A Phoenix Is Never Slain

Artist: Divya Melaluca

What a lovely place it was! Blue sky stretched from one end of my village to another end. Dense lush green trees, serene flowing rivers and chirping birds – it was my beloved Bangla (Undivided Bengal, India). Here is where I used to play inside my small house. I would look at the open sky through a little hole in my room’s wall, wondering how this picturesque village had been created, why the river beside my house flowed, why the sky was full of colours. My one and only wish was to go outside my house to know the outer world, to touch the trees, to feel the streaming river, and to understand the essence of everything around me. In truth, I knew that I could not move a step outside. Like all other girls of my time, I had to learn to serve meals for my family members. I was to bow down to all males in my family, and only to eat some food when the males had finished their meal. But I was pretty happy with this lifestyle – or at least, I had to be.

By the way, I am Khana, a Bengali girl of the ninth century AD. I realised back then, one fateful day, that I could compose poems on my own. This astonished me, though I lacked the courage to confess to the crime of doing anything outside of housework. Another fateful day, I received the distressing news that I had to get married. Eight years old! I could not have thought of it, but my thoughts did not seem to matter to anyone. Anyway, I was wedded to Prithuyasas, whose father Varahamihira was a jewel of Chandragupta II Vikramaditya’s (Emperor of Gupta dynasty), famed ‘Navaratna Sabha’ (nine gems of the King’s court) and a famous astrologer of that time.

This marriage opened up a new window to me. I always tried to listen to their discussions from my kitchen while I cooked. In this way, I started to learn astrology, making predictions about events that turned out absolutely correct. I felt the urge to pursue my interest secretly. I was pretty confident about my ideas and forecasts and began to jot them in verse form, using skills I had already developed in my childhood days. The verses were mostly about agriculture and different aspects of social life. To even my own surprise, they all proved true, and as I introduced them to others in the village, they began to favour them for their memorable verse form. The people stopped visiting my husband and father-in-law for predictions. As I was the first female Bengali poet and astrologer, the King and his courtiers expressed their willingness to meet me at Raj-Darbar (King’s court).

This was really a tough time for me. My husband, my father-in-law, and all the villagers were grieved, disappointed, mortified that a woman would recite her poems and verses to the public. It challenged the climate of masculine domination of that time. My husband reminded me that I, being a woman, should always stay behind the curtains rather than compete with the fellow astrologers. I responded: “Dear Husband, you are God to me and whatever you say I will do it willingly. But first, you learn Astrology from me.”

I could no longer ingratiate myself with them, or be at the beck and call of their commands. They began to jest with me, attempting to prove me wrong and failing, when my predictions proved true to all extents.

Finally, Varahamihira commanded to cut off my tongue. It was unbelievable enough that a wise person like him could be involved in such inhumanity, just to latch onto his throne and occupy his seat in ‘Navaratna Sabha’. What I truly could not process was that the dearest person of my life, my husband, would be the man to cut off my tongue. I bled to death, stuttering and stammering my verses. On that final fateful day, I realised that a woman has no country, no family and no person to support her. But I had my soul, and that was strong enough to combat all odds. Even today, my verses resonate in the houses, trees, hills and rivers of Bangla.

I, like the Phoenix, take birth from the ashes of my predecessor. In this world, I speak for equal and deserved rights, for protest against persecution, agony, affliction and laceration. It is you who still cannot identify me.