Dena Paona (The Dowry Death)

- Rabindranath Tagore
(Translated by Lopamudra Bannerjee)

Rabindranath Tagore
Nirupama was born to her parents after her five elder brothers. Her name, evoking the unmatched beauty of a woman, fondly attributed to her by her parents, was quite a fancy one in the family.  They were used to their rather commonplace, customary names given to them after the Hindu gods and goddesses—Ganesh, Karthik, Parvati, and so on.

Nirupama grew up, blossoming into a beauty and marriage proposals followed suit. After a frantic search for a suitable groom, her father Ramshundar Mitra found the only son of an affluent Raybahadur for his loving daughter. Though the Raybahadur’s ancestral property was diminishing, the family fancied the last vestiges of their aristocratic glory.

The alliance was fixed in a haste, as Ramshundar succumbed to the groom’s family’s demand of ten thousand rupees and abundant gifts as marriage dowry. In a way, he had agreed to all of this without considering the consequences, but he had no other choice. He could not let go of such an alliance for her beautiful daughter, no matter what.
As the day of the wedding was fast approaching, he discovered how hard it was to accumulate the money they demanded. He pawned, and also sold most of his belongings, yet, after all his concerted attempts, he was short of some six or seven thousand.

Finally, the day of Nirupama’s wedding came. Ramshundar had managed to get hold of someone who agreed to lend him the money with heavy interests. However, as luck would have it, he did not turn up on time. And then, just before the marriage rituals were about to be solemnized, the venue of the wedding transformed to a pandemonium.

“Please do not go away before the ceremony is over,” Ramshundar had pleaded to the Raybahadur, “I will definitely repay you the entire sum.” He was on his knees, begging to the Raybahadur to consider his situation with his generosity. However, all his pleas failed to have any impact on the Raybahadur and his clan. “Unless the full money is repaid here and at once, the groom will not sit for the marriage rituals.” He ordered.
The chaos and uproar spread like wildfire and reached the inner quarters of the house, where the women were preparing the bride for the wedding rituals. The demure, pretty one, who was considered the root of all this misery, sat in a quiet corner, dressed in all her bridal finery, her jewelry, her forehead smeared with sandalwood paste, as the women surrounding her began to weep, sigh and moan at this impending doom. It didn’t seem that she had developed much love, admiration or reverence for her future in-laws’.   

In the meanwhile, everybody present at the scene witnessed a miracle. The groom suddenly rose amid this unrelenting anarchy and retorted on his father’s face.

“What is this trading and bargaining going on? I do not understand, nor do I intend to understand any of this. I came here to marry and will go away after marrying.” He said, sternly, confidently.

The Raybahadur, insulted and enraged at this sudden display of his son’s defiance, complained about it to every person who passed by. “Is this how our own children have learnt to disregard their parents? What a shame!” He grumbled, with a sigh, to which the elderly lot replied: “No wonder they are turning up against us. They are not taught about the scriptures, or given any lessons on morality.”

Needless to say, after that, the marriage rituals were completed with mirthless urgency. All this while, the Raybahadur sat, stoned with anger and frustration as he witnessed the damaging effects of modern education on his own offspring.

“Will they never allow me to come to you now, baba (father)?” Niru had asked, amid her muffled tears, during her farewell from her father’s house.  Ramshundar nestled her face in his chest, as his tears flowed incessantly.

“Why wouldn’t they, dear? They certainly will. I will go to your in-laws’ place and ask for their permission.” Ramshundar assured her.

However, as he started frequenting Niru’s in-laws’ place, he felt belittled. In a few days’ time, he gathered that even the servants of the house despised him. The brief meeting of the father and daughter always took place in one of the rooms of the outer house, and never lasted beyond five minutes. Sometimes, the meeting didn’t happen at all, if her in-laws didn’t allow her.

Ramshundar was unable to take the humiliation any longer, and that too, from his new relatives with whom he had hoped to forge a hearty connection. In a sudden impulse, he swore to himself to repay them the remaining amount of the dowry as soon as possible, by any conceivable means. But soon, the bitter reality of his situation struck him, as he found out how overburdened he was, with the debts he had incurred. It was a recurring pain to keep distance from the debt collectors who would come looking after him.

Meanwhile, Niru’s life at her in-laws had turned miserable. The silent tears she would shed in her room became her constant companions. She listened to the abuses and insulting comments being hurled at herself and her parents, stoically.

Sometimes, when any relative would praise Niru’s beauty in front of her mother-in-law, exclaiming how stunning and soothing her face was, she would quickly, fiercely retaliate: “Ah, talk about beauty! As beautiful as the family she belongs to.” Her grudge against Niru, in particular, was striking.

Her daily life in the house was that of negligence and ignominy, as she survived on minimal nourishment and clothing, on minimal, almost non-existent care and attention.
“What we are doing for her is enough,” her mother-in-law would reply on the face of well-meaning neighbours who tried to empathize with the neglected new bride. If the father had paid the entire sum of the dowry, the daughter would get all their love, care and attention. However, since he did not, Niru felt she had no right in the house. It had been evident to her from the conduct of every single person in the house that she had deceived everybody while entering the family.
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Not very long after, Ramshundar came to know of the apathy and humiliation Niru was facing in her in-laws’ house. As his last recourse, he attempted to sell off his house to gather some funds. But he did it secretly; he didn’t want his sons to know that he would turn them homeless, penniless. He had planned to rent his own house after selling it, so that his sons would never get to know of it until his death.

But his plan turned upside down as his sons knew of it eventually. His three elder sons, married and with children, pleaded to him and finally deterred him from selling the house. Left with no other alternative, he started lending money from various sources with huge interests. Thus, after some time, it became increasingly difficult for him to meet the expenses of the family.

As for Niru, she had gauged the tremendous agony of her father while reading his face. His grey hairs, pale face and his hesitant demeanor spoke volumes of his abject poverty and anguish. He knew he was guilty in his dear daughter’s eyes, and was unable to suppress his feeling of guilt. In their brief encounter, when Niru looked into her father’s eyes, when she saw him feign a smile, she could feel the gash of his tattered, torn heart.

One day, when Ramshundar came to visit her, she pleaded, “Baba, do take me home for once, please!” She had been dying to visit her parents’ home, to soak in the soil and earth of the home where she was born and spent her idyllic childhood, to embalm her father’s bruised heart.

Ramshundar nodded his head and replied, “Ok, dear.”

But didn’t the father and daughter know then, that their humane longings had no value in the Raybahadur’s house? Ramshundar had actually pawned his natural right on his daughter in lieu of the dowry money he did not even pay in full. As for his wish to see his daughter, he would have to beg for it every time he visited her in-laws’ place. His wish, at times, was not granted, but he did not have the right to revolt.

But now that Niru longed to visit her parents’ house so badly, he had to tend to her wishes. He had managed to collect three thousand rupees and set out to appeal to Niru’s father-in-law for her visit to her parental home. How he had accumulated that amount will unfold yet another agonizing story, but let that lay buried for now.

He came to meet Niru’s father-in-law, with the notes wrapped in a handkerchief, which he had tied to his own shawl. He took time to warm up, starting with a long introductory discussion about his own neighborhood, including a theft in his neighbor Harekrishna’s house, a light-hearted comparison between his neighbour’s sons, and some more trivial, irrelevant discussions. Finally, he kept down the hookah on the floor and came to the point. “Ah well, I forgot, you do owe me some money. Believe me, I remember about it every time before visiting you, but then I forget about it somehow. No wonder, I am getting old, you see!”

The three printed notes that he unwrapped from his handkerchief were as precious as three scattered bones of his rib cage, yet he handed them over to Niru’s father-in-law with a façade of ease and nonchalance.

“Let it be, keep this money to yourself, I do not need it”, the Raybahadur brushed him off, as he burst out in peals of laughter. To this, he added a popular Bengali proverb which indicated that he did not wish to have foul smell in his hands for a trivial reason.
The sudden, unexpected insult came to Ramshundar like a jolt, as he tried to swallow the absurd proposal of taking his daughter home with him. But then, he gave it a second thought. “Such fancy hesitation does not suit me any longer”, he said to himself. He took a long pause of silence, and finally made the proposal in a soft, piteous voice. To this, the Raybahadur gave a nonchalant, negative reply, “That is not possible now”. He left the room on the pretext of some work, without even caring to provide a reason or an explanation behind his denial.

With trembling hands, Ramshundar wrapped the three unwanted notes to the handkerchief and tied them to his shawl again, turning back to leave without meeting his beloved daughter. That day he had promised to himself not to visit Niru’s in-laws’ house again, until he could repay them the entire amount of the dowry they had demanded. It was an absolute necessity now, he was sure, so that he could reestablish his rights over his daughter unhesitatingly.

As the days passed, Nirupama became impatient to meet her father. She fetched one messenger after the other to enquire about him, but all of them returned without any news. After a point, it hurt her ego and she stopped sending anyone to her father’s home. It bruised Ramshundar too, but he still deterred himself from meeting Niru.  
Finally, in the month of Ashwin, when Durga Puja was just around the corner, his heart melted for Niru. “I must bring my Niru Ma home during this Puja, come what may”, he swore to himself.

“Grandpa, are you going away to buy a car for me?”

The voice of one of his grandsons, a little boy of five startled him, while he was about to leave for Niru’s in-laws’ place, with some paper notes, tied to his shawl yet again. It was the auspicious Mahapanchami or Mahashashthi day of the Durga Puja, and he remembered that the child had eagerly wanted to stroll in a wheelbarrow for quite some time now; but alas, who would fulfil his wishes?  His heart was heavy with sighs, when a granddaughter came up to him, wailing. The poor little girl did not have a single new sari to wear during the puja. 

He knew of this excruciating poverty in his own family, and the thoughts overwhelmed him every day, while he had his daily dose of tobacco. The thought that his own daughters-in-law had to go to the puja invitation at the Raybahadur’s house like pitiable, wretched souls, with a bare minimum of jewelry, troubled him. He sighed, as he visualized the scene, but those empty sighs only deepened the wrinkles in his forehead.

He entered through the main gate of the Raybahadur’s house, the shrill cries of his own poverty-stricken house still ringing in his ears. However, he had brought the passport to his daughter’s peace and happiness along with him; so he breezed through the scrutinizing eyes of the gatekeeper and the servants, as if it were his own home.
The Raybahadur was not at home, so he was told to wait for some time. But his unrestrained emotions compelled him to meet Niru at once, without her father-in-law’s permission. The father and daughter were reunited in a relentless ocean of tears, unable to speak a word for a long while.

“I have come to take you with me, Niru. All problems have been resolved.” Ramshundar managed to speak after a long while.

Right at that moment, Niru’s eldest brother Haramohan arrived on the spot with his two little sons.

“How could you do this to us, baba?” He asked his father, helpless, dismayed.  
Ramshundar had sold his house to arrange for the dowry money. However much cautious he had been to keep the news a secret to his sons; they had come to know of it. This annoyed him immensely, as he became furious at the sudden arrival of his son. “Do you want me to rot in hell after my death? Won’t you let me be truthful to the promises I made?” He shouted.

At this moment, his five year-old grandson clutched his knees with all his might and asked: “Grandpa, you won’t buy me the car?”

Ramshundar’s head stooped in shame. The little boy came up to Niru and said: “Pishima (aunt), can you buy me a car?”

Nirupama was stoned in anguish; the disgrace, the helplessness and the squalor of her own family stabbed her heart.

“Baba, if you give a single penny to my father-in-law today, I swear you are never going to see me again”. She said.

“No dear, you must not speak like this. If I don’t to give him the money, it would be an insult to both of us.” Her father replied, his eyes welling up.

“On the contrary, if you give him the money, it will be an insult to both of us.” Niru revolted. “Am I only a bag full of money? Is my existence valued only as long as the money exists? Baba, do not insult me by giving him the money. And besides, your son-in-law doesn’t want this money.” Niru’s words, pent up within her for all this while, broke free, reverberating in the room with all their urgency and earnestness.

“Then they will not let you go with me, dear.” Ramshundar replied, his voice choked in helplessness.

“What to do, Baba? In that case, do not request to take me with you.” Niru replied.
Ramshundar, miserable and lost, went away from the house, stealthily, along with the money. But the news that he had brought along the money and that his daughter had forbidden him to give it to her in-laws did not remain a secret in the house. An inquisitive maid servant had chanced upon their conversation and conveyed it to Niru’s mother-in-law, who was infuriated to know of her audacity.

After this incident, Niru’s life at her in-laws’ place became more miserable. Her husband, promoted to the position of a deputy magistrate, had to leave her to join his work a few days after their wedding. To add to her woes, she had been strictly forbidden to meet anyone from her own family. Their company, according to her in-laws, had been detrimental to her.

Not long after, Niru was stricken by a serious illness, but one could not blame her mother-in-law for that entirely. She was extremely negligent about her own health. During the beginning of the winter months, she kept the door of her room open; during winter, she didn’t cover herself enough with warm clothes, and she even neglected her daily meals. Whenever the servants forgot to bring her food, she didn’t remind them about it. Her stoic resignation resulted from a deep-rooted impression that her life depended on the pity of her in-laws’ and their servants. It was not a big deal to part with such an inconsequential life.  

As for her mother-in-law, she could not stand such passive resignation on her part either. ““Ah well, she was born a princess, wasn’t she? Why would she like the food served by us poor folks?” She would remark if Niru skipped her meals.

At other times, she would pass derogatory comments on seeing Niru’s deteriorating health, which conveyed nothing but her apathy towards her daughter-in-law.

“All this is merely show-off”, she remarked, when Niru’s ailment became more severe. In her death-bed, Niru begged to her mother-in-law to see her father and brothers for one last time. “All the time, she wants to visit her parents’ home!” She remarked, as Niru was just about to succumb to death’s clarion call.  

It was unbelievable, but true, that a doctor visited Niru the day she breathed her last. It was his first and last day he saw her in the house as a patient.

The funeral rites of Niru were performed with much pomp and grandeur. The Raychaudhury’s, another clan of the zamindars in the district were famous for their opulent idol immersing ceremony following the Durga Puja. This time, the Raybahadurs’ had defeated them with an even more spectacular ceremony, that of their daughter-in-law’s funeral. The sandalwood that they had bought for Niru’s cremation became the talk of the town. Moreover, it was rumored that the Raybahadur had incurred some debts in order to perform the ceremony, one of the grandest in the family.

While consoling Niru’s agonized father, people described the magnificence of her funeral ceremony, which they thought, had made up for the tragedy of her death.
A few days later, Niru’s deputy magistrate husband wrote a letter back home. “I have made all necessary arrangements for my wife to stay with me, do send her here without any further delay.”

“Dear son, we have arranged your marriage alliance with another girl; do take a leave and come home without any further delay.” The Raybahadur’s wife, his mother replied.
This time, the amount of the dowry was twenty thousand rupees, and the cash was to be handed immediately.
(Written in Bengali year 1298, i.e. 1892 AD)