ABA! WHAT’S THE POINT OF your keeping the key to the letter box?”
Gourishankar was taken aback by his son’s unexpected, probing question. “What do you mean what’s the point?” he stammered.
“What I mean is that you hardly get any letters. What do you need the key for? Give it to your Bouma, daughter-in-law.”
Astonished, Gourishankar looked at his son, who was standing by the door. Not “could you” or “it might be a good idea to”, but “give”. Practically an order. Why was his son on the warpath suddenly?
The key to the letterbox had always been with Gourishankar. This “pointless” practice had been continuing ever since this flat on the second floor was bought and the letterbox affixed to the wall beneath the staircase. Although it was one in a row of several boxes, theirs was unique. It had been specially ordered, with a pattern on its “door”, on which a strong lock had been fitted instead of the customary tiny padlock. The key had been fastened securely to Gourishankar’s poitey [thread worn by Brahmins] ever since then. There was a duplicate, which was with Kamalini. “You aren’t home all the time,” she had said, “let me keep the second key.”
Gourishankar had complied, but he had added with a smile, “Will you have the energy to go down three flights of stairs to collect the letters?”
She never did have the energy, for she suffered round the year from aching knees. Still, she had returned the smile. “Even if I can’t, what if you lose yours? We can use this one then. At least we’ll have a spare…. Or else...” But then nothing like that ever happened. The key had been attached to Gourishankar’s sturdy poitey all these years. And it was Kamalini whom he lost instead, in a way that made it impossible to ask her, “Do you know where the key is?”
Swati had looked everywhere for the duplicate key.
It wasn’t easy, since asking directly was out of the question. And, besides, you can’t really rummage through your mother-in-law’s things when your fatherin-law was still alive, for he monopolised all the keys. But then, Gourishankar was not the formidable sort. He was also quite oblivious to whether his presence caused difficulties, or whether his long-established habits were a source of irritation to anyone.
Gourishankar had gathered the keys left behind by Kamalini, guarding them with his life, as though she would return one day to claim them. Nor did he allow her things to be moved, becoming impatient if they were handled carelessly, as though he would have to justify any damage to Kamalini, who would ask, “Why is everything in such a mess?” But then, all this was the epitome of Gourishankar’s insensitivity and not actual deviousness. He did not realise that he was using his dead wife to prevent his daughter-in-law from taking her place as the mistress of the family.
And so, he could not understand why Swati was always complaining acrimoniously to his son Udayshankar.
“All day long, it’s Bouma, what’s this doing here .... Bouma, why is that
ASHAPURNA DEBI (1909-95) wrote hundreds of stories over 70 years. She focussed on the traditional Bengali family in transition, laying bare its hypocrisies and oppressions, which, in the name of honour and unwritten social laws, often forced both men and women into solitude and unhappiness.
PUBLISHED by Om Books International, 2018. Pages: 288, Price: 295. Translated by Arunava Sinha.