Written by Syed Manzoorul Islam & Translated by Arunava Sinha
ponIr alI haD always been troubled by his name. He had no idea why his father had named him after cottage cheese. He hadn’t had the chance to ask him, either. His father, who used to work in a shop in Islampur selling cut-price fabric, had died suddenly after a three-day fever. Ponir was 10 or 11 at the time, a student of Class Five at the Suritola Primary School. What had Ponir’s father been ill with? A malignant form of pneumonia, apparently, but neither Ponir, nor his mother, nor the local doctor had had any inkling. The doctor had treated him for flu.But then,why blame the neighbourhood doctor, when the diagnoses of well-known physicians are wide off the mark. They’ve managed to send gastric patients to their graves, before, by giving them bypass surgeries, confusing gas-induced chest pains with heart-attacks. Haven’t you heard of such cases?
How did we find out the truth about Ponir’s father, then? Why, that’s just what we do.As storytellers it’s one of our responsibilities to know these things. How else are we supposed to tell our stories?
Ponir Ali didn’t know whether his father was fond of cheese. The fact was that he had never seen a slice of cheese in his life, for they couldn’t afford any. Perhaps his father had in fact loved cheese – who could tell? But Ponir had a grievance against the dead man – why did he of all people have to be named after cheese? Why not his younger brother, the one who had died at the age of three months? He too had remained as elusive as cheese, beyond their reach.
Asking his mother hadn’t helped. She never answered such questions. Probably she didn’t know either. Earlier, when the family was still somehow managing to get by – back when Ponir’s father was alive – his mother could occasionally spare a few moments for a conversation. But after his father’s death, all responsibilities fell on her. Ponir barely got to see his mother from one day to the next, let alone ask her a question. They had to sell her last pieces of jewellery, a set of gold bangles, to pay for his father’s funeral. It takes a lot of money to give someone a decent burial in this country, you see. Graveyard spaces are shrinking – even in a small district town, it costs between five and seven thousand taka. Ponir’s mother was insistent on giving her husband a respectable burial. He was a respectable man, after all. Besides, many respectable men also name their children Ponir. From that point of view, there should have been no obstacle to a respectable man like Ponir’s father getting a decent burial.
Returning home after a full day’s work, Ponir’s mother told him one evening, I can’t do this any more. Ponir was surprised by the note of weariness in her voice and the finality with which she spoke. His mother worked part-time in four or five homes and a couple of restaurants in Bongshal. She left at seven in the morning, coming back home only after sundown. But today she had returned before three. Obviously, she had not been to Bogdadia Restaurant. Ponir couldn’t remember the last time his mother had taken an afternoon off. Even without taking this into account, the very fact that she had exchanged an entire sentence with him amazed Ponir. And now his amazement turned into shock when she said, ‘It’s going to be a long time before you can complete your schooling and get a job. I doubt if I can carry on till then. Phuli and Duli are growing up too.You’d better look for a job now.’
Then she lay down, wrapping herself in a blanket. It was five days before she was back on her feet. Viral fever and a cold. Fortunately, the doctor had prescribed the correct medicine this time, so she recovered. But she was much weaker now and lost her jobs at New Brothers Restaurant and at one of the homes. Naturally. Ponir’s mother was helpless and lost.
Clutching his books, Ponir sobbed his heart out. Holding them to his chest, he shook and he wept, soaking the tattered pages with his tears. No, we are not making this up; it was indeed the case: Ponir loved his studies. He wasn’t a particularly good student – he was, in fact, quite thick in the head when it came to mathematics. But he used to enjoy going to school, packing his bag with his textbooks in a light plastic bag. The bag would rustle in the breeze, and he would feel as though he was out to conquer the world. When he went to school after a bath, neat and clean in his uniform and trainers, his hair oiled and combed, he actually felt as though people were staring at him in wonder. But why would they do that? Did they have nothing better to do? No, they were dumbstruck
– they had never witnessed such a heroic journey to school! No wonder Ponir’s schooldays were the best time of his life.
Ponir didn’t miss school even a single day in Class Seven.The day the results were announced, the school principal handed him a special prize along with his report card. A book, titled Memorable Sayings of Venerable People, compiled by Principal Azadur Rahman. Ponir, who had never received a prize in his life, was overwhelmed. His eyes welled up with tears. Not surprisingly, the book instantly became Ponir’s favourite possession. He would read it once in the morning and once at night, at least three or four quotations each time. Eventually he memorised them all. But the first thing he would do on opening the book was gaze at the inscription on the white page – his teacher had written in a clear hand:‘For Md Ponir Ali, a reward for punctuality.’ Ponir did not know what the word ‘punctuality’ meant, but that did not add to his woes. On the contrary, when he saw the name Ponir written for the first time in his teacher’s hand, he forgot his regrets about his name. He felt as though no name in the world could be sweeter than that of Md Ponir Ali. Ponir Ali was the embodiment of punctuality… whatever the word might mean. He fell in love with the word.
When Ponir’s mother told him,‘You have to leave school and get a job,’ he knew it was fated to happen – it was the unchangeable truth he had to live with.The great Cicero had said, ‘Whatever is unchangeable is the truth.’ Even the venerable Confucius had said, ‘The unchangeable truth is the ultimate truth.’ He had learnt these from the aforementioned book. He had also learnt: ‘Never disobey your mother.’ According to Principal Azadur Rahman, it was Haji Mohammed Mohsin who had said this. This was possible. Ponir not only understood the unchangeable truth his mother had conveyed, but also learnt that there were other truths behind it. He realised the predicament that the family was in. Phuli and Duli were growing up. He had observed their torn clothes. The constant shrinking of the portions of food at home and his mother’s deteriorating health had not escaped his notice either.
Still, he asked for more time – until the end of his Class Eight exams. He took the scholarship test without success, but passed the end-of-year exam and was accepted into Class Nine, even scoring quite well in maths. One winter morning, though, instead of swishing his way to school in his uniform and trainers, bathed and with his hair slicked and combed with oil, Ponir set out more or less in silence – as though he were a midnight suitor out to prowl the neighbourhood like a wary cat – for Nantu Miah’s Car King garage in Dholaikhal. Nantu Miah1 ate his lunch at Bogdadia Restaurant after three in the afternoon.That was where Ponir’s mother had requested him to give her son a job. Nantu Miah was a taciturn man. He told her, ‘Send him to me, I’ll hire him only if I like him’.
He liked Ponir at first sight. The boy appeared alert and educated and in control. Nantu Miah hired him but issued two operating instructions at the outset. No weeping. (Ponir had tears in his eyes after his separation from school.) Nantu Miah believed that only women wept. Tears did not melt human existence. Life was hard – like the motor parts and nuts and bolts in his garage. His second instruction to Ponir was not to wear trainers. ‘You see, Ponir Miah,’ Nantu told him, ‘personally I have no objection to your wearing shoes.They’re yours; you’re free to wear them. But the other boys won’t take it well. They don’t have shoes. This might get you into trouble’. Ponir understood. He accepted both instructions. A few days later Nantu Miah issued a third operating instruction. He had observed Ponir bringing a book to work in a polythene bag. He glanced at the book occasionally as he worked. He never had time to read it, but now and then he turned it over a couple of times before putting it back in the bag. The other boys stared and laughed. But Nantu Miah’s problem was not with the book – he didn’t approve of anyone bringing a bag to work. Last year one of the boys had spirited away a carburettor inside a bag. He did not suspect Ponir – there was no reason to – but the sight of a bag made him uncomfortable. He told Ponir,‘You see, Ponir Miah, books are wonderful things, but this garage isn’t a place for reading.The boys will just laugh at you.’
Ponir understood. He wouldn’t bring the book anymore.
Nantu Miah felt guilty. After all, it was a book they were talking about – and now he had banned books! Smiling, he told Ponir a rhyme, hoping to entertain him:
Go to Banglabazar if you need books
And to Dholaipar for iron scraps and hooks.
If any of you read copiously and have books at home, and happen to live in Dholaikhal, please don’t be offended. I am not the one who composed the rhyme, it was Nantu Miah, and he composed it to provide a moment’s distraction to a sorrowful young man buffeted by the blows of life.
It wasn’t as though Ponir Miah was not remotely entertained. But he was hurt. He was aware that working at a garage meant saying goodbye to his studies. But did that have to mean banning Memorable Sayings of Venerable People? Did his daytime relationship with his favourite object have to be severed? Nantu Miah’s instruction made him feel he would have preferred to have been asked to leave a foot or his ears or even his brain behind at home. Ponir took two decisions (the second, an alternative to the first) on his way back home that evening. First, that he would drop Memorable Sayings of Venerable People into the open manhole on Bongshal Road; or, second, that he would himself jump in. When he considered the second possibility, he also thought about jumping in front of a truck, or, as a last resort, in the path of a train at Gandaria. However, he rejected the second possibility even before he thought it through. For some time now, his mother had been bleeding from chapped lips. Every time he had tried to examine them, she had pushed his hand away, which meant, leave me alone; or, my dear Ponir, what difference does it make whether a poor person is bleeding from her lips or not? How many things can you fix? Thankfully the skin had not peeled off entirely. Ponir had decided to buy a cream for his mother’s chapped lips as soon as he got his first pay. He was close to the manhole at the time he had decided to leap into it; peering in, he had seen human excrement floating beneath the edges. He wanted to throw up. He couldn’t bring himself to cast Memorable Sayings of Venerable People into this hole.
Ponir decided it would be better to hide the book and not read it anymore. There on the half-deserted road he wept in silence. Then, returning home, he displayed flashes of temper with his sisters, and didn’t eat dinner.
But no one seemed particularly bothered.
Ponir put Memorable Sayings of Venerable People in a polythene bag and dropped it in an empty kerosene tin hanging from the roof beam. The tin wasn’t entirely empty though, for it contained small mementos from his school-life
– pencils, erasers, marbles. He had already sold his textbooks and notebooks after the exams, as he did every year.
This tin was his own property. His mother never touched it. Nor did Phuli and Duli.
He couldn’t help telling his mother the saddest story of his life. She listened in silence, saying nothing and showing no sympathy. If Ponir happened to be our son, we would have drawn him into our arms, wept with him, taken him to the ice-cream parlour and bought him a cricket bat. Ponir’s mother did none of these things. She only tried to straighten his unkempt hair with her fingers.
Ponir’s mother’s detached action burst the dam that had been holding off his tears.
If you heard Ponir’s heart-rending sobs you would think he’s a shy, soft-hearted boy. But that was not the case. He was not soft at heart at all. In fact, you could call him quite hard- headed. How else could he have carved out a place for himself in the adult world in less than a year? No one ever had the opportunity to show the slightest pity for Ponir, not even Nantu Miah. Ever since Nantu Miah had told him ‘No crying, tears don’t melt the heart of this thing called life’, he hadn’t wept even once. Instead, he had made others weep.There was something about the way he looked at people, or talked to them that made everyone uncomfortable. He said little, and never shirked his work. But Nantu Miah noticed that everyone except two or three friends maintained a distance from him.Why? Nantu Miah didn’t know; he concluded that it was a matter of Ponir’s personality.
We believe that Ponir’s appearance was made more formidable by the soot and grime he was constantly covered in. He was a grease monkey, after all.
It wasn’t that Ponir never cried. He did, but never when people were around, and then, only once in a while. The first time was when Nantu Miah had had a few words with him. Very gently. Not operating instructions, only advice. A couple of questions. Some things the garage owner wanted to know. And the second time, when Nantu Miah had given him a raise after a year, pressing four hundred taka into his hand. ‘Buy your mother something, Ponir Miah,’ he had said.
Holding back his tears, Ponir had bought lip balm for his mother from the pharmacy. Vaseline. Her lips were like the earth in summer, permanently cracked. She had all but returned the jar when she had found out the price. But she did put the cream on her lips before going to bed.
Not that Ponir had felt any emotion on seeing this. He was his mother’s son, after all.
My story has been progressing in a straight line so far – from Gulistan along Bongshal Road, for instance. But it will become more complicated now, turning towards Nawabpur, and then negotiating the congested roads of Adalat Para leading to Patuatuli. It might even get lost up a blind alley. Or down a manhole.
What can one do anyway if that happens?
Excerpted from ‘The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction’ published by Comma Press.
Edited by Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha, The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction is an unique anthology inspired by the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The book features 10 stories by some of Bangladesh’s finest writers, all translated from the Bengali into English for the first. The authors include; Wasi Ahmed, Moinul Ahsan Saber, Shaheen Akhtar, Salma Bani, Bipradash Barua, Akhteruzzaman Elias, Parvez Hossain, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Rashida Sultana and Anwara Syed Haq.