The World of Love and Labour

hossains01pic1.jpg Fulbanu glared at her father. She was eighteen. No one told her, but she instinctively knew by this time that the word ‘father’ signified refuge, security, love, care, and many other such things. But, what sort of father was this who hurled his child to hell? It meant that whatever she had known or learnt so far was wrong. Her heart shrank in fear. If this strong foundation of trust collapsed, on what would she survive? Can human beings live in wrong places? As she swiftly considered all this, her sharp, angry gaze turned to hatred. She looked fully at her father.

A few moments ago, Fulbanu’s father, Amzad Mia had returned from outdoors. His chest and back were wet with perspiration and the vest clung to his body. He was drying his neck and shoulders with his towel.

Fulbanu’s mother Rahimoon stood beside her husband and fanned him with an embroidered hand-fan. Its red cotton trimmings fluttering in the wind looked like the fire of hell to Fulbanu. She had her idea of hell-fire from the village moulavis and now she visualised it in the red of the fan. When this fire touched her, her temper flew.

Amzad Mia had pulled his lungi up to his knees and was scratching his thighs. He had ringworms in parts of his body. When the itching was severe, he became restless. Until now, Fulbanu had some sympathy for her father’s suffering. At this particular moment, the scratching bloke seemed to be nothing but a bastard.

Amzad Mia looked directly at his daughter and asked, ‘Why aren’t you saying anything? Don’t you like the proposal?’ ‘This is not a proposal, at all.’ Fulbanu snapped. Her eyes blazed.

Why, what’s wrong? Hundreds of acres of land, mango groves, house’

Hundreds of wives’

Men can marry as many times as they like.’

What about his age?’

For men, age does not matter.’

O, sure! He’s fit to be my grandfather.’

Fulbanu almost shrieked as she spoke. Rahimoon chased her with the hand-fan and shouted, ‘Why don’t you shut-up!’

You, people are selling me off! You are sacrificing me for the land you’ll get.’

Rahimoon rapped her on the back with the fan. Amzad Mia hurled abuses at her. Fulbanu stared at those two human figures.

She stood still. She did not run away nor break down in tears. She had been obstinate and resolute since childhood and stuck to whatever she thought best. At that moment, she could not arrive at a decision. She did not have a lover to elope with. She had not ever thought of loving anyone. No one had stood near to her and said, “Fulbanu you’re mine”. For so long she had grown up in her father’s house, full of fun. Now, after this catastrophe, she felt terribly lonely.

hossains01pic2.jpg Amzad Mia lit a biri. Rahimoon continued to wave the fan. Neither of them looked at Fulbanu any longer. Fulbanu looked hard at them. This couple had given birth to ten children. She was the sixth. They now wanted to earn something through her. Kasem Mia had offered to transfer twelve katthas of land to Amzad Mia’s name provided he got Fulbanu. He also promised a lot of gold and jewellery for Fulbanu.

This couple had given her birth while satisfying their lust; now, to satisfy their avarice they were selling her. In a flicker of a second she came to a decision. She was determined to do what she thought.

You can’t sell me.’

Why? Selling? This isn’t a sale – a gift. Kasem Khan will gift me land.’

You won’t be able to take that gift.’

Why not?’

Kasem Khan will marry me without the land.’

The bitch barks too much! I’ll kill and bury her!’

You may. I’m going.’

She left silently. She decided that she would not let them have anything. A father who ignored her happiness and sacrificed her to his greed deserved nothing. The marriage would take place but Kasem Khan won’t have to part with his land. She came and stood near the kitchen. Her younger sister Motibanu was cooking. She became anxious the moment she heard about the marriage. She saw Fulbanu, cast a few furtive glances, and said in a perturbed voice, ‘Bubu, tell Abba that this marriage is not going to take place’. Fulbanu began to laugh. She said, ‘Why not? It will. I am marrying Kasem Khan.’

Babu, are you crazy?’

I am!’

Fulbanu burst into a fit of gurgling laughter.

He’ll give me a heap of jewellery, boxful of saris. Cream, bottle of hair oil and what not! Only my father will not get his share of land.’

Marriage without the land! How is that possible?’

Yes, it will be possible. Marriage without land.’

Motibanu could not make head or tail out of all this and remained silent. Her eyes moistened at the behaviour of her elder sister. She covered her eyes with the edge of her sari. Fulbanu passed through the backyard of the kitchen and came to the mango grove. She would now go to the bank of the river Mahananda. She would touch the water of the river and feel the breeze that blew over it. She walked a long way through the mango grove and came to the bank of the river. She pondered whether she should walk straight into the water. What would happen if the current pulls her deep down? But why should she die? Is dying a better option than marrying Kasem Khan? Instantly she made up her mind. She must marry Kasem Khan and live with him. She wanted to know him, too. She knew one person: her father. And her mother? No, she had no grudge against her. However, a woman who had no mind of her own and always placated her husband was not worth her thoughts. Let her remain on the outskirts of her emotions and feelings! Such thoughts helped Fulbanu to detach herself from her father’s family. She had struck upon a plan to teach a lesson to her father. But how to do the same to Kasem Khan? Within her head eddies whirled. She got down into the water and began splashing it with both hands.

She could hear her brother calling from behind. The voice trembled in the wind. Did her elder brother fear that she would commit suicide? No, Fulbanu was not that weak. She wanted to face this social set up: the system that dragged her by the neck and planted its feet on her shoulders to pin her down on the ground. Fulbanu turned her head and watched her brother come running after her. Osman jumped from the raised bank to the slope. Then he waded out to hold Fulbanu’s hand.

what are you doing here, Fulbanu?’

Nothing special. I came here just like that.’

Come, let’s go home.’

You go, I’ll go later.’

You’re going to be married soon, why should you stay here alone? People will talk.’

What if they do? Won’t Kasem marry me?’ Her curt questions hurt Osman.

What are you saying? Come, let’s go home.’

Why are you afraid of Bhaijan? I’ll get married. Is Kasem Khan giving land to you too, Bhaijan?’

Why would he? He’s giving it to father.’

After father’s death won’t you too get a share of that land, Bhaijan?’

Yes, I will.’

hossains01pic3.jpg Osman’s face beamed with happiness. He smiled. He grew all the more sympathetic towards Fulbanu. He let go of her hand and placed his hand on her head. Though Fulbanu had been standing in the cold water for a long while, hell-fire seemed to singe her. She pushed Osman down in the river and laughed as she said, ‘Bhaijan, feel the water of the river. Ice-cold. I had come to cool myself in the river.’

Losing his balance, he fell in the water, floundered and gasped for breath. When he got up, his eyes were red. He could not stand her laughter any longer and slapped her hard a couple of times. Fulbanu scratched him in return. She spat on him and said threateningly, ‘I warn you! If you cross the limit you are not getting Kasem Khan’s land.’

Osman froze. His eyes drooped, his hands stopped midway and his anger subsided. Fulbanu watched the way her elder brother crumpled before his greed. Alas! Allah! Are all human brings the same! She was miserably depressed. She did not look at Osman any longer and slowly climbed up the bank. She felt a lot of strain in walking up the slope of the river: walking along the pathway was still more difficult. The lower edge of her wet sari swept over the dust of the pathway and was plastered with mud. She could feel her brother was following her; she could hear his footsteps, dry leaves crunching under his feet. She laughed inwardly. Actually, that is the sound of the footsteps of a terrified animal.

She could see from afar other members of the house standing behind the kitchen. They seemed to be anxious. She knew why. She felt herself to be pricey. It was funny -the way she had become so valuable overnight. She wanted to dance, run about. But she wouldn’t do so now, people would think her mad. She stopped in front of the gathering and said in a calm, controlled voice, ‘Don’t be afraid. I’ll marry Kasem Khan.’

What a cheek!’

Her elder sister flung the words contemptuously at her. Fulbanu couldn’t care less. She passed her and entered the house. She came to the well, hauled up buckets of water and began pouring it on herself. Water ran down her body and the place was flooded. Her mother shouted and called her from the verandah. She didn’t answer. Motibanu came and took the tumbler away.

Bubu, stop! Oh, Bubu…

Motibanu hugged her and started crying. Fulbanu wanted to be far away from her. The presence of her younger sister weakened her. At such times, she was scared of herself. However, she did not want to be afraid. She must remain brave and resolute. Motibanu wanted to seduce her with dreams: dreams of a life fulfilled, of a household of her own. However, she knew that could never be. Her dreams were pawned to her father’s greed.

Babu, why don’t you escape?’

Where will I go?’ She held Motibanu’s face in her cupped palms. Motibanu found nothing more to say. Even she didn’t know where Fulbanu could go. She was angry with Fulbanu, Why hadn’t she fallen in love with somebody till now? Motibanu felt tremors within her. She gnashed her teeth and dug her nails on her sister’s shoulders.

The next moment Fulbanu threatened her and said, ‘Get lost! Go away from here!’

Why should I? I’ll hack the fox to pieces!’

Fulbanu pushed her away with both her hands.

No, I’ll marry the old man.’

Why? Why should you marry him? He already has three wives.’

I love him, Moti.’

Love him!’

Motibanu jumped, sprang away and looked at her in surprise. Fulbanu spoke no more and left to change her wet clothes. She felt that she had calmed down. She did not have any grudge any longer.

At lunch, she had her fill of rice. When her mother offered a second helping of curry, she did not refuse and pushed her plate forward. She was very happy to get an extra piece of hilsa fish. Looking at her satisfied face, her younger brother smiled and commented, ‘Bubu is very happy now. Bubu, what will you give me when you marry?’

Marry? When? Whom?’

Why old Kasem Khan? That hide of a dead cow!’

Raju started laughing, so did Fulbanu herself. She rolled in a bout of laughter. Then licking her fingers she said, ‘No, Raju, this is not a marriage. This is a business transaction, in cow hide.’

A business transaction?’

What else? I’m the ‘

Transaction between whom?’

Between father and Kasem Khan.’

You better stop, Fulbanu.’

Rahimoon shouted at them. As she heard her children, it gradually became difficult for her to keep cool. Just after the scolding Fulbanu was quiet, but the next moment she made a sound as though she were going to throw up. She said, ‘Hide of a rotten cow! It stinks.’

She covered her nose with both her hands as if she actually got the stink. Then she jumped down the verandah and went near the well. All the others who were eating felt uneasy: it seemed as if something had stuck in their throat. However, no one spoke.

A few days passed by. Fulbanu’s excitement had somewhat died down. She ate and drank as she used to, moved around and talked cheerily to others. It seemed as if she was growing up as usual, happily, without any wound or bruise. Life appeared to be the same as before; going to the bank of the Mahananda, walking under the shades of the mango trees, sweeping the yard in the morning, helping her mother in the kitchen, participating in a world as open and free as it previously had been. Where was the storm in this scene?

People from Kasem Khan’s side came. Marriage negotiations proceeded. Fulbanu heard everything. Her elder sisters had come from their in-laws’ houses to attend the marriage. None of them was well off. They were all jealous of this marriage of Fulbanu; some taunted her, some smirked. She did not care.

© Selina Hossain