Anandamath (Dawn over India)/Part 1/Chapter 1

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It was hot at Padachina even for a summer day. In this village were many houses, but not a soul could be seen anywhere. The bazaar was full of shops and the lanes were lined with houses built either of brick or of mud. Every house was quiet. The shops were closed, and no one knew where the shopkeepers had gone. Even the street beggars were absent. The weavers wove no more. The merchants had no business. Philanthropic persons had nothing to give. Teachers closed their schools. Things had come to such a pass that children were even afraid to cry. The streets were empty. There were no bathers in the river. There were no human beings about the houses, no birds in the trees, no cattle in the pastures. Jackals and dogs morosely prowled in the graveyards and in the cremation grounds.

One great house stood in this village. Its colossal pillars could be seen from a distance. But its doors were closed so tight that it was almost impossible for even a breath of air to enter. Within the house a man and his wife sat deeply absorbed in thought. Mahendra Singh and his wife were face to face with famine.

The year before the harvests had been below normal. So rice was expensive this year and people began to suffer. Then during the rainy season it rained plentifully. The villagers at first looked upon this as a special mercy of God. Cowherds sang in joy, and the wives of the peasants began to pester their husbands for silver ornaments. All of a sudden, God frowned again. Not a drop of rain fell during the remaining months of the season. The rice fields dried into heaps of straw. Here and there a few fields yielded poor crops, but government agents bought these up for the army.

So people began to starve again. At first they lived on one meal a day. Soon, even that became scarce, and they began to go without any food at all. The crop was too scanty, but the government revenue collector sought to advance his personal prestige by increasing the land revenue by ten per cent. And in dire misery Bengal shed bitter tears.

Beggars increased in such numbers that charity soon became the most difficult thing to practise. Then disease began to spread. Farmers sold their cattle and their ploughs and ate up the seed grain. Then they sold their homes and farms. For lack of food they soon took to eating leaves of trees, then grass and when the grass was gone they ate weeds. People of certain castes began to eat cats, dogs and rats.

Multitudes fled from their homes, only to die of starvation somewhere else. Those that did not leave home died anyway. Fever, cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox reaped a rich harvest in human lives. Smallpox thrived most, for there was not a home where it did not claim some victims. Who was there to nurse the sick or to treat them? Alas, there were none to bury or to cremate the dead! Even in the wealthiest houses the bodies of men, women and children rotted unto decay.

Mahendra Singh was one of the rich men of the village of Padachina; but rich and poor were alike now. In those days of devastation and distress, all his friends, relatives and servants were gone. Some had run away; others had died. Now only Mahendra Singh, Kalyani, his wife, and their little daughter were alive in the mansion.

Kalyani woke from sleep. She went to the barn and milked the cow. She boiled the milk and fed the child with it. Then she fed the cow with hay and water. On her return to the mansion Mahendra spoke to her sadly: 'How long, dear Kalyani, how long do you think we can go on this way?'

'Not very long, I am afraid,' replied Kalyani. 'Just let me carry on as long as I can. And after my death, take yourself and the child into the town.'

'If we have to go into the town eventually, then why should you suffer so much now, Kalyani? Come, let us all go to the town together.'

'What can we gain by going there now?'

'Yes, perhaps the town, too, is deserted like this and there is no way of living there!'

'We may be able to save our lives if we go to Murshidabad, or to Kassimbazar or Calcutta. We must leave this place by all means.'

'But this home of ours is full of treasures accumulated through generations. Robbers will plunder it in our absence.'

'If the robbers come to plunder now how can we two ward them off? And who will enjoy the wealth if we lose our lives by staying here? No, let us lock the house carefully. If we live, we shall return to enjoy our wealth again.'

'But you are not used to walking, Kalyani. Do you think you will be able to walk all the way? The palanquin bearers are dead. Horses and coachmen all are dead. You know our situation today, my dear Kalyani.'

'Please do not worry about me. I shall be able to walk; even all the way to Calcutta, I am sure.'

And Kalyani thought within herself, 'No harm even if I die on the roadside; my husband and my child will live.'

Next morning they took money with them, locked the doors of the mansion, freed the cattle, and set out for Calcutta with their daughter in the arms of her mother. At the start Mahendra said to his wife: 'The road to Calcutta is very dangerous these days. At every step we are likely to encounter bandits. It is not safe to travel unarmed.'

Mahendra re-entered the mansion and armed himself with a rifle and ammunition. When Kalyani saw her husband thus armed, she said: 'Now that you have reminded me of weapons, you had better hold the child for a moment. I must arm myself too.'

'What are you going to arm yourself with?' inquired Mahendra.

'You will see.'

Kalyani entered the house and armed herself with a little container of poison.

It was the hot month of Jaistha (May-June) when the earth burns like a furnace. The scorching rays of the sun had as if set fire to the air. The sky was like a burning canopy of copper. On the road the grains of sand were like flakes of fire. Kalyani was much fatigued. She continued to walk the road with great difficulty, drinking muddy water from drying pools. The child was given to Mahendra. Now and then they rested in the shade of trees covered with green creepers and fragrant flowers. Mahendra was surprised at the endurance of his beloved. Once he went to a pool, soaked a piece of cloth in water, and moistened Kalyani's face, hands and feet. Kalyani felt much refreshed. But they all began to be overcome with pangs of hunger. Their own hunger, however, meant little to them; but the hunger and the thirst of the child were more than the father and mother could bear. Yet they continued their journey, swimming, as it were, through waves of fire and finally at sunset they reached an inn.

Mahendra hoped that at the inn he would be able to provide his wife and child with food and water. He was bitterly disappointed, for the inn was deserted. Huge buildings stood empty. There was not a soul around. Sadly Mahendra, his wife and child entered one of the houses and lay down. Then he came out and repeatedly shouted to attract any human beings. No one responded. Mahendra entered the house again and said: 'Kalyani, please summon enough courage to stay here alone for a while. I am going to look for milk. By the grace of God, I hope to fetch milk for both of you.'

He picked up an empty pitcher that was lying in the house and went out in search of milk to save the lives of his wife and child.