Imdadul Haque Milon
Translated by: Binoy Barman
Asia Publications, Dhaka
The green field was inundated by rainy water. A ridged footway like the parting of hair on a village woman’s head ran through the middle of the field. Stepping on that way Manindra Thakur said, ‘Hold the umbrella, Majid.’ Majid, who wore a dark brown lungi, was following Thakur. His lungi was folded half over knee to faster around the waist just under the main knot. It was not clear why he did so. May be he wanted to save the cloth from soaking or to keep speedy pace with Thakur. There were no other clothes on his body. Small drops of rainwater glittered like perspiration on his stony black complexion. Neck-long oiled curly hair on his head was brushed tidily. His face also looked oil-glossy. Black scorpion moustache grew below his small pointed nose. Sparsely planted beard covered his cheeks spreading from sideburns to chin. He took care of his beard getting it cut by the barber Nitai at the bazaar in Mawa at least once a week before it grew long.
There were no hairs on his body except a few, resembling beards, on his chest. Or was there more? They were not visible because of being identical with body’s color!
Majid’s left hand now held the clinical bag of Manindra Thakur. He was walking with Thakur with an indifferent mood. Two pairs of leg marched on in ankle-deep water making the lonely field full of splashing sounds.
A little while before the frogs, busy spawning in watery field, were crying with the sounds of clouds. As the footsteps of two men proceeded in water the sky became silent with the diminishing cry of the frogs. The gusty wind at the beginning of rainy season was blowing free in the lonely field. The sound of wind was spreading over from field to field.
It was at that moment when Thakur uttered these words to hold the umbrella. Majid returned from his indifferent mood at Thakur’s utterance. He stretched his right hand promptly to hold the umbrella. The black umbrella almost new was unfurled over Thakur’s head. They yellow curved cane butt of the umbrella was stuck in his right hand. To hold the butt hastily, Majid tangled his fingers with Thakur’s and as it happened Majid was startled like a fish-hunter who got the sting of a shing fish while fumbling for a prey under water. At this the umbrella tilted aside and got a little displaced from over the head of Thakur. However, he controlled himself within a moment. He remained standing holding up the umbrella over Thakur’s head.
Thakur was then staring at Majid.
Thakur was almost one foot taller than Majid. His body, without any fat, was stout like a kadam tree. His head contained light red closely planted hair, cut short neatly. Though he was aged, not a single hair was gray. Nobody noticed when sudden air pushed a few hairs down on his tiny beautiful forehead.
The eyes of Thakur were wide and large. Various shades of sight played in those eyes at times, for example, now. He was staring at Majid but it was not evident what was in his sight, anger or hatred, irritation or love, insult or anathema.
Having a glance of Thakur’s face, Majid bent his head down. One of his hands held the clinical bag hanging near his naked knees and the other held the umbrella. He felt a light throb inside his bosom after he touched Thakur’s fingers. The throb increased since he looked at his eyes. Its current transmitted to two hands kept in two different postures as well as two wet legs. Even to mouth cavity, row of teeth.
The nose of Thakur was as pointed and sharp as the knife for slaughtering cows. The lips were like stripped onion. The chin and jaw were really manly. To sum up, his face was so appealing that one could not just take one’s sight away looking once at it.
The color of Thakur’s skin was akin to that of the film of cream on milk. The sky of Jaistha was overcast with clouds. He stood in open field with an umbrella held over his head. It was a dense foggy atmosphere around. The place where he stood was as if brightened by his glamour.
A man can be so handsome!
The neck of Thakur was well matched with his body. Its color was similar to that of face. Now a sacred cord and a stethoscope were hanging from his neck. The stethoscope was well outside his Punjabi, but the sacred cord was not visible as it lay inside the genji which was again under the Punjabi.
Thakur wore a glitzy white Punjabi of Addi and a finely knit dhuti of Shantipur. His left wrist was clasped by a round watch of dark-tan belt. In his chest pocket was a fountain pen with black cap and golden clip. The legs put on a pair of pumpshoes which were also black. Pumpshoes took in water which was now sprayed out with sprinkling sound as he stepped on.
But Thakur’s eyes were quiescent as if without any blink.
One’s fingers touched another’s, was it any offence? Was it not legitimate for a servant to touch his master’s fingers? Master and servant both are human beings. Why should there be any barrier for them to touching of each other? Now Majid remembered Manindra Thakur was Hindu, not of lower caste, but of higher caste. He was a Brahmin.
A Muslim touched the hand of a Hindu, a Brahmin. Again the Muslim was not of any upper social rank, Syed or Sheikh, he was only a Hajam. Was it possible that a Hajam touched a Brahmin! Was Thakur burning with that anger?
For that reason was he blinkless?
Majid’s bosom was throbbing as usual. His hands and legs were also quivering. Yet he felt angry inside one time. He said silently, ‘I haven’t done that willingly! My hand touched his as I attempted to take the umbrella. It’s natural to happen. What’s there in it to be angry? Two persons are living together round the clock; hence touches are very likely between them. Nails can easily contact nails. If one bothers too much about religion, why need one keep a Muslim servant from Hajam community? There are still Hindu families in villages, all Hindus did not leave the country. If one wishes one can collect a lad from them! If money, foods and clothes will be provided, there is no scarcity of servants. Is there any necessity of living together of Hindu and Muslim?’
When Majid was thinking all these, Thakur blinked his eyes. He moved a little he took out the Capstan cigarette packet from the chest pocket of this Punjabi. Took out the matchbox. Then he lighted a cigarette very carefully defending it from wind. He inhaled smoke deep and then puffed out like a sigh. White smoke emitted through his nose and mouth filling the air with sweet smell, which made the bosom of Majid a little lighter. His throb and quiver came to a stop. For a moment he held up his eyes to Thakur and became astonished. Thakur was still staring at him like earlier, between fingers holding the white cigarette, which was burning like the eyes of shoal fish.
But this time Majid was not frightened like earlier. He cleared his voice lightly, stooping, and muttered, ‘It’s my mistake. Please pardon me, dada.’
Thakur did not understand, as it were, what Majid said. Puffing at the cigarette he looked at Majid narrowing his eyes, ‘What mistake? Pardon of what?
The tone of Thakur encouraged Majid to utter anyway, ‘When I was going to hold the umbrella…?’
‘My hand chanced to touch your.’
‘What does it matter?’
Now Majid felt a heavy stone was released from his ribs. He looked at Thakur with smiling face. ‘I don’t know what it matters.’
Thakur puffed again. ‘Then why did you say?’
‘From your stare I thought you got angry with me. I can’t touch you. I avoid it all along. But today it happened out of my absentmindedness. Touch between Hindu and Muslim does not sound fair.’
Thakur said, ‘Who told you that?
‘I know. You are such a Hindu that even many of your religion do not preserve the right to touch you. And I’m only a Hajam.’
Thakur gave the last puff at the cigarette and threw it in the water of field, which produced a hissing sound, which remained unnoticed. He said, ‘Today we can’t maintain all those things. The matter turned different if it were old time. I would take your offence into account, but now I can’t.’
Majid was about to say, ‘Whyt can’t you do that now?’ But before that Thakur spoke, ‘I’m a physician by profession so that I’ve to touch man as compulsion. I don’t think whether I touched Hindu or Muslim. Moreover, I’ve been living alone in a Muslim village since partition. The land parted in nineteen forty seven and it is nineteen sixty four now. Pretty seventeen years. I abandoned many things of rituals during this period. I’m living shoulder to shoulder with Muslims. Could I survive in this village if I practiced all the rituals? Would the villagers take it easily if I didn’t treat Muslim patients and didn‘t visit their houses and if they didn’t get any chance to come to my house and have a cup of tea sitting inside? I would’ve no rarity of enemy. They would behead me in the dark of night.’
When Thakur spoke, Majid listened with amazement. He thought how man could speak so nicely. Those were not words, those were as if the music of rain in a calm night. Majid listened to Thakur as the forest being mum would listen to the music of rain. The more he listened, he more he got amazed. Who created this person? He spoke well as he looked well. It is the fact that he who created Thakur created Majid too. F so, why did the two persons differ so vastly? One was handsome while the other was ugly. One would illuminate all sides by his glamor while the other would darken the illumination. One would become master, while the other servant. One Thakur, the other Hajam.
Why was there so difference between men?
Thakur said, ‘What are you thinking, Majid?’
Majid laughed, ‘Nothing, dada.’
‘But I know what you’re thinking.’
Majid was well aware that Thakur must break through his mind. He must be a man of supernatural power. He knew herbal treatment, spiritual treatment as he knew homeopathic and allopathic treatment. He who treated patients of pox by licking their decaying skin might be cognizant of what his servant or boatman, compounder or guard, whatever you call him, thought. Nevertheless Majid said just to test him, ‘Then tell.’
‘You’re thinking that if I didn’t mind the act of touching why I was staring at your face long like that.’
Majid felt suffocated to hear the words of Thakur. Dumbfounded, he kept looking at his appearance.
Thakur said smilingly, ‘Ain’t I right?’
Majid managed to utter faintly, ‘Yes, you’re all right.’
‘Should I explain why I stared?’
‘I was thinking how we would cross the canal. In the meantime I rested and smoked. I walked a long distance without any cigarette. Whenever I think anything, I do that looking at somebody’s face.’
Majid could not grasp a bit of Thakur’s deliberation. He kept gaping at Thakur.
Thakur laughed again. ‘Didn’t you understand the matter of crossing canal?’
Majid responded like a fool, ‘No.’
‘Look! The bamboo bridge is broken.’
Majid looked at the canal flowing by the side of the field and the bamboo bridge on it. Practically the bamboo bridge was broken middle into the canal.
When was it broken? When they went through this way in the morning, it was all right! But Majid did not ponder much on it. He said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d say one thing.’
Thakur smiled. ‘Say.’
‘I can carry you on my shoulder to cross the canal if there’s no problem with touch.’
Thakur became overwhelmed with emotion, ‘I’m very glad to hear your words. I expected right that.’
‘Then let’s start.’
Two persons began to proceed through water, through rain. The solitary field became again replete with splashing sounds.
The sky was roaring.
The frogs were also crying under the weeping sky. Black clouds had voyaged the sky like trading boats. All sides were darkened more by the intense downpour than the shadow of clouds.
Going beyond the field back you would find the house of Labi Thakrun and to its east the house of Bhuinmali. The trees in the precincts of those houses grew greener being nourished by humid weather during the beginning of rainy season. Profound gloom now prevailed in the forest in profuse rains. In that gloom surreptitiously raised their voice the night worms and crickets hiding themselves in the leaves of trees. Their voice was submerged in the sound of raining as the houses of people were submerged in the shades of rain in daytime under the cluster of trees.
Just at that time a swollen-belly puti fish overcrossed the ridged footway touching the leg of Thakur so that he was startled. He did not take the umbrella back from Majid, whom he gave it once. Nobody could say whether he did it willingly or out of forgetfulness. Majid, who was following him like shadow, held up the umbrella carefully over his head. He kept close his eyes so that the gust of rain could not drench the body of Thakur. He was so preoccupied with this business that he probably forgot the clinical bag that he carried by the other hand.
But Thakur felt an unknown bliss in his mind to see the leap of the puti. He halted for a moment, though he did not look at Majid. He cast his sight towards the grass that was neck-down in water on both sides of the ridged footway.
Majid also halted following Thakur. Watching him look at the field, Majid asked, ‘What’d you see, dada.’
Thakur began to walk again, saying, ‘Fish.’
Majid was surprised, ‘What fish?’
‘Not any fish of good quality, it’s puti. One leapt near my leg. Its belly was swollen.’
‘Yes, they must have swollen belly now. Bellies are full of spawn.’
‘There were red stripes on two sides of its body stretching from head to tail.’
Majid laughed. ‘It has put on sari. The red stripes are its sari. They marry in inundation during rainy season and spawn. That’s why they groom.’
At one corner of the field were standing closely two hijal trees. Water was making tumult at their feet while rain was falling on their heads. The leaves of hijal trees were burnt pale in dry season, but that paleness was washed away at the advent of rainy season. The trees turned greener. Youth as if touched them as did the puti fish. Aerial roots sprouted out of new leaves like the moustache of boaal fish. Tiny green hijal fruits began to open eyes. Thakur got the smell of hijal fruit in rainy wind. Throwing his eyes in the direction of trees, he said in an enchanted voice, “This land is really beautiful.’
Majid could not follow his words. It was not certain when Thakur would say what. Just a while ago he told about puti fish and now he told about land. Who knew what meant what!
Majid became bold after the matter of touch was clear. He was talking to Thakur with the same spirit. ‘What beauty of the land did you discover walking down in the rain and water, dada?’
Thakur smiled, ‘You won’t understand what I discovered even if I tell you.’
“Tell me. I’ll understand.’
‘Look! The grassy field filled with water, green hijal trees round the corner of the land, canal water under foot, water pouring down from the sky, sari-wearing puti that leap about the walking leg, all these are the real beauty of a land.’
Majid said in a thoughtful tone, ‘Are these not found in Hindustan?’
Thakur turned to Majid immediately after he finished the sentence. Pursing his eyes he said, ‘Why that matter of Hindustan came to your mind?’
‘There’s no reason.’
‘No. There might be some reason. Speak out.’
‘The reason is simple, dada. Almost all the Hindus of East Pakistan left the country for Hindustan. Ain’t that country like ours? Ain’t there cloud and rain, ain’t there rainy season? Ain’t there puti fish, hijal tree? If there’s none, why did people go? Why do people immigrate to other country leaving beautiful homestead?’
Thakur sighed, ‘You won’t understand why they migrate.’
Majid had been working with Thakur for the last four years. Even after so long a time he could not understand his many words, could not make out the meaning of his many behaviors. But Majid felt very eager to understand his every word, to make out the meaning of his every behavior. Therefore he used to fully concentrate on every act of Thakur.
But Thakur talked no more. He now paced as if a little faster. Hence the splashing sound of stepping in water was getting frequent which, however, was suppressed by the sound of rain. Frogs could not sense so they continued croaking as usual. Having arrived by the canal Thakur became a little flabbergasted.
The muddy water of canal was in strong tide. Water was crawling down from the Padma like darash snake and spreading over to villages through canals. The tide would be more intricate and intense within a few days. Fields would be overflowed and farmland would be devoured. The water of ponds and tanks would flow over the edges to peep into the dwelling place of the farmers. A house would then appear to be an island.
So is the characteristic feature of rainy season in Bikrampur. Rain on the one hand and river-water on the other. River-water inundate fields hundred times than rainwater. Fields become full to the brim so that one would need a bamboo of about fifteen feet to drive a boat on.
Fishes also come along with water of river during the rainy season. They swim to remote villages in tide. Cunning people become busy with hunting these fishes.
So busy was Bhashan Gachhi of Haldar Bari today. Thakur was actually flabbergasted to see him. Bhashan Gachhi was setting bana in neck-deep water of canal. He would fix the doair to the bana made of bamboo. Strips Fishes would be collected from doairs in the morning and evening.
Seven to eight doairs of Bhashan Gachhi were lying on canalside. He would fix these after he had finished setting bana. He was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice at all that two men arrived at the side of the canal.
Majid, who was standing behind Thakur, also did not notice Bhashan Gachhi and said with utter modesty, ‘Excuse me, dada. Could you take the umbrella and bag.’
Thakur remained silent. Stretching his arm he first took the umbrella and then the hag.
While Majid was rearranging his fixing of lungi, Bhashan Gachhi looked at the canalside. He saw Thakur and Majid as he was going to handle the doair. Having a glance at Majid, he turned his eyes to Thakur. Spots of pox were visible on his sunburnt black face. His thick lips looked like the belly of tangra fish and eyes like that of kora bird owing to diving long in water. Even in t his condition he became eager to greet Thakur. With smiling face he said, ‘Adab, dada.’
Thakur responded immediately, ‘Adab. You’re setting bana first today, Gachhi?’
‘You could start even one or two days earlier. High tide’s coming for quite a few days. You’d get lots of fish a day.’
‘You’re right, dada. I told my eldest son but he’s tied up with farmland and cattle. Rainy season’s begun to make a farmer busy with various household works. My son’s forgot the fishes of high tide. That’s why I myself have come to the canal. After fixing doairs I’ll go home and raise the boat. The drowned boat may be lost at all if it is late, since water’s increasing very rapidly.’
‘But what’ll you do raising the boat? You’ll not be able to rub gaab or tar.’
Gachhi lifted a doair close to his chest and began to fix carefully to bana. ‘Where are you coming from, dada?’
Thakur replied, ‘I went to a patient’s house, Pubkumar Bhog. Now I return via Mawa.’
By the time Majid stood firmly.
But Thakur was motionless. What talks with Bhashan Gachhi! Why was he wasting time? Majid could finish a big task if he would cross the canal.
Being a little impatient Majid said, ‘Get on my shoulder, dada.’
Thakur ignored Majid’s words. Even he dud not look at him. ‘Hallo Gachhi, ‘When did you come t o canal?’
Bhashan Gachhi replied at once, ‘I’m here for a fairly long time, about two hours.’
‘Yes. Why d’you ask that?’
‘When was the bamboo bridge broken?’
‘I can’t say exactly. I saw it broken from the beginning.’
Majid said, ‘I think children broke this. The children of Bhuinmali Bari are so naughty. They might have jumped from it into canal water. Can the structure of rotten bamboo sustain the pressure of eight or ten guys?’
This time also Majid’s words were ignored by Thakur. Looking at Bhashan Gachhi, he said, ‘But I went through this passage in the morning. I crossed this bridge. Then this was not broken. When did they break?’
Bhashan Gachhi took another doair stretching his arm. While fixing it, he said, ‘There’s no routine for the children. Any time they appear and depart. After leaping and jumping when they discovered that the structure was broken, they fled all together.’
‘Okay, I accept that. But how can I cross the canal?’
Majid said promptly, ‘You’re thinking that old thing? How my musical instrument discords with my singing! I requested you to ride on my shoulder, didn’t I? I’m gonna carry you in the water across. With a shy air Thakur looked at Bhashan Gachhi, who however did not look at him. He listened to all what Majid said, but it was a mystery to Thakur why he did not look up. He said to Majid so as to make Bhashan Gachhi hear, ‘But can you carry me on your shoulder?’
Majid said enthusiastically, ‘Test it getting on?’
‘Though I look slim, I weigh much, not less than eighty kg.’
‘Okay, get on.
‘Then wait a bit a let me light a cigarette.’
Majid noticed that Thakur was talking a little loudly since he met Bhashan Gachhi in the canal. He could not understand its reason. He did not bother with that either. Majid let his body slide in the canal handing over the umbrella and bag after Thakur lighted the cigarette. He lowered his neck and said, ‘Get on, dada.’
Thakur looked at Bhashan Gachhi one time before he ascended the shoulder of Majid, like a baby, pressing the cigarette between two lips and holding the umbrella in one hand and the clinical bag in the other. Majid stood up immediately and said in a rather proud tone, ‘You’re not correct, dada. Your weight will not be eighty kg. You’re fairly light. I can even walk up to Bagyakul taking you on me.’
Thakur did not say anything. An untitled sight was now playing in his eyes. He was smoking silently and watching Bhashan Gachhi turning his head. But Bhashan Gachhi was neither looking at Thakur nor speaking now. His hands were operating faster.
Bhashan Gachhi got violently angry inside with Thakur. When Majid reached the opposite side of the canal, Bhashan Gachhi witnessed the scene turning his eyes and mumbled, ‘Thakur, you’ve so many guts. Being a Hindu you cross the canal riding on a Muslim’s shoulder. You don’t put off your shoes, don’t furl the umbrella. You puff at cigarette sitting on a Muslims’ neck. You think old story still exists. What’s past is past. Those days are gone. It’s not Hindustan. It’s not the country of the Hindus. It is Pakistan, a country of the Muslims. You ride on a Muslim’s shoulder in a Muslim country. How dare you do that?’
Muddy water of the Padma flowed past Bhashan Gachhi. Spiders like shrimps tickled about his legs under water. Some foolish bele fishes rubbed their noses against his legs thinking those trunks of trees. Nothing of these was noticed by the chap. His body burned with the boast of religion.
To the east of the road was lying a pond of elliptical shape, beyond which was another pond, and then the Chandra Bari. The houses there were covered with various trees, and bushes and shrubs grew densely on the soil around the houses, being interspersed with thick grass. The houses had been deserted for many years. Nobody bothered to look at these houses during the dry season. They bothered a little in the rainy season, however. Villagers used to bring their goats and sheep carrying on the deck of boats so that those could graze in the elevated land there. They brought those in the morning and took back in the afternoon. Moving around the lump of grass and bushes all daylong the animals remained well.
The rainy season had not yet taken any dangerous posture so that the villagers did not begin to bring their domestic animals in the houses. So the houses sounded desolate and this desolation was more intensified by rain and gusty wind.
While following Thakur, Majid once looked at Bannichhara and then the western side of the road.
In the west was swamp, its vast expansion. Aman and aush paddy were cultivated in this swamp. There were only green ears of paddy as far as eyes could reach. Profuse rain and gusty wind today hid the swamp of green paddy. To the opposite of Bannichhara, the hijal trees round the corner of the swamp could not be seen now. Ancient people claimed that this was not actually swamp. Here was river or sea. Its name was Kalidas Sagar. Strips of sandy land rose out of its bed to transform it gradually into swamp. Who knew what was true and what false.
To the northwest of swamp were situated two houses, one of which was Biler Bari by name. The house was flanked with a tall shimul tree, which was visible from any direction around. The other house was surrounded by nothing but bamboo clump. This was not actually a house, but a graveyard. Medinimandal, Dogachhi, Sitarampur in the east, Kandipara, Jashildia in the west, Kabutarkhola in the north, and Nayakanda, Mawa in the south, when anybody ever died in these villages he was buried in that graveyard.
Once people used to live in Biler Bari. In the middle of swamp the house stood lonely which was visited by dacoits. Moreover, there was fear of ghosts. Just a little away in the south was a pond called Koupatahar, which was truly horrible. In the dead of night one kept standing putting a foot on pondside and the other on the shimul tree. In the smudgy moon this spectacle was witnessed many times by the people of the house. Dacoit menace on the one hand, and that eerie affair on the other! The dwellers at last deserted the house, which then eroded gradually. From then on Biler Bari was a derelict house.
But why was Thakur silent since they crossed the canal? With umbrella overhead he was walking in a thoughtful mood ahead of Majid. He neither looked behind nor uttered any word.
Majid cleared his voice as was his habit and said, ‘Why are there so many derelict houses in our country, dada?’
In spite of hearing his words, Thakur did not look at Majid. He said in disinterested tone, ‘Where are derelict houses?’
‘There you see, Bannichhara, Chander Bari. To the east of your house is Guer Bari.’
Thakur laughed to hear the name Guer Bari (in dialect it means the house of excrement). ‘Not Guer Bari, it’s Guher Bari. Guha is a title of the Hindu. My title is Thakur, for example.’
‘Oh I see. That was also a Hindu house?’
‘Yes. All the derelict houses you see in the village belonged to the Hindus. This Bannichhara, that Chandrer Bari. Chandra is also the title of the Hindu.’
‘Why did the Hindus leave so splendid houses?’
‘Can’t you understand why they left?’
Majid understood, as it were, the matter a little bit as Thakur told this. He said shaking his head, ‘Yes I understand. Hindustan has been Pakistan; that’s why the Hindus left for India.’
‘Who knows whether I also have to leave.’
Majid was shaken at all to hear this. Pretending that he could not follow, he said, ‘What did you say, dada?’
Thakur replied in a saddening tone, ‘It’s true. I’ve been living in peace for the last seventeen years. Now it probably ends.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘Today I committed a mistake.’
‘I crossed the canal riding on your shoulder.’
‘What’s in that? What difference does it make?’
‘Bhashan Gachhi saw it.’
‘If he saw it, he saw it.’
‘It will generate scandal in the village.’
‘Nobody will accept it easily that being a Hindu I rode on the shoulder of a Muslim.’
Majid said with strong urge in voice, ‘There’s nothing objectionable to it. If there’s any allegation, I’ll defend. You were not in fact willing to ride. I took you on my shoulder with persistence. You’re my master and you’ve every right to ride on my shoulder. It doesn’t concern any Hindu Muslim distinction.’
Thakur said thoughtfully, ‘It does. But you won’t understand. Partition of land has created many complexities in the province of our mind too. Familiar persons can no more be identified well. Nobody knows when who appears in what appearance. Today I really committed a mistake….’