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Why does Durgati weep?
Story by Parag Chowdhury
Translated by Shabnam Nadiya
The sky’s been somber since dawn. So late into the day now and still no sign of the sun. It rained cats and dogs last night. All night the water drip drip dripped along the rotten thatch roof. The two of them moved the bed two or three times. This corner, that corner. But it was the same everywhere. The thatch full of holes all through like a sieve. Put up ages ago, when Ma was still living. Could Jamila afford to have it thatched again, then? Meantime, her sleep disturbed, the stupid girl began to weep. Then she grew calm by herself.
Jamila felt lazy in the heat. As if her body wanted to drop off at the joints. She felt like spreading her body on the cool floor and sleeping. But is there time to laze about? Her housework is done. Now she has to go finish her work at the Mia’s place. They’re cutting the wheat and threshing it. Her job is to sift and separate the wheat after the men have threshed it. She isn’t fortunate enough to laze around. By this time Elder Wife’s screams must be burning up the beams of the ceiling. Before she left the house covering her head with her anchal, Jamila looked into the house. She saw that the daughter still hadn’t stopped whinin’ and cryin’. These few days there was only one song she’d sing — She’d gotta have a red shari like Shanu. Jamila’s body was aburnin’. She felt like crushin’ the girl’s skull with the wooden stool. The next moment she felt tenderness. Slow-witted dumb girl.
She called out in a tender voice — Durgati. 0 Durgati. Don’t cry, honey. Get up. Eat the panta and then take the chickens...
— Won’t eat the panta, won’t do no work neither. Durgati felt the tenderness in her mother’s voice and fumed. The distress in her listless voice seemed to grow.
—Listen. Listen to me. Jamila appeared conciliatory.
—Listen to what I’m sayin’. Soon as the chicks are a bit bigger, I’ll sell ‘em off Then I’ll be able to buy you your red sari, silly. Else who’ll be givin’ me the money?
Durgati’s eyes sparkle. One look into her eyes’ll tell you that the girl didn’t have much sense to speak of. As if her eyes were the waterhole behind the house. Or a bowl of dirty water. There was no shadow of anything. Never had the shadow of blue sky fallen within. So dopey and dim-witted. Some sunlight glinted within the dull calf eyes.
— Really, ma. Will ye buy it fer me? Don’t be too late today. Then I be cryin’ again. I be cryin’. Ma. I say I be cryin’.
Yup, Durgati sure could cry. Her habit of cryin’ came at birth. Any excuse she’d get, she’d start cryin as if a beetle were humming away. People had so many different kinds of fancies. Cryin’ was perhaps what she fancied. She’d cry all by herself Then she’d becalm herself as well. Jamila left the yard and went into the house. Durgati was lyin’ on the floor cryin’. Jamila bent over tryin’ to pick her daughter up. She couldn’t. The girl had grown heavier in body. New splendors had sprung up on her body — front and back. Her mind was like a six or seven year old kid’s. Her body that of a ripe young woman. How old was the girl really? Jamila thought about it. She remembered Mia Sa’b. Two days ago they were chatting in the yard.
— Y’ see Hasina Bibi, the country’s been free fourteen years now. Saleha was married even two years before that. She still don’t have no children...
Jamila calculated. That meant Durgati was thirteen. Jamila’s heart flew back to thirteen—fourteen years in the past. Back then Jamila was Jamila the Pretty. A luscious full-bodied young girl. Her skin wasn’t as milky white as Durgati’s. It was slightly dark and sweet a color. She was so conceited about the face that she could see in the broken mirror.
Karim Bhai used to say, Jamila your face looks as if you’ve washed it with the caress of a moonlit night. It makes me want to touch it.
It was true. Even looking at herself in the mirror a thousand times never satisfied her. She’d touch her own face again and again. But she never let Karim touch it. She had been sinfully proud. Despite running after her day after day, Karim had never been able even to touch her hand. In the end, suddenly everything changed. One evening Karim came underneath the lonely mango tree by the pond. His face half gloomy like a dirty lamp.
—Probably won’t see you again for a long time, Jamila. I’ve come to say goodbye. I journey for the border tomorrow with Shahid Bhai. There may be a big fight with the Punjabis.
Jamila laughed suddenly.
—Fight? You? With who did you say you be fightin’?
—With the Punjabis.
—Who are they? From which country?
—Silly girl. They’re the West Pakistanis. Tall and strong people they be, hard inside and out. They’re attacking us Bangalis. You haven’t heard nothing?
Jamila felt scared listening to Karim’s words. The description of Panjabis were like the demons of legends. Jamila had been too busy with herself to hear anything. But she had seen Elder Brother and Younger Brother worrying over something all day. They would stare at one place as if meditating. Ma would yell at them. Get angry. Instead of working, the two brothers would whisper about something together. A sudden fear thrummed through her breast. There were goose bumps all over her body.
She said, There’s no need for you to fight.
She felt hot because she didn’t know the whole story. She was up to her neck everyday working in the house with her mother and in a hundred different household troubles. Didn’t know nothin’ about the world. Didn’t know nothin’ about what went on around her. Her face lowered, Jamila jabbed at the bark of the mango tree with her nail.
—You really forbiddin’ me to go, Jamila? If you truly forbid me from your heart then I won’t go. You really forbiddin’ me to go? Karim grabbed her hand.
Jamila became befuddled. No words came out her mouth. Karim had perhaps said a lot more; she hadn’t heard. There was a hot blast of air coming out of her ears. Her body trembled. What could Jamila tell Karim? She bowed like a gourd plant in midday.
Karim left, touching her milk washed cheek, sayin’ good bye. Jamila couldn’t say nothin’. The wish to forbid Karim thrashed its wings inside her breast. Yet no words came to her lips. She couldn’t remember how long she stood there like that. In the end she could hear her mother’s rasping voice.
—You stupid girl. Why’re you standin’ in the dark like that? I’m turnin’ into a bloody cripple from runnin’ around workin’ and her royal highness looks for fun out yonder. Get inside the house, you stupid girl.
Bending down, Jamila picked up the hatchet and entered the house. There was a surging within her heart. As if there were something held in her palm. Just slipped out of her palm like an eel because she weren’t paying attention. Her breast felt empty somehow. Felt bothered. As if she would’ve felt better if she could sit down by herself somewhere and weep. The stile could be seen through the half open back gate. A young man had strode down that road there a while ago. The grass hadn’t yet been able to raise their bowed heads. In the end one day both her brothers left for the border over that stile.
Early at dawn Elder Brother said to mother, Ma, we’ll be goin’ for a while then. All the young men of the village have left to fight the Punjabis. It’s a shame now to stay at home. You understand. Take care of Jamila. If you hear the Punjabis have neared the village, take the North Deep to Uncle Kasem’s house right away. Uncle will look after you, it’s all been arranged. Then the two sons touched Ma’s feet for blessing. Ma was probably prepared beforehand. She handed them packages of pressed and puffed rice and whispered her prayers. Then one day there arose a hubbub of shouting and crying throughout the village.
People were running around without aim or purpose.
Ma called Jamila from inside the kitchen, Jamila, get the bundle of money ‘neath my pillow and get out quick. They’re here. Oh Allah. Where should we go?
Jamila’s heart thumped. She hunted through her mother’s bedding. Has the bundle of money run away some place?
Ma’s broken voice called out to her again, Jamila, you stupid girl. Get outta the house quick. The Bagdi houses are on fire.
Jamila’s arms and legs shuddered. It takes her some time to find the bundle. Frightened Jamila didn’t know which way to turn. She hears the sound of people cryin’ shake the skies before she even leaves the house. Bamboos crack crack crackle open in the heat of the fire. Even hears gunfire. And she hears the cows and the calves hollerin’ like anything. As she was comin’ out with the money, she bumped into a wooden stool and fell down. When she somehow managed to stand up, she saw no Ma in front of her eyes. . . . but two enormous men like pythons were standin’ there. They were wearin’ police clothes, guns in their hands. This was the first time that Jamila had seen guns. That’s why no scream could come out of her throat. She looks around for Ma with her brimming eyes. Sees that the two python-like men have grabbed her. Ma’s keening flows through her ears like river water. As if Jamila was dying out of her fear, Oh Allah Oh Allah. Jamila doesn’t remember any more. Jamila has opened her eyes again. Feels as though the torment of the grave has already begun for her. Jamila can’t stand it. Every sin she committed from birth jumps right out in front of her eyes and moves away. She don’t know what sin this is she being punished for. Inside her heart, the barren rice fields of Chaitra stare at an empty sky. Thirst wanted to bust her chest right open. As she drowned in the pain, Jamila cried out. Like she cried once when she were a child watchin’ the brawling of vultures. Saw how vultures fought over sharing one cow. The cow was dead. Didn’t move none. The vultures tore at shards of flesh with their filthy beaks. Felt as if the cow’s soul were standin’ near watchin’ the show and were cryin’ its heart out in humiliation. Jamila could bring no other picture but this to mind. ‘Fact Jamila don’t remember nothin’. She really can’t remember. Jamila fooled herself. If Jamila could’ve hung herself on the ‘lectric fan that day, then she needn’t have carried this deadweight ‘round her neck.
Durgati pushed Jamila, surprising her out of her reverie. What good would it do thinkin’ about all this? It were gettin’ late. She called her daughter and said, Take care o’ the house now child. I’ll be off to work then. Won’t be back at noon. You ask Aunt Khushi, she’ll give ye lunch.
Jamila climbed out of the yard quickly. She heard Elder Wife’s screamin’ soon as she crossed the broken threshold of the Mia homestead. Jamila didn’t answer. She placed her stool ‘neath the shade of the mango tree and got to work like every day. The sound of the dheki rose from the cookin’ house — thump, thump.
The same sound thumped in Jamila’s breast that day. With three other girls imprisoned with her, Jamila broke open the lock and ran away. Jamila reached home by askin’ directions from people again and again. She came back and found Ma half crazed. Her two brothers had come home to bring her some food. Soon as they heard that they had taken their younger sister. That was it. They left sayin’, Gonna eat those Punjabis raw. Never came back. Then the day Durgati was born, somebody brought news that the brothers were acomin’. Ma watched the stile near the North Deep the whole day long. In the end, Aunt Khushi brought her back home come the evenin’. It were Ma who named the new baby Durgati. The girl was like a piece of new cloth washed in soap. Milk white pretty. Still, what things people said about her. Talked of killin’ her off. But she couldn’t do it, her Ma couldn’t do it neither. Hands placed around her throat fell away by themselves once the eyes rested on that pretty little face.
Jamila’s arm was painin’ her. Jamila pushed the kula away and sat down to rest awhile. Clad in cheap, colorful clothes Younger Wife smiled at Jamila and said, Jamil bu’, want a paan? He got some scented jarda from Dhaka.
Younger Wife’s eyes glint. She spews out her stories. She laughs while talkin’ and tumbles onto the sacks of wheat. Jamila rises. Binding the mouth of the sack, she starts off for the pond. She needs a dip. The sweat and heat were makin’ her feel clammy. She needed a bite to eat in the cookin’ house after takin’ a quick dip. It was gettin’ pretty late. Who knows what Durgati be doin’ ?
Her heart thumps within her chest. It scared her to look at the girl’s body. She’d kept watch over her for thirteen years now. Couldn’t kill her off, left her in the jungle then brought her home clasped close to her heart. There’s a champa tree in front of the mosque. Seems to Jamila that a tree prettier than that walks around inside her house. All the people’s talk, the irritation of the neighbours — still the girl had grown up. But it were only her body that grew, not her wit. And then she had the habit of cryin’. Any excuse she’d get, she’d start cryin’. Who knows what her father’s.... Ashamed, Jamila lets go of thoughts about Durgati from inside her. Let that shameless hussy die.
Jamila rubs a green chili in her rice with the eggplant curry. The heyday of the House of Mia is long gone. All that is left is the show. They say that the dog that has no skin. . . .Else just eggplant curry, not even a whiff of fish! Elder Wife gives Jamila her baby to feed. Tells Jamila to watch over her. The girl has no beauty. A flat dark face. At this age Durgati was like a doll. People would pick her up to caress her even though they despised her. Now that her body was growin’ she would still be surprised at times. Her birth was all wrong but Jamila protected her with all her heart. Seemed to her that even though people said bad things, the girl was not to blame. She didn’t choose the pain of this poisoned world. Allah forgive her. Though she felt tender for her daughter, it irked her when she began to cry. Even if she’d be wantin’ something, she’d start off cryin’ again. The past few days she’s been askin’ for a red sari. The sudden memory of something made her hair stand up on end.
Last night she were talkin’ of Mafiz while lyin’ abed. Jamila didn’t even listen properly. The girl said that Mafiz had taken her to the nailla fields. He’d given her foreign chocolate wrapped in paper. Gave her some more — God knows what — stuff. She didn’t listen properly ‘cause she was drownin’ in her own thoughts. Khalek Bepari, the egg seller from North Para, wanted to marry her. His wife’d died last month leavin’ behind four teeny weeny kids. People say Khalek had whacked her to death. She was a nice one, the wife. ‘Stead of complainin’ about the beating, she’d just upped and died. He’d sent word in a roundabout way that he liked Jamila. Evenin’ before he’d sent a crimson sari with old woman Guji. Said to give her word soon. It ain’t as if Jamila didn’t want to be gettin’ married. She felt like it more and more ever since Ma had died. It was when Jamila thought of Durgati that she didn’t know what to do. She knew that the day after Khalek married her, he’d kick the girl right out. Then there was the fear of Khalek’s beatings.
What difference did it make that the country was free? Everyone said it was such a wonderful thing. No one had to serve the Punjabis no more. But what happened to the Jamilas? Jamila’d sacrificed her life at the feet of this freedom. It didn’ finish her off at one stroke. Oh no. They had hacked and sliced at her. They were still hackin’ away at her. This liberation that had come at such a price.
What had it given Jamila? It had made her a servant at somebody else’s house now that they’d eaten up the small slice of land left by her father. It had given her the loathing of the people. It had turned humans into animals. The peace and quiet of life seemed to have flown away. People just wanted more and more. Wanted money, wanted land, wanted respect. Jamila’s head ached from thinking. She couldn’t even think of Durgati any more.
Jamila finished eating and washed up. She sat down on the stool and rested. Then she walked to the shade under the tree and started work. She started the sweet daydream of getting married again. Durgati entered even there. If her mother married, where would the weepful girl go? People wouldn’t give her shelter. They’d shoo her away. More importantly, bad people would be after her. That letch Mofiz had laid eyes on her. What else was there to worry about? Allah, Allah. The girl didn’t understand. Her wit hadn’t grown in keeping with her age. If the letch took advantage of the girl, there would be no road other than death. Jamila felt tired through all this worryin’. She tidied up her kula and other stuff and started for home.
She met Fuji as soon as she went down to the pond. Fuji soaped her clothes and said, I think your Durgati isn’t feeling so well. She didn’t eat anything at lunch. She just lay there and cried. You should keep an eye on the girl. Even if Allah hasn’t given her any wit, He’s sure given her a body to look at. People are talkin’ about Mofiz. Haven’t you heard nothin’?
Fuji kept on talking. Hot air came out of Jamila’s ears. She couldn’t hear nothin’. Her feet seemed like lead. The road back to her home kept getting longer and longer. Jamila stood in the yard calling for Durgati. Getting no answer she went into the house. She sees Durgati lying on the floor on a mat. Jamila isn’t irritated at her crying. Just her heart skipped a beat. The torn sari was wrapped ‘round her any old how. Her cheeks red from the heat of her weeping.
She calls the girl in a tender voice, Durgati, why’re you crying layin’ like that on the floor? What’s wrong? As she sat near her and touched her hair, Durgati’s sobbing increased. At last she took her by the hand and tried to pull her closer. The girl was heavy. She couldn’t. In the end, she herself lay down close to Durgati. She wiped her face with her hand. It was then that sobbing arose in Jamila’s heart as well.
— Do you wanna have rice, Durgati? You hungry? I’ve brought some rice and eggplant curry from the Mia’s house. Want some?
Durgati doesn’t answer. She sits up and pushes back the hair from her face. She pouts and says to her mother, You’re not going to get me a red sari, are you? Look, my sari’s torn at so many places. Mofiz told me today, he’d give me everything. Anythin’ I want. He gave me two ice creams. He was so nice to me.
And... a hot blast of air comes out of Jamila’s ears again. What is this cry baby girl sayin’ ? Then.. .then.. .Jamila feels as if her head is like a melon bursting in the sun. Insect thoughts wriggle inside.
Jamila controls herself and sits up. Her eyes burn like coal afire. She reaches out and pulls off Durgati’s torn white sari. She searches Durgati’s body like a blind woman. What people are doubting is true. How could she be her mother and not know? Cry baby Durgati can’t be saved from the wolves and the vultures of this free land.
The people of the village had forgiven Jamila, saying that it was the price of freedom. They would not forgive Durgati. Durgati had no yesterday. Durgati has no tomorrow. Durgati’s beauty would be handed around to everyone, but she would find no shelter. How could Jamila watch this blight?
How could she see the end of someone whom she’d taken care of for thirteen years with everything she’d got? Jamila clenched the earth with both her hands to cover her pain. The pain broke into slabs of earth within her breast like the riverbank. Jamila pulled the uncomprehending girl to her breast. She weren’t to blame. It was the world had treated her badly.
Jamila opened her eyes before the morning azan. She pushed Durgati awake.
— C’mon, let’s go to the city, Durgati. We go there and all our troubles’ll be over. C’mon let’s go.
Durgati is stubborn. She lights the lamp and shows Durgati the red sari Khalek had given her. The girl left bed happy as could be. She couldn’t believe it.
Jarniia dressed Durgati in the sari with care. She covered her body and then her head. Her throat hurt to look at Durgati’s face. Blowin’ the lamp out, mother and daughter started off for the station.
The big train from the east arrived almost at the same time that the azan was called. Durgati couldn’t contain her joy. She jumped onto the train leaving her mother behind. She got lost within the crowd of people. Jamila didn’t even move. The train steamed off to the west in front of her eyes.
It was as if Jamila had lost her senses and was just standin’ there; who knows for how long. Suddenly she gave a start. She looked and saw how late it was. More people were coming and going to and from the station. Jamila was without sense or reason. She saw people standin’ in lines. The train from the west was whistlin’ and pullin’ in the station. The riverbank broke off in chunks inside Jamila’s breast. Jamila pushed and pulled herself onto the train. The train rumbled off towards the east.
This story was first published in the Bichitra magazine.
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