Dead or Alive: by Rabindranath Tagore

1

The widowed daughter-in-law of Sharadashankar, the zamindar of Ranihat, had no family of her own on her father’s side; one by one, all of them had died. She had no one to speak of on her husband’s side either – neither husband, nor son. Her elder brother-in-law’s youngest son was the apple of her eye. His mother had been severely ill for a long time after giving birth to him, which was why his widowed aunt Kadambini – whom he addressed as Kakima ¬- had brought him up. Rearing someone else’s child seems to strengthen the bond, for one has no right over the child; there are no social demands, only the demands of love – but unalloyed love cannot cite any documentary evidence to establish its right, nor does it wish to. It only adores the uncertain object of its affection twice as fervently.

After she had showered all the suppressed love of the widow on the little boy, Kadambini died unexpectedly one monsoon night. For some unknown reason her heart stopped beating suddenly – everything else in the world continued to function as before, but only the spring in her tiny, tender heart – ever thirsty for love – stopped working forever.

To avoid the unwelcome intrusion of the police, four Brahmin employees of the zamindar proceeded to cremate the body without any delay.

The crematorium in Ranighat was a long way from habitation. The enormous burning ground was completely bare, other than a hut next to the lake and, close by, a huge banyan tree. A river used to flow here in the past, but it had completely dried up now. A section of the dried riverbed had been dug up to create the lake. People hereabouts considered the lake a representative of the river in full flow.

Placing the corpse inside the hut, the four of them awaited the arrival of the wood for the pyre. It was taking so long that Nitai and Gurucharan went off to enquire about the delay, while Bidhu and Banamali stayed back to guard the corpse.

It was a dark monsoon night. The sky was overcast, not a star was visible; the pair waited in silence in the darkness of the hut. One of them had a box of matches and a lamp. But despite all their efforts the dampness prevented the matches from being lit – the lantern they had brought had died long ago.

After a long silence, one of them said, ‘I’m dying for a smoke. We came away in such a hurry that I forgot to bring any along.’

‘I can get some in a jiffy,’ offered his companion.

Sensing Banamali’s desire to flee, Bidhu exclaimed, ‘Really! And I suppose I’m expected to wait here alone, am I?’

The conversation ended. Every minute seemed like an hour. The pair that had stayed back cursed the one that had supposedly gone off in search of wood – every passing moment deepened their suspicion that the other two were having a cosy smoke and chat somewhere.

There were no sounds to be heard besides the constant chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs from the lake. Suddenly the bed appeared to shake, as though the corpse were turning over on its side.

Bidhu and Banamali began to tremble and muttered prayers. Suddenly a sigh was heard inside the hut. Bidhu and Banamali leapt out of the room in an instant and raced off towards their village.

Nearly three miles away, they ran into the rest of their party, who were returning with lanterns. They had in fact stopped for a smoke, and had no idea about the wood. Still, they informed the other two that the wood was being chopped – and would be despatched shortly. Whereupon Bidhu and Banamali proceeded to describe all that had taken place in the hut. Dismissing their account in disbelief, Nitai and Gurucharan reproached them angrily.

Without further ado, all four of them returned to the hut at the burning ground. Entering, they discovered the bed empty and the corpse missing.

They exchanged glances. What if a jackal had dragged the corpse away? But even the sheet covering her was missing. Investigating, they spotted a woman’s small footprints, fresh in the mud gathered outside the door.

Sharadashankar was not an easy man to deal with, and telling him this ghost story was unlikely to yield dividends. After prolonged discussions, the quartet concluded that it would be best to inform the zamindar that the cremation had been completed.

Those who finally brought the wood for the pyre at dawn were told that because of the delay the body had been burnt already, using some wood already in the hut. No one was likely to be suspicious about this – a corpse was not a valuable object for anyone to steal.

2

As everyone knows, even when there are no signs of life in a person, sometimes life still persists, and the body resumes its normal functioning at the appropriate time. Kadambini had not died either – only her vital signs had stopped for some reason.

When she regained her senses, she found herself enveloped in darkness. It seemed this was not the place where she normally slept. ‘Didi,’ she called out, but no one answered in the dark room. Sitting up in fear, she recollected her experience of dying. The sudden pain in her chest – the inability to breathe. Her sister-in-law was warming the milk for Khoka – her son – on a fire; unable to stay on her feet any more, Kadambini tumbled on the bed – in a choked voice she said, ‘Didi, ask Khoka to come to me, I am dying.’ Then everything grew dark – like a bottle of ink overturned on a sheet of paper covered in writing – Kadambini’s entire memory and consciousness, every letter in the book of the world, dissipated in an instant. The widow could not remember whether Khoka had addressed her as Kakima one last time in his endearing voice, could not recollect whether she had succeeded in collecting a final allowance of love for her eternal, alien journey of death from this ever-familiar world.

At first she thought that hell was eternally desolate and eternally dark, just like this – that there was nothing to see there, nothing to hear, nothing to do, that she would only have to stay awake like this till eternity.

But when a cold gust of moisture-laden wind blew in through the door and she heard the croaking of the frogs, all the memories of the rains that she had amassed since childhood in her brief life condensed in her mind in a single moment, enabling her to feel the touch of the real world. There was a flash of lightning; the lake, the banyan tree, the huge burning ground and a distant row of trees became visible for a moment. She recalled bathing in this lake on auspicious dates, and how horrifying death had seemed at the sight of corpses here.

Her first thought was to go back home. But, she reflected the very next moment, why will they take me back since I am not alive any more. It will be bad luck for them. I have been exiled from the kingdom of the living, after all – I am my own spirit.

If that were not so, how could she have arrived here at this desolate crematorium from Sharadashankar’s well-protected ladies’ chambers? If she had not been cremated yet, where were the people who had come to cremate her body? Her last memory was of the final moments of her death in Sharadashankar’s well-lit residence – discovering herself alone the very next moment in this distant, barren, dark burning ground, she realised, I am no longer a member of the human tribe on this planet; I am dangerous, harbinger of ill fortune, I am my spirit.

As soon as she was struck by this thought, the rules that bound her to the world seemed to melt away. She felt possessed by extraordinary power, infinite freedom – as though she could go where she liked, do as she pleased. Driven into a frenzy by this unprecedented new ability, she swept out of the room like a sudden gust of wind and walked across the burning ground – without a trace of diffidence, fear or concern in her heart.

As she marched on, her footsteps faltered, her body weakened. The fields and meadows just wouldn’t end – they were interspersed by paddy fields, some of them knee-deep in water. When the first light of dawn became visible, a bird or two was heard from a bamboo grove located near a cluster of houses not too far away.

Now she felt a kind of trepidation. She did not know where her relationship with the world and the people who inhabited it stood. As long as she had been at the crematorium, in the fields, in the darkness of the monsoon night, she had been unafraid, as though in her own world. In daylight, the settlement seemed a treacherous place. Humans fear ghosts, ghosts fear humans too, they occupy opposite banks of the river of death.

3

Her mud-spattered clothes, the strange state of her mind, and the unhinged demeanour brought on by a sleepless night had transformed Kadambini’s appearance to one that would have made people afraid and young boys pelt stones at her from a distance. Fortunately, the first person to see her in this state was a gentleman travelling on that road.

‘You seem to be from a genteel family,’ he said to her. ‘Where are you going in this condition all by yourself?’

At first Kadambini looked at him without responding. She could not summon an answer quickly. That she was still in this world, that she looked like a gentlewoman, that a passer-by on the village road was asking her a question, seemed unbelievable.

‘Let me take you home,’ the passer-by said to her again. ‘Tell me where you live.’

Kadambini considered what her reply should be. She could not entertain thoughts of returning to her in-laws’ home, and she had no home of her own – suddenly she remembered a childhood friend of hers.

Although they had been separated as children, her friend Jogomaya and she still wrote to each other now and then. At times this escalated into a full-fledged war of love – Kadambini attempted to convey that hers was the stronger emotion, while Jogomaya insinuated that Kadambini did not reciprocate her sentiments adequately. Neither of them harboured the slightest doubt that, if only some miracle were to bring them together, they would be unable to let each other out of their sights even for an instant.

‘I want to go to Sripaticharan-babu’s house in Nishchindapur,’ Kadambini told the gentleman.

The traveller was on his way to Calcutta; although it was not near, Nishchindapur was on the way. He personally escorted Kadambini to Sripaticharan-babu’s house.

The friends were reunited. It took a few moments for them to recognise each other, but the resemblance to their respective childhood selves soon became obvious to both.

‘How fortunate I am,’ exclaimed Jogomaya. ‘I had never expected to set eyes on you in my lifetime. But how did you happen to visit me, my dear? How did your in-laws let you go!’

After a pause, Kadambini said, ‘Do not ask me about my in-laws, my dear. Let me live like a maid in one corner of your house, I will perform all your household tasks.’

‘What do you mean,’ responded Jogomaya. ‘Why should you live like a maid? You are my friend, you are my…’ etcetera.

Sripati entered. After a brief gaze at him, Kadambini left slowly – neither covering her head with the end of her sari in a show of respect, nor displaying any sign of diffidence or uncertainty.

Jogomaya quickly began to explain to Sripati, lest he think badly of her friend. But so few explanations were required, and Sripati approved of every one of her proposals so easily, that Jogomaya was not particularly satisfied.

Kadambini had come to her friend’s house, but she could not mingle with her friend – death was a gulf between them. Constant self-awareness and doubts about oneself make socialising impossible. Kadambini would gaze at Jogomaya, her thoughts drifting – she felt as though her friend occupied a distant planet with her husband and household. With all her love and tenderness and responsibilities, she is an inhabitant of the world, while I am nothing but an empty shadow. She is in the realm of existence and I, in the universe of the infinite.

Jogomaya, too, found all this strange, but she could fathom none of it. Womenkind cannot tolerate mystery – for you can make poetry with uncertainty, you can be valorous with it, but you cannot live in a household with it. That is why women either eliminate the very existence of what they cannot understand, maintaining no relationship with it, or else they convert it with their own hands into a new form where they can put it to some use – if they can do neither, they become exceedingly angry with it.

The more obscure Kadambini’s behaviour seemed to become, the angrier Jogomaya got with her. What kind of menace is this that has descended on me, she reflected.

There was another problem. Kadambini was afraid of herself. She simply could not run away from herself. Those who are afraid of ghosts fear their own backs – they are terrified of whatever they cannot keep an eye on. But Kadambini’s biggest fear lay within herself, she was not afraid of the external world.

That was why she would scream sometimes alone in her room in the middle of the afternoon. In the evening, she would tremble on spotting her own shadow in the lamplight.

Her fear made everyone in the house afraid too. The maids, the servants and even Jogomaya herself began to see ghosts everywhere, at all hours.

One night, Kadambini ran sobbing from her own room all the way to Jogomaya’s, saying, ‘I beg of you Didi, don’t let me be alone.’

Jogomaya was as angry as she was scared. She felt an impulse to throw Kadambini out of her home at once. A compassionate Sripati calmed her down with a great deal of effort and let Kadambini occupy the room next to theirs.

The next day, Sripati was summoned to the ladies’ chambers at an unusual hour. Turning on him unexpectedly, Jogomaya said, ‘What kind of man are you! A woman leaves her own in-laws’ home and ensconces herself in yours, a month goes by and she shows no sign of budging, and I don’t hear a word of protest from you! Please explain what you have in mind. All you men are the same.’

Men indeed have a natural bias in favour of women, and women hold them responsible for this. Even if Sripati had been willing to swear on Jogomaya’s head that his compassion for the helpless and yet beautiful Kadambini was not inappropriately high, his behaviour would have proved otherwise.

‘Her in-laws must have tortured the childless widow,’ he mused, ‘unable to stand it any more, Kadambini must have arrived here to seek shelter from me. Since she has no parents, how can I abandon her.’ With this thought he had desisted from making any kind of enquiry; nor did he have the inclination to cause Kadambini any pain by asking her questions on this unpleasant subject.

Thereupon his wife proceeded to assault his numbed sense of responsibility. He realised that sending word to Kadambini’s in-laws had become absolutely crucial to maintain domestic harmony. Finally he decided that the outcome of an unexpected letter might not be favourable, and that he would make enquiries personally at Ranighat before deciding on a course of action.

While Sripati went off, Jogomaya went to Kadambini to tell her, ‘It isn’t proper for you to stay here any more, my dear. What will people say?’

Looking gravely at Jogomaya said, ‘What do I have to do with people.’

Jogomaya was astonished at this response. ‘You may not, but we do,’ she said in a fit of rage. ‘How can we hold on to the daughter-in-law of another family?’

‘What family am I the daughter-in-law of?’ Kadambini responded.

Oh my god, thought Jogomaya to herself. What does the woman think she’s saying.

‘Do you think I really am one of you?’ Kadambini continued slowly. ‘Do you think I belong to this world? You people laugh, you love, you cry, you live with your own families, I can only watch. You are people, and I am a shadow. I cannot fathom why God has chosen to keep me amongst all of you. You are afraid too, lest I bring misery to your happy lives – and I cannot understand either what relationship I have with all of you. But since the Almighty has not earmarked a place for me, although the ties have been snapped I continue to haunt your lives.’

Because of the way she kept speaking, Jogomaya made some sense of it without grasping the real meaning, but she could neither respond, nor repeat her question. Bowed down with concern, she left.

4

It was almost ten at night when Sripati returned from Ranihat. The world was flooding under torrential rain. The continuous sound suggested that neither the downpour nor the night would end.

‘What did you learn’, Jogomaya asked.

‘A great deal,’ answered Sripati. ‘We’ll talk about it later.’ He changed his clothes, ate his dinner, had his late night smoke and went to bed. He looked rather disturbed.

Having suppressed her curiosity for a long time, Jogomaya asked as soon as she got into bed, ‘What did you hear.’

‘You must have made a mistake,’ Sripati responded.

Jogomaya was enraged at this. Women never made mistakes, and even if they did, the duty of wise men was not to refer to them, but to accept them as their own. ‘Such as?’ retorted Jogomaya a little hotly.

‘The woman you have given shelter to in your household is not Kadambini,’ declared Sripati.

Such a statement could easily evoke anger – especially when it comes from one’s own husband. ‘So I don’t know my own friend, I have to consult you to identify her – what a thing to say!’

Sripati explained that they could not argue over the nature of his statement, for they had to consider the evidence. There was no doubt that Jogomaya’s childhood friend Kadambini was dead.

‘Listen to you,’ countered Jogomaya. ‘You must have made some mistake. There’s no telling where you’ve really been, what you’ve really heard. Who asked you to go yourself, a letter would have clarified everything.’

Extremely disappointed with his wife’s lack of faith in his efficiency, Sripati proceeded to present detailed evidence – with no effect. Their arguments ran on into the middle of the night.

Although there was no difference of opinion between husband and wife over throwing Kadambini out of their home this instant – for Sripati was convinced that their guest had deceived his wife all this time under a false identity, while Jogomaya believed that she had abandoned her family – neither of them was willing to concede the current argument.

Their voices became progressively louder; they forgot that Kadambini was in the very next room.

‘What a predicament,’ said the one. ‘I heard it with my own ears.’

‘Why should I believe you,’ said the other with conviction, ‘I can see her with my own eyes.’

Finally Jogomaya said, ‘Very well, tell me when Kadambini is supposed to have died.’

She assumed that she would be able to find an inconsistency between his date and one of Kadambini’s letters, thus proving her point.

The date that Sripati mentioned turned out, when they had both calculated backwards, to be that of the day before the one on which Kadambini had arrived at their house in the evening. Jogomaya’s heart trembled at this, Sripati began to get an eerie feeling too.

Their door opened suddenly, a gust of rain-laden wind snuffing out the lamp. The darkness rushed in instantly, filling every inch of space. Kadambini appeared in the middle of the room. It was past two-thirty in the morning, and it was raining incessantly outside.

‘I am the same Kadambini, my dear,’ said Kadambini, ‘but I am not alive any more. I am dead now.’

Jogomaya screamed in terror – Sripati couldn’t utter a word.

‘But what crime have I committed other than dying? If there is no room for me in this world or in the next, where should I go then, tell me.’ Her plaintive cry seemed to awaken the Creator, asleep at this hour on this monsoon night, to ask, ‘Where should I go then, tell me.’

With these words, Kadambini left the couple unconscious in their room to seek her place in the world.

5

It is difficult to explain how Kadambini returned to Ranihat. But she did not show herself to anyone at first, spending the day without food in a ruined temple.

When the monsoon evening descended early, and villagers anxiously took shelter in their own homes in anticipation of the imminent deluge, Kadambini went out on the road. At the threshold of her in-laws’ house she felt a moment of panic, but when she entered, her face covered by the end of her sari, the doormen mistook her for a maid and did not block her way – the rain intensified at this moment, and the wind picked up.

The lady of the house, Sharadashankar’s wife, was playing cards with her husband’s widowed sister. The maid was in the kitchen and an ill Khoka, who had a fever, was sleeping in the bedroom. Evading everyone’s eyes, Kadambini arrived in the bedroom. She did not know herself what impulse had brought her to her in-laws’ house, but she did know that she wanted to set her eyes on the little boy one more time. She had not thought of where she would go, or what would happen, thereafter.

In the light of the lamp she saw the sickly little boy sleeping with his hands clenched tightly. The sight made her agitated heart yearn – how could she live without clasping the child with all his sickness to her bosom once. She pondered, ‘Now that I am gone, who will look after him here? His mother enjoys company, enjoys chatting with people, a game of cards, she was happy all this while entrusting the responsibility for the child to me, she had never had to bear the burden of bringing him up. Who will take care of this boy now?’

The little boy turned on his side, saying in his sleep, ‘Water, Kakima.’ Oh my god. You haven’t forgotten your Kakima, my darling! Quickly pouring out a glass of water from the pitcher in the corner, Kadambini took the child in her arms and gave him his water.

As long as he was under the influence of sleep, the boy was not the least surprised to have his aunt giving him his glass of water. When she had fulfilled her long cherished desire and tucked him back into bed after kissing him, he woke up. Putting his arms around her, he said, ‘Did you die, Kakima?’

‘Yes, Khoka,’ she replied.

‘You’ve come back to Khoka now? You won’t die again?’

Before she could answer there was a commotion – about to enter the room with a bowl of food for the boy, the maid dropped it with a clatter and collapsed on the floor, exclaiming ‘Oh!’

The lady of the house came running at the sound, her cards forgotten, turning to a block of wood the moment she entered, unable to speak or to make her escape.

All this scared the little boy, who sobbed loudly, saying, ‘Go away, Kakima.’

After a long time, Kadambini was feeling today as though she had not died – the familiar house, everything, the boy, her love for him, all of it was as alive as they had ever been, she could sense no gap, no gulf. At her friend’s house she had felt that her childhood friend had died – in the boy’s room she realised that nothing of his aunt had died.

‘Why are you afraid of me, Didi?’ she pleaded. ‘Look at me, I’m just as I always was.’

The lady of the house could stay on her feet no longer, she fainted in a heap on the floor.

Informed by his sister, Sharadashankar-babu appeared personally in the ladies’ chambers. His palms joined in supplication, he said, ‘Is this fair, Chhotobouma? Satish is my only male heir, why must you cast your eye on him? Are we not your family? Ever since you went he has been wasting away, his illness won’t leave him, he calls for you all the time. Since you have left the world, you must cut the strings now – we will perform your last rites suitably.’

Kadambini could take it no longer, she cried out frantically, ‘But I am not dead, I am not dead. How do I convince all of you I am not dead? Look, I am alive.’

Seizing the metal bowl from the floor, she struck herself on the forehead with it, her forehead began to bleed immediately.

‘Look, I am alive,’ she declared.

Sharadashankar was transfixed, like a statue. The little boy called out to him in fear. The two women who had fainted remained on the floor.

Shouting, ‘I am not dead, I am not dead, not dead,’ Kadambini left the room, climbed down the stairs and plunged into the pond behind the ladies’ chambers. Sharadashankar heard a splash from the room upstairs.

It rained incessantly all night, the next morning – the rain did not let up in the afternoon either. Kadambari died to prove that she had not died.

One thought on “Dead or Alive: by Rabindranath Tagore

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