Three hundred kosh more to reach his destination. Dilleshwar made a rough calculation after traversing almost one fourth of his journey. At this pace he will be able to be home well before the puja festivities begin. On which occasion he had planned to gift his beloved wife Jamini a very precious thing, her dream gift.
Autumn was setting in. The sun played hide and seek through the soft cotton like clouds scattered across the sky. As he passed through the valleys of blooming Kash flowers, amidst the constant humming of “hun huna hun huna” by the palanquin bearers, he was lost in thoughts about Jamini.
“But, this time you will be away for unusually long time.” Jamini had said in a gloomy tone. The worry in her eyes was apparent when he was about to leave.
“This deal is very important. I’ll be back well before the festivals, my love.” He concealed the truth, for he wanted to surprise her on his return. He then clasped his palms around her comely face. He kissed her vermilion donned expansive forehead.
“Korta, we have almost reached,” announced one of the palanquin bearers, bringing him back to the present. While his palanquin still inched through the bustling street, Dilleshwar parted the curtains and peeped out. Curling the extremities of his handlebar moustaches, he stared at the scene in admiration.
The narrow street was crammed with busy stalls on both sides. The place was teeming with gay men & women who haggled to get the best price of their pick. The air bore the fragrance of itar and exotic spices unknown to him. There was constant jingling of Tanka, jewellery and utensils, accompanied by a mellifluous tune played somewhere. Dilleshwar had never in his life seen such a big market with such vast array of items. The sight made him forget the exhaustion of his week-long journey.
He got down from his palanquin. After loitering for a long time he finally stopped at a corner stall. Where he found the very thing he was looking for. A ratty young hawker with a goatee beard was vociferously promoting his wares to attract the shoppers. And he didn’t fail to get his stall swarmed. Struggling through the crowd Dilleshwar glanced at the display. His eyes twinkled with joy. It bore the anticipation of pleasing the woman he adored deeply.
Dilleshwar & Jamini’s world revolved around their two most invaluable possessions. One was the perfect facial features of Jamini, which won Dilleshwar’s heart at first sight. She had charm in its truest forms and whoever saw her would never forget that face. He liked to flaunt his wife’s beauty amongst his kinsmen whenever their barb stung her for being barren. However, he feared and so concealed her from the licentious zamindar and his men.
The second was Dilleshwar’s palate. He was fond of tasting new cuisines and would never fail to generously appreciate the delicious ones. Jamini loved to satisfy his taste buds in every possible way. She had skills to replicate every dish which Dilleshwar had had elsewhere. The only one which was left was Shukto. The moment Dilleshwar had it somewhere in North Bengal he had developed strong liking towards it. Jamini had tried all the spices in permutation and combination to reproduce it but all in vain.
Admiring her own reflection was Jamini’s second favourite activity beside cooking for Dilleshwar. She liked to rest water in earthen pot on special occasions to see her reflection. However, Dilleshwar liked to tease her by dipping his finger and creating ripples that broke the reflection. This impish act of him would invite her chide, “Why do you do this? Now how will I see myself?”
He would then gently pull her towards him and wrap her in his warmth. “Can’t you see the reflection of your ethereal face in my eyes?” He would whisper lovingly, his gaze holding her’s. He would then unfold her neatly made bun, letting her ebony black hair tumble down unto her waist. Her bronze coloured cheeks would turn rosy pink.
He could almost see Jamini’s reflection in all those mirrors arranged in rows.
“Assalam Walekum janaab,” greeted the hawker to Dilleshwar. Dilleshwar fumbled while reciprocating with the customary gesture.
“How much for that?” He asked pointing towards a palm sized mirror.
“Subhan Allah! you have a great taste. This is my best piece. I’m sure this will be loved by whomsoever you gift it. As you can see, it not only reflects the true beauty in you, but also is framed by precious metal studded with stones. For others, I would ask not a tanka less than seven. But for you I shall charge you only six tankas, for I can see the yearning in your eyes.” Said the hawker with an air of confidence.
“Six tankas!” Exclaimed Dilleshwar. The price was way beyond what he or his fellow traders had assumed. He chided himself in his mind, for making his enthusiasm so apparent that the hawker could exploit. It was obvious that his ground for bargaining stood weak. Still he was able to seal the deal at five tankas. While searching through the pockets of his angrakha kurta he found two tankas. Then from the small pouch tied inside his dhoti he took out two more. That’s all. He was left with no money, but only some items which he could trade with.
He convinced the hawker to save the mirror for him till the end of the day. Throughout the day he wandered through the market with a stack of fabrics which he brought along with him. He was able to sell them off before evening. By evening, the palanquin too was gone. He earned a tanka and some more from this deal. With the extra money he paid off the palanquin bearers before dismissing them. And kept the balance money for his return journey.
He made his way through the now thinning crowd to reach the mirror stall. It was almost closing time. On seeing him the hawker acknowledged with a grin. True to his words, he had kept aside the mirror for Dilleshwar. Dilleshwar counted the tankas for one last time before paying. How would he live through his back home trip with the paltry amount he had? He didn’t know. Yet, he was pleased at heart. A sense of satisfaction in his mind. And a feel of longing to meet his wife Jamini. He tucked the nicely wrapped mirror with care, at his waist pocket of Kurta.
The return journey was nothing compared to his fair forward journey. With the money he was left with, he could afford transport only for half his trip home. The rest was left to the mercy of offerings from kind hearted passer by travellers. In a week, his once rich midriff had sunken for want of a hearty meal. The neglect took a toll on his appetite too.
He felt Jamini’s presence in those moments guiding him through the endless path.
When he finally reached his village a fortnight later, it was Saptami. He was late. By that time the air was filled with festive hues and chimes of worship bells. Durga Maa had arrived. Yet the ominous clouds gave a feel of grief.
He was approaching his house. His neighbours cast a strange glance in sinister silence. “It must be because of my disheveled look,” he thought shrugging off the negative thoughts. And why not?
His once rotund physique had become frail. The end of his moustaches had become limp. And with hair unkempt he hardly looked the Dilleshwar he used to be. In a few days he had aged a hundred years. At times he felt as if his guts were on fire. But he wasn’t worried for he knew, he was home. With Jamini’s love and care he would regain his health in no time.
With his bony knuckles he knocked at the front door of his house. In a while he heard a soft unlocking sound from inside. He could feel his heart race. And there she was. In front of him. His love Jamini stood at the door. Her head covered with the free end of her saree that was hanging loosely covering half of her face.
The expressions on her half uncovered face showed a mix of emotions. It was difficult to say whether it were signs of ecstasy on his arrival or was it in recognition of his haggard lineaments? Or was it an expression of something more severe?
Only if he knew what she was upto when he was away. And what she went through.
After a week of his departure, which usually was the duration of his trade trips, she started to miss him. She missed his laughter. She missed those long nights where they would chat endlessly about his trips. He would share jokes of his fellow traders, on which both of them would break into a laughter breaking the silence of the night. All that while holding each other in an embrace. He would stop in between frequently to stare and admire her beautiful face. Those black curly hairs. And doe shaped eyes. “All this while I longed to return to you. Trust me.” He would say while playfully poking her nose ring . The nights would end with passionate love making. He would kiss every inch of her honey like skin. While she would grip him in a tight hug as if she would no more let him go away from her. In the morning, he would lie staring at her, as she draped back her saree around her bare curves.
She sulked as she remembered him telling, “I shall be back to you in two weeks.” Like him, she wanted to surprise him by mastering the dish Shukto. She would treat him during Durga puja. Her usual chats with the village ladies at the bank of pond nowadays were mostly regarding the spices used in making Shukto.
“Why don’t you approach Ginni ma. She has a varied range of spices.” Suggested one of the ladies.
Though a bit sceptical at first, she thought It was only mustard seeds which she needed to nail her dish. Why not to ask for a little help?
The next day, early in the morning, she left her home quietly when nobody was around. She reached the zamindar’s mansion in no time. scurrying through the lawn she reached to the inside halls. A maid at the mansion whom she knew from her pond bank group helped her sneak inside and took her to the zamindar’s wife.
“Who are you? And what are you doing here at this hour?” Said the zamindar’s wife in a clearly annoyed tone. For it was too early for her to be awake.
Jamini explained everything and requested, “Ginni ma, if you could give me some mustard seeds…..”. Her eyes widened when she got a good glimpse of Jamini’s enchanting face. A fear crept inside her, for herself, but more for Jamini. A fear mixed with agony with which she went to sleep every night alone. Through her sleepless nights she could hear the cacophony at the floor below. Of dance and music. Of drinks flowing. And of women laughing enticingly. It was only after late in the night she would catch some sleep.
The zamindar’s wife obliged, partly as she wanted to drive her out quickly from the mansion before the sun brightened. She gave her a handful of mustard seeds, which Jamini tied at the end of her saree. Jamini thanked her a hundred times before leaving her room. As she sprinted through the main door, she almost ran into the zamindar’s manager. He stared at her partially veiled face, which was enough to fathom her beauty.
“Whose mistress are you?” He demanded to know. His glare fixated at her menacingly.
Jamini pulled the saree to fully cover her face, & ran towards the main gate without answering. She could hear him enquire again to the maid.
The next few days, she got busy in preparation of Shukto. She gathered all the vegetables required for the preparation. She sensed an eerie feeling of someone following her constantly. She was almost sure. And as they say, a woman’s instinct or sixth sense never fails.
On the fourth day she sat by the earthen choolha. Her house filled with the aroma of freshly made Shukto. The firewood from below the choolha giving out sparks of flame in excitement. It was then, that she heard knocks on her door. “It was too early for Dilleshwar to arrive. Who could it be at this hour?” She thought as her heart skipped a beat. She so wished Dilleshwar to be around. She repented for not listening to Dilleshwar’s repeated requests to stay indoor. She repented for acting on her whim.
The knocks soon became impatient banging on the door. Her apprehension along with her self-defence instincts made her to quickly pick up a half burnt firewood from the choolha. With that in hand she opened the door. The zamindar’s manager stood there with two other men.
“Come with me. The zamindar wants to see you,” he ordered.
“I would not….” Protested Jamini.
“Oh! What’s in your hand?” He guffawed along with the two other men. “You think it’ll help?”
Jamini backed a bit. Then after a moment’s pause with a swift move of her hand Jamini shoved the firewood into her own face. The manager and his men flinched at the uneasy sight. They quickly left the place. Jamini held her face and winced in pain lying on the ground. Her hand soon felt the melting flesh and blood oozing from her right cheek. The fire ate away most of the cheek leaving behind shreds of tissue.
The wind started to howl. They stood staring at each other as if for a decade. A sudden gusty air menacingly unveiled her face. The once beautiful face was now hard to look at. The Dilleshwar’s eyes went through a plethora of emotions. Finally ending up in a sea of tears. Tears of sorrow, but more of guilt.
“Jamini…..,” his voice cracked. The ground beneath him trembled.
Somewhere in the distance, the worship bells chimed again. And the shattering of a mirror echoed in the air.
Kash flowers- a kind of white grass flowers that bloom during autumn.
Tanka- ancient Indian currency
Shukto- A kind of mixed vegetable stew, initially brought by the Portuguese rulers in Bengal. Later given a twist mixing local spices and ingredients to suit Bengali taste buds.
Photo By: Inga Gezalian
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)