Panchatapa

Sometimes after reading a novel, one lyric gets associated with a movie or one of the characters- like the Chalachal –Bipin got associated in my mind with the song “Ami Jene Shune Bish karcchi paan – I have  drank the poison deliberately“,

The heroine of this story, Santwana associated herself in my mind with another immortal “Naho Maata Naho Kanya…”

Neither a mother nor a daughter,
Oh the most beautiful Apsara (Urvasi) of the heaven,
Nor are you a beautiful and adored wife,

When the dusk envelops the neighbourhood,
Wrapping your body in the golden Aanchal of Sari
You don’t go to the courtyard
To light the evening lamp

Late in the night with feet laden with shame,
The heart trembling, the eyes locked to the ground,
But a pleasant and happy smile playing on the lips
You don’t walk to the room,
Where your love is waiting for you

Like the sun rising at dawn,
You are without any veil
Free of any embarrassment.

To which type of  woman it refers to? When it talks of Urvasi, it comes to my mind, of a non-ethereal beautiful woman, who seduces the men especially of steadfast and immaculate rock-rigid character, but never forms an attachment (although Urvasi probably was only Apsara who did it- with King Puruva). One of the meaning of Urvasi is one who imprisons the heart, (the other being one who is born of thigh, in line with the second mythology)  and the mythological Urvasi was exactly the same, she is the most beautiful, charming but equally elusive.

Does she need to be seductive or flirt? On first glance one would say of course, but after this novel, one might change opinion. She could be also be a  woman, quite different type, without even a whiff of flirt.

Her friendship could be misinterpreted. She could be the eternal virgin. Urvasi or any of the Apsara’s too were maiden, though not necessarily physically. Since they didn’t form any attachment, hence they were mentally as good as one. In this case, being human and heroine, the protagonist remained physically too.  

Like the rising of the sun at dawn,
You are without any veil
Free of any embarrassment.

She could well afford to be unembarrassed since she had not done anything which calls for it?

Panchatapa – is one who undergoes a very difficult penance, of being heated from five sides. Four sides by the heat of the earth and on the fifth, top, by scorching sun. Usually it is to rid one of the attachments and desires. In this case what was it to rid of? She didn’t have any particular attachment, except that of love and care towards all. She had only one attachment though, she embodied a purpose, and for that to succeed she was ready to go to any extent. Looking at another aspect, is Panchatapa the earth itself? The scorching drought hit, parched land burnt by the Sun above? Possible.

The novel is full of characters and with their own stories interwoven. There is the Pagal Sardar, who was once the best tribal hunts-man but after his wife Phoolmani eloped, leaving the young daughter, Chandmani behind, he went into shell. Though in the tribal society, he would have been made outcast due to the taint but he wasn’t and though he didn’t have any say in the tribal committees anymore, he had complete hold over the people, even more than the priests and the chiefs. 

The daughter, Chandmani has grown up, and Hopoon, the only son of the village chief, had fallen for her. She too reciprocated, but due to taint the village chief won’t hear of the alliance. At a later stage the chief accepted the alliance, but the father of the daughter, Pagal Sardar who was from the beginning complacent of the relation, suddenly put a brake. Not a complete one, just a waiting period, before he would give his nod. He didn’t mind their meeting or romancing, but his objection was in the marriage. “Till the time is ripe, wait“. Both Hopoon and Chandmani are in their prime, a strong and masculine youth and a curvaceous and alluring young lady, fire and fuel. The reason for the delay isn’t understood till the end. 

We have Ranabir Ghosh, the senior partner of the contractor firm, Ghosh and Chakladar. Ranabir is a known womaniser, and had brought a lot of tribal (and non-tribal) girls to his bed. The tribals were easier catch with the gifts. Obviously he couldn’t resist Chandmani, nor Chandmani could the costly baits.

There was a flirt Jharna Chatterjee, daughter of a mid ranking officer. Studying for her MA degree, but as she confided, she had been for about five years. She had flirted a lot with Ranabir, moving around and seen everywhere in his jeep. When one fine day, she and Ranabir both disappeared, it was not difficult to guess that they had eloped, and considering Ranabir’s reputation, probably to her doom.

Bhhotu-Babu was the local hotelier/ restaurer/ shopkeeper all in one. He was a decent chap, except in profiteering. He deeply loved the heroine, but he couldn’t resist having around 30% price added, when he bought a cow for her. Being the head of the cabin, where all the gossips would arrive, he was privy to all the local news, including Ranabir’s. But unlike the normal gossips, he didn’t spread it and kept it sealed, unwilling to make the people who mattered angry.  Though he did all the business, and supplies for profit, one activity, the flesh business, he never indulged in, directly or indirectly (as conduit). There was probably only once he ever talked, for warning, when the aim was one whom he, infact almost all, deeply cared for.

Now the major characters, the heroine, Santwana. She is the only child of the widower overseer of the dam project, Abani Roy. She is from a water parched area, not too far from where the current dam was built. Her mother and grandmother died in the village, struggling with the water scarcity. Why isn’t clear, since Abani was a government officer and could have taken his wife and mother with him at his place of posting. It is hinted that it was they who didn’t want to leave the village, despite all odds. In the end after they died, Abani took the child, and put her in her aunt (mother’s sister’s) care and then sold off the property and cut his link with the village. From then she grew up with her aunt and her family. The link with father was only with letters or a few times a year he visited. 

Unlike normal movie family, this girl was treated as their daughter. But now there was a problem, their own daughter had become of marriageable age, and whoever came to see her, selected Santwana instead. Santwana at 22 being elder, the uncle and aunt didn’t mind it. “When on the next occasion Santwana said she would not come anywhere and work from kitchen, preparing, aunt and uncle were happy as well as unhappy. Happy because now at least it would go without hitch, and unhappy since how did it matter, Santwana too were their daughter and had to be married“. What they did mind was Abani’s lack of enthusiasm or even response. He did say that they could select and he won’t come in the way, but a final nod should come from the parent, since he was still surviving. If the groom was chosen for their own daughter, it definitely couldn’t be bad match, but Abani didn’t even respond on the subject. Of course the uncle and aunt didn’t know that Abani wasn’t even aware, the letter to him was waylaid by Santwana, who had no intention to get married. 

A dam was being constructed near their village, which would quench the fire of the earth, that took her mother and grandmother. Her father was transferred there (probably by wish) and she now decided to go with him, to take care of his bachelor’s home. The protests of uncle and aunt was not heeded to by the daughter, and the father had no control over anyone. She settled down at the project site with her father. In her absence, at least the cousin got married.

Badal Ganguli, the chief engineer of the project site is a foreign educated (Germany) engineer. He is haughty and reserved but with a reason. After coming back, he joined a big construction firm and rose rapidly, due to his calibre and also due to the owner Bipul Barari’s daughter, Neela. There was however no problem at the family, at least half of it. Bipul, the moment he found Neela approved of him, started grooming Badal and his career as the future son in law. His wife wasn’t too enthusiastic, but her dislike wasn’t for Badal, but of his refusal to get under the thumb of Neela (Saat Paake Bandha/ Kora Kagaz girl’s mother). That won’t have had much problem, at least till marriage but before that there was some trouble at office. It was a design trouble, of the design of the FIL, who wanted the would be SIL to save his reputation and put his head below the guillotine. SIL finally agreed, but with that letter he added his resignation letter too, and came out of their life and now was now preparing deep waters. He hated and kept away from women after the Neela experience. 

After Badal, Neela, Santwana the fourth major character in the equation is Naren Choudhury, a close friend and classmate of Badal. While Badal went for the construction activities, Naren concentrated on design and draftsmanship. Here both were together, as friends as well as Boss/ Subordinate. Naren was from the same village as Santwana was, and had reportedly seen her in frocks. He didn’t recall, nor Santwana did, but he could recall Abani and that started his daily visits.

Santwana was technically illiterate, she could of course read and write, but probably either didn’t go to school, or left it early. But that didn’t stop any of her suitors in approving her against the educated competitor, her cousin or later Jharna. The approvers included from the highly educated Badal (I wonder what my mother would have thought of her), to openly courting Niren, to the parents and guardians who came to select her cousin but selected her instead. Her childishness and enthusiasm at the Dam construction, even though at 22 she was not a child by many miles, got her close to the toughest and the most disbelieving of civilisation, the tribal labours too, when she daily visited the project site and mixed freely, with childish queries, with the tribals. 

She became the second favourite of the Pagal Sardar, the first being his would be son-in-law, Hopoon Majhi and the third, behind Santwana being his own daughter, Chandmani. For all other of course she was first, leaving aside the obvious, Abani, the father, she took the top rank for almost all she came in close contact, whether it was the supplier of all, Bhootu-Babu, Naren, Badal , the labours or even Ranabir Ghosh (whose ranking was of course with coarse intention). 

The novel is on the construction of the dam, the scheming of Ranabir to get Santwana abducted, since she was not falling prey to his charms, Naren’s attempts to win her. Badal too wasn’t indifferent, though he tried to be, aware that his closest friend Naren has lost his heart over her. The usual Civilised- uncivilised (for us to decide who are what) clash, including Phoolmati getting pregnant by Ranabir, and Phoolmati’s hatred for Santwana when she found that Ranabir coveted her. (This is why Sardar, who loved Hokoon more than his own child refused to marry them, he knew of Phoolmati, and wanted to wait till she left her wildness and became suitable for domestic life- I don’t want you to have the stain on your life, that I have, as the one whose wife left him for another man). Ranabir’s using substandard material for construction and being caught by Badal (Similarity with Amanush). Phoolmati’s disappearance with a watchman (Bahadur) and then Ranabir ganging up with Hokoon to get Santwana kidnapped and brought to him to quench his lust. Santwana could escape (to his aunt’s where the cousin finally could get married, in her absence). In her absence Ranabir eloped with Jahrana, or did he? Phoolmati’s hate for Santwana was understood, but why did Hokoon? Or he too coveted her, Santwana had seen him several times standing in dark, near the vicinity of her home, though he never tried to do anything, uncivil or otherwise. 

It was interesting to think of, had Santwana not escaped to her aunt, to avoid being abducted by Ranabir, had she been? Not very likely. He would have brought her to Bhootu’s hotel (where he had been staying), that would have been first hurdle. Even assuming Bhootu acting coward and not preventing, she had too many other protectors, who had guessed ranabir and come to warn her of him. It included Chandmani (whom she thought to be hating her) to Pagal Sardar and probably many more from the “Uncivilised” population. Ranabir probably only had one, Hopoon, to his aid. But her escape left it to only conjecture.

Santwana always wondered how could Ranabir manage to bring Hopoon to his side. Of course none, including she, knew at that time the man behind Chandmani’s disappearance. She came to know only when Chaandmani came at night in hiding, to warn her of Ranabir. Santwana didn’t tell it to anyone, including Pagal Sardar, since Ranabir was still there, and it would have created a riot, with Ranabir and definitely quite a few of the tribals dead. The best guess was that Ranabir supplied alcohol to dissolve Hopoon’s sorrows, and under that influence, Hopoon agreed to Ranabir’s scheme. Hopoon too, Santwana had observed, didn’t like her much. 

Of course in the end there had to be the great flood (Amanush type) which threatened to wash off the dam which was also Santwana’s dream. There had been several instances when the locals wanted to stop the work, believing it was against the nature and their deity was unhappy. The worst was when Hokoon died in an accident, since then the most influential man, Sardar, had put his tool down. But that was much smaller than this flood, and now all were sure that it was the Gods themselves that were against the dam. Santwana did what she had done then, to convince Sardar to come back to work, and saved the dam. But before that quite a few puzzles, regarding Hopoon, Chandmani, Jharna and Ranabir were resolved, including one of past, the reason why Sardar stopped hunting.

Whom did Santwana really liked and could give her heart to? Naren was like her friend, but there were instances which showed that she probably won’t have minded, Badal also there was some hint, but it is more probable that she loved everyone, but none in that manner. 

For her the only purpose was to get the dam made, and for it she was going to go to any extent. She even got Neela away, hinting Badal was now her. The name selection was again exquisite. “There are people who can’t have the fortune (Neela) and come and get consolation (Santwana)“.

Neela, the blue stone (Blue sapphire), is one of the most powerful (as per astrologers). The wearer had to be very careful, it would either suit him/her and bring luck beyond compare or do the exactly opposite, nothing in between. I have heard once that even the jewelers don’t sell it directly. First they allow it to be worn for some days (against deposit of course), and asks the wearer to see how the things go. If it suits then only the person should buy and become its owner. As one astrologers says “very few people may get the good effects of Blue Sapphire on this earth.”. But that of course is if you believe on that.

Santwana wanted to get Neela off Badal not due to astrological beliefs, nor because she wanted Badal. She had heard that, and also believed it, probably rightly, that Badal had taken to his work passionately to prove something. If the purpose was lost (Neela, to whom he wanted to prove came back) then his seriousness too would be. 

Why Ashutosh’s novels always ended with imperfect ending? It is never with all happily lived ever after. His life history, at least as indicated by his daughter, in one of the introductions, doesn’t hint on any personal tragedy.

  • Chalachal ended with the heroine on top, and obviously entirely alone.
  • Saat Paake Bandha ends with the heroine going to her ex-husband for the compromise and finding not him but his second wife, with a infant in her arms.
  • Balakar Mon ends a bit in happier frame, with heroine getting her man, but a part of him lost, his one leg and the brilliant career due to the accident. That of course she didn’t mind but the insecurity which should have been in him, due to his handicap, was in her, if he decided to go away, unwilling to attach herself with his partiality. Now she was even more obedient than she was when he was complete. She had reason to be, when she was said that he was helpless, depending on her, she immediately was on fire “Helpless? The man had got millions on the compensation and awards, and then he got a huge sum, since he saved most of his salary, and all that he transferred to my account. the house he bought in my name, not a joint, is that the sign of helplessness or dependence? I am doing the work in the airlines, since he insisted that the family should retain the link, else the money was enough for us to spend a luxurious life” She had reason to feel insecure to make another story without happily ever after.
  • This one of course can’t be expected to have a happy ending, and it didn’t, the signs were quite ominous.
  • Kaal Tumi Aleya too ended with the major character, Sonaboudi’s death.
  • Ami Se o Sakha (Bemisaal),
  • Deep Jeley Jai- Nurse Mitra (Khamoshi)… 

Why such gloomy endings?