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  • Extracts from The First Promise : Ashapurna Debi
    translated from Bengali to English by Indira Chowdhury


           

    Pratham Pratisruti and its English and Hindi translations,
    the first volume of Ashapurna's famous trilogy.


    Chapter Nine


    firstpromise_pic2Whatever 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?

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

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

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

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

    Mokshada waited in silence all the while Bhima, the fisherman was present; finally, when Bhima left after doing a pranam to Ramkali, Mokshada sprang into action.

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

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

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

    Ramkali shuddered as he examined his daughter's hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Stop! For shame!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

    With that Mokshada exited the scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Ladle, ladle, I swear on my life!
        Off with the head of the stupid co-wife!

    Then I touch the cup.

        Cup, cup, cup!
        Here come three white cops
        To nab the co-wife's mom!

    And then,

        Tongs, tongs, tongs!
        The co-wife's face is long!
        Knife, knife, knife!
        I cook at the funeral of the co-wife!
        Pot, pot, pot!
        To be wedded is my lot!
        Let the widowed co-wife rot!

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

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

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

    Satya inclined her head, ‘Yes,

        Husking pedal husk the rice,
        The co-wife dies and I feel nice!

    And then,

        The tree I chop to make me a shed,
        With the co-wife's blood I make my feet red!
        Bird, bird that sings!
        May he never a co-wife bring!

    Then, you've to pick up a fistful of grass and say,

        Fist of grass, fist of green,
        May she be blind and ugly as sin.

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

        Necklace, bracelet, rings and earring,
        With a broomstick give her a thrashing!

    Then you've to draw a paan and say,

        Paan with cardamom and lots of clove -
        The co-wife is hated I am loved!

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘What shall I tell Pishthakuma then?’

    ‘What do you mean?’

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

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

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

    ‘Baba -’

    ‘What is it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘That's what the neighbours tell me.’

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

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

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

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

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

    Satyabati turned around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    We are grateful to Orient Longman for granting us permission to carry the extracts.

    © Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004

    Published in Parabaas March, 2007




    Preeti Mathur. Preeti is based in New Jersey.

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