Cry me a river
Can pain be mapped? Can obfuscations of an old decaying world embedded in the dank soil of a depleting forest, emanating from the rustling of luscious leaves, be calculated and erased in a swoop? Can men, women, children, animals, trees and in-between beings, animate, inanimate, worldly, other-worldly, be extracted from their destinies, which are intimately connected to ecologies, habitats? In Kumari Nadi, Jyotirmay Mandal gives us a heart-wrenching portrait of what it means when the surge of civilisation, or whatever is left of it, clashes with pockets of timelessness and ways of life still inadequately changed by culture. But more than that, Mandal traces the violence of certain practices which reek of extreme obscurantism untouched by liberal education on the one hand and closely interwoven with nature’s own rhythm, immersed in rivers that flow through its heart.
Kumari Nadi, a Bengali novel published earlier this year, is Mandal’s shattering account of one such antediluvian practice that still carries on in remote heartlands of Bengal’s Purulia district. Witch hunts in tribal clusters of those forestlands are something that have attracted government and reformist attention only sporadically, and the women who are singled out as witches (dayini in Bengali) continue to suffer a life worse than hell. Mandal’s fictional universe is set around a diminishing ecosystem by the humble banks of a tiny river, Kumari, which dries up every summer but fills up during the moody monsoons. It is here that the horrors of Jangalmahal play out as a young tribal girl Nilmoni is singled out as a witch and her husband Sudhir is made to go through a harrowing time himself, by dangling arms of tribal chieftans, corrupt policemen as well as political goons hired to carry out will of invisible remote leaders.
While witch-hunting is not confined to Bengal – it can be traced in Assam, Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar – Mandal’s story weaves together lives that are spun around the obscurantist and brutal practice that kills in the name of purging. Manda, Sudhir’s mother and Baradaprasad, a schoolteacher, play prominent roles in this intimate tale of a woman’s sudden transformation from a mere girl to a ‘witch’, undergoing the public laceration and physical, psychological lynching that is the ritual of exorcism. A woman is raped, violated and brutalised in the name of cleansing, yet the government looks the other way, unless there’s a vested interest in intervention and rehabilitation, or global media attention has suddenly dawned on the ‘heart of darkness.’
Yet, what Mandal also shows and unambiguously so, is the integration of nature, the land, the trees, the birds and animals into ways of life of the indigenous people of Purulia. How even their violence somehow stems from the exhalations of the forest, how the black magic finds a curious and rustic logic in the ferocities of a ravaged nature. Yet, the women, whose cries break open the harshest of skies, dry up rivers of history at times and turn them into bursting gales of watery fury on the other, they always become the targets, deliberate or unwitting, of violence, mostly male, whether civilisational or barbaric.
The ecology of desire that Mandal paints is a tumultuous one. Legal treatments (Section 323 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) recommends one year’s imprisonment and fine of some thousand rupees for those who are found associated with witch hunt cases) aside, there’s a need to comprehend and empathise with a society that’s on the cusp of extinction on the one hand, and is mired in untenable beliefs with gruesome repercussions on women (or other minorities). It is a habitat of helplessness, yet also of throbbing and lush love, of emotions raw and clipped. Can the Supreme Court of India really understand and connect with the ‘witches’ of Purulia? Does rehabilitating them take into account mental and physiological counseling that uprooting and collective violence subjects them to? Can the ministry of women and child development address the unaccustomed trauma of environmental decimation which becomes the fate of those who escape being branded as witches? Mandal begs us to see the whole picture, and while Kumari Nadi is a plea to spare a thought for the hapless bewitched women of Purulia, it is equally a cry to save the natural world, its succulent nooks and corners, its beautiful but threatened bounties.