The unbearable impetus of Bindu’s love began to agitate me. Once in a while, I admit, I used to be angry at her, but through her love I saw a side of myself that I’d never seen before. It was my true self, my free self.
Meanwhile, my care and attention for a girl like Bindu struck you all as beyond the limits of propriety. And so there was no end to petty scoldings and peevishness. When one day an armlet was stolen from my room, you felt no shame hinting that Bindu must have had something to do with the theft. When, during the Shodeshi movement, the police began to search people’s houses, you came very easily to the conclusion that Bindu was a police informer. There was no other proof of that, only this: she was Bindu.
The maidservants in your house would object to doing the slightest work for Bindu. If ever I asked one of the women to fetch Bindu something, she would pause, frozen in reluctance. And so my expenses for Bindu went up: I engaged a special maid for her. None of you liked that. You saw the kinds of clothes I gave Bindu to wear, and you became incensed. You even cut off my spending money. The very next day I began to wear coarse, unbleached, mill-made, ten-anna dhutis. And when the maid came to take my plate away after lunch, I told her not to. I fed the left-over rice to the calf and went to the courtyard tap to wash the plate myself. You saw that and were not too pleased. But the idea that not pleasing you was all right—that your family’s pleasure was of little consequence—had not yet entered my mind.
Your anger increased. And meanwhile Bindu’s age kept increasing too. This natural progression embarrassed all of you to an unnatural degree. One thing surprised me: why you didn’t force Bindu to leave. I understand it now: deep inside, you were all afraid of me. Deep inside, you could not help respect the intelligence that God had given me.
In the end, not strong enough yourselves to make Bindu leave, you sought the shelter of the gods of matrimony. Bindu’s wedding was arranged. Didi said, “Saved! Ma Kali has protected the honor of our clan.”
I didn’t know who the groom was; I heard from you all that he was worthy in every respect. Bindu came to me, and sat at my feet and cried. “Didi, why do I have to be married?”
I tried to explain things to her. “Bindu, don’t be afraid: I’ve heard your groom is a good man.”
Bindu said, “If he’s good, what do I have that he would like me?”
The groom’s people did not even mention coming to see Bindu. Didi was greatly relieved.
But Bindu cried night and day; her tears didn’t want to stop. I knew how painful it was for her. In that world I had fought many battles on her behalf, but I didn’t have the courage to say that her wedding should be called off. And what right did I have to say that anyway? What would become of her if I were to die?
First of all she was a girl, and on top of that she was dark-skinned; what kind of household she was being sent off to, what would become of her—it was best not to think of such things. If my mind turned to such thoughts, the blood would shudder in my heart.
Bindu said, “Didi, just five more days before the wedding, can’t I die before then?”
I scolded her sharply; but the One Who Sees Within knows: if there was some way she could have passed easily into death, I might have been relieved.
The day before the wedding, Bindu went to her sister and said, “Didi, I’ll just stay in your cowshed, I’ll do whatever you tell me to, I beg you, don’t get rid of me like this.”
For some time now, I had seen Didi wipe her eyes in quiet moments; now, too, her tears ran. But the heart could not be everything; there were rules to live by. She said, “You must realize, Bindi dear, a husband is a woman’s shelter, her protector, her salvation, her everything. If suffering is written on your forehead, no one can avert it.”
The message was clear: there was no way out. Bindu would have to marry, and whatever happened afterwards would have to happen.
I had wanted the wedding to be conducted at our house. But all of you were firm: it must be at the groom’s house; it was their ancestral custom.
The matter became clear to me. The gods of your household couldn’t bear it if any of your money was spent on Bindu’s wedding. So I was forced to be quiet. But there’s something none of you know. I wanted to tell Didi but I didn’t; she might have died of fear. Secretly I gave Bindu some of my jewellery, made her wear it before she left. I thought Didi would notice it; perhaps she pretended not to. Do—in the name of kindness—forgive her that.
Before leaving, Bindu threw her arms around me. “So, after all, Didi, you are abandoning me completely?”
I said, “No, Bindi, no matter what your condition may be, I’ll never abandon you in the end.”
Three days went by. The tenants of your estate had given you a sheep to feast on; I saved it from the fire of your hunger and kept it in one corner of the coal-shed on the ground floor. I would go and feed it grain first thing in the morning. I had relied on your servants for a day or two before I saw that feeding the animal was less interesting to them than possibly feeding upon it.
Entering the coal-shed that morning, I saw Bindu sitting huddled in a corner. As soon as she saw me she fell at my feet and began to cry.
Bindu’s husband was insane.
“Is that really true, Bindi?”
“Would I tell you such a lie, Didi? He’s insane. My father-in-law wasn’t in favor of this marriage, but he’s mortally afraid of his wife. He went off to Kashi before the wedding. My mother-in-law insisted on getting her son married.”
I sat down on the heap of coal. Woman has no compassion for woman. Woman will say, “She’s nothing more than a woman. The groom may be insane, but he’s a man.”
Bindu’s husband did not seem deranged to look at, but once in a while he grew so frenzied that he had to be locked up in his room. He was fine on the night of the wedding, but the next day—perhaps as a result of the excitement, staying up late, and so on—he became completely unbalanced. Bindu had just sat down to lunch when her husband suddenly grabbed her brass plate and flung it, rice and all, out into the courtyard. For some reason he was seized with the notion that Bindu was Rani Rashmoni herself, and that the servant must have stolen her platter of gold and given her his own lowly plate instead. Hence his outrage. Bindu was half-dead from fear. When on the third night her mother-in-law ordered her to sleep in her husband’s room, Bindu’s heart froze within her. Her mother-in-law was a terrible woman; if she was angered she lost all control of herself. She too was unbalanced, but not completely, and therefore all the more dangerous. Bindu had to enter the room. Her husband was placid that night. But no matter; Bindu’s body turned wooden with terror. With what silence and craft she made her escape after her husband fell asleep, it’s not necessary to describe at length.
I burned from contempt and anger. I said, “A marriage based on such a deception is not a marriage at all. Bindu, stay with me the way you did before, let’s see who dares to take you away.”
You all said, “Bindu’s lying.”
I said, “She’s never lied in her life.”
You all said, “How do you know that?”
I said, “I’m sure of it.”
You all tried to frighten me. “If Bindu’s in-laws report this to the police, you’ll be in trouble.”
I said, “They deceived her and got her married to a madman, and when I tell the court that, they’ll listen.”
You all said, “Then we’ll have to go to court over this? Why? Why should we bother?”
I said, “I’ll sell my jewellery and do what I can.”
You all said, “You’re going to a lawyer then?”
I couldn’t answer that. I could complain bitterly, but I didn’t have the courage to do any more.
And meanwhile, Bindu’s brother-in-law had arrived and was raising a racket outside the house. He said he was going to file a report at the police station.
I didn’t know where my strength came from, but my mind would not accept the idea that for fear of the police I would simply hand her over—hand over to the butcher himself the calf that had come running from the cleaver, afraid for her life, to seek shelter with me. I found the audacity to say, “Fine, let him go file a report then.”
After saying this I decided I must take Bindu into my bedroom right away, put a lock on the door, and stay inside with her. But when I looked for Bindu I couldn’t find her. While I was arguing with you all, she had gone out on her own and given herself up to her brother-in-law. She understood that by staying in the house she was putting me in great danger.
Running away the way she had earlier, Bindi had only increased her own unhappiness. Her mother-in-law argued that her husband hadn’t done anything to hurt Bindu. There were plenty of terrible husbands in the world. Compared to them her son was a jewel, a diamond.
My elder sister-in-law said, “She has an ill-fated forehead; how long can I grieve over it? He may be crazy, may be a fool, but he’s her husband, after all!”
The image rose in your minds of the leper and his wife—oh devoted woman!—who herself carried him to the prostitute’s house. You, with your male minds, did not ever hesitate to preach this story, a story of the world’s vilest cowardice; and for the same reason—even though you’d been granted the dignity of human shape—you could be angry at Bindu without feeling the least discomfort. My heart burst for Bindu; for you I felt boundless shame. I was only a village girl, and on top of that I had lived so long in your house—I don’t know through what chink in your vigilance God slipped me my brains. I just couldn’t bear all your lofty sentiments about woman’s duty.
I knew for sure that Bindu would not return to our house even if she had to die. But I had assured her the day before her marriage that I would not abandon her in the end. My younger brother Shorot was a college student in Calcutta. You all know about his different kinds of volunteer work, running off to help the Damodor flood victims, exterminating the rats when the plague struck—he had such enthusiasm for these projects that even failing the F.A. exams twice had not dampened his spirit. I summoned him and said, “Shorot, you have to arrange things so that I can have news of Bindu. She won’t have the courage to write, and even if she does, the letter will never reach me.”
My brother might have been happier if I’d asked him to kidnap Bindu and bring her back, or perhaps to crack her crazy husband’s skull.
While I was talking to Shorot, you came into the room and said, “Now what mess are you getting us into?”
I said, “The same one I made right at the beginning: I came to your house.—But that was your own doing.”
You asked, “Have you brought Bindu back and hidden her somewhere?”
I said, “If Bindu would come, I’d certainly bring her back and hide her. But she won’t come, so you all needn’t be afraid.”
Seeing Shorot with me had kindled your suspicions. I know that you didn’t approve at all of Shorot’s comings and goings. You were afraid that the police were keeping tabs on him, and that some day he would get himself into some political tangle and drag you into it too. So I didn’t usually call him to the house; I even sent him my Bhai-phota offering through someone else.
I heard from you that Bindu had run off again, and that her brother-in-law had come looking for her again. Hearing this, I felt something sharp pierce my heart. I understood the luckless girl’s unbearable suffering, but I could see no way of doing anything for her.
Shorot ran to get news of Bindu. He returned in the evening and told me, “Bindu went back to her cousins’ house, but they were terribly angry and took her back to her in-laws’ right away. And they haven’t forgotten the money they had to spend on fares and other expenses for her.”
As it happened, your aunt had come to spend a few days at your house before leaving for Srikhetro on a pilgrimage. And I told you all, I’m going too.
You were so delighted to see in me this sudden turn towards religion that you forgot altogether to object. You also thought, no doubt, that if I stayed in Calcutta at that time, I would certainly make trouble about Bindu. I was a terrible nuisance.
I would leave on Wednesday; by Sunday all the preparations had been made. I called Shorot and said to him, “No matter how difficult it is, I want you to find some way to get Bindu on the Wednesday train to Puri.”
Shorot grinned with delight; he said, “Don’t worry, Didi, not only will I see her into the train, I’ll go with her to Puri myself. It’ll be an opportunity to see the Jagannath temple.”
Shorot came again that evening. I took one look at his face, and the breath stopped in my chest. I said, “What, Shorot? You couldn’t do it?”
He said, “No.”
I asked, “You couldn’t get her to agree?”
He said, “There was no need any more. Last night she set fire to her clothes and killed herself. I talked to her nephew—the one I was in touch with—and he said that she’d left a letter for you. But they destroyed the letter.”
Oh. Peace at last.
People heard about it and were enraged. They said, It’s become a kind of fashion for women to set fire to their clothes and kill themselves.
You all said, Such dramatics! Maybe. But shouldn’t we ask why the dramatics take place only with Bengali women’s sarees and not with the so-brave Bengali men’s dhutis?
Truly Bindi’s forehead was seared by fate. As long as she lived she was never known for her looks or talent; even in her last hours it didn’t enter her head to find some new way to die, some novel exit that would please the nation’s men and move them to applaud her! Even in dying she only angered everyone.
Didi hid in her room and cried. But there was some solace in her tears. However it was, at least now the girl was beyond suffering. She had only died; who knew what might have happened if she’d lived?
I have come here on my holy journey. Bindu didn’t need to come any more, but I did.
In your world I didn’t suffer what people would normally call grief. In your house there was no lack of food or clothing; no matter what your brother’s character, in your own character there was nothing that I could complain of to the Lord, nothing I could call terrible. If your habits had been like those of your brother’s, perhaps my days would have passed without upheaval; perhaps, like my sister-in-law, so perfectly devoted to her husband, I too might have blamed not you but the Lord of the World. So I don’t want to raise my head in complaint about you—this letter is not for that.
But I will not go back to your Number Twenty-Seven Makhon Boral Lane. I’ve seen Bindu. I’ve seen the worth of a woman in this world. I don’t need any more.
And I’ve seen also that even though she was a girl, God didn’t abandon her. No matter how much power you might have had over her, there was an end to that power. There’s something larger than this wretched human life. You thought that, by your turn of whim and your custom graved in stone, you could keep her life crushed under your feet forever, but your feet weren’t powerful enough. Death was stronger. In her death Bindu has become great; she’s not a mere Bengali girl anymore, no more just a female cousin of her father’s nephews, no longer only a lunatic stranger’s deceived wife. Now she is without limits, without end.
The day that death’s flute wailed through this girl’s soul and I heard those notes float across the river, I could feel its touch within my chest. I asked the Lord, Why is it that whatever is the most insignificant obstacle in this world is also the hardest to surmount? Why was this tiny, most ordinary bubble of cheerlessness contained within four ramparts in this humdrum alley such a formidable barrier? No matter how pleadingly Your world called out to me, its nectar-cup made of the six elements borne aloft in its hands, I could not emerge even for an instant, could not cross the threshold of that inner compound. These skies of Yours, this life of mine: why must I—in the shadow of this most banal brick and woodwork—die one grain at a time? How trivial this daily life’s journey; how trivial all its fixed rules, its fixed ways, its fixed phrases of rote, all its fixed defeats. In the end, must the victory go to this wretched world, to its snakes of habit that bind and coil and squeeze? Must the joyous universe, the world that You created Yourself, lose?
But the flute of death begins to play—and then where is the mason’s solid-brick wall, where is your barbed-wire fence of dreadful law? A sorrow, an insult, can imprison; but the proud standard of life flies from the hand of death! Oh Mejo-Bou, you have nothing to fear! It doesn’t take a moment to slough off a Mejo-Bou’s shell.
I am not scared of your street any longer. In front of me today is the blue ocean, over my head a mass of monsoon cumulus.
The dark veil of your custom had cloaked me completely, but for an instant Bindu came and touched me through a gap in the veil; and by her own death she tore that awful veil to shreds. Today I see there is no longer any need to maintain your family’s dignity or self-pride. He who smiles at this unloved face of mine is in front of me today, looking at me with the sublime expanse of His sky. Now Mejo-Bou dies.
You think I’m going to kill myself—don’t be afraid, I wouldn’t play such an old joke on you all. Meera-Bai, too, was a woman, like me; her chains, too, were no less heavy; and she didn’t have to die to be saved. Meera-Bai said, in her song, “No matter if my father leaves, my mother too, let them all go; but Meera will persevere, Lord, whatever may come to pass.”
And to persevere, after all, is to be saved.
I too will be saved. I am saved.
Removed from the Shelter of Your Feet,