By Mashiul Alam
Translated from the Bengali
by Shabnam Nadiya
Artwork by Hafsa Ashfaq
September 23rd 2020
Modhu wakes up at dawn and says to his wife, “Say goodbye.” Modina clasps her husband’s hand and says, “Not today. Go tomorrow.” The cuckoo trills from the branches of the koroi tree. Modhu doesn’t know what it means when the cuckoo calls during a spring dawn. He lies back again. Now comfortable, he goes back to sleep.The next day at dawn, Modhu again asks his wife to bid him farewell. Again, his wife says, “Not today, tomorrow.” Modhu again lies down like a good boy. Sleeps comfortably. The cuckoo calls from the tree. Modhu doesn’t hear. He is sound asleep. The cuckoo grows increasingly desperate. Coo. Coo-oo. Coo-oo-oo. Modhu sleeps, he doesn’t hear. His wife Modina lies awake; she doesn’t hear either.
But Mafiz hears the cuckoo trilling in this spring dawn. He is not unromantic. He breaks into song: Oh, why do you call to me so early in the morning, oh, little cuckoo of my life?
Modina doesn’t hear Mafiz’s song. Mafiz exits his home and gazes at the three-way intersection, the road that people take to reach town. Mafiz doesn’t see anybody taking that road. He walks. He places his foot on the threshold of Modina’s yard and, in a muted voice, calls out, “Brother, Modhu, have you gone to Dhaka?”
Modina comes out of Modhu’s home. She stands on her stoop and rolls her eyes at Mafiz. Mafiz feels bewildered; with teary eyes, he asks, “Gone?”
Modina shoos cows. “Hyat! Hyat, hyat!”
“Hey, girl, why are you shooing me?”
Modina picks up a wooden stool and throws it at Mafiz. Mafiz sniggers like a jackal and leaves. As he goes, he says to himself, “No matter how many times you cut me, or hit me…”
Modina bites her tongue in shame. Which means that there is no more panta-rice left.
No more, meaning that in Modina’s judgment, because she herself has eaten too much, the panta has been finished before her man’s hunger has abated. Hence, Modina’s shame, hence, her biting of the tongue.
“Now I need to go to Dhaka.” Modhu needs to go to Dhaka for pertinent reasons.
Modina asks, “Isn’t it hard to drive a rickshaw?”
Modhu knows that this is Modina being tender. Modina knows that driving a rickshaw in Dhaka city is grueling. But working the fields was hellish torment, and the wages were poor—merely sixty takas a day. One day in the month of Joishthya, Modhu had almost died while weeding the jute fields belonging to the Mondals. There was no water in the fields, there were no clouds in the sky, Modhu’s back was burning to ashes from the sun, his throat was parched wood, he was desperately thirsty, he was running for water, the solitary plains had become the deserts of Karbala, in the distance, Bacchu Mondal’s new tin shed glinted in the sunlight, there was a new tube-well near the outer yard of the house, Modhu was running towards it, stumbling on the clods of earth in the hoed field, shouting “A drop of water for me, please!” But before he had reached the tube-well, Modhu had tumbled onto the ground, his eyes had rolled back into his head, he foamed at the mouth. Modhu almost died that day.
So Modhu traveled beyond Kalai, Mokamtala, Bogra, Sirajganj, across the Jamuna Bridge, to the city of Dhaka, two hundred miles away. There he pulls a rickshaw, earns a hundred takas a day, counts that money each night, again and again, can’t settle on one place where he can hide this money.
This is how, day after day, for fifteen straight days, Modhu drives a rickshaw. In Kawran Bazar, twelve of these drivers live in a windowless room; with them live twelve thousand mosquitoes; the mosquitoes sing, suck the blood of all the Modhus, and the Modhus all sleep like the dead. At the crack of dawn, when the tired mosquitoes are each an immobile drop of blood, the Modhus wake up; nature calls them. They not only feel the thunderclouds rumbling in their bellies, they hear them as well. They go out in a group, pull the tabans covering their asses over their heads, and they show their naked dark asses in a row as they hunker down at the edge of the Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, or some of them in front of the Hotel Sonargaon gate. They wipe their asses with newspapers because there is no water; not only is there a lack of water to clean themselves, the Modhus don’t have water to bathe. For fifteen days straight, Modhu doesn’t wash himself; sometimes the odor of his own body makes him want to vomit, especially when the sun is strong and Dhaka’s skies and air cease to be.
This is how it is, day after day, night after night. But what happiness, what success! When Modhu returns to Modina after fifteen straight days, there is at least fifteen hundred takas in his waist pouch. Which means that for at least a month, he neither thinks of Dhaka nor speaks of it.
When Modhu crosses the three-way intersection of the highway and goes towards the upazila town, Mafiz peeks from behind the house. He spots Modina sitting by the stove doing nothing and he begins to joke around. “Brother, Modhu, are you off to Dhaka?”
Modina turns her head.
Joyous, Mafiz says, “What’s up, Modina?”
“What’s your deal?” Modina scolds Mafiz in a solemn manner. “You’re hankering for a beating?”
“If you beat me with your own hands,” Mafiz says as he grins with all his teeth and comes forward fearlessly, “my life would be a treasure.”
“Go home.” Modina is even more serious.
“Do you want a job, Modina?” Mafiz coaxes her.
Modina isn’t willing to listen to anything. She threatens Mafiz, “I’m telling you, go.”
Mafiz tries to get angry and says, “I’m here to do you a favor without being asked, and you want to shoo me off like a cow?”
Modina asks in a serious manner, “What favor?”
Mafiz responds with mystery. “You’ll get money, wheat. Want a job?”
“Shooing goats,” Mafiz says and chuckles. Although he hadn’t intended to laugh.
Modina is furious. “Go away, you bastard. You can’t find someone else to joke with?”
Mafiz moves fast to try to control the damage and speaks in a very businesslike manner. “Not a joke, Modina, for real! No actual work involved, just shooing cows and goats.”
“Explain clearly, what sort of job is this then?”
Mafiz explains it clearly. “Haven’t you seen those trees planted on either side of the highway? Those trees need to be guarded so that cows and goats don’t chew them up. That’s the job. They’ll pay cash, they’ll also pay with wheat. You sell the wheat to buy rice. And with the money, you buy beef, tilapia…!”
“Stop, stop.” Modina stops Mafiz and suspicion rolls across her eyes and face. She narrows her eyes, creases her forehead, and interrogates him. “Why would anyone give me this job when there are so many people around?”
“Why, I’ll arrange it for you. I’ll grab the Chairman’s hands and feet and I’ll beg…” Mafiz pauses for no reason. He can’t find anything else to say.
But his plan and his words are quite clear. Still, Modina wants to hear more about this job guarding trees and the means to getting it even more clearly. “Go on, why did you stop?”
Mafiz laughs and says, “I will grab the Chairman’s hands and feet and beg: Uncle, give this job to Modina, you won’t find a girl as nice as Modina even if you look and look…”
Modina howls with laughter. A cool breeze wafts across the ditch and disappears. From the branches of the koroi tree, a cuckoo calls. Mafiz glances towards the tree and looks at the cuckoo. Then he gazes at Modina’s face and says in a melancholy manner, “Do you know what the cuckoo is saying?
“What?” There is a smile on Modina’s face; she knows what Mafiz is about to say.
Mafiz says, “The cuckoo is crying. It’s crying and asking, Where did my own little cuckoo bird go?”
Modina laughs again. Her laughter enrages the cuckoo in the koroi tree. Mafiz speaks the cuckoo’s mind, “Why do you laugh like that Modina?”
“What is it to you if I laugh?” Modina asks cocking her eyebrow like a flirt.
“My ribs shatter to bits and my soul wants to fly away,” Mafiz says.
Modina laughs, shimmying her whole body. Mafiz looks at the tree but the cuckoo is gone.
It isn’t raining in the village of Modhupur; the moon is visible in the sky and a cuckoo is singing in the branches of the koroi tree. Mafiz stands by Modina’s window, grasping the grill and whispering, “Modina! Oh, Modina!”
Scared, Modina scrambles into a sitting position, and spits on her own chest to dissipate her fear, and Mafiz whistles in the air saying, “It’s me, Mafiz!”
The power has gone out in Dhaka city. In the box-like room where Modhu rolls on the ground by himself, shivering and moaning, the darkness of hell has descended: Modhu thinks he is dying.
In the village of Modhupur, through the gaps in the branches of the koroi tree, slivers of moonlight land on Modina’s window; outside stands Mafiz, like a ghost, and inside is Modina. Modina’s teeth can be seen white in the shadow of moonlight, her eyes are shining, and she is pretending to be angry with Mafiz, telling him she was going to complain to Modhu when he came back, and Modhu would grind Mafiz’s bones into powder and apply it to his body. Modina purses her lips in laughter as she talks, and Mafiz says that Modhu wasn’t coming back to Modhupur anymore, he was going to die in Dhaka. Mafiz tells Modina, “Our fortunes were written together. You have no choice but me, Modina.”
Modina slides her arm through the window grill and shoves Mafiz in the chest. “Go home, you stray cow.”
Mafiz grabs Modina’s hand in the blink of an eye and says, “You don’t know this, but I know it for sure, Modina. I have you written in my fate and you have me.”
Modina feels that Mafiz has lost his head.
As Mafiz goes back to his own house, he dreams that Modhu has died in Dhaka. “He’s dead, that bastard Modhu is dead,” says Mafiz, willing Modina’s husband to die as he walks home.
Right then, in Kawran Bazar, Dhaka, Modhu is freezing and shivering, and he is calling out to Allah, saying, “Don’t take my life, Khoda. Let me live this time around. I’ll never come back to Dhaka in this lifetime.” The next morning Modhu recovers from his fever; he sees that there is no more rain, the sky is a shining blue, and the buildings are all smiling. Modhu forgets his promise to Allah, and that very afternoon he goes out again with his rickshaw. He recalls the bone-shaking fever from the night before and laughs to himself.
That morning, Mafiz places his foot on the threshold of Modhu’s yard and calls out in a low voice, “Brother, Modhu, are you back from Dhaka?” But Mafiz knows very well that if Modhu is supposed to be back fifteen days later, there are still three more days to go.
Two days before the day that Modhu is supposed to return to Modhupur, he drops off a passenger in the inner side of Gulshan-2 and goes to grab a cup of tea at a roadside stall. He takes two sips of his tea and turns around to find his rickshaw gone. At first, Modhu doesn’t believe it. He thinks maybe someone has hidden his rickshaw nearby as a prank. But no, it isn’t that simple. The rickshaw has disappeared, meaning seriously disappeared.
Modhu goes to the rickshaw owner and describes the situation. The owner points towards Modhu and orders his people, “Tie up that fool.” Before the ones under order had begun the work, the owner himself landed a kick in Modhu’s belly. “You fucking nobody, where’s my rickshaw?”
A grunt emerges from Modhu’s mouth, he doubles over and grabs his mouth with one hand. One of the owner’s followers runs over and, almost astride Modhu’s shoulders, he grabs Modhu’s hair, shaking his head and demands, “Say it, you son of a bitch, to which of your fathers did you sell off the boss’s rickshaw?”
The boss screams, “First, do him over real good.”
Modhu is made over almost into a corpse, and thirteen hundred and twenty five takas, meaning all his earnings, are taken away from him before he is handed over to the police. The police take Modhu to the station and hit him some more in the hope of getting some money, but they quickly realize that not only will no one show up with any money for his release, the owner and his men had already beat him so much that he might very well die in the police station. In which case, the newspapers will start writing about death in police custody, and all those poor-loving human rights organization folks will drum up a furor.
The police think about all this hassle and push Modhu out of the station. Modhu can’t walk; he falls onto the street in front of the police station and moans. The police feel inconvenienced and annoyed at this; they load Modhu into the back of a pickup truck, and drive around the city, along this street and that, and they focus their flashlights here and there looking for a convenient spot in which to dump him.
As they search, one of them has an idea. “Well, then,” he says to his colleagues, “whose fault is it that we’re going through all this trouble?” They drive the pickup truck with Modhu in the back to the Begunbari house-cum-garage of the rickshaw owner and roar at him, “You, pal, have murdered the suspect before handing him over to the police!”
The rickshaw owner doesn’t seem perturbed by the roaring police; he goes inside and quickly returns with ten thousand takas. He tucks it into the hand of one of the policemen and says, “There’s no more cash in the house, saar. Just manage the thing, please.”
One of the policemen grows angry. “Is this a joke!” The rickshaw owner doesn’t quite understand what his anger means; still, out of habit, he goes back inside and returns with another ten thousand takas. Then he gets a louder scolding, and a policeman even utters the words, “under arrest.” Therefore, the rickshaw owner goes back inside again, and when he is late in coming back out, the policemen look at each other with suspicion. But before they lose their patience, the rickshaw owner reemerges with a page from his check book. He says, “Saars, an accident just happened. It is my fault, but I don’t want the guy to die. Here, I’ve written out one hundred thousand.”
The policeman stops him midway and says, “Pal, you want to survive, then show up at the station tomorrow morning with five hundred thousand in cash. We don’t do checks-fecks.”
The rickshaw owner says, “What arrangements for the body?”
A policeman answers, “That’s the big trouble right now. What to do with this dead body, we’ve been going around all night…pal, that five hundred thousand won’t cut it. We’ll have to take care of the journalists; we’ll have to take care of the human rights people. Make it six lakhs and be at the station by nine a.m.”
But Modhu isn’t a dead body yet. On the floor in the back of the pickup truck, he lies flat on his back with his neck at an angle, peering at them like a weak, sick kitten. There is still a spark of life in his dying eyes.
It was the end of night when Modhu was carefully laid down behind a bush in a corner of the Suhrawardy Gardens, from the police pickup truck. Silence descended once the mechanical noise of the pickup truck disappeared in the distance. The silence reigned for a few moments; then suddenly, someone blew on the mosque microphone, and in a voice deep like thunder, began the chant of Allahu Akbar. When the quivering notes of the azaan floated to Modhu’s nearly numb ears, his eyes opened slightly. In the distance, he saw a light tremble. He tried to move one of his hands but couldn’t. He tried to move his legs but couldn’t. Modhu tried to make a noise with his mouth; he forced himself to say, Allah! But Modhu’s voice didn’t echo in the wind.
Two days before Modhu is supposed to come back, which was fifteen days after his departure, Mafiz, once again, stands by Modina’s window and says that Modhu will not return. He is going to die in Dhaka; and because when poor people die that far away, their bodies never make it back, Modina will never see Modhu again.
When Mafiz is telling Modina all this, Modhu is rolling back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness on the floor of the pickup truck in the streets of Dhaka. Modina protests the ill-omened, cruel words from Mafiz by scratching his chest and neck until he bleeds. But when Mafiz groans in pain, she covers his mouth with her hand and says, “Oh, does it burn?” When Mafiz sulks and wants to leave, Modina grabs his shoulder again and says, “Come tomorrow! The day after, he’ll be back home!”
The next night, before the cuckoo sings in the koroi tree, three ghosts come to Modina’s house. They had whispered to each other as they came down the road that Modhu was gone. “Let’s go and eat Modhu’s wife.”
These ghosts only eat people of the female gender; from age eight to fifty-eight, wherever they find a woman at an opportune moment, they eat her. These famous ghosts live in the upazila town; they came to the village of Modhupur after verifying and ascertaining the information that Modhu is absent, and truly they find Modina by herself in Modhu’s house, and when they find her, they begin to eat her. They take turns in eating Modina. After the first ghost, the second ghost, then the third ghost, then the first ghost again.
While they eat Modina in turns, at some point, Mafiz shows up. Modina sees Mafiz and whimpers in the hope of getting some help, but one of the ghosts grabs hold of her nose and mouth so hard that not only any noise, even her breath cannot emerge from her. In addition, another ghost grasps her throat with five and five, ten fingers; Modina thrashes around, groans, her tongue lolls out, her eyes want to bug out. Seeing which, Mafiz, a single person, attacks the three ghosts; two of whom pick him up and slam him down on the ground; a grunt emerges from Mafiz’s throat, his eyes go dark; one ghost picks up a half-brick and smashes it down on Mafiz’s head; his skull opens up with a crack, and this encourages the ghost, so he begins smashing the brick down into Mafiz’s skull again and again.
Right then, the cuckoo trills in the koroi tree.
Ghosts don’t know what it means when a cuckoo sings in a spring evening.
Mashiul Alam is a writer and translator who was born in northern Bangladesh in 1968. He graduated from the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow in 1993. A journalist by profession, he works at Prothom Alo, the leading Bengali daily in Bangladesh. He is the author of over a dozen books including The Second Night with Tanushree (novel), Ghora Masud (novel), Mangsher Karbar (The Meat Market) (short stories), and Pakistan (short stories). His translations include Dostoevsky’s White Nights (translated from the Russian to Bengali); Bertrand Russell’s Plato’s Utopia and Other Essays, and Before Socrates. Alam was recently awarded the debut Sylhet Mirror Prize for Literature. His short story Doodh, translated as Milk by Shabnam Nadiya, was awarded the 2019 Himal Southasian Short Story Prize. He is currently working on Laal Akash (Red Sky), a novel set in the Soviet Union during Perestroika, and is based in Dhaka.
Shabnam Nadiya is a Bangladeshi writer and translator. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was awarded the Steinbeck Fellowship (2019) for her novel-in-progress Unwanted; a PEN/Heim Translation Grant (2020) for her translation of Bangladeshi writer Mashiul Alam’s fiction; the 2019 Himal Southasian Short Story Prize for her translation of Mashiul Alam’s story, Milk. Her translation of Leesa Gazi's novel Hellfire (Eka/Westland, September, 2020) was shortlisted for the Käpylä Translation Prize. Nadiya’s translations include Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel The Mercenary (Bengal Lights Books; Seagull Books) and Shaheen Akhtar's novel Beloved Rongomala (Bengal Lights Books). Her original work as well as her translations have been published in The Offing, Joyland, Amazon's Day One, Gulf Coast, Copper Nickel, Wasafiri, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Al Jazeera Online, Flash Fiction International (WW Norton). She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Hafsa Ashfaq is an undergraduate student at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She is a visual artist working as a part-time illustrator in Karachi, Pakistan.
By Nabarun Bhattacharya
Translated from the Bengali
by Arunava Sinha
Artwork by Ibrahim Rayintakath
0ctober 6th 2020
Some snow on the screen to begin with. Then the name—‘Cold Fire… which you have been waiting for. You had to wait eighty-four years for the fall of Communism. And in just six years you’re getting Cold Fire, whose elegance, whose exclusive company, only you or others like you deserve.’
Mr. K.C. Sarkar, owner of three tea estates, watched Cold Fire at work. Dressed in a dhoti and kurta, with sandalwood marks on the forehead, the body was laid on a coffin-like box. The lids opened, drawing the body in. The lids closed. The digital lights glowed. ‘Ten minutes later.’ The lights had been red all this while. Now the blue lights glowed instead. At the bottom, near the feet, a door opened, and two gleaming urns emerged. One was labelled ‘Ashes’, and the other, ‘Navel’. The lids opened. There was nothing inside. It was just like before. Polished, spick-and-span.
Nagarwalla had told Mr. Sarkar about it at the club last evening.
- I’m sending a young man to you tomorrow, KC. Fascinating! I’ve gone and booked it for myself. A lethal name too—Cold Fire!
- I tried a vodka from Czechoslovakia once. Back in the Communist era—now of course the Czechs and Slovaks are different nations. That vodka was named Liquid Fire. Is this some kind of new liquor?
- No sir. This is the ultimate spirit—it’ll make you a spirit.
- Send him to me then.
- I’ve ordered some chilled beer. Would you like some?
- Beer after sundown?
- How did you people come up with such a novel product? What prompted you?
He began to stir a spoonful of sugar into his coffee.
- I’ll explain, sir. Look, in the post-Communist world, the difference between the upper and the lower strata of society has taken on an absurd dimension. Every aspect of life—be it education, be it childbirth, be it transport—is different for them. For instance, if an affluent senior citizen like you needed to go on a vacation today, if you wanted to go to a coastal resort, your choice, even if you wanted to go somewhere close by, would be the Maldives or Seychelles, not Puri or Digha. If you have a vision problem, obviously Geneva would be preferable. But this form of existence that you enjoy, this free, superior, and magnificent lifestyle, is completely inconsistent with your funeral. For that, it’ll be the same filthy crematorium that everyone else goes to—Keoratala or Nimtala or Kashi Mitra or Siriti… horror of horrors! Have you had to visit a crematorium recently, sir?
- Not exactly recently. Last year, when my father-in-law’s brother…
- If you were to go now, you’d find it even more horrifying. For example, we have to visit the crematorium quite often on official work. Just the other day, about a week ago, what a horrible sight we saw at Keoratala. Three furnaces blazing. The area where they burn the bodies on wooden pyres had no corpses. A gang of criminals drinking and smoking grass. Meanwhile, six bodies were waiting upstairs for the furnaces. Four more downstairs, outside. And on top of all this, it was raining off and on. A hoard of ruffians with each of the bodies. You can’t imagine.
- Practically hell, you’re saying.
- I haven’t seen hell, sir. But I can’t imagine anything more hellish. One of the bodies was of a drowned man—decomposed. One was a BSF jawan shot dead by the ULFA. The rest were all old men and women from slums or lower-middle class homes, one was middle-aged, seemed to be a political goon, a group of people were shouting those typical Communist slogans, and in the middle of all this—chanting priests, all the paraphernalia of cremation, flowers—a couple of yards away the cot, mattress and quilts blazing—a bunch of urchins on the prowl, dogs, drunks, people weeping, body fluids oozing out from corpses, incense, prayers…
- Oh my god, even your description is making me queasy.
- Naturally. But whatever you may say, whether you book a Cold Fire or not, that’s your decision, I cannot imagine you amidst all this. Excuse me sir, I’m probably getting a little emotional…
- Oh no, you are absolutely right. Since everything in my life is exclusive, why shouldn’t my funeral be that way too? If this frail body must burn just once, let it burn in style, don’t you think? Moreover, this can’t be thought of as a mere gadget. It’s a family asset if you come to think of it.
- Right sir. People can buy Cold Fire for business reasons too. The very concept of cremation and funerals will change.
- Have you read the Gita?
- Yes sir, we had to take special training on thanatology. We had to read the Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead as part of theory. May I say something, sir?
- Of course you may. Go ahead.
- Do you believe in rebirth, sir?
- I don’t exactly know, but this Cold Fire makes me think redeath might be a better idea.
- This observation of yours is very philosophical, sir. Should I book one for you then, sir?
- Of course. Wait, let me get my cheque-book. I think I can get hold of at least half a dozen other clients for you.
- Thank you sir. I don’t have words for my gratitude.
A large vehicle delivered Cold Fire to Mr. Sarkar’s residence the very next day. Family, friends, and relatives all showed up to take a look. It was certainly something to marvel at. Just that Mr. Sarkar’s ancient gardener and servant quit their jobs.
The rare feat of being the first person in Calcutta to be cremated by Cold Fire was achieved by the famous gynaecologist Chandramadhab aka Chandu Chatterjee. Just the previous night he had hosted a lavish party at the Taj Bengal to celebrate his grandson’s first birthday. Scotch had flowed like water. The very next day stunned and grieving friends watched as Cold Fire was switched on at precisely eleven o’ clock in the morning, and the blue lights glowed at ten past eleven. The door near the feet opened and two gleaming urns emerged. One containing the ashes. The other, the navel. The whole thing was captured on video.
Two hundred and thirty units of Cold Fire have been sold in Calcutta so far.
The Gift of Death
Some people’s lives are so dreary that in the process of putting up with the tedium they don’t even realise when they just die. When you think about it, they seem to be under a cloud of doubt even after death.
The first thing I have going for me is my amazing contact with lunatics at regular intervals. Chance or fate, it just happens. An example or two will help me explain without creating problems on the business side. But it’s best not to tell the psychiatrist my wife took me to. Suppose she changes my pills?
Just the other day this man—gaunt, half-dead, looks like one of those people who can fly—got hold of me. Had two terrific schemes, he said. He’d sent the details to every world leader. Two of them had replied so far. Both Thatcher and Gorbachev had praised his ideas. He’d be talking to both of them soon. He was flying out next month. I sat down to hear of his schemes.
The first one was to build a projection jutting out from the balcony of every apartment in all the high-rise buildings coming up these days. Something like a diving board at a swimming pool. He would make a couple of prototypes to begin with. Once the government had approved enthusiastically, it would be added to the building plan, without having to be added on later.
Apparently it was essential for people to have such high spots nowadays to stand or sit on. Without railings, not very large. It was for those who wanted to be by themselves. People were chased by thousands of things these days. He was being chased by the chief minister, by scientists, by the prime minister. The police commissioner too. Also by the Special Branch, the Criminal Investigations Department, and the Research & Analysis Wing. That was when the plan struck him. A slice of space—but outside the building. Speaking for myself, the idea appealed to me too. Entirely possible. But because I lived in a single-storied house inherited from my father, I didn’t give it too much thought. His second scheme was not exactly a plan—it was more of an adventurous proposal or proposition, though it was closely connected to the first scheme. He would stand as well as walk on the wings of a mid-air aircraft. He wanted to demonstrate this practically. Today’s youth would regain their courage if they saw him. The youth needed dreams, for the alternatives were drugs, cinema, and HIV. He wanted to perform this feat on an Indian Air Force plane. He had written it all down in detail. There were diagrams too. All of it gathered in a thin plastic folder. He kept these documents in a file tied up with a string. He wanted to know if I could help him with the second idea in. Whether I knew an Air Marshal, for instance. When I said I wouldn’t be able to help him, he requested me to pay for a cup of tea and a cigarette at least. I did.
I have met several such insane people, in different shapes and sizes and with different behaviours. I have seen people who have gone mad with sudden grief. I’ve encountered not a few suicides too. Before killing themselves, some people develop a half-mad detachment. I’ve come across such people too. But then I’ve also run into not one but two cases where there wasn’t a whiff of insanity. Both of them used to spend time with mystics. One of them used to go to Tarapith, that den of mystics, every Sunday. The other was embroiled deeply in office politics. Both hanged themselves. All of these incidents are true. The age of making stories up has ended—why should people believe me, and why should I bother to make them up, either? Some of the lunatics and suicides I’ve seen were tragedies of love. But this isn’t the time for stories about women. Although the first person whom I told the story that I have eventually decided to recount here was my wife. A woman, in other words.
And this was what led to all the quarrels and demands. For what? That I must see a psychiatrist. I was an able-bodied man—why should I abandon the business I ran and go see a doctor for the insane? She paid no attention. Her brothers came. Collectively they forced me to see a woman psychiatrist. What an enormous fuss they made. But it turned out to be a good idea. Very pretty. Western looks. And matching conversation. Very cordial. I liked her so much that I told her the story too. For years altogether now I’ve been taking the tiny white pills she gave me, thrice a day. Sometimes I take a blue one too. It gets wearisome. I get annoyed. But I like the woman so much that I can’t help trusting her. I try to tell myself that I’ve recovered from an illness. Not that I’m ill.
The story that all this preamble leads up to is not about lunatics or suicides, however. In fact, it’s been three whole years. I was returning home by train from Madras. I have to travel indiscriminately on business. To save money I travel second class on the way out, but on the way back I give in to my longing for luxury and inevitably buy a first-class ticket. There was no one else in the four-berth compartment. I was comfortable. Somewhere near the Andhra-Orissa border I woke up and found everything dark. The train wasn’t moving either. Pitch dark. You couldn’t see anything out of the window. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I realised that the train was standing at a small station somewhere. A deep indigo night sky. Hints of low black hills. A few lonely stars. People moving about. The glow of torches. Getting off the train, I heard that a goods train had been in an accident. It would have to be moved and the line, repaired. Only then would our train resume its journey.
Almost without warning, the lights came back on. I went back to my compartment. At once I discovered that someone else had entered in the darkness. The man was—not probably, but almost certainly—not a South Indian. His appearance and way of talking made that obvious. In his forties. Fair, well-dressed, handsome. Slightly greying hair. His fine shirt and trousers, gleaming shoes and the tie around his neck gave him the appearance of a successful salesman of a multinational company. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I still don’t know the name of the company or how big it was. So big that it was almost mysterious and obscure.
After some small talk both of us lit our cigarettes. He was the one to offer his expensive cigarettes. When I asked him whether he wouldn’t mind a little whiskey, he said he didn’t drink. So I drank by myself. There was no sign of the train leaving. Neither of us spoke for a while. Almost startling me, the man suddenly said: Keep this business card of ours. Might come in useful. The card was black, made of some kind of paper with the feel of velvet. On it, an address in an unsettling shade of bright yellow. Nothing else. A Waltair address. Nothing else on either side of the card. Neither the name of a company, nor a phone number.
- That’s not our actual address, mind you. You have to take a roundabout route to reach us. But when you write to us add your address with all details. Our people will certainly get in touch with you. It may take a little time. But they will definitely meet you.
- What exactly is this business of yours? Seems to be some sort of secret, illegal affair... But then you’ve got business cards too—strange!
- Look, our company doesn’t have a name. No name. We help people die—you could say we gift them death. Of course, it isn’t legal, but...
- You mean you murder them.
- Absolutely not! Murder! How awful, we aren’t killers. It will be done with your full consent. Different kinds of death, in different ways. You will choose your method, and pay accordingly. You want to die like a king? We can do it for you. We will fulfil whatever death wish you might have, no matter how unusual. You’ll get exactly what you want, just the way you want it. But yes, you have to pay.
I had a long conversation with the man thereafter. I’m recounting as much of it as I can recollect. As much of the strangeness as actually penetrated my whiskey-soaked brain in the anonymous darkness of the station. As much as I’ve been able to retain three years later.
His position was that, for a variety of reasons, each of us harbours a unique death wish within ourselves. That is to say, a pet notion—and desire—of how we’d like to die. Like a romantic, someone might want to leap from a mountain into a bottomless ravine on a cold, misty evening. Others want their bodies to be riddled by bullets. Yet others, to be charred to death in a fire. Someone else wants poison in their bloodstream, so they they begin with a slight warm daze and bow out as cold as ice. Some want to be conscious at the moment of death, while others prefer to be halfway to oblivion. One person wants to be strangled to death. Another is keen on being stabbed. Some people wish for death in a holy place, the sound of sacred chants ringing in their ears. But wishing doesn’t guarantee fulfilment. No matter what, the majority of deaths are uninteresting, drab, and dull. This company meets the demand for such deaths, fulfilling its clients’ death wishes. I remember some parts of the salesman’s pitch verbatim.
- There’s a theoretical side to this too. Our R&D is extremely strong. You’ll find non-stop research underway, not only on the practical side of death, but also on other aspects, covering data from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Thanatos Syndrome, Indian thoughts on death, Abhedananda, and Jiddu Krishnamoorthy to the latest forms of murder, suicide and clinical death. Forget about India, no one in the world is engaged in this sort of business. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone. We’ve been told of a few small-scale attempts in Japan, but this isn’t a matter of automobiles or electronics, after all. They may have their Toyota and Mitsubishi, but those poor fellows still can’t think beyond hara-kiri. All those bamboo or steel knives—so primitive. Not at all enterprising. Incidentally, do you know which country has the most suicides in the world?
- Must be us.
- No sir, it’s Hungary. Magyars are incredibly suicide-prone.
They offered access to all kinds of death. They would fulfill even the most intricate and virtually impossible proposals. A man from Delhi had always imagined dying when his jeep skidded on an icy mountain road. It was organised. If you wanted to die of a specific disease, their medical team would check on its feasibility. But they would not engineer someone else’s death on your request. You could only arrange for your own death through their services.
I learnt a great deal from the conversation. Apparently, many people lived such bewildered lives that even though they had a vague idea of how they’d like to die, they could not express it clearly. The company had a choice of pre-set programmes for such clients. The most regal of these was the ‘record player’.
A gigantic record player was set in the ocean at a distance. A huge black disc was set in it, the disc of death, turning at thirty-three and one third revolutions per minute. The record player was placed on a rig similar to an offshore oil-drilling platform. You had to get there on a speedboat. The fortunate man desiring death was made to sit on a chair over the spoke, shaped like a bullet or a lipstick, reaching upwards through the hole at the centre of the record. The record-player played an impossibly tragic melody—Western or Indian. Rachmaninoff’s Aisle of Death, or the wistful strains of a sarengi, as you wished. Several thousand watts of sound enveloped the client in a trance. Revolving on the surface of the ocean along with the record, he was also transported to a place beyond the real and the unreal. When the music ended, the stylus entered the glittering space in the middle of the record with the sound of a storm, striking the man a mighty blow that ensured his death even before his body hit the water. His head was either torn off his body or pulverised. As soon as the corpse fell into the sea, hundreds of sharks swam up at the scent of blood. This was a very expensive affair. Very few people could afford it. Till date, not more than two or three people had heard the symphony of death.
- Who are they?
- Excuse me, but clients are more important to us than even god. We cannot possibly divulge their identities. Although we are practically friends now, you and I. Do you remember how Mr. ____ died? You should.
- How could I not remember. Such a horrible plane crash!
- It was a plane crash all right, but that was what he wanted.
- But what about the other passengers? Surely they didn’t want it.
- Sorry. It’s prohibitively expensive. Because there are other victims.
- But they were innocent.
- Innocent! My foot! In any case, there’s nothing we can do about it. None of them told us to kill them. But if they insist on taking the same flight, what are we supposed to do? Moreover, this was his choice. Yes, choice. We made all the arrangements to fulfil his request, using the money he paid us.
- But. Why did he do this?
- He had got rid of Mr. ____ the same way. Not through us, of course. Lots of innocent people had died on that occasion too. So he wanted a similar death.
- How many more such cases have you handled?
- Numerous. But why should we tell you about all of them? Can all such cases be talked about? Should they even be talked about? We offer many services. We sell suicide projects, for instance. Not as expensive. Lots more. Let me just tell you this, all the famous people who have died recently—from the Bombay mafia leader being gunned down to the Calcutta film star who committed suicide with the phone in his hand and forty sleeping pills in his stomach—it was all our doing. And then there are always the political leaders. It’s very easy to help them—all of them prefer a heart attack.
- So you people help only the famous? Give them the gift of death, that is.
- We’re still trying to consolidate our business, you see. The company’s a long way from breaking even. But yes, pride in our performance is our major capital at present. Later, of course, we’ll have to think of the economically weaker classes too. To tell you the truth, poor people are much more trouble. The bastards aren’t even sure whether they’re alive in the first place, how can they be expected to think of death? And besides, they’re unbelievably crude.
- What about those even lower down—miles below the poverty line—beggars?
- Impossible! Last year our R&D people studied the death wishes of beggars in three metropolitan cities—Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Their findings were—how shall I put it—silly and delightful. Childish demands.
- Such as?
- In most cases the image involves eating. For instance, some of them want their limbs, heads, and bodies to be stuffed with meat, fish, butter and alcohol till they explode. They desperately want liquor. Then again, some of them wanted god to take them in his arms at the centre of Flora Fountain in Bombay. Infantile, and so naive.
- But you have to say they’re imaginative.
- That’s true. They’re bound to, since they’re human beings. But yes, we get a lot of valuable ideas from children. Just the other day our R&D unearthed a fascinating story from an American newspaper.
- Tell me, please.
- A boy, you know. About twelve. Somewhere near Chicago. The fellow had dressed up as Batman. He was Batman constantly, jumping from roof to roof with a pair of wings clipped on. No one took him seriously. Even the girls used to laugh at him. Child psychology, you see. So none of you can recognise Batman, he said. One day he was found in a deep freezer, frozen after several days in there. You’d be astounded at the kind of cases there are. Batman! Actually it’s not like I don’t drink. Pour me a strong whiskey, will you? What’s this whiskey called? Glender! Oh, it’s Scotch. I’ve never heard of this brand.
I had poured a few whiskeys. For the salesman. And for myself too. After I had poured several, he had left like Batman, swinging and weaving. I had weaved my way to bed too. The train had started moving. I could still hear his voice ringing in my ears...
- But yes, there’s a grand surprise in death, especially in accidental death—a thrill that we never deprive our clients of. Say someone has booked a death to be run over by a car. But not all his efforts will allow him to guess when, where, or on which road he will die. The virgin charm of sudden death will always remain.
Who was this man? What company did he represent, for that matter? The gift of death—the idea couldn’t exactly be dismissed out of hand. Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to do it for three years. Secondly, don’t we have our own visions of death, after all? Would it be fulfilled in this one life, in this life? For instance, I have a specific sort of death wish of my own too. But then the death by record player is very expensive. Naturally. I live with doubts and misgiving like these. These things lie low when I take my pills regularly. When they raise their heads, I visit the psychiatrist. She changes the medicine. Blue pills instead of white. In the darkness of power-cuts I pull that man’s black business card out for a look. The disturbing yellow letters are probably printed in fluorescent ink. They glow in the darkness. I don’t mind showing the card to anyone who gets in touch with me. You can check for yourself by writing to them. It might take a little time but their people will certainly get in touch. You can be sure about this. They will definitely meet you.
Nabarun Bhattacharya (1948-2014) was a poet, short-story writer and novelist. Harbart, his first novel, won him the Narasimha Das award, Bankim Puraskar, and Sahitya Akademi Award. He published over 15 works of fiction, three volumes of poetry, and several collections of prose. The only child of the renowned writer Mahasweta Devi and theatre personality Bijon Bhattacharya, he lived and wrote in Kolkata.
Arunava Sinha translates fiction, poetry and non-fiction from Bangla to English. Sixty of his translations have been published so far, with 12 of them having won or been shortlisted or longlisted for translation prizes in India and abroad. He teaches at Ashoka University in India and lives and writes in Delhi.
Ibrahim Rayintakath is an Illustrator from Kerala, intrigued by all forms of visual communication. His recent attraction for subjects have been animals and nature. He is currently based in Bangalore.
A Premonition; Recollected
By Jamil Jan Kochai
Artwork by Sana Ahmad
October 18th 2020
Many years later, Mor will think back to her vision of two gunmen, whom she will not remember murdered her brothers, and she will see the gunmen in the night, in the snow, huddled at the base of a mulberry tree, at the end of a pathway, waiting for two orbs of light, orbs like spirits, like twin souls, floating through dark and snow, falling snow, and she will see the cold mist of their breaths, the frost collecting at the tips of the strands of their black beards, and she will see their chapped lips, their gentle eyes watering, and for a moment or two she will wonder why the gunmen in her vision won’t go home and huddle in the warmth of an old blanket sewn, perhaps, by a long-forgotten mother, just a girl when she married, a child, kidnapped and beaten and forced into the bedroom of her husband, made to conceive two sons she could never wholly love, before dying in the thousandth bombing of a benevolent American invasion, her boys left behind to be raised by a war that will inevitably lead them to the mouth of an alley in the heart of Logar, and Mor will see their eyes seeing the headlights of her brothers’ Corolla tumbling down upon clay and ice and shadow, and she will see the gunmen step out from under the cover of ancient branches into snowfall, into halos of light obscuring the faces of innocent men destined to be martyred for crimes they could never imagine, and she will see the tips of their fingers, already bitten by frost, inch toward the warmth of the trigger.They must have been so cold, she will think to herself, having forgotten all else.
Jamil Jan Kochai is the author of 99 Nights in Logar (Viking, 2019), a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, but he originally hails from Logar, Afghanistan. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018. Currently, he is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Sana Ahmad is a graphic designer and artist residing in Karachi, Pakistan. She majored in Communication Studies and Design and has been working on various projects in both fields for the past two years. Her work has been displayed internationally at Sharjah Art Foundation for Focal Point 2019 and for Art Book Depot 2019 in Jaipur by Farside Collective, as well as various local group exhibitions throughout the country.
By Aamer Hussein
Artwork by Prithi Khalique
November 25th 2020
As a young man, Mustafa Khan Bangash was given to revelry, wine and the love of dancers. His pen-name was Shefta. He composed verses for his lover Ramju, who many years later wrote her own book of poems. They say he had another lover too.
At the age of thirty-two, he set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy of Holies. On the way he and his fellow-passengers were shipwrecked on an island from where, for many days, they found no rescue, no route to freedom. They lived on a diet of sifted salt-water and herbs.
When he returned to Delhi after an absence of two years and six days, Shefta had lost his taste for wine and the love of dancing women. In this city of poets, musicians and courtesans there were also many scholars and saints. Where once he had written of rapture, he now wrote lyrics of renunciation. He still sat beside his master Ghalib and watched the older poet drink, but Shefta no longer raised a glass with anyone.
Though he does not know this yet, the task of vindication will fall to his descendants who will fight for freedom. Some will make their home in the new nation of Pakistan. But that’s in another century, in another story that has yet to be written.
I can’t remember when, exactly, I first heard my mother and aunts talk about Shaikh Rafiuddin Siddiqi, known as Rafi Ajmeri, their maternal uncle whose delightful volume of short stories, Kehkashan, was published only after his early death at the age of 33. I do recall that when I began to take an active interest in modern Urdu fiction, my aunt and then my mother told me of Mamu Mian, as they called him. He had, in his youth, been considered more than promising; already well-known in his 20s, he published fiction and essays in journals such as Sarosh and Saqi. He was handsome and highly literate; although he grew up in Ajmer, where his maternal grandfather Nawab Haji Mohammed Khan had settled, his mother’s family were from Kabul, so Persian was spoken around him. His Kashmiri father was highly educated and encouraged his children in literary pursuits; both Rafi and his sister, my grandmother, published at an early age. They were an articulate, gregarious family; the brothers and sisters quoted Saadi, Rumi and Khusrau from memory; they had heard Iqbal recite his poems in their own home. They also sang and narrated the story-songs of Rajasthan where they were born and raised. I heard these stories and songs in my Karachi childhood from my mother, and with even more enthusiasm from my grandmother during long summer holidays in her home in Indore, and that’s certainly where, at least in part, I inherited my love for old stories.Grandmother married in 1914 and soon devoted herself to family pursuits, while Mamu Mian wrote story after story, spent most of his time in Delhi, and travelled from town to town in search of material. He often visited my grandparents in Indore. My mother, a schoolgirl then, remembers him on his last trip there, in 1937. He was afflicted by a mysterious ailment they referred to as melancholia, and strolled in the garden leaning heavily on his older sister’s arm. Today his condition would be called severe depression.
He’d fallen in love with a distant cousin who probably returned his feelings but, in those changing times, he just hadn’t had the courage to propose: she’d married someone her parents chose for her. When the young woman’s mother heard about Mamu Mian’s feelings, she said: He only had to tell me. But it was too late. A few months later, while visiting his niece in Bombay, Mamu Mian was found dead.
A literary acquaintance who will remain unnamed, was left in charge of his stories. My uncle complains that Kehkashan was randomly edited; some of Rafi Ajmeri’s stories were lost forever, and others plagiarised and published in other people’s names.
However, Kehkashan survived. But though Rafi’s life’s brief story was as fascinating as any tale he might have written, no one in my family had managed to preserve a single copy of his book. It wasn’t until ’97 or ’98 that my friend, Asif, a descendant of one of Uncle Rafi’s earliest editors, unearthed a copy of it in Karachi, which he xeroxed and sent me. (Thank God for Pakistani libraries.) For days I inhabited Rafi’s world. His fiction was set in the increasingly modern milieu of his own time; it barely touched on the princely India my grandparents, and their now-married older daughters, inhabited. He wrote about students, young women and men, seeking their fortune in a competitive late colonial world.
The prevailing tone of his stories is light and witty, wordly but never cynical, tinged with romance. (In one, a young woman manages to reach her lost love by an astute or accidental use of subtitles in a silent film.) Later stories show an awareness of the nuances of class and the economics of marriage. In ‘Muhabbat ka bulava’ (my own favourite), a young man falls in love with his friend’s sister, and when his loved one’s very rich father forbids the marriage, not only do the lovers elope, but the hero’s friend escapes with them to set up a life away from the rigid social norms of his family.
How would Rafi Ajmeri have fared in the Progressive era that was dawning just then? Would his liberal attitudes have hardened into dogma, or would he have swung to conservatism in the Pakistan to which his brothers migrated as he too probably would have? Or would his fictions have echoed the calm voice of conscience?
No way of telling, though one short, bitter text of his suggests another direction he might have taken. Here retells, from an old song, the legend of the bandit Daya Gujjar, who robbed the king’s wife of her jewels to please his demanding wife.
Amma ko mera Ram-ram kehna
Behna ko mera salam
Gujri ko bas itna kehna
Reh jaye joban ko re tham
Daya ab aana nahin
Daya julmi ke phande
Daya phaansi ke phande
(Give my greetings to my mother and sister, but to the Gujri just say to make good use of her youth: Daya isn’t coming back, he’s in the clutches of the oppressor, the noose is around his neck).
As I read it, I could hear my grandmother’s singing voice. My hair stood on end as it did when I first heard it at the age of nine or ten.
Lady of the Lotus
Her daughter gave her the red diary with a sketch or a poem printed on each page, as a gift for her fifteenth wedding anniversary in February. She had a meeting that morning, and a formal dinner to attend in the evening. Her husband had a difficult day. He didn’t want to go.The next day she was at the airport at noon, to receive the ‘Mother of the Nation’ who was coming home from a trip abroad. Later, a meeting at her sister-in-law’s house, to discuss the situation and progress of Muslim women. Her husband told her he’d had disturbing news.
In the diary, she wrote: Just when I feel on the edge of a discovery—an illumination.
Between then and June, after her opening entries, she used it only to write down the words of the songs she was learning. Her handwriting intertwined with the printed words and pictures on the pages.
Her teacher, whom she called Khan Sahib, invited connoisseurs of classical music, including Shahid Ahmad, the editor of the literary journal Saqi, to hear her sing. She performed three raags—Khambavati, Anandi and Des—without making a single mistake. Her teacher was quite satisfied, her husband was pleased, the audience impressed. She was thinking of her deadline: a text to be handed over to She the next morning. A musician from Bengal, Begum Jabbar, played the sitar very well.
She sang Khambavati and Darbari. Her teacher was satisfied, she wasn’t. She missed a farewell party for her friend Jane who was going back to America. At the next session four days later, Begum Jabbar played well again, Khan Sahib sang well, and her songs were well-appreciated. Her husband was very pleased with her singing, her teacher exultant.
Two days later, she was singing again at a concert; she didn’t feel she sang too well; her teacher was most dissatisfied. There was a series of dinners to attend before the music conference at the new Arts Council began. Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali were performing on the opening night, she enjoyed their recital; on the second, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali were good in parts, but she was bored by the vocal gymnastics of Roshanara, Queen of Song.
She started to learn the new Darbari tarana. It was a composition by Tan Ras Khan. She tried to sing a Thumri in Bhairavi, with her own improvisations and embellishments, but she didn’t make it. She practiced Darbari in the evenings for twenty minutes. She cancelled a party at her friend Suad’s, to practice a new Malhar, but he made her sing Anandi.
She waited for him at 5.30 and he appeared at 8.30. She wanted to sing the Malhar she’d learnt but instead he made her sing Aiman and Kedara.
June was ending, and she had another deadline, for the Morning News this time.
She wanted to sing Malhar. He made her sing Darbari. She wanted something new and he made her repeat old lessons. Then he started her on a new raag, Mian ki Todi. She practiced Des and Bhopali, shifted to Bahaar, wanted to sing the rest of them, but he moved her to Malhar. She’d hoped he’d teach her the new string, but he made her revise the oldest. She didn’t like them much.
A full Darbari with a new Tarana, and a new Khambavati at last. Satisfied (she writes).
She doesn’t record the passing of the seasons, the walks to the lake in the mild evening breeze, the flowers and fruit she grows, or the frangipani fallen on wet grass or picked off the branch in the morning for her hair.
Some beautiful new improvisations: Satisfied (she writes).
A few days later, another unexpected visit. From Jahan Khan this time, her teacher’s maternal uncle. He started her on Khambavati.
Ai ri mi jagi piya bin sagri rain
Jab se gaye mori sudh hu na leni
kaise kahun man ki batiyan…
Ustad Jahan Khan comes by regularly now (she writes). Her pages were filling up with the lyrics of the songs she learned. She was practising ornamentation, Alankaar, in Khambavati.
The next day her teacher tried out the old raags at the new pitch, with only the tanpura. Every note was in tune.
He will teach me morning raags in the morning (she writes) and come in the evening to teach me evening raags.
She started to learn Raag Durga in the Dhrupad mode, with the Khamach rhythm; unusual and rarely recognised. She sang with the pakhwavaj, a single, two-faced drum, instead of the usual paired tablas.
Eri mai nand kunwar
eri mai nand kunwar
eri mai nand kunwar
maaa-aai nand kunwar
Her voice throbbed and soared.
They sat around her as she sang, or listened from the open window. They learnt her songs like the grey African parrots in their aunt’s big cage, half-understanding the words; they delighted her by singing raags in the bath, but when she persuaded them to take formal lessons all but her middle daughter would run away.
They will remember her favourite book: The Lady of the Lotus, illustrated with classical miniatures: a story from her native Malwa, of Baz Bahadur and the poet-singer Roopmati, whose melancholy verses their mother set to music and sang. Years later, her son will find her a copy of the book she lost in transit, and find some of those verses. But it’s a new edition.
Had I but known what pain with love would come, had I but known
Jo main aisa jaanti preet ki ye dukh hoe
I would have banished him by beat of drum, had I but known
Nagar dhandora peetti preet na kariyo koe
Did the rain fall that year of 1963? None of them remembers now: they think it never came. They remember, though, all the years she longed for rain and missed her native Malwa, and how she exulted when it finally fell.
Expression, she will reply, and release. The poetry in the music is thought, and through singing I expressed those thoughts.
Sometimes late at night, the lady of the lotus will sing to herself, those songs, of rainfall, separation and exultation. Later, her son, who never wanted to, will also sing to find release. But one night, he will stop mid-song, terrified of the audience around him and the failure of his voice, and swear he’ll never sing on stage again. He will exchange the ecstasy of music for the dry solace of thoughts; he’ll write, but he inherits from her the pursuit: of austere phrase, soaring note, throbbing pulse, blistered forefinger.
23rd Nov 1963.
Dinner at Khan Sahib’s house. Music after dinner.
No exhilaration after singing.
After this, there are only poems, wedding songs and musical notations.
Sa sa re re re re ma ma ma ma pa pa pa ma pa pa
Ma pa ni ni ni ni ni sa ni sa sa re ni dha ni pa
re ma pa dha ma ga re/ga ni sa
Often on those long afternoons in the old house in Badayun when sunlight spread golden carpets on the stones and the older women had taken in the washing and the children were tired of playing hopscotch in the open courtyard or leaping from balcony to balcony, the girl would go to the terrace and shelter in a stone pavilion with a novel or write couplets in a notebook and then, as if she’d invited it over, the dove would begin to call her from a tree, and its call would lie like a shadow on her skin, but she never saw the bird that gave her invisible company.