Sada, the sin eater

    by Tapan Mozumdar

    Sada didn’t recollect when he was born. Not that his birthday was something to be remembered. In fact, he didn’t remember whether he was Sadanand, Sadashiv or Sadgopal. As far as his memory went, and it didn’t go very far back, he remembered a woman in rags forever and in tangled, lice filled hair. Perhaps he used to call her Ma. Perhaps she fell into the river that flowed by the side of their hutment, on the other side of the village, Rasulpur. Perhaps, a hungry leopard took her away.

    Sada remembered the leopard. Bright ocre skin with jet black dots, it had flashed in air as he was guarding his mother inisde the sugarcane field attending to the nature’s call. Perhaps. Perhaps it was a masked man leaping during a Chhou dance. Perhaps he never had seen any bright yellow flash, his memory often drove him through a blind land to a corner where it’s always dark, day or night or till someone would shake Sada out of his stupor and say, “Oi, Sada, bhoj achhe, sumptious meal, bujhli!”

    Meal or ‘food’ were the words that brought his dulling brain to an alert worldly stage in a snap. Hungry Sada’s eyes would open up full, red from the sleep he could never have or from the weed he always had from Sambhu Dom from the crematorium, who could say! Sada’s ears would suddenly get straight and pointed. Strangers who didn’t know Sada well would get scared and uncomfortable when he would crouch on all fours, push his body up at the belly and start walking around his tiny dungeon of a mudhut. Sada’s face would twitch, eyes would blink and a guttural ‘hoomm, hoomm’ sound would reverberate inside his ribcage almost with the same frequency.

    Sada would then look like a force of Nature. Like the Norwester that brings dust and destruction, coolth and relief from the late March heat, the one that had ripped maturing fruits of mango from their stems and scattered those like a naughty child all around Sada’s hut. Sada’s hut was intact, like it had been always, the grand old mango tree bearing the brunt to save the measly soul, who shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

    “Oi Sada, get ready, the lads have come on their motorbikes. They’re impatient,” said one of the three men, who had showed the way to Daya’s hut to the men who came searching for him from Purulia town. The men seemed to be rich and powerful, with their sunglasses, gold chains, Gold Flake cigarettes and attitude. The way one of them stopped near the post office and asked in a voice befitting of a film hero, “Anyone knows Sada in this village?” Oh!

    Sada carried on with his antics. He clutched on the rods of his only window, God knows what he had to protect but his hut had a door and grills and shades on the window! There was a mattress with stains from his decades of existence and a square-ish iron box, locked, at the centre of the one room tenement. Clothes of several colours and sizes were piled up on top of the iron box.

    Sada was wearing a discoloured Bermuda and was bare bodied. A headful of dishevelled hair, cushy abode for the generations of lice that were born, grew, ate, shat and died, and an equally deep forest of facial hair, the mosquitoes found it very hard to find skin below the same. His body bore the trophies of several dried wounds that the nasty kids might have inflicted upon him. A couple near his left thigh were raw and bleeding a little.

    “Did a dog bite you, or what?” Another man observed that and took two steps back. Sada was trying to walk on the wall but failing, of course!

    “Who is dying now?” Sada asked in the rumbling voice of a stereotypical clairvoyant.

    “How will we know? They are straight from the town.” The third one, short in height and shifty in composure, commented.

    “Someone must be, otherwise who will ever look for you?” said, the lanky guy with a sharp nose and two missing front teeth from the top row.

    “God knows what sin you will have to eat this time!” the elderly men had seen Sada grow from an abandoned ten-year-old to the sin eater he had come to be recognised as. His tone had compassion.

    “I eat them all, I eat them all,” Sada screamed and started doing rounds of the box.

    “Yeah, and together with that, sweet, condiments, pulao, kalia… feasting on other people’s money, doing good, man!” The short man quipped.

    “But think about the years he has to live in the hell? Consuming everyone sin at their death bed and paving their way to Baikuntha, is it something silly? Baap re, I get goose bumps when I think of that!” The tall one shivered.

    “God’s games, brother, His mystical ways… who has ever understood that? First time the Aghori Sadhu picked the crazy boy up from the streets and told us all about his unique gift, none of us believed. Then the Sadhu took him to the Pal Mahashay’s dying father, whispered something into Sada’s ears, ordered the family to serve the food the dying man most loved to eat – and Sada set into his work… Uff, seems just like yesterday!” The elderly looked at the younger two, “You might not recall, but the strains of dying on the face of that old lech got eased and he smiled with his eyes still closed. What a divine scene it was!”

    “I eat them all, I let them all go to heaven,” Sada blabbered as he chewed on a leftover roti from the last night.

    “Come Sada, come, get dressed,” the elderly man asked others, “Hold him and help him to get into something decent. We may be a poor village, but we have some prestige still or not?”

    “And what happened to the Aghori?” The lanky man was the most curious, “Was he seen again?”

    They had all heard the story of Sada becoming the sin-eater a hundred times perhaps, but still the thrill it felt was new.

    “Nah! He told the villagers to make Sada a hut by the side of the river and take care of him, for he can eat all the sins of the others, and left in a day or two,” the elderly sighed, “He warned though that village shall have calamity if we let go of Sada or don’t take care of him.” The man touched his forehead multiple times with his right palm, the left keeping busy in dressing Sada, “We must not jinx this, but since then, except for minor seasonal troubles, Rasulpur has seen no major calamity.”

    They had almost forced Sada into a decent pista green pajama, folded at its ends, and a wee bit tight white T-shirt that proclaimed ‘We are the World’ and had a picture of a swinging Michael Jackson. His hair was unmanageable, so they wrapped an orange dupatta, lying in his heap, like a turban. Sada didn’t have a mirror, but if he had he might have thrown further tantrum at his tricoloured self, unable to recognise himself.

    The men on motorcycle were silent, but decent enough to make Sada sit comfortably in between the two of them on one bike, and yet leave some respectable breathing space for him during the triple ride of twenty odd kilometres through the muddy and potholed roads.

    Where they reached, Sada had never seen a bigger house than that. All of three large storeys, the house was white, mostly, with a dash of measured grey and chocolate on its borders. It had a large terrace and about thirty odd people, women and children were waiting for them eager at the parapet.

    “They have come back,” one shouted, “With the man,” rallied another.

    When Sada landed from the bike, his legs lifeless for some time after being pressed for so long, he wobbled.

    “Is he drunk?” a good looking young girl in salwar kameez asked one of the bike men. He stared back and the girl recoiled.

    About ten women came in a huddle out of the tall iron-gate. One of them, the most senior, had a large, brass thali in hand, which had rice grains, vermilion and a lit lamp. A much younger girl matched steps with her to shield the flickering flame with her palms from the mild wind that blew dust on the street in front. It was about midday. The soaring temperature couldn’t keep the eager crowd indoor though.

    “He looks like in a trance,” one whispered in the crowd.

    Sada’s eyes were half closed. He knew by instinct that a certain role play was desired of him. When the lady of the house circled the thali with the lamp thrice clockwise around his face and put the vermilion mark on his forehead, Sada roared, “Bommm Shankar!”

    That angry Sadhu bit done, Sada was taken to a small room on the ground floor which was barely furnished. The paint on the wall and the door and the window from inside was peeling. It seemed the room was hurriedly repurposed. It faced north, warm glow of day brightening up the bed, an ancient four-poled, teak perhaps and on it laid a frail human form, its breasts rising up and breathing down with the pace of an ever creeping snail.

    Not that Sada cared, but he could not make it whether it was a man or a woman. Eyes fixed on the ceiling, remnants of hastily cleaned cobwebs still there, the person was sure to meet Yama in a while. The mouth was slightly open and an old lady, younger perhaps, was pouring the water of Ganges into that drop by drop while chanting, “Om Shanti, Om shanti.” Long, grey hair was spread like a halo on the pillow around the puffy, ashen face and though face was powdered and decked up with womanly make-up, tiny, sparse spread of shaved facial hair could be seen under the daylight that reflected on the face from a framed photograph.

    Sada was hungry. He didn’t know what food that creature on the way to the other world liked. He didn’t know what sins he was called to cleanse. All he knew that after the previous day’s hurried meal around afternoon at the village temple, the storm appeared. He had no place or courage to scout for food when the day became like a dark night and the sky fell open upon the mortals. Sada’s tummy demons were pleading for a quick shift from the theatre of the absurd to the real deal. The façade was, however, important and that’s what he was valued for.

    Sada leapt like a tiger from one end of the room to a place next to the dying person. His turban, or the mock semblance of it unwound and the room full of people had a view of his flaming hair, dyed with Mehndi by a lady he called Daduma. She was the only one who could implore Sada to take a bath off and on into the river. Sada’s red eyes raised that dreaded question, “What were her sins?”

    In Bangla, the pronouns are ungendered. For the room full of people, thus, that question was neutral. The lady of the house, who had earlier greeted Sada in, came forward and gestured for the crowd to move out, “Everyone,” she said, when she found some gossipers were squeezing themselves to a corner, as if they would melt into the stark whiteness of the wall. When all left and the middle-aged lady sitting in a widow’s white sari dripping gangajal to the dying was getting up, she said, “You be here, Syeda, nothing is a secret to you.”

    Syeda was overwhelmed. She was weeping before that in silence. On getting the honour of staying back to share the secrets of the dying, she burst out in throaty cries of despair, “Much honour, sister-in-law, much honour”.

    “Control yourself, Syeda,” the lady of the house had authority in her voice, “how can he leave with peace if you tie him down now with your Maya.”

    “I couldn’t tie him when alive, what will I tie a dead man with?” Syeda sobbed hysterically.

    “If the man acknowledged being a man, you would have been his first choice, you know that,” the lady turned to Sada, who was holding a pole of the bed at the feet of the dying and bending his thin torso into acrobatic caricatures, “and that’s the sin you have to eat with his favourite lyabda, and begun pora.”

    Sada stopped his antics. He tried to comprehend the words by repeating them, “Lyabda? Means rice, lentil and vegetables boiled together? And the brinjal burnt and smashed? Owack…” He pretended throwing up, “Such a rich family and such lowly taste in food?”

    The lady frowned at Sada with all her disgust.

    “You have come here to just eat here, is it? It’s her,” the lady pointed out to Syeda, “She is from Rasulpur and told you have the powers to suck sins away before the soul departs.” The lady seemed angry, “She was wrong, it would seem. You are just another wretched free loader.”

    “No!” Sada shrieked. He couldn’t let his livelihood in jeopardy due to one slip in the act. Lyabda or whatever is still food and he was still hungry. “Don’t you dare bring in the curse of Shawshan Kaali for the dying and the household for the next sever generations. You may not have respect for me, but I can’t insult the departing spirit.”

    Sada sat in a corner in a yogic pose, the one that the Aghori had taught him well in his tens. The Aghori had enjoyed his company, his sexual proximity, night after night at the crematorium before he had asked, “Baba, bless me with a way to live in this big and lonely world.” What Aghori told the villagers and altered their optics with the spectacle of sin-eating came next.

    Sada was served the humble food that the sickly, departing hermaphrodite had always preferred. It might be that the food needed minimum preparation and could be stored easily for days and that’s all the attention the effeminate boy would get in his younger days. It might be that he developed a taste for this. It might be that in his older days, he wanted minimum attention and this food served him well about that.

    Whatever it might have been, the food was fulfilling. After every helping, Sada would chant some incomprehensible words in wrong Sanskrit. He would punch it with some Bangla which the other two understood well,

    “Purush joni theke mukti dao,” Sada would say, “Liberate him from the gender of male, O Kaali, lead him to peace in the feminine life after death, the life he always so liked to live,” Sada would gulp another helping, “Bom Shankar!” He would chant aloud.

    People outside the latched room were sure that the reclusive Sabuj Pishi, ‘the Green Aunt’, as the dying man was fondly known due to the hue of green that would never leave his well shaven face, was heading towards the genderless heaven, thanks to the sin-eater, Sadanand, or Sadashiv, or Sadagopal, who cared!

    Tapan Mozumdar

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