It was late. Who knew where Bhootnath could buy liquor at this hour? He had no idea where the shop was. There was just one place where he might get it. Perhaps Jaba’s family cook was there right now, squatting on a brick by the road with an earthen pot, and singing his favorite devotional, Radha, you disgraced woman . . . But how was he to travel that long distance at this hour? And then, all of a sudden, Bhootnath bumped into Banshi.
“Where are you off to at this unearthly hour, Shala-babu?” Banshi inquired.
But Bouthaan had instructed Bhootnath not to tell anyone, not even Banshi. Bhootnath could not think of a response. “Where did you spring from, Banshi?” he asked.
“Chinta is down with fever again, Shala-babu. Master-babu is away. So I’d been to doctor Shashi. But what about you?”
Bhootnath felt slightly embarrassed.
Banshi continued, “I know where you’re going, Shala-babu. Chhoto-ma has been looking for you all evening. So I was wondering, Chhoto-babu is still somewhat unwell, he has been staying home at night. Why does Chhoto-ma have to send for Shala-babu then?”
“Chhoto-babu hasn’t been going out of late?” asked Bhootnath, taken aback. He had had no idea.
“You think he can even get out of bed?” said Banshi. “He barely manages to visit Chhoto-ma once a day and then collapses in his own room. The doctor’s forbidden him, you see. He said no getting out of bed till you’re completely cured. You won’t believe the way he looks, it’ll make you cry, by god!”
“Has he stopped drinking?”
“You think anyone can give up that poison? Take me for example—since Chhoto-babu took to his bed, I have been mixing his drinks. I dilute them with a little water, Shala-babu. But still I feel I’m killing him. The doctor has said many times that he won’t live if he keeps drinking. But who’s listening? He’s been drinking just like before, and I pour out the poison myself. Some mornings he walks to the window and gazes outside. Babu isn’t so drunk during the day, but as soon as it gets dark—get the ice, bring the bottle! Just as well he doesn’t have the strength to visit Notun-ma’s house. You think he wouldn’t have gone if he could have? That slut has him under her spell . . .”
Pausing abruptly, Banshi said, “By the way, did you know that Notun-ma was here the other day? You haven’t heard?”
“When? I had no idea!”
“How would you know? You were asleep by then, it was late at night, Nathu Singh told me secretly. He said, Banshi, Rupodashi’s daughter Chunibala is here. Wants to see Chhoto-babu. Should I let her in?
“I thought, Chunibala’s here to meet Chhoto-babu because he couldn’t go see her all these days. What if babu hears and creates a scene? Wait, I said, and ran straight to Chhoto-ma. She had just finished her puja rituals. She flew into a rage as soon as I told her. You know how pleasant she is normally, but she changes completely when she loses her temper. She said, Can’t you get the whip from Chhoto-babu’s carriage and give that ogress a couple of lashes. If you can’t, call Nathu Singh. I’ll tell him.
“She frightened me. Chhoto-ma said again, Can’t you do it?
“I told her, Chhoto-babu won’t spare me if he finds out, Chhoto-ma.
“But I am in charge in this house. Do as I tell you. Whip her till she bleeds.
“I said, It’s just that I can’t hit a woman, or else . . .
“Don’t you call her a woman, she’s a witch. Call Nathu Singh if you can’t do it. All of you will lose your jobs if she so much as sets foot inside the house, I’m warning you. And if you can do as I say, neither you nor your sister will ever have to worry for money in your life.
“By now her screaming had brought Mejo-ma and Boro-ma out of their rooms.
“What’s the matter, Chhoto?” Mejo-ma asked.
“She convulsed with laughter when she heard.
“She said, You amaze us, really. A man’s character is like silk—]there’s nothing pure or impure about it. You overdo everything. I’ve seen Ranga-ma and Mejo-korta—if I took everything to heart I’d have hung myself by now.
“Boro-ma said, Really, Chhoto-bou, you make too much of a fuss over everything.
“You won’t believe it, Shala-babu, but I went . . . I went to the gate at that hour of the night with Nathu Singh. Notun-ma had come in her new car. Seeing me, she said, How’s Chhoto-babu, Banshi?
“I said, He’s a little better now.
“Is he taking his medicines?
“Take me inside, she told me.
“What could I have said? I lied. I said, Babu has forbidden us to let you in—I swear, Notun-ma, he said, if your Notun-ma comes don’t let her enter, I don’t want to see her face.
“Notun-ma thought for a while. Then she asked, Did he really say that?
“Of course. Why should I lie? What would I gain by lying?
“Well then let him say it to my face. Let Chhoto-korta ask me himself to go—I’m not leaving before that. I didn’t choose this path on my own, it was he who led me to it.
“You won’t believe the trouble I was in that day, Shala-babu. The maid’s daughter had become a queen, why would she give up so easily? A house in a posh area like Janbajar, four maids of her own, three servants, a car—she had achieved the impossible! What more did she want now? But these whores are always after these things. As if she couldn’t sleep at night because Chhoto-babu wasn’t well!”
“Did she leave eventually?” Bhootnath asked. “Did Chunibala go?”
“You think I waited to see? What choice did she have? I just told Nathu Singh to lock the gate and walked away. I don’t know what happened after that. I had other things to worry about.”
“What do you have to worry about?”
“How could I not be worried? What if Chhoto-babu found out? He would raise hell. Who would help me keep my job? I would have had to go back to the village with Chinta and starve. It’s not like I have land back home that I can live off. I have to think of these things, Shala-babu.”
“But then Chhoto-ma will never let you go, Banshi, you’ve done so much for her.”
“But who’s going to listen to Chhoto-ma, Shala-babu? Chhoto-korta himself pays no attention to her, never mind anyone else in the household. Here you are, going out at this hour to buy liquor for Chhoto-ma . . .”
Bhootnath recoiled as though he had stepped on a snake. “How did you know, Banshi?”
Falling into step beside him, Banshi said nonchalanatly, “Who’s going to tell me, Shala-babu? I’ve worked here long enough to be in the know of everything. Do you think the neighbors will know what’s going on rather than the servants? Neither Chhoto-ma nor Mejo-ma knows the things I do. Not even Chhoto-korta or Mejo-korta. We find out everything—who’s spending the night in whose room, when a doctor sneaks in, when the midwife is brought in stealthily, medicines, illnesses, everything. Only last year a crowd had gathered on the road outside early one morning. Police, constables, an uproar, kites and vultures circling—and what were they staring at? Why, a day-old baby boy, dead. We know everything—who tossed him out, from which room. But we are servants, we don’t need to be involved in such things. The police came, interrogated us, we said we know nothing, that was that.”
Suddenly Bhootnath asked, “Banshi, do you know why Chhoto-ma wants this horrible stuff?”
Banshi was quiet for a while. Then he said, “By god, Shala-babu, you’re a Brahmin, I can swear by you, I worship Chhoto-ma like a goddess. I can sacrifice my life to make her happy. That’s why Lochan and Madhusudan-kaka are jealous of me, they say, you must have been her son in your previous life. But being someone’s son isn’t everything, is it—do all sons take care of their mothers? The mother must be worthy of being a mother too. Babu went to her room the other evening. I had gone to fetch him because Chhoto-ma had asked me. I eavesdropped on them.
“Chhoto-ma asked him, Are you planning to go there again?
“Chhoto-babu had not yet had a drink that evening. His head was clear. He said, What business is it of yours if I go?
“That’s his way of speaking, you know.
“Chhoto-ma said, Don’t go. Can’t you stay back instead?
“I wasn’t born in a family where the men cling to their wives’ gowns, Chhoto-bou.
“Chhoto-ma appeared to be thinking. Then she said, I’m not asking you to do that, but you can still stay back.
“Am I supposed to sit here and gape at you?
“Don’t gape if you don’t like it, look away. Let me serve you.
“I heard Chhoto-babu laugh. Contemptuously. A little later he said, Do you really know how to serve, Chhoto-bou?
“Give me a chance.” Chhoto-ma said.
“I am not your loving son or one of your gods, I’m a man, a flesh and blood man. Are you capable of serving me? Think it over.
“I heard Chhoto-ma say, There’s nothing to think over. Hindu women do not have to be taught how to serve their husbands.
“Chhoto-babu laughed again, that same contemptuous laugh. He said, I’m not that sort of husband, Chhoto-bou. The men of this family learn to drink even before they’re born. They’re raised by maids and servants. They’re not allowed into the women’s chambers once they turn nine or ten. They have kept women as soon as they come of age, they compete to see who’s the more decadent, who can nurture more sycophants. It’s not within your capabilities to serve and please such a husband, Chhoto-bou.
“Why don’t you see whether I can or not?
“Chhoto-babu answered, It’ll be a wasted effort Chhoto-bou, it will never work. Wives cannot do these things, no one married into this family has succeeded. Not just this family, no one married into the other families—the Duttas, the Mullicks, the Seals, the Seths—has either tried or succeeded. It’s too much trouble. Only they can, those other women, they know the tricks of the trade.
“Chhoto-ma seemed to be on the verge of tears. She replied, I’m begging of you, you’ll see, they couldn’t succeed, but I will. All of them are from rich families, but you have brought me here from a poor one. I can do it. I will do everything you ask me to. I will dress up exactly as you want me to. I will talk just like you want. I will take care of you in every possible way.
“Will you be able to sing?
“My father taught me to sing. If you like the songs I know I will sing them for you.
“Chhoto-ma said, I’ve never danced but if you arrange for lessons, I will. I can do anything for you.
“And drink? Can you drink? Like Chunibala does?
“A short silence. No one spoke. Chhoto-ma probably hadn’t expected this from Chhoto-korta. I was speechless too. How can a husband say such a thing to his wife? Liquor and poison are one and the same thing, how can a man force it on his wife? But then Chhoto-babu is not really human anymore. All those hours he spends with Notun-ma have sucked it out of him. But my Chhoto-ma is blessed, she’s a goddess. And the way she responded was worthy of someone I think of as my mother.”
“What did she say?” asked Bhootnath.
“She said, I will. I will drink. I can even drink poison with a smile if you give it to me with your own hands.
“Chhoto-babu laughed and said, but that’s not the right way. Far from my handing you a glass, it’s you who will hand me mine, Chhoto-bou.
“I will. If my drinking can keep you at home, I will.
“I felt a chill run down my spine, Shala-babu. Imagine Chhoto-ma taking poison while we watch. I told myself, at least there was one person in the family I could respect with all my heart, but now I would lose her too. My heart broke. I thought of going into the room to stop her, to tell her, that poison will kill you, Ma. But I was born a servant, I cannot cross the line.
“Chhoto-babu left. I was about to walk away too in the dark, but Chhoto-ma called out for me. I went in.
“Go and fetch your Shala-babu,” she said.
“Right now? I asked.
“Yes, right now, she said. Tell him it’s urgent. He must come at once.
“That was when I fetched you. So I know everything. You cannot hide anything from me.”
Bhootnath said, “But I don’t even know where to buy it, or how much it costs. Bouthan just gave me ten rupees.”
“I have the keys to Chhoto-babu’s liquor cabinet,” said Banshi. “Chhoto-ma asked you so that I don’t find out. But I wouldn’t get her the poison if I were you, Shala-babu.”
“Do you think I should return the money to her?” asked Bhootnath.
“Yes, that would be best.”
“Let’s go back then. That’s best—let me return the money and tell her I can’t do this.”
“But don’t mention me, Shala-babu,” said Bhootnath. “Don’t go telling her I told you all this.”
Bhootnath went back the way he had come. “No, Banshi, how can I do that?”
Bhootnath walked through the darkness and once again climbed on to the hidden veranda leading to her room. The light was on, as usual. Chhoto Bouthan was lying on the bed, her face buried in the pillow. Her elaborate hairdo had come apart. Her thick golden chain gleamed on her shoulder beneath the electric bulb. Meanwhile the incense sticks had almost gone out. The doll seemed to glare at him again through the glass doors of the cupboard. Chinta was nowhere to be seen. Stopping at the threshold, Bhootnath called out, “Bouthan.”
Chhoto Bouthan’s head shot up at once like a startled fawn’s. Getting out of the bed and adjusting her sari, she said, “Is that Bhootnath? Have you brought it?” She walked up to him. “Give it to me.”
Bhootnath stood in silence.
“Well? Give it to me,” Chhoto Bouthan repeated.
“I haven’t brought it,” Bhootnath told her directly.
“Why not? Are all the shops closed?”
“I didn’t go to the shops.”
“Why not?” Her surprise knew no limit.
“I can’t get it for you, Bouthan,” said Bhootnath. “Here’s your money. I can’t possibly get you that poison.”
Bouthan stiffened, and looked at him piercingly. “So you can’t get it for me?”
“Don’t ask me to, Bouthan,” he said.
“What’s the matter Bhootnath, why this sudden change of heart?” She took his hands in hers. “What a mad boy you are, has someone said something to you?”
Bhootnath softened. He seemed on the verge of tears. “Why must you drink?” he said. “Is it meant for humans? Only those who go to hell drink.”
“Why, Chhoto-korta drinks,” said Chhoto Bouthan. “How do you suppose their shops would run if no one drank?”
“Let the others drink, but not you, I won’t let you, never. You’ll die if you drink.”
Chhoto Bouthan burst into peals of laughter. “It would be just as well if I did, Bhootnath. What use is it to be alive when your husband won’t even look at you? Still, I want to see if I can lure him back. I’ve read in the Mahabharata what women did for the sake of their husbands. I’m not trying to emulate them, but let me try what my husband has suggested. No one dies from drinking.”
“Are you desperate to die?” Bhootnath asked, suddenly.
“No, Bhootnath, just the opposite. No one wants to live the way I do, though I don’t object to dying for the sake of my husband. But I cannot bear this existence that keeps me neither alive nor dead, Bhootnath.”
“But what if Chhoto-korta still doesn’t mend his ways? What will you do then, Bouthan?”
“Don’t worry, Bhootnath,” Chhoto Bouthan said, “I won’t blame you. I won’t blame anyone, I’ll accept it as my fate. But never mind all that, you don’t have to worry so much for me. Even the horses here have people to worry for them, but wives are cheap, a dead wife can be replaced by a living one, but replacing a dead horse is expensive.”
“Then promise me you won’t drink too much, Bouthan.”
“How is that possible? I’ll drink as much as Chhoto-korta wants me to. I’ve given my word, I’ll do everything he wants me to do.”
After a pause, Bhootnath said, “But why did you have to make a promise like that?”
Chhoto Bouthan laughed. Then she asked softly, “You love me very much, don’t you, Bhootnath?”
Bhootnath’s ears reddened with embarrassment. His mind reeled. He lowered his eyes at once and was unable to raise them for quite some time.
Chhoto Bouthan was not the least bit flustered. She said, “You do know it’s a sin to love another man’s wife, don’t you?”
Bhootnath was about to protest.
Chhoto Bouthan continued, “But then if you really love me, get it for me. If you can get it tonight I’ll be convinced that Bhootnath really does love me.”
Bhootnath didn’t pause a moment after this.
© Bimal Mitra. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Somrita Ganguly. All rights reserved.