The house stood just over the bow-shaped concrete pool- a tall, huge two storied building. It stood right on the street and had not spared an inch in the front. No one cares about a sidewalk here. Whatever the façade, the inside of the building was different. It was huge and the courtyard was broad as well. Just after the toilet, bathroom the backyard was full of trees—mango, rose apple, jackfruit. It resembled a jungle where even the blazing sun was shy. A fusty smell emanated from the weed-carpeted shadowy soil.
Would it have been a sin if the house was built leaving some space in front?
So they thought and Matin in particular. He had a hobby of gardening, but till now it became a reality only in his imagination. “Ah! If I could get a patch of soil!” thought Matin. He would plant mousumi, gandharaj, bakul, hasnahana, two or four roses too. Coming from office he would sit here in the late evening. To relax with a luxury he would buy a light cane-made chair. Reclining on it he would then gossip with friends. Amzad had a habit of smoking hookah. Keeping an eye with the beauty of the garden he would have bought a carved hookah. Kader was a storyteller. With fine breeze his voice would have been more melodious. And if he wound not tell a story at such a moon blanched flower-scented night, the sky would not fall on us! Carelessly with eyes closed they could quietly enjoy the mellow twilight.
Returning from office Matin tiredly climbed the stair and such thoughts crowded him.
They occupied the house without any force. It was abandoned. The owner had fled. Because of the anarchy of partition they had eventually arrived in this town and badly sought for a roof. They found the house after many setbacks. It was locked and empty. They were fortunate to have found it. They were elated first but immediately after an unknown fear gripped them. Next moment it, however, vanished. And in the evening they broke the gate and entered the house with shouts of victory. They were too excited to feel any sense of remorse or guilty.
Next day the news spread across the city and crowds of people rushed like sea-waves. They also needed a roof.
They hid their joy and told the newcomers that there was hardly a space for keeping a foot in the house. How could you all take shelter here? Impossible! Look at the small room. It had already four beds huddled together.
Another sympathetic voice cried for the perils of the strangers, “Don’t we understand your hardships? One day we had to bear it. But you are really unlucky.”
The faces of the strangers become blackened at these touching words.
Then a stranger pointed to a room and asked, “That room?”
They said, “It looks empty but it’s not so. Keep eyes close to the floor. Look, two beddings lie there. Just two hours ago the last space was occupied by accountant portly Badruddin who has gone to bring his bedding from his wife’s brother who with his family had taken shelter in his friend’s verandah.”
Again a sympathetic voice cried, “If you had come before two hours, you could have given a fig to Badruddin. Yes, the room is dimly lit but there is a street light beside it. During load shedding you hardly need a lamp!”
These caring voices fell flat to the ears of the strangers—the disappointed, defeated home-seekers.
Meanwhile, police came to investigate the case of the usurpation of the house. Watching the uniformed men they asked themselves if the fled house owner complained to the police to rescue the house. One could hardly believe it. The owner had emptied the house and fled within two days. He might have many difficulties to manage his family. Where was his time to complain? The police had been surely informed by the failed home-seekers. They did it out of jealousy. They thus reasoned. Violence now seemed to be an abiding duty to the occupied.
We might be clerks, poor but we were sons of cultural families. We had occupied the house. But we did not break doors or windows. We did not steal bricks and irons. We knew laws of the land. Who complained? Not the house owner. So it was invalid.
Kader mourned, “Where will we go? Have we come here out of hobby?”
Without taking any action the sub-inspector with his men returned to police station. He wrote to his higher authority a lengthy messy report citing both merits and demerits of the case. The higher authority failed to interpret the deftly hidden meaning of his complex letter. Or in this turbulent time they were afraid to invite fresh troubles. So they understandably failed to interpret the laws related to usurpation of house. Naturally they did not proceed further. They preferred to hush up the case.
Kader squinted eyes and cleared to his fellow men that there was nothing wrong in confessing that the second wife of the sub-inspector was his kin.
Nobody believed him but all were happy to relish the pleasure of untruth, and they happily pardoned him.
Excitedly one also asked Kader for tea and sweet.
Overnight the house was abuzz with shouts of joy and merriment. Their usurpation of the house at this violent time and the feeling of having a shelter under a roof were not the sole reasons behind their light mood. In fact the clean and spacious house had given them a new lease of life. In Kolkata many of them have spent days at Blockman Lane with coolies, at Baithakkhana Lane with office bearers, at Sayed Saleh Lane with tobacco merchants or at filthy Chamru Khansama Lane inhaling putrid air. The house with its spacious rooms, giant windows, broad yard, and backyard forest offered them a taste of a quite different world. Yes, they had not a room of one’s own, but they had never enjoyed such fresh light and air. Green grass would cover them; their blood would be replenished with oxygen; like rich men they would glow and they would be freed from such diseases as malaria, cold fever, tuberculosis. Lean Younus already felt a change in his body. He lived at Macleod Street. The lane was dingy. He had a musty room beside the kitchen in a two story wooden ramshackle house. There he lived with some Gujrati leather merchants for four years. The smell of leather was so foul and pungent that he could hardly smell the foul air of the choked drain or a dead mouse or a rat. Younus often suffered from fever and early morning cough. Still he did not leave the neighbourhood because someone said to him that smell of leather could thwart tuberculosis. So he happily lived there. After office he would stand in front of window and see the holeless wall of the adjacent house and took deep breath. His health however did not improve by this practice.
Without food and eating a house seemed dull. For a week they cooked and dined like Mughals. Everybody’s secret technique of cooking came to daylight. One followed his grandmother’s way of making homemade pastry. It, however, turned into a bad food. But all savoured it and licked their fingers. Off and on there was musical concert in the evening. Habibullah bought a wayward harmonium from somewhere and till midnight he shrilly sang at the top of his voice.
At this time they suddenly noticed a tulsi plant in a raised square brick-made platform at the edge of the yard.
It was Sunday. Modabber was pacing up and down in the yard brushing his teeth with a neem twig. Suddenly he frenziedly shouted. He was a racy man. He was known for making a hill out of a mole. At the drop of a hat he berated breast. Some friends in fear ran towards him.
“What’s the matter?” they asked.
“Open your eyes.” Modabber said.
“What? What do we see?” They stood confused.
They in the hope of seeing snakes or something like missed the tulsi plant.
“Can’t you see the tulsi plant standing awkwardly there? It has to be uprooted. No trace of Hindu culture will be put up with.” Modabber heatedly argued.
They in disappointment looked at the basil plant. It seemed to have died. The green leaves had turned into yellow. Weeds had covered its root. It might not be watered for days.
“What are you watching? Root it out!” boomed Modabber.
They stood petrified. With this sudden discovery they were puzzled. The house seemed to be empty and abandoned though it had on its stair-wall some casually hand-written names. Now it changed its contour. Caught abruptly by the visitors the dry, dying basil plant, it seemed, was unfolding the hidden story of the house.
Modabber impatiently yelled again, “What are you thinking still? Uproot it!”
None of them moved. They did not know well the ways of Hindu culture. However they all know that in evening Hindu women light a wick under the basil- stand, bow head wrapping neck with the end of sari. Under this abandoned weed-covered basil plant once every evening someone would light a wick. That lonely wick, when the evening star alone brightened the sky, was lit by a vermilion-worn quiet woman. Both in wedding and funeral, in sun and shower the wick under the basil plant has spread its light without a miss.
Where is the woman of the house who years after years lighted the wick under this basil plant? Matin once worked in the railway. Without a reason pictures of varied railway-goomties (sheds) surfaced before his eyes. Perhaps that woman had found a shelter in one of her relation’s shanty in Asansol, Baidhyabathi, Lilua or Howrah. He saw in one railway-shed a sun-baked glossy black sari with red border. It might be hers. It sadly danced in the mild air. Or she might be sitting at window side in a running train. She looked out of the window. Her eyes searched something beyond the horizon. Her journey might have not ended yet. But wherever she stayed at the end of the day her eyes turned teary for her beloved basil plant.
From yesterday Younus was suffering from cold. He said, “Let it stay there. We are not going to worship it. It is good to have basil plant at home. Juice of its leaves is very effective for cold and cough.”
Modabber turned to others. It seemed they all agreed with Younus. To root out the plant nobody came forward. Among them Enayet had an attitude of a moulvi. He wore beard, practiced prayers five times a day. And in the morning he recited the verses from the Quran. He too was silent. Perhaps he could see the teary eyes of the lady of the house at sunset.
So the basil plant stayed there intact.
The plant escaped its death. But its presence in the house made them uneasy and awkward. A kind of weakness, a sort of uneasiness resulting out of turning face from a bounded duty ruled them. They could not forget it. Consequently in that evening adda topic of communalism came to the fore. It replaced common topics of ordinary days such as state affairs, economics, etc.
“They [Hindus] are at the root of everything. Our country was divided because of their meanness, lowness, fundamentalism,” Modabber shrilly claimed. His carefully brushed teeth under the naked bulb glistened
There was nothing new in Modabber’s story. Yet today his story was spiced a bit. In his support glaring cases of tyrannies and injustices done by Hindus were showcased. Within a few minutes their blood boiled. They breathed heavily.
Among them Maksud was a leftist. He protested, “Are you not crossing your limit?”
Modabber’s white teeth flashed. “What do you mean?”
Leftist Maksud felt lonely. Firmness in his belief took a jolt.
After some days while Modabber was passing before the kitchen the basil plant came to his notice. He could not help being taken aback. The grass which covered the root of the plant was weeded out. Now the dying dry brown leaves had turned dark green again. Undoubtedly someone was looking after the plant. In secret someone was watering the plant too.
Modabber had a bamboo stick in his hand. He swiftly swept it over the plant. He, however, missed the plant. So it still stayed there intact.
Meanwhile nobody remembered the plant. Younus was relieved from his cold next day. He did not need juice of the basil leaves.
They thought that they had indeed begun a new life in fresh air and radiant light. Life at Macleod Street, Khansama Lane, Blockman Street seemed to belong to a hoary past. But they were soon mistaken. So they were terribly shocked at the sudden onslaught.
One day according to morning plan they returned from the office and were all set to cook hodgepodge. They heard cracking sounds of heavy boots on the stair. Moddaber peeped outside and then hastily ran to the room.
He whispered, “Police have come again.”
They startled, “Police? Why again? Younus thought that a burglar from the street might have entered the house, and the police chased him. He was reminded of the story of the rabbit. Having found no ways of escape from the clutch of the hunter the rabbit closed its eyes and thought it could not be seen. Are not they thieves? Have not they hidden the truth? Have not they created here an incredibly luxurious ambiance for them knowing everything?
The leader of the police was a traditional man. Keeping the hat under his armpit he swept away the sweat from his wrinkled forehead. He seemed to be an innocent man. Behind him stood two rifle-carrying constables who seemed to be innocent despite their huge mustache. They stared upwards as if counting wooden poles. In the skylight, a pair of pigeons had nestled. Perhaps they were watching the birds. Even an innocent man with a rifle took a look at birds.
Matin politely asked, “Whom do you want?”
“You all,” the leader harshly said. “You have usurped the house.”
His words made sense. So they did not protest. They looked at the leader with a childlike curiosity.
“You have twenty four hours. Government Order.”
They silently exchanged glances. Finally Modabber cleared his throat and asked, “Why? Has the house owner complained?”
Fat Badruddin of the Accounts Office elongated his neck at the backs of the constables in search of the owner. None was there. Some men, however, crowded in the street. To watch others being insulted is his life’s supreme ambition.
“Where do you find the owner?” the leader drily laughed.
One among them also laughed. A ray of hope kindled in their breasts.
“Government requisitioned it,” affirmed the leader.
Everyone fell silent for a while. They lost words. Then Maksud gathered courage and asked, “Are we not people of the Government?”
This time the two constables kept their eyes off the pigeons and threw them at Maksud. They were quite amazed. They were still amused at the stupidity of men.
A deep shadow fell on the big house. First they were enraged. Myriad voices of protest were heard—they would go nowhere; they would cling to the poles of the house till death; they would leave the house only if they were dead. After a while they cooled down. A deep shadow engulfed the house. Where would they go?
Next day Modabber came with good news. Limit of their stay had been extended from twenty four hours to seven days. They breathed a sigh of relief. But still the shadow stayed there. This time Modabber did not speak that the second wife of the sub-inspector was his kin. But everyone agreed to his unsaid statement.
On tenth day they all left the house. They came with the force of a storm and they vanished with the same force. The empty house bore the signs of the usurpers’ temporary stay—torn pieces of newspaper littered here and there, an old rope used as clothesline, butts of biri and cigarette, heel of a torn shoe.
The tulsi plant at the edge of the yard looked dry. Its leaves became brown again. After the arrival of the police nobody watered it. Nobody recollected the teary eyes of the woman of the house.
Why did not all recollect those teary eyes?
How did the tulsi plant know? People should have known.
(Syed Waliullah was born August 15, 1922 in Chittagong. By profession he was a civil servant. But he wanted to become either an artist or a writer and eventually dabbled in both. Throughout his life he wrote novels, short stories and dramas. His most famous book Lal Shalu was published in 1949. He was awarded and recognized for his works several times.
1955 Pen Prize (Bohipir)
1961 Bangla Academy Literary Award for Novels
1965 Adamjee Prize (Dui Teer)
1983 Ekushey Padak posthumously
He died October 10, 1971 when he was about to move to now Bangladesh for involving himself more into the Liberation War going on at that time.
This translation is a tribute to this renowned writer on the eve of his birth anniversary )
Translated from Bengali by Abu Siddik