The Story of Hilsa Fish, Jackfruit, or Perhaps, Life

Translated from Bangladeshi Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya

When the aroma of cooking hilsa fish permeated the neighborhood, the neighbors who were heavy sleepers couldn’t really tell, but the light sleepers found their sleep disturbed and wondered, “Who’s cooking hilsa this late at night?” It had been a very long time since hilsa smells had saturated the air of this neighborhood. They could barely manage rice, forget about hilsa. But although the broken-sleep people couldn’t figure out the source of the smell, those who had already been awake cracked the case right away: So Foza’s wife was cooking!

Foza, alias Fazar, alias Fazar Ali, had returned home that day with a hilsa fish—this, they had witnessed with their own eyes. They had left his house not too long ago, after burying his young daughter. Back home, they had tried, but failed to sleep. They had shivered, imagining what it would feel like to see their own children dead, and prayed in their hearts, “Allah, keep our children alive. Punish us for our transgressions, hurt us, make us sick, do whatever You will, but, oh Mabood, keep them alive.”

When the hilsa smell assaulted their noses while they gazed at their sleeping children, when perhaps filial love awoke in their hearts anew, they grew angry and jealous, said, “Look at that son of a bitch. Your daughter died today; how can you possibly eat hilsa and rice tonight?” They placed themselves in Fazar Ali’s situation as they mused and realized that the aroma of hilsa had deserted their noses and settled on their tongues. Their tongues were salivating. “Look at how greedy these tongues are. What the fuck do you care what’s cooking in which house, you dog?” But cursing their tongues gained nothing; it didn’t lessen their anger, and so the anger circled back and settled on Fazar Ali again.

They had spent the day, pretty much all of it, at Fazar Ali’s house. The girl had died just before the afternoon azan sounded. Fazar Ali wasn’t home at the time, so, as neighbors, the responsibility had fallen upon them. Although the wait for Fazar Ali grew annoying, they could neither figure out an alternative, nor could they bring themselves to bury the child without her father. She had been fine when Fazar Ali left, and the thought of how he would feel when he came home to discover his daughter’s grave suffocated them; the unbearable wait seemed considerate. But then it had grown so late, why was there still no news of Fazar Ali? He had left early that morning to ferry the son and daughter-in-law of the Big House to Jhitka. Did it take this long to return from Jhitka? He’d been to Jhitka before—not once, but a thousand times. It never took him this long. Had that fool died today? Only Allah knew which hell he’d holed up in.

Although everyone thought along those lines, nobody said any of it aloud. You couldn’t publicly curse out a man whose daughter had just died. But look, the evening azan had sounded from the mosque ages ago; by now they were supposed to have finished supper and be fast asleep in bed, yet they weren’t even sure when they would be able to go home. What a nuisance. They couldn’t just leave the dead body here, but on the other hand, they had been waiting beside the dead body since afternoon and now it was so very late and just how much longer could they bear this? Just look at Fazar Ali’s lack of sense. Your daughter’s lying here dead and you’re blithely roaming around somewhere with a gaab fruit up your ass so you don’t even have to worry about shitting; you fool, you’re still not back home.

Almost everyone felt fidgety and uncomfortable. They couldn’t just sit there but neither could they just get up and leave. They had already discussed—several times—whether it was a good idea to bury the girl without Fazar Ali. But different people had different opinions and every time they tried to discuss it, they were stalled by Fazar Ali’s young wife Hosna’s wailing. All in all, no one was feeling okay at that moment.

It was midnight when Fazar Ali finally returned. He carried a hilsa fish in one hand—in the other, a jackfruit. By then, one by one, people had begun to disappear on this or that pretext. The handful of responsible neighbors who hadn’t sneaked off had reached the end of their patience. The sight of Fazar Ali increased their exasperation. “His royal highness has returned. With a hilsa, no less. You son of a bitch, stuff that fish up your wife’s whatsit.” Therefore, when the completely unprepared Fazar Ali began a fresh wave of lamentation, his neighbors could find neither the energy nor the desire to console him. But his weeping was effective: their irritation turned into tears and their hearts softened. Ah, that little girl used to keep the entire village in good cheer. She evoked a deep tenderness in everyone who saw her. Foza had just this one child, and You snatched her away, Allah!

Through these various comments and thoughts, they inserted themselves into the new state of affairs. They repeated among themselves, “Foza left his girl quite well but then he came home to find her dead. Ah! Allah’s mysteries are hard to fathom.” Only they knew what they meant by “quite well.” The girl had been ill for a long time now. Ever since her birth, for the last five or six years, there had been no long stretch of time that the girl had experienced good health. If now she had a fever, next it was an upset stomach, then she had tapeworms, and then her legs retained water and swelled up. If she was well for two days, she was sick for four. Fazar Ali had obtained treatment for her as much as was possible for him. From the blessed water given by the maulvi to remedies from the kabiraj, from amulets from the fakir to the homeopathic nostrums of Dr. Shudhir to even the allopathic cures from Dr. Jiten who sat at the marketplace—he had tried everything. He could barely manage to buy groceries for the household, so consumed was he by buying medicines for his child. And on the other hand, the girl had consumed so many drugs that she had pretty much turned into a drugstore herself, but it had done nothing for her. But Fazar Ali never gave up hope. He had absolutely no doubt that if they could just take her to the big doctor at the hospital in the thana town, she would be healed.

But you couldn’t just visit a big doctor. People said that the patients the big doctor saw at the hospital—for whom he wrote out prescriptions on the hospital letterhead and for whom the drugs had to be bought from the hospital pharmacy—never got better. Why would they get better? The medication for all illnesses was the same: white pills. It was the same for stomach aches, the same for fevers, and the same for ringworm, itchy scabs, boils, cuts, broken bones, prickly heat hives, chest pains, swollen legs, dropsy, gastric ulcers—how could all illnesses have the same treatment? It wasn’t as if people didn’t know what was going on; but what could be done? However, patients for whom he wrote out prescriptions on prescription sheets with his own name on it, who he sent to Niramoy Pharmacy at the Andharmanik marketplace, got better. For that, the doctor demanded a visit fee of a hundred takas, and the pricey drugs at Niramoy Pharmacy cost another three to four hundred, which meant the whole deal came to about five hundred takas in all. It was an expensive proposition. Where would Fazar Ali find that kind of money at one go?

Getting the blessed water from the maulvi cost nothing; if you gave him a papaya or a gourd, he offered up such prayers that Allah had no choice but to accept them. Although you really couldn’t say that his prayers were always accepted. Otherwise, would he have to run to the kabiraj herbalist or Dr. Shudhir? Of course, the herbalist didn’t charge much; and even Dr. Shudhir had never charged him more than twenty takas which included both the visit fee and the medication. And if that didn’t work, Dr. Jiten was their last hope who still didn’t cost more than fifty takas.

The difficulty was to save up the cash to see the big doctor. Fazar Ali had thought that he would manage to save enough by the end of the rainy season. He had saved some; but he just couldn’t reach the goal of five hundred. There wasn’t any work during the rainy season anyway; people just sat around unemployed. If Fazar Ali hadn’t owned a single-crew boat, he would have been unemployed as well. The boat was useless most of the year; it lay submerged and neglected in the low water of the near-dry Icchamoti River. Yet, look, it was this boat that fed their bellies in the rainy season. These days, of course, his boat wasn’t in high demand like it used to be. The arrival of the bhotbhotis, the motorized boats, had doomed him. Everyone rode the bhotbhotis now. Large boats that ran on engines—they could carry many people at the same time as well as go faster; everyone wanted to go faster these days. What the hell they gained by going faster was something that Fazar Ali didn’t understand. Well, what could be done; each era had its own ways. So now was the time of the bhotbhoti, no wonder the bastards were doing so well—thus, he consoled himself.

However, people who valued their comfort and ease preferred Fazar Ali’s boat. They spread out pillows and bedrolls and lounged about as they traveled towards their destinations. To reach Manikganj Sadar or Dhaka from this village, Udashpur, one had to travel to Jatrapur and Jhitka and board a bus. Both places were roughly the same distance from Udshpur, Jhitka might even be a little farther, but Jatrapur was harder to get to. You couldn’t take a direct boat or bhotbhoti. You had to walk along the main road. The main road didn’t pass by Udashpur. When the village was submerged during the rainy season, you had to reach the main road via an open boat or a kosha boat or at least a banana tree raft. From there it was a four- or five-mile walk. It was just easier to go to Jhitka. The bhotbhotis ran along the Icchamoti anyway. The bhotbhoti boatmen picked up passengers waiting on the shore and sped off straight to Jhitka. If someone wanted to travel in more comfort, all they needed to do was call Fazar Ali. He would show up at their jetty with his boat. He would get quilts, mattresses and pillows from the passenger’s household and spread out a bed quite nicely and even return them on his way back. But how often did gigs like that turn up? How many of the villagers were well to do? Of the few who were, not all sought comfort. Even if they did, it wasn’t like they needed to travel to Jhitka every single day. Therefore, Fazar Ali couldn’t really depend on these people.

Instead he waited for Saturdays. That was the day the weekly market took place at Jhitka. It was the largest market in the area and local traders called on Fazar Ali to transport their goods. The Jhitka market started setting up by nine in the morning. It took three or four hours to get there from Udashpur, so the traders had to leave before the sun rose high. Fazar Ali had no objections. He showed up while it was still dark and lent a hand loading up the goods; he also helped unload. The traders liked him very much. But although he had steady gigs on that day of the week, the other days were uncertain. He didn’t necessarily have to sit idle all the time, but the assured rate of eighty or ninety takas he got for ferrying traders or other well-to-do passengers wasn’t what his random passengers paid. Their faces darkened at the mere prospect of having to pay thirty or forty takas.

A round trip to Jhitka or Azimnagar or Dhulshura or Shutalori or the long way around to Khabishpur took from morning to night. If he didn’t charge at least sixty or seventy, how was he supposed to eat and how could he manage to save anything? They couldn’t not save; they had to take their daughter to the big doctor. But what about  the roof, which leaked every time it rained? He had to get that repaired as well. Which need should he push aside, and which should he take care of right away? And the price of every damn thing was sky high. A kilogram of rice cost twenty-seven or twenty-eight takas, and then, of course, there was oil, salt, flour, chilis to buy. Forget about things like fish—they didn’t have that kind of luck. All these expenses amounted to fifty to sixty takas per day. Then there were their daughter’s medications, her little whims for this or that, his own clothes, and his wife needed at least a couple of saris a year. His wife was a full-figured woman and so, like the wives of gentlemen, she fancied wearing blouses under her sari. Those things ripped pretty easily. And once a thing like that ripped, you couldn’t really wear it—in fact, there was no point in wearing it anymore. If what you were trying to cover with the blouse was all hanging out anyway…

His wife didn’t want to understand that this was an extra expense for Fazar Ali. “Why, you slut, aren’t there other women in this village? Aren’t they getting by without blouses? Once a woman has a child what does she have anymore? Their tits sag; that’s what’s happened to yours too. So what if people got to check out those saggy tits?” But he couldn’t say any of this to her. And this multitude of reasons was why Fazar Ali hadn’t managed to save up. What he tried to save during the dry season by digging earth and hauling goods was used up during the gap period between the dry and the wet seasons, when he had to sit around with no work. Was it just one problem? The boat needed minor repairs before the wet season arrived. It was an old vessel. If the boat didn’t get treated with tar and velvet apple sap, if one or two of the planks weren’t replaced, it wouldn’t make it through the rains. If these had been the only issues, they could somehow or other manage to make it through. But the biggest problem loomed ahead of them. The Padma river was constantly bursting its banks. She was about to reach Udashpur. At most, they had two, or maybe three, years left before she would tear this house away—there was no doubt about that. Their house had been destroyed twice before. Otherwise would they have fallen in such dire straits! They too had owned a strip of land, their own cow, a house. Even if it hadn’t been a big house, they had owned a few mango and jackfruit trees.

Now, if his daughter wanted to eat a mango, he had to buy it from the market. People might say—why, can’t you find a mango or two under one of the trees at the Big House? “You can find my ass, is what you can find. This one village, where the people made homeless by the Padma from ten other villages have crammed themselves, you can barely find a leaf here, forget about a mango!”

But the people at the Big House are so nice—wouldn’t they give out a mango or two if asked? Maybe they would, but what about jackfruit? What about his daughter craving rice and hilsa curry the last few days, and that she was driving him mad for some jackfruit? The jackfruit season was almost over; how was supposed to get her a jackfruit? It would be nice if they could be a little festive one day and have hilsa and jackfruit. But he would need at least a hundred and fifty takas at one go to buy a hilsa fish, a jackfruit, rice, lentils, onions, chilis, salt, oil, etc. Where would he get that kind of money? Although he could use up the money they had saved and this and that and just do it one day. But what then? What about taking his daughter to the big doctor? Fine, they could deal with a leaky roof for another year, but their daughter’s sickness wouldn’t wait a year. So he couldn’t really indulge in madness like that; he had to drop any thoughts of hilsa and jackfruit.

But tonight, this late—where was he coming back from with all of these things? Where did he get all that money? That was a long story.

What was that story? That story began the day the son of the Big House came back to visit the village with his new bride and Fazar Ali grabbed them right at Jhitka. There was nothing strange about the fact that he got a hundred takas that day for ferrying them home. These were rich people; their ways were different. Where everyone else felt stricken to hand over just thirty or thirty-five takas, rich people pay out a hundred without even thinking about it. And then, look, because his bride had fun during the boat ride, the son of the Big House told Fazar Ali to take them on afternoon outings for as long as they were there if he could make the time. What else did Fazar Ali have to do? What was he busy with? Why would he not be able to make the time? And since being on a boat made the pretty new bride happy for no reason—if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, Fazar Ali would never have believed that anyone could desire boat rides so much; he wouldn’t have believed it if he had just heard it from someone. She clamored like a child, flirted with her husband—it delighted him to witness it. But was it merely a pleasure to watch? Every afternoon after their outing, he got fifty takas, was that nothing? Also, Fazar Ali was pretty certain that he would get a tip when they left for Dhaka. If he was lucky, that tip might even amount to a hundred takas. The city dwellers from the Big House tipped the villagers with and without reason. As if they looked for opportunities; as if they felt relieved if they found a chance. They couldn’t hand out tips for no reason at all—that would look like charity. So, it so happened that some kids had helped heave the tube well handle when the city-dwelling boy of that house wanted to bathe—after all, these city people didn’t like bathing in rainwater. So they tipped the kids fifty takas when leaving. For nothing. For absolutely nothing. But they had generous hearts. Fazar Ali wouldn’t argue with that, and anyway, he already knew that the ways of rich people were different. Otherwise, would today have happened? Earlier, the son of the Big House had confirmed with Fazar Ali to drop them off at Jhitka today. They were going to catch the bus for Dhaka from there. But as soon as they reached Jhitka, his bride said, “Uff, that was too quick! I don’t want to get off! Ei, can’t we just take this boat to Dhaka?” Fazar Ali was amused. Take the boat to Dhaka! But then the young man actually asked, “Fazar Ali, can’t we take the boat to Bainajuri?”

“Sure, we can.”

Fazar Ali was in no rush. Of course, it was going to be very late by the time he got back from Bainajuri. Udashpur and Bainajuri were about the same distance from Jhitka, except maybe Bainajuri was a little farther. But they were in opposite directions; Jhitka was in the middle and each of the two places was in a different direction. So, what was the big deal if he was late? Had he never sailed his boat at night before? So Fazar Ali turned his prow towards Bainajuri. It was late afternoon by the time they reached Bainajuri. The Baniajuri dock was right next to Aricha Road. They were about to get on the bus.

While he rowed, Fazar Ali had been thinking that surely the son of the Big House would pay him at least a hundred and fifty with tips and this and that. Maybe even two hundred if he was feeling happy. But he was stupefied when the young man climbed out of the boat and handed him five shiny hundred taka notes. Fazar Ali had not even dreamed of five hundred takas. For a while he couldn’t figure out what to do or say. Then suddenly, he ducked and touched the young man’s feet. As the young man’s “What are you doing, Fazar Ali, what are you doing!” rang in his ears, he squatted without hesitation and touched the young bride’s feet as well. The young bride flinched and stepped backwards. Fazar Ali glanced at her goddess-like face. He was still teary eyed, so he didn’t get the chance to look properly at that beautiful face. The young man said, “Fazar Ali, can you load our bags and things onto the bus?” and began walking toward the bus stand with his wife. Aricha wasn’t far from here; it was about ten minutes by rickshaw. But they could catch the bus from here as well. If there were empty seats, then a raised hand was enough to make the Aricha-to-Dhaka-direct coaches stop.

Which happened quite soon. Fazar Ali loaded their luggage as quickly as possible and climbed off the bus. Suddenly, the young bride tucked something into his hand and murmured, “Buy something for your daughter.” The bus started moving almost before she had finished speaking. Fazar Ali opened his fist and was stunned to see another one hundred taka note. His eyes teared up again. By the time he thought that he should salaam her again, the bus was already far away. So, the city-dwelling son and daughter-in-law of the Big House were deprived of the pleasure of witnessing Fazar Ali’s tearful eyes.

He dashed back to the dock and left with his boat. Who knows how late he was going to be getting back! He wanted to ply his oars as fast as he could, but why did his arms feel so numb? His eyes and face, however, glowed with joy. Luck. He had been born lucky! Almost without noticing, he measured his forehead. It was broad—how many in Udashpur could boast being born with a forehead made to carry good fortune! He had just earned fifteen days’ worth of money in one day. And he hadn’t done badly in the last week either. He would take his daughter to the big doctor right away, tomorrow. He felt unsettled thinking of his daughter. She hadn’t slept a wink last night; she had had such a high fever. Oh, who knew how she was feeling right now. Despite his numb arms, he rowed for all he was worth. Still, it was evening by the time he reached Jhitka.

By the time he reached Maniknagar Bazaar, the weekly market was disbanding. He stopped there without thinking about it too much. He was definitely taking home a hilsa and a jackfruit today. If you didn’t spend suddenly-earned money just as suddenly, you never did. They would cost more at Maniknagar; he would have done better buying them from the Jhitka market. But who was going to wait till Saturday? He was certain that his daughter would be so overjoyed at seeing the hilsa and the jackfruit that it would cure her fever. And if they could take her to the big doctor tomorrow, they wouldn’t have to worry about her for the rest of her life—Fazar Ali was more or less certain about that too.

When he was faced with the unexpected scene back home, Fazar Ali, who was unprepared for the situation, was rendered mute at first; but then, when he exploded with grief alongside his wife and began wailing, the Udashpur residents who were still awake realized that Fazar Ali had returned home. The damp climate of Udashpur was now damper still; the neighbors’ hearts grew softer. But he couldn’t be allowed to grieve for too long. It was very late already; the neighbors had been waiting with the dead body since that morning and had grown impatient a long time ago. So, within an hour of Fazar Ali’s return, the neighbors, who had been sort of prepared, took care of the various rules and rituals, and, when they, having buried the girl under the boroi tree, returned to their homes one by one, Fazar Ali’s house stood there, silent and solitary.

Udashpur slept. But sleep did not come to Fazar Ali and his wife. His wife Hosna leaned against the entryway of their shack and sobbed, staring at the grave. She had wept all day and her eyes were now bone dry. Fazar Ali sat in shock. What should he do? How could he console his wife, when he himself couldn’t accept what had happened! But, in the natural order of things, he had to be strong. He grabbed Hosna’s hand and said, “Come on, Hosna, come inside.”

Hosna whimpered, “I can’t stay in that house. My daughter’s gone, I can’t go in there.”

“Come, wife, come. Don’t be like that.”

“You didn’t see it. My child twitched and spasmed and died.”

“Don’t cry, wife, don’t cry. Allah has recalled what was His.”

“Doesn’t Allah see me? Don’t I belong to Allah? Why does He always cast His gaze on my children? My son died almost before he was born. Couldn’t He not have taken my daughter?”

“Don’t talk like that, Hosna. It will anger Him. It’s painful for the dead…”

“What anger can He have? What good will it do me to keep Him happy? Is He going to give my little girl back? That bastard, what does He think I am?”

He couldn’t allow this to go on. Fazar Ali almost forced his wife inside the house and got her to lie down. “Try to sleep a little…”

Hosna went quiet. Eventually, Fazar Ali lay down beside his wife. He was starving. Hosna must not have eaten anything either. Food sat covered in the corner—some neighbor had probably brought it over. But how could he speak of food right now? On the other hand, he was worrying about the fish. He kept silent for a very long time, but finally he asked, “Wife, are you asleep?”


“You don’t think the fish will spoil, do you?”

“Let it.”

Fazar Ali couldn’t muster the courage to say anything else. But after a while, Hosna rose. She lit the oil lamp and brought over the boti to clean the fish. Fazar Ali stared at his wife in the muted lamplight. Hosna wiped her eyes now and then as she cut the fish. She was no longer lamenting or sobbing. But tears were flooding out of her eyes; she couldn’t hold them back. Fazar Ali surprised himself with his own thoughts; why was he finding his wife so pretty? He couldn’t understand what it meant that he was finding his wife so attractive right now. After a while, he got up to sit beside her.

Hosna gently chided him. “Why did you get up? You’ve worked so hard all day.” Then she asked in a low voice, “How much did the fish cost?”

“Eighty takas.”

“If our girl were here now…”

“Don’t say it, wife, don’t say it.”

“You bought a fish for eighty takas and then you also bought a jackfruit. Where did you find that kind of money?”

“That’s a long story.”

“What’s the story?”

“The middle son of the Big House and his wife gave me the money. Do you know how much they paid me?”

“How much?”

“You’ll pass out if you hear the amount.”

“Tell me.”

“Six hundred takas.”

“Six hundred! For real!”

“Yeah. They have generous hearts.”

Fazar Ali was surprised when Hosna finished dressing the fish as they talked and moved to light the stove. He had assumed that Hosna would merely salt the fish to preserve it—he hadn’t thought that she would settle down to cooking it. In a gentle voice, he asked, “You’re going to cook so late at night?”

“I’m just going to stew it a little, or else it’ll start smelling.”

“Why don’t you just salt it, you can cook it tomorrow.”

“It’ll reek even if I salt it. Can’t you feel how hot it is? The heat of the month of Bhadra…”

Therefore, the stove blazed, Hosna’s practiced hands rubbed the spices on the fish, and as soon as Fazar Ali witnessed her preparations he realized that Hosna hadn’t relit the stove to just stew the fish—pretty soon, a full pot of fish curry brimming with a light sauce was going to come off the fire.

The hunger in his belly seemed to reawaken. In silence, he gazed unblinking at Hosna’s face, flushed from the heat of the fire. When the aroma of the cooking fish spread throughout the neighborhood, the light sleepers woke up wondering, “Who’s cooking hilsa this late at night?”

It was a bit of a problem to raise the question of food in a house of mourning. Usually neighbors or relatives took on that responsibility, but where were they going to come from this late? So, when the cooking was done, it was Hosna who asked, “Don’t you want a bite to eat? Aren’t you hungry?”

“You haven’t eaten either, I think.”

The two of them ate in silence, though Hosna was more intent on watching her husband than eating. How he was gobbling it all down! “Probably not a grain of rice in that belly all day. The poor thing! He works so hard, but he doesn’t get the kind of food he needs. The man’s growing frailer by the day.” She thought of various other things and asked softly, “Shall I break open the jackfruit?”

“The jackfruit?”

“Yeah. Shall I?”

“Open it up.”

This time, the scent of the ripe jackfruit traveled even quicker than the hilsa through the neighborhood.

As Fazar Ali and Hosna went to bed after their meal, quite suddenly, rain poured out of the sky. Within minutes their damaged roof began leaking rainwater. After a long silence, Fazar Ali said, almost as an aside, “I’ll need to repair the roof now. Just a few more takas and I’ll get started.”

Then, again, silence. The night deepened outside. The rain grew heavier. From the towering trees far away, the sad, drawn-out calls of wakeful birds drifted back. When his wife began weeping again—it was unclear whether it was from hearing the birds cry out—Fazar Ali uttered in a deep voice, “Don’t cry like that, wife. Allah took one, He’ll give us another. Don’t cry, don’t cry anymore,” and hugged her close.

And then, the smell of hilsa, the aroma of jackfruit, and the hushed sound of the rain fused together to bring down the long-awaited slumber to the eyes of the people who lay awake in Udashpur.

Exile Poems

Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha


I’ve classified myself and shaped my worth by my bones, by the skeletons of the people I used to be, and by the bodies of the people who left their marks on me.

Dancing Queen

Queerness is longing to be connected to history, community, culture. Seeing ourselves in the past is how we imagine ourselves in the future.