The Lady Twilight – Part V

This is the final of a five-part series from Dalrymple’s latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.

That night was the amavashya, the Night of No Moon.

Crowds started to arrive in the cremation ground around mid-afternoon. By sunset, preparations had begun in earnest for the sacrificial rituals that were to be performed after midnight. Piles of kindling were carried in on the heads of the Tantrics, and goats led in, some pulled on leads by individual sadhus, others in great herds by villagers looking to sell them. In every hut, lamps were lit.

Many of those who drifted into the burning grounds as the day progressed were sadhus and Baul minstrels, but as the day wore on, a surprising number of those who gathered were ordinary middle class Bengali families from Bolpur, Shantiniketan and even Calcutta. All, for their different reasons, were determined to access the shakti of the goddess on the night when she was at her most powerful. I asked Manisha if it was unusual that so very many goats were being led into the cremation ground for slaughter.

“The mother is very hungry,” she replied. “She is constantly needing to be fed, and of course she never moves by herself. To summon her you have to be prepared to feed her entourage of dakinis and yakshis too. They want their pleasures, their drink, and the blood of a goat.”

As darkness fell, and the shadows were growing longer, Tapan Sadhu began to build a large homa fire in the shallow earth-dug hearth directly in front of the hut. It was the first time I had had a good look at him. Tapan was a handsome old man in his seventies with a long gray beard and a surprisingly lean and toned body, the fruit perhaps of many years of yoga. He brought kindling and wood from the back of the hut, as well as one of the tridents, the biggest skull, and a handful of incense sticks. He placed the trident at the edge of the hearth, and the skull at its base. He then garlanded the skull with marigolds and red hibiscus flowers, hanging his rudraksh rosary around it, and carefully placing a thali of offerings and a lit candle beside it. As he was busy with his work, a well-dressed Bengali businessman came up and asked Tapan if he could make the sacrifice for him and his family. After some haggling, terms were agreed.

Before long, other fires were beginning to flicker through the trees. Across the burning ground, squatting sadhus were silhouetted against the flames. Some were sitting muscular and naked amid clouds of incense, crossed-legged in meditation. Others were building yantras of colored sand under the banyan trees, with candles marking the eight points of the Tara Chakra. A few were passing chillums of bhang around circles of fire-watchers. Shrouded, dread-locked, and top-knotted figures emerged from the dusk, passed into the light of a fire, then disappeared again into the darkness. From somewhere in the dark, I could hear the voice of a lone Baul singing a song about the Devi to the strumming of a dotara and the rasping twang of a khomuk:

I am sick of living, Ma, sick.
Life and money have run out,
But I go on crying, Tara, Tara!
Hoping. You are the Mother of All,
And our nurse.
You carry the Three Worlds,
In Your Belly.

I am not calling you Mother anymore,
All you give me is trouble.
Oh my mad, mad heart!
Once I had a home and a family,
Now I am a beggar.
What will you think of
Next, my wild-haired Devi?

How many times,
Mother, will you tie me to this wheel
Like a blindfolded ox, grinding out oil?
Take the blindfold off, oh my dark Devi,
So I can see,
The feet that give comfort.

At the next fire, one of the sadhus began to blow a conch shell. From other hearths came the noise of wild drumming and ecstatic shouts of “Jai Tara! Jai Guru! Jai Jai Ma Tara!”

If you wish to search for Tara,
Come to the pyres of Tarapith.
The mother plays here night and day,
Foxes dance with serpents.
With meat and wine and liquor.
It is here that Tara’s secrets,
Are revealed.

Tapan had now lit his homa fire, and soon the flames were shooting up into the darkness. Ironically, it is the Tantrics who have inverted so much of Hindu ritual, that have remained uniquely faithful to the Vedic fire sacrifices lost almost everywhere else in modern Hinduism; and like the Brahmins they emphasize the need to perform their rituals correctly and exactly.

The businessman, who introduced himself as Mr. Basu, gathered his family around Tapan’s fire, as casual, eager, relaxed, and at ease as their British equivalents would be on Guy Fawkes night. “We are praying for the improvement of our domestic life,” he explained, “and for our business also.”

“We want peace in the home,” added his wife, “and children doing well at school.”

Tapan began to chant mantras, occasionally ringing the bell he kept in his left hand. With his right, he periodically threw a spoonful of ghee on the fire, which made the flames shoot up higher. I took a seat beside Manisha, a little back from the Basu family, and asked her about Tapan’s story.

“Tapan Sadhu is a Brahmin, a Chatterjee,” she said. “Like me, he was called by the goddess when he was a householder in Calcutta. Like me, he left behind a family.”

“Is his wife still alive?” I asked.

“She died recently,” said Manisha. “He had been married to her for fifteen years before the call came from Ma.” She paused, then added: “He happened to be in Calcutta, so he went to her funeral. But his son would not speak to him.”

At this point, Tapan, who had been half-listening as he tended his fire, left the Basus, who had begun to sing some kirtans. He came and squatted beside us, at the foot of the trident, next to the skull. I asked him what had happened.

“It gave me great pain,” he said, shaking his head. “My son was very angry with me. He said I had never taken any interest in him, and never been in touch.”

“Was that true?”

“It was partially true,” said Tapan. “After I answered the call of the mother, I never found a way of connecting back with them.” He sighed, and threw a piece of kindling into the fire. “Now my son feels obliged to the people who brought him up, not to me. He says they are the people who supported him. He doesn’t want to try and understand my point of view.”

“How did you come to hear about your wife’s death?” I asked.

“I was in Calcutta with some disciples when a call came from my brother saying, ‘your wife has expired.’ I went straight to the crematorium, and as I walked in, there was my own son. I recognized him immediately, after nearly twenty years. How could I not recognize my son? But even as I was heading towards him, I heard my niece husband commenting: ‘Look at him! After all these years he hasn’t been here, and now she’s dead he reappears.’ My son wouldn’t even look at me, and his wife’s family formed a sort of wall between me and him. Without saying anything, they gave me the feeling I should not approach him.”

In the light of the fire, Tapan Sadhu suddenly looked old and vulnerable.

“This was my own kith and kin,” he said. “They were preventing me talking to my son. How could I explain the call of the mother, either to my son or my niece?”

Tapan fell silent again, staring into the flames.

“They are not spiritual, and probably don’t even believe in god,” he said eventually. “They belong to a very different world. My niece is a professor, and her husband does electro-cardiograms. My son is now an accountant with Tata. He was very smartly dressed, in a blazer. A good looking boy. But they all reject the world I live in. I don’t think I can ever explain it to him.”

“Now he is married,” said Manisha, “maybe his wife will change his mind?”

“I don’t think so,” replied Tapan Sadhu, stroking his beard. “What signs are there? My son is dominated by the people around him. He is not strong enough to think independently.”

The Basus were still singing around the fire. Tapan looked to see if they needed him, but they seemed engrossed in their chants.

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“I stayed at the back. After the ceremony was finished I left. I won’t ever go back.”

“As long as there is life in you,” said Manisha, “you should be full of hope.”

“This life of renunciation, of sanyas, is a life of joy,” said Tapan. “But in the life of every sadhu, some pain is there. The longer you live as a sadhu, the more you enjoy it, and the more you forget your past. Then something happens to remind you, and you weep.”

“I have been more lucky,” said Manisha. “When my husband was dying he told my daughters that I was in Tarapith. Someone from my village had seen me here, and reported back. So after his death, the girls came to the burning ground looking for me: ‘Have you seen a woman whose skin is flecked with white?’ they asked. A sadhu pointed out my hut and my daughters came and touched my feet. It had been over twenty years. When I left them they were children. Now they were all middle-aged women, two of them with children of their own.

“It was a very tense moment,” said Manisha. “We looked at each other for a moment, then we all embraced and burst into tears. They told me that my husband was now dead, so then and there I broke my bangles. The youngest one, the only one who is unmarried, decided to move to Tarapith, along with my mother. Now they all stay in the town, and we see each other every day. She was here this morning.”

Manisha looked at Tapan: “Tapan Sadhu has come to love my daughters and is like a father for them.” She paused, then added: “I know it is not exactly like every family, but in this burning ground, in this place of sorrow, we have found new hope.”

From behind us there were more cries of “Jai Tara!” as sacrificial flames streaked up across the burning ghat. The woody noise of a bansuri flute could be heard drifting through the trees from the tarpaulins of a sadhu encampment. The two old Tantrics exchanged a shy glance.

“When I look at her feet,” said Tapan Sadhu, “I am happy. What I see in Ma Tara, I see in her.”

“He found a live Tara in Tarapith.” said Manisha. “Now Tapan Sadhu looks after us. He is as strong as Tara Ma.”

“As long as you are in my protection, no one will harm you.”

“And by the grace of Ma, I have my daughters back. I thought I had lost them for ever.”

“Things have worked out for us all.”

“I never imagined it would be possible to see them again,” said Manisha. “People think that we who live in the burning grounds are crazy. But you get here what you cannot find anywhere else: pure human beings.”

“When she first came to me,” said Tapan Sadhu, “I thought: look at this girl, how vulnerable she is, all on her own. Only later did I begin to realize what a gift she was.”

“You were sent a woman who understands your calling.”

“Some people here protested when we got together,” said Tapan. “But we didn’t listen.”

“This is the will of Tara,” said Manisha. “Everyone must accept it.”

“Ma Tara keeps us happy. We have nothing to worry about.”

“If we need money, somehow it comes. We never need to ask.”

“She gives us what we need. When we need it.”

“My only wish now,” said Manisha, “is to finish my days in the arms of Tara, and that she takes me in a good way, with all the proper rites. ”

“Who knows what will follow?”

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Mr. Basu had now brought the goat he had earlier tethered to a tree, and was looking expectantly at Tapan.

“Come,” said Tapan. “Enough talking. This is the night of Tara. We should be praying, not chatting.”

“It is true,” said Manisha. “It is late now—the time Ma comes. It is time to get ready for our sacrifice.”

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Adapted and reprinted with permission of Knopf.

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He is the award-winning author of numerous books, including City of Djinns, White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Nine Lives (Knopf, 2010). He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside of Delhi.