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Magic Afloat in the Air

A Short story by Gauri Mishra

Paharganj. Photo credit: Wiki

She had never thought it would end like this. A chance meeting in a food trail which culminated in the lanes of Paharganj was quite an ordinary occurrence for Sagari. She considered herself a foodie and anything to do with eating captured her attention. Not that she minded any adventures…in fact just the thought of staying at home for a prolonged period of time depressed her. However, this particular day had a lot more in store than just a food trail…

She had been careful not to crush her crisp cotton dupatta when she boarded the metro in the morning. The shared auto ride till the station had messed up her hair a little but she liked that unkempt look. The bright pink kurta was a sign of her enthusiasm and complimented her dusky look. The kohl rimmed eyes were mysterious and honey-coloured giving her an air of aloofness. Just the prospect of meeting a whole bunch of strangers filled her with excitement.

The food trail had already begun when she joined the motley group of people, old and young including a gray-haired man who looked a little out of place with his crisp white shirt and dark trousers, a couple of middle-aged women whose idea of coming on a food trail had little else beyond food and a bunch of over-enthusiastic teenagers who couldn’t stop talking even while the others strained to hear what the guide was telling them about the sweet shop in Chandni Chowk.

The only other person who had come alone besides herself was a young man who had a quiet demeanor and reminded her of the lanky hero in those early Amitabh Bachchan starrers. He had noticed her immediately but seemed in no hurry to strike a conversation. She kept asking questions and the others looked disenchanted with her curiosity about the origins of dhabas (street side eateries) and their owners’ pride in hoarding family recipes. She loved everything about the walk and the little discoveries of secret recipes, the smells and the aroma of spices and the delectable food that filled her senses with a pleasure that was hard to resist.

The young man who had shown no interest in her so far intrigued her. His lack of enthusiasm acted as a trigger for her to take it up as a mission. The pattern was the same always, the more a man ignored her, the more interested she became in knowing how to get his attention. It is not too hard to decipher that she succeeded nine out of ten times. For her, this too was an adventure…unraveling the enigma behind the ordinary exterior and then getting to know the person.

The trail ended before time as the sun had already set and the cool breeze had lulled everyone into silence. The chaiwala (tea stall owner) at the corner of the street was definitely a temptation and she decided to walk up to him for a strong cup of tea. As if on cue, the young man followed her to the bench which didn’t seem too inviting and served more as an indication of the chaiwala’s existence. That is when she noticed the steady gaze which seemed to linger on her.

Immediately conscious of her hair, she made a cursory attempt to look a little more presentable. By then he had taken both their teas from the chaiwala and was holding on to them, waiting for her to reclaim hers from his hand.

“Thanks …you didn’t have to do this.”

“It’s all right, thought I’ll wait for you to finish.”

That is when she realized that her bag’s zipper had come undone and she was still struggling to close it.

Why do these clumsy things happen when you are in decent company? She thought to herself.

The tea had become inconsequential by now. It was almost as if they had both been aware of the ploy which had finally brought them this proximity.

By now, she had gained her composure. It was strange how naturally they both hit it off and the leisurely walk in one of the Paharganj lanes seemed like the most obvious choice of activity. Neither of them was in a hurry. On the contrary, the prospect of spending the next few hours in each other’s company was exciting enough. He kept listening to her incessant chatter about her little room in a shared flat and how it seemed insufficient for her adventurous mind with its creative thoughts and ideas.

She loved to go out, alone mostly and explore the city which had given her an identity. She seemed to know a lot about Delhi, considering the short span of her stay here. She looked eager, starting a new sentence before the first one had finished…laughing at the little jokes which he made with a straight face. Her eyes were full of the joy that comes from living your own life your way and there was no way he could not be fascinated with her charming figure which wasn’t slim but had an interestingly voluptuous look which his male imagination had assessed much earlier in the day.

They decided to eat, and a curiously winding staircase fascinated them into climbing up to a roof-top restaurant which had a quaint look and a wide terrace with stray benches strewn around giving it a strangely nonchalant air, as if the atmospherics were least interested to know who the occupants were. A plate of momos followed by a few beers were enough to make them comfortable with each other.

He cajoled her into a space where she just wanted to live in the moment. He was not the kind of man who looked threatening, instead he had an easy air about him, almost as if there was very little in the world that could jolt him out of his composure. She was equally relaxed, almost on the verge of putting her head on his shoulder, the beer making her feel lighter and happier. The wrought iron bench in the corner of the terrace, with an adventurous branch of the Neem tree winding up to it seemed to offer an invitation and they eased into it, both anticipating an interesting end to this day.

The very essence of this night was the silence around them…most of the people in the restaurant had left and there was nobody to check on them or even ask them to leave…it wasn’t that kind of a place where people intruded into your conversations to ask you to leave. It was the kind of place which let you be and trusted you enough to find your way out.

They talked about life, relationships, travails of living in a big city, and about their dreams which always seemed to be round the corner but remained elusive. She had never imagined she was capable of this. Talking through the night with somebody she had met a few hours ago.

It surprised her a little…her comfort zone and how easily she could treat herself to an adventure. In fact, when the dawn broke, and she took a cab home, deciding to drop him to the next metro station, he didn’t seem too averse to the idea. It was pretty clear to both of them that the romance of the night was over…the magical rapport they had felt with each other seemed to fade away in the sunlight. Their realities had shaken hands and said their goodbyes.

She was quite sure she wouldn’t see him again. What she couldn’t figure out was her own impulse and that carpe diem spirit which ruled her mind on most days.

This happened to her a lot and her consciousness berated her each time she thought about her seven-year-old relationship with her boyfriend who worked in the US. It seemed to her a minor factual detail in her bemused existence. It was almost as if she wanted to have a fill of her stray encounters with men, she found interesting. Was it her way of finding the truth about her committed relationship or just a series of casual adventures?

She had no clue and although these questions kept popping up like little droplets of water on a windowpane, there was never an immediate need to clear the surface and peep into her mind.

Life can be quite uncertain, she told this to herself often enough. The thought of marriage and moving to another country was going to happen at some faraway juncture.

For now, she was pleased with the way her career at this startup was shaping up, she was content to go on her solitary walks in this beautiful city, listen to her favorite melodies in the rain, enjoy her food trails and take innumerable pictures, read to her hearts’ content on lazy weekend mornings. If life had anything more to offer, she was in no immediate haste to get there. She told herself often…tomorrow is another day.

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Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.

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Flash Fiction: Tears of a Revered Mother

Mereen Nizar

Written in Balochi by Mereen Nizar, translated by  Ali Jan Maqsood

That unpleasant winter night breaks my heart. My mother sobbed loudly and stated with tearful words, “Better than this life, I had tied a rope on my neck and killed myself. What misfortune! What sin have I committed that I am being punished?”

After these words, Mother wiped her tears.  

I was caged with chains of childhood and immaturity. My thoughts were next to nothing. I could not start to comprehend the anguish of my mother. I felt so vague and dumb.

While I shed tears in a corner by the wall, my mother, lay on her stomach and continued to sob.

Time moved faster. I, as a lame, was dragged along with time towards an unknown destination.

I felt my experiences were maturing me.

And then I witnessed again a similar winter night — my mother — the exact walls and home, but there appeared marks of cruelty on her.

She had lost the courage to be alive. She was inconsolable. Crying and lamenting had depleted her youthfulness. Age had crept in on her and humbled her.

The mother, sitting on the funeral of her innocent child, was missing him.

I continued to be the same person, attached to the same walls of the home. I wandered like a lost soul with grief haunting my thoughts. My eyes began to rain with tears. By then, my mother was not alone. I, too, was torn with pains and worries.

The world had changed: many had lost the game of life, many had won. Many were homeless. People were yet moaning under the fallen walls of weariness. One among them was the same old lady who had lost the game of life and was shouldered by four people. She was kept under sanctuary of the Motherland.

I realised the place and situations had changed. My mother’s laments had ceased. The Motherland had sheltered my mother. The sky began to shed its tears along with mine. I apprehended my mother was shedding her tears for me from the sky.

Mereen Nizar is a Balochi fiction writer and an M.phil scholar in the field of Botony. He writes for different local newspapers and magazines.

Ali Jan Maqsood is a student of Law at University Law College Quetta and can be reached at alijanmaqsood17@gmail.com. He tweets at @Alijanmaqsood12

Originally published in Balochi language in Tawar newspaper in 2015. 

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Deja-vu

By Aminath Neena

I look at those lush green trees.

The hills beyond the pavilion danced with the silky breeze. Their outline of azure blue hue beckons me to come closer as they whisper my name huskily.

“Come and give us a hug!” they start chanting clearly in a language that I can understand too well.

On my right, the lake shimmered in stark silver like that of a bride smiling in her nuptial glory waiting for her groom…and then my thoughts reach out to you, the one closest to my heart. The one whose aura consumes most of my lucid dreams. The one whose face remains etched in my mind’s eye, since forever.

The sweet chanting was getting louder by the moment.

“Sheeeeeeseeeeeeeeeeh… Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhheeesh! Come, come!”

I gazed longingly at those inviting contours. The greens, the blues and the whites all mixed together as if in a surreal painting and they pulled at my heartstrings.

I started missing you more than ever and there is a noticeable pain in my heart now.

My feet started moving willfully on their own as if in complete control of the feat ahead. Closer and closer I moved but although I felt a strong need to be there among the hills, I had an intense burning desire to have you beside me, right there holding my hands.

And then the thought struck me. It hurled at me like a whirlwind.

It was so sudden that I almost lost my balance. Slowly, I bent down and crouched on my knees on the wet grass. I put my hands on my head in an attempt to excogitate the answers to the raging questions in my mind.

Why did this place feel so familiar when in reality it was the first time, I had consciously visited it anyway? What made me feel that I have known you all along and that I have known you all my life when in reality I could not recall just how or where we had met before?

Why did I feel this way every time I saw these hills and the greenery close to me? And most importantly, why did it all remind me of you; of us when in the real sense, there is no us at all?

Why? Why? Why?

Is it possible that you and I, we had lived among those luscious hills, perhaps in another lifetime? But my strict sense of religion clearly forbade me to think along these lines. Or, could it be possible that souls met in heaven before they were destined to start life on Earth here? In that case, it did make sense to me.

What I did know for sure is that it was not just my imagination or a hallucination but a real feeling I had. There was no mistake about that! And, at least, that itself is a relief.

With that dwelt a certainty. Just like a mathematical formula, if there was a me and an us, somewhere, at some point in time, then there definitely was and is a you. The mere notion that you existed somewhere out there just like I had felt all along, was enough motivation for me to suppress all my Earthly desires, till the point in time in our entwined destinies, when we would meet each other. The thought made my heart smile.

Slowly, I walked back to my dorm.

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Aminath Neena is an English lecturer from the picturesque archipelago nation of the Maldives. An avid lover of words, she writes both poetry and short fiction. Her writings explore themes like love, relationships, spirituality, society, and global issues.

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Tagore Stories in Translation: Bolai

A story about Man and Nature written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1928, translated by Chaitali Sengupta.

Simul tree, also known as Rokto Simul in Bengali. Photo Credit: Wiki

It is often said that human life is a culmination of various other life forms in this world. In our daily lives, most often, we come across diverse characteristics of other animals in a human being. Honestly said, in the character of a human, we see a blend of attributes usually found in animals. The domesticity of a cow and the ferocity of a tiger reside in the same human; it is, as if, the snake and the mongoose are both put together. It is somewhat like the melody that is created when the entire range of notes come together. Only then, a raga is formed. However, in a raga, one note can be more prominent than the other.

In the character of my nephew Bolai, I believe the affinity for flora and fauna, perhaps, reigned supreme. He was an observant child rather than an active one. Even at an early age, he’d quietly observe Nature around him. The dark, billowing clouds in layers, on the eastern sky would collect and pour. They would moisten his heart and bring forth the untamed breeze of the forests. It was, as if, his entire being could hear the pitter-patter of the rain.

He seemed to want to fill his being with rays of the departing sun, perhaps, in an attempt to collect something precious from it. In the end of Magh (the month of January), when the trees would be laden with the tiny fruits, an intrinsic, deep happiness, a joy defying description awakened in him. His inner nature would blossom forth, expand and take on a deeper shade of colour, much like those flowering Sal trees, with the advent of Falgun (the month of February). In those moments, he had a deep urge to sit in solitude, in conversation with himself, piecing together the various tales he’d heard. Like the story of that very old pair of birds, who had made their nest in the deep crevice of the ancient banyan tree.  He never talked much, this wide-eyed, staring boy. In the silence of his being, his thoughts ran deep.

Once, I took him along on a trip to the mountains. His joy was immense, when he saw the lush carpet of the green grass, sprawling across the valley from our house at the top.  In his mind, the grass carpet on the slope was not an inanimate, lifeless thing; he felt it to be a living one, that rolled playfully down. Often, he would roll down the slope, become a part of the grass, enjoy it tickling his back. He giggled aloud.

After a rain-washed night, when the first rays of sun gently broke free, and its golden light kissed the tops of the clustering deodar trees, he would tip-toe out of our home, alone. He would walk to those tall trees, and stand in awe, watching the motionless mighty trunks. In them, he’d envision a living spirit, a human presence, as it were. The spirits who wouldn’t talk but would know all our secrets like our ancestral grandfathers, from times immemorial.

His deep-thinking eyes weren’t always heavenwards. Many a times, I’d seen him roaming in my garden, his eyes on the ground, as if in quest something new or unusual. His curiosity knew no bounds, when he discovered new seedlings piercing out of the soil. Each day, bending down, he would talk to them, as if asking, “What’s next? Now what?” Those were, like his eternally incomplete stories — like those new, tender leaves, with whom he shared a strange affinity, verging on companionship.

And they, too, would be eager to ask him questions. Perhaps, they asked him his name. Or, about his mother, where was she? In his mind, Bolai perhaps would reply, “But I don’t have a mother.”

When someone plucked a flower from the tree, it hurt him. He realised soon enough that his concern or hurt was not at all important to others. He tried to hide his pain. When the young boys of his age threw stones at the trees, trying to bring down amlokis (gooseberries) from fully laden branches, he ran away from the scene. To tease him further, his companions would walk through the garden, thrashing the row of shrubs on both sides with their sticks; they would tear the branch of the bakul tree (Minnesap species) — he felt like crying but couldn’t. Then, others might have thought of him as mad. The worst days in his life were when the grasscutter came to mow the grass in the garden.

For he would have noticed the small tendrils of creepers, rousing their heads within the patch of grass, and those purple-yellow tiny nameless flowers, embedded with them. Here and there, the kantakari (wild eggplant) shrubs, with small bluish flowers sporting a speck of gold in their hearts. Those creepers of kalmegh (bitter medicinal plant) near the fence borders, and the anantamul (a medicinal plant) displaying their leaves; the sprouting neem that blossomed forth out of the seeds dropped by birds, how beautiful they looked! And all these were brutally mowed down by the cruel grass mowing machine. Nobody listened to their pleas or protests, for these were not the most sought-after plants in the garden.

Somedays, Bolai would come to his aunt, sit on her lap and wrapping his small arms around her neck. He would only say, “Why don’t you ask those grasscutters not to kill my plants?”

His aunt replied, “Bolai, don’t be a fool. These are overgrown weeds, almost a jungle, these must be cleaned.”

Bolai had by then understood that there were some pains, some sorrows, that were exclusively his own. Those never resonated with others.

Bolai probably was truly born in that age and time, when the universe first swam out of the womb of the ocean, taking its first breath, eons of years ago. At a time, when on the newly formed layers of mud, the nascent forests rose and cried out for the first time. Then, there were no birds, no noise, no life — only layers of rocks, slime and water. Those tall trees, heralding other life forms on the path of time, calling out to the glowing sun, with their raised hands, saying, “I’ll live, I’ll exist, I’ll survive, like the eternal traveler, through the cycles of death, through days and nights, rain and shine, I’ll progress on the path of my growth, my evolution.”

Those murmurings of trees can be heard still, through the forests and the hills; on the tendrils of their leaves the life force of Earth murmurs, “I’ll live, I’ll exist.” These mute trees, like foster mothers of the Earth, have milked the heavens for endless time, to gather life’s nectar, it’s radiance, for this planet. And endlessly, they raise their eager heads to the air, expressing their soul’s call, saying, “I’ll live.” In some strange, miraculous way, Bolai could hear that calling in the blood that coursed through him. The very thought had made us laugh.

One fine morning, as I was reading the newspaper, Bolai came up and took me to the garden. Pointing out to a small shrub, he asked me, “Uncle, what’s that plant?”

It was a small shoot of a simul (silk cotton) tree, growing through the crack of our gravel road. Bolai had made a mistake by bringing me there.

The sapling was a tiny one, just like the first babbling of a child; it was then that Bolai noticed it. Thereafter, Bolai had himself tended to the plant, watering it, checking it earnestly to monitor its growth, each morning and evening. Though the silk cotton plant grows fast, it could not keep pace with Bolai’s eager wait. When it grew to a certain height, Bolai observing the beauty of its rich leaves, was certain it was a tree of a special kind. His observation was quite similar to that of a mother who after observing the first hint of intellect in a child, marks him as a wonder. Bolai, too, had thought that he’d astonish me with his tree.  

I said, “I’ve to tell the gardener to uproot the tree.”

Bolai was aghast. Those words were terrible for him.  He said, “No Uncle, I beg of you, please don’t get it uprooted.”

“I truly don’t understand you,” I told him. “It stands right on the middle of the path. It’ll spread cotton all over, once it grows bigger. It’ll be a nuisance.”

Bolai realised it was no use arguing with me. The motherless boy then went to his aunt. Sitting on her lap, with his arms around her neck, he sobbingly said, “Aunt, please tell uncle not uproot the tree.”

His plan worked. His aunt called me and said, “Oh listen, please let his plant be.”

I let it be. Had he not shown me the sapling, I would have surely not noticed it. But now, I notice it every day. Within a year, the tree grew taller shamelessly. As for Bolai, he reserved his best adoration for this tree.

The tree continued to grow in a ridiculous manner, without paying any respect at all to anyone around. It grew to its full height, standing on that inappropriate spot. Whoever saw it, wondered why it was placed there. A couple of times more I proposed to uproot it. I tempted Bolai with my offer of nice, high quality rose saplings. I also proposed, “If you still opt for the silk-cotton tree, then let me get you a fresh sapling. We can plant it next to the fence. It’ll look pretty there.”

But any talk of uprooting it, alarmed Bolai. And his aunt said, “Oh, it doesn’t look that bad there.”

When Bolai was an infant, my sister in-law had passed away. The grief, perhaps, made my elder brother careless; he went abroad to study engineering. Motherless, this child grew up in my childless home, in the lap of his aunt, my wife. Ten years later, my brother returned and took Bolai to Shimla to school him so that he could accompany his father abroad. He was given western education in Shimla.

Bolai cried inconsolably as he left our home, turning it into an empty house.

Two years passed. During this time, Bolai’s aunt, saddened by his absence, dried her tears in solitude, and spent her time in Bolai’s room, arranging and rearranging a single torn shoe that he wore, a damaged rubber ball he played with and that picture book of animals. She wondered if Bolai had outgrown all these by now.

In between, the wretched silk cotton tree continued to grow shamelessly; so tall it had grown, that it was now absolutely mandatory to cut it down. I chopped it down one day.  

Very soon after this, Bolai’s letter reached us from Shimla. “Aunt, do send me a photograph of my silk-cotton tree.”

Before going overseas, Bolai was supposed to come and meet us once. But since that had now been cancelled, Bolai wished to take his friend’s photograph along.

His aunt called me, saying, “Listen, please bring a photographer.”

I asked, “Why?”

She showed me the letter in Bolai’s childish handwriting.

I said, “That tree has already been chopped off.”

Bolai’s aunt didn’t touch food for the next couple of days and stopped communicating with me for even longer. When Bolai’s father had taken him away from her, it was the severing of her umbilical cord; but when Bolai’s uncle uprooted his favorite tree forever, it shattered her world and deeply wounded her heart.

For, that tree was, to her, a reflection of Bolai, his substitute image.

Amloki tree

Author’s Bio:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Translator’s Bio:

Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, translator, journalist from the Netherlands. Her works have been regularly published in both Dutch and Indian literary platforms, her poems also been anthologized in many acclaimed collections.

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Flash Fiction: Happily Ever After

 

Sohana Manzoor explores the myth of happily ever after with three short & gripping narratives set in modern urban Bangladesh

No matter how people dream of being happy together, dreaming, like sleeping and living, is done alone. There just might be a few couples that would dream of doing the exact same things. Ninety-nine percent of couples don’t and yet they are known as happy couples.

1

Trina eyed Porag like a cat eyeing a mouse. Porag was looking wistfully through the window and it was not too difficult for her to guess what he wished. As for herself, the newly bought Devil’s Diadem was beckoning her from the bedside table where she had left it last night.

So, before Porag could propose anything, she said coquettishly, “The rain is lovely, isn’t it, darling? Wish we could go out in the rain. But I feel feverish. Can we read together?”

Porag’s face fell; he was about to ask his newly wedded wife to take a rickshaw-ride with him. But if she was feeling feverish, there was nothing much he could do, could he? Yet why did he feel somewhat cheated? He looked at Trina who was gazing back with imploring eyes. He shook off the nagging thought and took a seat by her.

An hour later, Porag was snoring on the bed while the house-cat Minty dozed and purred over his chest contentedly. Trina was poring over the fantasy book and was oblivious to the rest of the world. If Porag was asleep, that must mean that he was very happy too.

Everything’s right with the world!

2

Israr got into the car and drove out cheerfully. He just needed to believe that it was a special day, and it indeed turned out very special. Yes, the man she was betrothed to died last year, but surely, she would not be grieving him through the rest of her life?

He was Rupam’s best friend and he did everything he could to save him. It is not that Israr was always in love with Sruti. But watching her taking care of Rupam during his dying days made him fall for her. He was tired of all the glossy social butterflies and became totally smitten with Sruti. Israr knew that if she could learn to care about him half as much, she cared about Rupam, he should be very happy. He waved at the young woman who stood still in the veranda. Even though she did not wave back, he felt joy rushing through his veins.

“Our life together will be the happiest, I promise you!” Sruti stared at the receding figure of the young man driving away. Her heart almost felt that it would break. Did people still believe in that kind of happiness? Or such dreams? It seemed as if they did.

She had accepted the proposal. Israr came from a very affluent family and would gladly take care of her brother who was slowly dwindling away because of bone cancer. At her heart, she felt the presence of a dried up river. The grotesqueness of the reality that she had just sold herself hit her hard even if that buyer was very nice and caring.

3

Ria uploaded all the eleven pictures of the “perfect couple” on Facebook. All were taken the previous evening at Eppi’s engagement ceremony. Ria admired her blue jamdani studded with silver stars. It may not be as expensive as Tania’s golden one but was certainly more beautiful. Ria admired her own oval shaped fair skinned face with just the perfect blush. The smile was enchanting. And Ashik looked as dark and handsome as ever. Speaking of Ashik, where was he? Still stuck in the bathroom? The sound from her phone made her look at the screen again. A message in the messenger: “You look lovely. But did you have to cling on to his arm?”

A dimpled smile played at Ria’s lips. There are so many ways to play. Jishan had not called her or talked to her in the past one week. But this one post got his attention, and he was back in line. So, would she have lunch with him today? Hmm, that would be nice but weren’t they supposed to visit Ashik’s sister that same afternoon?

Ashik scrolled up fast. Did he lose the message? Piu would kill him if he did not find the number. Just imagine him agreeing to run this errand! He would never agree to do this for anybody else. But Piu was his oldest friend; more than a friend, to be honest. Okay, he found it and heaved a sigh of relief.

The door opened and a neutral voice said, “Call apa* and cancel the lunch today, Ria. An emergency meeting has come up.”

Ria could not believe her luck but she pouted nevertheless. “Haven’t seen apa in a while. But, oh well… will do.”

The perfectly happy couple danced away in pursuit of their separate interests.

*apa: Elder sister

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Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB.

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I Grew into a Flute

This is Balochi folktale retold by Fazal Baloch. These stories would be related by a storyteller and they would end with a punchline defining their role in the story.

A storyteller telling a story to an eager crowd. Courtesy: Wiki

Once there lived a merchant. He had two children, a boy and a girl, from his late wife. Travelling to far off lands became difficult for him as he had to look after his children. In his neighbourhood, lived a widow who pretended to love the merchant’s children so much so that it filled him with the longing to marry her. However, she had a wicked heart, and in reality she had had her eyes on merchant’s wealth. At last the merchant tied the knot with her. Soon she began to treat her stepchildren very cruelly. As the merchant spent most of his time outside, he was unaware of his wife’s brutality to his children. She forced them to live on leftovers. As they feared her wrath, the children disclosed nothing to their father and silently suffered torment at the hand of their stepmother.

Time went by. The merchant’s wife was pregnant and eventually gave birth to a child. Her hatred for her stepchildren grew stronger. When the boy grew older, the merchant assigned him the flock to tend in the pasture. The boy spent most of the time away from home. On the other hand, his sister did all chores at home. Her stepmother would curse and beat her. One day, the stepmother made a plan to kill her stepdaughter.

So she took her stepdaughter to the forest on the pretext of collecting firewood. When they got there, she strangled the little girl to death and threw her body into a deep gorge and returned home wailing, “I don’t what befell my daughter. God knows if she ran away; or was devoured by a lethal beast; or did somebody kidnap her…”
The merchant was not at home nor were any men in the neighbourhood. The women looked for her but they could not find any trace of the girl.
Times passed by and the girl’s flesh and bones grew into a reed plant. One day, tending his flock, the merchant’s son passed by the gorge and caught the sight of the very reed plant. He bowed low and pulled up a reed stalk and made himself a flute. When he played the flute, a voice echoed:

‘Play on brother! Play on brother!

Curse the lowly brute

who killed and threw me into the gorge

and I grew into a flute

Goats nibbled my leaves

my brother played me.

The merchant’s son was taken aback. He grew a little afraid but soon he assumed it was her sister’s voice coming out of the flute. He played it again and the flute repeated again:

Play on my brother!

Whenever he played the flute he heard the same lines over and again.
On a moonlit night, a little distance away from home, in the sands the boy played the flute and the flute said:

Play on brother!

When flute’s call reached to the ears of merchant’s wife, she trembled in fear. She thought it was her stepdaughter’s spirit come to haunt her. In the morning, as usual, the boy drove the flock to the pasture and at dusk he made his way back home playing the flute:

Play on brother!

The merchant’s wife at last discovered the voice was coming out of the flute. She seized hold of the flute. Next day with a heavy heart, the boy drove the flock to the pasture. The moment he disappeared from the sight, his stepmother threw the flute into the burning oven.

A while later, an elderly woman came over to bake herself a bread. When she was taking the dough out from beneath the hot ashes, she found a ring stuck to it. The flute had transformed into a ring. She brought the ring home for her grandson. She wrapped the bread in a cloth and put it on the tablecloth.

When her grandson demanded bread, she told him where she had kept the bread. The boy walked over but instead of the bread she found a beautiful girl sitting there. The boy drew back in fear. The girl said softly: “Don’t get frightened. I’m your fiancée. Your grandma has brought me in.”

Meanwhile the grandmother walked in. The boy turned to her and said: ” There is no bread. Instead, there’s girl who says I’m your fiancée.”

The grandmother went to see and found a beautiful girl sitting there. She was happy to have found a fiancée for her grandson. The girl nevertheless warned her and said: “Never tell anyone about me.”

From that day, the girl did all chores at old woman’s hut.

One day a wandering fakir caught the sight of the beautiful girl. He thought that such a moon-like girl deserved to grace a palace rather than a hut.

The fakir immediately made his way to the palace of the king where they were deliberating where to find a beautiful bride for the prince. The king was asking everyone present in the gathering about princesses of nearby kingdoms. Everyone was giving their opinions. Finally the king turned to the fakir. The fakir replied politely: “O, Majestic King! I’ve been to Syria and Rome, China, Hind and Sind; I’ve visited the abodes of rich and poor. If I get my life spared, I want to say something in your honour.”

The king said, “Go ahead O Holy subject of the Lord.”

The fakir continued, “I’ve seen a girl in the huts. She is as beautiful as a houri.”

The prince said he would go and bring the girl himself. Hence, he took plenty of gifts and along with the fakir went to the old woman’s hut. When the old woman understood the intentions the prince, she moved the girl to an undisclosed location. The prince sent many people to the old woman demanding the hand of the girl in lieu of enormous wealth but she refused and said that other than a grandson, nobody lived with her in their hut.

At last, the enraged prince went to her. He placed hot roasted wheat on old woman’s palm and firmly clenched it in his hand. The old woman cried loudly and sought apologised to the prince and revealed the location of the girl and demanded a huge dowry for her.

The prince granted all her demands and gave her so much wealth that she could lead the rest of her days in peace and prosperity.

The storyteller concluded the tale:

I took the girl to the palace and made it back home.

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This folktale originally appeared in Gedi Kessah ( The Folktales; Volume 07) published by the Balochi Academy Quetta shared with us with permission taken by the translator.

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Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated several Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2017 and Silence Between the Notes — the first ever anthology of Partition Poetry published by Dhauli Books India in 2018. His upcoming works of translation include Why Does the Moon Look So Beautiful? (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Naguman) and God and the Blind Man (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Minir Ahmed Badini).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Stories

The Initiation

By Gauri Mishra

 

Amaya was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the river Godavari.

‘What am I going to do when I grow up? ’ Amaya thought to herself and yet, she could not think of anything that would be more important than picking cotton for a girl of her age.

She was convinced about her higher purpose in life; nobody, not even her parents and her younger siblings knew that her mind was the only thing that kept her company and her imagination was what made her disarmingly attractive.

Amaya had just turned twenty and considering her remarkably bright demeanour, was quite a popular person in Nandigram. There was not a single man, woman or child in the entire village that was not aware of her outspoken nature.

Her grandmother was the only one to support her, irrespective of earning the wrath of the village elders. She had some inkling about Amaya’s secret dreams to have a life that was not ordinary and drastically different from her own.

It worried her, the way her granddaughter was coming along, but strangely she also trusted her, and her faith in this fresh perspective of living a life differently, on her own terms.

Rising reluctantly from her comfortable position, Amaya started to walk towards the fields. It seemed to her that the time had come for her to prove to everybody including her parents that there was more to life than picking cotton. She liked to sing, and craved to possess a sarangi. But she could not, for the life of her, ask her parents for the same. The house was always abundant with all kinds of groceries, rice and spices. Her mother managed to create delicious meals out of ordinary vegetables and the entire household of seven members had their share.

Their clothes were made only once a year, out of the rejected bales of cotton and woven hurriedly into long pieces of cloth serving as sarees for her mother and sisters, and for the men of the household, lungis or the head cloth which saw occasional use. Everything else apart from this, the finery and rare gifts found its way to the large trunk that contained every item of even a slightly higher value than the routine ones.

It was her covert desire to open the trunk and gorge on the beauty of each one of its treasures, but that was not to be as her old grandmother guarded it furiously, coughing away on her little cot, just close by.

She reached the field, with its flowering cotton all around her. Her fingers had started to bruise because of the care with which the flower had to be picked so as not to damage it.

All the village girls between the ages of seven and twenty-three or thereabout worked their way through these fields, which seemed to Amaya, endless. It was considered a woman’s job, just like the other mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning the kitchen and the outer courtyard, fetching water from the river Godavari and looking after the cattle.

It seemed to Amaya that she was a misfit among these girls, because she did not feel proud of the fact that her basket was full the earliest. There was no elation in her spirit and body while she mechanically plucked the white cotton blooms.

She started to hum a melody she had recently picked up while the temple priest was practising with the devotees. The song was a Sanskrit prayer to Shiva from the Ramayana. Amaya could not understand it. She had no knowledge of Sanskrit, but she had spent many an evening listening to the stories of Ramayana from her grandmother, about the way the beautiful Sita prayed to Parvati to grant her the wish of marrying Lord Ram and the abduction of Sita at Panchvati. While listening to these stories, she would always imagine herself in Sita’s role and the sheer magnitude of her imagination made her reach an entire new realm of heavenly pleasure. This is what she wanted her life to be, extraordinary and out of the pages of an epic.

The simple melody made her task easier and she continued picking cotton, totally oblivious to the world around her, while she craved to have something to sing along. Even though the words were incomprehensible to her innocent mind, just the melody and the haunting notes of the lyric were sufficient to make her sway to and fro and create a harmony of the mind with her body. It was strange what music did to her. Her grandmother’s daily visits to the village temple on the top of a hill made it mandatory for Amaya to accompany her and that is how her mornings became enchantingly musical. The temple priest was a happy, pot-bellied man with a sense of humour. His knowledge of Sanskrit and Marathi was comprehensive enough for their little village with a handful of literate men.

He always recited impeccable Sanskrit, translating it later for the benefit of his ignorantly rapt audience, but all Amaya could think of was how she could put those beautiful verses to music. She imagined herself with a sitar or a sarangi singing the verses in her sweet, evocative voice and holding a captive audience right there in the temple courtyard.

Sometimes the priest sang in Marathi; the verses of Bahinabai devoted to Vithoba were her favourite. She especially liked one particular verse in which the simple woman saint cries out that if she has a woman’s body, how would she attain truth? Amaya felt that the songs of Bahina which the priest recited so simply held the same ordinary principles that her grandmother spoke about in her stories from the epic. The husband and God, both had to be worshipped, and there was very little difference between the two.

“Let’s go home Amaya, it’s time we ate something,” her friend Manjari’s voice interrupted her song. Amaya was amazed at her collection of the cotton flowers and she noticed the reddish hues and rashes on her palms and fingers. She felt that she could come back again but immediately changed her mind. Maybe she would persuade her grandmother to accompany her to the temple again in the evening.

This did happen occasionally. In order to escape the dry heat and sweaty evenings in her room, her grandmother would ask Amaya to take her to the temple where the breeze would calm her mind. She did not know how much her granddaughter enjoyed these sojourns.

The cotton bales waited to be transformed into gorgeous Paithani sarees with bright colours and gold borders but that was after they were bartered for grain, gold and utensils with the traders who came trudging their goods to Nandigram. Weaving their magic into the cotton fabric, the small community of weavers created these sarees. The traders then sold these sarees to the rich landlords whose wives constantly competed with each other for the perfect Paithani.

Village girls had only heard about these fascinating sarees, and few were lucky enough to find such an ancestral heirloom in their families. Amaya knew there were a couple of them in her grandmother’s trunk. However, she was not really fond of sarees, their multiple folds reminded her of bales of cotton piled together, and all she wanted was to rush out to an open field and sing a melody at her own pace, along the precious notes of a sarangi*!

Amaya had been practising a particular song in Marathi. It was about the unspoken dream of a princess who did not want to live like one. She wanted to run in the fields and swim in the river; she did not like her finery and jewels but craved the sound of the waves and the rustle of the forest trees. Amaya felt that she and the princess had a lot in common, that just like the princess, she too wanted to sing among the green fields and play the sarangi to her heart’s content.

Amaya’s father was the only one who scared her. She was too afraid of him to even speak in his presence. His deep gaze and his resounding tone, even when he spoke to Amaya’s mother made everyone around him acutely conscious of his presence. Her grandmother also felt her authority giving way when he was around.

Like all the village girls of her age, Amaya was expected to learn all the skills of becoming an ideal wife, somebody who could turn a home into a heaven. But her father did not know that Amaya was the last person to mould herself into this perfect woman. She could not put her heart into cooking and instead of all the routine chores her friends enjoyed doing, she wanted to do something which made her parents proud of her, of pursuing a dream that she alone had seen, of sailing in a boat to the unknown shores and to sing the way her heart wished to!

Traditionally, the harvest festival was always celebrated in the temple, with women dancing lavanis and the men all dressed up to watch the festivities and praying to God to give them another year of a full harvest. It was natural then, that the priest had worn his dhoti with extreme care and his meticulous rituals made the temple look pious and festive at the same time almost as if even God wanted to bless this charming village with its simple folk and its calm environment.

Amaya had prepared a song with perfection and she had shyly asked her grandmother to take the priest’s permission to sing it at the end of the evening festivities. She had hoped that the majority of the audience would have left by then and those present would be too bored to listen to her beginner’s skills. The function began with the prayers to Lord Ganesha, asking for his benevolence for another year of a good harvest.

This was followed by a lavani, a traditional dance by women wearing colourful nine-yard sarees, tied like a dhoti to their slim waists going round and round in circles, swirling and twisting their bodies in a melodious unison, all the time holding each other with a precise rhythm. Amaya was mesmerized with the song, a beautiful one of a woman’s separation from the beloved and asking for God’s help to unite her with him.

The rest of the evening passed like a breeze and Amaya was surprised that the play on Saint Tukaram and a bhajan to Lord Vithoba would be over so soon. Finally, it was her moment. She began to feel apprehensive as soon as the priest announced her name. What if this turned into a big joke and no words came out of her mouth; would she be able to sing in front of so many people including her father, her family and all her friends?

She prayed to Vithoba silently and touched the priest’s feet before starting her song. With a brief introduction to the song, she began and instantly there was a silence around her. Everyone was enraptured by her melody and her voice rose. She felt, she could take it even higher, and control the musical notes and the lyrical melody perfectly. For the first time in her life, Amaya felt a sense of elation and total freedom. It was exactly the way she had dreamt herself singing and she knew that it was all she wanted to do in her life…

The family and all the villagers blessed her although she could sense her father’s silent gaze on her. The happiest was her grandmother, giving her a warm hug and blessing her effusively.

They had returned home. Amaya was surprised to see that her grandmother had in her hands the keys to the trunk that nobody had ever seen the inside of. She leaned towards the cot and sat down, urging Amaya to open the formidable-looking lock. Amaya was curious and mystified. What was inside the trunk that her grandmother wanted to give her?

The trunk smelled of camphor and a strange musty fragrance filled up Amaya’s nostrils. She opened the first lot of the wrapping of white cotton and inside it was a beautiful Paithani in a rich red and green colour, with the most exquisite gold border she had ever seen. Suddenly, she noticed the polished handle of a long wooden stick just beneath it and she gently pulled it out. It was an old carved sarangi. She could not believe her eyes. The object of her dreams was right in front of her. When she turned her head to see her grandmother’s expression, she noticed that the Paithani was in her grandmother’s hands and she was caressing it lovingly, lost in her beautiful memories of yesteryears.

Amaya knew that the saree was her gift. With a look of extreme gratitude, she wrapped the Paithani back into its cotton wrapping and instead picked up the sarangi. After an initial look of surprise, her grandmother understood Amaya’s desire to take the gift she really wanted. As for Amaya, no other gift would have mattered as much as this. She knew she had found her way.

*sarangi – a string instrument

Sarangi. Photo courtesy Wiki

Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in some poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Stories

The Silhouette

A short story by Sohana Manzoor

Nishat got up from the swing and walked to the edge of the balcony to look at the procession leaving the house. They left her with no choice now. She will have to do what she had only put off from doing all these years.

Nishat’s husband, Muhib was ever ambitious, shoving all ethics under the carpet and disposing off his oppositions right and left. Nishat was finally tired of picking up the pieces and resuming normalcy. She was done with pretending to be naïve and stupid. Her thoughts turn to her children. Miserable mother that she was, she had failed utterly in raising them.

Her son Purbo was getting married and she had just refused to attend the wedding. For the first time in her life she had looked at her husband and said quietly, “You have sold your son to the highest bidder and I refuse to accept it.” There was pin drop silence in the room and her two daughters, Rima and Rikta had gone white. Purbo sat like a statue and her husband Muhib stared at her in sheer disbelief. Nobody knew that Nishat could think like that, let alone speak. The ever-patient wife and mother had finally thrown a gauntlet to her imposing husband and the fashionable but useless brood she had raised. They just stared at it and did not know what to do with it. Nor did they understand what it meant. Nishat spoke again, “If you return to this house with your chosen daughter-in-law, I will leave the house. You will never see me again.”

Of course, nobody believed what she said, but they could not quite laugh her threat away. The shadow of a dead girl was already at the threshold of their posh home. And hence they all felt a nagging uneasiness.

Purbo was supposed to marry Shreya. They had known each other since school and Muhibur Rahman was then a regular service-holder. Both families were in agreement that Purbo and Shreya would marry. But when Purbo finally came back from abroad with a PhD in Economics, things had drastically changed. By that time, his father had earned tons of money through business and consultancy and was looking for a better match for his brilliant and only son. Purbo, of course would not hear of anybody else until he met Farina—the gorgeous daughter of his father’s newly acquainted friend and business-partner. Initially, he was reluctant, but then he too was swayed by the riches of his prospective father-in-law and his charming daughter.

He started to compare the two girls and Shreya, even though quite attractive, kept on falling short by his newly acquired western yardstick. He had already taken to occasional drinking and Shreya with her middle-class upbringing, wrinkled her nose at the mention of alcohol. She was curious about the parties that Purbo frequented, but he did not show interest in taking her there. Purbo also felt irritated with some other typically middle-class aptitude she showed. Finally, he realised that there was nothing Shreya could give him that could tie him to her for an entire lifetime. Unfortunately, that realization did not deter him from taking advantage of her. And Shreya, in her last efforts to retain him, lost miserably. Nishat still recalled with an aching heart the young woman who had come to see her with an ashen face for the last time. She had seen her grow up and could not protect her from her own son.

Then one fine afternoon, Purbo announced to a delighted father and a dumbfounded mother that he had broken off with Shreya and he was ready to marry Farina. Nishat looked at her son sadly and said, “But Shreya waited only for you all these years. She could have been married by now…”

Her husband laughed out aloud, “Shreya is not good enough for our Purbo. Why should he be happy with glass when he can have diamonds?”

Nishat said quietly, “You don’t know if Farina is diamond. And what makes you think Shreya is not diamond. She may not have a rich father…”

Muhib raised his hand and said irritably, “Enough. My son will marry whoever I want him to.”

“Your son? Is he not mine too?”

Muhibul Islam looked at his wife with surprise. “What has gotten into you, woman? What rubbish are you talking about? Purbo himself said he won’t marry Shreya. That’s it.”

Nishat said in a voice that was unlike her affable self, “Purbo should marry Shreya. You pride yourself of wealth and money. Don’t forget that Shreya’s father gave you the initial capital to start off your venture.” Muhib’s face darkened. “You promised on his death-bed that Shreya will be your daughter-in-law.”

Nobody spoke for a while. Muhib tried to laugh as he said, “I will pay Shreya off. I will give her back her father’s share of the money. Money should not tie two people together.” He paused and added reprovingly, “Now push away that middle-class mentality of yours. We are rising!”

Nishat sat in her chair frozen. Years of memories with Shreya and her parents threatened to drown her. She looked at her son askance; she could not see the rambunctious boy she had raised in this clean-shaven young man ready to shed his past like a dead skin.

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It would be hours before they were back. She might as well take a last look around the house that had been her home for the last fifteen years. Every piece of it was her creation. Her husband and children may have gotten many of the rare and expensive articles in the house, but she took care of their whereabouts. She was the one who kept the house speckless. When people came to visit, they noted the burnished furniture, soft carpets in the drawing room with three different sitting arrangements. From the green plants in brass pots right outside the windows to the trinkets displayed on marble top side tables—everything bespoke her taste. Nobody knew though how she had hidden all her frustration and sorrow beneath them. Her life, thoughts, expectations, and even her children, were taken away from her bit by bit. All she was left with were these souvenirs. A curator of dead values and emotions — that is what she had become.

As she walked about her much-loved garden, she placed her bare feet in the soft grass. The blue, pink and yellow grass flowers in the bed nodded at her. She did not like roses and refused to have them. Instead, she had planted deshi* flowers like hajar beli, hasnahena and jasmine. Instead of bougainvillea, she had madhabilata climbing up her gate. Yes, there were caterpillars in them, and her children often objected to the tree. But she used to laugh those away.

She wondered how things would change now that she had decided to leave. Would they cut the madhabilata creeper, and these local flowers down? Would they create hot houses for roses? Would there be chrysanthemums and poppies in the flowerbeds?  She sighed. But what did it matter? When one chose to leave, one should never look back. Now she had to hurry to make arrangements. Standing at the landing of the stairwell, she called out to Minu. Minu had been with her for years—since she got married. Nobody called her by her first name anymore except Nishat.

Bhaijaan*, come home quickly.  Something bad has happened to Bubu…. “The line went off and Muhib did not know what to make of it. Here he was standing and chatting amiably with his behai* Chowdhury Modabber Islam. Everybody knew Modabber Islam, who was not only a business tycoon, but also very important personnel. What was there to tell? Of course, Muhibur Rahman had made a name for himself too, but he lacked the family name. His son was a rising economist and he intended to see him well-settled in the society. Wasn’t it bad enough that his wife was not at the wedding? She had announced dramatically the week before that she was not happy with their son’s wedding and would leave the house if the marriage took place. Stupid woman. Now how to get home “quickly” leaving all these behind? Muhib just waved aside the uneasy knot that was getting bigger and tighter.

Muhib got home slightly earlier than the rest. They would be arriving in another half an hour. The entire house was ablaze with lights. Masuda, his wife’s personal maid, was waiting at the top of the stairs and she was in tears. Nishat called her “Minu” though and the familiarity that existed between them always made him uncomfortable.

“I’m sure, something terrible has happened. Bubu gave bakhshish* to all of us and then she locked herself inside,” Masuda said in a broken voice. She chose not to reveal that her mistress had given away her old and heavy wedding necklace and a pair of gold bangles too.

“But these should go to the aunties!” the maid had protested.

“Rima and Rikta? They don’t care for these. These came from my parents. These are old fashioned, and they will throw these away or change for something fancy. I want you to have them, Minu. You knew my parents and cared for them.”

Muhib noted with irritation that Minu referred to his wife as “Bubu.” Could she not call her, “Madam,” or “Apa” at least? “Bubu” sounded too intimate. He knocked on the door and then rapped. He shouted, “For God’s sake, Nishat. Don’t make a scene now. Today’s your son’s wedding day.” But even to him the words sounded hollow. Nishat’s voice mocked at him, “You’ve sold your son to the highest bidder.”

Finally, they had to break the door down.

They found her in the bathtub of her bathroom. As the police carried away her body, Muhib wondered detachedly why she chose to die exactly as Shreya did. Was there not a less dramatic way out?

Seated in the small parlour on the first floor, Muhibur Rahman suddenly had a taste of sand in his mouth. The initial shock and rage were replaced by a despondency he did not know he was capable of feeling. The blank and dead look in his children’s eyes had hit him harder than any loss he had ever encountered. Earlier he had been wondering how he would explain it to the bevy of friends and relatives. Now, however, he felt despair sinking into him. It was rather easy to ignore the shadow of his unhappy wife as she was living. Now she might be dead to the rest of the world, but how in the world was he going to ignore the ignoble wife who had transformed into a silhouette to haunt him and his children as long as they lived?

*Deshi — indigenous

*Bhaijan — brother

*Behai — father-in -law of the son

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB.

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Categories
Stories

The Witch

The witch is Aruna Chakravarti‘s translation of a short story by renowned writer, Tarasankar Bandopadhyay . The original story titled, Daini, was first published in 1940 in Probashi magazine in Bengali.

No one knows who gave the tract of land its name. Or when it was given. Those facts have been lost and buried in the annals of history. But the name has survived to this day as a vibrant reminder of its past glory. Chhati Phataar Maath — the field of the bursting chest.

There is no water here. Nor a speck of shade. No trees. Only a few thorny bushes of seyakul and khairi. The land stretches to the horizon in a shimmering sheet at the end of which the clumps of trees that signify the existence of villages appear as a dark blur. Looking on it the heart grows heavy; the mind listless. Travellers walking from one end to another are apt to lose their lives, their chests bursting from thirst, by the side of some ancient water body dead and dry for centuries.

The number of deaths increase in the summer months. In this season it seems as though Chhati Phataar Maath springs into a new unholy life. Its tongue slavers for the taste of blood and it exercises all its powers to attain the dimensions of a mighty pestilence. Dust, dense as smoke, rises in swirls from the ground, higher and higher, till it meets the sky. Burning heat and the stench of death hit the unwary traveller’s senses. But he sees nothing for the thick pall hanging in the air renders Chhaati Phaatar Maath invisible to the human eye.

Tiny hamlets dot the four sides of this field. They have simple homesteads in which unlettered peasants live. They tell a story, heard over generations, of a gigantic snake that once lived in Chhaati Phaatar Maath. The poisonous fumes from its nostrils gradually destroyed all animate and inanimate life. Trees and animals perished. Even the birds and insects flying in the air felt their wings singe and crumble to ash and dropped to the ground like dead leaves straight into the jaws of the mighty reptile.

That snake is no more but some of its power still clings to the atmosphere. Chhaati Phaatar Maath is cursed territory. To its east is a marshy tract which the locals call Daldalir Jalaa. Daldalir Jalaa had been a shallow bog of slime and rotting vegetation, the size of a lake, till the Sahas of Ramnagar bought theland, drained it and planted mango saplings.  In time these grew into fine trees. But alas! Forty years ago, an old witch with fearful powers of destruction took possession of the orchard and made her home there.

People are still afraid of going near her for her ruthlessness is well known. Children see her at a distance and run for safety. Yet everyone can describe her. Her matted hair, crooked limbs and, best of all, her eyes. Those eyes, they say, have not blinked in forty years.

Beneath one of the mango trees is an earthen hovel. It has only one room with a dawa, a veranda thatched with straw, jutting out of it. The witch sits here all day long her body still as a statue. Her unwavering gaze is fixed on Chhati Phataar Maath.

She gets up once a day to sweep the mud floors and smear them with cow dung. That done she goes to the village to beg. She doesn’t need to stand outside many doors. Two or three are sufficient for the housewives are afraid of her and pour more rice into her tattered anchal* than they need to in the belief that their generosity would keep the evil eye away from their husbands and children. Once she is able to collect a seer of rice her begging is over for the day. On the way back she stops at the grocer’s and exchanges half her stock for some salt, mustard oil, chillies and kerosene. She goes out once more in search of kindling. She picks up whatever she can find. Fallen leaves and twigs, dried cowpats and bits of broken bamboo. Once she has cooked and eaten her meal there is nothing left for her to do except sit on her perch and stare unblinkingly on Chhati Phataar Maath.

The old woman does not belong to these parts. No one knows where she was born. But of one thing everyone is certain. She had lived in three or four villages in the vicinity and destroyed them all. Then, forty years ago, she had darted across the skies on a flying tree and looked down on Chhati Phataar Maath. Charmed by its desolate splendour, she had come down and made her home there. Beings like her prefer to live in isolation. Human society frightens them. For the moment they see a human being, a deep-rooted instinct to hurt and destroy flares into life. This malignant force hisses like the tongue of a snake and spews venom into the air. Fanning out like the hood of a cobra, the unholy urge dances in glee. Powerless to control it she submits to its strength. After all she, too, is human.

The knowledge of her own power makes her shiver. She has a mirror, dim and dusty with age, in which she examines her face from time to time. Two eyes look back at her, tiny eyes with bronze irises, the lights from them sharp and glittering as knives. Her hair is the colour of shredded jute; her mouth a gaping hole. Looking at her reflection she feels a stab of fear. Her lips tremble and turn blue. She puts the mirror down and looks out again on Chhati Phattar Maath.

The wooden frame of the mirror has blackened with age. It had been a lovely rose brown once, gleaming with polish. The glass, now spotted with mildew, once had the shining clarity of a sun warmed lake. The face that had looked out of it had been another face. A small forehead surrounded by waves of hair. Not black; dark brown with reddish glints. Below the arched eyebrows a delicate nose rose in an aquiline curve. The eyes were small, even then, but they shone like pieces of topaz. People were afraid of her eyes, but she loved them. Crinkling them even smaller she felt as though she could see the full expanse of sky from one end to another.

Those razor-slit eyes had a strange power. Whoever they looked upon with love came to harm. She had no idea of how it happens. But it did.

She remembers the first day…

She was standing on a cracked slab of the ancient bank of Durga Sagar lake facing the shrine of Burho Shibtala. She could see herself in the water; undulating, changing contours. Her body was swaying, growing longer and longer. All at once the ripples ceased and she saw herself whole and clear. A pretty ten-year-old girl looking at her with a shy smile.

Suddenly she felt a tug at her head. Haru Sarkar, of the Brahmin palli*, was behind her. Seizing the hair at her nape he twisted it viciously. “Haramjadi*!” he roared throwing her down on the broken flags, “How dare you cast your evil eye on my son? I’ll kill you for that.”

She remembers the hate and revulsion on Haru Sarkar’s face to this day…

O go babu*!” she had cried out in terror. “I don’t know what I have done! I beg you…”

“I’ll tell you what you have done. The boy has been tossing and turning, screaming with belly cramps, ever since you left the house. If your tongue had watered with greed when you saw him eating muri and mango why didn’t you ask for some, you bitch?”

It was true. The saliva had gushed into her mouth at the sight. But why that should give the boy belly ache—she hadn’t a clue. She wonders about it to this day. She remembers going to Haru babu’s house and crying at his wife’s feet. Crying and praying… “Make him well Thakur*! Please make him well. I’m taking back the evil glance I cast on him. Here… I take it back.”

Then the strangest thing had happened. The boy vomited a couple of times and rose from the bed completely cured. A relieved Haru Sarkar turned to his wife. “Give her some muri* and a mango,” he said. Sarkar ginni* picked up a broom and waved it in the girl’s face. “Mango and muri indeed!” she hissed. “I’ll stuff her greedy mouth with ashes instead. Ma go*! I’ve taken pity on her and given her food whenever she came to the house. A poor orphan girl…I’ve thought. And the ungrateful witch returns my goodness by casting her evil eye on my son! Look, look at those eyes. I’ve had my suspicions for a long time. I’ve taken care never to feed the children in her presence. She snuck in today when I was away at the ghat and did this vile thing.”

Trembling with shame and fear the girl had run away. The story had spread in the village and people had started shunning her.  Not allowed in any house he had slept that night on the portico of the shrine of Burho Shibtala. No… she hadn’t slept. She had kept awake all night weeping bitterly, praying, “O go Thakur! Purge my eyes of the unholy power. If not, strike me blind.”

…The old woman stirs. A deep sigh escapes her. The thin lips quiver; tears glitter in the tiny eyes. She knows, now, why God was unable to answer her prayer. The malignant power she bore was her punishment for the sins of a past life. She had to live with it. What could poor God do? It was wrong to blame him…

That night she had decided never to cross a householder’s threshold again. She would stand outside the door and beg the way other beggars did. It had been difficult the first time. Her throat was choked, and her tongue refused to articulate the words. But she forced herself and suddenly they came out in a high unnatural voice. “Ma go! Can I be given some alms Ma? Hari bol! Hari bol*!”

Ke re*? Who is that? Oh, it’s you. Stand where you are. Don’t dare come into the house.”

“No Ma. I won’t come in.”

But the very next moment a strange feeling had come over her. A greedy craving rose from her belly like a darting flame and made the saliva squirt into her mouth. What a lovely smell was coming from the kitchen! They were frying fish. Big fat chunks of fresh fish. She sucked in her cheeks. A ha ha! She breathed deeply.

Ei  Ei  Haramjadi! Look…look at her peeping into the kitchen with her snake eyes!”

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi*! The memory makes her bite her tongue in shame. She had peeped into the kitchen and her eyes had searched it from one end to another. It was not the first time that such a despicable urge had risen in her. Nor the last. It does to this day…

The motionless form, once moulded out of rich earth, is dilapidated now; colourless as dust. Slowly the chipped joints of the ancient limbs flex and loosen. Breaking out of their shackles they shudder into life. The twisted nails dig into the earth of the dawa. The white head bobs up and down in agitation. Why do these things happen?  She has asked herself the question over and over again, all her life, but never found the answer. What should she do about it? What could she do? If only somebody would tell her. Aanh! Aanh! Aanh!  She squeals in the voice of a beaten beast. Clamping her toothless gums in helpless rage she raises her hands to her dreadlocks and pulls them cruelly by the roots. Her eyes, sharp as a kite’s, scans the endless sweep of empty earth.

It is the month of Chaitra. The last month of the year and the first of the hot season. The cool of the morning has given way to a blazing afternoon. A haze of heat and dust shimmers over Chhati Phataar Maath rendering it almost invisible. But the razor slit eyes can see better than most. What was that trail of light flickering across the field? She could, if she wished, have blown the dust away with a puff from her lips and seen what it was. Ah… it was gone now but she could see something else. Something solid, substantial, in the smoky haze.  Arre*! It was moving. What was it? A living being? Human? Yes, yes, she could see it now. It was a woman. Suddenly the old hateful urge rose from within her. Should she blow a breath on the creature and make it disappear? Her toothless mouth opened in a cackle of cruel laughter. She rocked herself to and fro like a mad woman.

And then she pulled herself together. Balling her fists till the sharp nails dug into her flesh she fought the blood thirsty urge. No…no… she would turn her eyes away. She wouldn’t look towards Chhati Phataar Maath. If she did, the poor woman would die of asphyxiation. She would sweep the floor of her hut instead. Or she could stack the dry leaves and twigs she had gathered that morning into neat piles…

Unlocking her inert limbs, she picks up the broom and starts sweeping the floor. But the dust and leaves she gathers together take on a life of their own. Wriggling away from the end of her broom they coil around her form like snakes, hissing and spitting at the withered skin. Dust stings her eyes and nostrils. She doesn’t know how to withstand the assault. She bares her empty gums like a mangy old cat. “Out!” she shrieks waving her broom helplessly in the air. “Out I say! Leave me alone.”

But the snakes do not heed her. They wind about her form tighter and tighter till she can scarcely breathe. “Out! Out!” she howls in despair flailing herself with the broom. Suddenly, with cackles of rasping laughter, the snakes release her from their coils. Loosening their hold, they fly, as though on wings, in the direction of Chaati Phataar Maath.  Dust and dead khairi rise in swirls to greet them and together they form a giant tower that spirals its way to the sky. More such columns spring up in the air. Spinning in a joyous dance. There are a thousand now. Big and small.  Chhati Phataar Maath grows dark and terrifying.

Looking on the scene, the old crone is filled with glee. Waves of rapture lap around her. She chortles with laughter. Raising her bent body, she spreads her out her arms, broom in one hand. She twirls her limbs, slowly at first, then fast…faster. Round and round she goes, round and round, till overcome by fatigue, she sinks to the ground. She tries to stand up and resume her dance, but her legs will not support her. Her head spins and the world grows dim. Her chest crackles with thirst. Dropping on her hands and feet she crawls, like a baby, to the clay pot of water in the corner of her room…

“Is anyone at home? O go! Is anyone at home? Can I come in?”

Ke? Who is that?”

A young woman, coated with dust from head to foot, poked a long pale face through the door. She was clutching something to her breast, hiding it under her tattered anchal. It was dark within and all she could see was a knot of crooked limbs huddled together like a bunch of rotten twigs. She felt a stab of fear and moved back a few steps. “Water,” she murmured faintly, “A few drops of water.”

The old woman sat up slowly. “A ha ha! My poor child,” she clicked her tongue in sympathy. “Come in. Sit down and rest yourself.” The girl’s frightened eyes darted this way and that. Then, slowly, reluctantly, she seated herself at the farthest edge of the dawa. “Give me a drink of water Ma,” she said faintly, “I die of thirst.” The old woman’s heart melted. She poured out a large tumbler of water then, digging a bony hand into another pot she groped for a piece of gur* murmuring all the while, “Poor child! Poor child! What made you think of crossing that field of death in this terrible heat? You could have died.”

“I’m on my way to see my sick mother. Her village lies at the eastern boundary. But I lost my way and found myself in the middle of Chhati Phaatar Maath.”

Coming out on the dawa with the water and gur, the old woman got a shock. A male infant, a few months old, was lying on the floor. The poor mite was drenched in sweat and his tiny limbs sagged like boiled spinach. “Come, come,” she prompted pushing the tumbler towards the girl. “Sprinkle some on the child’s face. Quick.” The girl obeyed. Wetting her anchal with water she wiped the tiny face and limbs and poured some into his mouth.

The old crone sat and watched them from a distance. The woman was young and healthy and the infant, perhaps her first, had a plump tender body, moist and supple as a tendril on a bottle gourd vine. Saliva squirted into her toothless mouth. She sucked in her cheeks and swallowed.

A ha re! The child’s chest was going up and down like a pair of bellows. Perspiration was pouring out of him. More and more and more. A patch of damp was forming on the mud floor on which he lay. The eyes were misting; turning crimson. Was it…was it? But what could she do? What could she do? Why did they come into her presence? Why? The strangest sensations were pricking in her blood. A frantic urge to pick up the bundle of human flesh and hold it to her breast. To squeeze and mash it, like a pat of dough, against her ribbed, hollowed chest. To press the cool, watery limbs against her fevered skin.

Baap re!  How the child was sweating! All the water was being drained out of his body. She knew it from the sap that was filling her own mouth… warm and sweet. Oozing from the corners. Dribbling down her chin. “O re kheye phellam re*!” An anguished cry tore its way from her throat. “I’m…I’m swallowing the child. Run. Run for your life. Pick up your baby and run.”

The young woman who was drinking water in large thirsty gulps looked up with a gasp. The tumbler clattered to the ground. “You!” she muttered, her face as white as a sheet. “Is this Ramnagar? Are you… the one?” Without waiting for an answer, she snatched up the child and flew out of the house, the little one hanging from her arms like a fledgling folded in a mother bird’s wings. The old woman watched her flight. The tiny eyes dimmed with self-pity. She was helpless. If it were possible, she would have pierced her sharp twirling nails into her withered breast and torn the shameless urge out of it. She would have cut off her tongue. But all this, she knew, was useless. The malaise lay deeper. Far deeper.

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! How would she set foot on the village path tomorrow? How would she show her face? The child would be dead by then and everyone would know the reason. They wouldn’t taunt her with it. They wouldn’t dare. But the disgust and hate in their eyes would shame her more than words. Even now children ran away at the sight of her. They could burst out weeping. Some could even faint and fall to the ground. Chhi! Chhi! Chhi!

A similar self-aversion had led her to flee the village of her birth, in the dark of night, years ago. She was a little older then — approaching womanhood. A friend of hers, a girl from her own community, had delivered a male child the night before and she had gone to see him. Savitri was sitting in the yard sunning her limbs, her new-born lying beside her on a kantha*. What a lovely baby! Plump and healthy with a shining black skin. She felt her heart swell with love. She wanted to fondle the tiny bundle and squeeze it tight against her breast. To kiss the drooling mouth with hungry lips. She was unaware, then, of the evil power in her. She thought her feelings were those of maternal love.

All of a sudden, Savitri’s mother-in-law came rushing in. “Haramjadi!” she screamed at her daughter-in-law. “Have you lost your mind? Chattering and giggling with the accursed creature! If anything happens to my grandson, I’ll flay you alive.” Then, turning to the visitor, she pointed to the door and said grimly,   “Get out you slit eyed witch. Don’t dare come here again.”

Savitri’s limbs, still weak from childbirth, had trembled in fear. Picking up the baby she had run indoors and slammed the door. And she? She had walked out of the house head hung in humiliation. Tears had gathered in her eyes. Everyone said she was a witch. They could be right. She did not know. But even if she was a witch would she, ever, ever harm Savitri’s baby?  “Dear God,” she prayed, “Be the judge and prove them all wrong. Give the boy one hundred years. Let everyone know how much I love Savitri’s child.”

As afternoon came on the mother-in-law’s fears began manifesting themselves as the indelible truth. News rippled through the village and reached her ears. The baby was very sick. The tiny limbs were flailing and threshing, and the small trunk was twisting into an arch. Turning blue. Exactly as though some malignant creature was sucking the lifeblood out of him.

She had run away in shame. Avoiding the village paths, she had pushed her way through the jungle and taken refuge in the burning ghat. She had hidden herself behind a bamboo thicket and thought of what she had done. But…but if she had drunk blood, as everyone was saying, it would be in her mouth would it not? Crouching on her haunches she spat on the ground. Thoo! Thoo! Several times. But where was the blood? Her spit was as innocently white as foaming milk. She dug her fingers into her throat and threw up. Yes, now she could see some dark flecks in her vomit. She dug deeper and a gush of fresh blood filled her mouth, warm and salty.

There was no doubt in her mind now. What people said was right. She possessed a demoniac power which surfaced whenever she looked on any human being with love in her heart. Love turned sour in her; took the form of hate and destruction…

It was well past midnight. Was it the fourteenth day of the waxing moon? Yes, of course it was. The old woman could hear the beating of the drums from the temple of Tara Devi. Tomorrow was purnima, the night of the full moon. The shrine would be full of people. They would sacrifice goats and ask for boons. Tara Ma was a powerful deity and no one who approached her for favours went away disappointed. Only she had been denied Tara Ma’s blessing. She had offered prayers year after year and begged, “Take pity on me Ma. Change me from a witch to an ordinary woman. I’ll slit my breast and offer you my blood.” But the goddess hadn’t heeded her prayers.

 A deep sigh rose from the shrivelled chest. Sorrow and despair were her constant companions now. She didn’t even resent them anymore. Thoughts drifted through her head like kites on broken strings. Floating this way and that on the whims of the wind. Dipping to the ground. A lost look came into the aged yellow eyes. She sat motionless looking on Chhati Phataar Maath. There was nothing to see. Only a dun coloured pall of dust. Still and unwavering. Not a whiff of breeze to stir it…

The child died a few hours later while the woman was still on her way to her mother’s house. Nothing she did would stop the perspiration that kept pouring out of him. Perspiration? Or was it something else? Someone was drawing the life blood out of him; sucking him dry. And who could it be but the diabolic creature in whose hut she had taken shelter? Whose water she had poured down the baby’s throat? “O go! What have I done?” She beat her breast and howled, “What possessed me to go there? To let the wicked creature set her eyes on my little darling? O go! Ma go!”

The villagers gathered around the weeping woman and her dead child. Some commiserated with her. Some cursed and threatened the witch. A band of ruffians made their way to her hut vowing revenge. She saw them from afar and started muttering in self defence, “It wasn’t my fault. Why did she come to my house? Why did she hold out the beautiful baby before my eyes?” Suddenly she felt a current of mixed emotions sweep through her. A shiver ran down her spine and the hair on her head stood up and spread around her face like a cobra’s hood. She screamed abuses at the approaching men in a voice that was no longer human. It was a predator bird’s screech — shrill and penetrating.

Her would be assaulters turned pale with fear and backed away. But the old woman’s fury hadn’t abated. Curses, bitter and corrosive, continued to fall from her lips, spiked with the poison she had held in her breast for so many years. Her breath came out, hot and hissing, like a wounded snake’s. Her arms, the skin on them thin and papery as a bat’s wing, flailed the earth.  And then she started laughing.  A ear splitting metallic laugh burst from her, ringing through the length and breadth of Chhati Phataar Maath. She pulled her hair by the roots weeping and laughing by turns. “Tck! Tck! Tck!” she cackled like a brooding hen. “What fun! No need to light the kitchen fire. No need to set rice on the boil. I’ve devoured a whole human child. Sucked it dry. I’ve had my fill for the day.”

Night came on. It was the nineth night of Shukla Paksha and Chhati Phataar Maath lay shrouded in silver moonlight. Jhir…jhir…jhir… a gentle breeze rippled the leaves of the mango trees. Crickets chirped and an unknown bird’s song, sweet and fluty, came wafting on the air. The old woman pricked up her ears. She could hear voices from behind her hut. Had the goons of the morning returned to harm her? She rose and turned the corner on cautious feet. There was a couple standing under the gopal bhog tree at the edge of the stream. She knew them. The Bauri* girl whose husband had abandoned her and the boy she loved. She crouched on the ground, a few yards away, listening.

“I’m going home,” the girl whispered, “Someone may see us.”

“Heh! Heh!” Her companion laughed away her fears. “No one comes here even during the day. As if they’ll come at night.”

“Even so,” the girl persisted. “I’m not staying here with you. Your father isn’t allowing us to marry. Then what’s the point…?”

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! The old woman bit her tongue. If the two were in love and wanted a quiet place to meet why didn’t they come into her hut? Why stand outside where someone might see them? Were they embarrassed to take her help? But why? She was an old woman…their grandmother’s age. She understood their predicament.

And now the boy was saying something that made the withered lips curl with amusement. “If we are not allowed to marry,” he whispered, “we’ll run away and settle in another village as far from here as possible. I cannot live without you.”

Aah maran*! The old woman snorted in contempt. Can’t live without her indeed! A girl as black and round bellied as a clay pot! Suddenly another scene came before her eyes. Another time. Another place. She had seen someone in the long mirror that hung over a wall of the paan shop in Bolpur. A tall slim girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, with a head of rough reddish hair, a small forehead, a delicate nose and thin lips. The eyes were small, it was true, but attractive… bright brown with golden flecks. Charmed with her own beauty she had kept smiling at her own image. She had never seen herself in a mirror before.

Arre! Who in the world are you?” A man’s voice came to her ears. A young man, tall and strapping. “Where do you come from?” This had happened on the day after the incident in Savitri’s house. She had run away from the village that same night and come to Bolpur. She had liked the look of the man but taken umbrage at his tone. “Where I come from is my business,” she had glared at him, “Not yours.”

“Your business! Not mine! Do you know who you are talking to? One blow and you’ll fall to the ground like a dead leaf. Have you seen the size of my fist?”

She had stared at the stranger. At the sculptured black marble torso, the strong thighs rippling with muscles, and had willed herself to suck the blood out of him. She had gritted her teeth and mouthed a stream of silent curses. Her tongue had watered like a fountain. But nothing happened. Throwing a bitter glance at him she left the place.

She encountered him again the same day. She was sitting on a bank of the big pond at the far end of Bolpur town, beyond the railway line, eating muri from a mound in her anchal. The sun had just set, and a saffron moon was rising like an enormous platter from the east. The light hadn’t turned silver yet. The sky was covered in a dim yellow haze. Suddenly she heard footsteps approach and looked up in alarm. It was the man of the morning. “Why did you run away?” he asked laughing, “I only asked you a question.”

She remembers the laugh to this day and the two dimples that pitted his cheeks…

“I don’t want to answer your question. Please go away. I’ll scream if you don’t.”

“You’ll scream, will you? I’ll wring your little neck before a squeak comes out and bury you in the weeds and slime.” He pointed to the pond. “No one will find you again. Ever.”

She had looked at him with terror-stricken eyes and remained silent. All of a sudden, he stamped his foot and shouted “Dhat!” Jumping up in fright at his menacing tone she burst into tears. The muri fell out of her lap and rolled all over the bank. The man was embarrassed. “You little ninny,” he said in a softened voice. “Stop snivelling.” He smiled as he spoke and there was tenderness in his voice. But that hadn’t taken away her fear. “You’re not going to beat me, are you?” she had asked between sobs.

Arre na. Why should I beat you? All I did was ask you where you’ve come from and you snapped my head off. That’s why…” He started laughing once more, the dimples deepening in his cheeks.

“I’ve come from far. V-e-r-y far.  All the way from Patharghata.”

“What’s your name? What caste are you?”

“My name is Shordhoni. Everyone calls me Shora. We’re Doms*.”

“I’m a Dom too.” The man sounded pleased. “So…tell me.  What made you run away from home?”

The tears brimmed into her eyes again. She remained silent not knowing what to say.

“Did you have a fight with your parents?”

“I have no parents.”

“Then…?”

“There’s no one to look after me in the village. No one to give me food and shelter. I came to the town to work for a living.”

“Why didn’t you get married?”

Married! She had looked at the stranger with wonder in her eyes. What was he saying? Who would marry a witch like her? But… there was something in his voice that was unnerving her. She trembled and a strange shyness came over her. She felt her cheeks flush and her heartbeat with an unknown emotion. She lowered her eyes and her fingers fiddled with the broken stones of the bank…

Suddenly the needle with which she was stitching her old memories fell to the ground. The thread snapped and her mind went blank. But the shy rapture of that moment stayed with her. The old woman sat with her head bowed like a young girl in the first flush of love. Like on that evening, her hands moved involuntarily gathering leaves and pebbles into a mound.

Oof! There was a cloud of mosquitoes swarming around her. Humming like bees from a broken hive. Why! The pair under the gopal bhog tree must have left. She couldn’t hear their voices anymore. She rose softly and crept back to her perch smiling to herself. They would be back tomorrow. There was no other place in the village more suitable for a lovers’ meeting. No one dared come near her hut. But those two would come. Love knew no fear.

And now she felt a strange feeling coming on. The old urge was rising within her; the urge to hurt and annihilate. Should she suck the blood from the young man’s body? Such a strong, supple, muscular body! But the very next moment she shook her head violently. No…no… never. She mouthed the words. He was young and in love. No harm should come to him. She sat silent for a few minutes then started swaying gently, thoughts running in and out of her head. She was carrying a burden already. As heavy as a block of iron. She had drunk the blood of an innocent child. There would be no sleep for her tonight.

She wished she could cross Chhaati Phataar Maath and go far away… very far away. People said she had special powers. She could put wings on a tree and make it take her wherever she wished. How wonderful it would be if that were true! If she could sit peacefully in a cluster of leaves and be borne over the sky; drifting on cool breezes, floating between clouds. But then… then she wouldn’t see the young couple again. They would be sure to come tomorrow…

Hee! Hee! Hee! The lad was here. She could see him sitting by the stream his eyes darting this way and that. He was waiting for his love. Her eyes twinkled with amused affection. Be patient, the withered lips murmured in reassurance, she’ll come.

A scene such as this had played itself out in her own life years and years ago. Yet it came before her eyes, sharp and clear. The young man who had accosted her near the pond had returned the next day. To the same place; at the same time. He was sitting on the bank swinging his legs and gazing on the path which she would take.

“You’ve come! I’ve been waiting for ages.”

The old woman was startled. It was the boy’s voice. He was speaking to the girl who had walked in silently through the trees. But what a coincidence! The young Dom who had waited for her had spoken exactly the same words. She had pursed her lips and looked demure. She couldn’t see very well in the dark, but she could swear that the girl had the same expression on her face.

The young man had brought a leaf cone full of food that day. “Take it,” he had said holding it out, “You dropped your muri yesterday because of me.” But she hadn’t put out her hand. She couldn’t. The strangest emotions were coming over her. Desire, swift and sudden, was leaping up in her blood. Swaying and swinging like a snake to a snake charmer’s flute. Venom and fangs forgotten; it was tossing its head in an ecstatic dance.

And then? What had he done then? The memory made her blush. The youngsters of today, she thought smiling, have no idea…O Ma! O Ma! The boy was doing exactly the same thing! He was putting something, was it a sweet, in the girl’s mouth. Filled with glee, the old crone flailed her arms in the air and laughed quietly to herself.

Suddenly she stopped laughing. Stifling a sigh, she leaned against a tree trunk lost in thought. The strangest thing had happened next. The young man had looked at her with unblinking eyes and asked, “Will you marry me Shora?” She was so startled she lost her voice. She could feel her ears blazing and her hands and feet grow cold and clammy. Sweat rolled off her forehead in large drops. “I work in Marwari Babu’s factory. I earn lots of money. But no one in Bolpur is ready to give his daughter to me. That’s because I am an untouchable. But you and I are from the same caste and we’re both orphans.” He had held her light eyes with his fine dark ones. “Marry me Shora,” he had urged…

The two sitting by the stream were speaking softly but the silence around them was so deep she could hear every word. “The people of the village are against us,” the boy was saying, “your family as well as mine.  They’re making life hell for us. Let’s run away. We’ll go to some distant village where nobody knows us. We’ll marry and be happy.”

O Ma! That was exactly what she and the young Dom had done. They had cut off ties with everyone in the world and built themselves a shack by the side of the factory. His work was stoking the fire under an enormous barrel like contraption called a boila or something like it. He was paid higher wages than all the other workers.

“N-o-o-o.” The girl’s voice came to her ears, sulky, demanding. “You’ll have to buy me silver bangles first. And tie a ten rupee note in my anchal. Only then I’ll go with you. I’m not ready to starve in a faraway village for want of money.”

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! The old woman spat on the ground in disgust. She felt like thrashing the girl with her broomstick. Did she have no faith in her man? Such a strong, sturdy handsome youth who loved her so much! Would such a man let her starve? “Death to you,” she muttered indignantly, “Silver bangles indeed! Why …if you stay loyal to him, you’ll wear conch bangles encased in gold one day. Chhi!”

The girl waited for a reply but there was none. “Why don’t you speak?” she snapped at him, “Have you gone dumb? Say what you have to say quickly. I can’t wait here all night.” The boy sighed. A deep sigh that hung on the air for a long time.

“What is there to say?” he murmured, “If I had the money, I would have given it to you. And the bangles too. I wouldn’t have waited for you to ask.”

“I’m going.” The girl tossed her head and swayed her body lasciviously.

“Go.”

“Don’t call me anymore.”

“Very well.”

She went away. Her white sari melted into the moonlight and disappeared. The dejected lover kept sitting by the stream, his head in his hands.  Poor lad!  The old crone clicked her tongue sadly. What would he do now? Would he leave the village never to return? Or would he, God forbid, take his own life? Drown in the pond or hang himself? No…no. He mustn’t do that. It would be better for him to give the girl the silver bangles. She had twenty-one rupees hidden in a clay pot in her hut. She could give him two out of it. Or even five. Five rupees would be enough. Once she got her bangles the girl wouldn’t make any more fuss. Aa ha! He was so young! Youth was the time for love. For happiness. She would give the boy the five rupees and tell him to look on her as his grandmother. She would laugh and joke with him. She would wipe the sorrow from his face.

She rose slowly, painfully, putting her weight on her hands. She tried to straighten the hump on her back but it was as stiff and heavy as stone. Hobbling towards the stream she called out with a merry laugh, “Poor little down cast lover! Do not despair. Your troubles are about to end. I’ll give you…”

The boy looked up startled. He saw a strange creature creeping towards him in the dark, closer and closer, like a giant crab. And now a face was thrust into his.  A face as ridged and contorted as a dried mango. And out of the ridges two tiny eyes glowed like pinpoints of amber light. The mouth was a gaping cavern. The boy’s blood froze. His heart started hammering like a blacksmith’s anvil. Springing up, he ran screaming into the woods.

Within seconds the old woman’s face changed. The amused indulgence vanished and hate and loathing took its place. The hackles on her neck rose like an angry cat’s and her slit eyes glittered with venom. Pulling her lips back from her toothless gums she snarled at the fleeing figure. “Die!” she screeched, “Die!” And now the old urge rose snaking up from deep within her bowels. She would destroy the ungrateful creature; suck all the blood out of him. Not only the blood. Flesh, fat, sinews, bones and marrow…she felt like consuming it all.

Suddenly the boy sank to the ground with a howl of agony. Then, picking himself up, he limped his way slowly through the trees. She could see him no longer.

Next morning a rumour spread through the village, leaving everyone turned to stone. The she-devil, who lived by the stream, had shot a Bauri boy with a flying missile. He had gone there in the evening and the blood sucking fiend had smelled his presence the way a tigress smells her prey. She had crawled stealthily towards him not making a sound. Then, when the frightened boy had tried to escape, she had brought him sprawling to the ground by blowing a dart through her lips. It was sticking to his heel when he reached home, a long thin bone sharp as a needle. The boy had tried to pull it out, but it was stuck so deep, the blood had gurgled out like a fountain. High fever and convulsions had wracked him through the night and now his body was arching exactly as though some malignant spirit had seized him by the head and feet and was squeezing the blood out of him.

The news reached the old woman’s ears. She tried to feel concern but couldn’t. An inexplicable apathy came over her. Never in her life had she felt so weary, so listless. The boy was dying. But what could she do about it? He shouldn’t have tried to run away. How dare the little weakling run away from her?  Even the toughest, most stout-hearted man she had known in her life, a man who had warred with fire all his waking hours, had not escaped her evil power.

More news came the next day. The boy’s father had sent for a clairvoyant who had promised to cure him. The old woman shrugged. The physician in Bolpur had said the same thing. He would cure her husband. But was a slow fever and a dry wracking cough a disease? He had left medicines, but they hadn’t helped. The symptoms had persisted. And, little by little, the flesh had fallen from the magnificent limbs and the skin that had once gleamed like polished ebony had turned to ash. What had happened to him? And why did he vomit blood in the end?

Her eyes looked out on Chhati Phataar Maath. It lay like a bleached corpse under the midday sun. Not a breath of wind anywhere. Not a leaf stirred.

A strange restlessness seized her. She rose from her perch and walked about in the yard. Round and round she went, her thoughts running ahead of her. She had loved the man more than life itself. She had given him all she had to give. Heart, soul, mind and body. Yet she couldn’t protect him from her own evil power. It had drained him of his life force. Emaciated his body and left it dry and brittle as a fish bone.

 Suddenly she laughed. A harsh metallic laugh that rang through the length and breadth of Chhati Phataar Maath.  Who was this clairvoyant who thought he could cure the Bauri boy? She had cast a malevolent glance on the fleeing figure, hadn’t she? There was no way he could counter that. Not all the clairvoyants in the world could save him.

Oof! How hot and still the air was. She could barely breathe. She felt a weight on her chest. Suffocating her; crushing her lungs. Was the clairvoyant using his powers on her? Mouthing his most deadly mantra? Perhaps he was. It didn’t matter. Let him do the best he can she thought scornfully. But the pain…the pain was excruciating. It was killing her. If only her heart would burst open and the grief and agony she had held in it, for decades, well out in blessed release.

One thing was certain. She couldn’t live here anymore. She would have to escape the irate villagers. They would come after her any moment now, as the people of Bolpur had done after her husband’s death. They had hounded her out of the town. And all because of an indiscreet remark she had made to the wife of a worker in Marwari Babu’s factory.

 Shankari and her husband belonged to the Harhi community. Being fellow untouchables, a friendship had sprung up between the two women and they often confided in one another. Some days after her husband’s death, out of a desperate need to lighten the load of guilt she carried, Shora had opened her heart to her friend. She had told her about the evil power in her, a power that destroyed everyone she loved.

What happened next? Well…here she was living at the edge of a desolate tract of land at a safe distance from human habitation. She had fled from village to village, in the intervening years, but nowhere had she found a permanent home. It was time for her to move once more. But where would she go?

O Ki! The sound of lamentations, loud and bitter, tore the silence of the hot somnolent afternoon. The old woman’s blood froze with terror. She sat, immobile, for a few minutes. Then, tossing her head this way and that like one possessed, she crawled into her room and locked the door. A few hours later she stepped out of her hut, a small bundle at her hip, and walked into the deepening dusk.

All of a sudden, the world went dark. A deep, dense, unnatural dark. A thin trail of dust followed the feet of the fleeing witch. All else was still. Chhati Phataar Maath lay trapped and lifeless under a black velvet shroud.

After walking for a while, she sank to the ground. She couldn’t take another step. Her heart was pounding with exhaustion and her hands and feet felt numb and heavy. What do I do now… she thought fearfully.

 Suddenly, after years and years of frozen silence, a wail rose from her breast. A wail of lamentation for her dead husband. “O go!” she cried out wildly, “Come back. Come back to me.” She looked up. The black cover had shifted, and she could see a part of the sky. It was the colour of her eyes.

Moments later the storm broke. The first Kalbaisakhi of the season. Great clouds of dust rose from the earth and went spiralling across the field carried by cyclonic winds. Trees were pulled out by the roots. Animals were swept away. And the old woman…

Next morning, after the storm had subsided, the villagers found her hanging from a khairi bush at the extreme edge of Chhati Phataar Maath. Her body, light and fluttering like a bird’s, was pinned to the highest branch. There were patches of blood on the ground; the dark unholy blood from a witch’s veins. The men looked at one another. What had happened was obvious. She had tried to escape on her flying tree when a powerful mantra from the clairvoyant’s lips had entered her breast and brought her tumbling down like a bird shot in the wing. She had fallen on the khairi bush and, pierced by hundreds of thorns, had died an agonising death.

Today Chhati Phataar Maath is deadlier than ever before. Mixed with the venom of a prehistoric snake is the blood of a malignant witch. Reeling under a pall of dust that clings to it from dawn till dusk, it stretches to unseen horizons…

And now some specks appear through the haze. Tiny black moving dots. They grow larger. Then sounds are heard. A mighty flapping of wings. A cloud of vultures are swooping down on Chhaati Phataar Maath.

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(Published with permission from Amalasankar Bandopadhyay, grandson of Tarashankar Bandopadhyay)

Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, Wiki

Tarasankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) was a renowned writer from Bengal. He penned 65 novels, 53 books of stories, 12 plays, 4 essay collections, 4 autobiographies, 2 travelogues and composed several songs. He was awarded the Rabindra Puraskar(1955), the Sahitya Akademi Award(1956), the Padma Shri(1962), the Jnanapith Award(1966) and the Padma Bhushan(1969) in India.

Aruna Chakravarti (India) has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

Index of Bengali Words:

*anchal: The loose end of a sari                                  

*palli: colony

*Haramjadi: Bastard or bitch                                    

*O go babu: Oh sir

*muri: Puffed rice                                                        

*Thakur: God

*ginni: mistress                                   

*Ma go: Oh mother

*ghat: Bank of a water body   

*Hari bol! Hari bol: In God’s (Hari’s) name

*Ke re: Who’s it                                                  

*Chhi:  An expletive expressive of shame

*Arre: An expletive to express urgency                

*gur: jaggery

*O re kheye phellam re: I am eating him up       

*kantha: A rug made out of old rags

*Thoo! Thoo: The act of spitting                          

*Aah maran: Oh Death

 * dhat: An expletive expressive of frustration

*paan: betel leaf    

*O Ki: What was that?

*Bauri: Belonging to the Bhils

*Dom: Caste

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Stories

Disconnected

By Chaitali Sengupta

Angry clouds gather in the west corner of the sky. Thunder crashes, once in the overcast skies and then in her bosom. Scanning the sky with her nervous eyes, Ms. Bose switches on the TV, her mind in complete turmoil now. Her twenty two year old daughter has not yet returned home and it is past 12 o clock at night. Earlier in the day the KNMI weather bureau had issued a code orange weather warning for Noord- Holland, Friesland and Groningen. Uprooted trees, damaged roofs, closure of roads and highways, her mind briskly translates the Dutch teletext into English, a habit, like so many others, she yet cannot get over, despite her 23 years of stay in the low lands.

Auto slaat over de kop, A20 afgesloten tot nader bericht.(Car overturns; A20 closed until further notice)”  The words jump at her from the screen and she reaches for her mobile, punching Piu’s number frantically, sending silent prayers to the Gods above that she picks it up this time. How would she come home if that highway remains closed? And whose car it was that had overturned, she wonders? Fear dizzies her.

While the ringtone burrows into her ears, her mind goes through the scene from the morning.

Is it necessary to go today, of all days, to the youth day evening party, she had asked, even though she knew the answer she would get. “There is a warning for extreme weather,” she reminded her daughter using Bangla, using which she breathed easily. “You may get stuck. It is not safe to drive…”

With an exaggerated sigh her 24-year-old daughter, Anamika Bose — Anna to the native tongue and Piu to her — refused to listen. “Really Ma, you can’t let weather dictate our lives. I’ll be there before the storms strike.”

It irritated her, this pert brightness in Piu’s voice, but she forced herself to be calm. Incase there is a need, she had continued in her simple way, would she call her parents’ friends, the Rays, who lived only a few blocks away from where the party was held.  I am a grown up girl, Mum, quite capable of looking after myself, she heard Piu snap as she gathered her large bag, stashed her foundation and cream into it and moved out of the bedroom after giving herself a last hurried look in the mirror. While Ms. Bose sat rigid at the edge of the bed, Piu added from the door, “I’ve my mobile, I’ll call you as soon as I reach, Ma. Besides, Martijn is there. He’ll take care of me.”

                                                               *

Martijn. Blue-eyed, tall, white with a sharp European nose. And a few years younger to Piu. She still remembers the silence that had bristled around Piu’s announcement at their dinner table couple of months back.

“Martijn and I, we ’re going steady, wij zijn nu 8 maanden bij elkaar (We’ve been together for eight months now)! It’s serious, and I intend to move in with him soon,” said she, her face gleaming with satisfation.

In the silence that ensued she saw her husband nodding his head and preteding to be interested, encouraging further conversation. “Martijn? The one whom you introduced me at the Kunst Akademie?”

It had prompted Piu to talk in great deatil about Martijn’s love for art pieces and a whole lot more half of which she doesn’t remember anymore. What she remembers is that strange heaviness running through her limbs and those many words swirling around in her head. In her maternal confusion she had only heard herself speaking about the difference in their ages. He’s a couple of years younger to you, she had tried to begin cautiously.

Piu cut her off, offended and almost furious. “What is age, Ma? A number, een getal. Has got nothing to do with love!”

He has dropped college and you are a topper in the university, she had struggled to put the words in their correct mould and had failed miserably in her agaitation. On what basis have you taken this decision Piu?

She knew the collision that her words would produce. But with those very definite notions of womanhood that she had been raised with, those set of dictates that explained who is considered a good woman and how she is to behave, she ignored the outcome, going ahead. It all feels good to you now, Piu. A couple of years later you’ll regret it…

She felt the brittleness in the air around before her daughter spoke up. “Why is it so impossible to talk with you, Ma? You never understand.” Piu’s voice was stretched thin, her hands pushing the plate away. “You’re forever distrusting, forever finding faults with me, my decisions. Whatever I do, it is never right for you.” She picked up her plate, threw the leftover food in the bin and before storming out of the room, had turned to her father, saying, “I hate it here, you know Baba (father). Can’t take it anymore, this perpetual interference.”

The edges of her daughter’s words had cut her to the deep and the bleeding had begun. Can a mother be an enemy to her own daughter, she thought? Her husband moved back to the kitchen with a look of vaccum in his eyes and repeated the same words, like an ancient mantra. “While in Rome, be like Romans. Don’t bring your prejudices into her life, it won’t work. Try and be a part of the society where you are living…

*

And hadn’t she tried? To be a part of this society?

She had adopted this land, learnt the language, exchanged her nationality, included mashed potato & veggies-stamppot in their winter menu, gone to the barbeque party with her neighbors in summer and tried to relish the olliebollens in the winter. Given up adorning her parting with vermilion in public and had gotten used to to wearing trousers in place of her comfortable cotton saris. And yet that link with the land had refused to form; that much awaited bonding remained as elusive as on that very first day when she had landed in Schiphol, a timid bundle of nerves, following her young husband in silent excitement, her eyes wide with wonder and bright with hopes.

That first year was the year of change for both of them. But while the changes transformed her simple husband to a meticulous, ambitious person, all that the new changes did for her was to nurture a dissatisfaction with her own, lonely life.

The harder she tried to fit into the society, the more was her need to recoil back and belong to that old world she had left behind. The inordinate laxity prevalent in this western society, the permissive lifestyle, the non-existence of permanent relationship between man and woman had awakened a kind of wary incomprehension in her in those early years. Later she had tried to strike a balance between her deep-rooted Indian beliefs and modern European outlook. But in the new enviornment, she had found the new ways of life to clash with the importance of values she was raised with.

Once when her colleague Ineke from the small wereldwinkel (shop) where she went twice a week had wanted to know how was it possible for her to be still connected  to the land  she left twenty two years ago, she had just smiled, covering up her frustration of not being able to coin the exact expression in Dutch to her colleague. How was she to explain that her family in that crumbling, old home in Kolkata was still her rock and that she considered the place she left twenty three years back still as her home?

         *

Disruptive, angry winds lashed out at the house like a furious animal kept in chains. Where did she go wrong, she wondered, standing in front of the telephone table and trying to connect with her husband who was at the moment travelling out of Holland. Her very desire to pass on to her child her heritage and to help her to grow so that she could create a space to call her own — was this desire so unfair, one that she didn’t deserve to yearn for? The phone kept ringing somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic, but instead of her husband’s voice she reached his voicemail. Knowing that it was useless to leave a message, she put the phone down. She had to find Piu herself, she knew. But how?

Her back slumping, she walked up the stairs to her own room, watching her own shadow, a silhouette of loneliness and regret. A cup of strong masala tea, that was what she needed now, as she felt the dull, familiar ache returning and pressing on her temples. As she filled water from the tap in her small water kettle, she could not stop thinking about Martijn.

What was it in him that she didn’t like, that she didn’t trust? The way he addressed her by name? The way he held Piu’s hands in front of her? The way he casually spent the night with Piu in her home? Something that she as Piu’s mother found most inappropriate?

Once when she had tried to raise the point to Piu, her daughter had tried to explain hard. “It’s not your fault, Ma, I don’t blame you, she had tried to be sympathetic in her thoughts. It’s all because of that ‘closet culture’ you were raised in, where parents decide their children’s future. It is still so prevalent. You are so used to find happiness in marriage by arrangement. How would you understand the importance of the freedom of choice Ma? You never knew any other man in your life other than Baba.”

She watches the water come to boil; She tries to be honest with herself. No, it wasn’t that she mistrusted Martijn. What she did not, could not bring herself to trust was these modern, temporary, impermanent relationships between man and woman, relationships that needed to be ‘worked out’. “It’s up to us to work out the relationship,” Piu had concluded, finally having no patience left for her mother’s litany on the need to keep the best part of her heritage.

She had then wanted to ask Piu how did one ‘work out’ a marriage, was that a sum, a calculation, or a formula that needed to be worked out? But watching the glittering stars of hope in her daughter’s eyes, the question had died on her lips.

She checked the weather outside, lifting the curtains. The dark outside her window was shattered by the unrelenting zig-zag of lightening. Closing the curtains, she walked back to the sofa, carrying the tea cup in both hands. She felt tired, exhausted, and the pain behind her temple pulled at her eyelids. But she could not sleep. What if Piu phones..? Or anyone else…from the police station…just anyone…?

 And that’s what gave her the idea. Although she knew it would infuriate Piu, she still wanted to try. She lifted the mobile and punched Piu’s friend’s  number. A couple of rings as she sat stiffened and then a high-strung voice mumbled, “Met Myra.(Myra speaking)”. Gripping the mobile in her hand she asks after Piu. “I cannot reach her,” she says, asking her if she could pass on her message. A couple of minutes later the mobile rings. It was Piu. Finally.

“I’m sorry I missed your calls, Ma. Was so busy.”

“You should have called, Piu. I’m alone here, sitting and worrying…when will you be back? Your father is also not here…”

“Why did you have to call Myra, Ma? You know I hate you calling up my friends,” she went on as though her mother hadn’t spoken. “I told you I’ll be fine. Will be staying over at Martijn’s tonight. Don’t worry, I’m fine.Will call you later.”

 “Listen, I was saying, the Ray’s are there, nearby, if you need…”

But she has hung up already. Disconnected herself.

Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, translator, journalist from the Netherlands. She is involved in various literary & translation projects for several literary and social platforms in the Netherlands and in India. Her works have been extensively published in many Indian literary platforms like Muse India, The Telegraph, Indian Periodical, Eindhoven News, The Asian Age, Borderless Journal, Setu bilingual. Her recently translated work “Quiet Whispers of our Heart” (Orange Publishers, 2020) received good reviews and was launched in the International book fair, Kolkata, India.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL