid generously into India. However, these unpleasant experiences were more than compensated for by the magnificent reception we got at Dacca and at Rajshahi, where the local journalists’ association feted us, presented us with souvenirs and invited us to functions organized on the occasion of Martyr’s Day (21st February). The number of ardent and fiery young poets and writers, mostly in their twenties, was really astonishing, their bold experiments with literary forms and styles and the quality of journalism itself were most impressive.
Another aspect of the situation came out in the course of my visit with Bhutu Babu to Boalia village in Bholahat P.S. In this village 500 inmates had been massacred and it was one of Bhutu’s pet projects of reconstruction, besides the four villages he had ‘adopted’ in Nawabganj. Boalia had also been selected by some Viennese institution for reconstruction as a model village. Here I was frequently mistaken for a local official, and villagers would approach me complaining that they were getting just 125 gms. of cereals on alternate days, and that they would like to go back to ‘Hindustan’ where they had been much better looked after. The more upsetting disclosure, however, came from Moinul Haque, the local Awami League leader and a very fine worker. He begged me not to send the food grains to the M.C.A.s, who were actually selling it in the black-market instead of distributing it to the people . He was very bitter against the display of arrogance and power by these MCAs, who were actually selling it in the black-market instead of distributing it to the people. He was very bitter against the display of arrogance and power by these MCAs and told me that the P.M. was constantly being approached by all genuine Awami League workers not to give these people re-nomination in the elections, This was also the situation in Sibganj where Rahman told me that the elected representatives were more interested in smuggling and in organizing Razakar witch-hunts than in planning out the bringing of shelter materials from Malda before the returning homeless evacuees became a problem. Again, when rations were running out, they were busy deciding who should be in charge of the relief operations. Finally, at Rahman’s behest, the people gheraoed ( they have picked up this phenomenon from West Bengal and use it to great effect I found ) the M.P.A. and forced him to get them rations from Nawabganj. Even Bhutu Babu used to deplore the lack of character-building among the youth despite the bloody freedom struggle, and contrasted the single-minded dedication of Naxalites to the instability of Awami League and NAP workers. He was disgusted with the general attitude of waiting for the administration to send relief. In Harinagar, for instance, I found, when I revisited it after a month, that no attempt had been made to clear-up the debris, and use the bricks to re-build the houses, the villagers were, instead, using the devastated ruins as a showpiece for drawing sympathy and material help. Thereupon I made it clear that I would divert my supplies to other areas, and from the reports I received subsequently, this had a salutary effect.
It was in Boalia that I came to know of an unfortunate incident involving a Hindu and the local M.C.A. Sri Khaled. This Hindu, Benoy Roy, had been driven out from his house in Boalia during riots several years back, and had settled in Malda. After the liberation, Moinul Haque had invited him to return and re-occupy his property. Haque had also made the Muslims who had forcibly occupied Roy’s house, vacate it. They, in turn, had gone to Khaled who instructed the Mukti Fouj militia to drive out Roy. In the process, even Roy’s wife and daughter had been manhandled. Roy had been hospitalized in Malda, and there had been quite a lot of vehement opposition against sending any more relief to Bangladesh from a section of Malda’s society.
Another insight into the plight of Hindus in the newly liberated nation was provided by a slim girl of about 18 named Bulbul, who used to be one of the leaders of the women’s wing of the Mukti Fouj operating from Malda under Sri Abdul Hannan Chowdhury (ex-district judge, Dinajpur), and an expert with the 3-inch mortar. She told me that one Mujib could not change an attitude which had been drilled into a whole people over generations, and that even in Rajshahi, her home-town, Hindus were still in the darkness in which they had been earlier. She also pointed out that the MCAs and MPAs had forfeited the confidence of the people by fleeing the country during the crackdown, unlike the NAP leaders, and indulging in lining their own nests by dubious means during their stay in India.
What of the administration? On one of my visits to Nawabganj, the SDO, a state civil service officer, had taken me to his residence. The furnishings here, as in his office-chamber, took my breath away. The repast which followed, and he assured me that this was his normal fare and nothing had been arranged specially, had to be seen to be believed in a scarcity-hit area where most of the people were going without two square meals a day. How shabby and drab the chambers and residences and living standards of our SDOs seemed! What Bhutu Babu and others told me only confirmed my impression about the totally feudal and paternalistic character of the administration which was out of touch with the needs of the people and not geared at all to the speed and efficacy required of them in the emergency conditions prevailing. Such simple things as ensuring that their only link with India, the Malda-Sibganj earthwork road, was not snapped by rains, thus stopping all convoys of relief materials, was not snapped by rains, thus stopping all convoys of relief materials, just did not seem to register. The only alternative was to repair the Singabad-Rohanpur railway link with Malda. Even this was not receiving the top-priority attention it called for. When I met the Bangladesh Food Minister, Sri Phanibhushan Majumdar, at the Rajshahi Circuit House during my last visit, he was highly agitated over the food grains crisis facing the district, and what India could do to solve it. I mentioned that the only way out was to restore the rail-link, as bringing the food grains by trucks over the bad roads and ferries took far too much time and was also insufficient quantity-wise. The response was a vague acquiescence, without any positive reaction to show that the importance of the rail-link had even registered!
Actually, the minister had arrived to discuss the food situation in Rajshahi. His arrival itself was a fiasco. Somehow, correct information about the time of his arrival at the airport had not been received, so that there was no one to receive him! After his arrival, he and his entourage proceeded to attack the District Controller of Food violently for having failed to keep Dacca apprised about the deteriorating condition of food-stocks. The amusing factor was that the A.D.C. and other officers kept asking me, in guarded asides, whether I knew who the officers with the Minister were. They had no idea as to who the gentleman was to whom the Minister kept referring as “Secretary-saheb”: whether he was the Food Secretary, or his private secretary, or something else! And after the meeting the ADC did not hesitate to criticise the Minister and his entourage to me for their ‘arrogant and rude behavior’. What surprised me was that telegrams sent by them to Dacca about the food situation had reached the capital only after several days, as the condition of the telegraph service was very bad. I asked them why they had not thought of having the message relayed by police wireless. The ADC was quite thunderstruck by this ‘brilliant idea’. He had not heard of this despite his 20 years of service. All of which shows how unsuited the entire set-up was to tackling emergencies. The administrator’s dislike of the politician had come out in very naked terms during a meeting which the D.C., Rajshahi, had with the D.M., Malda to discuss the relief program. After the formal meeting was over, the D.C. proceeded to condemn roundly the Awami League politicians as selfish , greedy and corrupt. One of them, who had been based in Malda during the war, had been a Mukhtiyar’s clerk in the district where the D.C. was then a Deputy Magistrate. And this politician had never been able to forget this, and kept trying to assert his self-styled ‘superior’ position at all times. It seems when Lt. Gen. Arora had met the authorities, civil and political, at Rajshahi, the D.C had casually referred to “My Government’s orders”, whereupon this politician had heatedly remarked, “What do you mean by YOUR government? It is OUR government, WE are the Government”, and so on ad nauseam !
What remains to be said is my general impressions about the country and the people as such. To a driver whose nerves and patience have been stretched to the limit by the inexorable decision of Malda’s bullock-cart drivers not to leave the metalled road to motor vehicles, Bangladesh was truly a paradise. Here, at the faintest, honking of the horn, every bullock-cart magically left the metalled portion of the road and kept a respectful distance from us. This was so during my first few visits . But when I went as far as Dacca in March, I found quite a few carts refusing to give way. Acting on a hunch, I stopped my jeep and asked them- and sure enough they were evacuees who had got back from India. With Indian Customs of road-hogging jealously preserved in their hearts a signs of democratic rights and status! However, Bangladesh roads were a pleasure to drive on: I do not recall having coming across a single pothole throughout my drive from Nawabganj to Dacca and back [about 860 KM]. Possibly this was due to the lack of heavy traffic of grossly over laden trucks.
Another of the greatest pleasures of traveling in Bangladesh is a steamer-ride over the Padma as we had from Nagarbari to Aricha. It is an unforgettable sight, the blue Jamuna and the muddy Padma running in the same riverbed for miles, without the slightest mixing of the waters. And the Padma itself, with shores that cannot be sighted, dotted with specks of numerous sailing boats, bobbing up and down far away near the horizon like sea-gulls, how can I describe its majesty, serenity and beauty?
I passed through Natore, immortalised by “Banalata Sen” and Rani Bhabani, that great independent queen. I saw her Kali-temple, with the idols all ruthlessly smashed by the Pakistani Army. It had been turned into a mosque, but now it is a temple once again, and the famous “kanchagolla” sandesh is as delicious as ever. In Pabna we had the rather sad experience of searching for our SDO’s father-in-law’s residence, only to find a massive crater and totally demolished buildings at the site. Ironically, it was the work of one of our own bombs! Then there was the massive Hardinge (‘SARA’) Bridge, with the central span blown-up by the Pakistanis- a truly magnificent sight, unrivalled even by our own Farakka Barrage bridge.
But loveliest of all was Dacca. Beautifully laid out and planned, much in the manner of New Delhi, I did not come across a single beggar in the city. Kamalbari Railway Station remains an unfinished marvel. Land has been acquired all around it for a considerable distance, so that no residential buildings can come up to spoil the effect. It has soaring pillars, going up to 60-70 feet, and completely ‘mod’ architecture. On 25th March 1971 all who were present at this station had been gunned down. Now it is a favorite spot for evening promenade. There are no trains. Even more ‘mod’ is the Second Capital which was being built near the city, where the architect seems to have insisted that all buildings should have a spherical shape. It is a curious sight.
But Dacca cannot be divorced from the Steamer/Terminal bustling with people at all hours, and shops eagerly offering ‘foreign’ toiletries. We asked to see some, and were disappointed! They were all Indian! And the Rickshaws of Dacca-40,000 of them! The day we were there was unfortunately the day of the two Prime Ministers were addressing the people , and we were caught in the resultant jam for hours. The cycle-rickshaws merrily disregarded all traffic rules, brushed aside the police constable’s desperately waving hands, and went their way. The District Judge told us that it was always better to keep out of their way. Once a rickshaw had bumped into this car in its anxiety to go ahead, and its driver had promptly demanded Rs. 5/- from His Honor as compensation for damage(?) to the rickshaw, and had got the money! Prices of all household utensils and cloth were very high. Ladies lamented the non-availability of Karachi nylons which used to sell at Rs.15-20, and very cheap stainless steel utensils. Lack of supply of yarn had resulted in a shortage of ordinary saris too. But whatever the scarcity situation, there was never any shortage of writing, both creative and journalistic. The Bengali brain seemed to thrive on scarcity and work at white-hot intensity all through.
I left Dacca on a rather sad note. In 1962-63, visiting my father in the Central Jail, I had seen the famous ancient Kali-temple at Ramna Maidan. A decade later I went there again, full of expectation. There was nothing left, not even a single stone. The Pakistanis had obliterated it, as they had the Shahid Pillars, And before I left, the District Judge told me, with great anguish, how the P.O.L. they needed so very badly from India was being systematically black- marketed by some Indian businessmen who had taken up residence in Dacca and were somehow managing to divert part of the consignments for Bangladesh to their own benefit. But he urged me to come back a year later, and see that his country had really become “Sonar Bangla”. Even in this very year one could see the seeds of the golden future in he lush green countryside, the busy reconstruction of bridges and roads, and the vibrant faith and resilient hope of the people of Bangladesh.
My visit to Rajshahi to hand-over the 19 UNICEF trucks was the last of my nine trips to Bangladesh and thence forth we stopped sending relief through our own vehicles. Relationships also underwent some inevitable changes, Letters to the D.C. and A.D.C. Rajshahi, asking for various accounts never got replies. We shrugged and tried to forget the past . But I have not been able to erase memories of such wonderful human beings as Bhutu Babu, “judge-saheb”, Rahman, and the unforgettable taste of the massive “Kanshat” chum-chums of Sibganj the delectable “kanchagolla” from the shop adjoining Rani Bhabani’s Kali temple, and the nectarous “pranhara” sandesh of Dacca’s Maranchand- Kalachand!