Jharna Sanyal (Translator)
The taxi zoomed past the two men gaping at it. They stood for a while looking angrily at the dust-spraying road. ‘Forget it! How does it affect us!’ -they suddenly said and left the place in an impatient haste.
The taxi winded through many roads and finally stood before a wedding house. It was a thirty- thousand rupee worth celebration! The decorations of light, stage and the entrance matched the expense.
Anindita Sen and her married daughter, Ajanta Bose, got down from the taxi; their dress and looks were perfectly in keeping with the decorative setting.
Anindita Sen was beside herself with grief because on such a day as this she had to come on a cab. Bad luck! What else could she do? Her husband had to take the car to Sonarpur, or Barasat or some such place on this very day on an office job. He would return late; it was settled that he would come straight from his office to the function.
The house was the residence of Anindita Sen’s brother; her niece was getting married. She had been visiting the house regularly for the last few days and had been here in the morning in her casual wear. Now she got off the taxi along with her daughter, flashing in the glitter of zari, mirror and beads.
As she got down, she laughed, talked, and loudly enquired whether the groom had already arrived, whether a batch of invitees had already had their dinner and such other things.
Her daughter, Ajanta Bose, was not that garrulous; she, however, looked ravishing in her dress and make-up! She and the bride, her maternal cousin, were of the same age and had been great friends since childhood; so, she had an exclusive costume made to order for herself to wear on the occasion of her cousin’s wedding. It was not the dress of a Bengali girl, but that of a courtesan of Lucknow. There was no doubt that the veil, the long skirt and short jacket, the ornaments, like those adorning her forehead, neck and hands,– all taken together created a novel effect.
However, the moment the mother and daughter got down, many among those present started to exchange glances. Was it because they found them over- dressed?
Were their dress and make-up so unbecoming?
It was not that no one else had decked up so strikingly. There is Monica Roy with a strange coiffure; it looked more like a Sardarji’s turban than anything else! There is Hena Haldar; the way she has grown her nails, – they seem to be longer than her fingers! Who knows since when she had been growing them with this wedding party in view! She had painted them in three different colours.
But, why was no one looking at them the same way – in the same strange, nonplussed and apprehensive manner?
Moreover, in spite of all the splendour and mirth of celebration there seemed to be an undercurrent of a subdued unease, of a mild protest, – a hushed whispering.
Who was the target?
Whenever two people met, they stopped somewhat abruptly and whispered between themselves! What could they be talking about!
No one pointed an accusing finger. But the eyes and attention of the people seemed like reproaching Anindita Sen and her daughter.
However, the fun was that they were not the least aware of it; rather, they were rapt in their own delight. Anindita Sen was unstoppable; she talked volubly, and the flow of her incessant speech swept the three realms, -heaven, earth and the underworld, together. And Ajanta Bose adorned the center of a women’s group like a resplendent queen bee.
Ajanta wondered why she did not feel quite as she should. It seemed that the tune had somehow been unstrung; somewhere a beat was missing; Ajanta’s fingers failed to reach the right chord.
Did people find her Lucknow courtesan costume improper?
But why should that be? On Ajanta’s marriage, just the other day, this cousin of hers had dressed as a Kashmiri fruit-seller and had danced at the basar2 – it had been such fun! Everyone enjoyed the dance, song and the fun so much! Had Ajanta grown too old for such things within a year and a half?
Well! Let the groom come to the basar, she will so laugh, sing, frolic and sparkle that the poor groom will have to admit he’s lucky enough to get such a gem of a sister-in-law.
Anindita didn’t have any thoughts as such.
She only flashed past like lightning.
‘Hey! You girls,3 hope you’ll be able to give ulu4! Anyway dear, whatever you might say, however fashionable your wedding party may be, the ceremony is no good without the ulu.’
‘O, dear! Haven’t seen you coming! When did you arrive? Did you get this seven-line necklace made recently? …Wow! Ushashi, what a gorgeous sari! From where did you buy it? – Hey, you boys! Must be polishing off fish fries while serving them! Who’s distributing the paan? What’s this? Paan! Please, may I have one…where’s the bride’s mother gone? Haven’t seen her for a second. O, Boudi,5 haven’t yet become a mother-in-law and putting on airs so soon!
Her vocal chords had no rest. It seemed that she had pledged not to give them any respite.
Suddenly, there was a huge uproar: ‘The groom has come! The groom has come!’ – it sounded almost like a tidal wave crashing on a beach. As the number of spectators increased, so did the clamour. Those who create a hullabaloo over the arrival of the groom were the same as usual. They hadn’t missed the rhythm. They were the boys.
One could almost hear a major string snap. It happened while the married girls came to hold the dala6 to welcome the groom. Ajanta was about to hold the tray of sree,7 the one that she herself had prepared with much effort in the morning when she had come with her mother.
Ajanta’s aunt, – the bride’s mother-, swooped down like a kite and snatched away the tray from Ajanta and said in a low, anxious voice, ‘Let it be! Let it be! You can’t do this work with your long skirt, veil – ’
Ajanta felt hurt and insulted; her eyes glistened. ‘Why didn’t you tell this before, mami?8 I could have changed into a sari!’she complained.
Her aunt replied with a long face, ‘Why bother! There’s no want of married girls. In place of seven, there are seventy-seven!’
It was true.
Yes, there were.
But was Ajanta just one in that crowd?
Didn’t glamorous Ajanta, the daughter of a rich father and the wife of a rich husband, enjoy a priority of place in her maternal uncle’s house on every occasion?
Ajanta bit her lips and thought, -‘I shouldn’t have worn the long skirt-’
Yet, it was strange!
Every one knew beforehand what she had planned to wear. She got the veil from the market while she was with her aunt shopping for the wedding.
The crowd of women who had gathered there must have started such gossip. Anyway, she didn’t care for the ritual work; she would brighten up the basar with her presence.
But it appeared that the wedding-house was reluctant to grant even that.
The mild protest and the suppressed whisper that had been running under the din and bustle of the house refused to stay either mild or suppressed.
The whole house was about to explode in intense agitation, to burst into angry abusive words. A round-table conference was summoned in the room downstairs where earthen glasses and bowls were stored.
In this meeting, Anindita Sen’s two sisters were present, so were the bride’s mother and her elder sister, – even the bride’s father had been summoned.
They expected him any moment.
The agitated voices became sharp and even sharper – ‘Will they go on like this? Trying to fool us! – May be after this she’ll participate in the game of kauri9! She has already installed herself on the bed of the basar! Now, why don’t you call Ani.10 Call her, talk to her and make her see sense, for heaven’s sake, do some thing about it! What a thing to happen on a day like this! Now, – we can’t even raise a hue and cry. That would spoil all the fun of the celebration. But ’ –
The bride’s elder brother entered. His face was disconcerted and anxious; his forehead, furrowed.
‘What’s on? What did you decide?’
‘Whatever you all will say! I have sent for him, but where’s he?’
‘He’s coming. The problem is, my office staff are having their dinner –’
The father of the bride appeared.
He had come rushing. He too did not look sad, but helpless. ‘Well, I was saying – when Ani doesn’t know of it, let things be as they are. Whatever Mr. Sen thinks best –’
‘Ah-ha-ha! What a smart thing to say!’ the mother of the bride snapped. ‘She’s my only daughter, and her basar –’
An incomplete sentence is weightier than a complete one. The father of the bride scratched his head and said, ‘Then why don’t you do something else! Tell them that on his way from Barasat, Mr. Sen wasn’t feeling too well, so he couldn’t come here; he has sent a message that Anindita and Ajanta must –’
The audience liked the suggestion.
Yes, that’s it! After all, it’s from a man’s brain! The mother and daughter can’t but leave at once, yet there will be no commotion in the wedding house.
At that time Ajanta was sitting by the bride in the basar and making flippant complaints to her about her absentee husband, ‘See, what an uncivilized person he is! Didn’t bother to come! I even wrote a letter, requesting and begging him to come. Uncle and aunt too, had written to him. People travel all the way from England to attend such a lavish wedding, and this is only Durgapur, a few hours away! … Well, dear groom! I ask you, don’t you think you men are cruel?’
Who knows what the groom would have answered! The bride’s elder brother came at that moment and called Ajanta in a grave voice, ‘Ajanta, just a minute, please come here.’
Ajanta’s heart missed a beat. There was something ominous about the way he called. She rose to her feet and asked, ‘What’s it, Rangada?’11
‘Well, you see, pishemashai12 is a bit, …he is not well, … it’s better you go home.’
Ajanta’s face paled. She asked, ‘Has baba left because he wasn’t feeling well?’
‘Why, no! He didn’t come at all!’
‘Didn’t come at all! Ma! Where’s ma?’
‘She’s somewhere downstairs.’
Her cousin left hurriedly.
However sorry he might have felt he was helpless; after all, when there was a question of inauspicious influences he could not afford to be emotional. He came to inform Anindita as well.
Anindita’s initial reaction was one of utter surprise, ‘O, what a thing to happen! Your pishemashai didn’t come at all! I was under the impression that he must have had his dinner and left, didn’t bother to inform us that he was leaving –’
Her effervescence struck against an encircling wall of silence and suddenly waned.
Anindita took her daughter along with her and hurriedly got into the car.
There were rows of cars parked along the two lanes; one of those, who knew whose, took the responsibility of dropping them home.
Ajanta was anxious about her father’s condition, -wondering in what state she would find him. Her father could not attend Runu’s marriage! That means he must be extremely sick.
Anindita’s face however, was inscrutable; – it was difficult to make out what she was thinking! Was she angry with her husband for choosing such a day to bother her? Was that why her face looked stony; her eyes, as if made of glass?
As Ajanta got down from the car, -glittering in all the zari, mirror and beads, – she stumbled. Her father, sick! He was pacing up and down in front of the house!
What was the matter?
She ran up to him, ‘Baba, what’s the matter with you?’
‘Go inside the house,’ Mr. Sen said gravely.
His tone brought tears in Ajanta’s eyes.
Why is everyone insulting her today?
Ajanta covered her eyes with the benarasi veil and went into the house.
Anindita Sen was also about to go inside the house.
She was leaving even without greeting her husband, – maybe to demonstrate the extent of her anger.
Mr Sen said, ‘Wait!’
Anindita turned back.
The gorgeous anchal of her white Benarasi flashed. And it seemed as if Anindita’s face wrinkled in sarcasm. She asked, ‘Now, what! Will you try me for my offence? Court-martial?’
Sen lost his cool.
He shouted, ‘Stop! Answer me first. Did two persons from Durgapur come to meet you before you left the house?’
Anindita stood still, ‘Yes, they did.’
‘What did they say?’
Anindita replied in a calmer voice, ‘They didn’t get the chance of saying anything. I didn’t let them.’
‘You didn’t let them!’
True, Anindita did not give them the opportunity to speak.
They had said, ‘Look! We are coming from Durgapur –’
Anindita had looked at their faces: she had read whatever was written there.
So, she had said in a hurried, hasty way, ‘Look! Please come tomorrow. I am a bit too busy today, I am going out just now –’
They were desperately trying to plead, ‘You don’t understand, it is extremely urgent. Nishit Bose is your son-in-law, isn’t he? In Durgapur –’
‘O, sure, sure! I get it. He won’t be able to come, isn’t it? I knew he wouldn’t come! He needn’t have taken all this trouble of informing us –’
Anindita Devi had shoved her daughter inside the cab and she herself got in.
They were desperate and had almost jumped on the door of the cab, ‘Please, listen to us, just for a second – today at eleven noon Mr. Bose –’
‘At eleven?’ Anindita devi had exclaimed, ‘He’ll come at eleven? There’s no train at that hour! Is he coming by car? That’s better! Well, namaskar. Please, don’t mind! I’m in a hurry.’
The taxi had zoomed past the two men gaping at it.
Ajanta had anxiously asked, ‘What were they telling you, ma?’
Anindita had given little importance to her query.
She had let it pass.
She had said, ‘Poor thing! He won’t be able to come, so, he had sent a message to lessen his guilt. He has assured that if possible, he’ll try to come by car – ’
Ajanta had pulled a long face and had remarked, ‘I knew he wouldn’t come. From the very beginning, he was saying, “ I have to apply for leave to attend the wedding of my maternal uncle-in- law’s daughter! Are you crazy!” ’
Anindita remembered all these distinctly.
Sen growled like an angry tiger, ‘You were so keen to attend the ceremony that you didn’t have the time to listen to what the two men had to say!’
Anindita looked her husband in the eye and uttered each word slowly and distinctly, ‘I didn’t need to hear what they had come to say. I could read it on their faces.’
‘What do you mean?’ Suddenly, Sen caught hold of his wife, – robust and all decked up -, and shook her in a childlike way, ‘What are you trying to say? You could make out from their faces! And knowing fully well that Nishith was no more, you –’
‘Yes, I did it deliberately. But, can you tell me how is the world affected by that? When Ajanta was going to attend the wedding, her cup of life overflowing with colour, beauty and enjoyment, then, if I dragged and dumped her on to the wayside, to the dust and told her, -“Your life is over for you, do you get it! Nothing more is left for you. You no longer belong to this world.”- how much would the world gain by that as well?’
‘Cut out your poetry! There’s a limit to frivolity. Don’t you know that Nishith’s mama13 is related to your boudi’s14 parents? The way the people in the wedding house were scandalized! And at that time you mother and daughter masquerading as dancers –’
Anindita was not perturbed by this reproach. Perhaps she was now beyond it. So, she replied calmly,’ I did know that Nishith’s mama was in some way related to boudi’s paternal family. What I didn’t know was that the news would travel so fast across the network of so many relationships and reach there so soon. I had thought that since for the last six months the girl was so eagerly waiting to participate in Runu’s wedding and enjoy herself, – let her enjoy that at least. This would be the last enjoyment of her life, – the last festive ceremony she would attend. After that, only the slow fire of suffering remains for her. I had thought, I’d just steal three hours from the eternal sea of time, no one would know. Well, that’s not to be. The whole world raised its sharpened knife at that petty theft –.’
For a minute, Sen stared at the line of tears rolling down Anindita’s painted face and then said grudgingly, in a tone of rebuke, ‘I get your argument. But strange, how could you? She did not know, but, you did! Even after that, how could you participate in the celebration?’
‘I had thought that by doing so I would be able to fool the people. How stupid of me! But, you are wondering, how could I? What can a human being not do? Even you could, – you could charge me to explain why I stole just a couple of hours from your daughter’s eternal widowhood. How could you?’
Notes and References
1 Banchak, 1372) Ashapurna Devir Chotogalpo Sankalan (Anthology of Ashapurna Devi’s Short Stories) National Book Trust, 1991
2 basar: the night of the wedding, the couple is not supposed to sleep. They are entertained by friends and relatives with songs, dance etc.
3 the bangla word is eyo: usually five or seven young married women who have assigned duties in the marriage rituals.
4 a series of rhythmic vocal sounds made by women on auspicious occasions, usually accompanied by the blowing of the conch.
5 Boudi, address for elder brother’s wife.
6 dala: a round wicker tray containing things like paan, beetle nut, grains of paddy, a lighted lamp and other objects. Usually five married (not widows)women hold it together and move round the groom while welcoming him.
7 sree: a flower-like decorative piece made of kneaded coloured rice powder.
8 mami; wife of mama, or maternal uncle.
9 game of kauri: one of the many ritual games in which the newly married couple and other married women take part.
10 Ani: short form for Anindita.
11 Rangada; an elder brother, usually fourth in the hierarchy of a joint family.
12 pishemashai, husband of pishi, paternal uncle
13 mama; maternal uncle
14 Boudi, address for elder brother’s wife.
Taken from The Magic Web and Other Stories: Ashapurna Debi on the Widow and Her World by Ashapurna Devi, Jharna Sanyal Published with permission from the Translator.