She was only fourteen, lean, dark and sharp featured with thick black hair falling to her waist which lent a grace to her plain looks. Bijoli’s mother died when she was very young and her father Kesto, a small time farmer with little means raised his two daughters until Kanta, the elder one was old enough to be married off. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to make both ends meet and the thought of Bijoli’s welfare oppressed him. Shankar, his cousin brother who worked in Kolkata had suggested that she be made to work. It would not only relieve Kesto’s burden but be beneficial for her future welfare he had advised. Since last few weeks, a senior officer in his workplace was requesting him to provide them with a domestic help from his native village to look after his household chores. He then thought of her but was hesitant at first to approach Kesto with this proposal since he had never mentioned about his daughter’s employment. At first he was reluctant at the prospect of her being sent off to an unknown place to live with strangers. His daughter was a teenager now and as a father he would never be able to forgive himself if any mishap occurred. Shankar reassured him that there were very rare chances of that taking place since he was well acquainted with the whole family which was cultured and educated.
So one Sunday morning Kesto took Bijoli to the Chowdhury villa. The Chowdhurys lived in Behala in a three storied building which was built by Raghavendra Chowdhury, now a retired police officer who lived with his wife Sadhana, son Rabin, daughter-in-law, Jaya and grandchildren, Sunidhi and Tathagata.
It was the first time that Bijoli had set foot outside her native village. The only touch of civilization she experienced till now was electricity and the radio. She watched bewildered the lively city unfold before her .It made her feel frightened and out of place. She was the unprepared visitor placed in an environment sharply different from her own. The huge railway station hustling and bustling with crowds, the innumerable vehicles on the busy thoroughfares speeding away to their own destinations, the tall buildings which leapt up to the skies were all new to her. It seemed she had been transported to a different world.
“I place my daughter in your hands, Sir. She is a motherless child. Please look upon her as your own and forgive her if she commits any mistake,” said a quivering Kesto.
Bijoli’s prime duty constituted of cleaning and sweeping the house which took a major portion of her time and energy, washing daily clothes and utensils. She was a hardy girl raised in a village and soon she was able to carry out her duties with expertise. An elderly woman called Basanti came once in the morning and later in the evening to cook.
With passing time Bijoli became more familiar and settled down as part of the family. She was young, adaptable and a sincere worker. Sunidhi and Tathagata were both fond of her. Raghavendra who dotted on her began teaching her in the afternoons when the others at home were either resting or busy at office or school. Being a sharp girl she picked up her lessons well and soon was able to read and write in Bengali and to a certain degree in English too. She was overjoyed by her accomplishments which gave her a new confidence and opened up the world like never before. Now she didn’t blankly gape at posters and placards outside but had learnt to read all that it contained. She picked up the daily newspaper with a purpose to go through its headlines. Her father would surely be surprised and proud if she read out the newspaper to him she thought.
Every six months Kesto came to visit her. And after two years she decided to visit home. In these years nothing seemed to have changed much there. She who was now habituated to living a comfortable life in the city and found her days here intolerable. She couldn’t sleep at night properly because they didn’t have a fan and to add to her misery she had to sleep under a mosquito net in the sweltering heat .Kesto had accumulated a sum of money in the local post office in her name and wanted her to stop working since she had reached a marriageable age.
“No father I can’t live here. It’s too backward. I’m habituated to the luxuries of city life,” she objected.
“But my daughter, you are grown-up and if I don’t get you married now you might not get a suitable husband afterwards. Anyways, I have asked Jaggu to visit us tomorrow with the groom’s family.”
“How could you do that without asking me?” cried a distressed Bijoli .
“Karthik is a good boy. He works in a local factory and has landed property too. You will be well looked after and happy,” he reasoned.
“No, I won’t .I don’t want to live in a village. You don’t understand.”
“Okay, let them come tomorrow and then we can decide afterwards,” he left off.
The groom, his parents, brothers, uncles and aunts came to see her next day. Draped unwillingly in a saree she went through this farcical meeting. After they had gone, she bluntly refused to get married to the boy for she found him dowdy and his family members too petty and backdated. She just couldn’t possibly foresee herself married there.
After a week she returned back to Kolkata and Chowdhury Villa and life went on as usual for her.
In a nearby dilapidated house close to Chowdhury Villa lived Shambhu who was often found loitering around the streets with his gang of friends. Whenever she went to purchase something from the grocery shop she found him standing near the shop smoking and gossiping with his friends. She felt scared at their presence and was perturbed by their eves-teasing. They were a common nuisance to everyone in the neighborhood.
Shambhu who was eyeing Bijoli for some time stopped her on the road one day. She was petrified and didn’t know what to do; she couldn’t possibly scream or run. She tried to dodge her way past him unsuccessfully when he said,
“Stop, I’m no beast who will eat you up. I have been watching you for some time and wanted to become friends with you. What is your name?”
“I’m in a hurry. I need to go back home. Mashimoni (aunty) is waiting for me,” she said as she walked away hurriedly.
“See you tomorrow then,”
She never in her short span of life received such attention. Her young heart skipped a beat and an unknown fear gripped her. That night she couldn’t sleep properly and tossed in bed. Every time she closed her eyes she envisioned his handsome beaming face. How was she ever to venture outside home without being confronted by him she thought? It was around 3 am when she finally fell into a slumber.
Next day Jaya sent her on an errant outside and as wonted Shambhu was found waiting at his favorite haunt. When he noticed her he came forward to talk to her. She wasn’t amused but could do nothing about it. Neither could she hide herself from other peoples’ inquisitive glances nor did she want to create an ugly scene.
“You haven’t told me your name,” he said with an impish smile.
“My name is Bijoli and please don’t bother me,” she said not knowing what to do. It seemed that the whole world was staring at her and she felt embarrassed and small.
“Okay that’s enough for the day,” he said walking back to his friends.
His steadfast persistence finally yielded results and they became friendly. He never caused her harm and pampered her with various gifts. She had no reason to feel guilty. Every afternoon instead of spending time studying, she now went out with him. They occasionally went to watch a film, or just loiter around in the local parks or the roadsides. Both Jaya and Sadhana noticed that she was acting strange. She no longer showed the eagerness for studies as earlier and was more inclined towards going outdoors.
“What’s the matter with you, Bijoli? Is something bothering you? You are not your usual self. What’s wrong? You must tell us,” said Sadhana.
“No, Grandma there’s nothing wrong with me. I have just met a relative of mine who stays a block away from here .I had gone to meet her,” she said.
Although her excuses didn’t sound convincing, they could do nothing but accept it. For a few days she stopped going out till their suspicions dwindled. When she ventured out finally after two weeks Shambhu confronted her and demanded an explanation for her long absence. She told him about their suspicions.
“In that case it’s best we get married,” he announced.
“But I need to tell my father and seek his consent,” she said.
“Then do that if you really need to. I’m my own guardian,” he said unabashedly.
Next few days she tried to think out ways to encroach the subject. It would be best if she told the women of the house what she felt. One afternoon she gathered the courage to tell them.
“Mashima, Thakuma, please don’t misunderstand me,” she said. “I’ve become friendly with a boy here and he wants to marry me.”
Both the women were astounded.
“Bijoli don’t do anything foolish until we call your father for it is our responsibility to let him know,” said Sadhana.
“Yes absolutely so. And who is the boy? Bring him to us so that we can talk to him and see how he is,” said Jaya.
“Yes,” said she diffidently with her head bent down and eyes downcast.
She told Shambhu everything. He was agitated on hearing that he was asked to appear before them and declined to do so.
“If you want to marry me you have to do so on your own will and I’m no one’s slave that I will follow others dictates,” he said.
In such precarious circumstances, she knew not what to do. Within these few months she had grown close to him and couldn’t think of leaving him. He was a smart boy and was charming too, so very unlike the men in his village. He had his own business and it seemed to be doing well since he spent cash liberally on her and his friends. Thus anguished at the thought of losing him she one day decided to get married to him without taking her guardians consents at the Kalighat Temple.
She didn’t know how to face her employers now but she needed to inform them, anyways.
“Please forgive me, I had no other option left,” she said touching the feet of her elders.
The Chowdhurys were shocked and extremely annoyed with her at first but gradually accepted her.
“Have you informed your father?” they asked
“No,” she said. “Please do that for me,” she requested with folded hands.
“How will you work or stay with us Bijoli? You have put us all in a soup,” they said
“No I will continue working for you but won’t stay with you,” she said.
“My husband has rented a single room flat around the corner,” she said.
“All is fine but your husband should have accompanied you. It’s very weird,” they said.
“He is shy and embarrassed,” was the only excuse that she could cook up.
Kesto came immediately to Kolkata after being informed of Bijoli’s sudden marriage. He visited his daughter’s house and was somewhat relieved to find her content in her new haven. He met Shambhu and found him to be a smart and an active fellow. All seemed fine apparently and Kesto returned home a relieved man.
You never really know a man until you live with him and Bijoli was soon dismayed by Shabhu’s erratic ways. He came home late and sometimes also drunk .As days went by he was losing interest on his newly wedded wife. One night after coming in drunk he stated that he had married Bijoli on a bet that he had made with his friends. Her blissful world came down crashing. She felt as though someone had looted and abandoned her. Depressed, sad and helpless she could do nothing but try to adjust with her situation. Like a bolt from the blue she was shocked to find that his main source of income came from criminal pursuits. He was the leader of a gang of pocket-pickers and gamblers.
Shambhu started giving Bijoli evil counsel. He was pressurizing her to steal from the Chowdhury’s villa. No one he said could get wealthy by being honest and straight. But she strongly opposed the idea. She could never betray the trust of people who had given her food and shelter. His relentless bickering and demands were growing by the day and making her life miserable.
“If you can’t steal then I will .Tell me everything about the house and where they keep their valuables then,” he said.
She wouldn’t give in. Angered by her defiance he beat her up.
“Always remember I’m your husband and it’s your duty to obey me,” he said hoarsely.
His battering on the smallest of issues became a daily ritual in the privacy of their home.
She had married on her own wishes and she couldn’t now complain to his father whose desires she had once defied. She could do nothing but tolerate her tormentor. Gradually she succumbed to her husband’s designs and told him everything she knew about the Chowdhurys’ and gave him a detailed description of their house.
On one dark stealthy night, Shambhu along with another of his gang entered the house of Chowdhury’s to steal when only Raghabendra and Sadhana were present at home. Rabin and Jaya with their children were on a holiday. They looted valuables, goods and cash from the house. Waking up next morning both of them were shocked to find their house ransacked and looted. They called the police and informed Rabin. He came back home abruptly with his family from his vacation. The police interrogated them all and asked them about their servants.
“How many servants are working in your house?” asked the police officer.
“Two. Basanti is our cook for many years and Bijoli has been working as the helping hand for a couple of years now, too” said Raghabendra.
“Do you suspect any of them?” he asked.
“No, not at all. I have no reason to suspect them. Such occurrences never happened before. Bijoli used to live here with us and it’s been only a couple of months after her marriage that she is living with her husband down the street,” he said.
Bijoli was flabbergasted and morose. She was overwhelmed by her employer’s show of trust on her. Guilt ridden and ashamed she could neither eat properly for days nor could she set her mind on her tasks. She felt like telling them the truth but the fate that her husband would suffer prevented her from taking such an action. She suffered alone and her conscience tortured her. Her pale demeanor and inattentiveness gave away the fact that something was worrying her. She tried her best to hide her uneasiness.
Soon Sambhu and his gang were caught and taken into custody by the police. He was penalized heavily and made to serve jail for five long years. Bijoli’s world turned upside down. The Chowdhurys told her to continue working at their place but she declined and wanted to go back home to her village .It was impossible for her to continue work with them for she couldn’t face them now.
Kesto took her back to the village. Bijoli took care of the household chores there. She hated to be a burden to his father. She was by now habituated to a city life and it seemed still and dreary here. There was also no scope for a job. Gradually depression and frustration took over her. She blamed herself for falling in love with Shambhu and marrying him. And felt life had come to a dead end. After spending three months at home she decided to take charge of her own life.
“Father, I have decided to take responsibility of my own life. I can’t remain a burden to you forever. So, I have decided to go back to Kolkata and seek out something for myself,” she said.
“But Bijoli, Kolkata is a big city and it isn’t safe for a young woman like you to wander aimlessly for work,” he said.
“Gopa, Murali uncle’s daughter works in a small factory in the outskirts of Kolkata and she told me that she could provide me with shelter until I find some work,” she explained.
Murali was a farmer who lived in their village. One of his daughters, Gopa was sent to work in Kolkata as a domestic help in a house but soon she got an offer for working in a small cottage industry in Ichapur. Leaving her work as a domestic help she took the job of being a manual worker. Bijoli knew her from her childhood days but became friendly with her only after she came vacationing home. It was then that she offered her assistance and help at Kolkata.
It was very hard especially for a young married woman to find work in a large city. She was alone and had no one to recommend her. Everywhere she went she was asked about her husband and family to which she had little to say. Most eyed her with suspicion. One day when she was roaming around Sealdah station, a scrawny, dark complexioned man with oily hair and small dark fleeting eyes approached her.
“My name is Tarun. I have been noticing you for a couple of days. You seem tensed and worried. Is anything bothering you?” he asked
“No, actually I’m in search of a job here” she said.
“What kind of job are you searching for? I can help you,” he said.
“I used to work as a domestic help before but due to certain personal reasons I had to leave that job,” she said.
“Oh! What kind of job are you now looking for?” he asked.
“Any kind will do,” she said.
“If that is so, I can help you if you want me to”, he said.
“Okay, then tomorrow I will take you somewhere. Meet me here at the same place,” he said.
Next morning she accompanied Tarun to an old neighborhood full of old shabby and neglected mansions and houses. The place had a sleazy and eerie look. A number of women stood in groups talking to each other and others scattered. They were all dressed up garishly. Bijoli thought of asking him about the place but restrained from doing so since her need for a job was acute. Too many queries might annoy him she thought and she would lose the only hope she had now. He entered an unkempt building and knocked at a door. An elderly woman gaudily dressed opened the door and smiled at them. Chewing on a beetle roll she ushered them inside.
“She is the girl I was telling you about yesterday,” said he introducing her to the woman.
The woman looked at her as if measuring her from top to bottom.
“Hmm …” she said.
“She is Monoroma Devi and she is the one who will give you work and a livelihood,” he said.
“What kind of work is it?” she asked innocently.
“What’s the hurry? You will gradually come to know,” said Monoroma.
“She will train you for the job and you need to stay with her for a couple of days. I hope you don’t have a problem with that. You don’t always get such chances in life,” he said.
“But I haven’t informed my friend. She will be worrying if I don’t return,” she said.
“Don’t worry, give me her address I will inform her. You just relax here,” he said. Monoroma led her to a small pigeon hole of a room. The room had one tiny window, a soiled bed, a dress-stand and a small mirror which hung from the wall. That night she found the place which was so long quiet become active with different kinds of men coming in; some sober and others intoxicated. She felt a cold shiver pass through her spine while she lay frightened, trembling, sobbing and unable to sleep. She decided that she would ask Monoroma Devi about it next morning.
There was no trace of her till eleven o’clock next morning. When she spotted her at last she asked her about the activities last night.
“Nothing my child. They were just customers coming in. You don’t have to worry about them. I control everything here,” she said.
That night a robust drunken man was pushed into her room.
Once a woman slips she usually descends and there is very little chance of her regaining her lost position.
Years rolled by, Bijoli had learnt all the arts and tricks of the profession. She had now become the most sought after girl in her locality .She no more occupied the small closeted room and had shifted into a well-furnished bigger room. One evening she was surprised to see Shambhu stepping into her room. On seeing her he stood dumbfounded. She laughed aloud and said, “Babu, are you a new customer? Would you be able to pay my steep fees?” He kept staring at her for a while and silently stepped out of the room. Bijoli sat on her bed waiting for another customer.