By Lal Bahadur Basnet. Translated by Nagendra Sharma
The Compartment became empty as the train reached Agra. All passengers seemed to have come to visit the Taj Mahal. Further on, up to Gwalior, I should be the reigning monarch of this compartment, I thought with great delight. The engine blew its whistle to signify resumption of the journey. Suddenly the door opened and in walked a long-haired person in white. He held a small suitcase in one hand and a handbag in another. Calm and dignified, his appearance resembled that of a renunciate, except for his white apparel instead of the usual saffron. So he was not Yogi. Nor did he look like a Swetambar (white-robed) Jain priest. While I was trying to place him as to who he could be, the addressed me in chaste English.
” I hope I didn’t disturb you!”
“Not at all,” I replied, also in English. “Rather I should, in my capacity as the earlier occupant of the compartment, extend a warm welcome to you. I was alone in the entire compartment. Please be seated.”
The next stop, Gwalior, was a two-and-a-half-hour non-stop run. This distance would be easily covered with this impressive person, I thought. After all, life itself is a kind journey. We meet someone en-route, get separated from others…As the train caught up speed, the silence inside the compartment was broken as he suddenly said,
“It gives me great pleasure to watch a countenance all aglow with true happiness.”
Toying with the book in my hand, I said, “Are you a psychiatrist?” I smiled and added, “Yes, there is a special reason for me to be happy. But is my inner thought so visible to everyone?”
“One does not have to bee the sun’s rays to feel its warmth. And what’s wrong in being happy? Engrossed as most people are in the struggle for survival and livelihood, it is rare to come across persons who exude happiness, as is evident in your countenance. You are young and healthy. It is but natural that you should be in a pleasant frame of mind. But yours is a different kind of happiness – like the ocean surging in a moonlit night.”
“I’m on my way to meet my would-be spouse and members of her family. We have been in love for five years. With the blessings of her parents, we intend to enter into wedlock this year. Now, you tell me, who else could be happier than me today?”
“You’re a Gorkha?” He spoke in Nepali, “I too am a Gorkha. Call me Swami Anand.”
“Oh! so you have renounced the world?”
“Yes…You had asked me earlier if I was a psychiatrist. The very appearance of a truly happy person is the index of his mind. It’s not necessary to be a psychiatrist just to observe that…It’s internal pain that is difficult to fathom. For, instance, I am acquainted with a certain person who suffered intolerable mental agony for years on end, but none else had an inkling about his sufferings.”
“I take your word for it. But my intellect somehow refuses to accept it as wholly true.”
“I wasn’t exaggerating. I’m even prepared to narrate that true story to you, should you not feel bored with it.”
“Bored! oh no! Please go ahead. But I’ll be getting down at Gwalior. Kindly narrate the story so that you complete it before the train reaches that station.”
“All right,” Anand said with a smile.
“The story starts some twenty years ago. Birendra was 37 years old at the time. Fair-looking, tall, healthy. He had been married for 13 years. He had a son, Dhirendra, who was then 8, and a daughter Kusum, two years younger than Dhirendra. A small and happy family. But perhaps God is not disposed to see a completely happy human being, for Birendra’s wife, had been ailing for about four or five years…”
“The schools in the hills had closed for winter and his son and daughter had joined him at Siliguri. His wife, Parvati, had stayed behind in Darjeeling for reasons of health.
“Every evening Birendra used to go for a walk with Dhirendra and Kusum. Siliguri was then a small, straggling town. One day, they were strolling along the road leading to Hakimpara. On the left side of the road was a small shrine where Bengalee men and women used to offer prayers. The women often outnumbered men. Two Bengalee ladies emerged from the shrine. One was middle-aged while the other was young. The younger one was fair-complexioned with well-chiselled face and features She could not have been more than 25-26 years of age. She wore gold bangles, a golden chain around the neck and ear-tops. She was dressed in a light cream-coloured saree and a blouse to match. She had large eyes, a smiling and bright countenance. The vermillion dot on her forehead indicated that she was married.
“While they were some yards apart, her eyes met those of Birendra. Apprehensive that he would appear as an unpolished rustic in the eyes of a lady, Birendra removed his glance away from her face. But the lady stared him all the more intently…
“About a week later, the lady was again seen at the same spot. She was alone that day. She smiled shyly as their eyes met. She moved towards him and said, ‘You are from Darjeeling, aren’t you?’
” ‘Yes. But I do not remember having come across you there.’
” ‘True, we haven’t talked. But I had seen you a number of times in Darjeeling last year. With these same kids. They were smaller. Now they’re grown up. How good-looking they are!’
” ‘Do you mind taking some Prasaada? This Prasaada is from the temple of the goddess.’
“All three of them – father, son and daughter, partook of the Prasaada. Birendra then left with the children after thanking her.
“Their paths used to cross once or twice a week. He used to take the Prasaada and exchange some words with her. Gradually, their range of conversation expanded. The Bengalee lady turned out to be Malati Sengupta, wife of Gopal Sengupta, a well-known lawyer of Siliguri.
“It was the last week of February. When they met, Malati said, ‘I believe it’s time for your children to go back to school, isn’t it?’
” ‘Yes. I’m taking them back home in four or five days.’
” ‘In that case, I’m not certain when I can see the children next time. Would you please come with me? My house is quite close by. I’m sure my husband will be extremely delighted to meet you and the children. I have told him as much as I have been able to know about you all. In fact, he has more than once asked me to invite you and the children to our place.’
“Birendra, unable to find a way out of her ardent persuasions, joined Malati on her way home. Advocate Gopal Sengupta was there. A very lively person. He talked to Birendra as if they were peers. The only thing they were equals was their age. Gopal Sengupta was around 36-37, fair-faced, tall and a bit plump, but otherwise a healthy Bengalee gentleman. His first wife had passed away just two or three years after marriage. Malati had been his spouse for six years. They had no kids.
“Birendra could feel clearly the gap between his economic and social status and that of the Sengupta family. After partaking of the tea and sweetmeats, he rose to take leave. In his thoughts, he had made up his mind to make it the first and last visit to that house. ‘I should quit passing by the temple road too,’ he mused. ‘This increasing intimacy between unequal people will not last long.’
“As if the lawyer had read Birendra’s thoughts, he said,
” ‘Mr. Birendra, don’t you discontinue paying us a visit on your return after dropping your children. I will let you go only if you promise to come again.’ His puckish expression was genial. There was no formality in it. He was sincere.
“Thus grew a closeness between Birendra and the Sengupta couple. They used to spend one evening every week together. Gopal and Birendra used to drink whisky, which helped make the conversations more lively and enjoyable. Malati also used to take part in their conversations.
“Three months had thus passed. One day, Gopal said,
” ‘You haven’t had dinner with us all these days. Next Friday evening you will please join us for food and also stay here for the night.’
” ‘Thank you for your invitation. But I can easily return to my flat after dinner. It’s just a matter of a mile and a half.’
” ‘That’s not the question. I can even send my car to drop you back. But I would urge you to eat and sleep here on that occasion. We shall have all the hours of the night at our disposal. Please treat this as my special request and accept it.’
“Come Friday. They had a very pleasant evening. Dinner over, Gopal Sengupta said, ‘I guess I had a peg too many. I’ll retire. Please look after the guest, won’t you, Malati?’
“It was ten minutes before the midnight hour. Birendra yawned. Time to go to bed. Suddenly, there was a mild knock at the door.’ Who’s it? Do come in,’ he said.
“Birendra was aghast. His heart missed a beat. There, in front of him, stood Malati. She had freshly bathed and worn a make-up. She must have sprayed a costly perfume on her person as the entire room was engulfed in a pleasant fragrance. She wore a flimsy, light blue nightgown over a petticoat. As the belt of the gown had been loosened, and as her garments were fine and thin, the outline of her buxom bosom, her thighs and legs were prominently outlined against the light of the electric bulb. Malati’s sudden presence before him in that manner and at that time of the night stirred his manhood almost uncontrollably. But summing up from the depth of his being his moral strength, he gradually gained self-control over himself.
” ‘Mrs. Sengupta, why are you here at this hour?’ – he said in a hurt tone.
‘ ‘I wanted to talk to you.’
” ‘Talk to me, at this hour of the night?’
” ‘There’s something we have to talk about. Let’s sit down. Would you go on making me stand here like this? You even forgot to offer me a seat, Biren.’
” ‘Oh my god! What could it be? Obviously it will be a betrayal of Mr. Sengupta on my part. You want us to take undue advantage of his good nature and gentlemanly behaviour? I entreat you, Malati, do not drag me into this hell. I shall never be able to forgive myself.’
” ‘The question of betrayal doesn’t arise, Biren. Or else, I shouldn’t have had either the courage or confidence to come here. I’m not a harlot. I’m here with my husband’s permission.’
” ‘Husband’s permission?’
” ‘My husband’s command, in fact. But let’s sit down and talk. Should I fail to convince you, I shall return to my room. After all, I haven’t assaulted your person physically, have I?’
“With this, Malati smiled faintly, turned back and bolted the door from inside. She then came closer to Birendra, held his hands and said, ‘Let’s sit down,’ and sat on the bed. Birendra also pulled a chair and sat nearby, all the time mumbling to himself, ‘Come to your senses, O Birendra.’ To Malati, he said, ‘Go ahead.’
” ‘Do you recall,’ she began after a short pause, ‘the topic of the discussion you two had two weeks ago?’
” ‘I don’t. My brain has stopped functioning; you tell me’
” ‘How had Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Bidur been begotten, as per the Mahabharata epic?’
” ‘Oh, that one! They were born out of Vedavyasa’s cohabitation with two queens and a maid.’
” ‘Because, in those days, tradition permitted an issueless wife to cohabit with another male, subject to her husband’s consent, for procreating children with a view to sustaining the family tree.. But what has that discussion got to do with us at this moment? ‘
” ‘They were, after all, our own ancestors, weren’t they? If it was permissible then, it should be permissible now..My husband wants a child. He is unable to procreate children as his sperms are dead. Not that he is impotent. Our sex life is healthy. I don’t need to set up a liaison with a third person for mere sexual gratification. This day was also chosen by him. Today is the 14th day of my menstrual period. He feels that this is the most opportune day for my being impregnated.’
“Birendra had no option but to believe her. Perhaps it wasn’t wholly a question of believing her…after all, which young man could possibly have rejected advances from a young maiden like Malati, at that hour of the night? His eyes blazed with the fire of passion.
” ‘Do I have your permission?’ – Malati asked coyly.
“In reply, Birendra pulled Malati towards him and stamped a long, lingering kiss on her lips. Malati thrust her tongue into his mouth…
“But Malati did not conceive. Not only that. A similar situation had been engineered thrice over but to no avail. Malati was delighted. She wasn’t keen on conceiving because that would have brought her cohabitation with Birendra to an end. Be it merely once a month, but she used to enjoy spending a night with Bitendra – such great pleasure it gave her. Birendra was at a loss to understand. ‘What happened?’ Was it that his sperms had died in absence of sexual intercourse following Parbati’s prolonged ailment? Was he no more capable of procreating children?’
“In the course of a trip to Calcutta, Birendra had his semen medically tested. The medical report had it that his sperms had been dead from the very beginning. As such, he could never have impregnated a woman. Birendra had the greatest shock of his life…it was as if he had been hurtled down a precipice.
“Dhirendra? Kusum? Whose children were they? Oh my god! And, Parvati, how about her? Ours was a love marriage. I have had no inkling if Parvati had an affair with anyone prior to our marriage. I loved Parvati and she loved me. But this betrayal after marriage!’ Birendra was beside himself with anger and agony…
“Parvari’s health suffered a setback. Her ailment was diagnosed as terminal cancer. Everyone knew that she would not live long…Parvati’s father successfully used all the influence to have Birendra transferred back to Darjeeling. But Birendra lost his peace of mind all the more following his transfer. He started keeping away not only from his wife but also from his children.
“Even though she was ill, the change that had overtaken her husband could not remain hidden from Parvati’s eyes. One day she sent for Birendra. He came and sat on a chair near her bed. Both were silent for a while. Parvati peered into Birendra’s eyes. Birendra too met her eyes squarely.
“With a long gasp of breath, Parvati said, ‘I shan’t live long. I feel concerned about the future of Dhirendra and Kusum.’
” ‘H’m, H’m!’
” ‘Don’t you have anything to say on the subject?’
” ‘What am I to say? I have been discharging my duties towards them and shall keep on doing so.’
” ‘Duty! How dry an expression! Love, affection… don’t they exist in your vocabulary?’
” ‘Love, affection…Everything had been there. But no longer. Can you draw water out of a dried-up well? The fountain-head of love and affection has dried up, and it is you who caused it. Look into your own heart. What are the secrets you have hidden there?… But, woman, deception is in your very nature.’
” ‘What happened to you? What is in your mind?… What deception are you accusing me of?’
” ‘Bah! Do you still intend to continue making a fool of me? Then listen. Dhirendra and Kusum are the products of your sin. They are not my children and I have with me irrefutable evidence to prove it.’
“Parvati’s condition deteriorated fast… Parvati stared at Birendra, disbelief and consternation writ large on her face. She made as if to say something, but only a guttural gurgle came out. She choked and fell into a dead faint…’ My end is near,’ thought she. She asked for a pen and paper, filled up some sheets, put them in an envelope with Birendra’s name on it and asked the maid-servant to place it at the bottom of Kusum’s trunk. That very night Parvati died.
“Some ten days after Parvati’s death, there was a faint knock at Birendra’s door. ‘Who’s it?’ he said.
“A scared-looking Kusum timidly entered into the room and said,’Daddy, I found this letter in my trunk and it’s addressed to you.’
“The letter read:
‘What’s the good of hiding anything from you at this last stage of my life? What’s more, it appears you have also had an inkling of the basic thing…
‘You may recall that my father had served in the Bihar Military Police at Ranchi for a long time. There, while I was in college, I fell in love with a boy. My parents were also aware of it. They also liked the boy, Dil Bahadur. But one day an awful storm swept over my life and blew everything away. Union elections were taking place in the college. Students had split into two factions. Dissension amongst the leaders took an ugly turn and violence reared its head. Three students were killed and several injured…Dil Bahadur was sentenced to a 10-year jail term. I became a living corpse. All my hopes and dreams lay shattered…
‘Then you came into my life. With your love, I tried to forget my past love-life. But I could not. Meanwhile, your love and insistence added to parental pressure compelled me to enter into wedlock with you. Four years went by thus…
‘Suddenly, one day I saw Dil Bahadur. He had come to meet me once and then bid goodbye forever…But that unforeseen meeting with Dil Bahadur only helped revive my old love towards him. I forgot all about the social norms of a married woman; I surrendered to him…
‘I do not think I betrayed anyone. If I did betray anybody, it was myself, because I took shelter under you when you offered it…Well, I became pregnant. I could not ascertain whether if was you or Dil Bahadur that had caused it. He went away after a few days. We met again after two years. I became pregnant again. This time the circumstances were such as to leave no room for doubt. I was bearing Dil Bahadur’s child. Till the other day, I did not know it was not possible for you to beget children…
‘Three months after Kusum’s birth, Dil Bahadur was killed in a train accident. Darkness enveloped my life once again. I became ill…
‘Dhirendra and Kusum are innocent. It is my destiny which was at fault. Forgive me if you can. Farewell, Birendra…’
“Days passed into months, months into years. Dhirendra and Kusum grew up and completed their studies. Birendra became a sort of wanderer from one place to another. Finally, he renounced the world…”
The tale was told. Gajendra Roka pondered deeply. Then he said,”Your story lends strength to your statement, I do agree. But do you think Birendra was in fact under such a searing mental agony as you suggested?
“That’s absolutely true. I know it for a certainty.”
[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..]
“Yes. I am Birendra.”