The Housewife

(This is only a poor translation of 'Ginni', a story by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The objective is to urge the readers to read the original story or a better translation. We have included a summary of the story on the last page.)

Shibnath was our teacher when we studied in two or three grades below the scholarship class. He was clean-shaven, and his hair was cropped short but with a stubby tuft of hair standing on the crown. The children froze in fear at the mere sight of him.

In the animal world, it is rare to find creatures that can both sting and bite — creatures that sting cannot bite, and those that bite cannot sting. But our master was equipped with both these faculties. On the one hand, he could rain punches, slaps, and blows on us like a hailstorm battering saplings, and on the other hand, the sting of his words could make our hearts leap to our throats.

His grouse was that the teacher-disciple relationship of old times did not exist today; nowadays, the students did not revere their teachers as gods. The fault of the students in not acknowledging his godly qualities caused him to rain blows on their heads. Sometimes, he roared in anger, but such words streamed out of his mouth at these times that no one would have mistaken the roar for divine wrath. If abusive language tries to masquerade as thunder, its deception is easily detected.

Anyway, no one in our school regarded this Grade Three teacher as Indra, Chandra, Varuna, or Kartikeya. There was only one god with whom he shared some similarities: Yama. After so many years, neither do I hesitate nor do I fear to state that we used to fervently wish that he would go and take up residence at Yamaloka, his rightful abode, without delay.

But we understood one thing very clearly: there can be no greater terror than a human god. The gods in heaven are not oppressive &mdash they feel happy if you offer them a flower; if you don't give them a flower, they don't come and bother you. But the human gods are very demanding; they come storming at you with bloodshot eyes if you make even the smallest mistake. At such times, they don't look like gods at all!

Our Shibnath Sir had a special weapon to terrorize the children. It was a very simple weapon, but its effect was devastating. He used to give new names to the boys. A name is merely a word and nothing more, but people love their names more than anything else. People go through all kinds of trouble to make their names famous; they don't hesitate even to embrace death to defend their names!

So, if you distort the names of such name-loving people, you will only be attacking something that they hold dearer than their lives. Such is the adoration for names that if you address a person as Nolinikanto whose real name is Bhootnath, he will feel very miserable. And, this, even though Bhootnath means lord of the ghosts and Nolinikanto is your beautiful lotus!

That gives rise to the theory that human beings place more value on intangible things than material things: speech is valued more than gold, honour more than life, and name more than self.

Considering these underlying mysterious characteristics of the human mind, when Ponditmoshoi rechristened Shashishekhar as "Bhetki", he was very distressed. He felt especially miserable because he was so named to allude to his resemblance to a fish. However, he could do nothing but silently swallow the insult.

Ashu got the name "Ginni". But there is a history as to why he was given the appellation of a housewife.

Ashu was the most simple and good-natured boy in the class. He was shy and did not speak much; he only smiled gently when spoken to. He was the smallest boy in the class and was very good at his studies. Many boys in the school wanted to be friends with him, but Ashu did not play with them; he would rush home without delay the moment the school ended for the day.

During the recess, a maid would come from home, bringing for him some sweets wrapped in a parcel and water in a bronze jug. Ashu felt very uncomfortable at such times and would be relieved when she went away. It seemed as though he were unwilling to reveal he was someone other than a mere student in the school. To him, it was a big secret that he had a family, had parents, and had brothers and sisters; he wanted to hold on to that secret and never divulge it to anyone.

Ashu was good at his studies, but he had one fault — sometimes, he came late to school. When Shibnath Pondit asked him the reason, Ashu could never give a satisfactory reply. That was why he was sometimes humiliated and punished by Shibnath Pondit. The master made the boy stand near the school staircase with bent back and hands on his knees. At this spot, the poor boy, cringing in shame, was visible to all the boys from all the four classes in the school.

One day, the school declared a holiday because of an eclipse. The next day, Ponditmoshai took his seat and looked outside the door. Ashu was approaching the classroom with a slate and his books in an ink-stained cloth bag; he appeared rather sheepish than usual.

Shibnath Pondit laughed dryly and said, "Here comes, Ginni." Afterwards, before the school closed for the day and the lessons had ended, he told the students, "Listen to this all of you." He wanted the boys to know why he called Ashu "Ginni".

The full force of gravitation tried to push Ashu down to the centre of the Earth, but the little boy sat on the bench with his feet and the tuck of his dhoti dangling down. The eyes of all the boys were riveted on him. Up until this time, Ashu must have grown older and experienced several incidents of joy, sorrow, and embarrassment. But the emotions that the child's heart experienced that day were nothing compared to his previous experiences.

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