Image: Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0
We are delighted to share The Banyan, Bahuchar and the In-between by Mudra Joshi, one of four shortlisted stories of The Space Crone Prize for speculative and science short fiction. The special one-off prize, established by Silver Press in collaboration with The Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust, celebrated the publication of Space Crone by Ursula K. Le Guin, a selection of writings edited by So Mayer and Sarah Shin.
The winner and shortlist were announced at Burley Fisher Books’ BFDay23 on Friday 22 September 2023. The winner and shortlist were chosen by a selection panel including Sophia Al Maria, India Downes-Le Guin, So Mayer, Una McCormack, Josie Mitchell, Nisha Ramayya, Sarah Shin, Angelique Tran Van Sang and Isabel Waidner. The winning entries, by Fer Boyd and runner-up E de Zulueta, can be read here.
The Banyan, Bahuchar and the In-between
ઘોર અંધારી રે રાતલડીમાં નીકળ્યા ચાર અસવાર
ધોળે ઘોડે રે કોણ ચડે મા બહુચરનો અસવાર
બહુચર માવડી રે રણે ચડ્યાં મા સોળ સજી શણગાર
In the darkness of the night, four horses descend from the sky,
Who sits astride the white steed? It is the mother goddess Bahuchar,
She rides to battle, wearing sixteen adornments, a beautiful vision to behold!
– Gujarati folk song (translated from the original)
In the four hundred and seventy-eight years of its long and wearisome life, humans had warranted the banyan tree’s attention only thrice. For the very first time when the practice of sati began and twelve-year-old Darshanaba Vaghela was burned on the pyre. Second, when King & Colonel Bhavsinhji II of Bhavnagar came on a field visit during the famine and stayed for a week to help these villagers who were the crown’s children. And third, when Kasturba Gandhi sat under its cool shadow and taught a throng of day labourers how to read and write in Gujarati.
Twenty years had passed since Kasturba’s departure. The village population had grown marginally, the nation had achieved independence, and the banyan had returned to its self-absorbed stupor. All was tedious, all was well. And then a young boy was possessed by an angry goddess.
It began with a fervent prayer, a coconut and a rooster. Ranveersinh Jhala was the owner of eight cows and a handsome moustache. He was tall, well-built, virile, and desperate to father a son. Aggrieved, he stood at the temple steps, refusing to cross the threshold. ‘Three daughters can break a man’s back, mother Bahuchar. I told myself that the first was an incarnation of Lakshmi, she will bring me wealth. The second was Saraswati, she will bring me knowledge. The third was Parvati, she will bring chaste values to the house. I have now run out of incarnations to console myself or my parents! You are the all-knowing, all-seeing; my wife Jamuna is on the cusp of delivering our fifth child, let your grace make him a son.’
The life-sized statue of the deity fixed him with a steady gaze. The omission of the fourth child hung between devotee and goddess, a long-standing argument, a compromise gone wrong. Ranveersinh had stood before Bahuchar maata, coconut in hand, before the birth of each offspring. His monologue had evolved, the frustration rising up a notch each time. Who knew why the goddess, renowned for her proficiency in matters of fertility, refused to grant his sole wish? After all, Ranveersinh was ready to trade his life’s luck on this front. He brought down the coconut with full force on the ground, ‘May my son be the guiding light of the Jhala clan!’
Bahuchar’s saree fluttered in the wind as she watched him leave, his shoulders heavy and heart full of complaints.
Ranveersinh walked through the village and remembered quite suddenly that Navratri was a stone’s throw away. There was much to do before the nine nights of dancing and festivity began. Already, bright marigolds were adorning huts and asopalav leaves, those fragrant harbingers of fortune, were strung over doorsteps. ‘I will speak to maata again during Navratri – it is her festival after all. She will heed my prayers on the ninth night, I will ask the family to kneel with me. Maybe if –’
‘BAAPU!’ The dishevelled figure interrupted his reverie with her shrill cry. Ranveersinh squinted through the blinding sun and saw his eldest daughter running towards him like a crazed cow. ‘BAAPU!!’
‘Chikki? What are you doing? Is your mother okay?’
Revati Jhala, alias Chikki, had lost her breath and her train of thought by the time she reached her father. After wheezing for a few minutes and three aggressive pats on the back by Ranveersinh, she managed to convey the crucial message she had sprinted for. ‘It’s Digvijay. Maata… maata has entered his body. She is asking for a rooster as quickly as possible. The village has gathered–’
‘Have you drunk bhaang? What are you talking about?’
Chikki took a deep breath before repeating like a patient teacher, ‘Maata has chosen our Digvijay as her vessel this year. She wants us to bring her a rooster, her patron bird.’
If time could stop still, it wouldn’t have. Because it appeared that all the forces in the universe were conspiring to ensure that Ranveersinh registered this moment as acutely as was humanly possible. Shame, confusion, discomfort and terror swallowed him whole. He slumped to the ground and looked at the sky, hoping an explanation was etched on the roof of the world.
Each Navratri, Bahuchar chose a woman to possess for nine nights. The chosen would tremble, eyes rolled back, limbs flailing, as the goddess entered and reigned on the seat of the soul. In the following days, the villagers would make a shrine for maata, worship her manifestation on their land, and ask her any questions they sought honest answers to. But this year, she had arrived early and in the wrong person. It was beyond reason, beyond tradition – how could the goddess, in her infinite wisdom, commit such a blunder?
The patriarch of the Jhala clan tried to untangle this knot and picked on a thread that placed the blame on his youngest, Digvijay. Ranveersinh had known, since the day Digvijay was born, that this child would elude the categories that kept life neatly in place. He had known that the wailing bundle in his arms was not a daughter but certainly not a son. Some cruel hope had persevered and led him to name the baby ‘Digvijay’ – the one who is victorious above all. The boy certainly did not succeed in overcoming his truth and the strangeness prevailed: in the love for henna on his palms and flowers in his hair, in baggy clothes and stolen glances at the farmhand.
People knew but pretended otherwise for the sake of Ranveersinh’s honour. They did, however, ask their own children to keep a safe distance from Digvijay. A few wellwishers (your standard men of the soil) did try talking sense into the boy; when that failed, they resorted to a few swift caresses behind the pile of gunny sacks. Never did the father pursue such suspicions and never did the son confirm them. It was tacitly understood that if Digivijay chose to stray from the normal, he would bear these burdens by himself.
And now, fifteen long years after Digvijay’s birth, Chikki was chasing a rooster and Ranveersinh was trying to breathe evenly. The trio was halfway home when they spotted the procession heading towards the village square. Four men in the centre carried a cot on their shoulders upon which sat Digivijay, in the throes of divine will. A blue silk saree was draped over his lithe figure and crimson kumkum powder marked his forehead. Each household had donated an article of golden jewellery to welcome the goddess in their midst: five necklaces, a dainty nose ring, intricate armbands, elaborate earrings and heavy anklets. The young boy glittered in the sun. Red glass bangles jangled on his hands as they rose to bless the crowd dancing around him. The fear of the goddess coupled with the joy of her arrival had triumphed over everyone’s confusion; they didn’t dare risk her wrath and chose to tread the safer path of religious ecstasy. Flower petals rained on Digvijay and people sang in unison the lores of Bahuchar’s prowess.
Ranveersinh watched, a little relieved and a little uncomfortable with their rejoicing. Chikki elbowed her way through the crowd and lifted the rooster to the goddess. Bahuchar laughed and accepted the offering, stroking the bird’s neck.
After it had gone around the village thrice and announced its euphoria to each wall and wind, the long procession halted at last to seat the goddess under the banyan tree. The cot was placed on the ground and three paranoid priests carpeted the area with leaves and flowers. Maata’s feet could never touch the mud. With startling efficiency, everyone segregated themselves into two groups of men and women. There were many questions to ask and much virtue to be earned. A timid voice asked, ‘Maata, may we pose our questions?’ Digvijay’s body shook with glee and Bahuchar’s voice boomed through him, ‘ASK! Ask and you shall learn nothing but the absolute truth.’ The rooster crowed in agreement.
Thus began a tirade of questions: about crop yields, arranged marriages, cattle health, marks in school, arthritis, the dangers of paracetamol and the rumour of a talking box that contained moving images. Maata answered them all, in brief and at length. She spoke of birth charts and planet positionings as well as the benefits of allopathy. There was no question unworthy or too insignificant to be answered. Twilight fell and the women retired briefly to cook for the night. The men sat at Bahuchar’s feet, talking to her and amongst themselves when Ranveersinh finally made his way to the altar. He kneeled, forehead touching her toes, ‘All hail mother Bahuchar! Maata, your humble servant wants to know why you have arrived early this Navratri.’
Ninety feet above, the banyan groaned. The foolish, foolish man wanted to trick Life into explaining herself. The goddess looked at Ranveersinh intently and her face suddenly broke into a huge smile, ‘DISRUPTION! I come to break rhythms of comfort; to worship me is to worship chaos.’
A well-wisher whispered in Ranveersinh’s ear, ‘You should ask her to bless you with a son, she appears to be favouring your family.’ The latter thought this over and looked at Bahuchar. If he had observed more closely, he might have seen the challenge in her eye or the flare of her nostrils.
‘Maata,’ he began and the world held its breath. ‘Bless my Jamuna’s womb.’
The rooster was the first to respond with two quick shakes of the head. The second were the men in assembly who backed Ranveersinh’s prayer with a ‘Hail!’ And the last was Maata who let out a spine-chilling scream. It pierced skin, flesh, bone and conscience in a trice.
She stood up in a swift motion, flew off the cot and onto Ranveersinh’s chest. The shock of her flight paralysed him senseless as he fell to the floor. Bahuchar’s foot sat on his heart and she slapped him across the face, ‘EVERY WOMB EXCEPT YOUR MOTHER’S IS BLESSED.’
Her other hand rose and came down like a whip on his cheek, ‘DO YOU WANT THE TRUTH, RANVEERSINH?’
Slap. ‘THE SHAME YOU CARRY IS NOT AN IMPOTENT SON’S BUT AN IMPOTENT FATHER’S.’
Slap. ‘I COUNT YOUR SINS AGAINST THIS CHILD AND KNOW THEM TO BE MANY.’
She looked around and addressed the other men who were trying to hide behind the tree’s hanging branches, ‘HERE SITS DIGVIJAY, WILL YOU VALIANT MEN TEST YOUR STRENGTH ON HIM?’
Silence descended. The man under her sole wept inconsolably, blood streaming down his nose. She stood up to take her seat and turned one last time to look at Ranveersinh. ‘Tathaastu, I grant you your walls.’
The village resumed its mundane existence and people fell back into the futile patterns that organised life. In the spaces between homes and familiar routines walked a free spirit. A figure that commanded worship as well as unease, for Digvijay had come to appreciate the beauty of not belonging, of being untethered.
When the sun rose and painted the sky in broad strokes of pink, Digvijay sat on the old banyan and looked at the distant horizon with fondness. There existed, certainly, a world without walls in our future of infinite possibilities.
 An intoxicating drink made using cannabis.
 A Sanskrit word that translates into ‘let it be done’ – usually spoken by gods when granting a wish.
Mudra Joshi is a writer based in London/Mumbai. She completed her MSc in Gender, Media and Culture from LSE in 2023, post which she's an advertising professional by day and a translator by night. Mudra loves travelling, reading, theatre, comedy, and making folders of cat pictures on her phone.