In the annals of this place this was a first! This incident of calling a Sahib-doctor. This historical event was made possible by the astrological confluence of three bodies - Bhabatosh-Master, Nitai and she who disgraced the Banerjee family! The news made people stand rooted to their spots, and time stood still.
Everyone knew of the ‘virtues’ of the shameless, ill-tempered daughter-in-law. What they couldn’t understand was why they had tolerated her for so long. Why could they not just drive her away? They'd all tried to puzzle out the reason. She was her father's only daughter. And a well-to-do father at that! He must have set some conditions at the time of marriage. May be Naba wouldn’t inherit the property of this Brahmin-doctor if he threw out his wife. Or else, why would Banerjee-Ginni seek to avenge herself indirectly by cursing and beating her breasts? They were all vexed by the recurring anticlimax that came just when they thought that the drama of getting rid of the daughter-in-law had neared its denouement. And they had now begun to regard at Satya almost with some fondness because she was the one responsible for a new twist in the tale.
It was certainly a blessing to have her as a topic of discussion or as a negative example to hold up before young wives. But when Naba fell ill, nobody could find a language adequate enough in which to criticize his wife. Such a prototype of a shrew could not be found in the Vedas or the Puranas, nor the Jatras! And they had no language in which to describe her. But none of them could have imagined it even in a nightmare that the woman had actually met Naba’s friend, Nitai, and given him her heavy gold necklace to sell, and arranged for Bhabatosh-Master to fetch a Sahib-doctor from Calcutta! And she had spoken with Bhabatosh-Master too!
Whether Naba would live or die because of the Sahib-doctor’s medications was not significant. Far weightier was the task of dealing with his father.
The affair was no longer restricted to the women; it had upset the men – who comprised the crown of society! They'd heard from their wives how Naba’s wife quarrelled with her mother-in-law, spoke in front of her father-in-law, or did similar wicked acts. But apart from feeling annoyed they hadn't been able to do anything about it.
But they could no longer dismiss this as just the misdemeanour of one woman! It involved the question of caste now. Banerjee may occupy the highest place in the community, but he had no right to demand that everyone tolerate such shameless conduct! So far the question of his `lower-caste' mistress had become sort of acceptable through numerous jokes. It wasn’t really perceived as unnatural. But here was a sahib entering the inner quarters, a married woman who spoke to other men! Society hadn’t lost its claws or teeth that it would accept such aberrations!
A meeting was called in the temple yard and the group decided to pressurize Nilambar Banerjee into disowning his daughter-in-law, and to make him an outcaste if he didn’t comply.
Living in society was not a matter to joke about. If that dying invalid really recovered because of the white doctor’s treatment (not entirely impossible, because rumours had it that their medicines were miraculous - may God save him!) then they would have to make him undergo the purifying rituals.
And Bhabatosh-master? That man's body ought to be rubbed with nettles and then they should just cast him out from the village! But the devil had actually left in the coach for Calcutta, along with the doctor! And he’d arrived with the doctor too!
Well, one could hardly talk of banishing him because he had already set up home in Calcutta. He visited sometimes because his aunt was still living.
The only culprit who could be captured was Nitai. But he was not to be found either. Like the legendary Hanuman with fire on his tail, he'd brought in the Sahib, and he had disappeared after setting Lanka on fire. And now the fire had spread.
Nobody had a clue! God knows when Satya had set it all up! Like a magic trick with the entire village looking on! They saw a horse-drawn coach coming up the village road. Nilambar saw the coach stop at his door. And a hardy Englishman emerged. Nilambar’s blood turned into ice. This had to be either the Collector or the Magistrate! May be someone had made pressed charges and they'd come to handcuff him! Nilambar lost the ability to think through the causes, and he forgot to note that other figure which also descended. He started wailing and flung himself at the Sahib’s feet.
Meanwhile the news of the Sahib’s arrival in Nilambar’s house had spread through the village. Nothing apart from legal and court matters had occured to anybody. They had all peeped out of their windows and murmured, ‘Like they say it never rains but it pours! The son is dying and now this!’
And they had peeped into Nilambar’s house too. Suddenly somebody had noticed the stethoscope around the Sahib’s neck, ‘A doctor – look at that!’ A muted sense of excitement had spread.
A Sahib doctor for Naba! Nilambar had pulled a fast trick! And he hadn’t even thought of consulting anybody. It was like giving the neighbours a sharp slap in the face. And now he was pretending to weep at the Sahib’s feet!
For indeed, that was what Nilambar was doing, clutching the Sahib's feet, ‘Sahib, I know anything about it! I've done nothing wrong. My son is dying inside -’
And the Sahib's reassurance, ‘Don’t worry. The patient will get better -’ hardly entered his ears.
But Bhabatosh’s words did.
‘Stop behaving like this! This is a doctor from Calcutta - he's come to treat Nabakumar.’
Nilambar looked up. And he noticed Nitai too. And in a flash, he sensed a plot at work. And immediately, it had occurred to him that the heroine of this plot could be none other than Satya. But how had it come about? Whatever it was, not a word could be said now. Trembling like a goat readied for sacrifice, Nilambar followed Bhabatosh-Master into his own house.
Satya was standing by the window that faced the garden, still as a statue. The window was close to the patient's head and she had fixed the shutter in such a way that she could see the people in the room, while remaining out of their range of vision. When a massive red-faced man almost a foot taller than Bhabatosh-master entered the room, for some unknown reason Satya’s heart trembled. And suddenly her eyes brimmed over with tears. And though she didn't literally fold her hands, she prayed in her mind, ‘Forgive your brazen and disobedient daughter, Baba. Bless me so that my husband lives. I know I have hurt you deeply but I am your daughter, after all. I've got this boldness and pride from you.’
Then she had tried to remember her mother’s face, ‘Ma, I'd sworn in your name, to make him well again when I'd returned the medicines. Don't let that be a vain oath!’
Satya didn't seem to value Kali, Durga or Shiva, she prayed fervently again and again to the living-gods she knew. So that the Sahib’s medicines worked like a miracle!
But even at such a grave moment, her ever-curious mind had filled with wonder like a child’s. She had looked wide-eyed as the doctor placed one end of his stethoscope on the patient's chest and back and put the other to his ear and listened solemnly. And after a while, she had heard a sombre voice, ‘No fear. He will get better.’
Was it contemptible to think of a mlechcha as a god?
After that the stage had cleared. Those who had brought the doctor disappeared with him.
And two persons sat motionless; fuming, ready to explode – Banerjee and his wife. They sat like wooden puppets, unable to figure out what they should do, what would be the wisest path to take. They themselves looked thunder-struck! They had forgotten all about their son.
Sadu appeared relatively sensible. She had summoned Nitai just before he left and asked him to clarify the doctor’s instructions. And had taken the opportunity to quickly ask, ‘Who paid for all this – the master?’
Nitai scratched his head, ‘Not really, I mean, you know what Sadu-di, if Bouthan didn’t start crying after she called me near the ghat the other day -’
Sadu stopped him sternly, ‘She isn’t the type to cry in front of any old person! Stop lying, and tell me the truth quickly.’
So Nitai had told her the facts. Satya had handed him her necklace on the way to the ghat, ‘He's my husband and your friend. Act accordingly. Sell this and get a Sahib-doctor’.
She'd wanted to give a pair of amulets too but Nitai had stopped her.
There was nobody else present in the sickroom. Satya had slowly come in and was standing near the bed. Sadu had almost entered but had changed her mind. In her mind she had said, ‘If he lives, it’ll be because of you! Behula had followed her dead husband to heaven and Savitri had pursued Lord Yama himself! And they are worshipped even today!’
After a while, as she was passing, she had heard Satya speaking softly to her mother-in-law, ‘You wouldn't want to touch the medicine given by the Sahib-doctor, why don’t you let me look after the patient, you can look after the cooking -’
Elokeshi had stirred a bit and responded drily, ‘We’ll have obey whatever you say from now on! You occupy a place right next to Queen Victoria! So your slave here will be in charge of the kitchen but what about your sons?’
Satya had said even more gently, ‘They usually stay with Sadu-di.’
‘Just because the kids stay with her – you shouldn't impose.’
Everything was possible in this world! Here was Elokeshi speaking up for Sadu! Sadu had waited to listen to the next bit. And she had heard Satya say even more mildly, ‘Sadu-di loves them with all her heart. Why should it be an imposition?’
But Satya’s gentle tone had brought tears to Sadu’s eyes. This tone hardly suited her. Her firm voice was better. Much better.
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004
Published in Parabaas March, 2007
© Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004