There was a time when
daughters were born here
Purabi Basu is a pharmacologist by profession. Apart from several articles in her own field, Dr. Basu is also an exceptionally fine short story writer, receiving the Anannya Shahitya Purashkar in 2005. Among her collections of short stories are Purabi Basur Galpa (1989), Ajanma Parabasi (1992), Se Nahi Nahi (1995), Anitya Ananda (2000) and Josna Karechhe Ari (2005). The following short fiction piece has been translated from her book, 'Naribadi Golpo'.
No one has ever heard such a bizarre tale before. Not one single daughter has taken birth in this area for the past two decades. Is that even possible? Yet, through as much information that could have been dug up it is true. A group of demographers and scientists arrived to investigate the anomaly. No, the birth rate is not under the curve in this society. Moreover, it is actually slightly higher than the national birth rate. That too is due to approximation, as this illiterate, detached-from-civilization community is absolutely unaware of all the modern advancements towards birth control. But then again: why are there only sons? There is no acceptable explanation for this phenomenon. Allegedly, the people were generally happy because of the growing number of working hands. They were not merely sons, but extra help for fathers to go and cut wood, craftsmen to chisel away subtle curves on the designed box, the carpenter for furniture. There was a time when everyone hoped, they waited with impatient expectation, for a son. But then, as it came to pass over months and years, not a single daughter was born everyone started to worry.
It was unheard of for people of the Chandankar society to have ever thought of marrying off anyone to someone else from outside of the community. They are now absolutely bewildered thinking of the possibility of the entire Chandankar family, at one time, to cease to exist. Was it a curse? What end of which error is this destructive fate for the Chandankars? Everyone has a different theory. But whose one is the actual story? Then again, everyone agrees on the fact that such a phenomenon has never been observed before in the history of mankind in the last twenty years. Daughters have stopped taking birth here. Besides that, some physical changes have also come about in this land.
The place is situated to the south of the country. To the west of the swamp surrounded lands in the Sundarbans was a settlement of the Chandankar community. About one hundred and fifty families spread haphazardly over the region. They are short in stature, fair, squashed in appearance and their eyes appear swollen. They resemble the Chinese to a big extent. The women wear long dresses that look like lungis, with short sleeved blouses on top. The men wear four yards long running cloth, neatly wrapped and crossed in between the legs to the behind, with a gaamcha (cotton towel) on their shoulders. There used to be ample Sandalwood here back in the day. The trade of the Chandankars was simply to craft designs to adorn houses with the wood, to sand the sandalwood in order to make cosmetics and perfumes. But Sandalwood was depleted quite some time ago. Yet, their livelihoods have not faced any change. The people of this area are of the same profession still. Sandalwood has been replaced by Teak, Shaal, Jackfruit, and Korui. Their days expire through the gathering of wood, and the crafting of small scaled showpieces and furniture for homes.
People from the city sometimes visit here to buy these handcrafted woodworks. Generally barter is administered in exchange for salt, oil, and kerosene for the products. The women work in the farms besides working with wood and the children are revered in these parts. They cannot even think of beating, or even scare them by scolding to keep them in line. They are treated as heaven-sent. They are free of every rule, and all acts of control. They grow up with a lot of care on nature's laps. The child of one is looked after by tens of others. A child is a sign of good luck and represents beauty, and wellbeing. The elders pay a lot of heed towards the wants and don't-wants along with the views of the children. The children take part in all social events with their parents and their families. The whole community take part in festivities when a new child is about to enter this world. They welcome every child with beating drums, ringing bells, and singing songs. Each and every man and woman contribute towards family chores, the upbringing of every child and the gathering of livelihood. But, in everyday life it is the man that takes up more of the physical work. The women prioritize works which require more concentration and patience.
Maa Mayabati, Champa Dasi and the Foreign Pirates
Things were going well in line with all the norms for the Chandankars. Their settlement ages back to quite a few centuries. There was a time when a group of playful young teenage girls would go around bathing and swimming in the clear waters of the Chandni and the Kusumdighi lakes, while raiding the growing lotus and wreaking havoc on the water-world. The restless girls would run around in ringing anklets and leaf wraps on their bodies. In contrast, there are no young women or teenage girls in the village today. Not even a girl child.
Maa Mayabati is the most revered of the deities in this area. Everyone worships her. Mayabati has a huge temple dedicated only to her. The Chandankars are of the impression that Maa Mayabati is enraged with the animalistic behavior of the foreigners to this area. And if she is not appeased, there is no possibility of a daughter ever taking birth in these parts. Why is Mayabati so angry? Various theories exist. The lore that is the most spoken of is that the inhuman tortures forced upon Champa Dasi is why Mayabati was angered. The incident first took place in 1971. A band of men, ill-clad in savage attire, in a state of frenzy suddenly had entered the area. Breaking all the peace and quiet of the place, they wreaked havoc on the community with their guns. The birds had taken flight and left the jungle, afraid for their lives. Champa Dasi was scared as well. How old could she have been then? Maybe twelve, maybe thirteen. The foreigners, drunk with Champa's beauty, complexion, long jet-black hair and the pearl-like teeth that dazzled from her childlike laughter, captured her. They took her as she was bathing in the Kusumdighi lake, and imprisoned the young girl in Mayabati's temple for two long days.
Champa stopped talking after those two days. She just stares into the open space, her mind numb towards the exterior. She doesn't smile anymore. She doesn't cry. She doesn't even sleep at night. Four years went by. Another storm came to the land of the Chandankars. Not foreigners this time, no, they were countrymen who came as foes to the Chandankars; people who spoke in a language that the Chandankars understood perfectly, yet the intruders could not decipher the local tongue. Champa Dasi by now was a fully grown woman, and had become even more attractive. They didn't leave the beautiful Champa by herself. For the past four years, Champa had imprisoned herself in Mayabati's temple. That was her exile. Her relatives and parents tried many times but could not take her back home since 1971. She worships Mayabati all day long. She survives by eating some of the offerings given to Mayabati such as bananas, mangoes, guavas, and pomegranates. The pirates from the city this time didn't limit themselves to ruining only one woman's life. In the dead of the night, they lit a huge torch, charged explosives and left the whole village upturned. Each and every young woman of the Chandankars were raped by a band of baton wielding able men.
Time didn't stand still. The black night had ended just as any other night. The darkness subsided. The sun rose as per schedule. Birds called out. The lotus on Chandni and Kusumdighi lakes didn't change one bit. The greenish hue of the trees, brightness of the sun, chill from the rain, rustling sounds of the southern winds, all of it remained unchanged. No difference could be observed anywhere, except the frightening change that shadowed the women of the Chandankars. Starting from the teenage girls, to the young -matured enough to mother a child-and the ones that were middle aged, all started shedding their hair. Bald spots started to surface on some of their heads. Some started to grow the faintest of beards on their faces. Each and every one of their voices started to deepen. Their chests started to flatten. But somehow they all remained women, which meant that there was nothing unusual about them carrying out their expected roles.
The other anomaly was visible exactly since that time. No daughters have taken birth from within the area in the Chandankar community ever since. Champa Dasi's face now sports a growing beard. She doesn't shave it off like every other woman does. Thusly her cheeks and chin display short black hairs of a beard. Accompanying that, she has curly soft long hair going down to her waist. After being raped for the second time around, Champa Dasi not only refrains from speaking, but refuses to open her eyes as well. With eyes closed shut or halfway there, Champa at all times is busy chanting incantations, with her lips barely moving, busy at worshiping Mayabati. Scientists, NGO employees, social workers, government officials have come countless times to this place. Champa Dasi has never opened her mouth despite all the requests and religious rites performed for her. It is not even evidently clear whether she understands any of the questions or conversations thrown at her. The population of the Chandankars including every caste remains worried and in dilemma. The current manly appearance of all their women who were once very beautiful, attractive, well groomed and well shaped is now troubling and exasperating them. They are concerned with the possibility of their race being obliterated from the face of this earth. How will it all rectify itself if daughters are not born? No daughter has taken birth in these parts for the past two decades! The teenage boys and young men are constantly jittering about because of this. What will happen to this community? Scientists, NGO employees, social workers, government officials have come countless times to this place. Champa Dasi has never opened her mouth despite all the requests and religious rites performed for her. It is not even evidently clear whether she understands any of the questions or conversations thrown at her. The population of the Chandankars including every caste remains worried and in dilemma. The current manly appearance of all their women who were once very beautiful, attractive, well groomed and well shaped is now troubling and exasperating them. They are concerned with the possibility of their race being obliterated from the face of this earth. How will it all rectify itself if daughters are not born? No daughter has taken birth in these parts for the past two decades! The teenage boys and young men are constantly jittering about because of this. What will happen to this community?
Opinion of Mayabati's Sage
The sage is at least ninety years of age. He is known as the eldest in the Chandankar society. The sage has seen many things during his life. Storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes nothing has been omitted. But in the last twenty seven years, everything that the sage has seen, all that has transpired, he never dreamt of experiencing. Journalists have flocked around and surrounded the old sage. What is the Chandankar community thinking, what is his explanation for the phenomenon, how can the society break free from such a curse? The sage has only one explanation. Maa Mayabati is extremely disappointed. She is hurt and agitated. She can only forgive everything, and daughters will take birth on this land once again, if and only if those savage men-the original criminals come and face Mayabati, face the all the women of Chandankar, especially Champa Dasi and beg for their unconditional forgiveness.
Scientists' and Demographers' Press Conference
Reporters have been swarming around the place for quite a while now. Quite a few theories are being cooked. What explanation will the scientists and demographers put forward for this ordeal? Quite a few NGO employees, social workers and even intellectuals have gathered for the event. Everyone is curious to as to what data has been unearthed by this international team of researchers. Researchers take their seat on the stage one by one. And no, they were not able to reach an absolute consensus on the matter. This is by far one of the most unique phenomena that they have witnessed. Even though many different species of the animal world through many different reasons in the past have shown few changes physically or in behavior, but in the entire history of mankind no mention of such a case has ever been found. The scientists did put forward some data retrieved through examples from the animal world in this conference from which some related ideas can be drawn. The points are provided below:
1. Scientists from the University of North Carolina of the United States last year discovered a fish named 'Resi' living in the Caribbean seas. Among them those who have blue heads are very courageous. They are the warrior type male fish. These blue headed fish are the protectors towards the females, fries and the weaker male fish (with yellow heads) of the species. They provide guard and protection at all times towards them from other fish and attacks from different creatures of the sea. For some reason or the other, from observing the scarcity of these blue headed fish some of the weaker males and females with yellow heads change their head colors to blue and become as ferocious and courageous as the originals within moments. But if for reason the blue headed fish return or their numbers increase, the imposters slowly turn back and return to their own natures. All of this happens due to release of hormones from the brain due to a triggered psychological imbalance. Not from reproductive hormones.
2. Many surprising cases of mutation have been observed in the banks of the coastal area of England and the eastern area in New York amongst fish due to the extensive pollution in the seas. The male fish are observed to carry eggs. The hormones running the course of their bodies are also similar to those of female fish. On the other hand, the female species of the fish are losing their ability to lay eggs.
3. Many women from competitive and executive backgrounds from the highly educated work places in Europe and America are showing trends of growing bald spots. Besides, they are developing manly features that are evident from their looks and facial characteristics. For example, some have started to sport thin lines of mustaches, while others are developing deeper voices. These characteristics are more evident in women mostly middle aged and working in high posts and in sectors of law making.
4. Many women in the chemical industry, due to the polluted environment, go through miscarriages without any other reasons. On top of that, even men who work in such places have become impotent. Radical changes in the consistency of their reproductive gamete have been observed.
5. Excessive smoking and drinking leads to impotency in men and is the main cause of reduced sperm count, reducing male fertility.
6. Pregnant women working in coal mines have been reported to give birth to deformed children.
7. Migratory birds are reducing in numbers during the seasons in southern Asia for the climate turning rougher every year. The migratory birds visit each area after a different species scout the area and relay the message on the environment and climate. Due to the increase in pollution in all three elements of air, water, and earth, the migratory birds are reducing in number with every visit. Maybe they will stop migrating to this part of the world in later years when conditions become much harsher.
8. The environment, food, medicine, the sun's rays, age, transmitted diseases, chemical substances, sharp or long lasting bruises or cuts all can very subtly alter the genes or DNA of a creature that slowly over time can take on a totally different appearance. Many types of cancers can grow because of these mutations. Things can result in death as well. Moreover, they can influence the aptitude of the brain, or memory or even the reproductive system. Some creatures may even be prone to losing their reproductive potency or even the ability to reproduce.
After presenting many such examples, what the scientists in summation wanted to say is the following: whatever is happening to the women of Chandankar cannot be decisively described by science as of yet. But what can be deduced with absolute conviction is the fact that the women of Chandankar have both been hurt very badly physically and psychologically. No one can say with absolution or certainty whether if their genome has undergone any permanent change. But it can certainly be said that the women of Chadankar are not feeling safe, and their bodies are changing in response. A healthy and safe environment needed for their survival, if revived, may result in all of them returning to normal. Environment to give birth to daughters may once again come back into existence if the women are convinced that their land is safe to live on once again.
Most of the scientists and research teams left after presenting their final findings in a report. Some of the NGO employees, foreign researchers, intellectuals and reporters stayed behind even after all that has happened so far. The mystery has yet to unravel in front of them. None of them can yet explain what is actually needed to be done in order to return the women of Chandankar to normal, and to give them back that sense of security. The Mayabati Sage keeps constantly reminding everyone of how this curse can be lifted once the real offenders step up and unconditionally beg for forgiveness from Maa Mayabati and Champa Dasi. But they don't know how that could ever be turned into reality.
Everyone is supposed to return to the city the next morning, and a reporter accompanied by one of the foreign researchers visit Mayabati's temple after dinner in the dead of the night. They look around in each and every corner of the temple. Nearly everyone has gone off to bed by then. Silence blankets the surroundings. They sit silently by a bush right in front of the temple. An hour or two passes by in sheer silence. It's exactly twelve in the night when the sky adorns the newly risen full moon. The mild moonlight covers the land. A slight breeze starts to pass by. The leaves of the Babla tree are swaying rustling sound in the wind ever so slowly. Suddenly they notice a very tall woman wearing a very long white gown exiting Mayabati's temple. Her complexion is glowing and fair. Her hair is as black as the night, reaching up to her waist. Her face is symmetric and beautiful. She slowly walks from the east end of the temple's balcony to its west, wearing her bell adorned anklets. Chiming bells sound off with every step. Her long hair flows in the wind.
Mesmerized, the journalist and the researcher come out from behind the bush very slowly and carefully approach the woman. Once closer to the balcony, they see the woman up close. She is exceedingly beautiful. As soon as they fall in her line of sight, her apparition immediately is absorbed by the idol to the back of the temple. Both of them instantly start to run towards the back of the temple in pursuit. But they see nothing. Without wasting one moment they hurriedly run back to the front of the temple. Where did the woman go? They climb the steps and stand in front of the temple gates. The doors are ajar. There is a huge idol of Mayabati in the temple. Mayabati is wearing an orange gown and sitting atop a white tiger. Two lamps are burning on either side of the statue, and to the left Champa Dasi is sitting and concentrating hard on her incantations. She is wearing a spotless glowing white gown. Her eyes are closed. Spiky strands of beard are growing out of her cheeks. Her jet black hair still falls down to her waist unattended. The foreign researcher is perturbed. After observing Champa Dasi with a scrutinizing eye, he speaks up addressing the reporter, “I swear, the woman walking down the balcony had no beard. Oh how smooth and fair her face was! Yet her hair was exactly the same, exactly the same length. Believe me. I saw it with my own two eyes. I saw it perfectly well.”
The reporter tries to calm his excited friend down. He says, “I know. I saw the same myself.”
Translated by Hasan Ameen Salahuddin
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