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The wife’s letter

  • Published at 10:34 pm May 5th, 2017
  • Last updated at 02:50 pm May 9th, 2017
The wife’s letter
(Translated by Shawkat Hussain)   Respected Lotus-footed one, We have been married for years fifteen years but this is my first letter to you. Since we have always been together, there was never any need to write letters. Today I have come for a pilgrimage to Srikhetra and you are in your office working. Your relationship with Kolkata is like that of a snail with its own shell. Kolkata is a part of your body and soul, and so you did not apply for leave. Perhaps that was what God wanted; but He has granted my application for leave. I am the second daughter-in-law in your family. Today, standing by the sea-shore, fifteen years after our marriage, I have realized that I have another relationship with the universe and its Creator. This realization is what has given me the courage to write to you today. This is not just a letter from the second daughter-in-law of your family. In my childhood, when nobody knew about my ill-fated connection with your family except He who willed it to be, my brother and I were once stricken down by typhoid fever. My brother died but I recovered from my illness. All the women in the village said that I survived because I was a girl; there would be no escape from death if I were a boy. The Angel of Death is excellent in the art of theft; it steals things only of value. I am deathless. It is to explain this more fully that I am writing this letter to you. When your uncle and your friend Nirode came to see me as a possible bride for you, I was only twelve years old. We used to live in a remote village where jackals howled even during the day. To reach our village you had to travel miles in a bullock-cart from the station and three miles on a palanquin along a dusty road. It was a very difficult journey for both, and then they had to suffer our bangalstyle of cooking. Even to this day your uncle remembers the horrible food that was served to them. Your mother was obsessed with the idea of compensating for the lack of beauty in her elder daughter-in-law with the breathtaking beauty of the second. Why else would your relatives take so much trouble to visit our village? In Bengal, nobody has to search for kidney diseases, or liver or gastric diseases, or for brides. They are all around you and will not leave you in peace.
Why is this walled-up, pleasure-less bubble of a life lived in this alley so very difficult to burst? Why could I not cross the threshold of the inner house even for a moment when the magnificence of the six seasons of the universe beckoned me? Why do I have to die, moment by moment, walled up inside such insignificant brick-and-mortar barricades when the world outside waited for me.
My father’s heart began to tremble with fear, my mother began to chant the name of Ma Durga. What offerings could simple devotees of a village make to gods from the city? The beauty of their daughter was their only hope. But the girl had no arrogance in her beauty. The value of her beauty depended completely on what the beholder attached to it. This is perhaps why women with a thousand virtues and great beauty cannot throw off their veil of modesty. The fear of the entire household, nay, the fear of the entire village, came to rest upon my bosom like a heavy stone. It seemed to me that all the light of the sky and all the forces of the universe were conspiring to hold up a twelve-year-old village girl before two pairs of examining eyes. I could hide nowhere. The sky began to weep as the wedding flutes began to play. Then I was brought over to your house. The women scrutinized my blemishes and concluded that on the whole I was beautiful. When my elder sister-in-law heard this, she became downcast. But I wonder, to what purpose was I made beautiful! If that thing called beauty were molded out of clay from the Ganges by an old craftsman, then it would be considered beautiful. But that beauty fashioned by the Creator in whimsical pleasure has no value in your religion. It did take you long to forget that I had beauty, but at every step you also had to acknowledge that I had brains as well. My intelligence comes so naturally to me that even after all these years in your household I still retain it. My mother used to be worried about it because it is a curse for a woman to have brains. Someone who has to follow the orders of others but follows instead the dictates of her own intelligence, must falter again and again and bring misfortune upon herself. What could I do? God had thoughtlessly given me more brains than was necessary to be a wife in your family. To whom could I give it back? I have been abused in your family day and night. Harsh words are the rewards of the helpless. Therefore, I forgive you for that. Beyond the circle of household chores, there was something about me that none of you knew about. I secretly wrote poetry. Whatever the quality of my muse, the walls of the inner compound could not confine it. In my poetry I was free, I was myself. None of you ever liked or even recognized anything beyond my identity as the second daughter-in-law. In all these years nobody every suspected that I was a poet. Of my early memories in your household, the one that comes to my mind now is that of the cowshed. The cows were kept in a shed right beside the steps that led to the inner rooms. They had no place to move around except in the little courtyard in front. In a corner of the yard was a large wooden bowl where the feed was placed. The servants would be busy with various chores in the morning. In the meantime, the cows would lick and chew the sides of the bowl and make small holes in it. My heart would cry for them. I am after all a village girl – when I first went to your house, the cows and their three calves were like familiar relatives in an unfamiliar place. For as long as I was a new bride I secretly fed the cows with the food I was supposed to eat. But as time passed, those with whom I had a friendly relationship began to express doubts about my own caste when they saw my affection for the cows. My daughter died soon after she was born. She had wanted me to go with her as well. If she were alive today she would have given me something important to live for. I would have become a mother, not simply a second daughter-in-law. You can be the mother of one child only and still be the mother of the universe. I have experienced the pain of being a mother; I never experienced the joy and freedom of being a mother. I remember that the English doctor was surprised to see our inner rooms, and very irritated when he saw the delivery room. He started chastising people all around. There is a small garden near the outer chambers, and the rooms there are also well-furnished and decorated. The inner rooms, however, are like the inside of a fur coat, bare and without beauty. Inside, dim lamps flicker and the breeze enters like a thief. The rubbish in the courtyard is never cleared and the spots on the walls and floor have become permanent displays. But the doctor was mistaken about one thing. He thought that we suffered day and night from this state of neglect. The truth is just the opposite. The phenomenon of neglect is like a pile of ashes—deep inside there may be a glowing ember whose heat is never felt outside. When self-respect diminishes, neglect or indifference does not appear unjust, and therefore there is no pain either. This is why women are ashamed to feel sorrow. Therefore, I say, that if your system is arranged in such a manner that women must suffer, then it is better to treat them with indifference. If you give them love, the pain of neglect only increases. be25364800b2646446bddc278cdb3c72 No matter how you treated me, it never occurred to me to even think that I had sorrows. When I gave birth to my daughter and death came and stood near my head, I felt no fear. What is life to us that we must be afraid of death? They only fear death who are bound by love and affection. If death had tugged at my heart that day I would have lifted myself up towards it like a clump of grass with all its roots detaches itself from loose earth. We are ashamed to die because it is so easy for us. My daughter appeared briefly like an evening star and then vanished. I went back to my daily chores and caring for the cows. I could have lived out my life as it unfolded daily. It would not have been necessary to write this letter to you today. But the wind carries a tiny seed, lodges it in a concrete building, from whence sprouts the sapling of a banyan tree. Eventually as the sapling grows, it devastates the brick-and-mortar structure of the building. From somewhere a tiny flicker of life came and touched the solid structure of my life—and the cracks began to appear after that. When my elder sister-in-law’s sister,Bindu, took refuge in this house after the death of her widowed mother, trying to escape from the abuses of her cousin, you were all very upset. What can I do about my cursed nature? When I saw how upset you all were, my entire heart went out towards this helpless girl. Do you have any idea how insulting it is for someone to take shelter in another house without being welcome in it? When someone is forced to accept such a condition can you push her aside? Then I saw the condition of my elder sister-in-law. She had given refuge to Bindu out of sheer kindheartedness. But when she became aware of her husband’s disapproval she began to pretend that Bindu was such a huge burden that she too would be relieved if she could throw her sister out. She did not dare show any open affection for her sister. She was her husband’s slave. I became even more anxious when I noticed how she suffered from this conflict within. I observed that my sister-in-law took special pains for everyone to notice the inadequate arrangements for food and accommodation she made for Bindu. I felt sorrow and deep shame when I saw that Bindu was given different menial chores around the house. My sister-in-law was eager to give the impression that Bindu was quite useful to the family. So she kept aloof from all family affairs and occupied very little space in the household. However, her exemplary behavior caused a lot of difficulty for us. I was not able to make myself so impossibly insignificant in everything. If I consider something good, I will say it: that is my nature. I will not say otherwise just to please someone. You know this very well. I decided to take Bindu under my wings. My sister-in-law said that I was putting ideas into thatpoor girl’s head. She began to complain to everyone as if I had caused some great danger to the family. But I knew that she was really very relieved. The burden of guilt now fell on my shoulders while she felt lighter that the affection she couldn’t show her sister now came from me. My sister-in-law tried to reduce her age by two to four years but I think it would not be inaccurate to say that Bindu was at least fourteen. You know very well that Bindu was so ordinary-looking that if she cracked her forehead on the floor, people would be more concerned about the damage done to the floor than about her forehead. With both her parents dead there was nobody to worry about her marriage. Besides, how many men possess the strength of character necessary to marry such a plain-looking girl? At first Bindu came to me very fearfully, as if I would not be able to bear her touch upon my body. It was almost as if she had no right to be born. She averted people’s eyes and slunk past people. Even in her father’s house, her cousins only allowed her space in a corner where unused things lie discarded. Discarded things often find easy accommodation around the house because people forget about them. But a discarded woman may be unnecessary but not so easy to forget. There is no place for her even in the cowshed. But I honestly cannot say that Bindu’s cousins are absolutely essential in this universe. But they are doing fine. So when I called Bindu to my room she trembled with fear. I felt much sorrow when I saw her fear. I gently explained to her that there was place for her in my house. But my room wasn’t mine alone, so my job wasn’t an easy one. After staying with me for four or five days, some red spots appeared in her body. I was not sure what they were. Because it happened to Bindu, everybody said it was smallpox. A village doctor looked at her and said that it would only be possible to diagnose her after a few days. Bindu almost died from the shame of her disease. I said, if it was smallpox, so be it. I would stay with her and nobody else would have to do anything. You were furious with me; even Bindu’s sister pretended to be disgusted and proposed that the cursed girl be sent to the hospital. Suddenly all the red spots on her body vanished and that caused even greater anxiety. You thought that the smallpox must have settled deep inside her. Why? Because it happened to Bindu. There is a great virtue in growing up without love. The body becomes indestructible, it becomes immortal. You never fall sick and the highways to death are all closed. Nothing really happened to Bindu; her sickness just teased her a little. But it became clear to me that it is most difficult to give shelter to someone who is the most insignificant person in the world. She who needs protection the most, finds the least.
I am not returning anymore to your house in Makhon Boral Lane. I have seen what happened to Bindu, I have come to understand the position of a woman within her household. I do not need to know anymore.
When Bindu stopped fearing me, she was overcome by another instinct. She began to love me with such intensity that I became fearful. I had never experienced such a form of love before. It is true I had read about love between men and women in books. Nothing ever reminded me of my own beauty until this ordinary-looking girl began to worship me with unusual passion. She would stare at my face for hours on end, and then she would say, “Didi, nobody has seen the beauty of your face, only I have.” She would sulk if I braided my own hair; she loved to touch and play with my hair. I never had to dress up unless I went somewhere, but everyday Bindu would force me to allow her to dress me up in one way or another. She became completely obsessed with me. You know there is not an inch of space in the inner chambers, but beside a drain that runs along the northern wall a small gabtree has somehow taken root. When I used to see the bright red leaves of the gab tree I would know it was springtime. When one day I saw that this unloved girl was glowing with beauty, I realized that her heart too had been touched by a spring breeze from heaven. It’s a breeze that comes from the heavens and not from the corner of an alley. The force of Bindu’s love sometimes made me weary. I confess that a few times I felt anger towards her, but her love had made me see myself in a way that I had never seen myself before. It was an image of myself as free. On the other hand, most of you thought that my affection for Bindu was a bit too much and this caused a lot of friction all around. One day when a bracelet was stolen from my room, you were not ashamed to suggest that Bindu must have had a hand in it. When different houses were being raided during the nationalist movement, you were quick to hint that Bindu was a police informer. There was no proof for all this; being Bindu was proof enough. The servants in your house were reluctant to do anything for her. In fact, the girl herself would become embarrassed if any of the servants were instructed to do some work for her. For these reasons, I was compelled to spend some money for her myself. I decided to hire a servant especially for her. You did not like it. You were so angry when you saw the clothes I bought her that you stopped my own allowances. From the next day I began to wear cheap, coarse, cotton saris, and I forbade the servants to take away my unwashed plate. I would myself go down to the tap in the courtyard, feed the leftovers to the calves, and wash my own plate. You were not pleased when you saw this spectacle one day. To this day I have not had the good fortune to learn that I do not have to be pleased, but that you cannot be displeased. So, as your displeasure began to increase, so did Bindu’s age. And you seemed to become unnaturally agitated at this very natural phenomenon. I am surprised that you did not turn Bindu out of the house. I do know that you all were a bit scared of me. You could not but acknowledge the intelligence that God has given me. Finally, when you could not force Bindu out of the house, you turned to another solution—Bindu’s marriage. A groom was found for her. My sister-in-law said, “What a relief! Ma Kali has protected the honor of this family.” I did not know what the man was like. I have been told that all marriages are good. Bindu fell at my feet and began to cry. She said, “Didi, why do I have to get married? I tried to explain to her gently. “Bindu, you have nothing to be afraid of. I heard that your husband is a good man.” Bindu said, “Perhaps he is a good man. But why would he like me?” The groom’s family were not even interested in seeing Bindu. Her sister was very relieved about that, but Bindu cried all day and night. I know how greatly she suffered. I have fought many battles for Bindu but I did not have the courage to say that her marriage should be stopped. What power do I have that I could say that? What would happen to her if I died? She was a woman after all -- and a dark-complexioned woman too. It is better not to think about who she married and what happened to her. My heart begins to tremble at the mere thought.   07084bddbc62fa1f608bce38f827f42c Bindu said, “Didi, there are five more days before the marriage, do you think I could die before that?” I scolded her but God knows I would have felt much better if somehow Bindu had an easy death. On the day before her wedding, Bindu went her sister and said, “Didi, I will go and live in the cowshed, I will do anything you say, but I beg you, please just don’t throw me away like that.” For some days my sister-in-law had been crying secretly; she cried on that day as well. But the heart is not everything; there are laws as well. She said, “You know Bindu, for a woman her husband is her destiny, her freedom, he is everything. If you are fated to suffer, than none can avert it.” The real truth is that there was no way out. Bindu had to get married, and whatever happened would happen. I wanted the marriage to take place in our house, but everybody insisted that it should take place in the groom’s house, according to the tradition of the family. I realised that your household gods would not be able to bear it if you had to spend money on Bindu’s wedding. So I simply shut up. But there is one thing you don’t know about. I wanted to tell Didi about it but I didn’t want to scare her either. I secretly decked Bindu up with some of my own jewelry. I suppose it must have caught her eye but she pretended not to notice. In the name of your religion, please forgive her for this. Before she left, Bindu hugged me and said, “So you are really forsaking me, aren’t you?” I told her, “No Bindu, no matter what happens to you, I will never give you up.” Three days passed. I had saved a small goat that one of your tenants had given you by giving it shelter in a corner of the room where coal was stored in the ground floor of your house. In the morning, as soon as I woke up, I would feed the goat myself. For two or three days I depended on the servants but I realized that they were more interested in eating the goat than in feeding it. That morning when I entered the room, I saw Bindu sitting huddled in a corner. As soon as she saw me, she threw herself at my feet and began to sob silently. Bindu’s husband was a mad man. “Is that true, Bindu?” “Can I lie about such a thing Didi? He is mad. My father-in-law was opposed to this marriage but he fears his wife like Death itself. He left for Kashi before the marriage. My mother-in-law forced the marriage upon her mad son.” I slumped down on a heap of coal. Women have no pity for other women. They say, “He may be mad but he is a Man. He was not a woman.” Bindu’s husband doesn’t appear to be mad at all times, but there are days when he becomes so crazy that he has to be locked up in his room. He was good on his wedding night, but several sleepless nights and other distractions caused him to lose his mind completely on the second day. In the afternoon Binduwas eating rice when suddenly her husband pulled away her rice-filled plate and threw it in the courtyard. Suddenly he seemed to think that Bindu was the Queen of Queens and the servants must have stolen her golden plate and given her food in the copper one instead. Her husband had gone berserk and Bindu almost died of fear. On the third night when Bindu’s mother-in-law told her to sleep in her husband’s room, Bindu froze. Her mother-in-law was a big woman with an uncontrollable temper; she too was mad, but she was even more frightening because she was not completely insane like her son. Bindu had to enter her bedroom, but her husband was quiet that night. Bindu herself was so scared that she could hardly move. Late at night when her husband was sleeping, she crept out of the room and escaped. It is not necessary to give an elaborate description about that. I began seething with rage and disgust. I said, “Such a marriage of deception is no marriage at all. Bindu, you will live with me as before. I dare anybody to take you away from me.” Everybody said Bindu was lying. I said Bindu never lied. The others questioned, “How do you know?” I said, “I know that as a fact.” They all tried to scare me. “You will be in trouble if people from Bindu’s family lodge a case with the police.” “What if I tell the court that they tried to deceive us by not telling us that Bindu’s husband was mad. Won’t they listen to me”? I replied. You said, “So you want to go to the court with this? Why? How does it concern us?” I said, “I will sell all my jewelry and do what I can.” You said, “So, you are going to run to the lawyer’s house?” I had no reply to this. I could do no more than strike my forehead. Soon, Bindu’s husband’s brother arrived and started to make noise outside. He said he was going to the police. I do not know what strength I possess, but I simply could not accept the fact that fear of police would force me to hand over to the butcher the calf that fled for fear of life and took shelter with me. I boldly told them to inform the police if they wanted to. I thought I would take Bindu into my bedroom and lock it from inside. But I could not find Bindu anywhere. While I was arguing with you, Bindu had gone outside and given herself up to her brother-in-law. She thought she would be putting me in a difficult position if she stayed in the house.
Also read: http://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2017/05/05/detective/
Bindu only increased her sorrow by running away from her husband. Her mother-in-law shouted that her son was not a monster. There were thousands of bad husbands in the world and compared to them her son was like the silver moon. My sister-in-law said, “It was just her rotten fate. What is the point of feeling sorry for her? He may be mad, he may be bad, but he was her husband after all.” You were reminded of the example of a devoted wife who carried her syphilitic husband in her arms and brought him to the house of a prostitute. Even today you have no compunction in narrating this despicable story of masculine shamelessness. No wonder you were angry with Bindu in spite of her sacrifices. You were not the least bit ashamed. I suffered for Bindu, but I suffered even more from your shamelessness. I was after all a village girl living in your house. I wonder how God bestowed so much sense and strength upon me. I just could not put with the traditions of your family anymore. I knew that Bindu would not ever come back to our house even if she were to die. But I had promised to her on the day before her marriage that I would never forsake her. My younger brother Sarat was in college in Kolkata. You know very well that despite failing his exams twice, Sarat’s enthusiasm for voluntary work, destroying rats in plague-ridden communities, rushing to flood-hit areas and so on, had not lessened one bit. I called him one day and told him to make arrangements so that I could get news about Bindu. She would never dare to write to me, and even if she did, her letters would never reach me. Sarat would have been even happier if I had told him to mastermind an escape for Bindu, or perhaps break her husband’s skull. You entered the room while I was talking with Sarat. You said, “What more problems are you creating now?” I said, “Coming to this house as your wife was the root problem, but that was more your doing than mine.” You asked me, “Have you brought Bindu here again and hiding her somewhere?” I said, “If Bindu came I would certainly hide her. But you nothing to fear, she will not come.” You became even more suspicious when you saw Sarat with me. I knew that you did not like Sarat visiting me in this house. You were scared that the police kept an eye on him and might somehow implicate all of you with his political activities. That is why Sarat seldom visited this house. I would contact him through messengers. It was you who told me that Bindu had escaped again and that her brother-in-law had come here to look for her. When I heard this I was heartbroken. I understood the unbearable sorrow of this miserable girl, but I had no way to help her. Sarat rushed out to get more news about her. He came back in the evening and informed me that Bindu had gone to her cousin’s house, but they were furious with her and sent her back to her husband’s house. They are still angry about all the trouble and expenses that Bindu had caused.
You had covered me up in the darkness of your conventions. For a brief period Bindu had known me through a hole in the covering. Through her own death the girl has ripped off that which covered me. As I stepped outside today, I was filled with pride, proud in my uncovered beauty under the beautiful sky. The second daughter-in-law of your house is now dead.
You aunt came to the house with the intention of going on pilgrimage to Srikhetra, and I told you that I would go as well. You were so happy to see that I had suddenly become religious that you did not object at all. Surely you must have thought that if I stayed in Kolkata I might create more trouble regarding Bindu. I was really such a big problem for you. I was supposed to leave on Wednesday; everything was ready by Sunday. I called Sarat and told him, “You must somehow arrange to put Bindu on the train for Puri on Wednesday.” Sarat’s face glowed with pleasure. He said, “Don’t worry, I will put her on the train and go all the way to Puri myself. This will give me a chance to see Jagannath myself.” That evening Sarat came again. My heart almost stopped when I saw Sarat’s face. "What happened Sarat? You couldn’t do it I guess?” “No,” he said. “You couldn’t make her agree to go?” “It’s not necessary anymore. Last night she put fire to her clothes and committed suicide. I got the news from someone in the house. She wrote a letter to you but someone in the house destroyed it.” So, finally, there was peace. People all across the country became furious. They said it had become a fashion for women for women to put fire to their saris and burn themselves to death. You said it was all melodrama. Perhaps it was. But you have to wonder why all the excitement of the melodrama centers on the saris of Bengali women and not the dhotis of heroic Bengali men. Bindu was indeed an unfortunate woman. When she was alive she was never appreciated for her beauty or for her virtues. If she could arrange to die in a novel way, men would be pleased and applaud her, but that was not to be. Even in death she angered people. Her sister hid in her room and cried secretly, but there was some consolation in her tears. Whatever happened, it was still a relief. After all, Bindu was dead. Imagine what could have happened if she were still alive. I have come here for my pilgrimage. Bindu no longer needed to come, but it was necessary for me. While I was in your house I did not suffer from what people normally understand as sorrow. Food and clothing was always plentiful. You did not have the faults of your brother. Had you been like your brother, then I would have resigned myself to my fate like my pure, devoted sister-in-law. I would not have blamed my husband-god for all my suffering; I would have blamed the universal god for all my sorrows. Therefore, I don’t want to make any complaints against you. That is not the point of this letter. I am not returning anymore to your house in Makhon Boral Lane. I have seen what happened to Bindu, I have come to understand the position of a woman within her household. I do not need to know anymore. I have seen more. She was a woman, but God had not forsaken her. No matter how much force you exert upon her, there is an end. She is greater than the pathetic society which you have created. Your feet are big enough to trample on her life at will, everlastingly, but Death is greater than us. She has achieved greatness in death. In death she is not merely a Bengali woman, not merely someone’s cousin, or the deceived wife of some obscure mad husband. In death she is eternal. When the music of death wafted through the broken heart of this girl and touched the shores of my being, it pierced me the first time. I asked God why that which was so insignificant was also so momentous. Why is this walled-up, pleasure-less bubble of a life lived in this alley so very difficult to burst? Why could I not cross the threshold of the inner house even for a moment when the magnificence of the six seasons of the universe beckoned me? Why do I have to die, moment by moment, walled up inside such insignificant brick-and-mortar barricades when the world outside waited for me. How trivial was my daily life, how very trite its daily customs, habits and utterances. Yet victory belonged to the daily grind of conventions which coiled around us like a snake, vanquishing us moment by moment. But the music of death played on. Whither the mason’s concrete wall, whither your barbed-wire fence? What sorrow or humiliation can imprison a person eternally? The victory flag of life flutters in the hand of Death. Fear not, Oh second daughter-in-law. In an instant the shell of your identity as somebody’s wife can crumble away. I am no longer fearful of the alley where I lived for so many years. In front of me stretches the blue sky, overhead the dark clouds of Ashar. You had covered me up in the darkness of your conventions. For a brief period Bindu had known me through a hole in the covering. Through her own death the girl has ripped off that which covered me. As I stepped outside today, I was filled with pride, proud in my uncovered beauty under the beautiful sky. The second daughter-in-law of your house is now dead. You are thinking that I am going to commit suicide. Do not fear, I will not play such an old trick on you. Mirabai was also a woman like me; her chains were no less heavy, but she did not have to die to live. In her song, Mirabai had sung, “Forsake your father, forsake your mother, forsake all the others wherever they are, but Mira keeps hanging on.” Lord, let whatever might happen to others happen. I too will survive. I have survived. Yours, separated from the shelter under your feet, Mrinal
(All the artworks used in this story are reproductions of Tagore's paintings) Professor Shawkat Hussain did his MA in English Literature from the University of Dhaka in 1972. He taught there for more than 40 years, was the Chairman of the English Department and retired in 2014. He has a PhD from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. He also taught at the University of Queensland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland. He is a brilliant translator of stories and poems.