Translated by Shafi Ahmed
Kalyani alias Palani narrated her strange dream to me. In all its detail. I looked at her in surprise.
It was early September. The departing monsoon was still making its presence felt. After an earlier shower, it had become warm and sunny. We sat side by side on the stairs of the ground floor veranda. In front, there was a wide, redbrick road. Across the road was a kitchen garden of vegetables and carrots. A clean garden absolutely without any weeds. The shower had washed the greenery and made it look livelier and lovelier. It was a charming scene: violet blossoms peeped from the tangle of bright green pui creepers, while the reddish carrots created a contrast in the canvas of casual green.
There was no special purpose for my visit to Kalyani’s workplace. I had spent some days vacationing at Jessore with Tapan, and was heading toward Dhaka via Savar. I remembered that someone had told me that Kalyani worked at Ganoshasthya Kendro. I almost took it as a joke. How could that be? There had been so much gossip about her. Whom should I believe?
Someone said she had left her son and children.
Someone said she had eloped.
Someone said Kalyani was now a sex worker in Dhaka.
Someone said the poor girl had drowned herself in the Buriganga.
Someone even said Kalyani had been seen crossing into India.
No one either in her parents’ or her parents-in-law’s family knew her whereabouts.
Only the other day, probably Madhu or somebody else had mentioned seeing Kalyani buying bananas at Savar bazaar.
On enquiry, he came to know that she now worked at Ganoshastyo Kendro, as a gatekeeper. It sounded a little absurd to me. So I wanted to check it out for myself. Kalyani who had never been able to hold the key to open or close the door of her own life and had always been under the control and dictates of others as she grew into womanhood, how could she take charge of the gates of such a large organisation?
‘Well, Kalyani, don’t you think of your children?
‘Yes,’ she said in a very soft voice.
‘Don’t you feel bad when you think of them?’
‘Of course, I do.’
‘How could you leave them? Why did you?’
Kalyani directed her small, bright and black eyes at me and, a moment later, turned her look downward.
‘Look, I am a bad mother.’
‘Who says so?’
‘My mother-in-law. My husband. I realise that myself. My mother-in-law sometimes fabricated tales about me and my husband believed her and called me names. My husband often pointed to my abdomen that had become awfully wrinkled since I sustained a burn. He said he had been cheated. He would have never married a woman with such burn marks. Then I often used to lose control over myself. I used to beat my two children very hard to quench the fire of my indignation. Afterwards, I used to take them in my arms and weep bitterly.’
Kalyani’s voice choked. This was the same Kalyani who had once been brought to our house by her father, who had had grown old prematurely. Kalyani was a burden in a poverty-stricken family. Her stepmother could not stand her. Kalyani belonged to my paternal village. We had never lived in the village, so I had never seen her before. My parents used to know Kalyani’s parents though. I had no idea whether Kalyani ever had a formal name. But, when her father left her with my mother, he said, ‘I leave Palani, the runaway, at your mercy. Please look after her.’
We misheard the word. We heard ‘Kalyani’ for ‘Palani’. From then on, Palani transformed herself into Kalyani. The mistake was detected later. But by then Palani herself preferred her newly-acquired name to her earlier one. She even told us how she disliked the earlier name since it was linked to her getting lost in a village fair and subsequently heading for her aunt’s house. We never called her Palani after we heard the story.
Kalyani was perpetually nervous. She was always afraid she would make a mistake, cause some disaster. She was so awkward and self-conscious that something untoward always used to happen, like dropping tea from a trembling cup, breaking dishes or burning rice on the stove. No sooner had Kalyani begged pardon for a mistake that another followed almost immediately. Or something coincidentally happened somewhere, and Kalyani would make herself responsible for that and she would deeply suffer from a sense of guilt.
Kalyani would associate the rage of the untimely nor’wester with her stars. Once Khokan, my younger brother, came down with typhoid. Kalyani started weeping and said that recently Khokan had looked lovelier and healthier in her eyes. And her appreciative look had caused his illness.
Sometimes she got on my nerves. She developed a highly irritable masochist habit of suffering from a sense of guilt for all the wrongs taking place in the world. She tried hard to overcome this feeling, but in vain. A sequence of unfortunate and tragic events haunted her. Her mother had died giving birth to her. Her stepmother babies were stillborn. Her father’s boat sank, causing big loss to his business. She and one of her friends had set some jute sticks on fire for fun, and been badly burnt, almost dying. Moreover, the people around and her stepmother made sundry silly comments. All this led her to believe that she was ill-omened, a companion of evil. Everywhere she went, mishap would dog her. So, Kalyani took care not only to conceal her burnt abdomen but also her entire existence. She possessed endless afflictions within her.
I felt deeply for Kalyani. But it was all the more painful when, after a few years, her father came to our house to take her back for a prospective marriage. There was no end to Kalyani’s tears as she left us. I also wept. I found my mother wiping her tears with the end of her sari. Subsequently, we came to know that Kalyani had been married off. My mother gave a good sum for the wedding expenses. We did not see her after that. Sometimes the villagers who used to visit us gave us news information about her.
All of a sudden, one day, we got the news that Kalyani had run away. A dream had drawn her out of the house. Though it was simply unbelievable, but now from Kalyani’s face, I understood that it was true. What was that dream that put such strength in a girl who was otherwise so hesitant, so utterly dependent and perpetually engrossed with afflictions? Kalyani said that in her dream she had seen her face in the face of the goddess Durga. How could that be possible? No idea. But Kalyani’s face corroborated her veracity. I knew her since childhood. She had never had the habit of lying.
‘Aren’t you in touch with your husband and children?’
‘No. From time to time I send some money orders. The first two orders were refused. But in the last few months, they’re not being returned.’
‘Don’t you want to go back to your children?’
Kalyani said nothing.
I repeated my question. ‘Do you want to go back to your in-laws?’
‘Who are looking after your children? Don’t they suffer?’
‘They have their grandparents, their father, their aunt. Maybe their father will now marry somebody of his choice. And if there is not too much dearth in the family, probably the stepmother will show some affection to the children as well. They won’t have any difficulty.’
‘Don’t you feel very lonely here?’
‘Who asked you to come here? With whom did you come really?’
‘Who is Rabi?’
‘One of my in-laws’ neighbours.’
‘Where is he?’
‘He works on the poultry farm here.’
‘Do you love him?’
‘Don’t really know.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Maybe, about six years younger than me.’
‘Does he love you?’
‘He has never told me so.’
‘Do you see each other often?’
‘Every day. We have tea and snacks together. We talk. Wait for a while. He will come soon.’
‘Will you marry Rabi if he asks you?’
Kalyani looked as if she had seen a ghost. She said, ‘No, never. How can I do that! Don’t you see the vermilion mark on my forehead? I am married.’
I saw her vermilion mark. On one wrist there was a married woman’s conch bracelet with marks of wear and tear from long use. On the other wrist she was wearing glass bangles.
Kalyani had had a strange vision. It was during the month of October. Kalyani had become pregnant for the third time. She wasn’t keeping well. After all the cooking and domestic chores, that day she was on her way to the pond for a bath. Her mother-in-law blocked her way. Her son had been looking forward to having a special fish dish. But Kalyani had put aside the fried head of the fish. Her mother-in-law insisted on Kalyani’s preparing the dish immediately. Kalyani tried her best to convince her mother-in-law that she was very tired. She would do it in the evening. Now after her bath and lunch, along with other women of the locality, she would visit various puja mandaps, designed and decorated in honour of the goddess Durga. But her mother-in-law was obstinate. At that moment, Kalyani’s unmarried sister-in-law appeared on the scene. Though otherwise she was not on good terms with her mother, when it was Kalyani, she always took her mother’s side. Kalyani knew that no explanation was enough, so she walked toward the bathing ghat. She couldn’t bear it any more. Since morning, she had been in the kitchen. A feeling of restlessness took over her. She urgently needed a bath. But she had hardly reached the pond, when the angry paws of Sushil, her husband, pulled her back.
‘What? Such insolence! Talking back to my mother? How dare you disobey her?’
Till that day, Sushil had never assaulted Kalyani physically. Now he had gone to that extent. That made her furious.
‘How dare you lay hands on me?’
‘I dare, and I will do it again. How dare you insult my mother?’
Kalyani had a strange feeling as she tried to draw back from Sushil. Her head spun and she fell down beside the pond. For some moments, she seemed to lose consciousness. And during those brief moments between slumber and awakening, Kalyani experienced that strange dream that changed the course of her life. With her eyes closed, Kalyani saw that she was standing in front of the altar of Durga, clad in a sari with red borders. While performing her puja, Kalyani saw something amazing. The eyes of Durga did not look like those of an earthen idol. They seemed to blink, and her lips seemed to be stirring. Did the goddess want to tell her something? The face seemed to be very familiar to her. Who did she look like? Who? Quite unconsciously, Kalyani caressed her own lips, face, forehead and eyes. She looked carefully at her image in the water of the pond and then up at the face of the goddess. She discovered that Durga’s face was her very own. Kalyani realised that she herself was a beautiful and gracious woman. Her beauty seemed to glow in a red benarasi sari, jewellery and fresh flowers. She had ten hands. In one of them was a lotus, in another a mallet. She felt herself to be big and tremendously powerful. It was as if the universe was under her control. She saw herself standing on the body of Asura and trying to hook him with a weapon. And yes, she also recognized that the face of Asura was that of the bushy-haired Sushil. And that Durga’s symbol as annihilator of evil, the severed human head was also not unknown to her. It was Sushil’s mother’s. Then she looked at Saraswati, her daughter, and Kartik, her son. How strange! Sitting on the swan and peacock, her son Deepak and daughter Bhabani were giggling. She was mounted on a lion. But why did the lion not have a mane? Instead its face sported a moustache and a beard. Who was that? It was Rabi, the man who worked somewhere near Dhaka. Sympathetic to the hardships of Kalyani, he had told her again and again that if she wanted, he could find her a job in the city
After a while, Kalyani opened her eyes to see that her anxious husband Sushil was dabbing her face with water. She got up. Her fall and fainting spell did not generate only that strange vision, but also led to some other incidents afterwards. She suffered a miscarriage and later left her house stealthily with Rabi as her companion.
Kalyani does not repent what she has done. I look at Kalyani with wonder in my eyes. This is the same Kalyani who cried bitterly when my elder brother could not pass the chartered accountancy exam. She felt that she was responsible for his failure as my brother had seen her ominous face before going to take the exam. But Kalyani no longer blamed herself for what had happened. She is so unruffled and calm!
It’s time for me to leave. Rabi appears, in lungi and banian. His moustache and beard cannot conceal the innocence and attractiveness of his face. He has a paper bag of snacks for Kalyani. They both sit on the ground and enjoy the fresh snacks.
I take a bus back to Dhaka. I have not slept the previous night, and the rhythmic movement of the bus makes me drowsy. I am returning to Dhaka where I work, leaving Tapan alone again at Jessore. I really don’t know whether I will go back to him, whether he will come to me or whether we will live separately for the rest of our lives. We have been married for eight years. For the last two years, we have been living apart. I am getting used to this kind of separation. This time as I said goodbye to Tapan, I did not feel the usual inner pain. I don’t know whether Tapan also felt the same way
On the wide open road, the bus gathers speed. I feel terribly sleepy. Before succumbing to sleep, I realise that I haven’t been dreaming these days, that I haven’t been dreaming for a long time.