Azrael’s Call – Hamiruddin Middya
Translated from the Bengali by Rinita Roy
The hurricane lamp on the floor flickered weakly with a faint yellow glow. Khadu, an old crone, was sprawled on her bed with her eyes wide open, too weak to sit up or even stir. On the timeworn and weathered skin on her scalp there remained only a few, grey and straggly residual strands of hair. Her limbs were as thin as sticks layered over with wasted skin. She seemed to have lost all control over her limbs and body, so feeble was her condition! Yet her eyes could see, and her ears picked up sounds. But when you could not move about what was there to look around and see? The past one and a half months she had been lying on the bed and looking up at the thatched roof and its intricate workmanship, the straw, the bindings with ropes, the bamboo beams and, in its skeletal framework, the nestling hordes of spiders and cobwebs. If a lizard or a rat scurried over the beams creating a rustle, her ears would at once be alerted – he must be here! Otherwise, her body was as unresponsive as a cadaver’s. She lay still in the sordid mess created by her own excretions. Well, she had aged considerably! After crossing the eighty-five mark, life appeared to come to a standstill off and on. But with an intake of milk, fruit and nutritious drinks like Horlicks she felt recharged, energy surged through her body, and life ticked on like a clock with a newly replaced battery, but only for a while before she sank back into her decrepitude.
But this time round the old fogy Khadu had fallen so hard that she just could not be revived. It was as if she was determined to stay this way and thought, “No matter how much milk, fruits and Horlicks you pump into me, my dears, you will not succeed in reviving me. My time has come!”
After having spent her two- month term at her elder son Dilbahar’s house, she was now placed in the home of her younger son, Ektar. She was bedridden this last one and a half months and was totally debilitated. She was eating well in the younger son’s house, yet why did she still feel so weak and infirm? Now she was only waiting for his call, the harbinger of death – Azrael, who she expected would arrive any time and say to her, ‘Hey you old fogy, your days are spent, get ready to go now.’ Old fogy Khadu was all set and ready to go. But what about him, wasn’t it time for him to come yet?
This house was her own homestead. Ektar singlehandedly farmed the land and looked after his mother as well, until one day Dilbahar came forward to claim his share of the property, and a settlement had to be made. Dilbahar accepted the terms of resolution, but from that very day the old woman’s woes began. Not only was the land bisected but the old mother also became an integral part of their divisive agreement. The younger daughter-in-law had protested, “We were not the only ones to devour the yield from the land, there was another. So why should we be the only ones to shoulder her responsibility?”
Initially it was a six-month term. But both the sons’ wives found the period long, exhausting and totally exasperating! It was not possible for them to apply themselves to nursing and caring for a sick woman for a stretch of six long months. So, the sons agreed upon a more comfortable bi-monthly arrangement, and the period of stay at any one son’s house was shortened to two months, before being shifted to the other’s. Dilbahar did not live in Nomopara, he had built his house at a crossroads somewhere further up. Every two months he would make an appearance to fulfil his terms of responsibility towards his mother and take her under his protection.
Nuressa was sick to the bone; she seethed with rage at this state of affairs. Was this her destiny she wondered helplessly? Didn’t Khudatalla have a trace of pity in his heart? Why didn’t he gently pluck the old crone out of this life of misery? He inflicts suffering on the old hag and in the process keeps the rest of the family burning in agonizing pain. In the last two months, she was exhausted and worn out fending for the old woman. She felt she was turning into an old hag herself. All right, the old woman had fallen sick but did she have to turn into a enfeebled sop here, in their house? It was insufferable! Nuressa felt so nauseated most of the time that could not bring herself to swallow even a small morsel of food. Naturally, if you are compelled to change and wash the sick woman’s soiled clothes and the bed linen, the pillows, the kanthas repeatedly, four or five times a day, also tend and feed her – it was disgusting! Did the old woman devour cow cadavers that the stench from her excreta was so odious?
Ektar worked in a brick kiln by the riverside. He returned home one day to find a glum-faced Nuressa sitting with a plate of rice, not eating it, only fiddling with it. She seemed to have lost all appetite for food.
Ektar persuaded her to eat, “Don’t behave this way! Why punish your body by staying hungry for no reason?”
Nuressa released her pent-up angst in a volley of bitter words and rasped, “Am I suffering for no reason? You leave the house every morning. Why don’t you stay home one day and show us how well you nurse and look after the old woman? She is your mother after all. We will then see how devoted you are to your mother!”
“Come on now, don’t keep flaring up. Cooking and other household chores are no big deal. Can’t you bear up just for a few more days? My staying back at home is no solution at all. If I stay home and not earn how will I feed you?”
“I know, I know, I haven’t come here to spend my days in ease and comfort, and that I will have to go on toiling like a slave all my life.” Ektar softened a little, “Tell me what I can do? We cannot leave her uncared for. Someday won’t the two of us also grow old and die?”
“Don’t you annoy me further – you are only adding fuel to fire. You are always at home in the evenings. What occupies you then? Can’t you look after your mother then, for just a while? Why does a woman have to shoulder these responsibilities alone?” Nuressa wailed in despair.
The vociferous rally of words broke the silence of the night and propelled forward forcefully in the semi darkness across the threshold, leaped over the wall and burst into the old woman’s room dealing a hard, unkind blow to her ears. No word of protest broke from her lips. Only, some water welled up in her eyes and large teardrops trickled down her cheeks and soaked her pillow. If her own flesh and blood did not come forward, why should she blame her son’s wife for her revulsion? After all she was of another stock! She admitted to herself that the girl did stretch herself and strove ceaselessly to take care of her.
The floor on the west was allotted to the old woman Khadu. The harsh light of the electric bulb did not let her sleep. The hurricane lamp burned with a weak flame under the ledge. Stray gusts of wind blowing in through the window set it flickering dangerously. The lamp and the old woman seemed to be in the same predicament. If the lamp were suddenly snuffed out, would it signify the end of her life? No, such things did not happen – she reasoned. The messenger of death Azrael would arrive, appraise her condition first, and then take a grip on her life in his strong grasp and depart. That would be a worthwhile death indeed! Let the window remain open. She would forbid her daughter-in-law to shut the window tonight. It was through the window that the God of death would come to claim her. Who knows what he looks like? Is his appearance so terrifying that as soon as you set your eyes upon him your lungs burst, your blood freezes and you die instantaneously. Did the darkness of the night overlap you before you were drawn into the realm of eternal sleep?
It has been raining very heavily since morning. The leaves of the trees are swaying to the wind’s wild rhythm as if in readiness to inflict destruction and chaos on the face of the earth. Today was the last day of her term at Ektar’s house. Dilbahar might arrive sometime early in the evening and transport her to his household. The shutters of the windows had been secured by her son’s wife to prevent the rainwaters spraying into the room. In the semi darkness, the old woman lay on her bed with her eyes wide open. She was gripped by a feeling of cold and shivering due to the dampness caused by the rain, and then from within her emerged her hidden affliction, a damning fit of coughing, uninterrupted and incessant. She went on and on coughing – khok khok khok khok….
In the other room Ektar’s little daughter, Yasmina, was sitting down to study. Her body swayed back and forth gently as she memorized her lessons. His elder son lived in Burdwan in a hostel for his studies.
The coughing went on ceaselessly. It just didn’t stop. Was that a sign that Azrael would arrive tonight? That would be most opportune! Then she would not have to shift to her elder son’s house. She always wanted to die in her own homestead and today was her last day here, her last opportunity.
Someone banged the door shut. It was probably Yasmina, unable to concentrate on her work because of the irritating sound of her coughing. May you live long, my child! May you have a long life – Khadu mumbled under her breath.
The rains had stopped a while ago. The leaves of the trees hung with a deathly stillness as if in mourning for the dead. A pitch-black darkness and a suffocating silence weighed down upon her body like a huge rock, heavy and immovable. She found her vision darkening. Were death to come, it was natural for darkness to envelop you in this manner. She pricked up her ears and many thoughts crossed through her mind.
When Azrael comes will she be able to hear his footsteps, like they hear the jinn’s? The jinns do not have feet, they move on hooves. When a jinn comes to a mosque to pray, it usually assumes the form of a human being. But the Imam Sahib is alert enough to recognize the sound of hooves and hides himself in fear among the crowd of worshippers. Sometimes the jinn even comes in the form of the Musalli who gives the call to prayer. That is why nobody knows what really happens.
At this critical moment the old woman could not remember anybody else. Only a memory of her mother came to her mind. At the time of her mother’s death, how much she suffered. For three long months her mother was bedridden, an invalid. She lay on a khatia, a bed made with ropes, covered with a kantha. Khadu sat by the bed constantly fanning her with a pakha, a fan made out of palm leaves. But it did not ease her mother’s disquiet. She was restive and uncomfortable. The Imam came twice a day, sat by her and chanted verses from the Quran. Towards the end she was unable to swallow even a sip of water. On that particular day, a crowd assembled in the evening to stay by the old woman who appeared to be passing. They stood around her bed waiting, when suddenly she, who had been unable to stir a finger in the last few months and had been lying still on a filthy bed soiled by her own excreta, suddenly sat bolt upright, pointed to a corner and screamed, “Look Khadu, look at that hideous black cat glaring at me. Drive it away, I am scared stiff!” The visitors were shocked no end.
The women of the commune had asked,” Where do you see a cat, Chachi?”
“There it is, right there! Have you all turned blind?” Having said that she convulsed with a bout of shivering, fell back on the bed with a thud. Her eyes rolled upwards, and her hands and feet turned icy cold. Imam Saheb gauged what had happened, he stopped his chanting and began the ritualistic prayers.
From that day on Khadu started believing that Azrael didn’t appear only in his own terrifying form but could assume any shape or form he wished when he came to claim souls. Who knew in what unearthly form he would manifest himself when her time arrive?
With great effort Khadu opened her eyes. Not only did her eyes open, but her frosty eyes started spinning around the room absorbing every little detail of her surroundings. What was she looking at? The thatched ceiling, its straw, the criss-crossing beams, the ropes, the knots to keep them in place, the bag hanging from a nail in the wall, clothes scattered around, the shelves beside the wall laden with rows of earthenware, more kitchen utensils piled together in a corner, a board with a rolling pin, plates and dishes, an urn for water and glasses. Did this mean she had not yet been able to let go of her worldly attachments? Or was this a last desperate attempt to tear herself away from it all?
The door opened softly. Do human beings open doors so weakly? Who is it then – Azrael? A deep sense of fear overtook her and she broke into a cold sweat. What was she so fearful about? Death? In the last two months she had wanted to sever all ties with the world several times and longed to die. So why this trepidation now?
She pricked up her ears. She could hear approaching footsteps thup thup thup … She began sweating again. Very quickly she recited a verse from the Quran, “La Ilaha Illallah,Mohammedur Rasullah”.
Ektar placed his mother’s head on his lap. Her lips were shaking tremulously, and a whistling sound escaped from them furrrrr… furrrrrr… His heart skipped a beat, hoping she was not breathing her last.
He turned his head and found Dilbahar standing behind him.
He tried to rouse his mother by nudging her arms gently, “Ma, look who has come.”
Ektar repeated, “Your elder son has come, Ma, to take you to his house. You will go with him, won’t you?”
No answer came from the old woman.
“Why are you trying to rouse her? Will Ma be able to answer you?” Then addressing Dilbahar she said, “You have arrived before sundown and that’s a good thing. It will get dark soon and you may have problems shifting her later. Wait, I will get a ‘kantha’ to spread on her bed.” Saying this she went into the next room and returned with a sheet, spread it on the bed and pulled up the old woman and laid her on it.
Old woman Khadu was emitting a whistling sound from her trembling lips like a flute player frrrr..frrrr….
The old crone was thinking where was I being carried to on the shoulders of my two sons? To the cemetery? Were they really her sons, her very own sons? One was Ektar and the other Dilbahar, weren’t they? Or had Azrael himself come in disguise, with a legion of angels of death to spirit her away from the earth? No one knew what guise or shape Azrael would assume when he came to claim souls from the earth.
Hamiruddin Middya was born on 14 January 1997 in a remote village of Sonamukhi in Bankura district of West Bengal.
A young Bengali writer, he likes to write short stories. The first published collection of his stories is ‘Azraeler dak (Azrael’s Call)’. He has received the ‘Promising Storyteller Award’ for his writing. He is also receiving the ‘Drishti Sahitya Puraskar’ this year for his book ‘Azrael’s Call’.