Shravan: the beginning of monsoon. For many days, the rain clouds had dispersed their burden. From the vicinity of Nada or Lobtulia, or from the vantage point of Grant Sahib's banyan tree, one could look in any direction and see only a verdant sea of fledgling reeds.
One day, I received a letter from Rajah Dobru Panna inviting me to attend the celebration of the Jhulon festival on the night of the full moon in Shravan. Raju and Motuknath did not let the opportunity slip, and decided to go with me. Since they were going on foot, they started their journey ahead of me.
It was 1:30 in the afternoon by the time we crossed the river Michhi. Not wanting to be late, I left the others behind and raced ahead on horseback. The dark clouds began to congregate in the western sky and soon they let loose their torrents.
What a splendid scene I witnessed in the monsoon-soaked hinterlands! Along the horizon the distant mountains were tinged with blue, the sky was gravid with menacing storm-clouds. In the forest branches, the peacocks pranced with their tail feathers outspread. The peasant children frolicked in the mountain springs and caught fish with spears and traps fashioned from shal and bamboo. The slate-gray boulders acquired a darker hue, and the cowherds sat atop the boulders and smoked bidis improvised with shal leaves. The hushed repose of that arcadian expanse: the dense woods, the meadows, the mountain springs, the hamlets nestled among the hills, the rich reddish-brown earth, and the occasional kadam or pial trees.
I reached Rajah Dobru Panna's domain at dusk.
The thatched room I had seen before had been freshly coated and cleaned to welcome guests. The earthen walls had been painted with lotus plants and peacocks, and the wooden pillar in the center was adorned with flowers and vines. My bedding had not arrived yet, but this presented no difficulty since the room had a new rug and a couple of fresh bolsters.
Presently, the princess Bhanumoti entered the room with a bowl of milk and an arrangement of fresh fruits on a brass platter. Another girl of the same age followed, an attendant with whole betel nuts, betel leaves, and the requisite spices.
Bhanumoti was dressed in a berry-coloured saree that came down to her knees. She wore a necklace of red and green glass beads, and spider lilies in her chignon. She had blossomed into a lissome young lady, and yet her eyes retained the innocence of the young girl I had known before.
“Well, Bhanumoti, how have you been?” I asked.
Oblivious to the etiquette of polite society, Bhanumoti smiled and said, “And you, babuji?”
“I am fine.”
“Here, eat something. You must be hungry; you were riding all day.”
Without waiting for a reply, she sat down before me and took two pieces of papaya from the plate and offered them to me.
I greatly appreciated this unabashed gesture of goodwill. How sweet and unexpected it seemed to me, a visitor from Bengal—how charmingly unassuming! Could a Bengali girl of sixteen years be so unselfconscious with a man who was not her kin? Our ideas about women are tangled and complicated; we cannot think about them without prejudice, nor can we mingle freely with them.
It dawned upon me that just as nature in this province was free and uninhibited, and the forests, skies and mountains unconstrained, so too was Bhanumoti. She was just as natural, open, and spontaneous. She conducted herself in my presence as one human being should with another. I remembered Monchi and Benkotesh Prosad's wife who behaved in a very similar manner. The forests and mountains had set their souls free; hence, their affection too was keen, generous, and unrestrained.
And yet, I found Bhanumoti's behaviour to be unparalleled. For the first time I seemed to realize how cordial a woman could be when she is unhindered by social prejudice. Such grace was like a door opening from heaven. The spirit of the eternal woman I saw in Bhanumoti is sadly subdued in women who are bound by the social norms and prejudices of polite society.
In fact, she was even more open and cordial than the last time we had met. Perhaps she sensed that this Bengali babu is a friend of their family, a well-wisher; hence she treated me as if I were a close relative, as if she were my sister. This humble and artless offering somehow seemed far more sincere than the affectations of the most civilized conduct.
Rajah Dobru had been busy with preparations for the festive occasion. Finally, he came to meet me.
“Do you arrange Jhulon on a regular basis?” I asked.
Rajah Dobru said, “Celebrating Jhulon is a longstanding tradition in our family history. Our relatives travel from far and wide to take part in the Jhulon dance every year. In fact, about two and a half maunds of rice will have to be cooked tomorrow.”
As a Brahmin, Motuknath had been hoping for a generous bequest from the royal family. He had wondered about the splendor of the royal palace. I could see from the expression on his face that he was rather disappointed. He probably thought that his schoolhouse was better than this king's palace.
Raju could not contain himself and exclaimed, “How is he a king, sir? He is merely a Shantal tribal leader. Even I own more buffalos than he does.” Raju had already surveyed the Rajah's worldly assets. People in this region assess a man's wealth by size of his herd.
Deep into the night, the moonlight slipped through the branches of the ancient trees and wove an enchanted web of light and dark in the dooryards of the village homes. Emanating from the king's household, a chorus of women's voices joined in an enigmatic song. The women, relatives and companions of the princess, were rehearsing for the following day's festivities. The melody of their voices and the music of the madal continued all through the night.
Eventually I fell asleep, but even my slumber was soaked in their music.
Sohana Manzoor is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh, and Nausheen Eusuf is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University.