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Jackfruit— Shahnaz Munni

Jan 14, 2024 | Fiction | 0 comments

TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE

 

A pregnant woman’s tongue is like the fickle floodwaters; it craves such different things at different times of the day! Sometimes it wants burnt soil, coal, tamarind, roasted wheat, or some such ludicrous thing. This woman’s husband had gone to some land, upstream of the river, to work as a laborer, meanwhile she, alone, twisting and turning on the floor mat, thought, ruled by her salivating tongue-

‘Alas! If only someone could feed me a ripe jackfruit now, then…’

She tried to discern the existence of her unborn child by placing her hands over her considerably swollen stomach- ‘Then I will marry my child off to this person, and if my child is a son, I will make sure he befriends this person.’

The indulgent wind, like a spy carried this pregnant woman’s impatient desire with a secret urgency and spread it across the growing young leaves of the trees, amidst the dark mysteries of the dense forest, among the wildflowers and rows of grass, in the dawn-hued sky, the night, the afternoon. 

A male fox heard this secret message while relaxing his furry body on the floor of an ancient, damp cave. The dry, light brown fur on the nape of his neck stood alert, a strange music filled his entire being. He didn’t delay the matter any further. Turning his cave upside down, he quickly left in search of a ripe yellow jackfruit. 

‘A round silver moon fell suddenly from the sky, landed on her lap and illuminated everything around her’- opening the doors to her house in the soft glow of the morning, the pregnant woman was quite surprised by this inexplicable dream. A golden yellow ripe jackfruit lay lazily basking in the quiet shade of the entrance to her house. The pregnant woman’s mouth filled with saliva at the sight of the jackfruit and she looked with dream-filled eyes at the cloud-soaked environment, searching for the bearer of the jackfruit but couldn’t find anyone. Her greedy eyes could only focus on the lush beauty of the jackfruit, its appetizing appeal. Like a solitary sinking ship in the middle of an ocean, the woman, herself caught in an ocean of desire, clasped the jackfruit with both hands and brought it to her lonely courtyard. She pressed on the fruit with both her hands, broke and peeled off the woody skin, and inside lay the ripeness and sweetness of the glistening yellow pulp. 

The sticky juices of the fruit trickled down her elbows, her juice-filled lips smiled in satiety, an ever-increasing happiness and until she had devoured every last morsel of the fruit, she was not aware of anything else. 

The male fox silently watched the woman’s eager partaking of the fruit politely, from a distance. He gave her a little time to savor the moments of pleasure that came with her meal. After she wiped off her sticky face and hands and sat calmly, the fox walked on its four legs and announced his presence. 

‘You are a little late, oh cunning fox, I have polished off the jackfruit.’

The fox sat down with his paws to the door, wagged its tail and laughed, 

‘You will wed your daughter to me, won’t you?’

‘Why? Why should I marry her off to you? He who brings me the jackfruit will get my daughter in marriage.’

‘I was the one to get you the jackfruit you housewife, didn’t you understand that?’

The woman was initially wordless in shock, and then argued with the fox in vain,

‘The tree has given me the jackfruit, brought to me by my fate, I haven’t eaten your jackfruit, you wild animal… I don’t want to eat it either. Besides, besides…’ The woman stuttered, ‘How can a human marry an animal?’

‘Oh, I see, you don’t wish to honor your promise, it was all just superficial talk! Well, then return me my jackfruit. I am a beast of the forest and I will get back to where I belong.’

The woman’s eyes and face now bore the weariness of defeat. She gave up like the flame of a lamp surrenders in face of furious winds. She knew that if she could not keep her promise she would burn eternally like coal in the depths of hell. She would be cursed. The heavens would punish her entire family. She looked glum and hopeless. Clutching her stomach heavy with her child, she said in a tired voice, 

‘Come after twelve years, you cunning fox. I will think about this after twelve years.’

The fox returned to the forest delighted with this outcome. The woman meanwhile fell prey to a cool paleness and grey infirmity in fear and defeat. She wished for the death of her unborn child, to flow out of her in fluid blood, for the untimely demise of the cherished rose- ‘Don’t be born in this cold, ruinous world, my child. I would rather you flow away silently like water’. But the child reached the fullness of its form and came out into the world tearing its way out of the dark, cave-like womb of its mother. Till the time she was in her senses, the woman asked the old wetnurse, ‘Boy or girl, Khala?’ 

The tired, old wetnurse looked at the bloody newborn infant and laughed- ‘It’s a girl. A daughter like the beautiful full moon has come to your household.’

The woman, like the flame in face of winds, was suddenly and wordlessly snuffed out. That animal, the sweet taste of the ripe jackfruit, that terrible hour and the natural conspiracy of decay weakened her heart. The salivating waters of her tongue and the unwritten promise of her past put an ice-cold distance between her and her child. But for how long? The infant’s wailing demands woke up the sleeping mother. Forgetting all her unwanted memories, the mother like a dejected dove pulled her infant daughter under the warmth of her wings. Her mother’s meaningless words rang in her ears like a tune and the girl child was named Mynah. Mynah was really like a beautiful, bright bird. She moved her limbs sometimes like a butterfly, an experienced player at other times, smiling in her sleep, a beam of moonlight in her mother’s lap. Her daughter grew up walking around the courtyard on her soft feet, like a fresh lotus. She would braid her well-oiled hair like a snake’s tail and the bangles in her wrists would set off a harmonic rhythm. The river of time sped by restlessly, a bloody flower now bloomed in Mynah’s feathers. She looked like a graceful rose. Her mother smiled affectionately, “My dear Mynah, you have grown up.’

Mynah’s blue-clothed figure had the indomitable tide of youth, her gait had an awareness of her youthful beauty, a certain dejection, her eyes would often look like the monsoon. Her mother would observe these things and soon forgot the terrible promise of her past. She smiled and declared to the villagers- ‘My daughter will marry Haran’s son Paran in the month of Falgun.’

It seemed that the mother didn’t recall the promise she had made twelve years ago. A thin film of dust had settled on the mother’s mind and the memory of the distant pledge blurred gradually. But the four-legged creature, who had counted twelve springs, did not forget that easily. He had roamed around the forest like one who is drunk, keeping track of the time by looking at the cycle of falling leaves, blooming flowers, the temperament of the forest trees and the changing hues of the sky. When the time drew nigh, he could scarcely contain his excitement. He went and stood with his four legs at the familiar doorstep, his eyes feverish, exuberant. 

The sharp outline of the four-legged creature silhouetted in the darkness of the approaching night scared Mynah. With a broom in hand, she scolded the fox sternly, ‘Go away, go away from here you forest animal.’

Praise poured from the expectant lips of the fox. He said, ‘Oh beautiful girl with pleasing features and nature, call your mother, my pact is with her, whatever I have to say I will say to her, she knows me, call her.’

The mother’s visage became dark with panic and helpless disbelief, fear filled her eyes, ‘Is this the truth then, animal? Is my daughter really this cursed? Will the mother’s fault, her sin, tie the life of her innocent daughter forever with an animal? Oh, will my beloved daughter, the gem of my heart, end her days in sadness and embarrassment in your house?’

‘Then do you want to forego your pledge you wife of the human household? Ruin your commitment? Do it then. I will spread the tale of the human betrayal throughout the forest.’

The mother lamented like one who has lost everything, her voice giving away her exhaustion, confusion and fear. The beauty of the setting sun and the bright green earth was futile in the mother’s eyes. She seemed like a hunted deer who has lost her way in this world, aimless. Despite the unfathomable pain in her heart, her voice remained steady as she said- 

‘This is not betrayal, oh forest animal… it is the liability of my pledge to you… a very difficult thing… when I have made that commitment, I will fulfil it, I won’t go back on my promise. You will marry Mynah.’ 

Having heard all of it, Mynah protested at first, “No, I don’t agree. This marriage will not take place, cannot take place.’ She wanted to run away from the village. She cursed her mother like one crazed, ‘You rakshasi, you sinner, I am not your daughter, I won’t bear the brunt of your false promise, may you burn and die, may you be utterly destroyed, do not ruin my young life.’

Mynah became distraught with her constant crying and then she turned as silent as a piece of stone, mute and deaf like a clay statue, as if she had never known laughter or pain, a silent, motionless wooden doll. 

Finally, the women from the neighborhood gathered in their courtyard one afternoon in the month of Ashwin. The unfortunate Mynah was wedded to the sly four-legged fox and she went away with him to the depths of the forest to honor her mother’s promise, to pay for her mother’s mistake, to repay the cost of her mother’s milk. The love of her life, a person after her heart, her to-be husband Paran was far away in some western land. 

The fox’s happiness matched the music of a thousand waterfalls. His musty cave was suffused with the lovely scent of the Kamini, as if it were not his cave but a fragrant bower. The forest seemed lush, green and beautiful and he thought of himself as a fortunate child of the forest. He roamed far and wide and brought home tasty prey and laying them at his wife’s feet, he said-

‘Oh, human girl, cook these, serve them, eat well and feed your husband as well.’

The wild fox couldn’t comprehend Mynah’s sad young face, the expressions of her wet eyes, her defeated sigh, her pain, the distraught darkness in her life, her revolted, fearful gaze. The fox’s eyes were cunning, but he only understood the primal lust that ran through his forest veins. The fox had a long tail and he knew just the boundaries of the forest. He didn’t recognize the multitude of strange pains that smeared Mynah’s lips. Leaving behind all the familiar colors, dreams, smell, words, Mynah was slowly being transformed into a distant, unfeeling, dreamless vixen. She birthed two lively fox cubs in the loneliness of her forest home like an animal following the ways of nature. Looking at her children’s shape and body, poor Mynah cried in desperate regret- ‘Alas, not one child is like me, what did I grow in my belly with such pain? If only one of them could be like me…’

Meanwhile the youth to whom Mynah was betrothed, Paran, returned to the village with his earnings after a long stay in the West only to find an unfamiliar deserted garden, an endless, barren, deserted space. Mynah’s mother looked ashen, pale as death, sans language. Learning everything from the villagers, his heart burned in anger, and carrying immense darkness in his heart, he left his village one night, and moved aimlessly past the small pathways, the gatherings near the river banks, the familiar soil, with a grieving, dejected face, a disconsolate heart, and moved towards Mynah’s smell like a blind bird, friendless, amidst fog-laden ways. The branches of huge trees, verdant shrubs, sharp, thorny plants hindered his movement but he plodded on patiently, dauntless, a determined, lonely individual. Crossing friendly ways, many violent eyes, he finally saw a vixen-like figure of a girl, clinging to a tree in a forest, shamed, insulted and hurt, cold as ice. Seeing the man suddenly, she was angry, as if humans were her enemies, as if she really were a sharp-toothed, mad vixen. Her eyes had a history of hatred, disdain and bitterness. The man pulled in puffs of air with all his body and called the girl in simple love, with his favorite name- ‘Mynah, my Mynah bird…’  

The girl’s heart was abruptly agitated, her sight deluded, a tremendous storm raced through her entire being. Still, she lunged at Paran, her teeth pulled back, ready to bite. This sight melted Paran’s heart. He looked at her in deep empathy, with moist eyes and pulled the uncouth, wild girl towards his open heart. The girl broke down with the soft sound of the raindrops, breaking apart into tiny slivers. The animal smell slowly washed off from her body. When she came to her senses, she seemed vulnerable and surprised, her face had an unfamiliar sadness. She took her beloved’s hands and walked to the cave that smelled of a mixture of soil, hay and animals. Two healthy fox cubs looked at them with curiosity and asked- ‘Who is he, Ma? Who is he?’

The children’s mother was quiet for some time, her chest had the thunderstorms of the month of Chaitra, on her lips a dot of poison,

‘He is your maternal uncle- my brother, you mustn’t tell your father about his visit under any circumstances.’

The children nodded- they wouldn’t say anything. They wagged their tails and roamed around Paran- ‘our Mama, our mother’s brother’.

Paran’s heart pained at this melancholy, pathetic sight. His pain spread across the forest. Mynah was disconsolate like a lightning struck tree. Paran whispered to her, 

‘I have come to fetch you with a chest full of dreams. Let’s flee this place. This self-destruction is meaningless. Let us run away.’

Mynah seemed like the parched, sun-burnt earth in the hot Chaitra afternoon, contemplating her death silently. She laughed dryly, a sound that seemed like a howl,

‘Return to your people, human-born.’

‘And you?’

‘I am unfortunate, my fate is tied here, I will probably return the day this bond is severed.’

Paran wasn’t prepared to give up that easily because he wanted to eliminate the ocean-like distance between them, because of his memories of happy days and it was this feeling that made him want to rescue this savage woman by bringing her to human society. But Mynah remained unmoved in her resolve. She didn’t return with him. She bore the burden of her endless curse and her mother’s unbearable promise on her shoulders willingly and returned to her hapless life in the cave.

The preying fox returned to the cave after roaming the forests the entire day. The fox cubs shouted happily on seeing their father- ‘our Mama, our mother’s brother’. The father wanting to know the cause for such sudden joy looked at their mother,

‘What are they saying, human girl?’

‘What do I know?’ she said derisively, ‘How do I know?’

The matter was laid to rest for a while. However, as days went by the human girl buried deep inside Mynah’s being started waking up from her slumber and continuously sent her signals of the attractions of human life that captivated her, charmed her and made her dreamy. The other Mynah inside her being cried out, in silence, in terrifying cruelty, wordless but unphased, constantly reminding her of the possibility of another path in her life. There began a tug of war between the two Mynahs and at the end of this tussle, the mother of those children lost her resolve. She lost her being in the depths of the rain. A cunning desire stung her intermittently like a scorpion, a dangerous sting, a daring impatience. This Mynah was someone else. A predator in search of an opportunity. A few days later when the fox called out to his wife and said- ‘Human girl, listen, I am going to a distant forest. You make the Pitha from your land. I will come back and have it.’

Mynah hid the terrible mutiny inside her with an ingenious smile. An intense vengeance rose in her as if she were a violent witch, a sinful black cobra, only destruction lay beneath her mother’s heart, a raised hood, like a cruel scorpion, a hellish wave. Holding a calm smile on her strikingly beautiful face, she ruined her family life with a cool, calculated mind and left in pursuit of her old childhood pathways towards her ever-familiar village, moving back to her past. 

Mynah’s sudden return to the village somewhat surprised, scared and delighted her mother. Seeing her beloved daughter at her doorstep, the mother cried tears of emotion, regret and personal sadness. The sound of her cries reached the neighbors in the village and they crowded to see Mynah. Mynah immediately felt like a trapped fox. The human eyes all around seemed to hold sharp spears that pierced her constantly. She hid herself in a dark corner of a room and came out cautiously at the sound of the moon rising and walked to the open field on four legs. Sitting on her feet like an animal she looked at the moon and cried, mumbled, groaned and screamed. Observing this from a distance, her mother’s heart trembled and she came and sat gingerly next to her daughter. Mynah cried out to her mother, ‘I miss my children, Ma, they are probably crying in my absence.’

Understanding her daughter’s pain, the mother asked, ‘Why didn’t you bring them?’

Mynah replied sadly, walking on all fours after a firefly, ‘Why would they come? They are fox, Ma. Why would they come to the humans?’

Meanwhile it was a different sight in the forest. As soon as he entered his cave in the evening, the fox smelled ruin and death. He saw a film of coagulated blood, heard the deafening silence, and finally discovered in the cave the cold, headless, hard corpses of his two little children. His first thought was that this was the work of a ferocious wild beast from the forest but he soon realized that this destruction was wrought by the loveless hands of a human girl, a devastating, bloody game, the painful blue revenge of a dead promise. 

….…

Paran ran with dream-filled eyes at the news of Mynah’s transformation, his heart filled with youthful expectation as if he would discover this time why this diamond shone so bright. But where was that amiable, radiant Mynah? A crude vixen with a shrunken face sat in a dark corner with her paws firmly on the floor.  Paran again tried to call to her sensibilities in his old, simple manner. He poured his deep love into his voice and called out, 

‘Mynah, my mynah bird…’

There was no reply. When Paran tried to approach her lovingly and touch her, an animal smell assailed his nose. The vixen screamed at him in a strangely harsh voice, 

‘Quiet! You will be killed if you come near.’

Paran saw light brown fur on Mynah’s bare arms, dirty, long, sharp nails on her fingers, sharp white canines in her mouth, her tongue reached her chest. Mynah sat just like an animal, her weight on her four limbs, her eyes glittering like burning coal. 

Paran was really scared. 

He slowly crept out of the room.

 


Also, read three Italian poems, written by Diego Valeri, translated into English by Laura Valeri, and published in The Antonym:


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Shahnaz Munni

Shahnaz Munni

Shahnaz Munni, a versatile Bangladeshi journalist, poet, and writer, has held the position of chief news editor at the Dhaka-based television channel News24 since January 2016. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she passionately advocates for children’s welfare. In September 2006, Munni was among the distinguished poets contributing to Unicef’s Child Rights Poetry Festival, a collective effort aimed at nurturing positive societal attitudes towards children’s rights. As a prolific writer, Munni explores various literary forms, including poetry, essays, short stories, and novels, with a focus on young readers. Her debut collection of short stories, “Jiner Konnaya” (The Spirit’s Daughter), was published in 1997.

Rituparna Mukherjee

Rituparna Mukherjee

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, Kolkata. She did her MA in English literature and currently pursuing a Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in west African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. Her areas of interest include African and Indian literature and Post-colonial and Feminist theories as well as English Language Teaching, Second Language Acquisition, and Communication studies. She works as an ELT consultant, translator, and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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