Chapter 1: Nashtaneer

Bhupati had no need to work. He had enough money, and, moreover, the land was too hot. 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 would write letters to English newspapers even when there was no reason to; he never missed a chance to speak up at public gatherings even when he had nothing to say. Politicians wooing him for his wealth had heaped lavish praise upon him for his compositions, and this had given him 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 thus 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 unrestrained expansion of the government’s frontier policy.

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 blossom fruitlessly, rather like the flower that will never ripen. In such circumstances, wives go to great excesses over their husbands if they can—with the game of married life shifting 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 had chided him, drawing his attention to his young wife, Bhupati told himself in a moment of self-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.’ Mandakini, his brother-in-law’s wife, was settled in his home; Mr Editor was relieved having diagnosed the absence of female company as the cause of Charu’s misery. 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. Charulata had a natural propensity for reading and so her days did not prove unbearably heavy. She had 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 Footnore classes in velvet slippers specially made for him, bouthan,’ said Amal, ‘I simply cannot bear it any more. 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 make slippers, nor did she want to confess as much to Amal. But no one besides Amal 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 while Amal was away in college. When Amal himself had completely forgotten his orders, 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 wool slippers on the plate! Charulata laughed aloud. The shoes stoked Amal’s expectations. Now he wanted a high-necked coat, next 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, causing 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, savouring his response.

In this affluent household Charu did not have to do anything for anyone, barring Amal, who never rested 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 ambarella 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 finalized, they proceeded to estimate expenses. Initially the plan was that Charu would use some of 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 meant for my blue lotus,’ Charu protested.

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

‘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 plant from the local market, 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 ambarella tree, Charu and Amal indulged themselves 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 fruit,’ 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 just themselves. Whatever other qualities Manda might possess, imagination wasn’t among them; how would she savour ideas like these? She was thus always 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 ambarella 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 Amal’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 young, the taste was fresh—while the late afternoon light deepened into long shadows.

‘We must pick some fruit for Manda, Amal,’ said Charu

‘What’s our excuse if we don’t?’

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

By Rabindranath Tagore (translated from the Bengali)

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