Translated by Haroonuzzaman
A s soon as the ramblings of the military vehicles on the government roads of the village become prominent, people start to run amuck. Who listens to whom! Some of them are running off wildly; some are limping off painfully; out of the two hands, some are dragging their children by their necks by one hand while they are holding on to the rope of their cattle by the other; some are fleeing away screaming, with containers made of tin on their heads. They are the groups of ignorant, unlettered and helpless peasants. Having a look at the miserable scene of their flight from fear, it seems as if they have been running for their lives for ages. However, the intelligent, educated and well-heeled people are not budging an inch – they know they will die if they move. In the Buddhist locality, somehow they along with their kids squeeze themselves in cowsheds, granary and fuel-wood stores. A pall of gloom descends on their appearance – it seems they will not budge an inch from there even if they are beaten up. Of them, most of the escapees are the middle-class people from the city. If they are evicted from the places they are in now, they will be left with no shelters. With crockery, beddings and essentials for cooking – rice, oil and salt – they are well into the settlement process of their family life in their makeshift shelters. If there is no political solution in sight, they will become the residents of the Buddhist area. Some of the empty houses are under tenement, while some are renting out their houses for extra earnings. During haat day, the shortage of the daily necessities – vegetables, fish and meat – has unsettled the demand-supply ratio of the dwellers of the Buddhist neighborhood. A chef, who is a returnee from Great Britain, has been intelligent enough to set up a tea-stall on one side of his father’s land which is close to the road.
Sitting around the tea-shop on temporary bamboo-made stools, the locals continue to have heated exchanges on politics over smoldering cups of tea; at times, news – good and bad – trickles in from different sources, triggering barrage of quarrels. The escapees have been packed like sardines in the school, library and club-house. Regular fracas aside, oftentimes they trade acerbic verbal abuses against each other; they become loquacious over trifling matters – who to collect a plate before whom for a meal and who to grab a pillow before whom to get ready for managing a space for a good night’s sleep. Instead of being afraid of their lives, they seem to have become crazier about how they should hold on to their lives. If any great person is to come there, the person has to proceed through a storm of accusations and complaints which, if summarized, would mean that whatever they had lost would never be compensated even if the entire world was given to them.
Meanwhile, the tea-stall of the London-returnee gradually becomes a bustling hub. I was surprised to see an old man out there one day. He had a massive beard covering his cheeks and chins and was wearing a white and dirty loincloth. In city haunts, so many spicy stories would fly around him, which made me imagine that he was the hero of a romantic novel. I did not know him personally; however, I could recognize him easily as soon as I would see him. He looked as though he were the last representative of the falling Zemindar class. His clothes, appearance and talks did not have any signs of sharpness, but outwardly, he bore some sort of aristocracy that was shining like a sword in a scabbard. We did not know how he exercised his power; we just heard stories that revolved around his use of megalithic authority. Even when he was past his prime, he was being driven around the city in his Fiton car. Barely were we fortunate to make sense of the stories that had been flying around about him during that time. The chapter of their history was drawing to a close when we actually started to become intelligent enough to be able to realize things.
Our time is unfortunately reprehensible and persistently corruptible. We have not seen an upright, well-mannered and subjects-loving Zemindar; not to speak of a king! To talk about an illustrious emperor is beyond our imagination! He is tantamount to the dream of a mythological mountain! I heard that they not only would revere the knowledgeable persons, look up to the talented and genius people in veneration and punish the sinners and criminals but also would build the country by propagating peace, promoting welfare and nurturing beauty. However, considering the country’s situation, this hearsay often seems unbelievable. As soon as we think of a Zemindar’s house, we tend to identify it as an exquisitely beautiful palace, surrounded by a big wall. It appears as if it is a light of luck in the middle of the wilderness of grassland, with ramshackle houses, unfit for human habitation, located at remote places which bear the dying signs of the repository of diseases and starving population. This is the country – the subjects and the butterfly, the Zemindar.
Seeing a well-built man in a gathering of my learned father, I asked him: “Dad, who is he?” My father spoke in whispers: “Zemindar.” The man would wear a see-through fine Punjabi, the hands of which would be frilled and finely creased; he would put on a dhoti, embroidered with thread of gold. The border of the dhoti would be crimped by hands; he would wear a pair of brown and shiny shoes. Starting from his mustache to his hair and eyebrows, everything would be well-arrayed and scented. If it were a peacock-throne instead of a chair he was sitting on, I would touch the ground with my eight limbs, lying at full length with my face to the ground to pay him my respect, considering him to be kartik, the extremely good-looking Hindu God who is the commander-in-chief of the heavenly forces. Although this Zeminder was not a God or a deity, he was worthy of being greeted with genuflection.
Later I heard that the Zeminder had attended the sitting of my father to get his speech written down by him.
Since my childhood, I would hear that the land of art and culture of this country would not be fertile without the patronization of the kings and emperors – I do not know whether this statement is true, but what I do know is that there is an intention behind it to haul out the optimum benefits from it. There is a saying that goes like this – this world is a drama-stage of ‘give and take’. Since I shall reap the benefits, I am the giver.
The way the kings and emperors had nurtured and nourished the artisans and artistes, the same way the artistes and artisans had to sweat and drudge to entertain them to pay back their favors. A question might arise at this point – in exchange of supreme felicity, could the kings and emperors let them have what they deserved? Food, shelter, and clothing – were the provisions, something to reckon with? Why did the people rush to the sages and mendicants then? To get what? If this was to be told in another way, then it should be said that the mental faculty of the kings and emperors would never be ingenious without their association with the artistes and artisans. The artistes and artisans did not have the rights to enjoy the benefits, though. With this statement, my objective is not to stir up a ring of agitation against the kings and emperors. In the beginning, I said that I did not see any kings or emperors; neither did I know what that period was about and how the society was during that time. It was beyond my dream.
What I had listened to from the people and what I had gathered from my reading were enough to suggest that the then artistes and artisans could not stick to the pure art form for entertaining their patrons. They were the slaves of the kings and emperors to make up for the favors that they had got in the name of food, clothing and shelter. Excepting performing in their party, they could not even think of sharing their work of art among the general people.
When I was a child I had a cordial relationship with a Zemindar-maintained artiste. Although his way of life and manners were aristocratic, he would put his music into practice arduously. He would practise music for at least ten to eleven hours daily. As he would practise his music austerely, he would also eat ravenously. Not only did their clothing represent delicate taste but also had a capricious inclination for late-night drinking. I did not have much idea as to what other things they would fancy doing, but what I marked one day was that he had become unusually excited while checking the tonsil of one of his students. Vicious slanders on women-related matters about him were circulating in air. To sum up, he was not only an artiste nurtured and nourished by the fading Zemindary system but also a handsome and intelligent musician of refined taste. However, he had to open a restaurant to pull him through during the Second World War. During the cartographic divide of the subcontinent, he along with his family members had to become refugees. The same misfortune also fell on the Zeminder who patronized him.
Floods of memories took me over as I saw the old man, the waning representation of the Zemindary system, sitting at the tea-stall. Simultaneously, an evening of a musical institution of the city came alive in my mind. A dance rehearsal was on during that time. Disembarking from his Fiton car, he entered the room. Elaborate arrangements were made for him to sit beside the women; he was enjoying the rehearsal while having amorous conversations with them. Even the directors remained alert in providing him with adequate entertainment.
A raunchy story got wide currency in Chittagong during that time. The story went like this – a film star of the then Calcutta violently moved the heart of a rich man’s over-indulgent son who sought sensual pleasures only.
The spoiled brat of that time – the old man of today – one day invited the film star to a dinner in his hotel room in Calcutta. In drunkenness, he tightly hugged the invitee to his chest. Instead of being a sweet-toned musician of the heaven, she turned into a monster. Immediately, she picked up the telephone and called up the police: “Hello, Lalbazar.” Intercepting her, the pampered son said: “If you give money, the police are under your control. It is better you take that amount, instead.”
It was difficult to cow the film star into submission.
“How much will you be able to give me?” She asked.
“How much do you want? Say that.”
The mollycoddling boy sent someone to his mother to give her the news. His mother did not have the cash ready at her hand; therefore, she sent her gold ornaments with the man to save her son from insults.
Handing over the ornaments to the film star, the son, left spoilt by the indulgence of his parents, said: “These are my mother’s ornaments. I’ll pay the cash tomorrow to take them back. I hope I am free now.”
Being aged, the coddled boy of that day took shelter at the Buddhist locality today.
The tea-stall was getting crowded. As the seats around the teashop were gradually getting occupied, he went outside. Also, I was about to do the same when the shopkeeper beckoned me to sit on a stool: “You sit here. He was sitting here for a long time. How can we do business if someone keeps occupying a seat, sipping a cup of tea for hours? Because of this old man, it has become difficult to run the business. He still tries to exercise his authority even in his bad days! He demands the tea-cups and saucers to be washed in hot water; he orders someone to bring this and that for him. He questions as to whether or not the food is stale. Ah, you know your days are numbered; you are going to be shot at anytime, man! Lying on the funeral pyre, you are clinging on to the things you like! What a pity!”
I was speechless. What could I say? I did not have anything to say.
Unfortunately, the wealthy people do not do any good to the general people of the country. That is why, they cannot demand any compassion from the public when they are rendered penniless. Someone cannot be rich without depriving others; therefore, if someone wants to do something good to others, many rich persons consider it to be a misuse of their wealth. As a result, they take recourse to sensual pleasures which leave them penniless eventually. Therefore, the common people do not feel sorry for them; instead, they treat them with full of slight and neglect. If someone has to get empathy from the public, he or she has to give something good back to them. The reason why the well-heeled of this country is unfortunate is because they do not know how to exchange the garland of ‘give and take’.
Thinking about the awfully wretched condition of the old man, I started to empathize with him. I was peevishly harsh towards him, though.
Right now he is in a death-trap. He does not have any way out. He just cannot survive through trickery and flattery. Using those tactics, he might have survived during those times, but things are different now; he will not be able to do it anymore. The wind is blowing in a different direction.
I asked: “With whom is he living?”
The shopkeeper, who is a London-returnee, puckered up his face as if he had gulped some bitter liquid down and said: “I don’t know what to say. He has set up a household in my cowshed. What a self-conceited woman his wife is! She doesn’t have anything to eat, yet she has the desire to sleep on a colored mat! Do you know what she has asked my wife? She wants to know why we eat snails. She thinks gentlemen don’t eat snails. What a vainglorious audacity while waiting for the last gasp!
There was a fairy tale about her. She was said to have her beauty like the princess of a fairy story. The palanquin she was carried in to her husband’s home was reported to be so pricey – could be worth some millions of taka. Like the fairy tale, a monster allegedly attacked her during late night. Later, she was rescued after the cannibal was killed mercilessly. Even though it is a fairy tale, it has some truth in it!
Indeed, she was exquisitely beautiful, and her wedding palanquin was bought at an astronomically high price by an American tourist during the Ayub regime. The giant cannibal was a foreign businessman of the British era. In drunkenness, he was assassinated in the club-house. Although it sounds like a fairy story, there is some truth in it!
Lowering his face, the shopkeeper mumbled: “Whatever you say, they won’t survive.” Thereafter, he turned his eyes towards a long and cluster-haired sturdy old man who was sitting in a corner. Drawing my attention, he said: “They will be killed by him.”
The way that man was sipping tea, I was reminded of a tiger in a zoo.
The shopkeeper said: “But they don’t know, I know. They don’t know the old man, but I know him.”
I asked: “Why will he kill them?”
The content of what the shopkeeper had said could be summarized as follows: the stick-fighters of the Zeminder had killed the father of that old man. Now he would avenge the murder by killing the Zeminder couple. This was the opportunity; there would be no cases; it would be difficult to identify the killer; besides, who would catch whom?
I asked: “Since you have given them shelter, will it be good if a killing happens before your eyes?”
The chef, who is a returnee from Great Britain, said: “I don’t understand these things. They wanted to rent my house; I have rented it out to them. Cows would stay in there before; they live in there now. It is difficult to get a rented accommodation like this at such a rock-bottom price.”
After some days, they were assassinated; an uneasy calm gripped that night.
Shuchorit Chowdhury : Writer
Haroonuzzaman : Translator, Novelist, Poet
Illustration : Satabdi Zahid