|Javal - 2|
But Javal could not contain herself. "Everyone stopped talking with me. When I went out, people hid their children. They would stop milking their cows and buffaloes. I got so angry I started cursing them. If anything I said came true by sheer coincidence, I would laugh out loud and yell for all to hear, ‘Didn’t I say so?’ So the story of my witchcraft spread. Not only the children, even their parents were afraid of me… I lost all interest in life, Manki!"
Manki wanted to console her mother, to gently stroke her back, but she didn’t. She merely said, "What did you gain by this deliberate tomfoolery, Bai?"
"I was ostracised, Manki, I was all alone — I had to do something."
"All right, let’s go."
But before the mother and daughter could step out, loud wailing was heard from the direction of the village. They were stunned. Javal’s face went pale. Years of loneliness and hunger had brought her to the verge of insanity. Yet her daughter’s arrival had sparked a desire to stay alive and it was snuffed out by every new wave of the marasia lament coming from the village. Her eyes widened with horror and she muttered with great difficulty, "What shall we do?"
"Nothing, Bai! Nothing can be done now," Manki said with an effort. She was frightened. She would be undone if people came to know that she had come to this house and was maintaining relations with her mother — a declared witch. She was young, she had three children and a husband.
"Let’s run away."
"The villagers must have already started out. They’ll see us."
"What should we do?"
Manki was regretting her mad impulse. Her first reaction was to run away before the villagers came, to leave her mother to her fate. But that invisible bond of gentle feeling which the youngest child always has for its mother held her back.
Suddenly, she was inspired: "Bai, get into the kothi quickly."
"But the villagers…"
"I’ll take care of them. Don’t you move at all, Bai! Don’t make the slightest sound. Don’t come out unless I call you… come on, slide inside. Be quick."
She helped Javal up so that her hands could reach the rim of the urn — she could hear the din of the approaching crowd quite clearly.
"Quick! Be quick!" said Manki, pushing her into the urn with a heave.
Javal fell into the wide mouth of the urn. She was so thin and light that it did not even stir as it took her weight.
Manki had collected her wits by the time the crowd rushed in. Before the excited men could raise their sticks or their voices, she spoke: "I had come to Bai to beg for an amulet to cure Bhagwan Bhai’s son. But the godforsaken one must be wandering somewhere amongst the woods — I couldn’t find her here."
"Javali has killed the boy. Bhagwan Bhai’s wife did not give her milk on the last full moon day. The witch has taken her revenge. And you, Manki, you are not to be trusted. Why have you stepped into her house?"
"I thought everyone else would be afraid, but she is my mother, after all. Why should I not try to placate her and make her give me some antidote for the spell, so that the boy’s life could be saved? But she wasn’t home."
"Where could she have gone? She is not in the village or the fields. Girl, speak up! Have you hidden her somewhere?"
"Where could I hide her? Here is the house, wide open. Why don’t you see for yourself?" Manki stepped aside.
Like a pack of wolves, the crowd started tearing the house apart, raining curses and abuse on the village witch. Someone remembered that Javal had once asked him, ‘How are you?’ and soon he had been taken sick for six long months. Someone said that Javal had caressed his cow and straightaway she had stopped giving milk. Javal had praised a bride’s ornaments, and they were lost. There were so many stories in the air, when someone smelled a burnt rotla. He rushed into the kitchen and smashed a couple of old clay platters to smithereens.
Feeling very brave, he came out and declared, "This rotla is still hot. Manki is a liar. Javalidosi must be in the house. Let us hunt her out and kill the sinful one. Where is her son? Sukhla! Why are you hiding at the back? Coward! Don’t you know that a witch is a witch? She must be killed whether she is your sister or your mother. Where are your wits? Do you want to keep the village alive or the witch?"
Sukhla came up in front, his head bowed, and said "You are right, Elder! But she must be found first."
Manki closed her eyes. This was her brother. These others, they were brothers too. And there was a father, who had run away from the village because he was afraid that his wife was really a witch… God alone knew where he was, or even if he was alive. All of them were alive and well but Javal was alone — all alone. Manki shivered, fearing for her own safety if Javal was found. She wanted to live for the sake of her children. She did not want to be beaten to death by these people for the sake of her mother. So Javal was completely and truly alone. A weak old woman, her mind unhinged by her solitary life.
Suddenly someone shouted out: "This kothi. Let us break the kothi. Let us see what’s inside."
The sticks went to work — heavy blows rained on the urn till it was shattered and the pieces fell apart. Javal’s emaciated body rolled out like a skeleton covered with skin and came to rest at the feet of the people at the front of the crowd.
Some men raised their sticks but someone warned them, "Be careful, she must not bleed. The blood of a witch is very dangerous. It is better to hang her."
Before they could make up their minds a big cobra slithered out from under a broken piece of the urn and raised its hood. Panicked, the crowd rushed out.
The cobra who had saved them from the sin of murdering a woman was still for a while, looking at Javal’s body. Then it inched away slowly in search of another shelter in the house.
Manki had pressed herself against a wall. She was listening to her own silent lament. "Oh Bai, I have killed you… it is I!"
The snake inside the house, and the people out there. She dared not touch her mother’s feet for the last time. Manki slunk out, careful to avoid being noticed, and disappeared in the crowd.
Translated from the Gujarati by the author with TLM
thick, coarse bread made of bajra flour
p. 1 p. 2
Dhiruben Patel is a poet and fiction writer. Her honours include the national Sahitya Akademi award. She lives in Bombay and writes in Gujarati and English