The following translation is a tribute to Akhteruzzaman Elias, marking his 76th birth anniversary on February 12.
(Translated by Rifat Munim)
It started to rain when the day had advanced. In the northern part of the village jute harvesting had begun in Abul Master's land; the bloody Master wouldn't come to the school today. Once in school, it wouldn't be a trouble to float off on a raft. Ebadat Munshi's large raft was tied up to a ghat quite close by the school—only 10 to 12 strokes with the bamboo pole would be enough to reach the bank of the Dhaleswari. From there he could easily embark on the 10:30AM launch. Once on board, in front of all those passengers sitting on piles of clothes, if he walked with a limp and sang "Mother Fatema cries and asks where her Father is/Alas! the whole world mourns the Prophet's death!" he might as well earn two or three takas. Then he could disembark at the Ramershwardi ghat and settling himself in Kadam Ali's shop, he could eat bread soaked in tea, or he could gorge on a guava or a gaab[i]; with a bit of luck he might even be able to smoke a Meghna cigarette. When he'd return home on the 1:30PM launch, Mother would not be able to figure out that her son had come home with a half-filled stomach.
Meantime, the rain had stopped but not Jaynab, his mother; she kept blabbering about in a voice high-pitched enough to rouse the whole neighborhood. It was merely 10 minutes since she had taken a break. This opportunity must not be missed because if she started again she'd go on forever. Pulling up the wide door-like lid, he scuttled up to the arum bush lying in one corner of the front yard, tore a big leaf from the bush and holding it over his head as an umbrella he set out for school with his slate and worn-out elementary book clutched in the other hand. Having jabbered on for several minutes at a stretch, Jaynab was struggling to catch her breath. "Ohidullah, don't go to school today!" she managed to whimper. "Today is an exam day. Teacher will punish me if I skip school," Ohidullah replied.
Jaynab felt too weak to speak, so she waved her hand—which meant, hell with your teacher. After panting for a while, she waved her hand again—implying he shouldn't go even if the teacher punished him later! Picking up the palm-leaf fan from the hand of Hazera, her daughter, she moaned, "Bring me some kagaji lemon leaves, Ma. I constantly feel nauseated and this disgusting feeling wouldn't go away." She made another futile attempt at throwing up, craning her head off the bed. Pulling herself back into the bed, she recoiled in pain. Now it was Hazera's turn to speak. This little girl could sometimes be the strictest guardian. In her attempt to collect the rain water leaking through holes on the thatch, she ended up making a mess of the earthen floor. Even so, she issued Ohidullah a warning in a strict voice, "Mother is so sick yet you're trying to sneak off just to wander about?"
Ohidullah, therefore, had to settle right beside Mother on the bed. What could he do if Mother had a terrible stomachache? The stomachache came with fever, the fever with headache and discomfort in the chest, and to top it all off, a constant feeling of nausea—so, what could he do about it? Father stayed for about two weeks when he had come home last year. No sign of any stomachache or nausea had showed up then! Why? If she just got Father to purify some water with recitation of Quranic verses disease of all kinds could be kept away at least for a whole year. His father was a moulvi[ii]; though not a hafez[iii], he recited the Quran as melodiously as birds sing. He knew a whole lot of surahs and prayers, so many that one could barely keep track of: prayer for keeping a tree alive when planting it; prayer for killing pests in rice or jute fields; prayer for curing children's constipation or diarrhea; prayer for making barren women fertile, and even prayer for making your foes fall terribly sick—only one little prayer was enough for the foe to spout blood from his mouth so terribly that he wouldn't even get the time to recite a counter prayer. Compared to such feats, curing Mother's petty diseases was just a piece of cake to Father. But who'd appreciate Kasimuddin's talent in this god-forsaken, water-submerged beel area? Father would aptly say, "If it rains in cats and dogs for two-three days here, one can barely tell the land from the water. How can someone live in this place?" And there in the north where he stayed for the better part of the year? Past the Ichhamoti, past the Dhaleswari, past the Buriganga, even past Brahmaputra there was a village called Kholamhati by the river Teesta where Azmat Ali, the chieftain, lived in an enormous house which included a maktab[iv] and mosque; he owned a jute go-down and also grew tobacco in his farms. The power that Kasimuddin wielded in the Ali household! At the maktab he taught village children ampara-separa[v] and at the mosque he was the muezzin[vi] who took charge when the imam[vii] was away attending a jiafat[viii]. On the day of the Eid-ul-Adha every household saw a flurry of activity surrounding the sacrificial animal. Three-fourths of the sacrifices were performed by Kasimuddin himself. When after a whole year Kasimuddin returned home post-Eid he carried along a huge aluminum pot full of bhuna[ix] beef and mutton that would weigh no less than 8-10 kilos. As the moulvi came home Jaynab seemed to have grown wings on her body with which she'd just fly and fly. If she had extracted some purified water from Father would she writhe in pain like this? After all, Mother was a woman and no woman could keep her wits about her head when she saw such a huge pot spilling with meat. For one month in the whole year this unassuming, poorly thatched house came alive with such fragrances of one or the other beef or mutton curries, sometimes with gravy, sometimes bhuna, that the air held an elegance found only in rich households. It became the season of the meat—a veritable feast of meat! At this point Ohidullah stood up with his hand stroking his lean, emaciated tummy both out of affection and pity. Thus stroked, the insides of his tummy revolted in hunger. No, the 10:30PM launch was yet to arrive. From those clothes traders who sat with their backs pressed against each other on the launch deck, he could at least extract one taka, if not two or more; true it wouldn't be possible to buy bread and tea with one taka but he could easily buy four or five hog plums or gaabs; no one would notice if he wiped his mouth clean after gorging himself on the fruits. But as soon as he stood his mother mustered the strength to call him out: "Don't go!"
"Master will harvest jute in his land today. So he asked me to go help him out in the field," said Ohidullah.
Jaynab waved her hand in protest, dismissing his excuse altogether.
"If I'm not there he’ll flog me," he said.
"Your father is a moulvi but you'll harvest jute?" moaned Jaynab, trying to catch her breath again. For days now she'd been having breathing problems, and it was always with some effort that she could breathe in and out. After taking a deep breath with some struggle, she'd speak in a low voice and exhale slowly so that more air than she willed was not let out. Otherwise she would have to start all over again to breathe in.
"Ohidullah, Baba, how could you not bail out my black cow yet? One whole year has passed since Hasmot Clerk's son took the cow away. How he pulled at the rope around its neck! Since then I don't remember the last time I worked my fingers through some rice mixed with milk." Uttering all these words depleted her stocks of air, so she was panting again. Ohidullah chose not to reply but think: why were women so dim-witted? The demand for milk came yesterday and it was still on even though the cow had been sold a whole year ago. Now she resumed her mourning in full force! What kind of sentimental shit was this? Did she—the bitch of a Mother that she was—dish out to the children steamed rice and milk before the cow had been sold? Every morning at the crack of dawn the bloody Clerk's eldest son—lanky Ashraf, or his brother-in-law Harun Mridha would appear in their house and milk the cow, draining it up to the last drop. Ohidullah, in exchange, would collect rice and lentils once every week from Mridha's grocery store at the bazaar. Only when Kasimuddin was home, which was once a year, would Mother keep some milk for the family. During Father's brief stay, every evening Mother would sit down to mix with bare fingers about 350ml of milk with one and a half kilo of steamed rice, gur[x] and a sabri banana in a giant bowl from which all six of them, Father included, would make balls of mixed rice with their right hands and gulp down. Only the last two bites, as a rule, were for Jaynab. Washing his milk-dripping hand, stroking the few strands of his beard, Kasimuddin used to laugh at times, “All the taste in the world is to be found in the last two balls. Is that why you don’t want to eat, because you’ll have these last two?” After eating rice mixed with milk, a string of beautiful words stream out of Father’s mouth, “Allah himself has blessed your hand! You mix almost one and a half kilos of rice with only a quarter of a liter of milk and yet you can appease the hunger of everyone here. Alhamdulilah!”
When a musty smell arising out of that meal from the past pierced his empty stomach like the sharp end of a bamboo twig he stood up again. With water dripping from their heads aunt Hamida Bibi and Hazera walked in. Hazera had been out for quite long, leaving Mother in such a mess; it was an apt opportunity, Ohidullah thought, and soon felt his hand itch in excitement over the idea of planting a slap on Hazera’s cheek because of her prolonged absence, causing him to momentarily forget the activities of the bamboo twig in his stomach. But aunt Hamida and Hazera sat beside Jaynab. So it was impossible to execute a beating now. Instead, Ohidullah began picking his nose to channel the constant piercing and itching sensations of his stomach and hand.
Was Jaynab asleep? As soon as Hamida Bibi touched her forehead, Jaynab muttered something about milk.
Hamida Bibi’s hand remained on Jaynab’s forehead while she spoke: “Maija Bou[xi], I could not find any milk. Ala’s father has just got back home, after searching through the whole village. Karim Shikder’s cow may calve in a day or two in the northern neighborhood. Meanwhile, crippled Aminuddin’s cow has stopped eating; it keeps beating the ground with the hind legs. Ala’s father went there to cure the poor animal with a few surahs; that’s why he’s so late.”
“Why wouldn’t the cow beat the ground?” Ala’s father replied from the outside. He’s the elder brother of Jaynab’s husband (bhashur); he’s not allowed to enter the room. “How long did they plow their land using the pregnant cow? Why should the cow be blamed now? Allah could not bear with a sight like that!”
Jaynab wraps herself up in the quilt more tightly, hearing the voice of his bhasur. She shivered as her feet touched a portion of the bed which was wet with rain water; this gave her the energy to speak. “O Bujan[xii], our black cow is there in the shed owned by Hashmot Clerk!”
But it was impossible for Ala’s father to venture out to the house of Hashmot Clerk. During the drought last year he bought on credit nearly five kilos of rice from the Clerk’s son-in-law, Harun Mridha; those dues were yet to be paid. That’s why he called Ohidullah with some force in his voice, “Ohidullah!”
Stepping out on the verandah, Ohidullah found his uncle getting soaked in the drizzle and wringing water off the gamchha he was wearing.
“Ohidullah, take a pot and rush to Malkhapara. Hasmot Clerk has three cows and they have yet to go to the bazaar to sell the milk. Fold your hands, if need be, and entreat him to give you some milk. Tell him, ‘My mother is in very bad condition. She’s expressed her wish for some milk, so you have to help us out here!’”
There was only one kosha[xiii] in the entire neighborhood but who’d taken it away at this moment? Ohidullah’s raft was actually better than the kosha. Even before reaching the ghat at Hashmot Clerk’s house, Ohidullah could see a cluster of boys and girls—all dressed up in washed clothes—float paper boats on water. They spoke all at the same time; anyone could tell from their looks they were born and brought up in some city—none would be able to make sense of the words they were uttering though. Tying the raft to the ghat, he stepped on the land. Hashmot Clerk’s house stood on a piece of land much higher than the ground, so he walked up with some effort.
Hashmot Clerk was not in; waking up in the early morning he went to the police station, ignoring rain, to smooth the way for someone’s release. It would do even if his eldest son, lanky Ashraf, were available but he too had been to the bazaar already. He had left on the kosha just now; didn’t Ohidullah see him on his way here? Hashmot Clerk’s immigrant son had come home after a long time, so lanky Ashraf could not avoid going to the bazaar. Ohidullah walked up to the inner courtyard. In the paved verandah, the city-dwelling son was sitting on a wooden stool in front of an enormous bowl of puffed rice. Crossing the verandah, the smell of pure mustard oil attacks Ohidullah’s nostrils and through the nasal cavities tickles his stomach. The Clerk’s wife, standing in front of her son, was sprinkling grains of wheat over the courtyard.
Hearing Ohidullah’s entreaty, the Clerk’s wife expressed her surprise, “Oh Allah! Doesn’t your mother suffer from irritable bowels? And that happens quite frequently! But you want to feed her milk? Are you out of your mind?” But this surprise could not deter her even a bit from sprinkling the grains; placing the tongue—heavy from chewing betel leaves—against the base of her teeth, she made a “ti ti ti ti” sound and a flock of chickens came running to peck at the grains one by one. The way those chickens were walking! Just because their stomachs were full, those bitches were walking with an air! Ohidullah felt like biting their beaks to snatch those grains and then chew on them. But before he could prepare to fulfil this wish, the Clerk’s son-in-law Harun Mridha came out of the front room. Buttoning up his shirt he said, “Your mother has got an irritable bowel while the rest of you have got irritable heads!”
Ohidullah somehow managed to mutter, “It’s not like that! She’s made a last wish. We’ve heard she’s going to die.” He put in his best effort to make his eyes teary but to no avail.
(This is the first installment. The second installment will be published in the March issue)
[i] A Bangladeshi fruit
[ii] A learned man of Islamic laws.
[iii] A man who knows all the Quranic verses by heart.
[iv] This Arabic word means an elementary school for Muslim children.
[v] Introductory lessons in Arabic, aimed at enabling children to recite the Quran.
[vi] A man who performs the azan, calling Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque.
[vii] A man who leads the prayers at a mosque.
[viii] Religious ceremony among Muslims in West Bengal and Bangladesh, marked by a huge feast.
[ix] when cooked beef is heated several times to dry out the gravy so as to keep it from going bad.
[x] a sweetener prepared from palm juice.
[xi] Maija means second in order and bou means daughter-in-law
[xii] Elder sister
[xiii] A kind of raft