A different voice in a different home

Akhtaruzzaman Elias
Translated from the Bengali by Rifat Munim

Look at me / Turn around / Let me see you with eyes wide open.(1)

Half-ripe plums were falling off branches in some remote char of the Padma tamed by the winter. Though he opened his eyes at the sound of the plums hitting the ground, he realised that his Pishima’s(2) song, too, had pitter-pattered on the thin surface of his slumber. He woke up with a start, and remembered that he was having trouble sleeping. It wasn’t even half an hour since he had dozed off, shifting from side to side. He had slept through the entire afternoon; maybe that was why he couldn’t sleep now. Last night in Idris’s room he hadn’t slept a wink. He had stayed up late, chatting, and when he felt drowsy Idris made him tea three times. In the morning, after strolling around the city for a while, he had taken a bus at Gulistan and come to Narayanganj. Again, he had strolled around, then boarded a launch and had arrived here at eleven o’clock. It was then he had felt like taking a tour of the town.

The town looked much the same as before. There was one main road, which was as good as it had been 12 or 13 years ago, when he was 16 or 17 years old. On both sides of the road, in front of an office or along fields that used to be empty, now stood squalid shanties. The black, naked children from the slum scooped up handfuls of flour leaking from the piles of sacks being transported on rickshaws, swallowing them in big gulps, thinking nothing of the snot that oozed from their noses and mixed with the flour—scenes like this could only be seen before in the big cities. Would Dhaka – that one and only city of theirs – now begin to extend beyond the Buriganga, the Sitalakkhya and the Dhaleswari?

Nani da was not in the warehouse. Pradip had felt shy, thinking everyone would start looking busy on seeing him. But nothing like that happened.

One of the employees tersely said, “Babu is not here.”

A leather backpack was slung over his shoulder; anyone could easily assume there were clothes, toothbrush, shaving razor and some books in it. Yet the employee lowered his head and refocused his attention back to the accounts log. While Pradip was thinking whether he should just go directly to Nani da’s house a rickshaw pulled up in front of the warehouse. No sooner the rickshaw stopped than two youths, aged perhaps 18 or 19, jumped off it. One of them, in fact, looked younger because the line above his upper lip seemed like a line left by water that he had just drunk but not cared to wipe clean. Their arrival instantly caused some agitation among the employees. The taciturn man, who had been glued to his log, now got up from his seat and said, “Please come in and have a seat.”

“He’s not here?” the boys said.

“Babu is out on some business at the SDO(3) office. He’ll be here any minute. Please have a seat.”

The boy with the water-line moustache answered, “What is the point of waiting for him? Who knows when he’ll come?”

“Let me send someone for Babu. He told us you might come. Please be seated,” the man said. Then he called out to Nepal in a shrill voice, and sent him right away to the SDO office. While giving instructions to Nepalchandra, aka “Nepal”, he pulled out a pack of Dunhill from behind the cash box, held it out to the boys and stood with his mouth open. Both of the boys had long and loose hair, and long sideburns. One had a moustache so overgrown that you couldn’t tell it apart from his sideburns; the other barely had any. Both were wearing bell-bottom trousers. One was in blue pants with a pair of pockets both at the front and back, and a high-neck punjabi with intricate embroidery; the other, the moustachioed one, wore a heavy shirt with numerous buttons, and brown cotton pants. No matter how they spoke, these Bangal(4) boys were very particular about their attire. Pradip looked at their clothes closely. Looking at Pradip, the employee said, “Have a seat. Babu will be here soon.”

The wooden ceiling was quite high. The walls were solid corrugated iron sheets, with a wooden shelf, one couldn’t help noting, attached to them. On the shelf was a small idol of Ganesh(5); on a calendar that also had an image of Ganesh was written the address of an indenting firm in Kolkata. Another calendar with the name of a local hardware firm had a picture of Rabindranath. It was quite an image of the poet, undoubtedly, but would they know whose portrait it was? From another wall hung an expensively framed photo of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman(6). In the middle was a bamboo fence, and beyond it was a warehouse for spices. The air in this room was musty, but a sweet, heady smell from the other room dispersed its heaviness.

Nani da came in 15 minutes.

“Hey Kamal bhai, you’re here! I’ve just been to the office of SDO sahib. So when did you guys come?” He didn’t even notice Pradip.

“I was wondering why Nani da would give us the slip when he had invited us over!” Kamal said.

Nani da broke into laughter. “You are joking, right? I was thinking you guys remain so busy all the time, always swamped with meetings, conferences — who knows when you’ll get the time to come here?”
Nani da was taken by surprise when he caught sight of Pradip, “You! When did you arrive?” Then turning back to the boys, said in the same breath, “Kamal, have some tea first.” Then he looked at Nepalchandra and took him to task, “How come you went to fetch me before serving them tea?” Putting a ten taka note in Nepal’s hand, he commanded, “Go, bring some rasmalai(7) from Annapurna.”

After a shower with the tubewell water under the scorching sun, Pradip lunched on eggplant fries, dopeyaja of pabda fish, mashed tengra fish with potato and eggplant, hilsa fry, steamed hilsa with mustard, carp or koi fish curry with fresh potato, a vegetable curry of potato, cabbage with lentils, and thick moog lentil soup. He ate so much that he could barely move his limbs. The bloody Bangals still loved to eat! Sitting in the veranda with his back to the sun, he yawned while talking to Boudi(8). She liked hearing stories about Kolkata. During the Liberation War year(9), everyone had fled to Kolkata but Nani da had gone to Agartala. She still lamented that he should not have done that.

At this point Pishima came to put some lentil dumplings on the veranda to dry in the sun. Seeing Pradip yawn, she chided, “Why are you yawning like that? Why don’t you go take a nap in my room?”

So he did, and it was half past six when he awoke.

After dinner Nani da started to chat. “Business? What business are you talking about? How can one live in this country? If the business runs well, they’ll fleece me out of my cash in the name of subscription fees. This is only a small town which you can walk from end to end in less than 30 minutes. Can you imagine, there are at least three or four conferences or rallies, or something or the other, every week? All of it is nothing more than ploys to fleece you out of your money. Do you get it? This or that leader is coming, their big boss is coming, or their friend. So, what can you do? You have to spend money on them!”

The same bunch was running things in Kolkata as well. But here everything was out in the open: There was no secrecy. But the Bengalis here, they too would soon learn how to steal and rob and kill in a polite way. Maybe just one generation needed to pass, after which the next would surely learn the right techniques. Idris had also been blabbering about it last night. During the year of the war, Idris had escaped to Kolkata; it was there that Pradip had met him. The man was quite loquacious. He stammered at times; words that began with “m” or “b” or “l” or “r” required him to put in so much effort that it brought tears to his eyes. Even so, could that bastard go on and on! If it wasn’t for his stammering, he would have blurted out, no doubt, hundreds of words in a matter of a few minutes.

Boudi said to Nani da, “You didn’t set up any business in India. You settled here instead, building a new house, making new acquaintances.”

Pradip looked down; he and his brothers had settled permanently in Kolkata.

“One can’t just leave like that,” Nani da said, yawning, so the last few words were more accentuated.

“Can you really set up a business in India as easily? What will you eat there?” Boudi said, sitting up straight. “Here what you do here is basically eat and sleep. But don’t you have daughters who should be married by now? One can barely send them to college. How can one marry them off to someone?”

Boudi went on, “She had passed the matriculation before the year of the war. Then your dada said, “No, I don’t want her to study here in Pakistan. Let’s send her to Kolkata; she’ll stay at didi’s and study there.” We lived in Agartala for nine months. We never did see them during that time, didi or her husband. Now Pakistan is dead. When we came back here after the war, she enrolled in a college but see what has happened? We just wasted our money. We fawn over those boys who are no older than our son, but our own daughter cannot go to college due to those same boys – she’s so scared of them! Will she be able to go to college again?” Nani da’s daughter was being harassed on her way to college.

When Nani da yawned again, they got up to go to bed.

Pradip’s bed had been made in the old building. There were three rooms in it. One for aunt; one for Nani da’s son, Amit, who was sitting for the SSC exams, and the room in-between them was the pantry. Amit was in Dhaka to play in a cricket match. Pradip was given Amit’s room. In the new building lived Nani da; Boudi; their college-enrolled-but-unable-to-go-to-college daughter, Indira; his eighth-grade son, Prabir, who had failed twice in the exams; his fifth-grade daughter, Mandira and his youngest daughter, Minakshi. The old building was blocked from sight by the new one. Over the years, Pishima, too, managed to keep herself out of view by staying in the old building.

Boudi had laid out a bright bed sheet. The mosquito net was new and well-washed. Having slept through the entire winter afternoon, he had felt a bit light-headed all evening. A cool breeze was blowing, the kind that preceded a moonlit night. In this golden Bengal of theirs, they said the moon came even inside their rooms! He felt the breeze blowing through the net. His throat was parched; he smelled the detergent from the sheet, washed in fresh water and later dried in the sun. The latch on the window beside the bed was off; it opened onto the veranda. The facing window in Pishima’s room was also open. He could sense that she was awake, pottering about, making small sounds. Baba had this habit—keeping windows open, even on winter nights. Hadn’t Grandfather, too? Otherwise how come both Baba and Pishima had adopted this habit? Pishima was obstinate, just like my Baba. He had not left his homestead here. Baba had died of throat cancer, yet had spoken in a strong voice for days on end. Whenever he was alone, he would hum kirtan(10) songs in his sickly voice. When the cancer got too worse, Mejda(11) came and asked Pishima to persuade Baba, and only then had he agreed to go to Kolkata.

That had been quite a time for Pradip. Staying up with Baba at the hospital, rubbing his feet all day long, calling the nurse at the slightest fear, helping Baba with the defecating or the urinating—entwined with Baba all day and night. Things got really worse after Baba had died. It had been impossible to comprehend which way the slow-moving tide of blood was flowing—upstream or downstream; in whose favour or against whom. These parched memories of the time after Baba’s death made him thirsty. He got up from bed, picked up the glass covered with a saucer from Amit’s table and gulped down the water noisily.

He fell back on the bed with a thump. The pillow moved a little as he relaxed his limbs, and something beside it grazed his shoulder blade. Even after having wrapped himself up with a cotton blanket, he could still feel something scraping against his shoulder. If he moved a little up, it scraped under his backbone. It seemed as if a disease of some kind had grown into a quadrangular piece of flesh and was moving from shoulder to shoulder. But it was not an internal movement, so Pradip sat up and fumbled about on the bed. He searched near the pillow, under the sheet and mattress. No, it was not a tumour but a crumpled book under the mattress. Through the window a beam of light shone on the pillow. Lying down again, as he opened the book in the dim light, the portrait of a woman was clearly visible on blue art paper. Flashing her awkwardly big, pink-coloured breasts, she was struggling to keep her petticoat from slipping down. Its drawstring was torn, so it had slipped enough to reveal a portion of her thigh that looked like a hollow pillar, but strangely enough, a little strip of cloth hanging from the waist hid her pubic area from view. The green-and pink-coloured woman’s petticoat was yellowed with age, but lines of dark brown had been added to mark the curves in the garment. The curves did not show however; only a multi-coloured petticoat that had been sewn together. Holding it up towards the window, he could read the title: “Water-filled Palmyra Pulp.” Below it was written in parentheses: “Pulp of Nazma Bhabi’s(12) Love.” The back cover was blank. From the perforations on the pages – two on each page – anyone could tell the book had been held together from cover to cover with pins. Its pages were worn out, what with regular use by Mr Amitkumar. The text could not be read in this dim light. There were three more pictures in the book, every eight to ten pages—black-and-white and unclear as the ink had faded. In every picture a man and a woman were having sex in complicated and unusual positions. If there was sufficient light he could have seen more clearly. Pradip nonetheless felt sexually aroused by the pictures. Either due to this arousal or due to having seen those two young hooligans at Nani da’s warehouse—the thrill sent a shower of brickbats over his body. He would read the book; he’d also make the right use of it.

So Pradip sat up thinking he’d turn on the light. But instead of getting down from the bed, he wrapped the cotton blanket tightly around himself. As a result, he felt too tired to turn on the light. A little gap at the shoulder let in a chill that bit into his flesh like sharp stalks. Chill and warmth around his tummy, back and thighs combined to make him feel a little sleepy. Again, he was inclined to get up and turn on the light to read the porn book. But he lay down wavering between conflicting thoughts. Then, when in some remote char of the winter’s shrunken Padma, half-ripe plums fell off the branches, he awoke and sat up. As the lingering sensation of the dream dissipated he noticed a light beaming down the veranda, and Pishima slowly humming which turned into a sweet tune: What does the mat’s sharp crest of hair do in my chest(13)? Pishima sang quite well, but you wouldn’t get any hint of that when she spoke. The vermilion’s mark is always there/We die in shame. While singing this line, she stripped it of its rhetoric; she didn’t mention vermilion’s mark twice, nor did she add O beloved. Still, the tune was falling into place. If Gakulchandra(14) had not come wandering to Braj(15)/O sister/if Gokulchandra…— no sooner Pishima finished one song than she moved on to another. My life has been a failure, My life has been a failure/It has been of no use/My life has been a failure, Gokulchandra. Pishima’s voice rose and fell quickly; sometimes it was barely audible. The rising and falling stream of words pitter-pattered on his eyes and he felt them grow fresh and dilated. His body relaxed; he trembled like the skin of a pomelo floating on the waters of the Padma. He found it difficult to stay inside. Unbolting the door he stepped out on to the veranda.

No, there was no moon in the sky, and the light from the bulb was sickly due to the cold. The courtyard was hazy with fog. If he willed, he could create with his fingers the figures of a launch, or a ship, or a whale on the outer wall of the new building which stood beyond the yard. But Pishima’s tunes struck in the waves of fog like loud strokes made by some unknown fish in a lake. Standing on the veranda Pradip quite enjoyed listening to those strokes.

I shall go to the city called Mathura(16)/I shall visit every home there as a yogini(17).

Suddenly the singing stopped; Pishima opened the door and came outside. “Pradip,” she said, “what are you doing standing there?

Don’t you feel cold?”

Pradip did not reply; he kept staring at Pishima.

Pishima said, “Come. Come to my room.”

Pishima’s room smelled of incense and camphor.

“You don’t feel sleepy? Why are you standing there at this hour? Are you sad?”

“No, Pishima, sleep won’t come,” Pradip said.

“Why, why can’t you get some sleep?”

“I slept in the afternoon, maybe that’s why.”

“Your Baba could actually sleep whenever he wanted. He could also get out of bed anytime he wanted.”

Pishima continued, “You are staying for a while, right? Are you already planning to leave for Kolkata?”

“No, Pishima. I’ll leave for Agartala the day after tomorrow. If everything is fine there I’ll set off for Shillong shortly. I’ll stay a few days in Dibrugarh and Gauhati, and after that I’ll go back to Kolkata.”

“You spend your days wandering. It hasn’t been long since I heard from Nani that you went to visit Agra in Delhi.”

Pradip travelled in the name of work. After Baba had died, Mejda worked really hard and wrapped up one portion of Baba’s business here. Baba had also set up a contracting business, but that could not be saved. A warehouse of pulse and spices, a fabric-selling shop in Agartala, some indenting business—Borda(18) and Mejda had done well for themselves. Pradip’s own share had been enough for him to get by. But that he was travelling constantly was not imposed on him—he didn’t like staying in some place for long. It so happened that now people were always asking him, “Pradip, when are you leaving?” He didn’t need to go to Agartala this time. But he broached this idea to Mejda, saying, “Mejda, the accounts in Agartala are not clear. I think I should pay them a visit to see things firsthand. This time I want to go through Bangladesh; that way I’ll get a chance to see the country.”

“Don’t you feel hungry? Why didn’t you eat enough at dinner?” Pishima interposed.

“Pishima, I ate a lot.”

“You ate a lot?” Pishima yelled. “Didn’t I see how much you ate? You have grown to be quite a big man but you ate like a bird. You must be hungry now.”

Pishima started humming again, in an engrossed voice.

The Shalgram Shila(19) sat on a wooden throne in one corner of the room. Pishima shifted her attention to the stone. But listening closely to her humming, Pradip saw that she was weaving sentences randomly that were actually addressed to him.

“Your Baba loved to eat! At your age he ate to his heart’s content. Three litres of milk would be boiled down to just one litre, and big bananas came from Rampal, and Boudi(20) always kept aamsotwo(21). Boudi had a trove of mother Lakkhi(22), I suppose. Mixing that aamsotwo with milk and banana, your Baba ate several platefuls of rice.”

In Pishima’s room the smells of sandalwood, ripe bananas and cucumbers played hide and seek—one moment it was sandalwood floating around the nostrils and the next moment it was dislodged by bananas.

“Pradip, do you want some puffed rice?”

Before Pradip could reply, Pishima went back to speaking in her confiding tone, “Dada(23) ate a lot of puffed rice, you know, and he could work very hard. Your grandfather had died when I was just seven or eight years old; it was your Baba who had looked after us. He worked really hard to set up the business, pay off your grandfather’s debt. He built a warehouse at Kamala Ghat, retrieved the patch of land in Rampal, and got me and Didi(24) married. When Didi died and Brother-in-law married again, he brought our niece Sobita along. But why? Because he feared her stepmother might have treated her badly. He enrolled her in a school and got her married after she passed matriculation. When my husband died he came to my in-laws’ house and said to me, “Sabitri, my dear sister, it’s time you came back to your own home; your son and daughter should come, too. Your Radha-Krishna are calling you back home. Come, let’s go.” But Pishima started crying before she could finish the sentence. She composed herself after a while and said, “How can I explain what your Baba was to me? He looked after me and my children, even cried for us. We had moved in with him and his family but it always seemed to me I was under my mother’s care.”

The ceaseless humming of prose made Pradip’s head spin between the laps of his Baba and Pishima. The constant spin caused the night to evaporate while the Shalgram stone in the throne trembled with memories of the hills; on the mini-stage Radha and Krishna – their joint idol made of eight different metals – were so impressed with their own existence that they stared into each other. A suppressed smile came out from Krishna’s mischievous lips, prised open.

“Let’s get some puffed rice from the other room,” Pishima said.

Pishima’s suggestion, or the fact that she had already walked up to the veranda—Pradip hadn’t noticed any of that. Goaded on by the enchanted zeal of Radha-Krishna’s motionless, luxurious eyes, he made the roof over his head, the walls on the east, west, north and south, and the floor beneath his feet disappear. He kept standing, though. Beneath his fresh, newborn eyes emerged a thin layer of dream, just like kohl, but he failed to notice that.


Startled, Pradip picked the walls, the roof and the floor, and put everything back in their place, even filling them in with darkness. Then he looked out.

Pishima was standing on the veranda.

“What is it, Pishima?” he said.

Pishima was turning a key in the door of the next room.

“What are you doing standing alone in that room? Come, I’ll fry puffed rice in ghee. Come, eat some,” she said.

“I’m not hungry, Pishima. But go ahead and fry some. I’ll eat some if you insist. Won’t you eat some too?”

“Of course I will!”

Pishima turned the key again, but it wasn’t opening. Coming forward Pradip said, “Pishima, give me the key. Let me take care of it.”

“You?” there was a streak of incredulity in Pishima’s voice. Not exactly incredulity, more like unreliability. Baba was also like that. Baba heartily had helped everyone but never trusted anybody.

“How come you know how to do it?”

“Let me take a look.”

“OK, take a look,” Pishima gave in.

Pishima handed the key to Pradip in spite of herself. If it were Baba, he would never have handed the key over. Pradip opened the lock standing next to Pishima. Under the room’s hazy light, Pishima’s white sari was a drowsy beige colour. Pishima smelled of incense and cucumber; her hair smelled of damp, secret sandalwood.

Seeing Pradip open the lock with ease, Pishima said, “You did it?” She smiled a bit. “Why wouldn’t you? You are the son of Satya Roy.” And entering the pantry said, “Since you brought it up, let me tell you a story.”
But who had actually brought it up? Let’s not get into that.

“If dada would set his hand to any task, he would not stop till it was finished.” As soon as the light was on, three or four rats scuttled away and a few cockroaches moved their positions. The air inside had a musty smell. Ash was the reigning colour in the room.

“Where did they keep the tin of puffed rice? They take things out but never put them back properly. What a habit!” Pishima snapped, directing her irritation at her daughter-in-law. She retrieved the tin and said to Pradip, holding on to a small bottle of ghee, “You pick up the stove. Let’s fry it in my room.” The kerosene stove was in Pradip’s hands, and the tin of puffed rice and ghee in Pishima’s. When they stepped on the veranda Pishima said, “Lock the door.”

There was an aluminium frying pan in Pishima’s room. The pan heated up, sending the ghee to sputter out its demanding cry. “Do you get it, Pradip? If dada had set his hand to a task, he would not have stopped till it was finished,” Pishima had not forgotten where she left off. Plucking a container of sugar from a shelf in the wall, she went on, “Do you get it? There was this time when—do you remember the well there? How cold and sweet its water was? Nani ruined it when erecting the new building. Water from the tubewell now tastes terrible.” Venting her anger at her son for making her drink tubewell water, she started again, “I used to wear a pair of gold bangles, each containing at least two carats of gold. You wouldn’t find a thing like that these days. So, having scrubbed clean one of those with tamarind, I had gone to the well and bent over the edge to pull up some water. It was then the bangle slipped into the well! I was just a kid back then. I started crying, feeling helpless. I was scared, thinking we had a stepmother, and if she told Baba, we might have been flogged! Dada had just come home from school. He wasted no time in getting a hook, lengths of thick rope, and climbed down the well. Looking up at me, he scolded, “Shut up! Don’t you cry!” When he pulled himself up out of the well with the bangle in his hand, the afternoon light was fading already.”

The puffed rice slowly turned red. Pishima flipped a khunti(25) through the grains. Pradip was silent, so were the Shalgram stone and the enchanted Radha-Krishna. From an upper shelf hung a framed photograph of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa(26), glazed with glass. He sat silently, cross-legged, staring at Pishima. Right next to Paramahamsa, a tiny rat that was apparently impressed with its own startlingly short fur looked about the room with eyes as glassy as beads. Maybe the wall was out of its sight, maybe the floor, too. The rat was restless, smelling the fragrance from the puffed rice now floating up with the fog that was coming in, perhaps, from a recently harvested rice field.

Meanwhile, Pishima kept humming. If Gokulchandra had not come wandering to Braj/O sister… Running after Paramahamsa’s tiny rat, Pradip, too, was crossing one field after another.

“When you fry puffed rice this is the colour it should look like. Only then you know it is done properly,” Pishima said, from across the field. “My daughter-in-law works all day, snaps at the maid, or scolds the Thakur(27) She is a bit clumsy. She fried puffed rice for you then but burnt most of it.” She picked a silver pot from a shelf, filled it with fried puffed rice and held it out to Pradip.

“Now eat this.”

“Won’t you eat?” Pradip said.

“You go ahead and eat.”

“You have to eat,” Pradip insisted.

“You crazy boy! How can I eat? Do I have any teeth left? It has been long since I lost all the molars.”

Sitting in front of Pradip, Pishima watched him munch on the puffed rice.

“Pradip, you are not in good shape,” she said. Pradip did not reply, so she went on. “How can you live like this, like a sadhu(28)?” Pradip looked at Pishima with a bewildered look on his face. Pishima was humming again. But Pradip stopped munching and stared at Pishima with dazed eyes. Keeping on humming, she stood up and started walking in a circle in front of the Radha-Krishna idol. She walked past the idol and looked up at the photo of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. While she was looking, her face began to melt and dissolve.

Had flesh turned into water? Would there be smoke, too, rising from the water? Stealing a quick look around, like impudent boys and girls, where were those two – Radha and Krishna – running away to, through that very door? The Shalgram stone, sitting comfortably in the throne, had flown off; no, there was no trouble on the way, it was a safe and sound flight. Up on the shelf Paramahamsa had gone away with his tiny pet rat. In a vast, unfamiliar emptiness, Pishima – freed from her body – was melting away with her smoke-engrossed hair loose.

Pradip ate handful after handful of puffed rice. After eating, his tongue was dry and his throat felt parched. Those dry gulps had slid down his throat and cut into his inner chest like thorns. “Ma!” he shouted.

“What happened, Pradip? Are you scared? What happened?” Pishima looked worried.

On its foundation of brick did return the wall and above it the roof. “Nothing, Pishima,” Pradip said.

On the stage Radha and Krishna practised exchanging enchanted looks. Sri Ramakrishna looked for his pet rat, sitting cross-legged. Pishima had turned back into Pishima. The room had become the room, and the floor was in its place again.

Pishima slowly stroked her hand across Pradip’s face and over his shoulder.

But Pradip saw tides of saltwater in the shrunken rivulets of Pishima’s cheek.

“You are that type, Pradip, you are. My grandfather had left home with some sadhus. Playing mridanga(29), he would call out Hari’s(30) name every now and then; he breathed his last in Puri(31)” Saffron-coloured, salty words came floating out of Pishima’s throat. “You possess that faith, Pradip, you have that. What am I going to do with you now?”

“No, Pishima, nothing has happened to me. I should try to get some sleep now,” he said.

“OK, let me put you to sleep.”

“No, Pishima. Suddenly I feel all sleepy. Maybe that’s why I dozed off and got scared.”

“You felt all sleepy? What did you see in your sleep, Pradip? Will you tell me?”

Pishima’s curiosity was piqued. But why was she so keen on knowing what Pradip had seen?

But Pradip had not seen anything. What could he share?

Reaching the door of Amit’s room, he said to her, “Pishima, please go back to your room now. I need to get some sleep. It’s almost dawn.”

As Pishima was walking back to her room, an assortment of fragrances – sandalwood, cucumber, banana and camphor – settled in front of his nose for a moment. Then they took off after her, diving straight into her hair.

A new, freshly-washed mosquito net had been put up over Amit’s bed. Upon entering it, Pradip found himself surrounded by its walls. That “Water-filled Pulp of Palmyra Fruit” or “Pulp of Nazma Bhabi’s Love” grazed his shoulder again. Was that disgusting book still there? His temper soared. He could get rid of the book if he masturbated right now on some of those useless papers from Amit’s table.
But it was impossible to get down from bed now. The cotton blanket lay coiled near the feet. He was not cold at all. Untying his pyjama drawstring, he reached for his penis. When he started fondling its cold skin he felt as if he was holding a dead centipede in his hand; a feeling of nausea engulfed him. What else could he do other than pull his hand out and put it by his head? But he couldn’t figure out where he could rest his other hand. Right then Pishima’s humming crawled up to this room, peeping through the window: You are crazy/Please tame your mind. Perhaps dawn was breaking out now and if this tune entered the room at this hour it would surely turn things upside down—this thought distressed him, but he sprang up on the bed like a dying lamplight that had rebelled at the last minute. He could shut the windows sitting here on the bed. This arrangement was handy. since he need not get out of bed. He quickly closed shut the windows, whereupon Pishima’s tune turned tail and, stumbling on the window panels, drifted away.

Ridding himself of these little disturbances in the early hours, Pradip lay down straight on his back. With the windows shut, the room was now a lonely square. Inside the room was a mosquito net and inside the net was a square darkness. With the familiar sound of his own breathing coming from his five-foot-four-inch body, settling in the dark, Pradip slowly sank down into sleep.


1. Lines from a Kirtan song that Pradip’s paternal aunt is singing. It is a musical genre very popular among the Hindus and a large section of Muslims in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

2. Paternal aunt.

3. Sub-divisional officer.

4. Bengalis from Bangladesh are at times derogatorily referred to as Bangals while those from West Bengal, India are referred to as Ghotis in the same derogatory way.

5. Ganesh is one of the most worshiped deities in Hinduism. He has an elephant head and is widely revered as the remover of obstacles.

6. The story is set in post-independence Bangladesh when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was Bangladesh’s president. He was an undisputed leader of the Awami League who had led the freedom struggle.

7. A most delicious traditional sweetmeat in Bangladesh and India.

8. Sister-in-law.

9. The Liberation War through which Bangladesh was created in 1971.

10. One of the most popular indigenous music genres in Bangladesh and India. Multiple singers take part and sing in praise of some Hindu deity, to the accompaniment of various local instruments.

11. Second brother.

12. Sister-in-law.

13. All of Pishima’s songs belong to the genre of Kirtan, a huge body of song lyrics written by medieval Bengali poets about the divine love between Radha the goddess and Krishna the god in Hindu mythology. The lyrics often have deeper connotations about the relationship between body and soul, being and supreme being etc.

14. One of the many names by which Krishna is known.

15. The village near Brindaban where Radha and Krishna met and spent time with each other.

16. Mathura is believed to be the birthplace of Krishna which is located at the centre of Braj or Brij-bhoomi.

17. In the Hindu tradition, yogini refers to a woman who’s part of the Gorakshanath-founded Nath Yogi tradition. (Wikipedia)

18. Eldest brother.

19. Shalgram Shila refers to a sacred stone used in South Asia as an emblem of important deities i.e. Vishnu.

20. In this case, Pradip’s mother is referred.

21. Mango pulp dried and preserved in cake forms. A very popular food in Bangladesh.

22. A goddess in Hindu scriptures. She is seen as an emblem of affluence.

23. Elder brother. Here Pradip’s baba is referred.

24. Elder sister.

25. A cooking tool.

26. An Indian mystic and yogi in the 19th century.

27. A Hindu god or deity.

28. A saint who abandons routine works of daily life and pursues spiritual salvation instead.

29. A kind of a drum in Bangladesh and India.

30. A Hindu god of the highest echelon, i.e. Vishnu, Shiva.

31. Located in the Indian state of Odisha, Puri is the biggest pilgrimage site for Hindus.

(First published in the November 2017 issue of Bengal Lights magazine)

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