The whiff of a cool, unexpected breeze started up as the sultry day drew to a close. It cooled the body, but raised a fear too. The season was unpredictable - the end of spring. At the corner of the sky, black clouds veiled half the sky, looking like a rough giant preparing to pounce on the earth.
Those who were out in the fields, on the road or near the pond, started speeding up the work at hand, anxiously looking up at the sky every now and then. And echoing in the wind, from one end of the village to another, arose the dim refrain of a nasal call. The pitch rose and fell in stages. These were the words: ‘Co-me Bundi! Co-me Sundari! Co-me Moongli! Lakkhi! Co-me!’ Summoning the dumb animals to come from the grassland to their sheds, out of the storm.
Satyabati was rushing home with news from the Banerji locality But hearing the call, she too raised her voice and yelled out, ‘Co-me Shyamali! Co-me Dhabali!’
Ramkali was walking past the mango grove on his way back from the Ray locality. He had had to leave his palki there. Ray-mashai, one of the village elders, was dying. Ramkali had gone to have a look at him. Judging by his condition, he had advised that they take the old man to the bank of the river - the Ganga; and that's what landed him in trouble.
Both the sons of the old man had died, and the three grandsons hardly had the means to hire a palki and bearers. And yet, it was unthinkable that such a virtuous old man should die at home! What an unbearable thought! The best place to take him to would be Tribeni - where the three streams meet. But when the three grandsons stood exchanging uncertain looks, Ramkali had been obliged to say, ‘Don't worry about the palki - you can take him in mine.
The grandsons had mumbled a protest, ‘You have to go far to visit your patients. How can you do without your palki…’
And Ramkali had retorted with a dark laugh, ‘In that case, carry him on your shoulders! After all, here you are, three strapping young men!’
It would be unthinkable to laugh at the joke of an elder, so they had just scratched their heads.
Finally, taking courage, the eldest had ventured, ‘We were thinking of a bullock cart ...’
‘Then you were thinking wrong!’ Ramkali had responded, ‘Do you think this frail ninety-two year old body will get there in one piece in a bullock cart? His life will fly out for sure! I am like a son to him, so do not hesitate. And besides, you never know what other quick arrangements you might need to make.’
Tears had rolled down the misty eyes of the old man. He had raised his infirm right hand in blessing.
Outside, Ramkali had instructed his palki bearers, ‘Why carry the palki all the way? Leave it here, and go home and eat. Get back before daybreak. And bring enough food to last the day, okay? And listen, go and ask if there's anything else to be done here. I'm going home.’
He was rushing because he had noticed the clouds in the horizon. It wasn't as if he was unaccustomed to walking just because he used a palki to visit his patients. Every day he rose at dawn and walked for a mile or so after his morning ablutions - that was the first of his daily duties. But when he visited a patient, it was different; then, it was very much a matter of prestige.
Ramkali had intended taking the short-cut through the fruit orchard, but no sooner had he entered the mango grove, a dust-storm had started up. And Ramkali had quickly come out; and that very instant he had stopped on his tracks, startled. Wasn't that Satya's voice? It did sound like her. It took him a moment, a very wee moment, though, to confirm, because the wind was stormy. And the names of the cows were familiar. Though the Chatterjis had a shed full of cows, these two were special and Ramkali was very fond of them. He fed them, stroked them, and, the unmarried girls of the house did their cow-rituals with these two. And the dung they produced was used by Mokshada to preserve ritual purity.
Ramkali strained his ears to determine the direction of that sound, then walking briskly, he caught up with his daughter. By then, Satyabati had broken into a run, and was using the corner of her saree to shield her eyes from the dust.
Where're you off to?’ Ramkali asked, his voice booming like thunder.
Satyabati gave a start, removed her saree from her face, and was totally stunned! Everyone called Satyabati her father's darling – which, of course, was true, and her father cherished her too for being his lucky girl. There was, however, no overt display of affection. Naturally, Satyabati panicked on hearing her father's voice.
Ramkali repeated, ‘Where had you gone by yourself at this hour?’
Satyabati answered in a faint voice: ‘To Sejopishi's.’
The person Satyabati called `Sejopishi' was in fact Ramkali's first cousin. She'd been married in this village, and lived here.
Ramkali frowned: ‘ And why did you go so far all by yourself? Why isn't anybody with you?’
This was just the reason why they called her her father's darling! Not a slap, nor a box on the ears, merely the command to invent an excuse!
Satyabati regained her courage and said, ‘ Of course not! Why should I go by myself? Punyi-pishi and Neru had come with me. Then, I went running to call you.’
‘You came to call me? ‘ Ramkali said knitting his brows, ‘And why exactly do you need me?’
Salvaging her confidence Satyabati declared excitedly, ‘ Jatada's wife is dying. Her pulse has stopped! So Sejopishi started sobbing and said, `Go and fetch Mejda, Satya, wherever you can find him. So I went to the Ray's and heard you'd just left.’
‘So you'd been to that locality too! This is too much! What has happened to Jata's wife that her pulse has gone weak?’
‘Not weak, Baba, it's stopped!’ Satya said with increased animation, ‘Sejopishi is weeping and beating her breasts, and is putting away the pillow and mattress.’
‘What do you mean? Come let's have a look,’ Ramkali said. ‘But there's a storm brewing, it’s going to rain. What a bother! Now tell me, what had happened?’
‘Nothing much! Sejopishi said that, when Jatada's wife was just sitting down to eat - just after she'd finished the cooking, Jatada asked for a paan. His wife said that there wasn't any paan. That was it! His majesty was furious. He gave her a good hard kick on her backside. And she fell on her face in the courtyard...’ Suddenly Satyabati burst into laughter.
‘Why're you laughing?’ Ramkali scolded irritably. How ill-mannered the girl had become! Was this the time to laugh?
He scolded, ‘What's so funny about a person dying? Is this what you've been taught?’
Satyabati had laughed impulsively; she controlled herself somehow after her father’s rebuke; trying to look as pale as she could, she said, ‘Sejopishi said that as soon as she was kicked she rolled down like a pumpkin on to the courtyard.’ And, once again, controlling her laughter, she resumed with great effort, ‘Actually, Jatada's wife eats a lot of rice, Baba, so she's really fat!’
Looking annoyed, Ramkali quickened his pace. But Satyabati could walk fast too. And she kept pace with him. No matter how sympathetic he felt towards Jata's wife, Ramkali's mind was enraged by Jata's transgression. The wretch was a misfit in a brahmin's house! Without a scratch of learning! An expert at smoking ganja! And to top it all, the vulgar habit of wife-beating! The creature's father wasn't like this at all! In fact, it was Ramkali's extraordinary cousin who had dictated to the man all his life. Who could say how he'd hit her? If she really was dead, there'd be no end of trouble. And quite oblivious of Satyabati, Ramkali quickened his pace. Satyabati broke into a run. She was determined not to lose this race.
Her eyes were transfixed, the froth at the mouth had dried, the hands were stone-cold. There could be no doubt at all, the signs were clear. So she had been moved close to the sacred tulsi in the courtyard soon after she had fallen with the kick. In fact, they'd been quick to bring her out here. And within minutes the news had spread. The women had gathered, as if swept out of their homes, fearless of the gathering storm. After all, the affair was a colourful one and in the dull theatre of their humdrum lives, there were few opportunities to witness such dramatic scenes. First, there came a stifled agitation, ‘I believe Jata has finished off his wife?’ Then cries of, ‘Alas!’ Finally, comments about Jata were no longer shielded from his mother’s ears. How often did one get a chance to speak one’s mind, anyway!
‘Is she really gone? For shame! What a murderer! ‘...’What a bitch to bear such a son! And I ask you, why is Jata such a mule? His father was a good man.’ ‘Why do you think? Don't annoy me so - can't you see what the mother's like! Such virtues!’... ‘The poor, foolish thing! What a way to die!’ And so the discussion went on. One couldn't expect more compassion for a woman, in any case!
Jata's mother was forced to digest the comments of the neighbours in silence, because today she found herself in a bit of a spot. So she began to wail loudly drowning out all noise, beating her breasts, snivelling and whining.
As he approached the house, Ramkali heard the heart-breaking laments of his cousin: ‘Oh our Lakshmi's abandoned us and gone! What shall I do without my golden Lakshmi! Oh my son! - Look how the crop's burnt down before the harvest!’
Satyabati exclaimed, ‘Gosh! it's all over!’
Ramkali slowed down; he frowned. So that was that. There'd be no point in going in now! Who knew what other predicaments were in store for Jata? Suddenly a high-pitched scream was heard - perhaps as a `finishing touch'. ‘God! I am ruined! What a pretty wife had I brought my son!’
Ramkali walked up slowly to the door and turning around said, ‘So it's really over. Satya, you go home.’
Satyabati froze. ‘By myself?’
‘Why, didn't Neru and Punyi come with you?’
Satyabati said anxiously, ‘They did, but they aren't going to come back with me.’
‘Why won't they? They'll have to! Where are they? I must see to this.’
Satyabati slowly moved to the courtyard of her aunt's house, and failing to spot her friends, Neru or Punyi,
returned crestfallen, ‘Can't see either of them.’
‘Why, where have they disappeared?’
‘Who knows!’ Slowly, regaining her courage, Satya voiced her innermost thought, ‘You can bring back the dead, can't you, Baba?’
‘Bring back the dead! Are you mad!’
‘But that's what they all say!’ Satya said numbly.
‘What do they say?’ He asked distractedly. And he looked around to check if anyone was around. Well, now that he was here he could hardly avoid his duty. He noticed that there were not many bamboo bushes in this house; he'd have to order some from his garden for the bier. But there was nobody to be seen! Yet so many diverse pitches could be heard keening inside the house! Outside, it was deserted and calm.
Fortunately the clouds had disappeared unexpectedly, and the clear skies indicated that there was time yet for darkness to descend. And suddenly, Satyabati did something terribly defiant. She clutched her father's hand tightly in both her hands and uttered with great intensity, ‘They all say that the doctor can bring the dead back to life! Please father, give Jatada's wife some medicine.’
Ramkali faltered before this naive faith and suddenly felt helpless. He shook his head instead of rebuking her, ‘There's no truth in what they say, my dear. I can't do a thing! It's just out of vanity that I prescribe herbs, feel the pulse and actually cheat people.’
Satyabati couldn't catch the irony in his tone, nor was she supposed to. She took it as a sign of his displeasure. But she felt reckless. She would take whatever was in store for her, even a thrashing! But what if Jatada's wife should live because of her efforts! So, heedless of her surroundings, she pulled at her father's shawl, ‘Baba, I beg of you! For one last time, give her some medicine! Oh! Jatada's wife will die without treatment!’
Ramkali couldn't explain to his daughter that nobody could treat people once they were dead. He sighed, turned around and said, ‘Come, let's see.’
It was as if the trimmings of the stage had fallen off in the middle of a captivating performance. Wasn't that the doctor clearing his throat? Yes, that was right! That tall and handsome man was indeed the doctor. And instantly, Satya's sharp voice rang forth, ‘My father says the crowd must move.’
The women of the locality pulled their saris over their heads and were silent. Only Jata's mother wailed, ‘Alas Mejda! My wretched Jata's lost his wife!’
‘Stop it!’ It was like a tiger roaring, ‘When wasn't your Jata a wretch? He's completely finished her off, has he?’
The crowd dispersed. The doctor approached the body of his nephew’s wife, trying to avoid contact as custom demanded. He bent down and was astonished to find a pulse.
So the farce was finally over! And it's not as if just one scene had been cut, the whole play was ruined! Had anybody seen or heard such a mountain being made of a molehill? Jata's wife's conduct was unforgivable! The height of wickedness! How shameful for a woman to have a life-span so intact! She was surely doomed to suffer endlessly - there could be no doubts about that, none at all! There she was - stiff as a corpse lying by the sacred tulsi, and now look at her guzzling milk inside the house! Had anybody heard of such a woman?
‘What a shame! A man would never ever open his eyes a second time once his wife was widowed!’... ‘What a stunt, Jata's wife pulled off!’...’Now just wait and see she'll get it from her mother-in-law - she's been really insulted today.’ ‘Whatever you say, it wasn't right to take her indoors straight away, there should have been some rituals for purity - it'd only be appropriate.’ ‘Who knows if she's really living? What if she's been possessed by a spirit? I really have my doubts.’ ‘Don't talk like that! I go roaming here and there all by myself - it gives me the creeps! But don't her eyes do look a bit strange?’ ‘Oh that's nothing to worry about, the doctor said the sudden push had made her faint.’ ‘Come on let's go, there's so much work. What a waste of time!’ ‘Did you notice was a hypocrite Jata's mother is? Pretended as if her heart was breaking!’ ‘Didn’t I! Couldn't have imagined it! Actually, her heart must have broken when she saw the daughter-in-law wake up! All her hopes were dashed to the ground! She thought her son had got lucky! And she could just get him married right away, bring in gold and gifts.’ The words flowed non-stop. Words sprouted inside people’s homes and outside, on the streets. After losing the golden opportunity of exterminating Jata’s wife, people were reluctant to let such a momentous matter cool so quickly. They felt cheated and were annoyed. An aunt-in-law had brought some sindur and alta, hoping to be the first to adorn the corpse of a married woman. Now she had to throw them into the pond. She was livid. Nobody knew Jata’s wife’s name. And nobody made the effort to find out. `Jata's wife' - that was her only name! In time, she would be known as somebody's mother. She had no need for a name. But they all felt the need to talk about her.
The aunt-in-law burst out abruptly, ‘In my parents’ village they wouldn’t have allowed her to live inside the house. She’d have to spend the rest of her life in the cowshed or the husking room.
Some people wondered if it was fair t condemn the living. But --> the aunt-in-law pronounced again, ‘After all, she had been brought out to the sacred tulsi, just like a corpse. And then her uncle-in-law touched her. Think of the violation! I was so horrified to see him search for her pulse! I guess he thought she was dead, and purifying rituals would be done before the cremation, anyway. Well, now that she’s come alive, surely some rituals are in order.’
After exploring the question in depth, it was decided that Jata’s wife would have to perform one ritual to atone for the polluting touch of her uncle-in-law and another one for the transgression of returning to life after dying. Or else, she would be treated like a ‘fallen woman’. The poor offender was still unconscious. Jata’s mother was out, looking for Jata. Therefore an ex parte decision was arrived at.
Satyabati did not know any of this. She was brimming with happiness from a strange sense of pride. What an untruth her father had uttered about not knowing anything about treatment! It was only because Satya had dared to clasp his hand and ask for medicine that the poor woman was alive now! Suppose Satya's husband (and inadvertently, a smile played on her lips) beat her to death when she was at her in-laws, it would be great! Her father would rush there and give her the `essence of gold ground with honey', and Satya would open her eyes, and pull her sari over face in embarrassment when she came to and saw everyone.
What fun! The whole country would celebrate the feats of her eminent father - Ramkali. Goodness! As if he was an ordinary man! No other girl in the village had such a father! And she laughed out loud. Satya was very prone to laughing aloud whenever she thought of something funny. Ramkali was taken aback. ‘What's the matter? Why're you laughing?’
Satya controlled herself with difficulty, swallowed, and said, ‘Just like that!’
‘Just stop your just-like-that laughs will you?’ Ramkali said, nearly laughing himself, ‘Or else you'll be faced with the fate of Jata's wife when you go to your in-laws.’
He felt contented. Night was approaching. He would have had to face a few problems but Jata's wife had spared him all that. Even --> though Satya could not fathom the reason, she could perceive his contentment and taking courage, she declared enthusiastically, ‘That was why I laughed. If I die you could always come and save me.’
‘Oh, really!’ Ramkali responded briefly, being a man of few words. He walked briskly in silence and Satyabati broke into a run to keep up. Suddenly, Ramkali stopped and said, ‘Even god can't do a thing if you die, do you understand? Jata's wife hadn't died.’
‘Hadn't she?’ Satya was perplexed for a moment, ‘Then what is dying like?’ Suddenly her train of thought changed track, she proclaimed ardently, ‘But then Baba, if you hadn't felt her pulse and given her the `essence of gold', Jatada's wife would have remained like that - lifeless! And then they'd have put her on a bamboo bier and cremated her!’
Ramkali was a little startled. Strange! How could such a small girl think so deeply. What a pity she was a girl and it was all in vain. If only Neru had such brains! But it was useless to hope - for he was a full-grown eight-year old and still tracing the alphabet! Neru was the youngest of Kunja's brood. Ramkali's elder brother, Kunja and his wife had become lenient with this one after raising thirteen children. This one too would probably turn out to be a misfit in a brahmin's house! But a girl-child shouldn't even learn to think so deeply. So Ramkali said in a reproving tone, ‘Stop it! Don't talk too much. Walk faster. Can't you see it's dark?’
‘Dark?’ Satyabati said nonchalantly, ‘Huh! As if I fear the dark! Don't I go into the garden when it's very very dark to count owls by spotting their glistening eyes.’
‘What! What is it you do in the dark?’ Ramkali was staggered.
Satyabati faltered, ‘Not just me - Neru and Punyipishi too. We count the eyes of the owls.’
Suddenly, Ramkali started laughing. He laughed for a long while; deep and loud. How could he scold or discipline such a girl! His deep laughter echoed through the silence of the dark road. And the old men gathered at the courtyard of the temple heard it too.
‘Isn't that the doctor's voice?’
‘That's what it sounds like.’
‘Why's he laughing by himself at this hour?’
‘He’s probably not alone. That unruly daughter must be with him. Otherwise ...’
‘What a girl he's raised! She's fated to be unhappy!’
‘Unhappy! With so much money! I heard that the Raja of Barddhaman sent for him yesterday. Wants him to be the court physician.’
‘Is that so? I didn't know anything about it! So is he leaving?’
‘No, I hear he isn't going.’
‘Really! That's good news. But who told you?’
‘Kunja's eldest son.’
‘Good! Imagine going and working far away and at the court too! If only Ramkali cared about etiquette he wouldn't have let his daughter become so bold. Just look, all the boys are her playmates!’
‘Yes! But then she’s ten times better than the boys when it comes to swimming, climbing trees and fishing!’
‘That’s nothing to be proud of. After all, she's a girl and that too a married one. Married into a well-known family too. If they get to know, they'll just refuse to take her.’
‘I know! It doesn't take long for a scandal!’
The atmosphere at the temple courtyard grew heavy with discussions about the doctor and his unruly daughter. People respected him publicly, and yet, how would they survive if they couldn't disparage him in private?
Meanwhile, the prime subject of their discussion was running behind her father and fervently praying, ‘Oh god - please make my legs long - like my father's, then I can walk like him and I shall never lose!’ Satyabati disapproved of defeat. She wouldn't lose anywhere, at any time. That was her resolve.
‘Hey Punyi! Can you make up a rhyme!’
Satyabati's `play–room’ was in the attic. Her chief playmate was Ramkali's cousin's daughter Punyabati. Even though Satya called her `Punyapishi' in front of others, in her own terrain she called her `Punyi'.
‘Can you find a Weaver-Bird's nest?’ ‘Can you catch a blue-beetle?’ ‘Can you swim across the lake three times?’ Satya would often grill Punyi this way. But ‘Can you make up a rhyme?’ was an absolutely new query.
Punyi asked, ‘Rhyme? What do you mean?’
‘A rhyme about Jata-dada - you know. We'll teach all the children in the village; they'll clap and chant it whenever they see him!’
They both swayed with laughter, imagining Jata's plight. Finally, Punyabati asked a counter question, ‘So you say you'll make up a rhyme. Are girls supposed to do that?’
‘Aren't they?’ Suddenly, Satya blazed forth, ‘Who said that? My foot! As if girls are unnatural and not conceived in their mother's wombs! Do you think girl just come floating in with the tide, or what? Don't play with me, if you talk like that!’
‘Okay, my dear `sir'! But what if your husband talks this way?’
‘In the same way about girls!’
‘Huh! Won't I show him! Do you think I'll be like Jata-da's wife? Never! Now just watch how I plague him with a rhyme!’
Punyi asked deferentially, ‘How will you do that?’
‘How else! The way the kathak-thakur does - same way! I have done a bit already. Want to hear?’
‘Already! Tell me, please!’
Satya spoke with assurance, almost as if she were slowly savouring sour tamarind:
‘The elephant-footed Jatadada - there he goes, the blighter!
May a toad kick the back of this stupid wife-beater!’
‘Goodness Satya!’ Punyi suddenly squealed and hugged Satya, ‘Look at you! You'll be writing proper poetry next!’
Satya responded airily, as if it would not be too great an achievement if she did, ‘I will when I will. Now we have to teach everyone this, understand? And when we see Jatadada ...’
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004
Published in Parabaas March, 2007
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004