Kazi Enayet Hossain
A corpse lies covered with a dirty thin quilt in an open space on one side of a road under the Shahjahanpur over bridge. At the head of it are burning a few incense sticks dipped in rice in a tin-pot. Smoke is billowing from the pot and vanishing soon into thin air thanks to the wind blowing from the opposite direction.
: Oh Allah! Oh Allah! What'll happen to me now? Jomila Begum is wailing with her hands on her head. Her husband's sudden death has left her in a void. Now it seems she is a stranger to this world. Two skinny children are also crying sitting next to the body which is laid flat on the ground. Jomila is pleading to the passersby in a forlorn voice to earn their sympathy. Two men-both are clad in lungi and shirt but one has a cap on the head and the other a headband-are trying to catch attention of the passersby-
: Help, brother, help! A poor man has died. They have no money for his crimination. Help with whatever you can.
The loud and repeated appeals make some passersby stop and turn around. Fragrance of incense sticks softens their hearts. They toss their taka notes or coins onto a piece of cloth spread on the ground next to the corpse. While some stop for a while, others go away unperturbed. A few of them ask one or two questions-
: Where's he from? What happened to him?
One of the two men named Jolil Mia offers his memorised answer -
: He is from Amtali in Barguna District. Came to Dhaka for medical treatment but failed to do it for want of money. They are very poor.
The dead body is covered with the quilt from head to toe. It touches the middle part of his body as the belly looks swollen. He was just a bag of bones and suffered from many physical complexities including liver disease.
No human being belongs to this world after death. The soul is everything. That's why the body becomes useless soon after the soul departs it. One leaves home for hospital when one is sick. If he is dead on his return from hospital, it is unnecessary to take him back home. What is the use of doing it? It is now time for him to lie in eternal rest in the grave. He has now no relation with this material world. Men live by breathing air. But after death if the air enters the body, the belly gets swollen. The air that was once inevitable for living becomes useless. This deceased man's body is swollen either because of the liver disease or that none cared about putting cotton into the nostrils in time.
Who now can tell he is that Shofor Ali from Holudia village in Pairapar? The city is inhabited by countless people, but hardly anyone knows each other. Shofor Ali was once famed for his muscular body. He used to work in the field energetically and swiftly and could walk a long distance carrying a large head load of paddy. Land owners used to give him 10 maunds of paddy for working on their field throughout the whole season while other labourers got eight maunds each. He was capable of climbing a coconut tree using his hands and feet; and he even could peel off a coconut using his teeth and elbow. He ate as much as he worked. At noon he could eat four and a half kg rice with no effort and gulp down 1.5-litre rice soup. He swallowed one bowlful of watered rice only with two fried peppers. Whenever he engaged himself in any competitive eating, he could eat overwhelmingly and his belly stretched like rubber without his knowledge.
But all these feats of Shofor Ali did not last long. The heydays of his health started waning after 14-15 years of robust physical activities. It was when stamina of the man, who could carry a rice sack weighing 2.5 maunds started faltering.
He was blessed with two daughters and one son. His eldest daughter was married off at an early age in the next village. Her husband works on farmland. But they are not a happy couple.She returned to her parents on several occasions; however, the village elders managed to convince her to go back and live with her in-laws.
Aside from working on farmland, Shofor Ali was also a date juice extractor. During winter he extracted juice from as many as 40 date trees belonging to different households. Of the total proceeds, he kept a half and the rest went to the tree owners. He could climb large trees without any touch of his chest; he just climbed it using his legs and hands. Thus he was doing pretty well. But after a certain time his health started failing. In his prime time, whenever he saw someone hesitating to take up a heavy sack he would say -'oh, get lost. Why do you eat for? You should do justice to the food you consume.' And then he used to take it up onto his own shoulder. But in the later years he needed to walk with a limp stick in hand and often got exhausted.
His family brought him to Dhaka for treatment after selling an assortment of household things. They thought they would not have to worry about medical costs once they get him admitted to a government hospital. Specialist doctors would see him at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital free of cost.
Where will you stay in Dhaka, and what will you do? A number of people asked.
Khalek works as a mason in Dhaka. He is acquainted with a caretaker of a half-constructed building. They decided to stay there until the construction work begins again. Staying even in a slum also could cost a certain amount of money. Besides, it could be a big problem to stay there with a bed-ridden patient. Now they won't have to pay any rent in this half-constructed four-storey building. A big relief! They were allowed to stay on the ground floor. The road in front of the building remains abuzz with transports and passersby from early morning to midnight. Though the place is convenient for them to travel from all sides, but only one problem ruined everything. There is a water tap adjacent to the building and they can use it when none else does so. But the toilet is locked. They are barred from using it. They can defecate only at night in an open field quite afar from the building. However, Shofor Ali could not go there. Whenever he needed to respond to the nature's call, he hobbled to the nearby drain and did it hiding him behind an old umbrella.
However, Shofor Ali started seeing the doctor staying at that place. He visited a doctor in the outdoor section of the hospital and bought some medicines also. Soon another problem arose. A number of local young people used to bring hookers in their cars to the building site and took them upstairs. Shofor Ali was creating a problem. He could not stop coughing. Moreover, he had to go outside often to urinate. One night he bumped into them in the gate. So, they asked Shofor Ali's family to leave within two days-
: The landlord said none would be allowed to stay there.
They tried to get him admitted to a government hospital but couldn't for want of money. To get a bed in the hospital, he must visit a specialist doctor first spending Tk500. And then he would be taken in subject to availability of the bed. He almost ran out of the meagre sum of money he had with him when he came to Dhaka.
A number of wide pipes are gathering dust in an open space in front of the colony on the northern side of the PirJhongi Shah shrine. No one knows when those pipes will be installed. Shofor Ali's family took refuge in those pipes. They used to crawl to get inside the pipe and lie down one after another as there was no scope to sleep side by side. However, they needed more pillows and quilts than usual to beat the hard surface. Though they could not move freely inside the pipe, they did not have to worry about rain or even any storm. But there is a dustbin on the other side of a heap of bricks. That raises the fear of any snake or insects invading this dwelling anytime. So, Jomila spread around dust of fried peppers on the first day. She knows the smell of fried peppers wards off snakes.
In the morning they used to lay poor Shofor Ali down flat on a polythene sheet on the roadside. A bowl was kept close to his head and some water in a tin-pot. The family met daily expenses from the money that accumulated in the bowl at the end of the day.
(To be continued)