Gift for the Goddess by Murli Melwani

‘Ma, Ma,’ said Jhuman Singh excitedly, waving his battered brown school bag in the direction of the river. He had returned from school, where the boys had heard that a dam was going to be built close to their village.


‘Keep quiet. Eat first,’ replied Phool Kanwar. Her annoyance was probably caused partly by the heat. As she set down his plate of rice and dal topped with cauliflower curry, she impatiently smoothed her long hair and in a deft motion, tied it into a knot at the back of her head.


‘They'll pay us a rupee a day.’ said Jhuman Singh. He sat down on the mat to eat. He was a tallish boy, thin, not more than twelve years old. His round fresh face had an earnest quality about it, which was heightened by the long, almost feminine lashes which swept over his dark eyes. In fact earnestness marked whatever he did. Even in the makeshift school where he was in grade four, he applied himself conscientiously and topped the class.


Phool Kanwar thought that earning a few coins everyday was better than working free for neighbours on their hill slopes, as Jhuman Singh did. Everyone took advantage of him. But all she said was, ‘You'll have to ask your father.’




Jhuman Singh's father, Magan Singh, worked as a guard at the district court in Kota, a town about a hundred miles away. He came home during the week end.


‘Let him go and work,’ Magan Singh said in the gruff voice he assumed when he talked about or dealt with his sons. His tone softened as he continued, ‘But it will be difficult for you.’ He spoke quickly, glancing at Phool Kanwar with something verging on tenderness. Jhuman Singh helped his mother in the house, something which could not be expected of Raja Singh, his third son. Raja was lazy and grumbled whenever he was asked to do something. The two older boys worked in the plains because there was very little work in their village, Nahda. Hardly anything grew on the hills so most of the five hundred or so inhabitants went down to the plains to work on the sugar-cane plots and the millet and maize fields.


Phool Kanwar's long-lashed eyes met Magan Singh's in a moment of deep understanding, and then, as if to mask that depth, she said in a mock plaintive way: ‘Have you ever worried about me before that you must now?’




Sohan Lal Chauhan was the contractor who had won the government tender. He brought his assistants Hemraj and Mahabir Prasad to make a preliminary survey of the terrain. The village of Nahda was spread over a number of hills. The vegetation was stunted. It took four hours of a slow bumpy ride by jeep to reach Nahda from the plains below.


It was the dry season and the river was hardly more than six feet wide. Its muddy waters moved sluggishly. A few buffaloes wallowed in it now. Even in spate the river never widened beyond ten feet.


‘There'll be no need to divert the river,’ Sohan Lal told his assistants. The water was less than three feet deep and Sohan Lal saw no reason to waste time and money cutting a new channel for the river and building a subsidiary dam upstream. They would start work on the dam straight away.


‘Won't you send the soil for testing to Udaipur?’ asked Mahabir Prasad, raising his eyebrows at the short cuts Sohan Lal was taking. He chose to confine his disapproval to just one issue: the analysis of soil samples as a means of estimating the depth and formation of the river bed.


Mahabir Prasad was Sohan Lal's foreman. He did not have a degree in engineering but he had worked on enough projects to know the importance of soil tests, especially of clayey loam soil. The words from a bureaucrat’s report he had read flashed through his mind: ‘the fine texture and porosity of clay loam provide effective capillary tubes for movement of water.’


‘It won't be necessary,’ Sohan Lal said authoritatively. Turning to Hemraj, he continued, ‘And you better go and round up your men.’


Hemraj was in charge of labour. He managed to coax about twenty men away from the fields in the plains. The boys of the village, including Jhuman Singh, all came to work on the project. The bulk of the labour, however, came from Mathwara, a neighbouring village.


‘Get more men. Get more men. We have to finish the work before the end of May,’ Mahabir Prasad pleaded with Sohan Lal, voicing the first note of warning against the monsoons.




Work on the dam began under a cloudless sky with the parched hills shimmering in the distance.  Before the first pick-axe hit the earth Sohan Lal brought a priest to the site. The priest was old with long uncombed hair and a grey beard which hid most of his face. He mumbled some prayers, sprinkled water with a mango leaf from a brass jar, flung a coin in the river – a meagre offering, thought Mahabir Prasad, to appease the presiding goddess of the area – and was gone.




The men dredged the riverbed and trudged to and fro between the river and the foot of a dry hillock, carrying sludge and gravel in flat cane trays on their heads. By evening their bare bodies and loin cloths were caked with the ooze from the wickerwork of the trays. The mound of sludge at the foot of the hillock dried quickly and grew day by day.


Sohan Lal’s orders were to mix large quantities of clay and pebbles, both freely available in the riverbed, with cement. Nobody, not even Mahabir Prasad, knew whether a safety code existed. ‘This will never hold during the rains,’ warned Mahabir Prasad, looking skywards, his eyebrows quivering like two bees over a flower.


‘When will this river ever flood? The dam can easily withstand all the water the rains feed it.’


The dam would be about seventy-two feet long, twelve feet wide and six feet high, a weir more than a dam. The rain patterns in Rajasthan were uncertain; sometimes it rained heavily for two months, at other times there was hardly an inch of rainfall during the whole year. Heavy rains were predicted that year.


Mahabir Prasad said nothing.




You could not mistake when Sohan Lal was happy. His small mouth opened in a hearty laugh and he broke into snatches of song. He talked cheerfully with the labourers as he supervised them. This is how he behaved for the last month as work proceeded smoothly through April and the first week of May.


One morning at the end of the week, when it was very hot and sticky, Mahabir Prasad called on Sohan Lal at his tent. He brought bad news.


‘The pit keeps filling up with water’


‘Put more men to drain it.’


‘It doesn't help.’


‘Come, let me see.’ The men scooped out trays full of water. But even as the surface of the water in the pit settled, the level rose imperceptibly.


‘We better get a few pumps. Or we'll never be able to finish before the rains. Hand pumps,’ Sohan Lal snapped.


‘Hand pumps will never do,’ said Mahabir Prasad.


It took much arguing to make Sohan Lal agree to hire power-operated pumps to drain out the water. Sohan Lal went to Udaipur himself, a full day's journey away, and leased two pumps which worked on diesel.




‘The water level just won't fall,’ said Mahabir Prasad after a number of days of futile labour. ‘Do something,’ shouted Sohan Lal, his small mouth screwed in a tight ball of anger, his forehead knitted into a nasty frown.


‘I said if a proper puja had been held,’ murmured one of the labourers from Mathwara, a lanky man. Sohan Lal turned his face and glared at the cluster of labourers.  ‘Of course it was a proper puja,’ he barked.


‘We mean with proper ceremony. And food for everybody.’ These words filtered through the white handlebar moustaches of another worker.


Sohan Lal grunted and walked away.




‘The water in the pit is seeping and weakening the foundation of the rest of the dam,’ reported Mahabir Prasad.


Sohan Lal sat, head bent, at his makeshift desk. His head ached. The contract might not prove profitable after all. He had lost a number of man-days. What was he to do now? He couldn't afford to lose more money.


Perhaps he should not have ordered an abridged version of the blessing ceremony, he told himself. Perhaps he should have gone through with the prescribed rituals. Perhaps he should have had appeased the Goddess in a more fitting manner. Now it was too late for any sort of damage-control puja. Greater offerings would have to be made if the blessing ceremony were to be re-enacted.


Finally Sohan Lal convinced himself that he had to do whatever had to be done no matter the cost. He'd go to the priest the following day and ask his advice. But would it work? Would the level of the water fall after the ceremony?


Sohan Lal tossed for hours. Doubts assailed him. He sent up a prayer in a moan as he turned to the right on his creaking bed. He asked the Goddess to forgive him for short changing her.


When he finally fell asleep, his sleep was disturbed. Around midnight the dreams came. He wanted to sit up and keep his eyes open so that he would not see them. Visions from his past rose up before his eyes: the brother whose inheritance he had snatched away, the government official whose kickback he reduced with various excuses. Then the river seemed to float away from its course, assume a life of its own, and in whale-like motions speed towards his tent. Almost as suddenly the whale-river vanished, a dam sprang up and prevented the river from flooding his tent. A moment later he saw a form take shape over the dam. It shimmered. It glided back and forth over the water. Sohan Lal recognised it as the Goddess.


She walked over the completed stonework of the dam. The dam and the Goddess disappeared, replaced by the recalcitrant pit. In a flash, a moment later, the Goddess loomed over the pit. She glared at Sohan Lal. She shot out her fiery tongue. Her tongue was covered with blood. She waved her myriad arms. She flashed her bloodied tongue again. Then she floated upwards and melted away.


Sohan Lal woke up with a start. The Goddess had shown him her tongue. It was covered with blood. It meant that she could now be appeased only with an offering of blood?


He remembered the custom of initiating a project by slaughtering a goat and sprinkling its blood on the work site. But even as he decided to do this he doubted whether such a paltry sacrifice would satisfy the Goddess at this stage. He couldn't afford to intensify her wrath. Nor could he afford to have the work stall again.


No, No, he thought, as the idea splashed down on him. But his conscious protest was feeble, a half-hearted 'no' against the suddenness and the appeal of the idea. The next moment he knew that he would go ahead with it.


He would appease the Goddess with human blood.




‘The Goddess has demanded human sacrifice,’ he gravely announced the next day. Mahabir Prasad's chin shot out, his eyebrows quivered over his eyes, the bees’ buzz-drilled his head. Hemraj stared at Sohan Lal, unbelieving, his taut muscles drawn in outline against his vest. Both tried to reason with him. Mahabir Prasad gave scientific explanations as to why the water level was not subsiding.


‘Sub-soil water is one of them’.


Sohan Lal was adamant. ‘Get me a boy. I'll give you a thousand rupees each after it is over’.


They thought that of all the adult labourers of Nahda, Bhim Singh would be the man for the job. He was a muscular old man, greying, squat. He waddled more than he walked, and his friends attributed it to his habit of being drunk most of the time. ‘Win him over, Hemraj. I'll pay you extra for that.’


Bhim Singh listened, inscrutable, as Hemraj, in a voice so soft that the night seemed to grab the words as they left his lips, told Bhim Singh what he wanted him to do. Bhim Singh chewed his betel nut leisurely, his small eyes resting on a distant hill. He remained quiet for so long that Hemraj had to repeat what he had said. Finally Bhim Singh spoke. He bargained hard. He agreed to entice away a boy and perform the deed at the site only if he was paid a thousand rupees. After a little hesitation Hemraj agreed. Together they worked out their strategy.


‘That fool Jhuman Singh, he'll do anything for anybody,’ murmured Bhim Singh to himself as he walked away.




‘Here boy, I'll go to Udaipur after a few days. Come with me. It will be a free trip,’ Bhim Singh told Jhuman Singh the next day.


‘I'll ask my mother,’ Jhuman Singh said, hitching up his outsized shorts. His round face was always wreathed in smiles. The prospect of leaving Nahda for a little excitement appealed to him.


‘I didn't tell you, I'm going about a job. They need a boy also. You'll earn three rupees a day. More than what you earn on the dam. And you can work only till your school opens’.


‘I'll ask Ma.’


‘Such a big fellow and still asking Ma. Going to be married in a few years. Next you will ask her what to do with a wife.’




‘That man is a useless. Don't listen to him. What has he done for himself here that he must go and win glory in Udaipur,’ said Phool Kanwar.


‘They'll pay three rupees, I get only a rupee here for a whole day.’


‘Bhim Singh is a drunkard. Don't make a fool of yourself by listening to him.’


‘I want to go Ma, I want to go Ma. I want to tell my friends I have been to Udaipur.’


‘If Jhuman wants to go, let him go. You are ... I don't know what,’ cut in Raja Singh, with an older brother’s authority.


Phool Kanwar did not say anything after that, afraid that Raja Singh would go into one of his long sulks.




The labourers from Mathwara had planned a feast after a session of singing that night. They did this every week, on the day they received their wages. Sohan Lal, Hemraj and Mahabir Prasad sat close to Jhuman Singh, who kept time to the sound of the throbbing music by clapping his hands.


After about an hour, Sohan Lal spoke to Jhuman Singh in a low gruff voice, ‘Come, we must go’ Jhuman Singh did not want to leave but Sohan Lal told him that his mother had sent word to come home.


The path to Jhuman Singh’s home lay across the work site. It was pitch-dark. Two calloused hands flashed out of the dark, one gagged Jhuman Singh’s mouth, the other pinioned his chest and pulled him down.




Sohan Lal sprinkled blood from a brass tumbler over the completed stonework of the dam.




Bhim Singh cleared the place and carried the corpse and knife to a cave, called the 'Tiger’s Palace’, on a distant hillock. He did not report for work the next day.




‘Don't worry, Mother,’ Raja Singh said. ‘He's probably got lost, but he will come back.’


‘But it is four days now. Go, ask Bhim Singh whether he has left Jhuman behind in Udaipur,’ she said.


‘I've asked him three times. He says they returned together till the field down there. About two miles down. Bhim Singh became angry when I asked him for the third time.’


‘Better go down and tell your father.’ Gone was her habitual timidity before Raja Singh. Raja Singh didn't argue further.




‘He must have wandered off here or there. You know he is so full of energy. He'll be back.’ Magan Singh tried to reassure Phool Kanwar. But when he walked to the Police Station the next day to lodge a complaint there was consternation written on his face.




As police inquiries proceeded among the labourers on the dam, the news of the lost boy spread and caused uneasiness. There were whispers. Dried blood had been seen on the supports of the dam. Bhim Singh was arrested, maybe because of Mahabir Prasad’s troubled conscience. As the police interrogated Bhim Singh day in day out, the labourers began to drift away. Work on the dam slowed down. Suspicious glances followed Sohan Lal wherever he went.


June was half way over. The days were hot. Dark clouds gathered over Nahda but the rains did not come. Deathly silence hung over the river. The pit remained undrained.


Replacements for the labour that failed to return could not be found.


The police drilled Bhim Singh. Then they began their third degree regimen. Within two days they broke him. He led the police to the Tiger's Palace. There they found bones, two mud-caked shoes and a pair of shorts.


It was a day when the skies turned to silver, then to grey, then black. Isolated drops of rain fell, gathered dust and rolled like dirty marbles on the ground. A roar of wind, the sound of rainfall on distant hills, minutes later the downpour. All night it fell, intermittently lit by lightening. Momentarily it subsided, then, a roll of thunder and then a fresh cycle.


In the morning, with clouds black as buffaloes as the only reminders of the fury of the night, people saw that the foundation supports had been washed away. There were no signs that work on a dam had ever started. The water, sleek and black as the clouds, glided silently by.



Murli Melwani's short stories have been have appeared in magazines in various countries, in anthologies, including Stories from Asia: Major Writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, edited by Madhu Bhinda, Longman Imprint Books, UK, 1992, Lotus Petals, edited by C Ravindranath Kumar, Macmillan, India, 1981, Call it a Day, Thought Publications, Delhi, 1966 and The First Writers Workshop Anthology, edited by P Lal, Writers Workshop Calcutta, 1966. He is the author of the collection, Stories of a Salesman, Writers Workshop Calcutta, 1967, and Deep Roots, a three act play, Writers Workshop Calcutta, 1973.

A short story of his was a finalist in the 2012 Enizagam Literary Awards in Poetry and Fiction.

His book of criticism, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: An Historical and a Critical Survey was published in 2009 to favourable reviews.

This story was edited by Indira Chandrasekhar, founding editor of Out of Print.