Monday, 22 October 2018

Abani Dhar : Going to In-Laws' House for Food ( short story )

(Translated by Asrar Chowdhury)
Two weeks back I drew rations after managing to scrounge up ten takas. Yesterday was the last date for getting them. I thought if I could somehow unload the children and the wife on my in-laws’ for a few months, they would at least be able to eat two times a day. But the wife would not hear of it. Last year when she had gone to visit her father’s house, she had to put up with a lot of comments about her lack of jewelry. Finally, after lots of endearments, I managed to change her mind. The bus fare? I borrowed the bus fare from Bashu and we started early in the morning. I didn’t buy my ticket. I got off at Shialda, bought some sweetmeats, and then got on again.

In the bus I tried to convince my wife– stay at your father’s house for a few months. See if it would be possible to get our son some medical treatment. My wife didn’t say anything. I tried to comfort her: I’m sure something will come up in the meantime. She answered me in a dry voice, “You know all there is to know: Father has retired. Dada is bearing the burden of the family all by himself. The quarter they are staying in is also in his name. There are still four unmarried sisters in the house. I would rather die than have to face Dada…” I bought ten paisas’ worth of peanuts, handed them to my wife and told her, “Your father has a monthly pension. He also received a large gratuity. Both of your dadas have jobs. They are not wanting for anything over there.” My wife chewed the peanuts and said, “But Father first has to build a house, then marry off my sisters…and both my dadas have declared they are doing all they possibly can, that they can’t do anything more.”

Mallikpur. The house is a two-storied government-allotted quarter right next to the station. Upstairs-downstairs combined are two small rooms like little caves and a tiny kitchen. Sunlight does not penetrate into the kitchen. One dugout latrine. No way can anyone inform the doctor about the condition of feces. Paper boats float all around the house.

I entered the room on the heels of my wife and children. My mother-in-law was wrapped up in a piece of cloth, sewing something in the veranda. On seeing me, she partially veiled her head. I went towards over and touched her feet. My youngest sister-in-law was wearing a loose frock. She came and took my son and said to her mother, “Look Ma, how thin Bura has gotten.” She looked at my wife, “Don’t you feed him?” In the meantime, everybody else in the house gathered around us. The youngest sister-in-law said, biting her lower lip, “You should feed him and fatten him up.” This sister-in-law is the fairest amongst the sisters. She has failed twice in her class exams and is now studying in class eight. My father-in-law had asked me to find a B.A.-degreed groom from a good family for her. I went to the drawing room and sat down. I overheard my mother-in-law rebuking my wife, “Why did you just land here without any prior notice? There is no spare room in the house. You should use some common sense.” I gestured to my wife to give the packet of sweetmeats to my mother-in-law. We had gotten on the bus without eating breakfast. I made a motion with my hand as if to slap my belly to let her know that I was hungry. There was some milk beneath the bedstead. My son somehow spotted it and drank the whole bowl in one long gulp. My mother-in-law clutched her forehead with her hands and sat down, “Oh unfortunate me! I kept that milk for tea!” One of my sisters-in-law ran to my son and snatched the bowl from his hands. I think my wife slapped my son on his back once or twice. After we finished having tea and some bread, my mother-in-law said, “There were biscuits in the house, why didn’t you serve them?” I looked at my wife and she brought me two biscuits. Immediately, my two children started squabbling and then finished off both the biscuits.

My father-in-law entered the room. I went forward and touched his feet. He slowly surveyed me from top to bottom and then said with a raised eyebrow, “You look as if you’ve let go of appearances. What do you do now”? Seeing that I remained silent and kept my eyes on the ground–except for a “hmmm”— he again enquired, “What is the source of your income”? I replied, as meekly as possible, “Nothing.” He looked at my son and said, “You seem to have nearly killed him . Haven’t you taken him to the doctor”? My tongue slipped and I said, “Yes, I did.” He looked at me again sternly, “So you don’t have money to buy medicines?” He remained quiet for a while and then murmured almost to himself, “A seer of milk every day and gravy of fish curry, that’s what you need to feed them.” He called out to my wife, “Sadhana, come here, let me take a look at you.” My wife came and bowed down to touch his feet. Looking at the ground my father-in-law sighed and said, “Can’t you take the child to a doctor and at least get him some tonic-fonic?” My wife left the room. From behind a curtain my fair-skinned sister-in-law hissed at him, “You have a lot of money. Why don’t you look after the treatment of your daughter and her husband.” My father-in-law shouted at her to shut up.
There were sacks of rice underneath the bedstead, row upon row of them. At one time, I pointed at them and told my wife “If it’s possible to get even one sack…” My wife made a face and left the room. My father-in-law also went out somewhere. I turned on the fan and lay down on the bedstead. My youngest sister-in-law screamed at the top of her voice to my mother-in-law, “Dada said he would no longer pay the electric bills. Dada swore a lot when he saw the bill for the last month. The meter read twenty five takas.” My wife came and turned the fan off. Outside, the light was blinding. One couldn’t see anything clearly in the room unless the lights were on. Where could I go? Lying on the bedstead the smell of rice starch hit my nostrils. I couldn’t tell if it was coming from the kitchen or from beneath the bedstead. I have no idea when I fell asleep.

My father-in-law woke me up. I sat beside him at lunch. While we were eating, my father-in-law said, “You can start doing business of some sort, can’t you? Look at your uncle. He has a business, now has a car and his own house. It’s a pleasure talking to people about him.” I ate so much that it was difficult to move afterwards. It was after a long time that I had eaten to my heart’s content. When my wife came to me with betel nuts, I told her, “Is it possible to manage ten takas from your father? There’s mother back home…” She asked me, “What do I tell him when I ask for the money?” I answered her, “Tell them, it’s for a job application, just make up something.” Then added, “Perhaps it’s better if I leave today.” My wife said, “But mother asked for you to stay the night. A sadhu is coming in the evening. She wants to get a talisman from him to give to you.” Hearing this I thought, well, good, maybe they’d let her stay for a few days.

In the afternoon, I was strolling by myself on the platform. All over the station, I saw written, in red, blue and black, “Power flows from the barrel of a gun…armed revolution… freedom…leap forward.” I felt a bit excited as I read them. A group of youths wearing shirts and trousers were sitting on a bench arguing about the election. Prickly, stubbled faces. They were staring at me. I moved to a bench farther away. After a while, a working-class man came and sat down beside me. The youths were still looking at me. I was laughing to myself, but at the same time my heart was also beating. The man asked me:

“Where do you stay?”
“What’s the news of the election in your area?”
“I really don’t know.”
“What! You don’t keep abreast of the election?”
“Hmm, I don’t actually live there–a little bit outside.”

Looking at me angrily, after some time, he started to tear into all the political parties one by one. He looked at me, stone-faced and hot-eyed, and said, “This time not a single vote will drop into the ballot boxes here.” Noticing that I was not responding, he asked me in a grave voice, “Who have you come to see here?” I showed him the Rail quarter. “That is my in-laws’ house.” “Oh! So you are so and so’s son-in-law? Why didn’t you say that before? I thought… You can understand. These days I become suspicious as soon as I see somebody new to the area. Well, that settles it, you are family…” The man passed me a bidi–“Here”–and started almost talking to himself with a disprited face, “This year’s harvest was terrible. The people fought among themselves and ruined whatever little did grow. You know, no matter what they say, parties and politics are not for the likes of us poor people.” Then one of the youths whistled at us. 

“That’s my call, I have to go now.” The man got up and walked over to the men.
It was now evening. I went back to the quarter to find that my brother-in-laws had returned from office. My youngest brother-in-law, after consulting books, was giving my son homeopathic medicine. The elder brother-in-law was writing down household accounts in a notebook and telling his younger brother, “They cheated you of twenty paisas in sugar.” He stopped talking as soon as I entered the room.

It’s been quite a while since my eldest brother-in-law and I have been on talking terms. After dinner I went upstairs and sat down. My eldest brother-in-law shouted at the top of his voice from downstairs, “Tell him that those days are gone. It’s no longer possible to feed the entire family when they come. I have to break my back to earn money.” He told my wife, “Your children are going to sleep by themselves. All this flu, coughing is very contagious. I don’t have money now to spend on medicine.” My father-in-law said, “All right, all right, shut up now.” My eldest brother-in-law was silent for a while, then started up again, “How can anybody get a job just sitting around indulging in adda the whole day? You have to go out and beg people, fall down on hands and knees. This bugger is useless. The only thing to do is to kick his arse out of the house.”

I woke up very early. My wife had woken up before me. The maids were washing the pots and pans beneath the tap in the courtyard. I was sitting in the veranda upstairs. I overheard one of the maids saying to somebody else, “So you thought you were the clever one, eh? You thought you could make molasses by stealing the date juice?” I laughed silently upon hearing this. Felt like saying–Good morning! Good morning!

My wife returned after washing up and said to me, “Come on, let’s leave while it’s still morning.”

I took her hands in mine and said, “Dear sweetheart, please stay back for a few days. Have patience with me. Don’t worry, our time will come one day. Just stay.” She would not listen to me. I tried again, “No use getting angry at their words. Look, I haven’t gotten angry. Come what may, they are family, not outsiders. Please, my dear, stay. Listen to me: Stay.” But my wife wouldn’t listen, so in the end I said, “Make sure you get some money from your father.” Both the brothers-in-law soon left for work.

In the meantime, my wife had finished packing. I saw her entering her father’s room. I spotted the fair-skinned sister-in-law looking on from behind the curtain to see what her father gave Didi or said to her. She moved away as soon as I made a coughing sound. My wife left the room after some time with her fists closed, with my sister-in-law following close behind. I tried to signal my wife about it, but she didn’t notice. So then I loudly called my sister-in-law by her name and said, “Do come and visit us.” This time my wife understood, and quickly left the room.

It was my father-in-law who bought our tickets. After the bus started, my wife started to laugh, then showed me the bottom of the bucket bag. I put my hand down and felt rice grains. My wife had managed to spirit away some rice from the stack beneath the bedstead. I wanted to hug her tightly and kiss her. But how could one do that in the midst of so many people? Instead, I pressed my wife’s hand and said, “Bravo, Bravo”!

Abani Dhar was a member of the Hungryalist movement. He lives in Kolkata. He died in 2007

Asrar Chowdhury teaches Economics at Jahangirnagar University

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