A Study of the Bengali Novel - Dark Afternoons by Bani Basu
Essays on Regional Language Fiction in India
in English Translation – 2
Continued from "Diamonds on the Diadem"
Bani Basu’s Bengali story Kharap Chhele was published in Desh, Oct. 2001. Katha Prize Stories Vol. 12 published it in English in 2002. Again Katha published this translated by Nandini Guha in 2007 as Dark Afternoons. Eenakshi Chatterjee in the blurb calls it an uncomfortable novella. Whether a story, novella or novel, Dark Afternoons is a remarkable piece which sets people thinking of many things seriously. It appears at first as an ordinary Bengali family’s tale but as it progresses to the middle it begins to develop as a compendium of the social evils of prostitution and the dangers of AIDS, the devilish acts of men suggesting that things could be set right only by acts of kindness, compassion and forward-looking qualities, charity and understanding of both men and women, no matter their age.
With a sober and safe and happy flow, the narrative in the novel rises. After the first half, the flight zooms to the zenith and ends with a bomb blast and a crash to the evil man, a nymphomaniac and megalomaniac. This abominable man has no qualms rendering him rude, inhuman and devilish to his wife, family and the old, nice and understanding father Satyriasis is a devilish condition and prostitution contributes to the anti-social, anti-human condition.
Kalyanbabu is Kalyan Sarkar always revered and referred to as Babu. His wife Arati dies early. The couple had only two sons, Biman and Nikhil. Arati chooses Mallika, a motherless and sedate young woman as her daughter-in-law. Biman, the elder son is a chartered accountant who turns an addict to bridge in the club which earlier his father used to frequent. Mallika his wife is the choice of his mother for him at first sight. Mallika is docile and calm but the dark afternoon dreams of storms and the tiger bother her and she becomes a little absent minded and inefficient in house-keeping. Her dreams are one aspect of the novel since there are many others that cause havoc to the family. Nikhil is the second son is not a very affectionate one. It is his sister-in-law Mallika says to Nikhil that it is time he gets married. Nikhil marries Jina, a girl of Nag Choudhurys’ of Dumdum he likes with parental approval and consent. The two daughters-in-law get on very well. Nikhil creates unhappiness to his father being rude and arrogant. He is not able to bear his wife doing the household work or being friendly and laughing with the other bahu. He wishes his wife Jina all for himself. Kalyanbabu realizes that it is best the house is divided and divides the two portions with a partition in between. Jina gives a room for Kalyanbabu in Nikhils’s portion. Nikhil does not spend much time at home or with his wife. He wants his wife to be fashionable and at a time wants her to cut her hair short to a bobbed one for her to be impressive at parties. He invites friends home to parties. Jina is sweet tempered and not easily perturbed even when her husband is rude, unfair, or un- understanding. She believes that when someone is bad tempered, it is best not to argue or answer back. Still, Nikhil is harsh and bad tempered. When Jina works for the family and Biman’s children, he shouts aloud that his wife is no one’s maid servant. Any attempts to pacify him would be counterproductive. Though they are six years married, they do not have children. Jina’s efforts to give herself to him do not succeed. She finally thinks that she can have better things to do than mope around for her hubby.
Jina’s friend Mukut and Dr Hrithik work in a project for educating the children of prostitutes to help them grow into good human beings provide complete and total training so that they can grow up and take up professions of their own liking. Hrithik is committed to his ideals and he goes with Mukut to Lalita Debi who was a Dasi herself. Hrithik stands firm on his ideals and Rochona is started to begin with some twenty little children. Jina bored with being at home doing nothing asks her friend to show her a job. She takes up a job of teaching prostitutes in Sonagachchi, a red area.
The novel thus having a glide rises to the zenith and the aircraft zooms into several happenings ending finally in a thud and a crash. Shown a three-days-a-week job in an adult education programme for prostitutes, Jina loves her job there. She knows from Mukut who has strong ideas about the social evil. Jina too feels that it is an insult to humanity and women, degrading womanhood. Mukut explains to Jina that it is like any other profession for the utterly hopeless. Bonomala is one of Jina’s students. Mukut, Jina’s friend is aware of Mallika’s afternoon dreams and explains to her: ‘If your tiger belongs to the past, try and forget it. Ninety percent of girls have such an experience, just forget it. If it belongs to the present don’t be frightened, oppose it. Protest strongly, even if it is your own husband. Or you will endanger your mental health, the man’s, and naturally the whole family’s.’[1 p117]
Jina loves Bonomala most in the education centre. She learns from her that she was sold at the age of nine for a sum of five thousand rupees by Mesho since they had seven children by then whom they could not feed. The institution is basically for the prevention of AIDS and is supported by western agencies. Though she finds it hard to accept money for her service Mukut tells Jina that they get aid and she gets remuneration. At first Jina does not know what Dasi is and she thinks it is the name Das. Later she gets to know that Dasi is a name for a woman who has no family, no history, no father, a prostitute’s daughter. Once Bonomala tells her beloved teacher Jina that and a student Purnima is tortured indescribably one day. Asked who she replies: ‘Mashi. She called Kenada’s gang. Through last night, Kenada, that scoundrel Rabi, all of them raped her by turns. Mashi stood there and got all this done. I got to know and rescued her.’[2 p193] This is done because Purnima told them that she would appear for the Board examination, go to a college and study law. Jina admits her in Rochona as a very special case on her responsibility till Hrithik the boss, who is away, comes. As soon Jina’s father-in-law knows that Jina goes to work in Sonagachchi, seeing her on the way once, he rents a room nearby and starts teaching to some. Rochona under Hrithik’s administration grows by leaps and bounds. He is aware of the dons and goons who try to scuttle education for the prostitutes who actually feed them. Jina becomes strong in her work. Her father-in-law goes along with her escorts her back. The dons and the goons are dangerous but Hrithik knows how to deal with them for there is government aid and police help for the institution.
The important characters in the novel are Kalyanbabu, his sons and daughters-in-law. Mallika’s dreams of storms and tigers suggestively reveal to the readers her problems with Nikhil. The novel becomes complex after Jina goes to work in the disrespectful Sonagachchi. Mallika’s again gets dreams with which the novel begins. Mukut’s suggestions to protest strongly with the tiger menace, Kalyanbabu escorting Jina to Abhinas Kabiraj Street are just beginnings. The plane which glides and takes off promisingly zooms to the zenith with troubles more serious than dreams of afternoons.
The emergence of characters from the red light areas lead to dangerous happenings, first beating Kalyanbabu, next Nikhil seeing his wife and sister-in-law and her friend in Bonomala’s room and then the kidnapping of Bonomala’s son Kutush along with three other boys in the little hostel. Jina’s intentions are good and as a good wife she tolerates all her husband’s peculiarities and even has her hair cut short to please him and to appear fashionable to his friends. She taught to her students with élan and pleased them with her narratives. The realistic descriptions of the lives of prostitutes, though repulsive to Jina first make her understand reality. For generations these women and their children have been in the wretched flesh trade. ‘For generations these girls and families had been in this trade. They had never seen any other society, culture, not known any other life. They always peeped from behind door frames, how much could they know? Their society was mainly mother, grandmother, aunt, all from the maternal side. There was no schooling, no social or family activities.’[2 p135]
Mullika too abhors the street walkers and when Jina explains the actualities she says that her language has been terrible. But Jina tells her that she teaches only fallen women and talks about fallen men too ruefully: ‘The fallen men I still haven’t got into my clutches. The day I do…”[4 p 142] This is an ominous statement and the readers remember this at the end.
The dark afternoons are dark not for Mallika alone. Kalyanbabu is severely beaten on the road by goons who did not like prostitutes to be taught or improved in any way. Mallika is alone at home. She picks up the phone when the Dr. Sengupta’s clinic calls. We are told: ‘She was angry at Jina. If she had been there, Mallika would have been in this helpless position. The next moment, the anger was directed at herself. Wasn’t there even one job that she could do on her own? What would have happened if she had left for Dr Sengupta’s clinic after calling Nikhil. She would not have had to undergo the ignominy of riding in the same car with him. [5 p 181] (Him refers to Nikhil) (Italics not in the text) Mallika tells her father-in-law after Kalyanbabu tells her of Purnima’s sad plight and tells her that she had a quiet contented life: ‘Helpless girls like me possibly spend their entire lifetime figuring out how to open the tangled knots of life. There are yet other darknesses.’[6 p191]
The thud occurs when Dr Saha says that they know who beat Purnima Dasi and who sold her informing him that they registered an FIR in the police station. When there is an uproar and chaos caused by the goons s Banomala suggests they go to her room for safety. The thud is when Nikhil, Bonomala’s Babu comes in receiving Bono’s call to his office. Here is the narration of the scene:
In front of him were three women. One of them dropped a glass. It had broken to pieces, the carpet absorbing the fluid. Another was staring wide-eyed, glass in hand mouth agape.
Like a wild bull, the man swerved around violently, shot out of the room and raced down the stairs in noisy flight.
‘What happened? Why did you all get so scared on seeing Photikbabu? He is a very nice man.
Jina was sitting like a statue. Hard, straight, drained of all colour from head to toe. Heavy yet hollow. As though one push would reduce her to dust.
‘Jina – a- a- Mukut called softly, Ei Jina!’
…Jina just rolled off the couch and if Bonomala hadn’t caught her, she would have landed in a heap. …
Taking a bottle from the fridge, Bonomala askd, ‘Why did Photikbabu also become nervous?’
Namitadi was shaking her head. ‘Honestly! Why did that character run? An executive type too. Was he scared of losing his respect?’
Mukut was silent for some time. But this was not something which could be suppressed for long. In a low tone she said, - Namitadi , that was Jina’s husband, Nikhil De Sarkar… Your Babu is Jina Didi’s husband. You heard didn’t you? – Mukut’s tone was rough.’[7 p212]
The doctor who examines Jina later knowing what has happened tells her very patiently and encouragingly that there is a beautiful life ahead for her. She assures all who love her that she would take a decision later but demands and hopes for justice to Bonomala. Kalyanbabu considers her a pillar of social justice.
Bonomala goes into a shocking surprise and tells Mukut and Namita (Hrithik’s project director): ‘He used to say … half mad wife … ugly, couldn’t satisfy him … Oh God! …… (She could not keep quiet.) Mukutdi ‘you should at least her that I did not ruin Jina Didi knowingly. … He said he could not take her to bed she was so strange. He said he I had searched in many places before Lalitadi helped him and he found somebody he liked. He said all the property was in his wife’s name. A domineering woman, she wouldn’t give him a divorce, so much scandal over that, and that once he could get rid of her, he would live with me. Oh God! What a terrible, horrifying story! Why ... How did this happen? O Jina Didi … Don’t … Please, please don’t accuse me!’ [8 p212]
Bonomala wailing and saying that Jina is their goddess Saraswati only reveals that she is innocent and helpless for her condition. While this is so the male’s cruelty and devilish arrogance come out towards the end. Jina, though in a horrible crisis, stands for justice and suggests to her father-in-law that Nikhil should marry Bonomala and bring up the child Kushut. Kalyanbabu is a wise person. He likes the astuteness of his daughter-in-law. When Nikhil comes to her once with a confession she tells him that she has no other choice than giving divorce and insists on his marrying the poor girl and acknowledging her son as his. He says: ‘Who is whose son? – Nikhil’s face distorted. – That whore’s son is mine?’
‘Even if he wasn’t, you would have to accept him. However, he is yours, even you know that’
‘A Sonagachchi bastard! Thoo! I will never agree to such a marriage!’ [9 p227]
Jina’s concern for Bonomala and her son Kutush are very touching. She tells Kalyanbabu that his son borrowed and spent money like water, the company would ask him to go on voluntary retirement and that he wouldn’t get much money. Kalyanbabu wants to see that Kutush gets Nikhil’s property. Jina, a person with self-respect does not want the Dumdum family to know about her misfortune and debacle. Man’s villainy when begins does not have any end. Kutush along with three other boys are kidnapped near a temple and Kalyanbabu knows that this must have been engineered by his son Nikhil.
The thud of Nikhil’s villanny is followed by a crash. Jina is laid up with high fever. Mallika has the dream of the tiger. Nikhil comes drunk totally inebriate. The description of the gruesome scene following Nikhils’ brutal behavior is described with finesse, without any obscenity. ‘Mallika fell on the green partition door. Breaking out from the timid loneliness of her entire wedded life breaking down the walls of her fears, her shame, her wretchedness with both hands, her whole self, in a distorted voice she screamed Jina! Jina! Jina! … She wails: ‘I’ve killed him. I’ve pushed him down. I couldn’t bear it any longer. I couldn’t bear it. How many more years could I bear it?’ [10 p266]
‘Leaning on his stick Kalyanbabu slowly went and stood at the head of the stairs. At the bottom, his neck twisted awkwardly, was his younger son, his fallen son. Next to him blood trickling from a cut lip, hair loose, wild, blouse hanging torn, the look of a mad woman in her eyes, Mallika.’ [11p267]
Kallyanbabu is the silver lining in the darkest cloud. He acts fast and with a sense of justice both otherworldly and legal. He has sympathy for the unfortunate woman and, her suffering. He is also aware of the troubles the family will have to face if he does not act with expedience. ‘For a minute he held to the clinging woman. Then with his stick in one hand, he took her slowly to her room. From the clothes stand he took a sari and said, -- Wear it ma, you see I don’t know how to … Then he took her slowly to his own room. From the shelf he took a strip of medicines, took out two tablets and said – Swallow those now, ma, I’ll get you water. – He gently made her sit down on his armchair. With water from the earthen pot, he wet a towel and said - Now weep your face well. Keep lying down and close your eyes, sleep will come. You didn’t push him, ma. He failed to keep balance and fell. One must know how to keep balance.’[12 p267]
Kalyanbabu, sagaciously and calmly tells Mallika that she has not pushed him down. Fully drunk, he fell down. He makes the wonderful statement; ‘One must know how to keep one’s balance.’ He makes three phone calls, one to Biman, another to Rochona and the third to Dr Sengupta, all self-explanatory: to the son to call him home, to Rochona for information to Jina and her close friends and to the doctor to show the death by accident..
The last five pages are electrifying. With the crash, the wisdom and the large-heartedness of the old gentleman and the deliverance of both of his daughters-in-law, the reader is a little happy and satisfied. This is a sociological novel picturing the actuality of people’s malevolence. Insufferable male domination, cruelty, and devilry and the utter helplessness of poor women leave a touchy and lasting impression on readers. The described human relationships like the one between Biman and Mallika, between Nikhil and Jina make us think of depravities of various kinds. It is only the large-heartedness on people like Kalyanbabu and his wonderful daughter-in-law that kindle the light of goodness. Once a prostitute, a woman is never accepted in respectable society. A man’s condition is different. Bonomala’s anguish can never be allayed; her wail keeps ringing long in our hearts. “What’s my fault? I’ve lived exactly like a wife. In the last six years I haven’t been with another man. Jina Didi is our Goddess Saraswati! Hai! Hai! Beat me; all of you beat me hard. Let me die!’[13 p213] There is insensitive injustice. There can be no light in many dark afternoons and no liberation from many dreadfuls.
1. Basu Bani, Dark Afternoons, Katha, New Delhi,2007 p.