Dev Kumari Thapa
They were like a pair of doves: always keeping together. Whenever I saw them, I had a sharp prick in my heart. In my case, I received nothing but bitterness in life. They were reaping happiness, which was never in my lot. In such a big house, I lived a lonely life, passing my time merely with servants. I did have relatives, granted. But they were busy in their own worlds. Why should I meddle with them? These two were lonely too; I didn’t see a lot of friends around them. Sometimes, a sweet melody came from their room to caress me here, and at times, the fragrance from their garden flies up to my garden here. As for the garden, mine was in no way inferior to theirs. My gardener, a Bihari man, worked at the garden of an Indian king in the past. After India became independent, such smaller kingdoms were integrated into the Indian republic, and the big palaces and gardens were left unattended. Like other Indian labors, my gardener also entered Nepal. He found Nepal’s southern plains—the Tarai—similar to his country. It has been ten years since he started living with me in Hetauda. The garden was lush with flowers. The house next-door doesn’t have a gardener. A boy of about fourteen weeds and waters the garden. The couple themselves planted the flowers and cared for them. So their cute little garden has its own character. Though it’s not big and verdant like mine, it has its own newness. Truly speaking, they are far luckier than me, except in matters of wealth. Though not as rich as I am, they are not poor folks. Granted they don’t have the like of grandeur I do in almost everything, but everything they have has an imprint of their own personalities and interest. What worth is my wealth! With it, I could not even keep my wife satisfied. She picked someone richer than me and fled. She was of the woman living next-doors, but was far prettier than this woman, as beautiful as a leopard. This one is moonlike, quite cool and peaceful. Ah, if I had a partner like her in this age! Lo, I am turning insane?
The man next-doors waved at me from his garden and said, “Hello!” I waved back in response. Our relation was limited to this. I didn’t go to theirs; they did not come to my place, either. Our relation was heavily formal, like that of the British.
Time was passing in the same manner. One evening, my neighbor Victor Basnet walked into my home. I welcomed him with all the delight. I asked my cook to bring a glass of cold beer from the fridge. Though he was refusing to drink, I forced a glass of beer onto his hands. He took the glass with thanks and gave me an invitation card. It was for inviting me to dinner on the occasion of the silver jubilee of his marriage with Mistress Sheela Basnet. I thanked him for the card, and he thanked me for the beer. After such exchange of formal niceties, he left. After he was gone, I read the card back and forth. They had passed twenty-five long years of conjugality with happiness. How lucky they were!
With a greeting card and a miniature, sandalwood temple of Pashupatinath, I went to their home. There also was a couple. I was the single loner. Sweet melodies were played, and a sumptuous but simple dinner was served. I returned home, enjoying with them till late in the night.
I could not sleep at all that night. I turned left and right, until it was dawn. What a happy life Victor and Sheela Basnet had been living! They had embellished life so well. When I compared my life with the conjugal life of the couple, I found my life extremely heavy.
After this, they started visiting me at times. I also walked into theirs sometimes in the evening. Whenever I visited them, they forced me to join them at dinner, before seeing me off. Victor Basnet was a retired professor. He had also lived in the United States for five years. The subject he taught was botany. Sheela’s parental home was Simla, India, and she had been educated in an English school there. Being the youngest daughter of retired colonel Man Singh Thapa, Sheela’s ways of living were Western, though her heart was laden with patriotic feelings. Victor didn’t marry a second wife charging Sheela of bearing no kids; instead they built a separate home at Hetauda, and started living there together. His visitors often visited Victor Basnet. He was a man of grave nature and quite fair of complexion with a personality like that of a well-off man, though half of his hair had turned grey with age. Sheela attended most of the cultural and social events organized in Hetauda.
When our relations grew even more intimate, I started inviting them to dinner. We also exchanged flower saplings. Sheela and Victor were fond of sweet pea, while Camellia was my favorite. This way, I started sharing my hands in their happy life, instead of being disturbed by it. I started experiencing some joy now. Our friendship grew even more intimate.
One night, at around 1 o’clock, I got a call on the phone. It was Sheela speaking from the other side. In an alarmed voice, she told me that Victor had just fainted. It was mid-winter, and the outside temperature was chilling. I wrapped myself with a blanket and rushed out of room. I woke up the watchman and asked him to run and bring home our driver, feeling that we might have to rush Victor to the office.
I walked direct into their bedroom. Victor was lying on the bed, senseless. Sheela sat on his side, shedding torrents of tears. I asked their servant to go to my home and ask the driver to come with the car. When the vehicle arrived, I asked my driver to go and bring home Doctor Shrestha. Victor’s pulse and breath were dismally low. I and his servant together lifted him from the bed and made him sleep on the ground. I asked Sheela to feed him some basil water. When I did saw, he paid me an extremely strange look. I could not continue standing there. I rushed into the garden to pick basil leaves.
Soon the doctor arrived. He felt his heartbeat, which had stopped long back. The doctor declared the patient dead.
The scenes thereafter were heartbreaking. Victor’s relatives rushed in. Sheela fainted and came round intermittently.
The relatives managed the cremation. For thirteen days that followed, I could not step into that family. Oh, how cowardly I had been! However, I sent my servant everyday to ask about Sheela’s wellbeing. He brought the news: she still fainted from time to time.
On the thirteenth day ritual, I could not stop myself from going. Sheela sat amid other women, staring vacantly at the walls in front. The women were trying to console her, but their words, seemingly, passing over her ears. I wondered why they had to keep speaking at such a time.
After the final rituals were over, their relatives started returning to their own homes one after another. An elder sister of her husband and her son stayed for a few more days. When they too were gone, she became utterly alone. She was now in a situation where she had to live in the company of her own pains and memories all through her life. In other words, she had to wait for her death that way.
Days passed on their own accords. Sheela’s sister-in-law returned to her own home. One day, I took hold of a bag containing some flower sapling and started sorting them out as fuchsia, poppy, anthurium, sweet pea…etc. I took some seeds of sweet pea in hand and contemplated for a while. With some packets of pink and white sweet pea seeds in hand, I went to my neighbor’s house. Sheela was sitting on a chair, staring at nothingness. On seeing me, she signaled to sit. I quickly said, “I won’t sit today, Mrs. Sheela. I have to give flower seeds to my gardener. I have spared these two packets of sweet pea for your garden…”
Placing the seeds on the table in front of her, I left. She didn’t say anything.
Days rolled on. Sheela Basnet slowly started working in the garden with her servant boy sometimes. Soon the winter was over, and early spring was over too. One morning, I was tickled by tantalizing fragrance of some flowers. I turned towards the source of the fragrance. Sheela Basnet’s garden had come alive with the full bloom of sweet pea flowers. I concluded: Sheela has gained the strength to live now.
[Dev Kumari Thapa (1928-2011) is basically a storywriter. She wrote stories both for adults and children. Though she was born and brought up in Darjeeling of India, she later moved to Nepal and got settled in Biratnagar. A nurse by training, she wrote right from her schooldays. Her published story collections are Ekadashi, Jhajhalko, Seto Biralo, Tapari, Bhok Tripti, Pralaya-Pratikshya and Dev Kumari Thapaka Pratinidhi Katha, her representative stories. Recently, a collection of his stories have also been translated and published in English. She also wrote some biographies and essays.]
Trans: Mahesh Paudyal