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The Tale of the Brown Shoes – Moushumi Quader

Jun 6, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translator's Note

The story reminds me of familiar nostalgia that I have inherited from my grandmother, her loss from the imposed immigration, of innocent freedom and joys. Firstly, the loneliness of Ruth reverberates in this retelling of real experiences gathered from the Bangladeshi women in America, Moushumi Quader has diligently worked with. Second and a more intimate link I have established with this work, is its delicate handling of mental health. The terrible nuances of a mental-illness is no longer alien to a lot of us, and the stigma surrounding it ripples in our society more often than we think. This stigma, and the way it infests, is infuriating, and the writer treats it beautifully well. The fairy-tale nature of the story, as if existing right above the plane of usual consciousness, is an excellent apparatus for the telling of realities, and that’s exactly what the author does.  

Translated from the Bengali by Chirayata Chakrabarty

 

 

There wasn’t a pair of shoes in the market that was a perfect fit. A pair in which your feet won’t get wet, the wind won’t penetrate, the toes would be full of warmth. Aldo, Foot Locker, Nike, all of these stores had been paid a visit. The retailers said the winter stock had been discontinued. Meanwhile, the soles on the old ones were in tatters. Sabita-di from next door said, “What can you get anyway, right? Everything costs about four times now. 50% discount? The bastards are vile. They’re actually selling everything at the original price.”
Hearing all of that had really dampened Shiuli’s spirit. Even then, she went out to shop with a brand-new energy. The doctor’s directions—it won’t at all do good to stay too long, alone, at home. Drifting from this store to that, her eyes finally fixed themselves on something at “Soft Moc”. A pair of brown shoes looked rather good to her. Genuine leather, fleece-covered soles, and waterproof! The feet would slip in there comfortably to drowse.
But wait! When she stared at them for a good while, they suddenly seemed to cackle—he, he, he! Is there a draft coming through the corridor? Aren’t the laces moving? What! Why are they laughing! Shiuli’s head began to feel woozy.
She had been seeing a psychiatrist for a while now. On Sabita-di’s insisting, Mamun had taken her to the doctor. She’s been taking her medication too. But on witnessing a laughing pair of shoes, she started to feel somewhat ill-prepared and self-conscious. She glanced around her to check if anyone had seen her. She returned home, still breathless. When she related the story to Mamun, he laughed it off. “What do you mean? What a load of nonsense! These are possibly just reactions from the drugs. Maybe ask the doctor to write you a new prescription.”
Dr. Shibprashad Roy was pretty well-known in the Bengali community. On the urgent call for Shiuli’s rising difficulties, he had to give her a bit of his time today. Asking Mamun to wait outside, Dr. Shibprashad entered the chamber. Shiuli was watching an ever-morphing garden, seated near the window. It was as if someone asked, “How long have you been seeing these dogs?” Startled, she answered, “How long?” Shiuli suddenly could not remember anything. But out loud, she said, “About six months, I think… Don’t really remember how long…”
“It’s alright, no problem. So, what do they do?”
“When you go out, they run after you. Feels like they’ll take a bite out of you from the behind…” she looked pale as she said this.
“You didn’t tell your husband?”
“I did, he didn’t believe me. He said I was lying… He asked if I had any psychos in my family… I told him about anna. Told him about this extraordinary man. He wasn’t crazy. But everyone used to call him nuts and laugh at him. Mamun doesn’t believe anything I say. I told him about the shoes that day. He just laughed.”
…The doctor curled his lips into a little smile and said, “What do you think? Can shoes really talk?”
Shiuli instantly saw in front of her eyes, the embankment of the lake at her fufu-house. The thorns of the boroi tree, the banana trees along the bank, the magur fish swimming. She did not answer, but replied with another question, “Tell me something, why does every person in this world wear shoes? The sandals with the two straps, shiny boots… there’s no one in this country who walks barefoot. Right?” Shiuli chuckled softly. On her ordinary face, her glassy eyes glittered.
“There aren’t any in this country because it’s cold here. But aren’t there in other countries?”
“There are. There are in Rashulpur. Anna never had shoes on. But Riziya Begum had kharams on her feet. At midnight, the kharams made a khat-khat sound. The sheem trees in the courtyard would listen to that sound with fanned out ears, the fireflies would shine their lights on the courtyard, and the grey-brown and red-yellow nocturnal birds would swoop down like hawks in the dark and swallow the hovering bugs… Riziya Begum would pause at the sound of their swooshing flight… khatkhatkhat…”
“Who’s Riziya Begum?”
“My fufu-amma.”
“And anna?”
“The man who used to do fufu-amma’s bidding. He was pitch-black!” He had a dog. A Sarail hound. Everyone used to say Sarail had a manager shahib who once went out to hunt on an elephant. With him was a local-breed bitch. She used to disappear during the hunt in the forest. Then a few days later she would come back pregnant. This dog was her descendant. At least anna believed so.
“Oh…” the doctor said and then came back to the point.
“The dogs you see, do they look like Sarail dogs?”
“No, these are bigger, ferocious.”
“Listen girl, this is actually depression. A lack of confidence. Do you understand, Shiuli? The sort of negative things you’re thinking about? This won’t do. Do you sleep well? You stay at home on your own a lot, don’t you? Why don’t you work? You could do at least something. No one sits idle in this country.”
“I want to work, but Mamun tells me I won’t be able to. English doesn’t really come too easily to me.”
“It doesn’t come easily to a lot of people. But don’t they still work?”
“Mamun doesn’t want me to. He wants a baby first.”
“Oh, right… Do you have some other problem? I mean, physically?”
Ji, no.”
“So, when does Mamun-shahib come home from work?”
“Five in the morning. That’s when I wake up.”
“He works all night and then comes home at dawn and wakes you up. Am I right?”
“Yes.”
“Does that make you sad?”
Shiuli stayed quiet. Her features became rigid. But she did not say anything. She merely gazed at the window.
The room fell silent for a few moments. Outside, it snowed in slight showers… That song Mrs. Stephenson had played for them in the E.S.L. classes, “The sky was the earth, and the earth the sky”…that song played in her ears… The doctor changed the channel on the radio. The news said there would a storm tomorrow. A snowstorm.
Shiuli really wished she could have studied again. She had heard, the schools abroad were different. She had a passion for art. The village school hadn’t given her the opportunity to really develop things like passion. Mamun had said, what good would painting do? Signing up at the “Early Childhood Education” program rather would open doors for a daycare job. Besides, babysitting kids at home pays a few bucks too. It was Mamun’s idea to get her admitted to an E.S.L. class. But she didn’t like it, so she quit. Mamun didn’t like to sleep alone after his night shift. Wife ought to stay home. Shiuli felt embarrassed to actually talk about it, it even felt a bit shameless to say it to the doctor. But something was different today. She opened up without hesitation.
The doctor impassively tossed the curtains of the window further apart. Both of them sat silent.
Then he asked again, “Do you really want to be a mother?”
Shiuli replied in a voice that was cool and steady, “I don’t know…”
“Why? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a child?”
With an inscrutable air, Shiuli said, “Who knows!” There was such a streak of loneliness in the way she said it, the doctor did not ask any more questions. He wrote her a prescription. Then called on Mamun and said, “Take a trip or something, sir. She’s new to this country, and you’re giving absolutely no care to the girl. Besides, what can she do if you work all night? Let her work, she’ll be better off.”
Mamun tried to recall; Shiuli had said, “Listen, there’s a sale at Foot Locker. There’s a pair of shoes I really like.” He hadn’t at all cared for his wife being such a wastrel. He had said, quite frustrated indeed, “You already have shoes. How many pairs do you need? Shoes, shoes, every month. And all sorts of strange ideas all day! Is it possible to afford all of your wishes on one person’s salary? Give all this up and offer namaz.” Shiuli had not understood how shoes were related to namaz!
Mamun was changing a little bit every day. There was no end to his despair because he was struggling to land a good job even with his shiny degrees. He had been working his security-guard night shifts for ages now. When the early morning excitements were over, after he came home, he would fall into a slumber of big snores. He didn’t even have the time to look at Shiuli. He just snapped and grouched, and handed pious advice. Mamun didn’t seem human anymore. He seemed like the Devil himself had come to deliver Allah’s teachings. And the other day he brought home this Islamic azaan clock with the picture of a mashjid on it. It called the azaan at precisely the right time. It ruled over the depths of sleep and resounded, “Assalatu khairum minan naumassalatu khairum minan naum… Namaz is nobler than sleep…namaz is nobler than sleep…”
Shiuli had snuck the clock into the wardrobe in the next room and locked it in there. The azaan petrified her. Made her feel as if the vicious mongrels would come back to gnaw. The night would be spent in terrible dreams… The Arabian verses would be frozen over like frost within her chest. Yet, this had never happened before. Fufu-amma used to perform namaz too. In her voice, the surahs of namaz would sound so sweet!

2

White snow everywhere. Heaps of snow on either side of the street. There was the dread of a slip and fall. Shiuli snubbed all fear and set out. There is such a difference in a shower of snow and water! Shiuli remembered clearly. The rainfall at Rashulpur was uninhibited, completely different. Sudden and intense gusts of wind would push against their bodies, and completely drenched they would play chhi-buri in the yard. Then with their ears plugged with the root of the jute plant, they would jump into the lake.
On the bank of the lake at the fufu-house was a huge boroi tree that bowed into the water. The boroi was very sour and sandy. When it touched the tongue, it was as if semolina dripped from it. When you shook the thorn-riddled tree, boroi showered from it like rain. The jingle of it rang jhin-jhin through your head, your ears, your body. Annabhai spent half of his days resting on this bank. No one wanted to look at his face, black like the bottom of a pan. Everyone was repulsed by him; nobody took him in for jobs. But Shiuli was never repelled by him. Fufu never shooed him away. She even fed him routinely. In return, anna would run errands for her and guard Shiuli, along with his Sarail hound.
Even when the amon paddy grew and everyone was busy, anna had no work. He would stand on the bank, unyielding; guard the enormous scrub-ridden house and lake of Riziya Begum. Strict instructions, the child’s feet should be safe from thorns, her ears should be free of water. Half-submerged, Shiuli would cry out, “Annabhai, oh annabhai, how long will you sit there? Go, eat hidol bhorta with rice. Fufu-amma has rice on the fire.” Anna would not move an inch and shout back, “Come up first ammajaan, wear your shoes, then I can go. Or else boro-amma will cut my throat.” The word “ammajaan” would slip through anna’s black lips, coated in honey and fondness.
A pair of brown plastic shoes shone on the bank of the lake. Shiuli never liked their dull color. But in that moment under the rays of the sun, the brown dripped like molasses. The drops of water on the laces twinkled in the sun. However preoccupied annabhai might have looked, prostrate beside them, he had caught the shoes as they began to fall into the sways of the water. As though Shiuli’s shoes must never be lost. The man had no house or family of his own! He lay grasping the damp floor of the embankment. He would never be able to repay Mother Riziya’s debt in this life. It is so strange! The need for a root, for a home.
Anna wasn’t listening to anything Shiuli said. There was a taro field on the other side of the lake. A brace of ducks was scampering through the wet mud. Putli and Shiuli, two girlfriends, were climbing onto a banana-tree boat and then leaping into the water. How old could they have been! Some ten years! Shiuli had puffed her cheeks and scowled, and she had cried, “Annabhai, I won’t wear those shoes, go, take them with you.” Anna had gotten up, murmuring angrily to himself, and had left the shoes behind. As if he had to urgently go and complain to Riziya Begum. Almost instantly, one sunk shoe had surfaced from the mud puddle, and the other had gotten caught in the weed and washed away.
Fufu-amma stitched words of various colors; and at times got cross with Shiuli, and said, “Wandering around all day long, what will become of you?” “You’ll have to cook at your husband’s, learn to cook…you have to learn your etiquette, offer namaz… Memorize your surah…paatshaak, kochu loti, fried sheemkuchi, chochchori of small fish, fowl meat, rui fish, fried karala; whatever you get, eat it…; you have to get used to it, girl…” What had she not eaten? The bitter karala would not slide down her pipe, yet she had to gulp it down. On the smouldering fire of jute twine, all of the food would get broiled to purity. Life too was just as pure back then.

3

She needed to write Putli a letter. Her handwriting was softly sinuous, like the stem of a gourd. It tore at the slightest impact, and so had to be read with utmost care. The doctor had said writing in a diary every day would keep a healthy mind. One has to write about whatever comes to mind, there’s no need for too much thought or consideration. About hopelessness, about the life lying in the corner, whatever…but is it really possible to write about everything? So much goes unwritten. She was reflecting on all of this when Putli called.
She asked in a coarse voice, “Heard you burned your hand? How many times have you burned it by now?”
“Nine times.”
“Why do you force yourself to do what you don’t like to?”
“I didn’t force myself. A mighty draft came and told me, “Do it”. Do you remember, how the wind would carry us away with the water? Exactly like that, the fire touched my skin. Got burned!”
“Why aren’t you working? Isn’t there any work over there?”
“I’m not, he wants me to stay home…make a baby…”
“What are you saying, they want things like that abroad? You’ve become just like your fufu. Chewing cud.”
“So, I am. What can I do? No one listens, Putu…You don’t either!”
“What do I know? Your fufa-fufu were without child too. But you’ve seen the care with which they raised you, right?”
“But how many times has fufu burned her hand in the hearth, do you know?”
“You have an oven, right? Where’s the clay hearth and where’s an oven. Where was your head?”
“It was soaring in the sky… And so, my hand, my mind burnt to ashes.”
“Is something wrong with your head? What on earth are you going on about!”
“Why would anything be wrong? But the pictures do make me really sick. No child in my womb, but I keep throwing up… You know, whenever I open the computer here, in this house, those pictures pop up.”
“You live abroad, and you’re still fussing about these things? You’re such an idiot. Men are like that. Don’t fuss so much.”
“I’m not fussing. But it scares me, Putu… If we don’t have a child, maybe Mamun will die…”
“You really have lost your mind. All those visits to the doctor, what use was all that then?”

4

Mamun and Shiuli make a home.
The moon hangs heavy and oval, egglike. The humming of a thought-train aimlessly flutters about. Shiuli vomits violently…
Mamun sits for namaz and reads the Kalima.
Shiuli floats on the lake in a dinghy,
Mamun reads the surah ikhlas again and again and then stops.
Shiuli tosses the boroi seeds into the water hyacinths one after another,
Mamun translates the attahiyat and blows in the air.
Shiuli halts at the sight of a pair of brown shoes, afloat,
The splendor of the Kalima takes wing in the breeze, in harmonies.

Glossary

amma: mother; used in a familiar/affectionate way here, not literally meaning “mother”. Ammajaan used in the same way, jaan meaning “dear”. Equivalent to “my dear”
attahiyat: one of the invocations of Allah repeated in daily prayer
boroi: Indian jujube, a tropical fruit
chhi-buri: a common cat-and-mouse game played by kids in Bangladesh
chochchori: sautéed dish made mainly with vegetables in Bengali households
fufu: aunt/uncle (gendered terms – fufi (aunt), fufa (uncle))
hidol bhorta: mashed shidol/shNutki, a type of smelly fish
Kalima: six phrases pertaining to the fundamentals of Islam recited by South Asian Muslims
karala: bitter gourd
kharam: wooden footwear/clogs; also known as paduka
kochu loti: stems of taro/colocasia
magur: species of catfish
paatshaak: greens of the jute plant
shahib: Arabic term for owner/official; courteous term like “mister”, with colonial connotations. First used in the Indian subcontinent for white colonizers
sheem: flat beans
sheemkuchi: chopped sheem
surah ikhlas: the 112th chapter of the Quran, meaning “sincerity”

Maushumi Quader

Maushumi Quader

Maushumi Quader was born and raised in the residential area of ​​Dhaka University. She did her postgraduate studies at Dhaka University, Department of Sociology. Studied in Canada on ‘Business Management’ and ‘Mental Health’. She has seen life on three levels. From the life of Bengal’s villages, cities and exile. She is a writer and musician. She is a singer and used to be a music composer. She gave music for Bengali films like  ‘Itihas Kanya and ‘Shilalipi’  Maushumi is a composer, storyteller, translator, online activist and one of the editors of ‘Galpapath’ webzine.

Chirayata Chakrabarty

Chirayata Chakrabarty

Born in the January of 2000, in Kolkata, India, Chirayata Chakrabarty is pursuing her Master’s degree at EFL University. She also dabbles with music in her free time, a passion that was birthed by the pandemic – which she uploads occassionally on her YouTube channel. She started translating Bengali short stories, as a practice, in 2018 and has since tried to grow as a translator, as well as a song-writer and poet – a growth that she has sought since she was old enough to think.

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