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The Shawl – Ansar Uddin

Jun 25, 2021 | Fiction | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Every so often, in the natural world, things that defy comparison, happen.  Say, the severe drought that came few years ago, according to the government estimates, was one of its kind in fifty years. The heavy rainfall of the year two thousand, beat a hundred-year record. And explaining what kind of a flood this type of a monsoon could unleash, would be but an act of great idiocy. Just two years following that, there was the winter. Simply unprecedented. I asked everyone—starting from the brawny joes to the decrepit gizzards of our village if they had ever seen such a winter. They all nodded. I also asked the oldest human in the village— Kalipada’s mother. Bilasburi.  She was a hundred years, give or take. Her body, crushed under winters, summers and rain.  She stood guarding her bones at one squalid corner of their household. There were no teeth, the head, since all the hairs had fallen out, resembled a wood apple.  I could not get my voice to reach her for she had no auditory ability left.  Her eyesight, frail, the contour of that face was exactly like that of a frog. “Throw me a damn quilt or throw me to a pyre!”—she retorted to the family, again and again.

Her pleading, that day, rendered me aghast. I realized how unbearable the severity of winter could be to force one to consider a pyre as an alternative to a blanket. In terms of my experience so far, last winter was intolerable. Yes, last winter. Also, Bilasiburi did indeed climb the pyre that winter.

Our house was at the very north end of the village. After it, there were no more houses. Only rice paddies stretched till it disappeared into the waters of the lake of Kalahari. All the houses were in the south of the village. People over there, relaxed on the gentle southern breeze in summer. We have never had that luck. We only got singed in the stifling heat of their left-over breath, thinking it was the sweet southern air. Of course, matters were completely different in winter. From north to the south. As the house on the north, we were the first to feel the touch of winter. The organizers of ‘Language and Culture’ in Khajuri village may have sensed that last winter could be so severe. They honored me as a rural storyteller with a shawl. At that time, of course, it was not so cold. Barely the month of Kartik. In the mornings I saw dewdrops gathered to the blades of grass.  They lost their grasp as the sun shone.

That’s how one day passed into another.  Watching the frolics of millions of dew drops. There has been four in our family.  I haven’t yet been able to deal with the losses caused by the flood of the year 2000. Those old rags and quilts looked as if clawed and massacred by the foxes and dogs. The two boys leave the bed in the morning with fleece all over their heads. The house is a fragile fence structure somehow hold up over the ruins of our flood-spoiled mud-hut with old tile shade. The freezing north wind groans and rubs against the fence. Slipping the needle-cracks on the fence that cold breathes inside the house through the night. This further sharpens the chill. The quilts, rags and pillows get so cold that it feels as if someone had poured water on them. Dolabir, my elder one is prone to cough.  When in the fit of coughing, the poor thing cannot utter a word. “Get his blood tested”, said the doctor from the city. We never got to it since the cough had subsided. The kind of penury that this family runs with, it is a far cry to get blood tests done in search of deeper ailments.  I used that money to get a couple of cheap sweaters for my two sons from the weekly market at Battala. Those, the sheer effervescence of them bedazzled our room like fire.  What could I possibly have done if the two brothers had kept their new sweaters on, all day long and soiled them? “What did you get for all that money? Ah!” Sushila cried out in angst from the well as she sat to do the laundry.

I said, “I did not wear them. Ask those who did.”

“Ah, what are you talking about? Seems like I am witnessing the battle of Karbala by the River Foraat!”

Battle of Karbala, Euphrates River! That’s the history of the Middle Ages. The bloodsoaked skirmish of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Hazrat Muhammad, with Aejid, the son of Moariya, the ruler of Damascus. That is the war at the heart of Muharram. I have read a complete  and elaborate  elucidation of it in Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s ‘Bishaad Sindhu'( Sea of Sorrows). Honestly, I was shocked. As if it wasn’t with the red dye but the entire site was flooded with blood. I grabbed Sushila’s hand and stopped her from washing more. Didn’t knew why, it felt like I’d sacrificed the two boys that winter morning.

As a child, warming ourselves around a fire in winter was like a daily festival.  At every village household, fire-pits were made.  In those days, people lived in even worse privation. Most could not manage a decent gunjee for themselves, let alone a shawl. There used to be an orchard of mango-jackfruit-bamboo in front of our house. When, during the day, we shivered in cold, those trees, they would shed the dry foliage generously thinking of our predicament. We, the children would gather those to set them on fire. Everyone in the house, including us, the siblings and parents, would sit forming a circle around it. As the fire burnt dimmer and down to death, the closer we got to each other. Then, all the heads would become one in front of a coil of dead fire. Engrossed in this posture, we would finally wake up one by one, the secret of life learned from the last flicker of flame.

Now, of course, times have changed.  Many shawls, sweaters, jackets, these comfortable winter clothes are found settled snugly on many. It is my misfortune that I couldn’t afford much winter clothes for the family. I have repeatedly commanded the boys: “Dolabir, Mahabir, don’t you get up so early. You’re going to catch a cold.”
Obeying my orders every day, their spines hurt, they sat up in the bed after nagging for a long time. They had those red sweaters from last year on. No longer red, but a disgusting pale of all colors, after a year of washing. They trembled frequently bitten by the chill.  Who knows if the hairs on their bare hands and feet were trying to push the frosty wind away, or, if they themselves wanted to escape! I looked outside pretending not to notice their helplessness. The vacant yard lay laden in mist. On one side were piled, the jute sticks, our fuel supply for the year. I wanted a matchstick to set those afire.  But then I got scared. With our house, located at the north end of the village, the moment a fire is set, smoke will leap and its black and white spread will fly along the chilly draft to the southern neighborhoods and beyond, brushing past the underbelly of that winder sky in distance.  Everyone will know, the destitute from the northern neighborhood has started a fire for he has not enough clothes for winter. What a scandal, what shame! I looked up at the sky, searching for traces of other smokes. If I could find a few, I would hide myself among them and set a fire in the yard.  A delicate fog diffused all around now. As soon as day brightened a little, soft morning sunshine will come to our yard rolling. “you could put on that shawl of “Language and Culture”, you know.” Suggested Susheela.

I had a white vest on, a half-sleeved shirt over it. I too, was shivering from the cold. I said, “they gave it as a memento. Would it be okay to wear it?”

“Why not. People should see, you were rewarded a shawl for writing.

As per her dictate, I took the shawl out of the box and wrapped it. It felt warm right away. “Why the hell are you two sitting like dud woods? Can’t you study?” They looked at me, scared and opened their books.  Dolabir parroted ‘India’s summer climate’. Mahabir was memorizing a piece on ‘A summer afternoon’. The air suddenly seemed to have changed inside the room. I turned to a half-assed work. Honestly, I find it hard to write in the cold. the page got scarred at the stokes of pen, unstable at the cold. Helpless, finally I grabbed wrist of my right hand with my left and tried to gain some control. Then, of course, my writing moved forward. The warmth of the shawl permeated the metallic pen, from there, the pages. Suddenly a slice of beaming resplendence surged into the room. I looked outside. The sun had risen, touching even the wind blowing from the distant lake of Kamalikhali.  I took the shawl off and gave it to Dolabir. “ah! feeling for the boy, I see!” Sushila rattled.

– “Yes, he has that tendency for cold, no?”

“Of course, you will give it to him now that the sun has risen. You can’t stand it yourself anymore.”

Sushila’s last words pierced like a thorn. It is true that after putting it on, I could not feel the cold of others.  Ah ! This one shawl! Could it be more annoying! Why did they even give it to me? They should have given something else. Something else, what else could they possibly give? How would they know, this hapless house did not even have a single sheet? Sushila seemed to protest my thoughts. I hadn’t let anyone else realize that I didn’t have a shawl. When I went out, I felt the urge to return home before sunset.  A drive similar to that of birds, as they return to their nests. Dolabir, Mahabir and even Sushila was startled as I entered the house that evening. What’s the matter?  In many parts of Bihar, across several parts of northern India wind chills are lashing. Two hundred people have died so far, they said on the TV. The two boys looked at me, their eyes wide.  Anxiety and fear clawed their way out of them. ” Remember, the density of water is the highest at a temperature of four degrees Celsius. It’s six here now. Do you know the name of the coldest place on earth? Probably it was my random babbles that spoiled Sushila’s mood. “Spare ‘em.  Save your tales of winter of the world from the ones you get those ratty rags for.” I could say a lot of things in protest. However, a silence prevailed in the room. The power of silence humiliated me. What could I possibly have done if colors ran from sweaters, barely a year old? I bickered within and looked up at Sushila. Crumpled in a threadbare blouse and sari. But I felt no affection for her at that moment. Woman who spoke on the face of her man deserved to be punished. Like that.  I could clearly see in the nonchalant un-warm light of the lantern, the faces of Mahabir and Dolabir. The surrounding schools will be shut indefinitely from tomorrow. This time the cold wind of Siberia has crossed North India and invaded West Bengal.

At night, I felt the glare of that cold. Mist shattered and gushed down along the leaves of the trees and bushes outside. It was as if the flying wind that touched Siberian ice now came to slash our bodies with a blade. Every trembling muscle wanted to fall off the bones. Realizing this, we, the four terrified animals tried to curl and burrow deeper inside our own bodies. We wanted to get lost. But in summer, it got so hot that we wished to take our skins off, if possible.  How strange was the diversity of nature!

In winter, some morning sunshine spilled to our yard as if by mistake. After that, as the day progressed, little by little, the sun disappeared rubbing itself against the southern sky. Some days, I want to grab that damned sunshine by its ear and just weed it out of the yard. I only know the million plights of having your home at the north of the village. For the most part of the day, only shadows lie across the tiny backyard. Dolabir’s nose is sniffling again. Corners of Mahabir’s mouth have started to crack.  He cannot swallow a dollop of rice with ease. “Oh, why aren’t you putting on that shawl of yours these days?” Asked Sushila.

“How can I? One shawl, we are four.”

“Still, one life would be saved.”

Despite her opinion, I just couldn’t be so heartless. I noticed the wistful eyes of Mahabir and Dolabi when I wrapped up in the shawl. At that very moment, a terrible ache wrung at my chest. I wrapped the sheet around the elder one Dolabir. He breathed into its scent, taking in the warmth. Gratitude glinted off both his eyes. After wearing it for a while, he also felt uncomfortable. His younger brother Mahabir quivered, his gums chattering frequently. Dolabir handed it over to Mahabir.  Mahabir paced the house, the yard, to test the power of the shawl. Sushila stroked the edges of it and asked, “Warm, is it?”

Mahabir’s extended the shawl to his mother, reluctantly.

The whole day, the shawl kept changing hands in this way one by one. I watched and trembled in the Siberian frosty wind. Sushila put it on only briefly before handing it over to me, “Take it”.

“No, no Keep it on.”

“I’m a woman, it doesn’t even fit me!” She threw it at me.  Soaking in the warmth of not one but four humans, the sheet seemed to have become surprisingly hot. I said, “I’m not feeling that cold today. Dolabir, why don’t you take it?”

Dolabir, blowing on his chest, even in this cold, tried to pretend with a lot of body movement, like all of it was so very normal that wrapping the shawl will only add to his discomfort.  It will be too warm.

From Dolabir to Mahabir, between Sushila and me, a game of throwing the shawl started. To each of us the shawl seemed to be unnecessary, a thing utterly useless. Insulted by this game of exchange, the disgraced shawl lay in the yard. Neither Mahabir, Dolabir nor Sushila felt the urge to pick it up. Finally, helpless, I shook the dust off it and hung it on the wire in the yard. Waking up in the morning, I saw mists of last night dripping like a river of tears, down the edge of that ashamed shawl.

Translator's Note

Written in a manner, deceivingly simple, the strength of this short-story lies in its unannounced economy at every level of its craftsmanship. The voice is kept at an even down-to-earth base so you connect with the narrator effortlessly as it moves you to a place effervescent and taut with utter helplessness and beauty.

Translating the piece was a journey to the indoors—discovering the subtle maneuvers of language, shaping of metaphors and imagery, blending of myth and memories—elements that you might just not notice because how quietly they are positioned in just the right places—all tools playing in a tacit synchronicity complimenting the plot and the narrative-voices without grabbing the spotlight for themselves. As a translator, the challenge (and art )was to find the right vocabulary, emulate the fine balance of the original art. If you can feel it, I consider my job done. 

Ansar Uddin was born in 1959 in Shaligram, West Bengal. After graduating from Krishnanagar College, he became a marginal farmer. His connection with farming and farm labor runs deep. Bengal’s village life has come out vividly in his writing.  He has five collection of short stories and three novels to his name thus far. He received the Galpa Mela Award in 2002, the Somen Chanda Award of the Bangla Academy in 2003, Ila Chanda award from the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad to name a few.

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing. 

1 Comment

  1. Wasi Ahmed

    What a lovely piece f translation!


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