It was the birth anniversary of Jnanpith award winner Ashapurna Devi a couple of days ago (Jan 8). Also, a Padmi Shri awardee in 1976 and a recipient of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 1994, Ashapurna Devi is a well-known poet, short story writer and novelist in Bengali. Her women characters are usually bold and daring and Parvati from ‘The Distant Window’ is no exception. However, she is a fascinating character not just because of her demeanor (despite her adversities) but because of her choices that are sometimes weak and at other times daunting.
Parvati- a doting daughter and a devoted wife
A Bengali woman Parvati has married a Bihari man Nando Raut- a man who is her father’s age just to clear off the latter’s debts. Despite making the huge sacrifice for her father whom she adored more than her mother, the bold and the beautiful Parvati pacifies her mother by justifying her father’s decision in giving her hand to Nando: “Why, what is wrong? He may be older, but he works hard! Doesn’t he earn well? He earns double the amount a younger man would. He frequently works overtime. If I had married a young lad, what good would that be? In all probability, the young man would have taken me for granted. I’m very happy as I am. A young wife of an old man.” Parvati took care of old man Nanda more as a daughter than a wife. Yet, she is bold enough to keep Nanda in his limits when he tries to dominate her, being much older than her. On one occasion when Nando forces Parvati to go the bunglow to take care of Manas Mukherji’s (better known as Sahab) needs after his arrival and threatens her: “Parvati, don’t make me lose my temper…will you or will you not go this very minute? If you don’t begin to move, I’ll pour some of this hot water over you.” Parvati is least scared and she replies to Nando: “Go ahead. Instead of dying a little every day, it would be much better to die at one go.”
Nando Raut’s insecurity
The age gap between Parvati and Nando always made him insecure that his wife might get lured by the Sahebs while she was working for the Memsahebs who came to visit along with them. Nando was aware of the difference between them- his rugged and coarse appearance with his unkempt hair and clothes that presented a stark contrast to the neat and well-maintained appearance of Parvati that almost gave an aura of sophistication. It was not that Nando was not concerned about Parvati. He brought her rubber slipper when her feet got blisters on her way to fetch water in the hot sun. He also joked that next Parvati would need a handbag and a sunglass maybe. Parvati replied: “Of course, why not? Do you expect me to dress like you? Look at you! A pair of pyjamas that looks like a pillow-case, and an ill-fitting, half-sleeved shirt! Other people wear pantool (pantaloons), fantool…”
Though it was Nando who had sent Parvati to take care of the Sahab, he was frantic more with an insecurity than concern about the Memsahab not accompanying the Sahab. Imagining Parvati alone with the Sahab made him crazy with suspicion. He always had the fear that his wife would one day desert him in lure of a better man than him. Nando’s frequent insecurities were reflected in his statement to his wife: “Why did you marry me if I’m an old man?”
Her jovial personality/ her harmless flirtatious streak
Despite facing the domestic abuse of Nando thrashing her quite often, Parvati never lost her sense of humour that often reflected in her pretentious flirtations (that irked Nando). An instance of this kind of attitude she shows Nando:
“It’s more honourable to sell one’s self to others than to live with a man who doesn’t strangle his wife even if he knows that she has surrendered herself to another man; and then he sits down to hid meal cooked by that kind of a woman!”
After provoking Nando’s anger by the above statement, she further adds oil to the fire by adding: “When the Memsahabs do not accompany their Sahabs, the Sahabs usually take notice of the maid-servants. So I rather hope…”
This irritated Nando even further.
Her attitude to trauma
Nando constantly threatened Parvati lest she has a fling with the Sahabs visiting the town. But Parvati was quite ‘reckless’ to this behaviour of her husband. Nando refused to change his insecurity towards his wife:
“Nando was perennially tortured by suspicion towards his young, beautiful wife. He suspected the Bengalis, specially. He regularly threatened his wife as he came home late, after fulfilling his greed for the overtime wages and his addiction to liquor. But today, he decided the appropriate medicine would be to give her a sound thrashing.”
Despite Nando beating her up with suspicion, she never stopped her pretentious flirtations. It was difficult to understand what pleasure she got by provoking her husband frequently. Maybe, it gave a feeling of sweet revenge. Her ability to put up with the arrogant attitude of her husband was quite stubborn. Comprehending her mental make-up was difficult: “Parvati’s mental psychology is mystifying. She continuously concocts stories and relates them to Nando recklessly: stories that make him lose all sense of proportion and turn mad with rage. In spite of knowing the consequences that could follow, she just didn’t to care.”
Her bold decision
Why and how Parvati got the idea and the courage to go to the Saheb and ask him for a job in Calcutta is not easy to analyse. She seemed quite contended in her seemingly imperfect world with her senile, aged husband. Perhaps, the torture kept hammering in her head when one fine day she decided she could take it no more.
Parvati- the sincere worker
Parvati, changing her name to Pahari, worked sincerely as a maid to Romola so much so that her ‘Didimoni’ could not imagine a life without her. And it was not just the efficiency in her work but her ability to add a personal touch to everything. She became close to Romola without creating undue interference in her life.
Her decision to return to her husband
Like her decision to leave her abusive husband was sudden, her choice of returning to him was immediate. Any reader till this point in the story would have thought her to be an independent-minded modern woman who fought against domestic violence and broke free. However, her sympathy for her disheveled man and her decision to again repair her marriage raises a volley of fresh questions that remain unanswered. Whether she was an emancipated woman or a victim of the patriarchal trap is debatable.