WARP AND WOOF
Translator: Amanullah Ahmed
Published by: Bangla Academy, Dhaka-1000
First Edition: May 1999
Abdul Hashem, the fisherman from Kuakata whenever he has leisure, had this vision: a beautiful coloured fish swims inside his skull, with its white fins spread wide. With silver spots on its ash-coloured body and a golden bristle on either side of its mouth, it’s incomparably graceful in its fantastic movement. Then the waves of the sea roll on in Hashem’s head with the fish on their crest. The waves rush onto the beach, dancing all the way-crimson clouds cover the sky near the beach – the sun sinks, suffusing the whole place with soft light. At that moment, the coloured fish spreads its bristles in
Hashem’s dream, A zigzag of lines fills his skull. Abul Hashem’s thoughts deepen. He is led to think since nature likes to fill in the void, caused by life’s loneliness; such coloured fishes appear and reappear so rapidly in his dreams. He has no fixed time for leisure. He can lapse into momentary passivity even in the midst of hectic work when he is engaged on the deep sea in drawing on the trawler the net, full of fishes. His leisure consists in his surrendering himself unconsciously to a profound feeling or thought. He can snatch a moment of leisure even in the gaps of time while he gives an account of the fishes to his mahajan. But the time he gets in returning home after he spreads the net in the sun to dry is wholly at his disposal. He is led to believe that his loneliness is his real leisure. And added to this is the playfulness of the coloured fish. This game is spun by an unseen thread- a game of backward and forward movement, of the warp and the woof, with his own self. A fisherman’s life should have not been like this, yet he has been destined to be so. Because fishing is not merely his occupation ,it’s his obsession-his blood responds to the sea’s call. His life is tied to the fertile land which yields him his yearly provision. But truly speaking, he is bound not to the land but to the sea. This sense of bondage penetrates the very essence of his being-he can’t say where it begins and where it ends. He only feels that the game lies in his inability to understand it.
Abul Hashem is grateful in his lonely leisure to his forefathers for this life near the sea. His gesture of gratitude is, indeed, noteworthy. Because he speaks in these moments in chaste Bengali. Since the speech is no part of his daily language, but of his inmost consciousness, he grows into another man and speaks with unusual clarity: I can’t repay the debt I owe you. This also appears to him to be a game, spun by that invisible thread. That ancestor of his stands up on the drawn thread-that man to whom he is indebted, he who, coveting his father-in-law’s properties, migrated from Rangabali to Kuokata, turned into a sponger and began to live in the latter’s family. That man couldn’t inherit the property-his father-in-law didn’t trust him. Before death, be made a gift of all his properties to his only daughter. Although his wife became the sole owner of all the properties, he didn’t care two straws for the matter. Took it for granted that since he was the owner of his wife, her properties automatically belonged to him. This idea threw him into a perpetual state of euphoria and he learnt all the tricks of how to make full use of the properties to please himself. He bullied his wife into such submission that she could never open her mouth. Abul Hashem’s father was the only child of his parents. As a result he became the sole inheritor of his mother’s properties. Now these are in Abul Hashem’s possession.
Abul Hashem carries on ceaselessly, day and night, an amorous wrangling with the life that his forefathers have given him to live. He walks on aimlessly – walks like a man, possessed by an evil spirit. If anybody happens to pass by him and says ‘hello’ he doesn’t respond, that is, he hasn’t listened to him, that is, he is fully oblivious of his surroundings. His absorption in inmost thoughts renders him deaf to the outside world.
Just as you cross the bushy path and stand there, the sea reveals itself in all its turbulence. Hashem himself doesn’t know why he comes here, why the wild waves draw him irresistibly. In the heart of the wild waters there resides a grave sound, a deep shadow, a harsh word. All these constitute exclusively Hashem’s private world. It is in this way that he has been living his life over so many years. He weaves through the path, moving aside the branches of trees with both hands and sits on the high mound. From there, he can see how the unruly waters look black and blue – when they rush from a long distance and spill over the beach they seem to indulge in acts of madness – the round moon comes down near his head – the empty spaces before him begin to expand – vying with them the round moon grows bigger and bigger as though such a large moon had nowhere been seen in the world. The full moon adds to Abul Hashem’s state of somnolence. When he casts his glance towards the horizon, nothing but emptiness stretches before him. if he looks backward, the heads of the trees seem to be frozen and enveloped in darkness – that darkness is made alive by the murmur of men. Piercing through that murmur, the coloured fishes begin to rise up. Shoals of them become fixed like dots under the ravishing moon in her fullness of youth – that moon along with the coloured fishes enters Abul Hashem’s skull, resonant with strange sounds. In no time, the world of his consciousness is illumined.
Abul Hashem descends to the beach. There the water is knee-deep; it is salt free and provides home for the fishes of sweet water. The beach has numberless pools of water, scattered all over. Behind him are rows of thousands of buffaloes, returning home. Their hooves makes little holes on the sand. Like a child, Abul Hashem becomes absorbed in the game of filling these holes with his feet. It’s time for high tide which is approaching. Right at this moment, ash-coloured fishes beckon Abul Hashem to the golden horizon. He, then, ceases to be a mere fisherman and is transformed into the prince of fairy tale. From his waist, the bidi goes up to his lips. The match stick blazes up. He smoothes all the holes made by the buffaloes. Thinks this is the time of my youth. Let all the dents of my life be made even. So, when the buffaloes return home, We’ll milk them and make thick curds in earthen pots. Afterwards, we’ll take them to the market. These curds will be carried along the river Nilgonj to men of far-away places. These men will not know that a dreamer, Abul Hashem by name, sells curd made of thickened milk-his curd is not merely curd-that doesn’t go down the throat into the belly only; it also reaches the brains. When anybody eats this curd, he undergoes a magical transformation. He begins to dream and grows into a dreamer. He wants people to have lots of dreams-if people learn to dream, they can forget their sorrows.
At those thoughts, Abul Hashem bursts into laughter in the dark. No, not dark really. How can you call it dark if the entire region, far and near, is made radiant by the enormous, round full moon? No it shouldn’t be so, it’s not correct to say so. Yet, such is the case. Because, it’s not merely man’s mind that is dark, darkness resides in the heart of nature as well. The vast sea on his left is covered with darkness-terrifying, awe-inspiring. It appears to him the light of the full moon hasn’t penetrated there, perhaps it never does. For this reason, all of a sudden, it becomes monstrously huge at moments. On Abul Hashem’s right are the forests-the shadows of trees are there-the shadows are dense-this density is triangle-shaped like the wings of sharks, Abul Hashem can’t go there, even if he so desires. He is seized with fear and his heart is shrivelled. Besides, there is light before and behind him-the light which is indescribably beautiful-the radiance of the full moon at Kuakata is exclusively his and his alone. He has reached the age of seventy two with this light within his heart. People say he has grown senile. They have almost forgotten his name. This doesn’t make him sad. He thinks: what’s in a name? If people can recognize, that’s enough. Man is eternally in communion with man-should a mere name throw him apart? His heart grows restless as the market-day arrives. On this day, he can feel the smell of human bodies. This smell illumines his unconscious mind. Abul Hashem tries to be friendly with shopkeepers who have spread before them a strange variety of articles. It doesn’t matter whether he buys or not but he goes to every one of them. He spends time in talking with them, giving them a bit of advice or discussing personal affairs; with some, he may not be able to talk to as they are busy, But he doesn’t mind. If he can exchange glances, he feels a lot of words have been spoken. These people are like the sea and the trees. They are dark and shadowy. The additional attraction is their smell. You can feel it if many people assemble together on one spot. Otherwise, the smell won’t be sufficiently strong. If it’s not strong, it doesn’t affect Abul Hashem’s senses. He regards men with respect. He doesn’t belittle men – he hates such a tendency-what’s dark and unknowable in men, he keeps at an arm’s length – he treasures the shades men cast, treasures them next to his heart. On the market day, he has the vision of sea – waves flowing over the heads of men. This vision is the source of an additional joy to him-the joy of escaping from everything in which he is, at the same time, so deeply involved. These his feeling are invaluable to Abul Hashem.
On one market day in the month of Caitra, a grand kabigan was organized in which he danced in tune to the refrain, sung by the leading singer. His words were : I’m a seventy-two year old man, oh singer, you’re the friend of my heart. Why these words occurred to his mind, he didn’t know. It’s not known to him whether his age was seventy two years or more or less. Afterwards, he thought a lot over the matter and came to realize that maybe he wanted once to be a poet. When a desire is born within him, the coloured fish grows masterful, Then he can’t control himself. The compelling sense of failure that he has been unable to achieve anything makes his whole body tremble. You can’t see how he trembles, it’s invisible. Anyway, from that day, he came to be known as an old man in his dotage. What’s the harm? No, there’s no harm in it. He’s quite at his ease. People have forgotten his name. This means he is reborn. This idea of his new birth makes him oblivious of his surroundings.
This idea of his new birth haunts him. It seems as though he held the thread of a spool which was rolling and bringing out fresh thread – how colourful, and how eye-catching is the thread! The thread forms itself into designs for him-when he places his feet inside the designs, his urge to dream overpowers him. A few years ago, in the impenetrable darkness of a fateful night, a tidal bore washed away everything that belonged to his former life. After that, another beginning -once again to tread on through a world of dreams! Has he now got the time to retaliate back for the new life? Should he start afresh, renewing once again his sense of right and wrong? Should he rebuild a new life-the action which people define as ‘making’? What kind of a home should he build, with what materials or men? The foundation of the house, its fencing, roof the engaging of the expert for making the thatched roof should he start doing all these things? To make a home you need other persons, at least another person- afterwards, people will multiply from one to two-from two to five. This is how life is replenished -in its very process lies the joy of creation, the sensation of happiness.
At that moment, he remembers Rahanum. Supposes maybe Rahanum is now asleep under the quilt. With her breathing, her chest in moving, rising and falling softly. Her nostrils flare and shrink. Her lips are unusually dry; if they are licked with tongue, they will remain quite moist. There is a deep black line under her shut eyelids-when they are open, the pupils become eloquent and speak volumes. Ah! Abul Hashem rebukes himself rather too severely in silence. Scratching sand with the big toe of his right foot, Abul Hashem reminds himself : To all intents and purposes, I’m her father. Because she calls me father.
He shouts tremendously at himself. But do men lose everything at this age? Why? Why should he live an infernal life like a buffoon? Some one must belong to me, someone must be by me side.
He continues to walk and covers a long distance. Now, the mound, so familiar to him, is no longer visible. There is now only the light of the full moon, flooding every nook and corner. The enormous moon is on the move over his head. He doesn’t know to what place is he going. Doesn’t know whether Rahanum and Sukhdwip will worry about him if he doesn’t return home. He has built up a new family with these two. He is to think of them even if he doesn’t like it. And they’ll certainly worry about him, since, except him, they have nobody else to rely on. So they need him much. Need? Nothing else? Does necessity alone force people to live together in a family? Without love? These thoughts add to his suffering. At this moment, he doesn’t like to give much thought to this family life. Now he wants to give himself to dreaming only one dream. The flow tide is wetting his feet. They’re sinking in the wet sand. And the coluoured fish is going up and up along his leg. Now it has settled on his thigh. Abul Hashem feels like running now. He runs a long distance. In his youth, he was absorbed in a game like this with his wife. His wife had a big, red birthmark on her right thigh. His mouth would make a dive for that spot like a buffalo, dipping its head in the trough of its food. The birthmark seemed to him to be Death incarnate – robbed him of his heart. In a strange manner, he used to be speechless and his whole body was rendered numb.
That game has now possessed him. He searches a red naevus in this sand dune. But that time is over now – he’s no longer young – does no more feel that intoxicating thrill of sensation. He soon gets tired. A deep moan seems to pervade the whole place. Azrail, the angel of death, is descending with that sound in his grasp. The weird situation strikes terror into Abul Hashem’s heart.
The place in infested with innumerable red crabs – he has crab bites all over his body. Abul Hashem breathes with difficulty. No more can he move forward. Begins to retrace his steps backward towards his home. Home? Can it be truly his home? Is it wrong that Rahanum should call him father? Or Sukhdwip’s grandfather? By now, Abul Hashem begins to pant. No more does he like to walk. Can’t guess how old is the night. Nowhere is there any trace of human life. Only the howling of the sea. That self-same maddening fury which once washed away the entire human settlement from Kuakata.
A painful incident may sometimes cause a permanent trauma – when remembered, the incident throws the mind into violent agitation and makes the head reel. It gets stuck in the brain like a boat tightly anchored in the sea. It only rocks with the wave or the air. Memory is also like this – it vibrates whenever it gets an opportunity. At this moment, he is trying hard to forget the incident.
He is now under the illusion that he’s going from Kuakata towards Alipur bazaar – when on both sides of the road green paddy fields or stubbles left after harvesting create a heart – breaking sense of emptiness and the whole place is filled with ghostly sound of laughter. Then Abul Hashem is seized with a mood of profound melancholy. He sits on the roadside, stretching his legs. Frogs dance in the nearby marshes. He hears a sound coming from there – no, it’s not the cricket singing, he can’t identify it. It seems as if he never heard it – although it appears to be familiar and heard everyday. Yet the sound continues to be strange to him. Abul Hashem tries not to notice his surroundings. Countless fireflies glow around him. Thousands of them are gleaming and going out endlessly. He can hear people saying : What a wretched fellow, he’s utterly lonely, has none to succour him, see, how he suffers! What’s suffering? Is it the glow of the fireflies? Or the sound of the cricket? Abul Hashem sprawls out on the grass.
He surveys the sky, gradually arching towards the earth; he sees some figures glittering in the moonlight. Everything within his sight, including the red birthmark on his wife’s thigh, fades away. This birth mark was a favourite object of discussion to both of them in their youth. They talked a lot about it. Manimala used to say to Abul Hashem; ‘If I’m ever lost, this birthmark will help you to find me out.’
Why, why should you be lost?
Why? Suppose a great flood rises and washes everything away.
You’re crazy. I won’t let you be carried away by the flood. I’ll hold you tightly fastened to my chest. Neither of us will get lost – no, none.
While talking Abul Hashem became so emotional that his eyes brimmed with tears. Manimala used to wipe away his tears with the end of her sari. Then, she wiped her own tears. When they calmed down, Manimala used to say in a low voice : Can a flood be predicted? We live on the sea-shore. Flood can very well carry us away.
Stop talking about floods.
Abul Hashem would force her lips shut with kisses. Great passions were released and Manimala would drown in the vortex of the wild passions. Afterwards, they would lapse into sleep unknowingly.
But later the floods did actually carry Manimala away. Why, she wasn’t found out. What did happen to her birthmark? Why had Manimala been lost among the unfamiliar and the unknown despite a definite mark on her body? Why could she not be traced out? Abul Hashem gazes at the sky with both hands stretched.
A dog walks by. Under the magical powers of the full moon of Kuakata the dog appears to Abul Hashem to be a human and he pulls it by the tail. The dog lies down by his side like a friend. Wags its tail. When the dog draws out its tongue, drops of saliva fall from it. At one time, it rests its feet on Abul Hashem. Later it lays its head on Abul Hashem’s belly, Abul Hashem is lean and slender. His ribs rise and fall as he breathes. Lastly he lays his hand on the dog’s head. He feels sleep. No, he’s not sleepy exactly, rather he feels drowsy. A certain deep sound tears his consciousness into pieces repeatedly. That sound grows into an outcry of pain and spreads all over the place. At this, the dog jumps up and runs away barking. It comes back and goes away again. Maybe, it has discovered a game in this backward and forward movement and is being happy playing it. Ah happiness! What’s happiness? Does it consist in the dog’s barking? Abul Hashem gets up. That day, he couldn’t go to Alipur bazaar. In this way a l ot of his work remains unfinished – he falls into a dishevelled state of mind and last of all crawls continually in a world ruled by silence. He is subjected to pain, his skin burns and a kind of wordless fear pervades his skull.
He wants to return home just now. Yes, home. Now he has a home, a home to come back to after catching fish in the sea. There some persons wait for him. But they’re not his parents, brothers and sisters. This is not home which he built with another person, the person in whose womb he could produce a child. It’s a different home-this home has also been built. Can the atmosphere of a real home be created if three persons merely live together. Can just a dwelling place be a home? Can familial kinship grow among such people? Maybe it grows, maybe not. Still the physical nearness born of their living together may result in a kind of attachment among them. That may not be as strong as the ties of kinship, binding all into an enduring relationship but it can fill in a void, reducing one’s weariness. Weariness? Under the weight of weariness his knees seem to bend down at this very moment. How many days would he need to cross this short bushy path and reach home? How long?
Abul Hashem is so weighed down with weariness that he doesn’t like to rise up. The flow-tide is approaching. Its low boom floats to his ears like sound of music. As though Manimala were humming her beloved baby daughter to sleep. How happy was she at having her first child! Her eyes used to sparkle. Does motherhood express itself in this manner – this idea hasn’t still been clear to Abul Hashem. The murmur of the flow-tide works out a change in him – he stands up like a man possessed by an evil spirit. He looks around and sees that the dog isn’t there. He failed to notice when the dog had left. He begins to walk like a man in a state of somnolence.
At that moment, Abul Hashem sees Sukhdwip running towards him and calling him granddad, Oh, granddad. Abul Hashem feels a stab of pain: oh the seven year old lad doesn’t know that he’s not at all related to Abul Hashem! In what a deep voice does he call him! As though they are permanently related to each other across generations and never will this blood relationship come to an end. When their yard is bathed in moonlight, Sukhdwip occupies his lap. And then, demands sweetly: please tell a story.
Story? What story?
Anyone you prefer.
Abul Hashem can’t decide what story he should tell. He’s already told lots of stories to Sukhdwip. He’s exhausted narrating all stories from the kings and queens, princes and princesses, demons and giants to the elephants and horses, elves and spirits, soldiers and sailors. Even the stories about the seas and fishing haven’t been excluded. What’s left is only the story about Sukhdwip himself. It’s time that he should know it. But on what day? When? How? Will Sukhdwip listen to this story with as much rapt attention as he does when a fairy tale is told? Will he ever be willing to hear it? In what manner should the story be unfolded so that he may be interested in it? This may, perhaps, be the greatest story that he’ll ever hear in his life. All of a sudden, he shakes his head with unusual violence. Tells himself: No, I don’t know. Today also Sukhdwip runs to him and clasps him with both arms. Rahanum is there, standing behind them. They haven’t gone to sleep. They’ve been waiting for him. then, they went out looking for him. Rahnum’s shadow merges itself with those of the trees on both their sides. Rahanum is a woman. The shadow of a woman is perfumed. Abul Hashem’s feelings acquire a depth. One day, walking absent-mindedly through the trees of the forest, Abul Hashem treaded on countless fallen leaves. The leaves were tender in rain water. He feels a sensation running through his body when he touches anything soft. He’s forgetful of his age. On that day he thought that the very leaves soaked in rainwater were women. As soon as he thinks of women, he remembers the sea. To him the sea is a woman – from whose womb he draws netful of silver fishes. Who else, except a woman, can make such an unreserved offering of herself? The wet sands on the shore are also like women to him. They cling to your feet with great affection or induce you like a beloved to walk to a great distance. He continues to walk under the spell of a dream, remembers nothing that lies behind. Who else but a woman can give such a siren call? He is a loner in the midst of all, a man, whose manliness, virility and sexual energy are still unimpaired. That’s why Abul Hashem tends to forget his age…