Translated by Rebecca Haque
The sky turns grey as soon as the bullock-cart reaches the village lane. Rain shatters nature's luminosity, ruining the journey of the three friends through the rough backwoods. The jagged pillar of lightning is hidden behind dense dark fluffs of cloud.
All three are disturbingly drenched by raindrops filtering through the cart's sloping bamboo canopy. Cold air penetrates the thin fabric of wet shirts to touch the soul within the body. In the midst of this sudden chilly weather and unexpected rainfall, the three friends begin to blame each other for embarking on an adventure on such a cold, clammy, unhealthy night.
One of the friends takes out a damp cigarette from his pocket and hunts for matches. The black tip of the match is wet. Failure to light the cigarette makes him frown. Another looks ahead for direction in the darkness. The third, who was the one most enthusiastic about this trip, throws his legs up in the air and, lying flat on his back, sings aloud the song soaring in his heart.
Under the mesmeric spell of the song and the night, the cart-driver tries to sing the song but is unable to carry the high note; his voice breaks and becomes low and hoarse. At this, the three friends burst into laughter. In response, the rain-drenched driver says, self-consciously, shyly, “My voice is not as it used to be.”
In the wake of the night's tumult, the bullock-cart meanders through the rain. The shadow of the bamboo grove spreads its dark dense mystery like a maenad's hair. In this chilly night, with three pairs of drowsy eyes, with the driver calling out “Het, het” to the galloping bullocks, with the driver's broken-voiced attempt at song, the cloud parts to drop from its lap the new crescent moon. It has climbed to its zenith in the sky.
The friends, Kaiser, Tulu, and Omar, descend from the cart. The rain-swept earth is as iridescent as burnished brass. The three walk along the grassy meadow. Behind them, the driver dozes on the still, silent cart. The journey itself is not delightful, as the damp matches refuse to light their cigarettes. In the middle of this lonely landscape, two friends try to light matchstick after matchstick in the warm sheltering palm of their cupped hands. Omar walks swiftly away from them, saying, “Nature's call….”
Behind him come sniggering sounds from the other two.“Come on, does one have to go so far for this? Are you a woman?” Then, the faint, receding voices. “Ah! These wet clothes make it hard to enjoy. You are right. Let us strip and wander naked, becoming one with nature.”
Still a long way to go. Then, the sprawling bamboo grove. Omar looks back to see the other two lying, belly down. He walks along the left side of the grove, passing it. Getting away for “Nature's call” is a total fib….Actually, a solitary yearning quest urges him on into the moonlit night. The continuous roar of crickets, the howling south wind, the path along the bamboo grove dipping steeply and then the incline upward after a space often or fifteen feet. There is a pool of water in the hollow gap. Moonlight is reflected on the water's surface. Entranced, Omar forgets that they still have a long way to travel. He had heard that Tulu's home is in a remote corner of a distant village.
But without any thought of the friends he has left behind, he loses himself in this exotic spot. He grips the hard earth of the slope to lower himself carefully into the shallow pool. Suddenly, while steadying his foothold, he slips and splashes into the pool.
In knee-deep water, soaked and splattered, Omar clutches wildly at clumps of earth to crawl to the edge of the pit. Walking along once again on a pathway, it seems to him that the whole night-scene is charged with an eerie stillness. In the distance, he can see the village and dank, dark trees surrounding a vast field. Tired, he stops walking. Distant, scattered, twinkling lights appears surreal in the misty greyness. Omar looks back. He can see nothing else except a thick bamboo grove. He feels a twinge of fear. As he turns to step away and return to his friends, he sees a figure approaching from afar.
Startled, Omar stops.
Slowly, the distance between him and the figure diminishes. He can now see the outline of a person. First, the height, the hair, and the disheveled clothes. Then, the face .The shadowy figure finally appears before him as a complete being. Shocked, speechless, Omar sees the solitary man wandering across the vast desolate field, finally stand gauntly before him.
The man has bushy, greying eyebrows. His eyes are intense, with a dull sheen! Omar shivers. The figure exudes the fragrant scent of crushed bamboo leaves. He can see a shadowy chin underneath hollow cheeks. It seems as if the old man has emerged from the white light. Alert, hypnotised, Omar stares. He senses he knows the face and the glance, knows the figure's stance. Curiosity now replaces fear in Omar. But, in that instant, a deep gravel voice rings out to break the stillness of the night. “Have you lost your way?” There can be several answers to the old man's question. Omar tries to respond, but he sees that the man is panting while gazing at the distant horizon. It seems to Omar that the man's skeleton is crushed; only his will power is keeping him alive. Omar asks, “Do you belong to this village?” With this question, Omar again looks at the enveloping darkness, but his fear subsides. It seems to him now that this old man is someone not unknown, and with his sudden emergence, the dark village also somehow seems familiar.
Looking away from the distant village, the old man uses a familiar tone, “Let's walk!” It seems the old figure is an inseparable part of the night. His call cannot be ignored.
They walk to the top of a green hillock and sit. The old man gasps for breath. Cold air pierces the tattered loose gown that drapes his body. Omar realises after a while that his clothes are wet. He begins to shiver. Suddenly, he remembers his friends. He stands up at once. He thinks of running away. But once again, that voice captivates him. “Do you not recognize me?”How incredible, thinks Omar. He has a feeling he knows the old man. Once more, he sits down on the mound with a thump. He peers at the old man, and asks: “Who are you?”
The old man coughs up phlegm. Behind them, tall shimul trees let loose a shower of leaves, and a few leaves fall on the old man's head. The old man shakes it, saying, “I'll tell you. Certainly, I'll tell you. I've found a person worth talking to after so long. I've been waiting for this day. Of course, I'll tell you.” Amazed, Omar asks, “Why, don't you have anyone to talk with?”Gasping for breath, the man replies, “I did. Many years ago. I lived in the city then. The only thing I would do there was talk and talk. Almost no one listened, or if they did, they would do so without paying attention or without understanding. That is why I left the city. Here in the wilderness, I get equal pleasure in talking and listening. I carry on alone and I satisfy only myself.” “Extraordinary! You lived in the city? How can you survive in this isolation?”
Disregarding Omar's simple queries, the old man stares at the luminous night as if haunted. From the centre of a cloudless sky, the mighty moon generously keeps on pouring white light….Sparkling gems of light cascade from the surface of wet leaves. There is desolation as far as the eye can see. Silence all around. The old man is carried away by a wave of voluble speech. Overwhelmed with a desire to know more, oblivious of place and time, Omar stares at the strangely familiar face. Omar's whole world is now circumscribed within this spot of earth. All material objects disappear to make this one man palpable, and Omar listens, entranced.
The old man begins, “I was born ugly and deformed.” But stopping, he extends his two crooked arms from within the folds of his gown, revealing shrivelled fingers. In contrast to the moon's pure incandescence, he offers two deformed forelimbs having severely sagging skin. “One of my legs is also twisted and shrivelled. ”Incredulous, Omar inspects the leg. Strange! The man has walked a long way. Perhaps the uneven ground hid his deformity from him till now.
In the cosmic circle of silence, the old man exhales heavy, desperate gasps of breath. Inhaling the cold air, he says, “Because of my ugly face and shape, I have had to user use and strategy to survive each day. Also, to avoid arousing anyone's scorn, my manner became clownish and self-debasing. I read a great number of books. Actually, my profession was also directly related to salesmanship and the use of ready wit. But my deformity always conspired against my talent as a salesman. As a result, there was constant need to sharpen my wit, increase the flow of words, and maintain an even greater command of verbal marketing skill. I would gasp for breath after each prolonged performance. Perhaps, because so many women remain unmarried, I was able to find a healthy, beautiful wife. Not surprisingly, she was not in love with me or attracted to me at all. Since it was expected of her to maintain the image of the faithful wife, and because she wanted to have money to spend, she remained with me for a long time. “The old man's voice becomes somewhat melancholy. “I saw her excitement upon sighting a healthy, handsome man. At a precise moment, she would flash her secret, coquettish smile. I have vivid memories of my wedding night. I was tense with arousal, trembling with anticipation of tasting the hitherto forbidden fruit. She was wooden and stiff. When I reached for her with my deformed ugly hand, it was the middle of the night. Recoiling, she stood up suddenly, and threw at me the same look of disgust that everyone else gave me at first sight. Pushing the door open, she rushed out of the room. Raising the shutters of the window, I could see her sit as if paralysed on the courtyard floor. Outside, it was extremely cold. But I did not go to her. I realized that the harsh night was more welcome to her than my body. She refused to come back into the room to me.”
“Thus began our story. Though a couple, we spent each day bound by utter hatred. Wondrously, moments of sexual desire occurred, and my wife became pregnant. Union of two bodies, however brief, swept away my suffering. I forgot my sorrow. Such sensual pleasure taught me to forget the pain of years of neglect.”
“Soon, our child was born.”
Abruptly, the old man stops speaking. In the moonlight, Omar clearly sees the pock-marked, pitted face of the old man. He is brutally ugly; the distended lips hang below the chin. The tip of his nose is bent sideways to the left. Omar notes the extreme facial deformities but he feels neither fear nor disgust. It seems to him that the night's journey on the bullock-cart, a voyage initiated by him, was not really intended to take him to his friend Tulu's house, but to meet this particular man. He stands staring at the man's face.
The old man resumes speaking in muted, broken tones:“You know, what is so awful? My infant son was also deformed. His two legs were a replica of my arms. Amazingly, his face and mine were almost identical, as if my head had been cut off to be placed upon his neck. He was just a stump of flesh. My wife fainted at the sight of the baby. With a harrowing vision of the repetition of my own life's hateful curve in my son's life, I fled the room like a madman. For a while, I spent my days wandering. But without work, I suffered cruel pangs of hunger. The open road adopted me, making me desolate, providing no sustenance. An uncanny attraction pulled me homeward one day. In amazement, I watched the wife who had rejected my body in disgust nurse my son in her lap with deep maternal love, oblivious to his ugliness. The slow rhythm of home and hearth continued. But I became trapped in a new aberration. My head ached when I saw my beautiful wife sleeping next to my ugly child. An intolerable pain seared my body, rising from the soles of my feet to lodge in the centre of my heart; it was cold and numb.”
“Once, in the middle of the night, I lit a lamp to look long and hard at the child. My wife was jolted awake, and pulling the child close to her, she looked at me. I saw fear in her eyes, which aroused in me a new emotion of cruel disgust. I thought I could kill myself in that moment by killing my child. I thought, at least one person in the world would be grief-stricken.”
“But then I thought, if instead of the child, I could die, the entire world would be spared. Another compelling thought began to haunt me, that even though I was able to ignore my deformity and carry on in the midst of hatred, what if I was bedridden, smeared with my own sweat and blood and shit and urine, would they throw my worthless living body on the river bank or in a deep pit? It would only serve to pollute the earth. This image of wretchedness evoked a demonic force in me. I resolved to leave the township to dwell in some distant, desolate place.”
“You know, something wonderful happened at this time. I came across a young boy living in a house a few miles from my own. This boy was the first person to bind me with true human affection, instead of with loathing. The boy used to tell me everyday, 'Your gaze is extraordinary. I have never seen such affectionate eyes.' And he admired my work of words, my embroidered stories. For instance, the story of a beggar's hut turning into a palace; or a dead maiden being brought back to life by a flute-player; or, a man attempting suicide after defeat in battle finds a gold statue on a river bank…. He used to listen to these stories in enchantment. He told me his father had abandoned him. He and his mother were passing days of dark despair. These stories of hope gave him the desire to live. Our unique friendship lasted a long time. My life was given renewed vigour. After work, I would bask in his company.”
“One day, they went away in the middle of the night, without telling anyone. I was once again reduced into that former half-dead being. My days were filled with endless darkness and numerous untold incidents. What can I tell you?I looked for him everywhere, but did not find him.
After a long time, I have met that boy tonight, but he is now a young man.”
Omar begins to tremble. He had noticed the old man's ugliness after it was pointed out to him, and now, in a trance, Omar realises he is that boy from the past. He knows all about the old man. This is why these eyes, this voice, is so familiar to him. He knew the man's wife, his crippled child, and can now remember all the other events.
The old man resumes speaking: “I killed my son. After the boy went away, I began to feel the first emotions of confused love for the child. His laughter, his playful hands, the two helpless legs threw me into a strange plight.”
“My personality had also changed. Perhaps due to my wife's rejection, I became attracted to other women. No one paid much attention to me. However, in the presence of my wife and those whom I feared most, I appeared sober and correct. In public, I did not want to express desire for other women. This is the way with all men; in the presence of his wife and friends, a man pretends to be a saint. But privately I became licentious, a libertine. I was besotted by female flesh, pouncing on any female, but satisfaction was only possible in desire aroused by the beauty I alone saw in physically ugly women. I tried to live again in carnal pleasure, a secret pleasure which did not harm others. I believed that only evil deeds which are openly flaunted can corrupt society. Gradually, I came to realise that this abnormality, this deception, was pushing me further into sickness. I began to feel intensely that I had no value as a person anywhere in this wide world. My child's fate would be the same as mine. We would love him only because we were his parents, but his life's journey forward would be horrifying and unbearable. As a result, one night, while my wife was sleeping soundly, a strong animal instinct overpowered me. I strangled my son in the darkness .”
The moonlit night bears down upon Omar. His dry clothes flutter in the cold howling wind. The noose of light is excruciating.… Yes, yes, by throttling, this is what he had heard.
Omar is numb and silent. The old man howls with laughter: “You know, the funny thing is that after my son's death, when the beast controlling me had fled, when the loving, blameless father had begun to sob, the police came with handcuffs. They knew that the ugly baby's death was society's gain, but they dragged me away simply to uphold their law. They tortured me mercilessly, a father who was grieving for his child. But they did not think at all of looking for the beast who had fled once the deed was done.”
“They tortured me endlessly… to extract a confession for murder. Tell me, how could I confess to killing the child? I did not kill him. If I had done so, would I have wept, desolate at his loss, everyday, inside that barred cell? Deep into the night, I would clearly see him walking on healthy legs. He would sit by my side. I could see a strange light upon his face. His glance was never accusing. He alone knew my truth. Still, one fact remains. I felt a deep sorrow at his death, but there was no remorse.”
“Lying in that barred cell, in severe bodily pain, I kept having a dream: I have gone far from human habitation. I am standing, while God appears from the fading western light. He descends, step by step. Misty white darkness engulfs the lowest step. He vanishes as soon as He steps into it.”
“I am still standing, far away, on a hillside knoll.”
“In that painful time, I had many thoughts about God. But I never found Him through His touch, though He is said to touch one's soul. I only saw Him as a faint shadowy figure.”
As if reciting verses of a prayer, the old man continues, “Now, in solitude, my self-confidence has grown four-fold. Animals and green trees do not bother about my shape. Unlike men, they have not learnt to spite, mock, or pity, which had diminished me since my childhood. I walk through open fields all through the day and night. I converse with the trees, with the hare, the deer and the leopard. Looking up at the sky, I limp along and tell myself stories, those false stories of God knocking on the door of a wretched blind man, and the man miraculously able to see again. Or a weary stone-cutter finding a pearl inside a stone, and the pearl-seed suddenly saying aloud: 'I am another manifestation of God.' Tired of story-telling, I fall asleep inside a rocky cave. Here, hunger and thirst do not erase my identity. Days and nights pass in this manner. The eerie solitude, however, is frightening. I am deep in meditation of nature one day, when suddenly, piercing the natural world, a maiden appears. Sheis clothed in green leaves. It is a moonlit night such as tonight. I gaze at her limpid soft eyes in awe. She is laughing, standing in a vast open field.
Then, without hesitation, I stretch my two deformed arms towards her… 'Take this…'With these words, the maiden puts forth her own arms and her hands drop something into mine. Then she melts into the green forest foliage.”
“I see a deep emptiness inside my two hands. The emptiness which I hide carefully in my trouser pockets while living among men, the isolation which I loathe every minute of everyday. I learn to follow that solitary path. I learn to love desolation.”
The moon is low on the horizon. The old man no longer seems rooted to this earth. He continues speaking as if under a spell. Omar is as still as stone. In a hoarse voice, he asks, “How did you get out of prison? ”The old man shakes his head… “I'll tell you….You are the one I'll tell, you are that boy who accepted my existence…, you are the one I'll tell, definitely.”
“They were torturing me continuously for killing the child. Then, one night, I was overwhelmed with a new insight. I realized that even though my son's legs were deformed, he had two perfect arms. Thus, it was not right to think that he would have been totally dependent on others. I imagine a magnificent building, layered with sand. I see an eternity of sand, layer upon layer. All is clear. I grow mad. I think of myself as a cruel jealous killer. I think I have pushed the weight of my own failure upon another generation. Despite the physical likeness, his brain or his hands might have given birth to something new. Perhaps, I lack such vision … I can't breathe. I tear out clumps of my hair… I feel that if I had let him live, he would not have been the only one punished with degrading abuse. All those who looked upon him and turned away in disgust would also have been punished by seeing something misshapen dangling before their eyes…. Think, what punishment! During my transfer from one prison to another, I jumped unnoticed from the van…. Tumbling down, I fell into a deep ravine. I committed suicide.”
The old man stands… and says “What good will it do to hear this story?”After a while, he starts walking down the night's moonlit path.
A terrible shudder shakes Omar, and then he is calm. He recalls clearly. Yes, yes, that is true, he did commit suicide…. Omar trembles.
The old man looks back and calls out for the last time,….”Do not believe, do not believe any part of it….” His body blends with the vast green horizon. Omar sees a broken figure gradually melting into the circle of moonlight. It is no longer visible.
Omar starts to run like a madman. The light of dawn slowly lightens up the sky. He runs wildly by the echoing bamboo grove, the rough bracken-strewn field. The moon is dim at the edge of the sky, like a faded round handkerchief. Omar takes a deep breath once he reaches the place where Tulu, Kaiser….But there is only the empty horizon in front of him. The bullock-cart is gone from the place. His friends have gone, leaving him in utter desolation.
Nasreen Jahan is a novelist, short story writer and literary editor. Her first novel, Urukkoo (The Woman Who Flew), published in 1993, won the Philips Literary Prize. She received the prestigious Bangla Academy Award in 2000.
Rebecca Haque is a published poet, translator and Professor and former Chairperson (2009-12), Department of English, University of Dhaka. She specializes in Twentieth-Century British and American Fiction and Drama, with recent publications on South Asian Fiction, and Film Studies.
This story, translated from “Ekti Dirsho Shasher Dalpata”, was first published in SIX SEASONS REVIEW, No.3, June 2015.