Indira Goswami's short story "The Empty Chest" is set in Assam, "on the fringes of the cremation ground under the shrine of Kamakhya." The protagonist is Toradoi, a woman who lives with her children in a shack and ekes out an existence for her small family now that her husband has...
Indira Goswami's short story "The Empty Chest" is set in Assam, "on the fringes of the cremation ground under the shrine of Kamakhya." The protagonist is Toradoi, a woman who lives with her children in a shack and ekes out an existence for her small family now that her husband has been taken to jail. She has been married for ten years, and her life was not always like this. When she combed her hair on her wedding day, she could not feel the bones of her head and shoulders as she can now, indicating that things are not the worst they have ever been for Toradoi and her little family.
This little family is not the only one subsisting on the leftovers and prospects of the cremation ground. The houses are all rather leaky with holes and gaps, and the people all kind of spy on one another. We slowly come to understand that there is something unusual in Toradoi's house which is causing quite a stir of gossip and spying on her household. At first she just refers to it as a "black box," but then we learn is it actually a wooden chest. The narrator explains the chest's presence this way:
Its very existence was a source of strength to Toradoi.
As the descriptions continue, we learn that this box is ornately carved and is quite large. Then we get this line, and we understand exactly what the wooden chest is:
she wriggled into the huge chest and lay there, leaving its cavernous mouth open.
The wooden box is a casket, and it has become obvious that it is the casket of someone she loved very much.
At this point in the story, we do not quite know what to make of her obsession with the casket or why it seems to bring her comfort. In fact, it is not until her brother (a policeman) arrives, that we learn a few essential details. In the course of a conversation between the siblings, we learn that Toradoi's husband is in prison, that she loved a man far above her station, that the man (Saru Bopa) vowed to marry her, that this relationship has lasted for twelve years, that Saru Bopa died in a car accident.
These are all interesting facts and explain the woman's attachment to his empty casket, discarded after the man's body was cremated; however, the most interesting fact to be revealed is something Toradoi did not know, either. Saru Bopa, the man she loved and assumed would remain a bachelor since he could not marry her, his true love, was actually on his way home to get married when he was involved in the accident.
This is a crushing blow, but Toradoi's brother thinks it is better for her to know the truth and face it, and the reality changes everything for Toradoi.
The title, then, represents the literal death but also also encapsulates the theme of the story, at least in a sense. The empty box is literally the box which once held her beloved's body. It is now empty because he is gone. On a figurative level, the box was a symbol of the love Toradoi and Saru Bopa shared and thus she clings to it as the tangible memory of that love. It is no longer just an empty box but a physical representation of their love. It is not really empty, then, because it is full of love and even her own body when she sleeps in it. Once she learns the truth, however, the beautiful casket is just an empty box. It is devoid of all emotions, including love.