When the newborn girl was named Subhashini, who knew that she would turn out to be speech-impaired, or simply, dumb? Her elder sisters had been named Sukeshini (One with Lots of Hair) and Su-hasini (One with a Nice Smile). To rhyme with those names, this one was named Su-bhashini (One Who Can Speak Well or, Eloquent).Now everyone called her Su-bha for short.
The two elder sisters had been duly married off. But Subha was unmarried as yet, a silent load weighing upon her parent’s minds.
People do not generally remember that even when someone cannot speak, they can nevertheless hear and feel. So people openly expressed their worries about her, and discussed her right in front of her. From her very childhood Subha had come to understand that her birth was a curse upon her family. As a result she always tried to keep herself hidden from public view. It would be a relief if people forgot about me, she used to think. But she was always there in her parents thought – as a painful problem.
Subha’s mother was generally a little irritated with her, as though in some way she reflected some shortcoming or herself as a mother. But Subha’s father Banikanttha had a soft corner for her.
Subha had no power of speech, but she had two large, dark eyes with long lashes and lips that trembled at the slightest twinge of emotion. Dark eyes have their own power of expression.
The village in which Subha lived was named Chandipur. It was on the bank of a small river and Banikanttha’s house was right by the riverside. It was a prosperous household, with cowshed and mango grove, bamboo fencing and haystack.
Whenever Subha found the time, she used to come and sit by the riverside. Nature used to make up for her lack of speech. Nature spoke for her – in terms of the gurgle of the waves, the songs of the birds, the murmur of trees, the footfall and talk of people all around. All of it seemed in some way to be the speech that Subha could not make.
At mid-day when the boatmen had their meals, householders took their nap, and even birds fell silent, Subha used to sit under the trees and watch the world through her large, long-lashed eyes. Nature and Subha would be alone in each other’s mute company.
It is not as though Subha did not have a few friends of her own. There were two cows Sarvashi and Panguli who knew her very footsteps and responded lovingly to the way she folded her arms around them and rubbed her cheeks against their ears. Gazing at her affectionately, they licked her body. Every now and then Subha would go to the cowshed. The days she heard some bitter comment or reproach, she used to go there. Sensing something, they would come closer and rub their horns against her arms, as if to comfort her.
There was a goat and a kitten as well, which she petted. Then there was a creature of a higher order – Pratap – the youngest of the family of the Gosains. His main activity was fishing. One can spend a lot of time sitting by the waters with one’s fishing rod. That is what Pratap did, and that is how Subha and he often came to meet. Pratap felt good in people’s company. But for someone who is fishing, a silent friend is the best. So Pratap came to value Subha’s silent companionship. He began to call her ‘Su’ rather than Subha – the name by which everybody else called her.
Subha used to sit under the Tamarind tree and Pratap used to sit with his fishing rod. A paan was Pratap’s everyday quota and Subha made this betel-nut preparation herself and brought it along for him. She wished that Pratap would ask her for some special help. She wished for Pratap to see that she too could be of some use to the world.
But Pratap needed no help and never asked her to do anything for him. Then Subha used to pray to God for some magic powers that would give Pratap a big surprise and make him exclaim: “I never knew Subha had such abilities!”
Suppose, for instance, that Subha was a mermaid, coming up from the river’s depths, and leaving a jewel on the riverbank. Pratap then would dive in search for more, and come upon an underwater palace. Subha let her imagination go further. Pratap, she imagined, he would come upon the princess of that land under the river, and then find that it was none other than Subha!
But nothing so fantastic happened, and gradually Subha grew into a young woman as distinct from a girl. She felt the tide of youth flood her body. When it was full moon, she would often find herself open the door of her room and timidly step out. The moonlit night stretched silently before and Subha stood silently gazing at it.
Meanwhile Subha’s parents had realized that it was high time for their daughter to get married. Village people were gossiping. In fact, they were thinking of making Banikanttha a social outcast because he had not married off his daughter even though she had grown-up.
Banikanttha and his wife discussed the matter at length. Banikanttha was away from the village for a while. Then he came back and asked his family to go to Kolkata with him. Preparations for the journey began. Subha’s heart filled with a vague dread. Like a dumb animal she stayed by her parents’ side. Looking into their faces with her large eyes, she tried to understand something. But they never explained anything to her.
One afternoon, however, Pratap looked up from his fishing and said with a smile: “Subha, I heard that a match has been found for you and you are going away to get married. Don’t forget us, though!” Then he looked away again and concentrated on his fishing.
Subha looked at him like a stricken deer looking at the hunter. Silently she seemed to say: ‘What wrong did I do to you?’ She did not sit under the tree anymore. She went up and sat down at her father’s feet. Banikanttha had had his nap and was having a smoke. Subha looked into his face and began to cry. Banikanttha tried to comfort her but tears came to his own eyes as well.
The day of departure was fixed. Subha went to the cowshed to take leave of her childhood friends. She fed Sarvashi and Panguli herself, put her arms around their necks and gazed into their eyes with eyes full of unspoken words. Tears fell from her long-lashed eyes.
That night Subha left her room and went out to the moon washed river-bank. She fell upon the ground under the trees. Clutching at the earth, she tried to pray to Mother Nature not to let her go, but stretch out her hand like herself and clutch her to her breast.
On going to Kolkata, Banikanttha took up a temporary accommodation and presented Subha before a possible match for her.
His wife tied up Subha’s hair in golden ribbons, covered her up with ornaments, and obliterated her natural beauty as much as she could. Tears coursed down Subha’s cheeks. Her mother scolded her because that would make her eyes get swollen and ugly. But scolding could not make the tears stop.
The bridegroom himself, along with a friend, came to interview Subha. Subha kept on crying. But this enhanced her value to the bridegroom. It made him think: “The girl has a soft heart and one day that may of use to me.” After looking at Subha for a long time, he pronounced: “Not bad”. A suitable day was determined according to astrological calculations. Depositing their dumb daughter to an alien household, the parents went back to their village. They had met the requirements of social traditions.
The bridegroom was employed at a distance from Kolkata, in the central provinces. Immediately after the wedding, he took his bride there.
Within a week everyone got to understand that the newly wedded bride was speech-impaired, dumb. Nobody understood that it was not her fault. She had not deceived anyone. Her eyes had said everything but nobody had been able to understand it. Subha looked here and there. Wherever she looked, she found no one who could understand the language of the dumb. She could not see the familiar faces she had known since her birth. In the silent heart of the young girl, there rang out an inarticulate cry that no one but God could hear.
This time her husband used both his ears and eyes and chose a bride endowed with the power of speech.