• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
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  • The First Promise, by Ashapurna Debi [Parabaas Translation] : Ashapurna Debi
    translated from Bengali to English by Indira Chowdhury











    Extracts from The First Promise

    translated from the Bengali novel
    Ashapurna Debi's Pratham Pratisruti by



    Indira Chowdhury









    Ashapurna Debi, The First Promise, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2004. pp. xlii + 541, contains, Introduction, alphabetical guide to characters and a glossary. ISBN 81-250-2650-9.












     



    Chapter Four



    The
    whiff of a cool, unexpected breeze started up as the sultry day drew to a
    close. It cooled the body, but raised a fear too. The season was unpredictable
    - the end of spring. At the corner of the sky, black clouds veiled half the
    sky, looking like a rough giant preparing to pounce on the earth.



    Those who were out in the fields, on the road or
    near the pond, started speeding up the work at hand, anxiously looking up at
    the sky every now and then.
    And echoing in the
    wind, from one end of the village to another, arose
    the dim refrain of a nasal call. The pitch rose and fell in stages. These were
    the words: ‘Co-me Bundi! Co-me Sundari! Co-me Moongli! Lakkhi! Co-me!’ Summoning the dumb animals to come
    from the grassland to their sheds, out of the storm.



    Satyabati
    was rushing home with news from the Banerji locality

    .<!--[p.14]
    -->
    But hearing the call, she too raised her voice and yelled out, ‘Co-me Shyamali!
    Co-me Dhabali!’



    Ramkali
    was walking past the mango grove on his way back from the Ray locality. He had
    had to leave his palki there. Ray-mashai, one of the village elders, was dying.
    Ramkali had gone to have a look at him. Judging by his condition, he had
    advised that they take the old man to the bank of the river - the Ganga; and that's what landed him in trouble.



    Both
    the sons of the old man had died, and the three grandsons hardly had the means
    to hire a palki and bearers. And yet, it was unthinkable that such a virtuous
    old man should die at home!  What an
    unbearable thought! The best place to take him to would be Tribeni - where the
    three streams meet. But when the three grandsons stood exchanging uncertain
    looks, Ramkali had been obliged to say, ‘Don't worry about the palki - you can
    take him in mine.



    The
    grandsons had mumbled a 
    protest
    , ‘You have to go far to visit your patients. How can you
    do without your palki…’



    And
    Ramkali had retorted with a dark laugh, ‘In that case, carry him on your
    shoulders! After all, here you are, three strapping young men!’



    It
    would be unthinkable to laugh at the joke of an elder, so they had just
    scratched their heads.



    Finally,
    taking courage, the eldest had ventured, ‘We were thinking of a bullock cart
    ...’



    ‘Then
    you were thinking wrong!’ Ramkali had responded, ‘Do you think this frail
    ninety-two year old body will get there in one piece in a bullock cart? His
    life will fly out for sure! I am like a son to him, so do not hesitate. And
    besides, you never know what other quick arrangements you might need to make.’



    Tears
    had rolled down the misty eyes of the old man. He had raised his infirm right
    hand in blessing.



    Outside,
    Ramkali had instructed his palki bearers, ‘Why carry the palki all the way?
    Leave it here, and go home and eat. Get back before daybreak. And bring enough
    food to last the day, okay? And <!--[p. 15]
    -->
    listen, go and ask if there's anything else to be done here. I'm going home.’



    He
    was rushing because he had noticed the clouds in the horizon. It wasn't as if
    he was unaccustomed to walking just because he used a palki to visit his
    patients. Every day he rose at dawn and walked for a mile or so after his
    morning ablutions - that was the first of his daily duties. But when he visited
    a patient, it was different; then, it was very much a matter of prestige.



    Ramkali
    had intended taking the short-cut through the fruit orchard, but no sooner had
    he entered the mango grove, a dust-storm had started up. And Ramkali had
    quickly come out; and that very instant he had stopped on his tracks, startled.
    Wasn't that Satya's voice? It did sound like her. It took him a moment, a very
    wee moment, though, to confirm, because the wind was stormy. And the names of
    the cows were familiar. Though the Chatterjis had a shed full of cows, these
    two were special and Ramkali was very fond of them. He fed them, stroked them,
    and, the unmarried girls of the house did their cow-rituals with these two. And
    the dung they produced was used by Mokshada to preserve ritual purity.



    Ramkali
    strained his ears to determine the direction of that sound, then walking briskly, he caught up with his daughter. By then, Satyabati
    had broken into a run, and was using the corner of her saree to shield her eyes
    from the dust.



    ‘Where're
    you off to?’ Ramkali asked, his voice booming like thunder.



    Satyabati
    gave a start, removed her saree from her face, and was totally stunned!
    Everyone called Satyabati her father's darling – which, of course, was true,
    and her father cherished her too for being his lucky girl. There was, however,
    no overt display of affection. Naturally, Satyabati panicked on hearing her
    father's voice.



    Ramkali
    repeated, ‘Where had you gone by yourself at this hour?’



    Satyabati
    answered in a faint voice: ‘To Sejopishi's.’



    The
    person Satyabati called `Sejopishi' was in fact Ramkali's first cousin. She'd
    been married in this village, and lived here. [p.16]



    Ramkali
    frowned: ‘ And why did you go so far all by yourself?
    Why isn't anybody with you?’



    This
    was just the reason why they called her her father's darling! Not a slap, nor a
    box on the ears, merely the command to invent an excuse!



    Satyabati
    regained her courage and said, ‘ Of course not! Why
    should I go by myself?  Punyi-pishi and
    Neru had come with me. Then, I went running to call you.’



    ‘You
    came to call me? ‘ Ramkali said knitting his brows, ‘And
    why exactly do you need me?’



    Salvaging
    her confidence Satyabati declared excitedly,  ‘ Jatada's wife is dying. Her pulse
    has stopped! So Sejopishi started sobbing and said, `Go and fetch Mejda, Satya,
    wherever you can find him. So I went to the Ray's and heard you'd just left.’



    ‘So
    you'd been to that locality too! This is too much! What has happened to Jata's
    wife that her pulse has gone weak?’



    ‘Not
    weak, Baba, it's stopped!’ Satya said with increased animation, ‘Sejopishi is
    weeping and beating her breasts, and is putting away the pillow and mattress.’



    ‘What
    do you mean? Come let's have a look,’ Ramkali said. ‘But there's a storm
    brewing, it’s going to rain. What a bother! Now tell me, what had happened?’



    ‘Nothing much!
    Sejopishi said that, when Jatada's wife was just sitting down to eat -  just after she'd
    finished the cooking, Jatada asked for a paan. His wife said that there wasn't
    any paan. That was it! His majesty was furious. He gave her a good hard kick on
    her backside. And she fell on her face in the courtyard...’  Suddenly Satyabati burst into laughter.



    ‘Why're
    you laughing?’ Ramkali scolded irritably. How ill-mannered the girl had become!
    Was this the time to laugh?



    He
    scolded, ‘What's so funny about a person dying? Is this what you've been taught?’



    Satyabati
    had laughed impulsively; she controlled herself somehow after her father’s
    rebuke; trying to look as pale as she could, she said, ‘Sejopishi said that as
    soon as she was kicked she rolled down like a pumpkin on to the courtyard.’
    And, once again, [p.17] controlling her laughter, she resumed with great
    effort, ‘Actually, Jatada's wife eats a lot of rice, Baba, so she's really fat!’



    Looking
    annoyed, Ramkali quickened his pace. But Satyabati could walk fast too. And  she kept pace
    with him. No matter how sympathetic he felt towards Jata's wife, Ramkali's mind
    was enraged by Jata's transgression. The wretch was a misfit in a brahmin's house! Without a scratch of learning! An expert at
    smoking ganja! And to top it all, the vulgar habit of wife-beating! The
    creature's father wasn't like this at all! In fact, it was Ramkali's
    extraordinary cousin who had dictated to the man all his life. Who could say
    how he'd hit her? If she really was dead, there'd be no end of trouble. And
    quite oblivious of Satyabati, Ramkali quickened his pace. Satyabati broke into
    a run. She was determined not to lose this race.



    Her
    eyes were transfixed, the froth at the mouth had dried, the hands were
    stone-cold. There could be no doubt at all, the signs were clear. So she had
    been moved close to the sacred tulsi in the courtyard soon after she had fallen
    with the kick. In fact, they'd been quick to bring her out here. And within
    minutes the  news
    had spread. The women had gathered, as if swept out of their homes, fearless of
    the gathering storm. After all, the affair was a colourful one and in the dull
    theatre of their humdrum lives, there were few opportunities to witness such
    dramatic scenes. First, there came a stifled agitation, ‘I believe Jata has
    finished off his wife?’ Then cries of, ‘Alas!’
    Finally, comments about Jata were no longer shielded from his mother’s ears.
    How often did one get a chance to speak one’s mind, anyway!



     ‘Is she really gone? For shame! What a
    murderer! ‘...’What a bitch to bear such a son! And I
    ask you, why is Jata such a mule? His father was a good man.’ ‘Why do you
    think? Don't annoy me so - can't you see what the mother's like! Such virtues!’... ‘The poor, foolish
    thing!
    What a way to die!’ And so the discussion went on. One couldn't
    expect more compassion for a woman, in any case!



    Jata's
    mother was forced to digest the comments of the neighbours in silence, because
    today she found herself in a bit of a spot. So she began to wail loudly
    drowning out all noise, beating her breasts, snivelling and whining. [p.18]



    As
    he approached the house, Ramkali heard the heart-breaking laments of his
    cousin: ‘Oh our Lakshmi's abandoned us and gone! What shall I do without my
    golden Lakshmi! Oh my son! - Look how the crop's burnt down before the harvest!’



    Satyabati
    exclaimed, ‘Gosh! it's all over!’



    Ramkali
    slowed down; he frowned. So that was that. There'd be no point in going in now!
    Who knew what other predicaments were in store for Jata? Suddenly a
    high-pitched scream was heard - perhaps as a `finishing touch'. ‘God! I am ruined! What a pretty wife had I brought my son!’



    Ramkali
    walked up slowly to the door and turning around said, ‘So it's really over.
    Satya, you go home.’



    Satyabati
    froze. ‘By myself?’



    ‘Why,
    didn't Neru and Punyi come with you?’



    Satyabati
    said anxiously, ‘They did, but they aren't going to come back with me.’



    ‘Why
    won't they? They'll have to! Where are they? I must see to this.’



    Satyabati
    slowly moved to the courtyard of her aunt's house, and failing to spot her
    friends, Neru or Punyi,



    returned
    crestfallen, ‘Can't see either of them.’



    ‘Why,
    where have they disappeared?’



    ‘Who
    knows!’ Slowly, regaining her courage, Satya voiced
    her innermost thought, ‘You can bring back the dead,
    can't you, Baba?’



    ‘Bring
    back the dead! Are you mad!’



    ‘But
    that's what they all say!’ Satya said numbly.



    ‘What
    do they say?’ He asked distractedly. And he looked around to check if anyone
    was around. Well, now that he was here he could hardly avoid his duty. He
    noticed that there were not many bamboo bushes in this house; he'd have to
    order some from his garden for the bier. But there was nobody to be seen! Yet
    so many diverse pitches could be heard keening inside the house! Outside, it
    was deserted and calm.



    Fortunately
    the clouds had disappeared unexpectedly, and the clear skies indicated that
    there was time yet for darkness to descend. And suddenly, Satyabati did
    something terribly defiant. She <!--[p. 19]
    -->
    clutched her father's hand tightly in both her hands and uttered with great
    intensity, ‘They all say that the doctor can bring the
    dead back to life! Please father, give Jatada's wife some medicine.’



    Ramkali
    faltered before this naive faith and suddenly felt helpless. He shook his head
    instead of rebuking her, ‘There's no truth in what they say, my dear. I can't
    do a thing! It's just out of vanity that I prescribe herbs, feel the pulse and
    actually cheat people.’



    Satyabati
    couldn't catch the irony in his tone, nor was she supposed to. She took it as a
    sign of his displeasure. But she felt reckless. She would take whatever was in
    store for her, even a thrashing! But what if Jatada's wife should live because
    of her efforts! So, heedless of her surroundings, she pulled at her father's
    shawl, ‘Baba, I beg of you! For one last time, give her some medicine! Oh!
    Jatada's wife will die without treatment!’



    Ramkali
    couldn't explain to his daughter that nobody could treat people once they were
    dead. He sighed, turned around and said, ‘Come, let's see.’



    It
    was as if the trimmings of the stage had fallen off in the middle of a captivating
    performance. Wasn't that the doctor clearing his throat? Yes, that was right!
    That tall and handsome man was indeed the doctor. And instantly, Satya's sharp
    voice rang forth, ‘My father says the crowd must move.’



    The
    women of the locality pulled their saris over their heads and were silent. Only
    Jata's mother wailed, ‘Alas Mejda! My wretched Jata's lost his wife!’



    ‘Stop
    it!’ It was like a tiger roaring, ‘When wasn't your Jata a wretch? He's
    completely finished her off, has he?’



    The
    crowd dispersed. The doctor approached the body of his nephew’s wife, trying to
    avoid contact as custom demanded. He bent down and was astonished to find a
    pulse.



    So
    the farce was finally over! And it's not as if just one scene had been cut, the
    whole play was ruined! Had anybody seen or heard such a mountain being made of
    a molehill? Jata's wife's conduct was unforgivable! The height of wickedness!
    How shameful for a woman to have a life-span so intact! She was surely doomed
    [p.20] to suffer endlessly - there could be no doubts about that, none at all!
    There she was - stiff as a corpse lying by the sacred tulsi, and now look at
    her guzzling milk inside the house! Had anybody heard of such a woman?



    ‘What
    a shame! A man would never ever open his eyes a second time once his wife was
    widowed!’... ‘What a stunt, Jata's wife pulled off!’...’Now
    just wait and see she'll get it from her mother-in-law - she's been really
    insulted today.’ ‘Whatever you say, it wasn't right to take her indoors
    straight away, there should have been some rituals for purity - it'd only be
    appropriate.’ ‘Who knows if she's really living? What if she's been possessed
    by a spirit? I really have my doubts.’  ‘Don't
    talk like that! I go roaming here and there all by myself - it gives me the
    creeps! But don't her eyes do look a bit strange?’ ‘Oh that's nothing to worry about, the doctor said the sudden push had made her faint.’ ‘Come
    on let's go, there's so much work. What a waste of time!’ ‘Did you notice was a
    hypocrite Jata's mother is? Pretended as if her heart was
    breaking!’
    ‘Didn’t I! Couldn't have imagined
    it! Actually, her heart must have broken when she saw the daughter-in-law wake
    up! All her hopes were dashed to the ground! She thought her son had got lucky!
    And she could just get him married right away, bring in gold and gifts.’ The
    words flowed non-stop. Words sprouted inside people’s homes and outside, on the
    streets. After losing the golden opportunity of exterminating Jata’s wife,
    people were reluctant to let such a momentous matter cool so quickly. They felt
    cheated and were annoyed. An aunt-in-law had brought some sindur and alta, hoping to be the first to adorn the corpse of a
    married woman. Now she had to throw them into the pond. She was livid. Nobody
    knew Jata’s wife’s name. And nobody made the effort to find out.  `Jata's wife' - that was her only name! In
    time, she would be known as somebody's mother. She had no need for a name. But
    they all felt the need to talk about her.



    The
    aunt-in-law burst out abruptly, ‘In my parents’ village they wouldn’t have
    allowed her to live inside the house. She’d have to spend the rest of her life
    in the cowshed or the husking room.



    Some
    people wondered if it was fair t condemn the living. But <!--[p. 21]
    -->
    the aunt-in-law pronounced again, ‘After all, she had been brought out to the
    sacred tulsi, just like a corpse. And then her uncle-in-law touched her. Think
    of the violation! I was so horrified to see him search for her pulse! I guess
    he thought she was dead, and purifying rituals would be done before the cremation,
    anyway. Well, now that she’s come alive, surely some rituals are in order.’



    After
    exploring the question in depth, it was decided that Jata’s wife would have to
    perform one ritual to atone for the polluting touch of her uncle-in-law and
    another one for the transgression of returning to life after dying. Or else,
    she would be treated like a ‘fallen woman’. The poor offender was still
    unconscious. Jata’s mother was out, looking for Jata. Therefore an ex parte
    decision was arrived at.



    Satyabati
    did not know any of this. She was brimming with happiness from a strange sense
    of pride. What an untruth her father had uttered about not knowing anything
    about treatment! It was only because Satya had dared to clasp his hand and ask
    for medicine that the poor woman was alive now! Suppose Satya's husband (and
    inadvertently, a smile played on her lips) beat her to death when she was at
    her in-laws, it would be great! Her father would rush there and give her the
    `essence of gold ground with honey', and Satya would open her eyes, and pull
    her sari over face in embarrassment when she came to and saw everyone.



    What
    fun! The whole country would celebrate the feats of her eminent father -
    Ramkali. Goodness! As if he was an ordinary man! No other girl in the village
    had such a father! And she laughed out loud. Satya was very prone to laughing
    aloud whenever she thought of something funny. Ramkali was taken aback. ‘What's
    the matter? Why're you laughing?’



    Satya
    controlled herself with difficulty, swallowed, and said, ‘Just like that!’



    ‘Just
    stop your just-like-that laughs will you?’ Ramkali said, nearly laughing
    himself, ‘Or else you'll be faced with the fate of Jata's wife when you go to
    your in-laws.’



    He
    felt contented. Night was approaching. He would have had to face a few problems
    but Jata's wife had spared him all that. Even <!--[p. 22]
    -->
    though Satya could not fathom the reason, she could perceive his contentment
    and taking courage, she declared enthusiastically, ‘That was why I laughed. If
    I die you could always come and save me.’



    ‘Oh, really!’
    Ramkali responded briefly, being a man of few words. He walked briskly in
    silence and Satyabati broke into a run to keep up. Suddenly, Ramkali stopped
    and said, ‘Even god can't do a thing if you die, do you
    understand? Jata's wife hadn't died.’



    ‘Hadn't
    she?’ Satya was perplexed for a moment, ‘Then what is dying like?’ Suddenly her
    train of thought changed track, she proclaimed ardently, ‘But then Baba, if you
    hadn't felt her pulse and given her the `essence of gold', Jatada's wife would
    have remained like that - lifeless! And then they'd have put her on a bamboo
    bier and cremated her!’



    Ramkali
    was a little startled. Strange! How could such a small girl think so deeply. What a pity she was  a girl and it was all in vain. If only
    Neru had such brains! But it was useless to hope - for he was a full-grown
    eight-year old and still tracing the alphabet! Neru was the youngest of Kunja's
    brood. Ramkali's elder brother, Kunja and his wife had become lenient with this
    one after raising thirteen children. This one too would probably turn out to be  a misfit in a
    brahmin's house! But a girl-child shouldn't even learn to think so deeply. So
    Ramkali said in a reproving tone, ‘Stop it! Don't talk too much. Walk faster.
    Can't you see it's dark?’



    ‘Dark?’
    Satyabati said nonchalantly, ‘Huh! As if I fear the dark! Don't I go into the
    garden when it's very very dark to count owls by spotting their glistening eyes.’



    ‘What!
    What is it you do in the dark?’ Ramkali was staggered.



    Satyabati
    faltered, ‘Not just me - Neru and Punyipishi too. We count the eyes of the
    owls.’



    Suddenly,
    Ramkali started laughing. He laughed for a long while; deep and loud. How could
    he scold or discipline such a girl! His deep laughter echoed through the
    silence of the dark road. And the old men gathered at the courtyard of the
    temple heard it too.



    ‘Isn't
    that the doctor's voice?’



    ‘That's
    what it sounds like.’ <!--[p. 23]
    -->



    ‘Why's
    he laughing by himself at this hour?’



    ‘He’s
    probably not alone. That unruly daughter must be with him. Otherwise ...’



    ‘What
    a girl he's raised! She's fated to be unhappy!’



    ‘Unhappy!
    With so much money! I heard that the Raja of Barddhaman sent for him yesterday.
    Wants him to be the court physician.’



    ‘Is
    that so? I didn't know anything about it! So is he leaving?’



    ‘No,
    I hear he isn't going.’



    ‘Really!
    That's good news. But who told you?’



    ‘Kunja's eldest son.’



    ‘Good!
    Imagine going and working far away and at the court too! If only Ramkali  cared about
    etiquette he wouldn't have let his daughter become so bold. Just look, all the
    boys are her playmates!’



    ‘Yes!
    But then she’s ten times better than the boys when it comes to swimming,
    climbing trees and fishing!’



    ‘That’s
    nothing to be proud of. After all, she's a girl and that too a married one. Married into a well-known family too. If they get to know,
    they'll just refuse to take her.’



    ‘I
    know! It doesn't take long for a scandal!’



    The
    atmosphere at the temple courtyard grew heavy with discussions about the doctor
    and his unruly daughter. People respected him publicly, and yet, how would they
    survive if they couldn't disparage him in private?



    Meanwhile,
    the prime subject of their discussion was running behind her father and
    fervently praying, ‘Oh god - please make my legs long - like my father's, then
    I can walk like him and I shall never lose!’ Satyabati disapproved of defeat.
    She wouldn't lose anywhere, at any time. That was her resolve.



    ****



    ‘Hey Punyi!
    Can you make up a rhyme!’



    Satyabati's
    `play–room’  was
    in the attic. Her chief 
    playmate
    was Ramkali's cousin's daughter Punyabati. Even though
    Satya called her `Punyapishi' in front of others, in her own terrain she called
    her `Punyi'.



    ‘Can
    you find a Weaver-Bird's nest?’  ‘Can you
    catch a blue-beetle?’ ‘Can you swim across the lake three times?’ Satya would
    often grill Punyi this way. But ‘Can you make up a rhyme?’ was an absolutely
    new query.



    Punyi
    asked, ‘Rhyme? What do you mean?’



    ‘A
    rhyme about Jata-dada - you know. We'll teach all the children in the village;
    they'll clap and chant it whenever they see him!’



    They
    both swayed with laughter, imagining Jata's plight. Finally, Punyabati asked a
    counter question, ‘So you say you'll make up a rhyme. Are girls supposed to do
    that?’



    ‘Aren't
    they?’ Suddenly, Satya blazed forth, ‘Who said that? My foot! As if girls are
    unnatural and not conceived in their mother's wombs! Do you think girl just
    come floating in with the tide, or what? Don't play with me, if you talk like
    that!’



    ‘Okay,
    my dear `sir'! But what if your husband talks this way?’



    ‘Which way?’



    ‘In the same way about girls!’



    ‘Huh!
    Won't I show him! Do you think I'll be like Jata-da's wife? Never! Now just
    watch how I plague him with a rhyme!’



    Punyi
    asked deferentially, ‘How will you do that?’



    ‘How else!
    The way the kathak-thakur does - same way! I have done a bit already. Want to
    hear?’



    ‘Already!
    Tell me, please!’



    Satya
    spoke with assurance, almost as if she were slowly savouring sour tamarind:



    ‘The
    elephant-footed Jatadada - there he goes, the
    blighter!                                   



      May a toad kick the back of this stupid wife-beater!’



    ‘Goodness
    Satya!’ Punyi suddenly squealed and hugged Satya, ‘Look at you! You'll be
    writing proper poetry next!’



    Satya
    responded airily, as if it would not be too great an achievement if she did, ‘I
    will when I will. Now we have to teach everyone this, understand? And when we
    see Jatadada ...’ <!--[p. 25].-->



     



     



    Next



    sort of document could that be? Not a written one, nor signed or
    attested, but the testimony of people. And how else could one procure that
    except by inviting the entire village to a feast?



    Besides,
    the fact that a girl from the Banerji household now belonged to the Chatterji family  had to be duly
    acknowledged. The groom's side could have this fact endorsed by kith and kin,
    by making the bride serve them rice during the feast.



    Therefore,
    a feast had to be arranged after a wedding. Since there was no prior warning
    there was a real rush to make arrangements. Ramkali never lacked devoted
    followers, and he had spread the word. The sandesh would come from Janai, the
    mihidana from Barddhaman. Tustu, the milkman, was to arrange for the yoghurt,
    and Bhima, the fisherman had been asked to arrange for the fish. Ramkali had
    been instructing them about the quantity of fish and in which lake they should
    cast their nets, when suddenly Mokshada appeared on the scene.



    Apart
    from Mokshada, practically everybody feared Ramkali. She was the only one who
    dared to tell him things to his face. Even Dinatarini was afraid of her son.
    One might ask, of course, if and when did the question of telling Ramkali
    something to his face arise? After all, he was a man who carried out his duties
    perfectly! But arise, they did! And Mokshada never missed such opportunities. Because Mokshada judged things from her own perspective.
    What Ramkali regarded as absolute duty, Mokshada viewed as uncalled-for
    excess.  And most of the time, the issue
    would be Satyabati! That was natural! If Ramkali had produced a daughter who
    was singular in the whole of India,
    shouldn't Mokshada take the opportunity to tell him things to his face? So
    Mokshada would often drag that wretched girl to Ramkali and give a proper
    lashing!



    And
    even now she hadn't come alone to Ramkali's court, she had brought Satyabati
    along. Satyabati had come without protest. Perhaps because she knew it would be
    of no use. Or, may be, because she was fearless.



    Mokshada
    waited in silence all the while Bhima, the fisherman was present; finally, when
    Bhima left  after doing a pranam to
    Ramkali, Mokshada sprang into action. <!--[p. 64]
    -->



    ‘Here
    Ramkali, now do something about this gem of your's! And let me warn you, that's
    what you'll have to do it for the rest of your life, for this one will come
    back from her in-laws – 
    that's
    for sure!’ Mokshada paused for breath.



    Ramkali
    smiled mildly and asked, ‘Why, what has happened now?’



    ‘It
    happens all the time!’ Mokshada shook her hand, ‘Happens while getting up or
    sitting down - cuts, bruises, tears. And now, just look at the state of your
    daughter's hand! She’s scalded it and there’s a big blister! And she says `No
    need to tell father, it'll get better.' See for yourself.’



    Ramkali
    shuddered as he examined his daughter's hand.



    ‘What's
    this? How did this happen?’



    ‘Ask
    her how it happened. I’m forever reciting her talents to you, you never listen!
    But I'll tell you this, Ramkali, there's grief in store for you because of this
    girl!’



    This
    outburst was nothing new, it had been repeated all too
    often. So it wasn't as if Ramkali was really troubled. But Ramkali was trained
    in the etiquette of showing respect to elders, so he pretended to be perturbed.



    ‘Really,
    this girl is the limit ! Now what did you do? How did
    you get this huge blister?’



    ‘She
    was boiling milk! Madam went to boil the milk when Rashu arrived with his bride
    yesterday. And I say, you over-grown girl, how could you scald your hand doing
    such a simple task?’



    Ramkali
    examined the state of his daughter's hand and spoke to her seriously, ‘Why did
    you have to go near the fire? Wasn’t there anybody else at home?’



    Satya
    inclined her head and replied, ‘It's not burning too much.’



    ‘That's
    not the point, there are medicines to treat it. But
    tell me, why were you working near a fire?’



    Now
    Satya raised her head and began to speak rapidly in her characteristic manner, ‘As
    if I did that because I was dying to! I did it for the sake of boro-bou. Poor
    thing! Here she is suffering from the sting of a co-wife's barb, and over and
    above that being ordered to boil the milk! She's human after all!’ <!--[p.
    65]
    -->



    Satya's
    clear explanation staggered not just Ramkali, but Mokshada too. What a brash
    girl! Answering back a father who was so distinguished! Mokshada put her hand
    to her cheek and fell silent. Ramkali was the one who spoke. He asked in a
    sharp tone, his brows furrowed: ‘And what do you mean by the `sting of a co-wife's
    barb’?’



    ‘Learn
    what it means from your daughter, Ramkali!’ Mokshada said with utter sarcasm
    before Satya could answer, ‘What we haven't learnt at our age, this slip of a
    girl has! A regular chatterbox!’



    Such
    bizarre accusations annoyed Satya. Why should people talk any way it suited
    them? She had just been called `overgrown girl' and now she had become a `slip
    of a girl'. Anything that caught the fancy!



    Ramkali
    looked at his aunt and once more repeated his question in a thunderous voice, ‘Why
    haven't you replied to my question?  Why
    don't you tell me what a co-wife's barb is, and how it can sting?’



    As
    if Satya knew what it was! But she knew, I suppose, from before her birth, that
    it was a tormenting, painful thing. So with as anguished an expression as
    possible she said, ‘A co-wife is a barb, father! And when there's a barb, it
    also stings! This is the sting you've inflicted on her..’



    ‘Stop
    it!’ Ramkali scolded fiercely. He was irked now, and really troubled. And
    worried for his daughter's future and pained by this confrontation with the
    squalor of her mind! He hadn't thought this possible; it was beyond his
    expectation! What could have caused this? Numerous complaints about Satyabati
    would reach his ears but so far he had never paid much heed to them because he
    had perceived her to have a nature that was genuinely spirited. And he thought
    she was incapable of harbouring hatred or malice. That was what he credited her
    with in his assessment. So when had she learnt this vocabulary of hate? It
    wasn't right to let this grow. It needed correction. So Ramkali roared louder
    and said, ‘Why? Why is the co-wife so terrifying? Has she beaten up your
    Boro-bou?’



    Her
    father's tiger-like roar almost brought tears to Satyabati's eyes, but she
    wasn’t one to admit defeat so easily. Lowering her <!--[p. 66]
    -->
    head in fear and pain, and concealing the weakness of tears, she said choking
    on her words, ‘Not physically, no!. But she has
    deprived her hasn't she? A woman who was the sovereign queen has had her place
    usurped by this new one...’



    ‘Stop!
    For shame!’



    Ramkali
    shuddered and fell silent. The expression on his face indicated that Satyabati
    had suddenly crumpled and torn to shreds a picture he had painted with great
    care. And Mokshada took the opportunity to drive home a blow, ‘Listen! Just
    listen to the girl’s way of talking! A regular master of words, she is! Speaks
    like an old hag and prances about like a kid! Stuns you by
    the minute with the bite of her words!’



    Ignoring
    his aunt's gripe, Ramkali said in an extremely irritated tone, ‘Where have you
    learnt to talk so vulgarly? I'm ashamed of you! What do you mean `usurped her
    place'? Don't two sisters live under the same roof? Can't a co-wife be seen as
    a sister rather than a `barb'?’



    Satya's
    efforts to control herself failed after that. Countless tears flowed down her cheeks, and from there to the ground all at once. They
    flowed unchecked, and Satya made no effort to wipe them away.



    Ramkali
    Chatterji was distressed once again. Tears in Satyabati's eyes looked absurd!
    He wondered if his expression of abhorrence had been too strong. For Ramkali,
    it would be a grave violation to administer an unnecessarily high dose of
    medicine. He reminded himself that the blister on his daughter's hand was
    painful too. Some remedy had to be found right away. So, he relented, ‘Don't
    speak so coarsely again, all right? Don't even think this way. Just as
    brothers, sisters, in-laws live in a family, so does the co-wife, don’t you
    see? Come, show me your hand.’



    Satyabati
    put out her hand and bit her lips in an attempt to control the turmoil inside
    her.



    Mokshada
    concluded that the cloud had passed. Ramkali had done with disciplining his
    daughter. What a shame! She couldn't bear to stand there a minute longer,  ‘So the punishing
    and <!--[p. 67]
    -->
    disciplining is over, huh? Now sit down and hug your girl! Really, you're the
    limit!’



    With
    that Mokshada exited the scene.



    Ramkali
    applied a salve on his daughter's blister for quick relief and said with a
    smile, ‘Will you remember what I said today? Don't speak like that again. Human
    beings are not wild animals that they must constantly hate and fight with each
    other. One should live in peace with everyone in the world.’



    The
    tone of truce was clear in her father's voice which revived Satyabati's courage
    somewhat. Otherwise her father’s rebuke had broken her heart. Actually
    speaking, Satyabati had no idea what her fault was. After all, if it were such
    a virtue to love everybody why were rituals like the sejuti performed at all?
    And she voiced the unease she was experiencing, ‘If that is so, then why must
    we do the Sejuti ritual, father? Pishthakurma has started me, Phentu and Punyi
    on it from this year.’



    Ramkali's
    irritation was replaced with amazement. He did not know much about this ritual,
    but it was beyond him how a ritual could be against the principles of
    humanitarianism. So washing the salve off his hand with water from an earthen
    pot he asked, ‘What has a ritual got to do with it?’



    ‘Everything, Baba!’
    Satya's voice turned crisp even before her tears had dried, ‘Because all the
    chants of this ritual are about protecting oneself from the barb of a co-wife!’



    Ramkali
    was speechless. He began to see a ray of hope somewhere. Yes, some such
    confusing thing must have entered her head. Otherwise, how could Satya speak
    like that! There was a lot of work at hand. Still, Ramkali considered it his
    duty to uproot the notion of the `co-wife's barb' from his daughter's mind,
    with the aid of good counsel. So he asked with a frown, ‘Really, what is the
    chant?’



    ‘There's
    isn't just one, Baba!’ Satya exclaimed animatedly, ‘Lots of them. Can't remember everything. But sit here, I'll remember them
    and tell you. First, you draw a design with rice paste on the floor - and you
    draw flowers and creepers and fill up the corners and <!--[p. 68]
    -->the
    sides with drawings of ladles, spoons, pots and pans and all. Then you touch
    each item and chant. I touch the ladle and say:



    Ladle, ladle, I swear on my life!



    Off with the head of the stupid co-wife!



    Then
    I touch the cup.



    Cup, cup, cup!



    Here come three white cops



    To nab the co-wife's mom!



    And
    then,



    Tongs, tongs, tongs!



    The co-wife's face is long!



    Knife, knife, knife!



    I cook at the funeral of the co-wife!



    Pot, pot, pot!



    To be wedded is my lot!



    Let the widowed co-wife rot!



    ‘Stop
    it!’ Ramkali scolded solemnly, ‘Are these your chants?’



    Suddenly,
    that instant, it flashed across Satya's consciousness that these could never be
    proper chants for a ritual. So she said quietly without excitement, ‘And
    there's more...’



    ‘Really!
    There's more. All right, let's hear them. Let's see how your brains are being
    ruined. Do you know more?’



    Satya
    inclined her head, ‘Yes,



    Husking pedal husk the rice,



    The co-wife dies and I feel nice!



    And
    then,



    The tree I chop to make me a shed,



    With the co-wife's blood I make my feet red!



    Bird, bird that sings!



    May he never a co-wife bring!



    Then,
    you've to pick up a fistful of grass and say, <!--[p. 69]
    -->



    Fist of grass, fist of green,



    May she be blind and ugly as sin.



    Then,
    ornaments are drawn too and there are chants for each:



    Necklace, bracelet, rings and earring,



    With a broomstick give her a thrashing!



    Then
    you've to draw a paan and say,



    Paan with cardamom and lots of clove -



    The co-wife is hated I am loved!



    ‘Enough!
    You don't have to say any more.’ Ramkali held up a hand to stop her, ‘Do you
    call such abuses ritual chants?’



    ‘We
    don’t, Baba,’ Satya opened her eyes wide in amazement at the ignorance of her
    learned father, ‘The whole world does! If the co-wife were indeed like a
    sister, why would so many chants be composed? Does any one pray for the misery
    of their sister? The real reason is that men don't understand the significance
    of a co-wife, that's why...’ Satya swallowed once, and hesitated because she is
    not sure if it would be appropriate to utter the sentence hovering at the tip
    of her tongue, about men.



    Ramkali
    said solemnly, ‘Whatever it is, don't perform this ritual any more.’



    Don't
    perform it? Don't perform a ritual! Satya was thunderstruck. What sort of order
    was this? What should she do? She was torn between her father's command and the
    violation of a ritual discontinued! A violation which could
    bring on a living hell.
    And though she had no idea how heinous a crime
    it was to disobey one's father, she had little doubt that such transgressions
    also made the sinner suffer in hell! And they both fell silent for a while.
    Then, slowly Satya raised the issue, ‘If one discontinues a ritual one suffers
    in hell!’



    ‘Not
    at all, in fact, you'd suffer in hell if you performed such rituals.’



    ‘What
    shall I tell Pishthakuma then?’



    ‘What
    do you mean?’ <!--[p. 70]
    -->



    ‘Shall
    I say you've forbidden me to do it?’



    ‘No, let that be.
    You don't have to say anything in a hurry. I shall tell her myself. Go now.
    Take care, don't scrape your hand against anything.’



    Satya
    floundered. Her father had ordered her to leave, yet a sea of questions surged
    inside her. And the only place those waves could thrash about and seek a
    solution was before her father!



    ‘Baba



    ‘What
    is it?’



    ‘If
    the ritual is unfair, if a co-wife is a good thing, then why is boro-bou feeling
    so unhappy?’



    ‘Boro-bouma?
    Rashu's wife? Unhappy? Has
    she told you this herself?’ Ramkali's tone wore a shade of rebuke.



    But
    Satyabati was hardly the type to give in easily. Taunts might thwart her
    somewhat, but she always remained undaunted by rebukes. So she spoke animatedly
    and rapidly, justifying the appellation `master of words' that Mokshada had
    given her. ‘She doesn't need to tell me that! As if everything has to be put
    into words! Can't one make out from her expression? Her eyes have sunk into their
    sockets from so much weeping, her bright complexion, dulled. And she hasn't
    touched a drop of water since yesterday. In public, of course, she insists
    that, `My stomach is aching, I've no appetite and so I'm crying' - but we all
    know the truth! Nobody is as naïve as all that! And on top of that, today is
    the ceremony of untying the ritual-thread for the bride - it's like a final
    blow! Some have been saying, she must be moved out of
    her room. And others are saying, `Leave the poor thing alone!' And it seems she
    herself has said to the neighbour, `Where's the need to worry about such things
    when there's so much space in the Chatterji's pond. That can be my shelter!’



    What
    a calamity that would be! Ramkali attempted to assess the situation. Nothing
    was impossible for a woman. Who could ensure that the girl wouldn't do
    something like that! What a trial this was! Such warped thinking, when she
    could have rejoiced about the fact that a respectable man had been saved
    humiliation! Didn't other people have co-wives in this whole wide world? <!--[p.
    71]
    -->



    What
    could be the cause of all this? Nothing but worthless rituals
    which ruined women's lives from infancy.
    Women as a race were
    narrow-minded and orthodox. Of course, they were called `goddesses of the
    hearth' -  out
    of sheer courtesy, nothing else! In reality, they were `incarnations of
    misery'. Each one of them! Or else, how could Rashu's wife - and she was so
    young too - get such an idea into her head? That she could drown herself! How
    terribly disgraceful!



    ‘Is
    that what she's said?’ Ramkali asked darkly.



    ‘That's
    what the neighbours tell me.’



    Satya
    felt a little alarmed looking at her father's face. But she couldn't afford to
    be scared. It was her responsibility to enlighten her father. Her father was so
    clever, and yet, he had no idea that a woman's heart broke if her husband
    married again! And because her heart had broken many years ago, the queen
    Kaikeyi had sent her co-wife's son, Rama off to the forest. Satya had heard the
    Kathak recite that story. Kaikeyi was a queen with a poisonous mind! And here
    was her own sister-in-law - a plain,  timid creature, who desired only her
    own death!



    There
    was another reason why Satya was uneasy; since her own father was responsible
    for her sister-in-law's tragedy she felt she could no longer face her. It was
    clear from everybody's gestures and movements that they blamed Ramkali. And for good reasons too. The mother of a son always
    occupied a special position. If her sister-in-law weren't the mother of a boy,
    things would have been viewed differently. But now, what if
    her breasts should dry up from too much weeping?
    How would the child
    live?



    Meanwhile,
    Ramkali tried to think out a way of teaching the daughter-in-law a lesson. He
    had invited the entire village; the feast would start as soon as the night was
    over. What if she 
    really
    did something silly? After thinking for a while, he
    cleared his throat and said, ‘Those are childish thoughts. Tell her on my
    behalf to give them up. Say, `Father has said that you'll feel happier if you
    tell yourself to be happy.' Say that she should get up and start working, eat
    well - and all her misgivings will disappear.’



    Once
    more, Satya was struck by her father's ignorance. But she <!--[p. 72]
    -->
    refused to suffer in silence. She said with a short laugh, ‘If they disappeared
    so easily, there would be paradise on earth, Baba!  As a doctor you read symptoms from a
    patient’s appearance and you know exactly what is happening inside his body,
    Baba, don't you? So can't you guess what's going on inside a person by looking
    at the face? Come and see for yourself!’



    Suddenly,
    quite inexplicably, Ramkali broke into goose-flesh. He fell silent. Then, after
    a long interval he signalled his daughter to leave. And what could she do after
    that? Satya lowered her head and slowly got up to go. But Ramkali called out, ‘All
    right - listen here!’



    Satyabati
    turned around.



    ‘Listen,
    you don't have to say anything to her. Only ... I mean ... I'll give you one
    task ...’



    Ramkali
    was hesitant. Satyabati, bewildered. Whatever it was she had never seen her
    father hesitate! But Ramkali had never ever been faced with such a situation
    before! Had Satyabati really made him see sense? What made him to look so
    embarrassed and perturbed?



    ‘Baba,
    tell me, what do you want me to do?’



    ‘Oh
    yes, I was just going to say that you should stay near your sister-in-law, and
    see to it that she doesn't go near the pond.’



    Satyabati
    was quiet for a split second. Trying to absorb the
    significance of her father's instructions.
    After absorbing it, she said
    tenderly, ‘I know exactly what you mean! You're asking me to keep a watch on
    her, police her, right?’



    Police
    her! Ramkali was mortified. Was this the interpretation of his instruction! He
    said with some irritation, ‘What do you mean keep watch? Stay near her, play with her, so that she feels better... ‘



    Satyabati
    drew a deep breath, ‘It's the same thing, isn't it? As they say: `What's in a
    name? A grey-haired maid by any other name, is nothing
    but an old dame!' But even if I do guard her, how long can I carry on? If
    someone vows to commit suicide then who can prevent her? And not just the pond,
    there are poisonous fruits, poisonous seeds ...’



    ‘Enough!’
    Ramkali let out a flaming breath, ‘Be quiet! I can see <!--[p. 73]
    -->
    your Sejo-thakuma was right. Where have you learnt so many words from? Go, you
    don't have to do anything. Go!’ <!--[p. 74]
    -->



     



    Chapter
    Twenty



    Elokeshi sat on a mat in
    the courtyard and was busy tying Satya's hair. She'd been at it for a while
    now. She had started in the afternoon - it was nearing dusk. It was as if she
    had vowed to display her most creative feat today. She sat on her haunches
    behind her daughter-in-law, her expression stern and severe.



    The
    veins on Satyabati's temples bulged from all that pulling, the roots of her
    hair appeared to almost separate from her scalp; her shoulders were aching for
    a while, and  now
    the discomfort spread to her spine.



    But
    there was little hope that she'd easily give up the attempt at creating a great
    art work with Satyabati's hair. It would be wrong to blame it on Elokeshi's incompetence, it was all the other one's fault. Satyabati's
    hair was like a refractory horse that refused to be tamed.



    No
    matter how beautiful her curly hair looked when left loose, it was most
    frustrating to braid the heavy and short mass and shape it into a bun. It would
    come apart if one tried to tie it up, and even if one managed to divide it into
    three clusters, it was impossible to further divide it into five or seven or
    nine clusters.



    But
    Elokeshi was determined to twist her daughter-in-law's hair into an `S'-shaped
    knot. Therefore, after a couple failed attempts, she had managed to gather all
    the hair to the top of her head and using all her strength to tie it tight with
    a thick cord, she was dividing it into seven bunches.



    This
    long-drawn out attempt had left Satyabati in the state described earlier. After
    sitting cross-legged for a long time, she had drawn up her knees and folded
    them against her chest in order to relieve the pins and needles in her feet.
    Her face looked skywards and over it she held the end of her turquoise-blue
    saree.



    She
    had to hold her saree over her face because she couldn't cover her head when
    her hair was being done. And yet, it was unthinkable that her face should be in
    full view of the world! Never mind that nobody else was present, and never mind that she was <!--[p. 182]
    -->
    not facing her mother-in-law, she was, a `new bride', after all. So Satyabati
    had covered her face. In fact, she had been forced to. Much before she had
    uncovered her head, Elokeshi had instructed her, ‘Cover your face with the end
    of your saree, please. You don't seem to have any sense any way,
    I have to spell out everything clearly!’



    Was
    this Satyabati's first day at her in-laws? Not really, she had arrived about
    month ago, but until now Satyabati's hair had never yielded to her
    mother-in-law's hands. Saudamini would take care of her toilet: braiding her
    hair, scrubbing her face, putting alta on her feet.
    But suddenly, just today, Elokeshi happened to notice that her
    daughter-in-law's hair was braided into two intertwining plaits which were
    pinned up. Elokeshi had flared up! She had frowned and called out, just to make
    sure, ‘Just come here, Bouma.’



    The
    saree was drawn over her head with a tug, Elokeshi had
    raised the end of the saree covering her back, and taken a look at the
    hairstyle. It confirmed her suspicion. And she yelled in a
    frenzy
    , ‘Sadu! Sadu!’



    Saudamini
    had come running - helter-skelter. And she saw Satya standing with her head
    bent low, and her aunt standing with the end of the saree raised - eyes
    smoldering, forehead furrowed. She did not pronounce her query, but stood there
    looking alarmed. Was there something on her back? Some
    birthmark or skin disease, or an old wound that had healed?
    Was she
    blemished, then? And had her aunt's hawk-like eyes just found that out?



    But
    Saudamini did not have to hold on to her mistaken notion for long. Elokeshi
    said fiercely, ‘I ask you Sadu - why d'you work so
    carelessly?’



    A
    stone rolled off Saudamini's chest. What a relief! Nothing
    new.
    The same old and unfailing strategy! So she said with courage, ‘Why
    what's the matter?’



    ‘What's
    the matter, she asks! Aren't you ashamed? Here you are polishing off loads of
    rice twice a day like a sacred cow and you don't have any qualms! It isn't as
    if you have ten or twenty sisters-in-law - just the one, and look how you've
    braided her hair? Why? How brazen can you get - eh?’ <!--[p. 183]
    -->



    ‘Why
    don't you tell me what has happened?’



    Saudamini
    spoke calmly. And Satyabati looked at her from under the saree that covered her
    face and trembled in amazement. No, not on account of Elokeshi's insulting
    oration; during her neighbourhood  rambles back home, Satya had become
    accustomed to hearing older women use such abuses. Inside Ramkali Chatterjee's
    house, the conversation was slightly more courteous but then Satya's aunts
    constantly sprouted such words. No, it wasn't because of Elokeshi's words; she
    was amazed at Saudamini's forbearance. How could she talk so calmly after being
    insulted so crudely! This was something Satyabati had never seen before. Insult
    was usually traded with insult, or tears - that was what she was used to. And
    here was Saudamini calmly asking, ‘Why don't you tell me what has happened!’



    Elokeshi,
    of course was not amazed, she was used to Saudamini's self-restraint. But far
    from brimming over with appreciation she raged at what she perceived to be an
    expression of indifference. So she said, ‘Do I have explain
    that? Don't you realize yourself? What style of braiding is this? Such plaits
    on a daughter-in-law! Shame on you! Haven't seen a girl wearing such braids at
    her in-laws ever in my life! You should go and hang yourself, Sadu! There's
    just one head of hair and you can't even do a fancy hairstyle!’



    Sadu
    began to laugh, ‘Well, her hair is too fancy to style it any other way! It's so
    unmanageable.’



    ‘Unmanageable!’
    Elokeshi blasted out, ‘Let me see if it can be managed or not. There's nothing
    on earth that's unmanageable for Banerji-Ginni. The only person I haven't
    managed to control is you!’



    ‘All
    right then mami, why don't you do her hair - she's the wife of your only son
    after all!’ Saudamini retorted.



    Instantly
    Elokeshi pounced on her, ‘What was that, Sadu? How dare you! Backchatting,
    eh?
    Too much pride! Your fall is near! Wait till cats and dogs howl at
    your funeral! I'll curse the life out of you, I swear, if you touch my
    daughter-in-law's hair again!’



    ‘Nothing
    happens when an elder curses. So I don't mind!’ Sadu <!--[p. 184]
    -->
    said unperturbed, ‘You are a person of moods, some
    days you will do her hair, other days, you'll forget…’



    ‘What
    was that? You wretched girl! You think, I'll forget my
    only son's wife!’



    ‘Nothing
    surprising in that, is there?’ Sadu answered amicably, ‘You're blessed with
    that virtue. People eat when they're hungry - but you forget that too, I have
    to call you to eat.’



    Elokeshi
    was staggered. She could not fathom if this was complaint or commendation. So
    she said grimly, ‘Oh yes, I forget and you have to feed me with your own hands!’



    ‘All
    right, may be I don't do that. But you do forget!’



    ‘So what?
    From now on I shall braid her hair, I'll have you know. Keep her pins, ribbons
    and everything in my room. And don't forget the bird-clips.’



    ‘Of
    course, I won't. Besides, her father's given a gold comb, a snake-pin,
    gold-flowers and a whole lot of ornaments for her hair - why have you locked
    those away? Take them out and make the fanciest style!’



    ‘I'll
    do what I think best - don't need your advice! So much
    of smart talk! Don't know why god doesn't give you some illness that'll strike
    you dumb. I swear if you ever lost your speech, I'd send a special offering to
    the gods at Nisingha-tala!’



    ‘Please
    Mami, don't swear before the gods. The gods often hear things differently, if
    they should make me a cripple instead of a mute, you'll die from the running
    about you'll have to do.’



    ‘How
    dare you! You think if you're crippled, my house won't run? Not for nothing do
    I say that you're vain. D'you think I can't run the
    house? Can do it with the little finger of my left hand! But why should I? When
    I've reared you, fed and clothed you!’



    ‘That's
    exactly what I'm saying. You'll have to feed and clothe me even if I'm
    crippled.’



    ‘As if I will!
    I'll drag you by the legs and throw you in the ditch!’



    ‘Goodness,
    Mami! Don't even dream of that! The neighbours will chuck mud at you from that
    very ditch.’ Saudamini left laughing, leaving Satyabati astounded. [ p. 185]



    Satyabati
    came from a large family; in her brief life she has seen many characters but
    nobody like this.



    Anyway,
    the aftermath of the morning's incident was this afternoon's wrestling match.



    Satya's
    hair was really heavy at the roots and short in length! Even if Elokeshi
    managed to elongate the plaits by adding numerous tassles to the hair and tying
    it tight with a cord, the whole thing would come loose as soon as she tried to
    twist it into a butterfly style. And it was Satyabati's bad luck that just at
    that moment, she had moved just a little to stretch her back and relieve the
    tingling in her feet.



    It
    was a chicken and egg situation. One couldn't make out if Satyabati wriggled
    with the pleasure of freedom because the cord had slackened, or the cord
    loosened because she had moved. According to Elokeshi her daughter-in-law moved
    and consequently the hair came loose. She was not a stone idol after all, she was a flesh and blood human being. It would be
    madness to hope that she would sit calmly and at ease after that. Such crazy
    hopes never get fulfilled, ever.



    All
    her time and efforts had come to nought, and her hopes of showing up Saudamini,
    had been frustrated. So Elokeshi lost her mind and did something unimaginable.
    She pitched a full-fisted punch on that stretched-to-ease back -’Just look! Waste of time this is! Can't you sit still for a
    second…’



    But
    Elokeshi could hardly complete her sentence before a different cataclysm
    occurred. Satyabati stood up, freed her hair from her mother-in-law's grip with
    a violent tug, and completely overlooking the custom of not talking back to a
    mother-in-law, she demanded adamantly, ‘Why did you hit me?’



    For
    a tiny fleeting moment, Elokeshi might have even regretted the thump, but such
    unexpected flash of lightning turned Elokeshi into stone long before that
    contrition could crystallize. Elokeshi had had no opportunity of finding out
    what her daughter-in-law's voice sounded like, for she hadn't spoken with, or
    in front of her. It wasn't the done thing at all. She would nod a `yes' or a
    `no' in response to questions. She spoke only with <!--[p. 186]
    -->
    Sadu, in private. She would sleep beside Saudamini at night, because until she
    had reached puberty, the question of sleeping with her husband didn't arise.



                Elokeshi
    had never heard her speak, and today, out of the blue, the voice exploded like
    thunder against her ears. What a loud voice for a daughter-in-law! And from
    such a little person! The vapours of remorse vanished like fizz. Elokeshi stood
    up. And yelled as she charged, ‘ So what? What can you
    do about it, eh? Do you want to beat me up?’



    Satya
    thrust her fingers through her plaits and had started pulling them open vigorously.
    The end of her saree had fallen away from head, and exposed her blazing face.
    Turning that fiery face towards Elokeshi, Satya uttered scornfully, ‘I'm not so
    vulgar. But don't you ever – ‘



    ‘What
    was that? Don't I ever, what? You slip of a girl - still wet behind the ears
    and speaking like this! I can beat the daylight out of you – do you hear? Just
    let me get a piece of fire-wood, I'll show the world how to discipline a
    daughter-in-law! When it lands on your back - it'll douse your fire!’



    ‘Go
    ahead, then! Bring all the wood you have!’ Satyabati stood arrogantly before
    her mother-in-law with fearless, unblinking eyes.



    In
    her whole life Elokeshi had been blinded with rage several times, she had
    beaten her breasts and cursed and yelled, but never before had she been
    confronted with such a situation. This was beyond her imagination, beyond her
    dreams. And she suddenly froze. And looked at that
    incarnation of fearlessness, with a cold snake-like gaze.



    Who
    knows what might have happened had she remained in that state, but the pranks
    of Fate brought about another disaster. Just at that dramatic moment, Nabakumar
    pushed open the courtyard fencing and entered the inner house.



    He
    was thunder-struck as soon as he entered. What a situation! Who was that girl
    standing in front of Elokeshi, her face uncovered and framed by hair that stood
    out like the hoods of a million snakes? Could that be his wife? But how could
    that be possible? How could his wife stand like that before his mother without
    the <!--[p. 187]
    -->
    earth cracking open or a terrible storm starting up? And why didn't she pay any
    attention to the fact that Nabakumar was standing there and gaping? Impossible!
    This had to be someone else! Some neighbour's girl - whom Nabakumar didn't
    know. Perhaps there'd been some terrible fight.



    Nabakumar
    forgot to clear his throat, forgot to move away; he only stared stunned and
    stupefied. He was faced with a serious dilemma. He could hardly dismiss the
    suspicion that this was his wife with any conviction.



    Though
    he hadn't really seen his wife's face, over this last month he had glanced at
    her least twenty or twenty-five times. Fleeting glimpses that hardly lasted for
    a split second for fear that anybody should notice him staring at her! But the
    lens of a camera can capture an image forever. He knew her shape even though he
    hadn't seen her face. And he had seen that blue saree. So there was no point in
    deceiving himself. It was as ridiculous as shutting one's eyes and claiming
    that the sun didn't exist! She wasn't a neighbour at all, that dauntless
    creature was none other than Nabakumar's wife! The wife to whom Nabakumar had
    been singing, and still sings, silently in his waking moments and in his dreams
    - `Look up my bride and speak to me, open your eyes and look at me!' But were
    those her eyes!



    Perhaps,
    if Nabakumar had left the scene as silently as he had entered it, the climax of
    this drama would never have reached such a pitch. Perhaps Satyabati would have
    moved away fearlessly and Elokeshi would have uttered every single profanity
    that she had learnt. And later, when her husband and son came home, she would
    have presented an elaborate description of her daughter-in-law's dreadful
    insolence and terrible rudeness. And the whole thing would have blown over.



    But
    the witless Nabakumar just stood there and stared. And at some point Elokeshi's
    eyes chanced on him. She on the verandah, her son down below
    on the courtyard.
    For a moment, she too gaped at his staring face. And
    then a fierce scream arose out of that wide-open mouth that had been frozen
    until now, ‘You wretched, pathetic <!--[p. 188]
    -->
    sissy! Don't you wear shoes! Can't you could rub your shoes and grind her face
    to pulp? I'd say you're some son then!’



    But
    Nabakumar just stood motionless.



    Elokeshi
    changed her tune the very next minute, ‘Oh my mother! Come and see how my son
    and his wife are abusing me! Oh Naba - cow of a brahmin
    - how lowly you've become after marrying this girl from that lowly family! How
    can you just stand and watch your mother being insulted? Come and hit me with
    the broom! That's what I deserve. Or why would I let her stand here still? I
    should have shaved her head and dismissed her from here. My god, my god - the
    daughter-in-law beats me and my son just watches.’



    Nabakumar
    came back to his senses finally, but as soon as he did, he ran out through the
    open door.



    <!--[p.
    189]
    -->



     



    Chapter Thirty



    In the annals of this place this was a first! This
    incident of calling a Sahib-doctor.
    This historical event was made
    possible by the astrological confluence of three bodies - Bhabatosh-Master,
    Nitai and she who disgraced the Banerjee family! The news made people stand
    rooted to their spots, and time stood still. <!--[p. 283]
    -->



    Everyone knew of the ‘virtues’ of the shameless,
    ill-tempered daughter-in-law. What  they couldn’t understand was why they
    had tolerated her for so long. Why could they not just drive her away? They'd
    all tried to puzzle out the reason. She was her father's only daughter. And a
    well-to-do father at that! He must have set some conditions at the time of
    marriage. May be Naba wouldn’t inherit the property of this Brahmin-doctor if
    he threw out his wife. Or else, why would Banerjee-Ginni seek to avenge herself
    indirectly by cursing and beating her breasts? They were all vexed by the
    recurring anticlimax that came just when they thought that the drama of getting
    rid of the daughter-in-law had neared its denouement. And they had now begun to
    regard at Satya almost with some fondness because she was the one responsible
    for a new twist in the tale.



    It was certainly a blessing to have her as a topic of
    discussion or as a negative example to hold up before young wives. But when
    Naba fell ill, nobody could find a language adequate enough in which to
    criticize his wife. Such a prototype of a shrew could not be found in the Vedas
    or the Puranas, nor the Jatras! And they had no
    language in which to describe her. But none of them could have imagined it even
    in a nightmare that the woman had actually met Naba’s friend, Nitai, and given
    him her heavy gold necklace to sell, and arranged for Bhabatosh-Master to fetch
    a Sahib-doctor from Calcutta!
    And she had spoken with Bhabatosh-Master too!



    Whether Naba would live or die because of the
    Sahib-doctor’s medications was not significant. Far weightier was the task of dealing
    with his father.



    The affair was no longer restricted to the women; it
    had upset the men – who comprised the crown of society! They'd heard from their
    wives how Naba’s wife quarrelled with her mother-in-law, spoke in front of her
    father-in-law, or did similar wicked acts. But apart from feeling annoyed they
    hadn't been able to do anything about it.



    But they could no longer dismiss this as just the
    misdemeanour of one woman! It involved the question of caste now. Banerjee may
    occupy the highest place in the community, but he had no right to demand <!--[p.
    284]
    --> that everyone tolerate such shameless conduct! So far the question of
    his `lower-caste' mistress had become sort of acceptable through numerous
    jokes. It wasn’t really perceived as unnatural. But here was a sahib entering
    the inner quarters, a married woman who spoke to other men! Society hadn’t lost
    its claws or teeth that it would accept such aberrations!



    A meeting was called in the temple yard and the group
    decided to pressurize Nilambar Banerjee into disowning his daughter-in-law, and
    to make him an outcaste if he didn’t comply.



    Living in society was not a matter to joke about. If
    that dying invalid really recovered because of the white doctor’s treatment
    (not entirely impossible, because rumours had it that their medicines were
    miraculous - may God save him!) then they would have to make him undergo the
    purifying rituals.



    And Bhabatosh-master? That man's body ought to be rubbed with nettles and then they should
    just cast him out from the village! But the devil had actually left in the
    coach for Calcutta,
    along with the doctor! And he’d arrived with the doctor too!



    Well, one could hardly talk of banishing him because
    he had already set up home in Calcutta.
    He visited sometimes because his aunt was still living.



    The only culprit who could be captured was Nitai. But
    he was not to be found either. Like the legendary Hanuman with fire on his
    tail, he'd brought in the Sahib, and he had disappeared after setting Lanka on
    fire. And now the fire had spread.



    Nobody had a clue! God knows when Satya had set it all
    up! Like a magic trick with the entire village looking on! They saw a
    horse-drawn coach coming up the village road. Nilambar saw the coach stop at
    his door. And a hardy Englishman emerged. Nilambar’s blood turned into ice.
    This had to be either the Collector or the Magistrate! May be someone had made
    pressed charges and they'd come to handcuff him! Nilambar lost the ability to
    think through the causes, and he forgot to note that other figure which also
    descended. He started wailing and flung himself at the Sahib’s feet.



    Meanwhile the news of the Sahib’s arrival in
    Nilambar’s house <!-[p. 285]
    --> had
    spread through the village. Nothing apart from legal and court matters had
    occured to anybody. They had all peeped out of their windows and murmured, ‘Like
    they say it never rains but it pours! The son is dying and now this!’



    And they had peeped into Nilambar’s house too.
    Suddenly somebody had noticed the stethoscope around the Sahib’s neck, ‘A
    doctor – look at that!’ A muted sense of excitement had spread.



    A Sahib doctor for Naba!
    Nilambar had pulled a fast trick! And he hadn’t even thought of consulting
    anybody. It was like giving the neighbours a sharp slap in the face. And now he
    was pretending to weep at the Sahib’s feet!



    For indeed, that was what Nilambar was doing,
    clutching the Sahib's feet, ‘Sahib, I know anything about it! I've done nothing
    wrong. My son is dying inside -’



    And the Sahib's reassurance, ‘Don’t worry. The patient
    will get better -’ hardly entered his ears.



    But Bhabatosh’s words did.



    ‘Stop behaving like this! This is a doctor from Calcutta - he's come to
    treat Nabakumar.’



    Nilambar looked up. And he noticed Nitai too. And in a
    flash, he sensed a plot at work. And immediately, it had occurred to him that
    the heroine of this plot could be none other than Satya.       But
    how had it come about? Whatever it was, not a word could be said now. Trembling
    like a goat readied for sacrifice, Nilambar followed Bhabatosh-Master into his
    own house.



    Satya was standing by the window that faced the
    garden, still as a statue. The window was close to the patient's head and she
    had fixed the shutter in such a way that she could see the people in the room,
    while remaining out of their range of vision. When a massive red-faced man
    almost a foot taller than Bhabatosh-master entered the room, for some unknown
    reason Satya’s heart trembled. And suddenly her eyes brimmed over with tears.
    And though she didn't literally fold her hands, she prayed in her mind, ‘Forgive
    your brazen and disobedient daughter, Baba. Bless me so that my husband lives.
    I know I have hurt you deeply but I am your
    daughter, after all. I've got this boldness and pride from you.’ <!--[p.
    286]
    -->



    Then she had tried to remember her mother’s face, ‘Ma,
    I'd sworn in your name, to make him well again when I'd returned the medicines.
    Don't let that be a vain oath!’



    Satya didn't seem to value Kali, Durga or Shiva, she
    prayed fervently again and again to the  living-gods she knew. So that the
    Sahib’s medicines worked like a miracle!



    But even at such a grave moment, her ever-curious mind
    had filled with wonder like a child’s. She had looked wide-eyed as the doctor
    placed one end of his stethoscope on the patient's chest and back and put the
    other to his ear and listened solemnly. And after a while, she had heard a  sombre voice, ‘No
    fear. He will get better.’



    Was it contemptible to think of a mlechcha as a god?



    After that the stage had cleared. Those who had
    brought the doctor disappeared with him.



    And two persons sat motionless; fuming, ready to explode  – Banerjee and his wife. They sat like
    wooden puppets, unable to figure out what they should do, what would be the
    wisest path to take. They themselves looked thunder-struck! They had forgotten
    all about their son.



    Sadu appeared relatively sensible. She had summoned
    Nitai just before he left and asked him to clarify the doctor’s instructions. And had taken the opportunity to quickly ask, ‘Who paid for all
    this – the master?’



    Nitai scratched his head, ‘Not really, I mean, you
    know what Sadu-di, if Bouthan didn’t start crying after she called me near the
    ghat the other day -’



    Sadu stopped him sternly, ‘She isn’t the type to cry
    in front of any old person! Stop lying, and tell me the truth quickly.’



    So Nitai had told her the facts. Satya had handed him
    her necklace on the way to the ghat, ‘He's my husband and your friend. Act
    accordingly. Sell this and get a Sahib-doctor’.



    She'd wanted to give a pair of amulets too but Nitai
    had stopped her.



    There was nobody else present in the sickroom. Satya
    had slowly come in and was standing near the bed. Sadu had almost entered but
    had changed her mind. In her mind she had said, ‘If he lives, <!--[p. 287]
    --> it’ll be because of you! Behula had followed her dead husband to heaven
    and Savitri had pursued Lord Yama himself! And they are worshipped even today!’



    After a while, as she was passing, she had heard Satya
    speaking softly to her mother-in-law, ‘You wouldn't
    want to touch the medicine given by the Sahib-doctor, why don’t you let me look
    after the patient, you can look after the cooking -’



    Elokeshi had stirred a bit and responded drily, ‘We’ll
    have obey whatever you say from now on! You occupy a
    place right next to Queen Victoria!
    So your slave here will be in charge of the kitchen but what about your sons?’



    Satya had said even more gently, ‘They usually stay
    with Sadu-di.’



    ‘Just because the kids stay with her – you shouldn't
    impose.’



    Everything was possible in this world! Here was
    Elokeshi speaking up for Sadu! Sadu had waited to listen to the next bit. And
    she had heard Satya say even more mildly, ‘Sadu-di loves them with all her
    heart. Why should it be an imposition?’



    But Satya’s gentle tone had brought tears to Sadu’s
    eyes. This tone hardly suited her. Her firm voice was better.
    Much better. <!-- [p. 288] -->



     



    Chapter Forty Five



    It
    was an unimaginable event! Her [Bhabini’s] youngest sister, her mother's
    last-born, who'd been married just a few days ago, had died the previous day.
    She returned to find her brother wailing. He told her that she had been killed
    by her husband and her mother-in-law. Yes, they'd killed her! And they'd spread
    a rumour that she had had a fall near the ghat at night and died.



    Killed
    her! Nabakumar was astounded. Nabakumar and Satya had both come to see Bhabini
    on hearing of her bereavement. Nowadays, Bhabini would stand at a distance, and
    practically talk to Nabakumar. And her grief had made her bold. <!--[p. 475]
    -->



    ‘Killed her!’
    Nabakumar exclaimed fierily, ‘What kind of anarchy is this!’



    ‘Exactly
    my question,’ Bhabini replied, wiping her eyes, ‘Every killer gets punished,
    but you go scot-free if you kill your wife! The old hag is sure to marry off
    her son again. The loss is our's. She was just a kid - nine going on ten -
    totally innocent! And such a lovely person too. How
    she'd sobbed and refused food and drink when she was sent to her in-law's! And this had to happen in less than a month! Can't imagine the state my mother's in!’



    Bhabini
    moaned on. She had had no children of her own, and used to treat her mother's
    last-born like her daughter. And now she was gone!  Satya had been sitting motionless and taking
    it all in. She had not tried to offer any consolation. After a long while, she
    asked softly, ‘How do you know they killed her? It could well have been the way
    they claim.’



    ‘Do
    you think such things can be hidden! The neighbours
    came and told my father.’ Bhabini broke into sobs, ‘I believe they said, `How
    barbaric! They just smashed her head in with a grinding stone and finished her
    off!’



    Suddenly
    Satya's expression changed, her eyes took on a crazed look.



    ‘Smashed her head in with a grinding stone.’
    She intoned.



    Nabakumar
    was alarmed by Satya's transformation though Bhabini hardly paid heed, she
    continued in the same manner, ‘That's exactly what they did! The man had nearly
    finished her off anyway, and his mother didn't see it fit to leave her
    half-dead - so she killed her! That way she wouldn't speak again. And so
    another hard bash! Inhuman monsters! They pretend to be civilized, actually
    they're beasts!’



    Once
    again Bhabini began to wipe her eyes.



    Satya
    suddenly shrieked, ‘And are you going to just sit and cry? Won't you do
    anything about it?’



    Bhabini
    gave a start. She faltered before Satya's wild eyes, ‘What can be done now?
    What was destined, has happened.’



    ‘Destined,
    was it?’ <!--[p. 476]
    -->



    ‘What
    else can one call it? It was punishment fated for my mother - and at her age
    too…’



    ‘How wonderful!
    And don't they need to be punished? Don't you want to see them hanged by the
    neck?’



    Bhabini
    hit her forehead with her palms, ‘What would be the point? Our Puti won't come
    back, will she? Just a useless hassle with the police!’



    Useless
    hassle!



    Satya
    responded grimly, ‘And aren't there a thousand Putis
    in our country? Aren't they tortured too?’



    A
    thousand Putis! What could that mean? Bhabini was flabbergasted. Why had Satya
    begun to look so maniacal? Bhabini had not understood her words, but she
    persisted nervously nevertheless, ‘Of course, there is torture everywhere.
    After all, it is a woman's fate to suffer a battering in silence. But it's
    really sad that the kid died. I think it's a good idea that nowadays they wait
    for girls to get a little older before marrying them off. A
    good thing too that you've started sending Subarna to school.
    It will
    increase her understanding and her strength. Our Puti was such a good girl…’



    Satya
    stood up abruptly and announced, ‘ I want to go home.’



    Go
    home! Nabakumar was astounded by her complete disregard for propriety. And
    without a word of consolation too! He said agitatedly, ‘Of course, you will go
    home. What's the hurry? Stay a while.’



    ‘I
    can't. My head is throbbing. But don't mind my asking - but could you give me
    the name and address of your sister's husband?’



    The
    name and address! Nabakumar was startled and he scolded, ‘Why do you need that?
    It's none of your business.’



    ‘I
    need it. Just give it to me.’



    Bhabini
    limply intoned, ‘His name is Ramcharan Ghosh, son of Taracharan…’



    ‘And
    where do they live?’



    Nabakumar
    scolded again, ‘Oh what a bother! What do you <!--[p. 477]
    -->
    need their address for? Are you going to write them a harsh letter or what?’



    ‘Of course not!’
    Satya gave a grim smirk, ‘What good would that do? They wouldn't break down
    with remorse, would they?’



    ‘Then
    why?’



    ‘I
    need it for something. Just give me the address.’



    ‘The
    address….’ Bhabini answered reluctantly, ‘Panchanantala, Howrah. There's a banyan tree at the
    crossing.’



    ‘I
    don't need all that.’ Satya then turned to Nabakumar, ‘Why don't you sit for a
    while, if you want to. I'll be off…’



    Nabakumar
    began to fuss, ‘What will I do here? Nitai isn't home either. Why don't you sit
    and talk for a while, instead?’



    And
    with that, Nabakumar fled from the scene in a rush. As though
    he was scared.
    Of course, he had always been scared of Satya. But
    earlier, he had trusted her. And the last two years of living apart had created
    in Nabakumar an insecurity that overwhelmed him. He could hardly look at Satya
    without feeling overawed. And he no longer felt confident enough to grasp her
    hand when no one was looking.



    The
    strange look on Satya's face stayed for while after Nabakumar had left. Then,
    after a while, she asked slowly, ‘Did the neighbours say why they did it? Which
    of her faults had made them thirst for her blood?’



    Bhabini
    no longer reacted sharply to any of Satya's words. Perhaps because
    she was no longer able to.
    So in answer to Satya's query she rubbed her
    eyes with the end of her saree and said, ‘Her fault? It's a shameful thing to
    talk about! I couldn't bring myself to mention it in your husband's presence.
    It was her fault that she was small and scrawny - you yourself saw how thin she
    was the last time she'd visited. And she remained like that even after she was
    wedded and bedded.! Just a slip of a girl - and second
    wife to her husband! A sturdy and strapping young man, full
    of lust ever since his first wife died.
    She wouldn't dare go near him.
    She didn't want to, she'd resist. And I believe, mother and son would yell and
    scream, punch her, kick her and push her! And Puti too was such an idiot!
    Really, when you can see they're stronger than you, better <!--[p. 478]
    -->
    to give in, no? Instead, she'd resist - she'd refuse to enter the bedroom. And
    what good did it come to? The monster became furious - and men do get provoked
    by such things - he just lost his senses. And his mother was there of course,
    to lend a hand! What a combination! It was destined.’



    ‘Destined indeed!’
    Satya retorted roughly, ‘In any case, it is ill-fated to be born a girl in this
    country! We wear blinkers and blame Fate for everything!’



    The
    tearful Bhabini frowned, 
    ‘What
    do you mean by blinkers?’



    ‘Nothing!
    But let me ask you - didn't you have a grinding stone at home? And couldn't
    your parents' have thrown it and smashed in the heads of that pair? After all,
    they no longer need to fear for their daughter's widowhood or humiliation!’



    Bhabini
    felt a trifle irritated, ‘What utter nonsense! Do you think we'd get away with
    it? We'd have been arrested for sure. After all, nothing can be said against
    beating, butchering or killing the woman one is married to!’



    ‘Well,
    that's what I'd have done. I'd have stoned his head to powder. And after that,
    they could hang me.’ Satya retorted fiercely.



    Once
    again Bhabini burst into tears, ‘That’s what my mother's been saying too! And
    she's been weeping away. But that's impossible, isn't it? An aunt of mine was
    in fact, blaming my mother for bringing her up to be so delicate. Or else, how
    could she refuse to go to her husband's bed after marriage? After all, she
    could hardly expect him to treat her like a doll, could she? And other such
    mean things. But this aunt herself has a strapping twelve year old girl.’



    Before
    she had finished Satya rose to leave, ‘I'm sorry, but I can't stay any longer;
    my head is aching.’



    Bhabini
    noted that Satya hadn't offered a single word of consolation. And in her mind
    she said, ‘How stone-hearted she is! My own heart bursts when I see others
    suffer. How differently we are made!’ <!--[p. 479]
    -->



     



     



     



    Chapter Forty Six



    Satya
    had come away complaining of a headache, but nobody had imagined that her
    complaint would turn into a raging fever. Not even Satya herself, when she had
    lain down to rest. When Saral noticed that she hadn't got up to cook, he came
    and discovered that her body was burning. And she was delirious.



    The
    poor boy panicked and called his father. Not that his father had much
    self-confidence in such matters - because he would slap his forehead like a
    woman at such times. And sure enough, after one look, he wailed out, ‘Go
    immediately and call your aunt!’



    Sadu
    arrived and took charge of preliminary treatment by placing a wet cloth on
    Satya's forehead and warming her feet. And after cooking a
    bit of rice for them, left late at night.
    She hadn't stayed the night.
    It appeared that the youngest son of her co-wife would refuse to sleep if Sadu
    wasn't there. And besides, Mukherjee-moshai needed about ten refills for his
    hookah through the night. But she left with the assurance that she'd be back at
    dawn.



    Satya
    remained unconscious. Nabakumar kept on fanning her.



    Deep
    into the night, Satya opened her eyes and said, ‘Listen, come here and touch
    me.’



    Nabakumar
    shuddered in dismay - was this delirium, or an indication that the end was
    near?



    ‘Come
    here and touch me.’



    Nabakumar
    nervously touched her.



    Satya
    said fiercely, ‘You know what happens if you touch
    someone and swear, don't you? Remember that! Listen, should I die, promise that
    you won't get Subarna married early. Come, promise me that!’



    It
    had to be the raving of a fevered brain! It would only get worse if one
    disagreed. So Nabakumar hurriedly said, ‘Yes, I swear.’



    ‘Say
    it then - I shall not get Subarna married before she is sixteen!’



    Sixteen!
    When the girl turned sixteen! Keep her unmarried till that <!--[p. 480]
    -->
    age! Nabakumar wondered why Satya had this sudden fever that brought on
    delirium. Whatever the reason, she had to be calmed.



    Nabakumar
    said in a hastily, ‘All right. Rest assured that's what'll happen.’



    ‘No that's not enough!’
    Satya pushed herself upright, ‘Say it out loud: I shall not get Subarna married
    before she turns sixteen.’



    It
    never harms to cheat the mad. And there were few differences between a raving
    patient and a lunatic! So promptly removing his hand from Satya's body,
    Nabakumar recited, ‘Here, I swear that I shall not marry her off without your
    consent.’



    ‘But
    you haven't said the most important thing!’ Satya shrieked, ‘Don't trick me
    there! Don't kill Subarna! She must live. A thousand Subarnas must live, don't
    you see!’



    With
    that she fell back into the bed.



    Nabakumar
    began to fan her vigorously. A thousand Subarnas! God, this was deep delirium!
    Why did god do this? Goddess Kali, if you let the night pass in peace, I shall
    wash your cleaver and bring her the water to drink! Nabakumar also called on
    the goddess at his village. And vowed that he'd make
    offerings to Hari as well.
    What else could he do?



    He
    had heard that if the blood rushes to the brain in a delirious state, a patient
    raves on and dies of a hyperactive brain. It was clear from the symptoms that
    would be inevitable if the fever didn't let up by dawn.



    Possibly
    Kali took pity. The fever abated even without the antidote that was vowed. The
    temperature dropped just before dawn. And the fever withdrew leaving the
    bedsheets sopping wet with sweat.



    Yet
    nobody could guess how the intensity of delirium returned five days after the
    fever had passed, and how blood at normal temperature could boil over! Nor the way in which its force propelled the mind into a
    waywardness akin to raving.
    Otherwise, whoever had heard of such an
    outrageous thing? Was it ever possible for a girl from a Bengali household to
    take such a shocking step?



    Even
    Satya's devoted, ever-supportive sons were stunned by their mother's
    unimaginable daring.



    Sadhan
    went out by the back-door <!--[p. 481]
    -->
    and summoned Sadu and her husband, and a jittery Nabakumar blurted out to Saral,
    ‘The Shastras say that one shouldn't care for seemliness at times of trouble.
    Please go and call Master-moshai right away!’



    ‘Master-moshai!’
    Saral was dumbstruck. He couldn't believe that his father was asking for
    Master-moshai! He who was never mentioned or faced, and because of whom even
    Suhas-di had become a stranger to this household!



    Nabakumar
    attempted to cover up his unease with briskness. ‘Yes, yes, that's what I'm
    telling you. Didn't I say that the Shashtras discourage seemliness when danger
    strikes! Go and say I'm asking him to come. Tell him, it's really serious, the
    police are here. Perhaps, they'll arrest your mother, and when they hear…’



    Saral
    hardly waited to question his father about the arrest or the Shashtras,
    he slipped on a short kurta and walked out the kitchen door at the back of the
    house.



    Thank
    god there was another exit. For a gigantic and terrifying Sahib-policeman was
    sitting at the front door. And he was interrogating Satya sitting on the chair
    that the trembling Nabakumar had provided.



    That's
    right. He was questioning Satya. In a Bengali that was ridiculously mixed, in
    vocabulary and pronunciation, with English. And the stouthearted Satya was
    standing motionless and responding to his questions.



    Even
    the confident Mukherjee-Moshai had refused to come at first, finally he'd
    agreed because of Sadu's pleading. And he arrived
    holding on to his sacred thread, chanting the name of the goddess and of
    course, avoiding the front door, he'd followed Sadu into the house through the
    back.



    No
    sooner had they entered than Subarna had come running to her aunt, sobbing, ‘Look
    Pishi! The white man has come to take away my mother!’



    ‘Of course not!
    Goddess protect us! Why should they do that?’ Lifting
    the girl up, Sadu had asked under her breath, ‘What is the matter, Turu?’ <!--[p.
    482]
    -->



    Sadhan's
    timorous description of events could be summarized as follows: Satyabati had
    written a letter to the police on her own, without consulting a soul, and
    signed her name on it too! And the police had come for an enquiry.



    The
    reason for the letter was as strange as it was inconceivable. It had to do with
    the untimely and tragic death of Bhabini's sister. Satyabati had described in
    vivid language the brutal murder and made a spirited appeal for justice against
    the monstrous act and that the pair of murderers be
    properly punished. For their inability to do that would prove that all their
    attempts at opening courts in the name of justice were worthless indeed!
    Satyabati had informed them about the name and address of the guilty too.



    On
    hearing this, Sadu gave a sigh, ‘All this is an outcome of that delirium, the
    blood rose to her head and totally wrecked her brains! Or how could a girl from
    a Bengali household ever take such a shocking step? Your mother will die of
    apoplexy one of these days, that I'm sure of.  She's always been this sturdy man in female
    shape! And over and above that, she's now got this dreadful ailment.’



    Sadhan
    grew a shade paler, ‘Of course, it is an ailment! She's always suffered from it
    - wherever there is injustice - she behaves as though the injury is hers! She
    takes on the pain and sufferings of others as if they're her own - that's what
    her ailment is! One day, she'd sacked a maid on the spot just because she'd
    cursed her son saying `Why don't you just die?'‘



    ‘Weird!
    She's always been weird! God had given her beauty and brains and she just
    failed to put it to good use! And I believe the other day, when she was raving
    with fever, she asked your father to swear that he wouldn't get Subarna married
    before she turned twenty-five or some such thing!’



    The
    pledge was utterly ridiculous of course, so Sadhan hardly stopped to worry
    about it. People said anything when they were delirious. But he too believed
    that his mother had truly been genuinely blessed with brains - if only she was
    less stubborn!



    ‘Will
    you step out that way, Pishe-moshai?’



    Mukherjee
    was agitated by Sadhan's request and said, ‘I'm an old <!--[p. 483]
    -->
    man - why pick on me? I've just had a bath - and I've not finished my Puja.
    Can't have contact with that mlechcha now, can I?’



    ‘No,
    no, you don't have to have contact…’



    ‘What
    a silly boy you are! Even speaking is a form of contact! It's no small matter
    to touch with words! And besides, you've studied in college, you have learnt
    English…’



    Of
    course, he had learnt. But this had nothing to do with his curriculum! This
    wasn't his Sahib-teacher! This was extremely disconcerting. And in such cases,
    it was best to send an elder. But the elder refused out of fear of another
    bath. He just kept peeping from time to time to watch Satya looking at the
    Sahib as she talked.



    Yes,
    Satya was in full flow, saying, ‘Just tell me why you've opened your courts of
    justice? In our country we used to kill our women by burning them on their
    husband's funeral pyre, you stopped that practice and saved us from that sin.
    But that's nothing! There are heaps of sins that have collected over centuries.
    If you can rid us of those, only then would I say that you deserve to be
    law-makers. Why have you taken on the guise of ruler in another's land? Why
    can't you just huddle into your ships and leave?’



    ‘Ma!’
    Sadhan advanced to restrain his mother. He could see that the Sahib had lost
    track of the little Bengali he knew and was repeating, ‘What? What?’ Realizing
    that his learning was totally inadequate before this veritable flood of words
    and lacking the confidence to be an interpreter, Sadhan attempted to restrain
    his mother.



    But
    Satya seemed to have lost sense of her surroundings and situation, so she
    ignored the hint and continued, ‘I believe that in your country women are
    respected and honoured. Can't you open your eyes and see the way in which women
    are tormented and disgraced in this country? Can't you make laws to stop all
    that? You pass new laws everyday…’



    ‘Boro-Bou!’
    Nabakumar could no longer contain himself, he yelled out. And just at that
    moment, Bhabatosh-master arrived with Saral in tow.



    He
    had probably heard the last bit of Satya's fierce speech. So he addressed Satya
    in a calm manner, ‘Bouma, you shouldn't nurture <!--[p. 484]
    -->
    the hope that foreigners will remove our social ills with their laws. That's a
    task for us.’



    She
    was surprised indeed to see Bhabatosh; but the riddle became clear to her when
    she saw Saral with him. Drawing her saree over her head, she did a little
    namaskar and went inside.



    On
    seeing Bhabatosh, Nabakumar physically experienced the sensation of `getting a
    load off his chest'! Now he could just let go! He could just go inside and sit
    on the bed and fan himself!



    But
    he had to wait for the Sahib and Bhabatosh to leave. After that he would really
    settle the issue once and for all. He'd tolerated things long enough. And
    Mukherjee-moshai had just passed a comment about how wives of hen-pecked
    husbands were invariably like this! The words had been stinging him!



    The
    Sahib and Bhabatosh hardly talked, the Sahib showed Satya's letter to him and
    after a while left with a `Goodbye'. Bhabatosh walked him out and returned once
    again to the courtyard. And he spoke very calmly to Sadhan, ‘Tell your mother
    that the Sahib has promised that they will find the culprit and bring him to
    book. And..’ Bhabatosh added with a smile, ‘he offered
    his congratulations to your mother.’



    Mukherjee-moshai
    found his voice at last. He climbed on to the courtyard with his hookah and asked,
    ‘Namaskar - I should greet you that way because after all, you were Nabakumar's
    teacher. But what did you say that the Sahib offered Sadhan's mother?’



    ‘Congratulations!
    I mean, praise.’



    ‘I
    see. For what reason?’



    Bhabatosh
    looked at this uncouth, self-important man and said with a sardonic and
    bantering chuckle, ‘That shouldn't be difficult to understand at all! They've
    praised her boldness. After all, how many have the guts to protest against
    injustice?’



    Mukherjee
    made a face, ‘ True - not everybody has the nerve to
    go and set fire to other people's homes or hit other people on the head - that
    is courage of sorts! But I don't think that kind of courage needs praise.’



    ‘What
    you think hardly matters in this case.’ With that Bhabatosh made to leave. <!--P.
    485
    -->



     


    -------------->



    © 2007 by Indira Chowdhury








    Published March, 2007















    Indira Chowdhury, formerly Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, now works as Consultant Archivist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. A PhD in History from ...
    (more)



    Illustrations by
    Preeti Mathur. Preeti is based in New Jersey.


    Click here to send your feedback



    * To
    learn more about the ITRANS script for Bengali,

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    .


















    ©Parabaas 2007


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