ISHWARI WAS THE ONLY RIVER I had ever really seen, and the truest. Some people called her Isri as well. My grandfather explained it to me one day. It was Allah above and this goddess down below. Her names were for her power and her beauty. Dadajan wove fantastic tales around her – her rage, her sorrow, her bounty, her greed inundated the rhythms of his speech and invaded my boyhood imaginings.
We lived in Dhaka, but my Dadajan lived at Noapara, our ancestral village. He was a large man, his girth befitting a man of his worth and station in life. His eyes crinkled when he smiled and sometimes when he wanted to but didn’t. His beard was mostly white with slivers of black proclaiming the youth still flowing in his veins. He always wore a freshly laundered and starched white skullcap. These were never bought; my grandmother always crocheted them for him.
We would visit Dadajan twice or thrice a year. He visited us frequently. He would arrive with a man in tow carrying coconuts, earthen pots full of live fish and, twice a year, gargantuan sacks filled with rice from his fields. He himself would come bearing stories. Invariably the stories were about Ishwari – the river was swallowing up land like a starving madwoman
“She’s a hungry one,” Dadajan would tell me. “She’s eating me right out of house and home.”
The rampaging waves of Ishwari were engulfing huge chunks of land – a lot of which belonged to my grandfather. She was washing away houses and fields; villages disappeared in a matter of days. But Ishwari also gave it back, he told me. “She chews and chews, and spits it right out. No saying where that land’ll turn up, though it’s better and more wholesome than before.”
Still, it was these regurgitations that Dadajan had so much trouble with. The fertile lush lands that emerged from Ishwari’s womb were desired by many–whether they were rightful claimants or not. There were frequent arbitrations required and even visits to the law courts over who the newly arisen chars belonged to. Dadajan would come to consult my father frequently on these matters: as the only son, all of it would most certainly be his one day. I would sit by Dadajan’s lap submerged in sleepy comfort as they discussed the status of this piece of land or that, hearing about the violence and the persistence of charuas, char-bandhas, as these char-people strove to settle the newly surfaced landmasses, learning of squatter’s rights and other legalese of land disputes.
Whenever we were visiting, I would always accompany Dadajan on his business errands. However, I remember being taken to see a char only once. It was winter and Ishwari was at her driest. Dadajan was going to see some people on a newly arisen char. We went part of the way on the small kosha that Dadajan kept for his personal use. As the slim shape of the kosha slid along the dark riverbed, I longed for the clearer waters of the rainy season.
We had two of Dadajan’s kamlas with us. Abdul Chacha and Alam Chacha were the most trusted of all the men who worked for him. They were brothers and there were other members of their family who worked for ours – had done so for generations. Abdul Chacha, the elder, had worked for my Dadajan ever since he had been capable of bludgeoning sun-hardened clods of earth to ready the fields for planting. He accompanied my grandfather everywhere, a black umbrella and a cloth bag containing necessities hung from his shoulder. Alam Chacha’s responsibility at that time was to lug me (and another black umbrella) around whenever Dadajan took me on his business errands to show me off–the only son of his only son.
Alam Chacha had rowed the single-oar kosha as far as the river had allowed.
“We’ll have to walk now, Babu,” Dadajan told me in his rumbly voice. He led the way, striding with his silver-topped walking cane in hand. Abdul Chacha followed holding the umbrella over his head. I was put astride Alam Chacha’s shoulders. He had to hold the umbrella up higher than usual to accommodate my head. It must have been quite uncomfortable for him, perhaps even painful–for carrying a six year old boy is no joke—but he never complained or even appeared put out. Or perhaps he did and I simply remained unaware of it, secure in the unfeeling obliviousness of the young.
The banks on both sides were splotched here and there with dried kaash and grass, like the fine sun-bleached thinning hair of the very old. The verdant riverbanks of Ishwari in full spate had disappeared. As we walked on, the sparse vegetation dwindled as the recognizable riverbanks melded into white sand. The pale winter sun had found the one place where it could live its former glory and showed no mercy. The sand and the sun dazzled and benumbed my little-boy eyes: the stark whiteness was everywhere, everything around me seemed to glow. It seemed a landscape of an unimagined world, as if I had entered dream-time. Even the sounds of the world appeared to have changed. Gone was the steady thrum of Ishwari; the calm bustle of the household and of the village as they went about their day was a distant dream. Instead, all I could hear was the constant rhythmic swishing as the sand shifted beneath our feet and the discordant cry of a hawk as it circled far above us.
This was Ishwari with her water gone, sucked away by winter. The river lay like a tired old lizard sunning its underbelly. I have no idea how either my grandfather or his men knew where we were, or where we were going, for it seemed an endless journey to me as we trudged on and on within that unchanging lucent glare. Safely ensconced on Alam Chacha’s shoulders, it seemed as if it was I who was becoming weary with each step.
Then suddenly harsh green erupted in front of my eyes. There were trees and houses. As we neared I saw that although they looked fairly new, the houses were built similar to our cowsheds. Simple structures of woven mats and bamboo slats held together with twine, they were easy to dismantle and put up again. Yet even our cowsheds were roofed with tin, while these were thatched.
There were children playing in front of the shacks. Most of them were dressed in rags of indeterminate color while a few were naked except for talismans and tabijes tied to their waists with the traditional black string. They stopped as they caught sight of us and stared. Abdul Chacha called out, “Hey, where’s Kamrun Munshi, do you know?” None of the children moved. “Didn’t my words reach your ears?” He bellowed, “Call Kamrun Munshi and tell him that Chowdhury Shaheb of Noapara is here.” They scattered before him like a flock of sparrows.
We moved into the shade of the few banana trees that bordered the settlement and waited. Alam Chacha lowered me to the ground. A few minutes later a woman appeared, her head and part of her face covered with the end of her ragged sari. I could see more women gathered a bit away, craning their necks trying to get a glimpse of us and keep their heads covered at the same time. The woman stood in front of Dadajan and touched her hand to her forehead in greeting, “Salaam Aleikum.” My grandfather inclined his head graciously in response.
“Well?” It was as if it was Abdul Chacha’s curtness, not a sudden breeze that ruffled the sand at her feet. She said something in an inaudible voice. “Speak up, woman,” ordered Abdul Chacha. “Where is Kamrun Munshi?”
She raised her face slightly and repeated “He’s not here.” She paused and added, “He’s gone to the market. This time of day, the men…”
“So who are you then?” It surprised me that Abdul Chacha seemed to be speaking to her as he was, why was he so angry at this woman?
“I’m his wife,” came the low reply.
“Wife! Oh, you’re his woman. You charuas…”
“Abdul,” the calm voice of Dadajan interjected. “There is no need to be like that.” Abdul Chacha immediately bowed his head and took his place behind Dadajan. “So you are Kamrun’s wife? Well, I am Akram Chowdhury from Noapara. We have come a long way. And I have my grandson with me. Do you think we could sit in the shade somewhere and have a drink of water? It is unfortunate that your husband is away. I had business with him.”
The covered head bowed and turned away murmuring an indistinct invitation. We followed her to her yard. The other women trailed behind us, their chatter a gentle susurration like the swirl of river waters.
When we reached her yard, Kamrun Munshi’s wife set out a wooden jolchouki for Dadajan to sit on. The low stool looked old and weatherworn, but the intricate carving still bore witness to the loving craft that had gone into its making. She said something to some of the other woman who slipped away immediately. They stood there, the rest of them, just behind Kamrun Munshi’s wife, as we inspected the ramshackle shed of her home, the neat yard with its corner covered with pats of dried cow dung, chewed up pith of sugarcane and a heap of unidentifiable rags to be used for fuel or perhaps to be sold. A washing line was drawn taut from the house to a banana tree, on which hung a red and green striped sari as tattered as the one she was wearing. A few scraggly looking chickens were clucking about aimlessly.
“You seem to have settled in quite nicely,” Dadajan said with a proprietary air as he sat on the stool. He pointed his cane to the chickens, “Do they lay well? Do you have a cock for breeding?”
There was a coarseness in Dadajan’s voice and the way he spoke, as unfamiliar to me as the shimmering terrain we had just traversed. As he spoke, the women who had left returned – one of them carried a small wooden piri and the others came with eatables. She placed the piri near Dadajan’s feet and motioned for me to sit on it. Two tin mugs were placed near his feet for us as well as a few batashas and coconut narus in a battered tin bowl. To offer just water to a visitor was unthinkable, even to these people.
Kamrun Munshi’s wife came and stood near me. She motioned to me with her hand and said in her soft voice, “Eat, Babu.” Her sari-end had fallen off her head and I could see her face clearly for the first time. She had the kind of spurious prettiness of the countrywoman that faded with age and work. I chose a creamy brown batasha and sucked on it, the crumbly sweetness melting in my mouth. Dadajan picked up a mug and took a sip. “This is very good. Go on Babu, try it.” I drank from the other mug. Sugar water. Dadajan smacked his lips and asked, “Where is Kamrun Munshi? Leaving his young wife all alone in this place. Where are the other men?”
The children appeared suddenly – their ghost-faces peeked out from behind the women, peered out from the corner of the house. They watched us as silently as their mothers.
“The men folk are not home this time of day. It is so in the villages too.”
“Why has Munshi gone to the marketplace?”
“We had some eggs, and some vegetables. Also some fish from Ishwari. He will sell them and bring rice.”
“Eggs, vegetables. I see you’ve begun planting.” Dadajan said as he looked at the patches of darker earth to the west. “Watermelon, tomatoes, cauliflower. That is good, it will hold the soil down. So you have quite settled in. How many of you are there?”
The woman stood in front of us with her eyes lowered and dug at the earth with her toe. “In our house?” she asked.
“No, no,” Dadajan waved his cane impatiently. “All of you, here. How many?”
“Oh, a few households,” she replied vaguely. Dadajan looked at Alam Chacha and inclined his head slightly. Alam Chacha slipped quietly away through the yard into the settlement. There was a sly chittering of insects all around us.
Dadajan smiled, “Listen, beti, you people have just come here. I know it will be very difficult; mainlanders often have no understanding of the hardships of the charua life. But I am a man who lives under Allah’s eye. I have to see to it that all within my power live lives that are useful and fair, and that justice is done to them.”
Kamrun Munshi’s wife looked at the ground as she said softly but distinctly, “We work. It is very hard, but we work as Allah allows us.”
Dadajan nodded, “Yes, yes, that is as it should be. But there are many kinds of people in this world of Allah’s. There will be men who will say that this land is not ready to be settled yet, that you must not live here yet. The chars that arise, there are many disputes as to who owns them.” He stroked his beard, “Me, I am a simple man. I leave it to the laws of Allah and the laws of the land to tell me what is mine and what I should have. But others, you see, they are not always so scrupulous. That is what I wanted to talk to Kamrun Munshi about.”
There was a silence as Dadajan paused. Kamrun Munshi’s wife looked away to the half-hidden children. They were losing their unaccustomed diffidence and were edging closer to us.
“There are those who think nothing of burning up a few houses, uprooting fruit-bearing trees, bullying and intimidating innocent people.” Dadajan resumed, “They tell themselves that the things that they destroy, belong, after all, only to charuas. I do not say that this is right, merely that they think like this. Yet it is a sin to see hardworking people like you get hurt this way.” Dadajan paused again. He picked up a naru from the bowl in front of him and nibbled on the flat brown-colored disc. “You must tell whoever comes that you live here for me,” he said abruptly, “Then they will no longer bother you.”
Kamrun Munshi’s wife raised her face suddenly and looked directly at Dadajan for the first time, “But no one has bothered us.”
“They might. They will.” Dadajan popped the whole naru in his mouth and munched noisily. “Make no mistake – they will come.” He took a sip of water and picked up a batasha.
As he was about to take a bite, the woman said, “We have lived on chars before. Our men know what to do.”
Dadajan smiled. “Of course they do. But what I say will make your life easier. Tell Kamrun Munshi to come and talk to me. Then he can talk to the others.” There was another pause as instead of putting it into his mouth, Dadajan crumbled the half-moon of the batasha in his hand and let the pieces drop away to the ground. “The fish you talk about, the fish that he has gone to sell, Ishwari’s fish is not just for everyone. Most of the river and the fish ghers in this region, I own the leases.” Dadajan shook his forefinger at her playfully. “Where is he catching them from?”
The woman pursed her lips as if the words that had already escaped her mouth had been too much.
“I will be going to see the administrative officer. As a local man I feel it is my responsibility to watch over these new lands. I must tell him that he is not to worry, that I have let good people, good charuas settle here. I must tell him how many houses, and people and animals are here, it is important that he know these things.” He pointed his cane at the chickens as they ambled mindlessly nearer. “You have chicks too, I see. You breed them to sell?” The woman hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
Just as Dadajan asked “How many do you get a month?”, Alam Chacha walked back with a rooster held tightly under one arm. He came and stood behind me.
“Boro Amma will want to cook morag-polao with this for the Young Master,” he said.
My grandmother always cooked this dish for my father when we came visiting. Usually she had two or three roosters all plumped up awaiting our arrival. Perhaps she had forgotten this time.
Dadajan smiled indulgently and stroked his beard, “My son, my only son, has brought his family to visit his old parents. He grew up here, and so my men they all feel like brothers to him. They are always careful to look after him properly when he is here.” He spread out his hands, palm upwards, “They love him like a brother and like to give him all they can.” He turned to Alam Chacha, “Why don’t you tie its legs up? You’ll find it easier to carry.”
The woman had been looking steadily and unblinkingly at the rooster while Dadajan spoke. Suddenly she spoke in a very clear voice, “Of course. Your only son, of course, he must have this. There is no need to pay us for it. You must take it as a gift, from us poor charuas.” She became silent again as if this speech had wearied her, and she had said all that needed to be said for the measure of that day.
“We must leave now. Tell Kamrun Munshi to come and see me,” said Dadajan and strode towards the path by the banana grove, swishing his cane in the air with a casual disregard. The delicate silver filigree on the handle winked in the sun with a knowing air. Suddenly it slipped from his hand and whacked the face of a little boy who was standing close to the path watching us leave. “Ahha. Poor thing, is he hurt too much?”
The half naked child gave a soft whimper and tottered towards the women who stood silent. None of them moved to gather him in, none of them even looked at him.
“Is he one of yours?” Dadajan asked Kamrun Mumshi’s wife. “Abdul give a ten taka note to the child. Poor thing. Hey picchi, buy some chocolates okay? Come Babu,” he called me, “We must go.”
The woman did not answer nor did she move to take the money from Abdul Chacha. Dadajan walked away. Abdul Chacha waited a few moments then tossed the note to the ground and followed him. Alam Chacha had already picked me up and sat me on his shoulders for the return journey.
We were well on our way before I asked why none of the women had picked the child up, wasn’t his mother there? “Charuas are like that,” Dadajan told me. “They move around so much. The very soil that they settle on, that itself is temporary, no saying whether it will remain the same or even be there in a month’s time. So they become different than us. They hold this life Allah has so graciously given us lightly, as of no consequence. And so they do not have proper family feeling, not even for children. ”
The rooster squawked once, then subsided to a guttural cackling as it hung head downwards from Abdul Chacha’s left shoulder.
“They are like that. Still I try to do what is within my power for them. In the eyes of Allah, we are all one, all equal,” I remember Dadajan saying as the boat slid smoothly into the water. If the journey there had seemed long and arduous, the return trek seemed as endless as the weary waters of Ishwari.
It seems to me that it was merely the shimmer of sun and sand that burned that visit so permanently into my mind. The char that I had seen is as dead as Dadajan now and it is only my act of remembrance that gives life to that charua woman. The clarity of those images dulls the other childhood memories that I so desperately long to relive. I remember listening to the steady splash of the oar for a while. And I remember Dadajan stroking his beard with a quiet satisfaction and saying, “We are all Ishwari’s children.”
Originally published in One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories, 2009.