In Blissful Hell
Translated by: Mohammad Nurul Huda
Published by: Somoi Prokashan, Dhaka
Rabeya was uttering those very words over and over again. Runu’s head bent downward and her chin nearly touched her breast. I saw her fair ears growing red. She started scrabbling in her geometry notebook. Then, all of a sudden, she stood up and said to me, “Let me have some water”. Saying so she walked out hurriedly. Runu is over twelve entering the thirteenth year. She understood Rabeya’s vulgar words quite well and blushed for shame. Perhaps she would have burst into tears, for she is inclined to weep easily.
I said to Rabeya.
“These are all dirty words, all rubbish. You’re now much grown up, you should not say these at all.”
Rabeya is elder to me by a year. I address her ‘thou’ as a mark of frankness. Though brothers and sisters belonging to same age-group call each other with such frankness, Rabeya addresses me with a difference behaving like a true elder sister. She lent her ears to me with rapt attention. For quite some time, she had been wrapping a bed-sheet around a pillow in an attempt to make a doll. My words brought no change in her train of thought. However, she stopped making the doll and stretched herself out on the bed. With her legs swinging to and fro, she again uttered those dirty words in a raised voice. I said nothing. If opposed she would get furious, her voice would become louder and louder. A few inquisitive eyes, peeping through neighbouring windows, would try to discover what was going on.
Rabeya said, “I’ll say it again.”
“What if I do it?”
“That’s very shameful, Rabeya, very shameful.” I tried to convince her in a persuading voice.
“but that he said it to me.”
“Who?” I do understand, Rabeya heard these words somewhere outside. But I cannot think that somebody could say such vulgar words to Rabeya, who became just twenty-two last August.
I said, “Who said it?”
“But who was it?”
“That tall and fair one.”
Rabeya can say nothing more about the boy. Again, as she will wander here and there, someone may put this sort of vulgar words into her ears.
“Khoka, your milk.”
Mother brought me a cup of milk and kept it on my table. Last night she had fever. Her temperature was quite high. As father knocked at my doors around midnight, I didn’t wake up fully and yet I heard him saying.
“Khoka, Do you’ve Aspirin with you?”
I thought I was dreaming. I turned myself on the bed and tried to sleep. Right then I heard my mother moaning. She cannot bear illness. A little fever, a slight headache, and she grows extremely weak.
Father called me again,
“Khoka, Do you’ve Aspirin with you?”
Under the quilt was my personal dispensary. Tablets of various kinds including Aspirin and Dispirin were collected there. In darkness I began to look for middle –sized tablets. There was no light in this room. Maybe, electric wire got burnt somewhere. A lantern is lit at night. Runu puts it off at the time of sleeping as she cannot sleep in light.
Father said, “Khoka, did you get it?”
“Yes I did. But what’s happened?”
“Your mother has fever.”
“How would Aspirin help in fever?”
“She has a severe headache, too.”
“Oh, I see.”
As soon as I opened the door with three tablets in my hand, the light of the 25 W bulb fixed above the verandah entered my room. To my utter surprise, there was no aspirin in my hand.
Father got vexed and said, “Can’t you keep a match in your room?”
I remembered that there were a new match and three Bristol cigarettes in my drawer. I already had decided not to smoke more than five a day, but it was seven. And now at this midnight hour, I must smoke another one. My mind filled with pleasure thinking that I would light a cigarette within a few moments. Father went away with Aspirin. I made fire and saw Rabeya lying on the bed in an awkward manner. She had rolled up nearly the whole of her saree like a bundle upon her breast. There was no mosquito during winter, and so also no mosquito-net. That explains why no concealment produced by a mosquito-net was needed. Father’s voice was heard,
“Take it Shanu, take the tablet.”
Strange! Father can still call her with such affection! I felt shy.
Father said again, “Shanu! Shanu!”
Shortening the name Shahana as Shanu, father was addressing her beautifully. There is no barrier excepting a bamboo-wall that stands between my room and that of father. About three feet empty space rests above the wall. Even a slightest sound from that room reaches me. I can hear even the sound of a kiss.
Often I suffer from insomnia. Under my quilt I always keep four Valium-2 tablets which I never take. I know it well that sleeping pills do weaken human heart. My friend, Salil, died of two such tablets which he took for sleeping. He had been suffering from heart problems. Maybe, I have heart problems, too. At times I feel a tinge of pain in the left side of my heart.
I do not take sleeping pills even in acute insomnia. Time and again, I have to face much inconvenience for this. In the middle of the night my ears get warm listening to my father who calls, “Shanu, Shanu, Shahana”. I can guess the whole thing. My nose perspires, my heart-beat accelerates and seem audible. This nocturnal episode is known to me from A to Z. mother says in reply,”Hey, what are you doing? What a shame…”
And then father whispers something into her ears. His voice gradually lowers down. Mother chuckles with pleasure. I close my ears with both the hands the sound within my heart seems more audible. But in a few moments everything seems quiet again. Runu and Rabeya talk incoherently in sleep. Again we hear the ticking sound of a table-clock. Gulping down the water from the jug on the table, I leave my room and stand outside.
There are two ‘Hasna-Hena’ trees on one side of the verandah. Mother pronounces it as ‘Hasnu-Hena’. Both the trees are tall and large. The fragrance coming from their flowers seems to intoxicate me as I stand beside them. I have heard that the fragrance of ‘Hasnu-Hena’ attracts snakes. Montu once killed a big snake under these trees. That was a ‘Chandro-Bora’. Seeing the snake mother got frightened and said, “What have you done, Montu! Its partner will now search you out!” I, too, was much frightened, though I never believed in such things. I looked for the other snake with utmost caution. Carbolic acid was sprayed around the house. Master uncle said, “The other snake is a male one.” He could tell if the snake was male or female merely by seeing it. Some days passed in fear, though the male snake never made its appearance.
Rabeya said, “Mum, I want milk.”
Mother got fever last night. Her face dried up and grew smaller. Heraring Rabeya’s demand, it shriveled up more. She looked like a little girls. I know that when anyone of us importunes her for something, and she fails to give it, her face turns this way looking like a little girl’s. Her nostrils quiver continuously. When I was a child I disliked this gesture of my mother. Suppose, I had wanted a thing which she was unable to give. At this her face would become like a little girl’s. her nostrils would begin to quiver as usual. This gesture of mother seemed to me the gesture of a guilty person. So I went on plotting all the time how to trouble her. I felt like throwing a house-lizard on her body. Mother was always scared of house-lizards. She says she hates them, but I know she fears them. One day mother was taking her meal and a small house – lizard fell on her head from the ceiling. At once she vomited in disgust. I tired to find a house-lizard whenever I got angry with her. But finding a house-lizard was not an easy task. You might find it, but you could never catch it. I used to make balls with clothes which I would hurl at some house-lizard on the wall. The tail of the targeted lizard would drop in no time. Mother would get scared seeing the tail. Affectionate as she was, she would never scold us. Father used to beat us often. Mother opposed him and said, “Ah, what’re you doing! Doesn’t it hurt them?” And Father would retort, “Be off! Be off from my sight! They’re all spoiled by your over-indulgence.” Mother looked extremely helpless in these times. I used to think, the very next morning I would go away from home and never come back again.
“Mum, give me milk.”
Rabeya began to insist obstinately. I gave the cup to her. Mother said to me in a low voice, “You better take it, your exam is drawing near.”
Milk was a luxury to us. And this luxurious thing was specially arranged for me. My M. Sc. Final exam was drawing near. So I prepared my lessons till late hours at night.
At about nine O’clock mother brings me milk. As I drink it, mother takes off pins, one by one, from Rabeya’s saree. About ten pins remain fixed the whole day in her saree. The whole day she wanders about. None should be able to see her body’s uncovered parts. That’s why mother fixes the pins to her saree. Rabeya can neither be kept confined to four walls nor be dressed up in shilwar and kameez. Shilwar and kameez are meant for younger girls. Every one looks at her without hesitation. As boys grow up, they throw their looks towards girls. This is not unusual. But some amount of shyness and hesitation is expected in their looks. Contrary to it, they feel no need for such shyness or hesitation when they look at Rabeya. If anyone tells her some vulgar words she will hear it with a smile. Then she will come back home and tell repeatedly to everybody what she heard from the boy outside.
Mother kept her hand on Rabeya’s head. I heard the sound of a brief but distinct sigh. Rabeya was gulping down the milk I gave her. Maybe, she is not beautiful in the true sense of the word. And who knows, maybe she is really beautiful. Her complexion is light dark. Her eyes are big, looks are clear, and lips are lovely. Dimples appear on her cheek as she smiles. Girls who produce dimples while smiling, deliberately smile every now and then. They are aware of the fact that they look beautiful as they smile. But Rabeya is not aware of that. Still she smiles every now and then. There is a scratch mark at the middle of Rabeya’s forehead. Once she fell upon a door-frame when she was a little girl. Rabeya drank milk and said.
“The milk is bad, extremely bad!”
Mother stood up and said, “Will you go to the saint of Shobhapur?” This saint has made his name as one who can cure madness. Shobhapur is eight miles away from here. It takes an hour on bicycle to go there. I know that saints and fakris can do nothing. It’s only a doctor who can help a patient. But it takes lot of money which we cannot afford. Montu wears my old shirts which have become smaller in size and no more fit me. We buy clothes once a year, during the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr.
Runu came after a while. She gave sidelong looks towards Rabeya for a few moments. No, Rabeya did not utter those vulgar words. Runu yawned. She felt sleepy. Her eyes looked drowsy. God knows how Runu felt when she heard Rabeya’s dirty words. Runu is thirteen now. Next November she will be fourteen. She is Scorpio. When I was of her age. I liked lending my ears to vulgar talks. I enjoyed thinking about girls, too. In the evening, I used to go to togor Bhai’s house to learn mathematics. He had a younger sister named Lilu. I felt much delighted with the thought of marrying this girl when grown up. But I did not feel free to talk to her. The words seemed to get stuck in my mouth. When Lilu, pulling my hand, used to say, “Come on, let’s play ludu”, my ears would turn red for no good reason. I would feel a weight close to my throat.
Does Runu like a boy, too? Does she ever think of marrying that boy when she comes of age? No one can be sure of that. Maybe she does, maybe she does not. Runu is a nice girl. She is well-behaved and mild. At times I feel sad for her. I do not know why, but I feel that girls of this sort hardly find happiness in their lives. I will make Runu great. She will grow into a lady doctor. The lady doctors look very beautiful with stethoscopes round their necks and black bags in their hands. Runu cannot do her sums well. I make her learn algebra giving a break to my own studies. But I know, mathematics is seldom needed to pursue medical studies.
That day I got surprised turning the pages of Runu’s mathematics exercise copy. The words ‘I love’ were distinctly written there. I felt shy as I read further. It was, indeed, a childlike poem. ‘I love this beauty of the world, these trees, these plants, these songs I do love etc etc’. I said, “What a lovely poem, Runu!”
Out of shyness Runu turned red and said, “Oh no, it’s not. It’s not at all a good one.”
I said, “Then it seems you’ve written a lot.”
Runu started smiling, bending her head downwards.
I said, “Show me, Runu. You’re a good girl.”
Runu stood up blushing. She went and opened my trunk.
All her confidential things were kept there. At this age many trivial things are kept in secrecy. But Runu did not have a box of her own. At one side of my trunk, she kept two big empty biscuit packets. And there were some exercise copies also. Runu brought an exercise copy that had the sketch of an elephant on its cover page. As she brought it, she turned purple with shyness.
I said, “You read it for me.”
“No, you read it yourself.”
“Give it then.”
Runu tucked the copy in my hand, and fled away. I found that there were a total of twelve poems. Two were about mother, and one about paula. (Paula was out pet dog. One day suddenly it went away for a destination never known.) One of the poems was on the theme of Montu’s snake killing. It read as follows:
Montu bhai has killed a big snake
Six feet long, stout and strong, not fake.
I had a plan to buy her a nice exercise book. She would fill it with new poems. There is the character of a little girl in one of Tagore’s stories. Since the moment she learned to write, she went on writing whatever she liked. She wrote everywhere – on walls, on her books’ pages, in her mother’s account book. Her elder brother bought her a beautiful note book. It became an object of great charm to her. But I had no money. Even then I should buy Runu a beautiful exercise book. I remembered that the elephant-sketched copybook, in which Runu wrote her poems, had been taken from me. Rubbing off my name from the topsheet of that copybook, Runu wrote her own name in big letters. I had bought the exercise copy to keep an account of the hours I read during the day. After a week or two had passed, when nothing had been written in it, one day Runu came and stood hesitatingly in front of my table. And curving herself like a snake, she said,
“Will you please give me the exercise copy?”
“Which exercise copy?”
“Yes, you may take it.”
Runu went away taking the exercise copy. I shall buy her an excellent exercise copy with a beautiful plastic cover worth taka three and a half. I shall again see the glow of joy on her face which I saw that day.
Though I had no money, I managed to buy Runu an exercise copy. I adore her very much. I feel like caressing her whenever I see her. Runu is a very good-natured girl. Her actual name is Saleha. The name Runu was given by me.
This name is quite appropriate for her. The very sound ‘Runu’ produces a sort of musical sensation and the articulation R … U … N … U … gives another kind of pleasing sensation. Runu said, “I’m going to sleep.”
Mother has set the mosquito-net. There are lot of mosquitoes now-a-days. They will increase as the night deepens. Their humming sound around my ears will make it difficult for me to concentrate in my studies. But I must do good results in M. Sc. Examination. I need an excellent job with a handsome salary. Runu has gone to bed twining herself beside Rabeya. Of course, she will not sleep now. Runu won’t sleep as long as the lights are on.
Runu and Rabeya are lying just beside me. They are lying so close to me that I can touch them merely by stretching my hand. Rabeya falls asleep soon after lying on the bed. Sometimes she cries in her sleep. Her cries are elongated and continuous. Paula, too, used to cry this way at times. Mother then used to shout, “Get off, get off.” It is said that when a dog cries, it is a sign of bad omen. Domestic animals, like dogs and cats, cry whenever they see a danger for their master. We do not know why Rabeya cries. Perhaps her daylong suppressed weeping finds an outlet in torrents during night. Runu gets afraid when Rabeya cries in her sleep. She exclaims in fear, “Look, how Rabeya is crying!” I try to allay her fear by saying, “Nothing to fear, Runu.” And then I call loudly, “Hey Rabeya, why are you crying? What’s happened?”
On some nights there is splendid moon-shine. Soft light enters the room through window and falls upon us. It is said that ‘Hasna-Hena’ blooms well in a moonlit night. The room then becomes filed with the intoxicating fragrance of these flowers. And I call,
“Are you sleeping Runu?”
“Would you like to hear stories.”
What story to tell I cannot decide. Stopping in the middle of a story, I say, “No, not this. Let me tell another.” And Runu says agreeing, “All right.” Even that story does not end. Suddenly stopping in the middle of that story, I say, “It’s better if you tell a story, Runu.”
“But I don’t know any.”
“Tell me whatever you know.’
“Oh no, you tell another one.”
I wish to tell Runu the story of Thomas Hardy’s ‘A pair of Blue Eyes’. It seems to me as though Runu herself is the heroine of ‘A pair of Blue Eyes’. But she is my younger sister. Next November she shall be fourteen. How to tell her such an amorous story? Runu asks,
“Why have you stopped? Why don’t you finish it?”
I stop telling the story, I ask her suddenly,
“Runu, whom do you like most?”
Maybe she really likes me. There is bright moonshine outside, the charming fragrance of flowers and a wind that could lift up the mosquito net. I feel a sharp pain in my chest.
“What’s happened, Runu?”
“Rabeya has lifted up her leg on me.”
Rabeya has lifted up her leg on Runu’s body in her sleep. She is quite healthy. Perhaps healthy girls are called girls with brimful youth. There seems an amount of obscenity in the words ‘brimful youth’. But I don’t know why.
Voices of people talking in the neighbouring house could be heard. As the night grows old, the voices grow more audible. During the day the clock-bell of the police station cannot be heard. It becomes distinct only after nine O’clock at night. Someone coughed from the neighbouring house, and a few moments later there was a giggling sound. It was high pitched. Certainly it is Nahar Bhabi. Nahar Bhabi speaks in a loud voice. She is playing the record, “O God, the big eyes thou has bestowed. …”. She often hears songs in the night. This song is her favourite. I like most Tagore’s “In my lawn, on the boughs of Shirish …” They play this record very rarely. “God, the big eyes …” is a very sad song. Nahar Bhabi is usually jolly. Still then, God knows, why she likes such a sad song. Somewhere I read that music enchants those who are very jolly. Runu suddenly called,
“Are you sleeping?”
“Nahar Bhabi is playing records.”
“Can you tell what she will play next?”
“No. which one?”
“The modern song ’O sparkling fire-fly make light….”
Indeed, that song was played next. Runu laughed.
I asked, “How did you know it?”
“I myself arranged the records this noon. Your favourite song is at the very end.”
Rabeya uttered in sleep, “No, no, I’ve told I won’t go.”
If Harun Bhai would have really married Rabeya, we would not have got the opportunity to listen to songs at night. Rabeya does not like songs. God knows what she likes. Even if everyone in Harun Bhai’s family would have agreed, this marriage would not have taken place.
If ever Rabeya gets cured. I shall get her married to some very generous youngman. He will be a perfect gentlemen like Harun Bhai. He will also paly records in the late hours of night. The moon light will fall upon both of them. The man will caress Rabeya’s head with his hand and say,
“What’s the scratch on your forehead, Rabeya?”
”I once fell on the door-frame.”
The man will slowly rest his hand on that scratch mark for a long time. And then he will kiss that spot softly. Runu called me,
“You song’s being played.”
I heard “In my lawn, on the boughs of shirish …”
My eyes got moistened with tears out of emotion. I like this song very much.
While hearing the song, I tried to imagine the face of Nahar Bhabi. At times, by no means, I can recollect the faces of even the most intimate persons. The face of Nahar Bhabi is somewhat triangular. The faces of all other members of Harun Bhai’s family are oval like eggs. All of them are very charming. God knows, the richness of how many generations produces this sort of extrinsic glamour in someone’s appearance. I feel good to think that there is no sorrow in this family. The mother of this family need no do utmost effort to cut expenditure after the fifteenth day of a month. If they wish, they can easily go, as in English movies, by car for outing. On the Independence day, the girls of these families stand first or second in rifle-shooting competition.
When they came to this “Peace cottage”, I do not remember exactly. But it was raining very much on that day. Rabeya, Runu and I saw them arriving. We were then standing on our verandah. All of them got down from a jeep. They got wet while alighting. First of all a girl of Runu’s age, named Sheela, got down. Father calls her affectionately Sheelu Ma; mother calls her only Sheelu. After her the elder brother got down. Though he wore spectacles of an old man, he had a childlike appearance. As he got down from the jeep, he cried out, “What a beautiful house, Sheelu!” And then their parents followed them, and finally their servants got down from the jeep. Many days after the Aziz family left the house was once again filled. Winter followed the monsoon. The two brothers and sisters marked a court in their lawn, and started playing badminton merrily.
Runu is very shy. Otherwise, she would have gone and become friendly with them. I deeply feel that Runu should be intimate with Sheelu. I used to see that, as evening came, Sheelu would stand on her verandah, and would fly pigeons by clapping her hands. They had two pigeons. Rabeya used to visit their house every now and then. We would not prohibit her from going. If we did so, she used to get irritated. The brother-in-law of our elder aunt in Chittagong is an expert Doctor. He had advised, “Let her do whatever she likes. You’ll see the abnormality she has will get cured by itself.” We did not have money for treatment. So we took advantage of this free treatment with our utmost ability. One day I saw that mother kept something on the table weepingly. It was a beautiful penholder. Two snow-white penguins stood fixed on both sides of the penholder in between the two penguins, there was a young penguin gazing upward with its mouth agape. Pen was to be kept in that very open mouth. I was not familiar with the price of this sort of thing. Still then I thought it to be very costly. Mother said in a trembling voice,
“Rabeya has brought it from that house.”
The first thing I thought was that Rabeya had brought it not telling anyone. But Rabeya, bending her head like a horse, started saying, “I didn’t bring it. They’ve given it to me themselves.”
Rabeya does not tell lies. But why should they give it to her? Do we have the kind of long-term intimacy that is needed for presenting such a costly thing?
Runu wrapped the pen-holder in a piece of newspaper and went to that house for the first time. Rabeya started protesting with a nasal tone, “Why has Runu taken my thing? I’ll teach her a lesson if she breaks it.”
It was learned that Rabeya did not bring it. They themselves gave it to her. Not exactly they, but Harun bhai gave it. Harun bhai was the boy who would soon leave for some foreign country and who was only waiting for a passport. Sheelu and her mother did not know of it. They were also surprised. Within this short time, Runu became intimate with Sheelu. She brought with her big mimi-chocolate. She brought a book, too. It was Bibhuti Bhushan’s “Drishti Prodip”.
“What sort of people are they, Runu?” I asked.
“Hey, so you’ve melted for a chocolate!”
“Oh, no, Sheelu is realy very good. Do you know she can drive car?”
“Is that so? But she is too young!”
“Really. They’ve sent their car for repair. When it’s brought back, she will show that she can drive.”
“What else did you talk about?”
“A lot of things, they’ve many records.’
”Yes, too many. She has asked me to go there everyday.”
“Only you’ll go? Won’t she come?”
”Why not? Certainly she will.”
Sheelu indeed used to come, but very rarely. Whenever she needed to meet Runu, she would stand beside the window, and shout, “Runu, Runu”. Runu would run leaving everything. In my heart I used to wish Sheelu to come frequently to our house. I intensely desired to talk to her. I had planned in my mind what to talk about if I met her. I had even seen her in dreams on two occasions.
In one of the dreams, Sheelu came and sat on the table with a very loving gesture. She was wearing a saree. I said, “Why are you sitting on the table? Sit on the chair.”
Sheelu said smiling, “I like to sit on the table,” Taking a spoon in her hand, and striking it mildly and repeatedly on a tea cup, she began to produce a sort of music.
The second dream I saw at noon. I felt asleep while hearing the programme called ‘On Request’ in radio. Suddenly I saw that Sheelu came before me. She was wearing a saree as before.
I said complaining, “Sheelu, why are you so late? What a beautiful song was being played.”
“My name is Sheela. Why do you call me Sheelu?”
I used to have this sort of talks with Sheelu. It would happen that I was sitting on the verandah, and suddenly Sheelu would call.
“Hallo, will you please call Runu?”
Father got very angry when he saw the penholder. He had vanity possibly because he was poor. He did not like Sheelu’s family. He suffered all his life. That is why he did not have the mentality to take other’s prosperity easily. He started his life as a teacher in a private school. His earning then was not fixed. We were all dependent upon his earnings. He left the teaching job and entered a firm. After serving for twelve years he became an Accountant from a Cashier. His monthly wage became 350/- Taka. Father was insisting repeatedly on returning the penholder. But Runu or mother none paid any heed to it. The two penguins of the penholder stood like meditating statues on my table. Only Rabeya at times said, “Khoka, don’t think that it’s yours, though I’ve kept it on your table. Of course, if you like, you may keep your pen in it….”