A few people had been running around desperately since morning. Going first to the local police station and next to Howrah General Hospital. And then to the Howrah police station. After having collected the necessary papers from there, they were now in the morgue in Mullick Fatak. That’s where Suman Nath’s body was lying. The postmortem had just begun. Raju Dom had drunk a whole lot of liquor and then lain on his back in front of the morgue. Even he found the thought of a three-day-old, decomposed corpse distasteful. But once he was enticed with the offer of some extra money, his drunken stupor seemed to vanish. The police had informed the family after finding Suman’s address in the wallet in his pocket. He had been missing for three days, and his body was found in a clump of shrubs beside the railway line. Abhijit, Montu, Santanu, Suraj, as well as some local leaders had arrived to collect the body. Only the Creator knew when, at which precise moment, a person would be assigned value. Even though this terrible news had reached Sadnahati via Suman’s wife’s folks, no one felt perturbed. But the sense of smell of political leaders exceeded that of even dogs. They could divine the flow of events in advance. The Hindu voters of the Jogipara hamlet in Sadnahati had always come to play a decisive role in determining the electoral outcome.

And so, people from both the political parties had devoted themselves to the task of collecting the dead body. The party that could take back Suman’s body would garner sympathy votes. After all, the Panchayat elections were imminent.

It was the light of late afternoon outside the morgue. There was a bunch of youths there. Not a trace of any grief on their faces.

On an elevated platform at a little distance sat two silent souls, in an unkempt state, in each other’s embrace. They were mother and daughter. The daughter was about nine years old. Further away was a paan-and-cigarette shop. That’s where a few boys from Jogipara were gossiping, puffing on beedis and blowing out lungfuls of smoke. Their attention was on the woman. Realising that, she turned her face away.

“Whatever you say, Montu, Kaka netted a real maal, her fucking fire’s still burning.”

“It’ll stop burning now. It’ll be snuffed out as soon as the fire on Suman’s pyre dies. Oof! So much happened because of this girl.”

A boy who was younger than them asked curiously, “What was the incident, Dada? I remember something had happened when I was small, but I don’t remember what it was.”

“You don’t need to know about that, boy!” The man averted the query. He began soliloquising: “Eesh! What’s going to happen to the woman now! Where will she go with this little child? How will she stand on her own feet?”

The post-mortem report was ready by now. The body would be released in a little while. Yes, Suman had committed suicide. There was a suicide note too. When the report was held out to Suman’s wife, she gave it to Santanu. Heaving a deep sigh, she tried to convey that it was they who would have to do all that needed to be done. Santanu was a friend of Suman’s brother, Abhijit. After that, no sooner had Suman’s wife turned around, holding her little girl’s hand, than someone called out, “Riziya! They’ll bring the dead body. You come along in our car.”

To her astonishment, it was Abid Sheikh. Iqbal Ostagar was standing beside him. She hadn’t recognized him because he had grown a beard. At a distance, Rafiq Ali was talking to Santanu and Abhijit. Rafiq belonged to a family of Sheikhs and was a very big leader in the area. Everyone called him Rafiq Ali. When Riziya was a child, she used to call him Rafiq Mama. She felt a surge of terror in her heart.

Riziya, aka Reena Nath, was a bit surprised to see Abid Sheikh and Rafiq Ali together. The two of them belonged to opposite poles of the political spectrum. Once her sense of surprise had abated, she heard her name being called out once again. It seemed Abid Sheikh was calling her. The moment someone called her by her original name – after almost ten years – the woman who was benumbed with grief seemed to be stricken by confusion regarding her own identity. Who was she now? Reena, or Riziya? She was overwhelmed by this crisis of identity for a little while. She was unable to think clearly. As soon as she returned to her senses, she tightened her grip on her daughter’s hand, followed Abid Sheikh and got into his car.

She kept guessing where she was headed now. Was the car’s destination Sadnahati, where she had spent her childhood and adolescence? The village which she had remembered almost every day for the last ten years. And every time she remembered the village, it was the tallest green minaret of the big mosque at Sadnahati that she visualized. The minaret which was visible from the roof of her house in Sadnahati, at which she gazed as she composed her dreams.

As she sat in the car, it occurred to Riziya that Suman had really gone! Hugging her daughter to her breast, she began to weep silently. In a tearful voice, she blurted out inarticulately, “Mama, will it be all right for me to go there?”

Abid Sheikh was sitting beside the driver. He turned his head around and said, “Don’t worry about anything. It’s not like that any more! Besides, aren’t we all there with you? Nothing will happen to you.”

Riziya could have smiled at these words. A contemptuous and hardhearted smile. A woman who had just been widowed was not supposed to smile. Of course, she wanted to trust this man to an extent. After all, she had no other option besides that. Whether out of courtesy or because of the exigency, Riziya enquired, “Are my uncles still alive? How are they?”

“Do you mean Kalu Chacha? It’s been about three years since he passed away. Salaam Miya is still around. He’s been bedridden for a long time. I heard that he’s unable to speak either.”


Abid Sheikh was not surprised to hear the “oh” that lacked any warmth. It seemed he knew he would receive such a response, even though the orphaned Riziya had grown up under the care of Kalu Miya and Salaam Miya. He remained silent. He thought about many things. Suddenly, he turned his head around once again and said, “Riziya, forgive me, my precious. Forgive us. After all these years, I want to ask you something, will you answer me? Why did you write such terrible things on the outer wall of the mosque? Why do you have such rage against Muslims?”

Excerpted with permission from Talashnama: The Quest, Ismail Darbesh, translated from the Bengali by V Ramaswamy.