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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















    (Page 5 of 5)



    Chapter Forty Five



    It
    was an unimaginable event! Her [Bhabini’s] youngest sister, her mother's
    last-born, who'd been married just a few days ago, had died the previous day.
    She returned to find her brother wailing. He told her that she had been killed
    by her husband and her mother-in-law. Yes, they'd killed her! And they'd spread
    a rumour that she had had a fall near the ghat at night and died.



    Killed
    her! Nabakumar was astounded. Nabakumar and Satya had both come to see Bhabini
    on hearing of her bereavement. Nowadays, Bhabini would stand at a distance, and
    practically talk to Nabakumar. And her grief had made her bold.



    ‘Killed her!’
    Nabakumar exclaimed fierily, ‘What kind of anarchy is this!’



    ‘Exactly
    my question,’ Bhabini replied, wiping her eyes, ‘Every killer gets punished,
    but you go scot-free if you kill your wife! The old hag is sure to marry off
    her son again. The loss is our's. She was just a kid - nine going on ten -
    totally innocent! And such a lovely person too. How
    she'd sobbed and refused food and drink when she was sent to her in-law's! And this had to happen in less than a month! Can't imagine the state my mother's in!’



    Bhabini
    moaned on. She had had no children of her own, and used to treat her mother's
    last-born like her daughter. And now she was gone!  Satya had been sitting motionless and taking
    it all in. She had not tried to offer any consolation. After a long while, she
    asked softly, ‘How do you know they killed her? It could well have been the way
    they claim.’



    ‘Do
    you think such things can be hidden! The neighbours
    came and told my father.’ Bhabini broke into sobs, ‘I believe they said, `How
    barbaric! They just smashed her head in with a grinding stone and finished her
    off!’



    Suddenly
    Satya's expression changed, her eyes took on a crazed look.



    ‘Smashed her head in with a grinding stone.’
    She intoned.



    Nabakumar
    was alarmed by Satya's transformation though Bhabini hardly paid heed, she
    continued in the same manner, ‘That's exactly what they did! The man had nearly
    finished her off anyway, and his mother didn't see it fit to leave her
    half-dead - so she killed her! That way she wouldn't speak again. And so
    another hard bash! Inhuman monsters! They pretend to be civilized, actually
    they're beasts!’



    Once
    again Bhabini began to wipe her eyes.



    Satya
    suddenly shrieked, ‘And are you going to just sit and cry? Won't you do
    anything about it?’



    Bhabini
    gave a start. She faltered before Satya's wild eyes, ‘What can be done now?
    What was destined, has happened.’



    ‘Destined,
    was it?’



    ‘What
    else can one call it? It was punishment fated for my mother - and at her age
    too…’



    ‘How wonderful!
    And don't they need to be punished? Don't you want to see them hanged by the
    neck?’



    Bhabini
    hit her forehead with her palms, ‘What would be the point? Our Puti won't come
    back, will she? Just a useless hassle with the police!’



    Useless
    hassle!



    Satya
    responded grimly, ‘And aren't there a thousand Putis
    in our country? Aren't they tortured too?’



    A
    thousand Putis! What could that mean? Bhabini was flabbergasted. Why had Satya
    begun to look so maniacal? Bhabini had not understood her words, but she
    persisted nervously nevertheless, ‘Of course, there is torture everywhere.
    After all, it is a woman's fate to suffer a battering in silence. But it's
    really sad that the kid died. I think it's a good idea that nowadays they wait
    for girls to get a little older before marrying them off. A
    good thing too that you've started sending Subarna to school.
    It will
    increase her understanding and her strength. Our Puti was such a good girl…’



    Satya
    stood up abruptly and announced, ‘ I want to go home.’



    Go
    home! Nabakumar was astounded by her complete disregard for propriety. And
    without a word of consolation too! He said agitatedly, ‘Of course, you will go
    home. What's the hurry? Stay a while.’



    ‘I
    can't. My head is throbbing. But don't mind my asking - but could you give me
    the name and address of your sister's husband?’



    The
    name and address! Nabakumar was startled and he scolded, ‘Why do you need that?
    It's none of your business.’



    ‘I
    need it. Just give it to me.’



    Bhabini
    limply intoned, ‘His name is Ramcharan Ghosh, son of Taracharan…’



    ‘And
    where do they live?’



    Nabakumar
    scolded again, ‘Oh what a bother! What do you

    need their address for? Are you going to write them a harsh letter or what?’



    ‘Of course not!’
    Satya gave a grim smirk, ‘What good would that do? They wouldn't break down
    with remorse, would they?’



    ‘Then
    why?’



    ‘I
    need it for something. Just give me the address.’



    ‘The
    address….’ Bhabini answered reluctantly, ‘Panchanantala, Howrah. There's a banyan tree at the
    crossing.’



    ‘I
    don't need all that.’ Satya then turned to Nabakumar, ‘Why don't you sit for a
    while, if you want to. I'll be off…’



    Nabakumar
    began to fuss, ‘What will I do here? Nitai isn't home either. Why don't you sit
    and talk for a while, instead?’



    And
    with that, Nabakumar fled from the scene in a rush. As though
    he was scared.
    Of course, he had always been scared of Satya. But
    earlier, he had trusted her. And the last two years of living apart had created
    in Nabakumar an insecurity that overwhelmed him. He could hardly look at Satya
    without feeling overawed. And he no longer felt confident enough to grasp her
    hand when no one was looking.



    The
    strange look on Satya's face stayed for while after Nabakumar had left. Then,
    after a while, she asked slowly, ‘Did the neighbours say why they did it? Which
    of her faults had made them thirst for her blood?’



    Bhabini
    no longer reacted sharply to any of Satya's words. Perhaps because
    she was no longer able to.
    So in answer to Satya's query she rubbed her
    eyes with the end of her saree and said, ‘Her fault? It's a shameful thing to
    talk about! I couldn't bring myself to mention it in your husband's presence.
    It was her fault that she was small and scrawny - you yourself saw how thin she
    was the last time she'd visited. And she remained like that even after she was
    wedded and bedded.! Just a slip of a girl - and second
    wife to her husband! A sturdy and strapping young man, full
    of lust ever since his first wife died.
    She wouldn't dare go near him.
    She didn't want to, she'd resist. And I believe, mother and son would yell and
    scream, punch her, kick her and push her! And Puti too was such an idiot!
    Really, when you can see they're stronger than you, better

    to give in, no? Instead, she'd resist - she'd refuse to enter the bedroom. And
    what good did it come to? The monster became furious - and men do get provoked
    by such things - he just lost his senses. And his mother was there of course,
    to lend a hand! What a combination! It was destined.’



    ‘Destined indeed!’
    Satya retorted roughly, ‘In any case, it is ill-fated to be born a girl in this
    country! We wear blinkers and blame Fate for everything!’



    The
    tearful Bhabini frowned, 
    ‘What
    do you mean by blinkers?’



    ‘Nothing!
    But let me ask you - didn't you have a grinding stone at home? And couldn't
    your parents' have thrown it and smashed in the heads of that pair? After all,
    they no longer need to fear for their daughter's widowhood or humiliation!’



    Bhabini
    felt a trifle irritated, ‘What utter nonsense! Do you think we'd get away with
    it? We'd have been arrested for sure. After all, nothing can be said against
    beating, butchering or killing the woman one is married to!’



    ‘Well,
    that's what I'd have done. I'd have stoned his head to powder. And after that,
    they could hang me.’ Satya retorted fiercely.



    Once
    again Bhabini burst into tears, ‘That’s what my mother's been saying too! And
    she's been weeping away. But that's impossible, isn't it? An aunt of mine was
    in fact, blaming my mother for bringing her up to be so delicate. Or else, how
    could she refuse to go to her husband's bed after marriage? After all, she
    could hardly expect him to treat her like a doll, could she? And other such
    mean things. But this aunt herself has a strapping twelve year old girl.’



    Before
    she had finished Satya rose to leave, ‘I'm sorry, but I can't stay any longer;
    my head is aching.’



    Bhabini
    noted that Satya hadn't offered a single word of consolation. And in her mind
    she said, ‘How stone-hearted she is! My own heart bursts when I see others
    suffer. How differently we are made!’




     








    Chapter Forty Six



    Satya
    had come away complaining of a headache, but nobody had imagined that her
    complaint would turn into a raging fever. Not even Satya herself, when she had
    lain down to rest. When Saral noticed that she hadn't got up to cook, he came
    and discovered that her body was burning. And she was delirious.



    The
    poor boy panicked and called his father. Not that his father had much
    self-confidence in such matters - because he would slap his forehead like a
    woman at such times. And sure enough, after one look, he wailed out, ‘Go
    immediately and call your aunt!’



    Sadu
    arrived and took charge of preliminary treatment by placing a wet cloth on
    Satya's forehead and warming her feet. And after cooking a
    bit of rice for them, left late at night.
    She hadn't stayed the night.
    It appeared that the youngest son of her co-wife would refuse to sleep if Sadu
    wasn't there. And besides, Mukherjee-moshai needed about ten refills for his
    hookah through the night. But she left with the assurance that she'd be back at
    dawn.



    Satya
    remained unconscious. Nabakumar kept on fanning her.



    Deep
    into the night, Satya opened her eyes and said, ‘Listen, come here and touch
    me.’



    Nabakumar
    shuddered in dismay - was this delirium, or an indication that the end was
    near?



    ‘Come
    here and touch me.’



    Nabakumar
    nervously touched her.



    Satya
    said fiercely, ‘You know what happens if you touch
    someone and swear, don't you? Remember that! Listen, should I die, promise that
    you won't get Subarna married early. Come, promise me that!’



    It
    had to be the raving of a fevered brain! It would only get worse if one
    disagreed. So Nabakumar hurriedly said, ‘Yes, I swear.’



    ‘Say
    it then - I shall not get Subarna married before she is sixteen!’



    Sixteen!
    When the girl turned sixteen! Keep her unmarried till that

    age! Nabakumar wondered why Satya had this sudden fever that brought on
    delirium. Whatever the reason, she had to be calmed.



    Nabakumar
    said in a hastily, ‘All right. Rest assured that's what'll happen.’



    ‘No that's not enough!’
    Satya pushed herself upright, ‘Say it out loud: I shall not get Subarna married
    before she turns sixteen.’



    It
    never harms to cheat the mad. And there were few differences between a raving
    patient and a lunatic! So promptly removing his hand from Satya's body,
    Nabakumar recited, ‘Here, I swear that I shall not marry her off without your
    consent.’



    ‘But
    you haven't said the most important thing!’ Satya shrieked, ‘Don't trick me
    there! Don't kill Subarna! She must live. A thousand Subarnas must live, don't
    you see!’



    With
    that she fell back into the bed.



    Nabakumar
    began to fan her vigorously. A thousand Subarnas! God, this was deep delirium!
    Why did god do this? Goddess Kali, if you let the night pass in peace, I shall
    wash your cleaver and bring her the water to drink! Nabakumar also called on
    the goddess at his village. And vowed that he'd make
    offerings to Hari as well.
    What else could he do?



    He
    had heard that if the blood rushes to the brain in a delirious state, a patient
    raves on and dies of a hyperactive brain. It was clear from the symptoms that
    would be inevitable if the fever didn't let up by dawn.



    Possibly
    Kali took pity. The fever abated even without the antidote that was vowed. The
    temperature dropped just before dawn. And the fever withdrew leaving the
    bedsheets sopping wet with sweat.



    Yet
    nobody could guess how the intensity of delirium returned five days after the
    fever had passed, and how blood at normal temperature could boil over! Nor the way in which its force propelled the mind into a
    waywardness akin to raving.
    Otherwise, whoever had heard of such an
    outrageous thing? Was it ever possible for a girl from a Bengali household to
    take such a shocking step?



    Even
    Satya's devoted, ever-supportive sons were stunned by their mother's
    unimaginable daring.



    Sadhan
    went out by the back-door

    and summoned Sadu and her husband, and a jittery Nabakumar blurted out to Saral,
    ‘The Shastras say that one shouldn't care for seemliness at times of trouble.
    Please go and call Master-moshai right away!’



    ‘Master-moshai!’
    Saral was dumbstruck. He couldn't believe that his father was asking for
    Master-moshai! He who was never mentioned or faced, and because of whom even
    Suhas-di had become a stranger to this household!



    Nabakumar
    attempted to cover up his unease with briskness. ‘Yes, yes, that's what I'm
    telling you. Didn't I say that the Shashtras discourage seemliness when danger
    strikes! Go and say I'm asking him to come. Tell him, it's really serious, the
    police are here. Perhaps, they'll arrest your mother, and when they hear…’



    Saral
    hardly waited to question his father about the arrest or the Shashtras,
    he slipped on a short kurta and walked out the kitchen door at the back of the
    house.



    Thank
    god there was another exit. For a gigantic and terrifying Sahib-policeman was
    sitting at the front door. And he was interrogating Satya sitting on the chair
    that the trembling Nabakumar had provided.



    That's
    right. He was questioning Satya. In a Bengali that was ridiculously mixed, in
    vocabulary and pronunciation, with English. And the stouthearted Satya was
    standing motionless and responding to his questions.



    Even
    the confident Mukherjee-Moshai had refused to come at first, finally he'd
    agreed because of Sadu's pleading. And he arrived
    holding on to his sacred thread, chanting the name of the goddess and of
    course, avoiding the front door, he'd followed Sadu into the house through the
    back.



    No
    sooner had they entered than Subarna had come running to her aunt, sobbing, ‘Look
    Pishi! The white man has come to take away my mother!’



    ‘Of course not!
    Goddess protect us! Why should they do that?’ Lifting
    the girl up, Sadu had asked under her breath, ‘What is the matter, Turu?’



    Sadhan's
    timorous description of events could be summarized as follows: Satyabati had
    written a letter to the police on her own, without consulting a soul, and
    signed her name on it too! And the police had come for an enquiry.



    The
    reason for the letter was as strange as it was inconceivable. It had to do with
    the untimely and tragic death of Bhabini's sister. Satyabati had described in
    vivid language the brutal murder and made a spirited appeal for justice against
    the monstrous act and that the pair of murderers be
    properly punished. For their inability to do that would prove that all their
    attempts at opening courts in the name of justice were worthless indeed!
    Satyabati had informed them about the name and address of the guilty too.



    On
    hearing this, Sadu gave a sigh, ‘All this is an outcome of that delirium, the
    blood rose to her head and totally wrecked her brains! Or how could a girl from
    a Bengali household ever take such a shocking step? Your mother will die of
    apoplexy one of these days, that I'm sure of.  She's always been this sturdy man in female
    shape! And over and above that, she's now got this dreadful ailment.’



    Sadhan
    grew a shade paler, ‘Of course, it is an ailment! She's always suffered from it
    - wherever there is injustice - she behaves as though the injury is hers! She
    takes on the pain and sufferings of others as if they're her own - that's what
    her ailment is! One day, she'd sacked a maid on the spot just because she'd
    cursed her son saying `Why don't you just die?'‘



    ‘Weird!
    She's always been weird! God had given her beauty and brains and she just
    failed to put it to good use! And I believe the other day, when she was raving
    with fever, she asked your father to swear that he wouldn't get Subarna married
    before she turned twenty-five or some such thing!’



    The
    pledge was utterly ridiculous of course, so Sadhan hardly stopped to worry
    about it. People said anything when they were delirious. But he too believed
    that his mother had truly been genuinely blessed with brains - if only she was
    less stubborn!



    ‘Will
    you step out that way, Pishe-moshai?’



    Mukherjee
    was agitated by Sadhan's request and said, ‘I'm an old

    man - why pick on me? I've just had a bath - and I've not finished my Puja.
    Can't have contact with that mlechcha now, can I?’



    ‘No,
    no, you don't have to have contact…’



    ‘What
    a silly boy you are! Even speaking is a form of contact! It's no small matter
    to touch with words! And besides, you've studied in college, you have learnt
    English…’



    Of
    course, he had learnt. But this had nothing to do with his curriculum! This
    wasn't his Sahib-teacher! This was extremely disconcerting. And in such cases,
    it was best to send an elder. But the elder refused out of fear of another
    bath. He just kept peeping from time to time to watch Satya looking at the
    Sahib as she talked.



    Yes,
    Satya was in full flow, saying, ‘Just tell me why you've opened your courts of
    justice? In our country we used to kill our women by burning them on their
    husband's funeral pyre, you stopped that practice and saved us from that sin.
    But that's nothing! There are heaps of sins that have collected over centuries.
    If you can rid us of those, only then would I say that you deserve to be
    law-makers. Why have you taken on the guise of ruler in another's land? Why
    can't you just huddle into your ships and leave?’



    ‘Ma!’
    Sadhan advanced to restrain his mother. He could see that the Sahib had lost
    track of the little Bengali he knew and was repeating, ‘What? What?’ Realizing
    that his learning was totally inadequate before this veritable flood of words
    and lacking the confidence to be an interpreter, Sadhan attempted to restrain
    his mother.



    But
    Satya seemed to have lost sense of her surroundings and situation, so she
    ignored the hint and continued, ‘I believe that in your country women are
    respected and honoured. Can't you open your eyes and see the way in which women
    are tormented and disgraced in this country? Can't you make laws to stop all
    that? You pass new laws everyday…’



    ‘Boro-Bou!’
    Nabakumar could no longer contain himself, he yelled out. And just at that
    moment, Bhabatosh-master arrived with Saral in tow.



    He
    had probably heard the last bit of Satya's fierce speech. So he addressed Satya
    in a calm manner, ‘Bouma, you shouldn't nurture

    the hope that foreigners will remove our social ills with their laws. That's a
    task for us.’



    She
    was surprised indeed to see Bhabatosh; but the riddle became clear to her when
    she saw Saral with him. Drawing her saree over her head, she did a little
    namaskar and went inside.



    On
    seeing Bhabatosh, Nabakumar physically experienced the sensation of `getting a
    load off his chest'! Now he could just let go! He could just go inside and sit
    on the bed and fan himself!



    But
    he had to wait for the Sahib and Bhabatosh to leave. After that he would really
    settle the issue once and for all. He'd tolerated things long enough. And
    Mukherjee-moshai had just passed a comment about how wives of hen-pecked
    husbands were invariably like this! The words had been stinging him!



    The
    Sahib and Bhabatosh hardly talked, the Sahib showed Satya's letter to him and
    after a while left with a `Goodbye'. Bhabatosh walked him out and returned once
    again to the courtyard. And he spoke very calmly to Sadhan, ‘Tell your mother
    that the Sahib has promised that they will find the culprit and bring him to
    book. And..’ Bhabatosh added with a smile, ‘he offered
    his congratulations to your mother.’



    Mukherjee-moshai
    found his voice at last. He climbed on to the courtyard with his hookah and asked,
    ‘Namaskar - I should greet you that way because after all, you were Nabakumar's
    teacher. But what did you say that the Sahib offered Sadhan's mother?’



    ‘Congratulations!
    I mean, praise.’



    ‘I
    see. For what reason?’



    Bhabatosh
    looked at this uncouth, self-important man and said with a sardonic and
    bantering chuckle, ‘That shouldn't be difficult to understand at all! They've
    praised her boldness. After all, how many have the guts to protest against
    injustice?’



    Mukherjee
    made a face, ‘ True - not everybody has the nerve to
    go and set fire to other people's homes or hit other people on the head - that
    is courage of sorts! But I don't think that kind of courage needs praise.’



    ‘What
    you think hardly matters in this case.’ With that Bhabatosh made to leave.



     




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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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