Translated from the Bengali by Fayeza Hasanat
I don’t know why people called my mother a prostitute. I never saw her with other men. Maybe they came to her at night, when I was asleep. I was always a somnolent kind of kid, always sleepy and always hungry. In fact, sleep and hunger were my two great enemies. I could not stay up late, no matter how hard I tried. And because I could not stay awake, it was not possible for me to know if my mother did have visitors at night. But no one in our house seemed to be much bothered about it. I once tried to discuss the issue with my older sister and asked her if it was true.
“Is Ma really a prostitute?” I asked.
“What the fuck are you talking about? How can someone’s mother be a prostitute?” my sister snapped at me.
“Then why do they say that?”
“Well, they’re not calling their own mothers by that name, are they? Our mother isn’t their mother [mom]. They can call anybody else’s mother a whore.”
Her words didn’t make any logical sense, and I did not bother asking her to explain herself. My mother might or might not be a prostitute, but I knew my sister was. But no one called her by that name. I think it was because the ones that were supposed to ostracize her were her clients. Those men used to come for her or call for her service at midnight. Sometimes she would wake me up in the middle of the night and make me accompany her. Somnolent that I was, I could walk with her in my sleep, wait for her to finish her job, and then walk back home with her—like one skilled sleepwalker. And then in the morning, I would not recall a thing. Sometimes, I would have vague memories of these nighttime adventures, which I usually pushed aside as a dream, or some sleepwalking incident.
“Do you wake me up from sleep and make me go with you somewhere every night?” I once asked her.
“Why would I do that? Why would I ask a company of a nyctalops like you? Do you think I am short of pimps?”
Her harsh words convinced me that I was wrong. But then, one night, while walking with her to her job, I realized I was not a sleepwalker. She told me she had a job at Idris Molla’s house and asked me to go to the nearby mosque and wait for her. It was a moonlit night. From inside the mosque, I could see my sister knocking at the door of that house. Idris Molla’s wife opened the door to let my sister in. Idris Molla was out of town; he had gone on a pilgrimage with a group of friends. I knew it because he had asked me to join them on the trip. But I could not go because his companions refused to take a prostitute’s son with them. That night, while waiting for my sister, I lay down on the floor of the mosque and fell asleep. When Billah, the muezzin, woke me up at fajr time, I ran home to find my sister sleeping in her bed, snoring peacefully.
Mother and I were not that close. Ours was a large family raised in poverty. My father was an impractical man, who was only good at sowing his seeds in Ma’s womb, which kept her busy popping babies every year. I was her tenth child. There was a ninth one before me. But it did not survive more than three days after its birth. We lived in a little pigeon house with three tiny compartments. The house was given to us by the father of Swapan Saheb—a generosity for which my parents felt overwhelmingly indebted to him as they could not pay him back. But my sisters took care of the debt by keeping Swapan Saheb’s father satisfied.
Two of my siblings and I slept in the same room with our parents. I would wake up some nights to find my father jumping on top of my mother, kicking and punching her. Sometimes, she would pacify him and let him have what he wanted. After all, they were married. I know love is not a requirement for marriage or for childbearing. Rape can produce children too. My siblings and I were walking proofs. The ten of us were nothing but products of rapes and assaults. Maybe that’s why none of us were “normal” in the normal sense. Not even our father. If our mother failed to pay him the attention he wanted, our father would go to the next room and sleep with our second sister. And none of us were bothered about it—not even my sister. She was divorced—our second sister—and unhappy. But, when she got pregnant, our mother asked her to have an abortion.
“You shouldn’t keep that thing,” mother told her. “It might be your father’s.”
“What father? Whose father? Do you mean this one? Don’t you think that I know that he was in jail when you were pregnant with me?” my sister yelled. “You didn’t abort me, did you? But I wish you had. It would have been better. I’m not giving up on this baby. I’ll keep it, just like you kept me.”
And she did keep it and gave birth to it—a healthy boy. She had another child from a short-lived marriage—a daughter—who was taken away by her ex-husband. A man of medium build and ugly features, the guy had been her client for many years and used to come to her from a distant village. After she got pregnant with his child, he suddenly married her and took her to his house to live with him; and then, after the baby was born, he divorced her and kicked her out. He kept the baby though, as his first wife was infertile. My sister came home, empty-handed, and became obsessed with the idea of mothering another child. That’s why, when she got pregnant the second time, she felt content and refused to have an abortion. But her boy only lived for three days. Some wild jackals broke into the flimsy hut one night and ran away with the infant. By the time we recovered the dead baby, half of its body had already been eaten by the jackals. My sister went crazy
after that incident and ran around in the nearby jungle, chasing off the jackals all night long. We later found her dead body in that jungle—mutilated—not by the jackals, but by men.
My third sister’s intellectual disability caused her to stay a virgin all her life. A prostitute’s children don’t need to be smart to get laid or to be married. But my sister had another problem that was more prominent than her mental condition: she had an unbelievably repulsive body odor. And then there was her appallingly excessive drooling habit! These horrible defects made her body pretty much useless to our family. Father tried to earn some cash by setting her up with some thugs. But all his attempts went in vain. Men did not want to be near her because of her body odor. I used to feel pity for her. In a house that was constantly visited by lustful men in search of some carnal feast, this poor sister of mine stayed hungry, unmated.
One day she came to me, pleading with me to have her.
“See, I don’t smell that bad today, can’t you tell? I washed my whole body with aromatic soap. But if you think I still stink, I can wrap a handkerchief or something over your nose. That way you won’t smell anything. Please, brother, please!” She held me in a tight embrace and kept cajoling me. I tried to push her away, but she was too strong. She held me tightly with one hand and used her other hand to untie the knot in my lungi. But her hand froze when she saw me—my undergrown penis, helplessly curled up in my eighteen-year-old crotch. She realized I was not the man she was craving. I was not capable of being aroused or of having an erection.
My sister loosened her grip and started crying. She hugged me tenderly as she cried for my loss, calling it my salvation. “At least you are spared the hunger,” she said. “But what will happen to me? I’m not dead like you! How will I have my desire fulfilled? No one will quench my thirst, ever!”
My wretched sister kept lamenting while hugging me, daubing me with her tears and drool.
My youngest sister was thirteen when she started working as a maid at the house of our benefactor. Our benefactor’s older son, Swapan Saheb—my namesake—was a college-educated gentleman. Back then, I used to feel proud of having been named after him. One day he asked my sister to sleep with him in exchange for a twenty-taka note, an offer which we gladly accepted. My sister went inside with him, while I waited outside the room, pondering in excitement—making a list of things that we would buy once she got paid. When she came out of the room with that money, she was bleeding. But we did not care, the two of us. We ran to the nearby market to buy whatever we wanted. Her payjama was soaked in blood, and still, we did not care. We bought hearty snacks and ate till our stomachs hurt. Then we ran from one store to another, looking for toys—searching for all the things that we could buy with her money. All the while, she kept bleeding. She bled constantly for seven days. And then she died. I remember the things we bought that day: a spinning top for me, and a rag doll for her—a rag doll clad in a sari. I wanted to bury her doll with her but didn’t have the nerve to do it. It took me three days to gather some courage to dig a hole in one corner of her grave and bury the doll. But when some wild animals dug the doll out, people spread the rumor that they had seen an apparition—my sister’s ghost—who, they claimed, had come back from the dead in search of her favorite doll. Even my mother started sharing her experience of seeing my sister’s ghost wandering around the house. I was tempted to tell the truth about the doll but then decided to keep my mouth shut. I knew they would not believe me, because their rumor was more convincing than my truth. The gossip slowed down the traffic in our house, as the late-night clients did not feel comfortable coming to a haunted house for sexual pleasure. The rumor, however, served its purpose by scaring off that man Swapan, who was utterly horrified and fled from the village.
One thing I had in abundance in that house was siblings. But I gradually ran out of them one by one. My disabled sister killed herself two weeks after the death of my youngest sister. In our overcrowded house, we never had any privacy to do anything. My sister had to choose a mango tree in a nearby mango orchard as her suicide spot where she hanged herself using her own sari as a noose. She had no clothes on, except for a petticoat. When they cut her body loose from the tree and placed her on the ground, the crowd started commenting on her breasts.
“Look at those tits!” I heard a man say. “Had I known she had such tits hiding behind her sari, I could have held my breath and fucked her.”
“She still looks fresh. Let’s see if we can enjoy her before they take her to be buried,” whispered an excited companion.
I felt guilty about the death of my third sister. I knew it was not my fault that she died, but I felt guilty nevertheless. Next, my two older brothers, who were working for a gang of robbers, died. The oldest one got caught during a robbery and was beaten to death by an angry mob. The other one got killed when he wanted to quit the gang. When the police called us to identify my oldest brother’s body, my mother and I went to find it in a pile of unidentified corpses. To this day, I’m not sure if we claimed the right body. I still believe that my nervous mother rushed through the identification process and claimed the first body that was shown to her. My older brother had a scratch mark on his leg, which I saw on another corpse stashed in that pile. I didn’t disclose this to my mother though. After all, we were only asked to claim our share of the discarded corpses. Who cared which one of those corpses belonged to whom?
My third brother was a smuggler. He started his business by smuggling livestock through the border and then ended up smuggling drugs—a risky yet profitable trade. He got shot twice by the border patrol. Once, the bullet passed through one of his earlobes, shredding the ear and almost detaching it from his head. He came home with a torn, dangling ear. My mother started crying at seeing his bloody face, and my brother got angry at his own ear. “Fuck this mother-fucking life!” he yelled as he pulled off the dangling ear and threw it away. My mother ran for his ear. She held it in her palms and kept crying, while he grabbed a piece of cloth and pressed it over his wound, and left the house. A few days later, he got shot in the leg and came back home to rest. The police came one day to arrest him for smuggling. But, while in police custody, he was framed for some murder that he had not committed, and was sent to prison.
My youngest brother in the meantime proved to be the luckiest one. A brilliant student, he managed to finish high school and went to town to get a college degree. He never returned home. I was the only one who stayed in that house.
When my mother died of stomach pain, the villagers refused to perform the burial ritual for her. The imam of our mosque refused to conduct the janazah prayer for a prostitute. He did not want to burn forever in hell, he said. When my father’s request to bury her in the public cemetery got denied, he sat by my mother’s dead body and howled like an animal. My mother’s death did not rattle me much, but my father’s grief broke my heart. We had no land of our own where we could bury her. We could have given her a water burial if only the nearby river were not dead and dry. I sat by my father, feeling helpless. When my father started digging a hole in the middle of the courtyard of our house, I helped him dig that pit where we later buried my mother. I was twenty at that time.
A few months later, my father, being unable to handle his loneliness, remarried a girl of my age and brought her home. He had no source of income, nor did he have the capability to sexually please his young wife. When my stepmother learned about my sexual inability, she found me useless and forced my father to throw me out. I ended up living with my aging grandmother who lived next door.
She was eighty years old, my grandmother, and was living for no reason. At times I felt like suffocating her with a pillow just so she could be done with her miserable life. During her last few days, my grandmother had an irresistible craving for some rice polao. But who would feed her such a delicacy? We were very poor at that time and could hardly manage a meal or two every day. Every time she smelled the fragrance of rice polao being cooked in the neighboring house of Mr. Swapan, my elderly grandmother would go there and sit outside their kitchen—feeding on the odor of that delicate dish. Then one day she died there—in her sitting position—inhaling the fragrance of the rice polao.
When my father died, I did not have any trouble arranging for his funeral. After all, he was a man, and a man can never be a prostitute. And I was glad. Otherwise, I would have had to dig a hole all by myself to bury him in the courtyard. The people were very helpful, I must say. They took care of my father’s dead body. I did not have to do a thing!
My huge family vanished into the thin air just like that! Only I was left in that house—a good-for-nothing fellow, with no future, no purpose in life. But I was alive. And that was all that mattered to me. I was glad that I was not born a woman. It is better to be born as a defective man than to be born as a daughter of a prostitute. At least I won’t be deprived of my janazah prayer when I die.
My mother sleeps underneath the soil of the courtyard of our house. I sleep in one of the rooms. The rest of the house stands empty. I only come out at night and sit in the courtyard. Sometimes I feel the urge to lie next to my mother. Once in a while, I feel tempted to commit the sin—the sin of a prostitute.