What constitutes troubles? Sarkar Sahib tried thoughtfully to broach the subject, but before he could do so, ten china plates fell from the hands of the servant and broke into a thousand pieces. At once, with the shattering din of the broken plates, came the sharp voice of Sarkar Sahib's wife, 'You have done it now. Is this your common sense, to utter early in the morning the inauspicious word “trouble”?' She shouted at the servant, 'Shameless idiot, good-for-nothing, layabout'. Dumbfounded, Sarkar Sahib tried to twist the ears of the servant, but the servant cried out, 'Oh mother, oh father, you are killing me.' Fortunately, this was the city and no one came to interfere. But the real problem remained. Sarkar Sahib withdrew his hand without touching the servant, but the servant put together his belongings and found this an opportune time and excuse to go. Nobody could prevent his going. Sarkar Sahib's wife collected the fragments of the plates and said, 'Very good; you have done well. No one works, but everyone increases the amount of work to be done. No one brings in the slightest amount of money, but everyone can destroy. I want my ten plates by the afternoon. And furthermore, give that bastard his salary and send him off so that he can never set foot in this house again.'
The eldest daughter was married. The youngest daughter came and said, 'He has broken so many plates, why are you giving him money?' The wife said, 'No, why should he? Go on, create more trouble. I have said so many times, no one should mention the word “trouble” early in the morning, or bring out money before the house has been cleaned. But no one listens to me. You are all like your father.' Before the wife could turn on her husband, somebody knocked on the door. The wife said, 'It is the washerman early in the morning.'
'Washerman? Are there washermen these days?' asked Sarkar Sahib, setting off another barrage from his wife.
She said, 'Where can you find washermen, when you have turned them all away? You are all busy serving society; when do you have time to help in the house? The servants have all become gentlemen and the sons have become nawabs. No one takes soiled clothes to the washerman.' The elder son meekly replied, 'Where are there washermen these days? I take the clothes to the laundry.' His mother taunted, 'Laundry or foundry. I have managed to keep the washerman, paying him with great difficulty, at double the usual rate.'
Sarkar Sahib sighed, 'Then you must be happy at seeing him. No wonder I can hardly make ends meet.'
He opened the door to see not the washerman Rajab, but Rajab Ali, his nephew who lived in the next flat. He had in his hands a yellow and a white paper.
Sarkar Sahib asked, 'What is the matter, Rajab Ali, what has happened?'
'Why should anything have happened?'
'He must have come to telephone, another trouble,' said the wife. 'Last night, at midnight, the telephone rang. I hurriedly got up to take the call. A good-for-nothing young boy said, “Have you seen the beautiful moon in the sky?” '
Sarkar Sahib said, 'When did this happen? Which scoundrel? I would have given him half of the moon. Why did you not call me?'
His wife said, 'Rubbish, you could not have done a thing. You couldn't have thrown dirt on his face through the wires of the telephone.'
'Well, since you have come, go on, use the telephone. Where are you calling? Don't call your girlfriend and cause us trouble.'
'No, I have not come to phone,' said Rajab Ali in a soft voice. As he said this, he blushed, because Shumi, the youngest daughter of the house, had appeared. And Rajab could not help but stare at her.
'Then what?' said Sarkar Sahib's wife.
Rajab Ali replied, 'Chachi Amma has sent me to check your electricity bill.'
'Our electricity bill? Why?' The wife became furious.
'There's nothing wrong with you. It's just that our electricity bill has somehow jumped from thirty-five to forty-five.'
The wife said, 'If you use more electricity, then it will jump.'
Rajab said, 'But in flat number six, the bill comes to only ten taka. That's why Chachi Amma is angry. She says there is something fishy about it.'
Shumi said, 'Ma, our bill has come as well.'
Her mother replied angrily, 'It has? Then why did you not give it to me? The rebate date has probably expired. I don't know what to do with all of you grown-up children.'
Sarkar Sahib said, 'Oh, why are you scolding her so much so early in the morning? So what if she forgot? Bring it to me, dear.' Sarkar Sahib was an important man, an important social worker, respected and heeded by the people of his neighbourhood. He had a cool head on his shoulders. He had to be cool, and no, for this he did not need any special herbal oil.
The bill was brought.
But what did his wife see? She could not believe her eyes. Eighty-five taka! 'Look, dear, isn't that eighty-five?'
Without looking at the bill, Sarkar Sahib said in an extremely irritated tone, 'What did you say? Can't you say it in Bangla? Eighty-five!' He couldn't quite seem to understand.
'That is what I said,' replied his wife. 'Eighty-five taka.'
'Today is the last date,' said Shumi.
Her mother's fury fell upon Shumi, and the girl turned away her face in the nick of time to escape the slap that was meant for her cheek.
'Stupid girl,' said her mother, 'you hid this trouble from us. Just wait and see. I am sure there's some mistake. Calculate the bill again. Correct it and pay the bill.'
Sarkar Sahib went out immediately. He understood that the morning's trouble would not end all day. He had not had a chance to explain to his wife that he was himself in trouble. And he did not feel at ease without telling his wife everything. After all, he was a peace-loving man. He was not in the habit of doing anything thoughtlessly or haphazardly. He did everything after due thought and deliberation. No matter how many faults his wife had, she was the pilot of the ship of their marriage. Without her steering the ship, Sarkar Sahib could not have managed things on his own. Why he alone? It was the same with all men. Other men were cowards and did not admit it as openly as Sarkar Sahib did.
Meanwhile, a handsome man turned up at this moment to create more trouble. 'In whose name is this house?' he asked.
'Whose name?' The wife turned to look at her oldest son for assistance. But where was he? Only once had he shown his face and then gone back to sleep again. It was impossible to keep him awake the whole day. She turned to the man. 'What does it matter in whose name this house is? Who are you?'
'I am an agent', he said.
'Agent? You mean a broker?' she said.
'Why should I be a broker? We do not work with deeds. All is by word of mouth and on trust. We want to serve you,' he said.
'Good,' she said, 'Will you do my grocery shopping for me?'
'Of course. But, madam, this house is in your name?'
'Perhaps it is, but does this mean you would not do anything for me if I were not the landlady?'
'No, that is not it. Can I sit for two minutes? I will explain everything to you. If you are the owner of the house, then we will spare you the harassment of handling tenants. And if you are the tenant, then we will help you face the arrogance of the landlord. You will get the same service, the only difference being in the rate we charge. We always consider tenants first. From them we take twenty taka to twenty-five per hundred, and from owners we take thirty-five to fifty taka. If you want us to go to court, or be your lawyer, or find something to quarrel about between tenants – we will do everything. In fact, we can even find a low-rent house for you to live in and rent this house at a higher rate.'
This time, the wife was truly astonished. What sort of trouble was this? She said, 'Shumi, send your elder brother to me and ask him to bring the shopping bag. This gentleman is a well-wisher. He will teach my simpleton of a son to shop properly.' Then she said to the man, 'But, be warned, it is noon now and if you bring rotten fish, I will see to it that your brokering is finished. Buy some vegetables as well. You have already wasted an hour with your idle chatter.'
Shumi announced from the next room, 'Bhaiya has gone to take his bath after his exercises.'
The wife said to the man, 'That means one more hour. You may as well come tomorrow. Put this shopping on the list of your various businesses, and it will help everybody.'
The man insisted, 'But whose house is it?''My father's, said the wife in anger. 'Whose house? Certainly not yours. Get out, I say, get out. The young man thought her half mad and quickly went out.
All these troubles. Now more troubles were to follow. It was only noon, and events would continue till midnight. Shumi reminded her that the day was Saturday and everything closed at 2 pm. Tomorrow was Sunday and everything would be closed too. Therefore, Shumi's friend's wedding present had to bought today and she needed approximately twenty taka.
'Twenty taka? Does money grow on trees? After this morning's loss, I cannot give you any money.' But she was compelled to give her fifteen taka. Her children were ashamed to go without anything nice. In the meantime, the head of the household returned. 'Oh my, what has happened to your knee?' cried the wife.
'Nothing, I had a narrow escape.'
'Meaning, the rickshaw.'
'The rickshaw? Do you mean the rickshaw overturned?' The wife almost burst into tears.
'What are you getting so upset about? The rickshaw tilted a bit. Can't you see I am all right, except for the bruise on my knee?'
'That's all right, but you should buy a car now,' said the wife, wiping her eyes. 'If you are not here, what will I do with all your money?'
'Really, father,' said her son, 'You must buy a car. Not buying a car is a mistake.'
Sarkar Sahib said, 'What is the matter with all of you? A car! As if having a car would save us all. The fault was the rickshaw wallah's, and the gentleman driving the car got such a beating for nothing. If the police hadn't come, things could have taken a terrible turn.'
The wife said, 'Rubbish. Both the rickshaw wallah and the gentleman should be thrown into jail.'
Sarkar Sahib said, 'It may have happened already.'
By this time Shumi had brought Iodex to rub on her father's knee. The wife also sent the son to fetch the doctor.
But the son returned almost immediately.
'What's wrong? Why have you come back?'
'What bad news?' said his mother. 'Who has died? For the past few months I have bad news and nothing but bad news about friends and acquaintances.'
'No', said the son, 'Nobody is dead. My friend has divorced his wife.'
'Divorce? What a scandal!'
For the first time, Sarkar Sahib seemed agitated. 'The whole country is falling to pieces.'
'This is why I am not getting married. Marriage means divorce.'
His mother said, 'Oh what a statement. Employment means slavery, so you enjoy the free life. I can see very well what you are doing. No accounting for young people these days.'
The son said, 'So you begin your nagging again. This is why I don't want to stay home. I want a little peace.'
Shumi cried out,'Bhaiya, don't go, have your lunch first.'
The mother remarked, 'Honestly, Shumi is my only hard-working daughter.'
The son said, 'I don't want plain rice and lentils.'
Shumi said, 'Why only rice and lentils? There's fried egg and mashed potatoes too.'
Her mother asked, 'Where did you get potatoes and egg?'
Shumi began, 'Rajab Bhai from next door…'
Speechless, the mother stared at her daughter. Her face seemed flushed. Her dark daughter seemed to be glowing. She thought, let them do whatever they wanted. She couldn't cope anymore.
In the evening, after the day's troubles had subsided, the wife sat on the open roof. She sat there every evening. It was her habit; she would not change. Before the evening meal, she had to rest there awhile.
Limping, Sarkar Sahib came to sit beside her. He did this very rarely, because he was busy most evenings with the various meetings and social activities of the neighbourhood.
Startled, his wife said, 'You could not go out tonight, but why are you here with me?'
Sarkar Sahib said, 'Yesterday, it was too late when I returned and I did not get a chance to speak of it.
Can you see the one-storey house in front? The one that Mr Ali's new tenants have moved into? Mr Ali is having a great problem with them.'
'Why? They mind their own business, they do not seem to bother anybody.'
'No, they do not, and they pay the rent regularly, but still it is not possible to let them stay there.'
'Why?' cried his wife anxiously.
'It is a tremendously scandalous affair.'
'Scandal? They are the parents of two children. How can they be involved in anything scandalous?'
'What if they do have children? They are not even married.'
'You are mad,' said the wife. 'How can such thoughts enter the head of such a respectable person?'
'Then why can't they show us the marriage deed?'
'Marriage deed? Do you have one? Can you show it? Why, we who have been living together these last thirty years, what proof is there that we are really husband and wife?'
'Why, who does not know it? It is the truth…?'
The wife did not let Sarkar Sahib finish the sentence. She said, 'How do you know that they are lying?'
'People are saying…'
'That Mr Ali could not say. He only said that some people of the locality are saying that ther cannot be
allowed to live here.'
'Have they heard that?'
'What did they say?'
'They said, “We did not have a court marriage with a deed we could show to everyone, and even if we did, what does it matter to anybody?”'
After a while, Sarkar Sahib said, 'The problem is right there. The gentleman is a bit hot-tempered. He works for a company where no one bothers or interferes with anyone's private life. But can one live with just one's home and office? One has to live with the people of the locality, talk to them politely, have tea with them, exchange good and bad news. But he won't do this; he is absolutely unsocial.'
The wife said, 'Forget it. This town I see worse than the village. Why are people so greedy? Don't they have enough to eat at home?'
'I said as much, and yesterday we had a meeting about the matter, but everybody is of one opinion.
No one is even listening to Mr Ali. Mr Ali is such a nice man. He almost wept and said to me, “Sarkar Sahib, tell me what to do?”'
The wife said, 'When you are helping him, why tell me? Is it so easy to uproot tenants? Won't they go to court?'
'No, because already people are throwing pieces of bricks and stones at the house. These missiles will drive them away. Honestly, the unsocial couple have become exhausted with the ghostly visits every night. And now this scandal. Ali Sahib will try tomorrow for the last time. If they do not agree to go, then
Ali Sahib will probably go for litigation. But, before that, they will probably leave. The neighbours say they are packing their belongings.'
Suddenly, the wife realised the tenants' daily routine was not being followed today. Unlike other days, they were not sitting close together or playing with their children. A still sense of foreboding enveloped the house, yet they were busy. Unlike on other days, their affectionate squabbles were not visible to her eyes, and that is why she did not have to look away. Perhaps she was thinking of them. What had changed them? Looking at them, hope and belief filled her heart. There was still love and trouble-free happiness in this world. She decided she must carry the burden of their happiness. She would not let others break up the nest of one loving couple.
Next day, everyone heard in amazement the way Sarkar Sahib's wife had gone over to the couple's house and scolded them openly. 'I may be your distant aunt, shameless girl. I cannot look after all my relatives. But I was there at the wedding. Maybe my present was not so nice. Is that any reason not to look up your aunt?'
'Auntie', the girl burst into tears.
'Never mind, dear, your uncle was abroad, and your husband would not know me after seeing me for only one day, but would I throw you out? There is nothing to fear. Let us see what anybody comes to say now.'
On returning home, Sarkar Sahib said, 'You should have told me earlier. I feel so foolish.'
His wife said, 'I did not feel the need. I can hardly bear all my troubles, how can I bear the troubles of my nephews and nieces?'
'But you have, haven't you?'
'When the need arises, one has to do it. You don't have any idea how many gossip-mongers and trouble-makers there are who cannot tolerate the happiness of others.'
Sarkar Sahib said, 'Tell me truly, are they related to you? Do you know them? Or are you doing something irreligious?'
'Irreligious? Don't scare me with your religion. Black-marketing, profiteering, usury, breaking up someone's daughter's marriage, or making someone lose a job, not recognizing merit, denying people their true rights, where is religion in these activities? Let Allah judge. As a social worker, can you not be open-minded?'
Ashamed, Sarkar Sahib left. In his heart, however, he could not help praising his wife. He himself had been uneasy at the breaking up of a household and had wanted to stop this great misfortune from happening in the couple's life. As he was leaving, he heard his wife say, 'No one can light the lamp of peace in a house, but everyone wants to blow it out. I know, I felt it when the plates broke early in the morning that some people were trying to break up the peace of the world. Do you hear me? From now on, that girl is not only my niece, she is my adopted daughter. Tell everybody to ask me if they want to feast at their wedding, but no one should try to create any more trouble.'
Sarkar Sahib stopped in his tracks. He realised that his poorly educated, absent-minded, superstitious wife had a beautiful affectionate heart. He wondered why other mothers, other daughters didn't have a
heart like hers.
The translator is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.
The story was first published in "Galpa: Short Stories by Women from Bangladesh" (SAQI: London, 2005).