Two Croaks and Wedding Bells

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The two birds were holy – Kaga the crow with white feathers on his forehead and Pechu the all-white owl. They sat before their Guru below the banyan tree waiting for orders. Gurudev opened his eyes after a while.

“My dears I just heard the croak of Bengu the frog. He needs help. It is spring – er…no it’s summer in the Rajmahal Hills of North Dinajpur of Bengal. The rains are yet to come. But Bengu is calling for help. Go!”

Ready for action the two disciples of the sage – Kaga the favourite of Lord Rama and Pechu of Goddess Lakshmi immediately spread their wings. Kaga was not happy about leaving behind the River Ganga but Pechu knew how to play upon his sentiments.

“I know oh Kaga, how you love to splash and bathe. Here too you can dip into the waters of the River Kulik and sit on the branches of Arjun and Sal trees to dry your feathers. Kaga can you not hear the music of the flute flowing through the myriad holes the spring insects have made in the bark of the trees? Come fly faster”

“Yes! Yes! I can hear the twittering calls of the early mating birds. I can see the river kissing the plains of the undulating hills, but … but … it is just a trickle … like a thread.”

Pechu was rich with experience. She had come here many times.

“Within a day or so River Kulik will become a raging torrent. But before that, the villagers will have to beg – literally beg for the rains. Jal-bhiksha ritual. They will then have to dance the Hutum-nach. But mind you no males are allowed; not only not allowed but they – the men-folk – will have to remain shut inside their homes while all this goes on all through the night – from dusk to dawn. Only when the frogs get married will they…”

Kaga suddenly cawed.

“Oh dear!, Wait! I thought I heard an agonized croak!”

The wise owl frowned.

“Bengu the frog should not croak now but wait for the drops of water from the skies before coming out of his underground retreat. I wonder what has happened. The humans dance, sing and pray for the rains to come – beg for the skies to relent in Jal-bhiksha brata. It is accompanied by Hutum dance of joy by the women. It’s a all-women’s affair. If anything went wrong – suppose even if a single man came out of his home or even looked out of the window, then the rain-gods would go away riding the drifting clouds. But why is the frog croaking now? Something is not right.”

Kaga bent his head to listen.

“It is not the wedding bell croak of the frogs – it’s a distress call from Bengu – it seems. I wonder what is wrong.”

Bengu, burrowed underground on the banks of the river, had reason to be frightened. Danger came from all sides. The receding water level of the River Kulik had exposed to the air hundreds of gasping fish. Kumir the lesser cousin of the alligator did not want to miss this opportunity. The sound of Kumir’s thrashing jaws and jumping fish forced Bengu to break out from his muddy slumber ahead of time and take a big jump to safety.

He landed on the courtyard of the ancient village temple to come face to face with Shapu, the snake coiled around a stone idol – the Shiva linga. Another big jump took Bengu out of the dank dark temple and the piercing eyes of the snake outside but only to fall into a hole made by Hatti the elephant guarding the temple – a task assigned to him by the elephant-god Ganesha guarding the entry point of the holy place. Hatti had gone for snacks in the nearby forest leaving Shapu on guard.

Returning Hatti was about to place his massive right foot on Bengu when danger struck from above. A young eagle named Cheel swooped down and deftly snatched up Bengu and flew off. Following this adolescent eagle was his ageing mother Chiamma – her flight slowed down by an ailment.
Seeing the drama unfold before his eyes Kaga was furious.

“Stop!” Kaga shouted at Cheel the eagle.

His mother Chiamma with folded wings sighed and perched on a branch before the sacred crow.
“I was coming to your clinic to treat one of my injured wings. My young son was following me but he was more interested in showing off his flying skills to the females in our clan than escorting his mother …”

Kaga did not let her finish.

“I don’t want to hear your silly excuses covering up your son’s wrongdoing. You know the rules – no killing of the young but only seizing the old and sick – rules strict – more so in this spring season. Not another word! Go and rescue the frog before I bring the curse on your entire brood. You will not be part of my crew in this euthanasia clinic helping the dying to die. I will ask other …”
Kaga’s word was command. The mother vulture flew off in hot haste.

Women Women and Women:
Meanwhile, young Cheel had flown far off in his search of a suitable perch where he could tear apart the juicy frog Bengu, without being disturbed; it was hard to find such a spot for other eagles trailed him trying to snatch this off-season treat. Finally, Cheel rested on the village temple spire and looked around to get his bearings without letting go of the treat – Bengu frog trapped in his bill. But the place was something new to him. Suddenly he began to miss his mother in this new unknown place. The fissures in the arid land seemed to grin at him like mocking skeletons. It reminded him of the vultures he had seen en route. Were they waiting for him or for the frog? Seeing the hunter absent-minded, Bengu made a last attempt at freedom and wiggled out of the clutches of the predator to fall on a flower pot in the temple courtyard.

All around the earth was angry, dry, dusty and reddish-brown. If the flower pot had not been there Bengu would surely have perished. It was good luck for him because not only was the pot there but it had just then been watered. Frightened and scared Bengu tried to get back his breath. Peeping through the leaves of the flowers he saw all around that the earth was cracked and parched. A little distant the ground had dipped giving the frog hope that perhaps it was a pond. It was a water body alright but just a memory of it – there was nothing but caked mud and dust. Bengu decided to stay put where he was and not venture into the skeleton of this pond. Who knew if and when the skies would pour or not! The flower pot was something sure right then.

Suddenly from afar, Bengu heard women singing.

Meanwhile, the sun had set. The frog startled when with a flap of her tired injured wings Cheel’s mother flopped down beside the flower pot below the dry scrubs. Bengu was about to jump away when the Chiamma assured him “Don’t fear me. I have come to see if you are safe and sound. I must fly back to report this to Kaga; only then will he tend to my wing. But I must rest awhile.”

Both now heard the women approaching. They were singing about the rains. It was a sea of women, women and women; only women. The eagle craned her neck and broke into a smile.

“Why! I know this place – used to visit my grandparents here during summer – dry summer – there was always plenty of food for us. Do you see those women? They do this every year – pray to the rain gods. No men are allowed to come – not even little boys; they all remain bolted inside their homes.”

In a colourful procession, the women were heading towards the dry pond with tinkling anklets, glass bangles and swirling long ghagras. The lead was given by a girl of about ten or twelve sporting a white turban on her head. The old eagle explained.

“They say that for tonight Goddess Lakshmi has entered this virgin. She is the goddess. Can you see the clay pot on her head? It contains water; on the lid are five shells and five leaves spotted with five vermillion dots … oh dear they have seen you. Don’t be afraid. They have to put a live frog in the …”

The eagle hopped off to a distance when one of the women scooped up the cringing frog and plonked him down into the pot. Chiamma eagle gave him parting courage “Be proud – you are the only male in this gathering. What is more, you will soon get married. They will find a mate for you when you croak and call out. Rain-speed! I am off. Jai Kaga!”

The women placed a coconut on top of the pot and covered it with a red cloth. It now looked like a real woman with her head covered modestly. A leaf-umbrella was held above her as the other women sang about completing this ritual of Jal-bhiksha – begging for water from Mother Nature while going through the rhythmic motions of a dance – the Hutum-nautch.

Bengu frog slowly overcame his fears. Peeping through a slit he saw the women digging a small hole near the pond pouring the blessed water from the pot into the hole; It was nearing midnight. They planted a banana sapling and decorated a platform leading to a hole with vermillion and placed on neatly cut leafy plates, cakes made from jaggery and puffed rice. The women then released the frog into the cool waters of the hole.

Bengu croaked with glee. And lo and behold! From somewhere not too far away came an answering call. The women were now too busy partaking of the food-offering to notice when the bride-frog had entered the wedding pool. The women rolled their tongues in unison and amidst the noise of ullus and blowing of conch shells the celebrations were completed. Leaving the frog couple to themselves the giggling party returned to their homes to give to their men some of the sacred prasad of the offerings.

The two holy birds now flew back to their guru sitting below the banyan tree bursting to tweet their experience to their guide and mentor.

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- Total nr. of readings: 178 Copyright © The author [2020] All Rights Reserved. This story may not be reproduced without the express written permission of the author except for personal use.

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