When Dukhiram Rui and Chhidam Rui picked up their choppers in the morning and headed out together to work as hired hands, the brothers’ wives were already at it, squabbling with each other. Their neighbors had become so accustomed to the quarreling that it was as natural as all the other noises they heard around them every day. “There they go again,” they would say as soon as they heard the shouting. In other words, it was exactly what they expected—the laws of nature would be no more violated today than any other day. No one was curious about why the two sisters were raising a ruckus, just as nobody wonders why the sun rises in the east every morning.
The husbands were certainly more affected by the squabbling than the neighbors, but it didn’t really bother them. For the brothers it was like traveling along the road of life in a horse cart with no springs and accepting the relentless creaking of the wheels as one of the laws of existence. In fact, on days when the house was quiet, when an eerie silence reigned, fears of disaster loomed, for no one could predict what might happen or when. The evening before our story begins, the house echoed with silence when the exhausted brothers came back from the fields.
It was muggy outside. There’d been a downpour in the afternoon, and it was still cloudy, with not a breath of wind. During monsoon season the house was hemmed in by a tangle of weeds that joined with the waterlogged jute fields to form a solid wall of musty odors. Frogs croaked from the puddle behind the cowshed, and the chirring of crickets filled the darkening sky. Not far away, beneath the mounting cloud cover, the rain-swollen Padma washed away the fields and threatened to engulf dwellings. The roots of mango and jackfruit trees bordering the gardens were left exposed, like fingers reaching out into emptiness, trying to find some last handhold.
That day, Dukhiram and Chhidam had gone to the landlord’s office to work. The marsh paddy had ripened on the sandbanks across the river. But the bailiff came from the landlord’s office and hauled the brothers off by force, even though people were harvesting their paddy before the monsoon washed it away or cutting jute in others’ fields. The brothers worked all day mending holes in the office roof and constructing wicker screens. They couldn’t go home to eat, so they only had a snack. They kept getting soaked by the rain, and they weren’t paid enough for their labor. Instead, they had to listen to unfair complaints, far beyond what they deserved.
The brothers waded home through mud and water only to see Chandara, the younger of the sisters-in-law, sprawled on the ground, mute, with the veil end of her sari fanned out beneath her. Like the cloudy day, during the afternoon she too had rained tears, which had dwindled by the muggy evening. Radha, the elder of the sisters-in-law, sat on the verandah brooding. Her eighteen-month-old son had been crying. When the two brothers arrived, they saw the naked child lying on one side of the courtyard, asleep on his back.
Without pausing, famished Dukhiram said: “Give me my food.”
The elder wife blew up like a spark striking a sack of gunpowder. “Where’s the food that I’m supposed to give you? Have you given me anything to cook? Should I go out and earn it on my own?”
After enduring an entire day’s worth of insults, Dukhiram had returned exhausted to a dark and joyless house, burning with hunger but with nothing to eat. His wife’s harsh response, especially her final ugly innuendo, struck him as absolutely intolerable. Like an enraged tiger, he roared: “What did you say!” Without thinking, he grabbed his chopper and brought it down on his wife’s head. Radha collapsed beside her sister-in-law, dead.
“What have you done?” screamed Chandara, her clothes soaked with blood. Chhidam put his hand over her mouth, while Dukhiram dropped the blade and fell to the ground, dumbfounded, his face in his hands. The child woke up frightened and started to cry.
Outside, it was calm. Boys were herding cattle back to the village. Those who’d gone across the river to harvest the ripe paddy returned a few at a time in a small boat. Almost all had reached home, carrying bundles of paddy on their heads in exchange for their labor.
In the Chakrabartis’ household, Uncle Ramlochan had come home after taking a letter to the village post office. He was relaxing, smoking his hookah. Suddenly, he remembered that his tenant Dukhi, who owed him a lot of back rent, had promised to make a payment today. He must be back home by now, so he threw a wrap over his shoulder, picked up his umbrella, and headed out.
He felt uneasy when he arrived and noticed that the lamps weren’t lit. He could make out some shadowy figures on the dark verandah. Mournful sobbing came from the far corner. Chhidam covered the child’s mouth whenever he tried to cry for his mother.
“Dukhi, are you here?” Ramlochan asked warily.
Dukhi had been sitting as motionless as a statue. When he heard his name, he burst into tears like a forlorn child.
Chhidam rushed down from the verandah to meet Chakrabarti in the courtyard. “Have the women been quarreling again?” Chakrabarti asked. “We’ve heard them shouting all day long.”
Up till this point, Chhidam hadn’t been able to figure out what to do. A succession of improbable stories had filled his head. For the time being, he’d decided to move the body somewhere else under the cover of night. He hadn’t anticipated Chakrabarti’s sudden appearance and had no ready reply. “Yes,” he blurted out, “they had a big quarrel today.”
Chakrabarti approached the verandah. “But is that why Dukhi is crying?” he asked.
Once he saw that there was no escape, Chhidam blurted out: “They were arguing, and the younger wife hit the older wife’s head with a chopper.”
In the midst of danger, it can be hard to remember that there may be worse still to come. Chhidam had been thinking only of how to escape the terrible truth, without realizing that a lie might be even more terrible. As soon as he heard Ramlochan’s question, he’d blurted out the first answer that came into his head.
Ramlochan was startled. “Good heavens!” he said. “What are you saying? She’s not dead, is she?”
“She’s dead,” Chhidam answered, throwing himself at Chakrabarti’s feet.
Unable to extricate himself, Chakrabarti thought, Ram, Ram, what a mess I’ve gotten into tonight—I may end up breathing my last testifying in court! Chhidam, still clinging tightly to his legs, begged: “Sir, what can I do to save my wife?”
Ramlochan was the main advisor for the village in legal matters. After some thought, he said: “Look, there’s a solution. Hurry to the police station right now. Tell them that when your elder brother, Dukhiram, came home tonight, he was hungry, and because the meal wasn’t ready, he hit her on the head with his chopper. If you explain it this way, I’m sure the girl will be saved.”
Chhidam’s throat was dry. He stood up and said: “Sir, if I lose my wife, I can get a new one, but if my brother is hanged, I can’t get another brother.” He hadn’t thought about this when he’d blamed his wife. He’d reacted instinctively, but now he was gradually building a rationale to support his position.
Chakrabarti thought that Chhidam’s point made sense. “So tell it just the way it happened,” he said. “You can’t protect them both.”
As soon as he’d spoken, Ramlochan hurried away. In no time the story had spread throughout the village: Chandara, quarreling with her sister-in-law, had hit her on the head with a chopper. The police poured into the village like water breaking through a dam, creating panic among the guilty and the innocent alike.
* * * * *
Chhidam realized that he would have to follow the path he’d staked out for himself. He’d made up a story for Chakrabarti, and it had circulated through the entire village. If another version were introduced, who knows what would happen. He decided that even though he needed to stick to his story, he might be able protect his wife by embellishing it in various ways.
Despite Chhidam’s attempts to reassure her, his wife was totally thunderstruck when he begged her to shoulder the blame. “Do what I tell you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. We’ll save you.” Despite his reassuring words, he spoke with a dry throat and an ashen face.
Chandara was no more than seventeen or eighteen years old. She was short and slim, with a round cheerful face. While her frame was sturdy and strong, her gait and gestures were graceful and expressive. She was like a new boat, a trim and shapely craft, perfectly constructed and easy to navigate. She found the world around her interesting and entertaining, and she enjoyed gossiping with her neighbors. And when she went back and forth to the ghat, balancing a pitcher on her hip, she would part her veil slightly with her fingers and peek through the gap. Her dark, sparkling eyes took in everything she saw along the way.
The elder wife was her exact opposite—disorganized, lazy, and sloppy. Whether it was the veil over her head, the child in her lap, or the household chores, she couldn’t take proper care of anything. She seemed to have barely enough time to catch her breath, even though she had almost nothing to do. Her young sister-in-law rarely spoke to her beyond a few murmured jabs that would make her flare up in a sputtering rage—and the hullabaloo would rouse the entire neighborhood.
With both couples there were also surprising resemblances between husband and wife. Dukhiram was heavy set and big boned, with a pug nose. He observed the world around him with little comprehension and no inclination to question it. Peaceable but menacing, strong but defenseless—such men are extremely rare.
And Chhidam might have been chiseled from lustrous black stone. Nothing superfluous, not a single flaw. His limbs were strong and supple, a perfect combination. Whether leaping from the riverbank, pushing his boat with a pole, climbing a bamboo tree and picking out a shoot to cut, all his actions were methodical and graceful. His long black hair fell from his brow to his shoulders, oiled and combed with care. He was meticulous about his clothing and grooming.
Although he was not indifferent to the attractions of the village women and wanted to appear attractive to them as well, Chhidam felt a special affection for his young wife. They would quarrel and make up, neither of them defeated. It wasn’t just the quarrels that strengthened the bond between them. He thought that Chandara’s restless, flighty spirit was not entirely to be trusted. And she felt that with his roving eye he was bound to wander one day unless he was reined in.
Shortly before the present events, the husband and wife had a big blowup. Chandara noticed that her husband would go off as if to work, sometimes for a day or two, but without bringing back any wages. Assuming the worst, she too began to roam. Sometimes, she would wander around the neighborhood after going to the ghat and come back with plenty of tales about Kashi Majumdar’s middle son.
For Chhidam it was as if his days and nights had been poisoned. No matter what he was doing, he didn’t have a moment’s peace. One day, he came home and scolded his brother’s wife. She waved her arms, bangles clanging, and swore upon her dead father. “That girl runs outside when a storm is coming,” she said. “How can I hold her back? Some day, she’ll be the ruin of us all.”
Coming from the next room, Chandara spoke mildly: “Why are you so upset, sister?” At this, the two sisters-in-law began to quarrel fiercely.
Chhidam scowled and said: “The next time I hear that you’ve gone to the ghat by yourself again, I’ll pulverize your bones.”
“That should be soothing,” she replied, about to leave.
Chhidam jumped up, grabbed her by the hair, dragged her back, and bolted the door from the outside.
When he returned from work that evening, the door was open and the room empty. Chandara had gone to stay with her uncle for a while, three villages away.
After considerable pains and many pleas, Chhidam brought her home, but this time he had to admit defeat. He realized that it was just as hard to keep hold of his wife as it was to hold on to a handful of quicksilver—she seemed to slip right through his fingers.
He didn’t try to restrain her anymore, but his life had been turned upside down. He was always worrying about his unpredictable young wife, and his love for her turned into a piercing pain. Sometimes, he even wondered whether it would be better if she were dead, for then he might at least find a little peace. People can resent each other more than they do death itself.
This was when misfortune struck their house.
When her husband asked her to confess to the murder, Chandara was stunned. She stared at him in silence, her dark eyes scorching him like black fire. She shrank back, body and soul, to escape her wicked husband’s grasp. She turned away from him with her whole being.
“You have nothing to fear,” Chhidam reassured her. He rehearsed with her repeatedly what she should say to the police and the magistrate, but Chandara heard nothing of what he told her. She just sat there as if carved out of wood.
Dukhiram counted entirely on Chhidam for everything. When Chhidam spoke of putting the blame on Chandara, Dukhiram asked: “But then what will happen to her?”
“I’ll take care of her,” Chhidam said. That satisfied stout Dukhiram.
* * * * *
Chhidam had coached his wife to say: “My sister-in-law was going to attack me with the kitchen knife and I grabbed the chopper to hold her off and all of a sudden somehow she got hit.” This was all Ramlochan’s idea. He’d given Chhidam exhaustive instructions on the main points and all the supporting details.
The police came to investigate. The entire village was convinced that Chandara had murdered her sister-in-law, and witnesses offered testimony against her. When the police questioned her, she said: “Yes, I killed her.”
“Why did you kill her?”
“I couldn’t stand her.”
“Was there some sort of fight?”
“Did she hit you first?”
“Was she mistreating you somehow?”
Everyone was amazed by her answers. Chhidam was distraught. “She isn’t telling the truth,” he said. “First, the elder wife—”
The inspector cut him off with a sharp rebuke. When he resumed the cross-examination, however, he received the same responses over and over. Chandara refused to testify that her sister-in-law had ever abused her.
Where else could another girl as stubborn as this be found? She was absolutely determined to go to the gallows. Nothing could hold her back. What morbid pride! She seemed to be saying to her husband: “I’m abandoning you and offering my youth to the gallows—that’s my last tie with this life.” Flighty, fun-loving Chandara, once an everyday village wife, was now a prisoner. She bore an indelible stigma as she left her home, watched by everyone she knew as she walked the familiar path by the shrine, through the marketplace, past the ghat, the Majumdars’ house, the post office, and the schoolhouse. As the police led her away, a band of boys tagged along behind, and the village women—her friends and companions—peeked through their veils, out of cracks in their doorways, from behind trees, and shuddered in fear, scorn, or shame.
Chandara pled guilty before the deputy magistrate as well and insisted that the elder wife had not harmed her in any way at the time of the murder.
The same day, Chhidam approached the witness stand, sobbing. With his hands pressed together in prayer, he cried: “Please, your honor, my wife is not guilty.” The magistrate chastised him for his outburst and then began questioning him. Bit by bit, he divulged what had happened.
Because of Ramlochan’s testimony, however, the magistrate didn’t believe Chhidam’s tale. Ramlochan was the primary and most reliable witness. “I arrived at the scene not long after the murder,” he testified. “The witness, Chhidam, clung to my feet and told me everything. He asked me to tell him how to save his wife. I didn’t say anything one way or the other. The witness asked me, ‘If I say that my older brother hit his wife on the head in a rage because she didn’t give him anything to eat when he asked for his meal, will she be spared?’ I said, ‘You’d better watch out. Don’t you dare say a single false word in court. That’s by far the worst offense.’”
At first Ramlochan had concocted all sorts of stories to help save Chandara, but when he saw that she didn’t want to cooperate, he thought, Damn it, why should I give false testimony? I’d better tell what I know, even if it’s not much. So he told what little he knew and didn’t hesitate to add a bit more.
The deputy magistrate referred the case to sessions court for trial.
Meanwhile, from the fields to the marketplace, the world went on with all its joys and sorrows, and, just as in the years before, the endless monsoon rains soaked the newly planted rice.
The police brought the accused and the witnesses into court. Throngs of people were waiting to present their cases before the judge. A lawyer had come from Calcutta for a case concerning rights to a pond behind a cooking shed, and thirty-nine witnesses had come to testify on behalf of the plaintiff. Hundreds of people were waiting impatiently for hairsplitting decisions on their own painstakingly detailed claims, convinced for the time being that nothing in the world was more important. Chhidam was looking out the window at the bustle of everyday life—for him it was all a dream. A cuckoo sang from a massive banyan tree in the courtyard—birds don’t have any laws or courts.
“Your honor,” said Chandara to the judge, “how many times do I have to repeat the same words?”
“Do you know the punishment for the crime that you’ve confessed to?” the judge replied.
“No,” said Chandara.
“The punishment is hanging,” said the judge.
“Your honor, I beg you, please make your ruling,” Chandara said. “Do what you like. I’ve had enough.”
When Chhidam was brought into court, Chandara looked away. “Look at the witness and state his relation to you,” said the judge.
Hiding her face in her hands, Chandara said: “That’s my husband.”
Q: Does he love you?
A: Oh, he loves me a lot.
Q: Do you love him?
A: Very much.
When Chhidam was questioned, he said: “I committed the murder.”
Chhidam: I asked for food, and the elder wife didn’t give me any.
When it was his turn to testify, Dukhiram fainted. Once he’d recovered consciousness, he said: “Your honor, I committed the murder.”
“I asked for food, and she didn’t give me any.”
With further cross-examination, and after he’d heard other witnesses, the situation had become clear to the judge: the two brothers had confessed to the crime to save a woman in their household from the disgrace of hanging. But from the police to the session court, Chandara had kept to the same story, without varying a single word. The two pro bono lawyers who had worked valiantly to save her from the death sentence finally admitted that she had defeated them.
Could anyone have imagined this day, back on that auspicious night when a dark, round-faced little girl went from her father’s house to her in-laws, leaving her dolls behind? Her father had died peacefully, saying, “At least I have taken good care of my daughter.”
In jail before the hanging, a kind physician asked Chandara: “Is there anyone you want to see?”
“I’d like to see my mother one more time.”
“Your husband wants to see you,” said the doctor. “Shall I bring him to you?”
“What husband?” she replied.
Shraban 1300 [July—August 1893]The original story শাস্তি by Rabindranath Tagore first appeared in Sadhana (সাধনা) and later in গল্পগুচ্ছ (Galpaguchchha, Collection of Short Stories) published by Visva-Bharati.
Published in Parabaas May 8 2016.