Novel

5th Episode

The Firebird

Hasan Azizul Huq

Translated by Ali Ahmed

 

Well, what could we understand? But I could perhaps understand a little bit of the connection being built with my husband, on the one hand, and greater men and larger towns and cities, on the other. Or else, why would he go so much to the towns? I also watched that there was no end to unknown strangers coming to our house. It was only natural that those outsiders would be unknown to women like us, but even my husband would sometimes say that he failed to recognise some of the people coming to visit us at all times. Besides one’s own relations and the near ones, how many strangers ever come to one’s village home? Why then would so many men come to this house? My heart trembles with fear… how would I know why so many unknown men come to our house.

My husband one day said, when I was acquiring learning bit by a little bit, that this country was not independent. I couldn’t, at that time, understand any meaning whatsoever of what he had said. I learnt, after having made queries from him, that this country was an empire of the great queen. This country was a colony for the last one hundred and fifty years. Of these, this great queen had been ruling the country for three scores of years. That queen died nearly twenty years ago. Her son is now the king. How strange, people of god knows which country have been ruling this country as her kings and queens!

I couldn’t understand anything of all these. I couldn’t see with my eyes, nor hear with my ears, whether it was the king, or the queen, who ruled… and what was that to me whoever it was that ruled? I had heard at the time of my marriage that a war had been raging throughout the world. It was just hearsay, I did not see anything of the war. But my husband nowadays says that the king, after winning the war in the whole of the world, would drive the Caliph of the Muslim world out of the country of his own residence.

Although I could not fully understand what my husband said, I had a premonition of what was to come. Were all those strangers coming to our house for all these? Was he going to towns and entrepots almost everyday for this?

Here, there was no end to happiness in the house. It was floating on milk, ghee, butter, fish, meat, vegetables, rice and lentils. Number of people was increasing by every passing day. The house was full of domestic helps and monthly wage-labourers hired on an yearly basis. My husband nowadays frequently comes inside the house to say this or that thing to his mother or sister. someday he comes in and says, Ma, you know father had a palanquin carried by six bearers, had arrangements for yearly residential accommodation for the bearers in the Bauri neighbourhood. All those have gone god knows where! I watch the old saddle of the horse hanging from the wooden post of the eaves and think that I have to bring it all back. The palanquin would be built anew. The carpenters from the other village would arrive in a couple of days. They would refurbish the old palanquin. There would be new roofing, new fencing and a fresh coat of paints. And, along with that, we’ll get a new awning made for the bullock cart.

While performing the domestic chores, I watched with sidelong glances that my mother-in-law’s face was brightened with happiness. There was a suggestion of a set of pearly white small teeth gleaming through her slightly parted lips. Her looks were as though showering a hundred blessings on her son. The mother-in-law was saying, That’s fine. I know you would do it all, again.

Yes, I got everything anew. There was made a new palanquin, a new awning for the bullock cart. The works would be carried on outside and we would get the smell of wood, bamboo and paints inside the house also. We could also hear the sound of planing of wood and the shaving of bamboos and canes. I also went to see after everything was finished and done with. After some days, maybe a month or two later, my husband came inside the house right at noon and told his mother, Ma, a horse has been bought; it is now tethered in our farm. Come, have a look from a hiding place.

The mother-in-law had no heart to come out. But what else could she do when the son asked her to do so. She asked the sons’ wives, her daughters, the widowed sister-in-law, everybody in fact, to accompany her. I can’t remember if any of the brothers of my husband’s was also there. We watched, standing at the door of the eaves, that a large, mustard-coloured horse was tethered to a post, and the monthly wage-labourer boy was hesitantly approaching it once and then fearfully retreating again. New adornments, new leather saddle, etc. for the horse had been bought… we got the smell of all those as well as heard the creaking noise of leather. The mother-in-law remained standing for a short while and then left for the inner courtyard of the house.

Well, what more was there to ask for? Everything was completely fulfilled. Everybody started behaving in such a fashion as though all pride was mine. I won’t tell you a lie, I liked that. But there was no scope to show conceit or pride. I knew, my husband would subject me to extreme humiliation if I ever took recourse to any of those. I knew that man. Besides, I myself also never even felt like doing any of those. I was the mother of a son, I didn’t have any other pride. This one pride was enough!

The family is nothing other than being stitched with two threads of happiness and sadness

I had my son born in a year after the marriage. We had no other child in the family within eight years after that. My elder brother-in-law had married a few years earlier than my husband did. It was thought at the beginning that the older daughter-in-law was taking some time to give birth to a child. But when no child was born to them after a lapse of, first, one and then two and three years, it then became clear that she would bear no child. Medications were, no doubt, taken recourse to. But everyone gradually gave up hope. The older daughter-in-law was then barren. And her husband, my forgetful older brother-in-law, never cared a whit for that. He would not be there in anything relating to the family.

My third brother-in-law was married much later. He had surpassed his marriageable age. Although a little late, it was my husband who took the initiative to arrange for the marriage. But they could not have any child even by three or four years after marriage. That is why I had said that during eight years my son was the only child in the family. But in such a situation as this, why would he remain just my son alone? He was the apple of everyone’s eyes, the heart of their hearts. The family was flourishing by every passing day. everyone started thinking that that son was the root of all this happiness. They could not quite find out what to do with him. The eldest child was first made mention of in everything. They would first be looking for him if sweets and other delicacies would arrive home. Whichever one went out at whatever time would fetch something or other for him. My husband would rather not pay much attention to the son. Maybe, he did not get enough time to do that. Maybe, he thought that since the son belongs to everybody, what if I don’t much look after him? Is there any shortage of people to do that? The younger sister was by then married off alright, but the two brothers younger than her were not married till then. These two brothers-in-law… the fourth and the last one… were as though my own brothers, they would do whatever I asked them to, and  would, as if, grope in darkness if they wouldn’t see the son for some time.

Eight years passed in this way. My goodness, what a surprise, my dark-coloured son grew into a boy of eight years before my very eyes! Oh, what compassion in his looks and how shy is his smile! I did not see the like of it again in life! My husband himself initiated the child to the first lessons in writing. At this time, I do not remember how, a teacher came to the village. Whether he was brought to the village, or he came on his own, I won’t be able to say now. His work was only to teach the child. In the Muslim neighbourhood of the village there was no other boy of that age-group who could start reading and writing. My husband had earlier bought a large piece of habitable land surrounded with a mud wall. There was only one small one-roomed mud house there without any window. There was only one tarred door to that house. That house became the teacher’s abode with only one student, my son. Everyone would say that that teacher was deaf… he could hear nothing. But he was a very nice man… all three of his daily meals would be supplied from our house.

I had a miscarriage four years into the birth of my son. That child was also a son. It was still-born. Who could do anything about it? The house remained still for two days, I only heard the mother-in-law loudly wailing for it. The world was far more vacant then, a miscarriage would hurt everyone. Why has it happened, why, why this misfortune?… that was the only lamentation of the mother-in-law. But in the process of giving birth to the still-born son, almost all my blood was drained out, I became moribund. The body shrivelled to the state of a stick. I had only a glimpse of the face of the still-born. I’d rather not seen it. He wanted to come to the world much before his time. I cannot remember whether or not my husband was at home the day this disaster befell our family. He was probably not there. That the wife would give birth to a child at home was entirely a feminine affair, the male members of the household had no worries whatsoever about it. They, in fact, had nothing to do. The midwife from the scheduled Hari caste is pre-fixed on a yearly basis. She gets, at the end of the year, a lump grant, a sari, rice and lentils and some, if they can so afford,would also give her some cash. This the families would give the midwife irrespective of whether they have a child born into them or not. And this they do by the last month of the Bengali calendar. And if a child is born, things then take a totally different turn. If it’s a rich household, they even get gold and silver jewellery. When my first son was born, his midwife got a golden ear-ring. Anyway, I don’t remember whether or not my husband was at home, that speck of a little, dead child, wrapped in rags, was kept in a side of the room. Did my husband, on his return home at night, pause to have a glance at it? Who knows! There was no question of doctors or medicinemen. I therefore think, well, the son died, the mother could die as well! Had it been so, what would my husband then do? What else would a man do? He would, in obedience to his mother’s wishes, marry again after a few days. A fruit tree has died after giving one fruit, shouldn’t another fruit tree be planted again beside that dead one? I think of all these now, but they did not come to my mind at that time. I did not see then what my husband’s face looked like, nor did he, at any time afterwards, say anything about this.

Does the shade of difficulties linger for ever? It didn’t linger in this house as well. A news came one day that the younger sister, married in a village twenty miles away, had given birth to a son. Although it related to another clan, which had been blessed with their first child, the mother, no doubt, belonged to this clan! This household therefore was, as though, afloat in an ocean of happiness. I’ve told you before how much my husband cared for his younger sisters. He especially loved this younger sister of his. No sooner had he received the news than he caused baskets to be filled with a variety of items, got them tied at both ends of long poles, got those poles mounted on the shoulders of men and made them start out for the sister’s house before he himself rode out on horseback towards the same destination. The elder sister, married in our own village, had by then given birth to quite a few childen, two of whom… both nephews… were sufficiently grown up. Despite this, I still remember how happy did my husband become at the news of his younger sister giving birth to a son in another vllage.

Things gradually fell back in their respective places. My two younger brothers-in-law had by then grown into healthy young men. Both of them were studying in the high school. The third one had not continued his studies, might probably have left school even before my marriage. I had for some time been observing that the propensities of thoughts of the fourth one was also not that good, he would likely leave school. He goes near my husband and stands with a lowered head, scratches earth with his toe-nails and tremulously enquires of his brother whether or not he may engage in some kind of business. But the youngest brother-in-law had been attentively studying in school. My son was also about to be admitted into the school after having bidden goodbye to his deaf teacher. At this time, when everybody was feeling that no child would soon be born into the family, I myself gave birth to another son. My elder son was then eight.

The skin-colour of my elder son was a shade darker, a look at which would soothe the eyes, bring in the peace of mind. It would give the feeling of resting under the shade of a tree in summer. And this newborn son had a brightly fair complexion. The elder son took exactly after his father… the colour of the skin of my husband was also somewhat darker… and the newborn son took after his maternal uncle.

So all the children the family had till then were just my two sons. Nobody in those days bothered about whether he had more children or less. There was no system in those days of earning fixed cash money from monthly jobs and buying everything with that money. Everyone used to live in his own house, in the village; and who would bother to go abroad? They would eat from the house, rub oils from the house. Were these only men and women? Cows, goats, dogs and cats… everyone had a right on the goods from the house. As though everyone used to eat from the same plate. It would amount to the same thing whether the grass, grown on the fields, dry lands or the drains, were eaten by two goats or shared amongst ten of them. Was the grass being finished? Everybody’s cows and goats were entitled to graze there. Why would people count whether or not they had one, two or ten sons at home? Well, let all of them share so long as there are supplies of provisions. I would therefore observe that almost every household was sure to have five or six children. Some people would have as many as ten or twelve, even fifteen, sons and daughters each. The houses and villages would still appear sparse, not crowded as they do now.

The newborn therefore enhanced, rather than diminished, pleasure in the household. My mother-  and sister-in-law started boasting about me. They would say everything has been happening because of the middle daughter-in-law’s luck. Income and property has been increasing, and, see again, the clan is also becoming larger.

That is how days rolled into months, months into years and it stood at two years, my younger son reached two, when, one day, it became known that the third daughter-in-law of the house was pregnant. Knowing this, I became the happiest of all. I would all  these days very often feel, as though, I alone had snatched away the happinesses of all others. Happiness should really be shared! If one takes less of happiness for one’s own self, it then enhances for one. I began to take special care of my third sister-in-law. I would no longer allow her to perform many of the domestic chores, I would do them myself.

Food and drinks in the villages in those days were very ordinary, almost similar in every household. That similar rice, pulses and vegetables! Very rarely any fish or meat. Even if some fishes would, at times, be available, meat was really a rarity. Hindus would probably not eat meat even once in a year. Since the Muslims used to breed poultry, they would occasionally eat its meat and eggs. I would, in the backdrop of these, try to ensure a better diet for the third sister-in-law. But that was very insignificant, indeed. Nobody in those days would think of a different diet for anyone for any reason. Whether a child would be born or not, well, they are being born day and night all around, should therefore be no special reason for doing this or that. Be that as it may, I would, through a separate arrangement, force the expectant mother to eat eggs and drink milk. After ten months and ten days,… who knows whether it was ten or nine months… I say it was ten months because everybody said so, my third sister-in-law gave birth to a plump son. The birth was given unaided. The midwife came and saw that the child had already been born. It was crying with a loud, shrill voice on the floor of the room. We all jokingly laughed and said, Well, dear, you won’t receive any present this time as you were not required even to enter the labour-room. Will this son call you the foster-mother?

On hearing this, what a broad smile the midwife broke into causing a pendular movement of her nose-ring! I now say here what came after this. The third sister-in-law wasted no time… she gave birth to another son a year, or barely a year, later.

 

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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