• Arnabesh Ray

The Raja Who Chose to Build the Society Rather than an Empire

by Arnabesh Ray

The Raja was in a somber mood and it proved from his constantly pacing up and down the length of the room. After all, if the people weren't open to the change he was trying to bring, then who was he fighting for? Enough is enough and it's about time to give up the warfare.

Just at this stroke of time, one of his most trusted lackeys came in to inform a shabbily dressed Brahmin Pandit has come to meet him. Given his dejected mood, the Raja dismissed the visitor instantly. At this, the servant further communicated that the visitor, who seems to be coming from the backwoods, is waiting on the Raja for hours together. He has already been denied an audience. Yet, the visitor is desperate and says, he'll wait an eternity and will only leave after having met the Raja.

On hearing this, the former's mind softened up a little and ordered the servant to bring in the visitor. The very next moment a pundit appeared before the host, clad in a knee-long dhoti and with a typical pig tail lock on the head.

The Raja was detested at the stereotype mien of his desperate visitor. In a sharp tone, which revealed his lack of desire to initiate a formal conversation, he asked the pundit his purpose of visit.

The visitor started unwinding his story.

My name is Mahadev Maitra - a poor Brahmin from Nadia. (Nadia was the famous center of learning Vedas and other Hindu scriptures.) Then, he suddenly paused a little, maybe to get himself organized before a grand narration.

I reached home from my tol (school of learning Sanskrit, mainly for toddlers) on that fateful day in the month of Baisakh, (pick summers) a little thirsty and tired. My Aparna Maa rushed to my lap with all her happiness, from inside. She's my only child, my entire world, and just completed 7. That very day, her mom knocked me again about marrying off our daughter. After all, there was hardly a girl of her age in the entire village, who was yet to get married.

On the other hand, I knew my limitations. How can a poor pundit, who runs his livelihood by teaching students at the village tol and fights to make the ends meet can afford to pay the dowry for her daughter? Any deserving groom will quote nothing but a thousand bucks to marry my Aparna. Luckily, Mandira too was aware of my financial inadequacy. So, this time she came to me already armed with a solution. All she needed was the karta's (the male member, who runs a household) consent.

A kulin (high caste) Brahmin, named Narayan Bandopadhyay, landed in our village out of the blues yesterday. He comes from an eminent Vedic Brahmin family, a scholar himself, and charges only 50 rupees as dowry. What more could a poor, penniless father of a girl like me ask for? The to-be groom was slightly high on the age and was 70. But that was indeed a silly factor, as age is just a number. The most important thing was, we're lucky we could stick to our own caste while marrying off our only daughter.

As a father, I had different aspirations for my Apu Maa. Yet, I managed to bring myself in terms to reality. The wedding got over very smoothly. My daughter, conventionally dressed as the bride, looked just like the goddesses I worship day in and day out. It seemed the Devi Maa came and placed Herself in my humble hut, dressed in that red saree and the headgear, wearing that jewelry. The redness of the alta artistically draped in my Apu Maa's palms and the feet, made her look so beautiful in the eyes of a father. Who knows maybe, it is for the sake of this beauty that our age-old shastras termed weddings of this sort as Gauri daan.

Moments of happiness are always fleeting and they never stand static for anyone. My 70-year old son-in-law left his newly-wedded wife behind the very next day, maybe in his pursuit of easing the burden of another poor dad like me. Before taking leave, the old man assured us he'll get back again around this time next year.

No more under any anxiety, we succumbed back to our old lifestyle almost in no time. Meanwhile, Apu started picking up all the household chores. The day she tried her hands in cooking, she got a nasty blister on the forearm. I told Mandira, she doesn't need to learn cooking and will categorically stay away from the kitchen. My decision made my little Aparna Maa dance in joy inspite of the pain.

Time rolled on and the month of Ashwin was knocking on our door. It was the time for the grand festival - the Durga Navaratri. As customary, I took Apu to the haat (the local village market) a few days before the festivity. The father and the daughter selected a red saree (red being her favourite colour). We also picked up a new bottle of alta and a packet of vermillion - all red - for my daughter to deck up with and returned home happier than ever. Maybe, happiness doesn't look for material wealth to get into a pauper's home.

But the moments of happiness are always fleeting and they really don't care for anyone. The very next day the news came in, my 70-year old son-in-law Narayan has breathed his last and according to his last wish, my Apu Maa has to be the Sati.

My mind and the hands drifted their ways. Whatever my intentions were, my hands took up the responsibility of decking up my 7-year old daughter one more time. I wrapped that red saree around her and decked her up with the vermilion and the alta. I remember, I even drew a red bindi with the vermillion on her forehead exactly on the middle of the brows.

Then, the father and the daughter duo reached the river bank. The place was already too crowded. Almost the entire village assembled there to witness the great event. Married women of all ages came forward and took their turn in applying the vermillion and alta on my daughter. Most of them also bowed down to her in reverence. My daughter Aparna was very happy and least suspecting of what was about to happen.

Then the pyre was alighted and suddenly dhaaks and dhols started to be played, deafening every other sound in the universe. The entire place got filled with smoke. Now she became impatient all on a sudden and requested in my ear to take her back home. I picked her up in my lap once more.

The Raja was more than anxious by now.

What did you do? What happened next? He roared.

Mahadev gulped down a lump from his throat. His voice was as stoic as before.

Maybe, my little girl anticipated something ghastly and so wrapped her tiny arms firmly around my neck. I was slowly walking towards the burning pyre. One more time I coaxed my little heart to unlock her arms from my neck and so she did the opposite. We, the father and the daughter, had the perfect equation and we believed in each other.

By then, I had reached right next to the pyre and could feel the raw heat it was giving away. I was smart enough not to waste a moment. I just threw my daughter into the burning pyre with an animal force. I couldn't see anything after that because of the thick smoke and also because another pyre, as hot and as red as this one, was there burning inside me.

The beating of the dhaaks and the dhols, perhaps, reached the last possible decibel. The crowd started chanting "Jai Sati Matar Jai".

Since that eventful day, I don't know how I manage to breathe. I failed to save my daughter but can't you Sir save hundreds and thousands of Aparnas across the vast rural landscape?

The Raja suddenly seemed to be rising from the ashes of despair and the pyre - like the mythical phoenix - full of life and energy.

Yes my revered visitor, the narration of your misfortunate has given me a shot in the arm. I won't stop short at anything to put an end to this barbarism.

The rest is history, as they say. Raja Ram Mohan Roy traveled to Britain in 1830 to ensure the Sati banning Act of 1829 was not overturned by the British Parliament. As an ambassador of the then Mughal Emperor, he had other responsibilities to shoulder as well. He conducted all his duties successfully and finally breathed his last in Bristol, in 1833.

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