Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta
Sometimes, a name gets singularly committed to a relationship. The tag becomes so deeply entrenched in the kinship that it is nearly impossible to separate them. That was the case with Ashukhala and Rashukhala. The term ‘khala’[i] became irrevocably attached to their names, rather than indicate kinship ties.
Ashukhala and Rashukhala were sisters. People couldn’t remember who made them khalas. That relationship must’ve stretched far on meandering branches and leaves. They could’ve been someone’s aunt, or someone’s mom’s aunt, or perhaps someone’s mom’s mom’s aunt. No one was able to distinguish one from the other. Even their vocal tones were alike. Except, people rarely heard their voices. They never spoke. Both sisters wouldn’t talk with anyone. But that didn’t imply they were mute. Sounds leaked out of their mouths when it was absolutely necessary. Other than those moments, the sisters communicated only with each other.
Ancestors of the sisters had arrived on a bullock cart from the land of red earth. They carried with them a handful of that dirt. During their travels, they frequently stopped to compare their soil with the color of the ground under their feet. They were determined to settle on a terrain that was of similar hue. On a hot summer evening, the elders found the clay here similar and established their homestead. If the glow of the dying sun hadn’t fooled them with illusions, they had picked the right place.
Then, the soil drank up the ancestors’ sweat and blood and yielded abundant harvests. After several years, the remote village was transformed into a small town; the thatched roofs converted into tin ones. During a winter season, the mud paths were paved with bricks. One spring, railroad tracks were laid down. Next year, on a drenching monsoon night, Ashukhala and Rashukhala glided out of their mother’s womb.
Twin flowers of the moonlight, who didn’t speak. Years rolled by but the two mouths didn’t utter a sound. They stayed together all day – no one could separate them. Where Ashukhala was, Rashukhala was sure to be found. They had no other playmates. Their cousins, Jalal and Jeba, were close to their age. But Ashukhala and Rashukhala wouldn’t go near Jalal. Both ignored Jeba’s proffered lollipop. Their Abba and Amma reasoned, it was natural for twins to stick together. Both sisters began to verbalize at home in a garbled tongue with each other. They didn’t even speak with their parents. At most, they talked to their rag dolls. They didn’t converse with each other loudly; and when they did, it was with one or two words and not in complete sentences. They scarcely used pronouns.
If Ashukhala said – ‘rice,’ Rashukhala responded, ‘near the tap.’
If Rashukhala announced, ‘mango pickle;’ Ashukhala answered, ‘zip!’
Even when people understood the words ‘rice,’ ‘near the tap,’ ‘mango pickle,’ and ‘zip,’ they couldn’t decipher the meaning of the chat. The coded language of Ashukhala and Rashukhala remained universally unknown. Their mother kept her ears pricked but failed to grasp the private lingo. If it was essential, Ashukhala and Rashukhala swapped a few words with their mother, but it never turned into an interchange.
As the sisters moved away from others, they became tighter. Ashukhala and Rashukhala developed into mirror images of each other. Both were silent beings. They didn’t throw tantrums, nor harangue others. When they went out, they walked side by side in lockstep. Left-right-left-right – their feet marched jointly – up and down. They couldn’t meet the outside world without strolling in synchronized rhythm. The high attention they paid to their gait, slid their focus from the colors and sights of their surroundings.
At home, Ashukhala and Rashukhala wrote ‘A’ with the same chalk on the same slate board – and erased it together. They put handfuls of puffed rice simultaneously in their mouths – bit into pieces of molasses in tandem. They swallowed water the same way – gulping alike. Together, they breathed in steadily and then, breathed out. Their mutual empathy was astounding! As though they had decided ahead who was going to inhale first. If it was Rashukhala’s turn to breathe, Ashukhala never usurped her position. Ashukhala inspired only after Rashukhala did. It seemed like a game they played. They turned sides together as they slept, and both drooled on their right cheeks.
Amma believed her two daughters were special. Ashukhala and Rashukhala were never unhappy. When Amma detangled their hair, they didn’t moan even when she yanked hard by mistake. Ashukhala and Rashukhala never wept. They never said anything. The mother’s heart was alarmed at times. She recited the first Ruku of Surah Yaseen[ii] and blew on the girls’ chests for safety.
At this time… this can’t be written like a story since it is not fiction.
One day, thin red streaks of blood trickle down Ashukhala and Rashukhala’s knees. This unexpected event doesn’t startle them. Gradually, their shapes begin to undulate, but it doesn’t matter much. The sisters start to sing a little. They put their own music to their own lyrics and croon. It’s only a tiny drone. Sometimes, they lay down on the bed, twist the radio knobs around and listen to music. They dip their fingers in the pot of ‘snow’ and dot their cheeks, foreheads, and the tips of their noses. Then they blend the dots into their skins.
The girls grow into their teens but don’t leave behind the games of childhood. They walk around like each other’s shadow. Isolated from their environs, the sisters spend their days in a wondrous world of their own. Slowly, they sink deeper into a realm of hush. No one is allowed into their private circle, which never falters. Ashukhala and Rashukhala’s lives are fixed in an inexorable sphere of measured rationality. They are not comfortable with anything different. Even then, one day the sisters see Jalal.
That day, thunder booms and wind blow hard. The dark afternoon is packed with fat globs of rain. Jalal covers his head with a large Taro leaf and runs up the verandah. Ashukhala and Rashukhala are mixing ground chili pepper. They are sitting on the bed and biting into Java Apples. They sprinkle salt and chili on the bitten arcs in the fruit-flesh and eat – their mouths bloat with a wan sweet taste. When they hear the commotion, the sisters come to the door to look.
Ashukhala inquires, “Hey Jalu, want some Java Apples?”
Jalal crunches his face and replies, “I don’t eat such stuff.”
Rashukhala offers him a Java Apple, “Try one!”
The water beads in Jalal’s hair sparkle like fireflies.
With both hands, he vigorously shakes off the droplets. He rubs the palms of his hands together and asks, “Uncle not in?”
The sisters don’t react. Thunder clouds rumble in their loins. Water runs down Jalal’s naked torso and a spirit, amorphous, or maybe encased in a hazy form, possesses Ashukhala and Rashukhala. An inexplicable tremor makes them shiver.
Such stirrings occur when afternoon skies darken with clouds. It holds no sensation of love or shame. Jalal bends down to wipe his face with his longyi. Where will he take refuge when the gloomy skies have burst open? He waits on the verandah and observes the rain; Ashukhala and Rashukhala stand by the door and gaze at him.
Jeba goes to the Madhumati theater for movies twice a year – Eid-al-Fitr[iii] and Bakri Eid.[iv] She watches films starring Ilias Kanchan and Moushumi and cries her eyes out. Rashukhala also wants to go to a movie. She wants to strike out on her own, but the moment Ashukhala comes near, their minds merge. Rashukhala cannot get rid of Ashukhala.
Jeba goes to Khalifa to get her designer blouses tailored. She discovers a note inside the blouse. She hums – ‘I give this life to you, my friend / give me only your love…’ Ashukhala wishes for a letter but cannot escape Rashukhala. Her longings burst like bubbles in dry air. Ashukhala realizes that her life cannot be ordinary due to Rashukhala’s impenetrable power. She believes Rashukhala’s scorching control will not let anyone come near them. She imagines a world when Rashukhala is dead. She whispers, ‘How can I live without my shadow?’ Rashukhala murmurs, ‘Will I be able to die without my shadow?’
Being shadowless is certain death. The soul has no shadow. Can we ever be liberated from our shadow? Ashukhala becomes anxious. One’s shadow disappears only when it’s intensely dark. Rashukhala develops fears. They were so enmeshed even before birth that partition is impossible now. Whirled around by invisible godly forces, the sisters blame each other. Both are terrified. And they are afraid of each other. Their fright is as uninterrupted as is their inseparability. The dread they experience is of uncertainty.
This year, the Java Apple trees are lavish with fruits. Their lime green bodies have red tinged mouths. Ashukhala and Rashukhala walk near the pond to gather Java Apples. Abba is scouring his teeth with a foot long neem branch. The two sisters stop as he comes forward to spit. Abba extolls ‘Miswak’s fazilat’[v] to them and reminds them that to use Miswak is to obey Allah.
“Do you understand? It increases memory, wisdom, and cleanses the soul – it beautifies the body, and it frustrates Satan.”
Ashukhala and Rashukhala don’t welcome these instructions. Jalal is bending down near the water sawing lumber. Sawdust cascades like raindrops on the grass. A few pieces of wood are strewn about. Ashukhala and Rashukhala are entranced by Jalal’s sawing. They stare at each dewdrop of perspiration forming on Jalal’s forehead.
Abba says, “The Kalima[vi] of the person who utilizes Miswak regularly will be granted, the doors of heaven will open for him, and the entry to hell be closed forever. He will leave this earth as a pure soul.”
When Abba turns his eyes, the sisters walk quickly to hide among the Java Apple trees.
Ashukhala and Rashukhala return home with their sari-ends[vii] filled with fruits. The sisters do not munch on Java Apples that day. They cover themselves slackly with their saris and lie down on the bed. Their raisin-nipples peek through the well-worn shabby garments. Their eyes remain glued to the rafters of the bedroom, and they remember the salty odor of the sea that wafts off Jalal’s body. They have never smelt the ocean, but they believe the scent resembles it.
The heavy stench of burning wood replaces the whiff of Jalal’s skin. The two sisters listen to the sawing of the wood and strain at the cloying relationship. Intimacy doesn’t allow them to experience their distinct free selves. Although their figures are detached, their minds are entwined. The contradictory push and pull of hopeless togetherness and the yearning for disconnection plunge them into depression. Their distress gives rise to hate. The recurring cycles of angst and aversion lengthen their days; their nights turn unbearable due to animosity. Ashukhala and Rashukhala are choking. Their faces turn blue, yet one cannot allow the other even a bit of space. They just can’t.
The moist, cloudy day does not gush. Nonetheless, it’s oppressively humid. Raging fever take over Rashukhala’s body. Her brow is crimson and Amma places wet cotton scraps on it. Rashukhala’s forehead instantly dries up the dampness like sprinkles of water on burning coals. Ashukhala showers her hair. Liquid runs down Rashukhala’s long hair but the fever refuses to abate. Rashukhala is delirious:
“Rain’s splitting the sky… the earth is on fire… why’s it so dark, Amma? Why did you snatch the light from the moon? Take me away also!”
Amma’s heart shrieks at the ill omen the words carry during dusk hours… Tawba! Tawba![viii] Abba repeats ‘durood’[ix] silently. Ashukhala says nothing and keeps bathing Rashukhala’s hair.
Rashukhala’s been having chest pains since morning. No one knows if this agony is water-borne or air-borne. Perhaps the darkness of disquiet has arrived in the guise of fate. Deep-set desires occupy Rashukhala’s heart like a throbbing ache. It gels there in the gloom, thick as the nightfall. Rashukhala turns blue with anguish. She lays her head on Ashukhala’s lap and dozes. Thousand years of unrest tire her eyes. Before she ends all transactions with this world, her eyes light up one last time – a drop of tear seeps between the closed lids.
Ashukhala and Rashukhala were convinced that life for one is guaranteed only by the other’s demise. However, there is no precedence to this passing. Maybe Rashukhala had wished her own death or perhaps her name came up on the stealthy raffle of mortality.
The sun is quite mellow and easy after the rain. Ashukhala throws open the windowpanes. She stares out with an unfulfilled contract of life in her hands.
[i] ‘Khala’ means aunt in Islamic Bangla. A khala is one’s mother’s sister.
[ii] A paragraph of the 36th chapter of Quran.
[iii] The last day of Ramadan. Festival of breaking fast celebrated by Muslims.
[iv] Eid-al-Adha is known as Bakri Eid in Bangladesh and India. It is the celebration of prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham) sacrifice.
[v] Miswak is a dental cleansing tool (similar to toothbrush) recommended in Islam. It is supposedly extremely effective against tooth decay. Fazilat means ‘superiority’ in Arabic. Here it means extolling the superiority of Miswak.
[vi] Kalima is the five formal commitments to faith in Islam.
[vii] Women often make a satchel with the end of the sari they are wearing to carry stuff.
[viii] In Arabic, ‘tawba’ is repentance to God.
[ix] In Arabic, ‘durood’ means repeated invocation of God’s name.
The author has crafted a beautiful short story based on cryptophasia in twins. The extraordinary closeness indicated by the coded language that only two individuals share is contrasted with the tremendous restrictions of exclusivity that ultimately throttles individual and independent development. The staccato sentence structure of the narrative adds a fascinating dimension to the story. I believe the story is ultimately a shout for extending one’s horizons beyond the limitations of intimacy and comfort zones. Truly, none of us is an island onto ourselves.
At The Antonym, we 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: