Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Sister-In-Law

(Tr.) Lila Ray (A Bengali Story by Annada Sankar Ray)

THE SISTER-IN-LAW
(A Story)

By ANNADA SANKAR RAY
(Translated by Lila Ray from the original story in Bengali)

Nirmal’s wife, Shephali, was as beautiful and good as the goddess Lakshmi. Her eyes shone as steadily as evening stars. Her face was as limpid and tranquil as an autumn dawn. The rhythm of her movements was as gentle as the flow of an autumnal river.

Who could resist such a girl? Nirmal married her at once!

On the wedding night he saw his wife’s sister, Sohini, for the first time.

If Shephali was autumn personified, Sohini was the rainy season incarnate. Lightning fell from her eyes. Lightning lurked in her smile. Lightning was in her teasing, in her pleasantries. She was dark girl to whom abundant health lent good looks. Otherwise she was not really beautiful. Her voice was constrained and husky, but it had an exciting quality. Her sweetness had, perhaps, been lost through her marriage in harsh upcountry. But how well-formed her figure was! Fashioned a thunder-bolt, her manner electric, some part or other of her was always speaking. It was as though the Creator had used an alloy of quicksilver in the making of her.

Sohini talked to Nirmal, her laughing face averted, throwing him a glance now and then that was alive with interest. She seemed to read his thoughts and find them amusing. Looking quickly away again, she continued to talk to him without excluding others present.

Her complexion was dark, and it had not been possible in her time to find a good bridegroom for her. Her husband was a middle-aged man, a widower, a native doctor of Allahabad.

Shephali’s luck was as fair as she was. Nirmal was a young lecturer of the Dacca University. He had some standing in the country and among the common people.

Sohini, however, looked upon him only as the husband of her younger sister, therefore of the younger category in relationship. Nirmal was a mild, well-mannered young man, for, unless he set an example to his students, how could he be a professor?

Nirmal smiled in a dignified way. The scene of his wedding was like a class room, and the ladies about him were like his pupils. He did not notice the various liberties that were being taken with him.

Sohini lifted her hand in warning to the others, and shook her head lightly.

“You’re a fine lot!” she protested. “Instead of giving ear to the teacher, you are pulling his ears! Your clowning ought to have a place in the Jamnastami procession this year!”

Seeing his opportunity, Nirmal asked, “Have you seen the Dacca Jamnastami procession?”

Sohini, looking elsewhere, shook her head significantly, and immediately afterwards threw him a look that sent lightning flashing through him from end to end.

When he got his wife alone, Nirmal asked, “How much schooling has your sister had?”

“Up to the Fourth Class,” Shephali answered, with much hesitation. The shyness of new wifehood overwhelmed her. She had no eyes for him but only a voice, and she just managed to speak.

“Fourth Class! Only the Fourth Class!

The young lecturer was amazed!

He thought of his wife’s sister as he lay beside his wife sharing her bed….Fourth Class! Yet how quick and intelligent she was, how lively, how brilliant! Shephali was a matriculate, but she could not compare with Sohini! If only Sohini had been his wife instead of Shephali, Nirmal thought! Would that have been a mistake? If he had become acquainted with the family three years sooner, would his father-in-law have given Sohini in marriage to Nagendra Babu in preference to him?...But three years ago he had no job. He was then only a research scholar. At that time he was thinking more of becoming an ascetic than of becoming a husband. He made faces at any suggestion of marriage. He spoke of women as mothers and not as wives.

His friends and companions had been monks of the Ramakrishna Mission. They looked upon him as one of themselves. In anticipation of his taking the vow of celibacy, they even nicknamed him Nirmalananda. Thatfoolishness, regretted Nirmal, cost him all that brilliance, that liveliness, that charm! He had changed his mind only after he found a job. His mother’s pleading had broken down his resistance, and he had married. Now he was a family man. He had taken the responsibility of providing a mother with children. His relationship with his wife would have been quite different if he had married three years earlier, and married the right person. She would have played with him, boxing his ears instead of being so shy.

Most of his conversation with his wife that night concerned her sister. Ignorant Shephali suspected nothing. And monotheistic, monogamist Nirmal, or so he thought he was, did not notice the injustice.

Nirmal returned to Dacca with his wife. His mother and aunts were delighted. His sister and cousins crowded round his wife. His friends came to the bridal feast, and congratulated him heartily on being Shephali’s husband. The ladies of the neigbbourhood showered on her presents and invitations…….

But Nirmal could not forget Sohini.

The sightof Shephalireminded him of Sohini. Where was here her brilliance? Her vivacity? Her wit? Here couldbe seen only beauty, only modesty, only sweetness! These were not rare. Nirmal had enough of these in his own family, hismother, his sisters. Were these an adequate recompense for having relinquished the glory of celibacy in order to become a husband?

As Nirmal looked at his wife, he thought to himself, “She is the motherly type. One hesitates to think of her in the role of wife.”

Nirmal had his bed made in the library. When the neighbours came to know of it they decided that he was a superman. Such self-restraint! And with such a wife!

The monks approved, saying, “How few are the homes in which Ramakrishna’s precepts are kept! What if he is worshipped in many!”

His mother was offended. She took her daughter-in-law to the temple of Dakeswari, and vowed that she would offer a goat on the birth of a grandson.

And Nirmal, the ascetic, sat meditating, eyes closed, on the absen quick-flitting glance of a crystal pair of shining eyes, on the radiance of a certain other face, on another pair of lips, on a tall shapely figure, on a complexion the colour of steel, and on a low slightly-husky voice–all far away.

“Doesn’t your sister write to you?” he asked his wife.

“She writes one letter to my ten,” Shephali answered.

Nirmal was chagrined. He did not know that her letters revealed a different Sohini. Sohini herself could scarcely read the jumble that was her own writing. Mis-spellings and stilted archaic expressions betrayed her lack of education.

Shephali, too conscious of her own ignorance, was studying for the Intermediate examination. Bimal, Nirmal’s brother, was her classmate. If she had any idea why her husband spoke to her so often about her sister she would have realised that she had no need to study any more.

Nirmal made up his mind to go to Allahabad during the Puja vacation.

“You want to see Puri, don’t you?” he said to his mother. “Now do take Bimal and go. I’ll leave Shephali at her father’s, and go Upcountry alone. I must see the castles and the forts of Agra. Delhi, Gwalior and Allahabad for myself. As you know, I am going to write that book, ‘The Military Strategy of the Moguls’.”

It was common knowledge that Nirmal would not rest until he had a doctorate, that a mere P. R. S. would not content him. So his mother consented…...

Nagendra Babu of Allahabad had rented out his paternal home, and had taken a small house that would encourage patients to come to him, a house in a quarter convenient for a native doctor. His father had been a very welt-known doctor, and his practice was brought to him on the echo of his father’s name. The family consisted of himself, his three children by his first marriage, and his second wife, Sohini. He managed to make both ends meet, on the rent from the big house and on his patients’ fees. But little of his former comfort was visible.

“Good, so you’ve come. I’ m very glad to see you,” said Nagen Babu, receiving Nirmal. “There’s not much likelihood of our going anywhere. Patients start clamouring for me before the day begins. ‘Doctor Nagin!’ ‘Doctor Nagin!’ Unless at least I just look at them they do not get well!”

His patients crowded up when they caught sight of him. He put his stethescope to the chest of one, and his hand into the mouth of another, examining teeth.

A servant came and said, “Madam would like to see you.”

Nirmal followed him. As she greeted him, Sohini asked, in a whisper, “How long do you intend to stay?” Her hands were busy. She was frying luchisfor Nirmal.

“That depends,” Nirmal answered gravely, “upon how much material for study there is in the fort here.”

“Upon what!”

Sohini threw him a curious glance.

Avoiding her eyes, he said, “If there is much to see in the fort, it will keep me here some time. Otherwise not.”

“But,” Sohini repeated her question, “at the very least, how long? Tell me!”

“Of course,” Nirmal replied hastily, “let us say, three days.”

“Oh no!” Sohini showered lightning. “You must stay for more than three days.”

Nirmal wanted to. He smiled with dignity. Then he admired in silence the adroit movement of her shapely hands and the rise and fall of her bracelets. With those lovely strong hands she could have been conducting the affairs of a kingdom like a Nur Jahan instead ofmerely frying luchis! Could Shephali have done it with such grace? Uf! Nothing but study, study!

“Why didn’t you bring her!”

“Whom!”

“Chobi……Shephali.”

“Oh, your mother and father didn’t want her to come.”

“Are you able to bear the separation?”

Sohini glanced sideways at him mischievously as she arranged the luchison a platter.

“A historian has to put up with many things,” Nirmal answered, with trepidation.

“What is a his–historian?”

“A person who writes history.”

“Oh, I see!” Sohini nodded. “You find out whether Akbar was the son of Babar or Babar the son of Akbar, don’t you?”

Nirmal suppressed a smile. “And you find out how many elephants King Asoka had…..”, she continued. He laughed.

“Well, our history too will be written a thousand years from now, won’t It?” asked Sohini.

“For sure!”

“Some day people will dig up this house and find this dish and this bowl, won’t they?”

“Quite likely,” he answered.

“Then I ought to put some luchisaside for the historians of the future. What do you say, Mr. Teacher”

Nirmal observed that she did not know the difference between an ordinary teacher and a professor. To her a Civil Surgeon and a native practitioner were both doctors of the same status!

He said, “I’m a professor, not a teacher”

“Isn’t a professor a teacher?” Sohini frowned “Doesn’t he teach?”

“What does it matter?”–Nirmal was thinking. “Her gestures are more delightful than her learning.”……

Nagendra Bhusan spoke as he chewed a luchi. “My dear fellow, Gora is giving me a great deal of trouble. What do I know about the Scindia of Indore or the Gaekwar of Gwalior?”

“That can be fixed all right,” Nirmal said, smiling. “I’ll make him an expert historian before I leave.”

Gora, Kala and Tuni became his three pupils. In accepting the responsibility of teaching them history Nirmal acquired a position of some permanence in the household. Around noon he would go to visit the fort and come with various plans drawn neatly in a note book. Then he worked on the draft of his great book. And in this process managed to consume quite large quantities of halwaand luchis.

Above all else, tea...

“Mr. Tea...no, no, Mr. Professor,” Sohini said, “here is your tea.”

“Has Nagendra had his?”

“He had, and he went out long ago.”

Sipping from his cup, Nirmal exclaimed, “Oh!”

“You do like tea, don’t you?”

“Rather I...When a hand like yours makes it!” Nirmal gradually grew bold. No one could call him shy with women now!

Sohini looked at him in amazement. “What sort of hand?” she asked, with her usual, steady, flashing smile.

Nirmal caught hold of her, and drew her towards him. “This sort of hand!” he answered, looking into her eyes.

Sohini was the stronger. Without releasing her hand, she gave him a light slap on the cheek with the other. “How do you like that?”

“Very much!

She slapped him again; harder.

“This time?”

“Better still!”

Sohini struck him over the ear quickly, and asked, “And this one?”

“The best of all!”…..

Two days later:

“Have you finished seeing the fort?” Sohini asked.

“No. Why?”

“You don’t go to look at it any more.”

“I wish to write the description of as much as I have seen already before I go to it. Then I’ll look at it again.”

“You don’t appear over-anxious even to write.”

Nirmal understood the insinuation…..

He spent hours fooling with Sohini. Nagendra had opened a new dispensary, and he spent the noon hours there answering calls and making and filling prescriptions. The two boys were away at school, the girl at a neighbour’s.

“Yes, I must settle down to writing. One has to do a lot of thinking first. Thinking!…..You wouldn’t understand!”

“I suppose... this...is your method of thinking?”

“Ah-ha! But can you see what’s going on inside my head, Sohini? Mymind is always busy.”

“Why don’t you call me didi?” Sohini asked, looking at him obliquely.

“Why should I?” Nirmal answered. “You are not really my didi. It is relation only by marriage.”

“Relationship by marriage doesn’t count, does it?”

“It could have been different!”

Sohini hid her face with the end of her sari. Nirmal at once imagined that she was hiding her tears! Poor unhappy girl! What else could it be? Married to an old widower!

Nirmal stood up. Laying a hand on her shoulder, he drew the sari away from her face...Good Heavens! Where were the tears?

Sohini was laughing. Now she burst out gaily. Pushing the astounded Nirmal aside, she fled with a parting sally: “I’ve promised to visit a friend today: Please excuse me, Professor. Look after the house!”...

The next day Nirmal went to the fort. He even managed to do a little serious writing. In reply to his wife’s letter he wrote that he was working very hard. He even sent her one of his drawings by way of proof....

Then as before:

“What was Nagen Babu scolding you for last night?” he asked.

“How did you know?”

“Why? Have I no ears?”

“But you were asleep?”

“I can hear in my sleep!”

Sohini bent her head to one side. “Really! You amaze me! People who practice magic are also called professors. There was a performance by one such Professor Somebody here recently! I suppose you are one like them-too!”

She refused to confess that her husband had been scolding her. “It was nothing….That is just his manner….When he is pleased, he scolds!”

Nirmal laughed her to scorn.

“Why do you laugh? Doesn’t a husband ever scold his wife?”

Nirmal laughed harder than ever. Then he caught hold of Sohini’s hand and made her sit down beside him. He said, “Tell me the truth. Do you love him?”

Sohini answered with heat, “Why this question all of a sudden? What has he done that you should be so curious about him?…..You think that, because he is not a professor, he cannot be loved! That’s what is in your mind, isn’t it?”

“Of course, not. Why should he be a professor?...I mean, is he suited to you?”

“Am I suited to him?”

“Sohini,” Nirmal broke out passionately, “do you know that you are better than the most beautiful, the most learned and the most virtuous? Sohini, I regret that I did not meet you or know about you three years ago. I would have married you, for sure, if I had met you.”

Sohini smiled her accustomed smile, and raised an eyebrow.

“But suppose I had not consented to marry you?”

“Why would you have refused?”

“Why not? A professor is not quite a man, is he?”

“What! Say that again!”

“Go away, I won’t repeat it!”

“What did you say a professor was?”

“A giraffe!”

Nirmal pleaded. At last Sohini repeated what she had said.

“A professor is not quite a man, is he?”

Nirmal caught Sohini, and drew her close.

Sohini made no attempt to free herself.

She whispered, “Let me go! Let me go! Shame on you!”

“You’ll not say that again?” Nirmal demanded.

“Say what?”

“That a professor is not quite a man!”

“Is he?”…….

Nirmal’s reply was very adequate……

“Be a good boy and go away,” Sohini said, some four days later.

“I’ll go,” Nirmal answered, “but only if you come with me!”

Sohini shook her head.

“In my sister’s house you belong to my sister. Not to me.”

“Are you crazy? Can I ever be hers again?”

“No, don’t say that again! You won’t make her unhappy, will you?”

“But I can’t make you unhappy either, my Rani!

“Some one has got to be!”

“Then, not you”

Sohini’s disposition changed. The spontaneous liveliness of her accustomed smile was replaced by a grave pathetic glow. She protested, “She will not be unhappy if I am, but I shall be unhappy if she is.”

“No, Sohini, I can’t ever let you be unhappy!” Nirmal repeated that over and over again. Pressing his face against her bosom like a child, he prattled, “No-no, no-no, Chohini, you mus’n be un’appy, no!”

Sohini broke out, laughing, “Baby Professor! Go away!”

“Baby am I?”

“Yes, Baby Professor!”

So was he both professor and baby to her!

Tuni, Nagendra Bhusan’s daughter, arrived at this very juncture. She was six or seven years old. Sohini freed hereself, and fled at the sight of the child, an amused expression on her face. Not fear! She was afraid of no one!

Nirmal was glued to his seat as immovably as a doll of Tuni, for fear of Tuni.

He pulled an impossibly long face.

“Uncle,” asked Tuni, “what were you doing to Mother so to frighten her away? Do grown-up men start in anger to bite like dogs?”

Her uncle’s face at that moment was doggishly long! He tried to find a reply. An indistinct sound got stuck in the bottom of his throat.

“Tell me, Uncle,” Tuni became stubborn, “were you about to bite Mother?”

“Tuni!”–Her mother called from the other room. Tuni ran to her. Her mother gave her a coin by way of bribe, saying, “Now run along and buy yourself some plums.”

Tuni was quieted for the moment. But only for the moment!

That night, in front of her father, Tuni started off: “Do You know, Daddy...?”

Sohini forbade her with an imperious look.

“Do you know, Daddy, Uncle...”

Sohini’s eyes blazed. Nirmal was almost in a state of coma. His face was as pale as a Corpse’s.

“Do you know, Daddy, Uncle Was about to...”

Nagendra Babu was in an irritable mood that day. He burst out, imitating, “Do you know, Daddy! “What do you know, Daddy’!”

Tuni was instantly offended. Her brothers began to laugh, echoing: “Do you know, Daddy!” and “What do you know, Daddy!”...Oh! Tuni!”

“Then I won’t tell you!”

And Tuni marched indignantly out of the room, and hid herself and her anger and her shame somewhere…..

The next day Tuni came home from the neigbbours at exactly the same time. Peeping, he saw Uncle and Mother lying side by side. Nirmal began to groan the instant she entered the room. He had a fearful headache!

“Uncle!” Tuni called.

“Ah! Uh!..It’s Tuni, is it?..My dear child, I’m dying.”

“Shall I call Daddy? Or bring medicine for you?

Nirmal was inarticulate in his agony. He groaned. But he spoke out.

Sohini, in delight and with amusement, was gently caressing his head. “I have the medicine for this,” she said. “You need not send far for any!”

Tuni began sympathetically massaging her uncle’s feet. She refused absolutely to leave the room!

Nirmal had of necessity to begin to feel better!……

That night Tuni said to her father, “Uncle was so, so sick today! Such a headache!... But, of course, if in anger you start to bite people, your head will ache!”

Nagendra Bhusan’s professional curiosity was stirred by the mention of headache in connection with biting. As a doctor it was his duty to investigate! His investigation had to be complete!…..

(Thereafter, whenever a patient came and said, “I have a headache”, he would ask him, “Were you out to bite anybody?”)

“Who was about to bite whom?” he asked Tuni.

Tuni stared at Sohini, and dropped out of the picture.

Nagendra looked first at Nirmal and then at Sohini.

Indra and Ahalya!

Ahalya was unabashed! But Indra was trembling!

Even if not himself a rishi, Nagendra Babu was a descendant of rishis. Intuitively he understood everything. Immediately he said nothing. He ate well deliberately. Then he washed his hands wiped them on a towel, belched comfortably once or twice, and, taking a betel nut, he munched it slowly as he entered Nirmal’s room. He had to inspect the room! He had to see whether Nirmal’s research was real or feigned!

The note book was full. Not with notes, but with poems! So Nirmal wrote poetry! Apparently he had begun to write poems quite recently!

Turning over the pages, Nagendra Babu discovered that some twenty-eight poems had been strung together out of plagiarisms. Twenty-eight poems during the last fourteen days! Nagendra Babu cleared his throat loudly when he found four or five long dark hairs pressed between the pages. “My dear friend,” he called, “please come here!”

Nirmal abandoned all hope, nay, even desire, to live. He entered, trembling violently.

“How far have you gone? Tell the truth!”

“Ah….h….h” Nirmal muttered, in visible agony.

“Why play the hypocrite? Am I going to cut off your head?…..I only like to know just how far you have cut off mine?……Have you, as historian, stopped at the outposts and the outer battlements…..of…..this….fort? Or have you completed the study…..of…..this….fort….altogether?”

“Ah……h…..h”

“You’re a fine fellow, I must say!”

Nirmal whimpered something inaudible.

Outside, Sohini was laughing. She could scarcely keep her balance, standing.

Nagendra changed his tone. “The sons-in-law may change places. But the father-in-law remains the same. It is nothing to worry about!…..”

Nirmal hid his face in his hands. Sohini, peeping, saw him. She too hid her face in her hands.

Suddenly, Nagendra roared out, “Go, taking this one with you! But remember to send the other one to me!”

Sohini stopped laughing!

Nirmal felt his hackles rise!

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