There are kinds of women, or so I’ve heard some pundits say.
One is mostly maternal. The other is the lover. If you liken them to the seasons, the mother is the monsoon. She lets her gifts flow freely from the sky; bestows water, nurtures crops, quells the heat, dispels aridity, fulfils all wanting.
The lover is spring. Her mysteries run deep, her magic is bewitching. Her vivacity makes the blood tingle, entering the very core of one’s being and bringing the expectant body to life, like the melody that awakens the silent veena.
Shashanka’s wife Sharmila was of the maternal cast. Her eyes were large, deep, limpid; they cast languid glances. She was like a moisture-laden cloud—ripe, delicate and verdant; the parting in her hair glowed vermilion like the morning sun; the black border of her sari was generous; on her hands she wore thick bangles inlaid with ram-head motifs. Her appearance spoke not of good looks but of good deeds.
There wasn’t a single region in her husband’s realm of existence—no matter how remote—over which her reign was not firm. Shielded by the wife’s overprotectiveness, the husband’s instincts had been blunted, making him careless. If his fountain pen slipped out of sight on his desk for even a moment, it was his wife’s responsibility to recover the pen and rectify this minor disaster. Preparing for a bath, if Shashanka suddenly forgot where he had put his watch, his wife was certain to divine it. When he was about to leave the house, unwittingly having donned mismatched socks, his wife appeared at once to correct his mistake. Once, he invited friends home on the wrong day, confusing the Bengali calendar with the Western one; the responsibility of tending to unexpected guests fell on his wife. In fact, making mistakes was second nature for Shashanka, probably because he knew that any blunder he might make was bound to be corrected by her.
‘I can’t stand it any more,’ his wife would scold him fondly. ‘Will you never learn?’ If he had, Sharmila’s life would have certainly become barren.
Take the instance when Shashanka was visiting a friend, one evening. The clock struck eleven, then twelve—the game of bridge was in full swing. Then, suddenly his friends sniggered. ‘The watchman has arrived with your summons, my friend. Your time is up.’
It was the familiar figure of Mahesh, the servant, with his grey moustache and black hair. Dressed in a loose shirt, he had a colourful dusting rag slung over his shoulder and a sturdy stick under his arm.
‘Mathakurun sent me to find out whether babu is here. She’s scared there might be an accident on the way back home, in this darkness. She’s sent a lantern too.’
Shashanka got to his feet, throwing his cards down in annoyance. ‘Poor helpless fellow,’ his friends commiserated. Upon his return home, his conversation with his wife was neither pleasant in tone nor moderate in language. Sharmila accepted the rebuke in silence. What could she do, she couldn’t help fretting. She simply couldn’t rid herself of the apprehension that all kinds of imaginary dangers were lurking to take advantage of her absence and conspiring against her husband.
Sometimes there were visitors at home, possibly to discuss business. Tiny chits would make their appearance, at frequent intervals, from the inner chambers of the household, saying for example ‘Have you forgotten you were ill yesterday? Please have your lunch quickly.’
Shashanka grew angry but also gave in to her attentions wearily. ‘I beg of you, find a divinity or two to be devoted to like Mrs Chakraborty across the road,’ he told his wife once, sadly. ‘Your attention is too much for me alone. It would be easier to share it with the gods. They won’t object, no matter how dedicated you are to their cause, but humans are weak, you see.’
‘What! Don’t you remember what happened to you when I went to Haridwar with Kaka-babu?’ she replied. Shashanka had described to his wife with much embellishment, how grievous his condition had been during this time. He had known that Sharmila would be as happy as she would be contrite at his exaggerated account. So how could he protest against her eloquent arguments today? He had to accept it without demur. Moreover, that very morning he had apparently displayed symptoms of a cold—or so Sharmila had imagined, forcing him to swallow ten grains of quinine and tea infused with extracts of holy basil. He had no grounds for refusing these remedies, because he had in the past raised objections in a similar situation, refusing the quinine and had subsequently run up a fever. These details in Shashanka’s life history were written in indelible letters.
Sharmila was as vigorously engaged in upholding her husband’s honour in the outside world as she was tenderly protective of him at home. An example comes to mind. The couple was on their way to Nainital for a holiday. Their compartment had been reserved in advance for the entire journey. However, having changed trains at a junction and then having departed in search of a meal, they returned to discover two uniformed villains preparing to dispossess them of their compartment. At this juncture, the stationmaster arrived to inform them that the compartment actually belonged to a world-famous general; their names had been put there by mistake, he claimed. His eyes widening in panic, Shashanka was about to leave deferentially to look for an alternative when Sharmila rose to block the door, saying, ‘I dare you to get me off this train. Fetch your general.’
Still a government employee at the time, Shashanka was used to maintaining as wide and safe a distance as possible from his superiors. But the more he said anxiously, ‘Oh, but why bother, there are plenty of other trains, after all,’ the less Sharmila heeded him. Eventually having finished his meal in the refreshment room, the general approached with a cigar in his mouth—and then retreated as soon as he saw the form of the belligerent female who challenged him from a distance.
‘Have you any idea how important he is?’ Shashanka asked his wife anxiously.
‘I have no interest in finding out,’ she retorted. ‘In a compartment that belongs to us, he isn’t any more important than you are.’
‘What if he had insulted us?’ Shashanka fretted. ‘What are you here for?’ his wife responded.
Shashanka was an engineer with a degree from the prestigious engineering college at Shibpur. However careless he might have been at home, he was thoroughly competent at work. The chief reason for this was that the ascendant star under whose unrelenting gaze he operated there was the person known in daily parlance as the boss. His wife was not his guiding star there and he flourished without her help. Shashanka was the acting district engineer when the unexpected arrival of a young Englishman thwarted his rise. The newcomer’s relationship with—and a recommendation from—the highest authority, helped him secure the position that should have been Shashanka’s, despite his lack of experience and almost non-existent moustache.
Shashanka realized that he would have to let this idiot occupy the higher position while he did the real work from the lower rungs. The superior authority slapped him on the back, saying, ‘Very sorry, Majumdar, I’ll find you a suitable position as soon as I can.’ They belonged to the same Freemason Lodge.
But despite the assurances and the consolation, Majumdar became bitter about the whole affair. At home he was irritable about the smallest of things. All of a sudden, he began to notice cobwebs in a corner of his office; all of a sudden, he couldn’t stand the particular green of the bedspread. He shouted at the servant who was sweeping the verandah for raising a cloud of dust: the cloud of dust would have appeared every day but this rebuke was new.
Shashanka didn’t inform his wife of his humiliation. If she discovered it, he reasoned, she would further entangle him in the web of workplace politics—she might even have a rancorous quarrel with the authorities. She already nursed a grudge against Donaldson in particular. While trying to quell an outbreak of monkey attacks in the garden of the circuit house, Donaldson had shot a hole in Shashanka’s sola hat. Although Shashanka escaped without harm, Sharmila felt he could easily have been hurt. Furthermore, people said the incident was Shashanka’s fault, which fuelled her ire. Perhaps the biggest cause for her anger, however, was this—when the bullet which had been intended for the marauding monkey hit Shashanka instead, his detractors equated the two targets, deriving much amusement from it.
Sharmila found out herself about her husband being passed over for promotion. His behaviour had already led her to suspect that something was bothering him and it didn’t take her long to find the root of his disquiet. ‘Enough, you must resign immediately,’ she urged her husband, choosing self-determination over constitutional agitation.
If only he could have resigned so easily, the stigma of humiliation would have been erased. But confronting his idealism was the guarantee of a meal from a monthly income—and the golden glow of a steady pension on the western horizon.
The year Shashanka had established himself, sailing through his MSc degree, Rajaram, his father-in-law, decided not to delay the wedding any longer. Shashanka and Sharmila were duly married. The young man then acquired his engineering degree with the assistance of his rich fatherin- law. When he observed Shashanka’s rapid promotions, Rajaram-babu was pleased that he had correctly predicted his son-in-law’s future affluence.
In any case, it was not like his daughter had been made to feel her circumstances had changed. Not only did the couple want for nothing, Sharmila had actually maintained the lifestyle she had enjoyed while living with her father. This was because all arrangements in this domestic diarchy were under her control. She had not had a child, had probably given up hope of having one. Every month, her husband’s entire income was handed over to her in one lump sum. Shashanka had no choice but to hold out his begging bowl before the goddess of wealth management at home when he needed money. Unreasonable demands were rejected outright, a verdict he had to accept without demur. The disappointment would be compensated for by tenderness in other ways.
‘Resigning is easy enough. But it’s you I think of, it’ll put you into great difficulties ,’ said Shashanka.
‘It’ll make me even more upset to swallow the pain of humiliation,’ Sharmila responded.
‘But I have to work, if I give up a secure job where will I find another one?’
‘I’m sure it exists, it’s just that you’re not aware of it. You think the universe doesn’t extend beyond the deserts of Baluchistan, which you so drolly call Lichistan.’
‘Heavens! That universe is enormous! Who dares survey its roads? Where will I get a pair of binoculars powerful enough?’
‘You don’t need powerful binoculars. My distant cousin Mathur-dada is a contractor in Calcutta; a partnership with him will take care of our needs.’
‘It will be an unequal alliance. The weights are far lighter this side of the scales. Forcing a partnership will only mean a loss of face.’
‘There’ll be nothing whatsoever lacking on this side. You know very well that the money my father left me has grown in my bank account. You can certainly match your partner.’
‘How can I do that? It’s your money, after all,’ exclaimed Shashanka, rising. There were people waiting for him. Tugging at his clothes to make him sit down again, Sharmila said, ‘But I’m yours too.’
‘Pull out your fountain pen from your pocket,’ she continued. ‘Here’s a notepad, write your resignation letter. I won’t rest till you put it in the post.’
‘You won’t let me rest either, it appears.’
He wrote out his resignation letter.
Sharmila left for Calcutta the very next day, arriving at Mathur-dada’s house. ‘You never bother to ask after me,’ she accused him. ‘You don’t either,’ a woman would have said to compete. That response didn’t occur to a man. He accepted his offence. ‘I don’t have even a minute to spare,’ he said. ‘I forget my own existence sometimes. Besides, you people live so far away.’
‘I read in the papers that you’ve got a project to build a bridge in Mayurganj or is it Mayurbhanj,’ continued Sharmila. ‘It made me so happy. I wanted to congratulate you in person.’
‘Not just yet, little girl. It’s premature.’
This was the situation—the project needed investment. Initially drawn up in partnership with a rich Marwari trader, it turned out to be an agreement which gave the partner the meat and Mathur the bones. Hence the attempt now to withdraw. ‘This cannot be allowed,’ said Sharmila in concern. ‘If you must have a partnership, do it with us. It’ll be very unfortunate if such a good project were to slip through your fingers. I will never let it happen, no matter what.’ Mathur’s heart melted and the formalities didn’t take much time after this.
The business proceeded apace. Shashanka had shouldered the responsibility of employment before, but that responsibility was limited. He had had a master then, the demands made of him were matched by what was due to him. Now he was in his own employment, demands and dues merged. His days no longer alternated between work and leisure; time was now a single entity. The hold that responsibility had over him was all the stronger precisely because he could give it up whenever he wanted to. He simply wanted to repay his debt to his wife, after which he could slow down. Wearing his watch on his left wrist, a sola hat on his head, rolled up sleeves, khaki trousers, a belt at his waist, thick-soled shoes, dark glasses—Shashanka devoted himself body and soul to his work. Even when he was on the verge of repaying his wife, he continued to forge ahead.
Earnings and expenditure used to flow in the same channel earlier but now two streams were formed—one flowing bankward and the other, homeward. The monthly allocation for Sharmila remained unchanged; the mysteries of debit and credit were beyond Shashanka in this department.
Now business and the leather-bound ledger that recorded its dealings were a remote fortress for Sharmila. No harm in that. But with the orbit of her husband’s work life outside her circle of domesticity, her rules and regulations began to be disregarded. ‘Don’t work too hard,’ she pleaded, ‘you’ll collapse.’ This had no impact. Surprisingly, he wasn’t collapsing either. Sharmila fretted over his health, bemoaned his lack of rest, became obsessed with the minutiae of his comforts. Completely ignoring these wifely concerns, Shashanka drove off swiftly early each day, in his second-hand Ford, tooting his horn. He came back home to scoldings at two or two-thirty in the afternoon, swallowing his lunch just as quickly. One day his car collided with someone else’s. He was safe but the car was dented, and he dispatched it for repairs. Sharmila was frantic. ‘You mustn’t drive any more,’ she told him tearfully.
‘Having someone else at the wheel will not necessarily make it any safer,’ Shashanka replied, laughing it off. Another day, while he was supervising a renovation job, a nail from a broken packing box pierced the sole of his shoe and lodged itself in his foot, and he went to the hospital to be bandaged and take an anti-tetanus injection. Sharmila burst into tears. ‘Stay in bed just a day,’ she urged him.
‘Work,’ said Shashanka tersely; he couldn’t have been more succint.
‘But… ’ said Sharmila. He left without another word, his foot still bandaged.
She didn’t dare insist on anything any more. The man of the house had begun to assert himself in his own domain. Looming above all her arguments and entreaties was that one statement—‘I have work to do.’ Sharmila lived in a state of needless anxiety. Whenever he was late, she feared another accident. When her husband was sunburnt, she assumed it was influenza. Tentatively, she hinted at seeing a doctor—stopping herself when she saw her husband’s expression. These days she didn’t even dare vent her concern to her heart’s content. Shashanka began to look lean and dry, as though he had been stripped down to his bones. His attire became shorter and tighter, so did his spare hours; his speech was as brief as sparks of fire. Sharmila tried to keep up with this faster rhythm. She had to keep food warm by the stove all the time, for her husband could say at any odd hour, ‘I’m off now, I’ll be late.’
Soda water and tins of dry food were always kept in the car. A bottle of eau de cologne was placed prominently within view, in case of a headache. But an examination of the car upon Shashanka’s return revealed that none of it was ever used. Clean, folded clothes were displayed in the bedroom every morning quite prominently, but despite this, on at least four days a week he had no time to change into fresh clothes. Household discussions had to be compressed like Morse code, that too while trailing behind him as he moved about the house, desperately urging him to pay attention before he left. Whatever tenuous ties Sharmila had had with the business were now severed; her money had been returned with interest. The interest had been calculated down to the last paisa and a receipt obtained for the payment. ‘Dear god!’ exclaimed Sharmila to herself. ‘Men cannot give all of themselves even in love. Their pride has to hold then back.’
Shashanka used some of his recently acquired profits to construct a house after his heart in Bhawanipur: his latest fancy. He was constantly thinking up schemes for the home— all to surprise Sharmila. She didn’t fail to be suitably surprised either. The engineer installed a machine to wash clothes, and Sharmila admired it effusively after examining it but told herself, ‘The clothes will go to the washerman just as they do now. I can cope with a donkey, I cannot cope with science.’ The potato-peeling instrument amazed her too. ‘Seventy-five per cent of the pain of cooking potatoes is now gone,’ she had remarked. The instrument was found later, consigned to retirement along with the pans and dented kettles.
When the house was completed, Sharmila’s love— suppressed all this while—found release in this inanimate object; bricks and wood were eternally patient. Two servants wore themselves out arranging the furniture and decorating the house; one of them actually left. The rooms were done up solely with Shashanka in mind. He hardly spent time in the drawing room any more but cushions in different styles were laid out for his tired back; there were countless flower vases, and the tables and stools were covered in tasselled fabric with floral prints. Shashanka no longer appeared in the bedroom during the day for in his new almanac Sunday was nothing but Monday’s twin; when there was no work to be pursued anywhere else on certain holidays, he managed to discover things that could be done at home, sitting down in his office with the oil paper used for drawing plans or with his ledgers.
Older traditions were maintained, nevertheless: a pair of silk slippers lay in attendance in front of the thickly cushioned sofa. The paan was still arranged in its container as before, the clothes-stand had a fine silk kurta and crisp dhoti draped over it. It required some courage to intervene in the office but Sharmila ventured in, duster in hand, while Shashanka was away. Her efforts at bringing about an equilibrium between decoration and discipline amongst the phalanx of useful and redundant objects in the office continued, unabated.
Sharmila still looked after Shashanka, though largely invisibly. Her self-sacrifice, so palpable once, now showed itself indirectly: in decorating the house, in maintaining the garden, in the silk coverlet on the cot Shashanka sat on, in the floral pattern on his pillowcase, in the blue crystal flower vase on the corner of the desk in his office which held marigolds.
With great unhappiness, she had to present her offerings at a distance from her shrine. Only recently she had been badly hurt, shedding secret tears afterwards. It was the fourteenth of November—Shashanka’s birthday and the most important occasion in Sharmila’s life. Their friends were invited as usual, their home was decorated specially with flowers. Back home for lunch after his morning’s work, Shashanka remarked, ‘What’s going on? Is there a dolls’ wedding tonight?’
‘Oh god, have you forgotten it’s your birthday?’ replied Sharmila. ‘I won’t hear a word, you shall not go out this evening.’
‘Business bows before no day besides the one on which you die,’ was the response.
‘I’ll never ask you again,’ she pleaded. ‘But I’ve invited people for this evening.’
‘Look, Sharmila, don’t try to turn me into a toy that you can play with before a room full of people,’ said Shashanka. He left with big, rapid strides. Sharmila locked herself in her bedroom and cried for hours.
When the guests arrived in the evening, they accepted the greater demand of business quite easily. If it had been Kalidasa’s birthday, they would certainly have considered his compulsion to write the third act of Shakuntala nothing but a bad excuse. But this was business! There was plenty of entertainment anyway. Nalu-babu mimicked stage actors and made everyone laugh uproariously; even Sharmila joined in the laughter. Shashanka’s Shashanka-less birthday prostrated itself reverentially before a Shashanka-managed business.
Despite her unhappiness, Sharmila, too, surrendered to the flag flying on Shashanka’s work chariot, which raced away at a distance. For him work was a pursuit of that unattainable goal that cared for nothing—not the wife’s pleas, not the friend’s invitation, not even one’s own comfort. For a man, respect for work is a form of self-respect, a way to devote himself to his skills. From the line that divided her domestic world from his, Sharmila observed with awe Shashanka’s labour on the other side. He had taken himself far beyond the boundaries of his home, extending his work to distant lands, employing hundreds of people. Man battles with his fate every day; if a woman’s tender arms attempt to hold him back from that perilous trail, he has no choice but to break out of the embrace ruthlessly.
Sharmila accepted this ruthlessness respectfully. Sometimes she couldn’t control herself—her love and anxiety made her intrude where she had no right to. Inevitably she was rebuffed which she accepted as her due, and returned dejected. She prayed to the gods to ‘watch over him’ in all the places where she was not permitted.
Just as the affluence of the family was racing towards six figures, riding on its bank deposits, Sharmila was afflicted by an obscure disease, robbed of the strength to even stay on her feet.
The reason for everyone’s anxiety over this illness must be elaborated. Sharmila’s father, Rajaram-babu, was a zamindar whose land spanned several tracts in the district of Barishal and near the delta of the river Ganges. He also held shares in a shipbuilding enterprise at the Shalimar docks. He had been born at the confluence of the old and new eras. Once an expert at wrestling, hunting, and fencing, he was well known for his mastery of the pakhwaz, and could recite from memory entire pages from The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. He idolized Macaulay’s English and he was mesmerized by Burke’s oratory, though his reverence for the Bengali tongue didn’t run beyond the epic verse, The Slaying of Meghnad†. In middle age he had considered alcohol and forbidden meats an intrinsic aspect of the modern diversions of life, but in old age he gave them all up. His clothes were always immaculate, his countenance pleasing and serene, his body tall and muscular, his temperament social. He could never bring himself to turn down a request of any kind. He had no faith in religious rituals, although they were conducted with much pomp and ceremony in his home. The ostentation was enough to signal his lineage; the rituals were for the womenfolk and others. He could easily have got himself the title of ‘raja’, and when asked the reason for his indifference to the idea of nobility, Rajaram would say with a smile that he was already enjoying the title bestowed on him by his father; giving precedence to any other title would be an insult to this one. In any case, his welcome at Government House was always accorded at a gatehouse reserved for special guests. Important British administrators ate and drank champagne in copious quantities, during the Jagatdhatri puja at his residence.
After Sharmila’s wedding, his widower’s home was occupied by his son Hemanta and his younger daughter Urmimala. The son’s looks made heads turn and he was described by his professors as brilliant. There wasn’t a subject in which he had not attained the highest level of success in his examinations. Moreover, there were strong signs that he would uphold his father’s reputation when it came to physical prowess. Needless to say, a constellation of young girls orbited expectantly around him, but his heart was indifferent to marriage; his latest aim was to collect degrees at a European university. It was with this objective that he began to study French and German.
With no other academic degree left to read for, he had started on law—though completely unnecessarily—when something in his stomach or one of his organs began to give trouble. Doctors could make no headway. The stealthy disease seemed to have found a fortress-like home in the young man’s body, and it proved as difficult to locate as to attack.
Rajaram had unshakeable faith in a particular English doctor of the time who had built a reputation for surgery. The renowned doctor began to investigate his patient’s body. Accustomed to wielding the scalpel, he immediately concluded that the danger was deep-rooted and that surgery was needed. But the region that was skilfully uncovered by the scalpel revealed neither a foe nor any signs of malicious activity. It was too late to rectify the error—the young man died.
His father’s grief would not be quelled. The death did not completely destroy him, but he was utterly devastated by the memory of his son’s treatment. The image of such a vital, beautiful, strong body being carved up in this fashion wrapped its talons around his mind like a ferocious, black bird of prey. Sucking out his life force, it forced him towards death.
A freshly minted doctor—and Hemanta’s former classmate— named Nirad Mukherjee had assisted in looking after the patient. Insisting all along that the prescribed treatment wasn’t correct, he had made his own diagnosis, advising a long sojourn in dry climate. But Rajaram’s superstitions had remained unshakeable. He had believed that the only suitable adversary of death in a difficult battle could be an English doctor. So this incident made his affection and respect for Nirad climb, disproportionately, to new heights. His younger daughter Urmi, too, suddenly felt this man’s genius was extraordinary. ‘See, baba, how much confidence he has in his own abilities even at this age,’ she told her father. ‘What pure courage he has displayed in opposing the formidable English doctor’s viewpoint!’
‘Medical science isn’t learnt from textbooks alone,’ agreed her father. ‘Some people have a rare, god-given gift for it. Nirad is one of them.’
Their reverence for him began thus, with some slight proof, with the potency of the blow dealt by grief, with the pain of penitence. Then it swelled on its own, without waiting for supporting evidence.
One day, Rajaram said to his daughter, ‘Urmi, I can hear Hemanta calling out to me all the time, “Let people not suffer from disease.” I’ve decided to establish a hospital in his memory.’
‘Wonderful idea,’ said Urmi, bursting with her usual enthusiasm. ‘Send me to Europe to learn medicine and take charge of the hospital when I return.’
Rajaram was touched. ‘The hospital will be dedicated to the gods, and you will be its priestess. Hemanta suffered so much before dying, he loved you so much, this pious mission will bring peace to his soul in the other world. You looked after him day and night when he was ill, the care you took of him then will be manifold under your supervision.’
That a girl from an orthodox family should become a doctor didn’t seem unusual to the stricken old man. He had fathomed, deep in his heart, what it meant to be able to save people from illness. His son may not have survived, but if other people’s sons did, it would be some compensation; it might lighten his suffering a little. ‘I’ll send you to Europe as soon as you’ve completed your science courses at the university here,’ he told his daughter.
One particular thought, with regard to the remarkable young Nirad, occupied Rajaram. He was a real gem. The more he saw of him, the more he liked him. He may have got his degree, but he had left all that far behind to plunge himself into the ocean of medical sciences. He was young but entertainment and other diversions couldn’t entice him. He would discuss every recent development, test it out himself, and do untold damage to his medical practice by neglecting patients. He was supremely contemptuous of those who managed to grow their practices. ‘Idiots earn success,’ he said, ‘but the deserving earn glory.’ He had discovered the aphorism in a book.
Eventually Rajaram said to Urmi one day, ‘I’ve thought it over, I think if your work at the hospital is done as Nirad’s wife the effort will be complete, and I will be relieved too. Where will we find another one like him?’
Whatever else he might do, Rajaram could not turn his back on Hemanta’s viewpoint. Hemanta used to say that when it came to marriage, ignoring the daughter’s choice to impose the parents’ preference was barbaric. Earlier Rajaram had argued that marriage was not just a personal matter, the entire family was involved, therefore it was necessary to be guided not just by choice but by experience. No matter what he had said then, no matter where his preference had lain, his love for Hemanta was so strong that it was the son’s wish that won.
Nirad Mukherjee had been a regular visitor to their family home for a while. Hemanta had given him the nickname of Owl. When asked for an explanation, he’d say, ‘The man is mythological, he’s ageless, he’s all knowledge, that’s why I refer to him as Minerva’s mount.’
Nirad had been present at tea at their house on occasion, had engaged in furious debate with Hemanta, and must have acknowledged Urmi at the back of his mind but not in his behaviour, because the traditional response in such cases was not in his nature. He could discuss things but he couldn’t converse. If he possessed the warmth of youth, he lacked its dazzle. This was why he took pleasure in contemptuously ignoring those vigorous young men whose youth shone forth. For these reasons, no one had had the courage to consider him a member of the club of suitors for Urmi. Yet it was this perceptible indifference—added to the present reason—that had extended Urmi’s respect for him to the frontiers of reverence.
So when Rajaram announced that he would be happy if his daughter were to be married to Nirad, provided she had no objection, Urmi had nodded to indicate she was favourably disposed to the idea. All she added was that the wedding should be the culmination of her studies in India and then abroad. Her father said, ‘That’s an excellent notion, but I’d be relieved if the engagement were to be finalized through mutual agreement before that.’
Nirad’s consent didn’t take long to secure, although his behaviour implied that betrothal was an enormous sacrifice for the scientist, almost tantamount to suicide. Possibly as a means for mitigating this crisis somewhat, it was agreed that Nirad would direct Urmi on academics as well as everything else—that is to say, gradually cast her in the mould of his future wife. And that too scientifically, under rigorous discipline, like the infallible processes followed in a laboratory.
‘Birds and beasts have emerged from the factory of nature as finished products,’ Nirad told Urmi. ‘But human beings are raw material only. Man himself has the responsibility to build something with it.’
‘All right, test me,’ said Urmi deferentially. ‘You will encounter no resistance.’
‘You have different kinds of abilities,’ said Nirad. ‘They have to be channelled and guided around the prime objective of your existence. Only then will there be meaning to your life. You will succeed in reining in distractions with the power engendered by motivation, while displaying integrity and dynamism—only then can that unity be termed a moral organism.’
A delighted Urmi compared him to the numerous young men who had been visitors at tea, or to their tennis courts, but never said anything worth thinking about; at best they could yawn when someone else did. In truth, Nirad was pretentious. But no matter what others might think, Urmi considered everything he said significant and profound.
Rajaram frequently asked his elder son-in-law to join them in their gatherings at home, attempting to get the two men acquainted. ‘That young man is insufferably presumptuous; he considers all of us his students—and that too languishing in the far corner of the last bench,’ Shashanka told Sharmila.
‘You’re just jealous.’ Sharmila smiled. ‘Why, I quite like him.’
‘Why don’t you change places with your younger sister?’ Shashanka laughed.
‘Maybe you’ll breathe a sigh of relief in that case, but not I.’ Nirad’s brotherly love for Shashanka didn’t appear to be growing either. ‘He’s a mechanic, he’s no scientist,’ he said to himself. ‘All hands, no brains.’
Shashanka frequently bantered with his sister-in-law over the subject of Nirad. ‘It’s time to change your name,’ he said.
‘Under the Western system?’
‘No, under the pure Sanskrit system.’
‘And what’s this new name?’
‘Bidyutlata. Nirad will like this electric vine. He’s already familiar with electricity in his laboratory, now the vines will bind him down at home.’
To himself he said, ‘The name does suit her.’ He felt a pinprick somewhere. ‘What a pity she’s being claimed by such a prig.’ It was difficult to say whose claim would have provided satisfaction and comfort to Shashanka’s tastes instead. Rajaram died soon afterwards. Niradnath, future owner of Urmi’s rights, applied himself to the task of improving her mind with utmost concentration.
Urmimala looked even prettier than she actually was. The brightness of her intelligence sparkled through her restlessness. She was curious about everything. If she was interested in science, she was no less—possibly more—interested in literature. She was very keen on watching football matches but didn’t ignore the cinema. When an authority on physics came to lecture at Presidency College, she was present there too. She listened to the radio regularly—she might scoff at the music, but she was curious about it. When the groom was on his way to get married, accompanied by a musical band, she would run to the balcony for a glimpse. She visited the zoo frequently; it was great entertainment, especially at the monkeys’ cage. When her father had gone fishing, she had stood by him, holding the fishing rod. She played tennis, was expert at badminton. All this she had learnt from her brother.
She was like a slim tendril in motion, shaking at the slightest of breezes. She dressed simply and neatly. She knew how to arrange her sari with just the right amount of tightness, wrap it a little differently around herself, straighten it out in places, so as to look alluring while retaining her mystique. While she couldn’t sing very well, she played the sitar. No one could tell whether the music was for listening or watching; her animated fingers seemed to make the strings speak in unison. She never lacked for things to talk about, never needed a reason to laugh. She had an extraordinary talent for giving company to people, single-handedly compensating for anything that was missing. Only in Nirad’s presence, now, did she become a different person; the wind in her sails died down, she could only move gently, slowly, guided by the oars.
Everyone said Urmi was as lively as her brother. She knew it was Hemanta who had taught her to think freely. He used to say that Indian homes were nothing but moulds to produce clay puppets—no wonder that the English could make three hundred and thirty three million of them dance to their strings. ‘When my turn comes,’ he would proclaim, ‘I shall destroy this society of puppets like a heretic.’ His turn never came but his spirit had stayed alive in Urmi.
This led to trouble. Nirad’s ways of doing things were extremely rigid. He arranged a rigorous academic schedule for her. ‘Look, Urmi, don’t let your concentration spill as you travel along this road,’ he edified her. ‘Or else the pitcher will have nothing left by the time you reach your destination.’ ‘You flit around like a butterfly,’ he accused her. ‘You gather nothing. There’s no need to be a bee. You have to make every moment count; life isn’t a pleasure cruise, after all.’
Nirad had recently procured books on pedagogy from the Imperial Library, books that contained philosophical edicts such as these. The language he used was the language of books, for he had no natural expression of his own.
Urmi was left in no doubt of her guilt. Hers was a noble mission and yet how easily she was distracted! She castigated herself repeatedly. Nirad was a living example before her— what astounding determination, what focus on his goals, what stern rejection of any manner of entertainment or pleasure. If he spotted a storybook or some light literature on her desk, he confiscated it immediately. On a visit to supervise Urmi, he was told she had gone for a matine. performance of Sullivan’s opera, Mikado. When her brother was alive, she had leapt at such opportunities. Nirad had taken her to task suitably that day, telling her grimly in English, ‘Look, you have taken the responsibility of dedicating your life to making your brother’s death worthwhile. Have you forgotten already?’
Urmi felt extremely remorseful. ‘What extraordinary insight this man has,’ she mused. ‘I no longer grieve intensely—I didn’t realize it myself. Shame on me! Am I so frivolous?’ To ensure restraint, she decided to banish all embellishment from her clothes. The saris turned coarse, all traces of colour disappeared from them. She gave up the chocolate she craved, though she had so much of it stacked in her drawer. Firmly confining her recalcitrant will to a narrow orbit, she tethered it to the arid stake of responsibility. Her sister rebuked her; while the choice epithets that Shashanka showered on Nirad were in an unrestrained foreign tongue not to be found in the dictionary, nor pleasant to the ear.
There was one similarity between Nirad and Shashanka. When Shashanka’s urge to heap abuse on someone intensified, his preferred language was English; when Nirad’s subject was edification, he only used pedantic English. What Nirad found most objectionable were Urmi’s occasional visits to her sister’s house. Not only did she visit Sharmila every now and then, she did it eagerly. The familial relationship Sharmila and Shashanka had with Urmi undermined Nirad’s own relationship with her.
‘Look, Urmi, don’t be offended by what I’m about to tell you,’ Nirad told Urmi gravely, one day. ‘What can I do, I have a responsibility, the call of duty forces me to say unpleasant things. I want to warn you that maintaining regular relations with Shashanka-babu is unhealthy for the development of your character. You may be blinded by the charm of the family connection, but I can clearly see disaster lying ahead.’
The document certifying that Urmi’s purity had already been pawned lay in Nirad’s safe. So, any tarnishing of it would have meant a loss for him alone. Because they had been forbidden, Urmi’s visits to Bhawanipur became rare, conducted on different pretexts. This self-discipline on her part was like paying a debt. And as for Nirad, what could be greater selfdenial for a disciple of science than the responsibility for her life that he had undertaken forever, compromising his own quest in the process?
Urmi had somehow managed to endure the agony of forsaking all attractions. Yet she felt an occasional surge of unhappiness which she could not explain away as mere restlessness. All Nirad ever did was give her instructions, why couldn’t he devote himself just to her for a moment? It was for such worship that her heart yearned—its absence prevented her soul from being satiated, took the joy out of all her tasks. Sometimes Nirad looked at her with ardour, as though it wouldn’t take much longer, as though the deepest mystery of life would be revealed any moment. But the Almighty knew—even if those aching depths did exist somewhere within him—that Nirad did not know its language. Since he could not express it, he was contemptuous of desire. He considered it a display of strength, a matter of pride, that he could come away without a word despite holding his heart in turmoil. ‘Sentimentality is not my cup of tea,’ he proclaimed. Urmi felt like crying on those occasions but such had been her training that she, too, reverently labelled this behaviour as bravery, mercilessly castigating her own failing heart. Yet no matter how hard she tried, it flashed upon her that the stern resolve she had willingly imposed on herself in an hour of grief had weakened with time, forcing her to cling to Nirad’s willpower for support.
‘Look, Urmi,’ Nirad would tell her clearly, ‘remember that you have no hope of receiving from me the compliments and flattery that ordinary women expect from men. What I shall give you is far truer, far more valuable, than these manufactured endearments.’ Urmi would sit in silence, her head bowed. ‘Can I keep nothing hidden from this man?’ she would reflect.
Still she couldn’t subdue her heart. She went up to the terrace for solitary walks. The afternoon light turned to grey. Moving beyond the peaks and troughs of the houses in the city, the sun set on the far side of the masts of the ships moored in the distant river. Daylight disappeared gradually. The moon rose above the spire of the cathedral; in the barely discernible light, the city grew dreamlike, like a ghostly palace of illusions. Was life really so rigid, so harsh, she questioned herself. And was this man really so miserly that he would allow her neither escape nor emotion? Suddenly she felt rebellious, she wanted to break the rules, to shout out aloud, ‘I don’t believe in all this.’
Nirad’s research project was completed. He sent his thesis to a European science society. Offering fulsome praise, they gave him a scholarship. He decided to travel abroad for a degree from a foreign university.
There were no heart-rending exchanges when he said farewell. All he would say repeatedly was, ‘Now that I’m going away, I’m sure you’ll slacken in your work.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Urmi.
‘I’m leaving a detailed note on how to conduct yourself, how to study,’ Nirad said.
‘I will follow it to the letter,’ responded Urmi.
‘I want to take those books away from your cupboard and lock them up in my home.’
‘Do,’ said Urmi, handing him the keys. Nirad glanced briefly at the sitar too but hesitated and stopped.
Eventually he had to speak again out of his overwhelming sense of responsibility. ‘I have just one concern—if you start visiting Shashanka-babu’s home again there’s no doubt that your dedication will be compromised. Don’t imagine I’m speaking ill of Shashanka-babu. He’s a very nice man. Not many Bengalis can match his head for business or his passion for it. His only fault is that he doesn’t believe in principles. Really, I feel quite worried for him at times.’
This led him to enumerate many of Shashanka’s faults; nor could Nirad conceal his grievous anxiety that these flaws—hidden today—would be revealed one by one, in alarming proportions, as Shashanka grew older. But in spite of that, Nirad wished to acknowledge openly that Shashanka was a very nice man. He also wished to add that Urmi needed to protect herself properly from their dissolute company, from the atmosphere in their home; if her sensibilities were to descend to their level, it would amount to a moral downfall.
‘Why do you worry so much?’ asked Urmi.
‘Do you want to know why? You won’t be angry?’
‘You have given me the strength to accept the truth. I know it isn’t easy, but I must bear it.’
‘Then let me tell you. I have noticed that there’s a similarity in your nature and Shashanka-babu’s. He is extremely goodhumoured. Isn’t that what you like about him?’
Is this man omniscient, wondered Urmi again. There was no doubt that she liked her brother-in-law very much. Shashanka laughed loudly, knew how to tease her, to make fun of her. And he knew exactly which flowers were Urmi’s favourites, and which colours she liked her saris in.
‘Yes, I do like him, that’s true,’ she admitted.
‘Sharmila-didi’s love is gracious and dignified, she tends to people as she tends to the gods, she never abandons her responsibilities. It is under her influence that Shashankababu has learnt to work with concentration. But the days that you visit Bhawanipur his mask slips. He gets into skirmishes with you, he removes the pin in your hair to let it loose, the moment he spots your textbook he puts it on the top shelf of the cupboard. The urge to play tennis suddenly rears its head, even if there’s work to be done.’
Urmi had to admit that it was Shashanka-da’s impishness that made her like him so much. The child in her seemed to come alive whenever he was near. She didn’t spare him from her demanding ways either. Her sister smiled her calm, gracious smile at their boisterousness. Sometimes she scolded them mildly too, but this was just pretence.
‘You’d do better to remain where your natural instincts aren’t indulged,’ concluded Nirad. ‘If I were still here I wouldn’t have worried, for my nature is diametrically opposed to yours. I would never have allowed your mind to rot for the sake of your heart.’
‘I will heed your warning constantly,’ said Urmi, her head bowed.
‘I’m leaving some books with you,’ Nirad told her. ‘Read the chapters I have marked carefully, they’ll prove useful afterwards.’
Urmi was in need of this assistance. She had been assailed by pangs of doubt, telling herself, ‘I may have made a mistake in my first flush of enthusiasm. Maybe a career as a doctor will not suit my disposition.’
The books, with Nirad’s notes jotted in the margins, would pin her down, helping her swim against the current.
After Nirad’s departure, Urmi became even harder on herself. She practically locked herself indoors, except for going to college. The more her tired brain wanted to rest after a long day in the classroom, the more strictly did she lock it up in academic chains. She made no progress with her studies, her mind roved futilely over the same page over and over again— but still she wouldn’t admit defeat. Nirad’s willpower exerted its influence on her even more from a distance.
She censured herself most strongly when she found herself distracted by old memories. She had had many admirers amongst the young men. She had ignored some of them at the time, felt drawn towards others. No romance had ensued, for the desire for romance had only wafted over her heart like the capricious breeze of spring. And so she had merely hummed to herself, copied poetry she liked into her notebook, played her sitar when she had felt very restless. Now at times, even while her eyes were trained on her book, she would be startled by thoughts of a man she had not deigned to even acknowledge at the time, whose constant attention had once annoyed her. Today it was his very fervour that seemed to fan her dissatisfaction, just as the short-lived wings of the butterfly give flowers a taste of spring before departing.
The harder she tried to banish these thoughts, the more an equally strong counterforce brought them back. She had placed Nirad’s photograph on her desk; she would gaze at it intensely. His expression held the sparkle of intelligence but no fire of passion. If he wasn’t going to call out to her, whom would her heart respond to? She kept up her silent incantation, ‘What talent! What immense sacrifice! How pure of character! How incredibly fortunate I am!’
It is necessary to mention that Nirad had scored a victory himself in one particular area. When his marriage to Urmi had been arranged, Shashanka and many other sceptics had laughed mockingly. Rajaram-babu was na.ve, they had observed; he had mistaken Nirad for an idealist. His grandiloquent aphorisms could not conceal the fact that his idealism was roosting in Urmi’s treasure chest. Certainly he was sacrificing himself but to a god whose abode was the Imperial Bank. We inform our fathers-in-law directly that we need money, we explain that the money will not go waste but be used in the service of their daughter. But this gentleman was a saint: he claimed he would marry for a saintly cause. And then he would go on to translate that cause in his father-in-law’s chequebook.
Nirad had known such comments were inevitable. ‘I shall marry you on one condition,’ he had told Urmi. ‘I won’t accept a single rupee from you, my own income shall be my only sustenance.’ His future father-in-law had proposed sending him to Europe but he wouldn’t agree. As a result, he had to wait a long time. ‘Please give the money you wish to contribute towards establishing the hospital to your daughter. I shall not accept a salary for taking charge of the hospital. I am a doctor, I do not need to worry for a living.’
Rajaram’s admiration for him had strengthened at this speech and Urmi had nearly burst with pride. Sharmila turned antagonistic towards Nirad, stoking Urmi’s pride further. ‘Hmmph!’ she said. ‘I’d like to see how long the vow is kept.’ Thereafter, whenever Nirad spoke in his pompous manner, Sharmila would suddenly flounce out in the middle of the conversation, her back stiff. Her footsteps could be heard retreating into the distance. For Urmi’s sake she didn’t actually say anything but her silence spoke volumes.
Initially Nirad had sent five or six pages of detailed instructions by every post. Some time later, an unexpected telegram arrived. It was an urgent demand for a large sum of money for his higher education. Urmi’s pride was dented, but she found some consolation too. The more the days went by and the longer Nirad’s absence became, the more her real nature looked for openings through the barbed wire of her tasks. She deceived herself under various pretexts, repenting afterwards. Coming to Nirad’s aid during such periods of low self-esteem offered comfort to her repentant heart.
Handing the telegram to the manager of the estate, Urmi said tentatively, ‘The money, kaka-babu.’
‘It’s baffling,’ said the manager. ‘We were under the impression that this money was untouchable.’
He didn’t like Nirad.
‘But abroad… ’ Urmi couldn’t finish.
‘I know habits inculcated in this country can change in another—but how will we keep pace,’ replied the manager.
‘He might be in trouble if he doesn’t get the money.’
‘All right, my dear, I’m sending the money, don’t worry. This may be the first time, but I can assure you it’s not the last.’ That it wasn’t was proved soon afterwards by a larger demand. This time it was on grounds of ill health. ‘It would be better to discuss this with Shashanka-babu,’ the manager said grimly.
‘In no circumstances must didi or Shashanka-da learn of this,’ said Urmi, in alarm.
‘I’m not keen on taking this responsibility all by myself.’
‘One day it will all be his, after all.’
‘We must ensure it isn’t all gone by then.’
‘But we have to consider his health too.’
‘You can be unhealthy in different ways, I cannot quite fathom which one this is. If he were to return, the change of air might do him good. Let us send him a return passage ticket.’
Urmi was so perturbed at the prospect of Nirad’s return that she put it down to her unwillingness to having his noble mission interrupted midway.
‘I’ll send the money this time,’ said the manager, ‘but I suspect this will worsen the doctor’s health.’
The manager was a not-too-distant relative. His hint struck a discordant note in Urmi and she felt a pang of doubt. ‘I’ll probably have to tell didi,’ she mused. Meanwhile, she kept berating herself. ‘Why am I not suitably upset?’ Sharmila’s illness had become a matter of concern by this time. Her brother’s fate had frightened her. Different doctors tried to unearth the abode of the disease from various perspectives. ‘The criminal will slip through the hands of the CID, the innocent will die under the knife,’ said Sharmila with a tired smile.
‘Let them continue investigating, but the regular way—no surgery in any circumstances,’ said Shashanka, with a worried expression.
Shashanka had two big projects on hand at this time. One was at a jute mill by the river. The other was near Tollygunge, at the new country house of the zamindar of Meerpur. The living quarters for the labourers at the jute mill were to have been completed within three months. Several borewells had to be sunk at different spots. Shashanka didn’t have a moment to spare. But he was frequently held back by Sharmila’s illness, although his anxiety about work mounted.
They had been married for such a long time but Sharmila had never been ill enough for Shashanka to have to worry. So his disquiet over this illness made him as restless as a child. Instead of going to work he would wander around before sitting down helplessly at Sharmila’s bedside. Massaging her temples, he would ask, ‘How do you feel?’
‘Don’t worry, I’m fine,’ she would respond at once. The response wasn’t believable, but Shashanka believed it at once and escaped, simply because he wanted very much to believe it.
‘I have a big project from the king of Dhenkanal,’ said he. ‘I have to discuss the plan with his minister. I’ll be back as soon as possible before the doctor visits.’
‘Swear by me you’re not going to neglect your work and rush back,’ complained Sharmila. ‘I know you need to go. You must or else I won’t get better either. There are enough people here to look after me.’
The desire to build a business empire surged within Shashanka constantly. The attraction for him, however, was not wealth but greatness. The m.tier of the male is revealed only in his accomplishments and the business of earning money becomes irrelevant only when it is nothing but a way to spend the day. People at large respect wealth only when it towers over everything else; it is not the advantages that wealth brings, it is the enormity of the achievement that gives them joy.
At the very moment that he sat anxiously by Sharmila’s bed, Shashanka couldn’t help wondering where trouble might be brewing in his empire. Sharmila knew these concerns signalled not a mind obsessed with petty concerns, but the determination of the male ego to erect a victory column on the lowlands of personal circumstances. She gloried in Shashanka’s glory too. So, though it was a matter of joy for her that her husband was neglecting his work to take care of her, she didn’t enjoy it. She kept sending him back to his battlefield.
On her part, Sharmila was perpetually anxious about how well her household was being run. Who knew what the servants and cooks were up to while she languished in bed. She had no doubt that rotten ghee was being used in the kitchen, that the hot water for the bath wasn’t being put in the bathroom on time, that the bedclothes hadn’t been changed, that the cleaning man wasn’t clearing the drains properly. She knew full well how everything went out of control if you didn’t refer to the list when the washerman brought the laundry back. Unable to contain herself, she would leave her bed to investigate; the aches in her body would increase, her fever would escalate, the doctor could not fathom why.
Eventually Urmimala was summoned by her sister. ‘Never mind your college for a while, come and rescue my home. Or else I cannot even die in peace.’ Those who are reading this history will chuckle at this point, saying, ‘I see.’ It does not need much intelligence to realize that the inevitable happened, and this turn of events was all it needed. There was no reason to assume that fate would play its role without showing its hand to Sharmila.
‘I’m going to look after my sister.’ Urmimala felt a new zeal. She had to put aside all other tasks for the sake of this new responsibility. There was no choice. Moreover, it had occurred to her that the task of looking after her sister was an extension of her future mission of being a doctor.
With much ceremony, she took a leather-bound notebook along with her; it had lines drawn in it to record the daily ups and downs of the illness. Lest the doctor ignore her for her inexperience, she resolved to read up as much as she could about her sister’s disease. Since the subject of her MA course was physiology, she would have no difficulty in following medical terms. So, confident that her mission would not be compromised in the course of taking care of her sister—that, on the contrary, she would be pursuing that very mission with greater application and concentration—she packed her books and notes and arrived at her sister’s house in Bhawanipur. But she never got the opportunity to flip through the thick book on medicine in which her sister’s illness should have been included. Even specialists were unable to identify her ailment.
Urmi assigned herself the role of disciplinarian. ‘It’s my job to ensure that the doctor’s instructions are followed. You have to do as I say, I’m warning you,’ she informed her sister gravely. Sharmila smiled at her younger sister’s solemn display of responsibility. ‘Really? Who’s this teacher who taught you to be so serious? You must be a new disciple—that explains the fervour. I’ve brought you here for you to do as I say. Your hospital isn’t ready yet, but my household is. Take charge of it for now, give your sister a little rest.’
She forcibly evicted Urmi from her sickbed.
Urmi now held the post of representative in her sister’s domestic kingdom. There was anarchy everywhere and it required swift redressal.
All members of this household, great or small, were meant to dedicate themselves in service completely to the man who reigned at its summit. Sharmila simply could not shed her conviction that the man in question was completely helpless and lamentably inefficient at looking after his physical needs. It was laughable, but she turned emotional when she saw him absentmindedly setting his sleeve on fire with his cigar, oblivious to what he had done. The engineer left for work at dawn, leaving the tap running in the corner of the bedroom in his rush after brushing his teeth. On his return he found the floor awash with water, the carpet ruined. Sharmila had objected to the location of the tap from the very beginning. She knew this man would create a muddy mess not far from his bed. But since he was an accomplished engineer, he had boundless enthusiasm for making every problem more complex on the grounds of scientific convenience. Once, struck by a sudden brainwave, he made a stove from a completely original design of his own. It had one door this side, and one more, the other; one chimney on the left, and another to the right; an economical way for the fire to blaze on one side, a sloping passage for the burnt ashes to fall on the other side—and along with all this, niches, cavities, and techniques in various sizes and forms to bake, fry, boil, and warm. She had had to accept the stove as an expression of passion, not for use, but for maintaining peace and conviviality. Shashanka was like all adults playing at being children, throwing tantrums if prevented from getting his way, but forgetting it all in a day or two. Such men never chose the tried and the tested, always created preposterous things, and it was the responsibility of the wives to agree in words and do as they wished in deed. Sharmila had borne the responsibility of looking after such a husband with great pleasure all these years.
They had spent so many years together. Sharmila could not imagine Shashanka’s world without her in it. Now she was worried that the messenger of death might force a separation between that world and its nurturer. She even feared that the inevitable neglect of Shashanka’s needs after her death would prevent her disembodied soul from finding peace. Fortunately, Urmi was available. She wasn’t as calmly capable as her sister. But still, she was managing on Sharmila’s behalf. And the things she was doing were meant for women to do. Men were never satisfied to have their daily needs met without the tender touch of a woman; it all seemed mechanical. When Urmi peeled and sliced apples with her lovely hands, when she arranged the orange slices on one side of the white stone plate, when she broke open a pomegranate and laid out its pips with care, Sharmila seemed to see herself in her sister. From her bed, she issued a constant stream of instructions to Urmi.
‘Please refill his cigarette case, Urmi.’
‘Can’t you see he hasn’t even remembered to change his dirty handkerchief for a clean one?’
‘See now, his shoes are stuffed with dirt and sand. Doesn’t even remember to order the bearer to clean them.’
‘Change the pillowcases, there’s a dear.’
‘Throw the paper scraps into the dustbin.’
‘Check his office, will you, I’m certain he’s left the key to his cashbox on his desk.’
‘Don’t forget the cauliflower seeds for the garden.’
‘Tell the gardener to trim the rose bushes.’
‘I can see a white mark on the back of his coat—wait a moment, will you, what’s the hurry—Urmi, brush the coat, dear.’
Urmi was used to spending her time on books, not on household work, but she found all this very amusing. Having emerged from the rigid discipline under which she had been living, the work here appeared fun to her. She had no idea of the anxieties, the commitments, in this household; those thoughts were only on her sister’s mind. This was why these tasks were like a game, a sort of holiday, full of small pleasures. This world was completely distinct from the one she had occupied. Here no finger was wagged at her; and yet the days were filled with tasks, tasks with variety. She made mistakes, forgot things, but no stern admonition awaited her. Even if her sister tried to scold her, Shashanka laughed it off, as though there was something very enjoyable about Urmi’s slips. As a matter of fact, household chores were no longer considered onerous responsibilities; a casual air prevailed, mistakes didn’t matter. This was a matter of great comfort and amusement to Shashanka. It felt like a picnic. Urmi didn’t fret over anything, wasn’t apologetic, wasn’t embarrassed, was amused by everything; this lightened the ordeal and burden of Shashanka’s work. As soon as his working day was over, or even if it was not, he was drawn back home.
It had to be admitted that Urmi was not entirely competent at household chores. But it could be observed that, even though they weren’t her forte, she made up for something that had long been missing in this house—although it was difficult to put in words what exactly it was that had been missing. This was why Shashanka felt a wave of carefreeness in the air when he came home. This freedom was evident not just in the way the home was tended to or in moments of leisure alone, but also in its particular pleasures. Essentially, it was Urmi’s playful cheerfulness that made up for all that was missing, that lent vibrancy to the days and nights. Always vivacious, she quickened the work-weary Shashanka’s blood.
Urmi’s awareness that Shashanka found pleasure in her company gave her joy too. This was the happiness she had been missing all this time. She had long since forgotten that she could make someone happy simply on the strength of her own existence, and along with it, had forgotten her own worth too. Shashanka’s mind was now like the river caught between the high and the low tide. His pace of work stilled. He could no longer be heard repeating anxiously that any delay or obstacle would be disastrous, leading to losses. When he did express such apprehension, Urmi dispelled his grimness with her laughter, asking, ‘Did the ogre visit today, that supplier of yours in the green turban—was he here to threaten you again?’
‘How did you know of him?’ Shashanka would ask in surprise.
‘I know him very well. After you left the other day, he was waiting in the verandah. I kept him amused with this and that. His home is in Bikaner, his wife died when her mosquito net burned down, he wants to get married again.’
‘In that case I will make sure not to be home when he comes. Until he locates a bride he can keep spinning his dreams.’
‘Tell me what you need from him, the way he behaves with me, I think I can persuade him to do it.’
Even if the fat figures in Shashanka’s profit ledger—now above ninety and still climbing—showed signs of slowing down at times, he wasn’t perturbed. Shashanka Majumdar’s passion for the radio had been unknown all this time; when Urmi forced him to listen every evening, it no longer seemed frivolous and a waste of time. Early one morning he had to go all the way to Dum Dum to see planes take off and land— scientific curiosity was not the main attraction. He received his initiation into shopping at New Market. Sharmila used to buy her groceries there sometimes; she considered this kind of shopping her department. She had neither imagined, nor expected, that Shashanka would help her. But then Urmi didn’t go there to buy anything specific, only to rummage among the shelves and to bargain. If Shashanka wanted to buy her something she snatched his wallet from him, putting it in her own bag.
Urmi had no regard for Shashanka’s work ethic. He berated her at times for preventing him from working. The outcome was so catastrophic that Shashanka had to devote twice as much time to undoing the sulk that followed. On the one side were Urmi’s tears, on the other, the unavoidable demands of work. Caught in this crisis, he tried to complete all his work in his chamber before returning home. But staying there beyond the afternoon was unbearable.
Whenever he happened to be particularly late, Urmi’s rage took the form of distant withdrawal behind an unbreachable silence. Her indignation and unshed tears gave secret pleasure to Shashanka. Innocently he would exclaim, ‘Urmi, you must maintain your silent revolt. But by Jove, you never vowed not to play,’ appearing with tennis rackets. When close to victory, Shashanka would deliberately lose the match. The next morning, he would repent wasting his time.
One afternoon, Shashanka was bent over a difficult plan at his office desk. He was holding a red-and-blue pencil in one hand while running his fingers redundantly through his unkempt hair, when Urmi arrived to tell him, ‘I’ve fixed it with that middleman of yours to take me to the Pareshnath temple. You come too. Please.’
‘Not today, please, I simply cannot now,’ Shashanka pleaded.
Urmi wasn’t the least bit in awe of the importance of his work. ‘So this is your chivalry—no hesitation in handing over a helpless woman defenceless into the clutches of Green Turban!’
Eventually Shashanka gave in to her insistence, abandoning his work to drive her in his car. Sharmila was very annoyed when she got to know of such intrusions. She believed that the uninvited entry of the woman into the realm of the man’s work was unpardonable. Sharmila had always considered Urmi a child. She persisted with this thought even now. Maybe she was a child, but the office was not the place for childishness. She summoned Urmi to reprimand her in rather strong terms. Such a rebuke might have produced results, but upon hearing his wife’s angry voice Shashanka himself appeared at the door, reassuring Urmi by winking at her repeatedly. Pointing to the pack of cards in his hands, he signalled to her, ‘Come away to the office, I’ll teach you poker.’ It wasn’t at all the hour for a game, nor did he really have the time or the inclination. But he seemed even more distressed than Urmi by her sister’s stern words. He could have kept her at bay himself by coaxing and cajoling her, or even scolding her mildly, but it was very difficult for him to accept Sharmila’s taking Urmi to task.
‘How can you give in to all her demands,’ Sharmila berated Shashanka. ‘At all odd hours of the day or night…your work will suffer terribly.’
‘Poor thing, she’s a child,’ said Shashanka. ‘She has no companion here, how will she survive without any diversions?’
There was more to Urmi than childishness. When Shashanka sat down to his plans, she would draw up a stool, saying, ‘Teach me.’ She understood easily, the mathematical formulae not appearing complex to her. Very pleased, Shashanka set her problems, which she solved. When Shashanka was going to take the steam launch to inspect the progress at the jute mill, she demanded, ‘I want to go too.’ Not only did she go, she also argued over the calculations and measurements. Shashanka was thrilled. This was more enjoyable than having to wax lyrical. He was no longer anxious when he brought work home from his chamber. He now had a companion for his drawing and calculations. With Urmi by his side, the work progressed. Not rapidly, true, but the time devoted to it seemed worth the effort. Sharmila was dealt a huge blow. She understood Urmi’s childishness, indulged the flaws in her household management, but since she herself considered it mandatory for the wife to keep herself at a distance from the husband when it came to business, she didn’t at all approve of Urmi’s unrestricted access. This was nothing but arrogance. The Gita referred to staying within one’s limits as morality. At the end of her tether, she asked her sister one day, ‘Tell me, Urmi, do you really enjoy all those drawings and calculations and tracing?’
‘I really do, didi.’
‘Hah, enjoy indeed,’ said Sharmila disbelievingly. ‘You just pretend to like it to please him.’
Maybe so. Sharmila did approve of Shashanka’s being taken care of in terms of clothes and food and attention, but this kind of pleasure didn’t sit well with her notions. ‘Why do you waste time with her?’ she asked Shashanka repeatedly. ‘Your work suffers. She’s a child, how will she understand?’
‘She doesn’t understand any less than I do,’ answered Shashanka. He thought that praise for her sister would please Sharmila. Fool!
When Shashanka had neglected his wife because of the demands of his work, Sharmila had not only accepted it as inevitable but had also felt a certain pride about it. She had largely resisted the insistence of her own heart, which yearned to envelop her husband in a cocoon of attention. Men are the royal tribe, she used to say, they must constantly expand the powers they are born with so as to achieve the impossible. Or else they will be reduced to a level inferior to women. Women fulfil their ordained place in the world quite naturally with their inherent tenderness, with the wealth of love they are born with. But men have to fulfil themselves through daily battles. In the past, kings would set out even without provocation to expand their empires. Not because they coveted larger kingdoms, but to reassert their male glory. Women had better not come in the way. Sharmila had not obstructed Shashanka’s progress; she had consciously cleared the way in his journey towards fulfilling his ambition. Once she had covered him in her web of tender care; but she had since unravelled the web herself, even if unwillingly. She still took care of him lovingly but stayed invisible in the background.
But alas, what kind of capitulation was her husband displaying day by day? She couldn’t see everything from her sickbed, but there were enough indications. Even a glance at Shashanka’s expression showed he was completely mesmerized. How had this slip of a girl managed to dislodge this work-obsessed man from his mission so easily? Her husband’s inability to command respect was more painful now to Sharmila than her illness. The original arrangements for looking after Shashanka—his food, his clothing, his comforts—had by now fallen into disuse. The kind of food that he considered particularly delicious was suddenly missing from the dinner table. Justifications were provided but they had never been entertained before. Slips like these used to be unpardonable, worthy of the sternest censure—a household that was once so disciplined had been so transformed that today, even the most serious of flaws appeared to be a farce. Whom could she blame! Just as Urmi was seated on a stool in the kitchen, supervising the cooking according to her sister’s instructions—with a discussion about the cook’s past also in progress—Shashanka arrived to announce, ‘Never mind all this now.’
‘Why, what must I do?’
‘I’m free this afternoon, let’s go and see the Victoria Memorial. I’ll explain to you what’s absurd about it.’ This strong temptation immediately attracted Urmi, ever ready to play truant. Sharmila knew that her sister’s absence from the kitchen would not make the slightest difference to the quality of the meal—but a fragrant touch would have enhanced Shashanka’s satisfaction. What use was it talking about satisfaction, though, when it was clear with each passing day that satisfaction had become irrelevant; that her husband was happy.
This was what made Sharmila fretful. Tossing and turning on her sickbed she told herself repeatedly, ‘Now I know, as I’m about to die, that whatever else I may have achieved, I haven’t succeeded in making him happy. I had expected to see myself in Urmimala, but she isn’t me, she’s a completely different woman.’ Gazing out of the window, she mused, ‘She has not taken my place, I cannot take hers. My going may hurt him, but her going will mean he’ll lose everything.’
As she mused, she became conscious that winter was approaching; the warm clothes would have to be put out in the sun. She sent for Urmi, who was playing table tennis with Shashanka.
‘Here’s the key, Urmi,’ she said. ‘Go put the warm clothes out in the sun on the terrace.’
Urmi had barely put the key in the lock of the cupboard when Shashanka arrived. ‘Later, there’s plenty of time for all that. Finish the game first.’
‘All right, I’ll get permission from didi.’
Didi extended her permission and a long sigh with it.
‘Put a cold compress on my forehead,’ she instructed the maid.
Although Urmi seemed to have forgotten herself now that she had found a release, once in a while she would abruptly be reminded of the demanding duties of her life. After all, she wasn’t really free; she was, in fact, still bound to her mission. As she was to the person whose authority she had submitted to. It was he who had chalked out the details of her daily tasks; Urmi could not deny his permanent jurisdiction over her life. While Nirad had been present, this had been easy to acknowledge; she had had the strength for it. Now her determination had deserted her—but her sense of responsibility still nagged her. And the oppressive responsibility made her even more hostile to it; since it was difficult to forgive herself for her sins, she indulged in the sins further. To numb her pain, she thus distracted herself by amusing herself with Shashanka. When the time comes everything will fall into place on its own, she reasoned, but never mind all that as long as this holiday lasts. Then, once in a while, she shook her head violently, pulled her books out of her trunk and bent over them. After which it was Shashanka’s turn. Snatching the books out of her hands, he put them back in the trunk and sat on it.
‘Very bad, Shashanka-da,’ said Urmi. ‘Don’t waste my time.’
‘I waste time in trying to waste your time,’ countered Shashanka. ‘We’re even.’
After a few attempts to retrieve her books, Urmi gave in, not averse to the idea. But despite this, she was tormented by her sense of duty for the next five or six days—then her willpower weakened again.
‘Don’t imagine I’m weak, Shashanka-da,’ she said. ‘I’m determined to keep my vow.’
‘After my degree here I’m going to Europe to study medicine.’
‘And after that?’
‘Then I’ll establish the hospital and take charge.’
‘And whom will you take charge of? That fellow named Nirad, that insufferable… ’
Putting her hand on his mouth, Urmi said, ‘Hush. If you talk like that I’m going to quarrel with you.’
Fortifying her resolve, Urmi said to herself, ‘I have to be true, I have to be true.’ She considered being untrue to her relationship with Nirad, which her father himself had fostered, nothing short of philandering.
But the trouble was that she received no support from Nirad. Urmi was like a tree clinging to the earth but deprived of light, its leaves robbed of colour. She became impatient at times, wondering why the man couldn’t even write her a proper letter.
Urmi had spent years at a convent school. Whatever her shortcomings, she was accomplished in English and Nirad knew as much. This was why he had resolved to overwhelm her with his use of the language. Had he written in Bengali he might have averted disaster but the poor fellow didn’t know that he didn’t know English. Garnering grandiloquent words, compiling unwieldy, pedantic phrases, he would transform his sentences into heavily laden bullock carts. Urmi found it funny though she was embarrassed to laugh; it was snobbish to find flaws in the English used by a Bengali, she would reproach herself.
When he was still in the country, Nirad’s manner of dispensing advice had given their encounters an air of gravity. The profundity of this advice was surmised by Urmi rather than evident to her. But long letters offered no room for surmise. Puffed-up words lost their weight, the heavy noises only betraying the lack of things to say.
This behaviour of Nirad’s, which she had become accustomed to when he was in the country, was what hurt her the most when it came from a distance. The man simply didn’t have a sense of humour. Its absence was starkly obvious in his letters. And comparisons with Shashanka in this respect came to mind naturally.
An occasion for such a comparison had become available just the other day. While searching for her clothes, she discovered, at the bottom of her trunk, an unfinished pair of woollen slippers. Her memory went back four years. Hemanta was still alive. They had all been on holiday in Darjeeling, everyone enjoying themselves; Hemanta and Shashanka had kept up an unending stream of jokes and laughter. Urmi, who had recently learnt how to knit, was knitting a pair of slippers for her brother’s birthday. Shashanka used to tease her about it constantly. ‘Gift your brother anything else you want, but not slippers, please. They signify disrespect for those elder than you, said the sage.’
‘Then whom would the sage rather have me disrespect?’ asked Urmi, with a sidelong glance.
‘The traditional claimant to disrespect is the brotherin- law,’ responded Shashanka gravely. ‘You are in debt to me already. The interest has been multiplying.’
‘I don’t remember anything like that.’
‘You aren’t supposed to, you were a mere adolescent then. Which is why you were unable to take on the mantle of the ringleader on the bride’s side, that night on which this fortunate man was wedded to your sister. And undelivered slaps from those tender hands have now materialized in the form of this pair of slippers created by that same pair of hands. I’m staking my claim to them.’
The claim was not honoured, the slippers were laid at her brother’s feet. Then, some time later, Urmi received a letter from Shashanka. It made her laugh a great deal. She still had the letter in her trunk. Unfolding it, she read it again. You left blithely yesterday, but no sooner had you left than calumny was heaped on you, which I consider my duty not to keep secret from you.
Many people have observed a pair of local slippers on my feet. But they have observed even more closely the sharp talons on my toes poking through the holes in them like the moon on a cloudless sky. (Vide Bharatchandra’s Annadamangal. Doubts about the aptness of the metaphor will be arbitrated by your sister.) When Brindaban Nandy from my office touched my sandalled feet with his fingertips to convey his reverence, the degradation in my standing reverberated in my mind. I asked the servant, ‘On which interloper’s feet has my other pair of slippers assumed a life of its own?’ Scratching his head, he replied, ‘When you went on holiday with Urmi-mashi’s family, those slippers went as well. When you returned, only one of the pair came back with you, the other one… ’ His face turned red. ‘All right, enough,’ I admonished him. This exchange took place in the presence of several people. Stealing shoes and slippers is a base act. But the human heart is weak, greed unstoppable, we often do such things, God probably forgives us. Still, if the theft reveals intelligence, the stain of misdeed is lightened. But one of a pair of slippers! Shame!!!
I have concealed the name of the perpetrator of this crime as much as possible. If the person in question were to protest loudly, displaying their usual garrulousness, word will get out. Climbing a slippery slope over slippers is worthwhile only if the heart is innocent. You can silence critics like Mahesh at once with the help of a pair of artistically crafted slippers, as befits his audacity.
I enclose my foot size.
After receiving the letter Urmi had got down to knitting the woollen slippers, with a smile, but she had never finished them. She was no longer keen. Discovering them today she decided to gift him the unfinished pair on the anniversary of their holiday in Darjeeling.
The day was just a few weeks away. A deep sigh escaped her—how distant, alas, were those days of bright laughter, when she had floated on wings of air. All that stretched before her now were relentlessly harsh and dry, duty-strewn days. It was the seventh of March, Holi. When he was engaged in his work in small towns, Shashanka had no time for such celebrations, they would forget all about the occasion. This day, Urmi had put a touch of aabir—the traditional coloured powder—on her sister’s feet as she lay on her bed. Then, on the prowl for Shashanka, she discovered him working intently in his office, hunched over his desk. Creeping up behind him, she smeared his hair with the powder, staining all his papers. A contest ensued. There was red ink in an inkpot on the desk. Shashanka emptied it on Urmi. Grasping her hand, he seized the bundle of aabir knotted to the end of her sari and daubed it on her face, and then began the chasing, the jostling, the shrieking. The hours passed, baths and lunch were forgotten, the sound of Urmi’s high-spirited laughter resounded all over the house. Fearing that Shashanka would have an accident, Sharmila eventually dissuaded them through a string of messages.
The day was done. It was late at night. The full moon had risen in the cloudless sky over the tangle of gulmohar branches. All the trees in the garden rustled as they swayed in a sudden gust of wind, the web of shadows beneath joining in. Urmi sat silently by the window. Sleep eluded her. The blood had not stopped pounding in her breast. The scent of mangoes swamped her senses. Like the myrtle yearning to bloom on this spring night, Urmi too seemed to have turned into a quivering mass. She went into the bathroom to pour cold water over her head, rub herself down with a wet towel. Tossing and turning on her bed, she finally sank into a dreamfilled slumber.
Urmi woke up at three in the morning. The moon was no longer visible in the window. The room was dark within, while the row of trees outside stood in light and shadow. Urmi felt tears welling up within her, refusing to cease. Burying her face in her pillow, she sobbed. These tears from her heart had no words, no meaning to be expressed through language. If asked, would she even know where these torrents of yearning had arrived from to churn her body and her heart, sweeping away the day’s labour, the night’s blissful slumber?
The sun was streaming into the room when Urmi awoke. Her morning chores were neglected. Sharmila forgave her on grounds of exhaustion. What remorse was it that had left Urmi fatigued today? Why did she feel defeat was approaching?
‘I’m not able to do what you want me to, didi,’ she told Sharmila. ‘I can go back home if you like.’
Sharmila couldn’t say, ‘No, don’t go.’ Instead, she said, ‘All right, you might as well. Your studies are being hampered. Come over now and then to check on things.’
Shashanka was out on work, Urmi took the opportunity to return home. Shashanka returned that day with a set of equipment for drawing machines. They were for Urmi, he was supposed to teach her this art. Not finding her in her usual place, Shashanka went to Sharmila’s room to ask, ‘Where’s Urmi gone?’
‘She cannot study here, she’s gone home,’ said Sharmila.
‘But she knew that when she came here. Why did it suddenly occur to her now?’
Sharmila realized from his tone that he suspected her.
Not wanting to argue in vain, she said, ‘Tell her I asked her to come back. I’m sure she won’t object.’
At home, Urmi found a letter from Nirad awaiting her. She didn’t dare open it. She knew full well she was guilty of many sins. She had cited her sister’s illness earlier as her reason for breaking the rules. For some time now the justification had all but become a lie. Shashanka had stubbornly insisted on engaging two nurses for Sharmila—one for the day and one for the night. Following the doctor’s instructions, they prevented the family from streaming in and out of the patient’s room constantly.
Urmi knew Nirad wouldn’t consider the pretext of her sister’s illness serious enough. ‘That’s not relevant,’ he would argue. Indeed it wasn’t relevant— ‘I’m not really needed there.’ Penitently, she resolved to herself, ‘I’ll accept I’m wrong and beg forgiveness. I will promise never to repeat the mistake, never to break the rules again.’
Before opening the letter she pulled out Nirad’s photograph again, placing it on her desk. She knew Shashanka would mock her if he saw. But Urmi simply would not be embarrassed by his taunts; this was her atonement. In her sister’s house, she had suppressed all references to her forthcoming marriage to Nirad. They didn’t bring it up either—for the subject was unpalatable to them. Today, Urmi determined to broadcast the information unambiguously through all her actions. She had kept her engagement ring hidden for some time. Retrieving it, she put it on. It was rather a cheap ring, the glory of Nirad’s personal poverty had made it more valuable than a diamond one. His implicit claim was, ‘The ring doesn’t determine my worth, it’s my worth that determines it.’
Having purified herself thus as much as possible, Urmi slit the envelope open slowly.
After reading the letter, she leapt in the air. She wanted to dance, but wasn’t in the habit. Her sitar lay on the bed; without tuning it, she began to play it loudly, without attention to melody.
Entering at that precise moment, Shashanka asked, ‘What is it? Has the wedding day been finalized?’
‘Yes, Shashanka-da, it has.’
‘No chance of changing it in any circumstances?’
‘None at all.’
‘Then I’d better arrange for the music and the sweets right away.’
‘You needn’t make any arrangements.’
‘You’ll do it all by yourself? Hail warrior-princess. And the gift for the bride?’
‘I’ve paid for it already.’
‘The bride’s organizing her wedding herself? I don’t quite understand.’
‘Here you are, you will now.’
She handed him the letter. Shashanka burst out laughing after reading it.
Nirad had written that the complex research to which he wanted to dedicate himself could not be conducted in India. Therefore he was being compelled to accept another enormous sacrifice in his life. There was no choice but to call off his wedding to Urmi. A European woman was willing to marry him and devote herself to supporting him. But the mission was the same, whether accomplished in India or in England. Sending him a small portion of the money that Rajaram-babu had earmarked for the mission would do no harm. On the contrary, it would be a mark of respect for the departed soul.
‘If occasional largesse can keep the man alive in that distant land, that would be best,’ said Shashanka. ‘Or else there’s the fear of his rushing back, hungry and desperate.’
‘If that’s what you fear, you can send the money—I’m not parting with another penny.’ Urmi laughed.
‘You won’t change your mind again, will you?’ asked Shashanka. ‘The resolute princess’s pride will stand tall, won’t it?’
‘How does it matter to you if I do change my mind, Shashanka-da?’
‘The truth will make you even more conceited, therefore I shall stay silent out of consideration for your character. But what I’m marvelling at is the man’s cheek.’
A huge weight seemed to have been lifted off Urmi’s shoulders, one that she had been carrying for a long time. She could not decide how to celebrate the happiness of freedom. First, she tore up the reviled list of tasks. Then she flung her engagement ring out of the window towards the beggar in the lane outside.
‘Can these thick books with all those passages underlined in pencil be sold to a hawker?’
‘Suppose they can’t, how will it matter?’
‘What if a ghost from the past is living in there, waiting to appear by my bed to wag his finger at me?’
‘If that’s what you’re worried about I’ll buy them myself without bothering with the hawker.’
‘What’ll you do with them?’
‘Give them a Hindu funeral. I’m ready to go to Gaya for the last rites if that will comfort you.’
‘No, I can’t take such excesses.’
‘All right, I’ll construct a pyramid in a corner of your library and turn them into mummies in it.’
‘You’re not going to work today.’
‘Not at all?’
‘Not at all.’
‘What must I do?’
‘We’ll disappear in your car.’
‘Get permission from your sister.’
‘No, we’ll come back and tell her, she’ll scold me afterwards. I can survive that.’
‘All right, I’m ready to accept your sister’s scolding too. I won’t be unhappy if we have a puncture. I don’t even mind running over a couple of people at forty miles an hour and going to jail. But promise me you’ll come back to our house after our motoring odyssey.’
‘I will, I will, I will!’
They returned to Bhawanipur after the motor trip, but their blood refused to flow slower than forty miles an hour. Every demand, every fear, every shame in their lives was left behind by this scorching pace.
For a few days, Shashanka’s work was completely forgotten. He knew full well what he was doing was wrong. His business might even suffer badly. In bed, at night, his anxieties and apprehensions would assume even larger proportions. But the next day he was drunk again on his freedom, like Yaksha in Kalidasa’s Meghdoot. Once you have had one drink, you have to have another to drown the remorse.
Some time went by this way. Shashanka was under a spell, his emotions ran deep.
It had taken some time for Urmi to understand herself clearly, but she was shocked when she did.
For some reason Urmi was afraid of Mathur-dada and used to avoid him. That morning, Mathur had gone into Sharmila’s room, not emerging till the afternoon.
After he left, her sister sent for Urmi. Sharmila’s expression was stern, though calm. ‘I hope you know what you’ve done, disrupting his work every day.’
Urmi was stricken by dread. ‘What is it, didi?’ she asked.
‘Mathur-dada has informed me that your brother-in-law has not been supervising his business personally for quite some time now.
‘He had entrusted Jawaharlal with the responsibility, and Jawaharlal promptly began to pilfer supplies liberally. The roofs of the large godowns have turned out to be porous; after the rain the other day it was discovered that their bases are rotting away. Because of the reputation of our company they hadn’t tested anything; now we have lost both credibility and profits. Mathur-dada is ending the partnership.’
Urmi’s heart leapt into her mouth, her face turned ashen. The secret hidden in her heart was suddenly revealed to her as if in a flash of lighthing. She saw that she had been blind, unable to tell right from wrong. Shashanka’s work had been her competitor, all her quarrels were with it. Urmi used to burn with the desire to wean him away from his work and hold him to herself. It had often happened that when visitors had come on work while Shashanka was in the bath, Urmi had carelessly instructed the servant, ‘Tell them he can’t see anyone now.’
She was worried that Shashanka would not have any time for her after his bath, that he would get so involved in his work that her day would amount to nothing. A horrifying picture of her addiction rose before her eyes.
She threw herself at her sister’s feet, repeating in a choked voice, ‘Send me away, throw me out of your home this instant.’
Sharmila had been determined not to forgive Urmi in any circumstances; but she melted.
Placing her hand gently on Urmimala’s head, she said, ‘Don’t fret, we’ll find a way out.’
Urmi sat up. ‘Why should you be the one to lose all the money, didi?’ she asked. ‘I have some too, after all.’
‘Are you mad?’ answered Sharmila. ‘It’s not as if I don’t have enough myself. I’ve told Mathur-dada not to make a fuss about this. I will make good his losses. And I’m telling you too, your brother-in-law mustn’t get to know that I’ve come to know all this.’
‘Forgive me, didi, forgive me,’ said Urmi, repeatedly striking her forehead against her sister’s feet.
Wiping her tears, Sharmila said tiredly, ‘Who’s the one that deserves forgiveness, my dear? The world is so complex. Dreams don’t materialize, effort goes waste.’
Urmi didn’t want to leave her sister’s side for even a moment—she took over every responsibility, from giving Sharmila her medicine to bathing her, from feeding her to tucking her in at night. She even went back to her books, that too without leaving her sister’s bedside. She trusted neither herself, nor Shashanka.
The outcome was that Shashanka visited the patient’s room over and over again. Thanks to the natural blindness of the male, he did not realize that the significance was not lost on his wife, while Urmi died of shame. Shashanka tempted her with a Mohun Bagan football match, in vain. Unfolding a newspaper, he showed her Charlie Chaplin’s name underlined in it, without any effect. While Urmi was not out of reach, Shashanka had at least tried to continue with his work, despite the temptation. Now even this became impossible.
Despite her grief Sharmila felt a certain enjoyment initially, at her hapless husband’s attempts to pester Urmi. But gradually she saw that he was suffering greatly; he looked pale, he had dark circles under his eyes. Since Urmi no longer sat by his side during his meals, both his enthusiasm and his appetite were clearly on the wane. The wave of happiness that had washed over the house recently had now ebbed away completely, but the old lifestyle had not returned either.
Once, Shashanka had been indifferent about his appearance. He would ask the barber for as close a crop as possible, so that he didn’t have to use a comb. Having argued with him furiously over this, Sharmila had finally given up trying. But Urmi’s succinct protests, accompanied by loud laughter, had not fallen on deaf ears. For the first time Shashanka’s scalp tasted fragrant hair oil, and acquired a new hairstyle. But now the neglect of his hair only betrayed his agony. So much so that neither open nor secret giggles over this were acceptable. Sharmila’s anxiety exceeded her unhappiness. Pity for her husband and reproach for herself ached within her breast, aggravating the pain caused by her illness. The army from Fort William was scheduled to play war games at the Maidan. ‘Would you like to go, Urmi?’ asked Shashanka tentatively. ‘I’ve got good seats.’
Sharmila spoke before Urmi could respond. ‘Certainly she’ll go. Of course she will. She’s been dying to go out.’ Encouraged, Shashanka asked just a day or two later, ‘The circus?’
Urmimala displayed nothing but eagerness at the proposal.
And then, ‘The Botanical Garden?’
This proved to be a stumbling block. Urmi wasn’t willing to leave her sister alone too long.
Her sister herself sided with Shashanka. The man was worn out spending all his time with masons and bricklayers— all he did was labour in the grime and dust. He would collapse unless he could take a spin in the fresh air. By the same logic, a steamer trip to Rajganj wasn’t unreasonable either. Sharmila reflected that her husband wouldn’t be able to bear losing the person he had no qualms about losing his livelihood for.
While no one told Shashanka anything in as many words, he could sense implicit support from all directions. He had more or less convinced himself that Sharmila was feeling no particular pain, that she was happy enough to bring them together and see them happy with each other. It may not have been possible for any other woman, but then Sharmila was quite extraordinary. When Shashanka had been an employee in a firm, an artist had drawn a portrait of Sharmila’s with colour pencils. It had been tucked away in his portfolio all this time. Pulling it out, he had it framed at a foreign store in great style and hung it on the wall of his office directly opposite his chair. The gardener put fresh flowers in the vase before it, every day.
Eventually, while showing Urmi how well the sunflowers were blooming in the garden, Shashanka suddenly took her hand, saying, ‘I’m sure you know that I am in love with you. And as for your sister, she’s a goddess. I have never revered anyone as much as I revere her. She isn’t a mere mortal, she’s on a far higher plane.’
Her sister had explained to Urmi repeatedly that her greatest comfort was that Urmi would be present even when she herself was gone. It pained her sister to even imagine another woman in this household—she couldn’t bear to think of a situation so terrible that there wouldn’t even be a woman to take care of Shashanka. Her sister had explained about the business too, saying that were his love to be thwarted the blow would ruin all his work as well. Once his heart was satiated, discipline would automatically be restored to his work.
Shashanka’s heart was full of song. He now occupied a wondrous world, a delightful dream where no burden was heavier than a feather.
These days he was unwaveringly dedicated to observing the Sabbath on Sunday, like a faithful Christian. One day he told Sharmila, ‘The jute mill owners have made their steam launch available for a day—since it’s Sunday tomorrow, I’m thinking of taking Urmi out to Diamond Harbour early tomorrow morning, we’ll be back by evening.’
Sharmila felt her veins being twisted, wrinkles of agony appeared on her forehead. Shashanka didn’t even notice.
Sharmila merely enquired, ‘What about food?’
‘I’ve arranged it all with a restaurant,’ answered Shashanka.
Once, all this used to be Sharmila’s responsibility, she would make the arrangements without bothering Shashanka. Now everything had been turned upside down. No sooner did Sharmila say, ‘All right,’ then Shashanka disappeared. Sharmila felt like weeping. ‘Why am I still alive?’ she kept asking herself, burying her face in her pillow.
It was their wedding anniversary that Sunday. The occasion had been celebrated every year without fail. This time too she had made all the arrangements without leaving her bed—and without informing her husband. The plan was simple; she would make Shashanka wear the red silk dhoti that he had worn for their wedding, while she herself would put on her wedding sari. Draping a garland around her husband’s neck she would serve him a meal, light some incense, play the shehnai on the gramophone in the next room. Shashanka usually surprised her by buying her gifts he knew she would like.
‘I’m sure he will this time too,’ Sharmila had mused. ‘I’ll get to know tomorrow.’
She simply couldn’t bear it that day; every time her room was empty she said out loud, ‘Lies, all lies, why prolong this charade?’ She couldn’t sleep that night. At dawn she heard the car leave from the front door. ‘You don’t exist, God,’ she sobbed.
From this point on her illness worsened rapidly. When the symptoms became particularly serious, she sent for her husband. It was evening, the room lights were dimmed, she signalled to the nurse to leave. Making her husband sit down by her side, she took his hand, saying, ‘You are the gift I had sought from God. He did not give me the strength you deserve. I did as much as I could. I’ve made many mistakes, forgive me.’
Shashanka was about to speak, but she interrupted him. ‘No, don’t say anything. I’m leaving Urmi to you. She is my sister. You will discover me in her, you will discover many things you never received from me. No, be quiet, don’t say anything. Only in my hour of death have I been fortunate enough to make you happy.’
‘The doctor’s here,’ said the nurse outside the door.
‘Send him in,’ said Sharmila. The conversation ended there. Sharmila’s uncle was an enthusiastic votary of all kinds of unorthodox medical treatment. He was currently engaged in serving a sage of some kind. When the doctors declared their inability to do anything more, he insisted that Sharmila try out a medicine provided by a seer returned from the Himalayas. Its ingredients were a ground Tibetan root and plenty of milk. Shashanka couldn’t tolerate quacks of any kind. He objected vehemently. ‘It may not help, but it will give mama some comfort,’ said Sharmila.
The potion provided instant results. Sharmila’s breathing difficulties eased, her blood pressure dropped. A week passed, a fortnight passed; Sharmila sat up in bed again. The doctor claimed that imminent death sometimes galvanized the body into a desperate last-minute effort at survival. Sharmila survived.
‘What is this!’ she reflected. ‘What do I do now? Will this second life prove to be worse than death?’
Meanwhile, Urmi was packing. Her sojourn here was over.
‘You cannot leave,’ said her sister.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Are you telling me a man has never married his wife’s sister in Hindu society?’
‘Who cares for criticism! Is public opinion greater than the writ of destiny?’
Sending for Shashanka, she said, ‘Let’s move to Nepal. You were supposed to have got a job at the royal court there, you still can if you try. No one will protest there.’ Sharmila didn’t allow anyone room for hesitation. Preparations for their departure began immediately. But still Urmi wandered around miserably, keeping out of sight.
‘Imagine my condition if you were to leave me now,’ Shashanka told her.
‘I cannot think any more,’ Urmi replied. ‘Whatever the two of you decide.’
It took some time to get things in order. When it was time to go, Urmi said, ‘Wait another week, let me put things in order with kaka-babu, he’s the manager of the estate, after all.’ She left.
Mathur arrived to meet Sharmila, looking glum. ‘You’re leaving not a moment too soon,’ he said. ‘After you and I had settled things I had divided up the projects between Shashanka and myself. I didn’t link his profit and loss to mine. Now that he’s winding up his work, Shashanka has been examining his accounts. It turns out that all your money has sunk. And the debt that has piled up over and above can be only repaid by selling your house.’
‘So close to bankruptcy—and he didn’t get to know?’ asked Sharmila. ‘Bankruptcy is like a bolt of lightning, it doesn’t announce itself even a moment before it strikes. He knew there were losses, things could still have been brought under control. But his judgement deserted him, he started speculating on the rocky coal market to make up for his losses quickly. What he bought high had to be sold low; and today he has suddenly realized all his money has been blown up like fireworks, leaving behind only the ashes. Now if by God’s grace the job in Nepal materializes, things will be fine.’
Sharmila didn’t fear poverty. On the contrary, she knew that scarcity would make her place in her husband’s household more secure. She was confident that she could soften the blow of penury in their everyday life, especially since the jewellery she still owned would ensure they wouldn’t have to suffer greatly. It had even occurred to her, albeit with reservations, that if Shashanka married Urmi her money would be his too. But daily sustenance was not everything.
The assets that her husband had built over all these years, with his own hands, his own efforts—respect for which had led Sharmila to set aside her strongest desires—had led her to expect a comfortable life; this had now vanished, like a mirage. The ignominy ground her to dust.
‘If only I’d died then,’ she told herself, ‘I would have been spared this. Whatever fate had held for me has come true, but wouldn’t the utter emptiness of abject poverty make him repent one day?’ He might not be able to forgive the person whose allure so overwhelmed him that he allowed such a thing to happen; the food she served him might turn to ashes in his mouth. Embarrassed by the outcome of his drunken behaviour, he would blame the wine. If they did have to depend on Urmi’s property, his self-loathing would goad him to mistreat her.
Meanwhile, Shashanka had been made aware, while settling his accounts with Mathur, that Sharmila’s entire investment in his business had been lost. Sharmila had not informed him; she had paid the money owed to Mathur, instead. He recollected that it was with a loan from Sharmila that he had expanded his business, after resigning from his job. Now that his business had failed he was returning to employment, still carrying the burden of his debt to Sharmila. He would never be able to shed this burden. How could he expect to repay the loan with a monthly salary?
They had about ten days to go, before leaving for Nepal. He hadn’t been able to sleep all night. Tumbling out of bed at dawn, he smashed his fist down on the dressing table, announcing, ‘Shan’t go to Nepal!’ He vowed, ‘You and I shall live right here in Calcutta with Urmi—under the cruel gaze of a disapproving society. And I’m going to rebuild my business right here in Calcutta too.’
Sharmila was making a list of things to take and things to leave behind. Hearing him call out to her—‘Sharmila! Sharmila!’ —she dropped her notebook and went running into her husband’s room. Fearing some sudden catastrophe, she asked with a quaking heart, ‘What is it?’
‘We shan’t go to Nepal,’ he told her. ‘Shan’t bother about society. We’ll stay right here.’
‘Why, what’s the matter?’ asked Sharmila.
‘Work,’ answered Shashanka.
That old chant—work. Sharmila’s heart beat faster. ‘Don’t imagine I’m a coward, Sharmi. Can you even imagine I’d sink so low as to run away from my responsibilities?’
Going up to him, Sharmila took his hand. ‘Explain to me what’s happened.’
‘I’m in debt to you again, don’t try to hide it from me,’ said Shashanka.
‘All right, I won’t,’ said Sharmila.
‘Just like before, I’m going to start repaying my debt. Today. I shall earn back everything that I’ve lost, I promise you. Put your faith in me again, like you did once.’
Leaning her head on her husband’s chest, Sharmila said, ‘Have faith in me too. Explain all your work to me, prepare me for it, teach me to be worthy of your work.’
‘Letter,’ came a cry from outside. Two letters arrived, both written in Urmi’s hand. One of them was addressed to Shashanka.
I’m on my way to Bombay now. I’m going to England. I’m going to learn medicine there as my father wanted. It should take six or seven years. Whatever I have destroyed in your home will be restored on its own in time. Don’t worry for me, it’s you I shall be worrying for.
The letter for Sharmila…
…I erred without meaning to, forgive me. It will give me great joy if you say I haven’t, I can hope for nothing more. Who knows what brings happiness ultimately? If I don’t find it, so be it. It’s better than making another mistake.