Let me tell you that folktale today. Ruku Dewan said these words and glanced at Putu alias Kabir, her illegitimate son from Hindu- babu. Though she was blind, her eyes were a charming translucent brown. Beautiful she was, impossible to look into her eyes and know they cannot see. And impossible for you to know that she was a prostitute. Ruku Dewan, after coming to this red-light area, became Rukmini Dasi. In this infamous quarter, she was the most beautiful seller of sensuality. Even though there was no light in her eyes.
She had light in her eyes till the age of seven. That was when Ruku lived with her parents in Masjid Para, Village Tirail Joyari, District Rajshahi. Masjid Para was a pious neighbourhood. Immersed in praying namaz five times a day, a three-fold life of religion and poverty, two folds poverty and one fold religion. But religion was no less strong than poverty. Nothing but roza-namaz-fitra-jamat- Muharram-akikah-tasbih-summah-haram-halal-kalma-surma-nur-farishta-zaqat-zurmana-huri-husna-keyamat-korma-shirni-khorma-Mecca-Medina-murda-hasar-gor-doya-darud-jennat-jahannam-talaq-niqah-janeja-sijda to live for.
Every so often the women of Masjid Para got talaq. And one or two teenage girls simply vanished.
Then, one day, another story unfolded: a group of Urdu-speaking elders came to the village in search of young brides; their own land had a shortage. Some of the local boys helped guide them here and there. Jumma Shaikh was one of those elders.
Ruku’s father Barkati Dewan said: “I want a Bengali groom for my girl.” Ruku was fourteen then. The light in her eyes had slowly gone out. She was learning the stand-ups and sit-downs of namaz by holding onto her mother’s body, and the words of the kalma by having them read out to her. She was married off to Jumma.
Jumma was the pimp of the Urdu-speaking bride-hunters. He brought the beautiful-blind bride Ruku from that side of the Padma river to this side, to Harudanga. Enjoyed her body for about a month. Then they set off for Swarupganj. To Dhanai, the trader, in whose courtyard Jumma gave Ruku talaq and bartered her for cattle. Dhanai was a cow trader and a pimp. He kept Ruku as his wife for two months, then dispatched her to Daspara. To the prostitutes’ quarters.
From there Ruku was trafficked to Kolkata by one Hindi-Urdu-speaking Badruh Keora. It was the time of the 1968 famine. People were starving. Whatever food was available in the market could only be fed to the dogs. Still, they were celebrating Bakri Eid. Ruku was bartered again. This time, for a tiffin-box full of qurbani meat and rice. Tempting her with the promise of more meat and more rice, Badruh brought her to Sonagachhi.
Ruku of Masjid Para became Rukmini Dasi of Sonagacchi. She was kept by Taraknath Naha. Putu was his illegitimate son.
Ma, Ruku, would tell her son, Putu, a folktale.
A rare sight indeed. A beautiful blind prostitute performs the Maghrib, the evening namaz. When she is done, she will tell Putu the tale of a star. She will take her son to the terrace of the prostitutes’ house and say, “See, Putu, can you see? Look up at the sky.”
These words will be heard by Kaloshona too. She too will look up to the sky.
“That star is in the sky,” Ruku used to say, “If you can spot the star, Allah will bless you. He will pardon all the hundred sins of this life. Kaloshona, can you see it? This star used to shine in the evening sky of Masjid Para. If its light touches the eyes of the blind, the blind can see again. My mother used to say so. That star is surely there. My mother was not able to show it to me but I want to show it you, Putu. Johura is its name. The light of the Arabian Desert.”
The other prostitutes would drift up to the terrace. They too would search for the desert star. Johura.
“If I could get back my sight, I would like to go back to Masjid Para, Putu. There is no light in Kolkata. O Kalotogor, is there a customer on the street? Has Johura appeared in the sky?”
The narrator of this story is a sannyasi. As a child, he was known as Putu among the prostitutes. This is the story of his mother, a beautiful, blind Muslim prostitute who wanted her Hindu son to be a sannyasi. Because, when it was time to admit Putu to school, Satyananda Maharaj the sannyasi had given by way of alms his name as the boy’s father on the admission form. After receiving this sublime gift, Ruku Dewan began to dream that, one day, her son would be the one to cleanse all her sins.
Ruku educated her son up to MA. How that Putu became Sambuddha Sannyasi without being tainted by the hell he lived in is another history.
The reader will not get to know that here. Here, the reader will be told an Arabian folktale preserved in Ruku’s memory. It can be found here, in this biographical tale “Ruku Dewan” by Kabir Dewan, that is, Putu.
Kabir, or Sambuddha Sannyasi, continues: “With what intense devotion, Ma would tell me this tale. Let me tell it you today.
“‘Look, look at the sky. What do you see? A star. Johuratul Qubra. Even into the pen of sin, Allah can pour the ink of virtue.’ This tale would fill Ma with a bliss as vast as the seven heavens. Her face would glow with infinite wonder, with endless joy. I must have been ten or twelve. From before, much before, she had been telling me this tale.
“‘Perhaps Ma’s sense of sin was endless because she was a pious Muslim. She read the Fajar namaz before the first rays of the sun and the Maghrib as soon as the sun set. She’d bathe with scented soap just before the Fajar.
“‘Sambuddh can still recall that beautiful scent. Ma was so particular that she would not let even her son touch the jaynamaz, the prayer mat.
“Taraknath refused to acknowledge his paternity. Once I’d called him Father, and he slapped me: ‘Father? Who’s father?’
“‘Life is such that Ma, from Masjid Para, blind Ma, fourteen-year- old Ruku, wife of Jumma Shaikh, later bartered for cattle, brought along with her only a star.
“‘That childhood cannot be forgotten. Ma wanted to see that star through other’s eyes. Through Kaloshona’s eyes, through Kalotogor’s eyes. Through Putu’s eyes. When Maghrib went away, many of the prostitutes gathered on the terrace of their house of sin to gaze at that wondrous star. Maghrib comes and goes on horseback. Only then does Johura appear in the sky.’”
Excerpted with permission from The Open-Winged Scorpion and Other Stories, Abul Bashar, translated by Epsita Halder with Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books.