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You have Lost your Son!

By Farhanaz Rabbani

Jethi Maa[1]..you have lost your son! He will never come back home!”

With these words, Kalam entered the old hut where his Jethi Maa was cooking lunch for her family. Having lost her husband at a very young age and with no financial support of her own, Chand Banu had to let her elder son stay as a jaigir[2]  in faraway homes so that he could continue his studies. Once he got admitted to Jagannath College in Dhaka, the whole village was elated. Habib would go to the big city Dhaka to do his ISC [3]! Habib, the eldest son of the family was always a bright student. His local schoolteachers wondered at his intelligence and diligence. Coming from a very poor family, Habib never gave up on his dreams. After his father’s death, the additional burden of looking after his mother and siblings was thrust upon him when he was only in Class 4[4]. He used to sell peanuts when he was not at school. Never averse from taking in new challenges, Habib did all kinds of manual jobs from his childhood — some of which would shock some of his colleagues much later in his life.

In Dhaka, he was struggling to find a place to stay. He needed to find a place soon or else he would jeopardise his studies. A family finally agreed to keep him as a jaigir. They liked the quiet and humble boy who was full of dreams and ambitions of his own. As the days went by, they began to appreciate the intelligent young man and decided to let him tutor their children at home. Later Habib would recount how the mistress of the household would force him to eat more and to have milk everyday so that he could study well.  Gradually they embraced him as a member of the family and began to see him as a prospective son-in-law for one of their daughters. Habib of course had no inkling about their secret plans. He was too intent on earning his keep and focusing on studies. Every month he used to send the extra money he earned from his private tuition classes to his mother. His goal was to sit for the ISC exams.

On a pleasant spring day, when Kalam informed his Jeti Maa that he was going to Dhaka on an errand, he took Habib’s address. Not knowing how her son was doing, his Jeti Maa held his hands and tearfully told him to see how her beloved son was doing.

Reaching Dhaka, it took a few days for Kalam to sort out his affairs. Finally, after three or four days, he went to meet Habib. When he knocked on the front gate of the house, a young girl opened it. As soon as she heard that he was from Habib’s village, she let him in and took him to Habib’s room. A tiny little room with a desk and chair at the corner was lit by a hurricane in the mellow evening. Kalam stepped into the room and said “Habibullah! Are you here?”

 Overjoyed with this surprise visit from his cousin, Habib jumped up from his chair and embraced him. It felt as if the whole village of Kafilatoli had come to see him! How he missed his family and friends back home! Taking Kalam’s hands, Habib urged him to sit down on his tiny bed and asked him about his mother, brothers and sisters.

Kalam was happy to see Habib in good health and spirits. But, as he looked at his cousin animatedly describing his experiences as a college student of Dhaka, a strange ominous thought entered his mind. Kalam noticed how the family was taking care of Habib. He was well fed and was treated as a beloved member of the family. And furthermore, he also noticed that there were three young beautiful girls in that family — all students of Habib. It did not take long for Kalam to understand the true motives of the family. Back in those days — in the 1930s and 1940s, it was not unusual for parents to marry off their daughters to well behaved and academic jaigirs. It was generally known that these young boys were destined to shine later in life either as government officers, doctors, academicians or reputed scholars of the country. Many parents successfully married their daughters to these bright young men with the hopes of ensuring the best future for their daughters.

Kalam left for his village early the following morning. Hurrying into his Jeti Maa’s hut, he did not waste any time to beat around the bush.

“Oh Jeti Maa! You have lost your son. He will never come back home again!”

Shocked, Chand Banu dropped the wooden ladle on the terracotta stove and ran towards him. “What do you mean Oh Kalam? What happened to my Hobu?!”

As soon as she heard about the family of three daughters with whom her dear son was staying as a jaigir, her whole body froze. The grim image of her dear son being bewitched by an unknown strange Dhaka family — people who belong to a totally different region – was agonizing to her.

Although she was illiterate, Chand Banu was an extremely astute and wise mother. Despite her poverty, she knew that her Hobu had much more to offer to prospective brides in her village. Her frantic search for a Noakhali girl for her dearest Hobu began. She told Kalam, “Go and find a suitable bride for Hobu—from the nearest villages—so that he never deserts us. We must make sure that he starts his family in his home—in Noakhali!”

Habib’s mother never allowed her adverse financial condition to hold her back in dreaming and aspiring for the best for her children. She knew of a reputed family in Meerganj — the Meer family — who had several eligible daughters. Long before Habib left for Dhaka, Chand Banu had a secret desire to welcome one of the Meer Bari daughters as her daughter-in-law. She had heard that the eldest daughter of the Meer Bari [5] had been married off to a cousin, an educated head teacher of a local High School. The second daughter was next in line.

Chand Banu did not waste any time. She knew that the Meer family valued education more than anything, they would definitely want an educated son-in-law for the other daughters. She summoned her extended family to consult with them on how she could send a proposal to the Meer family. Unfortunately, one of her neighbours informed her that the Meer family had already decided that their second daughter would get married to a rich chilli merchant’s son of the same region. They were extremely wealthy and boasted several warehouses all over Meerganj and an impressive three floor ‘paka[6]’ house in the region. How could Chand Banu compete with them?

Imbued with an immense fear of losing her son to the strange city of Dhaka, Chand Banu decided to take a huge risk. She sent a representative of the family, Selim Miah, an elderly neighbour, who was a mutual friend of both the Meers and her family.

The Meer Bari, as it was known and is still known today, was one of the most reputed families of the region. They were one of the few families who had acres of land, ponds, a huge mansion and dozens of families working for them all throughout the region. They had several silos or warehouses to store the rice harvested from all their fields!

On a warm and humid summer morning, Meer Saheb was sitting at the verandah watching his men drawing in fishing nets with catch from the large pond behind his home.  When he stepped onto the verandah, Selim Miah found him in a good mood, because his second daughter was due to get married the following day. Greeting each other warmly, the two men sat down to have a friendly conversation of fishing and farming in general.  Meer Saheb was especially in a good mood. After a few furtive glances towards Meer Saheb, Selim Miah finally mustered up the courage to convey Chand Banu’s message to him. Meer Saheb turned towards Selim Miah and looked intently into his eyes.

The following day, the chilli merchant and his son came to Meer Bari with twenty other members of his family. The whole mansion was decorated to the tees and the groom was looking exquisitely handsome in his satin white sherwani[7] and silk turban. As the guests arrived, the ladies of the household quickly ran inside and allowed the men to greet them. The very tall Meer Saheb, elegantly dressed in an off-white punjabi, payjama and white tupi[8], stood in front of the guests. Accompanied by the senior members of the family, Meer Saheb, requested that the guests be seated. After they had all settled in, Meer Saheb took a deep breath, and apologised to the chilli Merchant.  Bewildered, the groom and his father looked inquisitively at Meer Saheb. Then the news was given to them…the news of Meer Bari’s second daughter getting married to Habibullah of Kafilatoli village just the night before!

A few miles away, Chand Banu was rigorously fanning her terracotta stove so that the flames could cook the meat quickly. She did not have much time left. She finished sweeping the yard earlier. Her eldest daughter was in charge of cleaning the only two rooms of her dilapidated mud hut. The local boys and girls were making handmade streamers out of cheap coloured paper to welcome the new guest.

Chand Banu’s daughter-in-law was finally coming. Her dear Hobu’s bou[9] was coming!

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Glossary

[1] Father’s elder brother’s wife – aunt. Translation from Bengali

[2] Meritorious young men from rural regions staying with a host family in the city

[3] Intermediate of Science

[4] Fourth grade at school

[5] House or family home

[6] Made with cement and bricks

[7] Long coat

[8] Punjab …tupi: Kurta…Cap

[9] Wife

Farhanaz Rabbani loves to chronicle interesting stories and events that happen around her.  She is an avid listener.

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Stories

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

The good sister slid out of her cell into the dank obscurity of the long and hollow corridor of the abbey which led to the august wooden front doors. She lifted the heavy latch then penetrated the cold layers of thick night, carefully closing the doors behind her. A moonless and starless night it was : greyish clouds fringed with undulating black hung low in the cold air, an air filled with the scent of jonquils. The good sister crossed the tussock grass of the meadow, glistening with moisture, swiftly to the rhythm of the howling wolves, whose ululations seemed to make quiver the cloudlets, driving them galloping across the sullen skies, grazing ever so lightly the pinnacles of the friendless, fretted cliffs of Saint Martin. Those precipices stole furtive glances down at the hastening young sister, their hanging pines, minatory fingers pointing to the nocturnal interloper. And as the wind wailed like the melancholic notes of an organ, the fingers quietly lamented, shedding needles and cones of utter sorrow …

The holy sister, sandal-less, dressed only in a bleached white nightdress, seemed to waft on strings of mist like a phantom as she glided alongside the mighty abbey walls, rising high. She stole a glance at the soundless immured fountain of the abbey and the holy niche next to it housing the Virgin Mary. She lowered her eyes, crossed herself then sped on. Noiselessly she made her way upon the path which serpentined to the source of the Paillon streamlets. The exuding fragrance of jonquils caused her a moment of vertigo as she hied higher and higher towards the sacred source. Once she reached the source, she halted before the little cascade, silvery in the ill-lit sky, tinkling an odd tinkle amidst the whimpering of the groves of weeping willows that enshrined it. She took a furtive glance behind her … no one …

The good sister stepped into the rushing icy waters. Lifting her nightdress in a rather girlish manner, she let it drop, and there it spread in cadence to the precipitating flow like the opening of a lotus. The freezing waters seized her slender thighs in a vice-like grip. At that moment the wolves renewed their howl after a ritornello[1]. She raised her head to the tune, such soothing music to her ears, and slowly opened her fist: a shard of glass lay in her tiny palm. Her hand trembled from the coldness at the source ; her body gradually became rigid like a marble statue, the turbulent waters sweeping round her. 

The holy sister murmured several prayers then gazed alternatively at the deepening violet tinge of the sky and the deep blue of the veins of her wrists. In one rapid stroke she slid the shard of glass across those deep blue veins : as quickly as that ! Two sharp painless incisions and it was over, all accomplished in such cold-blooded precision. There she remained standing, her rich, red blood dripping down over her now steady hands, then into the pure waters of the source : drop, drop, drop …

Some time passed. The howling of the wolves had abated, the wind, too. The dreary clouds hung lower and lower over the paling sister, who wavered not once, adamantly erect, watching in the most unperturbable manner the blood desert her frail body into the moving waters. Her face, lovely like the fourteenth day of the moon, turned an ashen white.

Soon, however, her knees began to buckle, her slender body to sway, emptied of its life-giving fluid. She appeared to be lost in some dreamy plane of consciousness, her face, blank, expressionless. At length, like a icicle fallen from a frost-bitten tree, she tumbled gently into the churning white foam, and there floated listlessly down the streamlet, the traces of blood trailing behind her, until here and there they settled upon the smooth mossy stones and pebbles that lay at the bed. Her nightdress swelled with water and resembled a hoisted sail, yet mast-less, a vessel adrift, driven from one bank to the other.

Finally, the bloodless body got snagged onto several smooth, flat-surfaced mossy rocks, and there undulated to the rhythm of the current, eyes wide open, mouth agape, basking in the blackness of Eternal Night …

With the coming of dawn, the call to Matins[2] brought the holy sisters of the Saint Pons Abbey scurrying to the chapel. All were accounted besides one : Where was Sister Theresa ? Had she not heard the tolling bell? The Abbess, somewhat worried by her absence (Theresa was never absent for service), rushed out to see whether the young girl had fallen ill and taken to bed. But her cell was empty ; her bed lay unmade, not a crease in the bedsheets. More startling still, her cornet[3] and habit[4] lay neatly placed and folded on the chair next to her writing-table. Had she left a note ? None …

The Abbess interrupted Matins and commanded that the sisters go in search for the young girl both in the cloister and outside in the meadow and wooded areas. Taking four or five sisters with her, the old Abbess hurried down the corridor to the great wooden doors : the latch had been displaced ! Seized with an emotional foreboding, she led the troop of sisters through the cold air of early morning, an air saturated with icy dew and a scent of spruce. They avoided the meadow for now, choosing to hug the great stone walls glistening with creeping and climbing plants, and search behind the abbey in the woods now painted in aurora freshness. “Theresa ! Theresa !” They all called, the name resounding sullenly in the lifting mist, its echo growing fainter and fainter only to disappear without a response. “Here ! Here !” cried a sister who had been searching near the sacred source. To her frantic cries the good sisters scrambled up the path, alive to the shouts and cries near the source ; they ran as fast as their aged legs could carry them, tucking up their habits under their hempen cords, clinging to the wings of their cornets as they flapped in the crisp, cold air.

Hieing ever higher up the path, they followed the cries near the source, dipping into the hollows of the dingle, rushing as rapidly as their sandalled feet would carry them along the streamlet fringed with high reeds, tiny poppies and those pendent weeping willows. The old Abbess noted that the smooth mossy stones in the streamlet bed had been besprinkled with long streaks or large splotches of crimson red. Her emotion reached frightful peaks as she hurried onwards towards the cries …

And there, at the bank of the streamlet, the sister who had been calling and clamouring so wildly pointed a trembling finger at the lifeless, undulating body of their consœur[5], floating like a lotus amongst the sun-dappled babbling morning waters, her waxen cheeks bloodless, her limbs stiff, her stony eyes staring off into void. There arose from her watery presence an eerie peacefulness, serenity, quiescence, a presence far beyond that undulating corpse upon the sun-dappled waters of the Paillon.

All the holy sisters dropped to their knees at the banks of the streamlet and prayed. Then they dragged the water-logged body out of the stream and lay it upon the grassy bank. To their bewilderment, the moss which clung to the smooth stones and pebbles of the stream-bed, always a dull green or a rusty ochre-yellow, had become lacquer red ! Large patches of this red moss lay at the bottom of the shallow, foamy waters. The Abbess touched, pulled and scraped at the woolly crimson ; the satiny colour remained impressed in the moss. She hadn’t the faintest idea how the rusty red had not been washed away or dispersed by her fiddling with it. Was it Theresa’s blood ?

The very thought made her shudder … Daunted by this dreadful phenomena and by the death of their consœur, the Abbess ordered the holy sisters to kneel and lift their eyes to Heaven again.

The days that followed the tragic event throngs of priests, led by the Bishop of the region, inspected the place of death and the red moss. The Abbess was at a loss to explain Theresa’s act to them, but she truly believed that it was the innocent blood of the poor young sister that had ‘dyed’ the green moss red, this colour being the ‘consubstantial proof’ of the consummation of her marriage to Christ. And for this very ‘theological’ reason, her act, albeit a sinful one, the moss disavowed any attempt to be ‘washed off’ and become green again. The Abbess went on to expound that upon taking the veil, the girl had seemed so loyal to her vows, so happy to spend her life at the abbey in company with her consœurs, all the more so since her parents had died, and the aunt that had taken her in was too old to provide the orphan with a correct upbringing and education. No other enquiry followed after the Abbess’ account and the Bishop’s report …

Thus the suicide and the colouring of the moss remained a Mystery to the clergy and to the laymen of the region of Geminos[6] until the closing of the abbey in 1427.

Centuries have gone by since the mysterious event, and the great walls and halls of the Saint Pons Abbey presently lay in quiet dormancy. However, little by little, hikers, nature-lovers, botanists, geologists and the curious-minded who reside in the area of Geminos began noticing this unusual moss, even snatching little pieces of it out of the water for scientific scrutiny. The scientists were indeed at loggerheads about this chromatic colouring, and obviously scoffed at the mediaeval clergy’s ridiculous ‘dark age’ inferences of suicide and consummation, although it must be said here that after months of examination in several laboratories, those scoffing rationally-minded scientists could make neither heads nor tails of how ‘normal green’ moss could ‘become’ satine crimson red overnight …

And so the Mystery still stands today as hikers, nature-lovers, scientists and members of the clergy come to inspect, admire or simply stare in wonder at the red moss of the Abbey of Saint Pons, undulating in stoic silence beneath the crystal clear waters of the Paillon streamlet. Many indeed believe in the tragic tale of Theresa, and in the good Abbess’ hypothesis, whilst others gibe and mock, believing the isolated sisters to have been possessed by some mediaeval demon, or taken to religious zealotry after so many fastings and privations.

I for one believe in the tale as told by the good Abbess, however steeped in ‘dark age superstition’ it may appear to the scientific-minded, modern layman. Indeed, according to the regional archives, a certain sister Theresa did take the veil and did live at the abbey in the XVth century, and after several years her bloodless body was found lifeless, floating in those rolling waters of the Paillon. This being said, several historians claim that Theresa had been abducted by bandits, whose presence in the dark wooded mountains had always caused great fright to the sisters. When Theresa attempted to escape from captivity, she was killed. Just as a matter of interest, it was because of those bands of roaming bandits that the holy sisters were obliged to leave the abbey by order and mandate of the constable of the region. The Abbey, thus, was closed down never to reopen …

Whatever the ‘rational’ or ‘romantic’ reason may be, the red moss at Saint Pons Abbey attracts a growing number of the curious-minded, and has become so ‘famous’ that the Forest Rangers have given strict orders to all and sundry not to pick it out of its hallow bed. I shall not attempt to debate whether this interdiction be due to any ‘scientific’ or ‘superstitious’ prompting …

[1] A short refrain or interlude in a musical performance

[2]  The first prayer of the day in a monastery or convent.

[3]   Bonnets worn by religious sisters until the 1960s.

[4]  Dress worn by religious orders.

[5]  A community of Catholic sisters living in a convent or in a monastery. The word is of French origin.

[6]  A small village twenty or thirty kilometres from Marseilles. The abbey is located about five or six kilometres from Geminos.

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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The Clay Toys and Two Boys

By Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The boy smashed his clay toy and threw its pieces into the sewage water. He did not like his friend’s father at all because he never bought toys for his son. He loved his clay toys because his friend always lamented that he did not have any kind of toy. But despite his insistence he refused to carry his toys home. Not even once.

They always met at the corner of the street and played there by the sewerage line in front of his friend’s house. His mother took all household chores upon herself and deputed the servant at the door to keep an eye on her son.

His friend lived somewhere in the western side of the street. He always emerged in the western corner of the street and went back in that direction. He always said that the sewage water flew by their house. If something fell in it, it would resurface by their house. But he never told his friend exactly where he lived. Nor did he ever reveal if the window of their house opened to the south or north. Nor did he say, when the wind blew, in which direction the jujube fruits would fall. He also did not reveal if they lived in a government quarter or in a rented bungalow or had a house of their own.

They just met at the corner of the street and played there and smiled at being the co-owner of the sewerage line. A few times they made up their mind to step into the water and retrieve the toys lying buried in its bottom but every time, at the last moment, courage failed them. The sewage water was dark, full of waste and it also ran deep. And on top of that, they were just two small boys ironically looking for clay toys and that too in the bottom of sewage water.

They sat at the edge of the drain and played there. They built kingdoms and ruled over them like kings. At times they made fields and meadows, raised their hands to pray for rain. some other times, they became herd owners. Every day they scored new marvels. Shopkeeper, street vendors and people around them smiled even at times they laughed at their innocent adventures. It was small world — transparent like water — hung by a thread. As the sun went down the horizon, they took leave of each other hoping to meet on the next day. His friend had aligned his routine with sun. The moment the sun set, he would say goodbye to his kingdom and leave for home. Thereafter, his friend piled up the toys and the servant put them in the basket and carried his little master against his chest leaving behind the kingdom of two little kings in darkness.

Heaven knows which day of the month it was, when for the first time his friend did not turn up there. He piled up his toys, laid down rules and roadmaps for his kingdom but the second king had not arrived yet and his subject was nowhere around the kingdom. He waited for him till dusk, but he did not come. Then along with his servant he went looking for his friend’s house. They passed through several lanes and streets and finally stopped at a door by the edge of the sewerage line. The branches of a jujube were dropping on the wall. It was not obvious if it was a rented house, a government quarter or someone’s private property. The boy assumed it was the house his friend lived in. But its doors and windows were closed. Lamps and light had been blown off. They put their ears against the walls, but they could not hear any human voices. A flock of sparrows were singing in the jujube tree. Otherwise, everything was shrouded in silence. An old rusty lock was hanging on the door bearing witness to all past seasons.

For the next three days the boy waited for his friend, but he did not turn up. He spread the toys on the ground and waited for him. As the sun set and dusk fell, lamps were lit in the neighborhood. The young boy held his servant’s hand and went to the closed door where he thought his friend had lived. As usual, the place was shrined in silence. They stayed there for a while and then the boy looked at the servant. They exchanged gazes. The servant carried the basket of toys on his head. His little master followed him.

However, one Thursday, the two friends ran into each other at the corner of the street by the bank of the sewer line. He did not tell his friend where he was all that while nor did the boy reveal that he had found his home silent and locked.

A few days later, the young master’s father took him to the school. His mother insisted that he was five years old—still too young for the school but his father believed he was seven. They argued with each other. His father won. The boy insisted on taking his friend along. However, his friend had never appeared in the mornings. A few times, he thought he saw his friend at school. He seemed to be wandering alone in middle of the noise of hundreds of children. After that, he disappeared.

The two friends always met in the evening. No questions were asked by either of the young boys focused on their games.

One day when his friend arrived in the evening, he noticed tears in his eyes and his face looked pale. On that day, he went home early taking his friend’s clay bull along. The next day when came, he looked a little anxious. The bull was broken into two pieces. His friend did not ask him what had happened to it. Nor did the boy tell him anything about it. They tried a lot to join the broken parts of the bull, but they failed in their attempt. For a moment, the boy felt like crying loudly but he held back his tears.

They dug a little grave by the sewage water and buried the remains of the bull there. On that night the boy cried incessantly. In the morning, he told his teacher that his bull died the day before and that was why he was late. But his teacher was angry that he failed to distinguish between a truth and a lie. He thought the boy was too young to own a bull. Thus, he thrashed him like other naughty children.

In the evening the boy wanted to tell his friend that he was beaten by the teacher, but he could not. The boy plastered the grave with clay and erected a little epitaph on it. His looked at him and smiled. At dusk the boy called his brother, who in the glow of the lamp wrote on the stone ‘My Bull’. When they reached at the door, the boy halted, as if he remembered something. Thus, they turned back to the grave. Now, the epitaph on the grave read ‘Our Bull”.

My Bull…. Our Bull….The crowd….The door….The servant….The clay toys and two boys and the drain. It was a different world.

A few days later, the gap in their friendship began to widen. The boy stopped coming regularly but his friend always waited for him at the corner of the street with his clay toys piled up before him. Perhaps his companion had forgotten someone was waiting for him at the corner of the street. He felt quite lonely in the middle of the clay toys.

One day when the boy did come, he was shocked to discover that the grave of ‘Our Bull’ had been dismantled by someone. The remains lay scattered. He anxiously looked at the crowd bustling around. There was no trace of his friend. He picked up the pieces of the clay bull and threw them into the drain. Now, when there was not any trace of the ‘Our Bull’ he desperately wished not to have his friend over. Not in that hour of grief at least. He sat at the empty grave of the ‘Our Bull’ fearing the arrival of his friend. But he did not turn up.

The next evening when his friend arrived, he found the grave had been renovated. He scanned the heap of the toys, but the new clay bull was not there amongst the toys. His friend told him that he broke and buried it in the very grave. His eyes welled up and voice almost chocked. He admitted that it was he who dismantled the grave. His friend was shocked to hear it. For a while the whole world came to a halt, the sewage water stopped flowing and he felt himself all alone in a never-ending labyrinth. He could not ask him why he dismantled the grave nor did his friend tell him the reason. On that evening they did not play at all. They did not build kingdoms and did not dispatch emissaries to the neighbouring kingdoms. The boy had his eyes fixed on the pile of the clay toys and his friend sat by the grave and vacantly gazed at sewage water flowing in silence. The evening passed into dusk and on the foundation of the dusk, the night eventually erected it walls around the neighbourhood.

The next evening, the boy waited for his friend, but he did not show up. The street was crowded. Indifferent people were treading back and forth. For a moment the boy tried to find his friend in the jungle of people but, in the next moment, he gave up.

A month passed by but there was again no trace of his friend. One day, he took his servant and went to his friend’s house. They sat for a long time at the door, but nobody came out. Then they knocked the door, called out loudly but nobody responded. As the evening shadows lengthened, the boy for the first time realised that there was not a single house by the bank of the drain. Rather it flowed through the entire neighbourhood, bustling with young and old men and women, children, boys and girls and flock of goats. But the companion of his evenings, the co-owner of the ‘Our Bull’, was nowhere to be seen.

Nobody in the neighbourhood knew the boy. They believed he did not live there. Rather he came from somewhere else. But from where? Nobody had the answer. The boy did not know anything about him either.

The sun was setting. The boy started musing. He cast a look at the crowd and started crying loudly. The servant tried to console him but to no avail. He carried him back home. He continued to cry inconsolably. Then he told everybody that he knew where his friend had gone. He told them that he knew why he did not come back. Thus, he asked the servant to step into the sewage water. The servant was knee deep in the drain with stones, pebbles and pieces of broken glasses under his feet. He could not find anything. The servant grumbled and so did boy’s mother. The shopkeeper and the customers smile and laughed. But the boy was sure that his friend had stepped into drain looking for the pieces of the clay bull.

From then on, the boy broke his clay toys and threw them into the sewer hoping that they would be flown to his friend so that he would know he, his friend, was alive and waiting for him beside the grave of ‘Our Bull’.

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Dr. Haneef Shareef, a trained medical professional, is one of the most cherished contemporary Balochi fiction writers and film directors. So far, he has published two collections of short stories and one novel. His peculiar mode of narration has rendered him a distinguished place among the Balochi fiction writers. He has also directed four Balochi movies.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. He has the translation rights to Haneef Shareef’s works.

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The Funeral Attendee

By Ravi Prakash

                                                                                                 

That day, the vast crowd on the road took me by surprise. I was riding back home from the school in the village where I teach. People had jammed the road near a cremation ground. I stopped my bike to ask a man: “What happened? Why are there so many people on the road? They must be thousands in number, don’t you think?”

“Don’t you know? Manglu died this morning. All these men have come to attend his funeral,” the man told me.

“Oh, was he a great leader or saint?”

“No, he was a great funeral attendee.”

“A funeral attendee! I had heard of poets, leaders, and saints whose funerals attracted a crowd like this but never of someone called a funeral attendee. What was so special about him?” I asked again.

“Manglu never left a funeral unattended if he came to know about any death nearby. It was his legacy.”

“Oh, achha[1]!” interjected I, and, having nothing to say more, started the bike.

 “What is so great about that?” I thought. But the crowd I was moving amidst defied the arguments my thoughts provided. This dead man must have been a man extraordinaire in his lifespan.

 But who cares?

I made my way somehow into the crowd and moved the bike ahead.

I came home. The day went as usual, but I realised that I could not stop thinking about that funeral attendee.

 The next day, in school, during recess, when I put a question about the dead man while chatting with my colleagues, it at once caught everyone’s attention. The head teacher, a greybeard, and a native of the village knew about him. He narrated Manglu’s story:

 “About thirty years ago, Manglu had to leave his native village Kherupura due to the disastrous flood. He could never return, for the flood had engulfed his village. The whole of it had vanished into the Rapti.

 “Manglu had nowhere to go. His father died in that flood. His mother had died earlier — a few years ago, and, as he had no sibling, he was left alone with his wife, who was pregnant at that time.

 “He had to move out. Destiny forced him to live a nomadic life. He came to live in Silva village near the main road, which connected two headquarters of the adjacent districts – Shravasti and Bahraich.

 “At first, the couple lived under a tree, but later on, seeing the condition of Manglu’s wife, the village head gave him a small piece of land. On it, he built a mud house. They lived happily for a few months, but Manglu could not save his wife till the following year. She died, I believe, during her childbearing. Manglu was all alone after that tragedy. He had no one whom he could consider as a family. His relatives were living in different places. He could go to any of them, but he decided to live on his own in the village.

 “To make ends meet, he worked as a woodcutter, a labourer, and a hawker, but he never left the village. After his day job, he actively participated in village life and attended every function and funeral, either invited or uninvited. Since he had no one he could call his own, he started regarding everyone as his own. No one took him seriously, but he maintained this routine.

“After many years, finding himself unable to do hard physical labor, he opened a kiosk-like shop by the roadside where he sold petty items like cigarettes, tobacco, and paan[2]. He made acquaintance with everyone who came to his gumti[3]. Motorcyclists, bus drivers, hawkers, rickshaw pullers, peddlers, and beggars – men from all walks of life were his friends. In a year or two, Manglu acquired such fame that people started talking about the directions and distances by referring to his kiosk as a distinctive landmark.

 “Manglu never indulged in hoarding money; he devoted himself to making friends. Anyone could purchase from him on credit. And such a good-natured man he was that even the vilest man paid him back.

 “He widened his social circle. People from adjacent districts knew his name and his thatched kiosk. I would say that he was more famous than a monument. In those days, too, he never left any funeral unattended, either in his village or in any other ones. If the dead belonged to another village, he would take a ride as soon as possible. Sometimes, people at the cremation ground wondered why he had not arrived yet, but he always arrived sooner or later.

“As he grew older, he found himself unable to run the shop. He took shelter in one of his friend’s houses to spend his last days. He could not walk straight then; he suffered from camptocormia–the bent spine syndrome, and he had to take the support of a bamboo staff. He roamed in the village all day with the bamboo staff in one hand and enquired about the well-being of whosoever came in his way. Even at that time, if someone died somewhere, he would try to go there to attend the funeral. 

 “The villagers thought he had a mania for attending funerals. And thus, in the last days of his life, people started calling him ‘the funeral attendee.’ He had become a piece of curiosity for the youngster in the village.

 “And then, he died yesterday. The news of his death spread like wildfire. Can you believe that more than two thousand people attended his funeral? I am not sure what exactly all this resembles, but I would say that Manglu must be smiling in heaven.”

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Glossary

[1] Connotes– Is that so? Literal translation from Hindi — yes.

[2] Betel leaf

[3] A small stall or hutment

Ravi Prakash teaches small kids in a rural primary school. He lives in a small town near the Indo-Nepal border in the district of Shravasti, Uttar Pradesh. 

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Categories
Stories

A Day in the Life of the Pink Man

Shankhadeep Bhattacharya

Story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee

I wake up with a start in the morning. Breathing deep, I realise that the essential substances are not permeating into my lungs in proper amounts. My limbs are turning a blackish blue. It seems as if someone is hammering my skull right behind my ears. My head, like a ticking bomb, is almost fit to burst. This claustrophobic, terrifying existence is of course not new to me. The scientists proclaim that they have recorded the highest degree of air pollution in the Babynamen region. It was Kikoro about a month or two back. I was there the last time. I reach Babynamen without wasting a lot of time. I sit there like an ancient monk and inhale deeply for seven hours. My body feels relaxed. The colour of my body turns normal, from a blackish blue to a healthy pink. I write the name of Babynamen right below Kikoro in my diary as well as the details of the day’s events.

My house is not near any human settlement.  I don’t even know if there is any human activity nearby. My home is a twelve feet by twelve feet room made of porous, rough plastic. My routine happiness lies sedimented in the resting peace of the room. There are no windows in this room, not even the smallest hole lest the flies enter. There is a reason for such an arrangement.  I don’t want the pure air — a rare treasure these days — that comes from the forest across the river, touching the lush trees, to enter my room. If that unadulterated air finds its place in my lungs, there will be trouble. The colour of my skin will immediately turn a blackish blue. I check the two sides of my abdomen just to be sure. There is a hint of red tinged with pink across my skin, which means my body is completely normal. I break into a song in joy. My song is interrupted by a knock on the door about a minute later. Someone is knocking gently at the door. I open the door and my body shivers with a feeling of deep happiness and sudden thrill. Samapti stands in front of my eyes.

I had first seen her around thirty years back. We were both twenty-one in the first year of the twenty-first century. Seeing her for the first time, I had felt that Samapti [1]was a beautiful young woman, a newly bloomed red oleander flower in flesh and blood. Samapti has always been my first and only love. The sunflower was our favourite. We used to listen captivated to Raga Hangsadhwani in dusk. We loved building shelters for birds and animals with the wet sand near the sea. We often travelled close to the mountains in search of pure air. We inhaled calming oxygen to our fill. We gazed silently at the mountains clad in clouds hand in hand, stared at the white stars twinkle in the black sky from tents in the middle of the forest.

 Samapti used to speak of her work then. Her work comprised waking up the people from their untimely sleep, to ensure that their five senses worked properly. She was exceptionally good at keeping people alert and full of life, the very best in her team. When she would finish talking about her work, she would ask about mine. My task lay in spinning stories, poems and songs for these lively people, the history of human struggle, stories of the sea, poems of the river or the cuckoo’s songs. Listening to these, they would themselves inspired to write poetry about the squirrel at times or to empathise with the suffering of an unknown, distant humanity. Our work was a long process. We weren’t always successful in our work.

Initially our work had been very fulfilling. But after ten years or so, Samapti told me with a worried face, “Humankind is not waking up from its slumber anymore, Diganta [2].” I had also observed that the alert and lively human beings were no longer mesmerised by the songs or the stories of the trees or the dance of the peacock, neither were they moved by the suffering of others.

Another ten years later, our travel in search of pure air was also stopped. Humankind started living inside their homes. The entire world outside was plagued by a deadly disease. Samapti and I could not meet as well. I used to flap around claustrophobic in my house like a fish caught in a net. I found breathing normally inordinately difficult. My body would turn a blackish blue in absence of pure air. I would often think of Samapti then. I didn’t have a trace of her after that time. Today Samapti stands at my door, awakening the latent questions in my consciousness. Her face doesn’t look as lovely as before. Samapti used to be dark-skinned. Her skin has turned somewhat sallow now, sunflower yellow.

I say, “You have changed Samapti.”

Samapti laughs and says, “I have long been dead, Diganta.”

“Dead?”

“Yes, when we were cooped up in our homes, the disease outside found its way into my body. I could not be saved even after a lot of effort. I died from a lack of pure air. But you are alive Diganta, even after such a catastrophe. I am so happy to see you.”

“Why don’t you come inside Samapti?”

Taking her hands in mine I say, “Don’t leave me alone anymore, stay with me. Promise me you’ll stay.”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go. Diganta, tell me, how many times does a person die?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seven times if it’s a man, seventeen if it’s a woman. I have only one step left to reach seventeen.”

I didn’t really understand what Samapti is saying but I tried to figure out which of those seven stages of death I was in.

Samapti looks very thin. I think she is hungry.

I say, “Will you eat something?”

Samapti says, “I haven’t really eaten anything since my death. My tongue doesn’t feel taste neither can I smell anything. Everything I see is blurry. I don’t even feel hungry.”

I take out a watermelon, an apple and an orange, a few vegetables and some more delectable food items. Samapti is looking at me. She has deep love in her eyes, on her face a gentle smile. She watches me suck all the formalin and carbide from the watermelon and apple into my body. I have been doing this quite easily for a long time. I lick away the pesticides from the vegetables. I cook the clean vegetables, cut the fruits, and present a wholesome meal to Samapti.

Samapti says, “If you eat the food you have just given me, will you experience stomach pains, nausea, insomnia?”

I nod my head in agreement.

Samapti has her fill of all the food. She says, “I have eaten such uncontaminated food for the first time Diganta. I could taste and smell all the food items.” A sliver of memory makes its way into my mind at this moment. Samapti’s eyes and face used to be filled with pure delight on watching the rain. She would swim in the river on hot summer afternoons. She would not want to leave the water. I would join her. Not just that, I could feel in my very bones that even the simple act of drinking water would give her immense satisfaction.

I have heard water is hailed as life itself, an element without which human beings cannot survive. I pull away arsenic and other harmful chemicals from the life-giving water into my stomach and give Samapti the clean, fresh water in a brass tumbler. I realise she has been thirsty for long by the way she drinks water.

After drinking her fill, she observes, “You don’t drink pure water anymore Diganta. You might get rashes, problems in your kidney, even cancer, isn’t it?”

I nod my head again in agreement.

Samapti has tears in her eyes. Wiping her tears away, she says forlorn, “Why did everything turn to this Diganta? What was our mistake? We have spent our entire lives with the humankind. You would sit on a hunger strike in the streets for days on the disappearance of the honeybees.  You would be heart-broken at the death of a butterfly. You gave your best to rejuvenate the sad humanity. Were you the only one to love nature? What about the rest of humanity?”

I take Samapti in my embrace. Breathing in her smell, I smile to alleviate her dismay, and say, “Do you remember Samapti, you had once cooked chital fishcakes for me? I had promised myself that I would treat you to steamed hilsa one day.  But I could only feed you boiled rice and omelette. An omelette was the best I could do. Do you remember?”

Samapti laughs. She is still laughing. She must have remembered a lot of other things, which means I have succeeded. I relish these moments. We walk through the pleasant alleys and lanes of memory through the day. We stare at the star-filled night sky for a long time. The stars in the night sky, so many light years away, are the same still. Perhaps they are intact because they are away from the earth. Samapti holds my hand tightly and says, “Listen to me Diganta. The earth will heal itself and will again become what it used to be. I firmly believe it. It will come to pass.  Humankind will return the earth to its former glory. A peaceful earth. An earth where children can play carefree. You will get untainted fresh air again, Diganta. It will happen. Just don’t give up hope.” Samapti hugs me and lies down very close. She falls into a deep sleep. Having spent many nights without sleep, my eyes become heavy with slumber soon.

When I wake up the next morning, Samapti is nowhere to be found. I can’t see her anywhere in the room. She has left. But where has she gone? She had said yesterday that she had nowhere to go. Is she then in the last rung of death…?

I am in pain. Salty tears form at the corner of my eyes and trickle down. I do not want to lose Samapti. How can I live without her! She has said that the earth would regenerate itself to its former glory! I will get fresh pure air back in my lungs! She has urged me not to give up hope.

I suddenly feel very scared, fear of death from the pure, fresh air. I usually avoid any contact with pure air. The hope in Samapti’s words has somehow channeled itself into my being. I am torn between unadulterated hope and terrifying fear of death. With an overwhelmed mind, I search for a small forest of green trees. By the time I make my way to the middle of the forest, the colour of my body begins to turn. My body temperature is getting warmer and the skin colour is rapidly changing to a blackish blue.  My breath seems to be choking in my throat. I do not have much time on my hands. I do not want to die. I reach Babynamen as fast as I can. I fill my being with the most polluted air of the world. But even that cannot not allay my breathing troubles. The insides of my chest feel empty. Consequently, I lift the cover of a manhole on the street and put my entire face inside. I pull in deep breaths. The blackish blue colour seems to fade out a little. I am still not out of danger completely. An old matador stands near. As soon as it starts, the exhaust of the vehicle spews dense black smoke. I quickly take the exhaust pipe and shove it inside my mouth till it reaches my throat. I fill my lungs with the fumes like I was enjoying a hukkah.

The colour of my skin is now pink. The area around my navel is somewhat red. I feel healthy. My breathing is almost normal. I am calm. I return to the middle of the forest. I have not given up yet, Samapti. I touch the branches and leaves of the verdant trees; the fresh air seems to graze past my nose. Although it is risky, yet I splay my fisted hands to the sky as if I want to enfold the forest in my arms.

I breathe in with all my might. My body gradually turns a blackish blue. But I do not give up. Like one crazed, my burnt and withered lungs suck in the lost purity to return to a life, fresh and animated, as it used to be before lakhs were born and lakhs had died.


[1] Samapti means ending in Bengali

[2] Diganta means horizon in Bengali

(First published in Bengali in 4 Number Platform in August 2021)

Shankhadeep Bhattacharya is a software engineer who is keenly interested in spreading awareness about the environment, society, the socio-economic impacts of technology through regular seminars and webinars. He likes writing for little magazines. He is associated in the editorial capacity with Pariprashna and Sangbartak magazines. He has strived to create narratives in his stories and personal essays that centre around the current realities. He was awarded the “Namita Chattapadhyay Sahitya Samman” in 2022. He has published three books so far: Parisheba Seemar Baire (a collection of short stories, Parashpathar publications, 2018), Manush, Samaj, Prakriti (a collection of essays, Sangbartak Publications, 2021) and Prayukti Tokko Golpo (theory fiction, Sopan Publications, 2021)

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, under the University of Calcutta. She is currently pursuing Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in West African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. A poet and short fiction writer, she works as a freelance translator for Bengali and Hindi fiction and is an editor at the Antonym Magazine.  She is also an ELT consultant and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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Stories

A Letter I Can Never Post

By Monisha Raman

My most precious Gran,

I have a confession to make; I opened the suitcase you asked me not to. Well, it was a good two weeks after you were buried. While sorting a million things in your room with aunt and mom, I found it, a small, grey one stacked under the pile of boxes in the corner.

For as long as I remember, it had been there in the east corner of your wooden floored room and was out of bounds for adults and children alike. When I pulled it out, there were a few moments of silence in the room. I held the forbidden grey box and the three of us looked helplessly at each other, caught in between the right and wrong as Rumi would say.

When the burden of silence grew unendurable, we opened the suitcase. You may feel betrayed for the three women you trusted the most had the audacity to intrude your private space. 

That night, while in bed, my body turned heavy as I sunk deep into the darkness and chaos of guilt. I gasped for air and the mountain wind heavy with moisture, did little to help. I ran helter-skelter through the chasm of my memory. Your ringing laughter guided my way and your stories echoed like strange noises that reverberate while you walk into a deep cave. The familiar name you had often uttered resounded as I traversed the dark channels. When did I first hear it? I don’t remember.

I do remember some instances of you mentioning the name. It was a random conversation of good-looking men in our vicinity and you did say, a certain someone’s son. On one evening while we were discussing the achievements of men and women in our neighbourhood, you mentioned that name again — a man in your neighbourhood, a certain someone’s son. You told us he was your playmate.

One summer evening, when the winds of the hills touched our skins gently as they basked in the last traces of light from the setting sun, you mentioned that name again. You said that my friend, seated next to me, dressed in a white shirt and beige trousers, reminded you of that man. “Majestic demeanour,” you looked into my friend’s eyes and said, “Yet spirit as gentle as the wind outside.” You smiled as you held his hands. Then, as you uttered the familiar name for the last time in my presence, your eyes turned moist — “You remind me of a certain someone’s son.”

Still wriggling in bed, as images and voices from the past haunted me, I thought of your prized possession, the suitcase. Aunt and mom watched that evening as I flipped opened the case. My hands failed to steady themselves. The three of us gasped as your precious box lay bare, revealing what it had steadfastly concealed all these years — a bunch of safety pins, bundles of ribbon, a crocheted purse with a tie-up opening, some old coins that carry no value, a few pebbles, a bizarrely shaped quartz stone with what looked like columns and faces on it and another crocheted purse with tie-up strings concealed underneath all this.

The quartz that has paled from its years in hiding fit perfectly in my palms. Amid the chaos of sharp edges on it was a central pillar, standing tall.  There were odd figurines on either side.  I left it on the table facing the window.

Finally, aunt laid her hands on the last item– a crocheted purse in a medley of colours. The pouch had the hues of the rainbow, held together intricately with a string in white. Aunt gave it to me to untie the white knot atop the small bag. We all knew that if there was one person who would be forgiven for trespassing, that would be me.

As I put my hands into the pouch, a palm-sized photograph in black and white print emerged. I held it between my fingers. A man dressed formally in a suit and tie with curls spilling over his forehead looked straight into my eyes. He was seated on a stool. The years between us melted as I gazed at his big, bold eyes, which were probably coffee brown, just like yours.

In an instant, I was transported into the room where the photograph was being taken. I asked him about the young girl I did not know– the girl who saw certain magic in him and carried it concealed deep within her even when her octogenarian memory failed her at times. He spoke of your smile and your innocence.

He told me stories about the blue Kurinji that blooms once every twelve years in the mountains and the anticipatory excitement that lingered in the air when the buds appeared, and then gradually how the stretches of the mountains turned an enchanting blue as the flower bloomed — a vision that no combination of words can do justice to.  To him, the memory of appeasing blue was visceral and he elaborated how it pacified him during the dark moments when his strength had nothing to grasp.  The Kurinji may blossom and spread its vigour just once in a decade, but he saw its unfurled radiance all the time; behind his closed eyelids, and that was his elixir, a perpetual force his life depended on. He believed that the bewitching plant was your totem, and your spirit lived in it.

Behind the photograph was a name written in blue fountain pen, the name from my distant memory that you had mentioned on a few occasions and beneath it, ‘son of  ………………….’

As I left the room, a strange shadow reflected from the quartz stone on the table. A boy and a girl (with flowing hair) held each other’s hands from around the pillar. They could not see each other but both of them felt the other, all the time.

                                                                                                                       Love,

Your Doll

Kurinji blooms that flower in the Neelgiri hills of India. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Monisha Raman’s essays and short stories have been published by various magazines in Asia and internationally. Her first collection of short stories is being represented by Zuna Literary Agency, India. Her work can be found at https://linktr.ee/Monisharaman.

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Stories

Half-Sisters

By Sohana Manzoor

Nara

She was as beautiful as a fairy-child. Her face was angelic as was her nature. She did not know jealousy and during the days of my childhood in that large palatial house of my stepfather, she was my only friend. She shared all that she had with me. Or, rather, she tried to share. Her mother, actually I should say our mother, tried to keep her away from me. After all, I was only her half-sister. I was a creature of wildernesses. My skin was darker, and I climbed the trees like a monkey. In return for her niceties, I shared with her all the fruits of the trees I had rampaged. We were both very young then. She was five and I, ten. Our mother often caught us in the garden rolling in the mud, stained with the color of blackberries or devouring green mangoes. Of course, I was the one who always got punished. She was the darling of her father’s eyes. Who would dare to touch her?

I often wonder if I loved Priya back then. I do not know. Do children love one another? Looking back on those years, I believe I treated her as a doll that was denied to me. I wanted to please her so that she would come to me behind our mother’s back. I knew as early as then that mother didn’t love me. My own father was twenty years older than her, and I was born to her when she was barely eighteen. But he had died in an accident before I was born, and she caught the eye of an extremely rich man, and they were wedded in no time. I was born six months after my mother’s marriage to her second husband. And mother made it very clear that the man she had married was not mine to claim even if he was my father in papers.

I can still recall that particular day I was leaning out of the living room door to watch the family tableau of father-mother-daughter and wishing I was part of it too. Suddenly, mother turned back and saw me. She hissed, “Get inside. What are you doing here?”

Then Priya and her father turned too. Priya waved and laughed, “Come, Apu[1]. Can’t she come too, Abbu[2]?” Her upturned face was radiant with expectation as she looked at her father who also smiled back. “Yes, of course. Come along, Nara.”

Mother glowered, but at Priya’s insistence she agreed to let me join them all on the terrace. Of course, I did not sit with them at the tea-table, but I did hang around them. I watched them contentedly as I had received more than I ever expected.

That was, however, only the beginning.

Up till this moment I only wished that he was my father too. But ma always made sure that I remembered my place. I was always the other sister, the other daughter, the other girl in the family. From this moment onward, I walked behind Priya as her shadow, taking care of her needs, and she depended on me as if I was a second mother. I believe, she loved me too because she knew that nobody else loved her as I did.

I remember the wedding ceremony of Atushi. Atushi was Priya’s cousin, the only daughter of Farzand Fuppi[3]. Priya was of course, as lovely as a rose. She wore a pink coloured lehenga[4] embroidered with seed pearls. It was outrageously expensive as her parents made sure that she had the best of things. But she was still a young girl of thirteen and it was I, the eighteen-year-old Nara, who caused a stir that evening. I was dressed in a peacock blue lehenga that my stepfather almost bullied my mom into getting for me.

“I won’t have one daughter wearing the most expensive thing and another dressed like a pauper,” he had bellowed.

Mother protested, “Nara’s not your daughter.”

He roared, “She’s mine as much as Priya. Don’t you ever say she’s not my daughter.”

Mother cringed and went as pale as a waif. She tried to say something but could not form a single syllable.

Some young male cousins of Priya wowed at our entrance and a female relative sneered, “Goodness gracious! Look at Nara! She just sailed in! Fayaz Uncle will have a Draupadi in his hands in no time.” At some innermost corner of my heart, I reveled. As I turned to look at my mother and Priya, I saw contrasting emotions. Priya was beaming with pure blithe, my darling sweet sister. But in mother’s eyes, I saw panic. She appeared like a terrified deer and clung to Priya. I could not understand why she was so afraid of her very own daughter. But I was naïve, and I did not know the world as she did. Nor did I know the darkest secret she held in her heart.

Priya

They called me a princess. From my childhood I was pampered like one and my mother guarded over me with utmost jealousy. I was an only child and the doctors had said that my mother could not bear another. But then I also had Nara Apu even though everybody called her my half-sister. Technically, she was my half-sister as we had different fathers. Mother always made it clear that she did not care for her at all. And she disliked her even more because I loved her to distraction. In that palace-like prison, she was the only person who cared for me truly. Love shone in her eyes like a beacon, and I cannot help wondering how Nara Apu, who got so little love herself, could love me with such abundance.

She had dark complexion, but that made her all the more beautiful. Her eyes were like pools of black water, the only feature she had inherited from our mother. My eyes are of greenish hue, the eyes that came from my father’s side of the family. When we were children, father was kind of indifferent toward Nara Apu. But Apu had such an unselfish nature that it was difficult to remain unresponsive towards her. And even though my father was a busy man, he did not miss how much she cared for me. Slowly, his attitude toward her changed.

And there was that one time when she practically saved my life. I jumped into the lake after being goaded by some of my cousins even though I did not know how to swim. I realised how stupid the move was as I gulped water and I saw my two dumb cousins standing by the shore gaping at me in horror. I heard a piercing cry, and I sensed it was my mother and then there were several splashes. Then someone got me by the hand, “Don’t grab me,” it said. “Just hold on to my hands.” I flailed and splashed and cried. Then two stronger hands got hold of me.

As I was lying in bed later with mother crying beside me, I learnt that I had two saviours—Nara Apu and Shahnewaz Uncle. It was Nara Apu who had reached me first, and Shahnewaz Uncle reached a few seconds later and grabbed us both and brought me ashore. From that day, everybody knew that Nara and Priya belong together.

By the time she was fifteen, Abbu made sure that mother was not mistreating her daughter from her first marriage. I heard him once telling her, “Salma, do you consider me such a petty creature that I would be jealous of that slip of a girl? You don’t have to treat her so bad, you know, to prove that you love Priya more.”

Mother wept and I could see she was disturbed. But she never really loved her. It is one mystery I never understood until years later.

I also formed a close bonding with Shahnewaz Uncle. Of course, he lived in the same house, but he was always busy with painting. He was Abbu’s younger brother, but they did not have a very close relationship. But he did take notice of me and sometimes patted me on the head. After this particular incident, he started taking interest in both me and Nara. He brought for us licorice of different shapes and tastes and other delicacies. My favourite was orange, while Apu liked peppermint. He laughed at her, “What an old woman you are!” Nara Apu made faces at him and grinned impishly.

During these times, I also started to note that Mother was actually afraid of Nara Apu. It did not make sense to me at all. But whenever Apu was around either Abbu or Shahnewaz Uncle, she would fidget uncomfortably and say nasty things. Once I heard her grumbling to herself that Nara Apu was out to grab men. Poor Apu was only sixteen years old at that time. Then on her nineteenth birthday Mother suggested that she could be married off to Rabbi, a poor relation who worked in our country estate. When Abbu realised that she was serious, he suddenly went very still. Then he said in a very low voice, “If you ever utter such nonsense, or if I ever hear that you’ve initiated something like that, I will have you drowned. Daughters of my family don’t marry servants…. And, from today, she is mine. Forget that you ever gave birth to her, you wretched woman.”

I don’t know what come over her, but mother just fainted away.

Nara

Mother was always a troublemaker. In those days, I could never understand why she hated me so. Our father (I had started calling him Baba[5] at some point; I did not call him Abbu though) was away on a business-trip. And that is when I discovered a terrible secret. I never knew the whole story, but I can still recall the strange conversation that night when Priya was raving in fever and Baba was away. I had fallen asleep in the sofa in Priya’s room and the words streamed into my consciousness:

“All these years, I’ve waited. I’ve waited for him to die. Is there nothing you can do? Priya will always be known as someone else’s daughter.” I heard the sound of muffled weeping of a woman. She whimpered as she said, “And I have to remember all the time that the child that is legitimate is actually the result of rape. I… I … can never love Nara… I was young and I didn’t want her… I hated that man… why couldn’t she die at birth…Why didn’t you let her die?”

Even in my sleep I went numb with pain. Until that moment I had resented that my mother never loved me. There in that nightmarish darkness, in a half-conscious state I learnt the nature of the relationship that existed between my mother and father. I knew, of course, that he was way older than she was. But I never knew that she was married off to him because he had raped her.

Then I heard the voice of a man. The voice was sad but steady, “He’s the rightful son of my father, Salma. I cannot do anything. Even if he dies, I won’t inherit the family property. My mother was only my father’s mistress, you know. Fayaz bhaiya[6] has been generous enough to let me live here. If his mother was alive, he would never be able to do so. You already know that. And Priya has to be recognised as his daughter, otherwise she will get nothing either.”

I was so shocked that a sound escaped my mouth, and my mother was at my side within a moment. In that semi-darkened room, I saw her dark eyes glazed with sheer terror. And I knew that a woman in her predicament would not allow anything or anyone to get between herself and her object of desire. I pretended that I had had a bad dream about Priya. Then we both ran toward Priya’s bed.

A week later, before Priya had completely recovered, mother fell from the stairs and was killed. But a lot of things started to fall in place. Since she could not have any more children, she was protective about Priya and so possessive too. She had no choice but to pass her off as the daughter of her husband. She also wanted to remain the wife of the man who was as rich as a king. She had nowhere to go either. The man she loved, she could not have. And the other daughter, that is me, was a child she never wanted. My father, she never loved. Poor woman! What a life!

It was a strange house after that—two brothers grieving for the woman they both loved. Shahnewaz Uncle suddenly seemed to have grown old. He reminded me of Tithonus bereft of his Dawn. And our stepfather seemed distant and gloomy like a thunderstorm. Yes, that’s how I started thinking. He was Priya’s father only as much as mine. Somehow, the running of the household fell into my hands and Priya became my shadow. She grew to be afraid of the dark. She saw mother’s shadow in the darkness, and I started sleeping in her room. We grew closer than ever. That’s the time when I learnt to love her truly, like my very own sister, without the slightest trace of jealousy.

Priya

I saw the woman in shroud for the first time about two weeks after Mother died. She was sitting in the veranda in the evening. I called out without thinking and when she looked back, I shuddered because she had no face. Yet I knew she was a woman. I heard a piercing scream and when two arms gathered around me, I realised that it was Nara Apu and that I had screamed. I think I fainted and when I woke up, I was in my bed and Apu was sitting by my bed, her eyes clouded with worry.

“I saw her, Apu,” I whispered. “I think I saw Ma.”

Apu’s face paled, but she shushed, “You saw nothing, darling. It was just a shadow. And don’t worry, I’m here. I’ll take care of everything.”

But I saw the woman again a few days later. She was watering the plants on the rooftop at the wake of dawn. I saw her from my window, and I knew it was her. Why was she haunting me? And why did nobody else see her?

Nara Apu made sure after that I was always surrounded by people, esp. in the evening. At night, she slept in my room. Initially, she slept in a cot, but later at my insistence, she slept in the same bed with me. During those days, Nara Apu was strong. She walked with grim determination; she protected me like a warrior-princess. I felt safe when she was around. During daytime, things were normal, but as soon as the darkness crept in, a fearful feeling rose in my heart. I was afraid of shadows. I realised I had to bring Nara Apu in. But how to tell her? I could not give away my secrets; hence I told her only what I could.

That night when we were getting ready for bed, I caught her hand and whispered, “Apu, I have to tell you something. Have you seen Shahnewaz Uncle’s mother?”

Nara Apu gaped at me in incomprehension.

“I saw her picture in his closet. He said it was the picture of his mother.”

Very slowly Apu got up and sat again. And then she said even more slowly, “She… was… drowned… in a… pond, they say. I wonder…”

I stuttered, “Nara Apu, she… looks … exactly… like me.”

Nara Apu did not say anything, but just looked at me. And I realised with a jolt that she knew. When did she come to know that? And she still protected me like anything? When did she learn about it?

I burst into tears, and she held me close like she always did. “Shush, shush, my pretty. You’re safe with me. None can harm you when I’m here. Shush…” What if she knew the truth? Could she bear it? Could I bear if she did not?

Nara

I had to be strong and brave for the sake of Priya. I could not tell her what Baba had told me. Sometimes I wonder how was it that my own mother never loved me, but I got so much love from a complete stranger. No, I am not talking about Priya, I mean Baba. That rainy afternoon when he called me to his study, haunts me still.

He was standing by the window watching the rain. When I entered, he bade me sit. He did not turn to look at me but spoke:

“Sit, Nara. I have some things to tell you.”

I waited patiently.

“We’re in a strange situation here, are we not? Your mother has died, and you are stuck within the walls of a strange house with people whose ties to each other are stranger.” I shuffled uneasily. What was he saying? What was he referring to?

“This is a big house. Do you know that walls have ears?” he ploughed on. “There are many secrets this house holds and even I do not know them all.” Here he turned to look at me. He had smoky eyes, eyes he inherited from his mother. He was a very handsome man even though he was in his mid- fifties. He sighed and said, “I know who Priya is.”

I bolted from my chair, and I knew my face had lost its colour.

He shook his head. “I have known it for quite some time now. Priya looks a lot like Shahnewaz’s mother. I had not realised when she was younger, but as she is growing up, I’ve been detecting the resemblances.”

I sat trembling. Was he planning to punish us? Why was he telling me all these?

“Sit, Nara. I am not going to hurt you or Priya for something your mother did.”

A terrible suspicion started to creep in my mind. And I had thought… “Did… you… you did not kill her, right?” the words tumbled out of my mouth.

He looked at me sadly. “I did not kill her.” He paused and searched my face. “But why do you say that, Nara? Your mother died in an accident, did she not?”

I remained silent.

“Nara, I want you to know that I have drawn documents with my lawyers and have divided my property equally between you and Priya. Both of you are my daughters, mind you. I do not care who the natural fathers are, I recognise you as my children. And I want you to take care of Priya, no matter what.” He paused again and asked, “Do you understand?”

I nodded mutely. Then I asked, “But why? I mean, are you going somewhere?”

He seemed lost in thought. But then he raised himself out of his reverie and smiled, “I guess, you can say that.” He paused and then added, “You can trust Shahnewaz. Like me, he loves both of you. I believe that he loves you even more because you are not his child. He has no hold over you and yet he owes you for saving his daughter’s life.” At that moment I realised how much he loved us both. I felt a wrenching pain for this man who was more than a father to us, and yet he was not our father.

As I was walking out of the room he called me back, “You’re strong, Nara. Far stronger than any of us. You’ll survive.”

Nara and Priya

There was total chaos in the family after Fayaz Chowdhury’s disappearance. The bulk of the property was left to Nara and Priya with Shahnewaz Chowdhury as the legal guardian. Neither Nara, nor Priya could claim their share until their 25th birthday. If either of them died before that, their share would pass on to Shahnewaz. Fayaz Chowdhury’s sisters could not make head or tail of their brother’s wishes. Why did he leave half of his property to Nara? Even though adopted, she virtually was no blood relation to him. Naturally, not any of them could accept that she had suddenly been elevated to the status of a princess.

Priya’s problem at this point was she still saw the shadow of a woman periodically. But by now they both had accepted that Priya would keep on seeing her. She became more and more dependent on Nara.

On that particular afternoon, Nara was making tea on the veranda. Priya was sitting on the small sofa when she just could not take it any more. “Apu, do you know that you are the most beautiful girl that ever lived?” she asked with an unnatural fervency.

Nara raised her dark eyes and laughed. “What got into you, sweetie? If I’m the most beautiful one, what are you?”

Priya smiled in spite of herself. “Apu, will you go away when you get married?”

“I’ll never get married,” Nara suddenly went somber.

“Why not?”

“I don’t trust men,” came the simple reply. She paused and then proceeded to say, “Our poor mother! I just feel so sorry for her.”

“Why do you feel sorry for her? She was a selfish bitch!” There, it was out in the open, thought Priya. It still bothered her that the wretched woman never learnt to love her elder daughter.

Nara shook her head. “No, Priya, she was just a miserable woman. She could not have the man she loved and had to deal with two other men.”

Priya’s eyes stung as the words tumbled out, “You loved her?”

“She was my mother,” said Nara matter-of-factly. “What she did was done out of her own miserable state of mind. I cannot help loving her.”

Priya’s face went as white as chalk. “Apu, I killed her.” The whispering confession was as soft as the first snow. Nara went still. When she turned to look at her sister, she said with a sadness that only tremendous love for a child can produce, “I know. Baba knew too, I believe.”

Priya cried with an abundance that knew no limit. “She hated you. That wretched woman! She wanted to kill you when you were born. Did you know that? Shahnewaz Uncle did not let her. Those two men—they have had so much love in them for that wicked woman. And you love her too? How can you love her? … Sh she was… a witch… an evil witch… I can never… forgive her… never…. Do you know she planned on killing you again? She… she had come to … sus… suspect that you knew the secret of… my birth. I p-pushed her d-down the stairs. I would n-never let anyone harm you… never…” by this point Priya had become hysterical.

Priya was still screaming when they took her away. Her mind had gone completely berserk. She certainly was not a criminal. No wonder the pressure she had retained through the two years after her mother’s death overwhelmed her completely. Nara pulled through the time, and she dragged her Shahnewaz uncle through it too. When Fayaz Chowdhury finally returned home, it was once again a strange household—two fathers held together by a daughter who belonged to neither. And yet, she was the daughter of the woman they both had loved. It is strange that Nara’s mother never loved the child begotten through rape and abuse, and yet Nara had so much to give. That made all the difference.


[1] Elder sister

[2] Father

[3] Father’s sister

[4] Long full skirt

[5] Father

[6] Elder brother

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB. Her short stories and translations have been published in many journals and anthologies in South and South-East Asia. Currently, she is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This story was first published in Six Seasons’ Review.

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Categories
Stories

The Browless Dolls

By S.Ramakrishnan, translated from Tamil by B Chandramouli

S Ramakrishnan

S. Ramakrishnan is an eminent Tamil writer who has won the Sahitya Akademi Award in the Tamil Language category in 2018. He has published 10 novels, 20 collections of short stories, 75 collections of essays, 15 books for children, 3 books of translation and 9 plays. He also has a collection of interviews to his credit. His short stories are noted for their modern story-telling style in Tamil and have been translated and published in English, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and French. 

The Browless Dolls

Hasan Sikari’s house was the scene of a strange incident that seemed impossible.

 Real-life is always more fascinating than fiction. The impossible happens more easily in reality than in fiction. Such an incident occurred at Hasan Sikari’s house.  

We do not notice oddities until they are over. We only examine how they happened afterwards. Strange things happen only to show us we are not in control. What exactly happened at Hasan Sikari’s house?

Two dolls have come together. 

One might wonder what is surprising about that. 

That is because you have not known about these two dolls. 

These were hand-painted white ceramic dolls. They said that the Chinese dolls were a gift to Hassan Sikari at his wedding; one is a man and the other a woman. The male doll wore a round cap. Around its neck was a handkerchief. A small belt circled its waist.

A red robe adorned the female doll’s body. Its left hand was visible in front, but it had the right hand hidden inside the robe. The woman’s hair bent forward like a crescent. Neither doll had eyebrows, giving them a distinct look. The doll’s expressions were alive, showing that the maker of these dolls was a gifted artist.

Those in Hasan Sikari’s household said the dolls were of a husband and wife. The dolls appeared normal, but a strange belief accompanied them. These dolls reunited by themselves if they were ever separated.

You must wonder how lifeless dolls could come together. Maybe, these dolls had fate as well, just like humans. If not fate, it was strange the way they stayed by each other’s side.  

No one at Hasan Sikari’s house tried to test this theory by separating the dolls. Hasan Sikari was a silk merchant. Their family had moved to Burma from India to trade silk only. His family had been in the silk business for generations.

One of Hassan Sikari’s ancestors bought silk wholesale directly from China. The friendship that began then continued during Hasan Sikari’s time. Hasan Sikari is now eighty-six years old. However, he still visits his shop every day. The silk business still fascinates him. They no longer go to China to buy silk. They buy silk from Kashmir. Hasan Sikari would sometimes lament that artificial silk has ruined the greatness of silk.

Hasan Sikari was 18 when he got married. Quen Lee, a Chinese merchant, gave him the dolls as a wedding gift. Quen Lee, a family friend, was married to an Indian woman. While he gifted the dolls, he said nothing about their strangeness. Three months later, when Quen Lee came to me to tell Hasan about the flood in the Irrawaddy River, he said, “These dolls are an inseparable couple. They will definitely come together again, even if they are somehow separated” 

Hasan Sikari’s response was sarcastic, “Even humans find it difficult to come together when separated. So why do you spin such a yarn about dolls?”

Quen Lee said in a firm voice, “No, what I say is the truth. They do not make these dolls anymore, but four centuries ago, the bride’s parents would give them as a wedding gift. These are also four hundred years old and have been in my family all this time. They are a gift of love from me.” 

When Quen Lee said this, Hasan Sikari’s wife fell in love with the dolls. She cleaned them and placed them on a pedestal next to their bed. The doll husband and wife appeared meek. Touching the wife doll’s cheeks felt like touching a rose petal.

“Quen Lee was right. These dolls are strange,” Hasan Sikari’s wife told him one day.

“What happened?” he asked.

“The dolls are too shy to see our intimacy in bed. They turn their faces away by themselves.”

 “No way it can happen. Why should dolls be ashamed?” Hasan asked.

“How can the dolls see our intimacy? You’re confused. Tell me what happened.”

“I’ve watched them for the past few days. The dolls look at the bed during the day but turn by themselves around at night.” 

“Lie. I’ll hug you now and see if these dolls turn around.” 

“Oh. Not now… you don’t know the time and place,” said Hassan Sikari’s wife after shyly shaking off his embrace. Both dolls remained motionless.

When Hasan Sikari went to bed at night, he noticed the dolls were facing the bed. He got up early in the morning and turned on the lights. All he could see were the dolls’ backs. The dolls had turned their faces. What a surprise! They were in fact, embarrassed to see our privacy, thought Hasan Sikari. He woke up his wife and told her so.

“At least now, do you believe what I said? The dolls are watching us.”

“Do you think they will hear what we’re saying?” 

“I don’t know. There seems to be some emotion in the dolls. Your friend was right. These are not ordinary toys.” 

Hasan Sikari’s wife blushed and transferred the toys from the bedroom to the hall showcase. The dolls stayed there together for twelve years.

One day, Hasan Sikari’s wife said, “These dolls have not aged at all. Same smile. Same youthful look. The same glowing blue eyes. Only we have grown old.”

Upon hearing this, Hasan Sikari said, “It is like our marriage happened just yesterday. But already marriage has become boring.”

Before he finished talking, she exclaimed in false anger, “A man who dislikes marriage should go into the forest. He has no business in the bedroom.” 

Hasan Sikari laughed and said, “These dolls don’t even pick such petty fighting Shamima. Age is the gift of human beings. Age makes a guru out of a man. It is your age which makes you mouth off like this Shamima. The woman I married never used to argue.”

“I am like this because of habit,” Hasan Sikari’s wife laughed. Hasan Sikari believed they were as happy as the dolls given by Quen Lee. A bomb hit Rangoon during World War II. On the night Hasan Sikari attempted to leave the house and return to India, he missed the male doll from the pair.

Only the female doll was in their bamboo basket when they arrived back home by ship. Hasan Sikari’s wife was sad that the male doll had been left behind, but she did not express it.

As soon as they arrived in India, they bought a house in Lucknow and began living there. Only the female doll stood alone in their living room. Six years later, a man trading in old papers came to Hasan Sikari’s house. He bought old papers and empty bottles and left. A few hours after he left, Hasan Sikari’s youngest daughter announced,”The male doll is back.”

 Hasan Sikari could not believe it. The dirtied male doll stood on the floor in a corner. How did the doll materialise? Was it brought by the old paper trader? Did he leave the doll by mistake?

 Hasan Sikari’s wife almost cried when she saw the doll. Grasping the doll, she wiped it with her saree and placed it near the female doll. The male doll seemed to look longingly at the female doll.

Hasan Sikari’s wife said, “Did you see? after traveling here and there for so many years, it has finally returned to our home itself. We should not separate these dolls anymore.” 

The return of the male doll gave Hasan Sikari a new hope, as if he had found all his lost assets. One day he himself wiped the dolls with his hand. Each morning before heading to work, he would stand beside the dolls for a minute, saying something to himself.

All the visitors to Hasan Sikari’s house heard about the dolls looked at them in amazement. A police officer’s wife wanted to buy the doll from Hasan Sikari. He flatly refused.

Hasan Sikari’s family went on a summer vacation to Nainital. The dolls were missing when they returned. Some workers in the house have stolen the dolls. Hasan Sikari notified the police. He questioned the workers and threatened them. However, they could never find the dolls. He suffered a great loss emotionally after losing the dolls and in the following weeks, he fell ill.

 Hasan Sikari dreamt of the dolls one day. He lamented the loss even in his sleep. He spent a lot of money in search of the dolls. Hasan advertised in the paper as well. But the dolls could not be located. Six months later, a railway porter brought the two dolls, apparently found in a railway coach. The male doll had a slightly broken leg. Hasan burst into tears, unable to believe that he had the doll back. He gave the porter a reward of Rs. 2,000.

He decided not to display the dolls outside anymore and made a wooden box and hid them in his money locker. He took out the dolls and prayed every day before taking money. Then he would put them back inside and close the locker.  

Hasan Sikari’s eldest daughter-in-law could not conceive for a long time. In the house, this grievance was discussed as a major issue. One day, in a fit of rage, the eldest daughter-in-law pulled out the two dolls and dumped them outside.  Losing the dolls devastated Hasan Sikari and he fainted. Upon learning that the eldest daughter-in-law has done the deed, Hasan’s wife drove her out of the house. The eldest daughter-in-law never revealed what she had done with the dolls.

Three years later, during the de-silting of the well one summer, they found the two dolls, discoloured and soiled. When they brought out the dolls, washed and held them in their hands, the same blue eyes glowed motionless. When Hasan Sikari’s eldest daughter-in-law was asked about it, she replied: “I just put them in the trash. I wonder how they got into the well.”

It was impossible to determine who took the dolls and threw them into the well.

After that, Hasan Sikari never parted with the dolls. He always kept them with him. He would not give them to his grandchildren even if they asked him. The dolls were near his bed even when he was in the hospital. On the day Hasan Sikari underwent heart surgery, one of the dolls disappeared again. It was the girl doll. Not wanting to make his health worse, the family lied to him saying that the doctor told them to take the dolls home.

Then Hasan Sikari returned home, the first question he asked was, “Where are the toys?”

They brought only the male doll. He stared at all of them, not asking a single question. He told the male doll, “Wherever she is, she’ll come searching for you.”

It did not work out the way he had hoped. When he saw the male doll every morning, he assumed the female doll would arrive that day. But it never happened. That night, he would go to sleep with a heavy heart. Over time, the doll that disappeared became like his daughter. Hasan Sikari acted like a father looking for his lost daughter. The thought of the lost female doll drew him to tears.

One day, after seven years and thirty-six days, the female toy was on their doorstep, with her arm broken. How did it get there and who brought it? No one knew anything; Hasan had no desire to find out. Hugging the doll with the broken arm, he lamented that this had happened. Hasan Sikari’s wife cried also.

The next day, Hasan Sikari adorned the female doll with jewellery and took her to the male doll. He hosted a party at home to celebrate the reunification of the dolls.

Those who came to the party were all stunned by the story of the incredible dolls. A woman looked at the dolls and said,“In the past, these dolls must have been a real man and women who were unable to unite. When they turned into dolls, they will not stay separated”.

Her words seemed true to Hasan Sikari. 

Hasan Sikari’s wife had a sudden heart attack one night, and she passed away before they took her to the hospital. Hasan Sikari, who lost his wife unexpectedly, found solace in the dolls. He kept the dolls by the pillow itself on the bed. Every day, he would tearfully tell the dolls of his wife’s love and their happy days, to relieve his misery.

The dolls seemed to have a sad expression on their faces.

One night, as he told the dolls about the behavior of his newly wed wife, the female doll accidentally fell from the bed and shattered into pieces. As he bent down to grab the doll, he saw the male doll jump out of bed and fall also.

There were two broken browless dolls scattered on the floor. When he saw them, he cried out loudly. Hasan Sikari had never cried so much, not even at the death of his wife.

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Dr. Chandramouli is a retired physician.. . He has done several English to Tamil, and Tami to English translations. His Tamil translation of Jack London’s novel, White Fang, has been published recently.   

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Categories
Stories

The Phosphorescent Sea

By Paul Mirabile

The ship hauled anchor then glid smoothly over the placid, thick black waters. Overhead, thousands of stars studded the midnight sky. Most of the passengers chose to sleep but not Reuven, who at starboard, leaning heavily on the railing, inhaled and exhaled that nocturnal air of sea lust he nurtured, yearned and desired. Reuven had walked the decks of so many ships at night. He slept restlessly during the day. For it was at night that the treasures of the sea beckoned him with their illuminating allure, whose phosphorescent radiance touched and tugged at his heart as he attempted to pry open the lid of that still undiscovered treasure hidden unfathomed within him.

The ship rocked ever so gently as he peered into the inky depths. Deeper and deeper Reuven sought to probe, to sound, to err amongst the phantoms. But as night advanced, and the air grew cooler and he had to stop. His lungs were at the point of bursting. He gasped for air. He had failed once again, panting breathlessly. It was only the first white ray of the morning that he returned to the surface, throbbing with anguish, shivering with cold, smelling of brine.

He would have to exercise himself more strenuously, discipline his breathing rhythms, purify his heart further in order to attain … to attain what ? The un-pried trove ? The entrance to the azure cave whose lithic cavities and chambers would deliver him to the heart of his ‘Quest’ ? “But all three are One !” he murmured to the morning light. “All three are decidedly One, I’m sure of it.” He concluded.

But was he absolutely sure ? Since the nineteen-seventies how many years, how many vessels, how many dives into the oceans and seas of the world had he waited, ridden out, taken in in search of the seemingly unattainable? How many nights aboard the rocking and rolling bridges, under the brilliant or luminous less skies had he held his breath and made the vital plunge ? At times, he felt that he had ‘touched’ something : shoals of darting fish, a school of breaching dolphins, curious at this interloper, a lone blue or white whale ready to swallow him up like Jonas, yet hesitant due to the urgency of the diver’s dive downwards, and perhaps also to the oddity of such a ‘mouthful’. Once a soft, silken squid touched him with its suction-cupped tentacles. This touch sent icy chills through his body. Other odd phantoms that wiggled through the depths eyed him with their bulging, bulbous eyes rolling in their protruding orbits as they rubbed noses with him. Alas, this was the furthest he had sounded: the crushing coldness of the sea enveloped his body, and his lungs, aching, failed him once again. His lungs and his will ! This lack of intestinal fortitude and energy in overcoming the frigid deep would bring tears to his red, fatigued eyes …

“How many plunges would it then take ? How many crossings and trials ? Confrontations with the phantoms of the deep ? Were these uncanny and oftentimes terrifying creatures the guardians of the cherished trove ? Were they responsible for my lack of will … my shortage of breath … my fear of limits ? But is not the tracing of a limit a means of surmounting it ?

“I class these plunges as voyages. They are extraordinary. Extraordinary because beyond what I may call ordinary reality. For this extraordinary reason I believe my will retracts, my lungs fail, my fear reaches an acme of indescribable terror. Yet, I persevere. No treasure chest is easily discovered and its lid pried open. This knowledge I acknowledge, and in doing so, have hurried half the way by overcoming the consensus of a sole vision of reality. For I have come to understand that the treasure I have so desperately sought lies not in an ordinary vision of things, but within them, through them, over and under them. There lies the treasure I am speaking about. There in a land or space of the ‘Other Reality’,” wrote the dauntless diver in his logbook.

“And this space exists ! I have plunged into it, but have been thwarted in my attempts to reach ‘the bottom’, if that is all possible. The ‘bottom’ where lies the treasure …”

And so many years passed. Many decks paced. Many plunges plunged. Many expectancies sunk …

“It was on this particular cargo vessel as we left Southhampton for Cape Town that my efforts would prevail …or I believed would prevail. At the equator, one very still and humid night, the waters of the Atlantic were as thick as molasses, as calm as a pond in a wooded glen, as black as pitch. I leaned at the railing, quite alone at  late hours of the night. I peered down into this uncanny oceanic instant and a sentiment of great excitement crept up upon me …

“It was the instant expected : I plunged anew …

“As I slowly descended the stillness of the cool waters, the titillating sensation of my kindling blood awakened a contrast that my mind found difficult to organise. It were as if my subjective make-up, my ‘personal space’ lay exposed to the various living entities that either obstructed my way, obliging me to circumvent them, or rushed towards me as if to scrutinise this alien interloper that had trespassed their ‘personal space’. It was not an uncomfortable feeling at all, but the collision of the two ‘personal spaces’ seemed to meld into an ‘impersonal one’, drawing me now out of my self now drawing them into me. Beautiful crimson corals provided the backdrop of this alternating movement, aglow with bulbous branch tips that undulated at my approach ; its branches were aswarm with sponges, molluscs, star fish, sea urchins and sea spiders. The coral quivered and quaked under their continual agitation, a silent and stunning quavering as I passed them by, several detaching themselves to examine the diver! Yet, they kept at a reasonable distance, hardly inhospitable, even friendly, my ‘human aura’ perhaps attracting them as they slid through the myriad incandescent branches …

“I felt so relieved that these fellow creatures welcomed my presence amongst them, and I thanked them for not upsetting my rhythmic breathing as I descended. I broke through layers of soft, silent, swishy beds of seagrass of the most viridian green. Nothing stirred within them; only the strong current of waters tossed them to and fro — like the sea vessel that I had long since abandoned — or so it seemed. Here at these depths ,Time had lost its tick-tock humdrum. It had become Space.

“Gradually the waters became terribly cold. My heart was palpitating. At these inky depths, no ray of the sun penetrated. No sound, human or other, pervaded. Now the queerest of creatures swam in the wake of my vertical drop, glaring at me either through tubular eyes that swivelled or through telescopic ones with lenses. They appeared amiable, in spite of the fact that I had disturbed their environment. They meant me no harm, even a giant squid, terrifying creature, who had made a bee-line towards me, stopped a short distance away. The creature began to feel my body with the many suction cups that padded its lengthy tentacles. I imagine it was verifying whether I were friend or foe. After several minutes, it let me pass, its beady eyes encrusted in its bulbous mantle fixed on me as I drifted deeper into colder waters, waters that were compressing my body and soul more and more.

“The darkness became truly frightening. My drop slowed down as if the waters were solidifying, gripping me in some viscid, glutinous substance. An image from the past darted through my mind : it was in the Pacific, I had encountered the terrible phantom of the abyss and had skirted that danger, miraculously. All of a sudden I was shaken out of my reminiscence by many spots of soft ochre-yellow light that sluggishly trudged their way towards me : I believe they were lantern fish flashing upon their prey. They swarmed around me, training their luminous photophore organs into my face. What an unusual prey they had stumbled upon! So huge. So unappetising. So unlike their daily diet. I think I was dealing with a viperfish, whose enormous dagger-like teeth shone under the softness of its lantern organ. And there, to the left, swimming as speedily as the thickness would allow it, a humpback angelfish, an ugly beast indeed with its deadly spiked teeth ready to devour me. Both of them eyed me, until at length turned against themselves. The turbulence of the waters blurred my vision, thousands and thousands of bubbles jolted and jostled me from left to right, dragged me downwards, helplessly caught in the vortex of this bellicose maelstrom. When the tempest had abated, peace and darkness reigned once again. Regaining my composure, I ventured a peek upwards: nothing …

“Heavier and heavier my body weighed, lighter and lighter my head as I plummeted to deeper depths, quite unknown to me. I became estranged from my Self … from my human identity. I had never experienced such uncanny emotions in my former marine voyages. It were as if my body had blended into the environment, had become one with it, whereas my mind, quite lucid, refused to yield to this inhuman ‘It’. Was my body detaching itself away from my mind ? How could that be ? They are inextricably connected … or so I thought … How many hours now beneath the ocean ? How many days ? Would I have both the physical and mental strength to weather the fathomless Deep … the soundless ‘It’ ? To overcome the abyss ? To reach the treasured Depth ? Yes, I must advance wither : Had I any other chance ? It was too late to turn back … Yet I had to surface at some time …

“Ah ! Now what is this ? I’ve seen that bugger before in picture-books – the black swallower. This phantom of the deep can be a deadly adversary with its bloated, distensible belly that even swallows small whales. It’s coming straight at me and I have nothing to defend myself, only prayers, only a thought of the Absolute One whom I seek with firm resolution. And there, a blazing light burns through the thickness. Either it too is headed for me or for the charging black swallower. It’s the pelican eel that was going into battle against the other, brandishing a large photophore at the end of its tail to attract the terrible black swallower away from me. Its enormous mouth has dropped open and in a jiffy the unprepared black swallower existed no longer, gobbled up within the grinding cavity. The spot lights of the eel flashed on and off as it struggled to digest such a crude repast. All this emotion caused my heart to beat faster and faster … my chest ached and swelled. My breathing became more and more erratic, almost uncontrollable. As I witnessed these turbulent events a rather metaphysical thought crossed my mind : Are all these creatures not traces, imprints, vestiges of His Presence ? Are they not, in the chilliest depths of the deep, enigmatic signs, obscure indeed, even frightening, of my communication … no, of my communion with Him, however ugly, gruesome or hostile their appearance be to me ? They are the true signs that I am on the right road : the Royal Road …

“My eyelids no longer obeyed their nerve commands to remain on the alert. I wished to sleep. To lay down and doze off for a while … a long while. I’ve had enough. I’ve come too far and my quest has come to nothing. I long to see the light of day, to savour earthly creatures, to breathe an unsalty air.  I yearned to return to humankind. To the colours and sounds of life … Yet, I’m still alive, or at least I believe I am alive, albeit everything I touch has no feeling. A numbness has settled into my drifting body ; so light, so weary, so empty … a floating debris from an embattled, erring vessel …

“The debris floats into the crevice of a sponge-like lithic palisade. I am penetrating some sort of  grotto, drifting in an airless, soundless world, tugged along horizontally as if a strong current were tossing and rocking me gently from one wall to the other. The haze that had veiled my eyes slowly lifts, and I discern a phosphorescent glow of myriad colours. The colours played upon my sensations without disturbing the numbness that had seized my body. At last, the ‘Separate Reality’? The twilight of gleams and glimpses ? Of undulating figures or phantoms that emerge in my mind when I feel myself entwined within the fumes of sleep ?

“But I am fully awake to my novel surroundings: A purple haze has crept into this grotto, chandelier-like stalactites hang in series of threes, all perfectly symmetric in their sponge-like textures and forms. I reach out to touch them but I felt nothing, my arm balancing heavily in some sort airless vacuum. Gigantic stalagmites studded with bulging, knotty boles and prominent tumours soared high into empty chambers like frothy fairy chimneys, dripping colours of blue and green, fading fast as they penetrate the darkened upper cavities. And away I drift, billows of silken lithic walls roll by. I serpentine like a snake through this intestinal gallery, chamber to chamber, passageway to passageway, the air or water current conducting me deeper into intermittent contrasts of sapphire flush, ultramarine malachite and pall blackness. Air or water current ? My body breathes ‘normally’, although I cannot ‘feel’ the air through my nostrils or throat. Have I transcended the conditioned reality ? Have I identified myself with this unknown alienness … reached the ‘Separate Reality of the Divine One’? The Absolute One is indeed known to us naturally, but will I be able to recognise him ?

“Nothing moves: no fish, no reptiles. I myself cannot move, yet beyond the inertness of my corporality something enlightens me upon the marvels of this cavernous world. All beauty does have a sense of the physical. Alas, I am quite unable to participate ‘corporally’ in that sensation, for I possess at these very moments none. A tulle-like curtain is drawn before my eyes; but on each side of me what an enchanting view of so many enfiladed pillars, like ossified soldiers on guard duty. Are they real ? Am I dreaming them ? I must say, however, that in spite of my benumbed state, I do feel this polychromic beauty. A sort of conscious feeling of a penetration of colours and configurations that leaves trails and traces as I sail by them, or better put, as they engulf me then expel me further into the never-ending warren of passageways and chambers.

“Ah ! Wonders of wonders ! Here and there I discern mural drawings of the most exquisite artistic stamp : aurochs, bisons, horses, hands with thick thumbs, tiny ochre-coloured men shooting arrows … Perhaps these regions were inhabited by creatures like myself. Prehistoric or primitive artists carving out their visions of reality, real or imagined.

“Am I then dead to this forlorn world ? To mine ? Am I passing into the Other World ? Is this where the quest has brought me … to the end … or to the beginning ? The phosphorescence glows of melding colours: blues slipping into turquoise, greens into shades of violent. Slashing amber yellows drip into rushes of rusty reds, which in turn suddenly explode into large patches of black shutting out all until bursts of dulcet rose and bright orange bring tears to my half-closed eyes. This I sense but without a sense of being separate from it all.

“Yes, there is something eerie about this voyage, something uncommon. From one of the arched, vaulted chambers a shower of arrow-like sparks falls upon me ; yet I feel nothing. I speed through a maze of silver and gold. I circumvent a sulphurous gauze of stalagmites of the most confounding shapes: pillars whose capitals overflow with spongy tendrils and drooping pistils, sprouting mushrooms, swollen menhirs, frozen standing stones and other awesome monoliths coated with red damask, crustacean Moorish arches, spiky gold steeples and then the passage cleaves into opaque chambers, odourless, soundless, fraught with the feeling of hopelessness. From one of the greenish Moorish arches, I see a stone mouse hanging by its tail, or so it appeared, and from another, silken silvery threads of  weird waning, waxing waterfalls.

“Here, afloat, I am spinning through a wondrous world quite impervious to its smells and touches, yet moved by it as if it were sheltered within me. Sheltered by the commotion of colours and the seductive shapes, the endless erring of the same patches of pitch black, exposed to the sudden bursts of iridescent colours, I turn and turn and turn in circles ever wider.

“The momentous moment has it arrived? The Great Encounter — I mean between myself and the Absolute. No, impossible, why all this turning and turning ? Why the intermittent snatches of blackness that smother the chromatic bursts of phosphorescent hope ? Why am I not able to voice or move within the vortex of the revelation ? And the sacred trove ? Am I not worthy of it ?

“My heart bursts with melancholic joy. Pangs of glee spill out … I sense the midst of mellow musings rising like a curtain; the lid has opened, and the image of the Invisible One has come upon me … I gasp in awesome delight:  No more angry, reddening suns will henceforth set upon me…”

*

After several hours of searching the sailors finally found Reuven’s bloated body floating in the ocean. The crew and passengers had been searching for him since his disappearance on deck after midnight. The doctor aboard concluded that his lungs had burst. His body was filled with water and microscopic sea creatures.

When the cargo ship ported at Cape Town, the captain reported the incident to the police. A certain Reuven Whaler had apparently fallen overboard during their route, and not having been seen by either crew or passenger, had drowned. When the police enquired whether he might have committed suicide, the captain shrugged his shoulders. When asked about a possible murder, the good captain turned red and vehemently denied any possible attempt of murder, premeditated or not!

In spite of the captain’s affirmative disposition against any sort of mischief aboard his vessel, all the crew members and passengers were subject to long interrogations: No one was permitted to disembark for two or three days until the coroner’s inquest had been completed and delivered to the police aboard the ship. The inquest stated that the aforementioned passenger, Reuven Whaler, forty-nine years of age, had drowned by accident off the coast of Gabon. As he had no family or close relatives, no further enquiries were made.

Reuven’s death thus remained somewhat veiled in mystery. Whether his body was buried or thrown back into the sea is anyone’s guess …

Now the readers may be curious to know how is it that I have come to relate these incidents given the fact that Reuven vanished one balmy night off the coast of Africa quite alone. How is it that I can account with such precision and emotion his ‘plunge’. Fortunately I was Reuven’s cabin mate aboard that cargo vessel, and when his body was discovered, before the captain arrived to check his cabin belongings, I quickly recuperated the logbook that he had been keeping and hid it in my belongings. I do not consider it as a theft, but as a keepsake … a testimony to Reuven’s ardent quest for the Absolute.

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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Categories
Stories

Homecoming

By Rituparna Mukherjee

Sulakshana looked outside her window. It was still dark outside. The 25th day of September, it was Mahalaya[1]. She had set her alarm for 4 a.m. and had woken up much before that. Her mind was a sea of thoughts that day, not anxious, she had a sense of excitement that she hadn’t felt in months. Somehow the night leading up to Mahalaya, and the sound of Birendra Krishna Bhadra[2] from her ear plugs filled her with a potent nostalgia.

She was hungry. She looked at the plums on her dining table. They embodied autumn to her and autumn, in Edinburgh, was truly one of a kind. She had loved the changing colours of the trees when she had first arrived in the quaint city to pursue her masters in biochemistry seven years ago. She had escaped the city she had grown up in. Not because she didn’t love it. She did. Dearly. But she felt constricted there. A deep introvert, she felt her voice stifled amidst the din of family and over-achieving friends. She had not considered it an escape of course. She believed she was fulfilling a very middle-class dream, that of being the foreign-educated daughter.

She had always felt somewhat burdened by her name. Her name to her carried the expectations of her parents and family, which restricted her already timid movements. In the early days in Edinburgh, her friends and professors would respectfully ask the appropriate pronunciation of her name. She would shyly oblige and after a few trials and errors she became Sue. She didn’t mind. She somehow found it liberating, as if her limbs were cut loose of the excess baggage. She enjoyed the anonymity, the distant politeness, the cleanliness of the place, the beauty of the countryside and the gorgeous cafes. But in the utter silence of the night, Kolkata whispered to her in her dreams like a capricious child. She would often see herself walking its streets on the way back home from school, especially in the month leading up to the Durga Puja celebrations — where the city itself like a beautiful maiden would prepare for the days to come, each day bringing in a new adornment, a banner in one corner, bamboo stands of the pandals[3], skeletal at first would be brimful of the local artistry. She would wake up suddenly to the smell of shiuli and kadam flowers in autumn and be a little dismayed to find herself in a cold and windy city with barely any known faces.

Mostly, she missed her grandmother and mother. They were mirror images of each other. Sometimes she liked to think of herself as their reflection, but she didn’t want to be as quiet. She had just submitted her doctoral thesis and was suddenly at a crossroad again. She would have to extend her visa to stay in this country and until that was resolved. She could not leave. She had been promising her mother that she would come home for a short while since pre-COVID times. Her mother had stopped asking after a few months. She never broached the topic herself. It lay fermenting like old rice. Sulakshana was both ashamed and afraid to touch it.

She was getting good job offers in multi-national conglomerates that would have made her life easier. But her heart lay in research. Her situation was peculiarly prickly. She had managed to save some money during her tenure, but she knew she was in for large expenses. She wasn’t sure if she had enough not to be billed an economic migrant. She could not stand the ignominy. She could only work for 20 hours per week that had largely limited her income. She had earlier applied for a U.S visa only to be refused for not having a CV[4] on her. Her stellar academic record had not mattered. She recalled her father’s worried face while adding up the numbers during her Master’s application. She had to show all the money upfront, the tiniest mistake would mean instant denial. She knew she was in for another round of the same sore process. It was a dead weight tied to her limbs. She longed to be free.

Meanwhile Birendra Krishna Bhadra was chanting- “Kuber dilen ratna haar”- the God Kuber gave the Goddess Durga a necklace of gemstones. She smiled.  She would listen to the Mahalaya’s Mahisasur Mardini, the slokas or chants invoking the descent of Durga to Earth, from her childhood. The entire family would wake up at the crack of dawn and listen to the radio with rounds of tea and biscuit. She would sit huddled close to her grandmother, a part of her saree put protectively on her to prevent her from catching cold in the transitioning weather. Her grandmother would often ask her questions such as- “Accha[5], let me see if you have heard it well. What did the God Biswakarma give the Goddess?” Or, “Do you remember how many names the Goddess has?” She would never tire of these questions, or of making garlands out of shiuli flowers, her grandmother’s favourite. The other day when she spotted dhuna [6]in the incense department of the store in Edinburgh, her eyes watered with a pain she thought she would never know.

The Goddess had killed Mahishasur and was coming to her family. She knew she would have to decide soon. She could see the faint light of dawn spreading in the sky outside her window. That was the same everywhere. The story of the homecomingof Durga would always end with dawn, symbolic to her in so many ways. She felt a lump in her throat. Perhaps it was time to return home after all.      


[1] The start of the descent of the Goddess Durga from her heavenly home to Earth, her paternal home.

[2] Birendra Krishna Bhadra (1905-1991), a writer, playwright and radio broadcaster whose rendition of evoking Durga on her journey to Earth is one of the best-known and best-loved by Bengalis across the world.

[3] Marquee

[4] Curriculum Vitae

[5] Okay

[6] incense

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, under the University of Calcutta. She is a published poet and short fiction writer. She works as a freelance translator for Bengali and Hindi fiction and poetry and is an editor at the Antonym Magazine.  She is also an ELT consultant and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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