Short story

The revelation

Print edition : October 12, 2018

Ashapurna Debi (1909-95) wrote hundreds of stories over 70 years. She focussed on the traditional Bengali family in transition, laying bare its hypocrisies and oppressions, which, in the name of honour and unwritten social laws, often forced both men and women into solitude and unhappiness. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Arunava Sinha is one of the most successful Indian translators working to move Bengali writers into English. A teacher of translation and the winner of numerous awards, he is the books editor of Scroll.in. Photo: By Special Arrangement

“Baba! What’s the point of your keeping the key to the letter box?”

Gourishankar was taken aback by his son’s unexpected, probing question. “What do you mean what’s the point?” he stammered.

“What I mean is that you hardly get any letters. What do you need the key for? Give it to your Bouma, daughter-in-law.”

Astonished, Gourishankar looked at his son, who was standing by the door. Not “could you” or “it might be a good idea to”, but “give”. Practically an order. Why was his son on the warpath suddenly?

The key to the letterbox had always been with Gourishankar. This “pointless” practice had been continuing ever since this flat on the second floor was bought and the letterbox affixed to the wall beneath the staircase. Although it was one in a row of several boxes, theirs was unique. It had been specially ordered, with a pattern on its “door”, on which a strong lock had been fitted instead of the customary tiny padlock. The key had been fastened securely to Gourishankar’s poitey [thread worn by Brahmins] ever since then. There was a duplicate, which was with Kamalini. “You aren’t home all the time,” she had said, “let me keep the second key.”

Gourishankar had complied, but he had added with a smile, “Will you have the energy to go down three flights of stairs to collect the letters?”

She never did have the energy, for she suffered round the year from aching knees. Still, she had returned the smile. “Even if I can’t, what if you lose yours? We can use this one then. At least we’ll have a spare…. Or else...” But then nothing like that ever happened. The key had been attached to Gourishankar’s sturdy poitey all these years. And it was Kamalini whom he lost instead, in a way that made it impossible to ask her, “Do you know where the key is?”

Swati had looked everywhere for the duplicate key.

It wasn’t easy, since asking directly was out of the question. And, besides, you can’t really rummage through your mother-in-law’s things when your father-in-law was still alive, for he monopolised all the keys. But then, Gourishankar was not the formidable sort. He was also quite oblivious to whether his presence caused difficulties, or whether his long-established habits were a source of irritation to anyone.

Gourishankar had gathered the keys left behind by Kamalini, guarding them with his life, as though she would return one day to claim them. Nor did he allow her things to be moved, becoming impatient if they were handled carelessly, as though he would have to justify any damage to Kamalini, who would ask, “Why is everything in such a mess?” But then, all this was the epitome of Gourishankar’s insensitivity and not actual deviousness. He did not realise that he was using his dead wife to prevent his daughter-in-law from taking her place as the mistress of the family.

And so, he could not understand why Swati was always complaining acrimoniously to his son Udayshankar.

“All day long, it’s Bouma, what’s this doing here.... Bouma, why is that rotting.... How long am I supposed to stand this? Everyone does things their own way. I’ve followed her methods all this time, but do I have to continue forever? Am I the one who killed her?’

Still, these were nothing but grievances. But things had come to a head with the key to the letter box.

Swati’s angry allegation—“This isn’t a memory of your mother’s that he must carry in his heart, is it? It’s a daily necessity. Why does he have to keep it under his control? Everyone else has a padlock on their letterbox, but your father, of course, has to go further and get a fancy lock. As if there’s money in there.”

Udayshankar had no difficulty identifying the problem lurking beneath the accusation. It was clear to him that the special lock was the cause for all this annoyance. The advantage of a padlock was that it could be broken easily and replaced with a new one.

But the answer was implied in Swati’s agitated question. Udayshankar had said, “But then that’s true, it isn’t money, just letters in the post. Why do you have to get so worked up about it? Going downstairs every time to fetch the letters is also a chore. Baba gets them when he goes out on errands. The post doesn’t even come at a fixed time anymore.”

The subject came up frequently. Udayshankar would say, “How can I just tell Baba, there’s no need for you to keep the key, give it to us. What harm does it do anyway?”

Swati had to give in.

But things had changed today.

“What if I said it does do some harm?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that he reads other people’s letters before handing them over. And he doesn’t even pass on the letters sometimes.”

“What?”

The question emerged like an arrow.

“Do you know what you’re saying?”

Swati’s husband was undoubtedly submissive, and usually deferred to his wife, but this disrespectful accusation against his father made the blood rush to his head.

Did that frighten the young woman with lipstick, plucked eyebrows and plump cheeks? Not in the least. Her lips curved tauntingly, she said, “I know exactly what I’m saying. I wouldn’t have spoken without proof.”

It was Udayshankar’s turn to be humiliated.

Surely she couldn’t be so arrogant as to start a war with a baseless allegation?

Therefore, a mortified Udayshankar said, “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? I’ll show you.”

Swati brought a sealed envelope to her husband, her face livid. The envelope was sealed all right, but it had obviously been opened and then re-sealed.

“Who is it from?”

“Never mind who it’s from, can’t you see it’s been opened and then sealed again?”

Sullenly Udayshankar said, “It’s possible that the sender reopened the envelope to add something....”

“Don’t talk rubbish.”

Swati said acerbically, “A family elder can be respected only as long as he can command that respect.”

Scorn and derision were writ large on her face.

A fire began to rage in Udayshankar’s head. He went straight to his father’s room and exploded, “Baba! What’s the point of your keeping the key to the letter box?”

“What do you mean what’s the point?” Gourishankar said in surprise.

Then, after his son had passed his verdict, he said, “You want me to give it to Bouma? Very well, take it at once.” Drawing his poitey out from behind his undershirt, he made to free the key from it.

A slightly subdued Udayshankar said, “There’s no hurry, you can give it to her later.”

“No, wait, just a minute....”

Untangling the key from the poitey should have been a simple matter.

But a strange thing happened. A simple task gradually became complex and entwined. Maybe it was his trembling hands that had made a mess of things. Perhaps one’s hands always shake in the face of unexpected humiliation—it had nothing to do with age.

Tugging futilely at the key, Gourishankar flushed. “Can you pass me the scissors from the table?”

Was that his voice?

It sounded like someone else to Udayshankar. Disconcerted, he said, “You’ll cut your poitey?”

“What’s the option? If the knot becomes impossible, you have to cut it.”

His voice sounded even more... distorted. Udayshankar said with rising discomfort, “What’s the hurry? Take your time. Isn’t there a rule that the poitey should not be cut?” Gourishankar’s hands suddenly went limp after all the effort. He sat in silence, holding his poitey.

Silent, but with a wave of thoughts cascading in his head. Everyone in your generation follows the rules, don’t they? Is this household aware of the rule that a dead person should be held in reverence? Does it know that it is a rule to make some allowances for someone who has lost half his life, to consider him with a little sympathy?

He tried once more to unravel the knot.

How cruel this world is. The moment you relax your grip, all civilities and courtesies vanish. What a shameless attempt to snatch all the rights from someone who had once held power.

But had he only held it by default? Had he not made a special effort to acquire them too?

Hadn’t Gourishankar made several trips to the carpenter to get the letterbox made exactly according to his specifications? He had bought the lock mechanism personally, lest the carpenter foist a cheap one on him.

And now all his rights were being taken away gradually, and he no longer knew what was going on in his household. Why, he had all but forgotten what a shopping list looked like.

But earlier?

Kamalini would hand him a sheet of paper every morning with a smile. “Here’s my love letter.”

Love letter! Dear god! Vegetables, fish, chillies, lemon.... This was what a love letter had been reduced to.

“That’s it then, let me sail away holding it close to my heart,” he would say, putting it in his breast pocket with a smile and going out.

Soon after Kamalini’s departure, there was such an emptiness in his heart that he would go to the market late in the morning anyway, to buy odds and ends. But he’d had to give up that practice now. It wasn’t just his liver that would be damaged by his impulsive purchases, but also the household budget. Once, a deliberately loud observation about this had reached him. Thereafter there was naturally no question of having any desire to explore the market.

Gourishankar used to be a government officer, though. It was he who had bought this lovely little flat.

Once the centre of everyone’s attraction, he was now like a discarded string of beads. No one was interested in picking them up to thread them into a necklace again.

And so, the former senior government official was languishing in his own family. In this utter emptiness, the one tenuous connection to his glorious past was through the letter box. Holding the letters gave him a sense of fulfilment.

He had no way of knowing what was going on in his family anymore. At least the letters brought Gourishankar a smattering of information. The source of the letter, whether it was in a sealed envelope or on an inland form or on a postcard... all of this gave him a taste of what was going on, of the developments in people’s lives. And it must have been that very desire which had compelled a certain fine individual to do something quite disgraceful.

Gourishankar knew perfectly well that reading someone else’s letter was equivalent to eavesdropping at someone’s door. Still, he read all the postcards while going upstairs, and peeped through the unglued slits in the inland letters to hazard a guess about their senders and contents.

Condemnable acts, truly condemnable. But did Gourishankar think so? He did not. His view was, for heaven’s sake, it’s not a love letter between newlyweds. Most of them were letters from Swati’s family. Gourishankar didn’t know all of them, though he could surmise some of their identities. The postcards, of course, left no room for guesswork. Gourishankar smiled as he read. What horrible penmanship this aunt of Bouma’s has.... This uncle of hers can only write about how penniless he is... and Bouma’s elder sister, she certainly knows how to make the most of a postcard. Others would need four postcards to write as much as she does in one. But yes, he enjoyed reading them... they were bursting with news....

But what did Gourishankar’s life have to do with any of this? He didn’t even know many of the people mentioned in the letters.

But still, they had a connection with his family. Unlike Kamalini, who had severed her own connection and left.

It was from that minuscule handwriting that Gourishankar had learnt that Bouma’s niece was about to get married, the qualifications of the groom, what his family had demanded by way of dowry, and that Bouma would have to go to Suri for the wedding.

Would anyone have told Gourishankar all this? Would he have come to know every time a money order was sent to Bouma’s uncle?

But then all this had to do with the postcards.

It could still be considered only slightly reprehensible. Given that the sentences had travelled hundreds of miles fully exposed to the world, was it really immoral to just glance at them? It was nothing but fulfilling one’s curiosity.

But letters sealed in envelopes?

How could he unseal them and read their contents? Did he have to be so shamelessly, unstoppably inquisitive?

Was this a pardonable act for an educated person? What if Swati were to curl her lips contemptuously and say, who’s going to honour a family elder who behaves this way? She could hardly be blamed. Nor could it be held against her if it angered her and she decided to claim her rights.

But why had Gourishankar, a cultured man of advancing years, stooped so low?

Even if a succession of letters with his daughter-in-law’s name typed on the envelope arrived, what business was it of his? Why did he need to know who the sender was?

Why, for that matter, should he assume that the man did not want to reveal his handwriting, and had hence resorted to typed envelopes?

Many people sent their letters from their offices in typed envelopes. Letters from people’s office were supposed to be typed....

Well then?

Why had he tried to open the envelope today?

He had already been admonished for his undue curiosity a few days ago.

Didn’t he remember Swati wrinkling her nose scornfully as she asked, “What kind of inquisitiveness is this? Does it concern you who sends me letters in typed envelopes? Why are you assuming it’s the same person in any case? Is there only one typewriter in the world?”

Still, the hapless Gourishankar hadn’t been able to restrain himself. Because he had realised that it was the same person. He had been a senior government officer once upon a time.

Still, he would send the freshly arrived letters to Swati through the maid, though not before turning them over and over in his hands with a mix of inquisitiveness and anxiety.

This was just the one time that he had actually opened the letter.

He had opened it because yesterday a letter had arrived summoning Swati to an interview.

It was from a school in Asansol. They needed a teacher at once.

The name of the school was printed on the envelope. That was what had made Gourishankar open it. He had wondered why there was a letter from a school. Surely, there was nothing wrong in reading a typed letter.

His hands trembled when he read it.

So, had Swati quietly been trying to get a job? Signed by the school secretary Samir Bose, the letter said, come at once for an interview, the school will pay for your transport....

Gourishankar’s head was in turmoil. He was convinced that within this new typed envelope, too, there was a flesh-and-blood person named Samir Bose....

Gourishankar had not passed the interview letter on to Swati. He had made it disappear.

But if he had discerned Samir Bose’s presence in the letter, why did he still reseal the envelope and, like a fool, have it delivered?

After all, Samir Bose was filled with joy at the prospect of Swati going to Asansol.

Folly.

Terrible folly.

It was to atone for this folly that Gourishankar had to snip his poitey with a pair of scissors. To extricate the key. Because he couldn’t unravel the knot.

It was just that when he went up to Udayshankar to hand him the key, he handed over the letter from the school too.

Almost inaudibly he said, “I had only wanted to save you. That’s all.”

He trudged back to his room.

Leaving his son and daughter-in-law facing each other.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

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