The Minstrel's Song

Imamul Haq squatted in his mud hut, listening to the song of the baul as Ajoy, the minstrel, wandered through the village begging alms for his dinner. Begging for scraps, for leftovers of scarce meals that prudent housewives would give away in exchange for blessings of good health and good fortune—give away, or throw to the dogs.

People like him were scraps, too. To be thrown this way or that at destiny’s whimsy.

“The birds know no lines, they wing through clear skies…” Ajoy’s voice cut an arc through the quiet night past buzzing insect sounds.

He took a deep puff on his beedi. Thank God the downpour had finally stopped; all day sharp sheets of water had hit red mud, turning the hamlet into a swamp.

“Free as a bird…” Ajoy’s deep baritone seemed wiser this particular evening.

Free. No lines. If only life were as simple. But those darned birds didn’t have tough decisions to make. Or forms to fill in.

Knock. That must be Ajoy. Every evening after he’d finished his rounds they’d sit and smoke a beedi or two, share the day’s happenings. Ajoy would trudge home to the next village after an hour, and then he’d blow out the lamp.

“Dada, what have you decided?” Ajoy asked, leaving his footwear at the door and stepping in. A change from his usual boisterous greeting of “How goes the day with you?”

“You know my problem—Rafiq has seen too much TV, he wants to go to India, to Kolkata or even Mumbai. Says he’ll drive a rickshaw. He wants to work in those tall buildings and dance with pretty girls like in the movies.”

“But you, Dada, what do you want?”

“I don’t know. Tomorrow morning, that government man will be here. Rafiq said, pick 'India' on the pink form. How hard are the fates! For years on, we’ve been forgotten, ignored, and now we must immediately choose. Choose with a knife edge on our heads, one way or another.”

He sighed. The muezzin’s distant call rang out amidst other sounds of the night.

Ajoy said, “Dada, remember when we’d skip classes at the madrassa, ignore the muezzin’s call and run away to play by the river? Remember catching your first fish, and how we’d roasted it right there?”

He wiped at an errant tear and said, “Yes, and I remember my nikaah vows, I remember burying my mother, I remember Saeda’s grave—what do I about those?”

“Nothing. What else? At least Rizwana, your daughter, is happy, settled with that boy from the next village.”

His wife’s jewelry was long gone, and he was still paying off his debts to the grocer and pawnshop, but Ajoy needn’t know that.

Damn. He swatted an errant fly away. That lantern by the window drew insects.

He lowered the wick and glanced out. A crinkled paper flag hung out in the breeze, half-and-half, half Indian, half Bangladeshi, the colors running into each other.

“Silly kings.” He muttered.

“Mad and foolish, those Kings. Fancy kings of Cooch Behar and Rangpur! Gambling away entire villages as they wished. Now we have to pay with our lives and decide.” He rubbed his beedi into the ground and flung the stub out of the window.

Ajoy finished his beedi, picked up his ektara, flung his shawl across his shoulder, “May the heavens bless you with wisdom, elder brother. I take your leave.”

If those kings had been sane there wouldn’t be any chitmahals, tiny pockets of enemy territory ring-fenced by neighboring country. He grimaced. What a nuisance.

Damn those foolish kings. No ration card, or free rice. No electricity. No roads. No leader willing to spend a rupee on votes. Nothing. No one wanted to spend a paisa. Last year, thugs had captured his neighbor’s harvest, neither the Indian or Bangladeshi havildar had batted an eyelid, or registered a case. Later someone said one of the raiders was the Indian policeman’s nephew. No one wanted them, the remnants, the people who were stuck, outcastes of both the countries.

What to do? Should he go to India? Leave his forefather’s land, his memories?

Or stay on, tending to the fields, salvage what he could, eke out a living from the land? Honor the ancients? If he moved, where would he observe the feast of the dead, offer prayers in their name?

He walked to the lantern and added some more oil. The surrounding huts shone in the dull light.

He returned to his seat by the wall and watched the cracks on the mud floor. A new floor was long overdue, but after Saeda, his wife, went her way to the skies, there weren’t many familiar with the skill of making floors the old way.

He sighed. The hut’s walls were collapsing, crumbling into the red mud, helped along by insects. A line of ants was making its patient path to a hole in the wall. Each ant bore a grain on its back. He placed his index finger on the path, obstructing the lead ant. After a microsecond’s delay, the ant line veered to the left, bypassing his outstretched finger. He blocked it again. And the ant-queue veered again.

“So that’s the lesson, is it?” he said, his words sounding strange in the silence.

He stepped to the window.

The scriptures said that even the Prophet had moved across nations, uprooting himself, displacing and resettling from areas where they’d lived for decades. All for the good.

Maybe he ought to take a chance as well. Even though his heart raced at the idea.

Rafiq would be pleased.

Mira Desai lives in Mumbai, India, and in addition to a day job in pharmaceuticals, she translates and writes short fiction.