To Thine Auspicious Lotus-Feet:
Today we have been married fifteen years, yet not until today have I written you a letter. I’ve always been close by your side. You’ve heard many things from me, and so have I from you, but we haven’t had space enough to write a letter.
Now I’m in Puri on a holy journey, and you are wrapped up in your office work. Your relationship to Calcutta is a snail’s to its shell–the city is stuck fast to you, body and soul. So you didn’t apply for leave. It was the Lord’s desire, and so was His granting me my leave application.
I am Mejo-Bou, the second bride in your joint family. Today, fifteen years later, standing at the edge of the ocean, I understand that I also have other relationships, with the world and the World-Keeper. So I find the courage to write this letter. This is not a letter from your family’s Mejo-Bou. Not from the second wife.
Long ago, in my childhood days–in the days when my preordained marriage to you was known only to the Omniscient One who writes our fates on our foreheads–my brother and I both came down with typhoid fever. My brother died; I survived. All the neighborhood girls said, “Mrinal’s a girl, that’s why she lived. If she’d been a boy, she couldn’t have been saved.” Jom-Raj is wise in his deadly robbery: he only takes things of value.
No death, then, for me. It is to explain this at length that I sit down to write this letter.
When your uncle–a distant relative–came with your friend Nirod to view your prospective bride, I was twelve. We lived in an inaccessible village where jackals would call even during the day. Fourteen miles from the railway station by ox-cart, then six more on an unpaved road by palanquin; how vexed they were. And on top of that, our East-Bengal cookery. Even now your uncle makes jokes about those dishes.
Your mother wanted desperately to make up for the plain appearance of the first bride with the good looks of the second. Otherwise why would you have taken all the time and trouble to travel to our distant village? In Bengal no one has to search for jaundice, dysentery, or a bride; they come and cleave to you on their own, and never want to leave.
Father’s heart began to pound. Mother started repeating Durga’s name. With what offering could a country priest satisfy a city god? All they could rely upon was their girl’s appearance. But the girl herself had no vanity; whoever came to see her, whatever price they offered for her, that would be her price. So even with the greatest beauty, the most perfect virtues, a woman’s self-doubt can never be dispelled.
The terror of the entire household, even the entire neighborhood, settled like a stone in my chest. It was as if the day’s sky, its suffusing light, all the powers of the universe were bailiffs to those two examiners, seizing a twelve-year-old village girl and holding her up to the stern scrutiny of those two pairs of eyes. I had no place to hide.
The wedding flutes wailed, setting the skies to mourn; I came to live in your house. At great length the women tabulated all my shortcomings but allowed that, by and large, I might be reckoned a beauty; and when my sister-in-law, my Didi, heard this, her face grew solemn. But I wonder what the need was for beauty; your family didn’t love me for it. Had my beauty been molded by some ancient sage from holy Ganga clay, then it might have been loved; but the Creator had molded it only for His own pleasure, and so it had no value in your pious family.
That I had beauty, it didn’t take you long to forget. But you were reminded, every step of the way, that I also had intelligence. This intelligence must have lain deep within me, for it lingered in spite of the many years I spent merely keeping house for you. My mother was always very troubled by my intelligence; for a woman it’s an affliction. If she whose life is guided by boundaries seeks a life guided by intelligence, she’ll run into so many walls that she’ll shatter her forehead and her future. But what could I do? The intellect that the other wives in the house lacked, the Lord in a careless moment had bestowed upon me; now whom could I return the excess to? Every day you all rebuked me: precocious, impertinent girl! A bitter remark is the consolation of the inept; I forgive all your remarks.
And I had something else, outside all the domestic duties of your household, something that none of you knew. Secretly I wrote poems. No matter if it was all rubbish, at least there the boundary wall of the inner compound could not stop me. There lay my freedom, there I could be myself. Whatever it was in me that kept your Mejo-Bou detached from your family, you didn’t like it, didn’t even recognize it; in all these fifteen years none of you ever found out that I was a poet.
Among the earliest memories that I have of your house, the one that comes to mind is of your cowshed. Right next to the stairway leading up to the inner rooms was the room where the cows were kept. The tiny courtyard in front was all the space they had to roam. A clay trough for their fodder stood in one corner of the courtyard. In the morning the servants had many thing to do; all morning the starving cows would lick at the edges of the trough, bite at it, take chunks out of it. My heart cried for them. I was a village girl: when I first arrived at your house, those two cows and three calves struck me as being the only friends I had in the entire city. When I was a new bride, I would give my food to them; when I grew older, bantering acquaintances, observing the attention I show the cows, would express their suspicions about my family and ancestral occupation: all cowherds, they said.
My daughter was born–and died. She called to me, too, to go with her. If she had lived, she would have brought all that was wonderful, all that was large, into my life; from Mejo-Bou I would have become Mother. And a mother, even confined to one narrow world, is of the universe. I had the grief of becoming a mother, but not the freedom.
I remember the English doctor’s surprise upon entering the inner compound. When he saw the confinement room, he grew annoyed and began to scold. There is a small garden at the front of the house, and the outer rooms do not lack for furniture of decoration. The inner rooms are like the reverse of an embroidered pattern; on the inside there is no hiding the starkness, no grace, no adornment. On the inside the lights glimmer darkly, the breeze enters like a thief, the refuse never leaves the courtyard. The blemishes on the walls and floors are conspicuous and inerasable. But the doctor made one mistake; he thought this neglect would cause us sorrow. Just the opposite: neglect is like ashes, ashes that keep the fire hidden within but do not let the warmth die out. When self-respect ebbs, a lack of attention does not seem unjust. So it causes no pain. And that’s why women are ashamed to experience grief. So I say: if this be your arrangement, that women will suffer, then it is best to keep them in neglect, as far as possible; with attention and love, suffering only grows worse.
However it was, it didn’t even occur to me to recall the existence of grief. In the delivery room, death came and stood by my head; I felt no fear. What is our life that we must fear death? Those whose life-bonds have been knotted tight with love and care, they flinch before death. If Jom-Raj had caught me that day and pulled, then, in the same way that a clump of grass can easily be pulled out from loose earth, roots and all, I too would have come out in his hand. A Bengali girl will wish for death on the slightest pretext, but where is the courage in such a death? I am ashamed to die–death is too easy for us.
Like an evening star my daughter glowed bright for a moment, then set. I fell again into my eternal routine and to my cows and calves. Life would have passed, slipping on in that way to the end, and today there would have been no need to write you this letter. But a tiny seed blown on the wind can lodge in a brick terrace and put down the roots of a peepul tree; in the end that seed can split open the heart of brick and stone. Into the set arrangements of my world a tiny speck of life flew from who knows where, and that started the crack.
My elder sister-in-law’s sister Bindu, mistreated by the cousin she lived with after the death of her widowed mother, came to your house to seek refuge with her sister. That day all of you thought, Why did this misfortune have to land at our doorstep? I have a contrary nature, so what could I do: when I saw that you were angry at her, my heart went out to this defenceless girl and I resolved to stand firm at her side. To have to seek shelter at another’s house against their will-what an indignity that is. Even if we are forced to accept someone against our will, should we push them away, ignore them?
And I watched my Didi. Out of great compassion she had brought her sister Bindu in, but when she saw her husband’s annoyance she began to pretend that Bindu’s presence was an unbearable imposition on her too, and she’d be relieved to be rid of her. She couldn’t muster up the courage to express her affection publicly for her orphaned sister. She was a very devoted wife.
Observing her dilemma, I grew even more distressed. I saw her make the rudest arrangements for Bindu’s food and clothing–and she ensured that everyone knew about it–and so demean her in every way, even engaging her in household chores as she would a housemaid, that I was not only sad but also ashamed. Didi was anxious to prove to everyone that our household had been fortunate in obtaining Bindu’s services at bargain rates. The girl would work tirelessly, and the cost was minimal.
Didi’s father’s family had had nothing other than its high lineage: neither good looks nor wealth. How they fell at your father’s feet, importuned him to take her into your family–you know all that. Didi herself has always thought of her marriage as a grave indignity to your family. That is why she tries in every way to draw herself in, not to impose; she takes up very little space in this house.
But the virtuous example she set gave me a great deal of trouble. I could not humble myself in all ways as she had done. If I find something worthy, it’s not my inclination to disparage it just to please someone else–you’ve had proof of this many times.
I drew Bindu into my room. Didi said, “The girl comes from a simple home, and Mejo-Bou is going to spoil her.” She went around complaining to one and all as if my actions were putting the family in great peril. But I am sure that deep inside she was greatly relieved. Now the responsibility was mine. She had me display the affection towards her sister that she could not herself show, and her heart was lightened by it.
Didi always tried to leave a few years off Bindu’s age. She was no less than fourteen, and it was just as well to mention this only in private. As you know, her looks were so plain that if she were to fall and crack her head against the floor, people would first concern themselves about the floor. In the absence of father and mother, there was no one to arrange a marriage for her, and besides, how many people would have the strength of their beliefs to marry someone who looked like her.
Bindu came to me in great fear, as if I might not be able to bear her touch, as if there were no reason for her having been born into this great universe. And so she would always shrink away as she passed, lower her glance as she walked by. In her father’s house, her cousin had not even given her a corner in which an unwanted object might lie. Unwanted clutter makes its own space around the house, and people forget it’s there; not only is an undesired person not wanted where she is, but while she’s there she’s also not easily forgotten, so there’s no place for her even in the trash-heap. It could not be said that Bindu’s cousins themselves were greatly desired by the rest of the world, though they were comfortably off.
When I brought Bindu into my room, she began to tremble. Her fear caused me great sorrow. I explained gently that there would always be a little space for her in my room.
But my room wasn’t mine alone. So my task wasn’t easy. And after only a few days she suffered a red rash on her skin. Maybe it was prickly heat, or something else; anyway, all of you decided it was smallpox.-After all, it was Bindu. An unskilled doctor from your neighborhood came and declared, It’s difficult to say what it is without waiting another day or two. But who had the patience to wait another day or two? Bindu herself was half-dead from the shame of her ailment. I said, I don’t care if it’s smallpox, I’ll stay with her in the confinement room, no one else will have to do anything. On hearing this, all of you gave me extremely menacing looks, even seemed poised to do me harm; Bindu’s sister, feigning extreme displeasure, proposed sending her to the hospital. Soon, however, Bindu’s rash faded away completely. Seeing this, you grew even more agitated. Some of you said, It’s definitely smallpox, and it’s settled in.-After all, it was Bindu.
There’s one thing to be said for growing up neglected and uncared for: it makes the body ageless, immortal. Disease doesn’t want to linger, so the easy roads to death are shut off. The illness mocked her and left; nothing at all happened. But this much was made clear: it is most difficult to give shelter to the world’s most wretched. Whoever needs greatest shelter also faces the greatest obstacles to gaining it.
As Bindu’s fear of me ebbed, another problem arose. She began to love me so much that it brought fear into my heart. I have never seen such an embodiment of love in real life; I’ve read of it in books, of this kind of intense attachment, and, there too, between women. Not for many years had I had occasion to remember that I was beautiful; that long-forgotten beauty had charmed this plain-looking girl. She’d stare at my face, and the hope and trust in her eyes would grow. She’s say to me, “Didi, no one but me has seen this face of yours.” She’d become upset when I tied my hair myself. She liked to play with my hair, arranging it this way and that. Apart from the occasional invitation, there was really no need for me to dress up. But Bindu was eager; and every day she would ornament me one way or another. She grew besotted with me.
There’s not even a yard of free space in the inner compound of your house. Near the north wall, next to the drain, somehow a mangosteen had taken root. The day I saw its new leaves budding forth, bright red, I’d know that spring had truly touched the world. And when I saw-in the middle of my routine life-this neglected girl’s heart and soul filling up with color, I realized that there was a spring breeze of the inner world as well, a breeze that came from some distant heaven, not from the corner of the alley.