Chandra Shekhar/Part 1/Chapter 4
the barber woman
OSTER himself escorted the palanquin up to the bank of the Bhagirathi. A large boat, comfortable for ladies to live in, was kept there in readiness. Shaibalini was taken up on that boat. Foster engaged Hindu servants for her and some sentries to keep watch. What was the necessity for Hindu servants now?
Foster proceeded to Calcutta in another boat. He was to travel fast; it would be quite impossible for him to reach Calcutta in a week's time, if he was to go in Shaibalini's big boat, making its way against the wind. He did so, because he had no such fear that in his absence some one might attack the boat and rescue Shaibalini. He thought that none would dare to approach the boat for the simple fact that it belonged to an Englishman. He left instructions that Shaibalini's boat should be taken to Monghyr.
Shaibalini's spacious boat, mounting upon the chain of little waves raised by the morning breeze, was moving towards the north. The murmuring ripples were breaking under the boat with a pattering noise. You can trust a rogue, a cheat or an imposter, but not the morning breeze. The gentle breeze of the morning is very delightful—it steals in like a thief and softly plays here with a lily, there with a bunch of jessamine and elsewhere with a branch of the fragrant Bakul. It brings sweet fragrance to some—takes away other's dullness after sleep—it soothes the troubled head of another, and when it finds a young beauty it gives a gentle puff at her locks and slips away. Suppose you are in a boat—you see the gentle sportive morning breeze beautifully adorning the river with garlands of ripples—removing the thin isolated clouds in the sky and making it clear and serene; again, you find it gently waving the trees on the banks, playing merry pranks with young beauties bathing in the river, and coming under your boat making a delightful music for your ears. You at once think that air is by nature very gentle, very sober and absolutely free from boisterous tumult, yet ever cheerful and gay! Oh, what good would not have been possible, if everything in this world had been so! You at once cry out, "No fear, start the boat." Then, the sun gradually appears above the horizon—you see its rays glittering on the curling waves of the river; they have now become a little bigger—the swans are waving on them, as if they were dancing; the earthen pails of the beauties, busily engaged in washing themselves, cannot rest on them—they are capering about briskly; sometimes, the waves with unwarrantable intrepidity take liberties with the fair ones and leap upon their shoulders; again, they throw themselves at the feet of her who has got ashore—strike their heads against them in expectation of favour, as if saying, "Oh, be pleased to give us shelter in thy feet." At any rate, they lightly wash away the red paint from her feet and tint themselves with it, in pride and pleasure. Later on, you notice that the sound of the wind is gradually increasing—it no more faints away in the ear like Joydev's sweet and delicate verses—it no more plays on the harp the soft melodious Bhairaby. At last, you find that the wind has become uproarious in its noise—the air is filled with tumultuous howls; the waves have suddenly got swollen, and rocking their proud heads, break in dashing fury; a gloom is cast all around; a head-wind stands in the way of your boat and getting hold of its prow, strikes it against the water—at times, it turns the face of the boat backwards—you understand what all these mean, and making a nod to the God of wind for your experience, take your boat to the shore!
The same thing happened with Shaibalini's boat. Not long after dawn, the wind became very strong. The big boat could not proceed any farther against the head-wind. The men escorting Shaibalini, took it to the Ghat, at Vadrahati.
A barber woman came near the boat a little after its arrival there. She had her husband alive and was, therefore, clothed in a Shari with red borders—it had also red figure-works at the corner ends. She had in her hand a small basket, containing Alta. The woman, seeing the black-bearded men on the boat, drew the veil over her face. They were looking at her in dumb surprise.Shaibalini's food was being cooked on a Char, near by. Hindu practices were still being observed. A Brahmin was cooking for her. One cannot get anglicised in a day! Foster knew, that if Shaibalini would not slip out of his hands, or commit suicide, she would surely one day sit at a dinner-table and take English dishes with relish. He thought, he should not be impatient; for, impatience would certainly mar all prospects. Considering all these, Foster, as advised by his servants, had engaged a Brahmin cook to accompany Shaibalini. The Brahmin was cooking and a maid-servant was there to assist him. The barber woman came to that maid-servant and said, "Where do you come from, please?" The maid-servant got out of her temper—no wonder, as she drew her pay from an Englishman—and said, "We come from Hilly—Delhi—Mecca, what does it matter to you, wretched woman?" She felt awkward at this and said, "Well, I don't mean anything wrong. I am a barber woman—I am only enquiring if my services be required by any lady in your boat." The maid-servant was pacified a little and said, "All right, let me enquire." She then went to Shaibalini to ask her if she would have her feet painted with Alta. No matter for what reason, Shaibalini was seeking for a diversion, and she said, "Yes, I will." The maid-servant then sent the barber woman within the
boat, with the permission of the guards. She herself remained engaged in the cookery, as before.
The barber woman drew down her veil a little more when she saw Shaibalini. She then placed one of Shaibalini's feet on her hand and began to paint it. Shaibalini gazed at the woman very attentively for sometime. She then said,
"Barber woman, where do you live?"
Shaibalini got no answer—she again asked,
"What's your name?"
Yet she got no reply.
"Are you weeping?"
"No," softly replied the woman, this time.
"Yes, you are," said Shaibalini and removed the woman's veil. She was really weeping but she smiled a little when the veil was taken off.
"I made you out as soon as you stepped in," said Shaibalini smiling. "You cover your face with a veil before me—what a curse it is! Now, where do you come from?"
The barber woman was no other than Sundari herself. Wiping away her tears, Sundari said, "Hasten off—put on my Shari—I will change it for yours. Take this little basket in your hand and go away from the boat, drawing a veil over your face."
"How could you manage to come here?" inquired Shaibalini, in abstraction.
Sundari. Whence I came and how I came, I will explain to you hereafter, if I live to see a better day. I have come here in search of you. People said, that the palanquin had gone towards the Ganges. So, leaving my bed early in the morning, I walked up to the bank of the Ganges, without giving out my mind to any one. People there said, that the Budgerow had gone towards the north. It is a long way from home and my legs became weak with pain. I then hired a boat and followed you up to this place. Your boat is big—it hardly moves—mine was a small one, and so I have overtaken you so soon.
Shaibalini. How could you come alone?
It came to Sundari's lips, "How could you, you shameless wretch, come away in the palanquin of a Sahib?" But she controlled her tongue, thinking that it was not the proper time for such a reproach. She said, "I have not come alone. My husband is with me. I have come here in the disguise of a barber woman, keeping our little boat at a distance."
"Then, what next?" carelessly inquired the absent-minded Shaibalini.
Sundari. Now, put on my Shari, take this little basket of Alta in your hand and go down from the boat, veiling your face—no one will be able to detect you. You are to go along the bank. You will find my husband waiting in a small boat. Don't feel any delicacy before him—get on the boat at once and take your seat there. He will set out, the very moment you will get on the boat and take you home.
Shaibalini meditated for a long time, and then said, "But, what will be your fate?"
Sundari. Don't be anxious for me. No such Englishman has yet come to Bengal as can cabin Sundari in a boat. I am a Brahmin's daughter and a Brahmin's wife; in this world we have no danger to dread, if we are pure and firm within ourselves. You go, anyhow I will come home by to-night. I believe in God, the saviour in distress. Don't delay any more—my husband has not yet taken his meals—God knows, whether he will have any to-day.
Shaibalini. Well, suppose I go home, would my husband take me back?
Sundari. Oh, nonsense! Why should he not? It is no joke.
Shaibalini. Just see, an Englishman has snatched me away from my home—ah me, I have lost my caste in the eyes of the world!
Sundari looked at Shaibalini's face in surprise, and began to scan it very closely. She cast her acute penetrating glances upon her—like a charmed snake, proud Shaibalini lowered her head. Sundari then asked, in a rather stern manner, "Will you tell me the truth?"
Shaibalini. Yes, I will.
Sundari. Here, on the sacred waters of the Ganges?
Shaibalini. Yes, I will. You need not ask me; I will, of my own accord, tell you what you want to know of me. I have not yet come in contact with the Sahib—my husband will not fall from grace, if he will take me back.
Sundari. If that be so, do not doubt that your husband will receive you back. He is pious and will not do you injustice; so, don't waste time in idle talks.
Shaibalini remained silent for a time. She wept a little, and then wiping away her tears, said, "I may go, my husband may also take me in—but, will my stain be ever removed?"
Sundari made no reply. Shaibalini continued, "Hereafter, will not the little girls of our village point me out with their fingers and cry out, 'Look, that woman was taken away by an Englishman'? God forbid it, if I ever have a son, who will dine in my house when invited at his Annaprasan ceremony? If I ever get a daughter, what Brahmin of high lineage will marry his son with her? If I go back now, who will believe that I have not lost my caste? How shall I again appear before society?"
Sundari. You have been fated to this condition and now there is no help for it. Throughout your life, you shall have to endure a little humiliation; but, still you shall be in your own home.
Shaibalini. For what pleasure? In the hope of what enjoyment should I return home to endure so much pain? No father, no mother, no friend—
Sundari. Why, have you not a husband? For whom else is the life of a woman?
Shaibalini. You know everything—
Sundari. Yes, I know. I know that you are the greatest sinner amongst the sinners of this world. Your heart is not contented with the love of a husband, the like of whom is very rare on earth. His only fault is that he does not know how to caress his wife in the very same way as a boy fondles his doll in the play-room. He is again to blame, because, God has not made him a motley clown but a true man. He is pious and learned, whereas you are a sinner; why should you be contented with him? You are worse than blind and that is why you cannot see that the love which your husband bears to you is such as is rarely enjoyed by a woman. It was your good luck and the result of your past deeds of piety that you received so much affection from so good a husband. However that may be, no more of this—it is not the time for such a talk. Even if he does not love you, still, if you can pass your days in worshipping him, your life's highest aim will be attained. Why are you making further delay? I am getting annoyed.
Shaibalini. You see, when Iwas at home, I used to think that if I could find a relative on my father's or mother's side, I Would go and live with him, or else I would go to Benares and live there on alms, or I would drown myself in water. Now I am going to Monghyr. Let me go there and see how I like the place. Let me see whether I can get alms in that city. If I am to put an end to my life, I will do that. Death is at my will. What other alternative have I now but to die? But, whether I live or die, I have resolved not to return home. You have, for nothing, taken so much trouble—go back, I will not return. Think me dead. Be sure, sooner or later, I will die. You better go home.
After this, Sundari made no further request. Checking her tears, she rose up and said, "I trust, you will soon die. I earnestly pray to God that you may have sufficient courage to court death. May your life come to an end before you reach Monghyr. May death come upon you either through storm, or tempest, or the capsize of your boat, before you get into that city." Sundari then came out of the boat. She threw into the water the basket of Alta and returned to her husband.
- No Hindu woman will wear a bordered Shari, far less a red bordered one with figure-works, after the death of her husband.