Translated from the Bengali by Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat
Shortlisted for the Tagore Award for translated fiction from Bengali
Whenever he stood in front of a school or watched a trail of school-going boys, he was reminded of his father’s identity.
“The Christians realized the importance of a father’s identity to the bone,” said the school headmaster. He laughed sarcastically before them and catechized: “A father’s identity is obligatory, and that is why the disciples of Jesus mandated that only God should be his birth giver. God is the creator of millions of creatures; but He is Father to none but only Jesus, so He can’t be Dulal’s father. Somebody else must be Dulal’s father of course! ather’s name is indispensable for your son’s school admission. Beyond everything, a father’s name is essential for every piece of business in this world.”
However, later in life Dulal found out that a father’s name is not required for anything, but only for school admission. He did not need a father’s name anywhere. Despite not knowing his father’s identity, he thrived, and was hale and hearty—working at Lokman’s shop.
So, he had never had admission in a school.
His mother’s face had turned gloomy for some unknown reason when the headmaster lectured her about the importance of a father’s identity; and so, she dragged him home immediately that day.
In fact, Dulal was not even that eager to go to school. It was his mother who desperately wished he went to school and grew up to be his own man.
Therefore, he never went to school. However, it was since then that his wish to know his father’s identity grew deep-rooted within him. He was not able to ask his mother about this because the anger which he saw flare up on her face on that day made him realize, even at that tender age, that it was impossible to communicate with her on this matter. So, he asked nana, his grandfather, Fakir Mia, instead—if he had known his name.
Nana did not know him either. How would he? He was not even his mother’s biological father. Fakir nana did not even know her before independence. The country was then newly independent, grieving and suffering the wreckage of the war. Everyone’s near and dear ones were all strewn apart. The torture of the Pakistani soldiers was still raw on people’s bodies, their heart still festering with the cut inflicted by the khansenas–the Pakistani army and the razakars, — the local traitors. Millions of mothers lamented all night long for the sons who had not returned from the war. Brothers bemoaned the loss of their sisters, beating their chests in sorrow. Every time spades went into the soil to sow seeds, half-rotten human flesh, bones, and innards were unearthed. Those who returned home from the war found no home but only hands full of ashes everywhere. It was on one such evening that Fakir Ali returned home from begging and found a deranged woman leaning on the bamboo columns of his house. She did not respond to his questions but kept mumbling to herself. She would burst into tears this moment and let out an uncanny cackle the next one. She refused to eat, and if offered some rice, she would peck at a few morsels and scatter the rest. Despite everything, her body smelled of motherhood. The war made everyone tender. Fakir Ali was no exception. Her blooming maternity could not be ignored, and it overwhelmed him evermore. So, he lent her a hand and provided refuge in his place. He hunted the village for a midwife, arranged honey and a clay pot of slow fire. The three of them did not sleep at all that night.
“It was towards the morning that you were born and cried out loud the moment the umbilical cord was cut.”
It was a miracle that the moment the baby was laid down next to his mother to breastfeed, she had been cured of her insanity. It appeared she was exorcised from a spell.
“We’ve been together since then, you and I, and our mother. I’ve never asked her if your father was dead or alive. Or even what his name was. I never asked her anything. You shouldn’t ask her either. Coz your mother doesn’t want to answer.”
Even though Dulal never asked his mother, the people in the village have started interrogating about his father. They had not done it previously. So far, Dulal and his family were an integral part of the common people, growing like some weeds on the fringe of a village path, without anyone’s knowledge. It was the school headmaster who first put out the question before everyone. He was a typical primary school teacher, slavish towards the powerful and domineering on the helpless; serious and reserved on the surface, but a great schemer of parochial politics, and thoroughly loose-lipped. Although he did not have the guts or courage to openly indulge in filthiness, he was eager to expose other people’s debauchery. The school master’s word of mouth reached all the villagers—from the office clerk to his wife, and from her through the women folk known to her to the whole locality. Everyone’s question was the same: “So, who is the father of this child then?” Now everyone noticed the color of his eyes. They were light-colored, like a cat! His complexion was not dark or tan either, but unusually fair, “pale like a dog’s spew.” Based on the time of his mother’s appearance in this village and Dulal’s birth, the people investigated and happily concluded: “That means, Dulal must be the son of the Khans! Khan refers to the khansenas, in other words, the Pakistani soldiers, who came to usurp us in ’71!”
One day there was a dead silence looming in the village. Some military had assassinated the Father of the Nation. Yes, the military! They were very much like the khansenas! Since the villagers had only known the khansenas, they did not have any idea about the Bengali military. “Since the military killed the Sheikh family, the country is Pakistan again!” cried the villagers. Some snarled: “Long live, Pakistan,” as if some midnight jackal had crawled out of its den!
The next morning, Dulal’s mother was found hanging from an ancient mango tree in the village, with her sari around her neck.
How many people are displaced by floods? There are far too many in this country who have been uprooted without any flood or river erosion.
And so had Dulal!
Fakir Ali also passed away two years after his mother died.
Dulal hardly had anything to do for their burial. He possessed neither the ability nor the intelligence to carry out funerary rites on his own. The villagers volunteered, raised charity, and completed the burial. They even organized a feast for the destitute. Chairman Kalam led all the events. No one had cared about their welfare when they were alive; but now there were so many people around, ready to lay them to rest after death. Predominantly, the Chairman took the lead everywhere. Who knew why!
The reason became clear a few days later.
It was discovered that the land on which Fakir Ali’s hut stood belonged to the Chairman. He had allowed Fakir Ali to live on his land, but now Fakir Ali was dead. The Chairman could not just give the house away to a boy who did not have a father. No one wanted to see the documents, even though it seemed slightly suspicious. There was no one to teach Dulal to protest, nor to request anything. All that the seven-year-old boy could do when he had been driven out of his house was to gape at the Chairman speechlessly. He only managed to say: “But where will I live now?”
“Allah’s abode is open to all. Even if all the doors of this world are closed, His door will always remain open for you; and what about food? He who gives hunger will satiate it.” The imam hujur counseled very affectionately in his Noakhali dialect. He took Dulal in his arms and carried him to the village mosque. He fed him rice and let him sleep where he taught. Dulal did not mourn his mother’s or Fakir Ali’s death for long. Neither did he grieve for his homelessness, though it was incomprehensible for him. What more did he need, after some food and a little space to sleep? He just wanted to doze off. Then deep in his sleep, he was raped that night, and in the very abode of Allah.
After that, Dulal had never gone back to the house of Allah. He did not disclose this incident to anyone. He had the habit of forgetting everything very fast. However, this incident took a long time for him to forget. An excruciating ulcer festered his cracked anus. He could not help shedding burning tears during defecation. He had to totter like a crane with his legs bent apart for many days.
Ever since then, Dulal has been working at Lokman’s shop.
He spent many years working here. From a seven and a half-year-old child, he had grown up to be a twenty-two-year-old young man, although a very delicate one. He no longer bore that fair complexion. His skin bronzed up from the dirt, sweat, and heat of the fire. However, his cat-like eyes remained unchanged. The white areas of his eyes turned yellowish due to jaundice and clouded the color of his pupil.
Dulal had nothing to worry about. He worked all day at Lokman’s shop—woke up early in the morning, lit the stove, served tea, luchi, and singara to the customers; and did the dirty dishes as well. He had three meals a day at the shop and slept in the same place. Lokman did not pay him any wage for his labor; and he never asked for it either. He bought him lungi-gamchha, warm clothes, khaddar-shawl from the second-hand clothes shop instead. In other words, Dulal worked quietly, and in exchange, Lokman was his beneficiary, according to his means.
This was how a person named Dulal continued to keep his body and soul together. He had no ambition, no wish, or any youthful desire. Neither had he any happy memories of his childhood or any dreams for the future. He had nothing to lose or suffer from disillusionment!
Nevertheless, he feared just one thing—Chairman Kalam!
No one knew why Kalam never stopped following him.
The Chairman drove him out of his grandfather’s house, and yet he did not complain to anyone. Complaining was not in his nature. He knew that he had no one to confide in his plea, anger, or objection. He wanted to continue living peacefully the way he had been. No matter what, the Chairman kept storming into his almost meaningless life on one occasion after another.
After he had been driven away from his home, he was summoned by the Chairman for the first time a few years later. Mojammel, his flatterer, alias Moja Member, came to Lokman’s shop to call Dulal one day. Lokman asked him why he was sent for, but Moja Member did not reveal the reason. However, he mistakenly blurted out the Chairman’s motive while he was being treated to tea and tidbits at his shop.
Some aid was sent from abroad for the Biharis, from China or Geneva, he could not recall. The Biharis will be given a ration card with which they can get some monthly allowance, food grains, and clothes. Dulal was called to get a ration card in his name.
But Dulal was not a Bihari!
Moja Member smiled nastily, “It’s the same thing! He might not be a Bihari, but he is the son of a khansena; and the son of a khansena or a Bihari means the same.”
Dulal went to the office of the Chairman. He left his fingerprint as a substitute signature on the paper and returned home; but he never received the card.
People said the card was with the Chairman and the ration went to his house, and why not! The foreign aid would go to those who owned the ration card, of course!
Dulal was not at all bothered by it; he was just terrified by the Chairman and tried to avoid him by all means. He abided by all his orders without questioning every time he was summoned. He was never concerned about whether he would get the card or not. In any case, he had Lokman’s shop as his sole provider.
A few years later, he was called again by the Chairman. At that time, “a son of this village” happened to become “the king of the country.” The ruler of the nation was giving away pieces of land to the landless. He was not only giving away land but also helping the people to build their houses with government funds. “Long live the king!”
There was a long queue of landless people in front of the house of the Chairman. Everyone wanted to have a piece of land. Moja Member pushed through the crowd and led him right into the Chairman’s room. The Chairman was accompanied by two foreigners next to him who bore reassuring smiles on their faces. The Chairman pointed at Dulal and told the foreigners: “He is the number one landless person in the village. He doesn’t have any relatives and lives in the bazaar. If we do not investigate this sort of situation, the future of our young men will be destroyed. Only youth power is the future of the country!”
“Indeed,” nodded the foreigners!
“Give us your fingertip imprint!”
Moja Member showed him an illustrated document. The tabled paper that shone brightly was called a map. He pinpointed a box and showed his piece of land; it was ten by twelve yards: “So, what is there to worry about?! Now you can go get married and settle down!”
Everyone in the room roared out in laughter.
Dulal was supposed to feel embarrassed by this, but he shuddered.
The Chairman looked like a shark when he laughed. He was no longer young, his teeth had fallen out, and his cheek had shrunk to his gums. He was diabetic, his posture bent, and he resembled a hoary hyena when he laughed. Whenever the Chairman laughed, it meant he was going to be fated for something ill again.
Dulal returned after signing the document. Now he is the owner of a single house. Lokman asked him, “So, what did the Chairman say to you?”
“He gave me a house.”
“A house, to you?”
“Yes, of course!”
He scratched his head, trying to remember the spot Moja had Member showed him on the map. Lokman roared with laughter, “A house on paper, a paper-house?!”
Dulal never saw that paper-house again!
It was heard that houses were being built in the “cluster villages,” but all of them were owned by the Chairman. The Chairman’s people lived at the corner. One day, Lokman asked Moja Member about Dulal’s house. “We tried so hard to give him a house, but it has been declined,” he gravely answered. “Don’t you see, he does not even know the name of his father? How can the government allot a plot for him?”
Lokman sighed heavily.
However, Dulal was the least bothered about this incident. The Chairman summoned him, and he listened. He needed his signature, and he signed. Dulal felt he was more than blessed that the Chairman did not chew him up raw. What will he do with a house, anyway? Besides, Lokman did not drive him away from his place. He could spend the night simply on a coarse palm-leaf mat laid out on the floor of the shop. In winter, all he needed was some grass or straw under his back; and with this much he slept with a lot of content.
Even that bit of peaceful sleep was interrupted one day.
Lokman had locked up the shop and gone home. Dulal was preparing to sleep, spreading out the coarse palm-leaf mat on the floor—only waiting for sleep to descend on his eyelids. Suddenly there was a big push on the shutters of the shop. It was an impatient jostle. Someone called out at him in low voice: “Hey, Dulal, son of a Khan!”
Dulal opened his eyes wide in the darkness and retorted: “Who’s that?”
“Your father, here! Open the shutters, you bastard!”
The moment he opened the cover, three men barged in. They were all known to him—the Chairman’s son and his companions. The Chairman’s son scrutinized the shop in the faint light and nodded like an expert, approving the place. The other two had also informed him about it earlier. He sat on the mat and lit a cigarette. Dulal stood in the corner, and they ignored his presence. One of them served some local liquor, and the other set up a small dinner—ghugni, bread, and meat, and left. The Chairman’s son finished drinking and threatened Dulal, “You better keep your mouth shut and never speak a word about what you saw, understood?”
Dulal did not respond.
The Chairman’s son yelled at him again: “Did you hear what I said?”
“OK, I will not tell anyone!”
He could suddenly smell a puff of toiletries in the stuffy air of the shop. It was cheap but feminine. Dulal was shocked; he heard a woman’s whisper. The woman’s voice complained about being thrust into a grave-like dark place. A voice replied that it was just the right place for their business. The Chairman’s son leaned against the woman. He could not see the faces, but they all seemed familiar. However, he could not recall them, and did not even try.
He heard the Chairman’s son kissing the woman noisily. His friends closed the shutter of the shop and went out. The woman suddenly spotted Dulal in the dark, standing like a pillar in one corner, and expressed her resentment. The Chairman’s son rebuked him harshly, “What are you watching, bastard? Get out, go stand outside!”
The woman was perhaps a little embarrassed. She complained coyly that it was not a good idea to have an unknown person witness this; it was embarrassing and risky too!
As he silently went out lifting the shutter, he heard the chairman’s son saying, “Dang it! Is he even a human being! That son of a Khan doesn’t understand these matters. He doesn’t have any brain, neither this; all he has is a stomach to fill up.”
Then one day, a handful of new people brought some warmth of fresh air in the village. They wore a black sleeveless vest over their white panjabi. This outfit was unofficially forbidden in the village before. About fifty to sixty young men and senior citizens brought out a procession. Moja Member and his followers made faces at them. The elderly people who were sipping tea at Lokman’s shop, whispered amongst themselves. Their eyes twinkled restlessly. Some of them uttered: “The Mujib coat has returned. Sheikh Mujib is back again!” Lokman eagerly watched them.
One day in the middle of the bazaar a stage was built with a canopy on top. A thundering sonorous voice was being played on the microphone. Even Dulal, who was always indifferent to everything going around him, became unsettled hearing that voice. A sudden change came deep within him. An unknown feeling quavered musically through his veins. Dulal could not identify what it was, and the restlessness increased inexorably within him.
So many posters were pasted on the walls. A group of young men with sharp jawlines hung posters on Lokman’s shop as well. The posters were large and had a full-size majestic figure holding an index figure high, towards infinity! He looked like someone very close to Dulal. He frequently watched the tall figure in the poster while working. Lokman said: “That is Sheikh Mujib. The progeny of the Sheikh family! Ah, how tragic is it; how could they have killed someone like him!”
Suddenly Dulal felt the vigor of his adolescence—they had killed the offspring of the Sheikh! The following day, his mother too had killed herself!
On the other mic, there was the chairman’s blaring announcement. The Family Planning Day was being observed everywhere. The country was swarming with too many people. So, they must stop people from giving too many births. Dulal paid no heed to this announcement because he did not have to. He had always tried to remain a hundred yards away from the clutches of the Chairman.
However, Moja Member came to call him again one day.
The Chairman’s face looked grave, and his companions were quiet as well. Dulal stood before them, and as usual did not speak. Particularly when he came near the Chairman, his hands and feet turned numb.
The Chairman hit the table hard with his fist. Everyone in the room was startled by the loud bang, and the table shook a lot too. His voice sounded hoarse in anger: “Are you idiots? You are so many in number, yet I have got no one for ligation or vasectomy in my camp! Six days have already passed. There hasn’t been any operation. How will I face Montiri bhai, the Minister? He will put my Chairmanship to an end. Go! Find someone immediately! If you can’t find anyone, I will castrate you all!
“I found someone,” said Moja Member in a trembling voice and pointed at Dulal.
There was severe pain in the corner of his testicles. Dulal laid flat on his back on the coarse palm-leaf mat. Next to him was a new lungi and two hundred-taka notes, folded into the smallest piece, prod between his fingers. Every time he moved; the incision stung unbearably. His heart was beating fast. He wondered what he had lost this time. Laying in the dark, amid the agonizing pain of the wounded testicles, Dulal realized how all his life he had only been losing, one thing after another. Darkness deepened. Dulal was able to think clearer even with the pain. Why was he continuously being defeated, and ending up in the loser’s party? Dulal tried searching for a solution. An answer suddenly flashed before him, something he had never grasped before: “I don’t have a father, that’s why!”
Suddenly, his heart ached to see the unknown father whom he had never seen. His resentments stuck to his throat like phlegm, a lump of sorrow accumulated between his chest and throat like cough: “I can’t bear any longer, father!”
That moment, someone affectionately touched his forehead. He flinched, and it brought goosebumps all over his body. The whole place became illuminated by some celestial light. Dulal could feel someone lifting his feverish head towards him. In the dimness of his eye, he found himself laid on the lap of a gigantic leonine figure. He had come down to him from the poster. Dulal hid his face in his warm embrace and howled loudly: “They’re all tearing me apart, gulping me in chunks. I don’t have a father! I don’t have a father, that’s why!”
“Who said you don’t have a father? Here I am,” tenderness gushed forth from his voice, and his fingers felt gentler as he stroked Dulal’s hair.
“Are you the one who gave birth to me? My father?” Dulal’s soul glistened like the morning sunshine.
“Yes, my dear!”
“Then where have you been all this time? I have been in so much distress!”
“Dulal, I have many children, billions of them. I must go to them all. They are also in misery.”
Dulal, who could not usually understand the meaning of what others said, or comprehend the inherent meaning of sentences, understood him so well then. He asked anxiously: “So, will you leave me alone again?”
“No, Dulal. I will not leave you anymore. This time I will carry you with me in my bosom.”
Dulal wanted to ask how one person’s embrace could be everyone’s place of solace, but he did not.
It was like he resided in the hearts of all the people and could read their minds. He smiled compassionately: “Fathers always have a place for their children. Dulal, look, look at my bosom!”
Dulal examined him carefully—his breast was smeared with blood.