Read time: 11 mins

What Men Live By

by Shagufta Sharmeen Tania
20 September 2022

Translated from Bangla to English by the author

‘What Men Live By’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.


After rotting all winter, the soil in the garden had dried up. In the morning, I fell into a hole covered by grass and sprained my right foot. Where had this hole come from? Was it a fox’s den? Or a hedgehog’s? Little hedgehogs frequented this garden; they made sounds like baby’s rattles. We had one recurring visitor whom we named Pincushion. I came indoors, groaning in pain, thinking about the hole. What a day to twist one’s ankle! Here they referred to weather like this as four seasons in one day. One minute, the sky was bright blue like Turkish porcelain, incandescent with light. The next, rain was splashing on the windowsills, and swirling seeds of sycamore were sent flying towards greyness in all directions. 

After the morning rain, the sun came up, and I went into the garden again; I smelled the honeysuckle that covered our neighbour’s fence—early this year. This garden triggered so many memories. As a child, my son would weep when I trampled on snails entering the garden. ‘You smashed Snawly the snail!’ he would exclaim. There were mallards in the duck pond in our park; he named one of them Denzel the ducky. Once we took a holiday to the Lake District, about 300 miles from our home. When my son saw the mallards in glassy lakes, scattering water with their beating wings, he cried in joy, ‘Denzel the ducky, you came all this way to see me!’ Everything had a name in his little world, possibly even the sycamore seeds that scurried along with the wind. I never asked though. The art of nomenclature was in our genes.  

I remember our youngest uncle, Safdar, once brought a mahua tree from the agricultural fair and planted it in front of our house in Kalyanpur. The tree had been given a poetic name, Fuljharia, flowering spring. We inscribed it on a broken slate. We also wrote ‘Indian Honey Tree’ in English and the Latin name underneath, Madhuca indica. Our mother narrowed her eyes and asked her brother-in-law: ‘Is it for fruit or logging wood?’ 

‘Oh yeah, there will be fruits!’ 

‘Will they be edible?’ 

‘What are you talking about? Tribes in Bihar eat the fruits and the flowers. Look at your children’s bellies bloated with worms! Oil from mahua will deworm them. If you feed it as fodder to cows, their milk will flow like a river!’ 

‘We don’t have cows.’ 

‘The seeds are used to make vanaspati ghee!’ 

‘Our tin of vanaspati ghee is not finished yet. We don’t need any more!’ 

‘Why are you being so negative? Look at this: it is a tree of abundance, a mahua tree, a tree that will grow up to 20 metres!’  

I was too young to understand the conflict between Safdar and my mother that day. He could not tell his sister-in-law that some quack had prescribed him a drink of hot milk with lotus honey and dried mahua powder to increase virility. 

But the tree disappointed us for years by remaining a weedy sapling. It didn’t flower on moonlit nights, nor did it provide ghee or deworming medicine. At one point, Safdar started showing signs of insanity. Back in those days in our country, people like that were forced to marry to ‘cure’ their madness. So, he was married off, but that marriage broke down (just as he did, eventually). His long-term suffering ended only in death. We forgot all about the tree, and bougainvillea and gmelina vines eventually covered it. Gourds, pumpkins and tomatoes grew in the yards and on the rooftops around us. Mint grew in broken buckets, maybe some roses, marigolds and crotons in winter. It was an eclectic yet utilitarian approach to gardening. The mahua tree might simply not have bothered to spread out as it would have been very different from all the others. 

That fuljharia tree shook itself back to life one spring. Bunches of its copper leaves started shimmering in the heat. Large cracks showed in the grey trunk, like the passage of time. Musky-scented flowers bloomed and intoxicated the night air of Kalyanpur. The neighbours’ goats fattened themselves by eating the spent flowers and dry leaves of mahua all day long in the spring sun. In the evenings, the tree became a sanctum for druggy fruit bats who came and hung brazenly on the trees. Murad’s mother, our scullery maid, asked—in an echo of our mother’s voice— ‘Is it for fruit or for kindling?’ When she heard that the tree did nothing, she complained that the bats spat on her, and their saliva was very itchy. No one paid much attention to her. The mighty mahua tree grew transcendently, in stark contrast to all the petty people who pasted posters on our boundary walls, squelched dung cakes on our compound and quickly showered at our faucet if they found the gate open. But there were drawbacks growing into such a big tree in a neighbourhood that was so small and fragmented. There were unwritten rules of the municipality: it posed a problem if one’s measurements did not fit in, like that tree, as someone else learnt later. Let me tell you the story.  

Our other uncle, Wahed, lived in an alley near our book-binding factory, off Zindabahar lane. In the month of Ramadan, we went to his place for our regular Ramadan feasts and saw a big white rabbit wandering around like autumnal cloud. Wahed’s wife, Auntie Sabera, had already named the rabbit Madhu, meaning honey. Madhu had ruby-red eyes and was as big and velvety as a fawn. Neighbours said that the rabbit had been brought from Belgium to the Postgraduate Hospital for animal testing. Madhu had probably escaped from the research lab, hence the tag B-52 tattooed on its right ear. Uncle Wahed lectured us about the differences between rabbits and hares. But a rabbit that had escaped from the Postgraduate Hospital in Shahbag and come all the way to Zindabahar Lane demanded much more attention than any wise discussion.  

We followed Madhu to Auntie Sabera’s kitchen and saw the floor had been burrowed. The vessel for live fish was overturned and slithery catfish were wriggling along the floor. Sometimes, while Madhu was digging holes, pots fell to the ground, shoved aside by his bottom. He had a queer habit of looking forwards but moving backwards. Auntie Sabera looked drained that evening. She asked in a weary voice, ‘Do you want to take him?’ My cousin Setu and I jumped for joy. When the elders went to perform Tarabih prayers, I looked around and bundled Madhu home in a gunny sack. This is how another oversized organism ended up in our small house.  

Everyone in the house was delighted to see Madhu; he was quite a looker. He knew his name: he dived under the bed, deep into the realm of dusty pots and pans and iron chests, ready to ambush the unsuspecting at the appropriate moment. Sometimes he didn’t bother to respond, but just wiggled his ears when called. When pulled out of his realm however, he stayed in our arms and shamelessly basked in our hugs. Setu used to say we didn’t know a single word in rabbit language, but the rabbit knew at least one word in our language: his own name. Our cat Satin knew one human word too: ‘Satin’. Satin panicked and laid low when Madhu was around as the rabbit had a habit of pouncing clumsily on the cat. A house cat was resilient enough to tolerate a lot of things—but not a lack of decorum. 

Within a few days, members of our household became impatient with Madhu’s ways. The rabbit overturned everything on the bed, be it chessboards, bedsheets, supper trays or books on horoscopes—you name it. In my absence, he ruined everything in my room, ricocheting across it with abandon. He gnawed at anything, from the collars of our shirts to our rubber flip-flops, even my mother’s soft, thick Multani Gultex bed sheet from the Pakistan era. It was not long before my mother asked my cousin Setu in exactly Auntie Sabera’s exhausted voice, ‘Will you take it?’ Again, Madhu went to Motijheel from Kalyanpur in a gunny sack. 

Setu’s mother, my paternal Aunt Layla, lived in Bangladesh Bank Colony. The famine of 1974 was over by then; the walls at the entrance to the colony buildings— erected during the war of independence—had not yet been broken. A bituminous road encircled the colony. There were vast, unobstructed, lush green fields there, where snakes and frogs visited from low-lying areas in the monsoon. Annual sports competitions were organised on those fields. Consequently, Madhu had an unusually large space in which to roam freely. People from other colonies regularly came to see Madhu at Setu’s house. Some wanted to adopt him; some wanted to eat him—but Setu discouraged them, saying he would not be halal as he was not a hoofed rabbit. Scoundrels from Singer Azam Khan’s gang announced one day that they would take Madhu to Chittagong Hotel and make him into a rabbit curry. However, Madhu, oblivious to all this, continued his rollicking ways in the field, tunnelling in from one side and emerging far from where he began. Soon the fields of the colonies were full of bunny trenches, and the boys couldn’t play. In the evenings, Madhu returned home on his own, his nose and nails full of dirt from scratching beneath the surface. That dirty nose twitching in the gentle giant’s face melted Setu’s heart, and consequently he paid no heed to his mother’s constant disparagement. 

One ominous evening, Madhu didn’t come back. There was no news of him for three to four days. Setu’s anxiety knew no bounds. He neither ate nor slept during those days. On the fifth day, someone called to inform us that Madhu had been seen in an apartment in Arambagh. Setu and I went there, but they demanded proof that he was our rabbit. We mentioned the tattooed ear, but they rejected this and were reluctant to give Madhu away. Setu suddenly called his name out loudly, the only human word the rabbit knew. Hearing his own name, Madhu leapt up and shot on to Setu’s lap. 

Setu’s joy was, however, short-lived. The authorities no longer agreed to allow Madhu in the colony. Madhu came back to Kalyanpur from Motijheel. The day he came home, there were discussions going on with the ward commissioner about widening the gravel road in front of the house. No one had time to object to the return of the prodigal bunny. I gave a basket of cauliflower stalks to travel-fatigued Madhu, and he began to eat happily away.  

Setu stayed in our house that night. We conspired to put Madhu up in the mahua tree as we walked through the courtyard covered in dead leaves. Madhu on the Madhuca indica seemed to make sense; he would be safe there.  Who knew how Madhu had come to our shores—like a solitary coconut bobbing in the ocean or like a radiant white prince of some other land who did not fit in ours.  

I can’t remember whether Madhu clambered up that tree that night. It was decided at the meeting with the ward commissioner that the 10-foot road would be widened to 12 feet so that rents would increase, and better tenants would buzz around this area all year. The mahua tree had to go. It was neither used for fruit nor kindling, a gigantic tree that shaded everything in the courtyard. Drunken fruit bats hung on the tree; drunkards entered the yard day and night as liquor could be distilled from mahua flowers.  

If the mahua tree were chopped down, where could we hide the giant rabbit? Setu and I decided to leave him at Qazi Nasim’s lavish farmhouse. There were cows, sheep, a menagerie of exotic birds and a German shepherd dog in that house. When we brought the rabbit into the farmhouse, Qazi Nasim exclaimed, biting his pipe, ‘Hey, a Flemish Giant Rabbit! Where did you get it?’ 

The city was expanding; our houses became much more utilitarian; we were discarding every oversized thing. There was no place for fruitless trees or animals that did not provide milk. At nights, however, I would occasionally dream that Madhu was sitting on the mahua tree with other rotund rabbits, their noses quivering. I used to have the same dream even after leaving Bangladesh.  

After seven years of living in England, I was finally able to rent a house with a garden. I planted yellow courgettes, thorny cucumbers and Malabar spinach there in the summer. While harvesting, I often had the sensation that Madhu was turning the black soil of the garden upside down. There was no Madhu here, but there were others of his kind. Under the snails’ onslaught, red amaranth perished immediately after it germinated. Slugs ravaged the pea shoots. The foxes did not even spare the tulip bulbs under the rotting winter soil, let alone the vegetables.  

As a farmer, I was a disappointment. Beets as voluptuous as a giantess’s breasts emerged at the head of the shovel at strange times as I repeatedly forgot to pull up celeriac or beets in season. I forgot to weed too. On one of those rare days I weeded the vegetable patch, the thought struck me: just because those plants were not important to me didn’t mean they were wholly unnecessary in the grander arrangement of the natural world. From that day on, my farming ended: you might say that I gave in. I also stopped pruning the grass as overgrown tufts of grass were popular dwellings for small animals like Pincushion. As soon as the air warmed up, the downy stems of red campion flowers sprang up from the grass; so did the purple pompom-heads of clover and knapweed as if to endorse my decision. My friends, who counted the healthy leaves on their bottle-gourd vines and competed with each other, just felt sorry for the rugged state of my garden. The assembly of ‘all things great and small’ in my garden perturbed them.  

Applying some pain-relieving gel on my ankle, I limped back into the garden. It was a nice Sunday afternoon; the sunshine had the warmth of a soft and fuzzy animal. Some Black men were playing brass instruments and singing ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’ near the abandoned bus stop. Once their singing had stopped, I could hear the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriage on the main road, jewellery jingling on the horse’s body—a sign that someone had died. Then there was silence. Actually, the silence was laced with the whistles of blue tits, like one silver teaspoon beating another; the bumble-bees droned too. They all knew that they were the uprooted beings in the city—a bit like me. Somewhere along the way we became pals, fellow refugees, nonconforming fumblers. How far have I travelled to find the herbal balm for the heart! I was sitting on the garden bench when my gaze came to rest on the hole that had tripped me up that morning. I fancied I could see a pair of beady eyes within, watching me tentatively. They were watchful, calm and intelligent eyes that possibly knew at least one human word.  

Illustration © Jessica Hinerangi 

About the Author

Shagufta Sharmeen Tania

Born in Bangladesh and initially trained as an architect, Shagufta Sharmeen Tania has authored nine books. She translated Susan Fletcher’s Eve Green and Antonio Skarmeta’s Burning Patience, from English to Bengali. Her work has appeared in Wasafiri, Asia Literary Review, City Press and Speaking Volumes Anthology and Massachusetts Review. Shagufta received the Bangla Academy Syed Waliullah […]