Describing a woman’s beauty, a youth in Dhaka’s crowded and curious old quarter had exclaimed, ‘Chander alo halay maiyyar shorile dhuika aar baraibar partachhe na, Bloody moonlight entered the girl’s body and couldn’t get out.’ No one else in the entire world, but for Old Dhaka folk, could compose such an amazing statement on the subject of the mutual relationship between moonlight and women. An angry bakorkhani-seller from the same old quarter could well scream out, ‘Tore ami tiktiki diya chodamu ‘I’ll have you fucked by a lizard!’ The people of this locality were indeed as competent in imagining this unprecedented, magical sight of coitus between a lizard and a human. It was the quarter where one partook of the aroma of ground spices even as one heard the clip-clop of horse hooves. The writer Shahidul Zahir tells us the story of a young man of this locality, who, for reasons of poverty, suckled on monkey milk as a baby, and then as an adult became a member of an accomplished gang of Mercedes Benz car thieves. For here one witnessed, together with the frenetic activity of humans, the shenanigans of the long-tailed, brown-coloured monkeys, who too were regular inhabitants of the locality.
A ledge on the roof of the massive fifty-apartment mansion, “Pathan Manzil”, in Narinda, in Old Dhaka, was the address of a few families of monkeys. A special elderly monkey used to sit there with a thoughtful air, it’s brown-coloured tail dangling from the ledge. It wasn’t as capricious as the other monkeys. It observed life and the world as it sat on the ledge. It could well have been a kin of the she-monkey that had suckled the Mercedes Benz thief. It watched Abdul Momen leaving his premises in the southern end of Pathan Manzil after dusk and going to the mosque for the Maghrib prayer. Abdul Momen had the habit of walking with his face somewhat turned towards the people on the road. And so he always had some exchange with someone or the other. People greeted him when they saw him, ‘Assalamualaikum, Chacha Miya, are you well?’ Momen would nod his head in acknowledgement and enter the mosque. He offered his prayers there. He read the Holy Koran and the Hadiths.
The elderly monkey observed Momen closely. Because it knew that he was new to the locality. Abdul Momen had arrived in Old Dhaka from a suburb of Kolkata. The elderly monkey didn’t know why exactly he had come from Kolkata. The local folk too didn’t know the exact reason for his arrival in Dhaka from Kolkata. They weren’t really concerned about that either. Because they had seen plenty of people like him arriving in the locality. They conjectured that he might have suffered during a Hindu-Muslim riot. All they knew was that it was Ali Hyder who had been instrumental in bringing him here from Kolkata. That was true, Abdul Momen had got the idea of shifting to Dhaka from Ali Hyder, who was a distant relative of his. Hyder worked in an insurance company in Dhaka and lived in Bangla Bazar. Ali Hyder used to visit Kolkata, and they also communicated via letters. Ali Hyder had elaborated to Abdul Momen all the benefits of coming away to Dhaka, instead of living as a member of a religious minority community in Kolkata. After that, adopting various circuitous means and methods, Abdul Momen came away to Dhaka with his family. He lodged in Pathan Manzil, and also found a job in an insurance company through Ali Hyder’s assistance. After a time, he also managed to obtain a Bangladeshi passport. The elderly monkey wasn’t supposed to know about all this. It only observed the gentle gait of this new face in the locality.
In fact Ali Hyder was the only one in the locality with whom Momen had any rapport. Ali Hyder was a supporter of Wari Football Club. That was his sole preoccupation other than his job. Wari was an almost-defunct club. And people weren’t really interested in football either. But that didn’t make any difference to Ali Hyder. He attended Wari’s matches, and he researched their football prowess. Ali Hyder’s family consisted of two school-going boys and his wife. Farid, a poor relative from his wife’s village, also lived with them. Farid had been afflicted with polio and was lame. Hyder had got him a job in a book-bindery in Bangla Bazar. He was known as ‘Farid the Lame’ in the locality. Hyder sent Farid from time to time to help Momen’s family with their chores and errands.
Through the window at the rear of Pathan Manzil, the elderly, brown-coloured monkey observed Momen’s wife, Nilufer Begum, and daughter, Tumpa, as well. Abdul Momen did not believe in the free movement of womenfolk. Although he hadn’t been a strict believer in and follower of purdah in Kolkata, once he arrived in Dhaka, he instituted the harsh stricture that Nilufer could not step out of Pathan Manzil. Nilufer had moved around in buses and trams in Kolkata, but after arriving in Dhaka, her movements were restricted to the various premises in Pathan Manzil, and the roof of the building. Nilufer had no relatives in Dhaka, she didn’t know a single person there. Besides, she also nursed a secret fear. Nilufer was worried that Momen might suddenly leave her. So she accepted without protest the restrictions imposed on her movements. And once Abdul Momen left for his office, Nilufer wandered from one premise to another in Pathan Manzil. And she also established communication with those on the roofs of other buildings near Pathan Manzil.
Having grown up in Kolkata, once Nilufer entered the backdrop of Dhaka, she fell into various situations. One of those had to do with her speech. As Mahmuda from the adjacent premises wrung clothes before drying them on the roof, she asked Nilufer, ‘What have you cooked today, Aapa?’
Nilufer then replied, ‘Ei dhorun ektu shukto rendhechhi aar taar shaate tometor selad. Ei diyei khaowa hobe aajge. Oh, I’ve just made some shukto and also a tomato salad. That’s all we’re going to eat today.’
Mahmuda: ‘But we’ve never had shukto before! Please teach me one day, Aapa.’
Nilufer: ‘Nishchoy. Shikiye debokhon. Sure! I’ll teach you.’
Because Abdul Momen hardly spoke to anyone, no one really noticed his accent, but Nilufer’s Kolkata accent sounded as loud as a conch-shell horn to their ears, and from the perspective of the brown-coloured monkey, it wafted like a strange aberrant in Narinda’s breeze. Unaccustomed to and inexperienced as regards coexistence with monkeys in one’s neighbourhood, Nilufer immediately caught the attention of the elderly monkey. It often entered Nilufer’s kitchen and scooted off with various things there. From time to time, Nilufer muttered, ‘They’ll be the death of me!’
The elderly monkey was especially fond of the condensed milk in Nilufer’s kitchen. Abdul Momen liked to have strong tea, with three teaspoonfulls of condensed milk to make it syrupy sweet. And so there was always condensed milk in their home. After the elderly monkey pilfered a tin of condensed milk one day through the kitchen window, it grew especially fond of it. It lay in wait with its tail dangling for the tin of condensed milk to be left unattended. Neither did keeping it inside the meat safe work. Opening the window skillfully one night, the veteran monkey pilfered the tin of condensed milk from the meat safe. After that, Nilufer began locking the meat safe too.
The seasoned monkey observed Nilufer through the kitchen window. It observed her six- or seven-year-old daughter, Tumpa, sitting, with her plaits dangling, at a desk in the bedroom. The monkey had surely noticed that Tumpa’s face was similar to that of the idols installed at the time of Durga Puja. Round, chubby and radiant. Although no opportune relationship developed between Nilufer and the troop of monkeys in the locality, she did make friends with the women of the neighbourhood. Abdul Momen didn’t really talk much to the neighbours, but from the roof and through her peregrinations of various premises, Nilufer established good relations with her neighbours in the locality. She talked about Kolkata with the neighbours. She spoke about Esplanade, the Maidan and the Birla Planetarium.
Sultana asked her, ‘I’ve heard about the Coffee House in Kolkata. Have you been there?’
Nilufer: Oh, I’ve been there so many times. I’ve had coffee and eaten cutlets there. All the waiters there have turbans on. A lot of famous people come there for coffee. I once saw Soumitra there, you know, the film star.’
Nilufer kept track of the goings-on in the neighbourhood from the roof terrace of Pathan Manzil. She knew what was happening where. But whenever Nilufer arrived at the roof of the building, the elderly monkey kept observing her with a fixed gaze from a distant ledge.
Nilufer said to Mahmuda, ‘Can you see, Aapa, that monkey just keeps gaping at me all the time.’
‘I think he wants to marry you.’
Both of them laughed. They began gossiping about the neighbours.
Nilufer: ‘Mahmuda Aapa, you know, the boy who comes to teach the girl in the house at No. 42, before he enters the house, I see him going to the end of the lane, buying a banana and eating it there. Doesn’t the girl’s mother give the fellow any snack or anything?’
Mahmuda: ‘Oh the girl’s mother is a stingy one, I think she just serves him a glass of water and sends him away.’
While Momen was at the mosque in the evening, Nilufer listened to the songs on the requests programme of Akashvani Kolkata. That was still the age of the radio. TV had not yet entered every home then. As soon as the song’s background score began playing, she could say, ‘Oh that’s Shyamal Mitra’s, “My heart doesn’t want to leave this beautiful world”’, or similarly remember Hemanta’s “The forest floor is covered with blooms, the crescent moon rises on yonder blue”.
Then one day, the local folk were all agog, saying, ‘Have you heard, Momen Miya’s wife has epilepsy.’
Nilufer’s epilepsy came to light when she had a seizure. Seeing Nilufer sprawled on the floor in a weird position and shaking, the elderly monkey who was always staring unblinkingly at her began screeching extremely loudly. Startled by the loud cries of the monkey, Mahmuda from the adjacent premises rushed to the roof and saw Nilufer having a seizure. It was Mahmuda who then responded to the situation, and held an old leather sandal to her nose.
This was the reason for Nilufer’s secret fear and sense of vulnerability. When she got married to Momen, her parents had concealed the matter of her epilepsy from him. In the period since he became wise to the matter, Momen had said a few times that he would divorce her. But he didn’t. That was partly out of a sense of religious duty, but mostly after considering the limited prospects of finding a marriageable girl from among Kolkata’s Muslim localities. But Nilufer was afraid that here in Dhaka, it would not be difficult for Momen to find a bride. And so he might leave her too, on the grounds of her epilepsy. The relationship between Momen and Nilufer was an entirely formal one. Communication between them was limited to the necessary family conversations.
Momen, Nilufer and Tumpa gradually became familiar faces in the eyes of the veteran monkey. Yet, of all the people, it was towards them that he directed special attention. Nilufer too gradually became an expert in making compromises with the monkey species. The elderly monkey observed Momen walking in the locality with greater spontaneity. Although his movements were limited to his office and the mosque. He had already got a promotion in his job because he was fluent in English. Tumpa steadily grew more chubby and more radiant. And since she had grown up, Momen controlled her movements too, like he did with Nilufer. Tumpa had to return directly to Pathan Manzil after school.
But there was one sphere in which he couldn’t place special restrictions on her. By now, Nilufer and Momen had noticed that unbeknown to them, Tumpa had picked up the Old Dhaka dialect and accent. Perhaps that was from her school friends. Although they resisted that initially, after a while they didn’t really hinder her. Hearing her speak the Old Dhaka dialect, they were actually amused in a way. Besides, they also inwardly thought that if Tumpa could resolve the linguistic distance that separated them from the neighbourhood folk, then, at the end of the day, that was in fact for the good. Once Tumpa testily chided Mamun in the dialect for forgetting to bring her sondesh from Lal Miya’s sweetmeats shop. ‘Abba, apnere je lal miyar dukan thika sondesh aanbar koichhilam aanen nai kyala?’ He actually enjoyed hearing that from her.
And then something unexpected happened. The insurance company Abdul Momen worked for sent him for a two-week training programme to Boston, in the United States. News of this created quite a stir in the locality. There hadn’t really been such an instance of foreign travel earlier in the neighbourhood. People were curious about the laconic Abdul Momen.
Local folk stopped him on the street to enquire, ‘Aapne bole aamerika jaibar lagchhen? I heard you’re going to America?’
Without displaying any outward reaction, Abdul Momen merely said, ‘Yes.’
Tumpa said, ‘Abba, you must get a foreign doll for me.’
Nilufer didn’t really say anything. Momen said to Nilufer, ‘Be careful.’
But after going to America, Abdul Momen didn’t return two weeks later. Three weeks and then a month went by. But Momen didn’t return. Nilufer fell into confusion, as did their family friend Hyder. Since Nilufer had no idea about the world outside Pathan Manzil, it was Ali Hyder whom she depended upon. Ali Hyder worked in a different insurance company, but he went to Abdul Momen’s office and enquired there. The people in the office too were confused about Abdul Momen not having returned to the country. They said that Momen had a return ticket. But he didn’t return on the booked flight. His office had contacted the people at the place he had gone to for the training programme. They had informed them that Abdul Momen had attended the two-week training alright, but they were unable to say where he went after that.
Ali Hyder asked Nilufer, ‘Didn’t he tell you anything, Bhabi?’
Nilufer: ‘No, he told me nothing at all. Tell me what’s happened, Hyder Bhai.’
Hyder: ‘I have no clue about it either. Let’s see, let’s wait for a few more days.’
Through the window, the elderly monkey saw Nilufer and Tumpa talking to each other about Abdul Momen. Not having observed Abdul Momen, who used to walk to the mosque everyday, he too sat on the roof ledge, with his tail dangling, and pondered over the matter.
The people in the locality became curious, they wondered, ‘What’s happened to Momen Miya? Just disappeared all of a sudden!’
Nilufer’s savings were exhausted. She borrowed some money from Hyder Ali. He helped her with her necessary purchases too.
A month and a half following Abdul Momen’s disappearance, a letter from him arrived. He wrote that after the training, as he was on his way to the airport, he suddenly stopped the taxi, got down, and decided that he would remain in the United States. He said that he was still in Boston. A Bangladeshi there had given him a job in a grocery store. He had arranged his accommodation too. Momen conveyed that he was going to stay on there, and that he would bring Nilufer and Tumpa there one day. It would take some time to get the necessary papers in order. But there wouldn’t be any problem regarding money. With whatever he earned from his job, he could meet his own expenses and send money to Dhaka as well. He said he would send the money in the name of Hyder, who would give it to Nilufer. Momen asked Nilufer to remember Allah at all times. He instructed her not to step outside Pathan Manzil. He said, ‘Allah is observing everything.’
Nilufer and Hyder were stunned at Momen’s strange decision. They didn’t know how to respond to him. The people in the locality wondered, ‘What nexus has Momen Miya gotten into after going abroad?’
Momen sent money through Western Union in the name of Hyder, who went regularly to collect the money, and then gave it to Nilufer. He sent the disabled Farid frequently to go to the market and do other household chores on behalf of Nilufer.
Nilufer abided by Momen’s instructions. She did not step outside Pathan Manzil during Momen’s absence. Besides, she didn’t really have an option. Owing to her inexperience, she could never muster enough courage to step outside the building. Tumpa too returned home directly after school. Nilufer’s initial disquiet over Momen’s decision to stay on in America gradually passed. A kind of indifference could be observed in her demeanour. Nilufer and her daughter spent their days in a corner of that fifty-apartment building, which was like a little town in itself. She cooked shukto as usual, and chatted with Mahmuda. She observed Niranjan babu meditating on another verandah. She heard Manna Dey singing on the requests programme on radio, ‘If you’re averse to false pride of your beauty, of what value that quality if you hide the fire in modesty?’ Meanwhile, she had a few more seizure attacks. The doctor in the locality treated her. The elderly monkey dangled its brown-coloured tail and observed Nilufer and Tumpa thoughtfully.
Mahmuda said, ‘Aapa, I hope Tumpa’s dad hasn’t got married or something after going to that country!”
Nilufer replied, ‘He can die and burn in hell for all I care. How would I know!’
A year went by, then two, and then three years went by. There was no news from Abdul Momen. Once in a while, a letter addressed to Hyder arrived, there were assurances about the papers being ready. The residents of Pathan Manzil discussed the affairs of the people who lived in the last premises on the southeast corner of the verandah, namely Nilufer and Tumpa.
And then matters took a decisive turn one day.
That day there was no water in the bathroom of the apartment in Pathan Manzil in which Nilufer and Tumpa lived. So Tumpa tried to bring a bucket of water from the tap downstairs to the first floor. She slipped on the stairs and fell. The stairs turned bloody within moments. Seeing this happening from its perch on the roof terrace, the senior monkey again began screeching very loudly. Once again, Mahmuda came running. It was found that there were no signs of injury on Tumpa’s body, but her pyjamas were drenched with blood. Mahmuda called Tumpa’s mother. Holding her, they took her inside. The doctor came and examined Tumpa. He conducted a test. He brought the test results in the evening. He said, ‘Tumpa had a miscarriage.’
Nilufer glared at him. Her jaws were clenched.
Mahmuda was shocked when she heard about it. She said, ‘What’s he saying?’
There was a lot of gossip in the locality about the unmarried girl, Tumpa, getting pregnant. There had been curiosity about this male-less premises in the southern end of Pathan Manzil for quite a while. The leaders of the neighbourhood felt they had a moral responsibility to resolve the matter. Considering that in his capacity, the doctor could get to the truth of the matter, the leaders asked him to take the initiative in this regard. As Tumpa’s physician, the doctor got the opportunity of a private conversation with her, and he was successful in arriving at the truth. Tumpa admitted that it was Farid the Lame who was responsible for her pregnancy.
The leaders of Pathan Manzil were enraged by the incident. They thought it necessary to pronounce judgement in regard to such a morally degenerate act. They also agreed that it was necessary for an arrangement to be made regarding Tumpa and Farid the Lame. It was decided that an arbitration would take place, with Tumpa and Farid the Lame present, and the matter of these two would be decided upon there.
Meanwhile, the doctor carried on with his treatment. Sitting beside Tumpa’s bed, the doctor informed Nilufer that the leaders of the locality would be holding an arbitration very soon regarding Tumpa and Farid the Lame.
Nilufer was silent for a while, and then she said, ‘Please sit. I’ll get you a cup of tea.’
And saying so, she went to the kitchen.
Once Nilufer went away to the kitchen, Tumpa, who was lying in bed with a kantha draped over her, gazed at the sky through the open window, and the doctor was not prepared for what she then said.
Tumpa said, ‘Aapnara jei kaamer liga aamar naame bichar bohaichhen, oi kaam to aage korchhe aamar maaye. Aage Farid aar aamar maayer bichar koren, haer baade aamar bichar korbar aaiyen. The act for which you people are going to judge me, was first done by my mother. Farid and my mother ought to be judged first, and come to judge me only after you’ve done that.’
The elderly monkey was observed poking his head in through the window and gazing thoughtfully then.
Shahaduz Zaman is a reputed writer in Bengali literature. He is a medical anthropologist and a trained physician. He published over 30 books in different genres such as short stories, novels, travelogues, columns, and essays on contemporary issues. He won the Bangla Academy Literary Award in 2016 in the fiction category, the highest national award for literature in Bangladesh. Shahaduz Zaman was born in 1960 in Dhaka, Bangladesh and moved to UK in 2009. He currently lives in UK and works as a Professor in Medical Anthropology and Global Health at University of Sussex.
V. Ramaswamy is a Kolkata-based Bengali to English literary & non-fiction translator of voices from the margins. His translations include the two short story collections, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited, and This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels, all by Subimal MIsra, the novel, The Runaway Boy, by Manoranjan Byapari, Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas, by Shahidul Zahir, and Memories of Arrival, by Adhir Biswas. Ramaswamy was awarded the inaugural Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing & Translation at Aberystwyth University in 2016, and the inaugural Translation Fellowship of the New India Foundation.