Maach Khor | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 10, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 10, 2017

Maach Khor

“That one is empty. The ribs are those giant bones on a full grown ilish, ilish with eggs”, thought Gamcha Miya, staring at Harun's skeletal boy with a ballooned stomach. He fanned his printed gamcha more vigorously. The movement caused air to blow, although more on him and less on the neck of the imam. He was sitting right underneath the lit lamp. The bugs fell on him in silent tear drops. His feet hurt and so did his bum. He tried to move a little to allow blood to float from one cheek to the other. It would have been ideal to sit with one of his legs up. He was a skinny man. So were the rest of the six men with whom he shared the bench made out of a single plank. He was part of the circle that faced off the villagers on the damp mat on the ground. The murubbis sat in plastic chairs right in front of them. So he dared not raise his foot sitting behind the panchayet. Also, he carried the imam's gamcha. Proper etiquette was required of him. This was one of the lessons he had learned in between the barrage of canes and fists, endless prayer sessions, through the mists of incense, trance, in between waking and dreamless sleeping, memorizing and repetitions, repetitions and memorizing at the orphanage. 

Itch, itch went his fingers on his elbow. The grass hopper had clawed up his half folded sleeve. The body of the bug got tangled in between finger nails and the stomach erupted to stain his grayish white sleeve with a tiny green patch. The sweat on his arm glistened against his dark skin making the sleeve look cruder. He suddenly noticed his sleeves were uneven and quickly unfolded them to hide his arms. A musolli always wears panjabi and payjama, or lungi, mindful that the clothe don't go below the ankle. 

“I want you to listen to me carefully Gamcha Miya!” said a disembodied voice. He tipped his head to pay attention. There was a kind of urgency in the tone. He wanted to help if he could.

“I want you to think of a bunch of ants floating on a stream. Have you seen ants on water? They always hang on to each other whenever they are on water. And somehow they never drown. As if a secret bubble pushes them upwards. And they always hold on to each other. Why do you suppose ants do that? Well that is not important. I want you think of a handful of ants floating on water, a very small number, like in a drain may be. Think of a stream of water with floating leaves and a handful of ants in a sudden downpour. Can you see them?” 

Gamcha Miya shook his head. He felt that if he said “yes” to the voice it would not listen to him. For some reason unknown to Gamcha Miya, he felt the voice wouldn't understand his language. 

“So these ants are floating. And you are the one who can save them. What do you do? Do you save them?”

Gamcha Miya shook his head again. He didn't think about his answer. He just wanted to listen to the next part. 

“Wrong! You do not save them. You try to. But you fail. You give them a leaf. So they try to get on the leaf. They think they just saved themselves. They climb on the leaf and breathe. I wonder Gamcha Miya, do you think you are god?”

Miya was listening intently till he was asked if he was god. The very word jolted him back to the circle. The evening was heating up. The Imam was throwing his arms around a lot. The shadows rose and fell on the little space in between the villagers on the ground and the people of respect in the chair.

 It was the middle of a heavy monsoon. The outer yard was littered with tiny holes made by very tiny occupants that were no doubt inside their dwellings in fear of the humans. Right next to each minuscule hole were tiny pyramids of mud balls, all in even shape and size, stacked on each other in neat piles. They had assembled at their usual place right outside the inner yard of the chairman's house. The panchayats' chairs huddled on one end to be part of the spot that was most protected against the whim of the rain under the ancient diameter of the tree. Their followers sat on a rickety bench right behind them with their backs drenched with rogue gusts of wind and rain. On their right was the extension of the rest of the roots clawing the ground. As usual, yellow wasps were plenty. They feared no one. 

The gathering didn't count on the day to be gone so soon. It was also doubtful if the day was really gone or if the clouds had eaten up the sun. The morning came with a bloated sky, hot and heavy, sinking the sun before it got a chance to claim an inch of land. The canopy, made out of olive, mango, jackfruit, guava, banyan and other trees that stood guard over the tiny village, was the one who bore the news of the day or night. In between the balmy shadows and wet lullaby offered by trickling green leaves, twilight claimed Gamcha Miya. The doleful movement of crystal clear water that had appeared in silence from an oozing paddy field nearby gathered over the yellowish mud on the corner of the courtyard, submerging only his toes. He felt sad for the sheepish presence of such clarity in between the newly bathed earth and the taintless liquid. They embraced without merging and remained visible in each other's sheen. The inch of water that was often tickled by the rogue wind held the flickering dim light of a deep wet sky overhead with green and orange leaves drifting aimlessly. Gamcha Miya didn't want to dip his toe into this tranquil body of rain water. The disembodied voice spoke to him again. 

Gamcha Miya. The base of the tree will rot. Trees aren't meant to be submerged in water. The paddy will drown. The monsoon will take Moniruddin's field this year. Tell me Gamcha Miya, do you think Moniruddin had done something evil to lose his harvest to the rain? Do you think Moniruddin is like the ants? Where is your god?”

And the gathering erupted in some unknown anguish. Excitement bubbled over. Someone seemed to have dragged someone down from somewhere and someone seemed to want to stomp on someone's neck. GamchaMiya saw a crowd of feet on the ground and bared ankles. The ash and the dark. The dying amber inside the pit of a hearth with a half open ilish on a bed of ash. The moon-like scales glittered in between the dexterous hand that tore the fish into neat pieces. The blood and guts oozed on the mud hungry, for the bath in gray and soot. Mustard seed oil erupted in an intense argument with the dark pan as the rekindled fire egged them on. Gamcha Miya was often possessed by the fish as he chewed on a straw while sitting on his bed; the cows chomped in their regurgitated vomit next door. A fish tail would often find its way on his plate hidden under a stack of white rice and watery lentil accompanied by a fat green chili and half an onion. In monsoon days who knew who wanted to feed his bottomless stomach that never got to be as full as a bellow so that a plump tick could be popped against it. These were the nights the rain would seep through the cow shed and drench his mat. Soon the water drops would turn into stones and pelt the earth endlessly. A lost kitten would then cry out in anguish out of the bamboo thicket. Gamcha Miya was never unprepared for such nights. There would be left over bones in the crook of a coconut shell and he would be out and about looking for the crying misfit. 

Oh the voice! It had spoken to him before! It was there that night as well. The night the kitten cried and he had gone to search for it in the rain. What was it? It had said something to him that night as well just as today. What was it? He walked through the bamboo thicket. It wasn't that difficult. The mud had a grip on his feet. The wet leaves in the bush scratched against his legs.. The water had risen and the bamboo grove had turned into a shallow pond. The liquid tinkled with the ripples created by his movement. Why was everything so visible to him? Why wasn't everything submerged in darkness? Oh right. The moon was hanging over the yonder sky in full bloom. Come to think of it the rain was gone as well. And the disembodied voice said: “Oh Miya. If you don't remember your father's face or your mother's eyes, what does that make you? Are you not empty enough to chew up bones and spit them out like a hungry hyena? I didn't mean to strip you off everything. Am I a god then as well? Is that a moon or a spotlight? What if I am about to write a masterpiece and you are the flat character that makes up the body of the crowd?”     

“Expendable.”

The gathering had gone mute. Everyone was staring at Gamcha Miya. He suddenly noticed he was standing up. Slowly, he remembered he had said something. He had screamed something in the middle of the panchayat. 

The silence kept on stretching as minutes passed by. The moment seemed to stick to him like the back of his wet Panjabi. What could Gamcha Miya say? If only he could remember what was it that he had screamed to interrupt the gathering. The voice spoke, “Tell them. Tell them you can hear me. Tell them I have spoken to you. Blame me. Say it. Say that Moniruddin is not a sinner. That it was unreasonable to think the river could vanish because his daughter had drowned herself in it. Tell them she was pitiful. She was merciful. She was as bountiful as the ilish. Say it! One woman cannot eat a river. It takes a hunger bigger than any that you have ever felt for a river to disappear!”

Gamcha Miya hesitated. He then decided to speak. His words dropped like leaves that were fresh and green and that only fall in their prime in the gust of the monsoon. 

The rain moved on. Gamcha Miya remained. Where could he go? Unlike the voice, he was tethered to the sleeping village that sat lamenting like a possessed one lying next to a sickly canal that no amount of monsoon could turn into a river.

Sabrina Binte Masud writes creatively in a number of genres  and has won international awards for her plays.

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