Translated from the Bengali by Kausambi Patra
Santobala remains quiet. The person in front refuses to give up. He repeats, “Answer me. You cannot stay silent. This is government premises. You have to obey the law. State your husband’s name.”
—”Answer loudly and clearly.”
Santobala raises her head and meets his gaze. Again, she pronounces, this time clearly, “Haridhan Kuila.”
She is again questioned, “Address?” Santobala can now make sense of all these words. Earlier, she couldn’t understand anything. Amongst so many strangers, whatever they said or asked used to baffle her. Tears used to well up in her eyes. What has she done anyway except weep all the time earlier? When her father fixed her marriage, her mother had remarked, “How could you accept a man old enough to be the father as a groom for my baby daughter?”
The father wiping his wet hands and feet with the washcloth on his shoulder, said, “Who will give us any money? Then the assorted gold ornaments for her wedding. Do I have the ability to fulfill the dowry demands of a bridegroom like Lord Krishna?” Sitting on the other side of the crude fence, which acted as a wall to the other room, Santo was arranging paan . However, she didn’t have time enough to be petrified as her mother’s voice was heard again.
—”Married so far away, maybe I won’t be able to see her again. Will it ever be possible to board the train to visit my own daughter? How will the in-laws treat my baby daughter? I shall have no knowledge.”
Then her father started raging.
—”Then go and swaddle your daughter. The prince will take her away on his royal horse when she is old.”
—”Am I saying so? She is an only child, that’s why I worry a bit. Santo is such a quiet girl. She never opposed even if treated unjustly. That is why I feel worried if such a young child can live with such an older man. But what can I do? Her fate will take its own way. Can our thinking change it?”
The father’s voice now became gentle and understanding.
—”Haven’t I thought the same? What can you do? We can’t keep clinging on to a girl child. Didn’t my mother say, carrying our child in her arms, a daughter is to be given; she might be given away to Yama or to the son-in-law? It is all the same.”
What did Santo do then except cry in hiding? After marriage, it became clear that the son-in-law her parents chose was the same as Yama. Santo’s left hand remained under the edge of her sari most of the time to wipe away her tears. Days passed in great pain. Years passed as well. In thirteen long years, she gave birth to children one after another. There had been nine children. Only four had survived after five were gone.
After the wedding, seeing such a massive man in her bed scared Santo to death. Then the terrible pain of being torn. The bed was covered with blood. Her eyes were filled with tears as she pleaded, again and again, almost dead, “Please let me go! I beg you, please let me go.”
Did Haridhan Kuila let her go? Didn’t he slap her hard on her face, twist her arms behind her back? He had bought the ownership of those hands with the gold bangles he gave her. Her first son was born after tearing her thirteen-year-old body apart in pieces. She didn’t even love him one bit. Out of fear and shame, she didn’t want to look at him. Why did her parents knowingly push her into this suffering in a place where no one could save her? No mother-in-law, sister-in-law, or brother-in-law either. Neighbors knew that Haridhan’s last wife ran away twice and finally abandoned her life. While fetching water, Santobala heard many such comments:
—”Will this baby girl be able to fulfill the greed of that savage?”
—”What kind of hapless mother pushes her daughter into such a monster’s den?”
No one ever asked her anything directly. The first son died within four months. By the next two months, Santo realized she was pregnant again. How many times did she wish to jump into the well? How many times did she want to hang herself in the cowshed? Santo has spent many nights in the cowshed. While recovering from childbirth with her baby, she saw an unknown woman entering her husband’s room. While her son was still an infant, the woman used to come in the pitch dark with quick footsteps. She went straight into the room, bolted the door from inside, and after a time, left in hasty steps into the night. On those nights, the husband threw Santo out of the room. The first few times, she was with her swaddled baby and then alone in the cowshed. Still, the shed had living beings who breathed and moved. Some nights she wished a cow would trample her. Perhaps that would be far better than returning to that person’s bed again.
Such things crowded her mind the first few years. After that, she stopped feeling anything at all. It seemed that this would go on and on year after year. The terror of the nights made her numb. She did not even feel a sense of fear. Incidents like kicking the food over, tying her to the wooden post in the courtyard, and thrashing her with the thick rope from the cow’s tether she took as her lot. She bore all the pregnancies, went into labor for each of them, and had to bear some of their deaths as well. She has continuously taken a child’s weight on her chest or womb for countless years. Was it not so for the entirety of her life? While boiling the grains, serving food to the hired men, and fumigating the cowshed, her body remained heavy. Her waist and thighs were numb with pain. After journeying through, nobody knows for how many aeons she was twenty-five years old. Now she could speak a few words with her neighbors but had no time to do so. She doesn’t fetch water either. Her elder daughter, Jamini, did it. On rare occasions, some neighbor women come to chat with her.
Long gone are the days when Rohini used to come in the shadow of darkness to Santo’s husband, lock the room from the inside, and after a few hours, leave with the same quick paces in the dark. Now Rohini visits mostly when Haridhan Kuila is not around. She calls only in the daytime to spend some time with Santo. They share small talks about their everyday lives. Rohini has no children or family. She cannot even clearly remember when she got married. She was widowed at fifteen. Her young husband died of a snakebite. After the mourning period was over, she remained with her in-laws, because she hardly had anywhere else to go. After working all day, she used to sleep like a log. Once, the bhasur, the elder brother of her dead husband, grabbed the sixteen-year-old at the corner of the courtyard at night. He said he was dying to have her. He threatened she would be banished from the house if she uttered even a syllable to anyone. Rohini was terrified, but she didn’t hate it as well. Things rolled on. Taking the chance of her mother-in-law’s deep sleep, she used to slip out to the courtyard. Still, she was thrown out when signs of pregnancy were evident. She didn’t have anywhere to go. She fell at the feet of her brother-in-law and mother-in-law. The brother-in-law kicked her out, saying, “Fallen woman, go, rent a room in the village marketplace.” Stomping the courtyard in a rage that his family, his home, would get a bad name, he left. Still, the mother-in-law allowed her to stay. Not in the house, but at the end of their land, in a separate dwelling. The plot of land she had inherited from her father. Rohini went to the barber’s wife for her remedy and unencumbered herself. The mother-in-law had sent her elder granddaughter with a pitcher of drinking water for her when Rohini returned. Within a short while, Rohini took up the load of all the outdoor chores of the house. Cutting mountains of hay for the cattle, chopping firewood, cleaning the filthy cowshed, fetching buckets of water, washing and scrubbing dirty clothes—all of it. This shelter, too, she lost, even after working so hard. The brother-in-law was unmarried for so long. He used to sing devotional songs as part of Puja offerings at various places. He married before his mother died to placate her wailing. Before that, he drove Rohini away from the edge of his land.
Rohini started earning her living doing odd jobs in people’s houses on the fly. She had a talent for giving massages to pregnant and convalescing women. Rohini doesn’t need to be called. She reaches right upon getting the news. With her skill and warm oils, Rohini worked wonders sorely needed by mothers and babies. She also had a talent for treating ailing infants and giving herbal potions. Besides, Rohini used her power for which she had been thrown out as a discarded rag. She visited some customers with a different form of service at midnight. But now Rohini was the picker. No more she cared about others’ opinions. No one bothered when she had been a hapless victim. So why would she be concerned now?
But she has grown a soft corner for this wife of Haridhan Kuila. If her child survived, wouldn’t it have been her age? Probably not. Still looking at Santobala’s face, her hair in a massive bun like a mound, her prominent high cheekbones, and the dark, enormous eyes like a cow’s… her heart constricts. This girl had to bear the endless depravity of that monster! They say serving the husband is a woman’s foremost duty and religion. Pious duty, indeed!
Santo does not think about all this anymore. Her two daughters are her only concern now. The sons are not such a worry. They will somehow manage a living. Their father, too, can help them. But Jamini and Kamini? They will be married off. Where and how far away will that be? Far away like her, where in twenty-four years she could go home only once for two days when her father died? She is a married daughter. If, on the fourth day of the funeral, mourning rituals are not concluded for her, who will cook for her marital home? Who will serve her husband? She was determined on one thing. She must educate her daughters even a bit. She has no idea how to, but she will surely do that. At least it should be enough to write a letter to the mother. She has saved even pennies of her own money for all these years. Now there is a primary school in the village itself. The lady teacher comes from the city by bus to teach here. Only this is to be hidden from their father. At least in the start. Then even if he notices, would he pull them out of school? But did Santo get a chance to put it into practice?
On such a day, Jamini’s father returned home with a rough-looking man older than Santo with him! He laid out the mat on the veranda and catered to the guest with great care. He asked Santo to arrange some snacks for him. When the man left, he sat on the patio with a satisfied smiling face and declared:
—”So, Jamini’s marriage is fixed. Get it?”
In a moment, the world swayed for Santo. The blood rushed to her eyes. Jamini is yet to complete her twelve years.
—”This fella owns a lot of lands and has no one except an old and irritable mother. Before, he had decided not to marry but could not manage all his land alone. I advised him to think about a wife. Without children, what will happen to so much land and property? In old age, he will see it all going to the dogs. Seeing you, he could somewhat size up Jamini…”
It all was too much for Santo. Taking stock of the daughter by the mother’s physique and speculation of childbirths had already been discussed about her twelve-year-old kid! Santo felt her head bursting.
“This marriage will not take place,” she uttered in a calm decisive voice.
Haridhan stares, surprised. He has never heard such a voice of Santo.
“Why? What wrong do you see?”
“I won’t marry off my daughter at an early age. Instead, I shall send Jamini and Kamini to school. They must be educated first.”—Santo didn’t know she could say so many words in such a firm tone. For some time, Haridhan stares at Santo, gaping. Then he walked to the cowshed and returned with the rough, strong rope they used to tether the animals with. When Santo turned back and was about to enter the room, Haridhan grabbed her by the hair from her back.
—”Such audacity, you bitch! Talking back to your husband’s face! You will send your daughters to school! To school, indeed! I shall teach you the proper way to that, hussy.”
The thick cord lashed Santobala’s body as she fell to the floor. Blood was staining her back, neck, and arms. Santo was immobile. This was not the first time she was beaten, but of course, this was the first time she could talk straight into the man’s face. Tired after a long time, Haridhan throws the rope into the courtyard and leaves the room. But before that, he goes around in front of the prone figure.
“Listen clearly, along with Jamini, I shall marry off Kamini within this month. After that, I shall crush your trickery of sending them to school, you bitch…”
Santo cannot recall when the thought arose in her mind, but her head was splitting in pain. At night she achieved peace by swinging the axe for chopping wood in front of her for so many years with full strength into the sleeping Haridhan’s head. Taking a dip in the pond, Santobala changed into fresh clothes. Calmly she woke Jamini and Kamini up. She entrusts her little gold into Jamini’s hand, “Look, I am going somewhere. It is urgent. Wake your brothers. Quickly go to Rohini’s auntie’s house. Give these to her and tell her to enroll you all in a school. Then stay there. Until I come back, obey her.” Then hiding the axe in her clothes, she walked almost seven miles through the open fields. It was almost midday when she reached the police station.
“I have killed the man of the house. Take me in custody.”
Then, after putting the axe down on the large table before the officer, she felt free of her load.
Santobala looks up at the jail clerk. He meaningfully points at the jailor sitting inside the next room.
“Ghorapara, Medinipur .”
Rohini had come to court one day. Crying inconsolably, she had said, “Why didn’t you come to me in the night itself? Together we would have buried the devil somewhere.”
Santo nodded her head slowly,
—”No, how can it be? He is one of God’s creatures. It is a sin to kill a human. Won’t I have to pay for it?”
Then she swallowed and said, “Sister, the kids…”
The time for the five rupees Rohini could give the sentry was up. “Leave, Sahib will notice,” they made her hurry. Rohini shot from the back, “Don’t you worry, they are fine.”
After the case ticket was thoroughly checked, the jailor sitting behind the table in the room read out”
“Santobala Kuila, for murdering your husband, you are awarded imprisonment for life. However, if you want to appeal to the High Court, the government will pay for and provide you with a lawyer.”
The white uniform-clad matron standing beside her said, “Let’s go.”
Behind Santobala, the gate of the Female Ward of Berhampore Jail closed.