The Incorrigible: A Novella (An excerpt)

Part of the anthology ‘Legends Speak: Bengali Women’s Narratives in Translation’, Avenel Press, 2022
Original Story: ‘Nachhor’ by Ashapurna Debi
Translator: Lopamudra Banerjee


[Cover image: Legends Speak: Bengali Women’s Narratives in Translation, co-authored by Lopamudra Banerjee, Amita Ray and Chaitali Sengupta]

Neera stood at the veranda for a while, even after the car left in front of her eyes. Biram, her husband had to stay away from their home for a few days, yet again. She felt forlorn, wistful for a few moments. Today evening, unlike the other evenings, his office car won’t stop at their door.

It was nothing new, though, she thought. In fact, Biram had to stay away from home for more than half of the time, every month. However, just because it was not a new phenomenon, it hadn’t become entirely tolerable, at least to Neera.

She felt awful about these frequent tours of Biram, for his office work. Is it because of this, that some or the other moment of anguish and melancholy emerges before her at the time of his departure? She thought, fervently.

The trips of Biram had been going strong throughout the year, but still the moment he would broach the topic, advices, suggestions of over-cautiousness would start floating in the air. It felt as if the moment the news of his absence would be known to the world, all the thieves, rogues and all the perilous phenomena of the world would flock together, ravaging the humble two-storied abode of Biram and his family.

Before starting out, he would keep warning Kanai, their servant, about mundane everyday things. An extensive list of suggestions continued-- he must not open the door to strangers, he must keep the number of the family doctor handy, he must not unplug the cooking gas for a minute, and so on. His warnings also involved his wife, nonetheless. “Don’t go near the kitchen wearing your nylon saris…All of you need to be careful about eating…” And the list goes on.

This would irritate Neera immensely at times. “How many accidents like this have happened during your absence?” She would ask.

“Well, you cannot argue that they couldn’t have happened, just because such things didn’t happen. What’s the harm in being safe, rather than being sorry?” Biram would impose his own logic on his wife.

Besides, there was the ubiquitous presence of Biram’s Pishima, his elderly aunt in the house, ever affectionate, ever interfering. When Biram would stay at home, his Pishima would meander around him at all times. And God forbid, once these occurrences of his office trips happened, she hovered around her nephew like a stubborn shadow, and continued to shower her incessant advices and her precious words of caution on him, as if Biram was merely a child.

“Don’t ruin your senses due to the pressure of your office work…don’t go out too much in the sun…don’t stay hungry for too long, your acidity will worsen…You have to put up in a hotel, don’t eat the worthless food…” It goes on and on.

Biram wouldn’t get annoyed, even for once! Strange!

But Pishima’s words angered Neera to no end. She felt like uttering: “They aren’t the cheap hotels supplying rotten fish, which are the only ones you know about since times immemorial, Pishima, they are the plush, sophisticated hotels arranged by his company.” However, she had to keep mum.

If she uttered those words, even by mistake, Biram would probably think she was insulting his aunt. She had raised this motherless nephew of hers, after all, since his childhood. He couldn’t pay off this debt of kindness, not in a lifetime.

If it were the olden times, and Neera would have spoken to her husband during the daytime in front of the elders in the family, she would have been condemned for her shameless act, but she was lucky that such rules weren’t applicable anymore.

But even if she could speak to her husband, could she say everything? Could she chat with him uninhibitedly, exchanging words about the outside world, about art, literature, music, cinema, television, politics and corruption? Would she save these sudden, relevant discussions for the night when they would reunite in solitude?

But did her husband, with his calm, quiet exterior really want her incessant chats about these topics at night? No…all he wanted was Neera herself, following by deep, unperturbed sleep, accompanied by snoring.

Neera didn’t understand why Biram was so sensitive about Pishima, his aunt. All she knew was she would have to talk about the elderly woman with extra caution.

If Neera would have thought deeply, she would have realized that since she did not regard Pishima with the esteem that her husband Biram had for her, he chose to play the role of a mother bird, protecting his Pishima fiercely, lest Neera spoke the wrong words at the wrong time, lest she started bossing over Pishima, already established as the strong matriarch of the household.

Strange were the activities of Pishima. In spite of her age, she seemed to have no sense at all. She would stick to Biram like glue when he had his meals; she would come up to him inevitably during tea times, however much household chores she had to attend to. She would come to him even when he was busy shaving.

She would come up to him with her characteristic smile and comment: “I hear Jyoti Basu said…I hear Rajib Gandhi said…Is it true, that rain water seeps through the Metro railways?”

Well, there was no dearth of her discussions at any given time.

And to think of Biram’s patience with her, she was amazed how he managed to answer all of her useless queries somehow. Not once could he say in her face how stupid her queries, her discussions were. If such a person like Pishima escorted her dear nephew till the door of the car, blessed him by touching his head tenderly, when would his wife Neera look at him with her fervent eyes and bid him goodbye? When would she touch his hands with her own hands, with deep affection, and say the parting words: “Okay, then…’?

If she could, perhaps the vacuum in her heart would be filled. But no, it wasn’t destined for Neera, hence she stood for a while on the Verandah with the characteristic emptiness in her heart. Suddenly, the telephone rang in the room.

“Good Lord! Has Biram forgot any important document at home?” Neera thought, and picked up the receiver.

“Hey Neera, who’s there with you?” It was her friend Kakoli’s voice that reverberated in the room with its sweet resonance, just like her name.

“Nobody’s there.” Neera replied.

“Why? Your husband?”

“Vanished into thin air for ten days.”

“Is it? For his office tour?”

“What else? How many days of the month is he at home anyway?”

“Ah, what an awful job! But for now, do one thing…give me freedom from the job I do for you! I am stuck in an awful situation too!”

“Job for me? What do you mean?”

“Ah, don’t say you don’t remember! I mean, I can’t bear the burden of those love letters of that incorrigible old lover of yours. Look at him, he keeps sending you those letters, and you don’t give him any reply. Listen, I was fearing that someday my husband will start doubting me, due to these letters. Anyway, for the time being, our days of happiness seem to come to an end. His transfer order has come from the higher authorities…now what would I do with your…”

“What? Transfer order? Where?” Neera asked, cutting her friend midway.  She had almost slumped down on the floor, with the shock of the news.

“A different city, I’m afraid. Kanpur.” Kakoli replied.

“Oh, Kakoli, what do I do now? Even you will leave me?”

“No, sir! I’ll continue to live in this house, in a desperate bid to protect your restless old lover’s letters, won’t I? You’ll come from time to time to read those letters, then deposit them in my care, and I’ll continue to look at them with greedy, desirous eyes…”

“How many times did I tell you, read them, please? But you…”

“Well, why do you think I would have any interest in others’ love letters? And look at that stupid boy! You never write to him, but he still writes to you and pines for you!”

“It’s nothing but self-love! A way to develop one’s own being.”

“Stop…no need to prove yourself as a clean, pure soul. Look how your voice trembles as you speak!”

“Do you wish to get beaten up?”

“Well, you can’t stop me from telling the truth, even if you want to beat me for that…by the way, is there anyone else in your room?”

“No, I told you before, I’m alone.”

“I was asking because that Pishima of your husband pokes her nose everywhere in your house. Anyway, swear by God and tell me you don’t love Kunal anymore?”

“What’s there to swear? Did I ever tell you I don’t love him? A woman’s first love is always special, don’t you know? A divine, immortal phenomenon.”

“How would I ever know, darling? Did I ever have the chance in this life to taste or feel such a divine phenomenon? But I knew its taste in a different way, for the first and last time in my life, and its an ongoing affair, you know. The affair that started at my holy wedding stage.”

“Wedding stage? Ha ha ha! It started then?”

“Yes, why not? Don’t you know about ‘love at the first sight’, the proverbial saying in the scriptures of love?”

“I know about that! But the way you both fight at all times…”

“Ah, that’s a different thing, you won’t understand it. Anyway, listen, please take your bunch of love letters from my home without any further delay. We’ll have to pack our own things and move.”

“Shall I have to take it all away from you? But where will I keep them here?” Neera asked, in a helpless, parched voice.

“How would I know where you’ll keep them? I can suggest, keep them safe in the cage of your heart, inside a gold box you yourself know of!” Kakoli replied, in jest.

“Ah, don’t play with words! What I suggest is: let that bunch of letters remain inside your box or suitcase. There would be so many of them anyway, during your moving, how much extra burden would the letters be?”

“Don’t talk like a stupid girl, Neera! Imagine, even if I go away to that alien land with that bunch of ecstatic love letters tucked carefully in my bosom, is it impossible to trigger doubt in my husband’s mind, no matter how big a heart he might possess? You know, time and again he keeps telling me: ‘Why get entangled in others’ problems unnecessarily? I see envelopes from some foreign country addressed to your name every now and then, what is this?’ Needless to say, I don’t make him go too far with his query, I stop him midway. Let it be the way it’s going on, I think…let’s see when his curiosity subsides. But now—the situation will change.”

“So now suggest what I can do.” Neera replied in a more helpless voice.

“What suggestion can I give you? But if you would listen to me, I would say, write a letter to that man in a stern language, so that he doesn’t dare to write back to you again…” Kakoli said in a sympathetic voice. “Also add to it that I won’t remain in Calcutta anymore! And then, if you can’t destroy the letters, gathering the strength you have within your…”

“Destroy?” Neera questioned, in a broken voice.

“Don’t you think I didn’t try to do that every time I read the letters? But I can’t…Instead, I leave them with you as your burden, so that I can teach you a lesson.”

“But this arrangement needs to stop now! Besides, don’t you think you need a closure to this now, after all?”

Neera kept mum for some time, then said: “Okay, let me visit you tomorrow morning at your house, then. We’ll see what can be done after that. You’re not vanishing from the city tomorrow itself, I hope, are you?”

“I can understand you are seething in anger at this moment. But what can I do, tell me? It was all going on fine, trust me. And I could also see you from time to time, in this pretext. Who would have guessed such a situation would occur all of a sudden? But then, this boy Kunal is so incorrigible! Why cling on to your first love after so many years? Couldn’t he get hold of a memsahib in all these years? I hear, one doesn’t need to try hard to get hold of one in those foreign lands, the ladies themselves come and get on the shoulders of men. Why then bother a married woman like this? What’s the use? –Well, you are coming tomorrow then? I’ll take your leave now. It seems the lord of the household is back.”

“Didn’t he go to his office?”

“No dear! Due to this unprecedented transfer order, he’s been granted a one-week leave.”

“Is it? Then there’s no hope I can talk to you alone, in private tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, there is hope, dear. He’s going to Memari tomorrow morning to meet his parents before we move away to Kanpur.”

“How lucky you are. Your in-laws stay so far away. And look at my luck, my husband doesn’t even have a family, or a home in the countryside or something like that. Okay then, bye.”

Neera hung up the phone and collapsed on the bed, looking like a weary soldier who returned to his camp after an excruciating battle. How complex her life had been, and how unnecessarily, she thought.

Neera had never thought that her marriage with Kunal, a boy of her neighbourhood who was nearly her own age, would ever be possible. But still, Kunal’s ardent emotions, his eagerness for her company had been too irresistible to reject altogether. She indulged the incorrigible boy, a sapling growing on the brittle sand, and watered that sapling for quite some time. What other option did she have?

“Just wait for a few more years, Neera! See if I can’t get myself established by then, and prove myself as an eligible groom in all respects! Once I am, your parents, Mashima and Meshomoshai won’t object…”

“Huh! Keep living in a fool’s paradise, weaving impossible dreams! Do you really think they will keep guarding their beautiful daughter as a spinster till then? They are gauging my rate in the marriage market already, for your kind information!” Neera would reply with a frown on her forehead.

“Forget what they are doing…What about you?”

“You really talk like a stupid boy, Kunal! What is your age now?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Yes, of course, that’s why! I know you are just eight months older than me. In order to get a proper job, to be even remotely considered ‘eligible for marriage’, it will take at least eight years for you, and even more! Do you think my parents will let me wait for you for all these years?”

“Huh…you are speaking of your parents now? Can’t you yourself wait for me? Don’t you have that courage within you?” Kunal said, angry and distraught.

“Listen, you simply don’t have the capacity to comprehend the plight of women. And also, legally, I am still a minor, you know.” Neera replied.

“But how long would you stay a minor? Forever?”

“I admit, I won’t remain a minor in a few years. But how do I know what’s there in store for you in the coming years? How do I know if you would really establish yourself?”

Kunal was a young boy of nineteen, but he looked like a grown-up man, with an enviable height of six feet, and a slim, slender body. Needless to say, he was growing up at an incredible speed. But in terms of his behaviour, his talks and his interaction with others, he resembled a young, innocent boy.

He had been to Neera’s house regularly, and for a long time, hence he knew how impossible it was for the members of such a household to allow their precious girl to wait for an unworthy childhood lover like him.

But what about Neera? On what basis would she herself demand to wait? Being a mature, sensible girl, it had been ingrained in her mind that a dependable, established, mature groom was the prerequisite to marriage.

A strange dichotomy was nestled in her heart. On one hand, she could not do without loving Kunal, indulging him to no ends, while on the other hand, she couldn’t imagine getting married to that immature, childish boy and embark on a tumultuous voyage in the ocean of life.

She knew Kunal was a brilliant student; she also knew that his challenge of proving himself as a successful, established person would become a reality, but that reality was far away.

Neera herself was quite mediocre as a student, somehow carrying on with her studies. Passing her BA exams was her mission, as well as that of her parents, and that was just midway. She didn’t nurture the unrealistic hope of getting into higher studies further, spending her time so that she would be able to keep pace with Kunal.

But then, could she move away from Kunal just like that? No, it seemed a more difficult task.

As it is, he was the much-cherished neighbour boy, who would visit Neera’s house every now and then, calling Neera’s mother as ‘Mashima’. Neera’s mother was affectionate towards him too. She would also gauge the level of intimacy between both Kunal and her daughter Neera, but just as friends. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined that the boy, who had suddenly grown tall and manly in front of her eyes, had this iron determination of marrying her daughter.

Hence, the members of the household were blissfully ignorant of what was going on.

And also, Kunal’s behaviour did not indicate in any way that he came to Neera’s house for the sake of his love. On the contrary, it appeared that his sole attraction for coming to their house was the delicious dishes prepared by his Mashima.

In fact, his Mashima too, had quite soft corner for the motherless boy in her heart. “Poor thing, he is raised by his aunts in the absence of his mother!” She would often say, sympathetically.

But wasn’t Neera, the object of his love clever enough to hide her true feelings for him? She would rebuke him quite effortlessly: “God, you’ve started eating like a glutton the moment you stepped foot in the house? How did you know Ma has prepared vegetable chops today?”

“What a shameless girl! How can you speak so rudely to him?” Neera’s mother would protest.

“Well, I’m speaking the truth!”

“No need to speak thus!”

“Okay, I won’t. I just want my share of food, let him not take that away!”

“Huh! Do you really care about your share being big? You’re anything but a foodie! It’s me who has to plead you to eat. You are speaking from envy, you jealous girl!”

And Kunal, on his part, asked for more chops and said with a straight face: “Let her say whatever she wants to, who is bothered?”

However, when Neera’s father, Meshomohai was around, Kunal became more cautious, and if possible, tried to avoid him.

Meshomoshai, the stern, introvert man would ask him about his studies whenever they crossed paths. Often, he would say in a regretful tone: “Look at you, your results are so good and you are progressing so satisfactorily. And look at your friend, in spite of being of the same age, she is lagging behind! If you can guide her in her studies from time to time…”

Neera did have a private tutor, a mentor who was there to guide her, but still, her father would insist Kunal to guide her. It might have been an act of his ‘politeness’, or an outcome of his desire to boost the spirit of the boy. Whatever it might be, Kunal had the answer ready.

“Would she listen to me? She might say, ‘No need to boss over me!’ Besides, doesn’t she go to the house of that friend of hers to study?”

“Yes, she goes to that friend…Kakoli’s house to study together. She is a good student, I hear.”

…. And so, from then onwards, Kakoli had been playing the role of Neera’s protector, shelter-giver, friend and guide. Neera and Kunal would visit her house, and then start for somewhere, from there. Kakoli would almost always warn them: “Don’t be late, otherwise the telephone calls from your homes will kill me! How much would I manage to lie?”

But the fact was, she managed somehow.

 

 

 Author bio:

Ashapurna Debi (8 January 1909 – 13 July 1995 was a prominent Bengali novelist and poet. She has been widely honoured with a number of prizes and awards. In 1976, she was awarded Jnanpith Award and the 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 and extensive repertoire consists of 37 collections of short stories and 62 books for children. Her literary masterpiece of a trilogy, Pratham Pratishuti, followed by Subarnalata and Bakul Katha, won the Indian National Sahitya Academy award. In these three novels, Ashapurna has portrayed the life stories of three generations of women, over the changing rural and urban milieu in Bengal of the twentieth century.

 

Translator bio:

Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, translator and editor living in Texas, USA with her family, but originally from Kolkata, India. She has previously translated Ashapurna Devi’s award-winning novel ‘Bakul Katha’ as ‘Bakul Katha: Tale of the Emancipated Woman’ (Honorary Mention, London Book Festival, 2022). Her translation of Ashapurna’s novella ‘Nachhor’ (The Incorrigible) is part of the anthology ‘Legends Speak (Bengali Women's Narratives in Translation).’


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