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The Red Horse – Sourav Hossain

May 30, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta.

One

The instant the elder owner flicked his whip on my back and barked out the command, “Let’s go, Shahzada,”[i] I’d neigh and run like a TomTom.[ii] My hooves bit into the dirt, and it’d take me only one hard gallop to go far away. Meanwhile, the owner sat astride me like a Patanga vine and swayed from side to side. He held tightly on to the reins with both hands lest he topple. But when I became a tad careless, the graze of the sharp crop and stabs of the toes of his shoes would poke into my chest. That hurt like bloody hell! My soul would turn bitter like a dried chili pepper at the insult. I’d gnash my teeth, call him choice names, and curse his fourteen generations up and down. The idiot owner seemed to believe that I was the winged Buraq[iii] and transported angels. Even before the abluting waters of wudu[iv] could drain, I’d fly across seven skies, go beyond the Sidratul-Muntaha,[v] and carry him to meet Khuda,[vi] who sat on the throne of truth. Still, when I ran like an arrow and reached my destination, I felt that all the peace in heaven had descended on me. My heart would fill with the tranquility of the world. My dark and squinty eyes viewed my gangly owner as a prophet then, in addition to being my dearest friend. And when the man stroked my back with fondness, my 56-inch chest expanded in pride to 62 inches. I could snap my fingers at paradise then. I scoffed at Buraq of the angels and thought, ‘If you are the monarch of the skies, I am the emperor of this world.’

It is only by relying on our hooves that empires have changed hands, wars were won, and kings and royals gained fame. Has any motherfucker ever been able to add an inch of land to his kingdom without our cooperation? No matter how much arrogance one displays, we have always been the principal weapon. Only a few years ago, when white people rode on my back to conquer the world, I was no less delighted. As soon as a white man jumps on my back, the surrounding villages begin to quake. My owner told me that one day, a mounted whitey trotted into the expanse of Kalantar fields for inspection. The fields were the property of the local zamindar, Shirish Rai Bahadur. Apparently, he was not paying his taxes on time and fabricating tales of either drought or too much rain as excuses. So, the reddish pale Whiteman, with pallid brows, trotted in on horseback to check the conditions with his own eyes. His horse was not only magnificent but also robust. It was nearly as tall as two-humans standing on top of each other, and its body was as taut as a strung bow. When he whinnied, the sound carried across several arenas. After all, he belonged to a white man! The nurturing he received was quite exceptional! There was no dearth of care for him. Each horse in the stable had at least five servants for their grooming.

Now, I didn’t lack in upkeep either. When I was young, my back was braced as a bowstring. I was as vigorous as three oxen; could fell dogs and foxes with a single kick; the moment they yoked me to some weight, I ran like the TomTom. My owner’s heart was filled with the joy of a conqueror. I was his Buraq for traveling through Mi’raj,[vii] the steady tiller on his boat of livelihood, the wick in the candle of his life, the bread in his daily diet. At that time, he used to cut my boisterous collar-hair in short waves, so that my undulating neck muscles were visible. I looked like a prince with nicely trimmed golden hair. When I ran like the TomTom, the brass bells round my neck rang out – jham… jham…. People raised their eyebrows and remarked, ‘Kalu’s horse looks quite royal, doesn’t he!’

Two

The moment I stuck my nose through the bramble fence, a wooden stick struck my face – boom! Lo and behold, it hit just across the bridge of the nose. Blood spouted in rivulets and dripped into my mouth. The tongue jeered at the salty taste of my blood. It wasn’t my fault, really! I was coming home as was my wont. How could one so quickly get over such a long-practiced routine! It was a habit learned over at least thirty years! Besides, I was born in this house. I have pulled the yoke for Kalu’s grandpa and father – all three generations. The family has been able to establish itself because I had worked so diligently! How could I so easily forget the path to my home? Also, my heart aches for a glimpse of my elder owner Atar’s face. The man’s situation is almost like mine! No matter where I go – this alley and that – I end up returning to this hut. All the shouts of ‘shoo’ and ‘scram’ they fling at me – like I am a dog or fox – don’t really embarrass me. Sometimes they sic pie dogs at me; a few times have pelted my back with stones; but I haven’t woken up to the indignities. Once, they hurled a bamboo pavadi[viii] and tore my earlobe. Even then, I stood like the shameless entity that I am. Truly, I have lost all sense of scorn, shame, humiliation, and dishonor.

If Kalu’s father, Atar, was still a strong man, could he really be this cruel? The man had affection and kindness in his heart. Once when I was going to the city, I collided with a vehicle with engine. My front right leg twisted and was bent badly. Atar sobbed loudly when he saw me. For a few days he forgot to eat or bathe but nursed my broken leg day and night. Nothing was spared for my treatment – from plant-based balm to liquid medicine. The day I was able to stand up on my broken leg, Kalu’s father’s shriveled face beamed with laughter like a child’s. As happiness danced brightly in his eyes, his hips wouldn’t stay motionless. He did sajda[ix] to thank Allah and performed two rakat[x] for a nafl[xi] namaz. Next day, he bought me a bunch of colorful nylon flowers from the Begunbari market. Those made my hair-bun resemble a divinely flowered coif. When the bunch swung near my neck, I turned into an exquisite beauty. People said sarcastically, ‘Day by day, Atar’s horse is turning into a gorgeous queen.’ I smirked because they called a gelding a ‘queen.’

Three

That thug Kalu can never even hope to touch a corner of his father’s stature. He ill-used and exploited me thoroughly, turned me into a hack, and then said, ‘GET OUT.’ Oh, where has my firm body gone! My body, as big as a large buffalo’s, has withered into a fistful of stringy flesh. It’s not even flesh rolling off the bones, but a bit of dried-up flesh hanging onto the bones by its back teeth. I was shocked when I peeked at my reflection in the water of Jasim Haji’s deep pond. What has happened to my body! A small fox could swallow me in one gulp! Kalu’s fat wife would need only one breath to blow me away. The bitch is so strong! She burnt my butt with a hot cooking stick to force me out of the house. I was a burden on her household. Really, was I devouring the rice she was about to eat? Nope! She constantly complained that her waist ached perpetually because she had to pick up my dung. She threw up because of it. The ho forgot that one day, dressed as a bride, she had ridden on MY back to arrive here. Can you imagine, Kalu’s heart didn’t suffer even a tiny bit of pang when he struck my back with a sickle! I may not be able to drag big weights anymore, but I would have carried his son, Nuhu, on my back and given him rides. I could have taken him to the dargah[xii] to show him the ta’zieh[xiii] during Muharram.[xiv] Since the day I couldn’t lug the yoke anymore and crumpled under its weight, couldn’t even stand again, I became the canker in my younger owner’s eye. I became a stranger. When I was strong, had fire in my belly, he extracted every drop of my energy. And now that the passing of time has touched me with its hands, I’ve been discarded as a soiled paper bag. I am sure, Allah will notice this betrayal on the day of Qayamat.[xv]

I feel so tortured that I can’t even lift a leg properly. My body is scarred with wounds. Some of those have turned into bloody sores. Numerous evil flies are buzzing around those open boils. The moment people see me, they start yelling, as though I am their born enemy – as though I have harmed them for generations. There’s no point in looking at my body. People have hit me every which way – with stones, bricks, sticks, tip of a scythe, machete. It’s almost like they enjoy beating me up. The youngsters see it as a fun game. I don’t get any real food. Whatever little scraps I can scrounge from walking on the streets, I can’t eat in peace. People chase me away as a poop maker. What can I say, my poop smells nasty! But what can I do! I don’t make it – it’s created by Allah. And I am old – the stink of old-age is hard to tolerate.

In this land of Allah, I don’t even have a space to poop. I am completely devoid of luck. I am an ill-fated beast! Dear Allah, why didn’t you make me into edible meat? If only I could’ve been worthy of halal,[xvi] I would not have landed in this terrible state. By now, I would’ve been in someone’s tummy. Perhaps Kalu and Kalu’s mouthy wife would’ve gobbled me up with relish.

I looked at the sky and cried loudly. My eyes have filmed over, and my body smells putrid. Rotting flesh has this kind of awful stench. People use abusive words toward me. ‘That bastard Kalu’s horse is a horrible pest,’ they say. But then, how can I not be a pest? I haven’t bathed for a long time. I can’t even dip into a pond – people chase me out. Also, I am a little afraid. What if I’m unable to climb up on the shore again? If I slip, my life will end right then and there.

When Kalu’s father, Atar, poured bucket after bucket of water on me; rubbed the hair on my back with soap; dried me off in the sun; and when my body shone like a ripe currant, he petted me gently and called me his ‘prince!’

At times I think I would be better off dead – I can’t endure this hellish life anymore. But I seem not to have a true desire to die. I have come to love this everyday world of ours. I don’t want to leave these fields, rivers, and people – never to see them again. Maybe people spit on me now, but once I received a lot of adoration. Kalu’s father tended to me more than he cared for his own son. Every market day, he bought a sack full of oats for me because I didn’t like to eat husk. Even when the price went up, he never returned with an empty bag. On a good day, he gave me soaked raw peanuts. Also, Atar acknowledged my work. “I must first take care of the one who is contributing to the running of the household. Allah is sending us our daily bread via this horse.”

I labored on my lame leg on the other side of the fence. From starvation and lack of nutrition, my desiccated skin-and-bones body weighed only a few ounces. So, my hooves did not make the rattle that it did in younger days. Like a newborn calf, I pushed on my four lanky legs and hid behind the Bharul tree in Kalu’s backyard. The vermillion hued dying sun had already touched the top branches of the Bharul tree and taken refuge in Jasim Haji’s bamboo grove. When the sun fades further, the rays would jump into Matin’s rice paddy and hide there. Dusk is good. Let it be dark. I can hide better. I searched the Pituli bush for the pet bitch of the Abdullah family. That whore would bark her head off and alert the whole neighborhood if she sees me. Her life is also nearing the end. Soon she will enter the third phase of her life and slump into a rag. Then, if she can’t chase away foxes anymore, that rascal Abdullah will hit her backside with a stick and throw her out.

I rested on my tail and looked to see if any humans were around. I can’t lean on my tail much. The sore from the machete strike has spread up to my anus. What have I done to these bastards that as soon as they me, they lift their clothes high and run after me?

My heart trembles for a little glimpse of the man. This man, Atar, is my father and mother. He had fed and trained me and had made me into a working animal. He had affectionately named me ‘Shahzada.’ Many people had said caustically, ‘Atar has two sons – Kalu and the red horse.’ I have poured out so much sweat for this family! I had committed fully to their welfare and have worked day and night for them. At the time, Atar’s strength matched that of two men, and I was as strong as one and a half buffalos. I could easily drag the cart piled sky high with paddy or hemp. Through rain and mud, I worked without stopping and put my nose into the grind. A few times when I had become a bit drowsy, my master, Atar, touched his short crop to the wheel and raised a noise – khrrr… khrrr…. Immediately I would gain the strength of another buffalo and run with the laden cart – TomTom. My master, Atar, would then begin to sing a song of pleasure.

The man is not well. Disease has touched his body with its lethal paw. In addition, he gets an earful from his son and daughter-in-law every day. They treat their father as though he is a dog or a rabid fox. The man is alive because he just can’t die – like me. My failing heart flutters in pain when I see this widower’s state. Growing old has taken away all power and vigor from my body and it has stripped this man of his ability to work. And what a capacity for work he once possessed! He used to pick up bales and bales of stuff on his shoulders. He could stash huge bundles of hemp in the cart in one jerk. I’ve never heard even a tiny fart escape him as he picked up heavy loads. Everyone said that Atar’s shoulders were made of stone. When I heard that, I neighed in appreciative smugness. The man understood my jubilance and gently caressed my tail with fondness. That made me dance in glee and run like the TomTom. The shoes in my hooves used to make louder noise then. The brass bells round my neck rang brasher, the flowers on my head danced like red Flamboyance. Then, the angels in heaven burned in envy of me.

I hid behind the bushes in the backyard and stood quietly. Fireflies were gathering in the bamboo grove and light and shadows were weaving their magic in the yard. A thin branch of the Pituli tree was stuck in my body. No matter how much I swatted it with my tail and rubbed my body, I couldn’t get rid of it. I didn’t make too much fuss lest someone spied me. So, I gazed through the fence with my hazy eyes. I heard a cough emanate from the room with the thatched roof. Ah, the elder owner was home then! I opened my unfocused eyes wide and saw, Atar, my owner, sitting with his bony legs folded up like a V and coughing away. He had dropped his doddering head between his legs. As I had become a five-legged animal with age, my old master had turned into a three-legged human. The guy’s eyes had sunk deep into their cavities like pips. He was panting hard as though his life was in his throat, as though Azrael[xvii] would snap him up at any moment. I could not stand this man’s suffering anymore. I stuck my head through the fence. A loud clatter spread. The noise penetrated Atar’s ears. He raised his cloudy eyes and stretched his brows when he saw me. Before I could do anything, he took a sidelong glance toward the next room and continued hacking. The more I tried to enter through the fence, the more he coughed. I suddenly realized that he was signaling me to run away. As I pulled my head out of the hole in the fence and hid behind a bush, I heard the younger owner, Kalu’s harridan wife squawk, “Wish this geezer would vacate my house like the nag.”

__

[i] Shahzada literally signifies the son of a shah or emperor.
[ii] TomTom is a small one horse driven cart.
[iii] In Islamic legend, Buraq is a magical horse with a human face, which transports prophets and angels.
[iv] Wudu is the Islamic practice of cleansing parts of the body before prayers can be offered to Allah.
[v] Sidratul-Muntaha is a special tree that marks the border of the seventh heaven. No one can go beyond this point.
[vi] Khuda is another way of addressing Allah.
[vii] Mi’raj is the ascension of Prophet Muhammad to the heavens.
[viii] Pavadi or pavdi is a short, thick bamboo staff that is often used in rural Bengal to hurl with the intention of injuring a person or animal. The use of pavadi became popular with the ‘thuggee’s of Bengal, These bandits would throw the sticks to incapacitate victims from afar.
[ix] Sajda is low prostration to Allah while facing Mecca.
[x] Rakat is the series of recommended physical movements performed during the namaz prayers.
[xi] Nafl means more than required. Here it means, in addition to the five required namaz.
[xii] Dargah is the shrine of Islamic Sufi saints.
[xiii] Ta’zieh means religious passion plays enacted during Muharram.
[xiv] Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. It is one of the four holy months in Islam. Muslims celebrate it with prayers and remembrance.
[xv] Qayamat is the Day of Judgment.
[xvi] Halal is meat that is ‘permissible’ to eat by Islamic law.
[xvii] Azrael is the angel of death who separates body from soul.

 

Sourav Hossain (b 1985) is from Murshidabad, West Bengal. His stories in Bengali have been published in many periodicals and part of anthologies. He has three short story collections , ‘Comrade o anyanya galpo’ ( Abhijan Publishers), ‘Jaminer Aras’( Srishti Sukh), ‘Sourav Hossainer Galpo’ ( Pashimbanga Bangla Academy) to his name.  His novels have been published in Arombho, Nandan and Srishtir Ekush Shatak magazines. He also moderates literary programs for Akashbani Murshidabad.

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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