Tales of Bengal (S. B. Banerjea)/Patience is a Virtue

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Sádhu Sheikh of Simulgachi was not long in finding a husband for his half-sister, Maini Bibi. Before she was fourteen, a young farmer named Ramzán proposed for her hand, offering a den mohur of Rs. 100. The den mohur is a device recognised by Mohammadan law for protecting married women from capricious repudiation. The husband binds himself to refund a fictitious dowry, generally far above his means, in case he should divorce his wife for no fault of hers. Ramzán was accepted by Sádhu, and the marriage was duly celebrated. Maini Bibi was a handsome girl; but beauty was among the least of her gifts. She was sweet-tempered, thrifty, and obedient, winning sympathy on all sides. The one discordant note was struck by Ramzán's mother, Fatima Bibi by name, who took a violent dislike to the bride and evinced it by persistently scolding and ill-using her. Ramzán was completely under his mother's thumb and saw everything with her eyes. His love for Maini was slowly sapped by her innuendoes, and he treated the poor girl with something worse than coldness. Maini, however, bore her hard lot without a murmur, hoping that time and patience would win back her husband's heart.

On returning one evening from the fields, Ramzán was hailed by his mother who was evidently in a worse temper than usual.

"Hi! Ramzán," she shrieked, "I am an old woman, and you, doubtless, find me an incumbrance. Speak out, my son; you have only to say 'go,' and I will leave this house in half an hour."

"Why, what's the matter, mother?" asked Ramzán with open eyes.

"Matter," she yelled. "Would you believe it, that black-faced daughter of a pig has actually abused me—me, your old mother!"

"What did she say?" rejoined Ramzán angrily.

"My son," was the answer, "you know how she neglects household duties, leaving all the hard jobs to me. Well, this afternoon, I ventured on a word of remonstrance, and she actually abused me." And the old woman wiped her tears away with a corner of her cotton wrapper, adding with eyes cast heavenwards, "Merciful Allah, to think that I should come to this in my old age!"

"But what did she say?" repeated Ramzán wearily.

"She told me to my face that I had forgotten to put salt into the curry!"

"That's hardly abusive," rejoined Ramzán.

"You think so," shouted Fatima. "Now you're taking sides with her against your mother, who bore you. You will assuredly suffer in Jehannam (hell) for such a crime! But I'll have it out with that she-devil!"

So saying, she dashed from the room to the kitchen, where the luckless Maini was cowering in anticipation of a coming storm. She was not deceived. Fatima seized her by the hair and administered a sound thumping.

Several days passed by, bringing no alleviation to her fate. But matters came to a crisis on a certain morning, owing to Ramzán's complaint that his wife had over-salted the curry. On tasting the food, Fatima burst into violent imprecations and "went for" her daughter-in-law, who took refuge in the neighbouring brushwood. At nightfall she crept back to the house and found Ramzán closeted with his mother. They were talking earnestly, but Maini could not distinguish the purport of the conversation. It seemed to her that Fatima's voice was raised in entreaty, and Ramzán was objecting to some scheme proposed by her. She passed the night sleepless and in tears.

Early next day Ramzán entered her room and said gruffly, "Get up, collect your chattels, and follow me. I am going to take you back to Sádhu's." Maini obeyed without a word of remonstrance, and a quarter of an hour later the ill-assorted pair might have been seen walking towards Simulgachi.

The rainy season was now in full swing, and their path lay across a deep nullah (ravine) through which mighty volumes of drainage water were finding their way to the Ganges. On reaching a bamboo foot-bridge which spanned it, Ramzán ordered his wife to go first. Ere she reached the opposite bank, he gave her a violent shove, which sent her shrieking vainly for help into the swirling torrent below.

Hardly had Ramzán perpetrated this odious deed than he felt he would give his chances of bihisht (paradise) to recall it. He ran along the bank shouting frantically, "Maini! Maini!" Alas! her slender body was carried like a straw by the foaming water towards the Ganges and soon disappeared in a bend of the nullah. Then her murderer sat down and gave himself up to despair. But the sun was up; people were stirring in the fields; and so he slunk homewards. Fatima stood on the threshold and raised her eyebrows inquiringly; but Ramzán thrust her aside, muttering, "It is done," and shut himself up in his wife's room. There everything reminded him of her; the scrupulous neatness of floor and walls—no cobwebs hanging from the rafters, the kitchen utensils shining like mirrors. He sat down and burst into a flood of tears.

For several days he did not exchange a word with his accomplice, and dared not go to market lest his worst fears should be realised. Dread of personal consequences added new torture to unavailing remorse. Every moment he expected the red-pagried ministers of justice to appear and hale him to the scaffold. The position was clearly past bearing. So, too, thought Eatima, for she waylaid her son one afternoon and said: "Ramzán, I cannot stand this life any longer; let me go to my brother Mahmud Sardar, the cooly-catcher".

"Go," he replied sullenly, and the old woman gathered up her belongings in a bundle and departed, leaving him to face the dark future alone.

While brooding over his fate, he was startled by the sudden arrival of Sádhu. "Now I'm in for it," he thought and began to tremble violently while his features assumed an ashen hue. But Sádhu sat down by his side and said, "Ramzán, I've come about Maini".

"Then she's drowned!" gasped Ramzán. "By Allah the Highest, I swear that I did my best to save her."

"Hullo!" rejoined Sádhu with great surprise; "you must have been with her when she fell into the nullah."

Ramzán bent his head in silence. After a few moments he looked up, clasped his hands, and said:—

"Tell me the truth, Sádhu, is Maini alive?"

"She is," was the reply. "On Thursday morning she came to our house dripping wet and quite exhausted, with a story that your mother had turned her out of doors and that she was on her way to live with us when, on crossing the Padmajali Nullah, her foot slipped and she fell into the water. She told us how, after being carried for nearly a gau-coss (lit. cow league, the distance at which a cow's lowing can be heard), she was swept by the stream against the overhanging roots of a pipal tree (ficus religiosa) and managed to clamber up the bank. But Maini never told us that you were with her. Why, Ramzán, you're quaking in every limb. I always suspected Maini had concealed the truth. Swear on the Quran that you did not try to drown her."

Ramzán feebly protested innocence, and the two men sat awhile without speaking.

At length Sádhu said: "I've come to make you a proposal. Young Esáf, the son of Ibrahim of our village, has fallen in love with Maini and wants to marry her. He is willing to pay the den mohur of Rs. 100 which would be due from you in case of repudiation. Now we want you to divorce her."

Ramzán was overcome by his wife's magnanimity, and the thought of losing her drove him to distraction. "No!" he shouted, "I won't divorce her. I'll fetch her back this very day!"

"That's quite out of the question," rejoined Sádhu. "Maini cannot bear her mother-in-law's cruelty, and I'm sure she'll never consent to live with you again. Besides, Esáf is a rich man and will make her happy. She shall marry him."

"I say she shan't," said Ramzán emphatically.

Sádhu got up and moved off, remarking, "Very well, I will go to the police station at once and charge you with attempting to kill her! We shall soon worm the truth out of Maini, and get plenty of eye-witnesses too."

Ramzán was beside himself with terror. He followed Sádhu, clasped his feet, and groaned, "No, you won't do that! I am ready to divorce Maini. Let Allah's will be done."

"Ah," replied Sádhu, "so you can listen to reason after all. Come to our house to-morrow evening; we will have witnesses ready, and Esáf will be there with the den mohur."

Ramzán had a sleepless night and was too downcast to work on the morrow. When evening came, he walked wearily to Simulgachi. There was quite a small crowd in Sádhu's courtyard. On one side sat Maini and some other women with faces closely covered; Esáf and the witnesses were on the other. Between them was a mat, on which lay a bag full of money. Ramzán was received without salutations, and squatted down by Sádhu's side.

Moslem husbands can get rid of their wives by repeating the word talaq (surrender) thrice, in the presence of vritnesses. Every one expected him to utter the formula, which would release Maini from his power. However, he sat silent, with downcast eyes. After a minute or two, he rose and, looking steadily at Maini, was just about to speak, when she sprang forward, laid her hand on his arm, and said: "Surely you are not going to divorce me, your faithful wife, who loves you dearly and seeks only to make you happy? What have I done to be treated thus?"

A murmur was heard in the assembly, but Sádhu raised his hand in token of silence.

"Foolish girl!" he exclaimed, "do you wish to return to a mother-in-law who hates and persecutes you? Will Ramzán be able to protect you?" Then lowering his voice, he added, "Is your life safe with those people?"

"Life and death," rejoined Maini, "are in Allah's hands. It is his will that we should fulfil our destinies, and mine is to cling to my husband. I would not change him for Hátim Tái (a legendary hero, very rich and generous) himself!" Then nestling closer to Ramzán, she pleaded in a voice of music, "Surely you don't want to get rid of me?"

He was quite overcome and burst into tears.

"No," he sobbed, "I will never separate from my treasure. Come back to me, and you need not fear my mother's tongue. She has left my house for good, and I swear by Allah, in the presence of all these people, that she shall not live with us again. You, Maini, shall be sole mistress of my house."

Maini was overjoyed by this decision. She clapped her hands twice, and then, picking up the bag of money, said to the crestfallen Esáf, "Take back your rupees; I am going home with my husband".

So speaking, she took Ramzán's hand and led him out of the house, while a great silence fell on the crowd, broken at length by many exclamations and a buzz of loud talk. My readers who know Maini's sweet nature will not be surprised to learn that her happiness was thenceforward without a single cloud.