"Sonajhuri" is a serialized English novel by Santwana Chatterjee published in WBRi Online Magazine
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A Novel by Santwana Chatterjee
Daima was not exactly a maid nor was she a relative but father found her on the pavement of the street of Calcutta begging for alms. Father used to take the bus from his office at Dalhousie Square ,now known as B.B.D Bag and got down at Gariahat crossing and took another bus to take him to our place at Park Circus. One day father noticed an elderly woman clad in torn and dirty clothes sitting on the pavement with her hand outstretched and head bent down. She seemed to be a woman from a respectable family and not a typical beggar woman. Father dropped a coin on her outstretched palm and was involuntarily taken aback when the woman looked up at him with tears of humiliation and a hint of smile of gratefulness. He had a feeling as if she was his own dead mother. That day father came back home brooding and discussed the incident with ma.
Next day he stopped before the woman and asked her gently “ma, what is your name?”. The woman looked up at father surprised and said “Son, I have no name, I am a beggar, how can I take my family name and bring dishounor to the dead!”
But father was insistent and coerced her to come with him to a roadside eatery and offered her food. The woman started crying silently and wiped her tears with the corner of dirty cloth she was wearing.
She said “Son I don’t know who you are but to me you are God sent. It seems ages that I have eaten properly or have been spoken to with so much respect and concern”.
Father would not let her go and insisted on hearing her story. With much coaxing she narrated her woeful stale. Her name was Sarala Bala Karmakar. She was from a well to do family residing in a village called Mouri Gram in Howrah district. Her husband and his brother had inherited a family shop that made silver and gold ornaments. In an outbreak of severe cholera in their village she lost her husband and two grown up sons in their teens . Though she attended them and stayed close together, some how or other she escaped being infected by the dreaded disease. They were more or less an affluent family in the village. They had pakka house , with tiled roof and quite a few rooms which was built inside a wide area of land owned by their father. They had a pond where they cultivated fish. Her mother in law was still alive when Sarala lost her husband and two sons and the old woman was so broken hearted after loosing her elder son and grandchildren that she passed away a year latter.
Daima’s fate took a downward dip. Her brother-in-law and his wife wanted to grab the whole property left by their rich father and very cunningly blamed her for the mishap and called her a witch bringing ill fortune to their family.
When my brother and his two sons died in the disease, how come this woman stayed alive and clean? The disease does not spare any one so easily. She must be a witch he said and convinced the illiterate villagers to take their help in driving her out and took control of her property. Still for some more years Daima stayed in the back yard of their house begging for their mercy and some of the villagers offered her food out of sympathy. But ultimately her brother-in-law and his wife could tolerate her no longer as they found her to be a threat to the property and the shop. Daima promised that she would not ask for any share but they could not believe her and drove her out of the village.
Others in the village did not offer shelter to her either, she being ostracized as a witch. Some of her well wishers advised her to go to the city of Calcutta and look for a job as a maid. Ultimately daima took money from them and bought a railway ticket for Calcutta. She stayed for some time on the Howrah Railway platform itself begging for survival. Later she moved from lane to lane begging for a job in any domestic household but people would not take her without any recommendation and ultimately she landed in the street of Gariahat begging for her survival. For more than a year she was sleeping on the steps of the roadside shops at night and begging on the street in the day time. From that day on his return journey father would every day take her to the road side eatery and force her to eat She objected to but father never listened to her, saying she reminded him of his mother, to which she had no answer.
A few days later ma enquired about the old woman and learning about her plight asked father to bring her home. Father was so happy that he returned that day itself in a taxi with the old lady. From that day she became a member of our family and we were told to call her Daima. I was too young and did not remember exactly how it was but Bumba remembered and often told me how ma put me in the old woman’s lap and how she wept clasping me to her bosom. I was always fond of listening to stories and would pester for a bed time story whoever came to our house I. Now that daima came to stay with us she told us stories of her life, her tragedy, about her village and also a host of folk lore at our bed time. We were fond of her stories as they sounded so true and as she made up the stories herself, many a times the same story sounded different and we would correct her to bring her on the track. Daima was a small, fair and slightly plump woman but the best thing about her was her two eyes full of love and serenity. Looking at her eyes would make any one feel calm and at home. It is rightly said that the eyes are the mirror of one’s mind. She was truly a woman full of love and compassion for all.
Ma, why did Rama killed Bali from behind the bushes; do you think it was a right thing to do?
Well beta Rama was God , so he knew he would have to kill Bali for greater good.
What better good ma, it was only for his selfish interest that he killed Bali, the warrior, so that he could ask Sugrib to help him rescue Sita.
Oh, Rina, I can not really tell what is good or what is bad in absolute terms. Every body has his own unique view point his own perspective, so the same thing may appear good to some and bad to some other person. But to judge Ramayana in the right perspective, you need to grow up till you are mature enough….ok!, so for the time being just listen and don’t interrupt…”
But ma….ok …ok, tell me please.
And again I put my face in her soft lap and closed my eyes.
Daima came silently and stood before us hesitating and ma looked up questioningly but Daima kept standing fidgeting and undecided. Atlast ma goaded her gently and asked “what do you want Daima , tell me?” Ma thought may be she wanted something, some clothes or might be that she wanted to increase her allowance.
We were not aware that with the passage of time Daima forgave her tormentors and so what Daima said surprised us a lot. She requested ma to write a letter on her behalf to her brother-in-law giving our address and she also said that she would like to send presents to their children on Durgapuja. Ma wrote the letter and a month later her brother-in-law came to our house and I was amazed to see him touch Daima’s feet. He was not at all like Daima, fair , elegant and gentle. This man was dressed in a starched striped shirt and a dhoti and sandal. He was dark and course with blunt features and small dull shifting eyes. I noticed that the man avoided eye contact and he would look down at his own feet and not at the one he was talking to, which seemed very odd to me. Later in life I had realized that these people are not to be trusted as they suffer from some sort of complex.
Daima cooked food for him and spent some time chatting merrily. After he was gone I asked Daima how could she forgive such cruel people and what she said still rings in my ear. Daima said , Child there is so much more strength in love and forgiveness than in hatred and ill feeling. If you keep hatred and ill feeling inside. you become a prisoner in your own cage of hatred. So to be free and happy try to forget and forgive.
I wonder how could Daima, an illiterate and ignorant village woman utter such philosophical words. It must be true that God resides there where there is love and compassion.
I remember on one occasion Daima took me and Bumba to her native place Mourigram after taking permission form ma and baba. It was a town in Howrah district. We took a train from Howrah station and it was the fifth stations from Howrah. We took the morning train and it was almost empty, with a few passengers and mostly village vendors who came the night before. We were extremely excited and went on chatting among ourselves. The other persons, sensing our unfamiliarity with the local journey, were quite amused and they laughed among themselves at us. We did not bother though. At the station, Daima’s brother-in-law was waiting for us.
Their house was a little far away from the station and Daima took a rickshaw with two of us and her brother-in-law wehowas called Dulu walked. The rickshaw stopped near a paddy field. We got down from it and we started walking through the field. There was a very narrow mud passage made through the filed for people to walk. We crossed the field and came upon a wider lane which led to a cluster of houses inside a low boundary wall. It appeared the cluster houses all belonged to Dulu. The houses were basically rooms joined by a common wall. The toilet was outside with a door made of cane. There was a deep tube well inside their compound. There were some trees of mangoes , guavas and the like and also a pond, where a boy was swimming. Dulu’s wife came out before we crossed the front door and she put some water from a pot in our hands and also asked to open the shoes and pour water on our feet too and we felt quite ashamed. But daima said this was their custom of welcoming guests, and we were Brahmins after all. Dulu’s wife touched daima’s feet . daima had bought many gifts for them. The boy who was swimming in the pond came out of water and came running in his wet cloths and vanished inside. Dulu’s wife said “He is ashamed to see us”. He was their grandchild. We were given coconut water in glasses made of heavy metal like bronze and we felt cool. Then we were offered home made sweets and puffed rice. We enjoyed the food immensely. Everything in their house was spic-and-span , spotlessly clean. Daima asked us whether we want to swim and we said yes. Daima had brought extra cloths for us and we jumped into the pond. Dulu said this season they had not put fish eggs into the pond , so it is clean and ready for a bath. The pond seemed quite deep and we spent quite a long time swimming. At last Daima asked us to come out and reluctantly we obeyed. We changed our cloths and daima put our wet clothes to dry. At lunch we were given white thick rice, ghee, hot spicy vegetables , some daal, spicy fish curry with two pieces of big fish portions. I could eat only one of it and Daima kept the other out of the bowl. We finished our lunch with home made curd with sugar. We were so full I could not stand straight. Then we went out with Dulu to see their small town. We had never been to any small town before and everything there seemed novel to us.
We took leave of Dulu and his family before the sun set but not before they made us drink some milk and again some home made sweets. We reached mourigram railway station at about four in the afternoon. The return journey was not of much interest. We were impatient to reach home. And once home two of us changed our cloths and went to bed and fell asleep so fast and so deep that nobody had the heart to wake us up for dinner. It was a lovely day.
Santwana Chatterjee is a creative writer and blogger from Kolkata and is a member of the Tagore family. She is a prolific contributer to Washington Bangla Radio - her other writings can be found by using her name to search this web site. Her own blog is at santwana.blogspot.com. Santwana can be reached by e-mail at santwanastar [at] gmail [dot] com.