The night is pitch dark.
Shri Ganeshaya Namaha, Kartik Krishna Dvadashi, Saka 1821 [November 28, 1899]
With this invocation I write in the light of the mashal. The dry palm leaves emit more smoke than light as they burn. I am sitting in the unwalled shed near the water ramp waiting for the sailboat that will take me to Karwar. The boat is supposed to arrive in Kharge from Kadra after midnight, but there’s no telling when it will come.
The air vibrates with the sound of insects. Small creatures, waghonyo, with tiger stripes on their backs, are crawling all over this shed.
Tonight, I am on my way to the Karwar harbor from where the steamer to Mumbai departs in the morning. Why am I leaving? I am finished with Kharge. There is an island in the middle of the Kali River called Ulge. To go there one has take a coracle from Kharge. If two people sit in the boat along with the boatman, the boat sinks to about four fingers from the level of the river. A raging current can tip the boat in such a way that you feel that at any moment the water will rush in. That is how I feel, and why I must leave Kharge. I have told no one that I am leaving home.
I’m sitting on the roofed deck near the helm and writing in the light of a hurricane lantern. The other passengers are in the hollow of the boat. It is a quiet night tonight. A few stars are out. Pinpoints of light are flickering in the darkness between the coconut palms. The seaward current is strong. Even so, the wind must be against us. Occasionally, there is the sound of the oars of the boatmen breaking the surface of the Kali River.
In the dark I see shapes. Mother, Father, Dada. But I am not afraid. Sometimes I like to think that Mother is home. She is at the well wringing the water out of the washing, or bent over the mud hearth blowing into the fire, and serving me buttermilk pancakes with liquid jaggery.
If Father had been living, the whole story of our family would have been different. Father used to be a forest contractor involved in the timber trade. Teak logs would float down this very river to be piled onto elephants in Kodibag. Father worked at various places in the district, and returned home on this very boat, sometimes late at night, bringing people with him. Mother would be anxiously listening for the creak of his leather sandals.
When she heard it, she would quickly put the pot for rice on the fire. Sometimes, father would leave some fish for Mother on his plate in case she did not get any because of the guests and all.
The day before Father died, we had been loading hay bundles in the loft. Father used to buy a year’s stock of hay a month or two before the rains. I would haul the unloaded hay bundles to the shed and raise them for Father who would receive them from the loft where he was standing. He complained of a pain in his chest that night and was gone in an instant.
Dada and I had to carry the bier to the cremation ground. I was hardly ten at the time. Mother was still in the birthing room. Grandfather’s new wife was pregnant with Yeshi. The confinement room was tightly shut and filled with the fumes of smoking herbs. My baby sister Tulsya was hardly a month old at the time. My brothers Shiva and Devaru looked so bewildered. With Father’s death it was as though a tree under whose shade we all frolicked had been chopped. Only Dada’s strength held us together. I can see Dada putting the mango branches over Father and the flames rising. They say the first shoulder is for the father. Having lost our father, whenever there was a death in any of the Brahmin households of Kharge, Dada and I were summoned to help carry the bier. I used to be afraid of the ghosts of the dead we carried, but Dada told me not to be a baby. Now I am not afraid of anything. However, out of the blue, something reminds me of how life used to be, and I feel so angry.
Grandfather’s new wife! Around the time of my thread ceremony Grandfather married for the second time at sixty. Grandfather is now seventy-one years old, and his new wife rules the roost. That says everything. She has a mouth and she nags us all. You know how they make sandalwood paste? Rubbing the sandalwood over and over again—till she has her way.
One day, three years after Father died, Mother said, looking at Dada, “A strapping lad like you, it’s time you married.” Stepmother told Mother about one of her cousins. Without wasting any time, Mother forced Dada to marry, but I could tell that his heart was not in it.
Dada looked like a prince, and Vahini like a tender green sapling, although she only came up to Dada’s chest and was just ten years old. “What am I supposed to do, carry my wife on my hip?” he said to me. Vahini returned to her father’s place after the marriage to come back when she became a woman.
Shortly after, Mother took ill. Most of the time she was lying in bed, sweaty and feverish. When the rays of the setting sun were hitting the eastern wall, and Mother was too weak to walk to the family shrine, she would ask Dada to sing to her one of Tukaram’s abhangas. Dada’s voice could lay all fears to rest. I remember nothing about the time of Mother’s death. Death had come like a hawk intruding into a nest of sparrows.
How black the river appears tonight.
Our house in Kharge is bowered in mango trees. A passerby only sees the tiled roof rising above the trees surrounding it. We have lived on this land for seven generations. Our ancestors crossed four rivers when they left Borim in Portuguese Goa to reach Kharge. There used to be a trading post belonging to the East India Company in Kadwad at the time. It is said that nearly 150 years ago, in the early days of the John Company, our family was so rich that when a girl from our family married, the stone jetty at the river ferry crossing used to be covered with pearls.
When Father died, Dada, who was hardly eighteen, which is my age now, took on Father’s work. He trudged down those red mud lanes, covering ten to twelve miles a day visiting the different villages and collecting rents from tenants. Grandfather owns lands in Halge, Siddar, and Kadwad. Everyone said, “He is too young.” But who else could have done the work? Neither our Grandfather nor our uncle Durgbappa, who has a government job.
Dada is older than I am by eight years, tall, handsome, and manly; whereas I have blue-grey eyes, and have always been fair and a little chubby. Everyone says that Dada’s voice was a divine gift. He threw his heart and soul into his singing, and cast a spell on his listeners. He was the favorite of both Father and Grandfather. Even Stepmother favored him. When Dada returned after collecting revenue, what a bustle there was. Stepmother sent someone to the fisherfolk’s quarter near the river to get the freshest fish available, and the aroma of dried mackerel roasting on the coals floated through the kitchen. I admit that often I used to get jealous of the attention bestowed on him. Perhaps it was my jealousy that led to the tragedy.
The oarsmen are singing in time to the movement of the oars.
In Mumbai I will start a new life; I will study English, and get a respectable job in a big English company, maybe marry a girl who looks like a doll and cooks like Mother.
Whenever Grandfather saw me writing at home, he would fly into a temper. “What are you going to write? Your mother’s kathas and your father’s purans? Your father’s gone to Sukeri, and your mother’s gone to Makeri, and tied a millstone round my neck. Get on with your work!”
How close the stars seem tonight. The wind has fallen and we are surrounded by silence.
It is very painful to write about the terrible thing that happened to our family, and the reason why I must leave, but it must be done.
A stream flows behind our house and a washerwoman’s family lives across the stream. The family consists of Rukma, her children, and her mother Kuta. Hens and roosters can be seen pecking in the front yard which has a chicken coop. Every time there is a fair in the villages upriver, we can see the members of this family chasing with considerable flurry the older of the birds from the brood, tying their feet, holding the birds by their tied feet, and taking the birds to the fair to be sacrificed. They return some hours later with the headless birds. Kuta is spared all the hard work, but this old biddy goes to people’s houses and trades gossip.
Kuta had been spreading a story that Dada had become infatuated with a woman in Belur, a village that was ten miles away. This woman was a singer and a dancer, and had four lovers. Her lovers visited her at different times. From the sign posted outside her door—a lantern, a stick, a pair of shoes, and an umbrella—the family knew who was with her. They made sure that no two lovers showed up at the same time.
It grieved me to see Dada, who was otherwise so dignified, so love-crazed. His eyes shone with a new light, and he had become a bit of a dandy. He looked so happy pouring water over himself at the well and breaking into song. Grandfather looked at him sternly, over his spectacles, and took a pinch of snuff, but did not say anything; I suppose he knew that Dada could be stubborn, and hoped that when Vahini came, the wildness would be out of his system.
I remember that terrible day when it all started, how Grandfather was sprawled with his eyes closed on the four-poster bed; Stepmother had been massaging his feet.
“What?” His grey eyes opened, and he looked at her with irritation.
I heard some murmuring, then Stepmother raised her voice, “Don’t speak to him about it. Spoil him,” she said. “till he completely ruins himself and everyone!”
“Hold your tongue, woman!” Grandfather straightened up, holding on to the bed. “What do you think you will get by attacking him? You’ll only drive him in the opposite direction.”
He wagged a finger at her sternly, adding, “And you be careful about what you say. Otherwise, when I am gone, you cannot begin to imagine what your plight will be.”
He took a pinch of snuff and was silent. “At the right time I will do everything.”
Even so, Stepmother went straight to Dada who had been leaning against the outer wall of the house.
“That witch has cast a spell on you. I forbid you to see her again!”
Dada’s eyes were wet and looked bloodshot; he turned his face away. Then he spun around. “I will do anything I please. You hear? And you cannot do anything about it.”
In a low, deliberate voice he said, “I will never come back to this house.”
“Go to the devil then,” Stepmother spat from the kitchen.
At dinner, Dada kept his head bent over the platter, then stomped out to wash his hands.
That night Dada lay on his mattress, and immediately rolled on his side with his back to me without saying anything to me. Mother had a saying, “It is darkest under the lamp.” I looked at the moles on his back, thinking how little we know sometimes of those we are closest to. I felt a tremendous anxiety, my right eyelid was twitching. In my heart, I willed, “Dada, don’t go! At least, take me with you.”
Next morning at first light Dada set off from home.
It was the month of Vaishakh, the branches of the mango trees were heavy with fruit, and they were hanging so low that you could pluck the fruit with your hands. Vahini arrived from her father’s home, accompanied by her brother, in accordance with Grandfather’s wishes. How white her feet looked—a silver ring on the second toe of each foot—as she slowly crossed the threshold, and entered the house with a swish of violet-colored silk. Tulsya was so excited that she tripped and fell and set up a high, eerie cry just as Vahini stepped over the threshold. My gaze slowly traveled upward to Vahini’s face. She had a peaceful, gentle face. Her presence was soothing, like the first few drops of rain falling on the parched earth. She caught me gawking at her, and I looked at my feet, embarrassed.
Vahini had grown taller and filled out under her nine-yard sari. Stepmother waved the arti tray before her, and dabbed the kumkum on her brow and put coconut and rice grains in her lap. Tulsya had woven aboli flowers into a circlet for her hair. Yesha was sprinkling rosewater on everyone. The brown lights in Vahini’s dark hair shone against the light from the arati tray. At the same time, I felt very angry at Dada.
When the constables from the kacheri in Belur came to the house two days later, I knew from the expression on their faces what had happened. In Belur, a fight had started. It seems Dada had stormed his way to the harlot’s house when she was making love to one of her other clients. He held the man by his throat. There had been a brawl. Two of the henchmen of this lover fell upon Dada and smashed his skull with staves.
I shot out of the house and kept running I know not where and for how long. When I returned to the house, everyone had heard the news. The courtyard was full of our kin. Grandfather sat motionless on the front step. He had been told that Dada had been bitten by a snake. Tulsya was sucking her thumb. Once again I was carrying a bier on my shoulder, only this time Dada was no longer with me.
For a whole day Vahini hid in a dark corner in the inner room. Then she curled up in Stepmother’s lap. They broke her green, glass bangles and wiped the kumkum off her forehead. They loosened her bun, and shaved her head. Tresses the length of a man’s arm were strewn on the floor. The circlet of orange flowers was thrown in a corner. Stepmother took Vahini’s hands in hers, looked at her face, and gave her a red, cotton sari to wear, the badge of widowhood. “My terrible mouth! May it rot!” Stepmother kept saying again and again, wiping her eyes. “And this innocent child, hardly fourteen!” Even though Stepmother sometimes sets my teeth on edge, I remind myself that she is basically a good person. Grandfather’s voice was quavering when he asked Vahini’s father to take her back. “There are young men in this house,” he said. “She will be well provided for the rest of her life.”
Before she left, I gathered enough courage to speak to Vahini when she was alone.
“Vahini …” I said. I could go no further. She lifted her face.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “I am strong. I can digest poison.” She broke down and ran out of the room.
The days and the nights following Dada’s death were unbearable. Six months later, I knew I had to leave Kharge.
I have packed one of father’s shirts in my trunk. If I earn well, I can bring my brothers to Mumbai as well. Shiva roams all day with the tribal Kunabis, catching fish and swimming in the river. And Devaru—I can see before my eyes the little scamp, with his shaven head and earrings, trying to do sums on his slate in the light of the lantern. I will make enough money so that thumb-sucking Tulsya and Yeshi can have grand weddings.
The sky is getting lighter and I can smell the sea and hear the gulls. The ladyfish of this estuary is the best in the world. I have been writing non-stop and I am now ravenously hungry. Soon the eastern sky and river will be on fire with the rising sun. We are approaching Kodibag. [Account ends.]
Shortly after he arrived in Bombay in November of 1899, my grandfather got a job with a handsome salary at a new firm, E.F. Ferguson & Co. A few months later, he received a letter from his uncle, Durgbappa. The letter directed my grandfather to return to Kharge to look after the family lands and collect rents. Durgbappa reminded him that he was now the oldest one of his generation; and he had an obligation toward the family. He quoted, “Dharma protects the one who follows dharma.”
The word of an older family member was law, so my grandfather returned to Kharge. Maintenance was sent to his older brother’s widow, Vahini, for as long as she lived. She remained a shaven widow who lived first with her father, and later her brother. My father says that once or twice my grandfather mentioned that he had found a job in Mumbai when he was eighteen, but he did not say any more.
Ravibala Shenoy works as a reference librarian at a large public library in Illinois and writes book reviews for Library Journal. Her writings have also been published in The Chicago Tribune, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), and The Times of India.
Katha 2007 Results
The Sacrifice by
RAVIBALA SHENOY, Naperville, Ill.
First Date by SHRUTI SWAMY, Watsonville, Calif.
Abe and Mohan’s Burden by RAJESH C. OZA, Palo Alto, Calif.
On the Verge by
SRI PRIYA SRIRAM, Houston, Texas
Colors of the Sky by
SUMANA KASTURI, Cupertino, Calif.