Lulled in night waters, Dhanapati sleeps,
Moon-soaked coil, his slumber keeps.

The night is dark; it ticks on and minds old Dhanapati’s sleep. The prayers sound like a lullaby. The verses have been taught by Dhanapati Sardar. And why not? He is the one who discovered the island. He has been coming to the island year after year after year and now, he is old.

Dhanapati the tortoise, on whose back the island rests, is ageless. No one has kept count of his age. The fisherwomen know that he too is Dhanapati. They say that he is much older than Dhanapati Sardar, the owner of the island.

There was another Dhanapati before this chief and another before that and yet another before him. Whoever owns the island is called Dhanapati. The tortoise chief, however, sleeps on, with the island on his back, oblivious of time.

The fisherwomen hummed their lullaby. They will watch the night cross over as they sing their lilting tune. The men will leave one by one, only the women will stay on under the ebony tree. These are childless women. There is no system of childbearing and birthing in this world that comes alive for six months.

For the remaining six months, they live on the streets, leading the lives of beggars and surviving somehow. That too is an unwelcome world for bringing in another life. So, it is in singing their lullaby and lulling and cradling Dhanapati to sleep that they quench their thirst for motherhood.

Who sleeps? Dhanapati, the tortoise. Who remains awake? Batashi, Yamuna, Kunti and Sabitri. Who sleeps? The treasure that they guard with their bosom.

“Who’s that woman?” the trader asked in a low tone.

“A fisherwoman,” said Mangal Midde.

“Very beautiful for a fisherwoman,” the trader continued in his low voice.

“Pretty, yes, but don’t ignore the fishy smell in her body and mouth. You can smell that from a distance! They live here for six months and then wander here and there for the remaining six.”

“What’s the name of the fisherwoman?” the trader asked. “Batashi, she’s Ganesh fisherman’s wife,” Midde said.

“There’s no denying that she raises my urge, constable bro,” the trader said.

“Rest that for now, they are putting their tortoise god to sleep,” Midde said in a low voice.

“Six months on the island and six months as a where’s the trouble, constable sir?! That woman arouses me every time I look at her. Look at the way she thumps her thigh and how her bosom heaves. Look at her hips. I just cannot wait!”

“Wait, wait...don’t rush! Where’s the hurry? They are all within my control!”

Their humming fills the air. “Don’t talk, government sahib. The old tortoise chief will sleep now. He is old and lacks proper sleep these days,” old Dhanapati said. “...even whispers and small noises can break his slumber. Then he remains awake for the rest of the night. What if he wants to toss and turn? Will that be good for us?”

Batashi mumbled her lines,

“Kartik full moon is a wakeful night,
Deep beneath, sleeps Dhanapati tight.
The moon-washed night keeps all awake,
Comely Dhanapati, our slumber you take.”

“Tortoise worship? You get tortoises here?” the trader asked.

“Will tell you later...” Mangal Midde said in a low voice.

“It’s winter and tortoise meat is particularly juicy now...”

“Aah! Stop talking!”

Trader Dasharath Singh was quiet for a few moments, but he was talkative and couldn’t stay quiet for long. “Does she sing?”

“Don’t you hear that she is singing a lullaby?”

“Look at her buxom body, who can sleep after having seen that? Look at how aroused I am!”

Chief Dhanapati turned around and looked at them, signalling them to be quiet. He indicated that the tortoise chief was about to fall asleep below the waters. Dasharath continued to whisper. It reached Jamuna’s ears now. She stopped humming suddenly and snapped, “Stop talking! Who’s this man? Why does he talk so much?”

“Okay, okay. He won’t talk anymore,” Mangal Midde stepped in.

“I heard him. Why does he talk like that?!”

“Okay, okay...what he said was wrong.”

“If you talk, the tortoise chief will wake up. He holds the island on his back. In the deep, he is the one who saves men from the storms, the white pirates and their demons, the magical breezes and illusions...there are death traps everywhere!”

“But he is asleep!” Dasharath reasons.

“He is asleep here but awake there. There’s an island in the big waters which is home to the eggs of these tortoises. They lay their eggs there and get into the water of the ocean, the menfolk have told us.”

“Kartik full moon silent and deep,
Sunken chief goes to sleep, to sleep.
Dhanapati, Dhanapati slumbering chief,
Water-coiled moonlight washes the reef.
Only after the night graduates will he sleep.”

“Constable sir, I want that fisherwoman . . . none other than Batashi.”

“Totally up to you,” replied Mangal Midde.

“You will help me with getting her?”

“She’s already got a man for these six months. Try next year.” Dasharath heaves. The moon has crossed over to the west, lighting up Batashi’s face and breasts. The earthen lamp under the ebony tree has blown out. The kerosene lamp too is flickering, perhaps the oil has burnt off. Dasharath tries his best to attract Batashi’s gaze but it slides each time. She stops humming and tells Jamuna to offer prasad to the men and see them off before the women start to sing again.

“No, no, please go on singing...let my heart go pit-a-pat,” the trader requests.

Batashi laughs and starts to hum. Pulling her saree to cover her waist, she sings,

“In the Kartik full moon night, all sleep but one,
His eyes are on one and settle for none.”

“Shut up! The trader’s not a good guy,” scolded Jamuna. “What does he sell?”

“Warm clothes, wrappers, soap and scented oil, I think.”

“What else does he sell?”

“Perhaps creams, powders, vermilion, lipstick and nail polish.”

“He’s a bad guy...that trader, Jamuna Di.”

“Bad? He’s evil, no less. Only if you heard what he was saying...” Jamuna said.

“His body...his loins...his mind, both are lustfully aroused,” Batashi laughed aloud.

“You heard it all?!”

“She stays here for six months and roams the other look at her and I cannot control myself...” Batashi repeated what the trader had been whispering to Mangal Midde.

“What a woman you are! You think you can put the tortoise chief to sleep with your song?”

“Six months on the island and six months in his rooms, what say, Didi?”

“No, no...not possible! Shut up, dear!” Jamuna said helplessly. “Wish he was a man who sails on the water, Didi!”

“I implore you to be quiet. This island has its own rules and its own traditions, girl.”

“I know, I know. I was just joking. As if I care for him! On this full moon night in Kartik, come bring the food offerings for the tortoise chief. He’ll have it when he wakes up.”

Jamuna shook her head from side to side. “The tortoise chief won’t wake up so soon,” she said.

“Then let’s distribute it among the others. Where’s your man?”

“Not here. Must be drinking somewhere...Where’s your Ganesh?”

“He was here, a while ago. There are so many babus who have come from Ghoradal, he must be sitting with them somewhere and drinking too!”

“They didn’t even stay to listen to our songs.”

“So what if they aren’t here?”

Kartick full moon night, we all keep watch
Years ago, this place did Dhanapati touch.

Humming her song, Batashi ladled out portions of the prasad and called out to the others. “Come here and take your prasad. Okay, wait . . . Jamuna Didi will come over and hand them to you. Sit there.”

Small bowls of sal leaf filled with prasad were distributed among those present.

“This will cause acidity,” Dasharath, the trader, told the constable.

“Yes, I suffer from acidity too. But since that happens anyway, I will have the prasad.”

“Yes, I too will have it. After all, it’s my fisherwoman who has prepared it.”

The constable didn’t want to hear it. He felt sleepy. He could see on his quartz watch that it was past one. Old Dhanapati stood up and the others joined him too, excepting the women who would remain awake and sing all night.

It was getting colder. The girls didn’t shiver though. Batashi and Jamuna shared one blanket, Kunti and Sabitri shared another. Some of the girls had left so there were twenty girls in all. Those who remained sang sleepily. Dasharath shoved a hundred rupee note into the constable’s hand.

“Call the fisherwoman.”

“This won’t do. Moreover, it’s the night when women remain awake for the puja. Get up.”

The constable held Dasharath’s wrist as if cuffing a criminal and tried to lead him away. “Don’t create trouble here. These women are dangerous. It cannot be done like this. Don’t worry, everything is within my control here.”

Dhanapatir Char: Whatever Happened to Pedru’s Island?

Excerpted with permission from Dhanapatir Char: Whatever Happened to Pedru’s Island? Amar Mitra, translated from the Bengali by Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, Vintage.