The Lakshmi Plot
This is an experiment in epic microfiction. Each part of the story is 101 words long and was written in eight instalments recorded weekly.
Outside the wind was banging, but Meera Devi kept washing the rice. She chanted Jai Mata Ki with each turn of her hand.
“Come," she said to Devika, her daughter-in-law. "Bring Priya.” An elder woman reinforced what should be done to ensure abundance. Devika turned the rice also, and then pressed the baby’s brown hand into the cloudy water. Priya burst into tears.
Meera reached in, enclosing daughter and grand-daughters’ fingers. It felt comforting -- three generations were united through the rice ritual rinsing away excess starch, leaving pure grains in the pot while praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth.
Bhim Krishna Das returned along the estuary road beside his fields before sunrise, swiping the backside of the buffalo with his stick. Wearing only his wrap-around lungi knotted at the stomach he entered his enclosure, cut fresh grass into chewable chaff with the hand grinder and fed his animals, then crossed the compound. He found his jute-string charpoi, positioned it in the shade and lay down. This was his routine. Although they subsisted on only 2 acres of river frontage land, he never thought of himself as poor and since planting the new seed, yields had been very good.
Bhim was both sad and relieved his father had passed three years ago. Now he had a free hand. Instead of replanting the seeds from the harvest, Bhim Das gladly used the seed companies’ higher yield variety. It was definitely superior and the money it generated did allow him to re-purchase fresh seed stock along with the pre-requisite pellets of urea each season. He even dreamed of one day owning a tractor and hiring himself out to other farmers to increase his income. Meanwhile, Devika came with a glass of sweet milky chai, the baby balanced on her hip.
She left, but soon returned with a stainless steel thali, piled high with steaming rice along with a matching bowl of gruel-yellow lentil dhal. In another matching metal katori was a cut red onion and a long green chili. Bhim sat cross-legged on his charpoi, poured the dhal over the rice and ate, occasionally licking the run-off from the side of his fist. He ate to the very last grain, one of billions from similar harvests within the delta where he and his community lived. Laying down, he said imagined a golden rice harvest before falling asleep, exhausted.
Bhim Krishna Das had inherited debts from his father. With a growing family there were more expenses also. To raise cash his only recourse was to regularly borrow against the coming harvest. The grain merchant would advance credit on interest, providing seed and fertilisers. During past decades the subsistence style of bio-diverse farming had shifted to monoculture cash-cropping. The grain merchant ultimately acted as a conduit for the big seed and fertiliser companies and the Government fixed-price buying system. Like all small farmers Bhim Krishna Das’s agricultural future was determined by outside forces, not to mention the weather.
Bapuji, his father Raj Das as generations before him had propagated local strains of rice, millet, squash, corn and lentils. Agricultural pundits once claimed India produced 100,000 rice varieties alone, not to mention other produce; but since the 1960s, Bapu too had become one of millions cranking the new wheel of the Green Revolution to fulfill the government policy of national self-sufficiency. Despite the propaganda, Bapu resisted the one-season one-crop philosophy at heart. Traditional mixed farming methods spread the risks, although yields were less and in spite of the vagaries of the weather, rural life had seemed simpler.
Traditionally too, the river farmers had always bartered and cooperated. For example, the old man had long ago let a neighbour keep his bee boxes in the mango grove for a portion of the honey. Or they shared tools, and even gave a hand with each other's work when required. Above all, they took pride in the knowledge of breeding and hybridising seed stock which is the farmer's art. His small holding had once rioted with variety and colour and there was the real satisfaction of living from one's own rice, milk and produce. But mono-cropping had changed all that.
On the other hand, cash crops put money in the palm and the promise of an affluent life. Those extra rupees had allowed Bhim and other sons of the district to go to the newly whitewashed school. Thus, he thought himself the educated one in the family. He looked down upon his old-fashioned father. Young Das also kept up with the latest seeds and fertilisers, chatting with the peons at the Farmer's Cooperative in nearby Sitapur, and as a badge of learning Bhim Das read the newspaper to the women in the house on his return from weekly Market Day.
Thus, the young man worked hard. He bought the merchant’s seedling shoots and planted them in muddy rows. He channelled the irrigation flow from the river, sometimes waking in the night whenever electricity was available to pump water. Although the delta silt was rich, rain was needed in the right proportion at the right time to produce premium grain. Tending wet shoots calf-high in slush, guarding against pests, birds and diseases was the farmer’s lot, and deep down he still knew his old irritating Bapu was right who regularly intoned: “Nature laughs at him who claims to own the land.”
There was a corner of the river bend field beside the old mango grove that had long been known in the family as Lakshmi’s Plot. Bhim's ancestors had created a grotto from stones, placing a murti, a statue of the wealth goddess within. The spindly rice stalks that grew in that nook were tough, although meagre in yield.
"Do whatever you like when I die, but keep Lakshmi's Plot. This is God's bank account. Respect the Devi and she will bless you, Son."
Bhim Krishna Das promised reluctantly. "Alright, Bapu." He would much sooner have seeded the new genetically-modified grain.
The fickle mind of Nature was most evident through the monsoon’s coming -- at first it was joyful relief after each killing summer. Clouds become drums. Then the slow tinkle of musical drops increases to a deluge blessing the rice fields. It fills cooking pots and old ghee tins used to catch leaks in the thatch roof, stuffed with polythene bags between the bamboo rafters. For hours, the steady ping-ping hit the meniscus of over-brimming containers. With one ear tuned to the sleeping infant, Devika was first to feel the wetness seeping up through her mattress. She raised the alarm.
The high winds also brought a cyclonic thunderhead of conflicting thermals. They smashed the low-lying delta peninsular -- just like a fist cracking the bony fingers of a hand. Walls of water surged over flimsy estuary embankments and flooded inland, uprooting and washing away the thatched mud huts, roads and settlements. Hundreds of thousands of acres of rice and jute disappeared under the sudden sheet of in-rushing ocean. Families woke in chaos and many were immediately swept away to oblivion. Others more lucky had a small window of opportunity to pack and flee with whatever meagre belongings they could carry.
Bhim put Devika, clutching their baby girl onto the cart. Then, while helping his mother up she dropped her brass pot packed with rice grains. It tumbled away into the rising water.
“Hai!” Meera screamed.
Bhim reached down and retrieved it. Sadly, all of the precious rice had now dispersed in the floodwater. Nothing could be done. “Chello!” he said. “Let’s go.”
Setting off, he soon offered Narayani Mata a ride, but their old widowed neighbour refused to abandon her bony cow. Having seen floods and ruined crops she knew she would starve without milk anyway, and resigned to her fate.
The road to Sitapur was clogged with fleeing families. Bhim Das beat the bullock’s rump until the cart could progress no more. He freed the beast, dragging his family toward the old dilapidated flood shelter. It was a two-storey concrete building on four plinths with stairs, balconies and a flat roof. This was a vote-catching initiative of some old regime. There were too few scattered along the coastline. This stationary structure was already over-crowded. Bhim and his family fought through huddled shapes and managed to climb, push and squeeze past complaints to find a corner on the roof.
The four took shelter under a tarpaulin of stitched-together fertiliser bags previously used to cut and wrap roadside grass. Bhim Das had salvaged it from the cart. Now it became a tent with squatting heads and shoulders for poles. They huddled together sharing warmth and tried to sleep through the storm. Palm trees had snapped like toothpicks. Seawater was encroaching. Goats, cows and buffaloes were in distress. Slow moaning and bleating scraped along human nerves as they floundered to find any foothold in the deluge, eventually going under one by one. Meena Devi, clung onto her bronze Lakshmi and prayed.
The cyclone shelter had doubled as a school with rotten foundations and white-washed walls needing repair. After bureaucratic kickbacks, foreign aid’s cannibalised funds could only build with porous cement. 2000 were now packed onto three floors meant for 800, each with just one metre to squat in, including the pregnant and the elderly. Emergency store rations had long ago turned a profit on the black market through Devendra Gosh, the government official-in-charge. There was no cooking fuel, the latrines had never worked and survivors were only a fraction of the displaced, or those floating face down like logs.
Bhim’s family made it through the gale-force night praying to the goddess Lakshmi. Meera collected run-off from the fertiliser-bag tent in the cooking pot and they took careful sips. Going to the toilet the next day was a whole other problem with 800 exposed on the roof. They squatted in turn above a rusty bucket, petrol tin or some plastic motor oil containers with the tops cut off passed on until brimming with faeces, then dumped over the side into the floodwaters. Rain continued to pelt down with ferocity, pinning Bhim and family underneath their makeshift synthetic tarpaulin.
The shelter was so far just holding out, but the concrete steps and supporting plinths were being consumed by rising tide. As long as the storm surged, those on the roof could exist on sips of collectable rainwater, but others locked together on the lower levels could barely move, each in their meagre metre of shitting space. All were dehydrating badly, some with respiratory problems due to cloying suffocation. By the second day the cyclone shelter had drawn first blood -- two newborn infants and an old man wheezing away life on his daughter-in-law’s lap. Death’s bad news spread fast.
Meera Devi still felt guilty, having earlier let the rice pot slip from her grasp climbing onto the cart; and now there were only three onions left knotted in her shawl. Onions discouraged thirst, although not for long. She propped Lakshmi up against a crack progressing up the concrete wall. She could only close her eyes and wave an imaginary ghee light on a tray, She visualised garlands, burning incense, piles of mangoes - and mentally poured unhusked rice over her deity’s feet like an endless showering of gold coins. “Please take me, but save my family,” she bargained with her goddess.
Meanwhile, Devika feeling her milk drying up from dehydration and anxiety couldn’t satisfy her suckling infant who bit harder for nourishment. The young woman’s strength was dissipating. It worried her. A mother is a milk tap. How long could her baby last? Mother Meera understood, stopping her sips for Devika’s and Priya’s sake. Bhim Das felt helpless too. His waterlogged fields would soon rot. As Bapuji said: “A farmer is only a lord at harvest time.” He couldn’t feed his family on air like some non-eating yogi. The shelter was delaying the inevitable and cruelly forcing them to befriend death.
Around 4am cyclonic winds and a fresh wave of storm surge began to rock the overcrowded ark. The foundations splintered. Then, one of the four supporting concrete plinths snapped and the corner opposite Bhim’s family collapsed. The only thing left to do was to leap from the ledge behind them. Meera Devi had already made her pact with Lakshmi. “Go,” she said to Bhim. “Take them.”
The roof tipped, sliding away human cargo off its deck like a boat and passengers going down. He waited until the last moment, grabbed his baby girl and wife and then jumped.
With the far corner of the building in collapse, the remaining plinths beneath disintegrated in a sudden vertical rush burying those on the first and second levels beneath drowning rubble. Bhim, took a breath and followed by Devika, leapt the remaining six or seven metres into the choppy flood clutching the infant. His one thought on touching bottom was to spring the child to surface, which he did holding Priya above his head like a prize. Somehow, Devika was soon bobbing next to them amidst hundreds of others who had also leapt from the roof, screaming and floundering to remain buoyant.
Bhim Das passed the baby to Devika and then said, “Climb up.” With that, he bobbed underwater, rising up with her legs around his neck. There were many around him, but he paid no heed. The notion of community had been irrevocably shattered. Forcing himself on without direction or plan he began to wonder whether the farmer son of Raj Das and Meena Devi from district Sitapur had ever existed. The past was submerged, until he felt the weight on his shoulders and remembered a wife and child. “Is the baby...?” he asked.
As if on cue, poor Priya cried out.
He didn’t know how long he had waded ahead with a blunted consciousness. Sometimes he stumbled but regained his footing, balancing Devika like an acrobat. The truth was --without her and Priya he could have easily succumbed to the idea of slipping away into the brackish water. By now, the mad storm has dissipated to drops of rain as the darkness gave way to vague shapes and the first flare of sunrise. Just as it was bad luck to look back when embarking on a long journey, he pressed doggedly on, wading toward what looked like an island of floating foliage.
The cyclone has passed. Some survivors were in river boats poling through the deluged rice fields. Others were also up to their necks, but floating pots of drinking water in front of them upon the waves. More were on top of thatched roofs that had been tethered between palm trees, walls or power poles. Approaching the drowned trees Bhim now took in the body of man hooked above over a limb. Was he unconscious? He still might snap out of it. Inspecting closer, it was clear he had breathed his last, here where the steamroller flood had collected him, fatally winded.
Then Devika heard the bleating. “There! Beneath,” she said. Bhim waded closer. Below the corpse, was a spoon-shaped boat with a half-cylindrical roof of black plastic. Obviously the man had run aground. Even the long paddle was still tied to a rope floating in the water and a goat was crouched and shivering on top beside a cooking pot. Bhim reached through foliage to liberate the craft, pulling at the liana tangle. Suddenly he felt something move. The vine was a green snake, camouflaged and living here off geckoes, birds and frogs. Bhim withdraw his hand with cautious respect.
After some effort he disentangled the boat from the tree island and helped his wife and daughter aboard. Then he clambered up, hauled in the pole trailing behind on its rope. feeling a great sense of relief. Sighing, the pent-up exhaustion hit him then, and he lay on his back, inside the small shelter aware now for the first time of his furiously beating heart fuelled by adrenalin alone during the hours of darkness. For the first time he allowed himself to think of his lost mother and two small rivers began to trickle from his eyes.
With Devika and Priya at rest, Bhim finally sat up. Luck had provided a boat and a goat. He hesitated to call it blessing, having endured God’s recent handiwork. He remembered melting glacier headlines from the flood-hit northern state of Utterakhand, and the huge army operation mounted with helicopter evacuation sorties and distribution of foodgrains, kerosene and LPG. Some politician had made a withdrawal from his vote-bank, unlike what happened in West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh, forever cyclone prone. Governments had ample rhetoric, but little political interest to address what seemed unsolvable. No. They were on their own.
His thoughts too, returned to old Bapu. Bhim had railed against him in life and now his father returned to haunt him in death. “A man falls out of the sky only to land in a date palm with a snake,” the irritating voice of memory said. They had escaped from one crisis only to land up in another. Now the main challenge would be finding potable water. Every village pond and tube-well was submerged and now they were adrift in salty storm wash, navigating around bloating bodies of dead people and livestock -- the liquid conductor of invisible bacterial death.
When he tried to visualise some place of refuge, he remembered a village bordering the vast estuarine mangrove Sundarbans. Here they had always practised natural conservation: fishing with a large guage net, leaving one third of the honeycomb for the bees, only cutting woodd from the upper parts of certain trees. Those trips during childhood had been some of his happiest memories, although the place was not without its challenges and lurking dangers. Bhim looked at the position of the morning sun and started to pole with fresh vigour. In reality however, it was the rapid current that was taking him.
They glided past plastic flotsam and a bloated cow corpse tethered to a post, a pair of leopard print underwear like a slingshot hung from a horn. He thought of his own drowned beasts. Devika and daughter were recovering inside the shelter. She ran her tongue over the ulcers on her lip. The goat was nearby. Squatting, she forced it up, positioned the cooking pot, wet her hands over the side to wash the teats and coaxed the flow. Soon, the vessel was half full. Despite thirst, she offered it to her husband, but he nodded to her.
“You drink first.”
It was comforting to swallow the creamy milk. How long had it been since she had taken any nourishment? They had lost everything and yet the boat and the goat had saved them. She lay on her side to feed Priya, but felt something sharp. It was the shoulder bag she was still wearing. The brass devi was inside. Her mother-in-law must have slipped it in before they had jumped. Thus, the old woman had passed on the responsibility of family worship, so she sprinkled some drops of milk over the goddess, not a proper milk bath, but something.
Like this, they travelled. Bhim's driving instinct was to put the scene of drowned villages and bloating corpses behind. He also feared other survivors turning scavenger and thus told himself the boat was too small to hold more.
"Keep the goat out of sight," he said to Devika. With it they might survive. But there was no end to the relentless line of wading people. It was cruel, but he ignored their passing pleas for help. One goat’s milk didn’t go very far. It would be days before the waters would subside and sadly many would die of dysentery and typhoid.
Yes, Bhim Das had known floods right from childhood. Everyone had. Millions existed between calm and chaos. Then, once at least a decade, nature wiped the slate of the land clean of human habitation. Now mega cyclones were coming with greater frequency. He’d read in the papers about climate change - the disaster pendulum was swinging to each extreme with greater force - a rising flood of diseases here, a retributive drought happening somewhere south, west or north. Everything was disturbed. Bapuji had always harped on about respecting nature. “If you are going to live by the river make friends with the crocodiles.”
They moved through the wasteland toward that part of the inland delta system where his uncle lived. Bhim didn’t want to entertain the possibility that the fishing village was no more. Instead, he blithely pictured days spent with otters. Kept on leashed ropes, six would be released to scare fish between spoon boat and riverbank into the net. During the work, the whiskered creatures would be thrown tidbits, then finally a portion of the spoils would be dropped wriggling on a metal tray for them to feast upon. Now, he desperately hoped Varun Das Uncle and his ‘river dogs’ were alive.
Finally, he found the tributary at low tide leading to where the village that should have been like a fish skeleton picked clean. The caged otters, cooking fires and fish drying in long rows were gone. The storm surge had done its work. He felt like weeping, not just for the destroyed life of his Uncle's family, but because part of his childhood had been washed away. For the first time, Bhim felt frightened. He had dragged his family too far in the naive belief that this place would weather the storm. Across the tidal inlet there was only wild jungle.
He was stepping over the feral edge of his world. The Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest, a braided delta of one hundred islands had long been the Gangetic plain’s shock absorber against cyclones. Without it, the region would have been bitten back into the Bay of Bengal. Here the low tide salt-filtration roots rose up from sediment like a killing field of pointed spikes helping the mangroves breathe. When the boat was tied, Bhim wanted to survey the island.
Devika said, “Don’t leave us.”
So they both got down, Devika with baby and milk pot, Bhim dragging the goat.
Negotiating carefully where to step barefoot between spikes, he saw pug marks in mud. Fear and nausea punched him. He suppressed it, stepped into the trees with the right foot first, (just as he would later leave with the left) something he’d learned as a boy. Now, the trail rose to an open ridge-top. It was looking familiar. He’d been here with Varun Das and smoking out savage bees and cutting honeycombs from branches in past seasons. At the top, a rough thatched temple had weathered the storm on stilts, housing its image of Bonobibi, the goddess of the forest.
Now he needed to meet the holy man and get his blessings. Bhim found him perched up in his hut. Bhim was relieved. Someone familiar was still here.
“So, you are back,” said the sadhu, his eyes screwed up like raisins, squinting down at them on.
“Baba,” Bhim Das said. “This is my wife and child.”
“Son, this time is bad.”
“We lost everything, Baba. Our land, my mother. Have you seen Varun Uncle?”
The sadhu went silent. What did he know?.
“I saw the fishing village,” Bhim said. “Washed away.”
“They are gone,” is all the holy man would say.
“Let’s go,” he said. And climbed down the rungs. Made of, this structure like the temple’s legs had resisted many cyclones and surges. Or was it the holyman’s power? This flattened ridge was the highest and safest place. All climbed to the temple level and bowed in turn to Bonobibi’s idol. On the left was Daksin Ray, the tiger god, and Sha Jungli, Bonobibi’s club-wielding warrior brother was on her right.
Then the old man prepared to do his ritual.
“You have something to offer, Mother?” he asked?
Devika passed over the pot swishing with the last of the milk.
The shaman lit incense, poured milk into a brass vessel and mixed in white round discs of sugar wafers, known as patashas. He placed it before Bonobibi and prayed:
O Mother of the forest
we’re nothing -- mosquitoes,
dumb stones in the mud.
Despite this, protect your lowly sons
like Bhim Das and his family
keep them safe in your womb
for the full term, and place them
there again and again.
Do not leave his side, Ma,
O Ma, please listen.
With that, he offered the milk to goddess and entourage, and then to Bhim and Devika who wet her finger for Priya to suck.
“You have received the first blessing,” said the shaman and passed Bhim a terracotta pot. “Now bring me some good mud. We are not finished here yet.”
Bhim took it, slipped down the rungs, followed the trail back toward the shoreline where he squatted and squeezed his hands hard down between mangrove spikes. The stinking silt sucked and gurgled as he withdrew them gradually filling the vessel. But each time, Bhim had the sensation of being watched. Silly, he thought. Scanning around he saw gelatinous eyeballs peering above the waterline some distance from his boat. A Sundarbans crocodile was flollowing him.
It was unnerving, yet he was determined to stay calm. He withdrew up the trail, climbing back into the temple with the mud pot.
The shaman said, “Now make three balls. Like this,” demonstrating the dimensions with hands in the air. “Place them before Ma.”
Bhim made the first. “This big?” It was the size of a toy doll’s head. The shaman nodded. Bhim added two more, reverently lining them up one by one before each forest deity.
The shaman placed a leaf on each ball like a green hat and pronged three lit incense sticks into the floor cracks surrounding.
From another nook he brought a basket of crablikekankra flowers. Devika was passed a wire shank and thread. “Make,” he commanded. She understood, and placing Priya, swaddled beside her, began threading a garland. Eventually she handed it over.
“Good. Red is Ma’s favourite,” the shaman said circling the balls. Touching his right hand to heart, forehead and head, he spoke, requesting the deities to enter the domes, sprinkling each with some milk scooped out with a leaf.
All bowed. He smiled.
“They need rest.” Bhim said, pointing to his wife and child, but also implying himself.
“Soon,” the holyman replied.
And so they passed the night with the shaman. It wasn’t his home. No one knew where he appeared from at honey season. Being a tribal priest approved by park officials gave him entry rights. Otherwise, few could step here. But, as always money was bringing daytrip tourists, poachers and timber exploiters, and the tribal ways of minimal harvesting were being submerged under Climate Change’s rising tide, said the newspapers. He was connecting things and now pictured his own fields drowned and waterlogged. And he was just one of millions who eked out a living here. Turning over, he tried to sleep.
Bhim woke to baby sounds and the goat’s bleating. Devika had milked and fed the animal and passed Bhim some in a cup. He drank it down, glad they had reached a safe haven for now. The old shaman had brought kewraflowers from the pandanus tree for the goat and fresh water from the small pond over the rise. It sustained the birds, the barking deer herds, macaque monkeys, wild boars, jungle cats and the bigger predator that stalked them all. So far it’s name had not been uttered -- the Royal Bengal tiger. Yes, he remembered seeing those pug-marks.
The shaman had also gone to collect tree crabs in a pot. He returned and set about boiling them on the mud oven moulded onto a verandah stone slab. They were turning bright red and were soon piled on a plate. These were not the best eating variety, but given the circumstances, Bhim wasn’t complaining, now invited to break the carapaces and suck out the scraps of meat. After eating and passing the rest to Devika, Bhim voiced what had been troubling him. “Baba, I saw tiger tracks.”
The shaman raised his finger to lips and said, “Shhh.”
He explained in a hushed tone.“When you say his name it means you are calling him.” Then staring directly into Bhim’s eyes added,”Better to say ‘Uncle.’”
Of course, this was the reason for the protection ritual. The Sundarbans predator was long known as a man-eater. Some speculated that it had a cranky disposition, being forced to drink brackish swamp water, or that it acquired the taste for human flesh due to the prevalence of half-cremated corpses sluiced down river after funerals, but the old shaman who had been coming and going here since a young lad knew otherwise.
The story was born in distant Medina, not India. Ibrahim, a childless sufi was visited by the angel Gabriel and was promised two offspring - Bonobibi and Sha Jungli he named them. When older, Gabriel returned saying they had been chosen for a divine purpose far from their desert homeland. Obediently they came to India as merchants, where they met Daksin Ray, a demon with a taste for human flesh. She and her sibling soon overpowered and agreed to spare him, if he promised to stop eating people. She drew up boundaries where humans could live, leaving the jungle for the demon.
But Daksin Ray broke his word and became the Sundarbans tiger god stalking any stray villager who wandered into the forest. Thus, Bonobibi and Sha Jungli were forced to remain and protect the people.
“That is why we can’t stay long,” the shaman said. “We must obey Bonobibi.”
The skeptical side of the young man smiled. “Baba, there has to be another reason, something more scientific?”
“Hah! Did science save your fields, or your mother from the cyclone?”
“You young people. You forget the old ways, then suffer.”
He turned away and facing the woven leaf-wall said. “You will see.”
He had offended the holyman. It was not good, especially here. However, it couldn’t be helped. Bhim’s little bit of education had bred in him some arrogance that was further inflamed by youthful pride. He wanted to apologise, but the shaman had already turned his back. So he decided to go out and collect firewood as a peace offering and hoped the old man would have cooled off by the time he returned. Of course, he didn’t doubt the reality of the annual tiger strikes, although none really knew why these predators with animals galore to hunt, still favoured human flesh.
He returned to check his boat. It was tethered on the tide. A kingfisher dove and surfaced with a pomfret fingerling. White storks shifted about in their tree colony. He looked for pieces of wood, careful not to mistake liana for vine snake and noted the monitor lizard slipping casually into the water. Stay calm! He told himself. Be more careful with old people, he thought. Who knew whether Daksin Ray, the tiger god existed or not, but the noisy monkeys’ presence at the waterhole suggested he wasn’t around. It was getting dark, so Bhim returned with the bundle of firewood.
Devika dealt with the shaman’s crossness by sweeping and keeping an eye on the goat on the verandah. Leaving it tied below would have a flagrant invitation for an ‘Uncle’ visit. Having regular milk made her confident that her own milk would not dry up. To pass time she made fresh garlands for the temple, scenting it with incense when the shaman went down to the pool to bring back water. Her thoughts were with Bhim, her one support and prayed to Bonobibi in the temple for his safety, and then to Lakhsmi on the verandah waiting for him to return.
Bhim didn’t want to arouse ill feeling, and after stacking the firewood by the oven, he took a cup of milk from Devika, then sat on the verandah looking out into the jungle.
He listened awhile to a fish owl hooting piercingly through the swamp chorus. He nodded rhythmically with clicking insects. The faint traces of breeze were so calm compared with what the cyclone had brought. He noticed now a scorpion perched on the rail and flicked it off. Out there, were other eyes. So he went inside to sleep. This was how his first night of dreams began.
Sometime after the half moon rose through the Sundari trees he let go his vast exhaustion like an arrow released from a bow and entered the body of the beast. Bent down. Lethal. Whistling sharpness. He went forth, a nine foot missile-mind from nose to tail unleashed on all fours. He smelled the scent of a breathing body and zeroed in, grabbing it from behind and then veered off with a lunge through the foliage. In the quiet he tore the jugular and opened a river, feasting. The dream repeated until the moon dissolved behind the morning curtain of mist.
The next night he again became that hurtling massiveness, this time bearing down upon a slender spotted deer. Incisors sank into warm meat cracking cartilage and bone, but at the crucial moment the beast dissolved away. Disembodied, he felt extreme desire, yet without means to fulfill his craving. Was he a cannibal? The lost wandering ghost? Was this Daksin Ray, feeding on flesh and blood to remake his own flesh and blood? Claws and teeth were scratching and biting inside his consciousness. They were the howling souls of the stricken whom the ageless predator had once eaten and housed within himself.
Bhim was confused by what he was experiencing and wanted to for for explanation from the shaman when they went out fishing. He took the net stored inside the shelter and cast it where the shaman pointed. He had not uttered a word since Bhim expressed his doubts. But they worked and netted two large pangas, yellow-tailed catfish. Bhim cleaned and scaled them, while the shaman sat, arms crossed at the prow staring into the young man. Bhim endured those penetrating eyes that seemed to look through and beyond him to another realm. They moored and returned to the ridge..
The next night he became the predator’s prey: smoking out honey bees while dreaming of the anklet on his new bride’s foot; or putting down the woodcutter axe to light a bidi, he realised just before the neck snapped he needed the Kolkata clothing factory job; or screaming awake as a Granny gripped by the head and dragged out through a hole in the wall of her village hut like a newborn extracted with forceps. These and other gruesome departures he would never forget. Bhim woke up sweating, only to find fresh pug marks circled below the shaman’s hut on stilts.
Bhim followed the shaman downstairs to inspect the tiger tracks.
“Uncle was here, Baba,” Bhim said.
“Shh,” chided the shaman in his brusque manner, gesturing for Bhim to be quiet.
Both of them knelt while the shaman traced the impression with his index finger.
“ A new beast has come,” Bhim suddenly realised that, for the old baba, a pug mark was like a fingerprint, or perhaps there was some other meaning that only the shaman could divine. Now he squatted, testing the air like a wild dog and then got up to climb the temple rungs. Bhim followed dutifully behind him.
They bowed. He hunched over withdrawing himself, arms shrouding his head like wings; soon the shaman jerked upright shaking his head wildly from side to side. His eyes glared and his grunts shifted back and forth across male and female registers as an entity spoke through him. Instead, he reached across and gripped the young man's head with his hand, thumb pressing hard into the centre of the forehead. Something passed into Bhim. He was eased onto his side, convulsing as if having had a massive electrical shock. The shaman sat back and closed his eyes auditing what was going on.
Where before Bhim had journeyed down Daksin Ray's path of blood and death inhabiting the body of hunter or the hunted, he now became the tiger's rider, the controlling goddess force who grabbed hold of soft neck fur and willed the beast above the estuarine Sundarbans. Instinctual power held in check by intelligence could fly down to see deep into the heart of tree, animal, bird or ant and speak with its spirit. Now Bhim perceived the forests and human settlements as pores on the body of one vast living organism, each a microscopic mouth expressing the same truth of coexistence.
Bhim wondered how the survivors from his old village community were coping with the aftermath of the cyclonic storm surge. Through speed of thought the flying tiger travelled and saw the rescue helicopters, the army barges, the vehicles bringing in supplies. Trying to stay alive, survivors massed before the back of every truck and sides of boats, or retrieved stray parachutes with ration packs from waterlogged fields of dead crops. It wasn’t enough. Crowds clambered over each other like mud crabs competing in a bucket. They pulled back the top climber into the claw pit. Yes, desperation succeeded and created savagery.
The tiger's amber eye showed Bhim that humanity was no less bestial under the skin. Life spoke through the spiky pores of mangrove suckers and retributive cycles where nature was forced to right the balances drowning hundreds of thousands. It was hard to travel with that electrical current coursing up the spine and frothing over at the mouth. Bhim felt the sensation of being a bubble in a bloodstream and he might drown at any moment. The shaman's power igniting Bhim's own ability began to wain and the young man's focus also blurred. Soon, both were gasping awake like landed fish.
Devika greeted her husband and Baba when they returned. She passed each a cup from the morning's milking and served the leftover catfish from a pandanus leaf. She was feeling the lack of starch in their meagre diet and longed for a handful of rice with her own fish piece that she took after the men slumped on their sleeping mats. Yet, she was grateful to her husband and Lakshmi whose worship she did twice daily. It made her mourn the loss of Meera Devi, her mother-in-law, whose company she pictured while swirling communal hands in the rice pot.
Bhim was woken by a vigourous shake of the shaman’s hand. Again, he was dream-travelling into the jungle.
“Here,” the old man said, and passed him a white mask. It looked like the face of a ghost. There were empty sockets for eyes to see through and a crudely painted watermelon smile. He ran his finger over the rough-moulded face made from papier-mache. Flipping it over he could see the raw newsprint inside and that excited him. He remembered those weekly visits to Sitapur on market day and bringing a paper to read to the women at home.
One strip of the glued paper was readable. The headline said: Nanobots Crawling Under Your Skin. The lead sentence followed: “Imagine an army of robot spiders doing surgery on your eye, fixing a faulty valve in your heart, or patching up blown out brain tissue.” How strange and unbelievable especially sitting in this hut where real spiders and scorpions climbed the railing at night. Even stranger was the thought of wearing this story close to his face. Then the shaman pulled out another. Made of rubber, it bore a comic caricature of with a moustache and leering smile.
“Put yours on,” he said.
Surprisingly the shaman stretched the elastic and wore the mask on the back of his head. His was standard issue for licensed honey gatherers and wood cutters. Devika laughed. The shaman wasn’t impressed, stared back and addressed Bhim.
“If Uncle comes for you, it will be from behind.” With that he gripped the young man at the nape of his neck. “Like this.” Then he explained, “But if he sees a face, he won’t attack. He comes from behind.”
This new strategy had been thought up recently by a psychology student in Kolkata at the university, and strangely, had been working.
“Come. Put on your mask.”
Bhim hooked the band on his forehead. Again, Devika couldn’t help giggling. Grown men putting masks on backwards. She was beginning to even doubt the reality of tigers.
The shaman passed another mask to Bhim. “Tell her not to leave the hut without it.” The young man was also irritated now. She was not showing respect and spoke harshly. “You heard, woman. Put it on.”
She picked it up with piqued reluctance
“It is time,” the shaman said and climbed down.
They followed the trail to the boat.
“Get in. I will paddle,” the shaman said.
The masked men travelled up the creek between their island and the one opposite. So far Bhim had not come this way. But he was glad to be out from the tension at the hut. He saw a rainbow krait skimming poisonously in the water, and two mudskippers with locked jaws fighting over a female. They threw the net and trawled, picking up two cracks and a catfish. The shaman poled for a long time. Bhim wanted to ask where they were going, but knew better. Sure enough, the shaman veered to the right and slid into a new mud beach.
Bhim's feet squelched into silt, but he managed to tie up the boat to a mangrove branch, while the shaman focused and leapt deftly to a dryer patch. Soon he was disappearing up the overgrown trail and Bhim quickly cleaned off his feet and followed. His mask kept riding up at the back and he had to pause to tighten the band across his forehead. Meanwhile the shaman was moving fast through terrain he seemed to know well. Eventually, some distance in, the path opened out to a wall of intertwined trees with a low entrance hole in the hedge growth.
The shaman bobbed and disappear within. With some trepidation Bhim followed shuffling on his knees and hands. The shaman's wiry frame fitted better than Bhim's broader body, and as he struggled, his mask strap caught on the overhang and was ripped off, dangling behind like a trophy. The space was too tight to reach back for it and Bhim was forced to crawl even lower to the dirt. It was then he smelled the rankness of the place, saw multiple pug marks beneath him. Strangely familiar, he realised the shaman had led him down the crawl hole of a tiger's den.
The only way out was forward and eventually his head emerged, unmasked. The shaman had disappeared. Getting up he was astonished to see ruins of a temple on the other side of the clearing. It too, was deeply entwined in tree roots. At it's heart was a stone head wedged in the tangle. The temple had a flat roof supported by thick stone pillars. This was history's proof of an untouched antiquity still standing, that Bhim had only read about in books. He realised he must be one of the few ever to have seen it. Then, his gut tightened. The tiger emerged on the raised stone.
It stood comfortably like a rajah on the roof of his palace eyeing Bhim as his rightful next meal, and although he could have leapt on him from that distance, he stood his ground as Bhim, quite trapped also stood. They considered each other. Bhim felt the same familiarity he had experienced riding the tiger god in his vision and somehow felt the beast also acknowledged this too. Bhim looked at the mottled markings, dark brown on orange. The tiger was like an old world chieftain wearing ceremonial tattoos from head to tail. This warrior bearing was worthy of singular respect.
This was the lair, the last bastion of the beast. Whether demonic or heroic the name Daksin Ray now resonated deeply in the young man's mind that he heard as the voice of a woman singing. Was it an inner sound, or was it an outer one coming from the temple stones? It didn't matter. He didn't need to know more, merely to reverence it. The tiger continued to stand above eying him, he the young Sha Jungli, guardian brother of Bonobibi. Their triumvirate alliance ruled this demense. Now Bhim understood his newly growing role he had been slowly led towards.
He heard a sound behind him. It was the shaman. For a moment he felt warm relief as the old man stood against his shoulder, then slowly made his way to the temple. With tiger above, he threw down his mask before the god face in the root tangle, then turned. For the first time ever Bhim Das felt the shaman's smiling acceptance. It was a benediction and Bhim folded his hands with a gratefulness. Then the shaman stepped, knelt and exposed his back and nape. The tiger leapt down, grabbed and returned with the broken-necked offering in his jaws.
It is not good to witness the body of a fellow human dropped like a broken doll, ready to be ripped apart from the rump. It was time to leave the tiger palace the shaman had brought him to at the cost of his own life. A gift demands a gift and feeling now the burden of a new responsibility Bhim backed away, turned and entered the crawl space once more. Going seemed easier then coming. Soon, he rescued the ghost mask from the overhang, exited the hedge and followed the narrow path back to the boat. The tiger roared in the distance.
It was dark when Bhim returned to the hut and handed over the catfish and crabs. Devika had been doing her hut chores and collecting water, but felt a nagging loneliness. Priya seemed disturbed also.
"Where is Baba?" Devika asked passing Bhim a cup of goat's milk.
"Gone," is all he answered, drinking only half the cup.
Devika boiled the crabs and fish pieces. She was rationing the oil. The lack of basic supplies in the shaman's store was beginning to frustrate her. That night she pulled her sleeping mat next to her husband, but he had turned to the window.
She felt rows of bamboo had grown between them. It wasn’t conscious deception. His dialogues and savage journeys would have scared her. Neither would he have known how to explain about the old man’s death. Instead, he spent more hours on the water than he needed for the fishing. As weeks passed she noted him spending long hours too in the temple, and after hearing strange voices, she sometimes crept up close to listen. Had visitors come? The prospect of returning to the world of community and familial warmth was her one wish. Meanwhile, he hunted her away with harsh words.
Bhim didn't mean to shut out Devika, but the inner life demanded it’s due. After the shaman's death, he had felt the baba's power increasing day day day in him, but hadn't noticed a new sharpness in his tone. Devika didn't know what to do, but kept on with her chores and purposely forgot to wear the mask sometimes when going for water just to spark a reaction from him. Although his words were jagged, they were better than no words at all. She took refuge in her Lakshmi puja morning and evening and from resentment stopped going to Bonobibi's temple.
Each day Bhim Das was becoming part of the Sundarbans’ untamable ecocosm. Representing Bonobibi’s symbolic brother Sha Jungli, the go-between rider of the tiger soul prowled through the shamanic levels assuming goddess power. Each shaman became his human face, and soon he would have to assume duties with the villagers, park officials, and be ever watchful of poachers. Yet, who would authorise a young man in place of the old shaman? Now Bhim Krishna Das would have to go and assert and become acceptable as the man who could offer protection prayers for fishermen, honey-gathers, wood cutter charcoal makers.
Meanwhile, he went on the tiger journeys mentally visiting old villages and farms across the water that once dotted the long canal that linked the thatched communities. Eventually he saw the crumbling heap that had been the concrete flood shelter. Like a bombed out building only one corner was still standing. His amber eye couldn’t help searching for a drowned mother, for that calm, gentle voice within the desolation of broken shards and bones. But there was no presence he could detect here and reunite with. The pull of maternal blood had been washed away by the sacrifice of the shaman.
As Bhim desired, he saw. The floods had subsided and some people were rebuilding. But the land had been poisoned by salt. Engineered cash crop rice had rotted away into sludge. Nothing would grow for years and a farmer without land was a wage slave. Who then had endured and how? He saw scenes from the city, survivors now driving rickshaws, peddled vegetables on bicycles door to door. He saw roadside women in saris breaking rocks to layer the coming freeways and relays of people working in cramped tailoring factories to make containers of clothes for London and New York stores.
He followed the tributary canal beyond Sitapur, searching for his own piece of river frontage. How different it looked. The river had changed its course in the floods. He looked for any landmark and finally there was his mango grove far away from the water’s edge. The flood had almost doubled the size of his land. Bhim trained his tiger eye and saw the stone grotto. Focusing even closer, he could see the old image of Lakshmi was intact and the hand pump beside it was no longer under floodwater. But there was an even more remarkable thing that had survived.
It was the Lakshmi plot -- that little field that his father Bapu Das had made Bhim Das promise never to uproot. Tall and spindly, it stood defiantly flood-resistant. How many generations of storm surge had this local variety survived? The salvation of the land was in the land. Here was the seed stock for a new uprising and that real endurance is in the original genes. Now he had something to offer his wife and daughter. They could regenerate with even more land than before. Bhim drew back to the jungle and regained consciousness slumped over in the forest temple.
So he told her. “Chello. We are going back. Get ready.”
But then her doubts and questions arose. “Where? Our farm is gone. How will we live?”
A mother needs community for her child to grew up in and she was relieved. But he silenced her. “Stop thinking woman!”
She hated that tone, yet had to bow. He was the husband, the authority, the protector who had saved them. Yet for what? To wear masks backwards throughout their lives? Who would Priya one day marry? A monkey? They had suffered enough. Leaving, she could reclaim the husband she was losing daily.
Although she did not understand Bhim's inner life, she could see the modern thinker had transformed to a jungle goddess devotee. Why couldn't he just follow Lakshmi, the wealth Devi who was the link to the comfort and community she had known and loved? But Bhim had hardened, and she blamed this wild place and Bonobibi who represented it. Neither did she want to have to wear widow whites as custom demanded whenever her husband returned here as she knew he would. Or worse still, have to one day join the village of tiger widows. No, she would rather be dead.
Baby on hip, Devika brought her bag, cooking pot and the goat, while Bhim did farewell prayers in the temple. Stepping down toward her, she saw the smiling husband she had once married. Yes, he seemed glad to be going home too, although he sternly reminded her to put on her mask backwards. They made their way back down the trail to the boat beached on the mangrove mud. Bhim helped Devika aboard with the baby, then gathering up the goat by its legs passed the bleating bundle to tether inside the shelter. Devika nursed Priya while perched at the prow.
Bhim pushed off from mud, poling into the tributary toward the entrance to open water. Seeing Lakshmi’s spindly plot of sprouting rice in his vision had returned the feelings of the farmer in him, and yet this habitat had become a home as well. It had saved his family during the floods. Devika too was feeling alive and refreshed by the open breeze after many weeks cooped up in the hut and nearby surroundings. Then she called out: “Look!”
It was the pink-grey dorsal of Gangetic dolphin that stayed ahead of the boat as if leading them to open water.
Bhim thought it a good idea to cast a final net for their journey and soon he and Devika traded places. She kept the boat steady while he cast in the narrow space next to the shore. Soon enough, he netted a baby bull shark and after landing it thrashing in the net, clubbed it unconscious at the bottom of the boat. Now the vessel was drifting bayward. Again they switched positions and Bhim commenced poling underneath the last mangrove overhang at the end of the island. Here, the branches dipped low like fingers wanting to trail in the water.
Just before the prow scraped under the leaves, Devika threw off her mask. She was glad to be rid of that, and bending over undid her plait, letting her hair cascade downward, exposing her neck. She disappeared from view and then Bhim felt the boat lurch. He couldn't see what was happening, but he heard her sharp brief struggle and cry. Using the boat for momentary purchase, the tiger had leapt directly out of cover and cleared twenty astonishing feet with her gripped in its meat-stained incisors to the other side of the tributary island like an orange comet against blue.
Bhim yelled, but it was too late. The tiger had crushed her neck and was dragging her into the jungle opposite. He quickly shifted course to follow, and strained his eyes to see beyond the last tip of its tail, but midstream, he realised in his heart it was over. If he got down he would have to leave his baby girl crying and unprotected. The bleating goat had too had smelled the beast. Tigers were good swimmers and could easily reach them from either side. All he could do was paddle and try to mute the chaos in his thoughts.
An hour into the bay he stopped and slumped at the stern, stunned. Despite his inner journeys, visiting the tiger temple, witnessing the end of the old shaman nothing had prepared him for the utter desolation of this moment. She, who he had travelled so far with had been snatched from him at the last moment. "Why Ma? Haven't I done everything you wanted? You said it was time to leave. Go do my work there, you said. Why take her and not me?" He felt tricked and deceived that the contract of the shaman had to be sealed in blood.
His baby daughter was still crying inside the shelter. Bhim went to comfort himself as much as her. It hit him then, how little he really knew his own child. Devika had done everything. He had protected and provided but done little of the nurturing. Now she was his only link. Laying down, he held the child close trying to smell Devika's presence, then noticed her shoulder bag against his neck. He nestled into it like a pillow and breathed. This was all that was left and for a long time he let himself drench the cotton bag with his tears.
It was dark when he lifted his head. Priya was whimpering. He had to feed her and forced the goat up, wet his hands with seawater to work the teats. Dipped again and again into the creamy liquid, Priya suckled on his finger. It was clumsy work, but the best he could do until she was satisfied. It would have been so much easier to stay floating in limbo, but he had to paddle now for the child's sake and face the new double existence awaiting him. Bhim nestled her against the goat’s udder and commenced the final journey for home.