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In Search Of Kusum Manjari— Ahana Biswas

Mar 26, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Aritrik Dutta Chowdhury 

 

In Search Of Kusum Manjari by Ahana Biswas

Image used for representation.

 

I am still unable to distinguish fiction from the truth in this mortal world! Neither could I segregate right from wrong, truth from falsity. I often find beauty in sin, like the blemishes on a full moon. The essence of it is so embalming, so entrenched is the underlying peace, that the scars look white, much like the vastness of those abysses. I smoothly saunter through the experience and cherish it all! As I understand this world, all of this is encapsulated in the word ‘love’!

The time when I drifted towards her, her silhouette appeared like the fir tree standing erect beside the crematorium near my maternal uncle’s home. White sand beneath the feet expiating cool stretched shadow. One could playfully watch the chiaroscuro of the streaked twirls hanging from the birches playing hide-and-seek with the sun. I would run to the mystery of it every time, all alone. I felt a scintillation in my corporeal self. Just like I would feel before, a peck would make the nibbled cobwebs and dried-out leaves topple out and tumble over! And I would yearn to enter her eternal eclipse. I yearned to see through the incandescent depths. This is an inexplicable longing, something that would impel me to be an interloper every winter afternoon through my childhood days.

Suddenly, my son clasped onto my arm calling out to me, his face grim with anxiety, fear, and despair. I could sense it that had I not been his father, he would have whipped me to his heart’s content right then or would skim and peel me out and hang me on the butcher shops like slithered mutton! Or better still, would have ignored my existence. He is like his mother, adept at silent condemnation.

I felt a surge of pity looking at my thirteen-year-old son, grim with rage. Poor boy! Too young to think for himself! He is a victim of the judgment passed by the others, but perhaps if he did have his own judgment, he would too arrive at the same conclusion! Perhaps he would have hated me even more. I muttered and prayed that he calms down though I couldn’t gather the courage to say it out loud. I could feel my words paralyzed into an incapacitated existence.

She had come to our abode, either to play or to just loiter. Maybe to me. Not because I like to think it that way, but it does happen at times! There’s a mutually inexplicable attraction lurking somewhere. But for now, I felt my feet frozen, I felt like running my fingers through the hair strands of my bewildered son like always. My fingers attentively run through the tiny specks of follicles running down his neck like green grass and I witness innumerable flowers in them. When I touch the tender pollen, shivers run down my spine! My little boy kept staring at us, not being able to decipher what was happening.

The girl was my son’s classmate, she had been a student as well once upon a time. I have known her since her birth, but that day when she stood by the temple waiting for puja offerings, her little sister in her lap; it felt like I had just discovered her. My mother’s countenance superimposed onto hers. When I managed to feed her with the meager offerings of a piece of jaggery, my fingers had, as if, touched the divine nectar. I couldn’t wash off the remnants of her saliva from her rosy lips on my fingers, my son is too young to perceive this. If he was born a girl, he would have been like a fish. At any stage of life ready to be served, and relished.

Looking at the girl, I somehow felt she was Kusum Manjari, my mother, who would wield me after two years or perhaps fight death while giving me birth. And would then cherish my company as I grow up. I would be her son, sibling, and beloved—or even more—an undefinable bond. She came back to me twice from the throes of death.

Her first death was being raped, the second was birthing a child at fifteen. My father would come to my grandfather for manifold materialistic matters. He could not resist the daisy hues of her skin. He found those impenetrable eyes irreconcilable. He hated bashful humans; he hated all sorts of mystery. He would never keep things discreet, rather pull things out and dissect them in broad daylight till they got transparent to everyone. I still don’t realize how my mother had made him greedy, and capricious, so he tried to ignite a lamp with water instead of oil. The man who I had found turned into a eutrophicated pond. Strange how humans metamorphose! The self I had been is unknown to the self I am today and the self I would be tomorrow is still an unfathomable stranger!

It was ironic how my dad had come to acquire lessons about puja offerings from my grandfather but deracinated a holy twig like my mom instead. The thought makes me wince in pain. With time, a new bough sprouted in it, turned green, and grew up. That was me, the only hope in the life of my underaged mother. My father happened to be an unmarried brahmin with an untarnished sense of pride for his pedigree. Other than the difference in age, he wasn’t unworthy. Although my grandfather had often admonished him for having a terrible Sanskrit diction for a Brahmin and often said that I had a sharper bent of mind than my father. This is where the marriage could have suffered a thud, the rest was smooth. It was better to marry off the young girl without having to spend a penny, and before the word about the young girl’s undue pregnancy spread. All I can clearly recall is that my mother would turn blue with fear whenever she saw my father, and so would I. If ever my dad came to the house where we stayed, both of us would disappear to indecipherable corners till he had left.

There might have been some mental aberration or a sense of guilt in him, or perhaps he could never love my mother. All that existed was a sense of apprehension and unprecedented fear in Kusum Manjari for him. Kusum Manjari, my mother, who died when I was eight years old, never experienced mature love. Neither does her successor have that experience. All he has is burning desire. Much like the parched earth under the scorching summer heat. One for which a  downpour amounts to a mere droplet.

I still recall how when my father brought me to his village at the age of twelve, I was terrified like a scapegoat, as if I was being brought to the gallows. My maternal grandmom locked herself up. All my grandfather told my dad was, “He has a sharp brain. I have taught him what ought to be taught. Get him to a school after this. He would shine as a priest. But he needs schooling to earn his living because the profession of a priest is not that consistent after all.”

Everything is consistent and durable. It just gathers rust over time. One incident beguiles the other. Modern, ancient, archaic—everything waits in silence. I went to school, acquired a few degrees, started schooling kids; and simultaneously continued with my priesthood. I am a priest both at the Shiva temple and at the temple of Manasa (the Serpentine goddess). I offer homage to Lord Shiva with milk and honey and apply vermilion on the Manasa temple simultaneously. Everyone would pinch that this would not sustain me for long, being on two opposite boats at the same time. But I could happily meddle. Despite all the antagonisms, people would want me there. They said that I had a tall physique like the gods, a fair complexion like my mother, and wide, expressive black eyes. When I would wear washed linen and walk down to the Shiva temple every morning with an oblong water pot in hand, even Lata would come out of their abode, and arrange flowers for me; flowers that would be incensed with the scent of her body. She would sit through the prayer service till I drew a holy mark on her temples with yogurt and honey and chant the sermons.

Lata would keep staring as I would enshrine her and court her with admiration and reverence. I would ask her how she expects to be received when she came unto me, how should I welcome her. 

My entire body felt like a harp being strung. I would find those days palpable when that girl named Kusum would babble, lying meme on her bosom. I couldn’t figure out if Lata took me in her divinity or if I had her. My identity dissolved away completely, and I basked in the glory of pure essence. I felt Kusum Manjari. She had not given up on me. Ah! Eternal peace and satisfaction. She is my eternal accomplice.

The temple porch was being sunkissed at dawn. Prior to death, Kusum would hum while sweeping through the porches, as youth bloomed in her. Her music was a rhythm to me. I crooned them as I returned to my goddess beside me.

All my music would be rampaged by Savitri. She would wait at the doorstep to hiss and lash out. I couldn’t let go of Lata as she was too young to conjecture any of this. Savitri would hurl abuses at me and wish my death. She would rant that an impure soul like me should not be allowed inside the temple and a substitute should be sought for at the earliest.

I exasperate and then grin at myself. Savitri is just my stepsister. She was burning with envy seeing Lata beside me and praying for my death. Death is an inevitability. Lata had once said that if death comes as retribution to sin, we should gladly accept it. But why would Savitri, after having nursed me to wellness during my typhoid, now pray for me to die?

Savitri once came at me with her carnal desires and clawed me like a pig digging out worms from the mud. I too would poison her with reciprocal blemishes on her skin with my nails. She now lives a happy married life with kids to nurture. I wonder if Savitri is at all at fault. All she has ever received from me is sin.

What could I ever offer Savitri? And what did I ever receive? I never could experience a mature tranquil love, much like the still waters that run deep. But it is not that I never encountered that love, but I could never treasure it.

I could never love or respect my dad. I was like furniture in his life. Unimportant but not enough to be discarded. Kusum had no place in his life. The only place in the world where she ever walked around was my mind space. My father’s immense love for my stepmother made me stoop in reverence. It was like the Gulmohar beside the pool which kept showering flowers every now and then, and the flowers together would encompass a circle of still waters. This is the kind of love I was greedy about. But my eternal companion never left me. I would encapsulate her grief with all my heart.

All my tales were clandestine. The world witnessed my devotion and conformism towards my father and stepmother. I married a bride of their choice and even though I could not give my wife everything she deserved, I gave her a child. I have never disrespected her. She would get to run the household, I would never regulate finances. My child’s mother was contented. So was Savitri. She dealt with it cleverly and earned a place of respect in my family.

Savitri herself tattered this impeccable image for her daughter, Pushpa. Pushpa was devoted to me. She was like a flute made of thin bamboo, very vulnerable; still holding the green stench on her body. She was opposite her mother. If Savitri was a bog, Pushpa was a lotus. If Savitri was darkness, Pushpa was bright sunshine. One day, for a while, I was lost in the village with Pushpa; as I would with Kusumonce; and returned home to be rebuked. I would put my head on her bosom to pacify her when Kusum would cry.

But that day was different. Savitri turned hysterical and dug out my sins to hurl at me. My wife, child, neighbors, and villagers—all started judging me. I could see the language of their eyes alter. I felt very lowly. Savitri claimed that I should no longer be allowed to offer pujas to Mahadev in the temple as I did not deserve that reverence in my sinful soul. 

I could sense the depth of my sins that day. I did not care about being stripped off as a priest because I was an atheist at heart; for me, puja was like music, it was meant for creating an entrancing aura. But it was a financial necessity for my family. I could as it is never give them anything more than optimum money. Once I would give tuition but now I don’t. All I have are the crops yielded by the lands around. I cursed Savitri for taking away my power to aid my family.

“Don’t you feel ashamed? Pushpa is like your own daughter!” Savitri winced and burst out in defeated tears. I stooped in front of such annihilation. The priest of Mahadev, the redeemer of this village has made his respect vulnerable to a woman like Savitri. I tried defending myself saying—Pushpa is like my daughter, my mother. I have caused her no harm. Ask her if you want—I could not complete it, I was choked with tears. As if by some unseen order, the cumulonimbus clouds burst out after a long wait. People’s attitudes shifted. Many came around and touched my feet. Savitri stood stunned. I chanted the Mahadev mantras:

Om kritarthahonugrihitohoshmi saphalang jibitang momo. Agoto debdebesh suswagatamidang bopu

I could win back everyone else barring my child’s mother. Her silence was tougher than iron. My son no longer remained a child. He was awakened to truths that made him grow up in seconds. He had lost his father just like me… But I remained an adolescent at heart—seeking an eternal adolescent companion forever. I keep searching for Kusum Manjari whom I had lost when I was eight years old!

I knew I had a kind of clarity in my verbose expressions, I had melody. I could not be trained in Hindustani Classical music because I never had a teacher. I would swoon in self-adulation every morning when I would chant prayers, everyone would appreciate it too. So I was kind of sanguine that I would never lose my position as a priest.

Lata’s issue also created a furor. I had forgotten that Lata’s parents weren’t like Savitri, they held immense power and control over the judiciary. My ailing, paralyzed stepmother pleaded for mercy on my behalf. It felt like my father’s loving wife stood naked in front of the mob. I didn’t know where to hide in shame. I pleaded for two years time and promised that I would hand over my duties to my able son in two years and leave the village forever. 

A part of my prayers was granted, and my son was allowed to take over the responsibility of Manasha temple but not Mahadev. It was ensured that he would just earn enough to sustain himself and I was barred from stepping into the temple of Mahadev. My son, like his mother, refused to take the alms of sympathy I wanted to offer; and refused the vows of priesthood. He never let me know how he fetched food for his mother and himself. 

The doors of the temple were completely shut for me. The evening conch would now make me wince in pain, and I would block my tympanum to resist the sound. I have no family, no home, no village, no temple, and no goddess. I left home the day Lata got married as an under-aged girl, which is common in these times. I found the day of Lata’s marriage very jarring; it was like someone has rubbing tin slabs on the portico. It must have been such a day when I came into the womb of Kusum Manjari.

I took a bus and boarded a train. Days went by, I kept crossing miles on foot. Whenever I would think of Lata, I would recall how Kusum would have turned blue looking at my dad. It felt like a tender gourd being chopped carelessly. People had misconstrued me. I haven’t affected any of them adversely. I haven’t inflicted any pain on them—neither Pushpa nor Lata. They were like harps to me. I would strum on the strings of their body and induce rhythm in them. I would yearn to strike that right chord which, if emanated, would help Kusum attain the fulfillment of youth. I am not really upset with anyone or have pent-up rage. Not everyone is meant to understand this courtship.

I was for so many days oblivious to myself until I had reached a village at the foot of a hill. In the eyes of the innocent villagers who had treasured me hospitably, I regained myself, my poise, and my voice. They would place me on a pedestal and never ask me about my true identity. All my past was obliterated in a jiffy. I would keep worshipping some nameless God in my own way. I would spend time teaching them at times or helping people with simple medical aids at others, using the Ayurveda lessons learned from my maternal grandfather at a very young age.

I would live as a guest in a household where a girl of fifteen named Lakshmi would make me chapattis. She would stare at me elusively, and so would I. Lata, Pushpa, Kusum would all blend and fuse into Lakshmi!

Experience had taught me to hold back. The mob around me was simple but headstrong; they would strike a fight at the drop of a hat. To them, crime means bloodshed and treachery yields death as a punishment. They would all be doped in alcohol every evening. A lot of women desired me, and a lot of men advised me to marry a girl there and raise a family. The rules of marriage were not stringent there and polygamy was an everyday affair, but touching a woman without marrying her was considered a crime!

I was self-restrained until one day Lakshmi took me to a meandering road beside the hill to search for her lost flock. While returning, I could feel the metronome of familiar music rise in me. I pulled her close and placed my lips on her nipples. I suckled her the way a baby sheep would his mother.

Suddenly, I was mobbed. They were filled with glee and urged me to marry Lakshmi. They had already planned for a three-day festivity concerning my marriage. I was never afraid before but today my throat dried out. My response made their bright faces blotch with pallor. I denied marrying Lakshmi and didn’t know why I should marry her. The day Kusum Manjari was married off to my father flashed past my vision. Kusum might have married someone of her choice had it not been for that day! I screamed—my resistance echoed through the hills and valleys. 

That which was a cause for rejoicing to them turned to rage in a jiffy. The well–wishers came up to convince me. I shoved off my vulnerability and stood up with my spine. I would not marry her. She is not who I deserve. She is like my daughter. Many of the young, bright chaps in her community would befit her. At that instant, my baritone, my poise nothing worked on them. Only a Kusum Manjari, heartbroken and scared stared at me from afar!

Their archaic weapons closed in on me. 


Also, read a Hindi fiction by Dr. Kamal Kumar, translated into English by Ayushee Arora, and published in The Antonym:

Fragrance— Dr. Kamal Kumar


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Ahana Biswas, a professor by profession, was born in West Bengal, India. She studied at Shantiniketan in West Bengal and now has settled there. Apart from being a prominent Bengali poet and writer, she is also a painter. Her published books in Bengali include Meyeder Hostel Jiban: Andarer Kathamala, Asatijiban, and Ladies Compartment. She has received several awards including Somen Chanda Award and Bharatbyas Award, to name a few.

Aritrik Dutta Chowdhury is presently working as a faculty in the department of English at Acharya Girish Chandra Bose College and is pursuing his PhD. from St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata. He also works as a visiting faculty in the PG section of Basanti Devi College and in the department of English, Techno International, New Town. He has completed his M.A. and M.Phil. in English from the University of Calcutta and has pursued B.A. (Hons) in English from Scottish Church College. He has been inking verses and stories and has published his papers and articles in manifold books and journals. He has co-authored several books, including a translated anthology named Lekhalikhir Pathshala published by Gangcheel, a translated anthology of plays by Dalit Playwright Raju Das, and has singly-authored a book titled Read and Write Right published by Avenel Press. He takes a keen interest in events like elocution, extempore, debate, declamation, and other events related to the communication and literary spheres and has won several accolades in elocution, debate, and drama during his academic career.

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