It is a sweltering hot night in a sleepy remote village called Madhupur. Although a full hour has not yet passed since dusk fell, it seems quite like midnight. It is typical of a village, particularly one like Madhupur. A terribly backward village where days and nights are not determined by the clock but by the behaviour of the poultry. Nights begin with their entry into the pen and the day that follows is heralded by their cock-a-doodle-doo. The villagers get themselves into this poultry routine of life. They finish their meal at twilight and go to bed after shutting the hen-house door. The next morning they wake at cock crow. But this night is different. It is too hot to sleep. There is no breeze. The leaves on the trees are still. Men and women are outside their cottages for fresh air. Some are sleeping out on mats laid on small platforms under the trees.
One is reading aloud the punthi -Gaji Kalu Champaboti (a medieval Bengali epic poem) to a large group sitting around him. Men do not have any top to go with their loincloth which is worn so loosely around the bottom that it hardly helps. The women too are scantily clad. They are in thin cotton saris accompanied by no second piece of fabric. Jainal and his wife Saleha are no exception. The only difference is that they have not come out of their cottage. Jainal has been bedridden for a couple of months. The spade wound on his right foot is not healing at all. It is rather getting swollen day by day. He cannot still believe this! How could he have cut his own foot with his own spade? Jainal is the strongest man in the neighbourhood, a tall, dark fellow with a square jaw, broad shoulders, muscular arms and legs like logs of sal tree (vatica robusta). As a hadudu player, he has no peers in the vicinity. Occasionally he plays for hire. But he earns his living by different labouring jobs. The spade is his dearest tool. He has inherited it from his father. It is being sharpened by regular wear and tear. But Jainal can handle it as a toy spade. His most popular tool has crippled him! It was in the fraction of a second that Jainal became distraught hearing the proposal of Kasem Bhai while digging the earth. "Look, Jainal, you've been slaving away in this village for long. But you're always hard up for money. It's difficult to maintain your family quite alone. Monga is fast approaching. You may starve to death with your wife," said Kasem Bhai most sympathetically."I know." Jainal concentrated on digging out a big lump of earth with his spade." But you don't know how you can raise your income."Kasem Bhai seemed very caring toward Jainal's family."How?"
Jainal raised his eyes from his spade and curiously cast them at Kasem Bhai."Send Saleha to a garment factory in Dhaka. A friend of mine has one. I can get her a good job over there. She'll earn at least thrice as much as you earn by drudgery and hadudu." Kasem's eyes appeared tinged with sneaking lust and Jainal could read it . A rancorous lava-flow quickly ran down his spine. In the twinkling of an eye, he received a severe blow of the spade on his right foot. The blade of the spade was suffused with blood.Kasem took him to the village kabiraj as quickly as he could. The kabiraj washed the foot with pond water, filled the long gaping cut with the sap of some unknown herbs and bandaged it up with a piece of shabby old cloth. He was muttering some arcane mantras and blowing repeatedly on and around the wound. All this could not effect any cure and the injury turned into a suppurating sore. But Jainal does not try any other treatment for that. He ties a string of twisted hair piercing an oyster shell round the wound with a view to warding off evil spirits. Maybe the spirits are resisted but the wound is getting graver and killing him, almost. A thick yellowish liquid oozes from it. With such a bad sore how can he join the others for fresh air? So he is in his bed, with Saleha. He is lying on his back looking at the ramshackle roof of his old thatched cottage.
Saleha is fanning him with one hand and pressing his head with the other. The flickering flame of a kerosene lamp is falling across her full figure, giving a blurred view of it in the light and shade. Totally topless, Saleha is clad in only a thin petticoat. Jainal can feel her sexuality in every curve and swell. In two years he has fully familiarised himself with the entire geography of her body. Her pudding face, ample bosom, fleshy arms, large posterior with a slender waist, shapely legsall are mind-blowing. His eyes course along her naked body from the toe upward. They come to an abrupt halt at the crucial juncture where the plump thighs have most evenly dissolved in the shadowy groin.The lustful eyes are stuck in the tiny triangle covered with soft and silky grass. Jainal cannot think any longer. He leaps up like a person possessed. With a sudden pull he lays Saleha straight on to the bed and clasps her to his broad hairy chest. Saleha is a placid river. She is bursting with youth. She is the lone thing that gives him the elixir of life. How can he miss her even for a temporary interval? How does Kasem Bhai dare give him such a proposal?
Saleha is his only possession. How can he let her live on someone else's charity while he knows full well what lies beneath this unsolicited help? Kasem Bhai is a rake, a terrible womaniser. But Saleha is not to be hunted by anybody. She is Jainal's own. His property. His possession. All her charms and beauty are not for public consumption. It is Jainal and only Jainal who possesses the right to consume her to the lees. To his heart's content. Jainal throws a tantrum. But immediately it is dampened by the nagging worry of the worsening wound. A mixture of rancour, frustration and fear turns him delirious. He hugs Saleha close to his chest and murmurs: "Saleha, my shona bou, you are my wife by religion. I love you. I would rather die than lose my right to you. You are made for me, only for me." He takes her by the shoulders and starts shaking violently: " Tell me. Promise me. You are mine. Now and always. You're never ever anybody else's. Promise me, you'll not, never go to Dhaka with the bastard."
Saleha is used to this disposition of her husband. She does not want to hurt him at that moment. She nods her consent. But she knows she has to break her promise if she wants to save her husband. She has to accept Kasem's proposal to cure the killer sore and to face the monga even if she suspects that he is just a meal ticket for her. But then again, she is not forgetful of the promise she has made to her husband. Saleha is in the doldrums. Her small world is swimming before her eyes. But she plans to play it cool. A sharp stink of rotten flesh spreads in the room. The sore is gravely rotting. Saleha knows it is being too late. She is apprehensive about its consequences. Jainal needs to be immediately taken to the district hospital. It calls for a huge amount of money. But they are in grinding poverty. They have failed to keep up with the bank loan installment. The motor cycle-riding officer is likely to come soon. This time he may not allow any more her time petition. Maybe he will proceed much further.The last time round, Saleha had begged him to defer her installment to a later date."Hmm!" The officer had looked grave. But then he cast a furtive glance at her and smiled his approval. On the pretext of taking Saleha's thumb mark, he pressed her hand softly and reassured her about paying the next installment. She could take her time with it.Saleha does not mind. She has to cure her crippled husband. She does not want him to come to a sticky end. She has to be the crutch for him. She would play a behula, the Bengali mythical woman who sailed her own yacht to an unknown destination with her dead husband with a view to bringing him back to life. She must save her dying husband. In exchange for anything. She does not know what that is. She only knows she has to turn every stone. Saleha becomes resolute.She stretches her hands towards Jainal to draw him closer. Jainal feels reassured with her promise. He buries his head in her bosom and clings to her like a child.
Dr. Rashid Askari is professor of English, Islamic University, Kushtia.