Written by Shaheen Akhtar
Translated from Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya
Heera the slave sat on the bed combing the hair of the young queen Phuleswari Rai. Phuleswari had been spending her days in bed, and her hair was tangled into knots. The comb was pulling it out in clumps. Heera dipped her fingers in a bowl of oil before running them through Rai’s hair, trying to tease the strands apart, but every time she tried the comb, Rai moaned, “ahh, ahh,” in pain. Black Moon, the mynah, screeched, “bandi! bandi! slave! slave!” at Heera from his perch by Rai’s bed. Ever since she started feeling sick, Rai had Black Moon moved to her bedside. She cared for her birds more than she cared for her servants and slaves. Heera slathered oil on her palm and rubbed Rai’s scalp roughly, warming it with the friction of hair and oil. Once Phuleswari fell asleep, Heera would carry the mynah outside and settle his perch there. Then she would spread her pallet on the floor by Rai’s bed. This was the routine these days.
Rai’s hair was not done when the mynah began screeching “Rrrrrat-chandra Rrrrrat-chandra.” Phuleswari flinched. Heera glanced at the door. The latch was lowered. No one would fault her for thinking it was a cat or a dog fumbling at the door, trying to push it open. But when she spotted the red border of the dhoti, Heera dropped the comb and rushed to the door. Raj Chandra was so far gone he was incapable of even opening the door. Sopping wet, teeth chattering, he kneeled at the threshold. He tried to stand up but weaved sideways and fell down again. Heera held the door wide open. A few moments passed before their lord and master entered, swaying, and barely managing each step. He reached the bed before toppling over.
In the morning when he awoke, Raj Chandra recalled that he had not resolved the issue which had brought him to Phuleswari’s bedchamber. All night he had snored like a water buffalo. And that too beside a woman who, without having had intercourse with her husband, now carried a child in her womb.
Weak and unwell, Phuleswari was still asleep. When she was rudely awakened by her husband shoving her, she felt sudden nausea, as if her very insides were pushing their way out. Trying to climb down from the high bedstead, she fell onto the cement floor. Instead of helping her up, Raj Chandra let loose a string of curses and oaths, as if once a husband suspected betrayal, the wife lost her right to live. On the left panel of the doorway the mynah screeched and hopped, flapping its wings, “No more! No more!”
What was going on! Queen Mother Shumitra rushed into the room with Heera. Behind her streamed an unbroken line of water. Mother Shumitra hadn’t even had time to wring out her sari after bathing in the pond because her son was taking such tender care of his pregnant wife that the palace was in uproar.
It looked like all her advice yesterday was having the opposite effect. Who knew what kind of man Bishwambhar Shur, the founder of the dynasty, had been! Mother Shumitra couldn’t fathom it. Full of flaws, none of the virtues. The gods had gifted her son neither wit nor judgment, but spirit and brawn in good measure. How could he evade the curse of his blood?
While Heera helped Phuleswari rise from the floor and tried to clean her up, Mother Shumitra set aside all sense of propriety and shame, and sat down to face her son’s allegations. She had many witnesses at hand to affirm that Raj Chandra had indeed had intercourse with his wife for four successive nights following the evening of the kal baishakhi storm. Phuleswari stopped menstruating in the month ofbaishakh. There were two days left before joistha would roll into ashaar; Phuleswari had been with child a full ten weeks.
The squabble resolved Raj Chandra’s doubts about intercourse. But it was Phuleswari Rai who paid dearly. At three months she lost the child; the blood flowing out of her was unceasing. Heera could barely keep pace, changing the bedclothes and washing her clothing. Phuleswari had grown so pale her skin looked like chalk. Heera fed her hornbill fat from tiny clay bowls, and fresh pigeon blood. Amulets and talismans covered her. The physician from Lamchor sent by Kali Charan Guha had gone back. It was a battle between the god of death and human strength. Old wives’ remedies and brews were their only hope now. After completing her daily ablutions, prayers and offerings to the gods, Mother Shumitra came to sit at Rai’s bedside, careful not to touch her in this state of impurity.
Though it looked as if blood was flowing again under the skin of the young queen, any hopes of an heir were gone. Her fall from that high bedstead had ruptured a vein. The poor thing could no longer sink her roots in this household. No matter what wealth her father commanded, Phuleswari, a barren wife, would have to take second place once her husband brought home another queen. She would be privy to taunts and harsh words at every turn. Still, how could Mother Shumitra not arrange another bride for her son! If she didn’t, it would be her brother-in-law Rajendra’s line that grew heftier with time, leaning upon that child Prafulla Kumar. Her husband Pratap Narayan’s lineage would be destroyed before it had grown to barely a seedling. Nothing in this world was achieved without effort. If the father wasted his days in the gutter, once the son attained age he began the work of reclaiming and refurbishing the zamindari. It would be no different for Raj Chandra. All would come to pass if only Mother Shumitra could coax her son to sit once again on the wedding stool. Why should they worry? There were examples, even among the very forefathers of the Chowdhury dynasty, of enjoying a kept woman outside the house while marrying many times. However, the thick purse of the Lamchor in-laws and an unworldly girl like Phuleswari had been a match made in heaven. Such a perfect fit was not easily found. Right now Mother Shumitra had unfettered access to all the money and goods of Lamchor. But once a co-wife to his daughter arrived in the household, what father would be eager to send money and gifts?
This dilemma rent her asunder. The daughter-in-law was marked a loss the minute she miscarried. But what of Mother Shumitra herself? Who could evade destiny? The queen mother exited Rai’s room with a sigh.
She washed her hands of Phuleswari Rai. It was only Heera, the servant, who continued to tend to her. She rushed around endlessly, trying to gather anything and everything people suggested, even if the suggestion was for tiger’s milk. One day she even dared to smuggle in a bearded mullah to the inner quarters of the Hindu palace, disguising him as a woman. He was to bestow blessed water on Rai. As he blessed the water, he recited his Muslim mantras fiercely, making Heera’s inner soul tremble. She quickly shuttered all the doors and windows. Phuleswari’s eyes were still closed. For two days she had lain with her jaws clenched shut, unconscious. Until her lips parted enough to dribble some water in, the mullah sat at the head of the Hindu girl, chanting, The Prophet visits the house of this girl/The girl suffers childbed fever/Rise, girl, cleanse yourself/Say your fazr prayers/La Ilaha Illallah/Illness be gone.
The human hand carried out God’s will. It is difficult to say how illnesses were cured. Whether it was the blessed water or the constantly chanted mantra, on the second day Phuleswari Rai blinked her eyes open. When Black Moon mimicked the mullah from his perch and sang out la Ilaha, she even smiled. Alongside the blessed water, Heera continued with all other remedies and interventions. She brought a mortar and pestle from the three-legged stand beside the bed. She crushed the medicine with honey, and, smearing it on the tip of her finger, fed it to her patient little by little. Through Rai’s barely parted lips, she dripped milk from a seashell. Black Moon sat overhead, chattering day and night. By rote a barn owl flapped at the blinds at night. As if the owl was another drug for the sufferer, Rai slept deeply for as long as the owl sat at the window, gazing at her with its glowing eyes.
Triumphing against all ill will, day by day the glow of health returned to Phuleswari’s pallor. Her skin-and-bone limbs began to accrue flesh. But with this improvement, a new symptom manifested itself—heartrending tears for some reason, or none. There was no answer to the question of why she was weeping, or what it was she wanted. It was as if earlier she had no strength, so she couldn’t weep; now that she could, she would. Only once did she ask, when was her Day of Fancy, the day when she, as an expectant mother, would be indulged by all in food and gifts and blessings? Heera could find no words. She covered her eyes with her sari end and left. She had had so many plans: on the Day of Fancy, she would adorn Rai in eight kinds of jewels and wrap her in a gold-embroidered red cheli sari. She would place Rai’s dainty feet, painted crimson with alta, upon the stool, and watch everyone prostrate themselves at those feet. Slaves and servants would compete with each other to get to her first. Khhanta Moni’s flat face would finally be flattened forever. If they had been impressed by the wedding, the Babupura folks would be slack-jawed at the pomp of Lamchor’s gifts and offerings for their pregnant daughter.
God had not destined such joy for her.
In the beginning when Rai would weep, Heera ran to Mother Shumitra. And Mother Shumitra came as soon as she was called. Now the Queen Mother grew annoyed if Heera tried to bring her to Rai. She had enough troubles of her own. She could barely keep her mind on her devotions to God. She spent all day in the pond, immersed to her neck. She had done everything she could, other than clasping Raj Chandra’s feet and pleading with him, and she the mother! Raj Chandra had not agreed to a second marriage. Instead he was going off on a pilgrimage with his whore in tow. Even if the common people accepted such behavior, would the gods? Mother Sumitra’s skin crawled in fear of divine wrath.
Shaheen Akhtar is the author of six short story collections and five novels. Her second novel Talaash won the Best Book of the Year Award for 2004 from Prothom Alo, and was published by Zubaan Books, Delhi, in English translation as The Search (trans. Ella Dutta). In 2015, she was awarded the Bangla Academy Literature Award. Her work has been translated into English, German, and Korean.
Shabnam Nadiya is a Bangladeshi writer and translator based in the U.S. She completed her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2012. She is currently translating Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Beloved Rongomala; and her translation of Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel The Mercenary is forthcoming this November from Bengal Lights Press, Dhaka. Her work has been published in Weber-The Journal of the Contemporary West, Wasafiri, Gulf Coast, Copper Nickel, Words Without Borders, and other journals. http://shabnamnadiya.com/.