To Thine Auspicious Lotus-Feet:
Today we have been married fifteen years, yet not until today have I
written you a letter. Iíve always been close by your side. Youíve heard
many things from me, and so have I from you, but we havenít had space enough
to write a letter.
Now Iím in Puri on a holy journey, and you are wrapped up in your office
work. Your relationship to Calcutta is a snailís to its shell--the city
is stuck fast to you, body and soul. So you didnít apply for leave. It
was the Lordís desire, and so was His granting me my leave application.
I am Mejo-Bou, the second bride in your joint family. Today, fifteen
years later, standing at the edge of the ocean, I understand that I also
have other relationships, with the world and the World-Keeper. So I find
the courage to write this letter. This is not a letter from your familyís
Mejo-Bou. Not from the second wife.
Long ago, in my childhood days--in the days when my preordained marriage
to you was known only to the Omniscient One who writes our fates on our
foreheads--my brother and I both came down with typhoid fever. My brother
died; I survived. All the neighborhood girls said, ďMrinalís a girl, thatís
why she lived. If sheíd been a boy, she couldnít have been saved.Ē Jom-Raj
is wise in his deadly robbery: he only takes things of value.
No death, then, for me. It is to explain this at length that I sit down
to write this letter.
When your uncle--a distant relative--came with your friend Nirod to view
your prospective bride, I was twelve. We lived in an inaccessible village
where jackals would call even during the day. Fourteen miles from the railway
station by ox-cart, then six more on an unpaved road by palanquin; how
vexed they were. And on top of that, our East-Bengal cookery. Even now
your uncle makes jokes about those dishes.
Your mother wanted desperately to make up for the plain appearance of
the first bride with the good looks of the second. Otherwise why would
you have taken all the time and trouble to travel to our distant village?
In Bengal no one has to search for jaundice, dysentery, or a bride; they
come and cleave to you on their own, and never want to leave.
Fatherís heart began to pound. Mother started repeating Durgaís name.
With what offering could a country priest satisfy a city god? All they
could rely upon was their girlís appearance. But the girl herself had no
vanity; whoever came to see her, whatever price they offered for her, that
would be her price. So even with the greatest beauty, the most perfect
virtues, a womanís self-doubt can never be dispelled.
The terror of the entire household, even the entire neighborhood, settled
like a stone in my chest. It was as if the dayís sky, its suffusing light,
all the powers of the universe were bailiffs to those two examiners, seizing
a twelve-year-old village girl and holding her up to the stern scrutiny
of those two pairs of eyes. I had no place to hide.
The wedding flutes wailed, setting the skies to mourn; I came to live
in your house. At great length the women tabulated all my shortcomings
but allowed that, by and large, I might be reckoned a beauty; and when
my sister-in-law, my Didi, heard this, her face grew solemn. But I wonder
what the need was for beauty; your family didnít love me for it. Had my
beauty been molded by some ancient sage from holy Ganga clay, then it might
have been loved; but the Creator had molded it only for His own pleasure,
and so it had no value in your pious family.
That I had beauty, it didnít take you long to forget. But you were reminded,
every step of the way, that I also had intelligence. This intelligence
must have lain deep within me, for it lingered in spite of the many years
I spent merely keeping house for you. My mother was always very troubled
by my intelligence; for a woman itís an affliction. If she whose life is
guided by boundaries seeks a life guided by intelligence, sheíll run into
so many walls that sheíll shatter her forehead and her future. But what
could I do? The intellect that the other wives in the house lacked, the
Lord in a careless moment had bestowed upon me; now whom could I return
the excess to? Every day you all rebuked me: precocious, impertinent girl!
A bitter remark is the consolation of the inept; I forgive all your remarks.
And I had something else, outside all the domestic duties of your household,
something that none of you knew. Secretly I wrote poems. No matter if it
was all rubbish, at least there the boundary wall of the inner compound
could not stop me. There lay my freedom, there I could be myself. Whatever
it was in me that kept your Mejo-Bou detached from your family, you didnít
like it, didnít even recognize it; in all these fifteen years none of you
ever found out that I was a poet.
Among the earliest memories that I have of your house, the one that
comes to mind is of your cowshed. Right next to the stairway leading up
to the inner rooms was the room where the cows were kept. The tiny courtyard
in front was all the space they had to roam. A clay trough for their fodder
stood in one corner of the courtyard. In the morning the servants had many
thing to do; all morning the starving cows would lick at the edges of the
trough, bite at it, take chunks out of it. My heart cried for them. I was
a village girl: when I first arrived at your house, those two cows and
three calves struck me as being the only friends I had in the entire city.
When I was a new bride, I would give my food to them; when I grew older,
bantering acquaintances, observing the attention I show the cows, would
express their suspicions about my family and ancestral occupation: all
cowherds, they said.
My daughter was born--and died. She called to me, too, to go with her.
If she had lived, she would have brought all that was wonderful, all that
was large, into my life; from Mejo-Bou I would have become Mother. And
a mother, even confined to one narrow world, is of the universe. I had
the grief of becoming a mother, but not the freedom.
I remember the English doctorís surprise upon entering the inner compound.
When he saw the confinement room, he grew annoyed and began to scold. There
is a small garden at the front of the house, and the outer rooms do not
lack for furniture of decoration. The inner rooms are like the reverse
of an embroidered pattern; on the inside there is no hiding the starkness,
no grace, no adornment. On the inside the lights glimmer darkly, the breeze
enters like a thief, the refuse never leaves the courtyard. The blemishes
on the walls and floors are conspicuous and inerasable. But the doctor
made one mistake; he thought this neglect would cause us sorrow. Just the
opposite: neglect is like ashes, ashes that keep the fire hidden within
but do not let the warmth die out. When self-respect ebbs, a lack of attention
does not seem unjust. So it causes no pain. And thatís why women are ashamed
to experience grief. So I say: if this be your arrangement, that women
will suffer, then it is best to keep them in neglect, as far as possible;
with attention and love, suffering only grows worse.
However it was, it didnít even occur to me to recall the existence
of grief. In the delivery room, death came and stood by my head; I felt
no fear. What is our life that we must fear death? Those whose life-bonds
have been knotted tight with love and care, they flinch before death. If
Jom-Raj had caught me that day and pulled, then, in the same way that a
clump of grass can easily be pulled out from loose earth, roots and all,
I too would have come out in his hand. A Bengali girl will wish for death
on the slightest pretext, but where is the courage in such a death? I am
ashamed to die--death is too easy for us.
Like an evening star my daughter glowed bright for a moment, then set.
I fell again into my eternal routine and to my cows and calves. Life would
have passed, slipping on in that way to the end, and today there would
have been no need to write you this letter. But a tiny seed blown on the
wind can lodge in a brick terrace and put down the roots of a peepul tree;
in the end that seed can split open the heart of brick and stone. Into
the set arrangements of my world a tiny speck of life flew from who knows
where, and that started the crack.
My elder sister-in-lawís sister Bindu, mistreated by the cousin she
lived with after the death of her widowed mother, came to your house to
seek refuge with her sister. That day all of you thought, Why did this
misfortune have to land at our doorstep? I have a contrary nature, so what
could I do: when I saw that you were angry at her, my heart went out to
this defenceless girl and I resolved to stand firm at her side. To have
to seek shelter at anotherís house against their will-what an indignity
that is. Even if we are forced to accept someone against our will, should
we push them away, ignore them?
And I watched my Didi. Out of great compassion she had brought her sister
Bindu in, but when she saw her husbandís annoyance she began to pretend
that Binduís presence was an unbearable imposition on her too, and sheíd
be relieved to be rid of her. She couldnít muster up the courage to express
her affection publicly for her orphaned sister. She was a very devoted
Observing her dilemma, I grew even more distressed. I saw her make
the rudest arrangements for Binduís food and clothing--and she ensured that
everyone knew about it--and so demean her in every way, even engaging her
in household chores as she would a housemaid, that I was not only sad but
also ashamed. Didi was anxious to prove to everyone that our household
had been fortunate in obtaining Binduís services at bargain rates. The
girl would work tirelessly, and the cost was minimal.
Didiís fatherís family had had nothing other than its high lineage:
neither good looks nor wealth. How they fell at your fatherís feet, importuned
him to take her into your family--you know all that. Didi herself has always
thought of her marriage as a grave indignity to your family. That is why
she tries in every way to draw herself in, not to impose; she takes up
very little space in this house.
But the virtuous example she set gave me a great deal of trouble. I
could not humble myself in all ways as she had done. If I find something
worthy, itís not my inclination to disparage it just to please someone
else--youíve had proof of this many times.
I drew Bindu into my room. Didi said, ďThe girl comes from a simple
home, and Mejo-Bou is going to spoil her.Ē She went around complaining
to one and all as if my actions were putting the family in great peril.
But I am sure that deep inside she was greatly relieved. Now the responsibility
was mine. She had me display the affection towards her sister that she
could not herself show, and her heart was lightened by it.
Didi always tried to leave a few years off Binduís age. She was no less
than fourteen, and it was just as well to mention this only in private.
As you know, her looks were so plain that if she were to fall and crack
her head against the floor, people would first concern themselves about
the floor. In the absence of father and mother, there was no one to arrange
a marriage for her, and besides, how many people would have the strength
of their beliefs to marry someone who looked like her.
Bindu came to me in great fear, as if I might not be able to bear her
touch, as if there were no reason for her having been born into this great
universe. And so she would always shrink away as she passed, lower her
glance as she walked by. In her fatherís house, her cousin had not even
given her a corner in which an unwanted object might lie. Unwanted clutter
makes its own space around the house, and people forget itís there; not
only is an undesired person not wanted where she is, but while sheís there
sheís also not easily forgotten, so thereís no place for her even in the
trash-heap. It could not be said that Binduís cousins themselves were greatly
desired by the rest of the world, though they were comfortably off.
When I brought Bindu into my room, she began to tremble. Her fear caused
me great sorrow. I explained gently that there would always be a little
space for her in my room.
But my room wasnít mine alone. So my task wasnít easy. And after only
a few days she suffered a red rash on her skin. Maybe it was prickly heat,
or something else; anyway, all of you decided it was smallpox.-After all,
it was Bindu. An unskilled doctor from your neighborhood came and declared,
Itís difficult to say what it is without waiting another day or two. But
who had the patience to wait another day or two? Bindu herself was half-dead
from the shame of her ailment. I said, I donít care if itís smallpox, Iíll
stay with her in the confinement room, no one else will have to do anything.
On hearing this, all of you gave me extremely menacing looks, even seemed
poised to do me harm; Binduís sister, feigning extreme displeasure, proposed
sending her to the hospital. Soon, however, Binduís rash faded away completely.
Seeing this, you grew even more agitated. Some of you said, Itís definitely
smallpox, and itís settled in.-After all, it was Bindu.
Thereís one thing to be said for growing up neglected and uncared for:
it makes the body ageless, immortal. Disease doesnít want to linger, so
the easy roads to death are shut off. The illness mocked her and left;
nothing at all happened. But this much was made clear: it is most difficult
to give shelter to the worldís most wretched. Whoever needs greatest shelter
also faces the greatest obstacles to gaining it.
As Binduís fear of me ebbed, another problem arose. She began to love
me so much that it brought fear into my heart. I have never seen such an
embodiment of love in real life; Iíve read of it in books, of this kind
of intense attachment, and, there too, between women. Not for many years
had I had occasion to remember that I was beautiful; that long-forgotten
beauty had charmed this plain-looking girl. Sheíd stare at my face, and
the hope and trust in her eyes would grow. Sheís say to me, ďDidi, no one
but me has seen this face of yours.Ē Sheíd become upset when I tied my
hair myself. She liked to play with my hair, arranging it this way and
that. Apart from the occasional invitation, there was really no need for
me to dress up. But Bindu was eager; and every day she would ornament me
one way or another. She grew besotted with me.
Thereís not even a yard of free space in the inner compound of your
house. Near the north wall, next to the drain, somehow a mangosteen had
taken root. The day I saw its new leaves budding forth, bright red, Iíd
know that spring had truly touched the world. And when I saw-in the middle
of my routine life-this neglected girlís heart and soul filling up with
color, I realized that there was a spring breeze of the inner world as
well, a breeze that came from some distant heaven, not from the corner
of the alley.