‘Hey Pari, where are you? Still playing langdi?’ hollered Lakshmi while cleaning the utensils near the village well.
‘Coming Ma, give me few more minutes. Let me complete my turn,’ replied Pari, who was playing hopscotch with her friend Kamli on the dirt road opposite her house.
‘You are no longer a child. When will you really grow up? Come on, clean the pitcher and go fetch some drinking water from the river,’ chided Lakshmi.
Pari was the sixteen-year-old daughter of Rishidutt Paliwal, the village chief of Kuldhara. Kuldhara was a prosperous settlement of Paliwal Brahmins who had migrated from the village Pali near Jodhpur during the early 12th century. Kuldhara was one of the 84 villages on the outskirts of Jaisalmer which were established by these migrants. They were a close-knit community, and due to their industriousness and their business and agricultural acumen, they made their fortunes. The local ruler depended on them for most of their tax revenues.
Pari and Kamli picked up the pitchers and playfully trotted down to the Kakni River nearby. While Kamli was rather scrawny and gawky, Pari was like Kakni in spate. She was considered the most beautiful girl in the village. Lively and bubbly, and with a voluptuous disposition, she exuded an earthy charm and sensuality. But it seemed she was oblivious to it. Her mature exterior was a mismatch to her thinking and behaviour. She was a little child incarcerated within a grown-up body. The village youth were attracted to her like bees to honey and vied with one another to please her and draw her attention. Pari and Kamli kept the pitchers on the river bank and entered the waters. Soon, they were splashing water at each other like two legendary river nymphs in play and giggling loudly. They swam a little and then filled up their pitchers. As Pari climbed up the slope with the pitcher held in the crook of her right arm, the wet lehenga and choli accentuating her curves, she looked straight out of the canvas of a masterpiece. The pitchers held tightly under their arms; they started for their homes. All this while they were unaware of a pair of prying eyes behind the bushes on the river bank. It was perhaps their sixth sense that warned them that someone was following them. They turned around to see a turbaned man on a horse trotting behind at a distance. In a panic, they threw off their pitchers and took flight like two gazelles on the run, escaping from a cheetah. They could hear the hooves of the horse drawing closer by the minute. Both the girls were shouting for help and running for their lives, the predator in hot pursuit. They suddenly realised that they were nearing the village temple. It was the temple of goddess Durga, the destroyer of all evils. The girls dashed through the gates of the temple and hid behind the massive pillars of the porch. Their pursuer pulled the reins to halt the horse just outside the gate but did not enter the premises. He knew that calamity would befall him and his family if he dared to enter the temple since he was of a lower caste for whom entry to the temple was forbidden. He waited for a while and then rode into the village, visibly enraged and furious.
He was Zalim Singh, the minister and tax collector of the Jaisalmer court. Zalim Singh was not a Rajput; neither was he a Singh. He rose from the lower strata of society to become one of the most powerful persons in the king’s court and adopted the title Singh to cover up his ancestry. Zalim Singh was known for his tyranny and heartlessness. The villagers around Jaisalmer dreaded an encounter with him. Apart from being a ruthless tax collector, his lecherous pursuits made him more dreadful. If any village damsel caught his fancy, he would forcefully abduct her, and after satisfying his lust, he would either throw her in prison for good, or her body would be found in a garbage dump or hanging from the branch of a tree. All his victims, however, were always from high-caste communities. An irate Zalim Singh dismounted from the horse in front of the home of the village chief and hollered for Rishidutt to come out. Rishidutt came out timidly and invited him to take his seat on the veranda and have some refreshments. Zalim Singh refused his hospitality and ordered Rishidutt to escort his daughter Pari to Jaisalmer forthwith, or else he promised that the taxes from the village would be doubled from the next day. Rishidutt requested some time to be able to convince his daughter and make the necessary arrangements. Zalim Singh graciously granted him twenty-four hours and reminded him of the consequences in case he failed to comply with his orders.
Rishidutt felt as if the ground under his feet had disappeared. In desperation, he looked at his wife Lakshmi helplessly. She comforted him while tears streamed from her eyes and advised him to speak to the village elders and find a solution. Rishidutt called his neighbour Brahmdutt to accompany him to the temple, and both went to meet the chief priest Vishnudutt.
Vishnudutt, the chief priest of the village deity Durga, was seen as the ultimate source of divine power in the village. He devoted his entire time to the service and worship of the mother goddess and was considered the spiritual guru and protector of the entire village community. He had just witnessed the plight of the two frightened village girls and had given them shelter in the temple premises. He welcomed Rishidutt and Brahmdutt, offered them water to drink, and three of them sat down for a confabulation. They all came to a consensus to ask for an urgent meeting of the villagers and find a collective solution to the problem looming large. The temple bell was rung in a specific manner to convey to the village that an urgent meeting needs to be convened immediately in the temple pavilion. Soon, the pavilion was full with the members from each household. Rishidutt requested Vishnudutt to preside over the meeting.
‘What the hell! How can that scoundrel come here in broad daylight and threaten us? We are peace-loving Brahmins and mind our own business. We pay our taxes regularly. Pari is just not your daughter. She is the daughter of the village. She is our collective honour. We will protect her at any cost. If we can leave our temple duties to pick up the plough to earn our livelihood and prosperity, we can surely lift the weapons too and fight Zalim Singh out,’ proposed Bhimdutt, a village youth, the wrestling champion of the village, while breathing fire and fury.
‘We would be no match for Zalim Singh’s force. They are trained warriors and marauders. They would wipe out our entire village, all thirty-seven of us, in no time. We won’t last even one hour,’ offered Brahmdutt.
‘That’s the point. Let’s not make any hasty decisions. We must weigh all consequences well before we decide what to do,’ added Rishidutt.
‘I have a different point of view. Why put the entire village in peril just to save one life? In fact, we can persuade Pari to sacrifice herself to save the community from certain disasters. This way, there will be no harm to anyone else. And Pari will attain immortality. We may even build a temple in her memory,’ suggested the village barber Bajrang, who was not a Paliwal like the rest.
‘That’s being very selfish. How can we just send her to sure humiliation and death? Suppose she was your daughter. Would you suggest the same Bajrang?’ asked Vishnudutt.
The whole village burst into an uproar and almost pounced on Bajrang to have come up with such a suggestion.
‘Let’s ask Pari, if she has to say anything,’ suggested Rishidutt.
‘I have been listening to you all. I think Bajrang has a point. I cannot put the entire village in jeopardy. I am willing to fulfill Zalim Singh’s wishes and request him to spare the village. I only need your blessings to get the courage to do so,’ offered Pari demurely.
‘No way. That’s not the solution. If we succumb to his desire now, what is the guarantee that his evil eyes would spare the other daughters of the village? Once he succeeds, he will be like a man-eating tiger. He would bay for more blood. We must find another solution,’ said Vishmadutt, the village school teacher.
Vishnudutt sat for some time in the lotus pose, eyes half closed, while there was pin-drop silence all around, except for a lone dog wailing somewhere on the outskirts of the village. One could hear the burning of the cotton wicks on the brass lamps of the temple. The entire village waited with bated breath for the priest to come up with some final solution. Time stood still, and the pregnant pause appeared to be oppressive. After a while Vishnudutt, opened his eyes and cleared his throat.
‘Alright, here is what I think would be the best course of action for us. But you all must appreciate that what I am going to suggest is pure prudence and not an act of cowardice. And I would expect that all of you would accept my advice unquestionably, rather blindly,’ implored the priest.
‘Please tell us. We all are with you,’ chorused the gathering.
‘It’s the mother goddess’s wish that we all pack up our belongings, lock, stock, and barrel, and quietly leave the village immediately during the night itself to migrate into some distant land, where we would settle down once again. That way, we would frustrate Zalim Singh and also save our community. We are a group of industrious people, and it won’t take long before we flourish once again,’ pronounced Vishnudutt.
There was a wave of murmur in the crowd, which died down soon. Then, the entire village shouted ‘Jai Ma Durge’ in praise of the deity and accepted the decision unanimously.
‘But Panditji, the devil goes unpunished. Can’t we do anything about it?’ asked Bhimdutt.
‘No son, he will not be spared the wrath of the mother goddess,’ the priest assured.
Then, the priest asked everyone to stand up and face the deity and offer her their silent prayers. Everyone stood up and, with folded hands, offered their prayers amidst the flickering lamps and the aroma of incense sticks. After the prayers, the priest stood on a platform and solemnly pronounced,’ Let this be known to all living and dead: this village, so dear to our heart that survived and thrived through seven centuries, will be deserted and barren from tomorrow. Forever and till eternity. No one will ever be able to reoccupy it, repopulate it, or rebuild it. Disaster would befall anyone who may even think of reoccupying it. This is ordained from the heavens.’
Then, the villagers quietly dispersed. The early rays of the rising sun bathed a completely dilapidated and deserted village to a dull golden hue, with not a single soul in sight. An eerie silence enveloped the streets and lanes. No rooster crowed to herald the day. It seemed even the crows had flown away to some distant place. As the sun climbed further, thundering hooves of horses drew nearer to the village. Zalim Singh, with his troop, stormed through the entrance gate to find the village bare and abandoned. He rode through the lanes and alleys in search of any sign of life but was disappointed. His men dismounted and did a house-to-house search but drew a naught. Totally frustrated Zalim Singh rallied his men on a field near the temple and said, ‘Looks like the cowards are hiding inside the temple premises. They feel that we can’t enter and they are safe. Let’s march inside and drag them out. I will put them in prison for life and settle another community here. Let it be the end of old Kuldhara. I condemn it to its death.’
As an infuriated Zalim Singh tried to break the huge doors of the temple to gain access, there was an ear-shattering noise, and the arch of the entrance gate came crashing down. Zalim Singh was knocked down by a huge block of stone and fell off his horse, bleeding profusely. His bodyguards rushed and picked him up, and the whole contingent made a U-turn to ride back to Jaisalmer.
Kuldhara, still stands there, quiet and steadfast, bearing testimony of its past but derelict and uninhabited through the centuries, spelling doom to anyone who dares to settle there.
MAY 2017 / JAN-FEB 2019 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Dilip Mohapatra (b.1950), a decorated Navy Veteran started writing poems since the seventies. His initial foray into the world of literature was through poetry workshops in college and inspirations from his teacher Jayanta Mahapatra, an acclaimed poet in contemporary English. His poems have appeared in many literary journals of repute and anthologies worldwide. Some of his poems are included in the World Poetry Yearbook, 2013 and 2014 Editions. He has six poetry collections to his credit published by Authorspress, the latest being Dewdrops of Dawns, which has received raving reviews in multiple literary journals globally. Currently his latest, aProfessional book titled Campus to Corporate which is a career navigation manual for the students aspiring for a successful corporate career and for newcomers to the industry to survive and succeed has become a best seller with more than 10000 copies sold. He lives with his wife at Pune, India.