(This is a feeble translation of "Shashti", a short story by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The objective is merely to urge readers to read the original story in Bengali or better translations.)

When the two brothers, Dukhiram Rui and Chhidam Rui, stepped out of their home in the morning with machetes in their hands to look for work, their wives were already screaming and quarreling with each other. Like other different sounds created by nature daily, the neighbours had become accustomed to this noise. The moment the screaming and yelling began every day, the people would look at one another and say, "It has started."

What they meant was that things were happening as expected, and there was no deviation from the set norms. Just as no one wants to know why the sun rises in the east, no one was curious why the sisters-in-law squabbled every day.

The husbands, without doubt, were affected much more than the neighbours, but they did not regard it as any inconvenience. It was as if the two brothers were making the long journey of life in a two-wheeled carriage; the constant noise made by the spring-less wheels on either side was as per the rules of the journey. So accustomed were the brothers to the quarrels that they felt uneasy if everything was quiet in the house. Then they suspected that some unnatural calamity was about to occur any time that day.

On the day when our story begins, the two brothers returned home from work in the evening with tired bodies and found the house standing silent.

It was sultry outside. It had rained in the afternoon, and dark clouds still covered the sky. There was not a whiff of a breeze. The woods around the house had a dense growth because of the rains. A soggy scent wafted from these woods and the water-logged jute fields and created a thick wall on all sides. The croaking of frogs from the pools of water behind the cowshed and the chirping of crickets filled the still and quiet evening sky.

Not far away, the Padma River was assuming a terrible state under the influence of the rains. The river waters had entered the crop fields and almost advanced to the doorsteps of the habitations. The roots of a few mango and jackfruit trees were torn out of the ground and looked like helpless fingers stretching out to clutch at some last support in the air.

Dukhiram and Chhidam had gone to the zamindar's estate for work on that day. The deepwater paddy on the sandbanks across the river was ready for harvesting; the poor people were busy — some in their own fields and some in the jute fields belonging to others — cutting the crops before the swollen river washed away the sandbanks. The zamindar's men came and took away the brothers by force. The roof of the zamindar's chamber was leaking, and the brothers had to mend it. The brothers spent the entire day in this work and could not come home; they did get some food at the estate. But they got wet in the rain. They were not paid enough. The zamindar's men cursed and abused them and hurled all kinds of unfair insults, which far exceeded the monetary compensation the brothers received for their work.

When the brothers, stomping through the mud and wading through the waters, reached home in the evening, they saw Chandara, the younger sister-in-law, lying quietly on a sari she had spread on the ground. Like today's cloudy day, she, too, had rained tears in the afternoon, which had subsided by evening. Radha, the elder sister-in-law, sat on the verandah with a puffed face. Her one-and-half-year-old son had been crying; when the two brothers entered the house, they saw the naked child lying flat on the back, fast asleep on one side of the courtyard.

Dukhiram was famished; without waiting to make inquiries, he said, "Give me food."

The elder sister-in-law flared up like a spark applied to a sack of gunpowder and said in a shrill, sky-shattering voice, "From where will I give you food? Did you get rice? Am I to go to work and buy rice?"

Dukhiram was tired and hungry after the day's work. He had suffered insults from the zamindar's men. Here at his own home, which was dark and bereft of all happiness, his wife's harsh words, especially her last biting words, stung him beyond endurance. "What did you say?" he roared like an enraged tiger and, without pausing to think, picked up his machete and struck his wife on the head. Radha collapsed by her sister-in-law's side and died.

"What has happened?" Chandara, soaked with Radha's blood, screamed. Chhidam pressed his hand over her mouth. Dukhiram threw away the machete and sat on the floor with his face in his hands, stunned. The child woke up and began to cry at the top of his voice in fear.

An absolute calm reigned outside the house. The shepherd boys were returning to the village with their cattle. The villagers who had gone to cut the crop across the river had come back in groups of five-seven people in small boats. The villagers, carrying small bundles of foodgrains on their heads that they had received as compensation for their labour, had reached their homes.

Ramlochan Uncle from the Chakraborty household had returned home after depositing letters in the village post-office and was smoking his pipe contentedly. He suddenly remembered that Dukhi, their tenant who owed a large sum of money, had promised to pay a part of the debt today. Dukhi must have come home from work by now, Ramlochan Uncle surmised; he wrapped a shawl around his shoulders, picked up his umbrella, and went out.

He felt a sudden apprehension when he came to the house of the tenant. He saw that lamps were not lit. He could see the silhouette of a few persons on the verandah. From time to time, the indistinct sound of a child crying reached his ears; every time the child called out to his mother, Chhidam would press his hand over the boy's mouth.

"Dukhi, are you there?" Ramlochan called out a little fearfully.

Dukhi had been sitting like a statue; the moment Ramlochan called out his name, he began to cry like a child.

Chhidam quickly came near Chakraborty.

"It seems the women have quarreled and are now sitting quietly. I could hear them shouting at each other the whole day," Chakraborty said.

Chhidam did not know what to do. He had thought up several unbelievable stories. For now, he had decided to dispose of the body somewhere late in the night. He had not imagined that Chakraborty would turn up in the meanwhile. Chhidam could not think up something convincing to tell Chakraborty. He said, "Yes, they had a terrible quarrel today."

Chakraborty, making as if to climb up the verandah, asked, "But why is Dukhi crying?"

Chhidam saw that he could not hide the truth from Chakraborty. "The sisters-in-law quarreled, and the younger one hit the elder sister on the head with a machete," he blurted out.

People usually think that there could be no other danger than the one presently confronting them. The only thought in Chhidam's mind was how to hide the terrible truth. He did not realize that a lie could have far worse consequences. The moment he heard Ramlochan's inquiries, a reply suggested itself in his mind, and he blurted it out.

Ramlochan was shocked. "Aah! What are you saying? Is she dead?"

"She is dead," Chhidam said. He fell to his knees and threw himself at Chakraborty's feet.

Chakraborty found no way to escape the situation. "Lord Rama! What trouble have I landed myself into this evening! I will have to spend my life giving witness before the court," Chakraborty was thinking.

Chhidam did not release Chakraborty's feet. "Dadathakur, how do I save my wife?"

In matters of law, Ramlochan was an expert in the whole village. After thinking for a while, he said, "See, there is a way out. Go to the police station. Tell the police that your elder brother, Dukhi, demanded food after coming home in the evening. The food was not ready, so he hit his wife on the head with a machete. I am sure if you say this, your wife will come to no harm."

Chhidam's throat had gone dry. He picked himself up and said, "Thakur, if the wife goes, I can find another wife. But if my brother is hanged, I will not get another brother." Chhidam had not thought of all these things when he shifted the blame on his wife. He had said it at the spur of the moment, but now he was trying to justify himself.

Chakraborty felt Chhidam was right. "Then, relate to the police what actually happened. It is impossible to protect everyone."

Ramlochan left in a hurry. Very soon, the news spread in the whole village that Chandara had quarreled with her elder sister-in-law and killed her.

Just as water gushes with great noise when a dam breaches, the police arrived in the village. The innocent and the guilty alike were seized with panic.


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