(translated by Munasir Kamal)
Let’s say her name is Ayesha, say she’s fourteen or fifteen years old and blossoming like girls of her age. Suppose she skips up and down the village path, or races across paddy fields, her long braid swinging down her back. Again, suppose she has grown from thin to fleshy and is “too soon made glad, too easily impressed.” Say she should have left for her husband’s abode long ago but hasn’t. Let’s assume why. Here are the options: her father is a poor farmer (as expected); her parents didn’t get lucrative offers for her; child marriage is about to become obsolete due to meddling NGOs, etc.
Now say Khayrun’s – I mean Ayesha’s – father’s name is Malek Miah, and her revered mother’s name is… forget it, it’s not important. Suppose, again, these days Malek Miah has stopped eating; slumber has left his esposa’s, that is, his significant other’s, eyes. The reason? There are no prospects for Putul’s – what was she called? – yes, Ayesha’s matrimony. When a girl has reached a marriageable state, obviously her parents shouldn’t eat or sleep, right? And undoubtedly the concerned neighbours will become restless and start making snide remarks. And on account of that Haridas, shit (!), Malek Miah and his better half (What was her name? Didn’t I mention it? Oh well, it’s not important anyway) have a dearth of happiness. In the meantime Ayesha / Putul / Juliet flaps about like an unsuspecting pigeon. She knows not that this sweet home is not hers; it is her father’s place. The chalta tree to the north of her home belongs to her brother, not to her.
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Anyway, let’s say they finally manage a groom for Nomita, uh huh, Ayesha. Suppose the groom is quite young, say thirty-five, from the neighbouring village – say Manikpur. Suppose people call him Majnu or Mahadev – beloved offspring of Ratan Ali or Jotin Mistiri. Say our hero, Majnu, is the sub-head tailor at Swapna Tailors down at the bazaar – a vital post, don’t you think? Now, let’s assume this is our Majnu’s first marriage, which might not have been the case; he might have been a widower with a wife or two departed, or our jamai-babu might have been a little older – say fifty or sixty-two or even seventy-four. That would have been perfectly normal, but it didn’t happen. Rather suppose our Ratna’s, no, Fulbanu’s, aarrgghh (!), Ayesha’s younger brother Raja – whose name means ‘king’ – has found a decent dulabhai or brother-in-law. Raja – twelve years old – lives true to his name. If the cream is missing from the freshly boiled milk, he goes on a hunger strike. If by chance he hands a cow a bunch of straw, he complains of ants in the straw. How sad! Poor king! But let’s not prattle on about the exploits of Raja or Boja or Goja.
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Suppose the day of Kankabati’s, nope, Ayesha’s holy matrimony has arrived. Aiij amrar kusum ranir bibaha hoibo, bibaha hoibo… Congrats Aishwarya, sorry, Ayesha!
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Now wise reader, those who are perusing this magnificent tale (let me whisper the truth: this story has no plot, and no – What was it called? Got it! – no ‘climax,’ i.e. no wife-beating, no adultery, no scandal, no divorce. There’s only a metaphor). Anyway as I was saying, dear reader, I’m assuming you know a teeny-weeny bit about farming, like a plough isn’t used to row a boat. I’d also like to believe that you’re familiar with some of the vocabulary of agriculture – such as chatka, chotka, mada, poam. But it’s perfectly acceptable if you’re not. You only need to appreciate their meaning. Let us go then, you and I, to investigate how rice is cultivated – how Ayesha’s / Arati’s pops, i.e. the illustrious sons of the soil, by overcoming gargantuan obstacles, reap what the books call a ‘golden harvest’. Do not be impatient, dear señor, with my sermon. We effortlessly bring home sacks of rice from the market; it only hurts a little when a kg costs more than forty taka. But let’s now turn to those sons of the soil to understand what hurt is. Let’s observe the cultivation of different varieties of IRRI and BRRI, though it must be mentioned that there are other varieties besides these and the cultivation process for each is different.
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Observe there – Rahim Sheikh or Madan Molla or Nitai Biswas is taking the seed-paddy out of the gola or store. He is working swiftly; the paani or jol, I mean the H2O in the fields is drying up. He can’t prepare the seed-bed if the water dries up.
After unloading the seeds using dhamas or cane baskets, the seeds are soaked in water in large silver bowls or earthen pots for a couple of days. This seed-paddy is then stacked like pyramids in a shady and humid spot and covered with old sacks. How long this time? Say a week or so, in which estimated amounts of water are sprinkled on the stacks (good job!).
When the sacks are removed on a misty morning of Kartik, oh what a scene! Each seed has sprouted goj in a process you educated folks call germination. The white one-two-three inch roots twist among themselves like noodles. One may be unable to stop staring at these marvelous growths – thick like Marx’s mane and white like that of aged Rabindranath, in fact, thick and white like Santa’s beard – and how can one forget the lovely brownish scent coming from them! The warm breaths emanating from each heap…
Anyway, let’s get back to the point. These entangled roots must be untangled, or how can they be scattered on the patokhola or seed-bed on time? The gojs are gently separated with skilled and agile hands; they must not break, which I presume you – wise reader – can comprehend. But it’s all the same whether you can or not. Riding again in dhamas, the sprouted seeds next travel to the small seed-bed near the farmer’s dwelling. The soft soil, sprawled like an ironed bedspread, waits to welcome them. Fistfuls of seedlings are now scooped and sprinkled on the soil. Then there is an interval for a couple of months.
Interval? What do you think peasants do during this break? Do they wait like the young man sunbathing on a winter morning waiting for his beloved to come like in the song, Baranday roddur, aami aram kedaray bose du-paa nachai re? No, your excellency, that is not the case! Their waiting includes anxiously watching over the seed-bed several times a day; then when the seedlings are about three inches tall, nourishing them with dewdrops each morning – softly brushing the heads of the plants with a date or bamboo stem so that the drops accumulated overnight fall to the roots; ensuring that rats don’t make homes in the ground, or that ever-hungry cows and calves do not chew up the young plants, etc.
Finally when the seedlings are six or seven inches tall, it is time to pluck them from the ground. Everyone in the family – say Surbala, I mean Ayesha, Ayesha’s mother Billabati (Oh! We don’t know her name, do we?), Ayesha’s mother’s mother-in-law or Ayesha’s mother’s father-in-law’s wife, and even Raja or Dhoja – takes part in this work. This task, again, must be handled with care. Just as minute stitches are made with a needle on a kantha, the seedlings are gently lifted between the fingers so that they are not injured, for no orthopaedic at Pongu Hospital can mend such an injury! They are then softly smacked against the hand to free the newly exposed roots from the loose earth; handfuls of the young stalks are tied with date leaves and their lower portions are soaked in shallow water so that the soil is washed away and the reddish-white colour of the roots become visible. The soil is removed to make the stalks lighter because they must now be carried a long distance in dhamas to the main paddy field.
The next step is also very demanding and it requires much devotion. They are preparing the lands – the fathers, uncles and grandfathers of all Amenas and Ayeshas are preparing the soil – they are flooding their small patches of land with water from shallow machines, turning the earth twice or thrice using old-fashioned ploughs or modern tractors, uprooting the weeds, kneading the soil, sprinkling fertilizer, evening out the now custard-like almost knee-deep soil using ladders… need I say more?
The farmers will now poke holes into the ready earth to sow the seedlings. It is here the seedlings will grow new roots and mature. At one point they will conceive. The milk they develop in their clusters will later harden into grain. They will sway with the breeze, and gradually ripen and take on the colour of gold (a description not uncommon in Bangla poetry). At this stage they will become the symbol of a particular political party. Then will appear the sickle of the communists and of the peasants. The next steps include cutting, binding, carrying off the stalks, and threshing and drying the paddy in the sun, etc. Only the deserted fields will remain like the field in Jibanananda’s poem – “Dhan kata hoye geche”.
Honourable monsieur and madame, since like Shakespeare’s Polonius I believe that “Brevity is the soul of wit,” I have illustrated with succinctness the technique of transforming the seed-paddy into seedlings, and the subsequent fostering of the transplanted seedlings. Now use your brains guys, don’t ask me to elaborate further! Do you want the story to become tedious?
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Let’s return now to the original plot. Wasn’t something important taking place today? Kuch kuch hota hai, today? What hota hai? Forgotten, bro? Wedlock hota hai – the holy matrimony of our leading actress, Sarojini! Look, there sits Sarojini – I beg your pardon, Ayesha – on a wooden chouki spread with a mat of hogla leaves. A newly-washed crumpled bed-sheet covers the mat; bridal makeup masks her face.
I must confess I’m not good at describing a bride’s get-up in ornamental fashion (really I’m not, bro, don’t insist!). Lilabati – oops, Ayesha – is wrapped in a gaudy red sari, her hands are painted with henna, crimson aalta borders her feet, and the like. Certain images bespeak the nuptials – you must be familiar with them, learned reader! Whatever, preparations are in full swing. Commotion surrounds Ayesha. Some Neroes play flutes instead of fiddles, adding a needless note of melancholy to the festive occasion. The groom – Iblis or Idris or whatever his name is – is yet to arrive. All are waiting in suspense, waiting, waiting, waiting…
Won’t you look a little closer, sweet reader? Mamata has been kept waiting. She has just been wrenched from the seed-bed and drenched in water after being smacked. Observe, reader dear, the soil has been washed away from her roots – red, wounded roots, see? And what’s this I hear? Someone crying? Who’s crying? Do seedlings shed tears when transplanted to the paddy field from the seed-bed? Ridiculous! It’s only natural for them to change location, what say you, you prudent social beings? Baaper bari, I mean, the paternal residence cannot be ‘a home of one’s own’ for a lass, can it? It’s only natural for an XX species to be reared to finally take root at her asur bari, sorry, shashur bari, that is her in-laws’ territory. Why detect tears in it? Wounding and bleeding in it? What nonsense!
But brave reader, has the paddy field been prepared for the seedling? Is it as soft as custard? When the seedling is transposed, will the exposed roots cling to the new ground and exclaim, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it at last!” Will Atashi’s mother-in-law greet her with a shriek of delight, call out “ma,” take her to her bosom and dramatically announce, “Your place is in my heart, not at my feet”? Will Bipasha’s hubby’s younger sister treat her as a ‘maer moto bhabi’ – a ‘sister-in-law with a mother’s face’? Does a chalta tree, like Ayesha’s treasured one, stand beside her father-in-laws’ house? After the first night’s wounding by her ravenous bed-mate, will she be able to tell anyone where it hurts, let alone a gynecologist? Won’t Patonjali be expected to sit, her legs folded, by the heated earthen stove the morning after to cook? Who will soothe her when certain regions of her body, and less importantly – her mind, ache? Hell! Why so many silly questions?!
Let’s now turn to great literature and hear what our esteemed bard – Rabiguru Kabindranath, oh sorry, Kabiguru Rabindranath – has to say in Letter 41 of his Chinnapatrabali. Let me quote from the letter:
“…but I have noticed that women have a great affinity with water. I find them similar in some aspects; they share a common bond. Both surge, and flow easily from place to place. They have fluidity, rhythm, motion, and music. Both can take the shape of whatever patro or container they are placed in. The hurdles of life do not crush them, though they may dry up bit by bit. Women and water hold up the harsh world with their care and affection. Even this Earth that they sustain cannot fathom the secrets of their minds… So, women and water have much in common. Though it seems incongruent for women to bear heavy loads, women lifting and carrying back water from springs, wells and banks of ponds and rivers look perfectly natural. Images of women bathing and chatting half-submerged near the edge of the water are beautiful. In fact, women love water because both are of the same element. Such easy flow and melodious murmur belongs only to them.”
Ah! Sadhu! Lovely! Elegant! Splendid! How aesthetic! But I feel a little upset, Gurudev. If you were alive, I would confront you and ask – despite your charming simile – whether you were condemning men by comparing them with solid earth, or knocking down women further by comparing them with water. You have mentioned that even the earth cannot fathom the mysteries in a woman’s heart; then how can you presume to know them all? Have you known them all? You have related women with your favourite element, water, so easily! But note, the word you have used, patro, can mean ‘bridegroom’ as well as ‘container’. When we transfer water from one patro to another, does the water feel pain? Is a woman born with the ability to shape herself according to any and all patros she is allotted, Rabindrababu? Or do we simply declare her so and so, and hence she becomes so and so? Is it as straightforward as God saying let there be light, and there was light? Have you – fair speaker – given Menoka, nope, Kakoli, no, Srabanti, ugh, Khona, (shit, why do I keep forgetting?) Ayesha (finally!) the floor to share her side of the story?
We are aware, Gurudev, that you eagerly perused the works of your contemporaries, and even your successors. Have you, by chance, read the short story ‘Pui Mancha’ by Bivhutibabu? Do you remember Khenti – that wild and foolish creature who loved to eat? Like the shoots of the pui creepers, she shriveled and perished with neglect at her shashur bari. You have claimed that the hurdles of life do not crush women, “though they may dry up bit by bit”. Yes, quite correct. Khenti didn’t break into two; she just dried up and died! Don’t take it personally, Gurudev, but you have written a pseudo-classic this time! Why, boss, don’t you recall your own creation – the girinandini – girl from the mountains, Haimantee? In one scene, we find her by the window staring out, through iron rods, at a neighbour’s kanchan garden with the purple flowers in full bloom – “Her head leaned against the wall. One hand was placed limply on another. Her hair fell down her left shoulder and lay lifeless on her bosom.” You yourself created her helpless and pitiful frame, weakening at her in-law’s hostile residence – a glaring contrast to her childhood home in the mountains. How could you forget the classic that inspires us to deliver feminist lectures?
Khenti wasn’t transplanted to prepared land – earth that was ready to accept the seedling. Plucked from the seed-bed and relocated on a wasteland, she withered and passed away. Haimantee too succumbed to the aridity of the ground on which she was asked to grow new roots. How many girls are transferred to lands prepared with care? Batasi, Ketaki, Nomita, Julekha, Pushpa, Rina, Kulsum, Felani – who among them are placed on fertile and watered grounds? Go and sow seedlings on a wasteland, and on a fine morning after catching a falling star, how can you return expecting to find a golden harvest?
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Let’s return to Protyasha’s, oh god, Ayesha’s story. Actually, reader, there is no story left, or there was no story to begin with. Only Ayesha sits on a chouki, uprooted and bleeding. She will soon be transplanted to another plot where she will become a wife, a daughter-in-law, and a sister-in-law. There she will become poati or pregnant; there she will become a mother, later a mother-in-law, a grandmother and eventually a corpse. There will be no exception to these events. There is no climax in this tale – no wife-beating, no adultery, no scandal, no lashing out at the husband, no leaving him and returning; for to where should she return? To her paternal home? The chalta tree is not hers.
* Originally published in Bengali in a ‘little mag’ called Galpo in February 2012. It has been translated with the help of the author.