Placed fourth in the Tagore award for translated fiction 2021
Translated from the Bengali by Shimul Bhattacharjee.
My heart beats strangely all day if I wake up dreaming about my mother. This morning, I saw her sitting in the middle of a field, under a tall tree that obscured the sky. The shadow of the tree grew so long that it went towards the horizon. How gently the wind was blowing! The tree was brimming with leaves of various colours, shapes, and sizes, as well as fruits, flowers, and innumerable birds perched on its branches. The birds were of different species. This tree was unknown to me. The tree had no name. I asked, “Maa, what tree is it?”
My mother did not say the name of the tree. Rather she said, “Here is the seed of this tree; if you plant it, it will grow into a tree. Saying so, she gave me a seed on the palm of my hand. It had a cleft belly like a wheat seed and was reddish. She then pressed her two hands together to close my palm.
Trembling, I woke up. I realized that my eyes were wet. And one hand was fisted. So I opened my fist and found that there was nothing in it. When I think of my mother, all of my thoughts become scenes. As if everything is happening in front of my eyes like in those old days.
We had a forest of sleeping trees. Inside that forest was our two-storied wooden house, canopied with tin. There lived my “night” mother, my siblings, a beautiful old grandmother, and I, and sometimes my father. My father worked for the government in a remote forest; thus, he wandered across the woods like a sambar deer, sometimes like a buffalo. He used to come home from time to time. At that time, the scent of darkness from miles and miles of sal forest hovered over my father’s shoulders. When he carried me in his arms, I would put my nose on his shoulder to inhale the smell.
“Night” mother means my mother. My mother’s name is Laila, Laila Begum Arju. Laila means night. Arju means wish. And sleeping tree implies rain tree. The Bengali meaning of rain tree could be Barsha-toru, Brishtigaach, something like that. Mother used to call it baby banyan tree. The people of neighboring areas used to call it the sleeping tree. Because, the leaves of this tree fold like the leaves of a touch-me-not and fall asleep as soon as the sun sets. Therefore, its name is sleeping tree. The flowers of the sleeping tree are much like the sun; the petals are painted like the rays of the sun. Whatever it is, I chose the name sleeping tree. The forest of sleeping trees is not a forest, but a garden; a garden of rain trees planted by my mother.
Dadi often used to tell a strange story about my mother; she used to say, “Your mother was born in the womb of a tree.” When she felt restless, she would tell the story. She was almost out of her mind at that time. She talked to herself. Turning the light off, she sat on the bed the whole time. From time to time, she giggled and laughed. No one could approach her. Dadi’s insanity started after my Dada passed away. I will tell that story some other day.
My Dadi told me that after my Dada died, two jinns married her at the same time. The first was a good jinn, and the second was a wicked jinn. The good jinn adored her and that would keep her calm; the wicked jinn constantly fought with her, causing her to act up and abuse everyone. But for some unknown reason, Dadi liked me very much. She used to call me and chat with me about various topics. One of her stories was about my mother; not the entire story, just half of it. Then she would go on to another topic. “Your mother was born in the womb of a tree; that is why she always talks about trees,” Dadi used to say.
Every time I inquired, “in what tree?”
Dadi replied, “In the belly of a fig tree.”
That was it, and then she would tell other stories or talk to herself.
Fig trees are strange. The flowers grow inside the belly of the fruit. When I was a child, my mother planted many fig trees along the boundary wall of our house. As the saying goes, when one sees a fig flower, he gets the wealth of seven kings. We waited to see the fig flowers regularly. But we could never find it.
There is a chapter about figs in the Holy Qur’an. Chapter number three. In Arabic language, three means “fig”. At the beginning of the chapter, there is an oath in the name of figs and olives. This fruit is described as a special blessing of Allah. At that time, it was the staple food of Arabia. This fruit is also mentioned in the Bible. It is said there that when Jesus was hungry and saw a fig tree without any fruit, he cursed it. In Buddhism, this tree is also considered sacred. Bodhidrum was a kind of fig tree under which the Buddha meditated and achieved Nirvana. Apart from this, we have heard about the different medicinal properties of figs. So, we can realize the value of the fruit.
We used to eat figs occasionally when we started eating twice instead of three times a day. Figs taste good. However, as we ate a lot, they began to lose their flavor. Nausea began as a result. We have never seen fig flowers. But my Nani saw it once. Dadi used to tell a little bit of that story. Still, I couldn’t believe everything my Dadi said. Every Eid, an elderly woman, older than Dadi, would come from my maternal grandparents’ area to collect Fitra. One day, on the day of Eid, I called the old woman aside and asked her if my Dadi’s story about my mother was true. The old woman reported that the incident was true. The entire neighbourhood of my maternal grandparents was aware of the story. I am telling the same story I heard from the old woman.
Nani was just married then. Nana was almost poor then; he made a living by reciting punthi of Gazi Kalu, Champabati, Sonavan, Amir and Malkabanu,etc. and working as a carpenter. Nani knew what happens if someone sees a fig flower. That is why, when Nani came to her father-in-law’s house after her marriage, she planted several fig saplings at the boundary of the house. The trees grew at a fast pace by the end of the year and began to bear fruit on the spur of the moment. At that time, Nani would get up every day during the Fajr Azan to fetch water from the river, carrying the pitcher on her waist. She checked to see if the fig flowers were in bloom as she passed by. The middle part of one of the trees was swollen like a stomach. One afternoon, Nani saw the tree was dying. The stalks were dead. The root had dried up. Only the swollen part of the body seemed to be alive. Nani, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice much. She assumed that by telling Nana one day, she would get it cut down. In its place, she would plant a new tree.
She went to see the fig trees the next morning after returning from the river. She found some fruits on a tree that had burst open like flowers. Nani’s happiness made her eyes tremble. Then she heard a piercing cry. As if it were a crying infant. However, no one, not even a boy, was seen anywhere. Nani was a little scared. She somehow ran into the house. By then, Nanabhai had come from the mosque and sat down to read the Qur’an. When he saw Nani running into the room, Nana folded the Qur’an on the book stand and asked Nani what had happened. Nani, taking him by the hand, led him to the place. Nana heard the cry as well. However, Nana revealed the source of the cry. He realized that the sound came from that swollen part of the fig tree. Nana got frightened, but he believed that Allah was the most powerful, so anything could happen. He called the mosque’s Imam, along with a few others from the village. In front of everyone, he brought a saw and slowly cut a part of the tree’s belly. Within, he saw a cuddly baby. With his hands, Imam Sahib took the baby out. It was a baby girl. He looked at its face and said, “Alhamdulillah.” Then he handed the baby to Nanabhai and said, “Siddique, take your daughter. This is a gift from Allah. Bring her up with great care.”
That baby is my mother. She got married when she was eleven years old; she went to her father-in-law’s house to start a family at fifteen. She loaded the bull cart with saplings of different trees to take with her as she left–as if my poor Nana couldn’t afford to pay more dowry than this. Mother planted the saplings of those trees in the in-laws’ yard and raised them.
Then, many years later, a year before my birth, my father bought a plot of land on the southwest corner of the bridge, across the river. The plot was eighty decimal in size. There was nothing but kansgrass fields on that sandy land. In the middle of that grass field, we built our house on a sand and stone foundation. The two-storied house was constructed with wood on the outside and a bamboo fence on the inside, with corrugated iron and cement-plate canopy. My father donated the whole share of his property to his brothers and built this house on the river bank.
Mother looked after the kansgrass field. In autumn, the area around our house would turn white. Mother planted hundreds of sleeping tree seeds along the house’s boundary and in between the kansgrass. The seeds began to sprout into sleeping trees splitting the ground. They grew up with me as if they were my siblings.
When I was seven or eight, one day, my youngest uncle was hammering nails into a slackened plank on the east wall of our house. And he was saying, “Bishkaram, Bishkaram, Bishkaram…” with every blow of the hammer. At that time, I did not understand what this Bishkaram meant. My uncle just said, “If you say Bishkaram, the nail goes straight in, it doesn’t bend.”
Later, as I grew older, I learned that Bishkarma meant Bishwakarma. Bishwakarma created the world with his own hands; thus, people who chant his name while doing practical work will succeed. Anyway, one of his nails became crooked while knocking.So he got hit in his fingers by the hammer. He became enraged and started hammering, taking a new nail, and saying: “Nuruseinna, Nuruseinna, Nuruseinna..”’ in Bishkaram’s place. The hammer and nail were flickered as they rubbed against each other. I did not understand anything. Later, I learned that Nurusainna is short for Nur Hossain. Nur Hossain was chairman of the locality. He was a distant uncle of my parents. Why my parents? Before they got married, my mother and father were cousins on their mother’s side.
My father had bought the plot of land from his uncle, Chairman Nur Hossain. He took the money but did not register the property in his name. A year passed by with promises for today or tomorrow. “What is the need?’ he would ask. “I am alive, and no one has the authority to say anything to you when I am alive.”
Still, my parents seemed to have built a track to and from his place. Neither my parents nor my uncle could trust his words. At that time, the only place of trust was “786-Trust Allah”. Everyone knew that Nur Hossain, the chairman would defraud the people. He defrauded many people, took their money, and encroached on their land. Because of these ruses, people labelled him as “cheating”. So that day, when my uncle got angry, he yelled his name while hammering the nail, as if the nail was hitting him on the head.
Thus, we spent eighteen years in constant fear, anxiety, and uncertainty of losing our home. I was eighteen at the time, and our sleeping trees were of the same age as well. They were, however, a few months younger than I was. They were just like my younger siblings. The sleeping trees reached the sky, and they were brimming with blooming red sunflowers every day. In winter, thousands of parrots would flock to sit on the branches of sleeping trees and call through the leaves all day long.
Nur Hossain started pressuring us for money at that time. If we did not pay him again, he threatened to take possession of the property. Or he would register it in the name of an influential local gangster and have us evicted. It was as if the sky had fallen on us. But, on the other hand, my father had been jobless for seven years. We spent our days sometimes eating, other times going hungry or eating edible roots, vegetables or herbs. My father almost lost his mind. He grabbed Nur Hossain’s hands and legs, but Nur Hossain remained unchanged. My mother went and cried in vain. He gave us a month to prepare.
We were unable to find a way out. We had no more land. My “night” mother told my father late at night, “Sell the trees.”
My father was stupefied listening to this. However, there was no other choice. “All right,” father said softly. The following day, a total of fifty-one sleeping trees were sold. The counterpart to my dream was fifty-one young sleeping trees, each eighteen years old. We knew nothing of it. Our land was registered afresh. The uncertainty dissipated after eighteen years, like a fever with sweat.
One morning, a line of buckers appeared in front of our house, carrying heavy saws. Then I realized that the trees had been sold.
All the trees were cut down just in three days. During the days when they cut down the trees, I didn’t go to college. I lay in my unventilated dark room with the door shut. My head’s pillow got soaked. My tears were only known to my favorite Geetabitan next to my pillow.
Three days later, at noon, a line of trucks formed in front of the house on the road. As the evening progressed into night, truckloads of trees began to leave one by one. I walked out of the room as soon as the sound of the last truck faded away. The moon in the sky melted around our house as if it were a barren desert. I noticed someone standing near the gate. When I got closer, I found my mother, my “night” mother. I stood by her side in silence. And the flow of tears streaming from my mother’s eyes was glistening in the moonlight.
Then one day, my mother fell ill. She had two strokes back-to-back. My mother, who I had never seen sitting except at the time of sleep, always did something, knitted a sweater or wove flowers on a cloth, even when she was sick with a high fever. That same mother was bedridden for five years, unable to talk or move. We planted rain tree seeds and saplings in our garden year after year, but they never grew. They died either due to floods or lack of care.
Then my mother died one day. We buried her on the east side of the house under a cotton tree. My brother and I lowered the coffin into the grave. We put soil on the grave. The Mollah scattered black gram seeds on the grave. Then I sprinkled water on it. He then sowed a date branch.
A week later, I noticed from afar that the entire area, including my mother’s grave, had turned green. When I got a closer look, I realized it was not the seedlings of black grams but all the seedlings of the sleeping tree. I was not surprised because I knew that my mother was a seed of the sleeping tree.