The long February night refused to let the dawn break. Umaprasad woke up. He looked for his wife under the quilt, but couldn’t find her. His searching hand finally located his sixteen-year old wife curled up in one corner of the bed outside the warmth of the quilt. He slowly shifted towards his sleeping wife and carefully put the quilt back on her, stretching his hand towards her legs to ensure they were fully covered too.
Umaprasad was in his twenties. He had recently mastered Sanskrit and was now turning his attention towards Persian. His mother had passed away, and his father was an erudite man and an extremely pious devotee of Goddess Kali. He was, at the same time, the highly respected zamindar of the village. Many believed that Umaprasad’s father Kalikinkar Ray was a spiritually enlightened man, personally blessed by Kali herself. Every villager, irrespective of age, revered him as much as they revered their gods.
Umaprasad had only recently begun to enjoy the heady romance of newly married life, though he had been married for as many as five or six years; it was only since a short time ago that he had had the pleasure of his wife’s intimate company. Dayamoyee was her name.
Umaprasad put his hand lightly on his wife’s waist, only to find it had turned cold. Very carefully, he kissed her face lightly.
Immediately, the pace of her breathing changed. Umaprasad realized his wife was now awake. He softly called her name, ‘Daya?’
Daya said, in a long-drawn and loving intonation, ‘What?’
‘Are you awake?’
Daya gulped and said, ‘No, I’m sleeping.’
Umaprasad fondly drew his wife close to his chest and said, ‘Oh you are sleeping, are you? I wonder who responded just now?’
Daya immediately realized her mistake. She said, ‘I was sleeping earlier. And then I woke up.’
Umaprasad asked in a naughty voice, ‘When did you wake up?’
‘When do you think? Right then…’
‘I don’t know.’ Daya tried in vain to wriggle out of her husband’s warm embrace.
For some time, Daya’s shyness wouldn’t let her say when exactly she woke up. But Umaprasad wouldn’t accept anything but a direct answer. After a few moments, she gave up and said, ‘Right then, when you—’ and stopped short.
‘When you kissed me. Happy now? Uff…’
There were still a few hours left for dawn’s faint light to start creeping in. The couple began to talk. Much of the conversation didn’t make any sense at all, as is often the case with conversations between lovers. It’s interesting to note that hundreds of years ago, even our ancestors’ ancestors, in the prime of their youth, were as restless and as fickle in romance as we are today. Despite coming from a family with its roots so deeply entrenched in religion and philosophy, the young Umaprasad had not, even once, mentioned matters of either to his young wife.
The sweet nothings went on for some time. Then Umaprasad said, ‘I’m going to the west to take up a job.’
Daya said, ‘Why do you need to get a job? You don’t have any problems. I’ve never heard a zamindar’s son working at a job.’
‘I do have problems.’
‘If you could’ve understood my problems, they wouldn’t have been problems in the first place.’
Daya was perplexed. She tried to think, but couldn’t figure what problems her husband could be talking about.
She said in a naughty tone, ‘Are you troubled because your wife is not up to your expectations?’
Daya knew very well her remark would upset her husband. As expected, Umaprasad planted a torrent of kisses on her face to take revenge.
‘I do have a worry—and it’s about you too. I don’t get to see you during the day. Being with you in the night doesn’t suffice for me. I’ll take up a job in a foreign land where it’ll be just you and me all day and all night long.’
‘If you take up a job, how do you expect to be with me during the day? You’ll have to leave me at home to go to work.’
‘I’ll go to work, but return really early.’
Daya thought this might be possible. But there were so many hurdles on the way!
‘They won’t let me go with you.’
‘I’m not going to take you from here. When you go to visit your parents, I’ll come and we’ll elope from there.’
Daya laughed. It was a funny idea.
‘And how long would we live there?’
Daya was smiling, but she suddenly remembered something.
‘I don’t think I’d be able to stay away from Khoka for several years.’
Umaprasad put his cheek on his wife’s and whispered into her ears, ‘So why don’t you make a Khoka for yourself?’
This made Daya blush, but thanks to the darkness in the room, it went unnoticed by her husband.
Khoka was none other than the only son of Umaprasad’s elder brother Taraprasad. For several years, being the youngest in the family, Umaprasad had been the recipient of everyone’s love. After he grew up, for a very long period of time, there was no child in the house. Naturally, Khoka was now the apple of everyone’s eyes. Khoka’s mother Harasundari was proud of her son.
Daya said, ‘I wonder why Khoka hasn’t come to me yet today?’
Early every morning, Khoka came to his loving aunt. This was his daily routine. Though there was no dearth of servants in the household, Daya did most of the daily chores herself. The arrangements of her father-in-law’s daily worship and offerings especially were exclusively under her control. But, despite her busy schedule during the day, she wouldn’t let Khoka out of her sight even for a minute. Khoka too wouldn’t let anyone else other than his aunt dry his hair after his bath, or smear kohl in his eyes. He refused to finish his milk unless his aunt held the glass to his lips. Dayamoyee stayed on in his room till late at night to put him to sleep, but early in the morning, Khoka would wake up and start crying, demanding to be taken to his adored aunt. Often, Khoka got a slap or two from his mother because of such unreasonable demands, but needless to say, his demands became more strident after such punishment. Then, in a daze of frustration and slumber, Harasundari would carry Khoka to Daya’s room and leave him outside her door, saying, ‘Daya, here’s your Khoka.’ On most days, knowing the routine well, Daya was up in her bed, and would come running to open the door and receive the weeping child into her arms. She then gave Khoka some sweets, after gleefully devouring which he peacefully fell asleep in his aunt’s lap.
But today, Khoka hadn’t come yet, and Daya was worried. ‘I hope the poor child is all right,’ she said to Umaprasad.
Umaprasad said, ‘I think it’s still quite early. Let me check.’
Umaprasad got up and opened the window. Outside, there was a huge orchard, full of mango and coconut trees. The moon had not set yet but soon would. Daya came and stood by her husband, and said, ‘It’s not too long before dawn now.’
The cold, wintry breeze blew in through the open window. The young man and his beautiful wife stood there for several minutes, staring at each other in the soft moonlight.
Daya said, ‘I’m a little upset. Khoka hasn’t come yet.’
Umaprasad said, ‘It’s not time for him to come yet. He’s probably sleeping. I know why you are upset.’
‘Because I said I would go to the west. That’s why.’ Umaprasad drew his wife closer.
Daya sighed and said softly, ‘I don’t know what to think. Why do I feel I won’t be able to see you again?’
Outside, the moonlight was slowly fading away. His wife’s words made the colour in Umaprasad’s cheeks fade away too.
They stood there for quite some time. In time, the moon set, leaving the trees and plants in cold darkness. The couple returned to their bed.
After sometime, the chirping of birds was heard. Umaprasad and Daya fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Gradually, the gentle rays of the sun found their way into the room through the small holes in the windows. The couple were still fast asleep.
Suddenly, Umaprasad’s father called him from outside the door: ‘Uma!’
Daya was the first to wake up. She nudged her husband.
Kalikinkar called again: ‘Uma’. His voice was trembling, so much so that it was difficult to recognize it as his.
Umaprasad knew that his father usually didn’t call him at such an hour. And why was his voice trembling? Umaprasad quickly opened the door.
Kalikinkar was dressed in the red robe he wore during his daily worship. Why was he dressed so at such an early hour? On other days, he would not don this attire until he had had his daily bath in the river.
As soon as the door opened, Kalikinkar asked his son, ‘Uma, where’s my daughter-in-law?’
There was an unmistakable quiver in his tone. Umaprasad looked into the room. Daya had left the bed and stood at a distance from the door.
Kalikinkar had seen her too. He walked into the room and went straight to his daughter-in-law. He then prostrated himself before her.
Umaprasad was dumbfounded. Dayamoyee was equally shocked at such strange behaviour from her revered father-in-law.
After offering his pranaam, Kalikinkar put his palms together and said, ‘Ma, today I feel truly gratified. But why hadn’t you told me so far, Ma?’
Umaprasad exclaimed, ‘Baba!’
Kalikinkar said, ‘Son, bow your head before her and touch her feet.’
Umaprasad said, ‘Baba, are you insane? What are you saying?’
‘No, son, I’m not insane. I used to be insanely blind, but today I have seen the light, thanks to her.’
Umaprasad had no idea what his father was saying. He asked, ‘Baba, what are you talking about?’
Kalikinkar said, ‘Uma, I’m truly fortunate. Our family has been blessed by divine grace today. As a child, I had been initiated to worship Kali, and all those years of worship and devotion have paid off today. The holy mother, Kali, the goddess herself, has descended to my household in the mortal form of my daughter-in-law. Last night, the Mother herself sent me a message in my dream. I’m truly blessed, son.’
In a matter of moments, the flesh-and-blood Dayamoyee was branded as the goddess.
In the next three days, the word spread far and wide. Hundreds of devotees travelled great distances from other villages for a glimpse of the goddess who had been installed in the household of the famed zamindar, Kalikinkar Ray.
Dayamoyee was literally worshipped, with all the rituals a rich zamindar usually employed to offer homage to his deity. Incense sticks were burned, flowers and fruits offered and several lambs sacrificed right in front of her.
The sudden, shocking attention paid to her all day long made Dayamoyee weep constantly. She hardly ate or slept. She was in such a state of fear and shock that she had completely forgotten the prevalent decorum of covering her head and face in front of men. All day long, she simply stared at unknown faces with expressionless eyes. She hardly spoke, and when she did, she mumbled. Her bloodshot eyes had swollen from all the crying, and her clothes were in disarray.
In the dead of the night, a small lamp burned dimly in a corner of the prayer room. On a thick mattress covered with a silk cloth lay Dayamoyee, her body covered with a blanket. The door wasn’t latched, and opening it softly, Umaprasad crept into the room, his manner suggestive of a thief’s. Once inside, he locked the door.
Umaprasad came and sat by his wife’s bed. He was meeting her for the first time in three days. Dayamoyee was awake. On seeing her husband, she sat up on the bed.
Umaprasad said, ‘Daya, what has happened to you?’
Aah! After three long days, those fond words from her husband shattered her trance-like state, and the sixteen-year-old girl hid her face in her husband’s chest.
Umaprasad repeated in an anguished tone, ‘Daya, what has happened to you?’
But Dayamoyee was silent.
After a few moments, Umaprasad asked his wife, ‘Daya, do you think this is true? Are you not my Daya, are you truly the goddess?’
Daya finally spoke, ‘No, I’m nothing but your wife. I’m nothing but Daya. I’m not a goddess, I’m not Kali.’
Umaprasad kissed his wife and said, ‘If that is the truth, then let us escape from here. We’ll go and live in some faraway place, where no one will be able to find us.’
Daya said, ‘Yes, let’s go. But how do we go?’
‘I’ll arrange everything. I’ll need some time, though.’
‘When? When will we go? Let’s run away soon—or I won’t survive. Even if I don’t die, I’ll surely go mad.’
‘Don’t worry, Daya. Give me seven days. Today is Saturday. I’ll come visit you next Saturday, and we’ll leave this house forever. You have to be strong over the next seven days—please, my love.’
Umaprasad said, ‘I’ll leave now. Someone might see us.’ He embraced his beloved wife and disappeared into the darkness outside.
The next morning, as the rituals of Dayamoyee’s worship were coming to an end, an elderly man, about eighty years of age, walked up to the prayer room. Copious tears fell from his old eyes. Prostrating himself in front of Dayamoyee’s temple, he said, ‘Ma, I’ve worshipped you all my life. I’m in trouble today, Ma. Please have mercy on this devotee.’
Dayamoyee blankly stared at the old man. The priest said, ‘Why, brother, what’s troubling you?’
The old man said, ‘My grandson has been suffering from high fever for the last few days. The doctor gave up this morning. If my grandson dies, I’ll have no posterity left. I seek Ma’s mercy on my grandson’s life. I beg of her.’
Kalikinkar, who was chanting mantras, was visibly moved at the old man’s pleas. He turned to Dayamoyee and said, ‘Ma! You have to save the old man’s grandson.’ He then turned to the old man and said, ‘Bring your grandson and leave him at the Holy Mother’s feet. Even death can’t cross the doorstep of this room.’
On hearing this, the old man looked as though a weight had fallen off his shoulder. He leaned on his walking stick and hurried home.
After some time, the old man returned with his widowed daughter-in-law, who was carrying the sick child. The dying child was laid near Dayamoyee’s feet. Every now and then, the priest would pour some charanamrita between the child’s quivering lips from a vessel.
The child’s mother was a young widow, roughly the same age as Dayamoyee. The pain and grief on her face aroused a strong sense of sympathy for her in Dayamoyee. She turned towards the unconscious child, and her eyes welled up with tears. In her mind, with all earnestness, she started praying, ‘Oh God, I don’t know who I am—a goddess, a mortal woman, Kali, or Daya—but whoever I may be, please save this poor child.’
On seeing tears in Dayamoyee’s eyes, everyone present began to say in unison, ‘Ma has had mercy on the child; she is weeping. Hail the merciful Mother. Hail Ma Kali.’
Kalikinkar continued to chant his mantras with renewed enthusiasm. As the day progressed, the sick child’s condition gradually improved. As dusk began to fall, the people there said the child was now out of danger, and could be taken home.
The news of Dayamoyee snatching a child back from the jaws of death travelled far and wide, even more swiftly than that of her being the goddess incarnate. The very next morning, another villager approached her to save his daughter who had been in labour for the last three days and was close to death.
Kalikinkar said, ‘That’s not a problem at all. Take some charanamrita from Ma’s feet and feed it to your pregnant daughter. She’ll be fine.’
Carrying the charanamrita vessel on his head in a gesture of respect, the teary-eyed devotee went home. After a few hours, news came. Apparently, within a few minutes of her being fed the divine medicine, the devotee’s daughter safely delivered a beautiful and healthy baby boy.
Saturday came. Tonight, Umaprasad would escape with his wife. He had made all the necessary arrangements. He had collected some money. He wouldn’t make the mistake of fleeing to Murshidabad, Rajmahal, Burdwan or any such large neighbouring town, for enquiries would certainly be made in such places. He would rather take the boat—and go westwards. Where? He hadn’t decided yet—either Bhagalpur or Munger. He’d have to look for a job there. He had enough money to take care of the travelling expenses. His wife’s ornaments, if sold, would fetch enough money to last them around two years. Wouldn’t he be able to secure a job in two years? Of course he would. Nothing was impossible.
Umaprasad spent the day juggling such thoughts in his mind. That evening he planned to watch the worship of his wife by devotees. He hadn’t yet witnessed these evening rituals. When the conches started to blow, he always walked away from the house towards the very edge of the village. This evening was the last worship of the mistaken deity. This evening, he would watch it from a distance, with nothing but contempt. Umaprasad tried to imagine the expression on the priest’s face the next morning when he would find out that the goddess had vanished.
When the night fell and the household was fast asleep, Umaprasad left his room as stealthily as a burglar, and cautiously moved towards the prayer room. He softly opened the door and entered the room. The lamp was burning in one corner. Umaprasad went up to Dayamoyee’s bed and found her sleeping. He lightly kissed his wife and tried to wake her up. Dayamoyee sat up in her bed.
Umaprasad said, ‘Daya, get ready, we have to go.’
Looking surprised, Daya asked, ‘Where?’
‘Where! We are leaving in another minute, and you’re asking me where? We’re taking a boat to the western states.’
Daya sat in silence, thinking. Umaprasad said, ‘Come on, hurry up. This is not the time to sit and think. I’ve made all arrangements. Come on now.’ He held his wife by her hand and tried to pull her up from the bed.
Suddenly, Daya wrenched her hand free from her husband’s grip and said, ‘Don’t touch me as you’d touch your wife. Am I your wife? Or am I really the goddess? I’m not sure any more.’
Umaprasad laughed, and tried to draw his wife close in order to kiss her. But Daya shifted uncomfortably to a distance and said, ‘No, I can’t do this. Who knows what curse may come upon you?’
Umaprasad was shocked. He said, ‘Daya, have you gone crazy too?’
Daya said, ‘How do you explain so many people getting cured? Hundreds of devotees come to catch a glimpse of me every day. Is everyone insane?’
Umaprasad tried his best to reason with his wife. He pleaded with her and beseeched her. But Daya continued to say the same thing over and over again, ‘I can’t see any harm coming your way. Perhaps I’m not your wife. What if I really am a goddess?’
Finally, Umaprasad said, ‘Had you really been a goddess, you wouldn’t have been so hard-hearted. I’ve been pleading with you for so long—if that hasn’t melted your heart, what will?’
Bursting into tears, Dayamoyee said, ‘Dear one, don’t you understand why I’m saying this?’
After some more pleading, Umaprasad managed to convince his petrified wife to come along with him. It was a short walk to the riverbank where a boat was waiting for them. But after walking some distance, Dayamoyee came to a sudden halt and said in a confident tone, ‘I won’t go.’
Umaprasad tried to reason with her again, but she said, ‘If I’m really a goddess, why don’t we stay back here and accept the devotion of these people? Why do we need to escape? How can we break the hearts of so many people? I won’t run away, let’s go back.’
Umaprasad had reached the limit of his patience, and said in an anguished tone, ‘I’m not going back. If you want to go back, you’ll have to go back alone.’
Daya said, ‘So be it.’
Both the lovers were so upset—one at the prospect of leaving thousands of people in a state of despair and hopelessness, the other at his beloved spouse’s intractability—that they walked away from each other, both disappearing into the darkness.
There was just one more person in the household other than Umaprasad who did not believe Dayamoyee to be the incarnation of Kali. This person was Harasundari, Khoka’s mother. Towards the beginning, Dayamoyee would go to her and weep. Harasundari would console her, saying, ‘Don’t cry, sister, too much piety at this age has made Khoka’s grandfather blind to reality. He has gone insane.’
Two weeks had gone by since that fateful night. In the third week, Khoka got a high fever. With every passing day, the condition of the child continued to deteriorate.
The doctor came, but Kalikinkar sent him back. He said, ‘The Holy Mother herself resides in my house. She has cured dozens of terminal diseases. We don’t need a doctor.’
Harasundari pleaded with her husband Taraprasad, ‘Please take our son to a doctor or he won’t survive. Daya won’t be able to cure him.’
Taraprasad was extremely devoted to his father. His father’s ideals and beliefs, and the goddess’s blessings were paramount to him. He told his wife, ‘Don’t say such things, or Khoka will earn the wrath of the Mother. I’m confident that she’ll cure him.’
But because of the repeated pleadings of Khoka’s mother, Kalikinkar once asked Daya in all humility, ‘Ma, do we need to call a doctor to treat Khoka?’
Daya said, ‘No, I’ll cure him myself.’
Kalikinkar was relieved, as was Taraprasad.
One day, Harasundari sent one of her maids to the doctor’s house with a detailed description of the symptoms of Khoka’s disease and a request for medicine. The doctor bit his tongue, touched his ears and said to the maid, ‘When the goddess herself has pronounced that she will cure the child, who am I to interfere?’
Gradually, a stage came when Harasundari pleaded with whoever she met, ‘Please give me some medicine. My son is going to die.’ But everyone’s response remained: ‘You shouldn’t say such things. Why are you worried? The merciful goddess herself is about to cure your child.’
Khoka’s condition worsened, and he lapsed into a constant state of delirium. Dayamoyee said, ‘Bring Khoka to me.’
Dayamoyee sat through the day with Khoka in her lap. The sick child seemed to get some relief. But towards the night, his condition became very serious.
With all her heart, Dayamoyee blessed the child she doted on, showering all her love on him, holding him to her chest throughout the night. But that very night, Khoka died in Dayamoyee’s arms.
Taraprasad was the first to confront Dayamoyee. He said, ‘You wretched demon! You had to devour my son, didn’t you? You just couldn’t let go of him.’
Harasundari was shell-shocked. When she came to her senses, the only thing she told Dayamoyee was: ‘You’re no goddess—you’re a witch, nothing but a child-eating witch! You’ve devoured my Khoka.’
Kalikinkar came to Dayamoyee with tears in his eyes, and said, ‘Ma, please bring our Khoka back to us. His body has not begun to decompose yet. Please bring him back, Ma.’
Dayamoyee wept. Alone in the prayer room, with the corpse of the child in front of her, she first angrily ordered the god of death to restore the child’s life to his body. When that didn’t work, she pleaded with the god of death, but the pleas of even the most powerful goddess in the universe did not bring the dead back to life.
At the end, Khoka’s body was taken away. That day, no worship was offered to her. No devotees came to catch a glimpse of her, or to pay her homage. Dayamoyee sat in the prayer room all day and all night, amidst heaps of flowers and sweets from the day before.
The next morning, when Kalikinkar opened the door of the prayer room, he found the goddess hanging by the neck from the ceiling.
Buy the eclectic collection of stories that inspired Satyajit Ray’s cinema here.