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The gift of a garland

  • Published at 04:47 pm May 15th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:32 pm May 15th, 2018
The gift of a garland

A translation of Rabindranath Tagore's 'Malyadan'

(Translated by Shawkat Hussain)

It was chilly in the morning. In the afternoon it warmed up a little and a breeze began to blow from the south. From the veranda where Jateen was sitting, he could see a jackfruit tree in one corner of the garden and a raintree in another corner. Through a gap in the raintree, he could see the field beyond the garden. The empty field simmered under the hot Falgun sun. Along the beaten path that ran beside the field, heavily-laden bullockcarts trundled toward the village while the bullockcart drivers covered their heads with scarves and idly sang songs to pass their time. 

Suddenly he heard a laughing female voice behind his back. “What’s up, Jateen? Were you thinking of someone in your past life?”

Jateen said, “Why Patal, am I so unfortunate that I have to think of someone from a past life?”

The girl who was known as Patal amongst her friends and relatives spoke up. “Come on, don’t brag. I know all about your accomplishments in this life. What a shame! You could not even get a wife for yourself! Look at our gardener, Dhona—even he has a wife. He makes sure that everyone in the neighborhood knows he has a wife by fighting with her twice every day, and you sit staring at the empty field pretending to daydream about some moon-faced beauty. Do you think I don’t understand your tricks? You are merely trying to fool people. Look Jateen, a true Brahmin does not have to flaunt his pedigree. Our Dhona never sits staring at the field on the pretext that he is suffering from the pangs of separation. Even when he has been separated from his wife, I have seen him cleaning the weeds under the tree; I have never seen that vacant, melancholic look in his eyes that you have. And look at you – you have never seen the face of a wife in your seven lives. You have passed your days by dissecting dead bodies in the hospital and studying for your exams. Why should you be staring at the afternoon sky with such blank, sorrowful eyes? No, I don’t like this at all; it really upsets me.”

Jateen put his palms together and pleaded, “Okay, okay, you have said enough. Your Dhona is blessed. I will try to live my life according to his example. No more talk, tomorrow morning I will place a garland around the neck of the first woodcutter’s daughter I see. I can’t bear your sarcasm anymore.”

Patal: Do you give me your word? 

Jateen: Yes, I do.

Patal: Then come with me.

Jateen: Where?

Patal: Just come.

Jateen: No, you are up to some mischief. I am not moving.

P: Okay, then remain sitting here.

Patal walked away with quick steps.        

Let the introductions be made. There was a difference of only one day between the births of Jateen and Patal. Jateen was unwilling to show any special respect towards Patal just because she happened to be a day older than him. They were cousins, they grew up playing together. When she was young she used to complain to her parents and uncles that Jateen did not call her Didi, but nothing ever came out of her complaint. Even her younger cousin, the only one she had, called her Patal. 

Patal was round and plump and full of vivaciousness. There were few around her who had the power to suppress her infectious laughter. She was not even serious in front of her mother-in-law. There was a lot of talk about it, but eventually everyone accepted her for what she was. Even grim, sober-faced elders eventually succumbed to Patal’s irrepressible enthusiasm. Patal could not bear anyone around her sitting with a glum face; her stories, jokes and laughter would charge the air around her. 

Patal’s husband, Harakumar Babu, was a Deputy Magistrate. He was transferred from Bihar, got a post in the Customs Department in Kolkata. For fear of the plague he rented a cottage in the suburbs from which he commuted to Kolkata every day. Because he had to frequently go on tour to the outlying districts for customs inspection,  he was thinking of bringing over his mother and a couple of other relatives, when penniless Jateen who had just become a doctor, came to visit for a week at the invitation of his cousin Patal. 

On the first day of his visit, when Jateen was sitting in the quiet, shaded veranda, wrapped in the indolence of a languid Falgun afternoon, Patal intruded upon his thoughts and the conversation narrated earlier took place. After Patal went away, Jateen relaxed a little, and again settled into a comfortable posture. The thought of the woodcutter’s daughter sent his mind meandering into nooks and crannies of childhood fairy tales. 

Again he was startled from his reverie by Patal’s laughing voice.

Patal held the hand of another girl, pushed her in front of Jateen, and said,” She is Kurani.” 

The girl said, “What is it, Didi?”

Patal: “What do you think about this cousin of mine?” 

The girl looked at Jateen without any hint of shyness. Patal said, “What do you think? Isn’t he good-looking?” After serious consideration, she nodded her head and said, “Yes, he is good-looking.”

Jateen blushed with embarrassment; he quickly stood up and said, “Patal, what childishness is this? “

Patal said, “Do I behave childishly, or is it you who behaves like an old man?”

Jateen fled from the scene. Patal ran after him and shouted, “Jateen, there is nothing to be afraid of, not yet at least. You don’t have to exchange garlands now. Falgun and Chaitra are not auspicious months—there is still a lot of time in hand.”

The girl whom Patal called Kurani kept standing in surprise. She was sixteen and slenderly built; what was striking about her was that her face made one think of a wild deer. There seemed to be a lack of intelligence in her face which was not quite stupidity; it was this lack that gave a special quality to her face. 

When Harakumar Babu returned from Kolkata in the evening, he said to Jateen, “I’m glad you have come, Jateen. You have to practice your medicine a bit. When we were living in Bihar we adopted a girl during the famine—Patal calls her Kurani, the found one. Her parents and the girl were lying half-dead under a tree near the border with Bengal. When we got the news we rushed to the place – her parents were already dead but there was still a flicker of life in the girl. Patal nursed her back to life with much love. Nobody knows anything about her caste. When people became suspicious about it, Patal says, ‘She is twice-born, she died once and was born again in our house – her previous caste has fallen off from her.’ At first the girl used to call Patal ‘Ma,’ but Patal scolded her and said, ‘Remember, don’t call me Ma, call me Didi.’ Patal said, she would feel like an old woman when such a big girl like her called her Ma. Perhaps due to the malnutrition that she suffered during the famine, or for some other reason, she experiences an acute pain in her abdomen from time to time. You have to examine her closely to diagnose her problem. Hey Tulsi, send Kurani to me.” 

Tying up her hair in a knot, Kurani presented herself before Harakumar Babu in his room. She stared at the two men with her large deer-like eyes. 

When Harakumar Babu noticed Jateen’s hesitation, he said, “There is no need to be embarrassed. She just looks like a big girl; she is just like a green, unripe coconut, full of water inside. She understands nothing—don’t think of her as a woman; she is like a wild deer of the forest.”

Jateen began to examine her like a doctor; Kurani showed no shyness at all. Jateen said, “There seems to be nothing wrong with her body.”

Patal entered the room suddenly and said, “There is nothing wrong with her heart as well. Do you want a test of that?”

Patal held Kurani by her chin and said, “Oh Kurani, do you like this cousin of mine?”

 Kurani nodded her head and said, “Yes.”

Patal asked, “Will you marry my cousin?”

Again, she nodded her head and said, “Yes.” 

Patal and Harakumar Babu started laughing. Kurani did not understand the meaning of their mirth, and imitating them, her face broke into a big grin as she gazed at them. Jateen again became very embarrassed; he got up quickly and said, “Patal, you are really overdoing it. It’s not right. Harakumar Babu, you allow Patal to get away with anything.”

Harakumar said, “But that’s the only way I can do what I want as well. Listen Jateen, you are getting upset because you don’t know what Kurani is like. Your shyness is going to make her self-conscious as well. Do not make her eat from the tree of knowledge. Everyone makes fun of her; your serious behavior will strike her as abnormal.”

Patal: “That is why I could never get along with Jateen. He is so serious—we have been fighting ever since we were children.”

Harakumar: “I guess quarrelling has become a habit with you. Look, your cousin has gone …”

Patal: “What nonsense! There’s no fun in fighting with you. I don’t even try.” 

Harakumar: “I admit defeat even before we start.”

Patal: “Hardly. I would be much happier if you conceded defeat at the end of an argument.” 

At night Jateen kept the doors and windows of his bedroom open and thought deeply of various things. He wondered about the cloud that hung over the life of a girl who had seen her parents starve before her own eyes. She had grown up with this terrible experience. How was it possible to make fun of her! God had mercifully covered her mind with a veil—if this veil was lifted, what a terrible sign of the cruelty of fate would stand exposed. Today when Jateen was looking at the afternoon Falgun sky through a gap in the trees, the mild fragrance of jackfruit blossoms floated up from afar and his heart saw the entire universe wrapped up in beauty. But this innocent girl with her deer-like eyes dispelled that golden beauty. The image of the world with its starved, hungry and sorrowful body standing behind the soft memories of spring revealed itself in the wings when the final curtain was drawn. 

Next evening Kurani was seized by the pain in her stomach; Patal quickly called for Jateen. He came and saw that Kurani’s limbs had become stiff and she was doubled up in pain. Jateen sent for medicines and ordered someone to bring a bottle of hot water. Patal observed, “What a big doctor you have become—why don’t you just rub some warm oil on the soles of her feet. Can’t you feel how cold her feet have become?”

Jateen began to rub the patient’s feet vigorously with warm oil. The treatment continued till late at night. When Harakumar came back from Kolkata he enquired about Kurani a number of times. Jateen realized that Harakumar’s real concern was not about Kurani: It was really Patal’s absence that made Harakumar restless. Jateen said, “Harakumar Babu has become very restless—why don’t you go, Patal?”

Patal replied, “You are simply putting the blame on another person. I can see who is more restless. You are just waiting for me to leave. So all this blushing and embarrassment was just a cover.”

Jateen: “Okay, for God’s sake stay here if you want to. But just don’t say anything. I think I was wrong—Harakumar is probably enjoying this peace without you around him.” 

When Kurani felt a little better and opened her eyes, Patal said, “Your husband has been trying hard to revive you for a long time—I saw you were deliberately taking your time. Quick, take the dust from his feet.”

Kurani immediately touched Jateen’s feet. Jateen strode out of the room with quick steps.

The attack began in earnest from the very next day. When Jateen sat down beside her, Kurani came and fanned him to keep the flies away. Jateen became anxious and said, “Enough, enough, I don’t need it.”

Kurani looked at the room behind her in surprise; then turning back, she started fanning him again. Jateen shouted out at someone in an inside room, “Patal, if you keep teasing me like this, I will not eat. I am getting up now.” As soon as he tried to get up, Kurani dropped the fan from her hand. Jateen saw the look of intense pain on her face; he immediately felt sorry and sat down again. Jateen had begun to believe that Kurani understood nothing, that she felt no shame, no pain. But in an instant he realized that all rules have exceptions, and that nobody could say when such an exception would occur. Kurani threw away her fan and left.

The next morning when Jateen was sitting in the veranda, the air heavy with the fragrance of mango blossoms and cuckoos cooing in the branches of the trees, he noticed Kurani holding a cup of tea hesitantly. There was a timid fear in her deer-like eyes; she did not seem to be sure whether Jateen would be angry if she brought the tea to him. Jateen sadly walked up to her and took the tea from her hand. Was it possible to give pain to this deer-like child? As he took the cup he suddenly saw Patal appearing in the far corner of the verandah laughing silently and aiming a punch at him. The look in her eyes said, “Ah, I have caught you again.” 

In the evening Jateen was reading a medical journal when the fragrance of flowers startled him and he saw Kurani entering his room with a garland of Bakul flowers. Jateen said to himself, “This is going too far, I have to put a stop to Patal’s game.”

He said to Kurani, “For God’s sake, Kurani, don’t you see that your Didi is making fun of you? Don’t you understand that?”

Even before he finished, Kurani was ready to flee in fear and embarrassment. Jateen quickly called her and said, “Kurani, let me see the garland.” He took the garland from her hand. Kurani’s face glowed with pleasure, and from an inner room the sound of loud laughter floated in.

The next morning when Patal entered Jateen’s room to make fun of him, she found it empty. On a piece of paper was written: “I am escaping, Jateen.”

“O, Kurani, your husband has run away. You could not hold him back.” Saying this, Patal swung Kurani’s braid playfully, and went away to attend to her housework.

It took Kurani some time to understand the meaning of her words. She stood still, staring in front of her in a fixed gaze. Then slowly she entered Jateen’s room to find it empty. Last evening’s gift of a garland lay on the table. 

Dawn in springtime is soft and beautiful; sunlight filtered through the trembling tips of the Krishnochura, mingled with the shadows, and fell upon the verandah. The squirrels with their tails curled up frolicked amongst the leaves, and all the birds sang their songs in different notes and seemed unable to stop. In this corner of the universe, in this piece of the world shaded by trees and drenched by the sun, the heart seemed to overflow with happiness. In its midst, the innocent girl could make no sense of her own life. 

Everything appeared incomprehensible. What had happened, why did it happen, this dawn, this house, why does everything seem so empty? Without a light in her hand who is it that forced her—she who had such little capacity to comprehend—to descend suddenly, one day, into the deep, mysterious core of her heart? Who is it that can lift her back into the easy, carefree world of trees and of birds and animals wonderstruck by their own music? 

When Patal finished her household chores and went searching for Kurani, she found her squatting on the floor of Jateen’s empty room, holding one of the legs of the bed and staring at the empty bed with a blank face. In hopeless desperation she seemed to be pouring forth her cup of love that had remained hidden in her heart, at the feet of emptiness. With her hair disheveled, her clothes in disarray, the woman who lay in a heap on the floor, seemed to be saying in silent concentration, “Take me, take me, oh please take me, my dear.”

Patal said to her in surprise, “What are you doing, Kurani?” 

Kurani did not get up; she remained lying in the same position as before. When Patal came close to her and touched her, she began to shake and heave. 

Patal was startled; she said, “You God-forsaken woman, what have you done? This will be your death.” 

Patal informed her husband Harakumar about what had befallen. Patal cried out, “God, what a mess. What were you doing? Why didn’t you try to stop me?” 

Harakumar said: “It is not my habit to stop you from doing anything. Would you really stop if I tried?”

Patal: “What kind of a husband are you? Can’t you stop me by force when I do something wrong? Why did you let me go on with this game?”

Patal rushed to Kurani and wrapping her up in her arms she said, “My sweet sister, tell me all you have to say.”

Alas, did Kurani have the language to talk about the unspeakable, ineffable mysteries of her heart? She lay with her breast pressing against an inexpressible pain. Kurani knew nothing about the nature of her agony, whether others suffered like her, and what name people gave to it. Tears were her only words; she had no other language with which to express the feelings of her heart.

Patal said, “Kurani, your Didi is very naughty; she never imagined that you would believe her words so seriously. Nobody takes her words seriously; why did you make this mistake? Kurani, please lift your face and look at me. Can you forgive your Didi?” 

But Kurani’s heart had become like stone; she just could not look at Patal. She pressed her face even farther into her hands. Although she didn’t understand everything very well, she felt a huge rage toward Patal. Slowly, Patal unwound her arms from around Kurani and Kurani stood up; like a statue she stood beside the window staring at the tall, pencil-thin betel-nut trees and tears rolled down her eyes.

The next day Kurani could not be seen anywhere. Patal used to lovingly dress her up in pretty clothes and a lot of jewelry. She was very disorderly herself and didn’t care much about how she looked; instead, she satisfied her desire for dressing up by lavishing all her care on Kurani. All the jewelry and clothes accumulated over the years were lying on the floor in Kurani’s room. She had taken off all her clothes and left behind her bracelet and the nose-pin. It was as though Kurani was trying to shake off from her body all the love that Patal Didi had given her so long. 

Harakumar Babu instructed the police to search for Kurani. At the time, thousands were fleeing from the plague in many different directions and it was perhaps difficult for the police to locate one person from so many. Several times Harakumar Babu was disappointed and embarrassed to find that the wrong person had been located; eventually he gave up hope of ever finding Kurani. She who they had recovered from the lap of the unknown now once again hid herself in its lap.

Jateen had tried hard to get an appointment in a plague hospital. One day after returning to the hospital after lunch, he heard that a new patient had been admitted in the female wing. The police had picked her up from the road. Jateen went to have a look at her. Most of her face was covered with a shawl. First Jateen lifted her hand to check the pulse; she didn’t have a high temperature but she was very weak. When he removed the shawl to examine her, he saw it was Kurani. 

In the meantime Jateen had heard everything from Patal. Her deer-like eyes clouded by the unexpressed desire of her heart only spread a tearless restlessness over her eyes. Jateen’s meditative gaze rested on her. Today, the long eyelashes of her tired half-closed eyes cast long lines on Kurani’s forehead; suddenly Jateen’s heart tightened inside his bosom when he looked down at her. 

Why had God created this beautiful flower-like girl with so much love only to throw her from a famine into an epidemic? How could this life, soft as a petal, now lying emaciated on the bed, bear so much pain and withstand the assault of many hardships in the short lease of life? And how did Jateen himself become entangled with her life and add to her pain? Deep sighs choked up within his heart, but the strings of his heart also began to strum with a happy note. Even without his asking for it, a love that was rare in this world dropped at his feet suddenly on a Falgun afternoon, like a full-blown Madhabimanjuri. There are few mortals on earth who receive such offerings of love, fit only for the gods—such love that comes up to the door of death and then swoons.

Jateen sat beside Kurani and slowly made her drink some warm milk. After sometime she sighed deeply and opened her eyes. She looked up at Jateen’s face and thought that she was just having a very beautiful dream. When Jateen placed his hand on her forehead and shook her gently, saying “Kurani,” she regained her consciousness. She recognized Jateen and her eyes became misty with a strange kind of enchantment. Like the dark Ashar sky with the first gathering of clouds, a fresh wetness fell upon Kurani’s dark black eyes. 

With tender care Jateen said to her, “Kurani, finish up this milk.”

Kurani sat up a little and finished the milk slowly while keeping her eyes fixed on Jateen’s face. 

It neither looks good nor does any work get done when a doctor spends all his time sitting beside one patient. When Jateen got up to attend to his other duties, a look of fear and hopelessness came over Kurani’s eyes. Jateen held her hand and assured her, “I will be back soon, Kurani. You have nothing to fear.”

Jateen informed the authorities that the new patient was not suffering from plague; she had just become weak from lack of food. She could be in danger if she stayed in the hospital with the other plague patients. Jateen got permission from the authorities to have Kurani removed and took her to his own house. He wrote a letter to Patal informing her about what had happened.

That evening there was nobody in the house besides the patient and the doctor. Near Kurani’s head a kerosene lamp covered with colored paper cast a dim light, and in the quiet room the pendulum of a grandfather clock swung rhythmically as it ticked on the wall.

Jateen placed his hand on Kurani’s forehead and asked, “How are you feeling now, Kurani?”

Without saying anything, she pressed Jateen’s hand on her own forehead.

Jateen asked her again, “Are you feeling better?”

Kurani shut her eyes for a moment and said, “Yes.”

Jateen asked Kurani, “Kurani, what is this round your neck?”

Kurani quickly tried to pull up the sheet up to her neck. Jateen saw that it was a garland of dried Bakul flowers; he then realized that it was the same garland she had given him earlier. While the clock ticked in the room, Jateen fell silent and thought. This was the first time Kurani tried to hide anything, this was Kurani’s first attempt to hide the feelings of her heart. She used to be a deer-child, now she had grown up to be a young woman with a heart. The light and warmth of some sun had lifted the mist that covered her intelligence and now her shame, her anxiety, and her pain were all suddenly exposed.

Around 2:30 in the morning, Jateen had fallen asleep while sitting on the bed. He woke up suddenly when he heard the sound of the door being opened, and he sat up to see Patal and Harakumar Babu entering the room with a big bag.

Harakumar said, “After receiving your letter we went to bed planning to come here tomorrow morning. At midnight Patal said, ‘Kurani will be dead if I go in the morning tomorrow. I must go now.’ There was no stopping Patal—so we took the train and left.” 

Patal said to Harakumar, “Come, I will prepare Jateen’s bed for you to sleep.”

Harakumar made a slight show of protest, but he went to Jateen’s room and promptly fell asleep. 

Patal came back to the room, took Jateen to one corner and asked him, “Is there any hope?”

Jateen walked over to Kurani, felt her pulse and shook his head to indicate that there was no hope.

Patal didn’t go up to Kurani; instead she took Jateen aside and asked, “Jateen, tell me the truth. Don’t you love Kurani?”

Jateen did not give any answer; he went and sat beside Kurani’s bed. He then clasped her hand and shaking it, called “Kurani, Kurani.”

With the trace of a calm, sweet smile on her lips, she opened her eyes and said, “What, is it Dada Babu?”

Jateen said, “Kurani, will you place that garland round my neck?”

Kurani kept staring at Jateen’s face with uncomprehending eyes.

Jateen asked, “Won’t you give your garland to me?”

Jateen’s affection aroused in her a sense of hurt from all the previous neglect she experienced. She said, “What’s the use Dada Babu?”

Jateen took her hand in his own two hands and said, “I love you, Kurani.”

For a few moments Kurani was stunned when she heard this; and then tears flowed down copiously from her eyes. Jateen kneeled down on the floor beside her bed and lowered his head. Kurani took the garland from her neck and placed it around Jateen. 

Patal came close to her and called, “Kurani.”

Kurani’s pale face brightened up and she said, “Yes, Didi?”

Patal held Kurani’s hand and asked, “Are you still angry with me, sister?”

Kurani looked at her softly and said, “No.”

Patal said, “Jateen, can you leave the room, please?”

When Jateen left, Patal opened her bag and took out all of Kurani’s jewelry and clothes. Without moving her too much, Patal wrapped a red Benarasi sari over Kurani’s faded clothes. Then one by one, Patal slipped a whole bunch of bangles and two golden bracelets into Kurani’s wrists, and then she called Jateen.

As soon as Jateen entered the room, Patal made him sit in the bed, placing Kurani’s golden necklace in his hand. Jateen took the necklace, gently lifted Kurani’s head and put it around her neck.

When the first light touched Kurani’s face, she did not see it anymore. Looking at her calm face, it did not seem like she was dead. It was as if she was engrossed in the depthless dream of happiness. 

When it was time for the dead body to be taken away, Patal fell crying upon Kurani’s bosom, saying, “You are very lucky, my sister. Your death has been happier than your life.”

Jateen stared at Kurani’s calm face of death and thought, “God has taken back the wealth that was His, and I too have not been deprived.”

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 is a writer and translator.