Excerpted from Arunava Sinha’s translation of Khwabnama, to be published soon by Penguin Randon House India.
(Translated by Arunava Sinha)
The spot where Tamiz’s father stood with his feet planted in the mud, craning his neck as high as possible, stretching his nerves taut, and waving his jet-black arms to dispel the grey clouds, needs to be noted carefully. A long time ago, when, leave alone Tamiz’s father, even his father had not been born, when his grandfather Bhaghar Majhi the fisherman’s birth was still a long way in the future, when Bhaghar Majhi’s grandfather’s father—or was it his grandfather—had barely been born, or not, and even if he had, was only crawling about on the newly-laid earth in the home built by clearing a part of the forest, on one afternoon during those days, while he was speeding towards the Karatowa river in order to visit the Mahasthan Killa with several of Majnu Shah’s fakirs, Munshi Barkatullah Shah was flung from his horse after being shot dead by Taylor, the commander of British troops. The hole left in his neck by the bullet was never filled. After his death, with a chain around this neck and his body smeared with ash, and holding an iron pan with fish motifs carved on it, he perched on the fig tree on the northern side of the Katlahar Lake. Ever since then, he became the sunlight during the day and spread himself all over the lake, and reigned over the lake all night from the fig tree. Tamiz’s father waved his arms to get rid of the clouds in the sky in the hope of catching a glimpse of Munshi.
Which was all very well, but two or two-and-a-quarter years from now, or maybe two-and-a-half or even three, after drowning to death in the quicksand in one corner of the bank recently sprung from the receding waters of the lake, where would Tamiz’s father surface? Who was going to make room for him? The large jackfruit trees had long been cleared out by the fangs of the big flood, and once Sharafat Mandal’s son had set up his brick kiln, the remaining trees would also be swallowed by the kiln. What would happen then? Where would Tamiz’s father float up? The lake dried up rapidly, the dry land was cultivated, and people built their homes along the perimeter of the land. Would there be room for a large tree anymore?
By daylight it was clear to the eye—to the west, the land between the western bank of the lake and the edge of the creek here was still empty. Majhipara—where the fishermen lived—began at this point. Not that the people of Majhipara referred to their enclave as a neighborhood, for they used to occupy the entire village once. Now, though, sixty or seventy percent of the inhabitants were peasants. Several families of Kolus had lived here, people who extracted oil for a living, but within three years of Tabibar Muktar’s Rahman Oil Mills being set up in the town, eight miles to the west, more than half of them had left for the bank of the Jamuna to the east. The few who had remained were more inclined towards farming.
A large expanse of the land across the lake was given over to cultivation, beyond which, on the other side of the narrow creek, lay Chashapara, the cultivators’ village. Next to each of the houses stood a tethered ox, a battered pile of yellow hay blackened by the rain, cowdung manure beside shrubs of Barbados nut, rows of banana trees, screens of dried banana leaves behind which the women could stay out of view, and a plough, a yoke, and a harrow. The other side of the lake was clearly visible from morning to afternoon, and, in the month of Asharh, even at twilight when it didn’t rain. Fishermen came from far afield, paying a rent to Sharafat Mandal for the right to fish in the lake. The peasants and even their womenfolk lined up to watch. There would be pandemonium around the lake on such days. But it wasn’t as though there were many fishermen. In fact, there were three or four times as many urchins jumping up and down and screaming on the bank. Whether it was people or cattle, women or children, fish or snails—all, all the brazen buggers would dance, flaunting their nakedness.
It was night now, but a different sight presented itself. A faint, fine, black fishing net drifted down to the water as evening fell, widening its expanse as the evening developed into night. The darkness intensified, and the entire area was finally captured in the net. The night deepened, then deepened further, and before anyone realized, the net began to be drawn in. There was a tug on the rope from the fig tree, and gradually the entire lake, along with the villages on either bank, was pooled in the centre, its waters trembling. On purnima or amaboshya or ekadoshi—when the moon was either full or new or in the eleventh day of the cycle—Girirdanga and Nijgirirdanga, the two villages flanking the Katlahar lake, flowed into each other and became one within the lake. Wherever you looked, you couldn’t tell them apart anymore. The fig tree cast a giant shadow on the water then, and as the night deepened, its shadow kept growing, kept growing. Wrapping this gigantic shadow around themselves in the dense darkness of the new moon night or by the yellowish beams of the full moon or the murky red glow of the waning moon, Katlahar lake, the villages on either side, the creek next to the lake, the clearing with the fig tree at its head, Sharafat Mandal’s tin-roofed hut to the south and the white silk cotton tree to the east of the hut shrouded in storks—all of them, all, sighed constantly, like the young boy from the fishermen’s neighborhood who had fallen asleep weeping, his body entangled in a fishing net, when his pleas with his mother for some food fell in deaf ears. Their breath held the lingering notes of someone crying. It was the perfect time to take all of these things in at one glance. That was when Munshi Barkatullah Shah walked into the sky over the middle of the lake, pulling on the ropes of the net. A flock of sheep swam forward, leading the way. Tamiz’s father came here for what could only be a momentary glimpse of this scene, for Munshi never stayed very long. The sky above and the water and the land below all became one then, and Munshi moved about everywhere at will. Setting everything and everyone in their place for a moment, he soared away with the net to the north, where a narrow stream from a river had lost its way to flow into the lake. Perched on the fig tree at the head of the lake, Munshi slipped into the eye of a vulture every morning and watched the motion of the sun across the sky, merging into the sunlight without warning, becoming the sunlight himself to warm the chilled bodies of the catfish and the carp and and the small fry in the lake. And when he grew exasperated, he would turn into a tiny ball of fur beneath the wing of a green pigeon behind the dense foliage of the fig tree to sleep all afternoon in the warmth of the tender flesh.
Mind you, everything further north of the head of lake was also under Munshi’s control, he reigned there too. And Tamiz’s father had been there, of course he had. Sharif Mandal had arranged for the years-old thick forest of kaash here to be cleared for cultivating jute. It was the month of Poush. Some of the people from the fishermen’s neighborhood on this side of the lake joined the peasants from Nijgirirdanga in two boats very early one morning under the blanket of mist, and Tamiz’s father went on board too as a hired hand. This time of the year had been chosen because the kaash forest was usually free of stagnant water now. But no, there was not a single dry patch to be found anywhere—there were still puddles beneath their feet. Thousands of leeches were sunning themselves on the kaash stalks to rid their bodies of the freezing cold, the plants bending beneath their weight. When so many people marauded into the forest with their sickles and spades, the starving leeches fastened themselves to the men’s stomachs and bellies and thighs and cocks and buttocks—even to their arses—clamping their teeth on whatever gave them some purchase. Although the peasants of Girirdanga and the fishermen of Nijgirirdanga did not exactly experience fear at this attempt by the leeches to assuage their pent-up hunger, they extricated themselves with urgency, returning home after evening had fallen with entire leeches or wounds from the leeches on different parts of their bodies. So Sharafat Mandal had to wait several years before he could use that particular bit of land. Moreover, it wasn’t he but his eldest son who was to eventually take a lease on it, when there was not a single stalk of kaash left. Even before the lovebites of the leeches had disappeared from the bodies of the peasants and the fishermen, Ramesh Bagchi, a lawyer from the town, had taken charge of the kaash forest. But he was a town-bred toff—cultivation was not ordained for him. Ramesh-babu had no faith in his nephew Tunu-babu when it came to taking responsibility for the land. He was looking for a hardworking, trustworthy, and unintelligent person to help Tunu-babu as well as to keep an eye on him. Tamiz’s father could have seized the opportunity—if only he had wanted to. By the time he came to know of it he was practically starving, with Tamiz’s mother being eight months pregnant and unable to work.
But Sharafat Mandal said, ‘The northern bank of the lake is not a safe place. You’ll have to be on your guard.’ Mandal was not lying, Munshi was indeed a little short-tempered. Anyone who got into his bad books once would not be allowed to work ever again in his life. It didn’t matter that he might be married, that he might have children to feed. Tamiz’s father, the ignorant son of a fisherman, could not tell the pure apart from the impure. What if he made a mistake of some kind? So he withdrew in apprehension. When Tamiz’s mother dropped a dead girl at the end of the eighth month and took to her bed like the women from the Mandal family, Mandal’s second wife warned him in a low voice, ‘Don’t even think of going to the head of the lake, Tamiz’s father, who knows what new trouble you’ll invite.’
Calculating when all this had happened, or how long it had been since then, was beyond Tamiz’s father. And look, these days he woke up from his sleep in the middle of the night to take the same road to the lake, driven by his longing for a glimpse of Munshi. The night was of course the right time if you were to have any hope of spotting him. The currents of air generated by Tamiz’s father’s swinging arms were turning the dark grey of the clouds to a lighter shade of ash. Now the flock of sheep would swim in the lake, gasping for breath all the while. The clouds would shed their grey color to disappear completely. It was easy to identify the creatures as sheep then by the coats of grimy white wool on their bodies. But the bloody clouds were refusing to disperse. Only after they vanished would Munshi make an appearance behind the flock of sheep, holding an iron pan with fish motifs carved on it. The pan was attached to his palm, protruding from it like a large finger. Although the bellows projecting out of the slit in his throat were shrinking by the day, their power still made you tremble in fear. Munshi could not talk because his throat had been slit, but the puffs of air that emerged from the opening with great force were powerful enough for the sheep to understand his instructions. Flailing their legs, they swam, all but drowning. Complying with the commands roared out by the gusts of wind, they sank and floated, advanced and retreated, all night long, touching the earth and the water between the fig tree in the north and the silk cotton tree in the south, and even as far afield as the Poradaho field in the north-east. All the fish in the lake made way for their savage expedition. The senior devil fish and catfish marshalled their families and dived deep beneath the surface to rest their breasts on the moss or on an oar that had slipped out of a fisherman’s hands during the flood that had followed the earthquake a hundred and twenty-five years ago, waiting for Munshi to restore the sheep to their original form and return them to their appointed place in the lake. After which he would climb to the crown of the fig tree. And then? The next day he would turn himself into the sharp eye of the vulture, slicing the sky into strips all day long. If he was in an affable mood he would merge into the sunlight to become the sunlight himself and warm the water of the lake. And if he was tired he would turn into a chick and tuck himself into the fur on the wing of the green pigeon behind the dense foliage of the fig tree, sleeping in the warmth of its flesh till the evening.
Which was all very well, but right now, having sleepwalked all this way, Tamiz’s father could not see Munshi anywhere, where was he? It was impossible to catch sight of him when awake, but was he going to remain behind the veil of dreams forever? This Munshi was not a good man. Not a good man, this Munshi. He was far too adroit at hiding. But oh, was Munshi even a man? Forgive the thought! He would create all kinds of problems if he were to be included among the ranks of humans. Possibly he had been a human till the moment of his death, but it wasn’t just the other day that he had died, was it? It was in another era altogether that he had fallen off his white horse, shot dead by Taylor, the commander of the English troops, late one afternoon before the sun had set, while galloping towards the Karatowa with thousands of Majnu Shah’s band of fakirs. Who knew where the horse, with arrows impaled in every part of its body, had flown off, while Munshi’s corpse, languishing in the mud here, blazed with red, blue and black flames. For three days no one dared touch his burning body. When Munshi saw that the ceremonial shroud and burial were all in abeyance, what could he do but climb to the top of the fig tree with his throat slit open by the bullet? Ever since then he had been a creature of fire. His entire body, his flowing beard, his black turban, the chains on his chest, the pan in his hand—all of them seemed to burn perpetually. Tamiz’s father trembled every now and then, struck by fear and regret at having considered such a being a mere man. Maybe it was this trembling that nudged him out of the impenetrable darkness of his sleep. He took a step forward, like someone who had woken up abruptly, and confused the splashing of his feet in ankle-deep water with stifled groans emerging from Munshi’s throat. His heart fluttered in hope; maybe he’d catch a glimpse any moment now. His heart pounded in fear; maybe Munshi would descend any moment now. When his feet touched the roots of the water lilies in the lake, he stooped to clutch their stalks, although the vines couldn’t possibly bear the weight of his body. Still, the mud was hard enough to support him. The torn-off, crumpled lily petals were resting in his fist now. Although the soft touch of the ripped petals peeled off a few layers of sleep, not all of it left him. He stumbled off homewards, still slumbering, clutching the torn petals in his hand, the fishing net dangling from his shoulder. And well before his sleep could wear off, the rhythm of his footsteps took him deeper into sleep.
But it didn’t turn out the same way every time. No, on some nights an unbroken sound woke Tamiz’s father up completely. Someone was speaking in a hoarse drawl far in the distance—where else but the fig tree…
Munshi lives in the fig tree to the north
Beneath him swim all the fierce murrels
Late at night, only on Munshi’s command
All the murrels take the form of sheep.
But because Tamiz’s father started violently, the verses from afar did not remain audible, although they gave him a violent itch on his scalp before subsiding. It was possible that the tingling he had been feeling all over his body had been caused by the droning of these verses. No sooner had it acquired the form of words, however, than Tamiz’s father woke up, by which time the sounds had returned to the fig tree. A violent gust of the same wind on which they had flown in now blew them away to the roof of the Mandals’ home in the south, which in turn awoke the flock of white storks on Sharafat Mandal’s silk cotton tree. These storks were favorites of Sharafat’s, whose influence in the area ensured that they survived. It was because of his strict instructions that, leave alone the villagers, not even the thousands of people who visited the village fair at Poradaho on the last Wednesday of the month of Maagh every year dared to throw rocks at the tree. Like Sharafat Mandal, the ancestors of the storks too had their original home in the village of Nijgiridanga. Across the creek adjoining Chashapara lay Kamarpara, where the blacksmiths lived, whose border was marked by Dasharath Karmakar’s arjun tree. Dasharath’s forefather may not have been Mandhaataa himself, but in those ancient times that the mythical king Mandhaataa’s era was synonymous with, when, leave alone Dasharath, not even his grandfather had been born, and even if he had, was barely crawling about near the warm bellows set in the newly-built house in the settlement created by clearing a part of the forest, that was the era when the storks had set up their household on the arjun tree. The blacksmiths and the storks had proliferated next to one another. When the blacksmiths began to die in hordes during the last famine, several storks died too, beneath the arjun tree. During the famine half the land owned by the blacksmiths was about to pass into Jagadish Saha’s possession when Sharafat Mandal sent for the blacksmiths and gave them money which they paid Jagadish to prevent their land from being confiscated. But Sharafat himself became the owner of the land in this way. When the blacksmiths moved to the town, Mandal’s hired hands went over to plough their land, which was when the swarm of storks on the arjun tree flew across the lake to perch on the branches of Sharafat Mandal’s silk cotton tree. Sharafat offered shelter to the helpless birds with great tenderness. God is merciful, nothing escapes his eye, and so Sharafat had been rewarded plentifully for this act. His flourishing household kept swelling with children, women, cattle, ducks and hens, land, and hired hands. But a question—could birds from a Hindu village possibly turn anyone’s luck so much? Although the villagers hesitated to say it in as many words, the truth was that they knew that the storks were slaves to Munshi’s wishes. Which was why Tamiz’s father trembled uncontrollably at their slow flight. This trembling could, however, also be the remnants of the incantations he heard in his sleep or was woken up by. Did these incantations also emerge through the hole in Munshi’s throat to be borne on the air? Or was it the voice of someone he knew that had attached itself to his hairy ear, buzzing like a bee? When the buzzing spread everywhere, seven or eight storks flew in circles over the lake to measure it, looping around Tamiz’s father’s head to gauge whether he was pure or not. Just a short while ago Tamiz’s father was waving his arms, limp with sleep, to disperse the clouds in the sky so that he could see how Munshi commanded the flock of sheep to take on the appearance of murrels. Now he clamped his hands over his own head. If the storks were to notice his scalp, covered in hair like tendrils of hemp, there was no escaping Munshi’s wrath, no escaping it at all. Turning his head away, Tamiz’s father struggled up from the mud to climb back on shore, and set off for home directly. Staggering as he walked, several times he treaded on goathead thorns, some of which lodged themselves in the thousands of apertures left in his soles by thorns that had pricked him earlier. Pulling the thorns out as he walked, and increasing his pace despite the risk of stepping on more of them, he raced homeward. On many such occasions in the past, Tamiz’s father had retreated out of fear at the sight of thin grey clouds scudding across the sky while he was trying to dispel them to catch a glimpse of Munshi, abandoning the fishing net draped over his shoulder by the side of the lake—sometimes in the mud, at other times on the rain-soaked earth.
Arunava Sinha is a pre-eminent translator of Bangla literature who single-handedly has translated quite a substantial chunk of Bangla literature, from classics to contemporary writing, from poetry to fiction and nonfiction. His translated books include Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s The Chieftain’s Daughter (Durgeshnandini), Sunil Gangopadhyay’s You are Neera and Rizia Rahman's Blood Letters.