Gupinath stands upright in the dim lamp light, the knife in his hand dripping with blood. Without changing his posture, he holds up the just peeled-off skin of a giant lizard.1
“You Saudagar2, the son of Saudagor, Lakhindar Babu, you are very wise in the world’s affairs; you tell me -- does an animal live without blood?” he says in a Santalese dialect.
Lakkhikanto admits, “No, of course not. Blood is what keeps an animal alive. Son, how can an animal survive without blood?”
Gupinath nods. His face brightens as he speaks. “You are really a good man. You understand what I say. But why are you so repulsed by the sight of blood?”
Lakkhikanto is perturbed by this question. He didn’t see it coming. “I’m not repulsed at all. This place belongs to another person. So why cut up that lizard in here and spill blood all over the place?” he says in frail protest.
“I know, Saudagor. I know. But when Kasimuddin Saudagor plays with my life and cuts my heart into pieces, then it all feels right, ain’t it, Saudagor Babu?”
Lakkhikanto flushes with embarrassment. “Son of a bitch! How he digresses from one topic to another,” he thinks to himself. The peeled-off lizard is now moving about the floor, leaving thick trails of blood everywhere. The animal is crawling obnoxiously while its whole outer skin is hanging from Gupinath’s hand – what a repellent sight! Lakkhikanto feels as if a worm is crawling all over his body. Hiding his repulsion, he says, “Please Gupinath, get rid of the animal. Please do something about it!”
Fixing his gaze on the bloody lizard, its head fastened to its tail, Gupinath gives a good laugh. “I know Kasimuddin Saudagor has set up his business in here. But what does he exactly do in this room, Lakkhindar babu? Is this not the place where he reaps my heart into pieces? What the heck is that huge mound of rice? Or wheat? Ain’t they smeared all over with human blood, ain’t they, Saudagor? Tell me!”
Lakkhikanto takes a close look at Gupinath. But he can barely make out anything from a face covered in stubble with long, untidy locks of hair falling over.
“When famine strikes, what does the son of Saudagor do? He reaches into my heart and reaps it apart. Then it all seems right, ain’t Babu?” Gupinath continues determinedly.
Lakkhikanto does not answer. What point is there in speaking to a lunatic? So he chooses silence.
Gupinath walks about the floor for a while. Stopping short suddenly, he holds the skin up in front of Lakkhikanto’s face. He swings it a bit, dripping blood on the ground. “You don’t like this? Such solid skin! You don’t like it, Saudagor?” he says.
“Why do you keep insisting, son? I told you that I quit this trade; I’m no more into selling snake skin,” Lakkhikanto almost entreats.
Gupinath drops the skin on the ground. Then he reaches down and grabs hold of another lizard, equally giant. As the rope around its neck loosens, it begins to hiss, floundering helplessly, trying to hit Gupinath with its tail. Gupinath tackles it impeccably, speaking intently to it at the same time. He stretches it to show its size and length, grabbing its head with one hand and tail with the other.
“Still you don’t like it, Saudagor? Still you don’t?”
But Lakkhikanto has decided against speaking to this insane man. So he turns away.
“Stop it for god’s sake!” Gupinath squeals all of a sudden. But it was not clear who he chided so angrily. “I don’t like my Lakhindar. I don’t like anyone.”
As he speaks, he holds the lizard in the air, squeezing its head in his grip and stamping its tail tightly under his foot. He slashes a few times at its neck with a sharp knife. In a moment or two he peels the whole outer skin off it, and drops it on to the floor. The skinless lizard writhes in pain, hisses angrily, and starts running around, splashing blood all over the place. Ignoring these noxious circumstances, Gupinath faintly smiles and spreads the just-removed skin in front of Lakkhikanto’s face again. “Look at this one, Lakhindor Babu. You like this one? This is not just a snake, this is the sona gui3,the best of its kind. You like it, babu?”
Lakkhikanto finds this unbearable. He looks at his watch: it’s only nine in the evening but it already seems like the dead of night. He says, “OK, son, it’s OK. I think I’ve got it. I owe you a little money from last year. You’ll get it for sure. Now for god’s sake, stop skinning the lizards. After all, they too are god’s creation!”
“Yes, god’s creation,” Gupinath nods. “But which god created him? My god is Mother Bishohori4. We’re Santals, babu, the Kaalnag5 is my brother! You got it, Babu?” Then he pokes his finger into the sack beside his feet, causing a hissing sound to rise, a deeper hiss. The reptile inside the sack moves and rustles. Gupinath shouts, “Stop you bitch! I have important business with the son of this Saudagor, Lakhindor babu.”
Lakkhikanto keeps his eyes on the sack, its mouth tied tightly in a knot. He realises that Gupinath is carrying a venomous snake in it. “Why did you have to carry that one in the sack, Gupinath?” he shuddered in fear.
Gupinath smiles. “This is my daughter, Babu. My cute daughter, the Kaalnagini6! Her front is black like pitch but her back is as white as milk and her eyes look like the clear water of a pond. Have you ever seen such a thing? Have you? Well then, take a look,” Gupinath stoops down to open the sack’s mouth.
“No, no. What are you doing? Are you insane?” Lakkhikanto blurts out. He continues in a beseeching voice. “For god’s sake, son, don’t you try to pull that thing out of that sack! I promise I’ll pay everything off.”
“Yes, yes, you’ll certainly pay off! You are a big Saudagor, you have a lot of money. I know everything. Ain’t you the successor of Chand Saudagor7? You can pay everything off but your debt is really big. Doesn’t it go back to several centuries? No one knows for sure, ain’t it Babu?”
Lakkhikanto utterly fails to make sense of what this lunatic is saying. He nonetheless makes an effort to calm him down. “Gupinath, son, there’s nothing unclear about my debt. It traces back only to last year. Remember? It was last year you gave me some lizard skin in two instalments. But I was really under a heck of problems back then, so could not take care of a lot of things. Later I heard that that stupid servant of mine drove you out by the neck. I did not know anything about that, believe me, son, I had no idea that he’d do that!”
“I did not take it seriously, babu,” Gupinath speaks subtly with an undertone of mockery. “You have so many people at your beck and call – what a big Saudagor you are! I know that all! Your servant laid his hand on me but I didn’t mind. Just think of my Mother Bishohori, just consider what Chand Saudagor did to her son: how he cracked his backbone! Oh! What agonizing pain – my mother weeps seeing her son suffer thus terribly, but she cannot do anything about it because she’s the mother. If she is infuriated, she will not be able to hold her poison –so she withholds her rage and bears with her pain. That’s why, Babu, that’s why I too bear with my pain because no one has the guts to confront my rage—I withhold my rage for the same reason, Babu, for the same reason.”
This is really a nuisance, Lakkhikanto thinks. That bastard is sticking to his gun. He says, “OK then, I’ll take them in the morning.”
Gupinath smiles. “I don’t trust you, Babu. Saudagor’s words are only worth a toad’s dirty head. You must pay me now!”
Lakkhikanto holds out two ten taka notes. “Take this. Now please rest in that corner, and don’t make any more fuss.”
Gupinath receives the notes and says, “Now settle up your old debts. Will you?”
Lakkhikanto by then has reached the end of his tether. He can no longer keep his cool. He starts shouting. “What debt, ha? What debt? You think you can fleece me like this? I just gave you enough money for those skins. Not a single penny more.”
“Stop it!” Gupinath snubs him.
Lakkhikanto loses his temper altogether. So he charges Gupinath. “Who are you shouting at, Gupinath? You are shouting at me? Me? ......”
“No, no, Babu, the son of the great Saudagor. How can we shout at you? You live in that iron palace of yours, guarded by hundreds of men and all those magicians and also by those who can even treat snake bites. How can we shout at you? Shame on us!”
Gupinath’s tone changes subtly but conspicuously. “But what can I do, Babu? This debt of yours is pretty old, going back perhaps to several centuries. How long will we roam aimlessly like this? My grandfather and great grandfather lived in the Santal hills. Kaalnag’s blood runs in our veins. Just consider how old this debt is. Just think how many famines and floods have gone by and yet we have never received any share of the harvest you take home every year. This is about time, Babu, this is about time you did all those calculations and paid off every last penny that you owe us.”
The man does not agitate. Casting his shadow on the blood-splattered floor, he keeps talking slowly in a controlled voice. His shadow sways from left to right. As if an enormous snake is tilting its head from side to side just before striking its deadly bite. Lakkhikanto appeals weakly. “Son, I cannot make out anything at all. What debt are you referring to?”
“Ponder. Just ponder and you’ll understand. First calculate your debt during the famine when you had bought and stored tonnes of rice. Then again during the flood, and yet again when you bought a whole lot of skins last year. So keep calculating and you’ll find the answer.”
“Son, I live on the other side of the border. How can I be responsible for a famine that struck on this side?”
Gupinath laughs again. “Don’t talk gibberish, Babu. What difference does your living on the other side make? Ha? Kasimuddin lives on this side, right? Then why’s he with you all the time? Ain’t he your pal? Tell me whose disciple is Jodu Roy? Ha?”
Gupinath leans forward a little, perhaps in an effort to take a good look at Lakkhikanto’s face. Then he sways again from side to side. It is not clear what Lakkhikanto exactly sees but he gives a scream and says, “ For god’s sake, Gupinath, don’t come closer; don’t you come any closer!”
Gupinath stands back. “Don’t be scared Lakhindar. I’m a man, not a snake. I will not bite you. You just pay me off.”
Lakkhikanto cannot bring himself to glance at Gupinath anymore. An unknown fear, emanating from some deepest core of his mind, grips him and leaves him motionless. “Son, I’ll bow down to your feet if necessary, but trust me son, I don’t have any money right now. When the first light of dawn strikes we’ll go to that side of the border. I promise I’ll pay off every last penny that I owe you.”
Gupinath responds, a faint smile painted over his face. “Lakhindor, you consider me a fool, don’t you? This time you’ll surely employ two healthier servants to kick me out of your place. I’m not going to take any more of that shit. You pay me now!”
“Son, you have to understand. I have got no money on me now. How can I pay you off when I have no money?”
The lamp’s light has dimmed by then. Perhaps it is running out of oil. Lakkhikanto screams again. “Gupinath, son, pour some oil in that lamp. For god’s sake! I can’t stand this darkness.”
“Lakhindar, but we prefer to live in the dark. We are born in the dark and we live and die in the dark too.” Laughing, Gupinath seats himself down on the floor. The lamp becomes weaker. He begins, “Listen Lakhindar, now I will get some sleep. In fact, one of my eyes will sleep while the other will be wide awake. My Mother Bishohori has got only one eye, so one of my eyes will be open. And the other eye which will be blinded in sleep belongs to my Kaalnagini. So I will set her free now; I’ll untie the sack’s mouth. Hope you pay me off!”
Darkness settles heavily all around. Even the smouldering wick is visible no more. Lakkhikanto cannot figure out whether Gupinath is awake or asleep, lying down or sitting up. He tries to move a little, after a while. A hissing sound emerges, almost immediately, an awful, malevolent hiss. In the total darkness surrounding him, Lakkhikanto cannot fathom whether it is the non-venomous lizard or the just-relieved Kaalnagini!
The reptile that rules in the dark keeps rustling around, hissing every now and then, mounting an invincible guard.
Translated by Ranjan Banerjee.
1 Locally known as gui snake, a large non-venomous lizard, usually 3-4 feet long.
2 In Bengali, a Saudagor means a powerful merchant.
3 A species of gui snake, known for its strength.
4 Mother Bishohori refers to Mother Manasa who is a goddess of snakes in Hindu mythology.
5 Male cobra species
6 Female cobra species.
7 In Manasamangal Kavya, one of the greatest poetic narratives of medieval Bangla literature, Chand Saudagor is a very powerful merchant devoted to god Shiva. He soon falls victim to a spiteful Manasa, the snake goddess, who demands Chand quit worshipping Shiva. Gupinath frequently refers to these narratives of Hindu mythology and indicates that these stories are told from the point of the merchant and hence, protect the interest of the richest class.