Translated by: Shahruk Rahman
Bangla Academy, Dhaka-1000
The air was thick with suppressed excitement. The baad juma majlis, gathered in front of the Miah Bari and adjacent Miah mosque were about to see a spectacle, the like of which they had never witnessed before. Not them, in their entire life-time, not even their fathers or forefathers. Such an incident had never happened in their village, or the neighbouring villages.
Some of those gathered took the opportunity to express their candid opinion.
“Prostitute!” shouted an indignant spectator.
“Whore”, shouted another.
“Woman! Cover your head!” Felu Miah admonished in a thunderous voice. He was the undisputed head of the village. His words carried authority.
“Look, look, huzur. The shameless hussy is defying you”. Felu Miah’s self-appointed deputy, and trusted right-hand man, Ramzan, was quick to point out. He was ever eager and mindful to echo Felu Miah’s commands, louder when necessary, lest anyone missed the point. “Where was your pride, huh, when you were conceiving the bastard in your belly?”
There was a general murmur from the back row, at this. Ramzan’s own role in the incident, after all, was not unknown to them. And who didn’t know Ramzan’s contribution behind this trial, from the beginning to the end?
The lone accused, the girl, who had raised such a storm in the village, remained, as before, absolutely unaffected. She stood defiantly in front of the congregation, with a derisive sneer for them all, casually staring at a piece of log, somewhere behind their heads. If she heard their voices and accusations, her manner and posture gave no indication of it. The very way she bent her hips, insolently, was a provocation to the learned judges gathered there.
“Start the proceedings”, shouted someone.
“Yes, yes, let us not waste time”, echoed another.
Had she but heeded Felu Miah’s original call, all this could have been easily avoided. But no, she had not only refused his offer to mediate, but had actually insulted his emissary. “Go back to him and tell I won’t go. I am sick”. She had almost spat those words at them. “Besides, I don’t fear your Panchayat”.
Now Felu Miah had raged and fumed, “She doesn’t care? She dares defy Felu Miah? Well, if she does not come of her own volition, drag her here.” Ramzan, and Kalu, the man of all works, had not lingered. They had literally dragged her to the spot. Kalu pulling her by her hair and Ramzan triumphantly leading the way.
The trial was about to commence. All eyes turned from the unrepentant sinner, standing in her shame, to the stately personage of the Khatib. He stood erect, his long beard waving in the wind, as he prepared himself for this important responsibility. Who better than he could handle such delicate matters? He had been the Khatib of this mosque for the last twenty five years. He knew the Quran by heart. His knowledge and ability to interpret its teachings was well-known and widely acclaimed in this and surrounding villages.
“There are two kinds of sins”, he began in a deep and commanding voice. He combed his beard with long pointed fingers. “Kabira and Sagira. There is a pardon for Sagira sin if you repent sincerely.” He looked at the congregation and waited, then continued, “Adultery is a kabira sin”. He paused, waiting for the words to sink in. The effect was tremendous. Hushed whispers were gradually gathering momentum when he silenced them with a wave of his hands.
“The Shariat is very clear on this matter. We can find all our answers there. When a man steals, cut off his hands! When a man kills, cut off his legs! And if someone commits adultery – Zena, the punishment is unmistakenly clear. Bury the sinner neck deep and stone her to death!” The Khatib stopped dramatically, and began to chew paan rapidly.
The gathering held their breath in horror. What a terrible punishment! A girl from their own village to die so cruelly!
The Khatib was ready to speak again. He had more to say. He closed his eyes in deep concentration. Shariat, judgement¾these were highly complicated matters. It required a lot of deep thinking. His eyes remained closed as he chewed paan, seeking inwards for some divine help, perhaps. Suddenly he opened his eyes and looked at them piercingly. The onlookers stared back with beating hearts.
“This is her first sin”, he resumed,” and we may show some leniency. I recommend, whip her this time, and let her off. Five lashes – five dor-r-ras”. He repeated the Arabic word several times in the proper style, from the depth of his guts. Then, satisfied, he lifted his two hands in a gesture of thanks to the Almighty. “Oh Almighty”, he prayed, “Master of the Universe! Only you can forgive. You only have the power. We beseech your divine mercy.” Having finished, he looked heavenwards for a long long time, slowly brought his head down in complete submission and took the tasbih from his pocket. He began to repeat prayers with a devout fervency.
Some in the rear rows did not seem completely satisfied with the verdict. A sort of discrepancy in the judgment seemed to bother them. They looked at the girl expectantly. There was only haughty disdain in her manner, as if her whole show was a force, of no concern to her. She pulled the anchal of the sari tightly around her back and shifted her body weight from one foot to another. Her eyes were fixed at a point, somewhere beyond their heads.
Felu Miah was startled at the severity of the punishment. He darted a fleeting glance at the girl, somewhat nervous, then hastily looked away, in embarrassment.
Only Ramzan looked triumphant. His eyes seemed to bore into the girl’s body in deep satisfaction.
The Khatib glanced at the girl from the corner of his eyes, and was utterly shocked to find no semblance of any repentance there. “Tauba, tauba”, he uttered with a shudder, and began to repeat his tasbih faster.
Shoutu’s father took up the cue. With a short ingratiating laugh directed towards Felu Miah, he said¾what he felt was right. “Ehem! After all, she is a woman, huzur. Will it be proper, or even possible, to use a whip on her body?” he presented his plea, a little fear, a little apprehension in his eyes, “Your honour, you are the master. Your judgment is the last word for us, we will accept whatever you say.” He sat down.
All eyes turned to rest on Felu Miah. What would he say? Felu miah sat in full splendour. He pulled deeply from his ornate Moghul style hukka, taking in the fragrant tobacco, holding it in for a moment, then releasing bluish smoke into the air. In his panjabi of the finest silk, with an attar scented handkerchief tucked in his pocket, he looked not unlike a Moghul grandee himself. He was their descendant, after all.
The village Quari picked up the thread from Shotu’s father. “Shotu’s father is right. She is a woman. How can we expose her body in front of the whole majlis, the whole village it is not seemly. A Woman cannot be exposed in public like that”. The quari was a knowledgeable man, he knew his shariat laws as well as anybody. One had to heed what he said.
The congregation now stared at each other, struck by the wisdom of his words. A woman after all, in the prime of her youth, how could one use a whip on her back, in front of so many eyes? Some of them felt prompted to speak up on the matter.
Felu Miah sat, seemingly concentrating on the sky, as he watched blue smoke from his hukka mingle with the air. His moment had arrived, he had to make the final decision.
He smiled at his people, a benign smile and coughed to clear his throat.
“Shotu’s father and Quari Saheb, both, have raised legitimate points. In arriving at a judgement we have to keep all these points in mind.” He looked around the gathering, his face became solemn. “My wisdom tells me, stamp a permanent mark on her body, as a reminder and a warning. After that, beat a drum around the village and carry the message to every inhabitant. No one is to mix and fraternize with this woman. No one is to give her food and shelter, or any help and assistance. She is condemned to live out her life in complete isolation, shunned by all”.
Miah’s word was final, there was no appeal above that.
And as if in a cue, the whole congregation began to buzz, everyone wanted to speak, express their own opinion on the matter. There was a clear case of grave wrong doing, it called for punishment, true. But to brand Hurmoti, the poor unfortunate girl! They stared at her full of sympathy. How would she bear the pain? It must be terrifying.
What of Hurmoti herself, how did she take it? Did she tremble, did she fall into a swoon? No—none of these reactions were visible. She merely turned a contemptuous face and examined them one by one, picking out her friends from the foes. Her naturally fair complexion, burnished with high fever, glowed like embers of coal. Her eyes glittered with spite and hatred. Insects and earth-worms, all, they seemed to say. The onlookers averted their eyes. She turned her eyes, once more, towards that smouldering piece of log.
The judges and elders were scandalized at the shameful lack of remorse or repentance.
“Kalu!”, shouted Felu Miah. He took her indifference as a personal affront. “Start the work”.
Kalu, Felu Miah’s muscleman and devoted servant, was at once ready.
Sekandar master, sitting on the second last row, was tempted to speak up before the punishment was meted out.
Personally he had no illusions about Hurmoti’s character, but he certainly had misgivings about the way this trial had gone. Judgment, in his opinion, should be evenly balanced. But here there was a clear case of one of the sinners getting off set free. That, he believed, was injustice. He was about to speak when someone from the back row took the words, so to speak, from his mouth.
“How can there be two prices for the same item?” it was Leku.” What about the other party?”
Others in the back opened their mouths, in solidarity and support. “Two prices for the same item”, there was substance in what Leku had said. The refrain was picked up in other quarters, murmur rose from all sides, creating a din. The judges and elders in the front row reddened in embarrassment, pretending they didn’t hear anything.
“I am of the same opinion as Leku”, he said, at last. “A judge cannot give one-sided judgment. Let Ramzan speak”.
His words fell like a bomb. Sekandar had spoken, loud and clear, he had accused Ramzan point-blank.
It did not go down well in the front row. Ramzan’s eyes glittered in naked rage. Shotu’s father frowned in annoyance. As for Felu Miah, he showed his irritation by spitting loudly into the carefully placed spittoon.
Being the guardian of the village, he had to maintain strict impartiality. He composed himself. “The master has reason. He has raised a valid point. We will deal with the matter. But seeing it is so late, the juma prayers were over long ago.” He smiled all around. “We are all hungry. Bring this matter in the next meeting.”
That put an end to the matter. How could Sekandar master pursue the point? Felu Miah’s words put a seal to it. Leku had been bold, but he didn’t have confidence in the others. The matter was postponed, permanently closed, more likely.
Preparations for branding Hurmoti was on in full swing. Kalu used pincers to lift the coin from burning embers. The imprint of King George V had melted, the coin was red hot. Two hard picked musclemen went forward to force Hurmoti in position. It was not necessary. She sat down of her own accord. The musclemen shuffled, highly embarrassed. Ramzan shot like an arrow and tied to forcefully lift Hurmoti’s face. She kept her eyes closed.
Leku could not see her face. He only saw the red hot coin. It was unbearable. His heart was bleeding in sorrow. That face which was like a breath-takingly beautiful flower, found sometimes, hidden in the wilds of the forest, to be marred.
Above the spot where her arched eyebrows met, straight above her slim, high nose, Kalu roughly pressed the burning coin, singeing Hurmoti’s forehead. There was a smell of scorching flesh. She would carry that scar till the last day of her life on earth.
For an instance, Leku had this uncontrollable urge to rush up to her and push the predators away. He was losing control over himself, a slow dangerous rage was rising within him.
“Oh Allah!”, he sobbed, “Where is your justice? You allow such beasts to torture your own creature! Oh Allah!”
The judges too were indignant. “The Devils have taken over the world”, cried an elder.
“She didn’t cry! She didn’t even feel the pain. The She-devil!”
It had not escaped Felu Miah either. “It is the age of the Shaian indeed! The lower classes have taken over this place.
No respect for the law, no respect for the decision of their superiors. Menials are talking back to their masters!”
Felu Miah watched gravely, with narrowed eyes, as Hurmoti got up very deliberately, and walked away. Her steps were slow, but her back was upright, there was a certain derision for them, even in that back.
“Almighty!” the Khatib once more lifted his hands. “Oh Almighty! We are mortals, your creatures. Forgive us.” Having completed this last ritual, and taken leave of Felu Miah, he put the tasbih back, preparing to leave.
Ramzan’s eyes were glued to the receding back, in oblivion to everything around him. He did not notice Leku. “You pig! Cunning bastard, son of a bitch!” Leku was rushing towards him, like a wild boar on attack. “You started the whole thing. Now, pretending to be a very holy man. Double crosser. Wait till I get you!” He fell upon Ramzan with all his powerful might and grabbed hold of his throat.
“Stop him, stop him!” shouted the Quary. He caught hold of Leku from behind, but he was hardly a match. Sekandar, who detested violence of any kind, joined the Quari. Together they succeeded in freeing Ramzan.
“Did you see that, huzur, did you see that?” Ramzan shook himself up and rubbed his throat. “Right in front of your face too.” He went forward and fell prostrate on his feet, begging for justice.
Felu Miah, ever conscious of his duty, was reluctant to get entangled in the lower classes’ cases. He laughed at the matter, making light of it. “Leave it, Ramzan. Let it stop here. No use letting it go beyond control.” He started to walk towards his house, turned back and beckoned to Ramzan. “I want you to get out the registration ledger of Taluk 14.” The morning business over, he was ready for his meal. He took out his attar scented handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
Malu rushed into the room and burst into tears. “Rabu Apa, Rabu Apa,” he shouted between sobs, “they burnt Hurmoti bua’s forehead! With a burnig coin!” never in all of his twelve years had he ever seen anything so gruesome in the village. He had refused to touch the Friday sweets and kept away from the majlis altogether.
“Listen to this Baro Apa. The tyranny your uncle has started in this area! And she had a baby, not even a week ago!”
Arifa, two years her senior, chose to ignore the remark. “Where is Hurmoti now?” She asked Malu, keeping a semblance of calm. Being the eldest, she had to maintain her dignity.
“Such a big round wound, Baro Apa,” Malu made a circle with his forefinger. He wiped his tears on his shirt. He had to give the news to Rashu next. “She is in her house”, he shouted, rushing towards the door.
A sudden shower of cuffs and blows on his back and head put a stop to that plan. “Good for noting devil’s spawn!” it was the voice he feared most in the world, his mother’s. “Here I have been calling and calling – but does this urchin hear? He had forgotten his books and studies! They lay collecting dust while he tramps all over the village!” Her voice was slowly rising to a hysterical crescendo. She caught hold of his ears and proceeded to twist it hard.
Malu was trapped. He waited for the grip to loosen, which presently it did, then he dug all his ten sharp nails into her arms.
“He scratched me! The devil! Oooh oooh!” Malu’s mother let go of his ears with a scream, and he was out in a trice, ready to run. But this time Rabu blocked the door. His mother in the meantime gave vent to her fury in a volley of curses.” “Allah’s curse will fall on him. He will rot in hell.” She snatched a stick and made for him.” today I will break this stick on his back!
Look, he has drawn blood from his mother’s hand. Allah will punish him.”
“Please, Khala, forgive him this time. I will punish him myself”, Rabu intervened.
“They say if the father is a saint, the son is a devil,” Malu’s mother continued.” And you two, Rabu and Arifa, you have spoilt him thoroughly.” They could hear her loud curses as she left the room.
“Shame on you Malu, you scratched your mother! Won’t it hurt her? You are naughtly.” Rabu scolded and boxed his ears, too. But Rabu Apa’s scolding was so sweet, as sweet as she was.
“Rabu Apa”, he sulked. “You only take her side. You saw how hard she pulled my ears. It is still hurting.” He feigned tears.
He looked so droll, Rabu and Arifa burst into laughter. But Rabu remembered her promise to his mother. She dragged him to the courtyard outside. “Touch this earth and swear to me, you will never scratch your mother again.”
Malu touched the earth and gave his word. “I will never scratch again.”
“And now, you are not going anywhere. Wait here, I am just coming. You have to take me somewhere.” She went indoors and returned a few minutes later, with a bundle in her hand, wrapped with a towel.
“Come Malu, I am ready. You walk on ahead, and give a warning if you see anyone.” Malu instantly understood what was expected of him. he thrust his hands in his pocket, squared his shoulders and began to pace the verandah impatiently, as he had seen Zahed do.
“Rabu, you can’t!” Arifa protested. She had seen Rabu packing the biscuits, barley, ointment and cotton wool. “An ill-character woman committed a sin. She was punished. Why are you getting involved.
Rabu ignored her and clasped Malu’s hands, ready to step out. Arifa stared in annoyance. Rabu could be impossible at times.
“Shall I call amma?” she threatened. Rabu froze, and looked terribly crestfallen.
“Ha Ha! I scared you. I was only teasing. You want to go without me?”
They crossed the family pond, passed the betel orchard, and came up to the winding rivulet and the boatmen’s colony. The village road lay ahead. But they stopped as some people were passing. They hid underneath the bamboo thicket while Malu went ahead to survey and give the all clear sign.
It had not always been like this. Why even six months ago Rabu and Arifa had run around freely, climbed trees, swum in the big pond. One fateful morning all that changed forever. Arifa’s mother, Rabu’s paternal aunt, called the two of them beside her and broke the awful news, ‘they had grown up’. It was the biggest shock to them, they saw no changes in themselves. It was after her fajar prayer that she sat on the prayer mat and made them sit beside her.
“Listen Arifa, listen Rabu,” she began. “By the grace of the Almighty you have grown up. From now on, your life has to change. You can no longer leave your hair open. You know the Shaitan gets attracted to a woman’s long hair. You have to keep your head covered. You cannot go about freely, no even to the Kachari. You have to speak softly, in low tones, so that menfolk may not hear your voice. Only the lower class women shout. Never girls from good families. You should never come out before ‘outside’ me, not even men servants.” One by one Arifa’s mother listed the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of growing up.
The two girls heard the whole thing with bulging eyes, and wanted to cast it out from their head, wishing they had never heard all this. But slowly and painfully it dawned on them, they could never go back to the ‘old days’ again. Ever since Malu had become extremely useful for them.
Malu, in the meantime, was signalling frantically. It was only Shotu and his father, no strangers at all.
“Dhyat – only Shotu’s father. And we were hiding”. Rabu came out. the father and son were carrying betel load on their shoulders, suspended from a bamboo pole, the green and yellow betel nuts swaying rhythmically from the baskets, in tuen with their steps. “How beautiful”, sighed Rabu, “and we may not see this anymore. Come Baro Apa, its only Shotu and his father.”
“Don’t be a fool”, hissed Arifa, holding her back. “Don’t you remember? We may not be seen by known or unknown men. And known men are actually more dangerous.”
“I don’t understand”, Rabu was puzzled.
“Why should Shotu’s father, known to us from childhood, become dangerous?”
“That is the whole point, that is purdah! Remember what Mejo Bhai told Amma last year in Calcutta?”
“What did he say?”
“He wanted to take us to the cinema. When Amma objected, he explained that strangers, foreigners, they were safe. It was only the known people who should be avoided. They were the ones who talked. Amma agreed to go only after that.”
“Hum – Mejo Bhai always confuses people. I don’t agree at all.”
Malu had become irritated.” Women! Leave them alone for a minute, they will start a quarrel!” he had heard Zahed say this once, and stored it for later use.
Rabu and Arifa burst into laughter. “See how he apes Mejo Bhai.”
They crossed Bhuiyan Bari, the cane field, the Quari Bari, then the paddy field. Beyond the road, lay Hurmoti’s house. Danger lay on that road. It was hat day, full of people going to and fro. They hid themselves again while Malu kept vigil. Adjacent to the road was the Miah betel and coconut grove.
By now Arifa had become extremely irritated. Specially, large sized mosquitoes were having a heyday, feasting on her body, cane leaves, with sharp spikes irritated her skin. “I told you the idea was crazy. Mosquitoes are eating me up. And think what will happen when Amma finds out!”
“I don’t remember begging you on my feet to make you come.” Rabu, no less harassed, answered back. No signal from Malu. Now and then he was seen standing on tip toes to check and give his signal. He had become quite an expert in this field, it kept him very busy. The other day he had escorted Rabu to the Lasker Bari. She insisted she had to see the bride dressed up in her finery. Before that, she wanted to eat the Manda Bari jaam¾which had ripened nicely. Those jaams were incomparable and Rabu had to eat them off the tree itself. “It is no fun unless you sit on the tree,” she insisted. Malu executed three somersaults straightaway. No joy or thrill could equal doing any service for Rabu Apa. Baro Apa, though, had become odd lately. He remembered the fuss she created, refusing to climb the tree.
“You shouldn’t climb trees at Johor time”, she announced, restraining Rabu. “The evil spirit will catch you.”
“What rubbish”, protested Rabu. “No evil spirit caught us before!”
“Why don’t we send Malu? He can pluck them and throw them down to us.”
“And what if the evil spirit catches Malu? Really Baro Apa, you have become so slow!”
What fun it had been! The jaams of the Manda Bari tree were like no other jaam, juicy, fleshy, sweet – and no seed to speak of. They ate to their hearts content, and threw choice ones for Malu as he kept guard below, lest anyone came along. Later, after Sayed Ginni finished her long Zohor namaz and wasifah, she was astonished to find Rabu and Arifa still sleeping. “Lazy bones. It is nearly asr hour, and you are still sleeping!” They had to stuff their sari in their mouths to hold back their giggles.
Rabu could think of a new plan everyday. For instance, she had a special programme for the whole day when Sayed Ginni went to visit her brother’s house, the Miah Bari. The Miah’s big pond had been drained for cleaning, the big fish had been taken out. But words reached them the most delicious fish, shing, magur and koi, lay embedded in the bottom. What fun it had been, wading in the mud bare feet, throwing mud balls at each other! A perfect day free of purdah, out in the open, breathing free air, feeling sunshine on their body. They didn’t mind the sting of the fish on the soles of their feet.
Malu was still thinking of that day when a strange muffled bleating came to his ears. It came from the Miah orchard end. Somebody was trying to steal a goat! He peered frantically to see if he could recognize the thief. That back looked so familiar.
“Enough of this nonsense. I am going back!” Arifa had reached the end of her patience. Rabu herself was in no better frame of mind, but having come this far it was pointless to go back.
“Look – Baro Apa! A snake – above your head!” Rabu screamed.
“Where? where? Arifa flayed her hands in panic, bent, down to pick up a stick to ward off the snake. And she fell smack on her face!
“Hee hee hee!” laughed Rabu. “I was only joking. You have become such a coward!”
Arifa picked herself up, trembling in fear. “Is this the way to joke?” she glared.
“Two women! Leave them alone and they start squabbling!” Malu scolded in his most adult manner,” I have been signaling for ages. The road is clear!”
A small tin-roofed house, one room, one verandah and a bel tree overhead, to shade it. That was Hurmoti’s little house. She lay on the single cot, delirious with fever, nursing her infant son. Recognizing Rabu and Arifa, she made a feeble attempt to get up, but couldn’t and collapsed back on the bed.
Rabu stared at the raw, red, large gaping wound on her forehead in horror. Oh that beautiful face, how they marred it! “Oh Allah!” she cried silently, “only beasts could do this. May the hands that did it rot’! Oh Allah, destroy them, they destroyed a thing of such beauty!” Rabu’s tender heart was breaking in sorrow.
With gentle hands she anointed balm on the wound. She pressed cotton wool over it, and tied a bandage round the head.
Ambery, Leku’s wife, was with her, tending to the baby and cooking their meagre meal. At least, Hurmoti was not alone. Arifa fetched some water from the tiny waterhole outside. Together, Rabu and Arifa bathed her head to bring down the fever. Then, little by little, they fed her barely to bring back strength in the weakened body.
Hurmoti was a classic victim of the strong and powerful which always exploit the weak. When she had resisted their desire to possess her, stubbornly refused to surrender, they tried to destroy her. Her rare beauty had brought this destruction upon her, and yet, time and again, it had come to her rescue, too. Strange fate, to possess such beauty, which destroyed and again created. She had never known her father. It was the most closely guarded secret of the village. Her mother she had lost when she could just barely walk. Love and affection rarely came her way. When it did, it left her bewildered. With hate she was more at ease. She knew how to handle that. As Rabu stroked her head with loving hands and whispered comforting words, she broke down completely. The tears she had held back for so long poured out in all force.
“Enough is enough, Hurmoti Bua. You are coming back to live with us.”
Hurmoti stopped crying and answered quietly, “You know that can never be, Rabu bujan.”
“Why not? You were born in our house. You grew up there. Baro Apa and I grew up in your lap. And now you say our house is not your house!”
Hurmoti turned her head away. “You will understand when you grow up.” There was pain in her voice. Hurmoti’s mother was born in the Miah Bari. When Arifa’s mother had come as the bride of the eldest Sayed son, she had come as a part of the bridal dowry. Hurmoti was born there. When she was a baby, her mother had gone with Sayed Ginni to the Miah Bari, her brother’s house for several days. There she had contacted a mysterious disease and breathed her last. Malu’s mother had related this tragic story to Rabu and Arifa. Since childhood they had seen Hurmoti in their house. And such love and care they had received from Hurmoti, it was not easy to forget her. Why Hurmoti had to leave their house and come to live along and unprotected, in this hut, was a mystery to them.
“Hurmoti, oh Hurmoti! I beg of you. Come away with us. You are sick, your child needs care. Please say yes.” Rabu caught her hands.
“Hurmoti didn’t know what to answer. “All right. Rabu bujaan. Let my fever go down. I will come then.” It was more to appease Rabu. She knew she should never go back there. More tears gathered in her eyes. And somehow, they were not tears of sorrow….