Susanna’s Secrets

Priya Dileep


“…an empty drawer is unimaginable. It can only be thought of.”

— Gaston Bachelard [i]

“We shall never reach the bottom of the casket.”

— Jean-Pierre Richard [ii]


Auguste Rodin’s well-known bronze sculpture, The Secret depicts a mysterious object held between two hands [iii]. The hands around ‘the secret’ belong to two individuals. They are both right hands. A small section of the nestled object may be glimpsed between the arcs of the gently curving fingers while the rest of it disappears into the hollow between the wrists. It stays beyond any possibility of discovery, no matter what angle one looks from. Or else, it would not be a secret. Both the sculpture and the object which keeps the palms separate, but lets the fingertips touch in a bare graze. One imagines them, the humans, to whom those palms belonged, sharing a secret, or many, or perhaps exchanging each other’s. In a quiet intimacy, where habitual personal defences slowly ease down, conferring the aura of a ritual on that mutual act. Held among them alone. Held comfortably? Would held among, turn into held against? We do not know any of that. Remaining inaccessible, secreted, it simply teases the desire to make sense of that partially hidden, lodged thing.

The word ‘secret’ has a Latin root that meant ‘separate’ or ‘set apart’ [iv]. Not surprisingly then, are secretaries expected to keep their employer’s secrets what with the word ‘secretary’— implying ‘a person entrusted with secrets’ in late 14th century, and a large sized bureau with an attached writing desk at some point in its evolution later— having etymological links to the Latin word secretum [v]. Could the secret of The Secret experientially be that the weight of the hidden, the unknown bewilders? Compelled to wonder, to imagine, to make up for the cognitive void left by the mysterious, a void that is all too aware of the thingness of the object between the palms? The mystique of mysteries, the pull of the elusive, the traction saddling attraction. Turning any thought that looks for the ultimate secret of The Secret itself into an itch to somehow please oneself.

I stumbled upon the many stories that have clustered around Susanna through a random incident. I was in Kolkata three years ago, wandering around, staring at old buildings, while secretly hoping for some direction, if not illumination. The city had just left the fleeting cooler months behind. It cowered defenceless under an already blazing sun as if under the weight of some ancient guilt. This is the onset when you sweat from every pore as much from the torrid heat, as from an oppressive realisation of the endless summer ahead. Kolkata generally evokes strong reactions in people. Time seems to have a different dimension in this city. History eddies all around. It allows a certain slowing down as if it recognizes itself as a place where the lost, the displaced have often ended up. You can contemplate here, you can also go complacent. I felt an odd kinship to the ubiquitous Ambassador taxicabs which grumble to life, as it were, from another time. Its yellow bodies typically imprinted with the “NO REFUSAL” sign. They squatted everywhere. They refused all the same.

Those days were a time of reckoning. I was turning more and more reclusive which doesn’t, however, mean that it was something new. Only that its intensification was frightening. Oddly enough, it had not been set on by any particular event. Sufficient it is to say that I had difficulty stepping outside home. Although, according to common logic, the distance from my bleak second story apartment to the ‘Park Circus Maidan’ barely 500 metres away, and from there backwards should be equal, it did not feel the same. It was as if the whole person was sucked back into some turbid pit inside my own head. A numbing sense of being scattered, discombobulated, I carried around. An uncanny combination of both feeling incredibly dated like those taxicabs, as well as of having come late to everything with no sense of arrival at once. Looking back, I can see that this was the beginning of a long phase of withdrawal.

I remember reading somewhere that Camille Claudel, Rodin’s onetime lover and a talented sculptor herself, had a phase in life where she suspected that she was losing the markedly human skill of speaking. I could relate to that. But then, I was prone to magnify any sense of likeness in my torpid state. If perversions of general logic seemed truer to me, analogies to grope towards some understanding couldn’t be trusted upon as well. Her family anyhow left her in an asylum for the deranged where she spent the last three decades of her life although the doctors who took care of her didn’t consider her insane. I would have freaked out, had I known this then, since I only heard the reverberations of my own repellent voice. Strangely unmoored from the physical world of meaningful pursuits and its people of action, I drifted, like something caught in a viscous whirl which made no distinction between day and night, beginnings and endings.

What was this: I racked my dissipated mind, the fabled mid-life crisis? Was I veering into some metaphysical morass? I badly wanted to peg that derailment with a name. As if naming it, would lead to solving it. A fug of uncertainty had settled within, it refused to budge.

A writer with whom I have random conversations— most of which, however, are imagined, like someone playing chess alone, repeatedly switching sides, and rarely real— had asked me then half-mockingly, though not without kindness: “You have still got your two legs, haven’t you?” That sunk in like nothing else did. At any event, I chomped on his words for a couple of days, and then dragged myself from my self-imposed incarceration, a lockdown that had set in before the pandemic hit. In that city which wears its age with such nonchalance, I walked around like a ghost, careful to avoid eye-contact, my usual scowl very much in place, its comical aspect oblivious to me.

For one who frequents ruins, visiting old cemeteries is not at all a freakish, morbid experience. There is nothing very quaint about it either. They, particularly the older ones, have often felt like a place that allows a lull. Is there another site where one might visualize the pooling together of the varying ripples of ‘quietus’: of quitting, release and quiet? A means to temporarily smother the constant chatter within. A self-indulging act by all means, and, yet, an immersion that allows an escape from what one thinks of as the self as well. A cursory search for old cemeteries apart from the South Park Street Cemetery in the city had taken me to a burial home in Chinsura, known as the Dutch Cemetery.

Tucked into a narrow lane, it seemed to have silently rested in time. The boards displayed outside its premises were all thoroughly rusted. While at the periphery of the property, lushly canopied trees guarded like vigilant sentinels, a single, almost completely leafless tree with creepers eating into it, towered over tombs in the middle like a wraith. Several headstones were tipped over. The tall obelisks and hefty domes, in various stages of slow disintegration. A couple of dogs ran around the blanched tombstones for a while, and then settled down huffing, tired of their game in the stifling heat. I ambled around on the dry grass, reading last words conferred on the dead. Some were smothered by moss, a few almost completely effaced by time. One or two gravestones were reticent, as if letting death take over, noting just names and dates, with no description of the lamented.

Epitaphs in colonial cemeteries may be generally seen to observe a particular decorum of commemoration. As a toast to life in the face of death, and intended to confer dignity in loss, they typically extol values deemed honourable: feats accomplished by men, their valour in battles, or excellence in vocations, their titles, or station in life, aspects of their personal or professional conduct in various duties, and the like; as for women, while noting their titles, if any, via filial, marital, or social connection, colonial epitaphs tend to enumerate their very many virtues like “dutiful daughter”, “faithful wife”, “devoted mother”, “generous in charity”, “modest in conversation”, “untainted by fluctuating fashion”, “sincere in Piety to God”, and so on [vi]. A well-meant act that seeks to convey the amount of grief, and hopes to remember the dead in the light of their good deeds. But the more effusive among them, on larger gravestones, felt heavy. How many virtuous roles can a single human perform really? How hard it is? I took several pictures of headstones even though I had no clear reason for doing that. Sometime then, I ended up chatting with a young caretaker there. He might have seen my repeated, awkward crouching before those tombstones. Possibly wondering if I were a cemetery freak, he suggested amid usual pleasantries that I visit a memorial nearby. I shouldn’t miss “the famous Susanna’s tomb,” he said.

Aap ko pata hoga, woh saat khoon maafwali,” he tittered behind the burning red dot of his cigarette, visibly enjoying my bafflement. [vii]

As it happened, I did know a bit. Rather, I thought I did. I recalled reading Ruskin Bond’s short story [viii] which had inspired Vishal Bharadwaj’s Bollywood film several years ago. I later discovered that Bond had expanded the four-page long story into a novella at Bharadwaj’s request, and that this work was the basis for the movie’s screenplay. Of the 2011 movie, I only had vague memories of its enigmatic protagonist who successfully disposes of several men she ended up marrying. However, until that moment in the Dutch cemetery, I had no idea that there was a flesh and blood person behind these stories. A chance discovery of little import, an arbitrary piece of information passed on to me by a stranger out of whimsy perhaps. Then, an even more curious thought occurred. What words might have been used to compose the epitaph of a much-married woman who had murdered her many husbands, if the above stories had any correspondence to the one in the tomb that is, and if at all her gravestone featured an epitaph? What virtues of her, set in stone to praise her life? What kind of closure?

Life rarely grants any neat and tallied summing up of our actions. On the other hand, are all concluding verdicts about those who passed obits in effect? And was I not surrendering to the lure of my own gossiping mind in wanting to find out? Like how the tongue tries to dislodge a shred of meat stuck between the teeth? To arrive at a closure that pleased me. The thrill of erratic, but eager steps following a fancied ball of unspooling yarn? As it turned out, instead of final words, what greeted me at Susanna’s mausoleum were further enigmas.

The memorial to Susanna is situated in a large garden, earlier called Ayesha bagh. It seemed overrun by weeds from the main road. But the tomb itself, huge as it is, is something you wouldn’t miss, if you knew where to look. In the dying evening light, it seemed to grow bigger with each step I took, like a lambent image from a Gothic novel. On the boundary wall of the property, there was a marble plaque titled “Susanna Anna Maria Memorial”, jointly instituted by the Biswa Bangla, the Hooghly Chinsura Municipality, and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands. Here I read that the tomb was constructed in memory of Susanna, “married twice”, first to Peter Bruys, a Dutch Director of Bengal, and later to a wealthy English man named Thomas Yeats. It went on to say that according to “local tradition”, she was “credited with seven husbands”, although there was “no evidence to support this”, adding that, “in any case, she was the inspiration for Ruskin Bond’s novel (sic) Susanna’s Seven Husbands, based on which a Hindi film was made in 2011”. Married twice or seven times? If the latter were true, how did she get rid of that many husbands? And no mention of any so-called murders. Too macabre to record on a tomb? Or simply baseless, local gossip?

I squirmed through the narrow, rusted swivel gate as eager, as I was bewildered, and stepped into the shadow of the steepled tomb, cast by a darkening sky from behind. The ground inside the premises was better kept. The grass looked mowed, and the hedge plants pruned. A pigeon let out a sombre grunt from its perch above the vaulted roof. A blend of baroque and neoclassical styles featuring a ribbed dome, ornate columns, dentil cornice bands and floral patterns in stucco, the entire structure was mounted on a high octagonal plinth to be accessed by arched stairways, open in all four cardinal directions. Two notice boards by the Archaeological survey of India were on my right. One declared it a property of national importance, and cautioned against any misuse of the property as a punishable offence. The second offered a small description of the monument, along with that of Susanna interred there, as having married twice, and inheriting “a huge property” from her “pre-deceased husbands”, Bruys and Yeats. Both featured the Sanskrit motto of ASI: “Let us uncover the glory of the past”. But here came the let-down, right in the face of a promise of illuminating pasts. The plaque with an epitaph carrying a poem “in memory of Mrs Yeats”, I read there in dismay, had been “displaced”.

A few days later, as a final resort to quell curiosity, I contacted the ASI regional office in Kolkata to find out what had happened to the displaced plaque. Nobody seemed to know. Maybe it just fell apart. Susanna too got displaced from my mind the way random curiosities often do in time, elbowed out by other things. It is difficult to recollect the exact moment, or even the way that dislodged interest returned. There aren’t any definitive points for messy retrievals of memory. At best, it allows a misted glance back. A few months after my brief sojourn in Kolkata, the news of the sudden passing of a friend reached me via a WhatsApp invitation to her funeral service to be held in a faraway country. She was 37. Compulsively comparing herself with others around her, while trying to replace some lack she thought she had about her, brooding, competitive, and stubborn at once, she was one of the saddest humans I have come across. Apparently, she fell unconscious one day, and died of natural causes later on a surgery table. Some of us, who had heard stories about her troubled marriage, and her need to escape from a particularly vicious mother prior to that, were on long calls, possibly to overcome our own disquiet. When does someone’s death start? We wondered and spun flashbacks without knowing enough. In any event, we could not arrive at any certain version from our all too tangibly felt theories. The message I received of her death anyhow consisted of a rest in peace wish, a smiling picture of her with the dates of her birth and passing, followed by a single line quote: “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on”, along with the details of her funeral service. I do not know what words are written on her gravestone, or if there are any. That quote, however, read like an epitaph. At some uncertain point during the weeks that followed, to distract myself perhaps, I got around to Susanna. Rather to stories about her that have survived the woman.

Stories she has inspired, the written ones at least, are braided with references to other mysterious figures, repeated mentions of secret chambers, and some scattered rumination on the workings of secrets in general, the last of those though figuring only in Bond’s two versions. His short story refers to Susanna’s tomb in the opening line thus: “Locally the tomb” was known as “the grave of the seven times married one”, and goes on to cite the inscription on the tomb of “Susanna Anna-Maria Yeates” (sic) as stating that “she was mourned by all who had benefitted from her generosity, her beneficiaries having included various schools, orphanages, and the church across the road” [ix]. Has this any connection to the actual displaced epitaph on Susanna’s tomb? Maybe not. In the second line, Bond has the unnamed, male narrator interject that the reader would be forgiven for thinking that this was the grave of Bluebeard, a French folktale character who had the notoriety of having killed several wives because they had shown undue curiosity about a locked room in his mansion. Through the narrator’s conversation with Naushad, an old carpenter who has lived in the locality for a long time, we learn that Susanna owned immense wealth, attracted many a fortune-hunter and got rid of them one by one when she tired of them. Naushad tells him of rumours about a hidden vault in the ruins guarded by serpents, believed to contain her buried treasure, as also the general fear that the burial ground is still haunted by her spirit. The story ends with a jocular warning that readers should resist the temptation to visit the ruins as the Black Widow spider is still “looking for an ideal husband”. [x]

Everyone has some secret or the other. But we also praise certain people, idealized in one way or the other via the analogy of an open book, as if everything worth knowing about them is already spelt out. You just need to flip the pages.

Bond’s later work, the novella which fleshes out his previous short story, has several fascinating additions. Bluebeard gets replaced by another enigmatic figure, Begum Samru, a historical person in this case, although she figures in the novella only as a spectral presence accentuating Susanna’s darkly compelling charm. Formerly, a nautch girl from Kashmir known by the name Farzana, we learn from elsewhere, she ruled over Sardhana, a principality near Meerut from 1778 to 1803 [xi]. As the head of a competent mercenary army and province, both of which she had inherited from her European husband, she led troops to battle, won combats, and slowly consolidated power. A short statured woman who proved almost invincible and had several suitors, the Begum was rumoured to be a witch who needed nothing but a cloak to vanquish her enemies, and to add further intrigue, of having probably arranged a suicide pact with a lover which resulted in his death, while she barely nicked herself [xii]. The curious narrator of the short story, who emerges in the novella as a young neighbour infatuated with the mysterious Susanna, once chances upon a sculpture of Begum Samru at a cemetery, and detects a striking resemblance to the object of his fascination. In a similar fashion, the secret underground vault in the story becomes a secret room at the lady’s mansion, thought to contain many treasures to which no one is allowed. The only person she finally lets into the room being the young narrator himself. Here, he discovers that far from any valuables, what she guards are personal things like riding crops, books on horses and racing, fishing rods, and so on, which belonged to her deeply mourned father. He also finds a portrait of Begum Samru in the room at which point Susanna tells him that she is a distant descendant of the Begum. And just before she lets her young admirer into the room, she tells him:

“People think I have some great treasure in this room. I have always kept it closed because it is very private. In a way, it is a treasure room. It was my father’s room, and I have kept it as it was since the day he died. You are a sensitive young man, and that is why I’m showing it to you. None of my husbands have (sic) been into this room. None of my servants, either. That is why there are so many rumours about it. The unseen, the hidden, is always mysterious”. [xiii]

In another confession, Susanna says that she detects a fatherly manner about him, and admits that he is one person with whom she can let her guard down. And in the last few lines of this later work, after the funeral service conducted for the charred body assumed to be Susanna’s, she appears before the narrator like a phantom, and informs him of her decision to move to some faraway place where no one would know her. She would live the rest of her life there, away from her past associations, now that she is believed to be dead. As she drives off, he wonders in silence if he has been her husband number seven all along. In the closing lines, he thinks of himself as the keeper of her secret, which leads him to a resigned conclusion: “Gravestones do not always tell the true story”. [xiv]

Do they at all? And whose true story? One falls back on the words of St. Augustine, echoed by Montaigne that “the arranging of funerals, the conditions of burial, the pomp of obsequies are rather a consolation for the living than any help to the dead”, and goes on to cite the case of Socrates who, when asked how his corpse should be buried, is believed to have said, “as you will” [xv]. Montaigne also recounts stories of others who wanted it otherwise. He ends the essay with a final observation on wine in cellars and venison in salting tubs changing flavour in time, and rounds off with one of his typical expressions of unfixing the natures of things: “so they say” [xvi]. Epitaphs, then? A story to comfort others primarily, even as it attempts to honour the memory of the expired? A chosen solution in the face of much dissolution? Good spiel? A chase of that will of the wisp called ideals while hooked on by our own confounding by loss, by the unknown?

Whatever be the answer to that, the mysterious Susanna in the movie adaption has some interesting divergences from both of Bond’s works, perhaps brought in for visual impact. Here, instead of an offhand reference in the short story to Bluebeard, the protagonist of a long surviving and much retold French folktale, it is a particular version, i.e., Anatole France’s reworking of the tale that gets employed [xvii]. France’s version of the story goes to great lengths to save the reputation of Bluebeard by casting the locked room— the curiosity about which causes his wives’ murders in former versions like Charles Perrault’s— as a secret cabinet where instead of dead bodies, several visually powerful, gory paintings are mounted, and by explaining away the murders of inquisitive wives as not initiated by his protagonist, with the narrator insisting on his version of the story as the true one. In Bharadwaj’s movie, a book containing this story by France is gifted to Susanna by the narrator right in her secret room where she, now middle aged, disrobes and tries to seduce him, an attempt that he refuses to entertain. Eventually, this book is among the few things that arrive at his work desk, and he in his capacity as a forensic scientist sets out to discover the truth about her ‘death’ which was feigned, we find out later.

The ways in which Bond plays with the mysterious in the story and the novella, by echoing out, first Bluebeard and then the Begum, have a graceful reticence since any certainty concerning the murders attributed to Susanna is not offered at all. In the former, the entirety of her story is located within the chitchat, if not gossip, the narrator engages in with a local man long after her death. In the novella, the episodic disposing of the husbands is relayed through the reminiscences of the enchanted narrator who regards all her husbands as empty headed, self-obsessed, or simply tiresome. He patches together circumstantial evidence and snatches of, sometimes flippant, sometimes mournful, conversations he has had with the lady, along with what he imagines as having occurred behind closed doors. And these are matched with hearsays from two of her servants he himself calls gossips. It still leaves no room for certitude regarding what really happened, what with the entirety of the narrator’s reminiscences being located in his own long surviving fascination for Susanna, which leads him to imagine that he was “the sharer of all her secrets”, and “an ideal husband” for her. [xviii]

Such absence of closure does not seem to bode well for a Bollywood adaptation. In a final recapitulating montage before the credits roll down, all mysteries are solved, all murders proved as perpetrated by her. And closure with respect to the plot works in tandem with the character arc for Susanna, who cannot be left to die in sleep at a ripe old age without paying for her sins as in the story, or to move on to some faraway place where no one knows her as in the novella. In the climactic moments of the film, she is revealed to have become a nun, taking Jesus as her seventh husband, a husband she cannot possibly kill, as he is already dead. Laid to rest in repentance, redemption accorded.

So many Susannas! Could stories of a dead person repeatedly imagined as lost in a perpetual longing for the ideal spouse be a displaced tale of our own consternation about an intriguing and flawed human, and a chimerical longing for ideals in general, somewhat like the redemptive memory work of epitaphs? One simply wonders as lured by her, as others who have told her stories.

Who was she? A shrewd gold digger who had an eye for rich suitors? A credulous, sentimental woman who idealized her father and forever sought a man to replace him as her husband? Or one who had several lovers in chain relationships whom the locals took to be her many husbands? But then, these recreations need not have had any semblance to the woman buried under the Chinsura memorial. Other than rumours about having married seven times attached to her fictional versions and the human interred there. Stories pile up, an inalienable emptiness remains.

In her book that tells the story of Rilke’s friendship with Rodin, Rachel Corbett relates an anecdote about the poet’s brush with one such emptiness, although on a different scale. A tormented Rilke, after conscription into the army when he was almost forty, was assigned a job at the war archives of writing embellished accounts of the combats being fought then. The poet abhorred the task, and was unable to come up with glorious tales that satisfied his superiors. He feebly complained of a writer’s block which, in hindsight, was perhaps a smart card to deal in that situation. The colonel who supervised the work at the archives responded by dumping on his desk, a stack of empty sheets, and a measuring stick asking him to hand-rule the pages instead. Rilke accepted the job with relief, and worked with care. For the next five months, the poet dutifully sat at his desk, and drew line after line after line on empty sheets until his release from duty. [xix]

That kind of a story sticks to the mind, that last bit in particular. A few months ago, I came upon a battered copy of Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial at a second-hand bookshop, right in the middle of a bustling area of Bangalore, dotted with swanky shops and cafes. There is a sense of anticipation as you climb its dusty, emerald green flight of stairs. You are ready to yield to the randomness of small mercies. Sometimes you visit such a place less to buy a particular book, and more to catch a lungful of its slightly stale air, hungry for its many sensorial pleasures. Chance discoveries are common at a place like that where, apart from volumes upon volumes on tall metal racks, teetering towers of books are jammed into every possible corner. I found Canetti’s book among one such pile. The book was undamaged except for the fact that its title page was missing. It looked as if someone had roughly torn the page off in haste, leaving behind saw-toothed shreds in the margin. The following page had the shadowy imprint of something hand-scrawled in the middle which, however, was undecipherable. Maybe it was an inscription someone else had written when the book was gifted, or maybe something else. Whatever it had been, it seemed that the owner did not want it to be discovered, and had removed the last evidence of ownership before the book was sold. The missing title page reminded me of Rilke’s empty sheets. Maybe I bought that book because it did just that.

Something lunges at us in certain encounters. It may dart from anywhere. As you turn the corner of a street you have walked a thousand times, in the silent tremor that great art stirs up in you, from an old letter slipped in, and forgotten in your mother’s turmeric and oil stained recipe book… Sometimes they highlight the images you have in that chamber of mirrors within that endlessly measure itself against everything it sees as outside. It can also do the other work. Of destabilizing that image, where the lights turn dark and vice-versa, like the negative of a photograph. Where, at rare moments, you might also catch yourself furtively tweaking the images. A spot of red on the cheek, a cringe, a repressed recognition resurfacing to the skin— the story of the self isn’t the same anymore.  I suppose the leap from the storied self which feels real and which is all we have, to certainty about that story is like staring at one of those ubiquitous ship-in-a-storm paintings at cheap hotels, and wondering whether it is sinking, or withstanding the deadly waves, and deciding upon an intuited outcome. But then, our feelings are real to us, as real as any muscular sensation. We act from them, and are acted upon. Actions and consequences ride in circles, both chasing each other, sometimes they are indistinguishable. We hug and hate, we vow to be good, we vacillate and violate, we do all that and more. We churn out stories, our consolation. We edit. We repeat the cycle. Most of all, we forget. Maybe sometimes that is a saving grace too.

I imagine Bond reading the same noticeboards I have stared at, the epitaph on Susanna’s tomb which I have not seen. He might have wondered why anyone, other than Elizabeth Taylor that is, would marry seven times, and then recalled the legendary Bluebeard. And Susanna, busy with the busyness of living, and the stark, but unsaid sadness of all that repetition, maybe that’s how she haunted him. He let the uncertainty linger, and she keeps haunting others.

I visited her memorial once more, this time the ASI board with the mention of the displaced plaque was itself displaced. Only the rusted metal frame remained. A window to nowhere in particular, or maybe to everywhere. I was not alone this time, and my son asked the same question about her many marriages: “Why?” I didn’t have the answer to that, or if she had. I still don’t. We see the word ‘problematic’ everywhere these days. But then, not everything is a problem to be solved like a leaking tap; mysteries of being can only be reflected on, participated in [xx]. Not everything, a promise in the face of known unknowns and unknown unknowns we operate from. Maybe narrative redemption is a story of approximation that means less to the fallen, and more to those who seek to confer it, and in rare cases, to other impressionable souls who might chance upon it as well.

I pulled out from my bizarre slump of extreme withdrawal some time ago. Maybe I was there in the first place because the story I kept telling myself felt empty. A piffling thing in the scheme of things, which, however, is impossible to be accepted as such, when you are in its vice-grip. I might loop back there again, just as I am circling back to myself from Susanna. There is no lasting escape from it I suspect, and this not a victory story. Talking to people in general is still hard, but no, I haven’t lost that ability entirely. And nobody has put me in any madhouse. Well, not yet at least. I have still got my two legs to wander around. As for Susanna, she continues to intrigue whenever I happen to remember her.  Six feet under her grand tomb, she is beyond knowing. Her secrets rest with her. Maybe that’s why she keeps returning.



[i] The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas Penguin, 2014, p. 21.

[ii] Quoted by Bachelard in the work cited above (p. 107) from Jean-Pierre Richard’s “Le Vertige de Baudelaire” (The Vertigo of Baudelaire), Critique, nos. 100.1(1953?), p. 777.

[iii] The Secret, first modelled in 1910, is considered a companion piece to the equally well-known sculpture portraying two hands in a spire called The Cathedral. Instead of a hidden object, the latter piece features a small empty space, equally intriguing. A related piece titled Two Hands comes with an inscription in a plaster version suggesting that the hands belonged to Rodin and his long-time companion Rose Beuret. It is not known if the same applies to the other two pieces (Information from;

[iv] OED,

[v] OED;; Burkette, Allison, “The Story of Chester Drawers”, American Speech. 76.2 (2001).

[vi] All phrases quoted here are from epitaphs inscribed in various colonial cemeteries including the Dutch Cemetery in Chinsura.

[vii] Roughly, “You might know that saat khoon maaf woman”.  Saat Khoon Maaf (Seven Murders Forgiven) is the name of a 2011 Bollywood film directed by Vishal Bharadwaj, and jointly produced by the director and Ronnie Screwvala.

[viii] “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”, first published in the collection, When Darkness Falls and Other Stories (Penguin, 2001), has figured in other anthologies of Bond’s short stories. In 2011, Penguin brought out a compiled edition which has the short story and the novella written by Bond, along with the screenplay jointly written by Bharadwaj and Matthew Robbins.

[ix] Susanna’s Seven Husbands. Penguin, 2011, p. 201.

[x] Ibid, p. 206.

[xi] Keay, Julia. Farzana: The Woman Who Saved an Empire. I. B. Tauris, 2014.

[xii] Garodia-Gupta, Archana. The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders, Warriors, Icons. Hachette India, 2019.

[xiii] Susanna’s Seven Husbands. Penguin, 2011, p. 45.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 61.

[xv] “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us”, Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Everyman’s Library &Knopf, 2003, pp. 9-16.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] The Seven Wives of Bluebeard. Translated by D. B. Stuart, John Lane, 1920.

[xviii] Susanna’s Seven Husbands. Penguin, 2011, p. 59.

[xix] Corbett, Rachel. You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. WW Norton & Company, 2016.

[xx] Marcel, Gabriel. Being and Having. Translated by Katharine Farrer, Dacre Press, 1949; The Mystery of Being, vol.1, Reflection and Mystery. Translated by G. S. Fraser, The Harvill Press, 1951.

Priya Dileep is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.