29-year-old Bibi Haldar is gripped by a mysterious ailment. Myriad tests and treatments have failed to cure the woman. She has been told to stand on her head, shun garlic, drink egg yolks in milk, to gain weight and to lose weight. The fits that could strike at any moment keep her confined to the home of her dismissive elder cousin and his wife. Bibi keeps the inventory of her brother's cosmetics stall and is watched over by the women of their community. She is provided only meals and a room and a length of cotton to replenish her wardrobe each year. Bibi sweeps the store, wondering loudly why she was cursed to this fate, to be alone and jealous of the wives and mothers around her.
The women come to the conclusion that she wants a man. When they show her artifacts from their weddings, Bibi proclaims what her own wedding will look like. Bibi is inconsolable at the prospect of never getting married. The women try to calm her by wrapping her in shawls, washing her face or buying her new blouses. After a particularly violent fit, her cousin Haldar emerges to take her to the polyclinic. A remedy is prescribed – marriage. “Relations will calm her blood.”
Bibi is delighted by this news and begins to plan and plot the wedding and to prepare herself physically and mentally. But Haldar and his wife dismiss this possibility. She is nearly 30, the wife says, and unskilled in the ways of being a woman. Her studies ceased prematurely, she is not allowed to watch TV, she has not been told how to pin a sari or how to prepare meals. The women don’t understand why, then, this reluctance to marry her off if she such a burden to Haldar and his wife. The wife asks who will pay for the wedding?
One morning, wearing a donated sari, Bibi demands that Haldar take her to be photographed so her image can be circulated among the bachelors, like other brides-in-waiting. Haldar refuses. He says she is a bane for business, a liability and a loss. In retaliation, Bibi stops calculating the inventory for the shop and circulates gossip about Haldar’s wife. To quiet her down, Haldar places an ad in the paper proclaiming the availability of an “unstable” bride. No family would take the risk.
Still, the women try to prepare her for her wifely duties. After two months of no suitors, Haldar and his wife feel vindicated. Things were not so bad when Bibi’s father was alive. He created charts of her fits and wrote to doctors abroad to try to cure her. He also distributed information to the members of the village so they were aware of her condition. But now only the women can look after her while being thankful, in private, that she is not their responsibility.
When Haldar’s wife gets pregnant, Bibi is kept away from her for fear of infecting the child. Her plates are not washed with the others, and she is given separate towels and soap. Bibi suffers another attack on the banks of the fish pond, convulsing for nearly two minutes. The husbands of the village escort her home in order to find her rest, a compress, and a sedative tablet. But Haldar and his wife do not let her in. That night, Bibi slept in the storage room.
After a difficult birth, Haldar’s wife delivers a girl. Bibi sleeps in the basement and is not allowed direct contact with the girl. She suffers more, unchecked fits. The women voice their concern but it goes unheeded. They decide to take their business elsewhere and the cosmetics in the stall soon expire on their shelves. In autumn, Haldar’s daughter becomes ill. Bibi is blamed. Bibi moves back into the storeroom and stops socializing – and stops searching for a husband.
By the end of the year, Haldar is driven out of business and he packs his family up and moves away. He leaves Bibi behind with only a thin envelope of cash. There is no more news of them and a letter written to Bibi’s only other known relative is returned by the postal service. The women spruce up the storeroom and send their children to play on their roof in order to alert others in the event of an attack. At night, however, Bibi is left alone. Haggard, she circles the parapet but never leaves the roof.
In spring, vomit is discovered by the cistern and the women find Bibi, pregnant. The women search for traces of assault, but Bibi’s storeroom is tidy. She refuses to tell the women who the father is, only saying that she can’t remember what happened. A ledger with men’s names lay open near her cot. The women help her carry her son to term and teach her how to care for the baby. She takes Haldar’s old creams and wares out of the basement and reopens his shop. The women spread the word and soon the stall is providing enough money for Bibi to raise her boy. For years, the women try to sniff out who had disgraced Bibi but to no avail. The one fact they could agree upon is that Bibi seemed to be cured.
The malady that afflicts Bibi Haldar has many possible interpretations. The undiagnosed ailment sounds like epilepsy but also references female hysteria, a diagnosis of emotional imbalance in women common in the Victorian era, that would be remedied by sexually stimulating the patient. Female hysteria has long been discredited as based on misogynist interpretations of women’s physical and emotional states. The cure that is ultimately suggested for Bibi - “relations” - echoes hysteria in both the treatment and diagnosis. That she is not diagnosed with epilepsy signifies the poor health care that a woman in her position can receive. She is paid only in room and board and neglected by her cousin/boss. Bibi’s class makes comprehensive health care unattainable.
That the child “cures” Bibi is an interesting notion. It gives legitimacy to the claim that she needs “relations,” but it could also be interpreted in another way. At first, Bibi is viewed as not able to take care of herself. She is given meager tasks and not seen as worthy of marriage. When she is abandoned, first she withdraws. After the child, Bibi has no choice but to put her life together in order to take care of her child. Being given responsibility for the first time in her life, Bibi takes control and proves her cousin wrong. All Bibi needed was a chance and some trust. It is a testament to the power of the individual and also the power of the women.
Gender roles are explored in The Treatment of Bibi Haldar. The opinion that Bibi can be cured not by medicine but by a man is indicative of the male dominance in the town where Bibi resides and the antiquated mentality of the villagers. There is much discussion about how Bibi is not a woman. Biology is trumped by the learned activities relating to caring for men and children. Cooking, sewing, pleasing a man and his family constitute “a woman.”
Bibi’s story is narrated by the women in her village who look after her. This compounds the theories on gender roles present in the plot. Women have the authority in the narrative even if they do not in their village. The women do wield whatever power they have. In retaliation of the treatment of Bibi, they withdraw their business from Haldar’s cosmetics shop, ruining him. But they only act collectively, not as individuals. The only men who are referenced are Bibi’s dismissive cousin and the mystery man who impregnates Bibi. In the end, the child's lack of a father is made irrelevant by the child's whole village of mothers.
The narrative carefully avoids any implications regarding Bibi's impregnancy. Was she raped or otherwise coerced into intercourse, by a stranger or potentially by her cousin? There is no evidence to suggest so. There is also no evidence to suggest otherwise. We, and the women of the town, are given no information with which to draw conclusions or even suspicions about the baby's father. It is as though the pregnancy were spontaneously generated. As far as the pregnancy as a narrative device is concerned, it was.
In its place in the story cycle, The Treatment of Bibi Haldar harkens back to A Real Durwan. Boori Ma and Bibi Haldar are similar characters – women who exist on the fringes of society and blamed for events beyond their control. Unlike Boori Ma, Bibi is able to find a place for herself in the world after the birth of her baby. Bibi has the benefit of a village of support. Bibi Haldar’s neighbors do not suffer from class resentment and help her more than Boori Ma’s.
The structure of The Treatment of Bibi Haldar follows the natural rhythm of the yearly seasons. Bibi’s attempts to find a husband occurs in the summer – when her father had determined her worst attacks occur. In the autumn, Bibi is cast out when her niece falls ill. In the winter, she is abandoned entirely. By the spring, she is pregnant and gives birth during the summer. The spring, a time of rebirth, marks a new chapter in Bibi’s life.
The title of the story contains a pun. Bibi Haldar's "treatment" refers both to the "relations" prescribed to cure her condition, and the way she is treated by her cousin and by her community. We are asked to determine whether her treatment is just better treatment.