Another: Tanmoy Mukherjee

Ashutosh-babu made his blunder as he was rushing to get on the tram at Ballygunge Phanri. Missing his footing, he went down in a heap. Evening crowds, the street choc-a-bloc with buses and taxis, auto-rickshaws whizzing past. As he was wondering whether his mis-step would send him under the wheels of a tram or whether it was a minibus tyre that fate held for him, he fell headlong on a wooden floor.

What was this? How could the tarred road of Ballygunge Phanri turn into a yellow wooden floor? Looking around him, Ashutosh could only see impenetrable darkness. Nothing much was visible. This was magic. He had been in Calcutta earlier, but where was he now? Had he died, then? Had a bus come from the back and smashed his head to pulp? This was too much pressure. It wouldn’t have hurt to have died at 42, but the LIC policy was due to mature next month. What if his wife couldn’t manage things properly?

He felt a sharp pain in his side. Should he have been in pain if he was dead? He had no idea. There was no blood on him or anything, but then a spirit shouldn’t really have bloodstains. Still, Ashutosh-babu was astonished at the shabby appearance of the afterlife. There was neither the gloss of heaven nor the frenetic activity of hell. Just this yellow wooden floor.

When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness Ashutosh-babu discovered that all kinds of objects were strewn on the floor. A comb, a wallet, a spear, tickets to the cinema, a pen, a mortar and pestle – an extraordinary variety. Ashutosh felt deeply intimidated. Was he dreaming, then? He pinched himself.

Benu-mama from Bhadreshwar had taught Ashutosh as a child how to deliver a lethal pinch. He groaned in agony.

Ashutosh got to his feet slowly. He needed to walk around and survey the place. But how would he walk, the floor was littered – books, bottle-caps, old inland letters, cigarettes, tonic water, and so much more. This was making him very uneasy.

‘New here?’

The high-pitched bellow caused great consternation to Ashutosh-babu. Turning around, he discovered a decrepit old gentleman lying less than five feet away, a blanket drawn over himself. His age seemed beyond human reckoning, he could well be ninety. All he had by way of physical features was yellowish skin drawn taut across his bones, and not a single hair on his scalp. Clouded eyes, sunken cheeks. He seemed to be trembling.

‘And what might your name be?’ the old man asked.

‘Ashutosh Mitra, sir. I was on my way to Park Circus but I slipped while trying to get into a tram. I don’t know how I got here. Who are you? What is this place?’

– A different dimension.
– I beg your pardon?
– A different dimension.
– What’s that?
– Meaning. Two dimension. This dimension. That dimension. None of those. This is another dimension.
– Pardon?
– Why can’t you understand? Let’s say you put a pen on your desk. But it’s nowhere to be found two minutes later, although you’ve searched the desk with a toothcomb. And then half an hour afterwards you discover the pen exactly where it was. Doesn’t this happen all the time?
– Yes sir, it does.
– So the thing is, many objects frequently slip out of the dimension we occupy on earth to arrive here in this different dimension. You could call it an exception-cum-error of nature’s.
– A mistake on nature’s part?
– Right you are. Most of the time the error is corrected by nature’s own laws. And so the lost pen finds its way back to the desk. Things that disappear unexpectedly are also restored equally unexpectedly. But once in a while they remain trapped in this dimension till infinity.
– My throat is dry.
– Don’t worry. It’s an illusion. Physical sensations like hunger and thrust do not slip into this dimension. There’s no illness or disease either to speak of. How else could I have been hale and hearty even at the age of a hundred and fifteen?
– Er, did you also slip from Earth to this other dimension?
– Yes, I did. Not that too many people make it alive into this dimension, for their dimensional equilibrium is very high. Once in a while they do, though, especially when they’re flung downwards from a height, there is a slender possibility in those cases. In the past eighty years I haven’t seen more than seven or eight humans arriving here. But in most cases they returned to their original dimension, a few in a couple of minutes, some in a couple of seconds.
– But you? You stayed on?
– Yes, what can one do. Destiny. I had nurtured many dreams for my original dimension. All gone to hell. Exceptions like these are not very common. But what to do. I’ve been an optimist since birth, but the trouble is that optimism has no value in this dimension.
– Er, sir, how did you arrive here? Like I missed my footing when trying to get on a tram…
– Air-crash. I made a calculated jump from the burning plane a few seconds before it was to hit the ground. There were definite chances of survival. But who can protect you from god’s will? I landed directly on this yellow wooden floor.
– When did this take place? And where?
– In ’45, I think. I was on my way from Saigon to Manchuria. The plane lost control suddenly when flying over Formosa…
– You…you’re…you’re…
– Subhash…Subhash Bose…
– Ne…ne…ne…

Ashutosh opened his eyes to the sensation of water being splashed on his face. He realised he was lying flat on a pavement in Ballygunge Phanri, surrounded by at least a dozen people. The man who was checking his pulse said, ‘It was a near thing. Very lucky.’

Overwhelmed, Ashutosh declared, ‘Jai Hind!’

Every Sunday: Binod Ghoshal

Oooh, how scared I was at first, god! Don’t blame me, OK? Isn’t everyone a little scared on their first plane ride? When the plane suddenly left the ground and zoomed into the sky, I shrank back in fear and grabbed his hand tightly. I had taken the window seat so that I could look down. I was reassured when he put his hand on mine lightly. He… who?

My husband, who else? This wasn’t his first time on a plane though. He has to fly to Bombay or Delhi on office work every two or three months. He’s been to America too, twice. As soon as I heard I decided to ask him to take me along next time. He would have no choice. I’ve been dying to see America ever since I was a child. He’s a ‘handsome Brahmin, senior post MNC, 29/5’9″‘ I’ve seen very few men as fair-skinned as him. A full head of thick black hair. His cheeks turn a light green when he shaves, because he uses some brilliant ideas to add style and impress the ladies. How handsome he looks then. I wish I could… no, but his body always gives off a lovely fragrance. I start smelling of it too after he’s been by my side for a while. What IS this fragrance? I wear perfume too, but the scent is never as good. We’re going to Bombay now. We’ll spend two days there and then go to Goa for our honeymoon. Hee hee. We only just got married. We completed the eight-day rituals a couple of days ago and left today. He won’t get leave later. I’m going so far away for the first time in my life. I feel funny – both joy and anxiety. Restless. I must remember to call Ma as soon as we land in Mumbai – I must, I must. She worries for me so much. She’s worried for me all her life. The plane is so nice. A very lovely air-hostess served us coffee a little while ago. She smiles constantly. She seemed to bend over a little too much when serving my husband. No, it’s just my weird ideas. I look down through the window. Oh my god. Everything is so small. How high up are we?

The roads, the land, the people, the rivers, the hills, the seas… everything’s tiny. I am ‘below 23, exquisitely beautiful, convent-educated’. My heart trembles at the thought. I lower my eyes.

My husband has a huge jewellery shop on B.B. Ganguly Street. Everyone knows the shop. They advertise so much. White and yellow lights glitter on the glass walls all day. He’s ’43/5’1″, a little shorter than me. Never mind. His complexion too… but forget all that. He’s rather… er… fat – but you can’t have everything. He spends all day in front of the fan in the shop (very thrifty, no air-conditioner yet), beads of perspiration on his face. The back of his kurta, his underarms, the creases in his neck are all sopping wet with sweat. He has flowing locks like on the idols of the gods, and greying sideburns. A gold chain dangles around his neck, going down all the way to his navel. Four gold rings with thick stones inset on his right hand, and two on the left. I am encased in ornaments too. They have their ‘own house in N. Calcutta’. As old as it is large. There’s a sleepy, lazy, dank smell as soon as you step in. A dark staircase leads to the first floor. A pile of dirty dishes beneath the tap on one side of the square yard – such an enormous house, but perpetually quiet, like a summer afternoon. Only when the maid comes does it wake up to the sound of the dishes being washed. This house has many owners, many families, but these people are the only ones who live here. All the other doors are locked. Their family is extremely conservative. The women are not allowed to go out on their own. Here I am barely thirty. I’m a ‘W.B. Swarnabanik, genuine fair beauty’. Although they had ‘no demands’, my father had to give them a lot of things. This husband of mine has become a dullard, measuring out gold and counting notes all day. No interest in anything. At night… never mind. I was introduced via ‘photo and correspondence’. I had sent the same one that I send everywhere, the postcard-sized photograph in a green sari. They were happy with it. The negotiations and wedding took place quickly. They don’t know I’m a divorcee. They weren’t told before the wedding, and they’ll never come to know either. I was married off from my maternal uncle’s house in Uttarpara. None of my neighbours in Diyara know of this marriage. So how will these people come to know? They think I’m first-hand. You know, hiding the facts scares me. But I keep it under wraps…. But my daughter? My six-year-old daughter?… I look at the floor again.

This husband of mine has an income of ‘six lakh annually’. His ‘first wife died in an accident’. They have ‘two two-storied houses in Calcutta’. One of them has long been given out on rent, however. He’s a ‘computer engineer 30/5’6″‘. His first wife died within two years of their marriage. I still don’t now how – and I have no wish to know either. Let sleeping dogs lie. I’m fine as I am. They had said ‘widow or divorcee preferred’. ‘Homeloving slim minimum qualification graduate genuine fair beautiful girl wanted contact on phone 7-9 AM.’ I got my father to call at once. They liked everything about me – my height, figure, complexion, hair, nails, teeth, gums. This time I did not hide the fact that I was divorced. Why should I? That was what they wanted. And it wasn’t my fault. Who doesn’t fall in love and get married these days? The boy was from our neighbourhood. My friends tried to convince me that he was a bad sort, a scoundrel, don’t fall into his clutches, you’ll be ruined. Let him go. I couldn’t. Within a year and half of our getting married, it was he who left me, our daughter still in my arms. I used to live the way ‘genuine homeloving’ girls from middle-class families are forced to live when they slink back to their father’s house after being kicked out by their husbands. At least my daughter was going to school, getting decent food. I don’t blame my parents at all. They had tried to persuade me, but I hadn’t bothered. Love is not just blind, it’s deaf too. My father’s old-fashioned stationery shop opposite our house limps along, panting like a tuberculosis patient. My brother is in his second year of college. So many stomachs to fill. How long could the shop and the paltry interest from the post-office savings have sustained us? I didn’t hide a thing – I told my husband everything. They had said they had ‘no demands’. Indeed they didn’t. Just the shankha and sindoor and a sari and, on my father’s insistence, a ring for my husband. He had bought a car just a few days before the wedding. A silver Santro. A real eye-catcher. I didn’t allow the plastic seat covers to be removed – it would only mean dust gathering on the seats. How dusty it is in Calcutta, my god. The two of us went for a drive the night after the wedding reception. When the car was racing past Victoria Memorial down Red Road, oh god! I can’t explain how it felt. He was driving. A saxophone (I learnt the name from him afterwards) on the car stereo and driving at high speed – I had goosebumps. But I realised in a couple of days he isn’t particularly interested in me physically. I wonder why. Maybe he has another girlfriend. Maybe he’s been pressured into marrying me instead of her. Or is it something else – because of which his first wife had died or something? To hell with it. I don’t worry, frankly. He hasn’t even touched me all these nights. I haven’t asked either. I don’t have those needs anymore. They vanished long ago. It’s enough not to be a burden on my father. I don’t fret about whether he likes me or not. They had wanted a divorcee, but ‘childless and unencumbered’. Is my daughter not my encumbrance? I have to leave him too.

I never thought I’d be able to leave this pathetic West Bengal and go to the USA. True, I still don’t know the name of the place in the US where we live. But how long will it take to find out? ‘Same or different caste, divorcee with child’ – they had ‘no objection’ to anything. I am ‘willing to live abroad’ and ‘smart and below thirty-five’ – so getting in touch was soon followed by the registered marriage. And then straight to this place by plane. My husband is a little on the old side, that’s all. Thoroughbred American. His grandmother was apparently Bengali. Although I talk to him in broken English now, I’ll teach him Bengali soon. He is an ‘established businessman’. He was also married earlier. The marriage broke up barely a year later. His son from his first wife is twenty-eight. He doesn’t stay with his father though. I had already realised that the old man was not looking for a wife but for a trustworthy maid to do the household work. I have no problems. I’ve had my daughter admitted to a good school. Such lovely books, and what a fine school uniform. They have computer studies even at this age. It’s so different in this country. She goes to school in a shiny bus every day. Their school bus. Cakes, biscuits and chocolate at recess…. she’s sooooo happy. She even has her own room at home. Such a little girl and a room of her own… hee hee. Of course, she hasn’t accepted the man as her father yet. All in good time. But I don’t even know these people well enough. I’ve heard people here change wives as often as they yawn. The old man still wants it, though. Even though I hate it I don’t have a choice… But what if he throws me out with my daughter when I’m no longer new? If he leaves me suddenly what will I do in this foreign country with my daughter? No, there’s no need to be so greedy. Better to live in one’s own country.

No, really, this time I actually am veeeery happy. My husband is a straightforward man. Detached from most things. Spends all his time with his books and students. ‘Permanently employed’ schoolteacher. Earns about twelve thousand. Not too bad. Apparently he had made up his mind not to marry, but eventually, thanks to the efforts of his friends, mister agreed to marry at forty-two. Tremendously ‘religious and idealistic’. On my part I’m a ‘Brahmin, good family, religious-minded, vegetarian, broadminded, below thirty-four, B.A.’ Though I haven’t actually passed. I failed in one paper and didn’t take my exams again. But then he wasn’t going to ask for my results, after all. I am ‘Thakur So-and-So’s (foremost added) disciple, reasonably beautiful.’ I was about to feel very happy because he was ‘5’7″ permanently employed, divorcee with child acceptable’… but there was a box number, and I didn’t write to box numbers anymore. A good deal of money and several ‘suitable postcard-size colour photographs’ later, I had never received a single reply. A ‘phone number’ was the best option. The rejection came quickly. You didn’t have to wither away, waiting. When I saw a residential address I did write sometimes. I take tuition classes for three children in the lower classes. I have to pay for my daughter’s school fees, transport, books and notebooks, pencils, water-bottle, shoes, and my own things out of the five hundred and fifty I earn. How many letters can I write to heaven in expectation of a reply from god? I’m embarrassed to ask my father for money for these things.

I spend all of Sunday afternoon in the ‘Bride Wanted’ columns. My eyes lap up each and every word – ticked, unticked, highlighted. My mother asks wanly now and then, ‘Any luck?’ I respond as lightly as I can, ‘Nothing worthwhile.’
The afternoon rolls on. I get tired of it all. My eyes ache. The ballpoint pen lies glumly on the mat next to me. It cannot underline any of the ads. I am same/different caste, genuinely homeloving/working, below twenty-three/below thirty-five, extremely fair/wheatish, exquisitely beautiful/pleasant appearance, East Bengal/West Bengal, Brahmin/Sunni Muslim/Gandhabanik/Namahshudra, rational/devotional, convent-educated/minimum high school, first-hand/widow/divorcee, contact on phone 8-10 AM, no communication necessary without photograph… all, I am each and every one of these. Only, I’m not unencumbered. My six-year-old daughter. So what, says everyone. Put her in a boarding school. Happens all the time these days. I can’t. I’m the only one she has. Doesn’t let me out of her sight for a moment. The first thing she does when back from the government school, perspiring in her thick terrycot uniform, is to look for me. She’s terrified if I’m not there. I don’t know why. The more she grows up, the more afraid she seems to be getting. I cannot live without her…

Afternoon slides into evening. Waking up from her nap, my daughter says, ‘I’m going out to play, Ma.’ I fold the newspaper and rise to my feet. I’ll try again Next Sunday.

Mahesh: Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

I

The village was named Kashipur. An insignificant village, with an even more insignificant zamindar, but such was his authority that you could not hear a peep out of his subjects.

It was the birthday of the zamindar’s youngest son. Having performed the holy rituals, Tarkaratna the priest was on his way home in the afternoon. The month of Boishakh was drawing to a close, but there was not even a trace of clouds anywhere, the searing sky seemingly pouring fire on everything below.The field stretching to the horizon before him was parched and cracked, with the blood in the veins of the earth escaping constantly through the crevices in the form of vapour. Gazing at it coiling upwards like flames made the head reel with drunkenness.

Gafoor Jolha lived on the edge of this field. The earthen wall of his house had collapsed, merging his yard with the road. The privacy of the inner chambers had all but surrendered itself to the mercy of the passer-by.

Pausing in the shade of a white teak tree, Tarkaratna called out loudly, ‘Are you home, Gafra?’

Gafoor’s ten-year-old daughter came to the door to tell him, ‘What do you need Baba for? He’s got a fever.’

‘Fever! Call the swine! Monster! Godless creature!’

The screaming and shouting brought Gafoor mian to the door, shivering with fever. An ancient acacia stood next to the broken wall, with a bull tethered to it. Pointing to it, Tarkaratna said, ‘What’s all this? Have you forgotten this is a Hindu village with a Brahmin zamindar?’ Red with rage and the heat, he could only be fiery with his words, but Gafoor stared at him, unable to understand the reason for the outburst.

‘When I passed this way in the morning it was tethered there,’ said Tarkaratna, ‘and now on my way back it’s still tethered the same way. Karta will bury you alive if you kill a bull. He’s a devout Brahmin.’

‘What can I do, Baba thakur, I have no choice. I’ve had this fever for several days now. I collapse every time I try to take him to graze.’

‘Then turn it loose, it’ll find food on its own.’

‘Where can I turn him loose, Baba thakur? The winnowing isn’t done, the grain is still lying in the fields. The hay hasn’t been sorted, the earth is burning, there’s not a blade of grass anywhere. What if he eats someone’s grains or hay—how can I turn him loose Baba thakur?’

Softening, Tarkaratna said, ‘If you can’t let it loose at least give it some straw. Hasn’t your daughter made any rice? Give it a bowl of starch and water.’

Gafoor did not answer, only looked at Tarkaratna helplessly and sighed.

Tarkaratna said, ‘No rice either? What did you do with the hay? Did you sell your entire share without keeping anything for your beast? You butcher!’

Gafoor seemed to lose his power of speech at this cruel accusation. A little later he said haltingly, ‘I did get some hay this year, but Karta moshai took it away to pay for taxes left over from last year. I fell at his feet, I said, “Babu moshai, you’re the supreme authority, where will I go if I leave your kingdom, give me at least a little hay. There’s no straw for the roof, we have just the one room for father and daughter, we can still manage with palm leaves this monsoon, but my Mahesh will die of starvation.”’

With a mocking smile, Tarkaratna said, ‘Really! What a loving name, Mahesh. I’ll die laughing.’

Paying no attention to the taunt, Gafoor continued, ‘But the lord had no mercy on me. He allowed me some rice to feed us for two months, but all my hay was confiscated and the poor thing got nothing at all.’ His voice grew moist with tears. But this evoked no compassion in Tarkaratna, who said, ‘What a man you are. You’ve eaten up everything but don’t want to pay your dues. Do you expect the zamindar to feed you? You people live in the perfect kingdom, still you bad-mouth him, you’re such wretches.’

An embarrassed Gafoor said, ‘Why should we bad-mouth him Baba thakur, we don’t do that. But how do I pay my taxes? I sharecrop four bighas, but there’s been a famine two years in a row—the grains have all dried up. My daughter and I don’t even get two meals a day. Look at the house, when it rains we spend the night in a corner, there’s not even enough space to stretch our legs. Look at Mahesh, Thakur moshai, you can count his ribs. Lend me a little hay, Thakur moshai, let the creature feed to his heart’s content for a few days.’ Still speaking, he planted himself on the ground near the Brahmin’s feet. Leaping backward hastily, Tarkaratna exclaimed, ‘My god, are you going to touch me?”

‘No Baba thakur, I’m not going to touch you or anything. But give me some hay. I saw your four huge haystacks the other day, you won’t even know if a little of it is gone. I don’t care if we starve to death, but this poor creature cannot talk, he only stares and weeps.’

Tarkaratna said, ‘And how do you propose to return the loan?’

A hopeful Gafoor said, ‘I’ll find a way to return it somehow Baba thakur, I won’t cheat you.’

Snorting, Tarkaratna mimicked Gafoor, ‘I won’t cheat you! I’ll find a way to return it somehow! What a comedian! Get out of my way. I should be getting home, it’s late.’ Chuckling, he took a step forward only to retreat several steps back in fear. Angrily he said, ‘Oh god, it’s waving its horns, is it going to gore me now?’

Gafoor rose to his feet. Pointing to the bundle of fruit and moistened rice in the priest’s hand, he said, ‘He’s smelt food, he wants to eat….’

‘Wants to eat? Of course. Both master and bull are well-matched. Can’t get hay to eat, and now you want fruits. Get it out of my way. Those horns, someone will be killed on them.’ Tarkaratna hurried away.

Gafoor turned towards Mahesh, gazing at him in silence for a few moments. There was suffering and hunger in the bull’s deep black eyes. Gafoor said, ‘He wouldn’t give you any, would he. They have so much, but still they won’t. Never mind.’ He choked, and tears began to roll from his eyes. Going up to the animal, he stroked his back and neck, whispering, ‘You are my son, Mahesh, you’ve grown old looking after us for eight years, I can’t even give you enough to eat, but you know how I love you.’

Mahesh responded by stretching his neck and closing his eyes in pleasure. Wiping his tears off the bull’s back, Gafoor murmured, ‘The zamindar took away your food, leased out the grazing ground near the crematorium just for money. How will I save your life in this year of starvation? If I turn you loose you’ll eat other people’s hay, you’ll spoil their trees—what do I do with you! You have no strength left, people tell me to sell you off.’ No sooner had Gafoor said this in his head than his tears began to roll again. Wiping them with his hand, he looked around surreptitiously before fetching some discoloured straw from behind his dilapidated house and placing them near Mahesh’s mouth, saying, ‘Eat up quickly, if not there’ll be….’

‘Baba?’

‘Yes, Ma?’

‘Come and eat,’ said Amina, appearing at the door. After a glance she said, ‘You’re giving Mahesh straw from the roof again, Baba?’

This was just what he was afraid of. Reddening, he said, ‘Old rotten straw Ma, it was falling off anyway…’

‘I heard you pulling it out, Baba.’

‘No Ma, not exactly pulling it out…’

‘But the wall will collapse Baba…’

Gafoor was silent. The house was all they had left, and no one knew better than him that if he continued this way it wouldn’t survive the next monsoon. But how long could they go on?

His daughter said, ‘Wash your hands and come, Baba, I’ve served the food.’

Gafoor said, ‘Bring the starch out Ma, let me feed Mahesh first.’

‘No starch left today Baba, it dried in the pot.’

No starch? Gafoor stood in silence. His ten-year-old daughter knew that when the times were bad even this could not be wasted. He washed his hands and went in. His daughter served him rice and vegetables on a brass plate, taking some for herself on an earthen plate. Gafoor said softly, ‘I’m feeling cold again Amina, is it safe to eat with a fever?’

Amina asked anxiously, ‘But didn’t you say you were hungry?’

‘Maybe I didn’t have a fever then, Ma.’

‘Then let me put it away, you can have it in the evening.’

Shaking his head, Gafoor said, ‘Eating cold food will make things worse.’

‘What should I do then,’ asked Amina.

Gafoor pretended to think before solving the problem. He said, ‘Why don’t you give it to Mahesh, Ma? You can make me some fresh rice at night, can’t you?’ Amina looked at him in silence for a few moments before lowering her eyes, nodding, and saying, ‘Yes, Baba I can.’

Gafoor reddened. Besides the two actors, only someone up there observed this little charade between father and daughter.

II

Five or six days later, Gafoor was seated outside his front door with an anxious expression on his face. Mahesh had not been home since yesterday morning. He himself was too weak to move, so his daughter Amina had searched high and low for the bull. Returning home in the late afternoon, she said, ‘Have you heard, Baba, Manik Ghosh’s family has taken our Mahesh to the police station.’

‘What nonsense,’ said Gafoor.

‘It’s true, Baba. Their servant said, “Tell your father to look for him in the Dariapur pen”.’

‘What did he do?’

‘He got into their garden and destroyed their trees, Baba.’

Gafoor sat in silence. He had imagined all manner of mishaps that might have befallen Mahesh, but had not anticipated this. He was as harmless as he was poor, which was why he had no apprehensions of being punished so severely by any of his neighbours—Manik Ghosh in particular, for his respect for cows was legendary.

His daughter said,‘It’s getting late, Baba, aren’t you going to bring Mahesh home?’

‘No,’ answered Gafoor.

‘But they said the police will sell him in the cattle market after three days.’

‘Let them sell him,’ said Gafoor.

Amina did not know what exactly a cattle market was, but she had repeatedly noticed her father becoming agitated whenever it was mentioned with reference to Mahesh. But today she left without another word.

Under cover of the night Gafoor went to Bansi’s shop, saying, ‘Khuro, I need a rupee, and deposited his brass plate beneath the raised platform on which Bansi sat. Bansi was familiar with the exact weight and other details of this object. He had been pawned it some five times in the past two years, for a rupee each time. So, he did not object this time either.

Mahesh was seen in his usual place the next day. Beneath the same tree, tethered to the same stake with the same rope, the same empty bowl with no food in front of him, the same questioning look in the moist, hungry, black eyes. An elderly Muslim man  was examining him closely. Gafoor mian sat nearby, his knees drawn up to his chin. When the examination was over, the man extracted a ten-rupee note from the knot in his dhoti and, smoothening it repeatedly, went up to Gafoor, saying, ‘I don’t need change, take the whole thing—here.’

Holding his hand out for the money, Gafoor remained sitting in silence. But just as the old Muslim’s companions were about to the untie the bull, he suddenly jumped to his feet, saying belligerently, ‘Don’t you dare touch that rope, I’m warning you.’

They were startled. The old man said in surprise, ‘Why not?’

Still furious, Gafoor said, ‘What do you mean why not? It’s mine to sell or not. And I’m not selling.’ He threw the ten-rupee note on the ground.

They said, ‘But you took an advance yesterday.’

‘Here’s your advance.’ Retrieving two rupees from the knot in his dhoti, he flung the coins at them, and they fell with a clatter. Realizing that a quarrel was imminent, the old man said gently with a smile, ‘You’re putting pressure on us for two rupees more, aren’t you? Go on, give his daughter two rupees more. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

‘No.’

‘Are you aware that no one will give you a better price?’

‘No,’ said Gafoor, shaking his head vehemently.

The old man said in annoyance,‘What do you think? Only the skin is worth selling. There’s nothing else in there.’

‘Tauba! Tauba!’ A terrible expletive suddenly escaped Gafoor’s lips, and the very next moment he ran into his house threatening to have them thrashed within an inch of their lives by the zamindar’s guards unless they left the village at once.

The possibility of trouble made them leave, but soon Gafoor received a summons from the zamindar’s court. He realized that word had reached the landowner.

There were people both refined and unrefined in court. Glaring at Gafoor, Shibu babu said, ‘I don’t know how to punish you, Gafra. Do you know where you live?’

Bowing, Gafoor said, ‘I do. We’re starving, or else I would have paid whatever fine you think fit.’

Everyone present was astonished. They had always considered him an obstinate and bad-tempered man. And here he was on the verge of tears, saying, ‘I’ll never do it again, karta.’ He proceeded to box his own ears, rubbed his nose into the ground from one end of the court to the other, and then stood up.

Shibu babu said indulgently, ‘All right, enough. Don’t do all this again.’

Everyone was shocked when they heard the details. They were certain that only the grace of the zamindar and the fear of punishment had prevented the abject sinner from committing worse trangressions. Tarkaratna was present, and provided the scriptural analysis of the word ‘go’ for cow, enlightening everyone as to why it was forbidden to allow this godless race of heathens to live within village limits.

Gafoor did not respond to any of this, humbly accepting all the humiliation and vilification and returning home cheerfully. Borrowing the starch from the rice pots of neighbours, he gave it to Mahesh to eat, murmuring many endearments as he stroked the bull’s back and horns.

III

The month of Joishtho was drawing to a close. The sun was still harsh and severe in the sky. There was no trace of mercy anywhere. People were afraid to even hope for change, that the skies could again be moist and pleasurable with the weight of rain-bearing clouds. It seemed that there would be no cessation to the flames burning constantly across the entire, fiery earth—that they would not die down till they had consumed everything.

Gafoor returned home on such an afternoon. He was not used to working as a labourer on someone else’s fields, and it had been only four or five days since the fever had subsided. He was as weak as he was exhausted. Still he had gone out in search of work, but all he had got was the unforgiving heat and sun overhead. He could barely see for hunger and thirst. Standing at the door, he called out, ‘Amina, is the food ready?’

His daughter emerged slowly and stood grasping the post without an answer.

Gafoor shouted, ‘Not ready? Why not?’

‘No rice at home, Baba.’

‘No rice? Why didn’t you tell me in the morning?’

‘But I told you last night.’

Contorting his face and mocking her, Gafoor said, ‘Told you last night! How can anyone remember if you tell them at night?’ His harsh tone doubled his anger. Contorting his face even further, he said, ‘How will there be any rice? Whether the sick father gets any or not, the grown-up daughter will eat five times a day. I’m going to lock the rice up from now on. Give me some water, I’m dying of thirst. Now tell me we have no water either.’

Amina remained standing with her eyes downcast. When Gafoor realized after waiting a few moments that there was not even any water to drink at home, he could control himself no longer. Striding up to his daughter, he slapped her resoundingly, saying, ‘Haramjaadi, what do you do all day? Why can’t you die?’

Without a word his daughter picked up the empty pitcher and went out in the heat, wiping her eyes. But Gafoor felt heartbroken as soon as she went out of his sight. He alone knew how he had brought up his daughter after her mother’s death. He remembered that it was not the dutiful and affectionate girl’s fault. Ever since they had run out of the paltry amount of rice from the fields that he had received, they had not had two meals a day. On some days, just one—or not even that. That Amina could eat five times a day was as impossible as it was untrue. Nor was he unaware of the reasons for the lack of water to drink. The two or three tanks in the village were all dry. The little water there was in the pond behind Shibcharan babu’s house was not available to ordinary people. The water that could be collected by digging a hole or two in the middle of the tanks was fought over by a crowd of people.

Being a Muslim, the young girl was not even allowed near that water. She had to wait for hours, requesting for some water, and only if someone took pity on her and poured her a little could she bring it home. He knew all this. Perhaps there had been no water that day, or no one had had the time to take pity on his daughter during the battle. Realizing that something like this must have taken place, Gafoor found his own eyes filling with tears. At that moment the zamindar’s footman appeared like a messenger of death, screaming, ‘Gafra, are you home?’

Gafoor answered bitterly, ‘I am. Why?’

‘Babu moshai has sent for you. Come along.’

Gafoor said, ‘I haven’t eaten yet. I’ll go later.’

Unable to tolerate such audacity, the footman uttered an expletive and said, ‘The Babu has ordered me to flog you and force you to come.’

Gafoor forgot himself a second time, uttering an unprintable word in retaliation and saying, ‘No one is a slave in the kingdom of the empress. I pay my taxes, I shan’t go.’

But for such a small man to give such a big reason was not just futile but also dangerous. Fortunately, such an insignificant voice would not reach the ears of the important man it was meant for—or else he would have lost both his home and his livelihood. There is no need for an elaborate account of what ensued, but when he returned from the zamindar’s court an hour later and lay down in silence, his face and eyes were swollen. The primary cause of such severe punishment was Mahesh. After Gafoor had gone out, Mahesh had broken free from the post, entered the zamindar’s yard, eaten his flowers, spoilt the paddy put out in the sun, and, when about to be caught, had made his escape after knocking the zamindar’s youngest daughter to the ground. This was not the first time it had happened, but Gafoor had been pardoned earlier on grounds of being poor. He might have been pardoned this time too had he begged and pleaded as in the past, but what he had said—that he paid his taxes and was no one’s servant—was the kind of arrogance from a subject that Shibcharan babu, being a zamindar, could never tolerate. He had not protested in the slightest against the thrashing and the humiliation, bearing it all in silence. Back home, too, he sat coiled up in silence. He had no awareness of hunger or thirst, but his heart was burning just like the noonday sky outside. However, when he heard his daughter’s stricken cry from the yard, he leapt to his feet and ran outside to find Amina lying on the ground and Mahesh lapping up the water trickling out of the shattered pitcher. Gafoor lost his mind in an instant. Picking up the plough-head he had brought home yesterday to repair, he smashed it down repeatedly on Mahesh’s head.

Mahesh tried to lift his head just once, but his starving, withered body slumped to the ground. A few teardrops rolled out of his eyes, along with a few drops of blood from his ears. His entire body trembled once or twice, after which, stretching his front and hind legs out, Mahesh died.

Amina sobbed, ‘What have you done Baba, our Mahesh is dead.’

Gafoor had turned to stone, neither moving nor speaking, only staring at a pair of unblinking, bottomless dark eyes.

Within an hour or two, a group of cobblers from one end of the village arrived, slinging Mahesh up on a pole and taking him to the dumping ground. Gafoor trembled when he saw their shining knives, but closing his eyes, he didn’t say a word.

The neighbours said that the zamindar had sent someone to Tarkaratna to find out what should be done next, ‘You may have to sell your house as penance.’

Gafoor did not reply to any of this, burying his face in his knees and not moving.

Late that night he woke his daughter up, saying, ‘Amina, we must go.’

She had fallen asleep outside the front door. Rubbing her eyes and sitting up, she said, ‘Where will we go, Baba?’

Gafoor said, ‘To work at the jute mill in Phulbere.’

His daughter looked at him in astonishment. Despite all their troubles her father had never been willing to work at the jute mill. She had often heard him say that it was impossible to maintain one’s faith there, that women had neither honour nor protection.

Gafoor said, ‘Hurry up, Ma, we have to walk a long way.’

Amina was about to take the tumbler and the brass plate her father ate out of, but Gafoor stopped her. ‘Leave them here, Ma, they will pay for my penance for Mahesh.’

He left in the dead of night, holding his daughter’s hand. He had no family in this village, no one to inform. Crossing the yard, he stopped abruptly beneath the familiar tree and suddenly burst into tears. Raising his eyes to the star-studded black sky, he said, ‘Allah! Punish me as you will, but my Mahesh died with a thirst. There was no land he could graze on. Do not forgive the sin of whoever it was who did not let him eat the grass you gave us, or quench his thirst with the water you gave us.’

In Diamond Harbour with Ruby: Sandipan Chatterjee

For four years now Ruby has been asking to go to Diamond Harbour. And I’ve resisted. The woman Ruby calls Bashona-di goes there. I’ve never been to Diamond Harbour. I’ve heard that the mouth of the river is not far away. I’ve heard that if you stand on the roof of any of the houses, stand alone on the roof, stand alone on the roof in the dead of night, you can hear the roar of the ocean in the distance. No matter whether the roof is on the first floor, second, or fifth. Apparently there are no dogs on the streets of Diamond Harbour. Or so people say.

Meeting Ruby is all I’ve done for the past four years. Movies, restaurants, kisses in a cabin, exploring her flesh – especially her breasts – and so on. There’s been no sex. It’s quite difficult for this thing to happen with your girlfriend in Calcutta. It’s impossible in the home of married friends, for they have mothers and sisters and children. But when those who are pure contrarians – that is to say, those who have occupied their flats with nobody but their wives, and have no children yet, or have infertile wives – shut their front doors, they may at first sight seem to be slamming it on the face of not just their parents or brothers or relatives, of not just their nation and race, but of the entire world. But that’s not the case. Harbouring hopes of using their flats is futile. For the wife herself is installed there. The goddess incarnate.

The Calcutta hotels ask you to disclose your identity. What is the relationship between you? If I were to say, she feels the pain when I’m hurt, the other day I stubbed my toe on a brick on the road, it wasn’t I but, here, she, who exclaimed, ‘ooh,’ so that’s our relationship – that won’t do. But no questions are asked if I were to take my wife, whom I haven’t remembered to kiss in the past four years, anywhere. Besides, to check into a hotel with someone not your wife you need, at the very least, a suitcase. An entire set of luggage would be even better. And yet no luggage is required if you go with your wife. Who knows why.

But go to Diamond Harbour, there’s no need for a suitcase of luggage. No licit or illicit. No questions.

There are a few standard hostels in Calcutta, of course, on Kyd Street or Sudder Street or Royd Stereet for instance, with no obstacles. But there you need the one, infallible, relationship. Between whore and client, that is. The receptionist will inevitably think Ruby’s a prostitute. Otherwise why should the rickshaw-wallah, who had already been paid three rupees for a ride of just two furlongs from the Geological Society, still get a commission of ten rupees from the hotel? I cannot accept anyone mistaking Ruby for a whore. So we can’t go there.

But, Diamond Harbour. Just Diamond Harbour. Where you need to take nothing but the traditional tumbler and blanket of the migrant.

There’s probably no restaurant in Calcutta where we haven’t been. About four months ago we found Calcutta’s last such undiscovered restaurant, with a cabin (‘an oyster with a pearl’). It was April, the cruellest month, there were sparks on the tram wheels and the stones were hot, when, suddenly on the left while walking towards Park Street from Royd Street – Ing Ping! What! Had this been here all along? Never seen it. When did it from the heavens? Ah, just the way we like it. A narrow, dimly lit corridor as soon as you enter. Four or five tiny cabins on the left. After a sharp turn, two rows of cabins, this time in both sides. A deluge of cabins, as though you’re in the blue belly of the dragon. In which, as far as we could see through the flying curtains, were seated ings and pings in pairs. Or, loving couples. Lit by shaded firefly lamps inside, the darkness much stronger than the light. Ah, a slice of heaven!

Taking our seats in the first empty cabin we found, sharing a plate of ‘Ing Ping special chow mien’, I put my fork down to sink my hands into Ruby’s breasts, telling her with great affection, ‘All other females have flesh here, Ruby. They’re just females. But you alone are a woman. Only in your breasts do I smell perfume.’

No, not perfume. Perfume isn’t the correct word. Quite wrong, in fact. Actually, I get the unmistakable scent of sandalwood from her breasts. But smell of sandalwood reminds me of rotting corpses. So I call it perfume.

But I cannot usually say such things. Let me explain how I could tell her that her I smelt perfume in her breasts. The fact is, yesterday in the Students’ Hall – or was it the day before? – some poet or the other was being honoured, or some such idiocy. It was evening. I was walking past Goldighi, I heard a young gap-toothed poet recite these lines from a veteran poet. he had definitely said perfume.

I memorised the lines at once, so as to not forget them, and decided to let them loose on Ruby the very next time we met. The original lines were in rhythm, though without end rhymes. But even as prose shorn of emotion, they didn’t sound bad. At least, Ruby became quite vulnerable on hearing them.

So, we went on for about four months on the scent of the perfume. But how much longer could it go on? August arrived in no time. The Bengali month of Bhaadro. The month of dogs. of dogs on heat, as they say. The sincere lovemaking of canines on Calcutta’s streets. ‘Have you seen a couple yet this year?’ I can’t keep myself from asking Ruby.

‘Meaning?” Ruby hasn’t understood yet. The evening rain has just stopped. We’re walking along a Lindsay Street in painted in watercolour hues towards that very same Ing Ping. On our way we spot a rock pigeon drinking the dirty water flowing out of the drainpipe of the UP Handloom store, Gangotri, under the impression that it’s a mountain stream. Each sip is followed by a dozen swivels of the neck, with a puffing of feathers and throwing of defensive glances all round. It’s drinking poisonous water, but it’s guarding itself against hawks. Although there isn’t a single predatory bird in Calcutta’s skies. Gene-coding, after all.

I ask in English as we walk, ‘Meaning, have you seen a dog and a bitch mating as yet this season?’

‘Oh yes,’ Ruby answers in English too, a little shy, but quite animated, even interested. ‘I have. And in broad daylight too.’

‘When?’

‘Just the other day,’ she says, the hair swaying across her back. ‘The day before yesterday.’

Ruby never allows me to part the hair cascading her shoulder. ‘I’m very ticklish,’ she says.

A long silence. Then I ask, ‘Where?’

‘Just outside our office, right beneath the big Jenson & Nicholson ad that says whenever you think of colour think of us.’

They don’t need a hotel, I reflect with a sigh. What do we get in broad daylight? The funeral pyre. All lit up. Flames. Only love needs an intimate, darkened room.

I say, with a touch of pique, ‘Why must you be the only one who sees all the interesting things.’ Ruby smiles, her eyes lowered. Her chin on her breast, as usual. It’s true that we, the lovers of Calcutta, say such unprintable things to each other. Or, we cannot keep ourselves from saying them. Who else is listening, anyway?

We cannot speak like that young poet. These are all metropolitan beams of sunlight, admittedly somewhat dusty, but these are what we dry our clothes by, not to mention brighten our lives with. In this way we travel from the flesh on the breasts to sandalwood or perfume and then from perfumed sandalwood to the flesh on the breasts.

The last time I saw a dog and bitch copulating was beneath a broken-down lorry loaded with wood for the pyres at Nimtala crematorium, next to its tyres. Even that was about three years ago. The thing was that my sister-in-law’s husband had died that morning A doctor. I heard that he has groping amongst the medicines piled on the rexine-covered table in the bedroom – piled with all kinds of ampoules and capsules and tablets and strips – with the words ‘Pregnisolon, Pregnisolon’ on his lips when he collapsed to the floor. End of story.

We were informed at once on the telephone, but it was Sunday, and Ruby and I were supposed to watch a film at noon. So I told Ranu, ‘Mr Basak is coming from Siliguri, if I don’t have lunch with him today I won’t get the contract for lining the Teesta with boulders.’ She knew it was worth three and a half lakh. So she said, ‘Come directly to the crematorium then. They’re not taking the dead body out till late afternoon.’ Dressed in a white sari with a blue border, Ranu got ready with our daughter. A perfect embodiment of mourning.

‘Drop us near Banchharam Akrur. Ring to find out what time they’ll leave.’ She added in a quiet, grief-stricken voice, ‘Don’t have beer today, please.’

I went straight to the crematorium from the cinema hall. No one was there yet. I checked all the corpses laid out by the electric furnaces to ensure I wasn’t making a mistake. Dhurjoti wasn’t among them.

There was an empty cot outside. The corpse had just been taken in. Pulling the heap of flowers and bouquets down to the ground and kicking away the copy of Jagadish-babu’s Gita and the burning joss sticks, a billy goat the size of a calf was munching on the abundant rajanigandha stalks. The vial of sandalwood scent had broken under its hoof. I noticed scent dripping down the mashed, leftover stalks.

So I left the crematorium and went back a long way towards Ahiritola. I would be able to accompany the funeral procession for a while. This was where the animals mating by the tyres beneath the lorry stopped me in my tracks. The corpse arrived in no time. ‘Ah Arun, here you are, oho, so hot…’ Ranu’s brother, s sales manager with the Steel Authority of India, drew me into the procession, and as soon as he said, ‘bawlo’, and before he could utter the ‘ri’ of ‘bawlo hari’, I shouted ‘haribol’ without restraint and joined in.

But never mind all these things from three or four years ago, let me go on with what I was saying about the things from three or four months ago. It’s the month of Bhaadro now. From the scents of sandalwood and perfume, Ruby wants to take me to the flesh of her breasts.

‘Let’s go to Diamond Harbour.’

‘D-i-a-m-o-n-d-h-a-r-b-o-u-r?’

‘Uh-huh. Diamond Harbour. You’re behaving as though I’m asking you to take me to Long Beach or Miami. As though you’re hearing the name for the first time, as though I haven’t been asking you to take me there for four years. An hour and a half by bus. I’ve got all the information. We’ll take the six o’ clock bus back. Home by eight.’ Saying all this without pausing for breath, Ruby stopped, her chest swelling as she drew in air. ‘Plenty of hotels there?’

‘They don’t want to know the relationship?’

‘Not at all. At least, not at Hotel Apsari.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Basana-di said. She goes alternate Saturdays with Sukanta-da, our chief accountant.’

‘Second and fourth?’

‘They come back on Sunday.’

‘Didn’t you say Basana-di’s husband knows everything?’

‘What do you think. She’s not scared of her husband like you are of your wife.’

Ruby and I are in our fifth year together, but I’ve not been able to tell Ranu yet. Ruby has said many times, ‘I don’t want to break your home. Especially Binti, I have no intention of takng her father away. Just tell your wife I exist. That you’ve met me.’

‘I give you all you want. Is there anything you don’t get from me? You want to take your wife and daughter to Kalimpong? Go, then. Your daughter’s finished school, you want to give her a colour TV, go ahead. That project in Ahmedpur, you ran short of ten thousand, you broke into my fixed deposit to give you the money. The only thing I’ve been asking for these four years is, let’s go to Diamond Harbour for a day. We’ll come back the same say, you can sleep next to your wife at night. Can’t you give me even a single day?’

Saying all this in the restaurant, Ruby pouted and shook her hair over her back. Clasping my hands, she brought her face closer, inviting a kiss. I move her hair away and try to kiss her shoulder.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ She moves away as though struck by lightning, then offers her neck instead. I bury my lips in it for a kiss. Under a tiger’s kiss this turns into the throat. I sink my teeth in. This is the first taste of Ruby’s blood on my tongue.

‘Ruby,’ I say, licking her blood with my tongue. ‘We’ll go. It’s Tuesday. We’ll go on Saturday morning. Tell Basana-di to book a room for us at Apsari. It can be done on the phone, can’t it?’

In the light and darkness of the cabin the scent of sandalwood drifts into my senses, pushing away the mashed rajanigandha stalks.

The roar of the ocean wafts in from Diamond Harbour…

Ruby loves me and Ranu does not. I married Ranu a long time ago, after ten years of being in love with her, from the time I was in college. I did not realise before getting married that there’s one thing which married life doesn’t need at all. And that’s love.

‘Ruby loves me,’ I inform Ranu on returning home on Friday evening. ‘Can I go to Diamond Harbour with Ruby tomorrow?’

‘Who?’

‘Ruby.’

‘Who’s Ruby?’

I give Ranu a summary of the past four years, even before I’ve finished smoking my cigarette. After which I stub out its glowing head in the ashtray.

There’s no time to read the newspapers during the day. Ranu reads them all at night. After I have told her everything she folds the newspaper lying on her lap. A second fold. She keeps folding it, making it as small as a book, a diary, a packet of cigarettes. Her face appears as pale as a seashell. Her expression is frozen.

‘Go if you want to. But no one returns from Diamond Harbour.’ Pulling a sodden piece of wood out of the burning pyre, she tosses it away.

A single-storied hotel, beyond the town, by the river. Strangely, there are indeed no dogs on the road. Although it’s Bhaadro. The river isn’t visible from the hotel. The roar of the ocean isn’t audible.

Apsara? It was more like a beggar than a nymph. A dirty green sheet on the bed, bought cheap from a village fair, a tiny, bare and bedside table made with wood used for packing boxes, with a dented tin ashtray. A small handloom towel on it. A bucket of water by an attached drain. A mug and and a used bar of soap on a mossy brick. There’s a fan, but also a power-cut.

Such a miserable set-up, and yet nothing catches my eyes except Ruby. With one, perfectly-timed shot, she has eclipsed everything else. Having seen her even once, who can take his eyes away from her?

I am astonished on seeing her at the Esplanade bus-stand. I stare at her with what-have-you-done eyes.

‘Not looking good?’

‘But all that hair… it used to cover your entire back…’

‘Ever since Ma died I’ve been going to a parlour once a month for a shampoo. Can’t do it myself. This one time I found there was a new girl there, Kim. She showed me a framed photograph, saying, this cut will suit the shape of your face. And how much longer do you intend to stare,’ says Ruby, with an edge to her voice, tilting her head like a bird. ‘Stop gaping.’

‘They call it a bob cut, up to the shoulders only.’ She smiles, her eyes lowered.

This is Ruby’s chin-on-breast smile. In all these four years, she has never smiled without her chin touching her breast. I’ve seen this smile of Ruby’s, exactly the same one, somewhere before. Every time I see Ruby smile, I wonder where I’ve seen it. I’ve never managed to remember. This time too, I don’t.

Ghawrong!

The fan begins to run suddenly without notice in the middle of the afternoon, and at top speed. Sand flakes off the walls.

The only window has no curtain. Shutting it, Ruby switches the light on. Lying down beside me, she says, ‘Just like being in a tomb, isn’t it?’

‘The fish was delicious, wasn’t it? Such big pieces.’ Suddenly Ruby jumps up. ‘What’s this on your waist?’

‘How would I know what’s on my waist. What is it?’

‘See, just like this one.’ For the first time Ruby lifts the mane off her shoulder to show me.

There’s a deep red patch covering about nine inches of the skin on Ruby’s shoulders. No, it’s wrong to call it red. Quite wrong. Violently angry is closer to the mark.

I see. So that’s what it is. This is the reason she’s never allowed me to lift her hair and kiss her shoulder. A beauty complex.

‘Is that where you’re ticklish?’ I say, about to sweep her hair aside and kiss her. There. Ruby turns her face away. ‘I have absolutely no sensation there,’ she says, pursing her lips.

‘But you used to say all this time…’

‘I just used to. I didn’t let you kiss me there because I feel nothing. I wouldn’t even know.’ With her chin-to-breast smile and a sharp look in her eyes, she says, ’Look, even you don’t have any hair her.’ She leans over her discovery on my waist with the curiosity of a scientist. ‘Well, am I tickling you?’

’Tickling? How?’

‘What do you mean, I’m rubbing a matchstick across your skin, you should be tickled. I’m not either, you know.’

Running her tongue over my right cheek, Ruby lowered her eyes and smiled. Suddenly, crossing the ocean, a photograph floated up in my head. What was her name now… aaah… yes, Pauline Parker. Her name came back to me accurately across the ages. At the age of 18, she killed her mother in the town of Canterbury in Australia. A group photograph in school uniform with her classmates, four years before that, with a tie round her neck. Everything else was perfect, only, she was smiling with her chin on her breasts. Her hair also ran as far as her shoulders, a bob. The disguise achieved by the hair cascading on Ruby’s back had prevented me from recognising her earlier.

I read about Pauline, along with her photograph, in Colin Wilson’s ‘The Encyclopaedia of Murder’. That was in the early 70s, not exactly the other day. Early on October 2, 1913, she murdered her widowed mother with a hammer used to break coal. ‘Why did you pound her head this way?’ The judge asked her. Holding her head high, she stood in the pen and said, ‘That’s personal, I shan’t answer.’ Judge: Had you already decided to kill your mother? Pauline: yes. Judge: How long ago? Pauline: Four years ago. On January 3, 1914, she was sentenced unanimously to be hanged till she was dead in Canterbury Central Prison.

Fear is rising from my frozen feet like steam. Ruby keep talking, ‘Tell me, have you had it from birth? I noticed mine when I was 16. The Lutheran Mission was advertising in the papers, if it isn’t congenital… I asked my mother, have I had this from birth, Ma? I don’t know, she said. I poked it with a needle, there was no response. I didn’t check after that. Who knows how far it has spread. To hell with it…’

Ruby put her arms around me.

‘My father was even more broad-chested than you,’ she told me, rubbing her face on my chest. What was running through her head?

So there were no dogs in Diamond Harbour? A bitch yelped outside the window. Must be the beginning of lovemaking. How could dogs not be on the street in Bhaadro?

‘The Lutherans’ ad said this thing doesn’t happen without prolonged and perpetual sexual or membrane contact. My mother’s breasts dried up immediately after my birth at her father’s house in Bankura. What was I to do? A Santhal woman was hired. Her breasts were full of milk. I was a plump and chubby baby, you know. She developed leprosy afterwards. Is the nipple a membrane, do you know? But then you’ve sucked me too, endlessly. There. You’ve got it from me, I’m sure.’

It’s full moon tonight.

‘Listen, do you know a skin-specialist?’

There will be a high tide tonight.

‘Both of us will see a doctor as soon as we get back to Calcutta, all right? Leprosy is curable, isn’t it?’

Cannons will have to be fired tonight to break the wall of advancing water tonight.

‘I woke up last night, you know. Didn’t go back to sleep. The maid sleeps in the same room. I didn’t switch the light on, in case it woke her up. Sitting up in bed I began to think of Diamond Harbour. I’ve never been here before either, just like you. As soon as the church clock struck three, alarms began to go off in the rooms of the National Medical college hostel. So many of them. Ground floor, first floor, second floor, it was like a fire of sounds. The five-storied building was burning furiously. And on ever floor, the ground and the first, the second and the third and the fourth, all these boys were running about in their lungis and pyjamas and underpants – all bare-bodied. I realised that their final exams are in September, which is why. I wanted to go back to my college days too…’

Lying on her stomach, Ruby keeps talking. The frill at the edge of her petticoat has ridden up her fair, powerful thighs. Like curtains going up. In the dark her body looks like the silhouette of a hill on the horizon. The moon is rising. It’s evening outside.

There, on the skin of her shoulder, is the reflection of my unseen waist, like red turning to black, a livid patch of nine inches. There is no longer any sensation on these two spots on her body and on mine. Ruby keeps talking. She doesn’t know any more what she’s saying. She doesn’t know when she’ll stop. She has no interest in finding out whether anyone’s listening.

Are we going back tonight? Possibly not. It’s full moon. There will be a high tide. A cannon will have to be fired to break the wall of water. Even if the roof is only on the first floor, if I go up alone tonight, I’m certain I will hear the ocean roar.

No Lies In Her Fire: Asha Naznin

01

‘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.’

02

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.

03

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.

04

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.

05

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.’

‘All right.’

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.’

06

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.

Everyone agreed.

07

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.

08

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.

09

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!

10

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 <a style="text-decoration:none;" href="http://www.aluminiumgutteringcompany.co.uk/”>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.

11

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