Tales of Flowers, Trees and Birds

First instalment of serialized novel in translation

(Translated by Ahmed Sofa, Mary Frances Dunham and Salimullah Khan)

In 1993, around the month of August, I moved into this garret-like apartment on the fourth floor of a building. My friends had said to me: “There’s a fourth floor apartment available. Why don’t you go and see if it suits you.” “What’s the use in my going back and forth?” I answered. “Since a place is available, you can settle things for me.” 

My people settled the rent with the landlord. After the sum was agreed upon, they induced him to lower the advance payment to three months instead of six. But when it came to discussing the contract, the gentleman introduced complications. He made it a point that he was not going to rent the garret without talking to the person who would live in it. My friends returned and reported what he had said. “It’s not far,” they told me. “Only three houses away. Wouldn’t you like to go there and settle the contract?”

I answered unequivocally: “If I happen not to like the flat, or if I fail to reach an agreement with the landlord, this whole renting affair is not going to materialize. It is you who wish me to leave my present home, sending me elsewhere, so that you can have my place. This won’t be possible. I have a better idea. Why don’t you go to the landlord and invite him to come over here with you? Then we can discuss the matter here.”

Later I began to have doubts as to whether the landlord would consent to cross the threshold of my monkish cell just to honor the whim of a would-be tenant. But, when my people returned, they reported that the next morning my future landlord would go to the mosque for morning prayers. After praying, he would return home for breakfast. After breakfast he would step out for his morning walk. On his way back home, he would stop by and talk with me. They recited the landlord’s morning schedule in full detail. From this report I imagined that the landlord-sahib must be quite a fastidious person. 

So, my future landlord would be presenting himself the very next morning! This momentous news engendered extra chores for me that night. I set about cleaning the dust that had accumulated in my room during the week. With a long-handled broom I swept the cobwebs from the walls. I arranged my books neatly on the shelves. I collected all my worn clothes that lay scattered about and I sent them off to the laundry. I straightened out the rest of the clothes and put them on the  rack. I replaced the old bed sheet with a new one and I did not forget to change the pillow cases. 

That night I was in such turmoil that I was unable to sleep. The next morning, my new landlord would be coming to talk with his prospective tenant! If he disliked my present residence, there was a fair chance he would not rent his attic to me. I rose early and  shaved my beard properly. I took a shower and put on a freshly pressed pajama and a panjabi. I remembered that the landlord was a pious man, devoted to Allah, and a man who walked quite some distance to reach a mosque for prayers. I brought out the prayer cap that I had purchased last year . I blew into its fold to swell it up and put it carefully on the table. As soon as the landlord saw it, I thought, he would consider me a dutiful person both in faith and practice. This good impression might then encourage him to rent his place to me. 

After breakfast I waited anxiously. At last my future landlord made his appearance. I got up to greet him. Holding his hand with respect, I guided him to a chair. He sat down and let his eyes roam slowly over everything in the room. It seemed to me that his eyes from behind the powerful lenses of his glasses penetrated every corner of my room. I felt quite pleased; all the cleaning and sweeping of the previous night had not been in vain. 

This landlord was a very tall and thin person—so thin that should the wind strike him while he walked, it seemed, he might break in two. On that morning he was wearing a maroon panjabi and of course his head was adorned with a prayer cap. He was chewing paan, keeping it well at the back of his mouth. Unless you watched him carefully, you would not notice it. He spoke in a quiet voice. He wanted to know how much I earned in a month. In order to assure him that the rent would be paid in time, I gave him a figure three times higher than my real salary. Then he asked: “How many of you are going to live there?” I answered: “Myself, my nephew and another young man—three people for now.” The landlord told that if the number of occupants exceeded three, he would not rent this place to me. 

At that moment the dear landlady of my current residence appeared at the door. As she lived close by in the neighborhood, she knew this landlord well. She said to him, “Why are you saying that you won’t allow more than three people in your flat? The previous tenant in that place had a family of six or seven members. I used to see them from my roof while drying clothes.” 

My would-be landlord saw no point in answering her. He turned his attention to me: “Where is your wife?” I told him that I did not have a wife . He expressed his sympathy with a clucking sound. As he still had paan in his mouth, he could not utter his sentences clearly, so he stepped outside to spit the juice. After this he inquired, “When did she die? How long ago?” I answered: “I am not married. So how would anybody die?”

When the landlord heard this, he stiffened in his chair. Then he spoke with faltering words: “It is not customary to rent the apartment to a bachelor.  I said, “Why talk of customs? If you wish to rent your place to me, I will come to live in it. If you don’t, I won’t. That’s all there is to it.” After pondering a while, the landlord replied, “You must understand, I live in the same building with my whole family—with sons and daughters. If I take a bachelor in my building, what if something bad happens? And there are neighbors to consider. They may have objections. It’s a complicated affair.” I answered: “Well, since I am not married, I knew this issue would arise. I believe I have answered all your queries. Now it is up to you—do as you please.” 

The landlord answered, “It is not so easy to rent an apartment to a bachelor. I shall have to talk it over with my wife and sons.” My landlady spoke up: “There’s nothing to consult about. Just rent your place! Where will you get such a peaceful tenant as this man? He has been living in my building for the past three years. Has any neighbor ever said anything against him?” Hearing my landlady, the landlord seemed to come half-way toward assenting. So he ventured, “Well, if…” only to be interrupted by my landlady: “What’s this confusion about? Just settle the deal without worrying about it at all.” 

Perhaps the landlord was desperate to get a tenant, so he agreed. This time he spoke completely in English: “Before you take the possession, terms andconditions—everything must be mentioned in the agreement.” When I heard him speak English, I enquired where he used to work. “It’s beenfive years since I retired as a Section Officer in the Ministry of Education,” he replied. 

The agreement was finalized and three months rent paid in advance. Now my friends insisted: “You see, everything has been settled. Go take a look at the place sometime.” I refused to budge one bit from my original position: “I have told you, on seeing the place, if I do not like it, I will not go to live there. I will not bother about the agreement that has been reached. But you can start shifting my things.” 

My people worked all day long to move my belongings to the fourth floor. Upon carrying my cot, bedding, table, kitchen utensils, the refrigerator, the clothes-rack, shelves and even toiletries  to the attic, they informed me that the big cane bedstead could not be moved up because the staircase was too narrow. “That’s not really my concern. You must find a way out for yourselves.” 

Then one of them went to the market and came back with a long coil of rope. They fastened one end to the bedstead and hoisted it to the fourth floor terrace. Having arranged everything on their own, they came to me and said, “All is ready now. You can go there.” They delivered the key to me and one of them stayed back to accompany me. 

I felt like crying. I had lived here for three years. It seemed that everyone was conspiring to eject me onto a ground for butchering. In the yard of this house, I had planted the sapling of an apple tree and a cutting from a grape-vine. I had brought them from far-away places and with great care. By now the sapling had grown tall with abundant branches and leaves. There was a jasmine plant on which pure white buds had begun to flower. I had recently added an evening creeper. If for some reason I woke up from sleep in the early hours of any morning, I would go quietly to caress the grape-vine as it stretched its head skyward. I would whisper endearments in the ear of the apple tree. I believe with all my heart that these little plants understood the language of my affection. I now approached the apple tree and spoke softly to it: “Today I am going to leave this house. Who is going to look after you, my dear grape-vine? My dear apple tree? Who is going to take care of you all?” I was grief-stricken. I watered their roots for the last time. 

My people said: “Everything is in perfect order. Now, if you want, you can go and sleep in there.” I put on clean trousers and my best shirt. I took my umbrella as if I were going to visit some far-off country. Finally I left my old home and came to my new fourth-floor apartment on the roof-top only three houses away. 

I decided that I would not check on anything that night because I was afraid that if the apartment did not please me, I would feel depressed. My heart was still moored to my previous residence. I took off my sandals, lay down on my bed and began to read a novel. I tried to imagine that I was still in my previous home and fell asleep while reading the novel. 

The next morning, when I woke up, it seemed that I had come to a new country. I toured all the rooms and was instantly pleased. The whole apartment resembled a toy house. The rooms looked as compact as the cabins on a ship. Only the bathroom was disappointing. 

When I opened a door, the sight of the terrace greeted my eyes—an oblong, roof-top space lying along the eastern wall of my flat. Right away I fell in love with this terrace. When I viewed the city from there, I was dazzled. The blue dome of the sky arched above me. Trees raised their leaf-laden heads on all sides. How beautiful my city looked—to the north, to the east and south! Even tall buildings raising their heads to block the sky appeared to me lovely from this terrace. 

By now I had a chance to compare my old residence with this new one. I had spent the last three years on the ground floor of a three-storied building. On this morning it seemed to me that I had spent a long time in my mother’s womb, and just now had come to live in the outside world. The change of residence gave me the feeling of a new birth. What else could I call it? I seemed to discover a connection between my own existence and the vast sky, the rows of buildings, the trees and the birds in flight. Whatever I saw around me, each thing was becoming a part of my own being. A feeling came over me that I was at one with the sun, the moon and the stars—all the animate and moving things circling around and above me. I was standing and moving just as they did. The realization that I was a part of everything—this was a new birth. New birth! New birth! These two words began to echo and re-echo within me.

Ahmed Sofa was one of Bangladesh’s acclaimed novelists, essayists and literary critics. Salimullah Khan is a scholar and Director, Center for Advanced Theory. 

Mary Frances Dunham is a lifelong student, teacher, scholar and bicycle activist.  She holds degrees from Harvard in teaching classical languages, from Columbia University in Indic studies and ethnomusicology and has authored a number of publications regarding her Bangladesh interests.  She developed a passion for the music, literature and culture of Bengal when living in Dhaka during the 1960s.  Since then she has been an avid supporter for the Bangladesh Liberation movement, has published her scholarly research on Jarigan, and has collaborated on book projects to introduce the works of South Asian artists such as Ravi Shankar and Ahmed Sofa to a western audience.

8 February 2020, Dhaka Tribune

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