By the morning of the katha, speculations had reached a fever pitch but whatever the level of cynicism or credulity of the women, when Diwanchand walked in they all realised that they liked this serious and friendly young man who had spent so many hours entertaining them, teaching them and, without any qualification, just talking to them from the heart. And when they saw his new wife, a pretty young girl, not as laden with jewellery as her elder sister-in-law though she was more recently married, who smiled and greeted each woman with warmth – hugs to the young, touching the feet of the old – they immediately, and from the heart, blessed her and wished the best for her and her married life.
Although each woman greeted her warmly Shakuntala noticed that one of them, a woman slightly older than her who was introduced as Kamala, greeted her with particular warmth and, after hugging her, kept looking lovingly at her face as if she was searching for something and holding on to her hand till the next person in line gently nudged her. Even after everyone sat down and the katha began Shakuntala’s eyes kept wandering back to this Kamala, who seemed just a heartbeat away from breaking into tears, although her face was that of a person in bliss, her eyes fixed on Diwanchand.
Diwanchand had chosen the sequence where Ram and Sita first see each other in Sita’s father’s garden, a choice that everyone in the assembly understood he had made as a gesture to his wife.
For those who may not have understood, he turned to his wife when he recited siya mukh sasi bhaye nayan chakora (Sita’s face was like the moon and his [Ram’s] eyes were like the chakora, a bird said to feed on the rays of the moon), at which she blushed a deep red and everyone laughed a good-natured laughter that filled the air with a companionable cheer that brought the whole company together, even Kamala, who found herself smiling with pride at her loved one’s mischievous caper.
With the subtext of his recitation established, and its establishment acknowledged by his audience, Diwanchand launched into the passage where Ram, the keeper of the world, gazes speechless in rapture at the vision in front of him – sundarta kahun sundar karai (her beauty makes beauty beautiful) – and the whole company swayed with joy as he spoke. Eventually Ram spoke, turning to his brother to tell him this woman that he sees must be the daughter of the king, the one he has come to win, he knows this because his heart is astir at the sight of her and no Raghuvanshi can ever want another man’s woman, not even in his dreams.
“But lalaji,” an older woman sitting near the front intervened, just as Diwanchand had begun explaining how Tulsi has made Ram so modest that he attributes his high moral character to his family rather than to himself. “Krishna had no problem dancing and playing with other men’s wives. Was that wrong of him?”
“Umm,” said Diwanchand, looking down at his notes although he knew that he didn’t have anything there that could answer this question. “Krishna’s play is eternal whereas Tulsi’s Ram is both man and god at the same time,” he ventured.
“But even Krishna was a man,” the questioner shot back, closing off the metaphysical escape route. “He went to Dwarka, became king, married Rukmini, fought with the Pandavas. He was also man and god both, lalaji.”
Diwanchand was nonplussed. To his side sat Shakuntala, expectant, curious to see how her husband would answer this question. Next to her Suvarnalata felt her heart beat faster. Diwanchand looked at the two of them then said: “I don’t have any answer to this question. Please forgive me.”
“Maybe, lalaji,” a voice came from the back, “the love of the gopis was so pure that Krishna could not insult that love by refusing them their play. They did not want to sit in his house and rule over his kingdom, they only wanted to play with him in the kadamba grove.”
Shakuntala looked up to see that it was that same Kamala who had spoken. If she had looked to her right she would have seen that her sister-in-law had broken into beads of sweat, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Kamala’s radiant face, and as she looked she realised that this woman was in love with her husband, and she realised that she had already known this when Kamala had hugged her and held her hand.
“Thank you,” said Diwanchand. “You have saved my life.” And the katha moved on.
The next morning Kamala left Delhi and went to Vrindavan, from where she wrote a letter to Suvarnalata telling her that she would not return and that no one should be sent to look for her. Suvarnalata went to the ashram and she told the widows what had happened, and they listened without interrupting her to tell her that they already knew what had happened. Diwanchand knew nothing and nor did Shakuntala, she told them and begged them to help her keep this secret a secret.
Shakuntala probed Diwanchand carefully a few times and realised that her husband did not know anything much about Kamala except that she was Suvarnalata’s old friend. And Suvarnalata put on a great performance for her sister-in-law, telling her all about her childhood with Kamala, Kamala’s misfortune in being widowed early, how happy she had been when Kamala came to Delhi and how sad she was to let her go, but when an old uncle of Kamala’s who lived in Calcutta wrote to say he was ill and needed her to tend to him, she had to let her go. Maybe she would come back once the old man died, Suvarnalata said, or maybe not. Shakuntala was not fully convinced but her curiosity could not find any handle to turn, and so it faded, especially when she realised a few weeks later that she was pregnant.
Excerpted with permission from Half The Night Is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi, Juggernaut Books.
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