After her marriage, Kulsum had asked her father, you chose him? No property, no poultry, nothing. Felt like adopting someone?
But later Kulsum realised that Arshad was a very even-tempered man. He knew how to live in harmony. He had told Kulsum, with the money given by your father, how about raising poultry? We’ll sell eggs. Should be enough for us.
Kulsum’s father had given her some money; with it they bought chickens and ducks. All the money they earned from selling eggs came to Kulsum. Arshad could toil like a horse. He would go to Diamond Harbour to sell the chickens and eggs, and hand over the entire earnings to his wife.
And so Kulsum was no longer unhappy. True, they did not have a paan plantation like her elder sister, or a three-plough stretch of land like her younger one. But they had peace and contentment.
Arshad never asked Kulsum to go out and collect dung or firewood. Never did Kulsum have to fetch groceries from the shops. Everyone was rather jealous of her. Her father, Gonu, who would often spend a day or two with her, would say, it’s very peaceful out here. Phuli and Duli have money, but no peace of mind.
For a number of years peace reigned. Kulsum’s son finished school, found a job with a shipping company, got married. He now lived in Khidirpur. Everyone used to say, Gonu married off his three daughters to three different types of men. But Kuli has been the most happy. Even her son has done so well for himself. And why not? His father would drop him to school and bring him home every day. He was uneducated himself, but he would light the lantern and roll out the mat every evening, and make sure that his son sat down to study. Kuli is very fortunate.
People said Kuli was lucky.
She stored the money her son sent her in a brass container buried underground. The money she earned from selling eggs was what she used for their daily expenses. Kuli planned to build a new house and move into it before the next monsoon. But suddenly, all her dreams were shattered.
Shattered – the day Arshad uttered the three talaqs before the entire neighbourhood.
This same Arshad had often told her, can’t you ever hold your peace? Do you always have to speak up? Brothers kill each other over a single thoughtless sentence. A single matchstick is enough to spark off a devastating fire – don’t you know that?
When his grandson fell ill, this same Arshad raised a veritable storm against Kuli over whether the child should be taken to the local homoeopath or to a doctor in the city.
Kuli suggested, since they’re here, let Nitai daktar take a look at him. They can take him to some other doctor once they return to Calcutta.
Kuli’s daughter-in-law was the daughter of Arshad’s cousin. Her father asked, why? When you can afford better, why take him to Nitai daktar?
Arshad replied, let that woman say what she likes. He’s my own flesh and blood. I’ll take him to Diamond Harbour.
Kuli rejoined, you seem to be flush with money suddenly!
Who have you buried all that money for? asked Arshad.
I’ve told you, I’m going to buy a cow to give milk for your grandson!
Get him alive and well before you arrange milk for him.
Go take him to the doctor if you have the money.
It’s your money – is that why you’re getting so uptight?
And what if I am, you blockhead?
Blind with rage, Arshad began to shout at the top of his voice. Kuli, too, began to scream hysterically. The neighbours gathered to see what the commotion was about. In their presence, Arshad sneered, All right, then. Let it be talaq between us.
Arshad shouted, Talaq! Talaq! Talaq!
Oh my god, what have you done?
Kuli crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
When she came to her senses, she was smarting with injured pride. Keep everything, she exclaimed. Taking 400 rupees from the brass container, she tied her gold bangles and silver girdle together in a bundle, and marched off to her elder sister Phuli’s house in Dhabdhobi. I’ll leave as soon as I can. Let his son take care of him. Never want to see that brute’s face again, she told them.
Phuli said, you’re 50 now, he must be nearly 60. Where will you go? Stay here. You have money on you, what’re you worried about?
Kuli replied, ever seen such a traitor? You’re night-blind, can’t see well, I stand at the door with a lantern so you can find your way home at night. You love soft kanthas, I make them for you from fabric that doesn’t have a single hole in it. You can’t have a meal without green chillies, I grow them and make sure they’re served with your food. I had a new pair of glasses made for you. You went and lost them on a train. I would have got you another pair! But you said talaq? Why? Because of your grandson? Didn’t our son ever get a cough when he was young? Didn’t he ever have fever? If Nitai daktar could cure me when I had typhoid, why can’t he deal with Balai’s illness?
Don’t think about all that now.
Phuli went about her own chores, secretly very happy with the situation. Her husband had two other wives, and she regularly quarrelled with him. Phuli had always been envious of Kuli’s marital bliss. Lighthearted and happy, she called her youngest son. Get some fish from the pond. She loves fish. And listen, stick close to her. When you get the chance, ask her if she’ll buy you an umbrella.
While she was with her sister, Kuli heard that Arshad’s paternal cousin had come to stay with him. A new intimacy had sprung up between them. They regularly ate chicken with their meals. Kuli’s son had not yet taken leave and come home.
Phuli said, you were so deeply attached to your family! Look what’s happened now. You must have unknowingly committed some terrible sin. Otherwise why would Allah punish you so?
Kuli reacted by giving Phuli a piece of her mind and storming off to her younger sister’s place. Duli said, settle down here. You have money with you, so that’s not a problem. Buy some poultry, build your house here.
I’ve turned my back on all that, I can’t do it again, said Kuli, stone-faced. She felt as if the embers of a fire were glowing within her heart. Could she ever go back to what she had left behind – the home that she had nurtured with such care and affection? Could she be the same again? Could she feed the birds and go out into the gathering dusk to round up the ducks and chickens for the night?
Her son arrived one day and said, come home, ma. Everything seems to have suddenly gone haywire.
You expect me to live with a stranger? Your father isn’t my husband any more, you know.
Says, ‘What’s happened has happened.’ There is a way out. Besides...
He refuses to eat. He spends the whole day weeping over what he has done.
Kuli felt a strange sense of joy.
What else does he say?
He says, ‘I went and said talaq to the one person I live for.’ My wife’s grandfather says there’s a way out of this.
Her son shifted from foot to foot. They’ll tell you about it, he said.
They came to Duli’s house. At Kuli’s expense they had tea, biscuits and paan. Her daughter-in-law’s grandfather was a primary school teacher – elderly and knowledgeable. Everyone had a great deal of respect for him.
Kuli listened to the entire proceedings from inside. The old man cleared his throat and began, so, Hara, does your mother want her family and husband back?
Kuli’s eyes filled with tears. Hara said, of course.
Then there’s not much of a problem. You’ll just have to spend a little money, that’s all.
Let Kulsum get married again, they suggested.
Irfan Mondal was ready for the nikah. After a few days he would divorce Kulsum, and then she would be free to marry Arshad again.
Kuli was shocked. In all 35 years of marriage, she had never so much as looked at another man. Even when her male relations came to visit, she would serve them through her son. And today, at this age, with a 27-year-old son, how could she possibly do such a thing?
Well then, go to hell! they said angrily and left.
Arshad came crying to Duli the next day, Please make her understand, Duli. If we don’t do it this way, it’ll be a sin. Otherwise, do you think I would have agreed to such a thing?
What can I do? She doesn’t listen to anyone.
Tell her I’ll kill myself. I’ll drink insecticide.
Kuli shot back from inside the house, Tell him Duli, he would never allow me to go down to the shops to buy a thing. I couldn’t even leave the house alone. How could that same man ask me to do something like this?
Weeping uncontrollably, Arshad went away.
A few days later they heard that Arshad had sold off all his possessions and had decided to become a fakir. Nitai daktar had bought everything – the poultry, the house – for 500 rupees.
Kuli was quiet the whole day. Then she said, I left behind my bracelets, girdles, everything, Duli. I had buried it all for safekeeping. Let me go and get it all.
While Hara’s father is still around?
I’ll be back soon. After all, I can’t go there when it belongs to Nitai daktar.
Duli and her husband glanced at each other and smiled. They would surely get a slice of the pie now, if not all of it.
You’ll go alone?
I’m old now. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Kuli walked five miles to her own home in the middle of the night. There was complete silence all around. Arshad lay stretched out on a mat. She went up to him and tapped her foot on the floor.
Is that my wife?
Be quiet, you fool. I’m not your wife any more. Listen, I’ve got all my money and jewellery tied up in this bundle. I’ve given Duli the slip and come away. Come on, let’s go away while it’s still dark.
By train. Don’t you remember, we made a trip once? We’ll go to Calcutta, find a place to live. In Beckbagan. You can stay at one end of the room and I’ll stay in the other. We can find some work, can’t we? You can roll bidis. I’ll put the pot of rice on the fire to cook and you can take it off when it’s done. That way we won’t be committing any sins.
But we’ll be in the same room.
It’s better than asking me to live with that asthmatic Irfan, isn’t it?
What will Hara say?
Let him say what he likes. We’ll tell him, we’re not living as husband and wife any more. After all these years, it’s more like a habit. And we can’t do without each other. If you want to call it a sin, then go ahead.
And what about the others?
Let them say what they like. Come on, get up.
Like thieves they crept through the night towards the railway station. The next day, the whole village would come to know what they had done. The whole village would accuse them of sinning. None of this bothered Kuli.
Arshad said, I can’t see. Give me your hand.
Hold one end of your stick, I’ll hold the other. I can’t hold your hand any more! Come along, carefully now. Otherwise you’ll trip.
Excerpted with permission from Till Death Do Us Part: Five Stories, Mahasweta Devi, translated from the Bengali by Vikram Iyengar, Seagull Books.