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.
was rushing home with news from the Banerji locality
But hearing the call, she too raised her voice and yelled out, Co-me Shyamali!
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
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.
grandsons had mumbled a
protest, You have to go far to visit your patients. How can you
do without your palki
Ramkali had retorted with a dark laugh, In that case, carry him on your
shoulders! After all, here you are, three strapping young men!
would be unthinkable to laugh at the joke of an elder, so they had just
scratched their heads.
taking courage, the eldest had ventured, We were thinking of a bullock cart
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.
had rolled down the misty eyes of the old man. He had raised his infirm right
hand in blessing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
you off to? Ramkali asked, his voice booming like thunder.
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
repeated, Where had you gone by yourself at this hour?
answered in a faint voice: To Sejopishi's.
person Satyabati called `Sejopishi' was in fact Ramkali's first cousin. She'd
been married in this village, and lived here. [p.16]
frowned: And why did you go so far all by yourself?
Why isn't anybody with you?
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!
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.
came to call me? Ramkali said knitting his brows, And
why exactly do you need me?
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.
you'd been to that locality too! This is too much! What has happened to Jata's
wife that her pulse has gone weak?
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.
do you mean? Come let's have a look, Ramkali said. But there's a storm
brewing, its going to rain. What a bother! Now tell me, what had happened?
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.
you laughing? Ramkali scolded irritably. How ill-mannered the girl had become!
Was this the time to laugh?
scolded, What's so funny about a person dying? Is this what you've been taught?
had laughed impulsively; she controlled herself somehow after her fathers
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!
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.
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 mothers ears.
How often did one get a chance to speak ones 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!
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]
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!
exclaimed, Gosh! it's all over!
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!
walked up slowly to the door and turning around said, So it's really over.
Satya, you go home.
froze. By myself?
didn't Neru and Punyi come with you?
said anxiously, They did, but they aren't going to come back with me.
won't they? They'll have to! Where are they? I must see to this.
slowly moved to the courtyard of her aunt's house, and failing to spot her
friends, Neru or Punyi,
crestfallen, Can't see either of them.
where have they disappeared?
knows! Slowly, regaining her courage, Satya voiced
her innermost thought, You can bring back the dead,
can't you, Baba?
back the dead! Are you mad!
that's what they all say! Satya said numbly.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
it! It was like a tiger roaring, When wasn't your Jata a wretch? He's
completely finished her off, has he?
crowd dispersed. The doctor approached the body of his nephews wife, trying to
avoid contact as custom demanded. He bent down and was astonished to find a
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?
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! Didnt 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 peoples homes and outside, on the
streets. After losing the golden opportunity of exterminating Jatas 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 Jatas wifes 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.
aunt-in-law burst out abruptly, In my parents village they wouldnt have
allowed her to live inside the house. Shed have to spend the rest of her life
in the cowshed or the husking room.
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 shes come alive, surely some rituals are in order.
exploring the question in depth, it was decided that Jatas 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. Jatas mother was out, looking for Jata. Therefore an ex parte
decision was arrived at.
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.
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?
controlled herself with difficulty, swallowed, and said, Just like that!
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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 is it you do in the dark? Ramkali was staggered.
faltered, Not just me - Neru and Punyipishi too. We count the eyes of the
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.
that the doctor's voice?
what it sounds like. <!--[p. 23]-->
he laughing by himself at this hour?
probably not alone. That unruly daughter must be with him. Otherwise ...
a girl he's raised! She's fated to be unhappy!
With so much money! I heard that the Raja of Barddhaman sent for him yesterday.
Wants him to be the court physician.
that so? I didn't know anything about it! So is he leaving?
I hear he isn't going.
That's good news. But who told you?
Kunja's eldest son.
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!
But then shes ten times better than the boys when it comes to swimming,
climbing trees and fishing!
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.
know! It doesn't take long for a scandal!
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?
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.
Can you make up a rhyme!
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
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
asked, Rhyme? What do you mean?
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!
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
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
my dear `sir'! But what if your husband talks this way?
In the same way about girls!
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!
asked deferentially, How will you do that?
The way the kathak-thakur does - same way! I have done a bit already. Want to
Tell me, please!
spoke with assurance, almost as if she were slowly savouring sour tamarind:
elephant-footed Jatadada - there he goes, the
May a toad kick the back of this stupid wife-beater!
Satya! Punyi suddenly squealed and hugged Satya, Look at you! You'll be
writing proper poetry next!
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].-->
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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]-->
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.
smiled mildly and asked, Why, what has happened now?
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! Shes scalded it and theres a big blister! And she says `No
need to tell father, it'll get better.' See for yourself.
shuddered as he examined his daughter's hand.
this? How did this happen?
her how it happened. Im 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
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.
this girl is the limit ! Now what did you do? How did
you get this huge blister?
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?
examined the state of his daughter's hand and spoke to her seriously, Why did
you have to go near the fire? Wasnt there anybody else at home?
inclined her head and replied, It's not burning too much.
not the point, there are medicines to treat it. But
tell me, why were you working near a fire?
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.
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
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!
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!
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?
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..
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
father's tiger-like roar almost brought tears to Satyabati's eyes, but she
wasnt 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...
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 girls 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!
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'?
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.
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, dont you
see? Come, show me your hand.
put out her hand and bit her lips in an attempt to control the turmoil inside
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
that Mokshada exited the scene.
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.
tone of truce was clear in her father's voice which revived Satyabati's courage
somewhat. Otherwise her fathers 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.
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?
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!
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
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!
I touch the cup.
Cup, cup, cup!
Here come three white cops
To nab the co-wife's mom!
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!
it! Ramkali scolded solemnly, Are these your chants?
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. All right, let's hear them. Let's see how your brains are being
ruined. Do you know more?
inclined her head, Yes,
Husking pedal husk the rice,
The co-wife dies and I feel nice!
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!
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.
ornaments are drawn too and there are chants for each:
Necklace, bracelet, rings and earring,
With a broomstick give her a thrashing!
you've to draw a paan and say,
Paan with cardamom and lots of clove -
The co-wife is hated I am loved!
You don't have to say any more. Ramkali held up a hand to stop her, Do you
call such abuses ritual chants?
dont, 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.
said solemnly, Whatever it is, don't perform this ritual any more.
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
at all, in fact, you'd suffer in hell if you performed such rituals.
shall I tell Pishthakuma then?
do you mean? <!--[p. 70]-->
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.
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!
the ritual is unfair, if a co-wife is a good thing, then why is boro-bou feeling
Rashu's wife? Unhappy? Has
she told you this herself? Ramkali's tone wore a shade of rebuke.
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!
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.
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
that what she's said? Ramkali asked darkly.
what the neighbours tell me.
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
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
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.
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
patients 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!
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!
you don't have to say anything to her. Only ... I mean ... I'll give you one
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?
tell me, what do you want me to do?
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.
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?
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...
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 ...
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] -->
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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.
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!
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?
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
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?
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]-->
don't you tell me what has happened?
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!
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!
began to laugh, Well, her hair is too fancy to style it any other way! It's so
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!
right then mami, why don't you do her hair - she's the wife of your only son
after all! Saudamini retorted.
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!
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
was that? You wretched girl! You think, I'll forget my
only son's wife!
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.
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!
right, may be I don't do that. But you do forget!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
exactly what I'm saying. You'll have to feed and clothe me even if I'm
As if I will!
I'll drag you by the legs and throw you in the ditch!
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]
came from a large family; in her brief life she has seen many characters but
nobody like this.
the aftermath of the morning's incident was this afternoon's wrestling match.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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!
ahead, then! Bring all the wood you have! Satyabati stood arrogantly before
her mother-in-law with fearless, unblinking eyes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Nabakumar just stood motionless.
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.
came back to his senses finally, but as soon as he did, he ran out through the
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 couldnt 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 wouldnt 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 Nabas friend, Nitai, and given
him her heavy gold necklace to sell, and arranged for Bhabatosh-Master to fetch
a Sahib-doctor from
And she had spoken with Bhabatosh-Master too!
Whether Naba would live or die because of the
Sahib-doctors 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 Nabas 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 wasnt really perceived as unnatural. But here was a sahib entering
the inner quarters, a married woman who spoke to other men! Society hadnt 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 didnt comply.
Living in society was not a matter to joke about. If
that dying invalid really recovered because of the white doctors 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
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
along with the doctor! And hed arrived with the doctor too!
Well, one could hardly talk of banishing him because
he had already set up home in
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. Nilambars 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 Sahibs feet.
Meanwhile the news of the Sahibs arrival in
Nilambars 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 Nilambars house too.
Suddenly somebody had noticed the stethoscope around the Sahibs 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 hadnt 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 Sahibs 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, Dont worry. The patient
will get better - hardly entered his ears.
But Bhabatoshs words did.
Stop behaving like this! This is a doctor from
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
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 Satyas 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.
Then she had tried to remember her mothers 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
Sahibs medicines worked like a miracle!
But even at such a grave moment, her ever-curious mind
had filled with wonder like a childs. 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 doctors 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 didnt start crying after she called me near the
ghat the other day -
Sadu stopped him sternly, She isnt 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]--> itll 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 dont you let me look
after the patient, you can look after the cooking -
Elokeshi had stirred a bit and responded drily, Well
have obey whatever you say from now on! You occupy a
place right next to Queen
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
Just because the kids stay with her you shouldn't
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 Satyas gentle tone had brought tears to Sadus
eyes. This tone hardly suited her. Her firm voice was better. Much better. <!-- [p. 288] -->
Chapter Forty Five
was an unimaginable event! Her [Bhabinis] 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.
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]-->
Nabakumar exclaimed fierily, What kind of anarchy is this!
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!
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
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
Satya's expression changed, her eyes took on a crazed look.
Smashed her head in with a grinding stone.
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
again Bhabini began to wipe her eyes.
suddenly shrieked, And are you going to just sit and cry? Won't you do
anything about it?
gave a start. She faltered before Satya's wild eyes, What can be done now?
What was destined, has happened.
was it? <!--[p. 476]-->
else can one call it? It was punishment fated for my mother - and at her age
And don't they need to be punished? Don't you want to see them hanged by the
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!
responded grimly, And aren't there a thousand Putis
in our country? Aren't they tortured too?
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
stood up abruptly and announced, I want to go home.
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.
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?
name and address! Nabakumar was startled and he scolded, Why do you need that?
It's none of your business.
need it. Just give it to me.
limply intoned, His name is Ramcharan Ghosh, son of Taracharan
where do they live?
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?
need it for something. Just give me the address.
address . Bhabini answered reluctantly, Panchanantala,
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
began to fuss, What will I do here? Nitai isn't home either. Why don't you sit
and talk for a while, instead?
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.
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?
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.
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!
tearful Bhabini frowned,
What do you mean by blinkers?
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!
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!
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.
again Bhabini burst into tears, Thats 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.
she had finished Satya rose to leave, I'm sorry, but I can't stay any longer;
my head is aching.
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
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.
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!
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
remained unconscious. Nabakumar kept on fanning her.
into the night, Satya opened her eyes and said, Listen, come here and touch
shuddered in dismay - was this delirium, or an indication that the end was
here and touch me.
nervously touched her.
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!
had to be the raving of a fevered brain! It would only get worse if one
disagreed. So Nabakumar hurriedly said, Yes, I swear.
it then - I shall not get Subarna married before she is 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.
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.
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
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
that she fell back into the bed.
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?
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.
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.
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?
Satya's devoted, ever-supportive sons were stunned by their mother's
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!
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?'
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!
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
you step out that way, Pishe-moshai?
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, you don't have to have contact
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
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.
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?
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
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
Nabakumar could no longer contain himself, he yelled out. And just at that
moment, Bhabatosh-master arrived with Saral in tow.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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?
I mean, praise.
see. For what reason?
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
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.
you think hardly matters in this case. With that Bhabatosh made to leave. <!--P.
© 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 ...