“Our people would like to believe that the woman committed suicide years back,” Rupi Murmu told her friend Suchitra, a freelance photographer. They were talking about Budhini Mejhan on their way from Kolkata to Dhanbad. Rupi had received a text from her cousin, Mukul Murmu, who worked in a crockery shop in Dhanbad, saying that Budhini was still alive. The message had shocked her, literally.

Rupi had read Budhini’s death report in one of the significant newspapers, as its lead story, in June 2012. The article had hinted at how miserable her last days were, how poverty and infirmity had mistreated her and how she had to die a death deprived of justice. She had read about Budhini’s death in some other newspapers as well.

Budhini was a distant relative of Rupi’s. But since Rupi had maintained no sentimental ties with her, her death did not strike her emotionally. Rupi had not even seen her in person. Yet, the fact that Budhini was alive moved her strongly.

Much before the news reached her, she had started her research on Budhini, her village and the many other neighbouring villages, thanks to her dadu, Jagdip Murmu. It had disappointed her when she had to introduce Budhini’s story to the editor. The name hadn’t captured his attention so far. ‘Who is she?’ he had asked.

When Rupi had described Budhini as the wife of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the editor had burst into peals of laughter.

“Illegal?” he had retorted.

Rupi didn’t smile, but her colleagues had joined the editor in laughing out loud. She didn’t want to make it a laughing matter. She knew her blood was rushing to her face, making her cheeks burn.

“How many years of Indian history do you know about?” she had asked the sub-editors. Eventually, she chose not to equip them with more details. The newspaper was from Delhi, so were the journalists. They didn’t need to acknowledge a small Santal village called Karbona, which lay close to West Bengal, near the eastern borders of Jharkhand.

However, despite being journalists if they were unaware of Budhini who used to live there, it was unacceptable. For Rupi, Budhini was not a light case. It became Rupi Murmu’s purpose to record – with certainty – the death and resurrection of Budhini.

Budhni Mejhan and Jawaharlal Nehru at the inauguration of the Panchet Dam. | Image: Public domain.

Since there were no more texts after the first one from her cousin, and his cell phone was always out of network coverage, Rupi began doubting the credibility of the news and eventually got frustrated. Even if it was a hoax, Rupi thought, no matter how many years had passed since her death, the country should know how Budhini Mejhan lived the last of her days.

Should Budhini’s life end just like that, without a trace of reminiscence? Was she but a mud block that was broken during nation-building? No, no, it cannot be so, Rupi determined in her mind. Budhini was not a person; she was a nation herself.

She had then called Suchitra on the phone.

“Where are you now?”

“I’m here in Kutanellur.”

Suchitra was on her sabbatical at home for ten days, recording the festival season there. When Rupi had called, she was with her maternal cousins, clicking pictures of the festivities, perspiring beneath the summer sun. Over the deafening roar of the percussion, she couldn’t understand what Rupi was saying. She sent her a text message: Busy now, call you later.

That night, Rupi told her the story of Budhini Mejhan. The name Budhini was new to Suchitra as well. Somehow she thought it was the name of a dancer. An Odissi dancer clad in traditional costumes, moving to a slow and confused pace with her left hand persuasively placed on her left hip, the right hand reaching out to it, her right foot dragging her leg backwards in slow motion and her head tilting to her left flashed in front of Suchitra’s eyes.

“If the woman who has been marked dead is still alive, we must find her,” Rupi Murmu said.

Budhini Mejhan’s whereabouts were unknown except for the vague guess that she was either in Ranchi, or maybe residing in a rented house somewhere in Purulia. Anyhow, she would not be in her native village, for the villagers, including her relatives, considered her dead even though they knew she was alive.

Budhini had committed a crime. They had punished her. Now, what if she is dead or alive? After all these years, their verdict had remained unchanged.

The unfortunate part was that they knew she was pure. Those who punished her knew this. Nevertheless, there was a reason for the punishment and the evidence persuasive.

“Our people have their right and wrong, which need not be in agreement with the others. Besides, our jurisdiction and means of execution are different. We don’t beg for an appeal from an outsider. For us, our gram sabha is our Supreme Court,” Rupi Murmu had explained to Suchitra.

Suchitra had been to Jharkhand two years back to take pictures for Rupi, who had been researching “The Other Side of the Great Indian Temples”. Back then, she had clicked many pictures of reservoirs, the debris of Telkupi, the Fort of Panchet, the relics of the Tilkamba dynasty and a sunset overlooking the Panchet Dam.

Rupi was both appreciated and roasted for her research. Her research was based on the Santal villages that were submerged because of the rising of the dam.

It was her dadu, Jagdip Murmu, who had incited her to undertake the research. His village, Bharatpur, was one among the many that were submerged near the valley of River Damodar. There were more than a hundred villages. “It is not the Damodar but the dam that has drowned the villages,” he had insisted.

“Flood was familiar to us, for it followed every year. The Damodar would race into the houses and settlements and recede just the way it came. But she deposited in our land whatever she brought with her. Between one flood and another, we would farm our areas, grow rice and prepare for the succeeding wave. But with the coming of dams, things changed. The water forced us out forever.”

Rupi Murmu began her research to get to the bottom of her grandfather’s story. Nehru was excited about dams as he thought they were the huge structures that would determine the destiny of the nation.

Was there any other place more sacred and sublime than this!

“On the contrary, I ask whether there are any other places more devastating than these,” Rupi’s dadu had drawn a ripple of protests. ‘” dream of the day when dams will be demolished.”


Excerpted with permission from Budhini: A Novel, Sarah Joseph, translated from the Malayalam by Sangeetha Sreenivasan, Penguin Books.