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1st January – Sayantani Bhattacharya

Dec 31, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Chirayata Chakraborty

Combing her hair with her fingers, Bnuchiburi picked out a rather buxom louse, crushed it, and then promptly sneezed. Then from Bnuchiburi’s tattered saree, torn blanket, frayed rug, ragged pillow, worn out sack, battered mind, life called, “Peekaboo!” Bnuchiburi let out a chortle. Rubbing the lice-blood off of her nail in the end of her saree, she called out to life, “Peekaboo, peekaboo, peekaboooo!”
Tuktuki sat right beside her. She devoured a dry piece of bread as if it were biriyani. Hearing the “peekaboo!”, Tuktuki said, “Gramma, who’re you playing peekaboo with?”
– Ah, with life, Tuktuki, with life.
– Who’s life?
– Ah life, my dear, life. This bread you’re nibbling on, that is life; me being curled up and shivery in the cold, that is also life; my torn blanket, tattered saree, me begging on the streets, can’t see well, can’t hear well, almost seventy, teeth on their hinges, yet still alive, that is life.
Tuktuki finishes her bread and guzzles water from her green plastic bottle. A throw-away bottle of Sprite that she had picked up. No lid. She filled it with water, up to the brim, lid-less. At times the water caught some dirt, but Tuktuki never really cared. She was rather fond of bottles without lids. Lids trap water in bottles. Maa had taught her, water should never be trapped, it should be allowed to flow. Although, that does put a certain pressure on the bottle, for, it has to keep itself standing straight. A little tip towards one side, and all the water spills out; without water, a bottle then has no value. Now, drinking the water makes Tuktuki need to pee. According to Bnuchiburi, having to pee, too, is life. But you have to forfeit this life, or there’s trouble. Tuktuki runs towards the Sulabh toilets.
Tuktuki’s Maa, Titari, makes her way back to the polythene shed, her sequin saree twinkling and swinging. Last night had taxed her well. Under the open sky, on one bank of the railway tracks, what careless flailing from the seventeen-eighteen-year-old boy. Titari is thirty-two. The seventeen-eighteen-year-old’s appetite amused her. But the cold bit her body. The boy was a glue junkie, his blood was warm. Titari is drunk on moonshine. She couldn’t catch a wink without it. The seventeen-eighteen-year-old had coughed up seventy bucks after work; apparently, he didn’t have any more than that. With the cash seventy, Titari had returned to the shed. Her shed on the footpath. It was a shed in name only. In reality, it did not have any windows or doors. Only a three-sided roof and a sweeping footpath courtyard. Titari is going to change from her sequined saree into a churidar. In her churidar, she sheds ten years all at once. Then, who could have guessed Titari had an eleven-year-old kid like Tuktuki.
Tuktuki has come back from peeing. Titari hands her a fifty to get bombil fish and raw onions, garlic and chilies. There’s no need to get rice and oil; there’s still some left. She deposits the remaining twenty in the savings jar. There’s two-hundred bucks in total in there now. Tonight’s going to pay well. She must turn that two hundred into a four hundred.
Sunlight bounds across the tall buildings of Park Street and washes over Bnuchiburi. Ah, what relief! People whoosh by. Some dash, getting off of the subway, climbing up into the light; others from buses, from taxis. Cars, too, try to keep up. Red, blue, yellow, every kind. Such handsome cars. Handsome people, too. Pretty sarees, clothes. All in such a rush. This rush, too, is life, Bnuchiburi considers. She wishes to stand on her feet. But the extension of her legs after the knees are thin as pencils, and so they don’t let her. Meanwhile, a madam tosses a ten-rupee note into Bnuchiburi’s bowl. Bnuchiburi looks up. The madam’s eyes glisten with tears. Ah, Bnuchiburi’s sight must have broken her heart. She quickly dries her eyes and hastens away.
Maniklal sits to rest by Bnuchiburi’s side with his two goats. Beside Maniklal’s crooked, stunted body, the handsome goats look out of place to Bnuchiburi. Titari asks, with a glint in her eyes, “Going to sell your goats, Manik-dada?” Maniklal chuckles and says, “The money’s good. Thought I would.”
– Fine, do. Then they will serve your mutton on pretty plates at these Parak-Strit restaurants. They will eat it with lemon, coriander and green chilies. Slum mutton will move up a rank.
Titari licks her lips. Maniklal pets his goats. Their coats shine. A shadow of misery falls on Maniklal’s face. His boy has eye problems. His nerves are drying up. Need operation. He needs the money. What could he do but sell his goats!
Fagubabu begs in front of Metro cinema. The cinema hall’s gone, but not him. Last night he ate chickpea chaat with stale booze. Fagubabu’s stomach hurts. He is on his way to the slums to clear his guts out. He halts, seeing Bnuchi, Titari, Maniklal and his goats. What a long way the Mallikbazaar slums are. On one side, the gloss of Park Street, and on the other, in the wreckage of a dust-laden slum, lived people like Fagu and Manik. In between here and there runs the neat little street with the polythene shed; he’s known Bnuchiburi, Titari and Tuktuki for ages now—he’d always stop to chat with them a while. So, he tells them of his bowel issues.
Seeing Fagu-babu, Boltu-bhaiya from the garage stops to chat too. His name is actually Inayat. They call him Boltu at the garage, where he works. They’ve all earned a motor-part associated nickname there. There’s Boltu-bhaiya’s bosom friend, Horen. Named after the “horen” of a car. His real name: Raju. Then there is Hundai, after Hyundai. Hundai is a strapping lad of twenty or twenty-two. His real name is Ratan.
Tuktuki returns with bombil fish, with puffy eyes. “What’s the matter?”, Titari inquires.
– Nothing.
– No, tell me. Did someone say something? Some asshole touch you? I’ll knife any bitch in Mallikbazaar that tries and touches my kid.
Titari’s eyes brim with tears. Bnuchiburi noisily snorts her phlegm and says, “Ah, tell us what happened.” Bnuchiburi could never start a sentence without an “ah!”. For her, life equalled “ah!”.
Tuktuki sniffled and said, “They’re all saying the year will end today. The market’s booming.”
Laughter bursts out of Titari. She says, “Stupid girl, why are you crying about that? You know years end. Don’t you see the pretty lights in Parak-Strit? So many people come here when it gets dark. They party all night. Hasn’t it been this way for the last ten-twelve days?”
– That’s not why I’m crying.
– Then why are you crying?
Tuktuki whispers, “Won’t we get chicken today, Maa?”
Park Street in the evening has become a sea. A sea of people. It’s chilly too. Pretty chilly. People come, laugh, talk, walk, eat, in this shower of lights. Uff! What resplendence, bursting from the seams of Park Street. Lights blooming out of lights. The police-babus are there too, keeping an eye out for any signs of shadows in the grand illumination. Bnuchiburi takes it all in with her blinking eyes, and utters over and over again, “Ah!”.
Titari has moved their polythene shed aside. It looked too drab in the brightness of the ambience. She has donned her sequin saree again. There are a lot of runs in its end. She’s stitched them shut. No one would notice in the busy luster of the place. Titari will skip sex-work tonight. She will beg. Her bowl has already gathered a few tens and twenties since the evening started. Bnuchiburi is doing great. Tuktuki is doing pretty well too. Some madam has fed her ice-cream. She’s earned about one-fifty by now.
Fagu-babu, Maniklal and Boltu-bhaiya gradually show up, Hundai and Horen tag along. Work ends at ten tonight. That was the plan. When Tuktuki had mentioned chicken, they had all made up their minds to have a picnic that night. Everyone chipped in to pay for it. Boltu-bhaiya alone contributed two hundreds. As a meat connoisseur, Maniklal has brought the chicken. At the strike of ten, the preparations begin. Tuktuki crushes the onions, ginger, garlic and chilies in a mortar and pestle; Fagu-babu halves and washes potatoes; Titari generously seasons the round pot with oil; Hundai and Horen knead the dough for the rotis; Boltu-bhaiya waits with the rolling pin for the kneading to end.
Bnuchiburi chopped up the cucumbers and lemons. Chicken kasha, roti, cucumbers and lemons. From the corner of her eyes, she noticed the bottle. Tuktuki is prohibited from looking at it, though. But tonight, Bnuchiburi wanted to get buzzed with the others. She said to Titari, in hushed tones, “Ah, give me a glass too. It’s the end of the year, after all.”
Tuktuki was bouncing with joy within. She will get to have chicken tonight. She’s put on her best frock. She said, “Everyone is going to shout “habi-niyar” at twelve, right, Manik-kaku?” Hearing Tuktuki’s words, Maniklal rolled about in laughter. He said, “It’s not “habi-niyar”, it’s happy new year. It means, let the new year be happy.”
It is almost twelve. Cooking’s done. Everyone is ready with styrofoam plates. Boltu-bhaiya has already taken twenty rotis. The chicken kasha has turned out well too. Hundai, looking at the time on his phone, said, “It’s twelve! Come one, everybody, say, happy new year!”
Titari and Bnuchiburi said “habi-niyar”. They feasted, boisterously, with joy. Everyone, except Tuktuki, got a glass. With a sip, Bnuchiburi exclaimed, “Ah!”.
Tuktuki can’t stop asking questions. “What year is this?” she asks.
Dates and years have gotten muddled in their heads. No one answered. Tuktuki began to frolic in the lights. She skipped in the steps of a hop-scotch game. She sang, “habi-niyar, habi-niyar”. Happy new year has morphed into “habi-niyar” again. Is there really anything different about “habi-niyar”? Who knows!
Tuktuki woke up late into the day. She could not discern if the picnic had been a dream, or at all happened. Titari was sewing a new tear in her sequin saree. Tuktuki wrapped her arms around her and asked, “Maa, what date is it?”
The needle had pricked Titari’s forefinger. A drop of blood escapes the wound. Swiftly popping her finger in her mouth and sucking the blood off of it, she said, “Who knows! I forgot.”
Bnuchiburi murmured, “Ah!”

At The Antonymwe believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine:

Feminine Pen: Translating Bengali Women Writers

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Sayantani Bhattacharya is a writer by profession and passion. Her poems, short stories, novels, post editorials, articles are published in numerous renowned Bengali magazines, little magazines and news papers. Her published books in Bengali include Kothay Cholehho Tumi Banshioala [Collection of poems, Karukatha Publication], Lokkhikutumer Gramophone [Collection of Poems, Prothom Alo Publication], Gangshaliker Nupur [Collection of poems, Sutorang Publication], Bhanga nodi gota chand [Collection of poems, Signet (Ananda) Publication], Aamar shrabonpur aamar uthon [Collection of poems, Signet (Ananda) Publication], Magic chhata o aro 9 [Collection of short stories, Saptarshi Publication]. Sayantani received Samatat Sahitya Purashkar in 2015 and Shaiba Bharati Puroshkar in 2016.

Born in the January of 2000, in Kolkata, India, Chirayata Chakrabarty is pursuing her Master’s degree at EFL University. She also dabbles with music in her free time, a passion that was birthed by the pandemic – which she uploads occassionally on her YouTube channel. She started translating Bengali short stories, as a practice, in 2018 and has since tried to grow as a translator, as well as a song-writer and poet – a growth that she has sought since she was old enough to think.


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