6th Episode

The Firebird

Hasan Azizul Huq

Translated by Ali Ahmed


Oh my mother, for how many days haven’t I seen you; I’ll now go to my father’s house

I was going to my father’s house with my two sons. The younger one had by that time somewhat grown up. I missed visiting parental home, meanwhile, at a stretch for two years for familial botherations. I had visited that house every year in the summer after my marriage. Again, every year, at the end of August or early September, my mother would send an endless variety of cakes, fruits, other food and clothings. There was no scope of any negligence anywhere despite her being my stepmother. Men, accompanied by a Bagdi woman, would carry those goods tied at both ends of a long bamboo pole placed at their shoulders. Different types of things would come. Large mrigel or ruhi fishes would also be sent in some years. My mother-in-law liked these as much as she would do her own duties. She would amply reward the Bagdi woman before her departure. Nor would the large pots bringing gifts go back empty. My mother would make no break in sending her yearly gifts like these whether I could go home to her or not.

I did not, meanwhile, go home for two years. I didn’t go alright, but when talks this time came up for it and my husband gave his consent, my life, as though, started getting torn apart. How could I remain forgetful, mom! Which exile have I been passing my days in? What for, and with whom, have I been staying so far away, leaving my own brothers and sisters behind? My heart started feeling an aching void thinking of the absence of my parents, the brothers and sisters and of my home and the village.

I used to go to my parental home in our own buffalo cart and would return in my father’s bullock cart. The cart was made ready for departure in the morning. A bed for sitting on the floor of the cart was prepared by, first, laying hay on it and, then, four thick quilts with floral designs on them being placed atop that. Both the exit and the entry at the back and the front, respectively, of the new awning of the cart was covered with sari. Once inside, nothing could any more be seen. The monthly wage-labourer boy will lead the cart along while Hola Bagdi will follow it on foot with a seasoned bamboo stave in his hands. They will come back with the cart after reaching me there.

Getting aboard the cart along with my two sons, we got inside the awning, or rather, i had the feeling we had been interned in a grave. my elder son was somewhat grown up by then. He would rather sit alongside the carter than staying inside. I was only thinking of when the neighbourhood would be left behind for the cart to reach the open fields when I would lift the sari from in front of the awning. The cart was making a creaking sound, the awning was giving off the odour of a fresh coat of paints and I could discern, through a small chink in the awning, the red dirt on the mud track. I realised we had left the neighbourhood behind and were trudging along the southern bank of the large tank just outside the village. After the cart, having first hurtled down the dried pit, again had huffed up on the road, I said to my son, Please remove the sari covering from in ront of the awning, sonny.

What can I say about how good did I feel once the covering was removed! The early morning air came in caressing the body and freshening the mind. Rivers and canals were very rare in this locality; there were only paddy fields. It was not an endless expanse of aridity as the land was not desolate. Was there no beginning or end to this field of paddy crops? Whichever way I looked, the eyes went on—on-and—on, and were not obstructed anywhere. And there was no undulation anywhere. At long last, the eyes would rest on a certain distant village. The sky of the fields was similar to the sky overhead.

There were not much of roads in those days. Not even mud roads, not to speak of metalled roads. There were mud tracks, through the fields,  along relatively wide boundary lines between plots of lands. People call them ridge-roads. And there were many, many mud tracks for the plying of bullock and buffalo carts. They closely criss-crossed one another. Maybe of the ten zigzagged tracks, only one found its way into the village. These were put to much use at the time of harvesting of paddy in winter. Now, during the hot seasons, grasses were reclaiming those by gradually covering them with their green sprouts. Only one or two of those tracks traverse from one village to another and then cross the fields only to go who knows where! Plying of carts has rendered them into virtual tracks of dirt. Those loose piles of very fine dirt fly with the stirring of air and when that air turns into a forceful wind, they swirl up and become afloat as white cloudbanks of dirt.

I looked, when the cart had reached the midfields, and saw no trace of human beings around. Why should there be people now? Harvesting of paddy was completed way back in December-January. All these fields are suitable for one-crop transplant Aman rice-paddy, and nothing but paddy grows in these lands. All the fields are now empty after harvest, even the stubbles of the paddy-stalks have been buried under a thick layer of dust. People will not come to the fields with their bullock, buffallo and the plough again till the dry earth becomes somewhat sodden with rising water-levels in early April.

I therefore asked for the saris at both ends of the awning to be taken down. Who’s going to see? There’s nothing to fear, I’m going to my father’s house with my two sons. And there are men with us. It’s true there are not many trees in this locality, but are there not, for that matter, undergrowths and bushes of wild shrubs? And there is a scattering of derelict tanks here and there, now mostly bone-dry. Some of those are still left with a little water, while certain others hold sufficient water, which may even be drunken from. There are very large banyan and peepul trees on the banks of these ponds and tanks. The bullock and buffalo carts are stopped under their shades to rest the animals. They are also given water to drink.

We did the same. The carter stopped the cart under the shade of a large peepul tree and took the two buffalos to make them drink water. I also got down from the cart along with my two sons to straighten my back. I found Hola Bagdi standing straight with both of his palms folded together and the oil-drenched, seasoned bamboo stave of his neatly placed under one of his arms. There was no fear. I knew that if any danger came, Hola Bagdi would not care for his own life, and none would be able to so much as cut a scratch on me or on my sons before killing him.

I was walking about a little, and the elder son was going round the banyan tree to see for himself which birds were there on its branches. Since it was noontide, the birds were not calling alright, but it could be well understood that many of them were silently moving about in that huge tree. It felt as though the tree were alive, talking. I stood under the tree for some time. Yes, I could now feel we were right in the middle of the fields. It was no longer discernible which of the villages was lying in which direction. They were all covered under dust. The sky now appeared round as did the fields. I did not know why but I felt a little alarmed. I felt a nagging fear that none of the tracks would end anywhere. Who would be able to tell how and where would it end? I felt, would I again be able to set my eyes on houses and homes, ditches and ponds and green forests! I thought of it and laughed within myself. How many times had I gone to my father’s house along this way! Howsoever distant may it be, did not the road come to an end, didn’t I reach my mother?

The noontide had rolled into almost afternoon when we reached a temporary human settlement. The village was no longer very far away. But the settlement was located in the midst of the boundless stretch of wilderness. A few mud-huts were scattered here and there. There were only one or two homesteads. Can any family live in a place like this without fear? Still, a family or two lived in this vast expanse. And those mudhuts were shops… grocery, earthenware utensils and sweatmeat shops. The cart stops once at the sweatmeat shop every time I come. I buy sweets for my brothers and sisters and the children also eat them. Well, how many types of sweets were avalable then? Rasagolla, monda, jibey-goja, sugary moulds, kodma, batasha and the like were all that was available. Rasagolla and monda, made of posset, are very tasty.There were no impurities in them. The confectioner couldn’t help keeping them pure; he would definitely have mixed impurities with them if he could do so. These sweets are made only of sugar and posset, which impurities would he mix with them? He can at best mix semolina with posset. But then how much of it can he mix, and semolina, after all, is not something bad. Anyway, Hola Bagdi, the carter and my sons ate sweets. I don’t take anything while on way to some place. Sweets for my brothers and sisters were taken in large cone-shaped containers made out of sal leaves.

I reached my father’s house in the soft darkness of dusk. I don’t like reaching any place at dusk. Either country- or hurricane-lanterns were lit in house after house and they were giving off flickering lights… nothing could be seen clearly, the mind becomes gloomy. If I could reach by afternoon, I would have left the two sons under the care of their granny or aunts and gone out for a tour of the neighbourhoods, or the people of the neighbourhoods would come calling. There was no scope of that any more.

I had at home, besides my parents, a brother and three sisters. The step-brother had grown into a young man and two of the sisters had also somewhat grown up. Only one sister was a suckling baby. After my mother had died, what a state the family was thrown into… everything was almost swept away. The step-mother, after her arrival, had again made it a golden family of affluence. Only one thing was surprising! My father was a learned man by the standards of those days… he knew Bengali, Persian… could even compose verses in that language, had himself written a book of calculations based on the system introduced by Shuvankar, but who knows why he had no mind for the education of his children. I was not sent to the school, maybe, because my mother had died, the younger brother was an infant, the family was facing grave danger, or a daughter could as well go without education. Besides, of what use was education to women? They were said to be naked even with twelve cubits of saris, these rustic women would surely not be judges or barristers any day, what then was the necessity of giving them education? Yes, I understood this. But what offence did my brother commit? He was not required to take responsibilities for the eldest one, my maternal uncles had done that for him. Why then would this brother not be given an education? I noticed that he did not go to school any more. He had somehow finished his elementary level of education, and  did not again go to a school. I ascertained after asking him that money would be needed for admission into a school. My father had said, where would money come from! There was no point of studying in a school.

My younger brother suddenly appeared right at noon one day in the burning sun. I had not seen him for a long time. My mother had left the world leaving behind this brother, then nearly two years old. He was not required after that to stay for long in my father’s family. My maternal uncles had come and fetched him along with them. They would rear him, educate him and do all the rest that would be necessary. Although the brother had gone to our own people, but I could not understand then, as I cannot do it now, why my father had let him go. Ours was not a poverty-stricken family or anything like that. What if he had married again, I was there as his elder sister to look after that brother. Why did he then let go of his son? I had rarely met him after he had moved in with the maternal uncles; he was admitted in the uncles’ village school. After finishing his studies there, he had come to the in-law’s house to my husband; had come to me, actually. The uncles would no longer be able to bear the expenses, he informed. There was no high school in that village at that time. Well, how many high schools were there in those days? They were far too less in number, and whatever number they were in were scattered too thinly. The uncles did not have means enough to support him for his food and lodging in some distant village he would be required to stay for that reason along with the cost of his books and tuition fees. They won’t be able to do anything more. I, of course, did not say anything after I had heard all these. Maybe, he was my own brother; still he was a relation from my father’s side! Why should I, pleading for him, be held guilty in the eyes of my in-laws, especially when my father was alive? I was of course not required to say anything. My husband said instead; well, he was not a man of many words, he just uttered one small sentence, I’m looking into it.

On the very following day my husband went out along with my brother and returned alone, on the same day, when the night had far advanced, and said, we had gone upto Katowa by train, and from there went to a village four miles away, got him admitted in a very renowned school there and arrangements have been made for his food and lodging in the house of a respectable Muslim family there. He will stay in that house, take his meals there, teach their young children and carry on his own studies in the school.

He had, from then on, been studying in that school. Not that I did much enquire after how he was faring or what he was getting to eat. He would hardly come to my in-law’s house, and when he did, he did so only to confide to my husband his opportunities and difficulties. He respected him as he would his own father, and probably felt as though he was sitting right under the shade of a banyan tree. He would, on most of the occasions when the school went on recess, go to his maternal grandpa’s house… that was, so to say, his own house. He would probably not go much to the father. But not because he had a stepmother in the house; he would probably not feel like going to that house because of our father. Father did not like his staying with the uncles. Nor did he like his son’s taking so much troubles to pursue his studies. But he himself would do nothing for his son.

Well, at that noontide when even kites and crows had stopped making sounds and fire was raining down from the sky, that brother of mine got into the house and came and stood before me. I could not instantly recognise him as I had not seen him for a ling time. Who is this boy? Who is this immaculately fair boy, who has not yet sprouted beard and mustache but bearing suggestions of doing so soon? I could presently recognise him. I made him sit down on a low cane-and-bamboo stool in the south-facing verandah. The mother came as did the brothers and sisters.

She dabbed the beads of perspirraton on his face with the hem of her sari and began to fan him. The elder sister brought in a glass of sherbet. This brother was the eldest of them all. I got alarmed at what he said after he had taken his sherbet and had become somewhat composed. He had finished studies at the highest class of his school; the final examination would be held after a few months. That examination would be held not in the village school, but in the town of Katowa. Much money would be needed. Who would give that money? The maternal uncles lacked the capacity to bring out even two Taka. The family he was eating in and staying with would, of course, not give any money.

How can I even go to the brother-in-law who has done so much, in fact, done all that was required to be done? I have therefore come to my father. There are paddy-lofts at home… not one but two… fees and other necessary expenses towards the examination can easily be met if only a few maunds of paddy are sold.

Well, well, the father is not at home now. Let him come back. Meanwhile, eat your lunch, take rest, then you may tell him.

He vehemently nodded his head in disagreement after hearing me. He won’t take his lunch. He would first tell it to the father; other things can only follow.

Every one knows him. He does not under any circumstances want to spend money. The man, who is otherwise so intelligent and offers guidance to so many men around him through difficulties, loses all his intelligence who knows where if and when the matter of spending money is raised before him. Every one at home had goosebumps for fear of an impending disaster.

The father came after some time. He would go for a wash after oiling his body. The eldest son appeared before him at that time, lowered his head and started digging the ground with his big toenails. The father looked at him, stopped rubbing oil on his own body and asked in a calm voice, Do you want to tell me something? Well, speak out what you want to say.

My brother started fumbling and his voice began trembling after he heard this. He somehow said with much effort what he wanted to say. It appeared after that as though he had gathered a little bit more courage.

I have been doing well in all my examinations, and it would be likewise in this last examination, too. I would study in a college and pass my B. A. examinations.

After hearing everything out, our father remained silent for a long time. It appeared as though he had not heard anything. Oh my goodness, he then stood up, pulled the handloom-made napkin up from the clothesline, placed it on one of his shoulders and, while getting down from the extended mud platform with a view to going for a wash, said, Paddy can’t be sold. Whatever little quantity of paddy there is in the lofts, is the food for the family. And the small surplus must be kept for unforeseen difficulties. It just cannot be sold.

Having said this, our father went out for a wash in the large tank called shahdighi. No sooner had he left than I noticed that my brother’s face turned crimson. Like father like son, he was not made of the material to weep. He slowly stood up, took one deliberate step after another, crossed the courtyard and was about to get out of the house when we all rushed to stop him. The mother said, Whatever might or might not happen, don’t be angry with food, please take food before you leave, sonny. My brother then turned his face towards her and said, Had the food been yours, Ma, I would have taken it. But this is my father’s food… whenever I take, I’ll take it by force. Or else, I won’t take it at all. So saying, he made us let go of him and left. But nobody would probably believe it when I say that, on return from his bath, my father heard everything and, without uttering a single word, sat down to eat, and ate as he was wont to do everyday without taking a grain less than usual.

Hardly had a couple of days passed when my husband appeared on the scene. My father was then at home. He went straight to him and said,

Money would be needed for the fees and other expenses for your eldest son’s examination. I know you don’t have cash money. This sum has to be arranged through the sale of some paddy. You talked of unforeseen difficulties; this paddy would be of use in such a difficulty of your son’s.

My father kept mum hearing this. Labourers will come in the afternoon. They will come back home before sundown after selling the paddy in the entrepot.

I had seen the other day how the son’s face turned crimson at his father’s words. Today I saw how the father-in-law’s face turned dazzlingly red at his son-in-law’s words. I did not fail to recognise it as my father’s supressed anger. But my father did not utter a word… neither a ‘yes’ nor a ‘no’ came out of his mouth.

People had come in the afternoon and the loft was opened. The village weighman had come, he weighed the paddy. My husband stayed put in one place, and my father took his lunch, got into his room and lay down after darkening the room not to come out even for once. We all stood in silence, my stepmother, with her veil drawn down to the lower edge of her forehead, stood watching the scene from behind the kitchen door and my step brothers and sisters were giving awe-struck looks. But my husband gave a damn to it all.

When cartloads of paddy were being taken to the market for sale, my husband also went out of the house along with those. My mother could not tell him a thing, did not have the opportunity to ask him to stay the night or some such thing. He was such a grave man that she had to stop short of bringing it out of her mouth. When my husband had but left, mother came out of the kitchen, opened the door to my father’s room and got inside. Thinking of what I do not remember, I also followed my mother. When I had reached the door, I heard my father saying, Since he has caused estrangement of my own son from me, his son would also not be required to go to school for long…

Alas! What has he said! Oh, what has he said!… O…h…I crumbled down to the ground with a thud. Oh, what is this he has said? Oh, where are my darlings, where are the apples of my eyes? Oh my God, I’ll go back home right now, right now with my darlings, my hearts! Not a moment more in this house. I’ll go back this very night.

Well, was it feasible to go back that very night? I did not take anything for the whole night, not even water. Nor did I exchange a word with anyone, nor closed the eyes. I held my two sons very close to the chest, passed the night and returned to the in-law’s house in the morning. My mother, brothers and sisters…all stood in a queue at the time of my departure, shedding incessant tears, but none of them could utter a word.

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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