(Translated by Mosarrap H. Khan)
[The story, originally written in Bengali, is set against the backdrop of the Partition of India (1947). It is one of the rare attempts at fiction writing by the multi-faceted genius, Salil Chowdhury, who is most famous as a musician. For an introduction to Salil Chowdhury’s life and works, please look up: http://www.salilda.com/intro.asp. My sincerest gratitude to Mrs. Jyoti Chowdhury, wife of late Salil Chowdhury, for allowing me (through her letter) to translate it into English. The copyright for the Bengali original belongs to Mrs. Chowdhury. The copyright of this English translation is held by the translator. I am indebted to Mr. Gautam Choudhury for agreeing to read the first draft of the translation and suggesting important changes. Holland-based Mr. Choudhury, acclaimed harmonica player himself, maintains a very informative website on Salil Chowdhury, “The World of Salil Chowdhury” (http://www.salilda.com/).]
In almost all the letters that Nanda wrote to me after our marriage, she always added the P.S.: ‘When you rent a house for us, do not forget to buy a dressing table for me and, yes, the glass must be fine and big!’
Before marriage whenever I went to Nanda’s house, I always noticed the cracked mirror on the front door. It was quite an effort to be able to see one’s face in that mirror! It appeared as if the distance between the nose and the forehead is about a foot, and between the lips and the chin only about an inch! If you moved a bit from your practiced position, the mirror appeared to grimace at you. Seeing me sad at this, Nanda would smile and say, ‘When I come over to live there, you can buy me a good mirror.’
It was immediately after our marriage. I was then negotiating lucrative job offers from two or three newspapers and was almost on the verge of getting one. It was decided that Nanda would stay with her father until I found a job. I was supposed to bring Nanda to Calcutta once the negotiations showed some results. I returned to Calcutta after making an elaborate plan with her about furnishing our rented house. Nanda stayed back in the village with her father. I finally landed a job but it was not one of the jobs I had negotiated. I got a job as a salesman in a shoe-shop; a job I had not even remotely thought of. I rented a two-roomed, tin-roofed house on the edge of one of those gloomy ponds in the interiors of Kasba on a sharing-basis with one of my cousins. Nanda had by now come over from her father’s house to live with me and we were doing fine! Nanda, like other women, perhaps, had a wonderful talent of adjusting to her present situation. Not for once did she feel upset about living in such a house. As if all her life she dreamed of living in this tin-roofed Kasba house. She never spoke of the dressing table after coming to this house. I almost forgot about it. Around this time one Saturday afternoon, I was returning home counting my monthly salary of sixty rupees paid in crisp bank notes. I was looking at both sides of the road thinking of buying this thing and that thing, but was not buying anything. As if it were my kingly caprice! It was a nice feeling to have money in the pocket. Suddenly, near the Kasba turning I saw a beautiful dressing table being sold on auction. A few other pieces of furniture were also being auctioned at a cheap price. The glass of the dressing table was a little cracked at the corner; otherwise, it was in a perfect shape. The final call for it was merely thirty rupees. Getting carried away I bought the dressing table and proceeded home with the porter who was carrying it. After paying the house rent of thirty rupees, we would be left with only thirty rupees to guide us through the whole month. I visualized Nanda’s face; she had loved me with so much of hope and dreams. I could not fulfill any of her dreams. I did not mind spending thirty rupees for her.
Nanda was completely taken aback when I arrived home with the dressing table. After pondering for a while, she looked very happy. Any other woman thinking of the money I had spent on buying the dressing table would have grumbled. Nanda had a generous heart, though herself not a poet, she was fit to be a poet’s wife. For hours, Nanda sat before the dressing table, tied her hair in different ways, changed her sari, put a bindi on her forehead, pulled the ghomta on her head and started laughing without any reason. Lying on the bed, feeling joyous, I did not know when I fell asleep. I was dreaming of our courtship days, life appeared so fulfilling. Suddenly, I woke up to Nanda’s call. Her eyes were swollen and red; tears started rolling down her cheeks, her body convulsed.
‘Nanda, what happened? Why are you crying?
‘You return that dressing table, I don’t want that’. She started crying again hiding her face in the pillow. It appeared she felt insulted since it was second-hand furniture. But I could not afford a new one. I felt she did not try to understand. Moreover, the dressing table appeared almost like a new one.
‘O, Nanda, please listen to me.’
‘No, I don’t want this. You please go and return this.’ I was shocked. I thought that Nanda only cared for her parochial ego. She did not seem to value my feelings at all.
‘Ok, I will return that.’
She slowly went out and came back after a while. Dropping a bundle of letters on my lap, she said, ‘Read this.’ There were four letters written in Bengali wrapped in blue envelopes.
‘Whose letters? Where did you get them?’
‘They were in the drawer of the dressing table.’
I sat down to read the letters. One by one I started reading them. My hands were shaking with an unknown fear. Once arranged date-wise the letters read like this:
Letter # 1
Today I reached here at 12 O’clock at night! It seems ages since we parted. I feel sad thinking how we were together at this time yesterday.
This place is a little distance away from the town. Do you remember Amal? He is teaching in the local college here. I will go to him tomorrow and stay with him. I am feeling very tired though the train journey was not all that exhausting. Something very amusing happened in the train. I had a family traveling with me; an elderly man with his wife, one little son, and two daughters. It was a very fine family with well-fed children, a smiling genial elderly man and a traditional Bengali mother. I was really enjoying their company. Pulling out the sketchbook, I started capturing the moments in my own way. One of the girls noticed that I was doing a sketch of the family. She told her sister and the entire family became curious. The elderly man was very inquisitive about my painting, ‘Really? Let me see how you drew us. Wow! What a surprise! Arre, you are a magician!’
He liked my painting so much that he would offer me to eat whatever he bought in the train. ‘Arre, you know why the Bengalis are backward now; it is because they don’t know how to respect their artists. Once I was also interested in all this; I made a name for myself in the music circle. Now, take this and eat. No need to feel shy.’
I had to eat whatever he offered me. It seemed the man never waited for an answer, as if you dared not overrule his wish.
‘I hope you are not married! Well, don’t ever fall into that trap; your life will be ruined.’ I was going to say that I was married but the man, without giving me a chance, said:
‘Why don’t you teach my daughters painting? I will pay whatever you demand. Since you are staying in Calcutta, you can visit us at Beadon Street. You must visit us. It’s a deal, then. Hasi, Khushi, are you happy? See, how I got you a teacher!’
I did not have a chance to reply to any of this. The two sisters asked me, ‘Are you really coming to visit us?’
‘Oh, yes! I will come.’
In the meantime, their little brother had put his hand into my bag and pulled out the album. Wetting his fingers with spittle, he leafed through the pages of the sketchbook.
He ignored his mother’s scolding: ‘O Khoka, don’t be naughty! Put that back.’
‘No. I won’t put it back. Mastermoshai allowed me to have a look at them. Did you not ask me to have a look?’
‘Yes, yes, I only asked him to have a look at the album.’
The gentleman was supposed to get off at Ranaghat along with his family. I took out the tiffin-box from my bag. I offered them the loochi you had made. We talked about the present situation in the country, the Tenancy Act, and the Commonwealth. It was time for them to get off. Before getting down, the gentleman asked me, ‘Arre, what’s your name? I forgot to take down your name and address. Tell me. I will write down.’ He took out a piece of paper and a pen. I told him my name once but he did not hear. I repeated, ‘Rahimuddin Choudhury.’
He wrote down but his fingers trembled. Gulping down the uneasiness in his throat, he said, ‘Oh, that’s fine! But it is difficult to understand from the appearance; you look like a Bengali!’
You look like a Bengali! I wanted to shout and tell him, ‘What do you think then, I am a Punjabi?’ But I could hardly speak.
To lighten the atmosphere, the two girls said smiling, ‘Don’t forget to visit us at Beadon Street.’ I tried to smile.
The train started again. I could see the mother throwing away the loochi from the little boy’s hand. I felt like crying out and telling the people in the compartment, ‘that was not fair. That was injustice done to me.’ But nobody knew anything. I sat quietly. My day had been spoilt.
I don’t remember everything now and I don’t want to remember either. At times, though, I remember the words of the sisters, ‘Do not forget to visit us at Beadon Street.’ I replied in my mind, ‘No, I will not forget. You are the New Bengal. We are living with hope looking forward to you.’
The address on the envelope reads:
Letter # 2
Today morning I reached Amal’s house. On the way, I saw people leaving their houses. The entire town is filled with a dreadful silence; people are even wary of raising their voices while talking. I am feeling stupefied amidst all this. Even before I could understand the situation fully, I heard that Amal had resigned from the job. They are packing to come to Calcutta. They had not expected me here now. Amal’s wife gave me a pale smile.
‘What’s the matter, Amal? Boudi, what happened? Even you are leaving at last?’
Boudi tried to smile, ‘You won’t allow us to stay in your country anymore, thakurpo!’
‘Our country? What do you mean by that? Khulna is Amal’s country, I belong to 24 Parganas. Rather, you are going to my country.’
‘It’s not like that anymore; from now on the Hindus will live in Hindustan and the Muslims will stay in Pakistan.’ Amal told his wife irritatingly, ‘You just go and do your work.’ Boudi left to pack the rest of the stuff. I sat quietly looking at Amal. Amal’s baby has newly learnt to crawl; he was crawling and trying to stand up holding onto his father’s legs. Falling down, he started crying. What a fine baby! But Amal was unmindful of all this.
‘Rahim, I have got to talk to you.’
‘Tell me, I am listening.’ I lifted the baby onto my lap.
What Amal told me was something like this:
Something terrible happened in the village of the Namashudras, a few miles from the town. These Namashudras were mostly poor farmers and fishermen. They were uniting themselves against the exploitation of the local zamindar for a while. Recently, the police got a warrant to arrest two of their leaders. One of the leaders was a Hindu, while the other was a Muslim. When the police came to the village to arrest them, the villagers asked them to go back. When the polite imploring did not work, the villagers beat them up and drove them out of the village. A hoard of armed policemen and a private army of hooligans raided the village immediately after this. They tortured the men and women brutally. They set village after village on fire looting the meager possession of the villagers. The villagers started leaving; the desperate cry of the poor villagers rent the air. A rumor had meanwhile spread in the village that the Hindus were the enemies of Pakistan, they should be driven away. The hooligans taking advantage of the situation in the town looted a few shops and set them on fire. They even threatened the Hindus on the main road.
Do you remember Anwar? That scoundrel who once made obscene gestures at you while in college. I heard that he came back to Pakistan after cheating his partner in the guise of starting a share trading. Now he is the leader of the hooligans here.
I am so angry with the scoundrel. If I happen to meet him, I will chop his head off. Amal is leaving; if not today, tomorrow, or the day after. I don’t know how to give them solace. I feel ashamed and helpless. If Amal has to leave his own country, how can I stay in my country anymore? I feel sad thinking about all this. I don’t know too many people here. I met a student I knew. They have formed a Peace Committee. Life has come to a standstill. I will leave for Dhaka within a day or two. I might get some work there. Do not worry about anything. People cannot be misled for long. Finally, it will be a victory for humanity. I am living with this hope. Tell others about the true situation here…
Letter # 3
I am more worried after receiving your letter. If the Calcutta newspapers report about the Khulna incident wrongly, the result will be disastrous. The monster that the newspapers are creating will one day destroy them. The newspapers certainly know that they can start and stop a riot anytime they want. There is a growing mistrust and suspicion among people. I can see sadness on the faces of people who are scared in these uncertain times. Wish there was a force that could trample over all this and raise the flag of humanity high. But where is that force? I am hoping to get some work in any of the Government departments. I have almost forgotten that I am a Bengali. Do you remember that I learnt Urdu spending my own money? That’s because I love Urdu literature. But when Urdu becomes a tool of misrule, when Urdu dominates over our own culture, it should be discarded for good. When others talk to me, I answer in simple Bangla; it does not matter whether they understand or not. You can understand that there is not much hope of getting any work in this situation.
I feel dejected thinking you have been forced to stop going for Rabindra Sangeet classes. Those who have turned their faces away from you, I believe, have no right to learn Rabindra Sangeet. But don’t lose faith in them. After all, can you survive without them? The curse on this unfortunate country is not over yet; how can we be outside the orbit of that misfortune? Dear, when I see humanity being insulted, I wish to spread myself like fire to wipe out the refuse of this earth.
A few days back, few hooligans on the main road insulted a pundit of the local college. They cut his tuft of hair and forced him to eat beef. Can you imagine all this ever happening? I asked the local leaders: ‘how could you allow all this to happen in front of you? Do you know that you are still alive?’ They answered, ‘What can we do? The police support them and they have got guns. They have threatened that those who oppose them are the enemies of Pakistan. They will set their houses on fire and murder them. At times I doubt that we have our spine, otherwise, is it so difficult to weed out a few hooligans? There are more weeds now than genuine human beings. This is difficult to believe, though!’
Dear, I am not at all feeling fine here. It was a mistake to come over. Can’t live here for a moment more without you…To hell with my work here, I will start for home in a day or two. I received Amal’s letter; they are starting tomorrow. He wrote he will meet you after reaching Calcutta. Make necessary arrangements for them there. Somehow, we will manage.
[The next letter was written after about twenty days. He may have written more letters before this. But for whatever reason, these letters are missing.]
Letter # 4
I might go insane soon. For last seven days, I could not sleep even for a moment. I roamed around the city like a maniac. Looks like there is nothing called humanity anymore. Only the terrible dance of animalism reigns supreme. You get to hear people crying everywhere and the sound of ghoulish merrymaking. I had not received any letter from you for the last seven to eight days. Thousands of refugees are gathering here. I heard from them that not a single Muslim was alive in Calcutta. I don’t have the discretion at the moment to think whether, whatever they are saying, is true. Where are you? Are you still alive? These days I don’t like to talk to other human beings; rather, I speak to the sun, to the trees. I ask them if my Amina is fine. I ask them about your whereabouts.
I received Amal’s letter. He wrote that they were beaten up and robbed at the border. The hooligans abducted boudi. Amal, somehow, reached Ranaghat with his baby. Amal has written, ‘It’s better not to write about my condition. But I know that this news should not reach the Calcutta newspapers. Do whatever you feel better. In my mind and body, I am now inert.’ I want to start right away. I will commit suicide if I stay back here any longer. I have to search out Boudi. Some news of yours would have given me the strength to go on. I don’t know when I will get to see you again; whether I will see you again at all.
Forgive my inability. I always felt proud thinking that I knew my country. That pride has been shattered to pieces. To glorify humanity, I have underestimated the power of animalism. Animalism has started showing its might. Wherever you are, in whatever condition, take care. Dear, I cannot afford to lose you. I don’t have Amal’s greatness. I am an ordinary man…
These were the letters. After reading the letters, I visited Ujanipara in Howrah to enquire after painter Rahimuddin. Some said that they did not know. Others said, ‘There is no nere living here.’ Finally, a pan-shop owner showed me a single storied house. They rented two rooms in this house. The house was in a dilapidated condition; the doors and the windows did not have the leaves. Only a screen made of a sack hung in place of the leaves. Nobody answered my calls. I entered the house removing the sack-screen. There were around twenty women with children in the house; some were sitting while others were sleeping. They were taken aback when I entered. They looked worse than the house. I asked them, ‘Does Rahimuddin Choudhury live here?’
None of them seemed to know anything about Rahimuddin. They had occupied the house that very morning. They had come as refugees from East Bengal. I heard that they had already been threatened four times to vacate the house. One middle-aged woman threw up inside the room; others were indifferent. Two boys entered the room with a can of puffed rice. They seemed to be schoolboys. They had arranged for their stay here. They were looking after them, too. I asked them about Rahimuddin. One of them knew Rahim; he even knew Amina. His elder sister learned painting from him; he often accompanied his sister. He told me everything about this family: ‘I heard that mastermoshai was in Pakistan; Aminadi might not be alive anymore. This room was locked from outside one night and set on fire. We tried our best to retrieve the people from fire. But we failed. A terrible shooting was going on around us.’ Tears welled up in his eyes. I looked around the house. All the walls were burnt. The neem-tree next to the house was scorched, too. There was enough evidence that the house was really set on fire. But I had a doubt. If Amina was burnt alive, how did the dressing table survive? I did not disclose this visit to Nanda.
The student told me that the table was in the small room next to the main room. Amina might have escaped to that room. But where is she now?
I write this story at Nanda’s urging. She believes that once the story is published in some newspaper, Amina will come back to collect the dressing table. Nanda has wrapped the mirror with a piece of cloth.
The story ends here. Incidentally, I want to highlight another incident to the readers. It does not have any relation to the story but there are certain similarities between the two. The news was published in a Bangla newspaper on the first of April: “One person was arrested yesterday near Howrah station for roaming around suspiciously. His bag contained a few sketches and brushes. It is suspected that he might have been sketching the Howrah station and the bridge. When asked his name, he pretended to be a lunatic and said, ‘A HUMAN BEING.’
The newspaper headline read: “Spy from Pakistan Arrested.”