A dust road cut across the vast expanse of the fields. It was late March. The far away villages seemed to recede more into the distance in the haze of the afternoon sun. For most part, the whole field lay desolate and fallow. Sometimes sparsely, at remote places, where ponds or small canals ostensibly dotted the horizon, out-of-season patches of lush paddy soothed the eyes like some verdant oases.
Through that field a green military jeep approached at a medium speed. The car couldn’t run fast due to the rugged terrain, the meandering ups and downs of the dirt road. Behind the car, a cloud of dust rose till it reached the skies. The jeep belonged to the Border Security Forces, and it was coming towards the Gunsa Out Post.
Janki understood that a car was coming just by observing the dust cloud. The car was not yet visible, even the sound couldn’t yet be heard. Nevertheless she understood that it would not take too long for the car to arrive. She stood behind the large Neem tree near the road, hiding herself from view. The car was still quite far away, it would take at least ten to twelve minutes more. Though this time the anxiety and desire did not intensify in her heart like before, still her heart started beating faster, trembling in anticipation. That car was going to come here in this Camp. Could someone be coming in that car for her?
The Border Security Camp was fenced by a high mud wall that reached up to a man’s chest. Over the high wall was a hay-thatched roof, so that the mud did not wash away when it rained. Within that fenced compound were mud huts with tin roofs. Three or four tiny box-like dingy hovels stood in rows right along the wall. In the middle was a medium sized tent with windows. For the ten or twelve Jawans at the Gunsa Camp this arrangement was indeed very meagre and inadequate. Some even rented rooms in the village homes adjacent to the camp, and stayed there.
A few mud huts were also erected in the Government plots on the road. These too were occupied by the Jawans with families and households. Some among them went about with wives and children. Some others lived with a surrogate wife like Janki.
Janki was a wife-in-stead or a surrogate wife, for the men in uniform. Yet, the first man had never given her a reason to think like that. Those three years with that man had passed so fast... Even after ten years, the memory of those days made her blood surge. Did she know then that she would have to live her whole life like a substitute woman? Not only her, why, even others had not suspected that Nihal would leave her like that. How strange! The man could love her so! Yet when he went away how easily he had tilted Janki’s tear stained quavering chin with his two fingers and laughed out loud. Oh you mad old fool, Nihal would go, arrange for some place to stay, and come to take her there. What was there to wail about? Was it so easy to just go and show your face in an utterly new place saddled with a woman? Was this a clerk’s job? This was the duty of army personnel, a B.S. F. Jawan.
How far was that place from here?
Oh, how far would it be? Say twenty or twenty-five miles perhaps.
That small distance of twenty or twenty-five miles got lost in the length of ten years time. What everyone had assumed, everything that Janki knew, had turned out to be false.
His name was Nihal. Whence he hailed from, Janki had no interest then. The man was such a wonderful lover, you see. But lovers are sometimes cheats too. An amazing lover can prove to be an amazing cheat. Janki had waited for three or four months.
Nihal had not returned.
The other’s had said, He would not return ever.
Nihal won’t return! Was that even possible?
Nihal never returned, but in his place others had come in by then. Chiranjilal.
Who knew from what land even he had come?
But he was a good man. It’s true that he was not wild and daring a lover like Nihal, but nor was he undisciplined or dissolute.
Just after a month perhaps, Janki was asked to leave the shack by the camp officials.
‘Where would I go?’
‘Go to your own home.’
‘Where’s my own home? Where is that man? He had married me, had even set up a household for three years with me and then simply fled!’
‘He won’t come.’
‘He will, of course he will.’
Because, she never truly had a home. Her father used to steal betel leaves from others’ plantations, eggplants and parvals from farms. One night he got caught with perhaps a sheaf of betel leaves and was murdered silently in the field. The body lay on this side, the decapitated head went off to the other side of the border, in Bangladesh. The householders were ready beforehand. The fact that he would be killed, was known to all but him.
When the murder issue became international, Nihal saw Janki. Her thief and idle father had never looked after her properly. Everyone except him knew what was fated for the daughter of a man like him. That man knew nothing, but other people knew that when the mother died the father became a stranger. But what happened when the father died?
Nihal had put the body and the head together in one row and said, ‘Do you know him? Pehchante ho—Do you recognise?’
‘Kaun hai—Who is he—Who was he to you?’
‘Father, my father!’
‘And your name?’
‘Row mat—Don’t cry. I’ll come again. Daro mat— There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
Nihal had consoled her with such assurances. Of course he had come too. As if there was some other work to be done, he simply came after finishing it. He came and took her away, and set up a house.
But these things did not happen so easily.
Even then all these had seemed so easy for Nihal. Then came the three year long wild, unrestrained recklessness.
A daughter was born to them too.
Afterwards, saying ‘I’ll just be back’, the man had simply vanished.
In his stead came the new man Chiranjilal. She did not invite him. He was a middle aged family man. The shack merely went into his possession.
After waiting for three months Janki had come and stood in front of her hovel.
Her own home.
She had erected a home in the Government plot with that man. It was that very dwelling.
Not only the man, but this room too was very dear to her. It bore the memory of her heartbreak.
She had finally come to an understanding with her own self.
Chiranjilal was then sweeping the floor of the room. Janki came with her two year old child and stood leaning on the door.
The child cautiously toddled inside the room. The room was well known to her too. She had learnt to walk in that very room.
Once inside the room she approached Chiranjilal from behind. As Chiranjilal turned round the child cried out in fear.
This man was not her father, alas!
‘Ka chahi—What do you want?’
‘What is it?’
‘I’ll sweep the floors, fetch water, scour the dishes—’
‘Don’t want anything, go away, I say—’
After a pause Janki had said very softly, almost in a whisper, ‘I’ll rub your feet—’
‘Rendi nehi chahiye, chal bhag—I don’t want a whore, get out, scram—’
‘Hum rendi nai khe! I’m not a whore!’
Hurt, Janki had shrieked in disbelief.
Chiranjilal got surprised at this.
‘If not a whore, then what else?’
‘I’ve made this home together with that man, myself.’
For how many days she had smeared clay on the walls of this room to smoothen it perfectly. She had painstakingly pounded away with a heavy rammer, to harden the floor of this room and make it durable, deftly using a tattered rag and a cow-dung wash she had patiently painted designs with unfathomable love and care.
The child toddled unsteadily in trepidation towards a corner shelf. That man had sometimes brought sweets for the child and kept them on that shelf. The shelf stood empty now.
Chiranjilal felt a strange compassion. And because of that he took a long look at Janki’s face. Looked over Janki’s body too. An attractive young woman inexperienced of reality. Uncomprehending and ill fated. All these tales clung to her body, and were written plainly on her face as well.
He said, ‘Well alright, fetch the water then’.
The right to fetch water!
Janki had promptly gone to fetch water for him.
The military jeep seemed to travel in the opposite direction now. That was how it was when going along field paths. The road often took a winding turn and progressed in a meandering manner. From a distance it seemed as if the car was receding far away. Soon one could understand it as an illusion. The breeze of late March mixed with sunlight and heat and trembled like a visible, transparent, almost intangible veil of gauze. As it could only happen when the delicately intricate Nature came too close to be sensed.
Both Nihal and Chiranjilal seemed more vivid to Janki then. Someone somewhere said perhaps they had seen Nihal in Kishanganj, the nearest city.
‘Was that so?’
‘How was he?’
‘Did you two talk about things?’
‘Won’t be coming this way again by any chance, would he?’
‘No, not even for once.’
Yet when Chiranjilal left her after two years, she had not shown so much eagerness, such utter helplessness. Chiranjilal had said, ‘I might come and visit you sometimes, I’ll be staying on in this sector itself.’
He was an alert and cautious man. Very wary.
He did not give Janki any children. Somewhere else he had children, a family, a home. Janki too learnt to be cautious like him.
Chiranjilal did treat her well, though. He was just the opposite of Nihal.
Nihal was truly an untamed lover, yet he was false and wrathful too.
The car had now moved on to a straight road at last. As it neared the village road it gained speed. This road separated the village from the farm lands.
Having finally found a straight and wide road the car had revved up and was now rushing onwards.
It was bound to arrive any moment.
What kind of men rode in the car this time? Men like Nihal or Chiranjilal, who of course had unique characteristics in some way or the other?
Or, may be like Namdeo, Suraj or Manuel, the men who came in the next five years?
The men who came later had taken more from her than what little they had ever given her.
It was by staying with these men that she had learnt that food was of primary importance. And the man who had the means to fill his belly always needed a companion to pass his time and cater to his needs also.
With these people she merely had a relationship of monetary give and take. Nowadays she never created a scene by her cries and wails, never became afraid and most importantly never gave up her control over this room.
This room was hers now.
To stay in this room meant to stay with her. And she had by now acquired some powers to bargain for the possession of this room.
After all these days this right of hers had finally become lasting.
Even the Camp officials have accepted this right.
But even as two months went by, no one new arrived. Janki’s meagre savings had been exhausted by then. She had heard that today someone was going to come. And perhaps he would come to stay.
He was coming surely, travelling in that jeep.
Finally someone was coming to satisfy her vital, immediate needs. That was her only interest now.
She hid into the shadows behind the large heavy stump of the Neem tree. The military jeep suddenly screeched and stopped in front of the Camp. The driver shut off the engine and stepped down. From the seat on the left a young man came down. From the difference in their respective uniforms it seemed that he perhaps held a higher position.
Then someone else stepped down—who was he? Chiranjilal!
Oh how amazing!
Even in her dreams Janki had not contemplated something more improbable than this!
His pair of moustache had greyed more. From the interiors of the jeep someone took out his bedding tied together in a hold-all and an overly stuffed bag shaped like a bolster and reached out towards him. Chiranjilal hung the bag on his shoulder, took his bedding in his hand, circled the car and came to the back. He looked wistfully towards Janki’s room. Janki came out from behind the shades of the Neem tree.
In his smile was the serenity of a nearly-old man.
Janki smiled too. She felt reassured. That such a man might come, she had not thought, ever.
A man who was composed and peaceful, honest and compassionate.
Coming out from the shades where she was hiding, Janki advanced towards him. A fluid tranquillity flowed serenely like rain within her body.
Emotions rose unbidden to choke her throat.
The immense gladness showing in her soft, gentle eyes left their mark even on the eyes of the aged Chiranjilal.
Janki felt extremely grateful.
It was exhausting to make a new household every time with a new man.
‘I’ve come again. Didn’t I say that I might too sometime?’
Janki came forward wishing to take the hold-all from his hands.
And it was then that the other aspects of the outside world lost all visibility in her eyes.
She stood still as if turned to stone.
Hastily pulling back her outstretched arm Janki covered her mouth to stifle a scream.
Was this even possible!
The person who had jumped down from the back of the jeep was Nihal.
Chiranjilal turned round to see the cause of Janki’s reaction and said in a very reassuring manner, ‘Don’t be afraid, Nihal has come for “just two or three days”. He has not come to stay. It is I who have come to stay.’
But Janki heard none of it. She was staring at Nihal. How handsome was this man; Nihal’s bright physique exuded more valour, as it were. His military cap with a wave-like fringe covered his forehead. His eyes were sharp like a hawk’s and beneath his nose he sported a pair of fashionable moustache, winged and waxed and defined in size. On his shoulder hung a jet black intricately latticed designer Thomson. He was a very proud handsome man, indeed.
Losing all outward consciousness, Janki kept on staring. The soothing calmness of moments ago had vanished instantaneously as if by the magic touch of a wizard’s wand. A fiery passion now coursed through her veins. Every pore of her body was aflame with an untamed need for a touch of the beloved and an unruly desire for a passionate and all consuming embrace, till it strained out of control, straying from all boundaries of shame and decency. She craved all of it right this very moment, it seemed as if a beastly passion had ignited her nerves, veins and whole body. This had happened only once before in her whole life. At that time Nihal had gone to visit his native land on a two-month long leave. As soon as she had seen him after his return, Janki’s body had lost all control and had stopped working much in the same manner.
As he turned this side and slightly raised his cap, Nihal saw her. In his eyes there lurked a momentary uncharacteristic cloud of foggy hesitation but only for a fraction of a second—he got rid of it instantly and a glow of sudden disbelief spread over his face. His eyes shone in amazement and pleasure; at this unimagined gain, a temptation of instantaneous thrill of love and wildness. His eyes were hungry and his gaze held the promise of an appeasement of that very hunger.
Janki felt overwhelmed as if entranced. As though she was held under a spell. Was it possible for anybody to ignite such unbridled desire in her body!
Nihal shifted the weight of the Thomson from his right shoulder to his left. Said, ‘He...yeii, I shall come again, hadn’t I said so before—’
Saying this he put his feet up on footboard of the car and casually went on to tie his shoe laces.
Chiranjilal rejoined, ‘Aree, what has happened to you now—come on take the bedding. Oh, he’s not one to stay here, take my word for it. He has just come to finish off some work, and would leave after two or three days, you’d see.’
Startled, Janki took the hold-all in her hand. Just twenty-five arm-lengths away that incredible man stood and smiled. The barrier in between was just a little dried up trench, one needn’t even jump to cross it.
After tying his shoe laces, Nihal went in. He did not look back this way anymore. Carrying a storm within her heart Janki advanced towards her room.
Chiranjilal followed her.
Entering the room Chiranjilal sat down on the rope-woven cot. Ah, so wonderful! It seemed as if everything was just as it was before. Just as homely, clean and tidy.
Of course, he had come to stay, there can be no doubt about it.
The income in this Camp was quite good. He was going to retire in six years time. Then he would go to his native place and settle down permanently for the rest of his life. He had plans to buy some more land, increase the size of his farms. If Janki wished to follow with her daughter, even that could be arranged. Strong and healthy workers were in great demand there for all kinds of agricultural jobs. And of course, Chiranjilal too would be there.
No, certainly no other problems would be created.
Janki had heard just a few words here and there, but mostly she failed to listen. Afterwards when Chiranjilal went away to report at the Camp, she thought it over, wasn’t it really something to get support for six whole years? Moreover from such a calm, judicious and quiet man. She would be wise to secure her future by keeping this man in confidence. Six years was hardly a small amount of time.
Even in spite of all these thoughts that crowded her head, she felt a sort of nervous apprehension. Just as a tiny fly settling on the taut skin of a healthy animal sets it atremble, something like that had started on Janki’s body. She called in her daughter from her play. Said, ‘Stay close by, do not stray far from me.’
The next day, late in the afternoon, Nihal had come by putting an end to all her apprehension. As soon as his shadow fell on the courtyard Janki understood what immense loneliness she had suffered the night before and how meaningless Chiranjilal’s bed had proved for her. In a severe, shrill voice she shrieked, ‘Ka chahi—What do you want?’
Nihal laughed and said without any hesitation, ‘Apunke puchh—ask yourself.’
The gall of the shameless man, the unrepentant thief who had stolen everything from her! Didn’t Nihal feel ashamed to laugh at all? He had made Janki a whore, a surrogate wife for the Jawans, didn’t Nihal feel any remorse to stand there shamelessly and laugh!
She pulled her daughter out from inside the room and made the child stand straight in front of Nihal. Said, ‘See, take a good look, that son-of-a bitch is your father. Look well at this fraudulent man, this cheat, or otherwise you might never see him again in your whole life.’
Nihal laughed out loud. Replied, ‘I’ll go away tomorrow, that’s why I’ve come to meet you two once, that’s one thing you’ve said right—we might never meet again in life.’
At the end of this little speech it sounded as if his voice was really breaking down a bit. Afterwards he had said again, ‘So you’ll be quite well off with that old bag Chiranji, as I can see.’
At the end of it all, he reached out a ten rupee note towards his daughter and said, ‘Come on, take this, have some sweets.’
Janki had lunged forward to ward off his outstretched hand and shield her daughter. With a caustic aspersion in her voice she retorted, ‘Beware, don’t you dare tempt my daughter with the promise of sweets. The whole world spits at your money.’
‘Very well’, said Nihal and went away with the rifle held tightly by his two hands, parallel over his shoulder. He turned round to say again, his camp was but a forty miles away from here. The arrangements for food and shelter were quite well as they say.
At night Chiranjilal enquired, ‘Why had the loafer Nihal come in the afternoon?’
Janki replied, ‘I didn’t bother to ask, just cursed and chased him off.’
Chiranjilal said, ‘Wherever he goes, the complaints start. He is a very bad man. Leave off thinking about him now. I am here for six years, ain’t I. You can depend on me. I have always seen you as one of my wives. I’ll surely do something for you, before I leave. And then if you wish to go with me there would be nothing better than that. There’s always a great demand for workers and maids in Haryana.’
At this old age, in these last six years, he really needed Janki very urgently. After this how much power would be left in his body then?
Janki didn’t say anything, she simply came closer to Chiranjilal’s chest, as close as she could. Nothing could be seen in the darkness, yet it seemed, that she could see the whole room, the home she had created together with that awful man.
Long afterwards she heaved a deep sigh and said, ‘I won’t go anywhere leaving this room. I’ll stay here with you.’
The next day, late in the afternoon the jeep came out of the Camp on its way back. Nihal too sat there right beside the driver in the car. About three miles from the Camp, near the Gunsa-Patharkuri crossing, Nihal had put his hand on the driver’s shoulder signaling for him to stop the car. On the left hand side was a wide space full of thorny groves of the wild cactus. Nihal was not wrong. From a long way off his eyes had rightly spied the fluid contours of a sari behind the groves. As the car stopped Janki came out from that shade and quickly got inside the car.
Nihal was not at all surprised. He only had a small question as to what Janki would do with the child, their daughter. Surely she must have made some suitable arrangement for her.
The original story The surrogate wife (বদলি জোয়ানের বিবি) by Abhijit Sen has been published in 1988. It is included in the collection 50-Ti Golpo ('পঞ্চাশটি গল্প') (Subarnarekha, Kolkata; 2000).