One day in Bengal
THIS is a story of conjugal relations. Gagan Mondal, the petty sharecropper, is teaching Sohagi, his wife, the lesson of her life. He has in his hand a thin, lithe strip of cane, and he keeps lashing at her with it. The skin tenuously covering Sohagi’s frail, blister-infected back breaks; blood comes out at several places; she writhes in pain. It is primal rage that has overtaken Gagan. He has taken leave of his senses; he shakes in fury; his teeth clatter against one another; he strikes harder and harder. It is a kind of catharsis he is after; he does not care whether Sohagi will survive the lashing. He is going to teach her the proper lesson - about what happens when you steal your husband’s share of the cooked rice.
Gagan has gone about it methodically. He has torn away from her body the tattered sari Sohagi was wearing and used it to fasten her firmly to the pole, her face turned toward the pole so that her rear is totally exposed. There is however a slight disadvantage in this arrangement. Since he is not able to see Sohagi’s face, the sense of total satisfaction eludes him; he can only hear her wail. Ah, well, it has to be made up other ways. Each time the wailing tends to grow feeble, Gagan strikes even more sharply against Sohagi’s rump, so that there is an instant revival of its original pitch.
By now, however, Sohagi has gripped the pole with her teeth and her crying is increasingly muffled - there is only a non-descript whine which emits from the direction of her mouth. The partial view of Sohagi’s contorted face rouses Gagan’s fury once more. He slaps furiously, sideways against the face; it bumps against the bamboo pole with a heavy thud.
‘Slut of a woman, have you learnt your lesson? Would you again steal my food?’
A fantastic thing happens: Sohagi does not beg forgiveness; she does not whimper; she does not swear not to eat her husband’s share of the rice in future. Instead she shouts back, frenzy making her voice hoarse: ‘Of course I will; I will cut away your rice a hundred times, a thousand times; I will murder you and have you for food.’
This declaration of defiance takes Gagan aback. ‘What did you say, woman? You would still eat my rice?’
‘Yes, yes, I will. Each time I will steal your rice. And if there is no rice, I will cut you into pieces with a chopper, fry you and eat you up.’
Such is the extent of Sohagi’s hunger then? If no rice is to be had, she would even chop up the husband and eat his meat! Gagan is rendered speechless for a second. Following her ominous declaration, though, Sohagi resumes her wailing. She does something else. Abruptly, she lets her body go limp against the bamboo pole; it is an old, pest-ridden pole; it collapses; Sohagi collapses on the floor along with it. Gagan sees little point in continuing the charade, and unfastens her.
It is the usual story. Gagan had mounted guard on his little plot of land throughout the night. As daylight broke, he resumed reaping the paddy, while intermittently looking in the direction of the village road. He had not eaten a morsel since the previous afternoon. His body was taut with hunger; the sickle was almost limp in his hand; he mechanically continued to chop at the paddy plants in the hope that Sohagi would arrive any moment with his share of the boiled rice. The morning advanced; the sun came up. There was no trace of Sohagi. The minutes ticked away; anger welled inside Gagan. He trekked home to find out what the matter was. Sohagi did not come with the rice because there was no rice; there was very little of it and she herself had eaten up the whole lot. It is good luck for both of them that he had not brought the sickle along. In the height of his anger, he might have slashed the sickle right across Sohagi’s throat.
A pervading sense of ennui grips Gagan. What is he going to do? Fill his belly with some water and return to the field? In any case, he has to return to his land. The rest of the paddy has to be reaped, and hurriedly. Only a few hours are available to him. The jotedar is going to return soon along with his hoodlums, most of whom will be armed with lath is or worse. The paddy must be removed safely before they arrive.
Now, however, there is this additional problem. How could he leave his badly bruised wife behind? Suppose she jumps into the village pond? Suppose she hangs herself in shame and anger and remorse?
Gagan makes up his mind. He strikes a posture of reconciliation. ‘Come on, Sohagi, let bygones be bygones; come on, enough is enough; do get up, wrap the sari around. I have to hurry back to the field.’
Sohagi does not stir. Gagan tries again. ‘Come on, please give me a mug of water; let me drink it and leave; what else is to be done. I have, you know, work left in the field.’
Gagan finds himself in an awkwardly vulnerable position. There is a rush in everything. Suddenly time has become an important element in his existence. Hurry, hurry, pawn your pots and pans at an exhorbitant rate and get some cash; hurry, hurry, use this cash to get some rice, otherwise you will starve and drop dead. Hurry, hurry, hurry to the field and reap your harvest, otherwise the jotedar will come and take it away.
It is now Gagan’s turn to do the whining. ‘How does it matter’, I am in any case done for, whether this way or that. I will not let go of my paddy; the rascal of the jotedar will come with the police and the hoodlums; my skull will be split into two by the lathi blows; my heart will be pierced by the police bullet. I will in any case die. But why must you too kill me by torture? If that is what you wish, let your will be done. You cut me up with the chopper and eat my flesh. Why should I get killed in the field to be eaten up by the jackals and cultures, instead, you fill your belly with my carcass.
As if a volcano erupts, Sohagi flares up. ‘Enough is enough, hold your tongue; I do not mind your beating me up every now and them but you are not going to get away with such gibberish. Stop it, I say.’
Both fall silent. An interlude. Sohagi fetches water in an earthen pot. Gagan drinks it. He steps out of the door, obviously intending to return to the field. Sohagi speaks up once more, almost in a monosyllable. ‘I will come after a while with the rice.’
‘But where will you get the rice?’
‘Oh, I will manage.’ Again, there is a fire of rebellion in her eyes, ‘I will get the rice by whatever means; I will borrow it, steal it, snatch it. The Nandis have tons and tons of rice stacked up. I will get some from them.’
‘They will never give you any rice.’
‘They will not? If they will not, I will murder the bastards. I will chop each of them with this dagger.’
The sliver of a ray of the sun lights up Sohagi’ s shrivelled face; something burns in that face; anger, fury, determination. Gagan stares at the face, bemused and charmed. He re-enters the hut, quietly asks Sohagi to come closer. He clasps one of her hands: ‘O Sohagi, forgive me for this time, please do; I promise never to strike you again, never, never, never, never.’