Bengali fiction in translation
(Translated by V. Ramaswamy)
Play is an essential activity of mammals. Evolutionary history tells us that play enhances their ability to survive as part of nature. Consequently, play during childhood is a necessary condition for survival and for being able to survive. Imitating reality, and thus playing with an illusionary reality. Tiger cubs pounce on each other, and pretend to bite as if they were enemies. This is entirely play. Such play is vital to its growth to maturity. A child cooks with toy kitchen utensils, invites pretend guests, and eats a pretend meal of mutton curry prepared with pebbles, and wages a make-believe battle using a make-believe sword. All such play is needed for the child’s growth and development. Physiologists view this apparently pointless activity as actually useful work. Of course, the childhood of some mammals never ceases. They only play all their lives. They live entirely in a make-believe world, and never enter reality. For instance, let’s say the few people who write stories. Among the mammals called man, there are some who even after becoming adults do a pointless, and yet, contrarily, useful act like writing stories. Matin Kaysar was one such mammalian person.
But Matin Kaysar did at least possess the sense that it couldn’t be called a story just because it had been written. There was something real present even within the make-believe world of the story, and again there was make-believe falsity. Some people made up a story, while for some the story came into being. The one thing Matin Kaysar understood very well was which stories were made up. When he read the stories by some people, he could at once discern that these were made up following the courtesan’s instructions down to the letter. Like how in “The New Fleshpot”, the senior prostitute teaches the novice:
“You may still possess beauty and charm, but must squat every morning, scrub your body with soap in the evening, brush your teeth, shampoo your hair, apply rose attar on yourself, wear jewellery, put on beautiful and fine clothes, and be vivacious whenever you speak. When you dress up, make sure the hair on your body and shape of your thighs is visible, and then set out to amuse and delight the gentleman. Maintain a fig-leaf of restraint out of respect, and yet show your body, your curves and all your secret places.”
Matin Kaysar had observed this tendency to reveal the secret places in lots of stories. He was cautious that such making up never came to be in the story he wrote. But he was also aware that his story didn’t exactly come into being.
Matin Kaysar also had the sense that like with stories, among readers, too, there were real and false ones. There were plenty of readers who looked for stories of a familiar geography. They avoided stories of the type or about subjects that seemed to belong to an unknown world. They felt comfortable only when they wandered within a familiar world. But Matin Kaysar looked for readers who were of the adventurous bent. He looked for readers who were not afraid to set foot on unknown terrain. A terrain whose rivers, mountains and towns were unknown to them. There were many stories which were absolutely perfect, very well structured, orderly, smooth, with every word well selected, and yet the story was dead. Rather, it was only a story that was a bit disorderly, apparently haphazard and yet alive that Matin Kaysar wanted to write. He wanted to write a story that made the reader think that he had reached a land that he had never visited before. The road leading there was a winding one, but after reaching there the friend would feel he had arrived in a new land. But Matin Kaysar was of the view that he possibly didn’t possess the capability to write such a story of visiting a new land. Then again he thought that capability was relative. If even a midget had it in him to see the horizon from the mountain top, he could go and sit on some giant’s shoulder. But Matin Kaysar couldn’t be certain whether he was a giant, or a midget in search of one.
Matin Kaysar had crossed the stage in life when people are constantly intoxicated even without drinking alcohol. When they were in fact different animals but did not know they were that. When they kept emitting deep breaths like a bull. Like a particular Greek writer, at that age Matin Kaysar had resolved that he would fasten a sturdy yoke on his shoulder and plough many fields. But after a very long time, it now occurred to him that he had fastened the yoke alright on his shoulder, but he had cultivated only thin air. But that didn’t mean that he had any regrets about this madness of cultivating only thin air. Matin Kaysar felt compassion for those who spent their lives devoid of any madness.
His relationship with Shayla was nothing but the outcome of a madness. Matin Kaysar had fallen in love with Shayla when he spotted her one evening, sitting on a ledge in the roof, putting a lychee into her mouth and sucking it. Shayla’s voice was so amazing that when you heard it, you’d think dawn was breaking. Like a drooping fruit-laden tree, Matin Kaysay had waited for a very long time for someone to pluck the fruits and relieve him of the burden. Shayla had done that. It was via Shayla that Matin Kaysar found out that women had a different kind of scent. It was thanks to Shayla that he first experienced unbuttoning a woman. But all that didn’t take him anywhere. The spell of a woman’s scent that he was under gradually broke. He thought that the struggle to write a story that comes into being was far more enigmatic than that.
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Smearing the mist of that enigma on himself, Matin Kaysar walked all by himself in the breeze of the city. It occurred to him that although he wanted to transform a bite into a kiss, at the end of the day he had observed that it was biting that people were eager about. Sidestepping the jealousy, gossip and cactus thorns of arrogance that abounded everywhere, he had of course picked up the skill of walking all by himself in the city breeze. People sometimes viewed him as a spy, sometimes as a lunatic, and sometimes as an itinerant vendor. When he heard a beggar singing at the bus-stop, “Someone buys and sells, and someone lies on the street and weeps, but if you really want to find the One, come to the marketplace of the Murshid”, he had thought that rather than the one going to the market and buying and selling, it was the man lying on the street and weeping that he identified with, this Matin Kaysar. If he had gone to the Murshid’s marketplace, people would have understood him. But people were not at all eager when it came to understanding him. And so he lay on the street and wept. Sometimes he thought that even the breeze of this city seemed to be ignoring him. One day he asked the breeze in a whisper, “O breeze, do you speak more sweetly to the immense banyan tree than to the grass that’s one with the earth?”
He did not subscribe to the belief that like there were various kinds of cookies in a confectionary store, there were various kinds of stories as well. He only wanted to write a story that came into being, not a progressive story, or a story connected to the soil, or a postmodern story. And in that hope, like an adult child at play, he went on writing, and he published it too. He had no childish urge to prance around showing his published work to anyone. No matter if his published story sat silently like an innocent bird on a tree branch that had no anxiety regarding its safety, it was definitely spotted by the bird-hunter, and the hunter would not be at peace until he shot it and brought it down to earth. Matin Kaysar did not expect any praise, because a long time ago he had intuited the truth that people thought praising someone signified one’s own defeat. So he was indifferent as regards others’ responses. He knew that he was engaged in the struggle to write a story that came into being. But that struggle was waged against his own self. He would continue his journey unimpeded. Because he knew well the Hebrew proverb, that however much the sons of bitches barked, the caravan would move on.
Notwithstanding everything, he had no grievance against anyone. Matin Kaysar was always genial with everyone. Because – who knows why anyone was born on this earth? And so he looked at everything as if it was the first time he was seeing it, and the last. In the course of looking in this way, he understood quite well that sometimes it was better to be the one vanquished. All told, his life was in fact extremely simple, and that was why people thought that Matin Kaysar was very complicated. But Matin Kaysar had no desire to explain anything to anyone.
Neither did he have any answers to the question of what truth he looked for in a story. Because he did not look for truth as if he were chasing a fleeing criminal, with great fanfare. He waited, because he knew that at every turn truth would come to him gently and present itself. He had sensed long ago that his relationship with the world was not one of requirement, or knowledge, but of aesthetic creation. He sensed that he needed knowledge, but as his slave, and not as a lord. He sensed that knowledge was an illusion, a duet of deduction and doubt. He had no desire to grasp and hold on to any knowledge or any truth, because he knew that if you ever held on to anything there was every possibility of it slipping away. Matin Kaysar never held on to anything, and so nothing slipped away from his grasp. He knew that he couldn’t enter reality through knowledge, that he could never understand reality completely, or change it either. And so he had thought that he would try to alter the eye that looked at reality through arranging letters of the alphabet. But Matin Kaysar also knew very well that this game of arranging letters was a deadly one. It took you to a circular maze and left you in the middle, and after that you were neither called nor allowed to turn back. Just like it’s only the bee who knows which amazing flower has blossomed in a faraway forest, the players of this game too know how to look for secret nectar. But Matin Kaysar had seen a bee drowning in the very honey it had created.
Matin Kaysar recalled the hospital ward. The story about the hospital ward was an old one, everyone knew it. It was that well-known story which peeped into his mind from time to time. There were five patients in the hospital ward. All of them were terminally ill, and none of them knew when they might die. There was only one window in that hospital ward. And so it was only the patient who lay on the bed beside the window who could see the scenes of the world outside through the window. The others lay in bed day after day. Every day, the patient who was beside the window described the scenes he saw outside to his bedridden fellow-patients. He told them about how red the sun that rose that dawn was, he told them about how the leaves on the trees had turned from yellow to green, he described how close together a couple of lovers sat on the bank of the faraway river, and how a blue-throated bird flew over their heads. In the dark of some nights, the patient facing the window described scenes of strange ghosts walking outside the window. The other patients heard that description with alarm and excitement, they dreamt that perhaps one day they too would be so fortunate as to be on the bed beside the window. After that the patient who was the narrator suddenly died one day. His dead body was taken away for his last rites. The bed beside the window lay vacant. The other four patients waited anxiously to know who would get the chance to go to that most valuable bed. An indifferent nurse in a white uniform arrived and conducted a lottery to select the occupant of that bed. It was Patient No. 3 who was selected in the lottery to be the occupant of that yearned-for bed. The next day, Patient No. 3 was moved to the vacant bed beside the window. As soon as he lay on the bed, he was beside himself with excitement and emotion, and he looked out through the cherished window. But he was stunned when he looked. He was at an utter loss, unable to figure out anything. Because as he looked out through the window, all he could see was a solid, high wall. Nothing could be seen beyond the wall. There was only a cold, white, brick wall. And nothing else.
Matin Kaysar knew that the narrator who died beside the window was in fact the storyteller of the story that came into being, the one who went on drawing pictures of an illusory world on the solid wall of this world marked with death, kept alive everyone’s hope of surviving, and then died one day, drowning in the nectar he himself created.
(This is a translation of the Bengali short story, “Jonoik Stonyopayee Prani, Jini Golpo Lekhen”, by Shahaduz Zaman (b. 1960), a Bangladeshi writer. The author lives in the U.K. where he is a medical anthropologist.)