I did not to want tell this story. It is a bad memory, a recurrent nightmare. But the reference to this story or its motif keeps appearing around me. I did some more research and finally I decided to write this story. This is the story of Leela and Bhama. I don't know them. I have never met them. They were brother and sister, born in a lower middle class Bengali Family in north eastern Bihar. Bhama was about ten years older than Leela. Leela was my mother's friend. They lived in the same railway employees' colony and went to the same middle school. Like the middle class colonies of small towns, that colony was also a big burgeoning family. Festivals were celebrated together, children ate together, played in the same courtyard, misfortunes were shared and the fabric of their life was closely knit. Life went on.
Summer vacations started. After a few days, my mother realized that Leela was nowhere to be seen. When enquired about, her mother told that she had gone to visit her grandparents in Bengal. That night my mother had a nightmare. She saw that someone had taken Leela on a boat ride in a river and pushed her into the water. My mother woke up sweating with a scream ringing in her head. Leela was screaming “Naa Bhaiyya naa, Naa bhaiyya naa" (No brother no, No brother no). Crying she told this story to my grandmother who ignored the nightmare and cajoled her to sleep. She could not. But these small town colonies are centrifuges; however you hide the truth at the bottom, it will churn up and surface in a while. Soon people were whispering and one day Leela's mother who was very friendly with my grandmother started crying in our verandah. She told that Leela had developed white patches on her arms and thighs. They took her to doctors. She was diagnosed with leprosy. There was a big argument in the home one afternoon when Leela was in school. She wailed on and told that she had begged her son and husband, but Bhama was adamant. And one day on the pretext of taking her to her grandparents, he took her and pushed her into a river. My mother’s nightmare had come true. Shaken, she fell ill. I inherited premonitions and this dream from her... a girl in faded saree screaming ... drowning.
The cultural and religious traditions in India have unfortunately condoned and to an extent ratified such murders. One might argue that euthanasia is a separate debate in itself. But this is not euthanasia. This is no mercy killing. In fact, traditionally lepers, pregnant women, social outcasts, victims of curses (like snake bite) and children are not even given proper cremation in Hindu belief system. There is a famous puranic story of Raja Vena, who was shunned by his own folks because of Leprosy and denied proper rites. It was later that Prithu performed proper rites for him and absolved him of his sins (at Prithudaka-Kurkushetra). The death of Leela was less out of mercy and more out of shame and liabilities that disease would bring. These social dogmas and canonical codes had poisoned the head of the brother so much that he thought murdering someone whom the society expected him to protect, was a just and sanctified way. Leela was killed by her brother. And the weapon of her murder was our sacred delusion...
Another instance of such sacred murder came up in my discussions with Abhijeet, a colleague and friend. In his neighbourhood there was a family. The family elder was a retired old man who suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. Bedridden and unable to perform his chores, his care demanded both money and patience which the family bore for a while. Soon the patience became diminutive and medical bill became longer. One day his son, an educated man, religious in his conviction and upright in his morals, proudly informed that his babuji had become very old and it was now his sacred duty to take him to Varanasi for Kashi Karwat.
Kashi Karwat is a very famous temple in Varanasi and also a tradition. Some stories attribute this name to the fact that Kashi or Varanasi is never static and keeps moving. Some say it is named so because Ganga took a turn (or karwat) at this place. There is one more story. Kashi is considered the city of moksha. The Padma Puran mentions that any person who knowingly or unknowingly dies in Kashi will directly attain moksha, the highest state of human soul. It is believed that in Satyug (ancient age of purity) this temple used to have a saw (or a karwat) which was loosely hung from the ceiling of the temple. The saw used to descend upon the lucky few chosen by Gods. The tradition continued. The dimensions of the temple changed with time. The city flourished and the temple sunk. The central room or the Garbh Griha which houses the deity is now around 30 feet below the ground level. For a long time there was a saw placed over the Shiva Linga over which the devotees would jump and perform Kashi Karwat. This was banned by British and the said saw was removed.
But Kashi Karwat continued in another format, a mellower one. As Kashi is the said to be the stairway to heaven, it is a great desire of many old Hindus to spend their last days in Kashi (Kashi Waas), which may finally culminate in death in Kashi (Kashi Labh). There are many muktibhavans (houses of liberation) where moksharthis (those who wish to die in Kashi) can stay in for around 15 days within which they have to die or look for some other abode. Those who do not die are many times left in the city in absolute penury. They eventually die, but not due to old age, but starvation.
So the old man in our story was taken on such a Kashi Labh. Of course no Kashi Labh will materialize unless a dip in Holy Ganga is taken. The old man, unable to move, weakened by age and apathy, was taken to the bone chilling water in the river and given a holy dip. He had the Kashi Labh…
There are people who really wish to die in Varanasi. They have absolute faith in the spirit of the city and they have full right to that. But this tradition like Sati, which might have started as a willful expression of love, became a tool of those who want to get rid of their old, unwanted and ailing family members. The ostracism of Lepers which might have been started as a precautionary measure against epidemic in ancient world, turned into an excuse for murder.
The sad part is that these murders, cold blooded and premeditated, are not at all scorned by the society. Our society which so proudly wears the tiara of benevolence, mercilessly provides a backdoor exit for those who help it shun its less fortunate or less productive members. I have heard of rape victims who were given poison by their mothers, I have known wealthy people trying experimental (read cheap) medicine and spiritual therapies on their ailing parents, we know that female infanticide happens mostly because centuries back some old men felt that only male progeny could provide moksha and carry the family name. Sects still celebrate the sacrifice of Issac and still many people see human sacrifice with bewilderment and as a testimony of utmost devotion. Although modern religions discourage human sacrifice in principle, the silent abetment and the murders continue under the cloak of hypocrisy.
As I said I did not want to tell this story. It is recurrent nightmare. It is a treachery and a murder that went unnoticed and unpunished. And the most unfortunate part is someone somewhere will still justify this on name of religion and culture. These are just two of our many sacred murders…
For more questions read "The Right to be Wrong"
Image Credits: Head of a Drowned Man, Theodore Gericault, French Romanticism