The Mynah Bird’s Testimony
We don’t know what exactly was going through Mohammad Bajlu’s mind then.
When he got the news that it was towards his house that people from some television channel were heading with a camera, he lay down in bed in his house, which was situated at the southern end of the village of Nishandiya. But before that, he called his wife, Momena, and whispered something into her ear. And just then his household hen emerged slowly from the straw basket under the cot after laying an egg, and screeched out its clucking announcement of the conclusion of its recent labour pain. Was this the day that Mohammad Bajlu had been waiting for so long? Had he been wishing inwardly that they would arrive and pull him down from this theatrical stage?
Picking green and ripe coconuts, shearing the dead leaves at the crown of coconut trees, placing the pots to collect the sweet juice from the date palm – that was Bajlu’s work. He was one of the few tree-men of Nishandiya village. Bajlu had been obsessed with speedily clambering up the thin, vertical trunk of the coconut tree right from his childhood. And then he became obsessed with reaching those parts of trees that no one else could. As a boy, lifting first his right leg and then the left, and then the right one again, Bajlu zigzagged his way bit by bit to the very crown of the krishnachura tree, where a black kite was perched, as if it had an exclusive right to the spot. The moment Bajlu’s head emerged from between the leaves, the startled kite screeched and flew off towards the sky. Sitting on the high branch, Bajlu could see the distant boundaries of Nishandiya village. He could see the smoke emerging from the kitchen of Kashem’s house far away, and he could see the yellow sari of Parul, the most beautiful woman in the village, hung out to dry on the fence. He was gripped by this obsession of viewing the world from a height. From small trees he graduated to big trees. He craved to climb to the uppermost branch of the tallest tree in the village. Each and every tall tree posed a challenge for him. And it were the challenges posed by coconut and palm trees that were his favourite. As Bajlu left ordinary trees behind and climbed up taller trees each day, he acquired a unique ability. Of course, he didn’t know then that climbing trees would become his livelihood. Bajlu would become the tree-man of Nishandiya village. But he didn’t get tree jobs very often. He couldn’t provide for his family, that is his wife, Momena, and his ten-year-old daughter, Shilpi, by picking green and ripe coconuts for people. And Bajlu hadn’t learned any trade other than attending to trees.
One morning, Bajlu was shearing the coconut trees belonging to Altaf Ali, who was a member of the village council. Clambering up quickly to the crown of the tree, he was getting rid of the dry leaves there. Altaf Ali had ten coconut trees in all. Bajlu deftly removed the dry and dead leaves from the first and then the second tree. As he was working on the third tree, calamity struck. Bajlu’s foot slipped and he fell off the tall coconut tree. He broke his right leg. He lay bewilderedly for a while after he fell to the earth, and after that, he slowly began to feel great pain. Altaf Ali asked Sobhan to come with his cycle-van, and he also informed Momena, who then took Bajlu in Sobhan’s van and went to the sub-district hospital, ten miles away from the village. The doctors there examined him and said that Bajlu’s right thigh bone was completely broken. They plastered his leg, and said that he needed to be taken immediately to a hospital in Dhaka. The address of a major orthopaedic hospital in Dhaka was provided. Altaf Ali lent Bajlu some money. And Momena sold her earrings and got some more money. Momena left her daughter Shilpi behind with her mother, and boarded the bus to Dhaka with her husband Bajlu.
It was night by the time Bajlu and Momena reached the hospital in question. Hobbling somehow with his arm around Momena’s shoulder, Bajlu went through the main entrance of the hospital. But the moment they entered the hospital – they were entirely unprepared for the situation they encountered there. They saw that there was a terrible commotion inside. There were countless bloody patients on the hospital verandah and corridors, all with broken arms and legs, some of them had their limbs in plaster casts, while others simply moaned with their as yet unplastered broken limbs. There were countless more people surrounding all these patients. Some people were running this way and that in the hospital with cameras and microphones. And doctors and nurses were rushing around with patients. Bajlu and Momena had anticipated that it would be very crowded in a Dhaka hospital, but they were dumbfounded seeing the dramatic agitation here. They sat down in a corner of the hospital verandah. Bajlu stretched out his plastered leg, rested his back against the wall and looked around, trying to figure out what exactly the matter was. Momena gave Bajlu a banana and a sweet-bun to eat, she had brought that along with her. She ate too. She held the prescription from the sub-district hospital firmly in her grip. She handed Bajlu the tablet that was given there, and made him have it with water. A television set fixed on the wall in the patients’ waiting area caught Bajlu’s attention. Resting his hands on the plaster cast over his leg, which had become grimy by now, he looked alternatively at the crowds rushing around, and at the television screen.
In a little while, Bajlu figured out what the matter was. He learnt that a building housing a large garments factory in Dhaka had collapsed that morning, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands. It was these injured folk who were rushing to various hospitals in Dhaka now. Bajlu saw on the television screen the collapsed roof of the garments factory, the prompt action by the army, the process of bringing out the dead and injured bodies of the workers trapped inside, and he heard the wails of the workers’ family members. As if mesmerized, Bajlu listened to the narrations broadcast on television of the workers rescued from the heap of debris. He heard what people who had suffered injuries while attempting to rescue the workers from the heap of debris were saying. Seeing all the grieving, seeing the whole carnage of destruction and the dead bodies on the television screen, Bajlu fell into a kind of stupor. He forgot about the pain in his own leg.
Wounded and bloody patients continued to arrive at the hospital until late at night. Bajlu observed that many of these patients were workers in the garment factory, over whom bricks, concrete and beams had collapsed, and there were some who had been injured while rescuing the workers. The reporters were asking them all kinds of questions with cameras and microphones pointed at them, and the people were replying to them. And various offers of compensation and financial assistance for the dead and injured were being announced. Resting his back against a wall in the verandah, Bajlu listened to all this. And as he listened, at some point he fell into a doze.
Did whatever subsequently happened transpire while Bajlu was dozing? Was it during this doze of his that he was taken over by a great, fantastical creativity? After all, there were several cues in Bajlu’s life to becoming a seer. It wasn’t unusual for a person attending all by himself to a tree from its highest branch, so close to the sky, to become prone to fantasticality.
But we speculate that the roots of Bajlu’s imaginary world possibly lay elsewhere. And that those roots were actually much stronger. We know that besides his obsession with trees, Bajlu also had another secret obsession. It was on account of that secret obsession that his mind cultivated the imaginary. Bajlu was addicted to reading punthis, or chapbooks. He went regularly to the weekly market and bought the punthis. The only use he made of whatever little learning he had obtained from primary school was in reading these chapbooks. When we say reading chapbooks, we don’t mean reading it out in public. Chapbooks were no longer read out in his village now. But the poet Abdul Korim, from the faraway village of Burirbhita, was very often present at the weekly market, selling his slim, eight-page punthis. Bajlu was a loyal customer of Abdul Korim. He had also become friends with the poet. Bajlu bought his chapbooks with the money he saved during the week, and returning home, he read them out under the light of the kerosene lamp to Momena. Although the village had electricity, Bajlu couldn’t afford that. After eating dinner, and before going to sleep, he melodically read out bits of Abdul Korim’s chapbooks to Momena. Bajlu had a lovely voice, and he was adept in reciting verse.
But Momena did try to drag him down to the real world. ‘You read the punthi and finish the kerosene, and then what’ll we do? Where’s the money to buy kerosene? Why don’t you stop this tree-work and take up some other work, you could earn a bit more then. Don’t men do other jobs? Sobhan has started pedalling a cycle-van. You could at least do that, can’t you?’
But Bajlu didn’t like to deal with things like cycle-tyres, and metal spokes and handlebars. He wanted to dwell in his own world of trees, leaves and bark. And he wanted to dwell in the world of the chapbook stories. So Bajlu said to Momena, ‘Don’t worry. Money will be taken care of. Hear this new story by Abdul Korim first.’
Just the night before falling off Altaf Ali’s coconut tree, Bajlu had read a tale about an amazing coincidence. And he had read it out to his wife Momena. Ever since he read that chapbook story, Bajlu was overwhelmed by the aspect of the coincidence involved. The poet Abdul Korim wrote chapbooks on unusual subjects. He didn’t write on the subjects that popular poets like Yusuf Zuleikha or Saiful Mulok Badiujjamal did. Actually, he wrote on weird subjects. The punthi that Bajlu had read that night was titled A Mynah Bird’s Testimony. Printed on cheap newsprint, it had a picture of a mynah bird on the cover. Bajlu read it out to Momena in the yellow light of the kerosene-lamp:
“Listen to this astonishing tale, O friends, with all your attention
Here’s the poem, “A Mynah Bird’s Testimony”, in my exposition
There was a miya, a village council member, his name was Jeker Ali
His younger brother had completed high school, he was Kashem Ali
And he roamed around all over …
And he roamed around all over, and kept a pet mynah in a cage
The bird was more dear to him than anyone could gauge
He taught it the Bengali language …
He taught it the Bengali language, English, and also Hindi
The bird said such sweet things oh so beautifully
One day Jeker Miya …
One day Jeker Miya got angry and to Kashem he said
‘You can’t just keep a pet, brother, get a job or we’re dead
We aren’t zamindars …
We aren’t zamindars and I die of worry, how’ll I run the family
You wretched scoundrel, no longer can you roam around merrily
Seeing his brother’s rage …
Seeing his brother’s rage, Kashem Miya was deeply offended
He left home, taking along the bird he had befriended
He went to Faridpur …
He went to Faridpur, roamed everywhere, but no job in all the melee
And so for three long days and nights he sat starving under a tree
Oh, in the agony …
Oh, in the agony of hunger, the bird began to droop
So lifting up his hands, to Allah’s court did Kashem stoop
He pleaded, ‘Lord and Master God’ …
He pleaded, ‘Lord and Master God, I have no one but you
Lord, you wipe out all danger, grant me mercy too.
Grant me mercy …
Grant me mercy, do save me, I’m dying of hunger’
Just then a girl, homeward from school, there did linger
She was fifteen or sixteen …
She was fifteen or sixteen, and radiant as the full moon …”
The name of this fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl returning from school, who was as radiant as the full moon, was Motijan. We then read in the story narrated in verse in the chapbook that beholding this beautiful girl, Kashem Ali was filled with diffidence, he felt torn apart. Kashem bent down in shame and couldn’t say a word. And one read that at that moment it was the mynah bird that spoke. The mynah bird informed Motijan in desperate tones that its master, Kashem Ali, hadn’t eaten for three days. And that it hadn’t eaten either. If they didn’t eat at once, they would die. When Motijan heard that, her heart was filled with compassion, and she took Kashem Ali and his mynah bird to her house. She sat Kashem Ali down in the living room.
“Motijan’s Ma then saw the boy as he sat in the living room
Oh, his handsome face lit up the place, indeed a potential groom!
She thought to herself …
She thought to herself, to this boy I’ll get my dear girl wed
And in this very house shall they perpetually bed!
Then she slowly …
Then she slowly asked Kashem a personal question
‘Can you tell me dear, about this ingression?’
And as they were talking …
And as they were talking, entered Motijan’s father benign
His name was Osman Goni, oh dear listeners of mine
He was wealthy …
He was wealthy and respected, a businessman was he
A merchant of great renown he was widely known to be
So the mistress said …
So the mistress said to her husband, ‘O lord, hearken
Not a morsel for three days has this boy partaken!
He’s completed high school …
He’s completed high school and come looking for a job
Been wandering all over with his mynah heartthrob.’
Osman Goni then said …
Osman Goni then said, ‘Dear wife, we are so lucky
God sent a pair for Motijan who’s indeed plucky!’
So he said, ‘Dear boy …’
So he said, ‘Dear boy, why wander for employment
I have so many men under my own deployment!
Work them hard …
Work them hard, demand explanation, but make my daughter your spouse
And after that you’ll never have to set foot outside this house.’”
Kashem Ali then got married to Motijan on the understanding that he would live in his father-in-law’s house and look after Osman Gani’s business. But Bajlu couldn’t figure out what this had to do with the mynah bird’s testimony, as proclaimed in the punthi’s title. And like Bajlu’s, Momena’s curiosity too was whetted. But she reminded Bajlu, ‘The kerosene lamp is running out of oil.’
Bajlu disregarded that and said, ‘There’s isn’t much left, the main part is about to begin.’
And so it transpired that Kashem lived with Motijan, and looked after his father-in-law, Osman Goni’s, business affairs. Many days went by in this way. And then one night, Kashem Ali dreamt that his elder brother was weeping disconsolately because he knew nothing of Kashem’s whereabouts. Kashem Ali took Osman Goni’s consent and set out with Motijan and his pet mynah to go to his house, so that he could meet his elder brother, Jeker Ali.
It was night by the time they neared the house. They decided to take a boat to cross the river. When they were mid-river, the two boatmen snatched away all the money Kashem had on his person, and threw him into the river. After that they schemed to take Motijan to their house for their enjoyment. Motijan wept and pleaded with them to free her. And just then, a storm broke over the river. The rudder of the boat broke. The boatmen were no longer able to steer the boat. The boat finally went and banged against the jetty that belonged to none other than Kashem Ali’s brother, Jeker Ali. As it happened. Jeker Ali was walking by the jetty late at night after finishing his nightly prayers, and he spotted the two boatmen and Motijan. She was almost senseless then. The talking mynah bird in the boat recognised Kashem Ali’s brother, Jeker Ali, and screeched out to him, and told him about all that had happened. After hearing everything, Jeker Ali summoned the watchman and had the two boatmen detained. He then went home, taking Motijan along. Then in the course of the winding tale, we see Kashem Ali, who had been thrown into the river, swimming through the storm and arriving at Jeker Ali’s jetty. And thus Kashem Ali, Jeker Ali and Motijan were all reunited. After that the two boatmen were brought to court. But the boatmen completely denied having done anything. That’s when the story reached its climax. The mynah bird then declared that it would give testimony in this lawsuit.
“The lawsuit in the judge’s court …
The lawsuit in the judge’s court, thousands did it draw
A mynah giving testimony, who wouldn’t be full of awe!
The bird gave testimony …
The bird gave testimony, and in fine English did it speak
The judge was astonished to hear speech emitting a bird’s beak
Then resorting to Bangla …
Then resorting to Bangla, he did ask it so many, many questions
In admixture of English-Bangla, the bird replied in all patience
This poem ends here …
This poem ends here, and the judge wrote his judgement
The boatmen two were sentenced to life imprisonment
Blessed the speaking bird …
Blessed the speaking bird, it spoke beautifully, everyone was pleased
They showered money on the bird that had so cleverly intervened
I then counted …
I then counted and found that it was nine thousand taka
Blessed indeed the mynah bird, oh listeners, what a saga!
Momena was left astonished that night at the amazing feat of the mynah bird. For a moment she forgot all about the paucity of kerosene. Dousing the lamp, Momena and Bajlu then held one another tight and fell asleep.
The very next morning after reading this chapbook, Bajlu fell from the tree and broke his leg, and then doing the rounds of the sub-district hospital, he arrived at the hospital in Dhaka. After that, having encountered the bizarre drama in the hospital, he had dozed off in the verandah of the hospital. Was it during his doze that – the kerosene oil he had run out of; the kite at the topmost branch of the krishnachura tree; Motijan’s boat; the storm over the river, Jeker Ali’s jetty; the mynah who could speak English; and so on, had all this got jumbled up in his mind?
Had some simple, primitive man, or a very skillful charlatan, suddenly risen from the deepest recesses of Bajlu’s being just then? Had two people like that in fact been slumbering within Bajlu? Or slumbering inside all of us?
Bajlu woke up with a start when someone shook him. Opening his eyes, Bajlu saw a camera and a microphone pointed at him, as if they were rifles. The man with the microphone asked him, ‘Are you a patient from the factory at the Plaza?’
Bajlu said, ‘Yes.’
The microphone man: ‘Are you a worker in the factory?’
The microphone man: ‘Then?’
Bajlu replied, ‘I rescued a woman from the factory.’
The microphone man: ‘Please tell us what happened.’
Many more cameras and microphones had arrived by then, and were trained on Bajlu’s face.
Somebody had probably once said that poetry is the lie that helps one to grasp the truth. At that moment, Bajlu became a votary of such poetic composition.
Baju said that he was actually a rickshaw-puller in this city. After having dropped off a passenger, he had been resting at a street near the Plaza. And then he suddenly heard a terribly loud sound. He thought that perhaps a bomb had exploded somewhere. That’s when he saw the multi-storeyed factory building nearby collapsing. There was a cloud of smoke-like dust everywhere. He too joined the crowd of people running in that direction. When he reached there, he observed the goings-on. After a while, he noticed that some people were trying to rescue the garment factory workers from the southern end of the factory building. Bajlu rushed there. He joined them in their rescue efforts. They heard the cries of a woman emanating from under a heap of concrete debris. Through the gaps between the rods, beams and chunks of concrete, Bajlu descended into the debris, looking for the woman. He saw that she was held down by a massive beam that had fallen on one of her arms. If she had to be rescued, her arm would have to be severed. When Bajlu emerged from the debris and reported what he saw, a doctor engaged in the rescue work asked him whether he could sever the woman’s arm. Bajlu agreed to do that. The doctor handed him a large surgical saw and a syringe with anaesthetic, and sent him back to the pile of debris. Bajlu made his way down once again through the gaps between the rods, beams and chunks of concrete. When he reached the woman, he gave her the injection and then cut off her arm with the saw. After that, he dragged her up through the debris and delivered her into the hands of the rescue workers above. But just after that, as he was getting out of the pile of debris, a large concrete beam fell on his leg, breaking his thigh-bone. Bajlu said that was all he could remember, and he didn’t know who brought him to the hospital or when.
Bajlu narrated this poetic tale without a pause. When the assembly of journalists, doctors and everybody else heard that, they at once became attentive regarding Bajlu. He was taken from the verandah to a bed in the hospital ward. But Momena had been observing Bajlu all the while with astonishment. She whispered into his ear, ‘What’s all this you’re saying?’
Bajlu didn’t say anything. But wasn’t he an innocent tree-man? Had he become a deep thinker through gazing at the world from treetops? He had realised that a man walked endlessly on a tightrope – at one end of which lay truth, with falsehood on the other. He had realised that constructing the truth according to the situation was what clever folk did.
The next day, reports on the heroes of the Plaza factory collapse were published in several newspapers. Stories were published of the people who had saved the lives of many workers while risking their own. Bajlu’s name and picture was also included there. The Garment Manufacturers’ Association, the Government of Bangladesh, and Primark Company, one of the leading purchasers of garments from Bangladesh, all announced that they would bestow awards of hundreds of thousands of taka on these heroes, including Bajlu. All told, Bajlu received cheques amounting to two million taka. Under the initiative of the army, which was in charge of rescue operations, a bank account was opened in the name of Bajlu and Momena, and the money was deposited there.
Momena observed everything like a mute spectator. She and Bajlu hadn’t spoken about this between themselves.
Bajlu’s broken leg gradually healed. And he was discharged from the hospital. He returned to his village, Nishandiya, after that. Before he left, officials explained to him the matter of his bank account.
As for the people of Nishandiya, they merely observed that Bajlu returned to the village after a long time, pulled down his hut and built a single-storey building in its place. They observed that he gave up his profession as a tree-man, and opened a garments shop in the weekly market. He had electricity in his house. The people of Nishandiya did hear about the disaster in the Plaza factory on television, and then forgot about it. They were preoccupied with their onion crop. Besides, it never occurred to them that there could be any link between the Plaza factory disaster and Bajlu. They had merely observed with amazement Bajlu’s change of fortunes after he fell off a coconut tree, broke his leg, and then went to Dhaka. They did wonder alright about the secret behind this change in his fortunes, but they weren’t really desperate to dig into that. Momena bought a new pair of earrings for herself. She also bought an expensive dress and a gold necklace for her daughter, Shilpi.
Momena and Bajlu observed an amazing silence between themselves regarding the Plaza factory disaster. But one could ponder over whether or not this deceitful silence on their part could in any way compare with the silent, hidden tyranny of capital that lay at the bottom of the Plaza factory building collapse, the great greed for profit, and the fraudulence of those in power.
One day, Bajlu went to the weekly market and met the poet, Abdul Korim. He said to him, ‘Korim bhai, you must bring out a new chapbook about something that happened at the Plaza factory. Let me tell you a story about the Plaza factory collapse.’ Abdul Korim was always keen on bringing out punthis on novel subjects. So, after hearing Bajlu’s story, the poet came out with a new chapbook. This is how it began:
“Listen to this astonishing tale, O friends with all your attention
In Plaza factory, a crazed rickshaw-man performed an operation
In that factory, sewing machines hummed all day and hummed all night
The men and women employed there made garments to the world’s delight
To America and …
To America and other nations, oh the garments went to so many places
While men and women went to work, with smiles on unsuspecting faces
One day they saw …
One day they saw a crack on the factory wall
But the boss just said, carry on working you all
There’s no excuse …
There’s no excuse, I want work, the Plaza owner said
And then Rana Miya went home, and there he lolled in bed …
Abdul Korim’s chapbook about the Plaza factory was available in the following week’s market. Bajlu bought the chapbook. But he didn’t read it out to Momena. It was as if there was an unwritten pact between them about remaining silent in regard to this subject.
Days went by. We don’t exactly know how Bajlu grappled inwardly with the Plaza factory incident.
Three years later, a television channel’s vehicle, complete with camera and microphone, suddenly arrived one day at Nishandiya village. The television reporter told people in the village’s weekly market that they were looking for a fake hero of the Plaza factory disaster. When Bajlu got the news of the arrival of a television reporter in the village, he went and lay down in bed in his house, which was situated at the southern end of the village of Nishandiya. But before that, he called his wife, Momena, and whispered something into her ear. And just then his household hen emerged slowly from the straw basket under the cot after laying an egg, and screeched out its clucking announcement of the conclusion of its recent labour pain. Was this the day that Bajlu had been waiting for so long?
The TV channel’s vehicle stopped in front of Bajlu’s house. The reporter entered, pointed his camera at Bajlu, and asked him, ‘Is your name Mohammad Bajlu?’
Bajlu was lying on his, he didn’t say anything.
Reporter: ‘Why don’t you reply?’
Bajlu continued to be silent.
Reporter: ‘We want to know what happened during the Plaza factory disaster. You had told us at that time that you were a cycle-rickshaw puller. Which garage did you hire your rickshaw from?’
Bajlu gazed at the reporter, but he didn’t utter a word.
The reporter asked his wife, Momena, ‘What’s the matter? Why doesn’t he speak?’
Momena replied, ‘Oh it’s been a week since he lost his voice. I’ve sent word to the healer in Gondopasha village.’
Through his mysterious silence, was Bajlu, in fact, going through the paces of hurling the sequence of events at the Plaza factory into the womb of time?
Or had he been rendered speechless because he was actually unable to find appropriate words to express his gratitude to the reporter? After all, it was true that the reporter had provided Bajlu an opportunity to exit from this theatre stage. It’s difficult for us to fathom what exactly was going through Bajlu’s mind then.
Translated by : V. Ramaswamy.
Shahaduz Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1960, and is a physician and medical anthropologist, and an acclaimed writer in Bengali literature. He has published over 30 books in different genres, such as short stories, novels, travelogues, columns, and essays on contemporary issues. He won the Bangla Academy Literary Award in the fiction category, the highest national award for literature in Bangladesh. He moved to the UK in 2009, where he is currently Professor in Medical Anthropology and Global Health at the University of Sussex.
V Ramaswamy took up translation of literary and non-fiction voices from the margins after a two-decade-long engagement in grassroots organising and social activism with the labouring poor in Kolkata. His translations include the two short story collections, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited, and This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels, both by Subimal Misra; the novel, The Runaway Boy, by Manoranjan Byapari; Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas, by Shahidul Zahir; and Memories of Arrival: A Voice from the Margins, by Adhir Biswas, and the novella, Pakistan, by Mashiul Alam. Ramaswamy was awarded the inaugural Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing & Translation at Aberystwyth University in 2016, and the inaugural Translation Fellowship of the New India Foundation in 2022.
Illustration: Archee Roy