the manner or circumstance of its occurrence, a wedding had to be celebrated
with some grandeur. Not so much for fulfilling the need for a jamboree, but rather,
out of necessity of informing society. It was hardly appropriate that the grand
daughter of Lakshmikanta Banerji should one day, inadvertently and unexpectedly
be installed within the inner quarters of the Chatterjis without anybody
knowing anything about it. There had to be some proper document stating that
her entry was legitimate. But what
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?
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.
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!
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
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
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 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,
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?
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?
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
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
your Sejo-thakuma was right. Where have you learnt so many words from? Go, you
don't have to do anything. Go!
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004
Published in Parabaas 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 ...