The Girl With Good Handwriting by Prasanta Das

Mridula Bhattacharya woke to the sound of Abul cutting the bushes outside her bedroom window with a dao. She and her husband lived in a house with a large garden. When they had moved in about six months ago, the garden had neat, geometrical beds: the family that had lived in the house before them had employed a full-time mali. The newcomers neglected the garden. The rains were especially heavy in this part of Assam and this time the monsoon was the wettest in years. Soon plants spread beyond their allotted places; vines and creepers became unruly; weeds grew rampant. Returning home from work one day last week, Mridula had paused at the gate, struck by the garden's wild appearance. The garden paths had nearly disappeared and trees overhanging the house, their leaves thick and matted, had begun to block out the light. Was this her house, her garden? It stunned her to think she had not noticed the state of the garden before. How self-absorbed she had become! Then it occurred to her that her neighbours probably saw in the unkempt garden a reflection of the unhappiness and despair of the couple who lived in the house. The following day Mridula had engaged Abul.


It was eight already and she had a class at nine. Usually her husband drove her to the college where she taught English. But today she would have to take an auto-rickshaw. Jayanta had driven off shortly after midnight and had not yet returned.


She had lain awake all night and had fallen asleep only at dawn. From the heavy stillness on her husband's side, she knew that he too was awake. Jayanta must have been aware of her sleeplessness. But he had made no move to comfort her. No. They had lain awake, silent, each aware of the other's torment. Soon after midnight a power failure had plunged the town into darkness. After a couple of minutes, Jayanta had risen. Mridula could hear him dressing in the dark. Her conscientious husband. The townspeople were inured to the inefficient ways of the Assam State Electricity Board but Jayanta insisted on keeping his subordinates on their toes. He was particularly fond of conducting surprise midnight checks on the electricity board's maintenance staff.


Mridula went to the kitchen. She did not want to have breakfast but forced herself to eat a sandwich and drink a glass of milk. When she skipped breakfast her voice tended to quaver in class. You couldn't teach Paradise Lost on an empty stomach. The thought made her smile, despite her sadness.

She had opted for the nine o'clock class. None of her colleagues wanted the nine o'clock class: the men had to take their children to school, the women had to get tiffin ready. So, at the English Department meeting someone had come up with a bright suggestion: 'Give Mridula the morning classes!' 'Yes, give me the morning classes,' Mridula had found herself saying in a tight voice. 'Are you sure, Mridula?' the Head had asked nevertheless. Yes, she was sure. Her mornings were free. She had no children to get ready for school.


Mridula opened the front door and stepped out. 'Abul,' she called. He hurriedly appeared before her and gave her a namskar. He was a young man, not more than twenty-two, already burdened with a wife and a couple of children. Abul supported his family by doing odd jobs. He thought of the gardener's job as a steady one and was embarrassingly grateful to Mridula for employing him. He lived in his village five miles away and walked to town every day.

On the second day of his new job, Abul had found his dao missing. Instead of carrying it home, he had left it hidden under a bush in the garden. The next day the dao was not there. Someone had stolen it. Mridula guessed it was one of the urchins who, she knew, entered the compound: the jackfruit trees in the garden were a great attraction. To Abul, the theft was a setback. He loved the curved blade and the wooden handle he himself had made. He was an expert at handling the dao; in his hands, it was an all-purpose instrument. The first day Mridula, sitting on her verandah, had watched in secret admiration as Abul – he had put aside the pair of shears she had given him – swung his dao in short measured arcs and neatly trimmed the hedge.


When Abul reported the theft, Mridula had wanted to compensate him for the loss. But she had hesitated, afraid of what her husband would say. Later, in the evening, Jayanta had scornfully dismissed her suggestion. How were they responsible, he had asked? Why had Abul been so careless? Why had he not left the dao in their safekeeping? Besides, with people like Abul you could not be sure. How did Mridula know Abul had really lost his dao? What if he was lying? So the idea of compensation was dropped. Abul borrowed a dao from someone (a relative or perhaps a friend).

Now as he stood before her, Mridula thought she sensed a desire on his part to engage her in a conversation. He seemed to want to make a request. Was it about the dao? 'Abul, I am late,' she said, her voice sounding harsh. 'Get me an auto.' He was off at once but was a little late in returning.

Abul jumped out of the auto-rickshaw he had brought, grinning. He looked pleased with himself, as if he had just given her a gift. He had. The little black and yellow auto-rickshaw he had brought was obviously new. Abul had no doubt waited for this one letting the older, juddering ones that the town was full of go by. Mridula would have a comfortable ride. She was touched by this unexpected thoughtfulness on Abul's part. 'I am late, Abul,' she said, getting into the waiting auto-rickshaw. This time an apologetic note had crept into her voice.


‘College,’ she said to the auto-rickshaw driver. He was a thin, young man. On the way, Mridula caught him staring at her in the rear-view mirror. She was an attractive woman. In spite of her depressed mood, she made it a point to dress well. She wondered what the auto-rickshaw driver was thinking. It was a small town. Everyone knew the Bhattacharyas. The electricity board engineer and his barren wife. She looked at the auto-rickshaw driver’s frayed collar. No doubt he was married and had several children at home. He probably worked day and night to feed them. And here he was, pitying her for her childless state! The pressure to produce children in this overpopulated country was immense. You were an incomplete person if you didn’t have any.
At the college gates, she gave the auto-rickshaw driver fifteen rupees and waited pointedly for the change. He mumbled something and produced it.
Gopal, the night chowkidar in the college, greeted her with a salaam. He looked older than he was and his eyes were blood shot from lack of sleep. Gopal’s duty hours must have ended at least an hour earlier. But nobody had ever seen him sleep; he was available at all hours.
Once a year he went home to his village in Bihar. He always came back late from these annual visits.  The Principal would threaten to dismiss him. But each time he was forgiven. Gopal was everybody’s errand boy. He fetched tea from the college canteen, letters from the post office. If a snake entered a classroom, it was Gopal who was sent for. And if a desk or bench needed repairing, it was Gopal who appeared with a hammer and nails.


Every month he sent a money order home to his family. The college peons, poor men themselves, living on meagre salaries, spoke of Gopal with awe and amusement for he sent almost his entire salary home. He slept in one of the classrooms and ate leftover food in the college hostel. He indulged in no luxuries: he did not smoke bidis and had never been to the local cinema. His only aim in life was to send money back home.

Gopal followed Mridula to the English Department room, respectfully dusted her desk, and left. A couple of days before, he had followed her in a similar manner. While tidying up the room, he had begun to tell her about his family. He had a number of children. Mridula waited. When he had finally asked her to lend him some money Mridula knew what to say. She told him that she would have to ask Jayanta. Gopal accepted this. It seemed natural to him that she would consult her husband. The next day Mridula told Gopal that her husband had asked her to say no. She had not asked Jayanta.

The bell rang but Mridula remained seated at her desk. The nine o'clock class was the first one of the day and a student or two was always late. She would walk in and begin teaching, only to be interrupted by a breathless voice saying, 'Can I come in, Ma'am? or 'Excuse me, Ma'am'. It was very disruptive; she had a tendency to flare up on these occasions. She regretted the outbursts later; they increased her unhappiness. She composed herself, preparing to meet her students.


Mridula picked up her copy of Paradise Lost. It was an old book, dog-eared and stained, one of the few to have survived from her college days. How different college life had been! The talk in the college canteen, in the hostel rooms…. How earnestly had she and her friends debated the question of good and evil in Paradise Lost, in the universe. She had the generosity then to weep for the world. Now it seemed so far away.


She knew her book so well, she could open it at the exact place she wanted. Today she opened the book at the beginning and eye fell on the fly page where she had written her name. She always winced when she looked at old photographs of herself. But now as she looked at her youthful handwriting a smile of pride and delight suddenly lit up her face. How beautiful her handwriting used to be!

The girl with good handwriting. That was how she was known in school. Good people, her father had told her, have good handwriting. Florence Nightingale had beautiful handwriting. So did Abraham Lincoln. Mahatma Gandhi did not – he had neglected his handwriting as a boy and was ashamed of it later in life. Good handwriting showed consideration for other people. Mridula had devoted hours to developing her handwriting. She had received canings and other punishments in school without resentment for she had believed in good handwriting.


Her father had died believing that his daughter would give birth to a child. Mridula had lost hope. The last seven years had been a bitter ordeal: visits to doctors and specialists, visits to temples and holy men, tests and treatments…. In her sorrow she had began to take a perverse pleasure in deliberately making her writing illegible. Even Jayanta had noticed. He had remarked once that her handwriting had come to resemble a doctor's scrawl.


Life had been unfair to her. It had marked her out for sorrow, something she could not have believed possible in school or college. Her suffering had been endless and unrelenting. Worse, it was undeserved. Why me? she asked a dozen times daily. This was what made her so bitter. But now suddenly she felt elated. It was as if her handwriting had given her a glimpse into one of life's secrets. Mridula saw herself as she really was, a bitter, envious woman, and felt ashamed of herself. She felt remorse at her inability to feel compassion for others. Her eyes filled with tears. Her face softened. She had sat longer at her desk than she had meant to. She rose and headed for the classroom. When she entered the students rose hastily to their feet; Mridula was feared for her moods. You could never tell when she would snap off your head. But today the students sensed a change in her. She looked relaxed; there was a gentleness in her movements.


As Mridula began to teach, she thought of Abul in his green lungi and torn vest among the marigolds and dahlias, working hard to make the garden look beautiful and tidy. It would be midday by the time she returned to the house. She decided she would send Abul home by bus or auto-rickshaw. Let him spend the rest of the day with his family. She would give him enough money to take home a chicken and buy a dao as well.



Prasanta Das is Professor of English at Tezpur University, Assam. He is a two time Fulbrighter (Cornell and Harvard). His poems have appeared in Kunapipi, Indian PEN, New Quest, and Journal of Indian Writing in English.