Translated from Oriya by Sunita Mishra
Nobody had ever seen Pata dei (1) after that fateful night of Dola purnima. It seemed as if the night itself had engulfed her. The moon was spread clear and bright all over the village. After the ritual journey from house to house the deities were being gathered in the field. The air was thick with the swelling crowds, the sounds of cymbals and bells, and the children smearing colours on one another. The excitement of the purnima night is very different from what follows the next day – the Holi celebrations. This night comes once a year, only to disappear before one realizes it was there. But the experience generally settles down like dust, like the colours, unnoticed by all. It clings to the body and mind the whole year long – piled up inside. That is how, maybe, behind her pleasant smile Patadei had layers of worries spread like slime inside her.
On that moonlit night Pata had come back home from the fair after offering prasad to the deities. She had even had a bowlful of water-soaked rice with some fried drumstick leaves. And later in the kitchen veranda she was resting on a mat complaining of uneasiness in her stomach. Her father had left early in the morning carrying the deities on his shoulder to some far away village. And there was not a soul at home she could talk to. Mani bhauja (2), the woman next door, along with some others had come asking her to play cards. But she had refused to go because of her uneasy stomach. They had gone back closing the door behind them, laughing among themselves. Someone had even commented, “She is simply lazing around without a care in the world. The stomach pain is just an excuse, believe me”. But Pata had no time for anything today except for her silent wandering thoughts. All the bustle in the neighborhood had left her untouched. She did not want to be a part of it.
People say… Pata left in the deep of that night without any fear for the jackals, dogs, and the wolves, the lurking ghosts and witches. She left the village that was swaying to the cacophony of bhajans, kirtans, cymbals, drums and the excited crowd. She latched the house and went away to see the jatra. Nobody came to open the latched door or worry about where she had gone.
The nightlong festivities, the following morning’s unfettered abandon and the play of colors had left the village drained. People had retired under their low roofs, catching up on lost sleep. No one had either time or energy to worry about others – who was where, whether anyone was starved, alive or even dead. That night again there was the much-awaited mock fight between groups in the village. In this tide of excitement, nobody noticed the disappearance of Patadei till Jaggu Behera, her father, came back tired and hungry the following afternoon. His anger knew no bounds when he saw the latched door. He called out for Pata, loud enough for the neighbors to hear but got no response. He rested for a while, and went around calling out for her at the top of his voice.
How could he not get wild? He had sold off the little land he had to get her married. The son-in-law was as handsome as a prince, with a house and lands. There was also a lot of pawned gold in the family. But the girl refused to stay there for even a couple of months. God knows… what went amiss. She was a pampered child, he thought. Maybe she could not adapt herself to her in-laws. Poor girl, she did not even have her mother or a sister to confide in. He too was in no position to command authority over her in-laws. In the midst of all work he kept worrying for Pata… always.
It was drizzling slightly that night when Pata had come away from her in-laws to her father. In the sky was spread a thick rolling sheet of ominous pot-black cloud. The frogs were croaking at the edge of the pond. Jaggu was fast asleep covered in a sheet from head to toe when the latch in the front door rattled. Dismissing it as the work of some evil spirit, Jaggu went to sleep again when the latch rattled the second time. Irritated, he got up, took the sacred stick kept near the Gods for protection from evil spirits and opened the door. He was shocked to find Pata standing out there. In shock and amazement he had tried to ask, “How is it that you are here?” She avoided the question and walked in closing the latch behind her.
Jaggu was worried, “How did you come in the middle of the night? Did you have a fight with my son-in-law?” Pata stood silently leaning against the wall, her head bowed. He asked again, almost pleadingly – Why don’t you speak out girl? Did the old couple ill-treat you? Are you all right?
Pata walked into the house without waiting to reply. Jaggu thought, maybe there was some problem. He would anyway come to know of it in time. Why should he unnecessarily trouble her in the middle of the night? God knows whether she had eaten anything or not. She had always been a moody child. Seeing her sit on the kitchen veranda he said, “Will you eat something? See, there must be some rice in the pot”. Pata pushed her head between her knees and started crying, inconsolably. She had never before cried like this…. not even on the day she got married and left home. Wiping his daughter’s tears with the gamucha (3) hanging around his neck he realized that his daughter had come away unable to stay with her in-laws any longer. He sighed – “Maybe, she is too young to bond in marriage. She will learn by and by. But definitely, when her husband or father-in-law come to fetch her in the morning, he will demand an explanation”.
But that never happened. Nobody ever came to fetch her. Whenever he asked, she would stare at him with tear-filled, helpless eyes. For some reason, he too could never pick up enough courage to go over to her in-laws and sort things out. They both managed to pull on somehow, with whatever he got after daylong backbreaking labor. Pata never tried to explain herself. He did think at times that she was stubborn. But he was in no position to complain either. There was always the lurking fear of losing Pata.
People in the neighborhood had started gossiping after she returned to her father. Some said she had been necked out after a fight with her in-laws. Some said she had to be thrown out because of her loose character. An embarrassed Jaggu did want to ask her the truth. He even had the impulse to go and leave her with her in-laws. But her fearful, helpless stare prevented him from doing or saying anything. He would leave for work at the crack of dawn, return at dusk and fervently pray for a solution. After all, he wouldn’t live forever to take care of her.
Jaggu couldn’t wait any more. Two days of fatigue and hunger was making him feel faint! His daughter should have been at home, waiting with something ready to eat. But no! She was away laughing, playing cards, like other young girls. Only he would have to slog till he was dead and ready to be carried away to the graveyard. Nobody will ever come forward to look after him, he thought angrily. He went around the village calling for her again. But he returned, disappointed. Dusk was approaching fast. The shadows had begun lengthening towards the half lit backyards. Sitting in the veranda, Jaggu dozed off against the wall. At dawn he woke up to the call of early birds to find the latch on, as it was the night before.
People say he never stopped dozing afterwards. He sat there, barely aware of his surroundings. If anyone tried to talk to him he only stared blankly. If any girl offered him food, big tears rolled down his cheek and he said nothing. The story goes that he became deaf and dumb, unable to tolerate the weird, scandalous ways of his daughter; that he breathed his last sitting there, staring at the latch, with swarms of flies buzzing around his stone-dead face.
Three years have gone by since Pata dei left home. Three years also since Jaggu Behera retired from this world. Thrice, the festival of Dola has come and gone. Thrice the tiny raw mangoes have ripened and fallen. The tides of the river have swept the banks and flowed into the sea. Mani Bhauja has become a widow with an infant playing on her laps. Pata’s friends too have gone their own ways, swept by the course of their destiny. But nobody has ever seen or heard of Pata dei. All these years, nobody has given a thought to where she disappeared, what happened to her. The sun, however, has risen every morning, the seasons have come and gone as usual and Pata dei’s disappearance has remained a mystery in everyone’s mind – unasked, untold, unwanted too.
The door of the house remained latched exactly the way it was when Jaggu Behera breathed his last there. The torn mats, the bed sheets and a few things lying around too remained untouched. Nobody wanted to lay their hands on the cursed, unfortunate, unclaimed objects. After all, people had fear of ghosts and spirits too! The house was at one end of the village and the flowering tree outside the house too had stopped giving flowers long back. There was no need for anyone to go near the house. Occasionally, people going past saw visions of Pata clad in white or even heard the gruff calls of her father. It became a haunted house.
But one fine morning, there was sensation everywhere. The past three years seemed like ages now. It was difficult to remember the bygone events. People, who knew nothing, started fabricating facts. People, who knew, started despairing…helplessly. And all this because that morning Pata dei was seen sweeping the outside of her house. There was a two-year-old child too, sucking his fingers, following her around. Pata dei had fattened a little around her waist and on her cheeks. But her eyes remained the same, tear-filled, helpless, and bleak. The news spread like wild fire everywhere-
“Pata, the daughter of Jaggu has come back with a child. Must be her own. Why else should she have the child around? Shameless, sinful woman. She abandoned a handsome gentle husband. Couldn’t stay on with her father either. Had to run away with someone in the middle of the night. Who would look after such a woman all his life? After all she too is no longer young and tender. Now with nowhere else to go she has returned to her father’s old house.”
There was a lot of change in Pata. She had become indifferent, apathetic. If anyone elderly asked her anything, she turned aside and stood silent covering her head with her sari. If women tried to talk or joke around she just stared – the fearful, helpless, bleak stare. Sometimes she laughed to herself or sketched on the floor, aimlessly.
Everybody said, “She is a fallen, loose woman. Has anybody heard of any woman proudly displaying her motherhood after abandoning her husband and in-laws? Ram Ram! This is not just done. Is she a Goddess from heaven to do whatever she wants to and still live respectably? How shameless! Couldn’t she find some poison for herself?”
Pata dei’s education till class three couldn’t rescue her from her present crises. She had no one who to call her own who would protect her, fight for her. She had no guardian either to help her tide over difficult times or fight for her. The village elders finally decided – “She has to leave the village if she wants to escape alive or she will be burnt alive along with Jaggu Behera’s house. She is a slur on the whole village. She has smeared every woman’s face black”.
That evening all the villagers gathered outside her door to seek an explanation. Tightly clutching on to the loose end of her half torn sari, she decided to face them all….boldly. “Yes! Yes! I have given birth to this child. When my husband left me and went away to Calcutta the day after my marriage, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law starved me inside a locked room. Somehow I managed to escape from there. All the while I stayed with my father, I have only received abuses from everyone. My father had to suffer endlessly in his old age to keep himself and me alive. But he could neither fill our bellies nor reduce our shame”. Pulling the sari over her head resolutely, she went on – “I had no say in anything. I had nothing to say either. I couldn’t even die to save my poor father from bone-breaking labour. The cruel earth thrust this child on me and sent me back”.
One of the older members jumped up at her statement. Aggressively he demanded – “Say that again, what did you say? The earth gave you the child indeed. You really have a way of putting things. Speak up now! Whose is this child?”
Pata pulled the sari covering her head even more tightly. With a stammer she slumped down, trembling all over. Clinging on to her, the child had long back stopped wailing. There was only an occasional hiccup coming from him. Someone kicked her hard – Mani Bhauja’s mother-in-law. A distant aunt of Pata’s – and screamed “Aye! Do you have a frog in your mouth? Speak up. You could not stay even for a month with your in-laws. You ate up your father alive. And now you say the earth has given you this child? Speak up the truth. Who is the father of this child? Otherwise today, I myself will cut you to pieces. Don’t you know my anger?”
The old woman put her foot on Pata’s neck. All around her were amused men and women, looking on. Pata was gasping for breath. Sparks were flying from her eyes. No! She cannot tolerate this any longer. The earth won’t split up to shelter her nor will Hara Parvati run down from heaven to protect her from shame. She will have to stand up for herself. She has to will her life now. Suddenly, she felt a surge of strength. She shook off the leg from her neck and stood up straight – a strong mature woman, five foot tall. On her face was emerging a strange purple hue – a frothy mixture of strength, anger and hatred. After a searching stare at the crowd around she pulled up the wailing child to her lap.
“You want to know who the father of this child is? There, they are all standing here. Ramu, Veera, Gopi, Naria and a couple more of them later. How can I tell whose child this is? That night, during the Dola festival when the mock fight was going on, these people had stuffed a cloth in my mouth and carried me away to the edge of the graveyard. There, behind the bushes, they had chewed me up alive…like plucking out flesh from bones. My mouth was closed but before losing my senses I did recognize them all by the moonlight. How can I tell whose child this is? Ask that Hari Bauri. He took money from all of them to leave me at Cuttack. I didn’t come all these days because I didn’t want to bring more shame on my father. After returning too, I’ve revealed nothing. But ask them all now. Let them swear on themselves and decide who the father of this child is.”
Suddenly there was confusion everywhere. The elders were left looking at one another. The youngsters were trying to suppress their giggle. But no one had anything to say. Mani Bhauja’s mother-in-law had slumped down, tired and speechless on the veranda. Ramu, Veera, Gopi, Maguni, were standing with their heads hanging down, waiting uneasily to disappear as soon as possible.
Patadei wiped away her tears and started sweeping the veranda of her house again. A while later she flung the broom, wiped the nose of the child and lifted him to herself saying – “Why should you cry dear? Don’t be afraid of these people. None of them is man enough to stand up and admit to being your father. But your mother is always there for you. You don’t have to worry.”
God knows what the child understood, he started laughing, pointing at the moon emerging from behind the clouds. The gathering had started dispersing – heads bowed, in a confused hushed silence. The tree outside the house had started flowering again. Mani Bhauja’s mother-in-law too was disappearing with her walking stick.
Patadei looked around anxiously and spat a huge blob of spit on her child’s chest to ward off the evil eye. “Oh God! My king-like son has shriveled under the gaze of these people. Why do I need to bother? On my father’s piece of land, I am the master. I am the queen; my son is the prince.”
For a moment the earth stopped moving under the blue expanse above. Pata dei was looking up and down, laughing and crying at the same time.
1. “Dei” is a colloquial form in Oriya that signifies “didi” or “elder sister”.
2. “Bhauja” literally means one’s brothers wife.
3. “Gamucha” is a thin piece of cloth used as a towel.
(From Pata Dei by Binapani Mohanty, Cuttack: Vidyapuri, 1987; rpt 1995, pp.123-132.)
Sunita Mishra teaches in the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.