Short fiction in translation
(Translated by Fakrul Alam)
I fancy myself as an onlooker, “enamored of new paths, questing forever, forever unappeased”! This, in a city that has everything in it for me to explore—my own desert, fields; an unfathomable ocean as well. It’s as if I can meditate on pathways, and be mesmerised by stones. I think of myself, moreover, as an insatiable onlooker, a soul mingling constantly with shades, though my path is blocked by a so-called “realistic” sense. I discover myself in the sweat-smelling, pressing crowds of a particularly busy street where hawkers and pedestrians pack footpaths. It’s ever so crowded; yet, somehow, things flow in it. It has amazing synergy; chaos and commotion mingle here with silence. In the midst of this street’s crowds I walk on, immense stillness in my heart, always searching for an authentic voice.
The place I’m talking about is Dhaka’s Gulistan. Here crowds occupy all spots. And within its hustle and bustle, major and minor incidents keep occurring.
Take, for instance, what is going on right now with Abdul Malek, a proofreader of a mid-level news daily. Malek himself is absolutely stupefied by what’s happening. This is because he had just asked the price of a pair of shoes he had seen amidst the pairs strewn in a sheet on the street. As is so often the case in Gulistan, when he then started to leave, the hawker pulled at his shirt sleeves. Why was he leaving without not offering the price he had bargained for? The young but insolent hawker had even lifted his leg as if intending to kick Malek for his offence. But Malek couldn’t figure out what he had done to merit such punishment. His first reaction was to shrink a bit, as he tended to do in such situations. Then, as if in self-defense, he began stammering, “I… I…”
“If you aren’t going to buy anything, why haggle? Why have you been fingering the pair of shoes for so long then? You’ve even tried it on your feet. Such cheek! You’ll have to come up with an offer!”
Abdul Malek stood in front of the hawker pathetically. He felt humiliated, seemingly struck dumb by what had happened. His tongue had frozen.
The black emission spewed by the Gulistan-based buses and the thickening dusk shadows created a kind of stillness pregnant with meaning. This only served to make the city even more alien to Malek. Almost in self-defense, he named the newspaper he worked for. This worked. The mafia type men around him struck a compromising note. They scolded the hawker and tried to calm Malek. Placing his hands on his back, one of them said, “Why didn’t you say you are a journalist?”
The crowd around Malek began to thin now. He started walking home uncertainly, thinking, “Why did I have to offer a price for those shoes?” Surely, bargaining is a disease afflicting the poor who always try to live beyond their means. After all, should a smalltime trader busy himself with freight costs? He kept wondering what proverbial saying would be appropriate for someone in his situation and kept rubbing his eyes. He had no clue as to what was really irritating them and ended up blaming Gulistan’s pollution and black smoke as the source of his discomfort.
I followed Abdul Malek to his house. It wasn’t much, really. At best one could call it a bird’s nest. Located in the Dhaka suburb of Demra, it was a one-roomed flat in an unfinished building. His wife Rasheda was feeding the child on her lap. Her husband’s return didn’t seem to excite her in any way. Only his older son came close to Malek, as if wanting to be in his lap. Malek was out of breath by now.
“You know what Rasheda? I bargained for a pair of shoes…liked it a lot…footpath... shiny black…wanted two thousand takas for it!” He went to the washroom to wash his hands and feet and then returned to the room.
“From childhood I so wanted a black pair of shoes…you know…told my father this often[SP1] …the plastic shoes I’ve worn forever and forever—they blister my feet so…”
Rasheda giggled and said, “The boys in our village would satisfy their craving for good shoes otherwise. When rich disciples would come to Lal Shah’s shrine and take off their expensive shoes before entering it, the boys would steal them!”
Abdul Malek wasn’t amused by what Rasheda said. What is so funny about stealing shoes? So he went back to the incident that took place with the pair of shoes.
Rasheda said, “Look, forget those shoes. We’ve run out of cooking oil and salt!”
Abdul Malek sat down hunched up for a while. He then started to go to the corner store at the end of their lane.
At this point I felt like having fun. I transformed myself into a black pair of shoes—like the one in the Gulistan footpath—and placed myself in front of the door so that I would be on his way out. As soon as he left his main door Malek would see the pair of shoes—the very shoes he had fancied earlier that day. I imagined his amazed response at seeing them and amused myself.
Malek saw the pair of shoes in his doorstep and was taken by surprise. He couldn’t take his eyes off them. How could this be? Was he dreaming or seeing something real? Malek went inside and came out. He then turned away his eyes and, as if nothing had happened, left for the shop nonchalantly.
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Malek thought: “For sure I won’t see the shoes when I return. Someone must have left them here by mistake. The owner will certainly come back for them sometime soon and take them away. But would you believe it? Just look! How much these abandoned shoes resemble the ones I saw in Gulistan! It’s as if they are the same pair! As if the shoes followed me all the way…what a crazy day this has been...all kinds of fantastic things are happening…”
When Malek returned home from the shop it was the same scene on view! Those very shoes! As if life had stilled. Malek ignored the shoes totally and went inside the house. But he kept fretting. He laid down on his bed and then got up from it. Rasheda was bemused by her husband’s disquiet. She queried, “What has happened? Why are you so restless?”
“Go outside…open the door…look to your left…do you see anything?”
Rasheda went out and then came back, the pair of shoes in her hands.
“These shoes? There was nothing else outside the door besides them!”
Abdul Malek was shocked. “What have you done? It’s someone else’s shoes. And you’ve brought them in!”
Rasheda threw the pair of shoes on the floor and said, “Look, the shoes are just right for you…your exact size! Why don’t you try them out a bit?”
“No way! The things you do and say!”
“Just try them!”
Rasheda came close to her husband’s feet and put the shoes on him carefully. When she had done so, Malek began to walk shyly inside his house with them on. Rasheda said, “I knew they would fit; the cobbler seemed to have made this pair with your size in his mind!”
The couple looked very, very happy after a long time.
When he went to the office the next day, it was the receptionist who first noticed the pair of shoes. She said to him, “Did you buy a new pair of shoes, Mr. Malek? They look great. They seem to fit you perfectly!” His colleagues kept asking him about the price of the shoes.
Malek didn’t quite respond to their queries. By way of a reply he either smiled, or shook his head vigorously, as if to indicate he was very uncomfortable, or looked repentant, as if he had committed some crime. Or he hinted that they were too heavy for him, and were constricting him.
A few of the people in the office even said to him, “Are they too tight for you, Mr. Malek?”
“No! They are OK”, he said to these colleagues softly.
Abdul Malek had a habit of shaking his legs whenever he was checking spelling during proofreading. Around afternoon it occurred to him his legs had stopped shaking on their own. It seemed to him that the shoes were moving on their own… up, down, at an angle, right, left, up, down…on their own as if in sheer delight. Trying to get a hold on the shoes was bewildering for Malek. He thought: “I must be imagining this!” He tried to control his legs. When he failed to do so, he left his office hurriedly, saying that he wasn’t feeling well at all.
Once in the street, it appeared to him everyone there —beggars, pedestrians, even the two police men on duty—were staring at his feet. Were the police men about to say something to him? Perhaps they would say, “You are under arrest for moving about suspiciously. You’ll have to go to the police station right away!” If Rasheda was around, perhaps she would say to him, “Never seen someone as timid as you! You get so scared so needlessly!”
“Why is that man over there staring at me so suspiciously? Is he looking at my legs? At my shoes? Will he come to me and say, ‘Hey there! Where did you get those shoes? Let me take a look!’ For surer, he’ll find some clue there and say, ‘All of you here—people—look! Look at a thief masquerading as a saheb! This thief has put this pair of shoes on, and is moving around as if he is a real saheb.’”
Malek began to sweat profusely. The shoes seemed to be made of lead—so heavy did they feel on him now. He was having a hard time moving about in them. Somehow he managed to reach home with the shoes on despite feeling weighed down by them. He sat on the bed quickly and tried to open a shoe with his hands. He placed one hand firmly on his toe but failed to take the shoes off. He used both his hands to do so next. Getting frustrated, he swore. He said, “Damn shoes! You’ve got me in a fix!”
Using both his hands to take the shoes off didn’t work either. The shoes just wouldn’t budge from where they were. It was as if they had set their teeth firmly on Malek’s legs. He tried to marshal all the strength in him to be free of the shoes. Alas, they just wouldn’t come loose!
In fear—sadness, disgust-shame—alarm—and as if he had hysteria, Malek began groaning loudly. Leaving everything she was doing in the kitchen, Rasheda came running.
“My shoes….my shoes…” Malek kept stuttering.
Rasheda was baffled. She shouted, “What’s going on? What’s the problem?”
Malek broke down in tears. “I’m stuck in these shoes. Save me, Rasheda….”
Rasheda came close to him and pulled at the shoes. They came off easily into her hands. She rebuked him, “Why create such a commotion? See how easily I pulled them off.”
Abdul Malek began to recover slowly from the state he had been in. With terrified eyes he looked at the pair of shoes. Rasheda took some rags and began to wipe the dust off them, saying, “See how the dust can make a shoe look so dirty even during the daytime!”
“Remove them, take them away from my sight. Throw them where they were found,” said Malek, almost screaming these words out loud.
Rasheda first looked at him in amazement and then shouted, “What for? Why will I throw them away? Such beautiful shoes! If you won’t wear them, your son will!”
“Don’t argue! Listen to what I said!” Saying so, Malek gave his wife a stern look. Rasheda hid the pair of shoes under the bed in the blink of an eye. Only she knew when her son would grow up enough to wear these shoes!
That night Abdul Malek had high fever. In a delirium, he kept moaning, “Shoes… shoes…”
Pouring water on Malek’s feverish forehead, Rasheda thought, “Alas! He had been wanting to wear an expensive pair of shoes for such a long time!”
Lying under the bed, I—that is to say, the black pair of shoes—saw all of this. Later, when the couple went to sleep, I transformed myself and went out of the house. All along I had been looking for an authentic voice, and had been moving around pathways in a bid to get one!
Malek’s fever would recede one day. With his old pair of plastic shoes on, he’d be walking to his office once again, taking his eyes away from the policeman at the intersection accepting a bribe from someone. He’d no doubt halt from time to time when he came across a pair of black shoes on display. No doubt his wife would be looking for the pair of shoes he had found somewhere and had seen that day all over the house in vain again and again. She would no doubt conclude one day that Malek had once come across the shoes somewhere in the house but had decided to throw them outside himself!
And I? I’ll keep roaming the streets! Lost in my thoughts…all alone…
Shahnaz Munni is a fiction writer. Her books include Jiner Konnaya, Nirjonotar khaddo, Dhulir Shajjya.
Fakrul Alam has taught English Literature at different universities (including Dhaka University, East West University and University of Liberal Arts and Humanities) for over four decades now. He is the editor of Essential Tagore (HUP, Visva Bharati University). His translated books include The Sorrow of Ocean by Mir Mosharraf Hossain (Bangla Academy) and Unfinished Memoirs by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (UPL).