The story of Musalmani
(Original: Musalmanir Galpo)
Translation: Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq
[This story was written by Tagore just two months prior to his death. This story particularly interests me because until I read it recently, I was not aware of any of Tagore's work in which Muslim characters were central. Although this is just one short story among the vast literary works of Tagore, it is, nonetheless, a notable contribution.
It is unfortunate that many of us from Muslim background are not familiar with his works enough. Before I sent this translation for publication anywhere, I sent a survey to several e-forums to find out how many people could guess who is the author of this story. One such forum was Alochona, the first and the largest of Bangladeshi discussion forum. I guess because of stereotyping thoughts about my writing, the survey was not posted there. But the experience was quite revealing. Apparently, the respected moderators of the forum thought it is just one of those works "because it was a long story, mostly showing one religion is better than the other."
Well, the story was written by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. If someone would suggest that Tagore was writing that story "mostly showing one religion is better than the other", Tagore probably would have said "Ma dhoroni didha hou" [O mother earth, be split and take me in].
It is also true that those who are more familiar with Tagore's work have not made a reasonable effort to help others know about such works of Tagore. Indeed, they might not like others to know widely about such works of Tagore, because there is an important bridge-building dimension of this story.
It is a very powerful story with thought-provoking theme. It also shows Tagore's high esteem for Muslims and Islam, similar to what we saw in a scattered fashion in Gora, a Tagore novel. You can read about it in one of my articles Reflections on Tagore's Gora: Layers of ignorance and voices against prejudice .
This is probably a unique short story of Rabindranath where Muslims constitute the central character and theme. Of course, I have not come across any other short story of this category, except possibly Kabuliwala, but that's more of a reflection of the author's personal experience.
The title of the story "Musalmanir Galpo" is somewhat odd. It might be explained by the fact that this story was merely a draft, which Tagore probably wanted to expand and just added some temporary title to the story. Curiously, this was written during June 1941, just two months prior to his death.
May be through a story like this, Tagore wanted to sow some seed of bridge-building so that Muslims of the subcontinent can also find themselves in his works.]
The islands of anarchy during that period were under the sway of the state administration (rashtro-shashon). The whole day and night used to pass under the fear of most sudden attacks of injustice and tyranny. The entire spectrum of life was like a web of nightmare. The head of the household had to constantly stare at Devta (god), while people's mind was under constant fear of the Apodevta (devils) as to what might happen. It was difficult to trust anyone, a man or a Devta, the excuse of tears was common. The gap between the consequence of good deeds and bad deeds was thin. In their odyssey of life people used to stumble into troubles at every step.In this kind of situation, having a beautiful daughter at home was like a curse from God. If any household had such a daughter, the family would often say: "When will her departure would bring us relief!" A similar kind of burden was at the home of Talukdar Banshibadan.Kamala was pretty. Her parents were dead. The rest of the extended family would feel better, if only she would take off as well. But that did not happen. Her uncle Banshi has taken care of her as a member of the family with utmost care and affection.Her aunt, however, used to frequently complain to the neighbors: "See fellows, her parents left her on our shoulder only as a trouble. No one knows what is going to happen. I have my own household, in which she has kept alight the torch of ruin. All the bad people's eyes are set upon us. When one day are we all going to be ruined due to her, just the thought of it robs my sleep.Somehow the days were passing. Then came a proposal of marriage. It became difficult to hide her amidst all the celebrations. Her uncle used to say: "That's why I have chosen a home for her where they would be able to protect her."The groom was the second son of Mochakhali's Poromanondo Shetth. The son is holding onto a big treasure of wealth, but it might simply disappear with the death of the father. The son was extremely extravagant - devoted to playing with Hawks, gambling, wagering large sums of money on fights between Nightingales. He had great pride in so much wealth; of course, he had a lot. He had at his disposal well-built, Bhojhpuri bodyguards, masters of fighting (club-man; latthiyal). He used to boast as to which brother-in-law (translator's note: shala, I guess) has a son in that whole region who can touch him. He was specially enamored with women. He has a wife, but is looking hard for a younger one. He came to learn about Kamala. The Shetth family is very wealthy; powerful too. He was determined to bring her as a new bride.Kamala started crying: "Dear uncle, where to are you letting me go?""If I had the power to protect you, I would have held you dearly forever, my dear", her uncle sighed.When the decision about marriage was settled, the groom came to the ceremony with great pomp; there was plenty of music and celebration. The uncle humbly submitted: "My dear son, I don't think so much pomp and publicity is a good idea. The time is pretty rough."Hearing this he once again roared at those sons of "brother-in-law" (shala): "We will see who interferes."The uncle said, "Until the marriage ceremony is over, the responsibility of this girl is on our shoulder. Then, she is yours. Please ensure her safe journey to your home. We are weak, unable to bear this responsibility."Boasting once more, he retorted: "No problem."The Bhojhpuri bodyguards stood up with their sticks and started twisting their mustache.The groom started his return journey with the bride through that famous field, the one of Taltori. Modhumolla was the head of the bandits. When it was two past midnight, he appeared with his gang with torch. Somehow the Bhojhpuri stalwarts had no chance. No one can stand up against the famous bandit-head, Modhumolla.Kamala was scared. Leaving the carriage, she was rushing to hide behind a bush. At that moment appeared behind her, an old man, Habir Khan. Everyone reveres him like a prophet/saint. Habir stood erect and said: "Sons, all of you retreat! I am Habir Khan."The bandits said: "Khan Sahib, we can't cross you, but why are you spoiling our business?"Regardless, they had to yield.Habir Khan reassured Kamala: "You are my daughter. Have no fear. Let's go to my house from this trouble spot."Kamala was very hesitant. Habir told her, "I understand. You are the daughter of a Hindu Brahmin, hesitating to come to the house of a Muslim. But remember one thing - those who are true Muslims, they respect pious Brahmins too. You will stay at my house like a female in a Hindu house. My name is Habir Khan. My house is very near. Come on, I will ensure your safety."Kamala is a Brahmin's daughter. It was hard for her to overcome her hesitations. Habir once again reassured, "See, while I am alive, there isn't anyone in this region who can endanger/undermine your faith. Come with me, have no fear."Habir Khan brought Kamala to his home. Incredibly, in this eight-division home, there is one division (mahal) in which there is a Shiva temple and all the arrangements for Hindus.An old Hindu Brahmin presented himself. He said, "Dear, you ought to treat this place as a Hindu home, you won't have to worry about your caste (jaat)."Kamala kept crying and asked, "Please inform my uncle so that he can take me back."Habir said, "Child, you are mistaking. No one from your household will take you back. They will abandon you in the street. If you don't believe, you can try."Habir Khan accompanied Kamala to the gate of his uncle's home, and said, "I will wait here."Kamala entered the house and clinging to the neck of her uncle submitted, "Dear uncle, please do not abandon me."Her uncle started crying too. Her aunt observed and lashed out, "Make her leave, she brings misfortune. Ruining everything, she has come back from the home of outcaste (bejaat). Don't you have any shame?"Uncle explained, "We have no way. Ours is a Hindu home, no one will take you back. Moreover, we might become outcaste too."Kamala paused with her head low for a while, and in slow steps she crossed the gate and went along with Habir Khan. The door of her uncle became shut forever on her.She found all the arrangement of adhering to her faith at Habir Khan's home. Habir Khan reassured, "None of my boys will enter your compartment. You can continue to lead your life, worship, Hindu customs with this old Brahmin."
There is a little bit of history behind this house. People used to call this particular division the Mahal of Rajputani. One previous Nawaab brought a Rajputani girl, but she remained separated upholding her caste. She used to perform her Shiva worship. Sometimes used to go on trips to holy places. The aristocrat Muslims of that time used to respect pious Hindus. All the other Hindu begums who were given shelter in this mahal by this Rajputani, they had no problem to uphold their own ways and customs. It is said that Habir Khan is the son of that Rajputani. Even though he has not taken up his mother's faith, he used to revere her mother in his heart. His mother is no longer alive, but in her memory he has dedicated himself to protect and shelter all those Hindu girls who are abandoned and/or persecuted by the society.What Kamala found there, she has never found such at her own home. All the time her aunt used to abuse her, maligning her as evil or misfortune: her family/kins would be saved when she dies. Her uncle sometimes would secretly purchase some cloths for her; she had to hide those from her aunt. At the Mahal of Rajputani, she became like an empress (mahishi). There was so much care and attention for her. All around her were servants taking care of her. Moreover, they were also from Hindu families.At last the wave of youth greeted her body. One of the boys secretly started courting her in her Mahal. Her heart was stolen.One day she told Habir Khan, "Father, I have no religion. The one whom I love, that fortunate one is my religion. The religion that has always deprived me of all the love and tenderness of life, abandoned me in humiliation/disgrace, I have not been able to see the gratification of Devta in that religion. I can't forget that the Devta there has constantly humiliated me. I found love for the first time, father, in your house. I learnt that there is value of life even of the most wretched girls. The Devta that gave me shelter, I adore him amidst my respect for his love and affection. He is my Devta - he is neither Hindu nor Muslim. I have endeared your second son, Karim. I have accepted him in my heart. My religion is tied with his. Please make me a Muslim. I have no objection - maybe I will carry the heritage of both religion.
Time passed by. There remained little chance that she will ever meet her folks again. That she is not one of them any more, Habir Khan tried to help her forget - she became Meherjan.
In the mean time, the occasion of the marriage of the another daughter of her uncle came up. It was arranged just like before. The trouble also presented itself in the same way. On the way to the groom's house, the same bandits attacked them. Last time they were deprived of their prey, now they wanted revenge.But right behind them came a roaring voice, "Don't" (khabardar!)."Look, the band of Habir Khan is here again to spoil everything."When all those with the bride escaped in a hurry, there appeared the spear of Habir Khan on which was hoisted a flag of half-moon. That spear was being held up fearlessly by a woman!She said to Sharala, "Sister, have no fear. I am here to bring to you the shelter of him who gives shelter to everyone. He does not bother with anyone's caste.""Uncle, please accept my Pranam (reverence). Don't be afraid, I won't touch your feet. Now please take her to your home. She is still unblemished. Inform my aunt that I have grown up with so much of her provisions against her will, I could never imagine that today I would be able to repay in this way. I have brought a red silken dress (lal cheli) for her. Please take it, and this brocade (kingkhab) seat. If in future ever my sister is under distress, please remember that she has a Muslim sister to protect her."
"24-25 June, 1941"
Golpo Guchcho, Rabindranath Tagore, Cabco, Dhaka, 1998. pp. 513-515.
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