Jahanara Naushin's "Harikatth" in translation.
(translated by Niaz Zaman)
The story I am narrating occurred many years ago. My mother was about twenty-five then. I hadn’t yet been born. Bhalo Chachi told us the story.
We called her “Bhalo Chachi” because she really was a good aunt, always ready to give in to our requests, such as making rice cakes out of season, roasting gram on rainy days, grilling green rice cakes wrapped in garlic leaves on cold winter evenings. She would make several excuses, she would pretend to get angry, but she would finally give in to our requests. It was Bhalo Chachi who told us one day why the neighboring house was called “Boumari Bari, Bride-Killer House.”
There was something different about that morning when Bhalo Chachi told us the story.
Before commencing her stories, Bhalo Chachi would describe the times, the environment, the circumstances. My fair aunt also had a way of describing things in her own way. When she described a woman’s complexion, she would say that her complexion was golden, like finely ground Bengal gram. If she was describing a woman’s long hair, she would say that the woman’s long hair looked like dark rain clouds blowing in the wind.
That morning Bhalo Chachi narrated the story about Boumari Bari. The story was short, but deeply moving. However, Chachi did not stress the tragedy of the story while narrating it. Perhaps she believed that there was nothing wrong in how things had happened, that perhaps it was right to do what had been done. Problems might have been created otherwise. The family would have been ruined.
Chachi narrated the story quite calmly. “She had come to the house as a new bride just about four months ago. She was dark and wore her sari long, touching the tips of her toes. Below her brows, which joined in the middle, she had dark eyes, eyes that seemed capable of piercing deep into things. It is said that witches can look right through people into their hearts, which dangle like young cucumbers on a vine. They are crunchy and delicious to munch. We do not know how delicious they are. But witches do.”
I grew impatient. “What happened then? Go ahead. Don’t beat about the bush.”
“I won’t go on if you behave like that. Get lost. Beating about the bush indeed! Do you know that under its husk, corn is covered with silky, hair-like strands? Only after removing the strands can one get at the real thing: Corn. Do you know that corn has another name 'makai'? You don’t know anything. You are just good at making rude remarks. Do you know that corn came from Makkah? That is why its other name is 'makai.'”
I was getting impatient. I wanted to hear the story so I restrained myself. Why was the house called Boumari, Bride-Killer House? So I subdued my impatience. Let Chachi narrate the story as she wished to. At least I would get to hear the story.
“It was early afternoon. Time to get lunch ready. Suddenly, from that house we heard the hubbub of confused noise. The shadows in the courtyard were only that long, meaning it wasn’t yet time to have a bath. People started running toward that house. Inside our house, we pricked up our ears. What was the matter? We couldn’t understand anything. All we heard were cries of “fallen" and "dying.” The village crows added to the confusion by cawing raucously. The pye-dogs joined in the chorus, barking madly.
“Of course, we daughters and daughters-in-law were unable to go outside to see what was happening. And we would not know what was happening unless someone entered from outside and informed us about what had transpired. The shadows of the house grew longer and almost reached the mouth of the lane by the time Jamiruddin—one of our farm-hands—entered the house.
“We asked Jamiruddin what had happened.
“He simply said, ‘I have no idea. Everyone is running toward that house.’
“‘You came back without trying to find out what had happened?’
“‘Can any and everyone enter a house to find out what has happened inside?’
“Jamiruddin had always been like that. Completely lethargic. All he was concerned with was his own work. And what was his work? Giving cows that had newly calved chaff mixed with jaggery, oil cake, salt, and water, tending to the calves, and milking the cows. The lad would be overwhelmed by even this slight work. He was bone-lazy. Had to be pushed.
“The crows were still cawing, but the dogs had quieted down.
“Lau Korta entered the house. We surrounded him and asked him what had happened.
“‘The new bride has died. She was a greedy woman. Serves her right.’
“‘What was she trying to eat?’
“He shouted. ‘My head. There is no need for you to know.’
“He picked up what he had come for and left the room.
“Though he must have known what had happened, he refused to say anything. And why should he? The word would spread and finally reach the police. All sorts of complications would have followed.”
This time I became really frustrated. “Will you tell us what really happened? Or should we leave? You are just ruining the story.”
My goodness! I had used the familiar “tui” to address her. Was that any way to talk to Bhalo Chachi? But I had spoken that way. There was no way I could take it back. I tried to calm down.
“All right. Tell the story slowly.”
“Are you allowing me to tell the story slowly? Where have all of you come from?”
This was addressed to my other paternal cousins who had appeared just then. “Why are you so curious to know what happened? It is not good for children to be so curious. Go and do what you were doing. The story is not for you.” Chachi was getting angry. Perhaps because of the way I had spoken to her. Of course I often addressed her as “tui.” But that was when I was being particularly affectionate, not angry. When I was coaxing her for something. But would Chachi listen to me now? No. So, we all just kept sitting there quietly, not saying a word.
Finally, Bhalo Chachi opened her mouth. Truly, she was a good aunt.
“Do you know why Lau Korta didn’t say anything? It is a shameful thing for young women to hear. That is why he did not say anything. Can one just blurt out a shameful thing? No, one cannot and one must not. So, we stayed where we were, listening to shouts. Finally the shouts died down. The world seemed to have come to a stop, engulfed by a dark night. When the shadows of the house had reached the middle of the courtyard, Mejo Korta entered. It seemed that the shadows had stopped lengthening. He was an imposing, solemn man. We were all a little fearful before him.
“His wife asked, ‘What happened in that house? Why was there so much commotion? Our eardrums seemed to burst at the noise.’
“The doels, the magpie robins, on the small palmyra tree seemed to stretch out their necks as if to call, ‘Bad things, bad things.’
“Sitting on a wicker stool, Mejo Korta washed his feet with water from a pail. ‘The young woman who came as a bride to that house in the month of Baishakh has been killed. It is not good for young women to flout custom. So what if she was a new bride? She was very greedy. It was her greed that killed her.’
“His wife asked gently, ‘Tell us clearly what you heard.’
“‘I didn’t just hear it. I saw the terrible thing. Such audacity on the part of a new bride! Her mother-in-law grabbed her as soon as she saw what she was doing. She choked next to the stove. As she thrashed about on the ground, her flailing limbs scattered the blazing fagots all over the place. In a little while the whole kitchen might have gone up in flames. And, if that had happened, the entire village would have burned down. Our house would not have been spared either.’
“His wife did not have the courage to ask what had got stuck in the young woman’s throat.”
We looked at each other and in whispers asked each other what might have got stuck in the young woman’s throat to cause her to choke to death.
“‘Did the young woman have the habit of eating cooking pots?’”
“What does ‘eating cooking pots’ mean?” we asked.
“Don’t you know what ‘eating cooking pots’ means? You are the children of this house. Of course you won’t know what ‘eating cooking pots’ means. No one in this house eats cooking pots. ‘Eating cooking pots’ means eating something from the pot while cooking or heating food. It is a very shameful thing for women to do. It is inauspicious.”
We looked at each other and started giggling.
“So what if one eats something from a cooking pot? What is wrong with that?”
“What are you saying? All the wealth of a house will vanish. Never say that again! Eating cooking pots is a very bad thing to do.'
“For whatever reason, Mejo Korta gave us the details. ‘A chicken had been slaughtered as the eldest son-in-law had come to visit. Perhaps, as she was browning the chicken in the spices, the lady of the house started feeling tired. Or perhaps she wanted to test her daughter-in-law’s cooking skills. So, she called her and said, 'Cook the chicken. I am going to rest for a little while.' The daughter-in-law sat down to cook. Remember, she was very greedy. She could not resist. Understand? How can I speak more clearly than this?’
“Even hearing all this, we could not understand how the young woman came to die. One small piece of chicken. Shame, shame! So she ate it, but why did she die?
“Mejo Bou could not stand it any longer. Roughly, she said, ‘Nonsense! Does anyone die eating cooking pots? I have never heard this sort of thing in my entire life!’
“Mejo Korta smiled wryly. ‘The lady of the house could not rest long after having left her daughter-in-law alone to cook the chicken. She returned to the kitchen and was horrified at the scene. Her daughter-in-law was picking up a piece of chicken with the khunti she had been stirring the pot with. She had just raised the piece to her lips when her mother-in-law pounced on her. 'What are you doing? What are you doing?'
“‘The daughter-in-law tried to swallow the piece of hot chicken and started choking. She tried to put a finger down her throat to bring up what she had swallowed. Her mother-in-law pulled her hand back. The girl was unable to put her finger down her throat. What had to happen happened. Had she been able to put her finger down her throat, perhaps she would have been able to pull the piece back that was choking her. But could her mother-in-law allow that to happen? The young woman would have eaten cooking pots all her life. The family would have become impoverished. It would have been ruined. It was better to end the problem immediately. Does anyone nurture a daughter-in-law like that?’”
Some of us tried to picture the scene of the woman choking to death. To our young minds death was frightening.
Bhalo Chachi continued her narrative. “Afterward we came to hear that not only hadn’t the mother-in-law prevented the young woman from putting her finger down her throat, she had also picked up a burning twig from the stove and pushed the piece of chicken farther down the young woman’s throat. The girl writhed in her death throes.”
We felt miserable. We sat there quietly, without saying a word.
Then Bhalo Chachi said, almost to herself, “It’s sad that the girl died. She was married only for about six months. I feel sorry for her, but then one has to think about the family. One cannot do things that destroy the family, do inauspicious things that affect the prosperity and wealth of the family. What will be left then? Can mothers-in-law allow something like that to happen, should they?”
Timidly I asked, “Chachi, if you become a mother-in-law, will you do the same?”
“How do I know, child? I have not yet become a mother-in-law. Traditions that have existed for generations must not be flouted. How can I be different? I will continue to follow the traditions that I have seen since I was born.”
I was disheartened. Traditions that have existed for generations . . .
(Translated from “Harikatth.”)
Niaz Zaman, who is Advisor, Department of English, Independent University, Bangladesh, is a writer and translator.
Jahanara Naushin is a retired academic and writer. She received the Saadat Ali Akhand Literary Award from the Bangla Academy in 2012 and the Anannya Literary Award in 2014)