By Anwar Shahadat
Translated from Bengali by Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat
During the month of Bhadro, the moon is totally eclipsed in the evening. The darkness of that night can only be compared to a blind inferno. Legend has it that even a jackal would not attack a hen’s house for fear of the dark. It is considered inauspicious to light a lamp again after its kerosene is extinguished. Uttering the name of a recently deceased person or talking about a dream is an ill-omen for all. Pregnant women have to fast during these nights; otherwise the fortune goddess will frighten them to such an extent that the fetus will be aborted. On a night like this, quadruple-headed female apparitions take part in a wild dance soiree, underneath an old tamarind tree, possessed by evil spirits. The eerie ambience of these dark nights is beyond description.
Besides, so many other bizarre things happen during these nights! If you want to raise a dog, expert for chasing the jackals, thieves or Shitala Devi, the harbinger of chicken-pox, you need to pierce the ears of a puppy younger than two months. Not only that, you must pick the thorn from a wild wood-apple tree and feed the puppy some rice mixed with Kamranga chili on the leaves of a barren and uncultivated palm–round eggplant.
And, if you want to spiritually harm your enemy — according to the sorcerer’s advice, it is this very night you ought to collect weird samples of objects for casting black magic. For example, you need eggs incubated by a pair of black pigeons; the green shoots of a palmyra tree; a torn piece of the front tuck of the lower portion of a widow’s white sari and the eyes of a drowned ebb-tide fish that habitually floats on the water…
But Furfuri the hag could not sleep peacefully in her own shed. It was not that she had strange desires like Wajed or Altaf. Completely alone, Furfuri spent these nights on the ground; an old quilt spread over hogla leaves she had inherited from her grandfather. She could not even cat-nap. Once, on one of those eclipsed nights six or seven years ago, she had fallen asleep and been physically assaulted by the trouble makers.
Ever since then she stayed awake on all the eclipsed nights of Bhadro, repeatedly uttering, “Leave devil leave, go jackal go, leave devil leave, go jackal go,” at the top of her voice to announce her presence.
Furfuri knew that her suffering had a lot to do with Shiku the sorcerer’s black magic. Unable to tolerate his continual harassment, she let go her embarrassment and complained to the Boro Membor of the Howlader family. The Boro Membor immediately went to Shiku’s house with a thick cane and threatened him, “I swear by the name of my dead father if I ever hear you messing with Furi again I will crush your bones with this. Bastard, you’ve grown too fat with glutton!” However, after the death of the Boro Membor, Shiku started practicing his black magic on her again. The Boro Membor’s sons were not like their father. Neither Shiku nor the sons respected her the way he had respected her. From then on, Furfuri tried with all her might to prevent herself from becoming the victim of Shiku’s black magic. She believed her fate had been written on a copper plate and could not be changed.
She was attacked several times on every eclipsed night. After one such attack, Furfuri went to visit Shiku’s place. Having crossed the pond, she called out tenderly to Shiku’s wife, “Chodo Bou, are you home, respond if you are!” Soburjaan, Shiku’s wife, was weaving a hogla with the leaves of elle and responded at once, “Is it Furi bachha from the other side of the pond? Please come over. In whose boat did you cross the pond?” Furfuri washed her feet with the rain water from the reservoir and entered Shiku’s house. Furfuri asked where Soburjaan’s son was, and Soburjaan replied, “My son went to collect palm with his father.” That very moment, the forever skeletal figure of Shiku appeared with his emaciated son on his left arm and a palm fruit on his right. Although he was very alarmed to see Furfuri, he greeted her calmly, “Is it Furi bachha? When did you arrive? What’s up?”
“Aren’t you even ashamed of calling me bachha so affectionately?” Shiku did not respond to her retort. His wife burst out wailing miserably, “Oh, my poor ill-fated woman!” She took hold of her hand and tried to soothe her, “Why doesn’t Allah take us away instead?” It was an unusual situation, the two opposing parties facing each other with a strangely sympathetic attitude and an absence of the expected hostility. Consequently, Furfuri spoke coolly, “Shiku! How could your heart bear doing this to a woman old enough to be your mother?” Shiku did not reply, quietly peeling the palm fruit and squeezing the juice into a clay pot. He called his son, “Come bajaan, lick the juice from the peel.”
Shiku’s wife offered Furfuri a paan roll, a betel nut leaf filling with green date seed. Furfuri crammed it in her mouth and said, “What harm have I done to you, Shiku?” Shiku did not reply, but diverted her by saying, “Are you taking paan already? I wonder if you’d like to have lunch with us, rice with pigeon gravy.”
Furfuri remembered she had eaten meat a number of times in her life. She had eaten beef nine to ten times, chicken at least twenty times, mutton twice, water-hen once, sparrow three to four times and pigeon only twice! She could almost recall the days accurately. It was in the year that Dadu, her paternal grandmother, had died, and in the initial Korbani Eid days of her first marriage. Once it was a lost pigeon and on another occasion it was a hunted pigeon bitten by a jackal. No one could tell when it was bitten but there was a fresh line of blood on the spot. She knew that it was a religious belief that dead poultry was forbidden, unless it had been killed by a predator. And the taste of a pigeon curry cooked with potatoes is hard to forget. It had been a long time she she had eaten meat of any kind. Then what was wrong in having pigeon curry at Shiku’s expense? He was inviting her warmly, not that she was asking for it.
Licking the palm fruit off his fingers, Shiku served some pigeon curry gravy to Furfuri’s plate with a coconut shell spoon. The curry was so spicy that Shiku had to quietly wipe off his nose with the end of his frayed lungi. His son Muhammad Hamid kept on asking for more meat. Soburjaan miserly served him with gravy since they had a guest, promising meat again some other day. After serving her with pigeon curry, it was hard for Shiku to understand why Furfuri would still hold a grudge against him. Shiku the sorcerer now started justifying himself with the backstory of getting the pigeon meat, “Bachha, I was not able to feed my son with pigeon meat until now. He heard from someone and insisted on having some. But where was I to get him that? Should I steal? From whom could I get it? You think they will let me survive if I stole from them? But my son kept on asking for meat!”
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.