Translated from the Bengali by Dr. Padmakali Kar
If you traveled for some distance along the sloping dirt track that emerged from the wide metalled road, you would eventually reach the village of Khairaberi Mahal. Contrary to the ornate name, the place itself was in a pathetic condition. A few dilapidated houses with mud-plastered bamboo fencing, a dying pond, and a shop or two selling essentials were all that the village could boast of. A few bighas of land to which no one had ever claimed ownership lay barren. The residents of the village didn’t even have the privilege of getting doles like subsidized grains from the government-run ration shops. They didn’t even know to whom they should complain about the misery. Without identity cards, voting rights, and the uncertainty of their citizenship, they didn’t know whether they belonged to India or Bangladesh. But hunger was pressing, unignorable. They often cooperated with those who smuggled goods across the border between the two countries in the hope of making a few quick bucks.
With that sole purpose, Idrish Ali had been lying on the asphalt road since this evening. A bale of dried twigs rested at his feet. He kept looking intently to the east—where the check post was located. Jeeps belonging to BSF personnel whizzed past. Idrish tried to make himself scarce by crouching behind the trunk of the Shirish tree every time the road got illuminated by the headlights of the passing vehicles. He was ready to make a beeline for the village to inform Haran Mondol, the moment he received a signal from the checkpost… a torch being shone three times in rapid succession. Sharing this piece of information would fetch him two hundred bucks, not a matter of joke—it would suffice for an entire month’s supply of rice and he might even be able to afford a bottle of liquor and meat for a day.
Ah! Ameena’s mother made such delicious chicken gravy with her special sun-dried spices… the very thought made Idrish’s stomach gnaw in hunger.
Idrish spotted the signal and ran to share the news: “I have received the signal.”
Haran Mondol was sitting inside the cabin of his huge truck. Mildly drunk, his fingers were tracing the curves of Fuli’s torso. His helper, Jhantu Shaw, was leaning behind and smoking a bidi. The moment Idrish conveyed the news, Jhantu banged twice on the door of the cabin. Tucking a crisp hundred rupee note inside her blouse, Fuli got off the truck and left in a hurry.
Mbaa khyapa, the village loony as if was waiting for this very moment. The instant Jhantu stepped on the footboard, he flung himself at his feet.
“Hey… you, my boy… take me along, I beg you… it has been so long since I have set foot on my country’s soil. I will not make any sound… I will be really quiet. Take me along with those cows. See I am one of those… see… Mbaaa!” The crazy old man… begins to moo and crawl on all fours.
“You take me back to my village. My boat is still at the quay, rice is boiling in the pot. I need to eat Mbaa… Mbaa…”
He went on mooing.
“I am a cow… take me along, my boy… I beg you!”
He pleaded desperately.
“Get lost with your daily antics.”
Jhantu freed himself from the man’s grasp and got into the truck. The truck sped away with its cargo of cattle being smuggled across the border, leaving a trail of dust behind.
Dejected, Mbaa, the village loony, entered the nearby tea shop and slumped at a corner. He mooed asking for a drink. The shopkeeper handed him a jug of water and asked—
“Why do you always moo like that, uncle? You are a human being after all.”
“Who says?… I am a cow… lost my land, and with that my tongue too.”
Behind The Veil
“Zenana!” My Abbu had cried out loud, as two fighter planes flew overhead making a whirring sound. I had raised my veil slightly and had tried to steal a glance at them in an attempt to identify their colors. At that moment, there was no barrier between my eyes and the wide open sky. Our well-decorated house lay in shambles now. The courtyard was stained with the blood of my loved ones. My Ammi’s body lay amidst the ruins. I had covered myself up in her burkha. Abbu’s voice had risen over the din created by the fighter planes. My downcast eyes noticed four pairs of military boots pausing for a moment as they passed by. Was there a chance that I would be exempted?
In the kitchen, our last meal, a turnip stew was boiling in a pot in the oven, which had almost fallen apart, the aroma of the stew spreading across the streets of a ravenously hungry nation. Abbu had picked up a few pieces of bread from the market, which had winded up early, that day. I never had the time to notice whether those pieces of bread bore the blood-stains of the shopkeeper. After all, you can hardly afford to grieve when you are consumed by hunger.
By then, the four pairs of heavy military boots had stopped near our kitchen. I had covered up my six-foot-tall torso in my Ammi’s burkha and was sitting rather awkwardly. Actually, I had never noticed earlier how ladies managed to sit so gracefully. I was searching for a ruse to cover up my hairy arms. Those people in military attire were in two minds—whom to target first, the still-breathing human or the boiling pot of stew? They were busy in discussion among themselves. For a moment, they were distracted by the sound of the engine of a plane that was flying in circles, overhead. My eyes had met my Abba’s. I had backtracked and was trying to make my way out through an open window when a volley of bullets whizzed past my ear and pock-marked the wall. I had never witnessed death so near! At that very moment, a pair of strong arms had gripped me and had torn away the burkha. Those hands had run along my muscular chest, coming to rest on my genitals. The man had uttered in absolute disgust “Zenana!” The others had spat to impress on me the fact that I was behaving like a real coward. Our nation which was in the throes of death was hell-bent on making sacrificial lambs out of its unwilling younger generation.
They had flung away the empty pot of turnip stew and had dragged me along. My familiar neighborhood, the playground where I used to play cricket, and the house that belonged to the love of my life, were slowly slipping out of my sight. My Abbu had picked up a shovel lying in one corner of our garden and was digging like crazy—drops of sweat mingling with tears—it was absolutely imperative that the pit he was digging should be at least neck-deep.