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|Volume 11 |Issue 32| August 10, 2012 ||
Razia Sultana Khan
After the stifling heat of the summer day the night was still shedding layers of warmth. Dense shrubs lined the narrow dirt path leading to the outhouse giving some privacy to the women who used it. During the day a large pipal tree with heart shaped leaves tapering to thin points gave a welcome shade, but at night its presence was a sinister darkness. At night the soft rustle of a leaf or the sudden snap of a twig heralded an unwanted visitor.
The girl hated to go to the outhouse at night. She looked at the small clock beside the bed. It said 11:52. She realised the more she avoided it the later it would get. She finally rose and unlocked the door of her bedroom. With a prayer on her lips, and eyes glued to the ground, she made her way to the toilet. The smooth round lota dripped a crooked trail of water to the toilet. The girl did her business as swiftly as possible and made her way back. Relaxed now the worst was over, her eyes were involuntarily drawn by the fascination of fear and she found herself eyeing the darkness above her.
She heard the thunk as the lota hit the ground, the sound reverberating in the silence like a never ending physical assault and that segued into the booming of her heart. Suddenly everything turned bright as day and two pairs of eyes drilled into her own.
She must have run, for the next thing she knew she was inside the house and her mother-in-law was shaking her.
“Calm down, calm down! Tell me what happened.”
The mother-in-law would have moved away but the girl grabbed her. Her eyes peered out from under her lids. The irises were unfocused.
“The eyes! They were terrible. The eyes blazed down at me.” The girl had raised her voice and in her agitation shook her mother-in-law's arm. Then stopped and looked behind her at the big wooden door which was now bolted and barred across with a heavy block of wood.
The mother-in-law suppressed her initial annoyance at her brazenness. Knocking at the door of her parents-in-law's bedroom in the middle of the night was unacceptable and would have to be dealt with, but perhaps not just yet.
“Ok. Let's see. You went to the outhouse and saw someone on the way.”
The mother-in-law let out a sigh of relief. “It must have been some animal. Birds perhaps. Owls!”
“They were babies…two of them… pale.” The girl was mewling. “White. Almost… like… like leprosy!” She spat out the words in little gasps, harsh and disjointed. The words stayed suspended in the stillness of the night as if no one was interested to make any meaning out of it.
“It's purnima. The moon is full. Everything looks white.” That wasn't really true but it seemed the best answer at the moment.
The girl did not answer but her gasps still filled the little corridor which led to the bedrooms and the mother-in-law noticed beads of perspiration glistening on her forehead.
“Babies!” the mother-in-law scoffed. “What would babies be doing out there at night, I ask you? But her voice was kinder as she urged, “Get back to bed and if you need to go again let me know. You shouldn't be out alone in your condition.”
The girl's face shone pale in the diffused glow of the kerosene lamp and she caught her bottom lip between her teeth and swallowed her words.
The older woman watched her close her bedroom door, then entered her own room and going up to the large wooden bed where images of peacocks were engraved on the headboard gave her sleeping husband a gentle shake. He snored in response but did not wake up. She shook him again, a little less gently this time and bringing her head close to his ear said in a muted voice, “Are you listening?”
He opened his eyes and gave her a blank look.
A week later, two villages away in Khagobari, Salam Kha, the head of the family, had a visit from his friend, Aslam, the eldest son of his neighbour. Aslam sat cross legged on the low chowki of the one-roomed house that stood at the entrance of the bari, a little away from the cluster of houses which made up Khagobari. The door and the windows faced the pond where most people washed their feet before entering the bari.
Aslam rubbed his hands together, his dry calloused fingers producing a rustling noise not unlike the wind passing through neem leaves. It was late evening and distant shouts and cries of children playing looka churi broke through. Salam waited. Aslam popped one knuckle, then another.
“Ehm ehm.” Salam cleared him throat and gave Aslam a questioning look.
The popping stopped and Aslam looked up. Enunciating each work slowly as if giving it due consideration, he said, “Babul's wife has IT.”
Salam didn't answer. He didn't ask what IT was. He gave no signs of having heard Aslam except that a muscle in his right cheek quivered.
“She'd just returned from visiting her parents in Faridpur. She had fever first and then the rashes came out.” Aslam's voice merged with the drone of insect noises heralding the close of day. His eyes strayed to the open window but he was oblivious to what was going on outside.
The cup of milk tea sitting in front of him already had a thin layer a shade darker than the rest of the tea. Beside it, on a silver saucer with a crimped edge, sat two cones of pan leaf, untouched.
“Abba is going to 'close' our house tonight. He asked me to pass the message on to all the other baris in our village.”
“But we've been free of this illness all these years. Now, out of the blue…” Salam spoke slowly. His brows furrowed in the middle of his face giving his otherwise harmonious features a distorted look.
Aslam glanced at him then looked away. “IT must have been around, biding ITs time,” he mumbled.
“Did IT …show itself to anyone?” Salam probed. He knew from the stories that his grandmother had told him when he was a little boy, that it always left a calling card before appearing. It showed itself in some way, usually to someone vulnerable or weak: children, pregnant women, old people.
Aslam looked down at the paan. Salams's wife made very good paan. She had a knack of putting ingredients that blended well together and created a feast in his mouth. He'd told his wife to find out what the “secret” ingredients were but had only succeeded in upsetting her at the praise of another woman's paan. But today there was a knot in his throat and though he swallowed the knot did not move. He made no effort to reach for the paan.
“Babul's wife.” Aslam murmured.
Babul lived in Dubai; had taken a job there a few years back. Then suddenly he'd returned four months ago and within a couple of weeks had got married. Then, just as suddenly he'd gone, leaving his new wife behind, to look after his parents. No one was really surprised. It wasn't uncommon.
Salam Kha, however, wanted to know more. “What did she see?” he prodded.
Aslam's eyes were once again drawn to the window, as if searching for something. Finally in a voice which faltered a little he said, “She saw… two white babies, on her way back from the toilet.”
One, two, three, four… The children's voices seemed closer. They were still playing their game of hide and seek.
“Is she…?” Salam Kha hesitated before voicing his thoughts.
“Probably, but I doubt she's talked to anyone about it. Newly married and he's not here. I'll ask my wife. She'll find out if she's pregnant.”
“Well, it hardly matters now, does it?”
Aslam stood up slowly. “I'd better go. It's getting late.” He touched his forehead with his right hand, mumbled a goodbye and left.
Salam Kha sat motionless. Big Brother!
Even in his thoughts, he didn't want to name the dreaded disease. Something so powerful and destructive should not be mentioned by name needlessly. “The Big One,” or “You Know Who,” or just, “Big Brother,” was enough. He was not superstitious, neither was he reckless. There was no harm in being careful. ITs power was undeniable: It had wiped out half the village in his grandfather's time. No one in his bari, however, had been harmed. His father had seen to that. Now, it was up to him. The fact that it was two villages away was something to be grateful for. It provided a buffer zone. He wondered how much traffic there had been between the villages in the last week. Perhaps it was already too late. Stop it, he reprimanded himself, trying to get rid of negative thoughts. Be positive. You have Anjuman and the children to think of.
“Abba Abba. Aren't you coming home?” The voice of his four-year-old daughter, Shilpi, broke into his thoughts.
Salam Kha turned to see her framed by the kachari door. A thin green cotton dress fit snugly around a plump body and in the golden haze of the setting sun her bare arms and legs glowed orange. She beamed a smile at him.
“Go home!” As soon as the words were out, he saw her face drop and the smile vanish. With a sigh of regret he walked up to her, bent his haunches and in a softer voice said, “Go home, Ma. Your mother will be looking for you.”
Somewhat reassured, Shilpi gave him a watery smile and repeated, in a lower tone this time, “Aren't you coming home?”
“In a minute. Go home and tell your mother I'm on my way. Remember, go straight home”
Happy to have a message to relay, Shilpi scooted off.
Left alone, Salam Kha looked around him. The kachari had a low wooden bed ready with mattress and pillows. He knew the sheets were changed regularly. There was an alna to hang clothes on. In one corner there was a wooden table with a kerosene lamp and a box of matches close by. In another corner sat a ceramic pot of cool drinking water. Any traveller in need of a place to stay for the night was welcome to break his journey here. All he had to do was light the kerosene lamp and the women of the bari would know there was a guest and send someone to see to his needs.
His friends sometimes joked about it – “the Khagobari hospitality,” they called it. He had asked himself why he continued doing it. Was it just to keep alive a tradition rigorously followed by his father and his father before him? Or was it his pride, for his bari to be known among the neighbouring villages as the one where the kachirighor was always open? Or was it something more – a deep seated need to help a traveller passing through. After all weren't we all travellers passing through this life? Who knew when one needed a helping hand?
Salam Kha shut the windows and barred the heavy wooden door from the outside, a sign to any visitor that the kacharighor was closed. It saddened him that since he became the head of the Khagobari after his father's death five years ago, this was the first time that the kacharighor was barred.
When Salam Kha arrived home Anjuman was waiting near the water pump at the back of the house. His eyes lighted up at her red sari with a thin golden border.
He was taken back ten years, the day of his marriage when he'd managed to get away from the guests and face his wife for the first time. She was sitting in the centre of the bed, a mound of glittering red and gold under layer upon layer of some flimsy material. She'd looked up, smudged sandalwood dots around eyes dark with mixed emotions: fear, nervousness and excitement. His heart had raced, not with the nerves that he had entered the room, but with a sense of excitement and happiness. His own worries had dissolved in his need to save her from her discomfort. He had wanted to take all her worries onto his own shoulders; protect her. He'd smiled at her and she had smiled back.
“Anything wrong?” Anjuman's puzzled expression brought Salam back to the present.
With a sheepish smile he shook his head as if to shake off the past. He wondered at the turn his thoughts had taken at such a crucial moment. He gave her a hooded look from under lowered lids. Her forehead scrunched a little forming the even parallel lines that made him want to smoothen them away, but he noticed the twinkle in her eyes, almost as if she could read his thoughts. He looked down quickly and cupped his hands under the mouth of the pump as she pushed down the handle.
His voice was gruff as he said, “I can do that, you know.”
“I know,” she said. He would have liked to have looked at her as she bent down to add leverage to the pump. But then she would stop doing it.
She waited as he finished washing his hands and feet and held out the cotton gamcha. He dabbed at his face with the gamcha and debated with himself how to break the news to her.
Finally he looked straight at her and she answered the appeal in his eyes with a soft, “What is it?”
“Babul's wife is sick. Big Brother has struck their bari.”
“Bina? The one who got married a few months ago?” She couldn't keep the shock from her voice. “Who told you?”
“Aslam came by. His father is 'closing' their house.” He paused but she'd already turned away. Her mind was playing with everything that would involve. She wasn't surprised when his voice followed her. “I have to do the same.”
The children were in the large bedroom, all three sitting around the table in the light of the kerosene lamp. They were busy studying. Hashem, at eight the eldest, was writing in his lined exercise book. He took care to write each Bangla word distinctly so that the top of the alphabets made a straight line, and the letters hung like different shaped clothes on a washing line. Helal, two years younger, was reading aloud from his Bangla book Amar Sonar Bangla, My Golden Bengal.
Shilpi sat between her brothers, carefully copying the vowels and vocalising as she wrote them down, “Shor-e o, shor-e a.” She hadn't started school yet, but Anjuman encouraged her to sit with the boys during study hour each night before dinner. Usually Anjuman stayed close by, correcting their pronunciation or stopping to praise one or the other of the children as she went about her evening chores.
Tonight she said, “I'm working in the kitchen. Don't disturb your father. And, Helal, don't read so loud.”
Helal looked up, surprised. Usually she asked him to read louder whenever she moved away, so he wouldn't fall asleep. Now his voice went down a couple of notches, and once his mother left the room, stopped. He started fingering the two large red-and-white striped marbles in his pocket which he had won earlier in a game with his friend, Shumon. He gave a secret smile as he clicked one against the other in the confines of his pocket, his eyes glittering at the sound resonated through the layers of clothing.
Anjuman left the room and picked up the open kuppi from the back veranda, taking the two steps down to the inner courtyard, and in a few strides reached the kitchen. The open wick of the kuppi flickered with her movements, and even as she curled the fingers of her left hand around it, her eyes found the darkness engulfing her.
The kitchen was on a mud elevation with walls of bamboo strips woven into sheets. Their natural almond hue was lost under a thick coating of black soot but the rest of the kitchen glowed in the light.
Anjuman looked around, her eyes picking up items she would need inside the house. The new gas cooker, still unused, sat in one corner. Her brother had brought it for her the last time he came to visit her from Dhaka. Tiptoeing into the kitchen to wheedle an early cup of tea, he had found her squatting in front of the chula, tears streaming down her cheeks, trying to coax the damp jute sticks to light up. The sooty smoke swirled around her like an angry mother-in-law.
The gas cooker had been delivered a week later.
Now Anjuman carried the cooker and the two cylinders of gas that came with it, into the house. She wondered how long it would last. As she traced and retraced her steps, bringing in items she felt she couldn't do without, she ticked off what she had done in her head. She also made quick mental notes of what remained to be done. There were about two dozen coconuts under the bed from the last haul. And the small storeroom had rice and lentils saved over from the previous season. There was enough for them to survive on for a month.
She started thinking of other things that would be restricted to them. The outhouse was her main worry. It was about fifty steps away from the house. The dirt road that led through a betel palm grove was narrow, barely enough for two people to walk abreast. In the daytime the whole mingled into the bari, but once it was dark, the boundary closed in like a tightening noose. Her tension lessened a notch when she thought of the water pump Salam had installed just a year back. Now they did not need to go to the pond for every drop of water.
The pond belonged to them and was adjacent to the kitchen. A row of coconut trees and bushes separated it from the dirt road meant for public use. Outsiders or male passersby kept their eyes on the road when passing a pond belonging to a bari. They knew that the womenfolk bathed and washed there, especially in the middle of the day. Added to that was the unwritten code that splashing signified the presence of women and any respectable traveller kept his eyes to himself. Of late, however, Shapna, the girl who came to help Anjuman, had complained that she'd seen people stop and actually peer over the bushes as she did the washing up. Once she'd shouted out, “Hey! BAYADOB! BALAD! What do you want?” The faces had vanished and from the distance she couldn't tell who they were.
That evening as Salam Kha and his family sat down to dinner, there was a lull in the air. In the hot sultry days of May the evening breeze was a respite luring people to come out of their houses and gather in small groups. Tonight not a single leaf stirred.
Salam Kha and his family sat on a bamboo mat, eating their meal in silence. Salam Kha believed in the adage, “Eating is a form of prayer.” Yet when the children sat down to a meal, there would be a shove, or a push or a suppressed giggle. Shilpi would poke Helal with her sticky fingers and Helal would sit enraged, mindful of reacting in the presence of his father. He well knew, as did Shilpi, who would get the rough end of the deal. Tonight, however, they were quiet, sensing some of the tension flowing through their parents.
Anjuman noticed beads of sweat on Salam Kha's forehead and got out her cloth fan, embroidered with a large blue lotus design and an edging of red frills, and started fanning him. He stopped her with, “It's not necessary. Sit down and eat.”
There was a stew of rui fish with split moong lentils, a dish that Salam Kha was particularly fond of and of which he had helped himself to a second portion during lunch, but now he just pushed the food around his plate.
After dinner, Salam normally shared his experience of the day with Anjuman and the children. The best time of the day for Anjuman was after dinner as she brought out her brass engraved paandan and leisurely made paan for him. He would sit relating bits and pieces of what had happened during the day, watching her reaction as he told her choice bits, when she burst into laughter or went pale with fear and worry for him. His job as a farmer wasn't dangerous, but he would exaggerate an incident and wait for her response, his heart beating a touch faster to know her fear was for him, that his well being was important to her.
The open paandan would entice Shilpi to come forward and sniff at the different aromas wafting out. If she had been good her mother might even make a small paan for her with lots of toasted coconut shaving and a nugget or two of pine sugar. Her mouth bulging with sweet paan Shilpi would sit on Salam Kha's lap and try to mimic his gestures.
Tonight Salam Kha popped the paan into his mouth and headed for, what he liked to call, his “study”. It was a very basic room with a small window protected by iron bars and two folding wooden panes which were now shut. A bookshelf full of large old books bound in dark leather or cloth dominated one side of the room. The only other furniture in the room was a simple mahogany desk with two matching drawers on either side and a wooden chair to go with it. He turned up the wick of the kerosene lamp and the smooth table shone with a polish acquired with time and use.
Salam Kha pulled the rickety drawer of the table with a jerk, and took out a brown manila envelope out of which he removed four thin sheets of paper. His fountain pen lay in the long holder shaped like an open pen cover. He tried writing with it and unsatisfied, cleaned it in fresh ink. Ready to start, he sat with his head bowed in meditation and then with a clear and loud, “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim,” he started writing.
At first he wrote slowly and deliberately, mouthing the prayers aloud before writing. Every so often he would get up and walk around the room subvocalising verses from the Koran as he flexed his right hand. Once he opened the door and put his head outside.
“Are you listening?”
“Is there any more paan?”
Anjuman's, “Yes…” was cut short by the closing of the study door.
She made the second paan with even more care than before, adding the silver foil coated cardamom seeds she saved for special guests and a tiny piece of cinnamon bark to the shavings of the betel nut. Carefully rolling it into a cone, she folded the extended flap and secured the pan with a whole clove.
It was past midnight when Salam Kha finally stopped. Anjuman, who had been straining for the last hour to hear some movement, entered the room on soft feet.
“Aren't you done yet?”
She came up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder and peeked from behind. Four sheets of white paper covered in blue lay in front of him. Though Anjuman could read the typed Arabic words of the Koran, the minute hand-written script quivering in the flickering wick looked like blue wavy lines. She stood admiring his beautiful penmanship, careful to keep her distance. She felt the taut knots in his muscles and slowly started to knead his shoulders. After some time the knots started to soften but when his body began to melt into the chair, she stopped.
“There's work to be done. You can rest later,” she said.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, and she tried to absorb some of the anxiety and bewilderment she saw there. His eyes focused and he turned away. He folded and refolded the sheets of prayer until they looked like minute pillows. He reached into another drawer and brought out a little cotton pouch. In it were a number of miniature cylindrical tin containers. He chose four and into each inserted a bullet of written prayer. These he put into his pocket.
“I have to go now. Shut the door as I leave and do not open it to anyone. Not even if you hear my voice. Wait for me to say my name three times. Remember, three times.”
Salam Kha waited till he heard the door bolt shut after him, then strode towards the shed where the farm implements were kept. He chose a sturdy shovel and with deliberate steps headed for the East side of the Khagobari. He did not look at the darkness and if he said any prayers they were silent ones.
Once he had chosen the spot and the shovel struck the dry ground scattering pebbles and dry lumps of earth, he started chanting prayers in a low voice. He dug a hole of about two feet below ground and carefully placed the amulet in it. He filled the hole, taking care to cover it with patches of grass. He then did the same in the South end of the bari, then the West end.
As he walked to the North end he felt a weight press behind him as if the darkness itself was pushing him. He wanted to turn around and look but restrained himself. He started chanting prayers and even though they trembled in the empty space, he kept at it. When he reached the corner he heard someone call his name. The hair at the nape of his head stood up and he felt a chill run over him. He pushed the spade into the ground. There was a harsh clank as if it had hit a rock. He persisted. The ground seemed impenetrable and the effort to dig overwhelming. It would be so good to sleep a few minutes. He was tired. A languidness enveloped his bones, like a weight pulling him down. He lost the thread of his prayer and keeled in. Sleep…
Anjuman was in front of him. Her face puzzled, wanting to tell him something.
“What? What is it?” the words trembled out of his semi consciousness. He had to do something. Only he didn't know what.
“Wait! Wait!” he shouted as he saw her disappear. He tried to open his eyes but everything was dark. He couldn't understand whether the darkness was due to the fact that his eyes were closed or that it really was still dark. He could hear his heart thumping. He tried to get up but something was pressing him down; sitting on him. He wanted to move but couldn't.
He saw her again and she was mouthing a prayer - the Ayat-al-Kursi. And suddenly he was reciting it too. He could move his mouth and the words came out in fits and starts. He kept at it, louder this time: “la takhuthuhu sinatun wala nawmun” (No slumber can seize Him nor sleep). He opened his eyes. The darkness was all around him but he felt free of it. He rose and picked up his shovel, then started to dig.
He dug deeper than he had for the previous three amulets, then put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the last one. He clutched it tight and instead of dropping it in, he placed his whole arm in the hole. Then he quickly shovelled the softer dirt from the bottom on it and packed it tight, then layered it with dry clots. There were a few bricks left over from a fire someone had built. He packed the bricks tightly on top. As he finished, he looked up to see the horizon turn a lighter shade of black.
He brushed the dirt off his hands, swung the shovel over his shoulder and turned homewards. Anjuman would be waiting.
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