Absolution

by Stuti Jamwal
(Portsmouth, UK)

They're standing inside the temple where the goddess is installed in the garbha griha, literally the womb of the temple. Only Gowri knows the feeling of being swept away in a current of warm water that came gushing out of her womb, hours before Phoolan was born. But Gowri is back in Jhalan. She cannot partake of the ceremony that's going on right now to absolve her village and its people of her curses.


Namdeo is not afraid. Everything is turning out way better than he had foreseen. Ramdas had fallen on his feet bursting with gratitude when he'd left the village. And why wouldn't he? Hadn't Namdeo provided him unlimited access to brackish water from his unused well? Such generosity was enough to earn salvation for seven generations. His eyes fall on his son Raja, looking bored and listless as the priest begins the ritualistic lighting of the lamps and drops the holy mixture of ash, cow dung and clarified butter into the fire. 'Swaha!' he says as the flames go crackling up towards the dark, gummy ceiling, invoking the eponymous Goddess who is the wife of Agni, the God of Fire.

Namdeo nudges Raja, a deep frown creasing his forehead. 'What a fool the lad is,' he thinks. 'All this drama, all this expense for his sake and he's yawning as if he's obliging us with his presence.'
Raja stiffens under his gaze and summons his will power to snap back to attention. 'Swaha!' says the priest again and he stifles a yawn, breaking out of the memories of three months ago when he'd first set eyes on Phoolan. It still hadn't lost its power to excite him, the memory of her innocent compliance, the readiness with which she had submitted to his advances. It didn't matter to him that she had been only a dummy all along. The subsequent brouhaha was bothersome but it didn't get to him the way it did to his father.

Ramdas is grateful. There is enough water now.
Three months ago there wasn't. Rajasthan, at the peak of summer, was breathing out fire and Jhalan, a small, obscure village in the desert state was, as usual, parched. People blessed the rain God if a few drops fell from the sky in a year. Hot winds blowing from the Thar desert slapped against the thatched walls of the semi-permanent hovel that was home. Trickles of perspiration ran down Gowri's temples as she walked five miles to fetch water, in two earthen pots, balancing one on her head and the other on her waist, her bare feet burrowing into the soft, burning sand. Two pots of water that soaked up the heat and became lukewarm before they could take a sip. It was all they had to survive a fiery day.

That day, when Phoolan had come home, looking even more dazed and lost than usual, Gowri had sensed something amiss. She'd just started sending her daughter to the haveli, the magnificent, two-storey house of the landlord, Namdeo, to apprentice with the cook, a kindly forty-five year old mother of four. She hoped Phoolan would be able to find employment in some such house, fend for herself when the time came. When Phoolan had stepped inside, Gowri had noticed her limping painfully and a blotch of red on the ankle length, grubby skirt she was wearing. She wasn't crying or anything. But when asked she confirmed all that Gowri had feared, in her strange, garbled language that only Gowri could make sense of fully.

She told Ramdas in the morning, when he was out of his drunken stupor, screaming at him with the pent up fury she'd kept buried in her heart for all thirty five years of her life. Ramdas was nearing sixty and such a show of feeling from a usually meek and submissive wife made him tremble and appalled him so much as the incident itself had not. He promised to confront the landlord but he lost his nerve at the sight of the immense, white façade of the haveli.

The Panchayat was the court of the village, comprising a jury of five elderly villagers. It wasn’t the first time they were dealing with such a matter. But it was the first time an impoverished cobbler’s wife was taking on a landowner. All for the sake of her ten year old, mentally challenged daughter, a girl of no consequence. It was uncharacteristic for the women of Jhalan to take a stand. The judges would need to bear in mind not only the gravity of the crime but also the message their judgment would convey to the villagers.

Ramdas didn't dare show his face to the crowd of rustic onlookers that had collected under the large banyan tree. He squatted on the ground far behind, cradling his head with his bony fingers between bent knees, not daring to look at anyone. It was only Gowri's perverseness and wilfulness that had brought this shame upon him and made his family the laughing stock of the whole village. Everyone had told him he was insane. Who was he demanding justice for? Was he nuts, going to the Panchayat at the behest of his illiterate, coarse wife? Phoolan wasn't worth half the effort.

Namdeo’s cook had also visited Gowri and tried to dissuade her from going to the court.
‘It’s no use,’ she said. ‘Nobody in the village needs to know. I will keep my lips stitched. Think of the indignity you will expose her to. She won’t remember anything after a while.’
Then she lowered her voice and continued, ‘Happened with my elder daughter too last year. No one knows, not even her father. It was my own fault. Left her unattended in the garden while I worked in the kitchen. I never take my children to the haveli now.’

Gowri kept staring at the fire she’d lit, lost in thought, before putting on a pan of rice to boil.
‘If you’d made it known last year, perhaps Phoolan could’ve been saved,’ she said.
The cook's eyes were wet and she dabbed at them with the end of her sari.
‘How could I? My daughter’s honour was at stake.’
Gowri kept stirring the rice.
‘Phoolan’s is. How could I remain mute?’

It didn't even take an hour. The villagers kept murmuring while the judges were preparing to deliver the verdict. ‘Landowners have been doing this all the time to poor women,' someone said, matter-of-factly. ‘A girl like Phoolan is a sitting duck for such dishonour, her mother should have known before sending her to the haveli,’ said another. No one said 'rape'. The words that kept flying furiously between them were 'honour', 'owner', 'on her'...until the verdict came out that there was no proof it was Raja..anyone could take advantage of such a girl.

Someone came tearing out of the throng and lunged at Raja.
'Mad woman, is she out of her mind?' they all shouted in unison, indignant at her effrontery, before dragging Gauri out of the circle and ushering her home. The eerie echo of her curses remained floating where the landlord was sitting with his acolytes and the judges. The air whispered viciously into their ears at intervals.
'Goddess Kali will do justice by my daughter..You will rot.. You will perish..'
The Panchayat was deep in discussion. The onlookers had all dispersed after the judgement. Namdeo was getting restless.
'I don't have all day for this,' he said, getting up. 'As it is that shameless woman has caused unnecessary commotion.'
One of the judges, a willowy old man with a snowy, straggly beard said, 'If your son hadn't been fooling around with her mad girl the commotion wouldn't have started.'
Namdeo said, 'My son is a fool for inviting all this trouble for nothing. But I cannot have that crazy old hag bring any curses upon my ancient family.'
Another judge said, creasing his eyebrows and twirling his moustache, 'I think only a grand priest from Benaras can help you.'
All the men agreed. 'Yes. A mad woman's curse can bring untold misery. Not only upon your family but upon the whole village.'

Benaras, or Varanasi, the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism, lies on the banks of the river Ganges. Hindus believe dying in this city brings salvation. The Ganges is worshipped by Hindus as the Goddess Ganga and her waters are said to be pure and purifying. The Ganges removes symbolic dirt; it wipes away the sins of the bather, not just of the present, but of a lifetime.

The head priest presides over a grand prayer for Namdeo. He leads a team of twenty Brahmins, all revered for their knowledge of ancient Hindu rituals and scriptures, the Upanishads, the Vedas, the works. The chanting of mantras (sacred utterances) and shlokas(religious couplets) by the priests inside the temple, which is glowing under the golden, mellow rays of the setting sun, is mesmerising. The powerful, spiritual cadence of their voices releasing these ancient words is deeply stirring. Even Raja is affected by the august surroundings. Namdeo never felt better. His confidence rises as they proceed to the end of the prayer, marking the success of his mission. He is free and Raja is free of the mad woman's curses, purged of all evil.

Outside the river Ganges is flowing at a steady pace, serene yet urgent, unmindful of the millions of devotees washing their sins in her holy waters. She does not stop to consider the mantras, some of which are direct invocations to her, or to the incessant ringing of the bells during the worship. She keeps moving towards the ocean, yearning for release.

***

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