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The Cage of Bones

  • Published at 05:32 pm December 14th, 2019
SM Sultan
SM Sultan

Short fiction

(Translated by Arts & Letters Desk)

The sickening light of the old lantern is disrupted by the gust of the stirring wind blown from the horizon. Then the dark lingering in the background invades. A breath of air blowing from the trees and their outer coatings has assumed the form of pent-up thoughts. The sky looks grave tonight. The moon has vanished without a trace. Latif stares over the marauding wall of darkness leaning on the damp courtyard. He cannot spot the faces squatting before him. He wonders if they are humans or just a cluster of warped shadows. How these devils have poked in at the right time as if snuffling about in the air! When he got down from the launch this morning, no one showed up. He himself had to carry the entire luggage heavy with bottles and glasses inside. How shameful, he thought, to carry all those loads before his Dhakaite pals! Where were they hiding at that time? Having arrived at Mia Bari he had to holler at Abdul to reassert himself, “You faithless thugs! I had to carry all the bags. Then why do we feed so many servants?”

His friends, however, were really excited about the new place. They got inside rejoicing while he gathered himself, looking at Abdul’s startled face. No one knew anything about his sudden visit. Then why should anyone be expected at the launch ghat? He ordered pigeon at once, as if to conceal his own bad-temper.

That pigeon is now being cooked. The heady scent of the oily spices is floating over the yard. Inside his friends are waiting, bending over the pillows with the bottles set on the table, whereas he is listening to these greedy rustic animals who are quibbling about some silly property affairs. Impossible! he thinks to himself. If there were a rifle to grab, he could oust them right at that moment. But that would be too much for them. Besides, the ensuing nuisance will totally ruin their festive mood. He gets hold of himself. As he calms down, the object of his wrath diverts towards himself. Why should he be caught up in this property affair? What does he know about land property? Is this why he lives in Dhaka? He has kept himself away from this rain-soaked, bush-filled place for about seven years now. Even the yearly visit on vacation has become irregular. On coming here, it never takes him more than two days to gasp for breath and rush back to the city. He does not feel any connection to his ancestral homestead. Nor can he mingle with anyone here. These dirty, vile-tempered beasts are ever increasing in these villages. How does one possibly live with them? Not only their skin, even their bad breath spreads germs all over the place. From their hollowed eyes they will send the piercing look, as if, to chop up a well-built man into pieces. He set foot in this place after two years. Not for any of his own interests, nor to look into some property affair. It was his friends who insisted this time that they should go for a change. And this is the place they selected for partying. But to his utter dismay, he is possessed by these thugs on their first night.

His mind begins delving deeper. He could have easily stayed out of it all only if one of his two elder brothers had settled in the village. However, as soon as their father closed his eyes and was laid to rest beside their mother, they wasted no time to lease all of the family’s property and shift to Dhaka. And what had happened to our father’s dearly loved wooden house? Now they are occupied by a bunch of servants who sit cross-legged all day long and snore loudly at night. All the fruits in the orchard and fish in the pond are taken by them. All the furniture, even the chairs and tables, are mere gimcrack. Dry leaves are heaped all over the yard. Perhaps the cattle are also gone. Visiting this ramshackle house will in no way uphold his dignity to his friends. Upon their arrival in the morning, when they walked in a room, they saw a colony of thin white worms moving here and there, even on chairs and tables. His friends were terrified and said in English, “Dangerous!” Abdul was tidying up the mess. Seeing them scared, he courageously said, “Parul poka—creeps about where rice is stored.” Parul poka: hearing this graceful feminine name his friends looked intently on the worm’s slack moves in lustful eyes. Latif himself has forgotten all those names, those distinct entities of worms and all those indigenous species of flora and fauna. And why not? It has been years since he was sent to school in Dhaka at secondary level. The village has since been obliterated, together with its fields and dusty earthen roads. And these tight jeans, trainer shoes, foreign T-shirts—do they make any sense in this murky place? Thus dressed up in modern clothing, one would surely lose his standing if he were to face so many bedraggled brutes in the steady light of the lantern.

“Chhoto mia, please tell us something,” says one of the indistinct voices, sitting in front of him.

Latif fumbles for words to say something against this frail request. Finding nothing, he winds up turning the question of his involvement over and over in his mind. Why should he be plunged into this worthless affair? What does he know about agriculture, let alone the construction of a dam, which they say is necessary to protect the crops from the submerging flow of saline water? Whether or where it should be built has nothing to do with him whatsoever. Above all, why should he be responsible for settling this? He’s here to have some fun with his friends and they will be gone in a day or two. Some questions like this begin to hammer in his head, which then leap outside making his voice as stubborn as ever, “I don’t know anything. If you think it’s okay, go ahead.”

After this curt answer, Latif wishes to leave. He’s had enough of this. Looking over his shoulder he gazes into the dark. But how strange, he thinks, they are not taking off! Rather one or two of them are smoking biri secretly with their legs stretched. Should he tell them off? If he doesn’t, maybe they will say, “Please, give us some food.” These ill-mannered people have got no respect for others. If they had, they would never impose themselves on on him.

“Choto mia, I’d like to say something with your permission.”

Here they go again. In spite of himself, a highly irritated Latif attends to the speaker. A long-bearded man with a dishevelled face and a handloom napkin draped over his shoulder starts to whimper in a way that does not make any sense. Someone from behind pinches on his back and he comes forward wiping his face with the napkin.

“We’re saying that all the land along the canal belongs to you. To build up the dam, we’ll have to dig your land to collect soil. Now what do you say?”

Anything regarding the land seems so complicated to Latif. He is overly in the dark about how much land they own or what the locations are. Nor does he intend to know. With the picture of a plot of land comes the filthy mud-smeared scum. He shudders as though he were drowning into it. Thus mired in this discomfiting situation, he sees one of his friends rush off from inside and say hastily with impatience in his voice, “Hurry up. We’re waiting for you.” Then he retreats inside. Hearing him speak English, which to them is an ever-unfathomable mystery, they all exchange looks and keep whispering.

“He must be your friend?” A thin voice asks and Latif nods.

“He’s also coming from Dhaka?” Now the man is trying to be familiar, which exasperates Latif. Yet he remains cool and nods again.

“Maybe they’ll stay?” asks the man, throwing Latif off balance. Why on earth do they care so much about his friends? How he loathes this prying curiosity of these lower-class people! Inside, his friends are becoming restless. By now they were supposed to have two rounds of drinks and rouse the wild rhythm of the harem all over their body and nerves, whereas he is having to fritter his time away on these silly talks. He makes an attempt to get away and says decisively, “You must be off now. And do whatever you like.”

Even after the clear hint of disgust, they remain still as if they are used to such bullies, as if their skin has grown to be a hardened shell of some kind. In the dull flame of the hurricane they are sitting with their heads and shoulders pressed against each other.

“Why’s everybody still sitting?” Thunder strikes in Latif’s voice.

“We’re just saying what if your elder brothers don’t put up with the idea of digging your soil?”

Latif finally loses his temper and sweeps the whole yard with angry shouts, “How dare you? My permission is final. Now get lost.”

They get on their feet instantly, making a noisy fuss. Some shadows look tall, some short. The unearthly shape of their shadows seems poised like a swarm of bats that will fly off the ground anytime and start dancing in the air. The stillness of the dark is pierced by their gratified voice, contented at the fulfilment of their demand.

Latif also stands up, and then sits back. The old wooden chair makes a screeching sound. Wrinkling his eyebrows, he looks into the dark and sees somebody sitting still and mutely on his heels. He holds up the hurricane to be sure. Seeing Latif raise the flame, the person moves forward, slithering slowly like an idle earth-worm. Staring at him under the dim light, Latif trembles and averts his eyes hastily in the dark. Was he also sitting with those unyielding people so far? What to do now? After all these years, Latif feels embarrassed to look him in the face again and wonders how he would address. As school chums, they used to hang out all the time. Now what? Seven long years have passed by. Should he greet him like a friend, like he does with his Dhakaite pals? His mind wavers and splits up. All his fun is going to be ruined. No more of this shit! He’ll catch the first launch tomorrow and head back to Dhaka. Never again into this dirty village, he swears. Does it matter whether they have some property in this god-forsaken place where straggling bushes are growing all over. He does not care a straw if this house breaks down. Hearing someone moan opposite him, he gives the man a cursory glance and is astonished. Is this the Fazlu with whom he went to school till class nine? Such a horrendous appearance! He is looking like a cage made of bones! His clavicle tends to come out. Latif is almost appalled at the sight of his sharp bones in the ribs, tending to stick out as pointedly as the bars of a prison. Already bald, his head has assumed an odd shape like the hard inside of a coconut. His eyes seem at first to glisten, but then fades in the hollows of the half-moon formed under his eyes. Latif examines him while a docile voice speaks.

“You recognise me, Sir?”

Latif cannot talk back. In fact, Latif fails to fix it in his head whether the man facing him is real or a dark ghost in the shape of a starving man. He is interrupted further by a sudden gust of wind coming from the north and raising a ruffling sound in the trees. The timid lantern flame blazes up. Dried leaves shedding from the branches are making a rustling sound in the orchard. The scary front yard surrounded merely by darkness sends shiver over Latif. Yet he attempts to wear off all fears and says, “Why’re you addressing me like that?” Fazlu sits on the ground to take a deep breath, as if to recover the last reserve of his strength for the talk. “You people live in cities. But I don’t even get to eat some time.” Then he lifts up his trembling hands, makes a circle with his stick-like fingers, and points it to his lips. Latif is apt enough to decipher the meaning of this gesture. The hunger of this poor skeleton of a man, he thinks, could never be appeased, even if he tore up the village with his dirty nails and ate it up whole. Suddenly Latif is terrified at the thought of being assaulted. What if he grabs his throat and chokes him?

“Fazlu, what has happened to you?”

Latif cannot spot his sunken eyes. All he sees is Fazlu’s right hand lifted over his forehead to make that gesture again. When his hand comes slowly down, making a crackling of bones, it sounds like the peeled skin of a Banana falling roughly on the ground. When he talks, it sounds like his jawbones are being crushed. 

“Something is being cooked. I’ll wait,” says Fazlu. He sniffs at the tempting smell that makes his pallid face look bright and swallows back the saliva like he was taking a long sip of some luscious soup. But Latif smells new trouble.

All these silly things keep happening ever since he stepped down from the launch this morning. Now this irritating presence of a wretched Fazlu is utterly spoiling his drinking mood.

“You better go in, I’ll be waiting.” Fazlu stretches his skinny body over the ground, as if to make his stand.

All of a sudden, the tangled knots in Latif’s head are untied, and new thoughts spawn. He takes out the wallet from his back pocket and looks for a small bill. But alas, all the changes are gone. Only the hundred-taka bills are available. Is it any good to give away a hundred taka note to him? What does he know about its worth? Suddenly a deafening growl is generated from somewhere behind and sends his nerves on the edge. Looking behind, he sees Abdul lifting one of his giant legs threateningly in the air while his ogre eyes flare up in rage: “Get lost you hungry monster. Or I’ll stamp you to death.” In order to find some support in this situation, perhaps consolation, Fazlu looks to Latif in pathetic eyes. But Latif turns his eyes away. Abdul starts again, this time with renewed energy and a more contemptuous howl. In response, Fazlu stands on his feet trembling like a shadow. Latif cannot wait to see whether he tumbles over out of fear or hunger or weakness. Putting his hands into the side-pockets, he disappears into the house and storms into the room where his friends are waiting. First he takes a long sip from someone else’s glass, half-filled with whisky. “What happened, Mr Landlord?” one of his friends asks in English with sarcastic undertones, who then invites all in a muffled voice to dance with an English song. Latif weaves a deep sigh in the hope to bury this awkward meeting, but Fazlu’s cage of bones, gasping face, his bony hand lifted over his mouth with his fingers circling into that indelible gesture and his ever-insatiate dry tongue are all that invincibly keep rising up before his eyes. He holds out his hand for another drink to erase Fazlu and his prison house altogether.

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