Whenever Sumati saw Ranjabati Didimoni at the end of the lane, she thought of Sitala Devi's Temple. The memory brought back mixed feelings of happiness and fear.
They had come as a couple to the neighbourhood taking up residence on the ground floor of the red building at the junction of the lane. Sumati was their part-time maid.
"Didimoni, will you need a part-time helping hand?"
Ranjabati turned round and looked at her. She had a neat, slim figure. She couldn't be much older than twenty two or twenty three. She had worn her red-bordered sari in the new style. A round red vermilion bindi on her forehead and a married woman's shell bangle on her wrist. But her eyes with their sparkle drew one's attention to her more than anything else. They were like two burning flames. Sumati felt that their light was not the illumination from the soot darkened lamp in a low roofed slum. This was like electric light. Ranjabati Didimoni was like a sharpened sword. The moment Sumati touched it, she would be sliced in half.
In the meantime, Ranjabati sized Sumati up, inspecting her from top to toe. Then in a state of eratic anger, she told her slim Dadababu, who sat perched on a pile of boxes and bedding, a few things in English. Sumati could not understand English, but she had no difficulty in understanding her antagonistic attitude from her expression. Ultimately, Dadababu gave the answer.
'For the time being, appoint her, then you can look around.'
So Sumati got the part-time job of a maid at Ranjabati's for a salary of eight rupees a month.
Sumati knew that Ranjabati was not happy about employing her. This was obvious to Sumati through the expression of Ranjabati's eyes. Was it so easy to get rid of the smell of Jorabot Slum by wearing a white sari in the morning and entering Chandar Lane? One could only try to scrub and wash away the kohl under the eyes and the red of lac-dye on chilblained feet.
Nevertheless, Sumati loved escaping the narrow, crowded neighbourhood of her slum to Ranjabati's Hariyar Road, and above all, she liked entering the domestic security of Ranjabati's tidy home.
Then, when it grew dark, after her day's tasks, Sumati sat in front of Ranjabati's door with her mirror and her broken comb. She carefully gathered her scanty hair in a bunch. By the time she had knotted her plaited hair into a bun, the day had advanced even further.
Ranjabati would come out of the bathroom, wearing a cotton handloom sari, her hair tied into a top-notch. She would look at Sumati and say with a laugh, "How old are you Sumati?"
Sumati's body had brushed off her sense of shame after the floods of nineteen-fifty -- with the last sari that the father of her six sons had given her. Nevertheless, Sumati felt the faint tug of its roots in the scorching gaze that Ranjabati regarded her with. Then she pulled the end of her white sari to cover her sagging breasts under the satin blouse that Ranjabati had given her.
Ranjabati's nostrils swelled with hatred as she laid out her husband's tea -- 'You are forty forty- two now Sumati, leave all this and take up a full-time housekeeper's job in someone's house.'
Sumati used to lower her head and enter the lane. All the part-time maids of the day sat up at this time in front of their low-roofed houses, like night's enchantresses. After coming home, Sumati recalled the father of her six sons as she draped the striped sari that she had bought at the Howrah fair, round herself. Sumati too had arranged his snack when he came back from working in the field. But not with the soft hands of a blushing bride like Ranjabati. Then all her memories would be buried under layers of her consciousness. Even when a door from the past opened and they surfaced, then the only reality that confronted Sumati was the flame of the kerosene lamp burning in front of her.
In the end, the last curtain of her real identity was lifted that night in front of the Jorabot Slum. Ranjabati Didimoni and Dadababu were probably taking the shorter route through the slum after watching a night show at the cinema. Ranjabati knew everything, but when she was confronted by the whole truth, her hatred found a voice and seeped through the corners of her lips.
The next day when Sumati came to do the washing up, she said, "Aren't you ashamed Sumati, aren't you afraid of sin?"
"What can I do Didimoni, hunger doesn't heed ...'
"Hunger? Listen Sumati, I would have committed suicide. No! I would never have stooped to do that."
A helplessness swept over Sumati, filling her with an intense pain which shot through her bosom. She wanted to embrace Ranjabati's fair feet and say, Oh, Didimoni, wait, you don't know the pain of hunger. But no, one could not say that. Ranjabati Didimoni did not feel hungry, and even if she did, it was not the shameless, greedy hunger that Sumati experienced. Getting up at dawn and sitting on one's haunches to eat other people's discarded rice and bread, was something Ranjabati Didimoni had never known.
Sumati lowered her head and walked down to the tubewell. She noticed that there was not one dirty dish beside it. It was then that she saw Ranjabati sitting beside her husband's covered plate of rice on the clean green cemented floor of her room. A cascade of hair tumbled out over her anchal. Ranjabati's household had not yet been afflicted by hunger.
"Dadababu has not yet come back Didimoni. You haven't eaten anything and it is now five o'clock."
Ranjabati looked up and smiled weakly. Sitting in front of Ranjabati's room, Sumati felt a strange feeling deep in her stomach, secreting corrosive juices which slowly would drip towards the digestive system and then when they didn't get any sustenance, their turbulence would hit her thirty two nerves, looking for weapons. The head spun, the palate dried up, a nausea filled the whole body. Ranjabati Didimoni did not know this strange experience. She did not know the mantra. Ranjabati looked up and spoke, "What is so strange? Every wife sits with the rice, waiting for her husband. Do you know what my mother did? She took the mythical Savitri's vow --to eat her husband's leftovers for fourteen years! When Baba went out of Kolkata, Baba's leftovers were preserved in a pot. Ma would not sit down to eat before she had eaten one grain of that rotting rice."
Sumati stared at her, her eyes gleaming . As Ranjabati Didimoni drew the background of her mother's traditional devotion, it was as if she had become unique like Sumati's village idol, the ten-armed goddess who was nonpareil.
At this moment Dadababu entered the house. It seemed as if the man had become as frail as a bamboo leaf. Ranjabati came forward, "Why are you so late -- come leave this salesman job of yours."
Sunil dropped down on the bed. He said, "I don't have to leave the job; the job has left me Ranja."
Sumati seemed to fade into the shadows. She ran to the end of Grove Lane to breathe freely, trying to clear her thoughts. Would she fast now, and when she had reached the end of her capacity to withstand hunger, would she be transformed into a statue, positioned at the junction of this lane? - Sumati bit her tongue inwardly. What a thought to harbour of her chaste Didimoni!
After that, for one month, Sumati had not been able to keep in touch with Ranjabati. She hadn't even been able to collect her salary from Ranjabati Didimoni. Her neighbour, Golap, who lived in the next hut, somehow kept her going with titbits that she brought her. Then Sumati started sitting with a lighted lamp, in spite of her ill health. After a few days, she felt the thorn of a new life pricking inside her. She would have to see Ranjabati Didimoni now. Didimoni owed Sumati eight rupees. Once she had the money, she would have to head for the landlady of Bagalabari at Jorabot Slum.
Somehow, she would have to get the medicine, otherwise, who would employ her when she was big with child? Who would come to her in the evening seeking this age-old pleasure?
After a long period of absence, Sumati came and sat in Ranjabati's room. One month seemed to have swept like a flood over Ranjabati's neat little home. Everything was at sixes and sevens. It was impossible to detect that tidy home in this utter mess. Ranjabati was sitting crosslegged at one end of her kitchen to have her late lunch. It was obvious that she was very hungry. She was putting big dollops into her mouth in a greedy fashion. Sumati was taken aback at this picture of Ranjabati sitting eating a meal just anyhow and without even a mat or a glass of water
A glance around made things clearer to her. Ranjabati's bangles had diminished in number on her arms. Her wedding bed was missing from her bedroom. In one corner, a pathetic bedding lay crumpled on the floor.
In spite of it all Sumati forced herself to ask for her pay - just eight rupees. But Ranjabati's face lost colour at her request. Sumati understood everything. But Sumati too had no other option. She confessed the secret behind her dire need.
Ranjabati looked at Sumati with amazement. Her beautiful, big eyes were filled with deep hatred. She immediately opened her wardrobe and rummaging in her drawer, somehow gathered eight rupees in coins and notes and threw them at Sumati, saying, "Go and kill a human being Sumati. You are a murderer!"
Sumati felt a stab of pain at Ranjabati's strong rebuke. Uncontrollable tears filled her nearly dried up, kohl-darkened eyes. She looked at Ranjabati and tried to justify herself, "Didimoni, do you think I purposely kill life, -- I have raised five children. There was a time, when I nurtured them with the milk of my breast."
"Where are they now?'
"They were all destroyed by life Didimoni." Sumati smiled faintly. She seemed to be groping in her memory, "... the few who were left, died before their time."
"Why don't you save the one you are carrying now?"
"I can't Didimoni, I haven't been able to. In the past, I have lost one son after another." Sumati remembered how the precious bundle had filled her arms when she came out of the hospital a few years ago. And then how the same little boy wizened and died on the pavements of Kolkata.
The dams had burst for Sumati. Her unmitigated suffering now seemed to rush towards her like a deluge. Was this a story from this life of hers, or a dream from her past seven lives? Today if that wife of Bijoy Weaver's, Sumatibala came face to face with Sumati, she would probably look at her with wonder. Whenever children were born in Sumati's village, a place was made for goddess Sashti against a wall. If it was a boy, a tree was made of flawless cowries against the wall, and if it was a girl, a hut. Sumati had six tree-huts for her six boys and girls. Sumati recalled her husband and how on a shelf she kept shining brass crockery, and the toys bought for her children at the Rash-Charak Mela - a trader's wife, clay Radha-Krishna, a housewife with a pitcher against her hips, a red-turbaned policeman . Beneath them Sumati had made six artistic motifs with cowries of the deep seas. How wonderful was their intricate beauty! In every home, Sumati had the reputation of a fertile woman. Whenever a child was born, Sumati was the first one to be summoned. At the auspicious moment, Sumati would string the cowries into trees with her nimble fingers. There would be the sound of conch shells all around, and clanging of gongs and wafts of burning incense.
Sumati went on reminiscing, My older son would tease my little daughter,-- "See, I have a tree," My daughter would cry and say, "Oh Ma, make me a tree on the roof of my hut."
When there was wailing in any house in the village, when someone's birth seed froze, then Sumati would gather her six children to her breast, close her door and draw her blinds and sit at home. And however much she tried not to think of it, she could visualize the pitiful sight of the mother weeping inconsolably for her dead child, while she covered the cowrie tree made for the child. "With time, my cowrie tree was also blotted out Didimoni," continued Sumati. An interminable flood of tears flowed down her emaciated cheeks. The floods came and crumbled her southern wall. Sons, daughters, cowries and utensils became one indistinguishable jumble. One household after another was drowned and dragged towards the ocean. All Sumati possessed was lost in the flood waters.
For a long time Sumati sat leaning silently against the wall of the kitchen. The kerosene lamp did not burn in front of her low-roofed slum house as on other evenings. And Ranjabati Didimoni looked at her with a new and understanding gaze. One ray of compassionate sympathy in Ranjabati's eyes set alight a spark in Sumati's gloomy world. This new light came from the words of consolation from a pure, good woman.
"Whatever you do Sumati, don't have medicine from a quack doctor - it'll kill you."
Coming out of Ranjabati's door, Sumati smiled tearfully at the enveloping darkness, Didimoni, is too inexperienced - innocent...
The next day, Ranjabati sent for Sumati through Mukta who was the daughter of the maid servant whom everybody called 'Mukta's Ma'.
Ranjabati was sitting with a pile of cowries on the floor. "Your cowrie tree is haunting me, Sumati. Come on, make me a tree."
Sumati's eyes burned with ecstasy. Didimoni would have a son - this rosy, delicate Didimoni of hers!
In the meantime, Ranjabati had bent her head in embarrassment and sat down to mend a torn and tattered sari. Lighted dust particles danced around her, glittering in the sunlight.
Just at that moment Dadbabu came in with distracted eyes and dishevelled hair. While pushing his dusty hair back with his fingers, he said, "Give me rice Ranja."
"Rice?' Ranjabati lowered her head, '... let Sumati go, then I'll serve you." Sumati understood. The kitchen was as empty as a cremation ground. There was not one grain of rice anywhere.
"I'm going Didimoni. You can give Dadababu his lunch." Sumati got up. She tucked in the priceless collection in the folds of her sari round her waist. "I'll come in the evening and make your cowrie tree for you."
While leaving this ruined household of Ranjabati's, Sumati felt the soft touch of sympathy caressing her parched heart - she would come again. If she came, everything might be the same again. She felt the tremor of tender young lips round her nipples. Ranja Didimoni was a blessed woman. A pure, good woman like Sati Savitri. Then, a few months later a swing would hang in their room. A shy Dadababu would bring a new red mosquito net. The air of the room would be filled with the sound of a tender little voice. After a while, rosy little children would quarrel over shell trees. Then Sumati's bastard foetus would die a tortured death, buried under the dust and mud of some manhole. But the pain Sumati felt for it would be less than that inflicted by an ant bite. She accepted this death, in the same way that she had accepted her first search for a man.
On her way back, Sumati caught a last glimpse of a Savitri-like Ranjabati. Ranjabati stood like a statue, holding on to the iron bars of the window. She heard a broken bit of Dadababu's words, 'In the evening I'll bring the Superintendent of our office, Ranja. He hopes he can give you a position in propaganda or publicity. But though I tried, I couldn't bring myself to tell him of your advanced stage.'
In the evening Sumati made a shell tree on Ranjabati's kitchen wall. She decorated the room, pouring all her compassion into the effort. All around, unheard by them, many conchshells and gongs sounded, and there were countless fish, lotus, conch shells ordained by the gods, while in her mind's eye her youngest boy's sweet, lovely face fleetingly passed the window, peeping in at her.
Sunil and Ranjabati came out to the veranda with a gentleman. "Didimoni, your tree is ready, come and have a look."
Ranjabati's attention was not there at all. What a soft, flattering look she cast with her surma-lined eyes. Ranjabati in her silk sari, was looking like an exotic Reshmi Bibi of some famous tradition who lived in a new bustee. She had flowers in her hair, perfume on her body and was draped in glittering clothes. As he got into his taxi, the stranger said, "I'm sorry Mrs. Roy, but the work I could have given you involves a lot of touring, you cannot take on such work in your advanced stage."
"Sumati..." The car had left and Ranjabati had come and stood in front of Sumati. Her gaze was unfocussed, her silk anchal had slipped from her breast, the urn of untasted nectar of the unborn Garur trembled as she breathed heavily. Her eye make up had smudged on her cheeks. "You'll have to bring me the medicine from your landlady, Sumati." Ranjabati grasped Sumati's hands.
For a long time, Sumati remained like a figure cut in stone. Amazing! The other day she had discouraged Sumati, yet today, what was this mantra that took away her fear of having medicine from quacks?
Sumati sat for a long time with her head resting on the kitchen wall. The pictures that she had harboured in her mind were circling and drifting like dry leaves in a hurricane in Chaitra. Her feet felt heavy. Nevertheless, she somehow gathered herself together. She took handfuls of sand and covered the cowrie tree that she had created with such care.
No, in the filthy slime of the manhole there was no shell tree. Ranjabati's khoka would lie beside Sumati's khoka with his head buried in the slush. The small tender hands and legs will not kick and play.
As on all evenings, Sumati lighted her kerosene lamp at the door of her low-roofed hut. As usual she sat staring fixedly at the soot-darkened lantern, when one confused idea slowly became clear. She felt the pull of this life-invigorating world in every nerve of her own creative being which transformed her perspective with a new sympathy. ---Oh, what can Didimoni do --- she too feels the pangs of hunger!
Published (in Parabaas) July 20, 2002
Dada, Dadababu : literally elder brother; often used as a reverential form of address to denote one of superior station; master.
Didimoni : the feminine gender of dadababu.
Harvest is an annual translation journal launched by Anustup, a well respected literary magazine and publishing house in Kolkata. Two short stories from Harvest Volume I (2001) have been excerpted in Parabaas. Anustup is edited by Anil Acharya; Harvest is guest edited by Tapati Gupta.