Cover art: Olga Gritsenko “Girlfriends on the roof” 2020, courtesy of Ukrainian painters’ exhibit in Padua
Translated by Noora Shamshi Bahar, from the recently released collection Meet Human Meat, The Antonym 2023
The neighborhood couldn’t bother about when the football World Cup had ended or when the next one would begin. Adolescent boys, who, for various reasons, have been marked as adolescents before reaching the right age, have the tendency to become obsessed with anything they take a liking to. For example, they know better than anyone else that it is possible to play football without a football. As long as there’s something to kick, it will do. A deflated ball, a bundle of cloth, a knot of junk, or even something as hard as stone—they’ll kick it with so much zeal, at any time of the day, that it would seem as if they were born to kick the world itself! Then again, none of them are known footballers. No one even acknowledges their playing the sport. Only a couple of these boys have fathers and when those fathers come home after work and ask their wives about the whereabouts of their sons, which they rarely ever do, they don’t even wait for an answer, but when they do, the wives don’t respond, and when they don’t wait for an answer, sometimes the wives might blurt out, “Who knows where that hopeless boy is! Go and see for yourself. Maybe he’s fucking around!” And so, football had become an issue of neglect. When Majid comes back home and stands in the lawn sometime in the evening, his father sometimes asks him, “Son of a bitch! Where were you?” Majid rarely responds but when he does, he answers with irritation, “Grooming your father’s ass hair!” Majid never admits that he was playing football. His father doesn’t ask him a second time, and even if he does, Majid pretends not to hear and goes straight into the house or runs off into the darkness. On days he goes home, his mother tells him of the complaints against him. One day, she said, “Mari’s Ma said you stole their guavas.” “Hmmm. Fuck Mari’s Ma,” responded Majid. It is unclear as to whether he did or didn’t steal the guavas. Majid’s Ma then said, “Ripe guavas. You could have given me one.” Majid lost his cool and said, “The whore has called me a thief for eating guavas. Once I grow up, I’ll cut off her two sagging grapefruits and play football with them. Does she know who I am?” At this, Majid’s Ma felt exhilarated. Her boy had not turned out to be faint-hearted like his father; he was as feisty as a tiger. Then, Majid’s Ma dejectedly thought about her husband. That night too, she would have two visitors. They had both been given the same time by mistake. If Majid had been a girl, he could have taken one of them, but there’s another advantage of being a boy. She needed a boy who had spunk, Majid’s Ma thought to herself.
Today, Majid and his gang have split into two teams. On other days, there wouldn’t be any teams or opponents. They’d just kick on their own whims. They never needed a goalpost. But today, they marked make-believe goalposts with four bricks on either end, with two boys guarding each goalpost. There are four boys who are playing as goalkeepers on each team and all eight of them run after the ball. There are goalposts but no one scores, and when they do, they don’t remember these details, even though the losing team is supposed to pay 40 taka—10 taka per head.
Today’s ball is a good one; it feels comfortable to kick. Even though it’s not a store-bought ball, it’s not a rugged object. It’s hard, but doesn’t feel too hard for the feet that have kicked stones. It’s wrapped in a jute sack. They have stuffed the sack with rags and tied up the whole package so tightly that it looks as round as a football. They are playing behind the martyred intellectuals’ Graveyard.
The main object inside this “football” was found on the other side of the wall. It was within a sack which was soaking wet and reddish in hue. Majid was the first to spot it, but the idea was Mofe’s. In the semi-darkness, they had been kicking around in the air; after all, they had mastered the art of playing with an imaginary ball. At such a time, when Majid went to relieve himself, it had caught his eye. Majid picked it up in a way that it seemed like the perfect substitute for a round football. Mofe took a look inside the sack and said, “Fuck it, let’s play ball.” No one gave it a second thought. The garments factory in the vicinity had discarded bits and pieces of cloth, which were all knotted up in a bundle. Parts of the bundle were buried, and some parts were jutting out of the ground. So they pulled out the whole bundle, stuffed the sack with the fabric waste and tied it up real tight. They’ve been kicking it since.
There are three others in sight, besides those eight on the field. Even though the three are watching as spectators, they don’t really care about the game. Their eyes are set on the ball. Dejected, they think that if they can ever get their hands on such a ball, they can show those boys. Among those three, Sadek and Tofa are brothers. No one knows if they’re twins or just very close in age. Their father lives in the slum; their mother would have been able to tell if she were there. They also have an old paternal grandmother. She is so old that she thinks every night is her last, but no night has been her last. Sadek and Tofa think their grandmother will never die, and for as long as she is alive, they will suffer as far as food, sleep, and living conditions are concerned. While Majid and the other boys play, Tofa thinks about his grandmother for no real reason. He thinks that tonight too, the old woman will cough her lungs out and he will end up tossing and turning all night and have yet another sleepless night. The hunger for a good night’s sleep is not any less agonizing than the hunger in his stomach.
When Majid and the other boys are about to finish their game but keep kicking nonetheless, there are people watching News Bangla TV channel on the television at the store located at the turn of the street. They get to know that a corpse has been found in the gutters of the Buriganga River. Since it is a headless corpse, the body remains unidentified. It is assumed that the body could be that of a businessman’s from Old Dhaka, who had been abducted five days back, despite his family having had paid the ransom. It could also be that of a schoolmaster from Savar who had refused to marry off his daughter to a local scoundrel and had gone missing since, but this is stale news too. And if it is someone from outside of Dhaka, the possibilities are plenty more. A political leader of the opposition party is missing from Barisal, an online activist from Chittagong, a doctor from Khulna… The beheaded corpse could be any of these men, or it could even be someone whose news hasn’t reached the media or perhaps the media had decided that it wasn’t important enough to make it into the news.
Those who are watching News All Time get to know about a different corpse. That floated too—not in the gutters, but on a river. Jamuna was yet to turn into a gutter. However, this corpse is a woman’s. It has been speculated that she must have been raped in a bus, beheaded, and then thrown into the river. Since the head hasn’t been found yet, the body remains unidentified. In the meantime, the media is broadcasting news of four missing girls. Among them, one is from Kushtia and another from Natore, and the two of them were returning to their respective hometowns from Dhaka, via Sirajganj. One of them works at a garments factory and the other is a social science student at Dhaka University. The other two have gone missing from other areas— one from Cumilla and the other from Habiganj. The woman whose headless body has been found in the river could be any of these four girls. It is not as easy for the family to identify a decapitated, naked woman’s body as it is for them to identify a headless, bare-bodied man’s corpse. A decapitated, naked woman’s body is very unfamiliar to her family. Even the father cannot be hundred percent sure if the body is that of his daughter’s. We cannot tell if it is completely innocent to even look at an adult daughter’s naked corpse. This female corpse’s identity remains uncertain for now. The two corpses wait at the morgue; the families of the missing persons wait for the heads.
When the boys could no longer see the ball and when darkness envelops them, they stop playing. They figure they are hungry. They need to get back home. But they think of the ball. Sadek and Tofa are still standing, waiting to see where the ball would go. They want to own such a ball, even if it’s just for a minute. Although Majid is a child, he is sharp-witted. He knows this is not the kind of ball that can easily be found a second time. They have to wipe it off their memories within the dead of the night. Majid picks up the ball with his hand. A little ahead, within walking distance, is a flowing drain—flowing toward the Buriganga, but not stagnant like the Buriganga.
Crestfallen, Sadek and Tofa return home. The third boy who was with them goes back home too. He doesn’t have a name because he is deaf and dumb. He responds to gestures. He sticks to Sadek and Tofa at all times.
They return home. As for the rest, after doing odd jobs here and there to earn a little, and then running after a ball from evening till night, they get tired and perhaps some of them fall asleep upon reaching home. Once they wake up, they cannot think of whether or not they will be able to find another ball like the one they had played with today. Their thoughts are focused on surviving and on getting to put something into their stomachs; they don’t need to think about any other worldly matter.
But Sadek and Tofa cannot sleep. On the one hand, their grandmother coughs and cries out, “Save me, save me!” every once in a while; on the other, there is the added obstinacy to get a hold of a ball and flaunt it. The brothers want to play with a ball all day while showing off to Majid and the boys just as the latter had played with a ball while the brothers had watched today. Since they can’t sleep and since their grandmother coughs on incessantly, an idea strikes. It first strikes Sadek, and then Tofa. They don’t say a word to each other; it’s not unusual for them to think of the same idea at the same time.
After the call to dawn prayers, when the sky is starting to light up, they run out to the home of the boy who doesn’t have a name— the boy who doesn’t respond when his name is called. They push him out of bed. The brothers feel like screaming and telling him that they’ll play the whole day, but that would be pointless. The boy can only understand gestures. Tofa makes some strange gestures, but the half-asleep boy understands him. The three of them run off to the empty place behind the martyred intellectuals’ graveyard. They do not know how they can form two teams among the three of them; all they understand is that even when there is no goalpost and even if they aren’t divided into two equal teams, football means kicking anything that’s roughly round in shape.
Mojaffor Hossain is a notable fiction writer of contemporary Bangla literature. Starting his career as a journalist and currently working as translator in the Bangla Academy, Dhaka, he has published eight books packed with awe-inspiring short-stories, which, in the recent years, have attracted much acclaim from both general readers and literary critics. His signature style is using native realities as his settings, and giving them magic-realistic or surrealistic color. He has been awarded several times for his short stories. His latest short story collection, Manusher Mangsher Restora, has been one of the best-selling books of the year 2021. His major works include:Timiryatra (novel), Atit Akta Bhindesh (short story), Khun Hoe Jacche Sab Sadek (short story), Paradheen Desher Swadheen Manushera (short story).
Noora Shamsi Bahar is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University. She completed her MA in English from The University of Western Ontario and has been teaching undergraduate students since 2010. She has presented research papers on the themes of violence (on the page, stage, and screen), performative revenge, rape trauma, childhood defiance, and transgressive womanhood in Oxford, Prague, and Dhaka. Despite being born to Iranian parents, she finds pleasure in reading short fiction in Bengali – her third language, and translating them into English. Her translations have been published in anthologies, magazines, and dailies.