Tales of Bengal
S. B. Banerjea
Part 3 out of 3
his appeal. He heartily despised the fellow's unutterable baseness,
but reflected that he had been an old friend of his father's. He
undertook the prisoner's defence.
In due course Debendra Babu, with Abdullah, was brought before the
Deputy Magistrate of Ghoria on various grave charges. The evidence
established a strong prima facie case against both, and Nalini Babu
reserved his defence. They were committed for trial. When the case came
before the Sessions Judge the Government Pleader (public prosecutor)
adduced many witnesses proving the prisoner's guilt, the last of
whom was Hiramani, who admitted on cross-examination that she had
caused the anonymous letter to be sent to headquarters, which led to
the charge being reopened. She protested that she had done so from a
feeling that so great a crime should not be hushed up. Nalini Babu,
in his turn, put forward some witnesses for the defence; but their
statements were not of material advantage to the prisoner. It was,
in fact, a losing game, but he played it manfully. After all evidence
had been recorded, the Government Pleader was about to sum up for the
prosecution, when the Court rose suddenly, as it was past five o'clock.
Nalini was going homewards in the dusk, when he felt a hand laid
timidly on his shoulder. Turning sharply round, he saw an old
man standing by his side. On being asked his name and business,
the newcomer whispered some information which must have interested
Nalini greatly for he rubbed his hands, smiled, and nodded several
times. After a few minutes' talk the pair went together to a spot
where a palanquin with bearers was waiting. Into it got Nalini and
was carried off at a smart trot, while his companion hobbled behind.
When the Court assembled next day Nalini thus addressed the judge:
"May it please your honour, I have, by the greatest good luck,
obtained certain evidence which will, I think, place this case in a new
light". On getting leave to adduce an additional witness, he beckoned
to an old man, standing at the back of the Court, who entered the
witness-box and declared that his name was Ram Harak and that he was
a dismissed servant of the prisoner. This was a curious opening for
a witness for the defence, and dead silence fell on the Court while
Ram Harak proceeded to swear that it was he, and not Debendra Babu,
who had been intimate with the deceased, and that she had poisoned
herself to avoid excommunication.
"Did she tell you so herself?" asked the judge sharply.
"No, your highness; I learnt this only yesterday from Maina Bibi,
Karim's own sister; Piyari Bibi, Sadhu's daughter; and Nasiban Bibi,
his sister-in-law, who all lived with the deceased."
The Government Pleader at once objected to this statement being
recorded, as it was hearsay. Nalini, however, assured the judge
that the eye-witnesses were in attendance, and called them, one
by one, to give evidence. Passing strange was their story. On the
evening of Siraji's death they found her writhing in agony on the
floor and, on being questioned, she gasped out that she could bear
her kinsfolks' tyranny no longer. They had just told her that she
was to be excommunicated for intriguing with an infidel. So she had
got some yellow arsenic from the domes (low-caste leather-dressers)
and swallowed several tolas weight of the poison in milk. The other
women were thunderstruck. They sat down beside her and mingled their
lamentations until Siraji's sufferings ended for ever. They afterwards
agreed to say nothing about the cause of her death for fear of the
police. But Ram Harak had come to them privately and frightened them
into promising to tell the whole truth, by pointing out the awful
consequences of an innocent man's conviction. Their evidence was
not shaken by the Government Pleader's cross-examination, and it was
corroborated by a dome, who swore that Siraji had got some arsenic from
him a few days before her death, on the pretext that it was wanted in
order to poison some troublesome village dogs. After consulting with
the jury for a few minutes, the judge informed Nalini that his client
was acquitted, and Debendra Babu left the Court, as the newspapers say,
"without a stain on his character". Seeing Ram Harak standing near
the door with folded hands, he clasped the good old man to his bosom,
with many protestations of gratitude, and begged him to forgive the
injustice with which he had been treated.
When Ram Harak found himself alone with his master at the close of
this exciting day, he repeated the vile insinuations which Hiramani
had made regarding the daughter's character. Debendra Babu was highly
indignant and vowed that the scandal-monger should never cross his
threshold again. He then implored Ram Harak to trace his son-in-law,
authorising him to offer any reparation he might ask. The old man
smiled, and left the house, but returned a quarter of an hour later
with a Sanyasi (religious mendicant) who revealed himself as the
missing Pulin. Debendra Babu received him with warm embraces and many
entreaties for pardon; while Pulin said modestly that he alone was
to blame, for he ought not to have believed the aspersions cast on
his wife by Hiramani, which led him to quit the house in disgust. He
added that Ram Harak had found him telling his beads near a temple,
and persuaded him to wait close at hand until he had opened Debendra
Meanwhile the whole house echoed with songs and laughter. Debendra
Babu rewarded Ram Harak's fidelity with a grant of rent-free land,
and publicly placed a magnificent turban on his head. He resolved to
celebrate his own escape from jail by feasting the neighbours. The
entire arrangements were left in the hands of the two Basus, who
managed matters so admirably that every one was more than satisfied
and Debendra Babu's fame was spread far and wide. When things
resumed their normal aspect, he held a confab with the brothers as
to the punishment which should be meted out to Hiramani, and it was
unanimously resolved to send her to Coventry. They, therefore, forbade
the villagers to admit her into their houses, and the shopkeepers to
supply her wants. Hiramani soon found Kadampur too hot to hold her
and took her departure for ever, to every one's intense relief.
A Tame Rabbit.
When a penniless Hindu marries into a wealthy family he is sorely
tempted to live with, and upon, his father-in-law. But the ease
thus secured is unattended by dignity. The gharjamai, "son-in-law of
the house," as he is styled, shocks public opinion, which holds it
disgraceful for an able-bodied man to eat the bread of idleness. Pulin
incurred a certain degree of opprobrium by quartering himself on
Debendra Babu; neighbours treated him with scant courtesy, and the
very household servants made him feel that he was a person of small
importance. He bore contumely with patience, looking forward to
the time when Debendra Babu's decease would give him a recognised
position. His wife was far more ambitious. She objected strongly to
sharing her husband's loss of social standing and frequently reproached
him with submitting to be her father's annadas (rice-slave).
So, one morning, he poured his sorrows into Nalini's sympathetic ear.
"Mahasay," he said, "you know that people are inclined to blame me
for living in idleness, and I do indeed long to chalk out a career
for myself. But I don't know how to set about it and have no patron to
back me. Do you happen to know of any job which would give me enough
to live on? Salary is less an object with me than prospects. I would
gladly accept a mastership in some high school."
"You are quite right in seeking independence," replied Nalini, "and
I shall be glad to help you. But lower-grade teachers are miserably
paid, and their prospects are no better. It is only graduates who
can aspire to a head-mastership. Are you one?"
"No, sir, but I passed the F.A. examination in 1897."
"Ah, then, you are a Diamond Jubilee man--that's a good omen,"
rejoined Nalini, with a shade of sarcasm in his voice. "What were
your English text-books?"
"I read Milton's Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden's Holy Grail, and many
other poems, but I'm not sure of their titles after all these years."
Nalini suspected that his friend's English lore was somewhat rusty. In
order to test him further, he asked, "Can you tell me who wrote
'Life is real, life is earnest,'--that line applies to you!"
Pulin fidgeted about before answering. "It must have been Tennyson--or
was it Wordsworth? I never could keep poetry in my head."
Nalini thought that an F.A. might have remembered Longfellow's Psalm
of Life, but he refrained from airing superior knowledge.
"Do you know any mathematics?" he inquired.
"Mathematics!" replied Pulin joyously. "Why, they're my forte---I
am quite at home in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Please ask me
any question you like."
"Well, let us have Prop. 30, Book I. of Euclid."
Pulin rattled off Proposition 13 of that book, without the aid of a
diagram. Nalini now saw that the young man's mental equipment was
of the slenderest description. He said, "Well, you may call on me
another day, when I may be able to tell you of some vacancy".
Pulin, however, would take no denial. He became so insistent
that Nalini reluctantly gave him a letter of introduction to Babu
Kaliprasanna Som, Secretary of the Ramnagar High School, who, he
said, was looking about him for a fourth master. Pulin lost no time
in delivering it and was immediately appointed to the vacant post.
English education in Bengal is not regarded as a key which opens
the door of a glorious literature, but simply and solely as a
stepping-stone in the path of worldly success. The Department seems to
aim at turning out clerks and lawyers in reckless profusion. Moreover,
academic degrees are tariffed in the marriage market. The
"F.A." commands a far higher price than the "entrance-passed," while
an M.A. has his pick of the richest and prettiest girls belonging to
his class. Hence parents take a keen interest in their boys' progress
and constantly urge them to excel in class. With such lessons ringing
in his ears, the Bengali schoolboy is consumed with a desire to master
his text-books. The great difficulty is to tear him away from them,
and insist on his giving sufficient time to manly games. When a new
teacher takes the helm, he is closely watched in order to test his
competence. The older lads take a cruel pleasure in plying him with
questions which they have already solved from the Dictionary. Pulin
did not emerge from this ordeal with credit, and the boys concocted
a written complaint of his shortcomings, which they despatched to
the Secretary of the School Committee, The answer was a promise to
redress their grievances.
At 10.30 next morning Kaliprasanna Babu entered Pulin's classroom and
stood listening to his method of teaching English literature. Presently
one of the boys asked him to explain the difference between "fort"
and "fortress". After scratching his head for fully half a minute he
replied that the first was a castle defended by men, while the second
had a female garrison! The Secretary was quite satisfied. He left
the room and sent Pulin a written notice of dismissal. The latter was
disheartened beyond measure by this unkind stroke of fortune. He shook
the dust of Ramnagar from his feet and returned home to lay his sorrows
before Nalini, seasoning the story with remarks highly derogatory to
Kaliprasanna Babu's character. In order to get rid of an importunate
suitor Nalini gave him another letter of introduction, this time to
an old acquaintance named Debnath Lahiri who was head clerk in the
office of Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop, one of the largest mercantile firms
of Calcutta. Pulin was heartily sick of school-mastering, and the
prospect of making a fortune in business filled his soul with joy. He
borrowed Rs. 30 from Debendra Babu and took the earliest train for
Calcutta. On arriving there he joined a mess of waifs and strays like
himself, who herded in a small room and clubbed their pice to provide
meals. Then he waited on Debnath Babu, whom he found installed in a
sumptuous office overlooking the river Hughli. The great man glanced
at his credentials and, with an appearance of cordiality, promised
to let him know in case a vacancy occurred in the office. For nearly
a month Pulin called daily for news at Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's, and
generally managed to waylay the head clerk, whose reply was invariably,
"I have nothing to suit you at present".
One morning, however, he was stopped by the darwan (doorkeeper) who
told him gruffly that the "Bara Babu did not like to have outsiders
hanging about the office". The baffled suitor reflected on his
miserable position. He had just eleven rupees and two pice left,
which he calculated would last him, with strict economy, for another
fortnight. When they were spent, he would have to return crestfallen
to Kadampur. But could he face the neighbours' sneers, the servants'
contumely--worse than all, his wife's bitter tongue? No, that was
not to be thought of. It were better to plunge into the river whose
turbid waters rolled only a few feet away.
Pulin was roused from this unpleasant train of thought by hearing
his name pronounced. It came from a well-dressed man, who was just
entering Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's office, welcomed by a salam from the
surly doorkeeper. Pulin was delighted to recognise in the stranger
a certain Kisari Mohan Chatterji, who had taught him English in the
General Assembly's College more than a decade back. In a few words he
told his sad story and learnt that Kisari Babu had taken the same step
as he himself contemplated, with the result that he was now head clerk
in Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's export department. This news augured well
for his own ambition, but poor Pulin was disgusted on hearing that no
less than three vacancies had occurred in as many weeks, and that all
had been filled by relatives of Babu Debnath Lahiri. Kisari Babu added:
"A junior clerk is to be appointed to-morrow. Write out an application
in your very best hand, with copies of your testimonials, and bring it
to me here this evening at five. I'll see that it reaches our manager,
Henderson Saheb." Pulin punctually followed his friend's advice,
and dreamed all night of wealth beyond a miser's utmost ambition.
On arriving at Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's office next morning he joined a
crowd of twenty or thirty young men who were bent on a like errand. His
spirits sank to zero, nor were they raised when after hanging about
in the rain for nearly two hours the aspirants were told that the
vacancy had been filled up. Thereupon the forlorn group dispersed,
cursing their ill-luck and muttering insinuations against Mr. Henderson
and his head clerk. Pulin, however, lingered behind. By tendering a
rupee to the doorkeeper he got a slip of paper and pencil, with which
he indited a piteous appeal to Kisari Babu, and a promise that it
should reach him. Presently his friend came out in a desperate hurry,
with a stylograph behind his ear, and his hands laden with papers.
"It's just as I anticipated," he whispered to Pulin. "The head
clerk has persuaded Henderson Saheb to bestow the post on his wife's
nephew. But don't be disheartened. I will speak to our Saheb about
you this very day. Come here at five to learn the result."
Pulin did so and was overjoyed to find that he had been appointed
probationary clerk in the export department on Rs. 20 per mensem,
in supersession of Debnath Babu's nominee.
On the morrow he entered on his new duties with some trepidation,
but Kisari Babu took him under his wing and spared no pains to "teach
him the ropes". Pulin spent his evenings in furbishing up his English
and arithmetic, mastered the whole art of book-keeping, and, being
naturally intelligent, he soon had the office routine at his fingers'
ends. He grasped the fact that a young man who wishes to succeed
in life must make himself indispensable. In course of time Pulin's
industry and trustworthiness attracted the attention of Mr. Henderson,
who confirmed him as clerk, with a salary of Rs. 35.
But every cup has its bitter drop; and Pulin's was the persistent
enmity of the head clerk, who bore him a grudge for ousting his wife's
nephew and seized every opportunity of annoying him. Leagued with the
arch-enemy were two subordinate clerks, Gyanendra and Lakshminarain
by name, who belonged to Debnath Babu's gusti (family). This trio so
managed matters that all the hardest and most thankless work fell to
Pulin's lot. He bore their pin-pricks with equanimity, secure in the
constant support of Kisari Babu.
One muggy morning in August he awoke with a splitting headache,
the harbinger of an attack of fever, and was obliged to inform the
head clerk, by means of a note, of his inability to attend office. An
answer was brought by Gyanendra to the effect that three days' leave
of absence was granted, but that his work must be carried on by some
other clerk. He was, therefore, ordered to send the key of his desk
by the bearer. For three days the patient endured alternations of
heat and cold; but his malady yielded to quinine, and on the fourth
he was able to resume work.
Soon after reaching the office, he was accosted by one of the bearers,
named Ramtonu, who told him that the Bara Sahebwished to see him at
once. The moment he entered the manager's sanctum he saw that something
unpleasant had occurred. Without wishing him good morning, as usual,
Mr. Henderson handed him a cheque and asked sternly whether he had
filled it up. Pulin examined the document, which turned out to be an
order on the Standard Bank to pay Tarak Ghose & Co. Rs. 200, signed
by Mr. Henderson. He was obliged to admit that the payee's name, as
also the amount in words and figures, seemed to be in his handwriting.
"Yes," rejoined the manager, "and the signature is very like my own;
but it is a forgery. Do you hear me, Babu, a forgery!"
To Pulin's disordered senses the room, with its furniture and
Mr. Henderson's angry face, seemed to be turning round. He gasped
out, "I'm ill, sir!" and sank into a chair. The manager mistook the
remains of fever for a tacit admission of guilt. He waited till Pulin
had regained a share of his wits and said gravely: "I did not think
that one whom I trusted with my cheque-book would act thus. Now you
will search your books, to see whether they contain a record of any
payment of the kind, and return with them in half an hour. But I must
warn you that if this forgery is traced to you, I shall have to call
in the police."
Pulin staggered back to his room in despair and observed that Gyanendra
and Lakshminarain, who sat at the next desk, were evidently enjoying
his mental agony. Alas! the books showed no trace of any payment
to Tarak Ghose & Co. He wrung his hands in great distress and
sat bewildered, until Ramtonu came to summon him to the manager's
tribunal. In the corridor Ramtonu glanced round, to make sure that
no one was within hearing, and said, "Don't be afraid, Babuji. You
did me a good turn, and I may be able to help you now."
This Ramtonu was an office menial hailing from the district of Gaya,
in Behar. He was an intelligent man, but rather unlicked, and was
the butt of the younger clerks, who delighted in mocking his uncouth
up-country dialect. Pulin, however, had never joined in "ragging"
him, and, on one occasion, he lent Ramtonu Rs. 7 for his wife, who
was about to increase the population of Gaya. Gratitude for kindness
is a marked trait in the Indian character, and Pulin bethought him
of the old fable of the Lion and Mouse. He asked: "Why, what do you
know about lekha-para (reading and writing)?"
"Never mind," rejoined Ramtonu. "We must not loiter, for we should
be suspected of plotting together. Come to the Saheb's room. I shall
be admitted, for he knows that I don't understand English. All I ask
is that you will clasp your hands as a signal when I may come forward
and tell my story,"
A European police officer was seated by Mr. Henderson's side, engaged
in writing from his dictation. They looked up, and the manager asked
whether Pulin had found any record of the payment in dispute.
On receiving a negative answer, he said: "Then I shall be obliged to
hand you over to the police".
Pulin clasped his hands in a mute appeal for mercy, whereon Ramtonu
stepped forward. Carefully extracting a folded sheet of foolscap from
the pocket of his chapkan (a tight-fitting garment, worn by nearly all
classes in full dress), he spread it out on the table and respectfully
asked the manager to run his eye over it.
"By Jove," remarked the latter, with great surprise, "here's some
one has been copying my signature--and Pulin's writing too!"
All eyes were now bent on the incriminating document. It was made up
of many fragments of paper, carefully pasted on a sheet of foolscap,
and bore the words, "Tarak Ghose & Co., two hundred rupees, 200,"
repeated at least twenty times. Below was "A.G. Henderson," also
multiplied many-fold. The manager asked where Ramtonu had found the
paper, and received the following answer:--"Your Highness, Pulin Babu
here did not come to office on Monday; and for the next few days his
work was done by Gyanendra Babu, who got the keys of his desk. I knew
that he and some other clerks detested Pulin Babu, so I watched their
movements narrowly, to see whether they would try to get him into a
scrape, and more than once I surprised Gyanendra and Lakshminarain
whispering together. On Tuesday neither of them left the office for
lunch with the other clerks, and I seized some pretext for entering
the room where they sit. Gyanendra roughly bade me begone; so I went to
the verandah outside and peeped through the jilmils (Venetian blinds)
of a window close to their desk. Lakshminarain was copying some English
words from a paper on his left side, while the other clerk looked on,
nodding and shaking his head from time to time. After writing in this
fashion for a while, Lakshminarain took a sheet of notepaper covered
with writing and copied the signature many times, until both babus
were satisfied with the result. Then I saw Gyanendra unlock Pulin
Babu's desk, take out a cheque-book, and hand it to the other man,
who filled up the counterfoil and body of one blank cheque, glancing
sometimes at the paper in front of him. He returned it to Gyanendra
who placed it in a pocket-book. After tearing up the papers they had
used and throwing them into the waste-paper basket, they left the
room. I ran round, carefully avoiding them, picked the fragments of
paper out of the basket, tied them in a corner of my gamcha (wrapper),
and left the office quickly, asking the doorkeeper what direction
they had taken. When he said that they had turned northwards, I
guessed that they were off to the Bank, in order to cash the cheque,
and sure enough I overtook them not more than a rassi from the
office. Following them at a little distance on the other side of the
street, I saw them stop outside the Standard Bank and look anxiously
around. Presently a schoolboy passed by, whom they hailed and, after
talking for a while, Gyanendra handed him the cheque with a small
linen money-bag, and pointed to the door of the Bank. The lad went
inside, while both babus waited round the corner. In a short time he
came out and handed the bag full of money to Gyanendra, who gave him
something and hurried back to the office with his companion. Putting
two and two together I felt assured that those clerks had forged the
cheque; and had I known where Pulin Babu lived, I would certainly
have communicated my suspicions to him. Having to work without his
help, I persuaded a student, who lodges near my quarters, to piece
the scraps of paper together. It took him two hours to do so, and we
then pasted them carefully on this sheet of foolscap. You will see,
Saheb, that there are thirty-seven in all, and only three missing."
The story made a deep impression on Mr. Henderson and the Police
Inspector, while Pulin was raised to the seventh heaven of delight
by the thought that his innocence might yet be established,
"Could you identify the boy?" asked the Europeans with one breath.
"I don't know his name," was Ramtonu's rejoinder; "but I think I could
pick him out, for he passes this office daily on his way to and from
school. But this is just the time when he goes home for tiffin. With
your Highness's permission, I will watch for him in the street."
"Do so by all means," was the Inspector's reply. "Meanwhile, I'll
take down notes of your statement."
Ramtonu went out and in a few minutes returned dragging with him
triumphantly a well-dressed lad of fifteen, who seemed terribly
alarmed by the company into which he was thrust. The Inspector calmed
his fears by assuring him that he would come to no harm if only he
spoke the whole truth. "You have been unwittingly made the instrument
of a forgery," he added, "and we want your help towards detecting
it." The boy plucked up courage and answered every question put him
quite candidly. His tale corroborated Ramtonu's in most particulars,
with the addition that the tall babu had given him eight annas bakshish
for cashing the cheque. He had not seen either of the men previously,
but thought he should be able to recognise one of them owing to his
"Now, bearer," said Mr. Henderson, "go and fetch both the clerks;
bring in the tall one first, but keep an eye on the other outside
and beyond earshot."
Ramtonu left the room with alacrity and presently returned ushering
Lakshminarain into the dreaded presence. The newcomer was beside
himself with terror; and when he was identified by the schoolboy as one
of the men who had employed him to cash the cheque, he did not wait
to be asked for an explanation. Throwing himself at Mr. Henderson's
feet he begged for mercy, promising to reveal the entire truth. The
Inspector would make no promises but simply adjured him to make a
clean breast of his share in the transaction. Lakshminarain obeyed,
and his statement, interrupted by many sobs, was duly recorded. His
accomplice was next introduced. At first Gyanendra was inclined to
put a bold face on the matter, stoutly affirming that it was a put-up
affair between Pulin and Ramtonu. When, however, the Inspector read
out to him the deposition of the bearer and schoolboy, he saw that
the game was up and confessed his misdoings, accusing the head clerk
of having prompted them. The culprits were taken in a ticca gari
(four-wheeled cab) to the police station Pulin occupying the box,
while Ramtonu ran behind.
Well, to cut a long story short, the prisoners stuck to their
confession and refunded their ill-gotten gains. They were duly
committed to the High Court on charges of forgery and conspiring to
accuse an innocent man of the like offence. They both pleaded guilty,
and the judge remarked that it was one of the worst cases of the
kind he had ever tried. In passing sentence of two years rigorous
imprisonment on each prisoner, he added that they would have fared
worse but for the patent fact that they had been made catspaws of by
some one who kept in the background. As there was no evidence against
Debnath Babu, except that of accomplices, he was not prosecuted;
but immediately after the trial, Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop dismissed
him without notice. Kisari Babu was promoted to the vacant office of
head clerk, while Pulin stepped into his friend's shoes. By unfailing
application to duty, he won Messrs. Kerr & Dunlop's entire confidence,
and in fulness of time succeeded Kisari Babu as head clerk. Ten or
twelve years later, Pulin was rich enough to build a pakka (masonry)
house at Kadampur, which far eclipsed his father-in-law's, and had
a well-paid doorkeeper in the person of Ramtonu. The once-despised
gharjamai took a leading position among the local gentry.
Jadu Babu's four-year-old daughter, Mrinalini, or Mrinu as she was
called in the family, came to her mother one evening to say that her
kitten was lost. In vain was she taken on the maternal lap, her tears
gently wiped away, and all manner of pretty toys promised. Her little
frame was convulsed with sobs, and she refused to be comforted. So
her mother sent a maidservant to search for the plaything. The girl
returned shortly and said that the kitten was certainly not in the
house. At this Mrinu howled more loudly than ever, bringing her
father on the scene. He pacified the child by undertaking to produce
her pet, and told the servants that the finder would be handsomely
rewarded. Meanwhile his wife was trying to keep Mrinu's attention
engaged by telling her a long story, when she suddenly exclaimed,
"What has become of your jasam (gold bracelet)?"
Mrinu replied, "I took it off to play with kitty and laid it down
This was all the information she could vouchsafe in answer to repeated
questions. The mother set her down and proceeded to search every hole
and corner for the jasam, but it was not to be found. Her husband
was greatly alarmed on hearing of this untoward event. The loss of
Rs. 100, at which the trinket was valued, might have been borne;
but Hindus believe that misfortune invariably follows the loss of
gold. He set all his servants and hangers-on to look for the jasam,
but they were unsuccessful. In despair he hurried to Nalini for advice
and was told to send for Gobardhan, which he promptly did.
The astrologer listened attentively to his story and then asked
whether Jadu Babu would try Bati Chala (divination by the bata leaf),
or some simpler method of discovering the lost jasam. On learning that
the matter would be left entirely in his hands, he told Jadu Babu to
collect all his servants in the parlour and let him have half a seer
(1 lb.) of raw rice, with as many strips of banana leaf as there were
servants. When all were assembled, Gobardhan thus addressed them,
"Mrinu has lost her jasam, have any of you seen it?" The reply was a
chorus of "Noes" with emphatic head-shakings. "Then none of you have
stolen it?" Again a volume of protestations. "Very well, then," said
Gobardhan, "I must try the ordeal of chewed rice." After uttering
many mantras (incantations) and waving his hand over the pile of
grain and banana leaves, he dealt out a quotum of each to the servants.
"Now" he said, "you will masticate the rice for a minute thoroughly
and then drop the result on your leaves. I warn you that it will be
deadly poison for the thief." All obeyed with alacrity, and Gobardhan,
after examining the contents of each leaf, assured Jadu Babu that
the jasam had not been stolen.
My readers who are versed in science will understand that, in point of
fact, there is nothing magical about this rite, which is based on the
circumstance that fear checks the flow of saliva. In all probability
a thief would eject the rice absolutely dry.
The inference was that the jasam had been mislaid; and Jadu Babu
asked whether Gobardhan's lore was equal to recovering it.
"Possibly," answered the astrologer, "but it is not a case of Bati
Chala; if you can guarantee me Rs. 10, I will perform Nakha Darpan
(literally 'nail-mirror'). Let me have an almanac, please, to find
an auspicious day."
After examining it and receiving a ten-rupee note from Jadu Babu,
the astrologer said oracularly that he would return on the following
afternoon, with a lad of twelve, who had been born under the
Constellation of the Scales.
At the appointed hour, Gobardhan came accompanied by his acolyte, with
whom he sat down at the Chandimandab (a shrine of the goddess Durga,
found in most Hindu houses, which serves for social gatherings). Jadu
Babu and the bhadra-lok (gentle-folk) took their seats there too, while
the underlings formed a respectful half-circle in front. Adjuring all
to keep perfect silence, he asked the lad to gaze into the nail on his
own right index finger and tell the people what he saw there. After
staring at it for a minute or so, the boy began to tremble violently
and whispered: "I see a mango-tope (orchard); a little girl is playing
with her kitten under the trees. Now I see her slipping a jasam from
her arm, the kitten frisks about, and the child follows it; now it
disappears, and the child runs indoors." Then, raising his voice to a
shrill scream, he pointed with his left hand to the north and asked:--
"What are those animals which are prowling in the orchard? Are they
dogs? No--they are jackals--one, two, three jackals! They pounce on
the kitten, and tear her limb from limb! Now everything is growing
hazy; I can't see any more!"
A thrill of fear ran through the audience, and one might have heard
a pin drop. At length Gobardhan broke the silence:--
"Let us go to the mango-tope north of this house," he said solemnly.
Thither they hurried and, after a few minutes' search, one of the
maidservants cried out that she had found the jasam half-hidden by
the gnarled roots of a tree.
Jadu Babu was overjoyed by the recovery of his missing jewel, and
pressed another fee of ten rupees on the astrologer. As for Gobardhan,
his fame spread far and wide, and his hut was rarely without some
client, eager to learn the future.
Patience is a Virtue.
Sadhu Sheikh of Simulgachi was not long in finding a husband for his
half-sister, Maini Bibi. Before she was fourteen, a young farmer named
Ramzan proposed for her hand, offering a den mohur of Rs. 100. The
den mohur is a device recognised by Mohammadan law for protecting
married women from capricious repudiation. The husband binds himself
to refund a fictitious dowry, generally far above his means, in case
he should divorce his wife for no fault of hers. Ramzan was accepted
by Sadhu, and the marriage was duly celebrated. Maini Bibi was a
handsome girl; but beauty was among the least of her gifts. She
was sweet-tempered, thrifty, and obedient, winning sympathy on all
sides. The one discordant note was struck by Ramzan's mother, Fatima
Bibi by name, who took a violent dislike to the bride and evinced
it by persistently scolding and ill-using her. Ramzan was completely
under his mother's thumb and saw everything with her eyes. His love
for Maini was slowly sapped by her innuendoes, and he treated the
poor girl with something worse than coldness. Maini, however, bore
her hard lot without a murmur, hoping that time and patience would
win back her husband's heart.
On returning one evening from the fields, Ramzan was hailed by his
mother who was evidently in a worse temper than usual.
"Hi! Ramzan," she shrieked, "I am an old woman, and you, doubtless,
find me an incumbrance. Speak out, my son; you have only to say 'go,'
and I will leave this house in half an hour."
"Why, what's the matter, mother?" asked Ramzan with open eyes.
"Matter," she yelled. "Would you believe it, that black-faced daughter
of a pig has actually abused me--me, your old mother!"
"What did she say?" rejoined Ramzan angrily.
"My son," was the answer, "you know how she neglects household duties,
leaving all the hard jobs to me. Well, this afternoon, I ventured
on a word of remonstrance, and she actually abused me." And the
old woman wiped her tears away with a corner of her cotton wrapper,
adding with eyes cast heavenwards, "Merciful Allah, to think that I
should come to this in my old age!"
"But what did she say?" repeated Ramzan wearily.
"She told me to my face that I had forgotten to
put salt into the curry!"
"That's hardly abusive," rejoined Ramzan.
"You think so," shouted Fatima. "Now you're taking sides with her
against your mother, who bore you. You will assuredly suffer in
Jehannam (hell) for such a crime! But I'll have it out with that
So saying, she dashed from the room to the kitchen, where the
luckless Maini was cowering in anticipation of a coming storm. She
was not deceived. Fatima seized her by the hair and administered a
Several days passed by, bringing no alleviation to her fate. But
matters came to a crisis on a certain morning, owing to Ramzan's
complaint that his wife had over-salted the curry. On tasting the
food, Fatima burst into violent imprecations and "went for" her
daughter-in-law, who took refuge in the neighbouring brushwood. At
nightfall she crept back to the house and found Ramzan closeted
with his mother. They were talking earnestly, but Maini could not
distinguish the purport of the conversation. It seemed to her that
Fatima's voice was raised in entreaty, and Ramzan was objecting to some
scheme proposed by her. She passed the night sleepless and in tears.
Early next day Ramzan entered her room and said gruffly, "Get up,
collect your chattels, and follow me. I am going to take you back to
Sadhu's." Maini obeyed without a word of remonstrance, and a quarter
of an hour later the ill-assorted pair might have been seen walking
The rainy season was now in full swing, and their path lay across
a deep nullah (ravine) through which mighty volumes of drainage
water were finding their way to the Ganges. On reaching a bamboo
foot-bridge which spanned it, Ramzan ordered his wife to go first. Ere
she reached the opposite bank, he gave her a violent shove, which
sent her shrieking vainly for help into the swirling torrent below.
Hardly had Ramzan perpetrated this odious deed than he felt he would
give his chances of bihisht (paradise) to recall it. He ran along the
bank shouting frantically, "Maini! Maini!" Alas! her slender body was
carried like a straw by the foaming water towards the Ganges and soon
disappeared in a bend of the nullah. Then her murderer sat down and
gave himself up to despair. But the sun was up; people were stirring in
the fields; and so he slunk homewards. Fatima stood on the threshold
and raised her eyebrows inquiringly; but Ramzan thrust her aside,
muttering, "It is done," and shut himself up in his wife's room. There
everything reminded him of her; the scrupulous neatness of floor
and walls--no cobwebs hanging from the rafters, the kitchen utensils
shining like mirrors. He sat down and burst into a flood of tears.
For several days he did not exchange a word with his accomplice, and
dared not go to market lest his worst fears should be realised. Dread
of personal consequences added new torture to unavailing remorse. Every
moment he expected the red-pagried ministers of justice to appear and
hale him to the scaffold. The position was clearly past bearing. So,
too, thought Fatima, for she waylaid her son one afternoon and said:
"Ramzan, I cannot stand this life any longer; let me go to my brother
Mahmud Sardar, the cooly-catcher".
"Go," he replied sullenly, and the old woman gathered up her
belongings in a bundle and departed, leaving him to face the dark
While brooding over his fate, he was startled by the sudden arrival of
Sadhu. "Now I'm in for it," he thought and began to tremble violently
while his features assumed an ashen hue. But Sadhu sat down by his
side and said, "Ramzan, I've come about Maini".
"Then she's drowned!" gasped Ramzan. "By Allah the Highest, I swear
that I did my best to save her."
"Hullo!" rejoined Sadhu with great surprise; "you must have been with
her when she fell into the nullah."
Ramzan bent his head in silence. After a few moments he looked up,
clasped his hands, and said:--
"Tell me the truth, Sadhu, is Maini alive?"
"She is," was the reply. "On Thursday morning she came to our house
dripping wet and quite exhausted, with a story that your mother had
turned her out of doors and that she was on her way to live with
us when, on crossing the Padmajali Nullah, her foot slipped and she
fell into the water. She told us how, after being carried for nearly
a gau-coss (lit. cow league, the distance at which a cow's lowing
can be heard), she was swept by the stream against the overhanging
roots of a pipal tree (ficus religiosa) and managed to clamber up the
bank. But Maini never told us that you were with her. Why, Ramzan,
you're quaking in every limb. I always suspected Maini had concealed
the truth. Swear on the Quran that you did not try to drown her."
Ramzan feebly protested innocence, and the two men sat awhile without
At length Sadhu said: "I've come to make you a proposal. Young Esaf,
the son of Ibrahim of our village, has fallen in love with Maini and
wants to marry her. He is willing to pay the den mohur of Rs. 100
which would be due from you in case of repudiation. Now we want you
to divorce her."
Ramzan was overcome by his wife's magnanimity, and the thought of
losing her drove him to distraction. "No!" he shouted, "I won't
divorce her. I'll fetch her back this very day!"
"That's quite out of the question," rejoined Sadhu. "Maini cannot
bear her mother-in-law's cruelty, and I'm sure she'll never consent
to live with you again. Besides, Esaf is a rich man and will make
her happy. She shall marry him."
"I say she shan't," said Ramzan emphatically.
Sadhu got up and moved off, remarking, "Very well, I will go to
the police station at once and charge you with attempting to kill
her! We shall soon worm the truth out of Maini, and get plenty of
Ramzan was beside himself with terror. He followed Sadhu, clasped
his feet, and groaned, "No, you won't do that! I am ready to divorce
Maini. Let Allah's will be done."
"Ah," replied Sadhu, "so you can listen to reason after all. Come to
our house to-morrow evening; we will have witnesses ready, and Esaf
will be there with the den mohur."
Ramzan had a sleepless night and was too downcast to work on the
morrow. When evening came, he walked wearily to Simulgachi. There was
quite a small crowd in Sadhu's courtyard. On one side sat Maini and
some other women with faces closely covered; Esaf and the witnesses
were on the other. Between them was a mat, on which lay a bag full
of money. Ramzan was received without salutations, and squatted down
by Sadhu's side.
Moslem husbands can get rid of their wives by repeating the word
talaq (surrender) thrice, in the presence of witnesses. Every one
expected him to utter the formula, which would release Maini from his
power. However, he sat silent, with downcast eyes. After a minute
or two, he rose and, looking steadily at Maini, was just about to
speak, when she sprang forward, laid her hand on his arm, and said:
"Surely you are not going to divorce me, your faithful wife, who loves
you dearly and seeks only to make you happy? What have I done to be
A murmur was heard in the assembly, but Sadhu raised his hand in
token of silence.
"Foolish girl!" he exclaimed, "do you wish to return to a mother-in-law
who hates and persecutes you? Will Ramzan be able to protect you?" Then
lowering his voice, he added, "Is your life safe with those people?"
"Life and death," rejoined Maini, "are in Allah's hands. It is his
will that we should fulfil our destinies, and mine is to cling to
my husband. I would not change him for Hatim Tai (a legendary hero,
very rich and generous) himself!" Then nestling closer to Ramzan, she
pleaded in a voice of music, "Surely you don't want to get rid of me?"
He was quite overcome and burst into tears.
"No," he sobbed, "I will never separate from my treasure. Come back to
me, and you need not fear my mother's tongue. She has left my house
for good, and I swear by Allah, in the presence of all these people,
that she shall not live with us again. You, Maini, shall be sole
mistress of my house."
Maini was overjoyed by this decision. She clapped her hands twice,
and then, picking up the bag of money, said to the crestfallen Esaf,
"Take back your rupees; I am going home with my husband".
So speaking, she took Ramzan's hand and led him out of the house,
while a great silence fell on the crowd, broken at length by many
exclamations and a buzz of loud talk. My readers who know Maini's
sweet nature will not be surprised to learn that her happiness was
thenceforward without a single cloud.
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