Shiku licked his fingers again. He took some more rice from the curry pot to wipe off the last bit of leftover gravy and spoke: “The idea came to my mind that moment. Chhomed, son of Sohrab, wanted to marry Piayara, the daughter of Ansar. But Piyara was not willing to marry him. So, I advised Chhomed — you goat, the apple of my eye! To get her, you must win her heart first! If you are eager to listen then I will teach you a spell with which you can make the girl walk to your door and pull the tuck of your lungi! But you need to pay for this spell with two yellow pigeons, a quarter less than one sher of old rice, and two bulbs of garlic. I also need a root from a twin palm tree and teppona, water-weeds from a stagnant pond. I also asked for the… from the private part of a seven-times-divorced woman. If I don’t give them a bizarre list like this I don’t seem credulous enough. This pigeon curry was acquired from that mission. Now do what you wish, slap me twice on my cheek or kick my ass for what I do.”
And so one of the most important materials to obtain, according to the sorcerer’s advice for winning girls’ hearts, was the pubic hair of a woman who had been divorced seven times. That was why he made the young man, Chhomed, run like a mad dog of Kartik to collect these supplies. And Furfuri was known to be one such woman who had married seven times. Thus Furfuri was considered extremely valuable to lovesick young men, even her hair had to be collected from her in the most barbaric manner.
Neither the advisor sorcerer nor the lovesick men had the slightest idea what pain this savagery would cause a woman, or any human being. Although Shiku the sorcerer explained all the benefits Furfuri would enjoy, all the while feeding her rice with pigeon curry. These were: if he did not tell them about the specific night of the month of Bhadro then Furfuri would have to suffer the whole year, such was the number of lovesick people wanting a cure that they would attack her every night. Here was another example, “I tell them tactfully, if you can’t bring a tuft I am here to fill the rest. If I don’t tell them this then these mad men would create a massacre in obtaining the stuff. You must remember how I always keep you safe. I do all these after a lot of deliberation. Of course I feel ashamed for my dependence on you since I am not of low birth, I do not steal or beg. Otherwise I would die from starvation.” Having said this, Shiku the black magician took some more rice to wipe up the last bit of gravy like he was about to plow the field for the last time to sow Amon rice. He was not eating. It was as if the clay pot was cultivating a man’s conscience, life, income and morality all together with the rice, water, gravy and earth.
A rumour is never true. Furfuri wondered if she could have lived well with just one man in her entire life, let alone seven! She had a childhood marriage, unfortunately. Her first husband spent time singing with his group during the moonlit nights of Falgun. He died after two years of marriage, suffering from cholera for three hours, and was laid to rest under the bamboo shrub. And a young woman does not remain unmarried for long. Her next husband also died from a snake bite. As Gabriel came to take his life he fell right in the middle of the paddy field. A lot of rituals were performed by the snake charmers to bring the young man’s life back, but in vain. Who would want to marry this unfortunate woman and die from cholera or snake bite again?
Consequently, Furfuri returned to the house of her father, a man who did not have any documents for the house he lived in and who was also a ghor jamai, a domesticated son-in-law. The stubborn boatman, Majid, once begged for her hand in marriage, “I’m not afraid of death to have you.” But his stout son pulled him back home by his gamcha. These stories were not enough to give a record of her marriages to seven husbands. The people in the villages did not care about the truth. She was already known to all to have been married seven times and that led people to habitually call her by all sorts of demeaning names. It was not a headache for Furfuri that she was called by all sorts of bad names for having seven or seven times three makes twenty-one husbands! Rather she believed those who belittled her for no reason would be punished for their sin. Besides, all this name calling did not hurt her in the flesh. She was good at reasoning without exposing her agitation on the surface.
Since she was known to have married seven times, her pubic hair was required by the black magicians’ spell for lovesick youths and so she could not escape their barbaric attack on her. In order to free herself from unfair accusation and save herself from the consequent brutal oppression, she asked for help from the Boro Membor. She had talked with Shiku the sorcerer and a few others. Who would listen to her? On every eclipsed night in the month of Bhadro, she spent the hours in great anxiety waiting to be harassed by the monstrous collectors. At any moment, they would jump on her like wild jackals. Was she a talisman begotten by dream, a golden vine or a therapeutic fruit to be collected for winning the hearts of women?
Furfuri touched her forehead, a gesture to show her unfortunate condition, “My life is at stake. Let’s see if I can get rid of this problem.” Furfuri tied the empty tin she bought from Lal Miya with strong vines and hung it on top of the hen house. Then she placed a big branch inside the tin. One end of a jute rope was tied at to the branch and the other end to the big toe of her right foot. She could make a loud sound if she was about to fall asleep by just moving her toe easily on the tin gong. If she happened to suddenly fall asleep during those ominous dark nights of Bhadro, the loud dong-dong sound of the gong would make the black-magic collectors aware that Furfuri was awake and stop them from accumulating what they sought. While she was awake she would keep repeating in her tired voice, “Go Satan, go jackal, go Gabriel…”
Like every other poverty-stricken person, she survived on boiled arum leaves, vines and green-vegetables. She would cook rice one day and eat the same rice for three days and its drained froth for two further days, or spend the whole day on Beechikola bananas. She would trade four eggs for one chhotak of sesame oil or wash her clothes with the foam made from banana shoots and eat boiled tamarind leaves to cure any illness she suffered from.
Sometimes there were interruptions to this life of steady routines. This year the paddy was infested by insects and then came the floods. Everyone said this time the water did not come from the sea but from the mountains. Furfuri also observed the flood water was so crystal-clear that she could see the ground beneath. The paddy fields became stagnant in this water and gathered large water weeds and slowly spoilt the crop like rotten jute. Of course Furfuri did not possess any crop, let alone any paddy field. But she also suffered the consequence of the natural calamity. It was difficult for her to collect green weeds, let alone green vegetables! No one sold a cucumber or a jhinga that she could eat! The few chicken and ducks she had also died from epidemics. She wept noisily over the hen house, but that did not stop them from dying.
The empty tin gong over the hen house looked so lonesome to Furfuri. This scarecrow tin gong for driving away the beasts churned her starvation like a shredded branch in the Boishakhi storm. She felt like forever fulfilling her hunger through the hen house or the tin gong with handful of loose soil. That was never possible, of course.
Furfuri walked straight towards the bank of the pond and called for Shiku, the black magician, urgently on the other side of the pond, “Oi Shikuuuuu, Shikuuuu, are you home?”
Shiku popped his head out from the low thatched roof of his house, “Bachha, how’s everything, are you all right?” Furfuri picked from her right toenail the mud accumulated by the Bhadro rain, “Shiku-ree, I am dying of starvation. I don’t remember the last time I had rice. Tomorrow is an eclipsed night of Bhadro. I feel like having some rice with pigeon curry.” Shiku observed her with excitement, “Let’s see what I can manage, bachha” and started walking towards the pond. Without looking back at her, he begged, “For God’s sake, I swear by your head, never beat the gong again, stop it!”
In conclusion, it could be said that if the situation was favourable then both Furfuri and Shiku could soon have a peaceful meal together with rice and pigeon curry.
Anwar Shahadat is a writer, filmmaker, and journalist. Born and raised in Barisal, southern Bangladesh, he is at present settled in New York. He has made a couple of short films and a feature film, and he has published two collections of short stories and a novel in Bengali. His early career involved work as the political and diplomatic correspondent of a newspaper. He was also the publisher of a weekly political news magazine.
Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat studied at the University of Dhaka and the University of Nottingham, UK. She is Assistant Professor of English at East West University in Dhaka and a passionate translator. Her English translations have appeared in ‘Under the Krishnachura Tree: Fifty Years of Bangladeshi Writing’ , ‘Writing Across Borders’, ‘Contemporary Short Stories from Bangladesh’, ‘The Dawn of the Waning Moon’, and ‘Lilies, Lanterns, Lullabies’, as well as webzines and the literary pages of local dailies.
‘Furfuri’s Innocent Meal’ is from Anwar Shahadat’s collection ‘Hele Chashar Joal Brittanto’, and appeared in print in Bhorer Kagoj.