I, Lilli Man
They call me Lilli Man. They call me other names, too. Lilli Butcher, for example. Ever since I’ve started the farm, they’ve begun baptizing me “Lilliputian.”
One muggy afternoon in August, sitting on the veranda, I am sulking about it. A female Lilliputian, who I call Li, is lounging in my lap. She has been very attached to me for a year. And we manage to communicate rather well.
Hey, Li, do I look like a butcher? I ask her.
Li stands and glances up at me, unmoving.
I explain my words with slow gesticulations and repeat, B-u-t-c-h-e-r, b-u-t-c-h-e-r.
She watches me. Confusion dilutes her clear little eyes for seconds. Then she shakes her head madly and lets out a shrill “Nooo!” at the top of her voice. Her soft, fur-like hair flies around her head.
I smile. She smiles in return and climbs onto my left shoulder. She stands up there and runs her tiny hands through my hair. She knows I relish that.
Li is nine years old. She is bright and damn smart. If there were beauty contests among Lilliputians, she would have won every crown. I can easily kick off a beauty event of this sort if I want to. But I do not wish to share Li with the world.
Li loves my company, so I try to carry her everywhere. She is happy to stay inside my coat pocket when I am out. At night, as she prefers, I set her minuscule cot on my bed. Sometimes it feels like I am living in a world within a world. I shut my eyes saying, “Good night,” and I open them to her hollering at me, “Good morning.”
A dozen years ago, I was looking for a job following my graduation with a degree in history. Booming crocodile farms in Asia gave me the idea to venture into Lilli business. Initially, I started the farm with a hundred Lilliputians intended only for export—especially to the country of Achinpara where they eat anything. I knew sooner or later my countrymen would fall for Lilli meat. They can’t live on the air of the Bay of Bengal alone. They need fresh flesh. Take broiler chicken, for instance. When it was first sold in bazaars, people turned their noses up at it. Now they love it. Eventually I was proved right. Within a decade, by the end of 2055, I succeeded in commercializing Lilli foods.
Now Lilli foods have mushroomed everywhere, right and left, wherever you look in Dhaka and other cities. Children love Lilli wings, Lilli legs. Men like Lilli fries. Women, Lilli roasts. Lilli soup for people in poor health. The overall favorite is Lilli seekh kebab. You will see long queues in the evening streets, the crowds waiting to feed their hungry bellies. They watch greedily while Lillis are seared on roadside grills smoking with hot embers. The process is certainly mouthwatering. Skewer them and slather them in spices. Then the spiced-up Lillis are grilled whole. Often beside them, Lilli butt barbecue, which is a much loved Lillipop. Tastes like aromatic kasturi. Musk pod.
About 12 inches in height, these Lilliputians resemble humans more than any other animal. Bookstores carry a volume called The History of Lilliputians. I haven’t read it. As I haven’t Darwin’s The Origin of Species, though I feel sorry for those who never believed Gulliver’s Travels.
Around three centuries after Jonathan Swift’s death, the tiny creatures he had described were discovered on an island in the Indian Ocean. Researchers think Lilliputians originated in the heart of Africa but began to shy away from the increasing intrusion of Homo sapiens.
Now Lilliputians are in every cupboard and cabinet. No longer found in the jungles or forests, they’ve been domesticated, caged. They live with humans. In almost every house. Some keep them as pets. Some rear them for eating. And over time, the tiny creatures have replaced chicken.
In the early days, familiarizing people with Lilli foods was not easy. I trumpeted through word of mouth that eating Lillis was highly nutritious. There were debates and media wars. One group claimed Lilliputians were our ancestors. The height of the present-day Lilliputian is about a foot taller than Gulliver described in his travelogue. This suggests Lilliputians continued to grow, and they may evolve into humans over the course of thousands of years. The other group dismissed the assertion saying, God made humans the best creation of all. Also, they pointed out that nearly a century had passed since the discovery of Lilliputians, and they hadn’t grown a fraction.
Years after their discovery, a number of Lilli rights activists emerged in the U.S. Stood against the killing of the little beings across the globe. People paid no attention to them, though. From the time the world was born, one animal has been jumping another for food. Why not humans on Lilliputians?
In a country where people are poorer than dogs and institutionalized corruption does more damage than annual floods, Lilliputians were seen as a good source of protein. I convinced our government that setting up Lilli farms could open the way to huge foreign earnings. They saw a future in it. They couldn’t care less about the rights of Lillis.
The word ‘Lilli’ has become a household name across the planet. To introduce any product, just inject “Lilli” before or after the item, and the brand will be a sure hit. Lilli beer, Lilli brassiere, Lilli blazer, and whatnot.
Lilli farming is a money-making business. The profits soar faster than a rocket. Like cows, every part of Lilliputians is salable. Lilli teeth and bones are revered for jewelry settings and scrimshaw. Their skin is tanned and sold to fashion houses in Shanghai, Dubai, and Paris.
Lilli nunus are in high demand, too. The Achinparans are rumored to eat them raw. To boost libido, of course. They pay no mind to the saying, “You are what you eat.” I am hoping, in the near future, to get orders for Lilli poop as fertilizer.
Lillis have an average lifespan of twenty-five to thirty-five years. It is uncanny that the little beings are so similar to humans. They spend a good deal of time courting, and whenever they get a chance, they make love. So on the farm, males and females are kept apart. Castrating Lilliputians is a common practice. The meat tastes great if it’s done shortly after birth. Besides, it keeps the males from thinking only about sex.
Separating newborns from mothers seems—even to me—a barbaric act. But I am in business. I have to meet market demands. Baby Lilli flesh is soft as butter and pricey as hell. The mothers, on the other hand, get milked after the delivery. Mini sucker machines suck their breasts every four hours. In time, Lilliputian breasts grow so big the mother can barely move from the weight. Lilli milk, studies show, is rich in vitamins, good for asthma, and so forth. A few companies are even starting to offer Lilli cheese and butter.
It hurts when my fellow countrymen call me Lilli Butcher. They know nothing of the world. Take the Lilli festival in Achinpara, where they boil the little beings alive, then hang them on display ready to serve to order. Baked, roasted, grilled, stewed, you name it. For amusement there is an overnight Lilli circus which ends with a wicked Lilli wrestling match. The surviving Lilliputians then go up for auction, to be sold live or cooked for the winning bidder.
And today, scientists run all their tests on Lillis, not mice. The Americans are known for recruiting and training large, healthy Lillis to pilot their combat drones, with the promises of good food, abundant sex, and the finest luxuries if they made it back after dropping their bombs.
In India, where narabali—human sacrifice—is banned, sacrificing Lilliputians to the goddesses has become a welcome trend. Quite modish. Yet, there is also a temple, where Lilliputians are tolerated—worshipped even. There they move freely, like monkeys or rats, and are fed and taken good care of.
The University of Oxford claims to own the wisest Lilliputian on earth. It is called Lilli Solomon. He can speak three languages, recite Shakespeare, and sing Beatles songs. And China now offers scholarly Lilli beings to the world. Training a Lilliputian is time consuming, costly, and involves endless research and experiments. The Chinese have a bellyful of investors interested in bearing the expenses. They are making golden eggs out of Lilliputians. They have even started to sell trained Lilli beings who can talk, read and obey commands.
Chinese farmers have also announced that next year they are going to make trained Lilli maids available. And, as pygmy-Lilli rearing is getting trendy, there are now farms devoted to creating new breeds. You choose what traits you want—curly hair, thin lips, nutty skin, whatever. The farms will deliver your made-to-order Lilli a year after you place your order.
For rich folks in my country, I import English-speaking Lilliputians from America. White-skinned, of course, since people here are allergic to black and brown skin. In a country like ours where Anglophilia persists, they want English-style Lilliputians. These expensive beings are well mannered, have ample English vocabulary, and at the drop of a hat can deliver basic phrases like “Yes, sir,” “Sorry, sir,” and “Thank you, sir” in a crisp accent.
The police come to my Lilliput farm the week after the militant attack on Café Holey in the capital. The officer says I have been accused of sexually abusing the Lilliputians. He threatens to confiscate all my farm creatures—over a thousand—and have them medically examined to determine if I have used them for carnal pleasure.
The basis of his allegation is in fact Li. Words float in the air that I have been intimately involved with a female Lilliputian. Perhaps my ex-girlfriend spread this. She hated Li.
Is this a reasonable accusation, officer? I demand. Do you think it’s physically possible?
The superintendent of police cackles like a jackal. Then I realize why. Being a lawman, his eyes have grown bigger, seen more cruelty and brutality, more of the nastiness and savagery of human behavior. Yes, we all know it happens. Whispers buzz around every corner—the violence on the little beings. It just doesn’t make the news.
According to one study, sites showing Lilliputian X-rated materials are the most visited on the internet. In some western countries there are even Lilli strip clubs where the trained creatures perform practically all the lovemaking asanas stated in Vatsayna’s Kamasutra. As a result, the deaths of Lilliputians from abuse are a regular occurrence. It just doesn’t make headlines.
I sigh and try to look unbroken under the policeman’s gaze. I tell him that like many others I just keep a Lilli pet. In that instant I get Li’s disapproving response—her violent movement inside my pocket, her hammering on my breast.
So you want to call that a pet love, huh? he says.
I keep my calm and ask what’s really going on.
The officer cackles with laughter again. Then he chews his cud for a moment. He reminds me of the seriousness of the allegation. But, he assures me, he knows a way out. He names the number: one million.
The figure cracks my head open. Stunned, I stare at him. Should I refuse to pay? Months ago, a member of the local ruling party had asked for a fat donation. I’d ignored the request. Is this its consequence? I have never been involved in politics. Nor had my father. But my grandfather, who notably snores in the grave now, had been a supporter of the opposition.
That’s a lot of money, officer. I’ll go bankrupt.
I seek not to nettle him. This is a time of militant killings. Police can catch anyone they like, take them to an open field, then, boom-boom. You are as dead as the dodo. The media will report the death. No questions will be asked. Who cares to investigate whether you were a jihadist or not?
I love life more than money. So I offer him half a million.
No way. The money will go into many pockets. Including the Home Ministry’s, the officer tells me, politely but firmly.
Finally, we agree on the number: 725,000.
I visit the bank the day after. I wish to set up a Lilli Research Institute to supply trained Lilliputians to the market akin to Chinese farms. No more Lilli meat business for me. I have stomached enough heckling. Time to strip the word “butcher” from my name.
I decide to borrow 20 million takas. The manager of the bank, who knows my fortune well, says to make it double. He tells me not to worry and hints at how I can safely default later. But thirty percent of the total amount borrowed will be kept as his “under-the-table cash commission.” I make the deal. That’s how people get rich here—small fish turn into big fish. He says some don’t even bother to pay back loans at all and make a second home in Malaysia or migrate to Canada.
Just one silly requirement you have to follow, he explains. As per Central Bank instructions.
Make sure you donate a small amount to the Lilli Rights Campaign.
If it were old times, I would have bitched about the Lilli rights activists. I would have done everything to crush them between my thumbnails, the way monkeys do with lice. But I am a different person now.
Sure, happily, I say to the bank manager. Thanks for reminding me.
After the paperwork is done, we shake hands.
We must celebrate, he insists. How about smoky butter Lilli kebab with a bottle of red wine?
I feel a fluttering inside my coat pocket. Li is punching me hard. With a plaintive smile I tell the manager that it has been a while since I stopped eating meat.
He gives me a bewildered look. You must be kidding, he says.
I say I’m not, and he asks me why. I tell him that I have ethical reasons.
Ethical reasons? For three seconds he regurgitates my answer. Then lets out a loud laugh. He reminds me that I am the one who first began this business and popularized Lilli foods across the country.
And now I regret it, I say.
I stop by a jewelry shop to pick up an order. A certain thrill fills me, swells my heart. Getting home, I sit in the bedroom sofa. I help Li out from my coat pocket and settle her next to me. She stretches, props a foot against the back of the sofa.
Li, I say. I have something for you.
Li regards me intently.
But go dress up nicely first, I tell her. Wear something indigo or blue.
Li complies. Clinging to my leg, she descends to the floor and makes for her mansion, which is placed by the window and is like a dollhouse. I made it for her myself. And it’s portable.
Fifteen minutes later Li is back on the sofa. Hair tied back, face aglow with light make-up, she is in a swing dress. I marvel at her beauty. From my pocket, I take out the little jewelry case. I open it and pluck out a weensy necklace. I motion Li to step up. As she does, I put the necklace around her neck. She looks stunning in the blue sapphire. I see her shocked smile. Touching it, she spins and twirls and whirls.
Li, you’re the most beautiful…, I pause. Let me put it this way. You’re the most gorgeous girl I’ve seen in my life. You’re just small.
Li laughs and thanks me. She attempts to climb my shoulder. I sit her on my palm, bring her face to face. Li has got onyx eyes. She leans over and plants a kiss on my lips.
Interview with Rahad Abir
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Rahad Abir: I began writing in Bangla when I was majoring in English literature at the University of Dhaka. There was a poet in my class, Murtala Ramat. Upon his initiative, we published a literary magazine, “Moral,” which we called a “micro mag.” This was basically a trifold one-page publication. We published poems and very short prose pieces. Dhaka University campus and Shahbag’s Aziz Super Market have long been at the heart of literary activities and addas. It was through working on the micro mag that we came into contact with many young writers. At the time, we also began attending writing groups.
So, I decided to become a writer in my freshman year at university. However, a desire to write creatively had been brewing inside me for some years prior to that, in the late 1990s. Our family lived in Old Dhaka, and I used to purchase second-hand fiction books sold on the streets in Bangla Bazar and its environs. Soon, my best friend and I started a library and let others borrow books. During those days, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s writing made a deep impact on me. His autobiographical novel Srikanta is still one of my favorite books. The French author Romain Rolland is reported to have said after reading an Italian translation of Srikanta that Sharat Chandra was a novelist of the first order and deserved the Nobel Prize.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Rahad Abir: All art is political, so they say. My favorite writers include George Orwell and Franz Kafka. Now, Orwell is considered one of the most famous political writers of all time. Kafka wasn’t a political writer in the manner that Orwell was. My point is that the theme of politics can be reflected in a writer’s work in many and varied forms. I think in today’s world people are more politically aware than ever.
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!
Rahad Abir: Choosing one writer to recommend is difficult. I’ve always admired the short stories of Tagore, Chekov, and Kafka. I enjoy reading contemporary short story writers such as George Saunders, Saundra Cisneros, Anthony Doerr, and Junot Diaz, among others. The list will get longer and longer. Right now, if I had to pick one short story, it would be James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues. It is embarrassing to admit, but I first read it in 2021 and I still can’t get over it. I would say this is one of the best American stories ever written.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Rahad Abir: Universal appeal. In terms of race, language, and culture, there may be many distinctions, but the color of tears of all humans is the same on earth. Human emotions, pains, and loves work in the same way everywhere. A great story can connect everyone.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Rahad Abir: Patience and perseverance. It’s easy to get frustrated from time to time.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Rahad Abir: I’m currently working with my editor on the novel, Bengal Hound, which is forthcoming in the fall of 2023. Bengal Hound is a story of love and loss set in East Pakistan in the 1960s, where memories of the past haunt the characters. A vital part of the narrative deals with the 1965 Hindu-Muslim riots and the mass uprising in 1969. I’m also revising my novella My London: An Immigrant Experience. As the title suggests, the story of My London is centered on the idea of belonging.