An Exchange: Amiya Chakravarty

In return you have got
The silent pool in entirety
A clear mirror framed in blue
Water filled with light
A shadow branch that’s bent with flowers
Fluttering sails of purple clouds
Filling up the heart
An empty breast finds all it seeks
In return you have got
Blanked out thoughts of nothing-at-all
Open roads for feet-with-dust
Bereft-of-tears, the wind
A distant cry, a familiar voice,
This afternoon of all-is-lost
No-glance-back from anyone
Are these what you’ve left

The Seventh Heaven: Samim Ahmed – Chapter One

Nana, Grandfather, had a dream the night before Runa’s mother was born. He was prone to changing the story of the dream at different times. Sometimes he said that a dervish wrapped from head to toe in a black smock bisected by a milk-white beard had told him, today’s the day your family gets an heir. Nana also claimed that it wasn’t a dervish at all; the voice did not reveal whether the speaker was a man or a woman. The garments were unusual too, for it appeared that the person wearing them had arrived from the deserts of Arabia to this unknown village in Bengal. In a genderless voice the figure had told Nana, the boy who will be born in your house today will enable sheikhs to hold their heads up higher. Nana had another version too, in which a boy child addressed him as Abbu. The dream had several variations, each of which changed as Nana grew older. But Runa had heard from her Nani, Grandmother, about the different kinds of dreams that Nana would have about the birth of Runa’s maternal uncle, her Maamu, before her mother was born. Nana had had to wait for a male child. By that time the stories of his dreams would change repeatedly. But what never changed was the presence of a male child at the centre of his dreams. Nani’s labour pain came on the eve of the dawn on which Runa’s mother was born. She was taken to the permanent labour room in the house. When Runa and her brothers and sisters grew up, they named this room the German Hussain Private Nursing Home. It was named after their Nana. When Nani’s pains worsened, Nana felt a violent pressure on his bowels. The toilet for men was some distance from the house. As he was on his way there with a pot of water, he encountered a young man standing by the tank next to the toilet. In the half-light of dawn, Nana recognised him as Robin. But strangely, Robin’s elbows, knees and ankles were all pointing in the wrong direction. Or, it would be better to say that Robin’s head seemed to be set front to back. When Nana saw this he could not control his bowels any longer. But Runa’s courageous Nana, who was said to go for a shit on horseback, noticed as he began to scream Robin’s name that Robin had started walking with his face towards him. But the distance between Robin and Nana kept growing. Nana was brought back home unconscious. The house was full of women from the neighbourhood, along with the midwife. The midwife was the only Hindu woman present. Only the women from the tribal Hadi families worked as midwifes hereabouts. She had been by Nani’s side, sleepless, since last evening. Nani had given birth to a child. She was lying unconscious in a corner of the labour-room. Then Nana was brought in, his body frozen with fear.

As soon as word spread of Nana’s falling unconscious, the kaviraj arrived from the nearby market town. After all, Nana was the local president of the Congress party.

The doctor prescribed medicines for Nana, and suggested all kinds of nutritious food to revive him. Meanwhile no one could be found to read the Azaan after the birth of Nani’s child. Neither the newborn baby nor the mother could eat until the Azaan was read. Eventually a solution was found. Tentuli, the permanent farmhand for the family, arrived to tend to the cattle. He bathed and offered the Azaan. Then an old woman from the neighbourhood poured a drop of honey into the baby’s mouth. When Nana came to, she was given tea with jaggery. Runa’s mother was born on a Thursday. The day of Lakshmi in the month of Shravan. The Bengali year 1348.

It wasn’t long before the formidable Maulana sahib from the next village arrived. Nana had been made to lie down on a mattress covered with sheets in the veranda. Maulana sahib was given a chair next to him. He asked in detail about the events that had taken place. Nana told him everything slowly – what he had dreamt, his glimpse of the creature named Robin with the reversed ankles and knees in the half-light of the monsoon morning, and his resultant defecation in his cherished Ismail lungi. Having heard him out, Maulana sahib said, you dreamt all of this, German Mian. These events took place at dawn on Thursday, which means the nymph has set her sights on German Mian. This creature attacks while her victims are passing passing urine and stool. You have to be very careful the next ten days. But the influence of this jinn-nymph will persist even after that. The evil eye of the nymph will keep troubling you in the form of all kinds of illnesses. Sometimes your back will feel as though it is breaking. At other times it will be an excruciating headache. A thousand nightmares await you because of your ill fortune.

The matriarch of the family, Runa’s great aunt, her Mejo Nani, opened the door a crack and said, tell us how to cure this illness. We will spend as much as required. Just make the arrangements. The Maulana said, all right Bhabijaan, a black cock, even yellow will do, mid-sized, five chhataak ghee, some mehndi leaves and half a bhari of silver – you have to make these four offerings to the poor. After the afternoon Namaz I will send an amulet. Chant Bismillah and read three verses, and then fasten the amulet to Bhaisahib’s right arm above the elbow with black thread.

Very well, said Mejo Nani and went off to make the arrangements.

Maulana Sahib asked Nana, how do you feel now? Nana told him:

So Maulana, I’ll be cured with those offerings? Ramlochan Kaviraj has prescribed medicines. I should be eating those things you mentioned, to gain strength. And you say they should be given to the poor? Do you know how much half a bhari of silver costs? I believe in amulets, I know that jinns and nymphs cannot come anywhere near me if I wear the lord’s discourse on my body. What is this that you Muslim League people are doing! Is this the faith of my ancestors, if this the Deen, the path, that they brought from Arabia! You’re not an ignorant village Maulvi, you’re a Maulana with a degree. How can you say such things! You claim you want Pakistan, but your Hindu customs refuse to go away. Not that it’s your fault, each of your leaders has crossed the line, they’re worse than infidels.

Maulana smiled. A strange smile. Whose significance was soon revealed in his own words:

Whatever you may say, German Mian, the Muslim League will definitely win. You people can keep saying whatever you like. The Tabligh is inevitable. All the common people will follow the learned leaders. We have plenty of leaders who are learned.

Nana said:

Yes! You have Maulana Thanvi and Shabbir Usmani, with Jinnah as your head. Naturally you will be uncompromising. This doesn’t surprise us. But if the country is split, where will you and I go, abandoning our paternal homes and farmland? That leader of yours, Jinnah, do you know what he said, that he will go through martyrdom for a majority Muslim state. It doesn’t matter to him if we’re murdered. He will let twenty million of us be martyred on the streets and build Pakistan on our corpses.

- Have you heard of Kamal Pasha? The one about whom they said Kamal tune kamal kiya bhai – what a wonder you have wrought, Kamal. If Mustafa Kamal could create a Turkey, why can’t we? The leaders of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind have only been badmouthing Jinnah. They refuse to understand that an Islamic state can easily be created out with the Muslim-majority provinces, built with the fundamental faith, laws, jurisprudence and rules of Islam. The Jamiat is now under the control of the Congress. They will go whichever way the Congress directs them to. What you refuse to accept, Mian, is that the Congress is the party of the Hindus.

- You know what Madani sahib has said, it’s the leaders who don’t accept Islam that want to have Pakistan. Hmmph! Ladke lenge Pakistan. We’ll wrest Pakistan by force. Madani has written that if Pakistan is indeed formed, its people will starve. How will its economy be created? Can you tell me that, Maulana? The Jamiat believes that if Pakistan is created it will become the factory of politics for England and Russia one day. I think so too. Can a man like Thanvi understand all that vexes us? The Muslim League does not have a single Alim, a single learned leader, who can divert you from the path that leads away from the Sharia and think of the welfare of our nation, our Qaum.

- Whom do you consider a learned man, German Mian? Madani – you think Madani is learned? What does he know besides enmity with the British? He has no concern for Muslims. He will only continue his holy war against the British. And the Congress’s Abul Kalam Azad! He is neither a politician nor learned. Put all your wise men on one pan of the scales, we’ll put our Thanvi sahib on the other. Check for yourself which way the scales are tipped. The formation of Pakistan is inevitable.

Now the second eldest of Runa’s great uncles, her Mejo Nana, entered. He was the head of the family. The eldest one lived in Dhaka, where he worked at the post office. In his absence, it was the second brother, Mejo Nana, who took care of the estate. Calling out to the Maulana, he said:

Now what, Maulvi? Has Jinnah sahib come up with anything new? Have you managed to draft German to your cause? I don’t think he will join your League or anything. Can your people finance his three horses and Ismail lungis? We do that. Ha ha ha. While the Mian was seeing a ghost on his way to shit, he had a daughter. Now that you’re here, give us a suitable name for her and find out her star sign. We’ll look after your needs.

Runa’s Nana’s face turned pale. He seemed to have set eyes on Robin again, and appeared ready to repeat his earlier act after that vision.

The Maulana said:

This means the girl was born between five and six in the morning. On a Thursday. This girl’s astrological sign is Zehal, what you refer to as Shani in Bengali. Call her Zahra. She will be quite dark-skinned. But her life will be wrapped around God, her lifespan is long. She will have a lovely voice. Your niece will have a clear heart.

Mejo Nana took a two-rupee note out of his pocket and gave it to the Maulana. Keep this, he said. Meanwhile the permanent farmhand Tentuli appeared and asked Maulana sahib:

Huzoor, rice was two annas a kilo last rains, how could it have become three annas this time? If this is what coarse rice is going to cost, what about fine rice? Tell them to lower the price. Can’t afford it. We have children at home, what will we feed them?

Tentuli had five children. The eldest was eight. He looked after the cows at Mirad’s house. Swept and cleaned the cowshed. For which he got two meals of stale rice a day. Tentuli couldn’t possibly ask his wife to abandon the baby in her arms to work as a maid in other people’s house. His second son hadn’t been home all morning. The six-year-old boy had been to the fields and hadn’t returned. He hadn’t gone alone, though. Many of the other boys in the village were there as well. The fields were full of kochu, edible taro roots. They had sprung up some time ago. Now the earth had been softened by the monsoon rains. His second son was in the fields, digging for slugs. If he was lucky, he might get some taro too. But these things were not available every day. Many of the children in the village gathered them. Worried about food, Tentuli went to his wife. He told her, Chhoto Mian had a daughter at dawn today. I read the Azaan. I was thinking, will you go over?

Tentuli’s wife protested furiously, I’m dying with this six-month-old baby here, and you want me to work as a maid there?

Tentuli grew nervous. Then he said, did I ask you to work as a maid? Just pay them a visit, don’t people visit one another? He added with a chuckle, Mejo Mian was talking about you.

This worked almost instantly. Promising to visit them in the afternoon, Tentuli’s wife went back into the house. Tentuli shouted after her, ask Mian sahib for some rice. Just make sure he gives his word, that will be enough.

Meanwhile, prices began to rise in a frenzy. Not just poor people, even the small farmers found themselves with their back to the wall. Kerosene was unavailable. No sugar anywhere, and it was difficult to get any even at ten times the price of jaggery. Salt, oil and flour were becoming more expensive by the day. Even an entire goat did not fetch the price of a lungi.

The paddy harvest had been indifferent last year. Burma was in very bad shape. Wars were raging all over the world, which meant trouble for everyone. Some people in the village had maunds of rice stashed away at home. This was despatched to the city in bullock-carts late at night, where it was sold at twice or thrice the normal price. All this would apparently go to Madras, Ceylon, Travancore. The English government couldn’t be bothered. The leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League were silent too. They were busy ushering in freedom to the country. That was far more important than rice. German Mian’s elder brother Anwar Mian pondered over all this, assuring himself that once azaadi had been achieved, not just rice, but all items of daily use would become much cheaper. They might even be available free of cost. The new government would be run by the people of the country.

Anwar Mian spent his afternoons grooming the horses, which were a favourite of his younger brother’s. The farmhands were not to be trusted. The rascals ate up all the jaggery meant for the horses. He fed the horses their chick-pea personally, though. Never mind the oil-cakes and bran, even the grass and the hay could not be accounted for. The scoundrels pilfered everything. Someone hovering the front room caught his eye. Who was it? Tentuli’s wife, wasn’t it? Couldn’t the hussy have found a better time to turn up?

- What do you want now? Is this any time to visit?

- I’ll come whenever you want me to. There was something I had to say, but you can’t turn me down, I’ll say it if you promise not to.

- You want money, right? Come at night, I’ll give you some. The sun hasn’t even gone down and the bitch wants money. If you’re asking for money by daylight does that mean you plan to return it?

- No Mian, I didn’t come for money. I was just saying, if you’ll give me some rice tonight, I’ll come over to collect it.

Anwar Mian’s face brightened. Laughing, he said, go away. No rice or money for you. Go now.

Tentuli’s wife knew that this ‘no’ actually meant ‘yes’. She set off homewards happily. Anwar Mian said, addressing her:

Have you heard, Chhoto Bo-Bibi has been released from the labour room. Come every evening starting tomorrow and massage her legs with oil. And listen, the chhoti ceremony is three days from now, bring your children for the feast.

Tentul’s wife said ‘ji’ and resumed walking. No one from Nani’s family would come to the lavish chhoti that was being arranged on the occasion of the birth of her child. Normally the first child was born in the mother’s parents’ home. The exception in this case was because when Runa’s Nana went to his wife’s home for the ashtamangala ceremony after the wedding, he swore for some unknown reason never to set foot there again. Nor would he allow his wife to go home. Oddly enough, there had never been any pressure from Nani’s family. And no one from either family had ever pleaded with Nana to go there. Nani had accepted this without protest. Some had even heard her say that she was far happier here than she had been at home. Although the neighbours had discussed this threadbare, none of them had dared bring it up in Anwar Mian’s house. The reason for which could be either Anwar Mian’s loud voice or his bloodshot eyes.

The arrangements for the six-day ceremony had been flawless. Not even the exorbitant prices in the market could prune expenses. Several sets of clothes had been bought for the newborn, with Nani also getting a number of saris. Relatives and neighbours had feasted. None of them had come without gifts. They had arrived with presents ranging from homemade ghee to a cock and fruit for a glimpse of the child. Only one of them had brought nothing. She was neither a relation nor an in-law of Nani’s. She was from Nani’s village – her childhood friend, apparently. How could an unmarried woman travel on her own? And the less said of her family the better – imagine allowing a woman of marriageable age to travel on her own! Her house was an hour and a half’s walk through the fields.

Later it turned out that she was there to meet not Nani but Mejo Nana. After visiting the newborn she told Nani:

Please arrange for me to meet your brother-in-law. Do you remember my telling you about Asgari Begum? The Englishmen arrested Asgari a few days ago. They have burnt him alive. They’ve also put Hosenara Begum from 24 Parganas in jail. None of the people who went on the civil disobedience movement has come back. Jamila Khatun has been hanged. But never mind all that, there’s no end to it. I’m not here to tell Mejo Mian these stories. He knows everything anyway. I’ve come to him with a request.

Tell me, said Nani, I’ll send him a message. Where do you live these days? Your family has thrown you out, I know. Thank goodness I got married, or my fate would have been the same. Not that I’m particularly happy about it. It’s all destiny.

Nani’s friend smiled. You’ve heard of Majera Khatun, haven’t you, she said. She has formed a force, which I’ve joined. You recognised me easily because of the way I’m dressed now. But usually I wear thick pants, strong shoes, a thick coat and a turban to cover my hair. Nobody can tell whether we’re men or women. Our financial situation isn’t good. It would be of great help if your brother-in-law could arrange for some money for us.

Nani seemed to have guessed as much already. Don’t worry, she said, I’m sure we can get you some money. Send someone to me a week from now. I promise you that we will give as much as we can – we’ll even sell a few things if we have to. The young woman left after lunch.

Meanwhile, rice became more expensive. The price of coarse rice had risen from five rupees per maund to fifteen over the past three or four months. Some people were even selling their babies for a kilo of rice. Men and women were said to be dying of starvation in some places. Amidst all this, some strange news arrived one day. Traders were transporting rice and lentils on the narrow-gauge railway between Katwa and Ahmedpur. A group of people tried to loot them at Kurmadanga Station. Apparently they had pleaded with the traders for alms before looting them. The traders called the police. The three or four armed policemen who were on the train chased away a crowd of about a thousand people, beating them up with their sticks. Some had split skulls, and others, broken arms and legs. But still they didn’t let go of their booty. Even the most merciless beating couldn’t separate them from what they had looted. It was being said that some of them had actually died of the beating. The fingers of the dead gripped the sacks like pincers.

The government wasn’t taking any steps despite the crisis. Everyone was busy with the war. The newspapers said that the government had fixed the price of rice at five rupees and seventy-five paise. But no one was interested in following the government’s orders. The Congress stormed a rice mill in Midnapore with two or three thousand demonstrators. A large quantity of rice was stashed away in the mill. The people raised slogans – no hoarding, no exporting. Five armed guards were posted at the mill. Without panicking, they opened fire, killing three people and injuring many. About ten protestors were arrested. Leave alone reining in prices, the government paid no attention to any of this. It had lost control over the pricing of everyday items. The people from the Rice Mills’ Association were openly saying that they would not sell their produce at the level fixed by the government. They had bought the stuff at high prices, and would therefore sell even higher. This government had been in place for a long time. Fazlul Haq had become the Prime Minister of Bengal four years ago. People called him Sher-e-Bangla, the Tiger of Bengal. German Mian felt that Haq was a paper tiger, who was behaving more like a snake in the grass. Muslim leaders said that Haq sahib’s Krishak Praja Party represented peasants only by name, for actually it was the party of Ashraf Muslims, who claimed foreign ancestry. How would he look after the interests of Muslim farmers? Haq was a puppet controlled by wealthy Hindus. He couldn’t sleep at night without bowing and scraping to them. And the Hindus not only had a great deal of money, but also plenty of people to invest in them. From Burrabazar traders to the Tatas and Birlas, everyone was funding the Hindu parties. Had Haq sahib remained on the side of the Muslims, the Ispahanis would have given the Prime Minister money for the community in these times of famine and despair. But Haq sahib had fallen under Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s spell and forgotten the Muslims. And Shyama-babu was the finance minister of Bengal. Which clearly showed how easy it was to hoodwink Haq sahib. That was precisely what Mukherjee had done. Keeping the finance portfolio to himself, he made Haq the Prime Minister. Khwaja Nizamuddin would have been a far better Prime Minister. And besides, Shyamaprasad was not only a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, but he also said nasty things about Muslims everywhere. Haq sahib pretended not to hear. His own case was complicated. At one time he had appeared to be a representative of the Muslim League, and it had seemed that his Krishak Praja Party might merge with the League. But it was different now. His activities in cahoots with the Hindu Mahasabha had marked him out as nothing but a pimp seeking power. He had done nothing for the Qaum barring friends and relatives. He had begun consorting with the Hindus at a time when all of Bengal’s Muslims were starving, and had handed over the larder keys to Shyamaprasad, who was a sworn enemy of Muslims. While Muslims lay in their beds trying to quieten their growling stomachs, Shyamababu was holding Hindu Mahasabha processions badmouthing Muslims to his heart’s content. Just a few months ago he had announced at the top of his voice at a public gathering: let Muslims pack their bags and leave India.

Why should they? Was India his ancestral property? German Mian felt a writhing anger.

Runa’s Nani emerged from the labour-room after forty days. She used to write all that was on her mind in a notebook. For two or three months now, she had written nothing. Kamrunnesa began writing all over again, although she misspelt her words, in the manner of a diary. But there was no continuity. For the most part, the things she had heard found their place, scattered and unconnected, in a notebook covered with green paper. On the first day Kamrunnesa wrote:

‘I have had a beautiful daughter. I had meant to call her Lakshmi. But he didn’t agree. Maulana sahib has named her Zahra. It is a wonderful name. Lakshmi would not have been a bad nickname for her. He said, there is great poverty everywhere, to name her after the goddess of wealth in these times would be unjust to people. There is strife all over the world.

When I was at my parents’, I heard stories about how Lakshmi turned into rice grains to save people. When a poor cowherd was sobbing out of hunger, Lakshmi gave her rice seeds. The colour of that rice was like gold, and it was fragrant. I am reminded of this story when I get the aroma of Bhimshal rice. The old woman who worked at my parents’ house used to say that Lakshmi gave just a small quantity of rice seeds – but that was enough to have the grains growing everywhere. The hills, the ponds, the canals, the fields all overflowed with the crop.

I have been eating Bhootmuri rice these past forty days. It boosts the flow of breast milk. Before my sister left our parents’ house, she used to eat Kabirajshal rice. These people have no Kabirajshal rice. It was available at my parents’ house.

Dozens of people come to this house for their meals every day. I am not inclined to turn so many people down. Mejo Bhaijan measures out the rice these days. I don’t know how all these people will manage. Rice, potato and sugar are hard to get. We have enough rice for a year at home, but how can you eat rice alone. Mejo Bhaijan has bought a maund of potatoes. I do not know how long it will last in this huge family. But then, it is not supposed to be my concern. Mejo Bhabi will worry about it. Still, if you are part of a household you have to think of these things. You have to think of the villagers too. For a fistful of rice they’re selling the animals they use to plough their fields. People are dying every day. The price of rice has risen to thirty rupees a maund. Babies in arms are being sold in Burdwan and Nadia districts. When I look at my Lakshmi, these things make me tremble. They’re selling children for five to twenty rupees. But then who will buy them, who has the money to support a child?

It seems a girl was sold in exchange for a maund and a half of rice in Birbhum. Unable to feed his wife and child, a Muslim weaver jumped into the Kansai river and drowned. His wife threw their younger child into the river. She had buried the elder child, but a lower caste Hindu rescued the him.

My friend had come. She stayed three days. He objected, but Mejo Bhaijan said she could stay as long as she liked. A couple of stories she told me didn’t let me eat at night. A woman and her mother from Agartala village under Nandigram police station in Midnapur have been widowed in a tornado. The rest of the family have drowned. The starving mother and daughter began to beg, and went all the way to Kakdwip. An accountant there offered them shelter. Giving them a room to stay in, he assaulted the daughter repeatedly. Not content with being the only one, he got others to assault her too. The evil accountant has set up a factory for her. The devil and his friends assaulted a Muslim woman the same way when she went to Kakdwip from Khulna. They gave her father a small plot of land and ordered him to remain silent. They even threatened to kill the family if they revealed they were Muslim. My friend and her group visited them in secret. The woman said, I have no family, what do I need honour for. My belly is empty, what should I keep it hidden for.

Meanwhile Netaji has left India. From his voice on the radio we know he’s alive. City people are moving to the villages because vegetables are cheaper here. So vegetables are no longer available. The Quit India movement started a few days later. He says he will join the movement. But he’s abandoned his plans for now after Mejo Bhaijan scolded him. Maulana Azad is in jail. My friend came again. This time too she was here for money. She needs the money because Maulana’s wife is in trouble. She needs help. Maulana cannot provide much money to his family. On top of which he has been jailed for a year. Maulana’s wife Zulekha Begum has no regrets about this. She has sent a letter to Bauji, saying that she had not expected her man to be jailed for a year. His exploits should have fetched him a longer term in jail. She would take charge of the Khilafat Committee in Bengal in her husband’s absence. Zulekha Begum needed money, which was why my friend was taking contributions from different people.

He says Shyama-babu has parted ways with Haq sahib. Because the government is not despatching food to Midnapore. Haq sahib’s throne is tottering too. The League doesn’t approve of him. The lieutenant governor cannot stand him. A few days later I heard Nawab Nazimuddin had got the throne. Suhrawardy was the food minister now. People thought they would get food at last. But their suffering increased. People kept dropping like flies. Tentuli the farmhand said corpses could be seen in the bushes. Neither jackals and dogs, nor vultures and hawks lacked for food now. There is no water in the ponds. No water to be had at the mosque either. Water has to be fetched from distant places. The League is feeding people free of cost at many places. They have plenty of money. The Ispahanis give them both food and cash. Ramlochan the kaviraj said the Ispahanis have apparently bought up all the rice at a high price and are hoarding it. People aren’t even strong enough to walk to free food camps. Even the leaves on the trees are wilting. There is no hope of eating them. Fuel is available but what will people cook! They’re being poisoned to death by the hyacinth from dead ponds. Mejo Bhaijan told a story about an old man from Ujjalpur who was returning home after failing to get any food. Tripping on the ledge between two fields, he fell down by the canal. Three jackals ate him alive.’

Lakshmi, meaning Zahra, was four already. Kamrunnesa, that is to say, Runa’s Nani, was pregnant again. Runa’s Nana began to dream once more. But he had changed a great deal during these years. He no longer had bitter arguments with the Maulana. On the contrary, their viewpoints had converged in many respects. Nana kept dreaming and weaving different versions of his dreams. Zahra had reached the age when her Bismillahkhani, the day she would start learning to write, was fast approaching. It had to be done at the age of four years, four months and four days. But given the state of the nation, elaborate ceremonies had all but vanished from people’s lives. German Mia had a dream on the night of the Bismillakhani. Maulana sahib had performed the ceremonies. He had spent the entire day at their house. They had long conversations. He left late in the afternoon. In the evening German Mian surmised that dreams would not spare him tonight. So he ate his dinner quickly and went to sleep on his own. In his dream he saw an elderly man approaching him, holding a sword in one hand and a rosary in the other. He was riding a four-legged creature. Was this the apocalypse, wondered German Mian. Terrified, he began to flee in his dream, but his feet moved painfully slowly. The elderly man followed him. Suddenly German Mian saw a mosque looming ahead of him. He ran inside for shelter. It was teeming with people. He couldn’t get even a toehold. Most of those present were like skeletons, dressd in tattered clothes. German Mian had not performed his wuzu, his ablutions. There was no water to be found anywhere. He was dying of thirst. He throat was parched. The water from the taps was toxic. Suddenly he saw a mound of earth behind the mosque. Running his hands over it, he attempted Tayammum, or dry ablutions. But the instant he touched the mound, three birds flew out of it. They were alien birds. Were these the Ababil birds who had stoned the soldiers on elephant-back to death? The three birds began conversing among themselves. German Mian was certain they did not belong to this world. They were shaped like distorted maps. Taking off their clothes, they began to bathe in blood, transforming gradually into humans. Humans, women. blood overflowed everywhere. German Mian had learnt outside the dream that the clothes held the beating hearts of the three bewitching women. He escaped unobserved with their clothes. After bathing, when they couldn’t find their clothes anywhere, German Mian came into view again. He said he would return their clothes on one condition. He wanted one of them to fly him to his destination. The smallest of the three birds agreed, asking, where do you want to go, huzoor? German Mian could not decide – Persia or the deserts of Arabia? He would go to Pakistan, East Pakistan. The bird chuckled. An airborne German Mian decided to join the League that very day, never mind the Maulana! He wanted to live in his dream. Considering that his dreams were being shattered every day, if he were to retain his sense of reality during this dreamlike or semi-wakeful state, the dreams would not yield to him easily. They would escape him despite being within touching distance. That night he clearly saw a beautiful, unmarried woman. She was wandering about on an uncultivated plot of land where crops had never grown. German Mian walked across this plot of land and stopped at the end of the road. Numerous other roads met at this point – these roads were so winding that they could be mistaken for snakes. He realised that dreadful battles had broken out on every street at this gigantic junction. Most of the land and people of the world were being destroyed. Only a few had survived. He was one of them. In his dream he had no idea whether his wife and child or any of his relations were alive. Night had descended on the planet. A few scattered stars were twinkling. Suddenly he discovered an elderly man approaching him, dressed in a white pirhan. His senses were alerted. He would also become a participant in this partition, a process of endless partition, which just could not be stopped. His throat was parched. He rose from his bed for a drink of water. The water hereabouts had a very bad taste. He decided to move to Pakistan.

The next morning German Mian felt rather ill. He could no longer suppress the story of his dream of the previous night. No sooner did the saga of the dream become known than there was mayhem at home. German Mian’s elder brother decided to take him to Shah Rustam’s shrine in Salar. Mejo Mian had heard his Burra Abba, his father’s grandfather, say that Khwaja Muhammad Sharif was the thirteenth descendant of Hazrat Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam – his son Shah Rustam came to India from Khorasan several years ago. This extremely erudite man finally settled in Salar in Murshidabad. King Shah Alam gave him ownership of much of the land in this area. His grave was in Salar. However, instead of following in his footsteps, his son Serajuddin took the post of principal Qazi at Gaur. Sultan Ghiasuddin was very fond of him. His son Shah Azizullah busied himself with religious matters, returning to the same Salar. Mufti Muhammad Moyez was a member of this family, the bosom friend and tutor of prince Humayun Zah. Moyez sahib eventually had to serve the English. Although Khondkar Obaidul Akbar and his son Fazle Rabbi worked for the Nawab, they were learned men. But as the saying goes, Allahtaala takes away family glory after a few generations. Their progeny were now in that situation. Everyone was exploiting Shah Rustam to survive. But Rustam’s shrine was exceptionally potent. Unless German Mian was taken there, fate would always hold nightmares for him. Accordingly an awning was strung up on an ox-cart. A thick bedding was laid out on it. German Mian being a man of luxury, it was decided to take a radio along. If they left very early, they would reach Salar in four hours. A lantern was hung beneath the cart to dispel the darkness of the night. Tentuli drove the ox-cart.

As they were passing Palsha on their way to Daskamalgram, they saw a strange sight. A body lay in front of a primary school made of earth, with a thatched roof. The face wasn’t clear in the half darkness, but German Mian had no doubt it was a woman’s body. Tentuli was asked to turn the cart around. ‘No, we cannot go back,’ declared Mejo Mian. ‘Drive straight to Salar, Tentuli.’ German Mian was not accustomed to defying his elder brother. Half-sitting, half-lying under the awning, he busied himself reconstructing the face of the corpse. In his head he recited the Ayatul Kursi, the throne verse of the Quran which emphasised Allah’s power over the universe. This would make the devil flee from his presence. He also knew that, with the agony of leaving the safe haven of his home, his Al Makam Al Amin, tearing his heart apart, there was no alternative to the Ayatul Kursi to rid himself of the pain. Alongside his reconstruction of the face, he recited softly:

Allah is the immortal eternal entity who holds the entire world firmly in his grip, there is no god but him, he does not sleep, slumber cannot touch him. Everything on earth and in the sky belongs to him. No one can make a recommendation in his court without his permission. He knows all that is known to man, and all that is unknown to man is not unknown to him. What he knows lies beyond the limits of human knowledge. It is a different matter if he wishes to teach any of this to mankind. His kingdom encompasses the earth and the sky. Looking after all this does not exhaust him. In truth he is a noble entity, the finest.

Reciting the Ayatul Kursi and reconstructing the face of the dead woman, German Mian fell asleep. When you go to sleep after reading this verse, Allah sends an angel to you. The angel would guard German Mian until he woke up. Therefore there were six creatures on or near the cart now – Anwar Mian, German Mian, Tentuli, the angel, and two black oxen. Anwar Mian wondered about the woman. Who had killed her and left her here? How would she be buried? Inna Lillahe Wa Inna Elaihe Rajeoon. Surely we belong to Allah and to him we shall return.

Only the angel put all thoughts aside and accompanied the cart like a guard, sometimes perched on the awning, sometimes whirling around the lantern beneath the cart. Not even daybreak brought him relief – he would be done only when German Mian awoke. But the young angel knew that German Mian’s wakefulness was actually another kind of sleep. Just as fate never did hold dreamless sleep for him, he never left the world of sleep entirely to descend to the real world. Would the angel then have to stay with German Mian till he sank into eternal sleep? He didn’t know. He had no task other than following orders. But he quite liked the man. He visited the tall man frequently. Although his visits were professional, he had his likes and dislikes, even if he wasn’t allowed to express them. The young angel decided to sneak into German Mian’s sleep for a glimpse of the world of his dreams. The house of this man’s soul was like the Dar Ul Makama, home. Offering a mental sajdah to Allahtaala, prostrating himself in his head, he said: I proffer my sajdah to the one who has made room for us to dwell in his infinite compassion, where there is neither suffering nor fatigue.

50 years of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. Nashtaneer, the story: Rabindranath Tagore

Charulata

~ 1 ~

Bhupati had no compulsion to work. He had enough money, and, moreover, things were heating up in the country. But the stars at his birth had made him an industrious man. This was why he felt compelled to publish an English newspaper. Now he no longer had to grumble about time hanging heavy on his hands.

Since childhood, he had had a penchant for writing and making speeches in English. He used to write letters to English newspapers even when there was no reason to; he never gave up a chance to speak up at public gatherings even when he had nothing to say.

Politicians wooing him for his wealth had heaped copious encomiums upon him for his compositions, which had led him to develop a high opinion of his proficiency in the language

Umapati, Bhupati’s brother-in-law and a lawyer—eventually abandoning his attempt to run his legal practice—told his sister’s husband, ‘Why don’t you publish an English newspaper, Bhupati? Considering your incredible… ’ etcetera.

Bhupati was stirred. There was no glory in having one’s letters published in someone else’s newspaper; in his own, he would be able to wield his pen with complete freedom. Appointing his brother-in-law as his assistant, Bhupati ascended the editor’s throne at a rather early age.

The passion for journalism and the passion for politics are both powerful in youth – and there were plenty of people to ensure that Bhupati became besotted.

While he remained thus engrossed with his newspaper, his child bride Charulata matured into young womanhood. The newspaper editor missed this important news entirely. His attention was concentrated on the expansion of the government’s frontier policy, which had abandoned all restraint.

Living as she did in a wealthy household, Charulata had no chores to do. The only task of her long, undemanding days and nights was to keep blossoming fruitlessly, rather like the flower that will never ripen.

In such circumstances, wives go to great excesses over their husbands if they can – the game of married life shifts its boundaries from the defined and the conventional to the chaotic and the anarchic.

Charulata did not have this opportunity. Piercing the armour of the newspaper to claim her husband proved to be a difficult task.

One day, after a female relative rebuked him, drawing his attention to his young wife, Bhupati told himself in a moment of awareness, ‘That’s true, Charu needs a companion, the poor thing has nothing to occupy her all day.’

He told his brother-in-law Umapati, ‘Why don’t you send for your wife, Charu has no one of her age to talk to, she must be very lonely.’

He was relieved after Mandakini, his brother-in-law’s wife, was settled in his home; Mr Editor had interpreted the absence of female company as the reason for Charu’s being miserable.

Neither of them noticed that the period in which husband and wife rediscover each other in the exquisite first light of love—that gold-tinged dawn of conjugal life—had slipped silently into the past. Even before savouring the new, they had become old, familiar and accustomed to each other.

She had a natural propensity for reading, so Charulata’s days did not prove unbearably heavy. She had adroitly made her own arrangements for books. Bhupati’s cousin—his paternal aunt’s son —was a third year college student; Charulata turned to him for help with getting her books to read. In return for this service, she had to accede to many of Amal’s demands. She was frequently made to finance his meals at restaurants and the purchase of English literary works. Amal would have his friends over for meals sometimes; Charulata would make all the arrangements, and thus pay for her tuition. Bhupati may have made no demands of Charulata but, in return for some meagre help with her reading, there was no end to cousin Amal’s requirements. Charulata feigned rage over them now and then, but it had become necessary to prove herself useful to someone and endure the happy oppression of affection.

‘The son-in-law of the owners of our college comes to classes in velvet slippers specially made for him, bouthan,’ said Amal, ‘I simply cannot bear it anymore. I have to have a pair of velvet slippers, or else my standing will suffer.’

Charu: Indeed! As if I shall slave away to make a pair of slippers for you! Here’s some money—go buy yourself a pair.

‘Not a chance,’ said Amal.

Charu neither knew how to embroider slippers, nor did she want to confess as much to Amal. But no one besides Amal else ever demanded anything of her, and she could not resist fulfilling the prayer of the one person in the world who sought something from her. Secretly – and meticulously – she began to learn the art of making velvet slippers during Amal’s college hours. When Amal himself had completely forgotten his requirements, Charu sent him an invitation to dinner.

As it was summer, a seat had been prepared on the terrace for Amal’s meal. The plate was covered with a brass lid, lest dust get into the food. Shedding his college garb, Amal washed and dressed before making an appearance. Sitting down, he removed the lid – to discover a newly-made pair of silk slippers on the plate! Charulata laughed aloud.

The shoes stoked Amal’s expectations. First, he wanted a high-necked coat, then a silk handkerchief with floral patterns had to be made for him, after that an embroidered cover became essential for the oil-stained armchair in his sitting room.

Each time, Charulata refused, provoking an argument, and each time, she tenderly surrendered to Amal’s whims. Sometimes Amal asked, ‘How far have you got, bouthan?’

‘Barely started,’ she would lie. Sometimes she would say, ‘I didn’t even remember.’

But Amal wouldn’t give up. He would remind her every day and maintain his steady chorus of demands. Charu would feign indifference, goading Amal into a state of agitation — and then unexpectedly fulfil his wishes, enjoying his response.

In this affluent household Charu did not have to do anything for anyone, barring Amal, who never let up without making her do something for him. These small labours of love kept her heart alive and fulfilled.

To dub the plot of land that lay behind Bhupati’s house a garden would be an exaggeration. The primary vegetation of this so-called garden was an English plum tree.

Charu and Amal had set up a committee for the development of this plot. Together they had conjured up the garden of their dreams with diagrams and plans.

‘Bouthan, you must water the plants in our garden yourself like the princesses of yore,’ said Amal.

‘And we’ll have a hut there in the western corner for a fawn,’ added Charu.

‘We’ll have a small pond too, with ducks in it,’ contributed Amal.

Excited by the idea, Charu responded, ‘And I’ll have some blue lotuses in there, I’ve always wanted to see the blue lotus.’

‘We’ll have a little bridge over the pond,’ suggested Amal, ‘with a tiny boat at its bank.’

‘The bank will be paved with white marble, though,’ Charu told him.

Amal drew a map of the garden with great ceremony, using paper and pencil, ruler and compass.

Together they drew up some two dozen maps, recreating their vision each day.

After the map was finalised, they proceeded to estimate expenses. Initially the plan was that Charu would use some money from her monthly stipend to build the garden gradually; Bhupati never spared a glance for anything that went on at home, when the garden was ready they would give him a big surprise. He would think they had used Alladin’s lamp to transplant an entire garden from Japan.

Yet, no matter how much they lowered their estimates, Charu could not afford the expense.

Amal set out to modify the map yet again. ‘Let’s leave the pond out in that case, bouthan,’ he said.

‘No, we simply can’t, that’s where my blue lotus will be,’ Charu protested.

‘Why not do away with the tiled roof for your fawn’s hut; a thatched roof will do just as well,’ Amal observed.

‘Never mind, I don’t need the hut in that case,’ said Charu, furiously.

The plan was to get seeds of cloves from Mauritius, of sandalwood from Karnat and of cinnamon from Ceylon, but when Amal proposed replacing them with seeds of everyday Indian and English plants, Charu looked glum. ‘Then I don’t want a garden,’ she said.

This was not the way to lower expenses. It was impossible for Charu to curb her imagination alongside the estimate, and no matter what he said, it wasn’t acceptable to Amal either.

‘Then, bouthan, you’d better discuss the garden with dada— he’s certain to give you money for it.’

‘You and I will make the garden together. There’s no fun if I tell him. He might just order an Eden Garden from some English gardener—where will our plan be then?’

In the shade of the plum tree, Charu and Amal indulged their imagination over their impossible scheme. Charu’s sister-in-law Manda called out from the first floor ‘What are you two doing in the garden at this hour?’

‘Looking for ripe plums,’ answered Charu.

‘Bring me some too, if you find any,’ said Manda, greedily.

Charu smiled. So did Amal. The great pleasure and glory of all their schemes was that it was limited to themselves. Whatever other qualities Manda might possess, imagination wasn’t among them; how would she savour ideas like these? She was completely excluded from any committee that had these two as its members.

The estimate for the impossible garden didn’t shrink; nor did the imagination yield an inch. Amal identified the spots in the garden meant for the pond, for the hut, for the fawn, for the marble platform.

He was using a small spade to mark out the area around the plum tree that would have to be paved in their dream garden when Charu remarked, ‘How wonderful it would be if you were a writer, Amal.’

‘Why would it be wonderful?’ asked Amal.

‘I’d have made you write a story with a description of this garden of ours. This pond, this fawn’s hut, this plum tree… they’d all be in it, but no one except us would understand, what fun. Why don’t you try to write, Amal, I’m sure you can.’

‘Very well, what will you give me if I can write?’ asked Amal.

‘What do you want?’ enquired Charu.

‘I’m going to sketch the pattern of a vine on the roof of my mosquito net; you’ll have to embroider it in silk.’

‘Must you overdo everything? Fancy having an embroidered mosquito net!’

Amal orated eloquently against the practice of relegating the mosquito net to the status of a graceless prison. It only proved, he argued, that ninety per cent of people in the world had no appreciation of beauty, and did not find ugliness the least bit painful.

Charu accepted this argument at once, and was happy to conclude that ‘our secret two member committee does not belong to that ninety per cent’.

‘All right, if you write, I’ll embroider your mosquito net,’ she agreed.

‘You think I can’t?’ asked Amal mysteriously.

‘Then you must have written something already, show me,’ Charu exclaimed.

Amal: Not today, bouthan.

Charu: No, you must show me today – I beg of you, fetch it now.

It was Amul’s extreme eagerness to read what he had written to Charu that had held him back all this time. What if Charu didn’t understand it, what if she didn’t like it —he had been unable to shed his apprehensions.

Today, he drew out his notebook, blushed a little, cleared his throat, and then began to read. Leaning back against the trunk of the tree, her legs stretched out on the grass, Charu listened.

The subject of the essay was, ‘My Notebook.’ Amal had written, ‘O my alabaster notebook, my imagination is yet to leave its mark on thee. Thou art as pure, as unfathomable, as the brow of the newborn ere the messenger of fate doth enter the chamber of birth. Where now is that hour when I shall write the conclusion to the last verse and chapter on the last page? Thy tender infant ivory leaves cannot even dream this day of that ink-stained termination… ’ and a great deal more.

Charu listened in silence, in the shade of the tree. When Amal had finished reading, she said after a brief silence, ‘And you claim you cannot write!’

Amal sipped the heady brew of literature for the first time that day under the tree – the wine-bearer was vibrant, so was the taste – while the late afternoon light deepened into long shadows.

‘We must pick a few plums for Manda, Amal,’ said Charu, ‘or else what will we tell her?’

Since they were not inclined to tell Manda about their reading and discussions, they were forced to pick plums for her.

~ 2 ~

Neither Amal nor Charu noticed that their dream of creating a garden had dissolved, like so many other such schemes, somewhere in the depths of their imagination.

Amal’s writing now became the principal subject of their discussions. ‘Bouthan, I feel this splendid notion coming upon me,’ Amal might say.

‘Come on over to the south verandah – Manda will be here any minute with her paan,’ Charu would respond eagerly.

Charu occupied a worn wicker chair in the verandah, built in the Kashmiri style, while Amal sprawled on the high ledge of the railing.

The subjects of Amal’s essays were seldom well-defined; it was difficult to explain them clearly. It was beyond anyone’s means to comprehend with clarity what he tried to say in his muddled way. ‘I can’t explain to you properly, bouthan.’ Amal himself would acknowledge, repeatedly.

‘No, I’ve understood a good deal,’ Charu would tell him. ‘Write it down now, don’t put it off.’

She would understand some of it, find the rest incomprehensible; drawn by the emotional intensity of Amal’s expression, she would fill the gaps with her imagination. This was enough to make her happy, as well as impatient for more.

‘How far have you written?’ Charu would ask the very same evening.

‘Do you expect me to finish it in a day?’ Amal would ask her.

‘You haven’t even written it yet,’ Charu would grumble.

‘Wait, I have to think about it a little more,’ Amal would tell her.

‘Go away then!’ Charu would say angrily.

A furious Charu would be ready to stop talking to Amal. He would then, under the pretext of taking his handkerchief out of his pocket, allow her to catch a glimpse of a wad of paper he had scribbled on.

Charu’s vow of silence would be shattered immediately. ‘There! You have written it. You think you can fool me? Show me!’

‘It’s not done yet,’ Amal would answer. ‘I want to write a little more before reading it to you.’

Charu: No, you have to read it this instant.

Amal was dying to read it to her immediately; but not before forcing Charu to grab at it once or twice. Then, taking a seat, he would first arrange the sheets, make a correction here or there with his pencil – Charu’s eager anticipation hanging heavily over the sheaf of papers all the while like rain-bearing clouds.

Whenever Amal wrote two or three paragraphs, however little it may have been, he had to read them out to Charu instantly. The rest of it would then be composed through discussion.

All this time they had been engaged in building castles in the air; now they lost themselves in the construction of verses.

One afternoon, when Amal returned from his college, his pocket seemed unusually full. As he stepped inside the house, Charu observed the weight in his pocket from a window in the women’s chambers.

Once he was back from college, Amal usually wasted no time going into the women’s chambers, but today he dawdled in the drawing room, his pockets full, showing no inclination towards going inside.

Charu clapped her hands several times, from the periphery of her chambers, but no one responded. In a fit of mild rage, she marched off to her verandah, holding a book by Manmatha Datta and attempting to read it.

Manmatha Datta was a new author. His style was rather similar to Amal’s, which was why Amal never had anything good to say about him; from time to time he would read out Datta’s essays to Charulata, mocking him by distorting his pronunciation. Snatching the book out of Amal’s hands, Charu would toss it aside contemptuously.

When she heard Amal’s footsteps that afternoon Charu raised the selfsame Manmatha Dutta’s book, titled Chorus, to her face, reading it with great concentration.

She pretended not to notice Amal entering the verandah. ‘Well, bouthan, what are you reading?’ enquired Amal.

Receiving no answer, Amal circled around Charu’s chair to take a look at the book. ‘Bogus, by Manmatha Dutta,’ he commented.

‘Don’t disturb me, please,’ said Charu, ‘let me read.’ Standing behind her, Amal began to read, mockingly, ‘I am a blade of grass, an insignificant blade of grass. O tree, my friend in crimson regal dress, I am but a blade of grass. I offer no flower, no shade, I cannot raise my head heavenwards, in spring the cuckoo cannot enchant the world from the shelter of my leafy canopy – but still, o tree my friend, do not ignore me from your flower-bedecked boughs; I may only be a blade of grass by your feet, still do not humiliate me.’

Having read thus far, Amal made up the rest, in jest: ‘I am a banana, an unripe unloved banana, o pumpkin my friend, you who thatch roofs so beautifully, I am a mere banana.’

Charu’s curiosity wouldn’t allow her to continue her show of anger; laughing, she threw her book away, saying, ‘You’re so jealous, you don’t like anyone else’s writing but your own.’

‘And you’re so generous,’ countered Amal, ‘you want to trample over even an insignificant blade of grass.’

Charu: All right sir, enough of your wit. Show me what you have in your pocket.

Amal: Why not hazard a guess?

Continuing to tease Charu for a while, Amal finally extracted from his pocket a copy of the well-known magazine, The Lake Lotus.

Charu discovered that ‘My Notebook’, the essay that Amal had written earlier, had been published in it.

She fell silent. Amal had expected her to be delighted, but when he saw no signs of any such pleasure, he commented, ‘They don’t publish any old piece in The Lake Lotus, you know.’

Here, Amal was guilty of exaggeration. The editor never turned down a piece if it was even passable. But Amal convinced Charu that the editor was in fact exceptionally demanding, approving barely one out of a hundred submissions.

Charu tried to force herself to feel happy, but could not. She tried to understand why she felt so betrayed, but was unable to find any reason.

Amal’s writing belonged to her as much as to him. Amal was the writer and Charu, the reader. The secrecy of their venture was its primary attraction for her. She could not clearly comprehend why she should feel so upset at the thought of other people reading those pieces and praising them.

But the writer’s ambition cannot be restricted to a single reader for long. Amal began to publish his pieces. Praise came his way, too. He even started receiving letters from acolytes, which he showed his sister-in-law. They caused Charu both pleasure and pain. Her enthusiasm and encouragement no longer remained the only things that could inspire him to write. Now and then, Amal even received anonymous letters from women. Charu would banter with him over them, but without deriving any joy from this. The reading community of Bengal had breached the doors of their committee and raised a barrier between them.

One day, in a rare moment of leisure, Bhupati told his wife, ‘Indeed, Charu, I had no idea our Amal is such a clever writer.’

Bhupati’s praise pleased Charu. She felt proud because her husband had acknowledged that though Amal was his dependent, he was different from others of his age. She wore an air that suggested, ‘Now you know why I am so fond of Amal; I realised his true worth a long time ago, he does not deserve to be ignored.’

‘Have you read his pieces?’ Charu asked.

‘Yes… no, not exactly,’ answered Bhupati. ‘I haven’t had the time. But Nishikanta was praising him sky-high – he’s a connoisseur of Bengali writing.’

Charu was extremely keen that Bhupati should hold Amal in high respect.

~ 3 ~

Umapada was trying to persuade Bhupati to distribute free gifts with his newspaper. Bhupati simply could not comprehend how these gifts would convert his losses into profits.

Entering the room, Charu left as soon as she saw Umapada in there. Returning after some time, she found the two still engaged in debate. Noting that Charu seemed impatient, Umapada left on some pretext, while Bhupati continued to wrack his brains over the accounts.

‘Aren’t you done yet?’ Charu asked on entering. ‘How do you manage to devote all day to that paper of yours?’

Pushing his accounts aside, Bhupati smiled. ‘Indeed, I never find the time to pay attention to Charu,’ he told himself. ‘This is unfair. The poor thing has nothing to do all day.’

‘No studies today?’ Bhupati asked her affectionately. ‘Has your teacher escaped? Your school is truly contrary – the student is ready with her books, the master’s missing. It seems to me Amal no longer tutors you as regularly as he used to.’

‘Should Amal be wasting his time tutoring me?’ asked Charu. ‘Do you consider him an ordinary private tutor?’

Putting his arm around her waist and drawing her to himself, Bhupati said, ‘Do you call this ordinary private tutoring? If I had a sister-in-law like you to teach… ’

Charu: Oh, don’t go on. Even being my husband you have no time, never mind being someone else.

A trifle injured, Bhupati said, ‘Very well, I promise to teach you tomorrow onwards. Fetch your books, let me take a look at them.’

Charu: Enough, you needn’t teach me. For now, could you deign to put aside your newspaper accounts? Tell me if you can turn your attention to something else.

‘I most certainly can. My attention will now be diverted to whatever you would have it diverted to.’

Charu: Very well, then, read this piece of Amal’s – you’ll see how wonderful it is. The editor has written to Amal to inform him that after reading it Nabagaopal-babu has dubbed him Bengal’s Ruskin.’

After this revelation Bhupati accepted the magazine with a degree of trepidation. Opening it, he read the title: ‘The Monsoon Moon’.

Bhupati had been turning large numbers over in his head for the past two weeks in connection with the Indian Government’s Annual Budget; he was not quite prepared at the moment to read The Monsoon Moon from start to finish. Nor was the essay particularly short.

It began thus: ‘Why doth the monsoon moon play hide-and-seek among the clouds all night? As though she hath purloined something from heaven, as though she hath nowhere to hide her blemish. When there hath been not a speck of a cloud in the spring sky, she hath presented herself brazenly in the naked sky to the eyes of the world – but today her voluptuous smile – akin to the infant’s dream, to the remembrance of a lover, to the pearl necklace that dangles like the forelocks of heavenly lord’s consort doth… ’

‘Elegantly written,’ observed Bhupati, scratching his head. ‘But why me? I cannot appreciate such poetry.’

‘What can you appreciate then?’ responded Charu defensively, snatching the magazine from Bhupati’s hands.

‘I’m a man of the world, I appreciate people,’ said Bhupati.

‘Doesn’t literature talk of people?’ asked Charu.

Bhupati: They get it wrong. Besides, when you have flesh-and-blood people, why do you need to look for them in made-up stories?

‘For instance, I appreciate you,’ he continued, cupping her chin in his hand, ‘but do I have to read the for that?’

Bhupati was proud of not being able to understand poetry. But even without having read Amal properly, Bhupati harboured a feeling of respect for him. ‘To be able to spout words so effortlessly even without having anything to say is a skill that I could never master, no matter how hard I tried. Who’d have known Amal to have had such hidden talents?’

Although Bhupati acknowledged himself as a man without a taste for art, he was no miser when it came to literature. If a poor writer were to ask him for help, Bhupati gave him the money to publish his book, only being very particular to warn him ‘not to dedicate the book to me’. He used to purchase every weekly and monthly Bengali magazine, big or small, and every book, well-known or unknown, readable or unreadable. ‘I do not read books – if I do not buy them either, I will be sinning without atonement.’ Because he did not read, he did not abhor indifferent writing in the least, which was why his library was full of Bengali books.

Amal used to assist Bhupati at proofreading; he entered with a sheaf of papers to show him some indecipherable writing in one of the articles.

‘Write as much as you like about monsoon moons and autumn palms, Amal,’ smiled Bhupati, ‘I have no objection – I do not wish to interfere with anyone’s independence – but why interfere with mine? Your sister-in-law won’t be satisfied till I’ve read it all – what kind of torture is this?’

‘Indeed, bouthan,’ Amal laughed, ‘had I known you were going to use my pieces as a new way to intimidate dada, I would never have written them.’

Amal was unhappy with Charu for having shown his essays, which he had crafted with his heart and soul, to Bhupati – who, having no inclination for literature, was making light of them. Realising as much, Charu was upset at once. To change the subject she told Bhupati, ‘Why don’t you find a match for this brother of yours – his writing won’t torment you anymore.’

‘Today’s young men aren’t as devoid of practical sense as we were. They’re poetic in their imagination, but astute in practice. You haven’t been able to persuade your brother-in-law to get married, have you?’ answered Bhupati.

After Charu had left, Bhupati told Amal, ‘I’m caught up with this newspaper all the time, Amal, poor Charu is quite lonely. She has little to do, she peeps into my study sometimes. But my hands are tied. It would be wonderful if you kept her gainfully occupied with some reading and studying, Amal. If you can translate English poetry for her sometimes, she’d both benefit from it and enjoy it. Charu has quite a taste for literature.’

‘She does,’ agreed Amal. ‘If bouthan read a little more I believe she could be quite a good writer too.’

‘That would be expecting too much,’ Bhupati smiled, ‘but Charu is far more discerning about Bengali literature than I am.’

Amal: She has the power of imagination, which is rare among women.

Bhupati: Among men too, of which I am prime evidence, All right, if you can mould your sister-in-law in some way, I will compensate you.

Amal: How?

Bhupati: I will find a companion for your sister-in-law.

Amal: And then I’ll have to mould her too. Is this how my life will be spent?’

Modern young men, both of them – they never baulked at saying whatever came to mind.

~ 4 ~

Gaining a reputation among readers had given Amal a new confidence. As meek as a schoolboy earlier, he now seemed to have become a celebrated man of letters. He was invited to read literary essays at conferences; editors and their heralds waited for him in his room seeking the opportunity to be his host at banquets, requests to attend and chair meetings flowed his way; even his stature among the servants and maids in Bhupati’s home shot up.

All this time, Mandakini had not considered Amal a significant figure. Dismissing Amal and Charu’s lighthearted exchanges as juvenile, she had busied herself with housework and preparing her paan; she considered herself superior to them and essential to the larger world.

Amal was a voracious consumer of paan; as Mandakini was in charge of preparing it, his over-indulgence usually annoyed her. Conspiring to raid Manda’s store of paan every now and then was one of many sources of laughter for Charu and Amal – but the exploits of these two accomplished pilferers did not amuse Manda in the least.

The truth is that no dependent looks favourably upon another. Manda felt insulted by the additional housework she had to do on Amal’s account. Because Charu favoured Amal, Manda could not say anything explicitly, but she studiously ignored his needs. Nor did she ever give up the chance to launch a barb or two at him, the servants and maids joined in too.

Manda was thus a little surprised to witness Amal’s ascent. This was not the same Amal. His gentle diffidence had vanished, as though the power to be contemptuous of others was now in his hands.

The man who wears his status confidently, who has acquired a certain power, can attract women easily. When Manda saw Amal, his head held high, command this new respect, she slowly began to look up to him as well. Charmed by his newfound glory, she saw the glow of his young face with fresh eyes.

Stealing her paan was no longer necessary. Amal’s fame led to this other loss for Charu; their bond of conspiracy was snapped. The paan soon arrived on its own, Amal never had to ask.

Besides, the pleasure they had once got out of the tricks they played to exclude Mandakini from their little cabal was all but ruined. It became difficult to keep her at a distance; she didn’t like the idea that Charu was Amal’s only friend, the only connoisseur of his work. She was ready to pay Charu back for all the earlier humiliation, with interest. So, whenever Amal and Charu were together, Manda found a pretext to come between them, casting forth her shadow like the moon eclipsing the sun. Charu did not even get the chance to laugh over this change in Manda, who has always present.

Needless to add, this intrusion on Manda’s part did not infuriate Amal as much as it did Charu. He felt a quickening at this volte face on the part of a woman who had once been quite aloof.

But when Charu, upon spotting Manda from a distance, would say – softly but cuttingly – ‘There she comes,’ Amal would join in with, ‘Indeed, how annoying.’ It was a ritual on their part to express irritation at the company of anyone else in the world; how could Amal suddenly give that up? When Mandakini finally approached, Amal would say, as though forcing himself to be polite, ‘Well then, Manda-bouthan, is your paan still being stolen?’

Manda: Why do you have to steal what you can get any time?

It’s more fun that way.

Manda: Carry on reading, why did you stop. I love listening.

Manda had shown no desire in the past for acquiring a reputation as a lover of oral literature. But ‘as the times, so the manners’.

Charu didn’t want Amal to read to Manda the philistine, but Amal wanted her to hear him read his piece.

Charu: Amal has written a criticism of Kamalakanta’s Secretariat, can it possibly be of any interest to you?

Manda: Maybe I’m uneducated, but do you think everything goes over my head?

Amal remembered a different encounter. Charu and Manda were playing cards when he entered holding his piece. Impatient to read it to Charu, he was annoyed because they wouldn’t stop playing. Eventually he announced, ‘You’d better go on playing then bouthan, I’ll go read it to Akhil-babu.’

‘Where do you think you’re going,’ said Charu, clutching his shirt. She lost the game quickly to wind it up.

‘Is it time for reading now?’ said Manda. ‘I’m off then.’

‘Why don’t you listen too?’ said Charu, feigning politeness.

Manda: Spare me, I don’t understand any of that nonsense; it just puts me to sleep.

She left, annoyed with both of them at having brought the card game to a premature end.

That very same Manda was today eager to listen to a criticism of Kamalakanta. ‘That’s excellent, Manda bouthan, I’m very fortunate to have you as a listener,’ said Amal. Turning back the pages, he prepared to start again from the beginning; the first paragraphs were particularly replete with feeling, and he did not want to omit them.

‘You’d promised to bring those old magazines from the library, thakurpo,’ Charu interjected quickly.

Amal: But not today, surely.

Charu: But of course it was today. Have you forgotten.

Amal: Why should I forget? You said…

Charu: All right then, don’t get them. Carry on reading, I’ll go send Paresh to the library.

She rose to her feet.

Amal sensed danger. Manda understood, and her mind turned against Charu at once. As Amal hesitated,after Charu’s departure, she said with a faint smile, ‘Run after her, Charu’s angry. You’ll be in trouble if you read to me.’

It was virtually impossible for Amal to leave after this. Furious with Charu, he said, ‘What do you mean trouble?’ and made as if to read.

Covering his papers with both her hands, Manda said, ‘No need, don’t read.’

Holding back her tears, she left.

~ 5 ~

Charu had been invited out. Manda was plaiting her hair at home. Amal entered, the word ‘Bouthan’ on his lips. Manda, knowing Amal was not unaware of Charu’s engagement, said smiling, ‘Poor Amal-babu, you were expecting someone else, not me. Such is your fate.’

‘The bale of hay on the left is no different from the one on the right – equally inviting to the ass,’ countered Amal, and settled down.

Amal: Tell me about your home, Manda-bouthan, the village where you live.

Amal now listened to people with great interest in a bid to gather material for his writing. This was why he no longer ignored Manda as completely as he once had. Manda’s way of thinking, her past, were all subjects of enquiry for him now. He proceeded to interrogate her closely; about where she had been born, what her village was like, how she had spent her childhood, when she had got married and so on. Nobody had ever expressed so much interest in her brief life. Manda rambled on happily, occasionally saying, ‘All this probably makes no sense.’

‘No, I’m enjoying this, do go on,’ Amal encouraged her. Manda was in the middle of her story about a farmhand of her father’s who was blind in one eye. He would occasionally go on an angry fast after quarrelling with his second wife. Forced by hunger to come back home and steal a bite, he had been caught by her. Amal was listening with rapt attention and laughing in amusement when Charu entered.

The thread of the story was snapped, and Charu understood clearly that her arrival had interrupted a pleasant session.

‘You’re back early, aren’t you, bouthan?’ asked Amal.

‘So I see,’ said Charu. ‘Far too early.’ She made as if to leave again.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ said Amal. ‘I was wondering how late you’d be. I’ve brought you Manmatha Datta’s new book, The Evening Bird, to read.’

Charu: Not now, I have things to do.

Amal: Your wish is my command, I shall do them all for you.

Charu had known Amal would buy a book today to read to her; to make him jealous she had planned to praise Manmatha Datta profusely, so that Amal would mock his work, parodying it as he read it out. Having conjured up the scenes in her head, she had left the engagement early on the pretext of sickness, her mounting impatience making her ignore all requests to stay. Now all she kept telling herself was, ‘I was enjoying myself there, it was wrong of me to come away.’

Manda was no less brazen. There she was, alone with Amal in the room, grinning shamelessly. What would people say if they were to chance upon them? But it was very difficult for Charu to rebuke Manda about this. Suppose Manda cited Charu’s example in response? But their cases were quite different. She encouraged Amal to write, discussed literature with him – but Manda’s intention was nothing of the sort. She was clearly weaving her web to trap this innocent young man.

It was Charu’s duty to deliver the poor boy from this impending danger. But how was she to enlighten Amal about this temptress’s motives – suppose the enlightenment did not curb the temptation but only enhanced it? Most unfair.

My poor brother. There he is, slaving away at my husband’s newspaper all the time, and to think Manda is perched on the corner of the bed plotting to entice Amal. Dada is unperturbed, he trusts Manda implicitly. How could Charu possibly stay calm after being witness to such activities?

But Amal was a changed man. Ever since he had begun writing and had acquired a reputation, things had been going wrong. It was Charu who had sparked his writing career; she must have chosen an ill-fated moment to encourage him to write. For she could no longer assert herself with him as she was wont to earlier. Now that he had had a taste of acclaim from more than one person, it would make no difference to him if one of these people were to go away.

Charu concluded, with startling clarity, that Amal’s passage from her exclusive patronage to that of myriad others could only spell imminent danger for him. He no longer considered Charu his equal; he had overtaken her. He was now a writer, and Charu, only a reader. This would have to be rectified.

Poor, simple Amal, poor temptress Manda, poor dada.

~ 6 ~

The sky was full of fresh monsoon clouds. Darkness had gathered inside the room, and Charu was hunched near the open window, writing.

Not realising that Amal had padded in silently to stand behind her, she kept writing in the soft light filtering in through the clouds, while Amal kept reading.

One or two of Amal’s published pieces lay open beside her; to Charu they were the only possible models of writing.

‘And I thought you said you could not write!’

Charu was startled by Amal’s voice; swiftly concealing her notebook, she said, ‘Not fair.’

Amal: Why isn’t it fair?

Charu: Why were you spying on me?

Amal: Because I cannot look openly.

Charu made as if to tear up her sheets. Amal snatched the notebook out of her hand.

‘If you read it I’ll never talk to you again in my life,’ threatened Charu.

Amal: If you forbid me I’ll never talk to you again in my life.

Charu: For my sake, thakurpo, don’t read it.

Eventually Charu had to admit defeat. After all, she had been dying to show Amal what she had written; though she had not imagined she would be so self-conscious when it actually came down to it. When Amal finally began reading, after much coaxing and cajoling, Charu froze in embarrassment. ‘I’ll go get some paan,’ she said, departing on the pretext of getting the ingredients for the paan.

When he had finished reading, Amal told Charu, ‘It’s wonderful.’

‘Go on, don’t make fun of me,’ said Charu, forgetting one of the vital ingredients of the paan she was preparing. ‘Give my notebook back.’

‘Not till I’ve copied it and sent it to a magazine,’ declared Amal.

Charu: Send it to a magazine indeed! Never.

Amal didn’t relent. He kept repeating, ‘It’s worthy of being published,’ while Charu said, in apparent hopelessness, ‘I cannot argue with you. You’re far too stubborn.’

‘Dada must see this,’ Amal averred.

At this, Charu abandoned her paan rising to her feet swiftly; attempting to retrieve her notebook by force, she said, ‘No, you mustn’t read it to him. If you tell him about my writing I won’t write another word ever again.’

Amal: You’re wrong, bouthan. Whatever he may say, he’ll be delighted to see what you’ve written.

Charu: Perhaps, but I don’t need his delight.

Charu had vowed that she would write – and surprise Amal; she wouldn’t stop until she had established the vastness of the gulf between her and Manda. Over the past few days she had written – and torn up – a great deal. Whatever she tried to write turned out to be rather similar to Amal’s writing; when she compared the two, some passages appeared to have been entirely copied from Amal’s pieces. Those portions were worthwhile, the rest merely an amateur’s work. Assuming that Amal would laugh to himself if he read them, she had torn them to shreds and tossed them into the lake, so that not even a scrap could turn up in Amal’s hands.

Her first essay had been titled ‘Monsoon Clouds’. She had considered it a novel piece of writing, soaked in sensuousness. Suddenly she returned to her senses, realising it was nothing but a derivation of Amal’s ‘The Monsoon Moon’. Amal had written, ‘Why doth thou skulk among the clouds like a burglar, o moon my friend?’ Charu had written, ‘O thou garlanded by clouds, my dearest, whence did you appear to purloin the moon and spirit her away under thy indigo garb’ etcetera.

Unable to overcome Amal’s influence, Charu eventually changed the subject of her essay. Abandoning the moon, the clouds, the flowers and the birds, she composed a piece titled ‘By the Temple’. There was a temple to Kali nestling in the deep shadows by the tank in the village she had grown up in; she wrote about her imaginings, her curiosity, her fears around that temple, about her many memories of it, about the legends of the powerful goddess. The beginning was full of poetic embellishments in the mould of Amal’s essays, but as soon as the piece progressed her writing turned naturally simple and charged with the idioms, expressions and nuances of village life.

Amal snatched this piece away from her and read it. He felt that the beginning was quite fulfilling, but that the poetic tone had not been maintained till the end. Be that as it may, as a first effort the writer’s enthusiasm was commendable.

‘Let’s bring out a monthly magazine, thakurpo,’ proposed Charu. ‘What do you think?’

Amal: How will we run it without many pieces of silver.

Charu: This magazine will cost us nothing. It won’t be printed – we shall write it in our own hand. Nobody but you and I shall be published in it, nobody shall be allowed to read it; only two copies shall be produced, one for you and one for me.

Earlier, Amal would have been entranced by the prospect; but he had since then lost his zeal for secrecy. He was no longer satisfied unless he wrote for the larger public. But still, he expressed his enthusiasm so as to maintain their traditional superiority. ‘That will be excellent,’ he said.

‘But you must promise not to publish in any other magazine but ours,’ Charu added.

Amal: But the editors will kill me in that case.

Charu: You think I don’t have the weapons to kill you too.

It was settled, accordingly. Two writers, two editors and two readers formed the committee.

‘Let’s call it Charu’s Reader,’ proposed Amal.

‘No, it shall be named Amala.’ Charu turned him down.

These plans made Charu forget her pique for some time. Manda would not be able to force herself into their monthly magazine, after all – and its doors were barred to everyone else.

~ 7 ~

Bhupati came up to Charu one day and said, ‘Charu, we hadn’t agreed to your becoming a writer.’

Startled, Charu turned red. ‘I, a writer! Whoever told you that. Never.’

Bhupati: Caught red-handed. I present the evidence.

He produced a copy of The Lake Lotus. Charu saw that all the pieces she had collected in their private handwritten monthly magazine had been published under the author and authoress’s names.

She felt as though someone had let her favourite birds out of their cage. She was enraged by Amal’s treachery, forgetting her emabarrassment at being caught out by Bhupati.

‘And take a look at this, will you,’ said Bhupati, unfolding The Friend of the World newspaper for her to read. It contained an article titled ‘Trends in Modern Bengali Writing’.

‘I’m not interested’ said Charu, pushing it away. Her indignation with Amal prevented her from paying attention to anything else. ‘Try reading it,’ insisted Bhupati.

Charu was forced to glance at it. The writer had penned a stern piece, roundly criticising the over-sentimental purple prose of a certain class of writer. He was particularly derisive of the style used by Amal and Manmatha Datta, among them, and, comparing these with the work of the new writer Charubala Debi, had heaped fulsome praise on the natural simplicity, effortless sparkle and skilful imagery of her language. Only emulating such a process of writing would bring salvation to Amal & Co., he had written, the alternative being inevitable failure.

‘And that is what you would call outshining your mentor,’ laughed Bhupati.

Although she tried to be pleased at this first-ever praise of her writing, Charu felt upset instead. Her heart refused to be happy. She had to push away the delicious goblet of eulogy as soon as she had brought it to her lips.

She concluded that Amal had planned to surprise her by having her pieces published. He had decided that once a review that praised her appeared somewhere, he would show her both together to placate and encourage her. But why hadn’t he displayed any interest in showing her the piece singing her praises? He had obviously been hurt by the criticism and had not mentioned the newspaper to Charu because he did not want her to read it. The sudden storm of admiration had dropped a hailstone that threatened to shatter the literary nook Charu had created for her own pleasure. It was hateful.

After Bhupati had left, Charu sat in silence on her bed, The Lake Lotus and The Friend of the World open before her.

Amal appeared behind her silently, notebook in hand, to surprise Charu. Approaching, he saw Charu was engrossed in the critical piece in The Friend of the World.

Amal left again, as silently as he had come, telling himself, ‘Charu is in raptures because the writer has condemned me while praising her,’ His entire being seemed to turn to bile. Amal was infuriated, convinced that the idiot’s criticism had led Charu to consider herself superior to her mentor,.She should have torn that paper to shreds and burnt it to ashes.

Angry with Charu, he appeared at Manda’s door, calling loudly, ‘Manda-bouthan.’

Manda: Oh, come in. What a pleasant surprise. How fortunate I am.

Amal: Would you like to hear something I wrote recently?

Manda: You’ve kept me hoping so long to hear you read, but you never do. But maybe you shouldn’t – if someone were to be angry, you’re the one who’ll be in trouble, not I.

‘Who’s going to be angry?’ Amal said somewhat sharply. ‘And why? Anyway never mind all that, I’m going to read now.’

Manda composed herself swiftly. Amal began to orate with much ceremony.

Amal’s writing was completely impenetrable to Manda; she couldn’t fathom any of it. This was why she conjured up a joyful smile on her face and listened with added enthusiasm. Encouraged, Amal’s voice went from loud to louder.

He read: ‘Just as Abhimanyu had mastered in his mother’s womb the art of penetrating the phalanx but not that of escaping it, the river’s current had learnt in the stone womb of the mountains only how to course forward, but not how to turn back. Alas the flow of the river, alas youth, alas time, alas the universe, you can only journey forward – you never retrace your steps along the path that you leave strewn with the gilded pebbles of memory. Only our consciousness looks backward into the past, the infinite universe never even spares it a glance.’

Just then, Manda observed a shadow falling on the door to her room. But pretending she had not seen it, she kept her gaze steadfast on Amal, listening to him read.

The shadow vanished.

Charu had been waiting for Amal, so that she could condemn The Friend of the World suitably as soon as he appeared, and also chide him for having broken their vow and published their pieces in a magazine.

The usual hour of his appearance had passed, with no sign of him. Charu had written another piece; she wanted to read it to him, this was waiting too.

But there was his voice! Could it be coming from Manda’s room! She jumped to her feet as though stricken by a bolt of lightning, padding silently to Manda’s door. He had not yet read to her what he was reading to Manda! ‘Only our consciousness looks backward into the past, the infinite universe never even spares it a glance,’ he was reading.

Charu was unable to depart as silently as she had arrived; this succession of blows undid her completely. She wanted to shout at the top of her voice that Manda couldn’t understand a syllable, that Amal’s satisfaction at reading to her was nothing but stupidity. But instead of saying any of this, she announced it with loud footsteps. Returning to her bedroom, Charu slammed the door shut.

Amal paused briefly. Manda acknowledged Charu with a smile. ‘Bouthan is behaving like a despot,’ Amal mused to himself. ‘Does she consider me her slave? Am I not allowed to read to anyone but her? This is tyranny.’ With this thought, he proceeded to read to Manda in an even louder voice.

After he had finished, he passed Charu’s room on his way out, observing at a glance that her door was shut.

Charu realized from the sound of his footsteps that Amal had passed her room – without stopping. Her rage and indignation produced no tears. Taking her notebook, filled with her recent writing, she tore each page to shreds, piling them to one side. All this writing must have begun under an evil star.

~ 8 ~

At dusk, a scent of jasmine wafted in from the flower pots in the verandah. Stars were visible through scattered clouds. Charu hadn’t changed her clothes or tidied her hair. She sat in the darkness near the window, her hair blowing in the mild breeze, unable to understand the tears rolling down her face.

Bhupati entered. He wore rather a dejected expression, his heart heavy. This was not his accustomed hour; he was usually quite late to return to his bedroom after having written his articles and corrected proofs. But that day he came to Charu as soon as evening fell, appearing to be in need of some comfort.

The lamp was unlit. In the faint light coming through the window, Bhupati could just make out Charu’s figure; slowly he went and stood behind her. Charu didn’t turn around despite having heard his footsteps; she remained seated, as stiff and immobile as a statue.

‘Charu,’ Bhupati addressed her in some surprise.

Startled by his voice, she rose to her feet quickly. She had not been expecting Bhupati. Riffling his fingers fondly through her hair, Bhupati asked lovingly, ‘Why are you sitting alone in the dark, Charu? Where’s Manda?’

None of Charu’s hopes had been fulfilled all day. Probably convinced that Amal would come and apologise to her, she had been waiting, prepared. At this unexpected sound of Bhupati’s voice, she was unable to contain herself any longer, bursting into tears.

‘What is it, Charu, what is it?’ asked Bhupati, alarmed.

It was hard to say. What was it, after all? Nothing in particular. Could she possibly complain to Bhupati that Amal had read his new piece to Manda first instead of her? Wouldn’t Bhupati laugh? If there was a serious aspect to this trivial matter, discovering it was beyond Charu, who was even more distressed because she did not fully understand why she suffered so.

Bhupati: Please tell me what’s wrong, Charu. Have I done something wrong? You know how disturbed I am about all the problems with the newspaper, if I have hurt you it wasn’t intentional.

Charu felt restive, Bhupati was asking questions to which there was no answer. If only he would release her now, she would be relieved.

When he didn’t receive an answer even the second time, Bhupati said again lovingly, ‘I cannot give you company all the time Charu, I am guilty of that, but not any more. I will no longer devote all my time to the newspaper. You will have as much of me as you wish to.’

‘That’s not it,’ said Charu impatiently.

‘Then what is it?’ said Bhupati, sitting on the bed.

Unable to contain her irritation, Charu replied, ‘Never mind now, I’ll tell you at night.’

After a moment’s silence, Bhupati responded. ‘Very well, never mind now.’ He left, slowly. He had something of his own to tell her, but it remained unsaid.

Charu was not unaware that Bhupati was hurt as he left. ‘Let me call him back,’ she thought. But what would she tell him? She was stung by remorse, but she found no salve.

Night fell. Charu laid out Bhupati’s dinner with special care, waiting for him, fan in hand.

‘Braja, Braja!’ She heard Manda calling loudly.

When Braja the servant answered, Manda asked, ‘Has Amal-babu eaten?’

‘He has,’ replied Braja.

‘And you haven’t taken him his paan yet?’ Manda began to castigate Braja.

Bhupati arrived and sat down to his meal, Charu fanned him.

She had vowed to have a cordial conversation with him, preparing the topics beforehand. But Manda’s cries had distracted her from all her arrangements, and she was unable to say a single word to her husband during his meal. Bhupati, too, appeared extremely despondent and distracted, eating carelessly.

Only once did Charu speak. ‘Why aren’t you eating?’

‘But I am,’ Bhupati protested.

When they were together in their bedroom, Bhupati said, ‘You were going to tell me something tonight.’

‘For some time now I have been ill at ease with Manda, I daren’t have her live here anymore.’

Bhupati: What’s she been doing.

Charu: Her behaviour with Amal is embarrassing.

‘You’re exaggerating,’ Bhupati laughed. ‘Amal is just a child, nothing more… ’

‘You may know what’s going on in the world, but you have no idea what’s going on at home. At any event, it’s poor dada I worry for. Manda isn’t bothered to find out whether he has had his meals or not, but if the slightest thing goes wrong with Amal’s, she has a row with the servants.’

Bhupati: I must say you women are always suspecting things.

‘Very well, we suspect things,’ said Charu, furious, ‘but I’m warning you that I shan’t allow such brazen behaviour in my home.’

Bhupati was both amused and pleased at these baseless suspicions of Charu’s. There was a certain refinement, a palpable dedication, in this extra vigilance, this distrustful eye, that the devoted wife employed to ensure that the home stayed pure, that not even the semblance of a scandal could stain conjugal existence.

Kissing Charu’s forehead with affection and deference, Bhupati said, ‘There’ll be no need to make a fuss about all this. Umapada is going to Mymensing to practise law, he’ll take Manda with him too.’

To dispel his own worry and divert attention from this unpleasant discussion, Bhupati picked up a notebook, saying, ‘Why don’t you read to me what you’ve written, Charu?’

Snatching the notebook from his hand, Charu said, ‘You won’t enjoy it, you’ll only make fun of me.’

Bhupati was hurt at this, but keeping his feelings hidden, he said, ‘Very well, I will not make fun of you, I will be so still as I listen that you will imagine I’ve fallen asleep.’

But Bhupati was not heeded – and the notebook soon vanished under a pile of other things.

~ 9 ~

Bhupati could not bring himself to disclose the whole story to Charu. Umapada had been the manager of Bhupati’s newspaper. Collecting subscriptions, paying dues to the printers and others and paying the servants were all his responsibility.

But one day Bhupati was astonished to receive a legal letter from the paper supplier. Apparently he owed them Rs 2700. Summoning Umapada, he said, ‘What’s all this? I’ve already given all this money to you. The paper dues should not be more than four or five hundred rupees.’

‘They must have made a mistake,’ said Umapada.

But it couldn’t be kept a secret. Umapada had been embezzling money for some time. It wasn’t just the newspaper, he had run up considerable debt everywhere, claiming to represent Bhupati. He had also financed the material for a house that he was constructing in his village using Bhupati’s name; most of it had had to be paid back using the newspaper’s funds.

Upon being caught, he said brusquely, ‘I’m not running away, am I. I will pay it all back with my labour – you can name your dog after me if I leave even a penny unpaid.’

The power to desecrate Umapada’s name offered no consolation to Bhupati. He was not particularly disconsolate at having lost his money, but this unexpected act of treachery seemed to remove the ground beneath his feet.

That was the day he had visited Charu in their bedroom. He had been yearning for a moment of solace from the one person in the world he could trust. But Charu had been sitting by the window, lost in her sadness, the evening lamp unlit.

The next day, Umapada made ready to go to Mymensing. He wanted to leave quickly before his creditors learnt of his departure. Bhupati loathed him too much to be inclined to talk to him, Umapada considered his silence a boon.

‘What’s all this, Manda bouthan?’ Amal came to ask. ‘Why are you packing furiously?’

Manda: I have to go, after all. Did you expect I’d stay here forever?

Amal: But where are you going?

Manda: Home.

Amal: Why? Something wrong here?

Manda: There’s nothing wrong as far as I’m concerned. I was happy living with all of you. But others felt ill at ease.

She gestured towards Charu’s bedroom.

Amal remained grimly silent.

‘Oh dear, how embarrassing. What must sir be thinking?’ exclaimed Manda.

Amal didn’t prolong their conversation. He was certain Charu had told her husband things about him and Manda that should not have been mentioned.

Amal went out for a walk, wishing he didn’t have to return to this house. If his brother had believed all that his wife had told him and considered him guilty, he would have no choice but to emulate Manda. Packing Manda off was in one sense an order of exile for him too – even if it had not been spelt out. His course was obvious to him; he should not stay another moment. But it was impossible to imagine his brother harbouring any kind of unfair impression of him. Bhupati had taken Amal into his home with implicit trust. How could he now leave without assuring his brother that he had not violated that trust in any way whatsoever?

Clasping his hands to his head, Bhupati was at that moment pondering the ingratitude of members of his family, harassment by creditors and unregulated accounts. He had no one to share this arid despair with, and was preparing to battle alone with his tormented soul as well as his debt.

Suddenly, Amal stormed into his room. Bhupati was jolted out of his ruminations. ‘What’s the matter, Amal?’ he said.

He had a sudden foreboding that Amal had brought bad news.

‘Has anything happened for you to doubt me, dada?’ Amal asked.

‘Doubt you!’ Bhupati exclaimed. To himself, he said, ‘The way things are, I won’t be surprised if I do start doubting Amal too, some day.’

Amal: Has bouthan complained to you about my integrity?

‘Is that all?’ thought Bhupati. ‘Thank heavens. Nothing but pique.’ He had assumed another calamity had succeeded the first one. But even during a crisis, one has to pay attention to these minor issues; the world will rock your bridge, but will not stop urging you to carry your load across it.

At any other time, Bhupati would have made fun of Amal, but he wasn’t cheerful enough today. ‘Are you out of your senses?’ he asked.

‘Has bouthan said anything?’ Amal repeated his question.

Bhupati: Even if she has said anything out of love for you, you mustn’t be angry about it..

Amal: I should probably go away somewhere else and look for a job.

‘You’re being completely childish, Amal,’ Bhupati admonished him. ‘It’s time for you to study now, a job can wait.’

Amal left with a glum expression, Bhupati sat down to reconcile the subscription payments with the past three years’ accumulated expenses.

~ 10 ~

Amal decided he would have to confront Charu; he would see this through to the end. He began to rehearse the severe strictures he would pronounce.

When Manda had left, Charu had determined to send for Amal on her own and appease his wrath. But he would have to be invited over the pretext of literature – she had spun out a piece in imitation of Amal’s, titled ‘The Light of the Dark Moon’. Charu had finally realised that Amal didn’t approve of her having her own unique writing style.

Because the full moon exposed all its brightness, Charu had in her new piece rebuked it roundly, heaping humiliation on it. She had written: ‘Within every layer of the immeasurable depths of the blackest night is trapped the brightness of the many-splendoured moon. Not a single beam has been lost, and hence the darkness of the new moon is more complete than the dazzle of the full moon… ’ etcetera. Amal revealed everything he wrote to everyone, while Charu did not – was there a hint of this in the comparison between the new and the full moons?

Meanwhile, Bhupati, the third member of this family, was visiting his close friend Motilal in the hope of deliverance from an urgent loan.

Bhupati had lent Motilal a few thousand rupees during a crisis, he was extremely embarrassed to have to ask for it to be returned. Motilal was fanning himself after a bath, while performing the ritual of writing the name of a goddess a thousand times in minuscule script on a sheet of paper spread over his desk. ‘How wonderful,’ he said in a sincere tone when Bhupati entered, ‘we hardly see you these days.’

When Bhupati told him why he was there, Motilal mulled over the matter before saying, ‘What money are you talking about? Have I borrowed any money from you recently?’

When Bhupati reminded him of the date of the loan, Motilal said, ‘Oh, that’s lapsed a long time ago.’

The world seemed to change before Bhupati’s eyes. This unmaking unsettled him terribly. Just like the terrified person who seeks the highest point on land when there is a sudden flood, Bhupati entered the inner chambers of his home full of doubts, beating a retreat from the outside world. ‘No matter what, Charu at least will not deceive me,’ he told himself.

Charu was at the time writing with deep concentration, her notebook on her pillow and the pillow in her lap. Only when Bhupati stood beside her did she become aware of his presence, whereupon she swiftly hid the notebook beneath her legs.

When the heart is already in agony, the smallest hurt exacerbates the pain. Bhupati was cut to the quick by the unnecessary haste with which Charu had concealed her notebook.

He sat down slowly on the bed by her side. This unexpected obstacle to the flow of her writing and the alacrity with which she had had to hide her notebook from Bhupati, prevented her from saying anything.

Bhupati had nothing to say or offer of his own today. Bankrupt, he had approached Charu for support. A concerned, loving enquiry from Charu, a show of tenderness, was all he needed to salve his aching wound. But ‘bounty deserted the bountiful’. When asked to unlock the store of compassion when she was least expecting it, Charu was unable to find the key. The severe silence between them deepened the stillness of the room. After some time had passed, Bhupati rose with a sigh and left the room without a word.

At that moment, Amal was striding swiftly towards Charu’s room, having prepared several admonitions. Meeting Bhupati halfway and seeing him looking pale and stricken, Amal stopped in alarm to ask, ‘Are you feeling ill, dada?’

Amal’s soft, concerned query made Bhupati’s heart, brimming with tears, swell in his breast. For a while, he could not utter a word. Restraining himself with great effort, he said emotionally, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Amal. Are you publishing anything soon?’

Amal forgot the harsh accusations he had prepared. Hurrying to Charu’s room, he asked her, ‘What’s wrong with dada, bouthan?’

‘I couldn’t make out anything,’ answered Charu. ‘Maybe some other newspaper has criticised his.’

Amal shook his head.

Charu was comforted by Amal’s unbidden appearance and the resumption of normal conversation between them. Now she broached the subject of literature, saying, ‘I was writing a piece titled ‘The Light of the Dark Moon’; he nearly saw it.’

Charu had assumed Amal would pester her to read her new piece. She gestured with her notebook to encourage him. But Amal only gave her a sharp glance; no one knew what he was thinking, what he had surmised. He got to his feet in an instant. It was as though the traveller on a mountain trail had suddenly discovered, when the mist parted, that he was about to step into a thousand-foot-deep ravine. Without a word, Amal left the room.

Charu did not understand Amal’s unprecedented behaviour.

~ 11 ~

The next day, Bhupati appeared in the bedroom again at an unusual hour and sent for Charu. ‘We have rather a good proposal for Amal, Charu,’ he told her.

Charu was distracted. ‘A good… what?’ she asked.

Bhupati: A proposal. For marriage.

Charu: Why, what’s wrong with me.

Bhupati guffawed. ‘I haven’t asked Amal yet what’s wrong with you. And even if he does think nothing is, I do have a minor claim, which I don’t intend to relinquish easily.’

Charu: What nonsense. Didn’t you say you’d received a proposal?

She turned red.

Bhupati: Would I have rushed in to inform you in that case? I would not exactly have been rewarded, after all.

Charu: A proposal for Amal? That’s good news. Why put it off then?

Bhupati: A lawyer from Burdwan named Raghunath-babu wants Amal to marry his daughter and will pay for him to go to England.

‘England?’ Charu said in astonishment.

Bhupati: Yes, England.

Charu: Amal go to England? That’s wonderful. Excellent, very good. Why don’t you talk to him about it.

Bhupati: Wouldn’t it be better if you explained it to him before I talked to him?

Charu: I’ve told him thousands of times. He doesn’t care for my advice. I cannot tell him anymore.

Bhupati: Do you think he will refuse?

Charu: I’ve tried so many times, he hasn’t agreed yet.

Bhupai: But it will not be right for him to turn this proposal down. I am in considerable debt, I cannot provide for Amal anymore as I used to.

Bhupati sent for Amal. When he arrived, Bhupati told him, ‘Raghunath-babu, a lawyer from Burdwan, has proposed marriage between you and his daughter. He would like to finance your visit to England after the wedding. What do you think?’

‘If I have your permission,’ answered Amal, ‘I have no objection.’

Both Bhupati and Charu were surprised at Amal’s response. Neither of them had imagined he would agree so readily.

‘He is willing if his elder brother permits it,’ mocked Charu. ‘How obedient the younger brother is. And where was your reverence for your brother all these days, thakurpo?’

Without answering, Amal tried to smile.

His silence doubled Charu’s acerbity. Trying to provoke him, she said, ‘Why don’t you admit your new eagerness? Why did you have to pretend all these days that you didn’t want to get married? You’ve just been putting on an act.’

‘It was out of consideration for you that Amal concealed his desire all this time, lest you feel jealous at the thought of a sister-in-law,’ joked Bhupati.

Reddening, Charu protested loudly. ‘Jealousy! Indeed! I’m never jealous. It’s extremely unfair of you to talk like that.’

Bhupati: Look at you! I cannot even speak in jest with my own wife!

Charu: No. I despise such jests.

Bhupati: Very well, my crime is heinous. Forgive me. At any event, is the proposal to be considered as accepted?

‘Yes,’ confirmed Amal.

Charu: You cannot even wait to find out whether you like the girl or not. You never gave us an inkling of your desperation.

Bhupati: If you would like to take a look at the girl I shall arrange it, Amal. I’ve been told she is beautiful.

Amal: No, I see no need for a look.

Charu: Don’t pay any attention to him. How can we have a marriage without even setting eyes on the bride? We will take a look at her, if he doesn’t want to.

Amal: No, dada, I see no point in delaying needlessly over this.

Charu: No need, then – a delay might break his heart. You’d better put on your wedding finery and leave at once. What if your princess were to be stolen away by another?

None of Charu’s barbs could shake Amal in the least.

Charu: Is your heart longing to run away to England? Do you feel tormented here with us? Terrified? Young men today feel incomplete unless they can become Englishmen in hats and coats. Will you still recognise dark-skinned people like us when you’re back from England, thakurpo?

‘Why go to England otherwise?’ said Amal.

‘After all, we sail the seven seas in order to shed our dark skin,’ laughed Bhupati. ‘But don’t worry, Charu, with the rest of us still here the dark-skinned shall not lack for admirers.’

Pleased, Bhupati despatched a letter to Burdwan at once. The wedding was finalised.

~ 12 ~

Meanwhile, the newspaper had to be wound up; Bhupati could no longer finance it. In a single moment, he was compelled to abandon his pursuit of the vast, ruthless object called the people’s republic, to which he had devoted himself all this time, day and night. The familiar path along which every effort of Bhupati’s life had travelled without a pause, for twelve years, seemed to have been submerged suddenly. Bhupati had not been remotely prepared for this. Where he would he now direct all his thwarted efforts? All those bygone years seemed to gaze at him like starving, orphaned children, Bhupati marched them off to the benevolent and compassionate woman he lived with.

The woman in question was musing on something else, at the time. ‘How strange,’ she was telling herself, ‘it’s good news that Amal is to get married. But didn’t he feel the slightest hesitation at the thought of leaving us after all these years, to get married and go off to England? We took such good care of him all this time, but the moment he found the slightest opportunity to escape, he took it at once, as though he’d only been waiting. And yet, such honeyed words, such a show of affection. You cannot see people for who they are. Who would have imagined that a person who can write all he did has such an empty heart?’

Comparing Amal’s empty heart with the overflowing nature of her own, Charu tried to be contemptuous of him, but failed. Impaled by the pain, she felt all her affront, hurt and anger rise to the surface. ‘Amal will leave very soon, but still there’s been no sign of him. He has not even had the time to settle our differences.’ Charu kept expecting Amal to come back on his own – surely all their games could not end so abruptly – but Amal never came.

Finally, when his departure was imminent, Charu sent for Amal herself.

‘I’ll be along in a while,’ he told the maid. Charu went to the verandah and sat on the bench. Thick clouds had gathered in the sky since morning, making for the day sultry. Piling her hair loosely on her head, Charu fanned herself in exhaustion.

The hours went by. Her fan could move no more. Anger, sadness and impatience swelled in her breast. ‘So what if Amal doesn’t come,’ she told herself. But still her attention raced towards the door, every time she heard footsteps.

The church clock in the distance rang eleven. Bhupati would arrive soon for his lunch, after his bath. She still had half an hour to spare, in case Amal came. Somehow or other, their silent war had to be resolved today – Amal could not be sent off this way.

There was an eternal relationship between a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law of the same age – made up of friendship, quarrels, demands, happy conversations. Was he really going to go so far away for so long a time, sweeping away the tendrils of this sheltering canopy? Would he not regret it even slightly? Would he not water the soil under that canopy one last time – the final tears of their relationship.

The half an hour had nearly passed. Undoing her lightly knotted hair, Charu twisted and untwisted its strands nervously around her fingers. Her tears could no longer be contained. The servant arrived to ask her, ‘Will you get a fresh coconut out for babu, mathakrun?’

Unknotting the end of her sari where the pantry keys were tied, Charu flung them on the floor with a loud clatter. Taken aback, the servant left with the keys.

Something seemed to well up within Charu, trying to force its way out through her throat.

A smiling Bhupati arrived for his lunch at the appointed hour. When she went to the spot where his meals were served, fan in hand, Charu found Amal with Bhupati. She didn’t look at him.

‘You sent for me, bouthan?’ asked Amal.

‘No, I don’t need you any more,’ Charu answered.

Amal: Then I’d better go, I have plenty of packing to do.

Looking at him with glistening eyes, Charu said, ‘’Go.’

With a glance at her, Amal left.

Bhupati usually spent a little time with Charu after his lunch. But as he was very busy with his accounting problems, he told her regretfully that he couldn’t linger today. ‘I can’t stay – there’s been some trouble.’

‘Why don’t you go?’ said Charu.

Bhupati thought Charu looked upset. ‘I don’t have to leave immediately,’ he said, ‘but after a little rest.’ When he sat down, however, he saw Charu was depressed. A penitent Bhupati stayed by her side for some time, but he was absolutely unable to start a conversation. After several failed attempts, Bhupati said, ‘Amal is leaving tomorrow, you might feel lonely for a while.’

Without replying, Charu left quickly for the other room to fetch something. Waiting for a bit, Bhupati left.

Charu had noticed that Amal had become much thinner; the exuberance of youth had left his face completely. This caused Charu both happiness and pain. She was left in no doubt that their imminent parting was what was making him miserable; but why was Amal behaving this way? Why was he keeping himself at a distance to avoid her? Why was he deliberately making the moment of departure so discordant, so bitter?

Pondering about all this as she lay in bed, Charu suddenly sat up with a start. She had suddenly thought of Manda. What if Amal were in love with her! Was it because Manda had left that Amal was… how horrible! Could Amal behave this way? So low? So unchaste? Could he really be attracted to a married woman? Impossible! She tried to dispel the suspicion with all her might, but it gnawed at her.

Thus the hour of departure arrived. The clouds did not lift. His voice trembling, Amal said to Charu, ‘It’s time for me to go, bouthan. You must look after dada now. He’s in a grave crisis – he has no one but you to turn to for comfort.’

Amal had learnt of Bhupati’s predicament when he investigated the reason for his despondency. He was sobered when he realized how Bhupati was battling his wretched state of affairs all by himself, without anyone’s support. When he thought of Charu and of himself, he turned red to the tips of his ears. Forcefully, he had told himself, ‘To hell with the monsoon moon and the light of the dark night. Only if I can be a barrister and return to help dada will I prove myself a man.’

Charu had lain awake all of the previous night, rehearsing what she would tell Amal when he left; she had sharpened and brightened her little speech endlessly, giving it a coating of amused indignation and cheerful indifference, But when the time came, Charu could say nothing. All she said was, ‘You’ll write, won’t you, Amal?’

Amal touched the floor at her feet with his forehead as a mark of respect, Charu ran to her bedroom and locked the door.

~ 13 ~

Bhupati went to Burdwan to see Amal off to England after his wedding.

Assaulted relentlessly from all quarters, the normally trusting man had developed a certain detachment from the outside world. He enjoyed neither conferences and meetings nor the company of people. ‘I have been deluding myself with all this,’ he mused. ‘I have wasted the time that I could have used to be happy, and consigned the essence of my life to the dustbin.’

‘Just as well the newspaper is gone,’ he told himself. ‘I am free.’ Just like the bird returning to its nest in the evening at the first sign of darkness, Bhupati abandoned his habitat of many years to return to Charu, at his home. ‘This is where I shall settle,’ he decided, ‘nowhere else. The paper ship I used to play with all day has sunk, it’s time to go home now.’

Bhupati probably held the widespread belief that one does not have to assert one’s right over one’s wife; like the pole star, one’s wife uses her own light to keep shining, without being snuffed out by the wind, not caring for fuel. When his world began to be destroyed, it did not even occur to Bhupati to check for cracks in the pillars holding up his own home.

He returned from Burdwan in the evening. After a quick toilet, he ate an early dinner and proceeded to smoke his hookah. Certain that Charu was eagerly anticipating the details of Amal’s wedding and his preparations for the voyage to England, he waited for her; she was not here yet, probably busy with her household tasks. The tobacco fumes made the tired Bhupati sleepy. Shaking himself awake from slumber every now and then, he wondered where Charu was. Unable to wait any longer, he sent for her. ‘Why so late today, Charu?’ he asked her.

‘Yes, I’m late today,’ she replied without explanation.

Bhupati waited for Charu to ply him with eager questions; but Charu asked nothing. He was a little disappointed. Didn’t Charu love Amal, then? She had been so lively when he was here, how could she have lost all interest as soon as he had left? Such contradictory behaviour left Bhupati with a sudden doubt; was there no depth to Charu’s feelings after all, he wondered. Did she know only to enjoy herself, but not to love? It wasn’t good for a woman to be so detached.

Bhupati had been happy at the friendship between Amal and Charu. The childish way in which they quarrelled and made up, their games and their conspiracies, were all sweet diversions for him. He had been pleased at the evidence of Charu’s tender empathy that her constant care and concern for Amal displayed. That night he wondered in amazement whether it had all been fleeting, whether any of it had ever had any foundation in her heart. If Charu were indeed so heartless, he mused, who would offer him the shelter he himself needed so desperately?

‘How have you been, Charu?’ Bhupati probed gently. ‘You’re not unwell, are you?’

‘I’m fine,’ Charu answered briefly.

Bhupati: Amal’s wedding is done with.

He paused. Charu tried desperately to offer a suitable response, but she could think of nothing; she remained stiffly silent.

Bhupati was not normally so sensitive, but because the sorrow of parting was fresh in his mind, Charu’s indifference hurt him. He had wanted to talk about Amal with Charu, who should have been suffering as well, to ease the burden on his heart.

Bhupati: She’s quite pretty… Are you asleep, Charu?’

‘No,’ answered Charu.

Bhupati: Poor Amal had to leave all by himself. When I saw him off on the train, he was sobbing like a child – and despite my ripe age I could not contain my tears. There were a couple of Englishmen on the train, they found the sight of sobbing men extremely amusing.’

In the darkness of the bedroom, with the light put out, Charu turned on her side at first, then left the bed hurriedly. Startled, Bhupati asked, ‘Are you unwell, Charu?’

Receiving no answer, he rose from his bed too. Hearing the sound of muffled sobs from the verandah, he approached swiftly to discover Charu lying collapsed on the floor, trying to hold back her tears.

Bhupati was astonished at this tumultuous outpouring of grief. ‘Did I misjudge Charu?’ he thought. ‘She is so much of an introvert that she will not reveal her heartache even to me.’ People of this nature loved deeply, and suffered deeply too. Charu’s love was not as demonstrative as was the case with ordinary women, surmised Bhupati. He had never seen any exhibition of emotion from her; that day, he realised that it was because Charu’s love flowered in secret, deep within. Bhupati was not skilled at expressing himself either; discovering the deeply private nature of Charu’s emotions gave him a sense of satisfaction.

Sitting down by her side, Bhupati caressed her lightly, without a word. He did not know how to comfort her – and he did not realise that when someone tries to strangle their grief in the dark, they’d rather not have a witness to the act.

~ 14 ~

When Bhupati had retired from his newspaper, he had painted a certain picture of his future in his head. He had vowed not to do anything extravagantly ambitious; he would involve himself with Charu, with reading, with caring for her, with everyday household duties. He had planned to live quietly and peacefully, lighting up his life with all those little flames of happiness, accessible yet beautiful, tangible yet pure. Conversation, laughter, wit, entertainment… these things did not require much effort, but offered many joys.

In practice, such ordinary happiness is not easy to come by. Whatever cannot be purchased for a price is impossible to find unless it is already close at hand.

Bhupati simply could not become intimate with Charu. He blamed himself. ‘Twelve years of nothing but journalism have made lose my ability to be a companion to my wife,’ he concluded. As soon as the evening lamps were lit, Bhupati went to his room eagerly – he said something, Charu said something, and then Bhupati did not know how to continue the conversation. This ineptitude made him feel ashamed before his wife. He had imagined that talking to her would be so simple, but to a fool like him it was so very difficult. It was easier to deliver a speech at a meeting.

It was difficult to pass the evenings that Bhupati had thought he would make romantic with laughter and entertainment, wooing and caresses. After a tortuous silence, he would actually consider leaving the room – but he couldn’t, for what would Charu think?

‘Would you like to play cards, Charu?’ he would say.

‘All right,’ Charu would say, seeing no other option; fetching the cards reluctantly, she would make elementary mistakes to lose easily. There was no pleasure in such a game.

After much thought, Bhupati asked Charu one day, ‘Should we send for Manda, Charu? You’re rather lonely.’

Charu flared up on hearing Manda’s name. ‘No, I don’t need her,’ she said.

Bhupati smiled. He was pleased. A devoted wife never succeeded in containing her annoyance whenever she witnessed an exception in another.

Overcoming her initial loathing, Charu wondered whether she would be able to divert Bhupati better if Manda were here. The realisation that she could not provide Bhupati the happiness that he sought troubled her. Bhupati had abandoned everything in the whole wide world to pin all his hopes on Charu. This – along with his intense effort and her own inadequacy – pained her greatly.

How could they continue this way, and how long? Why couldn’t Bhupati take up something else? Why didn’t he start another newspaper? Charu had not had to master the art of pleasing Bhupati; he had never demanded anything of her, never sought any particular pleasure, never made her completely indispensable to himself; now that he had suddenly placed every requirement of his life at Charu’s doorstep, she seemed unable to find ways to meet them. She did not quite know what Bhupati wanted, what exactly would satisfy him; even if she had, it would not have been within her grasp.

Had Bhupati advanced step by step, perhaps it would not have proved as difficult for Charu; but he seemed to have become bankrupt overnight and extended an empty begging bowl to her. This perturbed her.

‘All right, send for Manda,’ said Charu, ‘if she’s here you will be better looked after.’

‘My being better looked after!’ exclaimed Bhupati. ‘There’s no need whatsoever.’

Disappointed, Bhupati told himself, ‘I’m far too dull, I’m simply unable to make Charu happy.’

With this thought, he immersed himself in literature. When his friends visited, they were astonished to see him surrounded by Tennyson, Byron and Bankim. They began to ridicule this sudden passion for poetry. ‘The bamboo plant flowers too,’ smiled Bhupati, ‘even if no one can predict when.’

One evening, lighting a bright lamp in the bedroom, Bhupati hemmed and hawed in embarrassment at first, then said, ‘Shall I read to you?’

‘Do,’ said Charu.

Bhupati: What would you like to hear?

Charu: Whatever you like.

Bhupati was a little deflated by Charu’s lack of interest. Still he took courage in his hands to say, ‘Shall I translate something from Tennyson for you?’

‘All right,’ said Charu.

Everything was ruined. Hesitation and lack of interest made Bhupati falter in his reading; he was unable to find the corresponding Bengali words. Charu’s blank gaze made it obvious she wasn’t paying attention. The small lamplit room, the evening with its promise of intimacy, did not find fulfilment.

After repeating the same mistake a couple of times, Bhupati finally abandoned his literary endeavours with his wife.

~ 15 ~

Just as a severe blow numbs the senses, making it impossible to feel the pain at first, so too did Charu seem unable to feel Amal’s absence properly in the early days of their separation.

As the days passed, however, the dimensions of the void left by Amal’s absence kept increasing. Charu lost her equilibrium at this terrible discovery. What desert was this that she had been transported to from her forest glade? As the days went by, the desert seemed to become even more vast.

Her heart sank the moment she awoke in the morning – she was reminded that Amal was no longer there. When she sat down in the verandah to prepare the paan, she was constantly reminded that Amal wouldn’t come up behind her. As her mind wandered, she prepared too much paan sometimes, then remembered with a start that there was no one to offer them to. Whenever she stepped into the pantry, it was to recall that she didn’t have to send breakfast to Amal. She would stand impatiently at the doorway to her chambers, as she used to, only to be reminded that Amal wouldn’t be returning from college. There was no new book, no article, no news, no source of amusement to await expectantly. There was no one to embroider for, to write for, to buy something elegant for.

Charu was surprised at the unbearable unhappiness and restlessness she felt. Her constant despair made her afraid. ‘Why, why does it hurt so much?’ she kept asking herself. ‘What makes Amal so important that I have to suffer on his account? What has happened to me, after all these years; what is this that has happened to me? Even the maids and servants and labourers and porters can go back home content, why did this happen to me? Why have you put me in such a predicament, my lord?’

She continued to be surprised by the depth of her misery, which seemed never-ending. Amal’s memory so dominated her body and soul that there was no escaping it.

Bhupati should have protected her from the assault of Amal’s memory; instead, the well-meaning fool, himself pained by the separation, reminded her of him even more.

Eventually Charu gave up completely, desisting from battling herself; acknowledging defeat; she accepted her condition, and lovingly enshrined Amal’s memory in her heart. Gradually, it came to pass that meditating on Amal with her full attention became a source of pride for her – as though the memory of her love were the greatest glory of her life.

She fixed a certain time of day for this, between her various household tasks. Shutting her lonely bedroom door, she would relive every event of her life with Amal. Burying her face in her pillow, she would say over and over, ‘Amal Amal Amal!’

A response seemed to emerge from across the seas: ‘What is it, bouthan, what is it?’

Closing her tearful eyes, Charu would say, ‘Why did you get angry and go away, Amal? I did nothing wrong. If you had said a proper goodbye, perhaps I would not have suffered so much.’

Speaking as she would have had Amal been sitting before her, Charu would say, ‘Not for a day have I forgotten you, Amal. Not for a day, not for a moment. You have brought out the best in me, I will worship you every single day with the essence of my life.’

Thus, in a chamber deep under the surface of her everyday life, in an unlit, silent darkness, Charu constructed a memorial to her secret sorrow, adorning it with garlands of tears. Neither her husband nor anyone else had the right to enter it. This spot was as secret as it was deep-seated, as it was beloved. It was there and there alone that she shed all her worldly disguises and entered as herself, unveiled and uncovered, re-emerging afterwards in the theatre of the world’s laughter and conversations and activities with her mask firmly affixed to her face.

~ 16 ~

No longer battling with herself, Charu found a certain peace despite her immense grief and devoted herself instead to looking after her husband. While Bhupati slept, Charu would softly lower her forehead to his feet, symbolically smearing the dust of his feet on her brow. In her attention to him and to the household, she did not leave his slightest wish unfulfilled. Aware that Bhupati would be unhappy at any neglect of guests and dependents, she did not permit the smallest blemish in her hospitality. After her chores, Charu ended her day by eating leftovers off Bhupati’s plate.

This attention and care appeared to revive the prematurely ageing Bhupati’s youth. He did not seem to have been newly married to his wife earlier, but only now. Blossoming amidst all the pleasures and the laughter and the humour, Bhupati consigned his anxieties to a corner of his mind. Just as the appetite gains strength after the comforts of convalescence, the blossoming of the senses becoming palpable, so too were exquisite and powerful sensations generated within Bhupati. Keeping it secret from his friends, even from Charu, Bhupati began to read poetry. ‘With the newspaper gone and after much unhappiness, I have been able to discover my wife after all these days.’

‘Why have you given up writing completely, Charu?’ Bhupati asked her.

‘I’m not much of a writer,’ Charu said.

Bhupati: Honestly, I don’t see any of today’s authors writing as well as you do in the Bengali language, I fully agree with what The Friend of the World said.’

Charu: Enough, stop.

‘See for yourself,’ said Bhupati, pulling out a copy of The Lake Lotus to compare the use of language by Charu and by Amal. Turning red, Charu snatched the paper out of Bhupati’s hands and hid it in her sari.

‘One cannot write without a companion,’ Bhupati thought to himself. ‘Wait, I have to practise writing myself, then I’ll be able to rekindle Charu’s interest in writing.’

Bhupati began to practise,in complete secrecy. His days of unemployment passed consulting the dictionary, revising repeatedly and copying his writing over and over again. He had to put so much effort, so much suffering, into his essays that he came to believe in and love them.

Eventually, Bhupati got someone else to copy his pieces out and handed the notebook to his wife.

‘One of my friends has started writing recently,’ he told her. ‘I don’t understand all this, will you read it to see if you like it?’

Leaving the notebook with his wife, Bhupati left, in trepidation. Charu saw through naïve Bhupati’s deception easily.

She read them, laughing at the style and subjects. Charu had made so many arrangements to display her reverence for her husband, why did he have to squander her offerings with such childishness? Why did he have to make such efforts to earn her approval? If only he would not bother with any of this, if only he did not have to strive constantly to draw her attention, Charu would have found it easier to worship her husband. She earnestly wished Bhupati wouldn’t debase himself, taking himself to a level lower than her.

Shutting the notebook, Charu leant back against her pillow, staring into the distance for a long time, ruminating. Amal used to give her his new pieces to read, too.

In the evening, an eager Bhupati busied himself surveying the flower pots in the verandah outside the bedroom, without daring to ask the question.

‘Is this the first time that your friend is writing?’ Charu asked, on her own.

‘Yes,’ answered Bhupati.

Charu: They’re so good – they don’t seem to be first efforts at all.

Very pleased, Bhupati began to wonder how to claim the anonymous pieces as his own.

His notebook began to fill up at an astounding pace. Disclosing their authorship didn’t take him long, either.

~ 17 ~

Charu always remembered when letters from England were due to arrive. The first letter came from Aden, addressed to Bhupati; in it, Amal had offered respectful greetings to Charu. A letter for Bhupati came from the Suez too, Charu received respectful greetings in it as well. A letter arrived from Malta, also containing respectful greetings for Charu in the postscript.

Charu did not receive a single letter from Amal. Taking the letters from Bhupati, she read them over and over, but found not a trace of a reference to herself besides the respectful greetings.

The shelter of quiet grief, like a canopy of moonlight, that Charu had found for herself these past few weeks was shattered by Amal’s callous disregard. Her heart seemed to be torn apart all over again; the stability of household duties once again gave way to disruptive tremors.

Waking up in the middle of night, Bhupati often discovered Charu missing from their bed. Looking for her, he found her sitting by the window in the room that looked out to the south. When she saw him, she explained quickly, ‘It’s very warm in the bedroom, I came to catch a breeze.’

A concerned Bhupati arranged for a fan to be installed over the bed, and, fearing that Charu would fall ill, kept watch over the state of her health.

‘I’m fine,’ Charu would smile, ‘why do you concern yourself needlessly?’ She had to apply all her strength to make a smile appear on her face.

Amal arrived in England. Charu had concluded that perhaps he had not had the opportunity to write to her separately during his passage, but that he would write her a long letter once he reached England. However, the long letter did not arrive.

Every day that the post was due, Charu was restless under the routine of all her tasks and conversations. She didn’t dare ask Bhupati anything, lest he say, ‘There’s nothing for you.’

One of the days when the post was usually delivered, Bhupati strolled up to Charu and said with a faint smile, “I have something, do you want to see it?’

‘Show me, quickly,’ said Charu, anxiously.

In jest, Bhupati refused to show her.

Impatient, Charu attempted to snatch the object from under Bhupati’s shawl. ‘My heart’s been telling me since morning that the letter will arrive today,’ Charu told herself, ‘I couldn’t possibly have been wrong.’

Bhupati’s wish to tease her mounted, he circled the bed to avoid Charu’s lunges.

Annoyed, Charu sat down on the bed, raising eyes brimming with tears.

Inordinately pleased at Charu’s eagerness, Bhupati extracted his notebook of essays and dropped it quickly in Charu’s lap, saying, ‘Don’t be angry, here you are.’

~ 18 ~

Although Amal had informed Bhupati of his inability to write letters for some time because of the pressure of studies, the world became a bed of thorns for Charu when two successive postal deliveries went by without anything from him.

As they spoke that evening, Charu suggested to her husband somewhat casually and calmly, ‘Look, how about telegraphing England to enquire after Amal?’

‘He wrote just a fortnight ago, he’s busy with his studies now,’ responded Bhupati.

Charu: Oh, no need in that case. I only thought, he’s abroad – what if he were to fall ill or something, you never can tell.

Bhupati: No, we’d have heard if he were seriously ill. Sending a telegram isn’t cheap either.

Charu: Is that so? I thought it would take a rupee or two only.

Bhupati: You have no idea, it costs about a hundred rupees.

Charu: Then there’s no question.

A day or two later, Charu told Bhupati, ‘My sister lives in Chinsurah these days, could you pay a visit to enquire after her?’

Bhupati: Why? Is she ill?

Charu: No, she isn’t ill. But you know how much they like having you.

At Charu’s request, Bhupati took the coach to Howrah Station. A row of bullock carts barred their way, at this moment, a peon whom he know spotted him and handed him a telegram.

Bhupati was extremely alarmed to see it had come from England. Amal must be ill, he thought. Opening it apprehensively, he saw that it said, ‘I am well.’

What did this mean? Examining it, he saw the reply was pre-paid.

Calling off his journey, Bhupati turned his coach around and returned home, handing the telegram to his wife. Charu’s face turned ashen at the sight of the telegram in Bhupati’s hand.

‘I cannot understandd any of it,’ said Bhupati. His enquiries helped him understand; Charu had pawned her jewellery to send the telegram.

‘She didn’t have to go so far,’ Bhupati brooded. ‘If she had merely requested, I would have sent the telegram, she wouldn’t have had to get the servant to pawn her jewellery in the market – I don’t approve of this.’

Over the next few days, Bhupati began to ask himself why Charu had become so desperate. A vague suspicion began to prick at him, subconsciously. Bhupati did not want to confront this suspicion directly; he tried to forget it, but the pain was not dissipated.

~ 19 ~

Amal was well, but still he didn’t write! How had such a complete separation become possible? She felt the urge to get an answer directly from him, but there was an ocean between them – impossible to cross. A cruel separation, a hopeless separation, a separation beyond all questions, all repair.

Charu could keep herself afloat no longer. Tasks were left unattended, she made mistakes, the servants pilfered; observing her breakdown, people gossiped. She remained oblivious to it all.

Things came to a stage where Charu would start in surprise for no obvious reason; abandon conversations midway to go away and cry. Her face lost colour whenever Amal was mentioned.

Eventually Bhupati observed everything as well, and finally realised what he had not considered for even a moment – his world became arid, parched, desolate.

Recalling the happy interim that had blinded him, Bhupati felt ashamed. Was this how you should cheat the monkey, with pebbles because he cannot tell them apart from precious jewels?

All that Charu had said and done to deceive him now came back to whip him with the words ‘fool, fool, fool’.

When he finally remembered the pieces he had written with so much effort and care, Bhupati could have died of embarrassment. Like a horse being goaded, he raced up to Charu, asking, ‘Where are those pieces I wrote?’

‘They’re with me,’ answered Charu.

‘I want them,’ said Bhupati.

‘Do you need them this moment?’ asked Charu, who was frying egg fritters for him.

‘Yes, this very moment.’

Taking the pan off the stove, Charu brought him all the notebooks and other papers from her cupboard.

Snatching them from her impatiently, Bhupati threw them all into the stove.

Desperately trying to extricate them, Charu said, ‘What have you done!’

‘Don’t touch them,’ Bhupati roared, clamping his hand over hers.

Charu stood by in wonder; each and every piece was burnt to cinders.

Charu understood. She sighed. Leaving the fritters unfinished, she left, slowly.

Bhupati had not planned to destroy the notebooks. But with the fire in front of him, he suddenly became violent. Unable to control himself, he had cast all the efforts of the foolishly deceived writer into the flames, under the eyes of the deceiver herself.

After Bhupati’s rage had abated, and the notebooks burnt to ashes, the image of Charu’s leaving the room in silence, her head bowed with grief and guilt, remained etched in his mind. Looking up, he realised Charu had been personally preparing one of his favourite meals.

Bhupati leant on the railing of the verandah. What could be more tragic in this entire world, he mused, than Charu’s indefatigable attempts to please him, to maintain the deception at any cost? This deception was not a contemptible act on her part; to perpetrate it, the poor condemned woman had been forced to squeeze the blood out of her heart every moment, doubling and redoubling the pain of her wounded soul.

‘Poor helpless girl, poor sad girl,’ Bhupati reflected. ‘There was no need, I didn’t need any of this. All this time I did not have your love either, but I did not know it – I was happy reading my proofs and managing my newspaper, you didn’t have to do all this for me.’

Withdrawing his own existence from Charu’s, Bhupati began to observe her with detachment, the way a doctor treats a patient with a terrible disease. How severely this weakened woman’s heart was being assailed from every direction. There was no one she could confide in, nothing that she could express in words, nowhere to pour her heart out in mourning – and yet she had to bear this inexpressible, inevitable, irresistible grief, growing by the day, and go about her daily household tasks like every other person, like her unafflicted neighbours.

Entering their bedroom, Bhupati found Charu holding the window rods and staring, dry-eyed and unblinking, into the distance. Walking slowly up to her, Bhupati uttered not a word; he simply placed his hand on her head.

~ 20 ~

‘What is it?’ his friends asked Bhupati. ‘What are you so preoccupied with?’

‘The newspaper… ‘ Bhupati replied.

Friend: ‘Another newspaper? Do you want to wrap your estate in a newspaper and cast it into the river?’

Bhupati: Oh no, I’m not bringing out another newspaper of my own.

Friend: Well then?

Bhupati: A new newspaper is being published in Mysore. They have appointed me editor.

Friend: So you plan to go off to faraway Mysore? Are you taking Charu?

Bhupati: No, my mother’s brothers will stay here to look after her.

Friend: You simply cannot give up your passion for journalism, can you?

Bhupati: Everyone needs some passion or the other,

‘When will you be back?’ Charu asked, when it was time for him to leave.

‘Write to me if you feel lonely,’ answered Bhupati, ‘I will come back.’

Just as Bhupati reached the door, Charu ran up to him to take his hand. ‘Take me along, don’t leave me behind.’

Halting in his tracks, Bhupati glanced at her. Her grip slackening, Charu’s hand dropped from his. Bhupati retreated from her into the verandah.

He realised that, like a frightened beast pursued by a forest fire, Charu wanted to flee from the house around which the memory of her separation from Amal was still burning. ‘But does she not consider my situation? Where will I flee? Am I not to be given the chance to forget in that distant land a wife who dreams of another man? Must I be by her side every single day in that place where I have no friends? When I return home after a hard day’s work, how unbearable will those evenings turn in the company of a silent, grieving woman? How long can I hold to my heart someone who is dead inside? How many more days, how many more years, shall I have to live in this way! Am I not permitted to discard the ruined bricks of the home that has been destroyed, am I condemned to carry them with me forever?’

‘No, I cannot do that,’ Bhupati said, returning to Charu.

The colour drained out of Charu’s face, leaving it like a bleached sheet of paper. She clutched at the bedpost.

Bhupati said immediately, ‘Come along, Charu, come with me.’

‘Never mind,’ said Charu.

[ Published in Three Women, Random House India, 2010 ]

Soumitra and Madhabi

A Poem: Rumi

I never tired of thinking of you, my beloved
Do not deprive me of your compassion

This jar of water, this water-carrier
Must be exhausted with me

A parched fish remains within me
Never given enough water
To quench its thirst

Show me the way to the ocean!
Shatter these half measures
All these tiny containers

All this is sorcery
And mortifying

Let my hut be swept away
By the wave that rose last night
From the depths hidden in my heart

Just like the moon, Yusuf came down into my well
Even if the harvest of my hope has been flooded
What does it matter?

The flames have risen over the tombstone
I seek neither knowledge nor honours
Nor is respect desired

I only want music and this dawn
The warmth of your face on mine

Travellers of heartache are gathering
But I shan’t go with them

This is what happens every time
When I have to end a poem

A deep silence envelops me
And I wonder in astonishment
Why I have been pursuing words

[Translated from the Bengali version included in Rabisankar Bal’s ‘A Mirrored Life’]

No Lies In Her Fire: Asha Naznin

01

‘Ma, every time you tell me the ‘No Lies in Her Fire’ story you never finish it…’

‘Because you fall asleep.’

‘No! One night I didn’t fall asleep, but you said, “No more tonight.”‘

‘Maybe I was tired.’

‘Tell me tonight. It’s the 26th of Agrahayan, your wedding anniversary. You must tell me the whole thing today! Please!’

‘All right, I’ll tell you, but you still have to wake up in the morning and mustn’t be late in school.’

‘No, I’ll wake up on time, you’ll see. Now tell the story.’

02

It was the 19th of Agrahayan. Jonaki and her friend Nandini were on their way back home from school. On foot, like every day, just like penguins, their heads lowered, their books clasped to their breasts. Beyond the head of the main road, two young girls on the narrow ledge separating two fields. Their homes were a short distance away. Jonaki and her family lived in a modest hut three houses down from Nandini’s family. It was the month of Agrahayan. Lush crops.

Suddenly four young men appeared ahead of them. Before the girls knew what was happening, the men clamped their hands on their mouths and took them away. Into the rice fields. Where they stuffed handkerchiefs into the girls’ mouths. Nandini’s dreams of joining the police, Jonaki’s hopes of turning around her family’s fortunes – all of these turned into cries of anguish, swept away over the rice fields. Wild laughter seemed to be coming from the stalks of grain. When one stopped, another began. But the two innocent girls’ sobs didn’t stop, their tears mingling, their muffled groans merging into one. Their final attempts to free themselves had blended with one another too.

The Azaan for the Asar Prayer wafted in from a distance. This stretch might soon become busy with worshippers going back and forth.

Shall we finish them off with the scarves, boss?

‘No way, It’s election time for Abba soon, we’d better not get involved in murder. And why kill pussies? The more pussies, the more fucks, you know that.’

‘What if they talk!’

‘You think they’ll take the risk? Everyone will say they’re bad girls, bad. If it comes to that, we’ll see.’

‘Let’s get out of here now…’

They left like the wind.

03

Jonaki could hear voices. Opening her eyes, she found dusk had descended along with murmurs of people. She was surrounded by nearly fifty people. How long had she been unconscious? Someone had covered her with a sheet. Soon she heard her mother shriek. ‘Who has done this to my daughter? Who? Why did you punish us this way, lord? What did I do to deserve this?’ Jonaki, a daughter of an impoverished peasant from the village, barely 15 years old.

There was a hum among the people. Jonaki saw no sign of Nandini anywhere. Their books were scattered nearby. Some people carried Jonaki into a van parked a short distance away.

The van lurched along the bank of the river Lula. Jonaki had been born in the beautiful village of Lota, a sub-division of the district of Sylhet in Bangladesh which had sprung up next to the Lula.

The stars were twinkling in the sky, while a swarm of fireflies flew around the yard – it was on such a night that she had been born. The neighbours named her Jonaki, for the fireflies. It wasn’t as though Jonaki was particularly pretty, but she was very fair, almost like westerners. ‘Here comes the foreigner,’ the village boys would chant whenever they saw her. Which was why she was the centre of attraction in the village. Jonaki studied in Class Eight of the school in Lota. In behaviour and in speech, she was calm and composed. But today everything had fallen to pieces.

The van was hurtling along, running through rows of kash and processions of fireflies. In this darkness and turmoil, Jonaki was delirious. ‘Is it because of all your sadness that you’ve left the light for the darkness, star of happiness? Do you shine in the night sky to dole out sorrows to everyone, like me? Do you need a companion, a partner in your misery? Will you take me?’

Kamal Rahman, sitting in the van, said, ‘She’s burning with fever. Babbling. Drive faster.’

Jonaki had realised that this man was sitting by her side. She addressed him as ‘Chacha’. It was on his request that her father hadn’t stopped her from going to school. Very few people in the village liked Kamal Chacha. Most of them considered him an atheist. His voice comforted Jonaki.

‘Hurry up, driver’- Kamal urged the driver again.

The aged Hatem Ali, one of the village elders, said, ‘Drive as you do normally, if fate holds death for her, who are we to stop it? And what good is it for her to live anyway? There’s no sense in driving rashly in the darkness and overturning the van.’

Jonaki felt like leftover food as she listened to Hatem. She wanted to embrace the word death. A gust of cold wind buffeted her. How was she to present herself to society now? In the darkness of the night she pleaded with the angel of death, ‘Take me to the stars.’

Comforting her, Kamal said, ‘Have a little patience, my daughter, pray to Allah, he takes care of everything, we have to remedy this, it’s not your fault, the fault is of the one above, who sent you as a woman to this clan of men.’

Jonaki felt a spark running through her.

People could destroy the society of the body, but who had the ability to destroy the society of dreams? Two lines from her textbook rose in front of her eyes like an angel – ‘Those who are unjust and those who bear injustice must both be trampled underfoot with equal hatred.’

‘Stop talking like a godless man, Kamal!’ Hatem Ali’s roar devoured the silence of the night.

04

The van came to a halt in front of Keramat Ali’s chamber. He was the only doctor to speak of in the village.

Jonaki was brought in and laid on a small cot in one corner of the chamber. It was curtained off by a sari.

Hatem said, ‘Can you check her, doctor – she’s probably lost her virginity, but take a good look to make sure.’

‘If women roam about the fields under the pretext of getting an education instead of looking after the home, this is inevitable,’ said Doctor Keramat, drawing the curtains closed.

Then he plunged into the task of assessing Jonaki’s virginity. With the torch in one hand, he pressed down on her thigh with the other. The lantern winked next to them. The doctor examined her with his fingers. Kept examining her. He just wouldn’t stop. Putting his hand on Jonaki’s thigh again, he said, ‘Your honour is in my hands. I can declare that you’re still a virgin. I can give you all the comforts of a queen, are you willing? I’ll build a separate house for you if you like, you won’t have to live with my other wife. Do you want a life of luxury or do you want to bring the poison of disgrace on yourself and be forced to jump into the river?

Jonaki stared at him blankly. From her thigh the doctor moved his hand to her breasts. She was unruffled, silent. In stark contrast to the way she had trembled in the rice fields hours ago. Still. As though she were a stone, without sensations. Someone peeped in, asking – how much longer, doctor? Quickly withdrawing his hand, the doctor said – just checking whether her heartbeat is all right, I’ll be there in a moment.

The villagers were gathering outside the doctor’s chamber. On any other day, they would have been back home by now, preparing for sleep with their doors bolted.

Emerging outside the curtain, the doctor declared boldly, ‘Friends, there’s some good news, Alhamdulillah, praise the lord. The blood is from a cut over her knee caused by a bamboo stick or a shard of glass. But they tried very hard to rape her.’

Now a group of people parted the curtain to go in. They badgered Jonaki with their questions. ‘Who has done this sinful thing? Who is it, Jonaki… tell us.’

Jonaki stared at them, her eyes as heavy as rocks. Under the faint light of the lantern a question occurred to her. Would she also have been considered a sinner by the villagers if the doctor had declared that she had lost her virginity?

That was how she had felt on seeing everyone clustered around her when she had regained consciousness in the rice field. ‘I must have committed some awful crime, that’s why these people are staring at me this way.’

Jonaki didn’t know what to say. Almost inaudibly she asked, ‘Where’s Nandini?’

‘Oh yes, Nandini and you usually come back together, does that mean Nandini saw who it was? Did Nandini see the swines?’ Several people threw a barrage of questions at her.

‘No, Nandini came back early today, she doesn’t know anything,’ said someone, pushing through the crowd. It was the schoolmaster. Nandini’s father.

‘Khalu, Khalu,’ Jonaki sobbed, calling out to him. The schoolmaster put his hand on her head. He looked very worried. Even in the dim light of the lantern the tears in his eyes were visible. There was an impenetrable blackness in them.

Meanwhile there was a hubbub. Kashem Joardar, a candidate of the next Chairman election in the village, appeared there. The doctor’s chamber was bulging with curious onlookers. Some of them went out to make room for Kashem and his entourage.

‘I believe a few people saw the chairman’s son Jamir and and some of his friends running away from the rice fields this afternoon. Jamir is no saint. What happened, Jonaki? Who did this?’

Pindrop silence descended on the doctor’s tiny chamber. A couple of people retreated at once, preferring not to associate themselves with this scandal. Most people who had been fuming at the thought of rape or attempted rape calmed down. Jonaki’s eyes widened in surprise.

Kashem said, ‘There must be justice. If you don’t want to speak, I shall talk this over with your parents and decide on a course of action.

Someone in the crowd said, ‘But her parents have already disowned her.’

‘But her virginity is intact!’ disclosed Hatem loudly.

‘They were told a short while ago, they don’t even want to see this wretched girl’s face again.’

‘Will you let this girl stay with you for a few days, mastermoshai? Until a meeting or hearing takes place. The chairman has apparently gone to the town, I don’t see any chance of a resolution till he returns.’ There was a plea in Kamal’s voice.

The schoolmaster was torn. On the one hand it appeared to him that taking Jonaki home would make it easier to brush everything under the carpet. At least rumours wouldn’t start flying about his own daughter. But what if people suspected she was a victim too? What then? And what if Jonaki blurted out her friend’s name to someone in an emotional outburst?

‘If no one has any objection I can let Jonaki stay at my house, she will be well cared for,’ proposed the doctor.

‘No, let me take her to my house, my daughter has been very upset about her friend ever since she heard what happened, thank God she came back early from school today.’

Everyone agreed in unison, with the exception of the doctor. The schoolmaster took Jonaki home, along with some medicines.

05

The schoolmaster managed to chase the villagers away that night. ‘We’ll discuss this again tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘Please leave now, it’s midnight already.’ When someone asked about Nandini, he answered, ‘Nandini’s asleep.’

Jonaki was given shelter in Nandini’s tiny bedroom. An owl hooted in the distance. The coconut tree crashed on the tin roof repeatedly. The doors and windows were shut. Nandini’s mother lay next to Jonaki, facing away from her. She wept continuously, stopping only once to tell Jonaki faintly, ‘Wake me up if you need to go to the bathroom.’

‘Okay, Khalamma.’ She didn’t get the opportunity to ask any more questions.

The scene in the rice field kept floating up to Jonaki’s eyes. Two girls and four animals. Jonaki wanted to forget all this. She thought of her parents. With a sigh, she tried to shift her thoughts to something else. Her conversation with Nandini a few days ago occurred to her.

Nandini: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Jonaki: I want a job, I want to bring some joy to my parents in these hard times for our family. You?

Nandini: I want to join the police, but my father says it’s not a respectable job for a woman.

Jonaki: Hehehe, police! Why the police, of all things? How strange! I’m afraid of the very sight of them.

Nandini: That’s exactly why. Have you seen the boys in our village these days? They stare at us like they want to gobble us up. It’s filthy, the look in their eyes.

Jonaki: I’ve seen them too, it’s terrible. But they won’t do anything to you – you’re the schoolmaster’s daughter, after all. I’m afraid of them, you know?

That unknown terror closed in on her. The girl couldn’t sleep all night. Just as she had dozed off in the morning, the schoolmaster’s wife woke her up in a flurry of excitement.

‘Chairman sahib is here, he wants to talk to you.’

‘What should I say to him?’

‘I don’t know, ask Nandini’s father. Just don’t bring my daughter into this, Nandini is at her cousin’s wedding. She wasn’t anywhere nearby when all this happened.’

‘Is Nandini all right, Khalamma?’

‘Of course! why shouldn’t she be all right? Think of yourself, forget about her.’

This was not the Khalamma Jonaki knew. When she left, Nandini’s father came in. As soon as he entered, she began to sob again, saying, ‘Khalu!’

But the schoolmaster seemed a stranger. He sat down in the chair by the bed. No one spoke. The very air seemed motionless. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead.

Wiping his sweat on his sleeve, he said, ‘Look, what’s done is done. Since the doctor says there’s been no great damage, I think we should accept this. Society is unforgiving, you know. If we try to protest, we’ll only add to our own misery, and be robbed of our dignity. In fact, we’ll have to leave the village. Some people have even lost their lives trying to talk about such things. Chairman sahib is waiting in the sitting room, he wants to talk to you, I’ll ask him to come inside, tell him…’

‘What do I tell him, Khalu?’

‘That his son wasn’t involved in yesterday’s incident. You can name the other three if you want to, or not, it’s up to you.’

‘All right.’

The schoolmaster’s wife sat next to Jonaki, her head covered by the end of her sari. Osman Talukdar, the chairman, entered, accompanied by three people. Jonaki was ready, sitting on the floor and leaning back against a wall. She greeted the chairman, ‘Assalam Alaikum.’

Returning Jonaki’s greeting, the chairman said, ‘You can tell me everything without hesitation, I will take all necessary steps. The elections are coming up, as you know, and the enemy is trying to malign me in every possible way. So I want to find out from you what’s true and what isn’t. I dropped everything as soon as I heard and came to the village.’

Jonaki looked at the floor in silence. There were many things she wanted to say, but she wasn’t allowed to. And she couldn’t force herself to say the things she didn’t want to.

‘Do you know the people who attacked you?’

‘Yes, I know them all.’

Lines of anxiety appeared on the chairman’s face. ‘How many of them? What are their names?’

Jonaki named three of them. And stopped abruptly.

A happy smile appeared on the chairman’s face, like the expression on the face of a monarch after winning a war. ‘Don’t worry, I will bring each of them to justice and have them put away in jail, I’m calling the police at once…’

‘No need to go to the trouble of calling the police, chairman sahib, why don’t you set up a village court and hold a trial yourself?’

The chairman seemed to have been waiting for just such a proposal. With a smile, he said, ‘You’re right, Mastermoshai.’

06

Seven days later the village court was in session with the three accused. All the eminent personalities of the village took their seats. One of them said, ‘Boys do these things at this age. It’s best to overlook this.’

Another said, ‘Get them married – everything will be sorted. They’re desperate to be married.’

Kamal said, ‘But there must be exemplary punishment. Our mothers and sisters cannot be dishonoured this way in our village.’

Someone else exclaimed, ‘Stop right there, Kamal Mian, you’re an atheist. If everyone’s either our mother or sister, whom will our sons marry? Ha ha ha!’

The court set up to try the rape had turned into a comedy show.

Someone asked, ‘What I’d like to know is, why should a woman be walking through the fields alone? What kind of a man will not be tempted by a woman?’

Many people laughed. Then another of those gathered asked, ‘The question is, when there are so many girls hereabouts, why would these young men target a poor peasant’s daughter? Her father would have sold her for five hundred taka if only they’d asked.’

Hatem said, ‘Stealing and wanting to steal are not the same crime, do all of you agree? Since there was no rape, but only attempted rape, just let them off this time with a few tight slaps. It wouldn’t be right to ruin their future, they’re young after all, pardon them.’

The three young men were made to kneel, clutching their own ears. The chairman rose to slap each of them.

Declaring that they wouldn’t repeat such sins, the three of them sought the forgiveness of the village elders with smiles on their faces.

‘This isn’t justice,’ said Kamal.

His protests fell on deaf ears. Sensing the mood of the other members of the jury, Kashem Joardar adopted a safe stance. He would have to keep these people on his side to negotiate the electoral currents.

Then Kamal said, ‘What will happen to Jonaki now? Her parents couldn’t be persuaded, they won’t let her come home.’

Now the chairman stirred. ‘Let me say something openly. I want to take care of Jonaki. She has a future, after all. I feel very sorry for her. I’m ready to arrange the marriage right away if that’s what all of you would like.’

‘She’s still in school, she’s still young. Would marriage be right for her at this age? I’ll look after her if needs be.’ Kamal was all worked up.

‘Oh but you won’t marry her, Mian. Would it be legitimate to take care of a woman without marrying her? It might have been different if you’d already been married. But a woman cannot be kept in the custody of an unmarried man,’ declared Jabbar Mian, another of the village elders.

Everyone agreed.

07

Jonaki’s wedding took place at the same court, within an hour. The Imam from the mosque conducted it. The rapists, Dr Keramat, and the chairman appeared by turn in front of the bride’s eyes. A little later she discovered herself draped in a red sari – Jonaki dipped in blood. How life could change in just seven days!

Drawing her aside, the schoolmaster had told her urgently, ‘Think it over, you’re 15, the chairman is 52. His first wife killed herself, no one knows why. His second wife died last year of kala-azar. You know all this already. And his son won’t leave you in peace; what will you get from a family like this?’

‘A little ground beneath my feet. Will you give me a place to live in if I don’t agree to the wedding, sir?’ She used the ‘sir’ deliberately to convey to the schoolmaster that theirs wasn’t any close bonding. It was an exchange between a teacher and a pupil.

Jonaki had exposed the rusted, feeble, cowardly nature of the teacher, who only paid lip service to education and reform. He left slowly.

A ball of fire was growing in her heart. She was seared by its flames – for a young man. She had received an anonymous letter barely a month ago, tucked into her maths textbook. She had recognised him at once from the handwriting. Nandini’s elder brother. She liked him, too. She hadn’t met Nayon even once after the incident. He must have taken Nandini away somewhere. Were they really with their cousins?

Like a blood-soaked bird she entered the chairman’s house as his wife. But the only image in her head was of a wild stallion. The quiet, serene girl grew impatient and restless, constantly whipping the horse in her thoughts through every waking moment. So that it could fly in the air and send an arrow through a throne somewhere. The rice field, the chilling wind that night, the flowers that set the woods aflame, the magic of the tiny letters in the book, all mingled into one. There was just the one thing hovering above her head. The wild stallion.

08

Jamir was thunderstruck. Who’d have thought his father was suddenly going to marry her? The girl he had taken in the rice fields was now in his father’s bedroom. His stepmother!

He didn’t go home for the first few days. What was he going to tell his father? If he had an inkling of the wedding he would have prevented it at any cost. But now? Making the slightest noise might mean his father’s losing the elections. Jamir knew very well that his father was even willing to make any sacrifice for victory. Such harsh punishment for a mere rape! He hadn’t faced as much trouble even after committing murder. Jamir began plotting ways to get rid of Jonaki after the elections.

Meanwhile, Jonaki’s wardrobe had been transformed. She really did look like a wealthy queen in a royal palace. The girl who had never been fortunate enough to wear a single beautiful dress in her childhood now appeared to be the inhabitant of another planet when she looked at herself in the mirror. She had grown up hearing stories from her mother about how they had once owned everything – land, overflowing granaries, a large house. But Jonaki’s birth marked the decline of their fortune. The affluent farmer became debt-ridden.

But Kamal Chacha had told her a different version. Two successive unseasonal floods had killed their crops, submerging their golden harvest. Her father took a loan from the moneylender, after which he had to give up all their property and holdings. In helplessness and rage the farmer would take it out alternately on his wife and little Jonaki by beating them. Kamal Chacha would end his story by saying, ‘Your father used to be a good man, but he lost his head after going bankrupt. Once you get an education and find a job and bring the joy back into your parents’ lives, everything will be all right.

Days passed, a month passed, Jonaki had no news of Nandini. She heard that Nayon was back in the village. Rumours swirled – Nandini had been admitted to a new high school, Nandini had herself got married after her cousin’s wedding, to a groom who had just returned from overseas, and many more such stories. Jonaki’s hands and feet began to sweat – Nandini was alive, wasn’t she? The schoolmaster usually took the same road home as they did, about an hour later, had he spirited his daughter away himself? Nandini was alive, wasn’t she? She couldn’t think anymore, she felt numb.

Jonaki sensed the heartbeat of a new life within her. She remembered the month of Agrahayan, the rice field, the stricken cries, her wedding night a week later. She had been whipping the wild stallion twenty four hours a day, harder, even harder, without anyone noticing.

She began to bring the domestic staff under her control. She tipped the servants with or without reason, even converting one or two of her husband’s political goons into her devoted admirers.

09

There was just a month to go to the elections. Osman Talukdar would have to make a trip to the capital Dhaka, even though his popularity in his village was at its peak. Never before had he earned the kind of plaudits that had come his way after marrying the helpless girl.

It was the month of Chaitra. There were sparks of fire in the air. On such an afternoon the chairman set off for Dhaka. That evening Jonaki sent for Jamir on the pretext of discussing something ‘important about the elections’.

Jamir lived on the ground floor of the chairman’s two-storied house. Jonaki lived upstairs.

There was a family room just outside the bedroom on the first floor, which was where Jamir appeared. He had not been to this floor since his father’s marriage, living like a visitor in his own house. He confined himself to his room when he was home. Someone entered the room slowly.

‘An important matter, I have to tell you in private.’ Jamir looked up to discover Jonaki.

He followed Jonaki in, his eyes on the floor. She asked him to take a chair. Jamir sat down in his father’s room, feeling extremely ill at ease. His eyes stopped at Jonaki’s swelling stomach. She shut the door and locked it in a flash.

An anxious Jamir jumped out of his chair. ‘What’s all this… I don’t understand.’

‘I want to see how strong you are. Hold me now. Imagine it’s the month of Agrahayan, imagine we’re in the rice field.’

‘Have you gone mad? Just because my father’s married a lowlife bitch like you don’t imagine you hold all the aces. Just wait till the elections are over, I’ll throw you out like a dog.’

‘But I cannot wait so long. I shan’t let a wild animal stay in this house anymore, you see.’

Jonaki tore her own clothes off and wrapped her arms around Jamir, just the way he had wrapped his arms around her five months earlier.

And then she began to scream, ‘Help! Help!’

The servants broke down the door and entered. At once the news spread through the village – he had raped his mother!

10

Jamir was tied to a tree. The same tree near which the village court had heard the rape case.

Jamir’s relatives had gathered. They were also at the receiving end of abuse from the villagers. The crowd was a tinderbox. Raping one’s mother! Kashem Joardar added his voice to the villagers’. ‘No trace of this sin must be allowed to remain in this village. Raping your mother!’

Thousands of people from nearby villages rushed to the spot for a glimpse of the man who had raped his mother. ‘She isn’t my mother,’ shrieked Jamir.

At once people started throwing stones at him. ‘She’s your father’s wife, you swine.’ Condemnation descended on the village.

No one bothered to listen to what Jamir wanted to say.

The chairman rushed back home. But the journey from Dhaka took almost a day. He returned to discover his son tied to the banyan tree. His still, lifeless body was slumped at an unnatural angle.

Chairman ran up to his only son like a madman, embracing him. Who dared strike the chairman’s son? Osman Talukdar wept uncontrollably. He did not remember the last time he had cried.

The chairman’s companions were bewildered and confused. Some of them began to untie Jamir, while others tried to apprehend the people connected with the incident. It might have been possible to catch one murderer or two or even ten – but how would they catch the entire village?

The chairman went home, leaving his son’s corpse behind. With rage in his eyes and murder in his heart, he shouted to Jonaki, ‘ How dare you trap my son?’

‘Your son had the courage to rob me of my dignity. The same courage. I had only wanted to put my rapist in an iron cage, but the villagers here took advantage of the training that you have given them in taking the law into their own hands. These are the wages of your sins.’

‘I asked you for the identity of the attackers, you didn’t name my son. You bitch!’

‘If I had named your son you would have had me killed at once, wouldn’t you?

‘How dare a woman from the gutter like you speak that way? I knew on the wedding night you were no virgin. I’ll divorce you at once.’

‘I have no objection. I still don’t know whose child I’m carrying – whether it’s Osman or Jamir or…’

‘Liar, cheat, I’ll finish you at once.’ The chairman clutched his chest. There was a pain on the left side. He collapsed to the gleaming floor.

11

The story had ended.

Palki couldn’t sleep. She shut her eyes and pretended to sleep, but all she could see was her mother’s face. Turning to face the other way, she only wept. And muttered, ‘There was no lie in your fire, Ma, I love you.’

In the bedroom at midnight, there was a sudden torrential downpour in the eyes. The twenty-seven-year-old mother let loose a melting glacier of water