How prim and proper were our beginnings when unclothed and unmindful, men could roam freely! How secure and generous was the age when without shelter, society and civilisation, man lived innocent at heart — a complete denizen of the wild!
If this civilisation and society could be destroyed within the flicker of a moment, then man could once again turn wild, become a perfect beast. Then he would not have to stretch his hands out to others to clothe his body. He would not eye others daily — out of shame and unease. Everywhere there would be unclad beings like him. People would not be looking at others out of hunger, hatred, ridicule or embarrassment. The fact was, however, that everyone barring herself, wore dresses, petticoats and blouses. Now even her last cloth had become fragile and worn out. She had forgotten its origin and the number of years it had lasted her. The old rag clung to her body like her own skin. While bathing in the open, she could not remove her dress. She was forced to take a dip with the dress on. And as her body dried, so did the dress, all by itself.
It is hard to recall the original colour of the cloth or whether it had designs of fruits or flowers, leaves or stars or shapes of diamonds. She was busy keeping herself alive and had no time to think over such things. In the mingling of time and her struggle, the colour of her skin and dress had turned into one dirty brown. However, while it lasted, it was the sole source of her pride. She did not know then that not just food but even a piece of rag could infuse life into man, circulate blood in his capillaries.
The day that torn rag dropped from her body, like the shell of a dry sore, she stood completely nude before herself, wondering how she would survive. How would she live, she thought. How could she carry on life with her unclad self? She felt as though her life were departing from her limbs. The veins of her forehead throbbed with anxiety. Her ribcage vibrated with a deep sense of unease. Her throat dried up with shame and insult. If only her skin rather than her cloth had fallen! what was the good of the cover that did not protect man from the elements or shame? If only a kind-hearted money lender would come by! Perhaps he could remove her skin and exchange it for an old rag. Should she end her life then, she wondered.
Much before she was conscious, some monster seemed to have cut out a morsel of his flesh, rather a piece of liver, and put it on her lap. She did not know who the father of her child was. A handful of rice was the cause of her nemesis. Before she could quench her hunger, the devil had satisfied his own, while her own stomach was satisfied for half the day, the hunger of two stomachs had opened its mouth from that very day. She did not know what joy that nether region had given her, all she knew was a terrible pain. When awaiting the hunger of the whole world, she realized that some disease was raging deep within her. When the unknown scourge ravaged her adolescent self and came out in the open, she knew that very day that she had become a mother. Strangely enough, it was the disease inside her that had kept her alive for so long. How could she hope to die by casting her liver into the fire of hunger or continue with her nude self in the open market place?
For two days she hid her face by turning her back to the town and the village. Like a patch of tar on a dirty track, the piece of flesh clung to her milk less chest and sucked her life blood. After all, how much blood did her heart contain? Like a severed centipede, the morsel of flesh hanging from her chest writhed in pain. Inside her stomach too, there raged a fire of hunger. The fire offered no illumination in the midst of enveloping darkness!
She did not know when exactly she came and stood near the main bazar in her naked self for a handful of rice. Some one was grinning at her, another turned away his face in disgust, a third caught her eye. As for her, she seemed totally oblivious of them all. She was crying repeatedly only for rice. Only to quench the hunger of her stomach!
Looking at her unclad, people exclaimed: “The bitch ! Not an old hag but a youthful woman, that’s what she really is! See, the people give her rice but none offers a cloth. A nice pretext she has for her livelihood” True enough, the crowd drove her out, and none threw a rag to cover her. She knew that even those that turned away their faces out of shame, those very people from the corner of their eyes did not refrain from relishing her nakedness. It was as though her body was special, different from others, as if her naked self contained something more than a fully clothed one. From small to big, everyone stared at her wide-eyed. They abused her on the ground that in the thoroughfare of polite society, she was sowing the germs of obscenity. But it seemed to her that more than her own nudity, their naked language was far more obscene. Yet there was no way she could protest. After all, she was not begging for the respect of society, she was only pleading for rice. Who but her knew that to her rice was more important than clothes!
Initially of course, she had felt a sense of shame. She sensed as though everyone’s gaze, pierced her body. Despite her outstretched hand, no voice came out from her throat. She wondered about the wisdom of this world where one person wore clothes while another went naked, one ate and another went hungry. Right from her childhood, she had been on the road. She did not know who her parents were. Like her, there were so many who were born and died on the road. Even cows and cattle, dogs and cats were needed by society, by man. But who needed the two-legged beings of the wayside : they were unwanted and homeless orphans? Could her society be other than the human one? In her nomadic society of beggars, no one bothered about dress. Why was so much fuss made over one person’s nudity?
Parting her hair into two strands in the middle, she drew them in front and spread them upon her open chest. Her aim was to use these to cover her shame. In God’s creation, there may be hunger without food, growth of the body without cloth and luxuriant hair without oil. How amazingly neutral God can be She was half-relieved now. For she was able to cover the shame of at least half her body. On all sides, the crowd teased, pestered and finally angered her. After all, there was a limit to the human patience! She lost her cool. To ward off the hail of stones, she clenched her fists and went on a biting spree. This would be the best way to tame people, she thought as a kindled rocket; they would not dash after her. But the result was just the reverse. Now she was taken to be a confirmed lunatic! People avoided her sight lest the “mad woman” did something rash. Who knows what wild brain waves she might nurture! Now she was absolutely relieved. After all, what was shame to a mad woman? She had already lost her sense. She set out: detached, fearless, unclad. Perhaps she had truly become God, she thought.
Unlike food and sleep, a sense of shame is not a congenital habit with human beings. May the Lord Almighty be praised! Difference, after all, is only a matter of habit. Still, habits can be given up. Thus, her desire for garbed self, like a passing cloud, gradually shrunk and finally disappeared. She now strode along without fear. It was all for the good, she thought. Her headache over, henceforth she could ask for rice instead of clothes. With this, she resolved that her life would be on the right track. There was no more worry. Perhaps it would be better for the whole tribe of beggars to discard all clothing and roam around naked. That way there would be less pressure on the donors. How much more could they be expected to give! It would be mutually beneficial if some of the demands got reduced.
The naked self seldom bothered about the weather. The skull of the poor man served as his umbrella, his skin was the bulwark against rain. Nevertheless, the biting cold penetrated through nails, teeth and tears, not to mention the bone marrow. Like straw pulled from a thatched roof, the cruel winter sucked flesh from our skeleton. Without a torn rag, the mother and child could hardly hope to survive against the piercing cold of “Magha”. In the wild, man may not have had clothes, but at least he had the bark of trees. If not a home, at least he had the caves of a hill for shelter. She, of course, had no clothes to cover her body. How then could she face such terrible cold?
Yet, why should anyone give clothes to a mad woman? Was she a God or Goddess that if someone was to give her a piece of thread, it would make her blessings turn into a boon?
Leaning against the outer wall of the temple, the “mad woman” made a vain attempt to put up with the cold. She envied and cursed the many gods and goddesses. Why did God give her a human form, she wondered. If she had a body of wood and stone, she would not have asked for clothes or rice. Yet she would have become immortal. There is no counting the sarees that donors piled upon a deity. Their cost amounted to thousands and thousands of rupees. Pata, Matha, Banarasi, there were so many types of sarees! The eyes of the “mad woman” dilated in disbelief as she eyed the sarees offered at the altar.
And yet, her entreaties to donors to part with an old rag always fell on deaf ears. After all, what good could be there in giving away a saree to a vagabond woman? it was the priests who appropriated them after wrapping them ceremonially around the deity. That’s all! Only once did the deity accept the saree as part of the ritual observance. Aside from that, the deity wore nothing else. God alone knew the fate of the pile of sarees. But she never tried to solve that mystery with any priests. How dare the mere picker of leaves aspire to bargain over the price of a mango grove, they might have wondered.
Clutching her baby, the mad woman lay prostrate before the entrance to the temple, thronged by devotees. If only someone would part with a piece of cloth or a morsel of food! After all, there were regular offerings made at the altar. Not just platefuls but successive rounds of food! It seemed that the fragrance of the offerings quenched the hunger of the Lord. The very same fragrance pricked the hunger of the mad woman too, inflaming her empty stomach. She had the urge to collect a little morsel in her outstretched hand, and shove it into her tummy. But try as she did, her hands could not stretch far enough.
Didn’t the Lord himself accept offerings with outstretched hands? she thought. Wasn’t he called the “Mahabahu”? If he had no hunger, then why did the devotees pile a heap of food at his altar? What good did it do to deny an empty stomach for the sake of a hungry God? Should she ask the priests to explain this mystery to her, she wondered. But perhaps it was better she did not bother herself with such weighty questions. After all, wasn’t she a mere picker of leaves? Daily she saw and smelled so much food. That should be enough! Even a dead baby got up at the smell of the offerings. Even a rickety child got a fresh lease of life. The smell of food should be more than enough, she thought.
Outside the temple, the mad woman daily witnessed the Lila of God. But, was it really God’s Lila or rather the Lila of man, she often wondered. After all, God did nothing, all seemed to be man’s handiwork. The God of wood or stone did not need any food, dresses, flowers, sandal-wood paste or incense. If a mere block of wood and stone could turn into the Almighty by the worship of flowers and sandal-wood paste, then daily on the altar or the mandap, the speakers could all put on garlands and become veritable gods. But, he who presided over our destiny, could he be oblivious of the fact that he was least interested in garlands and offerings? What did he need of dresses, fragrances and offerings?
Whenever the biting cold or hunger became acute, the “mad woman” offered only this prayer: “God, make me like you, only a block of wood or stone. I shall never ask for rice or cloth any longer. Like you, I wish to smile at the Maya of the world, sitting immobile like a block of wood.”
That day mounds of offerings were literally burnt before her very eyes. No one knew why so much food becomes so mysteriously impure. Such a thing never happened. No wonder the priests had to bury all the food meant for human beings.
Courses and courses of regular offerings! Like colour, like smell! With the same food, the life-line of both– the mother and the child — got extended.
Why did an offering ever become impure? And if it did, then what prevented God from partaking from it? In that case, at least the “mad woman” and her child could have had their fill. However, who was she to open her mouth before the laws of the temple! A mere woman of unknown caste!
What, by the way, was her caste? Was she a Brahmin or an untouchable? What was her religion? Was she Hindu, Muslim or something else? Only God would know, “the mad woman” knew nothing.
She only knew this much that she recognized no difference of caste or gotra. Nor did she bother over cold or heat, old age or death.
Who could have erected the barriers of caste, gotra or religion, she wondered. Wasn’t man himself the God? How blissful was the time when man had no other affiliation. She could not approach God simply because she had no Jatiand Gotra. Or else, she could bury her naked self in the dark cavern behind the altar, repose within the precincts of the temple and save herself from the rain or dew. If nothing else, she could at least hug the deity and pour out her grief.
That day, the child who usually clung to the mad woman’s chest like a leach, somehow escaped and with tiny steps toddled into the precincts of the temple. Her mother’s exhausted self had slumped outside. It was a perfect scandal — a real calamity.
Loads and loads of offerings were being carried for the lord. With tiny hands outstretched and saliva dripping from the mouth, the child pleaded : “Rice, please give me some rice!” The priests were unmoved. The deity was totally immobile. “Finished. It’s all over” they said in chorus, “The god-forsaken child has entered the temple. Everything has become impure. What a terrible tragedy!”
By then the priests had circled around the child. Seeing their forbidding figures, wide eyes and fiery gaze., the child swallowed her saliva mixed with tears. Thank God, as an untouchable’s offspring, she would not be handled by the priests. They could not crush her flesh and bone. The milkman, who carried water for the Lord, covered his nose with a piece of cloth, lifted the child by one arm, and with a grimace dumped her outside.
In an instant vanished the tiredness of the exhausted mother. The child continued his ceaseless chanting. “Give! Give me rice!” The Lord stood mute and immobile. If God could become impure by the presence of an ignorant child within the temple premises, then was the temple meant only for a barren woman?
No, the temple had to be purified. At the odd hour, the deity was given a ritual bath and made pure. So much hassle and expense. The “mad woman” did not have a roof or hearth. Otherwise people would not have hesitated to extract compensation from her! The woman thought and thought : How could the Lord ever become an impure being, an untouchable? Was he not the true Lord? Was he only a wooden puppet or an idol of brass? He who purified all the dross of the universe, turned sin into merits, who could make him impure? Could the impure ever become pure by the human touch?
She sought an understanding to the hidden mysteries. But one who had no food inside her, no cloth over her back, how could she have thoughts in her brain? Perhaps that was a sensible way of looking at things!
If the destitutes had no worry, then they would not have had sorrow. The tragedy of the “mad woman” was that she thought more than she was supposed to. For years, she had been lying near the temple, hearing the preachings in the Shastras and Puranas, pundits, monks and gurus. She had understood one thing: all that the Shastras and Puranas preached was not necessarily true. In fact, she had discovered the very opposite of what she had been hearing all along.
Now that the temple offerings and the deity were threatened with impurity, she recalled the story of Neela Madhava in the house of Sabara. There were other parallels too: Dasia Bauri and Salabega. He whose invocation lessened sins, how could he ever become an untouchable?
One who had no Jati or Gotra, could he ever be a sinner? And one who called God by a single name, could she be an enemy of religion? The “mad woman” became confused. Before whom could she express her thoughts? Even if she were to do so, who would listen to her and reply? If thoughts had no value, then why did God create a web of them? It must have been only to increase the quota of sorrow. Holding the child close to her chest, the “mad woman” sat once again as dumb. She saw the passage of hordes of devotees, saints and sages. She had seen them everywhere: in houses, markets, shops, offices and other places in the world. And she saw them in the temple too. Here, their face and eyes looked different. The dress and appearance were of a different kind. People offered so much to the lord : crowns of gold, Pata ares and thousands of rupees in the Hundi. Even without God’s asking, there was an increase in donation inside the temple. Yet none had given her so far a single paisa, a morsel of rice or even a piece of torn cloth! Whoever had given, had parted with reluctance and ridicule. Once inside a temple, men tended to put on a new mask, just like painted actors in the play of Ramalila. Well, she had never gone inside a temple. How could she know the glory of God? If only she could enter even once, perhaps then, like a latter-day Karna, she could part with her child. There would be one worry less! She could then be at the mercy of God. She could not fathom whether it was God or man who was untouchable. God could very well be untouchable After all man was never prohibited from touching God. It was only God who seemed averse to human contact. God communicated and lived through the priests, mahants and maharajas!
The “mad woman” had a great desire to talk to God. But there seemed to be no way to do it.
Today the cold bit and hurt like the sharp thorns of the Nagapheni plant as the woman lay covering her child with one arm. She knew she could willingly bear the cold and the hailstones and offer comforting warmth to her child. The devotees all looked plump in their winter wear. The “mad woman” was simply amazed! How could they even breathe with such heavy layers of dresses? Could there ever be many clothes in the world! Even the smallest piece was enough to save her from the cold. Perhaps then, she could have made a perfect fool of the weather. But who would understand this!
The cold engulfed all, like mighty flood waters. Even snuggling inside her mother, the child shivered. If only the mother’s life-span could be converted into a blanket for her child, then perhaps her life would be worth it. Yet longevity was always a worse enemy than poverty. It always had the upper hand! From outside, the woman looked at the special costume of the Lord who looked like a real prince. Matching his dress was a garland extending right down to his feet.
There were so many costumes and appearances of God that her eyes had seen from far. Different costumes matching different offerings. There were so many people constantly on their feet for the upkeep of God. Yet how was it that they never looked tired, weak or diseased? If anything, they seemed to maintain a better health than God. This must be the result of the “spiritual” service they were rendering. Perhaps the task of living did not require any emotions. Perhaps the hunger of the stomach was all there was to life. Perhaps the bigger the stomach, the narrower was the heart. Otherwise, one’s life span was bound to get shortened.
The “mad woman” was hunger personified. How large her heart had become, thanks to a surfeit of sorrow! If only she had belonged to the upper castes, she could have washed the vessels of the Lord and widened her girth as well as the girth of her child. There was a cushion on the altar of the Lord to ward off cold. The velvet cover as well as the silk blanket- all had been changed. The Lord rested in his nocturnal costume. Did the Lord truly go to sleep? When he rested, who looked after the world? Who controlled the entire universe? Lies, all lies, she thought. The Lord, she surmised could never sleep. He was always awake. His bed and blankets were always fresh and clean. It did not look as though anyone had slept there.
Did the Lord ever look sleepy-eyed! Every day, he had the same world-piercing gaze. Did it mean that he always got up early, arranged his own bed and sat on the altar?
It was now time for the Lord to rest. The doors of the temple closed firmly. The front yard became deserted due to the intense cold. In this world, even the bird had a nest for its beak, a branch to perch on and the sky for its flights. And yet, despite being a human, the “mad woman” had no home of her own. She was even less than a bird. Clutching her child to her chest, she dragged herself down to the temple doors. From the ledge, a stretch of the ceiling was seen. Perhaps she could find a little warmth beneath it. God and birds – all craved the warmth within. Only she and the stray dogs could not. Hadn’t God given the dog a winter dress of fur? Why then had God created man inferior to the dog? Was she truly a human? If not, then he could have at least given her the 1ife of a dog? In her sickly hands, the woman held her half-dead child close to her bony chest. If only the child could break open his mother’s rib case and get into her heart! Then perhaps he could be spared from the cold. But alas, that was not to be. It was not easy for the human heart to break open — even if it be for one’s own son!
The sickly child grew increasingly dulled by the cold hand of his mother. The “mad woman” called out once: “Oh Lord, please save my child!” Then she allowed her frozen body to slump down.
The human self may be closed to one’s fellow-men but the sky remained open to all. Now it spread blanket upon blankets of mist over the mother and the child. Then the two of them fell asleep forever to sleep. Blissfully! There was no more cold or pain for them!
The next day, at sunrise, people saw the dead bodies at the portals of the temple. It was as though the woman had placed her head on the threshold in a spirit of everlasting prayer! As every day, the Lord was found upon his seat. His bed and blankets, seemed intact. It was business as usual.
Did the Lord ever retire? Was he ever affected by cold, hail, heat or rain? Like him, even the “mad woman” was now above the elements, Wasn’t there any difference between the two? Was God a human person and was man truly God? Perhaps such talk carried no meaning.
There was brisk action within the temple to purify God. Preparations were soon afoot for the ritual bath of the Lord. What a punishment to God even on a cold day. However, the Lord remained unfazed. Sitting on the altar, the idols were ‘all smiles’. I t was hard to make out who was foolish — man or God! The fact was, dead bodies at the threshold of the temple simply meant impurity. The temple had become impure! And there was impurity everywhere!
The “mad woman” too was smiling at God. There was a flicker from the corner of her lips. Her laughter was heard by none other than God. As for humans, they could only see the stale corpses of the dead woman and child, with their hideous and frightening looks.
Translated from Oriya by Sachidananda Mohanty.
PRATIBHA RAY. Is one of the most prolific Oriya women writers. Has enriched the modern Oriya literature by her pioneering short stories and novels. Her works not only depict the urbane milieu of Orissan culture but also delve deeply into the life of tribal communities. A lecturer by profession for more than 21 years, she has been conferred the Orissa Sahitya Akademi Award, Moortidevi Award by Bharatiya Jnanpeeth, Saptarshi Award, etc. Her works have been translated into English and other Indian languages. Her major works are Punyatoya (1979), Nilatrushna (1981), Silapadma (1983), Yagnaseni (1985), Uttaramarga (1988), Mahamoha (1997) (all novels), Pruthaka iswara (1991), Bhagabam ra desha (1991), Mokshya (1996) (all short stories).
SACHIDANANDA MOHANTY. Is a Professor of English at the University of Hyderabad, India. Was a British Council Scholar in UK, 1990, Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellow at Texas and Yale, 1990-91 and Salzburg Fellow, Austria, 1996. He received the Katha award for outstanding translation in 1992 and 1994, the Katha British Council Translation Award, 1994. His essays and articles have appeared in some of the leading journals and forums across the country. His forthcoming book is entitled Lost Tradition: Early Women’s Writing in Orissa, (1950-1998).