Translated from the Bengali by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
Now was a ruthless winter. Chill poured down and deepened. The moon was abloom over the coconut tree. A busty banana leaf flashed its breast once and its back the next moment as the mild wind blew. Over there, on the other side near the Boro Ganj crossing, the tin roof of Rahat Khan’s house glistened in the frost. A jackal got his forelegs on the steps of Kanu’s mother’s hut and howled. Suddenly, somewhere around the cobbled path to the school from behind the crumble of a house, the wilds and the mounds of bricks howls rose—hu-u-uu… . ‘Go, go, catch, catch it.’ faint screams rushed down from the northeast. Darkness. One ghost of darkness quivered as the moonlight flickered again on the tin roof. The brave jackal came out on the road with a chicken in its mouth. The dying bird, its plumes disheveled left a shadow on the ground with the wolfish shadow of the jackal. He looked up at the moon and crossed the road thoughtfully—then slid inside the thickets around the school road. People from Chandmoni’s house with sticks in their hands came out on the road ‘ which way did it go? Damned jackal, which way?’
More frost descended.
He wanted to see his own reflection in the water under the big bridge. Inam, Sardar’s younger wife’s oldest son, his nose and mouth hobbled over the silver water. The frost settled almost audibly. The breeze trembled scrunching away peanut shells. A Lunar iridescence spilled from the Ashshyaora leaves. The branch on the east side of the jackfruit tree waved ugly, as if luring. A hundred tambourines clanged.
Inam left the bridge, crossing the dirt track to reach the edge of the dead lake. From here, the path looked white like a viper’s belly lay limp and wary. Feku’s tiger bulk appeared with Suhas trailing behind. They were engrossed in conversation. But not about the reason of their gathering at that time of the night. They were discussing about when Suhas went with the groom’s party to his youngest uncle’s wedding and ate the best tasting puri in his life plus endless sweets—that story. The transistor, under Feku’s arm, played on, but neither listened. In that biting cold, near the dead lake, Konika went on crooning hopelessly about the sufferings of loneliness in the dark. Strangely, not a single bird chirps. ‘Shut it off,’Inam cringes, as they come closer the noise feels intolerable. ‘You’re here!’ Both of them halted. Suhas smiled, baring his tobacco-blackened teeth. Inam is still irritable, ‘Shut off the radio!’ he snaps again. ‘No one can hear, and even if they do, no one’s gonna come this way.’ ‘It’s not that,’ Says Inam, ‘I hate that song.’ Feku strangled off Konika. ‘Let’s go, the old man might doze off to sleep.’ He says handing the radio over to Suhas. ‘Who?’ Suhas asked. ‘That old man, who else? He falls asleep soon as it’s dark.’ Feku spit on the side of the road.
The wind grew stronger as they walked. The dry leaves crunched underfoot. A fish jumped with a loud splash in Kaji’s pond. Through the slits in the fence they could see the paddy being boiled in the courtyard of the Khans. The fire in the oven flared up suddenly and the beautiful faces of the Khan daughters dazzled up. ‘Aren’t you going to school these days?’ asked Suhas. ’No!’ replied Inam. ‘No more studying?’ ‘No, no perks for that, really.’ ‘You want a job?’ ‘Sure. As if jobs are growing on trees.’ Suhas didn’t say anymore, just fidgeted with the transistor and kicked up dust with his loose misfit boots. The dry scent of the dust could be smelt as it hit the nose. Inam remembered the afternoon, the market day, the fish. From fish, he went to the river. The river was dry now with wide sandbanks. People were carrying out the sand in bullock carts. Kash flowers were blooming at the turn. On this side, in the schoolyard, a drongo swung its tail perched on a drumstick tree. When the big clock broke, they made a gong with piece of a rail line and an iron rod. It was dong—dong…suddenly a rush… the headmaster, the joker…Master Tarapada with books under his arm, his twisted shawl, his broken teeth and spit whittling at the corners of his mouth. He remembered all of that. The images flew into his mind like those fallen yellow leaves from the neem trees. And then they receded like a train whistling off over the bridge, across the fields, as the naked boy stood and stared on. Once the images were gone, he realized Suhas was still gabbing about his uncle’s wedding. Feku didn’t hear a single word. He stopped to light a cigarette. The fire at the tip of the match stick seemed somehow dull in that moonlight and lit up his ugly face—the scar on his forehead, beady chicken eyes and the dark, flopsy horse like lower lip. Suhas stopped his story to light a cigarette too, one matchstick died so he fired a second one and continued, ‘We had to cross the Madhumati River in a steamer —in that darkness—couldn’t see what was around—it felt like Sunderban. It was one of those kinds of jungle and darkness. Got it?’ Inam felt as if Suhas had been recounting his story since yesterday and was going to go on till tomorrow. Can’t he shorten his damn anecdote? Inam felt impatient. Suhas’ story had hundreds of branches—describing uncle’s physique, the wedding relations, looking for a bride, the fight with bride’s uncle and groom’s dad, the hassle of getting the silk shirt from the laundry on the wedding day—he was not skipping any bit of the details. Inam got mad, ‘Why did your uncle have to get married at all? Tell me that!’ Suhas ignored him. ‘Madhumati looked so pretty in the morning…older uncle fell flat in the mud as he tried getting off. Aunt’s sisters were so pretty, I can’t even describe them.’ ‘Where does your uncle live again? If those girls come to visit, do let me know,’ Feku said—only for the sake of saying something. ‘No way!’ Suhas said comfortably shutting his eyes. ‘Aha! That’s why you’ve been visiting them five times every month. Got a good deal going, eh?’ Feku winked.
Rahat Khan’s tin roof was not visible anymore, nor the bridge, nor the marsh. Folks in Chandmoni’s house got quiet. After all, how long could one mourn for a chicken? Perhaps tomorrow, in Basudeb’s brick pile or on the broken steps of Sarkar’s vacant house, a shiny feather, yellow leg or part of a beak of the poor bird would be found. So, the servants at Chandmoni’s house finished their meals and went to bed. Only an old woman was sitting, pouring oil on her cracked feet. Nobody knew why the lamp was not dying still, except the lamp itself. ‘Oh! It is so cold! Bou? O Bou, please give me one more quilt. I’m dying here. O Bou!’ To this, the daughter-in-law went on sleeping like the dead. The son mumbled, ‘Who knows why she doesn’t just die!’ The old woman shouted again but the sudden gust of wind drowned out her words. Nobody could hear her trembling voice. That’s how life was. Feku shut his mouth. Suhas, for no reason, suddenly turned the knob on the radio and then turned it off, Inam kept his head bowed in thought.
After they left the road and stepped on the grass, they kicked their shoes to get the dust off. In the narrow lane, darkness enwrapped itself tightly around the boys and a vine whiplashed. Feku opened his mouth to curse the vine, then calmed down to start a story. “Can you tell me why we are getting caught so often nowadays?’ Suhas’ eyes shone, ‘Can I say something? You won’t mind?’ Without waiting for Feku’s permission, he started, ‘How can you suffer through so much beating? Tell me that! That motherfucker’s one slap makes me see stars.’ Feku replied, ‘You’ve gotta learn how to take a beating. Hear me? Learn from the experts.’ All this chitchat sounded unbearable to Inam again. ’Sure! those teachers are producing such scholars in those schools! Motherfucking sons of bitches, all of them!’ Inam spit out a few more unprintable words. Feku went on, ‘If you are a dud and don’t know how to handle a beating, you shouldn’t go near people’s pockets. Not even if you can see the money inside.’ The mention of money made Inam depressed. Listening to a smart-alek driver, he once reached for someone’s pocket in a crowd, the notes rustled inside and the knife-faced man roared so loudly, almost deafening Inam. Actually, the man was just clearing his throat. As a result, Inam had no money now. Perhaps he should pillage coconuts and sell them, starving without rice is very painful.
The darkness was clotted thick on the street. Overhead, the vine went webbing from left to right. Busy telling his story, Feku tripped and fell on Suhas in the dark. Suhas shrieked, ‘Ah !’ Feku warned, ’Watch out for the radio…you know what happened that day? A bus crowded full was speeding at forty, fifty miles. A few notes were peeking out of the pocket of the guy standing in front. As I tried to reach, a hand grabbed mine. After that, oh, God, some beating it was! I still have scars on my face.’ ‘Now the goon has started,’ Inam thought. Listening to Feku’s story, Suhas suddenly turned the radio on. It burst in a loud and odd tempo in the middle of that cold and still darkness. ‘Singing some damned khayal,’ Suhas spit out. He turned it off and started humming ‘You have come into my life.’ A stray dog approached them. It tried to bark but no sound came out, it sidled next to Inam and started swinging its butt. ‘Trying to get warm by moving around’ said Feku and continued on why his life is a mess, who messed it up, the various tricks of pickpocketing, his own style, successes and experiences of public beatings. ’What can I do? Tell me. Get an education?’ ‘Piss on education’ Inam said. He was again feeling impatient. ‘What then?’ Feku asked, ‘There are no jobs, no capital for starting business—what the fuck can we do?’
No birdsongs yet. Whatever could be heard, was faint, muffed. They were wrapped in the fog and frost. When the cat crossed in front of them, its eyes shone. All three went quiet. Suhas had the radio under his arm, Feku tried to wrap the scarf around his face, Inam rubbed his hands in an effort to get warm. On their right was the house of the Pals, he made clay pots and bowls. If called, he yelled out his reply to the road. The walls were shedding the old plaster, because the building actually belonged not to them but to the Sens who had left in the fifties. Inam tore a leaf while passing from under a lime tree and peered at the cold courtyard. They could smell the burned clay, see the scattered black barrels and hear the sleepy growls through the broken door. ‘All asleep.’ Suhas said. Feku agreed with a snort. ‘We shouldn’t have come today. I’m scared.’ said Suhas. Feku taunted him, ‘I’m scared! Aw, our little baby is scared!’ Suhas went on, “That old man gives me the chills. Looks like he could fall dead any minute or going to kill us all. Did you see his face as we were getting in?’ ‘Yes. Forget that.’ Feku blew him off, ‘ When you get the money, seeing what your face looks like.’ Inam thought, ‘ I’d love to kill this bastard Feku.’ Right then Suhas sided with Feku and said, ‘That girl looks smooth and soft like green coconut, right?’ ‘I’d love to kill you too.’ thought Inam.
They were now laughing, chattering, leaning against each other. The doctor was inside—fat and pale. A hurricane lamp was lit, so one could see through the open door. A lonely dry leaf flutters near the pond. They were near the empty field on the left, the milky moonlight mingled with fog falling on the tiny dead grasses. The rose apple tree behind looked dark and, beyond it, everything was smeared in darkness and solitude. And behind all that were more lonely tracts, fallow lands, jungles, Paan vines, Kaash, tall grass, dried up pond and marsh. Here on the right was a bamboo gate hung by a rope. Beyond the gate, there was a fallow land, nothing growing on it. Inam was behind, far behind, it looked like he might even have gone back. A red light spills out through the wooden window slats. The eyes of a fox glowed in the dried-up pond. A hawk teeheed like a horse and fluttered its wings to change position on the old tree branch. Feku lifted up the bamboo gate and beckoned Suhas. Suhas was holding the radio in one hand and pinched his lips in the other. He was not moving at all. Inam suddenly appeared in front of Feku, ‘Give me a couple of rupees, I’ll return it tomorrow.’ Feku released the gate, ‘Really? You just came here empty-handed to have fun?’ A golden arm dimly appeared in the shadow somewhere, it smoothened his hair and wiped the oil at the edge of the sari. Even if Inam had bought that sari himself, he couldn’t take it off then. He pleaded, ’Two rupees. Swear I’ll return it tomorrow. I only have two here—.’ Feku gnashed his teeth. ‘Then Suhas give me the money. I swear by the goddess Kali I’ll return it tomorrow.’ Inam was desperate. ‘See, all this while he was so quiet, following us like a good boy, You are so stupid…’ Suhas told Feku, laughing ‘I swear, feel my pockets, only two rupees left . picked it from my brother’s, only two.’ Feku and Suhas stood close to the gate. The old man peered through the wooden window slats and yelled, ‘Who is it? Who’s standing there?’ The red light moved away from the window. The door opened with a screech and he came out with a lantern. He crossed the open yard and came to the bamboo gate. A long shadow fell on the yard. Emaciated legs under a short lungi. He stopped near the oleander tree at the gate and raised the lantern to his face. His face showed innumerable cracks like those of the arid summer earth. With cold eyes he observed Inam, Suhas and Feku, he pierced them with his eyes. Raising the lamp with trembling hands he said, ‘Come. You boys? I was wondering who it could be. So why are you here at this hour of the night? I was awake. Don’t get much sleep, at my age…’ He muttered on, ‘Come inside. Its very cold, come in.’ But isn’t it cold inside too? It’s all the same, inside, outside. Once you leave your country, there is no inside-outside anymore. It is all the same. As they go in, a branch of the oleander tree swished by. The cold, hard ground made Inam’s feet hurt.
Inside there lay a black chauki bed. Chickens let out knok-knok from the depths of stupor. Outside, a hu-u-u went up again. The wind swirled in the marsh. The man sat on a broken chair. The three huddled together on the bed. Nobody spoke. The lantern was lowered to the ground. They could hear the man’s achy asthmatic breathing. The talkative man was quiet now, breathed through his mouth loudly. His grey stubble, unkempt, hand lean with protruding veins on the arm of the chair, his dirty, long untrimmed nails… The phlegm in his throat almost choked his breath. Inam wished he could clean that throat with a tube. ‘So,what is new? Everything good?’ Non-stop talking started again. Regrets and laments. ‘We are ready to die now, don’t you think? Say, I do die, all of a sudden, what then? Nothing to me. I’ll leave with a free heart, it’s your problem, you guys deal with the rest. It is nice of you to come and check up on us. You are our only support. My family of course always praises you.’ Feku was nervous now. He watched the old man trying to figure out his deal. Suhas gawked. The old man’s face was as if shifting forever. Suhas was thinking, ‘The asthmatic old coot perhaps is planning to kill them all. We shouldn’t have come today.’ The old man went on, ‘Without your help we would have surely perished in this marsh and jungle. Getting enough food to grow is not for us. You know that. We are from arid country, you see. Everything is different there. Here without your help, we would’ve starved. The kids love you so much. Just see, my eldest girl, Ruku, is about to make tea for you. A ball of phlegm almost stifled his airflow again. The man started coughing, he was talking just now, was he going to die? ‘No tea, we don’t want tea.’ Feku and Su,has called out together. ‘No tea? You don’t want tea? Okay, that’s fine,’ the old man said calmly.
The wind rose across the marsh. It swirled atop the Peepul tree and approached closer. The sound of tambourines and hand drums also came closer and then receded farther. The bills rustled under Suhas’ shawl. Feku took out two rupees from his pocket and crumpled them in his hand, thinking, fearing, at last bending towards the old man, saying, ‘ This is from Suhas and me.’
The man in the chair chortled violently, almost falling off the chair. The legs knocked on the ground, ‘From you? Okay. So much in debt to you already. Don’t know when I would be able to pay you back.’ Suhas stood up. Should they leave? So soon? Ruku will be upset. They didn’t let her make tea. If they didn’t see her before leaving, she will never talk to them again. ‘Wait’, the old man went out leaving the lamp behind. The shadow shrunk smaller and smaller till it disappeared. The chickens cawed again. An old woman spoke up in the darkness, shredding it with curses. ‘Shh. Shut up you hag, old bitch.’ Suddenly all was quiet. The old man came back. With head hung low and shoulders stooping he whispered ‘Go, she is right next door. Inam, you wait here. Come, we can chat.’
The old man chattered on. He was terribly cold. Even wrapping himself in the shawl all around did not help. Even if the cold were managed, the phlegm wouldn’t let him talk. He still went on shivering and panting for breath, ‘You see, when we first came here, I planted an oleander tree…’ Someone whimpers, tinkling of bangles, Inam can imagine a perfect golden body. Suhas is laughing hee-hee – ‘I planted this oleander tree, see.’ The old man stopped, listened to the sobs, the laughter, ‘ Not for the flowers’ he continued, ‘But for the seeds. You get excellent poison from the seeds.’ Again, the sound of sobbing and even before the old man finished his story, his face was floating away in the water and disappearing from sight, ‘First I plant the oleander tree, do you understand Inam? Bitter, bitter…What? Are you crying? Are you? Are you crying now?’