Powerless

Moinul Ahsan Saber
Translated by Shabnam Nadiya

It was afternoon when Pocha returned with the news. Grinning, he pushed open the tin door of Ramzan’s hut and entered. His eyes were of different sizes, making his gaze a bit strange. He sported a small beard, and he had a long nose that didn’t go with the rest of his small face. He walked with a slight limp; like his mismatched eyes, one of his legs was shorter than the other. He didn’t look at Ramzan as he entered the room. He fumbled in his pocket and lit the damp cigarette he found there. The smile on his face remained, broadening after he had exhaled a couple of times. He said, “Found her.”

Ramzan, big and burly, had been watching Pocha in a vague manner. He hadn’t finished his lunch yet. When Pocha had walked in, he had paused in his eating and begun to pick his nose. The words “found her” pierced through his preoccupation. His nose picking stopped, and he looked at Pocha intently.

Pocha had thought that Ramzan would jump at his news. Ramzan’s vague gaze, his nose picking, and his intent but burning expression—he had noticed none of it. He just saw Ramzan sitting motionless. He was surprised; he had thought that the words “found her” would wreak havoc with Ramzan’s hefty body. But Ramzan was silent. So Pocha hid his face behind the cigarette smoke and watched Ramzan out of the corners of his eyes. He saw that Ramzan was staring at him—he had seen Pocha’s sneaky glance. But it was as if nothing had happened. Which was why Ramzan’s hand continued in gentle motion on the plate of rice even after the words “found her.” Pocha waited. The past couple of days had been quite difficult. But at least he had had some inkling of her whereabouts, so he hadn’t had to search for too long. Still: after the physical and emotional strain of the past two days, he wanted to retain some coolness and some pride.

Ramzan smiled. His face was covered with the scars of childhood smallpox. He smacked the table solidly with his left hand, making it shudder. The juddering continued because the floor was uneven. His plate of rice jerked into the middle of the table from the corner, keeping time with the drumbeat of the shake.

Pocha was spooked. He realized that he should not have affected such a nonchalant and smug air. Ramzan might get angry now. When he was angry, he lost control. Once, a man had unthinkingly spat some paan juice onto Ramzan’s shirt. Ramzan hadn’t said a single word but had used a wooden plank to split open the man’s head. Pocha could cite many similar examples. It would be dreadful now if he went berserk and used his fists or his legs, or if he jumped anyone. Ramzan could do anything.

Pocha dragged on his cigarette quickly a few times then ground it out underfoot. Maybe he could manage Ramzan; he had known Ramzan for a long time. He made his expression and his eyes as gentle as he could and said, “I just found her, boss.” Ramzan was done with his lunch. His water glass was empty. He felt no need to wash his hand. He licked his fingers and his palm and wiped it on a corner of his loose shirt. The way he stood up—slow, calm—after shoving the table aside, made the smile on Pocha’s face vanish. A few thwacks might descend onto the back of his neck or his cheeks now. Or perhaps Ramzan would pick him up and dangle him in the air. But nothing like that happened. Ramzan asked him in a serene voice, “Where did you find her?”

Life returned to Pocha’s body. He said hurriedly, “At their old slum. She’s with her aunt.”

Ramzan smiled. “Did you see them?”

Pocha smiled as well. “I did.”

Ramzan was silent for a long time. Finally, Pocha said, “Boss, I’ll be going now, I haven’t had any lunch yet.”

Ramzan nodded. “Okay, go on. But come back after. There’s work to be done.” Pocha knew what the work was. But when he asked anyway, Ramzan roared, “You’re asking why you have to come back, you whoreson? If you’re not there, which son of a bitch is going to show me which shack she’s in?”

“Okay, I’ll show you.” Pocha gulped and asked like a good little boy, “So have you decided what you’re going to do?”

“What I’m going to do?” Ramzan’s smile stretched the pockmarks at the corners of his lips. He fished out a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He pulled his filth-sticky pillow close. “What can I do, what can I do. I’ll kill Moyna. I’ll grab her legs and rip her in two.”

Of course, Ramzan didn’t go that far. “No food for you for three days,” he let Moyna know.

They had brought Moyna back by force just a little while ago, at midnight. It hadn’t been too difficult. Ramzan had quite a few friends at the slum near Moyna’s aunt’s house. His friends had been champing at the bit when they had heard: of course, they were on Ramzan’s side. What was wrong with a man taking back his own wife! Even if Ramzan taught Moyna a lesson for leaving home without his permission, they wouldn’t make a sound.

Moyna’s aunt had tried to protest though. She had screamed until a crowd gathered. Ramzan was a bad character. He abused his wife. She was shouting these things to everyone. But nobody paid attention. Everyone knew that a man was supposed to have some minor flaws. And was Moyna such a nice girl herself? That men lost their heads when they saw her was surely her fault. The aunt’s attempts were futile. People merely crowded around when they heard her shouting—they did nothing.

Moyna was extremely willful. When Ramzan reached his hand out to her, she scratched and bit him like a madwoman. She shouted obscenities at him. Ramzan hesitated a moment when he saw her like that. The next instant he reached out and grabbed Moyna’s hair. She was still trying to scratch him. Ramzan looked at Pocha and he immediately grabbed Moyna’s arms from behind. Ramzan forged ahead.

Moyna did her best to free herself until they moved beyond the slum. She hurled a thousand complaints against Ramzan. But nothing made any difference. As they moved farther away from the area, Moyna gradually grew listless.

It was just a couple of miles. In a little while, Ramzan let go of Moyna’s hair. Pocha saw, and found the courage to release Moyna’s arms. Moyna didn’t look in any direction. She walked beside them with her head lowered. Sometimes she sobbed.

When they returned home, Ramzan almost threw Moyna inside the house. Moyna stumbled onto the cot. But she didn’t stay down. She got up and stood in a corner, her head hung low. Ramzan got rid of Pocha and turned to Moyna. “Why did you run off?”

Moyna was silent.

“It’s fun leaving your husband, right? That’s why they say there’s no heaven for womenfolk. They don’t respect their husbands.”

Moyna remained silent.

“I know you’re not going to talk.” Solemnly, Ramzan picked his nose. After a while he said, “You’ve tried to run just once, so this time I’m forgiving you. Do it again, and I’ll chop you up and throw the pieces into the river. Remember that. And listen, since you decided you were going to run from me, you don’t get to eat the next three days.”

Having delivered his instructions, Ramzan went to sleep without a care in the world. He was sure Moyna would not run again.

Moyna didn’t run—she just stood there. There was no lock on the door. Ramzan was asleep. But she knew she couldn’t escape. Where would she go? If she went to her aunt’s slum, Ramzan would just drag her back by her hair. Apart from that, she had nowhere else to go. Moyna wasn’t fool enough to run off any which way. She knew that would do her no good. It would just create new problems.

She stood still for a long time. She watched Ramzan. Once upon a time she had yearned for this man. That had been a mere six months ago. Now this same man repelled her. Her disgust had been born within a few days of their marriage. She hadn’t known that she would be in such a predicament in her new household!

Moyna’s father had been a typesetter. Like many other typesetters, he had been prey to tuberculosis. The man just wore himself out coughing. Of course, Moyna’s marriage had taken place before that happened. Her father had been very worried about her. His daughter had grown up and she was pretty—this was certainly something to be anxious about. And Moyna was pretty. When her father left for work, she was left alone in their slum.She had no mother. She had a brother, but he had married and lived apart. Living mostly alone, Moyna grew to realize that the eyes of all men were focused on her. And then there were all the proposals they sent her through hints and innuendos.

Moyna actually enjoyed it all. She thought it was fun. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t acquiesced in a small way now and then. She got many marriage proposals, but she didn’t really like any of them. No, none of them were real men—that was what she had thought back then.

One evening as she was on her way back from a movie, Haru and two of his sidekicks blocked her path. Moyna’s companion fled as soon as he saw Haru. Haru tried to grab her right in public. A crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle. All those people had been from their slum, but not a single person came forward to help her because they were afraid of Haru. Moyna had escaped with great difficulty. Haru himself had let her go when he saw that the crowd had grown in size. “Bloody people, crowding here to watch the drama. You’re saved today, girl, you’re saved today. But I’m telling you, you’ll have to come with me one time or another.”

After that Moyna became very careful. When her father heard about the incident that night, he grew terribly quiet. The next day onwards he wanted to take Moyna with him everywhere he went. It was around this time that Ramzan arrived with a marriage proposal.

Pocha and Ramzan just showed up one evening. Pocha was the one who talked, saying all there was to be said; Ramzan stood quietly to the side with a serious expression.Moyna liked him. Her father was hesitant. He was asking questions, like how much Ramzan, the motor mechanic, made in a month, who his family were, what kind of person was he, etc. But he could tell from his daughter’s face that she liked this one. So he consented. The wedding was held without any problems. About two weeks after that, Moyna’s father died. The two of them had gone to visit when they heard the news. Moyna wasn’t too dejected at her father’s death. Her relationship with the old man had been growing distant for quite a while.

Her days with Ramzan had been going well. Yes, he was the kind of man she had wanted. What vigor! But he did have a bit of a temper. Once Ramzan was angry, he completely lost his head. Once, he had slapped Moyna for the slightest of faults. Since then she had been careful. But that episode hadn’t dimmed her attraction to Ramzan. The attraction vanished a few months later.

One evening Ramzan brought a man home with him. Moyna was slightly surprised when she saw his companion. A neat, well-dressed gentleman. His clothes were expensive, and he wore colored shades over his eyes. Ramzan settled the visitor in the next room and told Moyna that he was a friend.

“What’s up?”

“Make him happy. It’ll be a big help.”

Moyna could have been knocked over with a feather. “What did you just say?”

Ramzan grew angry at her question. “You heard me. How many times do I need to say it?”

Moyna said in surprise, “But aren’t I your wife?”

Ramzan paid no attention to the gentle pleading in Moyna’s voice. “Yeah, sure, you’re my wife. It’s because you’re my wife that you have to listen to me.”

Moyna disagreed. “What kind of friend is he? He doesn’t look like a friend of yours.”

“You talk too bloody much,” Ramzan growled in a low voice. “Okay, he’s not my friend. But you have to go with him anyway.”

Moyna had to go. The man took her away for the whole night. The next morning, he put her on a rickshaw. At first Moyna thought of taking the rickshaw and fleeing. But she didn’t. If she returned to her old slum within a few months of her marriage, everyone would laugh at her. What could she say when they asked why she had come back? So she went home. Ramzan was impassive. As if nothing had happened. He ate breakfast, called Moyna to eat, took a bath, and left the house. He didn’t seem to care that Moyna hadn’t responded to anything he had said.

Moyna lay in bed the whole day. She didn’t even get up in the afternoon. Ramzan returned in the early evening and shouted at her. “What, you’re still in bed! Get me something to eat.” So Moyna got up. She prepared some food and served him. She sat beside him and tried to explain to him what a bad thing this was turning into. But the way Ramzan looked at her as he ate, she couldn’t get very far.

That was just the beginning. Since then, it had become a regular thing. Sometimes the men took Moyna away, sometimes Ramzan took Moyna to certain places, or sometimes the men came to their house and stayed for a few hours. During those times Ramzan waited unconcerned in the next room.

Moyna asked him, “Aren’t you ashamed?”

“Why?” Ramzan was astonished.

That’s how it went on. Moyna’s desperate pleas didn’t move Ramzan in the slightest. He paid not the slightest attention to anything Moyna said. When Moyna wept, he didn’t even look at her. And when Moyna refused, he beat her up.

The abuse! One time Moyna’s whole body was covered in welts from the beating she received with a plank of firewood. Those marks remained for about fifteen days. Since then, Moyna had been scared of refusing Ramzan point-blank. She would hold out when the men came, but she didn’t say no outright. Ramzan had no sense. He might kill her at any moment. Would being murdered be better than this? Sometimes Moyna wondered. But she was scared to die. She loved life too much. But she didn’t forget to needle Ramzan at every instant. “Is this why you married me?” she asked him once.

“What are you talking about!” Ramzan had uttered in surprise.

“Before you married me, did you plan that you’d get me to do all this?” Moyna had wanted to know.

“What’s there to plan!” Ramzan had replied. The next moment he had grown angry. “Shut your mouth. You’ll do what I tell you, that’s it. You’re paying no attention to the fact that there’s some money coming in, just all this big talk.”

Moyna had realized by then that there was no reasoning with this man. He wouldn’t try to understand anything. Or maybe he didn’t understand anything. Perhaps the fact that Moyna was bringing in some money did mean everything to him. Moyna had tried to make herself feel okay about it. But it hurt. There was no use protesting.

Moyna couldn’t figure out what she should do. She only understood that there was no way to stop Ramzan—this was how her days would go. Then she ran. She hadn’t thought things through before she ran away. Her aunt lived in her old slum. But she hadn’t known for sure whether her aunt would take her in. Also, if her neighbors there found out, they would laugh at her. Especially all the men whose marriage proposals she had rejected. But when she ran, she didn’t worry about any of it. One afternoon, she just decided she would leave. She packed a couple of saris and blouses and did just that. Her aunt accepted her rather well. She listened to everything and said, “Right, you don’t have to go back. Let’s see, if I can manage to find you some work. We’ll do okay, we’ll manage.”

But that hadn’t happened. Moyna wiped her eyes and looked at Ramzan. The man was sound asleep. Moyna averted her eyes and looked at the doorway. Then she turned away. Her legs had begun to ache from standing. There was a chair in the other corner of the room. She pulled the chair close and sat down. She was sleepy.

She passed the night in that chair. When she woke in the morning, Ramzan was already up. He glanced at her when he saw she was awake. But that was it—he asked her nothing. A little later, Pocha arrived. He didn’t look at Moyna. Ramzan sent him out for some breakfast. When Pocha left, Moyna got up and washed. When she returned, she saw that Pocha had come back and Ramzan was arranging the breakfast on plates. When he saw her, he called, “Come on. Eat.” Instead of going to him, Moyna went and sat in the chair again.

Pocha looked at her and smiled. He said in a velvet voice, “Eat just a bit, bhabisab. If you don’t, you’ll ruin your health.”

His words made Moyna explode. She didn’t like him one single bit. He worked with Ramzan at some auto garage, as his assistant. He did whatever Ramzan told him to do. Occasionally, he went out with a gang to take part in a mugging or two. Because police patrols in the area had increased recently, the gang had taken to carrying out their muggings in far-off neighborhoods. Pocha wasn’t that brave. He was Ramzan’s constant companion now. It was Moyna’s belief that this man had a lot to do with the drudgery that had become Moyna’s lot. But Ramzan began laughing when he saw her angry.

“Pocha, you go on out.” He came over and took Moyna’s hand. “Hey, come and eat, you.” Moyna began to cry. Ramzan seemed taken aback. He couldn’t decide what to do. In the end, he began stroking Moyna’s hair. “Why are you crying? Why did you run off for no reason? Can’t you just listen to what I tell you? If you just did what I told you, there wouldn’t be all this trouble …”

A couple of days went by, then the men began coming again. Moyna knew it was bound to happen. She didn’t refuse, although she had no more strength in her body or her heart. But a few days later she balked again. That day Ramzan had returned home in the afternoon and sat chatting with her. In the evening, Pocha brought a man.

Moyna knew that although the man had arrived with Pocha, it was Ramzan who had arranged it. He looked like a gangly rat, and he peered this way and that constantly. But it was clear that this was a rich man. These days Moyna could guess these small details. Anyway, suddenly she refused. Ramzan tried to persuade her for about five minutes. Then he grew enraged and began using his fists like a madman. Within a few minutes Moyna was lying unconscious on the floor. Even when she regained consciousness, she couldn’t get up from bed for four days.

From then on she accepted the whole situation completely. She realized she had no choice. It wasn’t possible for her to go against Ramzan’s wishes. She decided she would never protest.

But she couldn’t stick to her word in the end. One evening something unexpected happened. Haru, the thug, showed up with Ramzan. Moyna’s jaw dropped when she saw him. Where had Ramzan found him? Finally, even Haru! After a long time, Moyna balked again. But Ramzan was intractable. Moyna told him everything. But it didn’t make the slightest difference to Ramzan. Finally, Moyna said, “I don’t refuse to go with anyone anymore. Please, just get rid of this one. You can bring whoever else …”

Ramzan shook his head. “No. I invited him, I gave him my word. He’s a close friend; I can’t turn him away.”

Moyna begged again. “I’ll take anyone—but not him.”

Ramzan wouldn’t listen. “Forget all that. I’m telling you I asked him to come …”

“No.”

“What did you say?’

“No.”

“You feel like a beating?”

“You can say whatever you want, but he’s a thug.”

“What are you saying!” Ramzan was astonished. “What difference does it make to us if he’s a thug or the devil! The point is whether he’ll pay or not. I’ve talked it over with him—he’ll pay well. That’s all there is to it. There’s nothing more we need to ask.”

“No. I won’t.” Moyna sat with her head cocked obstinately.

Ramzan requested a few more times. In the end, unable to persuade her, he began hitting Moyna. “What did you say?” he growled in his anger. “What did you say? You won’t do what I say! How dare you!”

Moyna tried to evade him. But Ramzan was an expert at beating. Moyna found no escape. She began weeping.

“Shut up!” Ramzan raised his foot. “You make one more sound and I’ll stomp on your throat.” He shoved Moyna onto the floor and actually tried to step on her.

Moyna said, “Go on, do it. Just step on me and kill me now.”

“Huh!” Ramzan twisted his mouth. “You tell me to kill you and I just do your bidding, right? Get up right now, or I’m telling you I’ll flay your skin and rub salt all over.”

In the end, Moyna got up. She wiped her eyes and sat silently. Ramzan said in a harsh voice, “I’m sending Haru in. I’ll be in the next room. You take one step right or left and I’ll eat you alive.”

Haru came in. When he left an hour later, Moyna lay motionless. After several minutes passed by like that, she heard Ramzan and Haru arguing in the next room. What was going on? She hadn’t really noticed it in the beginning, but now that they were shouting, she was curious. She left the bed and moved closer step by step. Ramzan was standing with his back against the outer door. Haru stood in front of Ramzan pulling on a cigarette with an expressionless face, gesturing with his hands, trying to get Ramzan to move. After a few moments, Ramzan shouted in a violent manner, “Haru, don’t get my blood hot. Do what you promised: pay up and leave.”

Haru didn’t seem to care. “What did I promise you? Go on, get out of the way. I’m going out to get a drink of Bangla somewhere.”

Ramzan was in a rage. “I’ll bury you.”

“Let’s see you do it then.”

“Give me my money.”

“I won’t. Look, I took a chance on Moyna once, months ago. Couldn’t do it and then you married her. And now you called me over here yourself. That’s the real deal. Now get out of my way, let me go.”

“Give me my money, or I’m telling you, I’ll fucking bury you.”

“Right, let’s see you try it, you son of a whore. You don’t have the balls.”

Ramzan leapt forward and slapped Haru on the cheek. The next moment, Moyna saw the two of them tussling on the floor. But the fight didn’t last long. Within a couple of minutes, Moyna heard a scream that shook the house. She saw Haru slam the door open and run out. Ramzan was rolling around on the ground.

About a month later Moyna returned home from the hospital with Ramzan. Ramzan was blind. Haru had gouged out Ramzan’s eyes with his fingers. The work of experienced hands. The doctors had told them that Ramzan would never see again.

The month had passed in great hardship for Moyna. She had no money at all. Ramzan used to keep all the money with himself. He had saved some, which he had kept hidden inside the house. He himself had told Moyna where. But that had been good for about ten days. There was nothing left over after she bought Ramzan’s medicines. In the end, Moyna had to ask Pocha for help. Pocha had been very helpful during this difficult time. Pocha himself wasn’t well off enough to offer financial support. But he brought men for Moyna on a regular basis. That helped.

That one month had aged Ramzan. He didn’t say a single word to Moyna as they rode home from the hospital on a rickshaw. He sat solemn and quiet the whole way. He entered their house with a bowed head, clasping Moyna’s hand. He sat with his head bowed. When she served him dinner that evening, he pushed the food around on his plate. Finally, he said, “How did you live the past few days? Where did you get the money?”

Moyna replied, “I got it.”

“How?”

“How else?” Moyna grew slightly angry. “Men have come and gone.”

Ramzan grew silent. He sat with his fingers in the rice. He turned his head this way and that. After several moments, he said, “How did the men come? How did you arrange it?”

Moyna snapped, “How else? I arranged it myself.”

“Yourself?”

“Yeah.”

Ramzan said in a flat voice, “Oh.”

Bringing Ramzan home proved to be a nuisance for Moyna. Usually Ramzan spent the whole day sitting up or lying down. But he couldn’t take two steps without Moyna’s help. When he had to go from one room to the next, or when he needed to piss or shit, he called for Moyna. He couldn’t even mix the rice and dal himself while eating. He called for Moyna to do that as well. Ramzan was absolutely helpless without Moyna. He no longer had that hot temper. He had almost stopped talking as well.

There had been no news of Pocha for a couple of days. Three days after Ramzan’s return home, he showed up. Moyna had no cash. She had been waiting for Pocha. Pocha entered the room and grinned when he saw Ramzan. “You’ll be fine, boss, the doctors said that you’ll be able to see again in a month.”

Ramzan didn’t answer. He crouched on the chair with his feet tucked under him. Moyna didn’t have to explain her situation to Pocha. Pocha had arranged for a man before he came to visit her. The man would arrive in the evening. Pocha said, “Don’t you worry, bhabisab. As long as Pocha’s here, you’ll have no trouble at all.”

Moyna smiled.

Pocha left in a little while. In an hour he was back with the man. When Ramzan realized there was someone else with Pocha he shouted, “Who’s there? Who’s come?”

“Shut up! Don’t talk, you,” said Moyna.

“Why, why shouldn’t I talk? Why don’t you tell me who’s there?”

“A man.”

“Who? Who’s here? Who brought him here, who?”

Moyna looked at him sharply and said, “Just sit there with your mouth shut. Don’t jump about like that.”

The man seemed disconcerted when he saw the situation. He looked at Moyna with worried eyes. Moyna assured him, “Don’t be afraid; it’s nothing. Come with me …”

The two of them went to the next room.

And then Ramzan, who was hunched in his chair, screamed, “Do you see? Do you see what this vile woman is doing? Right in front of her husband’s eyes! Oh, that slut! With her husband in the next room … that whore thinks he can’t see, he can’t say anything. Allah won’t stand for it! That whore thinks her blind husband won’t be able to say a word!”


Moinul Ahsan Saber is a leading Bangladeshi author with a career spanning thirty years. His debut short story collection was published in 1982. He has since received several awards for his work, including the Bangla Academy Literature Award in 1996 and the Gemcon Literature Award in 2016. His novel Kobej Lethel, set during and after the 1971 war, was published in translation by Bengal Lights Books in Bangladesh in 2016, and will be released by Seagull Books in the US this year.

A Bangladeshi writer and translator, Shabnam Nadiya graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2012. Currently she is working on her collection Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories, as well as translating Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Beloved Rongomala. Her translation of Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel The Mercenary was published by Bengal Lights Books (Dhaka) in 2016, the US edition by Seagull Books is forthcoming in 2017. She is co-guest editor of the South Asian Literature in Translation issue of 91st Meridian (Summer, 2016). Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction International (WW Norton), Law and Disorder (Main Street Rag Publishing), One World (New Internationalist) and journals such as Amazon’s Day One, Chicago Quarterly Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, Wasafiri, Words Without Borders, and Gulf Coast. Her work can be found at: www.shabnamnadiya.com.