The King’s Photograph
Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury
Translated by Akbar Hosain
The frame was finely burnished and was made from the expensive, antique shegun timber. Inside it was a golden photograph. Many days passed. Lots of dust and wind blew over the picture. Still, that beautiful colour was not fade, nor did the burnish turn pale. As if the king were smiling. George V. His saint-like beard. An elegant crown on his head. What suggestiveness in that half-photograph, in appearance, in robe, in personality! What a royal manliness!
The servant mopped the floor with a wet rag and cleaned the wall as well. Then he touched the photograph. Khanbahadur yelled from veranda, ‘Be careful, else it will break.’
– No, sahib, I’m cleaning it.
As the servant rubbed the frame with a gamcha hanging from his shoulders, the burnished colour began to shine even more. Meantime Khanbahadur came very close to the door. Suddenly he burst out into a clamour, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing, haramjada?
The servant was taken aback. Khanbahadur’s anger was mounting, ‘You touched that picture with your dirty gamcha? You moron, do you know whose picture is this? Your father, forefathers, and all the generations behind you lived on His Highness’ charity. Go, go fast, and bring my Turkish towel. After cleaning, keep it washed.
Outside, some more men were cutting down the grass; the sweeper was tidying up the whole house. Boys from neighbouring areas were making a gate in front of the house. Two banana trees were planted on both sides. And two crescent-shaped patabahars were placed on the banana trees.
Majnu, the youngest son of the family came running to Khanbahadur who had been walking about at the house since morning. ‘What do you want?’
– Baba, give me some money. I’ll buy Chinese paper.
– We will decorate the gate with writing ‘Welcome.’
– Good, good.
Khanbahadur was pleased.
The sun was becoming hotter on the road. What time was it? 11.00 a.m.! Steamer would come in the evening. It was a village ghat. Without tide, steamers would not usually come. The river dried up. However, people went forward with small boats. The eldest son of Khanbahadur would come today. He was a reputed young lawyer of the town. And he was also the youngest son-in-law of the District Judge. He would be coming to his village home after a long time.
Meantime all the arrangements were made. The grass on the courtyard looked like a patch of green cloth woven by a fine craftsman. Having finished the work of gate, boys went to have their meal. Khanbahadur, sitting in the drawing room, took his tobacco pipe to his lips and was looking around the room. Everything was excellent. In the mild sunshine of the noon, he felt dozing off. It broke only as he heard some footsteps at the door, ‘Who?’
– Me, baba.
– Oh, Majnu. What’d you want?
Khanbahadur’s voice was soft with affection. Majnu came very close to his father’s lap.
– Bhabi is also coming today, baba?
While replying, Khanbahadur remembered something that was supposedly missing. Well, what about the arrangement of their bed room?
He said to Majnu, ‘Call in your mother, son.’
Majnu replied, ‘Will it be possible for mother to come now? Her arthritic pain has become worse.’
‘Oh!’ Khanbahadur rose. While he was crossing the hall room, he called out, ‘Bibi, where are you?’ From inside, a voice of affliction was heard, ‘Here I am. Coming.’
– Oh, no, no. You needn’t rise.
Khanbahadur stepped ahead and said, ‘Has their bed room been ready?’
– So so. I have got the previous dining room swept and cleaned. A sleeping bed has replaced the meatsafe. The dressing table has been shifted to another room. Let’s move. You will see for yourself.
Bibi made a sound of agony once again, and stood on her one leg. She placed her right hand on Majnu’s shoulders. Khanbahadur said muttering, ‘Why are you taking troubles?’
Meantime, Bibi walked forward. In the past, their family was small. The family members included she and her husband and two sons. Majnu had not yet learnt how to walk. Monsur read with his house tutor in that outer room. So, Bibi used the extra rooms as store room, furniture room, servants’ room etc. Among all the rooms, the best one that was well-lit and had good ventilation was prepared as Monsur’s bed room. She wondered about the temperament of Monsur’s wife. Out- and- out an urban girl! A year had not yet passed since their marriage. However, Bibi understood her simply in one meeting many days ago.
But entering the room, all of a sudden, Bibi burst out into anger, ‘Sharbati!’
Sharbati, the maid-servant came almost running.
– Why is that whore Queen’s photograph hanging on the wall?
Sharbati looked up at the newly-cleaned, shining wall of the room. Khanbahadur also looked up. And soon his complexion turned dark. Seeing Majnu obliquely, he said, ‘Fie! Fie! Why are you making a scene? Just taking down the photo from the wall can settle the matter.’
Sharbati gave a sigh of relief, and taking the photo down she just went running. Khanbahadur was dismayed at his wife’s behavior. Yet he kept silent. Female heart! It had undergone no changes over the years.
It was a story of forty years back. How old was Bibi! And this fatty body at the time was quite unimaginable! Khanbahadur’s beard was so thick and dark! He was not a khanbahadur at the time. Just Umar Miah, Umar Ali Khan. In the bridal night, when the first bed cloth was still fresh and untainted, Bibi, while playing her hands on his beard, asked him doubtfully, ‘Whose photo is that?’
Khanbahadur felt affection at his wife’s ignorance. ‘You don’t know her? The photograph of Queen Victoria. When my guardians were having talk about our marriage, I brought this picture to furnish the house. How? Haven’t I done a good thing?’
But looking at the Queen’s shy smile, the posture of her conceited neck, her figure in short dress, Bibi said nothing. Khanbahadur, however, was not surprised. His surprise came some days later. The photo was missing; it was not found on the wall. He asked Bibi, ‘Where’s the photo?’
– It fell down and broke into pieces.
– The glass can be broken. Hope the paper photo cannotbe broken.
– No, I threw it away.
– You threw it away?
Khanbahadur was enraged instead of being surprised.
– Do you know whose photo is this? It’s not a photo of Rama or Shama; not a picture of any ordinary woman. This is the photo of the Queen, Her Majesty Queen. In whose empire you live in. And you…
Khanbahadur could not finish his words for anger. But it was stunning that Bibi was not shocked at her young husband’s rude behavior in the beginning of their conjugal life. Rather she felt happy having got rid of a responsibility. ‘Whoever she is, the Queen or any other woman. You are a Queen; you will remain busy with your crown and kingdom.’ Bibi won’t let Her Majesty Queen seduce her husband’s heart. After a long time, even now, she would not let her impress her son. ‘Though she is a queen, after all, she is a woman. And for that very reason can never be trusted.’ Bibi thought.
After a long time, Khanbahadur realized it. That’s why, he could not be angry with Bibi for showing disrespect towards the Queen. Even if he did, that would bring no benefits. The photograph, indeed, was not broken. She hid it privately. She even did not care for her young husband’s anger. It was of no use to tell Bibi that the Queen was no more or even her photograph had not the power or weakness to impress anyone’s heart. Because she was the Queen.
Holding Rizia’s right hand Monsur stood at the front gate of the house. The door became extremely crowded. Khanbahadur and Bibi were standing in the front. Local girls came in groups to see the urban bride. Majnu stood in one side. Seeing his eldest brother he kept aloof, and salaamed his Bhabi touching her feet. Rizia tapped her lips on Majnu’s forehead, ‘Who, Majnu? You naughty boy!’
Majnu turned aside, smiling. Monsur salaamed his parents on their feet and moved forward past the crowd. Rizia was following him. Monsur felt a pull on his hand. This place was not that crowded.
– You saw that?
Rizia asked almost in a whisper.
Monsur looked up. A big photo frame in the drawing room. A portrait was inside the frame. George V. The King with a saintly contour. As if he were smiling. In reply, Monsur also gave a smile.
When the house became quiet after the hectic day, Rizia resumed the matter to Monsur once again in the bed room.
– Do you think you are still living under the reign of the British?
Off course, she resumed the subject just in a light-hearted mood as something funny. Rizia’s father had been an eminent lawyer at bar in the near past. He was also involved in politics, though not of serious type. Very recently, he took a job. In her college life, Rizia along with her friends had called strike and forced the authority to remove the pictures of the British royal couple. Just to poke her husband. But Monsur became grave. He said, ‘You know well, father is old and conservative . Moreover, he is from a rural area.’
Rizia did not take it seriously. In an unwavering teasing tone, she said, ‘Well… There is George VI. Or the young Queen in the present time.’
Monsur laughed again and said, ‘Baba became khanbahadur in the reign of George V.
Rizia’s eye balls got bigger as she smiled in jest. She fixed her eyes on her husband’s, ‘Oh, is it so?’
But Monsur interfered and grasped her in his breast. Plunging his lips into hers, he said, ‘And baba got the photograph as a gift.’
Pretending to struggle to free herself from his grip, Rizia said, ‘Ahhh!’
Really that was the fact. The District Magistrate once came to see the village. To see or to do other job, who knows! One day he set his feet on the zemindar house. He was festively entertained with lots of delicious dishes. In the end, he wiped his mouth by a handkerchief. And while preparing his smoking pipe with tobacco powder, he said, ‘We are fighting against the Czar of Germany. You know about it, Choudry?’
The young zemindar became anxious, ‘Yes, I have heard a little of it. By Allah, is there any concrete reason to be afraid?’
The Magistrate consoled him, ‘Oh, no, no. We are fighting against barbarism. God is behind us. But the matter is, war requires a lot of money. Nursing the wounded, building hospitals, drugs and what not!
– Why not telling us?
The Magistrate burst out into laughter, ‘Choudry, I have enlisted your name long ago. You will donate Tk. 5000 in the war fund.’
Later he became Khansaheb. Then he donated Tk. 2500 to the Red Cross, Tk. 5000 to set up a college in memory of some white English gentleman, and Tk. 500 taka for missionary purpose…
Thus within two years, one day the Magistrate conveyed a message, ‘Congratulations! You are going to receive the title Khanbahadur from His Majesty, the King.’
Along with that, came the photograph. Khanbahadur forgot the sorrow over the Queen’s photo.
Sharbati also heard of the story of the photograph. She saw the scene when she came to offer a glass of cold water in response to Bibi’s order. Rizia was hard pressed under the two arms of Monsur. Sharbati enjoyed the scene standing behind the curtain, and got a thrilling sensation. She kept standing for a while, closing her eyes in emotion. Then she called in a low voice, ‘Bhabi, I have got water for you.’
Within seconds, Rizia turned to a side, and wiping her face with the end of her sari, she said, ‘Ok, give.’
Sharbati entered the room in diffident steps. She kept the glass on the table, covering it with a half plate, and she turned to the bed. She whispered to Rizia, ‘I hung a photo in this room, Bhabi. But mother opposed.’
Monsur said, ‘Whose photograph?’
Sharbati quit almost running. Then she returned with the photo. Rizia laughed, ‘Oh, it’s Queen Victoria! You are as good as your mother. I have brought photographs for decorating the house. See those.’
Sharbati came close to the pile of photo frames. Then she hid her face with her hands, exclaiming, ‘Oh, Allah! What kind of photos are these! Touba, touba.’
She was about to flee the room in one breath. Rizia could not help laughing. ‘Reduce the light of the hurricane. It hurts my eyes.’
In the afternoon, Rizia was combing her hair standing before the dressing table. She noticed a reflection in the mirror. Rizia looked back, ‘Oh, ma.’
By the time, Bibi stood on her left foot, and with straining kept her flabby body stable.
Looking around, she asked in an offended tone, ‘What photos have you brought to adorn the house, bouma?’
Rizia became joyous, ‘A lot of photos. I bought them with so much care, hazard and toil. Have not brought all the items here. Here are only a few.’
Rizia came to the edge of the wall and said, ‘This is Madonna. This is Monalisa. That is Ellora Cave…’
Her words were not finished. Bibi watched, standing in the same position. All of a sudden, she cried, ‘Bou!’ Rizia looked back in total astonishment.
– What photos these are, bou! Mamsahibs are dancing in naked bodies. What pictures are these? Do they have nobility, honour, purdha or izzat?
Rizia’s complexion showed wrinkles in irritation. For a moment Bibi tried to feel her bouma. Then she placed her hands on Rizia’s shoulders saying, ‘Won’t you see your own interest? Whatever, your husband is still a young man, and you have no babies.’
By this time, Rizia lifted her face and looked at her mother-in-law. She pondered for a moment. Then, all of a sudden, she walked to the window to hide her laughter.
Maybe, meantime her bouma came to her senses. Perhaps she realized her mistake, the mother-in-law thought. Bibi became happy and relaxed. ‘Wherever you are from, village or town, you are a woman. The married wife of a husband. Your husband’s heart is not a kids’ toy.’ Bibi thought. Though Bibi’s husband was as good as a saint, she still could not believe the photograph of the Queen Victoria. As soon as bouma understood this, her audacity shattered. Hummm… Bibi was not a green horn.
At night, seeing Monsur, Rizia struggled to hush her laughter. Monsur took off his shirt and was hanging it on hook. He remained silent. After moments of hesitation, Rizia herself introduced the matter.
– Ma came to this room today.
Monsur turned to her, saying, ‘Yeah.’
– You know what she said?
– You have to remove the photos of those vulgar dancers and singers. Because…
This time she could not control herself. She said, laughing incessantly, ‘Because… those photos could reel her son’s head, he may be seduced. His love for his wife might evaporate. Oh, my goodness!’
Rizia plunged into the bed, laughing.
But surprising that Monsur was silent. If it were a different subject, Monsur would engage himself in an argumentation defending his mother. So Monsur’s indifference hurt Rizia. She lost her interest. Then turning her back to Monsur, she kept looking at the window.
The moon would be rising after some times. So the sky started beaming little by little. Beyond the window, the nature in far off village was quiet and still. Changing his dress, Monsur came to the bed. By running his hands into the web of Rizia’s hair, he asked, ‘Sleeping?’
Rizia was wide awake. She was watching the fade sky on the eve of the rising moon. Sensing Monsur’s approach to her, she closed her eyes and pretended to be sleeping. For some moments, he kept quiet. Then again he called, ‘Rizu.’
Now Rizia responded, ‘Why aren’t you sleeping?’
Monsur lowered his face to her ears, ‘Look. The moon is up.’
– Good. Compose poems. Do not disturb others.
Her words could not but reveal her exasperation. Monsur turned her to his side almost by force.
‘Ok, I seek your pardon. Sorry.’
This time Rizia became angry, ‘Do you want to make love by forcing me?’
Monsur became cold. Keeping aloof, he said, ‘No, I have an urgent word with you. So I say…’
He stopped half way through. Rizia looked at him for some times. Then she softened, ‘What word with me? Tell.’
Monsur felt uncomfortable, ‘Give it up. You will take it to heart.’
Rizia was surprised, ‘Why?’
Monsur tried to smile and said, ‘I was thinking of removing the photos from the wall…’
Rizia’s surprise dried out. She simply said, ‘Oh, is this the matter?’
Once again Monsur attempted to smile, ‘I’m telling you the right thing. Not only for my mother. This will have a practical side. Have you seen the photo of George V in the drawing room? We shall remove it.’
Rizia felt encouraged, ‘Certainly.’
– But to materialize it, we, both you and I, have to sacrifice a bit?
– That means, to remove the photo of a ‘King for Show’ we have to destroy these fine pictures. Rizia’s voice was almost low.
Monsur came very close to Rizia. Absent-mindedly he ran his fingers through her locks of hair and said, ‘You do not understand. We are not going to live here for a long time.’
Oh, yes. Suddenly, Rizia’s face flashed. She knew Monsur’s heart very well. He was not doing well in his law practice. Moreover, he had little interest in jobs. His wish was to become popular by doing some benevolent work for the villagers. This may boost up his law practice. On the other hand, if election comes…’ Monsur explained the matter more clearly, ‘Let the election be over. After that, we will return to the town. If you wish, give order for photos in Paris. It will take only a few days to arrive. You know, baba is a man of conventional feelings. The photo of George V is like his asset. He was Khanbahadur. If we cannot remove it, public sentiment…’
Monsur was not yet finished. Rizia very slowly hugged him around his neck, and said smiling, ‘I will tell Sharbati tomorrow. If baba removes the king’s photograph, we need not object to remove our photographs.’
Monsur smiled and said, ‘Surely he will be hurt. However, in this case he will suffer the shock pleasantly.
Some days passed. In the early morning Khanbahadur saw that Sharbati was carrying a lot of photographs on her shoulders from Monsur’s bed room. Bibi smiled timidly, saying, ‘You see the manner of bouma? Once you were afraid. Such an urban girl! Whatever, she is a woman. Her mind is not made of the town’s brick, wood and stone.’
Khanbahadur jokingly said, ‘Hummm. Was this the reason why you removed the Queen’s photograph? Well, you did well. How young and immature you were then!’
Bibi blushed even in her old age. But in the next moment, Khanbahadur became alert. A sound was coming from the drawing room. He paid heed to the noise.
Meantime, one day he saw the drawing room. All the changes occurred only after Monsur’s arrival.
Incredible. Where is that Forash or Takia? They were replaced by some shining chair, table, and stool. Khanbahadur became happy and sad at the same time. Different kinds of people came to Monsur. They must visit him. Monsur was wealthy, educated, and a man of the town. But the visitors who came to see Monsur? Poor folk, Khanbahadur’s subjects. Nonetheless, they were entertained with tea from inner hall. They sat on those new chairs that they had never dreamed of. Unbearable. Impudent audacity. He became angry, ‘How do these rough peasants dare to sit on the chair?’
But Monsur’s thoughts were different. Even a dog should be tamed. Otherwise, why should they obey you? By feeding, by stroking their head, they should be given an impression that there were no chains around their neck.
And Monsur was just doing that. He was really intelligent. His reasons pleased Khanbahadur- after all his own son!
But why the rising sound of the drawing room suddenly stopped! It seemed that some plaster and lime also loosened from the wall. Khanbahadur came out of the room. Only a second. Next moment he roared, ‘What, haramjada? Why is the photograph here?’
The servant was overwhelmed with fear. It seemed, the photo of George V shook for a moment.
While wiping lime and sand from his body, the servant fearfully said, ‘Bado sahib ordered me. So I took it down from the wall.’
At the name of Monsur, Khanbahadur was flabbergasted; for a while he remained speechless. But the next moment, he trembled with wrath and thundered, ‘But why you, haramjada? Why didn’t you tell Majnu? You know whose photograph is this…?
He could not finish his words. Shaking with anger, he snatched the photo. That photograph. That King. His saint-like beard. A mild smile on his face. As if he were still smiling.’
Bou/ bouma – Daughter-in-law
Bhabi- Sister-in-law usually used in Muslim families
Touba, touba- An Islamic term meaning ‘a confession of sin and begging pardon of Allah’
Haramjada – A derogative term meaning bastard or scoundrel.
Patabahar – A tropical hedge-plant of the croton genus
Ghat – A river slope leading down to the water level, from where boats set out or arrive at
Khanbahadur – A prestigious title conferred to Muslim landlords in British era
Forash- A fine and aristocratic carpet
Takia – A large pillow used to lean against
Akbar Hosain: Lecturer, Dept of English, Comilla University.