Syed Manzoorul Islam
Translated from Bangla by Noora Shamsi Bahar
It was as if my Baba was born to carry the dead weight of the world on his shoulders and lead a life of misery. He had no clue how far, to what destination, life would take him. Yet, sometime in his wasted youth he drew Ma into it, then, in course of six years, Lotu, me and Noman. Ma was never content with her life and so one day she found a better man in Baset the boatman and disappeared. Lotu, my elder sister, too, was fortunate to escape the net Baba fantasized as life when she got married. And Noman . . . well, one day, as he was climbing a coconut palm tree, his limbs suddenly came loose. Or he jumped off — it’s difficult to say which. But there were no coconuts in that tree, for sure.
Baba owned a small parcel of land. But the Jamuna Bridge was to be built, and his land had to be ceded. One day, a few smartly dressed men came and handed him ten thousand taka. Then they asked him to sign his name on a document. Baba laughed. He said if he could write his name, he too would wear a jacket and tie and play the land-grabbing game. Baba knew his piece of property was worth at least five times more. He handed the money back to one of those men – I clearly remember him as the one wearing a red tie. “Keep it,” he said looking straight at the man’s bloodshot eyes as if he was reading his future, “Your daughter will have a serious illness. You’ll need the money for her treatment.” I thought for a moment that Baba had actually crystal-gazed into his own future and found out that no matter how hard he resisted, the land would eventually be gone. All he could do was play the martyr and console himself that he hadn’t agreed to sell the land, because selling it would be betraying his land starved forefathers. After making his peace, all in the space of a half hour, he began to give the impression that he didn’t much mind losing the land or being forced to begin a new life. But it was obvious to me that life from that day on would be unforgiving. Noman was still around, but he wasn’t old enough to understand what property or possession meant, or the tricks people played in cheating farmers like Baba out of their land. So he looked with amazement as Baba tore up the document into shreds as the man wearing the red tie screamed his head off. I didn’t understand any of it either, but since I wanted to touch his red tie, the look in the man’s eyes still remains in my memory. Before those eyes were filled with rage, I saw a profound dread in them. Since his fear was of massive proportions, so was his rage.
Right now, Baba is doing his business – entertaining people with roadside monkey dance. Baba got the monkey from a rice dealer in Sirajganj. The rice dealer had gotten him from the Officer-in-Charge at the police station, who had recently been transferred from a small town down south. The monkey used to live in the police station there and acted like an inmate in a lockup – docile and obedient. When the OC shifted to Sirajganj, he took the monkey with him. He had told the rice dealer with a laugh, “One night, the monkey came into the station, all ruffled up, and headed straight into my office. It was as if he had done a crime and had come to give himself up.” But the OC’s daughter, Sumona, took a dislike of the animal. The OC would ask her to buy the monkey some bananas and would give her the money as well. Every day. But she would coolly pocket the money, or, even if she bought the bananas, she would make a show of eating them herself right in front of the monkey. One day, while they were in Sirajganj, Sumona was eating a piece of fried chicken in front of the monkey. But suddenly, she choked on the food. The girl would surely have died, had it not been for the monkey who rushed to her, grabbed her from the back, and gave an abdominal thrust with such force that the food shot out of her windpipe and fell some distance away. But Sumona too took a fall. She then stood up, caught her breath, got hold of a stick, and began to beat the monkey. The monkey stared at her in disbelief for some time and then climbed up a tree and sat there, his face looking dark like the monsoon sky. The rice dealer had always fancied having a pet monkey. When he heard the story, he told the OC, “I have a feeling the girl will come to harm. Give the monkey to me.”
It was the rice dealer however, who came to harm. The day the monkey relocated to his godown was the day that he suffered a big loss – boats carrying his rice had sunk in the Jamuna. Now Jamuna is a turbulent river and it can toss over a boat or two any time it wants. But four? And on a cloudless day? None of the boatmen had drowned though; only the boats with gunny bags of rice had disappeared. The boatmen had come and said, “There was a sudden storm in the middle of the river.”
The monkey was making a ruckus in the godown’s yard. He was hungry. He wanted food. But after hearing the distressing news of losing his rice, would the dealer put up with the monkey’s tantrums? He picked up a stick, went out, and whacked the animal a couple of times. The creature remained quiet for a while after receiving the blows. Then he got up and left. After a couple of days, he came back and dropped a fistful of rice at the feet of the dealer.
The man hit the ceiling. He thought the monkey must have filched the rice from one of the remaining sacks of rice at his storage. This time though, he didn’t hit him. He looked at Baba, who was sitting in front of him, and said, “Take this monkey. You’re nothing but a vagrant now. Go and roam the streets with it and your monkey of a daughter in tow. She can settle down with this creature now.”
I am the monkey daughter the dealer was talking about. I was married to his nephew, Motaleb. After two weeks of sleeping with me day and night, Motaleb told me to get lost. But I decided to stay back so he brought two of his friends over and told them, “Take it. This thing is yours now.”
I ran then, of course. I left my life behind – a life of two weeks of sorrow and joy, a life that I had begun to build in my dreams which so rudely fell apart.
Baba is a hot-tempered man. He took my hand and went to the rice dealer to seek justice. The man was indignant. “I’ve lost four boats-full of rice in the Jamuna. That’s why my heart is heavy. My limbs feel numb, or else I would have thrashed you and your wicked daughter and thrown you over the river.”
I had told Baba a hundred times that there’s no justice for the poor, but he wouldn’t listen. His blood was boiling at the dealer’s words, but I held his hand, pulled him aside, and told him, “The poor must not ask for justice.” When the monkey heard this, he shook his head approvingly. He was poor too; life hadn’t given him a fair deal either. I had a hunch that the monkey had found out what had happened to the dealer’s rice – it had really been looted and stored somewhere safe. Those who did that had bribed the boatmen and some employees of the dealer. He must have found the place where they had kept the rice. But I had no reason to speak in support of the monkey. And truth be told, during the ten-or-so minutes that I was sitting in his godown, not once did the thought cross my mind that this man would be able to fix my broken marriage. Motaleb, for all I knew, might have already broken another girl’s heart and shattered her dreams, which might also have lasted fifteen days. I had heard he was going to bring another girl over, after kicking me out.
Oh, I forgot to talk about Motaleb’s two friends. One of them was Suruj. I don’t know the other one’s name. They were giving me and Baba a chase. We were hurrying along a path that passed through a neighborhood full of mango, jaam and coconut palm trees. When Suruj had almost caught hold of me, a big coconut fell on his head. He gave out a loud scream and slumped to the ground. His friend stopped and got busy with Suruj. I knew a crowd would quickly form so I pushed Baba. “Don’t stop, Baba, keep walking.”
After a little while, Bablu jumped off a tree. Bablu is the name that I gave to the monkey while I was sitting at the rice dealer’s place. I used to affectionately call Noman Bablu too. And while I lived with Motaleb for those fifteen days, I had thought, if I had a son, I’d name him Bablu.
Baba was deeply hurt by the rice dealer’s behavior. This hurt only made worse his agony over my broken marriage. I felt that Baba’s burden had become too heavy for him to bear. But despite his troubles, he accepted Bablu into his life.
With much sorrow and anger, he held my hand, crossed the Jamuna, and came to Tangail. He didn’t have any money on him. And on top of that, he had me to look after. It’s not like I’m a beauty to behold, but my age was such that most men would fancy me. Even a bitch in its youth, as they say, looks pretty good. That is why Baba’s burden became heavier. But by leaving the key to my dreams in Motaleb’s hands, I had become somewhat plucky. Whatever was to happen, would happen, I had told Bablu one day after I shared my story with him. Bablu listened to me in silence, and winced when I said, a girl’s honor is worth a hundred thousand taka before her marriage, but if her husband drives her out, it’s not even worth a hundred. Honor is something I’m not worried about, Bablu, I told him before he leapt out, distracted by some noise outside.
Oh, since we are talking about Bablu, I just remembered something funny. One day, in our small hut, I was sitting with my back to the window and was crying looking at a bite mark on my thigh, a parting gift from Motaleb. Bablu had probably heard me crying and had decided to investigate. He came through the window, tapped me on the head, and jumped in front of me. But all of a sudden, he covered his eyes with his hands and started screaming, “Ock ock”. I quickly realized that I had pulled the sari I was wearing quite a bit up. So I brought it down, covered my legs and said, “You can open your eyes now.”
Bablu’s eyes were filled with sorrow and he kept screaming, “Ock ock”. I had no idea monkeys too feel shy. How would I? Bablu was the first monkey I had got to know.
There used to be a time when Baba ploughed the land for a living; then, for a while, he was doing a small business. For some time, he was a boatman too. He was able to do hard work. But when Ma left with Baset the boatman, he sort of lost the vigor in his frame. Now he is no longer as robust as he used to be. He had a distant cousin in Tangail who ran a restaurant – quite a large one at that. He lived in a rented house in a neighborhood called Akurtakur. Baba had helped this cousin out at some point in time, and the cousin also felt obligated. But he had the devil for a wife. The wife – my aunt – took one look at Baba, me and Bablu, and said we’d be allowed to enter her house only over her dead body. Staying over was certainly not an option. Baba’s cousin eventually let us stay in a small hut behind his restaurant. When things fell into place, Baba started worrying about our daily bread. I told him Bablu would find a way for us to get by. Bablu smiled when he heard these words. Honest, Sir! He can smile just like we do. Then he flailed his limbs about and started screaming. Suddenly everything clicked and I thought: Bablu must have worked with a showman making monkeys perform tricks for a living. And I was sure the showman didn’t take proper care of him or give him enough food. He may have hurt him too. Bablu then made a run for it into the OC’s office to save himself. He has a survival instinct – he knows how to get out of a tight spot. The OC had taken care of him, even though his wicked daughter hated him.
Yes, even then Bablu had saved her life. But Sir, the OC’s daughter, bad to the bone no doubt, would be able to live with her dreams longer than fifteen days. In this world of God, rich men’s wicked daughters are luckier than poor men’s virtuous ones. I tell you that.
When I told Baba that Bablu would find a way for us to get by, and when he started dancing at my words, Baba’s jaws dropped. He got hold of a length of rope and told me, “Put it loosely around his neck, and let’s go.”
But Bablu snatched the rope and threw it on the roof. He couldn’t stand the sight of ropes. In fact, I had to beg him to let me tie a clothesline in the little space behind our hut for drying my clothes. Anyway, when I said this to Baba, it was nine in the morning. Even that early in the day, I could see signs of weariness and frustration on Baba’s face. A bit of anger too. And why not? He had been without work for many days. And his cousin, to please his wife, had not only refused to give him any work at the restaurant, but also had given a month’s notice to vacate the hut. We were staring at an uncertain future, to say the least.
Baba was tired. And angry. But when Bablu held his hand and pulled it, his anger dissipated and was replaced by a smile. Baba must have thought, “Is Noman back?” Noman was a little crazy in the head. He could never think straight. As a result, it’s difficult to say if his hands slipped while he was climbing the coconut tree, or he had jumped off. Why can’t the dead speak, Sir? I so much wanted to hear the answer from Noman. You are a good man, Sir. You’ve spoken to me for three days and you’re writing things down in your notebook. You also speak quite elegantly and eloquently. You say I’m a case study. What do you mean, Sir? What’s the point of it? Oh, research, you say. Ha-ha! Publication. What’s that, Sir? You’d like to take a photo of me? Be careful, Sir. Someone had tried to take a picture of me on his phone, but Bablu had snatched the phone and thrown it into a pond. That was quite an incident, Sir. That man would have killed Bablu and me, had it not been for two elders who intervened.
No, I don’t see things as clearly as you. Take Noman’s case, for example. Before he shut his eyes for good, he had said, “Tell Ma about me, Bubu.” Bubu was me, his sister who he loved the most. But why Ma? Hadn’t she abandoned him a long time back and taken off with Baset the boatman?
Or did Noman jump off the coconut tree because he wanted me to bring Ma back?
Bablu puts up a brilliant performance. Baba doesn’t have to do much, except rattling his dugdugi, the one handed drum, and Bablu dances to its beat. So many types of dance. He can even do a break dance, can you believe it? He does it really well. School boys love it. And if there’s an elderly person around, he gives him a salutation. He puts his hands up in prayer. He can do so much more. Baba’s cousin has some shame left, it seems, so he has helped us find an accommodation. The rent is fourteen hundred taka per month. But we earn two hundred taka a day. That’s why Bablu gets to eat well. We do too. You’ve seen him—can you believe that a monkey can support two people? Could Noman do it if he were alive?
No, there’s no chance of fixing my broken marriage with Motaleb. I’m also at peace with myself so I don’t crave for a Bablu of my own anymore. I’ll now take the burden off Baba’s shoulders so he too can find some peace. Do you know what I sometimes think, Sir? Just as Baba seemed to have lost his way when Ma ran away, and then lost himself when Noman left us, I too had lost my way when I left the key to my dreams with Motaleb. But Baba’s obstinacy works in me in a more fervent way. This is the reason why I’ve been able to get back on track. This is why I said I had lost my way, and not have lost it.
Let me finish Motaleb’s story. He had come looking for me in Tangail. I don’t know why he thought about me or what he wanted from me. Perhaps he got aroused when he remembered those moments he rode my body multiple times a day during those fifteen days. Anyway, Motaleb turned up at my door one day. I won’t lie, Sir. When I saw him, my mind went into a frenzy. For a split second, I thought, my fifteen day old dreams, shattered and beyond repair, had been fixed by some miracle. My hopes took wing at the sight of his eyes, and came crashing down when I looked deep into them. An addict’s eyes! I’m sure he had spent the night somewhere fornicating, taking drugs, and in the morning, came out looking for me. “Give me money,” he demanded. I told him to sit down, and have some breakfast. “I’ll give you money,” I said, and his face lit up. He didn’t notice me exchanging glances with Bablu.
No, Sir. He didn’t take me to bed. He certainly would have, if the incident hadn’t occurred. No, he didn’t touch me. His teeth also didn’t dig into my thigh. No, Sir, no. He didn’t touch my breasts, my tummy, or the nether region that’s my scourge. Why do you ask, Sir? Oh, case study. Ha ha, Sir! You are a cultured person, but I guess you have to hear a lot of these dirty things. I understand Sir, this is for my good and the good of girls like me fighting for their lives. Yes Sir, I do believe you . . .
What did you say, Sir? There will be depth to your case study if you saw the spot on my thigh which still burns like an ember? Are you kidding me, Sir? You are an educated, middle-aged man, you have a highly-paid job in Dhaka, and you’ve come in your car all the way to Tangail. Why should I stand between you and your case study? You’re paying me for this too? So much money! How much is it, Sir? Five thousand! My goodness! Alright, Sir. But before that, let me finish Motaleb’s story. He was a junkie. But when you’re one, you don’t pay much attention to your physical needs. So he turned up at my door famished. I gave him rice, daal, and fried eggs. You won’t believe it, Sir, how he gulped it all down like a wretched, starving animal. Then he drank three glasses of water. After that, he let out a burp and said, “You are a good girl.” Hearing these words made my heart jump like a Koi fish, Sir. But the fish’s flight stopped midway. It fell into the pond with a plop. Motaleb said, “You are good in bed, girl. Take off your clothes and lie down. I’m going to go take a piss.”
Motaleb had a lot of strength in his hands. He showed me his hands and warned me not to resist. He would kill me if I did.
The man was high, Sir. And when one is high, one is not in his right senses. It’s not like I wasn’t afraid. But Bablu was home, hiding behind the window. I had already exchanged a few glances with him. I told him softly, “Do something, Bablu.” Perhaps he had been waiting with his ears pricked to hear those words. He made his move. Motaleb was taking a leak over the sewage drain under the hog plum tree. A few moments. Then I heard a scream. A gut-wrenching, agonizing scream…
What is this, Sir? Why are you holding my hand? My goodness! Why are you pulling at my sari, Sir? Oh. Oh. Alright, Sir. I accept. Just don’t hurt me. Not the least bit. You see, Motaleb was very forceful with me. One of my Uncle’s employees also tried to force himself on me. I’m tired, Sir, just like Baba. You could have told me on the first day that your case study was a sham and that you just wanted to lie with me. Then I wouldn’t have told you my life’s story, my dreams that had lasted for fifteen days, about Motaleb, about his end. No Sir, I didn’t need to say any of it to you. Fine, take off your clothes. No, you can keep your shirt on. Now your underwear, take that off. I won’t touch you. My hands are too rough and calloused anyway. Wow, I see your arrow is already hard on!
Bablu? Are you around, my sweet Bablu?
2. Aww, poor man! He had no clue from where Bablu had descended. Motaleb hadn’t, either. They didn’t even suspect it. Now will they be able to hunt girls with their lopped arrows?
Motaleb won’t have any problem even if he doesn’t tell his wife, if he has one now—she would probably leave anyway. But what about this gentleman?
The man didn’t call the police, neither did he go to a hospital. His car took him to a clinic. What will he do after returning home? What will he tell his wife?
It’s about time I teach Bablu some compassion.
Illustration : Najib Tareque