Rana Pratap Saikia
Nestled between two hillocks, approximately 55 kilometres from Jorhat, Beergaon was, for the 200 or so people who resided there, a place of absolute bliss. The voices of the children rang with laughter, expectant mothers sang their sweet mysterious tunes, and the menfolk traded stories of the Great War which had prompted the British withdrawal from India. That is how I still remember Beergaon, from when I grew up in the 1970’s. Where we played and danced, sang joyous Bihu tunes, where we tasted of its pristine water and were enriched by the nutrition in the grains of the soil. But that was before 1976. The events that I shall subsequently describe occurred during the summer of 1976, after I had just appeared my Higher Secondary exams.
It was the summer of 1976 and Neel, Jagadish, Rita and I, we were what you would call the life of the village. Young, wild and carefree, we would while away our time engaging in mischief and playing pranks on the village elders. We studied hard, but we played harder. But even so, the evenings were reserved for gatherings at the village chowk when all prominent members of our village would gather to trade stories. BhupendraDa, the grand old man of the village (some claimed he was over 100 years old), would churn out stories of the Raj and his experiences as one of the earliest settlers in the village, having arrived with only a fistful of coins and a cot as his worldly possessions. Bhuda was someone who lived in the glories of the past, but he had a way with words, and his authority was absolute in our tiny village.
“Listen up, youngsters,” Bhuda (as we fondly called him), would begin, in his usual rickety voice, “We didn’t have a fancy education like you, neither a roof above our heads.
That is why three of us set out from Jorhat with hearts full of passion, minds full of belief and bodies willing to engage in hardships and labours to till land and reap its favours and make our fortune, to worship Mother Earth and be blessed in turn.
Luckily for us, Devi watched over us and gave us bountiful blessings and grain to fill our bellies.”
Of course, all of us had heard tales of Devi, the mythical figure who was supposed to be protector and beneficiary to the village folk and in fact the first Mukhiya, PulakeshBaruah, had planted the first stone in our village in reverence to Devi. But unfortunately, the genesis of the legend of this local deity had macabre beginnings. The legend stated that long ago, another village, the name of which has been lost to history’s mysteries, stood at the exact same spot as ours. A female child was born to a farmer, who christened her Devi. The child was surprisingly precocious for her age and once, a wandering ascetic had stopped at the village, looked at the girl, and immediately declared her an incarnation of the Goddess Durga. Soon, word had spread and Devi gathered her own cult of devotees in the region.Rumours grew of a little girl in the area with a healing touch who could perform miracles and villagers from near and far would come to pay their respects and also to ask for favours. But tragedy would strike soon.
Rabi, Devi’s father, had started struggling with an alcoholic habit, and after a particularly hard year, in which he had had to deal with failing crops, had decided to take matters into his own hands. First, he had ended the lives of his wife and his daughter and then, his own. This cold and wicked act had purportedly sent shockwaves through the village andit became too much of a burden for the village to bear. Many other farmers themselves had dealt with failed crops that season, and they decided to relocate to more fertile areas. Some migrated to nearby villages, carrying the myth of Devi with them, and thus, the legend had lived on and a hundred years or so later, Devi was still remembered and worshipped by a cult who dwelt in a temple located a few miles south of Beergaon and of course, she was the unofficial deity of our village. In fact, we lived in prosperity until Mukund arrived in 1976.
Not much was known of Mukund except that he was a barber and lived somewhere in the town of Jorhat. He had started coming on the weekends, setting up shop underneath the huge banyan tree at the chowk and we were to get our haircuts from him, by default. Initially, we were thrilled because we had had to go to a barber in the next village 15 kms away.
He seemed like a jolly enough fellow, but he always used to ask questions. Too many questions. Especially about the origins of the village and about Devi. “So baba”, he would say while snipping my hair, “Where is this Devi temple that your elders speak of? She was a little girl, yes?”
I knew I was not supposed to speak of the temple to outsiders, but I couldn’t resist giving some of the information out, especially since we had encountered the temple while roaming about in the wilderness. Curiously, Mukund was never satisfied with the information and would keep prodding for more details. Often, we would see him loitering near the chowk during our evening gatherings, trying to eavesdrop.
When we first encountered the tiny temple dedicated to Devi, we weren’t particularly impressed. Jagadish had come up with a plan to explore the woods on the 1st of January, 1976, and the rest of us had acquiesced. So the four of us, Jagadish, Neel, Rita and I, had set out at noon on our bicycles with a packed lunch of chappattis and pickles and we had been cycling for less than an hour in the old earthen road that ran parallel to the newly constructed government one when we came to a clearing. There was a small house in the midst of the clearing with a surprisingly well kept garden. Just as we were about to knock on the door, a voice from behind startled us. “Villagers?” he enquired. We looked back to see a sturdy young man who appeared to be in his mid-20’s. He grabbed me by the hand “Come, Mahatma Ji is in a good mood today”.
We were ushered into the house that was dimly lit with a few diyas. They had drawn curtains over the windows and it took us a while to get accustomed to the dark. Apart from the mad who had led us in, there were two other men. The all wore khadi loincloths and a simple, white vest. Seated at the very centre of the room was probably the oldest man I had ever seen. He could have been father to Bhuda. Upon hearing us entering, he slowly opened his eyes as if awakening from a trance. “Come”, he gestured, “We seldom have visitors here.” My eye darted around the room. For such a shabby looking hut, it was very well furnished. At the very centre of the room was an ancient looking chair and it held the most intricately designed golden crown with an array of jewels of varying shapes and sizes; it was a sight to behold. “Ahh, the crown of Devi. It has been known to drive many a man wild,” the old man remarked when he saw me gazing at the jewelled crown. “It was a gift to her from a travelling Britisher whose wife had suddenly fallen sick. Devi healed her and he gave her this crown, not knowing that material possessions mattered little to that child”.
I was intrigued. Having arrived at this unusual house in the midst of the jungle where three men lived an ascetic life, I wanted answers. Addressing the old man, I asked, “So who are you? What is this place?” The old man smirked. “The devotees of Devi call me Mahatma. Having heard of the legend as a young boy, I came to this temple and have stayed ever since. Do you know that this is the same house where she once stayed with her family? She talks to me sometimes.” Saying this, he sank back into his trance-like state. The other two devotees ushered us outside. “Our cult has shrunken over the years, but the lesser our numbers, the greater our resolve to honor Devi,” said the young man who had first spoken to us. “Now you must excuse us, it is our time for communion,” and saying this, they left us bewildered on the verandah of the house where Devi had once stayed with her family.
I awoke one morning to find Mukund staring at me from outside my window. I was taken aback and resisted an urge to scream. “I just had a haircut last week”, I protested, but he had a strange gleam in his eyes that day. “Baba, let’s go to Devi temple ha?” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “I have heard it is very fabulous, no?” For the first time in my life, I realized that Mukund was probably not all right in the head. I got up and asked him to meet me near the chowk during noon, when the four of us in our gang would gather there, not suspecting anything foul.
Mukundwas already waiting there beside his bicycle, smirking, when we arrived. I didn’t understand his sudden urge to go to the temple, although he had shown previous interest in the matter. After considering the situation, we all agreed that it would be better than loitering near the tea shop so all five of us, Neel, Jagadish, Rita, I as well as Mukund, made our way to the tiny clearing that housed the shrine devoted to a little girl who had lived more than a hundred years ago. When we had arrived, I was startled to see thatMukund had the look of a crazed lunatic. I could sense that something ominous was about to happen. Suddenly, Mukund took out a shaving razor from his pocket and lunged towards the temple, screaming like a madman. The four of us stood transfixed to the ground, unable to process what was about to happen. And then we heard the screams. When we rushed inside the house, we sawMukund bathed in blood, holding aloft the crown of Devi like a trophy. “Mukund is finally rich…Mukund is finally rich…” he kept repeating like a chant.
When he saw us, Mukund turned ferocious and snarled a warning, “Little children, you don’t tell anyone about bad Mukund, okay? Mukund is good man who did bad thing. Devi made Mukund rich man.” And saying this, he left the temple with a crown in his hand. A temple which had been defiled. We looked at each other with shock on our faces, unable to register the deed that had been done. On the floor of the house-turned-temple were the mangled, lifeless bodies of the three devotees. After some of the shock had worn off, we decided to return with the news, but everyone already knew.
We ran into a gathering at the Chowk that was being presided over by Bhuda and learned the rest of the story. Apparently, some elders from the village had seen a bloodied Mukund entering the village. He had been bitten by a snake, and in his final moments was seeking repentance for having defiled the temple of Devi. The crown was nowhere to be seen, and Mukund had taken his last breath while uttering the words “Devi made Mukund poor. Very poor. Forgive me…” Naturally, everyone was shocked, but the villagers never questioned who had led Mukund to the temple.
After the incident of the summer, a pall fell over the village of Beergaon. Crops failed. Inexplicable illnesses occurred. Livestock died. Soon, a gloom had settled over the village. Slowly, the villagers started shifting to nearby towns. My parents decided to leave that November to Guwahati. My mother had fallen grievously ill and my father needed to find employment to pay her medical bills. Bhuda and some of the older residents persevered, but it was soon apparent that it was a losing battle. Beergaon didn’t exist anymore. The voices of the laughter of children had been replaced with the dark gloom of silence and where a thriving village once existed, lives the corpse of a civilization.
It has been more than 40 years since the events of the summer and the four of us, Neel, Jagadish, Rita and I, we still stay in touch. But we haven’t fared too well. Neel lives in Jorhat now, married, a father of 2, patient of anxiety and depression, who has been institutionalized twice. Jagadish is in Dhubri, government teacher, widower, alcoholic. Rita, housewife, has an abusive husband. I, myself have struggled on-and-off with depression all my life. And the little girl still talks to the four of us every night. Laughing. Teasing. Yet angry. Neel has talked often of ending his life, to end the voices. It has become a part of our lives, the constant voice that lives in our heads. Since the summer of 1976. I take off my glasses, put pen to rest, and close the pages of my diary. I lie down to sleep. I hear the sound of a little girl’s voice in my head. “You should not have taken him there”, she says in an accusatory voice. She is laughing. But Devi is still angry.