TREE WITHOUT ROOT
Translated by: Qaisar Saeed, Anne-Marie Thibaud,
Jeffrey Giban and Malik Khayyam.
Published by: Chatto and Windus Ltd
42 William IV Street, London W.C.2
First Edition: 1967
THERE are too many of them on this land, this piece of raped and ravaged land which yields no more. They know it, but what can they do? Every inch of it is ploughed and sown. Three times a year for rice, to make three harvests out of it. Then for jute, the only cash crop, and for a host of other things; sugar cane, linseed, mustard, rape and sesame. The land is ploughed and reploughed, sown and resown all the year round, every season, every day from sunrise to sunset. It has no rest, no peace, and what is worse, no nourishment, at least not from these ravenous ones who suck it dry. Silt, the annual excretion of the wide, billowing and flooding rivers, is all the feed it gets. They know it, but there are too many of them, too many mouths to feed and not enough land.
Little wonder that a great restlessness afflicts those who take whatever they can from the land and yet go hungry and starve. In this populous area with its blue sky and green fields, free of rocks, or stones, or gravel, there is neither peace nor contentment, but rather this stabbing restlessness. And they all dream of leaving their homes, clearing out before it is too late, going to places where they can at least have one meal a day. Places where they would know why they get up in the morning and why they go back home at night. For here there is nothing. And if a little something should come their way, it would merely be like oil dropped in the fire, the fire of all-consuming hunger, a hunger which never stops growing.
If they do not manage to escape, then what is left for them to do but quarrel? They row, they fight, and they get themselves enchained in debt because of legal expenses incurred while squabbling over an inch of land they do not even own. They sweat and they swear, they solemnly pray for the infliction of God’s curse on their neighbours and then they pray, equally solemnly, for their own safety. They kill, they hate and they also shed tears for one another. They copulate not knowing why, and even then their minds are preoccupied with their eternal and fruitless quest; they do not even bother to count their offspring any more, for there are too many of them. They die young and they die quickly, though some merely linger on the threshold of death, little more than skin and bone, perhaps hanging on in the hope of having just one good meal before they breathe their last.
Yet some do escape, some do manage to leave their homes. Once away they move quickly and their eyes burn fiercely with hope.
All this, because their land which is so green and generous cannot give any more. There are just too many of them, crowded together, jostling and fighting each other upon its much-furrowed, ravaged surface.
The train going west comes by at midnight. When the long sleepy train stops, it shakes, rattles and groans before settling down to rest. It has already crossed many little stations, some of them lit by dim kerosene lamps, but all looking lost and forlorn. Here it is different: the slumbering passengers suddenly wake up, some feeling frightened, when they hear all these people shouting and running about on the platform. Why this mad rush? Where do they want to go? Puzzled and intrigued, they look on, apparently unable to understand the reason for this din and bustle. Their own villages are far behind, they themselves are comfortably settled in their seats, and they pretend not to understand.
People run about shouting, from one end of the train to the other, but can find no room. Here! Climb on the foot-board of this compartment and look in! No place there either! Friends and relatives are soon separated. And then they scream and run again, crying out the names of those whom they have lost. Some have already torn their clothes or lost their tupees, their precious cloth caps, the cap of the faithful believer. Others have lost their most important possession, the badna, the water-pot. Without it one cannot make one’s ablutions before praying, one cannot purify oneself after performing the bodily functions, or even carry drinking water for the trip. So they must scamper about frantically looking for it.
But the patience of the long, python-like train is unbounded. Let that man who has lost his badna find it. Let the boy who has lost his talisman, hanging from his neck a moment ago, look for it. Let everybody who wants to, climb on board and find a place for himself. On the far side of the dimly-lit yard, the engine, detached from the train, is drinking water like a man, a man of patience and understanding.
Perhaps it does understand, perhaps it knows that there is little food and not enough land for all these people: that there is nothing behind them but gnawing, maddening hunger.
Perhaps the reason there are so many white tupees in this part of the world is that the land cannot feed the men. Little food means more religion. God said: cover your heads when you pray to me, for this is the mark of the God-fearing man. So they cover their heads in tupees made of thin material, often embroidered on the sides, little white caps like upturned boats, and thus they show their fear of God. There are more tupees than heads of cattle, more tupees than sheaves of rice.
In the morning the air is rent by the chorus of chanting of the young boys who crowd the Koranic schoolrooms, the muktabs. How one feels then that this must be the land of God! Look at some of the growing boys. Before even the trace of a beard appears, they have learned the whole of the Koran by heart and have become little bufza 1. Their young faces glow with bliss, for they feel sure of a place in heaven. But this glow does not last long. Not for long do their eyes remain serene and proud, disdainful of worldly bickering and the wailing of the frustrated and helpless. Not for long do they walk erect and confident. The voices that recite the Koran sweetly and melodiously soon become thin and sharp, as the uncertainty of the future grasps them. The straggling beard grown with pride soon hangs limply. The eyes become unsure as fear takes root in them.
But the undaunted ones press on to higher religious education. One night they leave their homes by the midnight train and go to the places renowned for their theological academies. There they plod through the pages of huge, moth-eaten books, living in the past, dreaming, happy and proud. For them, the words of the great tomes are no dead stream where the waters ceased to flow centuries ago. These words of God are vital and eternal, bringing bliss to their faces once again.
But this bliss too is short-lived. They soon realize that the words of the ancient books neither full their stomachs nor create any permanent peace in their minds. Sitting on the cemented stairway that descends into the pond, they make their ablutions, remove their tupees and blow cool air into them. But they feel no coolness. When they look at the horizon, bright under the sun, their eyes smart.
So once more they move on. They join those others who have left home and spread out through the towns to become workers in the mills, cooks and bearers, apprentices to bookbinders, machinemen in printing works, washers in the tannery and sailors. And those whose eyes glowed most with the spirit of God become imams 2 or muezzins 3, hardly better off than the workers themselves. Some enter mosques in the towns and suburbs, but others have to go to far-flung villages only reached after weeks of travel by train, rickety buses and on foot, crossing many dried-up stream beds and swollen rivers, and sleeping on the straw in bullock-carts.
One day an official, ostensibly making his rounds on an inspection tour, had gone off to the wild Garo Hills in the north, far outside his own district, for a little hunting. A clean-shaven man, he wore khaki shorts and shirt and carried a heavy rifle. When he heard a muezzin’s prayer-call ring out from the depths of the jungle, he was startled, not quite believing his ears.
Later in the day the hunter met the muezzin. The loneliness in his eyes reflected the solitary life in the hills, far away from his people and home.
‘Where do you come from, sir?’ the muezzin inquired with great politeness which masked his excitement at meeting the well-to-do hunter.
The hunter told him.
Still holding his breath, the muezzin asked again, ‘And your name, sir?’
On learning from the hunter’s name that he was a Muslim, his face brightened.
The hunter asked him questions in return. When the muezzin spoke about his home, his eyes softened. His memories were bitter-sweet, but he controlled his tongue. The people here, he said, had been shut out from the light of God for many centuries. Perhaps God’s light had never shone on them until his arrival. They were illiterate, these infidels. When he had seen them he had felt he had a duty to perform among them and so had stayed on.
But he did not speak about his home village, where there were too many people and not enough food; nor did he mention the days of grinding poverty and famine.
In the distant hills a tiger roared. In this area wild elephants sometimes come down like an avalanche, trampling and destroying everything in front of them. But five times a day the thin, sharp voice of the muezzin now rang out over the tall shal trees, calling all within hearing to bow down in prayer.
The hunter thought that at night tears must often fill the eyes of this lonely man. Surely he missed his people and his home.
In the light breeze that rippled slowly through the thick leaves of the sprawling trees and luxuriant vegetation, the muezzin’s thin, straggling beard seemed to flutter. Gently, he stroked it with his hands.
‘You know, sir, sometimes I become very tired of this lonely life. But I think I have done my duty well. God is my witness.’ He paused and said, ‘Perhaps one day I shall leave this place and go away.’
The hunter was cleaning the barrels of his rifle. He remained silent wondering whether the lonely man did indeed weep at night.
With some hesitation the man of religion spoke again.
‘In the area farther north, sir, where you belong, what are the people like?’
The hunter considered for a while before answering.
‘They’re all right. They have all they want to eat. They have plenty of jute and tobacco.
They are well off.’
The muezzin’s eyes glittered. With feigned concern he asked, ‘But are they God-fearing? Do they pray? Do they fast during the month of Ramzan?’
Closing one eye, the official peered through the barrels of his gun.
‘They’re happy. But perhaps they’re not God-fearing. I mean, not so very God-fearing,’ he answered.
The muezzin said no more. The two sat quietly for a ling time. The sun went down behind the tall shal trees.
ONE day in the month of July when the sun was high, the wind suddenly died down. Soon, in a leaden stillness, nothing stirred. The paddy fields, the swamps, the vast expanse of seasonal floodwater and the dull, grey-blue sky became as dead as the heart of a slaughtered animal.
It was hot and sultry almost to suffocation, and the prickly heat itched all over one’s body. But it was a good day for spearfishing in the flooded rice-fields. A fish could hardly move without the whole world knowing it, and once detected, it did not play around for long. The paddy fields became alive with men stealthily gliding over the shallow sheet of water in little dinghies with deadly spears in their expert hands.
Among them were two brothers, Taher and Kader. In their narrow little boat they glided noiselessly and cautiously over the water, through the stalks of green paddy. Taher stood up front, motionless, his spear in his right hand, his glance knife-edged with constant, close scrutiny. Kader pushed the boat slowly with a thin bamboo pole, watching his brother for the slightest signal.
Taher suddenly stiffened. Without turning his face, he directed Kader with slight movements of his forefinger: a little forward, now to the left. The tall stalks of rice hardly stirred, but because of the dead calm, even the slightest movement was perceptible. A little more to the left, said Taher’s forefinger. Slowly; there-stop!
The fish was still there, swimming peaceably, unaware of danger. They held their breath. Several other dinghies which were gliding nearby came to a halt, their occupants attentively watching Taher’s dark, perspiring body, tense as a bow drawn to the full. The upper part of his body jerked forward and a spear flashed down like lightening. A big rui with its gaping mouth appeared on the surface, lashing its tail and wriggling its sleek, silvery body.
The men began to breathe again and their boats again started to move, slowly and cautiously.
All that long breathless afternoon the two brothers glided over the paddy fields which stretched out to the horizon on all sides, spearing more and more fish. They went to the north and then to the east, and when the sun was low on the horizon, they were by the side of the Matiganj road still after more fish. And there they saw him.
Kader, watching his brother, saw him look up at the road. He followed his brother’s glance.
They saw a stranger with a thin beard, standing in the middle of the road. His hands were raised, face turned up towards the sky, eyes closed. He was praying. Time passed but still he stood thus, oblivious of his surroundings and utterly motionless, as if the windless day had turned him into a statue.
‘Who is the stranger?’ Taher whispered. His brother was asking himself the same question. What is this stranger doing here and why is he praying like that? They kept staring at him, open-mouthed in amazement.
Eventually the stranger passed his hands over his face, finishing his prayer. Standing quietly he suddenly picked up his little cloth bundle from the road and walked swiftly with long strides towards the north. A mile and a half the north lay the village of Mahabbatpur where the two brothers lived.
‘He’s headed north,’ Taher said. Was he going to their village?
When they returned to Mahabbatpur that evening they first delivered half their catch to the owner of the dinghy, keeping the other half for themselves. On their way home they passed the house of Khaleque, the landowner, and were attracted by a big crowd assembled in his outer house 4. Curious, the two brothers peeped through the open gateway. Almost the entire village was there. Even their father was sitting in the crowd. In a solemn atmosphere the people looked respectful and thoughtful. Amidst them, a little apart from the others, sat the man the two brothers had seen on the road to Matiganj. Edging their way in, they too sat down on their haunches and stared at him. Yes, it was the same man, the stranger who had been praying on the road. A thin man, whose cheekbones seemed glazed with age, he now sat with his back straight and eyes shut. Only his lips were moving soundlessly. Deep silence reigned.
After a while he slowly looked around. Without any warning, anger flared up in his eyes.
‘You are all blind,’ he cried out accusingly. ‘You are ignorant men, men without understanding. If you were not, then how could you have left the grave-no, it is not a mere grave but a mazar 5– how could you have left the mazar of Saint Shah Sadeque unattended like this?’
After this outburst, the stranger again closed his eyes and prayed silently. But this silence was short-lived. His anger quickly returned. Glaring at the men in deep indignation, he continued, ‘Yes, the saint has been living amongst you unknown and uncared for, a saint who is alive even in death, a saint who has regard for you and who protects you. And behold how you treat him. But he shows great mercy. For if it were otherwise, would not your homes have turned to ashes for this impardonable neglect? Would not your crops have been consumed in the fiercest drought, would not your children have died of pestilence? But his is a merciful spirit and his kindness knows no bounds.’
The crowd sat quietly feigning deep remorse. But they marvelled. Yes, they knew about the dilapidated, age-old tomb which lay hidden in a thickly overgrown forest outside the village. It had been there longer than man could remember amidst a cluster of trees and a tall grove of thick bamboos, never free of the gloom of their perpetual shadow and oozing with damp rot. It had been there almost without their knowing, and no-one had any idea how old it was. Leaning over badly, two of its walled sides had completely vanished, and small, moss-overgrown blackened bricks showed where the plaster had peeled off. The tomb was a mystery to the villagers. True, it was outside the village and the sound of their footsteps did not reach it. They had always feared the darkness of the thick cluster of tall vegetation that concealed it, believing that ghosts lived there. How could they know that it was the grave-no, the mazar of-what’s his name? -Saint Shah Sadeque?
From the back of the assembled crowd a voice called out in complaint.
‘How were we to know? It’s outside our village, isn’t it?’
The stranger craned his neck and looked for the man who had spoken. He glared at him in grim silence.
‘Do you not sow rice, graze your cattle and catch fish outside your village?’
The man did not answer. He was busy trying to hide his face.
After this interruption, the stranger prayed quietly with his eyes closed. When he opened them again, they were gentle and rather sad.
‘I come from the Garo Hills,’ he said, ‘some three days’ journey from Madhupur. I was happy there. I was at peace too, at peace and contented. When I went there I found that the people were totally ignorant of the ways of God. They were like barbarians, except for one thing- they had hearts of gold. They were generous and hospitable. They had plenty of food and much livestock. But they were not happy. For how can one be happy if one is shut off from the light of heaven? I remained among them to show them the path of God. I gave them happiness and they made me happy in return. Yes, I was quite happy there. But then,’ he added, after letting his glance pass over the entire assembly, ‘one night I dreamed a dream.’
The crowd had heard about the dream more than once since he had begun speaking but they would willingly hear it all over again. Yes, he had lived happily among those hill people who had hearts of gold and had plenty to eat and owned much livestock. But then one night he had dreamed a dream.
‘That dream,’ he said, ‘made me leave that place and the good people of the hills. Because of that dream I abandoned my happy home among a happy people. But I did it without hesitation, and without hesitation I under-took this long and difficult journey.’
Yes, he remembered the night very clearly. He had said his prayers and had gone to bed, feeling clean in mind and body. The night was cool, for it had rained heavily the whole day. The sky was clear and through the chinks in the bamboo wall he could see a brilliant moon. In the jungle the birds and animals were silent and everything was peaceful and serene.
‘Before the dream I woke up once,’ he said. ‘At what hour I cannot tell but it was still night, a peacefully silent night. The moon was less bright. Perhaps dawn was near. I woke up with a start, without knowing why, and I felt very strange. Presently I fell asleep again. Now I realize I was drawn back to sleep for a reason. I was destined to see the dream.’
Suddenly he cried out, reciting from the Koran, ‘Allah knoweth, ye know not. We know nothing, my brethren, nothing, beyond what the Almighty wishes us to know.’
Falling silent he stared at the night through the open gateway, deeply absorbed. Slowly he shook his head and asked in a distant voice.
‘Was it really a dream? Could such a thing be a dream?’ he paused, his eyes now moist with tears. ‘Yes, I saw him as clear as day. There was no haze, no darkness. He appeared and called to me. He said- go there, go to Mahabbatpur, for its inhabitants do not know that I live among them, unattended and uncared for. Tell them to honour me. Tell them I will pray for them and give them prosperity and happiness.’
The stranger fell silent and tears began to roll freely down his glazed cheeks. In the hush the seventy-year-old Kalim suddenly broke down and started to cry aloud. He cried for a long time without shedding tears, for there were none left in him, and while he cried, the lips of the stranger moved in silent prayer.
Thus on a still day when a fish could not make the slightest movement with betraying its presence and getting speared, Majeed entered Mahabbatpur. Carrying hardly anything, a kurta 6, a couple of old lungis 7, two thin towels and a small much-thumbed Koran hanging from his neck, he immediately struck root in the soil, deeper than the roots of the largest tree in the village.
Fate has brought me to this place, Majeed told himself that evening before falling asleep. I will live here, perhaps live here long. He tried to foresee his future but could tell little. There was merely a vagueness, perhaps death and the day of judgement, but all distant and shapeless. He knew clearly only the past but could draw little pleasure from it.
In any event, he told himself, a new life is beginning.
Then, for an instant, he felt afraid that the game he was going to play might turn out to be dangerous. Doubts came to him that he would succeed in it for long. But the people seemed to be so simple and good-hearted, he reassured himself. He recalled the scene of that evening, how they had sat in front of him, their eyes cast down-ward in shame. He felt better.
We too often forget, he reminded himself, that God is all-forgiving. He is merciful and He will forgive any sin if one asks for forgiveness with humility and repentance.
The night was still except for the sound of dogs barking in the distance. Lying there quietly, Majeed meditated on this new life he had chosen for himself. Is it wrong to lie if it’s done in a good cause? he pondered. There is no doubt at all in my mind that there’s little fear of God here, and that His name is hardly ever uttered. If I prevaricate slightly in order to implant fear of God and His holy name, I will surely be forgiven.
He turned over in bed, momentarily quiet. Then another thought came to him. If, at the same time, I make a living, is there anything sinful in that? After all one must live. And I live to spread the word of God.
‘God is great,’ he said out loud, and then went to sleep….
- Bufza: a title of respect given to those who have memorized the entire text of the Koran.
- Imams: those who lead the prayer in the mosques.
- Muezzins: those who announce the time for the five daily prayers from the top of the minarets.
- A Muslim home (except among the very poor) is divided into two areas: the inner house’, which is reserved to the women and which only members of the family may enter, and the ‘outer house’, where male guests are received. There is a courtyard for each section, and the two yards are separated by a hedge or fence so that the women will not be seen by strangers to the household.
- Mazar: the tomb of a saint, a place of pilgrimage.
- Kurta: a long tunic reaching almost down to the knees.
- Lungi (pronounced lung-ghee): an ankle-length cloth worm by men in Bengal, attached at the waist in front.
- Bufza: a title of respect given to those who have memorized the entire text of the Koran. ↩
- Imams: those who lead the prayer in the mosques. ↩
- Muezzins: those who announce the time for the five daily prayers from the top of the minarets. ↩
- A Muslim home (except among the very poor) is divided into two areas: the inner house’, which is reserved to the women and which only members of the family may enter, and the ‘outer house’, where male guests are received. There is a courtyard for each section, and the two yards are separated by a hedge or fence so that the women will not be seen by strangers to the household. ↩
- Mazar: the tomb of a saint, a place of pilgrimage. ↩
- Kurta: a long tunic reaching almost down to the knees. ↩
- Lungi (pronounced lung-ghee): an ankle-length cloth worm by men in Bengal, attached at the waist in front. ↩