the heavy teakwood doors burst open. binota and gopaler ma looked up startled, a few bodis fell off the muslin cloth onto the mosaic floor and broke and scattered.
she came running out, her pale pink jamdani saree billowing, the pallu flying behind her. she held the fine gauzy gold tinted cotton bunched up in her fists on either side, lifting her saree at least half a foot off the ground, her ankles clearly visible, almost her shin, as she raced down the wide long gallery which went all around the mansion, past the imposing pillars of mosaic with their ornate tops and elegantly curved bases, toward the thakur ghor, the prayer room. well, it wasn’t really a room, it was a complex of several rooms with the main temple in the centre. the temple was a hexagonal spacious hall, with a circular dome above and marble covered floor and walls. the marble was from makrana in rajasthan, though it wasn’t as white as the tajmahal’s marble. it was a light shade of grey with veins in a range of creamy, pleasant hues.
as she ran, she called out sternly, “get my slippers, someone! can’t you see i will need them once i reach the staircase! and serve korta tea and the evening meal near the shiuli tree! don’t forget the chairs! where? where are my slippers!”
gopaler ma thrust the muslin full of bodi, the little nuggets of lentil and spices they used all year round which had just been made and left to dry by one of the pillars, into binota’s hands and gestured to her to go inside, then she followed the lady in the pink saree on hasty feet, “ma! ma! where are you going? nolini! get ma’s slippers, will you?”
she was the senior most maidservant and taking care of the the mistress was her main duty. her mistress, whom she addressed as ma… mother, was known to be a little different, some even said she was not quite normal. korta babu would be really angry if anything happened to ma. everyone knew how much he loved his wife, even though… even though… gopaler ma sighed.
hemanta ranjani was known to be eccentric. when she had become the way she had one couldn’t exactly pinpoint. many said, it was after the death of her only daughter, but one couldn’t be sure. she spent most of her time sitting in seclusion, writing. she was not at all involved with the household or the running of it. her eldest daughter in law was a very capable young lady and had taken over these duties a long time ago, when she was a mere girl of thirteen or fourteen.
what people sniggered about was the place hemanta ranjani had chosen to cloister herself in for hours together. it was her kolghor. translated literally, tap room; it was her bathing room, in fact. over the years, she had created a separate and private space for herself there. a large mahogany bed with intricately carved posts had been moved in. she liked to lay on it, propped up on pillows, thinking about things, pondering, scribbling, making notes. she wrote poetry.
a row of four large shining brass pails sat below the two taps on the wall, these were also made of brass. silver mugs sat on a rack nearby along with her soapnut powder, oils and comb. marble covered the floor of the kolghor, there were carvings on the edges of the high ceiling, on one side stood a marble topped dressing table and a rosewood alna or clothes rack. it was gopaler ma’s duty to bring along a selection of hemanta ranjani’s sarees every day, pleat each one and hang it up. hemanta ranjani would bathe and change when it pleased her. she wouldn’t allow any slippers into the room, she was fastidious about cleanliness. the kolghor was swept and mopped at least four times a day. and no one was allowed to enter unless she had given permission.
hemanta ranjani liked to eat at odd hours. for her meals, she’d emerge from the kolghor and her two daughters in law had to be ready to sit with her and fan her while she ate. calcutta was the third city in the world to get electricity; by 1925, the wires of calcutta electric supply corporation had already reached ballygunge. but even now she preferred the hand fan to the whirring electric one. the noise bothered her, she said. she liked fresh, lightly cooked food. one night she had wanted to have koi maach, climbing perch. it was almost midnight then. the coachwan had been beckoned, he’d taken the carriage to the river, woken up a fisherman, had him catch some koi and come back home. the cook had prepared it for hemanta ranjani and she’d sat with her daughters in law in the early hours of the morning, relishing the fresh catch.
sometimes, she’d come out of her kolghor late at night and go for a ride by the river or around victoria memorial. she liked to sit in the open top phaeton and not the heavy covered carriage that her husband took to the court.
hemanta ranjani stopped at the head of the staircase leading down to the courtyard where the shiuli tree had grown quite tall and spread out. gopaler ma reached her, breathing heavily, the slippers in her hand. hemanta ranjani put her feet into them without turning to look at gopaler ma.
she went slowly down the steps. she walked up to the tree and looked around at the ground. it was covered with coral jasmines, the tiny flowers with soft white petals and a bright orange stalk. shiuli. hemanta ranjani loved shiuli. sometimes she had a basket collected and she’d make garlands with the flowers. she’d give them to her daughters in law, at times the young maid servants, to wear on their hair.
the sun was beginning to descend, orange and purple mingled with the blue of the sky. two chairs and a small round table had been placed below the tree on the flower strewn ground. she walked to the one that faced the staircase and sat down primly, suddenly calm and serene. she adjusted her pallu, she made sure her seed pearl and burmese ruby brooch in the shape of a bow was pinned properly. she had worn the saree in the brahmika style this evening. her husband had brought the saree for her from dhaka a while back, she hadn’t worn it yet. today she’d wanted to.
her blouse was made of maroon silk with lace trimmings in sandalwood beige. it had short puff sleeves. just below the sleeves she had tied her gold mantashas. the armlets were a gift from her husband. he had given them to her when their first grandchild was born. it was a boy, he was of course her pet. her buro babu, her old man. this year, only about four months ago, her younger daughter in law had given birth to a son. she called him chhoto babu, her little man.
her hair was parted in the middle, she had made two soft waves coming down to the side of her forehead and pulled the rest of her long thick tresses into a khñopa, securing the bun with silver pins. a jodoa hair ornament in emeralds, diamonds, and gold was pinned at the centre of her large khñopa.
this evening hemanta ranjani had decided to wear her favourite tiara as well. it had persian turquoise and pearls set in gold, a delicate design, crafted by a master artisan; you could even wear it as a necklace. their family jeweller had such clever ideas.
she arranged the pleats of her saree carefully and adjusted her long gold muff chain. she had wound it four times around her neck, it fell from below her chin right down to her waist. she ran her fingers over the the ten thin beautifully cut gold bangles she wore on each wrist topped by a set of gold balas with repousse work.
she frowned as she wondered if she had remembered to wear her teep, her bindi of dark red sindoor. then she recalled she had and settled back into her chair, a faint smile on her lips. she couldn’t wait to see indra.
manindranath basu was a well known advocate, respected among the bengali aristocracy. he was admired by the british and the merchants of calcutta as well. a self made man, he had accomplished much. what endeared him to people mainly though was his demeanour. he was a gentle man with a polished quiet way of speaking and he was free of any airs. although he didn’t come from a wealthy family, he had not a trace of the the upstart or the newly rich in him. it was hard to believe he didn’t belong to one of the old calcutta families.
hemanta ranjani had always called her husband indra. and he had always called her hem. their marriage was not fixed by the matchmaker or relatives, he had fallen in love with her. she was his friend’s sister. of course, she had never seen him till they had got married, but he had heard her singing and had liked her voice. he had been captivated, actually. he had asked to marry her.
she was fifteen at the time, still not married, which was unusual. she was an ordinary looking girl, quite dark, her nose wasn’t that sharp and she was a little plump too. she belonged to a family which was considered progressive, and she as well as her sisters had been taught languages, mathematics, and music at home.
manindranath had not requested to see her, his mind was quite made up. his parents were no longer alive, so his elder brother and his wife had come to speak to her parents. hemanta ranjani had heard of her elder brother’s friend; that he was very intelligent, that he was doing well in his work, that he was a good friend. that was all.
she saw him properly only on the night of their phool shojjya, when the bed is bedecked with flowers and you spend your first night with your husband, two days after the marriage ceremony. he was a tall man with a wide chest. he was wearing a high neck achkan, not a kurta as most bengali men wore; it was a cold month. he had a broad face with a steady gaze and a high forehead. his hair was thick and wavy. she liked the way he looked at her. directly, no awkwardness in his eyes.
he had asked her if she’d sing a song for him. and he had said, there was no need to wear the veil, nor cover her head with the pallu of her saree as a lot of women were doing those days. he’d also asked her if he could call her hem… hame, that’s how it sounded.
she had felt relieved and happy suddenly and said, “can i give you a name?”
women never called their husbands by their name… any name. they just addressed them with an “ogo” or something like that. you respected your husband and that’s why you never called him by his name, her grandmother had told her. hemanta ranjani had never liked the idea. she also knew her mother and father hardly ever spoke to each other. her mother went to their room long after baba had retired, after she and the other aunts had finished all the work, only then. it wasn’t even considered polite or seemly to spend too much time with one’s husband.
manindranath had looked startled, then said, “nischoi… of course, tell me, what would you like to call me!”
he was almost ten years older than her. he spoke with an indulgent air.
“mmm… indra! that way i won’t be taking your name, and yet a part of it would be there!” she had said. indro, that’s how it sounded.
he had smiled slightly and sat on the bed. she had sung “dhana dhanye pushpe bhara” by dwijendra lal babu, it was a favourite of hers. he had told her years later that he could hear her singing from the sitting room of her home and he particularly enjoyed the way she sang “dhana dhanye”.
“ma! ma!” rakhal hurried down the stairs, behind him came a young boy carrying a tray laden with food.
“korta babu is here!” rakhal said as the boy arranged the tea and the food on the table next to the other chair. the boy had just come from bansberia, where manindranath’s family had lived for generations. he would help with serving and other things. manindranath often had clients and guests coming to see him. so did his two sons, both were lawyers as well. they could do with an extra hand, her daughter in law had said.
hemanta ranjani gave rakhal a sombre look and told him to make sure korta babu came here soon and to leave them alone after that.
manindranath walked briskly up from the garden entrance. though he was a man of almost fifty now, he still walked straight and had hardly any nagging ailments. he worked very hard as always.
“hem.. hem… are you all right?” he said going to her first and peering down to look at her. she lifted her face and gave him a sweet smile.
“indra, i am happier than… than… oh! all these shiuli flowers!” she replied, “just sit down and have your tea! chhoto bou has made fish kochuris because i told her how much you like them!”
manindranath sat thoughtfully, drinking his tea. what had happened to hem? why had she suddenly come out to meet him like this? she was looking beautiful this evening. he had never thought of her as anything but beautiful.
“will you sing a song for me, hem?” he said after a while, it was almost dark.
“i was waiting for you to ask! you know that song by atulprasad babu, indra? i have been trying to understand it for so long… i think today i got the real cadence, its feeling, its meaning…” hem smiled and cleared her throat.
manindranath knew this was his cue to stay silent.
“jabo na, jabo na, jabo na ghore…” hemanta ranjani started singing. i won’t go… i won’t go… i won’t go inside…
the words began to flow, to fill the air. there was a depth in her voice, something reminded him of those first few times he had heard her sing…
“bahir korecche pagol morey…” the outside has made me mad… “jabo na, jabo na, jabo na ghore…” “boner bijone mridul baay”… in the forest the gentle breeze…
she sang, her eyes were closed. she could feel his direct, straightforward gaze on her. she could hear herself lose her grip on a couple of notes. now almost forty and with less and less practice, she knew her voice wasn’t as sure as it once had been.
“dule dule phool bole amay…” the flowers sway and say to me… “tora ghorer bahire phootibi aay…” come and bloom outside… “pulok bhore…” full of happiness… jabo na, jabo, jabo na…
he watched his wife engrossed. he had heard the notes going astray, but it didn’t matter. she was singing and he was sitting and listening to her, wasn’t that enough? she hardly came out to see him any more. he had always loved music and her voice had a quality that never failed to move him. the carpet of shiuli and the silence around them gave the moment a serenity he unknowingly sought.
“how was that?” she asked interrupting his reverie.
“need you ask?” he smiled.
she played with her bangles, looking down.
“are you all right, hem? absolutely all right?” he felt he needed to ask her that.
“but i have a complaint,” she said, her voice barely audible.
“what? what is the matter? has someone said anything to you? are you upset about something?” he was instantly perturbed.
“yes…” she murmured.
“tell me… what is it?” he asked gently then, he could see she was struggling to find words, “just tell me, hem!” he practically commanded.
“i don’t have any money,” hemanta ranjani blurted out.
manindranath looked at her completely stumped. at a loss for words. what was she saying?
after a while he said, “but i don’t understand, hem… all the money we have is yours… take whatever you like. why are you even thinking such a thing?”
“yes, i know,” hemanta ranjani spoke softly, a sadness in her tone, “but i don’t have any money of mine, i always have to ask someone…”
he got up and took her hands in his, “i am sorry, of course, now i understand… what you say is right. don’t worry,” he stroked her head as he spoke, “all right, tomorrow morning, your money will reach you… is that all right? now will you stop feeling upset?”
hemanta ranjani lifted his hands and laid her cheek against them. she nodded without saying anything.
someone blew a conch shell in the temple.
“hem… hem… it’s late. i must go now,” manindranath said.
a forlorn look passed through her eyes.
“must you go tonight?” she whispered.
“yes… but i will see you here tomorrow morning, okay? there, gopaler ma is here, hem… go back to your room now.” manindranath watched as gopaler ma escorted hem up the staircase, then he walked toward the garden… a heaviness in his gait, perhaps a sadness even.
the next morning there was much talk about what korta babu had done just before leaving for the court house. he had visited ma in the kolghor with a wooden box. inside it there were trays and little drawers which were all filled with money. he had given her notes and coins of every denomination. there were twenty rupee, ten rupee, five rupee, one rupee and two and a half rupee notes, and annas, pice, even some gold guineas. korta babu had told ma all this was her money and she was to use it as she wanted. if she needed more, she just had to let the clerk know. the daughters in law were touched by their father in law’s gesture. ma was difficult to handle, but he still loved her so much.
the shiuli tree was full of flowers as usual. amita walked over and stood under it, she wanted to show her daughter something that her uncle had given her when she arrived. the old house was being torn down. a new apartment block was going to come up here. everything had been sold or distributed among family members. he had kept this book for her.
it was written by her great grandmother hemanta ranjani basu. her great grandfather manindranath basu had had it printed and published for his wife. most of the copies had been given away a long time ago. only a few remained in the library room. while clearing the more than twenty thousand books collected over the years, kaku had come across this copy. he knew amita often asked about her great grandmother’s poems, and if anyone had ready any of them. he decided to give her the book.
“you know, i used to play here as a kid,” amita said.
“yes, ma…” her daughter tao sounded restless. she wanted to go and play with her cousins.
amita started to turn the pages of the book, she wanted to read a poem written by her great grandmother to her daughter. the book had a hard cover and the name was printed in gold, in bengali. shiuli. a simple name.
“it’s your great great grandmother’s book…” amita murmured.
“really? really, ma?” tao reached out and pulled the book from amita’s hand. a piece of paper floated out and fell from within its pages. amita would have admonished tao but that piece of paper looked so frail.
she picked it up carefully. it was brittle with age and faintly yellow. she could see ink on the paper though, it had started to fade, but you could still read the words. frowning slightly, amita stared at them. she was no longer as adept at reading the bengali script.
“her… name is… dalim…” she read. dalim?
she read from the beginning once more.
“her name is dalimbala. the coachwan told me. i now have money to give the coachwan and he tells me everything. indra gave me a box full of coins and notes.”
amita felt a strange sharp pain as she read the words.
“i don’t blame indra. i understand. i can no longer sing as well as i used to. indra loves song. they say, she’s a very good singer. and she dances very well. i hope indra is happy. sometimes, i wish…”
amita felt tears sting her eyes. she had her great grandmother’s turquoise and pearl tiara, her mother gave it to her when she got married. kaag dim, crow’s egg, her grandmother called the blue stones. there had always been talk of a mysterious lady in her great grandfather’s life. no one liked to say anything clearly.
amita looked around at the shiuli on the floor, she wondered if hemanta ranjani ever came here, if she had ever sat here perhaps and sung a song. maybe to her indra?
i hope you enjoyed reading the story. i love sarees, i can almost see that pink jamdani with its play of light and shade. as usual, lots of bengali words, hope it wasn’t irritating. “gopaler ma” means gopal’s mother, maids and women in rural areas (i think) at times were called in that manner once they had a child, a son usually. hemanta ranjini is pronounced haymonto ronjini (t soft); manindranth is pronounced monindronath (th as in think). “bodi” are delicious things made with lentils and spices, a bit like pasta is made from flour, but here, these are added to vegetables such as “shukto” and even eaten deep fried. “kochuri” is made of flour dough with stuffing in it and fried, “jodoa” refers to jewellery with gem stones and pearls set in gold. “khñopa” is a bun/chignon. “korta/korta babu” is the head of the family. “phool shojjya” literally is flower bed, it’s part of bengali wedding rituals and can be great fun with all sorts of silly games and eavesdropping on the first night the bride and groom spend together. “kaku” is uncle, that is father’s younger brother. the coachman was called “coachwan” in bengali and hindi too. i discovered while trying to find out about the 1920s that there was a two and a half rupee note once… reminded me of platform nine and three quarter from harry’s tales. the story comes from the old house which sort of hangs around in me. things i’ve heard about my great grandmother and grandfather inspired this particular tale.
pictures of shiuli flowers used in the visual credit uploader.