Sabita was almost dancing with joy as she came to her elder sister, Shanti. “Didi, oh Didi, Bhinaaju asks if we would like to go to the movies?”
“No. Tell him I’m not going”, replied Shanti quietly. but her voice was harsh and severe.
Sabita, hon-plusse, stood there awhile. What a dull person her elder sister is, thought she. So indifferent to the fun. How much elder to herself she is, anyway? Just by about five years. Sabita left, almost mentally cursing her elder sister’s foolishness.
But Sabita hadn’t gone very far when Shanti called her back and asked, “Did you request me on your own initiative, or did he himself send you?” Shanti put on a more playful appearance as she asked this question.
Sabita was puzzled. She knelt down, toyed with her sister’s plait of hair and, in a voice matching her playful nature, said, “I was in the garden basking in the sun. Bhinaaju came and asked if I would like to go to the movies. I said I would ask you and reply. So here I am to ask you.”
Shanti’s face fell. Exactly like a morning dew-drop, sparkling on the blade of a Dubo grass, falls when it comes in contact with a light breeze. But she didn’t appear cross this time. She simply said, “I’ll go.”
“Really, didi?” – Sabita’s exuberance burst like a cascading stream. Her face clearly showed her feelings. Shanti, on her part, had a lingering doubt deep inside, a knot she wasn’t in a position to unfasten. Time and again she tried to dispel it, but it kept on pestering and nagging her.
Sabita had come to stay at her elder sister’s place for some months now. The two had been great chums since childhood.
Even now, Shanti felt like fondling and kissing her for her childish nature and liveliness! Sabita was still fond of children’s games like blind-man’s-buff or hide-and-seek. Her gait and childlike behaviour had remained unchanged, but, without herself realising it, she was entering adulthood. Shanti, on her part, was no longer fond of childhood games.
Even as, sometimes, nostalgia prompted her to play such games, which was too bashful and self-conscious to enjoy them. Her nature was indeed different from her younger sister’s.
One thing that worried Shanti most was her inability to keep her husband happy all these days. Whenever Sabita would stat praising him or telling her how nice he was, Shanti felt strongly wounded at heart, strangely jealous.
But she used to say nothing to her younger sister despite that a web, like that of a spider, seemingly kept on weaving itself in the darkness of her mind.
One day, Shanti was at the balcony combing her hair. A small mirror lay in front of her. Looking at her face as reflected in the mirror, she suddenly felt that she had grown old. Strands of hair kept falling off as she combed, and her face was flecked with dandruff. She hurriedly powdered her face till turned white as snow. At the moment Sabita arrived, her large eyes beautiful with mascara. She was wearing soft white cotton pyjamas with a top of embroidered silk to match. Her face resembled a rose-blossom and her figure was full and shapely.
“Look, didi, your hair has been going grey – here,” said Sabita as she pulled out a strand from out of her sister’s lock and place it on Sabita’s palm, “how come?”
Shanti looked at Sabita’s hair, at her hands and feet, and her entire form and figure, but she could not find anything to place on Sabita’s palm. “Oh, yes…,” she said.
“Bhinaaju is coming, ” said Sabita gleefully. As Gopinath approached them, she added in a flirtatious tone, “Bhinaaju, sister’s hair has gone grey. Do buy her a bottle of hair-darkener, won’t you?”
Shanti didn’t like her sister’s sympathetic tone one bit. Furious, she looked at her husband, whose eyes were fixed oddly at Sabita.
“I will buy her a bottle for her at the fun-fair tomorrow,” said he.
The atmosphere at the fun-fair was suffocating. Milling crowds jampacked everywhere, leaving no room even to blink. They saw a merry-go-round whirling at one place. Sabita wanted a ride and Gopinath bought the tickets. But Shanti refused, even as Sabita egged her on.
“Let’s go, didi, why not? It’s just for this once, anyway. Oh, what’s wrong with you?… It’s a pity you aren’t interested in anything.”
“You go, Bhinaaju will keep your company, won’t he? I’m feeling slightly faint so I would rather sit here for a while.”
“Leave her alone, why force someone who is feeling faint?” -Gopinath put in.
A couple of tear-drops rolled down Shan’s face without anyone noticing them. She wiped her eyes dry and leaned against a bamboo pole.
The ferry’s wheel whirled round, Gopinath and Sabita going around with it. Shanti couldn’t keep on watching them for long. This time she really felt giddy. She removed her glance and walked away with a weary frown on her face.
In a particularly large crowd gathered at one place, Shanti got waylaid, lost. She looked around for Gopinath and Sabita with searching eyes. but didn’t see them. Her lips were dry with anxiety. Sitting on a bench outside a shop, she peered into every face that passed by. The cruel footsteps of Time trampled upon her and she started imagining things. Her imagination ran so wild, in fact, that it made her burn with jealousy and a feeling of revenge. Her eyes had no tears now but were blood-shot.
“There…, my elder sister is sitting pretty here while we were looking for her all over the place…”
Irritated, Shanti looked up at them. Both of them looked visibly flushed with excitement. Sabita thrust her hand inside her shopping bag as she said,
“Look! Here is the hair-darkener Bhinaaju has bought for you. He has also purchased some knitting wool for me, besides cream and face-powder. We will have a better look at them once we are back home, alright?”
“Okay,” replied Shanti as she looked strangely at her husband, “Haven’t you had enough? Let’s go.”
“Right, let’s go,” said Gopinath,, “we’re already much too late.”
On their way home, Sabita showed the knitting wool to Shanti and said, “Shall I knit a sweater with this wool, for Bhinaaju?”
“Why ask me? Better as the person for whom you want to knit.” …There was a distinct resentment in Shanti’s response.
Sabita got so engrossed during the following day in knitting, she couldn’t even keep track of days going by.
As the sweater gradually took shape, her sense of success and satisfaction made her face glow more and more brightly. She often held up the sweater in front of her to examine it and was particularly delighted with its embroidered flower -design. One day, as usual, she was going to her Bhinaaju to measure it with him, when she met Shanti on the stairs.
“Just have a look, sister! It’s almost complete. I wanted to check if it fits his shoulders, for I presume it’s a bit too tight at the armpits. How do you like it? Do you think it will look nice on him? It will, won’t it?”
Sabita spoke these words as if she had little patience for anything else.
Shanti put on an amake-believe smile and swallowed hard before she replied. ‘I don’t think this flower-motif looks good in a man’s sweater, they’d look better on a woman. Better give it to me and I shall knit another one for him.”
“Bah…what a joke? After all my hard labour for my Bhinaaju?” – retorted Sabita, as she laughed her way into brother-in-law’s room, completely ignoring her elder sister’s comment.
Shanti, who had spent many a sleepless night in an effort to fight-off her suspicions, found that they were now getting the better of her on seeing Sabita go to her Bhinaaju’s room, every day, on the pretext of measuring him.
Shanti couldn’t sleep that night either. She got up three or four times to drink water. She looked at the clock – it was 2.30 a.m. At last, she got up abruptly in the pin-drop silence of the night and went to Sabita’s bedside. Sabita’s breath of warm contentment almost scalded her. It was as if Sabita alone was responsible for robbing her of her sleep. Her mood hardened dramatically and her nails almost reached Sabita’s throat. But the unusual mood didn’t last long.
Shanti’s attention was drawn towards the sweater that was hanging from underneath Sabita’s pillow. She pulled it out slowly and saw that the front and back portions only remained to be sewn together. It would probably be finished by the next evening, guessed Shanti. For, Sabita’s obsession with this work could only suggest some kind of a vow akin to a completer absorption – a powerful drive that hadn’t even wearied her person but had, on the contrary, added to her agility and vigour.
Tomorrow, thought Shanti, when Gopinath would put the sweater on, she would lose all her rights as a wife in this house. Gopinath would be enamoured with the sweater’s comforting warmth, that he wouldn’t want to take it off. She was sure, too, that she would lose her peace of mind as long as the remained on his body. Shanti also had a feeling that a curtain was rising on a dreadful drama, and that the sound of the warning bell which preceded its commencement was growing a cold shiver down her entire person.
And this premonition brought all her hopes and dreams to a point of no return. She held the sweater tight in her hands. Prevention is better than cure, they say, and why shouldn’t she burn the sweater to ashes before it reached Gopinath, particularly now that it was completely at he mercy? But her feeling towards Sabita caused her jealousy to take another form and it got diverted towards the sweater. Slowly and gradually, she started loosening the threads. Very soon, this process of unravelling the sweater increased so much in speed that it was as if a fast machine was unpicking the threads, and the loose wool grew into a huge pile beside her.
But in her hurry to complete the process, her hand accidentally struck against Sabita’s back. Sabita woke up and looked at her elder sister in utter amazement, then asked in a faint voice trembling with fear.
“What’s wrong, Didi? Why are you tearing it off?”
Shanti stopped halfway. “This is not the kind of sweater to suit your Bhinaaju”, she said with a cool determination, “I shall knit another one for him…? Sabita’s face grew red. “But it’s not the one meant for Bhinaaju,” she blurted out,”it’s the one which I am knitting for you! His sweater was completed yesterday itself and I gave it to him already. He even went to bed with it and is wearing it right now. You go and see how nice it looks on him”!
– Bhinaaju in Nepali means the husband of one’s elder sister (Didi)
[Courtesy: Sheet of Snow, an anthology of sixteen Nepali short stories translated into English by Nagendra Sharma and published by Nirala Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi,1997.]