The family of three lived very happily indeed. It comprised of Sudha, her father Hargobindo, and her younger brother Habul. There was enough poverty, lack and discomfort in the tiny household, set in the periphery of city-limits; but the shadow of gloom never crossed its threshold. It was a two-storied, rented house in a narrow street. The three of them managed to get hold of just one room in this establishment. Within this one room they cooked, ate and slept. The same room also doubled as Habul’s study when he had homework to do. It could be really inconvenient sometimes. Often, Sudha said to Hargobindo, ‘Baba, why don’t you look for another place. This room is too small for all of us.’
Hargobindo said, ‘You’re right. It is really very difficult for the two of you. We must have a change of place soon.’
But in the last three years, this change never really came through. Of course, there were quite a few opportunities to move to better places. A few times, Habul brought home some news about two-roomed places with kitchen and bathroom. Hargobindo Chatterjee got excited about those places. He even took his son and daughter along and took a look at them. But eventually the rent, the non-refundable deposits and advances that were called for made him think twice. He returned to their old place and said to his children, ‘It is just a waste of money. I think this twenty-rupees’ place is fine for our needs. Besides, what shall we do with so much room?’
Sudha laughed and said, ‘I knew it. Baba would not move anywhere else.’
Hargobindo replied, ‘I will, I will. But let me pay off my debts first before I can put my mind to something else. I can hardly afford to throw away money at this time.’
Both the brother and sister knew what father meant by ‘debts’. Habul looked up from his studies and flashed a mischievous smile at his sister, then returned to his reading.
A trifle shyly, Sudha protested, ‘Am I just a ‘debt’ to you, Baba? You always use that same word.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Of course it’s a ‘debt’ -- you owe your parents, your siblings and your children some things. But I cannot imagine how I shall live once you are gone.’
Sudha remained silent for a few minutes and then said, ‘You don’t have to think so hard about my leaving the house. If I leave, how will you two manage? Habul is still so young. He will not be able to look after you. Let him grow up, get married, and then we can think of --’
Hargobindo laughed, ‘Crazy girl! By that time you will be an old hag, dear.’
Sudha said, ‘Well, that solves all the problems, doesn’t it. I will be your old mother and stay by your side forever. You won’t ever dream of sending me away then.’
That seemed to be the one and only thing on Hargobindo’s mind. The greater part of the day was spent working in the office. The rest of his time was spent in thinking about Sudha’s marriage, planning and discussing it.
Hargobindo was known to his friends as a tight-fisted man. When the local youth came around asking for contributions to festivities or pujas, the figure never rose higher than half a rupee in his case. He didn’t pay any heed to the fact that his clothes were frayed and shabby. But when it came to buying nice clothes for his son, saris and jewelry for his daughter, there was no dearth of his enthusiasm. He didn’t need an excuse to drag Sudha along to the goldsmith, where he proposed new designs for the jewelry that they had made earlier. He didn’t feel content until he had three or four new pieces made for her every year. Sudha often protested and said, ‘Why are you making so many ornaments, Baba?’
Hargobindo replied, ‘I will not be able to make them all at once, so I’m gathering them bit by bit. You had hardly gotten any from your mother.’
Sudha’s mother, Nirmala, died after suffering from tuberculosis for three long years. That was ten years ago. At the time, Hargobindo’s salary was minimal. In order to provide for his ailing wife’s medicine and diet, they had to sell most of her jewelry, including Hargobindo’s gold buttons and watch. They had also picked up a debt of nearly seven or eight hundred rupees. It took several years of austere living, many a sacrifice, for Hargobindo to pay off all his debts and finally be a free man again. It was a matter of pride indeed for an ordinary clerk like him, on a salary of a hundred and fifty rupees a month. Now his only dream was that he would find a good household and an excellent groom for Sudha. For this dream to come true, he left no stone unturned. He had already taken on a part-time job after his regular office hours. He handed over enough money to cover all household expenses to his daughter and deposited the rest in his bank. Some of the jewelry, too, Sudha wore on her person. The rest was kept in one of the high-rental lockers of a foreign bank, so great were his fears of loss or theft of these precious jewelry.
Sometimes Habul said to Sudha, ‘Didi, Baba loves you the most.’
Sudha laughed as she replied, ‘What a selfish beast you are. And how did you come to this conclusion -- do you have the weighing scales to measure love?’
Habul said, ‘Of course! If I get an inch, you get a whole foot. Isn’t Baba saving all his money for your wedding?’
Sudha said, ‘Oh, so that’s your grouse? Do you know that someone else’s father is also saving up much more than this for your wedding?’
Money and jewelry continued to grow, but there was no sign of Sudha getting married. So many offers and matches came and went in the last four years, but none of them seemed to meet Hargobindo’s expectations. If a boy had good looks in his favour, he lacked the brains; if he had the brains, perhaps he lacked the ability to market it suitably; the ones that had the wealth seldom had pedigree. In this way, the days slipped by and Sudha’s marriage was nowhere in sight. Her mother’s sister lived in Bowbazar. Often, she came and rebuked Hargobindo, ‘What are you doing, jamaibabu? The girl is old enough and now you should not be so particular and fussy. Just get her married soon.’
Hargobindo replied, ‘What can I do, Kamala. I have just this one daughter and not four or five like you. How can I not be fussy? Besides, it is a Hindu marriage, after all. One slip and there will be no going back, ever.’
Sudha also supported her father. She was in no hurry to get married. Sudha wanted to get married only after Habul was older, after he joined college and learned to look after his health and his belongings. For now, he needed his Didi for every little thing in his life.
Hargobindo was secretly gratified by this line of argument from Sudha. Just like her mother, his daughter too had the same loving nature, the same unselfish heart. When Sudha bent over and brushed his shoes before he went to work, or sat down to sew a button on to his shirt, Hargobindo often glanced first at his wife’s picture on the wall and then at his daughter. In her looks too, Sudha was a replica of Nirmala - the same mass of dark curls cascading down her back, the dark complexion, and the same angles and planes to her facial features. Sudha’s aunt and uncle didn’t agree that she looked so much like her mother. But had they seen more of Nirmala than Hargobindo himself, or did they even know her better?
Sudha showered the same tender care on her brother as well. Sometimes Hargobindo felt Sudha did more for Habul than Nirmala herself would have done, had she been alive. Until recently, Sudha used to wipe Habul’s head with the cheesecloth towel and brush his hair neatly into place. These days, it was a little difficult for Sudha to do that since Habul was now a few inches taller than his sister. But still, he was dependent on Didi for every little detail even now. Although he was nearly fifteen years old and studied in the tenth grade, Habul was still no more than a little boy in nature. He was as unmindful and disorganized now as when he was ten years old. Just when it was time for school, he would start hunting for his books and pens. Both Habul and Hargobindo started calling for her before they left for school and office respectively -- ‘Sudha, Sudha,’ ‘Didi, Didi’. She had to drop whatever she was doing, by the stove or anywhere else, and run to see to their needs. It was, therefore, not entirely surprising that she pleaded Habul’s youth as an excuse for delaying her marriage.
Hargobindo was no less than a loving parent. On the rare days when the maid failed to turn up at work, he drew the water with his own hands and lit the stove for his daughter. When Sudha protested and said, ‘Baba, what am I going to do if you do everything? Can’t I lift those two buckets of water myself?’ Hargobindo replied, ‘No, you cannot. If your soft and delicate hands grow callused doing such menial labour, how will I show my face to your mother and father-in-law. And besides, their darling son would also not spare me a choice piece of his mind.’ Blushing, Sudha lowered her head and muttered, ‘Oh Baba, not again.’
There was a modern stove in the room besides the traditional, clay one. But Hargobindo never allowed Sudha to light that one, for fear of an accident. If his daughter was blemished in any way, he wouldn’t be able to bear it. In the early days they all slept on one big bed, made on the floor in the center of the room - Hargobindo on one side, Habul in the middle and Sudha on the other. But one day, Habul screamed ‘Goal, goal,’ and aimed a solid kick at his sister. That day, if Sudha had not intervened, there was great misery in store for Habul. Hargobindo was checked from hitting his son. But he gave him a good yelling. Then he went and bought a small cot and made a separate bed for Sudha. All her protests fell on deaf ears. He just went on saying, ‘What if he had hit you on the face or, worse still, the eyes.’
Sudha said, ‘What of it? I wouldn’t have died. Am I so fragile that I cannot even endure a gentle tap?’
‘Why should you?’ Hargobindo said, ‘Born a woman, there will be so much you will have to endure. But as long as I am your father, I will not allow even the slightest scratch to mar you.’
Sudha slept on the cot. Habul and Hargobindo slept on the floor. But Hargobindo did not sleep. He lay there and talked to his daughter, told her stories from his early days, his youth, his life. They were tales of friends in school and college, swimming, hunting, traveling and brushes with danger. Sudha’s mother would also come up in the conversation. Hargobindo never hid anything from his daughter, who was now more a friend to him. Sudha had heard these stories many times, about Nirmala’s little tantrums in their early days, her fondness for saris and jewelry, the fights and reconciliation that went on in their daily lives. But she never interrupted or stopped her father. From his nostalgic rambles, Hargobindo often slipped right into the future. He drew mental images of Sudha’s home and life as it would be, how many times he would visit her there and under what pretexts, how he would cross the bounds of authority and behave as a friend with his son-in-law and how many times a year he would take his daughter and son-in-law to a hill-station or by the sea for a change. Hargobindo asked Sudha about whether she would like her husband to be a doctor, engineer, a lawyer or a professor, and he didn’t fail to question her about his complexion, his looks and his build. In response to such detailed inquisitions by her father, Sudha merely replied, ‘I would like whomever you chose for me, Baba. It will be exactly as you wish.’
Hargobindo was doing very well in his happy home with his son and daughter. There wasn’t much room for friends or even relatives within this tiny girdle of a family. It was as if Hargobindo did not have any use for outsiders, or even if he did, it was solely for the needs outside the home. He behaved with friends, neighbours and relatives in the same way as he did with the newspaper-man, the milk-man, the charcoal-seller, the grocer or the conductor on the bus. If someone dropped in at his home, within the first or second minute, he made it very clear to them that their presence was not welcome in the house after the third or fourth minute! Even his close relatives, like Nirmala’s sister Kamala, and her husband Manimoy Chakrabarty, felt very awkward in that house. They seldom stayed for too long. Sometimes Kamala asked to have her niece and nephew spend a few days with her; but Hargobindo always managed to evade her appeals with some excuse or the other. These days, perhaps due to wounded ego, Kamala never ever mentioned having the children over at her place.
On holidays and such days, Hargobindo himself took his children out. Sometimes they visited relatives, or the zoo or museums and on other days they strolled along the Ganga. Once a year, Sudha and Habul had the privilege of going to a movie and the circus. Hargobindo himself escorted them. He didn’t really like the idea of anyone else intruding into their little circle.
Yet, a fourth person did intrude. He was merely an ordinary private tutor and not a doctor, lawyer, or even an engineer. His name was Indubhushan Das. He was twenty-six or seven years old, dark with a medium stature, small eyes, and a rounded nose. In no way was he attractive to the eye; he was such a mild-mannered and gentle person that he did not even merit the adjective ‘manly’.
Habul was promoted from the eighth to the ninth grade, but his marks were below average in all the subjects. He barely scraped through in English and his grades for Math were below passing. Sudha said, ‘Baba, you can’t make Habul quit school and sit at home after eighth grade like you did with me. He has to study further. But I can tell you one thing: just the schoolwork alone will not help him do that.’
Hargobindo said, ‘So then, what should we do?’
Sudha said, ‘Hire a private tutor for him.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Oh no, that will cost a lot of money.’
Sudha said, ‘Let it. If he doesn’t do well in life, what will you do with all your money? Since you don’t have the time, you will have to hire a tutor for him’.
At first they looked for an elderly teacher with experience, but they demanded a high salary. No one was willing to teach all the subjects for anything less than forty or fifty rupees a month. Eventually, after much bargaining, they got Indubhushan for twenty rupees a month. He lived in a mess in Shyambazar, taught in a local school and gave private tuition. He had cultivated a good name among some households in the Belgachhia area, and some of Hargobindo’s neighbours were full of praise for him too.
Hargobindo invited Indubhushan into his home and introduced him to the children. Then he smiled and said, ‘To begin with, I’ll pay you twenty rupees. Later, if my boy’s results are good, there will be an extra bonus. That’s a promise, you can ask for anything then --’
Sudha was sitting in one corner of the room, chopping vegetables, and she almost cringed with shame when she heard this; was this any way to speak to another gentleman!
Indubhushan smiled and said, ‘If his results are good, it will be my biggest bonus, Hargobindobabu.’
Sudha looked up from her chore and glanced at him. His smile still lingered on his lips, and Sudha felt she had never set eyes upon a calmer, gentler smile in all her life. Besides, she was really impressed by his answer too. Perhaps most professional tutors would have said, and often do say, the same thing. But Sudha felt no one could have been more genuine about it.
From the next day onwards, Indubhushan came to teach Habul every evening. Sudha laid a clean bedspread on her bed and made a seat for the teacher and his student. Indubhushan would be totally immersed in teaching Habul, as if there wasn’t another living soul in the vicinity. For some strange reason, Sudha was irked by such total oblivion. As she fried the seasoning for the daal she would perhaps look up and ask, ‘Are the smells from my cooking bothering you a lot?’
Indubhushan finished pointing out Habul’s mistakes in arithmetic and said, ‘Are you speaking to me?’
Sudha laughed, ‘Who else? Did you think I was being so polite to Habul?’
Indubhushan couldn’t help joining in her laughter, ‘Oh, so this was just politeness! In that case, I should reciprocate by saying, no, not at all and I love it.’
Sudha smiled and asked, ‘And what would you say in all honesty?’
Indubhushan replied, ‘Actually, my answer would be the same. Please don’t worry about it, I really do like the smell of cooking.’
‘You are joking, of course. How can someone enjoy teaching in this kind of an atmosphere.’
Indubhushan was silent for a few minutes and then he said, ‘No, I am not joking. Watching you cook, I feel I am back in my childhood, when I wasn’t teaching but was being taught. My father was a medical representative and he had to travel a lot. Mother had to shoulder the responsibilities alone. She would drag me into the kitchen and, with fingers stained with spices, write out the sums on my notebook. After a lifetime almost, today I got the same aromas, the same tangy smell of cooking.’
Sudha felt a shiver go down her spine as she heard him speak. Very softly, she queried, ‘Where is your mother now?’
‘In my memories.’
‘And your father?’
‘I lost him, too, about five years ago.’
Sudha was silent for a while. Her ladle lay still in its cradle of the saucepan. A little later she spoke again, ‘Who else is there in your family? Brothers, sisters …?’
Indubhushan replied, ‘No one.’
Sudha seemed to wail in distress, ‘No one! How can anybody survive with no one? I too don’t have a mother, but I have my father, my brother. And you really have no one?’
Indubhushan did not have an answer; instead, he held that large, dark gaze brimming with tenderness and sorrow with his own bewildered one for a few telling moments.
In this fashion, the introductions proceeded to acquaintance and from there, to friendship.
One day Sudha said, ‘Every day you savour only the smells -- today you must eat the food with us.’
Indubhushan protested, ‘Oh no, no.’ Then with a little smile, he said, ‘Besides, as the saying goes, savouring the aroma is half the job done, isn’t it?
Sudha said, ‘But, on certain occasions half the job is not enough. And if you eat here, you won’t go against your caste.’
Indubhushan said, ‘My caste was never in any danger.’
Sudha said, ‘Oh, so you’re worried about our caste, are you? Don’t worry, we do not believe in those things. Can’t you see that from the way we live?’
So after his teaching was done, Indubhushan sat down to his meal. Sudha took great care in serving him and feeding him. She cooked a few new dishes. It felt like it was a special occasion. These invitations and festive moods continued to recur at least two or three times a month.
One day, as he was leaving for work, Hargobindo called Habul and asked, ‘So, how is the new teacher doing -- is he good?’
Habul said, ‘He is good, Baba.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Okay, listen, now run along and buy me a packet of cigarettes.’
After Habul left, he turned to his daughter and said, ‘Sudha, we need to talk.’
‘Yes, Baba, what is it?’
Hargobindo said, ‘What is this I hear about you chatting with the teacher and wasting his time here? Isn’t it also your responsibility to see that the tutor does his job properly and doesn’t dawdle or fritter away his time?’
At this unexpected reprimand from her father, Sudha looked somber. After a moment’s pause, she said, ‘Who has been telling you all this, Baba? Was it Habul?’
‘Why would he do it? And even if he did, it wouldn’t be so bad. No, it was the neighbours talking near the common water-pump and I overheard them.’
Sudha said, ‘But you were never one for listening in on gossip, Baba.’
Hargobindo said, ‘And I haven’t started either. But you know something, this place is full of all kinds of creeps. Besides, it’s not like there is any other female member in the house. So, it is best to be a little careful in such cases.’
‘As you say, Baba; I will be careful from now on.’
‘Yes, you do that, my child. And listen, there is no need for all these invitations and feasts. It’s okay to do that on a special occasion or something.’
Sudha said, ‘Yes, Baba.’
She herself was well aware that there was a lot of talk flying around in the building, among the gossip-mongers near the common bathroom area, concerning Sudha and Indubhushan. Just the other day Renu, a girl living in one of the corner rooms on the same floor, had collapsed in helpless giggles as she asked Sudha, ‘Hey, Sudharani, is the tutor teaching Habul alone or are you his pupil too?’
Sudha had replied gravely, ‘He teaches me as well.’
Sulata, the youngest bride of the Sirkar family living on the first floor, was within earshot and she said with a laugh, ‘O-h, so that’s how it goes. Well, what does he teach you - how to win a man’s heart?’
Sudha did not deign to reply, as she filled her pitcher with water and quietly walked back to her rooms.
But it wasn’t just the women; the men folk of different ages - some of whom were just ‘uncles’ to Sudha - who lived in the seven or ten odd houses in that building were also pretty curious about this affair: Panchanan Sirkar the elderly medical-assistant, Hiralal Ganguly, the post-office clerk, Bireshwar Mitra of the railways were among them. The matter had come to the notice of Basu, Ranajit and Suren too, whom Sudha always saw as elder brothers. From the way they looked at her, smiled or talked to her, Sudha could tell that they were aware of something in the air.
Up until this time, everyone thought Hargobindo was proud, unfriendly and just plain unsociable. They thought the same of Sudha - a tad too haughty and vain. Gradually they grew quite indifferent to this family. Although Sudha was still as indifferent as ever, it was as if all these other people had suddenly developed an insatiable curiosity about them. The fact that Sudha was having an interaction with another man, other than her father or brother, was reason enough for the entire building to come storming into her home, bursting with questions. This made it quite difficult for Sudha to stay indifferent to them, too. For the first time in her life, she was becoming aware of just how many people lived in that building. In fact, the folks living in a few other buildings on that street were also privy to this matter now. It was obvious from the way they asked questions about Indu and traded glances. It would seem that this was the first time a private tutor came into a house in this street or that a woman in the house spoke to him at some length, or even that a girl just became friends with a boy.
But Sudha was not the kind of girl who took to heart what someone implied in a jibing tone or how one quirked an eyebrow at her actions. What touched her to the quick was the fact that her father warned her about this on yet another occasion. He said, ‘Sudha, please watch what you say or do. You do not have a mother to protect your reputation and I cannot drop everything and sit at home all day. So you will have to look out for yourself.’
Sudha felt very hurt. She decided she would never speak to Indubhushan again. She would even hand him his tea through Habul. But it was easier said than done. Overriding Sudha’s decision to keep to herself, that day the opposition opened fire.
Indubhushan marked out a passage for Habul to translate, took a sip of tea and said, ‘Why are you so quiet today? Are you coming down with something?’
Sudha was touched by the concern in the last part of his remarks. Usually he never opened a conversation and this was an exception. It felt very different, very remarkable, somehow. That one flash of empathy from Indubhushan was all it took to wash away the burden of everyone else’s malice.
Sudha forgot her vow and remarked, ‘I am not really coming down with something.’
Indubhushan gave a little smile at the tone of challenge in her voice, ‘Oh. I suppose you wouldn’t be just feeling down either? That is much worse than the former, you know.’
It felt so good to be having this conversation.
‘How would you know? Do you ever feel depressed?’ Sudha asked him with a laugh.
‘I certainly do.’
‘What do you do then?’
‘I sit in a corner, all by myself, or sometimes I read a book. Tell me, are you always tied up with cooking and cleaning and other household chores or do you also read books sometimes?’
‘Of course I read, whenever I can get my hands on something.’
Indubhushan laughed, ‘Have you vowed to read only whatever you can get your hands on?’
Sudha looked up, straight into his eyes for an instant. Then she dropped her eyes and said, very softly, ‘If someone were to go the trouble of finding something for me, I’d read that too.’
That was all the signal he needed. From that day onwards he began to bring books for her every day. Not all of them were fiction. There were some autobiographies and travelogues too. But Sudha liked fiction the best. As the days flew, Sudha’s mind soared to new heights and explored other worlds. That world was not as narrow-minded or malicious as her neighbours in the building; it was a delightful place, wondrous and sweet. She had never known that there were so many exciting books out there. The authors seemed to know exactly what was in Sudha’s mind and they just plucked the thoughts from her head and penned them down. Until now, she had scarcely known the verdant green of the leaves on the coconut trees that bordered the tiny pond in front of their building, or how breathtakingly beautiful were the sparkling white chrysanthemums in the flower-pots that graced the terrace of the Bose family. Why hadn’t she ever even noticed the bewitching sky decked with the millions of twinkling stars?
Sometimes a little boy, about twelve or thirteen years old, came to that street selling his wares of fresh flowers. His name was Sukhan. Never before had Sudha realized how sweet, resonant and evocative this name was. She often bought a few annas’ worth of flowers from him - sometimes rajanigandha or beli, sometimes roses the color of blood. She arranged them in vases or tucked them into her braids. Nothing escaped Hargobindo’s eyes. ‘These days, girls have no sense of decency or shame,’ he thought to himself. One day, he couldn’t help speaking his mind, ‘Why are you wasting money on flowers and such nonsense, Sudha?’
Sudha replied, ‘But Baba, I don’t spend too much on them.’
Hargobindo was drying himself with a damp towel as he said, ‘This is not ‘too much’ for you, eh? What would you have, the entire garden in our house? Oh, one more thing - if you feel like dressing up, just tell me and I’ll fetch all the jewelry from the locker. Don’t deck yourself with flowers; it doesn’t look nice on a decent girl. Leave that to the -’ Hargobindo trailed off with a ‘You know.’
Sudha refrained from a reply or changed the subject sometimes. She felt very upset at times. Her father seemed to have changed these days. Why would it bother him whether she braided some flowers in her hair or not. He had the right to be concerned if she failed at any of her domestic duties or if something at home didn’t go off as smoothly as before. But how his daughter chose to dress herself within the confines of the four walls really shouldn’t be a subject of discussion, Sudha felt.
But although Hargobindo did not appreciate flowers, it was no secret to Sudha that Indubhushan was very fond of them. He gazed at the vases admiringly and sometimes, while explaining a geometry rider to his student, his eyes remained locked on the pretty rose that was tucked into her braid. Sudha usually finished her cooking before he came in. She would pull up a chair and sit there knitting or reading a book that he had brought her earlier. Some days Hargobindo would come in early from work and when he saw his daughter sitting there like a queen, a shadow of displeasure crossed his face. He’d send her out of the room on some pretext and turn to Indubhushan, ‘So, tutor-babu, how is the teaching coming along?’
Indubhushan replied tersely, ‘Fine.’
‘Hm. We’ll see how ‘fine’ it is from my son’s grades in the exam.’
Indubhushan smiled and said, ‘Certainly, we will.’
The inherent composure of this smile triggered off a deep sense of shame within Hargobindo. ‘Where does he get that strength?’ He always wondered. Doesn’t he know that Hargobindo was wise to his every trick. If he dared to reach for the moon, Hargobindo had the power to yank his arms right off his body - the little twerp! Always looking for some way to grab a few moments alone with Sudha, he pricked up his ears whenever Sudha spoke to her father and when she said something to him directly, he looked like he was in seventh heaven. Hargobindo could sack him at any point, say to him, ‘I don’t think you are doing your job well here and I don’t require your services any longer.’ But Hargobindo felt this would be too small a penalty for his crime. He intended to mete out a far greater punishment - after all, he had dared to reach for a Brahmin’s daughter, being a lower caste himself! Oh no, Hargobindo would not sack him from his job. Instead, he would humiliate him and torture him more subtly. He wanted to get Sudha married off, right in front of Indubhushan’s eyes. He had plans of inviting the boy over for the wedding and then ordering him around like a slave. Once Sudha left for her husband’s home, Hargobindo would increase Indu’s salary by five rupees and keep him on in his service. He enjoyed the thought of watching the young rascal suffer in that empty room, with no Sudha in it. So, Hargobindo was all set with long-drawn out battle plans.
Hargobindo never did believe in letting his enemies off the hook easily. When colleagues at work formed little groups and conspired against him, he went about getting his own back in a similar fashion. It made the vengeance that much sweeter. When the candy was meant to be savoured slowly, he had no intentions of gobbling it up and missing out on the fun.
He finalized the marriage negotiations with the Mukherjee family of Baranagar. The groom worked in A.G.Bengal and they had their own house in town. The boy’s father came to see Sudha, and the family approved of her. When he was asked whether the groom himself would like to come and see her once, the father had replied, ‘We don’t encourage such behaviour in our family, Sir. Why should the boy have to see her? He will first set eyes on her at the time of the marriage.’ Mr. Mukherjee also had Sudha’s horoscope matched with his son’s, and the family priest had declared it to be a match made in heaven. They were yet to find such an auspicious and perfect match for their son’s horoscope. Sudha had all the signs of good fortune and harmony that they wanted in a future bride of the household. It was a combination of all these good omens and the girl’s simple beauty that had made Mr. Mukherjee go ahead with the negotiations. Otherwise, the disparity between his social status and Hargobindo’s was enough to put him off.
That night, after dinner, when Sudha was getting ready to make her father’s and Habul’s bed on the floor, Hargobindo sat on the cot and swung his legs as he smoked his cigarette and said, ‘I have finally agreed to the proposal from Baranagar. There’s no point in running after people who are much better off than us. I feel we should not aim too much higher than our own class. From what I saw of this family, I think they are just a shade wealthier than us, but just as homely. They seem to be quite religious too and I think we would be able to relate to them easily. But before we fix a date for the formal engagement ceremony, I think we should send a word to your aunt. After all, a woman’s touch in these matters mean a lot --’
Sudha placed a single pillow in Habul’s bed and a pair of them in her father’s and finally covered them with freshly washed pillow covers. She looked at her kid brother and said, ‘Why are you sitting around looking sleepy -- you can hit the bed now.’
She continued making the bed and tucking the fresh sheets into place.
Hargobindo said, ‘Sudha, I am talking to you.’
Sudha replied, ‘I have nothing to say, Baba. I think you should just drop all these marriage negotiations.’
‘What do you mean by that? Don’t you like this proposal? I showed you the boy’s photograph, didn’t I? He is a good-looking, healthy young man. Even the people at work were full of praise for this proposal.’
Sudha said, ‘It’s not that, Baba. I just don’t want to get married, ever. I’d like to stay here with you always.’
‘You crazy little darling,’ Hargobindo was touched, ‘Do you think I am looking forward to the day when you will leave us for your husband’s home? But that’s the way it is. The daughter has got to be sent away to another home, which is always her real one. My greatest joy lies in the fact that you will be happy in that home, in the care of your husband, taking care of your own children.’
Sudha was busy securing the mosquito net over her father’s bed and she said, ‘Baba, it is time you went to bed.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Yes, yes, I am going. But give me an answer first -- shall I give my word to the Baranagar family?’
Sudha replied, ‘No. I don’t want that kind of domestic bliss.’
Hargobindo had risen from the bed and walked to the window in order to chuck the cigarette stub and Sudha grabbed the opportunity by switching the lights off, tucking her mosquito-net and going to sleep, as if there was nothing left to discuss. Hargobindo was very exasperated by this show of defiance from his daughter and he wondered how she had the nerve to behave in this fashion. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that Sudha talked of never getting married. But her tone was never so stubborn or so mutinous. Hargobindo did not go to sleep. He stood by her bed and tried to make his tone as gentle as possible, ‘Even if you don’t want it, I cannot do the same. As a father, I cannot think only of myself and let your life be wasted. Please tell me what you dislike about this proposal and I will call it off. If you wish, I can look up that proposal from Bhawanipur, where the groom is an overseer.’
From the depths of the mosquito-net, Sudha said, ‘Baba, you don’t have to look up anyone anymore.’
Suddenly, Hargobindo’s tenuous hold on patience snapped and he exclaimed, ‘What does that mean? Have you taken matters into your own hands then? What a clever daughter, indeed. Alright then, tell me who you have selected!’
Sudha was silent.
Hargobindo said, ‘Oh, spit it out, Sudha. Let the matter be done with, once and for all. I suppose you will tell me his name and what he does, won’t you?’
Sudha said, ‘Baba, please go to sleep. All this shouting will wake Habul.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Let him wake up. I wish to know everything. As long as you do not tell the whole story, I refuse to go to sleep.’
Softly, Sudha murmured, ‘You don’t have to go into all this, Baba.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Oh, so I don’t even have to go into this. So were you planning to get married without even telling me?’
Sudha said, ‘No, Baba, I would never do that. I will just never get married -- you can be sure of that.’
Hargobindo lost his temper, ‘Sure, don’t ever get married. Just flirt with that tutor all day long. The whole neighborhood is talking about it! So tell me, who is the lucky boy whom you have selected.’
As before, Sudha spoke softly but clearly, ‘You don’t have to know all that, Baba. You will never let me marry that person and I cannot consider getting married without your blessings. So everything will just go on the way things are right now.’
Hargobindo ground his teeth as he said, ‘It is not entirely up to you, stupid girl! Now I get it -- you have gone and given your heart to that useless oaf of a tutor, haven’t you?’
Unruffled, Sudha said, ‘You got that a long while ago, Baba. Now, don’t yell and scream and wake the whole building. Please go and try to get some sleep.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Sleep, oh yes, like you have made it really easy for me now.’
Sudha didn’t answer and just turned over in her bed, as if she were already fast asleep.
Hargobindo came and got into his own bed. In the throes of slumber, Habul mistook his father for a pillow and hugged him tightly. He was nearly fourteen years old, but the boy still drooled while asleep. He drooled a little over Hargobindo’s shirt right now. But it didn’t spark off any maternal instincts in his heart. Instead, Hargobindo hurled the boy away from him in pure irritation and rage - traitors, each and every one of them! When she was a child, Sudha also used to cling to him in just this way. She would not be able to sleep unless she hugged her father and snuggled into his chest. Her mother, Nirmala, would laugh, ‘Look at that possessive daughter of yours,’ she said. But today, the Sudha who once burrowed into his heart had suddenly buried a dagger deep within it. A mosquito had managed to gain entry into his bed, canopied by the mosquito-net. The humming of the insect was ringing in his ears and not letting him sleep. Hargobindo sat up straight. Then he brought his hands together in a loud clap and silenced the mosquito, all in the pitch dark room. Hargobindo couldn’t help smiling with pleasure -- he was still as good at hitting his target.
At the crack of dawn, Hargobindo woke Habul, ‘Wake up, sleepyhead. You’ve had enough sleep.’
Habul said, ‘Just five more minutes, Baba.’
But his father wouldn’t have any of that - it was good to wake up early. Once he had brushed his teeth, his father said, ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk. The morning air would do you good.’
Ahead of the little pond lay a field. When they walked into that field, Hargobindo suddenly took Habul’s palms into his own fists. Habul screamed in shock, ‘I haven’t done anything, please don’t hit me, Baba. I always told Didi not to do it.’
Hargobindo subjected his son to a piercing gaze. He was wearing shorts and they hung loosely on his sparse frame. Very fair, with brown hair all wiry and curls, the boy had got his mother’s large eyes. But at this moment the only feeling he aroused in Hargobindo was a morbid curiosity instead of any tenderness. He smiled a little as he said, ‘I know you haven’t done anything; you are my good little boy. So tell me everything. Don’t worry, Sudha will not know any of this.’
But Habul was still reluctant to open his mouth, as he hemmed and hawed. But Hargobindo questioned him, like a merciless attorney and got every little detail out of him: how those ‘exchanges’ of books masked the exchange of little love-notes between the two, how Sudha made an excuse about meeting an old girlfriend and met the boy at Deshbandhu Park one evening, how they had arranged to take Habul to the movies for a matinee show once and then suddenly sent him off to the zoo with another friend to look at the tigers there -- everything. Habul made no secret of anything; he could not.
On their way back, Hargobindo bought some kachoris, jalebees and some halwa from the shop at the corner. Habul loved to eat this junk, and Hargobindo never allowed his children to eat these things. But today he did. Habul felt a little uneasy, ‘Why are you buying all this, Baba?’
Hargobindo said, ‘Eat it, son. You kids love this stuff.’
Habul felt, although Baba said this, his eyes were burning like that tiger he saw in the zoo. Trembling with fear, he tagged along behind his father as they made their way towards home. He dreaded what would happen now, over the morning tea.
But Hargobindo did not say a word to Sudha. As he drank his tea, he only looked up a few times and gazed at Sudha. The look in those eyes sent a shiver up her spine the first time. But, the second time she was not scared. Her eyes reciprocated by showering hatred and hostility on her father. They forgot that as father and daughter, they had ever shared a sweet communion, loving and respecting one another. It was as if they had always been the greatest of antagonists.
Hargobindo did not say a word or ask his daughter for an explanation. Just like every other day, he went to the market, shaved and showered and got dressed to go to work. Sudha also followed the routine, cooked and cleaned, laid the places for her father and brother and fed them their morning meal. But Habul could not help feeling everything was different today. He sensed the presence of storm clouds on the horizon. Even after he ate and went off to school, his father’s flashing eyes and his sister’s drooping face continued to haunt his imagination.
Hargobindo had said he would be back home a little later than usual. But it turned out that he was home much earlier, even before dusk. Sudha was a little surprised to see her father return so early. But instead of expressing it, she made the tea and handed him some snacks quietly and didn’t say a word to him. Hargobindo had expected his daughter would beg forgiveness, try to present some pointless justification. But nothing of the sort happened. Sudha’s defiance, which spoke volumes through her silence, only served to make him angrier and more exasperated. At one point he asked, ‘So where is Habul? Hasn’t he returned yet?’
Sudha said, ‘He has gone out to play. He’ll be back soon.’
Habul came back in a short while and he was startled to see his father home so early. But Hargobindo said to him calmly and tersely, ‘Do your homework, son.’
A little later, Indubhushan arrived, holding a bunch of rajanigandha in his hands. A few days ago he had noticed the empty vases around the house and asked, ‘Have you lost your interest in flowers? I don’t see much around these days.’
Sudha had replied, ‘Why should I lose interest. Sukhan doesn’t come here much these days and so I haven’t been able to get them. Perhaps he is sick or something.’
Indubhushan had laughed and said, ‘If you have no objections, I can fulfill his duties for as long as Sukhan is unwell.’
So this was the day that he chose to bring the promised bouquet. But when he found Hargobindo sitting there, he seemed a little uncomfortable. Normally he wasn’t around when Indubhushan came in. Hargobindo often walked in a little before it was time for Indu to leave. Besides, these days Sudha looked a trifle grimmer and sadder than usual. When he realized that nobody was saying anything, Indubhushan said, ‘Habul, please put the flowers in a vase for me.’
Hargobindo stood up and said, ‘Let me do that for you. Well, these are such pretty flowers and so fresh, too. I bet you didn’t get them anywhere in the vicinity, did you?’
Abashed, Indubhushan replied hesitantly, ‘Oh no, Sir, I got them from the market in College Street.’
‘Beautiful flowers,’ Hargobindo repeated.
Indubhushan began to teach Habul. That was when Hargobindo went out once and finished a quick, whispered conference with the other men in the building. Indubhushan looked at Sudha and said, ‘What is the matter today? Why all this --’
Sudha pointed to her brother and placed a finger on her lips. That meant Habul was also on the other side today and it was time for Indubhushan and Sudha to be far more cautious. In a few moments Hargobindo returned to his seat and continued sitting there, still as a statue. Indubhushan taught his student with a little more care and dedication that day. Then he set Habul some tasks of translation and math for the next day and rose to take his leave. Hargobindo followed him outside, ‘Come, Indu, let me walk you part of the way. I need to talk to you.’
So far, Sudha had watched quietly. Now she came up to the doorway and spoke sharply, ‘Whatever you have to say to him, you should do it right here, in front of me. I will not let you insult him, Baba.’
Hargobindo said, ‘Why should I insult him? I just want to ask him a few things. Are you scared, teacher?’
Indubhushan took one look at Sudha’s face, turned to Hargobindo and said, ‘No, I am not scared. Let’s go.’
There was the field across from the pond. Beyond that lay the twisting, narrow lanes of the city suburbs. At the beginning of those roads, Hargobindo stopped suddenly. He stood facing Indubhushan as he said, ‘So, teacher, tell me, what is your true calling - teaching kids or flirting with girls?’
Indubhushan was trembling with fear, but he would not let go of his show of confidence so easily, ‘I am not prepared to answer such awkward questions.’
‘Fine! Let us prepare you then.’ Some shadowy figures materialized out of the darkness. Indubhushan recognized some of them with difficulty. These were the men that Sudha called ‘uncle’ and ‘dada’. They were tenants in the same building.
Quite frightened now, Indubhushan said, ‘What are your intentions -- beating me up?’
One of them said, ‘Oh no, we’ll just get the answer out of you.’
Another threw in a pointed metaphor, ‘We will just squeeze the tube and get the toothpaste out, sonny.’
Hargobindo was about to follow them. One of them said, ‘Uncle, you don’t have to come with us. We will go and give you the news when we are done.’
The news arrived a week later. Indubhushan had died, feverish and delirious, in the hospital. At first he lay around in his mess for a few days - some people had left him on the doorstep, severely beaten up. The people at the mess didn’t think much of it to begin with. But gradually, when his condition deteriorated, some of them had him admitted to the general ward of the local hospital.
Sudha had been fretting restlessly for the whole of that week. But Hargobindo had placed strict vigilance on his doorstep and no one allowed her to leave the house. Everybody tried to cover up the news. But they didn’t succeed. From the whispers floating around among the men-folk of the house, the news slowly filtered into Sudha’s ears.
She did not weep. She just lay on the bed for two whole days. As her young body shook with suppressed sobs, her mass of unkempt, dark hair lay strewn across her back.
Hargobindo came and stood beside her, ‘Sudha.’
Sudha did not answer.
Hargobindo placed his hand gently on his daughter’s back. She did not even stir. He said, ‘Sudha, please believe me, darling, I had no idea it would end like this. We just wanted to punish him a little, not put him to death.’
Sudha remained as silent as ever.
On the third day, Sudha stood up. She took up her household chores again and started cooking for her father and brother. On the face of it, everything went on as before. But nothing was the same within. A girl cooked and cleaned, made the bed and did all that she was supposed to do. Hargobindo looked on helplessly. This was not his loving, lively Sudha -- the apple of his eye. This was a stone figurine, an exact replica of his Sudha. This mannequin had her eyes, but no lashes; it had her lips, but they lacked the tell-tale signs of love, concern and approval.
Habul found this land of snow and marble very difficult to live in. He felt he was being stifled, and he didn’t come home except to eat and sleep. But Hargobindo had to be inside far longer than that. His daughter’s airs still vexed and annoyed him; but something stopped him from showing it. A draft of cool air wafted over his red hot ire and turned everything to ashes. They were like two gaunt and desolate islands floating in the midst of a bottomless, serene ocean; from afar, one would look at the other. But there were no bridges to connect the two, no ferries that crossed the distance.
One day Hargobindo noticed that Sudha was dressed rather shabbily. She wore widows’ white and no ornaments - neither gold nor floral - adorned her except for a pair of bangles on her wrists. Another day, he noticed at dinnertime that she was eating only vegetables and rice; the fish remained untouched. She gave it all to her father and brother.
Hargobindo was speechless for a few moments and then he asked, ‘Sudha, aren’t you having any fish?’
Sudha replied, ‘I don’t feel like having it.’
Hargobindo said, ‘But why not, let us all hear it? Are you widow? Did you and that boy ever exchange vows before the sacred fire?’
Sudha said, ‘Is that the only way?’
Hargobindo said, ‘Shame, shame! How could you even say such things in front of your father?’
Sudha answered nonchalantly, ‘You asked and so I told you. Did you feel any shame asking this, Baba?’
Hargobindo was silent for a short while. Then he said, ‘You are lying, Sudha. You are just being stubborn and this is your revenge. But why are you all set to destroy me, girl? If you have suspicions, I’d rather you went to the police or appealed to the courts of law; even that would be better than this.’
A faint smile floated across Sudha’s lips. She said, ‘He has no relatives or near ones who would do those things. I am all he had. But then, I am your daughter. If you went out and killed someone, I will wipe the blood off your hands - not have them handcuffed. You see, I am your daughter.’
Hargobindo screamed, ‘You are not my daughter - you’re my enemy, in this life and for all lives to come.’
After a period of silence, Hargobindo always tried to come forward, to make peace and to rejuvenate the old lines of communication. He would start a conversation in the hope that Sudha would join. At night, he spoke aloud, shared nostalgic memories, like he always did. They would be about Sudha’s mother, or her maternal home. But Sudha did not feel any interest in her father’s anecdotes. Hargobindo spoke to himself, and no response came from the cot on the other side of the room.
Hargobindo said, ‘Sudha, my dear, are you asleep?’
She replied curtly, ‘Hm.’
He spoke of fishing, of boats capsizing in the middle of the river, of strange lands and exciting adventures, stories which always had Sudha listening with bated breath; but Sudha had no interest in them now. She no longer laughed at funny stories or got scared by frightful ones and household matters did not arouse an iota of enthusiasm in her. All his attempts at getting her to respond were miserable failures.
One day Hargobindo returned from work a little early. He had gone and bought three tickets to the movies that day. He said, ‘Come on, Sudha, let’s go. It’s been so long since all of us went and saw a movie. Madhumalati is one of the best films in recent years - it’s a musical. You love songs, don’t you?’
Hargobindo looked at his son. Habul walked up to her apprehensively and said, ‘Let’s go Didi, please?’
Sudha replied, ‘Don’t pester me, Habul. Why don’t you two go along, if you like.’
Hargobindo tried throwing a tantrum after the begging and pleading did not work. But it was no use. Eventually, he just tore up the tickets in exasperation. Sudha had the same answer for his suggestions to go to the museum, the zoo, beside the Ganga or the lake: ‘You go along.’
Another day, he brought a heavy gold chain. It was a paddy-stalks’ pattern and new in the market. He said, ‘Try it on, Sudha. I think it’ll look very good on you.’
Sudha held her father’s eyes in a steady gaze for an instant before she said, ‘Why did you waste all that money, Baba? You know I have given up all these things.’
‘Given up!’ Hargobindo gnashed his teeth and fumed and fretted. But nothing came of it all. Now Sudha did not expect her father’s love any more than she feared his authority. Sometimes a sense of thwarted power made him go up in flames and then again, frigid fingers of despair brushed against it, and he turned to stone.
One day, Sudha’s aunt, Kamala, came from Bowbazar. She pleaded with Sudha to go home with her for a few days, but Sudha wouldn’t listen. Annoyed and helpless, finally she turned her anger on Hargobindo, ‘What kind of a man are you, jamaibabu? Why don’t you just get the girl married off? Don’t just sit there with your hands on your lap - however possible, with whoever that will, just get her married.’
Hargobindo said, ‘The Mukherjees of Baranagar - well, they backed out.’
Kamala said, ‘And why shouldn’t they! People talk, only too well. If you know what’s best for you, leave this house, this neighborhood. There’s no dearth of homes in this city.’
Kamala was not only beautiful, she was also smart. After much consideration, Hargobindo decided to take her advice. He decided to move from the north to the south of the city. He found a place for seventy-five rupees a month, on Sadananda Road in Kalighat. It had two bedrooms and separate kitchen and bathroom. He figured it would be quite convenient even if his daughter and son-in-law came and stayed with him for a while.
Sudha had held her peace while the moving was going on. But she drew the line at any further talks about marriage, ‘You can kick me out, get me out of the way, but you cannot marry me off against my will. If you do, there’ll be no stopping a terrible tragedy,’ she said. This disposition of his daughter made Hargobindo quite nervous. She could not be trusted now -- she was quite capable of anything. So he didn’t say anything for the next few days. Neither did Sudha. Those unbearable, ice-cold walls of silence lay heavily between them.
Sudha didn’t have to share her space with her father and brother -- she now had her own room. Sometimes Hargobindo glanced at his daughter’s room through the window; there wasn’t much to look at. Sudha did not allow any expensive furnishing to enter her room - not even a cot. Her bedding lay neatly folded up against the wall in one corner. A small bookshelf stood beside it. Hargobindo didn’t have to open those books to know that they were his gifts - the tormentor who lived on even in death. Upon the shelf stood an empty flower vase. On that fateful day Hargobindo had returned to the house and thrown the bunch of rajanigandha out into the streets. Since that day, Sudha never filled it with flowers again.
One day, again, Hargobindo called his daughter to him and said, ‘Sudha, I am your father.’
Sudha said, ‘Just tell me what you have to say.’
Hargobindo was silent for a few moments, and then he said, ‘Is it so difficult for you to forgive me?’
Sudha lowered her head and said, ‘Let that be, Baba.’
Hargobindo was at a loss for words after this. Sudha sat there for a little while longer, and then she went into her own room.
Habul sat at the small table, studying. These days he studied on his own and kept to himself. He had grown accustomed to the lonely, desolate life in this household. He had ceased to be a bridge between his father and sister, and now he seemed to be a third island, all by himself. Hargobindo stared at his son for a long time. He was taller now, but still as thin as before. Hargobindo felt a well of tenderness within himself and he called out, ‘Habul.’
‘Yes, Baba.’ His son answered.
Hargobindo said, ‘Come here, my boy.’
Surprised, Habul stood up. Baba never called out to him these days, not like this. Hesitantly, he walked up to his father. Suddenly, Hargobindo got up and threw his arms around the boy, drawing him into his chest, ‘Habul, my son Habul --’
Habul stood stock still for a few shocked seconds. Then he extricated himself with great difficulty and said, ‘Baba, please, let go of me. You are hurting me.’
Hargobindo was touched to the quick as he let go of his son and said, ‘So now I am hurting you as well. Alright then, go away.’
Habul went back to his books. Hargobindo tiptoed all the way up to the window again. But he didn’t open it this time, because if he did, he would have to look at Sudha. He stood by the wall and pricked up his ears as if he was straining to hear something, but he heard nothing except the sounds of his own deep sighs.
The next day Hargobindo left for work a little early.
Suren Samaddar was a co-worker who shared a desk with Hargobindo. They were also around the same age. Samaddar was a really amicable and friendly soul. He always kept in touch with his colleagues’ lives and helped them whenever he could - he’d find a groom for someone’s daughter or a bride for a son. For his bosses, he would find reliable domestic help and for junior clerks looking for a change of job, he would find new bosses. So far, Hargobindo had not spoken about his misery to this man, but today he decided to bare his soul.
As they were sorting through the files, Hargobindo said, ‘Suren, my friend, I have a favour to ask of you.’
Surenbabu said, ‘What is it?’
‘Can you find me a boy?’
‘What sort of a boy?’
‘It’ll be nice if he is a brahmin, but even if he isn’t --’
‘Why should he be a different caste? You are a brahmin and you’ll get a brahmin - there is no dearth of them. Go on.’
‘It’ll be nice if he has an M.A. degree, but a B.A. will do just as well.’
Surenbabu said, ‘But why? There are plenty of boys with M.A. degrees around. But, do go on.’
Hargobindo said, ‘It doesn’t matter what he does for a living, as long as he earns enough to make both ends meet.’
Surenbabu smiled and said, ‘Absolutely! So, who is this for? It wouldn’t be for your daughter, would it? Oh come now, be straight with me - you are looking for a son-in-law. Well, I have someone in mind who is just the right person. So tell me, are you interested?’
Hargobindo said, ‘Oh no, no, not a son-in-law, I don’t want a son-in-law.’
Surenbabu said, ‘Well, then?’
Hargobindo lowered his eyes and looked away as he said, ‘A private tutor - I want a private tutor for my son.’
Published in Parabaas, December 5, 2003