Novel

4th Episode

The Firebird

Hasan Azizul Huq

Translated by Ali Ahmed

 

I felt proud of my husband and the family

 

The mother-in-law, whom I terribly feared and at whose face I wouldn’t even dare look at, called me one afternoon in her room. My son, who had by then somewhat grown up, was also there with me. No sooner had I got into the room than she came near me and said, My second daughter-in-law, let me tell you something. You are the goddess of fortune for this house, your luck will bring everything back again. The family was drifting away after your father-in-law’s death and I fell as if in unfathomable waters. That second son of mine has again brought everything back. You are the wife of that son. I know everything, you doffed your ornaments and gave it away to him. Allah will do you well. I bless you. Look after all your in-laws. They will always respect you, obey you, I know. This son of yours is the. jewel of my family. I pray for his long life… so saying, the mother-in-law placed her hand on my head

That was the only time when my mother-in-law spoke like that, and never again did she repeat it. She would rarely speak without any reason. would keep her two thin lips pressed together, and when she spoke to us, it sounded like dry wood. Be that as it may, from then on I know that if you always keep on claiming something as your own, nothing will finally remain yours.

The famly’s earning and prosperity increased. My husband one day made some calculations to drive home to her mother that the land for cultivation had come to rest at thirty acres, if not thirty-five or so. There are seven or eight acres of land for Aus cultivation, which will yield some Aus paddy. Besides, these lands will provide the family with its whole year’s needs for barley, wheat, potato, onion, sesame seed, mustard seed and the like. The treacle that would be obtained from the sugarcanes planted in the lands by arranging a communal abode of cultivators in the month of June would leave a surplus for sale after meeting the needs of the family. All varieties of pulses… lentils, beans, chic-peas,etc.—that the family will need throughout the year will grow in the lands. And necessary vegetables of all types will be there. and the remaining twenty/ twenty-five acres put to rice paddy cultivation would produce enough paddy not only to meet the family’s yearly needs, but would also leave some surplus for sale.

Eight-ten buffaloes were bought to pull four-five ploughs. The soil in this area is not good, it is clayey. Bullock-pulled poughs are not suitable for it. Large lumps of soil come up with the plough, which the bulls or cows are unable to pull up. Elephantine buffaloes are needed for this. Those large lumps thrown up by buffalo-ploughs have again to be broken to smaller sizes by thick wooden rammer.

One buffalo was bought after another for the purposes of ploughing and their total number reached ten. Cows and calves also started increasing in number along with this. Although my son was the lone child, there were so many other people at home, that made a lot of cow’s milk necessary. The cows therefore had to be many. And they again had many bull-calves and heifers. The cow-shed was full with them. Milk is fetched twice a day in large brass pails. That milk is then boiled in large iron cauldrons. Onions form a large hillock at home, there arises a dearth of space to store them. There is no point in selling the surplus onions since they sell two or four paisa a seer (a little less than a kilogram… translator). And who would buy them? Onions have been stored on the floor of a room of the five-roomed building. They rotted there to fill the house with a malodour. Why only onion, the condition of treacle was no better, either. These were kept in large copper cauldrons meant for cooking food. As there was no room inside the house, these treacles were kept in a corner of the terrace, without even lids on them. Oh, how despicable, everybody saw one day that a pair of huge rats were in the treacle, dead! When it was poured out, there formed a flow of treacle throughout the entire courtyard. This is what is called an overflowing household. Paddy would also cause difficulties in some of the seasons. Such a large farmyard… not one or two, but eight or ten corn-lofts, each capable of holding five or six tons of paddy,  spread accross the yard, and children could play hide and seek amongst them… still, in some of the years, that very farmyard could make no room for haystacks or additional corn-lofts. People these days will not believe in these, but I saw them with my own eyes.

Here, number of people in the household kept and kept on increasing. Seperate domestic help was not available then. Poor neighbours, relations, close or distant, widows or poor housewives would come stay in the house, would do this and that, and would get to eat in return. They would often take food, covering it under handloom-made napkins, away to their respective homes. But none would stay during the nights. There were two cowherds throughout the year for taking the cows and buffalos to the fields, grazing them there and bringing them back home again. There were, in addition, two mothly wage labourers. They all were, in effect, like members of the family, but for the night, they would go back to their own homes. None would stay in our house.

A family once came for nothing from another village. The father was good for nothing and the mother was in great difficulties with a host of children. My husband gave them a piece of land in the small farm near the large one to build their own abode. The lazy father put up a shanty alright with thatch on bamboo twigs and branches, but even crows build better nests than that. Every one got accommodated in that house. The older son became a monthly wage-labourer and the younger one… he was very young… was engaged as a cowherd. The father kept on lying down day and night inside the house, puffed at the hookah and coughed. The mother, along with three or four of her daughters, used to roam around in the fields and pastures. But nobody would, for that matter, go hungry; every one would get a few morsels of rice to eat. Three of the daughters had rather long hair the colour of brownish hemp, and they never got any touch of hair oil throughout their life. The mother would sit with these three daughters in the afternoon to delouse their hair and, if any of them would make a movement disturbing her pursuit, she would rain down blows on the offender’s back with a thud. This sort of delousing can happen only if someone has food to eat!

There were some other part-timer helps. There would, almost every day, be engaged one or two day labourers for around twenty-five paisa for the  whole day. They were all poor relations. It was required to provide them with stomachful of stale  or puffed rice for breakfast and stomachful of warm rice for lunch at noon.

These were arrangements for the whole year. But during the monsoon, when rice seedlings or stalks were planted, and in December-January, when paddy was harvested, arrangements were totally different. At that ime, ten to fifteen wage-labourers used to work eveyday. They would be required to stay from twenty/twenty-five days to a month at a stretch. Same would be the situation during the harvesting season, when they would be required to stay till the end of it. Where would so many men come from? Those wage-labourers would come from other vilages, from the impoverished villages to the north. Besides, Santal men and women from the Santal areas of Dumka district from the far-away Chhotanagpur would come in search of works. When, during the rainy seasons, transplantation of paddy stalks were completed or, during the winter, when harvesting was finished, they would all return to their own respective places. My husband’s brothers would, no doubt, look after the works of farming, but none would so much as touch the soil. My third brother-in-law alone would do some works with his own hands. But nobody would so much as see my husband. Still, he it was who would grapple with such a pompous and great affair as this. Although not in the house, he would remain, almost throughout the day, in the village. He had the school, in the grand lady’s house. And he would sometimes go to the town. He would, at the time of going to the town, put on very clean and tidy dress, go out in tne morning and return in the night. Well, clothes would consist generally of a dhoti and a shirt, sometimes a long robe, and a Kashmiri shawl in the winter… these were what he would put on. But wherever he would go, it was a must that he would return by nightfall. I noticed that he would never stay out of the house during nights. He wouldn’t care for foul weather, rains or storms, would return home even if he had to risk dangers. The rail station was a couple of miles away. There was no road worth its name to go there. One had to pass some of the way along mud-tracks between paddy fields or through undergrowth, bushes and jungles in dry lands. All those areas were infested with snakes and various other reptiles. During the summer, it was dangerously full of dust and during the rains, it was unnegotiable mud and sludge. And he would come and go through it all. He caused a good road to be built in its place by the government after a few years probably because he had sufferred so much. That connected ten or so villages to the railway station.

Ali Ahmed Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute, Dhaka and A former Member of the National Board of Revenue.

Grateful to Panjeree Publications Ltd

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