Khalamma was married off at eleven. The groom was an adult, though. He had enlisted in the army while a student at Islamia College in Calcutta. The British had just opened up fronts against Japan and Germany, and soldiers were in great demand. He had been granted five days’ leave to get his guardian’s permission before joining the training camp at Jamshedpur. The wedding took place three days into his leave. Clad in a traditional dhoti-piran and Bidyashagori slippers, he scuttled like a foppish pigeon from one yard to another at his in-laws’ house. As though all the wicked brothers- and sisters-in-law weren’t enough, even the married women, usually confined indoors, proved to be a menace. The groom’s day passed shaking frogs off the pleats of his dhoti and being tricked into swallowing salty drinks. He was made to sleep in a separate hut, sharing the bed with his father for two nights. As he packed his luggage and piled it on a bullock cart, two elderly ladies dragged the bride to the front of the cart.
The house was full of people. The bride touched her husband’s feet ceremonially before disappearing quickly. They would have no opportunity to see each other again before he left. However, even before the marks left by the wheels had been obliterated, a wave of letters addressed to the bride began to flood the house.
A week or so after the wedding, when Khalamma began to move about the neighbourhood again, her husband was marching at the training camp. Every time he recollected how his wife had gazed into his eyes during the Mishtimukh ceremony at the wedding, he fell out of step, paying no attention to the commands of ‘fall in’. Gradually, almost the entire company was in disarray, the punishment for the guilty being a ‘double march’ under the blazing sun.
But Khalamma’s husband’s letters to her made no mention of such punishment. Lying on a raised pallet inside a tent in Jamshedpur, he wrote to his wife of marching around the harsh terrain of the foothills, or of emptying his plate of the daal and roti served to them and then washing up in the muddy river. Eight of them squeezed into a 180-pound tent. Their so-called beds were nothing but an iron frame, a sheet and a rickety cot strung with rope. While the enlisted men had to be in bed by the clock, the White sahibs had no such restrictions. They drank like fish and groped the Anglo-Indian nurses by the flickering light of petromax lamps, in full view of the canteen boys.
Khalamma found these letters difficult to decipher. The words were often unknown to her, straining her jaws as she tried to pronounce them. And this despite the fact that she had read and digested classics like Anowara and Johora at a young age. Nanajan – our grandfather, her father – would plant himself at the door, brandishing a cane, while Moulvi Sahib read out the Bangla translation of the Urdu work Beheshti Jeor to the three sisters. There was no opportunity for slacking or inattentiveness.
Unable to make any sense of her husband’s letters despite all the learning she had gleaned from books, a claustrophobic Khalamma felt her devotion for her husband growing every night. Every letter grew more valuable. With marriage, the restrictions imposed by her parents had been loosened, for the responsibility for a married woman’s transgressions lay with her husband. Now nothing came in the way of Khalamma’s swimming in half-filled ponds or climbing trees with her sari or skirt bunched around her waist. Even when she slipped out through the back door to gallivant, our grandmother would merely look up at the sky, as though calculating when to water her culantros and yams. It was enough so long as her daughter returned home in time.
However, this sudden freedom meant nothing to Khalamma. It seemed nothing but a waste of time, fit for only a child’s games. She cooped herself up in her room for a few days. By the time she broke out of her hibernation to stand by the door again, the bundle of letters hidden beneath her pillow, her husband was on his way to Jalandhar by train. He was on the Punjab Mail. The station lights had not yet been darkened because of the blackout, nor had the baffle wall outside the station-master’s door been constructed. The soldiers had to go on parade during breaks in the journey. While Khalamma’s husband and his company pounded the earth of Ambala with their feet, the Nazi general Rommel, who later earned the infamous sobriquet of Desert Fox for his sudden attacks, was at the door of north Africa.
Back then the division headquarters was at the town of Jalandhar in Punjab state. Nobody knew which front they would be posted on. Only when he boarded the train to Karachi did Khalamma’s husband realise that he was being despatched to fight the Germans and not the Japanese. As a college student he had been fascinated by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, but now his dreams of joining Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj on the eastern front were shattered. Passing a sleepless night in the swaying third-class compartment, he crossed several unknown towns in the Sindh basin, the sweet and sour taste of lemonade on his tongue. The letters from Karachi talked of the four of them dipping their rotis into a common bowl of mutton soup for their meals. It was delicious, but some rice would have made it even better. Every afternoon the soldiers would spend their own money on rabri, warm milk and sweets at the teashop adjoining the barracks. But life did not go on long this way. In his next letter, he said that they were now on a ship, sailing away from the camp with its clay-lined barracks. Along with tents, firearms and rations, horses and mules from the transport department were part of the cargo. A soldier’s life was nothing but nomadic. This, perhaps, was the misfortune.
But whose misfortune? Was it the soldier’s or Khalamma’s? Khalamma’s husband travelled onward, pictures of an unknown land in his head, but sailing away from land meant the end of his dreams. He seemed to have reached the edge of the earth. Khalamma remained anxious until her husband had disembarked from his ship and arrived at the date palm groves by the Shatt-el-Arab.
Meanwhile, she had experienced her first menstrual periods. Her troubles just seemed to mount. It felt like an illness sucking all the strength out of her body. A botheration every month! Who wanted constant and unsolicited advice from their mother and elder sisters? The only person she could have confided in was at the port of Basra. Now that he was directly participating in the war, he had an extra allowance of Taka five over and above his monthly salary – besides double rations and free postage. And he had an identity disc slung around his neck for identification in case he was killed or wounded in action. The thick walls of her house closed in on Khalamma like the bunkers her husband described. A freezing wind blowing from the darkest corner of the room brought in the stench of dead rats in the bunkers.
For us, however, it was a house of dreams. There was nothing quite as enjoyable as visiting our mother’s family home during both the summer and winter vacations. To me, vacations are still about entering a shaded, clean courtyard, dragging my bags behind me, and then leaping on to the porch bordered by a hedge of jasmine, gardenia, and other fragrant blossoms. I remember the house feeling like a case despite its high ceilings, simply because there were not enough windows. The stilled air was suffused with the aroma of our favourite food. We avoided being indoors while there was daylight, preferring to go rowing on the nearby rivers and canals. We returned in the evening with the smell of fish clinging to our bodies, necklaces strung with lilies around our necks, and the folds of our clothes loaded with water fruits with thorny skins.
We tried not to enter the room at daytime. We rather wandered around canals and rivers by boats, and returned home in the evening with the smell of fish in the body, wringing lilies around neck like garlands, and with thorny water fruits gathered in the folds of our dresses.
When our grandfather was still alive, there would always be boats moored at the ghat, stronger and gleaming after being washed down with the juice of ebony fruits. Well-built boatmen were employed round the year. But as soon as a girl had turned eight, she was no longer allowed to got out in a boat. Climbing the stairs behind the kitchen, we could see our uncles’ – mother’s brothers – study. As soon as the exams came round, they moved into this room, even eating and sleeping in there, and shaving in front of a mirror hung on the wall. Sitting on the cot, you could reach out through the thin iron bars on the window to pick seasonal mangoes and guavas from the trees outside. A patch of azure sky was visible through the leaves. Now, though, the house was practically abandoned, the staircase crumbling, weeds and peepul vines sprouting in the cracks between bricks. As children, we used to play cooking games here with the red dust of the bricks.
This was where Khalamma had spent the restless, war-torn days, spreading chaos and noise wherever she went. Her sole intention seemed to be to disrupt her older brothers’ preparations for their exams. Complaints were frequently launched to Nanajan. Just as he was hatching a plan to send Khalamma to her in-laws, they heard that her mother-in-law had died. Khalamma’s husband was his parents’ only son. There was no one to cook even a plate of rice for her father-in-law. And so, at the age of twelve, Khalamma’s address changed. In fact, her entire life changed. The burden of a home fell on her shoulders – everything from the kitchen to the barn. Even the envelopes that came by mail began to be acquire turmeric stains. Khalamma had neither the time nor the opportunity to read the letters during the day. Kerosene had also disappeared from the markets. At night, as soon as she unfolded the letters by the light of the castor-oil lamp, her father-in-law would begin his noisy lamentations – as loud and woeful as the traditional mourning cries of ‘Hai Hassan, hai Hussain,’ at Muharram – on the other side of the bamboo-pulp partition. ‘This daughter of Bhuiya’s will kill me,’ he wailed, referring to Khalamma.
Frequent blackouts plunged all the big cities – wherever there were electric lights – into darkness at this time. These places were the targets of Japanese bombs. But weren’t her miserly father-in-law’s tyrannical rants just as bad? Khalamma smeared carbon soot on the upper half of the glass funnel of the oil lamp to improvise a blackout cover. Everyone was worked up about it all day, but at night she realised it was a waste of effort. The writer of the letter she held open to read beneath the lamp seemed to have changed completely, his life-size figure shrinking like a balloon pierced with a pin.
And yet, Khalamma’s husband’s heart had danced with joy on reaching the Shatt Al-Arab. The holy waters of the Dijla and the Euphrates met here. There was an expansive forest of date trees along the bank. Hazrat Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) favourite fruit, although yet to ripen, looked luscious. As the tents were raised in the desert sands and trenches dug, he didn’t even realise when his happiness was replaced by anxiety. Nazis or Fascists, regardless of who was controlling the troops from the background, the approaching enemy comprised his religious as well as racial compatriots. The bullets from Khalamma’s husband’s company would make the blood flow from brothers with the same god; they too were fighting against British supremacy. Hadn’t Amin Al-Hussaini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, flown to Baghdad to give the call for a holy war?
There were soldiers everywhere in Basra. Rashid Ali, the leader of the recently-installed anti-English National Defence government, didn’t have the authority to make a move. As a result, they had to stay at Basra for several days. Some of them got sunstroke while others were bitten by small flies which caused sandfly fever. Once they crossed the Euphrates by boat, the starkness of the desert became visible. It felt even warmer owing to the war. The battalion was sweatier in its uniforms. Nazaf and Karbala were on the way to the battlefield. Hazrat Ali’s grave was in Nazaf and Imam Hossain’s in Karbala. They were not given permission to visit these holy places. Iraqi forces were fighting intensely at Fallujah and Habbania. And many of them were dying from the air-raid conducted by British forces. The sight of the ravaged bunkers, blood-stained headgear, broken swords, body parts strewn around the streets of Fallujah poisoned the soldiers’ minds even more. Their consciences were ripped apart.
What was the difference between Arab Nationalist Rashid Ali and Netaji? Both of them wanted to join hands with the Axis to uproot the British. Both of them wore spectacles with rolled gold frames. Netaji was clean-shaven, but Rashid Ali sported a butterfly moustache like Hitler’s. All roads to Baghdad were sealed. Riding into the city in their armoured cars, the troops heard that Rashid Ali had escaped to Persia. The Mufti had left with him too. The ordinary people and soldiers of Iraq were attacking the Jews of Baghdad. The Mufti announced a war against the rehabilitation of Jews in Palestine, and it was crystal clear why he had aligned himself with Hitler.
Lying inside his tent, Khalamma’s husband thought of himself as a lowly worm, a servant in uniform who had no rights over his own body and soul. His countrymen were dying in a famine engineered by the English. Japanese battalions were advancing across the mountains, forests and towns – they had passed the city of Imphal already. The fall of Kohima was just a matter of time. The war had affected nobody but the natives – what were their lives worth anyway? Seething in anger, Khalamma’s husband recalled his friends from Baker Hostel in Calcutta, who used to walk along Theatre Road dreaming of driving the British out of India using British firearms. Instead they had now been cast in the mould of obedient soldiers from one war-front to another.
He had no opportunity to express such extreme views in his letters. The gentle, desirable face of a nameless male companion began to make fleeting appearances. This man polished Khalamma’s husband’s boots with great care, folded his uniform away beneath the mattress, tied his bootlaces and even adjusted the chin-strap of his helmet carefully, packing his rations in a tin and putting it in his haversack during night-duty.
Still, Khalamma’s husband wrote to her from the front with the regularity of the Desert Fox. His khaki uniform concealed a poetic soul. Initially the letters would contain descriptions of a beautiful scene observed through the train window – a caravan of camels in the desert, an abandoned inn of rough-hewn stone from another era, the iridiscent feathers of an unknown bird skimming the water of a river. When a golden glow appeared in the dusty, coppery desert during the ripening of dates, he would write – my heart is restless. Glistening fields of corn, trees laden with pomegranates, pears and red dates. Very rarely would there be descriptions of darkened bunkers or of warplanes approaching to the wails of sirens.
The puppet government of the British was reinstalled after the Anglo-Iraq War. For the rest of the war Khalamma’s husband’s company shuttled back and forth between Iraq and Syria in a bid to guard the plunderers’ loot.
Curving around north-west Syria, the border of Turkey stretched from Aleppo to Mosul and Baghdad. There was a shrine of the Prophet Yunus (peace be unto him) in Mosul. When Khalamma’s husband entered it, leaving his uniform and weapons outside, he didn’t feel like emerging again. The place felt as safe as the stomach of a whale, far away from the battlefield.
By then Khalamma would be sniffing for the presence of her husband’s companion in the folds of his letters. Efficient and, moreover, a man, he would be able to take good care of the cow and calf, were he to accompany her husband home. He would cut the grass, or even drag out the boat submerged in the pond to row to rivers further away and fetch her hyacinths.
This is an extract from the short story The Limits of Love translated from Bangla into English, in the presence of the author Shaheen Akhtar, at the first literary translation workshop hosted by the Dhaka Translation Centre, in partnership with Commonwealth Writers, English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation. The translators were Pushpita Alam, Marzia Rahman, Mohammad Mahmudul Haque, Nusrat Anwar, Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat, Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman, Rifat Islam Esha, Arifa Ghani Rahman, Syeda Nur-E-Royhan and Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, led by Arunava Sinha. You can read about the workshop here.