Originally published in Papercuts Magazine. Issue: Home is not a place.
“Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones.” – Bhagavad Gita.
Seeta looked around at the procession. Her feet ached, and it was still two days before they would reach their destination: the Kali Temple at Kuknur. Twenty years ago, Seeta was born in Puri, Orissa, to a devdasi at the Jagannath Temple. She was sworn in to the same practice when she turned three, and was ceremonially married to the Lord and had vowed to practice celibacy. For years, the Mahari Seeta took care of her Lord, her husband. She mastered Bharatnatyam and danced for him and pampered him with extreme vigilance; she lulled him to sleep, the air redolent with Gita Govinda songs. It went on like this, for years. And eventually, Seeta got tired of the monotony. She demanded fulfillment. One night, she went to a Nattuvanar and confided in him her plan. He gasped; Seeta had presented herself to be sacrificed before the goddess Kali. And that was where this caravan was headed, to a sacrificial temple in Northern Karnataka. When Seeta’s turn came to be slaughtered, she reminded herself of the piety of the action, and how the soul never dies; it takes up one body after the other. To please Kali, she laid herself down before her idol. The people around her chanted mantras, hailing the black goddess! First, flowers were thrown at Seeta. Then she was sprinkled with water. Finally a sword came to view.
And while Seeta thought about the body her soul would acquire in the next life, the sword separated her head from the body.
Since birth, Seeta prayed every night for death and woke up the next morning to realize that her prayers had gone unanswered – again. And each time that she’d given birth to her children, she’d prayed for the same for them. And then, she’d thought that maybe, even gods don’t listen to untouchables. Living in Malabar in an area exclusive to the outcasts, she was nothing more than a humiliation, the conveniently brushed-off underbelly of the society. Her husband, enslaved, worked in the north-east in the farms of the upper-castes. The people of her jati were accustomed to doing the most menial of all jobs for their superiors. And of course they weren’t paid with anything. Still, very often, just to show them their standing in society, and perhaps their status in the eyes of the gods, they’d be paraded naked, forced to eat human waste, raped, flogged and killed. Malabar was the first place in India to receive that new religion from the lands that lay across the ocean. The pariah, Seeta, heard about this religion through the winds, and her attention was riveted by the fact that there were no castes in it. Since that day, she kept her ear to the ground for any news related to the religion. She wasn’t at all interested in who this new religion worshipped and how many gods they had. All she was concerned about was breaking free of the shackles of castehood. One day, she heard about some Arabs in Malabar, preaching the new faith. She at once made her way to them, her children by her side, and embraced Islam. The next day, the Brahmins abducted the family. They put each of Seeta’s children in a cauldron of boiling water and killed them all. They stripped Seeta, took turns raping her, and then severed her limbs.
There, then; Seeta bled to death.
As Samrat Hem Chandra Vikramaditya propelled a rebellion in Bengal against Muslim rule, the whole government structure trembled. And on the same day that Hemu killed Bengal’s ruler Muhammad Shah, his distant cousin gave birth to a baby daughter. She was named after the idyllic Hindu goddess, Seeta. The birth of the girl on that particular day was deemed to be a good omen by the Pandits. Celebrations were called for; sweets disbursed. Hemu, however, had bigger plans: that of conquering Delhi. Emerging victorious in a series of 22 battles, his army settled at Tughlaqabad, readying itself for the decisive war. Delhi fell to Hemu; he finally interrupted the 350-year long Muslim rule over the area. Hemu’s extended family shifted to Delhi with him, including Seeta, his pride and joy. It was here in Delhi that Seeta discovered the luxuries of being a princess. Her happiness, however, was not to last long. One month later, the Muslim armies came forward to confront Hemu, and so started the Second Battle of Panipat. Seeta and her mother were staying in a tent by the battleground and when the news reached Seeta that her beloved uncle Hemu had been shot through the eye with an arrow, she couldn’t contain herself. She rushed into the battleground. All around her were arrows, men and her uncle’s elephants. She ran around wildly, hoping to catch one last glimpse of her uncle. Later, Hemu’s head was sent over to Kabul.
Seeta died on the battleground, having been crushed under an elephant’s foot.
By the time Aurangzeb Alamgir took charge as the emperor of India, Seeta was on the verge of bidding farewell to her teenage years. It was in the Red Fort that Seeta had spent her childhood, where she’d been trained to be a courtesan and had learned to entertain her audience. Many officials of the Mughal government weren’t satisfied with the dancing, alone. They wanted more, and Seeta was taught to oblige. However, things took a different turn as Aurangzeb’s reign commenced. To start with, the Mughal government, which had always been very welcoming to Hindu practices, took on a conservative Islamic semblance. Aurangzeb emerged as a strict Muslim; he levied the jazya tax on the non-Muslims, put a halt to un-Islamic practices in the court and forbade drinking. The real shock, however, came when Aurangzeb banned music and dancing in the court. Seeta was told to leave and pursue a better calling. The same Mughal blood that had applauded Seeta to dance was now denouncing her. Seeta, left with no other option, retired to her home-place, Banaras. She made a meagre living by dancing in the temples of the region. Sometimes, she’d beg for food. Life was difficult. Miles away, Aurangzeb found a new way of quenching his religious thirst: by destroying Hindu temples. One day, as Seeta chanted bhajans inside the revered Kashi Vishwanath temple, the commotion hit her. The whole temple was razed to the ground in a minute.
Seeta breathed her last beneath the rubble.
India was ravaged by anarchy, outsiders had conquered its lands and the insiders’ view-points diverged. The hardships, however, didn’t end there: Ram Das’s fifth child was a girl again! He had just returned from Shirdi, where he was praying for a son, when he got the news that his wife had delivered a girl again. For a moment, he considered strangling the girl, but then he thought selling would be the safest option. It was accepted and widely practiced. The girl was named Seeta, and she was sold off in marriage when she was ten. Her in-laws lived in Gwalior, and Seeta, true to her Hindu roots, at once held her husband in reverence. However, what Seeta didn’t know was that the winds of revolt were blowing with full sinew against the British, and her husband was party to these schemes. All she knew was that the goras were destroying their culture; they were shunning many of the traditional practices. One night, Seeta’s husband along with his men attacked a British troop rehearsing in the south of Gwalior. Seeta, as always, was unaware. She was just concerned about the baby in her womb. She’d first conceived at 12, and then every successive year. The attack, carelessly executed, exposed the men and they were arrested on the spot. The next day, they were hanged. Seeta became a widow, and people around her were quick to decree: a woman without a man is a curse; she cannot be allowed to live. Therefore, Seeta, pregnant with her sixth child, was forcibly tied to her husband’s funeral pyre.
She was burned alive, in tribute to the goddess Sati.
Seeta didn’t know her family; she often wondered if she’d ever had one. As far back as she could remember, this Muslim household, where she worked as a maid, was the nearest Seeta had come to having a family. Seeta had been told that she was adopted by Mr. Aslam Harouni when she was an infant and had been thrown into a garbage truck: the destiny of illicit babies. Harouni had given her a home and she in turn gave his home her services; laundry, sweeping, dusting, washing – all except cooking; that prerogative went exclusively to the Muslim servants. Tension dampened the air as 1947 approached; Harouni worried about the fate of his lush villa and property if the area went to India. But June brought with it a surprise. According to the plan, the area of Hoshiarpur was going to go to Pakistan. As the Muslims relaxed, the Sikhs flexed their muscles. Seeta’s alliance was neither with Pakistan nor India; it was solely with this family. August neared and India braced itself for a partition. But along with partition came the Radcliffe Award, and that changed everything. Riots broke out in Punjab; Muslims were butchered in cold blood. So were Hindus in Muslim majority areas. One night, Seeta watched in horror from the kitchen window as a group of Hindu youth broke into the house and murdered all the members of the family with spears and daggers. Then they left, sparing the servant for the tilak on her forehead.
And then, as if to prove that her loyalty was beyond region, religion or caste, Seeta picked up a stray spear and ended her life.
Right from childhood, Seeta knew she was different, owing to the outstanding Muslim majority of the country she was born in, and the constant blabbering of her companions. (Seeta?! Are you Hindu? Do you people really have that have many gods? Why are there practices like human sacrifice and Satti in Hinduism? Do you people really reincarnate? Do you feel more loyalty towards India instead of Pakistan?) However, as she matured, she derived strength from her differences. With the support of certain NGOs, she initiated an organization aimed at safeguarding minority rights. At first, the organization limited itself to staging re-enactments of the epics, ‘Mahabharta’ and ‘Ramayana’, but it steadily earned recognition and credibility; and sprouted into a massive social work organization. It provided shelter to the homeless, alms to the poor, aid to the oppressed, and support to the weak. In one way or the other, all of Seeta’s previous lives had centered on the deprivation of rights: the right to live, the right to die, the right to liberty and the right to love. And it was only in this seventh life that Seeta not only acquired her own basic rights, but also ensured them for others. All her past sufferings bestowed upon her this karma-phala. The quest for fulfillment that she embarked on in her first life came to see the light of day only now. Seeta was hailed; she acquired a cult following.
This time around, Seeta aged to death. Slowly; serenely. And finally, for one last time, the soul departed.