Translation of Naaso, a story by Shri Guruprasad Mainali
Although Cancala Sri had visited his house, Deviraman was without children. He did everything. He constructed a gathering place for the villagers; he built a road; he lit votive lamps in Pashupatinath, and the year before he had the Harivamsa Purana read. Still, Subhadra could not conceive. In competition with his contemporaries, Deviraman would win on all counts– wealth, strength, and wisdom. But as soon as he heard the word, “childless,” his pride disintegrated and he was completely humiliated. He was old-fashioned and orthodox and considered wealth without a son to be worthless.
Moreover, poor Subhadra was also sad. When she saw the women of the neighbourhood playing with their children she too desired children. Because of her simple woman’s nature, she wore amulets obtained from medicine men, made vows and pledges to the gods, went on pilgrimages to different shrines and worshipped, but if Fate is deaf, what can one do? The astrologers advised Deviraman to marry again, but he could not remarry without Subhadra’s consent. Subhadra was a woman totally devoted to her husband and until now she had never given him cause to worry She fulfilled his every wish. The thought of the terrible poverty that he had endured before Subhadra became his bride kept dancing before his eyes, and they filled to the brim with tears when he remembered it. She had been his companion in joy and sorrow. The penniless Deviraman had been transformed into a wealthy man by her. How could he now be so ungrateful as to take a co-wife?
In the month of Phagun, the wind is so cold in the early morning that it almost pierces one’s chest. Deviraman sat in the marriage pavilion, his new bride beside him. The priests were chanting Vedic hymns and pouring offerings into the sacrificial fire. Fate had made him a bridegroom again– this time as a grown man. On such a day as this, he had taken the hand of Subhadra in accordance with the sacred rites. Today he was repeating the very same act without knowing whether or not he (really had) Subhadra’s consent. He did not know whether good or evil would result from his decision. In taking an innocent twelve-year-old girl for his wife, he was trying to build flimsy castles in the air. Perhaps, for this reason, the cynics were saying that it was all a mirage and a false hope.
Whether because of some outer compulsion or inner desire, he went through with the full ceremony.
It was time for the bride to leave for her husband’s house. As they place her in the dooly, the men of her family cried. The bride too burst out crying. To Deviraman this was very unpleasant. On the way, the members of his party told vulgar jokes and laughed without restraint, but in Deviraman’s mind, another troubling thought arose.
“Did Subhadra sincerely mean it when she advised me to do this?” he asked himself. If she did, then why did she turn her head away when she gave her consent? Did she give in because I insisted so much? Alas! How men overcome by desire force consent from others. How shameful! Is this a fitting reward for Subhadra’s life-long service? “But what could I do? How am I at fault? According to the Hindu religion, the way to heaven is barred to those without male offspring. It wasn’t longing for pleasure. I remarried because it was my duty to my religion.”
With this kind of logic, he tried to satisfy his troubled mind.
The wedding party neared Deviraman’s house. The village neighbours, gathered in his courtyard, looked on with delight. Deviraman looked carefully at each one. When he did not see Subhadra in the crowd, he felt as jf a great weight had been lifted from his chest. Deviraman seemed now like a little boy who has forgotten his lessons and is late for his guru, or like a criminal who tries to hide when he sees someone who recognizes him. He hung back pretending that he wanted to talk to some neighbours. When he finally went inside he found that Subhadra had already greeted the bride and was paying the musicians and the dooly bearers. Deviraman was overjoyed.
“Subhadra is a goddess!” he thought to himself. “Why did I worry unnecessarily?
Look, how frightened men are by their own actions!”
Deviraman talked with the guests so long that it was late when he got to his bedroom. A lamp of mustard oil was burning. The new bride was asleep on her bed beside his cot. Deviraman threw himself on the cot. He did not see Subhadra’s bedding in its place. Subhadra’s bedding had always been beside his cot. Without it there, the room where he had slept for so many years seemed strange to him. A moment later, Subhadra finished her household chores and entered the room. She began to massage his feet. This had been her daily duty and she had never missed even one day.
“Sanu, where is your bed?” asked Deviraman.
“It’s in the next room.”
“Why did you move it there?”
“Tomorrow is the Ekadasi and I shall bathe in the Gandaki.
“I’ll sleep there also”
“No, I think it’s better that you sleep here.”
Deviraman was tired after his journey and he fell asleep at once. Putting her own quilt on the co-wife, Subhadra went into the next room. In the dim light of a flickering lamp, Nauli the servant girl was stitching leaf-dishes. Nauli had been Deviraman’s servant for many years. She was about as old as Subhadra. In 1925, by the mercy of the late blessed Maharaj Chandra Samsher lang, she had been freed from serfdom. Because she had been a servant of the family for so many years, Deviraman had accepted no money for her. Although free to go, Nauli had not left the house. She had been Subhadra’s friend and companion through all the vicissitudes of her life. God had given Nauli to Subhadra–a pitcher into which she could pour all her troubles. Between them, there was an unbreakable bond of affection. While she was sewing the leaves, Nauli said:
“Bajai! Today is probably very unpleasant for you!”
“Why Nauli! Why do you speak that way? What is there to be unhappy about?”
“Even so a co-wife must pain your heart. Today you have had to leave your bed. Tomorrow– who knows? –maybe you’ll have to leave the house.”
“If I have to, I will. What enjoyment and wealth is there for me here? I eat only a bellyful and I have to work day and night, and I am treated like a daughter-in-law anyway. Anyone will give me a mouthful if I do the mere work of a cook. But she seems to be very simple. She bowed respectfully when she came in.”
“She was probably told to, Bajai. Someday you’ll say ‘Nauli told me so.’ It doesn’t take much time to make something crooked out of something straight. She’ll be leading the old man around by his pigtail in a few days.”
“However it is, may God grant her a long tranquil life. May their life be fruitful in every way. If she has children, they will be obliged to participate in my funeral services and after. May I die in their embrace. This is the greatest satisfaction of all, Nauli.”
Three or four years passed. One day, sitting in the sun, Subhadra was feeding a little boy some rice. The child Susil, for his part, was trying to catch the pigeons that were feeding in the courtyard. Taking a little bit of rice in her hand Subhadra would coax him saying, “Who will eat this? Who will eat this?” Susil would come running with his mouth open and Subhadra would put the food into his mouth, then the child would run back toward the pigeons. The mute pigeons played happily with the boy. When Susil would go to catch them, the pigeons would run off a little and stop. Then, when he caught up with them, they would fly off a little way and, settling down, would begin to feed again. Hearing “Who will eat?” from Subhadra, Susil every now and then would come back and eat a few handfuls of rice.
Deviraman sat in a chair watching. The child’s play gave him unbounded joy. He felt that his ancestors in Heaven were also watching the play of the little boy who was the hope of the familY’s future. He had always felt that there was great power in the unbroken line of ancestry. Now, Deviraman, who had been so desirous of offspring, finally got to see this day. But the changing ways of the world are peculiar and sometimes the Supreme Lord makes weepers out of those who smile.
One day Susil was playing near a mound of earth in which a sacred tulsi Plant was growing. From the porch in front of the house Laksmi, on one side, and Subhadra, on the other, stretched out their hands and shouted, “This way, Baby, this way.” In an instant, Susil ran to Subhadra and embraced her. Subhadra’s heart was filled with pure love for the child .. “My Raja,” she said and kissed him.
Laksmi had given birth to Susil, but it was Subhadra who raised him. He never left Subhadra even for an instant. He called her “Mother” and his own mother he called “Dulahi” because everybody in the house called Laksmi, “Dulahi Bajai.”
It was the month of Magh. The farmers had finished storing the harvest and were anxious to go on a pilgrimage. Deviraman also desired to make the journey. He said to himself, “If I do not make the pilgrimage while I still can walk, when will I make it? Men who have made money become blind, they put their wisdom and good sense into a niche and spend all their time trying to increase their wealth. The property of these boors can be stolen or burned up. My pilgrimages give me joy. If I can do it again, the sins of my descendants will drop away and I shall attain happiness in the next life.”
With such thoughts in mind, Deviraman prepared to go on the pilgrimage. His idea was to go alone, but several old men and widows of the village planned to go also. In a flash, Deviraman’s courtyard was filled with an army of pilgrims with their baggage loaded on their shoulders. When she saw so many village women prepared to go, Laksmi insisted that she accompany him. But Susil grabbed Deviraman’s coat and began to cry. Deviraman was unable to refuse him. In the end, he took them with him. In a moment, the swarm of the pilgrim. like bees following their queen, started off behind Deviraman. But no one– not even with one word –asked Subhadra if she wanted to go.
“He should have taken me on the pilgrimage instead of her,” said Subhadra quietly to herself. “Whom do I have in this world” No son or daughter. She has plenty of time. She could have gone later. She is a woman who has given birth to a son; he could not refuse. I am helpless– with nothing to hold onto and nothing to support me. Not one thought of me. A man warms himself only at a burning fire. Men have contempt for whomsoever the gods have deceived. How selfish the world is!” With these thoughts, Subhadra remained alone for a long time crying.
From the time that Subhadra was twelve, she had cleaned his doorway (for good luck). This house was the dearest thing of all to her. She had carefully raised the animals from birth. This house, these animals, these trees were all the companions of the childless woman. Subhadra could not endure a moment’s separation from them. Subhadra might have or might not have gone on the pilgrimage. Had she only been asked, her tears would have been wiped away. How much good a word can do when said at the right moment. Deviraman, ignorant of the soul’s workings, did not know this.
Ill-feeling requires but a small seed. In time, it grows of its own accord into a terrible form. The pilgrimage proved to be such a seed in the life of Subhadra and Laksmi. After the return from the pilgrimage frequent quarrels arose between the two. Subhadra answered sarcastically to any question Laksmi asked. This went on to the point that spats developed into quarrels whenever they spoke to each other. Deviraman kept quiet and merely listened. What should he do? Should he rebuke Laksmi? She was the mother of his son. But if he rebuked Subhadra he would be violating his religious duty and his conscience. He began to find that the enjoyment of worldly desires was turning sour. Now his power of persuasion was gone. A man’s wisdom is useful in advising others, but not himself.
The daily household quarrels completely exhausted Subhadra’s, tender heart. Like a prisoner in a jail, she began to seek an opportunity to escape.
The intermittent hooting of an owl in the pitch-black darkness made the night seem even more terrifying. A dog was barking in the next village. Innumerable stars seemed to twinkle and weep when they beheld a miserable lot of mankind on earth. Subhadra came out into the courtyard and looked up. From the immense sky, a shooting star glided swiftly downward and fell, but not being able to fall to earth it fell somewhere between earth and heaven and disappeared. She has seen this only once in her early childhood. She had asked her mother about it then. “These are the many gods of heaven who, because their merit has been used up, fall to earth,” she replied.
“It’s true,” said Subhadra to herself, remembering this. “I too have fallen, like a god who had enjoyed his merit living in the sky for a few days. After they have used it up, they slip and fall from heaven. Through hunger, thirst, pain, and suffering we become pale and weak and fall right down into. the earth. We fall– and those who remain, hungry, thirsty, and suffering, see our terrible form. The gods, because they enjoy merit, do not fall on this sinful earth; they disappear between the sky and earth. This is the only difference between men and gods.”
Subhadra held a bundle under her arm. Though the night was dark, she had hidden it under her shawl so that no one would see it. This bundle held all she had now in the world to sustain her. How can such grandiose hopes ever be confined in such a small place? o God! Why do you let men hang on to hope like this? Lord! Instead of hope, if you gave them a little comfort, how close to happiness these poor humans would be. With tear-filled eyes she paused, and offering a final Namaskar to her beloved home, she disappeared into the darkness. No one save the ever vigilant and wise guardians of the world saw her pathetic departure.
Around Pasupatinath Temple there wasn’t room enough even to put a sesame seed. The crowd was so thick with people scattering sadmi that no one could get through. Suddenly, Nauli, her eyes filling with tears, caught sight of Subhadra near the west gate. “Oh! You have become so thin,” she cried running up to her. Nobody would recognize you. After so short a time I didn’t know who you were myself. In a little while, I might not recognize you at all. Where are you living?”
“Here at Gaurighat, at my aunt’s.”
“You left in the middle of the night without any money. We didn’t even know. How have you managed for so many days?”
My aunt gets a government pension and the two of us have lived off it. What’s the news back home, Nauli?”
“Bajai, what shall I say about what’s going on at home, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. For the last six months, Dulahi Bajai has been ill.”
“What is it?” asked Subhadra very anxiously.
“She has a fever. “Her chest hurts,” she says. She coughs all night. We summoned the military “doctor” from Gorkha. He said it was something like “thaisi” or “khaksi”– I can’t remember exactly –but it’s very bad. She is so thin– only skin and bone. She has to be carried in and out.”
“And how is the little boy?”
“How could he be? He has boils all over his body. It’s not possible to rub oil on him. He always thinks of you and asks when his Ama is coming back.”
“And who does the cooking?”
“Sometimes your husband cooks himself sometimes he goes to bed after eating only a few bits and pieces. One day I saw him sitting on the verandah, alone, crying, “That cursed woman has destroyed the home she built herself.” That’s what he kept muttering. What should I say, Bajai? The animals have become skin and bone. The fields and gardens are now let out on a half share to others. He’s in debt and the jute doesn’t bring in a single piece, the servants don’t stay more than a couple of days– everything is in confusion.”
Subhadra was deeply grieved by Nauli’s words. “This is like cutting the nose of one’s husband because of anger at the co-wife,” she said to herself. “She was young. It was natural for her to think of good food and wearing nice clothes. I should not have been upset because she was eating well and dressing well. So what if he took her on the pilgrimage? When he returned I should have gone with another friend. It’s true that she spoke sarcastically at times and it was natural for her. to be quarrelsome– it’s natural for even a mother and daughter to quarrel when they live together. When I found that we couldn’t live in the same house, I should have put up a hut for myself. I have been foolish. What can the neighbours be saying? I gave up all my possessions and am living here on one meal a day. If anything happens to her what will become of the little boy? What must his father be saying? I have been hurt, but it was his mother who hurt me. What did the little boy do wrong? It was difficult for my husband to cook a meal now and then. Now how can he cook every day with things as they are? Subhadra’s heart ached with pain, and she said tearfully,
“Nauli, and you too have left them at such a time!”
“Bajai, all my life I have had to live as someone’s slave. I asked the Master for twenty days off so that I could offer a four-fold sacrifice.
“With whom did you come?”
“With the wife of Ratmata Bhandari Pandit.”
“When will you return?”
“Tomorrow morning. Please, Mistress, let’s go home together. Without you, the Master will lose everything.”
As she lay on a filthy bed, Laksmi marked off her remaining hours. Deviraman sat at the head of the bed and from time to time gave her water from a spoon. The little boy Susil sat nearby watching his mother dying.
Laksmi looked at her son’s face from time to time and wept. In the weak light of the dim lamp, the sick room looked like a crematorium. Just then, opening the door Nauli bowed before Deviraman. Seeing Nauli, his grief abated somewhat.
“When did you arrive from Nepal, Nauli?”
“Master, I have just come. How is Dulahi?”
“Her strength is ebbing and she is about to die.”
“Master, if the mistress were here now, everything would be all right. 1 asked her to return, but she would not come.”
“Did you meet her?”
“I met her near Pasupatinath.”
“How was she?”
“Pitiful– very thin with dirty clothes.”
“Where is she staying?”
“At Gaurighat with her aunt. She said her aunt receives a pension from the government and that they both manage on it.”
“Did she remember us?”
“She asked. 1 told her everything. She was surprised that 1 too had left at such a time.”
Tears flowed from Deviraman’s eyes. He said to himself, “She was the mistress of so much here and now she lives in Nepal with hardly enough to eat. Pitiful– emaciated, in dirty rags. My God, 0 Lord, I am a sinner, a thousand curses on my life. Subhadra is my grihalaksmi. Since she went away, we have been surrounded by clouds of misfortune. Even if she has no feeling for us, she ought to think of the boy, but she has driven everyone completely out of her mind. Nauli, now that you have returned, look after the house. I’m going to Nepal in the morning.” Deviraman wept bitterly.
At that moment, Subhadra entered the room. Although wretched, gaunt, and in filthy clothes, her face shone with unlimited compassion and tranquillity. Seeing his wife’s wretched state, Deviraman was crushed. Covering his face with his hands he sobbed. Subhadra prostrated herself before her husband and then sat at the head of Laksmi’s bed. “Oh, Bajai has returned, ” said Nauli.
Hearing Nauli’s voice, Laksmi opened her eyes and saw Subhadra seated at the head of the bed.
“Didi, I have been hanging on to life just to have a glimpse of you,” she said in a weak and halting voice.
Subhadra forgot all her grievances when she heard Laksmi’s words.
“Dear husband, I have neglected my baby.”
Pointing to Subhadra’s breast, Laksmi said, “There is a great wound there.”
“It’s better now, sister,” said Subhadra tearfully, “nothing is left there. Not even a mark as big as a sesame seed.”
Then Laksmi put Susil’s hand in Subhadra’s lap and said, “I put him into your safekeeping.”
Clasping the boy to her, Subhadra sobbed. This was a time she would remember and weep over for the rest of her life.
Like a dying flame, Laksmi’s face brightened for an instant. Then darkness! Laksmi departed this sorrowful hollow world and was gone. They all wept bitterly.