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The Edges Of Love— Shaheen Akhtar

Nov 28, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta 

 

1.

All this happened several years ago. I can’t recall the date anymore. In the asphalt-melting midday heat of Bhadra[1], I watched Khalamma[2] walk down the sidewalk near the Hatirpul bazaar. She was carrying a lunch box in her hand and had no shoes on her feet. She was waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Ripe palm fruits and vegetables were strewn on the sidewalk. Heaped nearby were some taro fruits and taro greens. The moment a whistle sounded signaling the pedestrians to cross, she slowly picked her way through the vegetables and walked onto the street. 

Luckily, my rickshaw’s hood was up. Now, why did I think of that? Was it because the sun was blazing fiercely enough to set one’s head on fire?

My rickshaw meandered through the ghostly Bhooter Gully, and I traversed as if possessed. The page allotted to me in the weekly newspaper was going to be incorrect again due to a mix-up between the cuckoo and the koyel songbirds. (Years before, I had heard a song by Begum Akhtar – ‘koyelia, koyelia, mat kar pukar’)[3]. The reporter had written— ‘Nowadays cuckoos are cultivated in the far away land of Savar. We foresee that the practice will soon spread across the nation. A cuckoo egg may be tiny, but it’s just as tasty as a duck or a chicken egg. You may poach it, make an omelet, or drop it in a curry—many ways to eat it. So, traders are selling it in the market and making fat profits. Certainly, it has immediate benefits, but the harm wreaked is also extensive.’ 

The cuckoo and the koyel became interchangeable and the writer’s outrage was evident in sentences such as, ‘The cuckoo is being wiped out as people eat its eggs by the dozen.’ Foreseeing a world without cuckoo-calls, widespread anticipatory grief surfaced. My novice pen instantly okayed the coverage, and the page was sent off for publication. I didn’t even think of taking it to the acting editor for fact-checking. Subsequently, a full staff meeting was called, and the error was revealed to everyone amidst much glee and mirth. I died a thousand deaths. That I am still employed is due to nothing but my good karma. The results of my exams were not out yet. Who would offer me a job without a certificate!

“What a day! A huge storm has passed. Perhaps an imminent danger has been avoided.”

I sat at my sister’s dining table and expressed my sentiments fervently. Even though she was my younger sister, she got married early and ran her household with style. Her husband was a good provider. There were no impediments to her free mobility and donating to deserving causes. 

“What’s the problem?” 

She asked but didn’t wait for the answer and walked to the kitchen to warm up the food. She lit the gas stove. At that time, every middle-class family in Dhaka didn’t own a  microwave oven. 

Each day, I experience a problem or other. So, what’s my problem today? I didn’t feel like talking about my problems at work. 

Khalamma was walking barefoot in the streets.” As soon as the sentence slipped out of my mouth, it sounded terribly rude, even to me. 

“Her eldest son has lung cancer. He has been admitted to the Mahakhali Chest Disease hospital. It’s going to be only a few more months—the doctors have given up.” My sister spoke with nonchalance and placed a frying pan full of noodles on the table mat.

I sat placidly in front of the piping hot food and remembered the way Khalamma was walking—in a fugue state. It’d get late for her to reach Mahakhali. By now, she might have crossed the BG press and reached the crossing of the seven streets. At best she had gone past the Eucalyptus Island and stepped onto the wide street going toward Tejgan—the wrecked sidewalk under her feet. She didn’t have a shade for her head. A light whiff of the bakeries swirled around in the slight breeze. Her son loved Nabisco brand biscuits—perhaps Khalamma was recalling that as she walked on blistered feet. 

Khalamma has the bad habit of walking barefoot. She started that a few days ago.” 

My sister dusted the noodles with some ground black pepper and settled down for a chat. Her voice carried resentment. Khalamma had visited her home last month and leveled plenty of vile criticism at her. She even dragged our parents as she spewed expletives. What wrongs did they do to her? 

It’s not often that one witnesses my sister losing her temper. She is a kind person. She jumps forward to help others without considering if they are kin or kith. Once her mother-in-law’s maid fell off the five-storeyed balcony while clinging to a flowerpot. She would have surely died without my sister’s nursing care. Every day, she carried chicken soup to the women’s ward of Dhaka Medical. She cleaned her soiled bed with her own two hands and brought home the bloodied clothes to wash. The girl’s crushed limbs had begun to rot.

“You should be awarded a gold medal, Apa[4],” a young intern had complimented my sister. “You have snatched this girl from death’s teeth.” 

“Everyone can show disengaged care,” my sister seethed in rage because I had sympathized with Khalamma. “Basically, you lounge on the beach and sunbathe. Have you ever done anything for anyone?” 

Do I have a sorted life? Once my job is secure, I would think of aiding others. I secreted those words under my tongue before they dared to slide out. I recollected the comfort I felt because my rickshaw’s hood was up and immediately made up with my sister. I watched her busy fingers and thought, ‘Whatever errors were made, were they only Khalamma’s?’ The question pricked my throat like a thorn.

2.

Khalamma was married at the age of eleven, but the bridegroom wasn’t underage. He joined the military while attending Islamia College in Calcutta.[5] The British Raj had opened a new front against the Japan-Germany coalition forces. Before he was sent to the training camp in Jamshedpur, he was given five days off to see his guardians and obtain their permission. On the third day home, his marriage took place. Dressed in a dhoti[6], a loose shirt, and sandals, popularized by Vidyasagar, on his feet[7], he flitted like a lokka pigeon[8] from one yard to another in his in-law’s home. His brothers, sisters-in-law, and even the veiled brides of the household were imps. He spent the day shaking off frogs from his dhoti folds and drinking lemonade with salt[9]. At night, he occupied the bed in the office situated at the front of the house. Sleeping for two nights in the same bed with his father and overloading the bullock cart with goods and luggage, he finally got to see his bride. Two old women had made a package of the girl and dragged her there. The room was full of people. The package reluctantly touched their feet and immediately vanished. They didn’t get a second chance to look at each other. Nonetheless, even before the wheel-marks on the road had vanished, a spate of letters started to arrive for the young bride. 

Approximately seven days after the wedding ceremony, when Khalamma went out to visit her neighbors with bangles tinkling in her arms, her husband was marching with his troop. When they were putting sweets in each other’s mouths[10], his heart had been pierced by the steady gaze of the girl-bride he had observed in the mirror in his hand. That sight ended up messing up his left-right parade. And even when the squad commander shouted, “Match your steps,” it had no effect. The entire company had mixed up their steps with him. Consequently, “The guilty was ordered to double-march with half a maund[11] weight on his back.” Tales of such punishments did not appear in the letters written by the husband to Khalamma. He stretched out on the cot in his tent in Jamshedpur and wrote to his new bride that he was marching in a khaki uniform at the foot of pebble-speckled hills. Or that he had eaten his fill of lentils and roti and was washing the dishes in the muddy river water. Or that eight people slept in the 180-pound tent and his bedding comprised a rug, a comforter, sheets, and a cot. While they had to go to bed at a particular time, the rules were different for the Whites. Those people drank to the gills and under the bright light of baby-petromax lanterns in the canteen, flirted with Anglo-Indian nurses. Right under the noses of native sentries and canteen boys. 

Such subject matters were highly problematic for Khalamma. The words strained her abilities to pronounce and were certainly beyond comprehension, although by that age, she had finished reading ‘Anwara,’ and ‘Zohra.’ When the Mawlawi[12] interpreted the Urdu book, ‘Behashti Jewar’[13] for the three sisters in Bengali, our grandfather sat near the door with a cane in his hands. No one had the opportunity to be even a little inattentive or walk out in the middle of lessons. When the learning received in that stifling room failed to help her decipher the letters, Khalamma’s respect for her husband increased overnight. The missives became precious

Generally, policing by the natal family relaxes somewhat when a daughter is married, as the sins of a girl’s transgressions would fall on the husband. So, there were no restrictions on swimming in common pools during daylight hours, nor on tucking one’s sari tightly to climb a tree. When Khalamma escaped from the backdoor to traipse around the neighborhood, our grandma, her mother, glimpsed quickly at the sky, like she was searching for a clock, while she sprinkled water on the parsley or the vines. All was well so long that the girl returned early! 

However, this suddenly bestowed freedom carried little meaning for Khalamma, who thought it was a waste of time. She self-interned for a while. The day she hid the stash of letters and stood squirming at the door, her husband was on his way to Jalandhar. He was traveling by the Punjab Mail. The lamps in railway stations hadn’t been decorated with blackout veils yet and the station masters’ office doors were free of baffle walls. They paraded between incoming and outgoing trains. At the time Khalamma’s husband was marching left-right, the Nazi General Rommel was smiting north-Africa. The guy became famous as the ‘Desert Fox’ due to his ability to blitzkrieg. 

The HQ was in Jalandhar, Punjab then. Not a soul in the Company knew who would be deployed where. When Khalamma’s husband boarded the train to Karachi, he realized that he was being sent to Germany and not to fight Japan. He had admired Subhas Bose in his student days. The secret dream he nourished of defecting to the Azad Hind Fauj[14] in the Eastern theater was thus crushed. He spent a sleepless night swaying in the third-class compartment of the train and traversed across an unknown city in the Sindhu River delta. His mouth was flooded with the sweet and sour taste of lemonade. The letter he had mailed in Karachi noted—along with three other soldiers, he had dipped his bread in a bowl full of mutton gravy. It was nectar. If only he could have found a few morsels of rice! In the evening, he could spend his own money to buy liquid milk sweets, warm milk, and Sandesh from the tea shop near the barracks. But this privilege didn’t last long. In the next letter he wrote—he was leaving behind the adobe barracks and was now a seafarer. Along with tents, ammunition, and various provisions, the ship’s hull was laden with mules and horses belonging to the animal transport section. A soldier’s life is nomadic—it was his bad luck. 

Whose misfortune was it anyway—the army man’s or Khalamma’s? The pictures of an unfamiliar world that Khalamma’s husband was painting, culminated in his sailing away on the ocean. And the world ended there. Khalamma was quite restless until the image of a date palm orchard on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river blossomed in her eyes. To make matters worse, menarche occurred. It was like a powerful corporeal ailment. She had to deal with it every month. Her mother and sisters kept heaping unwanted advice on her—one can tolerate only so much! The only person she could share her pain with was in the port of Basra. As he was in the direct conflict zone, five rupees hardship pay was added to his regular salary, his ration was doubled, and he didn’t have to pay for postage. In exchange, he had to wear an identity tag so that he could be recognized—dead on the battlefield, or perhaps injured. 

The thick walls of her room pressed down oppressively on Khalamma. It was like the bunkers in the frontline that her husband had described so well in his letters. From the room’s shadowy corners, wafted a putrid smell of dead rats wrapped up in cold air—like the stench that arose in bunkers.

That house was a dream palace for us. Nothing came close to visiting our uncle’s home during summer or winter vacations. Even today when I think of ‘vacation,’ I see myself dragging my bags and stepping over the high framework of the main door to enter a tidy and shady yard lined by fragrant plants—jasmine, gardenia, and hasnuhana[15]. I recall that even though the house was high-ceilinged, due to the lack of adequate windows, it had the feel of a cave. The trapped air relentlessly circulated the aroma of our favorite dishes. We rarely entered the cavern during the day but scurried about half-naked in ponds and canals. With pockets full of dhyap[16] and thorny water chestnuts, and twisted garlands of shapla[17] vines around our necks, we returned home in the evenings emitting a fishy odor. 

During grandfather’s time, a boat was ever ready at the pier. Its hull was polished with resin—firm and shiny. A strong oarsman was on hire with a yearly contract. By the time they were seven or eight years old, girls were not permitted to ride in it—at least when grandpa was alive. A flight of stairs behind the kitchen led up to the study that our uncles inhabited. As exams were near, they ate and slept there, shaving in a small mirror hanging on the wall. We could stretch our arms through the iron bars of the windows and pluck seasonal fruits off the trees—mangos, and guavas. We could even catch a glimpse of the silvery sky. By the time we visited regularly, the second floor had already been abandoned, and the stairs were wobbly. Weeds and small banyan plants had put down their roots in the gaps between the bricks. We used to happily play pretend kitchen games and cooked with the red brick dust. 

During that restive wartime, Khalamma spent her days there. Wherever she went, excitement and hullaballoo followed. It seemed that her main motive was to thwart the efforts her elder brothers expended to prepare for the exam. People continuously complained to grandfather about her. As he began scheming to send his daughter to her in-law’s home, they received the news of her mother-in-law’s passing. Since Khalamma’s husband was their only offspring, there was no one left to cook even a handful of rice for her father-in-law. So, at the age of twelve, Khalamma’s address shifted. That is, her life itself changed. The burden of the entire household, from the kitchen to the cowshed, rested on her shoulders. The letters that arrived, started being adorned with thumbprints of turmeric and spices. 

Khalamma didn’t get any time during the day to read the letters. Kerosene was no longer available in the market. At night, the moment she lit a castor-oil lamp and unfolded the letters, her father-in-law began his lamentations from the other side of the bamboo partition: 

“Alas Hussain! Oh, Hussain Matam![18] Bhuiyan’s daughter will drive me to the streets!”

Every big city was dark under blackout. The rule was imposed in habitats that had electricity. The Japanese bombs targeted those towns. But the tyranny of the miserly father-in-law was no less than the cruelty of the bombs. Khalamma coated the top part of the hurricane-lamp chimney with soot from the bottom of cooking pots to devise covers appropriate for the blackout. During the day, she was excited about it, but at night, she realized it was a wasted effort. The writer of the letters she spread under the veiled lamp was a different person—someone who had collapsed like a punctured balloon. 

Khalamma’s husband had been overjoyed at reaching Shatt al-Arab. The sacred water of Dajla-farat[19] merged with it at the estuary. Large date-palm orchards covered its banks. The favorite fruit of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH)—even when unripe, was splendid. As he was putting down tents in the desert sand and digging trenches, the affable feeling evaporated leaving behind the dread of anxiety. The Nazi-Fasci teams may exist in the background, but the approaching enemy was their soul mate—both by religion and community. Those brothers would be bloodied by their bullets. Brothers who were fighting against British colonization just like they were. Palestine’s Grand Mufti[20], Amin al Hosseini, had flown to Baghdad to call for jihad

Basra was teeming with soldiers. The chief of the National Defense Government, English-hater Rashid Ali had come to power recently but didn’t have permission to act. So, they had to stay in Basra for a few days. Some of them were felled by sunstroke or by sandfly fever after being bitten by tiny flies. They came to recognize the unyielding aspects of the desert as they floated down the river euphrates on a barge. The heat of the war brought everything to a boil. Everyone was sweating profusely under their uniforms. Najaf and Karbala were on the way. Hazrat Ali’s shrine was in Najaf and Imam Hussain’s tomb was in Karbala. But no one had permission to disembark and visit the shrines.

The Iraqi forces were engaged in fierce battles in Fallujah and Habbaniyah. The death toll of the British air raids was also very high. Destroyed bunkers, turbans drenched in blood, broken swords, and sliced bodies scattered in Fallujah sickened everyone. Every conscience was laid in tatters. As a student, he ( Khalamma’s husband) was deeply drawn to Netaji. What was the difference between the Arab nationalist, Rashid Ali, and Bengal’s own Netaji?[21] Both wanted to collaborate with the Axis Powers to remove the British from the land. Both wore round glasses with Rold Gold frames. Netaji didn’t sport a mustache, but Rashid Ali nurtured a Butterfly, one like Hitler. 

All roads to Baghdad were blocked. As they were moving through the desert toward Baghdad in armored cars, the news of Rashid Ali’s abdication and flight filtered in.

Rashid Ali had sought refuge in Iran and Mufti had accompanied him. Iraqi soldiers and the public had attacked the Jewish population of Baghdad. It became crystal clear why Mufti had declared jihad against the rehabilitation of Jews in Palestine and the reason he had tied his fate to Hitler. 

Lying inside the tent, Khalamma’s husband felt like the lowliest of low worms, dressed in Khakis, and rented out like a slave who didn’t have any right to his own body and soul. People in his country were dying like flies due to the famine orchestrated by the British. The Japanese force, meeting no resistance whatsoever, were spreading across hills, forests, and towns. Kohima could fall any day now. The population suffering in the war were ‘natives’ whose lives had little value. Panting in unspoken anger, Khalamma’s husband reminisced about his chums in the Baker hostel. Where were they now? Those companions who, walking down the Theater Road, had once dreamt of driving the British out by using their own tools. Now they had turned into a sycophantic mass that was transferred from one front to another. 

He didn’t get a break to express these sentiments in his letters. Instead, a nameless, shy, tender face began to emerge in his consciousness. This person polished his boots with the utmost care, folded his uniform tightly, and put it under the mattress. He not only laced up his boots but secured his chinstrap gently. When he was on sentry duty at night, the person filled up his ration-tin at the food tent and placed it in his haversack. 

Nevertheless, Khalamma’s husband sent letters from the front regularly to his wife, just like the Desert Fox Rommel. He nurtured a poet’s heart under his Khakis. He began by describing sights he saw from the train—a chain of camels in the desert, an abandoned stone-made inn in the vast landscape, or the colorful feathers of an unknown bird. When dates ripened and the gray or coppery desert took on a golden hue, he wrote—“My heart aches.” The bright abundance of a cornfield, pomegranates hanging from branches, pears, and rosy dates. Rarely did he describe a lightless bunker or the wail of sirens when warplanes swooped in. 

At the end of the Anglo-Iraq war, a puppet government of the British was in power. The company of Khalamma’s husband became the protector of this robber’s wealth and was shuttled between Syria and Iraq. They started from Aleppo and circled the North-West border of Turkey to reach Mosul and Baghdad. The prophet Eunus’ shrine was in Mosul. Khalamma’s husband left his weapons and uniform outside to enter the shrine and then, didn’t wish to come out again. Like the belly of the fish, it was beyond the battlefield and safe. 

Khalamma looked for her husband’s partner in the folds of his letters. If he came, being a man, he might be able to take care of the cows. He could collect grass from far. Or he could pull up the boat submerged in the pond and row it to other water bodies and gather water hyacinth. Famine was at its peak. Hungry humans licked clean the clay pot in which she left fodder consisting of a little rice water and gruel—the cow and her calf starved. 

3.

When the calf was mature and calved for the second time, Khalamma’s husband returned from the warzone—alone. When he landed at the pier in full military gear, the villagers fled helter-skelter. Within a short time, the yard was bursting with people. The house was locked—so he sat on his luggage with a cane in his hand. A neighbor informed him of his father’s death. He remained silent and a murmur arose in the throng—how stupid was the wife that she had concealed her father-in-law’s passing? They were witnesses to the comings and goings of the mailman to the house. For the past two years, did she only write to her husband about her itches?

“What is this we hear, dear? People are saying that you haven’t received the news of our old master’s expiry?” 

When an elderly uncle, a leader in the village, clopped his cane toward him and laid his hand on his shoulder, Khalamma’s husband took off his pith hat and stood up. The letters that arrived from Bengal had tales of death from the famine. Consequently, the authorities redacted line after line. News of his father’s death may have been censored as a result, although he had died of a cold and a little fever. When Khalamma’s husband, dressed in Khaki, three-quarter-long pants, was walking toward his father’s grave for a sacred viewing, his bride arrived dragging a roped cow behind her. The little calf was hopping on ahead. The moment she spied him emerging from the house, she veiled herself completely and strode toward the cowshed. 

Is this the same girl, the girl who had unblinkingly stared at him through the feeding of the sweets? Khalamma’s husband grew agitated with the question as he held munajat[22] at his father’s gravesite. Lying by his bride at night, he mused if the war had daubed his wife’s body with cow dung. That odor hadn’t permeated her letters! The last one even had a poem—

“None has come to the earth for his own ego’s sake
Each is for the other, that’s the life we must make.”

He had guffawed at the words as he recalled the baby face of the writer. Those two lines didn’t hold any special meaning for him. At the time, the Company was in an uproar because it hadn’t given anyone permission for Hajj. That they might have to leave Arabia without visiting the sacred Kaaba Sharif was not acceptable. He had written to his wife about this discontent. The poem was in response. He smiled in the darkness at the thought. 

The long-term habit of waking up early and falling in roused him from sleep even before the first crow had cawed. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes to find the bed empty. In a corner of the yard, his wife was mixing husk and hay for the cow. The solitary life his wife had deliberately built for herself was out of his reach. He didn’t have the right to intrude in her domain. His own will had also perished somewhere, some time ago. His wife’s embrace evoked the memories of his comrade. He wanted to touch his friend—the muscled arms, the hairy chest peeking through the unbuttoned uniform shirt, the flat discs of useless nipples. Once, there was even a complaint of sodomy. He was court-martialed—lashed to an electrical post and caned thirty-two times. At night, when his wife felt his back, he jumped up.

“It’s nothing, it’s nothing!” 

But she was not one to heed. She sat up and lit the lamp. So, he was forced to remove his shirt and lie face down. Even though she cursed the English Major squarely, she didn’t probe into the reasons for his court-martial. She wasn’t even curious about why he stayed up at night, and to whom he wrote sitting so close to the lamp. He recognized the irony of it all. He used to write to his wife with similar concentration while his mate hung about. What kind of two-timing was this!

One night, he dreamt that target boards were erected in the desert for shooting practice. As he shut his left eye and focused on the target, he vaguely recognized a book open to a page.

“The German foe is in front of you—mark well!”

Immediately, the Lieutenant ordered, “FIRE!”

The pages of the book flew about like feathers. He ran after them and saw that they were pages from Bishad-Shindhu[23], which his wife brought to the bed every night and fell asleep before she finished reading a couple of pages. A few weeks ago, when he dreamt such nightmares and clutched his wife close, she woke up and responded to him. In the past few days, she just turned her back to him or moved even closer to the edge of the bed. Had she become aware of the secret letter exchange? She was young but not stupid. She single-handedly managed the household and commanded the farm workers.

“At the end of the war, we will return home with our cruel and murderous hearts.” An army brother had pondered on their way to Mosul from Baghdad. “We’ll end up poisoning the lives of our loved ones.”

Who were those loved ones? Stretched out beside his wife, he searched his heart for an answer. Who could be more beloved than the person who laid down his life to stop a bullet, the one who covered him like a blanket to save him from oncoming shrapnel, the one whose warm body gave him hope of survival in an icy bunker? Was anyone more cherished than him? Could he cast that person aside just because the war had ended? It was good that he had only two months’ leave. Another war was brewing. The war of finding employment. His buddy would arrive from the south. They would queue up shoulder to shoulder in front of Kolkata’s employment exchange office.

The joy of this idea made him forget his wife’s isolation. Before he left, the wise old leader came whacking his walking stick on the ground. He began his discussion with questions about Herr Hitler’s looks and Netaji’s devotees but ended up trying to resolve the problem of his wife’s loneliness. He said that the girl was no longer a child. As matters claimed, her father owned a lot of land and money. Couldn’t he support another belly? Maybe his wife could live there for a while. There should be no dearth of people to look after his property in the village. The elders were not dead yet!

Whether they were dead or not, was their business. His wife refused to go. She was as persistent as a bulldog. Although she didn’t explain explicitly, it was clear that she didn’t wish to exchange her limitless liberty for the luxurious restrictions of her natal family. In the year of the famine, she had returned from her father’s home with bullock carts and boats laden with her share of the property. That was sure to tide her over for some time. Also, he could not bear the thought that his ancestral home would be run over by jackals.

After his bedding and suitcases were stashed in the boat, Khalamma’s husband came out and stood on the deck. His wife had walked into the shallow waters. She was gazing into his eyes like the first day.

The country had already experienced riots and been partitioned. His friend was on one hand and the two countries on the other. Two different standards flew on the flagstaff. Twenty more years passed. For the next ten years, his wife stood in the exact same spot with their son on her hip or holding his hand. She stared at him with the same intensity. That look didn’t nest any bliss or sorrow.

4.

I remember a boat journey from my childhood. We were traveling to Khalamma’s house. I believe it was autumn. The moon shone like a tinsel garland on the watery canals and ponds. The Dhonche field was filled with water up to the knees—water hyacinth vines were floating aimlessly. When the boat got stuck and the oarsmen pushed the quant poles with their might to dislodge it, we bent down to gather red and blue water lilies. Yes, we had been warned about the snakes clinging to the lily vines, but we were tired of sitting still. Once the boat coasted near the dirt path by the canal, Abba got down. Like frisky calves, we, too, ran after him. After a few steps, we arrived at a broken bamboo bridge and mud sluice. Again, we had to fold our arms and legs and get into the boat that reeked of tar. In the meantime, right in front of us, the two boatmen took turns eating rice with elenga fish from a clay dish. Amma covered the shed with a bedsheet and nursed the baby. For me and my younger sister, there were pineapple-flavored cream cookies and home-fried crackers. Amma dispersed these to us and scowled.

“I just fed you plenty at home. Why hungry so soon?” 

Then she lowered her voice and threatened to wallop us well if we dared to put a morsel of food in our mouths in Khalamma’s home. Uncle had contracted tuberculosis—a deadly infectious disease. 

At Khalamma’s home, I gathered that if an illness is highly contagious, a chillumchee[24] is placed under the bed; enormous copper pots are used to cook food on huge stoves in the yard; a young boy wears his father’s loose khaki pants chest high and runs out to play with a stick and a ball; and a crawling infant, imprisoned in a fort of pillows, cries his heart out in a lonely room. Later I heard that two years ago, Khalamma’s husband had come back for good, carrying this ailment with him. At the mark of a year and four months, Khalamma’s second child arrived after nearly a twelve-year gap.

We arrived at the yard. After our boat voyage, we hadn’t yet found our land legs and were walking unsteadily. Worse than that, I had to carry a basket of foreign fruits. Abba was walking behind, stooped by the weight of green coconuts. 

“Sister, you’ve come on a good day!”

Khalamma took my brother from Amma’s lap. “It’s my child’s Aqiqah[25].”

Aqiqah!” Amma stepped back, took a pair of coconuts from Abba, and whispered, “I would’ve been happier if it was Khatam e Shifa[26] or Khudai Ziafat[27].”

We were salivating at the aroma of meat and pulao. When Khalamma offered sweet coconut balls, my younger sister quickly placed one in her mouth. I was the eldest. I had to keep an eye on my parents who sat around the man reclined in the bed. Khalamma’s one hand was full of coconut balls and the other held a dish of other sweets. He began coughing and Amma became busy picking up the spittoon from under the bed. Abba turned to place a hand on the patient’s back. Right then, I slipped two pieces of sweets quickly into my mouth.

We could hear the child crying in the next room. With mouthfuls of sweets, we tiptoed there to hide. My little brother toddled behind us. As the child saw the three-person rescue team, the prisoner of pillows was completely startled. He looked at us with round, tear-drenched eyes. 

“Today is your Aqiqah—Aqiqah! What fun! Fun!”

He laughed aloud at this bizarre chorus. There were so many young faces surrounding him, so much chaos, that he seemed to purse his lips to talk to us. He laughed. Our Amma lifted the curtain and entered the room like a termagant. She stayed a bit to watch the child’s flailing legs and arms, his toothless giggle, but didn’t pick him up. She sighed and sat down on the cot next to the window. I thought later, maybe Amma was considering the fate of the poor child, whose father was on his deathbed next door. As the invitees of Aqiqah assembled next door, Abba, too, walked into the room and went straight to the window. My parents were scheming. 

“Doesn’t matter if she is my elder sister, I hate her. A woman without any sense. Her husband is dying but look at the elaborate food she’s prepared! As though it’s a wedding. The son hasn’t been brought up well either. Who’d run out to play stickball at a time like this!”

Abba shushed Amma and her fair face flushed crimson. 

We were driven to the boat like a bunch of chickens as Khalamma pled with her younger sister and her husband to have dinner before they leave. Even after so many years, I vaguely remember her words. The baby held onto the window grille and shrieked.

“Do you remember munching on those coconut balls at Khalamma’s home?” I asked my sister as I twirled the noodles on a spoon. She was only five then, and I was six and a half. Her somber face brightened, and she nodded. Which meant that she remembered the nastiness of that day. Khalamma might have been thoughtless, but how much kindness did my parents show to her? Khalamma’s husband died of lung cancer. So did her eldest son. Khalamma was blamed for both. She sold rice to buy her son cigarettes. They were pitiably poor by then. Near the end, Khalamma’s husband tried to start up a business and went bankrupt. The rest of the property had to be sold to pay for his treatment.

We had grown up with the notion that Khalamma couldn’t handle progress. While the other sisters had good-naturedly handed over their shares of the ancestral property to the brothers, Khalamma had made sure that she got every penny of her portion. This had brought her bad luck. That her husband had stayed away from home most of his life was also viewed as her responsibility—it was due to her incompetence.

The poor earn by being mobile. Perhaps because of this belief, Khalamma went from door to door with her relatives, whether she had a purpose or not. She was bitter. When her eldest son was diagnosed, she stopped wearing shoes and the veil. Grief and happiness are parts of our lives on this earth. But that was no reason for a daughter of the reputable Choudhury family to walk around in such appalling attire! People were getting annoyed with her demeanor. Moving beyond her relatives, she started to beg strangers. But no one cares whether a mother’s son is at death’s door. If kin and outsiders dared to say a word to her, Khalamma blasted them with twenty and returned empty-handed. She was the same when she took her son to Dhaka for treatment. 

“We could’ve helped her,” said my sister. “But I wasn’t sure if she came to borrow money or squabble with us.”

The woman in the next apartment eavesdropped to catch the drama. She had quarreled with my sister about spreading her laundry on the clotheslines on the roof, and the two hadn’t spoken to each other for nearly a year. The next day, the doorman reported that Khalamma had collected two tattered coverlets and a cracked lunch box from the neighbor. My sister started weeping in humiliation as she related the story.

5. 

A dream scene. Or perhaps a surreal situation. As if an imaginary family has been constructed by culling together scattered puzzle pieces of different shapes and colors. The central figure is Khalamma. She is sitting on a gilded chair of red velvet—a puce-colored South Indian silk sari, gold necklace, earrings, and bangles suit her nicely. In a similar chair, a very dark elderly man sits in a cream-colored suit. His headful of yellow-white hair resembles lambs’ wool. Between the two, stands Khalamma’s youngest son in white pajama-panjabi[28] and a shawl decorated with gold zari threads. They are sitting on a high platform festooned in leaves and flowers. The boy doesn’t have turmeric paste on his face yet[29]. Many ornate trays laden with firni-sweets, sent by the bride’s family, are laid out on a low table in front. The guests are gathering on the alpana-painted staircase landing and corridor. The caterers are running around with jugs and glasses. And amidst all this clamor, the young son continues to translate for his parents—Khalamma and the elderly man.

I stood at the door, gaping. Even when I was introduced, I couldn’t believe that the baby jailed in pillows was this handsome young man. He was standing there with a gold-printed wedding card in his hand. He was inspecting the room of cheap, black burnished furniture, bookshelves stretching up to the ceiling, disorganized stacks of books, a faded mirror hanging on the wall, and several donated paintings. He said that the homes of old couples are like this—unglamorous and lovely. If he hadn’t been forced, he wouldn’t have married then.

I recovered a little and enquired, “Who’s pressuring you—Khalamma?”

“Oh no, my uncle. My father’s friend from army life.”

By that time, we had removed all the papers from the study cum dining table and pulled up chairs around it. Khalamma has never been a secretive person. How come her husband’s friend is her son’s guardian and can prod him to marry!

“To say they were friends is to say too little,” the boy laughed. “They were inseparable.”

Khalamma’s youngest son had completed his intermediate exams when she left for Dhaka with her sick son. A letter from a foreign land arrived for Khalamma’s husband at their village home. It was a letter to a man dead for the past eighteen years. The boy was flabbergasted as he read the letter. A host of turbulent emotions peeked through the rounded English alphabets packed tightly on paper. He would have assumed that the author was a woman if he hadn’t mentioned the Iraq front. It seemed to him that the man was trying to resurrect the dead through wartime memories.

“In fact, he didn’t know Abba had passed away.” Khalamma’s youngest son put down his teacup. “He must have written letter after letter and then decided on this scheme.”

The boy took advantage of an empty house and broke open the lock on Khalamma’s trunk. He discovered a bunch of letters wrapped in a silk handkerchief. They were written in English. Even though Khalamma couldn’t read them, she had preserved them with utmost care. He found the man’s address there and wrote to him—about his father’s demise, the impoverished state of their household, his own uncertain future, and more. Within six months, he left for IIT Madras for higher studies. Khalamma believed that he had received a scholarship and she needn’t worry about his expenses from then on. We had also heard the same.

It was bewildering that a guy named Shankaran hadn’t shed his friend along with his military khakis.

Khalamma must have been astonished at what was going on?”

“Although surprised, she was quite happy,” Khalamma’s youngest son said. As though it is as it should have been.

It must have been a comfort to Khalamma that the man who was an orphan without a father or brother, had gained a guardian in a foreign land. I felt I understood Khalamma

During a vacation, Uncle took Khalamma’s son to the Mahabalipuram sea beach. They sat on the slick steps of the Shore Temple and poured their hearts out to each other. Shankaran talked about his friend, and the boy narrated stories that his mother had told him. By that time, those tales had lost their solemnity.

When his father was dying, his mother had arranged for his Aqiqah. She had also thrown a similar party for his circumcision ceremony, for which his elder brother had to pay the price. That is, they couldn’t pay his exam fees and he was held back in the same class for an extra year. As he watched the dancing sculptures on the temple walls, Khalamma’s son confessed that because of many such inappropriate deeds, relatives and friends had abandoned his mother. But he loved her even more. As they walked through the harsh sand of Mahabalipuram, his sandal strap broke, and they went to a shoe store near the beach. The boy rolled up his pant legs and inserted his toes in the sea-hued gym shoes. Shankaran remarked that his toes were just like his father’s. But unlike him, his father was not as adept at tying his shoelaces. Shankaran had to tie his shoelaces every day.

The son said that all he had of his father’s memory was a group-photo hanging on the wall—father in his khakis with a pith hat on his head. Even if Shankaran was there, no one could identify him. When evening rolled in, they went to the seashore to watch the sunset. It was high tide time. They heard the deafening roils of the sea and the noise made by the spectators. The rented horses were still running around with riders on their backs. When Shankaran asked him to try riding a horse, he refused by nodding his head up and down like south Indians. He was keeping track of every penny spent on the trip. Expenses for the degree were essential, but the trip was not. After all, Shankaran was a pensioned government salaryman. He could afford to pay for his education because he hadn’t married and had no family. Only two more years were left. They sat on the sandy beach even after the sun died. The reddish hue of the western sky faded slowly. An incredible ending to a beautiful day!

“Will your mother ever forgive me?”

He jerked his eyes from the frothy sea toward his uncle. From where did this idea of “forgiveness” arise? As long as mother was alive, she would be grateful to him, as will he. Shankaran laughed at his surprise.

“No, I meant,” he coughed a little. “Would your mom be angry if I pay for your wedding festivities? A medium-level celebration—just as it would’ve been if your father were alive?”

But no one anticipated it to be so soon. After Khalamma suffered a second stroke, he had to come back home to marry before the end of the last semester.

Dinner was announced on a hand-held mic in English and Bangla. Khalamma was having trouble stuffing her feet into a pair of new Kohlapuri sandals. Shankaran got down from the stage and used his walking stick to totter toward the food table. Next to the pulao, goatmeat rezala, and chicken roast, there were three south Indian dishes—dosai, idli, and uthappam and a large bowl of sambar with curry leaves floating on top. Everyone came back to the table with food-filled dishes in their hands. Khalamma and Shankaran sat in two overstuffed chairs facing each other. When did they exchange their dinner plates? Khalamma put a piece of idli dipped in sambar in her mouth and declared that she liked such soft food best. Shankaran didn’t say anything. He was grinning widely to manage the spicy roast. His eyes were teary.


Notes:

[1] Bhadra is the fifth month in the lunar calendar followed by Bengalis . During this month, the heat of the summer is compounded by the humidity of the Monsoon season.

[2] In Bengal’s Islamic cultures, the term Khalamma refers to the mother’s sister. That is an aunt. 

[3] Begum Akhtar or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi was a renowned Indian singer. The song referred to here, ‘koyelia, koyelia, mat kar pukar ’ means—‘Oh Dear cuckoo, dear cuckoo, don’t call out.’

[4] One’s older sister is addressed as Apa in the Bengali Islamic culture. Often, it is used as an honorific for all adult women.

[5] Calcutta was the name given to the city by the British colonial administration. It is now officially known as Kolkata , its vernacular name.

[6] Dhoti is the traditional garb that Bengali men wear on the lower part of their bodies. It is approximately 10 yards of cloth that is wrapped in a very special way.

[7] The style of sandals bearing the name of Vidyasagar has curled toes.  

[8] Lokka pigeons have tail feathers that can spread like a peacock.

[9] To fool or harass the newly wedded bridegroom with such practical jokes is a common practice in Bengal. 

[10] The new bride and groom feeding pieces of sweets to each other is a Bengali wedding ritual. 

[11] Maund is a measure of weight.

[12] Mawlawi is a title bestowed on Islamic scholars. 

[13] Behashti Jewar literally means the ‘gems of heaven’.

[14] Azad Hind Fauj or The Indian National Army was a guerilla infantry formed in 1942 by India’s notable freedom fighter, Subhas Chandra Bose . To secure India’s freedom, the Army collaborated with Japan to attack the British colonizers from the Southeast.

[15] Hasnuhana is a night-blooming fragrant plant. Its botanical name is Murraya Paniculata.

[16] Dhyap is the fruit of Shapla.

[17] Shapla is a type of water lily.

[18] Hussain Matam signifies self-flagellation practiced by Shia Muslims to indicate that they mourn the grandson of the Prophet and would lay down their lives for him. 

[19] Dajla-farat is the Euphrates River .

[20] The Grand Mufti is the religious chief of an Islamic country.

[21] Netaji or ‘Dear Leader’ refers to one of the prominent leaders of India’s independence movement, Subhas Chandra Bose, who believed in organized armed resistance.

[22] Munajat means confidential talk—held particularly with God.

[23] Bishad-Shindu (An Ocean of Sorrow), is a Bengali novel written by Mir Mosharraf Hossain

[24] Chillumchee is a metal spittoon.

[25] In the Islamic tradition, a specific number of animals are sacrificed at the birth of a child, and the meat is distributed among friends and family. The ritual is known as Aqiqah.

[26] Khatam e Shifa is a particular Islamic devotional prayer.

[27] Khudai Ziafat is a place/house where guests are served food.

[28] Pajama-panjabi is an attire popular in Bengal. It is a suit consisting of loose pants and a long shirt.

[29] Smearing turmeric paste on the bride and groom is known as gaye holud and is part of the Bengali wedding ritual. 


At The Antonymwe 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:

Feminine Pen: Translating Bengali Women Writers


Read an interview of the author, Shaheen Akhtar , published in The Antonym

Talaash and Beyond – the Trauma, the Craft and the Ongoing Journey : Delving deeper with Shaheen Akhtar


Also, read an insightful piece describing the many meanderings of the mind involved in the act of writing a play, written by James Storbakken, and published in The Antonym:

The Rosebud And Its Antonym— James Storbakken


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Shaheen Akhtar is the author of five collections of short stories and three novels—Palabar Path Nei [No Escape Route]; Talaash [The Search]; and Shokhi RongomalaTalaash won the Best Book of the Year Award for 2004 from Prothom Alo, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in Bangladesh. The English translation of the novel was published last year by Zubaan Books, Delhi, India. Akhtar has also edited the three-volume Soti O Swotontora: Bangla Shahitye Nari, about the portrayal of women in Bengali literature. She currently works for Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights/legal aid organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Shaheen Akhtar recently won the 3rd Asian Literary Award for her novel Talaash (The Search).

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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