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Come back to earth

  • Published at 07:00 pm March 12th, 2018
Come back to earth
(Translated by Rebecca Janson) There was a full moon. Its light bathed the row of coconut trees outside Mr Sabir's home and lit the tops of the thatched huts just beyond his boundary wall. Inside, Mr Sabirs living room was full of people who also seemed to glow with the festivity of the occasion. Mr Sabir was an affluent and well-respected man who lately was basking in the glory of his achievements. Tonight, everyone's attention focused on him, and everyone wanted his attention. Mr Sabir’s wish was everyone's wish, as if he himself was the light of the moon. Sharing the limelight with Mr Sabir was his wife, Anu. Wearing a dazzling silk sari, she attended her guests with the vitality of a young girl. Mr Sabir’s own embroidered punjabi also seemed to shine. He wore heavy-framed glasses, which enhanced an intellectual appearance about him. Anu kept an admiring eye on her husband, even as she worked to entertain her guests! She was proud of him, and he was proud of himself. From time to time, Mr Sabir gazed through the window at the coconut palms soaked in moonlight. For two days he had been receiving numerous congratulatory phone calls. Tonight was the culmination of those good wishes – a party in his honour. His research paper on astronomy had been accepted by a famous American company. The same company had invited him to do further research on moon rocks and the climate of the moon. His picture had appeared in well-known American newspapers. Important journalists had interviewed him and published their articles. There was another reason for the celebration tonight. Mr Sabir's eldest son had gone to America to complete his PhD in nuclear physics. Yesterday the family received word that he had been awarded the degree. His thesis was on atomic energy.
Anu was not so concerned with the girl's feelings. She had seen the girl's bulging belly, and her immediate response was disgust.
The expression on Mr Sabir’s face was one of preoccupation. He chain-smoked countless cigarettes. For several hours, he had moved within a cloud of his own smoke. Perhaps he was nervous, or excited, or found smoking comforting. By the time all the guests left the moonlight had reached the very tops of the coconut trees. One of Mr Sabir's thoughtful gazes now occasionally came to rest on the moon as he relaxed in the aftermath of his party. Suddenly, a shadow appeared in Mr Sabir’s brightly lit living room. "What do you want?" Anu's sharp voice penetrated Mr Sabir's daydream. His wife was sitting beside him. He had thought they were the only two people left in the room. His daughter, Leda, was on the telephone in the next room. A body slipped into the uninvited shadow and stood under the chandelier. Mr Sabir stared for a moment, then blurted out, "Hey, it's that girl!" He was immediately embarrassed. He saw that he had embarrassed the girl standing under the light, too. She began to tremble. He searched for new words to erase his blunder. Anu was not so concerned with the girl's feelings. She had seen the girl's bulging belly, and her immediate response was disgust. Disgust, not pity, though the girl appeared quite pitiable – pale, drawn face, faded blouse and sari, worn rubber sandals. But the sign of pregnancy in an unmarried girl presented a great barrier to pity for Anu. She repeated, "What do you want?" The girl shrank but did not appear surprised, "I've come to see my uncle." "Uncle!" Anu was flabbergasted. She could not contain her rage. She knew this girl; she knew what she was. "Shut up, you wretched girl. Do you know who you stand before? You dare to call a world-famous scientist uncle?" For a moment, the girl stared. Then she lowered her eyes and said, "I've made a mistake. When I was young, I called him uncle." "What do you want from him?" Anu snapped. Why do you need fame? Why do you people study science? For your reputation? After you've gotten your fame, you just want more. Mr Sabir had been listening to this exchange with interest. He suddenly remembered there had been a little girl who called him uncle many years ago. Her name was ... Rini? Bini? Mini? Yes, it was Mini. Her family had lived in the shack with the tin roof beside his house. The little girl played hide-and-seek with Leda. But that was so long ago ... did she still live there? Mini's father had worked at a printing press as a compositor. One day he had a heart attack and died. Mr Sabir looked at this girl's sad face and thought of the younger Mini he had known. She had always approached him with an insatiable curiosity, boldly demanding to know, "Is the moon dead, uncle?" Is there really a planet named Jupiter? What does orbit mean, uncle?" Mr Sabir had always replied, "Grow older, Mini, and you can learn everything about science." When had Mini become "that girl"? Mr Sabir’s memory focused. It was a long time ago. After her mother died, Mini took a job in a same boarding house. Her notoriety began to grow. But he was much too busy with his work. Yet he did dimly remember Mini had brought her four brothers and sisters to his house before she took that job in the boarding house. Anu had driven them all away, and Mini sat out on his verandah and cried for a long time. Mr Sabir had not known what it was all about. He had been engrossed in a research project. Now he wondered what she would have wanted then. Help? And if he had helped her, would she have become "that girl"?
Why do you need fame? Why do you people study science? For your reputation? After you've gotten your fame, you just want more.
Mr Sabir wanted an answer, wanted to get rid of the doubts that fed his guilt. He stood up and grabbed Mini's shoulders and shook her. "Why've you come here? What is it you want to know?" he shouted in her face. Anu was stunned. Leda came running into the room. Mini closed her eyes and trembled. A moment later, Mr Sabir was filled with regret. Mini opened her eyes wide and stared at him. Why had he frightened her? He was angry with himself. He touched her head gently and said, "Please forgive me. Tell me, what do you want to say to me?" Anu was beside herself. "What is this? What's happening? Get away from her!" Mr Sabir ignored his wife. The look in Mini's eyes had changed from fear to sorrow. "My brother was caught stealing," she said. "He ran away. Now he's returned. If only you could give him a job. Everyone says you're a great and famous man..." "Never!" Anu cried. "He will do nothing for the thieving brother of a whore! Do you know how famous he is?" Fame! Reputation! These were priceless things. Mr Sabir forgot Mini for a moment. He felt a wave of self-satisfaction. Mini was crying. She sat down at Mr Sabir's feet and looked up at him. "Please help me, or we'll all die. My brothers haven't eaten for a long time. They no longer look like human beings." Anu quickly dug into her handbag and pulled out a ten-taka bill and threw it at Mini. "Now get lost. Why did you come here? Why don't you go to those people who've kept you so well for so long? Or do you suddenly care about your reputation?" Mini stood up. The fear and the sadness were gone from her face. Her eyes blazed. Carefully she said, "No, there's no need for that now. My reputation has kept me fed this long. But tell me this," she turned to Mr Sabir. "Why do you need fame? Why do you people study science? For your reputation? After you've gotten your fame, you just want more." There was a dead silence in the room. Anu stood gaping. Mr Sabir could find no words. Finally, Leda said, "Be quiet. Be quiet, Mini." Mini turned. "Get lost! I hate you all." Then she turned back. "You know, my brother became a pickpocket because it was the only way he could keep himself from starving. He was caught and beaten. Now he's almost senseless with fever. He has no money for even a single drop of medicine." Mr Sabir opened his mouth to speak. Mini was gone. The ten-taka bill lay on the floor where Anu had thrown it. Anu screwed up her face in disgust. "How annoying! She had to come and spread her misery like dark ink on this happy occasion." Mr Sabir wanted to go to bed. He did not feel happy any more. He felt empty. He went to his room and lay on his bed beneath a dim ceiling lamp. He closed his eyes, but felt someone entering the room. Opening his eyes again, he saw Mini standing beside his bed.
Do you ever wonder what your neighbors do simply to survive? Why is it said that almost half the people in the world are starving or half-fed?
Softly, she said, "I had to ask you one more time. Why do you study science?" Mr Sabir gasped. "What do you mean?" "Come on, tell me, You must tell me." Mr Sabir searched frantically for an answer. He could not find the right words. He knew; of course he knew. Where were the words? Why was he a scientist? "It's the duty of science to delve into the unknown ..." Mini laughed. "You're lying. The truth is that you don't want to know very much. Consider your anxiety over moon and the planets. Consider how the wealthiest of countries afford incredible sums of money to unravel the mysteries of science, investigating areas in outer space that present challenges. But what about the people who live in this world? What about the poverty in the poorer countries? You and your moon! Do you ever wonder what your neighbors do simply to survive? Why is it said that almost half the people in the world are starving or half-fed?" Mr Sabir recoiled. Mini laughed again. "More than half the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America are half-fed or starving. Millions of infants all over the world are malnourished. Countless women are selling their bodies so they can eat. Do you know all this? Do you want to know? No? Then why do you insist it's the duty of science to delve into the unknown?" Mini clasped her hands together and reached toward him. "Listen. Please convey my plea to the world. We don't want the moon. We don't need weapons or war. I request you enlightened people, who've abandoned this world for another, to please come home. We need you, we who live under the curse of poverty. Try to know your neighbors on earth. Try to learn about hunger, and try to overcome it." Mr Sabir trembled. "Who are you?" Mini unclasped her hands and let her hands fall to her sides. "Me? I am hunger. I am the poverty of this world. Does your science care about me?" "You're making a mistake," Mr Sabir said. "Do you know that nuclear scientists have taken an oath to work for the betterment of humanity? My son, Kamal, has written a paper on this subject." Mini's smile was icy. "Nuclear science? Nuclear power? The atom?" The smile vanished. "Go tell your scientist friends that their research destroys rather than develops civilization. It spreads poverty, disease, and crime. You're a liar and an escapist, and your science is full of lies, too. I hate it." Mr Sabir raised his hands in protest, but Mini was gone. His wife's voice took her place. "I've been calling to wake you up," Anu said. "So many things have happened!" Mr Sabir sat up. His head was spinning. "What things?" "What do you think? That little tramp hanged herself last night." Mr Sabir stopped listening. He stared out the window. Dawn was breaking. Last night's happy-faced moon was gone. Softly he said, "Come back. Come back to earth."  (This is an abridged version. This translation is based on “Madhyakarshoner Simanai.” Reprinted with permission from Rizia Rahman’s Caged in Paradise and Other Stories, edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam, and published by University Press Limited, 2010)
Rizia Rahman is one of the most prominent writers of Bangladesh, writing in various genres since the late 1960s. She has received the Bangla Academy Award in 1978. She has also won the Bangladesh Lekhika Shangha Gold Medal and the Ananya Literature Prize. Bong Theke Bangla is one of her most acclaimed novels.