Jharna Hembrom’s eyes were so prone to stickiness that, in the morning when she awoke, she had to use her fingers to force apart her eyelids. Today, her right eye had only partially opened, and she was walking about like that, attending to her morning chores, and cleaning the pigs’ trough. And the day kept barging into her right eye. She would have to somehow fully open her eye to shut it properly. She tried a number of times but the corners of her eyelids remained stuck. In the end, tired of it, she lit up a bidi she had rolled, and puffing out smoke, began weaving a bamboo basket, pulling the twigs with her damaged teeth.
Her son Rysan Hembrom had been claimed by the city. He now roamed beside the train tracks searching for work, carrying his tools. Jharna’s husband Mangru had guzzled so much mahua liquor that his stomach was distended, and he had to be taken to the government hospital in the city to be operated upon. He did not survive long afterward. The pent-up anger inside him had prematurely aged him.
One day, he beat up his mistress Aarti Sardar to within an inch of her life. That day the village folk agreed that Jharna Hembrom’s husband Mangru would drink himself to death any day now and fall into the clutches of the feral, evil spirits who would fly him away to the palaash forest, where he would forever roam inside the cavities of the trees, making faces at the passersby.
“One day Mangru’s ghost will come,” Jharna muttered to herself, “and he will make everything all right. He will start living in the pigpen, and it will make the sows come into heat. He will start living in the chicken coop, and grow green leaves for them at the base of trees and bushes. And water will sprout in bursts from the big stone in Siali pond. I’ve got the moringa tree’s cavities cleaned up for Mangru, so that he can lie comfortably in one of them—just like he did when alive—and not return to the palaash forest to get his rest.”
They lived in Kana Pahar. It was called Kana Pahar because, when the sun climbed to its summit and then set, it looked like a blind eye. Many stories were told about Kana Pahar: that the small tribal villages inhabiting its expanse were giving up their traditions; that some of them had been influenced by Christian missionaries, and others had adopted Hindu gods and goddesses. But the burning rumor that had made everyone anxious was about the spirits leaving Kana Pahar. They were unhappy with the inhabitants, and it was said a day would come when Kana Pahar’s belly would spew fire, and trees, plants, houses, and creatures would be consumed by it like insects in a forest fire.
Perhaps that was why Mangru had so much pent-up anger inside him.
And perhaps that was why he kept sharpening his spears and arrowheads.
But Mangru never shot an arrow, nor picked up his spear. He drank mahua liquor whether or not there was occasion, participated in cockfights at the weekly market held at the acclivity of the hill, and played habba-dabba, from which he would return after winning many coins, and sometimes after losing. Jharna Hembrom was a resourceful witch: meat and reboiled rice always awaited Mangru at mealtimes, but he ate quietly, as if all of it were not to his liking and as if his soul were protesting the food being offered him.
When Jharna Hembrom was left widowed, many men offered to espouse her. She was good at weaving baskets, her animals did not die from disease, and she knew places in the forest where dry wood could be found aplenty between the changing seasons. Her hair was turning silver, and the support of an experienced woman like her would have been a boon to an indolent tribesman.
Except that Jharna Hembrom did not need them. Like before, she was still living with Mangru, only now she was in one realm and he was in another. In the forest, between the acacia, mulberry, and stinging nettle bushes, where snakes shed their skin, she searched for Mangru’s footprints. Then she remembered that spirits did not have feet . . . well, they did, but they did not need to put them on the ground. Sometimes, Jharna Hembrom took on the guise of an evil spirit herself, and it seemed to her that she could easily walk on acacia bushes. She did not have the courage to attempt it, but did not wish to make light of the spirits either.
The day Rysan arrived, with a woman twice his age whom he had married, he was seething with rage. That day, for the first time, Jharna Hembrom felt a great need for Mangru. She felt her loneliness for the first time.
“All this will not go on for much longer, Ma!” Rysan announced even before he set foot in the house. “Not much time is left before Bwari becomes a mother, and then we have to think about the coming days too.”
“The coming days?” Jharna innocently asked.
“I have two rooms in my railway quarter.” Ryson lit a cigarette, and coughed. “And when Bwari becomes a mother, we’ll need someone around to help with the house chores. As for the other room, we can rent it out.”
Ryson and Bwari stayed with Jharna for two weeks. Bwari and Jharna were close in age, and they got on well together. Bwari’s hips stuck out, and she had three false front teeth, which she had to take out at night and keep immersed in a bowl of water. She kept slapping her ears, and laughing with her false teeth.
“In the beginning, my father was not as happy with my marriage as a father should be. He had bigger dreams for me. But my stepmother stood by me. We got married in the Hanuman Chowk temple. I have three sisters, all of them as beautiful as I. We have absolutely no shortage of proposals.”
Often Jharna Hembrom did not get Bwari’s drift, but she understood that her son’s bride was unburdening her heart to her. Rysan lay on a charpai before the bamboo grove, some distance from the hut, smoking and cracking his knuckles. In that same spot spot, until ten years ago, cheetahs and wild boars could be seen.
“What nonsense is all this!” he would shout in the middle of their conversation. “There should be some sensible way of living in Kana Pahar.”
Bwari was given to overeating, and every so often had to go, carrying the lota, to relieve herself in the hole behind the bushes.
“Ma, I feel that I should start beating her up as soon as possible,” Rysan would say, winking at Jharna. “Nothing could be better for a woman like her. Her bloody father was a drudge for the railway engines. He’s retired from there, but his eyes still glow like burning coals. Bwari alone is not afraid of him, and that’s what endeared her to me.”
The huts in the village were built at different heights, at a distance from each other. In a couple of places, corn and sunflower plants could be seen inside their hedges. Jharna Hembrom’s dog, Thumba, had shown his dislike for Bwari from the first day. He kept barking at her resolutely from a distance. The pigs kept sneezing in the trough. Jharna Hembrom kept weaving baskets. And Rysan kept watching the breeze slowly scatter away his cigarette ashes on the charpai.
Indeed, this is all patent nonsense, he would think in his heart. And this dog should value our guests. The house has completely deteriorated in my absence. Nothing at all has improved here after the old man’s death.
Two weeks later, Rysan Hembrom left the village with his wife Bwari and mother Jharna Hembrom.
After traveling for three hours on a bus and fifteen minutes in a rickshaw, the three of them arrived at the door of the dilapidated railway quarters, whose old-style arched roof was sprouting with bushes and peepal shoots. The railway tracks shone before them. Jharna Hembrom was having difficulty breathing. A dense cloud of smoke from burning coals was billowing from God knows where, and the trees and bushes appeared enveloped in a singular desolation. The ground was flat and black like a wok, and wherever one looked, one saw multitudes of crows and humans; the latter as filthy as the crows, and as impudent looking, draped in soot.
From the first day, Jharna Hembrom had to take on all household chores. Because a tenant had not yet been found for the other room, Rysan kept it locked, and Jharna had to set up her bed in the half-occupied veranda near the kitchen door, from where she could see the soot-covered wires above the railway tracks, and the star-filled sky.
She kept hearing Bwari and Rysan tittering, kissing, and exchanging affectionate expletives inside the room. A little before midnight, they took turns visiting the latrine, stepping over the sleeping Jharna. For the most part Jharna remained awake, falling asleep at inconvenient moments when Bwari needed her to do some chore.
“The old woman has taken to lazing about since she arrived here,” Bwari would curse her. “Can’t properly cook two meals a day, and sleeps as if she’s retired after conquering the world.”
Rysan stopped bringing water from the communal faucet. There was always trouble there. Often Jharna returned with an empty bucket and Bwari berated her.
“One could even curse a stranger, but how does one spit on family?” Bwari would say to her husband. “I tell you, you pay no attention to these matters, and I have to put up with them alone. The old woman simply returns with the empty bucket, and I have to go to the communal faucet myself and curse and abuse people to get some water.”
“I’m listening to all your nonsense,” Rysan said. “I don’t think the old woman does it purposely. She’ll learn soon. C’mon now, why make such a fuss about it? You should give me a child soon. Then this house will become complete. Why don’t we try a new method today?”
The two of them had been trying for the last two years. Since Jharna’s arrival, they’d even started making an attempt or two during daytime.
In her free time, Jharna would sit on her haunches outside the quarters, drawing lines on the ground with twigs and regarding the trains going past. She liked watching the puffing steam engines, whose drivers sported dirty bandanas and stared at the strange old woman who did not even know the city’s language. Watching the dogs running on the railway tracks reminded her of her Thumba. She had left her pigs with trusted neighbors, but who could have taken charge of Thumba? He had followed her, running a long distance on the hilly paths, and even chased the bus. Thinking of him, Jharna would tear up, and she would start singing in undertones a song from the hills that nobody there understood, until Bwari called out to her.
“Old woman, are you looking outside for a man, or are your eyes still stuck? I’m hurting badly, but why would I expect you to look upon me as a daughter!”
Rysan would often return at night drunk and become irritated by the sight of Jharna lying outside the kitchen.
“I feel like giving her a kick! Is this a time to be sleeping, Ma? Who will give me food? It is all because of you that Bwari’s womb is unable to hold a child.”
“What else!” Bwari replied from the room. “Talk to her! She has never once massaged my body with warm oil. My back pain keeps getting worse.”
“No need to worry! Let me eat something first; I’m starving. Then I’ll fix your back pain. I have a special remedy.” Rysan winked at Bwari. “Look here! See what I got for you. These malpuas are so fresh. You like them, right? But don’t stuff yourself so much that you have to run for the latrine.”
“My stomach can’t digest anything.”
“And what’s the need when we have a latrine inside the house?”
Sometimes, Bwari would visit with her father. Then silence reigned in the house and the old love between mother and son would be rekindled.
“O Ma, I will tell Bwari this time to bring you a sari woven on a handloom. And look at your old, wasted chappal. I can’t even bear to look at it. I don’t know how you keep dragging it along.”
“O Ma, you should eat properly. You keep getting scrawnier. If you keep going like this, the rest of your teeth will fall out.”
“O Ma, I will tell Bwari this time to take you to watch a movie at the railway talkies!”
But Bwari was becoming more suspicious by the day. She had sought help in charms and spells, visited the burial sites of sadhus, saints, pirs, and faqirs, offered sindoor puja at the banyan of the hanging ghost, learned from old harlots the most efficacious ways of keeping a child, and tried it all with Rysan, but she remained as barren as before. In the end, her anger always found its mark in Jharna.
“This is all because of her. She swallowed up her man, and now she’s stealing children from my womb.”
“Shut up, you whore!” Rysan would shout. “My lovely whore!”
“I say, there’s something in her, for sure. I’ve often seen shadows crawling in the courtyard.”
“I say, don’t you look at the old woman carefully? Yesterday morning, I found her lying dead. But when I shook her, she opened up her stuck eyes, and laughed like a ghost, flashing her white teeth.”
“I say, at night she walks in her sleep, and summons evil spirits with her songs.”
Rysan could not defend his mother for too long. Bwari now openly hurled expletives at Jharna.
“Every night I have to step over this churail.”
“Every morning I have to see her corpse.”
“I don’t know where she goes, after I fall asleep in the afternoon. People have witnessed her walking with her feet turned backward.”
One day, after he could stand it no more, Rysan had his fill of alcohol and came home, dragged his mother by her hair, and threw her on the railway tracks. Jharna got up and, in the insufficient light of the stars, slowly limped away in the direction she believed her hills lay.
It took her three days to reach home. During the year spent in the city, more of her hair had turned gray. When the hill saw her, it opened up its arms grown with trees and bushes; the sun seemed forever poised above the Kana Pahar, and chameleons stopped darting about on dry leaves, and turned their colorful heads to stare at Jharna Hembrom.
And when she was pulling twigs from her hair, sitting on a rock some distance from the village, where the bus conductor had dropped her out of pity, she heard the barking of a dog.
Thumba stood there, holding the sun over his head.
“Mistress has returned home?” the dog asked.
“Yes, I have,” Jharna answered, pressing the dog’s head to her bosom. “My son is very sorrowful, Thumba! I must visit the palaash forest, as soon as possible, to seek justice.”
“Palaash forest! Palaash forest!” the dog barked all the way home.
Edited excerpts from “Dhaak Ban” in the collection Nadir Sikkon Ka Baks by Siddique Alam. © 2016 by Siddique Alam. Translation © 2023 by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Published in partnership with the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation. All rights reserved.