Chandrashekhar (Mullick)/Part1/Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV.
THE BARBER-WOMAN.

FOSTER went in person with the planquin to the bank of the distant Bhagirathi. There a boat was waiting properly furnished, and he helped Shaihalini into it. He had engaged Hindu servants, of both sexes, and guards too. What is the use of Hindu servants any longer? [1]

Foster himself started for Calcutta in a different conveyance. He had to go quick, and it was impossible for him to reach Calcutta within a week in a big hulking boat heading its course against the winds. Alter making suitable arrangements for a conveyance for Shaibalini, so that a lady might comfortably travel, Foster himself set out in a different vehicle. There was no apprehension of any attempt at rescue by an attack on the boat in case he himself did not accompany her. No one would venture to approach the boat when he would have heard that it belonged to an Englishman. He left instructions for the boat to proceed to Monghyr. Riding on the ripplets driven by the morning breeze, the spacious boat of Shaibalini moved in a northerly direction, the soft sounding ripples dashing against the bottom with a fluttering sound. You can trust a cunning artful cheat as much as you like, but never put your trust on the morning breeze. It is very sweet, it steals on tip-toe like a thief, and gently wantons with a lotus here, a cluster of jasmine there, and sprigs of fragrant Bocul (mimosus elengi) elsewhere; it carries odour to some, draws the night-bred bodily humours of many, soothes the thought-oppressed forehead of others, and when it finds the clustering hair of a young girl, it bestows slight little puffs on it and scampers away. Are you a boat passenger? You will find the amiable frolicsome morning breeze embellishing the river with small ripples; you will find it clearing the sky by removing one or two patches of grey clouds; you will find it softly dancing the trees on the banks, sweetly coquetting with women engaged in bathing and discoursing sweet music at your ear as it slips under the boat; and you will imagine the breeze to be very sober, very sedate, very unostentatious, at the same time ever-cheerful. What is not possible in this world if everyone should behave like this? Unfasten the boat and let it along! The sun has risen; you find the sun glistening on the ripples; they have now grown bigger than before; on them the geese are dancing along, the earthen pitchers of beautiful girls engrossed in rubbing themselves are restless, and are swaying just a ittle too much. Now the ripples are defiantly climbing up their shoulders, again they are flinging themselves at the feet of those who had got up on the bank, and there beating their heads as if to say, “vouchsafe the liberty of touching your gracious feet, ” (by way of conciliation) at the least besmearing themselves with the lacdye washed away from their feet. By slow degrees, you find the sound of the wind deepening, it no longer melts in the ear like the verse of Jayadeva, [2] no longer it softly plies its lute in your auricle in the melody of Bhairabi. [3] Gradually you find it intensifying into a bowl with a flourish of roars. Suddenly the ripples are swollen, they shake their heads and dash along—and there is darkness. Adverse winds block the way, and catching hold of the prow lash the boat against the water and veer it round, and finding the outlook not very encouraging, you make your obeisance to the Wind-god and run your boat ashore.

Shaibalini’s boat was placed in a like predicament. As morning wore on, the wind began to rise. The boat was large and could not make head against adverse winds; the guards moored it at Bbadrahatty.

Sometime after, a barber-woman approached. She was married, and clad in a rather short red-bordered sari, with a fringe of a similar hue, and holding a basket full of lacdye—cotton in her hand. Finding a large number of black beards[4] in the boat, she pulled her veil. The owners of the beards gazed at her in silence.

Shaibalini’s food was cooking on an alluvial plat. She was still observing Hindu customs—-a Brahmin was cooking. One cannot transform oneself into a Saheb’s wife in the course of a single day. Foster knew that if Shaibalini did not escape or commit suicide, she must one day sit at table and relish Mahomedan cooking as a delicacy. But where was the hurry now? If he tried to force her hand, everything would be spoiled. With this idea, he had engaged a Brahmin cook for her, according to the suggestion of his servants. The Brahmin was cooking and a servant-woman standing by helped him. The barber-woman walked up to the latter and asked, “My friend, where are you coming from?”

The servant-woman got angry, specially as she received her wages from an Englishman and answered sharply, “What business have you to enquire, hussy? We are coming from Hilli, Delhi, or Mecca, if that will suit you.”[5]

The barber-woman was put out of countenance and said, “It is not that; I mean I am a barber by profession, and I am asking if any lady in your boat would like to have my services.”

The servant-woman was mollified, and said, “Very well, I will go and enquire.” With these words she went to ask Shaibalini if she would like to paint her feet with lacdye.[6] Shaibalini had been devising schemes for diverting her mind anyhow, and said, “Yes, I will.” Then, with the guard’s permission, the servant-woman sent the barber-woman inside the boat, herself remaining busy in the cooking-place as before.

On facing Shaibalini the barber-woman drew her veil a little deeper, and taking one of her feet began to paint. “Barber-woman, where do you live?” asked Shaibalini after surveying her for some time.

She did not answer. “Barber-woman “what is your name?” again asked Shaibalini.

Still no answer.

“Barber-woman are you weeping?”

“No,” came the soft reply.

“Yes, you are weeping,” and Shaibalini pulled back the barber—woman’s veil. She had been actually weeping; when the veil had been removed, she smiled softly.

“I made you out as soon as you came in,” said Shaibalini. “A veil before me, you silly! Never mind, but where do you come from?"

The barber-woman was no other than sister-in-law Sundari. Wiping her tears she said, “Be off with you, quick. Now take my sari and put it on, I am taking it off for you. Take this lacdye-cotton basket, draw your veil close and clear out of the boat.”

“How have you come?” vacantly repeated Shaibalini.

“Whence I have come, how I have come, I will explain to you later on, if I find a suitable time for it. I have come here in search of you. I was told that the palanquin had gone in the direction of the Ganges. I got up in the morning, and without exchanging a word with a single soul, walked up to the river. Then I came to know that the boat had started northwards. I was to have walked a long way, but my feet began to ache, when I hired a boat and followed you. Yours is a big boat and slow, mine is a small one, so I caught you up quickly.”

“How could you come alone?”

It was on the tip of Sundari’s tongue to return, “You blackfaced! how could you come riding in an Englishman’s palanquin alone?” But finding it ill—suited for the occasion she held back and said :—

“I have not come alone, my husband is with me. Leaving our boat a little way off I assumed the garb of a barber-woman and came.”

“Well then?”

“Then put on my sari, take this lacdye-cotton basket, draw your veil close and get away; no one will know you. Follow the bank of the Ganges, you will find my husband in the boat. Don’t feel ashamed on account of his being the husband of your husband’s sister;[7] you will go straight into the boat. As soon as you reach there, he will row off and take you home.”

Shaibalini reflected for a time and said, “Very well, I grant it shall be so, but then what will become of you?”

“Don't you trouble yourself for me. The Englishman, who can confine the Brahmin woman Sundari in a boat has not set his foot in Bengal yet. We are born of Brahmin parents, we are the wives of Brahmins, if our minds be firm there can be no danger for us in this world. Do you go, I will reach home in course of the night anyhow. The God who overcometh all evil is my hope. Don’t delay any longer. My husband hasn’t had his meal yet, I don’t know whether he will have any to-day at all.”

"Well, suppose I return home, do you think my husband will reinstate me?”

“Oh, ho! why shouldn’t he do it? As if it is such an easy matter after all not to do it.”

“But remember, I have been abducted by the Englishman, do I maintain my caste any longer?”

Sundari looked intently at her face in astonishment. She began to dart sharp soul-piercing glances at her, and the proud Shaibalini, like a serpent wincing under the touch of the medicinal root, dropped her face. “Will you speak the truth?” asked Sundari somewhat sternly.

“Yes, I will.”

“Even on these waters of the Ganges?"[8]

“Yes. There is no need of your asking, I will tell you without it. Up till now I have held the Englishman at arm’s length. It cannot harm the religious scruples of my husband to take me back.”

“Then make no doubt. He is a pious man, he will never do an unjust thing; what is the good of wasting time on unprofitable talk?”

Shaibalini remained buried in thought for a while and then water stood in her eyes.

“Supposing I do go,” she said, wiping her tears. “Suppose also, that my husband takes me back, but will my infamy be ever wiped away?"

Sundari made no answer. “Would not the little girls of the neighbourhood,” continued Shaibalini, “hereafter point their fingers at me and say, ‘look, there is she who was abducted by an Englishman!’ God forbid! if a son is born to me, who will accept my invitation at his rice ceremony[9] and come to dine at my house? Or, if a daughter is born, what good Brahmin will marry his son to her? If I return home now, who will believe that I have not fallen off from my religion? How shall I shew my face there?”

“What was in your destiny, has come to pass,” said Sundari, “that cannot be undone. You shall have to suffer a little all your time, yet you will have the satisfaction of living in your own home.”

“For what happiness? What hopes of happiness have I, that I shall return home and suffer so much misery? I have neither father, mother, friend——”

“Why, you have got your husband, else for whom is the life of a woman ?"

“You know all—”

“Yes, I do know all. I know that of all the sinners in this world, there is not one greater than you. The husband, the like of whom rarely falls to the lot of a woman in this world, your mind is not satisfied with the love of such a husband. And why ?-—because he does not know how to fondle his wife like children who fondle their dolls in their mimic play-house; and why? — because the Creator has not made him a buffoon tricked out in tinsel tawdries—He has made him a man. Your husband is pious and learned, you are a wicked sinner— how can you like him? You are blind of the blind, and that is why you cannot understand that the love which he bears you, is rare in a woman’s life. As the reward of great virtue in your antecedent birth, you have earned such love from such a husband. However, let all that go, this is not the time for it. Even if he does not love you, still if you can pass your time in worshipping his feet, you will have lived to some purpose. Why do you dawdle?——my gorge is rising.”

“Now listen to me,” said Shaibalini. “While at home I used to think, that if I could know of any relative either agnate or cognate, I would leave my home and live with him, otherwise I would go to Benares and live there on begging, else, I would drown myself. Now I am on my way to Monghyr, let see what sort of atown it is; let me try if doles of charity can be had in the metropolis. If it is to be death, I will die; I carry it in the hollow of my palm. What else is left to me now, but death? But death or life, in any case, I have determined not to return home. For me you have taken all this trouble in vain—go back. I will not go. Consider me as dead—be sure I will die——go.”

After this Sundari did not utter another word. Repressing her tears she stood up and said, “I hope you will soon die. I devoutly pray to the gods that you may find courage to die, that you may die even before you reach Monghyr! Be it in Storm, be it in the angry waves, be it in a sinking boat, I pray that you may die before you reach Monghyr!”

With these words Sundari whisked out of the boat, threw the lacdye-cotton basket into the water and returned to her husband.


  1. By leaving her home with an Englishman, Shaibalini is supposed to have lost her caste.
  2. An Indian poet who wrote Sanscrit verses of exquisite grace and melody.
  3. A Indian tune, very soft and sweet.
  4. They are the Mahomedan boatmen
  5. This is a medley of the names of possible and impossible places.
  6. This practice of painting the feet with lacdye is common with the Hindu married women of Bengal. It is done by painting the fringe of the soles about an inch deep including the nails as a personal decoration.
  7. It is against the rules of domestic propriety among the Bengal Hindus, for a lady to appear before such a relation.
  8. The Ganges is Considered very sacred by the Hindus, and when a person makes a statement by touching its water, he is put on the highest form of oath.
  9. It is a ceremony which generally takes place in the sixth month of a child's birth when the child happens to be male, and in the seventh month, when it happens to be female. The kinsmen, caste people and friends are invited to dinner on the occasion. This is the occasion when the child is initiated into the mysteries of boiled rice.