An Unfinished Song/Chapter 13
The controversy happily ended there. At table the conversation turned on lighter subjects: England and its icy winter, its skating and its snowballing.
"Don't you pity us?" said my sister, addressing the doctor. "We have never been out of this land, never seen snow or ice excepting once at Naini Tal."
"But the ice we saw there," I replied, "was not the same as you describe. It was a sort of a mound of ice, a mass of frozen snow collected in a gorge, where it remained unthawed even in summer. It was very beautiful, however. At one place at the base the ice had melted in such a way as to form a bridge, and the front having melted entirely, the whole had the appearance of a house, the melted part forming the entrance."
"It was a beautiful quiet place," remarked my sister. "We reached it by using the sound of the cascade as our guide."
I recalled the scene to which my sister referred, and with my mind's eye beheld it once more in all its exquisite detail.
"Beautiful indeed," I exclaimed. "Nature is charming in that place. The abundant and varying vegetation, the hills, the springs, the streams and the ice—all these seem to have conspired to seek this lovely spot to avoid the rude gaze of man, and jealously diffuse their charms before Mother Nature alone. I thought fairyland lay stretched out before me when that gleaming white ice palace, those cosy foliage arbours and hills and valleys suddenly appeared before my view."
My sister took the occasion to compliment me.
"Moni describes well. I could not have made it half so interesting."
I blushed over this open compliment but said nothing.
My brother-in-law then turned to my sister and said,
"You are like myself, you have almost forgotten what you saw. Could you give any description?"
"Why should I forget?" she retorted, "I haven't clients to bother me day and night."
"Well then, tell us how the ice looked."
"Oh, no doubt, I could do that, but am I here to be examined?"
"Very well, let me do it for you. Beautifully, faultlessly white, the sublimest, the beautifullest, the grandest."
My sister checked him.
"Now really, don't tease me any more," she said.
The doctor turned towards my brother-in-law.
"I see you are not satisfied with twenty-four hours a day, you want an extra half-hour or two. You monopolise the whole conversation."
"I beg your pardon," was the meek reply. "I will be as quiet as a mouse."
"That is good," said his wife. "Now you keep quiet and we will talk. The ice, well, it did not look like the ice we use in our drinking water. On the outer wall of the icehouse of which we are speaking it looked like frozen salt, and the inner wall was smooth and soft like wax, but it was somewhat blackish, having come into contact with the earth."
"Yes, and imagine," retorted my brother-in-law, quite forgetting his vow of silence, "the fancy took hold of these two to break some ice off the walls and carry it home."
"Well, you need not complain," was his wife's quick reply. "You did not help us in securing any, nor did we secure any for ourselves in the end—all we succeeded in getting were a few particles like dry salt."
"Had I been there," the doctor assured her, "I would not have left your desire unfulfilled. I would gladly have broken off a whole basketful of ice and carried it home for you."
"Now, my husband, learn from this gentleman how to please a lady."
"Ye gods, have I that still to learn? Have you forgotten how I used to make my fingers bleed plucking roses for you? That was before we were married, if you remember rightly."
She evidently did remember, for she blushed charmingly and faltered shyly,
"Well, well." Then turning to the doctor she continued, "Please do go on with your story. Really a river changed into a glazed mirror with beautiful creatures moving about upon it must be a fairy scene. I am afraid you became quite bewitched."
My brother-in-law was ready again.
"Became bewitched over what? The skates, the ice or the beautiful creatures?"
"Ah, but you were not asked," retorted my sister.
"Possibly I was bewitched," the doctor answered; "it would have been only natural if I had been, but the land had already charmed me so much, that I was prepared for any scene of beauty. The fiery, living liberty, the irrepressible energy impressed me first of all. There is not a sign there of the listlessness of our countrymen. One can do the work of ten men and enjoy doing it. Almost every student at my college found time for games besides being present at the lectures regularly, attending to his hospital duties and surgical operations, and staying up late into the night for study. Nor did they entirely absent themselves from dinner parties, balls, and theatres. I became simply speechless in my admiration of their energy."
"That is the great difference between England and India," remarked my brother-in-law.
The doctor continued,
"There is such a beautiful method of working there that one can accomplish a great deal without getting tired. Lives seem to move with the hands of the clock. Whether you go visiting or to meet anyone in business, you go about it as if you had to catch a train, time seems to be so strictly regarded. In the beginning this made me over anxious, and I was often half an hour ahead of the appointed time, lest I should be late, and so I would find myself loitering around the street to pass the time away."
I had been silent all along, but at last ventured to put in a word.
"Whenever I hear stories about England, I wish so much to go there."
"I think," replied the doctor, "all educated men and women should go there at least once. We are so moribund, it invigorates us to breathe the free air of liberty. There people are ever tearing down old institutions and building up new ones. Ideals which I dared not cherish here seemed to me there the legitimate object of aspiration. I became so bold in my fancies in that free land that I thought I could reform this country single-handed, could explode its deeply-rooted prejudices with gunpowder, so to speak. I now blush when I think of my wild dreams."
"God has incapacitated us," replied my brother-in-law, "there is no help for us. If the climate of India had been like that of England the history of our country might have been written differently."
"And we should have been born with fairer complexions," remarked my sister. "When our Aryan ancestors crossed the five rivers they are said to have been very fair. When I see the little English children with their soft white faces and cheeks like dolls, I can hardly turn my eyes from them. They seem to me like flowers in bloom. Why has not God made us fair like them?"
"You ought not to fret on that account," rejoined her husband. "Have we not proof of the fact that dark beauty conquered where all else failed?"
"But oh, fair beauty could have done much more."
"I do not agree with you," her husband replied. "What do you say, doctor? You have come back from that land of the sun, do you think you can remain unmoved in this land of beautiful moonlight? You see my plight?"
"But you can appreciate the moonlight better, after having been scorched by the sun. Otherwise I fear you would not have remembered your native land. It seems to me people become so fascinated that in a short time they forget country, relations and all. That is really a great surprise to me.
"But the wonder to me is that our Bengali youths do not forget their country altogether." It was my brother-in-law who spoke again. "That any of us return as bachelors and marry as soon as we come back in spite of the charms we leave behind, is the most marvellous part of all."
"Very well, you may return to England, nobody is preventing you," said my sister.
"Well, well, you are very generous indeed to make me this offer now that you see I am bound down by a chain."
I do not know how long this jest between husband and wife might have continued had I not interrupted it.
"Tell me what pleased you most in that land?" I asked the doctor.
"What pleased me most? The women's——"
"Beauty," broke in my brother-in-law. "Good heavens, man, I have never yet been guilty of that remark."
"It is very courteous of you, doctor," said my sister laughingly, "to tell us that to our face."
"But pardon, madame, it was not I who said that, it was your husband. What I liked best was the liberty and self-reliance of the women. Day by day their sphere of activity expands until they have begun to invade the realms of politics. The men may laugh at them, but nevertheless they respect their women for it. It is impossible for us to realise here what influence those women exercise on their country and on the individual, and how beneficent that influence is. Our life seems purposeless compared with it."
"But," I replied, "since in our country men and women mix together so little, it must seem very strange to a new comer to find himself constantly in the company of ladies."
"That is true. I must admit my condition was a miserable one. To give you a simile, I felt like one trying to keep afloat in the Ganges with only a thread to guide him to the opposite shore."
My sister laughed most cordially at this comparison and asked him to explain.
He continued, "I did not know the habits, manners and customs, nor yet the language properly. We learn the language by studying philosophy, history and science in books, but we cannot carry on a conversation in short sentences nor return an answer. When introduced to a lady I would become nervous and awkward. I had learned my words entirely from the dictionary and had laid the greatest stress on accent and pronunciation. The result was I could hardly understand English people when they spoke to me. There was still another difficulty. I was told again and again, 'You have cut So-and-So; he lifted his hat to you in the street but you did not return his greeting!' Good heavens! whom had I met, who had lifted his hat to me? My life was practically teased out of me by having to make excuses for this kind of thing every day. The fact was I did not look around me very much when walking, moreover those white faces looked to me so much alike that unless one was particularly familiar to me, it was difficult for me to recognise it. Again, if I entered a shop to make a purchase worth a penny, I found myself five pounds poorer when going over my cash account that evening, simply on account of the importunity of the shopkeeper. It is necessary to learn to say 'no' in that land, or there is no end of danger. I finally learned to stand erect on English soil, but Heaven alone knows how often I tripped before I accomplished it."
"At last you became master of the situation?" asked my sister.
"I cannot even say that, madame. My Bengali friends used to tell me I was hopelessly green up to the last."
"How long did you know Romanath there?" asked my brother-in-law.
"I met him at the house of a mutual friend only a few days before I left England."
"Was he really engaged to be married?"
The doctor looked taken aback. He hesitated for a while and then replied, "I heard so, but—I am afraid this is not a fit subject for the dinner table."
"You are right," replied my brother-in-law, "let us discuss the matter another time. I have my own reasons for asking you."
The subject was dropped accordingly, to my great relief.
The night that followed was one of exquisite moonlight, sky and earth alike were illumined by a silver glow. We repaired to the terrace after dinner.
My sister addressed the doctor, saying, "According to your account everything in England is superb; but had you ever there a moon like this?"
"Moonlight was rare indeed. Perhaps it was owing to this fact that it used to look so glorious when it did appear."
"You are hopelessly bewitched, I see," rejoined my sister. "Not only does England hold the most beautiful women, but the most perfect moon as well. How could you ever in the face of all these fascinations come back again? Really that puzzles me."
He caressed his handsome beard and smiled.
"Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. When the chances are good, there is almost always disappointment, and where one expects the least, there often the unexpected happens."
As he said this he threw a timid glance at me. That glance and the moonlight seemed like harmony blended. A thrill of happiness went through my being and I sighed.