(Translated by Niaz Zaman)Krishnanagar – the village of dolls, but now a broken playhouse after a whimsical child’s game is over. It gazes down the path the child has taken – like a mother clutching her child’s toy to her breast. This is Chand Sarak, clinging to trees and shrubs like some hidden pain. The so-called lower class Muslims reside in this neighbourhood, rubbing shoulders with Oman Katholi, local Roman Catholic converts. Despite dwelling side by side they are not really happy together. A few Hindus also reside here, like scattered grains of chana chur. But they too are proud of their heritage – just as much as the Muslims and the Christians.
Irrespective of caste and creed, the men are labourers and craftsmen – carpenters, bearers, cooks, stuff like that. The women husk rice, perform household and homestead chores, cook and weep and try by various means to reduce the sorrow of their menfolk. The Creator hasn’t given them enough leisure to ponder over their sorrows. Otherwise, something disastrous would surely have occurred.They tolerate each other because they have to – as do a pet cat and a pet dog belonging to the same master. They rail against each other, but have neither the leisure nor the desire for a full-blown quarrel. Irrespective of caste and creed, the men are labourers and craftsmen – carpenters, bearers, cooks, stuff like that. The women husk rice, perform household and homestead chores, cook and weep and try by various means to reduce the sorrow of their menfolk. The Creator hasn’t given them enough leisure to ponder over their sorrows. Otherwise, something disastrous would surely have occurred. It is as if this is the storehouse of death. The order is filled as soon as it is placed. It takes as much time to acquire the goods as it takes to dispatch them. There are a few genteel folk here as well – as slight as the parting of the hair on one’s head. But, even if this has elevated their status, it hasn’t lessened their misery. Instead, by mocking their poverty and despair, it has only increased their sorrow. They give back their Creator’s gifts of children as easily as they have welcomed them and fill their stomachs with panta bhat, watered rice, and leave for work. They return in the evening after work to kick their eldest son, curse the second without listening to what he has to say, give a sweet to the third, and kiss their youngest. Then they have their evening meal and go to sleep. The little children – sun-burned, dust-covered, hungry, naked – wander around, gather sticks for firewood, chase kites – which have been cut loose from their strings – and speak in pure Bangla. They reside in Chand Bazaar on Chand Sarak. It was at a tap on Chand Sarak that a violent fight ensued among the women who had gathered there to collect water. Some Christian girl was rumoured to have touched the kalsi of some Muslim girl. Both of them had perhaps, at one time, belonged to the same creed – but one had become Muslim, the other Christian. And, because they had once belonged to the same religion, they had started to despise each other. Both the girls were quite young and they were also close friends. That is why the two girls didn’t fight. The fight was between those who claimed to have seen the Christian girl touching the water pot of the Muslim girl and those who denied that she had done so. Gojaler Ma, Gojale’s mother, had quite a reputation as a shrew. She led the opposition on the Muslim side. Hidimba, on the other side, was no weakling either. Though her words were not as caustic as those of Gojaler Ma, her bearing was majestic and her voice louder. On that early morning she appeared to be a veritable Hidimba Devi who captivated Bhima, the strongest of the Pandavas. Gojaler Ma was as skinny as a nail, merely skin and bone. But her words were also as piercing as a nail. Just as the hole in a wall remains long after the nail is removed, Gojaler Ma’s words lingered long after a fight was over.
Khatooner Ma, balancing a kalsi on her hip, carrying a baby in her womb, and holding a child in her arms, had been listening silently all this while, occasionally murmuring her agreement with what Gojale’s mother was saying, much like the chorus repeating the refrain of the main singer. But now she could restrain herself no longer.The quarrel had grown heated. Gojaler Ma grumbled, “Eater of haram, unclean, foods, you Kherestan! You have become as fat as a wild boar eating its flesh, haven’t you?” Hidimba didn’t give Gojaler Ma the chance to say anything more. With a loud clang, she struck her brass kalsi on the paved surface under the tap. Shaking all over, she scowled and shouted, “Of course you’ll say that, you dried fish! Your sons have fattened on haram foods at the homes of the Kherestans!” Gojaler Ma poured out all the water in her kalsi and came closer to Hidimba. “You mountain of anger! You Bhagalpur cow! My son didn’t cook for a Kherestan. He was a judge sayeb’s khansama, his orderly – a judge sayeb’s, an Englishman’s.” Poontir Ma was also a Christian. She could stand it no longer. She made her malaria-weakened voice as loud as possible. “You intolerable woman, go hang yourself from a shika. Listen, Gojaler Ma, the judge sayeb too belongs to our community. We belong to the king’s community, don’t you know that?” Two or three Christian girls were delighted at the words of Poonti’s mother and exclaimed happily, “Well said, Mashi.” Khatooner Ma, balancing a kalsi on her hip, carrying a baby in her womb, and holding a child in her arms, had been listening silently all this while, occasionally murmuring her agreement with what Gojale’s mother was saying, much like the chorus repeating the refrain of the main singer. But now she could restrain herself no longer. With the child in her arms, the baby in her womb, and the kalsi on her hip, she rushed up to join Gojaler Ma. She shouted such gross insults at the Christian women that they cannot be written or even heard. Suddenly Hidimba shook her hair loose with a flourish of her head and stood up like a veritable Elokeshi Bama. Tying the end of her sari tight around her waist, she gesticulated with both hands in front of Khatoon’s mother and exclaimed, “Who are you, you offal-eater? If you don’t get a thrashing from your husband morning and evening!” Then, even more coarsely she said to Gojale’s mother, “Yes, you devourer of husband and sons. Not one, but three sons. Perhaps your son did cook for the judge sayeb, but even that son you have buried. And didn’t you cook just the other day for Amphesad this was the title of the chief table servant, who was always a Muslim. He was the house steward and butler. See Hobson-Jobson. Babu? Is Amphesad Babu a moulvi sayeb of yours? Sniff your hands. You can still get the Kherestan’s smell.”
Niaz Zaman is a Bangladeshi academic, writer and a supernumerary professor at the University of Dhaka. In 2017, she was awarded Bangla Academy Literary Award for her contribution to English translation of Bengali literature. Her books include The Art of Kantha Embroidery, A Divided Legacy: The Partition in Selected Novels of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, The Crooked Neem Tree and The Dance and Other Stories.