Short Story: Dumri by Sumon Rahman – Translated by Shamsad Mortuza
No one can claim the name of Pedro
nobody is Rosa or Maria
all of us are dust or sand
all of us are rain under rain.
They have spoken to me of Venezuelas
of Chiles and Paraguays
I know only the skin of the earth
and I know it has no name
I call him Dumri. I tie one end of my worn out gamchha to the iron fence of the Gas Office by the footpath and the other end to a municipality dustbin hook to make a swing cot. I place him there. Dumri loves to be pushed in the swing. He bursts into laughter. The passengers of double-decker buses stuck in the traffic give us a curious look. I feel amused. It makes me feel like a queen. I leave him on the makeshift swing to pick up a cigarette butt left by someone on the footpath for one last puff or to halt a hasty passerby for a dime or two. Dumri turns his head to follow every move of mine. He is still a few months short of becoming one, yet he seems to understand everything. Such a smarty-pant!
At night when the Ma’am who comes to distribute condoms among the homeless asks, “Dumri? What kind of name is it, Shefali? Doesn’t he have a real name? -The same. Dumri. – Why so? What does it mean? – Don’t know Ma’am. But it feels good when I call him Dumri. It just feels good to say it. See how he responds when I say it.
To give a demonstration to the condom-Ma’am, I say aloud, Dumri-i-i-i…. Even in his sleep my son starts moving his head on the pillow made of old clothes. He keeps moving and moving until he turns turtle all by himself. He raises his neck to look at me. Right away, Dumri gives me a gummy grin that soon turns into a giggle that sounds like the distant hum of a shallow engine. The condom-Ma’am cannot check her laughter. ‘You better pick a formal name for him, Shefali,’ she says. ‘Otherwise, he will lose his face once he grows up.’
Well what’s the big deal about losing face? I wonder.
The Ma’am who comes to register his birth, yes the one with head-scarf and chicken pox marks on her face, says the same thing. ‘What kind of name is it? Give me his formal name.’ I say, ‘Ma’am, this is his name. It’s up to you to decide if it’s formal or not.’ The face of the Registry-Ma’am tightens. ‘You need a proper Arabic name for him. You need a name both for here and the life hereafter. This name may not work up there you know.’
‘Why won’t it work?’ I wonder again.
Everything works just fine, especially here at Karwan Bazar, on the Sonargaon Road in the heart of Dhaka city. When, in the morning, I allow Dumri to bask in the sunlight, sitting on the road island, I see all the brand new cars running just fine. Everybody seems to be in such a hurry though! I hold Dumri close to my chest and bring him as close as possible to the wheels of the speeding cars. Dumri keeps giggling and I join him. For some novice drivers it is just too much. They will instantly panic and press the brake hard creating a fuss for nothing. ‘You whore, why don’t you send this fatherless thing of yours to the orphanage,’ they will cry out in anger. ‘Do you really need to bring him under my wheels?’ Their fury makes me laugh. At times, I tell them as calmly as possible, ‘Don’t worry bro, I have no intention of throwing him under your car. We are just playing.’
At other times, when I feel really bad listening to those insults, I curse back: ‘You son of a bitch, how do you know he lacks a father? Were you not the one to knock me up, you scoundrel?’
The driver will leave the scene immediately. He is not the one to impregnate me of course. But he wants to know just like everyone else.
The Registry-Ma’am also wants to know about it. While filling out his birth registration form, she will lower her voice to say, ‘this process requires the name of a father, Shefali Begum. Can you tell me?’
Of course, it’s not a problem! I laugh.
I look at Foru, the lame cobbler who is playing with my son. I look at him. ‘Write down Foru then, it’s Farid Mia,’ I tell the Registry Ma’am. Foru is startled by what he has just heard. He looks at me, but does not say anything. As soon as the Registry Ma’am is gone, he hobbles towards me. He asks frantically, ‘Shefu, what did you just say? Is it true that he is my son?’
‘Hi hi hi,’ I laugh. My son laughs too. Foru is dumbfounded. Such a fool!
But Kamalya is equally stupid. The mother-fucker married me once, and, I remember, what a mess it was. He used to pull rickshaws. But with his addiction to heroin, he can’t do it anymore. He has become a mugger swooping on travelers–snatching their ornaments or cellphones at the Panthapath roundabout. Soon after marrying me, he claimed, ‘I am done with this pavement life. Give me all your money, and we will rent out a place at Halima’s slum.’ The whoreson took me to be an idiot like him. I don’t have money, was my straight answer. I don’t save money to feed straw dogs. He divorced me within two days. What a gesture, I still remember. As if his pronouncement of the word Talak (divorce) was to make me faint! Fuck off, I said. And lo, that motherfucker fainted on the spot. It was his craving for heroin, I guess. He came back to me a week later, but this time we set up a rule. He must hand in twenty Taka before a fuck. Ever since he has followed the rule making sure that I have my money before he makes out.
Oh I was about to talk about Kamalya’s stupidity, wasn’t I? Anyway, when they came for voter registration, I was drying off my Sari on the road divider. Dumri was playing by me as usual. They noted down my name and address, and then they asked for my husband’s name. One of them gave a nasty grin and told his colleague, ‘You better ask her father’s name. How can she have a husband?’ I told them my husband’s name.
– Write down: Kamal Uddin.
– Your father’s name?
– No his father, I pointed at Dumri.
Kamalya was panting heavily when he came late that night. He didn’t have any money to offer. We were sleeping under the underpass, and the moron made me wake up in the middle of the night. ‘Shefu, tell me the truth, is he really my son?’ His mouth was wide open in excitement. His white teeth flashed in the dark. I laughed out loud that made Dumri wake up.
Something really happened to Foru and Kamalya from that day onward. Whenever I leave Dumri on the swing, Foru will sneak in with a bun or Kamalya with a toy rattle. Seeing me, Foru will try to awkwardly explain, ‘your son was crying out of hunger!’ I laugh. Hunger is never an excuse for my son to cry. Kamalya buys toys for Dumri, but he will never admit it. ‘I found it on the street and thought your son might like it. Look at him, how happy he is when playing with it!’
Kamalya asked me out. He wanted us to go to the zoo one day. ‘I was planning to go there myself, but the zoo is not the type of place where you go alone.’ He grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s go, your son will love those amazing animals.’ Foru showed up from nowhere. He warned, ‘You better be careful! Do not go with that heroin addict! I don’t like his intention. If he gets the chance, he may sell off your son.’
‘Is it that easy?’ I laughed.
The two got into a fight. I had to strike a deal. ‘Yes, my son will love animals for sure. Let’s go together—all of us together.’ Kamalya said he won’t sponsor Foru. Foru said that he could bear his own expenses.
On another day, Foru came and sat by me in a rather serious mood. ‘Have you ever thought of his name, Shefu?’ he asked.
– What’s the point? He has already got one. Dumri.
– Not that one. The formal name.
It was beginning to be a little annoying. I maintained my poker face and asked, ‘Go ahead, suggest one!’
Foru became excited. ‘You should pick a name that will allow him to mix with the rich. How about Hamid? It’s a real good name. In fact it’s one of the ninety-nine names of God.’
‘Hamid, son of Farid.; Hi hi hi… You son of a bitch!
Kamal told me something similar on another day. ‘Shefu, aren’t you going to fix his name? I can help if you want. I know people at the birth registration office.’
– Want what?
– Fix a nice name for him.
– Give me a nice name then?
– How about Jamal?
Kamal is visibly excited. His mouth was opened in anticipation. His teeth glared.
At night, when Dumri is asleep, my stomach churns in hunger. I do not have a dime left in me to buy food. They say, a breeding slut is no longer able to arouse a man’s cock. Yet, those patrol police never spared me earlier even in my sleep. They’d touch all over my body free of cost and ask if I had condoms. I’d say, no condoms. They would keep molesting me as long as they would like. But now my belly is empty. Dumri has constant urges for my milk, particularly at nights. He drains me out making me dizzy all day long.
The condom-ma’am visits me. I say, Ma’am, I don’t need them anymore. I still have some left from the last supply. I have just given birth, and you don’t have to come to me anymore.
The condom-ma’am gets flustered by my remarks. ‘Shefu, I will lose my job if I don’t increase my distribution of condoms. HIV-AIDS is at your door-steps, Shefali! There is no cure!’
– ‘Do you have anything that can be taken orally for AIDS?’ I asked her with an empty stomach.
– ‘There is none that I can give condoms to, Ma’am? Nobody comes to me these days.’
– ‘You are lying.’
– ‘True, upon God, Ma’am. Only Kamalya and Foru come, and they are my own people, how can I ask them to wear condoms?’
– ‘You will die very soon, Shefali!’
– ‘When will this soon be, Ma’am?’
In his sleep, Dumri giggles and grinds his teeth. Then he starts sobbing. The midnight speeding trucks roam the deserted road. The beautiful girls on the big billboards remain calm and cute with soaps and shampoos in their hands. They don’t sleep. When Dumri wakes up, I will show them to him. They are really beautiful! In the distance, the siren of a patrol police car is heard. The condom-ma’am stands up and walks away. AlDS is coming, and I start feeling sorry for her. I have known her for such a long time, but I have never asked for her name.
Names do not matter, do they?
A truck stops by. Its driver has been taunting me for a while. I am rather fond of him. I neither know his name, nor wish to. As soon as the condom-ma’am is out of my sight, I shall jump into his truck. I will go to Aminbazar. There they will give me a new name for sure – Saleha or Marjina. A chick, without a kid, will certainly give the men hard-ons. I won’t have to starve any more. If by chance someone familiar from Karwan Bazar finds me and calls me “Shefu,” I will not even turn back to reply. Just like when someone from Feni calls me “Amina” today, I don’t even bother to turn around. Was I ever an “Amina”? What’s the fuss about a name?
And Dumri? How peaceful my little darling looks in his sleep! I shall leave him with Foru under the shed of Shaheb Ali’s garage, where he stays at night. I will leave him next to Foru who is sleeping now. In his sleep, my little darling will giggle like a small shallow engine and weep like a willow. In the morning, Foru will buy him a bun, and Kamalya will bring toy rattles for him to play. With two fathers, my little darling will have the life of a king. One day, if I am alive, and if my heart hurts, I shall come to see my little darling from the window of a double-decker bus. If I don’t make it, I shall ask the girls on the billboard to spare me a spot next to them so that I can keep a watch on him from there all night long. Maybe they will give him another name then. A name for earth and a name for heaven. So what’s in a name? There are so many things in this world that do not care for a name. Do they?
Shamsad Mortuza is a poet, translator, columnist, editor, and academic administrator based in Dhaka. He teaches English Literature at the University of Dhaka, and is currently on leave to act as the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Dr. Mortuza attended Jahangirnagar University, University of Arizona, Birkbeck University of London, and UCLA. He is the editor of ULAB journal of English studies Crossings and serves on the editorial board of Six Seasons Review. He writes a popular weekly column “Blowin’ in the Wind” for The Daily Star. His published works include The Figure of the Shaman in Contemporary British Poetry (monograph), Barkode (poetry), I Spy (vignettes), Selected Poems of Kamal Chowdhury (Trans.), and Mosques of Bangladesh (Trans.).
Sumon Rahman is a Bangladeshi writer and cultural studies scholar who divides his time between writing and teaching. With six books to his credit, Sumon loves to write across the genres (poems, short stories, experimental non-fictions, and pure academic prose) both in Bangla and English. One of his short stories (Innocent Sleep, translated by Arunava Sinha) was short-listed for the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, first time ever CW started receiving entries other than English. He received the Best Book of the Year Award for his book titled “Niroporadh Ghum” (Innocent Sleep) in 2018 by Prothom Alo, one of the most prestigious literary awards of Bangladesh. Sumon lives in Dhaka and teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Queensland, Australia.