The Dacoit Queen
Every other night, fifty-year-old Paroma had the same dream.
She felt time had rolled back and she was a young girl, bejewelled, ridding astride a white horse wearing a sari like a man wears a dhoti, holding a sword upright. It was all very vague. There was a mob, noise, bloodshed, intense excitement and then she woke up in cold sweat. Every time she woke up feeling a sense of dread and and panting with excitement. This had been going on for six months.
Paroma was a housewife. She had a loving family, two children and a husband. Other than looking after her home, Paroma was an artist. She would paint her heart out. So, now she started painting her dream. She painted the broken down temple, the strange figure of a girl sitting astride a horse, the colours of blood, abir (abir is the dry color with which Indians celebrate the festival of Holi ), smoke and fire. And there was the smell of fear, confusion, panic, blood, burning and sweat, which was so difficult to capture. The painting was vibrant. Paroma had the knack of capturing the key characteristic of a face she painted. In the face of the young girl astride the horse, one could see courage, determination and purpose. It stood out from the blur of faces that the faceless mob projected. The mob seemed to be filled with hatred, the need to punish, anger and fear…all the feelings rolled together.
The painting was really vibrant. Parma’s husband, Pratik, liked it so much that he insisted on hanging it in the hall.
People who came to visit them or dine with them would admire the force and vibrancy of the painting. Some of the visitors were her children’s friends.
One day, her daughter, Sumita, brought home a new friend, Kaveri. Kaveri spent her childhood in various parts of India as her father was in the Indian Civil Services. She was now staying in a hostel in Delhi and completing her university education. When she saw the painting, she exclaimed, “Hey! You guys have been to this temple. It is one of the most unique temples in that part of Bengal.”
Sumita laughed, “No way! Is this for real? That is a figment of my mother’s imagination. She painted from a dream.”
“That is strange,” said Kaveri. “The girl in the picture resembles the legendary dacoit princess of that area who died more than a hundred years ago of ripe, old age.”
“Wow! Let me call my mother. She will be very interested.” Then she went to the door of the hall and shouted, “Ma, Ma . Come here. Hear what Kaveri has to say.”
Paroma who would have come to meet Kaveri in any case with a tray of snacks and drinks, shouted back, “Coming. Wait a few minutes.”
Then she appeared bearing a tray of pakoras, sweets and lassi.
“What is it? Why are you bringing the house down with your shouting? Hello, you must be Kaveri. Heard so much about you from Sumita,” she said.
Sumita grabbed her mother’s hand and started talking before anyone could say anything, “Hear what she has to say Ma about that painting of yours.”
Kaveri smiled and replied, “Hello auntie. Truly that painting is remarkable if you have not visited the temple or heard the story about the dacoit princess. In fact , I would say you even bear a faint resemblance to the princess.”
Paroma started laughing, “Maybe, I was her in a previous birth… Who knows?!”
“Seriously Ma, that is so strange. We should visit this place once.”
“Christmas holiday destination?” asked Paroma as it was the closest long vacation in hand.
“Why not?” Said Sumita.
“Depends on if your father can get away,” replied Paroma.
Kaveri chipped in, “If you go, I can ask my parents to help book the guest house for you. There are no hotels there. The guest house is the old palace, where the princess lived before she took to the forests and caves. It is a bit old fashioned, no air conditioning, plumbing is outdated. But, it has an interesting flavour….typical 18 th century.”
“That is very interesting indeed,” said Sumita. “We will let you know when we go…”
The conversation took a turn for the more mundane. In sometime, Paroma left the room.
That Christmas, the whole family went to Calcutta to visit Pratik’s family. The temple had not been mooted as a holiday destination by Paroma, who liked clean plumbing and new hotels and housing. She didnot want to live in an ancient palace.
Pratik’s brother, Ritwik, suggested an excursion one Saturday to the outskirts of Calcutta. There was an old temple and abandoned village in the woods. There was also a guest house where they could lunch and freshen up.
“This almost sounds like the place out of Ma’s dream, ” said Sumita. And she told them all about the strange dream her mother had, the painting and Kaveri.
“This sounds like an interesting story,”said Ritwik.
His young son, Abhay, and Paroma’s son, Sumit, were also very excited. “Yes. Let us go and check this out. Please.” Pratik also thought it would be fun. Ritwik’s wife, Kakoli, and Paroma , who had similar reservations, gave in.
On that Saturday morning, they hired a mini van and started out. Ritwik was driving. Calcutta traffic slowed them down a bit with it’s jams and lazy pace. Cows ambling in the middle of the road also didnot do much to speed them up.
Once they left the town, it was better. By noon, they were at the outskirts of the woods with the abandoned temple and village. They had decided to lunch first and then go on an excursion to the temple.
The guest house, where they had pre-ordered lunch, was a palace about twenty kilometres from the village. In the foyer of the guest house was a huge painting of the dacoit princess. Her face was very similar to Paroma’s. During lunch they joked about the mild resemblance and the possibility of Paroma being a reincarnation of the dacoit queen.
Paroma said, “What nonsense! Don’t try to spook me!”
They heard the story after a lunch of fish curry, local greens cooked with fish head , dal and rice. The food and flavours were very local. The family loved the cuisine.
The guest house manager, Mr Mookerji, had agreed to double up as their tourist guide to the ruins. When they finished lunch, he came in and greeted them. He said, “I will give you a little backgrounding before we start out.”
He began, “After the battle of Buxar, Bengal peasantry was in the throes of poverty and indebtedness. The zamindars looted the villages to fill their coffers which in turn went into the treasury of the nawab and the British East India company. In the village lived a poor brahmin who had a beautiful daughter, Durga. The brahmin was the temple priest. The zamindar’s son, Saileshwar, fell in love with Durga. This zamindar was different from others. He respected learning and wealth. The zamindar was a lonely widower with a handsome son. As Durga was beautiful and educated, the zamindar agreed to the match. Having a bride who could read and think had become unusual in those days as it was given out that learning was detrimental to women. There was even a false myth that a learned woman would soon be widowed.”
Sumita quipped in, “Why India had learned women like Gargi and Maitreyi in ancient times? Ibn Battutah claimed to have seen thirteen schools for women in one district in the 14 th century and yet in the eighteenth century, education for women had become a taboo. I wonder what happened…”
She was rudely interrupted by the boys.
“Didi stop,” said Sumit. “We want to know about the dacoit princess.”
“Was Durga the dacoit princess?” queried Abhay.
Sumita was about to open up her mouth in protest, when Paroma said, “I think we should postpone all arguments till Mr Mookerji completes the story.”
Mr Mookerji, the manager, smiled and said, “Never mind, they are children. To get on with the story, everyone was happy with the marriage. Then came the Bengal famine. The peasantry could not fill the coffers of the zamindars. The zamindars began to be harassed by the nawab who had to pay the dues to the British East India company. The zamindar of the village was a kind man but he had to look after his own home and hearth before anything else. The zamindar’s men started torching homes of peasants who didnot pay the dues or protested to make an example for others. Homes with and without inhabitants were burnt down. The rumours of the atrocities committed by these henchmen permeated to the zamindar’s family, his only son and his bride. They were distressed. Saileshwar approached his father who only spoke of his helplessness and avoided mentioning the cruelties. The son was happy to believe his father was in the right.”
“Durga’s parents became poorer and poorer as the temple offerings dwindled and the priest had no fixed pay. He depended on the bounty of the community to fulfill his own needs. In exchange, he was their spiritual mentor and priest. Under extremely penurious circumstances, the self-respecting parents of Durga died of starvation. Durga didnot know how badly off her parents till she heard of their death. She lived in the palace behind a protective veil of happiness and plenty. Her father-in-law made sure that unpleasant news about the village didnot find it’s way to his family. In his defence, he did offer monetary help to Durga’s parents when they fell sick. But his cruelty to the villagers and the fact that he was the daughter’s father-in-law, made the poor man adamant against accepting his help. That her parents had refused help from her wealthy father-in-law, didnot assuage Durga’s pain. She was sad that she had been kept in the dark by her father-in-law. Durga and Saileshwar rushed to her village for the cremation and the funeral. Only the sycophants were kind to them. Durga’s childhood friend turned her face away and ran out of the house when Durga turned to her. Since they had to complete the funeral rights for her parents, the couple stayed on in the village that night after the cremation.”
“The angry villagers had gathered and decided to do away with the zamindar and his home. That night presented an opportune time as Durga was out of the palace.They tied forces with rebels who lived in these woods and torched the palace.They had drugged Saileshwar and Durga. The couple slept through the whole event and woke up to find themselves penurious, homeless orphans. Saileshwar was enraged . He took up arms against the rebels. Durga tried to stop them but the rebels captured him and made off to the woods. Durga, who was an excellent horsewoman, followed them on her horse. The villagers were uncooperative as they were on the side of the rebels.”
“Durga was only on the side of justice. She knew her husband knew nothing and had not ordered the torching of the huts. She was sad for the anger against her father-in-law as he had been kind to her. But, what mattered foremost was her sweetheart’s life. In Bengal, as you know mother and daughters were treated with a lot of respect those days.The rebels would not touch her. ”
“Durga managed to make peace between the rebels and her husband. However, her husband felt he could not live in peace with the rebels as they had killed his father. One night he escaped, leaving behind a note for Durga. He had written that once he found employment or money, he would come for her and take her away to his new home. He never returned but Durga joined the rebel forces. She became the dreaded dacoit princess to the greedy British and the cruel landlords and a heroine to the villagers. Her fame spread far and wide. Some of the kinder British officers and zamindars were even helped by her. The rebels and their queen looted the corrupt rich and poured their wealth into developmental work. But they would not touch the wealth of people they considered good and honest.”
“The Dacoit princess, eventually, helped girls who wanted to study. She started the first school for girls and boys in the village. She opposed the evil of sati. She even rescued a few widows from the funeral pyres of their husband. She did a lot of good.”
“She rebuilt this palace with the hope her husband would return. She moved in. She waited all her life for him to return. It is said, she died waiting for her only love to return so that she could go back to a normal life with him. After her death, this palace became the headquarters of the rebel forces. ”
“When did she die?”asked Sumita.
“We are not sure but have heard she lived for many years…probably upto her seventies.”
“So, this guest house is more than two hundred years old,” said Ritwik. “Why Boudi (elder sister-in-law), you look a bit like the queen. Can you recall anything? Normally, in all movies and stories the past comes back to people …ha, ha, ha.”
Paroma shook her head. “I recall nothing but the palace is beautiful,”she said.
“So, then should we drive to the village and the ruins?”asked Mr Mookerji. “It is about twenty kilometres from here, towards Calcutta. Those days it was a day’s journey. I will lead you in my jeep. After seeing the temple and village, you can head back to Calcutta and I will return back here.”
They followed the jeep down a green wooded path. It was a beautiful drive. The jeep stopped. Ritwik also pulled the brakes. Everyone got off the vehicles.
Mr Mookerji said, “We need to walk now.”
They waded through bushes and a winding path till they came to a clearing. It was dark, cool and quiet. Even the birds seemed to have stopped chirping. In the clearing stood an ancient temple with an inbuilt stone statue of Kali, the goddess. The party walked up to it. Abhay was looking behind the goddess when suddenly Paroma broke into a wail… “Forgive me. O forgive me Ma. Forgive me Baba.” Her wailing voice sounded hoarse and different. She seemed to be transformed into somebody different. Her hair had fallen loose from it’s bun.
Sumita and Sumit ran to her, “Ma. Ma, what has happened to you?”cried Sumit. His cry went unheard.
“I didnot complete the funeral rights. Forgive me,” continued Paroma in medieval Bengali. She seemed to be oblivious of her surroundings and of the people around her. She seemed to be talking to some invisible people.
“Paroma. This has gone far enough,”said Pratik. “Please stop.”
Paroma looked through them as if they didnot exist. She continued crying and mumbling in medieval Bengali. Her eyes looked distant and wild and she was running from end to end like a young girl looking for a path to escape. And yet, everything around her was open. She could have gone anywhere she wanted. Then she said, ” I have to find my prince, my husband … He is lost. I want a home. Please help me someone…”
Sumita and Sumit were weeping. Abhay looked terrified. Ritwik and Kakoli looked disturbed and were calling out her name. Pratik was trying to hold her in one place but she was unstoppable.
Mr Mookerji was astounded. “This has never happened before.” he said.
Sumit and Sumita’s weeping grew louder.
All of a sudden, Paroma turned around and faced them. She was back to her normal voice. “What happened? Why are you two crying loudly? Are we through?” she asked.
Everyone again looked surprised.
“We should be asking the question,” said Pratik. “Paroma, what happened to you suddenly?”
“Nothing,” said Paroma . “I have been with you all along.”
She was amazed when Ritwik told her how strangely she had reacted at the temple. Initially, she thought her family was trying to pull a fast one on her. Then, seeing the children’s faces, she realised something must have happened.
They didnot spend much time at the temple, where Durga’s father had been a priest.
In fact, after the brief incident, which had probably lasted for a total of five to ten minutes, the family didnot feel like exploring any more. They were scared of the impact it would have on Paroma. They returned to their vehicles and had an aborted view of the village while driving along the road. Mr Mookerji had told them earlier that the village had been abandoned more than a hundred years ago. Paroma thought she saw a shadowy figure among the broken houses of the village as the car sped towards Calcutta.