The Home and the World/Chapter 11
With Amulya's departure my heart sank within me. On what perilous adventure had I sent this only son of his mother? O God, why need my expiation have such pomp and circumstance? Could I not be allowed to suffer alone without inviting all this multitude to share my punishment? Oh, let not this innocent child fall victim to Your wrath.
I called him back,—'Amulya!'
My voice sounded so feebly, it failed to reach him.
I went up to the door and called again: 'Amulya!'
He had gone.
'Who is there?'
'Go and tell Amulya Babu that I want him.'
What exactly happened I could not make out,—the man, perhaps, was not familiar with Amulya's name,—but he returned almost at once followed by Sandip.
'The very moment you sent me away,' he said as he came in, 'I had a presentiment that you would call me back. The attraction of the same moon causes both ebb and flow. I was so sure of being sent for, that I was actually waiting out in the passage. As soon as I caught sight of your man, coming from your room, I said: "Yes, yes, I am coming, I am coming at once!"—before he could utter a word. That up-country lout was surprised, I can tell you! He stared at me, open-mouthed, as if he thought I knew magic.
'All the fights in the world, Queen Bee,' Sandip rambled on, 'are really fights between hypnotic forces. Spell cast against spell,—noiseless weapons which reach even invisible targets. At last I have met in you my match. Your quiver is full, I know, you artful warrior Queen! You are the only one in the world who has been able to turn Sandip out and call Sandip back, at your sweet will. Well, your quarry is at your feet. What will you do with him now? Will you give him the coup de grâce, or keep him in your cage? Let me warn you beforehand, Queen, you will find the beast as difficult to kill outright as to keep in bondage. Anyway, why lose time in trying your magic weapons?'
Sandip must have felt the shadow of approaching defeat, and this made him try to gain time by chattering away without waiting for a reply. I believe he knew that I had sent the messenger for Amulya, whose name the man must have mentioned. In spite of that he had deliberately played this trick. He was now trying to avoid giving me any opening to tell him that it was Amulya I wanted, not him. But his stratagem was futile, for I could see his weakness through it. I must not yield up a pin's point of the ground I had gained.
'Sandip Babu,' I said, 'I wonder how you can go on making these endless speeches, without a stop. Do you get them up by heart, beforehand?'
Sandip's face flushed instantly.
'I have heard,' I continued, 'that our professional reciters keep a book full of all kinds of ready-made discourses, which can be fitted into any subject. Have you also a book?'
Sandip ground out his reply through his teeth. 'God has given you women a plentiful supply of coquetry to start with, and on the top of that you have the milliner and the jeweller to help you; but do not think we men are so helpless......'
'You had better go back and look up your book, Sandip Babu. You are getting your words all wrong. That's just the trouble with trying to repeat things by rote.'
'You!' shouted Sandip, losing all control over himself. 'You to insult me thus! What is there left of you that I do not know to the very bottom? What......' He became speechless.
Sandip, the wielder of magic spells, is reduced to utter powerlessness, whenever his spell refuses to work. From a king he fell to the level of a boor. Oh, the joy of witnessing his weakness! The harsher he became in his rudeness, the more did this joy well up within me. His snaky coils, with which he used to snare me, are exhausted,—I am free. I am saved, saved. Be rude to me, insult me, for that shows you in your truth; but spare me your songs of praise, which were false.
My husband came in at this juncture. Sandip had not the elasticity to recover himself in a moment, as he used to do before. My husband looked at him for a while in surprise. Had this happened some days ago I should have felt ashamed. But to-day I was pleased,—whatever my husband might think. I wanted to have it out to the finish with my weakening adversary.
Finding us both silent and constrained, my husband hesitated a little, and then took a chair. 'Sandip,' he said, 'I have been looking for you, and was told you were here.'
'I am here,' said Sandip with some emphasis. 'Queen Bee sent for me early this morning. And I, the humble worker of the hive, left all else to attend her summons.'
'I am going to Calcutta to-morrow. You will come with me.'
'And why, pray? Do you take me for one of your retinue?'
'Oh, very well, take it that you are going to Calcutta, and that I am your follower.'
'I have no business there.'
'All the more reason for going. You have too much business here.'
'I don't propose to stir.'
'Then I propose to shift you.'
'Very well, then, I will make a move. But the world is not divided between Calcutta and your estates. There are other places on the map.'
'From the way you have been going on, one would hardly have thought that there was any other place in the world except my estates.'
Sandip stood up. 'It does happen at times,' he said, 'that a man's whole world is reduced to a single spot. I have realized my universe in this sitting-room of yours, that is why I have been a fixture here.'
Then he turned to me. 'None but you, Queen Bee,' he said, 'will understand my words,—perhaps not even you. I salute you. With worship in my heart I leave you. My watchword has changed since you have come across my vision. It is no longer Bande Mataram (Hail Mother), but Hail Beloved, Hail Enchantress. The mother protects, the mistress leads to destruction,—but sweet is that destruction. You have made the anklet sounds of the dance of death tinkle in my heart. You have changed for me, your devotee, the picture I had of this Bengal of ours,—"the soft breeze-cooled land of pure water and sweet fruit." You have no pity, my beloved. You have come to me with your poison cup and I shall drain it, either to die in agony or live triumphing over death.
'Yes,' he continued. 'The mother's day is past. O love, my love, you have made as naught for me the truth and right and heaven itself. All duties have become as shadows: all rules and restraints have snapped their bonds. O love, my love, I could set fire to all the world outside this land on which you have set your dainty feet, and dance in mad revel over the ashes.... These are mild men. These are good men. They would do good to all,—as if this all were a reality! No, no! There is no reality in the world save this one real love of mine. I do you reverence. My devotion to you has made me cruel; my worship of you has lighted the raging flame of destruction within me. I am not righteous. I have no beliefs, I only believe in her whom, above all else in the world, I have been able to realise.'
Wonderful! It was wonderful, indeed. Only a minute ago I had despised this man with all my heart. But what I had thought to be dead ashes now glowed with living fire. The fire in him is true, that is beyond doubt. Oh why has God made man such a mixed creature? Was it only to show his supernatural sleight of hand? Only a few minutes ago I had thought that Sandip, whom I had once taken to be a hero, was only the stage hero of melodrama. But that is not so, not so. Even behind the trappings of the theatre, a true hero may sometimes be lurking.
There is much in Sandip that is coarse, that is sensuous, that is false, much that is overlaid with layer after layer of fleshly covering. Yet,—yet it is best to confess that there is a great deal in the depths of him which we do not, cannot understand,—much in ourselves too. A wonderful thing is man. What great mysterious purpose he is working out only the Terrible One knows,—meanwhile we groan under the brunt of it. Shiva is the Lord of Chaos. He is all Joy. He will destroy our bonds.
I cannot but feel, again and again, that there are two persons in me. One recoils from Sandip in his terrible aspect of Chaos,—the other feels that very vision to be sweetly alluring. The sinking ship drags down all who are swimming round it. Sandip is just such a force of destruction. His immense attraction gets hold of one before fear can come to the rescue, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, one is drawn away, irresistibly, from all light, all good, all freedom of the sky, all air that can be breathed,—from lifelong accumulations, from everyday cares—right to the bottom of dissolution.
From some realm of calamity has Sandip come as its messenger; and as he stalks the land, muttering unholy incantations, to him flock all the boys and youths. The mother, seated in the lotus- heart of the Country, is wailing her heart out; for they have broken open her store-room, there to hold their drunken revelry. Her vintage of the draught for the immortals they would pour out on the dust; her time-honoured vessels they would smash to pieces. True, I feel with her; but, at the same time, I cannot help being infected with their excitement.
Truth itself has sent us this temptation to test our trustiness in upholding its commandments. Intoxication masquerades in heavenly garb, and dances before the pilgrims saying: 'Fools you are that pursue the fruitless path of renunciation. Its way is long, its time passing slow. So the Wielder of the Thunderbolt has sent me to you. Behold, I the beautiful, the passionate, I will accept you,—in my embrace you shall find fulfilment.'
After a pause Sandip addressed me again: 'Goddess, the time has come for me to leave you. It is well. The work of your nearness has been done. By lingering longer it would only become undone again, little by little. All is lost, if in our greed we try to cheapen that which is the greatest thing on earth. That which is eternal within the moment only becomes shallow if spread out in time. We were about to spoil our infinite moment, when it was your uplifted thunderbolt which came to the rescue. You intervened to save the purity of your own worship,—and in so doing you also saved your worshipper. In my leave-taking to-day your worship stands out the biggest thing. Goddess, I, also, set you free to-day. My earthen temple could hold you no longer,—every moment it was on the point of breaking apart. To-day I depart to worship your larger image in a larger temple. I can gain you more truly only at a distance from yourself. Here I had only your favour, there I shall be vouchsafed your boon.'
My jewel-casket was lying on the table. I held it up aloft as I said: 'I charge you to convey these my jewels to the object of my worship,—to whom I have dedicated them through you.'
My husband remained silent. Sandip left the room.
I had just sat down to make some cakes for Amulya when the Bara Rani came upon the scene. 'Oh dear,' she exclaimed, 'has it come to this that you must make cakes for your own birthday?'
'Is there no one else for whom I could be making them?' I asked.
'But this is not the day when you should think of feasting others. It is for us to feast you. I was just thinking of making something up when I heard the staggering news which completely upset me. A gang of five or six hundred men, they say, has raided one of our treasuries and made off with six thousand rupees. Our house will be looted next, they expect.'
I felt greatly relieved. So it was our own money after all. I wanted to send for Amulya at once and tell him that he need only hand over those notes to my husband and leave the explanations to me.
'You are a wonderful creature!' my sister-in-law broke out, at the change in my countenance. 'Have you then really no such thing as fear?'
'I cannot believe it,' I said. 'Why should they loot our house?'
'Not believe it, indeed! Who could have believed that they would attack our treasury, either?'
I made no reply, but bent over my cakes, putting in the cocoanut stuffing.
'Well, I'm off,' said the Bara Rani after a prolonged stare at me. 'I must see Brother Nikhil and get something done about sending off my money to Calcutta, before it's too late.'
She was no sooner gone than I left the cakes to take care of themselves and rushed to my dressing-room, shutting myself inside. My husband's tunic with the keys in its pocket was still hanging there,—so forgetful was he. I took the key of the iron safe off the ring and kept it by me, hidden in the folds of my dress.
Then there came a knocking at the door. 'I am dressing,' I called out. I could hear the Bara Rani saying: 'Only a minute ago I saw her making cakes and now she is busy dressing up. What next, I wonder! One of their Bande Mataram meetings is on, I suppose. I say, Robber Queen,' she called out to me, 'are you taking stock of your loot?'
When they went away I hardly know what made me open the safe. Perhaps there was a lurking hope that it might all be a dream. What if, on pulling out the inside drawer, I should find the rolls of gold there, just as before?...... Alas, everything was empty as the trust which had been betrayed.
I had to go through the farce of dressing. I had to do my hair up all over again, quite unnecessarily. When I came out my sister-in-law railed at me: 'How many times are you going to dress to-day?'
'My birthday!' I said.
'Oh, any pretext seems good enough,' she went on. 'Many vain people have I seen in my day, but you beat them all hollow.'
I was about to summon a servant to send after Amulya, when one of the men came up with a little note, which he handed to me. It was from Amulya. 'Sister,' he wrote, 'you invited me this afternoon, but I thought I should not wait. Let me first execute your bidding and then come for my prasad. I may be a little late.'
To whom could he be going to return that money? into what fresh entanglement was the poor boy rushing? O miserable woman, you can only send him off like an arrow, but not recall him if you miss your aim.
I should have declared at once that I was at the bottom of this robbery. But women live on the trust of their surroundings,—this is their whole world. If once it is out that this trust has been secretly betrayed, their place in their world is lost. They have then to stand upon the fragments of the thing they have broken, and its jagged edges keep on wounding them at every turn. To sin is easy enough, but to make up for it is above all difficult for a woman.
For some time past all easy approaches for communion with my husband have been closed to me. How then could I burst on him with this stupendous news? He was very late in coming for his meal to-day,—nearly two o'clock. He was absent-minded and hardly touched any food. I had lost even the right to press him to take a little more. I had to avert my face to wipe away my tears.
I wanted so badly to say to him: 'Do come into our room and rest awhile; you look so tired.' I had just cleared my throat with a little cough, when a servant hurried in to say that the Police Inspector had brought Panchu up to the palace. My husband, with the shadow on his face deepened, left his meal unfinished and went out.
A little later the Bara Rani appeared. 'Why did you not send me word when Brother Nikhil came in?' she complained. 'As he was late I thought I might as well finish my bath in the meantime. However did he manage to get through his meal so soon?'
'Why, did you want him for anything?'
'What is this about both of you going off to Calcutta tomorrow? All I can say is, I am not going to be left here alone. I should get startled out of my life at every sound, with all these dacoits about. Is it quite settled about your going to-morrow?'
'Yes,' said I, though I had only just now heard it; and though, moreover, I was not at all sure that before to-morrow our history might not take such a turn as to make it all one whether we went or stayed. After that, what our home, our life would be like, was utterly beyond my ken,—it seemed so misty and phantom-like.
In a very few hours now my unseen fate would become visible. Was there no one who could keep on postponing the flight of these hours, from day to day, and so make them long enough for me to set things right, so far as lay in my power? The time during which the seed lies underground is long—so long indeed that one forgets that there is any danger of its sprouting. But once its shoot shows up above the surface, it grows and grows so fast, there is no time to cover it up, neither with skirt, nor body, nor even life itself.
I will try to think of it no more, but sit quiet,—passive and callous,—let the crash come when it may. By the day after to-morrow all will be over,—publicity, laughter, bewailing, questions, explanations,—everything.
But I cannot forget the face of Amulya,—beautiful, radiant with devotion. He did not wait, despairing, for the blow of fate to fall, but rushed into the thick of danger. In my misery I do him reverence. He is my boy-god. Under the pretext of his playfulness he took from me the weight of my burden. He would save me by taking the punishment meant for me on his own head. But how am Ito bear this terrible mercy of my God?
Oh, my child, my child, I do you reverence. Little brother mine, I do you reverence. Pure are you, beautiful are you, I do you reverence. May you come to my arms, in the next birth, as my own child,—that is my prayer.
Rumour became busy on every side. The police were continually in and out. The servants of the house were in a great flurry.
Khema, my maid, came up to me and said: 'Oh, Rani Mother! for goodness' sake put away my gold necklace and armlets in your iron safe.' To whom was I to explain that the Rani herself had been weaving all this network of trouble, and had got caught in it, too? I had to play the benign protector and take charge of Khema's ornaments and Thako's savings. The milk-woman, in her turn, brought along and kept in my room a box in which were a Benares sari and some other of her valued possessions. 'I got these at your wedding,' she told me.
When, tomorrow, my iron safe will be opened in the presence of these—Khema, Thako, the milk-woman and all the rest.... Let me not think of it! Let me rather try to think what it will be like when this third day of Magh comes round again after a year has passed. Will all the wounds of my home life then be still as fresh as ever?....
Amulya writes that he will come later in the evening. I cannot remain alone with my thoughts, doing nothing. So I sit down again to make cakes for him. I have finished making quite a quantity, but still I must go on. Who will eat them? I shall distribute them amongst the servants. I must do so this very night. Tonight is my limit. To-morrow will not be in my hands.
I went on untiringly, frying cake after cake. Every now and then it seemed to me that there was some noise in the direction of my rooms, upstairs. Could it be that my husband had missed the key of the safe, and the Bara Rani had assembled all the servants to help him to hunt for it? No, I must not pay heed to these sounds. Let me shut the door.
I rose to do so, when Thako came panting in: 'Rani Mother, oh, Rani Mother!'
'Oh get away!' I snapped out, cutting her short. 'Don't come bothering me.'
'The Bara Rani Mother wants you,' she went on. 'Her nephew has brought such a wonderful machine from Calcutta. It talks like a man. Do come and hear it!'
I did not know whether to laugh or to cry. So, of all things, a gramophone needs must come on the scene at such a time, repeating at every winding the nasal twang of its theatrical songs! What a fearsome thing results when a machine apes a man.
The shades of evening began to fall. I knew that Amulya would not delay to announce himself—yet I could not wait. I summoned a servant and said: 'Go and tell Amulya Babu to come straight in here.' The man came back after a while to say that Amulya was not in,—he had not come back since he had gone.
'Gone!' The last word struck my ears like a wail in the gathering darkness. Amulya gone! Had he then come like a streak of light from the setting sun, only to be gone for ever? All kinds of possible and impossible dangers flitted through my mind. It was I who had sent him to his death. What if he was fearless? That only showed his own greatness of heart. But after this how was Ito go on living all by myself?
I had no memento of Amulya save that pistol,—his reverence- offering. It seemed to me that this was a sign given by Providence. This guilt which had contaminated my life at its very root,—my God in the form of a child had left with me the means of wiping it away, and then vanished. Oh the loving gift—the saving grave that lay hidden within it!
I opened my box and took out the pistol, lifting it reverently to my forehead. At that moment the gongs clanged out from the temple attached to our house. I prostrated myself in salutation.
In the evening I feasted the whole household with my cakes. 'You have managed a wonderful birthday feast,—and all by yourself too!'—exclaimed my sister-in-law. 'But you must leave something for us to do.' With this she turned on her gramophone and let loose the shrill treble of the Calcutta actresses all over the place. It seemed like a stable full of neighing fillies.
It got quite late before the feasting was over. I had a sudden longing to end my birthday celebration by taking the dust of my husband's feet. I went up to the bedroom and found him fast asleep. He had had such a worrying, trying day. I raised the edge of the mosquito curtain very very gently, and laid my head near his feet. My hair must have touched him, for he moved his legs in his sleep and pushed my head away.
I then went out and sat in the west verandah. A silk-cotton tree, which had shed all its leaves, stood there in the distance, like a skeleton. Behind it the crescent moon was setting. All of a sudden I had the feeling that the very stars in the sky were afraid of me,—that the whole of the night world was looking askance at me. Why? Because I was alone.
There is nothing so strange in creation as the man who is alone. Even he whose near ones have all died, one by one, is not alone,—companionship comes for him from behind the screen of death. But he, whose kin are there, yet no longer near, who has dropped out of all the varied companionship of a full home,—the starry universe itself seems to bristle to look on him in his darkness.
Where I am, I am not. I am far away from those who are around me. I live and move upon a world-wide chasm of separation, unstable as the dew-drop upon the lotus leaf.
Why do not men change wholly when they change? When I look into my heart, I find everything that was there, still there,—only they are topsy-turvy. Things that were well-ordered have become jumbled up. The gems that were strung into a necklace are now rolling in the dust. And so my heart is breaking.
I feel I want to die. Yet in my heart everything still lives,—nor even in death can I see the end of it all: rather, in death there seems to be ever so much more of repining. What is to be ended must be ended in this life,—there is no other way out.
Oh forgive me just once, only this time, Lord! All that you gave into my hands as the wealth of my life, I have made into my burden. I can neither bear it longer, nor give it up. O Lord, sound once again those flute strains which you played for me, long ago, standing at the rosy edge of my morning sky,—and let all my complexities become simple and easy. Nothing save the music of your flute can make whole that which has been broken, and pure that which has been sullied. Create my home anew with your music. No other way can I see.
I threw myself prone on the ground and sobbed aloud. It was for mercy that I prayed,—some little mercy from somewhere, some shelter, some sign of forgiveness, some hope that might bring about the end. 'Lord,' I vowed to myself, 'I will lie here, waiting and waiting, touching neither food nor drink, so long as your blessing does not reach me.'
I heard the sound of footsteps. Who says that the gods do not show themselves to mortal men? I did not raise my face to look up, lest the sight of it should break the spell. Come, oh come, come and let your feet touch my head. Come, Lord, and set your foot upon my throbbing heart, and at that moment let me die.
He came and sat near my head. Who? My husband! At the first touch of his presence I felt that I should swoon. And then the pain at my heart burst its way out in an overwhelming flood of tears, tearing through all my obstructing veins and nerves. I strained his feet to my bosom,—oh, why could not their impress remain there for ever?
He tenderly stroked my head. I received his blessing. Now I shall be able to take up the penalty of public humiliation which will be mine tomorrow, and offer it, in all sincerity, at the feet of my God.
But what keeps crushing my heart is the thought that the festive flutes which were played at my wedding, nine years ago, welcoming me to this house, will never sound for me again in this life. What rigour of penance is there which can serve to bring me once more, as a bride adorned for her husband, to my place upon that same bridal seat? How many years, how many ages, aeons, must pass before I can find my way back to that day of nine years ago?
God can create new things, but has even He the power to create afresh that which has been destroyed?
- Quotation from the National song,—Bande Mataram.
- Rudra, the Terrible, a name of Shiva.—Tr.
- Any dainties to be offered ceremonially should be made by the lady of the house herself.—Tr.