Out of Countenance
Out of Countenance
Haren, an energetic youth of around twenty summers, entered the post-office with four khaki postbags on his left shoulder. Earlier, his complexion was quite fair. But the sun-tanned-face then had turned almost copper owing to the job of a postman. The post office was located in a colony of row-houses close to a cluster of institutions and government offices. Two quarters were allotted for a police-out-post and a post-office. It was a small suburb of a cosmopolitan kind, around sixty kilometers away from Kolkata. The nearest railway-station was at a distance as a crow flies. The day was quite hot. His shirt was almost wet by profuse perspiration. Before keeping the bags on the floor, where they used to empty the contents of those bags, he apprised Mr. Roy, the postmaster that some members of one Sen family would come on the next Sunday to see his eldest daughter.
“Royji, their son is working in the railways. He is a clerk. It’s a jolly good permanent service. He gets good salary along with attractive facilities. It’s much better than post-office jobs.” Haren proclaimed.
And then he kept the bags on the floor and wiped his forehead and neck with the small cotton chequered napkin, which he would always keep around neck or on the left shoulder. “Royji please make all arrangements in such a way that they won’t dislike anything this time.” He said benignly. People in that locality used to call the postmaster, as Royji. Mr. Roy nodded his consent. In the last three years whenever Haren conveyed that a prospective family wanted to visit his quarter and see his eldest daughter, whomsoever they were, he made all possible arrangements. He never compromised with quality. An expert cook and his assistants were called to prepare the delicacies. Initially he didn’t agree with his wife for all such extravagance. First two families, while leaving, assured that they’d convey their opinion later but they didn’t bother to send any consent. Mr. Roy’s wife nagged him for not making adequate arrangements for their hospitality, for not buying attractive decorative items like bedspreads, cushion-covers, curtains, crockery etc. to impress them.
Mr. Roy was lost in his reminiscence. The pen was slowly dropped on the table, the register in-front-of-him remained open and unknowingly he joined his hands and leaned back. He was lost in his train-of-thoughts. “How good were those old-days? All the three daughters were studying in the local high school. The eldest one, Rumu, wasn’t bad in studies. But he couldn’t send her for college education. The next two, Jhumu and Tinku, were just a few years younger to Rumu. Last year Tinku too passed school-final examination, the tenth grade board examination. She scored jolly good marks and wanted to study further. He would definitely send her to a college after her twelfth board examination. His wife too insisted so. But their two daughters has already attained theirs marriageable age. But, they couldn’t settle the marriage of the eldest one still. All the past negotiations went in vain. Every time those who had come to see Rumu, would invariably wear a synthetic grin on their face. And they’d say; “We’ll let you know our consent later” or “Let’s ask our son, after all his consent is the most important” kinds of sham assurances while leaving. The only good on their part was though they rejected their daughter but they didn’t convey the same on their face.
Three years passed since then Mr. and Mrs. Sen had been seriously looking for a prospective groom for their eldest daughter, their first child, calm and quite Rumu. People paid no heed to the wonderful qualities theirs Rumu possessed. They were very particular about complexion, height, facial features, so called higher-education, the formal paper-degrees, musical talent and to be precise above all the amount in cash and kind the parents would agree to part with. They never utter the word, ‘dowry’ for its illegal. They aren’t fool? But a few of those opportunists indirectly intimidated them about the same. His train-of-thoughts was disrupted when one of the post-men informed him that he was called inside to take his breakfast. One room of that quarter housed the post-office. Postmaster’s family lived in the rest-of-the-part of that quarter. There was a considerably pretty-large verandah attached on the outer-side of the two rooms. Half of that verandah was converted as a make-shift-living-room by partition. Every quarter in that colony has a large courtyard within. The kitchen, dining-space, bathroom & toilet were on the other-side of the courtyard. Tinku, donning her school-uniform, would yell from the courtyard standing under the jackfruit tree to call her papa from his office, whenever she was told to do so by her mummy.
Postmaster’s son, Bapi was the eldest child. He did have another good-name but that remained only on the pages of school registers. He was popularly known by that nick-name ‘Bapi’ affectionately given by his mother. He almost enjoyed the status of a local-hero for his significant altruistic activities. He would do all the kinds of social service. Bapi was ever-ready to help others. Once late at night a local retired primary-teacher suffered a heart-attack. Bapi accompanied him and his wife to the hospital immediately hiring a taxi for the urgent-medical-attention. The teacher needed an open-heart-surgery. Bapi led the group who moved door-to-door asking contributions from the people of that locality to meet the exorbitant expenses towards the medical-treatment. He would invariably take part in any such social-service. He was around twenty-five years by then. He’d already attended at least twenty cremations and helped them making the funeral pyre. He was a favourite hand of an influential local politician. Bapi worked for him, arranging meetings, processions etc. Others like him worked for a few years, approached the leader and managed a job, a livelihood some-or-the-other-kind. But Bapi remained a faithful worker for him. Bapi couldn’t ask him even once for a job. He would console himself with the pittance that was passed down to him from time to time. And every time he’d religiously hand-over the amount to his mother.
The members of a family that came to see Rumu last time sent consent that the boy was willing to marry the second sister, Jhumu. What a kind of people? The Roys were awestricken. Neither parents nor the neighbours liked that proposal.
Days passed. Now they were preparing for the next episode. To avoid any such consequences like the last one, Jhumu was categorically instructed by her mother not to appear before them. They decided to tell them that the second sister was not at home. Tinku would talk to them; take care of them during their visit. Mother repeatedly instructed Jhumu not to peep through even. “You may not like to remain isolated so long inside the kitchen, if you like then you may stay at your friend, Bina’s house.” Mother apprised. Bina’s house was in the same neighbourhood.
Finally the day had come. Rumu wasn’t in a good-mood at all. She’d had enough. She was literally sick-and-tired of presenting herself, her body, her individuality as an object before the strangers. But looking at the faces of her hapless parents she had to accept the-bitter-role once again. It was probably eleventh or twelfth time. She stopped counting by then. Three members of the said family came for that purpose of seeing theirs would-be-bride. Two of them were the parents and the-third-one was a cousin of the boy. The cousin, Madhavi, elder sister of the would-be-groom, was a teacher. She was married for a couple of years but wasn’t bestowed with a child yet. And she proudly proclaimed that her brother, Manoj, was in a good post. Soon he would get another promotion. And she also pronounced, “He always acts upon my advice”.
Rumu didn’t put on any attractive sari or wear make-up either. She came into that room along-with her sister Tinku, greeted them with folded hands while entering. Both the sisters bowed and touched the feet of the elderly couple one after another as a mark of respect. And then she didn’t just present herself before them, she spoke, albeit very calmly but boldly, “I never knew what is so essential that I lack, several families came to see me but didn’t select me as theirs would-be-bride. While the family that visited last time, they conveyed their velleity of having my next sister as the bride of their son.” The septuagenarian couple and Madhavi, they were all stunned. Before they could ask Rumu anything her emotions exploded. In that moment, even the loquacious Madhavi could hardly think or compose anything to utter at-that-very-instant. They weren’t prepared for it, neither her parents nor the guests. All present were dumbfounded especially Mr. & Mrs. Sen. While Madhavi took a few seconds and then put her both hands on Rumu’s shoulders and gestured her to sit. With sheer composition, she thanked Rumu for her openness with a perched throat. And then she exchanged a few words with a hope to normalize the awkward situation. She apprised Rumu that she would like to talk to her next sister. Rumu and her mother looked at each other. Silence engulfed the interiors of the room. The sole audible sound of tick-tock from the old Swiss wall-clock appeared quite awkward and piercing for Rumu.
Next sister, Jhumu, wasn’t at home. At first she wasn’t willing to come from her friend’s house when she was called. Tinku went to call her. Jhumu was shocked when she came to know, what all her didi had conveyed to them. Mother with her emaciated face and an aunt [a neighbour] scolded her inside the kitchen in very low voice off course. Rumu remained silent. Her eyes were fixed somewhere but she wasn’t looking anything at all.
Jhumu appeared before them with morbid reluctance and a pale face. She was the fairest and the tallest among the three siblings. Madhavi asked her name striving to make an easygoing congenial atmosphere. She apprised them her good name categorically with the surname. And she touched the feet of the old couple. The septuagenarian couple remained quiet. Madhavi did the most talking. She requested Jhumu to show their house. Finally the duo stood very close to the shapely trunk of the jackfruit tree. She exchanged a few more words with Jhumu. And she even asked her, “What was your reaction when you heard that those who visited last time didn’t select your didi but you?” She pondered a bit, composed and replied, “At first I felt very bad but later I took pity on them because I’m sure that those people aren’t going to get a good bride for their son. I gathered that most people judge other people from the outward appearances only. They rejected my didi without knowing her commendable qualities, her calm and affectionate nature and all her skills essential for a perfect home-maker.”
While departing, the visiting couple made a promise that their son, Manoj and Madhavi would come later, as and when Manoj could manage leave from his workplace. Three weeks passed since they visited the Roys’ quarter. Bapi was told to go to their house once and enquire. The suburb in which the Sens lived wasn’t very far from their locality but off course it was quite a posh type one. Bapi visited their house, a beautifully maintained bungalow. He was told that Manoj was attending a training period. Thus, he couldn’t manage leave. Madhavi wasn’t at home. She entered when he was about to leave. She lived nearby. Her in-laws’ house was in the neighbouring locality. She requested him to visit her place too at least for a while. Bapi came to her in laws’ house. Having seen her father in law he thought that the face was quite familiar to him. He couldn’t remember where he had come across the old man. It had slipped out of his mind. On seeing the bewilderment the bald headed octogenarian smiled and recalled the train-accident episode. He was hospitalized along with several other injured passengers by the help of Manoj and other people of their group. Madhavi’s parents in law were very glad having Bapi in their house. As he touched their feet they blessed him and uttered ‘May God bless you a happy and prosperous life, my son’. Delicious sweets were brought in and tea was prepared to serve him. Bapi found that Madhavi was not only loquacious but intelligent and quite straight forward too. She apprised Bapi that Manoj’s parents were interested to a larger extend. She assured him that she’d told Manoj that he would have to live away from home owing to the kind of his job. If he wanted a very good home-maker, one who would bring happiness and prosperity in his life he should convince his parents and marry Rumu.
Manoj tried his best but he couldn’t convince his parents. It appeared to him that mother neither liked the Roy family nor their standard of living. In reality there was something else latent within her mind. She could anticipate the amount of cash and kind the Roys would be able to part with. She gathered necessary information from her reliable sources. Manoj felt dejected. After having known the desire of his own parents he decided not to visit the Roy family with Madhavi to avoid emotional embarrassments. However, he was very much convinced by Madhavi that he won’t be deprived if he would marry Rumu. Thus, both of them decided that Madhavi alone would visit them and maintain a good rapport with them.
Meanwhile, Manoj’s parents were contacted by another family for a prospective marriage negotiation. Both Mr. & Mrs. Sen were informed about the impressive richness and grandeur of that family. And the parents of that girl were ready to give away quite a substantial amount of cash and valuables. One evening, showing the photograph of that girl Manoj’s mother wanted to know her son’s consent. In the pretext of not having enough savings he bluntly averted the proposal. Mother could easily make out that her son was actually avoiding.
Next day Madhavi came. Mother asked her under her breath about Manoj’s intentions. She wanted to extract those which he’d probably conveyed to Madhavi. On finding the right opportunity Madhavi adumbrated her about a concocted affair of Manoj with one of his girl-friends of the college-days. She even added, “I suppose, there is no point in visiting people, looking for prospective brides because it would be just fruitless after all.” She didn’t like the idea of deceiving the elderly couple. Since her childhood she adored them but Manoj earnestly told her to do the same. It was pre-planned. Moreover, off late she had noticed that the elderly couple turned quite greedy, which she didn’t like at all.
Madhavi visited the Roy family thrice during a fortnight’s span. She developed an amiable relation with them owing to her loquacious nature & frequent meetings. She would behave almost like another member of the Roy family. She would extend a helping hand in cooking or other petty household works along with Mrs. Roy and Rumu without any trace of hesitation. She invited Rumu and her sisters to come to her place and attend a local fair. Mrs. Roy decided to send Rumu and Tinku because Madhave had earnestly requested her during her last visit in their house.
Both Manoj and Madhavi decided and concluded that Madhavi would adumbrate Manoj’s parents about a concocted affair of Manoj with one of his college mates as and when she would find an opportunity.
Two sisters, Rumu and Tinku, came to Madhavi’s place for an outing. Quite frivolous though, it was of course a very rare kind of entertainment for them. Rumu wasn’t aware at all what surprise was stored for her. Madhavi introduced her to Manoj amidst the fair. Shy and homely Rumu took quite some time to overcome the initial uneasiness. Madhavi took Tinku away on a pretext of buying something trivial and gave them the desired privacy albeit amidst the gatherings & hubbub of the fair. Manoj found her much better than what he actually expected.
One fine evening the maid of the Sens’ household apprised Mrs. Sen, “Maaji I heard that Manoj babu is getting married in the temple near the crematorium off the by-pass-road.” The very temple was ill-famous in the town for solemnizing such kind of marriages in which one or both sides were normally kept in the dark. Immediately she called her husband up and set out to rush to that same temple. Moving helter-skelter the old couple could manage an auto-rickshaw. Out of irritation she told the auto-rickshaw-fellow, “Bhaiya, move a little faster, otherwise, everything will finish before we reach there.”
From the old dilapidated stone-built arched entrance of the main gate they could clearly see the rearwards of the knelt newly-wedded-couple. And a few people, presumably relatives and friends, stood close by. Manoj’s mother was muttering all the way and nagging her husband for his greed. She even uttered in a soliloquized mood, “It would have been much better if we’d agreed in marrying Manoj off to that postmaster’s daughter. At least we were sure enough about her good family background.”
Her words came out in helplessness, “God knows! Which family has this girl hailed from?” She grumbled. She even cursed that unknown girl including her parents.” As they were stepping on the neatly wiped marble stairs of the temple, at that very instant in the sanctum-sanctorum the young couple rose upright and turned towards them. They’d bowed down their head in salutation in front of the idol of the goddess.
What a coincidence! A collage of countenances Mrs. Sen prognosticated.
Now Mr. and Mrs. Sen could see them, the couple, face to face and the others stood nearby.
They were Manoj and Rumu. They came with Madhavi and her relatives to pay a visit to that temple quite casually.