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.
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004
Published in Parabaas March, 2007
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004