Bakul Katha: Novel by Ashapurna Debi

Lopa Banerjee

Translation by Lopamudra Banerjee

Translator’s Note:

Writing my own poetry and prose along with translating classic works of poetry and prose has always been perceived by me as both sides of a single coin, where the nuances, the various shades and layers of a poem or a story need to emerge from the depths of an inner consciousness. In 2015, when I had first emerged in the translation scene with my humble effort to translate Tagore’s novella ‘Nastanirh’ into ‘The Broken Home’ (in English), I had depended mostly on my emotional fervor and my literary consciousness to explore the complex world of the protagonists in the novel. In 2018, when I came out of Bengal’s literary doyenne Ashapurna Debi’s house in Kanungo Park, Garia, Kolkata with the silent promise of bringing out her novel ‘Bakul Katha’ in English translation for the global readers, propelled by a heart-to-heart conversation I had with her daughter-in-law Dr. Nupur Gupta, it was the same emotional fervor which was accentuated further when I delved into the book and started transcreating the world of Bakul and her successors. 

Ashapurna Devi (8 January 1909 – 13 July 1995), as everyone in Bengal and also beyond knows, was a widely honored, acclaimed, prominent Bengali novelist and poet, a Jnanpith Awardee (1976) and recipient of Padma Shri by the Government of India; D.Litt. by the Universities of Jabalpur, Rabindra Bharati, Burdwan and Jadavpur. Vishwa Bharati University honoured her with Deshikottama in 1989. For her contribution as a novelist and short story writer, the Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest honour, the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, in 1994. She has been a prolific novelist and short story writer all throughout her life and has written one thousand five hundred short stories and almost two hundred and fifty full-length novels and novellas in her lifetime. She has been considered as the doyenne of Bengali literature in the post Rabindranath and Saratchandra era. Her rich, extensive repertoire also consists of 37 collections of short stories and 62 books for children. 

The first challenge in translating any one of Ashapurna’s huge repertoire of novels came as I tried to choose a subject which would be contemporary, relevant, resonating with today’s women. But when I chose ‘Bakul Katha’, which had only been translated into Marathi before, and never in English, I instantly felt it would inspire a bevy of today’s women and compel them to think about the bygone generation of patriarchal values, the strange intersection between hard-earned emancipation and the abuse of freedom, the degeneration of values in which the protagonist Bakul finds herself.

Bakul Katha happens to be the last novel of Ashapurna’s literary masterpiece of a trilogy, preceded by Pratham Pratishuti and Subarnalata, which won the Indian National Sahitya Academy award. Cumulatively, in these three novels, Ashapoorna has portrayed the life stories of three generations of women, over the changing rural and urban milieu in Bengal of the twentieth century. Most importantly, in these three novels, she has touched on the contradictory expectations from women in contemporary Bengali society- at times oppressed, at times the apparently modern women with contemporary sensibilities, struggling to find their rightful places in the universe. At the same time, she explores the inner desires and aspirations of her women characters, unfettered by expectations of the men and families. 

A sequel to the spirited, oppressed Subarnalata’s story, Bakul Katha, her daughter’s story is also a tale about women and the diverse manifestations of their emotions as they express their free wills as women. Bakul finds herself in a society where values are diluted due to the overexposure to western ethos. Is this the kind of society that her mother Subarnalata and her grandmother Satyabati envisioned for their progeny and fought for, being the torchbearers of the feminist movement in their own unique forms of protest? She questions herself. 

Here I present a short excerpt from the full-length novel (chapter 1 and 2) and wish the team of Setu mag the very best for this special issue ‘Translation and Women-Exploring the Indian Subcontinent.’

 

 

Bakul Katha

Chapter 1.

 

Anamika Debi came close to the windowand stood there quietly, placing her pen at her writing table. The sound that emanated from the cacophonous world outside was a familiar one, so familiar that even if she kept sitting in her chair, she could visualize the ones marching ahead in the procession, and hear their words. Such an assembly of agitated individuals had been a daily phenomenon, the words embedded in the membrane of her ears. Their slogans pushed against every cell of her brain.

But then, why did she stop writing and stood there at the window, looking for the source of the discord. Did the loud noise generated by the crowd disrupt her writing, or was it a meaningless curiosity without a rhyme or reason? Just an insatiable urge to know what could be the source of such public outrage? Whatever be it, such chaos in the city streets should not have been an impediment to her writing…never!

Anamika Debi had been born and brought up amidst such characteristic chaos of her ancestral house, a house that stood tall at the beginning of a vastly populated Kolkata street. In fact, her journey with her pen had started amidst such disruptive noises. Hence, wouldn’t it be an absurd proposition if she had demanded to write in blissful solitude?

She was an author emerging out of this very mundane urban reality, after all. Her struggles had gained momentum in the midst of these terrible noises, and the pandemonium caused by the movements of innumerable people in the streets.

Would the unperturbed quiet of a rustic life and its uneventful surroundings be therapeutic to her persona as an author? Would she be able to write more often, given such surroundings? Most importantly, would her writings be more eclectic, then? She was not aware of the opinions of other urban writers in this regard. None of them had ever been close enough to her, to exchange thoughts or opinions of any kind.

As for herself, she believed that the source of sustenance of any kind of literature was the turbulent city life in its diverse colours, always transforming, always in a state of flux. Literature, according to her, thrived in the presence of the endless diversity that the city unfailingly offered. The nerves of the city were ever-restless, feverishly warm. That incurable fever, everybody knew, inspired art, literature, intellectual expressions, rejuvenating the sick and ailing.

The noise and the chaos, thus, had never been a threat to Anamika Debi. Rather she loved saying, “I am a writer dedicated to the masses. My only task is to derive my creative juices out of the cacophony of the world.”

But what about the feelings of someone close to her heart, her Sej di, her elder sibling, the silent poetess? Of course, she looked at it differently, and say: “Hats off to you for writing in the midst of such noise!” If Anamika Debi belonged to the world of the masses, her sister belonged to the world of solitude. She was a poetess at heart, reigning in her suburban home far from the madding crowd, the flowers of her heart’s desire blooming in the sacred quietude of her home.

But Anamika was busy catering to the wishes of other people, busy directing her moves according to their whims.

As she leaped towards the window and looked downwards, she noticed a steadily moving wall of countless people, and a mechanical sound emerging from the dense crowd…

“This is not done, this must stop!”

Suddenly, she was struck by a strange sense of humour. On one hand, she noticed this incessant stream of protest. On the other hand, she thought about the series of intolerable acts of continuous oppression.

Since times immemorial, this bewildering game of tyranny and protest took place as parallel entities. Today, the assembly was a remarkably long, never-ending one. Once, the noise paled a wee bit, but immediately after, a new surge of human voices followed. Finally, the humans dispersed, their voices subsided. The ones far behind the others in the crowd were seen running to the front, and the others were visible in between their frantic movements.

Anamika Debi returned from the window and seated herself on her chair, picking up the pen once again. But she couldn’t recollect her stream of thoughts. Then, an absurd idea struck her. It was not about her writing, not about the crowd of the streets, not even about the human anarchy, or politics, for that matter. It was her memory of barren lands surrounding her ancestral home, stretched on both sides of the property. Today, it was an overpopulated street standing in front of her, holding its breath with all its might.

Was this house built in a day? She had almost lost count of the years that went into its formation. “This house can testify to my childhood, my youth, my middle-age. It has been witness to all the days, months, years of my life…all the words of my soul have been imprinted within its four walls.” She thought, wistfully.

What if these walls could speak, and testify to her emotions, hold her precious words in invisible letters? She wondered at the marvels of science… Why can’t science make the wordless walls speak, condense the flawless history of humans held in one’s fist? She pondered.

… The telephone rang from one corner of her room. Anamika Debi lifted herself from her chair, and picked up the receiver. The telephone could be conveniently kept at her writing table, but she preferred to place it at the tiny table in that unassuming corner. She had taken a sort of fancy towards that particular corner, even though she would have to make extra efforts to reach it.

“… May I know who’s calling? … You are coming out with a new magazine? Happy for you! All my best wishes for its success…You want my story? Are you crazy? ...Impossible… I wouldn’t have said no if there was a way…Ah, well, continue with your good work, we will see later…. What? You are junior to me in age? …But I cannot submit a story right now, you see… What did you say again? About keeping my word? ...No, no, once I give my word to somebody, I can’t rest in peace until I deliver…Hmm, that is true. I understand how important it is to you, but is there a way?” She paused in between the sentences, as she held the phone close to her ears.

The person on the line coaxed and cajoled her with his consistent appeal. Finally, she had to surrender to his wish. “Ok, let’s see.” She said.

“No, please promise to write. I am announcing your name.” His robust voice pushed against the wall of the room, as he hung up the call, not allowing her one more word.

She knew the outcome of this conversation all too well. If she would be unable to submit her writing to this would-be editor in time for any reason whatsoever, he would badmouth her to everybody, to attain sympathy.

“What can I do if she doesn’t keep her word? Once a writer gets wee bit famous, look at her attitude! And we, always at the receiving end, cannot do without their contributions…” He would say.

Though these editors emphasize on the contributions of acclaimed authors, they actually rely on the glossy images of film stars—the way they walk, the way they place bananas on their mouths, the way they smear colours on their faces during Holi, and what not, Anamika pondered! These are the main highlights of their magazines, apart from the gossip columns, the ‘features’. Although stories and novellas are absolutely necessary to them too, they always want the famous ones to be on the safe side, so that the writing can go to the press directly. What else can they do, anyway?

Once, the literary world was armed with a sacred sense of responsibility. In fact, she herself was privileged to receive the magnanimity of acceptance in her initial years as a writer, albeit for a brief period. The man who had taken her under his wings was gone forever. Since then, she was standing as a lone entity in this open bazar, striving to carve her niche. All she had was the unconditioned love of the readers of Bengal.

She came back to her writing table, and once again, the words of her niece Shampa came back to her mind.

Pishi (Aunt), why don’t you keep the receiver at your writing table? Isn’t it inconvenient to move to that far corner every time the phone rings?”

She had the reply framed in her mind already. “No, dear! In that case, this room won’t remain a room, but become an office cabin…”

Though this happened to be one of the reasons behind this decision, there was another reason, the only true one. Quite often, these days, a young male voice demanded on the phone: “Can you please call Shampa?”

Shampa, upon being summoned, would come to the room, prancing and preening, and take the call, lowering her voice, lifting her face towards the wall. The conversation would continue for hours at a stretch.

Hence, the inconvenience was true for both parties. Shampa had recently fallen in love once again, and was floating on cloud nine…

Anamika Debi was not aware of all the recent happenings in her niece’s life, but she counted the number of times Shampa had fallen in love. It was five and a half, including the current one which was half-way through.

The first time she had fallen in love was with her distant cousin Bubul, the son of one of her distant maternal uncles, when she was eleven, and Bubul was seventeen. Bubul had just passed his school final exams from the suburbs and taken shelter at his distant aunt’s home with the aim of attending college. The handsome young boy with charming behaviour won everybody’s heart in the household. Moreover, his father kept sending money to finance his education, and the arrangement had pleased his aunt, Anamika’s sister-in-law.

However, once she discovered about his love affair with her daughter, all hell broke loose. First, the film magazines which came home because of Anamika Debi were deemed culprits, then the love stories written by her were blamed for the disaster. Shampa was punished severely for her reprehensible act, and her nephew was thrown out of the house.

Shampa’s mother was relieved that her eleven-year-old girl had learnt a hard lesson with that episode, and was sure she wouldn’t commit such crime ever again. But Shampa fell in love again, when she was twelve-and-a-half, with a young salesman of a stationery shop. The friendship that had started with notebooks, pencils, chocolates and pins soon grew into an irresistible romance. Free goodies started coming home, and soon, the story of the romance was revealed by an inquisitive neighbour boy. Probably he blurted out the story out of frustration since he himself was a candidate for Shampa’s affection, yet he failed to win her.

Thereafter, there was a constant policing on Shampa’s activities. Her father took on the responsibility of bringing home all the material things she needed, oblivious of the fact that love was all that she needed. After a short span of depression, Shampa found a new subject for her affection, this time, the elder brother of her classmate.

The news of this love affair was not supposed to reach home, since Shampa’s classmate had been a faithful ally in the romance, cautiously protecting the lovers. But then, the news reached Anamika Debi, albeit unexpectedly, after the break-up. Shampa, now a bit more grown-up and unabashed, came up to her aunt and declared:

Pishi, I have a new plot for your story!”

She narrated a story of romance with all her enthusiasm, and then, without any qualms, revealed that she herself was the heroine of the story.

“Tell me, Pishi, is it possible to tolerate such a dumb ass of a boy, to continue to love him?” She burst into peals of laughter.

Anamika thought about the heroines of her own stories, the audacious, brazen ones. But the spontaneity, the frank confessions of her own niece, the daring granddaughter of her male chauvinist father stunned her into silence.

Shampa continued:

“You know how angry Lily is with me, she thinks her brother has been humiliated!”

“But isn’t that natural?” Anamika replied.

“But what can I do, tell me? He is not even nineteen, Pishi, he just entered his third year in college. Look at his audacity, he asked me to take you in confidence, so that you can negotiate our marriage!” She giggled.

“But look at you, you are barely fifteen…not even passed high school!”

“So what? Do you think marriage is in my mind, of all things?”

“But you are indulging in romance!”

This didn’t curb Shampa’s spirits. She continued: “Romance is different, it has a thrill of its own! Why does it have to be for the objective of marrying a fool?”

Shampa, after abandoning that great fool, was least bothered this time. She joined the swimming club, asked for a sitar for herself, and got one.

Her parents and aunt thought of it as a great idea, a welcome relief from her expeditions with boys. Her elder brother Prasun was immersed in his pursuit of a scholarship abroad, hence didn’t bother about her. Shampa’s mother too tried to hide her daughter’s whereabouts from her son, and admonished her privately. As for Shampa herself, she was still ardently looking for that ‘charm’ factor in her life. Without further delay, she fell head over heels in love with her swimming coach in the club. The fire was burning from both sides. The duration of her swimming became prolonged, and her boldness skyrocketed every day.

Gradually, her parents’ control over her started to diminish, more so, when her elder brother migrated abroad. Shampa grew more and more daring with each passing day. One sentence thrown in her way, she would throw a hundred more. If her parents shouted on her for returning home late at night, she would return home even later the following night. If she was forbidden to step out of home, she would immediately put on her sandals and go away.

“You all seem to be living in the dark middle ages! Such a pity!” She would shout at them.

Her father had given up on her. “Let her go to hell, do whatever she wishes to!” He stated.

Anamika Debi had a suggestion to pacify Shampa’s parents.

“Search for a groom for her…everything will be alright once she ties the knot. Girls these days are getting all the more uncivilized because they are not getting husbands at their marriageable age.”

She said this, not as a writer, but as a commonplace woman in the household. Shampa’s mother negated the idea immediately.

“Marriage is out of question! She is only in her first year of college! What would people say if we want to marry her off so early? Where can we get a groom suitable for her age? We can’t get a groom ten years older to her and marry her off, like our own times, can we?” She replied.

No, they couldn’t. Shampa took full advantage of the situation, falling in and out of love time and again. Soon, the swimming coach was abandoned by her. “He sounds too boring for my tastes!” She claimed.

After this episode, Shampa started studying hard for quite some time. Apparently, it seemed she had come back to her senses. But one day she came up to her aunt and confessed:

“What a pain it is when you are not in love with anyone, Pishi! Ah, not a single soul to wait wistfully for me, not a single soul to feel blessed to see me, how dull it seems…but you know, I never came across anyone who could make me fall in love truly, deeply…”

Realizing the absence of her only ‘true love’, Shampa sought the ‘charm’ and thrill of love in unworthy suitors. During such a phase, she fell for a stupid-looking professor. A married one. But that didn’t stop Shampa from seeking adventure from the short-lived affair.

“So what if he’s married? I do not intend to marry him, only to make a fool of him!” She proclaimed.

Following that short-lived episode, she became involved in another affair, this time with a young librarian of her college library.

……The phone started ringing once again, just as Anamika was trying to concentrate on her writing.

“Such a hard task to climb all the way to the third floor every now and then, Pishi! Let’s see who wants to blabber with me now…by the way, there’s a letter for you.” She came to her aunt’s room with her characteristic gaiety.

She placed her aunt’s letter at her writing table and stood facing the wall, with her back to her aunt, hiding her ears and mouth with the receiver.

Anamika fiddled with the envelope before opening it. It was a letter from her elder sister, her Sej di. She wrote after a really long time.

But did Anamika herself write to her sister frequently? No way. When was the last time she wrote to Sej di? She couldn’t even remember. All she did was to write heaps of letters to people who didn’t matter. But Sej di was a stubborn, emotional woman. She didn’t want curtly written letters.

 

 

Chapter 2.

 

Anamika cared for the precious emotions of her dear Sej di. However, she couldn’t manage to reply to her letters. She couldn’t even initiate the act of writing a letter to her sister, and this inability stung her tender heart like a thorn. She continued writing trivial letters to other people with that pain-stricken heart. There seemed to be no other way out. Numerous readers in Bengal were ardent admirers of her writings, and among all the manifestations of such admiration, the urge to write letters to her in hope of her reply was the strongest. It was their heartfelt plea, saturated with unadulterated emotions—they felt restless to hear back from her.

How could Anamika Devi deprive them? How could she not pacify their apprehensions, when all it took was to write a letter to her fans? And that too, a tiny reply to their letters, with a dash of politeness, affection, cordiality! Could she forgive herself if she was unable to offer them this minimal token of thankfulness? How would they perceive her, if she couldn’t reach out to them? The last thing she wanted was to be labelled as a prudish, insolent author.

She was cautious enough to retain her image in the eyes of the outside world, and feared any unwarranted moment of negligence that could ruin that image of hers. The number of letters that reached her everyday was not meager, by any means. Her life was outside the periphery of ordinariness, hence her responsibilities towards the masses remained utmost important to her.

Hence, Sej di had to bear with her flaws, her inability to reach out. Day after day, her guilt of not reaching out to her sister turned to an incredible burden in her heart. Was it such an impossible feat to add one more letter to the pile of letters she already sent to her fans and admirers?

Maybe it was not impossible. Maybe it was impossible, at the same time, since she couldn’t manage to write to her dear one a few scanty lines just for the heck of it. She craved for a moment of leisure to accomplish the task. She was dying to come out of the skin of ‘Anamika Devi’, to explore her own secret, uninhibited self, to write that long-pending letter. But that kind of leisure to sit with her own true self, unhindered, evaded her for months, and became a mountainous burden in her heart.

The heart palpitated before opening the envelope of the letter. The image of a chunk of sensitive heart wreaked havoc in her mind, which she was sure, would drop into the ground as soon as she would open the envelope.

Just then, the phone rang again.

“Is Anamika Debi there?” A voice asked.

“Speaking!” She replied.

“I am calling from Vani Nagar Vidyamandir…”

He went on rambling, speaking with a demanding voice, without giving any attention whatsoever to what Anamika Devi might have to say. According to his explanation, there were many great people who had appeared as chief guests in the prize distribution ceremony of his school, and now it was her turn.

Anamika Debi was considered among this esteemed list of great personalities. She was a part of that list already, only her turn had come now. Her feeble words of protest were wiped away, taken over by his robust announcement: “I am sending the invitation card for printing!”

Anamika kept away her Sej di’sletter; the urge to read it subsided. It felt as if someone had played rough strokes of Tabla over the soft, sensitive resonance of a melodious tune.

After a while, she opened the letter, and read it.

“I read about you and your stories every day in the newspapers…They refer to you as ‘Anamika Debi’. But what about that notebook of Bakul? Has it been lost forever? Have the worms ruined it? But…”

Sej di had sent her an open-ended letter, culminating with ‘but’, signed off with her name, signature, and the indispensable ‘Sej di’.

This, she knew, was her characteristic style, with absolute disregard to the traditional art of letter writing. Sej di had no sense of addressing the elderly members of the family with the prerequisite words of respect, nor did she care much for addressing the younger members with her blessings. She didn’t exchange notes of wishing well, or share exciting news with anyone she wrote to, within her immediate family. Her letters looked more like usual conversations, with abrupt closures. This letter of hers ended with ‘but’.

Was all of this intentional? If Sej di had expressed fully what she had intended to convey, there wouldn’t be a thorn to prick her heart. Anamika contemplated about that precious notebook of Bakul. Was it ruined forever, thanks to the worms, to her own complacence? Where would she search for it now?

Did she even have the time to search for that long-forgotten notebook? She would have to go to North Bengal to attend a literary meet and stay there for three days. Upon returning, she would have to be a chief guest at Bani Nagar Vidyamandir, at the World Women’s Association, at the Youth Festival, and many other places. She would have to check her diary for the detailed schedules.

When would she search for Bakul’s notebook, look into its pages, wiping away the layers of dust settled on them for years? As the days passed by like a whiff of tempest, the dust and sand were accumulated over old memories.

But what about her Sej di? Anamika suddenly recollected a letter written by her sister, crafted in verses, titled ‘No wind here’. Sej di had stopped writing verses, provoked by her own husband.

Amal babu, Sej di’s husband believed it was impossible for anyone to craft intense love poems if he or she did not have a secret romantic liaison with somebody. Unfortunately, he did not have the mindset to accept the fact that there was a wellspring of eternal romance nestled within every sensitive human. He did not believe that there could be an intangible lover seated in the throne of the human heart in all his glory, a lover to surrender to, completely. So, he was extra cautious to guard the emotions of the queen of his own heart, to ensure that the doors and windows of her heart remained closely bolted all the time. He wanted no dirt from the outside world to enter that sacred space, he wanted to protect it with all his might.

Sej di took a drastic step, provoked by such strict policing. She didn’t write love poems any more. And then—her husband Amal babu left her one day, and joined the heavenly realm.

But even after her husband’s demise, she did not feel tempted to sow the seeds of intense love poems in her innermost land of loneliness…Rather, she let them sink into a bottomless pit of oblivion. They no longer bubbled up on the surface, as her heart had graduated to the attic of her brain. Even Anamika Devi, her sister, the renowned author remarked: “I do not understand your poetry these days!”

Both the sisters seldom got to meet each other. Sej di had vowed not to step feet in her parent’s home ever in her life, choosing a self-imposed exile for herself. But for Anamika, her parents’ home was the only shelter she had known. Hence, she would visit her dear Sej di, though only occasionally. They communicated only through letters. If Sej di would write a new poem, she would send it to her younger sister, and Anamika would reply with her comments.

Sej di had yet another gift, sometimes she would send letters to Anamika and her child friend Mohan in simple, attractive rhymes. She had an exceptional talent of befriending children, and they on their part, mingled with her with incredible spontaneity. It was God’s choicest gift showered on her, the ability to befriend little souls.

Once, Mohan, a little boy lived with his family as a neighbour to Sej di. They were non-Bengali speakers. His parents weren’t close to her, but the boy would cling to her every single day. In time, he had been an expert in communicating with her in Bengali. It’s been a really long time that they had left the neighbourhood, and Mohan might be studying in college now, but he was still in touch with her favorite ‘Aunty’. It was also at her request that he had to write letters to her in eloquent rhymes, like his childhood days. Besides, he was practicing the art of writing poetry in Bengali, so she had to correspond with him through poems, as she did with her sister.

Anamika tried to remember the time when Sej di had crafted a poem, titled ‘There’s No Wind Here’. She could recollect a few lines from it.

“There’s no wind here, the days and nights stand still.

There, at your end, the turbulent storm overpowers your senses.

The wings of your daily toil are shaken incessantly,

While the joy of my leisure loses itself in the ocean of time.

There’s no wind here, the wall calendar stands still,

Your letters drop at unknown domains, driven by the wind drift…”

Anamika had been completely stunned. How had Sej di figured the ‘storm’ brewing inside her so insightfully? Was it because she was at the opposite end?

But when she came to think of it, the people surrounding her everyday, who apparently saw the storm in motion, were the most nonchalant about it.

“What a life you have, really! All the day, you sit in your chair and write make-believe stories in your table, in exchange of fat cheques…” They said.

Anyway, she would have to search for that forsaken notebook of Bakul. But where would she look for it? In a box, in the old chest, in the almirah? Or somewhere else?

….Anamika Debi came downstairs. There were people waiting to meet her, which was pretty much a daily occurrence.

“You rather stay in a room downstairs, dear…It’s so much better than climbing down the stairs umpteen times in a day…” Mej da, her elder brother would say.

This suggestion, she believed, was out of love—not to uproot her from her cherished sanctuary in the third floor. She couldn’t think of her brothers being so mean, though she lived with them under the same roof, fortified by the strength of her father’s ‘will’. Still, had they been that wicked, she wouldn’t have been able to survive in the house. She found enough solace in the thought that nobody misbehaved with her in the house, given the fact that she had such a thriving social life of her own. The freedom to entertain people at all times, the freedom to step out of the house at all hours was entirely at her disposal.

Her sisters-in-law never interfered in her social life; they were courteous enough not to come to her with complaints. If they would ever complain, that was entirely directed towards their husbands or sons, or towards the wind that they called ‘God’.

The elder brother had died long back, so his widowed wife was almost non-existent. However, their son Apoorba was the legal heir of his father’s portion of the property, and he stayed with his family—his wife and only daughter, isolated from the rest of the members in the same house. Apoorba’s wife was a modern woman with sophisticated tastes. She intended to raise her daughter in contemporary fashion, away from the clustered, lack-lustre life adopted by her aunts-in-law. So, her husband had built a wooden panel in their part of the house to serve as a partition from the rest of the house. The south-facing verandah in the second floor belonged to Apoorba and his family. With modern embellishments including a big glass window, he had transformed the verandah into an aesthetically pleasing ‘hall’, with a dinner table and a set of sofas for seating the guests.

Alaka, Apoorba’s wife had an innovative mind. With her single-handed effort, she had revived a part of this old, archaic house. It was customary to sit on the floor to have lunch, with only an ‘aasan’ (mat) to make tea with all equipment scattered on the floor. There was no sense of beauty in all of this. And though the size of the house was quite big, it lacked proper planning, like the modern flats which Alaka admired. There was no possibility to make an earning from the property, which clearly indicated that the original owner of the house lacked foresight.

Frustrated to witness the decadence of the property, Alaka had decided to refurbish her own territory. Her daughter was going to an aristocratic English medium school. Even her servant and cook would dress prim and proper, in a bush shirt and loose pants, with sandals in their shoes.

The two sisters-in-law of Anamika had initially criticized Alaka for her innovative adventures, threw satirical words in an effort to belittle her. But gradually they had come to realize the advantages of her initiatives. Quite unknowingly, they had introduced the same initiatives in their own small worlds. At least now they admitted that it looked good if the men of the household had their meals at the dinner table. Anamika, however, never expressed her opinion about these domestic issues. She maintained her guest-like detachment during all occasions.

When Anamika came downstairs, she noticed a few gentlemen with intellectual look who conveyed their regards to her. She conveyed the same to them. They needed her signature in a petition. It was their mission to accumulate the signatures of esteemed personalities of the nation—renowned intellectuals and thinkers, educationists, philanthropists et al, for a social cause. Needless to say, Anamika Debi was in that elite list.

The petition was against corruption. The future of the country had been drowned in a black, unfathomable sea of corruption. Tormented and puzzled at the gravity of the situation, they had set out to control the disaster.

“Can you imagine how low we have stooped as a country? Food and medicine are highly adulterated, there is anarchy in education …” They complained with agitated voices, as if they had just woken up to the fact that the country was facing such disasters.

Anamika felt amused. “Look at them, little boys who have just been dropped on the bosom of this earth from Heaven?” She said to herself, in silence. However, she had to maintain the façade of concern in front of them.

“Yes, you are right. Wrong things are happening these days.” She confirmed, with a fake air of anguish.

“But that doesn’t mean we are going to keep quiet and tolerate this situation, Anamika Debi! You, as a responsible citizen have the highest responsibility to prevent such corruption. Artists, intellectuals cannot avoid their responsibilities towards the society and build castles in the air, feeding their imagination. That would be a treachery of the highest order.” They replied.

Anamika was startled at the authoritative voice of the leader of this group. But she maintained the calm of her voice, and asked: “May I know to whom this appeal is directed?”

“Whom else? To the good conscience of humans.” He replied, enthused.

“But who are those humans again? Those dishonest ones, indulging in corrupt services?” Anamika replied back, in a soft voice.

The man seemed somewhat hurt. With an anguished voice, he answered: “You might see this initiative of ours as something unworthy, but we strongly believe that the conscience of men would be awakened in time.”

“Surely! Let me look at the draft of your petition…” Anamika said.

“Anamika Debi, it wouldn’t be right for someone like you to stay indifferent amid such crisis of our nation. Who would be our messiah, then? Who would lead us from darkness to light, if literature and art cannot accomplish it?” The man handed her the document.

Anamika smiled and replied: “Is it so?”

“Why not? What are you saying?”

“If that is right, then the saying in Gita, “sambhavaami yuge yuge” is absolutely meaningless…” She said with a indulgent smile on her lips, her eyes mapping the words on the document.

The words were the reiteration of what this gentleman was voicing all along. It stated the absence of idealism, faith, concern for fellow humans, of the sense of humanity—it stated how we humans were heading towards the path of our final nemesis. But wouldn’t we try to stop ourselves?

Anamika smiled, reading its contents. “If a signature of mine has the power to restore all extinct attributes of humanity, I must sign then!” She thought to herself.

But why wasn’t there a tinge of hope within their high-flying, intellectual words? Why was this entire anti-corruption mission headed by over-enthused philanthropists occurring in her eyes like a blatant lie, like the beautiful cover of a highly manipulated book?

But wasn’t dealing with covers a part of her own life? The literature which she herself wrote, which was a source of sustenance to her, both physically and figuratively, sold on the strength of its irresistibly attractive covers.

Anamika signed the document, and the visitors returned with it, satisfied. “You are damn fools if you cannot manipulate. Hence you chose an easy bet, knocking on the doors of dishonest businessmen, to appeal to their conscience.” She thought.

They had departed with smiles on their faces; their objectives had been fulfilled. Some days back, another group of young philanthropists had come to meet her. Three-four dark, lanky young boys and a girl, asking for her signature in yet another petition.

Their concern was not only for the nation, but for the entire world. They were collecting signatures from all over the city to restore peace in a war-obsessed world.

“Honestly, I don’t think this process of getting signatures will help in any way.” Anamika had remarked.

“Then what will help, according to you?” They had countered her.

“Do I have such remarkable intelligence to give a quick opinion on that? But what value will this petition of peace have in the eyes of war-hungry people?” Anamika replied.

They got angrier. “So it means you are all for war? Not for peace?” They said.

“Let it be then. It’s your wish to give your signature or just withdraw from it. But this clearly proves the mentality of authors like you.” They dashed out of the house, fuming in rage.

The young, hot-blooded folks were running from pillar to post, appealing for peace, but the word ‘tolerance’ didn’t resonate with them. But today, the crowd had left with happy smiles writ on their faces. She had bought her prized sense of relief from them. It was such an easy bet.

“Always fulfil the vested interests of others. Never give them the chance to realize that you have seen through the camouflage, and you will be relieved.”

The sun was scorching outside, the summer noon was strong, merciless. Anamika thought about her pending work and her growing reluctance to make the best use of the time. Would she finish writing that long-pending letter to her Sej di now?

She remembered Sej di’s house in Chandannagar, at the banks of the pristine river Ganges. Amal babu, her brother-in-law had left a precious keepsake for his wife, she thought, the small, idyllic home by the holy river. Sej di was the truly fortunate one, living by herself in her den.

Sej di had two sons, both successful in their respective fields. Their companies had gifted them huge quarters, wide, sprawling gardens, the leisure and convenience of modern life with all amenities. But for Sej di, this didn’t seem enough. She craved for the entire expanse of the sky, the horizon, the free-flowing breeze. The verandah of her Chandannagar home with the majestic view of river Ganges was her true companion.

Then why did her poetry say: ‘There’s no wind here?’ Who would provide her with all the wind she needed to live?
***

Bionote: Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, translator, editor with six books and four anthologies in fiction and poetry. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her family, but is originally from Kolkata, India. She has been a recipient of the Journey Awards (First Place category winner) for her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, and also a recipient of the Woman Achiever Award (IWSFF, 2018), the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and International Reuel Prize for her English translation of Nobel Laureate Tagore’s selected works of fiction (2016). Her nonfiction essays, fiction and other writings have been published in various journals, e-zines and anthologies in India, UK and USA. She is also a consulting editor of the literary e-zine ‘Learning and Creativity’, India. Recently, she has been a featured poet at Rice University, Houston and her poems have also been featured at Stanford University’s ‘Life in Quarantine’ project recently. She has co-produced the poetry film 'Kolkata Cocktail' directed by Shuvayu Bhattacharjee, where she has also featured as one of the lead actors. Her works are available on her website www.lopabanerjeewrites.com and also in Amazon.com and Amazon India.

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