Friday, 11 March 2011

The song of the gutter

Mizan Rahman

  That was the only tree in the whole neighborhood that had green leaves.
  Sharifa’s very own, personal tree. She had brought the sapling from her parents’ home and planted it with her own hands. It has now grown into a mature tree, just as the little babies become adults one day. Its light green leaves have added a bit of color to the area. Its long branches are shooting upward as if to meet the sky. Little buds are trying to burst out as if to herald the fulfillment of an impossible dream. Sharifa’s cherished hashnahena (cestrum nocturnum) has blossomed into her youthful grandeur, something that most slum-dwelling children never live to see in their life.
   Yet, right beside the lovely tree  there is a dark, ugly stream---a filthy, fetid drain that serves no other purpose than to provide the neighborhood children a suitable substitute for a toilet. Heaps of waste from rotten rice to fish guts and scales to jackfruit discards to rags soiled with babies’ feces, to umpteen other household garbage keep clogging the alley every day, barely a few yards from the tree. All sorts of street animals like the stray dogs and cats and rats and, of course, the whole armies of hungry crows come rummaging the waste looking for crumbs of edible food. Sometimes they run into stiff competition with some desperately poor neighborhood kids. Occasionally a lonely, infirm and destitute old lady will sift through the same heap looking for a bit of ash thrown away by someone in the vain hope of recycling it for her own use. Few of her neighbors have built a primitive ‘toilet’ on top of a small body of mucky mash----it has no motion other than occasional blobs of bubble popping up from time to time. Sounds like sighs of anguish from the wet body of a dark primordial beast. It is there, right beside that abominable repository of human misery, stands in great pomp and pride, in disdain and defiance, Sharifa’s beloved hashnahena.
   During the day there is no end to her chores. Early in the morning, right after her morning prayer, she bundles up her two little children and heads for the construction site where she makes a minimal living by crushing bricks. At the end of the day she collects her precious few takas from her employer and buys a few ounces of rice, a few drops of cooking oil, some spices and salt. Back home she rushes to put the “stove” on ----a contrivance made out of bits of broken bricks, in a “kitchen” that has no roof, no walls. So there is no cooking when rain comes. What she calls her home, sweet home, is nothing but a wobbly shanty standing precariously over a thin sheet of wood that she picked from the construction site. Her walls, if they can be called walls, are no more than a few pieces of corrugated tin collected from the debris of a burnt-out building.
   She is all alone with her two little children.
  Yes, she did have a husband, even as late as last year. He used to make a half decent living by pushing rich people’s furniture and other heavy stuff on his wooden cart---- a thelagari. If that was lucky, yes, she was lucky, even happy at some fleeting moments.  He was a good, honest, and caring man. But that was too good for the good Lord to tolerate for too long. Last year, by the end of a hot summer day the poor man came home, and out of the blue started coughing blood, pure red blood. In the wee hours of the morning the man was gone. Since that day Sharifa’s life has been a continuous run of nightmares and a long, deep and silent sigh of anguish. But for her two kids her life wouldn’t have been worth living anymore. The older child is a 5-yr old boy, called Sobhan. The large two eyes of this rickety child of hers seem to be always crying out of hunger. Will she ever be able to send him to school, wonders Sharifa. The little girl just turned 3. Cries too much, wretched girl, doesn’t want to let her go out of sight even for a moment.  She is always fretting for nothing. Always picking on her brother, always complaining. And, she seems to be always sick with something. Her nose is always running----seems unable or even unwilling to get out of what appears to be a permanent bout of cold.
    Sharifa has a flaw, an unusual flaw for a poor slum girl who lost her husband barely a year ago, and who is struggling to make both ends meet with two little orphans. She is too fastidious about cleanliness. Sounds so strange, doesn’t it? She may not have a real roof over her head, or any real walls to allow any privacy, yet she is very particular about keeping everything as clean and tidy as possible. She gets very cross with her children if they throw pieces of dirt or crumbs of food on the floor, or spit or cough. Every week she treats her earthen floor with a coating of a mixture of fresh soil and cow manure. Every week she washes the family’s clothes with a bar of soap. She combs her children’s hair every day after rubbing a few drops of mustard oil on their skull. She doesn’t forget to pay some attention to her own looks either. She will tie up her hair in a neat bun, a khnopa, sometimes even sporting a bunch of  flowers pinned in it. These strange habits of hers do not help her getting any kudos from the women in the neighborhood. On the contrary----they feel intensely jealous, which they express by making obscene remarks. And the men? Well, that shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. A young widow trying to look pretty, that has only one meaning to the sex-starved slum boys----available. It’s not that Sharifa is too naïve to understand this, but she doesn’t really care. For her this is part of her staple—this decent way of living---- this is as important as her daily meals.
   Yes, she badly needs that Hena tree in her yard. That keeps her feel alive.
   As there is but one ‘toilet’ in the whole area, they had to agree on some kind of schedule for its use----males in the morning, females at night. The line-ups at each session are quite a sight to see. And what a grand toilet it is! Just a pair of wooden planks that can get quite tricky to balance your feet on, especially at nights, when there are no lights to help the poor women find the planks under their feet. The stench is unbearable. The human waste piles up all season long, until the torrential rain comes with a bit of relief, washing away the filth to deposit it in someone else’s backyard. As soon as the rain stops back comes the heap of feces and the hellish stench.
   Sometimes Sharifa gets a bit absent-minded on her way back home. She stands for a while beside her beloved tree. Takes in the fragrance for as long as she can hold her breath. Keeps her eyes closed as if in a trance. An inexplicable surge of joy wells up in her mind----as if she can hear the melodious tune of a beautiful song from a far away land of dreams. This seems to ease the pain of yet another hard day of backbreaking work at the construction site. When the wind blows from the south where the people are lined up for the toilet, the smell is overpoweringly odious. Then suddenly the wind turns left on the north where the tree is beaming with its glorious abundance of flowers. And lo and behold, the fragrance takes over the land, the world bursts out in all its joyful magnificence. And all of a sudden, the toilet is gone, the stench is gone, the filth is gone. All that remains is the human spirit reigning over the heavens----there is a festival of joy everywhere.
  That is the way the prodigal wind of the hapless slum keeps swinging between two competing extremes. On one side the perennial wasteland of filth and dirt with all its stench and muck. And on the other stands in her majestic beauty and glory Sharifa’s victorious Hashnahena.
   Poor girl has no idea that her beloved tree has provided such a powerful symbolism of the state of her whole country.

 Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান  
 Ottawa, March 16, ‘11

(Translated from the author’s Bengali story “Nordomar Gan” published some ten years before)

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