(This article is part of our special series ‘Rethinking Bangladesh’. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)
Jhonaki’s obsession with the hippos started after her parents’ deaths. It was as if grief didn’t want to enter her body, so it gently stepped aside and made way for obsession to settle instead.
If she wasn’t playing tag with us at the abandoned, moss-ridden neel kuthi the day her parents died, she would have died too. Her father had not been able to sell his crops in the market for close to seven months. The land where he grew his crops had turned infertile. No one really knew why. The plots beside that land, however, were flourishing. The landowner blamed his poor farming techniques for the long spell of loss. The family was living off of borrowed money from the landowner. They could have sought their relatives’ help if the relatives themselves were rich enough. Looking to the landlords, as everyone here knows, is like hanging yourself from the banyan’s highest branch. When the landowner’s kindness ran out and he threatened to chase the family out of the village, her father turned to his useless sickle. And hacked her mother to death. Then slashed his own throat.
We realized Jhonaki wasn’t normal when relatives and friends of the two were simmering with sorrow but not a single tear rolled out of her eyes. Instead, she emptily stared at the bodies lying in pools of dark blood on the earthen floor, walked towards the big mound of hay beneath the neem tree where the one-eared hippo was snoozing, settled herself cosily against its wet belly, and like a baby in its mother’s embrace, fell asleep.
Our mouths hung open at the spectacle. Everyone in the village knew how terrible it was to even touch these beasts. We grew up hearing stories from our elders about how these beasts are embodiments of evil left by the British all those years ago. They told us that the white men brought these fat, filthy animals from faraway lands and “let them breed like rabbits here”. They told us how, on account of the white men mercilessly oppressing and killing our people, the villagers started associating the hippos with the memories of those dark years and accordingly avoided interactions with them. The only interaction included shooing them away with sticks and twigs when they got too close to their lands, threatening to walk all over the fresh crops. Sometimes, if the villagers were a little careless and the hippos, jumping at the chance, ate half a row of pumpkins or rice stalks, they would hit them with stones and chase them away. But the villagers never dared to kill them, the elders told us, because no one knew what these beasts held inside their bellies, what ominous thing could tumble forth from their insides and haunt the village for generations like the white men did. So far, the hippos have not killed anyone, which Mr. Gupta, our science teacher, found very confusing. As he told us, hippos were supposed to be deadly. In Africa, where they are originally from, they smashed people’s skulls between their sharp, yellow teeth.
But the reality in our village was different. The hippos milled about the school compound, the temple, the mosque, the ghostly mansions overrun by weeds and creepers, the sprawling market, the field near the collector’s office, grazed at the kashful fields alongside the cows and the sheep, wallowed in the river, lay on the sandy bank, soaking in the sun, moaning, grunting, and snorting.
They minded their own business, which is why everyone decided coexistence was the best way to preserve the peace.
After the incident, our parents told us to maintain a distance from Jhonaki. Even her khala, who chose to take her in, didn’t let her stay inside her house. She had a small shed with nets and fences built beside the chicken coop for Jhonaki. Slowly, everyone in the village stopped batting their eyes about her. They let her be as she rode the one-eared hippo and toured the entire village almost regularly.
The elders told us, because no one knew what these beasts held inside their bellies, what ominous thing could tumble forth from their insides and haunt the village for generations like the white men did.
At that time, we were in the fifth grade. No one sat beside her. She smelled of mud, dung, and river. She stopped coming to the fields in the afternoons to play marbles, tag, and hide-and-seek with us like before. We often found her covered in mud and sand on the riverbank, lying beside the one-eared hippo as the other hippos rolled and bounced and paced around them as if they were the throne-holders of that hippo kingdom.
When her Khala said she could not pay for her schooling, given she had three boys of her own to educate, our principal ma’am was kind enough to allow Jhonaki to continue her education even though her school fees hadn’t been paid for the last seven months, on account of her father’s failing crops.
Every month, she called Jhonaki into her room. We did not know why she called her in with that kind of regularity. So we pressed our ears to the wooden door, eavesdropping. It turned out that she was failing the monthly class tests. We chuckled because why wouldn’t she? Didn’t she fall asleep in class while we were being taught about gravity, multiplication, tenses, Bangla grammar, and Jibanananda Das’ poetry?
It rained all morning on results day, as if to fit the anticipation roiling in our ribs. At school, some of us were being cuffed on the ears by our parents, some of us were being shouted at, some of us were being patted on our shoulders. A little after the rains abated, we saw Jhonaki run out of the principal ma’am’s room, ignoring her calls, galloping across the compound and out the rusty metal gate. Later, we learned that she had failed the final exams (out of hundred, twelve in math, five in science, two in English, four in Bangla, nine in social studies, seven in religious studies) and decided to sacrifice her education to spend all her time with the one-eared hippo.
She would be in the ninth grade, like we are now, if she didn’t make such a foolish decision. We are pretty sure though that her love for the one-eared hippo – all the hippos of our village, in general – has blinded her from reasoning with herself. Like when you shoot your gaze directly at the sun.
Everyone in the village knew how terrible it was to even touch these beasts.
Bags heavy on our shoulders, the sun merciless against our skin, we trudge home. Around us, the rice-fields and the palm trees are still. We can feel the earth simmering beneath our shoes. The heat is so terrible that even the hippos aren’t strolling around on land. Their snorts ride the hot air and reach us all the way from the riverbank. A herd of egrets whooshes past us, a brief gust of wind lapping at our bodies.
As we take a turn towards the alley after crossing Rehmat’s paan shop, we see Jhonaki licking an orange lolly, her eyes closed, her hands firmly clasping the rings of fat around the one-eared hippo’s head. The hippo is walking down the alley, towards us, chewing a long and thick bundle of grass. This is the first time we have seen her in a week. Our gaze meets hers. She stares at us but does not say anything. We keep looking at her as she, straddled on the hippo, crosses us. Her belly is protruded, as if she is hiding a coconut inside her red frock. Her face appears fleshier than before. Our eyebrows crawl in confusion.
The next day, at school, everyone is talking about it. Jhonaki’s pregnancy.
“Who did that?”
“I have never seen a man anywhere near her.”
“She lives in that shed at her aunt’s, no? Do you think maybe it was her uncle?”
“The labourers from the construction site?”
“Does she have an affair though? Could it be related to that?”
“I don’t know. She is pretty dumb, isn’t she? She doesn’t speak, spends all her time with the beasts, day and night. I don’t think she is involved in those things.”
“You know, you can never predict anything about abnormal people like her. I mean, she is only fifteen and look what she is up to! First, the hippos and now this.”
To the village, the news came as a shock. The fact of her pregnancy has surpassed our wildest imagination, after all. She could have disappeared from the village one day without notice, for all we care. And still, that would not match the severity of the current situation.
In the evening, the elders call for a meeting on the Imaam’s porch, where meetings concerning common and uncommon village affairs take place. They seem to think that someone must have taken advantage of her. Jhonaki’s aunt cries like she has an endless stock of tears. Her dark headscarf turns sleek in the lantern’s glow.
“How will I feed another mouth? My husband is a barber, for God’s sake! It’s not fair. How can someone just take advantage of my dumb niece and get away with it? I beg of you, bhaijaan, please find the cruel man and ask him to marry her and relieve us of the trouble!”
“Don’t worry, Hamida apa. Be rest assured that all of us – the financially suitable villagers, that is – will chip in with whatever amount we can, should the culprit not be found anytime soon.”
“What do you mean? Do you think this poor, brainless girl and the baby can live off your mercy for a long time? And what about my children? How am I going to feed them once this baby comes?”
“Apa, we understand your concerns, but you tell us, what can we do?”
She grinds her teeth, pulls her fingers, and storms off, fuming. A mob of hippos burps and growls, chewing grass and hay a few steps away from the Imaam’s house.
The pregnancy news still fresh and alive on every tongue, another news fans out with the dawn. Jhonaki has been kicked out of the shed. We aren’t worried about where she will stay though. As usual, we will spot her – but even more now – on the riverbank with her hippo. Perhaps by the huge mounds of hay, at times. The empty fields, the kashful groves.
The silence of the village has made way for the hippos’ noises to thrive in the air.
At school, our classmates and friends talk about how their parents are thinking of donating food and old clothes to her from time to time. They speculate whether her child would turn out to be abnormal like her. Would it be dark-skinned like her or a milky white thing like her mother? They joke that the child would turn out to be a chatterbox, as opposed to her silent nature. And then she would grow so frustrated with it that she would spend more time with her beloved hippos than her own blood, that she would be more interested to swat buzzing flies away from her hippos’ faces than the child’s.
After school breaks, we stumble upon a commotion near the landlord’s house. The landlord’s wife, Zulekha, is on a wooden stretcher, squirming, wailing, a thick wad of brown cloth pressed around her left leg. It seems that there’s no leg, only gushing blood. Her hair is clumped, pressed onto her head, sticky with sweat. Two men lift the stretcher and place it on the bullock cart. The landlord hurriedly mounts the cart and shouts at the thick-set man in charge of the cart, “Who are you waiting for? Quick!” The cart drives off.
We dart inside the gate and find Jhonaki’s one-eared hippo lying on the ground beside the well. Five men take turns hacking at it with their long machetes. They grunt after each blow. The hippo, on the other hand, is silent. We wonder if it has died already.
We ask the guard who is drinking lemonade from a metallic cup under the mango tree what happened.
“She was fetching bananas from the orchard,” he says before taking a drag, “when the sly hippo showed up from behind and bit her leg off.”
We are frozen with fear. It is as if someone has stuffed us up with ice blocks. We imagine Mr. Gupta sighing in relief at the fact that his words have finally turned true – hippos do indeed gobble up humans.
The men wipe the sweat off their foreheads with their bloodied sleeves. The hippo’s fat body makes their strikes bounce. Blood is oozing out of its body, widening the pool around it, darkening the grass. Moments later, the blood crawls towards our feet. We have Bangla, English, and math homework due tomorrow. At this point, we aren’t bothered by the fact. We fix our eyes at the machetes swishing up and coming down. We look around and cannot find Jhonaki anywhere.
We pace around our houses, deciding whether we should start running now. Will we hold any chance if the cyclone strikes quicker than we can think?
Panic has fallen over the village like a stubborn stain. The streets, the stalls, the fields, the orchards, and the playgrounds are empty. Men have stopped going to the mosque for prayers. The temple has been emptied of its usual bustle. Our parents won’t let us out. Our fathers and elder brothers, especially, are guarding the houses with sticks in their hands. They are shooing away any hippo that approaches. Kids spray them with stones. They moan and run away. The silence of the village has made way for the hippos’ noises to thrive in the air. We desperately want to go outside and play football. We think our parents are being foolish. It was just one hippo who attacked Zulekha. That doesn’t mean every other hippo will do the same with us.
By the grace of God, the panic lasts for three days only. Everyone in the village can be seen walking with a long stick now, even the kids. They have turned this new reality into a plaything. They’re using the sticks like guns, pretending to be soldiers at war. At times, they’re even striking one another out of playfulness.
When we play football, some of us stand as guards with our sticks around the field. We take turns every day to ensure fairness. It’s extremely frustrating to keep watch for any potentially harmful hippos and miss out on the fun of playing. The players’ shouts and cackles dancing in the afternoon breeze don’t help much. We get the urge to abandon this scheme of guarding, but we are also afraid of losing our hands or legs, or worse, our lives. So that’s a fair sacrifice we ought to make. We make prayers to God daily so that he miraculously vanishes these hippos from our village one day.
No one has seen Jhonaki recently. Not on the riverbank, on any of the hippos’ backs, not around the orchards, the groves.
We have just performed the Jummah prayer and are buying jhalmuri from the old lady at the market when she appears, with a shiny dagger in her hand. With light steps, she approaches the landlord who is inspecting the brown and black chickens’ legs and necks. In the blink of an eye she plunges it into the landlord’s back.
“This is for my friend, you monster,” she says, her eyes sparkling with sinister light.
Our hearts drop. Our bones rattle. We tighten our grip around our sticks in fear.
The landlord gasps for breath and groans, falling over the counter filled with meat. Arzu, the short woman in charge of that stall, screams.
This is the first time we have heard Jhonaki speak in a long time. The childish thinness of her voice is still there. Her belly has swollen more than before. So has the fleshiness of her face. She is wearing a blue gown smeared with patches of clay, mud, and thick blades of grass. She looks as though she has been living under the earth for months and emerged now for a change of air.
The landlords’ bodyguards, who, until the attack, were busy drinking juice three stalls away from the landlord, are now charging at her. She doesn’t run. We wonder if she could run with that big belly if she chose to. They beat her with their sticks together. She cackles delightfully. She doesn’t wince. Her dusty and bloodied face beams with a sense of achievement. Her cackles soon trickle to moans. Then coughs. Then silence.
The heavens have opened. Lavender lighting strikes the horizon intermittently, painting everything bright for a split second. Our thatch roofs thak-thak-thak against the raging rains. After we have completed our dinner (khichuri with beef bhuna, courtesy of the rain) and tucked ourselves into our woolly blankets with animal prints, we feel our cots tremble. The walls, the ground, the jugs, the glasses, too, begin trembling soon. We look out the window and cannot make out what it is amid the dark. But we can surely sense something – like a cluster of boulders – hurtling from the horizon. Our mothers hastily put medicines, biscuits, and clothes into polythene bags. Our fathers take the savings from the rusty trunks under our cots and throw them into a jute sack. We pace around our houses, deciding whether we should start running now. Will we hold any chance if the cyclone strikes quicker than we can think?
A series of lightning reveals before us that we don’t have to worry about a cyclone. It is the hippos who are charging. All together. We have never seen them together. And to think that they are united and raging closer with every passing second is enough to soil ourselves.
With bags and sacks slung over our shoulders, we rush out of our houses and keep running towards no direction in particular.
A man shouts, “O, look! Isn’t that Jhonaki on the hippo?” A woman replies, “What? Has the devil swallowed your head?”
Some climb the wildly swaying trees. Some hit rocks and tin roofs and fall on the ground. Some succumb under the weight of their belongings on their backs and heads. Some get buried under the endless stream of running feet.
Around us, cries mingle with the rain. We do not look back. We can feel the hippos’ heavy footsteps come closer and closer, on the verge of overtaking us. We hear the houses behind us getting rammed by their force, tin, thatch, wood, and bamboo being crushed under their feet.
Our hearts wobble, start melting almost. The hippos’ grunts envelop our ears like hot palms.
We do not look back. We just keep running and running and running.
Rethinking Bangladesh: A special issue
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Shah Tazrian Ashrafi lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is currently an undergraduate student of International Relations. His works appear in Himal Southasian, The Diplomat, Caravan, TRT World, The Aleph Review, Six Seasons Review, Dhaka Tribune, and The Daily Star, among other places. He was part of the 2021 cohort of Write Beyond Borders mentorship program arranged by the British Council.