Sahana or Shamim: by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Even when 9/11 took place, Sahana had bought fish regularly. Also when the Godhra incident had taken place in her own country. Taking advantage of Paramesh’s absence, she had bought fish every single time, overcoming her hesitation. So many people were dying every day in Kashmir, America was tearing Iraq to pieces. Militants nurtured by the ISI were taking shelter in Bangladesh, even Kolkata wasn’t safe any more. The air was thick with rumours, you felt afraid to step out of your home, being in a crowd was uncomfortable, the cinema-hall made you claustrophobic – but still, skirting all these truths, Sahana had continued buying fish. When she entered the market, she looked around, then casually approached the area where the fish was sold. She bought the fish, put it in her shopping bag and went home. She did all of it with her mouth clamped shut. Cautiously. Even rinsing the fish slices made her hands shake.

It happened every time – from the moment of buying the fish, through bringing it home in her oversized shopping bag, rinsing the slices gingerly, gathering the scales and the other parts to be discarded with an unerring hand, till she had thrown them away from the high-rise she lived in into the thicket of fig trees on the grounds of the British bungalow next door. Her hands shook, she found it difficult to breathe, her head reeled!

And how self-flagellating the act of frying the fish was. Constantly she felt as though Paramesh were standing next to her, crying, ‘Flesh, flesh!’ She started in alarm every now and then, certain that her fear would lead her to cause an accident. Her own carelessness would make her burn to death. The stench of her roasting flesh would mingle with the flavour of fried fish.

But death would not bring deliverance. The forensic report would definitely indicate that she had been burnt while frying fish. Paramesh’s heart would no longer harbour the detached respect and love that people customarily felt for the dead. If there were any photographs of her in the flat, he would throw them away, damning her as a traitor. And then, he would hate her as long as he lived.

Sahana mused about all of this as she cooked the fish. She usually felt overwhelmed when she was done with the cooking. Unable to control herself, she ate the fish with rice, experiencing an acute sense of satisfaction. But as soon as she had eaten, she began to pant. Fear seized her, weighing her down like a huge slab of stone. She didn’t even blink till she had washed and scoured the utensils, the ladles, the table, the oven – the entire kitchen, in fact – until they gleamed. She sprayed freshener in every room, poured phenyl into the sink. Picking every single bone with her nails, she put them in a polythene packet and threw them out into the thicket next door. She poured soap on her hands, rinsed her mouth out with mouth-freshener, shampooed her hair – she showered! She showered!

Not a trace of the smell remained. Still she sprayed the freshener once more in every room, sniffed both sides of her palm. Sometimes, unable to handle such anxiety, Sahana pounded garlic into a paste and fried it in oil. All smells were certain to be buried.

But the situation had not been remotely like this when they had met and exchanged hearts. Fish had not appeared a significant issue during those early days of their romance. In fact, she had never felt as though she were treading a path of sacrifice in the process of linking her life to Paramesh’s. She had accepted the whole thing without protesting. Although she realised now that she had indeed wanted to protest – but hadn’t been able to.

‘I’m vegetarian,’ Paramesh had told her. ‘You mustn’t eat anything non-vegetarian at home.’

‘What about elsewhere?’ she had asked.

Silent for a couple of seconds, Paramesh had shrugged. ‘I don’t mind chicken. But as for fish, you’ll have to give it up everywhere, at home or elsewhere. I simply cannot tolerate the smell of fish, Sahana. I throw up on the spot. It makes me so sick that I’ve had to be hospitalised in the past. I hate fish. Moreover, Sahana, I cannot dream of kissing or making love to someone who eats fish. I can’t enter someone who, in one way or another, is fishy.’ Holding up the middle fingers of his left hand and shaking them, Paramesh had conveyed both meanings of the word fishy to her. ‘So you have to give it up.’

By then Sahana had fallen in love with Paramesh. If it had been only love, it might have been different, but actually she had also become psychologically dependent on him. She had realised that she would have to give up fish if she wanted Paramesh. Inevitably, she had effortlessly uprooted the very desire for fish from her heart. She had trained her sights instead on all the other kinds of food in the world. For two years she had not eaten any fish. Then she was possessed again by its taste.

And she began to eat fish in secret, and she started to fear Paramesh. For she was only too aware that if Paramesh came to know, their relationship would end. Alternatively, a conflict would erupt, the kind of conflict that we are familiar with. The more Sahana began to fear Paramesh, the more she began to loathe him too. Hatred. Or, one could say that the more she became aware of Paramesh’s abhorrence for fish and those who eat fish, the more determined she become to retaliate with a proportionate degree of abhorrence for those who did not eat fish. She seemed to feel a certain responsibility to do this. She found her self-awareness offering ammunition for her opposition to, and disillusionment about, Paramesh. ‘Those who eat fish and those who don’t are poles apart, separated by a deep gulf of mutual contempt.’ When she grew deeply emotional about fish, she argued with trepidation, ‘Why should I be deprived of fish, Paramesh, just because you don’t enjoy it, just because you cannot stand the smell of fish? Why should you impose your behaviour on mine? I’m not you, I’m a person of my own, I shall remain a distinct person. Isn’t this a mistake on your part, Param?’ Paramesh became furious, telling her about total surrender. ‘Even if I’m wrong,’ he replied, ‘I expect unquestioning submission from you in this regards. Remember that there is no alternative if this relationship is to be maintained in its most peaceful possible state. Or else, as you know, terrible things may happen, you’d better not blame me then.’

Sahana’s former lover Manish returned to her life at this precise juncture. Because hate spirals upwards and the reasons for the hatred fade while the object of the hatred becomes the most important thing, Sahana entered into an illicit relationship with Manish more or less needlessly, simply out of loathing for Paramesh.

Paramesh came out sharply against eating meat and fish one evening at a small party at a friend’s house. ‘The most extreme form of enjoying meat is cannibalism,’ he declared. ‘Human flesh is the most delicious of all!’ Sahana wept buckets that evening, sitting on the toilet in the friend’s house. Finally, she ground her teeth – ‘So it’s hatred? So much hatred?’ On the way back Paramesh’s face appeared to be composed of nothing but a glutinous green substance. The next day she not only cooked some fish, she ate it too in Manish’s arms. Then, drawing strength from ultimate hatred for the first time in her life, she let Manish have her. But she could see that this hatred was working in its entirety on her and her alone. Since Paramesh could perceive nothing of it, since he had no inkling of this nightmarish loathing, the only person who had to bear it was Sahana herself. Poor Sahana! Not only was she the one to hate, she was also the one to suffer from its impact. Just like cheating – as long as the person being cheated is not aware of being cheated, they don’t have to bear the burden of being cheated, it is borne entirely by the person doing the cheating. And again, the moment the person being cheated gets to know everything, they’re no longer being cheated. And yet the person who had done the cheating continues to bear the entire burden, as before! In other words, people can cheat, but people can never be cheated – it really was entirely one-sided.

In the same way Sahana cheated Paramesh, but Paramesh wasn’t cheated. Sahana hated, but Paramesh did not feel hated. Sahana remained perpetually drenched in her own loathing. Yet whenever during the day or the night Paramesh wanted to be intimate with her, he smelt strawberry, gulabjamun or mint on her breath. He was able to relax his body completely and kiss her fervently. He could say, ‘Don’t you love me any more, Sana? Why is your mouth so cold otherwise?’

On the other hand Sahana frequently discovered when trying to cook the fish she had bought that it had rotted. Rotted completely! When having sex with Manish she discovered she did not want him, during intercourse with Paramesh she suffered from guilt, disquiet and fear – and she filled the rest of her hours with hatred. It was an unarticulated, unstated hatred, which progressively crossed the limits of forbidden pleasure to rot just like stale fish. Yet Sahana could not simply separate the scales and bones and throw them away. She could not forget that Paramesh and she were repulsively unlike each other.

Paramesh had been in London on 7/7. Sahana didn’t know anything about the explosions till Pubali called her in the afternoon with great anxiety, for she hadn’t switched her TV on.

In a frenzy she tried to call Paramesh on his mobile. But a pre-recorded voice kept informing her that ‘the subscriber is out of reach at this moment…’

Their friends gathered one by one. Manish, Pubali, Tushar, Vasundhara. Each of them tried in their own way to get some information about Paramesh. But evening stretched into night, there was neither any news of Paramesh, nor any communication from him.

Despite their collective efforts her friends could not calm Sahana down. Her behaviour was out of control. Although they could make out her words, none of them could understand what Sahana meant.

‘My hatred has killed Paramesh,’ Sahana was shrieking, ‘my continuous hatred.’ In tears, she continued, ‘Was it necessary to hate him so much?’

The day passed in a whirl. Paramesh did not return. A week later Sahana took a flight to London, along with her sister and brother-in-law. And returned without Paramesh.

There was no trace of Paramesh anywhere. No sign. It wasn’t even obvious whether he was dead.

A couple of months later Manish visited Sahana. She seized his arm. ‘I’m converting, Manish,’ she told him. ‘I’m going to become a Muslim.’

Manish was so astonished he was unable to say anything. He could not grasp how this was related to the grief resulting from Paramesh’s disappearance, or whether it was at all related. ‘Paramesh used to talk of complete submission, Manish,’ Sahana continued. ‘We cannot live together until you become me, he would say. I could say that to you too, Param, I used to reply angrily.

‘He would shake his head. Ultimate submission means unquestioning surrender, he would say. Where there is no scope for asking questions. Where questions don’t even exist.

‘Now that I don’t know whether Paramesh will be back, Manish, I have found only one way to offer the ultimate submission he wanted. Only one. In a couple of days a senior Muslim priest will convert me. My name will be Shamim.’

Possibly understanding some of what Sahana was getting at, Manish reached out to move a few strands of hair away from her face. ‘Is there no other way, Sahana?’ he asked.

‘No, there isn’t, Manish. There’s no shortcut. No room for bargaining. I cannot become you with anything less than this. All effort will go waste. This is what complete submission means, Manish. When Paramesh comes back he will realise that, even if it took time, I have been able to accept him with my heart.’

Don’t raise any questions about this story, reader. Before you can, I would like to remind you that this is a story of unquestioning surrender.

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