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The Open-Winged Scorpion Other than my sister and I, nobody had ever seen such an insect. An unknown creature of unique form. Dark-maroon like a tamarind seed, with a thousand legs, it was as dry and strong as the shell of a giant crab. Nearly a foot long. Two wide wings on either side of its body. Spread like peacock wings, shaped like a half-moon, open and spread wide. What a pair of wings!

Not even butterflies are blessed with such wings. In its wings, it carries all the splendours and beauty of the world. That spot was lit up by the wings. There was a stump of a felled palm tree. The fiercely beautiful creature sat motionless on the stump. At first, it appeared like the glitter of a heap of gold. Then something like diamonds. Then a cluster of precious gems. The creature was shinning with its precious stones and gleaming metals. Its wings pulsated. Maybe from anger. Or pleasure. Leaving the trunk, slowly, it moved towards the rice field. 1

We suddenly stopped. Scared, we could not move.

Birds first half-straighten their wings and then open them wide to fly. This creature did not do so. It just stretched open its wings in full and swooped down.

The base of the stump where the insect now rested looked scorched. We did not know if it was because of the cowherd who roasted seeds on bush fire. Suddenly we realised that the stump caught fire just now. That creature was fire itself. It scorched the stump.

Was it a reptile or an insect? Or a bird? It set ablaze the grass wherever it stopped. The edges of paddy stalks, heavy with ripened grain, got scorched at the creature’s touch. I was escorting my sister to her in-laws. Meeting such a scorpion midway was a sudden shock.

Our customs were different. If the in-laws refused, we couldn’t afford to feel humiliated; rather we would have to keep on coaxing them till they accepted our daughter. When the husband was reluctant to feed the wife, and returned her to her parents, she had to be sent back to her in-laws’ place by her own people. Already I had taken my sister, Ashmantara Begham, twice to her in-laws’ place. I had to dump my sister when the swashur refused to keep her. First it was for seven days, then my sister could survive for forty days at her in-laws’ before running back to us.

Sagardighi Nuncha is our village. We are poor. I am a primary schoolteacher, I have cultivated a Maulavi-like profile. I sport a long black curly beard and shave my moustache. Sometimes I go clean-shaven like Uttam Kumar, the most fa2 | ABUL BASHAR

mous film star of Bengal. Such whimsicality over beards does not earn respect and trust in the locality. I have shoulderlength hair like the Faraizis, my forehead has started receding. I am Bichhadi Mir. My good name is Mir Nasiruddin.

I am a poet. I also recite popular Muslim lyrics from cheap prints. I apply ator. I wrap my shoulders with a cloth which has Kabaasharif printed on it. Not that I carry it all the time, rather I use it occasionally while attending formal gatherings. Perfume is sparsely used. Perfume is expensive. I recite the ballad of love, longing and battles, nightlong, that too occasionally, at the courtyards of the neighbours. I compose ghazals to sing at the religious majlis too. My heart is a Moyna bird Cannot be caged It wants to fly away To the golden Medina.

It is one of my favourite numbers. I used to sing this on audience demand frequently. Now, I do not recite the ballad at the nightly gatherings any more. Let me now tell you about a sin. My sin. I committed a sin while reciting about love and martial glory. During those nightly recitals, I got entangled with a woman. A married woman. She was my sister-in-law, a woman from a reputable household.

Disaster was inevitable. She might not have been that affected, but I certainly would have been ruined. But, she swayed like a charmed snake to the intoxication of my songs, her eyes glittered, her lips swelled in desire. It was the thought of my sister that brought me back from 3 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

that fruitless indulgence. I kept thinking that if I took the next step with my sister-in-law Dwina Bhabi, if I tasted the pleasure of her body, no doubt her soul would have been satisfied. But if I enjoyed another man’s wife, then, in turn, my sister, who was also somebody’s wife, was perhaps doomed to be enjoyed by another man, such is my penance. It’s been almost a year now that Ashmantara’s husband left her here, at her father’s home and not come back for her.

Father is no more, I am the only guardian. I have a job in the MLA quota. I used to be an active member of Jama’at Party, was the secretary of its local office. The local MLA asked me to leave my party and join the ruling Left Front Party to better my job prospects. When I joined, he gave me a job. Evidently, if given jobs, many would turn Marxists. The scorpion crossed the paddy field leaving a fiery trail behind. Its wings were swelling, in anger or with pleasure.

One secluded afternoon, I sat with Dwina Bhabi in their drawing room and got her interested in a fortune-telling game. She was to imagine either Mecca or Medina in either of her closed fists without telling me. The game was, if I could get it right - what is where - we were destined to be together. So, she took them in her fists. And, I was right in guessing Mecca-Medina. What jingling laughter. What pulsation in her torso.

She was unbearably surprised. With a sure gesture she said, You are a magician.

Then, a little impatient, a little mesmerized, she asked, Can you cast a spell too? 4 | ABUL BASHAR

I did not respond.

I had a flair for playing this fortune-telling game. My friend Masiul, then studying Bengali honours in a college, was a poet. His poems used to get published in well-known magazines and journals. He was very close to me. I played MeccaMedina with him too. When once he sent his poem to the most renowned Bengali weekly, he asked me whether they would publish it. I said, Easy. Let’s play Mecca-Medina and we will know. He laughed, How?

I said, Keep your poem anywhere, in Mecca or Medina. He kept his poem in Medina and I knew exactly where it was. From then on, he also believed I knew magic.

Yes, magic. Without magic, how did I get a job in this terrible age of unemployment! How did it happen?

Surplus beauty, surplus poverty, surplus religiosity are what I have. I and my sister – both beautiful. It is said poor families reproduce like insects. They are innumerable, so are their votes. One job per family earns a thousand thank-you votes. In the last election, when we voted for the Muslim League, our thousand votes got wasted as the League candidate lost his deposit in the polls. Then we joined Jama’at. After getting the job I am a Marxist.

Bhaiya! It’s burning everywhere. Screaming out, my sister clutched at my panjabi. She looked at the scorched tree, at the scorched rice fields, at her scorched destiny. She also wanted to play Mecca-Medina but did not dare ask me. She also wanted to ask me to tell her about her future, but could not 5 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

dare ask me, Tell me, Bhaiya, for how long I will have to cross these fields stealthily to go to live with my husband. The surma of my eyes, the dot of colour on my forehead, the alta borders of my feet, the checked blouse, the soft sari, a palanquin to carry me to the in-laws – where are they Bhaiya, how far?

Dumping is a bad word. Sounds harsh. It’s an expression of humiliation. But without this word how else can I narrate the story of my sister’s fate? Her journey to her husband’s is as cursed as Sakuntala’s, a cursed mythology.

When we started off before daybreak, a wind was blowing off darkness from the sky, the stars were shining with pregnant anticipation. We’d just gotten till the courtyard, when our baby goat came running and fell at Ashmantara’s feet. It pulled the hem of Ashmantara’s sari with its mouth, as if saying, don’t go Ashmantara. It was a she goat and was not even named by my sister, it was so young. Why did it wake up, and why did it come running – we did not know. Did it sense Ashmantara was going to her husband’s house?

This creature – insect or reptile or whatever – was moving. Its wings were thin and meshed like bats, but fiercer than the rainbow. At the slightest movement, they radiated fire. Ashmantara muttered, All these fields, these acres of land till the horizon belong to my father-in-law. All will be burnt to ashes. All will be wasted! For what fulfilment will I go then, Allahaq?

She didn’t feel the urge to go to Harempur, her in-laws’ village, anymore. Her interest had waned. We had left at dawn and would reach just after dusk. We had been walking for the whole day. 6 | ABUL BASHAR

The sun was setting now. We did not know how far we travelled, what paths we had taken and crossed, what fields we had left behind, we, a brother and a sister, to reach the estate of Ashor Biswas, my sister’s father-in-law.

Suddenly we saw, on the west of the paddy field, under the shade of a Pakurh tree, something like a tiger-skin shining like a flame in the afternoon sun. It was Goddess Kali, standing under the Pakurh tree, wearing a tiger-skin. Her long blood-red tongue hung out. With an open dagger in her right hand, leaning against the tree, the idol was standing with brass anklets on her feet. It was the Bohurupi shong of Kali, the wandering impersonator. But this was not a familiar sight in this area. Usually Bohurupi people crossed the river to go to the other side.

The winged creature reached near the feet of the Bohurupi. Eyi! Run! Both sister and I screamed as Bohurupi did not notice the scorpion. Startled, a bit scared, Kali suddenly brought down his leg that he was resting on the stump of the tree. Jhom! The anklets jingled. Surprisingly, the Bohurupi remained nonchalant. Who are you, I asked the Bohurupi. Bohurupi said, I am from Munger.

The voice was melodious. The Bohurupi was a woman. Why have you come so far from Munger?

It was not my decision. I have been brought here by the political party. I prepare shells, I make rifles. I organize groups. I give military training to the women of this Murshidabad district. I am a Bohurupi in my spare time. We have been brought 7 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

by the MLA. We - I and my man - are here. Have you noticed the insect?

Insect! What insect! Everybody is an insect here. Where are humans in our country? Everywhere there are swarms of insects. CPM insect, Congress insect, Ferali Party insect. Insects are murdering, insects are raping everyday, everywhere. Thuhh! The Kali spat. What is Ferali Party?

Ferali is the party which gives birth to insects. Then it sends them out. MOO! Now, say with me, Moo! We got slightly giddy with fear. The fear of that arachnid. The fear of this Kali. Scared, we, the brother and the sister, repeated “Moo”.

The Bohurupi said, Move. Move forward mooing. There is the check-post you need to cross. Cattle go through it. For every smuggled cow, they charge five rupees. Now say moo and cross the border.

Why would we need to hide in the herd of cows to go ahead? Where’s the question of a check-post? We weren’t crossing the India-Bangladesh border! We stood amazed, we, the two creatures, a brother and a sister. The bohurupi was fervent, Why aren’t you moving. Go!

She suddenly placed her one foot on the ground. Jhom! The anklets jingled. With the sound we looked at her feet and suddenly discovered that she was a man. Under the kneelength tiger-skin robe his bare legs could be seen. You’d shudder if this figure, now leaning against the tree, 8 | ABUL BASHAR

were to suddenly appear — a worn tiger-striped cloth tied around its waist and the rest covered with cheap black cloth to look like a black-skinned goddess, red cardboard tongue hanging out, an open dagger in one hand, two extra false arms oscillating like springs, anklets jingling with every step. With arrogant strides, the bohurupi from Munger walked through the paddy field. He told us a story before leaving. They, the husband-wife, were brought from Bihar to villages adjacent to the India-Bangladesh border to teach people the art of handling firearms and making bombshells. Initially, they were invited by some notorious local goons. In a big trench dug inside the dense jungle, they made their bomb factory. Soon, villages were full of ammunition from this factory. When the local youths got hold of them, political parties gave them shelter. In this district, even ordinary women knew how to make bombs. Like rolling out bidis, making bombs was a petty art.

They uttered Bismillah and they made bidis and bombs. My sister Ashamantara was not a part of this network. The bohurupi kept talking to us in his thin, effeminate voice. The fields around us reverberated with the anticipation of a dream. Ashmantara was soft by nature. She loved to dream.

These are Dwina Bhabi’s clothes on me, Bhaiya. I have applied her pomade snow on my face too. She gave it to me. She told me to do so. These will snare my husband and arouse his desire, she has assured me. My husband’s storehouse has just been filled with ripe paddy. What aroma must be whirling around fields and the house now! But that Kali has come as a curse on me, I feel. That insect will chew me alive. Will I not 9 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

be taken, Allah? O the Merciful! O the Compassionate!

Quiet, Ashmantara. Hush, my sister! We spoke in whispers, scared. Suddenly the bohurupi sprang up again from inside the rice field. Open dagger in one hand, and a bird-shooing bamboo in the other. We now understood that he was shooing graineating birds off the paddy field.

Disturbed, the reptile-insect, which was inside the field got angry and lashed out its fierce wings. It shot up one foot above the field. Then two feet above. The reptile-scorpion started circling over the acres of Ashmantara’s husband with its open and fierce wings. Then it went up higher. Three feet above the field.

A rustic track had emerged from the forests of Bihar, and after cutting through this district of West Bengal, wended to the other side of the border, Bangladesh. Through this route, rice and other goods were smuggled, cows trafficked. Both the police and the BSF were linked to this network. Following this trail, men who were firearms experts and women skilled in making bombs swarmed to this district from Bihar. Like the locusts who destroy field after paddy field, politics gave birth to insects on the scrotum of village. The villages looked like paddy stalks with insects huddling on the edges of the sheaves. But how Allah created such winged insects, nobody could fathom.

The scorpion was now shrinking with pain, its flesh loosening, its wings distorting, as if they would be torn, snap off. The arachnid slithered and twisted. 10 | ABUL BASHAR

I told my sister, Fear not. When the rice ripens, when the juice thickens inside, our mind goes topsy-turvy with longing. The village becomes the aromatic amorous garden of paradise.

Ashmantara first giggled at this explanation, then became silent with fear. Then the open winged-scorpion rose to the sky, coiled its rear near its mouth and released it like a spring, whistled out a note. It splintered the sky with its sweet and sharp notes. Thousand shades were glittering in the sky, shattering like a mirror. We left the paddy field and moved along the road. Is the check-post this way? Suddenly we heard someone’s footsteps behind. A voice came from behind.

Bhabi, I am now with the Forward Block. I was with the Congress Students’ Union in my college days. But now nobody knows who’s Bush and who’s Saddam! My village has turned into a valley of dacoits. Sworn enemies are now shaking hands.

Startled, we turned back and again saw the bohurupi. He was following us. Ashamantara got fearful. She recognized this bohurupi. It was her brother-in-law. It was Ziaul Haq whose pet name was Pinu. You have been tricking us, Pinu?

Ji. The MLA’s party has demanded four volunteers from the village for the party’s armed forces. They will learn to use firearms. It’s the tax. Ziziya. We will have to pay this tax. They have already taken away seven cows from our cowshed in front of our eyes. The elder brother wants to set up an artillery fac11 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

tory, and wants to barter volunteers with the permission from the MLA. The brother asked me to bring you here. But you did not come to take me, Pinu.

I would have. But, you are too beautiful to be part of this game, Bhabi. The head Musketeer from Munger visits our house every night. I do not want his lecherous eyes fall on you. Who?

He is called the VIP. He is from the most influential political party of Bhagalpur. Come this way.

Saying this, Pinu, the bohurupi, ran away to disappear in the horizon leaving us behind. It was clear that Pinu did not have any interest in bringing in his Bhabi here. And he was not at all pleased at our coming.

Then suddenly we got surrounded by herds of cows. Three tall men in turbans were herding the big cows forward. Being caught in the herds, we also got driven forward along the cattle route by these three men. Whenever we tried to shout to draw attention, our voices got drowned in the moos.

While being herded forward, we noticed the check-post. Beneath a line of trees, there was a level barricade of a bamboo pole. The MLA sat on a stool at the one side of the pole. The whole area was his territory.

As we brother and the sister, could not hear each other’s voice in the non-stop and more overpowering moos, we counted cows. I counted forty eight – tall and short, red and brown, black and white, etc and etc – total count forty eight. A cloud of dust rose to blur our sight. Dust on my beard. Dust on Ashmantara’s oily hair. 12 | ABUL BASHAR

The MLA chewed betel. He pricked his teeth with a toothpick. The MLA smoked 555. Once upon a time, this MLA used to wander around the remotest corners in an ordinary lungi and cheap full-sleeved shirt to collect subscriptions for the party fund. He was a man of the soil then. He always had revolution on his lips. He used to know the land then. Now he had become the captain of the cavalry, a custodian of cartridges. Once upon a time, he used to mimic the nasal voice of iconic Congressman Ajoy Mukherjee. He used to get claps for this skill. That comrade, now MLA, was now a tool-man, he had lost his position on the stage. Stop. The MLA roared.

We halted. The cows halted too. Then the MLA started counting the cows. An eighth class pass-out, he was now a part of the literacy campaign. A believer in the powers of education, the MLA, once the torchbearer of ideology, a party parrot, who once had nothing to lose but the shackles of capitalism, had been the dreamer of revolution. He now counted cows by holding ropes tied to every bovine nose.

After counting the cows, the MLA went back to the stool. MLA on the stool, a cane umbrella across his thighs. He used his fingers to maintain the logbook. A one-eyed junior comrade opened an umbrella to protect MLA’s head from the harsh sun.

In my mind there was a soliloquy. They are Darjal. At the end of the civilization they will reappear on the donkey’s back like Darjal. The donkey will have its right eye blind, and the Darjal his left. There will be two sacks hanging from either 13 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

side of the donkey – one will be heaven and the other hell. One will carry fascism and the other one socialism. Darjal will have kafir written on his forehead. Though the literacy campaign will touch its zenith by then, nobody would be able to decipher the writing. All good books will be destroyed. The whole of Bengal will become a land of pornography. People will read only obscene books by hiding them inside the covers of classics. What will happen then, Ashmantara? How will you go to your husband’s house then? The red alta borders of your feet will be washed away by the acid river. Poisonous dewdrops will wipe off the surma of your eyes. The dust will finally cover and choke the horizon.

The donkey will have a small square box on its forehead. Scenes of heaven will appear on its glass. So will torture scenes of hell. Deathly oil will ooze from the earth and rise up to the sky like a minaret. The guard of the sky, the jinn Azazel, will then be creating a winged-scorpion. Darjal would say, Come. Come. I will show you the short cut to the heaven. Look at the cowering, devastated towns, raped and tortured villages on the glass box. I will send one of you to the sack of socialism, he will rot in the hell created by the MLA. The other one, whom I will send to the sack of fascism, will become a puppet in the market of liberal democracy. Hundred flowers will bloom then, Ashmantara, the wall of Berlin will collapse with one kick of the donkey. Counting, MLA said, Rupees two fifty. Fifty cows at the rate of rupees five. Fifty cows! What kind of counting is this, master! Are you 14 | ABUL BASHAR

counting those ones in the wombs too, the men in turbans pleaded. See. I can’t argue with you. My counting is never wrong. Yes, Master.

On orders, the one eyed umbrella-assistant started counting again. MLA roared at Ashmantara, Hey woman. Stand straight. Finding us standing amidst the cows the assistant counted us too.

Ashmantara shivered, I am the wife of a weak man, Master. I am wretched, like sorrow-loving Sakina. I am Ashmantara. You are my in-laws’ relative, Master. What relative?

You are the nephew of the Panchayat-head! You have us all on your ration list, on the wage-labour list. You are a local committee member! What member?

You are our own caliph. You are the bird of paradise. The phoenix of fire. OK.

Master, we won’t be able to pay rupees five per head, Master. I want to buy dolls from the village market. I will buy sweet sticks.

Hey, my blind slave! Why are you standing dumb? Roared the MLA to the one-eyed assistant. Attack. We need a counterrevolution. Dolls? Sweet sticks! Cheating me on my money! Please spare us. I am married to Hashor Biswas. He is a general body member. 15 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

MLA shuddered with disgust! This girl was defaming his party! He said, the wife of a farmer is using English words! General body! Local committee! Whose wife are you? How can you claim to be his wife? Does your husband feed you? You come like a beggar. Why? Why does your husband deny you? You must have had some faults. Why do you need to come so secretively? Why can’t you claim your in-laws’ house? Tell me. Leave it. Saying this I inserted two fresh five rupee notes on his palm and pulled my sister’s hand. Come, Ashmantara.

The MLA suddenly pronounced the harshest prophesy. Listen. You are sending off your sister to her in-laws, right? Your sister will be sent off to Munger. Where they will feast on her. You bagged your job bartering your sister’s beauty! Now you are doing this! Shame on you! We were struggling on our way among the cows. What a prophesy Allah! Where will I keep my agony!

Yes, I got the job under the MLA quota. But does that mean that my sister’s beauty was a part of the deal? Yes, such beauty does not fit in with poverty. Our lives do not qualify as lives at all!

My sister would buy dolls and sweet sticks, but was she entitled to such small pleasures? For whom did she want to buy these? For the son of her co-wife, Zikira. Oh what an appearance did Zikira have! Stout. Face with dark freckles. Teeth braced in brass wire. Her face was not really ugly, it was rather masculine. A devout lady. She lived a life of tasbih. Her heart was taut with the teachings of the Qur’an. Thus was Zikira. 16 | ABUL BASHAR

Zikira believed that with the strike of his fist the Prophet broke the moon into two halves. The moon, since then, carried the mark of his panja – the Prophetic palm. Zikira showed her son that sacred palm on the moon. She showed him a rocket. The star-like twinkling of Sputnik. Ashmantara put a piece of sweet stick on the palm of the child. Zikira snatched it from his fist and threw it on the dust.

Before this happened, we, the brother and the sister, stood in front of the red brick building of her husband’s house. The herd of the cows went towards Padma river, towards Bangladesh. A huge cloud of dust floated after them. The trafficking agent welcomed them with spread arms. He had the sickle and the star engraved on his forehead.

Then the call of azan from the masjid floated in. Ritualistically, in an unconscious motion, my sister covered her head with the end of her cloth.

Her eyes were moist. I was her father, her mother, her siblings - everything. I knew why she was crying. In dilemma and desire, her heart was trembling. I knew it.

Ashmantara asked, Will there be any place for me, Bhaiya? Look here, Mecca and Medina in two fists of mine. Here is the sweet stick – my home – in one fist. The doll in another – my qaum – lineage. Which one to choose, Bhaiya?

Ashmantara burst into tears. All the parties were welcoming her – the sickle-star Communist party-Congress-Forward Block. Her weapon dealer party-cadre husband was welcoming her. Munger-Bhagalpur was welcoming her. Did she have any choice? I knew exactly what was going to happen to my sister. I 17 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

knew which fate she had chosen from which fist.

Zikira snatched the sweet stick from the son’s fist. Yet, my sister searched for a little corner in this comrade-house to stay. When the husband sat to eat, she rushed to fan him with a palm-leaf. Hashor. The husband is Hashor Biswas. The son of Ashor Biswas. Hashor means roz hashar. Means keyamat. The Day of Judgement. People tremble over the name on judgement day when they are finally destined by Allah to go either to heaven or to hell. At her husband’s name, Ashmantara trembled. She rushed to fan him during a power cut. The husband had a strong and voluptuous body, he sat weightily, his body swelled as he ate and the hair on his body bristled like the fur of a lion. The son lay on the lap of the father. Playing. Sometimes the father put a little rice ball with fish inside the son’s mouth. When Ashmantara started waving the fan, the husband stretched out his left arm to stop her as if stopping a bus on the street.

Ashmantara’s face darkened with humiliation. She had come with utter desperation this time. She had declared to her step-maternal uncle at the time of leaving that this was for the last time that she was leaving her house for the husband’s. Never to return again.

After rinsing his mouth, husband wiped his face with the end of the lungi tied at his waist. He spread his palm for some mouth freshener. When Ashmantara put some on his palm, her husband threw it on the floor. Why do you act like this, the son of Biswas? 18 | ABUL BASHAR

Because you have faults.

What fault do I have, tell me Master.

I don’t know. It’s not easy to tell. You are the houri – the seductress of paradise. The jinns and the farishtas visit you. A woman who grows more and more beautiful day by day, she must have some inherent flaws. She is corrupted by the angles. It’s not easy to tell. Why did you marry me then?

You had cast an evil spell on me. Now I will lose my virility if I have sex with you. I will become impotent. It’s the time of war. Vultures are flying in the sky. I need prowess to defend the enemy. I need inner power to win. I need to keep my semen fertile. You engage in depraved sex with the jinns. A jet plane ran across the sky. The fereshtas were walking in sandals from one star to another. Jackals were screaming at the temple of the goddess of plague. The god Saturn was flanked by the light lit by five cow-traffickers. Three female companions of the baul were inhaling opium.

Zikira was praying the midnight namaz tahzud. She prostrated near a column on her prayer mat. She counted her tasbih and stared hard at another column. Beside that column Ashmantara sat like a wooden statue. Zikira hallucinated an angel in her beauty. Suddenly Zikira sprang up from namaz. Rolling her prayer mat aside she moved forward. She snatched off Ashmantara’s clothes and stripped her torso off in a moment. My sister sat naked. Bare bodied. Mecca in one fist, Medina in another. In the distance, a boat was passing by the dark river. A 19 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

dot of light was twinkling, was moving. Outside, in the courtyard, moonlight was shining everywhere. On that very boat Hashor had brought the newlywed Ashmantara to his house years ago. Now the Forat River had dried up inside the desert. Grabbing Ashmanatara’s hair Zikira pulled her in front of the husband’s room and pushed a half-naked Ashmantara on his closed door. Like a hungry and dumb beast, my sister kept on clawing at the closed door for the whole of the night. The door did not open. Years back my poet friend Masiul wrote a poem which had Ashmantara’s name in it. The galaxy the milky avenues Who walks in golden shoes Shadow of a red star in river water Fireflies twinkle in ash gutter What void what emptiness Water, water the boatman cries Medina-tears tremble to fall What moonlight what a night call

The galaxy the milky avenues Mecca in one, in another Medina The desert cries Sakina Sakina Clothes flatter, Borrak takes flight What a night what moonlight The red star has fallen in the river Fireflies twinkle, a village shivers Golden snake coils away 20 | ABUL BASHAR

A galaxy a milky way Mecca Medina Sakina Sakina In that galaxy, an open winged-scorpion was jumping from one star to another. I just wanted to cry.

There was a sky-ripping sound of bombarding. Repeatedly. Then the MLA’s political party reached on donkeys. Another donkey was from Munger. They shook hands and shouted Inqilab in chorus. They gathered at Hashor’s courtyard. In a simple, straight voice, three musketeers of the Munger team – three gun-maker Darjals - demanded, Send your wife to us, Hashor. Prepare the bed. Zikira prepared the bed in the outhouse carefully. Hashor welcomed these men with tobacco and the three together took my sister in. For the whole of the night they had her together. Two of them left at dawn. One remained. He had fallen asleep.

The husband kept smoking bidi staying awake for the whole night. He kept a vigil sitting near the threshold of the closed door. He asked me in whisper, Awake? Brother-in-law?

My mouth was gagged. They kept me tied up with the berry tree in the courtyard. I am a primary school teacher. I have a maulavi-like countenance. I was a member of Jama’at, now I am a Marxist. I have seen a arachnid that has a pair of open wings. Nobody has ever seen it other than me. The third man had fallen asleep beside Ashmantara. The 21 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

light of bidi snuffed out with the husband falling asleep. Then my sister came out, all scratched, smothered and dishevelled. She latched the door from outside. She expected villagers to punish this man confined by her inside the room. She thought all the people of the village would gather at her cry for justice. She ran from door to door. Wake up, Halsahna. Wake up, Tafadar baba. Wake up, Imam. Wake up, Iman. O Rasul phupha. O Idrish Chacha. Maimon mami. O Harun Bhai. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up, you pests. Get up. Wake up, you insects. Wake up, Ummah. Wake up, Islam. Wake up, qaum.

After going from one door to another, and after getting refused at every door, my sister could not bear it anymore. Breaking into tears, lifting up her frothing thirsty mouth towards the sky, in a hoarse voice she called out, Rise! O scorpion. Exhausted, having no other space to escape Ashmantara returned to her husband’s house and fell asleep beside that man. Nobody responded to her. No human. No beast. No bird.

Light fell through the window. The courtyard started glowing in sunlight. The man, after waking up, went away to the local committee meeting with sunlight smeared on his body. Then they brought a dead body from the paddy field. It was bohurupi Kali, Ashmantara’s brother-in-law. He was murdered by someone unknown. My sister did not cry. She only stared at the wrapped-up body like a retarded person who takes time to react.

At the prayer during the janaja rite – burial ritual, Bhikhupada or Jumman Khan Musketeer came on a black pony. He 22 | ABUL BASHAR

was a VIP of the Munger weapon-making team.

He uttered the words of the last rites after greeting Salam Aleikum hajire janab to the head of the house. Janaja-e-Islam. Bajrang Bajrang, Forward Block-Congress, Congress-Forward Block, Scorpion- fiasco, red-flag hooligan, comrade machine gun, lunatic Arabic, Ababil quadrille, iya nafsi, iya nafsi – Oh Khoda! Iya Allah! And the rite was over.

My sister was still sitting leaning against a column. She did not talk any more. The musketeer placed two muskets at the feet of Hashor. Hashor was shaken. His eyes glistened with grief. His heart growled like clouds with pain over the loss of his brother. Ashmantara was bartered for two muskets. I cried out, Bon, Don’t go.

Like a mad woman, stretching her tied up hands, showing her palms, Ashmantara asked me, which one is Mecca, tell me, Bhaiya. Tell me, Medina is which one. Tell your poet-friend that I, Ashmantara, am not fallen. Ask him not to mourn over nothing. The jinns have corrupted me finally. Those three men I mean. They were not humans.

Then looking at the face of the Husband, Hashor, she waved a salam, and said, Give me talaq, husband. Let me go.

The black pony now crossed the village following the trail to Bihar. Ashmantara, my sister, followed the pony on foot dressed up like a bride. With the sacred touch of the jinn, she would learn to make bombs. Or she would be sold to some Shaikh in Kuwait. Someday the smuggler Shaikh would be 23 | THE OPEN WINGED SCORPION

caught in Bombay by the police and Ashmantara’s photograph would be published as a trafficked woman.

Then, Ashmantara might as well say, he did not force himself upon me. I am his wife, married by the kalma oaths. I am an angel.


The Open-Winged Scorpion - Abul Bashar (Fiction)  
The Open-Winged Scorpion - Abul Bashar (Fiction)