*Translated from Humayun Ahmed’s Bengali short story named ‘Pimpra’ meaning ‘Ants’.
‘Come straight. Tell me, what actually you are suffering from?’
The patient did say nothing. Looked towards his companion sitting beside him.
Dr. Nurul Afsar, MRCP, DPS became very annoyed. There were three reasons for his annoyance. The first reason was it was already past 8 P.M, time for him to leave for home. Today was the birthday of his sister in law. The second reason was he did not like the patients hailing from the rural areas. They either talk too much or do not talk at all. At the time of paying consultation fee they start haggling. Posing to be over humble and with abject, self abusive submissiveness they insist on allowing discount on the usual amount of his fee taking them to be poor.
For disliking the instant patient the third reason was not very important, to be true. Still, this third one itself was felt to be the main reason. The patient looked like an idiot. Patients of this class are unable to describe the nature and symptoms of their malady on their own and require help from another person for the purpose.
‘Tell me fast. I have other things to take care of.’
The guy did not say anything this time also. He just made a sound as if was trying to clear his voice and looked towards his companion again apparently meaning that it was his companion’s liability, not his, to describe whatever was there to say about his illness. The companion was not saying anything either. Dr. Nurul Afsar looked at his watch for a second and said,
‘Animals like cows and goats can not speak and tell their symptoms of malady. The Vet has to gather what they are suffering from by his clinical knowledge and experience. But you are not an animal of their category. Then, why are you keeping silent? Tell me, what is your name?’
The patient did not say anything. His companion replied, ‘His name is Maqbul. Md. Maqbul Hossain Bhuinya’.
‘You need help to inform others of your name too. Tell me what is it? Can you speak or not?’
‘Yes Sir. I can speak’.
‘Then tell me yourself what your name is?’
‘Md. Maqbul Hossain Bhuinya’.
‘And your age?’
‘Fifty two years’ Maqbul replied.
‘Good. Now tell me what are you suffering from?’
The patient bowed his head. Dr. Afsar thought that the illness of the man was of such kind that he was feeling uneasy to go into details about that.
‘I can’t allow you anymore time. I have got to be going for another purpose. If you have anything really to say come fast and tell me that. If not, leave now’.
The patient again made a sound from his throat like he was clearing his voice. But his companion said,
‘He has no illness, so to say’.
‘If he has no illness, what is he here for?’
‘The problem with him, to be particular, he is bitten by ants’.
‘What did you say?’
‘He is bitten by ants as I said earlier. Ants bite him’.
In a doctor’s profession one can not afford to lose patience. Also, he can not pick up quarrel either with his patients. If done, he is liable to harm his own popularity and acceptance among them. It is also not permissible in his profession to express any feeling or reaction of being taken aback on hearing symptoms from his patient of whatever unusual kind of a disease it may. And if it ever happens he is supposed to appear normal and totally unperturbed and is to give an impression to the sufferer that he was quite accustomed to treating similar maladies and was successful in giving full relief earlier to a similar patient. Dr. Nurul Afsar had abided so far with these basic principles of a doctor’s profession. But today he failed. In a reprimanding voice he asked,
‘What do you mean by saying you are bitten by ants?’
His patient took out a piece of paper from his pocket and extending his hand to give that to Dr.Afsar he said,
‘Please read this letter. Everything lies written there’.
‘Whose letter is this?’
‘It is from Kasem Shahib’.
‘Who is he?
‘He is an MBBS doctor of our locality and is a very good doctor. He has referred me to you. Said that hearing his name you would recognise him. He was your student’.
Nurul Afsar sahib could not recall any of his students named Kasem. The name is very common among the Muslims. Every year in each class one or two students having the same name will be there in the students’ roll. Dr. Afsar wondered who this Kasem might be.
‘Sir, could you remember him?
Considering it not right to say that he could remember him he smiled rather mechanically and said, ‘Yes. I remember him perfectly. Let me see what he has written’.
Old students refer patients to him and it was necessary that they were given to feel good by giving them recognition.
‘He has sent his salaams to you’.
‘Alright. Let me see the letter’.
Looking at the letter Dr. Afsar contorted his eye brows, not being pleased at the first glance. It was a long one. The Bengalees, he felt, has an incorrigible habit of not being ever brief in their expression and conduct. Kasem has written a two page letter. He settled down to read it which ran as thus,
‘My highly respected Sir,
Kindly accept my salaams. I belonged to the 1973 batch of medical students. You used to teach us Pharmacology. I secured the highest number in your subject. Being pleased for that reason you invited me to your residence for tea. Hope you have remembered. To come down to business, I am sending Maqbul Sahib to you. He is an extremely rich person of our area. For approximately the last four years he is suffering from a queer sort of malady. It is not proper to name it a malady or a disease. But I cannot, on the contrary, name it otherwise also. The fact remains, he is all the time bitten by ants.
I can understand that this is liable to appear to you as utterly ludicrous. On the first occasion when he came to me that was also how I exactly felt. I was inclined to believe it to be a sort of psychiatric complication. But now I am convinced that it is not that a simple and common issue as I was given to believe. I have closely observed that wherever Maqbul sahib sits ants start coming on to him in rows. He tried to seek relief also by undergoing occult treatment from Pirs, Fakirs, witch doctors and wearing talisman. But nothing proved effective. Having no other option now I am referring him to you. Sir, kindly don’t laugh it over and discard him.
Most humbly your obedient student,
Abul Kasem, Blue Star Pharmacy,
Dr. Afsar looked up and glanced at his patient. He was sitting on his chair with the face of a stone statue. He was wearing an ordinary vest on his upper body and a lungi down below. It was not exactly the attire of a very rich man. Doctor Sahib at that moment could not find word to say anything but felt that he was expected to say something. Maqbul was staring at him expectantly. For a moment a feeling of disgust soared up inside him. Why this god damned pain had to be offloaded on him?
‘Then? You are bitten by ants?’
‘Yes Sir. Whenever I sit in a place ants come on to me’.
Nurul Afsar Sahib felt like asking him, ‘Are you a rasogolla* that ants will gather round and bite at you?’ But he controlled himself and did not say so finally.
‘Cure me up, Sir. I am suffering a lot. I will always remain obedient to you as your servant. Don’t bother about money. Let any amount be spent’.
‘You have a lot of money?’
‘How much money do you have?’
The patient did not reply. His companion said, ‘Money is never a concern for Maqbul Bhai*. He can part with a few lakhs any time like dirt on the palms of his hands’.
Nurul Afsar for the first time became curious. This man wearing a cheap vest and a lungi* can spare a few lakhs anytime like shaking off dirt on his hands – this was still unthinkable for him. Dr. Afsar himself was a moneyed man. He has saved a lot of money already in fixed deposit accounts of his Banks. But to achieve this he had, in exchange, to siphon off his life energy like draining out blood, attending patients, visiting clinics, hospitals and nursing homes from six in the morning to twelve in the midnight. No respite for a second in those hours. He puts to use his one and only holiday in a week also by flying to Chittagong in the morning and coming back by the last flight. He attends a clinic there as a consulting physician. But this man now sitting opposite to him and looking like an absolute dullard has reportedly amassed a fortune. Unbelievable! How can he? He does not look like worth doing anything meaningful and positive. Nurul Afsar Sahib was on the verge of losing his cool.
In a faint voice Maqbul implored, ‘Sir, if you could cure my disease….’
‘It is no disease at all. I have not heard of any disease during my practice which draws all the ants of the world and the patient is bitten by them. The malady sits in your mind only. I am giving you the contact details of a psychiatrist. Talk to him. I have no solution for your problem’.
Nurul Afsar Sahib had hardly finished his sentence when his attention got directed to an astounding incident. He witnessed that a row of red ants were approaching towards the right hand of Maqbul resting on the table. Usually ants move in a single line. But these ants were proceeding in three separate lines. Maqbul also looked in the same direction and sighted the lines of the ants. But he said nothing and neither did he put away his hand.
Nurul Afsar sahib asked, ‘Are these ants moving towards you?’
‘The ants have stuck up to my feet also. I can’t keep on sitting in the same place for long’.
Nurul Afsar Sahib went closer to where his patient was sitting. Looked carefully at his feet. He discovered that innumerable ants were moving towards Maqbul’s feet in two rows.
‘I have an urgent piece of work to attend to. I have to go now. Can you come tomorrow?’
‘Sure I can come. I will go to whoever you ask me to go. I am living in a great agony, Sir. I can not sleep in the night. Ants enter my nostrils’.
‘Okay. You come tomorrow. We will talk it over thoroughly’.
‘As you command, Sir’
Maqbul stood up. Nurul Afsar Sahib was totally unprepared for what happened next. He felt that Maqbul for a few moments at least had gone absolutely mad losing his complete power of reasoning and balance of mind. He witnessed that Maqbul was trying to thrash down the ants with his feet jumping on them repeatedly in a furious stance. In one bid he stumbled on the table and started thawing the entire lines of the ants. His face looked sticky with sweat and the irises of his eyes had turned red. He was uttering an animalistic sound like the ‘hissings’ of a snake and was cursing the ants in a low voice calling them, ‘Bastards. Bastards’.
His companion was saying nothing. Bowing down his head he was chewing a toothpick. From his gesture it could be surmised that he was accustomed to similar incidents and to him it was nothing unusual.
Nurul Afsar Sahib completely forgot that he was expected to attend the birthday celebration of his sister in law. He kept staring at his patient in utter bewilderment. Two of his assistants had also come rushing from their rooms and were standing at the door with all the surprises of the world written on their face.
Maqbul cooled down abruptly. He said in a low voice, ‘Sir, don’t mind. These ants have completely spoiled my life. These bastards. Can I have a glass of cool water?’
Dr. Afsar’s assistant ran and brought a bottle of cold water from the fridge. He was happy that a dangerous lunatic at last had calmed down.
Maqbul sat still with the bottle of cold water in his hand and did not drink from it. He said incoherently, ‘Wherever I go there are ants. Nothing is left for me to do. The cot I sleep on has several large sized earthen pots below that and those are filled with water. Still, nothing comes of it. The ants are not be deterred’.
‘The ants don’t leave?’
‘No Sir. I don’t know how they crawl up to my bed. The bed sheet needs to be changed every hour’.
‘Is that true?’
‘Absolutely true, Janab*. If I tell a lie, let my body be infected with leprosy. I can not stay in a place for long either. Need to change places. I am finished, Sir’.
Doctor Sahib kept on looking at Maqbul. The person who had appeared to be dumb at the beginning shows now to be very talkative on the contrary. It was no exception, Dr. Afsar thought. The village people start talking profusely after their initial inhibition is over. Then they talk more rubbish than what is needed.
‘I left nothing for my treatment, Janab. Putting camphor in kerosene oil I put it on all over my body in the hope that it would keep away the ants. For the first one or two days it worked. The ants did not show up. But after that ants again kept coming. I left nothing to put on my body to repel the ants. Whatever I was asked to do by whoever it might be. One person said that smearing excreta of bats might come effective. Even that I tried. Now, I think that it is better to die’.
Dr.Nurul Afasar looked at his assistant and commanded him to call his home over phone and inform that he became suddenly busy with an unforeseen serious issue and would be late to return.
‘Give us tea’. The doctor said. ‘Do you drink tea?’ he asked his patient.
‘Yes Sir. I drink tea’. His patient replied.
‘Let me hear over tea how it started and since when the ants got attracted to you’.
‘I want say this to you confidentially’, said Maqbul.
‘Is there any thing really confidential?’
‘Yes, Sir. It needs to be confidential’.
‘Okay. Tell me confidentially, if like it that way. Before that finish up your tea’.
The person drank his tea in utter silence with not a single word. His wish to talk probably comes like waves and when the waves come he talks incessantly and when the waves stop he becomes silent. Then starts talking his companion. Now the companion was talking, - ‘Doctor Sahib, we forgot to inform you of the treatment that came most effective. Maqbul Bhai, tell him that’.
‘Why not you tell him?’
‘Maqbul Bhai himself invented that treatment. Like cures the like mode of treatment. Molasses attract ants. What Maqbul Bhai did was, he smeared molasses all over his body and ants stayed away for seven days’.
‘Not seven days. It was only for five days’, Maqbul said.
‘The ants got distracted for five days and reappeared again?’ asked the doctor.
‘It seems that you did a lot to get rid of ants’.
‘Yes, Janab. I spent days also in a boat anchored in the middle of a river. It was a happy stay for only three days. The ants showed up on the fourth day’.
‘How did the ants arrive there?’
‘I don’t know, Janab. I am cursed’.
‘As I said here before, I want to say it in confidence to you’.
Doctor Sahib arranged for Maqbul’s confidential statement. He had started taking a special interest in the matter. At irregular intervals some uneasy feelings were visiting his soul reminding him of his sister in law’s birthday celebration. Uptil now he never got attracted so much in the matter of a disease of any of patients. But this person does not fit in as a patient. Some one gets swarmed by ants do not qualify as a patient, so to say.
All others were told to keep away, including his companion and Maqbul started telling his story in a low voice,-
‘Janab, I told you before that I have money. The fortune that my family earned was not gained in the recent times. It dates back to the time when the British were still ruling our country. My grandpa at that time built a concrete house in the village for living. He had two elephants. One was named Moyna and the other one Suravi. Both were female elephants’.
‘Leave these unnecessary details. Come to the relevant facts about the ants’.
‘I am coming to that. I am the only issue of my parents. If you have huge amounts of money, property and associative power these are liable to pollute your character. It happened to mine also. What you call frailty of character gripped me also. I was only fifteen or sixteen at that time. Imagine, I was a palatial house. There was no dearth of beautiful girls and grown up women around me. There were the servant girls and maids. There lived in the house daughters and wives of the poor relatives who had taken shelter. No one was there to reprimand me. My mother, though, was alive and a few persons had approached her at times seeking justice. Nothing, however, came of it. On the reverse they were scolded and threatened by me’.
‘Did you not marry?’
‘Yes, sir. Why should not I marry? I have married twice. I have children born out of that marriage. But if a person has polluted his character marriages can’t reform him. Whenever he sees a woman…..’
‘Come to your point. Don’t waste time telling useless facts’.
‘Okay, sir. I am coming to the point proper. About five years back my attention got directed to the fifteen or sixteen year old daughter of one of my remotely related sisters. Her complexion was not particularly fair, to be exact. But in her physical build she was attractive. My character being not unknown to all, her mother kept constant watch on her daughter. Very disgusting sort of a mother. She used to sleep on the floor with her daughter in my mother’s room. But doing so much to protect the girl proved to be of no worth. One night the particular incident ultimately occurred’.
‘What occurred? What incident are you talking about? You are narrating your story as if the incident was nothing of any importance’.
‘In reality the incident what I am referring to is no doubt trivial, ha, ha, ha…..’
‘Don’t laugh. Not a matter to be laughed on’.
‘Right, sir. The incident that followed was, the nasty woman put her daughter to death giving her poison used in our households to kill rats. And she hanged herself from the branch of a mango tree just behind our house. An attempt to put me in trouble, nothing beyond that. An abject plan of a wicked woman. I became seriously worried. Two deaths at a time. Not a matter of joke. Sure to get known to the police and they are always in search of such occurrences. They would be eager to press charges of murder’.
‘You have not committed any murder?’
‘What a silly thing to say! Why should I commit murder? And even if a murder becomes necessary why should I do it in my house itself? If you need to cause a murder, is there any dearth of a proper place to do it? The middle of a river is an ideal place to choose for it. You can wash up the blood and throw the corpse into the water putting it in a large jute bag after applying lime and placing a few bricks inside. Rest in peace for the rest of your life. Not a single soul will get a smell of it’.
‘Then, you have committed murders also?’
‘No, sir. Necessity did not occur. Now listen to what I was saying. There were two dead bodies in the house. I told others to completely stay away from the bodies and not to touch them. I told that I would go myself to the police station and bring along the officer in charge. He would take care of the bodies as deemed fit’.
‘The police station was at a distance of fifteen miles from my home. I went by a boat and took five thousand takas* with me to offer as nazrana* to the O/C and his staff. Arriving there I found that things had become complicated. The O/C had gone to Boalkhali to investigate into a case of dacoity. He returned the next day. It took three days to accompany him back to my place. Rains had set in already. The dead bodies had decomposed within these three days. They were excessively stinking. I took the officer in charge to the mango tree and found to my utter surprise that the entire body of the filthy elder woman had been covered with millions of red ants as if a piece of a red cloth was laid on her body. A striking spectacle! The same thing had happened to the body of the young girl. Nothing of body, her hands, feet or face was visible. All covered with red ants. When at times the ants moved a little it looked like a red sheet of a cloth being shaken by somebody’.
In a wry voice the Doctor said,
‘I can not help to say that you are a goddamned scoundrel. A very wicked person!’
‘No, sir. Take it from me that those who have money are usually more morally corrupt than me. I am not to be branded as a wicked person. Listen to what happened next. I lighted a cigarette and threw it on the body of the girl. Instantly all the ants over the body stirred and looked like creating waves. Then the ants left the body of the girl and came down to the ground. They had eaten up all the flesh on her face. The bones from below the flesh were showing. The O/C pressed his handkerchief to his nose and exclaimed, ‘mabude elahi’.* Then in my utter consternation I observed that all the ants were coming towards me. A horrible thing to see! I ran away from the place. But in a few minutes I saw that the ants also had followed like they were in search of me. It began from that time. Wherever I go ants keep coming. Janab, is it permissible to smoke cigarettes in here? If you allow me I want to smoke a cigarette here’.
Maqbul lighted his cigarette. His face looked very pale. He was puffing his cigarette like a novice blowing smoke and was coughing. After taking breath he said,
‘Previously I had no cough. Now I am suffering from it. Ants have entered into my lungs and they now live there. Can you guess how I came to know this? Blood oozes out from my nose and at that time also are expelled bodies of dead ants’.
The Doctor kept on staring at Maqbul. Maqbul dragged on his cigarette for quite long and said,
‘I am smoking cigarette so that I can cough vigorously. When under bouts of cough, ants and their eggs are spilled. You can see it for yourself. I have announced that I will give him two lakhs of takas in cash who will save me from these ants. I may be a bad person but I don’t fail my promise. I have brought the money. Please, please help me Doctor Sahib’.
The Doctor said nothing. He was staring at the glass top f his large secretariat table. The left hand of Maqbul was resting on the table. Two lines of ants were proceeding from two directions of the table towards that hand. Maqbul also sighted that. He let out a short breath and asked,
‘You have nothing to do, Doctor Sahib. Am I right?
‘Yes. You are right’.
‘I knew. I would be killed by ants’.
Maqbul was watching the ants coming in lines towards him. His eyes were flashing. He extended his hand a little and bending his head down said, ‘Come on. Eat the hand’.
It seemed that the ants stopped for a moment and did not scale up his body as if in a kind of uncertainty for some seconds. Maqbul said,
‘If I invite them to come and bite at me they think for sometime and do not ride on to my body immediately. They consult each other. See Doctor. They are not rising’.
‘I can perfectly see that ‘.
‘Matter, though, for a minute or two. The consultation will end in minutes. Then they will come on to me to scale the body’.
What happened was exactly the same. Dr. Afsar observed that the communion of the ants had started crawling up the left hand of Maqbul. Besides the previously existing lines of ants another line had joined the squad. These ants had eggs in their mouth. Nurul Afsar Sahib could not understand why those ants were carrying the eggs.
What were they really at!
Who was issuing directions to them?
Who was pulling the strings?
1. Rasgolla – A kind of sweet delicacy made of cottage cheese balls dipped in sugar syrup and is vastly popular in Bangladesh, West Bengal and Odisha in particular.
2. Bhai – As addressed to an elder or younger male by another person out of affection or respect. Literally means a younger brother.
3. Lungi – A drum shaped casual dress made of a single piece of unstitched cloth meant to be casually worn for comfort on the lower part of the body at home or in intimate circles. However, it is used also as a formal dress in certain countries like Myanmar and others.
4. Janab – An honorific used generally before the name of a Muslim person of respectable position.
5. Taka – Name of the currency of Bangladesh.
6. Nazrana – Money or valuables that used to be offered as tributes for grant of an audience by the Emperors, Nawababs and similar others to the subordinate chiefs of the princely states.
7. Mabude elahi – A note of exclamation here, seeking to mean ‘Let Allah, the Almighty save His children’.
8. Sukur. Alhamdulillah – A note of acknowledgement of the kind gesture of another person, here implying ‘Thanks for the grace of Allah, the most kind and the most exalted One, thus being received through you’.