Nazrul Translations Tribute

Hena: A Short Story by Nazrul

First published in the collection titled Baethar Daan (Offerings of Pain, 1922), Kazi Nazrul Islam’s short story, Hena, is set against the backdrop of the First World War where the writer himself had fought as a young soldier (1917-1919). It has been translated by Sohana Manzoor and brought out to commemorate Nazrul’s 124th Birth Anniversary.

A trench in Verdun, France

This must be what they call rain of fire! And the sounds! The roaring sound of the artillery! Not a speck of blue sky can be seen– as if the whole sky has been set on fire. The thick rain of fire that pours down from the exploding cannonballs and bombs is so intense that if those were real raindrops trickling out of the blue eyes of the sky, the entire world would have been flooded just in a day. And if these sounds that were louder and more intense than any thunderstorm, would continue like this, people’s eardrums would split, turning them deaf. Today, we the soldiers could only recall the song that is sung during Holi celebrations:

“We will play holi with swords today,
All the soldiers of the world are gathered here
Shields playing the trumpets, cannon balls the squirt pumps
Ammunitions are colourful, the battle is intense.”

It is very true that the ammunition has caused the sky and ground to turn completely red. The reddest are the congealed blood on the bayonetted chests of the unfortunate ones! No other colour but red! As soldiers fall one by one, each one a martyr, they lie on the ground, dressed in red like bridegrooms!

Agh! The worst of all is the smoky smell. It is enough to turn your stomach. Are not human beings the best of all creations? Then why have them killed in such ugly and terrifying ways?  When the inanimate lead bullets, hit someone’s bones, they explode with a horrid force and tear through the flesh.

If human beings used their intelligence in more productive ways, they could have claimed a place close to the angels. Oh, and this heart-rending thirst! The friend lying next to you, his rifle slipping from his hand, cannot be awakened even if a thousand cannons roar by his ear. No general can ever make him obey his orders. After fighting for seven days at a stretch in this muddy trench he has finally fallen asleep. He is finally at peace!  A rare touch of soothing contentment lingers on his cold and dry lips.

But I feel so thirsty. Let me take the water-bottle from his waist and take a sip! I haven’t had a drop since yesterday. No one cared to offer me a drink. Aah…! This one sip feels so sweet! My Lewis gun doesn’t work anymore. It grew tired after days of continuous shooting. I will take the gun of my deceased friend then. If his mother, sister or wife were present here, they would surely have taken his broken skull on their laps and cry their hearts out! Well, I guess, in a few minutes, a heavy shell will land in front of the trench and bury the two of us!  It won’t be too bad actually!

It is really funny as I think of the women crying. All of us will die one day, what is there to weep? Death is an eternal truth — why should one grieve over something that is so normal and inevitable?  

I am going through so much pain, after receiving so many wounds, but my heart is filled with a demonic joy! I cannot sketch this feeling with this wooden pencil! There is often a joy that lies asleep at the heart of extreme pain which we can’t really feel! And is this habit of writing something bad? I have been swimming in fire, with scores of dead bodies under my feet and bombs dropped from aircraft bursting over my head, artillery shells are exploding and rifle and machinegun bullets are zooming past, still, deep inside, I feel restless because I couldn’t write down my innermost thoughts in the past seven days! But today, I feel relieved that I could start writing again!

Let me rest for a while, leaning against my dead friend. Ah, it feels so good!…

An unknown young girl of this distant land across the sea gave me some pickles and two slices of bread with butter which I haven’t had time to eat… The women of this country look at us with affection and pity! . . . . Ha ha ha, look at the bread here—these are dry and seem roasted! Let’s see if the bread is tougher than my teeth. I have no other option but to eat these — I am so hungry. The pickle is still quite fresh though!

That girl who was thirteen or fourteen (in our country, she would be wedded by now, if not already a mother), put her hands around my neck and kissed me. She said, “Brother, you must drive the enemy out with full force.”  I broke into a pure, sad smile.

Ah! I can finally see the sky. A strip of blue sky can be seen behind the mass of heavy clouds. It is so beautiful– like a pair of blue eyes filled with tears! Anyway, I will write down my other thoughts later. The spirit of my dead friend must be mad at me by now. What, my friend, you want a drop of water? See, how he is staring at me! No, my friend, I tell you your beloved is waiting for you with a glass of lemonade in the other world. I would not want to disappoint her, would I?

Ah, I seem to remember so many things today. But no! There’s nothing to remember! These are all lies. Let me pick up the Lewis gun and start shooting. I see some of those who are helping me have stolen a nap!  

But there, I can hear the sound of footsteps. They are all marching– left-right-left. That sound is so melodious! Are they coming to relieve us from duty?

Ouch! A moment of distraction has allowed a bullet to bruise my arm! Let me dress it. I hate those nurses. If a woman cares for me without loving me, why should I accept it? Ah! A war shows how killing others can be addictive.

The man who has fallen beside me is far stronger and healthier than me! But I have also seen how one’s mind has more strength than one’s body.

This Lewis gun is shooting about six to seven hundred rounds per minute. If only I could know how many I have killed!   But the two Lewis guns here are keeping the enemies confined to their position. You can hear the loud groans of the enemies as they die in droves! The beauty of such youthful deaths is boundless!

A tent at the river Seine, France

I slept for all forty-eight hours of the last two days. And now I have to get dressed for battle and go out to destroy God’s creatures once again. The killing game is the right kind of activity for stone-hearted person like me.

Today that kind girl took me to visit her house… How clean and pretty are the houses here! The girl has clearly fallen in love with me. And I, too, have begun to love her… In our country, people would have said that the girl has gone bad… They would not have liked to see a young girl going out with a young man of twenty or twenty-one.

People look at love in such ugly ways these days! Are these human beings, or vultures? There is so much sin in the world! How did the people become so petty? The sky above is so vast and blue, but beneath the same sky human beings are so mean and narrow-minded!

Fire, you keep raining down!  Let the curse of God float downward like frozen chunks of ice… Oh the horn of Israfil[1]! Do blow and immobilize the world! Oh, the thunder of destruction, strike inside the human brains, like the bombs and the artillery shells. And let the entire sky fall on the heads of those people who slander love, and blight the flowers…

If I could dress up one of my countrymen the way I am dressed now, and pushed him down, I am sure he wouldn’t be able to get up, no matter how hard he tried. I am highly amused at my bulky and sluggish appearance.

A ‘wicked’ friend once commented “What pleasing looks!” What a weird adjective!  And another one is supposed have said, “The bullock looks like a katla fish!”

A thick forest near Paris, France

All on a sudden, we were sent to this dense forest yesterday. I have no clue why we had to fall back. This is the beauty of military life—an order is given and you are told “Get it done!” You can never ask “Why do I have to do this,” or ask for an explanation. It’s an order –that’s all!”

If I say, “I am going to die,” a stern voice will reply, “As long as you breathe, keep on doing what you are doing, if you fall dead on your right foot while you are marching, let your left foot keep up the pace!”

There is a strange beauty in obeying orders with blind obedience! What tenderness it is that lies at the heart of a thunder! If the entire world could come under one (and only) such military regime, then it would turn out so beautiful that even calling it a heaven on earth would not be enough.

The British nation is so great now because of the discipline they exercise on everything they do. They walk so tall that we can never see the crown of their heads no matter how hard we crane our necks — and let our headgears fall off while doing that! To speak frankly, their empire is like a huge clock that is always correct and faultless. Its two hands run in precision. The clock is oiled every day so there is no speck of rust anywhere.

We were the ones who chased the Germans to the Hindenburg Line and then we had to retreat so far! Only the maker of the clock knows which hand has to move at what pace, but the hands don’t know anything about it. But the hands have to keep ticking because these are continuously driven by a spring from the rear.

We badly need a disciplined, clockwork system like this. This reckless nation of ours really needs to be tied up and disciplined; otherwise, there is no hope of it rising anytime in future!  If everybody wants to be the leader, who will do the work?

Oh, the artillery shells raining on us even at this distance! This is really uncanny… The war is being fought so far away but cannon-balls are dropping on us in the forest!  

Well, an elephant might think that it is the biggest animal in the world. But even a mosquito can cause it enough trouble through a single bite in its head.

It’s cool in this shady darkness here. How my heart had been yearning for this solace in darkness.

Alas! Darkness seems to trigger in my mind so many fond memories! But, no, let me just climb up the tree and see if any enemy is hiding nearby.

How charming that distant ice-covered river looks from the tree! But there are also some big houses around which shells have torn through, leaving ugly gaping holes! This game of destruction reminds me of my childhood when we used to build clay doll’s houses. After we were done with our play, we used to crush them with our feet and sing:

“We made them gleefully with our hands
We broke them gleefully with our feet!”

The cannon-balls are flying through the air and dropping on distant planes, and from my vantage point, they look like falling stars.

And the sound these fighter planes are making! Oh! The way they are climbing and diving– it looks as if an expert kite flier is maneuvering his fighter-kite to hurtle through the sky in search of a rival. That plane is ours! The German zeppelins look from a distant more like big, flying caterpillars.

Anyway, let me get a bit of pickle out of my haversack. That foreign girl is so far away from me today but the pickle seems to retain her touch! Hell! What am I doing?  Why do I keep on thinking of all this gibberish? I don’t need the pain that arises from nowhere and tortures me!

Well, well! What do I see there? A friend of mine is trying to take a nap on that tree. See, he has tied himself with his belt to a branch quite tightly. If he somehow falls in the water below, it will be quite a hassle for him! But then why not? Oh God, let him fall!

Should I shoot a bullet past his ear?  Ah, no! Poor thing! Let him sleep awhile. Nobody except me has such hapless eyes that sleep never touches, or a blasted mind like mine which gets sick thinking about the goings on in the world. It’s night – quite deep into the night, I guess!  I will have to stay here in this crouching position till dawn…. Perhaps when I am old (if I live that long), the trials I am going through will turn into sweet memories.

The light of the moon, which will turn into a full moon tomorrow night, is creating patterns of light and shadow in the forest below, which make the forest look like a giant cheetah! The heavy, dark clouds over my head are slowly drifting towards some unknown destination. A few drops of cool water fall on my head. Ah, how sad these drops feel! Ah!

The moon is now hidden by a cloud, and now it shoots out and hides behind another cloud! It seems like a game of peekaboo played by beauties living in the glass palace of a king. Who is running in the sky now? The clouds or the moon? I would say the clouds but a simple child might say the moon. Who is right? Aha! How lovely is the play of light and shadow!

What’s that bird cooing in the distance? The delicate tones of the bird songs of this country seem to evoke a sweet laziness… I find them intoxicating.

In this light and shadow, I remember so many things! But the memory is so full of pain.

I recall telling her, “I love you so much, Hena.”

Hena shook her raven black silky hair and replied, “But Sohrab, I haven’t been able to love you.”  

That day, the bright saffron flowers seemed to be playing a game to welcome the new day in the garden of Balochistan. Unmindfully, I broke a branch of walnut and collected some flowers from the deodar tree and threw them at her feet.

A few drops of tears trickled down her dark eyes lined with Istanbul kohl! Her face turned redder than her henna dyed hands!

I picked up a bunch of raw plums and threw them at the nightingale sitting in bush of screw pine flowers. The birds stopped singing and few away.  

What Human beings think is the closest turns out to be the farthest from them! This is indeed a profound mystery! Hena! Oh Hena! There’s just so much regret…!

Hindenburg Line

Oh! What is this place? I cannot believe that this is an underground land of fairies and monsters!  Can a trench built during the wartimes be really as huge as a city full of houses? Who could have imagined this? What a gigantic venture so deep down underground! This is indeed another wonder of the world! One can live as luxuriously as the Nabobs of Bengal in this place!

But I did not come here for the peace it offers! I did not ask for comfort. I only wanted pain and suffering. I am not made for enjoyment and comfort!  I would have to seek out another path then. It seems like I found a house under the tamarind tree in trying to escape from tasting sour things.

No, I need to be active. I want to drown myself in work. But this life of comfort here is embarrassing!

I heard that iron turns into steel when it burns in fire. What about human beings? Only ‘baptised’?

Being freed of restraints, my mind has fled again to that room full of grapes and pomegranates!  I recall those days again!

“Hena, I’m about to jump into the fire that burns in a free country. I am burning inside, so let my body burn too! Maybe, I will never return. But what means do I have? How do I find travel expenses? How will I live in the foreign land?”

Hena’s henna-dyed fingers trembled like young shoots in my hands. She replied in a clear voice, “But that’s not how your life becomes meaningful, Sohrab!  This is only the hot-headed youthfulness!  You’re clinging to a lie! There is still time for you to get the message!…  See I’ve not been able to love you yet.”

All is empty. Nothing remains. A gusty wind blew through the thick tamarisk trees and cried, “Ah!… Ah!… Ah! When the first battalion of our Baloch Regiment 127 started off for this country from Quetta, one of my friends, a young Bengali doctor, sang while sitting under a pear tree:

“How will you make him return
The one you bade farewell in tears.
In this languid air
At night in the garden
Have you recalled him under the bakul tree?
How will you make him return!
The honeymoon of the full moon
Returns from time to time,
But the one who has gone, does not come back!
Now how will you make him return?”

How weak I am! No wonder I did not want to come to this place. What would I do in this palatial life?  Fellows of my regiment think there is no one as carefree and happy as I am. It’s because I laugh a lot. Does anybody know how much blood is hidden in the heart of the henna leaves?

I played “Home sweet home” on the piano and sang along so beautifully that the French were amazed!  It was as if we are not human beings and so we cannot do anything as well as  them!  We have to break such preconceived notions.

Hindenburg Line

What else can I do if there’s no work? I have to find something to do. So last night I crawled for about a couple of miles and cut through much of their wires. Nobody seemed to notice.

My commanding officer said, “You’ll be rewarded for this.”

So, I became a corporal today.

The other day, I met that foreign girl too. She has grown much prettier in these two years! She told me directly that if I had no objection, she would like to have me as her partner! I told her, “That’s impossible!”

I said to myself, “A blind man loses his staff only once. Again? No way. I have had enough.”

The way her blue eyes filled with tears and her bosom heaved made a stone-hearted person like me cry!

She controlled herself and said, “But you’ll allow me to love you?  Like a brother at least…?”

I am just a god forsaken wayfarer.  So, I showed a lot of interest and replied, “Of course.” Then she left bidding me adieu. She never came back!  I can only recall that line, “But the one who has gone does not come back.” Oh!

Anyway, the day was well-spent with the Gurkhas. These Gurkhas were really like big babies. I would not have believed that grown men could be so naive and innocent. These Gurkhas and their brothers-in-law, the Garwhals– both turn into killing machines in the battle field!  Each of them turns into a tiger, a “Sher-e-Babbar.” Even the Germans throw away their rifles and run off at the sight of their kukri knives. If these two fighter groups did not exist, we would never be able to achieve this much. Only a handful of them are still alive. Entire regiments of them have perished. Yet, the few of them that are still alive are so full of life, as if nothing has happened!

Nobody can make them understand what great feat they have achieved. And those tall and sturdy Sikhs—what betrayers they have turned out to be! Some shot themselves in the arm and ended up at the hospital.

Look there! There is a battalion ‘march’ going on in the trench. We are marching at the beat of a French band!  Left- right-left. A thousand people are all marching at the same pace– all at once. How amazing!


My cottage in Quetta

In the grapevine garden

What happened? I am trying to find out an answer to the question, sitting in this walnut and pear garden. All our Indian soldiers have returned home, and so have I. But how happily did those two years pass by!

I am looking at the blue sky washed by rain, which reminds me of the wide blue eyes of the young French woman. Looking at the mountain-yaks I remember her silky curly hair. And those ripe grapes– aren’t they exactly like the sparkling tears of her eyes?

After becoming an ‘officer’ I also received the title “Sardar Bahadur.” My boss would not let go of me. How could I make him understand that I was not there to form a permanent bond? I did not cross the seas with any high ideals. I only went to purify myself in fire — to hide myself too.

And I never thought I would return here of all places. But I had to– it seems I am tied to this land!

I have no one, I have nothing. And yet I feel, everything is here. Who am I trying to comfort?

I have not hurt anybody; nobody hurt me. Then why was I reluctant to come here? But that’s a matter of unspeakable agony. I can’t articulate it well enough. Hena! Oh! There’s nobody around, still the wind carries the broken echo “na…na”. “No” it is then!  

The brook still flows through the hill; only the girl Hena, whose footprints are still etched  on the stone-steps, is no longer there. There are so many things lying around that remind me of her soft touch.

Hena! Hena! Hena! Again that echo! Na –Na- Na!


I have found her! She is — here. Hena! My Hena! I saw you here today, here in Peshawar! Why do you keep hiding the truth behind those lies? She watched me from a distance and cried. She did not utter a word; she only looked at me and shed tears.

In such meetings, tears are the most articulate language of the heart. She told me again that she could not bring herself to love me. The moment she uttered the word “no” she cried so dejectedly that even the morning air became mournful!

The biggest puzzle in this world is the mind of a woman!


Dakka camp

When I heard that the great man Ameer Habibullah Khan had been martyred, I felt that the top of the Hindukush had collapsed! And Suleiman Mountain must have been torn out of its base!

And I wondered what I should do. For ten days, I kept on thinking. It was no easy task!

I decided that I would fight for Ameer. Why? Well, there’s no answer to that question. But let me say candidly that I do not consider the British as my enemy. I have always thought of them as my best friends. But even if I say the reason for my joining the war this time was to protect the weak, even if it meant sacrificing my life, it won’t be quite the right answer.  Even I do not understand my own whims!

That morning, someone seemed to have set fire to the pomegranates. They looked bright red! That was perhaps the blood from the hearts of many like me!

The vast sky had just paused after crying incessantly. Its eyes are still misty, so it would start crying again.  A broken-hearted cuckoo had also been weeping somewhere, turning its eyes red and its voice rang through the damp winds of the autumnal morning. Someone on the other side of the dried river was playing the Asawari raga[2]on the shehnai. Its notes echoed the doleful cries of a lonely heart. I felt the sadness more than anyone else. The strong smell of henna flowers intoxicated me.

I said, “Hena, I am going to war again, to fight for the Ameer. I won’t come back. Even if I live, I won’t come back.”

Hena buried herself in my chest and cried, “Sohrab, my love! Yes, go wherever you will. Now is the time to tell you how much I love you. I won’t hide the truth anymore. I won’t cause my love further pain….”

I understood. She was a warrior-woman, a daughter of the Afghans. Even though being an Afghan myself I have spent my entire life fighting, she had wanted me to sacrifice my life at the feet of our country. She wanted me to sacrifice my life for our land.

O, the heart of a woman! How could you hide yourself like this? What perseverance! How could such a soft-hearted woman be so tough at the same time?


My body has taken five bullets. But until the moment I lost consciousness, I had defended my soldiers with all my strength!

O my God!  If protecting my country with my blood makes me a martyr, then I am a martyr.  

I came back. Hena followed me like a shadow. How could she hold back so much love that flowed like a rapid tumbling uncontrollably down the mountain with her fragile ribcage!

The Ameer has given me a place in his court. I am one of the commanders of his army.

And Hena? There is Hena, sleeping by my side, clinging to my chest…. Her heart is still fluttering with some unknown fear. Her sighs are still pervading the winds with some dissatisfaction.

The poor girl has also been badly wounded like me! Let her sleep. No, we’ll sleep together. O God — don’t give us any more pain by waking us up from this pleasurable sleep! Hena! Hena! –na—na—Ah!


[1] The angel who blows the trumpet on the day of judgement in Islam.

[2] A morning raga or melodic composition in the Hindustani classical tradition.


Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was born in united Bengal, long before the Partition. Known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB, a short story writer, a translator, an essayist and an artist.


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By Sohana Manzoor


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

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

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

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

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

That was, however, only the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Nara Apu gaped at me in incomprehension.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I waited patiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remained silent.

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

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

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

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

Nara and Priya

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Elder sister

[2] Father

[3] Father’s sister

[4] Long full skirt

[5] Father

[6] Elder brother

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




A Cat Story

By Sohana Manzoor

Courtesy: Creative Commons

“O my poor Putli, why did I let you go out? O Allah, why did you take my Putli away?” Rupa heard Kohinur’s ma wailing as soon as she entered home. She sighed. Everyone in the house had been down since Putli disappeared about ten days earlier. Then three days ago, one of the guards of their apartment complex brought the news that he had seen Putli’s remains near the Niketan bazaar. Of course, nobody could be completely sure that it was Putli because the body had been lying there for some days and had partially decomposed. All they were certain of was that a black and white cat that looked like Putli had been killed. Rupa wanted to go herself but, in the end, could not bear the thought of seeing the rotten corpse of their cuddly family member. But since then their old maid, who took care of the cat, had been absolutely inconsolable.

Today Rupa could not take it any longer. She felt it was high time to find another cat, preferably a kitten; their house felt empty and desolate. Putli was an adorably frisky cat, about two years old. It was really fun to observe him jumping and playing with imaginary friends, raising his tail erect, or clawing at his own image glaring back from the mirror. Only recently he had started going out and was courting a cute white cat that Rupa had often seen reclining on the corrugated tin roof top of a nearby garage. He even had a fight with a street cat over his sweetheart. He had disappeared once before, but had come back after three days. This time probably he had ventured too far away from home and met his end.

It was summer; the schools were closed and Rupa’s two younger siblings were sulking in the house all day. Rupa studied at a private university and soon the semester would be over, and she resented the thought of residing in a house without any feline presence. There was always a cat in their home as far as she could remember. Even their father, who was a businessman and was busy all the time, seemed to have noticed Putli’s absence. Only yesterday Rupa had heard him saying, “That sofa by the window was Putli’s favorite spot; I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Rupa’s younger brother Yen had been trying to allure a neighborhood cat. Rupa did not like the looks of the cat he was inviting in though — looked more like a hobgoblin, greedy and sneaky with shrewd yellow eyes. She had occasionally seen it lurking in the back alley. It took the half-eaten drumstick that Yen had placed on the pavement, and ran behind a small pile of rubble. Rupa was certain that it would cause nothing but trouble. Besides, Kohinur’s ma hated any human or animal sneaking into her domain—the kitchen. She would surely wrinkle her nose and comment, “Couldn’t you get anything better than that susa bilai?[1]” But then nor could Rupa approve of the white fluffy cat Lira was nagging about the other day. She had seen one in the movie Stuart Little, and wanted a cat like Snowbell. Now that was a Persian cat and Rupa certainly did not want their entire family rolling in a bed of hair. She would rather have a deshi[2] regular cat than one of those overrated foreign ones.

The ornate clock in the dining room chimed 3 in the afternoon. If she started right away, she might get to Katabon and even return before evening. She was not very sure what kinds of kittens were available at the pet shops there, but it would not hurt to take a look. She grabbed a quick snack, filled her water-bottle and got out of the house. Her mother was taking a midday nap, and hence Rupa did not disturb her. But she knew her ma would not mind even if she brought in an entire brood of fluff balls. They were a family of cat lovers. Sifat, her best friend, often joked that they were surely Egyptians in some other life.

Rupa looked at the elevator which seemed to be stuck at the 6th floor. So, she took the stairs. On her way down, she saw the helping-hand from the fourth floor. The boy stared at her and as always Rupa found his look disconcerting. She had often wondered if the boy was mentally sound. She had never heard him speak, and on several occasions heard him wailing incomprehensibly in the stairwell until someone dragged him home. She noticed that he had a shopping bag in hand from where greens and the top of a gourd were peeping out. Obviously, he spoke, reasoned Rupa, otherwise how could he buy those?

Rupa’s way to the Katabon was uneventful other than occasional stops at the traffic lights. After paying the fare she started walking past the pet shops. The first one had birds and fish and aquariums of different sizes. After three shops she found one sporting caged dogs. But there were no cats.

At the next shop, the shopkeeper and his assistant showed her three black kittens claiming that they were Siamese cats. Rupa could not be sure if they were Siamese, but she was willing to bet that they were previously owned by some evil witch. They glared at Rupa with open hostility, their bright eyes burning like green fire. Rupa shook her head negatively and walked toward the next shop.

A boy of around 12 or 13 years of age beckoned her to a box like cage where she saw the kitten. It was small, surely not more than a few weeks old. The orange tabby looked up at Rupa with its large brown eyes and sneezed. She looked inside the box and saw another kitten, a black and white one, whimpering. She continued meowing piteously as Rupa turned to look at the tabby and took it from the boy. Dirty and malnourished, the tabby yet seemed absolutely adorable to Rupa.

“How much?” she asked.

“One thousand taka, apa[3]. It’s pure breed.”

“Sure,” Rupa grimaced. “It’s just a regular deshi cat, mixed breed at best.” The other kitten was still crying for its friend. Rupa calculated something quickly, and said, “Okay, I will accept your price, but I want that other kitten for free.”

The shop keepers started arguing, “But you won’t get two cats for only 1000! And they are first rate kittens.”

“Then I am not taking any,” she placed the tabby in the cage and turned away, even though her heart cried out for the poor kitten. She had not taken two steps when she heard the elder guy, “Okay, okay, they’re yours.”

Rupa took out two five-hundred-taka notes and asked, “Do you have any box I can carry them in?

“No boxes. But we’ll wrap them up for you.”

Wrap up living cats? Rupa waited to see what kind of wrapping they provided.

After about 5 minutes she was staring dumbfounded at the boy holding out the kittens in two brown paper bags. How he got them inside the paper bags so quickly, and without any tearing was a mystery to Rupa.

“Are you mad?” she spluttered. “I am going home in an auto-rickshaw. Those two will tear out of the bags in minutes. Get me at least a net bag or something.”

The boy put the paper bags of cats in a large fluorescent green net bag. Rupa took the bag cursing herself as well as the shopkeepers and hopped on a CNG auto-rickshaw for a hundred taka extra.

Surprisingly, the kittens were quiet in spite of the loud noise emitting from the auto-rickshaw and the vehicles in the surrounding streets. Rupa suspected that they were just too weak to protest. After about 10 minutes, however, Rupa heard a rustling sound, and she saw a small orange muzzle tearing from a brown bag. “Baghu,” thought Rupa. “I’ll call him Baghu.” It was a male cat, she had already noted, whereas the black and white one was female. She could be Nishi. Nishi made no sound at all, but Baghu kept on rustling and clawing at the paper bag until half of his body came out. “He does have spirit, after all,” thought Rupa. But she certainly did not want him out of his bag right now. So, she put the bags and cats all on her lap holding on to them tightly, praying all the while that they didn’t pee on her.

“What do you have in there, apa?” a child’s voice asked, and Rupa realized that the CNG had stopped at a traffic signal. Several curious street urchins with flowers, lemons, water bottles and other knickknacks were peering inside her auto-rickshaw. By now Nishi had also started pushing forward and mewing piteously. And the hawkers were obviously drawn by the sounds made by the kittens, and the commotion in the bags.

Rupa sighed and replied, “Don’t bother. Just go your way.”

But their numbers increased. “O my, you’ve got cats!” observed a flower girl with a merry laugh.

“No, no, those are kittens,“ said one boy of about seven or eight. He was selling mineral water. Two of his front teeth were missing. “How many do you have?”

“Two,” Rupa tried to maintain her gravity. “Now, GO!” her voice rose two octaves.

The children moved back a few steps only to get closer again. They were all grinning. “Look, look, there’s a red kitty.” “And a black and white one too!” “That one looks like Harun’s kitten!” Rupa could hear all kinds of comments.

Another CNG driver who had stopped right next to Rupa’s auto rickshaw, looked at her driver and asked, “What’s going on?”

“Young girl—taking two friends home. Only they have fur, tails, and they meow,” replied the CNG driver with a straight face.

Rupa went beet red. As the red signal turned green, she heaved a sigh of relief. As soon as the CNG started moving both Baghu and Nishi quieted down. Baghu started to nuzzle her, while Nishi looked up at her with dark hazel eyes. Her coloring reminded Rupa of Putli, her main reason for getting her. Nishi seemed much more docile though. Rupa suddenly felt very protective of the two kittens, and at the same time she could not help wondering why she did not feel the same way about human children. Why was it she had this urge to take home every kitten she saw in the streets? Then she amended that not every kitten perhaps but the cute ones surely. But those street children could be cute too. She remembered the ones that were commenting over her cats, particularly, the boy with the missing front teeth and another little girl with pig tails. How come she never felt like taking them home, wondered Rupa uneasily. She wondered about the boy who lived upstairs, the one she suspected was mentally disabled. Would her parents be equally welcoming to these children as they were to the cats?

Apa, which road?” Rupa realised they had reached Niketan. She directed the driver to road no 10. Their apartment was on the second floor. The old caretaker, Abu bhai[4] looked at the bundle in her hand, two small heads, one orange, and one black and white peeping out. He grinned, “You’ve got kittens, apa. That’s so wonderful.”

Rupa nodded and smiled.

And then Abu bhai said, “Something unfortunate has happened, apa. The crazy boy from the fourth floor fell down the stairs.”

“What crazy boy?” gasped Rupa. “Not that servant-boy they call Khokon, or Rokon?”

“Rokon. That very one,” replied Abu bhai.

Abu bhai said, “A maid from another flat had gone out to buy her paan[5]. And then when she came back, the boy was lying sprawled and motionless on one of the landings. Apparently, he fell down, and he has been taken to the hospital.”

Rupa remembered the greens and the gourd peeping out from the bag in the boy’s hand.

“Pets are replaceable, human beings are not,” she mused as she got on the elevator. She wondered if Rokon had parents. What parents could send such a boy work for other people?

“Where’s everybody?” Rupa shouted. “We have cats in the house!”

Yen came running, followed by Lira. Kohinur’s ma, who had opened the door, stood by with a smile on her face.

“They’re so small… and dirty!” commented Yen.

“But they’re cute!” cooed Lira.

“They need a shower and food,” observed their mother who had also joined them. “Kohinur’s ma, why don’t you take them to the kitchen and feed something? Give them a thorough bath tomorrow morning. They probably have lice on them.”

Rupa turned to her mother and asked, “Amma, did you hear about the servant-boy who fell down the stairs?”

Her mother looked surprised, “No. There was some commotion in the stairwell, but I didn’t realise that’s what happened.”

A few hours later the two newly acquired members of their family were playing on the living room carpet. They had licked themselves clean. Nishi was a bit shy and was sitting demurely on her haunches, but Baghu had already started scampering around. He was also a little bigger and probably older than Nishi. Everybody had approved of the names. Lira clapped her hands and laughed gleefully as Baghu did a summersault. Baghu looked up at Lira and did it again, and everybody laughed.

“He’s clever, isn’t he?” Kohinur’s ma observed.

“He actually understood that I liked his summersault!” Lira’s eyes went round. “Wow! Baghu, you’re amazing!” She picked the tabby up and kissed the top of his head and Baghu clung to her with all his four paws. Her mother shrieked, “Eeks! Don’t kiss them just yet! Let them have a shower tomorrow morning and you can do what you want.”

“But they are clean,” protested Lira.

“Not yet,“ Rupa shook her head. “And don’t carry them to bed with you tonight,” she warned. “You can snuggle with them after they have visited the vet’s office.”

At night Kohinur’s ma produced an old basket with rags of clothes for the two kittens to sleep in. Rupa recognised the basket that had belonged to Sisu, another cat they had lost years ago. She smiled as she said, “Something tells me that in a few days they will be sharing beds with Lira and Yen.”

Lira whooped and nodded vigorously while Yen displayed a huge toothless grin. Rupa again remembered the boy from the fourth floor. And the boy she had seen on the street, with his missing front teeth.

She brushed her teeth, changed into a loose T-shirt and pyjamas and went to bed. She dreamt of a gorgeous green meadow where children played and laughed, and they were all naked as the first day they were born. Rupa saw Yen and Lira and the street urchins along with Rokon. They all looked the same: clean and happy. Rupa heaved a sigh of contentment. Dreamland was perhaps the only place where her siblings could play with the likes of Rokon and the street-children without raising eyebrows and derision from any quarter.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. Currently, she is also a Deputy Editor of The Daily Star, a leading newspaper in Bangladesh.

[1] Gluttonous kitty

[2] Local

[3] Elder sister

[4] Brother – a polite way of addressing helpers

[5] Betel leaf