• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Translations | Essay
  • 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


    Bakul-Katha and its Hindi translation,

    the last volume of Ashapurna's famous trilogy.


    (Page 4 of 5)


    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.

    Everyone knew of the ‘virtues’ of the shameless,
    ill-tempered daughter-in-law. What  they couldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 Naba’s friend, Nitai, and given
    him her heavy gold necklace to sell, and arranged for Bhabatosh-Master to fetch
    a Sahib-doctor from Calcutta!
    And she had spoken with Bhabatosh-Master too!

    Whether Naba would live or die because of the
    Sahib-doctor’s 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 Naba’s 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
    that everyone tolerate such shameless conduct! So far the question of
    his `lower-caste' mistress had become sort of acceptable through numerous
    jokes. It wasn’t really perceived as unnatural. But here was a sahib entering
    the inner quarters, a married woman who spoke to other men! Society hadn’t 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 didn’t comply.

    Living in society was not a matter to joke about. If
    that dying invalid really recovered because of the white doctor’s 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
    purifying rituals.

    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
    coach for Calcutta,
    along with the doctor! And he’d arrived with the doctor too!

    Well, one could hardly talk of banishing him because
    he had already set up home in Calcutta.
    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. Nilambar’s 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 Sahib’s feet.

    Meanwhile the news of the Sahib’s arrival in
    Nilambar’s house
    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 Nilambar’s house too.
    Suddenly somebody had noticed the stethoscope around the Sahib’s 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 hadn’t 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 Sahib’s 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, ‘Don’t worry. The patient
    will get better -’ hardly entered his ears.

    But Bhabatosh’s words did.

    ‘Stop behaving like this! This is a doctor from Calcutta - he's come to
    treat Nabakumar.’

    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
    own house.

    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 Satya’s 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.’

    Then she had tried to remember her mother’s 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
    Sahib’s medicines worked like a miracle!

    But even at such a grave moment, her ever-curious mind
    had filled with wonder like a child’s. 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 doctor’s 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 didn’t start crying after she called me near the
    ghat the other day -’

    Sadu stopped him sternly, ‘She isn’t 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,
    it’ll 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 don’t you let me look
    after the patient, you can look after the cooking -’

    Elokeshi had stirred a bit and responded drily, ‘We’ll
    have obey whatever you say from now on! You occupy a
    place right next to Queen Victoria!
    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
    with Sadu-di.’

    ‘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 Satya’s gentle tone had brought tears to Sadu’s
    eyes. This tone hardly suited her. Her firm voice was better.
    Much better.

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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 ...

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

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    ©Parabaas 2007

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