When the corpse bearers who were gathered under the guava tree in the compound of her house on Kalibari Road in Sirajganj lifted the bier with Abu Ibrahim’s dead body to their shoulders and left the compound to walk towards Jame Masjid, his plump widow, Mamata, amidst her grief and that cruel reality, remembered a long-ago night. Abu Ibrahim had woken her up in the middle of the night, taken her to the balcony of their flat in the government housing estate on Bailey Road in Dhaka, and whispered to her, “A herd of sarus cranes is flying by, listen.”
As the corpse bearers and those following behind advanced along Kalibari Road reciting the Kalema Tayyaba loudly, Mamata recalled that night for some reason, and her heart was torn, her eyes awash like the Jamuna during the rains. And that night, the night the sarus cranes had flown over Bailey Road, robbed of the snug comfort of sleep, Mamata had got angry and uttered a sentence, a sentence which we’ll hear her utter many times hereafter, and as a result we may perhaps think that Abu Ibrahim was essentially what Mamata had called him.
That night, before pushing Abu Ibrahim away and going back to sleep, Mamata had said to him, “You’re mad.” Actually, is a man ever mad, or can a man ever avoid being mad?
After Mamata went back to sleep, Abu Ibrahim stood in the veranda of his quarters and listened until late into the night to the sound of the faraway birds flying over slumbering Dhaka. And the next day, Mamata and Bindu created such a scene that Abu Ibrahim had to get involved in the matter, and this time Mamata didn’t let him off by merely calling him mad.
When we observe Abu Ibrahim and Mamata together, we often think of all those protagonists of Greek tragedies who accept their fate and carry the burden all their lives. A sign of restlessness was noticeable in the pupils of Abu Ibrahim’s eyes and in the exceptionally radiant smile on his gaunt face, a restlessness that he kept chained with abstinence. That’s why he had no dissatisfaction regarding Mamata, and Mamata too was content with her lot, of husband, children, family, and household.
Such was the conjugal life of the thin, wordy and rustic Abu Ibrahim, and the plump, fair-skinned, small-town Mamata, and in the evening of the day after the sarus cranes flew over the housing estate on Bailey Road, Mamata didn’t let him off by merely calling him mad, she swore at him, calling him a chamar, a low-born; that afternoon, Abu Ibrahim had taken a nap, and when he woke up, he saw that Mamata was scolding their daughter Bindu.
He listened for a while and then rose and went into the bathroom. Emerging after washing his face, he saw Bindu standing beside the small concrete slab that had been placed for cooking purposes inside all the flats in this housing estate, her face buried in her palms atop the slab. She was sobbing quietly.
Abu Ibrahim wiped his face with a towel, then Mamata suddenly noticed that there was Bindu sobbing right in front of him, and all Abu Ibrahim could do was rub his jaw with the towel, so it was natural for her to get agitated at that.
“Hey girl, stop crying!”
Mamata didn’t respond to Abu Ibrahim’s query. And then a kind of soft hissing sound and a sweet smell filled the room – milk was about to spill over on the stove. Mamata used the opportunity to rush away from addressing Abu Ibrahim’s question; she removed the lid of the milk pot and blew into the swollen-up milk to soothe the boiling. Abu Ibrahim then went and stood in the balcony, and observed evening descending upon Bailey Road.
Their maidservant had gone out, and when she returned now, Mamata set upon her. Abu Ibrahim gazed at the light of the dying day and heard his wife’s voice, and if we looked at his face then, we would once again be reminded of the protagonists of Greek tragedies, who bore their fate all their lives.
And if we looked at the face of the woman on the other side, at the other end, whose name is Mamata here, we would notice a kind of steadfastness in the fire in her eyes and the set of her neck, the steadfastness with which a woman builds a family and holds together a daft husband and immature children within the confines of that family. Mamata was scolding their maidservant Kajoli.
“How long does it take you to go and buy something?”
The girl answered back and that was not acceptable to Mamata.
“Don’t argue with me! Once you step outside you just don’t want to come back!”
One couldn’t say that Abu Ibrahim paid heed to all this talk between his wife and the maidservant as he stood in the veranda; he claimed that he didn’t pay attention to such things any more. He watched countless vehicles trundling along the road beside the housing estate, he saw the sun stooping to touch the treetops.
And then he smelled milk burning once again and heard the crash of some metallic thing falling. Mamata now got enraged at the impossibly tiny flats on Bailey Road, and then her anger was transferred to Bindu, who happened to be standing in that small and narrow space.
“The girl’s standing in this corner and putting up a show. Hey girl, Bindu – ”
Abu Ibrahim turned around and saw Bindu being chased by her mother; she went to the living room and sat down on the cane chair there, bending over with her face buried in her palms, which were placed on her knees. Abu Ibrahim entered the room and pressed the switch to turn on the light. Bindu continued to sit folded up in two, Mamata began preparing food for dinner, then Abu Ibrahim once again enquired about what had happened, and when Mamata didn’t reply, he went and sat next to Bindu.
“What’s happened to you, Bindu?”
Like Mamata, Bindu too remained silent.
“You all right?”
Bindu didn’t speak, her face was buried in her palms on her knees, her black hair was spread out on one side of her neck.
Excerpted with permission from Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas, Shahidul Zahir, translated from the Bengali by V Ramaswamy and Shahroza Nahrin, HarperCollins India.