[This excerpt is a part of my recently released book ‘The Broken Home and Other Stories’ where I have translated six short stories and two novellas by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, including ‘The Broken Home’ (Nastanirh) and ‘Laboratory’.]
The Broken Home and Other Stories
- Paperback:216 pages
- Publisher:Authorspress (2017)
Sohinee was dressed up meticulously in a plain, white sari; in her salt and pepper hair, in her face touched up with powder, she had been able to create a pure, chaste image. She took her daughter Neela along with her in a steam-launch and arrived the botanical gardens. Neela was dressed in a resplendent green Benarasi sari with a bluish tinge, and her yellow blouse peeked from the folds of her sari. With her bright, kohl-lined eyes, the lone drop of Kumkum on her forehead, her hair coiled in a bun at the nape of her neck, she looked mesmerizing. Her feet, clad in a fancy black leather sandal with red satin embroidery added to the majestic feel of her irresistible beauty.
Rebati used to spend all his Sundays beneath the shaded canopy of a neem tree in the garden. Sohinee had procured his whereabouts in great details from the professor, and came up to him when he was at his most tranquil state, relaxing beneath the tree. At the very outset, she knelt down and touched her head to his feet in a gesture of pranaam. Rebati was startled, embarrassed at this sudden display of devotion.
“Do not mind, dear, you are a Brahmin’s son, after all, and I am a Kshatriya’s daughter, you see. You might have heard about me from professor Chowdhury.” She introduced herself.
“I have, indeed….but where do I arrange for a place for you to sit here?”
“Oh, see the fresh, green grass sprawling all over the place. What could be a better seat for me than this?” She smiled, and then paused. “You might be thinking what brings me here. You know, I have come to offer my homage to your divine mission. I won’t find another Brahmin like you soon, after all.”
Rebati was astonished. “A Brahmin like me?” He asked, unsure of what she meant.
“Well, my guru had said to me long back, the one who has mastered the studies of the most coveted subject of today’s times is to be considered the most genuine Brahmin.”
Rebati seemed all the more embarrassed. “But my father used to work as a priest. As for myself, I do not have any knowledge of the mantras or the Hindu scriptures.”
“What are you saying? Don’t you know that the mantras which you have learnt so perfectly have made the entire world a slave of mankind? But yes, you might be thinking, how come a woman knows all of this. I would answer, I knew all of this from a very worthy, accomplished man, my husband. In fact, the pilgrimage where he used to offer his puja is still intact today, please promise me to go there with me soon.”
“I am free tomorrow morning, I will visit then.” He replied, politely.
“I see you have quite a taste for the flora and fauna, and it gives me much pleasure to know this side of yours. In fact, my husband had visited Burma in search of trees and herbs, and I had accompanied him there.”
She remembered why she had accompanied him there. It was not for the sake of science, but for a suspicion which was deep-rooted in her nature. If she was a woman who had led astray, she couldn’t help but feel that her husband would suffer from the same vice too. Once Nandakishore was gravely ill, he had said to her: “You know what gives me solace in thinking about death? That I will be in a realm far beyond your reach. You won’t be able to find me there and escort me back to this earth.”
“But I can always go there with you!” Sohinee had replied.
“Alas! God help me!” He had laughed.
Sohinee was again rapt in her conversation with Rebati. “You know, while returning from Burma, I had brought a sapling with me, which the Burmese lovingly named as ‘Quojaitaniyeng.’ It was such a beauty…but I couldn’t save it.”
It was all a lie she had contrived today morning, while browsing her husband’s library. Needless to say, never in her life had she seen such a plant. She hoped her conceited tales would impress the scholar in Rebati, and she saw her plans working.
Astonished, Rebati asked her: “Do you know its Latin name too?”
“I think, it is called Miletia.” She replied, rather effortlessly.
“Though my husband didn’t believe in most worldly theories, he somehow had this blind faith that if the women, while expecting, were immersed in the quintessential beauty and richness of Mother nature, they would give birth to beautiful children. Do you believe in this too?” She asked.
Another one of her concocted lies, it was needless to say.
Rebati started scratching his head, fishing for an answer. “But it is not backed up with enough proof.” He somehow uttered.
“But there is a proof in our own household, I dare say. Where did my own daughter acquire her unparalleled beauty, then? She opens up her petals, one by one, like the darling buds of spring…you will feel it yourself when you will see her.”
Rebati was now restless to see her. Sohinee smiled within herself, seeing how the ingredients of this drama were working their wonders, one by one. She had brought along her cook, dressed up as the Brahmin priest. With his chaste attire, the pure white tilak mark engraved in his forehead, the flower tied to his pigtail, he was playing his part with absolute finesse. She called out for him and said: “Thakur, it’s time to call Neelu now. Bring her along.”
Neela had been ordered by her mother to sit and wait inside the steam-launch. It was decided that when she would emerge in the scene with her offering of flowers, she would be visible amid the magical hide-and-seek of light and shade of that very special, auspicious morning.
Meanwhile, Sohinee had started scrutinizing the remarkably stunning features of Rebati—his smooth, dusky complexion with the yellow tinge, his broad forehead, his hair, back brushed with his fingers, his bright, resplendent eyes, his most noticeable feature, and the feminine softness of the lower part of his face. She had done her homework very well, extracting all personal information about him, and while she thought about them, one particular fact struck her. When she was merely a girl, the boys who mingled with her felt a sentimental attachment towards her. She had an irresistible sweetness in her face which would entice the young boys.
For a moment, she observed his face with a tinge of suspicion. All along, she had believed that a man must not be necessarily good looking to be the anchor of a woman’s soul. Even more than his intelligence or wit, the magnetism of his masculinity, running through his veins relentlessly, was a prerequisite. She had seen the various manifestations of this magnetism in men, in their unabashed lustful expressions.
With fervent nostalgia, she remembered the intensely passionate encounters of her own youthful days. The first man whom she was involved with was by no means gifted with good looks, education or a remarkable ancestry. But when they were together, their chemistry was defined by an inexplicable warmth and madness; it cocooned her body and her being, giving her an out of the world ecstasy of being with a man. She felt restless as she thought about this inevitable tumult in her daughter Neela’s life. In the fag end of her youth, when she felt precarious and lost, her quest to cultivate the bounty of learning became her saviour. It was only by chance that her fertile mind engaged itself quite naturally in the quest of learning. But it felt like a dull, monotonous pursuit to Neela, a bit too neutral for her tastes.
Neela emerged gradually from the bank of the river, the tempting strip of sunshine caressing her hair and her gorgeous Benarasi sari, bathing her with its gleaming light. Rebati’s eyes caught hold of her magical beauty, and arrested the scene for a moment. In the next instant, he lowered his eyes, just as he was trained since his childhood by his aunt. If he ever encountered any beautiful girl and got bewitched with her charm, he was censured by his aunt, pointing her fingers towards his aberration. Hence, he would have to be content with a curt, momentary glance, absorbing her charm for just a second or two.
“Come on, look at her properly, for once!” Sohinee rebuked him with her eyes.
Startled, Rebati looked up, and glanced at Neela again.
“Just look, Doctor of science, how the colour of her sari matches with the colour of the leaves!” Sohinee said.
“Wonderful, truly!” He replied, hesitatingly.
Sohinee said to herself: “He is incorrigible!” But she had to retain his attention somehow, so she said again: “You see, the yellow peeks from inside the bluish green. Can you tell me which flower it resembles?”
This deepened his enthusiasm, and he looked at Neela more intently. “I just remembered one flower, but its outer layer is not blue, but brown.” He said.
“Which flower? Can you name it for me?”
“Melina.” He replied.
“I know. It has five petals, one of it a resplendent yellow, the four others dark-coloured.”
“How did you know so much of its details?” Rebati asked, amazed.
“Hmm, I shouldn’t have known, then, isn’t it? After all, these flowers are not part of my daily puja offerings to the Gods, so I should have treated them as alien.”
Neela came along, slowly, gracefully, with a flower basket in her hands. “Now, now, dear, what makes you stand so awkwardly? Touch his feet, quick!” Her mother ordered her.
“Let it be…” Rebati felt embarrassed. He was sitting with his legs folded, and Neela somehow managed to find his feet and offer her pranaam. His entire body shivered at her touch. In the basket, he saw some delectable ingredients—a rare species of an orchid, various exotic desserts made of nuts and pistachios and rich cream, and also baked yogurt, cut in distinct squares.
“Neela made all of this with great care, you know.” Sohinee remarked. It was far from the truth, for Neela didn’t have the least expertise, or inclination for the culinary arts.
“Please have a few bites from the desserts, son. All these are homemade, only for you.” She insisted. In reality, the sweets were all ordered from a familiar shop in the Burrabazar area.
Rebati folded his palms and requested: “I am not supposed to eat anything at this time of the day. If I have your permission, I would like to take it home.”
“As you wish, dear. My husband never believed in requesting people to eat. He used to tell me: humans are not snakes, after all.”
Sohinee arranged all the food she had brought for him in a large tiffin carrier. She ordered Neela to decorate all the flowers carefully in the basket. “Don’t mix one kind of flower with the other, be careful. And also, untie the silken handkerchief attached to your bun, and place it on top of the flowers, please.” She said.
In the scientist’s eyes, she saw the reflection of the delight and enthusiasm of an art connoisseur. It was an out of the world moment, and Rebati’s curious eyes screened it all with great fervour—the myriad colours of the flowers, Neela’s nimble fingers arranging them in a delicate rhythm. He was looking at her face intermittently. On one hand, he felt an alluring attraction for her face guarded by the majestic rainbow of her hairs, tied with a necklace studded with precious jewels. On the other hand, the bright red border of her yellow blouse had a mesmerizing appeal on his senses. And though Sohinee was busy arranging the sweets for him, with her third eye, she fully absorbed the drama unfolding in front of her.
She remembered her own experience with her husband, which made her think of the terrains he had trudged with her, fenced with his quest for education and his unyielding perseverance. As she glanced at Rebati, she realized the fence was not as deeply built within him as she wished it was. It disturbed her.