His wife, Annapurna, was sitting on the verandah on this winter morning applying coconut oil in her hair. She was trying to extract the oil with a slender broomstick and massage it into her scalp. Seeing her husband, she just hastily adjusted her sari, but showed no interest in replying or fetching anything for him.
Advancing a few more steps, Sahayhari said, “What’s the matter, you are still sitting there? Get me a pot. And, where is Khenti? I guess now that you’ve put on oil in your hair, you won’t touch anything?”
Annapurna put away the bottle and stared at her husband. After a while, she said in a serious voice, “Tell me, what you have decided in your mind?”
This calm voice of his wife always scared Sahayhari. Realizing that the calmness was just the prelude to an impending storm, Sahayhari waited for the tempest. With some trepidation, he asked, “Why… What’s… wrong?” In an even calmer note, his wife said, “Listen— don’t act foolish now. You never learn anything, and you don’t try to make up for it either. I wonder how a man with a young adult daughter at home could go about fishing and frolicking in the village. Do you even know how people are spreading rumor?”
Surprised Sahayhari said, “Why? What rumor?”
“If you really want to know, go to the Chowdhury’s house. You cannot live in a decent society and wander about day and night with those lower caste folks. There are certain rules you must follow if you wish to live in a society.”
Sahayhari was astounded to hear this, but before he could say anything, his wife began speaking once again in her same tranquil voice, “We are going to be made pariahs. Yesterday they talked about it at the council meeting. People won’t even accept drinking water from you. Our daughter didn’t get married after her engagement—they think she’s spoiled forever—they won’t invite you to any function in the village anymore. Serves you right; now go and spend all your time with those lower castes.”
Sahayhari tried to blow it off, “Oh, so that’s it. I thought something serious might have happened. Pariah! Tchah! As if everybody didn’t already try to make us pariahs; it seems Kalimoy Thakur is the only one left... Huh!”
Annapurna now flared up, “Why, do you think you are so special that you can’t be made an outcaste? You are not a man of position, nor a famous person in anything. You don’t own a house, or a ton of money. Chowdhurys can easily make you a pariah. Besides, you can’t deny that our daughter has grown up.” Here Annapurna lowered her voice and continued, “She is fifteen now. You think people could be fooled any longer? They have eyes, you know. They can see she is not twelve years old, even if we say so ourselves.” Annapurna raised her voice again, “You don’t seem to be in any hurry to get her married. Do you expect me to go out and find a groom?”
Realizing that as long as he stood before his wife, her wrath wouldn’t cease and she would keep on lecturing, Sahayhari picked up a metal bowl and went out the back door. Immediately he came upon his daughter and happily called out to her, “What’s all this, Khenti dear? Where did you get these? Oh, it looks like…”
A young girl of about fourteen or fifteen entered the house. Two more little girls followed her. The older girl held a bunch of climbing spinach with fat yellowed stems. Looking at the foliage one might well imagine that somebody had stripped that over-ripe bunch from his kitchen garden and this girl had enthusiastically picked it up from the trash and brought it home. Of the two smaller girls, one was empty handed, the other held something wrapped in couple of spinach leaves.
The teen-aged girl was tall and supple. She had curly black hair—windswept and disheveled. Her face was large and she had a pair of big beautiful eyes with a touch of calmness. Her thin glass bangles were gathered together and fastened with a two-paisa-a-dozen safety pin. In case you wish to find out the exact age of that pin, you might have to go all the way back to the prehistoric ages. This young girl was probably called Khenti, because she quickly turned back and taking the leaf-wrapped parcel from the little girl’s hand said, “These are prawns, baba. I got them from Gaya-auntie. She wouldn’t give me any at first and said, ‘your father hadn’t yet paid for his last purchase’. I pleaded with her and said that you aren’t running away with her money. And while I was coming back, Ray-uncle gave me these climbing spinaches saying ‘take them, my dear…how well-ripened they are’…”
Annapurna, still sitting on the verandah, screamed out at the girls, “Take them back right now. Huh, what ambrosia they have presented to you! Tchah! Those yellowed stems are not even fit for human consumption. They would surely have thrown it away sooner or later…’Take it’, they say, and you obligingly bring this trash back home! Good for them, they won’t need to remove those weeds themselves. What simpletons, what utter fools I got in my lot! Didn’t I tell you, Khenti, never to leave the house? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself roaming around the village like this? Had you been married, you would have been mother of a bunch of children by now. Losing all sense of propriety for the sake of food! Gathering spinach and heaps of rubbish! Throw them, I say, throw them away…now.”
The girl stared at her mother. Her calm gaze was layered with fright. She let go of the bundle she held, the spinach leaves fell on the ground. Annapurna looked at one of her younger daughters and said, “Radhi, now go and throw these trash at the back of the pond.” “If I ever see you leaving the house, I will skin you alive,” she added directing her gaze at her elder daughter.
The little girl, obeying her mother’s order like a clockwork doll, gathered up the foliage, and moved to the back door. But, being small, she couldn’t manage the huge bunch; as a result many of them hung loosely and trailed on the ground behind her.… Sahayhari’s children were terrified of their mother.
“You must go a little easy on them, dear. Why not cook the spinach this one time for them…” Sahayhari said, hesitatingly.
The little girl stopped in her tread, her little hands trying best to hold the bunch, and looked at her mother pleadingly. “No, no, throw them. A girl shouldn’t be such a glutton that she would go about begging for spinach leaves from random people! Go, throw them away. I never wish to see them again,” said Annapurna.
Sahayhari looked at his elder daughter’s face and noticed that her big black eyes were brimming with tears. He felt bad for the girl; nevertheless, the love for his daughter was insufficient to make him speak in favor of the spinach leaves and thereby incur his wife’s wrath. Therefore, he silently exited through the back door.
As Annapurna sat cooking the afternoon meal, she felt bad remembering her daughter’s poignant gaze. She recalled the last time she had cooked climbing spinach on the day before the arandhan festival, Khenti had childishly insisted that half of the dish be set aside for her only, while the other half divided among the rest of the family.
The members of her household being absent, Annapurna got up and collected the spinach leaves that lay on the ground. The rest were useless, being thrown in the ash-heap. She then surreptitiously cooked the leaves with prawns. At lunch Khenti was delighted to see the spinach curry on her plate. She looked at her mother with surprise and joy but also with a tinge of fear. After finishing her chores, when Annapurna came back in the kitchen, she noticed that all traces of the curried spinach were gone from Khenti’s plate. Her daughter had eaten it up with relish. Annapurna knew how terribly fond of climbing spinach her daughter was. “Would you like some more spinach, Khenti?” she asked. Her daughter immediately gave a big nod. A sudden memory made Annapurna’s eyes well up. To compose herself, she hurriedly began to pull out dried chilies from from a basket stuck in the ceiling.
That evening Sahayhari was asked to the village council about his daughter’s wedding. Following a short preamble, Kalimoy said, “Those good old days are long gone, dear fellow. Let’s take Keshto Mukhujje for instance. Well, wasn’t he obstinate on the point that he won’t marry his daughter unless he was sure of the groom’s character? Remember what happened to him—after a terrible ordeal he somehow managed to talk Hari’s son into marrying the girl. And, by God, what a glorious character he turned out to be!, Tchah! A bunch of rotten lower classes, that’s what his family is!” Softening a bit, he continued, “The days of old social rulings are over. Why, here’s your own daughter, for example. She is already thirteen years old…”
“She would be thirteen, this July,” Sahayhari interjected.
“What difference does that make?” Kalimoy cried, “It hardly matters if she’s thirteen or sixteen. In fact, we aren’t concerned with her age at all. We could care less whether she’s thirteen, sixteen, or, for that matter, fifty. That’s your calculation. What we want to know is why after the engagement, you suddenly changed your mind about getting her married? She is blemished now, spoiled for life. The engagement ceremony is as binding as marriage itself. Don’t expect for a moment that you could continue flouting the codes of propriety and we would just sit back and say nothing. If you don’t want to dishonor the Brahmins, better get your daughter married as soon as possible. Where to find a suitable groom you say?…. Well, surely, you are not expecting a prince charming to show up for your girl? I thought that you being a poor man wouldn’t be able to afford a big dowry, that is why I fixed Srimanta Majumder’s son for your girl. The boy is not much educated but that doesn’t matter. A person doesn’t become any less of a human being just because he isn’t a judge or a magistrate. His family has a house of their own complete with garden and a pond. And the boy, he is doing very well for himself too. I heard that he did a bit of farming on his own this year. What else can you want? I consider this living the life of a king. The two brothers couldn’t have had a better situation…”
Actually Kalimoy was thoroughly chagrined when Sahayhari had dismissed the aforementioned boy as his daughter’s prospective husband. It is true that it was Kalimoy who had arranged the match. If you wonder why Kalimoy would bother, you may be at a loss. People whispered that Kalimoy owed Majumder a great deal of money, and what with unpaid interest and all, he was worried about some future reprisals. Perhaps Kalimoy’s real reason for performing this noble feat was merely to placate Majumder. Nevertheless, this rumor was not only irrelevant, but baseless as well. Such rumors usually were mere spites of hateful people. The cause for the marriage being cancelled was something else altogether. A few days after the engagement, Sahayhari came to know that the groom-to-be had received a good beating for some unknown transgression by the family members of a potter’s wife and that he had been bed-ridden for some days following that incident. Having heard such a story, Sahayhari was in no mood to continue with his daughter’s marriage into the Majumder family and called it off immediately.
A few days after his unpleasant interview with Kalimoi Thakur, Sahayhari sat peacefully smoking his tobacco and basking in the gentle glow of the morning sunshine under the grapefruit tree in his backyard. Khenti came up to him stealthily and said, “Baba, would you start now? Maa has already left for her bath.”
Sahayhari glanced at the path his wife had taken. “Quick, get the crowbar!”--he was puffing rapidly and cast another anxious glance at the empty path. The girl appeared holding a massive iron crowbar, and father and daughter stepped cautiously out through the main door. Seeing this odd couple one might have presumed that they were on their way to burgle a house.
Annapurna returned after her bath and was just preparing to light the cooking fire when Durga, the youngest daughter of the Mukhujje family, arrived. “Auntie, mother said that she couldn’t touch the ritual urns and asked if you could come and prepare the new rice and put out the pots for us?”
On the way to the Mukhujje residence, which was in the next neighborhood, one had to cross a thick cluster of rough Sheora, Banabhant, Rangchita and other shrubs. A dense leafy smell of mangled creepers and vines saturated the wintry air. A long-tailed yellow bird hopped from one branch to the other in the hog-plum tree. Durga pointed at the bird and said, “Auntie, auntie, see that bird!” As Annapurna turned to see it, she noticed something else. From inside the grove, came a hollow sound of somebody digging a hole. The noise stopped momentarily as Durga spoke and then began once more as they moved off the spot.
It took Annapurna sometime to finish her errand. Coming home, she found Khenti sitting on the front porch with a bowl of coconut oil, undoing her bun. Directing a razor-sharp glance at her daughter, she said, “Why haven’t you had your bath yet? Where have you been all morning?”
Getting up hastily, Khenti said, “Just going, maa; I will be back in a jiffy.”
Sometime after Khenti had left for her bath, Sahayhari came in beaming with enthusiasm and carrying a heavy load of wild yam on his shoulder. Facing the cold, hard questioning stare of his wife, he said ingratiatingly, “Oh, you see, Moysha Chowkidar, who lives over there, often says ‘Sir, when your father was alive you used to visit us at least once in a month. Nowadays, you never come. Well, I have planted a large wild yam against the fence, why don’t you’…”
Looking steadily at her husband, Annapurna interjected, “What have you been doing at Barojpota jungle a little while ago?”
Sahayhari seemed to be struck with amazement to hear this. “Me,” he said, “at the Barojpota jungle? when? No, I don’t think I went…” Looking at him tackling his wife’s query, one might think that he had just descended from the blue sky utterly clueless.
Annapurna was still fixing her husband with her unfaltering gaze, “Okay, so now, you have started stealing as well. Well, you have lived half of your life, and nothing can stop you from these vices of yours. I wish you would at least stop lying to me. I know everything. You probably thought now that the menace isn’t home, let’s go and steal something…Durga’s mother called me, and on my way to their house, I distinctly heard the sound of burrowing while crossing the Barojpota bush. Hearing our voices, the noise stopped, only to resume when we left. I knew it was you digging in the forest. You may not care about your hereafter and may go on blissfully burgling and stealing or whatever, but I want to know why you want to destroy the girl’s future by involving her in your capers?”
Sahayhari waved his hand and tried to produce his evidence against her accusation; but he faltered before her gaze and couldn’t make any suitable argument. Moreover, whatever he said sounded horribly garbled.
Half an hour later, Khenti returned home from her bath. Stealing a sidelong glance at the yams dumped on the floor, she went about hanging out her wet clothes with great concentration.
Annapurna said, “Khenti, come here, I want to speak to you...”
Hearing her mother’s voice, Khenti turned pale. When she came hesitatingly to her mother, Annapurna asked, “You and your father dug out these yams, didn’t you?”
Khenti looked at her mother, then at the yams, then again at her mother, and lastly stole a quick glance at the top of the bamboo thicket in front. Beads of perspiration covered her forehead, but she couldn’t speak a single word. Annapurna said in a stern voice, “Why aren’t you speaking? Tell me, did you or didn’t you dig out these yams?” A helpless Khenti replied in the affirmative.
Annapurna went wild with rage. “You, wicked girl,” she said, “wait till I break a chunk of wood on your back today. Sneaking off and stealing yams from Barojpota jungle! A grownup girl, you are long fit to get married, and you go about in that dense forest where tigers hide even in the day time? And you go to steal yams belonging to somebody else? What if the Gosains sent for their gatekeepers and had you arrested? Which father-in-law of yours would have saved you then? Answer me, answer me that! I will eat only what I can afford or else I will go hungry. But stealing from others to please your gluttony? Oh, god, what am I going to do with this girl?”
One evening a few days later, Khenti came up to her mother, her hands caked in mud, “Maa, maa, come and see…” Annapurna went and saw that on the small open plot filled with pebbles and overgrown with thorny weeds, Khenti, with her little sister for her assistant, had been enthusiastically making elaborate arrangements to plant a kitchen garden. As a predecessor of this brilliant future when rows of fruit-trees would occupy the plot, a rather frail looking pnuin or climbing spinach plant now stood flopping against a dried bamboo trellis suspended from a piece of cloth much like a hanged convict on the scaffold. The rest of the fruit trees and plants, for now existed only in her daughter’s vivid imagination, and were yet to see the light of the day.
Annapurna laughed out, “Silly girl, you don’t plant pnuin now. Monsoon is the ideal time to plant climbing spinach. Now it will only dry up and die.”
Khenti said, “Why, what if I water it every day?”
Annapurna said, “Let’s see, maybe it will live. There is a good amount of dew early in the morning these days.”
It was very cold that year. One morning, upon getting up, Sahayhari observed his younger daughters wrapped in quilts standing underneath the jackfruit tree and waiting for the morning sunlight to warm their quivering forms. Holding a broken cane basket, where she had gathered cow dung from the Mukhujje house, Khenti appeared shivering in the cold. Sahayhari said, “My dear Khenti, why don’t you put on your chemise in the morning? It’s horribly cold.”
“Just putting it on, baba,” said Khenti.
“Yes, yes, go quickly. You know, you might catch cold or something if you aren’t careful.”
Sahayhari left the house wondering if he hadn’t watched Khenti for some time. Unbeknownst to him, his daughter had grown quite graceful and comely.
The history of the dress went like this: Several years ago Sahayhari had procured this black flannel item from the spring fair at Haripur for two rupees and fifty paisa. Over the years, the shirt had ripped and had been patched and mended many times. And now it hardly fit Khenti’s developing body. Neither Sahayhari, who was blissfully unaware of intimate details of his family, nor Annapurna had any idea about the present condition of the dress—it used to be stored among Khenti’s other possessions in her broken tin trunk.
It was Paush sankranti, the last day of the winter month of Paush. In the evening, Annapurna sat mixing together rice flour, wheat flour, and molasses in a large bell-metal dish, occasionally dipping her fingers into a small bowl of oil. Next to her, Khenti sat scraping coconut and collecting the grated meat on a banana leaf tucked under the grater. Annapurna didn’t wish to engage Khenti’s services in the beginning because of the girl’s unhygienic habit of sitting here and there, roaming around in the woods and because her clothes were never adequately clean or fresh. Nevertheless, upon the girl’s persistent request, she finally gave in, but only after Khenti had carefully washed herself and put on fresh clothes.
Annapurna had finished preparing the flour mixture and was about to start frying, when her youngest daughter, Radhi, extended her right hand, “Maa, can I have just a little bit of that…”
Annapurna took a splotch of the mixture from the brass bowl and flattening the dough with her fingers, placed it on the palm of her daughter’s hand. Immediately, Punti, her middle daughter, wiped her hand on the free end of her sari, came forward, her hand extended, “Maa, can I have some too?”
Khenti, grating coconut wearing her freshly cleaned sari, looked up greedily but was too afraid to ask her mother to give her some lest she was scolded for being too greedy.
Annapurna, noticing the wistfulness in Khenti’s eyes, said, “Khenti, dear, pass me that coconut half-shell; let me save a little bit of the mixture for you.” Khenti, quickly grabbed one of the coconut shells that didn’t have holes in it and handed it to her mother, who poured a large dollop of the mixture into the shell.
Punti, the middle child, said, “At Elder aunt’s they have bought a lot of milk. Ranga-sister was cooking it. They are preparing many different varieties of sweets.”
Khenti raised her head and said, “I don’t think they are preparing anything more this evening. They fed the Brahmins in the morning already; Suresh uncle and Teenu’s father were invited for lunch. They are having rice pudding, jhol-puli, moong tokti, and so many other items for supper.
“Tell me, maa, can you make patisapta without sweet milk?” Punti asked. “Khendi has been telling me that you can’t. I said, why, my mother makes a delicious variety of patisapta with only coconut filling, and we love to eat it.”
Annapurna applied a little oil on the top of an eggplant stem and tried to find a reasonable response to her daughter’s queries.
Khenti said, “Khendi speaks such nonsense! It is as if Khendi’s mother is the greatest cook on earth and knows the best way to prepare patisapta! Is making pithe as easy as just adding kheer in the filling and frying the dough in ghee? Why, the other day when I went to their place to see their son-in-law, auntie gave me a couple of patisapta to eat, and I tell you they were no good at all…they had a burnt smell. Do patisaptas have burnt smell? No, I don’t think so. Patisapta taste filthy with kheer filling!”
Having finished her daring long speech, Khenti looked at her mother and asked, “Maa, can I have a little bit of coconut grating?”
“Yes,” said Annapurna, “But don’t eat it here, you might drop the crumbs here. Go over there.”
Khenti took a fistful of grated coconut in the coconut half-shell and went to a corner and started eating. If one’s face was the mirror of one’s innermost thoughts, then Khenti’s face reflected such contentment that one could be sure that she was experiencing utmost bliss.
An hour or so later, Annapurna said, “All right, you all, come and sit with your banana leaves. Let me serve you the pithe while they’re warm. Khenti, there’s some leftover rice soaked in water; go and get it.”
That Khenti didn’t like this suggestion was well evident on her face. Punti said, “Maa, let her eat the pithe. She loves it. We can have the rice tomorrow.”
After she had eaten a few, Punti, who wasn’t greatly fond of sweets, couldn’t eat anymore. Even after everybody had finished eating, Khenti still continued with her meal. She ate quietly and unhurriedly. Annapurna noticed that she had had at least eighteen to nineteen sweets. Looking at her daughter, she said, “Khenti, would you like to have some more?” Khenti, while eating, gave a happy nod. Annapurna gave her a few more of the sweets. Khenti’s eyes glistened; she beamed at her mother and said, “It’s delicious, maa. It’s the way you whisk the batter till its frothy, that does the trick.” She then continued to eat.
As Annapurna put away the ladle, the spatula, and the cooking stove for the night she kept looking at her food loving, soft-spoken, darling daughter, thinking, “One day my Khenti would make someone very happy. She would bring joy and comfort to the family she’d be married into. You can never find a better girl than her. She is too innocent to protest even when you shout or swear at her. She is a good girl. No one has ever heard her raise her voice…”
During the early days of the summer month Baisakh, Khenti got married. One of Sahayhari’s distant relatives had arranged the match. Although it was the groom’s second marriage, he could not have been more than forty.
Annapurna didn’t agree to the match at first. But then, the groom was well-to-do, had a house of his own in the town, had also accumulated some wealth in his brick, lime, and slate business—a bridegroom with such good prospects was indeed hard to find.
Since her son-in-law was older than usual, Annapurna was hesitant at first to appear before him. But later, thinking that Khenti might feel hurt, during the receiving ceremony, she placed Khenti’s soft pliant hand on her son-in-law’s. Tears choked Annapurna’s throat and she couldn’t speak at all.
Outside the house underneath the amlaki tree, the palanquin bearers stopped and lowered the palanquin on the ground to readjust the load. Annapurna noticed how the clusters of blue medi flowers hung low with their heads bowed against the fence. The free end of Khenti’s inexpensive red Baluchari sari, her wedding trousseau, had escaped under the palanquin’s doors, and was rolling on top of those flowers. Pain wrung Annapurna’s heart when she thought of this innocent, food-loving, perpetually disheveled daughter of hers being taken away into an unknown family. She was full of misgivings as she wondered if the new family would even understand her dear Khenti.
As she was about to leave, Khenti, tears flooding her eyes, had said, “Maa, do bring me back during the monsoon month—send baba—it’s only two months…”
Thandidi, the old maiden from the neighborhood, had said, “Why would your father visit you now, dearie? Let a grandson come first.”
Khenti’s face had flushed with embarrassment. Raising her teary eyes She smiled through her tears and said obstinately, “Of course, he will come…you just wait and see.”
On evenings during the spring months of Phalgun-Chaitra when Annapurna layered the mango candies to dry, her heart pined for her daughter who, had she been home, would inevitably come up to her and extending one hand unabashedly would say in a pleading tone, “Maa, can I say something? Would you tear me a little piece from that corner…?”
More than a year had passed by; it was monsoon once more. It had been raining heavily that year. Sahayhari had been chatting with his neighbor, Bishnu Sarkar while preparing the tobacco for his hookah, “Well, you can take it for granted, brother, that’s how things will go. What better can you expect in tight budget households like ours?”
Bishnu Sarkar who had been squatting on a palm leaf mat, cleared his throat and said, “You may be right, but then there are exceptions. And, anyway, I am paying them in cash. By the way, tell me what exactly was wrong with your daughter?”
Inhaling five or six drags of his pipe, Sahayhari said, coughing, “Pox, at least that’s what I heard. And they wouldn’t even send her home. I owed them about two hundred and fifty rupees and they said, ‘first you pay us the money and then take your daughter home’.”
“What merciless people!”
“I said, well, all right, I will pay you in installments. I figured that the Durga puja gifts alone would cost me no less than thirty rupees. After this, they began spouting all kinds of rumors and insults about my dear girl. That she walked like an uncouth boor, ate like as if famished, and many more such. In Poush month I went to see her—couldn’t stay away any longer, you know…” Sahayhari stopped, smoked silently for some time. Nobody spoke for a while.
“And then?” Bishu Sarkar said after a few minutes.
“Since my wife had been crying non stop, I had to go. You should’ve seen the way they were treating her! The mother-in-law spoke loudly so all could hear: Well, this is what happens when you marry into a family of rustic oafs. Like father, like daughter. So he visits his daughter in the month of Poush, empty-handed!” Sahayhari paused to look at Bishnu Sarkar and said, “I say, Sarkar-uncle, you know very well about our family background. You know if we are simple or aristocratic. Why, during Parameshwar Chattujje’s time, even born antagonists like tigers and cows behaved peacefully here. Today, I agree, things are not the same anymore; but then, the tradition of old times remains…” The pride of his aristocratic heritage made Sahayhari give out a series of dry laughs.
Bishnu Sarkar murmured something inaudible and then gave a few supportive nods in agreement.
“After that, she had the pox in spring. Such low-lives, as soon as they noticed the first spot they took her away from home and left her at one of my distant sister’s place in Tala. They had apparently discovered that she had stayed there once when she visited the Kalighat temple sometime back. They never even bothered to inform us. It was my sister who sent me the news. When I went I couldn’t…”
“See her, you mean?” said Bishnu Sarkar.
“No. They were such awful people that they even took all the jewelry she had before they sent her to my sister’s place. Anyway, let’s forget that; it’s too late in the day for all that. It is now as useless as placing puffed rice in stead of ant baits for fishing.
A few more months had passed and the auspicious day of Paush Parban was there once again. It was bitterly cold that year. People said they had never encountered a chillier winter in their lifetime.
After sunset, Annapurna sat in her kitchen preparing the rice flour mixture for her saruchakli pithe. Punti and Radhi were warming themselves by the stove.
“Won’t you add some more water to the dough, maa? It looks too thick to me,” said Radhi.
“Maa, let’s add some salt to the mixture and see what happens? Punti said. “Oh, my god, look, maa, how Radhi’s quilt is hanging; it might easily catch fire,” she exclaimed.
“Move away from the fire, dear. You can still warm yourself if you sit a little away from the stove. Come this side,” said Annapurna.
Meanwhile, the batter was prepared and when it was poured in the lightly oiled griddle, it puffed up like the conical wedding headgear worn by the grooms.
“Maa, let me offer the first sweet to the Sanra-Shashti goddess at the back of the house,” said Punti.
“Don’t go alone; take Radhi with you,” said Annapurna.
Bright light of the full moon washed the weeds and vines in the backyard in a beautiful glow. The little white flowers of the ivy gourd shimmered in the silvery light.
As Punti and Radhi opened the back door, a fox trotted past rustling in the dry leaves. Punti tossed the sweet in the direction of a clump of bushes. As they looked around the dark, silent bamboo forest, they got scared and immediately rushed in and closed the door.
“Did you offer it?” Annapurna asked when the girls got back.
“Yes, maa, we threw it in the direction where you got the key lime sapling from,” said Punti.
The night wore on as usual. Annapurna had almost finished preparing the sweets. It was very late. Even the sound of the woodpecker in the moonlit tree was turning soporific.
As the two girls placed the plates of banana leaves for dinner, Punti, all of a sudden spoke up, “Didi used to like it so much…”
For some time the three of them sat silent, then turned naturally to the corner of the courtyard where the memory of that young girl’s greed laced the veins and the leaves of the climbing spinach that she had so fondly planted once upon a time. The rickety pnuin plant had climbed its way up the bamboo trellis and now covered it end to end. Fed by the monsoon showers and nourished by the dew, its young green stems not only covered the entire trellis, but hung outside as well—well-nourished, plump, and rich with the beauty and loveliness of life.
Published in Parabaas, February 2015
The original story The Climbing Spinach Trellis (পুঁইমাচা) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was first in the magazine Prabasi (প্রবাসী) in the Magh, 1331 issue (CE Jan-Feb 1925), and later included in Meghamallar ('মেঘ মল্লার').