It was in 1972. We were going by train from Durgapur in West Bengal to our ancestral place, Srinagar in Kashmir. Every year we would visit Kashmir, either during the summer holidays, or during Puja1 holidays. Even though we were to miss the festival, there was the attraction of our ancestral house Biswas Villa and its beautiful garden, adjoining the Dal Lake, at the foot of the Shankaracharya Mountain, on Gagribal Road.
It has been a long time. I was in class V in St. Xavier’s School, Durgapur. I was deeply influenced by my missionary teachers and used to participate in all the Christian festivals. It was at my father’s encouragement. In fact, he was deep into Christianity, and had named me Roentgen, and our Puja niche had an icon of Mother Mary alongside Goddesses Durga and Kali and Jagaddharti and Lakshmi2.
He was a wonderful man, my father. Nobody could prise it out of him that he was a Major in the EME Corps3 of the Indian Army. He would always say that he was just a ‘soldier’! And he was a master talker. He had taught us ‘speech is silver and silence is gold’ but for him ‘speech was gold!’ And his speech was indeed golden! People would listen spell-bound, as he wove magic with his words, usually in impeccable English which he had learnt from his British teachers, or in Punjabi, or in chaste Urdu, or in Kashmiri. His mother-tongue Bengali was comparatively weak, as he was born and brought up in Lahore of undivided, pre-1947 India, 30th. of April, 19164. And he left us on 24th.January, 2003, to regale audiences in Heaven with his stories!
A big, burly Sikh gentleman entered our compartment and my father greeted him: ‘Sat Sri Akal Sardarji5!’ Visibly surprised to be addressed in Punjabi by a Bengali Babu6, the Sardarji responded in Hindi. But my father persevered in Punjabi! Then started a volley of Punjabi, as often happens when one finds another speaking his language. The initial courtesies over, as they started really conversing and exchanging views on social issues and politics, the Sardarji realised that my father really knew the language. He asked my father his name. He just would not believe it was Biswas7, which is a Bengali surname. ‘Tusi Biswal Ho! You must be Biswal(a Punjabi surname). Why are you saying that you are Biswas? My father said, ‘Arrey Baba8 I am Biswas for I belong to the Biswas family. It is a prestigious title bestowed on us by the Nawab of Bengal. Don’t take away my title, Baba.’ And they both laughed! ‘Title from a Nawab?’ My father said, It’s a long story. Are you sure you won’t be bored?’ ‘No Biswalsaab, please go on.’ the visitor replied.’
And so, my father started recounting the story which had been family lore and we became privy to the history of my family on this journey.
It was when Murshid Quli Khan was the Nawab of Bengal between 1717 and 1727, and his capital was Murshidabad. He had intense trust in an elderly Brahmin courtier named Ramlal Ganguly, and had appointed him his Khazanchi, or Treasurer. And banks being non-existent, the entire treasury or Nawabi Khazana was under the control of the Khazanchi.
The powerful Marathas9 frequently undertook marauding raids on the periphery of the Mughal empire. During one such attack, the Nawab went to face the enemy with his entire army, leaving the palace in Murshidabad under the command of the old Khazanchi10. Eying an opportunity, a fearsome local dacoit called Bishey Dakat, decided to loot the treasury. He was a Robin Hood of sorts and used to rob the rich to help the poor. His style of operations was rather flamboyant. He sent a messenger to inform the Khazanchi that his house was already surrounded; he should immediately vacate his home, leaving it well lighted and unguarded. Ladies would be allowed to wear all the fineries they wanted, but no one was to carry any load, and nothing of the Nawabi Khazana was to be removed. At nightfall, Bishey Dakat would arrive and woe be to anyone who attempted to thwart him!
Bishey Dakat already knew through his spies that there were very few palace guards left to face his strong band of dacoits. As the story goes, it was believed that the dacoit thought that the royal treasury was housed in the residence of the Khazanchi. In reality, there was a tunnel connecting the Khazanchi’s residence to the Nawab’s palace, and the treasury was kept deep underground. There were also a secret passageway to the chambers of royal harem, guarded by eunuchs of immense strength who had express orders never to let the queens and concubines be taken prisoners by any enemy but to kill them in any such eventuality. The Khazanchi was sitting on this underground bomb.
The impending raid by Bishey Dakat caused a huge commotion in his residence with ladies wailing, children crying and men trembling in great anxiety at the threat, that they knew was impossible to combat. As the whole family was undecided and wavering, Ranga Ma, the youngest wife of the Khazanchi, declared that she would stay back and guard the house with some trusted servants, and that the others should leave as soon as possible as demanded and take shelter elsewhere. Ranga Ma (Red or beautiful Mother) was indeed beautiful. The elderly Ramlal had fallen in love with her and brought her home as his wife when he had gone looking for a bride for his son! And she had brains to supplement her beauty, and soon enough she was controlling the entire household. Now, in the crisis, no one dared to challenge her order, and left home to Ranga Ma and a few servants. The spies of Bishey Dakat thought that only some servants had been left behind to look after their comfort when they were in the house.
Contented that the Khazanchi had been easily frightened away, Bishey Dakat made a grand entry into the premises at night, with drums beating and flutes playing, eagerly anticipating the moment he would appropriate the wealth. But as his gang entered, out of the darkness, stones and boiling hot oil started falling on his men. Bishey himself was injured and beat a hasty retreat. They shouted and threatened with dire consequences, brandished their weapons, and made another bold surge to enter. Again, the invisible army rained missiles and scalding oil. Some dacoits were severely burnt; some had their brains split apart. However hard they tried, they could not do anything to fight back the unseen enemy. And the ceiling was so high that their swords or javelins or arrows could do no damage. There was also no visible target as everything was pitch dark, while the ground-floor was blazing with light, as Bishey had ordered. They could see delectable food ready for them, the aroma wafting through, but were repulsed with their egos badly bruised and their spirits severely demoralised.
Despite all attempts, Bishey and his men were beaten. It was only in the early hours of the next morning that the rain of hell diminished. Raising their blood-curdling battle-cry, those still without broken limbs entered, seething for revenge after a night of horror and starvation. They found absolutely nobody! They discovered the instruments of their torture on the roof-huge bamboo catapults for raining stones and large pots for heated oil, some bows and arrows and javelins too. But no soldiers! It seemed some unearthly spirits were fighting the battle, and had disappeared with the dawning of light.
As they were ransacking the house in revenge, it was Bishey who came upon the idol of Kali11 in the inner sanctum of the household prayer room. And Kali being the principal deity of the dacoits, he bent down prostrate, at the feet of the goddess. The moment his hands touched the feet of Kali, Bishey had the shock of his life! The feet were those of a human being, warm with life! As he looked up, the huge curved sword called khnara was about to descend on his head! In mortal fear he cried out ‘Ma’! And the weapon which had chopped off heads of buffaloes in sacrifice in single strokes, just missed him and landed safely on the ground with a loud clang! No mother could ever harm even a hair on her son’s head. Bishey, in fright, had called out Ma! The woman in the goddess could not kill one who begged his mother for pity. And Bishey folded his hands and remained with bowed head, knowing that the cry of fear when facing imminent death had saved him from this great woman, a true goddess, the demon-slayer. And Bishey prayed to this Goddess Kali, and said : “Mother! You spared me my life today. You beat me single-handed in battle, when even kings think twice before confronting Bishey Dakat! But I am honoured that I am beaten by my Mother! Any time you need my help, just send for me. I’ll repay my blood-loan with my life for you, O Mother!” And family legend has it that in all the thirteen festivals that Bengalis celebrate in twelve months, every time with unerring respect and loyalty, a messenger would arrive bearing a large plate with rice and fruits and a saree and a few gold mohurs for ‘Bishey’s Ma’. Ranga Ma of great beauty and intelligence came to be known and revered and also feared as the adopted mother of the dreaded Bishey Dakat.
Little did Bishey Dakat know that the living Ma Kali had been standing guard at the entrance to the underground tunnel to the Nawab’s palace. He could never imagine that he had been so close to the coveted treasury! And little did the Begums and concubines in the harem know that one Bengali Hindu woman single-handedly had protected them from instant slaughter by the Khoja brigade protecting them from attack and dishonour.
On leaving, Bishey’s men found an old man lurking in the kitchen garden at the back. Taking him to be an old fool, they thrashed him and left him in the dirty pond for dead. They could never imagine that that it was the Khazanchi himself, a prize catch, snooping around out of concern for his beautiful young bride, who had peremptorily ordered the entire family including him out, and had taken on the might of Bishey Dakat alone. Fearing the worst, the hapless old man had come expecting to find the dead body of his head-strong young wife! He was fished out later gravely injured, but alive. And he would not let any body remove his clothes, wet and stinking as they were from the dirty pond. Not even the Vaid (doctor) who came to put balm on his injuries.
On his return after repulsing the Marathas, the Nawab came to know of the attack on the house of his Khazanchi and the unbelievable story of combat staged by the youngest wife of the old man! The Nawab understood how close a shave it had been! How close he had been to losing his entire treasure, but for a Hindu woman who risked her life and fought like a Royal Bengal tigress! The Nawab broke all protocol and rushed to the bedside of his Khazanchi. He heard the whole story with amazement! At the end, the old man cut open his dirty clothes, and removed layer after layer of Royal Treaties and Revenue documents of immense value concealed in water-proof leaf packing of those pre-plastic days! And lastly, he produced the Nawab’s signet ring with which all documents were signed and sealed. The man had never thought possible what his Ranga Bou did, and as a precaution had secreted away the most valuable items from the Treasury.
Murshid Kuli Khan, known for severity in meting out justice, was not sentimental. But that overwhelming moment he declared that for such acts of loyalty by the Khazanchi and his brave wife, he was conferring the title of ‘Biswas’ or ‘The Trustworthy’ on the family of the Gangulies. Along with it came gifts and extensive property and revenue rights.
The story did not end here. The Khazanchi retired. His sons were in responsible posts in the royal service. And the Nawab, who himself was a converted Muslim from a Brahmin family, desired to strengthen ties with the loyal Biswas family through marriage. He offered marriage of one of his sons to a daughter of Ranga Ma. This offer was a veiled invitation into the fold of Islam, for if a single daughter is married to a Muslim, the entire Hindu community would shun that family from any ties in future, and they all would have to get converted. Confronted with this religious and social dilemma, unable to reject the benefactor Nawab directly, they were in a quandary till the appearance of the family ‘Guru’, saved the situation. The Guru had stopped by while passing through, and asked them for veracity of what he had heard being discussed among people at large. The Guru had never accepted any ‘Dakshina’ or homage from the family on any occasion, whether marriage or sacred thread ceremony or death. Today he demanded his pending Dakshina: the entire land and house and property. He gave the old patriarch an earthen pot of sacred water of the Ganga, and gave them marching orders to go West. Wherever the pot fell, would be the place for their new home, consecrated by the holy water of the Ganga. Thus ordained the Guru.
Sivasish Biswas is Professor of English in the Department of English. He is at present Pro-Vice Chancellor at Assam University, Diphu Campus, Assam.
Prof. Biswas served in the northeast since 1987 in different institutions including Mizoram University. He was a Fulbright Scholar during 2013-14 at Central Arizona College, Arizona.
- Puja here refers to the autumnal and most important festival in Bengal dedicated to Goddess Durga
- Different female goddesses revered in India
- Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
- After the partition of the Indian sub continent, Lahore was included in Pakistan
- A form of greetings, invoking God, that the Sikhs use
- Babu is a term added at the end of a Bengali first name as a sign of respect
- Originally derived from Sanskrit, it means trust
- Form of endearment, usually among friends
- A martial race that rose to political prominence in the 17th century in western India. In the 18th century, some of them undertook raids on rich provinces, such as Bengal
- This could be apocryphal. It is unlikely that the administration would be left to the Treasurer
- Another form of Goddess Durga, usually invoked for her prowess to fight evil