“Cops on our tail, cops on our tail!”
“Cut and run, cut and run!”
The picnic party microbus is stuck in a traffic jam. Before anyone can react, a hijra— separated from her band which is receiving a drubbing from the police—jumps on board. She finds herself stuck between a crocodile in the water and a tiger on the bank. If she gets tossed out of the vehicle, the police are sure to grab and beat her. Seeing no other choice, the tiger on the bank—the head of the picnic party, Mr. Sharif—softens his attitude. How difficult will it be to get rid of her? As soon as the police leave, he’ll tell her to scram. Until then, she may as well stay concealed among them.
The hijra’s feet are weighted down with dancing anklets. The slightest motion makes them go jhum-jhum. In her mother’s lap, Maissha, a year and a half old, watches with flickering eyelids. The mother says, “No fear, no fear, they make babies dance.” As if on cue, the child’s tiny feet, clad in red socks, begin to tap. The driver’s widemouthed yawns come to a halt. Until now, Taposh and Chondona have been hurting everyone’s ears with their jabber: “What a useless picnic party! Drop us off, we’ll go home and play computer games.” A moment later: “It’s just too hot! Please, Abbu, buy us an ice cream.” Now they are both speechless. With bulging eyes they’re taking in a real-life showdown between cops and robbers.
Right from the outset, the hijra gang irritated Taposh’s father Mr. Sharif. Though he’s all in favor of democracy, deep down he endorses the police operation. Stuck in the bus all this time, he couldn’t avoid facing the hijras’ raucous clapping or their obscene songs and lewd gestures. He doesn’t care to see them swing their hips and flaunt their coquetry in the middle of the road. For heaven’s sake, he’s going on a picnic with his family. He gets even more riled up when his childhood friend Erfan shoves his camera out the window. The way he’s clicking away you’d think he was plucking mangoes from someone else’s tree. What can you expect from a middle-aged bachelor. He even drools at the sight of hijras. Yet he hadn’t wanted to come on this trip. “You’re going on a picnic with your wife and kids. Go ahead. Why drag me into that mess?” Mr. Sharif had to burn a lot of kindling to get him to agree. In contrast, Jaane Alam is full of zip—that fellow knows how to have fun.
The Sharifs have known Jaane Alam for only six months. How splendid that after a single exchange he agreed to join their picnic. Now instead of wasting his time sitting in the jam, he’s gone off to see if he can find bananas on the cheap. Mrs. Jaane Alam’s disposition is the exact opposite of her husband’s. The moment she spotted the hijras on the street, she became uneasy. She doesn’t know what to do with these not-quite-male, not-quite-female persons who aren’t even eligible to vote. She chooses to sit with her back to the picnic party. Until the police operation her unblinking eyes were focused out the window on the band of hijras. After all, this woman has no fear of giving birth to a hijra infant! You can get a headache only if you have a head. Mr. Sharif has heard she’s barren. In five long years, her womb might have issued snakes or frogs, but it never birthed a human baby. There’s no use asking Jaane Alam about this. He only fidgets and squirms. Who knows, the man could well be a eunuch. They’ve only known each other for six months. In time, all will be revealed. But now when Jaane Alam returns, Mr. Sharif will get his life back in order. His own son and daughter’s annoying behavior, his childhood friend Erfan’s eager photo- snapping, Mrs. Alam turning her back on them—everything’s going against him. To top it all off, like a boil on his ass, a hijra’s joined the party.
At the door of the microbus appears an entire limb of jumbo bananas. Then, framed against the sun, Jaane Alam’s wide grin flashing both rows of teeth. He is about to explain to Mr. Sharif how he did so much better getting a whole limb instead of a dozen when he notices, right before his eyes, a flesh-and-blood hijra. She’s shaking a bangled hand toward Erfan’s pack of Bensons. She’s signaling for a cigarette. The smoke she finagles, but she doesn’t get off the bus. “I will go to Guru Ma’s house in Bhoberchar,” she announces. But the vehicle’s going to Pagla. There at the pier, a motorized double-decker bajra waits for them. The hijra refuses to budge. Mr. Sharif is equally stubborn. With a man like Jaane Alam on his side, his party is now solid and firm. In the opposition, Erfan is passive. The camera is back in its case and he’s whistling as he stares out the window. The donated cigarette turning into ash between her fingers, the hijra darts her helpless eyes repeatedly in his direction. Mr. Sharif and Jaane Alam shout and scream. Mrs. Jaane Alam quietly chides them, “Why you folks actin’ like this? Is she a tiger? A bear?” Just then the traffic jam clears up, and the microbus shoots off towards Pagla. The hijra totters. After falling on one person and then another, she gets cursed out from all sides. They won’t let her sit next to them. In the end, she plops down like a new bride near Erfan’s feet.
Turning away from the hijra, Mr. Sharif now goes after the driver—what tomfoolery is he up to? They’re going on a picnic with kids, but when he’s asked to drive slower he speeds up even more. Does he think this is still the realm of the Mogh pirates? No one pays any heed to Mr. Sharif’s squawking. As it is, the traffic jam had played havoc with their schedule. When they see that the bus is late, Shomir, Kalpana, and her husband Hoque Bhai might turn back from the docks. Hoque Bhai had been whining from the start that he wasn’t feeling well. There’s no way to tell whether Kalpana has gone home or if she never left her house. Her mobile is turned off, and no one’s picking up the home phone. By the time Shomir arrives at the pier, the launch has already blasted its whistle. Two workers are busy raising the anchor and drawing in the gangplank. Taking his bag with one hand and his arm with the other, Jaane Alam yanks Shomir onto the boat. The bag weighs twice as much as the passenger. What’s in there, hey?
When he peeps inside the launch, Shomir’s eyes bug out. “What’s this, buddy? You’ve brought along a hijra for entertainment? What, you couldn’t get a baul or some other singer?” Erfan bites his tongue. The women look grim. The two kids badger the hijra. Little Maissha giggles from her mother’s lap. Mr. Sharif has been pacing the deck. Seeing Shomir appear with his luggage, he lets out a sigh of relief. In a tone of affection, he calls him closer. Mr. Sharif is worried that if one night’s outing wipes out his whole month’s salary, the rest of the month they’ll have to live on credit. Including Shomir, there are four of them—Erfan, Shomir, Jaane Alam and Mr. Sharif. The women and children will room and eat without payment. No one has to pay for the launch—the bajra is a pleasure craft belonging to a distinguished friend. The cost of food and petrol will be split five ways. The responsibility for the hijra falls upon Erfan. After all, it was his indulgence that let that filth dare get on the boat.
Shomir feels a pang of compassion for Erfan who lives an unsettled lifestyle. Who but another bachelor can understand a bachelor’s blues? Sharif is such a cheapskate. Erfan probably doesn’t even know that he’ll have to pay for the hijra’s portion of the bill. He’s leaning against the railing plucking out orange segments and sucking their juice.
Mr. Sharif removes more oranges from their paper sack and hands them out. Jaane Alam holds out the stem of bananas in his hands. Once the bright sun dips, they will have tea. These arrangements however do not include the hijra. She sits on the roof single-mindedly dragging on a cigarette that she’s acquired from Erfan. A little while later Mrs. Jaane Alam realizes that the hijra didn’t receive any oranges or bananas. She clambers up the steps to the roof. Behind her trails Maissha’s mother cradling the baby.
The sun is disappearing beyond the horizon. The waters of the Sitalakhya frolic in blood crimson hues. With that vista in the background, Erfan eagerly begins to photograph the hijra. Startled by the sight, Mrs. Jaane Alam bolts up erect. Loudly cawing, a crow swipes down, brushing against her head, then flies off to the opposite bank where it perches on the top branch of a leafless tree. They leave behind houses, smoke rising from kitchens, unfamiliar people, and cattle. The scene evokes in her what a new bride must feel when returning to her in-laws after her first visit home to her parents. But what’s this all about? She never lived with her in-laws. Twice each day, morning and evening, Mrs. Jaane Alam journeys between Mohammadpur and Azimpur. Unlike her sisters, she regularly checks in on her parents. Why should that be the case? Is it because she’s childless? Disconcerted, she glances toward the hijra.
The hijra is holding Maissha in her lap and pointing to the moon in the clear sky. “There, there, that’s the moon! Uncle moon!” Hijra with child in lap—the camera flash goes off.
“Erfan Bhai, how many more photos will you take of her? Why don’t you take a group shot with Bhabi and me? Who knows when we’ll be back on a picnic? I’ll have the photo framed.” Maissha’s mother nuzzles Mrs. Jaane Alam’s neck. Her body gives off a milky smell.
“When was the baby weaned?”
“Many moons ago. When you have to go to the office every day, is it any surprise that your breasts dry up?”
“You say you’re not going to take any more, but now you’ve already taken three. Are you shooting for a full dozen?” Through the viewfinder Erfan scans the women above and below their waists. When Mrs. Jaane Alam tries to pull the end of her sari from her back to cover her bare belly, Erfan screeches, “No, no, Bhabi. Leave your anchol alone and lean your head on Sharif Bhabi’s shoulder! Why be so bashful? You’re both women. Learn a thing or two from the hijra. Hey you, come over here.”
The hijra avidly plays hide-and-seek with the setting sun. Erfan wears himself out directing her this way and that while trying to catch the last rays of the sun. Taposh and Chondona have also joined in. The roof rings from their steps. Maissha’s mother goes off to the kitchen to feed Cerelac to the baby. Mrs. Jaane Alam joins her. The two kids seize the chance to go after the hijra. Erfan doesn’t bar them. Her sari is pulled this way and that. “Dug dug. Dug dug. What’s behind that blouse?” the kids belt out a popular Hindi song. Erfan clicks the shutter—Hijra being disrobed.
“Buddy, she looks like Draupadi incarnate! How can Bhima not rise up now, with mace in hand?” Before Shomir can finish his words, Jaane Alam appears on the scene like an ogre holding a cup of tea in his hand. He can’t figure out who should be the target of his wrath. The snakeskin-like striped sari has now become a fishing net in the hands of the kids. The hijra is left wearing a faded petticoat and a tiny sleeveless blouse, both quite tattered. Lifting her petticoat high, she curses the two kids, her profanities smearing their mother and father. Erfan doesn’t rest a second. He captures Jaane Alam in his frame. Handing the teacup to Shomir, the man clears his throat. But the photographer doesn’t appreciate the pose. In the meantime, after a short pause the hijra begins to yell again. Jaane Alam breaks away from the frame and scoots off toward her. Erfan releases the shutter—Bhima in kaliyug.
Jaane Alam strikes a woman—something he’s never done before in his whole life! So what if she’s a hijra? Look at the doleful pleading on her face and in her eyes! The hijra was practically begging for her life. Could she have survived if she’d been tossed over from this high? Before reaching the water her brains would have splattered from hitting her head on the steel hull.
Making fiery eyes at the two spoilt kids, Jaane Alam stomps down below. If they were his kids, he would have slapped them hard. “This is why Allah hasn’t given you children. You think he’ll give you any now?” Shooing his wife’s apparition away, Jaane Alam descends the steps.
Meanwhile the kitchen is in an uproar. Mr. Sharif has pushed aside the boat’s cook and is sitting guard over a pair of ilish weighing four kilograms. Jaane Alam will cut the fish. Mr. Sharif has reserved the right to fry them. The boti has already been sharpened. But a nonstick frying pan can’t be found. There’s no reason for one to be here. Most of the time what passes for meals among the launch staff is khichurimade of rice and lentils, otherwise chira, pressed rice, which can be soaked in river water and eaten with molasses. Any modern utensils have to be brought by the guests. When they leave, they take them back. Mr. Sharif refuses to hear any objections and bawls out the staff.
Jaane Alam’s presence brings the scolding to a halt. What’s happened to the cheerful fellow? Look at what a melancholy face he’s wearing. Why, it hurts to even look at it. Like the two dead fish, Mr. Sharif gapes at his friend with bugged-out eyes. Suddenly there’s rain without clouds—Jaane Alam refuses to cut the fish. He furrows his eyebrows and takes frequent sips of his tea. His eyes are trained outside, where village after village is vanishing in the darkness.
This is what happens when people have no children—there’s no figuring out their moods. Meanwhile Erfan and Shomir are busy, one with his camera, the other with his research. Leopards cannot change their spots. Jaane Alam had been Mr. Sharif’s only hope. How he’d spouted off on the way here. “It’s no picnic if you don’t cook with your own hands. The women cook all the time. When one eats the same food day after day, the palate loses its sense of taste. The world’s greatest chefs are men. You’ll see, Sharif Bhai, the way I’ll cook red lentils….”
“It’ll be so good that we’ll fall over each other to lick the pots,” Maissha’s mother had quipped. She has now finished feeding Cerelac to the baby and put her to sleep. The child on her hips, she climbs the ladder upstairs.
Mrs. Jaane Alam feels wedged into a tight corner. She is embarrassed at Mr. Sharif’s helplessness. Now she’ll have to make up for her husband. With the boti in her hand, she approaches the pair of ilish.
During the night, Mrs. Jaane Alam dreams that this very blade is cutting open her womb. She’s delivering a baby, all slimy and caked with blood. Just when she loses herself in a delirium of pain and joy, she hears from the mouth of her fellow passenger the hijra, “It’s a boy, it’s a boy.” Holding the fish up by their tails, the hijra swings them before Mrs. Jaane Alam’s eyes. She sits up in bed with a scream, her heart thumping inside her chest. Her throat has gone dry and she needs to drink a full glass of cold water. By her side Jaane Alam continues to sleep soundly. His wife’s nightmare and screams have not disturbed his sleep. Moored in the middle of the Meghna River, the launch rocks with the waves. One side of Jaane Alam’s hairy chest is bathed in moonlight while his face remains obscured by darkness. His legs being longer than the bunk, they’re upright, bent at the knees. If it wasn’t for that pose, Mrs. Jaane Alam would have presumed her husband to be dead.
Quietly lowering the window curtains, she leaves the cabin and steps out into the open air of the deck. In an instant the fresh air of the river envelops her whole body. But the dark shadow of the nightmare refuses to leave her mind. Dawn will arrive in a few hours. At the end of the day each of them will return to their homes, back to their old lives. Every day will again be the same. Still, as long as her parents are alive, she can do the daily run between Azimpur and Mohammadpur. Half her day is taken up by that routine. On workdays no lunch is cooked at home. It’s enough for her to heat up the previous night’s leftovers of rice and vegetables. After putting on a crisply ironed hand-woven sari, she leaves the house swinging her handbag. Her slender body floats like a reed in the air and she experiences a mysterious joy. Satmasjid Road now boasts new department stores and large shops selling many kinds of children’s toys. She gets off the rickshaw and scans the window displays. If she went inside, she’d feel ashamed to come out empty-handed. When she gets tired, she buys four oranges or a bunch of grapes from the footpath and hails another rickshaw. Then it’s straight to Azimpur. When her parents die, these trips will end. Under what pretext will she then come out each afternoon? Will Jaane Alam continue to give her the rickshaw fare that he now gives with a glad heart? No, he’ll become suspicious. Where do you go every day? Who do you see? Since I don’t know, the answer is no!
The days go by well, rather well. She had a lot of fun the first half of last night. She had no idea she could sing. “Wherever you are, be well, that’s all I want. On this happy night, ohhh…,” she sang the entire song by herself. Even Jaane Alam was surprised. The cassette player at home has been broken for a long time; when it’s turned on, the tape unravels and gets stuck inside. Is it possible to pick up an entire song by listening to it being played next door? Jaane Alam was spellbound by his wife’s skill. He was even happier that his wife had brightened his image among some important people. Stealthily he pinched his wife’s thigh. She too nuzzled closer to her husband. She had gone on to the wedding song, “Lovely as the moon, girl, let’s see you dance.” Erfan joined in with the refrain, “Girl, let’s see you dance!” Hoisting a lit cigarette above her head, the hijra began to swing her hips. Ever since she got on the launch she’d been smoking one cigarette after another, all cadged from Erfan. Just like Mr. Sharif she too somehow knew that her upkeep this night had been given over to Erfan. Chondona and Taposh danced beside the hijra. It became quite a night of singing and dancing. Then Maissha screamed, and everything went to pieces. She had woken from her sleep and when she didn’t find her mother or father by her side, she became terrified. She didn’t stop crying even after her mother took her in her arms. With nothing else to do, Mr. Sharif retreated into his cabin. He took along the two older children. Erfan’s routine was to go to bed early. Once he left, the only people remaining were Shomir, the hijra, and the Jaane Alams.
The crowd had thinned out. Jaane Alam seemed to become uncomfortable near the hijra. Why, did he think the person was a murderer? Or sterile? Taking a few deep yawns, Jaane Alam went off, saying, “It’s late. I should get some sleep.” He didn’t once ask Mrs. Jaane Alam to join him. Why? Did he think his wife would badger him? For a long time now, she had stopped begging him for affection. But she had not lost her sense of hurt. They had, after all, married for love. Her in-laws had never accepted her. Mrs. Jaane Alam kept on sitting, her face turned towards the moon. Like the moon in the sky, she too felt all alone and melancholy.
From early evening Shomir had been looking forward to just such a peaceful ambiance. There was no sound to be heard other than the noise of the trucks and buses on the Dhaka–Chittagong road. The road had to be at least a kilometer away from the boat. He turned on the tape recorder and began to interview the hijra. After Erfan had retired to his room, she became somewhat listless. She was neither speaking much nor did she seem to pay attention to anyone else’s words. In the end Shomir got her to agree to the interview by handing over an entire pack of cigarettes.
S: Do you wear saris all the time?
H: It doesn’t feel good staying in a sari all the time. When I go out to collect money, the sari has to be worn. I paint my eyes and face then, smear on lipstick. Otherwise I live simple.
S: What do you like to do most?
H: I get the most fun from smoking cigarettes and listening to songs. I can’t sing very well. But I can dance.
S: Do you ever get sad?
H: When people call me half ladies, I feel bad. Tears come to my eyes.
S: What sport do you like best?
H: Jumping rope.
S: Know how to swim?
H: No way! The water makes me scared.
S: Do you dream?
H: I dream of people getting married. If I dream of death, I get very sad afterwards.
S: Did you ever get married?
H: (No reply)
S: I mean, did you ever love anyone?
H: Yeah. I was deeply in love with one person. Giving him massages, taking care of his body… after my mother he was the one I loved. I would massage his body, give him affection. Slept by his side. Those things felt good. It felt good to be a woman. I left home because I was crazy about him. All night I cried, “Hai Allah, everyone lives in happiness, why not me? So many hijras live with husbands. You didn’t give me happiness anytime.” Whoever I catch runs off. At most one year, or just six months. Then they’re gone. All the time he would tell stories about women. His eyes would be more towards women. He’d say, “How long can I live with you! No wedding, no children. My life will become dust….”
Mrs. Jaane Alam suddenly leapt to her feet, startling Shomir and the hijra. “It’s late. I should get some sleep,” she repeated her husband’s words and went off toward their cabin. As she left, Shomir had turned on the recorder again.
Now there is no one here, neither Shomir nor the hijra. All that’s left are a pair of batteries and the empty case of a cassette. Picking up the discarded batteries Mrs. Jaane Alam rubs them on her fevered forehead. Oh, how cool and comforting! There’s no pause in the trucks and buses moving along the highway. When do these drivers ever sleep?
“It’s because they don’t sleep that there are so many accidents. Sleep is essential in a person’s life.” Jaane Alam often offers this weighty opinion. He’s very flexible when it comes to his own sleep. He can sleep anywhere. But Mrs. Jaane Alam cannot sleep away from her own bed. As soon as she shuts her eyes, she begins to have terrible nightmares. It doesn’t seem as if anyone else on the boat has the same problem. Mrs. Jaane Alam takes off her sandals and walks the deck in her bare feet. At one point she thinks of something and climbs up to the roof. She doesn’t stay there. Quickly she comes down again. With soft steps she treads over to stand near the high railing. It’s a safe spot. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t fall over. In the cold air and the security offered by the railing, her eyes begin to glaze over. She isn’t even aware when Erfan comes and stands next to her. He’s wrapped himself in a shawl after rising from a short sleep. As soon as she senses his presence, her skin erupts in gooseflesh. It would be rude to leave without saying something. She stands frozen in place. What can she say? It’s hard to find words this late. Erfan breaks the silence. “Bhabi, aren’t you cold? Why are you standing here by yourself?” For the first time Mrs. Jaane Alam shivers in the cold. She mumbles, “I’m going in.” As soon as she takes a step, a wide shawl blocks her way. Mrs. Jaane Alam is about to suffocate. She can’t even make a feeble protest. Jaane Alam might sleep like a corpse, but if he were woken up by her screams he would only blame his unfaithful wife. This late at night, why did the wife leave her husband’s side and go outside?
Mrs. Jaane Alam’s fear of her husband only goes so far. It conks out like a dead battery as her body goes numb under the artistry of Erfan’s fingers. Her mind has also submitted. She follows Erfan and descends to the kitchen downstairs. One more time her husband’s bloodshot eyes drift in front of her face. The next moment, they turn away like the beam of a lighthouse.
Picking up her sari and blouse from the kitchen floor, she manages to get dressed in the darkness. When she whispers, “I’m going,” Erfan kisses her hard and says, “Don’t say you’re going, say you’ll be back.” Wiping her lips on her anchol, Mrs. Jaane Alam scrambles up the steps in her bare feet and looks around the empty deck. Jaane Alam is asleep in the cabin right behind the deck. Before she enters, Mrs. Jaane Alam takes a deep breath. Her whole body stinks of fish. Should she enter the bathroom with fresh clothes, soap and towel? He may sleep like a corpse but won’t Jaane Alam wake upon hearing the suitcase being unlatched?
Mrs. Jaane Alam moves away from the door and leans against the deck railing. The thin light of dawn is breaking through the darkness. Soon the sun will rise. The passengers are all asleep. The launch too is enveloped by a mysterious cloak of fog. In an hour the fog will dissolve. Mrs. Jaane Alam feels restless. Though this is her fertile phase—her period’s still a week away—she cannot rely on just a single try. Breathlessly she runs toward the ladder.
Erfan is still in the kitchen. A lit cigarette in his hand, he gazes at the river draped in the fog. The fishing boats are disappearing like the birds gliding in the distant sky. Seeing Mrs. Jaane Alam come down, he smirks and returns his eyes to the river. He considers bringing his camera from the cabin. Mrs. Jaane Alam does not give him that opportunity. The morning’s here and people will soon enter the kitchen to boil water for tea. Right next door is the stinky staff toilet. Last night after cutting the fish, she had considered going in there to wash the boti. But she couldn’t enter. She’d become nauseous. Now she enters the bathroom with Erfan.
When they emerge, they notice the hijra at the door—he is brushing his teeth with the ash that’s used to help clean fish. With Mrs. Jaane Alam in front, Erfan whistles while they climb the steps. Below the ladder, the hijra noisily spits out a gunk of black. “How cruel, bapre bap,” she calls out in amazement.
As far as she can later recall, Mrs. Jaane Alam didn’t hear anything else. Neither a sharp exchange of words nor the sound of anyone falling into the water. With determined steps, Erfan rushed back toward the hijra while she rapidly returned to the cabin. She was in a rush. If Jaane Alam was still asleep, she would finish her bath in the attached bathroom and appear by his pillow with a cup of steaming tea in her hand. The man’s so crazy for his bed tea he would be willing to give away his kingdom in a flash!
Before she’s finished with her bath, there’s a violent knocking at the door. Who can it be? Do they have no sense of propriety? Could it be Jaane Alam? Maybe he’s lost his head and come to interrogate her after hearing everything from the hijra. Mrs. Jaane Alam stops pouring water over herself. The pounding on the door continues. She has no choice but to come out of the bathroom.
“Have you seen the hijra? She can’t be found anywhere.”
When she hears her husband’s words, Mrs. Jaane Alam gets her breath back. She feigns anger and says, “Why are you so worked up? The bathroom’s empty. Go take a cold water bath—you’ll feel fresh again.” Expelling those words without a pause, Mrs. Jaane Alam plunks down on the bed. Today she has even forgotten to wrap a towel around her wet hair. Or she didn’t get the time.
Jaane Alam is dumbstruck. So typical of a woman! Someone’s disappeared from a launch anchored in the middle of the river, yet his wife acts as if the hijra had climbed into their car to ask for money and then left before they drove off. Allah forbid if someone threw her into the water or if she fell over through carelessness or committed suicide. A murder case might be filed. After all, it is a case of an unnatural death!
Before Mrs. Jaane Alam leaves the cabin, the adults have all gathered on the deck. The children are still asleep. Mr. Sharif has sent Maissha’s mother back to the cabin to make sure that all their belongings are in order. Before Mrs. Jaane Alam enters the circle of men, she hears Mr. Sharif say that Bhoberchar is close by, just a few villages beyond, the launch master had informed him. Erfan immediately raises his finger and claims that at dawn he heard someone swim in that direction. He hadn’t realized then that it was the hijra. “But she doesn’t know how to swim, she told us that last night,” Mrs. Jaane Alam stammers and looks toward Shomir. “Bhabi, prostitutes and hijras never speak the truth,” Shomir quickly replies. Because the opinion comes from Shomir, not Erfan, it rings true to both Mr. Sharif and Jaane Alam. The young man has a good record. He’s a researcher. He doesn’t speak without sorting through what’s right and wrong. Erfan’s estimation that the hijra has swum to Bhoberchar must be right because Shomir has supported it. But why would she get her clothes wet and not tell anyone?
Maissha’s mother returns from the cabin and announces that nothing’s missing. Everything is in its place. Even the hairpins are exactly where they’d been left. “My ring!” Mrs. Jaane Alam unguardedly cries. She takes off toward the steps downstairs. Besides Erfan, three others chase after her—Jaane Alam, Mr. Sharif, and Shomir. It doesn’t surprise any of them to see her enter the toilet behind the kitchen. At this moment, the important thing is to search for the ring but not find it. The incident will then be dismissed this way: the hijra stole the ring and swam away toward her Guru Ma’s home in Bhoberchar.
Mrs. Jaane Alam emerges empty-handed from the toilet and both Mr. Sharif and Shomir are pleased. “What bright idea led you to search for your ring in there instead of the cabin?” Jaane Alam snarls. But what woman can think straight when she has lost her wedding ring? Mrs. Jaane Alam now heeds her husband’s words and dashes toward their room. The same three run behind her.
When the three men notice Mrs. Jaane Alam acting nonchalant instead of busying herself in every nook and cranny of the cabin, they figure the woman shares their opinion. The hijra has stolen the ring and run away to Bhoberchar. This is more satisfying than not finding one’s wedding ring. Still, when the men gather again for consultation in the middle of the deck, Mrs. Jaane Alam rushes back to the kitchen. She doesn’t have to turn the place upside down. The wedding ring is lying in the drain next to the sink. Finding it like this is worse than not finding it at all. Mrs. Jaane Alam doesn’t waste a second. She fishes the ring out of the drain and flings it out the window. Right at that moment Mr. Sharif orders the launch to be started immediately.
Everything had to get botched so early in the morning. The plan had been to bathe in the river and eat leftover soaked rice, with dry fish bhorta and fried ilish. They’d even brought along life jackets. By mistake Shomir had left his behind in his friend’s car. That wasn’t a problem now since it wouldn’t be possible to take a dip in the river anyway. No one’s in the mood any more. Besides, what would they do if the hijra’s corpse suddenly floated up while they were in the water!
Pushing against the current, the launch proceeds hesitantly. Jaane Alam’s office van will come to pick them up at 5 p.m. at the Pagla pier. An entire day lies ahead. Though Taposh, Chondona and even Maissha know that the hijra has fled to Bhoberchar after stealing Jaane Alam Auntie’s ring, the picnic party cannot shed their anxiety. One person blames the next. As the hours go by, tempers flare. Everyone’s furious at Erfan. It was because of his bleeding heart that a degenerate got the chance to get on the launch. Now everyone has to pay. In his mind Mr. Sharif is even angrier that Jaane Alam didn’t take a stronger stand against Erfan. What can you expect of castrated men but behavior like this? Besides, when the wife’s showing so much affection even virile husbands lose their will. He’s learned that at one point Jaane Alam had even tried to strike the hijra. And all along it was Shomir’s scheme to interview the hijra. Now he’s thinking of tossing the cassette into the water. If the police are lying in wait on the bank, their camera, tape recorder and everything else will be confiscated.
Of course the picnic party is now more afraid of the hijras than the police. When the launch approaches the riverbank to dock, only packs and packs of hijras come into view. The first time Taposh and Chondona notice them is at Bhagyokul. They needed to stop for some provisions. Before the launch could dock, the two children screamed, “Abbu, Abbu, there’s the ring thief.” What could they do? Right away the launch turned its mouth towards the river and started up its engine again. Once they reached the middle of the water, they asked one another and discovered that no one had seen any hijras. When they heard the kids scream, no one had had the courage to look. Once confronted, Chondona hides her face behind her mother’s anchol and Taposh claims that he only saw someone on the bank cradling a baby who looked like the hijra. Shomir suppresses a giggle. When he meets Mr. Sharif’s angry glare, he adopts a foolish look. The others take stock of the situation and try to look grim. From then on they begin to spot hijras at every pier. It’s the very same band that were dispersed by the police attack. Perhaps they are waiting for their separated comrade to return with a fat baksheesh from the river cruise. If Mr. Sharif and his people disembark, how will they explain to the hijras? It turns out that even though they reach Pagla punctually at five, they cannot get to their microbus. There too the scene is the same. When the launch is about to dock everyone notices that the band of hijras has lined the bank in the dying evening light. They are looking out towards the river with their hands over their foreheads. They all seem anxious. Despite Jaane Alam’s objection, the launch turns its prow back to the river. After the engine starts again, Erfan confirms that the hijras are beckoning them with their hands. It’s all over. The chances of their returning home tonight have drifted away.
Here and there the river has silted up. Weeds, grass and shrubs have sprouted from the sand. Egrets and kingfishers frolic in their midst. Maissha’s mother says that it would be good for the children to get off on the silt bed. They would get the feel of grass and earth beneath their feet. But she is quickly rebuffed. Jaane Alam strongly believes that the bodies of drowned people wash up in such uninhabited chars. Then the kites and vultures start pulling at the flesh. The scene is too horrific to contemplate. On one side there could be a dead hijra; on the other bank there’s a pack of live hijras. You can put aside for now the problem of the police.
If the pier is the river’s head, the char is the tail, and the water between is the torso. Maissha’s mother lectures Taposh and Chondona about the parts of a river, from its source to its outlet into the sea. The launch is now in the breast of the Dhaleswari. They dropped anchor before the sun went down. Everything is still and forbidding. Danger hangs over them heavy like a rock, refusing to let go. The only exception is Maissha’s mother. This is the first time she’s ever seen a cormorant. Enjoying her time with the children, she surveys the flocks of cormorants floating on the water. There’s no end to the pleasure provided by the scenery of the river and the birds. Her job at the office can go to the dogs. She’s ready to stay on the launch as long as there’s Cerelac for Maissha. Even this problem wouldn’t exist if she had milk in her breasts.
The more the night advances, the more Mrs. Jaane Alam shrivels. All evening Erfan’s been morose because Mr. Sharif forced him to sacrifice all the film in his camera to the river. As the night advances, he begins to perk up. His whistling relentlessly pursues her. Will she be able to respond to his night call?
Taposh loses interest in his mother’s lessons about the river. When will he again get to play computer games? He badgers Mr. Sharif, “Abbu, I can’t stand being on the launch any more. When do we get home?”
Mr. Sharif’s terse reply can also answer Mrs. Jaane Alam’s musing. “I don’t know.”
This translation has been made with permission from the author. The story “Abaro Prem Ashche” first appeared in a collection of the same name published in February 2006. The translation is from the version in the author’s collection Golposhomogro 1 published in February 2008.