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Brave Old World

The dark arts of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Kapalkundala,enshrined in a tiny temple in Bengal

See the halberd to the right of the Goddess? Used for 107 human sacrifices. See the vermilion yoke beside it? Only the necks of goats grace it now,of course.” A hospitable,soft-spoken housewife welcomes visitors to the Kapalkundala temple in the coastal town of Contai,east Midnapur. Time has civilised this ancient sanctuary of Kali on a wild coast where kapaliks once prowled in search of sacrificial victims. “It used to be dense jungle here but now…” she shrugs philosophically. The temple,small and squarely built of cement,is like a PWD inspection bungalow with a spire. It is surrounded by homes dressed in moss-stained reinforced concrete,the architectural livery of middle-class,small-town India. And yet,something here is eerily,unmistakably old,from a time before civilisation and organised religion robbed life of wonder.

In this temple,a week before Phailin made landfall at Gopalpur further down the coast,I stepped into the pages of a book which begins with another storm which broke early in the 17th century. Akbar is dead,Salim has become Jahangir and is reaching out blindly from Agra,seeking the hand of Mehrunnisa. He will tear her from a life of seemly matrimony with Sher Afghan in the frontier town of Burdwan and turn her into Noor Jehan,his last lawful wife. And oblivious to imperial turmoil a thousand miles away,on the Contai coast at the rim of the civilised world,a boat from Sagar Island has been separated by a storm from the flotilla it had joined “for fear of Portuguese and pirates”. Note that the two are identical. Bombete,a Bengali word for pirate,is a corruption of bombardiero,the gunner on a Portuguese warship. It conveys some idea of what the gentlefolk from Lisbon were up to in the Bay of Bengal.

The lost boat’s passengers face a nutritional dilemma. If one of them doesn’t go ashore to cut firewood,they cannot cook and must starve. But if one does go ashore,he will become a tiger’s dinner and they will starve anyway. Nabakumar,a young man as the name suggests,agrees to go.

He is left behind as the boat sails at high tide,is lost in the jungle,falls into the clutches of a kapalik meditating,seated on a rotting,headless corpse,and comes face to face with Kapalkundala,a beautiful wild child of nature raised by the kapalik. The question she asks him has been a popular satirical meme of Bengali letters for almost 150 years: “Wayfarer,have you lost your way?”

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Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Kapalkundala,one of the finest historical romances ever,is a key text of the Bengal Renaissance. Bankim gained national recognition when Vande Mataram,from his 1882 novel Anandamath,was sung by Rabindranath Tagore at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress,translated into English by Aurobindo Ghose and adopted unopposed as the revolutionary anthem for muscular Indians. But in Bengal,he had earned everlasting fame 16 years earlier with Kapalkundala,the story of a woman in whom critics saw shades of Shakespeare’s Miranda. The parallel with the Tempest is apt,since the story is set on India’s cyclone coast,but there the similarity ends. Caliban is a tame little colonial clerk compared with the goddess-madded supplicants and imperial intriguers who stalk Kapalkundala’s world.

At its centre was this temple,where she and Nabakumar were married before their escape to civilisation. Bankim probably visited it. He was a career civil servant who served as deputy magistrate of Contai in 1860. How did he reconcile the calling of literature with the call of duty? This stormy tantrik-ridden coast,the story of innocence at the mercy of bloodthirsty men of faith,who would raise a daughter to sacrifice her,the projection of this story against the backdrop of the imperial machinations surrounding Jahangir and Noor Jehan,was a century ahead of its time. But how did Bankim,the magistrate,relate with the halberd credited with 107 human sacrifices?

The blade of the weapon — locally called a bogi — is over two feet long. On the far side of the goddess is another blade,a kharga. Specialised instruments,one is good for buffaloes,the other for men. I forget which is which,so remote is sacrifice from the modern mind. In pictures of the temple on the internet,the weapons bracketing the goddess have been tastefully excluded from the frame. The lonely,trackless sands where Nabakumar landed,where he dodged tigers and kapaliks to win the hand of Kapalkundala,are now beach resorts. Only on nights when superstorms like Phailin bring primal chaos is one reminded of the wild days of old,when this coast was beyond the pale of civilisation.

First published on: 20-10-2013 at 05:07:19 am
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