Aditya’s footsteps came to a halt.
He didn’t want to eavesdrop. But what could he do if he happened to overhear something? And after that if one’s feet just wouldn’t move, what could a man do? A thrill of joy passed through his body and the heated blood sent a red flush spreading till it reached the tips of his ears.
Mother was still speaking. “Suhas is a little solidly built but she’s fair and her face is pleasing. I really like that girl. Whenever you catch sight of her there’s a smile on her face. Girls like her scatter flowers wherever they go, light up every spot.”
“Hm. Let’s see what Dinkarrai says.” He heard his father’s voice. Aditya’s father Prataprai normally said very little. He never did offer an opinion. On this occasion Aditya felt he didn’t like this trait in his father’s personality. Couldn’t he have spoken out more clearly? Mother’s proposal could only be enthusiastically welcomed; the house lighted up, sweets distributed to the whole village.
He had never spoken to Suhas but what did that matter? He was sure Suhas understood how he felt. Perhaps she hadn’t realized how well the day went for him every time he passed her on the road. But didn’t she sense what a tremendous tide of joy surged through him when they were face to face? If she didn’t, would her glance drop as it did? And would that secret smile dimple her cheeks? Definitely…definitely Suhas cherished Aditya too. And now mother…
Aditya felt like lifting mother up and twirling round and round in his joy. Then he’d gently put her down and say — what would he say? He’d say: “You’re the best mother in the world. I love you so much. I’m so, so delighted with you.” But one can’t say this kind of thing.
Even though he didn’t want to stir from that spot, Aditya started walking on. No, one couldn’t just stand there eavesdropping on one’s parents, that just wasn’t polite behaviour. But just as the koyal keeps calling, wild with joy at the first touch of spring, in Aditya’s mind his mother’s words kept echoing: “I like that girl, I like that girl.”
Did fortune really have such a glorious surprise to offer him? Aditya didn’t dare to contemplate it. He went to his room and sitting on the edge of his bed started to recall the image of Suhas. What fine eyes she had! How her mere glance enriched one! And when she smiled…Oh, would the light of her smile actually illumine this house? Truly, if that could only come about, Aditya had nothing more to ask of God, nothing at all. If this plan of his mother’s was fulfilled…could he really be so fortunate?
|The next day his mother asked him, “What do you think of Dinkarrai’s daughter, my boy?”
“Which Dinkarrai?” The words slipped out.
“Why, the one who lives on the hill. Don’t you know him?”
“Oh, yes, him.”
“Yes, what do you think of his daughter, Suhas?”
Aditya blushed and looked at his mother. How does one answer a question like that? Why doesn’t mother understand that Aditya’s life is not worth living without Suhas…life is just impossible.
|“Well, what do you say? You don’t like her?”
“No, no, she’s fine.”
“So, shall we make inquiries?”
Aditya nodded, tongue-tied. His mother laughed. Then she said kindly: “We’ll send the proposal today, all right?”
That day Aditya paid a visit to all the temples in the village. He didn’t want to take any risks. Why should one antagonize any god? It was the same prayer everywhere. “God grant me Suhas. There’s nothing else I’ll ask for, ever.” If only they all consented. If only the good news came this very day.
Sometimes the gods do grant us our requests. Not that very day but two days later they received Dinkarrai’s acceptance and life was now going to be glorious.
Dinkarrai was a landowner of considerable standing. The wedding was to follow immediately after the engagement so the house was in turmoil. Large tents were erected. The house was overflowing with musicians, sweetmeat makers, goldsmiths, cloth merchants, relatives and people to organize everything. The scene was like a fair with the loud talk, laughter, yelling — at night the dazzle of a dozen kitson lamps lit up the courtyard and overflowed into the street. Enthusiastic relatives made a show of their devotion to duty, sitting up and discussing matters till late at night. Money was there for the spending so delicious new snacks started making their appearance. Those who excelled in big talk narrated the history of what had happened in whose house in their community as the trays of snacks were consumed to the accompaniment of criticism and comment. Only Aditya remained unaffected by all the noise and bustle. Silently he sat apart holding conversations with Suhas in his head. He couldn’t bear any interruption in this activity.
One evening the news came: “Behnba is coming!” Complete silence descended on the household for a moment. Then a whirlwind. Everyone put forth their own opinions on what preparations should be made for Behnba’s welcome and how they should be made. After much effort and argument everyone set to work and the whole household was turned upside down. And how could it not be so? Was Behnba an ordinary person?
Behnba’s father-in-law was the divan of the native state of Rajgadh and the wealthiest person in the whole of the Nagri community. After Jyotishmati, Prataprai’s only daughter by his first wife Vilaskunwar, got married, nobody in this house addressed her by that name any more. And the title of ‘Behnba’ suited Jyotishwati herself. Her good looks, her intelligence, her talents, the airs she gave herself, everything was out of the ordinary. In her marital home her word was obeyed even as it issued from her lips. She rarely visited her parents’ home but whenever she did the whole household was eager to serve her, particularly Aditya’s mother Purnimabehn. She was anxious not to be stereotyped as a stepmother.
With a retinue of two children and four or five servants Behnba stepped into her parents’ home to attend her stepbrother’s wedding. No sooner did she arrive than the news spread through the village and in two hours their new relative to be, Dinkarrai, invited her to his home.
“What do you want to do Behnba? If you like we’ll call the girl here.”
“No, we’ll go. Let’s see how they run their household! In any case, the turmeric paste must have been applied, mustn’t it?”
“Well then, she can’t be called. We’ll go ourselves.”
Prataprai and Purnimabehn offered to accompany her but she declined. She was of the view that one lowered one’s dignity by frequently visiting the bride’s father. So accompanied by one or two other relatives Behnba set off in state to visit Dinkarrai.
Before the people in the house were through with their praises of Behnba’s clothes and jewellery and her children’s smartness, the thunderbolt descended.
Behnba stormed into the house and peremptorily said to Prataprai, “Bhai, we don’t want a daughter of that house.”
“What? Why? What happened?”
“No, they are not people of our standard.”
Prataprai was irresolute. It was not easy to break off a marriage without any excuse just the day preceding the wedding. What would people say? And on the other hand Behnba’s insistence. In the Dewan’s home, morning and evening made their appearance at Behnba’s orders. If she was offended, all relations with that household would be totally cut off, that was for sure. He didn’t know what to say.
But Purnimabehn pleaded. “Maybe they made a mistake but won’t you be large-hearted and forgive them, Behnba? Think of the girl’s future.”
“That’s something her father should think of. A person who doesn’t know what kind of an honourable welcome he should offer to whom — do you call him a man or a beast? No wedding party from Prataprai Munshi’s house is to go to the house of such an individual.”
“But Aditya has already been anointed with the turmeric paste.”
“Another girl can be found. Our house is a respected one.”
“If you want to do just as you please I’ll return as I came. But then relations between us are at an end for ever.”
A sharp whiff of joy spread through the house. There were those who had something against Suhas and her father, others who did not want Prataprai’s affairs to proceed smoothly.
Whereas yet others just took pleasure in a startling piece of news. Some people pretending to bring Behnba round, actually incited her further. And yet others, feigning innocence, inquired, “Didn’t you like the girl, Behnba?”
“Did anyone in this house wait to ask me that? They settled everything, didn’t they? It was I who came out of attachment to my family, otherwise nobody would have cared if I hadn’t come.”
“What are you saying, Behnba?”
“It’s a fact. And to tell the truth what is so special about this girl? A fair complexion and long hair – who doesn’t have them in our caste, tell me.”
As she spoke she shook her head slightly so as to draw attention to her own long plait of hair. Her hair was really magnificent – long, thick, smooth and shining black since she was still fairly young. Satisfied with the admiring glances she received she continued,
“But surely she should have some sense. Couldn’t she have told her parents that you can’t offer something so niggardly to Behnba? This was a gross insult.”
“She’s still young.”
“Of marriageable age and still young? If she hasn’t yet acquired any sense, when is she going to acquire it? Her footstep will only darken my father’s house.”
“But Behnba, Aditya has been anointed with the paste and tomorrow there is the auspicious hour.…”
“It’ll be observed. Do you think no girl can be found in the Nagri caste for Prataprai Munshi’s son?”
“Bhai! What do you say?”
As she set out for battle Behnba launched a direct assault. As a formality she had always addressed her father as ‘Bhai’ but at this moment her bearing was so imposing that Prataprai felt for a second that he was in reality her brother, not her father, and that too a younger brother.
“It’ll be rather difficult to arrange at such short notice.”
“You sit on your swing and relax. I’ll see to it. Is there anyone in the village who will oppose my wishes?”
And taking a couple of people with her Behnba sallied forth.
While this wrathful scene was in progress below, Aditya was sitting in his room upstairs, totally oblivious of everything. He was lost in astonishment at the discovery that poets in so many countries for the last two hundred years had rendered so well Suhas’s beauty and the ocean of love swelling in his heart. The hot summer air had become cool and scented as it touched the pages of his books. With each beat of his pulse that blessed moment was approaching ever nearer when Suhas would place her hand, which was like a lotus-bud, in his. Heaven was going to descend on earth and that Heaven was to be everlasting.
Aditya raised his head on hearing his mother’s tearful voice. Without waiting for him to ask a question she somehow blurted out the words: “Behnba has arranged for you to marry Rajni instead of Suhas, my boy. Tomorrow the bridal procession will go to Shashikant Oza’s house instead of Dinkarrai’s.”
Without waiting for a reply she hurried downstairs. She had to let Aditya know and see to it that he didn’t make a fuss. She had performed the first task, the second was in the hands of God. She herself didn’t take to Rajni at all, with her dark complexion and irregular teeth. Besides she was so young that it could only be called a mismatch. But she didn’t have the guts to stand up to Behnba. so, suppressing a sob, with some difficulty she settled down to her work.
Was he dreaming, Aditya wondered. Had his mother really said all this? Or had he imagined it? That was not a generation when one could talk to one’s parents face to face on the subject of one’s marriage but Aditya slowly got up and went and stood before his father. Prataprai kept his eyes fixed on the betel-nut he was cracking.
Aditya asked: “Bhai, is it true?”
“Hm…Behnba has arranged it.”
“Even if I don’t agree?”
Startled at the flaring up of rebellion Prataprai gazed at Aditya. The nutcracker in his hands came to a halt. Stumbling over his words he said: “Behnba understands things better. And after all you are going to be married. Shashikant may be poor but the family is of good repute — his father’s uncle was a government pleader in the court at Vadodara. And so many people have been taught by Shashikant. They always speak well of him and you see….”
“Bhai, are you going to do whatever Behnba says?”
“Well, you see….”
“I shall never set foot in this house again!” And Aditya walked off without looking at anyone.
Among the crowd exclaiming and trying to stop him, one was Behnba. Casting a look of boundless sorrow in her direction, Aditya only asked, “In which previous existence have I wronged you Behnba, that you are now taking your revenge?”
Before a shocked Behnba could think of a reply Aditya had left the house.
As Aditya was about to step inside Dinkarrai’s house, Dinkarrai himself blocked the way. In a fury he said, “What more still remains for you to do that you have thought fit to come yourself?”
Shifting him firmly out of the way Aditya said, “Forgive me sir, we’ll talk about all that later.” And ignoring all those who were exclaiming and getting in his way he proceeded straight to the inner room and went and stood in front of Suhas. Addressing her for the first time in his life, he said, “Are you coming?”
Suhas was weeping. She looked at Aditya with eyes as red as her wedding sari. But before she could say anything he continued speaking rapidly. “From today I have no connection whatsoever with Prataprai Munshi and his household. And I won’t stay on in this village either. Where I’ll go, what I’ll do, I have no idea. Will you come with me?”
“But we’ll have to ask the people here, won’t we? I can’t just….”
“Suhas! I breathe your name with every breath of mine. My life has no meaning without you. Now go and ask whoever you wish and tell me what you decide — am I to live or die. I’m waiting.”
“Aditya!” Suhas had a face that was accustomed to smiles. It brightened up now.
“Let’s go, Suhas!” Aditya held out his hand. With supreme trust Suhas placed her flower-like hand in his and said, “Let’s go!”
Translated from Gujarati by Shirin Kudchedkar.
DHIRUBEHN PATEL. Taught English in a college and edited a woman’s journal Sudha. has a number of novels and short stories to her credit which include the novels Vadvanal (The Flower beneath the Sea) (1963), Sheemlanon Phool (Flowers of the Silk Cotton Tree) (1976), Agantuk (The Outside) (1996) and Atirag (Infatuation) (2000). Her short story collections are Vishrambhakatha (A Private Conversation) (1996) and Jawal (2002).
SHIRIN KUDCHEDKAR. An eminent feminist critic, was formerly Head, Department of English, SNDT women’s University, Mumbai. director of the Canadian Studies programme at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She was the editor of the Gujarati section of the two volume Women Writing in India,edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. She has taught English for forty years and is an experienced translator. Has also edited a number of anthologies of poetry and literary criticism.