FICTION




The Cuckoo Keeps Calling







By Mashiul Alam

Translated from the Bengali
by Shabnam Nadiya

Artwork by Hafsa Ashfaq










M




odhu wakes up at dawn and says to his
wife, “Say goodbye.”




















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 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…”


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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.


Modhu wakes up hungry. Modina serves him rice and eats as well. Not freshly cooked, steaming rice. Old rice, with water added. As he eats, Modhu asks, “Isn’t there anymore panta-rice left?”

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.


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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?


Modhu goes to Dhaka city. The watered rice is finished, there is no more rice left in the house, Modina sits emptyhanded by the derelict stove. A cuckoo trills in a tree; Modina doesn’t hear it, but Mafiz does. It has never happened that a cuckoo sings and Mafiz hasn’t heard 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?”

“What 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.


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Modina protests the ill-omened, cruel words from Mafiz by scratching his chest and neck until he bleeds.


It has been raining all day in Dhaka; as he pedals his rickshaw Modhu is pretty much taking a shower. After getting drenched all day, all the warmth had left his body. Modhu cannot fathom where his body is finding so much heat in the evening. He feels cold, his head hurts, and soon he begins to shiver. He rolls around on the floor in the dark room, and like a child, he moans, calling out to his mother.

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.


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Modhu would die and Mafiz would have Modina forever—this is what is written in Modina and Mafiz’s destinies. Modina doesn’t believe it but Mafiz’s faith doesn’t have an ounce of doubt. But why Mafiz counts the days till Modhu’s return is something only he knows.

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.


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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.