– Goma Adhikari

With a great difficulty, Dhan Maya accomplished the thirteen-day long posthumous rituals of her late husband. This accomplishment made her happy in one hand, but she shuddered, thinking of the dark future her four children were heading for. She could hardly realize at the time how her move to secure heaven for her husband was destined to bring destruction to her life on earth. She could not notice the doom her four young kids were being pushed into, while trying to secure an imaginary paradise for an invisible soul.

Man Bahadur, Dhan Maya’s husband was a simple man, who won bread for himself and his family with his labour. Four children and the couple! There was no saving, granted. But he had managed to feed everyone well, and had clothed them amply. The family ran on its daily course smoothly.

But one day, fate took its turn, and an evil doom cast its spell upon the family. Man Bahadur was caught in an encounter between the army and the miscreants in the depth of the dark forest in Churachandpur. He had been there to collect fodder for his cattle. Two bullets made him their targets. Other peasants, like him, fell too, but who would care to make the counts of the innocents?

This was a fetal blow upon Dhan Maya. Man Bahadur was rushed to the hospital along with some other victims. She decided to mortgage the little her parents had given her as marwaris*, and manage cash for operation. Early in the morning, he reached the doors of Mahananda Pandit with the rings in her hands.

The old man took the rings in his palm and flung them up and down as though he was weighing them. Then he twisted his mouth a little and said, “It has been smelted twice. The gold is not pure. But religious law warrants me to help the needy in the hours of hardship, however. But the price of gold in the marking, you know, is falling….!”

“For God’s sake,” Dhan Maya interrupted, “Please Punditji. They say it is eight thousand rupees per ten grams. Please bless me the same.”

“You may be right, but your gold is secondhand, you know. It deserves four thousand only.”

Without waiting for the woman’s answer, he counted eight bills of five hundred each, and extended towards Dhan Maya.

Dhan Maya had no time for argument. She thought, good fortune had fetched her the cash, albeit far lesser than the actual cost. She rolled the bills into her handkerchief and rushed straight towards the hospital. Punditji thought himself blessed by Goddress Laxmi quite early in the morning and rushed to share the news with his wife.

The doctors performed Man Bahadur’s operation. The bullet from the chest was taken out. The one from the stomach still remained, for the doctors ruled that two simultaneous operations could be risky. They advised that the second surgery be done there days later.

Dhan Maya, though simple, was highly courageous. She thought of selling her nougedi, the nine-beaded golden necklace – also gifted by her parents—to arrange money for the second operation. The next morning, Mahananda Pandit showed his commiseration by giving her five thousand rupees for fifteen gram necklace – an amount far lesser than the current market price.

“I have a mother cow at home. Buyers recently bid it five thousand rupees. I denied the sale. Perhaps God ordained the denial to ensure Man Bahadur’s salvation. It’s fine, let’s do it at four thousand.”

The doctors performed the surgery, and told her that it was successful. Two days passed. The third and the fourth days too came and went, but Man Bahadur did not come round. A stay in the town; ever rising costs – it was difficult for Dhan Maya to manage. Medicine, accommodation in a public guest house, and clinical orders, “X-ray, karna hai, ECG karna hai, CT Scan karna hai…,”and many more, each meaning a huge sum as though each word resides in bucks!

Two months went by, but Man Bahadur did not come to his senses. The pair of oxen went, and the field too. Dhan Maya did not lose her hopes. She did what was within the extremes of her limits, but nothing works when doctors auction themselves. Fill their pouches with pelf, and you get good service. Else, bear your doom. Man Bahadur stopped receiving adequate care at the hospital. If asked the doctors would say, “Thik ho jayega, thoda aur intajar karo,” advising her to wait a little more to see improvements. At last, they transferred everything to God’s hands and advised her to withdraw.

Seeing her husband fighting the last battle for life in their dark room at home, Dhan Maya broke into torrents of tears for the first time in life. Villagers would come in long files to share her woes. Some would say, “Poor Mané! He was innocent. Who knows the tricks of fate?”

Someone from among the visitors suggested the incantation of Mrityunjaya, the death-winning hymns. Dhan Maya turned to see who it was. Mahananda Pundit stood there. She paid him a dubious look.

“Mrityunjaya is very powerful,” Punditji added. “It saves people from the mouth of death.” Dhan Maya received a ray of hope in the darkness. She wiped her eyes and said, “What preparation does it need, Punditji?”

“It needs hundred thousand incantations. A priest alone cannot do that. We need five. You don’t need to worry. I am there to share your owes in these difficult hours. Get the things ready; I will arrange the rest of the priests.” Having said so, Punditji left.

The rituals lasted for two days. The priests included Mahananda Pundit and his kiths—his ten, thirteen and fifteen year old sons, and an eleven year old nephew. They would hardly spell the alphabets clearly; the question of reading Sanskrit was a far cry. But people in that part of the world believed that a Brahmin’s speech is a divine one, and is always correct.

After the rituals had ended, each of the Brahman devatas was fed with fresh fruits, milk, sweets, and was offered darkhina – one hundred and fifty rupees each in cash.

Like a lamp running out of oil, Man Bahadur waned day by day. Thick clouds of hopelessness in Dhan Maya’s heart blackened with time. Her hopes were turning into thin air. She remembered her gods time and again. She even promised a great offer to Lord Shri Govindaji, but gods too paid no heed to her plea.

When Man Bahadur turned completely motionless, people suggested her to perform Baitarani rituals that are believed to guarantee an easy transit across the great River Baitarani that every dying soul needs to cross on the way to heaven.

“What arrangements do I need to make, Punditji?” Dhan Maya asked amidst a torrent of tears.

“Nothing special. Arrange some rice, a few taparis, some money and a mother cow.”

Nothing was easy. Even the taparis — the chestnut leaf plates – were rare and costly.

“A mother cow?” Dhan Mayas asked in disbelief and paid dismal looks.

“Yes. How else do you think will your husband cross Baitarani? That river is a big one. A soul should hang on the tail of a strong cow to cross it safely. Crossing it is compulsory to ascend to heaven. Unless you offer a cow, you can never ensure the salvation of your husband’s soul.” Punditji made the description of the river as though he had himself experienced everything.

Relating her status quo, Dhan Maya pleaded, “I have a single mother cow. Offering it will deprive my infant children of the little milk they get every morning.”

Punditji contemplated on the issue for a while and suggested a way out, “Well, you don’t need to worry. I will arrange a mother cow myself.”

She took a long gasp of frustration, and stared at Punditji with looks of dismay.

“I have a mother cow at home. Buyers recently bid it five thousand rupees. I denied the sale. Perhaps God ordained the denial to ensure Man Bahadur’s salvation. It’s fine, let’s do it at four thousand.”

“Four thousand….!!!”

“Yes, one thousand discount for you.”

Looking for means to escape from the insidious trap, Dhan Maya pleaded, “Won’t a calf do?”

In a patient demeanour, Punditji said, “Can a calf carry a soul across the mighty Baitarani? Impossible. You could not give him a good earth; why do you grudge him a good heaven? Our religion ordains us to do so for the salvation of the soul of the dead. You should not turn your back to religion.”

Ultimately Baitarani befell on Dhan Maya’s head. The cow, bought for four thousand rupees, went back to Punditji after the rituals as godan.

After the fifth day of Baitarani, the ailing soul cast the mortal body off. The feeble thread of Dhan Maya’s hope snapped mercilessly. She endured through the terrible ordeal of a torturous bereavement.

There was no escape from religions dictates. The thirteen year old son was shaven bald. He made the salvation offers, though he could barely understand what those offerings and rituals meant.

The tenth day of the mourning came, and the intricate rituals ensued and proved unmanageably demanding. The next day Punditji beckoned Dhan Maya near and instructed, “Tomorrow is the twelfth day. We should conduct Narayanbali in the name of the dead.”

“Nayanbali? What is that Punditji?”

“Offering a golden bull in the name of the dead.”

“Golden bull?”

“You don’t need to choke. A small one –- just a model. Ten grams will do. Yes, you need a couple of things more.”

“Punditji, as far as I know, our family has never performed this in anyone’s name,” Dhan Maya said in a feeble voice. Punditji, who believed that explaining the subtle dictates of scripture to the ignorant was his divine duty, answered, “Every dead soul should be cleansed with Narayanbali. Those ignorant ancestors perhaps did not do, because they did not know. Defying the scripture brings home sin as worse as killing hundred cows. Death with janai on the body is equivalent to suicide. Mané too had his sacred thread on in his death, and his salvation compulsorily needs Narayanbali.”

Looking for means to escape from the insidious trap, Dhan Maya pleaded, “Won’t a calf do?”

Dhan Maya, terrified by the stunning dictates of Garuda Purana for eleven days, was ultimately forced to comply with Punditji’s insidious orders. Why would see step back in the last yard when she had compassed such a long distance? But six brass pitchers, five more Brahmins, monetary offerings, and other necessary things……

Punditji studies the perplexity on Dhan Maya’s face, and said, “Don’t bother about the Brahmin devatas. Get the things ready.”

Early next morning, Punditji reached Dhan Maya’s courtyard with his contingent. Two of his sons – one five and another six, a three year old nephew, a son of his sister – five year old—came in white dhoti and kurta, committed to winning Lord Indra’s throne for Man Bahadur.

Dhan Maya kept staring at the infant pundits for a long time with dejected eyes.

“Every priest is as busy as a bee,” Punditji clarified. “We cannot keep things pending though. So I brought these young pundits along. Remember to offer your dakshina to them in the end.”

Punditji winked at the infant pundits. The ritual commenced soon. Intermittently the pundits left the yagya – some to drink water, and others to relieve themselves. A young man found job for a whole day, taking their care. In the evening they got a brass pitcher each, along with a pocketful of coins and bills, and a sumptuous meal to their satisfaction.

The thirteenth or the last day of the mourning ritual came too. The single cow in the shed too went to Punditji’s herd.

The wounds of the tragic valediction had barely healed when the money lenders, including Mahananda Pundit, presented their dues in front of Dhan Maya. They did not at the least hesitate to add salt to the aching bruises in her heart.

Who would not avail a ticketless melodrama? Mahananda invited the elderly villagers too. The village Panchayat sat to calculate the transactions. The credit was a little more that the total value of her existing property. They decided to claim her land and farm. Without a word, she signed the agreement, and fell on the ground, unconscious. From inside the house, faint cries of the hungry infants kept coming, “Aama, we are hungry. Give us food.”

Guwahati, Assam (India)