The Clerk’s Wife (Keranir Bou) By Manik Bandopadhyay: Part 1

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Manik Bandopadhyay
Manik Bandopadhyay

Sarasi didn’t have a particularly pretty face. A stub of a nose, an undulating forehead, small eyes. She had an extremely fair complexion but her skin seemed to lack polish. One look at her and you would be reminded of the damp and moist floor.

Sarasi had an excellent figure though. Girls from ordinary Bengali families, who mostly grow up on a diet of rice, dal and pumpkin curry do evidence some signs of youth, but only at a particular point in their lives; mostly, however, they are quite out of proportion. In that context, Sarasi was quite an exception. One didn’t come across a body like hers very often. With a ghomta shielding her face, she could easily enchant a poet. Again, a brahmachari of the less committed variety may well be tempted to lift the ghomta and feast his eyes on her.

With a 'ghomta' shielding her face, Sarasi could easily enchant a poet. Again, a 'brahmachari' of the less committed variety may well be tempted to lift the 'ghomta' and feast his eyes on her.
With a 'ghomta' shielding her face, Sarasi could easily enchant a poet. Again, a 'brahmachari' of the less committed variety may well be tempted to lift the 'ghomta' and feast his eyes on her.

It all went back to her mother. Sarasi’s mother was quite advanced in years, definitely not less than forty.  But the suppleness of her body would still rouse wonder in others and cause embarrassment to her.

When she was thirteen, Sarasi sensed that while she had a complexion she could be justifiably proud of, her real beauty stemmed from her figure. Everyone was taken aback by the way she started wearing her saree after that.

What is that? What kind of coquetry is that?

What do you mean, coquetry?

Just look at the way you have wrapped the saree around you. Do you want to look like a shawng?

I’ll do as I feel; what business is it of yours?

A fiery volley erupted from the girl’s mouth!…Don’t you dare, don’t you go parading around the neighbourhood dressed like that, looking like a fool! I’ll beat you till I peel the skin off your back!

'Just look at the way you have wrapped the saree around you. Do you want to look like a 'shawng'?'
'Just look at the way you have wrapped the saree around you. Do you want to look like a 'shawng'?'

The desire to go parading around the neighbourhood left Sarasi of its own.

How she cried that day when she returned home and flung her hands around her mother’s neck.

What’s the matter, dear?

Sarasi could not bring herself to say it. Finally she managed to mutter a few words. The rest of the details her mother managed to pry out with her interrogation.

It was as if she had been struck by lightning. A disaster!

She landed a series of punches wherever she could. I had warned you not to wander around the whole afternoon like that, Sari, not to go around like that. See what has happened now. You won’t rest until you have smeared our face with disgrace; that’s the kind of girl you are.

Sarasi wept uncontrollably. She did not have any food that night. Why did Ma beat me? she asked herself in self-pity. What was my fault?

It was not as if she was not acquainted with the injustices and wrongs of everyday life, but this response seemed disproportionately cruel to her. She was not at fault at all; the moment she had understood Subolda’s intentions, she had bitten his hand and run away—she was a good girl. Yet she was the one who had been beaten! From the reaction of people around her it seemed the entire fault was hers and it was she who had committed some unspeakable crime!

She was not at fault at all; the moment she had understood Subolda’s intentions, she had bitten his hand and run away—she was a good girl
She was not at fault at all; the moment she had understood Subolda’s intentions, she had bitten his hand and run away—she was a good girl

Sarasi waited eagerly to see how Subol would be punished, but no one said anything to Subol! Even the suggestion that Subol’s father be apprised of the incident was summarily dismissed by her mother. Vigorous efforts were made to discipline her. Whenever any relative or friend came visiting, the incident would be recounted for them in order to humiliate Sarasi. Every time she came across two people in the house whispering to themselves, she understood it was she they were discussing. Within a few days, she began to feel quite suffocated by this atmosphere.

 

With time, the leash became less rigid; she, too, grew used to it perhaps, but the whole thing left her spirit completely broken.

 

She now began to feel scared to talk to boys she had grown up with when they came to their house. People would accuse her, she thought. Who knew what motives they would read into her every action! She even lost the courage to go to the next house unaccompanied. She would now spend her afternoons stretched out beside her mother. Sleep would evade her; she would much rather go to some other room and be by herself, yet she would not move. If Ma asked her where she had gone and she replied that she had just been in the next room and had not gone anywhere at all, would she even believe her?

Imagining that people had developed the idea that she was different from other girls and that she was not quite as intent on preserving her virginity as all the other girls were, Sarasi began to consciously put restrictions on what she said and how she moved. In the charade that characterized the ways of the world, she remained branded a criminal without having committed any crime.

She listened to words of advice: what is the point of a woman’s life after all? All men are goons waiting to gobble you up—you just have to make sure you don’t slip and land in their clutches, that’s all!

She listened to popular rhymes: the woman burns, her ashes fly; only then praise her to the skies.

The more she listened, the more afraid she became. She could not understand the laws of the world when it came to women. It seemed to have been assumed that women were naturally disposed towards debasing themselves; the fact that women managed to avoid this was itself a wonder! The only goal of a woman’s life was to perform this wonder!

The more she listened, the more afraid she became. She could not understand the laws of the world when it came to women.
The more she listened, the more afraid she became. She could not understand the laws of the world when it came to women.

From being cautious, Sarasi gradually became obsessed with being cautious. Staying virtuous ceased to be a matter of personal choice for her. She built herself up to follow the dharma of all women solely because everyone seemed to want her to do so.

Then, a few months before she was to turn sixteen, Sarasi was married off to Rashbehari.

Expectedly, Rashbehari was a clerk.

Expectedly, because Sarasi belonged to a middle-class Bengali family, was a bit of a rustic, thanks to the fact that she had spent all her days in a village, and yet a little urban, thanks to the fact that she had used her exposure to the Kathamala to read a few novels surreptitiously; her exceptional figure spoke of good health and her complexion pushed up her price. A clerk was the only suitable boy for a girl like her. That Rashbehari’s salary was now close to one hundred rupees and that one day it could become two hundred were entirely due to Sarasi’s complexion.

The second part of the translation will be published next Friday (29.3.24).

All Images: Google

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