"… therefore we have to examine the basis and the accuracy of the commonly accepted ideas on heredity. From physical structure to mental abilities and proclivities, how much is passed on from parents and from ancestors on the father's and mother's sides of the family to descendants? And how does the influence of the environment – the climate, family education and practices, the company of friends – modify heredity and control the course of life?..."
Switching the radio off, Karabi said with a gesture of annoyance, 'Same old lecture again. Here I was hoping for some nice music, but…'
Lying back in the deckchair, her friend Basab Mukherjee the doctor was smoking quietly. Suddenly he said, 'Oh did you turn it off?'
'Obviously,' replied Karabi. 'Do you want to hear ridiculous lectures by unknown people?'
'You can't tell for sure whether it's ridiculous. The man isn't exactly a non-entity, though. He's a university scholar, a professor at a college here…'
Karabi was deflated, but didn't abandon her argument. 'What if he's a scholar,' she countered. 'And just because he's a professor…'
'That's not all,' said Basab, 'I do know Mriganka Majumdar quite well.'
'Ah, I see now,' responded Karabi. 'So that's why you were listening to the talk with such attention. It's true, I too love listening to my family or friends on the radio or on the phone.'
She was about to turn the radio on again when Basab stopped her. 'What's this, are you turning it on again? No, don't.'
Now I said in irritation, 'But why? Didn't you say it was your friend the professor?'
'But I didn't say we have to listen to the lecture in its entirety. And besides, I don't care to listen to my friends on the radio – I don't have a ear like your wife's.'
'Of course you don't,' I smiled. 'You can at best tuck a leather stethoscope into your ear, but how will you have a jewel-bedecked organ like my wife's?'
'That's true,' Basab smiled as well.
'Then you don't want to listen to your friend's talk?' asked Karabi.
'No, I don't,' replied Basab. 'I don't enjoy these talks of Mriganka-babu's at all. He should realise how much they hurt Sudatta, how much she suffers. The reaction that these speeches…'
Curiosity flashed not just in Karabi's voice, but also on her face. 'Who's Sudatta?'
Basab looked embarrassed at his impulsive statement.
'Sudatta is Mriganka-babu's wife,' he said gravely.
'Then why should she mind listening to her husband's lecture?' enquired Karabi. 'Really, the things you say!'
'That's true,' I said, trying to lighten matters. 'Even a meaningless talk by one's husband and a tuneless song by one's wife are probably the sweetest to each other's ears.'
My joke fell flat, for Basab still looked solemn. Ignoring what I had said, Karabi looked at Basab. 'What's the story, Basab-babu? Of course, if it's confidential…'
'Very confidential,' said Basab with a smile. 'I might have been able to satisfy your curiosity to some extent, but it's difficult to tell you.'
'It needn't be,' said Karabi. 'My nerves are no less strong than anyone's else's.'
'Women always think and say that at first,' Basab smiled again. 'But what happens eventually…'
Impatiently Karabi said, 'We'll wait for the end to see what happens eventually. But if you do want to tell us, please start from the beginning.'
Flicking the ash from his cigarette, Basab said, 'Very well then, listen. But from the middle, not the beginning. Because not even I know how it started…
All this happened during the riots. The dispensary was not particularly crowded that day. Most of my patients were Muslim, who couldn't visit the Hindu neighbourhood because of the aftermath of the riots. Nor was it safe for me to venture into their area. But groceries wouldn't wait for riots to end. And buying them needed money. I was quite upset. Normally there would be a crowd of patients till nine or nine-thirty at night, but that evening the dispensary was emptied out by eight o' clock. The few patients from the neighbourhood who did turn up usually received their treatment out of courtesy. Sending them on their way, I was thinking of leaving, when a taxi suddenly stopped with a loud noise in front of the dispensary. Sensing the arrival of a patient, I sat up eagerly, tidying my desk in a flash. The visitor had entered by then.
He looked familiar. Hesitating, I said, 'Take a seat, please.'
Taking a chair, the handsome, well-built man of twenty-seven or twenty-eight said, 'I don't think you recognize me. We had studied at Scottish together for a couple of years.'
'Oh yes,' I said, 'I remember now. Your name's…'
'It's been a long time,' I said.
'It has,' he agreed. 'Look, I'm here to see you for a special reason.'
I looked at Mriganka-babu. Tall, strong, fair of complexion, with a broad forehead and back-brushed hair. I didn't see any signs of illness. But then ailments are not always visible at first sight. Not even to a doctor.
Glancing around the dispensary, Mriganka-babu said, 'It's absolutely confidential.'
There wasn't another soul in the dispensary. Across the partition dividing the room, Ramesh the compounder was nodding off on a stool in front of the medicine cupboard. Haridas the servant was not nearby either. He was probably chatting at the paan-and-cigarette shop down the road.
'You can tell me here,' I said. 'And if you're uncomfortable here, we can go into the cabin next door.'
After a glance at the door leading into the cabin and at the taxi waiting outside, Mriganka-babu said, 'My wife is in the taxi.'
I had already realized that there was a lady in the vehicle, but pretending that I had only learnt this now, I said, 'Oh please bring her inside.'
'I will if necessary,' he said.
'Would you like to go into the cabin then?' I asked.
'No need, I'll tell you here,' he responded. 'She is in the family way. But we don't want it. You understand?'
'I do,' I said. 'How long?'
'Slightly advanced stage,' he said. 'Fourth month.'
'Quite advanced,' I said, 'not slightly. There's nothing to be done now. And besides, if you don't mind, why are you even considering this option? Do you have other children?'
'Well then? And besides, it's best to be careful about these things beforehand.'
'We did take precautions.'
'Did they fail? But how can you not even allow a child or two to be born? How old is your wife?'
'Twenty-three or so,' he said.
'It's best to have a child at this age,' I told him.
'I know,' said Mriganka-babu, 'but I simply cannot persuade her.'
In surprise, I said, 'I don't understand why women do not care for motherhood these days. If you'd like to bring her in here, I can try to explain things. And besides, there's nothing to be done now. No reasonable person will agree.'
'Other doctors have said the same thing,' said Mriganka-babu. 'Very well, why don't you try to convince Sudatta. I don't want anything like this at all. I know very well how high the risks are. But still she won't listen.'
Mriganka-babu fetched his wife from the taxi. Tall, slim, fair and beautiful. She seemed quite healthy, displaying no sign of fatigue or tiredness even in this condition. I could not understand the reason for her peculiar demand.
'Come into the cabin here,' I said.
The lady looked pleased. As though she had received promising news.
All of us entered the cabin, sitting side by side on the padded bench.
Before I could speak, the lady said, 'You're willing, then. Can you do it?'
'No one can,' I shook my head. 'Why are you even considering such an impossible step?'
Sudatta seemed to pale for a moment, but the very next moment she said in agitation with a red face, 'Look, I haven't come to you for a moral lecture. Several doctors have given me the same lecture over the past month and a half. Tell me whether there's a way or not, no matter how much it costs…'
Offended at hearing a beautiful, educated, well-bred woman say such things, I said, 'It isn't a question of money. Let's put aside the question of ethics too for now. But when there's a risk to your life…'
'Risk to my life!' Sudatta wailed helplessly. 'You have no idea how I'm burning to death every moment. My stomach turns continuously, I feel nauseous all the time. It's a thorn in my flesh. I cannot stand it, I simply cannot. Please save me. Rescue me from this filth. I shall be grateful to you forever.'
I looked at Mriganka-babu in surprise. He looked in silence at his semi-hysteric wife.
It was Sudatta herself who spoke a little later. 'Explain to him, explain everything. There's no need to conceal anything.'
'But disclosing everything will not change medical science, Sudatta. We disclosed everything to the other doctors too,' said Mriganka-babu.
'Tell him too. I'm sure he can offer us a solution.'
Mriganka-babu indicated that I should accompany him into the next room. Sudatta remained in the cabin.
Hesitating a little, Mriganka-babu finally told me briefly, 'My wife was in Lahore during the riots in north India.'
'With a relative?' I asked.
'Yes, that is where the accident occurred. We managed to rescue Sudatta from a small state about three months later. But she simply cannot return to a normal state of mind – all she does is visit one doctor after another. And yet I know very well that in this condition there's nothing that doctors can do, or should do.'
'No,' I nodded. 'We must explain things to her and calm her down.'
'Of course,' said Mriganka-babu. 'I have tried my best. What else is it but an accident? We must wait for the proper time.'
'Why don't you send her to her parents?' I asked. 'She might be at peace there.'
'Her parents are dead,' said Mriganka-babu. 'She has a distant uncle and aunt. I did force her to go to them, but she came back in a day or two. They know everything, and they're not willing to shoulder the responsibility.'
'I have bothered you unnecessarily,' said Mriganka-babu, rising to his feet. 'Your fees…'
'Absolutely not,' I told him. 'I'd have liked to have helped you, but in this condition… However, if you need me later…'
'Certainly,' said Mriganka-babu. 'We will definitely need your help, we'll have to arrange for a hospital when the time comes. I don't know many people here…'
'That won't be a problem,' I assured him. 'I know the people at Carmichael particularly well. All the arrangements will be made there. Don't worry.'
'Thanks very much,' Mriganka-babu responded. 'Why don't you visit us at home one of these days? My house is on Beadon Street. I'd be delighted if you came. Those college days really were the best, you know.'
'You're right,' I said.
Pausing, Basab glanced at Karabi. She was leafing through a magazine in silence. But I had no doubt that she was as keen as before on listening to the rest of the story. 'And then?' I asked.
Lighting another cigarette, Basab said, 'I met them several times over the next five or six months. The better I got to know them, the more my respect for Mriganka-babu grew. To tell the truth, I did not hold the good boys of college in high regard. I believed that the frontbenchers and the first-class degree holders were quite third class when it comes reality. Mriganka-babu changed my viewpoint. His own subject was chemistry. But his interests were not limited to chemistry – he was eager to know about the other branches of science too, as well as literature, politics and sociology. However, what attracted me most was not his erudition, but his amiability, courtesy and civility. I was particularly pleased to see the ease with which he had accepted the accident that had taken place in his wife's life. Whatever I may say, I am not sure whether I could have accepted it had it happened to me.
Mriganka-babu told me one day in the course of conversation, 'You must have been surprised by our behavior that evening. I knew it could not be – I was not willing to take the slightest risk. But what could I do, I simply could not persuade Sudatta. It was to get you to see her that…'
'I realized as much,' I said. 'Or else someone like you would never have made such a strange proposal …'
When she reached an even more advanced stage, Sudatta finally desisted from her attempts. She too realized that there was no choice but to wait for the end – no one would help her, no one would be able to help her.
But although she had stopped trying, the whole thing continued to bother her. One day she said with great indignation, 'I no longer have any faith in your medical science.'
I was silent, not inclined to defend the medical sciences. Mriganka-babu had told me in great detail how much his wife was suffering. Sudatta could not shake off a constant feeling that she was impure and infected. She trembled even in her husband's deep embrace, or turned stiff. Mriganka-babu felt a certain stiffness too in response to his wife's behaviour, but his patience was infinite, and his scientific tolerance, astounding. There was no limit to his efforts to bring his wife back to normal. Earlier, Mriganka-babu did not like going to the cinema or the theatre, considering them harmful for his work. Sudatta would go with other friends and relatives. But after the incident, Mriganka-babu himself became her companion. Not that Sudatta wanted to go out very often, preferring to stay holed up inside the house day and night. But it was I who had suggested not leaving her by herself. It would be better to move about at this time, so that she got some light and fresh air. She had to be kept cheerful.
Of course, Sudatta did not take any of this advice. On the contrary, she subjected her body to as many hardships as possible. She didn't bathe or eat on time, torturing herself in different ways. Her objective was obvious.
One day Sudatta asked, 'Can't something be done so that this thing inside is destroyed on its own, Basab-babu? I cannot endure this anymore.'
I could make out that she would send for me sometimes precisely to say such things, to discuss such possibilities. Mriganka-babu was also keen that I visit them, and that Sudatta talk about these things with me. This would help her find an outlet for all the hatred and abhorrence bottled up within, while offering her some satisfaction and relief.
Then there was a new development. Mriganka-babu told me the story. A distant aunt of his used to live in Varanasi. Visiting Calcutta to have her eyes treated, she stayed at Mriganka-babu's house for some time. I arranged for her to be admitted to the Medical College. She had cataract in both her eyes, and would need an operation. Mriganka-babu's aunt not only had bad eyesight, but was also hard of hearing. She had not heard of the riots or of the crisis in Mriganka-babu's life.
But however weak her eyesight might have been, Sudatta's pregnancy did not escape her notice.
'How many months? Have you done the ceremonies?'
'We don't believe in all this, pishima,' Mriganka-babu told her, shaking his head.
'Why should you?' she said. 'Godless Christians, the whole lot of you. Do you know what happens if you don't do the rituals? The child grows up greedy, drooling all the time. You won't be able to take it in your arms, your clothes will be ruined. Do the ceremonies while there's still time. Give her whatever she wants to eat. You're not feeding someone else's daughter – your own child who's living in her womb will taste all this good food through its mother's tongue. But then it's like father, like son. You're as much of a miser as my brother is.'
Mriganka-babu's father had lived in Calcutta for some time, going back to this family home in the village once things had quietened down. All his property was over there, and he had to look after everything himself.
It was Mriganka-babu's aunt who made all the arrangements for the rituals, bullying her nephew into buying whatever was necessary. She made the sweets herself, bought new saris, and presented everything to the would-be mother.
Out of her husband's aunt's sight, Sudatta threw everything into the drain. Summoning her husband she said, 'Maybe pishima has no idea, but why must you humiliate me?'
And then she began to cry into her pillow, refusing to bathe or eat or go out.
Mriganka-babu's aunt stayed in hospital for nearly a month after the surgery. 'Tell me if you'd like me to stay,' she told Mriganka when leaving. 'Someone should be with her at this time.'
'I don't want to hold you back, pishima,' said Mriganka-babu. 'Don't worry, I'll get a nurse.'
A little upset, the aunt said, 'Vey well, let me know once it all goes off well. Don't forget to send a postcard telling me whether it's a boy or a girl. May god Bishwanath send you a son. I'll send offerings to his temple. The boy will be named Bishsheshwar.'
'It's almost time for your train,' Mriganka-babu told her. 'Better finish your packing.'
Another family of tenants lived on the ground floor of Mriganka-babu's house. Husband, wife and mother-in-law. The wife had not had a child. Several doctors and kavirajs had been consulted, many vows made at different temples. Amulets and lucky charms adorned her wrists and throat. Sometimes she told Sudatta, 'What are all these western ways of yours, didi? A precious jewel is coming your way, and I don't hear a sound. Winter's coming. Get some clothes and socks ready. You'll be in trouble afterwards.'
'We don't need those things,' Sudatta said in an attempt to avoid her.
'What do you mean you don't need them?' said the woman. 'Maybe I haven't had a child of my own, didi, but that doesn't mean I don't know anything. My three sisters have thirteen children between them. If you don't get some swaddling clothes ready now, it will be very difficult later. Very well, if you're not up to it, get me the wool, I'll knit them for you, you won't have to worry about a thing. People desperate for a baby don't get one, and you…'
When Sudatta didn't get her any wool even after this, the woman got her own husband to get some and began to knit socks and caps.
'This is the limit,' Sudatta told her husband. 'Better tell them everything. Let the entire world know – horrible, horrible, I can't take this anymore…'
But Mriganka-babu could take it. I never saw his patience crack in the slightest in his conversations and behaviour with his wife.
Eventually it was time. As you know, I was the house surgeon at Carmichael for some time. They still hold me in high regard. There was no problem. A cabin was booked for Sudatta, and two nurses were engaged. I requested Dr Bose from the ward to take special care of her. Still Mriganka-babu said to me, 'I would be gratified if you could be present…'
'There'll be no need,' I told him with a smile. 'Still, I will make enquiries to the best of my abilities. I'm also making arrangements to be informed on the phone immediately after the delivery.'
Even Sudatta smiled at her husband's anxiety. 'There's nothing to worry about, don't fret so much…'
The smile on Sudatta's face appealed to me very much. So did her way of reassuring her husband. She herself appeared to be confident. At long last, there would be a release from anxiety, worry and discomfort. All the arrangements had been made with the hospital authorities already. After the delivery, the nurse would take the child away, and then hand it over to the sweeper or someone like that, or else to an orphanage or something. The hospital would make all the arrangements – Mriganka-babu would not have to be involved. They did get such cases here from time to time. The nurses knew what to do – they only had to be paid. The money was never wasted.
'But whatever you may say, Basab-babu, I'm not happy about this,' said Mriganka-babu. 'I have never knowingly resorted to lies. And now I have to be involved in all this deception.'
'What's the alternative?' I said.
'Don't pay any attention to him,' Sudatta said firmly. 'No better arrangement could have been made.'
The nurse rang me from the hospital in the morning. Sudatta had given birth to a son in the early hours of the morning. Mrs Majumdar hadn't suffered too much. The child was well too – quite a healthy child.
I gave the first half of the news to Mriganka-babu.
'Let's pay Sudatta a visit,' she said.
I was a little irritated. Why draw me into this? 'I'm busy till one in the afternoon,' I said.
'Very well, we'll go at one then.'
We arrived at the hospital together, parting the curtains to enter Mrs Majumdar's cabin with the nurse. Both of us paused as soon as we crossed the threshold. A nurse was sitting on the tool, holding the baby – wrapped in an expensive towel – out in her arms. And Sudatta was gazing at her child. Her eyes held no loathing, no antagonism, not a single sign of discomfort or unhappiness. A deep sense of peace and satisfaction had made Sudatta's expression entirely natural, beautiful, and tranquil.
But she was flustered when she saw us. The blood rose on her wan, exhausted face. The next moment she scolded the nurse, 'Take him away from here. Who asked you to bring him here?'
The nurse stared in surprise for a moment before leaving with a chuckle. I was looking at Sudatta, and had no opportunity to observe any change in Mriganka-babu's demeanour. I saw no contortions on his face when I turned to him.
A little later he asked his wife lovingly, 'How are you, Sudatta?'
It took some time for Mrs Majumdar to regain her composure. Lowering her eyes, she said, 'Very well.'
'I was so scared,' said Mriganka-babu.
After a silence Sudatta said, 'There was nothing to be scared of.'
Mriganka-babu seemed to smile. 'No, I'm relieved now.'
We went out of the room after a while. Suddenly Mriganka-babu said, 'Cancel all the arrangements, Basab-babu. We'll take him home.'
'What!' I was astonished. 'How is that possible? And why should Mrs Majumdar agree? Don't try to do this, Mriganka-babu, don't complicate things further.'
Lighting a cigarette, Mriganka-babu said, 'There's nothing complicated about it. Motherhood is the simplest thing in the world, the clearest.'
'What are you saying,' I protested. 'Motherhood doesn't exist in a vacuum these days. Society, respect, all sorts of superstitions, the sense of convenience and inconvenience – all these things are connected with it. The mother's love that you saw on Mrs Majumdar's part might just be temporary, merely physical.'
'All love is,' said Mriganka-babu with a smile.
He paid no heed to my objections, and cancelled all the arrangements made with the nurses at once.
'But Mrs Majumdar…' I said.
'I'll manage everything,' said Mriganka-babu. 'Don't worry.'
His voice was more than a little annoyed. 'Why should I worry?' I told myself.
Mriganka-babu took his wife and son home a week later. I heard that Sudatta had objected strongly. But Mriganka-babu had paid no attention. 'Are you mad?' he had said. 'Maybe he isn't as beautiful as you, a bit on the dark side, but that doesn't mean you will leave your own son behind.'
Mriganka-babu telephoned me after they had reached home, saying, 'It's all sorted. I'm sorry to have troubled you so much…'
'Not at all,' I said.
A patient of mine, a labourer, was in my dispensary at the time, accompanied by his wife and two children. The son was the older one. He was there to have his wife treated. Examining her, I prescribed medicines. When the elder boy saw that the younger one, a girl, had climbed on her mother's lap, he made the same demand. The husband took him on his own lap.
'You son loves you, doesn't he?' I asked.
'Yes, daktar-babu,' he answered. 'He follows me about everywhere.'
I smiled to myself. The boy was his wife's son from her first marriage. He had been my patient for a long time – I knew everything about them. He had married his present wife after the first one had died. The boy used to be in her arms then – and now he had happily abandoned her lap to sit on my patient's. It was all a matter of habit, of practice. Considering Mriganka's willpower, nothing was impossible for him.
I didn't keep track of Mriganka-babu for a year after this. They did not try to keep in touch either. I had chosen to maintain a distance. My company might not have been preferable or pleasant for them.
But about a month ago, Mrs Majumdar suddenly rang me and said she was ill. If I could visit her at home, she would be very obliged.
'Very well,' I said. 'But where's Mr Majumdar?'
'He's out of town.'
I had another call to make in Haripal Lane. By the time I was done there it was one-thirty in the afternoon, after which I went to Mriganka-babu's house.
Their old retainer Amulya had known me since last year. With a smile he said, 'Come in, daktar-babu, you haven't been here in a long time.'
There did not appear to be anyone severely ill at home. I followed Amulya upstairs. Mriganka-babu and his family had rented three rooms in this building. One of these was his library, a second one was the drawing room, and the inner room – the largest of the three - was where Sudatta's household was located. I saw that the doors to the two other rooms were padlocked.
Sudatta stood at the door when she heard me come in. 'I thought you wouldn't come.'
She seemed to have become more beautiful – her earlier frenzy had disappeared. Her face was serene, solemn, but there was a hint of melancholy beneath her eyes.
'What are you ill with?' I asked.
'Must you ask about illness the moment you step in?' she smiled.
'No one summons the doctor in wellness,' I said.
Sudatta did not answer.
A child of about a year was asleep in a cradle inside the room. 'I hope your son's well,' I said.
'Yes, there's nothing wrong with Bishu,' Sudatta said.
'Bishu?' I asked.
Blushing a little, Sudatta said, 'We took pishima's suggestion. His name is Bishsheshwar.'
Taking the padded chair, I said, 'Very nice name. So no one's ill. I was worried when I heard. Glad everything's well. Did Mriganka-babu leave town suddenly?'
'Yes, he's gone to Nagpur. Apparently a new variety of guinea pig has appeared there. He wants to collect a few specimens.'
'Guinea pig!' I exclaimed in surprise. 'What does he want with guinea pigs!' Sudatta replied, 'He needs them for his cross-breeding experiments.'
'Cross-breeding!' I said.
Sudatta looked into my eyes. 'Yes, biology is his main subject now. Heredity…'
Suddenly she said, 'I can't take it anymore, daktar-babu.'
I tried to smile. 'When you've married a scientist, these little nuisances…'
'Nuisance!' Sudatta said sharply. 'Is a scientist's wife not human, daktar-babu? Is she a rat or a guinea pig?'
Sudatta told me the entire story. Pointing to the locked rooms, she said, 'Both those rooms are now full of biology textbooks and bottles stuffed with worms. He probably wanted to put Bishu in one of those bottles too, but maybe you don't need so much care when testing for the effect of the environment on human beings.'
I was flabbergasted. 'What are you saying?'
Sudatta explained that she had tried her best to have Bishu sent away. But Mriganka-babu had refused. Who ever gives away one's own things? Bishu was nothing but a thing for Mriganka-babu – an ingredient for his experiments. But Sudatta could not bear to see all this. Mriganka-babu had arranged for expensive toys, clothes and food for Bishu. He enquired after the child at least three or four times a day, took him in his arms, kissed him too. Then he suddenly inspected Bishu and took notes. How could Sudatta endure the look in his eyes?
I didn't know what to say. After a silence, I rose. 'I'm in a hurry today Sudatta-debi. For now…'
'No, stay a little longer,' she stopped me. 'I have something else to tell you.'
'What?' I said in surprise.
Sudatta was silent for a few moments, hesitating a little. Then suddenly she said, 'Look, this time too I want… It's not as advanced as last time. Surely you can help me this time.'
Startled, I asked, 'What are you trying to tell me?'
Sudatta had been speaking with her eyes on the floor all this time. Now she looked at me directly. The same frenzied look in them. As though she couldn't tolerate it this time either. Today too her entire body was shaking with an unknown hatred and repugnance.
Like last time, Sudatta looked at me directly. 'I'm sure you know what I want. I don't wish to provide material for your scientist friend's comparative studies.'
Basab stopped, lighting a cigarette. I was about to say something, but Karabi jumped up and turned the radio on quickly. Neither a talk, nor a story, but a song.
A request show.
'Thank goodness,' said Karabi.
Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer