Curses & Poetry
(From the Novel )
By Anjana Basu
My first memories were not of my father and mother but of my grandmother. "You were always an ungrateful girl," Ma told me. "Other children remember their parents. Not you. You and my mother were so close that I used to be jealous." Now I can't really remember what Granny had been was like. "My mother was like a wax doll," I once heard Ma telling Maitreyi, her own granddaughter. "That was considered very beautiful in those days." Granny was the daughter of a relatively poor village landlord and, because of her looks, married into a family of comparative power and status. Her veiled sepia photograph hung in its oval frame in a place of honour at the head of the stairs. "But she's your mother," I argued. "Why is her picture hanging in my father's house? Where is my father's picture?" "Your father loved her very much," was my mother's curt answer. "He wanted her picture hung there."
A legendary woman, my grandmother. She married at the age of eleven with more pomp and circumstance than anyone in her small village had ever seen, even though her father's small band of courtiers always predicted that she would marry well. "So fair, such large eyes, such smooth cheeks." She was as fair as an English wax doll and there actually was one of those rare commodities kept in a glass cabinet in the house, with the same rounded cheeks and endlessly patient eyes. Hansabati, they had named her, for the one white goose that paddled in continuous circles around the village pond. "You're as bad-tempered as that goose," they told her on the rare occasions when tears of rage welled up in those large black glass eyes. The goose was a double-edged comparison, both for its whiteness and for its temper. Actually, it wasn't a goose, it was what was called a rajhans. In English that made it something that was not quite a swan, so that she was not quite a Swan Princess, or so her tutor explained to her.
As far back as she cared to remember, she had had a tutor, to teach her English and fit her for her supposed high status in life. Because her father was a village landlord, her teacher was a round Babu with an accent not far removed from the Bengali he usually spoke. "A goose," he explained pompously," is a large bhariety of dock. G-O-O-ESH-E." Still, from him she learned to gabble English after a fashion. The rest of the time, whenever she managed to escape from her ayah, she climbed the palm trees with the gardener's sons, or chased the goats in the field. Every time she returned from these excursions, the women of the house would gather to wail over her and smother her with plant extracts and buttermilk to make sure that the sun had not tarnished her complexion.
Then, one morning her mother brandished a photograph of a solemn-eyed boy in front of her. A solemn-eyed boy with a wide, sensitive mouth. "Your husband to be. The son of the landlord of Polashi." No one asked her whether she liked the picture. The two maids fell into ecstasies in front of it exclaiming, "Ah ha, what eyes ! What a young prince!" while her mother listened to their fulsome compliments with a pleased smile. Granny was not asked to say either yes or no, instead she was informed that from now on she would have to start performing Shiv puja for her husband's well being as part of her daily duties and that her palm-scaling days were over. The Shiv puja she could possibly accept, but it was hard to watch the palm fronds bucking like horses in a cool south breeze, their green necks combing the pale blue sky, and not want to scale them. Since she was obedient by nature, she stood by the pond and looked longingly up at the trees, but disciplined herself merely to look. No one would ever say that she was disobedient, not even the tutor who compared her to a goose.
Her prospective father-in-law came to survey her and a bustle of maids fell around her and dressed her in her best marigold muslin. Her mother bustled in with the pearl-headed pins that were to secure the elaborate coils of her hair, and discovered the little girl to be standing unnaturally still under her ministrations. So unnaturally still that she seemed to have turned into the wax doll that she resembled. "Is the petticoat string cutting into you ?" Silence. "Is the blouse too tight ?" Still silence: the white face was tight and still. Moved by a sudden impulse, the mother pulled out one of the ornate hairpins and discovered it was tipped with blood: in securing it, she had driven the spike into her daughter's scalp. "My mother was never like you," Ma told me every morning as she wound her hair into the tightly-oiled plaits that I loathed with a passion. "Her mother drove that hairpin into her head and she never said a word." That one act of stoicism alone would have served to make Granny legendary to me. But Hansabati moved on from the hairpin ordeal to meet her father-in-law and speak to him in her curiously accented English in front of a whole room of encouraging women who hummed and sighed at her every word. What is your name? How old are you? Can you cook? She answered all the questions with precision and accuracy, looking at the red tips of her rouged toes as they peeked from under the gold border of her sari and occasionally at the curly tips of the leather slippers in front of her. They were very fine leather --much better than the ones her father wore. Her father-in-law had a big booming voice that seemed to echo under the rafters and cause the wounds in her scalp to start stinging afresh.
After a while the maid came, took her by the hand and led her out of the room. She was left stranded on a cool marble shelf in the antechamber and forbidden to move. "Good girl, sit here and I'll bring you some lemon water." She sat there swinging her legs and watching her red toes swish through her marigold skirts, wondering what was going to happen next. She sat there until the shadows slanted upwards and the light began to thicken. The marble shelf had a window to it and she could see the deserted courtyard where a fat grey pigeon ran bowing and bubbling after his sleek pink-footed wives. The pigeon suddenly started and rose into the air in a clap of wings, followed belatedly by the rest. She saw one of her father's subjects run across the courtyard. Then there was silence again and the pigeons returned. The marble under her began to feel uncomfortable. She shifted uneasily and thought of pulling out the hairpins and letting her plaits snake down. She even had one hand up to pull out a pin, when the maid came back full of her own self-importance back again. "What on earth are you doing? Come, they're calling you."
She was lifted down from the shelf like a doll and led back into her father's meeting room. There she was placed in front of the same gold-embroidered slippers she had talked to all morning. The booming voice boomed again. After she had adjusted to the echo, she realized that it was welcoming her to his home as his new daughter-in-law. Almost simultaneously, she could hear the conch shells, as booming as the voice, being blown from the puja room. Dutifully, because she knew it was expected of her, she bent down and touched those curly leather-tipped slippers. Then the maid propelled her towards her mother and father, and she touched their feet too. When Hansabati glanced up, she saw her mother had tears in her eyes and she wanted to hug her, but all those days of training held her in check. "Go to the prayer room, " her mother bade her, " and touch the god's feet. Then go to your room."
The pandit was standing unctuously by the Krishna image, clutching the small silver pot of holy water. He sprinkled her with it after she rose from the floor, and as the cool drops touched her cheeks, she realized how thirsty she was. Gathering up her skirts, she sprinted out of the room on her maid's wail of dismay, scattering the hated pearl hairpins behind her and ran to the water pot in the kitchen. The water splashed over her marigold and gold finery, tangling it with her legs, and she deliberately tipped the pot over even more to feel the coolness. The maids had to strip the wet sari off her and hang it out to dry immediately, worrying whether the brocade would tarnish, but whether it did or not was not passed down to Hansabati's descendants. For them she remained a model of stoicism, the legendary example of grace under pressure.
Very gradually, the course of her days changed so that she had little time to watch the goose paddling around the pond. Her days began with prayers for the length of her future husband's life, progressed to the designing of alpana patterns with coloured rice powder, moved to the niceties of cooking and ended with the interminable afternoon English lesson. Every afternoon, as the light thickened in the windows, her tutor's snores grated on her ears while she patiently scrawled compositions on The Cow or The Cat. And at sunset, the maids came to comb out her hair on the breezy terrace while her mother instructed her on the different types of hairstyles appropriate for young brides and showed her the various kinds of hair ornaments. "You will be going to a more sophisticated family, so you should be aware of these things."
"Do they have a big house?"
"Yes, a very big house."
"Do they have horses like we do? And a phaeton?"
"More. They have motor cars!" The maids gasped and clutched at each other in awe whenever they such things. "Think what a lucky girl you are, to have been chosen out of so many!"
Once she asked, her young voice as clear as the ring of bell metalware over the babble of adult conversation, "Why did they choose me?" and set the maids gabbling and bubbling like a flock of upset pigeons. "What a question! When she's so fair, so white!" "Who can boast a complexion like that, even in Calcutta?"
"It's a great honour to us," said her mother severely," that you have been chosen. You should accept that fact and not ask unnecessary questions." Vanity was not part of Hansabati's nature--the fact that she had a skin as white as the goose's feathers did not seem to her to be such a great advantage. "There must have been other girls, " she protested, "girls from Calcutta. Why me?" "Are you unhappy because you've been chosen?" "Not unhappy exactly..." The trouble was, she didn't know what to answer. The idea of marriage to the boy in the picture still seemed a remote possibility indeed: even the ceremony in front of the curly-toed shoes had passed like a dream. Living anywhere else except in this rambling shabby house was beyond her imagination because the farthest boundaries of her life were the sal trees on the edge of her father's land that marked the beginning of the forest. Beyond those trees, she had been told, ran a railroad track where the fearsome iron railgharry belched smoke and rattled and chugged to Calcutta. On days when the wind was in the right direction she had even heard the iron monster scream. But she had never been able to persuade their grandly named coachman to drive her in that direction to show her this wonder. In the ten years of her life she had been nowhere and seen nothing. She tried to explain some of this to her mother, but her mother failed to understand. "Where would you possibly go?" she asked. "Where does a correctly bred girl go? I have never been anywhere except my father's house and here. And, oh yes, your father took me once to Calcutta. But that was all."
Perhaps her mother had once been her age and also wondered where she was being sent to, but from the immaculate red-and-white bordered look of her, that seemed difficult to imagine. And her mother had never been the sort of child who rode the flying palm fronds when the wind was blowing hot and strong from the south. That was something Hansabati had apparently inherited from her father. Between herself and her mother was a gap as wide as the one between the house and the faraway sal trees. Oh, they coexisted in harmony as the house and the trees did, with fair weather days and days when no one could tell which way the wind blew but, for all that, the gap was there. It was because of the gap that her mother had driven the hairpins into her head, meaning well all the while. It was because of the gap that she found the alpana patterns so hard to bear, the monotonous meticulous curves of the green mango, the sinuous shape of Lakshmi's feet. There was duty between herself and her mother, but no love at all. Her mother had raised her for ten years in the hope that she would be a credit to the family and find herself a niche in a good man's house. Questions of distance and time and space were ones her mother was not equipped to answer, and she reacted to them with impatience. "Don't fret," Hansabati's maid told her, as she fanned her in the silence of her room at night. "Nothing but good will come of this. It is a girl's duty to get married."
The oval daguerreotype of the wide-mouthed boy stood next to her bed, and she found herself staring at it often. Did he have a pet goose in Calcutta? Did he climb trees or tear his clothes or play cricket? Was that wide mouth capable of laughter? Beyond the fact that he was the Rai Bahadur's son, no one seemed to have anything to say about him. Her mother's maids stitched yards and yards of cloth into kurtas for him or little bags for her to carry her betel nut box in. The flashing needles dug patterns of green parrots out of the off-white silk. "Country patterns, " said her mother, "simple ones, since we cannot pretend to their sophistication. However, the craftsmanship will show through." Her mother had chosen the maids carefully for their skill at needlework and their ability to tie hair or devise original garlands out of available flowers. She was busily choosing one to send to Calcutta with Hansabati.
The Ray Bahadur sent his pandit to confer with Hansabati's father's pandit and, between the two of them, a suitable date and time was found for the wedding. Hansabati only discovered that the date had been set because she patiently and charmingly wheedled it out of the maids. The house and the village grew even busier. Boxes and boxes of things came in and out of the courtyard. The village jeweller set up permanent shop on the terrace with his little low table, red tablecloth and skeins of silk. Pearls were marshalled deftly onto his needle and strung in moonlit rows: pearls for necklaces, chokers, bracelets and bangles. There were so many of them that it was a wonder the pigeons did not mistake them for a new kind of seed and swallow them by accident--she was terrified that would actually happen and destroy all the poor jeweller's work. All her mother's chains and chokers acquired new elaborate brocade tassels that prickled at the nape of her neck whenever she tried them on. Her father never had time to smile at her--he was busy organizing the selling of crops, the collection of rents, all to raise money for the dowry that had been asked of him.
"Was it a very big dowry?" she asked her maid, shyly.
"No, not very big, but quite big. It's a honour child, a great honour. They could have asked for five times as much." Even if they hadn't, the amount seemed to have upset everyone in the house because day and night they talked money and possessions and nothing else. A great hall was built in one of the fields to house extra members of the groom's party. The cook summoned his brothers and cousins from their villages so they could support him in producing the wedding feast.
And then everyone turned round and began to concentrate even more fiercely on Hansabati. Her skin was rubbed with flour and buttermilk and steeped in pomegranate juice until it was even more waxen than before. The tailor arrived with new bodices and blouses with elbow-length sleeves and lace ruffles. She had new petticoats, new hair ribbons, new gloves--so many new things that she was afraid to look into the mirror in case she found a new person there confronting her. Don't walk, don't sit, don't move, from all around came a flurry of contradictory instructions. Her mother and the maids seemed to be suffering from perennially lost tempers, her English lessons had been stopped and the Brahmin governess expected her to memorise a new recipe every day before she did anything else.
When the wedding day finally arrived, the groom party was late and Hansabati's father was surrounded by a host of murmuring guests who were ready to offer their condolences and point out that such an ambitious marriage was bound to end in downfall: after all, how could a humble village landlord hope to compete with a Rai Bahadur? One or two were already busily pushing their own sons forward when the conch shells blew.
In the dream of confusion that was the wedding, she remembered the sharp, sudden malice of those faces, the way they fell when the conch shells blew, the glitter of eyes resenting her father's good fortune. "No matter what you do, " she said later in life, "you'll never be able to please everybody. And there'll always be people who will be glad to see you fail." She taught that to her elder daughter, who learnt the lesson better than the younger one. Despite the knife- edged envy in those faces, she was carried by her uncles seven times around the fire, with the end of her gorgeous red and gold sari attached to the robe of someone who was probably not much taller than herself. Her groom's face was so covered in tassels that all she could recognize of it was the wide mouth, and that mouth did not smile even once.
The wedding night, draped in a mass of tuberoses, was filled with an assortment of in-laws. Hansabati slept on the bed with her mother and mother-in-law while the groom shared a mattress on the floor with the two fathers. By then she had seen her husband's face, caught a fleeting glimpse of it when she exchanged garlands with him, uncertain of her balance on the small square of wood beneath her. Then her uncles had mercifully put her down and the maids had led away, teasing her about what was to come.
Her new in laws snored, she noted, as she lay wakeful far into the night, watching the moon rise and spill its light over the edge of the bed. And then she was aware of a quiet furtive rustle on the floor, and the moonlight spilled into a pair of wide eyes peering anxiously over the side of the bed.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)