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Sunflower – Syed Mustafa Siraj

Nov 22, 2020 | Fiction | 0 comments

This is the girl.

Nabin recognized her pretty well. A pretty face in a noon crowd of pretty little faces walking along village paths. Nabin has a whole slew of names for them. He calls them by these names. The girl retorts: ` “This clothes-seller fella seems to have a whole bunch of names up his sleeve.”

Yep, this is the girl. He can’t remember where he first ran into her. Did she ever buy something from him? A gaudy top, perhaps, or a blue petticoat embellished in white lace, or a flashy colorful frock for her sister, or a striped pair of pantaloons for his brother? For the life of him he can’t remember. There are plenty of folks who don’t buy anything at all. They’ll lovingly caress the colors, feel the softness of his wares with dainty fingers. Some wrists are adorned with a conch-shell bangle, the mark of a married Bengali woman; others tinkle with glass bangles. Some wrists are bare, sad, faded.

Did the girl ever buy anything? After trying to figure it out a couple of times Nabin gave up. He takes a furtive look at her wrists. She’s married. Then a quick look at her face. The fading afternoon sunrays fall on her disheveled dry hair. The bright vermilion mark on her forehead seems to snarl at Nabin. Nabin lowers his eyes. What had he called her before? Moonfaced, Prettyface, Smileyface, or was it Honeyface? Surely he had called her by some name. He doesn’t remember now at all. He can’t, even after trying. He gets restless and fidgety. He walks haphazardly. The dusty sandals on his feet make a soft patter as they hit the hard ground of the narrow, raised, spiny path between fields. On a calm afternoon a sea of solitude reigns over the huge field – but he feels restless.

“What’s up, clothes-seller? How come you’ve stopped?” The gal calls out from behind in a chirpy voice.

“Just one thing,” Nabin the clothes-seller turns around. He coughs. “Where did I see you first? Was it Bankapasi or Jhanpuihati?”

The girl laughs. Her eyes narrow. She replies: “Nope. You got it all wrong.”

“Chanditala?”

“God help us! Why that place of all places? It’s like they say: ‘If you can’t find a match in this village, go find one in Naga-Singar.’”

What a smart aleck! Here we are in a huge, empty field – there’s no man or beast or plant or tree in miles. And here she is, bursting with curves and flirting away merrily. Nabin ponders for a moment. Taken aback a little, he gives it another try. “Was it Shankibhanga?”

The gal shakes her thumb at him in derision and giggles. “Nope. No way!”

“Ampara?”

She glares at him. “Yeah, sure. Do I look like I was born in a Muslim home?”

“You’re right.” Nabin starts walking. Everybody in Ampara is Muslim. He shakes and rebalances the big load on his back and starts walking with a stoop.

The girl calls out from behind: “So you can’t tell?”

“No, I can’t.”

“You give up?”

“I give up.”

Nabin the peddler is a little peeved. Maybe he is annoyed with himself, or with the girl. What a distraction! He feels a strong force pulling him from behind. It’s as if this is not a field but a river, and he is struggling to move against the current. The load, attached to him through a bind that goes through his armpit, is slowly getting heavier by the moment. A stifled pain shoots through his body and soul. Nabin sweats. He’d seen her someplace. They’d met many times and bargained over a top or a petticoat or frock or a pair of pantaloons, and she’s a very familiar face – yet, for the life of him, he can’t remember. It’s as if hidden somewhere deep,` he only remembered something would fall into place.

“Hey, clothes-seller?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you remember what you called me?”

“Nope. Trying to remember that.”

“God, you’ve forgotten that as well. What a guy!” The girl looks at him with wide eyes, Nabin can tell.

Nabin’s reply has the rasp of irritation. “I go to so many villages, meet so many people. How the heck can I remember everything?”

“Then how come you said you knew my face?”

“Yeah, that I did. That’s the way it is with us. A face often seem familiar. That’s about it.”

The girl seems a little disheartened. She smiles a bit, but it is soaked in sadness. “That’s just my luck. I come down to keep company for someone I’vmet so many times  and this is all you’ve got to say! Did you know, clothes-seller, that had I not seen you today I wouldn’t have come out here at all? You think Chachi would let me out all by myself? This is no joke – it’s the Dhullouri field. You can yell your heart out but nobody is gonna come.”

Nabin lifted his face to take a look at the field. In front of him, way to the east, a dusty village can be seen far, far away. The sinking reddish sun behind him is slowly draining out the sunlight. In the empty grain fields, sparrows, starlings and pigeons are moving away from the grain as they peek distractedly.  On a freshly-made seasonal road for vehicles a thatch-covered bullock cart’s wheels trundle by, raising clouds of dust along its way. Even further down, herds of cows return home amidst clusters of the dust raised by their hooves. Right after summer, dust blows all day and night in this field.  Dust flies about in little whirls of air – with stray straw bits, bird feathers, dried leaves and discarded snake skin swirling on top. This is why this is called Dhullouri Field, Bengali for “the field of flying dust,” a field which presents a scene of a golden storm at noon. As that image quivers, village women sing as they sew quilts:

“In the Field of Flying Dust

The heat scorches the earth

I meet my bosom friend, 

At noon, ah, what great mirth!” …

… “Never, ever will I go again 

To the Field of Flying Dust

A killer snake slithers by

I am bitten, it is a bust!”

“… Hey Woman, What’s on your back?’

Shut up, I’ll give you a smack,

In the Field of Flying Dust

The dirt, reach you it must

How can I possibly adjust?”

 

However, Nabin the cloth-seller, is an itinerant peddler. He can ill afford such fanciful thoughts. With the sun behind his shadow and the dust flying, he travels long, long distances; then again with the sun behind his shadow, he passes through the Field of Flying Dust to return home. The sun, about to touch the horizon when he starts, is once again about to touch the horizon when he returns, its hue a deep crimson like the yolk of an egg. Nabin’s shadow is long now, just as it was when he had set off. In the golden dusty soil, the shadow seems to get longer at dawn and dusk. Weighed down by the weight of his load, Nabin bends down and watches his shadow as he walks. The shadow looms larger than his body and keeps getting larger – it is truly an astonishing thing.

Today is different. Another shadow looms over his. It’s as if another Field of Flying Dust has appeared on top of the original Field of Flying Dust today. It’s as if the noon heat is riding roughshod upon the afternoon – it’s that familiar scene of the golden, dusty field. It’s as if the Field of Flying Dust is like a brass bell. There’s a risk of it ringing out loud in a jingle-jangle. Nabin walks cautiously. The sharp-tongued girl’s words keep ringing in his ears. This is the Field of Flying Dust – nobody’s gonna come even if you holler your heart out.

Something is amiss with Nabin. Is that a restrained humming sound coming out from somewhere? The feeling is somewhat like being under an empty placid sky, yet there’s a flitting flash in one corner, a tense feeling.

Suddenly a gust of air swishes by, and his hair moves with it. Dust flies in front of him. “Okay clothes-seller, do you get it now?” the girl says as she covers the area above her knees.

“Hmm.”

“A known face makes you feel safe. That’s why Chachi let me come. But hello?” She giggles again. “I come along, and what do I find? The clothes-seller tells me, ‘That’s the way it is with us.’ What’s that way, how does it happen? Hey clothes-seller, there’s still something you gotta explain, buddy. Surely you remember some folks? Everybody isn’t the same, are they?”

“I do remember,” Nabin grunts.

“Rubbish! Want to know what you called me? Sunflower.”

Nabin stops. He turns around and asks: “Sunflower?”

“Yep, Sunflower.”

“Why?” Nabin asks distractedly.

“God! You’re the one that’s supposed to know.”

Nabin resumes walking. His thighs feel heavy. A hammer keeps striking inside his chest. He can’t understand why this is happening. After a moment, he says: “Why don’t you walk ahead of me? It’s hard for me to walk with this huge load. You walk ahead of me, and I can keep my face straight as we chat.”

“Nope,” she shakes her head. “This is fine.”

Nabin stops again. He gives her a wan smile. “Look, let’s be sensible. Come, get ahead of me. There’s a saying, you know? ‘The snake bites the person who’s behind.’”

“And what about the saying: ‘If you’re ahead, the tiger will get you’?” she suppresses a giggle. Nabin requests one more time. “Come on, please listen to me. If something happens behind my back, I might not even realize that.”

The girl furrows her brow as she looks at him. Her nostrils quiver. Her nose stud glitters. “What’s the point, may I ask?”

“It’s just good practice. Women need to stay ahead.”

“Ah, you want to admire my beauty as you walk along, isn’t that right, clothes-seller?” she says with an arched smile.

“Darn!” Nabin is annoyed again as he steps ahead. “Which side is the Sunflower’s face? Does it face the back?” He starts to walk at a brisker pace.

Thump, thump! The noise of footsteps comes from behind, “Hey, walk a little slower! Why are you getting so worked up? Where’s all this temper when you’re trying to push your clothes? At those times it seems like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth!”

Nabin remains silent. He carefully listens to that suppressed humming sound. He looks up every other moment and takes the measure of the vastness of the horizon. The desolate Field of Flying Dust. A flock of wild ducks flies over them, with air around it making a swooshing sound. The thin film of sunlight trembles as slivers of shadows cut through it.

“Hey, cloth-seller, remember the dress you showed the other day? You refused to sell it for just 50 paisa less. Remember? Have you already sold it, or do you still have it? Hmm, the clothes-seller is sulking!”

Her voice falls on his back, it feels as if her breathing were reaching his ears. Nabin is startled. What do you know? It’s as if his soul, lured by the fragrance of the amarta flower, were swayaing like a snake in a hole.

Behind him, she gets frisky. “Hey, go ahead and yell your sales chants. ‘Frocks, petticoats, blouses!’ ‘Frocks, petticoats, blouses!’”

A storm rages behind him through an invisible forest of wildflowers.  A golden storm now invades it. In the Field of Flying Dust, the afternoon trembles. Nabin sweats profusely. He does not say a word.

“And what else do you chant? ‘Auction! Auction! What do I take? Your desire. What do I take? Your money.’ You chant as naturally as a bird sings, clothes-seller. Hey, come on, clothes-seller, cry out your sales chants one more time! ‘I take money, what do I give?’ What do you say after that? Darn, I can’t remember. ‘I take money, I give…’ clothes-seller, why don’t you tell me what you give in return?”

Nabin suddenly turns around. His eyes flicker. He says: “I take money, I give beauty, sensuality.”

‘Sunflower’ blushes in embarrassment, and lowers her gaze. “Get out of here!”

“Yep, that’s what I give.”

“You are really something! Stop teasing me!”

Nabin says: “Don’t you want to see that dress?”

“I don’t have any money with me.” She lowers her gaze and starts to walk. Her voice quivers.

“The money can wait.” Nabin’s voice quivers as well. “It’s such a good dress, it would be a shame if it found its way into the hands of God knows who. Then it’ll be worn by some ugly-ass woman. No way. I don’t want to have any regrets. After all, I did call you Sunflower. Come, take a look.”

Nabin rests his load on the clean hard soil of the spiny, narrow, raised path over the field. He sits down and suspends his legs. The girl has stopped near a bush. The toes of her red-daubed feet pull at blades of dry grass. She looks at the grass. Her chin is planted in her ample bosom.  In the summer breeze her hair, tied in a bun, loosens up a little. A drop of sweat glistens on the tip of her nose. The nose stud continues to glitter. Her two arms meet below her belly, with their fingers entwined. Are those arms, or are they shy tools of a soft defense? And her bosom! It rises up and down, and her breath carries a fragrance of flowers. It’s like two delicious fruits from a wonderful tree of happiness. It seems to Nabin that water wouldn’t stop there, it would bounce right off that silky blouse. Nabin the clothes-seller is under the thrall of his stirring blood, and his hawker’s soul darts about restlessly in its muscular prison. “Go ahead and take a look. There’s no harm in looking. Check out everything, whatever you like. This one, this one … or this one.” Nabin brings out and holds up blouses of various colors, one after another. His teeth glisten as he grins. “What happened? It’s you who said I called Sunflower. That’s why I’m calling you Sunflower. Are you mad at me? There’s no need to feel shy. This is a store right in the middle of the Field of Flying Dust, so there’s nobody else here. Just the two of us – isn’t that right, Sunflower? You’re the sole customer, and I am the sole shopkeeper. What’s happened?” Nabin’s guffaw comes out in a grunt.

Nabin realizes Sunflower is sizing him up with a sidelong glance. Nabin is a clothes-seller, so he has a keen sense of the ways of women.  He unfolds one piece of clothing after another, and the sunlight from the fading day splashes upon the clothes –  as if the red color catches fire, and the blue color catches fire. Nabin tries very carefully to ease Sunflower’s shyness, her reticence, her apprehension, her stiffness. His heart beats with excitement. He casts  sidelong glance all the time to make sure the vast field continues to be empty. It’s as if his body had split into two – one offers a prayer above, the other sits under his foot restlessly as it waits like a hungry dog and observes the prayer with flickering eyes.

Sunflower bites her lip. Then she says in a low whisper: “Where’s that one?”

A fierce cry from Nabin’s belly button mellows down by the time it reaches his lips, and rustles like a fallen leaf. “Which one? Which one do you want, Sunflower?”

She comes a few steps closer and asks with a slight smile: “That one – the one I saw the other day.”

Nabin riffles through the garments as he asks, “What color? Is it sleeveless or does it have sleeves? What size?”

Sunflower folds her knees and sits down on the load of clothes unabashedly. “It’s sleeveless. That’s the fashion these days. It was bright crimson, like a china rose. She also lightly riffles through the clothes, her lips arched, burrows furrowed derisively.

Nabin is fidgety. He almost tears off the packaging of a dress. He says with bated breath: “This is the best stuff. This is for the ladies at the manor. See what beautiful stuff this is. What fine thread. Check out the sheen. He lifts up a blouse to show it to her in the fading sunlight. It seems to be held by the flickering wings of a butterfly. Nabin swells with rising hope and anticipation.

Sunflower looks on. She touches the fabric, then dives into the mad medley of colors. Sunlight plays on her small brow. A vermilion dot shines on her forehead.

Nabin sighs with regret. “Even this doesn’t please you? Sunflower, you just don’t have the eyes to see its value. You might as well be blind.” Nabin seethes with rage. Low-class woman! You don’t have a fucking clue, you trollop. It doesn’t matter if I hold flowers in front of you or cow patties, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s all the same to you.

Sunflower is turning everything upside down. Sometimes she holds a blouse up to her chest, then discards it carelessly. Her eyes are sharp, inquisitive. Nabin can tell.  After she holds another blouse in front of her chest, Nabin presses his fingers on her shoulders and says: “You need to spread it out taut. Only then can you tell your size.”

Sunflower throws away the blouse intentionally. She says acidly, “That’ll do…” then catches Nabin eyeing her chest. She instantly rearranges the clothing over her bosom and charges him: “Hey, hey clothes-seller! Just what do you think you are doing?”

“Your size. Your size is 34.” Nabin smiles uncomfortably.

“But where is that dress? The one I saw the other day?”

“You did not like any one from all these ones that I have shown you?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, tell me again. What color? Is it sleeveless?”

“It’s sleeveless. Bright crimson, like china roses.”

“Is it this one?”

“No way.”

“This one?”

“No, no.”

“Then it must be this one.”

“No, no, no!”

In the hands of Nabin the clothes-seller, the size 34 blood-red sleeveless blouse trembles in a terrible golden storm. His eyes shine with desperate lust. He writhes in his blood and flesh. He bows and says in a hoarse whisper, “Go on, take it. You don’t have to pay me. Take it.”

Sunflower lowers her head and playfully picks on her nose stud. She shakes her head. Then she whispers, “Why? Why would you give it to me for nothing?”

“Why?” Nabin is hard-pressed to find an answer. His fist tightens. The clothes begin to get wet drenched in his sweat. In this big, wide world, Nabin the clothes-seller’s life is an utter failure. He has yet to be with a woman. He is by nature timid, weak-willed, friendless and a cheapskate to boot. He lives alone in one corner of a village. No one really cares about him. Everybody knows Nabin is ill-tempered and a miser deep down in his bones. No man is willing to give away his daughter in marriage to a guy who started with very little capital and now lives as an itinerant peddler of clothes. Every father of a prospective bride has said that if his daughter ends up in his hands, she will die of starvation. He’s not capable of feeding someone twice a day. Go and see, his roof leaks. During monsoon, rainwater leaks onto the floor. Yet he still avoids fixing it because he hates spending money. His yard is thick with weeds. There are cobwebs everywhere, rats are all over the place, lizards lay eggs. Is there any sign at all that he is aware of any of this?  Money is the only damn thing he cares about. When the guy croaks one day, he’ll find out the hard way that you can’t take your money with you when you leave this world.

This very same humorless, ill-tempered Nabin the clothes-seller turns into somebody completely different when he goes out to the villages to peddle his wares. And boy, you will be amazed when you hear him speak! But that’s also one of his scams. That’s the very least you need to do to make money. Take one look at him when he’s on his way back with his load and you’ll get the shock of your life. Is this the same guy we are talking about? This crabby, apathetic, darkly grimacing man is the real Nabin.

Suddenly today, after a long, long time, an afternoon at the Field of Flying Dust  completely transformed Nabin. After hearing the thump, thump sound behind him, he turned and instantly heard someone say, “Wait, clothes-seller, I want to go with you.”

In an instant, Nabin changed. The huge desolate, dry Field of Flying Dust, a late afternoon, a lush, doe-eyed woman…

Nabin dithers a bit. Then he says, “Why? Even with a huge effort, can I tell you that, Sunflower? No, I can’t. My heart bid me to do it: Since I called someone Sunflower, I’ll give it to her for free. I swear, I feel like it will be really special if I can give it to you free. Yep, that’s what my heart says.”

Sunflower swayed her feet over the dry grass, then laughed suddenly. “Okay, if you want to give me something, then give me that one. That’s the one I like.”

Nabin says in a broken voice: “That one – I don’t know that I still have that one. That one’s gone.”

“Then there’s nothing to be done. Okay, let’s go now. It’s getting late.” She stands up. She raises her arms and arches her body to straighten up. She says again,“Hey, let’s go, clothes-seller.”

Nabin’s busy eyes looks around the field. A strange thing is beginning to happen – it’s a natural, self-destructive thing, it’s a nuisance. His tranquil, lifeless, timid sexuality had rested quietly all this time like the Field of Flying Dust in the afternoon. A torrid noon has burst out from inside that. It’s as if a searing desert wind is blowing. Whirls of golden dust are appearing one after the other, each crowned by strands of straw, dry leaves, bird feathers and discarded snake skins. A feverish Nabin looks again at the girl. She is biting her lips. Her nostrils are flaring. Her nose stud is glittering. The vermilion dot on her forehead is smoking. A golden storm dances over her chest and the two delicious fruits of the tree of happiness sway. Her body has a serpentine swing. A summer afternoon’s breeze halts for a bit at the Field of Flying Dust.

Nabin gets up. The colorful bazaar by his feet has been turned upside down. Nabin scratches his belly. A blouse was delivered at the wrong village one distracted afternoon. Regret for that blouse leaves a catch in his voice. How terrible to know that the best experience of his life was sold away unwittingly! Had he known; he would have saved that blouse for this afternoon at the Field of Flying Dust. Nabin clears his throat and asks: “If I had that one, would you have taken it?”

“I sure would.”

“Would you have accepted it for free?”

“I’d have taken it. You are so keen to give it, how could I not accept? I’m not a petty-minded person, clothes-seller.”

Nabin’s eyes are ablaze. He appears to breathe fire. “Instead of that, what if I give all of this here – everything, will you take it, Sunflower?” His voice is a hoarse whisper.
“No.” Eyes narrowing, a seductive snake raises its head to strike in the Field of Flying Dust. Whirls of dust fly over her body. The hair, tied in a bun, spills out. The dry hair sways in the wind.  The red petticoat shows through her sari. She leaves Nabin and his bazaar behind and walks ahead briskly.

Nabin waits for a while, his legs feeling really heavy. He just gazes at her, and watches her go away. Then he sorts out the load with weak, trembling hands. It’s become so heavy! It hurts to put the load on his back. He gets off the spiny, raised path and goes down into the field. He huffs and puffs like a wounded beast and then gets back onto the narrow, raised path. Nabin the clothes-seller sets off.

Suddenly at that moment a whiff of margosa flowers come in out of nowhere.

He thrusts his nostrils forward and breathes it in.  There are no trees or plants at the Field of Flying Dust. Where did this distracting annoyance come from? Is this a fake smell of margosa, or is it the smell of real margosa flowers? He shudders. The wide, desolate expanse is awash in gentle sunlight. The summer breeze is blowing. A little dust flies into the air. Sunflower gradually disappears into the distance. Did she leave behind this smell?

Tired and depressed, Nabin the clothes-seller thrusts his nostrils forward again and searches for the impossible smell of margosa flowers as he passes through the dusty field.

 

“… In the Field of Flying Dust, sunlight can dance,

The smell of margosa put me in a trance.” 

“…Never shall I go there, a pox on you!

I just lost my earring there, boohoo!”

 

The breeze flows absent-mindedly. Again, strands of straw, dry leaves, and discarded snake skins crown whirls of flying dust. A sad, soft patter of a pair of dusty, torn sandals can be heard as the day comes to an end.

More Story- A Cinderella Story – Avishek Parui

Translated from the Bengali by Ashfaque Swapan

 

 

Syed Mustafa Siraj

Syed Mustafa Siraj

Syed Mustafa Siraj (14 October 1930 – 4 September 2012) was an eminent Bengali writer. In 1994, he received the Sahitya Academy Award for his novel Mythical Man   (Aleek Manush), considered his most lauded work. He wrote around 150 novels and 300 short stories. In 2005, Aleek Manush was translated as Mythical Man.

Ashfaque Swapan

Ashfaque Swapan

Ashfaque Swapan has been involved in expatriate South Asian journalism for over three decades. He has written and edited for “India-West,” a California-based South Asian weekly newspaper for over two decades. For the past few years, he has been writing a fortnightly column for “The Daily Star,” the leading English language daily in Bangladesh. His Bengali translation of articles appear regularly in “Kali O Kalam,” a literary periodical in Bangladesh. His articles have appeared in “Prothom Alo,” “Kaler Kantho,” “Bangladesh Pratidin,” in Bangladesh, “The Times of India, Deccan Herald, Pioneer, The Statesman, “Anandalok,” in India and “The Dawn” in Pakistan.

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