Thursday, February 18, 2010

Translation of Bilashi: A Short Story of Sharat Chandra Chatterji

Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Bilashi’ is a love story of two people: Mrityunjai and Bilashi. The event takes place in author’s village. Bilashi is the daughter of a famous snake charmer. Mrityunjai on the contrary, is a high caste Hindu. The story narrates how Bilashi and Mrityunjai fall in love ignoring all the norms and custom of society. Sharat Chandra is still the most popular novelist among Bengali people. People who are fan of Bollywood movies also know about him mainly because of the movie Devdas.

Mrityunjai was an orphan. He lived in his old ancestral house situated on one side of the village. There was a big orchard around the house which he gave on lease and earned money. Mrityunjai and Nara (the name of the narrator in the story) studied in the same school. Mrityunjai studied in third grade. He never got promoted from that class. . Mrityunjai had a distant uncle who always spread ill about him. He used to tell people that Mrityunjai was a spoiled boy and he took drugs and plays around all day. He also said that he also had a share in Mrityunjai’s orchard and very soon he will take his share from Mrityunjai. Interestingly, the truth was different. Mrityunjai was a very quiet boy and very kind hearted as well. Very often, his classmates used to take money from him and other people of village also took money but they never talked with him.

One day, Nara came to know that Mrityunjai was ill. At night he stealthily went to his house and there for the first time Nara met Bilashi. It was Bilashi who saved Mrityunjai from death. She took care of her day and night. When Mrityunjai’s uncle came to know about this incident and he gathered some people and went to Mrityunjai’s house. They physically assaulted Bilashi. After this incident, Mrityunjai left his ancestral house and married Bilashi and became a snake charmer.

In the meantime, Nara went to Burma, to become a saint. After few years, he returned to his village. One day, while going through the Malo neighborhood, Nara came across Mrityunjai. Mrityunjai has become a snake charmer. He and Bilashi were leading a happily married life. Nara wanted to become an expert in catching snakes. So he requested Mrityunjai to make him his apprentice and teach him all the techniques. In the beginning, Mrityunjai did not agree but Nara’s relentless persuasion paid off. The story ends with a tragic incident. Nara, Bilashi and Mrityunjai went to a milkman’s house to catch snake. Bilashi warned Mrityunjai that there could be two snakes but Mrityunjai did not pay attention. Soon he was bitten by a snake and died. Seven days after his death, Bilashi committed suicide by taking poison. Before death, she took oath from Nara that he would never catch snakes again.

Here is the translation of this short story for you:

More than four miles I walk everyday to acquire knowledge. Not me but also ten/twelve boys of our village do the same. Eighty percent of the boys who live in villages acquire their education through such hard ship. How this heard earned education profits these boys is not the main issue. This is enough to consider that boys who have to start from home before eight in the morning and travel four miles, more than four miles actually, every day, their knees covered in mud during the rainy season and scorching heat of the summer and dust of the road, Saraswati (1), would hide herself in shame seeing their pain and suffering instead of blessing them with knowledge.

After they grow up, no matter where they go, these great scholars would not let go any single opportunity of showcasing their talents. Looking at the poor condition of the villages, many people wonder, why the well off villagers leave their rural homes and go to dwell in towns and cities. Had they stayed there, the situation could have become better.

Forget about all the deadly diseases like malaria that emptied the villages in those days. Thinking of the hardship their children have to undergo to acquire education, many villagers move to cities. Even after the completion of their children’s education, they do not want to return. They are habituated living in big cities with all its prestige and status. Anyway let us drop the matter here.

Everyday, we used to come across two or three villages on our way to school. All the way we talked about which orchard had the most ripe mangoes, where we could find wild berries, or ripe jackfruits, where the pineapple had started to change its color, where the banana bunch had just ripen and ready to be cut off, from which date tree we could easily steal juices. On the contrary, what we really needed to know like the capital of Kamchatka? What is found in the mines of Syberia never appealed us.

The outcome of such devotion to study was clear. In the exam I wrote, Aden was the sea-port of Persia and Toglok Kha was the father of Humayun. Even today, in my forties, I find that my knowledge about these subjects have remained almost the same. As reward of such great effort, I used to return home with a sad face on the day of result giving and discussed with my friends how to beat the teacher or leave the school.

On our way to school, very often we used to come across a boy. His name was Mrityujai. Mrityunjai was senior to us. He studied in third grade. None of us knew when he got into that class. His academic background can be a great research subject for archaeologists. We saw him studying in that class all the time.

Neither we heard that he got promoted to the fourth grade nor, we knew that he got promoted to the second grade. Mrityunjai was an orphan. His possessions included a huge orchard situated on one side of the village and a haunted house inside the orchard, and a distant paternal uncle. The main pastime of Mrityunjai’s uncle was spreading ill about his nephew- he was a black sheep to the family, he smoked weeds, and so on. Also he used to say that half of that orchard belonged to him. He was only waiting for the right time to file a case and get his rightful share. One day, his uncle acquired the orchard but not by the notice of the court but by divine justice. I will talk about it later.

Mritunjai led a very lonely life. He used to cook his own food and in the summer, he leased the orchard and the money he procured from the contract used to support himself. It was a very good income and he was quite well off. Everyday, we saw him going to the school, walking silently on the other side of the road with his old books under his arms. He never came to talk with us rather we used to talk with him on our own accord because he was a very gracious person. He used to buy us foods from shops. Not only the boys but also their fathers used to send them to ask for money secretly. They said that they lost their tuition fees or they lost their books but nobody even admitted that their sons talked with Mrityunjai let alone expressing their gratitude. Such notorious reputation Mrityunjai had among the villagers.

It had been a long time since we last met Mrityunjai. One day, we got the news that he was in a critical condition. Then we heard that an old snake charmer treated him and his daughter, Bilashi, took great care and saved Mrityunjai from dying.

Many times Mrityunjai treated us with sweets. After hearing the news of his illness, I felt bad for him. On one dark evening, I stealthily visited his house to see him. The house where Mrityunjai lived was old and there were no walls or gates. So, I did not have any problem entering into his room. Upon entering, I saw a bright oil lamp and Mrityunjai was lying on a clean bed in front of me. His condition was very bad. Once a healthy person Mrityunjai, turned into a living skeleton. It was clear to me that yamraj (2) had left no stones unturned to take away his soul but failed only for the care and treatment of the girl. She was sitting near Mrityunjai fanning him. Upon seeing me, she stood up. This was my first meeting with Bilashi, the daughter of the snake charmer. Whether she was eighteen or twenty eight, I did not know but looking at her face I understood that spending sleepless nights for Mrityunjai had made the young girl very weak and frail like dry flowers in the vase whose petals would fall upon slight touch.

Mrityunjai recognized me, “Nara is that you?”

I replied, “Ha.”

Mrityunjai said, “Sit down.”

The girl kept on standing lowering her head. From his words what I recovered was this- for the last one and half month he had been bed ridden. His fever was so severe that for ten/fifteen days he remained almost senseless. Now, his condition is

becoming better and he can recognize people’s faces. Though he is not strong enough to move around, he is out of danger.

True; he is out of danger but at such a young age I am sensible enough to understand that he is very weak and that young girl has taken a great responsibility. A haunted house surrounded by big jungle is not a very pleasant place to go. Going there every day and attending an ill person for night after night is not an easy job. It requires lot of patience and determination. I must praise the girl. That day, I did not see her courage but I observed it the other day.

As I was leaving Mrityunjai’s house, the girl came with me. After so many hours, I heard her voice for the first time. “Shall I go with you upto the streets?” She spoke very softly.

The big mango trees just intensified the darkness inside the orchard. It was so dark that one cannot see his hands. I told her, “Don’t worry about me. You do not have to go with me. Just give me the lamp.”

While she was giving me the lamp, I saw her face. She was worried about me. Again she asked, “Are you sure you will be able to go alone.”

Though her concern was real and it was true that I was very afraid but her words just hurt my vanity. Trying to conceal my fear, I just gave a negative reply and started walking.

Again she said, “Be careful while you go through the jungle.”

After leaving her, I understood the reason for her anxiety. The darkness and the silence of the place would scare anyone. My hairs bristled in fear. She might not have bothered and come with me but Mrityunjai was lying there alone.

It was a huge orchard. I would have been very afraid even to go a step further but the words of the girl occupied my mind so seriously that I did not have the time to become afraid. How difficult it was to live with an ill person. How this poor girl would spend the rest of the night in this jungle had Mrityunjai died?

In this regard, I would like to talk about an interesting incident. I was present at the death bed of one of my relatives. It was a dark night and there were no one in the house; except me and the widow of the relative. The death of her husband was a major disaster for the woman. Her tears were unstoppable. So emotionally upset she was, I became afraid that she would also die. She was weeping relentlessly and kept asking me again and again if she wanted to sacrifice herself on the funeral pyre with her husband then what problem the government had with it? Why could not they understand that she did not want to live anymore? Don’t the government officers have wives in their house? How can they be so cruel? At this dark night, if four-five people could arrange the pyre inside the forest then the police would not know anything about it. However, it was not possible for me to sit there and listen to her. There was a dead body and I had to arrange for the pyre to cremate it. When the lady heard that I would have to go outside she just calm down. Cleaning her eyes, she said, “What has been done can not be undone? Why do you have to go now? The body can be cremated in the morning.

I said, “No, I have other things to take care of.”

She said, “Doesn’t matter, just stay with me.”

Again I said, “It is not possible for me to sit here idle. I have to inform some people.” As I was about to walk out of the room the lady cried out, “Oh no! I can’t stay alone with this corpse.”

I could not do anything but sat down. The lady had spent a fearless twenty-five years of couple-life with her husband. She might be able to bear his death but not his corpse even for five minutes. It is neither my intention to show that her mourning is fake nor meaningless, nor I am reaching to some kind of conclusion about her. I know many incidents and without mentioning them I would like to say that even after living together as husband and wife for so many years no woman can not overcome this fear. It is altogether, a different kind of power which, even after spending hundred years as husband and wife, can not be found.

But there are few men and women who possess such power and if the society feels that they should be punished for their qualities then let the society punish them but people can not help but shed tears for them.

For two months, I did not go to see Mrityunjai. Those of you who have never been to village or just seen village through the windows of running train will be surprised to hear this. How is it possible? Knowing about such serious illness, no body even bothered once to go and see the poor boy. For your information, this is not just possible but usual in village. Many people think that villagers are very close to each other. If one falls in problem then all other come to his/her aid. This idea is not true, may be it was for the villages of Satya Yuga (3). As much as I know, I have not heard of any such incidents in the present day rural society. Since I did not get the news of Mrityunjai’s death, I assumed that he was alive.

Once again, that distant uncle of Mrityunjai, the other rightful owner of the orchard, created a big hullabaloo. According to him, the village had become profane. The idiot boy had married the daughter of a snake charmer. Not only married her but also accepted rice from her hand. Such a heinous act had ruined his status in the society. He was saying, “Where were the guardians of the village when such an incident took place? If one does not obey the rules of religion and society then from now on people should live in jungles?”

Other villagers also agreed that Mrityunjai had committed blasphemy. Marrying the girl of a lower caste and accepting rice from her hand was no joke.

His uncle said that he knew long time ago that such incident would happen. He was just sitting and watching the show. Mrityunjai was his nephew, if he had been ill then why didn’t he come to him. As his uncle, he could have taken him to the doctors and attended him. But his uncle did not do any thing when he was sick. Why? It was also a mystery. It was time for action or else, the village would become impure, the Hindu society and religion would become unholy.

Till this day, when I think of what we did to Mrityunjai I just feel very much ashamed. His uncle, the surviving guardian of their family, accompanied by ten-twelve men, went to Mrityunjai’s house to keep the respect of the village intact.

By the time we reached Mrityunjai’s house, it was almost evening. The girl was preparing bread for Mrityunjai on the broken front porch of the house. Suddenly, seeing ten-twelve armed men made her very nervous. His uncle then sneaked into Mrityunjai’s room. He saw Mrityunjai lying on the bed. The next moment he locked the door. The girl’s face was already pale in fear. I think there are very few uncles in the world who would talk with their nephew’s wives in such a way? Such derogatory words Mrityunjai’s uncle used that even the daughter of a snake charmer was severely offended. She looked at his face and said, “My father had got me married with Mrityunjai.”

This was really unexpected and Mrityunjai’s uncle became more furious at her. “How dare you utter such words?” Without wasting another single moment, the angry mob attacked the poor girl. Some caught her by the hair, some her hands, those who did not get the chance at first did not miss any opportunity.

Looking at our behavior even Narayan’s (4) master would feel ashamed to say that we are not courageous in the battlefield.

Though irrelevant, I want to add something here. I heard that in foreign countries there is a superstition among the males. Since the females are weak and helpless, they do not beat them. It is against their culture. What kind of norm is this? Our traditional Hindu religion does not follow this. Our rule is that those who are weak are deserved to be oppressed, to be beaten, whether they are male or female.

At first, the girl cried out in pain but then she did not make any sound. When the people were forcefully pulling her out of the village she was requesting them again and again, “Please sir, let me go only once. I will give him the food or else stray animals would come and eat it. The sick man would remain hungry all night.”

Mrityunjai madly knocked his head and kicked with his feet on the door and swore in very bad language but it did not move us for a single moment. For the prosperity of the country, we kept pulling the girl.

I am saying ‘we’ because I also came with the crowd but somewhere in my heart there was a bit of sympathy. I could not be cruel enough to beat the girl. A feeling of sorrow and pain filled my heart. I felt like crying. It was true that the girl had committed sin but what we were doing was not right either. I was succumbed by a strange sense of guilt but forget about me.

Reading the above mentioned event, you might have started to think that village people are very cruel and heartless but that is not true either. You will be surprised to know the unusual graciousness the villagers show as they get rich.

Had Mrityunjai not accepted rice from the hands of a lower caste girl, the villagers would not be so angry. Son of a kayastha marrying the daughter of a snake charmer is unthinkable in the Hindu society. The most important thing was his eating rice from the hands of a lower caste girl. Not meat, not sweet, but rice! So what if he had been suffering for more than two months. Why he accepted the food of a lower caste girl? Such blasphemous act can not go unnoticed. Surprisingly, the Hindu villagers are not so narrow minded either. The boys who walk a great distance every day to earn their education become the head of the society one day and with the blessings of Saraswati there is no scope that pettiness would dwell inside their minds.

Few days after this incident, the widow daughter-in-law of late Mr. Mukhapadhyai returned home after spending two years in pilgrimage in Kashi. Some people started to say that her brother-in-law had brought her home in fear of losing half of the properties the woman inherited. He worked very hard to bring the wife of his late brother. He then donated two hundred taka in the annual Puja ceremony, and treated the Brahmins of five villages. Then he presented each of them a brass-made drinking pot. It was a great deed indeed and all the villagers started to praise him. On their way home, the people were discussing why the well-off villagers do not arrange such ceremonies all the time for the prosperity of the country?

I can provide ample examples of such greatness and virtues. The way, silt deposits on river banks, for many years, these virtues have heaved up in the homes of the villagers of south Bengal. In terms of character, education, religion, society, we are always one step ahead of time. Now, the only means to save the country people can think of is scolding the English.

Few years have passed after this incident. Meanwhile, I went to Burma to become a saint. Unable to bear the mosquito bites, I returned home. One day, while going through the malo neighborhood, I came across Mrityunjai. Sitting in front of a hut, Mrityunjai had grown long hairs and kept long beards. He was wearing a red ochre turban, rosaries made of Rudrakshas (5) and crystals. No one would be able to recognize him. Within a year, this Kayastha (6) boy gave up his caste and turned into a professional snake charmer. It is still a mystery to me how easily a man gives up the caste of his forefathers and gets into another caste. Many of you have heard of Brahmin’s son marrying sweeper and taking up her profession. I have even seen well educated Brahmin young man marrying the daughter of the domes (7) and taking up their profession. Now a days, he sales handicrafts and takes care of the pigs. Even the son of Kayastha marries the daughter of a butcher and becomes a full time butcher. Today, he slaughters cows and sales beef with his own hands and no one would be able to say that once this boy was some one else. All these happen for only one reason; women. Very often I wonder, are not these women, who made these men leave their community, powerful enough to motivate them to perform great tasks? I am praising the men of the villages. Is it their glory that they are going down so fast? Is it not possible that it comes from inside their hearts?

Let’s leave this matter here or else I will be blamed for unwarranted meddling. But I can not drive this fact out of my mind that almost ninety percent of our people are villagers and we need to do something about them.

Let’s come back to the story. Mrityunjai looked very different in his new profession. He was very glad to see me. Bilashi went to the pond to fetch water. She was very happy to see me as well. All the time, she kept saying that had I not saved her, they would have killed her that night.

I came to know that from the next day, they had been living in this place and they were very happy ever since. It was not necessary to tell me that they were happy. Looking at their faces it could be easily understood.

They told me that they had a contract of catching snake that day and they were preparing themselves to go there. I became very excited and insisted that I should go with them. Since childhood, I always dreamt about two things: taming cobras and becoming expert in snake magic.

Though interested, I could not find any way to learn snake magic till then. Now, I am very much interested to work as Mrityunjai’s apprentice. He works under his father-in-law; a famous and highly experienced snake charmer. I did not expect to be so lucky to have a person like Mrityunjai to teach me about snakes.

But it was a very dangerous job and both Mrityunjai and Bilashi were reluctant to involve me. I was so relentless in my pursuit that after few months Mrityunjai could not but granted me apprenticeship. He taught me necessary spells and the tricks and techniques to catch snakes. He tied an amulet containing medicine around my wrist and turned me into a full-fledged snake charmer.

Then one day, I got the ultimate proof of the strength of the magic. Till then, I became very famous as a snake charmer in my village. Everybody used to say that Nara was a talented person. He went to Kamakhkha and achieved perfection as a saint. Having so many achievements at such a young age made me very arrogant.

Only two people did not believe me. One was my guru, who always remained silent. Bilashi sometimes smiled and told me, “Thakur be careful, these are dangerous animals. Please, handle them carefully.” In fact, catching snakes, extracting their fangs, collecting poisons, these works I used to do so carelessly that even now I feel nervous when I think about those days.

Catching snakes is not as dangerous as it sounds. If you keep a snake in a covered bowl for two to four days, whether poisonous or not, it does not come to bite you. Only spreads its hood and tries to frighten you.

Sometimes Bilashi used to argue with master and apprentice. One of the most profitable businesses of the snake charmers was selling roots that would frighten away the snakes. However, the snakes they would frighten had to be seared with a hot iron first. Then what ever you show it, roots or sticks, it would get frightened and run away. Bilashi was dead against such fraud. She used to say to Mrityunjai, “Don’t cheat on the people. “

Mrityunjai said, “Why not? Everybody do it.”

Bilashi said, “Let others do it. Why do we have to do it? We are not that poor. Why we should cheat on people?”

Another thing I noticed that whenever there was a contract of catching snakes, Bilashi tried heart and soul to refrain us from going. She used to give various causes such as, “Today is Tuesday, it is an ominous day.” In the absence of Mrityunjai, she just drove away the customers but Mrityunjai could not resist the temptation of money. Moreover, I always tried to excite Mrityunjai but I did not have any bad intention. All I wanted to have fun. Then one day I was punished for my sins.

That day, we went to the house of a milkman three miles away to catch snake. Bilashi went with us all the time and that day she came with us as usual. After digging inside the mud-built house, the nest of the snake came into our sight. None of us but Bilashi noticed it. She was the daughter of snake charmer and more experienced in these matters. Lying on her face, she first saw the papers. She picked them up and showed them to me. She said, “Dig carefully thakur, there can be a pair of snakes or more than that.”

Mrityunjai said, “They said that they saw only one snake getting into the hole.”

Showing the papers, Bilashi told Mrityunjai that they had built nest.

Mrityunjai said, “The papers can be brought by the rats. Who knows?”

Bilashi said, “It can be both and I can bank on it that there are two snakes.”

Ironically, Bilashi was very true and the outcome was very tragic. Within ten minutes, spreading its hood a huge cobra came out and Mrityunjai caught it and gave it in my hand. No sooner I had put the snake in the box and returned, Mrityunjai came out of the house making an “Uh” sound. Blood was coming out from the back of his hand.

The initial shock of the event stunned all of us. For the first time, I saw a snake coming out of its nest to attack. Normally, they try to run away. Instantly, Bilashi cried out in fear and tied Mrityunjai’s hand with her saari and gave Mrityunjai to chew all the medicinal plants she brought with her. I also tied my amulet around his arm and kept on reciting the poison retracting spell loudly. A crowd of people gathered to see what was going on. Some people went out to call ojhas (8) who live in that area.

I kept on chanting restlessly but there was no change in Mrityunjai’s condition. After fifteen minutes, when Mrityunjai started to vomit Bilashi threw herself on the ground.

Three four ojhas came and sometimes jointly or separately we were pleading to the 330 million Hindu gods and goddesses. The poison did not stop working and Mrityunjai’s condition was getting worse. Finding no other options, the ojhas started to scold the poison. Addressing the poison they uttered derogatory words. Had poison had ears; upon hearing the ojhas, it would have left the country let alone Mrityunjai’s body, but nothing happened. After trying for half an hour, Mrityunjai died. Bilashi was sitting with Mrityujai’s head on her lap. His death was a big shock to her. She became motionless like a statue.

I will not make this tragic story anymore lengthy. Bilashi could not live without her husband for more than seven days. One day, she took oath from me that I will never catch snakes again.

My amulet went to the underworld with Mrityunjai. The only thing I had was the incantation. Mrityunjai’s death had proven that there was no incantation strong enough to save one from snake bite.

I was informed that Bilashi committed suicide by taking poison. She was a snake charmer and had poisons in her house. According to the religion, Bilashi will go to hell for killing herself but where ever she goes, when I would die, I would not be afraid to go into such a hell.

Mrityunjai’s uncle became the soul owner of the orchard. Like a learned person, he kept saying that Mrityunjai deserved such tragic death as he had committed blasphemy. Had he had relationship with ten women people would have spoken ill of him; but why did he take food from the hand of a lower caste girl? He himself died and caused nothing but humiliation to his uncle. He neither received a proper cremation nor oblation. Everybody admitted that Mrityunjai’s sin has no atonement.

To many, Bilashi’s suicide became a fun stuff. Very often, I lost myself in thinking, ‘May be they committed blasphemy but Mrityunjai belongs to this village. He grew up in the air and water of this village. Nobody even considered thinking for a moment what made him commit such sin?

It seems to me that in a country where there is no culture of a man and woman trying to win each other’s heart to get married, rather it brings bad reputation, where men and women have no opportunity to hope, who have no feeling of glory of wining and happiness from not making mistake, where the system is to force them to be only become good- there, the marriage is solidified with contract and Vedic chants. The people of this country have no ability to understand the reason of Mrityunjai’s sin from eating rice. I know that the people who have made fun of Bilashi are honest family men and women and they will go to heaven. They have never seen the continuous effort of Bilashi to ailing Mrityunjai. They also do not care for her tears and pains. Mrityunjai was an ordinary and insignificant man but the effort to win his heart is not an insufficient thing.

This is the thing that our people find it difficult to understand. I will not blame the book of Bhudebbhabo about family affairs. Nor I will criticize his strict rules and regulations. If I criticize then they will say that this Hindu society has survived among centuries of attack and revolutions. I respect their attitude. In response, I will never say that surviving is not the end of the world nor it has a lot of glory. Huge elephants became extinct but small cockroaches have survived.


1. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and all the creative arts.

2. The king of death in Hindu religion.

3. The "Yuga (Age or Era) of Truth", when mankind is governed by gods, and every manifestation or work is close to the purest ideal and mankind will allow intrinsic goodness to rule supreme.

4. Other name of Vishnu. His symbol is water (Nara) and he himself is called 'NARAYANA ' - the one who dwells upon the waters.

5. A kind of bead wore by Hindu saints.

6. An Indian caste

7. A Hindu caste having the assigned duty of burning the dead and looking after the crematorium.

8. It's the name given to the profession of an exorcist.

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