By Birendrakumar Bhattacharya
Translation: Manjit Borah and Jugal Kalita
It was early morning.
``Oh Lord! I have sinned. Take my life away! God, take my life away!'' Maakon prayed earnestly kneeling in front of the altar in her home. Since the day she lost her right to a dot of red vermilion on her forehead due to her husband's untimely death, she had been praying in this manner every day. Today was no exception. Today, she felt utterly ignored by god. If the almighty could not relieve her from her sufferings, who could?
People despised her. There was no one to take care of her empty house. There was not a single kind- hearted neighbor whose sympathy she could look forward to! She did not have any land beyond the compound of her homestead. She was forced to beg from door to door for a living. She spent most of her days toiling at Baapukon's house. She earned a little money or got paid in kind for doing small chores for his wife. This was how she had survived two painful years of widowed life.
Maakon was moved to tears while praying. Her tears flooded the floor, but it was in vain. God would not put an end to her worldly agony! God seemed oblivious to her supplications, ``Take away my life of sin! Lord, take my life away!'' This morning, her prayer was repeatedly interrupted by impure thoughts. Again and again, the image of Baapukon appeared in her mind's eye.
Baapukon was the goxaai of the village, the resident spiritual and religious guide. He was a fair, healthy and handsome man with a pleasant face. His presence brought peace to troubled souls. When he prayed, his melodious voice sounded like the crooning of bees. People venerated him. At home, he performed elaborately orchestrated prayers four times a day. His living room was always crowded with his disciples who waited for an audience with him with their respectful offerings.
But, there were fewer seekers of advice and blessing during the rainy season. In this season, people worked on their farms. Therefore, they could not afford to take time to off to visit his holiness. Not a single soul visited him yesterday.
On this day, his wife had gone to visit her mother. It was quite far. Therefore she was scheduled to return late, not before dusk.
Maakon reached the backyard of Baapukon's home and called out loudly, ``Oh, mother! Oh, mother!''
Since his wife was not home, Baapukon responded, ``Who is that? Is it Maakon? Come! Come on in here.'' Hearing his soft and pleasing voice, her heart started beating faster.
Baapukon's wife had served lunch early before she left so that he could relax the rest of the day. He was resting on a reed mat, reclining on a soft pillow. Maakon hesitantly walked inside. Baapukon was bare-chested. He looked up at her with a smile on his winsome face.
His smile did not seem innocent to her. What was happening? Oh, Lord! She was mortally embarrassed, but she stood motionless. She was unable to raise her eyes off the floor. She was unable to utter a word.
``Maakon, you are almost family. You should never be so embarrassed in front of me. Come! Sit beside me. Let me tell you some stories about your late husband who was a friend of mine. When we were young,...'' Baapukon paused.
Maakon made an attempt to leave. The man stood up. ``Wait! Maakon, wait!'' Reluctantly, Maakon stopped in her tracks. ``Why are you here? What do you want? My wife is not home.'' ``Nothing that can't wait, sir. Your wife had promised me a basket of rice.'' She stood still not knowing what else to do.
``OK, you will get your rice. You mustn't worry when I am around. On his death bed, your husband requested me to take good care of you as long as I lived.''
Maakon knew that the priest was being sly. She realized that Baapukon was hinting at something sinful. She was positively frightened, but it was as if some unknown force had arrested her ability to move. At the same time, although she was terrified, she was also drawn to him by an unknown attraction. She was tempted by the lustful signals coming from him.
She returned home after a while. Before she left, Baapukon told her that he would briefly stop by her house the next morning to see for himself how she was doing.
That night she couldn't bat an eyelid. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw her angry husband's fiery eyes chasing her. She was terribly ashamed of her behavior in Baapukon's presence, earlier in the afternoon. She knew she did not sin herself. It was the priest who seemed aroused.
Would the Lord forgive her indiscretion? Never! Would society pardon her if it knew? It never would! Could she forgive herself? She never could! Baapukon surely knew black magic. Without fail, he could charm everyone with his beautiful eyes, his captivating smile, and his sweet talk.
So, after finishing her morning chores, she started praying. ``Take away my life before scheming Baapukon comes. Oh, Lord! Please take my life away before I fall in the claws of that charlatan!''
But, god failed her once again. Time seemed to stand still till Baapukon arrived. Howevermuch she tried otherwise, once again, she found herself staring at the attractive man in front of her. Baapukon smiled at her and asked, ``What's the matter, my love? Did I surprise you?''
There was eroticism in his voice. Betraying her inner self, Maakon was thirsting for love, too. Baapukon's voice melted her. She couldn't control herself any more. Like a motionless idol, she intently stared back at Baapukon.
Baapukon fetched himself a piece of tattered bamboo mat and sat down. Unable to fathom what was in her mind, he decided to take the lead himself. ``You must take better care of your house. It's falling apart piece by piece.''
``Yes, sir! I know. But, there is no one to take good care of it.''
``I think it is time for you to make a serious decision. I think you should come and live in my compound. You will continue to work as our maid as you do now. You will become a part of our family. You will eat with us. That way, I will be able to take better care of you.''
``No, sir! I want to die in this house of my ancestors. Please forgive this poor soul.''
``Alright! I respect your wishes. But you are a woman! How can you survive all by yourself?''
``Sir! I have my god in my altar. He will look after me.''
``Of course!'' The goxaai retorted sarcastically and glanced towards the altar. He suddenly donned an utterly serious face. ``Which god's idol do you have on your altar?''
``The idol of Lord Narayan, your reverence!''
``Where did you procure the idol from?''
``From Dergaon, sir!''
``When was the last time you bathed the idol?''
``Two years ago.''
``What? You, sinner! Why are you keeping the idol for which you have no respect? Do you want to go straight to hell?''
``I am afraid of living all alone in an empty house. My god's idol is my company.''
``Huh!,'' Baapukon pondered over the seriousness of the situation for a while and announced his decision.
``I, myself, will bathe the idol tomorrow at dawn. You will surely go to the purgatory if you keep god's idol uncared for like you have done so far.''
Sounding this dire warning, the goxaai left the house. Maakon was weighed down with deep spiritual regret. It was true that she hadn't bathed the idol for two long years. As a result, there was no reason for the lord to be happy with her. Why would god listen to her prayers if he was angry at her insolence? Her respect and reverence for the goxaai increased many folds. He was deeply worried for her ignorant soul!
Baapukon arrived at her house at the crack of dawn the next day. She was a bit perplexed. Why did he have to perform the cleansing ceremony at this odd hour? Maybe, the reverend had determined it to be a holy moment. He wanted to redeem her soul of the sins she had committed over a period of two years.
She opened the door in earnest, and stepped out. In the light darkness, she saw that the goxaai's body shone like holy smoke rising from burning incense. The man definitely was godly! She stared at Baapukon in awe.
Baapukon said softly, ``Honey, you are truly my goddess!'' Maakon was flabbergasted. What motives did he have to call her ``honey'' and ``goddess!'' She stared at the priest in disbelief.
``You are surprised, aren't you? I saw a dream, woke up, and marched here.''
``What kind of dream?''
``Lord Narayan has instructed me to remove his idol from this wretched hut!''
``It can't be true! It's a lie!''
``I never lie,'' the goxaai answered firmly with a smile.
``I will never let you take the idol away!''
``I know you can't live without your god's idol. So, when the idol leaves so must you, my love!''
``I will never leave this house!''
``God will be furious if you don't!''
Maakon was frightened to core. She lamented, ``No! My lord will never be angry with me! He never will!'' She ran amuck towards the altar.
Baapukon stood motionless for a few moments and then followed after her. By this time, she had wrapped the idol around her neck in a hand-woven scarf, and was standing respectfully near the altar.
It had become bright outside. Baapukon yelled at her ``You sinner! What do you think you are doing? It's a new day. How dare you touch god's idol without cleansing yourself first? Don't you know it's sacrilege to touch god's idol without an ablution first?''
``You will have my idol only over my dead body!''
Baapukon was dumbfounded. This was not the vulnerable Maakon he saw yesterday. This was definitely not the woman who cowered in his presence the day before. This was a new incarnation he never thought existed. He surmised, it would not be possible to take charge of her life in such a situation.
Baapukon waited for a while outside the house. Finally he slowly trudged back home.
Four days later Baapukon learned from his wife that Maakon had been fasting from the moment he left her house. She was constantly praying with the idol tied around her neck. The only times she ventured away from the altar were to have cleansing baths. She even slept by the altar. She was already in a serious condition from exhaustion and starvation.
Baapukon did not respond when his wife broke the news to him.
His wife was visibly irritated with him After a while she herself decided to go over to Maakon's house.
There were a few neighbors sitting in the living room of Maakon's house. Baapukon's wife did not speak to anyone and went straight inside. ``Maakon,'' she addressed her.
Maakon was lying near the shrine, almost unconscious. At first she didn't seem to hear her voice. When she spoke again, Maakon replied, ``Is that you, Mother?'' ``Yes! Have you gone crazy? What do you think you are suffering for?''
``Mother, I have been summoned by the lord.'' Maakon said faintly.
``No! No! You are too young to die. Snap out of this nonsense! Come with me. Let us go to our house right now. I will nurse you back to health. Things will be alright.''
``Mother, please leave me alone. Please let me die with dignity serving my god.''
Baapukon's wife kept on trying to convince her to eat something. But it was in vain. Maakon was firmly determined to die.
Baapukon's wife went back home, and reprimanded her husband for not doing anything to alleviate Maakon's pains. She had concluded that Maakon would not listen to anyone except the goxaai, the holy man of the village.
``I don't think I can help her!''
``You are very cruel!'' His wife murmured and walked away. ``If you do not save her, you can take me for dead, too. Who else does she have other than us?''
Baapukon stared at her in silence. What should he say to her? It was his transgression that started this awful incident. He stood up and walked out of the house.
When he reached Maakon's house, he walked to the altar. It was noon. There was nobody else around. The goxaai put his hand on the unconscious Maakon's forehead and spoke softly, ``Do you hear me, Maakon?''
Maakon labored to open her eyes and looked him in the eye. ``What?'' Her eyes were tired. ``I recommend that you end this crazy fast unto death right this moment. Nobody will ever dare to take your idol away.''
Maakon replied in pain, ``Sir! I don't wish to linger even a moment longer in this world. Oh merciful god! I beseech you to save me from my worldly sufferings.''
Baapukon looked at her tired and serene face. He was at a loss regarding what to do next.
Just then Baapukon's wife walked in. She brought with her a bowl of soaked rice and yogurt along with a few ripe bananas. He felt relieved at her arrival. He turned towards Maakon and said softly, ``Maakon, see what my wife has brought for you!''
Maakon opened her eyes and seeing Baapukon's wife, said faintly, ``Mother, what have you brought for me? I wish to rather not eat, but put an end to this miserable life. Death is better than living alone in widowhood.''
Baapukon's wife shared in Maakon's grief by crying out in despair, ``I swear in god's name! If you want to die, I will kill myself, too.''
But Maakon was adamant. She was angry with Baapukon. She detested the whole world that relentlessly conspired against her. Knowing her hapless situation, Baapukon had approached her with his despicable erotic desires. She could never broach this to anyone, but no one could deny the truth either. She very well understood the goxaai's motive for attempting to confiscate her idol as a punishment for a breach of her spiritual conduct. He wanted to capture her in his vise. Once in his grip, how could a helpless woman ever escape with a shred of dignity?
It was even more complicated than that. Her mundane life was insolvent, too. Without enduring pity of Baapukon's family, how could she ever survive? Who would she turn to for day-to-day needs? Where would she work to earn even her meager living? Baapukon was right. A helpless woman could not survive a day in this cruel world without the protection of a someone resourceful. Especially a penniless widow!
Baapukon was well-established in society. People respected him. In contrast, what did she have? This society didn't understand her predicament. So, she had decided that it was far more honorable to die with dignity at that moment rather than give in to Baapukon's lust and die a slow and painful death.
She did not want to express her feelings of despair and shame to anyone, because she was convinced that nobody would understand.
The goxaai and his wife were frustrated and tired struggling against the widow's determination to die. Suddenly Baapukon regained his spiritual authority, and made a crucial decision. Baapukon announced that Maakon was under the influenced of Saturn, the god of ill fortune and bad luck. Therefore there should be an elaborate and formal reading of the scriptures in honor of the goddess Sondee to overcome the ill effects. He would conduct the prayers right there in front of the enfeebled and prostrate Maakon. Having failed in every other way, Baapukon's wife thought this was the best thing to do under the circumstances. She labored to make appropriate arrangements for the prayers to start in the evening.
With a determination never seen before, Baapukon recited the prayers praising the powers of the goddess. The prayers continued through the night. After a few hours, his wife was tired and started dozing, and finally fell asleep on a reed and bamboo mat. However, nothing could disturb Baapukon's fervent worship. It continued uninterrupted.
Late at night, when he briefly lost his unbroken attention, he looked at Maakon and noticed that her eyes were fixed on him. He paused and politely asked, ``Maakon, do you feel better now?'' Maakon nodded giving a positive response.
By morning Maakon's tired eyes were weeping incessantly.
Baapukon finished his recitation and nudged his wife, ``Wake up! It seems goddess Sondee has taken pity on us. She has heard our prayers. Before you go home for your customary morning ablution, give Maakon something to eat.''
His wife rose and rinsed the soaked rice well. She added yogurt and sugar to it and put a little in Maakon's mouth.
Maakon was still engrossed listening to the high prayers to the goddess Sondee. All anger, sorrow and fright were dispelled from her mind. She was filled with a feeling of calm submission to the goddess.
Maakon was so lost in her reverent thoughts that she didn't know when she started swallowing the food. Only when she cleaned out the bowl and Baapukon's wife asked if she wanted more, she realized that her determination to die was broken by the power of goxaai's prayers.
``No, thank you. I am full.'' She looked the other way and responded.
She was no longer sorry for herself any more. She felt that her attempt to die has had an enormous and palpable impact on Baapukon. Probably, the same divine power would pull him toward goodness.
After it was bright and his wife left for home, Maakon looked at Baapukon and said, ``Sir, may goddess Sondee bless you with wisdom!''
Baapukon did not resent the comments. He sighed in relief and said gently, ``I swear, Maakon! You must get well. If I displayed any illicit intent toward you, I have given them up forever. From now on, if I displease you, goddess Sondee will be unhappy with me. From this day, you are my spiritual peer.''
Maakon sat up. ``Sir, a man of wisdom like you must never praise an ignoramus like me! You are a man of divinity.''
Baapukon sighed knowingly and left for home.
Maakon also sighed in relief and embraced the idol of Lord Narayan that she was still wearing in the scarf around her neck. In her own mind, she knew that she could fully depend on the goxaai's goodwill and protection for the rest of her life.
Translated from the Assamese original ``Maakonor Goxaai,'' Axomiyaa Galpa Gussa, eds., Maheswar Neog, Jogesh Das, and Narayan Sarma, Axom Xahitya Xabha, 1984. Manjit Borah is a Ph.D. student of computer science at the Pennsylvania State University.