Every Day, One Handkerchief -Mahmudul Haque
Blood At Sundown - Jafar Talukdar
The Journey- Rezaur Rahman
The Story of Sharfuddin And His Powerful Relative- Rashida Sultana
Man Without His Tongue- Syed Manzurul Islam
The Days Go By- Rana Zaman
Nostalgia For The Dodo Bird - Shahaduzzaman
What Do You Have On The Menu That's Totally Tasteless?- Syed Mujtaba Ali
The Girl Who Sold Incense Sticks- Delwar Hasan
Story Of A Cold Draught- Mainul Ahsan Saber
The Fowler In Him - Hasan Azizul Huq
1971- Tamiz Uddin Lodi
Beast- Sumanta Aslam
A Life Like A Story - Syed Shamsul Huq

The Story Of Sharfuddin And His Powerful Relative

Rashida Sultana
(Translated by Mamun Gaurob)

While stepping out of his home Sharfuddin noted that his wife's familiar appearance was different today - plumper, smoother and more doll-like. Sharfuddin's cousin was a major-general and in honour of his daughter's wedding ceremony, Sharfuddin’s wife Lina Begum had gone to a beauty-parlour. The beautification process had put Sharfuddin back to the tune of Taka 1200, and the thought raised a thin pain inside him. The cold breeze of the winter evening picked at their bones. Sharfuddin's daughter Polly was shivering since she was not wearing a sweater or a shawl, fearing that it would conceal her designer kameez embroidery. Sharfuddin's wife scolded her mildly, “You could have carried your sweater in your hands. Now you're going to freeze in the cold. All right, wear my wrap till we get to the house.” A scooter was only available at the end of their lane, and when they got there on foot, leaving his family standing on the road, Sharfuddin went to the shop by the roadside to buy cigarettes. Four of five persons from the neighbourhood were sitting on stools in front of the shop busy chatting. He borrowed a light from the shopkeeper, lit his cigarette, blew out smoke and addressed Mr. Nasimul Islam, “Brother, today we're going to Senakunjo to attend the marriage ceremony of the daughter of my own cousin, who is a major-general. Even ministers are going to come. You can't imagine how much trouble I had to face the whole week because of this marriage. My sister-in-law consults with me on every matter. These last few days I couldn't give any attention to my family. Shopping for household groceries, the children - your sister-in-law had to it all.'

“The marriage ceremonies of the sons and daughters of the elite are all held in Senakunjo,” Hafiz, sitting near Mr. Nasim, said.
“Oh brother, you can't imagine what a luxurious place Senakunjo is, all that lighting dazzles the eyes,” Sharfuddin said.

People sitting there tried to imagine the beauty of Senakunjo. While talking, a good part of the cigarette turned to ashes in his fingers.

During the wedding ceremonies of the major-general's daughter, Sharfuddin had been assigned minor responsibilities with regard to looking after the cooking, keeping guard over the food, etc., tasks that over the last few days he had performed with great enthusiasm.

On the occasion of the marriage ceremony Sharfuddin had to buy new clothes for his wife and children. Bajigori katan saris had come to the market. Madhuri supposedly had worn one in a movie and soon afterwards it had hit Dhaka markets. It was now a 'hot cake' in Dhaka bazaars. Sharfuddin had taken out a loan from House Building Finance to construct a second storey on his house, but now a major part of it had been spent shopping for his wife and children.

Despite the fact that at the wedding his major-general cousin and his wife were too busy to even spare them a moment, Sharfuddin's wife, worried that in the piles of gifts theirs might go unnoticed, did not leave it at the gift-counter. She sought out the major-general's wife from among the crowd and pressed into her hands the small, red-coloured box wherein nestled the gold ring. The wife gave her a thin smile before instantly busying herself with other guests. Still, Sharfuddin, his wife and children were charmed with everything they saw. There were a lot of ministers. A special table had been laid out for them. The major-general, his wife, the bridegroom, everybody was busy attending to them. The happier that lot was, the better the chances of the general's service extension. Sharfuddin himself sidled up to a state minister's table, who had been elected from his constituency. Dismissing the waiter Sharfuddin himself tore off the plastic wrap of the water bottle and poured water into the glass of the state minister, then said, “Sir, I am a staff of PDB. I am a huge supporter of your party. I myself, all the members of my family, even my fifteen-years-old daughter whom I showed as an eighteen-year-old, cast our votes for you.”

The honourable state minister looked at Sharfuddin and smiled. It was as if the door of Paradise had opened wide before Sharfuddin.

On the way back home he said to his wife, “People like us can't even dream of going to such an event.”

Next morning on the way to the bazaar he ran into some neighbourhood acquaintances. Without any preamble he straightaway launched into his tale, “Last night we went to our niece's marriage. You know, don't you, that a major-general is my cousin brother? It was his daughter's farewell reception. The whole program was held in the Senakunjo. What a hi-fi place is Senakunjo, you would know if you once go there to attend a party. Nearly all the cabinet ministers came. As the uncle of the bride almost everybody shook my hand. Somebody went ahead and asked the energy minister, 'Sir, are you really going to sell gas?' The honourable minister told us clearly, 'We are not giving away our gas.' You know, no matter what kind of pressure America brings on us, everybody has some love for his own country.” Et cetera. One or two people listened to him attentively, the rest were irritated and slowly slid away. “The LGRD secretary is my brother's friend from their college days. He treats me like his own younger brother.”

Sharfuddin's wife Lina Begum went to bring his daughter from school, where she had become friendly with some of the mothers who waited for their children, sitting and chatting on old newspapers on the pavement in front of the school. For long she had been hearing others tell different stories and had felt herself to be inferior. Sometimes she had thought, 'Oh if only I could travel abroad like the others, or go to Hotel Sonargaon to attend a marriage ceremony or a party.' Today, after a long time, she had a story to tell. Turning to someone she said, “Sister, yesterday we went to attend one of my niece's farewell reception. Almost all the movie stars came. Bipasha and Toukir's weddings were held there. Ministers, secretaries, they all came to my brother's-in-law's daughter's wedding. Mou, Zahid, Shakila Zafar, Ishita all of them were there. You know, face to face, Mou is quite dark-skinned. Ishita sat down to eat with us at the same table. You can't even imagine how much gold jewellery was presented at my niece's wedding. Even in Hindi films the heroes and heroines don't get so much gold at their weddings. Ornaments, saris, the whole shopping for the wedding was done in India. Even the saris for the bride's mother and the bridegroom's mother came from India.” Two or three ladies turned away and became immersed in their own talk.

After saying Asar prayers a few men sat outside the shop at the end of the lane to chat. From among them Mr. Zahir said, “Can't we get our road made into a pucca one by getting Sharfuddin to request his cousin? His cousin's friends are secretaries and ministers. The LGRD secretary is his college friend.” Mr. Kalam said, “Let's try talking to Sharfuddin and see how far he can go.” Mr. Kafiluddin, however, did not like the proposal, “Go ahead, and you'll find out that major-general cousin brother of his doesn't give a fuck about him. But that silly bastard Sharfuddin keeps yapping about him day and night.” Even then, some of the neighbourhood men went to Sharfuddin with the proposal, and he assured them that he would talk to his cousin and get something done.

While surfing the channels on the television Polly Akhter, Sharfuddin's daughter, suddenly came upon an interview of her major-general uncle. She called out to her parents, and her father sent her to the neighboring houses to tell them to watch that channel on TV. On that same day after Asar prayers, people started treating him in a special way.

After buying the house, Sharfuddin had planted a jackfruit sapling in a corner of the yard. This was the first time that jackfruits grew on the tree. They had eaten one or two of them. One day, while Sharfuddin was putting the biggest jackfruit from the tree in a sack after coming back from the office, his wife had wanted to know who was it for.

“I am going to give it to my major-general brother. I'm going to tell him to make our lane a pucca one,” Sharfuddin said.

“Can't they buy jackfruit from the market? I wanted to take the biggest jackfruit of our tree and show it to my father,” Sharfuddin's wife said.

“You can still do it -- you can show him two if you want,” Sharfuddin replied.

After much effort, having to negotiate past the guards at the gate, when he managed to reach the ground floor of the major-general’s house, the orderly stopped him. The orderly took him to his room and seated him there. Sharfuddin said, “I have come here with a jackfruit from my own tree.”

“Okay, sit down. Let me talk to upstairs first.”

Under the staircase, in a small room with only a single bed, there Sharfuddin sat waiting. The orderly came back after talking over intercom. “Sir and Madam both are having rest. You have been told to leave the jackfruit here.”

Sharfuddin was hurt. Because the whole way here he had rehearsed how he would tell his brother and sister-in-law that this was the first year jackfruits had grown on his tree and that he had brought for them the biggest one of all. But above all, his plan was to take this opportunity on a holiday to request his brother to arrange for a pucca road for his locality. His status would rise in the neighbourhood.

So another day, long before his office shut its doors for the day, he went to the major general's house. When the door opened to reveal his sister-in-law, he fell to the ground and touched her feet in a special salaam. Embarrassed, his sister-in-law moved her feet away. “Oh Bhabi, after a long time I've met you, so I felt like honouring you by touching your feet,” he said.

After the formalities of enquiring after her health and health of her children, he came to the point. “Bhabi, if you could just tell my brother. For him it's nothing at all. One phone call and it's done. Please, Bhabi. Everybody in our neighbourhood says the same thing: While our son is such a big officer, such a big gift, an even bigger gift is our goddess-like daughter-in-law.”

Afterwards, for some days with Sharfuddin himself running back and forth to the ministry, sometimes letting drop the fact that the major-general was his brother, sometimes bribing the clerk, he managed to get the fund allocated for a pucca road. Whereupon Sharfuddin soon became a neighbourhood leader.

While the mother of his major-general brother was still alive, Sharfuddin had managed to get a photograph of his brother in his uniform from her. He had hung an enlarged copy of it on the wall of his drawing room. There was another photo of Sharfuddin with his brother, both very young, which was also hung in the drawing room. Though he suffered from minor humiliations at his brother's home, nonetheless in his neighbourhood he was respected as a cousin of a big military official. And lately, his work in the matter of the pucca road had increased his status even more.

Compared to the other girls of their locality Sharfuddin's daughter Polly Akhter was quite pretty, as well as being good in her studies. After adding in his extra income, Sharfuddin's overall earning was sizeable, and he dreamed of marrying his daughter to a doctor or an engineer. These days all the good, prospective bridegrooms enquired about their future father-in-law's bank balances. In the meantime a matchmaker had been pursuing them for some time. The groom-to-be had a BA. He had a government job. At first they hadn't liked the proposal, had straightaway said ‘no’ to the matchmaker. But the matchmaker had been persistent. Like a jackal he was always behind them, trying to endlessly persuade them.

Then Sharfuddin's wife began to soften a little. It was because her husband, despite being a clerk, had become the owner of considerable bits of property in Dhaka city. Her daughter at least would not have to live poorly. After a long period of doubts and hesitation she implored her husband, “Come on, why don't we go and talk to brother general, he might give us some good advice.”

On that day the major-general brother was at home, and perhaps was in a good mood. He was relatively courteous with Sharfuddin and his wife. He listened about the marriage proposal of their daughter with interest. At first he said, “You are going to marry off such a young girl?” Then after thinking about it a while he said, “It's such a great stress marrying off a daughter, why, take Allah's name and go forward with it.” At one point he added, “I will attend your daughter's marriage ceremony.”

Preparations for the marriage ceremony then ensued. At first they had planned to hold the ceremony at Ujantek Community Centre. Sharfuddin's wife said, “General brother has said that he would come to the marriage ceremony. Let us arrange it at a big community center.”

The bridegroom's family was informed that the marriage had been arranged according to the wishes of the bride's elder uncle the major-general. The neighbourhood people also came to know that the marriage had been given the go-ahead by the bride's uncle, a big army official, who would be present at the wedding.

The marriage was settled, ignoring the girl's tears and reluctance to get married. Though the bridegroom was a BA, he had a big family with parents, brothers and sisters. About four years back Sharfuddin had arranged a big feast on the occasion of the circumcision rites of his two sons. With high hopes they had invited the major-general brother. He had not shown up, and they had surmised that it was because Ujantek's narrow lane was too difficult for him to negotiate. This time, since he had promised that he would come, when they began to enquire about more luxurious community centers in the city, the neighbourhood people informed them that Shohag would be the best. It had AC. At the marriage ceremony one well-decorated table was laid out separately in a corner, complete with napkins, spoons and forks like in five-star hotels. The bridegroom’s party took it for granted that the special arrangement was for them. A little later, after talking with the bridegroom's party, they learnt that the table had been reserved for the bride's major-general uncle and his family. Both the bride's and the groom's parties were to sit there waiting to view the distinguished guests when they arrived. Food was delayed till they could wait no longer, and even then before serving it Sharfuddin contacted the home of his major-general brother via telephone. He was informed that his brother had diarrhea. He could not come, even though the bride's father had let it be known to his daughter's would-be father-in-law and various uncles-in-law that the bride's own uncle was a major-general.

The bride's new in-laws and some of Sharfuddin's neighbours asked, “Don't you have a brother or somebody who is a major-general or the chief of the army? Is he not coming to your daughter's marriage ceremony?”

“He has a severe diarrhoea and vomiting. They say it's food poisoning,” Sharfuddin explained.

At his home the major-general's wife reminded him, “Time and again Sharfuddin has said, 'Bhabi, we are doing it at the Shohag because we are expecting that you are going to come'.” Leaning back on his pillow the general replied, “Have your wits left you? How can I attend such a marriage ceremony given the level I'm at? Isn't it enough that I even acknowledge them as my relatives?”

The next few days wer a busy period of grief at bidding goodbye to their daughter, as well as having to entertain different groups of relatives, counting the gifts and with other such formalities. When the crowds thinned, with her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her husband clustered together, Sharfuddin's wife raged at him, “Saying ‘major-general brother this’ and ‘major-general brother that’ makes fourteen generations of you foam at the mouth. If you could, the lot of you would get together and call him ‘papa’. But he couldn't care less about you. The general brother said it was okay, and promptly you married off your daughter to a clerk! When we could have arranged such a good marriage for our pretty daughter with a doctor or an engineer. All the neighbours are poking fun at me, they're saying: ‘Who gives such a beautiful girl to such a groom!’ If ever you go to any event hosted by your brother, I've got news for you.” Though she was a clerk's wife, Sharfuddin's wife was from a comparatively well-off family. She had a little extra vanity. It did not stop her from talking to her neighbours about the power, influence, servants and peons of the major-general whenever she got the opportunity. However, they did stop going to their brother's home.

Soon after that one day the major-general's wife invited them to their home by sending over the orderly. In an instant Sharfuddin and his wife swallowed their pride and cooled down: It must be because their brother and sister-in-law wanted to apologize for not coming! Why, they could have conveyed that over the phone. That night, dressed in their best clothes, husband and wife presented themselves at the general's home. Immediately after greetings were exchanged, the sister-in-law said, “Sharfuddin, you and bhabi are the ones close to me. In my time of trouble I instantly thought of you. My eldest daughter is going to have a baby soon. Caesarean. All her in-laws stay abroad. Bhabi, would you please stay with my daughter these few days in the hospital. I myself am not in good health so I am requesting you.”

Sharfuddin's wife felt honoured on being given this responsibility. Summoning her daughter from her in-law's home to look after the children and household, she packed her things into a bag and presented herself at the clinic by the following afternoon. Before bringing her daughter back she confided to the latter’s mother-in-law, “The daughter of my major-general brother-in-law is going to have a baby. My nephews and nieces swoon on hearing my name. She is going to give birth but she doesn't want her mother - she wants her aunt by her side.”

Her niece Anushka and her husband treated her with respect at the clinic. Anushka's younger sister also came in from time to time. She was a beauty. She stayed in America. Both the girls enquired after their aunt. They greeted her warmly. The children of the powerful people are better human beings than their parents. But Anushka and her husband did not introduce her to their friends and relatives. It was then that she felt very uncomfortable. Out of fear for being taken for a maidservant, she would dress up, put on as much make-up as possible. She also carefully selected the saris she wore.

Returning home this time Sharfuddin's wife vowed never again to go to anything connected with the major-general. These rich people had no scruples about using their relatives when they needed them, yet refused to introduce them as their relatives. But the sad truth is that they could not behave equally rudely with them. Given the slightest sign of welcome they again melted. Coming back from his office saying that he had urgent business to attend to, Sharfuddin left for his village home in Munshiganj that very afternoon. When he came back the next afternoon his wife wanted to know about the matter in detail. Sharfuddin replied, “My major-general brother wanted me to arrange the sale of his land.” Flaring up with anger his wife said, “I don't feel like sharing my life with such a spineless man like you. All you know is how to run after powerful people. All they do is get their job done, then they throw you away, do not ask about you. It's only I who'll live with you. If it was some other woman she would have beaten your head with a broom and run away long ago.” After a whole day of chasing customers, and tired from his long journey Sharfuddin's temper too rose, “Damn whore, you in whose family there's been nobody in generations worth a damn, what would you know about powerful relatives?” Sharfuddin's wife exploded, heaping bitter curses on his long-dead parents and subsequent generations. At one stage she savagely beat her son who was watching TV instead of doing schoolwork.

After a few days one midday Sharfuddin came back home in a great hurry. He said to his wife, “There is a sad news. The younger daughter of my major-general brother has died. His brother called me at the office.”

Since there were lots of jeeps and cars in front of the house they had to get down from their scooter at some distance from the house. Reaching it they learnt that some minister had come, and was upstairs consoling the parents.

Time and again Sharfuddin's wife could recall the sweet face of the girl. This girl was brought up in USA. She had studied there, staying with her aunt. She had seen first seen the girl at her eldest sister's marriage ceremony. When the eldest sister was giving birth to a child the younger one, on vacation, had come to the clinic. Her mother had introduced her to Sharfuddin's wife in the clinic, “She is your aunt.” On hearing it the girl had answered with a sweet smile, “Salam alaikum. How are you?” Her mother had also added that her daughter had completed her PhD and taught in a university. Sharfuddin's wife had been surprised. She thought, 'She looks like she's barely in college. How can such a little girl complete a PhD and teach in a university?', then had repented marrying her own daughter off so young. Returning home she had recounted in detail to the neighbouring women of the beauty and manners of her doctorate niece, who seemed to be hardly 18 or 20. Some of the listeners had thought, “Oh! If only I had such a daughter!' Giving the example of her niece Sharfuddin's wife had made her daughter understand that she should continue with her studies even after her marriage.

They had heard that the girl had died falling down from a rooftop. It was only a relative fresh from their village who enquired of Sharfuddin, “Didn’t the girl committ suicide?” Sharfuddin did not know the answer. When he asked some servants of the house about it, they said they didn’t know anything. A crowd of well-to-dos with aristocratic miens surrounded their cousin brother and his wife. One lady with a veil on her head and natural-coloured lipstick on her lips was chanting prayers while holding a rosary. Sharfuddin and his wife struggled through the crowd and stood beside their brother and sister-in-law. Addressing her sister-in-law Sharfuddin's wife simply said, “One can't find such a golden girl nowadays!” Their sister-in-law began to cry again. When she started wailing like a mad woman everybody tried to console her. She was moaning and saying, “I could never clasp my child to my breast for even a few days. Why did I have to send her to America!” The major-general brother looked like a fallen tree in a heavy storm - twisted, flattened, utterly desolate.

After some time they went outside.

Returning home by scooter Sharfuddin said, “The girl died falling down from the roof. Seems like she did commit suicide. At this age she did not get married so maybe it's possible?” Sharfuddin's wife remained silent for some time. Then she said, “Who knows? Could be.”

They did not exchange another word while on the road.

artwork by sabyasachi hazra

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