The acclaim and the adoration was almost too much for the young woman, but on that memorable day something else happened that would stay with Chandraprabha forever.
Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy’s speech followed Chandraprabha’s, and she was spellbound, lifted, and enlightened. Finally what the great man said stoked her pride and brought a catch to her throat. “It should be a matter of great pride for you that your Shankardev and Madhabdev propagated the Vaishnav religion before Chaitanyadev in West Bengal, and that they composed works in prose and verse before Krittivas and Kasidas. Assamese prose literature was mature and accomplished as early as the sixteenth century, a time when the world was more or less barren of prose literature except for the writings of Hooker and Latimer of England. To reach the stage of perfection that Assamese literature attained by this century, Bengal had to wait until the days of Bankimchandra and Iswarchandra.”
But what really touched Chandraprabha’s soul were the last words of the Acharya, the ones that had to do with female education. Echoing Mahatma Gandhi, he said: “You must not neglect women’s education. If the female race – half of the population – is enslaved by ignorance, national progress will be a stillborn child.”
At the end of the meeting, Chandraprabha was about to leave for home, when a young man addressed her: “Namaste. Your speech mesmerised me. I just had to get acquainted with you.”
Not recognising the man, Chandraprabha asked: “May I know who you are?”
“I am Dandinath Kalita. I am teaching in a local school. I know that you are also teaching, and that you are staying all by yourself. This is something.”
Chandraprabha said: “We women are crippled by our lack of courage. Unless we live down fear we’ll stagnate, and with us, society as a whole.”
The young man nodded in agreement: “Yes, quite right. And I think Assamese women have found a true leader. It seems that you have been working wonders with the female volunteers.”
Chandraprabha experienced a whole new thrill. Of late, she had her share of generous praise, but no one’s praise had struck as deep as this young man’s. Suddenly the future took on a new colour, and all was not simply duty, discipline, and the desire for independence.
The two of them chatted long, and Chandraprabha realised that she was talking about herself in a way that she had not done before.
Many men came to Chandraprabha’s house with varying attitudes. After all, she was a schoolteacher, and increasingly a public figure. But men were also enticed by the scent of a woman living alone. Perhaps she too had her heady moments, and responded with quick ardour to men who coveted her company. Chandraprabha sighed as she thought about these moments. If only her parents had not pushed her into an unreal doll’s marriage before she knew what was what.
During their very first meeting, Chandraprabha invited Dandinath to her home. One day, he turned up with a slightly embarrassed air. Chandraprabha had to curb her usual ways not to show the gladness that welled up inside her on Dandinath’s arrival.
After exchanging a few words, Chandraprabha turned a full gaze on Dandinath and said: “I’ve found out a lot about you. I know that you are, well, a Iiterary person, and have a keen intelligence.”
Dandinath looked pleased but puzzled, and asked: “Who told you all this?”
“My colleague Chandrabala Patangiya. She is a great girl, by the way. And an ideal teacher. Not me, I get angry at the slightest provocation.”
“Looking at you, it’s difficult to believe that you can be angry.”
“And you? Do you fall prey to such emotions?”
“You’ll find out after getting to know me.” Dandinath replied, laughing. A shaft of delight shot through Chandraprabha at the possibility of getting to know him. I don’t care if you have a mad rage. I just want to see you, again and again, Chandraprabha thought.
As she fed her baby, Chandraprabha thought, if only I knew how flamingly angry this man could be. But she had managed to penetrate to the love and kindness that the man had harboured inside him.
Because she was fickle and suspicious, and because of the ‘impossibility’ of their situation – she being low-born and therefore not marriageable by the social code to which he conformed – Dandinath was often roused to fury. He would hurl obscenities at her; and then overwhelm her with hot caresses.
So for two years they experienced hell and paradise, ecstasy and frustration, in alternation.
As she ruminated about their tumultuous relationship, she suddenly felt angry with herself. Tezpur was not simply the stage of her passion for a man. It was so much more.
On that particular day, Kironmoyi Agarwala was animated and agitated as never before. Mahatma Gandhi was coming to Tezpur. With him would come Muhammad Ali, Begum Ali, and the Chaukat Ali brothers.
Chandraprabha was bubbling with zest and ebullience, and she actually reassured Kironmoyi Agarwala that Gandhi’s visit to Tezpur would be a memorable one.
And so it was, in more ways than one. What he said to the great, quiet gathering sank in deep and permanent. He specifically exhorted the women to weave dreams in their spinning yarns, and make foreign-cloth products superfluous. They should come forward to obliterate superstitious and obscurantist practices such as child-marriage and polygamy.
After drumming these exhortations into the heads of men and women Gandhi sat down and wrote the article called ‘Lovely Assam’. Certain words from it made an indelible imprint on Chandraprabha’s consciousness: “The Assamese women weave dreams of angels in cloth, they are born weavers.”
Chandraprabha rose from reading that article with her mind on fire. And then her colleague Chandrabala Patangiya came to talked about a real fire.
They were going to make a bonfire of foreign-made clothes. When Chandraprabha heard this, she said that she would gladly see her few clothes reduced to ashes in this great symbolic conflagration. But she had no money to buy khadi.
Now Dharmeswar was also living with her. He was in class ten, but he was a total stranger to his texts. He went around yelling Bande mataram and Gandhiji ki jay. The feckless Dharma was in grand company. Chandra Nath Sharma, Amiya Das, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Dayal Chandra Bhuyan had jeopardized their careers and completely sacrificed their studies to become part of the drive for independence.
Chandraprabha had no money, but the generous Jyoti Prasad came to her rescue and bought khadi clothes for her.
Chandraprabha was engaged in flurries of activities. When the agitators and workers gathered to share their thoughts and experiences, her exploits animated those exchanges. Once they were talking about a literary, conference at Barpeta where Chandraprabha had gone, because she was trying her hand at creative writing. Chandra Nath Sharma said: “Do you know what our Chandra did? She thundered against the policy of not allowing the low-caste folks into the kirtan-ghar at Barpeta, saying that to practise such an atrocious, inhuman policy was to sully the memory of the liberal Shankardev.”
After this there was a deluge of praise for Chandraprabha, who became fidgety and embarrassed. But she was in seventh heaven too, buoyed by the eulogies of such stalwart.
When she thought about moments such as these, what followed became more unbearable to contemplate.
The headlines were replaced by the claustrophobia of shame. She became branded as someone who had soiled the name of pure, lovely Tezpur.
She had dragged the burden of shame to her father’s village, and the quotidian existence of the family was weighed down by it. As she thought about it all, she started gasping for some revivifying memory, and her yearning mind once again winged its way to the memory of the generous past.
Mahatma Gandhi’s visit kindled light in Chandraprabha and few others. Brimming over with restless energy and ardour, Kironmoyi Agarwala, Chandraprabha and a few others set up a Mahila Samiti – a women’s organisation. They started weaving clothes with their own hands. Especially Chandraprabha roved tirelessly to bombard villagers with Mahatma Gandhi’s messages. She started making incendiary speeches, asking the women to become part of the groundswell that was the Non-Cooperation Movement. When the proposal to help destitute women was mooted, Chandraprabha took it upon herself to get a Singer sewing machine which could be purchased through monthly instalments.
Actually Chandraprabha had wanted such a machine for herself and Dandinath had told her that he could get her one on a monthly-paying basis. He was all for initiatives that would rivet Chandraprabha’s mind on constructive issues and social work, and tame her flighty, susceptible nature. For Dandinath, this flightiness was the only blemish in a woman who was a princess among women.
Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, who was becoming the gentle, graceful sword of the independence movement in Tezpur, stirred himself to organise the female volunteers for the 1921 Ryot Conference at Chariduar. Female participation in such endeavours was burgeoning. Jyoti Prasad wanted a few women to join the procession on horseback. He got full-stinted support from Chandraprabha, and the two of them succeeded in training about twenty women for the parade on horseback. The horizons of the small town of Chariduar seemed to dim with the dust from the flying hooves of those twenty horses. Chandraprabha permitted herself the luxury of imagining each of her students as Laxmibai, the Rani of Jhansi.
Chandraprabha’s stars were ascending rapidly, so that for many she was a deity like Durga, inhabiting the heavens.
From those celestial heights, she plummeted to the hell that was Daisingari village.
Chandraprabha left Tezpur before the shape of her body heralded a new birth. At Daisingari, Atul was born.
Atul was now a lively bundle. When he smiled at his mother, she clasped him to her breast and poured kisses on him. She wondered whether he would grow up to be a writer like his father, or a social and political worker like herself. But in one letter Dandinath showed himself obsessed with another kind of legacy that waited for Atul. Each word of that letter dripped bitter repentance for the way he had set up a bleak future for Atul whose growing senses would feed on slander, disparagement and isolation.
Today Chandraprabha’s spirits had ebbed very low. She had got the news that a boy was born to her niece Rukmini. Whereas the birth of her boy had darkened everyone’s face with shame, this birth had become an event of rejoicing.
But it was not this that made Chandraprabha unhappy, Rukmini was a piece of herself and she would love anything that was Rukmini’s as if it was her own. But she had been incensed in the first place when Rukmini had been packed off in wedded bondage to one Yagyaram Das of Pathsala. The crushing burden of conjugal and domestic duties was foisted on the hapless young girl. Inevitably, the image of another girl, thrust into a similarly oppressive situation, came to Chandraprabha’s mind – Rukmini’s own child-mother, who died three months after giving birth to Rukmini.
The news of the birth of a child made Chandraprabha feel as if a sapling had bent to the ground because a huge, untimely fruit had sprouted on one of its shaky, uncertain branches. The irony of a child-marriage taking place in Chandraprabha’s family at a time when she was publicly railing against the practice skewered her innards.
But another piece of news had done much to dispel the gloom that was clogging her mind. The American Baptist Mission had awarded her sister Rajani a handsome monthly scholarship of rupees hundred and five to study in the famous Isabella College of Lucknow. After that Rajani had plans to study in Calcutta Medical College, and then to go amongst the women of Assam to try and prevent untimely deaths and other tribulations.
This bit of heartwarming news brought the dire words of Dandinath to Chandraprabha’s mind. The man had predicted that Rajani would wallow in a bog of sin if she was allowed to associate with missionaries. Then Dandinath had written that he was severing all ties with Rajani and as far as he was concerned, the girl was dead.
No, Rajani was not dead, not by a long chalk. She would be true to her name, which signified the effulgence of daylight. Occasionally she might stumble or veer away from the straight and narrow path, but even if she plunged headlong into sin, resurrection was possible. Obviously, that is something alien to you dear, Chandraprabha thought.
While Chandraprabha was swinging between gloom and gladness in family matters, she found nothing cheerful about what was happening in the nation. Because of the violence at Chaurichaura Gandhi had put a stop to agitationist programmes. Chandraprabha learned about the events at Chaurichaura through a tattered copy of the newspaper Asamiya which reached her after passing through numerous hands. Now there would be no defiance of British law, and the people would be expected to weave clothes and patiently bide their time.
While the rest of the family reverently endorsed Mahatma Gandhi’s decision, Dharma said weightily: “But many people are not taking kindly to the fiat by Gandhi. Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the elders like Moti Lal Nehru, C. R. Das and Lala Lajpat Rai are displeased. And our own C. N. Sharma, who’s ill by the way, is also sad and confused.”
There was nothing for Chandraprabha to do but keep herself busy. Apart from weaving clothes at home, Chandraprabha also started spinning a narrative, a novel named Aparajita, i.e. The Unvanquished. Before this she had sent a few articles here and there, but she was pouring everything into this novel. This was to be an autobiographical novel. She kept up an unflagging pace while writing this novel, recounting her agonies, tribulations, and also her triumphs over these misfortunes. Often the neglected and hungry Atul set up a tearful clamour, and Gangapriya came running to chide Chandraprabha.
Sometimes peeved and exasperated herself. Chandraprabha flung away her pen. It seemed that women’s talents and aspirations were doomed to be throttled by the coils of domesticity. Yet, one day she made the stunning discovery that she had churned our 343 pages of the novel. She felt her fingers started itching, bur attacked the pure, inviting blankness of the white sheers before her with renewed gusto.
After she had scribbled a few sentences, she felt her mother’s ponderous shape station itself by her side. After a while Gangapriya said: “How much longer will you keep on at this stuff, wasting all this ink and paper? It seems you have time for nothing but writing letters and this stuff. Can you feed yourself or the little one by writing like this? Now, get up, we’re running out of yarn – cut some more.”
Suspending her creative labour ‘this stuff’ where her mother discerned no glimmer of profit or usefulness, Chandraprzbha got up to tackle the business of life.
A few days after this, Chandraprabha got the offer to teach at the girl’s school in Kaljirapara. The chairman of the local board at Barpeta had himself requested her to take up the job.
This offer was a godsend for more than one reason. Chandraprabha felt that this time she could do something to prepare women to face the crises in their lives. Usually, the illiterate and vulnerable women sank rapidly when any crisis cropped up in their lives. Or they turned to the menfolk in supplication.
And Chandraprabha needed the money. Little Atul’s upkeep entailed a fairly hefty expenditure. She also had to buy cotton for weaving clothes, paper for writing letters and ‘stuff’, and had to contribute to household expenses. Her father had little in the way of earning himself. Rajani skimmed a small amount of her scholarship to send him, but Dharma was a complete wastrel and did nothing for the family.
Dandinath unfailingly sent money. Chandraprabha felt a wrench in her heart when she thought about the travails of this man. He was perpetually ailing, and he also had to look after his family which stayed in a village, while he himself was at Tezpur. In addition to all this, he had to periodically weather the shock of Chandraprabha’s biting, accusing letters.
Not for nothing are you permanently lodged in my heart, Chandraprabha thought.
And from his letters it was clear that she too was an eternal part of him. But two years earlier Dandinath had married a girl named Kamal, who had since become the mother of a girl. At first, Chandraprabha almost went to pieces, and she prolonged the nights with tears and sighs that racked her body. Gradually, the miracle of time spread its balm over her inflamed soul. Dandinath practiced no deceit with Kamal, and before the marriage revealed everything. But the girl humbly accepted the situation, and actually wrote to Chandraprabha, addressing her as ‘elder sister’. Now communication between the two women was a regular affair, and Kamal always sent her love to little Atul.
Before the offer from Kaljirzpara school, the days at Daisingari crawled with nerve-destroying slowness. The atmosphere of the village was censorious and hostile, home was dull and melancholy. Even Atul did not require much attention after he became big enough to frolic on his own.
There was no way she could occupy herself productively in the village. The villagers would not be counselled by a fallen woman. Her mammoth work Aparajita was complete, but there was no publisher. The market for writers was crushingly disheartening. Even an established writer like Dandinath was not getting any returns.
One day as her thoughts snitched from her own predicament to Dandinath’s, she felt a sudden hunger for some kind of communication with him. Giddy and swaying with this emotion, she sought out pen and paper to vehicle her passion.
Dearest (she wrote),
Lay down ,your head in my lap, love, and lend me your ears for a moment. Didn’t we devour the hours together, and didn’t it seem that we would flow into one another with our endless talk? What happened to all that?
What are you doing on the other side of silence, love? Here, at this moment, I am all alone in the night. Didn’t we come together again and again, on such nights which were strictly our own? Now every part of my body is aching for your touch. Why won’t you lay your light, loving fingers on my breast? Beloved, will you appear before me for one blink of life? Can I see you once more?
Why do things that seemed everlasting – you, the warmth of your body, your loving chatter – now mock me with their absence?
One day you came to me wearing the mantle of a beggar and you courted me, saying that you’ll lie prostrate at my door. Now I am on my knees, I have no shame, I crave your caresses all over my body.
But what about you? You have your incomparable Kamal, don’t you? Then why do you have to care about this miserable spectre? Send me word, and I’ll hack my own limbs off, one by one…
Chandraprabha’s letters became increasingly feverish. She would dash off to the writing table at odd hours and whip up tempests on paper. She was often supplicating and servile, but once wrote asking for a final word of release.
But she did not post any letter which she wrote in this febrile phase of her life.
The village of Kaljirapara was situated four miles from Daisingari. This was as obscure and remote a hamlet as Daisingari. Most of the ‘roads’, leading to the village were weed-covered, stony paths. During the rainy season one had to take each step with painstaking care. Despite taking such care, Chandraprabha was once spreadeagled as she lost her footing on one of the treacherous, muddy lanes while making her way to the school.
In the beginning it was dry weather and she could also take the bouncing Atul along with her. On that first day, she was greeted warmly by many people upon her arrival at the Kaljirapara school. One among the crowd, a pillar of the local community, an elderly, respectable looking person, initially joined the chorus of welcome, but then said with a sidelong glance at Atul: “But it seems that you’ll have a tough time carting this child all the way.” This man was fuming that this child of scandal would be brazenly displayed and the shameless mother accepted into normal, respectable society. But he had failed to persuade the others who chose to remember Chandraprabha’s impeccable record of patriotic toil at Tezpur.
But the old man’s malice did not penetrate Chandraprabha’s consciousness and she said with a bright smile: “I’ll be fine. These are times when anybody with a grain of civic sense or patriotism is weathering many hardships. Why should I mind a little bit of difficulty on the road?”
The rancorous old man was silenced that day which was so sweet and triumphant for Chandraprabha, but the next day turned out to be nightmarish. By then the news of her appointment and joining had spread, and the mothers had tutored their children to hurl abuses at Chandraprabha. As she made her way, she felt as if she was splashed with venom from both the sides. The children hooted and jeered, and called her obscene names. The women mostly stayed in the background, but one of them came forward to shout: “Wretched woman! Now she’ll drag our girls down to the pits.”
But the villagers had to put up with the sight of the woman who unfailingly, tirelessly took this road, with a bag slung from her shoulders, and a small child clinging to her for dear life. Confronted with this daily routine, the persecutors lost their zeal and let Chandraprabha alone.
There were other difficulties. As Atul grew up, he strayed from his mother’s side, running after grazing cows and goats. Chandraprabha had to carry him, but felt him becoming heavier all the time. Once in a while he also relieved himself by the wayside. In the school-compound he would become sleepy due to his pranks and frolics, and Chandraprabha would take out a sheet of cloth from her bag and spread it on one of the mattresses usually used to seat students and gently placed Atul on this hard, makeshift bed.
One day, the ordeal of trekking to and from Kaljirapara was over. A luminary of the village, an enlightened, liberal gentleman named Gopinath Medhi offered the shelter of his home to Chandraprabha. For Medhi and others like him, Chandraprabha’s ‘scarlet’ past was fast becoming insignificant.
Chandraprabha responded delightedly and gratefully to the offer. Gopinath Medhi noticed with pleasure that Chandraprabha quickly managed to chase away whatever reservations his wife harboured towards the young unmarried mother. In her leisure time, Chandraprabha helped Mrs. Medhi with weaving and other household chores. Gopinath Medhi also saw that his wife’s stock of wisdom and information rapidly increased as she chatted with Chandraprabha.
One day as Chandraprabha was telling this lady about her stand at the kirtan ghar at Barpeta, she remembered a recent incident at Kaljirapara itself. Once she went to the kirtan ghar at Kaljirapara, and felt her spirits rise at the sight of the verdant surroundings of the temple. She was walking with a temple-attendant when she saw a well. When she asked about it, the attendant said that it was owned by the local board but was mainly used by the temple people. Then Chandraprabha saw that a girl had come to the spot with a pitcher, but instead of drawing water, stood there in a different posture.
Curious, Chandraprabha asked the girl: “Why are you posing like a statue? Why don’t you get water?”
Greatly amused, the attendant replied before the girl could say anything: “She can’t touch the water because she’s a low caste. She is waiting for some one of a proper caste to come and fill her pitcher.”
Chandraprabha was stunned: “Doesn’t this well belong to the local board, and isn’t the water for everyone?”
“That’s true. But how can you allow a low-caste person to contaminate the water of this well which is used by the high people of the temple?”
It was as if the attendant had applied a match to a tinderbox. The man immediately got the most thorough tongue-lashing of his life. After berating this man to her heart’s content, Chandraprabha went to the abbot of the kirtan ghar and secured the right for everyone to draw water from the well.
To seal her victory Chandraprabha got together a few low-caste girls and marched them towards the well. She wanted a ceremony, a communal drawing of water. But the girls first looked abject, and then looked at each other. Exasperated, Chandraprabha dragged one of them to the well and after making her touch the rope wound around the pulley, dropped the bucket into the water. Then her face brimming over with the broadest of smiles, she said: “From today, this water is really pure.”
Translated from Assamese by Pradipto Borgohain