In the airless alcove that serves as a kitchen, she cooks rice and dal—the only items left in the storeroom—into khichuri for dinner. She has added more water than she should in order to stretch the meal. Even so, she will have to take money from the lockbox tomorrow. More women came to their house after Shibani left; they too wanted their advances back. Only a few rupees are left in the box. She hopes Priya will come home soon; she hopes the girl will remember the kalmishaagJamini asked her to pick from the pond near the clinic. Jamini has used up everything edible from the pond behind their own house. Not a single patient yet at the clinic. Jamini is unsurprised. Why would they trust their lives to an inexperienced girl? She hopes Priya will hurry. The fire is dying and Jamini cannot afford to add more coal. Maybe she can talk Priya into taking on a tutoring job. All those books she spent hours reading should be good for something.
She misses her father, level-headed, generous, and fair, and the only one in this house who cared about her. She never got a chance to tell him how much she valued that. She remembers guiltily the wild wish she sent into the world on the day he died: Let something change. Let something break. I don’t care what. I don’t care how.
Can wishes bring destruction? A stupid question. She pushes it deep into the dark space inside her.
If only Bina had not cut off ties with the Chowdhurys. Having Amit come by—even if it was mostly to moon over Priya—would have made a difference.
A knock at the door. Her breath quickens. The village women say you can pull a man to you with love, if it is strong enough. Or maybe the Pir has finally turned his eye of mercy towards her. She straightens her wrinkled sari, thinks longingly of the pristine clothes of her past, puts on a winsome smile. But it is only their next-door neighbour, a young mother whom everyone calls Leela’s Ma. She hands Jamini a bowl of potato curry, claiming she cooked too much. An untruth, but a kind one. Sometimes she leaves two-year-old Leela with them, saying she needs to run to the market. Jamini suspects it is because she knows the toddler will take Bina’s mind off her troubles for a while.
Back from her walk, Deepa is outside at the well, washing her feet, taking a long time. Jamini peeks out and sees her sister staring at the moon, a glow on her face. Deepa is hiding something, Jamini is sure of it. Why do her sisters insist on keeping secrets from her even now, when they need to come together? No matter. Jamini will unearth Deepa’s secret, just as she did Priya’s.
A few days before the trip to Calcutta, Jamini noticed Priya going into the storeroom. Priya did not see her; Jamini was changing sheets in the bedroom. She could hear pots being moved around, boxes pushed out, then pushed back. When Priya left the house, Jamini went to look. In a while she found the loose brick. The space behind it was filled with silly things that Priya had scribbled and saved over the years. Jamini did not bother with them. She picked up the bangles that had been hidden under the papers, hefted them. Enough gold to keep a family comfortable for a year. She knew who had given them to Priya. Her heart twisted even as she tried to be happy for her sister.
She put the bangles back. She told no one. Now Priya’s secret was hers, too.
Dispirited dishevelled Priya returns in the dark. Jamini is sorry but also annoyed. The girl would be better off if she admitted that she cannot keep the clinic going. Priya has forgotten the kalmishaag. It takes all of Jamini’s willpower to not scold her. A good thing Leela’s Ma gave them the potato curry. They sit silently around the cheerless meal, a single lantern throwing shadows on the wall. Bina eats a few mouthfuls, but only because Deepa has said if you do not eat, neither will I. Priya pushes her food around. Deepa swallows mechanically. Does anyone recognize how hard Jamini worked to create this meal out of almost nothing? She stores the leftovers carefully and hopes they will not spoil by morning. She hurries them to bed so that she can blow out the lantern and save on kerosene.
Deep night. Jamini wakes to the sound of the door being unbolted. Bina at the threshold, ghostlike in her widow’s white. She steps out, moving with surprising speed. Jamini’s heart thrashes around, she shakes Priya awake, whispers to her to get Deepa, runs to catch up with her mother.
‘What are you doing, Ma? Where are you going?’
Bina stares ahead, eyes unfocused. She is sleepwalking. Deepa and Priya call to her. She hears nothing, twists away when Deepa puts an arm around her.
‘We have to get her back home,’ Jamini says. ‘There are three of us. We can do it even if she resists.’
Priya hesitates. ‘I read in one of Baba’s journals that it is dangerous to force sleepwalkers to wake up. They can go into shock. Let’s just accompany her.’
Bina moves fast and unhesitant through the dark, as though on her way to a crucial appointment. The girls follow, silent, stumbling. Past the familiar neighbourhoods, the village school, the panchayat building, the fisher colony with its narrow paths.
‘She is going to the cremation ground,’ Jamini says.
Deepa begins to sob. ‘She is planning to drown herself in the Sarasi and join Baba.’
Terror sharpens Jamini’s tone. ‘We should have stopped her right away. We should not have listened to you, Priya. It is not as though you are a real doctor.’
Priya flinches. But she says, with admirable calm, ‘Let us stay close to her. We will grab her if it looks like she is in danger.’
They flank their mother as she steps into the eddying water. Ankle, calf, knees, thighs. Jamini’s teeth chatter. She is certain she will drown. Her sisters learned to swim in the village pond, but she was too ashamed of her leg to join them.
Waist deep, Jamini panics, starts to flail her way back. But Bina has stopped. She stretches out her arms, she is holding something invisible, she is tipping it over.
‘She is scattering Baba’s ashes,’ Deepa says.
Bina pours until the pot in her mind is empty. She sets it afloat on the current. The girls tense, ready to grab her if she attempts to follow it. But she turns away and heads home.
Grey dawn by the time they reach their neighbourhood. Bina is still sleepwalking, but she no longer struggles when her daughters grip her arms. Jamini trembles with exhaustion relief fear. What if Bina does this again? She does not think she can endure it. They must buy a padlock this very day and secure the door from the inside.
Early risers—farmers, milkmen, old folks out for their morning constitutional—stare and whisper as they stumble homeward.
Hair askew, faces streaked with mud, saris flapping wetly about their legs.
Look, look, the strange and unfortunate women of the Ganguly family.
(Excerpted from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s forthcoming novel, 'Independence' (HarperCollins).)