The flight from New York was delayed. By the time they landed in Kolkata, it was already noon. Getting inside the air-conditioned taxi, Mukta thought about the three-hour-long journey that lay ahead of her and sighed with exhaustion. She loved travelling but dreaded the jet lag.
Presently, she turned to look out of the window. The tall multi-storied buildings slowly started disappearing in the distance giving way to the lush green countryside. As the car turned onto the highway, Mukta calculated the distance.
She was almost there. Panic gripped her and she turned towards the young man sitting beside her. “Do…do you think she’ll approve of me?”
Aditya was staring outside at the paddy fields shining in the late afternoon sun. How he had missed his country! At Mukta’s query, he tore his attention from the mesmerizing view and took her hands in his. Smiling encouragingly at her, he said,
“Darling, my thammi can never disapprove of a girl who is travelling half the world just to seek her blessings. You see, she brought me up single-handedly after the death of my parents. I never wanted to leave her alone and settle abroad. It was only when I met you at the seminar, that I knew I couldn’t stay away from you. I am hoping that she will agree to return with me once she takes a look at you. Because I am pretty sure that she too will fall in love with you as I did.” He squeezed her hand gently and Mukta blushed.
Seeing some of her apprehensions disappear, he continued jovially, “Moreover, this is a good opportunity to show you our ancestral house. Wait until you see it. Sri Uday Narayan Choudhary, my great grandfather was the last descendant of our family who officially enjoyed the title of a ‘Zamindar’ before the government abolished it. So, you see my dear,” he moved closer and looked her in the eye,” You are going to be married into the family of zamindars!”
“You seem quite proud of your lineage!” Mukta spoke slowly, her gaze intent on his face.
“Well, why wouldn’t I be? Tell me how many people have the fortune of being born into royalty, huh?”
Before Mukta could reply, the car screeched to a halt.
“Here we are!” Adi jumped out and helped her alight.
Mukta glanced up at the magnificence of the huge three-storied building that stood on a freshly manicured lawn surrounded by trees. It looked nothing less than a palace.
An old man of about sixty came rushing forward. “Babu! At last, you have come. 5 years is a long time.”
” Madan dada!” Adi embraced the weeping man.” How are you? Where is thammi?”
“She is in her room waiting for you. Please come inside.”
The room they were taken into was sparsely furnished with only a wardrobe and a big four poster bed made of pure teak wood. Mukta glanced at the small woman reclining on it. With a head full of grey hair and a face that spoke of a bygone beauty, thammi looked absolutely formidable.
After greeting her beloved grandson, she turned her razor sharp eyes upon the slender figure huddled uncertainly at the foot of the bed and said, “So, you are the one who my Adi has chosen to marry! Come here, girl.”
Mukta didn’t miss the mild command in her voice. Her heart pounding, she ambled forward.
“Hmm. You have inquisitive eyes,” said the octogenarian looking her up and down. “Muktaaa!” Rolling out her name slowly, she mumbled, “I wonder whose soul you are here to salvage. Anyway, welcome to the family, my dear.”
Mukta slept fitfully that night. She awoke at dawn, unable to shrug off the queer feeling that someone was trying to reach out to her. The house intrigued her and she wanted to explore every nook and corner. Determined to seek a virtual tour of the house, she strode into Adi’s room but found him in deep slumber. Wondering what to do next, she came outside and started walking down the long corridor. At its end, she saw a streak of early sun rays emerging from one of the doors on her left.
Fascinated, she peeked inside and saw Madan da sweeping the floor. She pushed open the door and stepped inside. It was a beautiful room. Furnished with some rare period pieces, it also had a large bookshelf that adorned an entire portion of the wall.
“Wow! Whose room is this?” exclaimed Mukta.
Madan looked up from his work and replied, “Why it belonged to the late zamindar babu’s wife.” As he bend to collect the trash, he continued conversationally,” She was a very pious woman you know….loved by the entire staff…also heard that she was one of the learned woman of her time.”
No doubt about that, thought Mukta, marvelling at the rich collection sprawled in front of her. As she continued to browse through it, her eyes caught the pointed edge of a red book peeping at her from behind the voluminous ‘Mahabharata‘. Digging her hand inside, she dragged it out.
Oh, it’s a diary! Mukta realized as she read the cover.
Smt. Bindubala Choudhary
The handwriting was beautiful and definitely feminine. Her curiosity piqued, Mukta started flipping through the weathered out pages and soon lost herself in another world.
3 April, 1928
I love these sessions with didimoni. There is so much to learn, know and see.
29 May 1928
Zamindar babu has forbidden didimoni from coming here. He says too much of knowledge can ruin a woman’s mind.
13 June 1928
He has gone out again tonight. But I refuse to shed one more tear. After all, I can always find solace in my books!
17 August 1929
There is no greater agony than the incapability of producing an offspring. Am I cursed or doomed?
21 October 1929
Finally, there is good news. A Sadhu baba with extraordinary healing powers has arrived in our village. He has agreed to meet us tonight at the stroke of 11. It is then that the moon will enter a new phase.
22 October 1929
My hands tremble as I write this.
Having escorted me to the sage’s hut, my husband left. It was dark inside except for the lone lamp glowing in the corner. He mixed the herbs in its light and offered me. I felt a burning sensation as the liquid travelled down my throat. Slowly my eyelids drooped…
I woke up to the chirping of the birds and almost cried out in shock when I saw the healer curled up besides me. Appalled as well as ashamed, I ran towards my home. I saw Ma thakrun waiting for me at the entrance. Before I could pour out my grief to her, she ordered me to take a bath in the river and change into fresh clothes. Having done so, she touched the deity’s flower on my forehead and allowed me to step inside.
It was then that the truth struck me home!
30 November 1929
Sri Uday Narayan Choudhary is finally going to have an heir. The whole house is rejoicing. Except for me. I am bearing the brunt of his betrayal in silence and despair!
30 September 1930
It’s been almost a month since I became a mother. Fate has been kind to the Choudharys. I have given birth to a boy who can now carry on their legacy.
1 November 1940
To my utter consternation, I find my child growing up as lousy and atrocious as the title holders of this family. My interference is not only permitted but also laughed at. Is there no end to my misery?
8 November 1940
Today, our altercations reached a crescendo. Unable to bear it any longer, I threatened to let out the truth. I shall never forget the look in zamindar babu’s eyes. Nothing is more important to him than the prestige of his family!
15 November 1940
It doesn’t rain in the month of November. Tonight however, the sky seems to be on a rampage, unleashing its fury on us mortals. Only the sounds of rattling windows…
It was the last entry made in the diary.
And it seemed incomplete!
Mukta felt it in every bones of her body that Bindubala was interrupted while she was writing. But why didn’t she finish it later?
There was only one person who could give her the answer!
Suhasini Devi was sitting on the bed, her eyes closed in meditation and her thumb moving over the beads of a mala which lay resting over the third finger of her right hand.
She opened her eyes slowly and saw Mukta standing at the doorway, the red diary clutched tightly in her hand. Pointing at it, she said, “So you have discovered our little family secret, huh?”
Mukta gaped at her. “You…you knew about this?”
Tapping the mala to her forehead, she turned to keep it under her pillow. She then rested her aching back against the same pillow and replied calmly, “I have spent more than half of my life here in this house. I know it as well as the back of my palm.”
Mukta rushed to her side. “Thammi, what happened to Bindubala ?”
Suhasini closed her eyes. “She went missing one fine morning. Zamindar babu sent his men far and wide in search of her. Finally, two days later, her letter arrived. It said that she has denounced the world and settled down at Kashi.”
“Do you have that letter with you?”
“The letter was addressed to her husband, who later informed the household. I never saw it.”
Mukta started pacing the floor, lost in thought. “ I don’t believe this! I think she was murdered.”
Suhasini opened her eyes and looked irritatingly at the inquisitive young woman standing in front of her. She said, “Dead or alive, how does it matter? The fact is that she had disappeared and there was no hint of any foul play. Maybe her mother in law suspected. But what do you expect from a woman who had herself helped her son in the treachery?”
Gulping down a glass of water, she continued bitterly, “Her son…that is my husband, was a philanderer as well as a spend thrift whose only aim in life was to sleep, eat and party! He never earned a penny. Just went on throwing money around. After the death of zamindar babu, the reins of the household as well as his property fell into my hands. Though I tell you, there was not much left of it. Moreover, by then the government had also decided to do away with the zamindars. With so many mouths to feed, I had no choice but to rely on the good name of the Choudharys. That really got things done. I had no reason to let Bindubala’s secret out. After all, what purpose would it solve other than bring shame on ourselves and thereby cutting the few source of income that was still left?”
Mukta walked over to the large open window. Suhasini Devi’s room was located at the back of the house. She looked down at the barren land which was filled with nothing but weeds. This part of the property looked unkempt unlike the garden at the front. Her gaze went to the lone tree standing at the corner.
“Thammi, which tree is that? It has such beautiful white flowers!”
Suhasini Devi relaxed at the sudden change of topic. She said, “Oh, it’s a very old tree. Sri Uday Narayan Choudhary had planted it many years ago, long before I stepped into this house. He loved that tree, watered it himself every day. No one was allowed to pluck its flowers. It stands neglected now though.”
Mukta stared hard at the tree and suddenly her eyes sparkled. Without a word, she ran out of the room.
Aditya stared in bewilderment at the four men trying to chop off the heavy branches of the tree that he had grown up seeing in the backyard. Puzzled, he turned towards Mukta who seemed to be the supervisor of the entire operation. “What do you think you are doing?”
Mukta barely glanced at him and answered, ” Adi, please! I will explain everything later.”
Before Adi could demand a full fledged explaination, he saw the tree being uprooted.
Mukta exclaimed, “Good job! Now start digging that spot…over there..right where the tree was.”
Aditya glared at her but Mukta was too excited to notice it. After about an hour or so, one of the men shouted, “Didi !! Look.”
A rotten smell filled the air and Adi strode forward, covering his nose with one hand. His eyes almost popped out of their sockets as he realized what the men had unearthed just a few minutes back.
A skeleton ?!
Mukta’s eyes watered as she bent down to remove the torn and soiled saree from around the skeleton. Scooping it up in her arms, she mumbled to herself as if fitting the pieces of a puzzle, “That night, it was her husband who entered her room while she was writing. He killed her and then buried her here. No one saw nor heard a thing since it was raining heavily. Next day he planted a tree here and made up the fake story of Kashi. Oh,” she cried out loud, “Poor poor Bindubala!”
The atmosphere in Suhasini Devi’s room was tense. The woman seemed to have aged in the past one hour. She lay reclining on her bed while Aditya sat stiffly in a chair ruffling through the pages of the diary. Mukta, after darting a brief glance in their direction decided to break the silence. She cleared her throat and started, “I think she should be cremated in a manner as befits her position.”
Aditya looked up at her, his brows furrowed in thought.
“I think she is right Adi,” said thammi. “Bindubala has endured a lot of sufferings in her life. Now that we know the truth, it’s our duty to perform her last rites.”
Seeing Adi silent, Mukta approached him and asked gently, “Are you disappointed to find out the truth about your lineage?”
Aditya stood up and ambled towards the small table. Placing the diary carefully on top of it, he turned to look at the two women he loved most. He smiled at them and said, “I am relieved to find that I am in no way connected to a murderer. Instead I am glad that it is the blood of a good woman that runs through my veins. Moreover, I have realized that it is our deeds and not our positions which remain etched long after we are gone. Isn’t it thammi?”
Suhasini Devi nodded her head and looked at Mukta warmly, “You have risen up to your name, my child. Please come to me. Let me bless you with all my heart.”
Mukta flung herself into thammi’s arms and pleaded in a child like voice, ” We will not leave without you thammi. You are coming with us and that’s final!”
That night, as Mukta lay on her bed recounting the events of the day, a cool breeze whooshed past her hair. Startled, she sat up. Outside, the night was warm and the air still.
She waited but lay down again dismissing it as one of her imaginations.
Five minutes later, she felt a puff of air across her cheeks.
And then, a soft caress over her body.
Mukta smiled and closed her eyes. She whispered, “You can now rest in peace, Bindubala!”
Thammi – used to address grandmother in Bengali
Zamindar – land owner or an autonomous ruler of a state
Didimoni – teacher
Sadhu baba – sage
Ma thakrun – a revered or respected lady, in this case Bindubala’s mother in law
Kashi – present day Varanasi
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