Harezuddin must make sacrifices to marry his beautiful daughter Nosimon off to a wealthy landowner, and fulfil the obligations of his status, during the struggle for the independence of Bangladesh; by Nazib Wadood.
Nobody could dislike the girl; it was certain, Mollah thought. And if the question of family was raised, undoubtedly it would be, then one should know the name and fame of the Gharamis had not been a matter of very distant past. Concern of the present was that the Gharamis had fallen on evil days. Harezuddin's father, Shafiuddin Gharami, had developed a deadly disease and sold almost all his farmlands, mango gardens and ponds to get money for his treatment. After his death, he had left only one and a half acres of farmland for his son; and Harezuddin took lease of another one acre of land as a sharecropper. He had a pair of bullocks and a plough for cultivation of his own lands; and used to plough other's lands too, to earn extra money. Thus, Harezuddin Gharami was hardly managing his family.
Nosimon was sitting on an armless chair in their square courtyard fenced by jute-stalks on three sides. She was positioned in front of their two-roomed thatched house to face to the west to let the golden sunshine of the dying afternoon kiss her cheeks and make her face more beautiful and charming. The bridegroom and his relatives, and the invited senior villagers, were sitting in front of her in chairs and benches; some friends of hers, along with an old grandmother-like woman, were crowding around her to maintain the courage of their girl before such a gathering of unknown and honorable persons. Her face was glistening with reddish luster. Her body structure, unlike the average Bengali girls, was tall and slender, with long black hairs on her head spreading down to the waist. The Creator had created the fortunate girl with His own hand and poured inexhaustible beauty and youth onto her, thought the village chief, and admitted that despite his poverty, Harezuddin had nourished and brought up his daughter with much love and care.
Akber Mollah looked back over his shoulder to see the position of the sun. The mango tree spread its branches over the roof of the thatched house as if it held it with its huge and innumerable hands. The sun was seen through the gaps of the branches glittering with fading glow. It was yet to set, but was rushing to the horizon. Taking his eyes back to the courtyard, he examined the shadows on the ground to assess whether the time of the afternoon prayer was yet on. Then he said, 'Time of asr prayer is going to be over; I have to go, brothers, if you permit, please.'
Everybody was moved at his assertion; they had been unmindful of passage of time. Especially the bridegroom's party got very much ashamed understanding that they had really wasted much time. The village chief noticed it, and to let them get rid of it, he said, 'If you have no more questions to ask, or nothing to see about, I think the girl should go.'
Questionnaire phase, the main part of the matrimonial interview, had been finished earlier. So the head of the bridegroom's party, a bearded old man with a white tupi on his head, said, 'Yes, brother, we have to go a long distance. We should be brief.' He looked at the girl and asked her to show her palms open to them; and like an experienced palmist, he bent forward and attentively examined her palms and fingers for a while, and nodded his head positively. Then another middle-aged man requested the old grandmother-like woman to show them her hair. The old woman did it merrily and confidently. Her hair was abundant and long enough to touch her waist. The old man said, 'You may go now, my sweet little mother. Now go walking!'
'I came here walking, and will leave the place certainly by walking, as I have no wing to fly, then why comes the question of walking in such a demanding voice?' Nosimon thought, but kept her lips tight enough not to speak anything or even utter a soft sound.
A girl poured some water on the courtyard, and Nosimon walked slowly on the wet ground in the little space in front of them. They examined her footprints and smiled with satisfaction as they found the feet well formed. They also expressed satisfaction over her good and humble gait.
'Well done, my daughter, well done. Now go, and take rest,' said the village chief.
What a word of relief! What a terrible time of troublesome heartache it was! Sitting before the crowd to be shown, to answer to their absurd, confusing, unnecessary and even harassing questions, and giving bodily examinations before them! It is shameful, Nosimon thought, and moved slowly to leave the place. The old woman whispered to her, and she then turned back and, raising her slender right hand to about her forehead, greeted the crowd with salam. While doing it, she had a sudden and unexpected chance of casting a glance to the bridegroom, a black but healthy young lad, still looking at her with his spellbound eyes. Not bad! Especially for a poor girl like her, Nosimon said, and her whole body shuddered with a warm thrill; her mind suddenly became full of euphoria; and she could not keep her standing there. She almost ran to leave the place to hide her unusualness; while she was briskly walking, she could have not even imagined if she was stepping on the ground, or flying in the air.
Harezuddin had collected all necessary details of the bridegroom and his family earlier before. Parila was not a very distant village. He himself had gone there and secretly learnt everything. Roistullah had been a medium sized farmer; the villagers knew him as a rich man with his twelve acres of land. And Mohibullah, the eldest of his two sons and three daughters, was well-known for his modesty and endeavors, and religiosity. The boy passed class nine, and then devoted himself to farming in his father's lands, not to waste time in study that would not perhaps confirm an employment for him. Harezuddin was very much pleased with all that, and was at the same time anxious with the question of the choice of the other side. The matchmaker had assured him that Roistullah had been seeking a beautiful girl - only a fair-looking bride, and a good family, and nothing more. They would not demand dowry, the matchmaker had categorically said. He had full confidence that they could not have but chosen Nosimon, for her fair complexion, attractive body figure, lovely face, long hairs and big enchanting eyes. She could also read and write, though not much. Harezuddin's daughter was intelligent enough and very much social, and skilled in cooking and sewing. But Roistullah was something miserly and greedy by nature, somebody told him. He might expect something from him that would at least be honorable for his social status, if he really would not openly demand dowry, Harezuddin had thought, and despite that, he had screwed up his mind in hope. He had earlier explained everything to the village chief and informed him of his heart's wish. Now he whispered to him, and said, 'Well, now, you, elder brother, please try to manage the marriage. Put a little pressure, if necessary.'
Mollah had a business outside; he wanted to go, but kept sitting to serve his duty as the chief of the village. Moreover, Harezuddin's father was very much close to him, like a relative. They had always been cooperative to each other, in all events, bad or good. He was telling those stories to the bridegroom party to highlight the social status of the Gharamis just some time ago. So he should not go away at the last moment of the event, he thought, and again looked behind at the setting sun. The sun rays were rapidly growing shadowy and dodging with the dark green leaves of the mango tree. He stopped chewing betel-leaf and threw spittle with a habituated skill, and turned to the head of the bridegroom's party. 'Well, dear honorable brothers, the sun is running quickly, and I have to leave for another business; we can now speak briefly on what we have already seen about the bride, of course if you have no objection, can't we?' he said.
The old man looked at the face of Roistullah, and said hesitatingly, 'Well, then... yes, I should say... hi, brother, couldn't we take some time to think and discuss the matter within us?' Soon he gathered his own dignity and tact, and said, 'It would be better if we say it later, some days after returning home, wouldn't it, sir?'
Mollah knew - his hairs had grown white settling all these businesses every now and then - that the bridegroom party would try to take a little bit of time to make a final decision. His experience said, once it would go beyond the courtyard, it would begin to be complex - one would say this, another would say that, to make the bridegroom and his guardians perplexed. So he turned to Roistullah and said, 'Why later? You yourself and the other important relatives and villagers are present here. If the bride is chosen, we can start moving forward, I think. A good thing should not be delayed, our honorable elders say.' Roistullah looked at the old village chief for help. Mollah noticed it; he threw a direct look at the old man and said, 'Why, if the bride is not disliked, what is deterring us from moving forward?'
The bridegroom was trying to convince his people with his piteous gaze, but they were exchanging indeterminate looks among them. Mollah could guess that none of the members of the bridegroom party could have rejected his proposal, as all they had been charmed with Nosimon's beauty and figure. He advanced a little bit, saying, 'Problem is that, frankly speaking, there are two more proposals in our hand, and both are good enough to be accepted; and more to say, one of them is pressing hard.' Then he discussed how difficult a marriage had become presently, especially for a girl. 'We couldn't have made much delay,' he said. This grave indication made Mohibullah so anxious that he instantly had whispered to one of his friends. Then whispers continued, and finally the old man said, 'Let us go outside and have a discussion among ourselves.'
Akber Mollah smiled with pride and with some others had the asr prayer performed.
The sun was about to set. A dimming light coming from the west was wrapping the world. They soon came back and took their seats again in the courtyard. A bright smile was shining in the face of the bridegroom. The old man said, 'We have liked the girl. You may now advance as you wish.' He pushed the ball to the court of Harezuddin.
'Al-Hamdulillah!' said the village chief in utter joy and asked Harezuddin to serve tea. The lunch was over just before the interview; now came some light foods including fruits, sweetmeats and obviously tea. They took it happily and began to fix the date and all other related matters.
Bargaining for mohrana took some time. It was finally fixed at Taka 50,000; Taka 40,000 would be paid as gold ornament, and the rest would remain outstanding. The demands of the bridegroom's side were not too much, as they did not like dowry. Their village recently had a connection of electricity, and television had become a very necessary commodity. So a color TV! OK. One of the bridegroom party indicated that Mohibullah had a longing for a motorbike. 'Is it possible? For a man like Harezuddin? And if you don't mind please, what would Mohibullah would do with a motorbike?' None could answer. Therefore, Akber Mollah directly rejected it, and put a new proposal before them, 'We can give a bicycle.' 'And a rickshaw,' said another man. 'Yes,' said Mollah, 'It is a good proposal; it could be put out on hire to earn a regular income.' The Sugar Mills authorities last year extended its brick-built road up to Parila. Now rickshaws had become a very popular vehicle. After a brief discussion, they consented for a new bicycle and a rickshaw. In addition to these, as per tradition, Harezuddin would give cotton-quilt, mattress, pillow, mosquito net and metal crockery. 'And the bride's father would give their daughter whatever they like, we wouldn't like to say anything about it,' lastly said Roistullah.
Then the date was finalized.
Everybody said, 'Al-Hamdulillah.'
On the next Friday noon, after the jum'a prayer, Harezuddin formally informed the jamaat of his daughter's marriage. 'I pray you, the jamaat, would be present in the matrimonial ceremony to offer du'a for the couple.' Then Mollah intervened and said, 'You all know the ins and outs of Harezuddin. He has no ability to feed the jamaat. He rather needs help from us. So take it sympathetically.' The imam added, 'It is now our task, not only Harezuddin's, to accomplish the ceremony smoothly so that the guests doesn't feel dishonored.'
Harezuddin heaved a sigh of relief.
Everything was so far going smoothly. Harezuddin and his wife Saira Banu had become very happy and satisfied with their fate having an unexpectedly good bridegroom for their beloved daughter. To speak the truth, the amount of the demands was also low compared to the family status of the bridegroom. But calculation of the total costs of the ceremony soon broke their heart. At least Taka 40,000 was needed for TV, bicycle, rickshaw and other things for the bridegroom. There would be other costs, feeding and other formalities. The bride should be given some clothes and ornaments. All those would cost at least another Taka 25,000. Besides, there would be frequent visits of the relatives, especially from the bridegroom's side, for about two months. At the beginning, as per the tradition, those relatives should be honored with gifts.
'How will you collect such a huge amount of money?' said Saira Banu; her voice was almost choked up with anxiety.
Worries had made the already dark face of Harezuddin more blackish, as if someone smeared his face with soot and smut. 'I will manage... don't worry!' he said, but his voice rang with absolute aimlessness.
'I shall sell the mango tree,' said he, in a mood of solving all problems.
His grandfather had planted the tree in his young age. Very good variety of Fazli mango. Bigger in size, but very tasty, juicy and sweet. It used to grow fruits every year, in plenty, and protected the weaker thatched house from Kalboishakhi. The larger tree, with its huge branches and leaves, afforded them also with abundant shade in the hot and long summer days. The wife was dumbfounded. None of them could speak until a gust of cold air stroked their face. Saira Banu said, 'How much will it bring?'
'Such a large tree! It shouldn't be less than ten thousand, I think.'
'Ten thousand! The rest?'
'What can I do other than selling or mortgaging some lands?'
'What will we eat if the lands are sold? You should rather sell the bullocks.'
He startled with sudden shock and looked at his wife. But in the darkened light of the moonlit night, he could neither see his wife's face nor utter a word. Saira Banu continued, 'Bullocks can be bought after a harvest of crop, but how could you get the lands back?'
Harezuddin tried to keep quiet and normal and said in a low arguing voice, 'What a real foolish thing you are saying! Cultivation is not so much profitable now. The bullocks and the plough bring sufficient income. And think attentively... how would you cultivate your lands if you hadn't bullocks?'
'Can't we? Why?' The wife strung her arguments together to convince her perturbed husband. 'Once the marriage completed, we would have no burden in the near future. Our two sons would soon be brought up to help you. We have to suffer a lot, no doubt, for one or two years, but everything would be alright then, Insha-Allah, you see.'
Harezuddin did not answer. It was not such that he did not know it. He stared to the darkness beneath the sloping thatched roof of the verandah, but saw nothing.
'Won't you speak?'
He heaved a deep sigh that broke the silence of the night. Jackals barked in the nearby crop fields to announce midnight and stir up the village dogs to quarrel with them.
'What are you thinking?'
'I can't sell my bullocks.' His voice was soft, trembling, but firm.
'Why?' said Saira Banu, disenchanted. She knew what a headstrong man her husband could be.
Harezuddin felt annoyed and agitated. 'Why! Don't you know?' Then he paused a while to swallow his bursting emotion and said, 'Those bullocks bear on their body the touch of my beloved eldest son. I feel him touching their bodies. Have you forgotten?'
Saira Banu could not reply. She kept looking at the face of the man, though was seeing nothing. Harezuddin continued in a heavy sobbing tone, 'I sense my son's smell when I go near the bullocks... I feel my son hasn't died... he is still alive!'
He stood up, silently got down from the verandah and went across the courtyard to the cowshed. The two bullocks and the only pregnant cow were standing and ruminating there. He approached close to the bullocks and began to hug them together. The animals responded to their master's love, swaying their heads.
Harezuddin's father had left him with a grown up cow after his tragic death. After few years, she had given birth to a black male calf. Then Harezuddin's son Shahjahan was a mere school-going boy of about twelve years. He loved the young calf with all his heart, like a good friend, and gave him the name Kala for his black color. To meet his demand, and seeing it profitable, Harezuddin soon bought another calf of the same age. He was called Lala for his reddish color. Kala, Lala, and the adolescent boy became good friends. Shahjahan spent his leisure at home, after coming from school, with the two beloved creatures. He used to take them to the fields for grazing, bathe them in the pond. He took it as a daily routine to chop paddy straw, and sometimes other fodders and green grasses, and mix them with oil cakes, grain-husks, salt and water in a manger. The two calves used to eat up to their throats and rapidly grew healthy and strong; and were very fond of him. With days passing, Lala and Kala grew and ultimately became oxen. Shahjahan too became a young man, got admitted into the nearby college, but why and how he changed was unknown to the family and the villagers. He began to spend most of his daytime outside, in the town and distant suburbs and villages.
On an afternoon when, just after returning home, Shahjahan was to take the oxen to the field for grazing, Harezuddin said to him, 'What's the matter, my son? What are you doing nowadays... spending even nights outside?' His voice was so cloudy and face so gloomy; the son tried to make the situation easy and tidy by offering a fresh laugh and said, 'Oh, no, my dear father, no worrying! I attend my classes regularly, and everything is going quite well... but you know, we shouldn't think only of ourselves, should we? We have a country, and a huge mass of people, many poor, neglected, deprived and oppressed... shouldn't we work for them... being a member of the same class?' he tried to pour much affection and sincerity in his voice.
Harezuddin could not answer, as he did not understand what his son was trying to say. The boy had rapidly grown, young, strong and knowledgeable, and had seemingly been gradually growing unknown to him, he thought, and said, 'I am an uneducated, ignorant man... I know nothing. I would only say, don't do anything wrong and harmful.'
'Oh, no! Don't worry, I won't do that. You should be confident that your son wouldn't do anything that could make you hang your head in shame.'
His oratory convinced his father to believe that his beloved son had learned a lot and that filled his heart with joyous pride. 'My son will become a great man, as his school teachers had earlier predicted,' he said silently to himself.
Shahjahan was a meritorious and persevering student, and well known for his benevolent character. But he could not recently manage much time for the villagers; he remained very busy with other functions of his own. But even in such tight engagements, he could not forget his friends Kala and Lala. Whenever he came home, whether day or night, he used to go to the cowshed and caress them.
That was a day in the last week of Agrahayan. The middle-aged couple had become tired with taking the harvested paddy to the granary on the verandah. The sunset and the evening began to wrap the world with growing darkness. They hoarded the rest of the paddy at the centre of the compound and covered them with bundles of straws and mats made of date-leaves to protect them from dew.
After performing the magrib prayer, they sat on the verandah. Saira Banu said, 'We could have managed the rest too, if Shahjahan were to assist us.' The boy had gone away in the very dawn and was yet to return home. 'This night you have to sleep on the verandah along with Shahjahan.' Harezuddin understood the hint and said, 'What terrible days are coming! As if there is no law and order in the country! Are the thieves, robbers and terrors ruling the nation? What a reign of terror really it is!'
The night began to wrap up the nature with cold mist. Saira Banu drove her ducks and chickens to the coop. The oxen and the cow finished their eating and were standing beside the mangers. Harezuddin took them to the shed and wrapped them up with jute-Hessian. Then he fumigated the shed with smoke of dhup to drive away mosquitoes and gadflies. The cattle kept standing and ruminating, awaiting the return of their friend, who, coming back home, would fondle them before washing his face, hands and legs, and taking his food. Then they would lie on the ground covered with fine ashes.
Saira Banu was very tired of working all day long. She was dozing, sitting beside her sleeping husband on the verandah. Young Nosimon was sleeping inside the northern room along with her two younger brothers. Saira Banu was waiting with rice and curry for her son. All others had finished their meal earlier. The jackals barked to announce midnight. The village dogs began to cry. A night bird flew away across their compound leaving a ghostly sound. Saira Banu was about to droop in sleepiness; she could not keep awaking and sitting, and felt some angry with her son. 'Why is the boy so late! Almost every day? What the hell does he!' She thought she should go to bed, as she would have to rise very early in the next dawn. Soon she realized that it had already crossed midnight and Shahjahan was yet to return home. 'Oh, no! It is quite unusual. He never makes so late!' A house-lizard cried - tik-tik-tik! She trembled with a shiver and began to slap her husband to awake him.
Harezuddin got up with a cry. 'Thieves... thieves... bring my stick... catch him!' Nosimon and her two younger brothers came out with sticks in their hands. Saira Banu, being stunned at that, soon said, 'No, no, it's not thieves, listen! Come to your senses!'
Harezuddin regained his self and got very ashamed. 'Then why were you slapping me? What's wrong?'
'Your beloved son has not returned yet.'
He knew she used to use those words 'your beloved son' to tease him; he did not mind it because he really loved his son.
'Make your son marry; otherwise he won't be homeward. Aren't you seeing he is becoming more extroverted day by day?'
'Oh-ho! What foolish talks you are talking! Have you broken my sleep to tell these stupid words? He will definitely call you after returning home. Now go to your bed and sleep.'
Sometimes, very rarely, it happened like that... Shahjahan would return home in the night and awaken them from sleep. But it was unusual, she thought. Harezuddin again lied down and soon fell asleep. Nosimon helped her mother to take the utensils with rice and curry to their room. Finally, they too went to bed.
Her sleep was disrupted by a disturbing dream, probably something furious; Saira Banu could not remember, but sense it. She was trembling like the flame of the lamp that was flickering on the shelf of the window a little away from her. The utensils, rice and curries were lying unused. Soon she could recall everything. Then Shahjahan had not returned yet? She asked it to herself, or to no one, so aimlessly it was uttered. She speedily got out of the room with the lamp in her right hand and saw that her husband had been in deep snoring sleep. She began to slap him on the shoulder.
'Strange! He hasn't come back yet? Really? How it could be!'
The oxen stood up and lowed. Some dogs were out to bark in the near distance. The seven stars were about to set. The sky was becoming silvery in the east drawing the dawn nearer. Lala and Kala were standing with frequent lowing. But Shahjahan, unlike his daily routine, had not returned that day.
After three days of his being missing, a Chowkider of the local Union Council conveyed a message for him from the Rakkhi Bahini camp at Katakhali Bazaar. They asked him to pay a visit there without any delay.
Harezuddin failed at first sight to identify his son, his own beloved son, whom he really loved very much, lying on the Katakhali High School playground where he had learned his secondary education and played and sang and danced with his friends. His face was covered with blood that dried up to be black; his skin was peeled up from his chest; his hands and legs were broken and crumbled; and his whole body was marked by numerous bruises. Harezuddin forgot even to weep, to lament for his dead son, in fear, and grief, and anguish. They wanted to bury him without ceremonial formalities. But the imam had dared to demand that a dead muslim should be paid just honor by offering namaj-e-janaja and du'a for him. Their prayer had at last been granted on some conditions. Shahjahan had been laid down behind the house near the mango tree. Rakkhi Bahini members were patrolling there not to allow anybody to cry. The villagers kept their lips tight and even breathed cautiously. Only the two oxen, Lala and Kala, denied the reign of terror and kept lowing to mourn for their dead friend. They did not even eat for some days.
'What love in the mind of such poor animals! And how inhumane men are!' said Harezuddin weeping secretly. 'Why did they kill my son without any trial? O Allah, the Almighty Judge, You Yourself make the justice!'
When they, despite being parents, were not able to protest the cruel unjust killing of their own son, could not cry loudly to mourn for their peace of heart, then the two oxen did it; they protested in their own language, though very much incomprehensible their utterances were. 'Can my heart bear selling these oxen? They are like my sons, aren't they? Tell!'
Saira Banu knew all those things. She did also know that he loved the oxen very much. She knew all farmers loved their cows. What Harezuddin used to do in this regard sometimes seemed excessive, but he had made it very usual and natural. She did not mind it. However, it was completely unknown to her that Harezuddin had loved them like his son, that he quenched his thirst of parental love for Shahjahan through Lala and Kala. Now, coming to know the news of her husband's mind, she hugged the oxen and burst into a sudden heart-rending cry.
Harezuddin slapped her back to soothe her, and said, 'Don't cry... What would be achieved by crying? Rather offer du'a for him... May Allah be satisfied to confer our beloved son with residence in Behest.' He too began to weep.
Harezuddin mortgaged two bighas from his farmlands and sold the mango tree instead of the bullocks. He had also to sell the food grains he kept stored for use in future. Still he fell short of Taka 10,000. Mollah managed the bridegroom's father, as Harezuddin made a commitment to pay the arrears very soon.
After the marriage was over, Harezuddin found himself penniless. He had to have the loan of Taka 2,000 from a usurer at a very high rate of interest for managing the costs of cultivating his lands. He engaged himself in cultivation with his heart and soul. He would have to repay the loan and pay the dues of dowry by selling crops. He began to sell his labor in other's lands, when it was possible, to earn extra money; and tried his best to achieve the highest possible rate of production. If the crops would not grow well he would be in an awkward position, he began to think, and that anxiety robbed him of his sleep, even after his hard labor all day long.
Despite all those prevailing problems, Harezuddin and Saira Banu were satisfied seeing their daughter happy. Nosimon used to come to her parents' house every now and then, often with her husband. She looked more beautiful; the shining glamour of her face was expressing her happiness.
But one day, after about two months of her marriage, she was not seemingly glittering much like in the past. Saira Banu thought she might be sick or pregnant. She drew her daughter close to her and said in a mixed voice of anxiety and happiness, 'Why, my dear child, are you feeling sick, or...?' She looked at her belly. Nosimon felt offended, and instantly said, in an irked and rude voice, 'Why aren't you paying the dues of your son-in-law?'
A thrill of delight like a light whitish cloud in the autumn sky had startled Saira Banu with the expectation of good news from her beloved daughter, but her words confounded her. She digested the words with difficulty.
Hot drops of tears rolled down Nosimon's cheeks. She said in a choked voice, 'What can I do... when I have to hear insults?'
The mother turned her eyes around her; the whole house, with its rooms and fenced courtyards, began to look deserted. She could not understand how it was possible that she could have not felt the emptiness of the house in the absence of their beloved daughter and the large mango tree. Now her heart began to cry in dreary emptiness.
'No thought!' interrupted Nosimon, in a seemingly weeping voice, and said, 'Manage the money without any delay. I don't want to hear... from where and how!' After a pause she furthered, 'Don't spoil the happy life of your dear daughter, please!' She broken down in tears and ran away.
The Gharami couple could not sleep that night. How could they collect such a good amount of money? Within such a short period? Saira Banu refused to hear any excuse, and said, 'I only want to see the money... from where and how, I don't want to hear. Don't spoil our beloved daughter's life, please!' She began weeping.
The next dawn, just after finishing the fazr prayer, Harezuddin rushed to Akber Mollah and requested him to take the rest of his lands under mortgage. 'Mollahji, please, save my daughter's life!'
Mollah was eating gur-muri sitting on a chowki on the verandah of his outer-home. He pushed the bowl of gur-muri to Harezuddin but he took nothing, as he was not in a mood of entertaining. The village chief said, in a normal voice, as if he did not notice his indifference, 'Are you really going to sell the land?'
'What can I do?'
'I am now short of money. Why aren't you selling the bullocks? Would it be right to sell the land?'
The bullocks were large like buffalos, and strong, and still looked young. They would certainly sell at not less than Taka 15,000. He could have a handsome amount of money in his hand even after paying all claims of dowry. Better he should buy two calves with the rest of the money to compensate the loss of the bullocks.
The suggestion seemed good, and profitable, but Harezuddin's mind did not consent to it. He did not respond to the advice.
Akber Mollah knew his cause of dissent. He said in a sincere and fatherly sympathetic tone, 'Human beings are like the earth, can you understand? He has to endure everything... all the agonies, shocks and sufferings. He can do everything however difficult and painful it may be. And you should not forget that this is the strength and ability of human beings that keep the world running.' He took a pause and said, 'Think of your son, didn't you overcome that great loss and sorrow? Do you think that your love for the bullocks is far more valuable than your beloved daughter's happiness?
Saira Banu supported the arguments. 'Will the bullocks live forever? Just some years and they will grow older and become weak. Then you cannot but sell them, isn't that so?'
Harezuddin found no words for protest or disagreement. Nosimon's weeping voice began to echo in his ears. 'The mother-in-law often makes cutting remarks. Your son-in-law is also nowadays giving reminders. This has become a permanent cause of harassment for me.'
He wept, hugging the bullocks. Really, they were becoming older and weaker. They would be worthless within a few years. Akber Mollah and Saira Banu gave him right and justified suggestions, he admitted. He hardened his mind and said to himself harshly, 'If the marriage breaks, will you be able to rebuild it?' His inner man said, 'Possibly no.' 'Then why are you going to take such a risk just for two ordinary animals?' he asked. No one answered. Harezuddin burst into tears. The two animals perhaps realized the dilemmas of their master, as they also began to shed tears.
Lalmon, a famous butcher, appeared just one day after. Harezuddin said straightforwardly that he would never sell the bullocks to a butcher. He wanted to be consoled at least seeing his beloved bullocks living well in a farmer's family. He would even be able to visit them when his mind would be impatient to see them. He was seeking a buyer keeping those two thoughts in his mind. However, the fact was that he had found no such buyer. Two or three buyers came but they were not ready to pay much. They said, 'It's not a matter of size and weight. We want work. They are really old enough to take retirement within a very few years, aren't they?'
Harezuddin, an honest man, could not deny that reality.
Insisting, Lalmon said, 'What kind of man you are, really, brother Harez? You need money. You should sell them to a man who will give you the highest price, isn't it so? Why are you hell-bent on selling to someone else?' He proposed Taka 16,000. Even that ever-highest price could not convince him.
Lalmon raised the price by another Taka 500 but failed to bend him. The neighbors tried to convince him arguing that Lalmon had not offered an unjust price. If he really wanted to sell the bullocks, he should accept this offer. His dogged perseverance would make no profit in the end, they warned; and requested the butcher to further raise the price a little. To honor them, Lalmon added another Taka 500. But Harezuddin was not a man to sell his love for money. 'I won't sell my beloved bullocks to any butcher,' he categorically said.
Lalmon got very shocked and felt insulted. In a rage, he hiked the price by another Taka 500. Even that failed to bend Harezuddin's rigid neck.
Nosimon was expecting to go to the in-laws' house taking the dowry-money with her. She tried but could not laugh at the time of her departure seeing her dream not realized. Everybody was angry with Harezuddin, he could understand. He said to the son-in-law, 'Don't worry, I will manage the money within a very few days. Please make your father understand.'
Mohibullah said, 'Oh, no! We are not pressing you. Give it when you can. The problem is actually with my father. What can I do?' Harezuddin wanted to believe him but could not forget the gloomy darkness that soon covered his face.
Nosimon said, 'Please don't leave it much later, father. Pay the money immediately if you really wish to pay it.'
Harezuddin was struck with wonder and shock at her words. He could not think how such a very short period could change their beloved daughter. 'Have I refused to pay the money? Do they not trust me?' he asked himself but could not find an answer. A cold soothing air was blowing, but Harezuddin began to sweat.
He went to the crop field after sending them off silently, looking downwards, and returned after performing the magrib prayer in the mosque. He lied down on the bamboo-platform in the outer courtyard of his house. After a while, Saira Banu found him almost asleep. She became angry. 'How can you sleep, ah? You will recover your senses only when the family of our daughter breaks, I see! Do you want that?'
Harezuddin kept his lips tight. Saira Banu continued, 'What's the problem with selling the bullocks to the butcher? When the matter is selling, the buyer should not be the concern. The question is of money, having the highest price. We should not care what the buyer would do with them. Why is your head aching with such abnormal thoughts?'
The husband's silence alerted the wife. She kept her hand on his forehead, felt ashamed and shocked, seeing him sweating. She wiped the sweat with the loose end of her sari, and said, 'I do feel your mind, my dear, but I lose myself when I think of our beloved daughter's future. What will we do if she falls in trouble for the money? Don't you see what is happening around us?' Great affection and love choked her voice.
Harezuddin did not answer. He took and held her hands tightly. Saira Banu responded. They felt and sensed each other. The night became darker under the black sky twinkling with scores of stars. She began to comb his hair with her fingers and said, 'You are a reasonable man, and an affectionate father. Well, wait for another few days and see if any farmer comes. If not...' Instead of completing the sentence, she pressed her warm palm on his forehead. Harezuddin tried but could not see his wife's face in the darkness. He closed his eyes.
A buyer came on the following day. Haru Kabiraj of the neighboring Dewanpara proposed Taka 18,000. 'It will cause a little loss to me, but I am willing to bear it as your bullocks are good in works,' he said.
Harezuddin did not object. Kabiraj pushed Taka 3,000 to his hand as earnest money and said, 'I will take the bullocks this afternoon, paying the rest of the money.'
Harezuddin moved his head to the right side, like an innocent child, to give his consent. Suddenly Kala cried out with a low, and Lala echoed him. Harezuddin could not but burst into tears, as if in fear of doing something wrong. He held the buyer's hands tightly and said, 'Not today, brother, I myself will take them to your house tomorrow morning.'
'Oh, well, that wouldn't be bad! Come tomorrow with the bullocks and take the money. That would be good!' Kabiraj said.
Harezuddin did not go to work that day. He went to Katakhali Bazaar and bought oil-cakes, grains and husks. He chopped straws into small pieces and mixed them with oil-cakes, grains, husks, water and salts. After long days, Lala and Kala had such a tasty and rich food. They sank their noses and ate it greedily, making hissing sounds. Harezuddin caressed their body and poured affections. 'Eat, eat my sons, eat it well, have it up to your satisfaction!' He could not manage his tears.
He took the bullocks to the pond at noon and cleansed their body with straw. 'Hi, brother Harez, are you going to make Lala-Kala marry?' said a villager. He did not mind it. Saira Banu wept inside, feeling her husband's sorrow, but said nothing as if she was not seeing all his childishness.
That morning of Agrahayan, the month preceding the winter, was cold. Drops of dew were shining on the bean leaves on the roof of the kitchen like silver pieces. Saira Banu lifted the lid of the poultry-coop. Harezuddin fed the bullocks.
The sun rose above the long trees of the village. He was still then busy nursing Lala-Kala.
'The breakfast is ready. It is already late!' Saira Banu said.
'Oh, yes, I am coming.' He did not look at her, busy rubbing mustard oil on the head and horns of the bullocks.
'Don't make us even later,' she said reluctantly.
'Well, I am coming.'
At last, Harezuddin took his breakfast. Saira Banu pressed him to hurry but somehow he could not complete his duties. The sun rose almost above their heads. Saira Banu untied the ropes of the bullocks and pushed the ropes into her husband's hands. He stared at her with a blank look. Her heart shriveled with throbbing pain seeing his pale face. She could not hold back tears. Harezuddin looked at her helplessly; now seeing her crying, his face and eyes, his whole body, began to swell and tremble, as he tried to hold his agony. But soon the held-back cry exploded out. 'I love them... I love them too much! They were like my sons... They were symbols of my martyred son. I loved them like my son! Oh Allah!'
They knew that they had love for Lala and Kala, but none of them knew that they had so much loved the animals. They began to lament as if their children had died. They had not allowed themselves to cry aloud to mourn and protest the killing of Shahjahan, their beloved young son; now, all the ices of sorrow and grievances remaining frozen in their chests for last seven years, began to melt and swell up in the form of warm tears.
Haru Kabiraj had gone out just half an hour before. 'You are too late. He has asked you to keep the bullocks here and go to the Bazaar for the money,' his wife said. Kabiraj had a grocery shop in Katakhali Bazaar. Harezuddin knew it. But the behavior seemed bad to him. However, that was his fault, he thought, and returned home. Mohibullah was sitting on the verandah. Saira Banu had sent a message to him. They wanted Harezuddin to hand over the money immediately to his son-in-law instead of keeping it in the house. After the johr prayer, they both had lunch and set out for the Bazaar.
Haru Kabiraj's son said, 'Go to the cattle-market. He is waiting for you.'
'The man seems not fair, I think,' said Harezuddin. Mohibullah did not comment. He followed the father-in-law like an obedient boy.
The cattle-market was a mere name; it was actually a meat-market. The canal of Rajshahi Sugar Mills passed alongside the market. The butchers slaughtered cattle on the bank of the canal and pushed the wastes into it. Those waters spread bad smell. Nosimon was very fond of beef; Harezuddin remembered and decided to buy some beef for her after getting the money. He would also buy some sweetmeats.
Haru Kabiraj was chewing betel leaf sitting in Lalmon's meat-shop. He smiled and welcomed him. 'Come on brother, come here. Who is this boy? Is it your son-in-law? Well, very well. Come on my son, sit down here.'
Harezuddin nodded his head. Kabiraj said to Mohibullah, 'Listen, son, you should invest the money in a profitable job. Your father-in-law has gone to great trouble to give you this money. Don't waste it.' His words were full of guardian-like affections, with no tone of sarcasm. Despite that, the man seemed very cunning to him. Harezuddin sensed the son-in-law's discomfort and took the comment as overbearing. 'We are in a hurry. Please pay the money and let us leave for our own job,' he said.
'Yes, money,' Kabiraj became hasty; 'We have kept it ready for you. Brother Lalmon, come here for a while, give me the money, please.'
Harezuddin followed his look and saw Lalmon, the butcher, along with his companion, peeling up the skin of a just-slaughtered cow. It looked like Kala. He got startled. 'Kabiraj, that isn't my Kala?'
He sprang to the slaughter spot like a mad man not wasting time for Kabiraj's reply. 'Lalmon? It's my Kala. Isn't it?'
Lalmon showed his teeth of blackish red color like seeds of watermelon. 'Yes, it was yours, no doubt, once upon a time. Now I own it.'
Kabiraj and Mohibullah rushed to them. 'What happened?'
Harezuddin became dumbfounded. Tottering tears soon overflowed his eyes. Kabiraj said with great astonishment, 'You are crying, brother Harez?' But Harezuddin listened to nothing. He was looking at the dead body of Kala, as if his eldest son Shahjahan had been lying dead in front of him: the whole body reddened with dried, blackish blood; skin of the body peeled up here and there; arms and legs broken and crumbled; and the face pale and bruised. At first, he could not identify his son. The commander said, 'Can't you recognize? It's your son! Shahjahan. Take him straight to the graveyard, and don't try to create any scene. Understand?' He sat down beside his son, touched his forehead, and tried to tell him, 'Have you bathed in blood, my son? Wasn't there water in this country of rivers and ponds?' However, he could not utter the words. He fell down unconscious.
'What happened? Brother Harez? Come on, take the money,' said Kabiraj and Lalmon almost at the same time in the same hasty tone.
Mohibullah sat beside his father-in-law, held him in his arms, and anxiously said, 'Are you feeling bad, father? Come on, let's go.'
Harezuddin slowly raised his head and looked around, as if he was in an unknown place and finding someone known. Some shadowy faces began to reflect before him, and were rapidly changing their appearance like snapshots. He tried to recognize them. Sometimes they looked like the commander, sometimes like Lalmon, sometimes like Haru Kabiraj, and sometimes like Mohibullah. He tried hard to detect each one of them. He failed. All the faces looked alike in his tearing eyes.