Nepali Kalasahitya Dot Com Pratishthan


Dr. Raju Babu Shrestha

Sister-in-law Pema

It was already dusk. As it was snowing outside, Chhiten, warming his neck in the glow of the hearth, assuaged his hunger by having buckwheat bread with bean soup. Since he had been grazing sheep in the kharka, the mountain pastureland,all day long, he was not in a mood to chitchat. So he took out a bakkhu, a blanket made of sheep wool, hanging on the wall and went to the sleeping room. In the dim light of a pine splinter, he dusked the rug that was lying on the bed made of wooden planks. Then he was ready for bed.
He wrapped himself in the bakkhu and curled into a ball for warmth. The warmth of his breath slowly spread inside the bakkhu, and he began to feel warm. He fell asleep in no time due to exhaustion. 
Though in a deep sleep, Chhiten felt as if suddenly awake.  He could sense some cold hands moving around his body. He felt a kind of tickling and blissful sensation. He could feel blood rushing through his veins. Then he was fully awake. But soon, Chhiten turned numb when he found his elder sister-in-law embracing him by creeping inside his bakkhu and trying every skill of seduction to invite him for lovemaking.  Suddenly, his excitement vanished away. He couldn't immediately resist and pushed her back. By slowly removing the bakkhu, he observed her activities in the dim light of the pine splinter. Pema, his elder sister-in-law was trying to arouse him by rubbing her body against his.
She was growing active and excited all the more. She was breathing heavily, and her movements were inviting him for participation.  Her activities made him angry as well as remorseful for a moment. But he was unable to express any form of anger towards her. It's because he was very young when his parents had died, and it was her who had lovingly raised him to this age. He was neither in a position to resist, nor could he easily accept her invitation. He also felt tortured by the thought that she might get angry if he turned her down. Whatsoever, his heart was not willing to accept intercourse with his elder sister-in-law.  So he quickly pulled the bakkhuallaround himand sat beside her feet, motionless.
Still in the blanket, when Chhiten separated himself from her, Pema's body turned normal due to the freezing cold.  She got tensed up because even after giving so much love to her younger brother-in-law, he didn't show any interest in her. With this, fear crept into her heart that this might cause trouble in the family and conflict between the brothers.  Slowly she rose and hugged Chhiten, and requested him to get back to sleep.  
"Come here to sleep, my boy. You're a grown man now. You shouldn't walk around with girls in the pastureland. I also slept with your third elder brother when he was your age. Now, you too don't let your heart fly anywhere". Pema tried to persuade him.
His sister-in-law's request made Chhiten even more upset because more than love, he sensed duty and responsibility echoing in her words.  He remained speechless for a while. Pema tried to persuade him by explaining various family affairs. When he became very sure that she would certainly make him sleep with her at any cost, he pretended to be sick and finally managed to send her out of the room.  Chhiten took a deep breath and felt relieved after she left him alone.  
After his sister-in-law left the room, he tried very hard to stop thinking about that incident but in vain. He tried to sleep by covering his face with the bakkhubut couldn't get a wink of sleep.  Different thoughts occupied his mind, driving him restless.
He popped out his head from the bakkhuand peeped through the opening of his room. Since his house was atop the hill, most of the houses of the Chhunup village were visible from his room. As the full moon day was drawing near, the Chhunup village looked very beautiful in the moonlight. The village was completely covered with snow; the roofs of houses, front yards, and cliffs were all white. It seemed as if the village was asleep veiled in a white blanket. 
One by one, he ran his eyes over all the houses in the village that were made of stone walls and roofed with wooden planks. The freezing cold sneaking into the room through wall-holes would brush Chhiten's face time and again, but the beauty of the village in the moonlight made him forget the cold. He was beholding these houses for the first time in the middle of the night. In his twenty years of life, he had never experienced the beauty of his village so intensely. In fact, Chhiten had always been very fond of this village because he had never left it in his entire life. All he knew and did in his life was grazing the sheep.
"Today I hurt my sister-in-law for nothing", he thought to himself and grew soft towards her.
"After all, what is her mistake?! Our mother also had three husbands. A wife shared by the three brothers. Everyone in the village has accepted the sister-in-law as their wife. If each \brother married a different girl, it'd create a family problem. The brothers might pick a quarrel with each other. Similarly, if the ancestor property is divided among the brothers, it will finish one day for sure.  That's why my sister-in-law came to sleep with me.  Otherwise, why should she have to come to my room when there are already two elder brothers at home? Without her, our house would have been in ruins. She has kept we brothers together and has assigned a share of work to everyone.  She has fulfilled the responsibility of the house manager and has never let any kind of conflict creep in the family. Otherwise, my two elder brothers would have had a fight long ago". He remembered the days of her arrival to his family and felt respect for her as he recalled the responsibilities she had fulfilled since then. With this realization, he could not prove her wrong.  
He loves his sister-in-law very much; he respects her, yet it's not easy for him to accept her proposal. He is not ready to accept his own sister-in-law as his wife under any circumstances. He is aware of his responsibility towards her, but how can he accept that person as his wife, who he has always seen as an old woman? A difficult question strikes his mind. How am I supposed to spend my life with a woman twenty years older than me? Even the thought of this situation makes him upset. He sees nothing but a dark future ahead of him.
At that moment, he felt like running away with Nima. He thought, "But where to go? In my entire life, I haven't even walked as far as Jomsom. Kathmandu is out of my dream, and I don't have a single penny in my pocket. I know no other occupation than herding sheep. I was unwise to find more joy in herding sheep than going to school.  Now, there is no point in regretting. After fleeing from the village, if hunger forced me to return home, I would die of shame." Feeling helpless, he lost courage.
"My second elder brother is lucky. He chose the life of a lama, the monk. He has no compulsion to get married.  He doesn't have to take the trouble to find a wife.  He doesn't have to sleep with the old sister-in-law either".  Despite his respect for his sister-in-law, he grew more and more frustrated at the thought of spending his life with her.
In the early morning, with many such thoughts in mind, he stuffed a bag with flour and walked down to the pastureland. Every day, Chhiten used to take sheep to the downhill pastureland only after sunrise, but today he left earlier, even before the first rays of dawn. On the way, his mind was caught between his sister-in-law's rights and responsibilities, and Nima's pure love for him.  Soon he reached the pastureland at early dawn.
Jimy and Dundu came running towards Chhiten, and began jumping around him. Chhiten mixed the flour with water, kneaded the dough, divided it into two halves and put them on the two sides of the flat rock lying below the sheep-shed. Both the dogs started eating the flour-meal happily. In fact, because of these two dogs, his and Nima's sheep always remained safe in the barn. He sat on the rock and watched the dog eating the flour-meal. There was still a thin layer of snow on the terraces of the pastureland. He would let the sheep out of the barn only after the sun melted snow, and the green grass was visible in the pastureland. Since the dogs used to take care of the sheep, his daily routine was to sit on the same flat rock and spend the pleasant time with Nima the whole day.  
He recalled fondly the sweet moments he had with Nima sitting on the rock. He felt thrilled by this memory for a moment.  He was overjoyed to see the slopes above the pastureland covered in red rhododendron blossoms. Many a time he had picked a red flower and tucked it into Nima's hair and had closely watched her graceful beauty in the flower. The flower polished her beauty! "She looks pure like snow, with no hypocrisy at all.  She laughs a carefree laughter, her words so sweet. But my sister-in-law, an old thin lady, encumbered with responsibilities. An old housewife, who never has time to enjoy life for household chores. There is no joy in her life, no charm on her face. Always surrounded by her children. Yuck! How to sleep with her? Am I an animal to sleep with whomever I meet?" He compared Nima with his sister-in-law.  
The more he thought about Nima, the more distant he found himself with his elder sister-in-law.
"Can you take care of me? After marrying me, you won't get anything in the name of property from your family. How can you live without family support? You don't know any occupation other than sheep-herding. You know, love cannot feed us". Nima would often remind him of his situation. Sometimes, her questions would disappoint him. All he knew was that he liked Nima and wanted to marry her. But he did not have any answer to Nima's questions.
"Chhiten! Haven't you let out the sheep yet? What are you thinking?"
He was startled by the voice of Nima coming from behind. "Oops! The sun is already up," he realized.  He got up and hurried towards the bamboo-fenced shed. Leaving all the sheep to graze, he came back and stood in front of Nima on the flat rock. Nima was smiling as usual, and Chhiten stared her in the face as if he had seen her after many years. All at once, he remembered his sister-in-law's proposal, and the fear of losing Nima gripped his heart. He felt ill at ease.  
Chhiten's sad face made Nima think that there was something wrong with him. What happened to Chhiten today who otherwise always looked joyful? Nima also felt uneasy. 
"In two days or so, there will be no grass in this pastureland.  Then, I've to take the sheep to the pastureland below. Will you also come there to graze your sheep?" Chhiten expressed his fondness for Nima.
"Why do you have the sad face? Didn't you eat anything in the morning?" Nima tried to wipe out his sadness by changing the topic.
"Nima! Even if I don't marry you, don't marry anyone else, ok?" Chhiten spoke in a voice full of sadness. Chhiten's words entered through Nima's ears and struck her heart. But she managed to stay calm.
"Why shouldn't I get married? I'll happily marry into a family with many sons and get love from them all. Why should I stay unmarried, if you don't have the courage? Nima replied in a mocking tone.
"Yuck! What kind of girl you are! You want to get married into a family with many sons and sleep with all of them?"   Chhiten's face turned red with anger
"So what! My mother said that she chose our family because there were five brothers. She is happy to get love from her five husbands.  They take care of her one by one and fulfill her wishes. How can I live with you? After marrying me, your family will kick you out of the house. They won't give you any sheep, and you don't have any other source of income. Can I live my life just by sleeping with you?"  Nima's words shattered him to the core.
Her words made him very angry, and he felt unhappy from inside.  Nima loved him very much, but Chhiten never had the courage to stand against the ongoing tradition of the village. So she frequently spoke harsh words to provoke him. No matter how much he got angry with Nima, his heart had already chosen her as his life partner. Despite this, her harsh words would sometimes make him suspicious of her love for him.
As the sun was about to set, Chhiten whistled and signaled Jimy and Dundu to drive the sheep to the shed. With the signal, the dogs sleeping on the rock ran towards the flock. Jimy gathered the sheep from the east, and Dundu from the north to drive them to the shed. After all the sheep had entered the shed, Chhiten closed the door and quietly walked up the path to the village, and Nima followed him.
Chhiten didn't feel like talking on the way. Nima didn't want to intrude on his silence either. Nima herself wanted Chhiten to think seriously and take the courage to marry her with dignity. So today, she didn't share her grief with him, and after arriving at the bottom of the village, Nima took the path to her house.
When he reached home, it was already evening.  He told his sister-in-law that he would not be having dinner, and went straight to his room. Nima's words kept echoing in his head.  He couldn't think of his life without her. Then he also thought about his sister-in-law and her contribution to the family. He felt a sort of respect for her. He was caught in a dilemma.  
He thought, "She's my sister-in-law after all. After marrying Nima, I'll go to hers with a pung and ask her to forgive me. I'll make her drink the pung at any cost. Once she drinks it, the villagers will also accept me. I don't care even if I don't get the ancestral property. If I'm allowed to stay in the village, I'll do something for a living".
All at once he had a second thought, "No, why should she agree? Once she accepts the pung, the villagers think that she herself has approved my marriage.  They may criticize her for not being able to handle her brother-in-law.  This may cause a conflict between my brothers too.  All the blame will fall on her. How can I see her being humiliated in front of other people?" He didn't want to see his family being disgraced because of him.  
He found himself torn between his love for Nima and respect for his sister-in-law. He could think of being away from Nima even if his family and the whole village were against them.
"How long shall we continue this practice in the name of tradition?  It was fine if at least she was not so much older than me. How should I embrace the woman as a wife who deserves to be called my mother? Besides, her son from my eldest brother has already reached my age. No, this can't happen? Am I obliged to do what our grandparents did? It's better to commit suicide by hurling myself into the Kali River than living such a life like an animal." He couldn't accept living with his sister-in-law under any circumstances.
Chhiten remembered an incident last year when the village chief had driven away his own son, Gyaljen, from the village. "Poor Gyaljen! Due to the contempt and objection from his own father and brothers, he could not stay in the village and went to Jomsom. I haven't seen him since then. I even don't know if he is dead or alive?" Chhiten was again plagued by social fear and exclusion. He could not even muster the courage to stay in the village by marrying Nima. He grew weak from inside.
Chhiten was trembling with fear. He had the doubt that the one he was planning to marry might not support him either. But he was very sure that Nima loved him dearly no matter what she said. For quite a while, he writhed with anxiety and pain. That moment he was oblivious to the cold outside. He could not reach any decision, as he had never faced such a problem in his life before. He became very upset, for he was going to make such a big decision about his life on his own. Despite this, he did not see any solution in sight.
"Why am I so weak? Why am I so helpless?  Where is my courage? My manhood?" He tried to embolden himself.
"There are other boys who have also fled the village. They might have found some ways for their livelihoods. Why do I have to live in this village? What's the worth of living here, sacrificing my love? Why should I love this village when it doesn't care about me? What has it given to me? Neither any knowledge and skill, nor any sense of security". With these thoughts, he got up and went straight to Nima's house.
"Will Nima support me?" he asked himself a serious question.
"If she turns me down, Ill force her to run away with me at night" He grew firm.
The whole village looks quiet. The houses are distinctly visible in the moonlight. Today, he does not feel his love surging up for the village. Nor is he touched by its beauty. To him, the whole village looks very dull and lifeless.
 As he approached Nima's house, he stopped for a moment. He knew where her sleeping room was. He tiptoed quietly to the wall of her room and knocked on it slowly. After knocking several times, he sensed that Nima was getting up.  He remained silent for a while.  In a moment, she opened the door and was surprised to see Chhiten standing in front of her.
"Nima! Let's go!"  Chhiten requested her to run away before she could uttered a word. She became happy and proud of Chhiten's courage to take the decision.
"Where shall we go?"  Nima asked him.  
"If you trust me, come with me right away. Where? No idea. But we'll go somewhere. I'll work as a porter. I'll do the washing-up in others' houses.  If I cannot earn enough, I'll offer you my share of the meal and never keep you hungry. I don't worry about anything if you're with me. Feeling humiliated and insulted, I can't live in this village anymore".  Chhiten poured his heart out to her in a single breath.
Nima felt very sorry for Chhiten. She could not say anything. She threw herself in his arms and burst into tears. Chhiten also joined her cry. After a while, they walked down the village, holding each other's hand.  As they reached the lower pastureland, they both looked at the snow-covered village in the moonlight to their hearts' content. They ran their eyes over the pastureland on the other side.  Both were overwhelmed by the memories of the days they had spent together, grazing sheep in this pastureland since their childhood days. Both of them felt uncomfortable as if something had stuck in their chests. It pained him to see tears welling up in Nima's eyes, and he also tried to wash his pain with his tears. "Now my love for the village should not be an obstacle on our new journey", he thought to himself. He buoyed himself up and wiped away Nima's tears. He tried to make himself harder and harder.

"Nima! Please forget all these things. Now we shall never again return to this village. Our life lies ahead". He grabbed Nima's hand, and they walked down the road.

pung: If married to someone other than one's sister-in-law, the person has to put alcohol in a small wooden container and offer it to his sister-in-law. The marriage will be approved only if she accepts the pung, and the brother-in-law will not get any property after the marriage is approved.

Translated by Biranchi Poudyal (Edited by Bal Ram Adhikari)

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