CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE INTERROGATION!
My aunt was soon carried by my father and my uncle, and as they held her in position on the seat meant for her, Bihari Baba chanted some new commands, in what seemed like Sanskrit language to most people in the audience. No one could make out a word of what he said, but when he raised his voice and threw some more of this powder on the fire, my aunt suddenly shook up and opened her eyes wide open.
To cut a long story short, the next three hours were pretty eventful. We were able to witness my aunt in her various moods during this period. Sometimes she would be like a small child pleading with Bihari Baba to let her go, and sometimes she was the definition of everything evil and scary, as she snarled at the audience, and threatened to kill everyone. Bihari baba managed to keep his composure all through this, although his own actions were equally diverse in nature, and made us all cringe at times. There were times, especially when my aunt was sobbing and pleading for forgiveness, when he was patting my aunt’s head with the the warmth of a consoling parent. And then, there were times when she showed aggression, and he would respond by beating her with a stick, or broom or even one of the slippers. And at times he could be pretty ruthless, and watching all this made everyone in the crowd very uncomfortable.
My uncle could not watch this anymore, as he lowered his face and covered them with his palms, breaking into an inconsolable sob. We could only imagine how helpless he might have felt, watching his dear wife practically being assaulted by this stranger and yet, being unable to stop it from happening. My father himself was seated with his head hung low, with one arm around the shoulder of his sobbing brother, trying to comfort him. He knew very well, that if this did not solve the entire problem, he would be held responsible by everyone in the family for letting this happen, and deservedly so.
Soon, the day light started to decrease and darkness descended eventually, as the flames continued to dance in front of all our eyes. The heat from the fire and the smoke generated from the powder and the coconut fibres, made us rub our eyes with discomfort, but everyone continued to comply with the directive issued by Baba, and stuck to their positions.
At one point, my aunt declared that she was hungry, and Baba pointed to the buckets of food kept in one corner of the circle. She greedily walked there, sat next to the buckets and started to feast on what was kept inside. It was an unbelievable sight watching a woman eat from the bucket with her bare hands, as she dug her hands deep inside the buckets and picked up large scoops of rice and stuffed them in her mouth. Much of what she picked would fall or drip to the ground, which was soon a complete mess of spilled rice and daal. Once she finished the main two items, she raised the bucket of water over her head and drank directly from it, finishing most of it, before putting it back on the ground. The food seemed to have calmed her down to some extent, and she was neither crying nor threatening anyone anymore.
Over the last couple of hours Baba had been shooting numerous questions at her, and her answers were as diverse as Baba’s response to those answers. When she refused to answer directly, or gave an answer that Baba did not feel satisfied with, he would hit at her with the broomstick and she would often revise her answer, just like a school kid would do with the head master.
This time, we heard Baba asking,
– “Who is with you?”
And my aunt, with a slight stutter, mentioned four names, which most of the people in the audience didn’t find to be familiar. But my grandma shifted a little with some visible unease and leaning towards my father, whispered something in his ear;
– “That last name she mentioned, Baikuntha… I think I know who that is.”
My father looked at her with inquisitive eyes as she continued;
– “He is a distant uncle of mine, my father’s maternal cousin. I mean he was… he died almost two decades back!”
My father didn’t know how to react or what sense to make out of it. In a feeble voice, he asked her if she recognised any of the other three names, but she assured him she didn’t.
Meanwhile, Bihari Baba continued with his interrogation and my aunt seemed to be cornered into a defensive, probably even a submissive stance.
But when Bihari Baba ordered in a firm voice;
– “Ab tujhe jaana padega” [You have to leave NOW]
My aunt calmly replied in Bengali,
– ”Ami jabo na! Ekhono shomoy hoy ni” [I won’t go, it is not the time yet]
And this brought back the violence!
This time it was even more brutal, as Baba continued to hit her with the broom, with more and more force, as some of them landed on her upper arm and a couple even straight on her face. My uncle could take it no more and was about to get up and restrain Bihari Baba, amidst a loud gasp from the audience, as they shivered at the thought of what might happen, if my uncle decided to do so. But my father held my uncle back with a firm grip on his shirt, as he also pleaded to Bihari Baba not to hurt my aunt any more. But Baba wasn’t listening to anyone, as he kept on hitting at my aunt mercilessly and we could all hear her crying out aloud;
– “He will kill me! Someone help me!”
After a few minutes of this action, during which most in the audience almost closed their eyes in disgust and shame, we suddenly heard my aunt saying;
– “Thik ache, tui ja bolbi tai korbo” [Okay, I will do whatever u say]
The audience focused their eyes back at the stage.
What followed was a conversation that nobody had anticipated and it went something like this:
– “When will u go?”
– “Tomorrow” – She replied with a dejected tone.
– “No I want u to leave today, NOW!” – Baba insisted, raising his voice again.
– “No I want to have two more meals”
– “You will get no more meals, if you don’t go, I will…” Baba raised that dreaded broom up again…
– “Ok ok, I will go today, don’t hit me any more.”
– “How do we know that you are really gone?”
– “I will dig a deep hole in the ground”
– “What about your home? Where did you stay last night?”
– “On a tree” she feebly responded.
– “Which tree? The palm tree by the pond?” Baba wanted details.
– “Yes, the last one to the south. I found her below that tree.”
– “You have to destroy that tree where you live” to which she remained silent for a while, and finally nodded her head in consent.
– “Are the others in the other trees?” Baba was not done yet.
– “No, three of us took the same palm tree, Bankim has already left” She murmured, looking down at her own feet.
– “If you really leave, will the others come back here?” Baba’s concern remained.
– “No, I was the one who brought them along. They cannot stay if I am gone.”
Baba seemed to be content at the progress made through this dialogue and his tone softened to a large extent. The crowd, meanwhile, had absolutely no clue of what was going on and they started making their own interpretations.
Suddenly my aunt’s voice trembled to a weeping tone as she pleaded with Baba;
– “Ratan ke bolish na kichhu” [Don’t tell anything to Ratan] and Baba seemed to nod giving a tacit approval to the request.
My grandma leaned towards my father and whispered again;
– “Ratan is Baikuntha’s son, he lives in Asansol”
Baba told my aunt to get ready and poured some water on the fire, which blinked a few times and went out, leaving all of us in the darkness. Then Baba reached out for his sack and took out a small bottle of oil, spread it on a few pieces of timber and lit a new fire to mark the beginning of a new ritual. As the fire jumped up into high flames, everyone in the crowd was forced to cover their eyes and noses. The fumes and the smoke were so strong and so unbearable, that it brought all of us close to a choking point. Our eyes and throats were hurting with a burning sensation and every single person was coughing, gagging, and struggling for breath.
And as the myth goes, when everyone had their sense organs troubled and occupied with the survival against the nauseating effect of this strange oil that Baba had poured into the fire, there rose a sudden storm out of nowhere. Apart from the three people inside the inner circle, no one really saw or even sensed this storm, but all three inside the circle were shaken by this tremendous, although short lived gust of wind. My aunt collapsed dramatically on the floor, right next to the fire that went out without even a blink this time, and even though we did not feel the storm ourselves, we did hear the loud noise of the rear gate banging and everyone immediately looked towards that direction. It was later explained to the clueless audience, that a storm had originated ‘from my aunt’, it had spun around the fire, extinguished it with one puff and then escaped through the narrow opening in the circle and out through the rear gate.
There was however, little evidence and few witnesses, to validate that story, but all of us did get to see that my aunt was lying unconscious, right next to where the fire was once.