‘The Open-Winged Scorpion’ by Abul Bashar: An Excerpt

The ten stories collected in this volume portray the dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties of their protagonists, brutally exposing their human frailties. A wife is forced into her husband’s cross-border trafficking business; a fakir is tortured for not following scriptural norms; a Hindu widow times her evening prayer to the tune of the Muslim azan; a horse-cart driver performs the ritual dance of the horse of Karbala; a part-Muslim part-Hindu man loses his mind over a small plot of farmland ‘owned’ by a dog . . . . Enmeshing religion with sexuality, exploring caste hierarchies, and engaging with the nuances of party politics and conflicting ideologies, Bashar brilliantly mines his land for striking narratives and infuses them with remarkable sensuality, lyrical energy, piercing irony and profound philosophy.

Translated from the Bengali by Epsita Halder, with Sunandini Banerjee

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An Excerpt

When it was time, my sister and I would set o to collect dead leaves. At other times, at the crack of dawn, we’d visit the gardens of the rich to steal flowers. The two of us went to the fields too, to gather up the few sheaves left over after harvesting. We’d pick the fruits fallen on the road—wood apples, boheras, guavas. And sell them.

Back home, the sheaves were husked to separate rice from chaff. Then the grains were steamed. Then spread under the sun to dry. Then Ma would visit the neighbours, use their dhenkis to pound the grains, and finally serve us the rice she had collected thus. Rice that my father, my sister and I ate with such delight.

We had tin plates, but they were dented. So we ate not on plates but on banana leaves or lotus leaves. Lotus leaves grew in the master’s pond. If Baba and I were lucky enough to be asked, then we’d spend the whole day standing in the water, collecting the leaves. The leaves were used for wedding feasts. The father of the bride or groom would pay us for them, maybe even let us eat at the feast. We’d always bring some food back for my mother and sister, but in secret. For we were always scared. Scared of our hosts. Scared of those who owned the paddy fields. Scared of the master. We had no land of our own, you see, no property, no trees, no climbing creepers, no flowers, no fruits. We were landless.

For seven generations now, we are landless. The villagers used to call us refugee though neither our ancestors nor we had come from Pakistan or Bangladesh. And whether our ancestors had truly been landless—of that nobody had proof. It’s just that people said so, and it is better we believed so. So we do. Baba, of course, said that he could vouch for at least three generations; they at least had not owned any land. Baba’s grandfather had not owned land; neither had mine.

So, for a long time now, we have not owned trees. Not owned fruits or flowers. All our ancestors, it seems fair to deduce, had been gatherers. Gathering flowers-grains-fruits—that was our profession. And if we were sure that no one was watching, we even managed to steal. Some things. Such as flowers.

If we were caught stealing flowers, the master’s servants would at most box my ears, nothing more. My sister would be spared. I had grown used to having my ears boxed. We were Patuas, painters. But our father could not practice our painting trade. Our surname was Chitrakar, picture-maker. We were partly Hindu, partly Muslim. Not any one thing in all.

One day, Baba and Ma were talking. ‘I say, Bhanumati,’ Baba said, ‘Badarpur is home to Lord Krishna. It’s not such a bad place, after all. My heart says we should become permanent here. There are the lords, the masters, some bandobast might be arrived at. Suja Choudhury and Banka Majumdar—both are rich, well known. If any one takes pity on us, we might even get some land to live on. Bankim Chandra Majumdar, or Banka-babu. People also call him Babumoshai. I’ve heard he owns about 200 bighas. And Suja Choudhury, or Sujauddin Choudhury—he owns 250. If either of them give us even 2 kathas to live on, we’ll be saved.’

‘Will we?’ Ma asked.‘We might, one never knows.’


‘If we get some land, anything can happen. Given a chance, a half-and-half painter can become a full-and- full Muslim. If I have to become another low-caste, say a Koibarto, I’m ready for that too. At least the refugee stain will be removed. Don’t want to live with that disgrace any more. In this half-and-half life, I’ve found neither Krishna nor Khoda.’