Tales of Bengal (S. B. Banerjea)/All's Well that Ends Well

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ALL'S WELL THAT END'S WELL.

Every good Hindu feels bound to get his daughter or sister, as the case may be, married before she attains puberty. Eich people find little difficulty in securing suitable matches for their girls; but Babu Jadunath Basu, widely known as "Jadu Babu," was not blessed with a large share of this world's goods; and his sister Basumati was close on her teens. The marriage-broker had certainly suggested more than one aspirant for her hand, but they were not to Jadu Babu's liking. As years rolled by, his anxiety deepened into despair. A match was at length offered which was passably good, although it did not answer Jadu Babu's expectations. He learnt from private inquiry that the boy proposed bore a good character, never mixed with doubtful associates, and had no constitutional defect. Hindu parents are very careful to ascertain the health of a suitor, and should they suspect any inherited disease, such as consumption, they reject him remorselessly. It must not be supposed that such lads are always doomed to celibacy, for their unsoundness may be hidden or counterbalanced by a substantial money payment.

Jadu Babu found out that the boy had matriculated at Calcutta and was attending the second year class at a Metropolitan College; more important still, his father, Amarendra Babu, had money invested in Government paper, besides a substantial brick house—qualifications which augured well for his sister's wedded happiness. The next step was to invite his own father, Kumodini Babu, to come from Benares and help him to clinch matters. The old man pleaded that he had done with the world and all its vanities; so Jadu Babu had to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City, where he induced Kumodini Babu to return home with him. Three days later the pair went to Calcutta with two friends, in order to make the suitor's acquaintance. They were welcomed by Amarendra Babu, who at once sent for his son. The boy came in with eyes fixed on the ground and shyly took a seat near Kumodini Babu. He underwent a severe scrutiny, and at last the old man broke silence by asking the lad his name. Being informed that it was Samarendra Nath, he inquired the names of his father and grandfather, which were promptly given.

"Good boy," observed Kumodini Babu, "the times are so completely out of joint that youths are ashamed to utter their father's name, let alone their grandfather's. Where are you studying?"

"At the Metropolitan Institution," was the reply.

" An excellent college," said Kumodini Babu; then after a whispered consultation with Jadu Babu, he said, "I am delighted with Samarendra's modesty and good manners, and have no objection whatever to giving my daughter to him in marriage—provided Prajapati (the Lord of All) causes no hitch". Samarendra thought that his ordeal was over, but he was mistaken. One of Kumodini Babu's friends, who happened to be a Calcutta B.A., would not lose the opportunity of airing his superior learning.

"What are your English text-books?" he asked.

"Blackie's Self-culture, Helps' Essays, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Tennyson's Enoch Arden," gabbled Samarendra in one breath.

"Very good, now please fetch your Paradise Lost."

The boy disappeared, returning shortly with a well-thumbed volume, which the B.A. opened and selected Satan's famous apostrophe to the Sun for explanation. Samarendra was speechless. After waiting for a minute, the B.A. asked what text-book he studied in physics and was told that it was Ganot's Natural Philosophy. He asked Samarendra to describe an electrophone, whereon the lad began to tremble violently. Kumodini Babu had pity on his confusion and told him to run away. Needless to say he was promptly obeyed.

It has become a Calcutta custom for possible fathers-in-law to cross-examine suitors on their text-books; but few boys are able to satisfy the test, however brilliant their acquirements may be. Poor Samarendra was too overwhelmed with the strangeness of his position to do himself justice.

When the elder folks were quite alone they plunged into business. Kumodini Babu sounded his host as to dena paona (settlements) on either side; but the latter courteously left them entirely to his discretion. It was settled that Basumati's pákká dekhá (betrothal) should be celebrated on 12th November at Kumodini Babu's, and that of Samarendra's at his father's, two days later.

Basumati being an only daughter, Kumodini Babu determined to conduct her marriage on a magnificent scale. In anticipation of the betrothal feast, he brought three Brahman cooks from Calcutta to prepare curries, pillaos and sweetmeats under the supervision of the ladies of his household.

At length the auspicious day came round. At 5 p.m. Amarendra Babu, with half a dozen friends, arrived at Kumodini Babu's house from Calcutta. They were received with great courtesy and conducted to seats, where a plentiful supply of tobacco and betel awaited them. At half-past seven, Jadu Babu presented the bride-elect to her future family. She looked charming in a Parsi shawl and Victoria jacket, decked out with glittering jewels, and sat down near Amarendra Babu, after saluting him respectfully. He took up some dhán, durba and chandan (paddy, bent grass and sandal-wood paste) and blessed her, presenting her at the same time with a gold chur (bracelet). After again saluting him, the timid girl was led back to the inner apartments. Then the guests were taken to a large hall where supper was ready for their delectation. Full justice was done to the repast; and after it was over, they washed their hands in the yard and smoked or chewed betel in perfect bliss until half-past ten. Then Amarendra Babu asked leave to return by the last train, declining hospitality for the night on the plea of previous engagements. While saying "good-bye" he called Jadu Babu aside and thrust Rs. 30 into his hands, to be distributed among the guru (spiritual guide), purohit (family priest), and servants. Two days afterwards, Kumodini Babu and his son went to Calcutta for the boy's betrothal. He blessed Samarendra, presenting him with a gold mohur (an obsolete coin worth sixteen rupees) besides Rs. 50 for the priest and servants of his household. A feast followed on the same scale as the previous one.

Kumodini Babu's family priest decided that Ásár 28th would be a lucky day for the wedding, which was to be held at the bride's great-uncle's house in Calcutta. Early on the 26th, the Gaihálud (turmeric smearing) ceremony took place. Amarendra Babu rubbed his son's body with a mixture of turmeric and oil and despatched a supply to Kumodini Babu by his own barber, with injunctions to have it applied to his daughter's person before 9 a.m., because subsequent hours would be inauspicious. On the barber's arrival, the ladies of Kumodini Babu's household anointed Basumati with turmeric and oil and clad her in a gorgeous wrapper. Then they conducted her to another room where a jánti (instrument for cracking betel-nuts) was given her and certain nitkits (minor ceremonies) were performed.

At 11 a.m. the presents given on the occasion of the turmeric-smearing (gaihálud) were brought by twenty servants who were regaled with a feast made ready in anticipation of their arrival. After partaking of it they were dismissed with a largesse of one rupee each. During the next two days presents continued to pour in from relatives of both families.

At length the fateful 28th Ásár dawned, bringing a mighty commotion in the respective houses. Shouts and laughter echoed from every side. Amarendra Babu had resolved to marry his son in a style which, sooth to say, was far above his means, hoping to recoup himself from the large cash payment which he expected from Kumodini Babu. On his side the latter had consulted relatives as to the proper dowry. All agreed that Rs. 2,000 worth of ornaments; Rs. 1,001 in cash; Rs. 500 for Barabharan (gifts to a bridegroom); and Rs. 500 for Phúlsajya (lit. a bed of flowers) would be sufficient. Thus Kumodini Babu provided Rs. 4,001 and imagined that he was acting generously.

At 7.30 p.m. the bridegroom's procession was formed. A Sub-Inspector of Police and three constables led the way, followed by a band of music. Next came a carriage and four conveying Samarendra, his younger brother, and the family priest. Carriages belonging to Amarendra Babu's friends, and some hired ones full of invited guests, brought up the rear. When a start was made, the little police force hustled vehicles out of the way and even stopped tram-cars when necessary; while the band tortured selections from Handel and Beethoven to the intense delight of passers-by, many of whom paused to criticise shortcomings in the procession among themselves. In about an hour it reached its destination, where Kumodini Babu's uncle received the guests. The family barber carried Samarendra in his arms to a chair which had been provided for him. There he sat with eyes fixed steadily on the ground, while his friends squatted round and cracked jokes at his expense. He smiled, but modestly implored them not to put him out of countenance. The Lagna (auspicious time) was determined to be 9.30; meanwhile the guests sat on carpets or chairs, beguiling the delay with hookahs.

While mirth was at its height, strange things were happening in a private room adjoining. Soon after arriving, Amarendra Babu asked Kumodini Babu and Jadunath to display the presents destined for the young couple. They took him into a room where all were set forth to the best advantage. After examining them in silence awhile, Amarendra Babu kicked the nearest contemptuously aside, remarking that they were "mere rubbish". In point of fact he fully expected Kumodini Babu to give Rs. 4,000 in cash, Rs. 2,000 in respect of Barabharan and Phulsajya and Rs. 4,000 worth of jewellery—Rs. 10,000 in all. To judge by the ornaments shown him, the total dowry would be barely half as much and he could not help expressing disappointment. On asking Kumodini Babu what he intended paying down in cash, and learning that Rs. 1,001 was all he could afford, Amarendra Babu's indignation knew no bounds. He demanded Rs. 5,000, declaring that if it were not paid on the nail, he would take his son away! The wretched father implored twelve hours' delay, but was told in as many words that his promise could not be relied on. The deadlock soon got wind, and Amarendra Babu's action was severely commented on by the guests, but he remained obdurate. Kumodini Babu's uncle ran to a wealthy acquaintance for a loan of Rs. 4,000, but was told that so large a sum was not available at short notice. On his return, Amarendra Babu delivered his ultimatum—Rs. 4,000 cash to be paid forthwith; and finding that it was hopeless to expect so much, he hailed a cab, hurried Samarendra into it, and drove home in high dudgeon, followed by all his relatives and friends. This unexpected calamity brought mourning into a house of mirth; people spoke in whispers; and anguish left its mark on every face.

Shám Babu was supervising the Hálúikars (confectioners) when the awful news reached his ears. For a few minutes he stood transfixed to the spot; but ere long a happy thought struck him. He clapped his hands in silent glee, and ran to an inner room, where Kumodini Babu lay groaning on the bare floor, guarded by his son who feared that he would do something rash.

"Mahásay," he said soothingly. "Do not take on like this! God's ways are inscrutable; perchance He has broken the match off for your daughter's good."

"Yes, God's will be done," replied Kumodini Babu in sepulchral tones. "We are but His instruments." Then after a pause he added, "What I dread most is loss of caste".

"Who will dare to excommunicate you for such a trifle?" asked Shám Babu indignantly.

"Alas, you know too well that my family's position in society is terribly compromised. A marriage postponed is a marriage lost!" groaned Kumodini Babu.

"But why should it be postponed?" was Shám Babu's eager question. "I have a proposal to make, if you will only give it a moment's thought."

Kumodini Babu looked up, and a ray of hope dried his tears; he waited anxiously for further particulars.

"You know my son Susil, I suppose? He is just sixteen and has passed the Entrance Examination."

"Yes, yes," answered Kumodini Babu. "He is a fine lad, obedient and well-mannered. But what has he got to do with our present fix?"

"Will you give your daughter to him in marriage? I will not ask a single pice as dowry."

Kumodini Babu sprang to his feet and embraced Shám Babu with fervour, saying, "You have saved my life. Personally, I should be delighted to have Susil as a son-in-law, but you must let me consult my son and wife."

He ran to the inner apartments, and communicated Shám Babu's offer to his near relatives. This unexpected solution of the dilemma filled them with surprise; and a loud clamour of voices echoed through the house. Finally all, without exception, agreed that the match would be an excellent one. Kumodini Babu brought news of its acceptance to Shám Babu, and it spread among the wedding guests, who were loud in their praises of his true Hindu spirit.

Shám Babu went into the courtyard where Susil sat talking with some other boys about the astounding piece of good fortune which awaited him. That he, the son of a humble clerk, should espouse the daughter of a Zemindar was more than his wildest dreams had anticipated. He joyfully accompanied Shám Babu to a room, where he was clad in silken attire, and thence to the hall, where he was solemnly inducted into the empty bridegroom's chair amid the acclamations of the assembled guests. As the Lagna (auspicious time) had not run out the actual marriage ceremony began forthwith. Basumati was given away by her father; while the ladies performed Satpák (lit. going round seven times—a ceremony without which a Hindu marriage is not binding) and other minor ceremonies with zest. After all had been well and duly gone through, the bride and bridegroom were conducted to an inner apartment. Susil underwent the customary "chaff" from the ladies, which he bore with great good humour and was at last left alone with his young companion for life; while some of the fair guests sang wedding songs to the intense delight of their friends. Nor were the men-folk idle. They sat down to a sumptuous feast prepared for the recreant bridegroom's family, nor did they separate till daybreak.

At 3 p.m. on the morrow Shám Babu took Susil and Basumati to his own home, where the Bau-Bhát ceremony was performed in grand style. It was attended by all their caste-fellows, who were loud in extolling his magnanimity. Shám Babu accepted their praises meekly, remarking that he had done nothing more than his duty, by neglecting which he would have rendered himself accountable to God.