Sometimes when there is no rational explanation behind certain happenings, we call them supernatural. There might actually be some justification, but they elude our sense of logic. Anyway, I do not want to go into arguments; I will only say that those events are beyond ordinary people like us, and hence, at least for me they are supernatural. I encountered something like this in my life once and I would like to present it to my readers. I leave it to them to decide what to make of it.
It happened quite some years ago. I was teaching at a school in a village called Chero in Maanbhoom. I should tell you that the scenic beauty of Chero is so amazing that whoever has lived there for some time would find the flattened landscape of the Bengal boring. The cottages of the village were all lined up on a flat hill not too high from the plains. The back-doors of the last cottages of each row opened to the forest—to shal, mohua and wood apple trees gracing the top of the hill. I remember a large banyan tree, too, and a number of small and big boulders. When I went there the first time, I spotted an old dilapidated temple made of stones.
I had two students from the school with me and both were from Bengali families living in Maanbhoom. I should clarify here that most of the villagers of Chero were originally from Madras even though they could speak Bengali quite fluently. However, how so many people from Madras ended in this remote village of Maanbhoom, is still a mystery to me.
The temple proved to be an element of surprise. It was made of black stones and the shape was somewhat eccentric. It was very different from the other temples of the area. Moreover, it seemed deserted and some of the stones on the south wall had disappeared. On looking at that temple in the wildernesses I had a strange sensation. And suddenly I realized that it was fear. Now why was I afraid of a deserted and broken temple? Yet I was curious enough to take a good look at it when one of my students called me from the rear, “Don't go there, Sir.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“There're probably snakes in there. Nobody visits the place anymore.”
“What kind of a temple is that?”
“That's the temple of the goddess Rankini. But even the oldest folks of our village have not seen any festivity ever occurring here. There is no effigy inside either…. Let's go from here.”
The two boys seemed to be in a great hurry to get away from the place.
I asked a few other people about Rankini devi, but noticed with surprise that nobody wanted to talk about her. So, at one point I also stopped asking questions.
About a year passed. There were not many students at the school and I renewed my old interest of collecting old pots and punthis. About five to six miles away from Chero was a small hill called Jaichandi. The temple of Jaichandi was on top of the hill where in winter village fairs would take place. There was also a small railway station nearby. In a small slum near the hill lived a few Brahmins among whom I found Chandramohan Panda. He would chat with me in the local dialect and he seemed to know much about the local people and their history. He also happened to be the postmaster of the local post-office. He told me stories of tigers that lived in the nearby jungles and caused havoc for the people. Many of my rainy afternoons were spent in his abode. However strange and bizarre those tales might have been, they did not seem impossible in that alien land.
One day, Chandra Panda asked me if I had seen the temple of Rankini devi. I looked at him in surprise because nobody else had told me anything about it except for that student of mine.
“I've seen the temple, but whoever I ask about the goddess refuses to say anything. Perhaps you can tell me why people act so strangely.”
“Everybody here is afraid of Rankini devi,” replied Chandra Panda.
“Years ago a group of barbaric people lived in Maanbhoom. Rankini devi was their deity. Later on, when the Hindus came, she became theirs too. But she is not like the other Hindu gods—they used to sacrifice humans there, you know. Even sixty years ago, such was the practice. Some believe that if the goddess Rankini gets angry, she would cause death and famine. There is a saying that the bloodied machete of the goddess would be found before any such disaster. I heard all these tales about forty years ago when I first came to this place.”
“Did you ever see any idol there?”
“No. All I saw was the broken temple. The effigy was carried away to some far-off country. One of the descendents of the priests of Rankini told me all these. He used to live in that village of yours. I had been to his house many times too. He was the one who told me about the bloodied machete. He was the last of that family.”
“What kind of a statute did they have?”
“It was Kali, I heard. Apparently, it used to be decorated with skulls. There's a mound behind the temple where excavations have exposed human skulls.”
No wonder the local people were so afraid of her. Even I felt uncomfortable while returning from Jaichanditala that evening.
Two more years went by. It was such a peaceful place that I thought I would be able to live there forever. But then problems arose at my school. The people from Madras wanted an English teacher who would speak their tongue. I used to teach English and therefore, I was about to lose my job. At this point, a school had opened in my native village and I applied there for the post of English teacher. They had asked me before, but I was afraid of malaria and hence did not agree. But this dispute was not why I finally left Maanbhoom.
During this time Chandra Panda came to visit Chero and I requested him to have a cup of tea at my place. The old man had not visited me before and as he entered the house he looked around and said in surprise, “So, this is where you live!”
“Yes,” I replied. “It was quite difficult to find a proper house here. Earlier I used to live in a room at the school. It has been a year since Mr. Raghunathan, the secretary of the school, found this place for me.”
It was an old building made of solid blocks of stone. There were three rooms that were quite big and a narrow balcony on one side. Its structure was like the forts of the Khiljis and I thought that even earthquakes would not be able to cause any damage. The old man sat and looked around with curiosity. I thought that he liked the design and hence said, “It is an old one; but very solid.”
Chandra Panda replied, “That's not why I asked. I was a regular visitor in this house about thirty years ago—when this belonged to the descendants of the priests of Rankini devi. They have all expired. I didn't know that you've taken up residence in their house. That's good though. It was such a long time ago; that's why it feels so strange. I was about thirty years old then and now I'm sixty.” Then we chatted away about other things and after tea my guest left.
Another year passed and the problems at the school subsided. Perhaps my job would remain intact after all.
It was the end of Chaitra. I had gone on a visit to a village about ten to twelve miles away on the occasion of Annapurna Pooja. I came back a few days later. I should mention here that I lived alone in my house. I had taken Thakohari, the servant from the school, along with me since the school was closed. When we returned, it was Thakohari who opened the front door of my house and cried, “Where did this blood come from? Look here, Sir….”
I was surprised too as I saw drops of blood streaming from the front door through the yard and then inside the house. It seemed as if someone had carried a newly severed head and blood dripped from the wound. This house was locked for two days and who could have done something like this? And the blood was fresh too.
Then I thought that it could have been a dog, or a cat or even a rat too. So I told Rakhohari, “It must be that big tom-cat….”
We followed the drops of blood to the basement. It was a small room full of junk and I had never opened the room myself. I could not understand how the blood drops went through the closed door of the basement. We broke the rusty, old lock while wondering how a cat or anybody could go through a locked door.
We brought in light to the room full of old, broken furniture, torn mattresses, rusty garden tools and what not. The flow of blood ran to a corner of the room and Rakhohari screamed again, “Look here, Sir. How did this thing become bloodied like this?” He held up something and a shiver ran through my spine as I looked at his hand.
A rusty machete without a handle. It was wide and curved at the top and it was covered in blood- as if it had severed something or someone only very recently.
At that moment, I recalled all those stories that Chandra Panda had told me two years ago. This was the house of the family of priests that worshipped Rankini devi. Did they keep the machete here? And didn't the story go that a bloodied machete would appear before the beginning of a famine or disaster? My world began to spin and I could not think clearly.
I did not even have the time to figure out where something of that magnitude could happen. Then the news of cholera breaking out came the very next evening. Within three days it spread through Chero and then to the nearby villages. People started to die like flies. The school closed down and I fled from Chero. I did not return to the place ever as I got the job of teaching at the school of my village.
I still remember Rankini devi though, not with fear, but with reverence because she warns the human community of upcoming catastrophe. But the foolish people misunderstand her intentions and condemn her for causing disasters.
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB, Bangladesh. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Star Literature & the Reviews Pages at The Daily Star.