In this excerpt from a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, a man visits Calcutta after his father’s death and seeks out a courtesan he knows who has fallen on hard times.
Devdas was exasperated after spending six months at home following his father's death. No pleasures, no peace, an entirely tedious existence. To add to it all, constant thoughts of Parvati, whom he remembered no matter what he was doing. And his brother, Dwijdas, and Dwijdas's devoted wife aggravated Devdas's agony in no small measure.
His mother was in the same predicament, all her joys having died along with her husband. Life without freedom was becoming increasingly intolerable. She had for some time now resolved to spend the rest of her days with other widows in Kashi, but she could not go till she had arranged for Devdas to be married. Her constant refrain: Get married, Devdas, I want to see you married before I go. But how could this be possible? Not only did their religion not permit a wedding so soon after a death in the family, but a suitable bride also had to be sought. No wonder his mother was overcome by regret sometimes at not having allowed the marriage between her son and Parvati when they had wanted it. One day she summoned Devdas to tell him of her decision: I cannot bear it here any longer, Devdas. I wish to go to Kashi for some time. Devdas was of the same opinion. I agree, he replied. I can bring you back after six months.
Yes, that's best. When I'm back, after your father's last rites are complete, I'll get you married and then go away to Kashi for good.
Concurring, Devdas escorted his mother to Kashi and then departed for Calcutta. There he spent three or four days looking for his old friend Chunilal. His friend was not to be found, having moved houses and disappeared. One evening Devdas remembered Chandramukhi. Should he not meet the dancing girl? He had not thought of her at all following his father’s death. Embarrassed by his own neglect of her, Devdas hired a carriage and appeared before her house soon after dusk. After he had called out her name several times, a woman's voice answered from within, She isn’t here.
Devdas moved closer to a lamppost and asked, Can you tell me where she has gone?
The woman opened a window to look at him. Are you Devdas, she asked?
Wait, let me open the door.
Come in, she said.
The voice appeared familiar, but he failed to recognize her in the darkness. Do you know where Chandramukhi is, he inquired hesitantly.
With a smile the woman said, I do. Come upstairs.
Finally Devdas recognized her. Is it really you?
Yes, it is. Have you forgotten me completely, Devdas?
Upstairs, Devdas discovered that Chandramukhi was dressed in a plain white sari with a black border. She was wearing no ornaments besides a pair of bangles. Her hair was disheveled. In astonishment, Devdas said, It is you. Looking closely, he found that Chandramukhi had become considerably thinner. Were you indisposed? he asked.
Smiling, Chandramukhi responded, Physically, not at all. Make yourself at home.
Settling himself on the bed, Devdas observed that the room had changed. Like its owner's, its circumstances seemed strained too. Not an item of furniture remained—the spaces where the cupboard, the desk, and the chair had stood were empty now. Only a bed remained, its sheets dirty. The paintings had been removed from the walls, but the nails were still there, as were the red cords in one or two places. The clock still hung on the bracket, but in silence. Spiders had spun webs to their heart's content. In one corner, a dim glow emanated from an oil lamp, enabling Devdas to see the room in its new appearance. With a mixture of surprise and unhappiness he inquired, Why this wretched state of affairs, Chandra?
Smiling dejectedly, Chandramukhi said, Who says it's wretched? My luck has turned.
Not understanding, Devdas said, And what has happened to all your jewelry?
Sold it, too.
Did you sell the paintings as well?
Smiling, Chandramukhi pointed to the house across the road. I gave them away to Khetromoni there.
Gazing at her for a while, Devdas asked, Where's Chuni-babu?
Can't say. He went away after a quarrel two months ago, never came back.
Devdas was even more surprised.
Don't people quarrel?
They do. But why?
He was here as a middleman, so I threw him out.
Middleman for what?
For jute. Is it so hard to understand? He got hold of a rich man, two hundred rupees a month, a box full of ornaments, and a guard at the door. Do you understand now?
Devdas understood. He smiled.
But I don't see any of it.
You would if they were there. I sent them away.
What was their crime?
Nothing much, but I didn't like it.
After a great deal of thought, Devdas said, Hasn't anyone else been here since then?
No. In fact, no one has been here since you left. Only Chuni would turn up now and then, but that too has stopped for two months now.
Devdas stretched out on the bed. Sunk in thought, he was silent for some time. Then he said, So you've closed up shop, Chandramukhi?
Yes, I am penniless.
Without responding to this, Devdas said, How do you propose to survive?
As I told you, I've sold my jewelry.
How much can that have got you?
Not a great deal. I have about eight or nine hundred. I've deposited it with a moneylender, he gives me twenty a month.
Twenty was never enough for you.
It isn't enough now, either. I owe three months' rent. So I've decided to sell these bangles, pay all my creditors, and go away.
I haven't decided. Somewhere cheap, a village perhaps, where I can survive on twenty rupees a month.
Why didn't you go earlier? If indeed you do not want anything here, why did you have to prolong your stay and get deeper into debt?
Chandramukhi lowered her eyes. She searched for an answer, embarrassed for the first time in her life at having to say what she was about to. Well? Devdas said.
Sitting down diffidently on one corner of the bed, Chandramukhi slowly began her story.
Don't be angry. I stayed here in the hope of meeting you before leaving. I kept thinking maybe you would visit me once more. Now that you are here, I will make preparations to leave tomorrow. But can you tell me where I should go?
Devdas sat up in astonishment.
In the hope of meeting me? But why?
A whim. You hated me so much. Perhaps because no one has ever hated me quite so much. I don't know if you can remember now, but I do, clearly—you had my attention from the day of your very first visit. I knew you were a rich man's son, but your wealth was not what attracted me to you. Many others had been here before you, but in none of them did I see a spirit such as yours. And you hurt me as soon as you arrived—your behavior was undeserved, uncalled-for, and unsuitable. You kept your face averted in disgust, and farcically left some money for me at the end. Do you remember any of this?
Devdas was silent. Chandramukhi continued, You have held my attention since then. Not out of love, and not out of revulsion. Just as one cannot forget something new, I too could not forget you. I was afraid, on my guard when you came, but I hated it when you did not come. And then I don't know what madness took hold of me—I began to look at everything differently. I changed so much that I no longer remained who I was. Then you started drinking. I hate it. I think it’s disgusting when someone gets drunk. But in your case I would be upset, not angry.
Stopping, Chandramukhi put her hand on Devdas's feet. Tearfully, she said, I am a nobody, do not be angry with me. You used to be so harsh with your words, brush me aside with such revulsion, and the more you did that, the more I wanted to go to you. Then you would finally fall asleep . . . but let me not get into that, I don’t want you to get angry again.
Devdas said nothing. These new revelations troubled him. Covertly wiping her eyes, Chandramukhi began to speak once again. Do you remember the day you spoke to me about how much we put up with? Humiliation, disgrace, torment, persecution—I was so upset when you said this that I stopped everything that very same day.
But what will you live on? Devdas asked.
I told you already.
But what if he cheats you out of all your money . . .
Chandramukhi showed no signs of worry. That’s not impossible, she said calmly, but I've considered that likelihood too. I will ask you for some money if I get in trouble.
After some thought, Devdas replied, Very well. Now make your arrangements and get out of this place.
Tomorrow. After I've sold these bangles. I'll meet the moneylender.
Taking five one hundred-rupee notes out of his pocket and putting them beneath the pillow, Devdas said, Don't sell the bangles, though you should meet the moneylender. But where will you go? To go to one of those holy places?
No, Devdas. I have no faith in holy places. I don't want to live very far from Calcutta, I'll find a village nearby.
Are you thinking of working as a maid for a decent family?
Tears welled up in Chandramukhi's eyes again. Wiping them away, she said, I am not inclined to. I will live independently, in my own way. Why should I put myself through that? I have never had to endure physical suffering before, and I cannot face it now. Any more might tear me apart.
Devdas smiled wanly. But if you remain near the city, he said, you might give in to temptation again. The human heart cannot be trusted.
Chandramukhi's expression changed now. Smiling, she said, That is true, the human heart cannot be trusted, but I won’t give in to temptation. I realize that women always desire certain things, but since I have chosen to give up the things I desire on my own, I’m no longer afraid of anything. Had I given all this up on an impulse, perhaps a little more caution might be necessary, but I have not felt a moment's regret in all this time. I’m quite happy, you see.
Still Devdas shook his head, saying, Women are far too fickle, far too untrustworthy.
Chandramukhi stepped close to him. Devdas, she said, taking his hand.
Devdas looked at her. This time he could not tell her not to touch him.
Her eyes brimming with affection, her voice trembling, Chandramukhi drew his hands into her own, saying, It's our last day together, don't be angry today. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.
She gazed at him for a few moments before putting forth her question: Has Parvati hurt you deeply?
Why this question?
Chandramukhi was not discouraged. Quietly and firmly, she replied, I have a reason for asking. I will not lie, it hurts me when you suffer. And besides, I think I know a great deal, I’ve heard you say many things when you were drunk. Still, I do not believe that Parvati betrayed you. On the contrary, I believe you have deceived yourself. I am older than you, Devdas, and I have seen a great many things in this world. Do you know what I think? I think it's you who are mistaken. I do not think women deserve this reputation for being fickle and inconstant. It is men like you who praise them, and men like you who criticize them too. You can say what you want to without any consequences, but they cannot. They can’t express what’s in their hearts, and even when they do, not everyone understands. They are incoherent, and silenced by men. And yet their infamy only grows.
Pausing, Chandramukhi continued in a clearer voice, I have been in the business of love for a long time, but I have loved only once. I cherish that love. I’ve learned a lot, you know, love is one thing, and infatuation, another. These two things are often in conflict, and it’s men who create the conflict. We are far less attracted by beauty than you men, which is why we do not lose our heads in an instant the way you do. When you come to us and declare your love, expressing it in so many different ways, with so many different words, we stay silent. Often we feel embarrassed or afraid to hurt you, so we hold back. Even when we are repulsed by your very appearance, we cannot bring ourselves to say we do not love you. Then begins the whole charade of love, a mere show, and when it ends, the man says in a fury, You lying slut! That is what everyone hears, that is what everyone believes. And still we remain silent. We suffer so much, but no one seems to care.
Devdas did not reply. Chandramukhi gazed at him in silence for a while and then said, Perhaps a tenderness develops between man and woman. The woman thinks, this is love. She performs her duties quietly and resolutely, provides all the support she can in times of crisis, and you men praise her to the skies. But possibly even at this time she has not learned the alphabet of love. And then, at some dark hour, when she feels an indescribable agony in her heart—Chandramukhi cast a piercing glance at Devdas—that is when you scream, Traitor! Shame!
Suddenly Devdas touched Chandramukhi's mouth with his hand.
What's all this, Chandramukhi?
As he slowly removed his hand, Chandramukhi said, Don't worry, I'm not talking of your Parvati.
Original text in public domain. Translation © 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.