Extracts from The First Promise

translated from the Bengali novel
Ashapurna Debi's Pratham Pratisruti by

Indira Chowdhury

Ashapurna Debi, The First Promise, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2004. pp. xlii + 541, contains, Introduction, alphabetical guide to characters and a glossary. ISBN 81-250-2650-9.


Chapter Four

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 .<!--[p.14]--> 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 <!--[p. 15]--> 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. [p.16]

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, [p.17] 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. [p.18]

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 <!--[p. 19]--> 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 [p.20] 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 <!--[p. 21]--> 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 <!--[p. 22] --> 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.’ <!--[p. 23]-->

‘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?’

‘Which 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 ...’ <!--[p. 25].-->




sort of document could that be? Not a written one, nor signed or attested, but the testimony of people. And how else could one procure that except by inviting the entire village to a feast?

Besides, the fact that a girl from the Banerji household now belonged to the Chatterji family  had to be duly acknowledged. The groom's side could have this fact endorsed by kith and kin, by making the bride serve them rice during the feast.

Therefore, a feast had to be arranged after a wedding. Since there was no prior warning there was a real rush to make arrangements. Ramkali never lacked devoted followers, and he had spread the word. The sandesh would come from Janai, the mihidana from Barddhaman. Tustu, the milkman, was to arrange for the yoghurt, and Bhima, the fisherman had been asked to arrange for the fish. Ramkali had been instructing them about the quantity of fish and in which lake they should cast their nets, when suddenly Mokshada appeared on the scene.

Apart from Mokshada, practically everybody feared Ramkali. She was the only one who dared to tell him things to his face. Even Dinatarini was afraid of her son. One might ask, of course, if and when did the question of telling Ramkali something to his face arise? After all, he was a man who carried out his duties perfectly! But arise, they did! And Mokshada never missed such opportunities. Because Mokshada judged things from her own perspective. What Ramkali regarded as absolute duty, Mokshada viewed as uncalled-for excess.  And most of the time, the issue would be Satyabati! That was natural! If Ramkali had produced a daughter who was singular in the whole of India, shouldn't Mokshada take the opportunity to tell him things to his face? So Mokshada would often drag that wretched girl to Ramkali and give a proper lashing!

And even now she hadn't come alone to Ramkali's court, she had brought Satyabati along. Satyabati had come without protest. Perhaps because she knew it would be of no use. Or, may be, because she was fearless.

Mokshada waited in silence all the while Bhima, the fisherman was present; finally, when Bhima left  after doing a pranam to Ramkali, Mokshada sprang into action. <!--[p. 64]-->

‘Here Ramkali, now do something about this gem of your's! And let me warn you, that's what you'll have to do it for the rest of your life, for this one will come back from her in-laws   that's for sure!’ Mokshada paused for breath.

Ramkali smiled mildly and asked, ‘Why, what has happened now?’

‘It happens all the time!’ Mokshada shook her hand, ‘Happens while getting up or sitting down - cuts, bruises, tears. And now, just look at the state of your daughter's hand! She’s scalded it and there’s a big blister! And she says `No need to tell father, it'll get better.' See for yourself.’

Ramkali shuddered as he examined his daughter's hand.

‘What's this? How did this happen?’

‘Ask her how it happened. I’m forever reciting her talents to you, you never listen! But I'll tell you this, Ramkali, there's grief in store for you because of this girl!’

This outburst was nothing new, it had been repeated all too often. So it wasn't as if Ramkali was really troubled. But Ramkali was trained in the etiquette of showing respect to elders, so he pretended to be perturbed.

‘Really, this girl is the limit ! Now what did you do? How did you get this huge blister?’

‘She was boiling milk! Madam went to boil the milk when Rashu arrived with his bride yesterday. And I say, you over-grown girl, how could you scald your hand doing such a simple task?’

Ramkali examined the state of his daughter's hand and spoke to her seriously, ‘Why did you have to go near the fire? Wasn’t there anybody else at home?’

Satya inclined her head and replied, ‘It's not burning too much.’

‘That's not the point, there are medicines to treat it. But tell me, why were you working near a fire?’

Now Satya raised her head and began to speak rapidly in her characteristic manner, ‘As if I did that because I was dying to! I did it for the sake of boro-bou. Poor thing! Here she is suffering from the sting of a co-wife's barb, and over and above that being ordered to boil the milk! She's human after all!’ <!--[p. 65]-->

Satya's clear explanation staggered not just Ramkali, but Mokshada too. What a brash girl! Answering back a father who was so distinguished! Mokshada put her hand to her cheek and fell silent. Ramkali was the one who spoke. He asked in a sharp tone, his brows furrowed: ‘And what do you mean by the `sting of a co-wife's barb’?’

‘Learn what it means from your daughter, Ramkali!’ Mokshada said with utter sarcasm before Satya could answer, ‘What we haven't learnt at our age, this slip of a girl has! A regular chatterbox!’

Such bizarre accusations annoyed Satya. Why should people talk any way it suited them? She had just been called `overgrown girl' and now she had become a `slip of a girl'. Anything that caught the fancy!

Ramkali looked at his aunt and once more repeated his question in a thunderous voice, ‘Why haven't you replied to my question?  Why don't you tell me what a co-wife's barb is, and how it can sting?’

As if Satya knew what it was! But she knew, I suppose, from before her birth, that it was a tormenting, painful thing. So with as anguished an expression as possible she said, ‘A co-wife is a barb, father! And when there's a barb, it also stings! This is the sting you've inflicted on her..’

‘Stop it!’ Ramkali scolded fiercely. He was irked now, and really troubled. And worried for his daughter's future and pained by this confrontation with the squalor of her mind! He hadn't thought this possible; it was beyond his expectation! What could have caused this? Numerous complaints about Satyabati would reach his ears but so far he had never paid much heed to them because he had perceived her to have a nature that was genuinely spirited. And he thought she was incapable of harbouring hatred or malice. That was what he credited her with in his assessment. So when had she learnt this vocabulary of hate? It wasn't right to let this grow. It needed correction. So Ramkali roared louder and said, ‘Why? Why is the co-wife so terrifying? Has she beaten up your Boro-bou?’

Her father's tiger-like roar almost brought tears to Satyabati's eyes, but she wasn’t one to admit defeat so easily. Lowering her <!--[p. 66]--> head in fear and pain, and concealing the weakness of tears, she said choking on her words, ‘Not physically, no!. But she has deprived her hasn't she? A woman who was the sovereign queen has had her place usurped by this new one...’

‘Stop! For shame!’

Ramkali shuddered and fell silent. The expression on his face indicated that Satyabati had suddenly crumpled and torn to shreds a picture he had painted with great care. And Mokshada took the opportunity to drive home a blow, ‘Listen! Just listen to the girl’s way of talking! A regular master of words, she is! Speaks like an old hag and prances about like a kid! Stuns you by the minute with the bite of her words!’

Ignoring his aunt's gripe, Ramkali said in an extremely irritated tone, ‘Where have you learnt to talk so vulgarly? I'm ashamed of you! What do you mean `usurped her place'? Don't two sisters live under the same roof? Can't a co-wife be seen as a sister rather than a `barb'?’

Satya's efforts to control herself failed after that. Countless tears flowed down her cheeks, and from there to the ground all at once. They flowed unchecked, and Satya made no effort to wipe them away.

Ramkali Chatterji was distressed once again. Tears in Satyabati's eyes looked absurd! He wondered if his expression of abhorrence had been too strong. For Ramkali, it would be a grave violation to administer an unnecessarily high dose of medicine. He reminded himself that the blister on his daughter's hand was painful too. Some remedy had to be found right away. So, he relented, ‘Don't speak so coarsely again, all right? Don't even think this way. Just as brothers, sisters, in-laws live in a family, so does the co-wife, don’t you see? Come, show me your hand.’

Satyabati put out her hand and bit her lips in an attempt to control the turmoil inside her.

Mokshada concluded that the cloud had passed. Ramkali had done with disciplining his daughter. What a shame! She couldn't bear to stand there a minute longer,  ‘So the punishing and <!--[p. 67]--> disciplining is over, huh? Now sit down and hug your girl! Really, you're the limit!’

With that Mokshada exited the scene.

Ramkali applied a salve on his daughter's blister for quick relief and said with a smile, ‘Will you remember what I said today? Don't speak like that again. Human beings are not wild animals that they must constantly hate and fight with each other. One should live in peace with everyone in the world.’

The tone of truce was clear in her father's voice which revived Satyabati's courage somewhat. Otherwise her father’s rebuke had broken her heart. Actually speaking, Satyabati had no idea what her fault was. After all, if it were such a virtue to love everybody why were rituals like the sejuti performed at all? And she voiced the unease she was experiencing, ‘If that is so, then why must we do the Sejuti ritual, father? Pishthakurma has started me, Phentu and Punyi on it from this year.’

Ramkali's irritation was replaced with amazement. He did not know much about this ritual, but it was beyond him how a ritual could be against the principles of humanitarianism. So washing the salve off his hand with water from an earthen pot he asked, ‘What has a ritual got to do with it?’

‘Everything, Baba!’ Satya's voice turned crisp even before her tears had dried, ‘Because all the chants of this ritual are about protecting oneself from the barb of a co-wife!’

Ramkali was speechless. He began to see a ray of hope somewhere. Yes, some such confusing thing must have entered her head. Otherwise, how could Satya speak like that! There was a lot of work at hand. Still, Ramkali considered it his duty to uproot the notion of the `co-wife's barb' from his daughter's mind, with the aid of good counsel. So he asked with a frown, ‘Really, what is the chant?’

‘There's isn't just one, Baba!’ Satya exclaimed animatedly, ‘Lots of them. Can't remember everything. But sit here, I'll remember them and tell you. First, you draw a design with rice paste on the floor - and you draw flowers and creepers and fill up the corners and <!--[p. 68] -->the sides with drawings of ladles, spoons, pots and pans and all. Then you touch each item and chant. I touch the ladle and say:

Ladle, ladle, I swear on my life!

Off with the head of the stupid co-wife!

Then I touch the cup.

Cup, cup, cup!

Here come three white cops

To nab the co-wife's mom!

And then,

Tongs, tongs, tongs!

The co-wife's face is long!

Knife, knife, knife!

I cook at the funeral of the co-wife!

Pot, pot, pot!

To be wedded is my lot!

Let the widowed co-wife rot!

‘Stop it!’ Ramkali scolded solemnly, ‘Are these your chants?’

Suddenly, that instant, it flashed across Satya's consciousness that these could never be proper chants for a ritual. So she said quietly without excitement, ‘And there's more...’

‘Really! There's more. All right, let's hear them. Let's see how your brains are being ruined. Do you know more?’

Satya inclined her head, ‘Yes,

Husking pedal husk the rice,

The co-wife dies and I feel nice!

And then,

The tree I chop to make me a shed,

With the co-wife's blood I make my feet red!

Bird, bird that sings!

May he never a co-wife bring!

Then, you've to pick up a fistful of grass and say, <!--[p. 69] -->

Fist of grass, fist of green,

May she be blind and ugly as sin.

Then, ornaments are drawn too and there are chants for each:

Necklace, bracelet, rings and earring,

With a broomstick give her a thrashing!

Then you've to draw a paan and say,

Paan with cardamom and lots of clove -

The co-wife is hated I am loved!

‘Enough! You don't have to say any more.’ Ramkali held up a hand to stop her, ‘Do you call such abuses ritual chants?’

‘We don’t, Baba,’ Satya opened her eyes wide in amazement at the ignorance of her learned father, ‘The whole world does! If the co-wife were indeed like a sister, why would so many chants be composed? Does any one pray for the misery of their sister? The real reason is that men don't understand the significance of a co-wife, that's why...’ Satya swallowed once, and hesitated because she is not sure if it would be appropriate to utter the sentence hovering at the tip of her tongue, about men.

Ramkali said solemnly, ‘Whatever it is, don't perform this ritual any more.’

Don't perform it? Don't perform a ritual! Satya was thunderstruck. What sort of order was this? What should she do? She was torn between her father's command and the violation of a ritual discontinued! A violation which could bring on a living hell. And though she had no idea how heinous a crime it was to disobey one's father, she had little doubt that such transgressions also made the sinner suffer in hell! And they both fell silent for a while. Then, slowly Satya raised the issue, ‘If one discontinues a ritual one suffers in hell!’

‘Not at all, in fact, you'd suffer in hell if you performed such rituals.’

‘What shall I tell Pishthakuma then?’

‘What do you mean?’ <!--[p. 70]-->

‘Shall I say you've forbidden me to do it?’

‘No, let that be. You don't have to say anything in a hurry. I shall tell her myself. Go now. Take care, don't scrape your hand against anything.’

Satya floundered. Her father had ordered her to leave, yet a sea of questions surged inside her. And the only place those waves could thrash about and seek a solution was before her father!

‘Baba -’

‘What is it?’

‘If the ritual is unfair, if a co-wife is a good thing, then why is boro-bou feeling so unhappy?’

‘Boro-bouma? Rashu's wife? Unhappy? Has she told you this herself?’ Ramkali's tone wore a shade of rebuke.

But Satyabati was hardly the type to give in easily. Taunts might thwart her somewhat, but she always remained undaunted by rebukes. So she spoke animatedly and rapidly, justifying the appellation `master of words' that Mokshada had given her. ‘She doesn't need to tell me that! As if everything has to be put into words! Can't one make out from her expression? Her eyes have sunk into their sockets from so much weeping, her bright complexion, dulled. And she hasn't touched a drop of water since yesterday. In public, of course, she insists that, `My stomach is aching, I've no appetite and so I'm crying' - but we all know the truth! Nobody is as naïve as all that! And on top of that, today is the ceremony of untying the ritual-thread for the bride - it's like a final blow! Some have been saying, she must be moved out of her room. And others are saying, `Leave the poor thing alone!' And it seems she herself has said to the neighbour, `Where's the need to worry about such things when there's so much space in the Chatterji's pond. That can be my shelter!’

What a calamity that would be! Ramkali attempted to assess the situation. Nothing was impossible for a woman. Who could ensure that the girl wouldn't do something like that! What a trial this was! Such warped thinking, when she could have rejoiced about the fact that a respectable man had been saved humiliation! Didn't other people have co-wives in this whole wide world? <!--[p. 71]-->

What could be the cause of all this? Nothing but worthless rituals which ruined women's lives from infancy. Women as a race were narrow-minded and orthodox. Of course, they were called `goddesses of the hearth' -  out of sheer courtesy, nothing else! In reality, they were `incarnations of misery'. Each one of them! Or else, how could Rashu's wife - and she was so young too - get such an idea into her head? That she could drown herself! How terribly disgraceful!

‘Is that what she's said?’ Ramkali asked darkly.

‘That's what the neighbours tell me.’

Satya felt a little alarmed looking at her father's face. But she couldn't afford to be scared. It was her responsibility to enlighten her father. Her father was so clever, and yet, he had no idea that a woman's heart broke if her husband married again! And because her heart had broken many years ago, the queen Kaikeyi had sent her co-wife's son, Rama off to the forest. Satya had heard the Kathak recite that story. Kaikeyi was a queen with a poisonous mind! And here was her own sister-in-law - a plain,  timid creature, who desired only her own death!

There was another reason why Satya was uneasy; since her own father was responsible for her sister-in-law's tragedy she felt she could no longer face her. It was clear from everybody's gestures and movements that they blamed Ramkali. And for good reasons too. The mother of a son always occupied a special position. If her sister-in-law weren't the mother of a boy, things would have been viewed differently. But now, what if her breasts should dry up from too much weeping? How would the child live?

Meanwhile, Ramkali tried to think out a way of teaching the daughter-in-law a lesson. He had invited the entire village; the feast would start as soon as the night was over. What if she  really did something silly? After thinking for a while, he cleared his throat and said, ‘Those are childish thoughts. Tell her on my behalf to give them up. Say, `Father has said that you'll feel happier if you tell yourself to be happy.' Say that she should get up and start working, eat well - and all her misgivings will disappear.’

Once more, Satya was struck by her father's ignorance. But she <!--[p. 72]--> refused to suffer in silence. She said with a short laugh, ‘If they disappeared so easily, there would be paradise on earth, Baba!  As a doctor you read symptoms from a patient’s appearance and you know exactly what is happening inside his body, Baba, don't you? So can't you guess what's going on inside a person by looking at the face? Come and see for yourself!’

Suddenly, quite inexplicably, Ramkali broke into goose-flesh. He fell silent. Then, after a long interval he signalled his daughter to leave. And what could she do after that? Satya lowered her head and slowly got up to go. But Ramkali called out, ‘All right - listen here!’

Satyabati turned around.

‘Listen, you don't have to say anything to her. Only ... I mean ... I'll give you one task ...’

Ramkali was hesitant. Satyabati, bewildered. Whatever it was she had never seen her father hesitate! But Ramkali had never ever been faced with such a situation before! Had Satyabati really made him see sense? What made him to look so embarrassed and perturbed?

‘Baba, tell me, what do you want me to do?’

‘Oh yes, I was just going to say that you should stay near your sister-in-law, and see to it that she doesn't go near the pond.’

Satyabati was quiet for a split second. Trying to absorb the significance of her father's instructions. After absorbing it, she said tenderly, ‘I know exactly what you mean! You're asking me to keep a watch on her, police her, right?’

Police her! Ramkali was mortified. Was this the interpretation of his instruction! He said with some irritation, ‘What do you mean keep watch? Stay near her, play with her, so that she feels better... ‘

Satyabati drew a deep breath, ‘It's the same thing, isn't it? As they say: `What's in a name? A grey-haired maid by any other name, is nothing but an old dame!' But even if I do guard her, how long can I carry on? If someone vows to commit suicide then who can prevent her? And not just the pond, there are poisonous fruits, poisonous seeds ...’

‘Enough!’ Ramkali let out a flaming breath, ‘Be quiet! I can see <!--[p. 73]--> your Sejo-thakuma was right. Where have you learnt so many words from? Go, you don't have to do anything. Go!’ <!--[p. 74] -->


Chapter Twenty

Elokeshi sat on a mat in the courtyard and was busy tying Satya's hair. She'd been at it for a while now. She had started in the afternoon - it was nearing dusk. It was as if she had vowed to display her most creative feat today. She sat on her haunches behind her daughter-in-law, her expression stern and severe.

The veins on Satyabati's temples bulged from all that pulling, the roots of her hair appeared to almost separate from her scalp; her shoulders were aching for a while, and  now the discomfort spread to her spine.

But there was little hope that she'd easily give up the attempt at creating a great art work with Satyabati's hair. It would be wrong to blame it on Elokeshi's incompetence, it was all the other one's fault. Satyabati's hair was like a refractory horse that refused to be tamed.

No matter how beautiful her curly hair looked when left loose, it was most frustrating to braid the heavy and short mass and shape it into a bun. It would come apart if one tried to tie it up, and even if one managed to divide it into three clusters, it was impossible to further divide it into five or seven or nine clusters.

But Elokeshi was determined to twist her daughter-in-law's hair into an `S'-shaped knot. Therefore, after a couple failed attempts, she had managed to gather all the hair to the top of her head and using all her strength to tie it tight with a thick cord, she was dividing it into seven bunches.

This long-drawn out attempt had left Satyabati in the state described earlier. After sitting cross-legged for a long time, she had drawn up her knees and folded them against her chest in order to relieve the pins and needles in her feet. Her face looked skywards and over it she held the end of her turquoise-blue saree.

She had to hold her saree over her face because she couldn't cover her head when her hair was being done. And yet, it was unthinkable that her face should be in full view of the world! Never mind that nobody else was present, and never mind that she was <!--[p. 182]--> not facing her mother-in-law, she was, a `new bride', after all. So Satyabati had covered her face. In fact, she had been forced to. Much before she had uncovered her head, Elokeshi had instructed her, ‘Cover your face with the end of your saree, please. You don't seem to have any sense any way, I have to spell out everything clearly!’

Was this Satyabati's first day at her in-laws? Not really, she had arrived about month ago, but until now Satyabati's hair had never yielded to her mother-in-law's hands. Saudamini would take care of her toilet: braiding her hair, scrubbing her face, putting alta on her feet. But suddenly, just today, Elokeshi happened to notice that her daughter-in-law's hair was braided into two intertwining plaits which were pinned up. Elokeshi had flared up! She had frowned and called out, just to make sure, ‘Just come here, Bouma.’

The saree was drawn over her head with a tug, Elokeshi had raised the end of the saree covering her back, and taken a look at the hairstyle. It confirmed her suspicion. And she yelled in a frenzy, ‘Sadu! Sadu!’

Saudamini had come running - helter-skelter. And she saw Satya standing with her head bent low, and her aunt standing with the end of the saree raised - eyes smoldering, forehead furrowed. She did not pronounce her query, but stood there looking alarmed. Was there something on her back? Some birthmark or skin disease, or an old wound that had healed? Was she blemished, then? And had her aunt's hawk-like eyes just found that out?

But Saudamini did not have to hold on to her mistaken notion for long. Elokeshi said fiercely, ‘I ask you Sadu - why d'you work so carelessly?’

A stone rolled off Saudamini's chest. What a relief! Nothing new. The same old and unfailing strategy! So she said with courage, ‘Why what's the matter?’

‘What's the matter, she asks! Aren't you ashamed? Here you are polishing off loads of rice twice a day like a sacred cow and you don't have any qualms! It isn't as if you have ten or twenty sisters-in-law - just the one, and look how you've braided her hair? Why? How brazen can you get - eh?’ <!--[p. 183]-->

‘Why don't you tell me what has happened?’

Saudamini spoke calmly. And Satyabati looked at her from under the saree that covered her face and trembled in amazement. No, not on account of Elokeshi's insulting oration; during her neighbourhood  rambles back home, Satya had become accustomed to hearing older women use such abuses. Inside Ramkali Chatterjee's house, the conversation was slightly more courteous but then Satya's aunts constantly sprouted such words. No, it wasn't because of Elokeshi's words; she was amazed at Saudamini's forbearance. How could she talk so calmly after being insulted so crudely! This was something Satyabati had never seen before. Insult was usually traded with insult, or tears - that was what she was used to. And here was Saudamini calmly asking, ‘Why don't you tell me what has happened!’

Elokeshi, of course was not amazed, she was used to Saudamini's self-restraint. But far from brimming over with appreciation she raged at what she perceived to be an expression of indifference. So she said, ‘Do I have explain that? Don't you realize yourself? What style of braiding is this? Such plaits on a daughter-in-law! Shame on you! Haven't seen a girl wearing such braids at her in-laws ever in my life! You should go and hang yourself, Sadu! There's just one head of hair and you can't even do a fancy hairstyle!’

Sadu began to laugh, ‘Well, her hair is too fancy to style it any other way! It's so unmanageable.’

‘Unmanageable!’ Elokeshi blasted out, ‘Let me see if it can be managed or not. There's nothing on earth that's unmanageable for Banerji-Ginni. The only person I haven't managed to control is you!’

‘All right then mami, why don't you do her hair - she's the wife of your only son after all!’ Saudamini retorted.

Instantly Elokeshi pounced on her, ‘What was that, Sadu? How dare you! Backchatting, eh? Too much pride! Your fall is near! Wait till cats and dogs howl at your funeral! I'll curse the life out of you, I swear, if you touch my daughter-in-law's hair again!’

‘Nothing happens when an elder curses. So I don't mind!’ Sadu <!--[p. 184]--> said unperturbed, ‘You are a person of moods, some days you will do her hair, other days, you'll forget…’

‘What was that? You wretched girl! You think, I'll forget my only son's wife!’

‘Nothing surprising in that, is there?’ Sadu answered amicably, ‘You're blessed with that virtue. People eat when they're hungry - but you forget that too, I have to call you to eat.’

Elokeshi was staggered. She could not fathom if this was complaint or commendation. So she said grimly, ‘Oh yes, I forget and you have to feed me with your own hands!’

‘All right, may be I don't do that. But you do forget!’

‘So what? From now on I shall braid her hair, I'll have you know. Keep her pins, ribbons and everything in my room. And don't forget the bird-clips.’

‘Of course, I won't. Besides, her father's given a gold comb, a snake-pin, gold-flowers and a whole lot of ornaments for her hair - why have you locked those away? Take them out and make the fanciest style!’

‘I'll do what I think best - don't need your advice! So much of smart talk! Don't know why god doesn't give you some illness that'll strike you dumb. I swear if you ever lost your speech, I'd send a special offering to the gods at Nisingha-tala!’

‘Please Mami, don't swear before the gods. The gods often hear things differently, if they should make me a cripple instead of a mute, you'll die from the running about you'll have to do.’

‘How dare you! You think if you're crippled, my house won't run? Not for nothing do I say that you're vain. D'you think I can't run the house? Can do it with the little finger of my left hand! But why should I? When I've reared you, fed and clothed you!’

‘That's exactly what I'm saying. You'll have to feed and clothe me even if I'm crippled.’

‘As if I will! I'll drag you by the legs and throw you in the ditch!’

‘Goodness, Mami! Don't even dream of that! The neighbours will chuck mud at you from that very ditch.’ Saudamini left laughing, leaving Satyabati astounded. [ p. 185]

Satyabati came from a large family; in her brief life she has seen many characters but nobody like this.

Anyway, the aftermath of the morning's incident was this afternoon's wrestling match.

Satya's hair was really heavy at the roots and short in length! Even if Elokeshi managed to elongate the plaits by adding numerous tassles to the hair and tying it tight with a cord, the whole thing would come loose as soon as she tried to twist it into a butterfly style. And it was Satyabati's bad luck that just at that moment, she had moved just a little to stretch her back and relieve the tingling in her feet.

It was a chicken and egg situation. One couldn't make out if Satyabati wriggled with the pleasure of freedom because the cord had slackened, or the cord loosened because she had moved. According to Elokeshi her daughter-in-law moved and consequently the hair came loose. She was not a stone idol after all, she was a flesh and blood human being. It would be madness to hope that she would sit calmly and at ease after that. Such crazy hopes never get fulfilled, ever.

All her time and efforts had come to nought, and her hopes of showing up Saudamini, had been frustrated. So Elokeshi lost her mind and did something unimaginable. She pitched a full-fisted punch on that stretched-to-ease back -’Just look! Waste of time this is! Can't you sit still for a second…’

But Elokeshi could hardly complete her sentence before a different cataclysm occurred. Satyabati stood up, freed her hair from her mother-in-law's grip with a violent tug, and completely overlooking the custom of not talking back to a mother-in-law, she demanded adamantly, ‘Why did you hit me?’

For a tiny fleeting moment, Elokeshi might have even regretted the thump, but such unexpected flash of lightning turned Elokeshi into stone long before that contrition could crystallize. Elokeshi had had no opportunity of finding out what her daughter-in-law's voice sounded like, for she hadn't spoken with, or in front of her. It wasn't the done thing at all. She would nod a `yes' or a `no' in response to questions. She spoke only with <!--[p. 186]--> Sadu, in private. She would sleep beside Saudamini at night, because until she had reached puberty, the question of sleeping with her husband didn't arise.

            Elokeshi had never heard her speak, and today, out of the blue, the voice exploded like thunder against her ears. What a loud voice for a daughter-in-law! And from such a little person! The vapours of remorse vanished like fizz. Elokeshi stood up. And yelled as she charged, ‘ So what? What can you do about it, eh? Do you want to beat me up?’

Satya thrust her fingers through her plaits and had started pulling them open vigorously. The end of her saree had fallen away from head, and exposed her blazing face. Turning that fiery face towards Elokeshi, Satya uttered scornfully, ‘I'm not so vulgar. But don't you ever – ‘

‘What was that? Don't I ever, what? You slip of a girl - still wet behind the ears and speaking like this! I can beat the daylight out of you – do you hear? Just let me get a piece of fire-wood, I'll show the world how to discipline a daughter-in-law! When it lands on your back - it'll douse your fire!’

‘Go ahead, then! Bring all the wood you have!’ Satyabati stood arrogantly before her mother-in-law with fearless, unblinking eyes.

In her whole life Elokeshi had been blinded with rage several times, she had beaten her breasts and cursed and yelled, but never before had she been confronted with such a situation. This was beyond her imagination, beyond her dreams. And she suddenly froze. And looked at that incarnation of fearlessness, with a cold snake-like gaze.

Who knows what might have happened had she remained in that state, but the pranks of Fate brought about another disaster. Just at that dramatic moment, Nabakumar pushed open the courtyard fencing and entered the inner house.

He was thunder-struck as soon as he entered. What a situation! Who was that girl standing in front of Elokeshi, her face uncovered and framed by hair that stood out like the hoods of a million snakes? Could that be his wife? But how could that be possible? How could his wife stand like that before his mother without the <!--[p. 187]--> earth cracking open or a terrible storm starting up? And why didn't she pay any attention to the fact that Nabakumar was standing there and gaping? Impossible! This had to be someone else! Some neighbour's girl - whom Nabakumar didn't know. Perhaps there'd been some terrible fight.

Nabakumar forgot to clear his throat, forgot to move away; he only stared stunned and stupefied. He was faced with a serious dilemma. He could hardly dismiss the suspicion that this was his wife with any conviction.

Though he hadn't really seen his wife's face, over this last month he had glanced at her least twenty or twenty-five times. Fleeting glimpses that hardly lasted for a split second for fear that anybody should notice him staring at her! But the lens of a camera can capture an image forever. He knew her shape even though he hadn't seen her face. And he had seen that blue saree. So there was no point in deceiving himself. It was as ridiculous as shutting one's eyes and claiming that the sun didn't exist! She wasn't a neighbour at all, that dauntless creature was none other than Nabakumar's wife! The wife to whom Nabakumar had been singing, and still sings, silently in his waking moments and in his dreams - `Look up my bride and speak to me, open your eyes and look at me!' But were those her eyes!

Perhaps, if Nabakumar had left the scene as silently as he had entered it, the climax of this drama would never have reached such a pitch. Perhaps Satyabati would have moved away fearlessly and Elokeshi would have uttered every single profanity that she had learnt. And later, when her husband and son came home, she would have presented an elaborate description of her daughter-in-law's dreadful insolence and terrible rudeness. And the whole thing would have blown over.

But the witless Nabakumar just stood there and stared. And at some point Elokeshi's eyes chanced on him. She on the verandah, her son down below on the courtyard. For a moment, she too gaped at his staring face. And then a fierce scream arose out of that wide-open mouth that had been frozen until now, ‘You wretched, pathetic <!--[p. 188]--> sissy! Don't you wear shoes! Can't you could rub your shoes and grind her face to pulp? I'd say you're some son then!’

But Nabakumar just stood motionless.

Elokeshi changed her tune the very next minute, ‘Oh my mother! Come and see how my son and his wife are abusing me! Oh Naba - cow of a brahmin - how lowly you've become after marrying this girl from that lowly family! How can you just stand and watch your mother being insulted? Come and hit me with the broom! That's what I deserve. Or why would I let her stand here still? I should have shaved her head and dismissed her from here. My god, my god - the daughter-in-law beats me and my son just watches.’

Nabakumar came back to his senses finally, but as soon as he did, he ran out through the open door.

<!--[p. 189]-->


Chapter Thirty

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. <!--[p. 283]-->

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 <!--[p. 284]--> 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 <!-[p. 285]--> 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.’ <!--[p. 286]-->

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, <!--[p. 287]--> 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. <!-- [p. 288] -->


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. <!--[p. 475]-->

‘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?’ <!--[p. 476]-->

‘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 <!--[p. 477]--> 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 <!--[p. 478]--> 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!’ <!--[p. 479]-->




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 <!--[p. 480]--> 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 <!--[p. 481]--> 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?’ <!--[p. 482]-->

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 <!--[p. 483]--> 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 <!--[p. 484]--> 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. <!--P. 485-->



© 2007 by Indira Chowdhury

Published March, 2007

Indira Chowdhury, formerly Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, now works as Consultant Archivist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. A PhD in History from ... (more)

Illustrations by Preeti Mathur. Preeti is based in New Jersey.

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©Parabaas 2007