After dinner my grandmother would tell us stories. There was no electricity in the village, of course, and we would sit on the floor in a ring around the lantern with its sooty flame turned low to conserve costly oil. The flickering light cast our shadows on the wall and the old, wavering voice seemed to rise and fall with the flame. The stories she told were spun on the loom of local legend. Threadbare tales they may seem now, but they held us spellbound with the night prowling the dark streets outside and the wind from the sea rattling the shutters. She told us of the times when she and the village were young; of the ghosts who had lived in the tangled branches of the banyan or in the echoing depths of old wells, of sailors lost in storms and the Arab traders who had come in their tall-masted boats wearing flowing white robes and daggers with jewelled hilts.
But our favourite tale was about Madhav—the bandit chief. We would coax and cajole my grandmother into telling it to us once again. Smiling indulgently, she would start on the familiar story, the words of which never varied as though she were reading them from some secret page of her mind.
There were many bandits in the old, lawless days; colourful marauders, fiercely mustached and heavily armed, who pillaged the countryside and were a menace to travellers. Some were cruel and spared none, but others had been forced into outlawry by a twist of fate and were looked on as dark and dangerous heroes. Madhav was one of these, and his daring exploits had become sagas sung by balladeers. Riding his big, jet-black stallion and leading his band of men in the night, Madhav had become a fearful name to conjure with. But it was claimed that, despite his ferocity, he robbed only the rich, whom he was said to hate because the girl he had loved in his youth had been given in marriage to a wealthy man.
One day there was a wedding in the town of Bhagalpur to which almost the entire village went. It was the occasion of the year and the women decked themselves in all their finery and ornaments. My grandmother, who was 12 at the time and was herself to get married later that year, had on her mother’s gold bangles, necklace, nose-ring and anklets. It was a memorable day of great festivity. On the way back, however, it got very late. Worse, the bullock carts carrying the men left the party of women and girls far to the rear. Night fell and the anxious women tried to urge the driver of their leading cart to go faster. But he was old and full of bhang and as somnolent as his plodding oxen. Shivering in the cold of the desert night, the travellers huddled close for warmth and security. The vast night, haunted by the distant cries of jackals, seemed frighteningly open and vulnerable. Time creaked by with the agonising slowness of the carts’ wheels.
My grandmother said she must have dozed. Shouts and a rattle of hooves woke her to a nightmare of plunging shadows and masked, torch-lit faces. She heard the old driver whisper in terror. “It’s Madhav”. The bandit rode up to the carts, the passengers too terrified to make a sound.
Describing him over 50 years later, my grandmother’s voice would be soft with awe. The grim, arrogant face; the grace and power of the board-shouldered figure. His eyes flared when he saw the signs of a marriage party. “Take it all,” he snapped to his men. Frozen with fear, they watched the outlaws close in. Then, said my grandmother, she had an inspiration. She picked up a brass jug which still had some buttermilk and somehow found the courage to offer it to the leader.
“You must be thirsty,” she said. His dark, gleaming eyes looked at her and he took the jug without a word. He drank and gave it back. “You are a brave girl,” he told my grandmother. “And that was good buttermilk.” He pulled his horse back. “I have accepted your salt and am in your debt. Go in peace. My men and I will follow to see no harm comes to you.” And as suddenly as they had materialised, the black-clad figures disappeared into the dark.
My grandmother would fall silent and stare at the low flame of the lantern. One day, with the clumsy curiosity of the very young, I asked her. “Madhav wasn’t real, was he?” She glanced up, but neither her look nor her smile was for me. “Of course not,” she said. “But he was the handsomest man you ever saw.”
Writer, columnist and author of several books