Summarize to one third its length:
A couple of miles along the path they met their two companions returning with lanterns in their hands. They had actually just been for a smoke, and had found out nothing about the firewood. They claimed it was being chopped up now and would not be long coming. Bidhu and Banamali then described what had happened in the hut. Nitai and Gurucharan dismissed this as nonsense, and rebuked the other two angrily for deserting their post.
The four of them swiftly returned to the hut at the cremation-ground.
When they went in, they found that the corpse had gone: the bed was empty. They stared at one another. Could jackals have made off with it? But even the garment that covered it had gone. Searching about outside the hut they noticed in a patch of mud by the door some recent, small, woman’s footprints.
The zamindar, Sharadashankar, was not a fool: to try to tell him a ghost-story would get them nowhere. After long discussion, the four decided they had best say simply that the cremation had taken place.
When, towards dawn, the wood arrived at last, those who brought it were told that in view of the delay the job had already been done, using
firewood stored in the hut. They had no reason to doubt this. A dead body was not a valuable object: why should anyone wish to steal it?
It is well known that an apparently lifeless body can harbour dormant life which in time may bring the body back to life. Kadambini had not died: for some reason, her life-function had been suspended – that was all.
When she regained consciousness, she saw dense darkness all around her. She realized that the place where she was lying was not her usual bedroom. She called out ‘Didi’ once, but no one in the dark room replied. She sat up in alarm, recalling her death-bed – that sudden pain in her chest, the choking for breath. Her eldest sister-in-law had been squatting in a corner of the room warming her little son’s milk on a stove – Kadambini had collapsed on to the bed, no longer able to stand.
Gasping, she had called, ‘Didi, bring the little boy to me – I think I’m dying.’ Then everything had gone black, as if an inkpot had been poured over a page of writing. Kadambini’s entire memory and consciousness, all the letters in her book of life, became at that moment indistinguishable. She had no recollection of whether her nephew had called out ‘Kākimā’ for the last time, in his sweet loving voice; whether she had been given that final viaticum of love, to sustain her as she travelled from the world she knew, along Death’s strange and endless path.
Her first feeling was that the land of death must be one of total darkness and desolation. There was nothing to see there, nothing to hear, nothing to do except sit and wait, forever awake. Then she suddenly felt a chilly, rainy wind through an open door, and heard the croaking of monsoon frogs; and all her memories of the monsoon, from childhood right through her short life, rose in her mind. She felt the touch of the world again. There was a flash of lightning: for an instant the tank, the banyan tree, the vast plain and a distant row of trees showed themselves before her eyes. She remembered how she had sometimes bathed in the tank on sacred occasions; how seeing dead
bodies in the cremation-ground there had made her aware of the awesomeness of death.
Her immediate idea was that she should return home. But then she thought, ‘I’m not alive – they won’t take me back. It would be a curse on them. I am exiled from the land of the living – I am my own ghost.’ If that were not so, how had she come at dead of night from the safe inner quarters of Sharadashankar’s house to this remote cremation-ground?
But if her funeral rites had not yet been completed, then what had become of the people who should have burned her? She recalled her last moments before dying, in the well-lit Sharadashankar residence; then, finding herself alone in this distant, deserted, dark cremation-ground, she again said to herself, ‘I no longer belong to the world of living people. I am fearsome, a bringer of evil; I am my own ghost.’
As this realization struck, all ties and conventions seemed to snap. It was as if she had weird power, boundless liberty – to go where she liked, do what she liked; and with the onset of this feeling she dashed out of the hut like a madwoman, like a gust of wind – ran out into the dark burning-ground with not the slightest shame, fear or worry in her mind.
But her legs were tired as she walked, and her body began to weaken.
The plain stretched on endlessly, with paddy-fields here and there and knee-deep pools of water. As dawn broke slowly, village bamboo-groves could be seen, and one or two birds called. She now felt very afraid. She had no idea where she stood in the world, what her relation to living people would be. So long as she was in the wide open plain, in the burning-ground, in the darkness of the Srābaṇ night, she remained fearless, as if in her own realm. Daylight and human habitation were what terrified her. Men fear ghosts, but ghosts fear men: they are two separate races, living on opposite sides of the river of death.
Wandering around at night like a madwoman, with her mud-smeared clothes and weird demeanour, Kadambini would have terrified anyone, and boys would probably have run away and thrown pebbles at her from a distance. Fortunately the first passer-by to see her in this condition was
‘Mā,’ he said, approaching her, ‘you look as though you come from a good family: where are you going to, alone on the road like this?’
At first Kadambini did not reply, and merely stared blankly at him. She felt totally at a loss. That she was out in the world, that she looked well-born, that a passer-by was asking her questions – all this was beyond her grasp.
The gentleman spoke again. ‘Come along, Mā, I’ll take you home. Tell me where you live.’
Kadambini began to think. She could not imagine returning to her in- laws’ house, and she had no parental home; but then she remembered her childhood friend Yogmaya. Although she had not seen her since childhood, they had sometimes exchanged letters. At times there had been an affectionate rivalry between them, with Kadambini asserting that nothing was greater than her love for Yogmaya, while Yogmaya suggested that Kadambini was not responding sufficiently to her own affection. But neither doubted that if opportunity to meet arose again, neither would wish to lose sight of the other. ‘I’m going to Shripaticharan’s house at Nishindapur,’ said Kadambini to the gentleman.
The man was going to Calcutta. Nishindapur was not near by, but it was not out of his way. He personally saw Kadambini to Shripaticharan Babu’s house.
The two friends were a little slow to recognize each other, but soon their eyes lit up as each saw a childhood resemblance in the other. ‘Well I never,’ said Yogmaya. ‘I never thought that I would see you again. But what brings you here? Did your in-laws kick you out?’
Kadambini was silent at first, then said, ‘Bhāi, don’t ask me about my in-laws. Give me a corner in your house, as a servant. I’ll work for you.’
‘What an idea!’ said Yogmaya. ‘How can you be a servant? You’re my friend, you’re like –’ and so on. Then Shripati came into the room.
Kadambini gazed at him for a moment, then slowly walked out, without covering her head or showing any other sign of modesty or respect.
Afraid that Shripati would take offence at her friend’s behaviour, Yogmaya made apologies for her. But so little explanation was necessary
– indeed, Shripati accepted her excuses so easily – that she felt uneasy.
Kadambini joined her friend’s household, but she could not be intimate with her – Death stood between them. If one doubts or is conscious of oneself, one cannot unite with another. Kadambini looked at Yogmaya as if she and her house and husband were in a different, distant world. ‘They are people of the world,’ she felt, ‘with their loves and feelings and duties, and I am an empty shadow. They are in the land of the living, whereas I belong to Eternity.’
Yogmaya was also puzzled, could not understand anything. Women cannot bear mystery, for this reason: that poetry, heroism or learning can thrive on uncertainty but household arts cannot. Therefore women thrust aside what they don’t understand, maintaining no connection with it, or else they replace it with something they themselves have made – something more useful. If they cannot do either of these, they get angry. The more impenetrable Kadambini became, the more resentful Yogmaya became towards her, wondering why she had been burdened with such trouble.
There was a further problem. Kadambini was terrified of herself. Yet she could not run away from herself. Those who are frightened of ghosts look backwards in terror – they are frightened of what they cannot see. But Kadambini was terrified of her inner self – nothing outside frightened her. Thus, in the silence of midday, she would sit alone in her room and sometimes shout out loud; and in the evening, the sight of her shadow in the lamplight made her quiver all over. Everyone in the house was alarmed by her fear. The maids and servants and Yogmaya herself began to see ghosts all over the place. Eventually, in the middle of the night, Kadambini came out of her bedroom, wailing; she came right up to the door of Yogmaya’s room and cried, ‘Didi, Didi, I beg you! Do not leave me alone!’
Yogmaya was as angry as she was frightened. She would have driven Kadambini out of the house, there and then. The kindly Shripati, with great effort, managed to calm Kadambini down and settle her in an adjoining room.
The next day Shripati received an unexpected summons from the inner part of the house. Yogmaya burst into a torrent of accusation: ‘So! A fine man you are. A woman leaves her own husband’s home and takes
up residence in your house – months have gone by but she shows no sign of leaving – and I’ve heard not the slightest objection from you. What are you thinking of? You men are a fine lot.’
In fact, of course, men are unthinkingly weak about women, and women can accuse them all the more because of this. Even if he had been willing to swear on his life that his concern for the pathetic yet beautiful Kadambini was no more than was proper, his behaviour suggested otherwise. He had said to himself, ‘The people in her husband’s house must have treated this childless widow with great injustice and cruelty, so that she was forced to flee and take refuge with me. She has no father or mother – so how can I desert her?’ He had refrained from inquiring about her background, not wishing to upset her by questioning her on this unwelcome subject. But his wife was now objecting strongly to his passive, charitable attitude; and he realized he would have to inform Kadambini’s in-laws of her whereabouts, if he was to keep the peace in his household. In the end he decided it would not be fruitful to write a letter; it would be better to go to Ranihat personally to find out what he could.
Shripati set off, and Yogmaya went to Kadambini and said, ‘My dear, it doesn’t seem advisable for you to stay here any more. What will people say?’
‘I have no connection with people,’ said Kadambini, looking solemnly at Yogmaya.
Yogmaya was nonplussed. ‘You may not have,’ she said irritably, ‘but
we have. How can we go on putting up someone else’s widow?’ ‘Where is my husband’s house?’ said Kadambini.
‘Hell!’ thought Yogmaya. ‘What is the woman on about?’
‘Who am I to you?’ said Kadambini slowly. ‘Am I of this world? All of you here smile, weep, love, possess things; I merely look on. You are human beings; I am a shadow. I do not understand why God has put me in your midst. You’re worried that I’ll damage your happiness – I in turn cannot understand what my relation is to you. But since the Almighty has kept no other place for the likes of me, I shall wander round you and haunt you even if you cut me off.’
Her stare and the tone of her words were such that Yogmaya
understood their import, even if she did not understand them literally and was unable to reply. She could not manage any more questions.
Gloomy and oppressed, she left the room.