Bengali classics in translation
(Translated by Junaidul Haque)
My cold was terrible. It was not possible for any handkerchief to tackle the water coming out of my nose. I sat near the fire with a double-sized bedsheet. I was sneezing and clearing my nose, clearing my nose and sneezing. Half of my bedsheet was wet and dirty and I was carefully looking for its dry parts. It was a cold country, doors and windows were shut; I could open nothing. If I opened a window I felt that the Gourishankar peak had left the Himalayas to poke its nose into my room.
I knew that wiping your nose with the same handkerchief again and again made the cold severer but what to do? If I was in my native land I would sit in the verandah, push my neck forward and sneeze loudly. That would save my bedsheet from dirt and my nose from getting hurt.
Suddenly I remembered that the day before yesterday I had met a doctor in the opera-house. A famous doctor—earning fame in Munich was not a small matter. Although I knew that the doctor would be of no use because there was a proverb in German, “If you take medicine your cold leaves in seven days; if you don’t, in a week.”
Yet I went to his residence. He understood the matter just on seeing my face. I asked, “Do you have any medicine for cold? Please do something for your first and probably last Indian patient. My nostrils are flowing like the Rhine and the Oder.”
Although the doctor was a German, he lifted both his hands in the French style. He said, “You surprise me, Sir. No medicine for cold? How many do you want? Cold has a thousand cures.”
After saying this, he took me to the next room and opened an almirah as big as the main gate of the Red Fort. It was full of various bottles—square, round, fat-waisted and pot-bellied. Labels of many colors with big, weird Latin names written on them.
Then in the aristocratic Viennese manner he bowed with his left hand on his belly and used his right hand like a sword to show from one end to the other of his drawer. “Choose, Maharaja, (the word is in circulation in German), all medicines of cold.”
I looked at him with suspicious eyes. The doctor smiled broadly in satisfaction with dimples in his cheeks—it was an ear-to-ear grin.
I pronounced the tough Latin name of a medicine with difficulty and said, “I don’t know its meaning.”
He smiled kindly and said, “Me too but I know this much—every grandmotherly, insignificant, local medicine has a very long Latin name.”
I said, “Does it cure cold?”
He replied, “The throat feels a little comfortable, the nose does irritate a little less. I have never tested it. All of these are patent medicines—received as free samples. But they don’t cure cold; I know this much.”
I enquired, “Then why did you say that you have medicines for cold?”
He answered, “I’m still saying I have medicines but I’ve never said that they cure cold.”
I realized that Germany was the land of Kant and Hegel. I said, “Aw.”
The doctor whispered, “Please learn another theory now. If you find that a disease has many kinds of medicines, please understand that it is an incurable illness.”
By that time I have started sneezing again. My nose and eyes were no longer the Rhine and the Oder but were the Padma and the Meghna. The doctor pushed a couple of dozens of paper handkerchiefs and a waste-paper basket toward me. After getting over the attack I cursed the German cold to my heart’s content.
I could see that the doctor was smiling softly at me.
May be there was a little sign of annoyance on my face. He said, “Cough and cold have qualities too.”
I replied, “Kochu-haati-ghonta.” (Bengali swear word)
He said, “Please translate.”
I said, “I don’t know the Latin of kochu (an edible root). Haati is elephant and ghonta is bell.”
“Leave it. These are swear words.”
He looked toward the sky and said, “Strange language. How can elephant and bells be swear words? Will you listen to a story of mine? Along with hot brandy?”
I said, “Let the first one continue. Mixing is not good.”
The doctor began.
“I studied medicine in Berlin. After three years of practice one day I went to the railway station to see off a friend. While returning I entered the station restaurant to have brandy.
“I stood still immediately after my entrance. I saw an excellent beauty in one corner. Very ordinary dress—can call her poor—and perhaps that was why she looked stunning. Have you seen the North Sea? Then you would understand how blue its water looked just before evening—the beauty’s eyes looked like that. Have you been to southern Italy? No? Only then you would know how beautiful silvery butterflies look in golden sunlight. Her blonde hair looked like that. Have you seen the Deneuve river? No. Then all my words of description are in vain.”
I said, “Please carry on. I have absolutely no difficulty in appreciation.”
“No. Let it be. I don’t like describing in such a manner. We are doctors, ignorant as regards language. I could master only one description after much effort—if you don’t understand that my sorrow is boundless.”
I was alarmed. “Please don’t disappoint me.”
“Then let the three-legged race continue. Her face was as serene and calm as the Deneuve. Although, you know, the Deneuve is not a shallow river. And have you seen the point of emergence of the Deneuve? No. Then you would see how young Deneuve is busy to cover her own body—wriggling like a shy girl. This girl’s face showed a hesitant air of shyness.
“I would like to put stress especially on this coyness. Because you have certainly noticed that whatever we understand as coyness is found in the old stories of the Middle Age. Beatrice smiled shyly at Dante—we imagine but this is not available today in the city of Berlin. Gone is the chivalry of the medieval knights and while going they took away all shyness and bashfulness from the face of the girls.
“But I am sure this sweet thing is certainly seen in your land, and more certainly, people there fall in love at first sight, without thinking about the past or the future. That is why you would believe this but I still could not, how I thought that I must get this girl.
“Why didn’t you smile? That made me understand that you are well-informed and that you believe me; but Germans laugh when they hear about this situation of mine. And why shouldn’t they? I don’t know her, I have not seen her before; maybe the girl is less educated than an office boy, maybe she sells beer to drunkards to earn money or it is even possible that she is married. Without enquiring about any of these facts, I decided in one swing that I couldn’t do without this girl. Am I an eccentric Chenghiz Khan or a Don Juan of a thousand love affairs?
“I was thinking and pulling out my hair—how, on what ground, I could talk to her.
“I couldn’t figure out how I could reach her by crossing the turbulent sea of three small tables between us. A proverb says that fools become wise when in love—his tricks and discoveries, his strategies to win his sweetheart surprise others, and intelligent men become very stupid when they fall in love—he behaves so strangely that people find it hard to believe how a man like him can behave thus!
“That day I first discovered in life that I was intelligent because I went on thinking for a full hour but still couldn’t figure a way to talk to her. But this lovely discovery didn’t please me at all. If I were rather a stupid, maybe I could think of a plan.
“Fraulein got up. What to do? I followed her. She entered the train going to Munich. I rushed to buy a ticket for Munich. But on boarding the train I saw that all the eight seats of that compartment were filled. That was a solid proof that I was intelligent because everyone knows that if God helps the intelligent, the stupid won’t survive in this world. I got no help from God.”
I interrupted, “Why are you blaming God? This is Cupid’s department.”
He retorted, “What do I gain then? He is blind. Has made the girl blind like him. Here was I such a dashing Apollo and she didn’t even look at me. If I prayed to Cupid it would be …”
I replied, “Kochu, haati, ghonta.”
This time the doctor realized the significance of the Bangla swear words. “Aha-ha-ha,” he said. Then in German pronunciation he uttered, “Koshu, haati, ghonta. Wonderful swear words.”
I said, “The compartment had eight seats. So what? No rules while travelling! You could somehow push and …”
He replied, “You are surprising me. Is it your Indian train or a Siberia-bound prisoner van? The ticket-checker would turn me out immediately!
“I stood still in the outside corridor. Would the girl go to the dining room? She had only coffee in the station. Hours passed, so many people entered the compartment or got down from it but nobody got down from my heaven. All of them were certainly going to Munich. Couldn’t they go elsewhere? Was Munich the land of the fairies or were its roads made of gold? The idiots surprised me.
“If you are in love there is no hunger or thirst. Maybe you can ignore hunger or thirst for one meal in the day only. I had no lunch whereas it was dinner time—my stomach was burning. Then Mother Mary got kind. The girl proceeded toward the dining room. I went right after her. Aha, if she lost balance and fell on me! No way, even that was not possible—high heels could make her fall due to train’s speed but her shoes had crape soles.
“I followed her into the dining room. The waiter thought we were husband and wife. Otherwise why would a young man and a young woman enter the dining room with grim faces? They sat at the same table—face to face. O Mother Mary, a hundred candles for you in the Notre Dame Church! Be kind, Mother, show me a way to start talking.
“Intelligent, intelligent, I am intelligent without doubt. I found no way out although the girl was two feet away from me and sitting face to face. It could be ten lakh miles instead of two feet—no difference.
“A burst of coal dust came through the window and fell on our table. The girl twisted her eyebrows to look at the window and then I quickly tried to close it but ended up doing something else. The window suddenly fell on my thumb and smashed it. Blood gushed out.
“I thanked Mother Mary because it happened. The girl sprang to her feet, ‘Wait, I am getting a bandage.’
“I am a doctor myself. Think of the situation. I pressed my thumb with my handkerchief. The girl ran to her compartment and rushed back with first aid bandage. Then she dressed my finger in the correct medical way. I understood that she was a student of the medical college. An experienced doctor would not carry first aid bandage and inexperienced people would not know how to bandage a wound.
“I was uttering ‘No, no’ ‘Why you? For nothing’ ‘Thanks, thanks’ ‘Uh! It hurts’ ‘This is enough’ ‘Fine, done’ and getting the touch of that lily-white hand. What sort of silky hands, do you know? I am telling you; have you been to Rhineland? No? Let it go, I forgot that I have promised not to describe anything to you.
“The first touch electrifies you, don’t they say so? Very true. I am a doctor, my hands are not supposed to be very sensitive, yet I felt such excitement! How do I make you understand? The girl perhaps felt it because once she gave me a quick glance, raising her head, stopping to wrap the bandage around.
“There was surprise, along with a question in her mind and a small bit of happiness. Was it the touch of my hand? How do I believe that?”
“You win yet fear is there,
Alas! Frightened love!”
The doctor said, “Lovely melody. Please tell me the meaning.”
I replied, “After you. Please complete the story.”
He said, “Not a story, Sir; a matter of life and death.”
I asked, “Why? You were fearing of going septic?”
He pretended to be angry and said, “Have you lost your sense of humor after coming to Europe? I was struck by Cupid’s arrow and you are asking about anti-septic!”
I said, “Please forgive me.”
He said, “Then once I got my chance, I started to talk on various topics. Goal, goal! I hid the fact that I was dying to know her. At the same time, I pushed forward the bottle of salt, removed the cruet at times, and said, ‘The fish has been fried well, please have a piece; waiter, this way, please,’ etc.
“Thus I softened the heart of the beauty a bit and I got a little hopeful.
“The girl was shy but very polite. She listened to my babbling attentively, blushed once or twice, oh so pinkish—did you, okay, let it go.
“But she only ate an omelet and two slices of bread. Must be poor. My faint hope got powerful.”
The doctor’s assistant entered at this time to say that there was a patient. The doctor told him, “I am coming right now.”
He returned and without any introduction said, “I got down at Munich with no luggage. I pretended that I was disappearing to clear my luggage from the van. When I thrust my hand forward saying good-bye, she looked at me once. I heard that people in love grow wings—true but I am sure people then can read new languages in your eyes or face for which they don’t need to memorize any grammar. But that learning is not without mistakes or accidents.
“I saw ‘sorrow’ written on her face but read, ‘Is it the last time?’
I too asked with surprise, “You went all the way to Munich from Berlin, then why did you give up at the station?”
The doctor gave a wry smile. “Not at all but what was the necessity of following her? She was a medical student. That was enough.
“On that very day I went to the medical college restaurant. She must come to have her lunch. This time the girl could not hide her emotion behind her shyness. The moment she saw me she got up unknowingly and extended her hand toward me. And at the same time, she was so happy that I had no doubt that God helped the intelligent too at times.
“By that time the girl had controlled her ‘little girl lost’ emotions—shyness has engulfed her full face.”
The doctor thought for a while and then said, “I wish I could end here but that won’t solve the cold and cough problem. So I would reduce the story and quickly finish it.”
I said, “Don’t reduce it. Just increase the pace a bit. The classical musicians of our country first sing in a delayed short measure, then finish the song in a quick long measure.”
The doctor continued, “A sad girl. Parents dead. Was brought up by a tyrannical paternal aunt. Simple food and a few clothes—nothing more. Even her college fees she paid from her tuition salary.
“I have nothing against that but I am dead against the hawk eyes of the old aunt, whose close watch has turned her into a frightened deer, always looking to her right and left, as if her aunt was seeing her talking to an unknown young man. I revolted—is it the harem of Bokhara or the jenana of a Turkish Pasha? I won’t tolerate this oppression. Eva takes my hand into hers and says, please, please, tolerate this a bit, I don’t want to lose you. She never said anything more than that.
“It took me a full month to reach that house. Consider this. Seven days to declare my love. Fifteen days to touch her hand. After a week more she told me why she looked to her right and left in fright.
“Let alone cinema or theater, she doesn’t even agree to go out into the street with me, lest her aunt should see us. One day I couldn’t resist asking: does your aunt have quintuplets? So that they are in all strategic points of Munich watching you? Her reply is a frightened ‘please, please’.
“Whatever words we exchanged, the closest we got to each other was in the college restaurant. There the crowd is like fish in a sardine tin. Lots of chairs but no way I can put my hand on hers. If anyone sees us!”
“The sea of nectar is in front of you,
Alas! The eye can’t reach it,
How to remove the hurdle of this mist.”
The doctor said, “Meaning, please.”
I replied, “Please proceed, I shall explain later.”
The doctor went ahead:
“Right in the middle of that crowd or in the corridors we talked. In the corridors we could talk more freely but I preferred the rush of the restaurant because there once in a while, by chance, Eva pressed my feet with her small shoe.
“How do I explain the sweetness of that act? Later I came to know Eva closely but that pressing of the shoe told me a whole lot, gave me high hopes—how do I explain that?
“Maybe a young student known to her came and smilingly talked to her. Very harmless but I would get green in envy. My hands on the table started trembling, I am losing control—
“Then comes the light pressing of the feet.
All doubt gone, all sorrows disappear.”
The doctor went on, “So my pain and sorrow knew no bounds. In this big Munich city millions of young men and women were opening out their hearts, touching and giving company to each other to gain the strength and fight the cruel world, and in the midst of all this I could do nothing to draw Eva close to me even once.
“Finally I couldn’t tolerate the situation anymore and returned to Berlin without telling Eva. From there I wrote, ‘The sorrow of being near you but not getting you was impossible for me to bear—my nerves are fully gone. I could not take leave from you—your sad face would destroy all my strength to return.”
I interrupted, “You are great, Sir. But, yes, it was your Nietzsche who has said—if you are not tough, you don’t get love.”
The doctor replied, “It is the opposite. If I could be tough I would not escape from Munich. Fleeing is not what a hero does. Anyway leave it.
“Her reply came immediately. I have read that letter so many times that I have memorized even its full stops and commas. And more important than that the content of that letter I found completely unbelievable.
“In your country nothing is beyond belief–the elephant regularly picks the beggar and turns him into a king. But Germany has no such tradition. The letter said:
“I won’t write much—I find it unbearable too. So I have decided that we shall meet secretly according to your wish. Then we shall part! As long as Aunt is there I find no other way. Please wait for me on the footpath in front of our house on coming Wednesday. I shall bring you to my room.”
The doctor continued, “Can you believe it? The girl who won’t go out of the college restaurant with me in fear of her aunt is calling me to her room!”
I said, “Radha would get senseless on seeing even a sketch of the snake before falling in the sea of love. Later she would catch the hood of the serpent with her own hand while going to meet Krishna because she was afraid that in the light of the hood someone may see her.”
The doctor said, “Right. But I have not read Radha’s story of love. Let it go.
“I arrived in Munich on Wednesday and it was almost evening. I was covered with coal dust and I entered a public bath to wash myself. Sat on the tub, rubbed my whole body vigorously and came out red like a prawn boiled in hot water. There was not much time in hand. Yet I knew that getting out of a hot tub abruptly into the cold meant that you would immediately catch cold. I could do without the bath—I understood that after getting on the road. But it was no use regretting then. I proceeded toward Eva’s residence in that December cold—depending on Mother Mary that this time I won’t catch cold.”
I said, ‘We in Bangla say—let us swing in the name of Durga.”
The doctor continued, “At 11-30pm, I stood on the road in front of Eva’s house. Temperature was below zero degrees, in your crazy Fahrenheit’s scale much below thirty two degrees. One foot snow on the road. Sky clouded and the frost and dew which surrounded me could be compared to locking me in a refrigerator.
“It was not even three minutes when the attack came—not rain but cold. At the same time I sneezed like the bursting of dynamites. Your today’s cold is nothing in comparison, meaning two and a half drops of water with a pinch of snuff. Mine was sneezing and water, water and sneezing.
“What to do, what to do—I was thinking. Right then Eva came quietly and took my hand–you don’t hear footsteps on snow. On top of that she had those crape-sole shoes on–the only pair the poor girl had!
“Without saying a word she took me with her. After opening the flat door, she proceeded a few yards through the corridor to her room. Quietly she put me inside her room, shut the door and stood in front of me head down.
“Eva’s pink face turned yellow like Dutch cheese, her bright red lips became deep purple-blue in fear, in excitement.
“And immediately began my dynamite-bursting sneezing.
“Eva got hold of me and pushed my head into the bed. Put all the quilts and a pillow on my head. I understood why; if auntie in the next room heard this, hell will break loose. I was trying my best to control my sneezes and was bursting bomb-shells under the quilts.
“Can’t say how long it lasted. The sound of sneezing was not to stop. Eva was putting on the quilts again and again, I was almost suffocated but my whole body was in thrill, in deep joy–the pressing of Eva’s hands.
“Right then there were pushes on the door and shouted a female voice, ‘Open the door!’
“No use hiding anymore. I got out from inside the quilts. Eva was almost fainting in fear, she has fallen on the bed.
“I opened the door. An old lady looking like a vulture entered the room and without looking at me told Eva, ‘Tomorrow morning you will leave this house.’
“After that the harsh words she had used I don’t remember anymore: ‘I hate it’, ‘scandal’, ‘unknown man in the bedroom’, ‘behaving like a street girl’, etc. The old lady didn’t look at me, abused her continuously as if a six-yard piano was being fingered from one end to the other.
“I could take it no further. Grabbed the old lady’s arms with my hands and said, ‘My name is Peter Selbach. I am a doctor in Berlin. I am a gentleman’s son. I want to marry your niece.’
The doctor continued, “I swear by Mary, I didn’t propose to Eva till then in fear of being rejected. I have waited for us to get closer. Even today I don’t understand how the proposal of marriage then got out of my mouth.
“Auntie looked foolishly at me—her mouth was wide open. She took full two minutes to understand the matter. After that her face was radiant with the first surge of happiness. That was uglier. Face wrinkled, cheeks uneven, features broken, lips deformed.
“She embraced me and said something that I didn’t fully understand. Then she left me and rushed toward the corridor. She was calling someone at the top of her voice.
“Eva was still senseless.
“The old lady returned with the old man. He understood it at once. On his face was happiness and fear–the fear which was always there on Eva’s face. I felt that the aunt’s terrible authority kept everyone in the house in fear.
“I realized that the old man was happy as Eva was freeing herself from the torture of this house. Alas! He had no relief.”
The doctor went on, “We had midnight wine and champagne. Sausage and cutlet came from the hotel. Lot of noise. Eva had regained her consciousness. The old man was drinking champagne like water. The old lady was drunk after only one glass. She grabbed me and cried and remembered Eva’s father—brother would be so happy if he was alive.
“And Eva? Only once she whispered into my ears, ‘My first champagne. Please keep an eye on me.”
The doctor wanted to say more in enthusiasm when slowly the door opened and entered a beautiful lady–yes, a beauty indeed!
Within a moment I could see the deep blue waters of the North Sea, the silvery butterflies in the golden sunshine of southern Italy, the picture of the calm and quiet Deneuve, the shy body rhythm of the same Deneuve, the greenery and the fascinating magic of Rhineland.
And with what a shy smile she extended her hand toward me!
I kissed the tip of her flowery fingers in the French style, head down, and said silently,
‘Long live cough and cold,
Thou be immortal.’
Junaidul Haque writes fiction and essays in Bangla and English. He has published two novels, four volumes of short stories and two volumes of short essays. He admires Syed Mujtaba Ali since his teen days. This translated story (original name ‘Bneche Thako Sordi Kashi’) has been selected for an anthology titled Best Bangladeshi Stories (edited by Niaz Zaman) to be published from India.