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 couldnt 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 wouldnt 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 Nabas friend, Nitai, and given
him her heavy gold necklace to sell, and arranged for Bhabatosh-Master to fetch
a Sahib-doctor from
And she had spoken with Bhabatosh-Master too!
Whether Naba would live or die because of the
Sahib-doctors 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 Nabas 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 wasnt really perceived as unnatural. But here was a sahib entering
the inner quarters, a married woman who spoke to other men! Society hadnt 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 didnt comply.
Living in society was not a matter to joke about. If
that dying invalid really recovered because of the white doctors 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
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
along with the doctor! And hed arrived with the doctor too!
Well, one could hardly talk of banishing him because
he had already set up home in
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. Nilambars 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 Sahibs feet.
Meanwhile the news of the Sahibs arrival in
Nilambars house had
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 Nilambars house too.
Suddenly somebody had noticed the stethoscope around the Sahibs 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 hadnt 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 Sahibs 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, Dont worry. The patient
will get better - hardly entered his ears.
But Bhabatoshs words did.
Stop behaving like this! This is a doctor from
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
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 Satyas 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 mothers 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
Sahibs medicines worked like a miracle!
But even at such a grave moment, her ever-curious mind
had filled with wonder like a childs. 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 doctors 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 didnt start crying after she called me near the
ghat the other day -
Sadu stopped him sternly, She isnt 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, itll 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 dont you let me look
after the patient, you can look after the cooking -
Elokeshi had stirred a bit and responded drily, Well
have obey whatever you say from now on! You occupy a
place right next to Queen
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
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 Satyas gentle tone had brought tears to Sadus
eyes. This tone hardly suited her. Her firm voice was better. Much better.
© 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 ...