by Mozid Mahmud
Kuddus was the first to see the girl. He had gone out near the river bank to relieve himself. The winter had not set yet, but the river was beginning to feel its pull. There was a little fog, one could feel the crippling cold coming ahead. Kuddus could not keep it in any longer. There was no time to look at anything. Once it bit the stomach, there was no respite. It would propel out. It was still dark out. One couldn’t make out anything.
Kuddus did his deed and went over to the river to clean himself. He did not want to use the River’s water. Angels hovered over the river, he had heard. He did not want to defile the river. Besides, the NGO employees who came over discouraged this use. They talked of how diseases spread. But there was no other way. There was the dwelling of catkin, raising its head along the river. Hundreds of these demesnes lay around. Bastards with no ownership. It’s only might that determines proprietorship. Kuddus wasn’t the owner here. It was Paramanik. Kuddus was his indentured servant. He was not paid by the month. Rather every year he received 12 minas of grains and 6000 takas. He received two lungis, two gamchas, clothing, and a blanket for the winter. The money wasn’t much. One could earn more doing hard labor. But there wasn’t hard labor to do all year long. This way, Kuddus did not have the uncertainty. He did not have to think perennially of food and work.
Kuddus’s older brother Rahim was one of Paramanik’s indentured servants, too. Their father had been one as well. He did not know about his grandfather’s history. Their father died when they were young. He could not remember how long ago that was. He could only count to twenty. Any number beyond that did not hold meaning for him. Only looking forward till tomorrow seemed important, nothing beyond it. And if it was necessary, he had his older brother and Paramanik to rely on. They wouldn’t deceive him. He wasn’t even acquainted with the word “deceive”. Everything seemed good to him in the world. Nothing bad. There wasn’t much to think of here in the Lord’s world. Whatever He lets happen must be for the good.
Kuddus felt the presence of someone near him in the fog. He thought someone had arrived to answer the call of nature, so hadn’t looked back. But no one came by this char. Could it be a ghost? He looked straight, praying under his breath. But after a few paces, he couldn’t keep his curiosity in check. He rubbed his eyes to see clearly. No, this was clearly a person – a girl. Her buttocks planted firmly to the ground. If she were a ghost, she would have been levitating in mid-air. He had heard that spirits could not touch the ground.
Kuddus hesitated for a while. He could not make sense of this. How could a girl come to be here? There were no houses within ten miles. The Padma lies adjacent to the catkin. No one could have floated all the way here. The sky by then had lightened up. One could see the yellow rays rising from the edges. Kuddus usually didn’t get get scared so easily. He had immense strength. He had once hauled a crocodile up shore. Everyone in the area knew this story. But one couldn’t do anything about ghosts. They were not human, rather shadows. How could one fight with a shadow?
However, going near her, Kuddus realized she was not a shadow. She hadn’t come here to piss either. She was a broken girl, covered in mud and grime. Kuddus wasn’t able to determine her age. It could be over twenty, but less than two twenties. His mother had died at a young age. He had seen a few women in the village. But he had no distinct memory of them. However, seeing this girl disheveled here like this, he felt a pull within him, as if the man inside him had awakened. This awakening had led to affection for the girl. He desired to call this strange woman his own. He could see that she must’ve gone through a lot the previous night. Perhaps she hadn’t eaten. But how had she arrived here. The question bugged him. Later on, he had learned that some men from Goalanda village had pulled her on a boat. She had been there the whole night. The men had used her the whole night, beat her up somewhere in her body. Then gave her something that put her to sleep. When she had woke up, she found herself here.
Kuddus, of course, did not understand much of it. He did not even know where Goalanda was. Wherever it may be, the girl seemed to be an angel to him.
When the girl asked for water, he brought her some from the river. She gulped it down, sprayed some of it over her face. She asked, “What village is this?”
“Dikri’s Char,” replied Kuddus.
How could a girl like this arrive in Kuddus’s world? That a girl could be snatched away on a boat by a few men and left here to die after their torture was believable yet unthinkable in Kuddus’s universe. He did not know where the village was. One could see the edges of it on the other end of the river. She might as well have come from the land of fairy tales.
The girl wanted to know if Kuddus had any food with him. He returned to the house and brought some barley with husk and jaggery. On a tin-plate she soaked the barley in river water and gobbled them up. The previous night’s exhaustion caved away. She forgot the hunger. She wanted to know where Kuddus lived, whether he could take her to live with him there. By then, Kuddus had become enamored with the girl. The girl had sobered up as well, did not want to go anywhere without him. In moments, he noticed this change in him. The Kuddus who couldn’t think for himself, whose entire life revolved around his older brother Rahim. He had no one in the world other than his brother. His brother would marry, his sister-in-law would adore him. They would have kids and he would spend his life playing with his nephews and nieces. He had thought of having this girl marry his brother. But now the thought did not appeal to him. It wasn’t possible for both of them to marry this girl. Besides, what if his brother asked him where he had got this girl from? It wouldn’t be possible for him to leave this girl alone. He brought her with him back to the house.
Rahim had gone up to the herd in the morning. In addition to watching over the catkin, they took care of Paramanik’s buffalows, about twenty of them, some of which give milk. The two brothers kept watch over the buffallows, milked them. Made ghee from the cream. They had it themselves. Every Friday morning, Rahim would take the milk and go over to Paramanik’s house. He would return at night with rice, salt and oil to light the lamps. Sometimes he brought in fish when he went to bathe in the river. They had about everything to live a sufficient life. They had never felt a hardship in life. That they would have to marry according to the law of their society was known to them, but they never yearned for women. Not even for their departed mother.
Leaving the girl at the house, Kuddus went to his brother and told him what had happened. Rahim was puzzled at such a strange incident. He had a bit more common sense than his younger brother. He asked, “What have you done, Kuddus? You brought over a strange girl? Wouldn’t it be a sin? If anyone knew, we’d be exiled.”
Still, Rahim could not help but be curious. He quickly finished the job and went over. The sight of the girl had the same effect on him as Kuddus. Truly, it seemed like he hadn’t seen a girl like this before, either. At least not a girl in her youth. That there was a torment of the heart for women, he realized it then. Afterwards, the two brothers did not talk much. They lived in such obscurity. People did not visit that much here. Buffalo milk, fish from the river – there was never a shortage of food. But they possibly couldn’t keep a a young girl like her with them forever.
It was soon dusk. Kuddus lit up the oil-lamp. Rahim began to boil rice for the night. The girl had become her regular self. She said, “I can cook, let me help.” She did all the arrangements. The three of them sat down to eat together. The food had a taste like never before. They began to find a new meaning to their life. The two brothers began to day-dream about their futures with the girl. But no one could hear their secret longings. Kuddus had found the girl, so he seemed to have a better claim to her. He didn’t think his brother would think about her like this. On the other hand, Rahim thought all his brother’s thoughts revolved around him. Besides, it was only after his marriage that Kuddus could marry.
Trouble arrived when they headed to bed. There was only one bed. The two brothers had a pillow each and one blanket which they shared. There was no space for a third person. On top of that, she was a girl. They could have adjusted with a man, but they couldn’t possibly have had her lay down with them. In the end, they gave their bed to her and the two brothers went out and slept outside. None of them could sleep. They all begin to weave their own dreams with her. They had no father. Their mother had died so long ago. Their household was essentially Paramanik’s household. Their entire world centered on servitude. And there were no women in that world. No one to share one’s misery and happiness with. The two brothers had been brought up like Cain and Abel. Would this girl be the point of their discord? Thinking such thoughts, they went off to sleep in the end. The girl woke them up in the morning. In such a small time, they became part of family.
Rahim told his brother, “We should build another room. She must have a place to stay.” The two brothers went out and cut some wood to built it. Built a platform with bamboo. A second home rose up beside theirs. They began to dream of their own homes. On Friday, Rahim went to the village, as usual, to bring over the week’s supply from Paramanik’s. But as soon as he left, he started to sense loss. As if he was leaving something behind.
On his way back, he went to a store unfamiliar to them and bought a saree, some snow-powder and a comb. He did this with precaution, lest anyone caught him in the act. He thought of many things on his way home. He should’ve asked the girl about her village. She had mentioned Goalanda or something. When he had asked around about Goalanda, people looked at him with suspicioun. “What would you do with Goalanda? Rahim had said, “No reason.” He surmised that his friend Habil had promised him he’d take him to Goalanda one day. That there were many beautiful girls there. They’d go by boat. It was several miles’ journay, taking four hours.
He returned earlier than usual. Just as he stepped near the house’s steps, he could hear the presense of Kuddus and the girl. They were laughing. The girl was asking him: Wll you marry me? I’m a bad person, though. But if you marry me, I won’t do any bad anymore.
Rahim lost his thoughts hearing these words. He coughed a little loudly and and entered the room. The girl became happy seeing the saree and snow-powder. Seeing the girl overjoyed dissipated much of the despair he had felt while evesdropping. They began to behave normally again and ate their dinner together.
When he woke up in the middle of the night, Kuddus couldn’t find his brother. He waited for a long while. Then he heard sounds coming from the nearby house. After this the two brothers stopped trusting each other. They would get angry at little things. In front of the girl they would both grow silent. They wouldn’t talk with one another. They’d gobble up their rice and sleep with their shoulders to each other. No one was able to sleep in peace.
The girl was to be be blamed for the sin they almost committed. The two brothers also saw it as as the Lord testing them, just as Harut and Marut were sent over to Babel. Even as the angels’ test were a failure, the Lord had saw fit to forgive them. The brothers had heard the story numerous times from the mullah at Paramanik’s. But Rahim and Kuddus had no way of escaping from their sins. The two brothers had been stabbed with the same knife of sin. But to save themselves from fratricide they had decided to return the girl to Goalanda.
They left on a boat at dawn. The river-path to Goalanda was straight and simple. One did not have to learn the pathways here. The river itself took you to your destination. Leaving the girl there, they got back and heaved a sigh of relief. At least, they had saved themselves from killing one another. They hugged each other and cried. But they couldn’t be like before anymore. The girl still held a powerful presense in their hearts. They found that they could not focus on work.
The next Friday, Rahim did not return from the village. He got back a day later. Then a few days later, Kuddus was gone for three days. This was how they took turns to go missing for the girl. The brothers had realized that without Goalanda they wouldn’t be able to live.
The girl had to be brought back. The girl, helpless herself, believed them, too. She couldn’t handle the brunt of her society, either. She wanted a little love too. And the love of one man was still a dream of hers. In this tussle to belong to one, the brothers never wished to ask who she wanted to be with. Done for on the boat, any meaningful choice had been snatched away from her thereafter. Even in the Goalanda slum, where the men furiously guarded and abused their women, she was treated as someone who had lost her powers to be a person, had lost the abiity to have relations.There was no custom to lead a household with two husbands but at least the love of two brothers was a thing of joy for her. She had heard of old stories of five brothers having the one wife. Compared to that, two were less.
The month of Ashwin had arrived on the river. Rain drizzled most of the day. Rahim and Kuddus were both adept at rowing the boat. They lived by the river – it wouldn’t make sense to fear the water. The brothers hadn’t talked to one another on their way to Goalanda, not even on the way back. The girl sat in silence in the middle. Her second coming to these shores were more assured. She could not understand how their dynamic would play out now. Before, she had a relationship with both the brothers. Though they did not recognize it. She did not have to face the shame that time, but now? She had a relationship with many. But she had never had to face a complexity such as this. She had grown to blindly love the two brothers and depend on them. She was not able to explain why.
She wondered if it was right to have returned. Love had not been consistent in her past. She had no mother. Her father had married a second time. She did not remember the stories any more. Her life had been decided in a Goalanda slum. The life she had wrought with the two brothers, in comparison, was complex and muddled. There was no path left to come out of such sin. Yet she was able to accumulate quite the desirable memories with these two after the incident of her rape.
Till then, no one had spoken. Rahim sat still. Kuddus worked the oars. And the girl was busy in her thoughts. There weren’t a lot of waves this time of the year. Rather, a reverse current began to take hold. The drizzle hadn’t stopped but started to intensify. Perhaps a depression was underway. They took place once or twice a year. The sky was darkening with the onslaught of rain. Rahim and Kuddus began to feel anxious. Rahim moved over the hull and took over the helm. He paddled with all the strength in him. They were hopeful the boat would make it. It was only a few paces away. They knew how to swim well. Such a small distance was nothing to worry about. Kuddus looked at Rahim. Rahim lowered them down. Then an intense wind pushed them against the current. The wooden boat could not weather the tension and broke apart, sinking away. The girl had helplessness in her voice. She cried out: mother! The name of her Lord.
Two days later, the girl’s body floated ashore. Rahim and Kuddus found it together. They both got down and brought up up. They dug a grave beneath the forests and buried her there with care. Then they embraced each other and began to cry. This girl, perhaps the only person besides their mother, was the only one they had both equally called their own.
About the Author:
Mozid Mahmud is a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. His works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul–Spokesman of the Third World (1996) and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize, Bangladesh Writers Club Prize, and the country’s National Press Club Award.