(translated by Sohana Manzoor)
Even though I had never set eyes on her, the name of Aunt Shuhashini is entwined with all my days of childhood. As a child, whenever I went to visit my maternal grandparents, I heard her name mentioned in every second sentence.
“Shuhash knits so well! And she is merely a child!”
“Shuhashini’s such a sweetheart! She welcomed me to her house as if I were her sister.”
“I invited Shuhashini over the other day.”
“Shuhashini cannot stand unfair behavior; that’s why she doesn’t get along with mother.”
Everyone in the village adored Aunt Shuhashini. From my old grandmother to my own mother and all her sisters – every one of them spoke of her with affection. And when they discussed beauty, they always brought in the name of Aunt Shuhashini first. Apparently, none of them knew any other woman as beautiful as Shuhashini.
I got really curious about this Aunt Shuhashini and thought I would have to see her at least once. So I asked my granny, “Where does Aunt Shuhashini live?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’d like to see her.”
“Oh, she’s the sister of your Uncle Kanai. Haven’t you seen the two storied house of the Mukhujjes by the pond? That’s their house… but I forgot… Shuhash’s not there right now. She’s with her in-laws.”
“So, she’s married?”
“Of course. She’s about twenty years old. She got married quite a few years ago.”
I did not like the fact that she was married. Now I was only nine years old and Aunt Shuhashini was a woman of twenty. What difference did it make for me? Nevertheless, I did not like her being married.
A sudden excitement and joy washed over me; finally, I would be able to meet Aunt Shuhashini! The ideal beauty that I had fantasized of! I was quite taken aback by my own reactions.
I visited my maternal grandparents in the country every summer, but I never got to meet Aunt Shuhashini. Either she had left early summer, or would be visiting in the rainy season.
“Shuhash came in the spring and left early summer. She lives in a nice place now. And she looks so gorgeous these days.”
I overheard things like this when my granny or aunts spoke of Aunt Shuhashini to others. I felt like asking questions too, but always felt too shy, and my tongue felt as dry as parchment.
“No, she couldn’t stay longer. Her in-laws can’t do without her, you know. She had hoped to stay until late summer and enjoy the seasonal fruits with us. But there was nothing to be done as her mother-in-law said that she missed her daughter-in-law and had sent her son to fetch her home.”
“I heard one afternoon that Shuhash had fainted and I rushed to their house immediately. When I went there, I saw they were pouring cold water on her head and she was lying at the front of the verandah. Her long, dark hair was unbound and she looked like a goddess. What a beauty…”
Everybody praised Aunt Shuhashini. She seemed like a fascinating character. And even though I never saw her, I started to create an image in my imagination. I did not do it consciously of course, but she became the embodiment of feminine beauty in my mind.
Then I was in college. I went to my grandparents during the Puja
holidays. I was older and more serious than before, and I preferred discussions with my mejo dadu
(my grandfather’s brother) and uncles on the role Germany played in the War. My knowledge was freshly acquired from Lodge’s Modern History
, and I proudly made a show of my knowledge before my elders. That morning I was giving an overview of Bismarc’s politics and life before a small audience when Kanai, Aunt Shuhashini’s younger brother, dropped in.
asked, “Hello, Kanai! When did you arrive from Kolkata?
Kanai replied, “I just came today. Didi
will be here in the afternoon too. That’s why I came. My brother-in-law has taken leave for fifteen days and they plan to spend some time with us. So I came this morning to arrange transport for them from the railway station.”
A sudden excitement and joy washed over me; finally, I would be able to meet Aunt Shuhashini! The ideal beauty that I had fantasized of! I was quite taken aback by my own reactions. Let her come then; what was she to me?
Yet the evening found me eagerly walking to and fro at Kantatola. The bullock cart carrying Aunt Shuhashini would pass by this way as this was the only road from the station to her house. Just before evening I saw the cart returning from the station with only Beeru in it. Beeru was Uncle Kanai’s younger brother.
I asked innocently, “Where were you off to, Beeru? Where did you take the cart to?”
“To fetch my eldest sister. They were supposed to arrive today, but didn’t come.”
“They might still come by the late night train.”
“Nah. They wouldn’t take this lonesome road so late at night. That’s how it goes.”
The cart rolled away.
I had had that one chance of meeting Aunt Shuhashini, for the first time, too, in my nineteen years, but it didn’t happen. Not then, not in the entire month during our stay in the village that year.
After completing my education I got a job. I was twenty-four years old, far removed from the childhood days at my grandparents’. My grandmother had passed away and we did not visit the country so often. I got to hear about Aunt Shuhashini from my aunts only, but not as frequently as I heard from my grandma.
After hearing the latest development, I added philosophical superiority to her beauty. She became a goddess to me. And here one must remember that goddesses are all young; there is not a single goddess who is old.
But did I forget her? Strangely enough, no.
I still pictured her as the beautiful goddess as I had in my childhood. Whenever I attended any marriage ceremony, I compared the brides with the imagined face of Aunt Shuhashini etched in my mind, and they always fell short. Nobody could be as lovely as her.
In my early thirties I had to stay in Kolkata for some time. On one occasion, I heard from my maternal uncle that Aunt Shuhashini’s husband was a well-known engineer and earned a lot of money. They all lived at Nabin Bose Lane in Bagbazar of Kolkata. Uncle asked, “We could actually go and visit her one of these days! What do you think? I’ve not seen Shuhash in a long time. Let’s go tomorrow; I have her address written in my diary.”
But I had some emergency work to do the next day and therefore, could not go. My uncle also did not ask me again. I suppose I could have gone alone too as I had acquired the address by then. But they did not really know me and I could not find any pretext for visiting.
Another two to three years passed. I was thirty-four. I was married and had children. I lived in the west and had little time to visit the country. Around this time I met Uncle Kanai at Jamalput railway station. If you would remember, he was Aunt Shuhashini’s younger brother.
“Is that you, Uncle Kanai?” I exclaimed
“Shachin? What are you doing here? I live here too. So good to see you!”
“Is that so? Does your family live here as well?”
“No, my sister lives in Munger. My brother-in-law isn’t doing very well health-wise. They are here, visiting. I live with them and commute to work. Why don’t you come to visit one of these days? It’s not too far – at Belunbazar, near the Ganges. Tell me, when will you come?”
I lived at Shahebganj and rarely went to Munger. However, since Kanai lived there I promised to visit them sometime and meet Aunt Shuhashini at long last. Besides, as an old neighbor it seemed like a duty to visit them.
When I told my wife about the meeting, she also showed eagerness at such a prospect. She said, “We’ve never been to Munger. Let’s all go there in upcoming holidays.”
It is true that I did not have that old urge to see Aunt Shuhashini, yet at the same time, I was curious and decided to pay her a visit. As fate would have it, cholera broke out in Shahebganj soon after and I fled with my family to the safety of our hometown. When we returned after three weeks, the holidays were over and we had forgotten all about Munger.
About three to four months later I met Kanai again. He said, “Why didn’t you come? What a terrible time we had! My brother-in-law died last month.”
So Aunt Shuhashini was a widow now!
I asked, “Is everybody still in...”
Before I could finish, Uncle Kanai replied, “Oh no. Her brother-in-law came to take her to her in-laws. He is a well-known doctor in profession even though much younger than my brother-in-law.”
In the next four or five years, I did not hear Aunt Shuhashini’s name at all. Then one day, my aunt came to visit from Kashi. So many years had passed since my childhood, and I was thirty-nine years old.
My aunt was talking to my mother, “I used to meet Shuhashini at Doshashshomedh Ghat every day. Such a wonderful woman is she, sister. My time just flew when I was with her. She has also become a disciple of a great sadhu
. She explained the Geeta so well! I would forget time when she read from Geeta. There’s none like her.”
It had been quite a few years since I heard about Aunt Shuhashini again. She was indeed one of those fortunate few who are always praised by others. I felt like asking how she looked in those days. I had not heard anyone praising her looks in a long while.
But in my mind she continued to be the epitome of beauty. After hearing the latest development, I added philosophical superiority to her beauty. She became a goddess to me. And here one must remember that goddesses are all young; there is not a single goddess who is old.
Next year, I had to go on a trip to Kashi for a few days; I was then forty years old. There was an old lady who lived in the same house where my aunt resided during her stay in Kashi. She was known as Tarok’s mom, and they were of a lower caste. Her son Tarok had a big shop in Naihati. I was told to get a piece of luggage from her, a box that belonged to my aunt.
It was ten in the morning. After visiting the temple and all that I was at the Doshashshomedh Ghat to bathe. I heard Tarok’s mom telling somebody, “You are done early today, didi
!” Before I could hear the other woman’s reply, Tarok’s mom turned to me and said, “Don’t you know her, Shachin? This is somebody from our village, Shuhashini, Kanai’s sister.”
I was somewhat distracted, and hence I floundered. Then I turned and saw a heavy-set old woman in wet clothes climbing up the steps from the river. She had a pot of water in hand. She must have been fair-complexioned once, but now her skin was wrinkled and brown. She seemed like a harmless creature with a typically dense expression on her face.
That…that was Aunt Shuhashini? No, it couldn’t be!
But how could I expect to see a remarkably gorgeous Aunt Shuhashini after thirty years? Why was I so surprised at not having seen the beautiful goddess of my imagination? Why did my heart suddenly feel so heavy? I do not know.
Suddenly I felt tired and dispirited. I was done with Kashi and decided that I would return home with my aunt’s luggage on the very next train.
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh.