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Ashapurna Debi

Translated from Bengali by Prasenjit Gupta

I always compare women to matchboxes. Why? Because the way matchboxes are - even though they have enough gunpowder to set a hundred Lankas[1] aflame, they sit around meek and innocent, in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere - women, too, are exactly the same!

You want an example?

Then look carefully at that enormous three-storey house in front of us -

Sunday morning.

The washerman has come and is waiting.

Moments before handing over a heap of Ajit’s dirty clothes to the washerman, Nomita goes through the pockets one last time and discovers the letter.

A twisted, crumpled envelope with its mouth torn, and on the envelope, Nomita’s name.

A flame goes up dop! in all Nomita’s nerves and veins. She drops the clothes in her hand and sits on the bed to open the letter; the first thing she looks at is the date. Going by the date, the letter must have come about three days earlier.

She turns over the envelope and matches the postmark to the date; that too bears the same witness.

Yes, the letter came three days ago.

Ajit has opened it and read it, then crumpled it and twisted it and dropped it into his pocket and left it there. Hasn’t felt the need to mention it even once to Nomita.

The flame that had gone up dop! now burns steadily, hissing, sounding its note on each of her mind’s strings.

Because this incident is not a casual oversight; it’s deliberate.

Ajit’s nature is exactly like that.

Somehow he’s gained possession of the key to the letter-box, fishing it through the gaps among the fifty-two hands of this joint family.[2] And whenever there’s a letter with Nomita’s name on the envelope, he opens and reads it first, and only then does he give it to her. It’s possible that oftentimes he doesn’t give it to her at all. At least that’s the suspicion that has taken root, taken deep root, in Nomita’s mind.

Even though, to this day, Ajit cannot truthfully make the claim that he’s been able to discover any letter in the slightest degree suspicious.

Still - still - this ugly habit of his won’t go.

- Not with Nomita’s anger, not with her taking offence, not with bitter reproaches, her trying to shame him, sarcasm - not with anything.

If she mentions it, first he tries to laugh it away, and if laughter doesn’t get him out of deep water, he scolds her.

She sits perfectly still for a minute and reads the letter through.

It’s nothing much, a letter from Nomita’s mother.

It’s her standard speech - the good woman has once again placed on the record the news of her various hardships and complaints getting worse, misfortune upon misfortune, the ceiling of her room is cracked and the rain water falls through in ceaseless streams; if this is not immediately remedied, she will have to die crushed under the weight of a collapsed roof. Of course she does not dread that eventuality. Her daughter is a queen, her son-in-law high-minded, large-hearted. Therefore - etc. etc.

An indigent widow, without husband or son, she was successful in consigning her daughter to a wealthy family’s house on the strength of looks alone. But the good lady has never stopped taking credit, at the slightest opportunity, for her skill in the matter. And she’s been finding such opportunities all along.

Whenever Ajit sees a new letter from Nomita’s mother, he smiles derisively and says, “Why bother to read that? I’ll go and fill out a money-order form.”

Nomita’s head hangs low with the shame and the insult of it. So, some time ago, out of anger and grief Nomita forbade her mother to write to her on postcards. She thought that from then on she’d try to send her a little money, whatever she could pull together, in secret. So - this was what came of letters in envelopes too.

Suddenly Nomita flames into anger at her mother.

Why, why, does she keep on begging like this?

Why won’t she let Nomita keep her self-respect, her dignity. No, this time she will write and tell her mother clearly: “I can’t do any more, don’t hope for anything from me.”

Right then, Ajit steps into the room after finishing his leisurely Sunday bath. Nomita’s sharp indignation at the insult, simmering all this while, seems to want to dash itself violently against him. Nomita roars out, “When did this letter arrive?”

Ajit glances at her obliquely, estimating the magnitude of his error.

“Another handful of cash for this,” he had thought, and decided not to give the letter to Nomita; he was going to tear it up and throw it away. He’s made a big mistake.

Not that Ajit is going to feel abashed about that.

As though trying hard to remember, he says, “Letter? What letter? Oho, yes yes! Indeed there was a letter from your mother. I just hadn’t got around to giving it to you.”

“Why hadn’t you got around to it? Why? Why? Answer me, why hadn’t you got around to it?”

“What a nuisance!” Ajit says. “I’d forgotten - why else?”

“Liar!” Nomita hisses like a snake.

“Why are you saying whatever comes to your mouth? Don’t people forget?”

“No they don’t! Why did you open my letter?”

This charge Ajit tries to scatter to the winds. “What if I opened it? My own wife’s letter - ”

“Be quiet, be quiet, I tell you. For what reason should you open my letters? Haven’t I told you a thousand times not to?”

Ajit doen’t fear Nomita’s anger, he fears a row. So he smiles an affected smile and says, “If you’re forbidding it then it’s a definite something. Shouldn’t I make sure that no one’s passing you love letters in secret?”

“Stop it! What a common, vulgar man you are!”

After this it’s not possible for Ajit to smile his fake smile any longer. Now he too picks up the poisoned knife. He says, “Is that so! Those who whine day and night and hold out their palms to their son-in-law, they’re the high-class people! A dung-picker’s daughter becomes a queen, and so - ”

“Shut up!” Nomita yells.

Their room’s on the third floor, that’s a blessing. Otherwise with that scream, everyone would have come to look!

“Shut up?” Ajit roars out. “What shut up? I’ll damn well say it! I’ll damn well open your letters. I’ll do what I want, what I please. What will you do? Can you do anything?”

“I can’t? I can’t do anything?” Almost panting, Nomita pronounces each word clearly: “You want to see if I can do anything?”

And immediately she does something that is astonishing. She grabs Ajit’s matchbox that’s lying near his cigarettes on the table, and fssh! she lights a matchstick and touches it to her sari.

Instantly it flares up, the very fine anchol of a wealthy wife’s sari.

The very next instant, Ajit, “Have you gone mad?” he says, and jumps to her side and grabs the burning patch and slaps it between his hands and puts out the fire.

And-to tell the truth, now he’s a little afraid. He looks fearfully at Nomita’s face. Sees a fire burning there, bright, blazing red.

He doesn’t have the courage to put out that fire by slapping it between his hands, so he tries to pour water on it. With great difficulty he attempts to speak normally. “You lose all common sense when you get angry, don’t you? A woman, and such anger! Oof!”

Who knows what Nomita would have said next, but right then her niece Rini steps into the room.

Immediately, she says, piercingly, “So, Khuri-ma, how much longer does the washerman have to wait? If you don’t want to give him any of your clothes, at least tell him that!”

For a second or two Nomita is still, perhaps recalling the washerman’s face, waiting for her downstairs, then she picks up the dirty clothes and starts sorting them. She says in a calm tone, “Go tell him I’m coming. I’m bringing the clothes.”

Nomita speaks her mind, so no one attacks her outright, to her face, they only pinch her with sharp words. Her second sister-in-law is almost exhausted with work this morning, and, seeing her, she puts a twisted smile on her sweat-streaked face and says, “Well, that’s something, at least, you finally decided to come down from upstairs! Baba! There’s no good or bad time for you, you find the smallest excuse to go into your room and get cozy with your husband. Does the love-talk never get old?”

Nomita looks around once, to get a sense of the atmosphere. Sees the hurly-burly of the morning, sees the forest of people on either side. Her voice must not tremble. So she too smiles a small smile and says in an extremely soft voice, “Oh, it’s nothing like that! You should come and peek in sometime. Our talk is all angry talk, do you know?”

Mejo-wife laughs Hoo-hoo and says, “Stop it, Naw-wife, don’t cover up the forbidden fish with your pious spinach. We haven’t been raised on donkey grass. Why do we need to peek in? What you’re showing us right in front of our eyes, twenty-four hours a day - ”

Nomita laughs a laugh that can bring an attractive flush to a white face. After laughing that laugh, she says, “Go on. You say the naughtiest things!”

The busy Boro-wife runs up. “Have you chopped the vegetables yet? Or are you just telling stories?” And suddenly she stops and starts. “What’s that? What’s this unlucky thing, Naw-wife? How did you burn your anchol that way?”

Nomita too starts, but only for a moment. The next instant, she folds the anchol back quickly and says, laughing, “Oh, don’t remind me! It’s exactly what you keep warning me about. I didn’t listen, and see what happened! I used my anchol to lift a hot pot of water off the stove - and that did it.”

Nomita pulls the basket of potatoes towards herself and sits down to peel potatoes, and in her mind she keeps thinking about how she might be able secretly to send her mother a few rupees. She can’t really write to her: “I can’t do any more, don’t hope for anything from me.”

Over there, the entire village knows Nomita is a queen - Nomita’s husband is high-minded, large-hearted.

This - this is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the materials within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s high-mindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn away their own colorful shells.

They won’t burn them - the men know this too.

That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere.

Quite without fear, they put them in their pockets.

[1] A reference to the Ramayan and the story of Ram’s army of monkeys setting fire to Ravan’s Lanka.

[2] There is a pun here: “ekannoborti poribarer bahannokhana hater phank theke . . . ” [italics added], i.e., “through the gaps among the fifty-two hands of the joint family,” where part of the word for joint also means fifty-one.

Khuri-ma, father’s younger brother’s wife
Mejo-wife, second-oldest brother’s wife in a joint family
Naw-wife, fourth-oldest brother’s wife
Boro-wife, oldest brother’s wife

Published in Parabaas, August 30, 2003

Translated by Prasenjit Gupta [Proshenjit Gupto ]. Prasenjit Gupta is a translator and writer living in Iowa City. (more)

Illustrated by Rajarshi Debnath. Rajarshi Debnath is a software engineer currently based in Bhuvaneshwar, India.

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