Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta
Its mouth stuffed with garden plants, the two-storey house slumbered. A bit of last night’s somnambulance lingered in the garden shrubs, in the dew-drenched muddy soil, in the moist barks of mango, brazil nut, mimosa, chinaberry, and wax-apple trees. A hint of fog remained – perhaps it was an illusion created at the end of Chaitra.[i] Or, it could be that Habu’s empty stomach was making him hallucinate. Whether it was the haze or the creamy residue of the moon that had shone all night, Habu was quite ready to eat it all up. Now that he had entered this place, it was near impossible to leave. Habu opened the garden gate with one hand and lifted a finger of the other to his lips. He turned to Tabu and whispered, “Softly, don’t wake the dog up!”
Tabu entered with anxious feet. His bowels began to tremble as he walked into the ghostly garden so early in the morning. He couldn’t defy his older brother’s command. Last night when they were sharing a bowl of water-soaked puffed rice for dinner, Habu had murmured the plan in his ears. Tabu would have danced with joy – except that, so many people had hanged themselves in the doctor’s garden! On dark mist-filled nights, many of the dead still dangled there. Then, there was the bandaged one that sat around wrapped in dressings. If you went near, it’d turn to you. And only then you might notice that it had no head – only gauze coverings where the skull should be. His neighbors, Patal or Fatik, had discussed all this often enough at their evening gatherings. Tabu felt sick. He had left home early and tucked the big shopping satchel under his shirt. He felt like running back. He pulled at Habu’s shirttails, “Dada,[ii] let’s go back.”
“Oh, shut’ya gob! We haven’t come here to return. The ol’ geezer usually sleeps at this time. His dog too. But it may wake up if it gets a whiff of us. Stick to the left.”
The two-storey house had bared its teeth to cackle at them. Many bricks were missing, and banyan trees had busted through the cornice. No one was around. Many years ago, a doctor lived here. He used to dispense sweet homeopathic sugar balls to the sick. Everyone had seen him taking a dip in the garden pond wrapped in his longyi. Many had seen him even after his death. The doctor’s children and grandchildren lived in foreign lands – and barely visited once a year. The huge garden and house were guarded by a lone custodian from Bihar and his three-legged dog that resembled a small tiger. The old codger was a crabby monster – he chased off children who ever dared to enter the garden. In the garden, rows of mango, wax apple, guava, and java-plum trees were left untended like heavily pregnant women who had no one to care for them. The fruits filled the bellies of crows, mynas, civets, and otters. No matter, the old man wouldn’t let a kid go near them. The brood of Molla Para[iii] had christened the man Yakh.[iv] Some days the old man walked to the Sodpur-Kalitala area to buy groceries. Then, the local mischief-makers teased him from afar – ‘Yakh man, old man!’ The dog snarled and hurtled after the children and the greybeard pointed the broken umbrella that he carried in his hand at them and hollered in some rustic Bihari tongue. The fun-loving expectant garden laughed in mirth.
As they were slinking around the house to the garden, Tabu gripped Habu in alarm, “Dada, a ghost!”
Panic-stricken, Habu looked up – his heart shuddered, and his limbs nearly froze. He paused for a few seconds and then scoffed, “Hah! It’s only a scarecrow!”
Tabu had tightly shut his eyes. He opened them slowly at Habu’s prodding. The bamboo ghost was standing in the gloom with a blackened clay-pot for its head. A chinaberry tree held a leaf-umbrella over it. The scarecrow was leaning lazily on the tree-bark to relish the coming dawn. Habu suppressed his laughter, “Scaredy cat! ‘fraid for no reason!” Tabu kept a watchful eye on the scarecrow and carefully crossed the vicinity. His dada, two years older, usually lorded over him. However, today’s expedition was partially fueled by his own incessant nagging.
The city was under curfew – their father had not been able to work for a fortnight. Consequently, they were surviving on boiled potatoes and rice borrowed from here and there for lunch and puffed rice and water for dinner. Tabu had asked for a bit of sugar to go with the puffed rice last evening and got a good beating from their mom. When he gathered the little kernels of puffed rice stuck on his face and put them in his mouth, they had tasted salty. A few drops of tears must have dampened them. Tabu thought it was funny. Right then dada had mumbled in his ears, “Wanna go to the doctor’s garden tomorrow mornin’? Loads of mangoes strewn all over. We can gather a bagful and sell ’em to Naran’da. He’ll give us money. The mangoes of that garden are so sweet!”
When the whole area wraps itself up in a quilt of curfew, solitude steals in like a cat’s paw. It cloaks the forsaken haunted house, the dying embers of a stove, and the skeletons of wrecked buses. At that time, the congregation of the graves in the Ara Road mosque wakes up and exits their abodes. They walkabout Siriti cemetery, Padmapukur, and the doctor’s outsized garden.
Tabu’s stomach churned, and a sour acidic taste crept onto his tongue. Yesterday, they were cooking meat in Badsha’da’s home. He had stood near their wall and savored the aroma for a long time – right up to the last whistle of the pressure cooker. The vomit of hunger that roiled in his gut now, was powered not so much by the emptiness in his belly but by the bouquet of the unseen meat gravy, the imagined bliss of sucking the marrow out of those well-cooked bones into his gullet. Clasping his tummy, Tabu followed his elder brother to the edge of the mango garden.
“Just look at those mangoes, so many! Pick’em up quickly! Make sure you don’t make any noise by steppin’ on dry leaves.”
Awe-stricken, Tabu gaped at the garden. It was huge! Many trees were hugging each other to create a cool darkness. If you could walk around the snake dens and wild bushes to reach the heart of the garden, you wouldn’t see the sky. But the center was clear of grass as though someone was going to hang a swing there. Tabu felt like smiling. Dada had gone ahead a bit. It’d be fun to watch a Naxal-ghost climb down an executioner’s rope in front of dada and sneer at him. As the sky brightened, his fear was in retreat. Habu looked back and admonished, “Such a slowpoke! Why’ya standing there with your mouth hangin’ open? Huh, it was a big mistake to bring’ya with me.”
Tabu quickly took out the shopping bag. Oof, dada was such a bully! Only eleven years old and pretending to be a big deal! When Tabu reaches the ripe old age of eleven, he’ll heckle dada for sure, and eat a lot. Lots and lots! Badsha’dada snacked on roti[v] and fried potatoes in the afternoon or ate singaras[vi] with his afternoon tea. Tabu always found some excuse to visit at that time. Once Habu had slapped him on his head and said, “You greedy fool! They know why you visit them.” And then his voice had taken on a tender tone. “We’ll eat too. We’ll eat luchi,[vii] crispy fried topse fish with daal,[viii] and tilapia curry.”[ix] Tabu dropped his head to stop his drool from leaking out and kept gathering the fallen mangoes.
They filled the bag. Habu giggled, “Ain’t it fun? We’ll come again tomorrow. So many mangoes here, right? We’ll be rich! I’ll buy a smartphone, okay? You ‘n me. We’ll watch Shahrukh Khan[x] movies.”
Tabu smiled in glee. He wiped his dripping nose with the back of his hand. “May I eat one?”
“Shouldn’t eat any on empty stomach. Okay, you may, but after we get out of here. Let’s go, quick now.”
Habu started walking rapidly and stopped. He thought a beetle was crawling up his spine. A little away, the three-legged dog sat looking at them. Looking straight at them. Next to the dog was a rope cot, and on it the Yakh lay covered in a shawl. If the dog barked even once, he’d wake up. None of them had noticed in the dark that the geezer’s hut was right there.
Tabu spotted the dog also. Suddenly he was quiet. The dog was in front of them and the terrifying scarecrow behind. Tabu thought the scarecrow might come alive and reach for them. Surely if he twisted around, he’d see it at his neck. Tabu didn’t turn but kept looking at the dog. Habu squeezed Tabu’s hand, “Don’t move.”
The dog might have been sleepy, or it didn’t want to bark, or perhaps it didn’t wish to stop them; whatever the reason, it slumped its head on its paws and closed its eyelids. The two brothers were motionless. Then, Habu called to his brother and they tiptoed forward. The dog didn’t move. And yet, it had hounded them so many times before! They held their breath and walked on silent feet. Perhaps they were lucky today. They swore never to return. Abruptly, Habu halted. Tabu bumped into him, “What happened?”
Habu raised his hand. The custodian was sleeping soundly – a bowl rested near his head. Habu couldn’t tell what kind of food it held but saw a few mango rinds next to it. No one knows what went through his mind but Habu moved toward it gently. Fearfully, Tabu pulled at a corner of his brother’s shirt, “Dada!” Habu ignored his plea and went on. Tabu had no choice but to follow. If the dog were to growl even once, he’d turn tails and run as fast as his legs could carry him. But it went on sleeping soundly.
Habu couldn’t fathom from where his courage flowed. An invisible rope pulled him on. Baba[xi] had mentioned that Bihari people slept like logs. He had said that when Dube-ji, who worked in his factory, slept, not even water buffalos walking over him could wake him. Habu dragged his steps slowly, like the hands of a clock. The desolate scarecrow waited.
The bowl contained a handful of pressed rice and yogurt. The yogurt was on one side of the bowl – a few pieces of mango were next to it. Was this the custodian’s nightly diet? Habu’s eyes glistened. He touched the yogurt with one finger – the morning dew had congealed it into thick ice cream. Desperately, he picked up the bowl and handed it over to Tabu. He noticed that the dog had pricked up its ears, but its eyes remained shut.
Tabu’s tongue was wet with saliva. He began to gulp down the food. The sweetness of the yogurt mixed with kernels of pressed rice was rapturously caressing the insides of his cheeks, gums, and uvula. Habu was licking a slice of mango. The corners of his mouth dripped yellow mango juice. He looked at Tabu and laughed silently – ‘he-he-he.’ Pieces of pressed rice and yogurt edged Tabu’s lips. In his hurry, he didn’t even have time to swallow the morsels properly. He passed the bowl to his dada. Habu grabbed a handful of pressed rice and was sloshing it with yogurt when a gust of wind blew. It dissolved the doctor’s garden like paint in water and removed the sheet from the caretaker’s face.
The bowl fell from Tabu’s astonished fingers – the pressed rice flew everywhere. He recalled the hearses that threw out puffed rice as they traveled down the streets. Dada and he would run after them often to collect the coins that were mixed with the puffed rice and tossed. He shivered violently and was about to collapse when Habu clasped his hand. “Run!” His voice was trembling.
Tabu’s knees were liquid – he couldn’t run. Habu ignored his pale lips and quivering body, and pushed him hard, “Run, Tabu!” They sprinted helter skelter and saw that the lonely dog was looking at them with bewildered eyes. Tabu thought he should call it to come with them. But by then Habu had dragged him to the gate and a few yards more.
The tiny shards of darkness that hung from the corners of the sky had nearly vanished. Since the curfew was still going on, there were no shops open, nor any hustle bustle. They walked side by side but didn’t speak. Tabu started to wail. Hunger-drenched grimy rivulets streamed down his eyes. Habu realized they had left the bag full of mangoes in the garden.
“You idiot! You’ve lost the shopping sack. Ma’ll skin us alive when she comes to know,” Habu raged.
Tabu hiccupped. “Dada, we ate a dead man’s food. What’ll happen to us? Have we sinned? Are we to die?”
Habu asked him unmindfully, “Are you full?”
Tabu moved his head on both sides and tried to wipe his eyes. He whimpered again. “The man was dead. I feel terrible. He was lying with his mouth open, and we ate his food.” He was quiet for a moment and then asked, “Did you get to finish your mango? My portion of pressed rice just blew away.”
Habu was also mute for a bit. Yesterday’s hunger twirled in his stomach and drove him toward another kind of starvation. He walked on fervently. “Tomorrow we’ll go to the garden in Maiti Para. It has large sugar-apple trees. They’re so sweet! Just like milk pudding…”
[i] Chaitra is the twelfth month of the Bengali calendar. The next month, Baishakh, marks the beginning of the year and the summer season.
[ii] ‘Dada’ is the respectful term of addressing one’s older brother. Often it is shortened to ‘da’ and is used as a suffix to a name.
[iii] ‘Para’ means neighborhood and ‘molla’ refers to Muslim clergy. Thus, ‘Molla Para’ is a neighborhood where the majority population is Muslim.
[iv] ‘Yakh’ is a mythological ghost-guardian of treasure, who is vengeful and mean-spirited.
[v] ‘Roti’ is flat bread made with unleavened wheat flour.
[vi] ‘Singara’ is a potato filled pastry – very popular in Bengal.
[vii] ‘Luchi’ is a deep-fried puff bread considered a delicacy in Bengal.
[viii] ‘Daal’ is similar to lentil soup and is eaten with rice.
[ix] ‘Topse’ and ‘Tilapia’ are two types of fish – favorites of fish-loving Bengalis.
[x] Shahrukh Khan is a very popular Hindi film actor.
[xi] ‘Baba’ is father in Bengali.