Horse by Mashiul Alam

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Born in northern Bangladesh in 1968, Mashiul Alam is a Bangladeshi writer, journalist, and translator. He graduated from the People’s Friendship University in Moscow in 1993. A journalist by profession, he is the Senior Assistant Editor at Prothom Alo, a leading Bengali daily paper in Bangladesh. He is the author of over a dozen short story collections and novels as well as several translations, including Dostoevsky’s White Nights (translated from the Russian to Bengali). Many of his writings give voice to underprivileged people, often by telling stories that represent the untold experiences of Bangladeshis. For his writing, Alam was awarded the IFIC Literary Award and the Sylhet Mirror Prize for Literature. His work (translated by Shabnam Nadiya) won the 2019 Himal Southasian Short Story Prize and a 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Grant. He was also a 2022 fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Mashiul Alam’s short story “Horse” is translated by Shabnam Nadiya for this issue.

 

Horse

I used to dream of a white horse with wings. This horse didn’t gallop; it flew.

Before I ever saw an actual horse in real life, an image of a horse had grown within my mind. I was never able to figure out how that had happened, no matter how much I thought about it.

When I was studying at university, I used to listen to Mr. Plato’s utterances. He had once said, “There is only one true horse, which is in the heavens. What you see here are merely the shadows of that true horse.”

I had asked him, “Sir, does the true horse have wings?”

In response, Plato nodded and said he had never seen the horse of the heavens. When reminded of Pegasus, he smiled like an English gentleman of modern times, and in the manner of an administrator, he said. “In an ideal state, there will be no space for poets and artists.”

During my intense, youthful years, I had traveled the Caucasus mountains on the back of a white horse, that place where Prometheus had been imprisoned for stealing fire from the heavens; but even that horse hadn’t had wings. It was a profound question: how did the image of a winged horse form in my mind?

There might have been some connection with my paternal grandmother, because in my childhood she had told me many weird stories. Her bizarre tales might have included mentions of winged horses. But by the time it occurred to me to ascertain the origins of this idea, my old Dadi was no longer alive.

Before she died, my Dadi had most probably fallen in love with my maternal cousin’s maternal grandfather. My paternal grandfather and my maternal cousin’s maternal grandfather (I called him Nana) had been cousins of a sort. Nana, my cousin’s maternal grandfather, was an LMF doctor. My Dadi said the Doctor Nana used to own a horse. He used to ride it when he went around the villages, visiting his patients. Nana would wear a pith helmet on his head, Dadi said, and he even had a pistol and he used to wear pantaloons, and he would tuck his pistol in his pantaloon waistband, and when he rode off to distant villages to see his patients, he looked very pretty (perhaps Dadi had meant handsome). Dadi’s husband was a farmer who owned two hundred bighas of land; and the doctor had a pith helmet, a pistol and a horse.

But that horse didn’t have wings either. If it had, surely Dadi would have told me that detail before telling me anything else. So how did the idea of a winged horse form in my mind?

Much later my father told me this: At the age when static objects, such as trees, had no value to you, wings were your only attraction. As a child, you chased after birds for entire days. Later you discovered that the word pakhi, bird, had derived from pakha, wings.

But this eternal verity, that real horses didn’t have wings, I learned first in the village of my paternal grandfather. When, for the first time in my life, I saw a real horse in the flesh, I was very disappointed, because people had turned these horses into donkey-like beasts of burden.

People loaded up their sacks of rice on the horses’ backs; the horses trudged along the dusty paths of our village, their gait slow and non-equine. We chanted:

Hey, horsey, what’s beneath your hooves?

Pegs,

And one and a half lame legs.

Once, the rice traders stopped at my grandfather’s grain yard with three horses. They gathered beside the barn where rice was stored and bought the unhusked rice for forty-five takas per maund. When the sacks of rice had been loaded onto the horses’ backs, my grandfather touched the tip of his finger to his tongue and counted out the many soiled banknotes which the traders had pulled out of their waist pouches.

I said, “Dadu, go and buy watermelons with this money.”

The watermelons were black and impossibly round, as if they were footballs. There were countless seeds in them. My Dadi pointed at the watermelons and told me, “These are horse’s eggs.”

Dadi hid the watermelons in her room, under her bed. I used to think one day those eggs would hatch into foals.

But one day we left those horse’s eggs under Dadi’s cot in her room and we left Dadu’s village and went to the town; my father had built a house there. We started living in that house. I was admitted to Ramdeo Bajla Government Highschool.

Then one day I saw a horse standing in the corner of the school’s playing field. This one didn’t have wings either; instead, this too was like those laughable donkeys, the ones that bore rice sacks on their backs along the dusty roads of my Dadu’s village headed for the Moslemganj marketplace. On this horse sat, not a sack, but a ludicrous leaf-thin man, with a wooden box in front of him. He stuffed gool-tobacco into his mouth with the tip of his index finger and raised the lid of the wooden box, slamming it down with a thwack and yelled out in a grating voice, I-i-i-c-e-c-r-e-e-a-m!

On hot days, we bought bright red ice-lollies on sticks and slurped them with gusto; the ice cream vendor said that ice cream kept your brain cool, and with a cool brain, you could focus more on schoolwork, etcetera.

One day I told him, I want to ride your horse just once. But he wouldn’t agree. I tempted him, “Just one lap around this field, you’ll get one taka.”

He said yes out of greed. He stretched out his hand to me: “The money first.”

I gave him a taka. He took the ice cream box from the horse’s back and placed it on the ground. He hoisted me on his shoulders and sat me on the horse’s back. But he kept hold of the reins. I wanted the reins in my hands. He said, “You won’t be able to; if you fall and break your bones, I’ll be the one who’s blamed.”

And then he jumped onto the horse, behind me. He dug his ankles into the horse’s ribs. He yanked the reins and made noises with his mouth, “Hoot, hoot! Go, go!”

But the horse didn’t go, didn’t move. When the man dug his heels further into its ribs, it splayed its hind legs further apart and stood stubbornly unmoving.

I was quite embarrassed. Because all the boys from my school were watching me and laughing. I loathed that horse; I jumped off its back and threw a curse at it, “Fucking mule!”

Then one day I saw the leaf-thin man ride his horse to the northwest corner of the school playing grounds and stop there. He pulled out his gool-tobacco pot, excavated gool with the tip of his index and stuffed it into his mouth, and raised the lid of his wooden box, slamming it down and shouting out, “I-c-e-c-r-e-a-m!” And immediately the horse collapsed to the ground. The gool-guzzling leaf-thin fellow fell flat on his face with his ice cream box, and the horse began to foam white at the mouth. Our eyes bulged in surprise and terror.

After that, I never told anyone that I used to dream of a winged horse.

 

2

My son told me he had dreamed of a horse. Apparently, the horse had a pair of wings; it was flying over the National Parliament House of Bangladesh, which is located in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka.

My son is only eight, but he talks like an octogenarian. He wanted to define his own dream as unrealistic and outlandish using this logic: “A horse is not a bird; why should a horse have wings!”

Then one day he showed me a hand-drawn colored illustration and said, “Baba, look, they’ve drawn wings on a horse. Isn’t it mad?”

I worry; my son is growing up to be a hardheaded realist.

But he didn’t use to be like this. At two and a half he would tell us this story: “Someone’s ringing the doorbell. I knew it was a ghost. So I took a stick and went to the door and asked, Who’s there? He said, Open the door. I opened the door and hit the ghost on the head with my stick and his head cracked open and then so many cockroaches whooomed out of his head!”

That same son of mine was now looking at an image of a winged horse and considering the artist mad. This was worrying.

I told my son, “Horses used to have wings; they used to fly through the clouds.”

My son laughed and said, “Baba, you’re mad.”

I asked him, “If horses didn’t have wings, how did you dream of a winged horse?”

My son made a serious face and said, “Are dreams ever real?”

“Of course, they are. You’ll see, one day a white, winged horse will show up at our house.”

My son started shouting, “Ma, ma, come quick, Baba has gone completely mad.”

His mother shouted back from the next room, “That didn’t happen today—your father went mad long before you were even born.”

The mother was double the truth-teller compared to her son. Except for Allah, the fereshtas, and the djinns who had been mentioned in the Holy Book, she considered truth to be only what was visible in reality. Everything else, to her, were lies, made-up, the mad imaginings of those who were mad.

The mother had taught the son arithmetic: two plus two always make four; it never makes three or five. I called my son close and told him, “Listen, my son, two plus two make twenty-two.”

My son pulled a somber face and said, “You want me to flunk my test, don’t you?”

I told him, “When the winged horse shows up, you can ask him how much two plus two makes.”

My son pursed his lips and said in an acerbic manner, “So horses talk as well?”

“Of course, they do. He will tell you why the wings of horses can no longer be seen.”

“Why don’t you tell me, why can they no longer be seen?”

I said, “Humans have told them, hey, horses, you’re not birds. You’re not allowed wings. If you don’t get rid of your wings, we’ll shoot you down like birds. Then we’ll carve you up and cook you and eat you. Since then, horses hide their wings because they’re scared of people. But they can spread their wings whenever they want. But they only do it at night, especially on nights with a full moon, when the entire world is filled with moonlight.”

My son wasn’t confused in the slightest. Instead, he looked at me and smirked like a know-it-all old man and said, “You think I’m still a little boy, don’t you?”

The next morning, he had school. The driver came to me and said, “Saar, the car isn’t starting. I think the battery’s down.”

I was annoyed. The battery had been replaced just last month.

My son said, “Baba, you should return the car to your office. Then, a horse should be bought. I’ll go to school on horseback. You’ll also go to work on the horse. There will be no need for oil or gas and the horse won’t break down.”

I marveled and said, “After the longest time you’ve finally said something worthwhile.”

But on the way to school in a rickshaw, my son said, just to disappoint me, “The problem is where will you keep the horse, what will you feed it? The landlady won’t allow you to keep a horse in the garage. The horse will pee and poop…isn’t that a problem?”

I kept quiet.

The rickshaw crossed Mohammadpur bus stand and drove onto Shaat Masjid Road. Every single day, around this time there was a terrible traffic jam on this road. Today the entire street was empty; other than our rickshaw, there was no sign of other vehicles or other people. I was surprised but my son was unperturbed.

I asked him, “Your school isn’t closed today, is it?”

He said in a confident voice, “No.”

“But do you see how empty the road is?”

My son said like a citizen in the know, “For sure some VIP is going to go through here.”

“But VIPs don’t take this road.”

My son nodded and said, “They do, they do. Nobody can say which road VIPs will take, or when, or why.”

Suddenly, from behind us came a rhythmic metallic noise, clip clop, clip clop…!

Before I even had time to look, a red horse sped like an arrow towards us, an army man in uniform astride its back. It crossed us to the right and galloped ahead.

My eyeballs were about to explode. As he stared at the galloping, disappearing horse and its rider, my son smiled a know-it-all smile and said, “Didn’t I say some VIP will be passing through?”

The red horse and its rider clip-clopped their way across the silent, empty Shaat Mosjid Road that lay flat straight ahead. My son said, “This horse came from India. Now the alliance between the two nations will deepen. However, there’s a problem, there might be some conflict…”

My son continued saying terrible things; his words broke through the mystical silence of the empty street like the hoofbeats of a herd of horses; and soon, from behind us, six more muscular horses hurtled through, six generals astride their backs. They galloped beside us and sped towards Pilkhana.

My son watched them and suddenly he began to laugh and chant a rhyme:

“Hey, horsies, what’s beneath your hooves?

Pegs,

And one and a half lame legs.”

Then, when the herd of galloping horses and the sound of their hooves had disappeared, to keep me on my toes, my son said, “But horses have no wings. Mind it, Baba.”

When we reached the school, as I was paying the rickshaw driver, I suffered a gentle jab from my son’s elbow. He pointed to a corner of the school building, where the chotpoti, fuchka, jhalmuri, peanut, chickpea sellers were usually crowded. Now, none of them were there; there was only a horse, on its back, a man as thin as a leaf, and in front of him, a wooden box. He pulled out some gool-tobacco from a pot with the tip of his index and stuffed it into his mouth, and raised the lid of his wooden box, slamming it down and shouting, “I-c-e-c-r-e-a-m!”

I thought my son would want some ice cream now. I would buy him a red ice-lolly; he would slurp it up and I would watch him, and this scene would bring me great joy.

But he didn’t even bring up ice cream. Instead, in the manner of a wise old man opening my eyes, he said to me, “Look, even this horse doesn’t have wings.”

He slid his arms swiftly through the straps of the schoolbag bursting with textbooks and notebooks and, carrying it like a mountain climber’s pack, he shrugged his shoulders a couple of times, directed a polite smile at me, waved goodbye, and marched off towards the main entrance of the school building.

 

Interview with translator Shabnam Nadiya 

Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?

Shabnam Nadiya:  Sometime in the early eighties, when I was about seven or eight, the Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye visited Dhaka. My father, a professor of English literature, went to an event held for her. I will never forget the wonder of my father describing meeting her and showing me a signed copy of her collection Different Ways to Pray.

Her visit made me, a child in love with books, aware that writers weren’t just dead people with their names on book spines–that literature was a living, breathing thing. She was a writer who, through the grace of her work and her existence, told me it was okay to become a writer. After that, there were so many writers who inspired me in different ways—but Nye will always hold a special place in my heart.

Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?

Shabnam Nadiya: I don’t want to say ‘should have’ about what fiction should or shouldn’t do. Different writers engage with the political reality of their times in different ways; which isn’t just okay, but I think is essential because otherwise we’ll miss out on the multitudinous ways of looking at the world that the form can offer. But as a reader, I do want short fiction to sow the seeds of unease, to initiate disruption in the order of things.

Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!

Shabnam Nadiya: One of my favorite stories since my mid-teens has been Ernest J Gaines’ The Sky is Grey. I cannot recall a single time I have read it and not wept. I taught this story in a class in Iowa City years ago, and had a student hug me, to thank me for introducing her to this story, this writer. It’s a simple story of a mother and son from Louisiana in the dead cold of winter making a trip to the dentist. And yet, the short sections comprising the story come together to form an unforgettable portrayal of grace under pressure—of stark poverty, ugly racism, and the despair that these engender.

Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?

Shabnam Nadiya: That a piece of writing will take the time it takes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a novel, a poem I’m working on, or a translation. It will not be hurried along by me, will not be pushed, or jostled. If I try doing that, I am never happy with the end result.

It almost feels like there’s an evolving process that starts itself up when I start working on a project—and I have no real control over how long it’s going to take. I’ve finished book length manuscripts in the space of a few weeks on one end, and four years on the other.

Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!

Shabnam Nadiya: Right now, I’m in the middle of writing my novel, Unwanted. I’m also translating Wasi Ahmed’s novel The Ice Machine, for which I was awarded a PEN Presents grant, and collaborating with Mahmud Rahman on translating Mahmudul Haque’s seminal novel, My Sister, Life.

 

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