The Notebook

(This is only a poor translation of Khata, a story by Gurudev Rabidranath Tagore. The objective is to urge readers to read the original story or better translations.

Uma has learned to write. She must practice somewhere. Uma has discovered that the walls of the house are good slate boards, and a piece of coal is as good as a slate pencil. The walls have to bear the brunt of Uma's literary pursuits.

So far, so good because no one has scolded her for writing on the walls. But when Uma decides to write across an article written by her elder brother, a writer, things come to a head.

The brother punishes Uma for the misdeed. He confiscates her writing materials. But Gobindolal, the brother, is overcome by remorse, and he gifts his little sister with a notebook.

The notebook should have spurred Uma's literary ambitions. But, does it?

Khata comes across as a simple and even humorous story. But it touches two grave issues — depriving girls of an education and child marriage, which were the bane of society in the past.)

Ever since she learned to write, Uma has become a nuisance. All the time, she picks up a piece of coal and writes something with it on the walls. She has written in unsteady hands and large letters: Jol poray, pata noray (water drops, leaves quiver).

Her sister-in-law had kept Haridaser Guptokotha, a mystery novel, under the pillow. Uma hunted it out and wrote on every page with a pencil: Kalo jol, lal phool (black water, red flower).

Uma has obliterated the dates of important events in the ever-useful astrological calendar with her large letters. Right in the middle of her father's daily account book, she has written: Lekha pora kore je, gari-ghora chore se (Those who study will be successful in life and get to ride in carriages).

For a long time, Uma did not face any opposition to her literary pursuits. But one day, an unfortunate incident happened.

Gobindolal, Uma's elder brother, came across as a docile person in appearance. But he wrote for newspapers. While conversing with him and listening to him, Gobindolal's relatives and neighbours did not regard him as a thinking person. And, undoubtedly, he could not have been accused of being a person who ever thought about anything. But he wrote. And, his views matched the opinions of the majority of the Bengali readers.

There were certain inaccuracies in the explanations provided by European researchers on the subject of physiology. Gobindolal had written an article refuting these explanations; it was not based on any scientific logic but relied on high-sounding language to claim the reader's attention.

On a quiet afternoon one day, Uma picked up Dada (elder brother)'s pen and ink bottle and wrote across the article in large letters: Gopal is a very good boy; he eats whatever he is fed.

I don't believe Uma was referring to the unquestioning readers of Gobindolal's articles by the name "Gopal". But Gobindolal was furious. First, he beat Uma. Then, he snatched her stub of a pencil and an ink-stained blunt pen — her priceless collection of writing materials, which she had preserved with care and affection. The humiliated girl, unable to fathom the reason for this great insult, sat with a broken heart in the corner of the house and wept.

At the end of the punishment period, Gobindolal, feeling a trifle remorseful, returned the writing materials he had seized from Uma. Over and above, he also gifted a well-bound ruled notebook to her to soothe the child's heartache.

Uma was seven years old at that time. From then on, the notebook remained under her pillow during the night and rested on her lap or under her arm during the day. Every day, after braiding her hair, she walked with the maid to the village school for girls; the notebook went along with her. When the other girls saw her with the notebook, some of them felt amazed, some longed for one, and some felt envious.

In the first year, Uma wrote with great care: Birds are singing; the night is ending. She would sit on the floor of the bedroom, clutching the notebook, and recite her studies at the top of her voice and write. In this manner, many prose and poems were written in the notebook.

A few original literary creations were seen in the notebook in the second year after it came into Uma's possession; these were very brief but to the point. These creations did not start with an introduction or end with a conclusion.

Uma had copied the story about the tiger and the crane in the notebook. At the end of the story, she added a line that read, "I love Joshi very much." Now, this sentence had never before been seen either in the original story or anywhere else in Bengali literature.

Lest the reader thinks that I am about to narrate a love story, let me clarify that Joshi is not an eleven or twelve-year-old boy from the neighbourhood. Joshoda, the faithful old maid in the house, is affectionately called Joshi.

But this one sentence could not be taken as definite proof about the little girl's feelings towards Joshi. Anyone interested in recording the true history would have found a completely contradictory statement only two pages later in this notebook itself.

It was not just a stray contradiction; Uma's literary creations were full of such contradictory errors. At one place, she wrote, "I will not talk to Hari for life." (Hari is not the nickname of the lad, Haricharan. It is the nickname of Haridashi, who is Uma's classmate in the girls' school.) Only a few pages later are statements suggesting that Hari is Uma's best friend.


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