The apprehension that I saw in my house and even amongst my neighbours felt like a weight upon my heart. It felt as though the whole world had conspired to hold me, a twelve year old from a village, up in front of the scrutiny of two pairs of eyes – I had nowhere to hide.
The day I came to your house, the whole sky seemed to weep in tune with the shehnai flute. Even after picking over every defect that I had in detail, the womenfolk decided that I was after all, beautiful. This caused my elder sister-in-law’s face to cloud over. But thinking back now, why did I need to be beautiful? If beauty was something that was shaped out of river clay by some ancient wise man, at least it would have a value, but beauty is something that God has created for his own amusement, that is why there is no real appreciation for it in the world of men.
It did not take you many days to forget that I was beautiful. But you were all reminded at every step that I was intelligent. This was so natural for me that it has survived in spite of all these years spent in the daily grind of life with your family. My mother had always worried about this intelligence. This is truly the bane of a woman’s life. The one who must be shackled, will suffer more at every step, if she is confronted by her own intelligence. But what was I to do; fate had carelessly given me far more intelligence than was needed by a daughter-in-law in a family such as yours and who could I return that to? You and the others railed against me daily, calling me a ‘know it all’ at every opportunity. Harsh words are the sole consolation available to the inept, for this reason I have forgiven you.
There was one thing I did that was beyond the grasp of your comprehension; and I never let any of you find out about this. I used to write poetry in secret. Whatever the quality of those words may have been, it was not shaded by the narrow confines of your house. There lay my freedom. In that world, I could truly be myself. None of you knew that I was a poet for fifteen years; you would not have liked that part of me as it far exceeded my identity as the middle daughter-in-law.
The first memory I have of your family home is that of the cow shed. The cows were housed in a cramped space beside the stairs that led to the living quarters, unable to move around much within that courtyard. There was a wooden feeding trough in the corner of that courtyard. The servants were usually busy in the mornings and the famished cows would lick and chew on the edges of the trough in frustrated hunger. My heart wept for them. I was from a village and had formed a kinship with the two cows and three calves the very first day that I arrived. When I was a new wife, I fed them from my portions secretly. When I grew up, my very public compassion for the cattle caused my contemporaries to express doubts over my family background.
The daughter I had died soon after birth. She almost took me along with her. If she had lived she would have brought a touch of truth and the sublime to my life. I would have become a mother, not just a daughter-in-law. A mother may belong within the sphere of her own family but the world forever celebrates her as one at all times. I experienced the pain of becoming a mother but did not enjoy the freedom that came with it.
I remember that the British physician who came to attend on me had been horrified to see our inner quarters, and I recall his anger upon seeing the birthing room. Your family home has a small garden at the front. The living room where the public are welcomed is well furnished. The inner quarters on the other hand are like the reverse side of a piece of needlework; there is neither beauty nor order. There the lights burn dim, fresh air enters surreptitiously like a thief, piles of rubbish remain in the courtyard, and the floors and walls are stained by years of shame. But the physician had made a mistake; he had thought that perhaps, we women suffered because of these circumstances, day and night. The very opposite was in fact true; neglect is like the ash that conceals both the fire and its heat within. When self respect is gone, neglect ceases to feel like an evil; there is no sorrow any more. That is why women are ashamed to admit to feeling sad. That is why I say to your kind, if the intention is to give women pain, it is best to keep them in neglect as love will cause them to feel the pain more acutely.
No matter how badly I was treated, I never thought about unhappiness. In the birthing room, death came and stood near me. I felt no fear at all. What did I even have in life, that I would fear death? Those whose lives are anchored strongly in love and caring are the ones who fear to die. If death had called me that day, I would have released my hold on life as easily as a clump of grass pulls away from loose earth. Bengali women are always threatening to die. But where is the fulfillment in such death? I am ashamed to die; it is so easy for us.
My daughter lived a life as brief as the flicker of the evening star. I went back to my daily routine and the cows. Life would have continued along that path until the end; I would not have needed to write a letter to you at all. But sometimes the wind can blow in a tiny seed that lodges in a crack in the floor, grows into the seedling of a great tree and breaks the bonds of bricks and mortar. The same thing happened to me.
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