June 21, 2021
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Extracts from Mahasweta Devi's Titu Mir, shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award

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Titu Mir
By Mahasweta Devi
Seagull Books Rs 175: Pages 121

A Wahabi should be known instantly, first sight.

All these days Titu had worn a dhoti like everyone else. Now he wore a tahband, a piece of cloth half the length of a dhoti, with the two ends sewn together in a continuous strip.

Wear a tahband, grow a beard, tonsure your head — let everyone see that you are a Wahabi. Titu's sons, his nephew Masum, his brother Nihal, the friends of his youth, were all brothers of the same band now. All around, some twenty, thirty miles from his village, the word was spreading.

Their sitting room, where Titu sat, was filled with people who had come to see him. Most were poor Muslims from neighbouring villages: small farmers, weavers. 'Usury is a sin, saints and pirs have no power, it is wrong and foolish to bankrupt oneself spending lavishly on religious ceremonies.' These teachings had struck a deep chord in their hearts.

Someone told the zamindar of Poonra, Krishnadeb Ray, that the weavers of Shorporajpur on his estate had become Wahabis.

'Indeed?' exclaimed the zamindar.

'Yes, sir.'

'And what do they intend to do now? Have a go at the Hindus?'

'Ah, if only that was their aim.'

'What! Are they up to something even more fearsome?'

'If it was just a question of inciting riots, I'd be the first man to complain at Baduria thana. The inspector is your man, after all. No, these weavers are saying that they see no quarrel between Hindu and Muslim. Instead, if a rich Hindu oppresses a poor one, they'll side with the poor Hindu.'

'Why would they want to do that? No one's ever said such things before.'

'There's more. They say they will not pay interest on their loans. They say that both taking and giving of interest is a deadly sin.'

'Wonderful! I'm to give them good paddy seed after the monsoons and sit and twiddle my thumbs when they don't pay interest. Who is behind this? Which saint or fakir have I to thank for this new morality?'

'No, no, they are not listening to any pirs or fakirs. The godmen, too, are furious with them.'

'Who is their leader?'

'Titu Mir.'

'Hyderpur's Titu Mir?'

'Yes, Huzoor.'

'And why not? That man's head has swollen out of all proportion. Bhudeb Pal of Barogachhia has made an arrogant knave of him. If you keep a Muslim as your lathial, you're a fool to take any lip from the fellow.'

'And soon we'll hear from the people that they won't contribute to the estate's funds for occasional expenses.'

'We'll soon find out.The date of my father's annual shraddha is coming up; then we'll see how they say no to their dues.'

When the weavers heard of the zamindar's intention, they went to Hyderpur with a request.

'What do you want, my brothers?' Titu asked them.

'You are the one who means everything to us now. Why don't you forbid Wahabis from paying these unreasonable dues towards a zamindar's personal expenses? He is going to hold his father's annual shraddha, and he wants ten gamchhas from each of us! How can we give so much? Ten gamchhas in today's market would bring use lot of rice.'

Titu's friend Bishu spoke up. 'How stupid of you! Must you give ten just because he's asked for that many?'

'When are these due?' Titu asked.

'In seven days.'

'Does he hold this ceremony every year?'

'Yes, without fail.'

'How many gamchhas do you usually give him?'


'Take the thread for making five gamchhas and spin it out to make ten.'

'But he will torment us again throughout the year.'

'Once the mujahids are ready, all this will stop.'

Some time later the pirs and fakirs came to Titu, their eyes glowing with rage. They said they had things to tell him which Titu must suffer to hear.

'What do you wish to tell me?'

'Why are you harassing us?'

'But I have not bothered you.'

'Well, what's this you're preaching to the people? "Don't heed fakirs and saints"! "Don't wear amulets in your times of sickness and trouble!"'

'Yes, I tell the people these things. Because only Allah or Allah's Prophet can work good or ill in the fate of any man. No man has the power to do it.'

'You lie!'

'Be quiet, doubters. I repeat, only in Allah or Allah's Prophet must we rest. We need believe in no one else. Can you or men like you really do good or evil to man, can you save him from the ills of the world?'


No one, in Hyderpur or anywhere else, had ever spoken to the pirs like this. People from all the neighbouring villages crowded around, having come to hear Titu speak. He went on, 'All this while I have been trying to save your face, sirs, hence I have not told the whole story. But since you press me, I will. This is Bishu, and when his sister was sick you came, and you told the people of his family to do this and do that. They followed every instruction you gave them — so why did his sister die? Hafiz's father lost his draft oxen and the zamindar confiscated his lands when he couldn't pay rent, despite your giving him all sorts of advice to improve his circumstances. There are many such instances, all around you. I have looked upon them with open eyes and a fair mind. Not just you, no man alive can change the fate of another.'

Then the pirs and fakirs cursed Titu. Such curses had been rained on him earlier by Rahmat Sheikh of Chandrapur. Rahmat Sheikh lived by lending money at interest. Now, if usury was a sin, would he not be ruined?

News of the new creed was spreading, and working strange magic in the minds of the common people. They were coming from all directions now, converging on Hyderpur. Hashima told Titu, 'Come with us to Narkelberia; it is a bigger place than Hyderpur. You have made Masum your own, anyway. At Narkelberia we can arrange a big meeting, and have the boys look after the people camping in the village maidan. It seems there is no end to this stream of people visiting you.'

At Narkelberia, Hafiz and Bishu could teach Masum, Titu's sons and other boys the rudiments of fighting with lathis; the huge village grounds with their shady trees could accommodate the people who came to see Titu. Narkelberia had excellent bamboo groves as well, which would furnish good stout lathis. Titu said, 'Make arrangements to cut bamboo and build a big shed on the maidan. No household can cope with so many people.'

Hashima was rather offended by this. She had hoped her house would have the honour of receiving the many people flocking to him; she didn't want to be cheated of her share of the glory. Titu grinned. 'won't you ever grow up, Hashima? Get some sense.'

So a huge shed was built on the Narkelberia maiden. It had a bamboo platform, where Titu would spend a great deal of his time. As many people as could fit, would share the platform with him. The rest sat on the ground.

When he saw the shed, Masum said, 'If you can make such a wonderful structure out of bamboo, why not a fort?'

Titu said, 'If I ever build a fort, I'll make it out of bamboo. Where will I get bricks and wood around here? I must use whatever comes to hand.'

Then one day he saw a fakir come running towards him, calling, 'Titu Mir! Titu Mir!' The man's hair and beard were white; there was no telling how old he was, though his body was sinewy and sturdy. There were some men with him, and a young boy.

'Do you recognize me?' he asked Titu.

'No, I cannot recall you.'

'Mishkin Shah, Mushirat Shah. Now do you remember?'

'Is it really you? You're alive!'

'What do you mean, alive? I'm a thorough mujahid now. I've just arrived from Faridpur.'

'From Saryatullah!'

'Yes, yes, this is his son.'

'Saryatullah's son Dudu Mian?'

'Yes, he is going to Mecca with these men. Well, Titu, this is wonderful. In my time I told everyone I met that there was a way forward for us. We'll make many converts in the east, I think. Lot's of poor Muslim folk there.'

'Where are you going?'

'I've come here to meet you.'

The gathering was quite full by now. Dudu was still a boy, but he was going to Mecca. They were to walk all the way to Bombay, and look out for Wahabis as they went. The fakir said enthusiastically, 'You must teach the people to fight. To fight!'

'I am teaching them.'

'Will there be a war?'

'The zamindars, the moneylenders, the pirs and fakirs who are angry with us are telling both Hindus and Muslims that we hate all other religions. If there is a war, it will be because of them. Now these men you see are mad with rejoicing at having found a new belief. They have no mind for farming, or weaving, or casting nets. This state will not last, but many people are noticing. Everyone can see what's happening, and without doubt they'll all have something to say about it.'

'I'm not good for much now,' said the fakir, 'but I can initiate people into our faith. They must say their namaaz five times a day, wear the tahband, never believe a man can have supernatural or godly powers, give up music and dancing and public festivals, put an end to funeral ceremonies and lavish memorials, and neither lend nor borrow with interest. You see, now this work is also mine: to proclaim our faith and to make the people heed it.'

Titu introduced the fakir to the others there, telling them, 'When the Governor used to hunt tigers in the heart of Calcutta, fakirs and sanyasis like my friend here fought the English troops. Have you heard of Majnu Shah? This man has seen him. He has come here from Jessore through Faridpur.'

'I could smell war,' the fakir told Hafiz and Bishu. 'The moment I caught it in my nostrils I had to come straight here.'

'You're still quite strong,' observed Hafiz.

'Arey! There's plenty of fish where I was living in Jessore! I ate my fill of honey from the forest and fish from the river. And I wandered by boat in the Sunderbans.'

'How did you keep yourself so fit and lively?'

'I was living among the common people, the unfortunate lot. It was my task to cheer them up and share their lives. It was a grand life.'

The potters of Chandrapur came with pots and pans for the fakir. They were Hindus. They told Titu, 'The estate staff told us your people want to stir up hatred and kill us Hindus. But we're selling a great many pots to your followers. All the people who come here need pots and pans.'

'I hope they're paying you?'

'Yes, of course. No one takes a thing without giving us some cowries. That's what convinced us the clerks were lying. You haven't come here to quarrel with us.'

'No, we want no trouble.'

'We want to gift these pots to the Fakir Sahib. If you need us, we'll come.'

Later, when the companions sat down to discuss their creed and talk about their plans, Masum, Torab, Jauhar and some other boys added another rule to the code. They told Titu they would protest against extortion in the market. What could Titu say? He told them,'When we were your age, we tried to do just that. Go and try, I won't forbid you. But think carefully first.'

'Think about what?'

'When my friends and I protested, the extortion eased up for a bit. Now the racket's operating again in full force. But it's not right that the market people should have to rely on us, and take courage from our strength when we're there, then be forced to pay when we're gone — that isn't the way.'

'Yes, the vendors must be brave, too,' they chorused.

'They must come forward.'

'That will happen. If the Wahabis are strong, no matter what, then everyone will be the same.'

Inevitably, the zamindar came to hear about the people's reluctance to pay the racketeers in the market. The vendors and shopkeepers said, we are bound to pay our taxes to the zamindar's men, because we have set up our stalls on the zamindar's land — that is the custom. But this one tax is all we will pay. We will not pay the manager, the bailiff, the agent, the sepoy or the priest. And not just the Wahabis, none of us will pay them.

Incensed beyond measure, Poonra's zamindar Krishnadeb Ray exploded, 'Very well! I will not let such barefaced cheek go unpunished in my territory! Titu Mir brought this Wahabi creed here and united the Muslims; and they have been trying to undermine my rule ever since!'

His clerk told him, 'It is not merely the Mussalmans, Huzoor, the potters and blacksmiths — cobblers and the like — are all in a mood to defy us.'

'Low-born dregs!'

'But are all the Muslims happy? Moneylenders like Rahmat Sheikh, zamindars like Maqbul Choudhury, the pirs and saints, all these men are furious with Titu Mir.They say that if the Wahabis are not taught a lesson soon, we will be ruined.'

'Ruined? Am I dead? Or have I no lathials at my command?'

'What rents will you receive, Huzoor? The people are just not interested in cultivating the land.'

'Not interested? Well, we'll have to force them in that case. Now that they're Wahabis and growing beards!'

They do not wear the dhoti in the usual style. They fold a piece of cloth round their waists.'

'Yes, I'll tackle them one by one. Now, beat your drums in the marketplace to announce that all my subjects who have become Wahabis and have grown beards, are to pay two and a half rupees per head as tax. Then go, take the lathials to Poonra and collect the tax.'

The operation was conducted so smoothly that Titu's disciples in Poonra did not get the time or opportunity to inform him; so the collection went off without a hitch. Pay up, or be turned out of the village instantly — this was a threat people found hard to flout.

When he eventually heard the news Titu burned with rage. 'We did not harm anyone,' he said, 'we were following our religions, each to his own, in peace and harmony. What right has the zamindar to interfere? Did any of our members refuse to pay rent? Did anyone run away with dues unpaid? We cannot allow this.'

Now, after a long time, Rokeya called her son to her side. She said, 'I know you won't listen to your old mother. But all the pirs and fakirs around here are inciting the zamindars to join hands against you. They intend you harm.'

'What would you have me do? Should I flee from here; is that what you're saying?'

'No, I'm not asking you to do that. You're not the type. And if you abandon them, who will the poor look to?'

'So what must I do?'

'Be careful.'

'Careful? This is a jihad, Ma.'

'I know. I know, too, that I have given my son to this jihad. But look at Maimuna's face. Maimuna and I have never been anywhere, never left home, we don't know much. We only know you. Be careful.'

'I will.'

Then Titu asked Maimuna, 'Won't you say anything?'

Maimuna raised her agonized, liquid dark eyes to her husband's face. She said, 'No, I won't say anything. You have brought me great honour, great glory. I am your wife, and that is my pride. I have given you my three sons, to be three mujahids. No, I will say nothing. As ever, once in a while I will get to hear news of you. I will look after the household, care for Jauhar's grandparents. You need not concern yourself about me.

'Have I ever concerned myself with you, Maimuna? I have never been able to give you good clothes, beautiful jewellery.'

'What would I do with all that? I have you and the boys. That is good enough for me.'

Of all his family only Hashima felt entirely at ease talking to him. Maimuna said, 'When you are here you never eat with us. Hashima at least forces you to eat properly.'

'Yes, she always makes a fuss. If I don't listen to her she flops down on the floor and cries.'

Before he left Hyderpur, Titu promised his mother that he would be careful.

Now he sent his mujahids to the nearby villages, where the Wahabis had a presence. His followers said, under no circumstances is anyone to pay the new tax on beards. In time the zamindar's men came to Shorporajpur as well. They proclaimed the tax in the marketplace: everyone was to go to the estate office and pay up.

No one obeyed. Krishnadeb realized that no one there had any intention of paying his tax.

He sent one of his staff, Muchiram, and an armed guard to the village. Titu was saying namaaz with his followers in the mosque at Shorporajpur. Muchiram stood outside the mosque and called, 'You have not paid the tax on beards. The zamindar wants an explanation. You are to come immediately.'

Titu left his prayers and came out. He said, 'We are saying our namaaz. Would you have us leave it incomplete?'

The guard knocked his lathi on the ground and said, 'Yes, you're to come at once. The zamindar has called you; is your namaaz more important?'

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