[A story for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to his memory]
Never been able to quench her thirst, she perennially remained dry and the villagers had aptly named her Bhookhi Nadi, the Hungry River. Often she would compare her name with Bengal’s Subarnarekha or Mayurakshi and would feel aggrieved about her name! But bhookhi she always remained! Once in a while if rain gods were in good moods, Bhookhi would turn voluptuously mad. Flooding!
Chhasara is a village of my childhood memories and therefore it exists. Situated in the coastal (kanthi) part of Kachchh, Chhasara is so called because of its iconic six (chha) memorial stones (sarā) that still stand on the verge of its borders for over four centuries now. The six weather-worn sandstone sarā carry no script written on their frail bodies to decipher, except poke-marks and suppressed sighs of the dead: five Rajput brothers and a sister! They were all killed in a little war for a fiefdom. The chha sarā have survived famines and earthquakes, sunburns and storms, solitude and sacrilege. Oral tales still spin around them – in whisper or whoosh! Nobody knows the names of these souls. And still they are as real as Bhookhi’s hunger!
Bhookhi, in her womb, carries some real ghost stories, some of which were etched in my childhood mind like dark Rambrandt paintings. Echoes of these stories are still heard from the wells she inhabited on her dry body. One was an open well with a cement-concrete heightened surface and it surprisingly remained full of water that bathed many men, young and old.
One day –
Dawn had yet to dawn but dogs had unusually started barking that prahara of the day. The owl on an old peepal tree had lowered his mysterious eyelashes. Self-absorbed Bhookhi was still meditating on her empty stomach! Something had gone devastatingly wrong somewhere and the pir in his tomb on a nearby hillock was warning the village, as if…!
An early bather on the Bhookhi well had seen a pair of solitary shoes, a pair of spectacles, a stick and a Gandhi khādi cap on its surface. Anxious, the bather, looked into the well and to his horror saw a human body floating. Shocked, he shouted “Magan Patel!”
The misty-humid Bhookhi remained self-absorbed. Word spread across the village, still asleep; some woken up rushed towards it. The suicider’s pregnant wife was wailing and their four children added to the heart wrenching cries. He was a half-aged step son of the village chief (Patel), whom, I, with my child-eyes, would spy walking alone swiftly, talking to himself, most of the time. He was an intelligent man but deeply perturbed somewhere within. It had taken a massive effort to pull out his unusually swollen body from the well. It had a deathly smell too! Swollen human bodies acquire horrifying weird shapes.
At that age it was beyond me to comprehend the meaning of death but the image of the swollen body is still heavily stuck on my memory-scape. Later when I saw a woman’s body being pulled out from a pond in Mani Kaul’s film Satah se Uthta Aadmi (Man Rising from the Surface) adapting one of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s stories, I was instantly haunted back by Bhookhi’s well, which someone said had taken as many as seven lives – both male and female.
And into one of the sarā, I whispered a small poem – A River-bed Well and a Swollen Body:
A dawn of death, of suicide, all you stones standing six
walked to the river Bhookhi’s body too swollen –
death stalked my village often in wells and woes!
And as my village went on ruining itself, I whispered to yet another sarā – Mummified Memories and Erasure:
You’ve left me nothing, nothing, not even my cradle
except memories mummified on rubbles, my home
Chha-sara awaits vandalizing erasure, brutal, brutish!
The six memorial stones still stand looking at the devastated village, a donkey still stands alone at noon with his long black dick lolling, doves still sing the melancholic noon songs, the moon still peeps out from the cloudless sky, the cow still returns from the grazing grounds at godhuli (twilight) time, Bhookhi still flows no water, and the well awaits more human bodies!
At night seven ghosts dance a nocturnal dance around Bhookhi, the hungry river! Listening to the invisible audible sounds, people say they are “Bhookhi ke Bhoot” (Bhookhi’s Ghosts). “My Kachchh village has a magical realism every moment, dear Gabriel,” I murmur. Garcia Marquez smiles as my Bhookhi smooches him… and seven more! Seven is an auspicious number, Gabriel!