Translated from the Bengali by Ananya Sasaru
“Not a morsel to eat, and you go Inquilab! Till they come for your bones, you won’t get it.”
Afia is not wrong, really. With all that’s going on, it is difficult for her to keep silent. God forbid, if something happens to the husband, she and her daughter will land in hell. “When everyone leaves, will you stay back to flog the dead horse?”—Her words hammer at Salam’s head. On one side, her taunts, and on the other, the murder threats and conspiracies; Anxiety as if gnaws at his flesh. Salam, who used to be so jolly and quick to strike a chatter, now had curled into a shell. Earlier, whenever he met a familiar face on his way back from the ghat, he would always strike up a conversation, but now he pretends to be a stranger, always trying to escape attention. As the days pass, he distances himself all the more.
To see the tables turn overnight! People jumping ship! Long-standing ideals crumbling like glass! Salam observes people’s cores fall apart like a pest-infested wall! They change color like chameleons! Were those party classes all in vain? People who once used to stick together always, belly-to-belly, thumping shoulder-to-shoulder, how can they part?! It has been hard to accept. He has almost given up going to rallies and meetings. The situation no longer allows one to freely assert his ideals. He has the leftover faith buried deep into his flesh and blood. Sometimes it knocks against his head. His nerves and bones sting with anger. It chews at itself. But he knows that throwing stunts will be the end of him. He will lie dead somewhere obscure.
Salam was sneaking it into the house when her voice came clattering to him, “What’s that? What are you hiding behind your back?”
Salam froze. A cold stream ran down his spine. “Oh, nothing,” he replied sullenly.
“Is that so? If it’s nothing, then why are you hiding it? Show me your hand.” Afia stood up, tucking her saree.
Salam sensed the danger. He stammered, “It’s the newspaper.”
“Surely the one that has caused all the nuisance?” Afia cleared her throat and came right at him. She snatched the paper from his hand, but he didn’t stop her. What’s the point? It’s not something to hide. And once Afia has seen it, she will find it even if he hides it in hell. She is a stubborn girl. If she gets stuck in something, there’s no way one can distract her. With time, the girl has become more and more irritable. She snaps at small things. But Afia was not always like that. A little moody but never this short-tempered. However, she was never very excited about her husband’s party ideals. She didn’t want her husband to be a part of it. Afia had realized that his party would not give a shit to her husband. He is not someone who plunders. Nor a person who knows how to make profits like other leaders. When the party was in power, how often has she delivered a tirade to him, “Do something! Power won’t always be there. So many people racked up. Even those who joined just a few days back have now turned rich. Do something while being in power. Else, you will regret it later.” Salam used to retort, “Where’s the power? We don’t have our party for such things. That’s bourgeois mentality! Capitalists’ way of staying in power. Our fundamental goal is to idolize Communism . To establish socialism . Someone can’t bring socialism to such a big country overnight. Therefore, through a voting system, Communism has to be found gradually by axing the power. And that’s why he left the path of revolution and moved to vote. This path is temporary. It won’t bring power to the poor farmers and laborers. Medicines for curing diseases are given in small doses; if the disease is not cured, higher doses are prescribed. This is similar. To wait for a while.” Afia did not understand any of such things. At that time, socialism did not matter to her. Afia is a naïve girl with barely any education. She just knows that if the team earns well, money will flow. Only party leaders can tamper with everything—bundles and bundles of cash fly into the party office. If you get the money for the party, pay it to the party people first. They are as powerful as God. Not even a leaf moves without the party’s order. And a strong pole of that team is her husband. If he wants, he can also make plenty of money. He can drown his throat in cash. But the man didn’t do anything despite multiple pieces of advice. He says such acts will lead to the selling of his ideals. Humans will no longer remain humans. They will become cows who are traded in markets.
The moment her gaze fell on the paper’s name, her face turned red with anger. Rattling inside and flapping out, Afia grabbed the paper and tore it into pieces. Then she strode away and threw the flaming thing back into the fire. The fire burst into flames as it sizzled with the embers of the eight-page-long paper. Along with the pages, Salem’s bones and flesh seem to be burning too. Deep within, he throbs like a snake. His male ego steams inside, but he does not strike yet. How will he strike? There’s no excuse left. Relying on this paper for the last thirty years, how many dreams has he shown to Afia—the pursuit of a change, the vision of Communism! Today they have all fallen to the ground and have crushed like wood. But there was a time when Afia used to wrap herself in her husband’s dreams and count the days for a better life. She marveled at sharecroppers turning into landowners! Or, how some landless farmers were controlling acres of land, and the state was running under the rule of a peasant!
There was a time when such words used to work magic on her. She used to get completely immersed in them. And now, the exact words blow up on the pedal and go up like a balloon. She squalls, “Leave those hypocrites. The same leaders who used to boast with big mouths are now changing parties and getting rich. They have buried those high-sounding ideals. You also get rid of that ghost from your mind. Start reading namaz and keep fasting. Turn to God’s path now. Otherwise, even the kids and I must go to hell with you.”
“Haven’t I told you not to bring that cursed paper inside the house?” screams Afia.
“O, I can’t even read newspapers now?” came out the words from Salam that were long stuck in his throat.
“Who has asked you not to read? Isn’t there any other newspaper in the world? You have to stick to this rotten paper?” howls Afia. Deep within, Salam starts to feel his fear curling up. The ruling party folks have already threatened that he will wear a shroud if that paper enters their house. Her husband will be going to hell. Afia wants her husband to stop reading that newspaper even when her heart disagrees at times. He, too, should change the party like everyone else. She fears that someday she will become a widow because of that paper. And be homeless with the kids.
‘Rotten paper’! She calls his dear paper rotten! Salam rumbled in anger, so much so that he could chop her into two. But raising a hand on his wife is far from it; he doesn’t even say a harsh word. Gritting his teeth, he rushed home. Due to the increasing pressure of the ruling party, Salam doesn’t bring the party’s mouthpiece to his home anymore. He secretly reads it at the party office like a thief. Devours it. Then, assessing Afia’s mood, he lays down on the bed and ruminates. Today’s paper had a different story—world-shaking news. To comrades like Salam, it was a matter of great pride. Salam would open the newspaper in front of Afia’s eyes and point out how socialism was established in a small country in South America! But his illiterate wife, without even hearing a word, threw the paper into the fire! A thousand faults of a fool. You can never make a man out of a donkey. Sitting on the cot in his yard, he mumbles. A little hut of canopied tiles. Walls made of bricks. Beetles are gnawing the numb feet of his cot. Salam can’t hear them. But he can listen to the insect that is stinging his bones! The sound of that insect is more robust and more aggressive!
Good Lord, police, such early morning/police at such an odd hour! A clear sign of doom! They will drag him to jail for sure! How many times have I asked that buffoon to leave that party and join the government, but he won’t listen to me. Let him go to jail, ’cause some ‘revolution’, and sing the glory of Communism! Afia mumbled. The sight of the police petrifies her. It makes her blood run cold. They must have trapped him in some false case.
“He’s not at home!” Afia said, lifting the veil to her nose.
“Where did he go?” The dark-skinned policeman enquired in a harsh tone.
“Gone to the field.” Afia lowered her voice and then gulped in her dry throat. Is her tone alright? Did the police sense anything false in the manner of her speaking? Afia can’t make up a lie. She does not have that habit. But to save her husband, she had to tell a lie today. Salam did not go to the field. He has taken the two goats of the house to graze. The goat had been snoring since last evening. Afia’s heart beats faster. The sooner they leave, the better! She would then call Buri’s father and warn Salam not to return home for a while.
“Ask him to come to the police station today. Otherwise, he will be in trouble,” the tall, fair-skinned policeman raised his nose and spoke threateningly. Afia found three stars on the policeman’s uniform. Probably some big shot. Besides, when the policeman spoke to other police officers, he showed a lot of gravity and weight. Afia thought once, let me ask, what has my husband done that he has to go to the police station? Why is he in trouble if he doesn’t go? But she had no more courage. It was as if fear had taken hold of her throat and pulled her back down to her stomach. Times have changed, you can’t say. They might drag me by the hair and slap me, saying, “Stupid bitch, how dare you!” Afia also thinks that with the change of power, the police’s ways of interactions have also changed! When Buri’s father’s party was in control, the same policeman used to respect them, addressing them as ‘sahib.’ When they met Buri’s father, they used to say, “How are you, comrade sahib? Do keep us in your thoughts.” When they went to the police station, they were treated so differently! And today, the same police are calling him by his name!
Before getting into the car, a pencil-thin policeman spoke in a cursing tone, “That bloke has grown audacious. His legs have to be crushed down. I will smash his comradeship. If he tries to be over-smart, I will let pigs loose in their house.”
The police jeep sped up and blew away the dust on the road. Salam’s house gradually blurred against the scattering specks of dust behind the car. Afia stood in the dark by the fence, holding on to the shaky bamboo pole. Her head is also going all scattered and messed up! A storm of panic is wreaking havoc inside her head! There is no escape! Danger has already set foot in their yard! Almost entangling their feet! That moron will bring her doom! The bamboo pole is shaking. Afia’s cheek is stuck to it as tears roll down. The heart of the pole seems to be wailing too deep within!
Afia was sobbing inside. Her husband has made her life hell! Afia curses him—idiot, when will you realize? Will you get it when they tear away your flesh from the bones? What grandeur is in that party that even death does not let you leave? He chants that party’s ideals when he should be focused on raising his kids. No rice in their stomach, no clothes to wear, and look at his pomp and show! If only I could shave his head and empty it! Only then could I be in peace.
Afia sleeps with her face turned. The beetle-leaf-shaped face seems withered away! The soft cottony lips that were once smeared with a tinge of smile are now twisted like dry-folded leaves! Her eyes are as if crushed down with a hammer! It was time for Salam to leave his house. It is not safe to stay any longer. The police can attack at any moment!
“You will die and won’t spare us as well,” sobbed Afia. She stuffed the pillow in her mouth and mumbled. Then she sniffed and wept sadly, “How long shall we hide like this? We will get caught one day without fail.”
“What is my crime? Did I kill someone or rob someone?” he said in a hoarse voice while buttoning his shirt. As if the anger that has been growing in his mind is crushing over the buttons.
“If you’re not guilty, why are the police insanely looking for you?” Afia threw the pillow away from her face and shouted. Rolling her eyes, she continued, “Are you crazy? In such times, do you think that killing people is better than changing a party? Don’t you know that your revolutionary party has died? They have even buried it under a grave! What’s the point of holding on? It can crumble down at any moment! Get that ghost of socialism out of your head!”
“As long as the world remains, there will be Marxism . Marxism never dies,” Salam’s chest swells with pride.
“Yeah, go on, feed on such glory! Feed milk and rice, pour oil and let the body get naked in the meantime. When will you understand that you cannot break even a single jute stick with that party? It has become outdated!”
“Shut up, bitch,” Salam slapped Afia on the cheek. His teeth clenched, and his eyes turned iron red-hot. He muttered, “Dare you to utter another word! I will break your face with a slap.” Salam cannot control his anger whenever someone speaks ill of his party. He just loses it. Blows up like volcanic lava. His mind is not stuffed with the usual domestic estimates like other people. Every nut and bolt in his head is filled with Marxism. Lenin-Marx chirps in his crazy brain. Runs like finches from cell to cell. The dream of socialism! Afia knows that even if her husband is stoned, his flesh and bones will shout, ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, ‘Long live Marxism’. Salam’s head has been burning like a baking pan for days. He has to face trouble both at home and outside. On the one hand, the death threats by the police under the thumb of the ruling party, and on the other hand, nitpicks from his wife! It is a trick to strangle his long-standing ideals little by little. Afia has quietly removed the pictures of Lenin , Marx , and Castro from the walls.
Who knows where she has thrown away all the bundles of newspapers! There is not one of the books piled up on two shelves. All bagged up and hidden inside the hut! Afia says they are all disastrous. They will bring danger. She has cleaned every sign of Salam’s party from their house so that no one even gets a hint that it is a comrade’s house. Or that any comrade has ever lived here. As soon as he entered the house, Salam’s head was turned upside down. His heart sank as soon as he looked at the empty walls, shelves, and cupboards. As a father’s heart crumbles when his child dies, Salam bursts into tears. He mumbles that removing them from the walls might be easy, but can they be erased from the mind? He didn’t like Afia being so whimsical but didn’t take it out on her. He kept it inside his heart. It was humming inside like a fire of trash. Standing in front of Afia, he could not even forbid her. The situation had turned so bad that he had to keep quiet, thinking about his wife and children.
Salam feels bad for raising his hand. In thirty years of their marriage, no matter how often they have quarreled, Salam never laid a hand on Afia. He says those who beat their wives are cowards. They are anything but a man. Can one prove his manliness by wife-beating? Salam put his cold hand gently on Afia’s back! Her clay body, covered with a blue saree, has become cold. There is only a sense of anguish. Afia buries her face in the pillow and cries. She removed her husband’s hand from her body. “Afu, this Afu,” he called softly with a greeting. Salam affectionately calls her ‘Afu’ when the two people are immersed in the liquor of love. But today, the love of his voice no longer touches her. It reverts from Afia sharply. Salam turned back and whispered, “Why do you keep telling me to leave what I cannot? You know that even if my soul is gone, I cannot escape. Just like my eyes, ears, hands, and feet are parts of this body; the Marxian ideal, too, is an integral part of my body. I have stopped smoking beedis because of your objection; I have also given up tobacco. I do not touch a cigarette, even by mistake. But an ideal is not a beedi or cigarette that you get addicted to and then quit. An ideal is a belief, a philosophy. And you keep hammering on my weak point. I am also a human being; I also have anger and vanity.
Afia does not answer. She keeps crying as her sobs sweep to the bed from the pillow. Salam kept whispering, “I am not afraid of jail. Was there any great leader in the world who never went to jail? As the saying goes, one cannot be a leader without going to jail. How long will one stay in power by hanging people like this? People are not stupid. They are all watching. If they can enthrone, they can also dethrone. I will suffer, but I will not bow down to injustice. Do you want your husband to become a puppet like the other people?”
“You go to the field right away. The police can come at any moment! I’ll go to my father’s house tomorrow. You don’t have to think about me anymore. I don’t want to be an obstacle in your path. You stay with that mouth-burning ideal of yours.” Her words spilled out from the pillow as if the pillow itself was choking!
“What nonsense? So easy to run away?” he raised his voice, and immediately, there was a knock on the door! Afia hurriedly sat upright. She loosely rolled up her sari, widened her eyes, and said in a hoarse voice, “Police!”
“Who said it’s the police; it could be someone else!” utters Salam with a flutter. “Speak softly.” Afia widened her eyes. She started wandering inside the house in a panic. “Hide under the bed,” she whispered, “No, wait, not there; they might check what’s underneath. Instead, hide behind the cupboard. Their eyes will not reach there. Blend with its shadow in the dark.”
Afia cannot decide where to hide her husband. She gets puzzled. Seeing Afia floundering like this, Salam said, “Is your husband a small object you can hide somewhere? Come on now, let me open the door.” As he goes to open the door, Afia comes in between and says, “You forget that you are not only a comrade or a Marxist but also the father of a child.”
The topmost trunks of Barracks Square’s old trees are visible from where he is. The branches peek from the towering red-brick top. Salam tries to listen to Bhagirathi ‘s gurgling sound while sitting in a small cell. The river is not far away; it flows meandering, brushing against the road across the jail. Right after the jailer’s bungalow, one can see Ganga’s vast spread. Salam knows it is office hours; many people are on the road to the east. Cantonment Road. The once British neighborhood. KN College, located at the southern corner, must have opened by now. Sitting in the Beharampur Central Correctional Facility cell, Salam, prisoner number 109, continues to survey the perimeter outside the jail. The bell rings several times in a row. Salam dances with joy. Afia must be standing in line! Ah, poor girl, how many storms has she gone through! How much more will she endure? The burden of the world on her shoulder and the madness of a husband on top of that—how much she has to bear!
It has been a month since Salam entered the jail. The police have framed the case in such a way that there is no chance of getting bail in a couple of years. A case tied up with another case! As if to force him to change the party by strangling him in the legal system. But Salam is also a man of another metal and will not break that easily. When the constable of the police station could not bend him an inch even after using a stick and all kinds of third-degree charges, he muttered, “This bastard is a comrade made of steel; despite such treatment, he remains unmoved! It seems he is too filled with his Das Kapital !”
Afia has not visited her husband for a single day during this one month. Saddened and angry, she was at her maternal house. Even though her heart longed to meet the man once, she persisted. She asked others about his whereabouts. Sometimes, vanity tends to surpass pain. During those hours, no matter how much your heart flaps its wings in sadness, anguish doesn’t let you move.
Last week, Salam’s mother-in-law visited and said she would send Afia the following week. Salam cannot wait anymore. Until he catches a glimpse of her face, the calmness in his mind will not be back. He continues to grow restless. Finally, the day arrives, and he stands in line according to the serial number. His patience is slowly fading away. At times he feels ashamed, wondering what he would say to the distressed girl. Had he listened to her, things would have been quite different. Salam begins to glance over his shoulder to locate where his wife might be standing in the long line of relatives. Seeing him moving so impatiently, the accused, standing in front of him, shouted, “Hey you, why are you in such a hurry? Not that you are getting released today!”
Salam did not say anything. He continued to press his feet and move ahead. As soon as he came in front of the gate, he saw Afia standing in a pale blue saree with a heavy face. Salam’s heart leaped up in joy. Suddenly, his thin and lean legs began to lift and push his slim brown body out of the gate. Salam tried to compose himself while staring into her blinking puffy eyes. In her left hand is a small bag and, and on the right, something wrapped in paper. What is that? Others stealthily pass beedis and cigarettes like that. But what has Afia brought secretly? Chapattis made of Atap Rice? Afia knows that her husband likes to eat chapatti with beef.
Salam appeared in front of the gate. Afia stands on the other side. There is a wrought iron net in between. Both of them are gasping for breath. After many days, they are soaking in each other’s body heat. Before Salam could say something like ‘Afu’, Afia slipped a paper-wrapped thing through the square iron hole. “What is it, Afu?” Salam wanted to know. “Why don’t you open it?” Afia said with a smile. A shy dimple flashes upon her cheeks. The sweet afternoon sun shone on her lips. Salam quickly unwrapped the paper with a thud. When he opened it, his eyes widened in surprise! His eyebrows got stuck on his forehead! This very morning, someone inside the jail stated that their party leader had published some big news about him. Many have applauded Salam’s steadfast trust in his party. Afia has brought the same newspaper wrapped in crumpled paper! His eyes fluttered as he raised them up. On both sides of the eyes lay a sky of wonder. Drenched in a trance-like state. Afia herself has brought this paper! How often have they fought because of this paper! Salam’s lips twitched slightly, “Afu,” he said. A dimple curves on her smiling portrait face as she teases, “So, comrade, are you happy now?”