If love were as simple as keeping a promise, we'd all have broken hearts.
Too-Late Dowry by Joseph Fleckenstein
Shankar Bhattacharya had requested the day off from work at the tannery. He told his supervisor the day would be his fifth wedding anniversary and he hoped to spend the day with his wife.
The day of the anniversary Shankar slept until midday. When he awoke he decided not to bother shaving or washing. In the kitchen, his wife, Rena, had bread on the table and water on the stove for tea. As he entered the kitchen he glanced at his wife but said nothing.
“Cheer up, Shankar.”
She had decided she would not be the first to mention the “anniversary” word.
Shankar and Rena lived in a small two room flat in a poor section of Mumbai. The building always smelled of a hundred different meals and the stairwells were mostly littered with trash that the residents expected others to retrieve. Since their rooms were on the uppermost floor many days the sun would beat down on the roof, half baking the unfortunates who lived below. In winter there was no heating and room temperatures sometimes fell to near freezing. The flat was the best they could afford. The other occupants of the building were similar people. Everyone was struggling to merely stay alive. Few in the building had hopes of moving to better quarters anytime soon.
Rena added to her efforts.
“Tell you what. I am going to make your favorite dish tonight. Yesterday I bought some chickpeas, yogurt and an eggplant.”
With a side glance and a sly smile, she added, “I have another surprise, but I am not telling you just yet.”
Rena was a plain looking woman. She was slender and lacking the curves men preferred to see on a woman. Her appearance no doubt played a part in her eventual need to marry below her caste. She was adamant that she did not wish to grow old alone. It was for this reason her father felt obliged to offer a dowry that was more than a token. Despite circumstances she continually displayed a cheerful disposition. Everyone said she was congenial and pleasant. Rena tried her best to keep her husband happy despite his moods and his rough ways. She often thought that if she could only have a baby. How wonderful that would be. A child, preferably a boy, would give Shankar an improved attitude. But after five years there was no baby and hope that one might come along was slipping away. The absence of children was a great disappointment since the relatives on both sides were in the custom of having large families.
Finishing the tea, Shankar remained unsmiling and quiet. He ignored Rena’s attempts to humor him. Rising from the table he walked to the closet and withdrew the only jacket he owned. Slipping an arm into a sleeve, he turned to Rena.
“Yes, I know it is our anniversary. It was five years ago today. I am sure you remember. That was the day your father reaffirmed the promise of a dowry. The dowry that has yet to be delivered.”
“Shankar, we have discussed the dowry many times? Father is a man of his word and he will deliver the dowry exactly as he promised. Recent years have been difficult for him. He has three more daughters to marry off. And, business at his shop has declined because of increased competition. I am certain he will keep his promise as soon as he can possibly do so. There is no question of that.”
Shankar turned and walked toward the door. Over his shoulder he said he was going to visit Samir. After he closed the door, Rena engaged the deadbolt. In this neighborhood one needed be ever cautious. She walked slowly to the kitchen table and sat. Her hands began to shake. She dropped her head to her hands and began to sob softly.
Outside Shankar found it was raining lightly. It was pre-monsoon weather and in the coming weeks the rains would be unceasing day after day. He decides to walk the distance regardless of the weather and without an umbrella.
Arriving at Samir’s apartment, Samir’s wife met him at the door.
“Oh, Shankar, come in. Let me take your coat. How are you? We have not seen you for some time. I presume you wish to see your brother.”
“If he is up and about. How is he doing? Better, I hope.”
Shanta looked down at her brother-in-law’s feet. His shoes and clothing were soaking wet but she said nothing. She was not especially fond of this particular in-law. Mostly she resented the way the man treated his wife. Also, he always smelled of the tannery and cow hides. She guessed that he bathed only infrequently. On every family occasion she was polite to him but rarely had she gone beyond politeness.
“Your brother is still a little shaky on his feet but he will be glad to see you. He’s growing tired of being house-bound and not being able to walk about. Right now he’s in the kitchen, reading.”
Samir and Shanta lived in a three-room apartment that had a bathroom, hot water, and heat. The place was luxurious compared to Shankar’s quarters. Samir had always been imaginative at finding ways to make money.
In the kitchen, Samir was obviously happy to see his younger brother.
“Have a seat. Good to see you.”
“I suspected you would be home what with the foot problem. How is it?”
“Improving. Every day I’m a little better. I believe I will be able to return to the store next week.”
Samir was manager of a small clothing store, but he had other sources of income. He was resourceful and imaginative. He was good at reasoning things through. That why Shankar often looked to him for advice.
“How is it going with you and Rena?
Shankar hesitated while looking at his hands.
“I’m not so sure. Today is our fifth anniversary.”
“Yes. I almost forgot. Congratulations.”
Noise in one of the bedrooms is followed by the sound of running, small feet. Samir’s three year old boy appeared and explained to his father that his bear lost a leg. Shankar’s heart fell at the sight of his nephew. The boy reminded him of what he missed in life.
“Dipak, don’t worry. Your mother will sew the leg on. Your bear will be as good as new. Maybe better. Give the bear to your mother. I am visiting with your uncle Shankar. Now run along.”
Shanta heard the commotion and appeared with a towel and sandals for Samir. She placed the towel on a chair in front of Shankar and the sandals on the floor near his wet feet. She forced a smile for Shankar’s benefit.
“I thought you might be able to use these.”
Bending down she took hold of her son and retreated to one of the bedrooms. After she had closed the bedroom door, Shankar faced his brother.
“You are lucky, Samir, to have two lovely little boys. I envy you.”
“They are great boys, especially the older one. He’s as sharp as a tack.” Samir started to say more about the children but then stopped. He remembered children were a sore subject with his brother. He did not wish to be seen as talking excessively about children.
“I know you and Rena would like to have children. It’s not too late. You still have time.”
“I appreciate your good wishes, but, no, I suspect I am married to a dry cow.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Children are a wonderful addition to the family but they are not everything. You have a good wife. She cares a lot for you and she is the best cook of the whole relationship. Besides, marrying a wife who is a caste higher never hurts a man in India. It often leads to better things. In my opinion you made a good marriage.”
“I’m glad you think so. Of course, it’s easy for you to say. You have what I call a beautiful apartment. You have children. And, you actually received the promised dowry. I find myself in very different circumstances.”
“Don’t dwell on the dowry. You will drive yourself crazy. How about your father-in-law finding you steady employment with one of his business contacts? That was certainly worth something. In a way that favor was better than a dowry. As you are no doubt aware many of our relatives live in filth and many days have nothing to eat. Here is more food for thought. Right now you are king of the roost. Rena treats you like royalty. She waits on you day and night. Cooks whatever you choose. If there were children that arrangement would surely change. Being a mother realigns a woman’s priorities. It’s human nature. What I am saying is that you cannot have everything in reality exactly the way you find them in your dreams. Besides, if she hasn’t become pregnant it could be your fault. It is not always the woman’s fault you know.”
“The work that Mr. Dutt found for me was only for the reason that he wanted to be sure his daughter would have food and shelter on a regular basis. As far as her not becoming pregnant, well, that must be her fault.”
Neither man spoke. Momentarily Shanta returned to the kitchen. In time she delivered up a tray with a pot of tea, cups and a plate of biscuits. She looked at Shankar.
“The biscuits are a day old but this kind seem to age well. I think you will like them anyway.”
She turned and exited without another word.
“Thank you. I might have a biscuit at that.”
Shankar took a bite from a biscuit and followed it with a sip of tea. Returning the tea cup to the saucer he faced Samir. He had become pensive.
“There’s a fellow at the tannery by the name of Abhi Banerjee. We got to know one another fairly well. Abhi lives a block from us. The building where he lives is worse than the one where we live if you can believe that. They have one boy. He was not paid his promised dowry after three years. He became so upset and angry …”
Anticipating his brother’s trend of thought Samir interrupts. “That’s enough. You should not be thinking along those lines. That would be entirely uncalled for. I understand what is eating at you. The dowry. The lack of children. These things are not everything in life. Far from it. You should understand that. Besides, you might be paid the dowry someday. And children could still come along. All of these things are still possible. Think of it that way. When all is said and done you may not be able to find a better wife. You would be out of employment for a long time. And, you might also find yourself in serious trouble with the law.”
Shankar was not hearing the kind of advice that he had anticipated. There was no affirmation of his reasoning. Silent, he took another sip of tea.
“It is something I have been considering for some time. I really become angry when I think of the way I have been cheated. Really, I don’t think there would be any trouble. The police usually do not concern themselves with these happenings. These events are common occurrences.”
“Brother, you are talking about dangerous and unnecessary steps. I suspect the reason for your visit is to seek my opinion. My advice is that you should behave yourself. Forget the dowry for now. Personally, I would like to see you find contentment with your present wife. Furthermore, I would not like to see you spend a part of your life sitting in a prison cell.”
Shankar did not touch the towel or the sandals. He knew he would be walking again in rain on the return trip to his flat. In addition, he preferred to avoid being indebted to Shanta for the slightest favor. The brothers continued talking for a spell but only innocuous topics were bandied about. When the tea was gone Shankar announced he must be going. As he stood, he wished his brother well. Samir looked up from his chair.
“You should visit us more frequently. Bring Rena next time.
At the door, Shanta handed him his jacket but, because it was still raining, he merely threw it over his arm. They both tried to be outwardly pleasant to one another.
“The tea and biscuits were very good. I would have sworn you had made the biscuits today.”
“Glad you liked them. Come more often, Shankar.”
In the street the rain had increased. Shankar was the only person in sight without an umbrella. On the way home he walked through the puddles rather than around them. He was in deep thought.
At the flat, Shankar tapped on the front door and Rena promptly pulled it open.
“Welcome home traveler.”
Shankar walked through the door, dripping water.
“My word, you are soaking wet. I’ll find you some dry clothes. Come in the bedroom.” Rena retrieved dry clothing and placed it on the bed. A moment later she returned with a large towel.
“I must look after some things cooking on the stove.”
Rena returned to the kitchen to check on her dishes. Meanwhile Shankar used the towel to dry himself and then dressed with the dry clothing. His jaw was set as he walked into the kitchen. Standing behind Rena he spotted a heavy cast iron skillet on the table. Rena had received it as a wedding gift. He took hold of the skillet and in one wide swing struck his wife of five years a vicious blow. The wife who could not conceive. The wife whose father did not deliver on his promise of a dowry. As her body lay on the floor Shankar took a seat at the kitchen table and began to weep. He felt hopeless. For the next hour he paced back and forth in the small flat, telling himself he did what was necessary. He reasoned his taking action was demanded by the situation. Eventually he walked to the police station and reported that his wife had an accident in the kitchen. He said it seemed she fell and hit her head. She was unresponsive.
Two policemen returned with Shankar to the flat. After inspecting the body one policeman looked at the other. Before he could speak Shankar said he must use the toilet down the hall. As he walked toward the door he added that he will return in a few minutes. When he was out the door each policeman took half of the rupees that had been placed on the kitchen table. When Shankar returned the senior policeman explained his interpretation.
“Looks as though she slipped on some cooking oil that had spilled on the floor. Apparently she hit her head as she fell. We see this kind of accident frequently. You would think women would be more careful. If you like we will notify her family.”
“Would you, please? I am a little distraught at the present. Her parents live in the fifth block of Hill Street. They own a clothing store there called “Bargain Clothing.” Their apartment is on the second floor above the shop.”
The policemen walked directly to the clothing shop and rang the apartment bell. In time Mrs. Banerjee opened the door. She was shocked to see policemen standing there in rain slickers.
“Oh, my word. Is something wrong, officers?”
“Sorry, mam. Are you Mrs. Banerjee?
“Yes, I am Mrs. Banerjee.”
“We would like to speak with Mr. Banerjee if he is home.”
“I am sorry. He is not here at the moment.”
“Do you know when he will return?”
“Shortly, I presume. Today is my one daughter’s wedding anniversary. My husband said he was going to deliver a dowry to my daughter’s husband. First he was going to stop at the bank. Perhaps he will stay for a brief celebration. I am uncertain.”
Mrs. Banerjee’s comments confirmed what the policemen had surmised.
“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Banerjee. We will return later in the day to speak with Mr. Banerjee.”
It was their practice to address only the man of the house with matters of importance.