As children in an orthodox Bengali Hindu household, my cousins, my siblings and I passed much of our childhood in an atmosphere that was pretty repressive and expansive at the same time. By repression, I of course mean the elaborate code of conduct comprising innumerable “do/ do not” injunctions that the elders in the house, especially our grandmother, would make us follow, without a word of protest. Not that there was no protest from us at all. The more rambunctious among us (the children of the house), especially my cousin Ludo would make sure that almost every such injunction was overturned, no matter what followed. But the meeker ones (I was one of them) would merely follow what they were told to do. And when I say ‘expansive’, I mean it in every possible sense of the term, as well. The house was a big one, the family was huge, the celebrations were always on a larger than general scale, and the resources for the code of conduct I mention earlier were also, expansive, to say the very least, ranging from religious injunctions to more mundane ones.
Of all this detailed code of conduct, there was a specific variety of injunctions that we often used to hear of as children. This was “Khawnar-bawchon”, quotes from where our grandmother, our aunts and very rarely, even my mother, often used to quote on occasions like the times when someone in the house was preparing to leave on a journey, or when the trees in the orchard were in need of the annual tending to, or when the spices for the annual Durgapujo and other religious festivals would be laid out to dry in the sun, or even, the nature of rainfall in a particular year. We naturally did not understand who Khawna was, then. We were just familiar with the sound of the phrase “khawnar bawchon” (Khawna’s dicta). But in spite of that, the regulations of the dicta became part of our behaviour even then. And now, years have passed since that sort of ambience has ceased to exist in the family home, but those injunctions of the past persist, at least partially, with us even now. In spite of whatever world views each of us have acquired over the years. Even now, if I am supposed to catch a flight on a Tuesday, I am reminded of what my aunt used to say about journeys and their auspicious beginnings – “mongoler usha budhe paa, jawthha ichha tawthha jaa” (a dictum by Khawna which translates to this effect – “The dawn of a Tuesday, your feet ahead on a Wednesday/ wherever you’d go then go away”.) Even now, if there is sudden rain at around January, I am reminded of how happy my grandmother would be at the prospect of a bountiful harvest, even though there was no direct reason for her to be so.
The knowledge that much of these injunctions are ‘superstitions’, or at least are part of a world that no longer exists in the present, has not lessened their presence in our lives, I would say. It is rather the fact that these injunctions which have now turned into modes of remembering that somehow, and very adequately, tether us to a past world, a world which comprises our grandmother who is no longer with us, to our old house which no longer is, and to our childhood which will never return, among other pasts that persist only in the ubiquitous realm of memory. Besides being variously important, Khawna’s dicta thus fulfill a necessary function of rememoration within my family, and that is, I am sure, true for many, many other households across Bengali spaces throughout the world. Even as we saw our grandmother holding onto a past world of cultural norms and behaviour through her reiteration of Khawna’s dicta or similar other things, a world where “Purbo Bawnger er bari” (our home in East Bengal), or “sutobela (chhotobayla)” (our childhood), and “Britishamol” (the days of the British) were recurrent motifs, and places like Hobigawnj, Brahmonbaria, Sylhet and Rajshahi were common geographical markers. Whenever my grandmother used to utter this one dicta of Khawna – “Jodi bawrshe aagon, raja jay maagoney” – it would naturally be followed by her recounting of the Bengal famine in 1943, immortalized in Bengali cultural memory as “Pawnchasher Mawnnontawr” (literally “The Apocalypse of the Fiftieth”).
But there is a greater story, however apocryphal, behind this whole matter of oracular dicta and a legendary astrologer-poetess. Part of this came to my knowledge when my maternal grandmother insisted that I watch the 1981 filmKhanabaraha with her. The story that the film told was one of a woman being denied appreciation for her talents, one that every Bengali would know, I suppose, of Khawna (Sandhya Ray in the film) cutting off her tongue since her predictions and astrological prowess were supposedly eclipsing her father-in-law’s (Baraha’s) reputation – in the film, Uttam Kumar was Baraha. This was way back in 1999, as far as I remember. I was struck by one of the final scenes in the film where Sandhya Ray in her role as Khawna, cut off her tongue in the shrine room with her father in law as witness, her back turned towards the camera. It felt gross then, I suppose, though the element of the fantastic that seemingly ran through this narrative of Khawna’s life apparently stopped me from disliking the portrayal of such an inhuman act entirely. I dismissed it then as just another tale from the endless repertoire of such narratives that most Indian cultures possess for themselves. However, it was only when I heard the poet Mallika Sengupta recite her poem “Khawnar Gaan” at a poetry reading, and a month later, the elocutionist Bratati Bandopadhyay perform the same poem at a function, did I begin to see these ‘superstitious’ couplets in a new light, as a testament of a legend which, in spite of being apocryphal, did not spare the woman the duty of being a ‘martyr’ (read, the loser) for the sake of a patriarchal ego. Mallika Sengupta wrote in her poem:
“Listen o listen:
Hark this tale of Khanaa
In Bengal in the Middle ages
Lived a woman Khanaa, I sing her life
The first Bengali woman poet
Her tongue they severed with a knife”
Note the words “they severed”, here. Khawna’s life as a glorified martyr to her father in law’s machinations is a theme that runs through much of Bengal’s feminist writing, Mallika Sengupta being one of the poets who have written about her. She is also widely considered as one of Bengal’s earliest woman poets. Historically, it is difficult to trace Khawna’s origins or the time in which she lived. Much of whatever is known about her persists by way of legend and lore, though there is, I have heard, a certain monument at Chandraketugarh in southern Bengal which is known by the name of Khanamihirer Dhipi (literally “the mound of Khana and Mihir”). She is also known variously as Lilavati and is also reputed to have lived somewhere around the Assam-Bengal border, according to some sources. However, it is difficult to come to a conclusion about the historical origins of this poet-astrologer, who remains, till date, one of Bengal’s representative cultural figurations. There have been many attempts to trace the entire corpus of her verses – most researchers tend to place the total number of those at 139/140. But this is because no one authoritative text by her survives, or can even be traced in Bengal’s literary history. Whatever evidence we have of her work is through generational recounting and remembrance, which is why, as I have pointed out earlier, Khawna’s set of dicta can probably be called a very important mode of cultural rememoration through the literary form of the adage, or the oracular couplet, much like the Anglo Saxon riddles of the Exeter Book (though those are really riddles and not astrological verses), or the astrological couplets in the New Territories of China originating during the late imperial period.
Though much of Khawna’s verses deal with agricultural practices and processes, yet there are some parts where she (Khawna) speaks of the menstrual cycles of women, and similar other ‘domestic’ issues. In the translations provided below, I have presented those, along with selections from her ‘agricultural’ verses, in a rhymed structure so as to retain the cant of the originals. There are also a number of verses which speak of the seasonal cycle of the year as it happened even then in Bengal, and some others which speak of purely astrological matters like the determination of auspicious times of birth and their differentiation from apparently inauspicious one. There are also, very interestingly, a couple of verses which deal with the determination of who among the spouses will die earlier than the other. It is very difficult to maintain the rhyming structure of the originals in the translations, since the language that the originals use is not really a sort of Bengali that is modern, but is more akin to the one used in medieval Bengali Vaishnavite texts, yet, as I feel, one cannot do without retaining the original metric and rhythmic structure in the translations as well, particularly given the oracular nature of these verses. Though sometimes one may find that the rhyming is a bit laboured, yet I feel that this is the best way one can go about it.
The following translations are merely selections from Khawna’s whole corpus. I have randomly made these selections, without any particular intent. But I intend to complete translating all of Khawna’s dicta sometime in the future. The genesis of this project was, I must mention here, a proposal by my friend Annie Zaidi, whose project on Indina women’s writing she wanted me to contribute to by translating Khawna’s verses. Though these didn’t really end up being a part of that book, I am happy that I started working on this, thereby fulfilling my own previous fragmentary engagement with this very important literary documentation of Bengal’s one-time past.
1. On Auspicious Starts and Otherwise
A dry skiff, an empty vessel shows,
on dead branches caw the crows.
See you a bald pate on the way,
go not another step I say.
Khawna says, even this is done,
only if you do not see an oilman yon.
Better empty than full when one aims to go to fill.
Better behind than ahead when call the mother will.
শূন্যকলসী শুকনা না।
শুকনা ডালে ডাকে কা।।
যদি দেখ মাকুন্দ চোপা
এক পা না যেও বাপা।।
খনা বলে এরেও ঠেলি।
যদি সামনে না দেখি তেলি।।
ভরা হতে শূন্য ভালো যদি ভরতে যায়।
আগে হতে পিছে ভাল যদি ডাকে মায়।।
2. On Rainfall, Dew, Floods, Crops and Game
Water by the day, by the night stars glow.
This is how you see does happiness flow.
If to the east rises thus the bow,
bank and marsh will together grow.
In the Moon’s court when the stars will show,
rainfall incessant will surely follow.
In Chaitra is shivering gloom,
Boishakh with storm and hail,
in Jaisthha if the stars bloom,
know that rain will not fail.
The bow to the east is perpetual drought.
The bow to the west would rain wrought.
If it rains in Aagon, know
the king to beg will surely go.
If it rains at Maagh’s end,
blessed the king, and the land.
বৃষ্টি, কুয়াশা, বন্যা, ধান্যাদিওমৎস্যাদিগণনা
দিনে জল রাত্রে তারা।
এই দেখবে সুখের ধারা।।
পুর্ব্বেতে উঠিল কাঁড়।
চাঁদের সভার মধ্যে তারা।
বর্ষে পানি মুষলধারা।।
বৈশাখে ঝড় পাথর।।
জৈষ্ঠেতে তারা ফুটে।
তবে জানবে বর্ষা বটে।।
পশ্চিমে ধনু নিত্য খরা।
পুবের ধনু: বর্ষে ঝড়া।।
যদি বর্ষে আগনে।
রাজা যায় মাগনে।
যদি বর্ষে মাঘের শেষ।
ধন্য রাজা পুণ্য দেশ।
3. On Farming and Harvesting
On full moon days and new moon days
he who ploughs, knows sorrow always.
His bulls will grow rheumatic indeed.
His home will never have rice to feed.
Khawna says these are my rules.
They who flout are surely fools.
On nights when grows the moon’s light,
some of it dark, some of it bright,
High to the north, and to the south cline,
through rain and earth shows grain fine.
Sow not seeds too close to each other in the field.
The plant will grow indeed but fruit will not yield.
শস্যগণনা, হল চাষ করিবার সময় নির্ণয়, শস্যাদিরোপণ
ও কাটিবার সময় নিরূপণ, আলীবন্ধনের প্রণালী ইত্যাদি:
পূর্ণিমা অমায় যে ধরে হাল।
তার দু:খ সর্ব্বকাল।
তার বলদের হয় বাত।
নাহি থাকে ঘরে ভাত।
খনা বলে আমার বাণী।
যা চষে তার প্রমাদ গনি।।
আঁধার পরে চাঁদের কলা।
কতক কালা কতক ধলা।
উত্তরে উঁচো দক্ষিনে কাত।
ধারায় ধরায় ধানের ধাত।
4. On Menstrual Blood for the First Time – Days of the Week
If on Sundays, she will be a widow then.
If on Mondays, they will be chaste women.
If on Tuesdays, she will be a whore truly.
If on Wednesdays, she’ll know fortune freely.
If on Thursdays, her husband shall fortune know.
If on Fridays, her many sons shall prosper and grow.
If on Saturdays, childless she shall always remain.
Therefore will I write of expiation then.
Kine-gold-land-grain donate for the women.
Their faults are rested thus know this for true.
This is what the books say through and through.
স্ত্রীজাতির আদ্যঋতুর বারফল।
রবিবে বিধবা হয়, সোমে পতিব্রতা।
মঙ্গলেতে বেশ্যা বুধে সৌভাগ্যাসংযুতা।।
বৃহস্পতিবারে পতি লক্ষ্মীযুক্তা হয়।
শুক্রবারে বহুপুত্র চিরজীবী হয়।।
শনিবারে বন্ধ্যা হয় জ্যোতিষের মতে
অতএব লিখি যাহা প্রায়শ্চিত্ত তাতে।।
গোকাঞ্চন ভূমি কিংবা ধান্যদিবেদান।
দোষশান্তি হয় ইথে এইতো বিধান।।
5. On Menstrual Blood for the First Time – Months of the Year
If in Jaishtha, widowhood she will see.
If in Asaarh, surely wealthy she will be.
If in Srabon, it is death for her husband.
If in Bhadra, sickness will her bend.
If in Ashwin, the amative one
surely will see her husband die.
If in Kartik her blood does run,
ruin she will her family, fie.
If in Margashirsha her blood will flow,
a pious woman she is, you must surely know.
If their first period comes in Poush then,
know, they will surely be amorous women.
In Magha if her blood comes, so you see,
she will be as chaste as can be.
In Phalgun if her blood comes, so it is clear,
many a son long lived she will surely bear.
The amatory one is maddened with desire,
if in Chaitra it is that her blood shows its fire.
If it is in Boishaakh that her blood first shows,
a well spoken, soft of speech woman one knows.
আদ্য –ঋতুরমাসফল |
জৈষ্ঠেতে বিধবা হয়। আষাঢ়-এ ধনী।
মৃতাপত্যা শ্রাবণেতে ভাদ্রেতে রোগিনী।
আশ্বিনেতে মৃতাপত্যা হইবে কামিনী।
কার্ত্তিকে ঋতুমতী স্বকুলনাশিনী।।
মার্গশীর্ষে রীতুমতী হয় ধর্ম্মশীলা।
পৌষেতে হইলে ঋতু রতিতে বিহবল।
মাঘে পতিব্রতা নারী হইলে ঋতুমতী।
ফাল্গুনে হইলে ঋতু বহুপুত্রবতী।
মদনোম্মাদিনী হেয় চৈত্রেতে কামিনী।
বৈশাখে হইলে হয় সুপ্রিয়বাসিনী।।
6. On the Determination of Life Spans
What of dates and days do you say!
The natal constellation is the best way.
What do you, foolish father in law!
In a wink does one’s life span show.
কিসের তিথি কিসের বার।
জন্মনক্ষত্র কর সার।।
কি কর শ্বশুর মতিহীন।
পলকে আয়ু বার দিন।।
 Mallika Sengupta’s poem titled “Khawnar gaan” translated by Amitabha Mukherjee.
 A colloquial form of the word ‘Vaiśākha’, the first month in the Hindu lunar calendar.
 A colloquial word that connotes Agrahāyaṇa or Mārgaśīrṣa.
 I have used the Sunday-Saturday set of days of the week instead of the Robi-Shoni Bengali names of the days of the week here for obvious reasons.
 Bhādrapada or Bhādra, but also known as Proṣṭhapada
 Āśvina, or Aśvayuja