The Man Who Eats Soil

Nasreen Jahan

Translated by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

With his eyes almost wide-open, he had been seated there for long. No more, because the world is half-dead – how long would the two living eyes compete with silence? Moreover, why does his nose have a strong smell of his own body like the male goat today? The old man came out from his hut.

He was looking strange. Falling down the wooly cap, his ugly grey hair stumbled upon the eyebrows. The long hair on the eyebrows almost hid the two eyes. There was a stream of sweat in his forehead. The stream waved through his whole body that got cringed.  There was only one thing that caught attention – his nose. Once the nose had been well known. Everybody knew him with the name ‘Neko Kallu,’ Kallu with a special nose. The chin lay under his shnivelled cheek. And what a body! There were so many freckles in the whole body. His hands and legs were very thin compared to the body. He had the most beautiful teeth, very strong even at this stage of life, that he inherited from his father, who had had the similar teeth. He heard his grandfather also had had the same, and the problem was indeed with the teeth.

Annoyed, everyone had left him one after another, so he sat as motionless as a stone. His worried mind wasn’t getting quiet in any way – have I done little for others in my whole life? Didn’t they sometimes seem unbearable to me? Could I leave them?

He passed two days looking at the pond outside along with the road, garbage and people’s waywardness through a small window. It seemed there was a large desolate field all around, and amidst that expanse, a small hut where he lived.

Kallu, hey Kallu – responding to such a ghostly call, he also came out of his hut staggering several times, but discovered only emptiness. He spent quite some time in excitement with a feeling that some of his near ones came back to him realizing their own mistakes or out of profound love. Still helpless, Kallu stood straight with his broken body. There was no other way for him. Extremely hungry, he also had a tingling sensation in his mucky teeth.

The hut was dark and rough. Half of the bedstead was under termites’ control. Besides, his only quilt was so sticky that he had to struggle to take his body away from it getting up in the morning. Once Kallu went far from such worldly affairs naturally. Once he began to walk even at the point of death, kept walking. Driven by senses and having smells, he looked back and forth and saw a green forest. Once upon a time he used to float in dreams after seeing films burning the midnight oil. Lying by his wife, he would see hoor (nymph) of heaven flying under rows of trees. Among so many houris, his wife had also seemed extraspecial. All those days were gone!

He stocked leaves with stalks in his hut. Let them be stocked. One can be happy seeing stocked things. One can live long seeing things. But stocking? How long could he appease his hunger through fasting? Sleep befell his eyes for exhaustion and fatigue. Then he no more felt hungry.

After waking up, he felt himself a homeless being. But it was just another day. Another morning, another noon, another night. Today’s troubles were for today. Tomorrow’s ones for tomorrow. But the body didn’t want to withdraw itself from the quilt. Since he couldn’t come out of the illusion yet, he heard a call from the ones who he had a blood relationship with yet again – Kallu, hey Kallu. For an unknown infatuation, he rose slowly to sit up. A cur ran off through the door straining. Then a civet.

With a shred of disaster within and self ego, he remained silent for long. Then extreme hunger almost blinded him. Terrestrial Kallu then went forward to water. But can one catch fish with hands? Could anyone ever do? Yet he attempted with two quivering hands. At the end, nothing happened – when he stood helpless, wind whizzed on. As a result, he fell prone with a thud by the bank. There were still tears in his eyes, so with the wet body, he cried to his heart’s content remembering near and dear ones, the ones who had left him in this humble cottage to go to cities embezzling his properties, and to avoid the liability of his old age. His hands and legs were quivering in hunger. It wasn’t even possible to get back home in such a condition.

Thumps and thuds! A frog was leaping forward in a little distance. God knows where strength hides in a hungry man! With the wet body, he swooped on the frog. Choked, the frog died.

As it was the first case, the Bengali eyes looked for fire, but there was no fire anywhere. He could burn it with sunlight, but didn’t have so much time.

No, there was no control over the self! There never remained anything stocked. What came went away soon. What would sunlight do? It turned out to be a habit – we need oven, match and so forth. Can one eat anything roasted without burning fire? He now went to his hut thinking all this, kept the frog with the stockpiled leaves. Coming out, he was searching thoroughly for at least a match if not oven keeping his watchful eyes all around.

He didn’t find any match, but some grasses, flies and insects. He piled them up beside the frog. His head was whirling in this situation, but would go to the shop tottering. A half-burning cigarette was seen. How delighted he was getting back to his hut! Eating a few animals after burning them, he began to stock the left. He was passing his days well this way. One day, like a four-footed creature, he grabbed a kitten in his room. Later this animal also got into his eating habit easily.

He was going through a very happy mood, and sometimes felt like dancing in pleasure. It seemed to him he was adjusting with this condition. Sitting by the door, he saw the sky, houses far away and roads with eyes open – Kallu, hey Kallu. With an ill feeling, spitting on such a dream, he jumped into the sticky bed.

When everyone had been around him – for the first time he realized – they had actually pitied him. He had been an animal to bear their weight. Then waking up, he felt he was already very old. He saw his saggy skin, downward chin and winking eyes like cobs in the mirror hung on the wall. He looked almost like a wild demon. Struggling with the tottered body, he felt every morning that he would die even before it was time. Where would you bury me? Everyone had been tired of such questions by him.

That Kallu inclined to love life. How courageous and self-reliant that timid Kallu was now! He realized days were being added to his life term. Like a man gaining full youth after annihilating fourteen generations, he used his own strength and discovery. Many hazards could be avoided if some creatures born like sycophants were eaten rather than destroyed!

He was walking. He never walks for the sake of walking. He looked out at the nature as far as his eyes could see. The sun hung on the lake. The location was so beautiful that the lower parts of his trousers sank into the sand as if it were the sea beach. It was a great feeling. But if cold wind blew, his resistance power would go down! Yet he didn’t decrease speed. He realized that a strong inclination to conquer fog and rain was escalating every day. He laughed with himself – hey Kallu, you’re indeed well, I see?

Should I be dying then? No, never.

Bravo! You gained confidence in speaking – you’re becoming young day by day! You would be very happy indeed if I looked for graves my whole life? I can’t let it happen. Can’t you see I’m still fine despite your ill intentions? Eh!

Yet, his mind sometimes went unstable. It seems a sharp ice rock was struck in his heart. He sweltered. Getting out of his hut at night, he looked at the clear sky to see millions of stars. But the bone-chilling cold due to fog and northern wind – though serene – overpowered him. Yet with his intolerable stubbornness, he remained seated under open sky.

Sitting there, he saw beautiful scenes. Brick after brick were being put on the grass, roads were expanding. There were chimney smoke, bricks, brick-dust all around – greens were vanishing from earth. What a strange affair! He thought starving humans would begin to eat trees after this. Extending their bare long pincers, they would go forward. Kallu got back to his hut running. He was worried if anyone got the information that there was mud in his floor. Sensing harm, he didn’t go out next day. There was no light around his hut. How dark! Black dark, blue dark, green dark. Strange! The open field that had lived for ages beside his hut, the field where Kallu had walked and talked alone, was covered with piles of bizarre bricks. Searching for a long time, Kallu didn’t find the field anymore.

Then he only wandered around the lake. Stretching out his hands into water, he took out snails, and then digging out soil, he collected earthworms and stocked them in the tin casket. Who knows why fear was overpowering him day by day, whereas even a few days back, he had been very happy? But since yesterday, from this morning, a fear as if of a ghost had grasped his heart. In the meantime, love and affection that he didn’t have for others anymore came back to him and touched his heart. Their faces were appearing before him. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. Despite resistance, when that fear and that profound love were deep-seated in him, and it seemed to him that death was nearing fast, just then Kallu flared up like an extinguishing flame. His loose secondhand overcoat was hanging down until his feet. Pulling it up with his left hand, he came out, and walked zigzag like a snake through bricks.

The cur whose fur was peeled off was sleeping, as if a leper. He felt love, and since he grew disgust in everything called love, and as it began to get into him now, he threw a brick, with an extreme celerity, just at the dog’s head.

With the flow of blood, the dog became crazy and twirled right-and-left, as if a ferocious animal swooped on him. He threw another one again. This time it hit on the soft part of the head. The dog fell down-faced. Then he began to beat it with an iron rod. Now the dog turned stilled. Pushing it into a sack, sweaty Kallu also faltered back to his hut.

Opening the small backdoor, Kallu saw with his astounded eyes that someone had cut down the trees that had spread pure green so long. With extreme rage, he dissected the dog’s legs with a knife when he was feeling blank. After cutting the dog into pieces, Kallu became tired, his mind also turned calm. But how strange, one day he noticed there was neither the pond nor sand there. Was then the crystal clear and flowing water filled with soil? Returning home, distracted Kallu sat motionless. In fact, his mind then became weak. Wherever he looked at, he saw dire straits all around. Something needed to be done, otherwise teeth itched, and the tongue, stomach and other parts of the body ached. All of a sudden, Kallu took the rusty knife in hand. The mud floor was still there. He began to dig it out. Morning, noon and night went by – still he continued digging attentively. He must survive – this thought gradually engrossed him. He continued to mutter – soil, soil. Could he conquer hunger? No, this unashamed supernatural power was wringing his body to squeeze out vitality of his life. One day, he was taken aback as all the food items that he had stocked instead of appeasing hunger got rotten. Horrendous bad smell spread all over the room!

Just then he opened the window, and realized his eyesight was blurring. And darkness permeated all around. He stopped digging and remained seated for long. He now went out to search for sleep that he had lost as the last thing. Strange, the world became so bland without water, animals and grass! Since three-fourths of the world are water, at least there should remain water here. For this, he piled up food. When he wouldn’t have strength to get up from bed, then the foods would help him survive. Who knew the world would be this desert? His heart unbearably dried up. His wear was getting wet with fog. Kallu walked awkwardly, to a large extent like a frog, with heavy thumps. He also stumbled against lumps of bricks. His legs as strong as iron began to bleed. The smoky eyes repeatedly searched for not green, not water, but food. He then twirled like a rootless creature. While on the middle of the wide road, he saw a large boulder – passersby couldn’t walk for it. With all force, Kallu pushed the boulder, but couldn’t move it even a little. Exhausted Kallu then walked opposite to get back home. While walking, he had a taste of dews by the tongue. But what made him weak and embarrassed was that he began to sense he was gradually getting on the verge of death, especially he was almost certain of this while pushing the boulder. He had no strength left in his body. The sun was setting, and fresh air, green leaves and water stream were vanishing one by one. The unnecessary creatures that were his normal food items were getting struck under bricks. If he went out, he didn’t easily find out his own hut amidst so many buildings.

In a bewildered state, Kallu got back home, the place where he was digging his own grave – after a few days, he would be evicted from here too. Apart from it, he no more had the strength with which he had started the act of digging – he was bit by bit losing strength. But he felt he must complete the work with whatever mental strength he had. All-devouring hunger made him almost insane.

With quivering hands and two eyes filled with tears, Kallu searched for something scraping through soil with the hands – as his nose, eyes and face turned red, he opened his mouth. When fistfuls of soil began to get into Kallu’s pathetic open mouth, he laughed in a strange way. He hadn’t laughed this much since birth.

Translated by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

teaches English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh.

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