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from the January 2013 issue


Everyone was waiting for a miracle. This time they would see how powerful the Padma really was. Year after year they have witnessed the erosion by the river. Nothing had been spared; the Padma took houses, schools, bazaars, mosques, temples, police stations, telephone offices, farmland, and playgrounds. Everything surrendered to the Padma, even Ministers, MPs, and Presidents. So many came and went shouting loud pledges to halt the erosion, but they were playthings confronted by the Padma’s rage. The river has now reached a point where people say it cannot advance any further. It simply does not have the courage to swallow this house.

That’s because three pirs are sleeping in this compound. Three saints with immense spiritual power.

The Padma has arrived at the edges of the Moulvi House. The house took its name from the man known as Boro Moulvi. A very potent pir. His father was known as Dada Hujoor and his son as Chhoto Moulvi. Long after their deaths, people steadily come to them seeking aid and sympathy. During the dry months when the earth cracks under the blazing sun, have not the people seen how the skies filled up with clouds two days after they poured milk on their shrines? When even Mikael, the angel of the clouds and rains, listens to these saints, how will the Padma have the gumption to destroy their abode? Besides, it’s not as if the river erodes the earth. That too is the work of angels. Under the water lives the Prophet Khizr, the one whom Allah has granted life till the Day of Judgment. It is under his orders that his loyal angels hack away at the earth beneath the water adjoining sin-infested human settlements. How can Khizr possibly give the order to cut away the soil beneath his friends’ graves?

Remember what our elders said? When Sutalori-Azimnagar was faced with the erosion, people tumbled at the feet of Boro Moulvi Shaheb beseeching him to turn the river away. The saint made them agree to obey his every word. He stood on the bank of the Padma and wrote out a letter in Arabic using saffron ink on a sheet of heavenly white paper. Then he called upon the bravest diver in the area. “Take this letter and dive. No matter how painful it gets, do not stop until you come upon one luminous man. When you meet him, give him my salaam, hand him this letter, and bring back his reply.” Had the people not heard the story from the mouth of that diver himself? “Dive I did, descending lower and lower, and it looked like there would be no end to my descent. Out of breath, it felt like I was dying. I calmed myself by recalling the face of Boro Moulvi Shaheb. I can’t remember how long I kept going down—suddenly I discovered that I no longer found it difficult to breathe. I saw houses under the water, along with light and wind, and a man who looked like an angel was sitting comfortably on a cushion. Seeing me, he said, ‘Come, come, my friend has sent you, do you bring good tidings?’ I gave him salaams and offered him Hujoor’s letter, and while he was reading it I sighted thousands of figures as if made of fire cutting away at the earth. Once he finished reading, he ordered them to stop. He said, ‘My friend has sent an emissary, you can stop now. He has written that the people of this area will sin no more. Let’s see you move in another direction.’ Then he turned back to me and said, ‘Please tell my friend that I am doing as he asked.’” Was that just an eyewitness account? Did not the erosion immediately stop at Azimnagar-Sutalori-Dhulshorai?

While the erosion on this side stopped, Lechhraganj was now in dire straits. The people again prostrated themselves at the feet of Boro Moulvi Shaheb. “Hujoor, you turned back the erosion at Sutalori, but on our side we are done for. Please save us.” Once again he sauntered to the bank of the Padma and sent down a letter. But this time the diver returned with a different message. He said, “The man under the water who looks like an angel wanted Hujoor to know that the people of this area commit too many sins. Until these sins stop, he is unable to meet his friend’s request.” What sins, what sins? The prophet did not spell anything out. To find out what sins, the Hujoor sat in meditation. Two days later he opened his mouth.

Facing hundreds of people, he said, “You must avoid three sins.”

“One. The shopkeepers in the bazaar must not cheat customers on their scales, and the milk sellers must not add water.” (The faces of the shopkeepers and milk sellers went dark. Such practices were essential to how they conducted their business. Was there a shopkeeper in the world who didn’t do a bit of cheating on the scales? Was there a milk seller anywhere who did not add a smidgen of water?)

“Two. Adultery and fornication must stop.” (Lovers began to tremble. So did the unfulfilled young wives of farm workers who journeyed far in search of work, and the young widows and wives abandoned by their husbands, and the men they associated with. If fornication was stopped, what pleasure was left in life?)

“Three. There must be no singing, music, jatra, or circus in this area.” (A pall fell upon everyone present. They were riverbank people, and who does not know that song and rivers are bound by a single thread? How could they live without singing?)

Boro Moulvi Shaheb said, “If you avoid these sins, I will turn away the Padma.” Despite misgivings, those present agreed. First let the Padma turn back, then we’ll see about the rest. Perhaps they would again need to bow down at Moulvi Shaheb’s feet and beseech him to at least permit singing and music. He must understand that without song there would be no meaning in their lives. He was one of them after all. Even though people knew that in some distant past some ancestor of Moulvi Shaheb came from Arabia to spread the message of Islam, and in that sense he might be an Arab, but after living here for so many years the people here have some claim upon him.

They made their promise, but in private they began to break their word. The shopkeepers cheated their customers, the milk sellers kept on adding water, even though each time they deviated they silently begged for Hujoor’s forgiveness. Lovers continued their trysts in private and, even more stealthily, those living a few villages distant from Hujoor arranged music sessions. Only circus and jatra parties no longer visited. Alas, the people were ignorant fools. Can such affairs remain hidden from a Hujoor who is friends with the prophet Khizr? The angels themselves brought the news to his ears. Boro Moulvi Shaheb hurled out a curse—this settlement must be destroyed! The people came and lay at his feet, they shed an ocean of tears, they took the names of their fathers and mothers and Allah and Mohammed, and again they gave their word, but Boro Moulvi remained unmoved until his death. The Padma continued to rage.

After Boro Moulvi’s death, the people thronged to Chhoto Moulvi, but he turned them away saying he didn’t like intervening on others’ behalf. His personality was entirely different from his father’s. Once or twice he went to the Padma and scolded it, “Hey stop now.” The Padma even stopped for a while. Within a year or two, it began to destroy again, but Chhoto Moulvi never felt up to scolding the river again. There came a time when the people of this area accepted the river’s erosion as inevitable.

But today is a new day. “Fucking river, you’ve eaten everything and come so far, let’s see if you have the guts to break some more.” Now Khizr has no choice but to bar his angels. His friends are sleeping here, and even though the river has eaten miles upon miles, let’s see it eat away these three and a half cubits of earth.

Now you just see how Chhoto Moulvi halts everything with a single shout!

For Minhaj, whose name had eroded down to Mina, the wait for the miracle is different. Today he is the only year-round resident of this house. The descendents of the Hujoors are now city dwellers. Instead of following the “Arabic line,” they are studying English, and with education and respectable jobs they have became “shahebs.” Finding the emptiness of the house painful, Mina tries as best as he can to preserve the grace of the house. In return he is assured food and shelter. Until now, he believed that he would spend the rest of his life here, and when he died he hoped that Allah would grant him a corner in the family graveyard. He has heard that in a graveyard where there lies a single saint the other residents avoid the punishment of the grave*. Not just one but three saints are sleeping here. Allah would not only put aside the punishment of the grave but he might even disregard punishment for Mina’s sins. Should the house break up, though, where could he find shelter?

Though he doesn’t understand a lot of things, he wonders, why should the house not collapse? The Padma erodes everything, why would it leave this house alone? And why did Boro Shaheb come from the city and sell off all the trees for a mere pittance? Suspicion has grown in Minhaj’s mind making him wonder what is real, what is not. People call him Mina the Dolt. There are many things in life that have remained mysteries to him, and now here was another.

Minhaj had a brother but with marriage he had turned into a different person. They used to have a home near Lechhraganj, with some land to farm. Mina might not have been able to do much else but he could slog like a mule. For this he received some affection from his brother and sister-in-law. That house and land fell into the river. Afterward they were only able to afford just enough land upon which to build a hut in this village. What else could the brothers do now but hire themselves out to work? As a day laborer, Mina was in demand, but where could he find work for the whole year? Especially in the monsoon season, when people sit around idly, who would give work to Mina? He had to bear his sister-in-law’s constant abuse. “My bones are turning black from feeding this idle mule who just sits around. The goat won’t even die.” Even though he sometimes wished for death, Azrael did not listen to him. Not being able to take it any longer, Mina left the house in a huff. But where could he go?

If Boro Shaheb had not called and given him refuge, he had no alternative but to tie a kolshi to his neck and drown in the river. This was more than a roof over his head. He took on the responsibility of looking after the house and in return he was able to feed himself through the whole year. The compound had many fruit trees, and even if he sold off mangoes, jaam, jackfruit, coconuts, custard apples, pomelos, papayas, dates, and betel nuts, the shaheb did not say anything. The shahebs were only interested in selling the harvest. Minhaj lives quite well and after settling his accounts he manages to save two to three thousand takas a year. He once tried to give that money to Boro Shaheb. The shaheb was happy. “You’ve saved so much, Mina! Excellent job! But keep it and give yourself a treat.” Mina had a hard time grasping how the shaheb could give him all that money. And it struck him, these were not humans but angels. Not just Boro Shaheb, but the younger siblings and even their children, too, were like angels. Though they look and sound like royalty, whenever they come to the village they mix so easily with the people that even if they come once a year the villagers remain enchanted by those visits. And when they call him “Mina Bhai,” his heart swells with joy. Mina had found a life of comfort and ease. Now the haramzada river had to come and ruin everything. It has reached the door of the house and still its hunger is not satisfied.

The people’s faith has convinced him the hujoors will push away the water. Still, why is there a foreboding in his mind? Why is it that that now and then the thought strikes him that this demon Padma will not heed the hujoors? He shudders at these thoughts, and he worries that if the hujoors sense what's going through his mind, then it will be disaster for sure. Mina has been thrown into utter confusion by Boro Shaheb coming to sell off the trees. Nearly everyone has come, the younger shahebs, some of the children, even the shahebs’ mother in her old age. Everyone has tears in their eyes. If the house will not collapse, why do they cry?

Sometimes I feel proud that, simply for being the son of this house, I have received respect and love from the people. There is also a sense of guilt, though. It feels as if we are unjustly receiving their love. There isn’t anything special about us. My grandfather was a pir. I question where this property of ours came from. My ancestors were outsiders here. They had been residents of Faridpur. It was after that ancient homestead fell into the Padma that my grandfather came and settled on this side of the river. How did a family eaten away by the river come to accumulate so much wealth? Neither Baba nor Dada had any particular profession. Does it not mean then that this property we are so shamelessly enjoying has come from the donations of their followers? It’s good that we have not followed in their footsteps—thanks to Baba. He was the first to encourage Boro Bhai to embrace modern education, and Boro Bhai continued that practice with us. Since we didn’t follow our father and grandfather, we are no longer “Moulvi” but “Shaheb.” Though I am merely a university student, I am Chhoto Shaheb to the people. They have some hard feelings toward us for straying from the path, but they should have really felt that way toward our ancestors. They harbor some outlandish and irrational beliefs. Take the matter of the river’s erosion. They really believe that the Padma will stop at the edge of this house because the prophet known as Khizr who lives underwater and arranges the river’s erosion is a friend of those people!

River erosion is a geological matter—there’s nothing supernatural here. Where the current is strong, the soil crumbles away and the land on the surface becomes unstable. But who will explain this to these people? The erosion can only be stopped if we can redirect the current by building an embankment. Not only would erosion be stopped but also large numbers of people would be freed from superstition.

Perhaps within a day or two these graves will be swallowed by the river. The ferocity of the current suggests that this erosion cannot easily be stopped. I shiver at the thought of the catastrophe that awaits thousands of people.

The Padma is lapping at the boundaries of our land. Since the house is huge, it will take time for all of it to be washed away. The river is now approaching the southern end. The mosque will be the first to go. Then our family graveyard, where lie the supposed powerful men.

In younger days I would go far to take a look at the erosion. It was fun. I did not understand the people’s laments. Now perhaps I can empathize because our own home is about to disappear. This is no doubt connected to the loss of our property. The harvest from our land meets our needs for the year and still leaves a surplus. If we were living here instead of Dhaka, this loss would turn us into beggars. That’s what the people of the village face. When they lose their houses and land, well-off peasants turn into poor day laborers. Being city dwellers we will avoid this fate, but another loss we shall never be able to overcome.

My siblings and I spent our childhood here. We have so many memories attached to this house, so many dreams, laughter, and tears. Every tree in this house I know, every particle of dust is dear to me. My roots are buried in this village. With deep affection I have been embraced by every pathway through the fields, by every bird, leaf, field, river, and person. Where else will I find such love? This house and village were our refuge. When we came here escaping the difficulties of life in the city, the mind would find peace here. The end of the house will rip us from our roots. He who has no home really has nothing at all. From now on we will no longer have a permanent address, there will be no place to return. Perhaps when tomorrow comes Baba’s grave will fall into the water.

Even before the morning is over, a story about a dream spreads among the people.

Kanu’s mother had a dream—Boro Moulvi and Chhoto Moulvi were locked in argument. Boro Moulvi doesn’t want to live here anymore—the people of this area sin too much. Yet Chhoto Moulvi wants to stay—no matter how sinful the locals are, this is his home. Where is there no sin?

This dream quickly becomes the sole topic of discussion everywhere. Dread and hope throw the people into confusion. Should the father win the debate, then all hope is finished. But if the son wins, they will stay and this village will survive. It is hard to say who will win. One could get a sense if the grandfather’s opinion is known. If he takes the side of his grandson, then of course Boro Moulvi would not think of leaving without his father and son. What is to be done? Hujoor is still angry at them—could something be done to calm him down? They already take Boro Moulvi’s name first in everything. New couples touch his grave before anyone else’s, newborns are brought here and laid at his feet, sick people take some earth from his grave and rub it on their bodies, and even a newly dead person is brought here and laid beside the grave. Yet his anger did not fade. Meanwhile, all his life Chhoto Moulvi kept them distant by shouting at them, but at this time of danger it is he who stands by them!

In the bazaar, fields, in and out of homes—only this is talked about. Finally they take a decision—they must go to Boro Moulvi and shed plentiful tears, beg forgiveness, and beseech him not to go.

This house has now begun to yield. Half the mosque is gone, then it will be the graveyard. We are all standing nearby. This is our last glimpse. It seems as if all this time our father, grandfather and grandmother were really here. We could get some comfort by being able to visit their graves. Today all will disappear into the belly of this hungry river. There is no more doubt that today will be the last time I see Baba’s grave. I can’t look at Ma. She had come to this house as a new wife and birthed her children here. After Baba’s death we took her to the city. But she would often get restless to return. There’s no one here, yet why did she yearn so much to come here? I understood when I saw her sitting quietly by Baba’s graveside. From now on she will no longer have that place of her own.

Suddenly I behold a procession of hundreds marching toward this house. Do they, like us, also want to be eyewitnesses? No. They come and fall on the ground. The air fills with their cries. They are praying to Dada so that he doesn’t leave. We too are overwhelmed. Ma is crying, my brothers are crying, their children are crying, and Mina Bhai is also crying. Strangely, I who was not able to cry at Baba’s death find that I can no longer keep my eyes dry.

I have doubts about the existence of someone like Ishwar or Allah. Even if he exists, does he stir when he hears people’s cries? Baba used to say, “No matter where his slave calls upon him, Allah always responds to that call.” If that be true, then does he not hear the howls of these hundreds of people? Can he not turn the current in another direction?

Forgetting my doubts, I find myself thinking, “Oh Allah, please save us. Turn the Padma away, slow down its flow.”

Today everyone has heard of a dream. Perhaps that’s why thousands are streaming here, some on boats, others on their feet. The people of ten villages have arrived to break down here. They will simply not allow their Boro Moulvi to abandon this place.

The word has spread in all directions—the Moulvi House is not breaking up. Three days have passed since the Padma halted just as it reached the grave of Boro Moulvi. The mosque has gone but the grave hasn’t. Though the fear has not entirely disappeared, people have had their hopes raised. Boro Moulvi has heard their prayers!

In the end, the curtain fell on this intense anticipation. This morning Baba’s grave was washed away. I had never believed in miracles, but even I had come to wonder, was I about to witness one? For three days the Padma’s erosion had stopped yet neither the direction nor the flow of the current had changed. The people had convinced themselves that the tyranny of the Padma was over, but I was not free of doubt. I was waiting—my heart bursting inside—for the moment when Baba’s grave would fall. But it wasn’t as if a hope had not arisen inside me at the same time.

In the end, that expectation had to give way.

We had to watch as the memorials of our ancestors fell into the womb of the river. Because the graves were cemented side by side, they fell into the river together. Ma held me tight and burst into tears. “Nothing of mine is left, Son, what will I live with now?” With no mementoes or roots, what is a person left with?

Now I understand why the graves did not fall for three days. The river erodes in two ways, sometimes in small bites, other times taking huge chomps. It all depends on the soil. Hope had obscured that simple thought. And because of the disappointment, the emptiness has now become even bleaker.

Tomorrow we will leave—forever. We have become displaced people. Can a rented house in Dhaka ever be one’s rightful address?

How bad everything feels, to leave behind my childhood and teenage years. There will be no return.

Who knows us in the city? Here the people of ten villages embraced us with their love. We are losing them forever. And such an extraordinary person like Mina Bhai who is closer to us than a relative. He fulfilled so many demands and cravings of mine with a smile on his face. This simple man who we have always seen cheerful is now struck dumb with melancholy.

All day people passed through the house. They were newly overcome with grief at the thought that we would never come back. They demanded that we not forget them, that we must visit. But I know that we shall not be returning. Why would we come to cultivate grief in this mournful emptiness?

Minhaj is alone in this hollow shell of a house. All day long, more of the house fell into the water. It will take a week for all of it to go. Minhaj has decided he will stay till the end. With the trees gone, the compound looks shorn, but the building still stands. How could he leave that behind? But in a few days when this too shall fall, where will he go? All day Minhaj has only thought about this. In the morning when everyone took their leave, he howled in grief, but afterward only this one thought runs through him: where will he go?

It is night now. It is hard to sleep with the roar of the Padma in his ears. And because of the rain. Minhaj gets up and lights a bidi. Opening the door he comes to the veranda and squats in one corner to urinate. He shivers as he is assaulted by the spray of the rain and the biting wind coming from the river. Still Minhaj sits.

Now and then he coughs, and phlegm from an old worn-out chest rises with the cough. Still Minhaj continues to sit and puffs at his bidi while getting wet in the rain. He cannot fathom where he can go.

Not far away, the Padma rages, loud, ferocious, and angry.

“You ate so much, still your rage won’t leave—haramzadi river! What else do you want? You devoured the graves of the Moulvi Shahebs. What else do you want? What will fill your belly, you whore of a river? What do you crave to eat? Tell me!” Minhaj is now sobbing. “Tell me! Do you want me? Do you want to eat me? Will your belly be full if you eat me? Tell me, whore, is it me that you want to eat?” 

* In the way Islam conceives the post-death experience, the spirits of most who die re-enter the dead body in the grave and are confronted by two angels who carry a full accounting of all sins committed by the person. Depending on the spirit’s answers, the person is subject to torments of different kinds until the Day of Judgement. In Islamic funerals, imams often vividly describe these punishments and ask for prayers to Allah to grant the sinner mercy and make the grave a comfortable place and allow the spirit to lie at rest without endless torments.

© Ahmad Mostofa Kamal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Mahmud Rahman. All rights reserved.

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