A change took place in the girl as soon as she reached Dhaka. She would not identify herself to anybody. When asked, she responded by giving her mother’s name instead. She was convinced that this way, she could hide from every man’s unwanted attention. She could not fathom how she developed this belief. She was not educated enough to articulate her thoughts and feelings. It was like the thought she got when, dozing during a long bus ride, a traveler sitting next to her secretly touched her breast under the saree. She found the thought pleasing and comforting. She was confident that she would be able to get a place of her own in Dhaka. However, she could not explain why she felt so.
Getting off the bus at Gabtali bus-station, the girl was very hungry. She hadn’t eaten anything for a day and a half. How much water could one drink to curb one’s appetite! She had a hundred rupee note tucked in the waistband of her petticoat. One yank of the petticoat string and the note would tumble out—she was afraid of losing the note, less so of her body. She had come to the city with the understanding that money had value, but her body didn’t. The girl looked at the men around her. Deep inside, she was absolutely disgusted with all of them. They looked oily, sticky with foul body odors and altogether ugly. She closed her eyes in revulsion, and then opened again.
The bus arrived earlier in the evening. The crowd had thinned out considerably since then. The girl was finally feeling at ease. Once most of the people leave, she would own the bus-station completely. There would remain quite a few more buses and trucks, of course. Then she need not feel afraid of anyone. She wanted to relax by leaning on the nearby tree-trunk but was concerned that she would topple over. As soon as she sat down, a friendly dog came and squatted next to her. She put her hand on the dog’s back, a loving gesture that the dog reciprocated by licking her arm. Saliva drooled from his mouth. Feeling soiled, the girl got upset at the beast, “Why did you lick my hand without asking me? Do you think you are Bajlu, the son of the Chairman? You are nothing but a mongrel puppy. Go. Get lost.”
A boy standing nearby was sucking on a mango pit. He burst out laughing, “Why did you treat it like a human?”
“What is the difference between a man and a dog?” she asked. The boy threw the mango pit away, “Don’t you have a place to go to?”
“Yes, I do. Why? Do you think I am a fakir?”
“Then go home,” said the boy.
“No, I won’t go”
“Where are you going to stay then?” asked the boy.
“On the street.”
“The street is a bad place.”
“Get lost. I will do whatever I please.”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Yes, I am starving.”
“Let us go to that restaurant. The owner will give you some rice.”
“Why will the owner give me rice? Does he owe me anything?”
“No, he doesn’t, but you know he is a kind man who feeds the poor. Let’s go.”
The girl remained diffident for some time. She was feeling a terrible discomfort somewhere deep inside her. She had left her father in anger and at a moment’s notice jumped onto a Dhaka bound bus. Now, she was wondering where she was heading in this unfamiliar city! The boy was still standing in front of her. With his dark skin and bony stature, the boy resembled a monkey, She thought to herself. Yes, he was a monkey indeed. Today, he might be small, but soon he will be big. A sharp pang of a headache seized her; she felt feeble. In a shrill voice she hollered at the boy, “Why the hell are you still standing there?”
“Just for you. I know you don’t have a place to go to. Otherwise you would have gone there by now.”
“What is your name, you little devil?”
“Jalfu, Jalfu Ali,”
“What is your father’s name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you have a mother?”
“My mother is dead. I have never even seen her.”
“What did you see?”
“That you are a jaura.”
Jalfu Ali giggled. He was very amused. No wonder. He heard such epithets a lot. Folks used such words even for kids with proper birth records. These street children were far wiser than their age. Jalfu crouched in front of the girl and asked, “What is your name, Aunty?”
“What sort of a name is that?”
“Shut up, you monkey.”
The boy giggled again. An old beggar approached them. “Who’s this ghost of a woman?” The girl tried to size her up: dry, rough disheveled hair, filthy saree worn knee-length with no blouse covering the torso and no petticoat. She had an empty tin plate in her hand. Something was tucked in her waist, either paan (betel leaves) or money. Her toothless face was downright ugly. The folds of skin in her face had collected all the dust of the road. The girl became very annoyed, and muttered to herself silently, “Haven’t seen such a witch ever before.” The old woman sat down next to her and asked, “Couldn’t you make anything today?”
“No. I don’t beg.”
“Aw,” the old woman made a face at the girl, “What’s your name, missy?”
“Gurigaon,” was the prompt reply.
“Gurigaon is the name of your village, what is your name?”
“What kind of name is that?"
"What’s the problem? Any name can do as long as you call me by that name and I respond to it-- the whole purpose is served. What’s the point of all this drama?”
The old woman chuckled at this idea. Her dry rough hair moved in the breeze, a few strayed on her face, making it look even more ugly. Her laughing face reminded the girl of witches she had heard of as a child. “Why are you laughing? Stop the laughter,” she screamed out loudly.
The old woman stopped abruptly. With widened eyes, she said, “Hey, I have found a name for you missy; I will call you Princess.”
Jalfu started hopping, “We got it! We got it! We have found a name for you.” The girl felt he really looked and behaved like a monkey. He must have been born to monkeys.
The boy frowned, “Why are you scowling at me? Come on! Let us all go to that hotel. Didn’t you just say that you were very hungry, Princess Auntie?”
“Shut up little devil!”
“But aren’t you hungry?”
Before the girl could reply, the old woman grabbed Jalfu’s hand, “I am very hungry too. Can you get me some rice?”
“No, no, I cannot feed you. If the boss sees you, he will get very upset.”
“But didn’t you just say that your master is very kind,” retorted the old beggar.
The girl looked at him sharply. Jalfu was at a loss for words. He mumbled something incoherent and moved a little away to urinate.
Realizing it was of no use, the old woman stood up to leave. “Princess, there are many types of kindness in this world; one type of kindness is for you, while I get another type.” She started laughing heartily again, showering spittle all around her. The girl took a look at her ugly face, “You do look like a witch.”
Startled, the old woman said, “Why do you say that? If you are a Princess, then I am the grandmother of a Princess.”
“Huh! Grandmother! Now leave.”
After the old woman had left, Jalfu came and sat down next to the girl. “Let’s go, Princess Auntie” he said, fawning all over her.
“What is your master’s name?”
“Tofa Ali. People call him Tofa-Babu.”
“How many marriages?”
Jalfu laughed. The tone of that laughter suggested as if many stories underlie the answer. It did not sit well with the girl.
“So, he didn’t marry at all? Am I right?” The girl asked him to coax an answer out of him.
“Why wouldn’t he? Can an adult man live without getting married?
“How do you know that one cannot?”
“I know everything. My master has been married five times. The first wife died while having a baby. The baby, a girl, also died. The next wife ran away with another man. The wife that came after her, the master himself divorced her. So, how many did I account for?
“Just three,” the girl sounded interested.
“As for the fourth wife, the Chairman’s son took her to the jute fields to...”
“Stop! You don’t have to say anything further.”
“Obviously, the master had to divorce her! Now he is married to his current fifth wife. They have no children. Naturally, the master is sad about that.”
Sad! He has seen nothing yet! The girl sighed. She wanted to meet this strange man. She rose and stretched her legs and arms, straightened her foot that had gone to sleep and shook it vigorously. Jalfu realized that finally she was ready to go with him. He offered his arm to her and said, “Let’s go.”
“Yes, let us go,” agreed the girl indifferently, as she struggled to regain her balance. If she didn’t eat something now, she won’t be able to stand upright tonight. They crossed the street and entered Tofa Ali’s restaurant. There were not many people around, just two men eating lunch. Jalfu stood near the door to announce the girl’s arrival. “Boss, I have brought her,’ he said in a loud voice. “Come, Aunty.”
“Boss, I have brought her”, Bajlu had used this exact same phrase that other night. It was incredibly painful for the girl to hear those words again. She felt as if a hot iron rod was shoved into her ears. She didn’t know how long the rod was or how long it would take to enter. Tofa Ali was sitting nearby with a wide toothy grin on his face. Two black bushy eyebrows hung over his beady black eyes and a wide flat nose completed his face. The man had lost a great deal of his hair in the front. His huge bouncy belly reminded her of a very pregnant cow. The girl could not take this sight much longer. She turned her eyes to observe the two men who were eating. Jalfu initiated the introduction, “Boss, her name is Princess. The old beggar woman gave her that name.”
Hearing that, the two men laughed out loud; bits of food sputtered out of their mouths. Tofa Ali was laughing too. He beckoned her inside, “Please come and sit down, Princess.”
“My name is Gurigaon,” said the girl.
“I get it. You are not a woman. You are a village. Come in, come in. Aren’t you very hungry?”
“Yes, I have not eaten for two days.”
“Hey Jalfu, please bring her two plates of rice and meat. Will you be able to finish it all?”
“Yes, I would. Eating rice is not a difficult job.”
The three men and the boy again burst out laughing, as if the girl said something clever and funny. The two men choked as they tried to speak with their mouths full. The boy served them glasses of water. Tofa Ali whispered in the girl’s ear, “Eat up, my dear.” The girl quickly sat down on the bench and drew the plate of rice close. She had forgotten to wash her hands. Tofa Ali’s warm breath was still on her ears. She realized that it was Tofa Ali who had sent the little monkey to fetch her. He must have observed her from a distance. And seeing her sitting alone for long time, had correctly surmised that she had nowhere to go to. She stopped eating, raised her head and saw that both the men had finished their meals. They were closely watching her. She remembered Jalfu’s voice, “I have brought her.” What a life! Humiliation flooded her. She hurriedly shoved a few handfuls of rice into her mouth. She liked her food. Her eyes filled with tears of joy that she wiped with her left hand. The three men came to sit opposite her.
“Why are you crying?” enquired a voice that the girl did not recognize.
“Princess, what made you cry?” Tofa Ali joined in.
The girl gave them a scathing look. “Why should I cry? Why should I cry when I have rice? I am happy. You have given me too much to eat. I have never eaten so much meat in one meal. A thousand thanks to the Almighty.”
“Princess, do you want to take a nap?”
“Yes, I feel sleepy when I eat rice.”
She produced a loud burp, a long stretched yawn and rubbed her tired eyes. She washed her hands on the plate and sat up with her feet on the bench. She rearranged the anchal of her saree to cover her back, shoulder and her neck but her breasts were still exposed. Dark complexioned and well proportioned, her body was youthful and healthy despite poverty. Moreover, she had an attractive face. All in all, a pleasing profile.
The girl realized that all three men were still ogling her. She tried to establish her standing with a disarmingly innocent smile. The men did not understand that smile. It was too innocent as if the sins of the world had not touched her yet. And how could it? Didn’t she just descend straight from the heavens? All three were completely smitten.
“Where are you going to sleep, Princess?” asked the boy.
“Right here on the bench.”
“Do you have a pillow and a blanket?”
“No, I left my father’s house in a fit of anger. I didn’t bring any clothes, let alone a pillow and a blanket.”
“I will give you blankets and pillows, Princess. I drive a truck. You can sleep in my truck. Indeed, you will be very comfortable there.”
“No, no, why should she sleep in a truck? I will join four of the benches; put a mattress and beautiful sheets. You will fall asleep the moment you lie down.”
Before the other men could speak, Tofa Ali said in a commanding voice, “Stop talking! Otherwise, I shall have to throw you out.”
“Why, why should I shut up?” asked one of the two men who were eating lunch.
“You forget that it was I who bought her the lunch.”
“How much did it cost you? I will give you the money.”
“What! Are you showing off your money? Get out of here.”
When both men rose to punch Tofa Ali, the girl came running with her arms open, and stood between them.
“Why are you fighting? Why don’t you ask me where I would like to sleep? You are creating an argument for no reason.”
In an instance, the three men and the boy felt stupid and stood silently. Now that they had revealed their true selves, the two men appeared like demons to the girl. One had a bony physique with a distorted face like a vulture. His hair was cut short and his raspy voice sounded like an owl. He looked like a rapist policeman. The other man looked like a movie villain. His beady eyes had the soulless gaze of a murderer. The girl was nauseated looking at his fat rotund body. Everybody was looking at her with lust. She was amused.
Suddenly, Jalfu asked, “Then make up your mind where you want to sleep, Princess Aunty.” After a momentary pause the girl replied. “Tonight I will sleep here. Tomorrow, I will sleep in the truck. Now, a bed awaits me everywhere in the city of Dhaka.” the girl said with a high pitched laugh that excited the men.
Tofa Ali said with authority, “I won’t let you go anywhere, Princess. You will be working on a job in this hotel. I will pay you wages. You will remain here, with me.” The girl giggled, swaying her body. She did not respond to Tofa Ali’s suggestions; instead, she said to the two men “Please go home now and come back tomorrow.”
After the two men had left for the night, she raised her feet on to the bench. Two new customers came in for dinner and made Tofa Ali and Jalfu busy waiting on them. Plates full of meat and rice, daal and fries were brought to them. They rapidly finished their meals and left. They might have seen the girl but did not pay any overt attention. So, there were still real human beings on this earth after all. With that thought on her mind, the girl lay down her head on the table and went to sleep.
Sometime in the night, the girl realized that she was lying on a pair of wooden benches, joined together to make a bed. Next to her was Tofa Ali. He did not go home that night. After raiding her naked body, he was lying motionless. Was he asleep? When the girl nudged him, he answered in a very soothing voice, “Do you want to say something, Princess?”
“My name is Gurigaon,”
“One can be called by any name.”
“Call me Gurigaon.”
“OK, I will. Are you happy, Gurigaon? Or do you want more?”
Happy! Yet, the girl felt like crying; she felt an intense sense of grief. She had lost her virginity in the same manner; forcefully dragged from her room, out of her bed; in the jute fields by two men. She experienced neither joy nor sadness; only the pain of the stinging nettles on her back and an intense hatred. Tofa Ali climbed on top of her again. She did not resist. Today she had to satisfy only one man on the bench. Tomorrow, in the truck, she will have to manage two of them. Tofa Ali asked the girl again, “Are you happy, Gurigaon?”
The girl then told Tofa Ali her story. “One day, when my father was away, somewhere in the middle of the night, Bajlu cut open the wall and entered my room. There was two or three more who came with Bajlu. They tied my mouth with a gamchha and then took turns to do their jobs. The next door neighbor became alert, caught Bajlu, but the others got away. Bajlu is the Chairman’s son who had done similar jobs many other times. Everybody knew him. Next day, my father heard the whole story and was stunned. He demanded justice when he regained his senses. First, he took it to the village headman who told him he couldn’t do anything. Bajlu’s father, the Chairman, was a very tough guy to face. He could ruin our lives, he said. My father then went to the police, where all they wanted was money. Nobody cared about what a day-laborer had to say. In spite of this, he did bring a case against Bajlu. Bajlu’s father used his money to get the case thrown out. But my father refused to see the reality. He kept on saying that a country with no justice is in serious trouble. I too asked him to quit but he wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, the Chairman sent his thugs to evict us from our home and our village. I pleaded with my father to go to Bajlu’s father and beg for his forgiveness so that we can return to our house. I said that poor people like us could not afford to have so much pride. Why should everybody in the household suffer because of me? I have a mother, brothers and sisters; where will they live now? When he did not heed to my request, I decided to find my own way. I hopped on a city–bound bus and thus I am here.”
“I see. So, you are not a virgin then. That act has already been done by someone else,” Tofa Ali said, in a disappointed voice.
“If I was a virgin, would I let you touch me?” The words dropped from her mouth with utter disgust as the girl turned away in bed. Tofa Ali was spending this time with her while having a wife at home. He had sent Jalfu to inform her that he will be at Narayangung on business. Jalfu was a smart boy for his age. He understood everything. Maybe one day he would ask her to sleep with him, free of charge. The girl heaved a sigh. She would not feel insulted. She had finished learning all there was to learn. Tofa Ali bought her youth for two plates of rice.
Next night, she will have to make some money. She needed the money desperately. Tofa Ali ought to pay her for services rendered. She turned around in the bed and asked, “Are you awake?”
“Do you have something to say?”
“Are you going to pay me?”
Tofa Ali snapped, “I paid for your dinner as well as your bedding. On top of that you want to be paid? What work have you done?”
“Ha! We both know well what I have accomplished. If you don’t pay, I will complain to your wife.”
“What did you just say?”
“What I said is right. I have a great need for money. My father who is a day-laborer, needs the money to get back the home that he lost because of me. I wish to send him some money for the home and also to repair the wall that Bajlu broke down to enter my room.”
“My goodness! I see you are a very shrewd woman.”
“How much will you give me?
“I will let you know. I have to think about it. Want one more?”
“OK. Then keep track of the total you owe me.”
“Why, aren’t you counting?”
“Of course I am.”
“You are so good with numbers! How much education do you have?”
“This type of calculation does not need an education. Women learn this automatically.”
Tofa Ali laughed heartily, “You have learned well indeed.”
When, in the early morning, Tofa Ali violated her again, the girl really wanted to cry. She felt she couldn’t fight this battle any more. She thought her life was like the river that flowed by her village, Gurigaon. Once, heavily laden large ships would ply up and down that river. Now that river is nothing but a canal, most of it choked off by silt. Not even two boats can sail on it side by side. She too felt like a dead river, her life choked up with silt that could never be removed. Job completed, the girl came out of the room. It was very early morning, beginning of a new day. The roads were absolutely quiet. All the people were sleeping in their homes. Only she did not know where she should go. She returned to the room and lay down next to Tofa Ali. She remembered that he did not return home last night. His wife most likely had spent a sleepless night like herself. She kicked Tofa Ali off the bed, cursing, “Damn vulture!”
Taking the cash out of Tofa Ali’s cash box, the girl tied the money at the end of her saree and came out of the room. By the time Tofa Ali got out from under the table, where he had rolled in, the girl had hailed a rickshaw and had departed.
“Where do you wish to go?’ asked the rickshaw-wallah. The girl was direct, “Can you help find work for me, brother?”
“Work? What kind of work?”
“Doing household chores, or breaking bricks at a construction site, whatever I can get.”
“Then go to my wife. She can help you find something, no matter how small. But I have one request.”
“What is it?”
“After you get a job, you have to sleep with me one day.”
The girl broke into peals of laughter. At this time of the day, the roads were not too crowded. There was a hint of coolness in the air. It felt wonderful to laugh out loud. So much so that the rickshaw-wallah turned around and queried, “Why are you laughing?”
“This is the easiest task I have undertaken,” said the girl. “When do you want to do it? It is free the first time; all other times, you have to pay. I have to send money to my day-laborer father, who is in all sorts of trouble because of me.”
“I understand. And may I pay you by giving you rickshaw rides in cool mornings like these?”
The girl raised her voice. “No, I need cash. You want my work but are not willing to pay, how in the hell that’s going to work?”
The man said nothing more. He took the girl to the vicinity of his house, and pointed it out to her from a distance. “Go to her. She breaks bricks. If possible, she will give you work. I cannot go with you now. But remember your promise.” The girl did not reply.
Since then it seemed there was no dearth of work. She regularly sent money to her father.
She became one of many millions of people in the city of Dhaka. She experienced a strange joy on her own. If she could not pay the rent, she slept on the streets or on top of a truck. Once, she went to another town with the men and had a great time.
One day, she saw the difficulties that a pregnant Chhobi’s mother faced on the street. “Why do you have so many children?” she asked.
“I sleep on the street; how many men can I keep at bay every night?”
The girl was aghast. Her eyes reflected a strange new fear. She quickly calculated. She had missed her period last month. Could it be then…? She would just have to wait and see. Days passed and eventually, she was faced with the hard truth. She was incapable of working at her old job. Nobody wanted to hire her as a maid. Her only job now, as a cook’s assistant in a hotel, was to grind all the spices. The money from her meagre salary was all she had, to make both ends meet, from one day to the next. People sneered at her large belly. Some grimaced while others shoved an occasional five rupee note in her clothes. Still, all the girl wanted was to give birth to a miracle baby, in this stable of a city, Dhaka. A baby who will take all the garbage out of Dhaka and declare, “Didn’t I say this city was beautiful!” Men would look at their hearts and find no garbage there, only clean, clear water. But there would be some whose stony hearts would not be penetrated by the clear water. They would be ready, noose in hands, snarling, “Cleaned the city! Showing off, huh! Death is your punishment for this crime.”
Startled, the girl fearfully touched her ever-expanding belly. Chhobi’s mother hinted that she may be carrying twins. The girl laughed, “Instead of one, I will have two for the same labor. That is even better.”
“That is great. But there is no sign of the father. How will you bring them up?”
“Street children don’t need money to grow up; they grow on their own.”
She giggled again. She herself had a father. He worked as a day-laborer. How useful had he been in her life, she wondered.
It was a rare blue moon night. The girl felt the first pangs of labor pain. She came out of her home in the slums. The pain grew rapidly, rippling through her body in waves. She lay down in the middle of the quiet street. The chilly night air cooled her body. She struggled to cope with the intense pain. Her screams attracted the neighborhood dogs. They came and sat down near her, occasionally licking her head.
That night, she delivered two little babies, a boy and a girl. She was delirious with joy. She could not imagine that this city street, filthy as a sewer, could, at times, be so beautiful in the dead of the full moon night. In the last few months, she had not observed anything of beauty in this city. She somehow managed to sit up and take out a new blade from her waist pouch and cut the babies’ umbilical cords.
The girl knew that soon it would be morning. The women from the slums, her friends, would be looking for her and come to see her on this street. They would see the babies and say to each other, “Look, Gurigaon has finally done something worthwhile. She has given birth to two babies at the same time. A pretty little girl and a cute little boy! Let us pick them up and take them home. We will give them everything we have. And, hey Gurigaon! Will you finally tell us your real name?”
The girl shook her head joyfully. She was truly happy. She shouted, her voice lifting in exultation, “Yes, I will. I will gladly tell everyone my name. Listen! You all who live in this city! My name is Pushpalata, the flowering creeper. And I have the power in me to make a thousand flowers blossom.”
Fakir: Muslim ascetic living on alms only
Jaura: Derogatory reference to street children, similar to urchin
Anchal: The end part of the saree that drapes over the bosom
Gamchha: Thin cotton towels
The original story "Aranya kusum (অরণ্য কুসুম)" by Selina Hossain is included in the collection Sakhinar Chandrakala (সখিনার চন্দ্রকলা) published by Ekushey Bangla Prokason in 2007.