Hasnat Abdul Hye was born in Kolkata in 1939. A fiction writer, novelist and author of travel books, he received the national award Ekushey Padak for his contribution to literature. His novel 'Sultan' was nominated for the Irish Impact Award in 1997. Hasnat Abdul Hye studied Economics at Dhaka University, the University of Washington and London School of Economics and also Development Studies at Cambridge University. After teaching Economics at Dhaka University he joined the civil service and served in various capacities including as Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh.
Hasnat Abdul Hye
Sunil is often late in finishing his work. Through the bamboo forest, mango groves, the lake and Kumarkhali village, his home lies. There are times when he travels alone, and other times when others take the same route with him. He walks home singing with an open voice and with a joyful mind. He sings well, says so those who have heard his songs. Once, a baul (travelling singers) asked him “Are you coming brother?”
“Where?” enquired Sunil.
“With us, I mean to roam around different places and sing.”
“Leaving everything behind, I cannot go around, I am a family man.”
“We are family men too, but our family is the world”, the baul said with a laugh.
“I am happy with my small family” replied Sunil.
“Then why did you sing that song of the Guru?”
“Because I enjoy it”.
Sunil works at a chili storage shop in the neighboring village market. Owner of the storage is Mani Sarker, who offered him the job. He said, “You are not in a good situation, the profession of your ancestors' isn't going to get you much further. There is no demand for pottery anymore; people are into new things nowadays. Come work for me. I will give you a salary every month and there will be no need to borrow money. Your family will be better off.” Sunil had said he would think about it. Mani Sarker told him that the offer wouldn't last long.
Before leaving, looking at all the broken pieces of pottery all around the front yard, Mani Sarker had told him to clean up. Sunil couldn't just throw them away.
“These are here from the days of my grandparents, they speak to me”, he said.
Mani Sarker laughed at Sunil and said, “You are going insane I tell you, hearing things from dead clay. People talk like you when they are in poverty. Leave pottery behind and come work for me before it is too late”.
Even Sunil's wife Maloti had said the same. “People are into plastic now, even in your best days how many can you sell?” Sunil realized, even at his home most crockeries are plastic or of aluminum.
Anger grew into him that day. He started moving his potter's wheel with great speed. Taking his hands off the fast moving wheel, he looked at it. He saw a lump of clay turned into a female figurine, although the wheel was empty.
Since that day, it had become frequent that he started moving the wheel with tremendous speed and then just stares at it, transfixed. “What does he see in the wheel?” wondered Maloti. It scares her to see Sunil acting like this.
Jamiruddin is not from the same village, but he comes here to buy handicrafts. He sells them in the cities. During the end of the Bangla year he comes to buy pottery. They sell well during this time of the year. After Sunil had accepted the job offer, Jamiruddin had come to visit Sunil. Jamiruddin said that it was better that he had taken the job at the market. “Although one should not absolutely forget the profession of his ancestors,” he added. Sunil was carrying guilt on his back since he started the job and left pottery. His son, Jatin, goes to school and is in grade five. It should be Jatin who breaks all ties with the family profession, he felt, not him.
His boss, Mani Sarker once asked Sunil “what is your son going to do once he finishes?”
“Some government job” replied Sunil.
“You need to pay a fat bribe to get into public service. To get a job as a janitor you need one lac. Two lacs for a peon and five lacs for a constable,” outlined Mani Sarker.
After hearing that, Sunil started seeing Jatin's school-bag as a bag full of money. Mani Sarker said “don't worry about the future, your son will find his own way.”
Jamiruddin asks Sunil to make more clay plates than he did last year one last time before he quits pottery. They are in great demand in the festival season in the cities.
“Who will buy so many plates?” asks Sunil.
“Rich people and their kids buy them to eat panta bhat (wet rice) in it.”
“Why would so many rich people eat panta bhat?” a surprised Sunil asks.
“Yes they will! To celebrate Pohela Boishakh! Panta bhat with fried chili and mach (fish).”
Sunil heard about it but never understood why rich people eat panta bhat on purpose. “They want to feel poor for one day. Make more clay plates this year, about two hundred,” says Jamiruddin.
“I wouldn't have to do something else had there been festivals like this all year round,” exclaims Sunil.
Sunil has started gathering mud for the plates. Good ones are not found nearby. Mud has to be gathered from river banks or lakes. Sticky mud is too heavy to work with. It has to be mixed with water for a long time to make it soft and supple enough to be molded by the potter.
“Are you going to back to pottery? What will happen to your job?” Maloti asks.
“No, I am not going back to being a potter, it's only for the New Year festival in the city” Sunil replied.
“Why so much mud? Jamiruddin just ordered couple of hundreds.”
“The demand is high for plates among the rich in the cities, and so I am also going to make a few pitchers and other types of crockeries. We can leave some for our home too.”
After gathering more mud Sunil takes a nap on the front yard. In the evening, Jamiruddin shows up and find him sleeping. He starts screaming at Sunil, “You are going to let me down, you need to make three hundred plates within three days and you haven't even started?”
“Don't worry, I promise I will get it done. I have made all preparations.”
Jamiruddin starts begging so that he does not ruin such a great opportunity for both of them. Also Jamiruddin's reputation as a trader would be affected if he does not deliver the goods. He leaves with doubts about Sunil.
Sunil starts working immediately. He quickly makes a few plates and then lines them up on the front yard. He looks at the moon and starts laughing and talks to himself, “You thought I couldn't do it. Now look at me. I still have my skills.”
Maloti wakes up in the middle of the night and finds Sunil still running his wheel and the font yard full of plates. She walks towards Sunil and finds him making a kolshi (Pitcher). All his attention is on his work. Maloti can see his sweaty body glistening in the moonlight. Once done with the kolshi, Sunil looks up and his eyes catch the Maloti's shadow against the moonlight. He says “Who is there, my goddess? I have been laboring for hours. Take rest with me, bless me. I haven't taken care of my goddess for so long.”
Sunil and Maloti's silhouettes merge under the moonlight. Sunil undresses Maloti. He touches her body like a potter, like he is molding her clay form, as if she is on the potter's wheel. She has never seen Sunil act this way, so possessed. He slowly coats her skin with clay, her entire body. The cold wet clay giving her sensations she has never felt before. Her thin frame becomes fleshy. The imperfections in her skin are smoothened out with clay. Her form becomes divine, her features made fuller and more prominent. Maloti's body gleams with youthful pride as she is born anew in Sunil's gentle hands.
In a voice of utter respect, he speaks to Maloti, “My Goddess, I pray to you. Bless me, accept my offering.”
Lying still, looking at her husband, Maloti sees Sunil's eyes close in devotion, his hands brought together in prayer. Maloti finds a devoted husband kneeling in front of her clay form, and sees the Sunil she used to know, under the light of the moon. Slowly, Maloti's body breathes, and beats, as does her clay mould. Her new form is given life.
After the Choitro Sankranti Utsob (last day of Bengali year) Sunil returns home and tells his mother, “I have found the perfect daughter-in-law for you. She will bless this house.” Sunil looks at his front yard. It's full of different sorts of pottery, almost looks like a goldmine. He walks amidst his creations, and fills his hands with gold.
Maloti becomes a goddess.
Illustration by Ujjal Ghose
Translated and abridged by Zia Nazmul Islam