The rev­e­la­tion

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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.

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