Razia Sultana Khan
The mustard oil hissed and sputtered and Naila cringed as droplets scorched her exposed arms. She flipped the pieces of fish simmering in the frying pan until they looked like golden wedges in the flickering flames of the wooden fire from the chula. She paused to reach out and help herself to a pinch of salt from the dry gourd beside the cooker. Spitting a thin dribble on it she rubbed it between her fingers and dabbed spots on her arms where she sensed the hot oil had landed. Naila’s pale face glistened and even as she inhaled the spicy rich fragrance, she frowned. He shouldn’t have brought the fish so late at night.
Kashem had spent the evening with his friends at the club-house, a small building which the Ministry of Youth Affairs had provided for the entertainment of the young people in the area. In the afternoons the place was a pandemonium of shrieks and laughter interspersed with the sporadic click-clack at the carom table and the rhythmic ping-ping of a table tennis game in progress. However, as soon the Maghreb azan rang out, the boys would disperse and the commotion dwindle and die out as if whisked away by a magical call. Within an hour older men, husbands and fathers, would start trickling in and organise themselves into groups, some around a deck of cards and others around the TV. They avoided the board games, even the bravest unwilling to be the target of caustic comments from the group around the card table still as bronze sculptures, only moving to play their hand. Kashem was usually home by 10.00 p.m. but that evening the discussion around the TV had erupted into a heated debate. This was also usual as any event or comment to do with sports, religion or politics sparked the seemingly friendly group and polarised them into two political camps hurling cloaked abuses. That evening a controversial statement made by the leader of the opposition acted as the catalist. Caught up in the argument, Kashem lost track of time. It was a little before midnight when he finally rapped at his front gate. In his right hand he held a thick twine through which was hooked a large elish fish. He held it up as he entered, a grin on his ruddy face. He looked so much like Monty, their ten-year-old son, when he had been specially naughty, that her lips quivered and a smile broke out before she could cover it with a glacial look. Kashem’s nervous grin turned to a relieved one. “So late,” was all she murmured. Kashem pondered over the ambiguity of the words but decided to focus on the fish. “I got it cheap because it was so late. I don’t know how long the vendor had been standing at the crossroads, but if this giant had turned up in the morning market it would have cost at least twice as much.” He continued in a softer voice, “I felt bad for the fisherman, but the fish would have spoilt overnight. He was happy enough to get rid of it. And I know how much you love elish.” His words ended in a caress. Naila lowered her eyes pulling her aachal over the lower part of her face and relieved him of the fish. Kashem knew that he had landed her with extra work late at night but the temptation had been too great. On his brisk walk home in the cool November night, his eyes had caught the silver glint of the giant fish as the vendor swung it to and fro shoulder high to attract his attention. “Just caught it tonight. You can check the gills, it’s still blood red,” the vendor said. A thin man with wick-like legs which stuck out below his lungi, he brought the fish up to Kashem’s eye level, small knots of muscles bulging on his arms.
“Just Tk. 200,” he said as Kashem stopped to look at the fish. Kashem decided it was too large for their small family and continued walking. “You look like a nice gentleman.” The vendor was walking alongside him now, “I can let you have it for Tk 150.”
Kashem shook his head and kept walking but his pace slackened. “Tk. 120. Just for you.” The vendor stopped a few steps behind Kashem. Getting no response, he persisted, “How much will you pay?” Kashem stopped but didn’t say anything. He seemed to be considering as the man came running up to him, but just as he had almost caught up, Kashem started walking again. “Tk. 80, my final price.” The vendor’s voice had lost its bounce. Kashem took a few tentative steps but all was quiet behind him. The haggling was over. He took out four twenty taka bills and happily unburdened the vendor of the large fish. Despite the weight of the fish he was now carrying, Kashem couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he walked home.
He’d ask her to guess the price. She’d never be able to. In his head he played the different ways she’d cook the fish. A few pieces fried crisp with onion and garlic. And a dish of elish cooked with mustard sauce. The head would go very well with moong lentils or perhaps with eggplants and potatoes. Naila would know what to do. His mouth watered at the different flavours the various possibilities conjured up.
Naila was quiet as she served him dinner. At times she just didn’t understand him, she thought. Bringing raw fish home at night was bad enough but straight from the crossroads was worse. Spirits, especially the trouble makers, roamed freely at night and were attracted to strong odours and their partiality to fish was common knowledge. Who knew what had followed it home? She respected what her elders said and heeded the warnings handed down. She tried to push away the thoughts crowding her head as if thinking them would, in some way, give them a body. And if she said anything to Kashem, he would give her an indulgent smile and tease her for being superstitious.
Monty woke up and sensing she needed to get away insisted that she tell him a story. He trapped her by twirling one corner of her aachal around his index finger until his fist looked like it was encased in a glove. She told him the story of the Fish Crone who roamed the countryside looking for fish and if unsuccessful, appeased her hunger on children who happened to be awake. She darted a sidelong glance at Kashem but his only response was a gentle snore. Soon Monty too was asleep, his head tucked under the pillow. Naila untangled her sari from his loosened fingers, placed his head on the pillow and dropped a light kiss on his forehead. Treading softly on the cold cement floor, she headed towards the kitchen. Naila’s kitchen was a little hut some fifteen feet from the main house. It stood on a mud elevation to keep the whole structure above water during the monsoon when the water level rose. At times even the elevation was no protection and the water would sweep over the sod-covered floor. Four sturdy bamboo poles rose from four corners of the elevation which formed the floor of the kitchen and four additional ones stood on the sides as supports. Around these were wrapped sheets of woven bamboo strips. The door was a large sheet of the woven bamboo surrounded by thicker pieces. This bamboo wall came up to about five feet while the angled roof, made from similar bamboo sheets strengthened with sprays of coconut branches, slanted down to meet the frame leaving a horizontal space of about six inches to act as windows. Neat piles of shining aluminum pots and woks lined one side of the kitchen and ladles and spoons of different sizes hung from a long wooden length nailed horizontally on top.
In a corner of the sod floor stood the tri-headed chula. She had made it herself using a large biscuit tin as a base. A little clay, some water, and her swift expert fingers had coaxed the wet mass into what looked like a potbellied squatting goddess holding out her stunted hands to the sky. Below the two hands was a round hole through which Naila fed the cooker with wood and dry kindling and the goddess turned that into flamed tongues that cooked Naila’s humble meals. Every time Naila looked at her chula, she felt a warm twitch in her heart, a feeling of pride at her handicraft. At times when she gave it a make-over with a fresh coat of clay paste she felt herself blush. There was something erotic about the chula but though Naila looked at it longingly, she couldn’t put her feelings into words.
“Hoot! Hoot!” The call of an owl in the distance, splintered the darkness. Startled, Naila pulled at the front portion of her thin cotton sari and spat lightly into her cleavage. Once, twice and once again: “Thu! Thu! Thu!” Minute droplets of spittle shot forth, as she performed the age-old ritual to ward off the evil eye. Naila got up and squinted through the narrow gap above the bamboo wall but the darkness was an invisible force holding the night. She wondered what the owl saw out there and pulled her sari tight over her head making sure no tendril of hair escaped. She hoped Monty did not wake up. An indulgent smile touched her lips but the smile vanished as she recalled Malik’s complaint the day before. Malik lived in the neighbouring house and the date palms that lined the dirt road connecting their cluster of houses to the main road, belonged to him. Since it was winter he had cut grooves in the trees and attached globular clay pots to the trees. All night the sap trickled into the pots which were collected in the morning. According to Malik, the pot hanging on the palm tree closest to Kashem’s house was always empty when he went to collect it. He decided the culprit was Monty. Naila couldn’t believe that Monty’s short legs were capable of climbing palm trees. What if he’d fallen? She had mixed feelings as she pictured her little boy climbing the tree. She hoped it was a young tree where the pot could be easily reached as it hung overhead. She imagined his nimble feet gripping the grooves hardened from past tapping running up the tree. Uncalled for, a twinge of pride hit her in the guts. The villagers had an unwritten code. Travellers were welcome to quench their thirst at night and drink from the pots and as payment send up a prayer for the absent host. After all how many travellers passed the same route at night? Naila brooded unhappily over their neighbour complaining about something so trivial. But she was immediately contrite realising that Malik too depended on the sap which his wife thickened into the dark molasses which provided the sweet dishes for the rest of the year. Monty had made the mistake of drinking from the same tree every day. Naila decided to have a word with Kashem the following morning. The boy’s pranks were getting out of hand. Naila sensed the change of pitch in the spattering of the hot oil and knew that the fish was done. The aroma was like a blanket offering her warmth and satisfaction. She lifted each piece of cooked fish with a coconut-shell spatula, careful to let the drops trickle back into the wok. There were still about six or seven pieces left. Another fifteen minutes.
She wished, as she had done often in the past, that she had made another chula inside the kitchen. There were two large ones outside in the open air but she only used them in the daytime. Well, first thing tomorrow, she promised herself and then smiled sadly, knowing that by tomorrow morning tonight’s urgency would fade to be replaced by other priorities. Naila had almost finished placing the final layer of fish into the oil when she stopped. The stillness was as tangible and as thick as the smoke rising from her fish. Somewhere an owl hooted again.”Thu! Thu! Thu!” Naila repeated the ritual of spitting, very softly. Naila listened to her body’s reactions before she started analysing them; her body’s prickle as the tiny hair at the nape of her neck stood up. She strained her ears but all she heard was a stillness that could be sliced with a knife. And then she heard it.
A soft squeal, nasalized. The crackle of the fire and the hissing of the fish faded in the background as the pounding of her heart took over. She sat motionless for what seemed like ages and then slowly relaxed. She laughed at herself for letting her imagination take over. If Kashem had been with her how he would have teased her! But even before that thought had solidified, she heard it again. Her mind laboured over the words and slowly meaning attached itself to them. “Give me some fish.” Naila mouthed the words to herself. She started reciting “La Ilaha Il Allah….La Ilaha Il Allah,” over and over again. The mental chanting calmed her somewhat and she became aware that the fire was dying out.
Naila looked around her kitchen. What could she do? If she screamed for help her neighbours would hear her before Kashem did, and she would end up being the butt of jokes in the morning. She could also just keep praying and hope "it" would go away. As if in response to her thoughts the nasal words rang out once again, “Give me some fish!” It wasn’t going to go away. Tightening her jaws, Naila forced herself to look in the direction from where the sound was coming. There was a small hole in one corner of the kitchen floor which acted as drainage. It was from here that the “voice” was coming. She went closer. In the dim light of the kerosene lamp she saw - a hand.
It was more like a claw. There were three screwy talons attached to a stump. Naila deliberated for a moment, then took a piece of fried fish, a bony tail piece, and threw it to the corner. It stayed there for a moment, then the claw covered the fish and both vanished. Naila realised she’d been holding her breath and exhaled.
The pungent smell of burning fish drew her attention back to the wok and with a muffled curse she removed it from the chula. It was too late. One side was scorched, the succulence and softness gone, the spices all burnt. Fear gave way to annoyance. Kashem would be upset, and through no fault of hers. She had hoped to cook some of the fish the following day, perhaps with eggplants, and send to Malik’s wife. A gesture of friendship, and an offering of peace. As she removed the pieces of fish she wondered how she would get back into the house. Her body felt taut; it would be so nice to lie down. The peace lasted a few minutes and then was broken with the nasal voice, “Give me some fish.” I’ll give you some fish alright, she mumbled to herself and threw a burnt piece towards it. The hand moved over it but the fish stayed there. Whatever it was, obviously did not care for burnt fish!
Naila looked out from the opening on top of the walls. She might as well keep her eyes closed for all the light there was. She calculated that it would be another three hours before the day dawned. She had to act. Her eyes flitted around the little kitchen. There wasn’t much in the way of ammunition but something had to be done.
She got up and twisted her sari around her tightly and tucked the ends in to allow her to move freely. She then emptied the wok of the remaining pieces of fish and filled it with oil. A few thin pieces of well-dried jute sticks that she kept to start a fire with, now gave it a quick bright flame. In a few minutes a thin swirl of blue smoke started spiralling up, signalling that it was ready. She glanced in the direction of “the hand.” It too, was ready and waiting. With measured steps she lowered the wok and brought it close to the hole. In one sweeping motion the force of which was a shock even to herself, she hurled the hot oil splashing into the hole.
There was a screeching noise that rose and fell and then faded away. A pungent smell invaded the night. Naila put her hands over her ears and slid to the floor. Later… much later… she opened her eyes. She could hear voices and realised someone was calling her. It was Kashem shouting her name between the thumping on the flimsy bamboo door. She uttered a quick prayer of relief and staggered to the door. As soon as she saw Kashem’s face she knew it wasn’t over. She followed him into the main house. The stench of the night before had preceded her. Monty turned to look at her with eyes that were at once accusing and guilty.
Razia Sultana Khan, a fiction writer and poet, is at present a Ph.D candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has appeared in The Daily Star Book of Bangladeshi Writing, From the Delta, Six Seasons Review and elsewhere. Her short story "The Beggar" has been nominated for Best New American Voices, 2008.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006