Kazi Enayet Hossain
Jomila used to pick discarded vegetables in the market. She also begged for rotten or leftover fish from fishmongers. She cooked them on a makeshift brick oven. Their only son waited in front of the hotel in the street corner seeking leftover foodstuffs. The sick old man could not eat without some curry. A piece of bread and a cup of tea on a good day were all he could have until noon.
Jomila could neither work as a housemaid nor could beg to people. Now what she was doing was something in between. What a profession-neither a beggar nor a servant! Back in the village, she worked as a maid. The landlady used to donate her generously. Besides, she had a vegetable garden at her homestead. Now all is gone and she picks vegetables left behind by vendors. After his long wait in front of the hotel, the son understood that he would not have to beg, if he could work as a rag-picker or goods carrier.
Shofor Ali had been suffering from chronic hiccups for several days. His doctor wanted to know if he had got any problem like that. But at that time he said 'no'. Now the sudden short breathing and coughing got him overwhelmed. He made a desperate attempt to get up and drink some water but fell down on the ground with a thud.
Noticing a crowd around her husband, Jomila came running breathlessly. He was lying on the ground motionless, groaning and saliva running out of his mouth. A few drops of water were poured into his half-opened mouth. He swallowed it. In a moment, his head fell down and the eyes, hands and legs lay still. Jomila broke down in tears on the shoulders of her son and daughter.
As people made small amounts of donations, Jomila was lost in her thoughts. What would she do now and where would she go? As if, she was sinking into an abyss of uncertainty. That was when the two men appeared out of nowhere and offered to help herein the ordeal.
: Brother! Please, help this ill-fated poor man. Is there no one?
When someone dies in any rural area, people in the society join hands to perform the burial ritual. In an urban area it is rare to have such sympathetic people. However, the city people donate a lot on any such occasion.
It is 11 o'clock at night. The presence of commuters on the road is thin-it's pin-drop silence all around. Jomila is sitting speechless.
: Auntie, don't get scared. We are with you. We'll arrange for the funeral in the morning tomorrow.
Then they start counting the coins and notes that accumulated on the piece of cloth on the ground - Tk450 in total. Handing over Tk300 to Jomila, one of them says: Keep it to yourself. It is your spending money. We'll raise more funds tomorrow to arrange for the burial. The rest of the money that we have now is to be spent on buying more incense sticks and rose-water. Besides, we need to have dinner. These two kids are very hungry. We will bring something for you …
: No! No! I'll eat nothing.
Jomila is sitting alone beside the corpse after their departure. Sounds of different insects are getting louder. The surroundings are becoming increasingly creepy. The body becomes visible for fleeting moments in the sudden flashing lights of passing cars. Although she passed her whole life with Shofor Ali, now his lifeless body seems scary to her. She is talking loudly to herself to shrug off the fear. But slowly and steadily she distances herself from the body.
The children have been hungry as bears since the morning. They don't understand who will now take care of them. The two men take them to the hotel in the street corner. They take their seats in the hotel. It is a new experience for them. They never had a chance to sit in a hotel like a customer. They only could watch from outside that the people were eating or gossiping. In the meantime, their meal has arrived-rice, meat, dal-more than their expectation. They start eating voraciously. They seem to be the happiest persons in the world. Even yesterday they were out in the hotel lobby scavenging leftover.
: Hey, give them curry-the hotel boys are ordered.
They take rice, curry, potato…again and eat to their hearts' content. They eat meat after a long time. They cannot even remember when they had last tasted it. They had no respite from the hunger even when they were grieving their father's death. Now the stomachs are calm but hearts start aching again - for their father.
Jomila has Tk300 in her hand. She cannot believe that it is hers. She had never laid her hand on so much money before. She will also get a share of the money to be raised tomorrow. They told her that the total money would be divided into three equal parts - one part for burial of the deceased, another for her and they would keep the rest.
Jomila didn't object to it. She is rather pleased. The more money they can raise taking the corpse round the city, the more share of it she will get. Then they will no more go hungry. They will be able to buy clothes and even some fruits. Money works like magic. It raises one's spirit even in grave danger. Those, who lack it, end up leading miserable life. Cruel poverty makes life a living hell, a man turns inhuman. It also creates a gulf of difference between fellow human beings.
They bring two benches from the shop nearby and pass the night sitting next to the corpse, at times sleeping and at times wide awake. The air becomes heavy with the smell of incense and cigarette. Jomila sits out the whole night, she cannot sleep.
A terminally-ill Shofor Ali used to lie down here. He lived on the alms but couldn't afford medicine. During his final days he apparently became somewhat nonchalant about life and death. How Jomila will survive now with the two children? There is no way out for her except resorting to begging. The boy could work as a porter if he was a bit older. He is yet to fully grasp the vibes of the city.
She holds the money tight in her fist. She has already changed the position of the money twice-first tied in a corner of her sari and then put in the waistband. Now as she holds it in her hand, she feels charged up. Moreover, the mere thought of getting more money aside from the burial cost makes her optimistic about the future. Nonetheless, she will never get back her husband.
In the morning the dead body has been kept in an open space under the over bridge at Shahjahanpur. Jomila and her children are sitting close together. The number of commuters, going to market or office, is growing steadily.
: Help, brother, help. A poor man has died. They have no money for his burial. Please help for God's sake.
People are responding positively. And they keep changing their position in every one hour-Tikatolir Mor, Gulistan and the Press Club area at last. The two men have taught Jomila how to cry in a bid to draw attention of more people. She does exactly what she was asked to do.
: Oh Baba, help me, help me-shewails throwing her hands forward. She becomes motivated in the hope of getting more money.
By the noon they reach the Press Club area. Here they also raise a good amount of money. While one of the two men is counting the money, the other is talking to two men in a car some distance away. Jomila is given her share and then a Rickshaw is waved aside-
: Auntie, now you go away. We are going to bury the body in the Azimpur graveyard.
: I'll go along with you. I want to see the burial place.
: What's the use of seeing this, Auntie? All graves are demolished after a few months. They will be levelled to the ground with a bulldozer and there will be no trace of it. Jomila is taken aback after hearing it. If it was in her hometown; she would bury him under the tamarind tree. Then no one could demolish it as she would keep an eye on it as long as she lived. Now they make another proposition-
: Auntie, a few people visit that burial ground. Instead, you can think of another option. They need dead bodies for medical research purposes. So, they want to buy bodies. You will earn a lot more. It is a chance to lift you and your family out of poverty.
Jomila is lost in thoughts. She dreams of thousands of bucks in her hand, no hardship any more, plenty of food for the kids and no scavenging for rotten foodstuffs. Ah, how happy the life would be! Soon reality dawns on her. Her heart cries out -
: No, no. It can't happen. No matter how long the grave lasts, I will arrange for proper burial of my husband. In no way I'll sell the body. I'll give it to none.