Translated from the Bengali by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri
The Ganges was just a short walk from Anath Biswas By-lane as it turned onto the main road. I can remember hearing the blares of launch-steamers from our two-room apartment. I also remember Ma, at those moments, starting to talk about her maiden home, the village of Katipara by the river Kopotakkho. There, too, the horn of the day’s first steamer boat could be heard lying in bed. Life, what a surprise, washed ashore from the bank of one river to another.
Earlier, these areas of Bagbazar used to be really peaceful. The vegetable market was yet to encroach into Anath Biswash By-lane. So, those distant sounds could be heard wonderfully from bed. If I close my eyes, it seems as if I am at my father’s place by the banks of Kopotakkho, said Ma. She was old now. These days, never even by mistake, she utters the name Kopotakkho. The launch-steamers on the Ganges, too, could no longer be heard from this house. Even though the steamer traffic has increased manyfold. Only the whistles of the water-police tremble on, leaving the heart ominously shaken. Anath Biswas By-lane seems somehow changed.
It is not the same anymore. Once upon a time, dawn broke in this neighborhood with the keertaniyas ambling their way in, beating onto their khols, their song rising in a crescendo. From the scanty temple garden of the Datta’s, crows and parrots flew out chirping. On those days of the month of Chaitra, a cuckoo would go on nonstop. Then there was that bird, Kubo, calling from some invisible corner through the day—Kub kub kub… The air grew heavy in the entire by-lane.
That skewed slice of a garden is no longer there. The front-side of that lopsided quadrilateral plot was too narrow, the fancy multi-storied occupying it, clung to the odd shape too. Few years back, I wanted to never leave this lane. The future of these rented apartments was uncertain, nobody knew who would be favored in the upcoming tenancy bill. A shelter of my own would be great, ideal. Driven by that desire, I went looking for those flats in our by-lane—what were they like, how much did they cost… I went all the way up to the roof of the four-story building. It had the exact shape of the garden. As if, someone had floated the garden in the sky. All the trees, charred under the blaze of summer; the soil petrified into concrete. My eyes too got singed in the sun, there was not a drop of shadow of the old Thakurbari garden on this concrete patch.
Also, the flats were anything but affordable. Who would lend me that kind of money? How would I even repay? The matter stalled thereafter. I hope, someday, I shall be able to buy the dim-lit flat, where once Mukunda Pal, my father had arrived with his family after the partition. Otherwise, we have to leave Kolkata, move some place far away.
My father Mukunda Pal is around ninety now. Fifty years ago, a few years after independence, Mr. Pal with his wife, daughter and parents came to huddle in this house. I was still an infant then. Hence, it feels as if I was born here, in this Anath Biswas By-lane for I have no memory other than this. My entire childhood was this sunless two-room apartment, often crammed with more than twenty odd people. Oh, how many of them came and stayed here…now, seldom comes anybody. This house in Bagbazar used to be the shelter. Mukunda-da, Mukunda-kaka, Mukunda-jetha, Mukunda-meso, Mukunda-pise—Just one Mukunda Pal–how many ways he was called! The man is still quite agile for his age. Even about six months ago, he got himself to his daughter’s house in Agarpara. Walked to Shyambazar and took a minibus from Usumpur. Since that incident, my wife, Reena has been keeping an eye on him. She kept an eye on his pocket, how much money he had, his clothes. Reena knows that Mister Mukunda Pal was a gentleman, he would not leave the street, clad in a soiled dhoti or a crumpled punjabi. Even at this age, a crisp-clean set of clothes is all it takes for him to light up with a complacent smile on his face. Only after ensuring that, one is considered ready for a visit to his daughter or his dear brother-in-law Govinda Roy. None of his own two brothers survives. My two uncles cast their shadows on him in the ways he speaks, chats…
Mr. Pal sips at his tea and says, “Listen Bouma, what did those boys – Murari and Murali – used to do when they were young?”
At night, Reena tells me, “Baba behaved strangely.”
-Why, what’s wrong?
-When he starts talking about childhood, he doesn’t stop.
-No one does, that’s what happens at this age.
-He is so old; can he really remember everything?
-My father passed away at seventy-eight. He could barely recollect anything in his last few years, could not even remember if he had a meal.
-Baba is blessed with a robust physique.
-That’s true. Who know what awaits us ahead? Have you noticed, how Ma is growing inept by the day?
I did. She always wanted to travel once to her father’s home after Bangladesh came to be as its own country. Never happened. She emptied herself now, going on and on about the river Kopotakkho. How many times can you really talk about the same land. Who would listen? How many times has Reena heard about the sirens of the long-range steamer-launches on the waters of the Kopotaksha. Reena says, Ma has her way of telling… as if you could see them, hear them go by.
I say, “If we can’t leave and we will end up right here, we will probably just babble about this by-lane when we are old.”
“We will probably not even reach that age,” Reena replies.
I thought about leaving Anath Biswas By-lane and move somewhere. It was important to own something. My son is in his final years of high school. Once on the other side, he will grow up. There will be no ground beneath his feet if we leave him in this flat. The landlord wishes keenly for us to move. Multi-storied high-rises are ruling the city these days. They wreck and rise to the sky. Once the tenancy bill gets rolling, the landlord will get more rights. At times, I think, Chowdhurys are not really wrong. After all, they are the owners, not us. Why haven’t we been able to move anywhere else in so many years?
Baba said, “You go and look for an apartment, I shall stay here.”
-You shall stay, and I’ll leave!?
-No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. No matter the bill, I can stay here as long as I live.
One day Reena asked, “Why didn’t baba built a place for himself?”
The words reached mother. “There was no way,” She said.
-But everyone else did it, Ma, didn’t they? The other side of the city, Garia, Bagha Jatin, Nakatala, Banshdroni all got filled up with houses; Dumdum, Birati, Sodpur, Agarpara – so many empty places used to be there. Now, nothing.
Mother stayed quiet for some time, then said, “So many people used to be here, in this house. How many, ever wonder? There were days when I cooked rice for thirty people.”
-Why did you? Do they even remember you?
-There was no option of not doing it. Ours was the only house, they arrived from the other side, they had no place to stay.
-Okay but could you not build a home, at least?
-Found a land in Chandannagar.
-Chandannagar, so far? Reena was surprised.
-Your father-in-law looked for the Ganges.
-Without river, human life dries up.
Reena was surprised.
-What? I am from Bankura, I mean my father used to work in Bankura. Where was a river, there?
-Wasn’t there any, really?
Reena was quiet for a bit, then said, “There was. One paltry stream.”
-Still, a river, it was.
-Yes, but Gandheswari was dry most of the time except during the monsoon when it flooded.
Mom said, “We asked around.”
-Next to your mother’s maiden place, ran the river Madhumati. Your father was from Balurghat, where there was Atreyi river.
-So what? People have been living by the river forever.
-The people who stay by the river are kind, their minds remain soft.
– No, how did he know?
Reena said, why did we not get a house?
-Told you, couldn’t find a place near the river.
Every so often, I end up hearing the bits of words exchanged between Ma and Reena. Reena stays home all day, her father-in-law, mother-in-law, and the son are her world. The boy is all grown up now, it is difficult to reach him these days. Always on his bicycle running between his tutors, cricket matches, computer training… Reena barely manages to keep him from plunging into the Ganges. The river frightens her. Often, reports would come out about some person drowned at such and such ghat, body washed ashore—drowned, fish-eaten. In fact, it is because of her that I am looking for a house. Reena is happy that I am unable to buy a flat in this neighborhood. She wants us to leave the banks of the Ganges and go someplace where there will be no river. She won’t have to worry about her young child. I, too, am looking for another place to live. A little more light, a little more air, rich spread of paint over the smooth expanse of the walls, new windows and doors, the touch of chill rising from the mosaiced flooring in the cold season, a house where, no damp, watery feel shall creep up from the ground to grab at the feet during the rainy days. A house like that, if not a house, then a piece of land. Call it old, call it a flat, a nest or a home, doesn’t matter- I no longer like it here. Earlier, the south-wind blew from that side, now a multi-story building has blocked it. The walls, the flooring is drawing all the water from the ground, so it always feels wet and soggy. Plasters fall off the whitewashed walls, chunks of floor crumbles, when will I be able to leave this house, says Reena.
Reena and I talk at night. Reena tells everything, things that Baba says, stuff that Ma recounts, things our son Shubham says, what the neighbors says, even the man who ferries the plastic utensils says…
“Looking for a home?” Baba asked one day,
-Not just any home, a house of my own.
-Will you leave Bagbazar?
-Won’t we have our own home?
-You should go, I will stay here with your mother, I cannot leave the Ganges at these last years.
-Does it really mean anything?
-Yes, I shall die, I am going to die on the banks of the Ganges.
I did not say anything. One evening I was returning from the office when I saw a pajama-clad, bearded Muslim gentleman, somehow befuddled, wandering about in our Anath Biswas By-lane.
“Forty-three D by five. Do you know where that might be? Numbers are not serialized here, it seems.”
His accent reminded me of childhood. The tone, timbre of speech, so deeply familiar. Something that could no longer be heard from Baba or Ma. A language, now lost.
“Tell me, whose blood are you–Mojahar or Ezahar? You do look like both of them. Ahuh! that smile belongs to Ezahar and your glances seem like Mozahar.”
Baba’s eyes have watered up. Ma keeps looking at Sikander Ali unblinkingly, who came from Baradawl, where our home used to be. He has a sky-blue punjabi on, thick framed glasses on his eyes, salt and pepper on head and cheeks.
Sikandar said, “This address was in my father’s diary—Chacha, you remember they were twins —my father and uncle, don’t you?”
-How can I not!
-That’s why I seem to resemble both.
-Are they still there?
Sikandar Ali nodded negatively. It’s been a while, uncle lost his life to the Pakistan Army, and Abba, petrified at the shock of it, stopped talking altogether in the end. Whatever remained, mere whiff of a man, passed away in seventy-six.
“So long ago!” Maa wailed up suddenly.
-How old are you now, Chacha?
-Ninety-one, I am alive so that I can get to see you, my child!
Dad broke down in grief for his lost friend.
Sikandar’s eyes, too moistened. Reena stood at the door, I, leaned against the wall. Sikander said that he often came to this side of the border. It has not been possible to check on the headmaster of Baradawl Primary School, the much-respected Mukunda Pal who founded the school too, since there was no address. He stumbled upon this address in his father’s diary by chance.
“Whose son are you then?” Mother asked, “Roshenara or Anjuman, who is your mother?”
-You remember, Chachi?
-Yes, which one is it?
The language of her land had returned to her lips.
-You tell me which one is it?
Mother muttered, “Anjuman was my friend.”
“What about Roshonara,” asked Sikander?
-She was pretty and a little arrogant too for that.
Sikander broke into a light laughter.
-She passed early, had an ulcer in her stomach. She died taking the holy water from the pir’s abode in her mouth.
-How old was she then?
-About fifty three or four.
-Not too old then.
“No, what a beauty she was, Roshanara, Mozahar’s bibi,” Baba smiled, “Wasn’t she from Palashpol?”
“I see you remember everything,” Ma said.
-Yes, why not?
Ma asked, “What about, Anjuman?”
-She is still around but bed-ridden.
-Cannot get up?
-No, paralyzed at the waist, Chachi.
Mother’s eyes filled with tears.
-If I could see her once.
-It would only have broken your heart, Chachi.
-I didn’t really expect both of you to be alive. Thought I’d just meet your family—after all you were friends with my Abba and Chacha.
“Not just any friend—we had rice from one plate,” Baba said.
Mother said, “Anju and I planted two trees. Anju in our garden. I, in yours, Chusi mango.”
Sikandar said, “That tree is named after you – Lalita mango, very sweet, it cannot be found in anyone else’s house.”
-How could there be, Ezahar got the seedling from the famous Globe Nursery in Kolkata for her. “The beetle leaf served by the lady was sweeter, he enjoyed it very much,” said Baba.
“What happened to the one planted by my friend,” asked Ma.
-It’s not there anymore. Your garden has been cleared off.
-Why did they cut the tree? Why did they spoil the garden?
-They’ve built a big masjid on the land. We tried but could not keep it.
“At least, keep your garden, my son,” said Ma.
Sikander Ali sighed.
I could not understand why he would answer all questions but one, whose son he was—Anjuman or Roshenara, Ezahar or Mojahar.
Dad asked, “Did Roshonara suffer too much?
-Yes, Chacha, she did. It turned out to be cancer. I took her to Dhaka and from there to Kolkata, then to Mumbai, finally took her back to Baradawl, where she passed away.
-Why did you not contact then?
-I did not have your address.
-Have they at least renovated the school to concrete?
-Yes, that they did Chacha. Logs and copies with your signature are still there.
-Is it, really?
-So, you’re saying Anjuman is the only one surviving still?
-Doesn’t she talk about us?
=She used to, a lot before…but no more. There’s hardly anything new to listen to any ways…I know everything, already heard it may time over.
It seemed Ma was about to say something but held back. Then she asked, “Is your uncle’s house in Mogra?”
-You take a steamer to go there, right?
-Well, now the road has been paved, bridges have been made over the rivers in many places.
“The steamer used to run, we had a steamer halt at Baradawl,” Ma said.
-Once upon a time.
-Nah, sighed Sikandar Ali. Rivers are all going dry, Chachi.
“Rivers, drying? What about Betna, Kopotakkho?” Ma cried out.
-The Betna is gone, Kopotakkho still has water, but in summer and at low tide, her skeleton too, is bared, sand islands come out here and there.
Dad listened, crestfallen at the fact…how on earth can a river go dry?
-Yes, the lack of water is severe. Sand is all that is there where the river used to be.
-What curse! Such a huge river, dead?
Sikandar Ali nods.
-Why does these things happen?
Sikander went on in a low voice, “Hindus are leaving the country, their land, their garden. Greedy people are taking over, chasing the Hindus out. True as it is, I don’t know why are they flying? It is their country too. Hindus and Muslims, if not together on one land, how can there be water in the rivers? You got to repeat that poem in your head—”Kopotakkho” of our bard Madhushudhan, Chachi, the water in the streams are made from togetherness, are they not? The heart of the country is drying up…”
“What have you come to tell us!” Maa cried..
-How much can I even say, can you even hear… remember the Sunai river, she lay barren, no life, no water. One river after another is falling, like army, The land is falling…If they all leave, Baradawl, Kopotakkho, Dhaka, Barisal .. all will fall and turn barren, turn into a desert.
Tears rolled from Baba’s eyes and dried up at his chest. He looked at Sikandar with a strangeness in his eyes. He’s deeply stunned. Sikander, finally got up to leave after a long time. Parents were still quiet.
As I saw him outside, I put my hand on his shoulder, “Whose son are you, then?”
Sikandar smiled, said softly, “Roshonara Bibi adopted me”.
-She is not your own mother?
-No, Anjuman Bibi has three sons, two of them live in Dhaka, one is Canadian. Roshenara had no son or daughters, I called her Ammi.
-So, you are neither Ezahar’s nor Mozahar’s.
-No, when my mother came to Kolkata at the time of her death, she told me to come and pay a visit to your father. She had died in great pain, nothing was left of her beauty, as if she was eaten away by an insect.
-You found time after all these years?
Sikandar smiled morosely. Then he started walking and said that he would be going to Gobardanga tomorrow morning. There is a marriage invitation. Binod Biswas was there, he came last year. His daughter’s wedding was stalled because of unpaid dowry. He was here to hand over the money he got by selling Binod’s land there. He left in a rush. Sikander wished to take them back once the marriage was over. Binod Biswas, Ajit Kundu and Pranabananda Mallik, all left their homeland scared and heartbroken. They are all in Gobordanga. Everyone is in Gobardanga. Why should one leave their place after spending a lifetime? Sikander will talk to them and take them back with him.
You cannot deny the fear for life, I said, “Who wants to die in the riots?
-Riots are not one-sided. It’s the same here and there. Here, in Gujrat, they’re burning down homes of the Muslims, they aren’t leaving, giving up on their homeland?
-No, where can they possibly go?
-Tell me then why would the Hindus leave? If there are no Hindus on that side, no Muslim on this side, who will live together? Brother, the water in the rivers doesn’t dry up for no reason. If it went on like this, there will be no water anywhere, none…
Coming back home I found Reena standing by the door. Anxiety evident on her eyes and face, — -Baba is acting odd, what news did that man, Sikander Ali, came to break?
I hear Baba’s voice, calling my mother, “Get up, do you not wish to go to Baradawl?”
Reena got hold of him, “Where are you going Baba, what are you saying?”
-Mozahar, Ejahar sent a messenger, otherwise Kopotakkho will die.
-Try to calm down, Baba.
-No, no, we have to find out, Thakurdas Mittir, Shailen Roy, Govinda Kundu, Balram Mallick, everyone needs to know. Where are they? Mozahar and Ezahar’s son, he came to take everyone back. Water is gone from the rivers because we left. Let Everyone know, Son. No, no… Thakurdas is in Barasat, Ramen in Birati! No, I think Thakurdas is in Mashalandpur, Gobindo in Gobardanga …
Baba was reciting the names of different people from different places. All these people were originally from Baradawl, Khulna district. It is still written in the wedding invitation lists – the ancestral residence address first, then the present address… all these names sound familiar to me. All these people have spent at least a day in this house. I remembered my childhood. These two dimly lit rooms, narrow passage and even the kitchen, fraught with a mix of light and shadows, used to get filled at night. Everywhere, there was a bedspread. They all came, losing their homes on the other side, at Baradawl. Then eventually, one by one, they left to regrow roots and homes. I realized, now none comes, no one checked on my parents who once gave shelter to everyone. Sometimes I end up sneering at my mother, “Now that you are old, does anyone come? Govindakaka, Shailenkaka, Balram Pisey – does anyone look out for you? Govindakaka traveled abroad, I have heard from others. Did he come to tell you, once? No one remembered. No one remembers.
Baba cannot stop. He goes on, “What disaster! Kopotakkho is drying up, Betna is drying up, ‘Oh river, thou art in my thoughts forever…’ Was it Modhushudan, who wrote this? People are leaving the country, houses are on fire, the rivers are drying up… Son, there shall be no river after this, nothing to put out a pyre.” Baba called out to Ma, “Listen!”
Admitting him at the nursing home, I sat alone all night at the reception below. Brother-in-law was out on office tour, sister Jhuma cried over the phone. As the night progressed, quiet fell over the nursing home. Watching the nurses pace, I began to doze. Now, if something happened to Baba in the middle of this night, what would I do by myself? I felt scared. So many people had once stayed in our home. They have all forgotten us.
Next day was a Sunday. I returned home at eight in the morning. Ma and Reena were waiting anxiously. After listening to the news, Reena said, all this would not have happened if that man had not come.
-Ah, what’s wrong with him?
-Strange man! Why did that Sikandar Ali come, at all?
-You heard him, too. To report the death of the river.
“Uh-huh!” Reena shook her head, “He came to share the news of Roshonara Bibi’s death. I think Baba had stroke at its shock. What if something happens to him?”
I did not reply. Rina went on in a hushed voice, “Maa was up all night, crying, saying that it was Roshenara who now pulled Baba. In this foreign land, even after so many years have passed, everyone, grown old, gotten closer to death, she still had to invade this household. How much Anjuman cried for that wench of a woman, Roshonara!”
I rejected the idea.
– No, it was the river, father couldn’t stand it drying up.
I don’t know what to make of all this. Ma cried and said, “Roshonara is wooing him from the grave. Why did she have such beauty? A beauty that cannot be forgotten even after death, even in the next birth. You just cannot forget those voluminous locks, beautifully elongated eyes, milk and vermillion complexion, anklets too. She is the one who pulled the man.”
-No, I think, Baba is mourning the river.
Reena nodded, she said, “Even mother couldn’t help but stare in awe at her divine beauty. At the time of her death, Roshenara asked them to inform us, tell me why?”
I looked at my mother—her face, somber, aged overnight and somehow crushed. She sat, neck hanging low like a lost soldier, frozen within a sadness. I stroked her head.
-Don’t worry, he is coming back soon.
-Why did he come to tell the news to a ninety-year-old man after so many years? Whose son was he, Anju or Roshonara?
“Baba couldn’t bear the death of the rivers,” I try to convince Ma.
She was quiet. It was clear that she wanted to but could not speak about Roshenara. Her eyes darted off through the window to the sky, as if it locked eyes with someone up there.
That afternoon, Reena and I went to the nursing home and found Baba asleep. What peace shone through his face! A faint smile glinted from the corner of his mouth. Maybe he was dreaming.
My sister came. She stood by, distraught and mumbled, “Baba is in this condition, do we not have anyone else? You will have to take care of everything… so many people had once lived in our house …”
The next day, I had to go to the office. It was already 4:30 in the afternoon when I finally reached nursing home after arranging for some leaves. Reena was downstairs. Visiting hour had already started. Why was she still there?
Reena said, “Jhuma is upstairs, four more have come from Gobardanga.”
-I don’t know, Jhuma might know.
-Who gave them the news of father’s illness?
-An old couple went to our house this afternoon. Ma recognized them and were all tears. They got the news and came here.
Does bad news spread on its own?
Thakurdas Mittir’s family came from Gobardanga. Thakurkaka? He stood in front of Baba with his wife and daughter-in-law. I saw that the man was old. All the hair on his head have gone white. He wasn’t family but an uncle to us in the village relation. He used to sing well. In fact, got his records out at that time, Even made it to the radio. Then communication went numb. How long has it been? How many years! No calculation.
Dad was sitting on the bed. Laughing, “I am so glad that you have come taking so much trouble to get here from so far away!
His words didn’t seem coherent. He wasn’t being able to place neither Thakurdas Mittir nor us. He went on, “So you are saying you are from Baradawl, that’s wonderful! Kopotakkho, Betna were the two rivers there. Who knows if the rivers were dead or alive now…can you find the news?”
Thakurdas Mittir said, “Mukunda-da’s head is not in the right place, why would he address me formally. I was used to many reprimands when I used to learn English from him. I am seventy-two now.”
“Who gave you the news?” I asked.
-Umm… That man who I met at the Gobardanga Station in the afternoon. He was coming from Bangladesh.
-Maybe, I don’t really remember. Just that he had a tall figure and was going to Maslandpur. He came to take those who have fled after the partition from the other side back to home.
-Was he wearing a blue punjabi?
– No, shirt and pants. Yes, now I can recall his name was Jafar Mandal, he handed out a piece of paper, your parents’ name was on it. He was looking to find out where they lived.
-Where was Zafar from?
-Katipara, your mother’s ancestral village.
-How old was he?
-Not more than fifty years.
-But who gave the news of father’s illness?
-No one. Seeing Mukunda-da and Boudi’s name in that paper made my heart ache, I told my wife, let’s go, let’s pay a visit to Mukunda-da, he has been like our elder brother. Without him, we would have floated away. If he had not made it today, I would have been a great sinner. I shall sing to him today. I called my daughter and son-in-law in Kasba. Let the others know the news too. Mukunda-da, Brother, do you not recognize me?
Dad smiled, “I can, and I cannot…but I’m happy to hear that you are from Baradawl. My house belongs to the people from Baradawl. They cannot just be wandering homelessly, they should not be living on the platforms, they must be given home, be sheltered. What did you say your name was?”
I felt upset. This is what it is has come to be? Baba had to live these last years with amnesia? The man that Thakurdas Mittir described – Jafar Mandal – was not Sikander, they were different people. This was a man from Katipara, mother’s maiden home. A man from that village came here looking for my parents. Strange! In Katipara, baba was just another a son-in-law. Mother was born there. Sikandar Ali had brought the news of Roshonara’s demise, whose passing-away Zafar was here to announce from the other side, who knows?”
“He must be one of the Iqbal brothers”, Ma said.
-Who is Iqbal Bhai? Reena hides a laughter.
-They were the freedom fighters, went to prison for that, all three of them…so one of them alive today?
-Why did you remember their names?
-They pleaded with your father not to leave the country, but they were not able to put out the riots.
Reena and I thought that if the man really wanted to see my parents, he would come. After a long time, a steamer could be heard from the Ganges. We were waiting for someone to bring the news of Iqbal brothers to mother from the other side after so many years.
“How did the Iqbal brothers look?” Reena asked mother.
-Very masculine, tall, they used to sing during the evenings.
Mother stopped talking and thought about the soil of Bengal and the water of Bengal.
“They did not come here, Ma but you left?” Reena asks.
-They didn’t come, they will never come.
Mother was shaking her head, repeatedly. Reena was asking carefully. Mom didn’t want to say anything else, but then she said, “One evening in their building, three brothers sang the Water of Bengal together, I remember, I remember very well, it is still in my ears. The three brothers were born back to back, after every one and a half years, like clockwork. All three were beautiful. Their voices were beautiful. The call of the three is beautiful.”
Reena told me at night, “Thakurdas uncle’s memory seems lucid, he can’t really follow his own words, you see…Maybe he, did meet Sikandar Ali. Didn’t you say the man was headed to Gobardanga?”
It’s not that I don’t think so. It seems like a lot more. She also seemed to have a lot to say. Reena was saying those things breathing down my neck. She was asking me if there were any lights in my mind. Reena was not giving me the opportunity to ask about Iqbal brothers. Towards the end I could no longer hear Reena. Sikandar Ali was floating in front of me. Sky-blue punjabi, healthy man, wide chest, he is now wandering towards Gobardanga and Masalandpur to take back all those who has left his homeland after all these years.
Reena said suddenly, “Even after leaving the country, it was not difficult to remember.”
– Was Roshonara that pretty?
-I don’t know.
-Was she that beautiful?
-Let’s not talk.
Reena tucked her face into my chest.
Going to the nursing home the next day, I was surprised to see people standing in groups. People who took shelter in our house a long time ago, in my childhood. Those men, Shailen-kaka, Gobindo-kaka, Balram-kaka, Durga-kaka, Ramen-da, Nagen-da – how did they all get the news? Some have gone upstairs, others were waiting, they will go upstairs as soon as the visiting card is handed down. Age has invaded everyone, appearances have changed, someone’s hair has gone white, someone’s bald, someone’s teeth have fallen off, some eyes have thick glasses. Everyone has their wives with them. There are the sons and daughters. Over fifty people have come to see a patient in the nursing home. Everyone is saying Mukunda-da was ill, how can I not come? Who gave the news? Nagen-da said, it was Balram-kaka on the phone. Balram-kaka said, Durga sent his son to deliver the news. Durga-kaka said, Ramen told me last night. Everyone had informed everyone. It was not clear who got the news first, as Ramen Dutta had left for home at Birati a little while ago. He has night-blindness these days, cannot see properly in the dark.
I was overwhelmed. There was a burbling bustle of people around me. It seemed that all the people who came to the nursing home this afternoon came to see Mukunda Pal of Baradawl, the village on the banks of Betrabati-Kopotakkho in Khulna district. The news of Mukunda Pal has reached everyone. We weren’t really alone then. Reena’s face lit up. I started going upstairs. Many more were coming up behind me. Everyone came to see my father. Knowing that Mukunda Pal was ill, Nabin came running despite his old age. They had difficulty climbing the stairs, they gasped and paused, took a pause and but went on. Before me, behind me.
Baba, Mukunda Pal, was on the bed of the nursing home, wearing white dhoti and punjabi, sitting on the white sheet with hands gestured in greeting. He looked at me and called out, come on, come on, you are all from Baradawl, you have all come, what a joy it is for me to meet you! Others are still on their way, Ejahar, Mozahar ….
Baba went on, “It was for you all that I had the house. Please come and stay, and then we have to think if we can go back, to our homeland, what do you say?” Nagenda, Shailen-kaku, Balaram-kaka and others stood around father.
Shailenkaka came forward, “Mukunda-da, Mukunda-da?”
Baba did not respond. Has he forgotten his own name? In his mind, there is only the village. Gushing, gurgling waters, steamers afloat on the river, and boats too. I could hear many more were coming up, people flowing in from the other side of the river to see Mukunda Pal. Rivers, Betrabati, Kopotakkho flowed inside the nursing home.
Then the bell rang. A man with a shady face, broke into the cabin, commanding, “It was time, it was time; now everyone needs to go down, leave, waiting was not permitted.”
Baba was alone. Hands folded still, tears in his eyes. It was evening. Darkness prevailed on both sides of Betrabvati and Kapotaksha. No one around. Only the river flowed into darkness, further away, to the distant sea. The last drop of light disappeared, the last voice, lost to the infinite waters. Baba is alone in the cusp of nature, stunned. There is no one around him. Not a single soul. Tears fall from his eyes in the dark.
Dhol: One kind of percussion instrument
Keertaniya : Singers, performers who performed the native ballad style singing.
Chaitra: The last month in the Bengali calendar
Kubo: Name of a bird
Amar Mitra’s narrative voice is one that walks on reality with a song on its lips. His understated lyricism often leaves a dream like air about his stories, setting it very close to the ground yet somehow floating. This story, that recounts the forever lived, deep agonies of lost home-land—rivers, people and language in the minds of a sufferer, has achieved a truly poignant coalescence of narrative style and content. An immigrant mind is a land fractured—one that grows roots in new soil while drowning deeper into its own memories—almost-realities of a lost life and land left behind. I wanted and hope that I have been able to keep the balance and beauty weaved through the use of memories, sudden appearance of characters, people and language, the myth of rivers and their demise interspersing it all into an evocative whole intact in the translation.
There were sections in the story where the characters spoke in the east-Bengal dialect of Bangla which I knew not how to translate. I considered using a different dialectical English, but they simply did not feel true. At least not any truer than the straightened English, I consider myself guilty of. If any of the reader has a suggestion to handle dilemmas like this, I am all ears.