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Sparrow’s Flesh – Pratibha Sarkar

Jul 17, 2022 | Fiction | 3 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Sukti Sarkar

On days when we fussed and went to bed without eating, “you’ll lose flesh worth a sparrow from that body of yours when you wake up tomorrow,” Ma would say.
Girls should not do stuff like this. “Because who knows how long ago, a pretty plump girl, complained of feeling too sleepy every night and went to bed with an empty stomach. Her body continued to shrivel up a little the following day and every day after, till she disappeared into her bed one day. At daybreak after the night the girl died, her mother entered the room and, without suspecting a thing, opened the bedside window. A covey of sparrows chirped and fluttered out of the room. Perhaps, all the neglect the girl inflicted on her own body found liberation in the shape of sparrows!”
Such abrupt stories made us queasy. If we ever skipped meal at night, we siblings started measuring our body, wrists, ankles, waistlines with a torn border of a sari. We felt thinner most certainly, but failed to comprehend how a bulk of flesh had silently sloughed off overnight. We shook the bedsheet in fright, pulled our panties down to the knees behind the bathroom, staring into it anxiously.
My elder sister showed me the inline of her panty when she had her first period. Tiny pieces of slippery flesh lay on a bed of blood. Perhaps this is how flesh, worth a sparrow’s size, scattered in bits, disappear from the body. I was shocked, to say the least. “You had your rice last night, right?” I asked.
Bapida was the most notorious lech in our housing complex. He played cricket with the kids but his eyes roved on whoever passed the playground. I sprinted on my way home holding the book Alor Fulki,[1] borrowed from Mampi, against my chest. I was scared of Ma lest it got dark. Bapida threw his bat aside and came running.
– Rinku, let me take a look at that book.
Worried about the cuss words if I didn’t listen to him, I stopped to show it to him. Buan followed him in tandem and poured over the book.
“How warm is this!” was Bapida’s first comment.
Before I could respond, he nudged Buan, “Buan, what change do you find every year in girls like Rinku?”
Buan, the nincompoop that he was, stared at him with his mouth wide open. Bapida whispered into my ears:
Days pass and the two sparrows grow, spread their wings and wish to perch on wide spread palms like mine.
He raised his large, paw-like palms close to my nose with a dirty smile on his face. Not bothering to find out where his mean eyes fixed their gaze on, I snatched the book from him and left. I heard him burst into a wild laughter.
I didn’t eat rice that night. I felt furious when Ma nagged about the sparrow’s flesh. But I kept looking for the lost flesh the day after. Ma grumbled, girls shouldn’t be angry over food and insult Lakshmi.[2]

As we grew up, we added many more to the strange tales of our mother —without a buxom look one cannot win a man. Not the likes of Bapida, certainly, but if others better than him don’t pay attention to you—life will be dull. Thus, we grew, twisting our mother’s parables, nudging and giggling onto each other. Despite all the laughter and tears, the stories nested deep inside our bones. Let down their aerial roots like those of immortal banyan trees deep into our minds. Any attempt to uproot them would disrupt our very beings. So, we sisters have always been full of stories. We lived in stories. Just so we don’t lose them, we pick up the phone every so often, giggle and gossip to somehow return to one story or another much like those birds of our mofussil neighborhoods that returned to the banyan and tamarind trees every evening, chirping.
One day, a particularly pensive one, this story showed up. Like a kinsman, one of those small-town simpletons, who bumps onto you, gets you into a tight awkward hug.
Right in the middle of a blazing Chaitra noon, a sannyasi walked into the courtyard and called out in voice loud and hoarse—Whoever is there offers a fistful….
The sun, above his head, small tornados of dry leaves whirled at his back. Beneath the high bundle of matted hair, his forehead sweated. Down the hairs of his strong arms, beads of sweat rolled down. The hefty chain of rudraksha[3] on his chest trembled with the reverberation of his loud voice.
He called for alms once again.
On the other side, there was just an infant, barely six months of age, and his mother at the home. The child had been massaged well with mustard oil, bathed in sun-warmed water, fed with his mother’s milk, marked with a black kohl dot on the left of his forehead and put to deep sleep. The child’s face broke into soft expressions bubbling from its infant dreams—sometimes hint of a smile, sometimes the edge of his fine brows twitched as if in an attempt to cry. The young mother watched and combed through the knots of her hair. The sannyasi’s heavy voice startled her and shook her to the core as if destiny itself awaited her at the door, as if something was about to happen, unholy and terrible. But a householder’s dharma had to be respected nevertheless. She, therefore, rose slowly, against her will. She pulled up the kantha by its corner, over the box mosquito net so the sun shining through the broken tiles of the roof won’t be on the child’s face. She covered her head with the edge of her saree, stepped out with the bowl of rice, lentils, and coins.
She could barely lift her feet, but, even then, she turned back to raise the door latch. Once the mother-in-law returns from her daily rounds through the neighborhood, she would know that the boy’s mother was out. She took one shaky step at a time and extended her hands to pour the alms into the sannyasi’s jhola.[4] His loud and hoarse voice mellowed now and he asked,
– Won’t you seek blessings?
Trembling like a sacrificial goat, the young mother knelt before the man with her hands folded against her chest and looked up at him. The sun blazed right above and she could hardly see. She searched in vain for his nose, his eyes, a hand adorned with rudraksha touched her head.
A black dog sat at the very place where the young mother had been. The dog looked at the sannyasi with pleading eyes, lashed its tail on the ground and repeatedly looked at the house with the locked door. The heartless sannyasi picked up his jhola of alms, knocked the ground with his trident and ordered,
– Come.
The black dog followed him meekly. No one noticed how tears from its eyes rolled to the ground and dried up the next moment. For us, the story was like darkness… not all of which we could grasp. It sucked our naive hearts dry and we promised never to let any stranger come close to us. Ma, will this happen to you? Will they snatch you away from us?
At three in the afternoon, Ma was yet to shower and eat. She sat in front of the kitchen for a moment’s respite. She was still in her soiled saree, legs sprawled. She would get up soon, draw buckets of water from the well, take a long bath, wrap all her hair with a gamchha[5]—her body would be so cool touched. She would then put on her sindur,[6] rub a pinch on her sankha-noa[7] and settle for lunch.
All the while, we three sisters would be in tears surrounding her—lest some sannyasi  transformed our exhausted mother with forlorn eyes into a dog and took her away! This terrible fable of mistrust and suspicion urged us to be wary of all unknown people.
Sujan was a complete stranger too. How far my parents had verified his credentials, they alone knew that best. Of course, how could others know the way one would behave during intimate moments? Storm, rain, earthquake, or fire, Sujan needed his wife in bed every night. Several times, if he was in a sorry state of mind. No matter how tired I felt after returning home, from my teaching job in a distant school, whether my body allowed it in those fixed days, nausea while having meals, regular loss of flesh worth a sparrow’s, seeking the support of the wall to prevent a fall while I dragged my devastated body to the toilet—Sujan was aware of it all. He merely lit a cigarette and said,
– What’s the meaning of marriage, then?
An incident made me feel very ashamed. Sujan’s sister’s ten-year-old daughter, Mampi, came to visit us for a week once her exams were over. She scampered about the whole day, read story books but couldn’t sleep alone at night. She held my hand tight,
– Mami, please don’t leave me alone even when I fall asleep.
She is a child, must be reading too many ghost stories. I was to spend seven nights spared. But Sujan repeatedly raised the curtain to see if Mampi had gone to sleep. I was exhausted that night and fell asleep beside Sujan. At midnight, Mampi’s screams woke us up and we hurried to her bed. She went blue in horror and told us someone was sitting right under her cot. She ran a high fever the next day. Her parents took her back. My sister-in-law remains  angry with me still. Who puts a child to sleep all by herself in bed? Even if you have no child of your own, how can you be so crass?
At other times, Sujan could be quite humane. He never complained when I talked with my sisters for hours over the phone, never taunted me for not having a baby. Of course, you can go for a movie with friends. But don’t spend a night elsewhere, no. Anjana said,
– Your husband loves you a lot. He just shudders at the thought of missing you.
At once, I remembered the third story on love Ma told us. Strangely, all these stories of love, weddings, carving a new home, always, had a tragic end. Newlywed women mostly got killed in accidents. Families broke down for mistakes committed by women. The stories were intolerant of happy women. The tales narrated by Ma were at peace with destroying every small sapling of reason that makes a woman happy, just as the cyclone amphan worked to uproot the mahogany tree in front of our house.
One of the stories went like this—in those days palanquins and bullock carts were the only means of transport. As the in-laws lived far away, the young bride was sent off in a palanquin right after the wedding rituals. It was the sweltering day of Jaistha,[8] before that, the heat of the wedding fire, the bride got terribly thirsty. She was followed by her husband and other relatives on a bullock cart. The travellers outnumbered the two cows who were not strong enough for the job. They were no match for the four stout palanquin bearers clad in dhoti, they had thick moustaches and sturdy arm muscles and as if swept through the air with the petite bride, fluttering like a sparrow. The newlywed bridegroom got restless since long but failed to spot the palanquin, lost behind the luscious trees and meandering village roads. With nothing better to do he stationed himself beside his father, waiting for the “hoo hoom na”[9] call of the palanquin bearers to get close.
Meanwhile, the palanquin had reached the bank of a large lake. How dark was its water, the ghat teeming with submerged weeds, swaying to the ripples of the water! A large red dragonfly flew over the water lily and lotus growths. Surrounded by tall palmyra trees on three sides, the sheer beauty of the lake was enough to quench half of one’s thirst. Gulping just a handful of its sweet water took care of the rest.
The bearers lowered the palanquin from their shoulders to drink some water. They dipped their shoulders, holding the heads up like huge buffaloes, they swam and showered too. The new bride saw everything through a slit on the palanquin’s curtain as she was slowly overpowered by thirst. At first her throat felt as dry as a log. The woody sensation slowly spread on her tongue, palate and then all over her body. The jingling of her bangles brought the leader of the bearers running. He was quite an old man, a Kahar,[10] stout as a banyan tree. His eyes were always red, his voice intimidating. He raised his folded hands to his chest, looked down at the ground and asked politely,
–  Anything wrong, Ma thagrun![11]
When he heard that the young girl wanted to take a bath, he whisked away the other three bearers as someone chasing off dogs. He sat on the opposite side of the palanquin in case the girl wanted to come out of the palanquin to cool herself. In a way this seemed right as her husband and relatives could arrive any time soon and together the journey can begin again.
The bride stood alone on the ghat of the lake, removed the heavy veil from her head, watched the jacana dancing on the floating water weeds, drank water to her heart’s content and then splashed water into her eyes while tears welled up in them as she thought of her mother. Meanwhile, she had not noticed at all, how the water in an area middle of the lake bubbled and swelled up like flood waters or the high tide were suddenly rushing in. A large iron chest rose upwards. It had heavy iron chains attached on each side. The free end of the chains had three large iron attachments fixed like claws. It was obvious there would be no getting away if they managed to get hold of anyone.
The girl paid no attention to all this. Once she had wept for her mother, she was lost in thoughts of her husband whom she had seen through the rising smoke of the ritual yajna fire, though not very clearly. She felt he was a noble person, soft by nature and kind, when she placed her palm on his, while she was being given away in marriage. His smiling eyes were etched on her mind the way a bait remains hooked inside a fish.
Meanwhile, the iron chains with claws wriggled toward her from both sides as smoothly as a large, invisible shol fish.[12] If unmindful one would easily miss the water being ripped through. Clutching at the knot of her jore,[13] no sooner had the new bride stood up from the ghat, the wriggling chains grabbed her feet, painted with alta,[14] in a tight grip. The girl bowed down to look at her feet and in a split second the iron chains overturned the girl, pulling her into the water. The chains shrank pushing her toward the iron chest and at once the heavy iron lid fell and shut her in. The jacana, the stork, and the dragon flies stayed still as they watched the huge iron chest sink into turbulent water. The newlywed girl was lost forever.
This story must have spread branches inside my mind or else why would the bedroom, once the light was put off, become a gigantic iron chest? A sinking feeling, as if I was drowning, water flooding my nose and mouth, the gasping and bouts of cough as if my lungs would burst, forcefully woke me up early in the morning. It took me long to recover and I went back to sleep. All the while Sujan’s rhythmic snores continued unabated. He always had very deep sleep, probably even dreams were not allowed in there.
I knew Sujan wouldn’t agree when I, once, told him to visit a psychiatrist. His face turned red. So, I went to the doctor with Urmila. She refused to enter the doctor’s chamber and chose to sit in the waiting room. It turned out a favor for me as it saved me from facing awkward questions in her presence.
It was satiriasis or something like that, the doctor told me. He also told me to be good to him as often depression, anxiety, or loneliness are the hidden causes of the disease. I was supposed to find out the exact cause in Sujan’s case before treatment could begin. All the symptoms would subside once the stress level receded.
My behaviour had become so mechanical in the last thirteen years that it was impossible to suddenly be normal with him and find out the causes of his illness. Days went on as usual. Anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills were prescribed, but for me alone. The evenings were somewhat better. We three sisters prattled over phone every evening—discussed our domestic chores, their children, all the idiosyncrasies of their husbands. No one ever asked about Sujan. I would feel irritated if they did. They knew their happy and cheerful youngest sister Rinku was trapped in a huge iron chest and she was lost forever. Consequently, we left Sujan out and talked about our childhood and the tales told by Ma that we had forgotten. This brought alive, one day, the story of the graveyard.
There’s a place near Malda,[15] Ma lowered her voice as she narrated, a vast sand bank, very fertile and green as it’s surrounded by the river on all four sides. The rivers were Ganga, Yamuna, and Fulhar. A girl, headstrong and intelligent was born to a poor farmer. Right after her birth she lost both her parents to sudden brain stroke. She learned to read and write in the local primary school and only from that common sense realized that ghosts and fairies were baseless. She never shied to laugh at these ideas though she was strikingly beautiful and often considered to be a fairy even when seen in the dark. She was so hardworking that she could reap a harvest of pigeon peas from her one bigha plot of land all by herself.
Her Mamujan,[16] compelled by relatives, fixed her marriage as soon as she turned fifteen. The girl revolted. By no means she would leave the sand bank, her field and farm and go to Malda town to live with her in laws. She was extremely obstinate and her Mamujan was at a loss. The groom’s family was nagging him relentlessly and he would be ridiculed to no end if the marriage proposal fell apart.
One evening, during arguments and counter arguments, Mamujan declared,
– I will cancel the nikaah[17] if on a new moon night, you can visit the graveyard where Fulhar turns right.
This was just a last-minute effort to bring his dear niece back to her senses. As if a young fifteen-year-old girl can dare, all alone, to visit a graveyard on a pitch-dark night! Mamujan had little idea of his niece’s resolve. Worried about her determination, he called her friends and said,
– Don’t let her go. It can become very dangerous.
Rafikul, their neighbor, who was all empathy for the girl, said repeatedly,
– If you step on a grave by mistake, in the dark, the corpse would wake up and pull you by your legs deep under the ground.
The girl was hellbent to stall the marriage. Armed with a knife she headed for the bend of the Fulhar. She would pierce a grave with her knife as proof of her visit. She did not turn back to see her uncle and Rafikul closely following her in the darkness so that she remained unharmed.
It was a very large cemetery. The wind was blowing noisily through the branches of the banyan and fig trees. As if amidst the darkness, they were larger patches of darkness come alive. There was occasional splashing sound of bits of the bank melting into the river. It masked the noise of the waves dashing along the bank. Mamujan and Rafikul lost sight of the fairy girl when they reached the vast expanse of wilderness.
The path was unfamiliar to the girl. She entered the cemetery and went first to the right and then to the left as she guessed the sound of water flowing past was possibly from that direction. She thought the darkness would be paled by the light from the stars reflected on the water surface. As she walked, she reached a hard and elevated ground. Was it a grave? Whichever way she tried to advance, there were innumerable plots of raised ground, some with hard and erect earthen slabs. The ground under her feet, she could feel, was filled with large serpentine cracks.
She got scared. Her intelligence whispered that she was right in the middle of the graveyard. No further, it was time to return. She squatted on the raised ground and with all her strength forced the knife into the soil. Mamujan had insisted on a proof. It was now time to get up and run out of the place. Mamujan’s house was not far off but she could not lift her feet at all. No matter how much she tried to go away, someone seemed to pull her down by the border of her sari. Sweating profusely, she screamed in terror and distress. Some birds screeched and flew out of the banyan and fig trees and came back again.
Mamujan and Rafikul had heard her screaming, but despite running all around they simply failed to locate the girl. People were called and with the help of large kerosene-lit torches it was found that the girl, gone blue out of fear, was lying dead over a very old grave. The knife had deeply cut through the border of her sari. In her need to leave a proof in the darkness, she had plunged the knife straight through her sari right into the soil of the grave. The pull of the pinned knife, she believed, originated from a pair of subterranean skeletal hands, stripped off flesh. The hands intended to take her down into the darkness of the grave.
This is exactly why it’s so bad for women to be stubborn. You must adjust to all situations, otherwise….
Toward the end of the story, Ma’s words messed up, her head bent on a side, she fell asleep. We three sisters took a deep breath in the dark and saw a fair and good-looking girl, as old as bordi,[18] standing just outside the mosquito net.
I have tried my best to adjust, even practised indifference. As I remembered this story, after so many days, I was convinced this was a story of protest. Like most protests, the end of the story was bloody and violent. Still some people hold on to the dream of protest. Sujan doesn’t know, after becoming the head-examiner, I have rented a small room near my school to store official papers and documents. It has been six months since. It can be used for living. The head master is like a father figure (is as old as my father) and, perhaps, he will understand and stand guard against those unbearable curiosity of others followed by intense ridicule.
Urmila, her husband as well as my older sisters assured me of their support. Had the story not come to me this evening, I would have never realized how eagerly I nurtured the hope of forcing my way out of the heavy iron chest and was even ready to risk my life. These strange stories were living beings with unique influential powers. It was surprising, one by one as I remembered them, like droplets of rain, each distinct from the other but together inseparable—a torrent of strength—that pushes hard with all its force. “Hang in there, just a little.”
I have to tell Sujan today. Usually, before such conversations could even take shape, Sujan would tremble in rage. The veins on his forehead would bulge and his face would flush. He would yell and kick me as relentlessly as he could. Urmila and my sisters knew everything but I could never tell them about getting beaten black and blue.
Flogged like cattle, it was difficult not to cry though I tried to keep my mouth tightly shut. I was frightened, terribly frightened. People in the houses close by could hear me crying and that would be shameful. All these days I had worked hard to prevent Sujan from getting unduly excited. In hot weather, I used to wear full sleeved blouse to school, cover my body with the anchal to hide the dark patches of clotted blood under my skin.
Tonight, I stood facing the dressing table mirror and massaged cream on my face for a long time. I swallowed all doubts, shyness, and fear like a ball of reflux inside my throat. I was in no hurry. It was obvious that Sujan was restless. He folded and opened the newspaper again and was again pretending to read. He gulped some water from the bottle on the table.
I couldn’t make up my mind. I saw in the mirror all the stories popping up from behind my neck with their back toward Sujan. They tended my head soothingly, kissed my chin! The stories flew in like sparrows above my head, the young bride lifted the lid of the heavy iron chest and looked at me, behind her was a black dog with wistful eyes. The fairy of the graveyard was leading them, her bright eyes emboldened me. They all reassured me, nothing to fear, we are all with you.
Slowly, I turned back. I took a good look at the man with ruffled hair, an erect nose, a pair of glasses with a black frame, reclining on the bed. I called out in a loud voice,
– Listen Sujan, I need to tell you something….
My voice trembled but there was not an iota of shame or fear. Still, I thought he might come after me, his clenched fists might again land on my head and face. So, I shouted,
– I will call everyone. Will report you to the police. Enough is enough.
A leg lowered from the bed, eyes filled with surprise, Sujan’s face changed from a fiery lava red to the grey of a thick layer of ash. I realized; Sujan was speechless to witness something that was beyond his imagination. I went to the adjacent room, bolted the door from inside and was immersed in a sense of relief that comes once you return home after a long time and wish to lie down relaxed on an accustomed bed.
I shall take on tomorrow. Today, after such a long time, I am going to sleep peacefully, leaving behind all my worries. I am surrounded only by the stories who I had secretly adopted as pets all my life. Tonight, I might just gain of all the flesh, worth countless sparrows, that I had lost from my body.
I hoped and like a heavy boulder, sank into an ocean of slumber.


[1] Literally meaning sparks of light, Alor Fulki is a popular collection of stories for young adults.

[2] Lord Vishnu’s consort and Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Often represented as a bunch of paddies in Hindu household.

[3] A kind of dried fruit used as prayer beads.

[4] A large cloth bag that can be carried by hanging it from one’s shoulder.

[5] A handwoven coarse cotton length used as a towel.

[6] Vermilion used by married Hindu women in the parting line of hair above their forehead as a sign of marriage.

[7] Wrist ornaments in combination worn by Hindu women of eastern India as a sign of marriage.

Sankha – a bangle for the wrist made of conchshell

Noa – an iron wristlet worn on the left hand by Hindu women whose husbands are alive

[8] The second month of the Bengali calendar (from mid-May to mid-June).

[9] A rhythmic guttural sound made by palanquin bearers while they are on the move.

[10] A palanquin bearer (usually from an eponymous backward Hindu caste).

[11] A form of address equivalent to “Respected Mother,” used by people from lower castes to refer to women from higher caste.

[12] A large tubular fish.

[13] A silk scarf worn by the bridegroom for performing the wedding rituals, a corner of which is tied into a knot with the veil of the bride. The bride carries both as a symbol of union once the wedding rituals are over.

[14] Lac-dye as used by married Hindu women to paint the borders of their feet.

[15] A place in north Bengal.

[16] A term used by Muslims to mean maternal uncle.

[17] A religious ceremony for a Muslim couple to be legally wed under Islamic law.

[18] The senior most sister among siblings.


At The Antonymwe believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine:

Feminine Pen: Translating Bengali Women Writers


Also Read:

The Refugee – Debesh Roy

Daughter of the Dead – Prativa Sarkar

 

Prativa Sarkar is a student and professor of English Literature. She is mostly known for her short stories and political essays. Ecological issues are  part of her interests as well. Her much lauded collection of short stories based on subaltern crises “Farishta O Meyera ” has been published by Guruchandali Publication.  Another collection of her essays on environmental concerns is soon to be published.

Sukti Sarkar retired as an Assistant Manager of the Reserve Bank of India. Interested in literature and history, she is a passionate traveler and a theatre worker based out of Kolkata. She volunteers often for social/ community causes organized by NGOs of the city. Apart from contributing book reviews in little magazines she is currently trying literary translation.

3 Comments

  1. Mamata Sarkar

    The translation of the story is just excellent. Sukti’s Englih is powerful in expression and yet it bears the ethnic touch of Indianness .

    Reply
  2. Runa

    A beautiful narrative and an equally beautiful translation.
    A great job done by Sukti

    Reply
  3. Koel SB

    Very catchy story. Excellent translation by Ms. Sukti Sarkar with her strong writing power
    The flow of the story is a reflection of our known daily life yet penned down beautifully. Loved reading it.

    Reply

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