Difficult to Rule by Manik Bandopadhhay
Translated from the Bengali by Mayeesha Azhar
Earlier, just recently, not at all very long ago, one would feel relieved upon at Hatipur village because one could sense that people live here. If one did not see people, if meadows, pastures, cropfields, ponds, bushes, wetlands were steeped in endless mystery, if the owl called suddenly, if nocturnal animals roamed in the cover of jungles, their footsteps crunching on dry leaves, if the nasal imploring cry of vulture chicks floated in from the palm groves on the northeast side of the Banyan Pond, if the entire village was asleep in the shadows without a single lamp—all this one could count on, this is what a sleeping village at midnight is supposed to look and feel like. This is what villages are like in Bengal, all villages at night. One would get goosebumps at the fear of getting scared, not for actually getting scared.
Today they will get scared those who do not know what has come to be the norm in Bengal’s villages. Let us take for instance those gentlemen sitting in the cities, busting their heads about Bengal’s villages. Such a gentleman who is entirely inexperienced in the matters of hitherto unseen paranormal activity in each of Bengal’s villages will chatter their teeth and swoon in fear if they come to Hatipur a bit into the night. They are entirely untainted, subservient—their hearts and minds are practically benumbed. Therefore, they know from birth that most people in the villages cannot be saved from an untimely death by famine. What doubt might they have, after seeing and sensing the shadow-figures roaming that they have transcended the living plane into the world of shadow-figures.
Foliage hides a thatched hut. The broken fencing in the front has fallen in but is still standing. A shadow will emerge without a sound from the other side of the fencing, advance with speed and disappear into the denser darkness of some trees. Or it will find itself standing too close to you and in the blink of an eye a nude will return to the other side of the fencing in a flash. Washing dishes at the pond will be a shadow, climbing onto the ghat/quay with a pitcher on her head will be a shadow. Shadow will speak to shadow, will call each other Didi (sister), Mashi (aunt), Khuri (aunt) and laugh, cry, curse their fate, and without finishing the conversation will return this way or that, towards this hovel or that while muttering under their breath. If the shadow catches itself in front of a stranger, it will immediately retreat to a spot in the bushes and will ask in scared, plaintive protest, “Who is it? Who is there?”
Some shadows have on a single rag, some shadows wrap around their waists a ghagra skirt sewn with leaves, some shadows remain only blanketed by the indistinct darkness of the boundless night, like Draupadi’s endless indescribable metaphorical clothing at the Kaurava’s council.
All day, when the sunlight renders them nude, the shadows hide themselves in the huts or homesteads. Some shadows hide in the recesses of the darkest room, they cannot come out before their fathers, brothers, husbands or fathers-in-law—for their womanly shame. In some homes a few shadows stay together—aunts, daughter, sister, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, etcetera is some of the many relationships among them. They take turns stepping outside, because they have only one piece of cloth between them to step outside in.
Bhola Nandy has tied a puttee (a strip of cloth) two fingers wide to his girdle and donated his five-yard long dhuti to his daughters. On a woman of average physique [normal size], the cloth can go once around the waist then cover the chest and come up to the shoulder—it does have to be held with one hand on the shoulder at all times, or else beware. Bhola’s wife goes to the ghat/quay. Once back, she hands over the wet cloth. Then Pachi, the wife of Bhola’s second son Potol, or Bhola’s daughter Shiuli wears the cloth to go to the ghat/quay.
“How long will I be a prisoner like this?”
“Can’t stand it anymore.”
She says this and bangs her head on the thick post of Sal wood. “Can’t stand it, can’t stand it anymore,” she keeps saying while hitting her head against the post. She rolls around on the powdery ground that was coated with cow dung before, until her undernourished body and swollen breasts turn grey with dust. Alas, if only the shame of the cursed shameful female body could be hidden even by smearing dust, soil, ash or mud!
Boikunthho Malik works so very hard in the fields to feed, clothe and keep himself and his wife alive. After Shonnyashi Babu’s (the ascetic’s) building, there is a mango orchard. On one side of it is the road, and on the other side is a half-hidden joke of pathway. Close to this, and adjacent to 2 bighas of separated rice fields are Boikunthho’s two and a half thatched huts. One can be called a room, it has a mat door, bamboo walls, bamboo entrance, bamboo bolt. Boikunthho thumps on the mat door and says in a voice bitter like bile, “You are really crossing the line, Chhotobou, really crossing the line. What shame do you have from me, huh?”
His wife Manda responds from inside, “Ashen-faced scoundrel! You gave clothes to your sister, now joking with your wife? You are even distasteful to Yama (the god of death), not a saving grace in you!”
Beautiful morning, beautiful dusk, the dew sparkles like diamonds and pearls on the taro leaves. From morning to dusk, on either side of the mat door they call each other names. On all three sides of the hut, the field full of hemp has risen to two and half or three feet. If one can run and dive into it, all shame is hidden from view. One can look at the sky and cry one’s heart out without fear or apprehension. On the walking path through this hemp field, bursting with pride in her Benarasi sari, strode Gokul’s sister Maloti behind Bipin Samonto. Manda spots them from the gap in the fence (that serves as her window). Dashu Kamar’s (Dashu the blacksmith) daughter is going with them today. She—she was a shadow of the night until yesterday. She would hide in the house all day and sneak out to the ghat/quay with a few dishes and a pitcher. Where did she get the bleached white sheet of cloth, the married whore?
In the theatre stage of the hemp field, Raghu teases the Benarasi-clad Maloti. Ranu’s naïve sixteen-year-old daughter, who still turns on the waterworks from time to time, stops confused in her tracks at this, like a male actor playing a girl in a jatra performance. She looks this way and that. Suddenly, she turns back and starts walking at a brisk pace, a deer escaping from a trap in whichever direction she can. Ish! The dhuti she wears is so white!
“Hey Bindu! Wait.” Raghu calls. Bindi stops. She is not in fact a deer escaping a trap but a human girl. She stops and turns his way. “Tomorrow—I will go tomorrow, Mr. Shamonto. I’m really scared today,” she says.
Benarasi-clad Maloti says, “Oh, such a baby, scared. Give it here then, take off the cloth. Take it off. Come with us, or take off the cloth and go home.”
Boikunthho says, “I will break down the mat, Chhoto Bou.”
Manda says, “Break it—I will break your head.”
After dusk Manda opens the mat door. After dusk what shame does a woman feel in front of her husband?
Bhuti’s son Kanu is twelve years old. Bhuti’s husband Godadhor has been away for 11 days now looking for work and clothes. Kanu, weak from hunger, cries from outside Bhuti’s prison, “Ma, O Ma! Hungry!”
Bhuti speaks from inside, “There is pantaset aside in the [cooking] pot, go eat that.”
“I can’t reach it, you give it to me.”
Perplexed, Bhuti thinks, “Should I go? What does it matter if a son sees his mother naked? Mother Kali is naked too. O Mother Kali, you tell me Mother, give me a sign from my heart.”
But the other day Kanu, seeing her nude had laughed out loud. What if he laughs like that again today? Bhuti’s eyes prepare to burst with tears, but no tears fall out. Her eyes have run out of tears. Her eyes are dry, burns when she tries to cry.
Suddenly, the torn reed mat catches her eye.
“Wait a bit.”
She wraps the sackcloth around herself. With one hand she holds on tightly to the mat wrapped around her and opens the door to go to the kitchen to bring down the pot of panta (fermented rice) with the other hand. The pot falls and shatters on the floor. The panta spreads everywhere. Then Bhuti rips off the mat. She collapses right there amidst the leftover rice and the leftover water the rice soaked in, covers her face with both hands and starts to cry. And what an utter surprise, this time the tears roll out of her dry eyes and between her fingers to mix with the rice-soaking water on the ground.
Rabeya says to Anowar, “Today’s the last. If you don’t bring cloth today, then it’s done between you and me. I swear I will drown myself in the pond.”
Rabeya has been threatening to do this for quite a few days now. Still, her colorless face, rough hair and distracted stares tightens Anowar’s chest. The wife of farmer, she has suffered through the days of famine. She has said nothing, has collected greens and stockpiled grain husking to keep him alive, and then has fought to survive herself. And today for clothes she wishes to die? She has even dismissed the fault of not being able to give her food. But she refuses to endure the fact that he has not been able to give her something to wear and is seething curses at him all day. He who cannot give his wife clothes to wear, what kind of man is he, then why would he even get married?
Anowar says beseechingly, “Aziz Shabu has gone to bring word. Hatipur’s allotment of the cloth will come in a couple of days. Please keep patience, just one more day.”
Patience! How much more patience must I have? This time I will go have patience in the grave. Apart from a chemise, Rabeya is used to wearing a two-fold sari. Never has she appeared before others in a one-fold cloth. As she covers herself with the toilet’s sackcloth curtain she can’t help feeling unclothed. If there is really no cloth, how do the Ghosh family’s girls change into saris of a different color in the morning and evening, and where do the women in Aziz Shaheb’s household find a thick layer to wear underneath light tinseled saris? Everyone gets clothes, only her husband doesn’t. Allah, what man’s clasp did she fall into?
As a shadow figure Rabeya goes and finds Amina bedridden with fever, with two pieces of quicklime sack pulled over [/covering] her. Even under the sacks, Amina was burning up.
Amina whispers, “My body is on fire, it’s burning! Today I will die for sure. They will bury me in this sack.”
Abdul Aziz and Suren Ghosh have taken the responsibility to arrange for clothing for 2100 farmers and potters, blacksmiths, fishers, caste and Muslim weavers and 250 gentlemen and women of Hatipur. About a month and a half ago unclothed Hatipur had gone straight to the district and embarrassed subdivisional magistrate [district judge] Gobordhon Chakladar. This direct action was instigated by Shorot Haldar’s second son Bonku and seven of his companions. Seventeen miles away the cloth mill owned by Tapan Babu, a man at service to the nation, ran 350 looms despite having to shut down for lack of coal; hundreds of reams of dhuti, sari lay in a supposedly empty warehouse. On finding out why, Bonku and seven of his companions have been in custody for a quarter of a month on charges of rioting and fighting.
If they have not been involved in fighting and inciting riots, they will indeed be acquitted during judgement. According to law, they will even be able to lodge counter-complaints asking for compensation for having been harassed on false accusations. But since serious accusations have been made in their name, they will have to stay in jail. There are many obstacles to getting bail. Bail is being considered with utmost sympathy.
Ghosh and Aziz have called a meeting and announced that after the quota of clothes they have managed for Hatipur, nobody will have to worry about clothes anymore. They have elected themselves representatives of Hatipur, as per Monohor Shah’s proposal. Although they did not believe it, the people of Hatipur thought, let us see. They had given up hope but told themselves, what else could they do?
The two of them have been to town today to bring news of when the share of clothes set aside for Hatipur would arrive. The people of the village are eagerly awaiting their return. The shadows are hiding in the huts. But there is no end to even their excitement and eagerness. In the evening a small crowd gathers at the bus stop junction on the east side of the village.
The people’s excitement deflates when Ghosh descends from the bus alone. Seeing the crowd, Ghosh, too, is taken aback.
“What happened Ghosh Moshai, what happened to the clothes?”
“There’s been a confusion.”
“Confusion? What kind of confusion?”
“The goods have not arrived from Kolkata. [Brothers] Bhai, we are giving heart and soul—”
One of Bonku’s companions, Abinash of the Sarkers, who, being on deathbed with cholera at the time, was not able to go to jail on the charge of fighting. He thunders, “A consignment of seven wagons have arrived on Saturday. I saw the police stand watch as the reams are brought down and counted to be distributed.”
“That is for the district town. Hatipur’s quota has not arrived.”
“When will it arrive?”
“It’s coming, it’s coming. You can see, Bhai [Brother], how we are running around for you.”
The disappointed, downcast crowd was about to go home, when a gigantic lorry full of reams of cloth rumbles down the road is about to stop on the very junction before them. Seated beside the driver is Aziz, and beside him is Suren Ghosh’s brother Noren Ghosh. Suren Ghosh makes desperate hand gestures like a madman. Aziz looks at the crowd and sees his gestures, says something to the driver. Even on the brink of stopping, the lorry accelerates with a growl and disappears around the bend a short distance away. The red dust leaves a cloud behind
The crowd turns around, takes a few steps forward and watches astounded. The bus still hasn’t started. Sudeb, in khadi, descends from the bus. The thick leather belt on this waist is so shiny! Someone in a red turban goes to bring tea from Subol’s shop—tea and a flat flask of something with a bottle of soda. Sudeb takes a cigarette from Ghosh, lights it, inhales and lets out smoke as if flames of red hot coal have been kindled inside in anger at seeing the crowd.
“What is the crowd for?”
“They want clothes”
“Ha-ha! Yesterday I went to Pochetpur to search Nando Jana’s home. As soon as I arrived in front of the house, he folded his palms and said, “How will you go in, Hujur? The women are all naked. Let them go to the kitchen, then search the entire house. As if he had me for a fool. He would hide the fugitive boy in the kitchen and then have me search the whole house. I said, alright. Then straightaway broke down the kitchen door and went right in. My god, it was like the squealing of lakhs of mynah birds. All of them were almost old hags, but one was such a thing Mr. Ghosh, what can I tell you! Only had a thin scarf on, just like a net, when I saw the color of her skin, Mister—”
The people of Hatipur return to Hatipur slowly. They are more worried than frustrated at losing hope form this end. Now that this has not worked, what can they do next. If only someone can figure a way out.
“Suppose I do give my life, Abbas,” Anowar says with brows furrowed, “what would I be giving my life for, tell me?”
Bhola says, “We loot and bring a couple pairs, but what then?”
Then dusk sets. The small moon in the sky has already risen, it will grow in size bit by bit with each day. When the moonlight gets stronger after a few days, who knows what will happen to the imprisoned shadows. Perhaps they can get out of the home once the moon sets. Each day the moon will set a bit later before dawn. Some of the gentlemen are enjoying the breeze with women in colorful saris on road constructed by the fen. This itself is proof that the people of Hatipur work in cloth mills. But so many other people also work in the cloth-making factory 17 miles away, so why are they in this situation? Everyone tries to think.
News reaches every household in Hatipur that cloth will not be available.
“But they told us that it would be available?” everyone asks in apprehension.
After waiting for an hour at the doorstep at Rosul Miah’s building, Anowar went home after dusk. Even though he did not get a sari, he has obtained a promise. There are extra saris at home but Rosul Miah, too, has gotten a bit scared. He wants to understand the situation a little better first.
After a few days, he will give a sari at least to Anowar, but not today. Be as that may, it is still better than nothing. One can hope that Rosul Miah will keep his word. At least Anowar can tell Rabeya this.
Rabeya returns from the ghat/quay after a while. She looks uncannily calm. Anowar gives her the bad news at the very beginning.
Rabeya says, “I know.” Then Anowar tells her about the assurance of getting a sari from Rasul Miah in a few days.
Again, Rabeya says, “I know.”
At the front of the hut, Rabeya does sit with him. There is no oil, the hut is dark without any lamps. Perhaps because it is dark, Rabeya feels less ashamed with herself as she wraps the toilet’s torn sackcloth curtain around her. Perhaps this is why she sits and speaks calmly with Anowar, she does not seethe, scold him or pick on him. Anowar sighs to himself with relief, he finds the courage to reach out and take Rabeya’s hand.
Rabeya says, “Will you eat? Let’s go.”
Rabeya steps out from the deeper darkness in front of the hut to the lighter darkness in the courtyard lit by the sliver of moon and stands there for a bit. Then she renders Anowar speechless by throwing off the sackcloth.
“It disgusts me. My skin itches.”
Anowar is a little puzzled, a little scared.
“Take a bath again.”
Rabeya brings full pitcher from the hut and tips it over her own head. She takes off the torn kurti, wrings it, dries her hair and wipes her body with it.
“You poured out all the water?”
“I will bring it again.”
After feeding Anwar and finishing dinner herself, Rabeya takes the plate and pitcher to the pond but doesn’t return. So that she doesn’t have to sleep beside a man who cannot even provide her with clothing, Rabeya puts some bricks and stones inside a bag, puts her head inside it, ties it around her neck with a rope, waddles into the pond, and lies down in the mire.
Mayeesha Azhar is an environment management professional, and has been the assistant editor for a Dhaka-based business bimonthly. She wades in stories by reading, listening to podcasts and performing as monologues for theatre.