Mridula Kashyap

Blighted Land

Seated on the ground, Fatema pulled out the lice that have nestled in the bristly hair of her elder daughter, Salma. While her malnourished one-year-old infant daughter clung to her breast like a baby monkey, the other two daughters were playing in the dust beside her. In between their play they would often wail and complain to their mother of the constant hunger lurking in their empty bellies. Fatema looked at their starving faces through her wet eyes. The stack of firewood that she collected during the four days of lock-down still lay outside her hut. Her daughters' faces looked as dry as the firewood. She had not been able to go to the Laogaon Market to sell firewood for five long days. She felt for the bruises in her body— still raw and painful. Her face was still swollen from the smack on the jaw that she received from her husband, Rashid.

Like poverty and hunger, Fatema had become accustomed to the regular beatings from her drunkard husband. It was almost compulsory for her to pay at least three-fourth of her daily earning to Rashid to spend on his drink. By the grace of Allah, if she could sell all the bundles of firewood, she managed to earn three-hundred rupees at the end the day. But she had to run the house with only a hundred rupee as she needed to pay the lion's share of her minimal daily income to Rashid who would be waiting with predatory eyes to relish on his wife's income. With the money, he would set off to Laogaon Chariali to buy sulai (country liquor) and returned home at night like a monarch ready to assert his virility on his wife and abused her for not giving birth to a son. Fatema compared her state to the other two wives of Rashid that he had left. In a way, she felt that they were fortunate enough to have escaped from living the rest of their lives with this abusive man in such a wretched condition.

When Fatema last went to the Laogaon Market, she heard the folks discussing some lock-down. She had no idea what it was. Baffled, she asked one of her customers. From his explanation, she could decipher that there would be Assam bandh (general strike) for many days because of some dreadful disease. She could not draw any connection between the bandh and the disease. "Bandh for disease?"— she gasped. So far, she had known that any kind of upheaval or disruption in Assam such as bombings, attack, riot or Bangladeshi issue, would be followed by Assam bandh. Her body tensed up with the idea of Assam Bandh. She still remembered the plight her family had to undergo as a result of the prolonged bandh not very long ago. There was hearsay in the village that all the people of their faith would be debarred from voting and would be sent to Bangladesh. Shops were closed, markets were completely shut down, even Rashid stopped to visit the sulai spot. A pall of gloom and terror hovered over the whole Laogaon village. And inside the mud walls of her hut prowled her angry husband and bellowed her hungry children.

Fatema's heart panicked thinking of the hungry faces of her daughters. She waited till dark until she could sell all the bundles of firewood. Numbness crept through her body thinking of what would happen during the time of bandh when she would not be able to come to the market to sell firewood. How would she be able to feed her daughters? And Rashid…? Her mind was filled with abhorrence at his thought. With the earnings of the day she bought a few vegetables and grocery items and returned home with her companions Khurshida and Rahima. On the way, she crossed Imran's tea stall. She stopped at the stall to buy pithas (rice cakes) for her daughters because they had been urging her for many days to bring pithas from Imran Chacha's stall. Then she walked fast because she knew what would be the situation at home. Poor children! They might have suppressed their hunger and slept with empty bellies waiting when their mother would come home and cook food for them. And her infant daughter…Fatema felt for her engorged breasts. They had become as hard as stones. She made up her mind. She would not give a single penny to Rashid to waste on his drink no matter what the circumstance would be. She would rather endure his beatings than allow her children to die of starvation.

When Fatema reached home she found Rashid sitting on a cane stool outside the hut and smoking bidi (a cheap local cigarette). "Why are you so late?"— he shouted at her. Fatema paid no heed to his question. Straight away she went inside the hut and found her four daughters lying asleep holding one another. Through the flickering flames of the lamp, she examined their grimy faces, their torn and soiled clothes and their legs smeared with dirt. Her ten-year-old elder daughter held her baby sister close to her bosom like a mother. The mark of dried-up streaks of tears and mucus from the baby's face made her imagine how her elder daughter might have lulled and cuddled the crying and hungry baby to sleep. Her eyes became moist as her heart was filled with love and compassion for her poor little daughters. Instantly she lifted her baby daughter and grasped her close to her overfilled breasts. As the baby's lips touched her hard nipples it began to suck her milk as an arid piece of land soaks the rainwater. Her elder daughter woke up, startled. When she saw her mother a faint spark of anticipation glimmered in her eyes. "Gedi I bought pithas from Imran Chacha's stall. Call your sisters and have till I cook your dinner." As Fatema was watching her starving children relish the pithas, Rashid stormed into the hut and gave a violent blow on her face. Her face twisted at the blow.

"Oi beti, why are you so late? Can't you respond to my question? Who were you sleeping with till this hour? And where is my money?"

Fatema yelled. "Don't talk rubbish. I am late because I had to wait for the firewood to be sold as there would be a long Assam bandh from tomorrow. And I can't give you money today? What will happen from tomorrow? I won't be able to go to work."

"I don't know anything. Give me the money I said."

Fatema looked straight into his eyes. "I won't. If you need money why don't you go and work? Who will feed our daughters?"

Rashid could not tolerate the reluctance in her eyes. Another smack thundered across her cheek making her jawbones creak. Fatema felt dizzy. Blood trickled down from the corner of her lips.

"You whore! How dare you refuse to give me the money. Let your daughters rot. I don't care."

He plunged his rough hands into her blouse to search for the money. When he could not find the money, he grabbed her hair and pulled her head off the ground. The petrified daughters cringed in the corner of the room and cried bitterly. Fatema closed her eyes and shrieked in agony.

Fatema already predicted such a wrathful situation— that Rashid would hunt for the money and become mad with rage if he did not get. So, before coming home she handed over the remaining earnings of the day in the safe hands of Rahima. "Give the money or I will kill you"— Rashid roared.

Fatema spat at him and burst out. "I won't. This is my last word."

He picked up a firewood stick from the clay oven and hit her on the spine. She jerked and collapsed on the ground. The terrified children ran out of doors to Sakina's place. Rashid cursed her at every strike but she could not hear him over her screeching and sobbing. He continued thrashing her till the stick broke into pieces and till her screeches grew weaker and turned into whimpers. Then he stormed out of the room leaving her bruised body lay on the ground, hot and wet. She had no idea how long she laid on the ground that way and only regained consciousness by the gentle touch of Sakina's hands. Tears rolled down her swollen cheeks when she saw Sakina sitting beside her. "This is my naseeb (destiny), Sakina"— she moaned. Sakina tried to hold back her tears but choked. She could not find any word to console Fatema. She squeezed the water out of a wet rug to tend to Fatema's wounds. Her body shrank and she let out long sighs of pain.

"Your daughters are safe at my place. They are all having food with my gedi", Sakina spoke out breaking the silence.

Fatema didn't respond. It seemed her mind drifted to some other thought. "It is good that you left your jamai (husband), Sakina. You are your own master now", she muttered.

"Don't worry Fatema, everything will be alright."

Fatema placed her burning hand over Sakina's and hold it tight. "You are free now, Sakina. Your husband can no longer grab your money. You feed your daughter with the monthly wage that you earn as a domestic worker. You are happy. And look at me…" she sobbed.

Fatema would go to the woods every day with her bruised body to collect firewood. But Rahima and Khurshida never questioned her. They could imagine what might have happened. The bundles gradually turned into stacks. Fatema piled them outside her hut with the hope that one day the bandh would reopen and she would be able to sell them. The markets were shut down and there was no food to buy. Even Rashid could not visit the sulai spot as everything was closed. The police were patrolling the streets and market place so that nobody would loiter around or open the shops during the bandh. The police lathi-charged if they found anybody loitering around. One day Rashid came home limping with contused hip and legs. Fatema was shocked— "Hai Allah, what happened?"

He slapped her on her cheeks. "Is that a question to be asked? Can't you see what happened? I fell down." Fatema knew very well what was the truth. Though she hurried to tend to his wounds a smile flickered across her face imagining how Rashid had been lathi-charged by the police while going to the sulai spot.

As the days passed her daughters craving for food increased. The hungry cries of her daughters became unbearable. A desperate sadness enveloped her, watching her daughters suffer from hunger and become weaker day by day. As she could not provide them with food, she only provided them with water to wet their throats. Fatema had also lost weight and her once-swelling breasts had gradually dried up leaving her nipples cracked like drought-stricken land. Fatema observed that her infant had refused to latch her dry breasts and its belly had bloated unusually and its limbs had become as thin as dry wood sticks. "I can't allow my daughters to die in this way"— Fatema thought. With a sickle in her hand, she went out to collect wild weeds that grew in abundance outside her hut. She boiled the weeds and served her starving family. They ate weeds in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening until there was not a single weed in the whole compound.

One day Sakina rushed to Fatema's compound almost panting. "O… gedir ma! At last, Allah has opened His eyes upon us."

"Why? What happened Sakina?" Fatema was surprised at Sakina's excitement. What good could befall upon them when the whole village was starving to death. She wondered.

"Great news, Fatema. Food relief is being distributed in Laogaon Maqtab School. Let's not waste time and hurry to collect our shares."

Fatema's face brightened up. Immediately she handed over the infant daughter in the hands of her elder daughter and set off with Sakina to collect their respective shares. When the two women reached the school, they were stunned to see a long queue of people eagerly waiting for relief and they had to position themselves towards the end of the trail. They waited expectantly the whole day and to their utter dismay by the time their turn came the relief stock finally got exhausted. The two women returned home disheartened. Fatema could not muster up the courage to look at the hungry and expectant eyes of her daughters. With her eyes downcast she spoke in a choked voice "No gedi, there was nothing. All over."

Rashid smacked her face, but not too hard "Oi beti, good for nothing."

He could not give her the punishment that he intended. Fatema observed that he no longer possessed the earlier strength. Rashid suffered from moodiness and fatigue due to hunger. He still used to strike her often, sometimes without any cause. But his blows lacked the earlier force and simply seemed like a low gush of wind rubbing against her cheeks.

Every day Sakina would come with new information about food aid that was to be distributed in different sites. Accordingly, the two women ran from one site to the other but in vain. Either they would be shooed away like cattle by the police or their names were not there in the list of beneficiaries. Fatema's exasperation increased every time she returned home empty-handed. Finally, she collected some ferns and nightshade berries, thrust them in the hands of her three daughters to sell the items by the roadside of the highway. At daybreak, the three little elated daughters returned home with a bag of rice and dal. Fatema cooked but didn't eat herself, instead, she gave the food to her hungry children and husband. She tried to satiate her hunger only by licking the leftover plates and pots. However, the food was just a drop in the ocean. The way her hungry family devoured the food, it lasted only for two days. Fatema looked at the underfed daughter on her lap. Poor baby, she thought. How it had stopped latching her dry breasts! She looked up and made a silent prayer to God. "May Allah bless the person who gave food to her hungry children. If Allah wills and her daughters can bring more aids, she will also have a hearty meal with her family." She touched her cracked nipples and thought that perhaps then her baby daughter need not had to cry for milk.

Thereafter when Fatema went to collect more ferns and berries, she saw some of the village folks running towards Ismail's house with tensed faces. Her heart palpitated wildly. "Hai Allah what further misfortune do we have to bear in this famished land!" she sighed. She cried out to Sakina, "O re gedir ma…O re gedir ma…." Both of them headed towards Ismail's place and was aghast when they saw Ismail soaked in blood and his wife howling beside him. Ismail's face was bleeding profusely. And the way his white vest and checked lungi was blood-stained in several places, looked like a mass of crimson berries patterned in his clothes. Fatema could not stand the gruesome sight any longer, she closed her eyes as a strange giddiness and a feeling of nausea gripped inside her. "Oh Allah, what kind of test is this? May you save him," she prayed. She traced Rahima amid the crowd that had gathered around Ismail's house. She went close to her and asked anxiously, "Rahima, can you tell me what happened to Ismail?"

Rahima's voice trembled as she spoke, "It seems there is no end to our trouble, Fatema. Allah knows what punishment he is inflicting upon us."

"Come to the point Rahima."

"Actually, not being able to tolerate the poverty, Ismail set off to the town to sell his rooster and a few vegetables and herbs that he had grown. The moment he reached the town, people hurled stones at him and shouted "Look a Miya…chase him away else he would spread koruna (corona)". Countless stones were hurled at him by the crowd and he left his bicycle and the items and somehow managed to save his life."

"Hai Allah" Fatema exclaimed. Though she could not utter the word clearly, it recurred in her ears. "What is that Rahima? Ko…ri…ma…!"

"It's koruna, the name of the disease." "It's called koruna as it brings sadness," she added.

Fatema looked at Ismail again. Stones had perforated through the checked fabric of his lungi and lacerated his bottom. Her body jerked at the sight.

"Koruna….Koruna," Fatema repeated the word in her mind. "Is this name of the disease that Rahima told her that day?" Fatema thought. "Rahima was right, the disease brought so much sadness in their lives. She could not go out to the market any more and feed her children. Sakina could not go to her workplace. Ismail could no longer go door to door to sell fish. And Rahima and Khurshida….all deprived of work. No work, no food. Koruna has not only brought sadness but also hunger" Fatema thought. As she was brooding over the situation, all at once she was startled by the voice of Sakina. "O gedir ma…there is a piece of very bad news."

"Can anything worse happen than the situation we are in? Go on." Fatema uttered the words as if in a dream, without looking at Sakina, as she was still consumed in her thoughts.

"Wake up, Fatema. And listen carefully. Police have taken away our gaonburha (village headman) Rahim chacha's son, Aasif."

Fatema sat stunned in her place. "Why? What crime did he commit? He is supposed to be a good man!"

"He is a good man, Fatema. But he has been infected by that disease since his return from the Nizamuddin Dargah."

"Is it koruna?" there was a curiously intent look on her face.

"Oh Allah, I am frightened to utter the name even."

"That means sadness and hunger would now befall in his life" Fatema murmured.

"You know, Fatema, police have surrounded our whole village. Nobody will be allowed to go out of the village, not even our daughters…. Allah knows when will the bandh come to an end."

"More hunger" Fatema murmured again.

The sensation of hunger had become so intense day by day that survival had become a great challenge in this famished land. The ravenous Fatema took a knife in her hand and in a frenetic pace of activity dug the ground till she could unearth some taro corms. The taro plant became the only food for survival for the family. Fatema collected taro leaves from the nearby bushes and petioles from the nearby pond. The family ate boiled taro plants for ten long days until their whole body started to itch, including their eyelids. The infant daughter developed itchy blisters all over and its body became as hot as a glowing ember. "Oh, my little girl" Fatema sobbed. Its blistered face looked pale and its lips grey and cracked. Fatema pressed her baby tight to her bosom and tried to put her dry nipples into its grey lips. But the baby did not respond and laid in her bosom like hot, stiff firewood. Fatema put her head on its small blistered chest, then its bloated belly. She ran her fingers through the baby's bristly hair, touched its hollow cheeks. The other daughters watched her in dismay. Pressing her baby daughter hard to her breast she lulled it to sleep. "My baby" she cried bitterly. She yearned for the baby's response, wanted to fill its mouth with lots of food to breathe life back into its little hungry body.

Dr. Mridula Kashyap teaches English in the Department of English, Nowgong Girls’ College, Gauhati University, Assam, India. Her areas of interest are Women and Literature, Critical Theory and Middle Eastern Literature. Moreover, her literary manifestation is reflected in the field of creative writing and art criticism. She completed her doctoral research on the area of Middle Eastern Literature and Islamic Feminism.
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