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Ashapurna Devi was a prominent Bengali novelist and poet. She was born in 1909 and grew up in Kolkata. She was widely honoured with a number of prizes and awards. Among her works are the famous trilogy, PRATHAM PRATISHUTI, SWARNLATHA, and BUKUL KATHA, touching on the contradictory expectations of women in contemporary Bengali society. She was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1976; D.Litt by the Universities of Jabalpur, Rabindra Bharati, Burdwan and Jadavpur. Vishwa Bharati University honoured her with Deshikottama in 1989. For her contribution as a novelist and short story writer, the Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest honour, the Fellowship, in 1994. She died in 1995.
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- by Ashapurna Devi(Translated from the Bengali by Gautami Bhattacharya Das)

The monotonous buildings of the railway quarters standing on top of one another like shoeboxes are not a pretty sight; yet, when the rickshaw stopped in front of one of those buildings—the one with a special meaning—Kanan felt she had never seen such a beautiful structure in her life.

Their small house was empty and unlocked. The warm breeze of early summer wafted through the bare rooms, the small backyard, and the tiny front porch. She and her husband would soon fill this house up with crockery and cutlery; furniture and clothes; but, at the moment, the empty house itself filled Kanan with joy. This was her very own house, her home.

This was their home, hers and Animesh’s.  It felt so good! This porch, the yard, the kitchen, the two rooms, all belonged to her, her own empire.

Kanan ran throughout the house, once, twice, three times. Her face lit up like a child’s, eager and happy.

After hauling all the stuff inside, Animesh was paying off the rickshaw-puller when Kanan hurried outside, “ Come and see something!”  Unperturbed, Animesh replied, “We’ll see it later; why don’t you make sure we are not missing anything?”

“Why? We checked everything before we got off the rickshaw.” Paying no attention to Animesh’s worries, Kanan insisted, “Come with me.”

“What’s the matter? Are there a couple of ghosts nesting in the trees in our yard?” he joked.

“Who said anything about ghosts?  I am talking about mangoes. We have mangoes in our mango tree.”

“What!  Are there really mangoes in a mango tree?” Animesh looked genuinely surprised.

It took Kanan a moment to realize that he was joking; then she started laughing. Putting her arms around her husband, she pouted, “Come on, can you imagine this?  We have our own mango tree, in our own backyard!”

Animesh remembered their tiny room in a dilapidated building on a narrow street in the northern suburbs of Calcutta. He also thought of Kanan’s parents’ place, a small, decrepit apartment where she grew up. Yes, he had to agree that having their very own mango tree was indeed something novel.  Although Animesh had seen the quarters already, Kanan made him follow her all around their new home. The house itself was small, but Kanan’s spirit was high.

Animesh said, “Well, now that I have seen the whole house, what about food? Are we going to eat something?”

             “Food?” Kanan exclaimed in mock seriousness, “How can you think about such a mundane thing at a time like this?”  Then she smiled, “Okay, I’ll cook you a three-course meal in an hour. You’ll see what a gem of a wife I am!”

  She became a teenager again, as if she had shed ten years from her mind and body.  For the last twenty-five years of her life — before and after she had gotten married — she had suffocated in small windowless rooms. When Animesh transferred out of Calcutta, Kanan could not accompany him because he himself had to live in a boarding house. Sitting in her dingy little room, Kanan desperately asked God to help her. Every day she prayed for her freedom.

  God must have heard her prayers.  Animesh got a promotion at his job and was allotted housing. Finally, Kanan was free. In front of her in-laws’ jealous eyes, Kanan marched into a taxi with her belongings, boarded a train from Howrah station, and started her new life in a new house in a new city. How fortunate she felt. God had granted her wish.

  Animesh teased his wife, “You have replaced me with your new lover.”

                   Kanan laughed, “You are being bad!”

                   Animesh retorted, “I am not being bad, you are totally ignoring me. All you think about is your house which has become my rival.”

               “No sir, you are not rivals. My home is you, you are my home, get it?”

  This was a new Kanan, more romantic, more enigmatic. Happily, they started their new life together.

  Every so often, Animesh would remind Kanan to go meet Mrs. Mitra, his boss’s wife. “You really should pay her a visit.  After all, she is the boss’s wife.”

  “Why don’t you come with me?” Kanan implored.

  “Why me? Just go, woman to woman.”

  “Woman to woman?  What are you talking about? Didn’t you say she is a college graduate, a modern woman?  I wouldn’t know what to say.”

  “You are not going to compete with her,” Animesh teased, “You will be like a subject to her majesty, or a maid to her ladyship.”

  “No I can’t do that.” Kanan looked offended.

                  “I was joking,” said Animesh, “All you have to do is be a little nice to her. We have to maintain the hierarchy. The best way to please the boss is to please his wife, you know.”

                  “All right, I’ll go sometime,” Kanan surrendered.

  One day Animesh brought the news, “You should go to Mrs. Mitra now.  Mr. Mitra is out of town for a few days.  Now she might not mind your company that much.”

  Kanan got ready to go. After lunch, Animesh dropped her off near the house and went back to work.  It was a hot afternoon. There was no breeze to diminish the deadly heat.  Kanan’s face turned red as she reached her destination.

  Her face was still flushed when Animesh came back from work that evening.  A few hours had passed since she came back. She could not suppress her laughter, “Guess what, your boss has cancelled his tour. He has played a trick on you guys.  After telling you he’s going on a tour, he came right back home to his wife. I was so embarrassed when I got there.” She giggled excitedly.

                “What nonsense!”  Animesh didn’t find it funny, “You think we don’t know where he is? I took him to the station myself and saw him board the train.”

  Kanan was still laughing, the innocent, naïve Kanan. “He must have gotten off the train after you left!”

                  “Stop right now. What have you seen? Did you visit Mrs. Mitra?”

                  “How could I, after what I saw?  I went through the gate, right?  It was so hot I needed to find some shade, so I went around the garden toward the front door. Then I saw this window open.  I peeked inside and turned right back and came home.”

                  “Why did you come back?”

                  “What should I have done? Mister and Mrs. were having a good time inside, as if the midday had suddenly turned into midnight.”  She could barely control herself.

                  “Shut up! Shut up,” Animesh hissed, “You must have gone to the wrong house.”

  Kanan became defensive, “Of course not. You saw me open the gate. You waved at me, remember?  You saw me enter the Mitra house.”

  It was true.  Animesh did see her enter the house. He was puzzled. Yes, Mrs. Mitra was the talk of the small town mostly because of her ultra modern clothes and overly done make-up, but this? This was unthinkable. What serpent had Kanan unearthed on a hot summer afternoon? In his middle-class conservative mind he could not accept the obvious. How could it be? Everybody knew and talked about Mr. Mitra’s love for his wife. His subjugation to his wife was also the talk of the town.

  Well, why get involved in the lives of the upper class?  Animesh sighed, “Just forget about it, okay?  Never go there again.”

  Kanan had stopped laughing already; she was getting quite panicky. Could she be wrong? Was Mrs. Mitra all by herself after all? But… she saw what she saw. “How is it possible?” she whispered.

                  “Why not?  Things happen,” Animesh shrugged.

                  “But… she’s got a great husband.”

                “So? Relationships are not always rational.” Animesh shook his head and took a deep breath, clearly perturbed by the inherent immorality in human nature. However, Kanan was not going to give up so easily. “Don’t just sit there. Think of something. We have to make it right.” Kanan was adamant. Animesh grimaced, “How can we make it right?”

                  “You must tell the boss. He will put an end to this,” Kanan’s voice sounded shrill.

                  “No, we are not doing anything. Got it? I told you to forget about this afternoon. Maybe Mr. Mitra is aware of this.” Animesh said.

                  “The boss knows? Are you crazy?”

  Looking at Kanan’s innocent, enraged face, Animesh controlled his frustration, “Of course I am joking.”

                  “Oh, you are not serious,” Kanan seemed a little assured, “Anyway, we have to take a step. It’s our duty to let the boss know what’s going on.  Poor thing, working so hard all day…”

                  “Kanan, listen to me! “ Animesh lost his temper, “I do not want to hear about this anymore. Just leave it. Let it be.”

                  He paused, and then repeated, “Let it be.”

               Let it be? How could she? Kanan’s mind was flooded with question after question, “An innocent man is being cheated and we wouldn’t do anything to right the wrong? We wouldn’t warn him? What if that woman breaks the boss’s home? What if she robs him of everything?”  To Kanan, simple and naïve, these were the vital questions. But Animesh knew better. He knew that the Mrs. Mitras of this world never risk their status symbols. They cling on to their security while stealthily enjoying illicit pleasures. But Kanan had no idea such a world existed. So, she suffered. Although Animesh forbade her to mention this topic, she couldn’t help herself, “When is the boss coming back?” she had to ask.

              “Tomorrow, day after tomorrow… why?  Are you planning to talk to him? Can’t you stop thinking about them?  Kanan, please no more of this!  I am getting really upset now,” said Animesh testily, visibly annoyed.

  Kanan had to stop. But for how long could she keep this inside?

  Kanan’s morality kept pushing her to disobey her own husband. She thought, “Tomorrow I’ll go there one more time to make sure I was not hallucinating. If I see them together again, I’ll send an anonymous note to the boss,” Kanan made up her mind.

  The following day, Kanan started her odyssey towards the Mitra house in the ungodly mid-day heat. Last time she walked along this road she had nothing to fear; this time, her heart was pounding. Last time she peeked through the window out of pure curiosity, just to find out if the lady of the house was in; this time she had a mission to accomplish. Maybe the sound of her loudly thumping heart awoke the boss’s wife from her siesta.

  “Who’s there?” she snapped. Coming to the window she saw Kanan on the garden path. She came outside and knowingly smirked, “Who are you?” Her voice was sharp and cold. Kanan, sweaty and flushed, tried to mumble something. It was enough for Mrs. Mitra to know who she was.

                  “You are Animesh Bose’s wife. Why are you peeping through my window?”

                  “I just came to visit you… I was making sure you weren’t asleep.”

                  “Oh, is that so?” snapped the diva, her pretty face distorted with anger. “Why have you come to me? Has your husband lost his job?”

                  “Why, no. He has just been transferred here and we have moved to our new quarters.”

                  “So? Why are you here?” stamping her foot like an ill-tempered horse, Mrs. Mitra demanded.

  Where was Kanan’s God at that time?  Wasn’t He supposed to save Kanan?  Could He send the boss right there, right then? Maybe He could, but He didn’t. Kanan had to pay for her naivety, for her over-zealous sense of right and wrong. She had no idea she was about to cut down the tree she built her nest on. No god can save someone who wants to be destroyed.

  So, there was no miracle. Kanan tried to save herself, “I just came for a visit.”

               “You came to visit me again? Why, did you expect us to play cards together?  Have a drink together? Animesh Bose doesn’t know whom he is messing with.  I’ll show him what happens when one plays with a snake. Go now,” giving her body a snake-like twist, Mrs. Mitra disappeared into the house.

  And then?

  Then Animesh learned what happens when one upsets a snake. The office rules were changed. Within a month and a half of his transfer, he was transferred again. This time he was moved to a remote location where employee quarters were only a dream.

  The rickshaw came to take them back to the rail station. Animesh hadn’t said anything to Kanan; resentment, insult, anger, and grief made him livid. Everyone in his workplace came to know about his transfer order within twenty-four hours. He didn’t even feel like accusing Kanan anymore—now his rage was directed towards all the inanimate objects they tried to build their new home with.

  Kanan had nothing to say. She kept watching Animesh throwing around the utensils, the bedding—all their belongings with cruel, blind fury. She kept some holy water in a small marble pitcher on the altar. That fell and crashed on the floor from Animesh’s careless hands. Did he feel a little bit of remorse?

  At last Kanan opened her mouth, “How could you? This was sacred.” She was trying her best to push back her welling tears. Perhaps if she hadn’t said anything, Animesh would have felt guilty, but her words ignited all his latent intense frustration

  He shrieked, “Let it break, let everything shatter into pieces. All you could think of was the boss… you were so concerned that his home was about to fall apart. What about my home?  Go, go back to your dump. How many times did I ask you to keep your mouth shut?”  Animesh threw the baggage mercilessly into the waiting rickshaw.

Kanan was stunned to see what had happened to her dream house. Yet, she could not understand how she could keep her mouth shut. How could she not say anything after witnessing another woman cheating on her husband, breaking his trust, and possibly breaking his heart and home? How could that be right?