Ambia could never think of it. Never ever. This is absurd. How can things come to such a strange pass? How can a woman be yoked to a plough together with a cow? It's quite unthinkable! Unimaginable! But facts prove stranger than fiction in Ambia's life. She herself is doing what was even beyond her wildest dream. She is pulling one end of the yoke with the cow at the other. She is trying to keep pace with the front feet of the cow. The yoke on the rugged neck of the cow and in the crook of her arms is failing to maintain enough equilibrium to pull the plough, causing inconvenience to both the woman and the cow. The cow turns her head and looks at her strange counterpart with large moist eyes. Ambia tries to ease the cow. She is big with young. Ambia's husband Kasem is guiding the plough from behind. The curved blade of the plough is digging and turning over the soil. Long furrows are being left behind.
Kasem heaves a sigh of relief. He couldn't have saved his neck if he hadn't made this unique plough team by today. Things seem to have taken care of themselves. Kasem does not know what it is called. Is it fortune? If so, fortune has smiled upon him. He has been able to play safe. Now he can be done with Keramot's job before long. Maybe, at the initial stage, this grotesque agro venture is not working smoothly, but soon, Kasem believes, it will. It will get used to dissolving all disequilibrium and Ambia and the cow will nicely team up with each other. So, Kasem may need at best twenty days to finish off Keramot's task. Then he will be free from all bounden duties. It is expected to happen to him. Otherwise he must face the music. Keramot Bepari is a tough nut to crack. Had Kasem failed to keep his word today, he would have come to do what he threatened him with yesterday. He is the last man to consider Kasem's plea. Thank God, Ambia has narrowly saved him at this go. Kasem wonders how she has realized the crux of the problem and solved it as if by magic. When his future looks completely black after the sudden seizure of his plough-cow by bank credit officers for breach of loan repayment contract, she appears before him like a living goddess. She is willingly doing what is totally unbecoming of a woman. Kasem, however, is not without any sense of guilt. It is surely beneath the dignity of his manhood that he has used his wife as an animal to serve his purpose. He too could have done the same. But he didn't. Has he then escaped it on the pretext of a chest pain? He is doing other work with his pain. Then why has he avoided it and tactfully passed it on to his wife? Is it not a howling shame on the part of a husband? But what can he do? Can he really help it? Kasem cannot think any more. He seems to have no obvious choice of his own. He is being dogged by the spectre of the harsh reality of everyday existence.
Kasem and Ambia have been married twenty years. Ambia is his second wife and fifteen years his younger than him. His first wife died in childbirth. Three months later he married Ambia, a full figure in a red-bordered sari and red blouse. She had long black hair hanging down to her hips. When she wore it in plaits tied at the end with a brilliant red ribbon, had kohl in her eyes and a small roundish black mark on her forehead with a slight touch of Kohinoor's Tibet talc , she looked like a fairy descending to Kasem's thatched house. Kasem would stare at her face and call her a wings-clipped fairy. Ambia would lower her eyes.
Kasem was always scared of losing his wife like a burnt child treading the fire. He still recalls that dreadful night when his first wife died. The unskilled village nurses made the delivery difficult. He heard his wife screaming out in terrible pain. Maybe they were trying to pull the baby out with all their might. At long last, the baby came out but not alive. The mother bled to death. Kasem did not any longer want his second wife to suffer the same fate. He promised to take her to the thana hospital during delivery. She would give birth to a living baby. A baby boy. He needed a son to stand by him in weal and woe. Kasem counted his chickens. But they didn't hatch. He could never put his wife in the family way. She was taken to the fakirs, dervishes and saints and wore amulets and drank charm-water, but all attempts came badly unstuck. Now the villagers call her a sterile woman. Some even titter. But Ambia keeps her lips sealed. She has to grin and bear it.
The day when the loan officers took away Kasem's cow in broad daylight, the sky over his head fell apart. They did not give him enough chance before the last straw. They even did not take into consideration the monga crisis. His cows were the real bread winner of his family. As a small contract ploughman, he barely earns his living. He himself cannot work hard for his chronic pain in the chest. During the last monga he borrowed money from Keramot Bepari conditional upon ploughing five bighas of his land. Failing that will amount from closure of further loan to lock-up. So Kasem went to inform Keramot of everything that had happened. Keramot was catching fish in his pond with a line and a hook. When Kasem appeared, he beckoned to him and then concentrated on the fishing. Kasem broke the silence through a gentle cough.
"How are you, Kasem Miah? How are things going along?" Keramot's eyes were fixed intently on the float.
"I'm not fine, Keramot Bhai, I've got into big trouble," Kasem replied diffidently.
"Your cow has been taken by the field officer." Kasem gave him a knowing look.
"Yes, Keramot Bhai, I'm finished. I'm a goner," cried Kasem in an injured voice.
"You asked for it. I forbade you to take loans from them. You turned a deaf ear.
Anyway, don't worry. After all, you're my neighbour. I bear some responsibility for you." Keramot sympathized with Kasem.
"How can I ask you for a favour again?
"Don't worry. Take as much as you need. Buy another cow." Keramot baited a trap.
"No, no, I won't sink into the sea of debt. How can I pay it back?' Kasem smelt a rat.
"Don't bother your pretty little head about that. Leave it all to me. You'll just put your thumb mark on a piece of paper. It's a mere formality. After you pay back, I'll tear the paper. You now think. A lot of money. A new cow. Treatment of your wife's sterility. A new baby." Keramot shot his last bolt.
Kasem felt giddy. Everything seemed to be spinning around him. Keramot must have an eye to his small homestead. His home. Sweet darling home. He can sleep tight in the gentle breeze under his bamboo grove even on an empty stomach. He cannot lose it like his cow. It is his last resort. He is sticking to it in memory of his forefathers. He would prefer dying to disowning it.
"Keramot Bhai, I don't need your money anymore. Please allow me some more time and I'll finish doing your work anyhow." Kasem grew desperate.
"You ungrateful dog! Now I get why people say two-footed animals shouldn't be helped anyway. You do whatever you like. I want my job done in no time. By any manner of means." Keramot flared up when he saw the opportunity was going out of his hand.
Keramot felt gutted but did not give up. He knelt in supplication.
"Please don't be so unkind to me. I beseech you. How can I plough your land so soon with one cow?
"I'm not supposed to know the way. I only know you've to do it most urgently. If you have no second cow, do it yourself." Keramot no longer considered him as foolish as he had been painted.
"I'm an ailing man. How can I pull the plough myself?" Kasem tried to argue.
Keramot reached the last syllable of patience.
"You have another cow at your home. You can jolly well yoke her to the plough."
"What do you mean?" Kasem caught his breath in an unknown fear.
"It's as clear as day. Ambia can draw your plough. She is a lusty woman and can do it much better than your old scraggy cows." Keramot explained as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do.
Keramot's words appeared as a thunderbolt to Kasem. His face wore a doleful expression. But he replied in a rather firm tone of voice.
Kasem's reply worked like a red rag to a bull.
"Then pay back my money to the last farthing."
Keramot demanded his pound of flesh. He did not like to waste his sympathy on scum like that. Kasem could not reply. He had no reply to such a thing. He came back home with a sore heart. He realized he had so far knocked his head against a brick wall.
Kasem cannot forget about Keramot's words. They are still ringing in his ears. There is no option but to accept his proposal. However indecent it is. He is an unfeeling brute. He can go to any length to achieve his ends. Kasem has already finished spending the borrowed money. To pay him back now is out of the question and to plough his land with one cow is next to impossible. He is between the devil and the deep blue sea. He can neither defeat the devil nor can he swim the sea.
He is taking his night meal seated on a small wooden seat near to the earthen stove at one corner of the courtyard. But the food is not going down his throat. Ambia is serving food as usual. After Kasem finishes she will take her meal. These days she is not eating with her husband lest his food be short. They are not having a square meal for months. Kasem has developed hollow cheeks. But Ambia remains the same. Monga does not leave any mark on her body. She has got only a slight tan in her skin. Apart from her household chores she nowadays has to help her husband in the field. Kasem's unease cannot escape Ambia's notice. She asks him in a low and caring voice:
"Is there anything wrong with you?"
"No." Kasem gives a very curt reply.
"You can't escape my eyes. Tell me what ails you.
"Keramot is forcing me to pay his money back."
"How's that?' Ambia's voice rises in tension.
"If I fail to plough his land in the nick of time, he'll force my hand to do that."
Kasem heaves a sigh of exasperation.
"If you don't pay…" Ambia is in a real sweat about the consequence. She tries to envisage the worst case scenario.
"He'll commit me to jail or oust me from my home. He is worse than the loan officers. The least he'll do is to refuse further loan." That's even the worst for us in monga time." Kasem is overcome with a terrible fear called hunger.
"Is there a way out?" Ambia can well read her husband's thoughts.
"Yes, there is."
"What's that? Tell me what that is." Ambia feels seriously concerned about their crisis.
"I have to pull the yoke myself with the cow on the other side." Kasem finishes the words at a single breath.
"How can you do that? You've a bad pain in the chest." Ambia is solicitous for her husband's comfort.
"Suffering pains of chest is far better than suffering pangs of hunger." Kasem is once bitten and twice shy.
"Both are bad. But don't worry. We'll rid us of both." Ambis keeps a stiff upper lip. Her last words sound resolute.
"But how?" There are shades of disbelief in Kasem's eyes. But he tries to catch at a straw.
It is midday. The sun is blazing hot. Kasem and Ambia are still in the field. It has to be ploughed and harrowed by today. It is the turn to harrow. Ambia and
the cow are dragging the harrow over the ploughed soil to break up lumps of earth. Ambia is breathing in short pants with a sway of her breasts. The bottom of her sari is lifted to her knees to allow longer footsteps. Its loose end is tightly wrapped around her waist. Her legs are covered in a thick layer of dust. Sweat is running off her body and soaking into the blouse. But she is taking no heed of this. She is pulling the yoke along with her animal pair. She is no longer feeling small. She accepts her place.
This is female province. She is full of pity for the cow. Strings of saliva are issuing from her mouth. She is with calf but not exempt from work. Ambia feels closer to the cow.
Dr. Rashid Askari is professor of English, Islamic University, Kushtia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org