TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY SUBARNA BANERJEE
From time to time, Fadhe Chacha has the desire to become a stray dog. When motorcars run on the city streets spreading the scent of fresh petrol, Fadhe Chacha becomes intoxicated. Fadhe Chacha runs after the scented ones, getting a bite in if he can. With screaming barks of a stray, he fills the crossing at Martyrs’ Memorial. One Day, one of the men from the petrol cars had kicked the stray’s belly. The kick wasn’t well-digested on his empty stomach and he had growled angrily. As soon as he sniffs a motorbike or four-wheeler, he runs out. Fadhe Chacha has an empty stomach. Hunger growls within his belly. Frustrated, Chacha calls out in barks; he runs behind the scent of petrol calling out after them. Once the car leaves his sight, he raises his voice and calls out at the top of his lungs, “Awoooooooooo….!!”
Passers-by break out in delighted laughter. And then, Fadhe Chacha transforms from a dog to a human, and reaches out his hand in supplication. Some hold out money and coins to the Chacha’s hand. Some throw him looks of disgust and leave. Still, he laughs, while his chest burns with the fires of petrol. The tears of the flames cry out in protest—in soft, keening whimpers.
Fadhe Chacha is a mimic.
Under the banyan tree’s shade lies the Martyrs’ Memorial crossing. Marble flooring covers the tops of the two steps of the memorial. In the middle stands a fake firearm with a military hat on top of it. There are no statues of soldier. When you look at it, it seems like a soldier is standing there with his head bowed; dead, and a little bit tired, after fighting wars across the nation. He’s human, after all! Hunger and exhaustion are things each and every being feels. Covering his face with the hat, it’s as if he is dozing off a little. Just like Fadhe Chacha who, when curled up like the stray to nap under the firearm, is barely considered a human by anyone.
Right under the memorial, spread out on the first step is Harek Dada’s shop . Harek is a brother to everyone across all generations. At the head of the field, with a long stick in his hand, he runs his business since the early days of independence for over forty years: Harek’s variety business.
He has never felt so scared in his entire life. Spread out on the roadside, he sells Bidi materials nowadays. In his words, ‘Bidi’ are the stolen Bangladeshi goods coming via the border, like second-hand American shirts, pants, coats, etc. Some say, they are the clothes of dead foreign ladies. The dresses are haunted by the ghosts of the women. Early in the morning, a few customers have started gathering at the shop like chickens attracted to bait. Within Harek Dada’s long stick’s purview lies a jungle-print military suit; its pants floating in the air in a way that told the customers that it was straight out of a gunpowder factory, the smell of smoke still clinging to it. Right at the moment, came the soft sound of growling . . . and then, snap! Clamped teeth of the mimic on his ankles. Harek Dada suddenly jumped into the air and began shrieking, “Oh God! Oh dear!” Composing himself in a moment, he kicked off the stray in its mouth. Mournful whines arose from Fadhe Chacha. Harek Dada turned around to serve the stick in his hand over Chacha in a swift beating.
“You bastard! Scoundrel! You think this is a time to joke? Here my heart was about to jump right out of my chest, would’ve failed in a minute!”
Taking the beatings of the stick itself as his reward, Fadhe Chacha stared with sad puppy eyes at the military suit.
The suit hangs at Harek Dada’s shop. The banyan tree looms overhead, and it swings on the hangar tied to the branches of the tree. It fills up with air, swelling up and playfully swaying in the breeze. If the breeze was strong enough, air sneaked into the human-less spaces inside the pant legs and shirt. In the late afternoons, if there were no customers, Harek Dada often got drowsy. In those moments, the suit seemed to come alive. Harek Dada cannot decide then, whether the man is a personal guard or Indian military, or maybe an American soldier! Harek Dada sat in the shop uncomfortably. As if the man would start shooting any minute, holding a snapping AK-47 in his hands. The baggy pants of the suit went back and forth in front of his eyes and Harek Dada cowered inside his shop. He had never felt such fear. His hands and feet went numb as he broke into sweat under the airy banyan tree. It was shameful to admit that he had even slipped from his stool and fallen a few times in fright. Once the air filled the suit, it stood with its chest puffed out in such a way, it seemed like an AK-47 carrying military man. Ever since the suit entered his shop, it had come bearing trouble. Sometimes, he even thought he heard sharp groans coming from it. He couldn’t wait to get rid of it; it was trouble incarnate. It never fit anyone, and it looked so obnoxious that no one liked it. No one’s money was cheap enough that they would risk buying the suit from hell!
The suit neither got sold, nor did it get stolen. It kept fluttering on the banyan tree and kept threatening. Harek Dada asked Chacha, “You want it, the suit?”
Fadhe Chacha groaned in pain after the beating. Words refused to come out of his mouth. He nodded, making the incoherent babbles of a mute.
So, he will take it. By giving it to the menace, Harek Dada was relieved of its evil hands. Internally, his thoughts directed to Fadhe Chacha, “Trying to scare me? Now he will understand, what is fear!”
Harek Dada was glad to get rid of it. Fadhe Chacha wonders, it won’t be so bad to be a motley-dressed man.
The clothes hung awkward and loose on his frame. Nevertheless, it’s better to have something than nothing at all. Better to have a body, however malnourished inside the suit, than just air. After all, these are majestic clothes. And now, with the lanky and skinny Fadhe Chacha inside, the suit truly came alive and looked snappy.
Turning his back on Harek Dada, with an extremely smart and serious gait, Fadhe Chacha marched on. Harek Dada was wearing the suit’s accompanying hat on his head. Suddenly he remembered—the trouble was leaving a part of it behind! He hurriedly ran after Fadhe. Placing the hat on his head from behind, Harek finally let out a peaceful exhale. Thank goodness he had remembered in time! Otherwise, who knows what new tricks the ghostly hat would have played on him? On a skinny yet kingly man, the soldier’s costume was now walking beyond the lane of sight. Absolutely the military Chaplin of civilian life. Raising both hands to his forehead, he went on saluting actual people on the street before asking for alms as he walked—something Mr. Chaplin surely had never done. Those who knew Fadhe Chacha and those who didn’t gave him pennies and coins after seeing his enthusiastic salute. Harek Dada watched all this unfold as long as he could. Felt jealous too, of all the money Fadhe Chacha was getting out of it. He thought, I should’ve rented out the suit instead of giving it away for free! But then he saw, not the man, not the Chaplin manifested in the suit, but the actual military ghost who had haunted him from the branches of the banyan tree.
The suit walked into the Jayantipur market. It walked around and made its pockets heavier; when it came out of the market back onto the road, there was a plastic AK-47 in its hands. Finally, now the suit was fully realized. Fadhe Chacha laughed in delight like the village soldier.
Fadhe Chacha is a motley-dressed man. He is polymorphous.
On the other side lay Bangladesh. On the border of Haridaspur, in the locale of Muchipara, the costumes of soldiers wandered the bushes and jungle all year round. In their arms were actual guns with black buckles. In fields and alleyways, they suddenly thunder. Under the cover of the jungle, they are practically unrecognizable. There was no peace to had, whether farming, or feeding the goats, or washing dishes. Fear haunted every step, as soon as you ventured out of the house. Everyone cowered all year round. Ah, this was the unbearable pain of life at the border! Those who created the borders, those men never had to live here; if they did, they would have understood the meaning of it! Day and night your own gut teaches you how to survive. Feeling it in every muscle, Khedisundari is running for her life. Naked. On the ploughed fields, tilled soil, she pushes on and keeps running. She is falling over while running, peeling off her skin in places. Blood flows freely from those scratches. She runs and keeps turning around to look behind her. She is clasping both her breasts in her hands, otherwise they kept shaking and bouncing so violently, they wouldn’t let her run. Having nothing on her body made it easier for her to run fast. Having a petticoat was a far-fetched dream, but even if she had a sari, it would have tangled up in her legs, making her fall and become easy prey to the man wearing the military suit. In this village, it’s better luck to be naked.
Another animalistic soldier had dragged Buchi behind the Kali temple. If Goddess Kali has not been able to save her, that soldier too would have had to suffer the frustrations of unwrapping a sari by now. Buchi was a widow, no one to her name for generations. She begged on the streets; was nowhere near society and its structures. But Khedi has a man in her house, a society in which she belonged. If they abandoned her, who would look after her? Thank goodness she had ripped open and flung her sari in the face of the mangy military man before he could paw and grope her. In the day’s bright light, he had fallen over upon encountering sudden darkness. He was fumbling and stumbling in the sari, thinking that Khedisundari is writhing below him too. Hah, ashes to that fool’s dream! She had found a clay mound near her hand. In the scorching hot months of March and April, it had grown harder than a rock and Khedi had dumped it on his head soundly. Take that, mangy rascal, it’s not that easy to pin down Khedi! Huffing and panting, Khedi fell down in the courtyard of her house with a loud thud. And then she was lost to the darkness.
Soon it was broadcast all over the village—Khedi and Buchi, the two friends had gone to forage Kalmi greens near the border. Buchi went missing. Khedi was unconscious. A few young boys have gone in a group to look for Buchi, while another mob went to the military tent to seek justice.
Hah! Can’t even shoot a duck and gone hunting deer. Powerless men bluffing. Do they have any idea what will happen after their so-called justice? An entire village of women would have to hide in burlap sacks out of fear every day. In this village, it is a must to have burlap sacks to match the numbers of family members in each house.
At one howl from the wolves and dogs of the BSF tents, fully grown men cluck around like headless chickens trying to run away from the falling sky. And now they’ve gone to seek justice! In the meantime, it’s the women and girls whose dignity and lives are caught in the crossfire. Then men cower day and night like burnt out coals for fear of getting beaten. They would never go as far as the military area. It is the society’s rule, men will go to fight when women are harassed. They’ve only gone to uphold the tradition, but who will check how far they actually go? All alone, Khedi’s consciousness slowly returned. As dusk fell, she’d been lying in the courtyard and going over all these proceedings in her head.
She remembered; it was almost time for her man to return home. It won’t do, to stay hidden in the sack. She only cooked once a day; the morning’s breakfast had been a few grains of rice soaked in water. Since she had eaten alone, she had foregone making the usual two cups of rice. But now, her husband would want more than a few grains. Behind the jackfruit tree in the courtyard, Khedi put four cups of rice to boil on the wooden stove. Her man was on his way home.
The rice made a slow whooshing sound, it’ll come to boil any minute. In Khedi’s hands was one half of the eggplant she was chopping. This was a little bit of a break time for her. At that moment, she thought of Buchi and felt her heart within her chest stumble a few steps. She might be lying dead in a ditch somewhere and no one would know. Hudla barber’s wife was found three days later, swollen like a drum in the canals of Nayanjhuli at Banshtala.
A mere smack from a woman’s hand; the unconsciousness won’t last long. That bastard won’t forget Khedi, she was sure. Khedi was called a princess once upon a time. That wasn’t just for kicks! There was some truth to that nickname; Khedi possessed a princess’ beauty. Bastard, those sons of bitches have nine lives like the cats. He won’t just lie there in the field. Surely, he has pushed himself off of it by now. Oh dear, he must have begun looking for her by now! Her eyes locked on the stove’s fire; a shiver crept up Khedi’s spine. She was feeling a little scared now. She had no knives to do her chopping, just a sickle. She used it to cut her grass as well as her vegetables. Let the mangy soldier come at her, today she will use it to cut down his head! There were fire logs within her reach as well.
Rustling sounds came from the roof of the house. There has been an increase in the traffic of civet cats in the neighbourhood these days. As soon as the evening darkened, they would climb the jackfruit tree, cross over Khedi’s roof and onto Buchi’s house. Buchi’s empty rooms are crying out for her now. Khedi’s heart thudded loudly, announcing its presence. Her husband loves her curry of chopped ivy gourd leaves mixed in with eggplants. She finds nice and fresh leaves near Maylamuchi’s fences.
It seemed to her as if a flock of civets walked in a line and one of them lost balance, stumbled and fell down the roof. What else could have made such a loud noise? She turned around to look and her eyes became as big as saucers. The arrogant bastard, military man, son of a bitch was climbing down the tiles of her roof! Thought I wouldn’t realise it! Khedi screamed out, “Come on then! Today, it’s gonna be either you or me! Bloody mangy dog, I’m gonna end your filthy existence once and for all!”
With the sickle in her hand, Khedi looked battle-ready. But even with that, she did not feel herself to be violent enough. She lifted her sari above her knees and tied it around there, took a burning log from the stove in her other hand. Standing under the roof, she began to jump and called for the son of a bitch, “Come on, asshole! Come on down! If I don’t pull your flesh from your bones today, my name isn’t Khedi Chamari!”
In his hurry, the sneaking bastard’s hands slipped and he came crashing down the tiles on the ground. Khedi was ready and she instantly hit him with the sickle in her hand. He was still rolling down the floor after falling down, and the sickle’s arc swung half on his back and half on the courtyard. The sickle stayed stuck on the ground which was now soaked in blood. It took her some time to pull the sickle out. With a jump the military soldier’s uniform stood up. He seemed speechless in fear; instead, a whining cry came out of him.
He did not even complete a second roll on the ground as he composed himself from the fall. The mangy dog cowering inside the military suit leaped up and did not think twice before he turned tail and ran, ran, ran away.
Khedi also ran, holding the sickle high in her hand. She will make sure the dog is clear of her territory. The entire locality was hostile already, one-by-one people came out of their houses. They started running with Khedi too. While running, the scattered village seemed to come together as one fearsome body.
A battle cry ensued.
While crossing the border, the beastly man disappeared into the darkness somewhere the villagers couldn’t find him from. With fear, with courage, the standing and panting Khedi clamped a hand over her own mouth. As if to stop people from finding out. In the chaos of the darkness, while running away, the man had cried out in the whimpers of a mimic imitating a dog.
For the sake of her family, may it only be her wishful thinking . . . may it not be true . . .
Soldiers wounded in the battlefield are taken to a safe place on a stretcher. A wounded soldier is running on his hands and knees like a stray dog. Fadhe Chacha had been delighted to be in the military suit. He had thought business had been good at the Jayantipur market. He would be a little playful with his wife as a man in disguise. On the contrary, fate had slapped him hard. Thank God, the suit was hefty and sturdy, and didn’t get sliced up much. Only his back was flowing with blood. One of his knees has been pretty badly wounded too. In the darkness, he ran a hand over it to find it came away wet. There wasn’t much else. Chacha was still confused; did not understand how things came to be like this. Why did his wife come at him with the sickle?!
From beyond the kitchen and stove till the Martyr’s Memorial crossing, dripping blood the entire path of his life, the wounded soldier reached the Martyr’s Memorial crossing at one point. He limped over to the decorated firearm and hugged it. The hat stood at his head. In the city’s dawn, while setting up his shop Harek Dada saw Chacha filling the position of the country’s soldier in his dead foreigner’s military suit. Nobody realised exactly when Chacha quietly slipped away from the clothes along with the overflowing blood. Lying at the foot of the memorial, he had heard the strains of his wife Khedi crying for quite some time, “Oh my dear, come back to me my mimic, my darling motley-dressed man . . .”
Fadhe Chacha is no more. Harek Dada keeps the military suit hanging below the hat. The respected, sacred Martyr’s Memorial; sometimes some people throw a penny, a coin to it.