The Lady of Bhambore

Farzana Moon

[This tale takes place in the city of Bhambore, which is east of Karachi. FM]

Fates were feared as well as revered by the denizens of Bhambore. The year was 1250, and the country known as Hindustan (now partitioned into India and Pakistan), where both Hindus and Muslims lived together in the spirit of love and camaraderie. Bhambore was just a dot on the map of Hindustan, housing a motley of sects and religions, seething with ritual and culture. One dice of commonality amongst these peoples was their Belief in Fate, and this Belief alone was to jolt one Brahmin family out of their warm hearth, and toss them into the river of a tragedy.

One fateful evening, a baby girl was born in an illustrious Brahmin family, who were known to be pious, kind and god-fearing. According to the custom, a horoscope was drawn for this newborn babe as a guide to her future and upbringing. Unfortunately, the stars predicted nothing but a shadow of looming tragedies which could bring shame and dishonor to this Brahmin family. The unlucky stars were carved in tiny lines on the palms of her little hands. Predicting, that as a young girl she would fall in love with a boy of different faith, resulting in scandal and marriage. After reading this horoscope, the parents were devastated with grief and despair. Their love for their daughter was turned into the tides of simmering, churning horror, which they could neither drown, nor confront. The fates were leering at them with an open challenge, and they had to defy the very fates to save the pride and honor of their family. Their daughter was to be abandoned to her own cruel fate, where no shame could ever tarnish the family name. This child of fate was put into a basket of straw and left to the mercy of the waves in a small river.

The gentle currents of the river had carried this basket miles down to another village on the outskirts of Bhambore, where a washerman was pounding his own basket of linen on one rock of a washboard. Mohammed was the name of this kind man who earned his bread with the sweat of his brow and with the strength of his hands. Right now, beads of sweat were trickling down his wide brow, as he dealt mighty blows to the soiled sheets and coverlets. Snatching a pile into his arms, he was about to rinse them when he espied the basket, almost floating close to the shore. Tossing the bundle of linen to the ground, he reached out for the basket with great alacrity. The light of joy and warmth washed over his sturdy features, as he discovered the innocent treasure swaddled in softest of white silks.

Mohammed was a middle-aged man who had married late, though his wife was young and beautiful. Both had prayed and longed for a child, but had remained childless. This late afternoon, when Mohammed had seen this little girl swaddled in the white purity of peace as well as silks, his heart had leapt with joy. A gift from God, especially for them, Mohammed had almost swooned with rapture and gratitude. Forgetting about his laundry, and clutching the basket to his breast, he had raced home to share this miracle of life with his wife. The young bride was ecstatic, more so by the happiness of her husband, than by the prospect of being a mother to this beautiful girl. Immediately, the baby was adopted by them and named, Sassi.

Sassi was truly the child of Bhambore! No more a child, but a young maiden of fifteen summers, her beauty had bloomed like a fair rose, attracting envy and admiration from all. Her dark eyes and dark hair clear down to her waist were enough to make young men swoon with awe and desire. Her own youth was unfolding with the buds of desires, but no beau had impressed her to the extent to wear the chains of wedlock. Wedlock was far from her mind one citron evening when she roamed happily with her friend Rakhi in the town bazaar, making small purchases from the eager vendors whose enthusiasm was difficult to ignore.

This bazaar the size of a small, meandering valley was teeming with merchants from neighboring towns, who were wont to come here once a month to promote their own goods. Among them was one young merchant by the name of Pannu, who had come here the first time accompanied by his brothers. He was the youngest and most handsome of all the brothers, and endowed with an ardent spirit which could fly unbridled if his heart was touched. Four brothers in all, they were the sons of a wealthy chief from the town of Kech Mekran. An exception to the rule, they didn't come here every month but twice a year, for their town was about one hundred miles east of Bhambore. Punnu was assigned the stall of perfumes, selling as well as flirting with young ladies with the lighthearted gaiety of a carefree youth. Rakhi had just selected a bottle of musk and was ready to pay, when she was befuddled by the expression on Punnu's handsome face.

Punnu was not even aware that he had sold a bottle of musk, his gaze was arrested to Sassi, rapt and devouring. Sassi too was caught in abeyance, stricken more by the sparkle of admiration in his eyes than by the fire of mute reverence.

"The strings of my heart are broken, o fair maiden," Punnu murmured to himself, unable to tear his gaze away from this miracle divine. "Let me hear the music of your voice to mend my broken heart," he pleaded.

Sassi couldn't breathe a word, but the arrow of cupid buried deep in her heart was surfacing in her eyes, writing volumes with the ink of love. Wordless and sightless, their hearts were locked in the embrace of a Union Sublime, not ever to be sundered apart in the everlasting cycle of time and timelessness.

All three brothers of Punnu, after counting their profits and packing their merchandise were about to leave, when they noticed that Punnu was sitting in his stall oblivious to time and place. Aggravated beyond measure, they pelted Punnu with reproof, urging him to pack and get ready for a journey to the next town. Punnu's only response was that he wanted to stay in Bhambore and had no wish to journey farther. Simmering with rage and cursing their own impatience, they departed without even asking the reason for his strange decision in wild contrast to his former eagerness in traveling.

Smitten with love and delirious with longings, Punnu was destined to find the home of his beloved. Besides, the town was small and every child in town could point to the house where the most beautiful Lady of Bhambore with long, raven hair resided. Once finding the house, Punnu prostrated himself before Sassi's parents, begging for the hand of their daughter in marriage. Mohammad was delighted by the manners of this handsome youth, and finding Sassi willing, was thrown into a fit of exultance. His only condition for this marriage was that Punnu become a washerman and live with them, for they couldn't think to be parted from their one and only daughter. Punnu had no objection to earn his living by any means as long as Sassi was to be his bride. Sassi was the loveliest and happiest of brides, and the entire town was invited to feasting and celebration on this auspicious day of her wedding with Punnu. This marriage was made in heaven, people could not help exclaim, even after the wedding vows were dissolved into weeks, and the loving couple could not endure to be parted as if they had not seen each other in centuries. Punnu's brothers, on their return journey toward Kech Mekran, halted at Bhambore, only to find their younger brother married and bewitched. All of them were heard urging him to return home along with his bride, but Punnu was adamant in staying with his in-laws, and renouncing all claims to the wealth of his parents. So the brothers had no choice but to depart, their hearts heavy with sorrow and disappointment.

Upon reaching Kech Mekran, all brothers were reprimanded by their father for neglecting their brother, and leaving him with the choice of marrying the daughter of a lowly washerman. He was so incensed in fact, that he had commanded all his three sons to ride back to Bhambore and drag Punnu home with whatever devices they could conjure, no matter what hurdles of arguments they had to confront and surpass. All three brothers, herded in one carriage, were back on the road toward Bhambore. On their way, they were quick to devise a plan, loading their carriage with drinks and gifts. Once in Bhambore, they offered costly gifts to Sassi and her parents, telling them that these were the tokens of love from their own parents to bless their son's marriage with the Lady of Bhambore. After enjoying a simple but delicious supper, they begged the hospitable hosts to spare Punnu for a few hours to settle the accounts of lands and merchandise with his brother. The parents of Sassi were too happy to grant them this leisure, making them comfortable on the verandah where they could discuss their affairs without intrusion. Sassi was kept inside to help her parents in cleaning and making arrangements for the comfort of the guests who were to stay there for the night.

Out on the verandah, the brothers were engaged more in filling the cup of Punnu with strong drinks than talking about matters relating trade or estate. Inside the house, Sassi was helping with the cleaning and preparing beds for the guests, for they had shown their intention in staying for the night. Meanwhile, Punnu had become a victim to drunkenness much earlier than his brothers had anticipated. Totally intoxicated, he was hauled into the carriage, not in the least aware of his besotted self, nor of the perfidious schemes of his brothers. After putting everything in order and resting a while in wait for Punnu and his brothers to come in, Sassi had straggled onto the verandah. Her parents had gone to bed, and she was etched on the verandah like some fair apparition, her dark, silken hair caressed by night breeze. She stood there inert at first, her dark eyes searching the moonlit emptiness miles ahead. Suddenly, her heart was throbbing, and her psyche throwing open the gates of a presage which had been with her all evening. In a flash, she knew that those evil brothers had taken her Punnu away from her. She was swaying, her gaze cutting through the laughing, mocking stars like the shafts of lightning. Inside her very bosom was erupting forth a volcanic fury, and this fury alone was lending her the scepter of strength and madness. She was not swaying, but running! Running like a spirit mad and spirit provoked.

"Punnu, Punnu," the heartrending lament of Sassi was seducing the night into pitiful laments as she kept racing toward moonlit voids.

Pressed by grief and madness, she had become a wild spirit of the night, splintering the sky and the stars with the pincers of her despair. 'Punnu, Punnu', the shadows and alleyways were awakened by her cries, leaping after the silent night to comfort her agony and delirium. Not a living soul was her companion on this lacerating journey toward doom and annihilation. Mile after mile were dissolved under her blistered feet, her dress torn and her hair disheveled, but her cries of 'Punnu, Punnu' were like wildfire, licking their own flames with hungry tongues. Only one sleepless shepherd, tossing on his straw mattress, was the one to catch these strings of lament. Snatching the lantern from his bedside, the shepherd hurled himself out of his hut, but the cries were silenced. The silent night staring back at him through the cold, glittering eyes of the stars, innocent and peace-loving.

Plodding a few paces away, he stumbled over rocks and pebbles. Finally staggering and trying to gain his balance over the bleeding feet of a young girl. Her ebony eyes lit by the flood of moon, were fixed to the stars. Resting on the pillow of her own black, silken hair, her face had attained the purity and transparency of crystal, glowing in its own cold, cold orb of brilliance. The shepherd touched this lifeless miracle, and wept and sighed. Fetching a spade from his hut, he dug a grave on the same spot where this nameless Beauty had expired, and buried her most prayerfully and reverently. Being a pious and religious man, he sat down by the grave, hugging himself, his head tucked in between his knees. The reason for sitting beside the grave was his own religious conviction that a body could not be left alone the first night of its death. So he sat there patient and mournful, waiting for the dawn to return to his hut.

The carriage racing toward Kech Mekran had covered a considerable distance, when Punnu came to his senses. Discerning the trick of his brothers, he begged them to turn back. Since the brothers were adamant in taking him home, he became wild with rage, threatening to use violence if they did not stop the carriage. Barely, the carriage had come to a sudden halt, that he jumped out, and began racing back toward Bhambore. Like Sassi, he was seized with madness, tearing the silence of the night into lumps of agony by his wild cries, 'Sassi, Sassi'.

The pearly dawn was fading against the blush of its own cheeks, when the shepherd was awakened from his slumber by the same heart-rending cries he had heard not too long ago. But this time the voice was hoarse and heavy, repeating an equally alien name, which; perhaps, had a link to Punnu, he was thinking. Rubbing his eyes to forced awakening, he was about to follow the voice when a shadow whisked past him in the semblance of a man gone stark mad. 'Sassi, Sassi', the morning itself was singing one dolorous lament through the lips of this mad lover, who was not even aware of his own existence.

"Stop, young man," the shepherd cried after him. "Could this be your Sassi, a beautiful girl with dark eyes and dark, silken hair, whom I buried here in the middle of the night? She died..." he could not speak, as Punnu whirled around, as if stung by a serpent coiled around his neck.

Punnu staggered toward the grave, blind and stunned. Though his eyes were lit up by the sparks of agony, and his face was a convulsion of torment indescribable. The violence of his own madness had spoken to him that his Beloved was no more. Towering low over the grave, he clawed at his chest, insane and tormented.

"Sassi, Sassi! The Lady of Bhambore is calling me..." Punnu's nails had dug deep into his chest. Though the wounds were of the flesh, it seemed his heart was bleeding. It could have been, for he wailed like a wounded animal. "Sassi, Beloved," the pallor of the dusk itself split shuddering as he tumbled over the grave in one heap, his mournful cry silenced.

The shepherd wept again, digging another grave beside Sassi, and burying the mad Lover with sorrow deeper than his own loneliness and bewilderment.

The parents of Sassi, who had found and nurtured her with joy, now came mourning at the altar of their own Loss and Grief. The villagers of Bhambore, too, came in droves, to respect and revere the Memory of this Beautiful Miracle who had kindled their village with warmth and laughter. For a whole week they prayed and mourned over the fresh graves, drenched with numb, stinging grief. Trying to ward off the tormented spirits, splintering the night with their ceaseless cries, which they had not ever encountered before.

"Punnu, Punnu...Sassi, Sassi..." the night-long vigils of the friends and family could not soothe these anguished spirits, their own hearts torn and pleading.

Weeks were dissolved into months and months into years, but the nights in Bhambore were not ever to entertain peace and silence. Even after centuries, the air still repeats in sibilant notes the tragic names of this young couple. "Punnu, Punnu". "Sassi, Sassi."

Pakistan OV

Last modified 21 May 2001