Saturday, July 7, 2012
Mukhagini by Ashok Patwari
Mukhagini by Ashok Patwari
Parvati had another glimpse of setting sun dipping in to the horizon. She stood there all alone, under a lean dried up tree, aimlessly looking towards the ghat1. She was scared to go near the ghat because she knew that the chowdhury2 clan will drag her away if she is seen too close to them. Village sarpanch and other biradari3 members were also continuously gazing at the setting sun. Impatiently standing in front of the crowd, sarpanch4 had a tired look on his face as if waiting for time to tick away quickly so that he could proclaim his decision which seemed a foregone conclusion.
Parvati knew pretty well what could be the consequences, but for her the situation demanded that she doesn’t remain a silent spectator. She gathered some courage, covered her head with her sari and quietly started moving towards the ghat. Luckily for her nobody noticed her presence. She looked around and finally her eyes stopped at Chowdhury Laxman Singh – her father-in-law. For the first time in her life she gathered all her courage to look directly at his face. For a change his face looked sober without a grimace. But his king size moustache, prominent cheeks and deep set eyes still reflected the dignity, pride and arrogance he always carried with him. His loud and harsh voice would unnerve anybody – particularly Parvati who always trembled with nervousness whenever he gave her a scary look. But now she could stare at him with a sense of relief and hatred in her eyes. Chowdhury Laxman Singh could no longer shout at her or beat her. His motionless body was peacefully resting on the pile of wood arranged by villagers for his cremation!
It was a great family disaster when Chowdhury Laxman Singh’s youngest son Raghu got married to Parvati against the wishes of his parents. The newly-wed couple was not only insulted but thrown out of the haveli5 to live in the cattle shed. Raghu was mentally prepared to face a harsh reaction from his father because he had married a girl from a ‘lower caste’ but did not anticipate to be punished like this. With the passage of time Raghu started believing that he has committed a blunder by going against his parents. Parvati felt sorry for Raghu’s plight and considered herself responsible for his misfortune. The death of Raghu’s mother proved to be a final blow to Raghu’s self esteem and dignity. He was not even allowed to attend her cremation. Raghu was heart broken. For the first time in 10 years after his marriage he decided to leave, never to return!
Parvati, as much as she could remember, was always a victim of patriarchal hegemony. Her father was very rough and abusive and sometimes beat her and her mother. When her younger brother grew up as a lad, he behaved the same way. This infuriated Parvati and she felt helpless in a world dominated by men. Her father-in-law, Chowdhury Laxman Singh was a limit as far as male arrogance could be imagined. She married Raghu against the wishes of both the families simply because Raghu was a gentle and caring human being. But even with that kindness, he quietly left Parvati and their son Sonu without even telling them. As a single parent, Parvati tried her best to bring up Sonu in such a way that he grows up as a well mannered adult. Sonu grew up as a gentle and affectionate boy. He cared a lot for his mother. But when Sonu moved to secondary school he suddenly turned in to a monster. Sonu and his friends had a tiff with one of their classmates and beat him to death with hockey sticks, Parvati was shell shocked. Even though Sonu and his friends were moved to a Juvenile Remand home, Parvati felt as if death sentence was pronounced for her. Her memories of the past brought all ugly flashes of light in front of her eyes… her father…. brother….Laxman Singh…. her in laws. When Raghu left her she still had some expectation from life but with Sonu’s arrest she could hardly bear it. She gave up and decided that she will not even pursue his legal proceedings in the Juvenile court.
While Parvati’s dream of a respectable life was shattered, Chowdhury Laxman Singh’s family also disintegrated. Raghu’s both brothers moved to town along with their families leaving behind Laxman Singh, because he didn’t want to be lose his identity as the strongest man in the village. For first few years a lady from the nearby village used to cook food for him and looked after the household. But because of his harsh tongue and shabby behavior she left the job. His intolerably arrogant behaviour made him so infamous that nobody was prepared to work for him. Parvati once offered to help but Laxman Singh got so much offended that he abused and beat away with his stick. Parvati never dared to go near the haveli again. Laxman Singh’s children and grand children also never looked back!
It was early in the morning.
Parvati heard some footsteps approaching her door. It was after ages that her ears heard somebody coming to her cattle shed. Sonu…?….a pleasant thought crossed her mind….. she could not believe what she thought…. Raghu? Another name flashed in her mind before she came out!
Parvati was surprised to see the village sarpanch with a small group of elders approaching her.
“Your sasur is dead!” he declared without much concern. Parvati could not compose herself to respond to sarpanch’s declaration. There were just two words which echoed in her mind “sasur” and “dead”. Chowdhury Laxman Singh was her sasur6 was a recognition which she never got in his lifetime. He always treated her like dirt and now the sarpanch, head of the Chowdhury biradari was recognizing her as the bahu7 of the clan which gave her a feeling of triumph – but Laxman Singh’s death brought all the gloom with it!
“He might have died 2 or 3 days ago” sarpanch was trying to complete all the formalities, “the stink coming from the haveli made us suspicious…!”
Parvati did not know how to respond. With her recent recognition as Chowdhury’s bahu she appeared to take up the responsibility and be ashamed of for this kind of an end to his life when none of his 25 children and grandchildren were around him, not a verse from The Bhagavad Gita was recited which could help his soul repose in peace, not a single copper coin to help him cross vaitarni river and not a of drop of ganga jal to give him mukti.
“Do you have any information about Raghu….?” Parvati got another jolt and felt embarrassed how to say that she has not seen her husband for the last 10 years. She shook her head and started looking down to the ground.
“Anyway we are sending two boys to town to inform Shambu and Bishnu. Somebody from the family ought to be present to perform ‘mukhagani’….”
Parvati nodded her head and did not realize that the sarpanch and the crowd has already left. She kept on staring at the ground as if excavating a tunnel which could help her to reach any of the off springs of Chowdhury Laxman Singh.
The villagers arranged some people from the nearby village to give the old man his last bath and prepare his remains for his cremation because nobody from the village was prepared to do it, obviously due to the stink coming from the dead body. Parvati observed all these rituals from a distance and could not dare to go near lest any one of them get mad at her. She quietly followed the crowd when the dead body was carried to the river bank for his cremation. Keeping a distance she waited under a dried up tree which served as the boundary for the cremation ghat. She waited under the tree with the hope that somebody from the clan would arrive for dah sanskar8. Shamboo and Bishnu had settled down in a nearby town and should have arrived by now. Raghu’s whereabouts were not known and could not be informed….. Sonu….? Parvati thought for a while. At least he could have been around if he was not in the remand home. Parvati could read the impatience on the faces of assembled crowd and the sarpanch. Sun set was imminent. Parvati felt helpless. For a while she forgot all hatred she had for Laxman Singh. After all he was her father-in-law and deserved some respect. “Chowdhury Laxman Singh had a big family that comprised of 25 people and we can’t see anybody here….. shame …shame …..” she imagined as if these loud voices are coming from the crowd !
Sarpanch looked towards the sun setting for the last time and then looked at the people who had assembled around the pyre, he cleared his throat and said “I am sorry. Nobody has come” He paused for a second and then declared “I think Kaloo charji will have to perform the rites”
“But…?” everybody was surprised because a charji is not normally supposed to perform mukhagini to lit the pyre. But given the reality, nobody said anything.
As usual Kaloo charji had drunk the country liquor and was lying with face down on his rickety charpai when he was called by the sarpanch. Kaloo lifted his body with great effort and with a staggering gait he walked towards the pyre. Pandit Ji, thrust the log of wood in Kaloo’s hands for lighting the pyre.
“No” screamed Parvati from the crowd. Everybody turned around and looked towards her.
“No. Kaloo won’t….”
Parvati rushed towards Pandit Ji, snatched the log of wood from Kaloo’s hand and roared like a tigress, “I will perform Mukhagini. His ‘bahu’ is alive…”
“No. You can’t.” shouted Pandit Ji and hysterically started running after her, “A woman cannot do this, that too a…” Parvati pushed him aside and lighted the log of wood.
“Stop her…. Stop this anarth9….somebody stop her” waned Pandit Ji who was unable to get back on his feet. Before somebody could forcibly stop Parvati, sarpanch stepped forwards and with his raised finger indicated to everybody to let her do it.
Parvati performed ‘mukhagini’ and sat in front of the pyre, crying bitterly, perhaps for the first time in her life.
1. ghat: a common place at the bank of a river
2. choudhary: a type of a caste
3. biradari: caste group
4. sarpanch: village chairman
5. haveli: house that symbolizes special dignity
6. sasur: father-in-law
7. bahu: daughter-in-law
8. sanskar: culture
9. anarth: sin
Author’s Bio: Ashok Patwari is a Pediatrician and Research Professor, International Health, School of Public Health, Boston University, USA. Earlier he was Professor of Pediatrics at Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi. His short stories have been published in leading Urdu journals since 1968. His compilation of Urdu short stories, "Kuch lamhe kuch saayey", won him the Delhi Urdu Academy award in 2005. He has also published a compilation of Hindi short stories,"Behta Paani". Ashok Patwari can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.