In Bhagwaticharan Verma's 'Atonement', a cat's scheming ways put a young bride on trial
'Atonement' is part of The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, an anthology curated and translated by Poonam Saxena, featuring authors like Premchand, Bhisham Sahni and Usha Priyamvada.
In The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, writer and translator Poonam Saxena chooses and translates 25 stories, representing the finest of Hindi short fiction.
In Premchand’s ‘The Thakur’s Well,’ ‘low caste’ Gangi struggles to find drinking water for her ill husband. In Krishna Sobti’s ‘The Times Have Changed,’ matriarch Shahni bids a heart-breaking farewell to her village during Partition. Other authors featured in the book include Krishna Baldev Vaid, Yashpal, Bhisham Sahni, Usha Priyamvada, Amarkant, and Shivani.
Below is the story 'Atonement' by Bhagwaticharan Verma, reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher, Aleph Book Company.
If there was anyone in the whole house that the spotted cat loved, it was Ramu’s bride, and if there was anyone in the whole house that Ramu’s bride loathed, it was the spotted cat. Ramu’s fourteen-year-old bride, beloved of her husband, adored by her mother-in-law, had come from her maternal home to her husband’s home for the first time. The storeroom key dangled at her waist; the servants obeyed her commands: she had become the most important person in the household. The mother-in-law took out her rosary and busied herself in prayer and worship.
But the bride, just a fourteen-year-old girl, would sometimes leave the storeroom door open, or fall asleep inside. Seizing the opportunity, the spotted cat would polish off the milk and ghee. Ramu’s bride would be furious, but for the spotted cat, things couldn’t have been better! She would doze off while ladling ghee into the big earthen pot; the leftover ghee would disappear in a trice into the spotted cat’s stomach. When she’d cover the milk and go to the cook to give her some grain, the milk would vanish. If things had ended here, it wouldn’t have mattered, but the spotted cat had become so familiar with Ramu’s bride that the poor girl could not even eat or drink without some problem or the other! A bowlful of thick, sweet milk would be brought to her room, but by the time Ramu arrived, the bowl would have been licked clean. Cream would be bought from the bazaar, but by the time Ramu’s bride prepared a paan, the cream would have disappeared.
Ramu’s bride made a decision, only one of them could live in the house: either her or the spotted cat. Battle lines were drawn, both were alert. A big wooden cage to catch the cat arrived. It was stocked with milk, cream, mice, and various other delicacies that cats favour, but this particular cat didn’t so much as glance in that direction. But now the spotted cat began displaying a certain amount of ardour; earlier she used to be scared of Ramu’s bride, now she started following her around, though she prudently kept herself at arm’s length.
The spotted cat’s new brazenness meant that things became a tad difficult for Ramu’s bride in the house. She had to suffer mild rebukes from her mother-in-law and, as a result, her husband had to suffer indifferently cooked food.
One day Ramu’s bride made some kheer for her husband. Pistachio, almonds, fox nuts, and all kinds of dry fruits were simmered with the milk. When the kheer was ready, she covered it with light golden foil, filled a bowl to the brim, and placed it on a high ledge where the cat couldn’t reach. Then she got busy preparing a paan.
Meanwhile, the cat entered the room, stood below the ledge, looked up at the bowl, sniffed — yes, it was excellent fare — sized up the height of the ledge — Ramu’s bride was busy readying the paan. As soon as she left to give the paan to her mother-in-law, the spotted cat leapt, hit the bowl with its paw and the bowl fell to the ground with a loud crash!
Ramu’s bride threw the paan in front of her mother-in-law and ran to the room only to find the bowl broken into tiny pieces, the kheer splattered on the floor, and the cat busy slurping away at it. The moment she saw Ramu’s bride, the cat instantly made herself scarce!
Ramu’s bride saw red. She was going to get rid of the cat once and for all. She couldn’t sleep all night and kept thinking of what strategic move she should make, how she should attack the cat so that it wouldn’t survive. When morning came, she saw the spotted cat sitting at the door, gazing at her lovingly.
Ramu’s bride thought for a bit, then got up, smiling. As soon as she got up, the cat promptly slunk away. Ramu’s bride filled a bowl with milk, left it at the doorstep, and went away. When she returned with a flat stone in her hand, she found the spotted cat devouring the milk. It was the perfect opportunity; Ramu’s bride lifted the stone and hit the cat with all her might. The spotted cat didn’t scream or shriek, just crumpled to the floor, still and unmoving.
Hearing the sound, the servant abandoned her broom, the cook abandoned her kitchen, the mother-in-law abandoned her prayers and all of them presented themselves forthwith at the scene of the crime. Ramu’s bride stood, hanging her head guiltily.
Said the servant, ‘Arre Ram! The cat is dead! Maaji, how terrible if the cat has been murdered by her!’
Said the cook, ‘Maaji, the murder of a cat is as bad as the murder of a human being. I can’t cook anything in the kitchen till this murder charge hangs over her head.’
Said the mother-in-law, ‘Yes, you’re right, until we remove the stain of this murder, no one can drink any water or eat any food. Bahu, what have you done!’
Said the servant, ‘So what should we do? Should I call the panditji?’
The mother-in-law felt life ebbing back into her. ‘Oh yes, quickly, run and get the panditji.’
The news of the cat’s murder spread like lightning in the neighbourhood — women from nearby homes began queuing up at Ramu’s house. There was a barrage of questions from all sides, while Ramu’s bride sat, head bowed.
When Pandit Paramsukh got the news, he was in the middle of his prayers. But the moment he heard, he stood up and told his wife with a smile, ‘Don’t cook today, Lala Ghasiram’s daughter-in-law has killed a cat, there will have to be atonement, there’ll be plenty of delicious food to get our hands on.’
Pandit Paramsukh Chaubey was a short, corpulent man. His height was four feet ten inches and the girth of his paunch was fifty-eight inches! He was round of face, with big moustaches, fair-skinned, and his long plait hung all the way to his waist.
It was said that whenever there was a search for Mathura’s pandits with a fondness for spicy food, Pandit Paramsukh’s name would top the list.
Pandit Paramsukhji arrived and the quorum was complete. The jury sat down — the mother-in-law, the cook, Kisnu’s mother, Channu’s grandmother, and Pandit Paramsukh. The rest of the women expressed their sympathy for Ramu’s bride.
Said Kisnu’s mother, ‘Panditji, which is the particular hell you go to if you murder a cat?’
Pandit Paramsukh consulted a page from his papers and said, ‘A cat’s murder by itself is not enough to find out the name of the hell, it is necessary to know the time the cat was killed, only then can I tell you.’
‘Around seven in the morning!’ said the cook.
Pandit Paramsukh turned the pages of his book, moved his fingers on the letters, and placed his hand on his forehead, looking thoughtful. His face became clouded, furrows appeared on his forehead, he wrinkled his nose, and his voice became grave, ‘Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! This is terrible! The murder of a cat early in the morning, moments before sunrise! Kumbhipaak, the hell of boiling oil, is ordained for that! Ramu’s mother, what happened is terrible, terrible!’
Tears sprang to Ramu’s mother’s eyes, ‘So, then, Panditji, what will happen now, please tell us.’
Pandit Paramsukh smiled, ‘Ramu’s mother, there’s nothing to worry about, why are we priests here, after all, if not to help at such a time? The way to atone is prescribed in the scriptures. If you do penance, everything will become all right.’
Said Ramu’s mother, ‘Panditji, that’s why we called you, please tell us, what do we have to do next?’
‘What to do — get a cat made of gold and get the bride to donate it to charity. Till the cat of gold is not given away, the house will remain impure. After that, you should have recitations from sacred texts for twenty-one days.’
Channu’s grandmother said, ‘Yes, of course, Panditji is giving the correct advice. First the donation of the cat, followed by the recitation.’
Said Ramu’s mother, ‘So, Panditji, how many tolas of gold should the cat be?’
Pandit Paramsukh smiled. Stroking his paunch, he said, ‘How many tolas of gold should the cat be? Arre, Ramu’s mother, the scriptures say the gold should be equal to the actual weight of the cat; but this is Kalyug, virtue and duty are dead, no one has true faith. So, Ramu’s mother, a cat made of as much gold as its weight is not possible, because the cat must easily weigh about twenty, twenty-one kilos. But the cat should at least be twenty-one tolas, though of course, it’s up to you and how much piety you have.’
Ramu’s mother stared at Pandit Paramsukh, her eyes almost popping out, ‘Arre baap re, twenty-one tolas of gold! Panditji, this is too much, can’t we make do with a cat of just one tola?’
Pandit Paramsukh laughed, ‘Ramu’s mother! A cat of one tola! Arre, is the greed for gold more important than your bride? She has such a terrible sin hanging over her head, should you be so greedy!’
Negotiations over the weight and cost ensued and the matter was settled at eleven tolas.
After this, talk turned to the prayers and rituals that would be required. Said Pandit Paramsukh, ‘What is the problem? What are we here for, Ramu’s mother? I’ll do the recitation from the scriptures, you can send all the material for the rituals to my house.’
‘What will you need?’
‘Arre, we’ll try and manage with the least. About ten maunds of grain, one maund of rice, one maund dal, one maund sesame seeds, five maunds barley, five maunds chickpeas, four paseri ghee and one maund salt too. That’s it, I’ll manage with this much.’
‘Arre baap re, so many things! Panditji, all this will cost about 100–150 rupees….’ Ramu’s mother said tearfully.
‘I can’t manage with less. The murder of a cat is a grave sin, Ramu’s mother! Before looking at the expenditure, look at the nature of the bahu’s sin. This is penance, not a joke—and people should spend money commensurate with their belief in the penance. You aren’t just anybody, arre, 100–150 rupees is nothing for you.’
The members of the jury were influenced by the words of Pandit Paramsukh. Kisnu’s mother said, ‘Panditji is right, a cat’s murder is not some ordinary murder, it is a big sin for which you have to spend big money.’
Said Channu’s grandmother, ‘Exactly, giving alms and charitable donations reduces sin—and you can’t be stingy in such matters.’
Said the cook, ‘Maaji, you are well off. What is this expense for you?’
Ramu’s mother looked at everyone. All the people on the jury were in agreement with Panditji. Pandit Paramsukh was smiling. He said, ‘Ramu’s mother! On the one hand is kumbhipaak, a special kind of hell for your daughter-in-law and on the other hand is a little bit of expense. Don’t turn away from that.’
Taking a deep, resigned breath, Ramu’s mother said, ‘I have no choice now, I will have to dance to your tune.’
A little annoyed, Pandit Paramsukh said, ‘Ramu’s mother! This is something to be happy about—but if you don’t like it, if you mind doing it, then don’t do it, I’m off….’
Saying this, he started gathering his sacred leaves and papers.
‘Arre Panditji, Ramu’s mother doesn’t mind at all. The poor thing is so upset…don’t be annoyed!’ chorused the cook, Channu’s grandmother, and Kisnu’s mother in one voice.
Ramu’s mother fell at Panditji’s feet — and Panditji sat down with renewed authority and purpose.
‘You’ll have to give twenty-one rupees for twenty-one days of recitation from the scriptures and you will also have to feed five Brahmins twice a day for twenty-one days.’ After a pause, Panditji said, ‘Actually don’t worry about that. I will eat twice a day myself and that will suffice, you will get the same result as you would if you fed five Brahmins.’
‘Panditji is right. Look at Panditji’s paunch!’ said the cook with a mocking smile.
‘All right then, get the preparations for the atonement underway, Ramu’s mother. Take out eleven tolas of gold, I’ll go and get a cat made out of it—I’ll get it made in two hours and be back, till then, get everything ready for the rituals — and make a note, for the prayers….’
Panditji had not finished his sentence when a servant girl ran into the room, panting, and everyone looked up. ‘What happened?’ asked Ramu’s mother in some panic.
Stammering, she replied, ‘Maaji, the cat got up and ran away!’
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