2nd Episode

The Firebird

Hasan Azizul Huq

Translated by Ali Ahmed

he bearded uncle puffs at his pipe inside his room facing the East. The servant Abjash enters that room at noon with rice and curry on a large tray. He also has a long strip of cloth called dastarkhan on one of his shoulders to be placed on the floor on which the tray and plates would be placed. That self-same Abjash also serves him food at night. Whether during the day or at night, no one else would dare go near him. Isn’t it a little queer? And hear again: when even crows have gone under shelter in the scorching sun, dirt and the heated waves of air make breathing difficult, some fool from a certain other village was passing from in front of the outhouse. The bearded uncle only shouted out, Who is it? Who goes there? Abjash, go catch hold of him and bring him along! Let me see which grown up libertine passes along the road from in front of my house with an umbrella over his head? You impudent!

No more was needed to be said, that man would fold his umbrella and all and start shaking. People would say our bearded uncle was a saint of a man. Some would say, a couple of dzins would run his errands. We don’t know all these. We would, under no circumstances, go in front of him. After he died, the bearded uncle was buried at the bank of the tank to the north of the outhouse. None of us knows why he was not buried in the graveyard.

Be that as it may, brothers and sisters have made a large clan of it. No one had the courage to say a word. But my father himself did not like mingling with others. Not even with his brothers and cousins. It’s true he married again after my mother’s death, but his lonely nature persisted. Sometime after her marriage, our new mother bore us a brother. Another three sisters followed. A good person like the new mother can hardly be found in the world. She has her eyes all around, but more of them on me and my younger brother, her own children coming afterwards. The face of the rather dark woman looked as if it were painted on a canvas. And what qualities did those hands of hers contain! One who has ever tasted of her cooking would never again be able to forget it. No one would be able to match her art of smearing the mud-walls. She would cause red earth to be brought from the fields of the village erol on a bullock cart. With that mud, she would smear the walls with the likeness of cloudlets upon cloudlets. It looked as if the walls were the sky covered with clouds upon red clouds furrowed with axes and spades.

No sooner had the son to our new mother been born than my uncles from the maternal grandfather’s house about four miles away came and said, It’s well and good that our brother-in-law has married as soon as our sister died leaving behind a son and a daughter; it is also good that a new son has been born to him, but we will take our nephew with us and rear him up. Let the niece remain here. It meant that my own brother from the same mother would be taken away by my maternal uncles and I would remain in my father’s house. Two or three of my maternal uncles were till then alive, and so were the aunts. But my maternal grandfather was there no more. Their economic condition was neither good nor bad. It was rather on the bad side. But it was a large, renowned family, not peasants or the like. None of them ploughs fields with his ownhands. Some of them were teachers in elementary schools, others in religious seminaries—-a family of educated men, of course. Some were idlers, who would roam around angling in the ponds of one village and then onto another throughout the year, some would try composing traditional verses, while others had a hobby of puffing at tobacco of different kinds. What a great variety of tobacco, and what a large array of equipment and accessories for its puffing, whatmayI say of that! The womenfolk had no business other than cooking and its related activities and rearing of children. Again marriages were from one house to another—-girls were not married outside the extended family—-and girls from outside were not generally brought into the family. That was the way among the Muslim aristocracy. Anyway, when they proposed to take my brother away, father did not utter a word. His nature was like that. Well, if you really want to take the son, so be it. You’re thinking he won’t be reared up well in my family, won’t get enough to eat! Damn you! He wouldn’t even articulate these words, such a reticent man was he! He only said, there would never be any lack of food here in my place. But I won’t say anything if you don’t want to leave your nephew to a stepmother. You’ll do all that is required, I’ve no expectation from the son.

The maternal uncles really wrested the brother from my waist. My father did not get out of the house; the new mother shed copious tears holding her own newborn at her lap.

The maternal uncles went away with my brother.

The flowers of my marriage blossomed

The grandma was there no more. My younger brother was not with me either. The new mother herself looks after her own son, so I was not much required to go around with him. How, while doing all these, I suddenly grew up one day, I myself could not know. And, on one of those days, I had left the small wearing material of the girl and started putting on coarse handloom saris. Saris and dhotis in those days could be bought direct from the handloom weavers’ houses. After beginning to wear saris, I did not much go out of home.

Ponds and ditches, trees and plants and the mud-houses with protruding ribs would give away that our village was very old. The metalled road was laid just the other day during wartime. Two motor buses a day—-one in the morning and the other at dusk—-would pass along that road. Besides this, it was quiet all day—-the village seemed as if it were not of this world. I know the village so well! Such a huge peepultree in front of the household, isn’t it inauspicious? A peepultree should be located in the middle of the fields, or in the middle of the village, where people would come sit down, would puff at their hookah—-no, not that, the peepul tree, such a huge thing, stands in the courtyard of the house. Isn’t it ominous? Crows and kites are perching on its branches, even vultures are perching too. Bones of dead cows and calves and torn hides of cats and dogs are thrown in the courtyard of the house. I observed on many days, while going out to other neighbourhoods, two shakchunnis(a variety of harmless ghosts imagined by simple villagers—-translator) perching on top of the wood apple tree, at noontime, with their feet dangling, waiting to steal some householder’s fried fishes and to eat them. The air of this village is like that. Anyone, so wishing, could see the evil spirits just after dusk beside the large pond in the midst of the fields. People knew all these, but they would consider those as members of theirown households. People would think, as if, humans are of two types—-the living and the dead. They are destined to live side by side. Who can say with any measure of certainty that among the living men and women moving around, there is not a dead man or two? There is no way of identifying them. No one would be able to say in which form and in whose disguise the dzinsand the ghosts are moving around among the living men and women. A dzin used to live in my youngest maternal uncle’s house; I myself heard him speaking. He was a good dzin, who, when a guest came visiting unannounced, would say in a shrill and nasal voice, Go and get the sweets on the bedstead in the verandah. Won’t you need sweets since so and so has come visiting?

It’s true sweets would be needed; but why did you go to fetch them?, asked my maternal uncle.

When guests come home visiting, they have to be entertained, looked after.

Agreed. But, then, wherefrom did you bring the sweets, and whose sweets are they?

We’re dzins, we can do everything.

Have you paid for the sweets, whomsoever you might have brought them from?

We’ve not to pay for anything.

My uncle, a teacher at the elementary religious school, said a little angrily, never again bring them, please.

The steel sheet roofing then started making a loud sound; it could be understood that the dzin also became angry.

 Be that as it may, we know, but others don’t, that midnight and midday are alike, there’s no difference whatsoever between them. As the stillness of the midnight sends out an uncanny feeling of fear, so does the midday. If one does not believe this, one has got to get inside a village of that time on an-early-June midday. The midday is exactly like a still midnight. The whole village looks deserted, not a soul in sight on the roads, no sound of a living being from anywhere—–and in an eerie atmosphere like this, that offensively smelly civet cat darts forth from the raised platform of the cowshed on to the road and runs, yelping, through the heated dirt. Now who can vouch it is actually a civet cat, and not something else? And those one or two old mud houses scattered in this or that corner of the village, where no human being lived in, and whose coal-tarred wooden doors of mango tree planks, fastened with chains, and locked, were those houses completely empty? The walled courtyards, the porticoes of those houses—-were they completely vacant? It just can’t be. Why did people desert those homesteads, those houses? No one would be able to tell that.

Again, go to the self-same village in the morning or in the afternoon—-how nice things are! People are coming and going, talking to one another, children are giggling, girls of the neighbourhood are just frolicking about—–where are the ghosts, and the dzins? There is none around. In the morning, the young male members and the young boys, spades and ploughs on their shoulders and the flocks of cattle in front, proceed on to the fields, the teacher of the elementary school, wearing a clean, short dhoti and a kurta of coarse cloth, goes to his school, and the small children also go to that school. What a beauty! That’s why I was saying, the one and the same village, but it has so many different forms.

As for myself, I didn’t go to the elementary school even for a day. My father did not allow me to. What would a girl do with a school and studies? Will be somewhat disrespectful, will talk back on one’s face—-is that it? What’s the need to study in an elementary school for that? Even I cannot believe now, there were days like these once. People would not move out in those days, nobody would go anywhere—-they would all live together more or less in one place throughout an entire life. No one would venture out even a couple of miles from his own village. Wherever one goes—-to one’s own lands in the field, the crops, the pond, the paddy fields—–one would come right back at dusk, there would, under no circumstances, be an exception to this. Why would people go anywhere! Someday he may be required to go to market, may go to the trading-post or the entrepot with a cartload of paddy for sale, or might go to a relation’s house a village or two away. Of what use would education be to the village people? My father would therefore think, whom all these education are for!

Well, I did not go to school alright, but would months and years sit still for that? I suddenly heard one day that a proposal for my marriage had come. I was fourteen or fifteen at the time. I was considered quite old by the reckoning of those days. If girls of our age would commit a mistake, mothers and aunties would reprimand, don’t you feel ashamed of laughing your heart out? You would by now have been mother of a couple of children, were you to be married in time. So what was there to be surprised about if the proposal for my marriage had come? The proposal came, discussions continued but nobody so much as asked me a word. Why should they? I had nothing to say in the matter. What the guardians would do, go. If they think they would marry me to a banana plant, I have to accept that. Those days were like that. Sons were probably not as much of a disliked responsibility as the daughters were. If the father thought he would cut his daughter to pieces and put those afloat, nobody had anything to say to that. This is why I said that the daughter won’t be allowed to ask who she was going to be married to. She couldn’t even ask of the age of the bridegroom, not to speak of his handsomeness or qualities. She was required to accept the groom even if he was old or infirm. A girl of fifteen, in those days, would frequently be married off to an old man of sixty. Twice- or thrice-married, the athsmatic, the drunk, the very lowly in society——none would lack a beautiful girl for marriage. I was, from that point of view, extremely lucky as I heard that the groom was only a score and eight years old. No better addition table was available in those days. What if he were twice my age—-it was a great luck that I was getting married at all! Men, in those days, would first be married when his age was two scores of years. There was nothing wrong in that.

I heard that a proposal had come from a village nearly eight miles away. A little faraway, no doubt, but some of the distance could be covered by the railways and some by bus. It was rather a dry country, so if one would ride a bullock cart through the fields, one could reach there before the day’s end. Well, whether be it far or near, this proposal couldn’t but be accepted. Although of late fallen on slightly hard times, it was a large, renowned family, and would never fall short of basic necessities like food and clothing.

I heard only this much. Nobody raised the issue of how the groom was, or what he did, and I couldn’t know anything more. How could I then know I was so fortunate as to have such a husband! He was slim, short-statured and a rather dark man, but had the strength of a thunder from the sky. Still he was a golden man, but not so for me at all—–for all the others. Not just for parents, siblings, or relations, he was like that for people all around. What shall I say of myself? He, throughout his entire life, slighted me, verbally abused me excessively, and attempted to drag me by the arms out of the house, yet rightly do I know in my heart how he adored me. But that was only inwardly; or else how was it that he would do good to all around him, and won’t so much as throw a glance at me!

The wedding took place in the late afternoon. We were united after dusk. No sooner had it been done than he started preparing to return, in a palanquin, with his men to his own village. After saying it once or twice, no one dared request him again to stay the night. After all, they have to cover so long a path in a palanquin through the fields! The times were not good, they would be carrying gold and other jewelleries with them, how long might it take for the danger to strike? He did not pay heed to anybody’s words. He had a few skilled fighters with sticks, and the Bauri(a class of lowly peasants specialised in carrying palanquins—– translator) palanquin carriers are all skilled fighters with sticks. So there were no worries. Four pitch-black Bauricarriers sped like wind with the palanquin through the pitch-black night. The bearers had all long, strong sticks in their hands, and they were all of monstrous appearances. Who would stand before them? Members of the accompanying bridal party followed them in that darkness. Only one of them carried a bright gaslight.

My new mother was then expecting. She was such a small creature, couldn’t make much of movements! She already had by then a child—a son. The new mother, as custom demanded, held me in her arms and wept. I wept too. This was the custom—-you had to wrap the neck around with your arms and weep, or else you would be ridiculed. But some would weep as custom demanded, making an interrupted, hissing sound, some would blow their noses noisily faking sadness while still others would genuinely feel as if their ribcages would burst out in sorrow. I had the latter feeling. I was taking leave for ever leaving behind this mother, brother, this homestead, this pond and the ghat, and this sky and the fields. Recollections came crowding back. Where would my mother, father and brother be! The new mother could not even loudly cry. She was gasping for breath with the weight of the unborn child inside her. Large tears rolled down her cheeks.

You would stay for two months a year with me. I’ll cause you to be brought back.

I think right from the day of my marriage till the birth of the last child, this routine was not much disturbed. That new mother really made me forget my sorrows for my own mother.

In a short time, during that self-same night, the bearers reached my father-in-law’s house with the bridal palanquin. I took leave of my birthplace for ever.

My warm reception in the mud palace

The Bauri palanquin bearers came again in the morning. They started decorating the palanquin. They would take me to the palace. What matter was this! No one told me anything. As a new bride, whom could I ask? My husband at last came into the room and said, with his neck a little turned away to one side, that the Raja’s(Zaminder’s) house is in the same village—not very far away; just from this neighbourhood to the other. But we would lose face if you go there in a bullock cart. You have to go in a palanquin. Put on all the jewelleries you have. You have to put on the red Benares sari of the wedding night, use the make-up and then go, do you understand? They are the Raja’s relations.

My husband was treated as a son in that house. That was why the new bride has to go there to be shown to them. That was the first time I had the occasion to have a closer look at my husband. How clearly did he speak! Never again did I hear, throughout my life, anyone speaking so clearly. Never did I hear him utter the rustic, household language as we do. But here he was a simple man. Alas! How could I, then, know that this simple man was such a hard man!

No sooner had the palanquin been lifted than it was lowered at the main gate of a house in the Hindu neighbourhood. I watched through the chinks in its doors that the palanquin was carried, as though in a moment, along the grass-covered banks of two or three rather large tanks with their sloping cemented steps reaching down to the water’s edge and through the gaps between quite a few large trees, and reached a huge gate. My husband had, of course, already reached there on foot slightly before we did. I could immediately understand that the person I saw on lifting my eyes from within the palanquin was the mistress of the house. She was a very fair, flabby lady, not very tall. As she had advanced in age, her midriff was palpably slackened. One would feel awed to look at that heavy face. She had close-cropped, white hair, and was rather heavy, hunch-backed and old. She was said to be the Raja’s niece.

I have come to know now, as I did not do so before,that the Raja’s father-in-law’s house is in this village. The Raja is said to be not so high in the caste structure of Hindu society, and was therefore not finding a suitable girl worth marrying within his own caste. He at last found a beautiful girl in a poor family of his own caste in this village and reportedly married her, and for the same reason gave his own niece in marriage in this same village. This village therefore is where the Raja’s father-in-law’s house is. This is why this village boasts of a fully cemented compound dedicated to the god Shiva with three brick and cement temples there and a brick-built building for a school. There is not a single school like that in the area, and there is a very large tank and a huge landed property to defray the expenses of running the school. There is in the village another family related to the Raja, probably, someone from amongst the Raja’s brothers or close relations. They look after the property, enjoy its fruits, and the niece gets almost nothing out of this. This niece’s house does not have any mentionable camaraderie with the members of that house.

I heard all these later. I was then looking agape at the face of the grand mistress. Was there ever so insignificant a suggestion of a smile on that face? She only uttered, Come along. The wives and maids accompanying her took me down from the palanquin. As the grand mistress, after making an about -turn, started thudding along the way, we followed her and got into the house.

It had such a huge courtyard! The entire house, including the courtyard, was surrounded on all sides with a boundary wall built of mud. Everything was flawless and spotlessly clean. Blueberry, guava and the hog-plum trees were standing scattered here and there in the courtyard—-and marigold, sandhyamoni, patharkuchi, basil plants besides these were there too. The whole of the frontyard was shaded. The entire courtyard was swept clean, and not a dry leaf was to be found anywhere. There stood a rather large south-facing two-storied mud building adjacent to the northern side of the courtyard. The roof of the building was made of dried hay, but its joists and rafters were all made out of saland palm logs. From the look of it, one would have a feeling as though a building such as this one would last forever. And all the other areas—the kitchen, the drawing room—-are, no doubt, built of mud, but they appear to be new, it appears as though they have purposefully built such a  building with a view to living in a mud house, otherwise, building a brick-house was nothing for them.

Across the courtyard, and up beyond the wide corridor of the second floor of the building, I was taken to the semi-darkness of a rather cool room and was made to sit on a low wooden stool. The grand mistress had on her person a fine, white dhoti with a thin border. She was after all a widow! But she had no blouse on. The village wives and daughters in those days would not put on blouses. The grand mistress after all was the wife of such a renowned family! I thought, wouldn’t she at least put on a blouse?

There was in a corner of the room a rather heavy and large chair made out of the timber of a jackfruit tree. The grand mistress came and sat on that chair. I noticed that her feet were also bare. Yes, she was looking like a queen alright! She was rather flabby and brightly fair, and occupied the entirety of the chair so much so that no room on it was left unoccupied. From her position there, she made a sign with her hands to a middle-aged woman. She had a rather wide stretch of vermillion on her forehead between the partings of hair. She fetched a jewellery box from another corner of the room and placed it before me. The grand mistress then looked at me and slowly said, Dear daughter-in-law, please doff all the jewellery on your person one by one. Let me adorn you with my own ornaments and see how you look in them, dearie! When I had heard this, I forgot everything and kept on doffing my ornaments one after another while looking at the face of the grand mistress. After all my ornaments had thus been doffed, that middle-aged woman, at a sign from the grand mistress’ eyes, opened the wooden jewellery box, brought out one piece of jewellery after another, and began to don them on me. Those heavy jewellery of pure gold started glittering in the semi-darkness of the room. I was gradually made to wear, one after another, a bracelet, an armlet, ear-rings, a nose-ring chained with one ear-lobe, a tiara, a waist-girdle, and a heavy, scorpion-shaped broad necklace. There were other ornaments too, but there was no room to put them on. The grand mistress said, Dear daughter-in-law, don’t put these ornaments off now. There are more ornaments in that box, and let your ornaments be in the self-same box too. They will put the box in the palanquin when you leave.

After the grand mistress had said this, that woman again put all my jewellery back in that box, secured it with the lock and placed the key before me. How elegant was that jewellery box! Its entire upper surface was inlaid with ivory in fascinating patterns. And as it was made of sandalwood, a fragrance would be wafted to one’s nose if one would pick it up in one’s hands. That fragrance and that pattern are no longer to be found in this world. No one would ever again find them anywhere.

After the ornaments had been donned, a large, white stone plate full of sweets of different kinds was placed before me. There was no question of sweets of this kind being available in the village, they had to be brought in from the town. After this, milk condensed by boiling, frumenty and so many other sweets were brought in! The grand mistress only said, Dear daughter-in-law, please take them.

Can one alone eat anything in front of so many persons? I did somehow put a little bit in my mouth and then drew my hands away and remained seated.

At long last, the grand mistress struggled out of the chair, stood up and said, Please remember, my dear, you are the wife of my oldest son. You have brothers- and sisters-in-law. They are all young. I may probably not be there at the time they are married. You have got to manage everything then.

I noticed that the grand mistress also does not speak the colloquial language. After I had got into the palanquin, she called my husband out by name and said, My daughter-in-law is a golden idol. Beware against ever putting her to troubles. That would do you no good.

Let me now tell you an interesting thing. Despite so much of happenings, the grand mistress, even for once, did not extend her hands to me, did not touch me, in fact. It is known that after all these are finished and done with, she will once more wash herself, change clothes and only then will she set herself to doing the domestic chores.

Out of depth in a large family

I as a new bride came as if from a ditch to a large pond. It was a large family, and I always felt out of depth. Our clan was also large, no doubt; it was spread over the entire village. But they were all separate families of brothers and close relations. Our own family was small, even when my mother was still alive. With her death, it became for some time still smaller. After the arrival of the new mother, and with the birth, one after another, of my younger brothers and sisters through her till the time of my marriage, the family became somewhat larger no doubt, but not , for that matter, as large as this one. My husband and his brothers were five in number. There were two wives including me. Only the first and the second of the brothers were married. The others were not married till then. The youngest of the brothers was very young, indeed; he would hardly be eight or nine. Of the four sisters, two were married. The eldest one lived in the village with her husband and family. The second was ill-fated. She came back to this family after having become a widow at the age of nine only. The remaining two were not married till then. There were so many members in the family, but towering above them all was my mother-in-law. She was, no doubt, quite advanced in age, but was sufficiently strong and active till then. Some strands of her hair had grown grey; she had not lost a single tooth, and could crush a whole betelnut between her two rows of teeth. The mother-in-law was very fair, unlike my husband, who was rather dark-complexioned. A widow, she would put on white dhotis but the end of it would be drawn down to her forehead in the manner of married women. I could, at first sight, immediately recognise her as the mistress of the house. And the second in order was that widowed sister-in-law. She, after having become a widow at the age of nine, returned to the family of her brothers. The custom of widow re-marriage in this family and clan was like that among the Hindus: they were not to be re-married. This sister-in-law was then at the prime of her youth. She was no doubt older than I was, but not by more than four or five years.

How many days could I pass on as a new bride? After the passage of only a few days, I set myself to the drudgery of pulling the family along as if with the ears shut, the eyes blindfolded and the back sufficiently padded. But this otherwise dark cloud had a silver lining—-I was not required in this family to supervise anything. For that there was the mistress of the house. She would see whatever was required to be seen, and do whatever would be required to be done. The eldest son’s wife and I were required only to pull along. Yes, that was the beginning of the pulling along of the oil-mill, and I could not stop, even for once, throughout the rest of my life. If I was asked to go right, I went right, and when asked to go left, I went left. It was only to follow orders. I now realise, that no work of this life have I done myself. Nor did I ever know how to enforce the will of my own. Am I a human being, or just the shadow of one, and if the latter, is it my own?

But it was no doubt a carefree state. I was required to fix nothing whatsoever—–all that was required to be done or said would be done and said by the mistress. And no ordinary mistress was she! A short-statured person, the upper end of her white sari would come down to cover the lower edge of her forehead, and not a trace of dirt was to be found anywhere on her body. I would often wonder how people could remain so clean. She would infrequently utter a word or two that would express neither love nor a lack of it. And if anyone would do something she did not like, a sentence or two she uttered would pierce the doer’s heart. That was the most fearsome of conditions. But she was no doubt a strict dispenser of justice, and would never do a wrong or utter an unjust word. Never would she waver with things—-would ensure a full, complete and an acute justice. Would it be possible to maintain such a large family without ensuring justice like that? That is why I say that my mother-in-law was not a person of this world.

But, on this side, the master of the house was the second brother, my husband. His elder brother and my older brother-in-law, despite being a few years older than my husband, was rather an absent-minded, simple man. He had no attachment to wealth or property. He remained, till the last days of his life, as though younger than my husband, and did not assume any responsibility for anything. He was inwardly, as though, a little afraid of his younger brother. He had a weakness for good food and fashionable clothes. But that was not much! He never had children of his own, and was all for the children of his brothers’. How he adored the young children! Especially my children. After giving birth, consecutively, to two sons, I became the mother of a daughter. That girl was his life. He would very often not be at home. Whenever he would come home after long gaps, he would bring in potful of sweets. He would not get inside home without it. He would probably borrow from someone or waste money from the business to buy sweets, toys etc. for the children, and would get rebukes from my husband for this. He would question, Why should you waste money for nothing? He would, after hearing all those rather strong words, remain standing in awe and shame before his younger brother in a manner as though he was caught stealing. But that was all. Those strong words would get into one ear only to get out of the other. The children would mob him the moment he got inside the house, and some would climb on to his shoulders while others would reach the top of his head. And none of them would address him as great uncle; they would actually address him as great daddy. Although all the responsibilities of the family devolved on my husband, the second son, he would, on the other hand, and if situation so demanded, call in his elder brother home to ask him whether or not the former would do such and such jobs. The elder brother  also being what he was, would utter only a short sentence, Do if you feel like, Go ahead if you consider it good enough. We would be so surprised! The elder would be rebuked whenever the younger so liked. Again looking forward to him for orders under certain especial circumstances! But it must also be admitted that a lot could be learnt from this family as to how much a younger one could be revered if he really deserved it.

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