Looking at Purnima he said: "How you have grown up within these six-seven years Pumima! Really unbelievable!"
The girl with the mournful face replied calmly : "There is nothing to be surprised about, Abani da. This is the custom of the world. In this same way the small girl of today will reach puberty tomorrow. One day she will become old and after that she will die. In this way this unchangeable custom of the world ends the life circle of a person
"Why, Purnima, you are speaking like a philosopher," Abani remarked with a confused smile.
Purnima replied in a composed manner : "It is no philosophical talk, Abani da. I am only speaking about a very simple truth of the world." After that she asked : "Abani da, did you remember me sometimes?"
Abani immediately became relaxed and gave a smile of relief. At least he girl had come down to worldly matters.
"How can it be that I should forget you? You know Pumima, on eacil full-moon night I had been thinking — my Pumima too, is beautiful, clear and cool as the moon of this full-moon night."
Pumima shyly gave a contented smile.
When Harakanta Choudhury's son Abani was nineteen years old and Binanda Bora's Daughter Purnima was thirteen, Choudhury and Bora decided that when the time came, they would get their children married. Mrs. Choudhury and Mrs. Bora happily gave their consent to the decision. Abani and Purnima came to know of it too. Becoming happy and embarrassed at the same time, they couldn't become easy witheach other like before. But in that newly-formed hesitation which arose between them, lay all the beauty of the world, all the prospects and visions of creation.
After that, one day Binanda Bora was transferred to a far away place in the North Western part of India. His job was very transferable. Of course, they were always in each other's thoughts though physically they were far apart. Exchange of letters took place between Binanda Bora and Harakanta Choudhury. Abani and Purnima wrote letters to each other too, but not monthly or fortnightly like their fathers. They wrote weekly. As days turned. into months and months into years, that communication became thin but did not peter out. Since their engagement took place at an age when they were almost matured, there was no question that the relation should break.
One day Abani received a letter from Purnima. After writing about this and that she wrote :
"You know Abani Da, the house next to ours is Kuldeep's. Her mother expired yesterday. She was quite old. Everybody consoled Kuldeep saying that her mother was old. All die one day when they become old. Nobody in this world is immortal. 'Man dies when he becomes old' — You know Abani Da, as soon as I heard this sentence my body shivered and since then it lay imprinted in my mind — that man dies one day when he becomes old, my parents are also becoming old. …Oh! — I cannot bear to think about this possibility Abani Da "
Abani took the letter in his hand and stood bewildered for some moments. After that he gave a sigh and went away.
An incident took place a few months after this. One day, taking a letter in his hand Harakanta Choudhury went towards the interior of the house, laughing :
"Hey there, Kanu's mother, where are you, come out. This time Lakshmi will make entry into our house."
Wiping her hands with the loose end of her sador, Abani's mother came out "What has happened that you are shouting so much? Whose letter is that in your hand?"
With a pleasant smile on his lips Choudhury replied : "Our would be daughter-in-law's father's letter. A month before his retirement he will take leave and come here forever. Not many days are left. He has written that it is high time that we make preparations for the children's marriage! Ha! Ha! Ha! Soon enough you will get a daughter-in-law. Then you won't have to toil the whole day long in this way at this old age."
"A daughter-in-law of today and she will manage the household chores-forget it! We haven't acquired such luck as this. Until death these two hands are my assurance. But I am not thinking about myself. My hardships will end only when I find my son settled down happily and contented. She is a girl brought up in an alien environment. Only God knows whether she has become arrogant or something! Today I am expressing my secret feelings before you — I have been always nursing a fear within me. Once we gave them our word and they have stuck to it — so now how can we break our word? In spite of this, a fear always haunts me."
Harakanta Choudhury looked at the wistful face of his wife and gave a good laugh. After that, he spoke to her in an assured manner : "You are fearing for nothing, Kanu's mother. Our would-be daughter-in-law's father is always writing in his numerous letters that they have brought up their daughter in such a way that she will adapt to our household easily. The only thing is that they couldn't teach her weaving. Moreover, it's not possible in that alien place. On the other hand, you are an expert at weaving. For that reason they hesitate. But our daughter-in-law's father has courteously informed me that their daughter has the ability to learn everything quickly. If you take a little trouble and teach Pumima to weave, then they would be most glad."
"Let us see, how the girl has turned out. In those days she was quite a lovable child. She was like a shadow following her mother, very quiet and polite. Didn't she show me a lot of respect? If she is that same girl, then God has happiness in store for Abani. But now I have other matters to deal with than gossip with you. The curry is still over the fire. Have to attend to it or else it will get burnt."
Once more Abani's mother hurried to the kitchen and Harakanta Choudhury walked outside reading the letter again.
Pumima was married to Abani two months after her father got retired.
Only about two months had gone by after the wedding when Abani's mother realised that her husband's assurance concerning her daughter-in-law was in fact true. Purnima took the responsibility of the entire household. She wouldn't allow her mother-in-law to do anything. Abani's mother enjoyed both physical repose and mental tranquillity in her daughter-in-law's company. Purnima never cribbed against her mother-in-law. While her mother-in-law was sitting she would not even sit on the floor; she would not drink a cup of tea before her mother-in-law or eat something. Abani's mother would pour out all the praises of her daughter-in-law in front of her neighbours. She felt as if she would go on praising her ceaselessly. She said : "The indigestion problem of our Kanu's father is now almost cured. Our daughter-in-law uses to cook those things which are good for his stomach and makes him eat those dishes. She would cook the medicinal herbs so tastefully that he says : "Daughter-in-law prepares the soup of the Asiatic penny-wort herb and Murraya koenigii spreng so tastefully that I wouldn't be satisfied if I do not eat those soup dishes every day" — Daughter-in-law is not only proficient in cooking, washing and the like : She waits upon him as well. Now that he has been retired, he is in the habit of sleeping at noon, as he has nothing else to do. At that time Daughter-in-law would go to him and like his own daughter, press his legs and hands and remove grey hair until he falls asleep. That is why we say — it is because of some good deeds we performed in our previous birth that we have got such a daughter-in-law, that too in this modern age!
Then the neighbours would say : "Your son is also no less qualified. Everyone says that few lawyers are there who can get so many cases and that too at such a young age. Moreover, how many boys are there in our neighbourhood who are polite and well mannered like him? That is why we say that being such a gem himself, he has got such a suitable wife."
Abani's mother gave a satisfied smile and put apan inside her mouth. Then she took a little lime at the tip of her finger and put it inside her mouth. After chewing the pan s:ie said : "Bless them that their blissful conjugal life may become everlasting."
But on the other hand, at about the same time Abani was almost about to lose his patience. Returning one day from the court he saw that the house was still. His mother was not at home. She had gone to visit a neighbour and wouldn't be back for a long time. Having got a daughter-in-law she was almost free from household responsibilities. His father was also not at home. He rarely went out on visits. But now the servant boy Raj at informed Abani that some old person had come and called him to go with him somewhere. Both his younger brothers had gone out as usual. Only Rajat and Purnima were at home.
After receiving this information Abani went towards Purnima who was sitting at the loom. The weariness which was engraved on his face due to his day long ordeal at court vanished and in its place a smile of contentment prevailed.
Purnima was sorting out flowers lowering her head over the loom. Seeing Abani she stood up.
"You are here?" Looking at Abani, Purnima smiled. Looking at that smiling face Abani thought — how did Purnima's parents select such a suitable name for her? When she smiled it seemed that the spotless full-moon sparkled with all its glory.
“Did you have a wash? I am going to prepare tea," once again Pumima said.
“I don't want to drink tea at home today, Purnima. Let's go out somewhere. We shall have tea at a restaurant. After that we shall have a walk on the river bank. What do you say?" With the hope to get an affirmative reply from her Abani looked at her earnestly.
It was as if all of a sudden a dark cloud engulfed the full-moon, as if she felt uncomfortable looking at the earnest face of her husband. Once again Abani said : "Come on, Purnima let's go. As mother and father are not at home what work can you possibly have?"
At this point Purnima seemed to find a reply to his question : "But these days father is having dinner in the evening according to the advice of his doctor. I have to cook his food."
At long last Abani lost his patience. Since marriage he had been enduring a lot. No more, he had enough.
"Pumima!" He shouted so loudly that Pumima shuddered. "I have been tolerating your ways for long, Purnima. Slowly you are destroying my life. After marriage, even for a single day you did not look up at me and ask whether you have any responsibility towards me or not; not even for a day nor even a moment did you think how you could make me happy. That I too am a man, that I too have hopes and expectations in this world, that I too long for something in life and may have cherished some affectionate claims over my wife — you have always ignored. On the pretext of work and caring for my parents you have always spurned each and every request of mine. Really, Purnima, I have endured a lot. Other husbands never tolerate this much. Really, nobody would tolerate this other than a fool like me. Strange! My parents have become your nearest ones in life. For all practical purpose I am still a bachelor. Whenever I suggest that we should go out somewhere, many of your responsibilities crop up. However, when I talk about visiting your parents — then you get ready immediately, tearing yourself away from all responsibilities of the household. Do you think that I haven't noticed this? In fact, I am the only one who has remained a stranger to you. It's indeed strange — if you hadn't accommodated yourself with our household, if you had been partial towards your parent's household alone, then I wouldn't have been so surprised because it would have been quite natural. But that is not the case. You accepted my parents like yours. Yet for whom this has become possible, that foolish me whose marriage with you helped my parents to obtain a daughter-in-law, that foolish me remained uncared for and neglected." Once again Abani became enraged. He grabbed Purnima by her shoulders and shaking her, shouted — "Today you must give an explanation to me about all these, Pumima. Speak up, say why you are behaving like this with me? What wrong have I done to you — why, do you dislike me? Can't you bear my presence? Speak up Pumima, give me a reply — you must give"—
In reply tears started rolling down Pumima's eyes. She rested her head on Abani's chest and started weeping.
"Weeping alone is no explanation, Pumima." Once again Abani said. But this time his voice was gentle. He stroked his wife's head and said : "But Pumima, you must reveal to me your real feelings. How much more do you want me to suffer?"
"I didn't realise till now that I had been tormenting you unknowingly," the weeping Purnima said, "I….I ….. I feel "
"Go on Purnima," Abani said gently.
“I- feel! so sorry for. my parents…”
"Feel sorry? Why? Oh! Because you left them and came here — isn't it?"
"No I am not speaking only of my parents alone" still weeping and resting her head on Abani's chest Pumima continued.
Abani was quite surprised : "What do you mean to say,
Purnima? Speak clearly."
For a long time Pumima hesitated and remained silent. Slowly her weeping calmed down. After that she prepared 'herself in such a way that it seemed as if she was going to speak about a forbidden secret mystery of her life. A gloomy shadow seemed to engulf her face and finally with eyes riveted on the ground she started speaking slowly :
"I feel so sorry for my parents. Yes, I feel so sorry, for my own and your parents who love me so dearly, those who are my closest ones. After some days they will leave me forever! Gradually they are becoming old, gradually, day by day they are advancing towards death and after that one day they will vanish away from my life forever—" Again she started weeping. In spite of this she continued indistinctly :
"When I think of that possibility, I feel so helpless. Those thoughts do not leave me and torment me like anything. The horror of death overshadows my mind and I cannot sleep till late at night. Thinking about the imminent separation from my parents I become restless. Again in the daytime when my eyes fall on the aging bodies of my parents — the shrinking skin of their bodies, their toothless gums, grey hair, I feel as if my whole body would turn into ice. I wrote to you about Kuldeep's mother's death and it was the first ever horrible scene of death I had witnessed. It was from that time that this thought has gnawed at my mind that my parents are also getting old, they too would leave me one day like Kuldeep's — Oh! —my whole body seems to get paralysed." While Purnima was resting her head on Abani's chest, her whole body shuddered, "That is why I always keep myself busy looking to each and every need of my parents so that they remain happy for their remaining days. During the few days of their lives which are left, I feel like dedicating myself wholly to their care. That is why I don't feel like wasting my time on other things. I shall get plenty of time in life to do other works and for other things. But I won't get much more time to attend to my parents and find the pleasure in their affectionate company. That is why whenever I get a chance, I leave every other responsibility aside and go to visit my parents. Who knows, how long would I be lucky enough to see them!"
This time Purnima stopped. An other-worldly stillness reigned on her delicate, gloomy face.
By then Abani's firm grip on Purnima's shoulders had become loose. Both his hands remained suspended like a robot's. The stunned Abani kept looking at the void that had materialized before him. Purnima left for the kitchen with slow steps.
And one day Purnima died. It was a startling death. One day she was returning in a bus along with Abani after seeing her aging, ailing parents. Suddenly the bus collided with a truck coming at full speed from the opposite direction.. Several passengers travelling on both vehicles were injured and two passengers of the bus succumbed to their injuries. One of the deceased was a Bihari labourer and the other was Purnima. She was sitting absent-mindedly inside the bus— probably thinking about her parents whom she had left a few moments ago, enfeebled by old age and facing imminent death. She didn't know what hit her when all of a sudden the collision took place. She fell out on to the road through the open door. She died almost immediately. Probably the unfortunate Purnima couldn't get even a moment to realise what was happening.
Purnima's dead body was lying at the hospital. The body was almost unmai4i.ed. Only the head was crushed. The face was a ghastly sight. Even in that profound sorrowful atmosphere Abani shuddered with fear when he looked in that direction. Can this be the same face which he has been seeing all these years? It seemed to belong to a stranger. But immediately another question arose in Abani's mind— could he really recognise Purnima's face even when she was alive? Could he now remember what feelings had gripped that face then — was it the agony of the living or the desire to live of the dead?
Translated by Neeva Rani Gogoi