‘Ma, every time you tell me the ‘No Lies in Her Fire’ story you never finish it…’
‘Because you fall asleep.’
‘No! One night I didn’t fall asleep, but you said, “No more tonight.”‘
‘Maybe I was tired.’
‘Tell me tonight. It’s the 26th of Agrahayan, your wedding anniversary. You must tell me the whole thing today! Please!’
‘All right, I’ll tell you, but you still have to wake up in the morning and mustn’t be late in school.’
‘No, I’ll wake up on time, you’ll see. Now tell the story.’
It was the 19th of Agrahayan. Jonaki and her friend Nandini were on their way back home from school. On foot, like every day, just like penguins, their heads lowered, their books clasped to their breasts. Beyond the head of the main road, two young girls on the narrow ledge separating two fields. Their homes were a short distance away. Jonaki and her family lived in a modest hut three houses down from Nandini’s family. It was the month of Agrahayan. Lush crops.
Suddenly four young men appeared ahead of them. Before the girls knew what was happening, the men clamped their hands on their mouths and took them away. Into the rice fields. Where they stuffed handkerchiefs into the girls’ mouths. Nandini’s dreams of joining the police, Jonaki’s hopes of turning around her family’s fortunes – all of these turned into cries of anguish, swept away over the rice fields. Wild laughter seemed to be coming from the stalks of grain. When one stopped, another began. But the two innocent girls’ sobs didn’t stop, their tears mingling, their muffled groans merging into one. Their final attempts to free themselves had blended with one another too.
The Azaan for the Asar Prayer wafted in from a distance. This stretch might soon become busy with worshippers going back and forth.
Shall we finish them off with the scarves, boss?
‘No way, It’s election time for Abba soon, we’d better not get involved in murder. And why kill pussies? The more pussies, the more fucks, you know that.’
‘What if they talk!’
‘You think they’ll take the risk? Everyone will say they’re bad girls, bad. If it comes to that, we’ll see.’
‘Let’s get out of here now…’
They left like the wind.
Jonaki could hear voices. Opening her eyes, she found dusk had descended along with murmurs of people. She was surrounded by nearly fifty people. How long had she been unconscious? Someone had covered her with a sheet. Soon she heard her mother shriek. ‘Who has done this to my daughter? Who? Why did you punish us this way, lord? What did I do to deserve this?’ Jonaki, a daughter of an impoverished peasant from the village, barely 15 years old.
There was a hum among the people. Jonaki saw no sign of Nandini anywhere. Their books were scattered nearby. Some people carried Jonaki into a van parked a short distance away.
The van lurched along the bank of the river Lula. Jonaki had been born in the beautiful village of Lota, a sub-division of the district of Sylhet in Bangladesh which had sprung up next to the Lula.
The stars were twinkling in the sky, while a swarm of fireflies flew around the yard – it was on such a night that she had been born. The neighbours named her Jonaki, for the fireflies. It wasn’t as though Jonaki was particularly pretty, but she was very fair, almost like westerners. ‘Here comes the foreigner,’ the village boys would chant whenever they saw her. Which was why she was the centre of attraction in the village. Jonaki studied in Class Eight of the school in Lota. In behaviour and in speech, she was calm and composed. But today everything had fallen to pieces.
The van was hurtling along, running through rows of kash and processions of fireflies. In this darkness and turmoil, Jonaki was delirious. ‘Is it because of all your sadness that you’ve left the light for the darkness, star of happiness? Do you shine in the night sky to dole out sorrows to everyone, like me? Do you need a companion, a partner in your misery? Will you take me?’
Kamal Rahman, sitting in the van, said, ‘She’s burning with fever. Babbling. Drive faster.’
Jonaki had realised that this man was sitting by her side. She addressed him as ‘Chacha’. It was on his request that her father hadn’t stopped her from going to school. Very few people in the village liked Kamal Chacha. Most of them considered him an atheist. His voice comforted Jonaki.
‘Hurry up, driver’- Kamal urged the driver again.
The aged Hatem Ali, one of the village elders, said, ‘Drive as you do normally, if fate holds death for her, who are we to stop it? And what good is it for her to live anyway? There’s no sense in driving rashly in the darkness and overturning the van.’
Jonaki felt like leftover food as she listened to Hatem. She wanted to embrace the word death. A gust of cold wind buffeted her. How was she to present herself to society now? In the darkness of the night she pleaded with the angel of death, ‘Take me to the stars.’
Comforting her, Kamal said, ‘Have a little patience, my daughter, pray to Allah, he takes care of everything, we have to remedy this, it’s not your fault, the fault is of the one above, who sent you as a woman to this clan of men.’
Jonaki felt a spark running through her.
People could destroy the society of the body, but who had the ability to destroy the society of dreams? Two lines from her textbook rose in front of her eyes like an angel – ‘Those who are unjust and those who bear injustice must both be trampled underfoot with equal hatred.’
‘Stop talking like a godless man, Kamal!’ Hatem Ali’s roar devoured the silence of the night.
The van came to a halt in front of Keramat Ali’s chamber. He was the only doctor to speak of in the village.
Jonaki was brought in and laid on a small cot in one corner of the chamber. It was curtained off by a sari.
Hatem said, ‘Can you check her, doctor – she’s probably lost her virginity, but take a good look to make sure.’
‘If women roam about the fields under the pretext of getting an education instead of looking after the home, this is inevitable,’ said Doctor Keramat, drawing the curtains closed.
Then he plunged into the task of assessing Jonaki’s virginity. With the torch in one hand, he pressed down on her thigh with the other. The lantern winked next to them. The doctor examined her with his fingers. Kept examining her. He just wouldn’t stop. Putting his hand on Jonaki’s thigh again, he said, ‘Your honour is in my hands. I can declare that you’re still a virgin. I can give you all the comforts of a queen, are you willing? I’ll build a separate house for you if you like, you won’t have to live with my other wife. Do you want a life of luxury or do you want to bring the poison of disgrace on yourself and be forced to jump into the river?
Jonaki stared at him blankly. From her thigh the doctor moved his hand to her breasts. She was unruffled, silent. In stark contrast to the way she had trembled in the rice fields hours ago. Still. As though she were a stone, without sensations. Someone peeped in, asking – how much longer, doctor? Quickly withdrawing his hand, the doctor said – just checking whether her heartbeat is all right, I’ll be there in a moment.
The villagers were gathering outside the doctor’s chamber. On any other day, they would have been back home by now, preparing for sleep with their doors bolted.
Emerging outside the curtain, the doctor declared boldly, ‘Friends, there’s some good news, Alhamdulillah, praise the lord. The blood is from a cut over her knee caused by a bamboo stick or a shard of glass. But they tried very hard to rape her.’
Now a group of people parted the curtain to go in. They badgered Jonaki with their questions. ‘Who has done this sinful thing? Who is it, Jonaki… tell us.’
Jonaki stared at them, her eyes as heavy as rocks. Under the faint light of the lantern a question occurred to her. Would she also have been considered a sinner by the villagers if the doctor had declared that she had lost her virginity?
That was how she had felt on seeing everyone clustered around her when she had regained consciousness in the rice field. ‘I must have committed some awful crime, that’s why these people are staring at me this way.’
Jonaki didn’t know what to say. Almost inaudibly she asked, ‘Where’s Nandini?’
‘Oh yes, Nandini and you usually come back together, does that mean Nandini saw who it was? Did Nandini see the swines?’ Several people threw a barrage of questions at her.
‘No, Nandini came back early today, she doesn’t know anything,’ said someone, pushing through the crowd. It was the schoolmaster. Nandini’s father.
‘Khalu, Khalu,’ Jonaki sobbed, calling out to him. The schoolmaster put his hand on her head. He looked very worried. Even in the dim light of the lantern the tears in his eyes were visible. There was an impenetrable blackness in them.
Meanwhile there was a hubbub. Kashem Joardar, a candidate of the next Chairman election in the village, appeared there. The doctor’s chamber was bulging with curious onlookers. Some of them went out to make room for Kashem and his entourage.
‘I believe a few people saw the chairman’s son Jamir and and some of his friends running away from the rice fields this afternoon. Jamir is no saint. What happened, Jonaki? Who did this?’
Pindrop silence descended on the doctor’s tiny chamber. A couple of people retreated at once, preferring not to associate themselves with this scandal. Most people who had been fuming at the thought of rape or attempted rape calmed down. Jonaki’s eyes widened in surprise.
Kashem said, ‘There must be justice. If you don’t want to speak, I shall talk this over with your parents and decide on a course of action.
Someone in the crowd said, ‘But her parents have already disowned her.’
‘But her virginity is intact!’ disclosed Hatem loudly.
‘They were told a short while ago, they don’t even want to see this wretched girl’s face again.’
‘Will you let this girl stay with you for a few days, mastermoshai? Until a meeting or hearing takes place. The chairman has apparently gone to the town, I don’t see any chance of a resolution till he returns.’ There was a plea in Kamal’s voice.
The schoolmaster was torn. On the one hand it appeared to him that taking Jonaki home would make it easier to brush everything under the carpet. At least rumours wouldn’t start flying about his own daughter. But what if people suspected she was a victim too? What then? And what if Jonaki blurted out her friend’s name to someone in an emotional outburst?
‘If no one has any objection I can let Jonaki stay at my house, she will be well cared for,’ proposed the doctor.
‘No, let me take her to my house, my daughter has been very upset about her friend ever since she heard what happened, thank God she came back early from school today.’
Everyone agreed in unison, with the exception of the doctor. The schoolmaster took Jonaki home, along with some medicines.
The schoolmaster managed to chase the villagers away that night. ‘We’ll discuss this again tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘Please leave now, it’s midnight already.’ When someone asked about Nandini, he answered, ‘Nandini’s asleep.’
Jonaki was given shelter in Nandini’s tiny bedroom. An owl hooted in the distance. The coconut tree crashed on the tin roof repeatedly. The doors and windows were shut. Nandini’s mother lay next to Jonaki, facing away from her. She wept continuously, stopping only once to tell Jonaki faintly, ‘Wake me up if you need to go to the bathroom.’
‘Okay, Khalamma.’ She didn’t get the opportunity to ask any more questions.
The scene in the rice field kept floating up to Jonaki’s eyes. Two girls and four animals. Jonaki wanted to forget all this. She thought of her parents. With a sigh, she tried to shift her thoughts to something else. Her conversation with Nandini a few days ago occurred to her.
Nandini: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Jonaki: I want a job, I want to bring some joy to my parents in these hard times for our family. You?
Nandini: I want to join the police, but my father says it’s not a respectable job for a woman.
Jonaki: Hehehe, police! Why the police, of all things? How strange! I’m afraid of the very sight of them.
Nandini: That’s exactly why. Have you seen the boys in our village these days? They stare at us like they want to gobble us up. It’s filthy, the look in their eyes.
Jonaki: I’ve seen them too, it’s terrible. But they won’t do anything to you – you’re the schoolmaster’s daughter, after all. I’m afraid of them, you know?
That unknown terror closed in on her. The girl couldn’t sleep all night. Just as she had dozed off in the morning, the schoolmaster’s wife woke her up in a flurry of excitement.
‘Chairman sahib is here, he wants to talk to you.’
‘What should I say to him?’
‘I don’t know, ask Nandini’s father. Just don’t bring my daughter into this, Nandini is at her cousin’s wedding. She wasn’t anywhere nearby when all this happened.’
‘Is Nandini all right, Khalamma?’
‘Of course! why shouldn’t she be all right? Think of yourself, forget about her.’
This was not the Khalamma Jonaki knew. When she left, Nandini’s father came in. As soon as he entered, she began to sob again, saying, ‘Khalu!’
But the schoolmaster seemed a stranger. He sat down in the chair by the bed. No one spoke. The very air seemed motionless. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead.
Wiping his sweat on his sleeve, he said, ‘Look, what’s done is done. Since the doctor says there’s been no great damage, I think we should accept this. Society is unforgiving, you know. If we try to protest, we’ll only add to our own misery, and be robbed of our dignity. In fact, we’ll have to leave the village. Some people have even lost their lives trying to talk about such things. Chairman sahib is waiting in the sitting room, he wants to talk to you, I’ll ask him to come inside, tell him…’
‘What do I tell him, Khalu?’
‘That his son wasn’t involved in yesterday’s incident. You can name the other three if you want to, or not, it’s up to you.’
The schoolmaster’s wife sat next to Jonaki, her head covered by the end of her sari. Osman Talukdar, the chairman, entered, accompanied by three people. Jonaki was ready, sitting on the floor and leaning back against a wall. She greeted the chairman, ‘Assalam Alaikum.’
Returning Jonaki’s greeting, the chairman said, ‘You can tell me everything without hesitation, I will take all necessary steps. The elections are coming up, as you know, and the enemy is trying to malign me in every possible way. So I want to find out from you what’s true and what isn’t. I dropped everything as soon as I heard and came to the village.’
Jonaki looked at the floor in silence. There were many things she wanted to say, but she wasn’t allowed to. And she couldn’t force herself to say the things she didn’t want to.
‘Do you know the people who attacked you?’
‘Yes, I know them all.’
Lines of anxiety appeared on the chairman’s face. ‘How many of them? What are their names?’
Jonaki named three of them. And stopped abruptly.
A happy smile appeared on the chairman’s face, like the expression on the face of a monarch after winning a war. ‘Don’t worry, I will bring each of them to justice and have them put away in jail, I’m calling the police at once…’
‘No need to go to the trouble of calling the police, chairman sahib, why don’t you set up a village court and hold a trial yourself?’
The chairman seemed to have been waiting for just such a proposal. With a smile, he said, ‘You’re right, Mastermoshai.’
Seven days later the village court was in session with the three accused. All the eminent personalities of the village took their seats. One of them said, ‘Boys do these things at this age. It’s best to overlook this.’
Another said, ‘Get them married – everything will be sorted. They’re desperate to be married.’
Kamal said, ‘But there must be exemplary punishment. Our mothers and sisters cannot be dishonoured this way in our village.’
Someone else exclaimed, ‘Stop right there, Kamal Mian, you’re an atheist. If everyone’s either our mother or sister, whom will our sons marry? Ha ha ha!’
The court set up to try the rape had turned into a comedy show.
Someone asked, ‘What I’d like to know is, why should a woman be walking through the fields alone? What kind of a man will not be tempted by a woman?’
Many people laughed. Then another of those gathered asked, ‘The question is, when there are so many girls hereabouts, why would these young men target a poor peasant’s daughter? Her father would have sold her for five hundred taka if only they’d asked.’
Hatem said, ‘Stealing and wanting to steal are not the same crime, do all of you agree? Since there was no rape, but only attempted rape, just let them off this time with a few tight slaps. It wouldn’t be right to ruin their future, they’re young after all, pardon them.’
The three young men were made to kneel, clutching their own ears. The chairman rose to slap each of them.
Declaring that they wouldn’t repeat such sins, the three of them sought the forgiveness of the village elders with smiles on their faces.
‘This isn’t justice,’ said Kamal.
His protests fell on deaf ears. Sensing the mood of the other members of the jury, Kashem Joardar adopted a safe stance. He would have to keep these people on his side to negotiate the electoral currents.
Then Kamal said, ‘What will happen to Jonaki now? Her parents couldn’t be persuaded, they won’t let her come home.’
Now the chairman stirred. ‘Let me say something openly. I want to take care of Jonaki. She has a future, after all. I feel very sorry for her. I’m ready to arrange the marriage right away if that’s what all of you would like.’
‘She’s still in school, she’s still young. Would marriage be right for her at this age? I’ll look after her if needs be.’ Kamal was all worked up.
‘Oh but you won’t marry her, Mian. Would it be legitimate to take care of a woman without marrying her? It might have been different if you’d already been married. But a woman cannot be kept in the custody of an unmarried man,’ declared Jabbar Mian, another of the village elders.
Jonaki’s wedding took place at the same court, within an hour. The Imam from the mosque conducted it. The rapists, Dr Keramat, and the chairman appeared by turn in front of the bride’s eyes. A little later she discovered herself draped in a red sari – Jonaki dipped in blood. How life could change in just seven days!
Drawing her aside, the schoolmaster had told her urgently, ‘Think it over, you’re 15, the chairman is 52. His first wife killed herself, no one knows why. His second wife died last year of kala-azar. You know all this already. And his son won’t leave you in peace; what will you get from a family like this?’
‘A little ground beneath my feet. Will you give me a place to live in if I don’t agree to the wedding, sir?’ She used the ‘sir’ deliberately to convey to the schoolmaster that theirs wasn’t any close bonding. It was an exchange between a teacher and a pupil.
Jonaki had exposed the rusted, feeble, cowardly nature of the teacher, who only paid lip service to education and reform. He left slowly.
A ball of fire was growing in her heart. She was seared by its flames – for a young man. She had received an anonymous letter barely a month ago, tucked into her maths textbook. She had recognised him at once from the handwriting. Nandini’s elder brother. She liked him, too. She hadn’t met Nayon even once after the incident. He must have taken Nandini away somewhere. Were they really with their cousins?
Like a blood-soaked bird she entered the chairman’s house as his wife. But the only image in her head was of a wild stallion. The quiet, serene girl grew impatient and restless, constantly whipping the horse in her thoughts through every waking moment. So that it could fly in the air and send an arrow through a throne somewhere. The rice field, the chilling wind that night, the flowers that set the woods aflame, the magic of the tiny letters in the book, all mingled into one. There was just the one thing hovering above her head. The wild stallion.
Jamir was thunderstruck. Who’d have thought his father was suddenly going to marry her? The girl he had taken in the rice fields was now in his father’s bedroom. His stepmother!
He didn’t go home for the first few days. What was he going to tell his father? If he had an inkling of the wedding he would have prevented it at any cost. But now? Making the slightest noise might mean his father’s losing the elections. Jamir knew very well that his father was even willing to make any sacrifice for victory. Such harsh punishment for a mere rape! He hadn’t faced as much trouble even after committing murder. Jamir began plotting ways to get rid of Jonaki after the elections.
Meanwhile, Jonaki’s wardrobe had been transformed. She really did look like a wealthy queen in a royal palace. The girl who had never been fortunate enough to wear a single beautiful dress in her childhood now appeared to be the inhabitant of another planet when she looked at herself in the mirror. She had grown up hearing stories from her mother about how they had once owned everything – land, overflowing granaries, a large house. But Jonaki’s birth marked the decline of their fortune. The affluent farmer became debt-ridden.
But Kamal Chacha had told her a different version. Two successive unseasonal floods had killed their crops, submerging their golden harvest. Her father took a loan from the moneylender, after which he had to give up all their property and holdings. In helplessness and rage the farmer would take it out alternately on his wife and little Jonaki by beating them. Kamal Chacha would end his story by saying, ‘Your father used to be a good man, but he lost his head after going bankrupt. Once you get an education and find a job and bring the joy back into your parents’ lives, everything will be all right.
Days passed, a month passed, Jonaki had no news of Nandini. She heard that Nayon was back in the village. Rumours swirled – Nandini had been admitted to a new high school, Nandini had herself got married after her cousin’s wedding, to a groom who had just returned from overseas, and many more such stories. Jonaki’s hands and feet began to sweat – Nandini was alive, wasn’t she? The schoolmaster usually took the same road home as they did, about an hour later, had he spirited his daughter away himself? Nandini was alive, wasn’t she? She couldn’t think anymore, she felt numb.
Jonaki sensed the heartbeat of a new life within her. She remembered the month of Agrahayan, the rice field, the stricken cries, her wedding night a week later. She had been whipping the wild stallion twenty four hours a day, harder, even harder, without anyone noticing.
She began to bring the domestic staff under her control. She tipped the servants with or without reason, even converting one or two of her husband’s political goons into her devoted admirers.
There was just a month to go to the elections. Osman Talukdar would have to make a trip to the capital Dhaka, even though his popularity in his village was at its peak. Never before had he earned the kind of plaudits that had come his way after marrying the helpless girl.
It was the month of Chaitra. There were sparks of fire in the air. On such an afternoon the chairman set off for Dhaka. That evening Jonaki sent for Jamir on the pretext of discussing something ‘important about the elections’.
Jamir lived on the ground floor of the chairman’s two-storied house. Jonaki lived upstairs.
There was a family room just outside the bedroom on the first floor, which was where Jamir appeared. He had not been to this floor since his father’s marriage, living like a visitor in his own house. He confined himself to his room when he was home. Someone entered the room slowly.
‘An important matter, I have to tell you in private.’ Jamir looked up to discover Jonaki.
He followed Jonaki in, his eyes on the floor. She asked him to take a chair. Jamir sat down in his father’s room, feeling extremely ill at ease. His eyes stopped at Jonaki’s swelling stomach. She shut the door and locked it in a flash.
An anxious Jamir jumped out of his chair. ‘What’s all this… I don’t understand.’
‘I want to see how strong you are. Hold me now. Imagine it’s the month of Agrahayan, imagine we’re in the rice field.’
‘Have you gone mad? Just because my father’s married a lowlife bitch like you don’t imagine you hold all the aces. Just wait till the elections are over, I’ll throw you out like a dog.’
‘But I cannot wait so long. I shan’t let a wild animal stay in this house anymore, you see.’
Jonaki tore her own clothes off and wrapped her arms around Jamir, just the way he had wrapped his arms around her five months earlier.
And then she began to scream, ‘Help! Help!’
The servants broke down the door and entered. At once the news spread through the village – he had raped his mother!
Jamir was tied to a tree. The same tree near which the village court had heard the rape case.
Jamir’s relatives had gathered. They were also at the receiving end of abuse from the villagers. The crowd was a tinderbox. Raping one’s mother! Kashem Joardar added his voice to the villagers’. ‘No trace of this sin must be allowed to remain in this village. Raping your mother!’
Thousands of people from nearby villages rushed to the spot for a glimpse of the man who had raped his mother. ‘She isn’t my mother,’ shrieked Jamir.
At once people started throwing stones at him. ‘She’s your father’s wife, you swine.’ Condemnation descended on the village.
No one bothered to listen to what Jamir wanted to say.
The chairman rushed back home. But the journey from Dhaka took almost a day. He returned to discover his son tied to the banyan tree. His still, lifeless body was slumped at an unnatural angle.
Chairman ran up to his only son like a madman, embracing him. Who dared strike the chairman’s son? Osman Talukdar wept uncontrollably. He did not remember the last time he had cried.
The chairman’s companions were bewildered and confused. Some of them began to untie Jamir, while others tried to apprehend the people connected with the incident. It might have been possible to catch one murderer or two or even ten – but how would they catch the entire village?
The chairman went home, leaving his son’s corpse behind. With rage in his eyes and murder in his heart, he shouted to Jonaki, ‘ How dare you trap my son?’
‘Your son had the courage to rob me of my dignity. The same courage. I had only wanted to put my rapist in an iron cage, but the villagers here took advantage of the training that you have given them in taking the law into their own hands. These are the wages of your sins.’
‘I asked you for the identity of the attackers, you didn’t name my son. You bitch!’
‘If I had named your son you would have had me killed at once, wouldn’t you?
‘How dare a woman from the gutter like you speak that way? I knew on the wedding night you were no virgin. I’ll divorce you at once.’
‘I have no objection. I still don’t know whose child I’m carrying – whether it’s Osman or Jamir or…’
‘Liar, cheat, I’ll finish you at once.’ The chairman clutched his chest. There was a pain on the left side. He collapsed to the gleaming floor.
The story had ended.
Palki couldn’t sleep. She shut her eyes and pretended to sleep, but all she could see was her mother’s face. Turning to face the other way, she only wept. And muttered, ‘There was no lie in your fire, Ma, I love you.’
In the bedroom at midnight, there was a sudden torrential downpour in the eyes. The twenty-seven-year-old mother let loose a melting glacier of water