English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s story ‘Khata’, which appears in his magnum opus collection of short stories and two novellas, ‘Galpaguchchho’)
Right after Uma started to write, she had been creating nuisance in the house. Each and every room in their house, each and every wall bore testimony to her scribbling. In the walls, she created zig-zag lines and wrote in large, raw letters: “Water falls, leaves shake.”
Under the pillow of her elder sister-in-law’s room, she had found a book titled ‘Haridas-er Gupta Katha’ (The Secret Tales of Haridasa). She plundered the pages of the book with her pencil and scribbled in every page: “Black Water, Red Flower.”
She even took the calendar/almanac, one that was for regular use in the household and had almost replaced the list of the constellations printed there with the large letters created by her own child hands.
She also took the notebook where her father maintained his daily accounts and wrote there: “One who studies hard lives a grand life.”
Her little, inconsequential literary endeavors had continued unperturbed for days, until a serious accident occurred. The elder brother of Uma, Govindalal looked harmless apparently, but he was a regular writer for newspapers and other publications. When he talked with his kith and kin, or even his neighbors and acquaintances, nobody would ever suspect him of being an intellectual. And truly speaking, he had never been rumored to think deeply about any subject whatsoever, but despite his exterior facade, he continued to write, and opinions reflected in his writings were very much akin to his readers in Bengal.
There were some serious misconceptions about physiology among the contemporary European scientists. Govindalal had strongly refuted all of them in an interesting essay he wrote. He had avoided the use of logic entirely and composed the essay based on his unique and exhilarating use of language. One silent afternoon, Uma picked up the pen and ink of her elder brother and scribbled across the essay with large letters yet again. This time, she wrote on it: “Gopal is such a good boy, he eats whatever he is given to eat.”
Obviously, I do not believe that she referred to the readers of Govindalal’s essays as ‘Gopal’, but he was enraged to discover her scribbling. First, he hit her violently, then he snatched away all the little instruments of writing that she had saved with utmost care, including her small pencil and her blunt pen, smudged with ink all over it. The little girl, unable to realize the cause of this insult and oppression inflicted on her, sat in a neglected nook of the house and wept profusely.
When the duration of the punishment ended, her brother became a little repentant for his behavior and returned to her the belongings he had snatched from her. Moreover, he tried to obliterate her pain by gifting her a decent, hard-bound notebook.
This notebook became the sanctuary for the seven year-old Uma. She kept this under her pillow at night and on her lap at all times during the day, as her prized possession. Little Uma proceeded to the girls’ school in the village in her neatly tied braid along with her servant girl, holding the notebook, and the other girls looked at her in awe, an indescribable envy overpowering them.
In the first year, she wrote in the notebook with extreme care: “The happy birds are chirping, the night has come to an end.” She sat on the floor of her bedroom, clutching the notebook tight, read and wrote with a loud, musical voice. Thus, she collected quite a number of prose and poems.
Towards the entire second year, she started to express herself through some independent writing, brief, but extremely significant, with no exposition or conclusion. A couple of them can be shared here as examples.
In the notebook, just below the place where she copied the story of a tiger and crane, she wrote a line of her own, totally detached from the fable or from contemporary Bengali literature. She had written: “I love Yashi very much.” Now, I want to make it clear to my readers that this is not the beginning of a love story. Yashi, for that matter, was not the name of an adolescent boy, but the endearing short name of a servant girl of the family, whose full name was Yashoda.
Although this very line suggests intense friendship between the two girls, it absolutely does not prove Uma’s feelings towards Yashi. One who would be eager to write an authentic history regarding this would find enough testimony in this very notebook which refuted the previous proclamation of love. And this was not the only one. In fact, all of Uma’s compositions were full of contradictory statements. Like, in one place, she wrote: “I shall never ever speak to Hari again (Hari is again the name of her classmate Haridasi).” Just a few pages after this, she wrote some lines which would easily make one believe that Hari was her most intimate friend in the whole world.
These trivial literary expressions of Uma, however, came to a halt soon. One auspicious morning in the very next year, when the little girl had turned nine, the music of shehnai resounded in their house, marking a new beginning in her life. Uma was getting married. Her groom Pyarimohan was a fellow writer of her elder brother Govindalal. Though the groom was quite young and was educated to an extent, there was no place for liberal thoughts in his heart. His neighbors and acquaintances were all praises for his staunch conservatism. Govindalal too had tried to imitate his standpoints, but was unable to succeed fully in this endeavor.
Draped in her glittering Benarasi sari, Uma hid her crying face under the bridal veil and went away to her in-laws’ place. During her farewell, her mother had advised her: “Do pay attention to the words of your mother-in-law, dear. Please carry on all your household chores and forget about reading and writing.”
Her elder brother Govindalal cautioned her: “Listen, do not ever scribble in the walls of your in-laws’ house, they are very strict people. And also, do not ever dare to overwrite on any of Pyarimohan’s writings with your pen.”
The little girl’s heart was full of trepidation as she listened to these cautionary expressions. She realized then that she would never be pardoned in her new house, and would also get to know the meaning of offence, crime, mistakes and shortcomings after a lot of admonishing over an extended period of time.
In her new house too, the music of Shehnai played on, and the house was swarmed with people. However, not a soul amid the loud cacophony of people could feel the trembling heart of the little girl draped in her Benarasi sari and her wedding jewelry.
Uma’s servant girl Yashi went along with her to her in-laws’ place. She had intended to stay with her there for some time till she was fully conversant with the new household, and then, she would return to Uma’s parents’ house. The affectionate girl that Yashi was, she took along the notebook of Uma after some consideration. The notebook was a vestige of love, a legacy carried from her parents’ house where she had stayed for a short duration of her life, following her birth. In the unskilled, haphazard scribblings of Uma engraved in its pages, it carried a brief, endearing history of her parents’ place. To Uma, it would signify the essence of a sweet, affectionate freedom, reminiscent of her childish pleasures amidst her untimely initiation into domesticity.
In the first few days at her in-laws’ place, she had not written a single word, and there was no time for writing too. Finally, when Yashi returned to Uma’s parents’ house after staying with her for a few days, she closed the door of her bedroom and pulled out her cherished notebook from a tin box. She cried uncontrollably as she wrote: “Yashi went away to our house, I too want to go there, I want to go back to my mother.”
These days, she did not have the scope to copy stories from her books, ‘Charu paath’ and ‘Bodhoday (The Awakening) in her notebook, nor did she have a strong desire to do that. Therefore, there were no long, intermittent gaps between the little sentences she had crafted. Just after her earlier expression, she wrote in the very next page: “If Dada (elder brother) comes here and takes me back home, I will never spoil his writings.”
It was even heard that Uma’s father had sometimes attempted to bring her home for a visit, but her elder brother Govindalal would conspire with her husband Pyarimohan not to let that happen. Govindalal explained to his father: “It is the right time for her to learn how to best serve her husband; it would only disturb and distract her from her domestic duties if she is brought to her old house at regular intervals now.” He had recently written a compelling essay on this subject which combined useful advice and satire to such an extent that it moved many of his readers who were unable to deny its sheer, invincible truth.
When Uma had heard about this essay written by his elder brother in her in-laws’ house, she could not help writing in her notebook: “Dada, I beg of you. Do take me home for once, I promise I will never ever irritate you with any of my mischief.”
One silent afternoon, while Uma bolted the doors of her room to write another meaningless, inconsequential account of her day-to-day life, her inquisitive sister-in-law Tilakmanjari peeped through a hole of the door and caught her in the act. For days, her curiosity about Uma propelled her to keep an eye on her while she closed the door of her room. She was astonished at the revelation. There had never been such surreptitious celebration of Goddess Saraswati in their household, and that too, by the women of the house.
Her younger sister Kanakmanjari was passing by, she too imitated her sister and peeped through the hole. And then, after a few moments, her younger sister Anangamanjari, too little to be able to reach the hole, balanced herself on her toes and toiled to discover the secret conspiracy behind the bolted door.
Rapt in the act of writing, Uma suddenly heard the giggles and whispers, and voices of three familiar entities outside the room. Soon, she realized what was going on, and kept back the notebook in the tin box. She hid away in her bed for quite long, in the shame and terror of being caught.
Pyarimohan soon got to know of this and it worried him to no ends. He was sure this act of scribbling would sooner or later lead to her reading of novels and drama, and thus, her domestic duties would take a backseat. After thinking about these consequences with much deliberation, he had deduced a subtle theory on the subject. He would say that the power and value of conjugal life was the result of the graceful amalgamation of both masculine and feminine powers. However, he was afraid that education would destroy the feminine power of women and replace it with the more prevalent masculine power in domestic life. This, he was certain, would result in a clash between both masculine powers that would end up in an apocalypse of the conjugal togetherness, and bring further doom in the household as the wife would turn a widow. And needless to say, his theory was undisputed in the entire house.
When he returned home in the evening, he rebuked Uma to his heart’s content and also mocked her for her secret initiative to write. “Look what days we are seeing now; the lady of the household will soon step into the office with a pen tucked in her ear.” He said.
It was not easy for Uma to understand the satire of her husband’s statement. She had not yet read any of Pyarimohan’s essays, and so, did not have the requisite humor to grasp the essence of his ironic sentences. But the gesture of her husband made her shudder and coil in extreme shame and embarrassment—she prayed that the earth broke open for her to give her shelter, she felt like hiding deep beneath the earth’s crust.
Uma did not write anything for a long time after that incident. Then, when one glorious autumnal morning, a beggar girl came outside the house to sing and beg for alms. Uma listened to her song with rapt attention as she faced her from the window bars. The gracious sunlight of the autumn morning made her nostalgic of her childhood days, moreover, the ‘Agamani’ song of the beggar girl, depicting the homecoming of Goddess Durga, fueled her pain even more.
Though Uma could not sing, she had developed this habit of writing down the lyrics of the songs she heard, as if in an attempt to compensate for her inability to sing. Today, Kangali, the beggar girl was singing:
“The villagers said: Oh, Uma’s mother, see,
Your lost star came back home.
Hearing this, the restless mother runs,
Where, where is Uma, my loving daughter?
She cries as she asks, did you come to me, my Uma?
Come here, come to me for once, let me cuddle you in my lap.
Uma stretches her arms for her mother, and lovingly complains,
Through her eyes, she asks: why did not you bring me back home yourself?”
The words of the song filled her with unexplained emotions and her eyes brimmed with tears. She secretly called for the singer in her room, shut the door and started writing the song in her notebook.
Just at that moment when she was immersed in writing down the lyrics, her three sisters-in-law, Tilakmanjari, Kanakmanjari and Anangamanjari witnessed her act again from the hole of the door and clapped their hands together. “Bou didi (sister-in-law), what are you doing? We have seen everything!” They jeered.
Seeing this, Uma quickly opened the door and pleaded with them: “For God’s sake, please do not tell about this to anyone, my dear! I beg of you—do not tell about this to anyone, I will never write again.”
Just then, Uma noticed that Tilakmanjari had her eyes fixed on her notebook. She ran towards it and clutched it tight to her bosom. The sisters-in-law tried all possible means to snatch it away from her, but summoned their elder brother when their efforts failed.
Pyarimohan came to the room and sat on the bed with a sullen face. With a loud voice, he roared: “Give me the notebook.” When Uma did not comply, he repeated, this time, with a lower pitch: “Give it to me.”
She still held the notebook close to her chest and looked at her husband with her imploring eyes. Then, when he approached her to snatch the notebook from her, she threw it on the floor and fell on the ground, her face hidden in the tender warmth of her palms.
With resolute hands, Pyarimohan picked up the notebook from the floor and started to read the writings of his young wife in a loud, satiric voice. In the verge of a collapse at this unexpected exhibition of mockery, Uma craved to embrace the nooks and crevices of the earth with all her might. Seeing her plight, the three other female audiences burst out in peals of laughter.
From that day, Uma never got back her notebook. In fact, her husband Pyarimohan had a notebook of his own where he had a collection of his own essays and his subtle idiosyncratic theories. However, there was no philanthropist anywhere around who could snatch away his asset and destroy it for good.
[Lopa Banerjee is an author/poet and translator based in Dallas, USA. She has a masters’ degree in English literature from the University of Calcutta and in Creative Nonfiction writing from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is the co-editor of ‘Defiant Dreams’, the Amazon bestseller published by Readomania. Her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, a First Place Category winner at the Journey Awards 2014 hosted by Chanticleer Reviews, has recently been published by Authorspress and is available in Amazon and Flipkart. Her poetry, essays and short stories have been published in many anthologies, journals and e-zines both in India and in the US. She has been a regular contributor for Café Dissensus, Different Truths and Readomania and has received the Reuel International Prize for Translation 2016 for her publication of ‘The Broken Home’, English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novella ‘Nastanirh’.]