Illustration: Arati Kumar-Rao
Illustration: Arati Kumar-Rao

Milk

Winner of the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.

Mashiul Alam lives and works in Dhaka. He is a Senior Assistant Editor at Prothom Alo and is the author of over a dozen novels and collections of short stories. Shabnam Nadiya is a Bangladeshi writer and translator, settled in California. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is currently a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University and recently received a PEN/Heim Grant for her translation of Mashiul Alam's non-realist fiction.

Once there was a severe flood in the month of Magh.
– Local saying

1

Salimuddi's wife Julekha did deliver the baby, but barely two months had passed when her breastmilk dried up. What was the baby supposed to survive on? There was no answer to Julekha's brutal question. He who was Master of the land and the skies was also Master of Julekha's breastmilk; this Julekha believed. But now it seemed to her that the Divine Master had pursed His lips in a smirk when He saw the distressing situation Julekha and her baby were in. It made her very angry. God was exceedingly whimsical: these words continued to beat in her heart. Unable to bear it, one day she held her baby away from her breast, looked up to the sky and blurted out, "This wasn't a good thing you did, Allah."

Within this Julekha's heart lived another Julekha. That Julekha raised her forefinger and said, "Do not try to comprehend the mysteries of Allah." It was enough to terrify Julekha; she spat on her chest and said tauba in repentance. Nevertheless, she received no forgiveness and came down with a terrible bout of stomach flu. She flooded the house and the yard with her piss, shit and vomit.

But the people of Modhupur knew that the Master of the land and the skies was infinitely kind, exceedingly forgiving. He sent the non-profit worker Aminul Islam to Julekha's bedside bearing packets of oral saline, and thus, ordered the angel of death Azrael to go back this time around.

2

Julekha was no emperor's daughter. She was a farm labourer bound in year-round employment at the Talukdar farmstead of Modhupur village. Her husband Salimuddi was the same. (There is no difference between a bound farmhand and a bound cow.)

Julekha was twenty-four years old; her skin was the colour of an old, shabby black umbrella, her body suffered a scarcity of flesh. Joint-ridden, thin as a cane, her body jutted out every which way, angular and long. Her nose was bony and high, her jaw at the ready. Her eyes were narrow; below them lay shaded hollows. They were like a pair of rusted black sickles. Julekha's breasts were not as large as a woman's should be. Her waist was flat and narrow. Her ass, disappointing.

3

There was no milk in Julekha's breasts. But, through Allah's grace, her son didn't die due to lack of breastmilk. He was quite well, growing. After all, rice water was not a rare commodity in a farming household. Also, people had seen him eat clods of earth. Meaning that Julekha's son was growing up on a diet of rice water and dirt. This was not a problem. He had begun to crawl and could even stand up grabbing onto this and that. This crawling pup advanced along the yard, the verandas, the stove-side, and the barns of the Talukdar farmstead, with ease. He wedged his red tongue against the back of his two just-grown teeth and cooed, toh toh toh. There was no one in Modhupur to pick up the child gently, or rock him a little, or make him chuckle or cry. It made no difference to him. He kept to himself, crawled here and there, grabbed this and that, played with the lambs and the baby goats, and laughed aloud whenever he felt like it.

4

In the evenings during the month of Poush, winter winds blew across the northern lake of Modhupur, baring their teeth, laughing and gnawing on the entire village. Cold dew dripped from the black sky onto the tin roofs, the straw thatches, the leaves, the haystacks, the supine paddies, the dusty roads and the hardened fields. In the Talukdar barns, the cows shivered with cold, and mosquitoes and gadflies swelled from sucking their blood. At some point, an owl poked its grotesque face out from a hole in a tree and gazed at the misty dawn. The elderly muezzin chanted the azan from the village mosque in a trembling voice and, in one of the many barns owned by the Talukdar family, a black dog eased her distended belly by bringing five puppies into the world. Still, there was no sign of the sun in the eastern sky. Still, adjacent to the Talukdar household, inside the tin-roofed shed spread thickly with straw, a group of dark-skinned people breathed noisily in their sleep.

5

The black dog's pups couldn't open their eyes yet. They couldn't bear the light of the world. They squealed and constantly tripped all over each other. They couldn't even locate their mother's teats.

The mother's teats were bursting with milk. But her belly burned with hunger. She filled her babies' bellies and went out. She needed food for herself. She crossed the hay-filled barn into the yard, and along the bank of the pond, along the grove of bamboo where leaves fell, and, swaying her milk-filled teats, she went in search of food.

6

A muscular male dog showed up in front of the barn. His drooping ears pricked up. His nostrils began to expand and contract. Inside the barn, there was indistinct squealing. The dog, sinewy like a wolf, slipped into the barn. In a moment, he shot out again like an arrow. The bright white puppy dangling from his mouth was clearly visible in the bright sunlight of midday. Bright red blood dripped onto the dry earth. The earth sucked in all the blood, but the stain remained.

The dog, with the puppy in its maw, disappeared. Then, for a while, there was absolute silence everywhere. All the men and women of Modhupur were frantically busy with cutting—Threshing—boiling—husking the rice harvest. In a little while, a pack of monstrous dogs showed up in front of the barn and within seconds the black dog's hideaway became empty. Only drops of blood remained, creating patterns on the white, hard soil of the month of Poush. The parched, thirsty soil absorbed all the blood, but still couldn't remove the signs.

The mother returned from the bamboo grove. She didn't waste time anywhere and quickly slipped into the barn. But her home inside the barn was empty. She writhed in distress. She clawed apart the piles of straw with her paws. Then she clawed at the earth, searched in the hay, and began running from one end of the barn to the other, distraught. She came out and raised her front paws to the sky, moaning. She clawed the earth again, rolled around on the ground, panted, and again raised her front paws to the sky, crying, and continuing to cry.

The people of Modhupur didn't see any of this. They had much more important things to do in this world.

7

Julekha's son crawled everywhere through the house, the yard, the outer yards. In Modhupur, the rice harvest continued: the fields grew empty and the farmers' households filled up with rice and hay.

During the day, Julekha dried out the unhusked rice in the red, cow-dung dabbed yard; she walked in circles within the spread-out unhusked rice, sifting it with her feet. In the afternoon, when the sunlight began to redden and die, she pulled the rice into piles with a paura. She covered the piles with polythene fertiliser bags and sacking so that the rice wasn't dampened by the night's dew. When night descended, she boiled the unhusked rice in large brass pots on a five-mouthed stove. She tossed some chaff into the fire; it crackled and burned.

Salimuddi reaped the paddy with the other labourers, carried back sheaves of paddy in baskets and arranged them in the outer yard. At night, he laid out empty barrels and wooden planks to flail the bundles of paddy or threshed them by walking a cow or water-buffalo in a circle.

Julekha's son was quite neglected in the middle of this massive toil; he wandered around on his own.

The dog with the lost puppies sat by herself in front of the barn. Her face was streaked with tears.

Julekha's son crawled over to the dog. The dog wagged her tail. She stretched out her neck and sniffed the human child.

8

One afternoon, Abdul, the servant of the Mondal household next door, was heard shouting. Then, he began to jump up and down, slapping both cheeks of his own ass, telling everyone, "What a strange thing, brother, what a strange thing! Julekha's son is feeding on dog's milk!"

Everyone was stunned. They dropped whatever they were doing and rushed over to the Talukdar's outer yard. There they found Julekha's son and the dog that had lost her puppies next to a pile of straw; the two were playing together in safety, in harmony. Nobody could see a hint of Abdul's aspersion in their simple play. Someone smacked Abdul on the back of his neck and said, "Shalla, you've become a detective now, have you?" Abdul touched soil to swear on his mother, to swear on Allah, and said, "But I saw it with my very own eyes!' When another smack seemed impending, he grew dejected and said, "One day you'll see with your own eyes that I'm not lying."

9

Abdul vowed to himself that, if he could show no one else, one day he would at least show Julekha and Salimuddi that astonishing scene. He remained vigilant from then onwards. After investigating for several days, he noticed that when the labourers left for the fields to reap the harvest after their morning's breakfast of watered-rice, when the women workers and the other women of the farmstead were engrossed in cooking and other chores, Julekha's son crawled while cooing toh toh toh, and crossed threshold after threshold, making for the outer yard. There, amid the countless piles of straw and the maze of haystacks, Julekha's son and the dog missing her pups found each other.

One day Abdul begged and pleaded and brought Salimuddi, Julekha and three other labourers to the outer yard. They stood behind a high haystack and saw:

Julekha's son was crawling, the carpet-like straw crackling under him. Around him, heavy with milk, danced the dog. She was exulting, clawing at the straw, wagging her tail and emitting a strange squeal. Whenever the boy wanted to pet the dog, she pretended to move away, but the next moment she was back wagging her tail, calling to him and shaking her head. Julekha's son giggled and reached out to grab her, but again she moved away.

Thus, their play and pretending went on for a while. Then, gradually, the dog grew calm. The boy cooed toh toh toh and went up to her. The dog splayed out her legs and stood still. Julekha's son pulled his little legs together and then extended them sideways under the dog's belly, balancing himself on his hands. He crooked his neck raising his face upwards and attached his mouth to one of the milk-filled nipples.

Salimuddi slid out from behind the haystack. He gripped the hoe resting on his shoulder and raised it above his head, arching his spine like a bow, poised to strike. The dog ran in terror but, impeded by another haystack, it changed direction trying to run a different way, when Salimuddi opened his mouth expelling his breath, and at that moment the thick, heavy back of the hoe landed right in the middle of the dog's head. There was a noise like the thick shell of a ripe velvet apple cracking open and, trembling and biting down on its tongue, the dog fell.

Salimuddi saw millions of fireflies jumping and circling around him, sparking impossibly in the midday sun. While everyone stared wide-eyed at the dog thrashing on the ground in the last moments of its life, the hoe slipped from Salimuddi's slackened fist and dropped almost silently on to the hay; watching the shimmer of the hostile fireflies circling his head for just a few seconds made Salimuddi's eyelids droop, and when his body lurched slightly and fell, like a tree trunk, the other farmworkers turned to look at him. As Salimuddi's body tumbled like the trunk of a banana tree chopped at the base, they caught him. When Julekha witnessed the moment and began howling, three crows began screeching in chorus from the mango tree by the pond, and Julekha's son forgot his own tears and gazed in wonder at the crows.

10

Salimuddi regained consciousness after cold water from the wintry pond was poured over his head for a little while. At first, he glanced this way and that, looked at the branches and boughs of the trees in surprise. Once he was able to locate himself, he began to look more normal.

He lay there comfortably for about an hour and then, proclaiming, "Ah, nothing happened," he stood up. He glopped a fistful of mustard oil on his head and kneaded it onto his crown before smoothly walking to the pond with his lungi and towel slung across his shoulder, ducking himself into the water before coming back.

Then, with the sweet heat of the southbound winter sun warming his back, he sat in the yard with the other labourers and ate rice till his belly was stuffed; after the rice, like any other day, he chugged down gallons of water. As he stroked his belly, now round and tight like a watermelon, he lit up a bidi. He took a long drag and chatted with the others.

When their brief post-lunch resting period was over, Salimuddi went with the other labourers to cut the paddy just as he was supposed to.

11

Then, the winter sun grew tired quickly and sagged on the western horizon. The men's shadows grew longer and longer in the golden fields until finally they faded and disappeared. The dry straw grew damp from dew and, from the northern expanse, with its teeth bared in laughter, winter arrived to sink its fangs into the skin and bones of the people. The fields and the houses had all gone quiet from winter's terror. The echoes of the azan shivered their way from the minarets of the mosque into the winter sky. The labourers had returned with the rice. Neither the rice nor the house belonged to them. Every year, during the harvest, these dark-skinned people came from Rangpur, Roumari, Kurigram, Nilphamari, Gaibandha, Gobindaganj, looking for work. They reaped the rice crop in the fields belonging to the householders; they slept on straw spread out in the tin-roofed shacks erected in the outer yards of the farmsteads; they ate white rice with kheshari-kalai legumes and green chillies; they harvested the rice; they threshed it. In moonlight, as well as in the utter darkness of the new moon, they got wet with dew and they threshed the rice and sang.

12

The labourers sat in a row in the yard eating rice. They devoured tub after tub. As if there was no end to their feeding. As if they would be happy if they could eat into eternity. They didn't want to stop, they just wanted to eat, eat and eat.

Dew dripped onto their heads from the black sky. They thought about the sky sometimes; they called it 'asmaan' instead of 'akash.' They usually only looked at the sky to check for rain or storms. Very rarely did they think of the sky with any other significance: where it was the throne of He who possessed both worlds; where the Master, although He was infinitely kind, nevertheless visited terrible disasters and calamities, and it was beyond humans to pierce His mysteries.

The labourers ate rice and drank water and inhaled tobacco smoke and transformed their bellies into watermelons; they groaned 'Ahh' to indicate their satiation and sat together chatting. Then, they tied their cotton towels around their ears and heads and laid out empty barrels and wooden planks and thipish thipish thopash thopash they beat sheaves of rice against the planks.

Thus, the night deepened even further. The dew thickened and accrued on the tin roof, the haystacks, the bamboo grove and the leaves of trees. Owls hooted, from afar floated the baying of foxes, dogs howled at the mouth of the pathway.

Finally, it was time for Julekha to leave the side of the stove. The rice chaff still sat inside the stove's belly, smouldering to the colour of egg yolk. Salimuddi left his companions and returned to his own home. As the farmhand employed year-round by this household, he and his family had a separate room allotted to them. Although there was no cot in the room, there was bedding made out of woven fronds of date-palm, and now, since that bedding had been spread out over a layer of thick straw, it felt as if they had an actual warm and springy mattress.

Their son lay asleep on that mattress. Salimuddi and Julekha finished their work, returned to their room, latched the door and fell asleep. The moon rose in the sky. The land and the sky grew enigmatic in moonlight. A mysterious, ruthless creature spread frost everywhere. There was no sound anywhere in Modhupur. No hooting owls, no baying foxes, no howling dogs.

Except, trapped in an endless silence within a profound chill, Modhupur shivered.

13

At night's end, the people of Modhupur awoke shouting. The moonlit land and sky shifted, rocked with the solemn sound coming from afar. People stood in their homes, at their doors, verandas and yards, and saw an all-encompassing deluge approach. The flood inundated the surrounding plains and surged and grew. As they watched, the flood swelled and submerged the bamboo grove, the dock by the pond, the alleyways. It overwhelmed the yards and entered houses. People began to climb up the haystacks, the mounds of rice, and to the rooftops.

They saw that the world was flooded with milk. The land and the sky were inundated with white moonlight and milk. They looked at each other in surprise, they understood nothing, they felt a helpless and wretched desire to understand the profound machinations of the Master of the land and the sky. Their hearts trembled, they felt apprehensive. They stood up atop the mounds of rice, the rooftops, the highest points of the haystacks and the treetops, and they looked around. In their minds they searched for Salimuddi, they remembered his son and felt a keen curiosity to see him.

Suddenly, the sound of laughter, like never before, reached their ears. In the silent milk-flooded plains, they heard a child's numinous laughter echoing and re-echoing in a way that reached beyond all their experiences. Then they saw that the village paths and walkways, the yards, the banks of the pond, and the bamboo grove were inundated by milk; the fog-ridden moonlight and the steam from the milk curled their way up toward the sky.

Against this never-before-seen white backdrop, the people of Modhupur saw this—Salimuddi's son was swimming in the moonlit milk-sea in infinite joy; beside him, like a queen, swam the dog, her swollen teats swaying in the rippling waves of milk.

***

Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.

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