Fiction / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Once in a Blue Moon

by Durjoy Ghosh

As the evening approached, the mud-built hut in that vast stretch of uneven, uncultivated land would go extinct. It would remain extinct until Farida returned from work and lit the candle and the chula.

But that evening when she returned from work she realised that she had, once more, "forgotten." Farida cursed herself as she went about the house searching for the candle she believed she had left in a hole in the wall. This forgetfulness was a worry, and it affected her nerves badly. She swore, called herself names and wondered if it was her time to leave this world, wondered if she was too old for a life that demanded vigilance more than determination. She searched and searched, and finally, indignant, gave up.

She started to cook. Once she had cooked for her husband, his parents and two brothers, and later for her son. But now, at sixty-five, she cooked only for herself. Farida worked very slowly, partly due to age, but chiefly because she was half-blind. The candle she lit each evening was only a psychological satisfaction.

It was cataracts. A few years earlier, Professor Sharma, in whose house she presently served, had arranged for an operation. But Farida hated hospitals. She hated surgeons.

Farida sat on the earthen floor and yawned. She searched for a solution to her present problem—which was not the missing candle, or even her gradual loss of memory—but a new concern that had recently arisen. The government had announced a monthly pension of seventy-five rupees for the aged, and though Farida was not at all interested, Professor Sharma had urged her to collect the money. But it was summer and those hills were far off. Her spirit sank as she imagined the wild track, through miles of brown earth, without shade or shelter. Still, how could she disobey the wise professor?

She sat, and she thought, and the night deepened. Moonlight slithered in through a gap between two tiles on the roof. There was absolute peace in the world, except for the jackals that roamed the fields and from time to time made their presence known in collective howls.

For a moment, Farida wondered if what she heard was not a breath of wind, stirring the decayed leaves in the backyard. There was a young banyan close-by. When the wind blew from the west, its leaves rolled up, fluttering as they rose and fell against the wall and around the empty well. But it was not leaves. Or even the birds that pecked around at night. It was clearly footsteps. And, before long, a mild knock came at the door. Commonsense would not approve of receiving a visitor so late. Inspite of the moon and a thousand bright stars that dotted the midnight sky, it was a wild night, and not a soul stirred in the immediate vicinity. But the knock repeated, and it grew louder as time passed.

Finally, a voice said: "I am Sabbir. Open the door, Ammi."


It was dark inside the room. Sabbir struck a match and cupped its flame with the practiced hands of a smoker. The mud walls, a part of the low, thatched ceiling and two human faces, staring fixedly and intently upon each other, emerged from the dark. He had not much changed down the years, except he had grown a beard, and fine wrinkles stretched from the corners of his large, beautiful eyes. Farida wondered if young women still submitted to his charms, and if he still gambled and lost, still staggered home each night, sad and drunk.

The candle was traced and set on a three-legged stool by the earthen stove, which was thawing some rice in an aluminum bowl, its bottom neatly plastered with mud to save the metal from tarnishing. Farida poured with sweat as she tended the fire. The bowl's lid clacked as steam pushed from within.

"Invariably, you have some spiritual realizations. Death is ill, joyless, lamentable. But it tells you something about the value of life. And...I saw him die."

Farida had already heard all about it; how Jamal had fallen from the wooden step, the severe injury, his long suffering and eventual death. Many times she had vaguely considered paying him one last visit to ask him a few last questions. But she doubted he would have liked it.

"Afseen cried, and I cried too, and the next morning everything changed."

"Do you address her by name?" Farida asked.

"She is ten years my junior."

"But she is your mother, too."

"She was his wife, and now she is his widow."

"Did you address her by name in his presence?"

Sabbir said nothing in reply. He only smiled. Then, slowly, he rose. He walked across the room to his cotton bag, hanging from a nail in the wall, and returned with a bundle of papers, carefully folded. He held them close to the candle and muttered: "I must show you something." He still smiled, his eyes glistening in the dim light of the candle, which was down to a quarter of its original length and threw large shadows around the stool.

He examined the papers closely for some time before he moved on to a large envelope.

There was a photograph inside. "My wife, and she is pregnant," he said.


Neither Farida nor Jamal had ever dared to hope that Sabir would settle down, marry and have children. All bitterness was now forgotten, and the rest of the night was an intimate experience, kindled by emotions stored up over the fifteen years that mother and son had lived apart. They dined together, and then they lay in bed, staying up till dawn, murmuring little queries about life. They spoke of the past, of quarrels and disappointments. But it was the present, the pregnant woman and the unborn child, to which the discussion always returned.

"Did you say it is the second month?"


"Who is with her now that you have come here?"

"Nobody, I suppose."

"Why not Afseen?"

"Afseen? She left soon after his death. Her brothers came, and she went with them, probably because she thought I would be difficult. But I had no such intensions. After his death, I was a different man."

"I can see that you have changed."

"Yes, I have changed. Maulana sahib has changed me."

"Maulana sahib?"

"Yes. Do you know what he says? He says the divine will is the will of man. And so, when we go against our own will, we go against the will of God."

Farida listened peacefully. She remembered that Jamal had used to say something similar, and for the first time since her son had arrived, she felt annoyed: "Our will is not always the divine will. Most of the times it is just..."

"It is, always," Sabbir whispered.

"How can you be so sure?" she replied, a stiffness in her voice.

Sabbir was lying on his back and could see a patch of the starry heavens through the gap in the tiles. "You should mend the roof before the rains come."

There was no reply. It seemed to him that his mother had fallen asleep. It had been a long day, she was exhausted.

But Farida was awake. She could once again see the two surgeons, bending over her face, asking if she knew where her husband was. "He must sign the papers in order for us to operate on you," one of them said, followed immediately by the other and the original question, "Where is he?"

Farida knew where he was. But she had already passed into an abnormally strong labour and was unable to speak. Besides, how could she tell them that Jamal was most likely nowhere near the hospital; that he had come, dropped her at the gate and gone away again; that he had refused to stay because he believed a child unwillingly conceived had no right to be born?

The surgeons were sure she had sinned. They muttered obscenities as their brutal, punishing hands pulled at the load. Despite the anesthetic, Farida could hear almost everything. But the nurses were kind, and, once she recovered consciousness, she was allowed to see her baby. It was a male child, and Farida called him "Sabbir"—a name by which Muhammad is said to have first addressed his grandson Husain.

The next four days in the hospital were even worse. She was shifted to the floor with a single piece of blanket and a pillow that stank of coconut oil. It was winter, and each night, as she lay on the floor, shivering and clutching the baby to her breast, she heard the words "rape victim" muttered from the beds above. It was on the fifth day that Jamal suddenly appeared. He searched for his wife on the beds and seemed shocked to find her on the ground.

That was many years ago, many, many years ago. How old was she then? Farida no longer remembered or bothered to remember. She was glad that Sabbir had come, that he had married and settled down. She could think of nothing more satisfying.

Meanwhile, the night was coming to a close. "Sabbir," she whispered. But Sabbir slept like a log. Her hand gently reached his wide forehead, beaded with perspiration, and it felt unusually cold. "Sabbir," she whispered twice more before she realised she had nothing to say. Like innumerable times before, she had, once more, forgotten.

Those hills were far off. The track would be as wild as one through a vast wilderness in a tropical country. But she had one hundred and twenty-five rupees saved from her salary, and seventy-five would make two hundred—enough to buy something for the pregnant daughter-in-law she had never seen, maybe a bangle or a printed sari or cosmetics. Her thoughts turned to a market beyond the hills, one she had often visited in her younger days with Jamal, and one she hadn't been to since Sabbir had been born.

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