The Zamindar’s Footprint

By Raamesh Gowri Raghavan

When Bade Zamindar Babu died, it was a major celebration in the village of Kamahi. The Zamindar was not an evil man who tormented the poor villagers, but when a rich Hindu dies, the number of funeral rites performed makes it no less than a festival for poorer folk. The distribution of rice and clothes to Brahmins and other needy folk for the salvation of the dead man’s soul can usually sustain a village for days. And the politics of the class system made it impossible for such a prosperous land-owning family as Bade Zamindar Babu’s to shy away from ostentation, even for a solemn occasion as a funeral.

Pundit Paramsukh was the presiding Bhatt for the funeral. He had suffered at the hands of the late Zamindar, having been usuried on a loan taken for his daughter’s marriage from the latter twenty years ago, which he was still paying. After the corpse was finally consigned to the funeral pyre and the incantations said, the ashes of the dead old man were collected in an urn, to be transported as per Indian traditions to the Ganges where they would be immersed. This mighty river would supposedly wash off the sins of the deceased and save his soul. In some parts of India, Kamahi included, it is believed that if this urn is left overnight behind the kitchen door in the backyard, the form of the next birth of the person would be revealed in the form of a footprint in the ashes. Of course, this footprint is visible only to the Bhattji after the murmuring of some sacred chants.

Pundit Paramsukh grimaced at the end of the above-mentioned ceremony. Tears welled in his eyes. The Zamindar’s widow, sons, daughters-in-law and multitudinous grandchildren crowded around him. They were getting worried about the drain on the family’s resources, and were quite unhappy that they would end up far poorer than hoped for when the estate was divided among themselves. Much of the available liquidity had been squandered away in daan-dakshina, and if further money was to be required, they would have to catch hold of some debtor and make him cough up the remainder of his loan (which they knew he could never do), or seize his lands and commit some further atrocity. They looked for relief from Bhattji. It was not to come.

He set up a massive wailing. “Bade Zamindar Babu was such a good man. He was always charitable towards Brahmins. Why has this misfortune visited him?” he cried out hypocritically, beating his chest melodramatically. After a lot of coaxing and soothing, it was wormed out of him that the footprint of a pig was seen in the ashes. The children laughed joyously, and the women set up a tremendous ranting. It is considered very demeaning for a human soul to be reborn in suilline form, a sign that a large number of sins of avarice had been committed. By the law of Karma in Hinduism, one bore the consequences of one’s deeds in the form of higher or lower subsequent births.

This was bad news. If it got out, the news that the late Bade Zamindar Babu, owner of fourteen hundred bighas of land, and creditor to another eight hundred, would be reborn as a lowly pig would be a massive blow to the honour and pride of the local aristocratic family. Apart from that, the sons were worried that the consequences of the old man’s sins would dog them too, affecting their next births. They looked up at Pundit Paramsukh. As usual he had a solution ready. This was his chance.

Sins of avarice must be absolved with expiations of generosity. A large sacrifice was arranged, with libations of ghee accompanied by chants begging the Gods’ forgiveness for the departed soul. The poor of the village were to be fed for ten days with a diet including sweets and other rich items. The Gods were to be shown visible proof of the family’s loose-fistedness so that they might not misjudge Bade Babu and his progeny. Brahmins cannot be offered cooked food by lower castes, so they must be given food grains instead. Paramsukh demanded that a hundred and one Brahmins be given annadaan for ten days each. As that many Brahmins were not to be found in the village, he ‘referred’ to the Shastras and came up with a point that said a single Brahmin may be given enough instead. He thus managed to corner the entire potential amount himself, which would allow him to shirk more work for the greater part of the next three years.

The family, fearful for its future, agreed to all his terms but struggled to meet them. They had spent all the loose cash, but were not inclined to pawn their jewelry or land for cash. They could harass a faulting debtor to pay up, but it would reduce their popularity even further. They pressed the priest to reconsider his terms. After a lot of hemming and hawing, and visible displays of poring over some jaded palm leaves that supposedly were written closely all over with ancient Sanskrit mantras, he agreed to change his terms. If the family would reverse some of the sins of the old man, by writing of debts, and freeing the pledged lands of the peasants, maybe the old man’s soul would not be made to be reborn as a pig.

Neither side was happy with this formula. The Zamindar’s sons were not happy to write off debt so easily. A loan in India taken from Zamindars, can never be repaid in full, and provides a constant income to the landed gentry. If they wrote off such cash cows, they would have to do some real work. Pundit Paramsukh was also unwilling to let go off his grain supply, but this was his chance to free himself of his own leech of a loan. They finally agreed to a select list of lands to be freed, and a year’s supply of grain to be given to the priest, which was promptly delivered on his insistence.

The stotras were chanted, and the Gods appeased again. The urn was again placed outside the kitchen door. The family spent a restless night, anxious about the morning’s results. When the morning came, neither Brahmin nor the year’s supply of grain were to be seen anywhere in the village. The urn too had disappeared, and in its place, was a note – ‘Have gone to the Ganges. Who can change fate?’

About the Author: Raamesh Gowri Raghavan has his fingers in many pies – writing, birding, archaeology, epigraphy, astronomy…balanced against a protesting family whose absentee son he is. Sometimes there’s guilt, that he could have dived deeper into any of these, with more to show for it. But he takes the big, broad flexible outlook. 

One Comment

  1. Sandra Martyres

    Great story Raamesh – you had my full attention from start to finish!

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