By Papree Rahman
Translated from Bengali by Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat
Mohor Ali stood still, as though he had been possessed by some evil spirit. The pond in front of him was almost dried up. Water hyacinth clustered like black clouds, making it hard to tell if there was any water remaining. Only recently, Efu had happily splashed in this about-to-dry-out puddle! She had cast an angry look at him and walked straight down into the deep water, and Mohor Ali had not been able to prevent her. Even if he had, would Efu ever listen to him?
It was the end of the wet month of Magh, hence the poor condition of the ponds and rivers. The water was shrunken to its foot. What mattered if the ponds were parched like this! There was no chance of a fish or snake, of course, but one could not deny the existence of leeches.
When Efu walked into the water, leeches had greedily crept up for her soft thighs and wedged in to suck her blood, Mohor Ali assumed. He had no faith in Efu’s talisman against snake bites. No matter how Efu made others believe in it, Mohor Ali knew this water land better than anyone. He was completely convinced that Efu deceived everyone about the leeches.
Mohor Ali was so puzzled that day by Efu’s crazy behaviour. He tried to stop her after a brief exchange of words. How violent she turned out to be!
She was married to him for five long years and yet she dared to pay him no attention! She took no notice of Mohor Ali, avoided looking sideways, and dashed into the deep water. Was there any other option for Mohor Ali but to stand still like he was possessed by an evil spirit?
Mohor Ali often longed to see Efu, no matter how annoyed he was with her activities. He felt empty if he did not. His craving for her enveloped him like an old blanket, covering day and night. He panted for breath like a freshly caught catfish on land. Just as she rushed by him into the water, she appeared reproachful like a warrior or goddess— Kali who would pierce him through and through. Mohor Ali was indeed very frightened. Her rebelliousness was unfamiliar to him. Efu had always been very quiet, inert, self-absorbed. But everything changed when he married Hasna. As if blown away by a tornado, Efu had whirled out of the house for good. Until then, she had devoted all her time to home-making. What an expert home-maker she had been when she was newly married to Mohor Ali! Their married life was so precise and organized. Not only was she an expert at keeping the expenditure of her grocery shopping, she was also highly skilled in needlework.
Counting cockatoos on the custard apple tree
Only good wives can make a happy family.
Treasured memories of those colourful bygone days still charmed Mohor Ali. Efu made delicious payesh, rice pudding; moyamurki, rice balls with molasses; and rosher pitha, rice cake dipped in syrup. He still felt the coolness of the taler-pakha, the handmade palm-leaf fan that she fanned him with in the hot month of Chaitra. Efu used to make her hair into kola-beni, braided coils with crimson-coloured jaba flower ribbons, or artfully wrapped herself into a paddy green or saffron sari. Her slim body quickly gained muscle within the stripes of her sari. Mohor Ali remembered those days with amazement. Could anyone match this rebellious Efu dashing into the shriveled pond with the other coy Efu resembling the cockatoo on a custard apple tree?
The more Mohor Ali watched her, the more disorientated he became. The Efu who used to braid her hair into kola-beni had infested lice in her unkempt rough hair now. The golden threads in the border of her sari had long lost their shine. Yet she wore that frayed sari every day! Mohor Ali remembered that he gave it to Hasna soon after their marriage. Efu almost grabbed it from her, and wore it frequently. Mohor Ali could not understand why she would look after her satin’s, co-wife’s, sari so well. He did not find a clear answer to this. How could he? It was only because of Efu his thoughts had become so tarnished.
Efu turned hardheartedly indifferent after her firstborn died in the atur ghor, the labour room. Her eyes talked of a world beyond this. Her absent-mindedness and exhaustion were profound. At the beginning, Mohor Ali had been very worried by Efu’s strangeness. Probably there was a thin chance of hope — or was it just his imagination? Maybe Efu was all right, and he tried to console himself by thinking she would soon recover from the bereavement of her child’s death. But nothing changed. Tahiron dai, the midwife, said, “Mohor miya, your wife is to blame for the death of your golden son.”
“Your wife is not conscious. She didn’t listen to me at all. I tried to make her understand well.” Tahrin dai walked away saying only this much. She did not want to waste any more time at the house of a dead child. Mohor Ali lacked courage to ask her anything else, and so he never learnt what actually happened in the labour room.
Mohor Ali saw Efu’s dry eyes; tranquility prevailed in her black pupils. Efu did not shed a single tear in spite of her son’s death. She held him and remained tearless. She repeatedly checked his chest and back for the faintest heartbeat, longing to hear a sudden heartbeat, but nothing happened and the dead child did not stir slightly in the warmth of her lap.
When Mohor Ali went to bury his son, in rushing tears, Efu remained listless. As if the summer sun of the month of Chaitra had scorched her eyes and dried her tears. Her eyes were turbulent, two tornadoes in the summer dust. Mohor Ali waited for the future. Of course it took time to overcome the grief of the first born’s death.
Efu was pregnant again the following year and the same tragic incident was repeated. The lifeless child looked like a doll. With an aquiline nose, stretched eyebrows, a fair complexion and a head full of black locks, the child was such a beauty. Efu’s heart burnt in emptiness as she watched him for long hours. How Mohor Ali wished the baby would cry out and stir just once. His wish never came true. He shook Efu with tears rolling from his eyes, but she looked blank with the dusty summer wind of Chaitra storming up at her.
Mohor Ali stopped being blind about Efu after what Tahirin dai had told him about her. It was incredible to him that a mother could kill her own child. He could not control his agitation; on the contrary, he grew impatient with Efu’s insanity.