— Shahaduz Zaman
Then, as I kept going, I met an old woman. She told me the story of a royal Bengal tiger. She lived in a village canopied by overhanging trees. An impassive breeze blew through the foliage. Internet and pizza hadn’t reached the village yet. A DVD player ran on battery power at the tea stall where I sat, sipping on my tea. Some actress was dancing to the song “Tanki Futa” on the TV screen. When I finished my tea, with the aftertaste of condensed milk in my mouth, I started towards the old woman’s hut. When I sat in her yard, a naked boy gripped his penis and stared at me. It can be difficult to understand the ways of the village.
The bus I took to cross some miles at a stretch was called “Saddam Hussein”. Then I crossed a fair bit of distance with another vehicle named “Nosimon”. I heard a village boy had transformed a rice harvester into what had become the “Nosimon” – just as a magician transforms a handkerchief into a bunny. Then I got on a boat, a familiar mode of transportation. The boatman sang. He wasn’t supposed to be singing at that time. The global stock market had collapsed. The boatman probably had a few potatoes at home and it’s difficult to sing melodiously with nothing but potatoes in your stomach. Yet, the boatman sang:
I row my boat all night
I watch as the night turns to dawn
Yet my boat still stands where it was
What had I hoped for and for whom?
My heart sinks in grief and with it, my will to live
It looked like the boatman couldn’t make any progress; he seemed stuck – going round in circles, much like an economic collapse. I got off the boat and walked on foot. I stepped on patches of grass. I’m used to walking. I have walked from the shores of Sri Langka to the shores of Malaysia. And as I walked on, I met the old woman.
When I sat in the old woman’s lawn, a sudden gust of wind blew a bunch of jujubes on to the tin roof. I noticed the stooping jujube tree above. Next to the tree was a tube well. Someone was pumping water out of it. The naked boy squishing his penis on the lawn ran off to collect the fallen jujubes. He didn’t come back. In such an unfamiliar context, I began to think of the role Facebook and Twitter played in the Arab Spring.
Soon afterwards, the night fell hastily. Darkness reigns in the night. What’s special about nighttime is that it doesn’t give one the scope to perceive minute details. Therefore, poverty in the village doesn’t seem too explicit. The old woman sat on her lawn and started wiping the glass covering of the oil lamp with a piece of rag. I noticed her fingers. Fingers are peculiar. Fingers have their own unique personalities. The fact that Shaila had hurt me wasn’t much of an issue; rather, not being able to remember what her fingers were like was something that bothered me. If Rodin would have taken a good look at the old woman’s fingers, he would have used their semblance in his sculptures. Each finger was like a text. With those fingers she had bought maggot-infested eggplant from the farmers’ market and washed the body of the chairman’s daughter who had committed suicide. Her text-like fingers were just as intricate as village life. This complex old woman narrated a story for me. The story of a royal Bengal tiger.
The old woman started, “A long time ago…” This reminded me of fairytales that begin with “Once upon a time…” Fairy tales are not relatable because they are about some rajah “in a faraway land,” but the old woman’s tale was about Sikander Mian and it was a story from the same village. The old woman told me Sikander was a poor farmer. I wasn’t surprised because rural farmers are supposed to be poor. I’ve heard that in the West, the affluent live in the rural areas. But here, villages are sanctuaries for the poor. The old woman said Sikander’s wife was Julekha. When I was a kid, I knew Julekha to be a princess. But who differentiates between names of kings and their subjects these days? I’ve heard of rural girls having names like Victoria and Elizabeth. Sikander’s daughter’s name was quite ordinary though – Moina. Sikander the poor farmer had settled down with his wife Julekha and daughter Moina. I didn’t get any hints by hearing out the exposition of the story.
Then the old woman said that when work would be scarce in the village, Sikander would go missing. No one knew where he would be off to, not even Julekha. This wasn’t something totally unexpected. This kind of internal migration between villages was old news and falls within classical migration theory. “Pull factor” and “push factor” were both at work here. And since the story was from “a long time ago”, microcredit may have been unheard of in the village. If it had been around, Sikander may have bought and driven a pedal van and paid off the debt in weekly installments. But would it end his poverty? That is a question for another day. Sikander surely belonged to a generation that came before the debate over whether or not microcredit can eradicate poverty. What was evident, though, was that Sikander would go missing.
When Sikander would disappear, Julekha’s sufferings would begin. Poverty would slither into her home like a python. Not being able to think of any other alternative, Julekha would work as a domestic help at a few households. On some days, Julekha would tie up one end of her wet saree to the fence and then, much like Draupadi, she would open up her saree’s folds as she would go round and round. She would spread the saree across, and barely cover herself up with the other end while holding on to the fence. Since Julekha had one saree, she would stand in this manner until her saree dried up. Against the backdrop of the distant orchard of betel nut trees, there would be a synchrony of sorrow and beauty in Julekha’s posture as she would stand with an unfurled orange saree.
Even though Sikander Mian would go missing, he would eventually turn up– perhaps after many days. Sikander would come back home at night. He would bring candy cane for Moina. The old woman said that during her childhood, colorful candy cane was the sensation of distant lands. On the way to the village, I had marveled at the puffy packets of chips that reminded me of ballooned pregnant cats, hanging from the small grocery stores at the ferry terminal, or the dusty Coke bottles stacked in the same stores. But I could guess that the candy cane was more enigmatic than these items. Sikander would bring a saree for Julekha. Julekha already had an orange saree, so perhaps the next one would be red or green. Sikander would also bring the customary alta for Julekha. In the deep of the night, Julekha would light up the oil lamp and dye her feet red with the alta. Moina would fall asleep while sucking on the candy cane. Then, after putting out the lamp, Sikander and Julekha would talk all night. Julekha would speak of her sorrows. She would cry softly and laugh with her lips pressed together. Woe would say, “There’s no water in the pond; why does the leaf float? There’s no show of your lover; why do you laugh so?” At the crack of dawn, the light would reveal alta stains on Sikander’s body. I could understand that this had a sexual connotation, but the old woman chose to keep it inferential. During the narration, I noticed a solid presence of the old woman’s fingers. The trivial little details were made significant by the various gestures of her fingers.
The story’s inciting incident came afterwards. Once, when Sikander was away, he was gone for longer than usual. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, but Sikander did not return. Julekha and Moina were grief-stricken. Sikander Mian was a no show. Julekha was devastated. If one could borrow Thakurmar Jhuli’s language, one could say, “Julekha cried like a banshee, beat her chest, smacked her forehead, became hysterical from having to bear her woes, and hit her head with a stone until all her burning misery fizzled out. And yet, even the ant remained unmoved by Julekha’s wretchedness.”
However, Sikander couldn’t remain absent forever. At least for the sake of the story, he had to come back and he did. Apparently he had been to Kurkab city, hundreds of miles away. The old woman did not know where the city was. All she knew was that it was the city of ascetics. Sikander had become a disciple of one such ascetic in Kurkab city and upon his return, he hadn’t brought along candy cane, saree, or alta; he had brought a pot of water given to him by the sadhu. As usual, Sikander came home at night. Instead of the usual gifts, this time, he presented the mysterious pot of water under the light of the oil lamp. A technical question that remains unanswered is how Sikander had managed to carry the pot of water all the way from Kurkab city to his village. But we tend to overlook the technical aspects of stories. We never ask how it is possible for a twelve day old baby to get married to a twelve year old nubile. We are not stupid enough to ruin the magic of stories by asking such questions.
The old woman took all my attention towards the pot of water under the oil lamp because that was where the heart of the story lay. Julekha and Moina looked at the water. The water that trembled within the pot looked just like ordinary water. No matter how long and how hard Julekha and Moina stared, they found nothing special about it. The mystery was revealed by Sikander. He said, “The sadhu has said I can be whoever I want to be if I splash some of this water on my body.” Julekha and Moina exchanged glances. Julekha let out a laugh and said, “As if!”
Sikander was determined to prove the potency of the water. He said, “First, you’ve got to tell me what I should turn into, and then you will see its power.” Julekha couldn’t stop laughing and yet she managed to say, “I don’t know. What can you be?”
At this point, the old woman took a break and started munching on a new betel leaf along with some chewing tobacco. I waited to know what sort of transformation Sikander went through.
Sikander said, “Alright Moina, you go first. Tell me what you want me to be and then your mother can have her turn.”
Moina said, “No, Ma first.”
Sikander said, “Okay Julekha, you go first.”
In a fit of laughter, Julekha said, “Alright, turn into a king with a pearl necklace.”
Sikander responded, “Fine. Moina, it’s your turn now.”
Moina said, “Turn into a tiger. I want to see a tiger.”
Sikander said, “Fine. I’ll turn into both. I’ll be a king and a tiger. Which one should I be first? Alright, I’m going to turn into Moina’s tiger first and then turn into a king.”
A tiger was introduced at this point of the narration. And from here onwards, the story became that of a tiger’s. Under the light emanating from the oil lamp, Julekha, Moina and Sikander became involved with the tiger-king game. Sikander talked about the rules of the game. He instructed to take a handful of water from the pot, utter the words “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” – three times in a row, as if in a mantra, then splash the water on him, and immediately Sikander would transform into a tiger. Then, to bring him back to his human form, another handful of the water had to be taken and the words “Human! Human! Human!” would have to be said out loud. Then, the water should be splashed on to the body of the tiger. This is how Sikander would go from being a tiger to a human being. Next, Sikander would turn into a king if another handful of the water would be splashed on his body after the incantation: “King! King! King!” In this manner, Sikander would keep metamorphosing.
Sikander told Julekha, “So let’s begin. Bismillah!”
Julekha hesitated. With cupped hands, she took a handful of water from the pot. Next to her, Moina chuckled with suppressed excitement and curiosity. Her eyes were dazzling. The crickets were chirping outside. Just as instructed, Julekha uttered the word ‘Tiger’ three times and splashed the water in her hands on to Sikander’s body. Indeed, Sikander began to gradually transform right afterwards. He began to form large canines and sharp claws, and eventually, the sadhu’s words came true when Sikander completed his transformation into an actual tiger. Sikander’s transformation, as described by the old woman, reminded me of Michael Jackson’s music video, “Thriller”.
Afterwards, the story went through a dramatic diversion. Moina had wanted to see a tiger, and she had been waiting with inquisitiveness to see one upfront, but she could not have anticipated how she would react when a formidable tiger would actually be in the same room as her. Thus, seeing a royal Bengal tiger right in front of their eyes terrified Moina and even Julekha. They forgot that the tiger was in fact Sikander. Moina screamed and ran out of the room. That’s when trouble began. As she made a dash for the door, Moina’s foot hit the pot, causing it to topple over, spilling all of its contents. And so, the tiger-king game went on to become a catastrophe. Without any of the magical water left in the pot, how would it be possible for the tiger to transform back into his human form? Since all of the water that had been blessed by the sadhu’s mantras had been spilled, there was no way. Distraught, Julekha banged her forehead against the pillar and cried, “Allah, what am I going to do now?” Sikander in his tiger form looked at Julekha dolefully, walked around in circles within the hut, and moaned.
Earlier, the thoughts in my head were jumping around like a chimp that jumps from one tree branch to another. At times, my thoughts were about the Egyptian flag, at times about Shaila, and at other times about Satyajit Ray. But at that point in the story, my chimp-like thoughts stopped leaping about. A man was trapped in a tiger’s body while involved in childish play and couldn’t return to his true form. I felt that particular crisis was more complex than the complexities of the Arab Spring or the complications in my relationship with Shaila. I thought to myself: Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives, somehow been stuck with an undesired façade we’ve created? This dormant tragedy of the human existence troubled me.
Julekha went out into the yard and brought Moina back into the hut. She wiped away her tears, pointed at the baffled tiger and said, “Don’t be afraid; this is your father.” But it was difficult for Moina to grasp the fact that this massive animal standing before her was indeed her father. With watery eyes, she looked at the tiger in wonderment. Sikander in his tiger form also looked at his daughter, woefully. The tiger, Julekha, and Moina felt perplexed while coming up against this predicament that had no resolution.
The entire episode took place in the dead of the night and the tiger, as in, Sikander, was very cautious not to growl, so the neighbors had no clue about the dramatic incident that had taken place in Julekha’s hut. But dawn was fast approaching. The unstoppable light of a new day would soon spread. The village folk would be up and about in no time. If they would see the tiger-turned Sikander, they would inevitably beat him to a pulp. That is when Julekha came to her senses. She told Sikander to quickly flee to the nearby hills. She said, “Go into the woods and save yourself.”
Julekha opened the backdoor, stroked the tiger, and let him out. The tiger looked at Julekha helplessly, walked slowly away from the hut, and headed for the wooded hills nearby while it was still dark out. Dawn broke. Julekha didn’t tell anyone about what had happened. She strictly instructed Moina to keep mum about it. Anxiety, despair, and sorrow overpowered her and she secretly wept alone. At the end of the day, when darkness loomed over, a tiger’s growls were heard from the distant hills. The villagers felt terrorized. A neighbor came and told Julekha, “Have you heard? There’s a tiger in the woods.” Julekha remained silent. At night, she lay on the bed, held Moina close to her, heard the tiger’s growls, and didn’t get any sleep. It wasn’t exactly the noise of a tiger growling; it sounded more like moans. A royal Bengal tiger was roaming in the woods. Julekha knew it was Sikander. She knew it was Sikander crying in the woods.
The old woman paused at this point, and with her fingers, she rolled the wick of the oil lamp and elongated it. Shaila’s fingers suddenly flashed before my eyes. Shaila had covered a lit torchlight with the five fingers of one hand. The light had become trapped in her fingers. Each one of her slender fingers had seemed like a stream of crimson lava erupting from a volcano. She had suddenly turned off the switch of the torchlight and said, “Give it some time and only then you’ll see cream forming on milk’s surface.”
But let’s not get sidetracked. Let’s get back to Julekha and her tiger. Naturally, once Sikander had transformed into a tiger, the dark cloud of sorrow loomed over Julekha yet again. Once again, she had to return to working as a domestic help. But did Sikander live the life of a tiger till the end? This question was yet to be answered.
On one dark night, when the new moon was barely visible, Sikander was able to slip in to Julekha’s hut, unnoticed by the villagers. He rubbed himself against the fence. Julekha stepped out with an oil lamp and saw the tiger. She quickly put her finger over her mouth and said “Shhh”. Cautiously, she led Sikander into the hut and bolted the door shut. Silently, Sikander dragged his massive frame and sat on the floor. Julekha stroked his whole body. She asked, “How have you been? Have you been eating well?” The tiger moaned softly. Julekha wiped away her tears with her saree’s anchaal. Julekha spoke of her sorrows while caressing the tiger’s body. She wondered out loud, “What sins have cost this family’s ruin? What sins have cost Julekha’s misfortune?”
Julekha told Sikander that the local leader of the village had cast an evil eye on her. She was afraid that Sikander would get up and run towards the leader’s house. After all, Sikander knew where he lived. To distract him, Julekha woke Moina up and said, “Moina, look, your father is here.” Rubbing her eyes, Moina got up, but this time, she wasn’t startled at the sight of a tiger lying down. The tiger turned his head towards Moina. With excitement in her voice, Julekha informed Sikander that Moina had recently started learning how to read the Quran from a Moulavi. She said, “Come, Moina, read something for your father.”
Sleepily, Moina brought the Arabic alphabet book down from the shelf, sat down next to the tiger and started, “Alef zabar Aaaa, Beh zabar Baaa, Teh zabar Taaa…” The tiger blinked. His facial expressions remained like that of a tiger’s, which Julekha could not read. It was late into the night of a full moon, and this solitary tiger was assessing his daughter’s Arabic language skills. The threat of dawn drew close. Before the break of dawn, the tiger listened to the strings of his wife’s sorrows and the recitation of holy words by his daughter, and headed out, vigilantly.
The chairman’s daughter, who had committed suicide and whose body the old woman had washed, wore a nose-pin which had been the cause behind the suicide. There had been a lot of bloodshed in the village because of that nose-pin. The dense foliage in the village made it a comforting place for sure, but the village was not as simple as the impassive breeze that blew through it. However, there is no scope to unveil all the mysteries of the village within this story. For now, we will just have to center our attention on the mysterious story of the tiger. We will have to focus on Julekha.
Julekha’s worst crisis came at this point in the story. Julekha’s daughter Moina developed a complicated illness. One day, out of the blue, she couldn’t get out of bed. Her legs had gone numb. The old woman told me that this happens as a result of the Thapra Wind. She informed me that the Algaa Wind, the Nuli Wind, and the Thapra Wind are all part of the wind. The Thapra Wind lies in wait and catches people off guard. The one who is attacked by it feels like they have been smacked hard. And with that smack, their legs go numb. They lose mobility. It’s hard to understand why the Thapra Wind had shown no mercy to the daughter of the man who had transformed into a tiger, roaming and moaning in the woods.
The villagers said it was an incurable condition. A shaman from a distant village arrived one day. He said he knew the cure. Julekha looked at him anxiously. Needless to say, since the story was about a tiger and since the crisis revolved around a tiger, it could be hoped that the resolution would have something to do with the same. I could see that the old woman’s tale was going in that direction. According to her, the shaman said, “The cure to the Algaa Wind disease is fox fat. The cure to the Nuli Wind disease is gecko fat. And the cure to the Thapra Wind disease is tiger meat.” Moina would have to consume tiger meat to be able to walk again. Not tiger milk. Tiger meat. The shaman had fox fat and gecko fat, but he didn’t have any tiger meat.
The story took a new turn at this point. How would they get a hold of tiger meat? Sikander the tiger was roaming in the woods. I waited to know Sikander’s role in the resolution of this crisis.
The old woman said that Julekha waited for the next new moon. She knew that’s when Sikander would come. That’s when she planned on having a talk with him. Perhaps he would know about a dead tiger in the woods. Maybe he would be able to bring home a chunk of flesh bitten out of a dead tiger’s corpse. Julekha waited.
Sure enough, on the next new moon, Sikander came to Julekha’s hut and rubbed himself against the fence. Julekha got out of bed in a jiffy. She fixed her disheveled saree, unbolted the door, and let the tiger in. As usual, the tiger sat next to the bed. Moina was fast asleep. As soon as the tiger was inside the hut, Julekha hugged him and sobbed. She couldn’t speak. Shutting his mouth and eyes, the tiger moaned. Julekha’s tears fell on the tiger’s stripes. At some point, Julekha wiped away her tears and snot and said, “Moina is very sick. The shaman had come over.” The tiger opened his eyes. Julekha gave Sikander all the details. At the end, she told him about the cure – the tiger meat. She wept some more. Sikander turned his tiger-head towards Julekha. He made an obscure noise. Julekha thought about the prophet who understood the language of animals and birds. At that moment, she wished she could understand the language of tigers.
Julekha looked into the tiger’s eyes and said, “Did you get what I said?” The tiger blinked.
They could hear Moina breathing while she slept. Julekha asked, “Do you know of any old, half-dead tiger in the woods? Can’t you kill the old beast and bring some of his meat? Or is there a tiger that has died in the past couple of days?” Sikander roared softly. His long, fine whiskers trembled in the breeze. Julekha said, “Go and search in the woods. The shaman said a small chunk of meat will do. If you can get some, I can cook it for Moina. Please try, won’t you?” The hidden expression between the tiger’s sharp teeth and whiskers was something that Julekha could not understand.
Meanwhile, they didn’t notice that the eastern horizon had turned crimson. Julekha got up quickly and told Sikander, “Go quickly, it’s almost light out.” But the tiger had no sense of urgency. Julekha pushed the tiger with all her might. But where would she get the strength to move a massive tiger? Dawn was cracking. After a little while, the tiger, aka Sikander, got up. Julekha unbolted the door swiftly. He slowly walked out and stood in the lawn. But he didn’t move any further. Julekha nearly screamed, “Go quickly, people will see you.” The tiger remained motionless. The azaan was heard after a little while. The sky started to lighten up in no time. This time, Julekha stood in front of the tiger and said, “What are you doing? Why are you standing here? Can’t you hear the azaan?”
Men were rushing towards the mosque. As soon as the Muazzin said “Assalatu khairum minan naum”, the tiger suddenly let out a mighty roar. The Muazzin’s azaan came to a halt. He was bewildered by how close the tiger’s roar had come from. The mosque-goers stopped in their tracks. From a distance, someone spotted the tiger in Julekha’s lawn. He shouted, “The tiger is here! The tiger is in the village!” Within no time, innumerable people ran towards Julekha’s hut, with sticks in their hands. They cried, “Get him! Get that tiger!”
Horror-struck, Julekha kept screaming at Sikander, begging him to flee. But soon enough, countless men closed in on the tiger. The tiger remained unaffected. He stood in the lawn, motionlessly. With folded hands, she implored the villagers not to kill the tiger. She tried to make them understand that the tiger was Moina’s father. The mob assumed she had become delusional as a result of losing Sikander. They asked Julekha to step aside and then they attacked the tiger with whatever weapon each carried. The tiger didn’t try to escape; he didn’t even show any sign of protest. He was wounded by sticks and spears. Standing at a distance, Julekha begged for his life. The bedridden Moina put her head out the window and cried, “Please don’t kill my father.” No one gave ear to the delusional mother and daughter. They hit the tiger relentlessly. The non-protesting tiger collapsed at one point, after getting beaten to a pulp. Sikander met his death. The public rejoiced. The killer youth carried Sikander aka the tiger’s body around the whole village. Julekha fell unconscious.
The old woman told me how Sikander willingly died. By doing so, he actually presented his body as an antidote for his ailing daughter. After all the celebrations died down, the villagers remembered Moina and the shaman’s prescription. The villagers then proceeded to skin the tiger and get a chunk of its flesh. Julekha fainted every now and then. Against her wishes, the villagers cooked Sikander, as in the tiger’s meat, and fed it to Moina. After having consumed her own father’s meat, Moina eventually recovered and could walk once again.
The old woman ended the tiger’s tale at this point. I bid her farewell. In my head, I could only hear a tiger’s cries from distant hills.
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.
Shahaduz Zaman has published over 30 books in Bengali in different genres such as short stories, novels, travelogues, and essays. He won the Bangla Academy Literary Award in 2016 in the fiction category, the highest national award for literature in Bangladesh. His historical docufiction ‘Kracher Colonel’ is a national best seller. A number of his books have been adapted into films and stage dramas. A film ‘Komola Rocket’ scripted by him has received several national and international awards and is available on Netflix. His biopic novel based on the famous Bengali poet Jibonanondo Das, titled ‘Ekjon Komolalebu’ has been adapted for a theatre production and staged in London.