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BLink turns 5

Different eyes

Numair A Choudhury | Updated on January 18, 2019

He was healthy for a villager — his skin stretched smoothly over a frame hardened to blackness with field work. With his calloused hands, he could pick up burning embers in winter, and toss them around playfully. If necessary he could go for days on a handful of rice — his organs were compact and efficient; minutely adjusted over the years to waste the least energy. His blood, thick and salty, enabled him to work long hours in the heat. Despite all his roughness, Abdul’s handsome face still had a soft quality to it. The frailties of a compassionate upbringing were etched into his very smile; the gentle way he spoke; the liquid of his eyes. His children were bold, but full of laughter, their skin unblemished from beatings. He had never been known to hit his wife, even in the privacy of their mud shelter. Abdul behaved as though someone had just put a newborn baby in his arms to take care of.

He was sitting now, under the large jackfruit tree that sheltered their hut from monsoon storms. For the past nine harvesting seasons, he had kept his annual accounts on the bark of this tree. Each of the nine squares on the trunk represented a block of life, enclosing sweat, anguish and hopes. There were straight lines to represent every 1,000 takas borrowed, and curved ones to record payments. This year the straight lines were too many; scratched in close together, they were a compact mass of apprehensions. Abdul could only count to 10, so after one count, he started another. Three more. The crops would bring in around 10,000 takas; so he was at least 3,000 short. Besides, he needed money for his family.

But times were not difficult for everyone. And politicians, for one, did not agree on the state of the nation. They had started flocking to the villages as the time for elections was drawing near. Some came in the green government jeeps and others in an assembly of private cars. The jeep-people would talk of a prospering economy and the new grain houses that were being built. The others would decry the state of the nation and appeal to the people to resist the present government. But the hungry villagers saved their energy. They had seen far too often how these angry politicians changed their talk once they were the ones sitting in the dark cool of the air-conditioned jeeps. Then they would shield themselves behind tinted glass, hiding their betrayal.

In the village, some had done well, but others poorly. But the hungry were not the loud ones, they were too crushed to speak harshly. Their protest was framed in shrivelled bodies and reflected in dusky eyes. Only the rich would drone on about their hardships, as if their voices could blind others to filled out cheeks and soft, sugar fingers.

As Abdul stared at the lines, grasping at what they meant and where they came from, he realised that understanding them meant nothing. They were not going anywhere; even the ones from seven years ago looked as fresh and as deep as those he had carved this winter. Little flints of wood stuck to his fingers as he ran his skin along the edges. The shreds pierced his flesh, reluctant to fall away. The moneylenders would not disappear either, they would be coming soon to collect their dues. He knew that this year, they would not give him more time. Three of his friends had already been killed for not paying. Unless he found a way to raise money, his turn was soon. Their long game of pretending would end. He would no longer have to pretend that he had a chance of paying the money back and they would stop pretending to believe him.

Abdul had figured out their game after his third crop cycle. When the lenders sat with him and calculated the money he owed them, he could tell that it would never be possible to pay. His father had died leaving him four acres of arable land; he currently owned less than one. Even that was now in danger of being taken by the lenders.

Abdul thought of what Fakrul from the neighbouring village had told him. The day had come when the rich could buy body parts from the poor. And the poor could live on, incomplete, but still alive. Fakrul said hospitals in the city would pay 5,000 takas for a healthy eye. For one eye! What need did someone like him have for two working ones? That money would be enough to release him from his trap. He would never have to scratch another line. The tree would grow without a single new scar.

And what did one eye mean? When there was dirt in one, he could still walk straight and reach for the stalk by his foot. Abdul put a hand in front of his right eye, things were still clear. There was a little gone from each side, but how were these corners worth? Did they matter to one as poor as him? It is not as though he had wealth to look upon. These corners were not worth more than land.

But Rohema would never let him do it. She was much too tender to accept these things. She was tenacious enough in other ways though. Abdul had noticed that she was selling her most precious trinkets. He had not seen her glass bangles in a long time. Her small face mirror was also missing. Maybe she was afraid of herself now, who would want to see a hungry face staring back? He did not want this any more, it was his fault that his wife was ashamed of herself. He would have to do it without telling her. Eyes did not last forever, and his were already losing their strength. But land stayed.

He would have to speak to Fakrul.

 

Numair A Choudhury’s debut novel Babu Bangladesh will be published by HarperCollins. He passed away in an accident in 2018

Published on January 18, 2019

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