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The Bilimbi Note – Kizzy Tahnin

Apr 30, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta

“Do you know why the parrots are green?”
Ma used to inquire. Even when she knew how I would answer, she kept asking.
Every time she questioned me, I’d ask back, “Why?”
Ma pointed to me again and again, “Look at that tree.”
The Bilimbi tree. It stood majestically in the backyard holding its head high. The tree was covered in parrots – as though they were attending an important meeting. I rested my face on the balcony railings and inspected it.
Ma explained, “Look at it – they must have turned green from eating its fruits.”
Ma and I didn’t think there was a need to offer proof. On Chaitra afternoons after lunch, when she and I rested on a leaf mat in the verandah, or in the dusty hour before a nor’wester hit, when we rushed about to gather the wash drying on clotheslines, or when the parrots screeched their homebound chirp, Ma asked me, “Do you know why the parrots are green?”
I believe Ma dearly wanted to turn into a parrot. So did I.

Our government issued housing complex was at the corner of Green Road and Dhanmandi. Seven smart buildings, each five stories tall. Brown and white structures. Each had a lovely name and two small pieces of land in the front and back.
Our building, Konark, was named after the Sun Temple in Puri, India. God only knows who had the disposition to come up with such a poetic label! The other buildings around us also had dazzling tags – Usha, Balaka, Prabhati, Godhuli.
We occupied the first floor of Konark. Because we lived near the ground and by some unwritten rule, the garden plots became ours. Jharna lived next door to us. Our two gardens were separated only by a wicker fence. When we harvested tomatoes and cauliflowers in the winter months, Ma put some in a basket and distributed them to the neighbors.
The Bilimbi tree flourished throughout the year. We hadn’t planted it. The tree had been there long before we moved into the house. The whole area was full of Bilimbi trees – our garden and Jharna’s. There were Bilimbi trees in the grounds of all the houses – Usha, Prabhati, Balaka. Who had planted these trees? We were the third occupants of our apartment. I never knew the first tenant but had met the family who had lived there before us.
This second resident was my father’s colleague. He retired and had to vacate the house. They owned an ancestral property in Khilgaon and were moving there. When we heard that this apartment had been assigned to father, we came to take a look at it. Father, Ma, my elder sister, and me. I call my sister, ‘Api.’ Father’s colleague was still living in the house.
How our eyes had sparkled! What a beautiful house, what joy! This place was going to be ours! We had never lived in such a wonderful home. But the eyes of the residents of that house were brimming with sorrow – one didn’t have to be old to comprehend that. Neither did one have to be wise. I understood. Our eyes shining with delight were foils to their grieving ones. What a contrast of light and shade! We walked from room to room. Ma went delirious when she saw the gardens – she immediately wanted to plant a Bakul tree. Ma’s excitement was candid and sincere. But I recognized that to the people who lived in that house, this elation seemed inappropriate. The occupants of the house quietly appraised us. Were the legacies of dust balls, grime, and scuff marks that they had so loved and were about to leave behind, going to the right people? Sadly, it was their turn to depart and ours to start afresh.
Their eldest son was the most dejected. He was a little older than me. Every time our eyes met, he dropped his gaze. When we were checking out the outdoor gardens, he gripped the metal railing and turned his sight afar. He was observing something, but not us. His watery eyes didn’t notice that I had been staring at him for a long time. His saddened nostrils, puffy eyes and lips were singing a song of farewell.
When I hear the humming of the Bilimbi tree and the parrots that surround it, I think of that young boy. That youthful boy holding onto the railing, his nostrils flaring in sorrow. The young person with whom I had never spoken.
In the afternoon when I sat in the verandah with the Bilimbi tree in front, I thought of these ageing memories – about the adolescent with sad nostrils. I wasn’t aware, but at that time, another life silently waited by the narrow gutter behind the Bilimbi – a ribbon snake with yellow and red markings.
One day, Baba was resting in the sun. I brought him a cup of tea. Baba remarked, “Take a look, isn’t that your hair tie in the drain? Who threw it there? Must be Mayna’s ma.”
I believed it was my hair-ribbon. Baba did too. Right then, the piece of ribbon stirred. It wasn’t an object, but a life. The ribbon snake was just like my yellow hairband – thin, smooth, tiny, and lively.
Baba exclaimed, “Goodness, a snake! We’ll have to kill it.”
But we didn’t slay it. Because it was not poisonous or ugly, there was no urgency to do so. Quite a few snakes lived in the housing complex. They didn’t bother anyone, nor were they vexing. The residents were still alive due to that. No one had died – neither the people nor any snakes. I generally forgot about the ribbon snake because I frequently didn’t see it, and often, I wouldn’t see it for a long time.
One day, a parrot flew off the Bilimbi tree and arrived at our verandah. It huddled in one corner. We thought it would fly away soon. So many parrots surrounded the tree that there were no reasons for the humans to take a shine to a particular one. Our family would have followed this edict if the next morning we hadn’t spotted it occupying a corner of the same verandah. It was chipper and utterly at home, as though it had already made up its mind to stay.
Api, my elder sister, brought it a Bilimbi fruit from the garden. The bird ate the fruit but didn’t return to the tree. So, we took out an old cage, dusted it well, and made it into the parrot’s home. I don’t know why the bird abandoned its free lifestyle and chose a caged existence. Perhaps this selection was its declaration of independence. Ma tied a thin red thread around one of its feet so that if it ever got lost, we would be able to find our parrot – Sukhi.
Every morning, Ma taught the parrot to sing, “Allah, give me bread!”
Gradually, the bird with a red string round its foot learned the tone of ‘Allah, give me bread.’ At that moment if one had paid a little attention, she would have seen the yellow-red ribbon snake lying in the narrow ditch next to the Bilimbi tree.
The parrot used to come back to its coop in the evening. The bird which had chosen the life of a captive, returned after exploring the open sky all day. We recognized it as our bird by the red string attached to its leg.
This could have gone on forever but for Baba’s huge sneeze that burst out of him at the wrong moment. It startled Api something fierce and the glass she was carrying in her hand fell and shattered. The breaking of the glass made a horrible din. The violent noise also ruined the abode the parrot-with-the-red-thread had made in our home. That day the bird flew away and didn’t return. Not then, not ever.
We could still hear the parrot shake up the sky over our building with its demand, ‘Allah, give me bread,” “Allah, give me bread!” It found its place again on the Bilimbi tree. That is, our bird claimed back its Bilimbi life. Except, once someone experiences the safety and comfort of home, they don’t quite take to the life of wind and storms.
The last building in our complex is named Usha. There, in a verandah on the ground floor, in the home of Shihab, now resides a parrot with a red string around one leg. It tweets constantly: “Allah, give me bread.” “Allah, give me bread!” My eyes fill with tears. What kind of bird shifts from one home to another so abruptly?
I went to Shihab and said, “That is my parrot.”
“Your parrot? Do you have it branded with your name? Is there only one parrot in this housing complex?”
“It sings a particular tune – I know, it’s my parrot.”
“Wow! Only your parrot sings, does it? No others sing?”
I am defeated by this complicated logic. I lose my parrot. The bird doesn’t even spare a glance at me. On my way home, I find the yellow-red ribbon snake lying at the corner of the Bilimbi tree in front of this building. Its yellow body shining like gold in the sun. I realize, it has left also.
I came back and cried my eyes out. I wept and wept. Api said, “Let’s go and get back our parrot.”
Baba discouraged us, “Why do you want to pick a fight with a neighbor? Better let it go.”
Ma declared, “That bird is ill-omened. It cries all day for bread. It scares me. Don’t bring it back here.”
How could ma say that! I looked into her eyes and understood. No, she hasn’t really changed her mind. I am relieved. Ma’s eyes are full of desolate rejection. My eyes are full of ache, but not rebuff. I understand that Ma still wants to turn into a parrot. My desires are the same.
We drag around our hearts full of longing and grief for our red-stringed bird but resume our daily routines. Api is about to get married. This has been in the offing for some time. Now the date is fixed. She is twelve years older to me. A far distance in terms of years but very close to me in thoughts. Actually, we are not different at all. Our eyes are exactly alike. I could look into her eyes and imagine how I will look when I grow up – how my thinking will be.
Her wedding day is nearly on us – she is about to marry a man she chose. They have had to overcome many barriers within the family to get married – but now… She remains unruffled. She still reads books with a solemn focus, she still helps Ma chop vegetables, still strokes my hair when we go to bed at night. I am determined I’d like to be just like her when I grow up.
Api is getting married tomorrow. After her wedding, will I be lonely? I don’t really know what it is to be alone. I have never had to be alone in these thirteen years of my life. In today’s weighty afternoon, I don’t need anyone. Everyone is busy arranging for the coming festivities, but I have no responsibilities. Now that no one needs me, is this loneliness? Is this how the young man who stood with his fretful nose pressed to the railing felt? I recall him after a long time.
Right then, during this time of remembrance, I see the yellow-red ribbon snake in the gutter near the Bilimbi tree. After a long time, it has traveled from one end of our housing complex back to our Bilimbi tree. Just like that.
If the rest of this deep afternoon unfolds as I await, a parrot with a red string attached to its foot will return soon to our Bilimbi tree.

__

Endnotes

[1] Chaitra is the twelfth month of the Bengali lunar calendar. The next month, Baisakh, marks the beginning of summer.

[2] Bakul is the Bengali name for Mimusops tree.

[3] Commonly, Bengalis address their father as ‘Baba.’

[4] It is customary in Bengal to refer to housemaids by their children’s name.


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Kizzy Tahnin

Kizzy Tahnin

Kizzy Tahnin was born in Dhaka. She has three collections of Bengali short stories – ‘Iccher Manchitra’(2019), ‘Ache ebang Nai’(2020) and ‘ budh Grahe Chand Utheche’ (2021). She is currently working for a UN agency in Bangladesh. In 2016, the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade made a documentary called ‘Story of My Life’ about the career of Kizzy Tahnin, and her role in preserving Bangladesh’s cultural heritage.

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Shamita Das Dasgupta is a cofounder of Manavi, the first organization to focus on violence against South Asian women in the U.S. She has taught Psychology, Gender Studies, and Law at the Rutgers University and NYU, authored five books, written a bunch of academic papers and monographs, and is still conducting training for DV and SV practitioners in the U.S. and India. In her retirement, she is enjoying writing mystery stories in Bengali.

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