Translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya
The mystery of seasons is hard to fathom.
On a wintry Magh afternoon, I suddenly became an explorer. Flesh had coalesced on Nuri’s chest and transformed into breasts. The discovery left me rattled. My trembling aroused a farmer’s instinct within me. The thirst for harvest churns in the sweat and desires of a farmer. My thieving eyes glanced at Nuri’s thighs. They saw the smoothness of alluvial soil that had begun to spread across her flesh.
At the end of the month of Magh, the sky flooded in celebration. Spring waited at the threshold. The old leaves fell continuously from the trees; the fragrance of flowers wafted in the air. I became different in some way. Right before dawn. No, not dawn actually. Perhaps even earlier than that, the nim bird warbled the hour. Was it the nim bird’s fault or mine? I don’t know exactly. But somehow, I was benumbed by the nim bird’s call.
It was the tiniest of kitchens. Cement shelving, pots and pans crowding each other, plates and glasses, a red-oxide floor. A gas stove against a drab yellow wall. Nuri’s worn through pallet lay by the stove. She, an oil-grimed, svelte vine of a cane plant. Or a weakling branch of the chhatim tree, about to break. The come hither of such intoxication boiled within my brain.
Our house was a slumberous castle at that hour. An ogre opened a sack full of sleep and leaned back. Even the she-demons refused to emerge from their caves, rapt as they were in the depths of sleep. I left my bed like a night creature.
It was a three-bedroom apartment. Everything backed up against each other: the kitchen, the washing up space, the dining room, the bathroom, the bedrooms, the living room.
Nobody felt the need to shrug off the languor of sleep to fill up the water vessels. I had been taking care of that since boyhood.
Air sputtered from the faucets. When rivulets of water began to flow from the taps, I quickly placed a bucket underneath. Large containers, pitchers, pots, all brimming. So full that even a sudden gust of wind would spill the water.
The busy hum of everyone’s day began with the arrival of morning. Nothing worked without water. A fish out of water! That’s what I always thought, and the thought made me laugh. I peeked into the bathroom with eyes just roused from sleep and glimpsed a smile of relief on my mother’s face. That smile made me feel very close to my mother. Everyone in the household thought of me as a good boy because of this one voluntary act. The stamp of the good boy merged with my nature.
I was truly a good boy. I had never joined the cadre-groups like other young men. I wasn’t involved in politics. I’d never had much of a head for academics. My father had set up a video store for me. I focused on taking care of that. I frequently volunteered for household errands without hesitation. I undertook the grocery shopping; with a smile I brought home rice, lentils, poultry, vegetables. My love for the household pleased my mother deeply. Because mother had always enjoyed the outside world more. She dressed up like a queen and spent her hours visiting the neighboring houses. It was my younger sister Bithi who ran our home.
The end of the month of Ashwin. White light glinted off the leaves. On such a day, Nuri’s aunt had left her with my mother. There had been a vertical rip in the seat of the pants she was wearing, and her dirty old blouse hung slack down to her waist. A runnel of ripe-yellow snot dangled from her nostril. It made one shudder in disgust.
That same Nuri was transformed head to toe in the air and water of the city. Now she looked as if someone had sprinkled water on the lush green leaves of a plant. Enchanting tenderness; a woman brimming in front of my eyes. Of course, it was difficult to understand this woman who was so full. She said nothing. In her eyes there was something incomprehensible. They melted me. This unearthly endless solitude seemed like a distant forest.
She was so busy it made her gasp. The girl was submerged in a stream of chores all day long. She worked and worked and worked. I watched in surprise as she workd away in silence, not a word on her lips. Her smooth legs shone beneath the hem of her long dress as she busily moved around.
This area of Shantinagar was densely populated. The water was turned on only twice during the entire day. If this inadequate supply wasn’t conserved, the rest of the day became a desert. It was Nuri’s responsibility to hold on to the water which came at four. These days even Bithi was trying to lighten her own workload by dumping it on Nuri. She had the same nature as our mother.
The water pitcher sat empty near the faucet from midnight onwards. Empty containers. The nim bird trilled. I tugged away Nuri’s quilt with a delicate foot. Carefully, I placed the empty pitcher right beneath the faucet. The girl was in a deep sleep after the endless work all day; she lay motionless in exhaustion. A night free of the nim bird’s call. It wasn’t dawn yet. The sari of night was wrapped loosely around dawn’s body. I opened the window to get rid of the stuffiness in the kitchen. Damp air pushed its way inside. I saw a water-nymph as she lay asleep beneath night’s sari. Her rough hair lay spread out on the oily, grimy blackish pillow. Within me rose the pressure of unfamiliar waters. Cautiously, very carefully, I flowed within Nuri’s lips.
In that night of the damp winds, the nearly speechless girl sat up startled. Gradually, she grew motionless. She looked at me with moon-bright eyes. She twined around my feet with the helplessness of a shrub or a vine. Her body slackened. I ran a cold sweat. Moans broke through the lips of the silent girl. The dawn sky waiting at the threshold shivered; dawn arrived. And from then on, every night a bird flew in different directions in front of my eyes. I woke up. I filled the water containers to the brim. I filled myself to the brim…
These days I came home for lunch. Mother was often out. Bithi and Shithi were ensconced in their midday siestas. Nuri, in her silence, neatly served me rice.
I’d noticed for the past few days that she served me rice and quickly moved away. One solitary afternoon, I called to her urgently, “Nuri…Nuri…”
No response. I called again, “Nuri…Nuri….”
Nuri approached me with slow steps and stood close by. She held two wedges of green lime in the pink of her palm. She sprinkled them with salt and licked them, making smacking sounds with her tongue and palate.
My eyes looked every which way. Not a soul was awake in the house. When I placed my left arm around Nuri’s waist, she got startled and moved away. This was a mystery. The girl who allowed herself to be twisted within my vine at night, why did she clamp shut like an oyster during the day!
I looked at her. A slightly cleaner dress over grubby pants, the color of waterlilies in a pond. A slight rise in her lower belly, which eventually sloped downwards. I didn’t really get to see Nuri during the nights. I only felt her through touch. Today I looked at Nuri in the light of day. The rice stuck in my throat as I noted her pale face. Surprised, Nuri looked at me with widened eyes. Bluish veins ran through the whites of her eyes. The reddish hue of late nights within.
She held out the glass of water to me with hands that almost trembled. I barely managed to pour the water down my throat. I breathed easy. When I was myself again, I saw that Nuri was standing within the domain of my breath.
I encircled her waist with my left arm and pulled her close. “What’s the matter with you?”
She kept silent. I asked again, “Come on, why are you silent? I don’t understand you at all.”
She became more distant at my questions. She disengaged herself from my arms and ran to the bathroom. In an instant, countless cannonballs fired in front of my cunning eyes. From the dining table I could hear her vomiting. Uncountable fireflies swarmed within my head. The intimate embrace of a virgin vine hung from my throat like a noose.
One drowsy morning, my sleep was broken by Bithi’s piercing screams. I left my bed quickly; I was in a rush to get to my store.
Scared, I peeked into the kitchen. She was meditative, like a Buddha idol. As if she couldn’t hear Bithi’s screams. Bithi went on shouting, “Look what you’ve done to the clay lids! You’ve chipped off all the corners! What’s going on, huh? And I can’t even find the clay pot for cleaning fish. What have you done with it?”
She stood there in silence with her head hung low. Bithi’s shouting continued to shatter the morning. Our disinterested mother suddenly re-entered the affairs of the household. Mother’s experienced eyes scrunched up; a penetrative gaze took over.
The burning lava within me was extinguished by an icy rivulet. Instead of heat, fear and terror took charge.
After the events of that day, I began to spend more time at the store. I didn’t feel like going home for lunch. I explained to mother that I was doing my best to try and increase the family income. I didn’t know whether this was evasion or escape. I didn’t want to know.
The ancient water tank was right behind our house. Numerous slums had mushroomed around it. Rahima was an old hand at the slums. She worked as a part-time maid in several houses. Her long years in the city had served to uncover her cunning. My heart thumped when, one day, I saw my mother talking to Rahima. Perhaps my mother was planning something. I didn’t really understand my mother.
Again, the smog of dawn. I approached the virgin vine with the unfamiliar thumping of my heart. I shrugged off all shame and launched the piercing arrow of suspicion at her. “What did the doctor say?”
And she responded with a certain yet wan face, “What doctor. Rahima said there’s nothing to be done now, I’m six months gone.”
I shivered. What could I do now! From somewhere came the sound of falling water. For the first time, I lost all interest in the affairs of the household…
I returned home on those weary nights bearing sorrow in my heart. My eyes couldn’t find Nuri anywhere. Mother pushed the plate of rice toward me in cruel contempt. Her face was dark. I was a good boy. I didn’t protest. I moved the rice around the plate, with my mother’s contempt mixed in. My hand trembled as I raised the tasty fistfuls of rice to my lips. I kept my head bowed to avoid my mother’s gaze. She mocked my lowered head and came to stand in front of me. Nuri was almost erased from my head.
The lazy spring afternoon was spread out around us. The lassitude appeared accompanied by Rahima’s shadow. I was startled as if I’d seen a ghost. Rahima retained some mystery in the gesture of her hands as she beckoned me outside. My pulse sped up.
“Bhaijan, it’s a bonny baby boy.”
A bulldozer on my chest, slabs of earth being crushed. A thousand fireworks went off. The customers at my store were surprised at my gaping mouth. With massive effort, I tried to look normal.
A web of fog spread across the sky, with a light, chilly mist. I pulled down the shutters and locked up. I walked towards Rahima’s slum. The web of fog grew thicker overhead. Through the fog spurted the opaque light of an eclipsed moon. For some reason, I suddenly wanted to touch the eclipsed moon.
I stood in front of Rahima’s waist-high hovel. When I tried to call Rahima, I realized that my voice was hoarse. I called out in a broken voice, “Rahima…Rahima…”
Somehow, she heard my cries. “Come in, Bhaijan, come in.”
I was stiff in front of her. Rahima realized this and jabbered on, perhaps to put me at ease. “That slip of a girl is such a stubborn beast. Your mother beat her to a pulp. She told her so many times, ‘Tell me right now, tell me who did this’. But she wouldn’t. Wouldn’t say a single word. She’s got the bones of the devil within her, how she took those punches!” Rahima paused and began again, “The entire neighborhood is gossiping. Even the slum people are saying bad things. Still, I’ve kept her here with me. What else could I do, she’s in such a fix. But she won’t tell me either. She’s a right bad one; she’s put a lock on her lips. She’s the one who told me to tell you that it was a boy.”
I heard almost none of what Rahima said. I lowered my head and entered her shack. The flame of the oil-lamp wavered in the light winter breeze. Nuri sat with bowed head in the dim light fueled by kerosene, holding the brightness of a cherub to her breast. I looked at the child. I came away.
Four days later, in a daze, I again shuttered the store. Rahima’s ramshackle hovel exerted a blind pull on me. I felt as if I was drunk. I pushed the rickety entrance open again. I called out, “Rahima…Rahima…”
“Nuri? She’s not here anymore. Didn’t I tell you that girl was bad news? That day when you came, well, in the morning I noticed that the door was open. She’s gone off somewhere with her son. She’s taken her bundle of clothes with her and left two hundred takas by my pillow. Manik from next door said that he’d seen Nuri around the station when he was coming home from the night shift. I ran to the station right then but couldn’t find her.”
I tried to keep my face impassive and looked at her. I needed to escape from her right now. There was a feeling of intense cold within my chest. I had given that money to Nuri that night. But why had she left it for Rahima? Anger? Or had she felt insulted?
There was a bubble in my head; my brain was not working at all. Why on earth had I come here anyway? Could I have stood beneath the burning sun and proclaimed to everyone, “Look, this is my son?”
This city had so many stories about all the Nuris and the good boys who stored water at night. Why had I come here? My brain wasn’t working.
My dulled conscience seemed to have numbed everything. Someone overrode the numbness and cried within my head, “Nuri…Nuri…Nuri-i-i…”
Would I search for Nuri? I didn’t know. What would I do if I found her? I didn’t know. Was all of life just this intolerable unknown? Even that I didn’t know.
My mother insisted that I have dinner, and so, unwillingly, I went to the table. An unfamiliar young girl came toward me, the water jug in her hand. She was wearing draggled dirty clothes. There was a vertical rip down the seat of her pants. Her slack blouse hung down to her waist.
I shivered inside. I could see with my divine vision that my worldly-minded mother would again be unmindful of household affairs. Again, I was going to focus on household chores. In the dead of night, the empty water vessels would be filled to the brim…
The pendulum of an ancient clock swung fast in front of my eyes.
Previously published in Bengal Lights, Spring 2013.
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