The Antonym instituted the Tagore Award for translated fiction from Bengali in 2021. There was great response to the call for submission and through a two step process finally we arrived at tlhe winning entries. Here is the story that came seccond in the inaugural season of the Tagore Award for translated fiction.
The Man and The Tree
Written by Yashodhara Raychaudhuri
Translated by Chirayata Chakraborty
For the full announcement, visit Tagore Award for Translated Fiction (from Bengali),2021 – Announcement
Translated from the Bengali by Chirayata Chakraborty
There’s a java plum tree at the entrance of her compound. Gigantic. Then a few eucalyptus trees. Down the red soil path, in the sunken garden beds you see some chrysanthemums. A few feet away, at the very end of the path, are a number of other trees. Gooseberry trees as thin as pencils. One or two shrubs of blackboard and lebbek. Then a sky-scraping teak. It stands with big leafy hands spread high up in the blue. Some eucalyptus again. The rest of that place is practically wilderness. The trees are hard to tell apart in there. If you go much deeper, you see a barbed wire fence run through the thickets, with another compound beyond it. A couple trees from either side of the fence meet in the middle, creating one shadow.
It took her about a couple months just to take it all in. When Arpita first moved into this house, she had felt such joy in the viridescent splendour of the place. Yet she wasn’t one to lose herself to novelty. She was a metropolitan woman; for her, the foliage was almost fiction. They were not a part of her regular life. Now they were about to be everything.
When the bael trees would bear fruit, Mohin Kolita would pluck them. He lived in the outhouse and took up a lot of the household responsibilities, cooking being one. Arpita and Somnath were completely bowled over by the murabba he made from the bael fruit. That stuff was devoured daily. A whole season was spent lavishly, eating raw jackfruits. They also had a banana tree in the corner. Mohin never separated the flowers of the plant when he cleaned them. He grated the whole thing straight away, and the crumbly bits fell out the other end. Then he soaked them in cool water and cooked them in barely any spice in the round pan; they were flaky, dry, with a trace of bitterness.
“Where else are you getting veggies straight from the tree?” Arpita would say when Somnath couldn’t see the charm in them. “Full of protein, vitamin, nutrients!” Somnath would make a face and push them away, “Ask Mohin to cook them with more potatoes and spices like us Bengalis do. Teach him.” “Alright, let’s see.” There were so many more trees: the flowers of the guava tree were tiny and sweet. But that was mostly bird snack.
The people from the I.R. would sometimes come to the rail quarters. Chandan Sharma, executive engineer. Divisional engineer Ramesh Singh had come, at the very beginning, when the house was being white-washed and prepared to be handed over. Now they were called almost every other day. Arpita wasn’t one to let anything go unfixed. Engineers’ wives are always a level above their husbands.
Everyone knew her by now. From the Civil department, the Electrical department. Something always needed fixing. “Really, the state of your maintenance!” Arpita looked after the house. After many complaints to the Civil department, she even managed to get the second bathroom tiled. Somnath was busy with work, so he never concerned himself with her. She only sought him to write a letter or two.
G.M. Sir’s office called. The M.R.’s coming.
So, the P.C.E., C.E.E., C.M.E. ran to an emergency meeting with their belts tightened around their rotund bellies.
Frustration swam on Somnath’s face. Dear God, the M.R. had come twice in the last two months! He’s going to inaugurate something again, wave a green flag. Then, hopefully not show the red flag, shooting confidential reports left, right and centre.
M.R. or the Minister of Railways. P.C.E. – the Principal Chief Engineer, the head of engineering. All of them middle-aged, solemn-looking officers. The Principal Head of Department or P.H.O.D. C.E.E. or the Chief Electrical Engineer. C.M.E. or the Chief Mechanical Engineer.
The C.C.M. was slightly different. The Chief Commercial Manager. He was from Traffic Service. On him lay the accountability of the railway revenues. Now, the administration of the computerised system, too, was under him. Corrupt ticket checkers infested the trains, and, now, the reprimands fell on him.
The operations department handled the running of trains, the train timings, the maintenance of the special trains. An interminable monitoring. The grain car sent from the F.C.I. granary has stopped moving in Arunachal or Manipur due to militant activities. The supply has halted for the district public distribution system.
The matter will escalate in a few hours’ time, from the C.O.M. to the G.M. The district administration will slap its forehead, the D.M. will hasten to write a report to the Chief Minister.
With the office in a whirlwind about a visit from the Minister of Railways on one end, Madam G.M., too, has been summoned, on the other. She, too, has organised a meeting. What the G.M. was in the office, Madam G.M. was in the bungalow. On their little lawn, at least a few dozen chairs have been laid out. The gaggle of the engineering wives has turned up gradually. Madam’s call, after all.
The ribbons on the buns and braids of the engineering wives were in the clasp of Madam G.M., just as the G.M. held the tufts on the heads of those in his office. Invisible and silent bonds. The railway community worked like a small, close-knit family. A joint family. If the reins of the world outside lay in the G.M.’s hands, those of the homes was bridled by Madam G.M. She was the President of the Wives’ Association. The Chief Engineer’s wife was the secretary; the the Electrical engineer’s wife, the Treasurer; the rest stepped forward for all the other needs of the Association.
Now, what should we do on Wives’ Day? Someone suggested, a fashion show. What an idea! Loud, upbeat music, and a catwalk. Where do we get a ramp? The contractor will take care of that. It isn’t as if the Association couldn’t afford it. Besides, the engineers have the contractors right in their pockets. So, the ramp was built. Carpeted in bright red, one-man tall. Every H.O.D. housewife made an order for one or another outfit. Someone dressed as a Begum, someone as a sweet Bengali badhu, someone else as Queen Victoria.
After this, other, better ideas may be carried out. The Engineering wives will dance to the new Bollywood songs. Or they will do a play or two. The wife of the Deputy Commercial will write them; the junior Engineering wives will act.
The others may or may not have had a contender that could beat them at their effrontery, but Subhadra Kulkarni definitely did not. She was tall. Along with her great sex appeal, she always had her tongue in her cheek. After her was Madam Chief Commercial – fair, plump and short but extremely brazen and spiffy. Nandita Rao. Her humour cut above everyone else’s and she was notorious for dallying with other men, but never openly. The others are not really worth mentioning. Some are like the timid Deep Kaur, while some others are like Madam Barua – neither here, nor there.
Among them, the most out of place is the wife of the Deputy, Arpita. She hasn’t really made her mark since they were posted six months ago. She couldn’t sing or dance. The way she dressed wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. After attending a handful of the dinners, she has realised that she doesn’t own more than three or four nice sarees. Now, she usually just repeats her outfits.
But Arpita does know how to do one thing – improve all things that surround her.
She was born in Kolkata, and lived in a rather choked part of the city. After their wedding, due to the many postings here and there of her engineer husband – he spent most of his time in the South Eastern and Eastern railways – she stayed on with her in-laws in Jadavpur. Now, for the first time, she was so far from home, in this embrace of green.
In Maligaon, Arpita was mesmerised at first sight of the bungalow, surrounded by the lush. A rather small bungalow, not a three-bedroom one like the big officers get. In spite of that, the two-bedroom house was neat, tiny and very pretty. A slim yet spacious veranda at the front where, in the morning, you could stretch yourself on the jute arm-chair and drink a cup of tea. In front of the house was a piece of land, sloping upwards, then further ahead, a short hill, upon which, on Maligaon’s highest point, was a large compound surrounding the G.M.’s bungalow.
Arpita has begun to recognize the trees. It is almost as if she has become intimate with every plant, as if they were kin.
Such is her familiarity with them. Her husband Somnath Mandal spends his days at the office. Then he spends his evenings at the club, as per his duty to the boss. He has forgotten about sleep too, now that the M.R. is coming. Days and nights, he has to work with singular focus. If the boss doesn’t go home, neither can the juniors.
Thus, Arpita befriends the plants.
She has taken up some projects to develop some of the plants as well. There are so many in this spectacular colony. Why not paint the trees with white banners? Arpita also planned to ask the gardener to plant some tin signs, painted black, and with white paint, write the names of the plants that stood in rows in their garden, names that Arpita had learned by heart by now.
Somnath laughed at the idea. He said this was a job for the Botanical department. Besides, you should go cosy up to Madam G.M., participate in the Wives’ Association. If you can, satisfy them. You know, make the path ahead easier for me, as much as you can.
Arpita laughed. She did go to the meetings. It didn’t do much good. The Madams didn’t see any special capabilities in her, her facelessness. You could tell just by looking at her, you couldn’t make her dance to a special item song. It’s not like she could hold meetings at her house for her special cakes or fritters, either.
There was a tree that you could see from the bedroom window. Arpita didn’t know what it was called, and she always forgot to ask the gardener. From a distance, its complete shadow was fell on the bedroom. A few metres away from the east window, this tree stood, tall and colossal, like a giant.
Can giants send flowers? Unbelievable! But he did. He sent Arpita flowers, small, white flowers, extraordinarily beautiful. They dropped in through the window, floated in the little open cistern that held water for the plants.
After a few days, Arpita learned his name. A segun, a teak.
Slowly but surely, the more she looked up at him through her window, the more Arpita fell in love with him. The large, round leaves. The majestic body. As if this tree were a symbol of magnitude, masculine in his height, the hot summer sun caught in his dishevelled hair.
A kind of ardour sprouted between Arpita and him. On some afternoons, as she chewed fennel after lunch, she gazed outside and wondered, if the other plants were companions, he was the husband, the King. Sometimes she saw him as the Father. She remembered her own, and the insides of her chest turned to water. A strange joy, sorrow, loneliness. An odd, gnawing pain.
It has been long since her parents have left her. The cancer had chewed her father up on the inside. It was too late before they knew. In tenderness, admiration, love, yearning, Arpita watches the tree. She keeps pictures of him in her phone.
One day, Somnath brought a man from the botanical department who took care of the plants, around the colony. The next day, he came with the news that the tree was dangerous for the house. It was infested with termite. He showed them up close. The infestation starts from the stump, up to the top. The tree showed off a head of leaves at the top, but on the inside, it was completely hollow. This man, Tapan Saikia, had identified the disease from the thin nest-like lines that climbed up the bark of the tree.
Arpita felt an anguish in her head as she heard him.
Somnath grew enthusiastic. ‘Let’s get it chopped today, then!’, he said pointedly, as if he particularly wanted Arpita to hear it. As if he knew, by some strange power, all about Arpita’s partiality, love, affection, towards the tree. As if he envied the tree.
Somnath was agitated. All this during his lunch time. Then, he spoke to Tapan, and before he went, he decided he wouldn’t wait till the next day to write a complaint to the office.
In fact, it was Tapan who suggested it. He said, Sir, you should write to them, or we can’t go on with the sawing. Anyway, it’s prohibited to cut a tree down just like that. Though, your predecessor, Mister Lakhania, had gotten a whole Sal tree chopped down last time. His reasoning was that it blocked the sunlight. Then he got a nice sofa set made with it and took it with him.
Tapan had a little smirk on his face. We can only start working after you give them a written complaint. Otherwise, we can’t even touch this tree.
Somnath left for the office. The tree was six or seven decades old, Arpita had heard Tapan say to Somnath.
She felt as if termites burrowed into her chest. If that ugly old tree falls on our bungalow, it’ll be turned to paste, you know that, right? This house itself is almost thirty or forty years old anyway. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if the tree crumbled down on it? And to think we were sleeping in that room! We are sleeping in the other bedroom, starting tonight.
Arpita’s eyes burned. She went back to the bedroom window after Somnath left. She watched him madly. The enormous leaves. The towering tree. Sky scraping. The colossal majesty! Those who fall under the eclipse of my love, see the face of ruin, thought Arpita. Father died because I loved him. I left him behind when I came with Somnath, and perhaps by that sin, I made it worse. My affection, the embrace of my eyes, my gaze, they are ill-omened, they are evil.
“Why are you so depressed, huh?” Somnath asked her. She could not give him a reply. “I need a pair of shoes. Let’s go to Nike and get it. The M.R. visit went pretty well. We might get a few days of peace. The G.M.’s real happy. We need to get a few things done that will grab their attention. A few contractors are sniffing around.”
As he sat on the bed, he noticed the tree. My god, it’s still here? I got so wrapped up in work, I completely forgot. I’ll go give the botanical department a good shaking down tomorrow. Do you see how those bastards didn’t get any work done? Even after I wrote that letter and everything?
An irritated Somnath shut the windows. The next day, he slept in the other room.
Arpita slowly crumbles. “What’s up with you? What on earth is wrong?” Somnath asks, holding her in his arms. Arpita turns away. She doesn’t want to mishandle her love, lest it put Somnath in danger. She knows, those she holds dear cannot live long. Her love destroys everyone.
After a few dozen calls, Tapan Saikia appeared again. Now with the contractors. He paid a visit to check everything, and then disappeared again for weeks.
Arpita counts the days. Her heart trembles. It won’t be long before the men with the saws show up.
Madam G.M. has organised a fete, like a carnival. They’re all setting up stalls, getting ready to sell whatever they can make. They will buy goods from each other. There will be games for the kids, lottery, and contests. The kids can buy tickets and participate. There will be board games and betting.
Arpita couldn’t take any pleasure from it.
Then, one day, the man came. A petite tribal young man with slanting eyes. He is Naga, she heard. With a rope around his waist, he climbed the tree with ease, in his hand a small, shiny scythe, thin and curved like the moon.
The boy’s cropped hair soon got lost among the leaves. Then the leaves began to fall, one at a time, in rustles followed by thuds. It was like a game. The boy hopped from this branch to that with the quickness of a bird and his hands played with the leaves.
It was as if his hands were magic. In a matter of twenty minutes, the tree became bare. All the leaves on the ground, only the bald tree left behind, its bald head.
Then he began to chop the branches down. His hands worked quickly. Arpita watched as, in his enchanted movements, he cleared the top and reached the thick stump near the bottom.
She couldn’t watch anymore.
The boy came down, and they brought in a huge hack-saw. With two men at the two ends of the saw, its edged sounds rolled into the garden till late evening. The base of the gigantic trunk slowly split in two.
The upper part of the trunk was held in a noose, tied to the two trees on either side of it, so it could be kept in control. Arpita could remember the last time she saw her father. They had bound his legs and his arms to the metal hospital bed. The agony of his fever had made him thrash around.
The colossal majesty tipped towards one side with loud groans. Thrilled cries came from the garden. With them, amazed, startled cries too. Tapan Saikia ran to them and said, “dear god, the state of it! Look, sir, look, madam. The insides are completely eaten. There wasn’t any wood in it at all, completely hollow! Something bad could’ve happened any day!”
Arpita closed the doors and windows, and sobbed.
Arpita began to keep the windows closed from the very next day to stop the high, severe sunlight that flooded her bedroom from the east.
Somnath could be heard talking to Ranjit, a man from the multi-tasking staff at the office. Good thing the sun won’t be blocked anymore. There was such a shadow on that side of the house. There was a lot of damp settling there.
The logs are still lying there, it’s been a few days now. A few months later, Ranjit said, “Sir, before you get another posting, make planks out of these. Get a carpenter to make something for your next posting.”
Arpita now only thinks about the Naga boy. His eyes like arrows, his brisk body.
But she is afraid to think of him for too long, lest it kill him.
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:
The Antonym caught up with Chirayata Chakraborty, here is an excerpt from the conversation :