My Tryst With Faith
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My first tryst with Faith was at the age of 8 years, when I encountered an animal sacrifice during the annual Kali Puja at our house. With all my efforts, I covered my face with my palm, when the fatal blow was dealt on the shivering lamb. Despite my eyes wide shut, I could feel the singular act of utmost violence being committed in front of me. I looked at my father, chanting the mantras and saw how calmly he put the tikka of the lamb’s blood on Barababu’s forehead. I searched for my mother, who had taken care of the lamb just minutes before, but she was nowhere to be seen. I looked at everybody around and realized that except me, no one had twitched even a single facial muscle.
Later I asked my mother, “Why were not you there during the balidaan?”
She smiled and replied “Women are considered weak and so it’s for their own benefit that they are not allowed to witness the violent act. But then, women are the only ones allowed to bathe and make the lamb ready for sacrifice. It’s punnya for the women who do it, since it’s considered that they offer something of themselves also to be sacrificed along with the animal – her love and care for the animal. Any Hindu woman allowed to do it must consider herself very lucky.”
For some days, I brooded over her answer. Did my instant disliking for the ritual have anything to do with lack of manliness? And above it all, did my Faith expect me to accept the norms as they were and not feel repulsed by them?
Due to lack of any other explanation, I decided to nip that doubt in the bud, shed my reservations and be a man of Faith. After my thread ceremony, I began to sit beside my father and participate in all the rituals. I even chanted the mantras loudly when the lamb was still throbbing with life, despite its head being severed from its body. I was determined to be accepted as one of the Faith and above all, as a brave young man, good enough to carry on the family legacy.
For, I was the only son of Pandit Harendranath Gangopadhyay, solely responsible for all the religious and spiritual activities of Zamindar Ramratan Mullick of Narail. My family was the most influential in the district, being the only Brahmin family with a rich legacy of serving the Mullick clan for 100 years. No puja in the household of Barababu was complete without my father, and hence we used to live in the Rajbari itself. Narail was one of the foremost districts in terms of revenue generation for the State. Ours was a prosperous village, small in size but with lush and huge plots of rich agricultural plots. Our family had also received a plot of agricultural land from the Zamindar for our services, which was tilled by the Bargadars in exchange of a mere 5% of the revenue generated for their services.
My education consisted of home tutorial by my learned father in texts of Religious studies. I mastered Sanskrit and began my advance courses in Science and Philosophy at the village high school. At the age of 16, I faced my first conflicting belief on Faith. All my learning till date suddenly found itself at the precipice of assault inflicted by logical reasoning during my lessons. It was the first time I had begun to attend a school and received a huge shock to see even Yabans of the nearby villages in my class. I had received strict instruction from home to maintain as much distance from them as possible and I followed it to the tee. They sat in the same benches and drank from the same water tap, much to the chagrin of other Hindu boys of our class. But our own Zamindar had declared that the only high school in miles around was to be open for students of all Faith and we did not dare oppose it.
Day after day, I sat in my Philosophy class and listened with astonishment the lectures by our progressive teacher, who questioned all the basic tenets of Faith. The Yaban students in class used to discuss their religious tenets and how their Faith was no less great than ours. Due to the intense debate, some of the lower caste Hindu boys even fought bodily with the Yabans, but we, being Brahmins maintained an indifferent distance. Whenever I found myself even slightly convinced of the arguments, I told myself that this was all God’s test for me, to show that my belief in Faith was supreme and could withstand all assault.
It was the year 1859, when I was to succeed my father as the main purohit of Zamindar Ramratan Mullick in the family Durga Puja. Preparations were on full-swing and there was an excited buzz in my family. However I was more worried about an entirely different issue.
For quite some time, the British Indigo Planters had started terrorizing farmers from our district and forcing them to cultivate the Indigo seeds instead of food crops. Their actions became more and more brutal and a few days ago, my father received a summons from their office through a severe-looking pyeadah.
“Mr. Ganguly, you are the owner of 5 bighas of plot; why don’t you cultivate Indigo instead of paddy? Indigo Dye has become fashionable in England and there is a lot of profit in it,” was what the red-faced Planter Sahib told my father. When he politely informed the Sahib that neither he nor his Bargadars knew anything about Indigo plantations, the Sahib laughed deliriously. “Bengal has been planting Indigo for the last 50 years and here you tell me that you know nothing of it! Ramratan Mullick has been resisting us for many years, but now the Indigo Plantation Act is in place. We can force you to cultivate Indigo and any resistance shall mean imprisonment for life.”
My father returned shaken and shared the news only with me. There was no way we would cultivate Indigo on the land that had fed us for generations. It was a costly investment and we would have to take a hefty loan from the money-lenders at a high interest. Moreover, once Indigo seeds were sown in a land, it became unfit for any other crops for ever. I had a good mind to take up the issue with Barababu, but was restrained by my father. “Durga Puja is just round the corner. You are also going to officially succeed me in the celebrations. Let the festivities pass over, we shall find a way out of it.”
But the festivities never could start that year. The night before Shashthi, I was summoned by Barababu to his baithak khana. I was surprised to find three unknown gentlemen engaged in deep conversations with him. The Zamindar addressed me in his loving manner, “Son, you must be aware of the unrest that has been brewing in our state for some time with respect to forced Indigo cultivation by the British Planters. These gentlemen are here from Nadia district. They have already fought many a battle against these British and I have sought their assistance in taking the Indigo Revolt to bigger heights. I make you in-charge of all our peasant forces and urge you to fight for your own land.”
That night, I went with the gentlemen to the main marketplace of the village, where all farmers had gathered. The two of them turned out to be Digambar Biswas and Bishnucharan Biswas, who have gained fame by successfully leading the revolt in many parts of Bengal. But I was still curious about the third gentleman, who kept his face half-covered.
Instead of being inducted as the head priest of the Zamindar clan, here I was being inducted as the leader of all the revolting peasants of the entire village. Just before I started to address the gathered crowd, my eyes fell on a huge section of Yabans at one corner. I also recognized some of them as students from my class, with whom I had never spoken. I could see that the rest of the Hindu population was standing a little apart from them, trying to distinguish themselves from the Yabans.
Digambar Biswas noticed it and spoke up, “This is no time to maintain the caste and religion divide among ourselves. We have to fight against a common enemy – the British planters and if we have to succeed in it, we have to forget the age-old divide that man has created himself. Let me introduce you all to Kader Molla, who has led the revolt in Pabna district and has executed many British planters in public trials. He shall assist this young man to lead the revolt here from now on.”
The third gentlemen stepped forward amidst loud cheers of the Yabans. Deep inside me, I was relieved that I did not have to take direct charge of their group. Years of learning had steeped me with the prevailing religious dogmas of the society, from which there was no easy respite.
The following months were spent in frenzy. I never knew that I was capable of violence, being a true Brahmin always. But I slowly realized that all the so-called peace loving Hindus were already baptized in violence, being introduced to it through prevailing barbaric religious acts like animal sacrifice and sati daha pratha, among many others. We seized the local Indigo factory and burnt it down with the Planters inside. We attacked the train bogey carrying the seeds and plundered the residences of the Planters and money-lenders who got rich through Indigo cultivation.
Our revolution began to gain widespread acceptance and support, especially after the play was translated into English by Michael Madhusudan Dutt under the pseudonym “A Native” and published anonymously by Rev James Long , an Anglo-Irish Priest.
Ever since I embraced a life dedicated to fighting for my land, I had turned a fugitive. I could never stay at my house for too many days, for the fear of being arrested for the numerous heists carried out by me. Severe oppressive measures were being employed by the British police force to weed out the revolt and they were coming down heavy on all the fighting ryots.
Once, a meeting was arranged among all leaders of ten neighbouring villages in Nishchindapur to discuss ways to combat the brutalities of the British. On my way to Nishchindapur, I was chased by the British police force, who had been keeping strict vigil on my movement. They had been targeting me for some time and that day, found their golden opportunity. I ran blindly towards a cluster of huts and barged into one of them. A group of family was interrupted in their dinner and they stood up, startled. I spoke to no one in particular, “Please hide me. British Police is chasing me.”
“But, who are you and why are they chasing you?” asked a deep voice. I looked at him and despite the searing pain in my whole body, immediately noticed his fez toopi and long flowing kurta. Before I could think any more, there were loud raps on the door. The strong hands of the man pulled me inside a room, while another answered the door. After a few anxious moments, I could hear the policemen leave.
The Yaban looked at my face intently. When I told him my name, his face lighted with recognition. “So you are the Brahmin leader of the Indigo Revolution from Narail, who is known to never interact with the Yaban peasants of his group. I am Haji Molla, from Nishchindapur and just like you, have waged a struggle to save my motherland from becoming barren by Indigo cultivation. Today, I am sorry that because of me, you have lost your Faith by entering my household. Because of this, you may be made an outcast by your own community. But I sincerely hope that I could express my penance for my sins by saving you from the British police.”
I tried to search for a hint of sarcasm in his voice but found none.
He continued, “You must be thinking that I saved you today because I had a point to prove. No, my dear son, I saved you because I have a duty towards humanity, and, above all, my motherland. Your life and work is precious to all of us.”
I was overwhelmed with shame at his straightforwardness. Throughout my life, I have been led to believe that my Faith was superior in all respects and that any Yaban was inferior to us in all respects. Years of reading the religious and sacred texts led me to conform to all societal norms of Hinduism blindly, without realizing for a moment, that it was not faith in religion that I claimed to have, but a faith in collective obeisance to mere manifestation of Religion. I was just another ignorant Brahmin man, with false notions of caste and religion divide, and who maintained such man-made distinction with all his zeal.
Despite the opportunities provided to me by my learning, I failed to see the real picture of the society; I refused to pay any heed to those class lectures which offered all of us a chance to question our age-old beliefs and emerge a better man. I failed to free myself of the misconception that Religion was not synonymous to God and refused to realize that God was omnipresent inside all men, even the Yabans.
My reverie was broken by the entry of a young man, who spoke excitedly, “Abba, have you heard the news? The Supreme Court at Calcutta today convicted James Long for libel and gave a verdict of imprisonment and fine.”
I asked astonished, “The same James Long who published the English Translation of the play Nil Darpan?”
He replied, “Yes, and for this act he was charged for libel by the British Planters. After all, the play became hugely popular in England, too and garnered a lot of sympathy for us among the British intelligentsia.”
As I, the head Hindu priest of a Bengali Zamindar family, stood inside the house of the Yaban who saved my life, absorbing the news of another non-native Yaban being punished for supporting our struggle, I realized the true purport of Faith. It was never a faith in Religion but faith in a cause that’s always supreme, which could break even the centuries-old prevailing dogmas of a divided society.
I lost faith in Faith, but gained a life-long faith in humanity and loyalty towards my country.
This fiction is based in the backdrop of the true historical event of Nil Bidroho of Bengal, which happened just a year after the Sepoy Mutiny and was largely successful in bringing an end to half a century of oppression of the peasants of Bengal by the British. Its believed that one of the main causes behind its success is the fact that for the first time, both the major religious groups of Hindus and Muslims came together to launch the protest. Though the storyline belongs to the author, it is greatly inspired from the play Nil Darpan, a masterpiece of Bengali literature. The characters of Digambar Biswas, Bishnucharan Biswas, Ramrattan Mullick, Kader Molla and Haji Molla, along with Dinabandhu Mitra, Michael Madhusudan Dutta and Rev James Long are all historical while the protagonist is entirely from the author’s imagination to portray the attitude prevailingin the society during that era.
Tikka- a mark on the forehead
Barababu- A way of addressing important people; here the Zamindar
Balidaan- animal sacrifice
Rajbari- palace; here the house of the Zamindar
Bargadar- hired labourers, often bonded slaves
Yaban- non-believers of Hinduism as commonly referred to by the Hindus i.e. Muslims and Christians
sati daha pratha- act of burning the widow in the husband’s pyre
Shashthi- the sixth day of the ten-day long Durga Puja celebrations
baithak khana- Living Room
Ryot- land-owners of Bengal
Fez toopi- the traditional head gear of Muslims
Nil Bidroho– Indigo Revolt