Motalef began to tap the palm trees in the Chowdhurys’ orchard around the middle of Kartik. And before a fortnight had passed, he married his neighbour Razek Mridha’s widow Majukhatun and brought her home. Not that this was the first time for Motalef. His previous wife had died a year or so ago. But Motalef was twenty-five or twenty-six, in the prime of life. As for Majukhatun, she was nearly, if not actually, thirty. She didn’t have children to worry about, though. She had married off her only daughter to the Shaikh family at Kathikhali. But while she had no worries, she didn’t have much of her own either by way of property or riches. It wasn’t as though Razek mian had left behind chests full of gold and fields full of crops for her to get a share of. All she had got was 700 square feet or so of the family land, and a dilapidated hut. So much for her riches. And then she wasn’t exactly a nymph when it came to looks. Majukhatun had nothing but the firm body of a fiery woman with which to attract men and win their hearts.
The wives of the Sikdars and Qazis nudged and winked at one another. “The bitch knows black-magic, she’s cast a spell over his eyes.”
“Good for her,” declared Sakina, the youngest of the Munshi wives. “Why shouldn’t she? It’s best to cast a spell over the eyes of man like that. The lord hasn’t taught him how to look away. Have you seen that crooked stare of his? Good for her if she’s managed to divert his attention.”
She was right. Motalef did have a crooked stare. He picked beautiful women in particular; his eyes were always roving for a pretty face. He had been trying all this time to find a young, beautiful woman to marry. But he couldn’t meet the asking rate. Anyone who had a fully-grown, pretty daughter had set a high price. Motalef had been bowled over most of all by Phulbanu. The daughter of Elem Shaikh from Charkhanda, she was eighteen or thereabouts. Her body oozed promise, her heart was eager. Phulbanu was second-hand material, however. She had obtained a talaq from Gafoor Sikdar of Kaidoobi on the pretext that he did not take care of her and beat her up. Actually Phulbanu had been put off by Gafoor because he was much older than her and not handsome either. That was why she had deliberately picked fights with him. But being second-hand had not harmed Phulbanu’s looks in any way, if anything her body was more alluring and attractive, while a torrent of sensuality coursed through her heart. Motalef had seen her on the banks of the river at Charkhanda. He knew at a glance that he had caught her eye too. Motalef was no laggard when it came to appearance. Slim and fair, he cut a fine figure in his blue lungi; and besides, how many others hereabouts could boast of such stylish, flowing hair? Motalef was in no doubt about Phulbanu’s approval. He had found his way to Elem Sheikh’s house. But Elem paid no attention to him, saying he had learnt his lesson the last time around. He wouldn’t hand his daughter over to anyone without making enquiries and weighing his options. In truth, all he wanted was money. He wanted to recoup his expenses on securing a talaq for his daughter, with interest added on. He wanted his losses compensated. Motalef had estimated that the compensation would come to, not twenty or forty, but a full hundred rupees. Elem would never agree to anything less. But how was he to get so much money?
Motalef had to come away with a gloomy face. He ran into Phulbanu again amidst the wild bushes near the river. She was on her way with a pitcher for water. Motalef realised that her need for water was well-timed.
Looking around furtively, Phulbanu chuckled. “Well mian, angry?”
“Why shouldn’t I be? Didn’t you hear the price your father quoted?”
“I heard,” said Phulbanu. “And what’s wrong with that? You want to get what you like without paying my father for it?”
“It’s not the father but the daughter who’s set the price,” said Motalef. “Put yourself into a basket and go on sale at the market.”
Phulbanu laughed at Motalef’s rage. “Not just a basket, I’ll go in a carriage. With fistfuls of gold and jewellery. Show me what kind of man you are, what kind of fists you have.” Motalef was about to stomp off. Phulbanu called him back. “Don’t be angry, handsome. Listen to me.”
“Listen to what?” asked Motalef, turning back.
Looking around again, Phulbanu went a little closer. “Listen to my heart, that’s what. Listen, my father’s daughter doesn’t want either money or jewellery, all she wants is that her man doesn’t sacrifice his honour. She wants to see his spirit. Understand?”
Motalef nodded to say he had understood.
“But don’t do anything stupid, mian,” warned Phulbanu. ‘Don’t go selling your land or anything.”
Not that Motalef had enough land to sell—but his pride would not allow him to reveal this to Phulbanu. “All right, just let winter go by,” he said, “I’ll show you my honour and my spirit. But will bibijaan have the patience to wait?”
“Of course she will,” smiled Phulbanu. “Don’t mistake me for an impatient woman.”
Back in his village, Motalef attempted once more to borrow some money. He tried with the Mullicks, the Mukherjees, the Sikdars, and the Munshis, but without any luck. Once he borrowed money, Motalef was not in the habit of paying it back quickly. Getting him to return a loan was a tall order. No one was going to take it on willingly.
But although he didn’t get cash on loan, Motalef did get a commission for nearly a hundred palm trees at the beginning of winter. The number of trees in the Chowdhurys’ garden had been growing since last year; there were more than one hundred and fifty now. The trees would have to be tapped and the palm juice collected in pots. Half the juice would go to the owner, and half to him for all his efforts. It was no small enterprise. The dead branches would first have to be trimmed from each of the tees. The blade would have to be honed, and then the bark scraped off the trunks to insert thin pipes made from reeds. Earthen pots would have to be attached properly at the ends of these pipes. Only then would the juice dripping all night be collected in the pot. It involved a lot of work, a great deal of attention. It needed sweat to extract the juice from the dry, unyielding palm trees. It wasn’t like your mother’s milk, or a cow’s, that you could just suck off the nipple.
Of course, it wasn’t enough to work hard. You also had to know how to climb up and down trees; you needed skilful hands too. It was this skill that made the sharp blade—the slightest touch of which on the skin could make blood flow—get the palm trees to ooze their sweet syrup. This wasn’t like harvesting paddy or jute, where you could simply cut the entire plant along with the root at one stroke. This was tapping a palm tree, which meant both slicing and stroking. The tree must not be hurt or damaged. The slightest slip of the fingers and the tree would die before the year was out, with only its stump left. The wood from the trunk might be used to make flights of stairs for the river ghat or your home, but the tree would no longer ooze its juice one drop at a time all night.
Razek Mridha had trained Motalef how to tap palm trees. All these principles and dos-and-don’ts were also his. There wasn’t a tapper as famous as Razek. His fingers could even coax the syrup out of trees three-fourths dead. A tree that yielded half a pot of juice to others filled Razek’s pot to the brim. Householders would be confident when they gave him the commission for their trees. The trees would not be harmed, and the pots would be full. Motalef had spent several years as Razek’s pupil, following him everywhere and helping him. Razek had a couple of other pupils too—Maqbool from the Sikdar family, and Ismail from the Qazis. But none of them became the expert that Motalef did. Only Motalef could have replaced Razek.
But it wasn’t enough to tap the trees by the score, nor to bring the juice home in pots balanced at either end of a long stick placed on the shoulder—you needed someone to make gur—jaggery—out of the juice. A man could only tap the trees and fetch the juice, but it was up to a woman to make the oven, get hold of kindling, and bring the liquid syrup to a boil over and over till it was converted into a thick paatali gur. Only when the raw juice had ripened into gur would there be fulfilment, only then would all the toil and effort yield results. But for a couple of years now, there had been no such person in Motalef’s home. His mother had died when he was a child. When his wife died two years ago, there was absolutely no one left for the task.
When evening had fallen, Motalef arrived at Majukhatun’s hut, where the door was barred. “Are you awake, Maju-bibi?”
“Who is it?” Majukhatun responded from her house.
“It’s me, Motalef. Have you gone to bed? If you’d go to the trouble of opening the door… I want to talk to you.”
Opening the door, Majukhatun said, “I know what you have to say. Since it’s the season for gur it’s time to come to Majukhatun. The syrup has to be boiled and thickened. But you have to pay four annas a seer, mian. I can’t do it cheaper. I don’t feel strong in the body this year.”
“Why blame your body, bibi?” Motalef said sweetly. “The body follows the heart. If the heart is happy, so’s the body.”
“Whatever you may say, mian. I can’t do it for less than four annas,” said Majukhatun.
Motalef smiled winningly. “Never mind four annas, will you agree to take the full rupee if I offer it, bibi?”
Majukhatun’s heart fluttered a little at his smile, but her response was brisk. “Never mind the sweet talk, mian. If you want to talk business, I’ll listen, or else I’m going to bed.”
“Of course you’ll go to bed,” answered Motalef. “That’s what the night is for. But going to bed doesn’t mean sleep, does it, Maju-bibi? How do you spend the long winter nights awake?”
Abandoning his hints and innuendoes, Motalef now made himself clear. He did not wish to take unfair advantage of her. He wanted to summon a priest to read the scripture so that he could marry her and take her home. He wanted to give her complete responsibility for his home and household.
Majukhatun was astonished at the proposal. “Can’t you find someone else to joke with?” she chided him. “Is there a dearth of young girls? Why are you knocking at my door?”
“Why should there be a dearth, Maju-bibi?” said Motalef. “There are plenty of young women. But despite everything they are nothing but pots of raw juice.”
“Really?” Majukhatun was amused. “And me?”
“You’re different. You’re toddy for a drink and gur for a meal. How can I compare you to them?”
Although Majukhatun sent Motalef on his way for the moment, she couldn’t quite forget what he told her. His words played havoc in her mind as she lay in her lonely bed in the dark. She had known him a long time. Motalef used to visit this house from the time he worked with Razek, when Razek was still alive. They had known each other since then. But there was no intimacy in that acquaintance. They would laugh and joke with each other sometimes, but that was as far as it had gone. Motalef was married, and Majukhatun had her husband. Razek’s was a stern, unromantic personality. He spoke harshly and sharply. In winter he would fetch scores of pots brimming with syrup, which Majukhatun would boil repeatedly to make gur with. Her touch was magic. The gur she made sold at a higher price than anyone else’s in the market. After Razek’s death, most of the palm trees nearby were handed over to Motalef to tap. He offered her a couple of pots of juice out of courtesy now and then, but her yard was no longer filled with pots. Last year, Motalef had engaged her for a month or so to make gur from his syrup. He was supposed to pay her two annas a seer, but about a month later Motalef began to suspect her of stealing gur and getting someone else to sell it in secret. In other words, Motalef wasn’t getting the full share. The dispute made their arrangement fall though. But this time Motalef had not proposed giving her the juice to make gur from; he had proposed taking Majukhatun home as his wife. One or two of the middle-aged men in the neighbourhood had made similar propositions earlier, but Majukhatun had paid no attention to them. She had threatened to cut off the ears of the younger men who had approached her with less honourable intentions. But Motalef’s proposal was entirely different in nature. She couldn’t dismiss him the same way. Even if she could, what he had said kept coming back to her. No one hereabouts had such a honeyed tongue; no one was as handsome either.
Motalef had to visit her one or two more evenings before Majukhatun followed him to his house, dressed in a glittering blue sari and multicoloured glass bangles.
Motalef’s household was completely devoid of grace; things were strewn all over the place and there was dirt and grime everywhere. Wrapping the end of her sari round her waist, Majukhatun got down to domestic chores. She swept the yard clean, and scrubbed and swabbed the floor of the house till it shone.
But Motalef had no time for his home and his wife; his time was spent on trees. He had taken commissions for the trees owned by several others in the neighbourhood—the Boses and the Banerjees. He was busy tapping the trees, lowering the brimming pots and dividing up the syrup. He had made a canopy and makeshift walls with jute-stalks for Majukhatun in the western half of the yard. In this covered space Majukhatun built a row of ovens, on which she placed large earthen vessels and brought the syrup to a boil from morning till afternoon. Motalef brought sheaves of straw from the fields as kindling, dried palm tree branches too. But that was never enough. Majukhatun swept up dry leaves from people’s gardens and the jungle, bringing them home in baskets. In the late afternoon she chopped the branches with an axe to make kindling. Without rest and without a break, with no feeling of fatigue. Majukhatun had once again discovered work after her heart, as well as a man after her heart.
Motalef took the gur to nearby markets in baskets, selling it at high prices. He had the best gur in the marketplace. At dusk he went back to the trees to fix fresh pots. Funnels of bamboo hung from the trees for the juice to drip through. When he unfastened the pots in the morning, he left the funnels tied to the trees. Dirty juice accumulated in the funnels. At dusk he changed the funnels, made fresh cuts in the bark and left empty pots to collect the juice. The dirty juice gathered in the funnel did not go waste. It was boiled to make a different kind of gur, which was mixed with tobacco for hookahs. Even this sold in the market at five or six annas a seer. All this climbing up and down trees twice a day made Motalef pant heavily; even in the cold of December and January he perspired all over. Beads of sweat glistened on his hairy chest in the morning. The dew accumulated at night glistened on the blades of grass beneath his feet. Motalef’s neighbours were astonished when they saw him. He had always been hardworking, but no one had ever seen him toil morning to night with such enthusiasm, almost like a machine. What was going on? Tapping trees was indeed work that Motalef loved, but had he finally found a match for his heart too?
Motalef arrived at Elem Shaikh’s house in Charkhanda with two pots of the sweetest syrup from the best trees and about three seers of paatali gur. Greeting him, Motalef placed the offerings at Elem’s feet, and then pulled five ten-rupee notes from a knot in his lungi, saying, “Half in advance, mian sahib.”
“Advance for what?” asked Elem.
“For your daughter’s…” answered Motalef.
He had picked crisp notes for his offering. They weren’t even slightly frayed at the edges, and didn’t have a speck of dirt from his fingers on them. Fifty rupees in cash. Running his fingers over the notes, Elem said, “But what will I do with this advance now, mian? I believe you have already married Razek Mridha’s widow. Why should my daughter share a husband with someone else? Do you want them to quarrel and fight, and then kill each other one night?”
Motalef chuckled. “Don’t worry about that, mian sahib. Majukhatun will be in my home only as long as the sap lasts in the trees and winter lasts in our land. Everything will be cleared out as soon as the spring breeze starts blowing.”
Elem Shaikh offered Motalef a stool to sit on, and handed him his own hookah. “You are clear-headed, mian,” he said approvingly. “It’s a pleasure to work with you.”
Motalef received permission to meet Phulbanu. Not that Phulbanu hadn’t already eavesdropped on the entire conversation. But still she pouted when she saw Motalef. “Now who was being impatient, mian? Here I was waiting for you and you took someone else home.”
“What else could I have done?” Motalef said.
He had been forced to resort to this trick to maintain his honour, even to survive. How was he to live without someone at home to look after him? How was the gur to be made from the syrup without someone at home to do it? And how was his honour to be preserved if he couldn’t sell this gur and make some money?
“That’s all very well,” said Phulbanu. “Your honour is intact and you have survived. But how will you get rid of the scent of the other woman from your body?”
Although the thought occurred to Motalef, he did not actually say that the scent of a man or a woman did not remain on another’s body after they were gone; for if that were the case, Phulbanu would have had such a scent on her body too. But suppressing this retort, Motalef answered evasively, “Don’t worry about the scent Phul-bibi. I’ll get soap from the market and wait at the ghat for you. You can rub the scent off my body.”
“Oh really?” said Phulbanu, covering her mouth with the end of her sari.
“Do you think I’m lying?” said Motalef. “Smell me after that, you will only find the scent of my new woman. Just wait a couple of months more.”
“Don’t think I’m impatient,” Phulbanu assured him again.
Motalef was as good as his word. Phulbanu did not have to wait more than two months. As soon as Motalef had made another fifty rupees from selling gur, he gave a talaq to Majukhatun. He even informed his neighbours of the reason openly. Maju-bibi was not faithful to him. Her behaviour with Razek’s brother Waheed Mridha was objectionable.
“Shame,” said Majukhatun, biting her lips. “You are only handsome, Moti mian, but you aren’t good. So this is what you were plotting? You stuck to me like an ant for the gur, but now that the season is over, you’re kicking me out.”
But Motalef had neither the time nor the patience for all this.
The mango trees filled with buds, and the gaub trees, with tender copper-coloured leaves. Winter was followed by spring, and Majukhatun, by Phulbanu. She lived up to her name. Her face was like a flower; her breath carried the fragrance of flowers. “This time they are made for each other,” said the neighbours. “Now there truly is spring in his house.”
Motalef couldn’t be happier. He worked as a hired hand on the farms all day. And then, even before the sun had set, he had the end of Phulbanu’s sari in his hand. “Throw away all those pots and pans. Come sit by my side.”
“Patience,” giggled Phulbanu. “How did you get through all those months, mian?”
“With the trees,” answered Motalef.
Phulbanu almost choked in his strong arms. Catching her breath, she laughed. “Go back to the trees then. Only the trees can make love to you.”
“But the trees run out of juice in three months or four, Phul-jaan,” answered Motalef. “Only you keep oozing your juice year after year.”
Majukhatun took shelter again in Razek’s dilapidated hut. She had planned to go back to her old routine. But even if she managed to pass the day, the nights simply would not pass. Motalef had ruined her life. Neighbours described Motalef and Phulbanu’s home in great detail, adding their embellishments, and taking Motalef to task with what seemed to be amused indulgence, “The man is mad about his wife. He cannot talk of anyone else.”
Majukhatun’s felt her heart twist. She thought she would go mad with jealousy. That she would die of heartbreak.
A few days later, Razek’s elder brother Waheed carried a proposal to her. He had taken pity on her condition. Waheed was friends with Nadir Shaikh from Talkanda, across the river. Nadir was a boatman. His wife had died of cholera a month or so ago, leaving behind numerous children. The poor fellow was in trouble with them. He didn’t want a young wife. Someone like that might be a beautiful bride, but she wouldn’t be able to look after the children. He preferred a mature, serious woman, like Majukhatun. He would be able to depend on her.
“How old is he?” asked Majukhatun.
“About my age,” answered Waheed. “Fifty, maybe fifty-one.”
Majukhatun nodded happily—yes, this was what she wanted. She didn’t trust young men. She had no faith in youth.
“He isn’t a tree-tapper, is he?” Majukhatun asked. “He doesn’t go off to collect palm juice in winter, does he?”
“Why should he tap trees?” asked Waheed in surprise. “He doesn’t know how to do all that. He rows a boat in the monsoon, works as a farmhand in winter, thatches roofs too. Why, don’t you want to marry anyone besides a tree-tapper?”
Just the opposite, said Majukhatun. If she were to get married, it would only be to someone who had nothing to do with palm juice, someone who didn’t go anywhere near date palms in winter. She despised the whole business of palm syrup.
“Then shall I talk to Nadir?” asked Waheed. “He doesn’t want to wait.”
“No need to wait,” said Majukhatun.
It didn’t take very long. Everything was finalised within a week. Majukhatun climbed into a ferryboat with Nadir and crossed the river.
“Good riddance,” Motalef told his wife. “Her breathing sounded like a witch’s, she would heap curses on me all the time. We’re free of her now, aren’t we Phul-jaan?”
“Are you afraid of witches, mian?” Phulbanu laughed.
“Not anymore,” answered Motalef. “The witch is gone. Now all I see is a fairy. It’s the fairy I fear now.”
“Why, what are you afraid of the fairy for?”
“Shouldn’t I be afraid? What if the fairy spreads her wings and flies away?”
“No, mian, the fairy has no wish to fly anymore,” answered Phulbanu. “She’s got what she wants. So long as the man of the house doesn’t change his taste or the way he looks at her.”
“So long as he has eyes, the way he looks at her won’t change,” said Motalef.
Motalef treated his wife with great love and care. Before he went to the market he checked what kind of fish she wanted; if he couldn’t afford it, he borrowed to buy the fish. Eggs, vegetables, spices—he bought whatever he could for her. Also paan and everything else that went into it.
“Why do you bring so much paan?” Phulbanu asked. “You don’t care for it much, do you? All you do is smoke all the time.”
“The paan’s for you,” Motalef answered. “Have all the paan you can, I want your lips red.”
“Why, aren’t my lips red enough?” pouted Phulbanu. “You think I have to have paan to redden them? I’m going to make some for you, you’d better start. Your lips have turned black from smoking, you can redden them too.”
“Men’s lips don’t turn red from paan, Phuljaan,” smiled Motalef, “but from someone else’s reddened lips.”
Motalef did not own any land of his own. He sharecropped on some of the land owned by the Mullicks and Mukherjees. But he had no reputation as a skilful tiller, for his plots did not yield as much of a harvest as the others. He worked as a hired hand on the land owned by the Sikdars and Munshis, cutting, washing and spreading the jute out to dry. Hard labour. Motalef’s fair skin turned brown under the sun. Not much of the jute from sharecropping came home. The Sikdars and Munshis paid cash. Motalef only brought home some of the jute from the small plots owned by the Mullicks and Mukherjees which he sharecropped, piling a boat with it and arriving at the ghat on the canal. Phulbanu was very keen on sorting the jute. But Motalef didn’t let her touch it at first. “It’s hard work,” he said, “the smell will rub off on you.”
“What if it does?” Phulbanu said. “Here you are burning under the sun, and you think I cannot sort the jute because it will be hard on me. The things you say, mian.”
It wasn’t a large amount of jute that they could call their own—it didn’t yield many stalks to be used as fuel. Phulbanu wanted to sort the jute that other families got as their share of the crops, so that she could claim the stalks. But Motalef refused, for he wasn’t going to have his wife work so hard.
The paddy ripened around the middle of October. Motalef took a ride on someone else’s boat to work as a farmhand during the harvest. Standing in water up to his waist, he cut the paddy, loading the boat with bales of it. But his blade didn’t run as quickly as those of Momin or Karim or Hamid or Aziz. Motalef’s fingers were too slow, he was troubled by the water. One day he was attacked by a leech in his armpit. “Can’t you even get rid of the leech yourself, mian,” said Phulbanu as she prised it away. “You have hands, haven’t you?”
“The hands to cut the paddy with were with me,” answered Motalef, “but I forgot the one to get rid of the leech with.”
With great care, Phulbanu dabbed lime on the spots that the leech had sucked. Motalef worked on the paddy with four other farmhands, and got a fifth of the labourers’ share. He brought it home in a basket. Phulbanu cleaned it and put it out to dry. “Hard work, isn’t it, bou?” said Motalef.
“Yes, the hard work is killing me,” said Phulbanu. “Whom do you think you’re talking to, mian? Was I not born in an ordinary family? Or do you think I dropped from the sky?”
Spring passed, so did monsoon and autumn, and winter returned. The season of gur was the time for Motalef’s real business. But this time winter seemed to have arrived a little late. Never mind, Motalef would take on additional trees to compensate. The number of palm trees increased every year. Motalef was renowned in this line of work; he was the best in the village. This time, too, the Banerjees had thirty or so new trees.
Tree-tapping was on in full swing. Motalef had no time for a break or for rest; he didn’t even have the time for his love-games with Phulbanu. The loans had to be returned, and he had to put away enough money for the year from the sale of syrup and gur. Motalef slaved like a demon all day, falling asleep the moment he hit the bed. Phulbanu nudged and poked him, wrapped her arms around him, but it was like embracing a tree rather than a man. Motalef slept like the dead. Only his nose emitted a sound, but no other part of him responded. Phulbanu shivered even under a thick quilt. How could a quilt keep the cold out without a man’s warmth?
It wasn’t enough to get the juice home, kindling was also needed to bring it to boil for the gur. Motalef brought dry leaves and twigs home from wherever he could find them. “Boil the juice over and over,” he told Phulbanu. “The gur must be as sweet as you are, I want the best and tastiest to sell in the market.”
But Phulbanu turned pale when she saw the sheer quantity of syrup. She had made gur from a pot or two of juice at her father’s house, but she had never seen so much of it in one place, leave alone boil it to make gur.
Laughing at her apprehension, Motalef said, “Don’t worry, I’m here too—ask me if in doubt, I’ll tell you. The pot must bubble the way your heart does.”
But all the juice in Phulbanu’s heart evaporated as she sat by the ovens from morning till afternoon. The flames ran low, her beautiful face was scorched, but still the gur did not meet up to standards. The paatali remained soft; sometimes it was burnt and turned bitter.
“What kind of woman are you,” Motalef said roughly. “I explain everything to you, but you just don’t understand. Do you expect customers to spend their money on gur such as this?”
“Why won’t they?” Phulbanu tried to smile. “They’ll buy if you know how to sell.”
The smile didn’t please Motalef. “Then go sell it yourself in the market. They might buy it if they see a pretty face, because they certainly won’t buy the gur when they see it.”
Phulbanu was not an idiot, nor was she absolutely incompetent. With all the instructions and guidance, she learnt how to make passable gur in a few days. The gur was no longer unfit for selling. But the price couldn’t match last year’s, and buyers weren’t happy.
The regular customers stared at the gur and at Motalef alternately. “What kind of gur is this, mian? I bought some last market-day but it wasn’t as tasty as last year. I remember your gur then, the taste is still on my lips. But not this time. Chandan Shaikh and Madan Sikdar have better gur than yours this year.”
Motalef’s heart burned; he seethed with anger. His gur was not as tasty this year. Why? He wasn’t working any less hard. Why was his gur still not tasty, why couldn’t he charge a higher price for it, why weren’t people happy at its sight and after they had tried it, why was his gur not being praised? Why was he being made to listen to such criticism, for what?
In bed that night Motalef repeatedly explained the technique for bringing the syrup to a boil to Phulbanu. “You have to check the ladle continuously to see if it’s time to take it off the fire, if it’s time to pour it out of the vessel to set.”
“Yes, I know,” said Phulbanu glumly. “Stop chattering now, let me sleep.”
Motalef was suddenly reminded of Majukhatun. He had discussed the whole thing with her many times in bed. She had never snapped back, never complained about her sleep being disturbed. She had listened to him eagerly, joined the discussion happily.
The next day, Motalef appeared in the afternoon with a huge load of kindling. Putting it down near the makeshift room for the ovens, he asked, ‘What’s the gur like today, Phul-jaan?”
But there was no answer from Phulbanu. Calling her again and still getting no response, Motalef poked his head in through the door. But Phulbanu was nowhere to be seen. There was a strange smell—had the gur been burnt? The syrup was boiling and bubbling in five large pots all in a row. Motalef looked closely. Just as he had thought. The furthest pot had boiled over, and the gur had burnt a little, giving out the smell he had got. Motalef felt a red hot flash of rage in his chest. A scream tore out of his throat—“Where are you, bitch?”
Phulbanu emerged from the house hurriedly. She hadn’t been able to bathe for two days because she was working late into the afternoon. Her skin felt dry and bristly without bathing in winter. So she had used some soda and soap today and taken an early dip in the river. She had dressed in a blue sari after her bath. Drying her hair on the towel, Phulbanu was running a comb through it before she ran out at Motalef’s cry, still holding the comb. Her wet hair clung to her back. Motalef stared at her for a moment with his eyes blazing, and then grabbed a fistful of wet hair. “Bitch, the gur is burning and you have no idea, you’re busy dressing up, you think you’re a goddess stepped out of a painting, this is why my gur is bad, this is why I’m humiliated. I’ve earned a bad name everywhere because of you.”
“Don’t you dare touch my hair because of that,” Phulbanu kept saying. “Don’t you lay a hand on me.”
“I see, you’re too good to be beaten up by hand, are you?” Picking up a thin strip of bamboo lying on the floor, Motalef began to whip her all over. “Being beaten with a cane won’t rob the shaikh’s daughter of her honour, will it? It’s wrong to slap you, but not to whip you.”
Motalef had a foul temper. His anger was as terrible as his love was impatient and unreasonable.
Elem Shaikh arrived from Charkhanda when he heard. He threatened, scolded and shouted at his son-in-law, but didn’t spare his daughter either.
“Take me home with you, Abbajan,” Phulbanu told him. “I’m not going to live with a hot-tempered man like him.”
But Elem Shaikh persuaded his daughter to stay. If he gave in to her, Phulbanu would smell blood and demand a talaq again. But how could a girl from a family like theirs keep switching husbands and homes? How would that preserve her honour? If she could be a little patient, Motalef would soften on his own. They would make up soon. Domestic quarrels. Started by day, ended by night. Nothing to worry about.
It did end. Motalef made the first move to make up. He pleaded with Phulbanu to relent. She began making the gur again the next day. In the afternoon, Motalef took the gur to the market in his basket. Before leaving, he said, “Your troubles will be over once these two months have passed somehow, Phul-jaan.”
“What trouble?” said Phulbanu.
But this wasn’t sincere, just politeness. Neither of them seemed able to speak their hearts anymore. Their exchanges were different now, in form and in sound; and neither had any problem recognising this. The speaker knew it, and so did the listener.
The market days came and went, the season nearing its end; the fame of Motalef’s gur did not spread, and its price did not rise. Motalef no longer took Phulbanu to task over this when he came home; he only smoked in silence. The sap oozed out of the tree through the pipes into the pots. Motalef awoke at dawn to unfasten the pots brimming with syrup and bring them home, but he was neither as happy, nor as eager, as last year. His body was still soaked in perspiration, but his heart was as dry as jute stalks, as desolate as the roads in the afternoon sun. Pots of syrup lined the yard, a woman brimming over moved about the home, but still Motalef felt no fulfilment, still the world seemed empty.
One day he ran into Nadir Shaikh at the market.
“Salaam mian sahib.”
“All well, I hope?” said Motalef. “The children…”
About to ask after Majukhatun too, Motalef held back. “Yes mian, they’re all well,” Nadir smiled. “We’re surviving by god’s grace.”
After a little hesitation, Motalef said, “Why don’t you take a little gur for the children, mian? It’s good gur.”
“Of course it is,” Nadir smiled again. “Your gur has never been bad.”
“No mian, it’s not the same anymore,” Motalef blurted out suddenly.
Nadir looked at Motalef in surprise. What kind of a trader was he? Imagine criticising the very gur you’re trying to sell!
“How much?” asked Nadir.
“Never mind the price. I’m giving you two seers for the children. Tell them their uncle sent it for them.”
“No mian,” said Nadir anxiously. “You’re selling your gur, how can I take it without paying for it?”
“Why don’t you just take it and try it… you can always pay me next time,” Motalef told him.
The words seemed to stick in Motalef’s throat. He had to say such things to ensure sales, he had to sing praises to his own gur; but in his heart he knew he was lying. Customers would not buy his gur in any circumstances next season; they would not crowd around his baskets anymore.
After much coaxing, Nadir agreed to take one seer of gur free, but insisted on paying for the other two seers.
Majukhatun was furious when she heard. “Give the gur to your children if you wish, but if I am my father’s daughter I won’t touch it with my hands.”
Another market-day came, but Nadir did not go anywhere near Motalef. Majukhatun had forbidden him. “If you dare be nice to that man, I will leave your house. You won’t see me again in the morning.”
Nadir was terrified of Majukhatun. Her housework was very good and her conversation was pleasant, but when his wife lost her temper she took leave of her senses.
A few days later, Motalef climbed into a ferryboat with two pots of the best syrup from his two finest trees. He took the road past the shaggy jujube tree to enter Nadir’s front yard. “Are you home, mian?”
Nadir emerged from his room, holding his hookah. “Who is it? Oh, it’s you, mian. Please come in. Why did you bring all this, mian sahib?”
Nadir may have welcomed Motalef formally, but he grew apprehensive because of Majukhatun. The man his wife couldn’t stand was here in person. Who knew what awful things would happen now?
Just as Nadir had feared. When she spotted Motalef through the fence, Majukhatun summoned her husband inside. Then she said, making sure that Motalef heard, “Tell him to leave this house, tell him to leave at once. Does he have no shame? How dare he show up here?”
“Softly, bibi, speak softly,” Nadir whispered. “He’ll hear you. You can’t say such things about a visitor. We don’t even drive a dog out this way.”
“You don’t understand, mian, some people are worse than dogs, more dangerous than the devil,” said Majukhatun. “Ask him, does he have no fear, no shame, bringing syrup for me?”
Majukhatun didn’t say any of this softly—Motalef heard every word. But strangely, even such harsh and rude statements could not wound him. On the contrary, there was something loving in all the condemnation and abuses being heaped on him. Behind Majukhatun’s sharp, distorted tone was the voice of a hurt and deprived—and consequently unhappy—woman. Syrup was oozing out, drop by drop, at the touch of a sharp tool on the bark of the tree.
Climbing on the stoop outside the front door, Motalef put the pots down on the floor and called out to Nadir, “Just a minute, mian.”
Nadir emerged, looking embarrassed. “Sit down, mian. Here, have a smoke.”
Motalef accepted the hookah from Nadir, but didn’t draw on it immediately. Still holding it, he told Nadir, “Will you tell your wife something on my behalf?”
“Why not tell her yourself?” said Nadir. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“No, you tell her,” said Motalef. “I dare not. Tell her that Motalef mian knows better than to bring syrup for her.”
“Then what has he brought it for?” Majukhatun exclaimed inside the house before Nadir could reply.
Still looking at Nadir, Motalef answered, “Tell her that he has brought it for her to make a couple of seers of gur. Motalef mian will take the gur to the market. He will sell it to new customers. He has not been able to sell any good gur this year. He has tapped all the trees in vain.” Motalef’s voice sounded hoarse. Controlling himself, he was about to continue, when he suddenly spotted a pair of large black eyes on the other side of the fence, brimming with tears. He looked on in silence, unable to say anything more.
Nadir Shaikh seemed to wake up suddenly. “What’s wrong, mian, you’re just holding your hookah. Don’t you want to smoke? Has it gone out?”
Bringing the hookah up to his mouth, Motalef said, “No, mian-bhai, it hasn’t gone out.”