Novel

3rd Episode

The Firebird

Hasan Azizul Huq

Translated by Ali Ahmed

 

That my husband had to take upon himself such an enormous responsibility at such an age was because my father-in-law had died at a premature age leaving behind eight or nine children and a widowed wife. As I could understand from what I had heard, my father-in-law, like my older brother-in-law, was probably somewhat unfit to protect wealth and property. But he was not absent-minded. He was on friendly terms with important persons of the area from both the Hindu and Muslim communities, and had probably matching likings and styles. He had his own palanquin borne by six bearers. The ruins of that palanquin lay for a long time at the verandah of the lounge. Besides, he had his own Arabian horse, and as he would ride that horse to go to the houses of important persons of this or that village, so would they all pay him similar return visits. I heard from my mother-in-law that there was no end to people’s comings and goings. A huge amount of korma, pilau, curd and sweets would be consumed. Because of this a part of the landed property was sold out and some were taken control of by others. The family was reportedly sinking by the time my father-in-law died. My mother-in-law used to say that this second son of hers came forward to take control of the rudder when the ship of the family was adrift in uncertainty. Otherwise, all would be lost. How old my husband could then be… hardly twenty or so! He had forsaken all merriments and pleasures and devoted all his energies and intelligence to save this family comprising the mother and his brothers and sisters. I also saw nothing other than this when I came to this family. Mother would do all that was to be done inside the family. There was no word other than the mother’s. His own wife, no doubt, but also all the other wives of my husband’s brothers, who were married afterwards, would be required to show unquestioned obedience to the mother-in-law. There was no escape if any of the wives raised her voice with the mother-in-law, or, while working, made an unusually loud sound by dashing pots and pans against the ground. He would straightway come inside the house and declare, If the one, who has just done this, repeats it once again, that one has to leave the house and go away. Well, my husband would, of course, not be required to enforce this. The mother-in-law’s dictat was sufficient to enforce complete obedience.

I, of course, found the family somewhat stabilised since my entry into it as a wife. No one, not even my mother-in-law, dared propose marriage of my husband for seven or eight years since the death of his father. Hence the marriage was delayed so much. After having got into the family, I found that only the third brother had reached a marriageable age. The remaining brothers and sistes till then were of tender age. His two other younger sisters junior to the widowed one were about to reach the marriageable age. But what a bad luck, the sister immediately senior to the youngest one died at this time. Who knew which disease did she die of? She took almost no food for nearly two or three months prior to death. She would declare her distaste for food the moment she saw it. This is how, by degrees, she was emaciated like a rope. Her hands and feet looked like sticks. Then, one day, she took leave of this world before the eyes of us all. Alas! She was so tender-aged, an entire life was there before her; she got to know nothing of a family, husband, or children, and went away, before her time, causing her mother, brothers and sisters weep for her. People in those days would put up an appearance as though death was nothing to them. They would weep and lament for a few days, and then forget everything. There were no doctors or medicinemen to speak of. Whichever of them were there, they would live in towns and entrepots of trade, and not in the villages. If someone was attacked with a difficult or fatal illness, that same patient himself as much as his brothers, sisters and near relations would give up all hopes and wait, with patience, for death. There was no counting of how many people died a year of cholera and small pox, the two killer epidemics. Who would cry so much? There was no point in crying. Who could say that the person crying would himself not die in a matter of days? Besides cholera and small pox, there was another disease… the chest disease, tuberculosis.  When anyone was afflicted by that disease, people around him would even give up trying for his treatment. This disease would often wipe out an entire clan. The person afflicted by this disease would probably keep on laughing out loud, would eat whatever his mind would dictate him to, then would one day drop down dead. Why would people cry their hearts out? In a couple of days he might probably drop down dead too!

I gave birth to a son

At the end of a year after marriage, I gave birth to a son. On that very day, at noon, a cauldronful of milk reportedly swelled up and spilled over into the hearth. After milking the cow, someone had placed the cauldron on the hearth to boil the milk. Nobody paid it any attention as they were all busy with me and the newborn in the labour room. And the boiling milk, meanwhile, swelled up and spilled over the cauldron. Our sister, that widowed sister-in-law, started loud lamentation on seeing this, but the mother-in-law only said, If the milk is spilled, let it be so. Don’t utter a word on this. A new member has come to the house…the first son of this family… and the milk swelled up and spilled over! It is a very good sign. Wealth and property, peace and happiness will also henceforth spill over in this family. I ask that none of you say a further word on this.

Well, her words were true alright… the first son of the family… foundation of a new cluster. The first son, the first grandson. Everyone was floating in happiness. This son was, as though, not a son to me alone. My husband did not think even that a son was born to him. He was everybody’s son, a son of the clan. As his mother, my status improved. My mother-in-law secretly started telling every one, That second daughter-in-law is the goddess of fortune in this family; this family has started flourishing since her coming. She is very auspicious. Well, status and care for me increased alright, but that did not afford me the chance to protect my child all to myself. He became the apple of every one’s eyes. Every one wanted to take turns to come and just see him. That son of mine took after the colour of his father, was rather dark, had rather tallish, tender hands and legs, lovely, large eyes and lips like flower petals. How handsome he was! Looking at the face of a son like this is equivalent to a mother’s living for a hundred thousand years. Everbody started saying that a crescent has come down to my lap from the sky. And he started growing like the moon on the wax: a little bit today, the next bit tomorrow. I discern a little light on his face today, and the same on his eyes tomorrow.

Days roll by. Days after days, and the days turn into months and the months into years. The family gradually started becoming larger and larger. My third brother-in-law was given in marriage. A new wife joined the family. The last sister-in-law was at last also married with great pomp and grandeur. It was in a family twenty miles away from our village. They were also very well-off.

Every human being has an episode  or two of  having suffered pains. Didn’t I, too, have this? Surely, I did. If one can speak of these, the mind becomes a little lighter, no matter whether this brings in any redress or not. But whom could I tell it to? These were not fit to be told to the in-laws. Maybe, these related to them. How could I then confide it to them? My husband was the one who could be confided to with these. But he is such a person as would immediately give you the impression, the moment you stand before him to narrate your story, that he cannot be confided to with matters like these. I felt what separate things could I have, what could I tell him for myself? I could hardly ever see him during the daytime. It was only when the night was far advanced that I could see him. I was just like a new bride so long as my mother-in-law was alive. A new bride despite having mothered so many children.

Well, what would I say of myself! My husband one night suddenly declared, Listen to this one thing I say. It’s alright you didn’t attend  elementary schools during childhood. Would you for that remain ignorant for ever? Is it bad to learn a little bit of reading and writing?

I felt, on hearing this, as if I was in deep waters.What sort of a talk is this! What reading and writing would I now learn?

There’s no age-limit to learning. You’ll understand how the world runs once you master a little bit of it.

What would be the use of my knowing it? This life is over-stretched working for the family. This life, I know, would come to an end this way. Shall I become an M.A. or B.A. at this age?

One need not necessarily become an M.A. or B.A. if one embarks on learning. Anyway, I’m going to buy you books. You’ll see you would learn the alphabets in a few days.

I won’t be able to do that now.

You have to do it.

I realised, looking at his face, that he is the kind of man who, while deciding to do a certain thing, does so inwardly, without making a hullabaloo. I kept quiet. After some time, he slowly pronounced the last words on it, The differences detween those who are familiar with the alphabets and those who are not are similar to the ones between light and darkness.

Oh, what a dilemma I was in! What a difficulty my husband pushed me into! But the one who missed knowing that man, missed it for ever. One day did he actually bring the first part of Vidyasagar’s Introduction to the Alphabets(The famous 19th-century Introduction to the Bengali Alphabets by the illustrious educationist and social reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar…. Translator), a slate and a piece of pencil. My husband was given to a little luxury: while earthen lamps and ordinary lanterns would lit the entire house during nighttime, his own room would have the benefit of the light of a hurricane lantern. These were very costly in those days. His room would boast of a very expensive, foreign-made hurricane lantern. When the night was far advanced and every one else in the house was fast asleep, he would close the doors of the room and teach me reading and writing, without any one else’s knowing it, in the light of that hurricane lantern. After the whole day’s hard work, sleep would wrap the eyes aound and I would find it extremely difficult to keep awake. But my husband had no mercy in him: oh, what shouts and roars would come out of his throat! My son would shiver in his sleep.

The child would be awakened!

Let him be. What do you have inside that head of yours! Can’t you even see the letter with your eyes? You’re sitting still with the pencil in hand; can’t the hand move a litle on the slate?

I don’t quite understand, the head feels sort of dizzy.

I understand, you’re sleepy. Get up, go, sprinkle your eyes with water, or else, put two drops of castor oil in the eyes and your sleep will be gone.

No one would believe it when I say that if I committed a slight mistake, he would not only not show mercy of any kind, but would call me such names as an idiot, ass, or one having cow-dung in the head. He would also pull hard at the tresses of my hair and wring at the ear-lobes. Once he even knocked on my cheek with a semi-clenched fist and pulled me up by the arms. Oh, my goodness, what an anger was that! Go, get out of the house and get lost; never come back in this direction. A small thing is not entering that blockhead since long! Go, get out. there’s no need to study.

What else could I do, I got out of the room and remained standing by the side of the door. After some time, he himself came out, took me inside the room and said, Well, go and get into bed. You won’t be required to study further tonight.

Hmm, this is how I learnt to read. Since each of the characters of Vidyasagar’s Introduction to Bengali alphabets is soaked with the tears of my eyes, I can see them whenever I close my eyes. All those black and white pictorial representations in the book easily come to mind. Remembrance of those days still create an aching void inside the chest. I learnt reading and writing at the end of two months. To start with, I could haltingly read after spelling the words, but a little later I could do so without any effort. A newspaper named ‘Bangabashi’ would come to our house through the post office. I would read it now and then, although I could not understand it well enough. But all these exercises were done stealthily. No one at home would know anything of it. My husband, of course, had not asked me to hide anything. But I would feel a kind of shyness to tell my in-laws of these.

That was  the time for our family to rise. This happens to every family. One is a time to rise and the other is the time of fall. Bad times visited the family following the death of my father-in-law. The brothers and the near relations split up and set up their own families immediately after his death. The brothers of my father-in-law, at the time of dividing the landed property, each took a larger share than their deceased brother since he had earlier wasted some property. My mother-in-law’s share of the landed property was very small. But her share was endowed with the greatest of all wealth… the one son. There was no worrying while one had a wealth like that! There was only one fear, a wealth of this kind does not belong to one person alone, nor even to just one family. Such a son of the mother belongs to the entire area. My mother-in-law, after having been convinced of this, left this world.

Now I tell you the story of how the development and prosperity of the family began. My father gave me, at the time of my marriage, all the ornaments that was to be given. It was then known that that grandmother of mine… the aunt of my father… had donated, before her death, by a registerd deed, all her landed property… more that five acres in all… in my name. That grandma had none whatsoever as her own in the whole world, I have told before. There was therefore no dispute over the property. My husband, immediately after the marriage, sold that property out to pay for the purchase, in the pasture of his own village, of more than eight acres of land. I am not aware till today whether he bought that land in my name or, collectively, in favour of the family. Everything belonged to the mother-in-law’s family… what was there that could be called yours or mine? That was the lesson. I learnt, at the very beginning, that nothing could be claimed as mine in front of my husband. Once, while talking about a certain thing and claiming that as mine in front of him, I noticed that he was staring at me with a fixed look. I felt as though this man did not know me, would right then lead me by the hands out of the house. That was the lesson of a lifetime for me.

No one should think, because of my repeated reverential reference to my husband, that he was some one with high university degrees like an M.A. or B.A. My father-in-law was reportedly a very learned man. But I am not aware what my husband had learnt from which place. He never told me. He reportedly left home, became a mendicant wanderer for a few years, crossed the river and went east to a certain village, where he reportedly learnt Persian from a certain pir or religious teacher. I heard this story many times. But those were stories of recklessness, not of learning or education. I would however always think, Is there anything anywhere that this man does not know? He would, at that time, teach children at the village school. I only knew he would teach there, not whether it was his regular job to do so. And he would regularly sit down with the two young children of the grand lady to tutor them.

I found him one day in the inner courtyard of the house talking about something or other with the mother. He would normally not come to the inner courtyard under any circumstances as he would  stay in a house outside the living quarters. If he would come inside, one had to assume there was some important matters to discuss. Since he was talking to the mother, none of us had any permission to go nearby. I could see from a distance that the son was saying something and the mother, moving her head from side to side, was saying, No, son, that can’t be. Don’t do that. I could understand nothing of what transpired. I could understand it only in the night. When I came out to the outer house after having finished the nighttime chores in the kitchen and securing it with the chain, I found my husband not to have gone to bed till then.  He was there, sitting. My son was in deep sleep in his bed. I found him perspiring heavily, the line of his neck wet with it. I rubbed the sweat off his neck, worrying whether or not he would catch cold, when my husband said, Listen, I have something to tell you. His voice was very soft. Never does he speak like this. Somewhat surprised, I went closer and sat beside him. He said, both opportunities and difficulties come in life. Opportunities do not always come, and as it comes suddenly, so does it go away. Well, we now have an opportunity. Eight to ten acres of land are available in one contiguous plot. That would be put to auction in a few days’ time. The land belongs to the Roys.

Who, by the way, are those Roys?

The Roys are the Zamindars of this village. We have seen a little bit of their heydays during our childhood, but our father and uncles knew better. They have now fallen on hard times. Can’t earn enough to eat. Eight-ten acres of their land will be put to auction… would be sold for a swan song.

But why do we think of that? Would we be of any use to them?

Listen to what I say, it’s very difficult to pull along such a large family as ours. My father, you know, had finished off everything before he died. It would be worthwhile if we can buy the auction. I feel bad, very bad, for the Roys. It is as though the elephant has been caught in a ditch. One should not take advantage of people’s difficulties, I know, but the Roys would, under no circumstances, be able to save this land for themselves. If I don’t buy it, someone else will.

After saying these words, he fixed his gaze at my face. I was only surprised… if you have to buy the land, buy it… what is there to ask me about it? I instantly said, well, it’s fine, it would be something very good for the family if you can buy it in auction. But, again, why do you ask me of this?

Well, one cannot bid in aucton with empty hands. Won’t money be needed? Wherefrom shall I get so much money? I don’t have cash money in hand. No one in the family has a paisa with him. I am the repository of all the money there is in the family. It would only be a pittance if the surplus rice-paddy, after keeping provisions for the family’s needs, are sold out. After saying these, he again looked at my face with a fixed gaze. I was again surprised, why talk money to me? I knew nothing about that subject. I also fixed my husband with a vacant look at his face.

What shall I say of money?

Once I had said this, he, after such a long time, came up with the main thing, Look, you have got enough of jewellery, got them from your parents’ house as you got them from the grand lady. What’s the use of all those jewellery? How many times would you wear all those heavy ornaments? Maybe, you won’t wear them at all after you become a little more senior. It would be alright if you keep iron and steel of the same weights and measures hidden somewhere at home and imagine the jewellery is there, won’t it? Isn’t it the same thing?

I was staring at him with the vacant look of a fool after hearing what he had said.

How would it affect you if, after keeping a piece of jewellery or two for day-to-day use, you give away the rest for such an important affair of the family? Every one will know that this second daughter-in-law, the daughter of a certain unrelated house, performed such an important function to build this family.

My eyes burst into tears on hearing this, So cruel, oh so hard-hearted is my husband! I won’t feel such great pains even if he would tear my heart off. What do women have other than their jewellery? These would be there even after the husband is gone. Would he now snatch away all those jewellery of mine? I looked with tearful eyes at my husband’s face, but it was all hazy and I could not see anything. Who, then, shall I go to in this wide world? I heard my husband saying, Don’t cry. I won’t snatch the jewellery away from you if you don’t give them. I can realise, seeing you, what ornaments mean to women! They won’t part with their jewellery even if their children die.

This last sentence of my husband’s as though burnt my heart with a hot iron. What did he say, oh, what did he say! Tears of my eyes dried out almost then and there. I glanced once in the direction of my sleeping son, God forbid! I will die a thousand, a hundred thousand, times for your life! I glanced once in the direction of my husband. I could now see his face in the hurricane lantern’s light. What I saw was that that face of his exuded no trace of anger. The two eyes looking in my direction exuded a calm re-assurance! Alright, alright, women surely are like this, helpless. I said, take away all the jewellery. I say it with an open mind, I do not want to retain a single piece of these.

No, no, keep that pair of heavy bracelets. If you do not wear it yourself, give it to the wife of your son when he marries.

In that very night, I put all the jewellery, one after the other, in a small bundle, tied it, and handed it over to my husband. I learnt after a few days, ten acres of land had been bought in auction from the Roy family. I don’t know how my husband had arranged the money… never again did I ask him whether he had sold the jewellery or mortgaged them. Such a man, he got inside the inner courtyard of the house the day the land was bought in auction, called out to the mother and said, Ma, the family has acquired another ten acres of land.

I saw for the first time that day, my mother-in-law went forward, placed her hand on the son’s head and said, Long live, my son, let Allah grant you a long life. After saying this, she rubbed tears with the end of her sari. Whereas when I went in the house at night, he only told, You’ve heard, haven’t you, that the auction has been purchased?

I then calculated that more than five acres of my land inherited from the grandma, the land bequeathed by the father-in-law and this land bought in auction will, if added together, make the familiy’s total land-holdings to nearly thirty acres. No other family in the village owned so much land. Everyone belonged to an ordinary scale of economic condition. No one in the Muslim neighbourhood owned more than three to five acres. Conditions in the Hindu neighbourhood were also similar, a handful of them might at best own ten-twelve or twenty acres of land. The two relations of the Zamindar’s, who live in this village, each own a little more land than the others. Still that won’t come to more than twenty or twenty-three acres. I heard of all these from my husband. He would occasionally tell all these when he would feel like.

I never saw my husband indulging in any kind of addiction throughout his entire life. I sometimes found him chewing betel leaves just for the fun of it. At those times, I saw him also to puff at the flat-bottomed hookah. Well, he was not in the habit of indulging in these, but whenever he indulged, he would joyfully do so. He would cause to be brought costly ambergris-scented tobacco and kima for betel-leaves. It appeared at the sight of it as though he was about to get hooked to betel leaves or to tobacco. But all these lasted two or three months. Then he would suddenly give up smoking, and the flat-bottomed hookah would be lying somewhere, uncared for. Such a strange man! But I must say, when he would be on betel leaves, or would smoke, his temperament would remain very gentle. Whatever he said, said mostly at those times.

My conscience would prick very much at my husband’s having bought the Roy’s landed property in auction. I would sometimes feel that he also wanted to tell me something about this. He did the job, no doubt, but he did it as if only because he felt compelled to do so. What he said was this: Would the land remain Roys’ even if we did not buy it in auction? He one day spoke of the Roys in such a manner as gave me the feeling as though I was listening to a fairy tale. Puffing at the flat-botomed hookah, he began, If there is any Zamindar in this village, the Roys are that. They belong to a high caste, they are Brahmins. They owned half of the village. They are as high-minded as they are prodigal. They would fritter away everything for food and clothing. But not a single one amongst them was temperamental. Everyone was very cool- headed. They would give away whatever was asked of them, or pestered for, by whichever person. They finished off everything this way. None of the children left the village, or went for studies, and before my eyes, they finished off everything and became penniless. Most of their kinsmen have now left the village, and some of their sons are working as domestic helps or Brahmin cooks in Kolkata or some such places. Their homesteads are lying abandoned, where snakes and other reptiles have found their own abode. Residential buildings and temples have fallen flat. Banyan and peepul trees have broken through their roofs. Bena grass, wild creepers and thorny bushes make it impossible to go near them. This is the condition! The Junior Roy, you’ll see, would, in a shortwhile, come out with a begging bowl in hand. I surely feel very bad I bought the lands, but destiny has caught up with that clan. This is the go in men’s families, you go up, up and up to touch the sky with your head, and, after that, you come down, down and down to take shelter on earth. This is a must… it happens to every family. No one can stop the trajectory of destiny.

My husband one day told me all these while slowly puffing at the flat-bottomed hookah. That man could really talk, nowhere did I hear again talk like that. These talks, for ever, got into my head: You’ll see, the smaller share-holders of the Roy family, in a few days, will finish off the sale proceeds of the land through feasts and parties, the grown-up, marriageable daughters will not even be married off.

It happened exactly like that. We heard after a few days that the Junior Roy had cannibalised their large building and sold, for a swan song, the beams and joists of teak wood, wooden planks with floral designs and all that there was to sell. All the rooms would be cannibalised except one at a side of the building, where they will live. and they will put up a small tin-shed at one corner of the courtyard to serve as the kitchen. Be that as it may, not a single item more from the house of the Roys was purchased on behalf of our house.

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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