Translated by: AHMEDE HUSSAIN
The villagers had been waiting for him. As he returned to Shuhashini before dusk, those who looked beyond the sheaves of paddy, bowing in the late autumn breeze, saw Akalu walk in the fog that enveloped the pasture, slowly crossing Baikuntupur. When he finally appeared before them, in the huge swathes of waving yellow paddy filed, Akalu looked like a sad dove, and the villagers thought his heart had really grieved for Fatima. His shadow grew bigger and bigger as he turned at the district council building near Bishwashpara and walked on the narrow strips of dried earth in between the plots of land.
He had gone to his father-in-law's to find his wife who had disappeared. The villagers looked up and saw a gloom that shadowed that of the dusk in Akalu's desolate face. Near Konaibari he got up from the rice fields, walked towards his hut, past the people of Shuhashini, who gathered at the curve of Mia's house. Those who sat there, desperately waiting for news, wanted to stop him and ask, 'Akalu, son, tell us what happened'. But no such words came out of them, some scratched their heads and mumbled, 'So, you are back', and their curiosity dried up; Akalu, bending his head a little, stared at their faces, and went to the mango tree where his hut was.
The day Fatima disappeared, that day the members of her family realised it in the morning, or in the afternoon perhaps, or perhaps in the evening; one cannot tell. They–Akalu, Bakul and Amir Hossain– then looked for her in every corner of the house.
Akalu said, 'See if she is cooking.'
They went to the kitchen and saw it empty; they realised there had been no cooking that day, and that they had not had anything since last night; they felt thirsty and when trying to drink water from the earthen pot they found it empty, Akalu went to the well to fill the pot. He said, 'Go and look into the cowshed'.
They went, and saw there was no cattle feed; their only cow was ruminating near the wall, made of stripes of bamboo; they did not find her; they felt sad; they grew scared; Bakul and Amir started to cry and Akalu did not know where Fatima had gone or what he should do. He said, 'May be she has gone to the back of the house to gather leaves or she is in the courtyard.'
They went out of the cowshed and looked for her in the backyard, where near the clumps of bamboo that had grown she would sometimes gather the dry leaves that had fallen from the trees, which now blew silently in the late autumn breeze. Fatima was not there. Then they went to the courtyard, where on any other day, she would dig the earth with a heavy spade to sow seeds or would build a fencing wall with the thorns of the jujube tree; there were times when doing these she would forget her other works. She was not there either.
Then Akalu sent Bakul to Rouha's bog, saying, 'She might have gone there to pick some vegetable.'
Bakul ran out of the hut, and standing at Mahir Sarkar's house she looked at the bushy wet bog, but could not see any human presence in it. Leaving Bakul and Amir Hossain in the hut, Akalu went into the village to find Fatima– perhaps she was helping others to peel off the husk of paddy, or perhaps swaying her curvaceous hips she was preparing puffed rice. But she could not be found in any house in the village.
The day after he returned from his father-in-law's house, the villagers saw Akalu working as a day labourer in Mahir Sarkar's farm in Lakshmikhola. Those who worked on the farm at that time occasionally took a drag or two at the hookah, which was kept running by the fire of sponge wood. One of them removed the spit from the pipe and gave it to Akalu and said, 'Got any news of your wife?'
Taking his face to the rim, he took a few short drags and said, 'That bitch.'
The farmers and day-labourers of Shuhashini could not make the head or tail of his words, they scrutinised his face, and when one of them asked, 'You found her?', the villagers thought Akalu would not be able to evade an answer now. But he remained silent for a while, then squinting his eyes, he spat hard and said, 'Lost three days for that bitch, would have earned a hundred or two if I had worked instead.'
To the villagers, the picture still remained a little fuzzy, another of them went up to work and said, 'Don't think about money all the time, tell us if you have found your wife or not.'
'As if I would have left her there if I had found her, would have dragged her home.'
'Your wife has been missing for the last three days and you son-of-a-bitch are just sitting here and having tobacco?'
'What else should I do? Do you think my wife is like a cow that if she gets lost I will try to find her in the streets, asking ever random person, "Brother, have you seen my wife?"'
'So you will do nothing about it?'
'What am I supposed to do?'
He started to cry, tears of anger and frustrations rolled down the cheeks of Akalu Sheikh; this might have disquieted the villagers, or perhaps not, for one of them said, 'You haven't killed her, have you?'
Akalu wiped off the tears with the corner of a rag and got up. The labourers worked till the sun settled in the middle sky. In the afternoon they went home, brought food, which they had while sitting on a muddy lane. Nothing came from home for Akalu; he took long drags at the hookah.
'Hey Akalu, you want to spend the whole day on tobacco?'
'That's none of your business. It's up to me whether I have tobacco or shit for my lunch.'
'Is no-one cooking in your house? What are your children having? Can Bakul cook?'
'Had some rice left over from last night. They will have it. I will cook when I get home.'
The labourers shared their lunch with him. Then they started working again; bending forward, they cut sheaves of paddy and put them on the field. After the sun's rays had softened, they gathered the sheaves and carried them to Mahir Sarkar's courtyard. Some sat on the veranda and had tobacco. Akalu, with a gloomy face, reclined on the corrugated tin that the house was made of.
'Hey Akalu, have some tobacco and go home. You will now know how life is without a wife.'
Akalu took a puff and said, 'You say I have killed her.'
There had been a different scene altogether on a late autumn when Akalu had brought his bride. The villagers, who were busy cutting paddy in Bishwashpara, saw Akalu and the girl in the horizon, he was wearing a torn lungi and a shabby loose shirt, kicking up dust on the muddy road, holding a rope that was tied to a grey calf. After them was the girl, a little bent, hiding her face with the corner of her sari. A day later when he went to work on the firm, a villager from Chengnai or Banshoria said, 'Hey Akalu, you got married without anyone knowing anything about it?'
He remained silent. But the farmers did not let the matter go: 'You didn't invite us…'
'There is no point in inviting people…'
'There is no point…'
'Okay, if you won't give us a treat, you can at least introduce us to your wife. You have got married, you have got a calf and a wife…We won't eat them up, don't worry. We are curious to see what girl you have brought home.'
'Right! I will bring her to this blighted farm so that you can meet her. If you want to see her you have to go to my hut.'
The villagers of Shuhashini got to know her sooner than later, they had a closer look at the calf too, which Akalu's father-in-law Aijjal Pramanik had given him as dowry. Within days after she got married and came to the village, Fatima got out of her shell and started to do the chores of housekeeping. The villagers saw glimpses of her big firm breasts, the swell of her buttocks and her long round legs. They saw her everyday, in the yard, on the muddy road; one of the villagers told Akalu, 'Your girl is like a sharp machete.'
When Fatima disappeared and could not be found again, the villagers thought of Rafikul Islam, a student of Chandaikona madrasa, who used to live in Mia, the zamindar's house, taught the children of the village Arabic and helped Mohsin Ali, the muezzin of the mosque with the azan. When Fatima wanted to send Bakul and Amir Hossain, the twins, to the mosque to learn Arabic from Rafikul Islam, and Akalu paid no heed to it, she surreptitiously gave some rice to Rafikul, who sold it in Dhanghar Bazaar to buy books for the children. It was not long that she was found out. Akalu got furious; he said, 'Where did you get the money?'
'Sold some rice.'
'Where did you get rice?'
Fatima did not say anything.
'When the rice finishes what will you shove down your arse, you bitch? We all will have to starve then.'
'As if we are having a king's meal everyday.'
'Nothing pleases you. Go and bring food from your father's house.'
This enraged Fatima, and she, with her hands as firm as a pair of beetle-nut trees, flung the aluminium pot she was holding at Akalu (It was monsoon: the courtyard was brimful with water), it missed him and flew into the water. After they made up and she went to get back the pot, Fatima noticed that a big fish was floating dead in the water. The floodwater had brought it there, and the pot had struck its ancient skull when it was searching for food. Akalu sold the fish at 150 takas in Dhanghar Bazaar, bought some fine grains of rice, oil and molasses and told Fatima to make rice cake. The following day, she ground the rice and made some cakes. When she was done, Fatima sent Bakul for Rafikul, saying, 'Go and bring that young fellow who teaches you Arabic.'
Bakul went to Mia's house and brought him. In the kitchen Fatima took out the cakes from the earthen cooker and served them to Bakul, Amir and Rafikul. They chatted while dipping the cakes in sticky, sweet date syrup. Rafikul said, 'You must go to my home in Baghbere. The juice of date-palm tree is so sweet over there. The cakes that my mother makes with the juice and milk taste exceedingly good. You must come during the winter.'
Fatima liked the occasion– the evening, Rafikul's company. She made more cakes and gave it to him and said, 'Have some more. Don't be shy.'
She realised a little later that the rice she had ground had finished, and there was no cake left for Akalu. As she started grinding more rice, Akalu returned from Mia's house where he went to have some tobacco. He said, 'What are you doing?'
'I am grinding rice.'
'Why are you grinding rice in the middle of the night? When are you going to make cakes?'
'I did make quite a few, but they are finished.'
Akalu fumed when the event of the evening was unfolded before him; he said, 'Did I buy the rice so that you can feed your swain?'
Rafikul Islam of Chandaikona madrasa had already left when the villagers came to know about the incident, but the people of Shuhashini did not forget that Fatima had invited him home to have her cakes. One day, a farm labourer in Rouha's Bog asked Akalu, 'Found your wife?' To which he suddenly grew sullen.
'I think she has eloped.'
'With whom would she elope?'
'That student of Chandaikona madrasa, are you sure she didn't flee to him?'
Akalu did not say anything.
'Go and find out.'
'Things that you guys say!'
When Akalu married Fatima and brought her home, with her, the calf given to Akalu by Fatima's father also came. She tied the calf with a rope and set it grazing in the empty grassy way near their hut; within days it grew big and caught the villagers' attention. One of them told Akalu, 'What a marriage you have made! Both the girl and the cow you got are huge.'
'I have decided to sell it off.'
'Do sell it quick. I am finding your cow more and more seductive.'
Akalu could not bring himself to it, for Fatima wept the whole night when he told her about it. He abandoned the idea for a few days only to break it before her later: 'I am thinking of selling the cow and buying dried grass for our hut's roof.' Fatima started to weep again and he had to abandon his plan for the second time. A year later, when the calf gave no sign of becoming pregnant, Akalu thought that both the things his father-in-law Aijjal Pramanik had cunningly handed him down, the daughter and the cow, were infertile. It was aggravated by a villager's comment. The man told Akalu, 'Your father-in-law has passed you on an infertile cow.'
'Infertile, you say?'
'What else would it be? Have you noticed how many teeth has it grown? Should it not have got pregnant by now?'
That night he told her, 'Your father has given me a barren cow. I don't need it. I am going to sell it tomorrow.'
'Who said it was sterile?'
'Otherwise why doesn't it get pregnant? I am going to sell it tomorrow.'
When Fatima, having nothing to say, started to weep at the thought of losing the cow, which she named Kajla, Akalu gave up the thought of getting rid of the blighted animal. Another villager, one day, all of a sudden, asked him, 'How many years is it that you are married?'
'Why do you ask?'
'Could it not be that, like the cow, your wife is also barren?'
That night when he told her that, Fatima, bearing the pain of humiliation, kept mum. Akalu said, 'Why don't you speak?'
'What am I asking?'
'What are you saying?'
'Don't you understand what I am talking about?'
'No, I don't.'
'Your father has given me an infertile woman and a barren cow. Don't' you get it, bitch?'
Akalu waited one more year and one evening the cow was on heat, which, walking it back from grazing, Fatima noticed. Later that day, Akalu went to the breeding ground in Grampangashi to leave Kajla, the cow, to mate with a herd of bulls and a few days after that Fatima, too, got pregnant. It did not surprise Akalu that two young animals would become pregnant together, but it did create a stir in the village when both of them, in due course of time, gave birth to twins. One of the farmers told Akalu, 'Your father-in-law has given you good things– a nice girl and an excellent cow. Both of them look the same. Not only that, they both give birth to twins.'
It made Akalu notice that Fatima had given birth to two babies–one boy and the other a girl, and so did the cow. He mumbled, 'You are right.'
Akalu named the children Amir Hossain and Bakul: Fatima, on the other hand, named the calves Mynah and Tia.
One day, both Mynah and Tia, along with their mother, got lost. Fatima discovered it first; she went to the cowshed and found it empty. At first she thought Akalu took them to grazing. Later they frantically tried to find her in the filed, near the bog, but there was no sign of them. That night and the day that followed Fatima spent weeping. Akalu could not control his anger, he said, 'I am getting sick and tired of this.'
The farmers of the village, at that time, were working on the field, seeding seasonal crops. Some were having tobacco in the shade. One of them said, 'So, Akalu, you lost the cow your father-in-law had given you.'
'Yeah, couldn't find her.'
'You tried everywhere?'
'I tried the whole village.'
'It can't be true. I have never heard anything as such before. A cow can't get lost from the village.'
'What should I do?'
'You have lost three cows on a single day, and you are idling away, saying, “What should I do?”'
'I searched the entire village, I even went to Pangashi, looked into the breeding ground. The cows were not there.'
When getting back to work one of the villagers said, 'It can be that you have sold them in the bazaar, at night the traders from town come to the bazaar…', Akalu thought the comment did not deserve an answer, so he did not say anything. When another villager said, 'You are so greedy', Akalu lost his cool and replied, 'Man, it's my cow, why would I have to hide it, if I had sold it to the traders?'
After Fatima disappeared, the villagers noticed that Akalu diligently went to work in the farmyard every morning. They recalled his lost wife, her voluptuous body, which reminded them of the cow, whose bottom was so delightful to watch that some of them even looked at it lustfully. The thought of the cow, and its bottom, stirred memories of Fatima again; the purity and excess of her youth made them think that a relationship must have existed between these two, the woman and the cow that is. The villagers while chewing tobacco asked Akalu about Fatima: 'Any news of your wife?'
'A human being has disappeared overnight. What kind of nonsense is this?'
'Tell me what I should do.'
'Right! You don't have to do anything, just sit here and have some more tobacco!'
Akalu started crying, at first slowly, then it turned into a wail, the villagers must have felt sorry for him, or perhaps not, for another of them said, 'You haven't sold her, have you?'
'Have I sold who?'
'You have sold her to the cathouse. She had a good physique, must have fetched well.'
'Yeah, I look the kind of person who will sell his wife for money!'
'Why, didn't you secretly sell the cow that your father-in-law gave you?'
'Are cow and wife the same thing? Because I am poor, you think I will sell my wife for money?'
'Okay, if you didn't do it, go to the police station and file a complaint. If you are afraid to go and face the police, take the zamindar's youngest son with you. Don't sit here like a cow.'
'Will he agree to go with me?'
'He should. He was very fond of your wifey!'
Taking the advice of the villagers Akalu went to the nearby police station; but he went there alone, for Altaf Hossain, the zamindar's youngest son, after hearing Akalu's request said, 'I don't give a f*** where your wife has gone', and left the house in a huff. The Duty Officer of the police station listened to Akalu attentively: the disappearance posed a great difficulty to the officer– the woman could have been abducted or, worst still, she might have been murdered; in both cases, the clean image of the police station would be tarnished. He said, 'So, you want to lodge a complaint?'
'I guess so, sir'
'I don't understand what happened to your wife.'
Akalu did not reply.
'What's your name?'
'What's your father's name?'
'What do you do?'
'I do work, sir.'
'What kind of work?'
'Agricultural work, sir.'
'How many acres of land do you have?'
'I don't have any, sir. I give labour.'
Now that the officer understood he was dealing with a farm labourer he knew what he needed to do. He told Akalu that if he filed a complaint it would mean that there would be investigations, people would need to be arrested, and who knew, they might have to arrest Akalu or would have to remand him in custody. The officer suggested that Akalu go home and wait a few more days, she must have gone somewhere and would return.
Fatima never returned.
Akalu grew even more sullen. Bakul and Amir Hossain sat in the courtyard of their hut, every morning the brother and sister, after ablution, went to the mosque to learn Arabic. After Rafikul Islam of Chandaikona madrasa had left the village, the Imam of the local mosque Mohsin Ali took up Rafikul's responsibilities. The children of the locality sat in front of him, their young bodies bent to ceremonially recite passages from the Koran. Mohsin, who was also a farmer, said, 'Can't hear you…louder, Bakul!'
Bakul started to cry.
'Why are you crying, dear?'
'My mother has disappeared, master.'
'She will return, now stop crying.'
'She won't. She has died.'
The old man's heart went out to the twins: with a corner of his robe, he cleaned the tears from the child's eyes and said, 'Who said your mother had passed away?'
'Why doesn't she come back then?'
The Imam, to soothe the children, told the girl that he could tell whether their mother was alive or not. He explained it to them, 'You need to plant a tree.'
'Tell me what tree can be planted.'
'No, not mango.'
'Okay, plant a blackberry tree.'
'No, not blackberry.'
'You two tell me.'
'Let's plant a beetle-nut tree.'
'Nuh, not beetle-nut.'
'Ok. What about having a lemon tree?'
'Then, have a banana tree.'
That evening Mohsin Ali went to Akalu's hut, woke the children up from their siesta. Later the villagers of Shuhashini saw the imam roam around with missing Fatima's two children for a while; they saw the three go to Robbel the quack's garden and collect a banana seedling.
Mohsin Ali found a piece of wet ground in Akalu's courtyard, planted the seedling in it and said, 'Now you must say a sura and bless it.'
Then the three circled round it and said, 'In the name of our Lord, the most beneficient, the most merciful…Show us the right path…not of those who have gone astray.'
The Imam said, 'We'll never water this tree, and yet if it survives, it means Fatima is alive. And if it doesn't…'
The tree survived.
The villagers understood the old imam's trick, but the children did not. They zealously guarded the sapling, which, during the summer did not show any sign of growth, but in the monsoon it rose and rose and grew big and leafy. Within a few days, the tree became tall and firm, and seeing its round stem, the villagers wondered why of all these things the old imam had thought of planting a banana tree. The tree, its fleshy trunk and abundant leaves, reminded them of only one woman, they missed her presence. Bakul and Amir Hossain sat before the tree day and night and had grown the habit of talking to it:
'Why Ma! Why can't you come back?'
'Why won't you?'
'Don't we feel bad?'
As days passed by and new shoots started to grow, Akalu got annoyed; and when he said, 'No-one buys bananas nowadays, I must cut down the tree', his children started weeping. He had to abandon the idea, but he said, 'Mohsin Ali has pulled a trick on you. The tree that you have planted has died long ago. This is what happens with banana trees.'
'No, it hasn't died.'
'How many trees have you planted?'
'How many trees are there now?'
'The tree that you have planted has borne fruits and died.'
The old imam, meanwhile, died; Akalu got married again and everyone forgot about Fatima: the villagers saw an old scene recreated when Akalu, after getting married in Chandaikona, walked slowly into the field in Lakshmikhola, with a black cow and Shakina, his newly-wed wife trailing behind.
The next day the villagers gathered round, one of them said, 'You are so lucky. You have got a girl and a cow again.'
'That's none of your business.'
'Fine! When will we get to meet your new wife?'
'You want me to bring her here, in this f***ing farm?'
'Go to my place if you want to meet her…'
Akalu again tried in vain to cut off the banana trees, which formed a bush now. Shakina, after hearing the story and seeing the tears in Bakul and Amir's eyes, implored with Akalu, 'Let them be there.'
'These children do not understand that the old imam has cracked a joke. You won't get a farthing even for a dozen bananas. What is the point?'
'Please do not cut them. They are doing no harm, just occupying a little corner of the yard.'
'That tree, which Mohsin Ali has planted, has died long ago.'
But Bakul and Amir, growing up talking to the firm, lush, green clumps, really thought they were the same tree. Bakul, now blooming to womanhood, wore a sari. She became tall and slender, and the sight of her naked feet brought back memories of Fatima. One of the villagers told Akalu, 'Your daughter has taken after your first wife.'
The sari could not hide her beauty, for while bathing in the pond, when she rubbed herself with soap, the wonder of her black brown body steadily exposed itself. On one night she felt a shooting pain in her abdomen, she felt as though it would explode. Her sari, within a few moments, was all wet. That night, with a sublime enigma enveloping her, she got down from the bed and went to the bush where the banana trees were. She lied down and embraced one of the trees and said, 'Mother! Oh mother!' In the bush, the red ants of Shuhashini had been waiting for her. The next day they found Bakul's sari, soaked with blood, near the banana bush.
Shahidul Jahir (September 11, 1953–March 23, 2008) was one of the leading novelists of the country. His books include: 'Jeeban O Rajnaitik Bastabata', 'She Raate Poornima Chhilo' and 'Parapaar'.
Ahmede Hussain is the editor of 'The New Anthem' (Tranquebar Press, India; 2009).
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