Hoina

SANTOSH KUMAR GHOSE

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DON’T stand straight. If you do, the flower in your hair will remain hidden. Tilt your shoulders a little, not much, just a little. Now the flower can be seen. Not all of it. If all of it could be seen, it wouldn’t look good. Just a few petals are enough. But how long could she remain in this posture? After a while, the top of her shoulders would start aching.

Arati had managed to get a huge gardenia from the garden next door. She was examining herself with mirror in hand, standing in the inner verandah, and muttering to herself.

At one point she said, terrible, it hasn’t worked at all. One’s looks can’t really bloom with a white flower. It would have been much nicer if she could have got a red flower. Then she would have bloomed. But not in his eyes. He has such finicky taste, can’t stand bright colours. He gets mad at the sight of anything scarlet. I haven’t been able to touch my printed brown sari because I was afraid he wouldn’t like it. It’s remained in a corner of the box ever since it was bought. Isn’t it a pain that, as the saying goes, you can eat according to your own taste, but when it comes to what you wear, you must go by the taste of others, particularly in the case of women. Only one worry – what will HE think of it. He, he, he.

Arati spoke in a mimicking voice, but only inside herself. Not a red or a white sari. Instead she would have to wear this ash-coloured one. A sari, was it, or simply ashes? It had been worn so much that it had grown threadbare. A couple more launderings, and then I’ll say goodbye to it. I’ll buy some utensils, some cups and saucers in exchange for it. And I’ll serve Saroj tea in that cup.

Arati put on a tiny bindi in the centre of her forehead. Had she managed to get it exactly in the middle? Who knows. She had the mirror, itself blurred, in one hand, held high – how much could one prime oneself in that awkward posture? It would have been so nice if she had a large mirror. It would have hung on the wall just as high as her throat or the border of her blouse. It would have been even better if the mirror had been fitted with a low table.

Now Arati sighed a little. Such luxuries were not possible in this home of theirs, this room with a tin roof and a fence. Maybe somewhere else. Perhaps in this self-same city, somewhere north of the level crossing, in a cleaner locality. What was the name of the area that Saroj was talking about the other day, where he was thinking of getting a two room flat?

Arati took the container for the kohl in hand, and moistened her lips to wipe out the greed. Until then – until then she would continue to hold up her mirror and put on her bindi and kohl and do her hair. One of these days, the applicator for the kohl would pierce her eyes. And she would moan in pain like that bird called ‘eyes-gone’. Saroj wouldn’t even spare me a glance. And if my eyes go, I won’t even know whether he looks at me.

Her thoughts were all higgledy-piggledy. Instead, I’ll try on the grey sari and see what I can do with it. There’s no alternative, I’ll have to wear it. Even if I don’t like it, even it doesn’t please anyone else, he will like it. He’ll give a little smile, and say, ‘Fire hidden by ashes.’ Who knows whether that’s jest or earnest. There was no trusting him – his eyes always twinkle with mischief.

Arati rolled her eyes at the friend inside her, and said, don’t put on so much powder, he’ll notice. And if you sweat in the heat, it’ll be a mess. Not that he minded people dressing up, that after all is women’s second nature. But he cannot stand any excess. He says that cosmetics shouldn’t enhance, but rather reveal beauty. Just as we underline the important lines in a textbook. Making up is the work of underlining.

She didn’t have much of a singing voice, not one she would care to make others listen to. But to her own ears it didn’t sound bad. She began singing and stopped immediately. Let it rest, what would her mother think? Her mother had been sitting by the clay oven since the afternoon, frying savoury snacks for Saroj. Her face was flushed. But she wouldn’t let me near the place to work. Apparently the heat of the clay oven would spoil my looks. But I could have at least helped her with things. I like Ma’s enthusiasm, but it also makes me laugh. Already she has asked three times, ‘Has Saroj come? I wonder why he hasn’t come yet? Will he definitely come? When did he tell you?’

Oh, he’ll come, he’ll come, he’ll come – why was Ma so worried? If he were not going to come, then why was the afternoon sky so beautiful today with these light clouds? Why was the green water in the pond rippling gently in the breeze? Of course he’ll come.

At this peak office hour, one had to let three or four buses go before managing to get onto the bottom step of the next one. It’s only half past five or six now – I’m sure he’ll come by half past six. Those who had gone from this locality to his still hadn’t returned.

Arati brought a covering embroidered with flowers and spread it on the low stool. Great, it looked nice now. I had embroidered those flowers with pain in my eyes, now that pain is worthwhile. Suppose we had many other coverings and curtains? In that case, I would have covered up all the places where our want and poverty show up with sharp, jagged edges. I’d cover up that faded trunk and that unclean bed made with planks.

Anyway, where’s the need for such cover-ups? There was nothing to hide from Saroj. He knows the innermost pulses of our lives. Right from the time when we landed up at Sealdah railway station. He took us to the refugee camp, after a long search. Who was it that got my brother into the bookbinding trade? Who was it that made such an effort and put up this hut in the colony? Through whose efforts did I get my job in the primary school?

All through Saroj. Ma says that there isn’t another man like him anywhere. Arati laughed a little to herself. I know what sort of man he is. A large mind, a broad chest – all of that is true. He leaps into the breach to help other people. But Ma has only seen that side of him. She hasn’t experienced his anger and sulks. He was so mad because he had to wait half an hour for me in that tea shop in Dharamtola. I was saying this and that to him, and he simply wouldn’t answer. In the end I pinched him gently with my hand under the table. Then he ended up laughing. We had been supposed to see a film. He said that if I had been late by five more minutes, he would have torn up the tickets.

How could I not be late? Do I have a car? One has to depend on buses. You are men with so much physical strength; if someone touches you, you can cope. Yet even you let bus after bus go. How can we women get on a bus that quickly? One has to consider these things.

Hearing someone’s steps outside, Arati went to the verandah. It was someone else. And, today you yourself are late; do you think I’m not entitled to get angry? Suppose I sulk, and don’t say a word?

No, I won’t waste time today by sulking. There are many important things to speak about. Now we have a home, and even my younger brother is managing to eke out a living. Today we must come to some sort of decision about us two. The moment he comes I’ll take him somewhere private. Where shall we go, maybe beside the pond? But there’s no privacy there. Shall we talk while strolling down the street? No, the neighbours would stare. This verandah was far better. Ma wasn’t going to leave the kitchen.

Ma had not slept, but was only pretending to be asleep. Arati realised that standing on the threshold of the room. I’ve been sleeping beside my mother since I was tiny, so I understand when she’s asleep. When she sleeps, her looks are transformed. And maybe Ma doesn’t know that she cannot sleep flat on her back like that. There were a few other telltale signs as well.

Arati took off the grey sari and folded it with care. She took up the sari she usually wore. The mirror was on the trunk, but she didn’t feel like looking at her face. She felt disgustingly hot. Shall I go to the kitchen and see whether there is any food kept ready and covered there? Would Ma not be asleep even by then?

Arati splashed her face and eyes with water and thought, I really don’t care whether you do or don’t sleep. Asleep or not, you won’t get a word out of my mouth. For two reasons. Firstly, I am tired. Secondly, I don’t want to disappoint you. The whole length of this afternoon you have sat by the heat of the clay oven and prepared teatime snacks. When Saroj took me out, you probably sat there, your heart bursting with joy, looking at auspicious times in the almanac.

Ma, you are older than me only in years. You can’t understand anything from looking at people’s faces. You don’t understand the wiles and strategies of mundane life.

Arati returned from the water tap and sat down on a stool on the verandah, but she did not say a word. What was the point of entering the room in which she would be subjected to a cross-examination? Ma has not realised by looking at my face that I have come back after ending it all today. Does Ma have any inkling that I am very tired, that I want to weep?

She does not. She will not. I won’t say anything. At least not today. Arati said all this inside herself; it was as if she made a vow on a yellow star in the southern sky.

It was impossible to sit on the stool for long, since the mosquitoes were bugging her. Better to sit on the floor with feet folded underneath her. Ma had not realised that anything was wrong by looking at his face, but I had. At first he was trying to speak with ease, breaking the savoury nimkis and eating them; but when he half-finished his cup of tea and forgot the rest, and I had to remind him. When he finished the rest at one gulp, then I felt a niggle of unease. He also seemed to answer a couple of questions haphazardly. It was if he had not heard them. Right then I called him away and said, ‘Come, let’s go out.’ I said to Ma, ‘Ma, we are going out for a while.’ Ma said, ‘Go, but don’t be too late.’ I knew, though, that Ma would not mind even if I were late.

Arati mentally gathered together the threads of what happened at their meeting. They had walked side by side for a long distance, saying only a few inconsequential things. Then they had found that garden and that seat built round a banyan tree. It was quiet and private.

Arati had said, ‘Now tell me.’

Saroj had turned his face away. ‘What should I say?’

‘Don’t lie to me. I know that something has happened to you.’

Saroj had yawned. His attitude was indifferent, detached, and somewhat hard.

‘Nothing has happened. I shall go away from here, I’ve decided.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘Certainly outside Bengal. I don’t like it here anymore.’

‘What’s happened?’ Arati had taken his hand and said, ‘Please tell me.’

‘I keep telling you, nothing has happened.’

‘You are hiding something.’

Until then Saroj had been quite controlled, but suddenly he stood up and turned around.

‘It’s not I who have hidden anything – you have.’

‘I!’

‘Yes, you! I hadn’t wanted to say anything. It’s because you insist that I’m telling you. I find it distasteful.’

‘Let’s drop the pretence. You have to tell me what you’ve learnt, what I’ve hidden from you.’

In a measured, grave voice Saroj said, ‘You have hidden your past.’

‘I’ve hidden what? Didn’t you know how poor we were? Didn’t you know that we lived in the railway station for three months after we left the village?’

Saroj had said, ‘I had known all that. What I did not know was that you – you are not what I thought you were.’

‘I am not?’

‘No. "They" had captured you and taken you away two months before you left East Bengal. You were in their hands for two months. Finally, you somehow managed to get free and flee to your mother, and then you came here.’

‘And?’

‘And?’ Saroj had looked at her with a blank gaze. ‘No, there’s nothing else.’ While he was saying this, he sat down on the seat again, as if he was exhausted, and said to her in a pained voice, ‘Why didn’t you all come away a few months earlier, Arati, as so many people did. Then this disaster wouldn’t have happened.’

‘No.’ Arati said very slowly, ‘No, it would not have happened. Saroj, then you would have got a chaste virgin.’

Saroj seemed disconcerted. ‘You are making a joke of it. You know that I myself have no prejudices. But my sister – ’

‘No, it wouldn’t be right to deceive her.’

‘You keep misunderstanding me. My sister met a man from your village the other day.’

‘He volunteered this piece of news?

‘No, it wasn’t quite like that. It suddenly came up while talking of other things. He is a honourable man, and he doesn’t even know about you and me. You don’t know what anguish I’ve been in since then, Arati. Just tell me once that what I have heard is untrue.’

Arati had said tightly, ‘No, it’s not untrue. It’s true to the letter. Forgive me.’

There had been nothing more to say. Arati had walked home quickly.

Saroj had begun to follow her, but Arati had turned around, looked at him, and said, ‘What’s the point of your coming any further? I’ll manage to get home by myself. And – ’, Arati forced a little smile, ‘And even if something happens, what’s the harm? Now you know my history. What new harm can come to me?’

Ma was restless in her room, Arati knew. She was curious, and afraid. Why wasn’t Arati entering the room? What was she doing on the verandah? Ma was prone to such fears, fears for any and no reason at all. She had received many blows in life, so she could never be secure, only afraid. The doctors had said that it was a kind of nervous disease.

No, Ma could not be told. Arati tiptoed to her room and lay down. What was that underneath her chignon? Of course, it was that gardenia. It still hadn’t dropped? Arati thought of throwing it outside her window. Then she thought better of it. It was only a flower, after all, with a tiny life-span. In any case it would drop, dry, and become stale. Let it remain in her chignon. Let it remain. And this was the last time she would wear a flower in her hair: he would never come again.

And yet who would have guessed that Saroj would come again just two days later, early in the morning, on a day when the weather was terrible. It had rained late in the night; the open drains were flowing with water; the clouds had not cleared. The rain was pelting down. It was as if ever so often a horde of horsemen would ride from one end of the horizon to the other. A ghostly wind would pursue them with banners waving.

Arati was lying down and watching all this. It was the kind of day when even the birds were afraid of the sky and did not fly. They were not flying today. Arati saw that the thin oleander tree was bent over, as if it was protecting its children, the flowers.

At that moment, Saroj came. Why had he come today? Why today? Why did he have to disturb my morning languor? She’d have to get up right away, straighten her sari, maybe change the sari – no, why should she do all that? It was all over, anyway. I’ll go just the way I am.

‘Oh dear, you’re soaked.’

It was not only that Saroj was wet, he was also looking dishevelled. He hadn’t even buttoned his shirt properly. Arati said, ‘I’ll get a towel – wipe your head. You’ll catch a cold. Shall I make tea?’

Arati was just turning round, perhaps to go and make the tea, when Saroj caught the end of her sari and detained her. He said with depth in his voice, ‘Arati, forgive me.’

‘Let go. Ma is in the other room. She might suddenly come here.’

Saroj did not heed her. He grasped both her hands and said, ‘I have behaved like a cad.’ Arati thought, I am weakening. What can I do? He has realised his own mistake, he has come in this tempestuous weather – what should I do? Arati marshalled all her strength and said, ‘Calm yourself and sit down. One can’t talk like this.’

Saroj had sat down on the stool and put his head in his hands. In a dry, broken voice he had said, ‘I haven’t been able to sleep these last two days.’

Arati looked into the house with caution. Ma wasn’t coming, was she? What if she did? Ma would be pleased. After all, she too had not slept these last two nights. Even so, Arati looked towards the interior of the house with caution and modest embarrassment, then ran her fingers through Saroj’s hair and said, ‘Don’t speak like that. I haven’t been able to sleep either. It’s enough that you have come back. We make so many mistakes.’

Saroj raised his eyes and said, ‘Wasn’t it a terrible mistake to have made? You must have been deeply wounded that day, which is why you deliberately didn’t tell me I had been mistaken. But I know now.’

Arati’s voice trembled. ‘What do you know?’

‘I managed to find that gentleman after looking round for two days. I asked him in detail. He is a distinguished gentleman; as I said, he wouldn’t lie. After we had spoken for a little while, he realised that he had made a terrible mistake. You are not the girl he had spoken of. He was embarrassed and begged my pardon many times. Arati, I’ve raced here this morning to ask your forgiveness. Tell me you’ve forgiven me?’

‘I have.’ Arati said this in a low voice, but unknown to herself, she slowly retreated some steps.

‘Call Ma. I’d like to tell her and touch her feet.’

Arati said, ‘Not today. Saroj, shall I bring your tea now?’

There was something in her voice which made Saroj start and look at her with a piercing gaze. In a stiff voice he said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you happy?’

Arati turned away her eyes towards the window. ‘The clouds haven’t cleared – Saroj, how will you return? The rain hasn’t stopped yet.’

Saroj grew restive and said, ‘You are avoiding the issue. You keep talking about my going back. Haven’t you got over your hurt yet? I’m saying it, and I’ll say it again, I made a mistake. There is no stigma attached to you.’

Saroj stood up. Perhaps he had moved forward a step to take Arati’s hand again, but Arati moved further away, and stood at the threshold of the two rooms. Saroj pleaded with his eyes, ‘Come.’

Slowly Arati said, ‘It is not possible.’ Saroj said with yearning, ‘Why is it not possible, Arati? I no longer have any suspicions! I’ve raced to you knowing that it was all untrue.’ Arati remained standing at a distance and said in a very low but distinct voice, ‘That’s why it is not possible. Saroj, you have come knowing that it was all untrue. You could not come knowing that it is all true.’

(Translated by Barnita Bagchi)

 

* We are grateful to Kakoli Chakravarti, daughter of Santosh Kumar Ghose, for permission to translate and publish the story ‘Hoina’.

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