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A Dowry Death

by Kate Thompson


    The boys from the village across the railway tracks were there again. Uma could hear their whispered voices coming through the window of the small dark kitchen where she was grinding spices for the evening meal. In anger she arose and went out to the verandah, from where she could see the whole of the garden.
    “Go, go away,” she shouted, “why won’t you understand? If you will just wait until the mangos are ripe I will give you all some. What use is it to anyone to knock them all down when they are so small and sour? They will only make you sick anyway.
    ” The boys retreated a few steps along the road and stood regarding her solemnly.
    “Go, go.”
    She shouted at them, but they didn’t move. She knew that they would return to their sport as soon as she went back to the house, so she sat down on a white cane chair on the verandah to wait until they got bored and went away. The meal would not be ready when her two younger daughters returned from school. They would have to wait. They understood that things were going to be more difficult now they no longer had a servant.
    A jay, blue and brown and white, fluttered across Uma’s vision and came to rest in the centre of the lawn. Lawn. Once there had been a lawn. Now there was a barren space with the scorched remnants of grasses lying in a tangle. For a while after the mali had been dismissed the garden had stayed reasonably tidy, but the last rains had seen the end of order, and there were corners now behind the house that had completely reverted to jungle. The girls had played there until one day they came across a nest of scorpions and deserted the wild places forever. Occasionally the scents of roses or budlea would drift out of the undergrowth but the flowers were lost.
    In a neighbour’s garden a coppersmith tocked away at the afternoon. The boys were still there, playing rough games now in the dusty road. They were making her life miserable. In the mornings they came at dawn and her prayers in the tiny temple were disturbed by their suppressed laughs and the whumpf and clatter of the sticks that they threw into the trees. Her daily trips to the market were rushed and unhappy because she knew that the boys would come while she was away. Even at night she often lay awake, alerted by some ambiguous sound, gazing at the grey square of the window.
    Her attention was drawn to the rattling drone of a scooter coming up the road. The boys did not move from its path, so she knew that it was her son-in-law and they had recognised him. The scooter pulled up outside the garden beneath the tamarind tree and Ramesh dismounted and pulled the shining machine onto its stand.   
    She met him at the cast-iron gates. He was brushing imaginary dust from his trousers and tugging at the creases to straighten them. When he was satisfied he looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back, and then to hide the thrill of pleasure that his appearance caused, she turned upon the village boys who had closed in to examine the scooter.
    “Go away will you! Is there no work for you in your fathers’ fields? And how is it that you don’t go to school?”
    The boys did not answer, but they did not go away.
    “Oh, those dreadful boys.”
    She changed from Bengali into English when she spoke to Ramesh, as befitted their social status.
    “They are pulling down all the mangos, there will be none left to ripen.”
    “You should pick them yourself, mother, and make mango pickle. Then they won’t bother you any more.”
    “But I so love the ripe fruit, Ramesh, and so do the girls.”
    Ramesh swung open the gates and she moved before him towards the verandah.
    “Besides, you know that I have never learnt to do these things, and we don’t have Laxshmi any more.”
    “Yes, you must miss her. But Anjoli tells me you are a fine cook.”
    “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, but we manage.”
    Ramesh reclined himself on a wicker deck-chair and folded his hands behind his head. Uma leant against the verandah rail and tried not to look at him. He had been a fine catch for her eldest daughter. Uma had not hoped that she would marry so well since the death of her father and their decline in standards. She looked at her feet in their braided leather sandals and enjoyed the easy silence between herself and her son-in-law. A subtle change in the quality of sound made her aware that the day had turned towards evening. The girls would soon be home and she had not even put the rice on to cook.
    “Ramesh, I am forgetting myself. If Laxshmi were here the water would be already boiling. You will excuse me while I go and make tea.”
    “No, no, please do not go to so much trouble.”
    “Of course you must have tea. It is no trouble, and I won’t be long.”
    She went into the house, momentarily blinded by the change from the harsh sunlight outside. The little kitchen was even darker, and she had to feel for the matchbox while her eyes were becoming accustomed to the dimness. She squatted on her heels and pumped the small brass kerosene stove until the plunger encountered resistance, then she turned it on and lit it with a match. Uma hated that stove, even feared it. Every day she regretted that she had not had the foresight to put in a proper kitchen when she had the means to do it. A bottlegas stove and work surfaces at waist level were all that she would need. She hated working on the floor, and found it uncomfortable and somehow demeaning. That she would one day be left without servants had never occurred to her in those easy days of concerts and dinner-parties, and now it was too late. There was no question of spending that kind of money now.
    The water came to the boil and she filled the teapot and set the tray with china teacups, silver spoons, milk and sugar. She was ashamed that there were no sweets in the house.
    Ramesh was exactly as she had left him, relaxing in the chair with his face turned up to the still and silent leaves of the mango trees.
    “Still no sign of the rains, mother. The heat in the office is terrible these days”.
    “You poor thing, why don’t you ask for a vacation, go up to Kanchenjunga or somewhere?”
    “Out of the question at the moment I’m afraid. We’re terribly busy. I have some very important cases coming up.”
    “Ah, well, perhaps later.”
    “Perhaps. Actually, I worry a lot about poor Maushomi cooped up all day in that awful room we have.”
    Uma poured tea and added milk and sugar to both cups.
    “She’s not used to that kind of life at all, as you know, and I’m afraid that it will damage her health.”
    “Every woman has to make adjustments when she leaves her mother’s house. I’m sure Maushomi is delighted with her marriage and her new life”.
    Uma reached over and put a cup of tea onto the broad armrest of her son-in-law’s chair. He remained where he was for a moment, then sat forward with his elbows on his knees, rubbing his face with his hands. He took a sip of tea, then said;   
    “Actually, I wanted to ask you about the flat in Alipore.”
    “Well, Ramesh...”
    “It’s just that the place we’re in is an awful hovel, you know. Poor Maushomi is embarrassed to ask people in for tea or dinner and she gets terribly lonely. It’s not as though she were a simple girl. She’s educated, she needs the right sort of company.”
    “I’m sure your place isn’t that bad, Ramesh. College types these days don’t mind.”
    “You don’t understand how bad it is, mother. There are rats and cockroaches, and prostitutes in the doorway at night. Maushomi is afraid to go out alone after dark.”
    “Oh, dear.”
    “Yes, so that is why I was wondering about the flat in Alipore.”
    “But surely with your contacts you should be able to find something?”
    “You just don’t know how bad it is in Calcutta. I have tried everything. I was even talking to my friend Rudro Chatterji, he is the Chief Commissioner of Police, you know, and even he could not help. There is nothing.”
    “But Ramesh, what can I do? I have already explained to you that I cannot live without the rent from that apartment. I have almost no other income.”
    “We could give you something every month, mother, and if I become a partner we will be able to give you as much as you are getting now.”
    Uma drained her teacup. The boys from the village were standing up against the hedge and listening to the conversation.
    “Go away!” she almost screamed. They moved back a step or two, muttering among themselves. Uma sat deep in her chair and sighed.
    “Ramesh, I have two girls at home and I must pay for their education. After school they must go to university, and after that they must both be married. All these things take money. Already I am finding it difficult, I cannot possibly manage with less than I have.”
    Ramesh was silent for a few moments. When he spoke it was in a lower voice than usual, and the tone was harsh and level.
    “Mother, it was part of our marriage agreement that we should have the flat.”
    “The flat was spoken of only. It was not included as part of the settlement. In any case, you will have it. Ramesh, I promise you that you will have it, but you cannot have it now. I cannot survive without it.”   
    “Then when shall we have it? You are not old, mother, and your health is good. What is Maushomi to do in the meantime?’
    “She is young and strong, Ramesh, and so are you. Every young couple must struggle a bit at the start of their lives together, it is part of life. It means there is something to work and hope for. Be patient and you will see that something will turn up.”   
    “But it’s not right for people like us to be living in that kind of place. My colleagues sneer. We need the flat in Alipore, mother. It has a proper kitchen. It is dangerous for your lovely daughter to be cooking on an old kerosene stove.”
    “For me also, Ramesh.”
    She raised her hands, palms upturned towards the sky.
    “If only god had given me sons,” she said.
    Ramesh stood and moved to the verandah steps.
    “I will ask you only once more, mother. Give us the flat and bless our marriage.”
    “I cannot, Ramesh, I am sorry.”
    “I am sorry too, mother.”
    He walked over to the gates and went through, leaving them for her to close. The village boys flocked around and watched as Ramesh started the scooter and drove away with a grinding roar, leaving behind a shroud of exhaust smoke and dust. As Uma stood and watched him depart, she had an uncomfortable feeling, an image of black smoke on the Calcutta skyline, a sari hem trailing in blue kerosene flames. The boys were standing in a semi-circle, regarding her solemnly. Those things happened to their sort, not hers.
    “Go away now,” she said to them, surprised by her own sudden calm,
“go home, and leave my mangos alone.”
   
At the bottom of the road she saw the bright blue and white of her daughters’ school uniforms. She turned and headed towards the house, and as she entered the kitchen she wondered if there was anyone in the neighbourhood who could teach her to make mango pickle.
    The following evening after dinner Anjoli and Susmita went to their rooms to do their homework, and Uma began the task she hated most. Squatting down in the corner of the murky kitchen where water ran from a knee-high tap onto the concrete floor and out through a hole in the wall, she scrubbed the blackened bottoms of stainless-steel cooking pots with coconut husks dipped in sand. The day had been quiet. For some reason the village boys had not come, but there absence even more than their presence had made her uneasy, and she had wandered outside often in between her household duties, surveying the garden and the road. She had encountered no-one to ask about the pickle.
   
The hem of her white widows’ sari trailed into the filthy water, but she could not bring herself to tie it up between her legs as the servants and washerwomen did. Grains of rice and pieces of vegetable floated in the water which ran out of the hole in the wall. Uma worried about rats and pi-dogs, and wondered whether it would be economical to keep a few hens. A sharp knock on the verandah door startled her, and as she stood up she absent-mindedly wiped her dirty hands on the shoulder of the sari, leaving a large black smear. She looked at it as she crossed the airy living-room and hesitated, wondering whether she would have time to change, but the knock came again and she continued across the door. A khaki-clad policeman stood squarely in the doorframe, and behind himthe last light was fading from the sky.
   
“Mrs. Uma Ghose?” he said.
   
“Yes?”
    She noticed that his eye lingered for a moment on the dirty mark on her sari.
   
“Perhaps it would be better if you sat down.”
    She glanced automatically towards the silent mango trees. He moved as though to go past her and she turned and preceded him into the house.
   
“Please sit.” he said, gesturing towards an armchair, “I’m afraid there has been an accident.”


________

Taken from ‘Sticks and Stones’ (1989), pages 41-45.



Kate Thompson
 

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