Often branded foreigners or “illegal immigrants”, or forced to prove their nationality, Bengal origin Muslim families are among the worst victims of the volatile floods in the plains of Assam. In the last few decades, thousands of villages have been eroded permanently by almost all of Assam’s fifty-five rivers, creating a huge population of internally displaced people, who are often lower caste, tribals, and migrant Muslims.
This story has been translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap.
He has been hesitating to take the decision for a long time, but today, after Sultan leaves for work, Romzan Ali caresses his long beard that reaches his chest, sighs, and takes the final decision.
Romzan stands up slowly. To gather support while standing, he places his hands on both his knees and then puts pressure on them. Then he takes slow steps towards the barber’s shop, with some sadness. He has the expression of a man who is about to lose something he loves greatly.
“Ahok, bohok”, Sibpujan becomes busy as soon as Romzan enters the hair-cutting saloon. The first customer of the day after all! His face brightens up naturally. “You want a haircut?”
Romzan doesn’t answer Sibpujon’s questions. He sits down quietly on a chair with enormous hesitancy. He doesn’t want to be here. There is a large mirror in front of him and behind this mirror… He is startled. Is this really his reflection on the mirror? Romzan Ali’s? Is this the image of Sikandar Maulavi’s eldest son Romzan Ali’s?
He can’t believe what he is seeing. This is a man with a broken body.
His hair standing up around his head in all directions like calendula herbs, and most of his beard is grey. His hair is also quite dirty, messy; and his eyes are that of a person who has been suffering from prolonged illness. Is this really his reflection on the mirror?
For a moment, he is terrified. But still he accepts that the image he is looking at belongs to him, the man in the mirror is him. Right, the man in the mirror is him.
He was sad before coming here, but he is even sadder now.
When was the last time he stood in front of such a huge mirror? How many years ago? Three years?
Right, about that much.
It has been three years since he has visited a barber. Until around three years ago, he used to visit a barber’s shop like this and have a haircut, trim his beard, watch himself in the mirror transfixed. A young man. Deep, dark, black hair and beard.
“Are you going to get a haircut?” Sibpujan repeats. He has taken out the large white silk barber-cape to wrap his customer with. He takes out the scissors and combs, touches his forehead with them. He prays silently for good business for the day, and, with great enthusiasm, stands next to Romzan’s chair.
“Beard. I want to shave off my beard.”
“Ha?!” Sibpujan is surprised. What does this man say! Does he want to shave off his beard?
He shouldn’t have been surprised. This is his profession. Every day he shaves and trims the facial hair of numerous people, Hindus, and Muslims, alike. But now when Romzan asks him to shave off his beard, Sibpujan feels sad. He doesn’t feel the way he feels when other customers ask him to complete a similar task. He realizes that no one has come to his saloon to shave off such a long beard, that reaches up to the chest.
Whenever Sibpujan thinks about the beard of a Muslim person, he starts to think about his own tuft of hair, at the back of his head. He doesn’t really know the religious or cultural significance of the beard. But he knows for sure: the way his religious sentiments are attached to his own little tuft of hair, the beard too has some religious connotation. He hasn’t tried to figure it out.
Now, he touches his hair and tells himself: wouldn’t it be awkward to shave it off, and wouldn’t it feel the same to shave the beard of this man? He tries to understand what is Romzan thinking. Perhaps this person won’t feel awkward. Perhaps this man is really comfortable with the idea of shaving his beard off. Otherwise, why would he come here?
Sibpujan leaves Romzan and goes to the drawer on the other side of the room. He puts aside the barber-cape and takes out a towel that he spread across the chest of the customers when shaving their beards. When he wraps it around Romzan’s neck, he notices the length of the beard. Really, it’s a long beard! This beard has been grown and taken care of for a long time – it actually falls to his chest and lower.
Sibpujan, who can hold a strand of hair on a person’s head and predict how long ago it was trimmed tells himself: this beard is from this man’s youth.
Why does he want to shave it off? And it is quite healthy. The man also looks handsome with a long beard. Yes, it hasn’t been oiled and combed regularly, but still, it looks naturally healthy. At his age, a long beard enhances the man’s personality and looks. But why should Sibpujan bother? He should just do his job. Still he couldn’t stop himself from giving a compliment, “Your beard was beautiful once upon a time dei.”
“Era!” Romzan sighs silently. This isn’t the first time someone has complimented him on his beard. He has heard it from numerous people but from today, no more such compliments.
“Don’t shave your beard anymore o’. You look good with it and not everyone is lucky to have such a rich growth of beard, you know?” His friend Kadir says.
His beard is new. He has shaved only a few times in his life so far. They are both young men. New blades, new facial hair. He shaves in the morning, and by late afternoon, a thin shadow covers his face just like the aahu-paddy that grows quickly after the weeds around its stems are shaved. Romzan’s skin is bright, light. The black thick facial hair against his light, clear, bright skin, creates a beautiful contrast.
Kadir is the first one to compliment him on his beard, but he won’t be the last.
Idris supports him, “Hoy de, you should keep it. You will look good.”
That night, Romzan admires his face on a small, round, hand-held mirror. The flame of the kerosene lamp barely lights up the room. He observes his face, his beard, and agrees with Idris and Kadir. He decides to grow a beard. To make his resolve stronger, he pulls out the shaving blade stored in the cracks of the wall constructed of fermented jute and throws it into the garbage dump. What if he feels like shaving off his beard if the blade is readily available?
In a few days, the beard covers his face beautifully, and then, slowly, like the tip of the flowers of kans grass, it continues to grow, going past his chest. His father, a Maulavi, watches him closely. Perhaps he likes it because one day he encourages Romzan, “Son, don’t shave your beard anymore. It looks good on you. It is a good deed to grow a long beard.”
Just the way the gold starts to glitter after a polish, beauty is now accompanied by free blessings. Romzan doesn’t think about shaving his beard anymore.
But it is not that his beard is universally loved. One day, not so long after their wedding, when Rohima’s body still smells of fresh turmeric and lentils paste – ingriedients that a bride is bathed with – she tells him, “You are a young man, why would you choose this appearance? Looks like an old man! Shave it off!”
He takes her out of his embrace in an instant, jumps to the floor, and looks at her with fire in his eyes. “Khobordar! Don’t you say such a thing ever again. Things will turn worse at home, I am warning you!”
Rohima is startled. Perhaps she isn’t prepared for so much anger. She hadn’t thought this would make him so angry. As the years went by, Romzan’s beard becomes part of his identity, part of his body, like his legs and hands and organs. There ceases to be any difference between shaving his beard and chopping off one of his legs.
When Sibpujan presses his razor on the corner of his cheeks and pulls downwards, Romzan is shocked. He shuts his eyes.
No, Romzan Ali, who shuts his eyes even when the Mullah presses the sharp knife on the neck of a cow during Eid-Ud-Zuha, is today unable to watch the razor work on his face.
No, he can’t watch such heartbreaking scenes.
Three years ago, in the month of Shaon, when the Brahmaputra river had suddenly lost its sanity and eroded away the entire village of Birinabari, he wasn’t able to watch that scene too.
It was an unbelievable sight.
In front of the insane river, the river bank, the massive village where they had lived for generations, seemed to be made of dry straws! As the water crashed against the riverbank, huge chunks of soil fell on it, sweeping away the landmass where the village stood. The inhabitants of Birinabari were watching this horrifying scene. People from neighbouring villages were watching too as the village was consumed by the river.
Kadir’s father, Jabar-burha, began to slap his forehead before crying out in a loud voice. Pointing to the unstable, vanishing riverbank on which the village stood, he shouted, “Look, look all of you, how the village is being destroyed! This is not the current of the river Brahmaputra! This is like a sharp knife! A sharp knife that’s slicing away the land, the entire village, the way a sharp knife works on a juicy bottle gourd!”
Nine days. In just nine days the village was swallowed by the river forever; the village that belonged to Jabar-burha, Kadir, Idris, Romzan. After losing everything, the people in the village moved to the top of the long embankment.
Now, when Romzan recalls those nine harrowing days, the sorrow in his heart is so intense that his chest feels like a balloon that is about to burst due to excess air. Those nine days changed the world of Romzan and his villagers. They had so much in that past life: fourteen bighas of land, two pairs of cows, on that plot of one and a half bighas of land they had four houses made of bamboo and straw and soil, his single father who worked as Maulavi, his wife Rohima, and his three children.
On those one and a half bighas of land and four houses made of locally available material, they also had happiness and peace, and sometimes, a bit of hardship. His mother had died when he was young. Now all of those are just memories.
He is sitting next to the entrance a hut made of torn polythene and old gunny bags. The hut is built on the embankment. Previously, when the village wasn’t eroded, there was occasional hardship, but now all he can see is hardship, absence, sorrow and hunger. Inside the hut, his toddler son cries. The day is about to end but he hasn’t found a job today and the child is hungry because he doesn’t have money to buy ration.
What if he can’t find something to do and earn some money tomorrow too? How will he buy food for the kids? No, he is not able to think any further. He doesn’t want to go there because two months ago, his father died of starvation in this hut built on the embankment. No, actually he had consumed some wild yams after staying hungry for two whole days and they didn’t go down well. The stomach and the wild yams immediately got into a war. A whole night of gurum-garam sounds from the stomach. With pot in his hand, he had climbed down the embankment towards the river waters. After that, everything was over.
The boy is weeping again, asking for food.
From a little further down the path, a song floats towards him, “Mukkala muqabala laila ho laila!” This is Sultan’s voice. He is the one who imports these terrible uncultured songs from Guwahati. He came the day before yesterday and he is leaving for Guwahati again the day after. It has been a year or so, he works with a mason as a helper. His family is doing all right.
“Khura,” Sultan asked him the night before. “Would you like to go with me to Guwahati? I will make sure you get a job.”
“No bopa, I am not going anywhere. I would rather die here of starvation,” Romzan says.
But…that was last night.
Now Romzan stands up and like a person in a spell, follows the source of the song, Sultan. “Muqabala subhanallah laila ho laila.”
It has been six days since Romzan has come to Guwahati. He lives in Sijubari, along with Sultan and his friends. Every morning he eats some food and walks out with them to Hatigaon Chariali. At around seven-thirty or eight, thousands of people like Sultan and Romzan crowd the location. In the way in which cows are sold and bought in a trading market, bargains and deals are made here, at this spot, for the rest of the day.
Romzan gets work on the day he arrives. The contractor Bora asked him to get up on the truck along with Sultan but the new contractor looks at him with disrespect and mockery before announcing, “Hey, don’t take this guy – will he work or manage his beard?”
Romzan, who is about to climb onto the truck with the help of Sultan who is holding his hand, steps back.
Hurt, he goes back to Sultan’s room. In that small room, the child’s voice bothers him and makes him sadder. For the first time, he feels as if the long, beautiful beard he has been so proud of is like the deer and its meat.
Romzan doesn’t find work the next day either. When Sultan is about to leave with the contractor Saikia, he takes Sultan aside and speaks in a low voice, but Romzan hears it clearly. “Don’t ask this person to come to work with us. It doesn’t feel good to make someone who has such a long beard work with us.”
When Sibpujan’s razor slows down, Romzan opens his eyes and is surprised: who is this person in front of him?
Is this his reflection?
When he is able to recognise the reflection, he lets out another sigh.
Abdus Samad is the author of five novels, and two short story collections. Widely loved and read in Assam, much of his subversive fiction critiquing Assamese nationalism and religious divides depict the life of the migrant Muslim community of Bengal origin in Assam. He won the Munin Borkotoky Award for Assamese literature (2006) and the President’s Centenary Literary Award (2017) from Asom Sahitya Sabha. English translations of his short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cerebration, Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts and several other journals.