• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Translation | Book Excerpts
  • Extracts from The First Promise : Ashapurna Debi
    translated from Bengali to English by Indira Chowdhury
    Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (last)

    Chapter Forty Five

    It was an unimaginable event! Her [Bhabini’s] youngest sister, her mother's last-born, who'd been married just a few days ago, had died the previous day. She returned to find her brother wailing. He told her that she had been killed by her husband and her mother-in-law. Yes, they'd killed her! And they'd spread a rumour that she had had a fall near the ghat at night and died.

    Killed her! Nabakumar was astounded. Nabakumar and Satya had both come to see Bhabini on hearing of her bereavement. Nowadays, Bhabini would stand at a distance, and practically talk to Nabakumar. And her grief had made her bold.

    ‘Killed her!’ Nabakumar exclaimed fierily, ‘What kind of anarchy is this!’

    ‘Exactly my question,’ Bhabini replied, wiping her eyes, ‘Every killer gets punished, but you go scot-free if you kill your wife! The old hag is sure to marry off her son again. The loss is our's. She was just a kid - nine going on ten - totally innocent! And such a lovely person too. How she'd sobbed and refused food and drink when she was sent to her in-law's! And this had to happen in less than a month! Can't imagine the state my mother's in!’

    Bhabini moaned on. She had had no children of her own, and used to treat her mother's last-born like her daughter. And now she was gone! Satya had been sitting motionless and taking it all in. She had not tried to offer any consolation. After a long while, she asked softly, ‘How do you know they killed her? It could well have been the way they claim.’

    ‘Do you think such things can be hidden! The neighbours came and told my father.’ Bhabini broke into sobs, ‘I believe they said, `How barbaric! They just smashed her head in with a grinding stone and finished her off!’

    Suddenly Satya's expression changed, her eyes took on a crazed look.

    ‘Smashed her head in with a grinding stone.’ She intoned.

    Nabakumar was alarmed by Satya's transformation though Bhabini hardly paid heed, she continued in the same manner, ‘That's exactly what they did! The man had nearly finished her off anyway, and his mother didn't see it fit to leave her half-dead - so she killed her! That way she wouldn't speak again. And so another hard bash! Inhuman monsters! They pretend to be civilized, actually they're beasts!’

    Once again Bhabini began to wipe her eyes.

    Satya suddenly shrieked, ‘And are you going to just sit and cry? Won't you do anything about it?’

    Bhabini gave a start. She faltered before Satya's wild eyes, ‘What can be done now? What was destined, has happened.’

    ‘Destined, was it?’

    ‘What else can one call it? It was punishment fated for my mother - and at her age too…’

    ‘How wonderful! And don't they need to be punished? Don't you want to see them hanged by the neck?’

    Bhabini hit her forehead with her palms, ‘What would be the point? Our Puti won't come back, will she? Just a useless hassle with the police!’

    Useless hassle!

    Satya responded grimly, ‘And aren't there a thousand Putis in our country? Aren't they tortured too?’

    A thousand Putis! What could that mean? Bhabini was flabbergasted. Why had Satya begun to look so maniacal? Bhabini had not understood her words, but she persisted nervously nevertheless, ‘Of course, there is torture everywhere. After all, it is a woman's fate to suffer a battering in silence. But it's really sad that the kid died. I think it's a good idea that nowadays they wait for girls to get a little older before marrying them off. A good thing too that you've started sending Subarna to school. It will increase her understanding and her strength. Our Puti was such a good girl…’

    Satya stood up abruptly and announced, ‘ I want to go home.’

    Go home! Nabakumar was astounded by her complete disregard for propriety. And without a word of consolation too! He said agitatedly, ‘Of course, you will go home. What's the hurry? Stay a while.’

    ‘I can't. My head is throbbing. But don't mind my asking - but could you give me the name and address of your sister's husband?’

    The name and address! Nabakumar was startled and he scolded, ‘Why do you need that? It's none of your business.’

    ‘I need it. Just give it to me.’

    Bhabini limply intoned, ‘His name is Ramcharan Ghosh, son of Taracharan…’

    ‘And where do they live?’

    Nabakumar scolded again, ‘Oh what a bother! What do you need their address for? Are you going to write them a harsh letter or what?’

    ‘Of course not!’ Satya gave a grim smirk, ‘What good would that do? They wouldn't break down with remorse, would they?’

    ‘Then why?’

    ‘I need it for something. Just give me the address.’

    ‘The address….’ Bhabini answered reluctantly, ‘Panchanantala, Howrah. There's a banyan tree at the crossing.’

    ‘I don't need all that.’ Satya then turned to Nabakumar, ‘Why don't you sit for a while, if you want to. I'll be off…’

    Nabakumar began to fuss, ‘What will I do here? Nitai isn't home either. Why don't you sit and talk for a while, instead?’

    And with that, Nabakumar fled from the scene in a rush. As though he was scared. Of course, he had always been scared of Satya. But earlier, he had trusted her. And the last two years of living apart had created in Nabakumar an insecurity that overwhelmed him. He could hardly look at Satya without feeling overawed. And he no longer felt confident enough to grasp her hand when no one was looking.

    The strange look on Satya's face stayed for while after Nabakumar had left. Then, after a while, she asked slowly, ‘Did the neighbours say why they did it? Which of her faults had made them thirst for her blood?’

    Bhabini no longer reacted sharply to any of Satya's words. Perhaps because she was no longer able to. So in answer to Satya's query she rubbed her eyes with the end of her saree and said, ‘Her fault? It's a shameful thing to talk about! I couldn't bring myself to mention it in your husband's presence. It was her fault that she was small and scrawny - you yourself saw how thin she was the last time she'd visited. And she remained like that even after she was wedded and bedded.! Just a slip of a girl - and second wife to her husband! A sturdy and strapping young man, full of lust ever since his first wife died. She wouldn't dare go near him. She didn't want to, she'd resist. And I believe, mother and son would yell and scream, punch her, kick her and push her! And Puti too was such an idiot! Really, when you can see they're stronger than you, better to give in, no? Instead, she'd resist - she'd refuse to enter the bedroom. And what good did it come to? The monster became furious - and men do get provoked by such things - he just lost his senses. And his mother was there of course, to lend a hand! What a combination! It was destined.’

    ‘Destined indeed!’ Satya retorted roughly, ‘In any case, it is ill-fated to be born a girl in this country! We wear blinkers and blame Fate for everything!’

    The tearful Bhabini frowned, ‘What do you mean by blinkers?’

    ‘Nothing! But let me ask you - didn't you have a grinding stone at home? And couldn't your parents' have thrown it and smashed in the heads of that pair? After all, they no longer need to fear for their daughter's widowhood or humiliation!’

    Bhabini felt a trifle irritated, ‘What utter nonsense! Do you think we'd get away with it? We'd have been arrested for sure. After all, nothing can be said against beating, butchering or killing the woman one is married to!’

    ‘Well, that's what I'd have done. I'd have stoned his head to powder. And after that, they could hang me.’ Satya retorted fiercely.

    Once again Bhabini burst into tears, ‘That’s what my mother's been saying too! And she's been weeping away. But that's impossible, isn't it? An aunt of mine was in fact, blaming my mother for bringing her up to be so delicate. Or else, how could she refuse to go to her husband's bed after marriage? After all, she could hardly expect him to treat her like a doll, could she? And other such mean things. But this aunt herself has a strapping twelve year old girl.’

    Before she had finished Satya rose to leave, ‘I'm sorry, but I can't stay any longer; my head is aching.’

    Bhabini noted that Satya hadn't offered a single word of consolation. And in her mind she said, ‘How stone-hearted she is! My own heart bursts when I see others suffer. How differently we are made!’


    Chapter Forty Six

    Satya had come away complaining of a headache, but nobody had imagined that her complaint would turn into a raging fever. Not even Satya herself, when she had lain down to rest. When Saral noticed that she hadn't got up to cook, he came and discovered that her body was burning. And she was delirious.

    The poor boy panicked and called his father. Not that his father had much self-confidence in such matters - because he would slap his forehead like a woman at such times. And sure enough, after one look, he wailed out, ‘Go immediately and call your aunt!’

    Sadu arrived and took charge of preliminary treatment by placing a wet cloth on Satya's forehead and warming her feet. And after cooking a bit of rice for them, left late at night. She hadn't stayed the night. It appeared that the youngest son of her co-wife would refuse to sleep if Sadu wasn't there. And besides, Mukherjee-moshai needed about ten refills for his hookah through the night. But she left with the assurance that she'd be back at dawn.

    Satya remained unconscious. Nabakumar kept on fanning her.

    Deep into the night, Satya opened her eyes and said, ‘Listen, come here and touch me.’

    Nabakumar shuddered in dismay - was this delirium, or an indication that the end was near?

    ‘Come here and touch me.’

    Nabakumar nervously touched her.

    Satya said fiercely, ‘You know what happens if you touch someone and swear, don't you? Remember that! Listen, should I die, promise that you won't get Subarna married early. Come, promise me that!’

    It had to be the raving of a fevered brain! It would only get worse if one disagreed. So Nabakumar hurriedly said, ‘Yes, I swear.’

    ‘Say it then - I shall not get Subarna married before she is sixteen!’

    Sixteen! When the girl turned sixteen! Keep her unmarried till that age! Nabakumar wondered why Satya had this sudden fever that brought on delirium. Whatever the reason, she had to be calmed.

    Nabakumar said in a hastily, ‘All right. Rest assured that's what'll happen.’

    ‘No that's not enough!’ Satya pushed herself upright, ‘Say it out loud: I shall not get Subarna married before she turns sixteen.’

    It never harms to cheat the mad. And there were few differences between a raving patient and a lunatic! So promptly removing his hand from Satya's body, Nabakumar recited, ‘Here, I swear that I shall not marry her off without your consent.’

    ‘But you haven't said the most important thing!’ Satya shrieked, ‘Don't trick me there! Don't kill Subarna! She must live. A thousand Subarnas must live, don't you see!’

    With that she fell back into the bed.

    Nabakumar began to fan her vigorously. A thousand Subarnas! God, this was deep delirium! Why did god do this? Goddess Kali, if you let the night pass in peace, I shall wash your cleaver and bring her the water to drink! Nabakumar also called on the goddess at his village. And vowed that he'd make offerings to Hari as well. What else could he do?

    He had heard that if the blood rushes to the brain in a delirious state, a patient raves on and dies of a hyperactive brain. It was clear from the symptoms that would be inevitable if the fever didn't let up by dawn.

    Possibly Kali took pity. The fever abated even without the antidote that was vowed. The temperature dropped just before dawn. And the fever withdrew leaving the bedsheets sopping wet with sweat.

    Yet nobody could guess how the intensity of delirium returned five days after the fever had passed, and how blood at normal temperature could boil over! Nor the way in which its force propelled the mind into a waywardness akin to raving. Otherwise, whoever had heard of such an outrageous thing? Was it ever possible for a girl from a Bengali household to take such a shocking step?

    Even Satya's devoted, ever-supportive sons were stunned by their mother's unimaginable daring.

    Sadhan went out by the back-door and summoned Sadu and her husband, and a jittery Nabakumar blurted out to Saral, ‘The Shastras say that one shouldn't care for seemliness at times of trouble. Please go and call Master-moshai right away!’

    ‘Master-moshai!’ Saral was dumbstruck. He couldn't believe that his father was asking for Master-moshai! He who was never mentioned or faced, and because of whom even Suhas-di had become a stranger to this household!

    Nabakumar attempted to cover up his unease with briskness. ‘Yes, yes, that's what I'm telling you. Didn't I say that the Shashtras discourage seemliness when danger strikes! Go and say I'm asking him to come. Tell him, it's really serious, the police are here. Perhaps, they'll arrest your mother, and when they hear…’

    Saral hardly waited to question his father about the arrest or the Shashtras, he slipped on a short kurta and walked out the kitchen door at the back of the house.

    Thank god there was another exit. For a gigantic and terrifying Sahib-policeman was sitting at the front door. And he was interrogating Satya sitting on the chair that the trembling Nabakumar had provided.

    That's right. He was questioning Satya. In a Bengali that was ridiculously mixed, in vocabulary and pronunciation, with English. And the stouthearted Satya was standing motionless and responding to his questions.

    Even the confident Mukherjee-Moshai had refused to come at first, finally he'd agreed because of Sadu's pleading. And he arrived holding on to his sacred thread, chanting the name of the goddess and of course, avoiding the front door, he'd followed Sadu into the house through the back.

    No sooner had they entered than Subarna had come running to her aunt, sobbing, ‘Look Pishi! The white man has come to take away my mother!’

    ‘Of course not! Goddess protect us! Why should they do that?’ Lifting the girl up, Sadu had asked under her breath, ‘What is the matter, Turu?’

    Sadhan's timorous description of events could be summarized as follows: Satyabati had written a letter to the police on her own, without consulting a soul, and signed her name on it too! And the police had come for an enquiry.

    The reason for the letter was as strange as it was inconceivable. It had to do with the untimely and tragic death of Bhabini's sister. Satyabati had described in vivid language the brutal murder and made a spirited appeal for justice against the monstrous act and that the pair of murderers be properly punished. For their inability to do that would prove that all their attempts at opening courts in the name of justice were worthless indeed! Satyabati had informed them about the name and address of the guilty too.

    On hearing this, Sadu gave a sigh, ‘All this is an outcome of that delirium, the blood rose to her head and totally wrecked her brains! Or how could a girl from a Bengali household ever take such a shocking step? Your mother will die of apoplexy one of these days, that I'm sure of. She's always been this sturdy man in female shape! And over and above that, she's now got this dreadful ailment.’

    Sadhan grew a shade paler, ‘Of course, it is an ailment! She's always suffered from it - wherever there is injustice - she behaves as though the injury is hers! She takes on the pain and sufferings of others as if they're her own - that's what her ailment is! One day, she'd sacked a maid on the spot just because she'd cursed her son saying `Why don't you just die?'‘

    ‘Weird! She's always been weird! God had given her beauty and brains and she just failed to put it to good use! And I believe the other day, when she was raving with fever, she asked your father to swear that he wouldn't get Subarna married before she turned twenty-five or some such thing!’

    The pledge was utterly ridiculous of course, so Sadhan hardly stopped to worry about it. People said anything when they were delirious. But he too believed that his mother had truly been genuinely blessed with brains - if only she was less stubborn!

    ‘Will you step out that way, Pishe-moshai?’

    Mukherjee was agitated by Sadhan's request and said, ‘I'm an old man - why pick on me? I've just had a bath - and I've not finished my Puja. Can't have contact with that mlechcha now, can I?’

    ‘No, no, you don't have to have contact…’

    ‘What a silly boy you are! Even speaking is a form of contact! It's no small matter to touch with words! And besides, you've studied in college, you have learnt English…’

    Of course, he had learnt. But this had nothing to do with his curriculum! This wasn't his Sahib-teacher! This was extremely disconcerting. And in such cases, it was best to send an elder. But the elder refused out of fear of another bath. He just kept peeping from time to time to watch Satya looking at the Sahib as she talked.

    Yes, Satya was in full flow, saying, ‘Just tell me why you've opened your courts of justice? In our country we used to kill our women by burning them on their husband's funeral pyre, you stopped that practice and saved us from that sin. But that's nothing! There are heaps of sins that have collected over centuries. If you can rid us of those, only then would I say that you deserve to be law-makers. Why have you taken on the guise of ruler in another's land? Why can't you just huddle into your ships and leave?’

    ‘Ma!’ Sadhan advanced to restrain his mother. He could see that the Sahib had lost track of the little Bengali he knew and was repeating, ‘What? What?’ Realizing that his learning was totally inadequate before this veritable flood of words and lacking the confidence to be an interpreter, Sadhan attempted to restrain his mother.

    But Satya seemed to have lost sense of her surroundings and situation, so she ignored the hint and continued, ‘I believe that in your country women are respected and honoured. Can't you open your eyes and see the way in which women are tormented and disgraced in this country? Can't you make laws to stop all that? You pass new laws everyday…’

    ‘Boro-Bou!’ Nabakumar could no longer contain himself, he yelled out. And just at that moment, Bhabatosh-master arrived with Saral in tow.

    He had probably heard the last bit of Satya's fierce speech. So he addressed Satya in a calm manner, ‘Bouma, you shouldn't nurture the hope that foreigners will remove our social ills with their laws. That's a task for us.’

    She was surprised indeed to see Bhabatosh; but the riddle became clear to her when she saw Saral with him. Drawing her saree over her head, she did a little namaskar and went inside.

    On seeing Bhabatosh, Nabakumar physically experienced the sensation of `getting a load off his chest'! Now he could just let go! He could just go inside and sit on the bed and fan himself!

    But he had to wait for the Sahib and Bhabatosh to leave. After that he would really settle the issue once and for all. He'd tolerated things long enough. And Mukherjee-moshai had just passed a comment about how wives of hen-pecked husbands were invariably like this! The words had been stinging him!

    The Sahib and Bhabatosh hardly talked, the Sahib showed Satya's letter to him and after a while left with a `Goodbye'. Bhabatosh walked him out and returned once again to the courtyard. And he spoke very calmly to Sadhan, ‘Tell your mother that the Sahib has promised that they will find the culprit and bring him to book. And..’ Bhabatosh added with a smile, ‘he offered his congratulations to your mother.’

    Mukherjee-moshai found his voice at last. He climbed on to the courtyard with his hookah and asked, ‘Namaskar - I should greet you that way because after all, you were Nabakumar's teacher. But what did you say that the Sahib offered Sadhan's mother?’

    ‘Congratulations! I mean, praise.’

    ‘I see. For what reason?’

    Bhabatosh looked at this uncouth, self-important man and said with a sardonic and bantering chuckle, ‘That shouldn't be difficult to understand at all! They've praised her boldness. After all, how many have the guts to protest against injustice?’

    Mukherjee made a face, ‘ True - not everybody has the nerve to go and set fire to other people's homes or hit other people on the head - that is courage of sorts! But I don't think that kind of courage needs praise.’

    ‘What you think hardly matters in this case.’ With that Bhabatosh made to leave.

    We are grateful to Orient Longman for granting us permission to carry the extracts.

    © Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004

    Published in Parabaas March, 2007

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