The sky was an ominous leaden colour. Leaden, splattered with white clouds. The wind whistled in gusts. On top of a storm-battled palm tree perched a lone eagle. The murky leaden sky was pitiless. Gusty winds rustled through the leaves of the palm tree. The eagle screamed in tune with the wild rustling of the leaves. Halimun was afraid. She was also angry. She wanted to catch hold of the tuft of leaves and stop the terrible cries. She wanted to rent the pitiless leaden drape of the sky with a sharp dao and rip out the bright blue day from within. That would punish the sky all right. But below? The river water was rising rapidly. Land and water were indistinguishable. The ravenous, sluggish brown flood had devoured the land, had inundated all the paddy fields. The flood waters dashed against the sides of the huts. The very posts tottered. Any moment now their hut would be washed away, leaf-thatched roof and all. And the water kept on rising. The only noise to be heard was the gurgling and swirling of the flood waters.
Halimun shivered, wrapping the frail rag of a sari closer round herself. She was cold. The gusty wind stirred up the dismal drizzle to slash against Halimun, adding to her discomfort. The water bubbled up through the earthen stove in the corner of the hut. The sides of the earthen stove dripped like rotting meat. Her empty rice bowl swirled about on the water. Seeing her bowl twirling around on the flood waters, Halimun shivered. Her stomach twisted with hunger. The pangs of hunger wracked her like pangs of childbirth. Hunger, which one could not glare at and subdue. How could the nineteen-year old Halimun tackle that hunger? For a moment, Halimun forgot about the turgid waters and the leaden sky. The picture of a bowlful of bright, full-grained rice came to her mind, each grain plump and separate. Beautiful, white rice. And golden lentils. What else could anyone ask for? No, nothing. Just one bowl of rice and lentils. At this moment Halimun could ask for nothing more precious than a bowlful of rice and lentils. Halimun was hungry. She had eaten nothing for four days at a stretch. The flooded ditches and canals, the inundated paddy seedlings, the collapsing mud huts, the washed-out garden--amidst all this Halimun was conscious of one thing alone: her hunger. She wanted rice. Just one bowl of rice.
Halimun's father, mother, brother, and sisters had been killed by Pakistani soldiers. They were not men, but bloodthirsty hyenas who had set their hut ablaze. They had not killed the seventeen-year-old Halimun. Instead, they had called out to the sloe-eyed Halimun. Come here, little girl. We must get our fill of you first. Halimun had not understood their words. But she had understood the look in their eyes. The smirk on their lips. She had understood that more than her life was in danger. Spared their bullets, Halimun had leapt into the flames.
The soldiers had been disappointed to lose so fine a prey. Whey they realised what had happened, they fired some shots into the flames and then left the place. Strange! Even stranger was that Halimun had not died in the fire. Though singed by the fire, she had somehow managed to survive.
A girl who could leap into fire to save her honour was worthy of respect and admiration. At least in those days of enemy occupation. The villagers had looked after Halimun, brought her food and medicine. After liberation, relief workers had looked after Halimun, brought her food and medicine. After liberation, relief workers had come and constructed a hut with golpata leaves. Journalists had come from town to take pictures of the orphaned Halimun to print in their city papers. But after that? What had happened after that? The young girl who had burned her feet started doing odd jobs in people's houses in order to support herself. No one came forward to look after her. That was when the whispers started, "That girl has been ravished by the soldiers. That is why she tried to commit suicide by jumping into the fire." Halimun did not heed the whispers. She held her head high. No one had touched her. What did it matter that she had no roof over her head? What did it matter that she had no husband? She hadn't lost her honour. It was true that the fire had rendered one leg shorter than the other, but the fire had not disfigured her soul, it had not distorted her mind. She sustained herself by selling her labour, not by selling her body. How many girls could claim the same? That is why Halimun thought herself one of the most fortunate of women.
It had only been last Kartik. The relief contractor, the one who it was said had now become a big businessman at Rajarkhola, hadn't Halimun spurned him roundly? The rascal. He had a wife and family too at home. But in the middle of the night he had come knocking on Halimun's door. Through the chinks in the bamboo wall, Halimun had peered at him, standing there in the fog-dimmed moonlight. No, he had not looked like those bloodthirsty cruel wolves, but like a greedy fox trying to steal chickens in the middle of the night. Halimun had opened the door and flung a fishcutter at him. "Where are you, you son of a whore? Come here. I'll chop off your penis. Come here, you bastard, I'll satisfy your lust for ever." Seeing the sharp fishcutter in Halimun's hands, the terrified man had attempted to flee. He had looked like a fox fleeing from dogs, with his tail between his legs. Halimun had stared to laugh, Hee, hee. Hearing that laughter, two bats were startled out of dark trees in the back. The quietness of the winter night was rudely shattered. The man fled. Halimun continued to laugh as she fastened the door of her hut. "Why are you fleeing now? Why are you fleeing, you son of a dog? If you come near Halimun once more, I shall cut off your head."
After this incident, Halimun had always slept with the fishcutter next to her. The incident did not remain a secret. The villagers heard it and said, "O mother, that is no woman. She is a jinn." Halimun would merely smile and hold her head even higher.
Her stomach cramped up once more. From behind the hut, where Asmat Mullah had planted his chilli, came a strange squishing sound. Halimun pricked up her ears. Perhaps Asmat's widowed daughter was wading through the flood waters, looking for some kochur loti, arum stems, or river weeds to cook. Halimun herself had hunted for kochur loti and an odd assortment of leaves and boiled them to satisfy her hunger. She had mixed whole-meal flour with water and eaten that. Finally, in the entire hut, there was nothing left, neither a handful of flour nor broken rice grains. Ants, cockroaches and frogs had taken shelter in the empty pots and pars. Whom could she ask for food? No one in the inundated village had any rice or paddy husk. And where was there dry fuel to cook wild greens?
The swishing sound came closer to Halimun's hut. Halimun raised herself to peer in the direction of the noise. Asmat Mullah's twelve-year-old son, Ramiz, was sitting in a large bowl normally employed for feeding cattle and using both hands as oars to steer the “boat” towards her. The bowl struck Halimun's hut, and Ramiz alighted. He held onto the bowl with one hand, and, with the other, he clutched the bamboo wall of the hut. The wet bamboo wall collapsed and slipped into the flood waters. Ramiz let go of the fence and fell into the water. Ramiz had girded a gamchha, normally used as a towel, around his loins. Standing in the rain, he smiled at Halimun and asked, “Have you eaten, Sister? Your hut will collapse any minute now. The hut on the east of our countryard collapsed early this morning. Father and I cut down an areca nut tree and have supported the big hut with its truck. Come and stay with us, Sister.”
Halimun shivered in the rainy gusts of wind. She glanced at Ramiz through eyes as dark as the flood waters, “Where can I go? Everyone is in the same condition.”
After a brief silence, she asked. “Do you think the water is receding a little, Ramiz?”
Clutching on to the bowl with one hand, Ramiz grimaced. “So soon? First the army destroyed half the country. Then poverty added to our suffering. This time the floods have come like Azrail, the angel of death.
The floods devoured the paddy and the betel leaves, now they will destroy our homes, only then will the waters recede.”
Halimun did not speak, just looked at the fronds of the tall plam.
Ramiz said, “I have brought something for you. Won't you eat it?”
Halimun was startled enough to draw back her glance from the palm tree. “What, what is it, Ramizza? Has Chachi sent some rice for me?”
Water plopped down from Ramize's wet hair. It rolled down his lips, bluish with the cold. Wiping off the water, Ramiz laughed minthlessly. “Where will she get rice from? Day before yesterday we had porridge made of broken rice grains. For two days we have quelled our hunger with all sorts of rubbish. Today elder Sister went to collect some greens from under the berry tree and found that a fat snake had twined itself around the tree.”
Suddenly Ramiz stopped. He bent down and brought out a handful of roasted jackfruit seeds from the bottom of the bowl. Proffering them to Halimun, he laughed. “Here, Sister, eat. Mother roasted these yesterday. I saved some for you. You too have eaten nothing for the past few days.”
Halimun's eyes sparkled. She almost snatched the seeds from Ramiz's grasp. She peeled off the white skin covering the seeds and stuffed them into her month. But it was as if ghee had been poured onto flames. On eating the seeds, Halimun's hunger increased. Her hunger turned into a hundred sharp knives and stabbed her stomach. Clutching her stomach, Halimun doubled over with pain. She groaned. “Ooh, I can't bear it any longer.” Ramiz got frightened. He clambered up beside her. He shook Halimun's doubled-up body and said, “Oh, Sister, what is it? Why are you behaving like this?”
Halimun groaned. “Hunger, hunger, my dear. I can't bear this any longer. Ramiz, get me a handful of rice.”
Ramiz thought for a moment and said, “Be patient, Sister. When I was coming, I saw two coconuts floating beside the chilli fields. I'll go get them.”
Halimun sat up straight. “No, don't go alone. Who knows where snakes might be lurking. I'll go with you.” Halimun stood up. They lifted up the bowl and set it on the roof, then waded through knee-deep water towards the chilli fields. The colour of the sky had become even more ominous. Had the sky ever been blue? It was impossible to believe that a bright sun had once shone in this sky. The wind was blowing even more strongly: the rain stung like sharp needles.
Suddenly both of them stopped in waist-deep water. Where were the coconuts? There was nothing. Just the water, churning by rapidly. Dead leaves and pieces of straw floated on the surface. Ramiz looked around him, then said dejectedly, “I saw them right here. Where did they go?”
Halimun started up angrily. “If you saw them, why didn't you get hold of them then? Were they going to wait for you? Where did they go?”
Ramiz shouted abruptly, “See, Sister, see. There's a pot floating by. Wait here. I'll swim and get hold of it.”
Ramiz waded through chest-deep water towards the floating pot. Halimun looked at the red painted earthen pot floating by. It was pretty large. What was inside it? Like flashes of lightning, Halimun's imagination caught fire. Maybe there was gold inside it. Maybe rice and lentils and wheat. Ramiz was halfway to the pot when he cried out, “Sister, snake.”
Halimun's happy fantasies slipped and fell. Halimun asked in fear and despair, “Where, dear? Where is the snake?”
Ramiz lifted his head above the water and pointed towards the pot. “There, next to the pot. It is swimming alongside it.”
Halimun also saw the snake. Yes, there was no doubt about it, it truly was a snake. With its head slightly above the level of the water, the snake, its body stretched out straight, was swimming with the current, next to the pot. It seemed to be guarding the pot. Helplessly, Halimun watched it go by. It wasn't striped. There were circular markings on its forehead. Most likely it was a poisonous snake. If they tried to grab the pot, they could not help touching it. Both of them watched the pot, brimming with possibilities, float past their helpless eyes. It was going farther and farther away. They had been standing in water for so long that by this time their bodies had become stiff. The cramps of hunger had faded into a dull pain. Halimun thought she would slip into the water any moment. She felt dejected. Then she threw caution to the winds and did something foolhardy. She dived into the water near the tail of the swimming snake. She reached out above the snake and caught hold of the pot.
Then, holding the pot with one arm, she swam towards the shallow water. Ramiz was astounded. Halimun laughed. She felt courageous, capable of doing anything. Maybe she remembered that in times of danger, snakes do not bite human beings. Or perhaps, not having eaten for four or five days, she was unable to resist grabbing a pot which might contain something valuable. At present Halimun was not thinking of anything. Her stomach cramps had turned into a raging fire.
Drawing the pot to the shallow water, Halimun opened the lid. She cried out in delight, “Ramizza, come quick and see what I have caught.”
Ramiz swam to her side quickly, “What is it, Sister? What is it? Money?”
“No, dear, It's chira. A full pot of flattened rice.”
“Let me see, let me see.” Ramiz bent over the pot.
Seeing Ramiz's joyful face, Halimun's mood changed. She snatched the pot back quickly from Ramiz. She would not relinquish her one hope of sustenance. Clutching the pot close to her breast, Halimun glared at Ramiz.
No, she would not share this chira with anyone. If she kept the chira all for herself, she would be able to survive for fifteen to twenty days. By that time the clouds would surely disperse. The sun would start to shine. The flood waters would start to recede. Halimun would get work again. Her bad times would pass away.
Halimun spoke in a cold, firm voice. “No, I will not give you any.” Ramiz was surprised. “Why not, Sister?”
Seeing Halimun's angry look, Ramiz flared up, “Give me some, Sister. Give me the pot. There's enough for both of us.”
Halimun clutched the pot even more tightly to herself. She screamed violently, “No, I will not. Never.”
Hungry and tired, Ramiz was too astounded for a moment to reply. Then he pounced upon Halimun. “Why won't you give me some? Why won't you? Didn't I see the pot first?”
Halimun was unmoved. She clutched the pot tighter to her bosom. Ramiz was thrashing the water. He shouted, “Give me the chira, give the chira to me. I have eaten nothing, I am hungry.”
Ramiz's anger gave way to tears. Halimun held on to the pot with one hand; with the other she held Ramiz by the hair. She pushed his head under the water. Ramiz thrashed about in the water. Even then Halimun did not release his hair. She would not release her claim to the pot of chira. This was her only hope of survival. Ramiz continued to struggle desperately under the water, flailing his arms and legs. Several times Halimun was on the verge of slipping into the water, but she managed to keep herself above the water. She kept a tight hold on Ramiz's hair. Suddenly Ramiz gave a violent kick to Halimun's stomach. Halimun's sari came undone at the waist. It floated away on the flood waters. Even now, had she reached out, she would have been able to catch hold of it. But one hand was clutching the pot of chira. The other was holding her prisoner fast. Halimun started to tire. What was she to do? She tried to push her head forward and draw the sari back with her teeth. Just then Ramiz kicked her again. Halimun swallowed water.
Lifting her head above the water, Halimun saw her sari floating beyond her reach. The only way to reach it now was by stretching out her arm. Her numb body was growing weaker. Halimun realised that she had to choose between the pot of chira and the sari. She could not save both. At the moment the pot of chira was more important than her sari. But the sari? With her earnings she could perhaps buy some food for herself, but, in these days of hardship and inflation, she would never be able to buy another sari to cover her shame. She had no other clothes. Just this one torn sari. Which was she to save? She stumbled. Her hold on the pot of chira grew weaker. She released her grip on Ramiz's head. Ramiz lifted his head above the water, gasping for breath. The pot of chira wobbled, filled with water, and sank. Gasping for breath, Ramiz complained, "What have you done? You have let the chira sink."
Halimun was silent. She was aware of nothing at the moment but her naked body and her hungry stomach.
Ramiz shouted at her, "Why aren't you saying anything?"
Halimun moaned weakly, "I had just that one torn rag. I lost it because of you. How am I going to preserve my honour now?”
Ramiz screeched, "What honour? Once you leapt into the flames because of the soldiers. At that time you had food in your stomach. So honour had some meaning then. You have nothing to eat now, and you speak of honour? Go, hang yourself, you whore."
Halimun did not respond. She simply watched her ragged sari being whirled away by the flood waters. She could not drag her starved body through the waters to save it. Was she to drown and die? But she did not even have the strength to do that.
Halimun turned around and stood up. She pushed back the water and stood on the muddy slope, completely naked. She was tired and wet.
Standing in chest-deep water, Ramiz screamed, "Where are you going? Where, in the midst of all this water, are you going to find fire to set yourself alight?"
Ramiz flung his torn gamchha at Halimun. "Here, take my torn gamchha. Take it and go and hang yourself."
Halimun paused for a moment. No, she had no need of a gamchha. The flood waters had not just swept away her sari; they had also swept away all shame. The only sense she had now was of hunger. Her imperative need now was for something to fill her stomach, to get rid of the cramps in her stomach. The home of the contractor was at the end of the path. There was a sturdy home there, supported by strong wooden poles; there was hope of food there, of rice.
Halimun said, "Go home, Ramiz. I am going to the home of Contractor Shamsher. I will take up residence in the market-place."
Translated from "Izzat” by Niaz Zaman.
Born in 1939, Rizia Rahman is one of the most significant writers of Bangladesh to have enriched our fiction with her creative work. She has been writing in various genres - novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism, belles-lettres, and young adult literature - since the late sixties. Beginning her writing career with straightforward narratives, she has, over the years, moved on to magic realism and multilayered structures in her stories. A committed writer, she explores important human issues in a sympathetic and engaging manner. She received the Bangla Academy Award, the top literary award in Bangladesh, in 1978. She also won the Bangladesh Lekhika Shangha Gold Medal and the Ananya Literature Prize in 1987. Rokter Okshor (1978) and Bong Theke Bangla (1987) are two of her most acclaimed novels that have placed her permanently in the annals of Bangla fiction. Her other major novels include Uttar Purush (1977); Alikhito Upakhyan (1980), Shilai Shilai Aagun (1980), Ghar Bhanga Ghar (1984), Ekal Chirokal (1984), Prem Aamar Prem (1985), Jharer Mukhomukhi (1986), etc.
Niaz Zaman is an academic, writer and translator.
This translation has been taken from Rizia Rahman's Caged in Paradise edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam (Dhaka: UPL, 2010).