Syed Shamsul Haq ||
Translated By Ditio Syed-Haq ||
No one had ever heard of it raining at such a time of the year. It was a time when the sky shimmered like the wings of a butterfly, against the glimmering sun and off into the distant blue – a time when one questioned whether the sweet, Northerly breeze that made them shiver, as if with the pangs of a newfound love, really blew or did not. It was a time when people were full of joy and said amongst themselves that, it was not too bad, to be alive, after all. A time when mothers did not scold their children, even when they broke things made of glass, and when the market would settle long before noon and break up late because, at that time of the year, one was not alone, even at night, one was not afraid; the ferryboats did not stop. For it to rain on such a day was unheard of.
Yet, that day, from out of nowhere, a patch of ragged, dark cloud gathered overhead and a tumultuous downpour began, accompanied by raging winds, just as the beaten clock of the Treasury struck four when less than half the market had settled upon the road leading to the District Board. Wives had just begun to press coins into the palms of their husbands and the fried-snack vendor had barely lit his stove when the rain began. Such rain, that it was not possible to see more than a few yards into the distance. No one remained outside. Commotion broke out, as if a group of bandits had descended upon the town; bedraggled villagers huddled together under the awnings of the stalls selling shoes, clothes and trunks on either side of the street. Even in the mosque, people gathered, as the water from their sodden clothes formed puddles on the floor while the distressed Imam simply sat with his eyes shut tight, and while the great, abandoned baskets of potatoes and gourd and marrow continued to soak in the downpour outside. A ferryboat that had arrived just as the rain began, found itself unable to depart and the boatman was forced to remain on the deck of his vessel the whole time, soaked to the core as he sat, his cash-box covered with a flimsy towel by his side. He began to swear randomly at people. On the sparse, far bank, undecided where to run, a few others scattered pell-mell in all directions.
The rain did not stop.
At one point, with a great exhaust of wind, the large wooden, framed placard affixed to the roof of the Town Hall came splintering and tumbling down. On it were the words:
Grand Occasion! An Excellent Event! A Golden Opportunity, not-to-be Missed! The Dark, Occult Magic of Professor Nazim Pasha, Prince of the Artiste Quarters, the One Infused with Loving-Kindness! The Final Exhibition of the Great Magician who Enlightened the Whole World!
The Exquisite Sporting Prowess of the Beautiful Miss Champa!
Feast your Eyes and Sate your Mind!
Come, Come, Come!
To one side of the placard was the beaming face of Professor Nazim Pasha, clad in a turban. Beneath that, two bones arranged in the shape of a cross. On the other, was the image of a woman enclosed from the neck downwards to her knees in a wooden box from which streams of blood flowed as a man sawed it in two. At the very bottom, a girl standing with her back against a black board, as a man wielding a knife took aim. Nazim Pasha was busy feeding grain to the pigeons when the placard came tumbling down. Shocked, he pushed the bowl aside and called out in fright, “Champa! Champa!”
Two small rooms and a dressing room occupied the rear of the Town Hall. It was in these quarters that the town elders held their private meetings. The dressing room, on the rare occasion that there was a performance, would be cleared free of dust and the bats that had nested there chased away before it was put to use. It was in this room that Champa sat, as she mended a concealed pocket in the sleeve of the Professor’s coat. The night before, when Zahir, the show’s male lead and star performer, pulled the black drawstring attached to the red handkerchief in the Professor’s pocket from offstage, it had come apart at the seams. Another instant, the Professor’s illusion would be laid bare for all to see, but, thankfully, he had noticed and turned around swiftly as soon as it happened. Champa first heard the crash of the falling placard and, immediately after, the Professor’s frantic cry, “Champa! Champa!”
She glided silently into the Professor’s room to find him sitting with his face cradled in his palms. He was crying – but she could hear nothing over the noise of the wind and rain. The pigeons were bobbing about and turning circles impatiently at his feet.
Champa was not surprised. Rather, she was annoyed.
Her father never made a sound when he cried, she thought to herself. His eyes simply turned red and his plump, podgy frame quivered imperceptibly, just as it was doing then. Champa was not surprised to see him this way because the Professor cried often, every day, at the slightest provocation – something no one would expect of a man of his standing, let alone believe. The first day she saw him like this, though, she had been surprised. She was about nine at the time. Her mother would be constantly teetering on the brink of sanity with her father’s incessant yelling and abuse. Champa recalled how she had been out one day, returned to find her frenzied mother, chopping father’s multi-coloured magic wand into tiny pieces as she screamed at it, “Step-wife! Step-wife!” and – lo! There was her father, sitting on the veranda, shedding his silent tears. It was the same year that her father had formed his troupe. At the age of fourteen, Champa was to join in and become one of them. That was almost ten years ago to the day.
She had noticed this peculiar behaviour in her father since then. She had seen it each time, when he stood blindfolded onstage to solve complex mathematical riddles on the blackboard and each time Champa would plant herself inside the wooden box balanced upon stools at either end, with her father and Zahir poised on either side, holding their saws and ready to cut her in two. Each time her father produced five pigeons from within his hat to fly around in circles, returning to him with wings flapping from the darkest, far-flung corners of the hall, she had noticed how visibly it pained him if the crowd did not immediately erupt in thunderous applause in response. Once the show was over, he would lie in bed, fully clothed and feigning a fever. Champa would know, then, that her father was crying. She would try to explain to him, then, that it was cold; not everyone had wanted to take their hands out from the comfort of their shawls, hence the sparse applause. She would remind him that they were village people after all – that they had been clearly too dumbstruck to clap! Her father, however, did not want to take her words on board; he wanted to cry. He would not even bother to find out how many tickets they had sold that day. On such days, Zahir and Samad would lift at least one ten-taka note apiece from the cash box. Champa knew, but was unable to make an issue out of it, for, her father, if he heard, far from saying a thing, would simply hide his face in his hands and begin to cry those silent tears anew.
One time, her father had asked Zahir, whose aim with throwing the knife never faltered by a hair’s breadth, to line one of the troupe up against a board and throw his knives so that they embedded themselves into the wood around the hapless volunteer’s eyes, face and body. The trouble was that nobody in the troupe had the courage to stand up against the board to come face to face with Zahir’s knives. There were four of them in the band-party. Their job was to play music and distribute handbills in town – the same ones who sold tickets before the shows and played musical accompaniments to the tricks. Champa had given each of them her own names – Long-Nose, Snub-Nose, Cracker and Pumpkin. Long-Nose threatened to leave the job when he heard about the knives, Snub-Nose shook his head repetitively from side to side and Cracker began wailing hysterically while Pumpkin lolled about here and there until he found the opportune moment to vanish from sight.
Not to be discouraged, her father hatched a plan. He had a statue of the god Kartika fashioned out of mud and straw from one of the Kumar’s shops for the princely sum of fifteen taka, which was then propped up against the board in place of a human body. Zahir received thirty knives for the demonstration. It turned out that the man had an excellent aim. Not a single knife touched the statue; each of them thudded perfectly around its edges into the board. With the statue removed, it was as though someone had painstakingly outlined the silhouette of a man onto the board with the knives. Even in the tiny, half-inch gap between the statue’s legs were three of the knives, buried up to the hilt.
Rehearsals continued for a few days. The show was to be at the Shantahar Railway Institute. The statue descended onto the stage and Zahir proceeded to throw his thirty knives with his usual impeccable aim. However, much to their surprise, there was no excited clapping, no gasps of wonder and amazement as he performed this feat. Instead, people fiddled audibly with the bindings on the arms of their chairs as they muttered their discontent. What a fine, death-defying show of bravery it was, indeed, they remarked, using a figure made out of clay! He would have proved himself as a magician had he used a real person instead. “Nonsense! Utter rubbish,” they exclaimed. Things did not go well that night; the infuriated audience left in an uproar and there was a great commotion over people demanding their money back. Meanwhile, officials from the Railway turned up and demanded a hundred-and-fifty takas in compensation for the repair of 19 chairs. Father sat, perched on a trunk in a corner of the dressing room and began to cry, alone, in the dark.
The following day, Champa decided to stand in front of the board and face Zahir’s knives – Miss Champa – the Oriental Beauty – who could “Confound the Lightning in the Sky merely by Crooking a Finger.” She was dressed from head to toe in a clinging, black, silk gown. It was as though the cloth had sunk its teeth into every crease and crevasse of her slim waist, her supple buttocks and her lithe knees. Over that, she sported a similarly clinging, short, red blouse, also of silk. Her breasts rose up to prominence like two giant moons, aided by the intricate patchwork design sewn tautly across their expanse while her hair shone, scrubbed clean with soap. A pair of blue silk sandals adorned her feet. The band began to play as soon as Champa arrived while Zahir picked up a knife and took aim. For a split-second, lightning danced across Champa’s eyes. “Zahir…” – she mouthed the words but scarcely had time to think. Whack! Even without shifting her gaze, Champa sensed a knife bury itself deep into the board beside her cheek. She exhaled. The hall was so deathly silent that the silence itself was akin to a thunderstorm in her mind. Thud – thud – thud! Champa held her breath. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. The hall erupted in thunderous applause. Champa moved away from the board and bowed to the audience thrice. Zahir clasped her around the waist and took another deep bow. More applause. No other sound. Then, Champa imagined she heard Zahir whisper into her ear, “I was of a mind to maim you, Champa.” She trembled. She was unable to say a thing by reply. Then, Zahir added, “What, did I scare you! I was only kidding!”
However, even these heroic efforts of Champa’s went in vain. It seemed her father did not need a reason to shed tears. At times, she thought of him second-to-none when it came to childishness. Then again, she thought her father’s tears as a symbol of the entirety of his misfortunes. She began to consider running away from the troupe. In the gallery overhead, women and nannies with children lifted their veils and tilted their heads to look on, engrossed, while casually stuffing a tit into their children’s mouths whenever they began to cry. They watched as a shower of cards flew one-by-one from the hand, as a skeleton pranced across the stage to embrace Champa, wanting to kiss her but retreating in shame at the sight of her furrowed brow. Champa wondered if she would ever get an opportunity to watch a magic show with such astonishment, such innocent abandon, with a son cradled gently in her lap and a sister-in-law by her side who would cling onto her, trembling in fear.
Since that first night with the knives, about two years hence, Champa would get more than a little annoyed whenever she saw her father cry. It was a strange kind of lament. Not a single teardrop would ensue, not a single sound. It had been like that the night before, too. Last night, the show had been on the brink of ruin when Zahir pulled the drawstring that led to the hidden pocket coming undone, but the Professor had not said a single word to him after the show, had merely shed those same, silent tears as he sat down to take his meal. It was as though her father were afraid that the troupe would fall apart if Zahir left – her father, the great Professor Nazim Pasha, the one infused with Loving-Kindness.
The rain showed no signs of abating; rather, it seemed more determined than ever. The Professor sat with his face in his hands. Miniscule drops of rainwater gusted in through the open window to settle on the backs of his hands like dewdrops. The pigeons suddenly became agitated at the sound of Champa’s footsteps. She called out with more than a hint of ire lacing her words, “What, Father?”
The Professor raised his gaze to look at her. His hands descended slowly onto his lap. He noted that Champa’s face was made-up and ready for the evening’s show. All that remained for her to do now was to get into her stage clothes. With an indistinct gesture towards the window from which he had heard the sound of the falling placard, he said, “Champa, I don’t think the show can go ahead tonight.”
A shriek of lightning pierced the sky in the distance – closing in from afar. Approaching them, as if in agreement with his words.
Who would come in this rain?
She noticed that her father’s eyes were red in the wake of his silent tears. Suddenly, she could not help but feel pity. “Who can tell for sure, how long this rain will last? Besides, today is market day. Many from the mufassil have told us they will be coming to see us perform. I’m sure they will turn up, no matter the rain or how late it gets.”
“They will come?”
Champa ignored her father and continued, “Rather than cancelling the show, let us push it back by an hour. Go and get the stage ready and get dressed. How much time do we have?”
Her words seemed to have their desired effect. The Professor stood; took his handkerchief out of his pocket and snorted into it once. “Your coat sleeve is ready,” said Champa.
The Professor set off in the direction of the dressing room without another word. Champa remained standing. She noticed, only then, that the door to the adjoining room was ajar. Zahir was lying prone on the bed there, asleep. No, not asleep, but looking intently at Champa through the slits of his eyes as Samad cracked his toes.
Zahir sprang up the moment the Professor left and said, “Champa, listen.”
Zahir chuckled softly as Champa entered the room. “What did you have to say?” she asked, irritated.
“Such rain. Everything’s going to float away, don’t you think?”
“Then let it.”
“Can’t we take some tea together, Champa?”
“Go make it yourself. I don’t know.”
Zahir grabbed her by the wrist. Samad, upon some invisible gesture, had made himself scarce in the meantime. “Champa, I could turn you into a pigeon and keep you with me. Would you stay?”
Champa freed her hand, “Where?”
“Up my sleeve.”
“Make one, then, let’s see how good you are.”
Sarcasm dripped from Champa’s words, but Zahir did not take the hint. He assumed that her thoughts must have been billowing in the rain just as were his. “Close your eyes, then,” he said.
She did. She knew an opportunity like this did not arise often. Traces of a smile began to play across her lips. “Why are you smiling?” asked Zahir.
Zahir took in Champa’s beauty for a while as she stood before him with eyes shut. Lightning streaked through his brain. He registered nothing but her lips; those lips with their ghost of a smile.
He almost screamed in pain. He had only just lowered his face to Champa’s level when, suddenly, without notice, she bit down, hard. Hard enough to imprint her teeth marks across his bottom lip. It bled. Then, came a resounding slap. Champa giggled.
“Pigeon, hey? How clever! Shall I fetch a mirror so you can see what an arse you look like?”
Champa had had her make-up on in preparation for the evening’s show. Some had rubbed off onto Zahir’s chin. She burst out in laughter at the spectacle and continued laughing as she shot out into the dressing room and disappeared out of sight.
The rain showed no sign of stopping. The sun set slowly and, once it was gone, the people were more fearful than ever before as they looked up at the night sky. It was as though they imagined a malevolent, invisible force had descended upon them to grip the Earth within its bare hands and starve it of breath; something it did through the jagged lightning that was its teeth, the incessant rain that was its dogged determination and in the suddenly descending cold that spoke of the jubilation of impending victory.
Samad lit two petroleum lamps. One, he placed upon the stage, the other, atop a stool between the dressing room and the adjoining room where the Professor had been crying a short while ago. An incessant droning like the sound of a bumblebee began to emanate from the lamp and traverse the interior of the Town Hall. The Professor, fully dressed, paced unnecessarily to-and-fro upon the empty stage. Champa had yet to change into her stage clothes. She sat on a stool and observed her father keenly with eyes of crystal vision. Zahir stood in front of the mirror, engrossed in deciphering the trail left by Champa’s teeth upon his bottom lip. Samad, the junior apprentice, at a loss for what to do, crouched out of sight, smoking a cigarette. He did not particularly care whether the show went ahead or not, or whether Champa married Zahir or an elephant for that matter. All that mattered to him was that his got his eighty takas cover for the month.
Just then, the Four Horsemen of the Band Party drifted in, soaking wet, like spectres – Long-Nose, Snub-Nose, Cracker and Pumpkin. They appeared solemn, not one of them uttered a word. Cracker lit a small fire in a corner of the veranda and Long-Nose sat before it and began to toast his drums. The shells had shrivelled in the rain. He saw to the welfare of his instruments, oblivious to the fact that the clothes he wore, too, were soaked through. Snub-Nose and Cracker took their seats and began to separate the sodden sheaves of handbills from one another while Pumpkin proceeded to shake the water out of his bugle, lifting it to eye-level to squint through the hollow tube every now and then. His was a difficult instrument. Give it too much warmth from the fire and the delicate gold plating would flake off in a trice and reveal the copper that lay beneath it.
Champa arrived and stood before them. She took in the goings-on around her for a moment and, without addressing anyone in particular, announced herself, “What’s up?”
“What else? The rain came down just as we were about to set off for the market,” said Long-Nose. He was the most outraged of them all, because he had had to pick up some speed in warming his sodden drums before the fire.
“Cracker, why don’t you lend him a hand? Do you fancy yourself to be a Nabob, or something?” said Champa.
Long-Nose immediately lowered his drum to the floor and yelled, “Just leave it! I have no need for such expert assistance. He’ll char the shells and all, if he sets his mind to it.”
Cracker had raised his eyes shortly upon hearing Champa’s voice but soon returned his attention to separating the sodden handbills. Champa laughed. She pulled up a stool and fitted herself onto it, “Everyone’s in such a caner mood,” she joked.
Pumpkin, who was a little dim, thought about this, agape, for a moment and then asked petulantly, “What do you mean by caner?”
“What does it mean? I’ll show you, what it means,” Champa bent down to pick up a thin, sliver of a branch off the ground and flexed it like a bow before releasing it to flick through the air and land with a smack on Pumpkin’s back. Pumpkin winced.
“That was a cane, and what I did with it is called caning someone,” she said, “Get it? Hey, Cracker. Cracker?”
“Leave that. No need to bother salvaging any more of those bills. Now, go make us some khichdi. There won’t be a show today.” Champa stretched as if to emphasise that she had not slept in days as she said this. Tonight, she would.
“Why? Why won’t there be a show?” chanted four aggrieved voices in unison.
“It’s not our fault! We were out there with the handbills,” Snub-Nose protested.
“You arse” Champa poked Snub-Nose playfully in the belly with a toe, “Can’t you see the rain? Where are we going to get people to come from?”
“Has the Master said?”
“I said. I am saying no – I cannot do it. Hey, Snubby, put the kettle on, will you? Let us all have some tea. And there’s some bread beneath my pillow, can you go and fetch it?”
This was a long-standing habit of Champa’s. Whenever she was with the Four Horsemen, her words would jump and dance about like kernels of parched rice upon a hot stove. She would not afford any of them a moment’s peace. However, if there were to be no show at all that night, they would not even be able to pay for their travel; they would have no money to eat. It was as though all this had completely escaped Champa. These were the exact thoughts going through Professor Nazim Pasha’s head as he paced up and down the stage. Twelve years ago, when his Master, JC Dutta, returned to Hindustan, he had changed his name from Nazimuddin Bhuiyan to Nazim Pasha and formed a troupe of his own.
Long-Nose returned to announce that the mice had probably eaten the bread; it was not to-be found anywhere.
“The mice or you!” Champa demanded loudly, “Come on, tell me – where have you hidden it?”
Zahir came and decided to cosy up next to Champa as he pulled up another stool, “Let it be, don’t be angry, Champa. Fancy a smoke?” he said.
Champa ignored him, “Okay, I’ll let you off for today,” she said to Long-Nose whilst taking the cigarette proffered by Zahir and tucking it deftly between her lips. Zahir struck a match and held it out for her. Champa released a mouthful of vapour, “What vile cigarettes you smoke. The smell makes my stomach turn,” another puff and she added, “It isn’t half cold, tonight.”
Zahir’s mouth went a little dry at Champa’s unfair dismissal of his cigarettes. He took out his anger on Cracker, smacking him on the head as he said, “Bastard! How long does it take you to put the kettle on?”
Of the Four Horsemen, Cracker was the hardest to offend. Even then, his eyes welled up with tears at the force Zahir’s blow, although he did not say a thing. He merely snuffled a couple of times as he suspended the kettle over the fire between two bricks.
They started and turned their faces around in unison towards the space beyond the veranda to see the sodden figure of a man, standing still as a tree in the darkness, dripping wet. He was neither moving nor making a sound. In the rain and the dark, it was hard to tell if it were truly, truly a human being or something else altogether.
“Who? Who’s there,” demanded Zahir, rising from his stool. Whether it was because of the rain or the cold, who could tell, but his voice came out feeble and broken. Champa stared, eyes wide.
The man slowly stepped onto the veranda. Everyone in the troupe looked on, amazed. Nobody knew him, not one of them had set eyes on him before. It must be someone from town, they thought – perhaps he had come to collect ten passes for the Police Station Guards, or maybe some local leader had sent him to enquire after Champa, to find out whether she accepted nighttime invitations of another kind. Champa felt uncomfortable, but only for a moment. Amongst them, it was she, who first recognised that the men, who arrived with such propositions looked different, carried themselves differently. This man’s clothes were ordinary, yet they fitted him beautifully; was not much to look at, yet they found themselves unable to take their eyes off him. His dark, elongated face seemed to contain within it a still image of things lost and forgone. It was as though he were highly distracted due to his inability to find a satisfactory resolution to the flurry of that played incessantly within the recesses of his mind.
Zahir faltered – unsure of whether he should address the man familiarly, “What do you want?”
Once again, the man was silent. He wrung the water from his thick Panjabi and used the hem to wipe his face. Drier than he had been moments ago, he looked pleased with himself.
The Four Horsemen of the Band Party had remained silent from the beginning. Zahir, unable to comprehend what was going on, rested a hand on Champa’s shoulder, which she unconsciously lowered in an attempt to elude his grasp – but neither of them was of a mind to take notice just then. They were intent upon watching the man, while the man was, by then, kneeling before the fire and warming his hands intently.
Zahir could not take it anymore. It was natural for him to be irritated after not getting an answer for so long. He was on the verge of doing something drastic, but Champa flicked her cigarette into the fire before he got a chance and coaxed, “Where do you stay?”
The man turned around to look at Champa. His face lit up for a second with a wan smile. “Over there,” he said with one hand, gesturing nowhere in particular – which indicated that it could be anywhere. His voice was strange. Like a sombre cloud drifting in from the distant horizon. Everyone went numb at the sound, Zahir, in particular. The man looked at Champa and said, “The rain will stop soon. You can see stars in the sky over there; I have seen them.”
Neither of them had the faintest idea what the man meant by “over there” but, suddenly, they glanced skyward and gasped! There were stars in the sky. Not a single drop of rain, the faintest whisper of wind – the sky was as delightfully clear as a picture.
Champa swiftly returned her gaze from the sky to look at the man. He remained, single-mindedly drying his clothes by the fire. There was something that Champa wanted to say, but did not. The man was so absorbed in what he was doing that she did not have the nerve.
Cracker honoured the man by taking the kettle down to make room. The water had boiled; he took it inside to make the tea. Zahir, on seeing that the rain had stopped, hurried off towards the dressing room.
He did not find the Professor there. He peered onto the stage to find him seated there on a chair, swinging his legs. “The rain is no more!” he announced with a flourish.
“What do you mean, ‘no more’?”
The Professor leapt up from his chair, “Then what are you doing standing here, staring at me with your mouth wide open?” he scolded, “Where’s Samad? Where in the blazes is the band-party? Let the music begin! Why have they not opened the ticket stall? Have I died or something? What’s this I’m hearing, Champa – Champa?” Once again, that pitiful cry, but Champa did not hear him. She was engrossed in conversation with the stranger, sipping the tea that Cracker had made them.
Allah-Kept had begun warming a drum with Long-Nose over the fire, turning it over repeatedly. He glanced at Champa for an instant as she laughed and lowered his gaze again. Then, in a low voice, he explained, “Each of my brothers and sisters died soon after they were born. That is why, when I came into this world and decided to remain, mother named me Allah-Kept. What was I to do?”
“Hah! Can someone change his or her own name, you mean. Why not? Even my father changed his. Do you fancy changing yours?”
The man livened up. He looked at Champa for a long while and then said, “Will you take me?”
“Take? Meaning what?” said Champa, flustered.
“In your troupe.”
“No, love. We don’t need any more people.”
“Then, what would be the point in me changing my name?”
Zahir arrived on the heels of the Professor and started spitting rage like an aubergine in hot oil once he had taken in the scene before him, “This man’s still here, I see? Hey? Champa, what’s all this laughter about?”
The Professor, without an inkling of what was going on, looked helplessly from Champa to the man and back again. Champa giggled even more.
“Father, he says his name is ‘Allah-Kept’! The one that didn’t get thrown away, ha-ha!”
The man was looking at Champa from the corner of his eyes as he held the drum over the fire, staring at the crescent-moon of hair that swayed on her forehead and thought to himself, that he could entrance her right there and then if only he could touch that wisp of hair just once.
The lock of hair on Champa’s forehead began to jiggle in tune with her laughter. It must have been highly distracting for Allah-Kept because, the next instant, without warning, disaster struck. The drum slipped from his hands and fell into the blazing embers. Before anyone could register what had happened came the sharp sound of the shell cracking and, immediately after, the rising stench of burning hide.
Everyone was stunned. Allah-Kept stood up foolishly. Long-Nose and Pumpkin fumbled the drum out of the fire between them and flung it into the rainwater pooled beneath the veranda, where it landed with a loud hiss as tendrils of steam arose from the burning instrument. Zahir leapt up and grabbed Allah-Kept by the collar, “Who asked you to touch the drum?” he demanded as he shook the man vigorously, the momentum of which seemed to keep Allah-Kept going for some time afterwards.
“Champa, I don’t understand why there’s always so much misfortune directed towards me,” wailed the Professor.
“What happened,” Champa trembled as the Professor turned and focused his wrath on her, “Now even the drum is burnt! Do you have any idea how much this blasted thing costs? Even if you split me wide open right now, you would not be lucky enough to find ten measly takas – and, where did this nincompoop come from? Champa?”
Long-Nose and Pumpkin had dragged the drum back onto the veranda after giving it a thorough soaking in the rainwater. Samad, Cracker and Snub-Nose had gathered around them when all the commotion began. “Cunning little bastard, acting like he doesn’t know a thing. Is he daft or what?” said Samad.
Allah-Kept glanced at the drum, and then turned towards Champa and the Professor to state, “The frame survived. If you can get hold of a skin for me, I should be able to mend it,” he looked around him, as if expecting to find a spare skin or two lying around in the corners somewhere close by.
“Mend it! You filthy son-of-a-swine! I’m going to peel the skin off your back and use that to make me a drum,” said Zahir, fuming.
“Isn’t there anything around here?” Allah-Kept said as he began mumbling to himself, unintelligible, meaningless words that were impossible to make out.
The Professor stooped over the burnt drum and began to rub his hands over the charred shell, as if he could fix it any moment with his magical powers whilst, also, speaking to himself as if he were reciting a mantra, “Even a single paisa is like a whole taka to me right now. Whoever brought this ‘thing’ here?” he said, indicating Allah-Kept, “Where on earth did this lummox come from? They’ve put me out on the streets, Champa.”
Only then, did Champa seem to register the stray lock of hair that had been teasing her forehead all this time. She reached up to brush it out of the way when her eyes met Allah-Kept’s. He was staring at her fixedly.
“Gawking at the women, too, now!” said Zahir as he served a resounding slap on Allah-Kept’s cheek.
It was as though someone had set a match to a pile of dry tinder. The image of Champa’s face disappeared from Allah-Kept’s eyes. He twisted as he fell and struck his head upon a beam on the way down. The left side of his forehead swelled up instantly like an angry tomato.
“Champa, don’t kill him! He’ll die!” shouted the Professor. Once again, those silent tears.
“When did I lay a finger on him?” asked Champa, irritated.
Allah-Kept tried to ignore the pain and threw an imploring look at the Professor. He was afraid of meeting Champa’s gaze a second time. Cracker and Snub-Nose manhandled Allah-Kept to his feet. “It’s not broken, chief. He’s just play-acting,” they grinned, baring their teeth as they inspected the angry swelling his forehead.
Zahir was still fuming, “She – ‘hit’ him? Caress, more like!”
Zahir had barely mouthed the words when, from outside, came the sound of a great hullaballoo in the making. It sounded like a large crowd of angry men screaming like lunatics in unison accompanied by the sound of bricks and bats pelting the tin fence around the perimeter of the Town Hall. Cracker dropped Allah-Kept’s hands and pricked up his ears, “What’s that?” he said, his face withered in such fear that it had shrunk visibly.
It turned out to be something to be fearful of indeed. About a hundred-or-so men had gathered from out of nowhere, their faces obscured in the darkness, the street spilling over with bodies lying prone, accompanied by the sound of their screams and pelting bricks. A few of them danced and pranced with abandon upon the fallen placard while they took turns in planting kicks upon it. One of the mob snaked up the gooseberry tree to launch himself onto the roof of the Hall with an almighty crash.
“Come on out, you son-of-a-conjurer! Come out! Where is that knife? Which carrion-dump have they all gone off to die in now? Come to practice your deception here on us, have you – you scoundrel!” – Such were the heated words exchanged amongst the men outside. “Nazim Pasha!” bellowed a group of them in unison, in response to which came the thundering demand, “Destroy Him!”
“Kurigram!” shouted another group of men to the sound of more, collective, angry retorts in response. In the midst of all this, one of them twisted the knife further and said, “He hasn’t conjured himself away, has he?” as bricks and bats continued to rain down upon them. The man that had previously crashed onto the roof now dangled precariously upside-down as he croaked, “It’s me, brother. Me…” adding yet more confusion to the mix before he was silenced by one of the projectiles and before anyone could decipher a single word of what he had been trying to tell them.
Zahir peered outside and took in the scene for a mere split second before running breathlessly to the Professor, “The public have lost the plot!”
The Professor, who had made a living out of peddling magic tricks for some thirty-odd years, was well accustomed to judging the pulse of a crowd but, even he, was taken aback because, he could not fathom why the mob should be so upset. Last night’s show had been splendid and, as for today, there was not even a show to begin with, so what could have given rise to such vehemence? He glanced around stupidly at the members of his troupe.
“Zahir, why don’t you go and find out what the matter is?” said Champa.
It was as if these were the exact thoughts that the Professor had been trying to voice all along. “Yes, Champa – let Zahir go and find out.” A sizeable chunk of brick landed at their feet with a thud and shattered into at least ten pieces.
The Four Horsemen of the Band Party melted silently into the bowels of the Hall. The Professor remained standing, shell-shocked, until his gaze fell upon Champa and he came to his senses. “Champa!” he yelled, “In the room, quick! Lock the door!” Within moments, the veranda was deserted.
Allah-Kept remained standing in the dark. Nobody noticed him. The fact that there was such a pandemonium going on outside did not even register on his face in the slightest. Silently, he raised the fingers of his right hand level with his eyes and began to turn them from one side to the other as he inspected them.
“There he is – he’s come out!” clamoured someone from outside.
Everyone looked up to see a solitary figure looming above. Zahir stood at the small overhanging balcony adjacent to the Women’s Gallery. “Calm down, my dear brothers, calm down,” he implored in a thin voice, raising his hands in a placating gesture.
The crowd quietened down a touch. Just for a moment. Then, one of them exclaimed, “Arreh! That is not him! That’s just the assistant.” The commotion began anew.
“Tell your master to come outside if you’ve got the guts.”
“Kill him! Kill the bastard!”
Once more, the bricks took flight. Zahir stumbled and fell in the darkness in panic as he tried to make good his escape. There was no time to lose. He sprang up immediately and slammed the door to the gallery shut, panting with the effort.
In the dressing room, the Professor clung to Champa and quaked in terror. Was there no police presence in this blasted town? No laws? He began to feel that, even if they managed to scrape though this particular episode, he would be unable to bring himself to believe that they had. They were not going to snatch his Champa away, were they? What hope did they have! A fine young woman and a showgirl, to boot, God only knew what crooked master might have set his greedy sights upon her. “Don’t be afraid, Champa. Do not fear. The door is shut tight,” mumbled the Professor reassuringly into her ear.
However, by that time, even Champa had begun to be afraid. Two missiles came and landed on the roof in quick succession, to which both father and daughter plopped down instantly upon the trunk, as if on cue.
Judging by the noise, it seemed that the crowd had succeeded in entering the Hall itself by now. The chants of “Nazim Pasha! Destroy Him!” – could now be heard clearly. More thumping and banging drifted across from the far end of the stage. Then, the curtains came asunder with the scream of tearing cloth.
Suddenly, everything went quiet. The Professor could not believe it. He wondered whether his hearing had begun to fail him. He glanced around at Champa and saw that she, too, had raised her head up in surprise.
It was true. Total silence. Pin-drop silence. What could have happened? Why did everything stop all of a sudden? Police?
Zahir rolled out from his hiding place beneath the gallery where he had secreted himself following the veranda incident. The Four Horsemen of the Band Party opened the latch securing the door and peered out cautiously.
The Professor and Champa emerged from the dressing room.
They all saw Allah-Kept standing upon the stage. The people, scattered throughout the hall, were motionless. The only sound was the hissing of the petroleum lamp.
The Professor began to wonder if he was dreaming.
The moonlike wisp of hair on Champa’s forehead livened up once more.
Zahir’s jaw dropped in wonder.
Allah-Kept raised a hand and waited patiently until he succeeded in drawing everyone’s gaze towards him. Then, only then, did that cloudlike voice of his begin to resonate around the Hall as he spoke to them.
“Look, this is damage that you are doing to yourselves. You are destroying your Town Hall with your own hands. Whatever you have to say, say it in words. There is no need to create such a stink.”
No one replied.
Nobody moved. It was as though not a one of them had an ounce of strength remaining either in their minds or in their bodies. Some of them began to appear embarrassed, ashamed.
“Then, you have nothing to say?” Allah-Kept’s grave tone traversed the Hall futilely one more time. Then, he turned, as if to make his exit.
Suddenly, someone in the crowd spoke up. Allah-Kept stopped.
“The rain has washed away our possessions. Thirteen people died after a boat capsized. The roof of the mosque has caved in.”
To that, another added, “I have heard the rail lines are all under water. There will be no more trains today. Those who set up their stalls in the market have had their livelihoods washed away – the scavengers on the street have become the real merchants now.”
Then, a group of them spoke together, “It never rains like this during this season.”
Allah-Kept listened to what they said. An old man pressed his way through the crowd to get closer to him. It was likely that his eyesight did not serve him too well. His eyelids fluttered as he spoke, “This rain was not meant to be, son, but what can’t be achieved through magical means? This is the work of dark magic. Your work. I have seen it all, son. You lot arrived here yesterday and, straight after, we had all this wind and rain.”
There was an uproar, “Yes, yes! This dark magic will not do. We demand compensation. Everyone, who is owed what, here, speak up?”
The crowd had begun to edge forward but stopped the moment Allah-Kept raised his hand. From the cover of the wings, Champa whispered to her father, “Why is everyone listening to him? Who knows, maybe he is privy to information that we are not.”
The Professor and Champa exchanged a curious glance between themselves, the full meaning of which was common knowledge only to magicians.
Allah-Kept continued, “Listen. The Professor has absolutely nothing to gain here by bringing in the rain. Rather, if it rains, his show will not go ahead. He was terribly upset himself when the rain began to fall. It is his loss, after all. Today is market day. You will all have covered great distances to be present here. What use would it be to him in making it rain and ruining his own show?”
Nobody had an answer to this. Now, people began to fidget, anxious to leave. They hung their heads in shame. The old man who had pushed his way across to the stage began to falter.
“You have claimed that the Professor Nazim Pasha is in hiding. Lies! He is right here, before you. Look.”
No sooner had Allah-Kept stopped than the Professor appeared on stage, as if in a trance. Behind him, followed Champa. In Champa’s wake came Zahir, Samad and the Four Horsemen of the Band Party. A collective cheer rose from the crowd. Their faces were sparkling with merriment. The crescendo of clapping hands continued to rise and fall in great waves. The entire Town Hall suffused with joy.
“Look, what’s this?”
“A rose!” a hundred-or-so voices replied together.
A single rose in Allah-Kept’s hand. Red, exquisitely fragrant, immense. A second ago, the rose had been nowhere. He had not put his hand near his pocket even once, yet nobody wondered how it, then, came to be in his hand. It was as if it had been there with him all along. Then, Allah-Kept gently touched the crescent of hair dangling from Champa’s forehead and produced another rose.
The crowd clapped. Louder, this time. Champa was startled. What was this? Her entire body surrounded by the scent of roses within an instant. Eyes wide, enchanted, she continued looking at Allah-Kept.
Then, Allah-Kept went over to stand by the Professor. The Professor attempted an embarrassed laugh. “You, too, have many roses with you,” he said, “Give them to me. The people have come from afar. They will be happy. Only then will they know that you wish them no harm.” The Professor began to protest. How could those roses come from his pocket?
“Forgive me,” said Allah-Kept as he reached into the Professor’s pocket and produced a fistful of roses. Bright, crimson, roses. Like blood. Fresh, as if they had only just arrived from the garden. The entire stage swilled with cloying fragrance. Allah-Kept’s face beamed like the moon.
Suddenly, the man appeared to go round the bend. He was like a maniac. Wherever he placed his frenzied hands, would appear rose upon rose. He began to fling them into the crowd. A hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred, hundreds-upon- hundreds. Roses without end. Chairs, stools, doors, hair, ears, sleeves, floors – roses began streaming out from every imaginable place. He waded into the crowd and began touching people and, from them, too, appeared yet more roses. Hands filled to the brim, pockets overflowing and spilling over, the entire Hall began to thrum with the fragrance. It continued, unabated. Allah-Kept’s fingers worked at lightning-speed, as if countless birds beat their wings together as one and, from there, Blood Roses fell like rain.
That night, the people argued amongst themselves as they made their way to their homes – two-thousand, it was, by some accounts. Some said four-thousand roses, at the very least. Before they reached their homes, that figure had risen to ten-thousand. The debate continued into the night, each of them proudly displaying a rose that they had taken home with them. By their account, they had seen ten-thousand roses but, apart from Allah-Kept, not one of them knew that he had produced exactly seven-hundred and eighty-six roses on that night.
People had taken home one, two, five roses, however many they were able to lay their hands on, to show off to their wives and their children and neighbours. Not everyone was as fortunate, though. Not everyone managed to get hold of one. Only the ones that had come first were able to return with one or more of the fabled roses. Word of the roses had streaked across the town like lightning and excited flocks of people converged from all corners to crowd at the entrance to the Town Hall. That night, Professor Nazim Pasha had had to perform two shows back-to-back. Each of the shows was pack, the seating filled to the brim and with many more standing in passages, towards the rear, and in various doorways to watch the sport. The cash-box filled up rapidly, requiring Champa to come twice to empty its contents into the trunk. Samad and Cracker got blisters on their hands from issuing countless tickets. Everyone insisted on receiving a rose that they could call their own.
Allah-Kept knew well that he could produce no more than seven hundred and eighty-six roses in a single day. He knew, also, that dreams, reality, compassion, illusion, matter – each one of these experiences and feelings and emotions had their own, invisible, boundary-lines drawn between them somewhere or the other. Allah-Kept told everyone who left empty-handed that he would give them roses the following day.
People then started to insist that the Professor stage another show the following day. That evening was to be their last show in this town, but he agreed, nonetheless. Since leaving Professor Dutta’s troupe and forming his own, the Professor had never sold so many tickets in a single night until now. This time, he would be able to settle the outstanding balance for getting his suits made by Rahman the Tailor in Islampur. He could have props made and introduce new items and acts into the show. He could buy some ornaments that were really made of gold for Champa, for once. It was true that the allure of magic had declined in recent times with the advent of cinema, but who would have thought that after seeing the evening’s events unfold? The audience themselves were demanding the extra night, the Hall was unable cope with the numbers and people had begun to arrive in streams like ants from villages all around. Allah-Kept stood on stage and informed everyone that he would produce their roses again the following night. Satisfied, the people returned to their homes.
“Mesmerism, that’s what it is. It is all mesmerism. What is the big fuss about?” said Zahir as he crinkled his nose in disgust.
“So what if it is? Let it be mesmerism,” Champa countered.
Zahir had still not forgotten the painful teeth-marks on his lip and, to add insult to injury, Champa now appeared to be siding with Allah-Kept. He spat bitterly onto the ground, “You would say that. With your father earning so much dosh and all! A father’s son chosen by hand can turn six-into-nine, that much, I understand. Mesmerism. Show-off. If I resorted to that, even I could be seen sailing a ship in the paddy-fields right now.”
“Why don’t you, then? Let’s see!” Champa retorted sarcastically.
“On your orders, right? The chief forbids it. If you are so clever yourself, then why do you not show us instead? Mesmerism is for the lower classes. Yet, both father and daughter reeling flat on their backs at the sight of it!” Champa began to laugh at his choice of words. She understood that Zahir was insanely jealous. Inside, her heart leapt with glee at the thought that something had finally managed to topple him. To infuriate him further, and in order to get the chance to tease him a little while longer, she extended a hand and said, “I understand. Let’s go have that cigarette now.”
Zahir grumbled as he produced a cigarette. He had not expected things to take such a sudden and dramatic turn. He began to falter. He felt terribly angry with himself. To top it all, the teeth marks on his lip were still black. He struck a match.
Then, without warning, Zahir gathered Champa abruptly into his embrace on the pretext of putting out the fire. “Let go,” Champa growled menacingly in a low voice. Zahir, however, did not let go. They were at the rear of the stage beneath the hanging black curtains. What followed, in the darkness, was only a single, distinctive sound. The sound of two heavy bodies hitting the floorboards in unison. Zahir held Champa tightly against his chest and rolled along with her until they were both wedged beneath the curtain’s voluminous, dust-ridden, dank-smelling folds. Champa felt as though her ribs would grind to dust.
“Let go. Let go, I’m telling you.”
Zahir clasped a hand over her mouth. Then, just a momentary discomfort. In that instant, Champa’s entire frame seemed to become numb and foreign to her. It was exactly as it had been for the people of the township that afternoon when the downpour had suddenly begun.
Zahir stopped only once to utter breathlessly, between clenched teeth, “Look, this is what mesmerism is about. Will you be my wife, Champa?”
Champa emerged to find Allah-Kept sitting, abashed, before the Professor. The Four Horsemen of the Band Party had set themselves to the task of cooking the evening’s meal. The junior assistant, Samad, sat comparing two lists. This was his allotted task after each show. Champa went and sat by him, “Give them to me. I’ll do it,” she said.
Samad looked at her in surprise. Then, suddenly blurted, “I heard we took that man into the troupe.”
“Over there. Roses. He agreed as soon as the chief offered. I’m not sure whether he’s come to break us apart or not.”
“The way he agreed on the spot. Lots of them come like that to learn the tricks of the trade and then mess you up. Form their own troupe. Maybe it wasn’t such a good move by the chief after all.”
Champa was not surprised in the slightest that her father had taken Allah-Kept into the troupe. Even the thought that he might one day break up their outfit would not have served to unsettle him. By sharing these things with her, Samad was trying to edge a little closer to Champa, was thinking himself fortunate to be in such proximity, was trying to show his righteous concern as a confirmed member of the troupe – but Champa did not notice any of this. She sat and began tallying items on the lists. Champa’s mind was neither there, nor anywhere. She did not even notice when she let out a great big yawn.
Allah-Kept ate very little. The Professor tried to serve him whilst they ate but he kept on turning it away. The Four Horsemen of the Band Party were surprised. How could a man survive on so little sustenance? The amount he ate was not even fit for a bird! Nevertheless, if there were leftovers then Long-Nose, Snub-Nose, Cracker and Pumpkin could eat their fill. They would eat once everyone had finished.
Allah-Kept had no bedding with him, so the Professor allowed him to spread his great black cloak on the ground and gave him a pillow. Champa, meanwhile, had a bad habit. She could not sleep without two pillows – but she had to make do with one, that night. Samad, who stayed with Zahir in one of the rooms, was ordered to go and spend the night with the Band Party so that the Professor could offer Allah-Kept his place, but Allah-Kept refused. He merely said, “It’s such a short night, in any case,” and, with that, he retreated to a corner of the stage and lay down.
Gradually, the cries of the foxes grew in confidence. They trotted in a group down the length of the Big Road – criss-crossing the street swiftly on either side of the bamboo groves with a sense of ownership, as if this were their kingdom. Their eyes began to glisten, like the eyes of a wise man enjoying an amusing sight. The night watchmen had found themselves places to withdraw for the night with their sticks in hand and torches tucked tightly into the belts at their waists. Water fell, drip-drip-drip-dripping from the tank in the Rail Yard. A single road – on one end, Sleep; on the other, Wakefulness. Allah-Kept went once to the far end and returned. Went again, and came back again. Stood in the middle, began moving again, went again, came back, went and came back again.
The hint of a fragrance arose from the pillow. It had been absorbed there night after night, condensed and congealed. A few, wispy hairs still clung to the pillow and they caressed Allah-Kept’s cheek like a fluid river while he slept. The fragrance was subtle, almost imperceptible – it was, and was not, seeming, sometimes that, perhaps, it did not exist at all. It was not of a flower, nor of a tree or a leaf. Maybe it was from such a primordial fragrance that the scent of his roses ensued. Once again, Allah-Kept began to walk distractedly down that road.
He opened his eyes to find Champa crouching above him. Champa, for her part, looked down, in that corner of the stage, upon the man curled up like a dog on the dusty boards. Allah-Kept knew, then, of the source of the fragrance that had dripped and condensed on his pillow. Looking down, Champa thought that there was no man on this earth who could be as alone as he was at that moment – with loneliness gathered around him, worn like a close-fitting garment as he lay in the darkness. That was why, even though she wanted to, she was unable remain looking at him for too long, she could not touch, could not find the words with which to voice her thoughts. Champa thought that the man must have called her to him from within his dream. The deed done, she was free to go. She went. Then, Allah-Kept walked up to the far end of the Big Road, the end that denoted Sleep, and stood there. He did not return once during the remainder of that night.
In the end, Professor Nazim Pasha had to stage his show in Kurigram for another three nights running instead of just one. Now, the finest and concluding act of his show was the Blood Roses. The old picture-house on the road to the Dak-Bungalow, deserted for the length of the Professor’s, was almost on the verge of shutting down. Everyone was going to the Town Hall instead to see the magic show. A multitude of tea-stalls and bidi-sellers had sprung up overnight. People were arriving in droves – from as far as Nageswari, Bhogdanga, Palashbari, Kaliganj, Kathabari, Rajar Hat and Sindurmoti – not a soul from a single village remained at home. On the third day, the Professor set off reluctantly as there was an advance booking from Lalmonirhat to be honoured. There were, similarly, consecutive advance bookings from Rangpur, Nilphamari, Bamandanga, Gaibandha, Bogra, as well as Pabna via Sherpur, Ullapara and Kishoreganj.
Allah-Kept had changed his name at Champa’s insistence in the meantime. The next day, in fact, following that first, rainy afternoon. For one who had laughed so heartily at his name the first time she had heard it, Champa struggled to come up with a new one. In the end, the Professor saved the day. He had been taking a nap after lunch when, suddenly, he sprang up with a great outcry, “Champa, Champa, it’s done!”
Champa ran to him, “What, father? What’s done?”
“The name,” said the Professor, “I was sleeping, dreaming that I’d gone to a wonderful place, you understand? They said it was Heaven. Jannat. Then, suddenly, I saw a garden. There were thousands upon thousands of red roses. Laughing, sparkling, as if emanating light from their crimson petals and with a distinct smell. Like musk. Champa, I have not come across such a spectacle in my life. When you were in your mother’s womb, your mother had such a dream,” he said as his voice took on a sombre tone and his eyes glistened, “Your mother woke me and said, ‘I sometimes think of Heaven as being Firdausi, too’ and hence she settled on that name. For our son.”
“And instead, I happened. What did mother have to say about that?” said Champa, bemused.
“Do you think your mother remembered? Even I completely forgot. You looked so adorable when you arrived, and so we decided to call you Champa. All of this suddenly came to me just now. How strange, you were wracking your brains only this morning looking for a name for Allah-Kept. Call him Firdausi, what do you say to that? It will go well with his act.”
The Professor hesitated. He seemed to baulk at the prospect of giving the name his wife had once chosen for the son that-never-was to someone else. It felt like giving away things from the household without letting anyone know. He looked at Champa, anxiously, as if her agreement would absolve himself of any guilt in this regard.
“Excellent!” said Champa, “What a bizarre name his parents gave him, makes you want to laugh, right, father?”
Champa went to deliver the good news to Allah-Kept. “We’ll call you Firdausi from now on,” she said, “Make sure you answer.”
All right. It is a nice name. Allah-Kept had managed to get hold of some skin from somewhere and was concentrating on mending the burnt drum from the night before.
That night at the show, when the regular items had concluded, Professor Nazim Pasha stood centre-stage and clapped once. Then, he announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, our Final Act of the Evening – Blood Roses!” The Town Hall reverberated with the roar of frantic clapping. “A Grand Feat amongst Countless Other Feats contained Within the Seven Heavens and Two Worlds – Blood Roses,” Professor Nazim Pasha continued in his elevated tone, “Not even the Greatest Illusionists, the Finest Magicians in the Entire World or the Most Skilful Kemals Know of This Trick. One Person in Hundreds of Years – Just One – is Gifted with this Wonderful Demonstration of Compassion. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Eighth Wonder of the World – Blood Roses! They Need no Garden – Yet, they Thrive; They Need no Water – and Yet, they Grow; They are Not the Ordinary Flowers you Observe with your Eyes in this Unclean and Ordinary World. These Blooms, these Blood Roses, shall be Revealed to you Today by my Favourite Assistant, Firdausi!”
The band-party began playing with intensity and valour as the audience held their breath. The Professor continued to speak in time with the music, “Firdausi – my Favoured Assistant – Blood Roses. The Fortunate will Get a Single Stem Each – Take them Home – Your Rooms shall be resplendent with the Most Delectable Aroma. People Arrived from Britain, America, Wanted to Give Lacs and Lacs, Japan and Hawaii Sent their Ships, and Yet my Assistant Firdausi Declined to Leave his Country. Friends, this Cannot be Bought with Money, Cannot be Obtained through Simple Pursuit, a Feat amongst the Countless Feats Contained Within the Seven Heavens and Two Worlds – Blood Roses.”
Firdausi appeared onstage. He bowed silently and offered his salaam to the crowd. The next instant, his hands were transformed into streaks of lightning. Roses began to flurry around him, like a storm, they fell like rain, countless roses dancing and spouting like a fountain. The hall echoed with the clamour of their rapturous applause.
Before setting off from Kurigram, the Professor had had his placard freshly painted by Jibon Ray the lone signboard-maker in town. It was bigger this time. This time, above the Professor’s head, was an image of Firdausi and the Blood Roses. Jibon babu had taken a token payment in name only; the opportunity to watch the show along with his family, in the coveted front-row amongst the Second Officers and Circle Officers on free passes was more than sufficient compensation for him. Firdausi descended from the stage to hand him a Blood Rose that he was to keep mummified in his shop in an old turpentine bottle filled with water. For days, he would stop people in the street to tell his story, “You know, he was throwing them at everyone but, then, when he saw me he came straight down – you can see how big it is, nobody else got one this size.”
People looked on, amazed, and nodded their heads. Some of them reached out to touch it gingerly and exclaim, “But it’s a real rose! That is the real wonder. How does he get hold of so many roses, day after day?”
Nobody had an answer, although various theories and assumptions floated around. Everyone had a different explanation, but none of their conclusions seemed plausible. People would cast furtive looks at one another. It was true, where did so many roses come from? No matter how emphatically Professor Nazim said, “They Need no Garden – Yet, they Thrive!” people would immediately begin to think of an immense garden a mile or two wide whenever they spoke about the roses.
It was equally a mystery for the members of the troupe as well. Where, exactly, did Firdausi’s secret lie? For the first few days, nobody had the courage to ask him. Not exactly courage; more like lack of opportunity, if the truth were to-be told. Firdausi spoke with no one. At rare times, he would settle down to eat a little. Other times, he would spend hour after hour poring whatever it was that he had found that day; whatever had caught his fancy – be it a leaf or a twig or a dragonfly, he would spend his time investigating it as if laying his eyes upon such an object for the first time.
Show times, for Firdausi, would give rise to another dilemma altogether. His hands and feet would begin to tremble from the moment he put on his stage-clothes. He would feel increasingly nervous and afraid – so afraid that his throat would become parched and his lips would dry up. Then, once the performance was over, he would lie spread-eagled like a dead man, withdrawn, like a thief, upon a makeshift bed that he would lay down in a corner of the veranda or the stage. If they tried to give him a better room, or a bed, or some food, or if someone tried to speak to him, he would appear encumbered; would shoot them a bewildered look as if he did not know what all the fuss was about – to expect even such basic things of him was folly. They kept him under close watch for a number of days, in the hope that they would discover some trace, some clues that would shed light on the origins of the Blood Roses. However, even in this endeavour, they came to naught. Firdausi did not excuse himself for a single moment; he did not leave their sight. Once, Samad stayed up all night. Firdausi did not rise from his bed even once. Zahir, the same Zahir that had put him down that first day with his taunts about mesmerism, even he was deep in thought. In fact, he had finally gathered that this was not the work of mesmerism at all – but, if that were so, then, where did Firdausi’s powers come from?
A few days later, once the dynamic of the troupe had matured, the piecemeal questioning began. Sometimes through Samad, sometimes the Four Horsemen of the Band Party, at other times, through Zahir. The reputation of the troupe had swelled since Firdausi had joined them; fresh bookings were coming in daily. Zahir could not take it. His insolence towards Firdausi only increased day by day and he thought that, if only he could discover the man’s secret, he would grab him by the neck and put him out on the streets. Zahir began scheming and put the others to work. Firdausi merely returned their probing questions with a wry smile while looking around him and avoiding their gazes as if their inquisitiveness embarrassed him. It was as if he could not even fathom what they were saying at times. He was grateful to Champa, because Champa neither questioned, nor did she come across as overly impressed by his trick with the roses. Firdausi, for his part, could not even comprehend what there was to be so amazed about them.
Meanwhile, Zahir did not find a moment’s peace when it came to other, pressing, matters. Since that night, Champa had not allowed him to come within ten yards. Her face would cloud over when he attempted to laugh and she would not respond when he spoke to her. He did not gain possession of Champa the way he had dreamt. Every now and again, the fire in his veins, which began that night, would burn with such intensity that Zahir would be unable to think clearly. At such times, he would be unable to relax until he had stuffed at least two to four balls of hemp into his mouth but the respite would be brief and temporary at best; for reasons unknown to him, his rage would then intensify, to be heaped once more upon Firdausi.
One day, he eventually confessed his feelings to the Professor, “Chief, it could be that we’re only dispensable crew, but he could at least tell you about the secret behind his roses. It is all right for us to be on the receiving end of his arrogance and conceit, but the man is clearly insulting you by treating you the same way as he treats us. This, we cannot take. If he be a true Sagred, then let him reveal his secret to you.”
The Professor explained things calmly to Zahir. It was true, he agreed. He, himself, had thought that Firdausi should have revealed his secret to his master at the very least. That Zahir was an old and faithful hand who felt deeply for him, of that, there was no doubt, and that was precisely why Zahir was now reminding the Professor of something of vital importance that might have escaped his attention, he said.
The show, at the time, was in Nilphamari. One night, after the performance, the Professor called Firdausi into his room, shut the door and said, simply “Tell me about your powers.” Nothing else.
Firdausi raised his eyes in surprise. It was as though he had suddenly become aware of all the whispering and scheming that had been going on behind his back these past few days.
He remained silent. Then, the Professor laid a hand on his shoulder as if to reassure him, “There’s nothing to fear. Nobody will find out. I swear, Firdausi, I will not tell a soul about your secret. Speak.” The Professor waited for an interminably long time, but there was still no response from Firdausi. Then, he took another tack, “Look, Firdausi, do you acknowledge me as you master?”
“Did I not take you by the hand and make you my apprentice when I introduced you into the troupe?”
“To keep things from your master is to disobey him, understood?”
Firdausi began to sweat as he sat on the bed. The Professor’s wand was lying on the bed and he began to fiddle with it. He busied himself with inspecting the various intricate, colourful rings along its length. His heart wanted to explode but he was unable speak. Then, the Professor, disappointed, let fly with his final weapon. “I know the tricks behind every single performance in my shows. Otherwise, the troupe could not continue. Zahir, Samad, Champa, they are all artistes formed by my singular, own hand. Everyone here is bound to tell me all. I have not wanted to know anything from you thus far, because I thought you would come forth and tell me yourself. You saved my life, once. It has been many days since. If you will not tell me even now, it simply will not do. What would I tell the others?”
“What? What was that you said?” The Professor was clearly agitated.
Firdausi had mumbled something. He said it again, in the same invisible, inaudible tone as before, but the words were slightly clearer this time, “Then, I should leave.”
The Professor was stupefied. What was the man saying! Leave! He was unable to say another word. It felt as if someone had cut off his right hand and made off with it. The old image of an empty hall crept into his sight – khichdi twice a day, patches sewn upon patches on their clothes, no money for train tickets. For the past two months since Firdausi had arrived, their reputation had soared to such heights, so pronounced had the jingle of coins become, the thought now, that he would ever go, could go had been all but erased from his memory. He had dreamt of going to Pakistan, of going to Iran and Turin, of performing shows in America, of going head-to-head against the great PC Sarkar himself – every single flame of hope seemed to extinguish in an instant at those few, simple words from Firdausi.
Champa, who had entered the room, halted suddenly in surprise. Father was crying, silently. He was sitting on the bed with his hands on his knees and his whole body was trembling with grief. Champa was genuinely surprised to see her father crying that day because her father had not cried once in the past two months. Champa had almost been about to forget this childish habit of her father’s. For some reason, today, her tears wanted to well forth at the sight. She felt weak. Felt as if she had no one to turn to. She could not stand there any longer, could not watch her father like this; she left the room stood outside the threshold in the dark.Cracker had his bedding tucked under his armpit as he made his way to bed but stopped when he saw Champa standing there. “What is it?” he asked, nervously.
“Nothing. You go sleep. It’s really warm,” she shrugged with a wan smile. Cracker left. Then, Champa felt even more alone. She sat down slowly, listlessly on the stool. The last petroleum lamp blazing at the far end in Zahir’s room – the show was in the High School during the mango-season holidays – went out. The darkness pounced instantly, as if it had been lying in wait for this opportune moment. The leaves in the huge water-apple tree in front of the school began to rustle. In the distance, a tin drum meant to scare the bats away began to beat amongst the leaves of a lychee tree. A dog emerged on the street, looked around, sniffed the ground and raised its snout to the crores of glittering stars as it began to wail like a helpless child.
Champa awoke from the midst of a dream. She raised her head from the pillow to discover her father sleeping soundly on her bed next to her. On the floor, beneath them, the hurricane lamp burned feebly with its solitary eye narrowed down to a slit. There was no other sound save the sputtering of the lamp. Yet, to Champa, it felt as though someone was calling out to her, even though it was inaudible. She felt her breath begin to rise forcibly within her chest.
Nearly all of the school’s doors were open. They gaped wide in the darkness with an immeasurable hunger. Champa went and stood before each of them with her lamp. She stood like this in the doorway of one room after another, but still did not succeed in finding the source of what she was looking for. Crossing the wooden pillars on the long veranda one by one, she parked herself there, disappointed. The dog wailed once again. Again, the breath pushed up tightly against her chest. Again, she looked. Then, at last, she found it. She put her face right up against his and whispered, “Firdausi.”
He was sleeping on his own in a room, on the floor, with his knees pulled up tight to his chest, huddled into a foetal position. The pillow had slipped out from under his head.
Firdausi was standing at the farthest reach of the Sleep-end of the Big Road. Suddenly, he began to stumble, confused. He stood in the middle of the road, unsure of which way to go. He turned back and stopped again. Then, at the near end, he saw Champa. Champa, with a lock of hair across her face. “Champa, I won’t go. I won’t go,” he said.
Champa rested a hand on his forehead, which Firdausi then grasped to pull himself upright. “Why do they question me?” he asked.
“I cannot tell. I don’t want to go, Champa,” he said as he touched Champa’s lock of hair. A rose appeared. Champa laughed, dreamily. She held it up between them. “Come on, let’s go. Will you?”
They looked at each other. Between them, from one’s eye to the other, danced the rise and fall of happiness, melancholy, reality and illusion.
Firdausi gathered her in his arms and pressed his lips to her hair, “The first day that I came, a crescent moon of hair fell across your forehead. Do you not remember, Champa? I thought to myself then, that I could. I found the first rose in your hair, isn’t that right?”
The dog, which had left the street to set off in the direction of the forest stopped dead in its tracks, still as a leaf in the night air as if it, too, had pricked up its ears to listen. To hear what would come next.
“It’s as if someone says the words in my mind, ‘Look, there’s a rose!’ I see them as clearly as I see you, Champa – the colours, the smells, everything. I reach out, look at my hand, and there, is a rose. Then, I begin to see roses all around. My mind tells me that they will come to my hand as soon as I reach out to touch them. Would anyone believe such a thing?”
“No,” said Champa, her face resting against his chest.
“You don’t believe?”
“Your father asked me, but I couldn’t tell him.”
Champa lifted her face, “Come – let us go.”
Firdausi’s face crumpled as if he were about to cry, “Why, Champa?” he pleaded.
“I’m sad. I am so alone. I am nothing. They cannot think of me as anything other than an artiste. Not even father. It is because of him that I cannot bring myself to say a thing to Zahir. Set me free. Take me with you and go.”
Firdausi laughed, “You mustn’t run away from your sorrows, Champa. It is from within your sorrow that you must bring forth the joy.”
Champa looked at him in surprise. She absent-mindedly raised the flame of the lamp; turned it down again. Firdausi looked at her ardently for a moment and said, “My roses, Champa – I didn’t know a thing. Yet, when I believed – when I believe, then all I have to do is reach out and I have them. Why do you want to run away? Look at your sorrow – see, where is it now? Just touch it and see, Champa. See, your joy, see how it laughs, just like the roses. Why run away?
Firdausi pulled Champa into his embrace again. For that one moment, Champa felt that she, too, bore no sorrow. There was no loneliness in her nomadic existence, there was no pain or sting or hurt in giving her soul away to her father’s profession, it felt as though even Zahir’s rapacious heart could not touch her in that moment.
The surroundings that were a constant reminder to Champa of the urgent need to stay alive, the countless deaths that she had had to admit to herself in pursuit of that survival, all exploded in an instant into a sparkle of unbroken honour and pride.
“Nobody would believe,” said Firdausi.
“Yes, nobody would believe,” said Champa.
Firdausi saw that Champa had come to stand beside him on that road. He curled her hand into his fist and began to walk. This time, they did not stop – the two of them went and stood at the far end. The wind began to rustle once more in the leaves of the water-apple tree. The bat-scaring tin drum began to beat again through the night. In the forest, the dog slumbered on a dense thatch of leaves.
“I saw it myself, chief,” said Zahir, “Cracker, Snub-Nose, they’ve seen it too. I am going to stamp the piety out of that sister-seducer with my foot on his throat. The mongrel.”
It was Snub-Nose, who saw it first. He was making his way towards the tube-well at dawn when he noticed that the door was ajar. Inside, Champa lay sleeping with her head upon Firdausi’s chest.
Zahir roused the Professor from his slumber and shouted, “I’m not saying with the troupe for a second longer! I cannot bear witness to things like this. We asked him about the roses so many times, but he still did not tell us. Does he fancy himself a great master in his own right? On top of that, now, this scandal. That is it; I am off. Let us see which one of you can make me stay. The chief is so old that he has lost the plot. If it weren’t for me, things would have gone topsy-turvy around here a long time ago.”
Nobody was able to stop him.
The Professor was first bewildered, then, frightened and, finally, furious. Firdausi’s behaviour the previous night had left him devastated. Now, after hearing about this new development, he was on fire. As it was, Zahir’s continuous threats about leaving the troupe floating down from the veranda did not leave him with an inch of ground under his feet.
Meanwhile, the two that were the reason behind such unbridled fury had awoken. They looked at one another, a look during which they exchanged unwavering faith and belief in each other within a split second.
Champa emerged from the room and cheerfully skirted the veranda past the Professor in his room, past Zahir and the Four Horsemen of the Band Party outside with her head held high, a smile on her face, and into the room where the stove had been set. There, she took some ash and began brushing her teeth, sitting indifferently on a stool and swaying her legs. Cracker came and Champa poked his leg playfully with her foot and said, “No need to walk like a tortoise anymore. Make some tea, quick. My head’s spinning from hunger.” Cracker pretended that he had not heard her. He simply stood, gaping at her, with his jowls hanging to the floor. Champa dragged him by the ear to stand by the stove. “Those aren’t ears, they’re mango seeds! God, they’re hard!”
Firdausi found the pigeons flapping about their coop and rubbing their beaks against the wire netting as if to cut it. He looked at them doe-eyed for a moment and then said, “Wait, wait,” and began to take them out one by one, combing their feathers with his fingers, caressing them as he cooed ‘bak-bakum’ in a soft, gentle tone, pressing them with eyes shut against his cheeks as he rubbed their delicate bodies.
Since that night when he had forced intimacy upon Champa, there was a sense of shame in Zahir’s head that simply would not go but, after his ranting and raving at finding Champa and Firdausi together, he realised that the shame was no longer present. As a result, he began to shout even louder, like an obstinate child, repeating the same things over and again until, eventually, he shot off in search of Firdausi to teach him a lesson. Today was his one chance, his only chance, to burn his way through the rubbish and clear the path. It would not do to let his wrath fizzle out.
“You rascal! Fondling the pigeons!” Zahir, who was already highly agitated, became agitated even more when he set eyes on Firdausi. The Professor, who had followed him silently, stood behind him. “Why don’t you answer?” said Zahir, accusingly.
Firdausi looked at him wide-eyed. “Did you say something?” he asked, as he returned his attention once more to the pigeons.
“I’m just surprised by your audacity!” Zahir shouted, “Using mesmerism on my wife. Ruining her caste.”
“Your wife?” Firdausi asked, surprised.
The instant retort caused Zahir to become disconcerted for a moment, but he quickly returned to form, “It’s the same thing. She might not be my wife right now, but Champa’s getting married to me.”
“I told Champa she shouldn’t run away. Didn’t I?” said Firdausi as he turned to face her.
Now, it was Zahir’s turn to be astonished. Even the Professor was surprised, “Who wants to run away?”
“Why, Champa,” replied Firdausi in a soothing voice as he continued to caress the pigeons, “Silly girl, I told her…”
“Chief, he’s got designs on Champa, wants to elope,” said Zahir to the Professor, “Now he’s caught, he’s meowing like a kitty-cat. Well, if you’re going to run away, you’ll leave your life behind and run, you bastard.”
He wrenched Firdausi to his feet with a single, vicious tug as he said this. The abruptness of it resulted in the pigeon breaking free from Firdausi’s hold. Terrified, the bird landed with immense force upon Zahir’s face – thinking it to be a cornice or a branch and began clawing at it frantically with its feet and claws in an attempt to gain a foothold.
Within an instant, countless bloody lines like red, silken threads blossomed across Zahir’s face. He let out a roar of indignation. Zahir tried unsuccessfully to protect his face with both hands whilst the Professor parried around like a fool, exclaiming, “Oh dear, what’s this?” Firdausi caught the pigeon unawares and swung it in a long arc out of the window.
Everyone came rushing at the sound. The Four Horsemen of the Band Party started to jump up and down, shouting, “Murder! Murder!” at the sight of the blood. Samad came and gripped Zahir’s hand. Zahir was panting, covering his face even though the pigeon had gone. “Quiet, quiet,” implored the Professor. His biggest fear was that the troupe would come into disrepute if someone heard the commotion from outside. Champa arrived to stand amongst them last of all.
Champa’s father had become unrecognisable to her. Indignant, with the commanding tone of an emperor, he said, “Take him to the room and get him seen to. Champa, you go. There is some medicine in my hand-box. Samad, go outside and have a look. Don’t let any strangers hang around.”
Gradually, the room emptied. Only the Professor and Firdausi remained, standing face-to-face.
A long, lingering moment. An unbreakable silence. Suddenly, the Professor cracked, “Get out! Get yourself away from me!”
Firdausi became skittish.
“I’ve tolerated enough. Last night, you stormed out without giving me an answer. Now, I can understand where your impudence came from. It is all right that you do this mesmerism thing, but upon my daughter, too? Well, I know a thing or two about mesmerism as well. I, too, can make you stand on one leg for the rest of your life, can make you deaf and dumb, can turn you into a hunchback, can turn you into a filthy dog on the street. Plan to run away with my daughter, do you? After I fed you, too – you vile rascal, get out of my sight!”
Firdausi did not utter a single word; did not protest. He respected the Professor. From that first day, everyone had seen him as distant, as one unworthy of attention. Only the Professor had not seen him that way – he had warmed to the Professor from then. Firdausi had not forgotten this debt of gratitude. His eyes wanted to well with tears, with an intensity of emotion as if his father had just died. Yet, what hurt most was the accusation of mesmerism. When Zahir had said it, he did not give it a second thought. When the Professor said it, his heart filled with remorse. He left with his head hung in shame.
When the Professor returned to the room to discover that Champa had still not arranged medicine for Zahir, he was unable to contain himself any longer. He lashed out in blind fury and slapped her. Champa, unable to bear the force of the assault, fell face down upon a broken-handled chair. The Professor had not expected it to be that bad but at that point, he found it hard even to feel unsettled. He raised his voice even louder and shouted, “Who do think you are? Right in front of my eyes – such guts! I am going to cut you into seven pieces and set them floating down the river, I am getting you married off right this day. Such nerve! Do you think I have died, or what?”
Zahir blinked his eyes open. Pumpkin had rubbed his face with a piece of alum. It was throbbing, his vision was bleary, and still, he made an effort to look. He tried to announce his presence with a groan.
It appeared to work. The Professor began his rant anew, “He wants you to leave for your own ruin.”
From outside, Zahir groaned again, “I don’t want, don’t want a thing. I will not stay a moment longer. I will reveal all the tricks. Let us see who can stop me! Let us see which fools come to see the show now. Am I not a human being? Champa insulted me the other day but I did not say a word. I will not take it any longer. I will leave. I will reveal everything. I don’t have to depend on anyone.”
The Professor was in a fix. If Zahir left, they would be out on the streets. On top of that, if he started revealing their tricks to people – the Professor could not bear to think of it. He scolded Champa, “I took Zahir by the hand and taught him, trained him, for whom? For what good of mine? Let us see what you eat when I am gone. Let’s see how far you get.”
The Professor collapsed upon his bed with a thump. Champa thought that perhaps this meant he would start his silent crying again, but no. From the corner of her eye, she saw – that he was looking at her, unblinking. She was about to avert her gaze when the Professor said, “I’m getting you married to Zahir. I don’t want to hear another word.”
Long-Nose appeared at that moment, trembling, to plead, “The medicine…”
“Oh yes, the medicine,” said the Professor as he reached into his hand-box to produce the bottle of ointment and pass it to him.
Firdausi could not go anywhere, even though he wanted to. He could not cry, even though he wanted to. Behind the school on the other side of the wall, there once stood a building. Only the foundation still remained – it was there that Firdausi retreated. He sat there all day. The anguish that the Professor had caused with his talk of mesmerism was immeasurable. He drew a line with his finger in the dust, shortened it, erased it; drew again. Again, and again. All day. The Four Horsemen of the Band Party hoisted the posters onto the shoulders of the coolies, picked up their stash of handbills and commenced their daily circuit of the town to the cheerful tune of their instruments. The music did not reach Firdausi’s ears. Nobody came looking for him. In the hunger and thirst of the entire day, not one of them came. His lips quivered. He began mumbling to himself, “What have I done? Mine – me – Champa. Nobody would believe. What have I done?”
A cat that had been prowling in front of him for some time, watched and blinked at him with its green eyes. When it eventually picked up the courage to approach and meow gently with its arched back rubbing against him, he lifted it up onto his lap. Firdausi stroked the cat on its belly and tickled its back, “What’s up, you little rascal? Why were you showing me your dance? Arching your back and weaving in and out of people’s legs is all you do. I have nothing with me, so there is nothing for me to give you. Alright, then, you want this?” The cat softened at the sight of the rose in his hand, closed its eyes for an instant, then shot off like an arrow and disappeared. It did not return. Firdausi laughed. Laughed so hard that his breathing stopped, until he bent double, and still, he did not stop. His eyes brimmed with tears with the force of his laughter and tears began to roll down his cheeks. Then, the laughter stopped and all that remained were the tears.
The resentment lodged within Firdausi’s chest broke free once again. The Professor’s earlier admonishments began to sting. Firdausi shook his head, bewildered. Looked at the rose in his hand. Distractedly tore off a petal. Then another. Like that, he tore them all off. Tore them and scattered them to the wind. They fluttered down silently at his feet. When he was done, he produced another rose from within the cracks. From that, too, he tore off the petals one by one. He did it again. Then, as one in the grip of intoxication, he produced exactly seven hundred and eighty-six roses, touching here and there, as he tore off their petals. A mound of petals rose at his feet. When he reached out once more, there was none. Then, he remembered that there had already been seven hundred and eighty-six roses; no more would appear that day. He thought that, whether anyone believed him or not whether anyone loved him or not, there was one, who did believe, one who had not neglected him. In front of his eyes floated the vision of a crescent-moon of hair swaying across Champa’s forehead. He stood up. The darkness of sunset. Firdausi walked. He walked in the direction of the school.
Cracker and Pumpkin had opened the window of the ticket booth and sat there like fools, without confirming with anyone. They had begun selling tickets with courteous smiles, and the tickets were selling like crazy. They could not keep up with the demand. Yet, on the other side of the booth, the dressing room lay in darkness. People were streaming through the doors. The people who had made the booking and called them here were standing at the gates and shining the way with their torches. They could be heard providing instructions and barking orders, such as, “Be careful, mothers and sisters, there’s a pothole over there – you, get lost. Get out of here.” Champa had fastened the latch on her door. She refused to open it. Zahir and Samad called out to her without any response. They were afraid to raise their voices, or to contemplate breaking down the door, lest people found out.
The Professor, meanwhile, had been lying down and crying since that afternoon, refusing to see or speak to anyone. It seemed he had lost the power of speech. “No, I don’t want this marriage,” Champa had told him bluntly, to his face.
“No, no, no.”
In that moment, the Professor seemed to see Champa anew – “Miss Champa – the Oriental Beauty – She, who could Confound the Lightning in the Sky merely by Crooking her Finger” – it was not her that he saw, but his daughter, Champa.
The Professor felt drained, then, as if sinking into a mire of exhaustion. He stood with his head bowed like one accused. Champa retreated to the next room with bold steps. On her cheek, blossomed the imprints of five fingers that were, even then, blue.
Firdausi! Like lightning, his face flashed before Professor Nazim Pasha’s eyes – Professor JC Dutta’s assistant, Mohammad Nazimuddin Bhuiyan who, twelve years ago, had formed this troupe of his own. His. Formed by him. It felt like it did when the black curtains drew apart on stage. He saw himself, Zahir, and Champa. Whatever had remained hidden between them until the moment before Firdausi had come onto the scene was laid bare on his arrival – a picture of endless hunger, of weariness and remorse, of a skeleton dancing amongst silver coins that flew into the dark. He was a ruthless newcomer, this Firdausi, and he had come bearing a Blood Rose.
The Professor rested his head on his pillow and proceeded to cry. In silence. He did not feel able to call Champa, did not have the courage to confront Zahir, and he was afraid that if he went looking for Firdausi, he might not find him.
Zahir was about to call the Professor when he was seized by one of the party that had brought them there. “What’s taking you so long? It is gone far past seven. The public don’t want to sit around any longer.”
“Just a minute,” Zahir fumbled a reply. The man ran off. He prodded the Professor awake, “Chief, it’s time for the show. Champa is not opening the door. The tickets have sold out. Chief!” Zahir shouted, in a low voice through clenched teeth. The Professor raised a hand and made a vague gesture. Zahir pushed him again, “Chief. The public have taken their seats. It’s been half an hour already!” The Professor’s hand sank back like a leaden weight onto the bed.
The Four Horsemen of the Band Party were accustomed to sounding a musical aria fifteen minutes before each show. They sounded it twice. Even then, when the curtains did not rise, they began to sweat. They were sitting to one side of the curtains diagonally across from the crowd. They cast frequent glances towards the curtains and gulped as the crowd became increasingly impatient. When the aria was played the second time, they stopped. The hall was silent. Everyone thought the intermission was an indication that the curtains were about to rise but, when that did not happen, they became twice as impatient as before and even more noisy. Befuddled, the Four Horsemen of the Band Party began playing the accompaniment to the skeleton-dance with the curtains still shut.
Then, suddenly, the curtains began to part. Nobody could make out a thing in the darkness, at first. The Four Horsemen of the Band Party were stunned to see Zahir standing there instead of the Professor at the beginning of the show. Even powder had not succeeded in concealing the pigeon-marks on his face. An unknown fear gripped the Four Horsemen and chilled them from within. They stopped playing, abruptly, unable to comprehend what was going on.
Zahir did not come forward. Nobody could hear a word of what he said as he stood against the curtains towards the rear of the stage. Everyone shouted – “Louder, please. Louder, please!” and a piercing whistle in accompaniment.
Zahir took two steps forward. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is with profound regret that we announce that due to your favourite artiste being taken ill, we are unable to stage this night’s performance. Ladies and Gentlemen,” – a pair of shoes crashed onto the stage. Zahir continued as though nothing had happened, raising his voice a little. “Ladies,” – this time half a bicycle tire and an entire brick landed onstage. This was an unusual audience. They did not bother to speak. They threw whatever they found close to hand, they whistled while their babies cried. In the midst of all this, the women’s guardians began to rise and fall from their seats in an attempt protect their charges, a good few of them spilling outside.
The smell of roses wafted across to Champa. Restless, she sat up in the darkened room. Where was he? That exact, same smell. The entire room pulsing with it. Champa stood. The entire day’s hunger churned in her stomach. She had to rest her head back on the pillow and lie down. Then, there was no more cognition. All she felt was a colourful mill, like a rainbow, turning inside her head.
Onstage, Zahir was about to shout again and try to explain things when he saw Firdausi come and stand next to him. He was wearing his stage-clothes, hair combed and his face beaming. Zahir let out a sudden sigh of relief. He grasped Firdausi’s hand and said in a manner that was both detached and urgent, “Start the Roses thing. They’re not listening.”
A fresh supply of bricks arrived in the hall in the meantime. Those who had brought them tucked them silently beneath their feet. Some lifted their fingers and conversed to each other in hushed tones, “Over there, that man – the one that came later, to the left.” Even the one remaining baby that still cried stopped and reacquainted itself with the sweetness of its mother’s breast.
“Firdausi! Go. Go up front! Don’t stand here gawking,” hissed Zahir, pushing him forward. The people settled back into their seats. A few of them clapped and said, “He’s going to give us roses.”
Everything came back to Firdausi in a flash. That rainy evening in Kurigram, the night with Champa, the Professor’s censure. Between the reality and the dream, he saw himself. He had to choose. Now. This instant. He saw the outline of the Blood Roses on the darkened ceiling of the hall. His entire frame began to tremble. Nobody would believe, Champa. Champa, you must not run away.
He knew that he had spent his allotted seven hundred and eight-six roses for the day. Yet, he mustered his scattered thoughts and gathered them together in their entirety. He mumbled to himself, “They’re here, here, they’ll come, I can bring them, give them to me just one more time for today.” He looked at the audience with eyes wide. They looked on, unblinking, their gazes softened in anticipation. It was almost as if you could hear their heartbeats amidst the silence – “I’ll give roses to them all. Nobody will go home empty-handed. What do I care if nobody believes? In their hands, along with the roses that they take home, I, too, go to their homes.” He returned his gaze from the audience. “The show won’t be cancelled. It will go on exactly as it does each day with every single one of the items,” he told Zahir.
Calm, still, and watchful, Firdausi edged towards the impatient audience. In a voice as sombre as the distant clouds, he announced gravely, “Brothers and sisters. Do not despair. You have come from afar with much hope. The show will go on.”
The hall filled with applause.
In the dark room, from within a dream, it was as though the Professor could hear the audience’s applause, their anticipation, more applause and the sounds of the band playing. He was surprised. The show was going ahead. There, they had started clapping in joy once more, and once again. He stood and went to Champa’s room. He was surprised to find her door shut. That meant Champa had not joined them on stage. Yet, just now, he had heard that tune, the music that played when Champa went to stand with her back against the board and Zahir, with his thirty knives, threw them at her one by one. That same music had just begun.
Champa, Champa. The Professor ran in the direction of the stage like a man possessed but each of the doorways was so overcrowded that he was unable to gain entrance. People became irritated and kept pushing him out of the way with their elbows. None even bothered to turn around and look at him. Nobody recognised him. Then, he tried to enter through the rear door. That, too, he found closed. He started pounding upon it, but nobody heard him. The sound of the blows from Professor Nazim Pasha’s fists drowned beneath the waves of the music. Today, it was he, who was on the outside. He had no choice but to be on the outside. Today, he was unable to enter any more. Not a single door remained open for him.
With his back against the board, Firdausi laughed. It was more of a flash of electricity that had stalled on his lips than a laugh. Zahir drew a half-circle slowly behind him with his hand, then, within the blink of an eye, stretched it forward into a straight line before him.
The entire hall trembled and then exploded with the smell of roses. A shower of roses rained onto the front row. Such was the applause and cheer that even the deaf among them began to hear. Zahir was at first in wonder, then enchanted by his own skill. Swiftly, he drew the second knife into his palm. Intoxicated, with a feeling that numbed the senses, his drunken hands set to work.
Champa opened the latch on the door. The smell of roses that had lingered in her room all this while had cleared in a single, urgent flourish. What had happened? Why was there so much applause?
Then, in the entire hall, a shower of roses began to rain down. Row upon row. Like roots spewing from a fountain, they arose, their fragrance going from deep to deeper. The air had become dense. People’s voices rising in awe at their discovery of a wondrous magic.
Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty – when the last knife flew from Zahir’s hand, nothing was visible in the hall other than roses, as if a maelstrom of roses had swept through it. Heaps and heaps of roses, scattering, submerging – roses and more roses. Up on the stage, was nothing but the colour and fragrance of countless roses.
The curtains descended amidst a tidal bore of applause. The spectacle hidden from sight, it was no longer visible, and yet, the applause did not stop. Just as did not stop the ecstatic crescendo of the Band Party’s tune. As did not stop the Professor’s ceaseless clapping. Champa would never know that, even after spending his seven hundred and eighty-six roses, Firdausi had been able to bring them forth one final time that day.
As the curtains fell, Firdausi slowly came apart from the board and began to sink down wearily onto his knees, as if in the act of prostration. Suddenly, a brief quickening of his posture, as if there were not another moment to lose. His lifeless head drooped even before he came to rest on his heels. There, in pools of blood, lay flat the lifeless body of Firdausi, the magician of the Blood Roses.
Miranda Restaurant, Dhaka, 1963.
Ditio Syed-Haq is a bilingual and bi-cultural author and multidisciplinary creative from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, lyrics and music in both English and Bangla in addition to working with stage and theatre.
Illustration : Najib Tareque