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  • The First Promise, by Ashapurna Debi [Parabaas Translation] : Ashapurna Debi
    translated from Bengali to English by Indira Chowdhury











    Extracts from The First Promise

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



    Indira Chowdhury












       

       



    Subarnalata and its English and Hindi translation bearing the same title,

    the second volume of Ashapurna's famous trilogy.












    (Page 3 of 5)



    Chapter
    Twenty



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



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



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



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



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



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



    She
    had to hold her saree over her face because she couldn't cover her head when
    her hair was being done. And yet, it was unthinkable that her face should be in
    full view of the world! Never mind that nobody else was present, and never mind that she was

    not facing her mother-in-law, she was, a `new bride', after all. So Satyabati
    had covered her face. In fact, she had been forced to. Much before she had
    uncovered her head, Elokeshi had instructed her, ‘Cover your face with the end
    of your saree, please. You don't seem to have any sense any way,
    I have to spell out everything clearly!’



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



    ‘Nothing
    happens when an elder curses. So I don't mind!’ Sadu

    said unperturbed, ‘You are a person of moods, some
    days you will do her hair, other days, you'll forget…’



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



    For
    a tiny fleeting moment, Elokeshi might have even regretted the thump, but such
    unexpected flash of lightning turned Elokeshi into stone long before that
    contrition could crystallize. Elokeshi had had no opportunity of finding out
    what her daughter-in-law's voice sounded like, for she hadn't spoken with, or
    in front of her. It wasn't the done thing at all. She would nod a `yes' or a
    `no' in response to questions. She spoke only with

    Sadu, in private. She would sleep beside Saudamini at night, because until she
    had reached puberty, the question of sleeping with her husband didn't arise.



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



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



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



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



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



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



    He
    was thunder-struck as soon as he entered. What a situation! Who was that girl
    standing in front of Elokeshi, her face uncovered and framed by hair that stood
    out like the hoods of a million snakes? Could that be his wife? But how could
    that be possible? How could his wife stand like that before his mother without
    the

    earth cracking open or a terrible storm starting up? And why didn't she pay any
    attention to the fact that Nabakumar was standing there and gaping? Impossible!
    This had to be someone else! Some neighbour's girl - whom Nabakumar didn't
    know. Perhaps there'd been some terrible fight.



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



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



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



    But
    the witless Nabakumar just stood there and stared. And at some point Elokeshi's
    eyes chanced on him. She on the verandah, her son down below
    on the courtyard.
    For a moment, she too gaped at his staring face. And
    then a fierce scream arose out of that wide-open mouth that had been frozen
    until now, ‘You wretched, pathetic

    sissy! Don't you wear shoes! Can't you could rub your shoes and grind her face
    to pulp? I'd say you're some son then!’



    But
    Nabakumar just stood motionless.



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



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






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






    © 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 ...
    (more)



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


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    * To
    learn more about the ITRANS script for Bengali,

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    ©Parabaas 2007


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