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The International Writers Magazine: Stories from India

The Money Tree
Subimal Misra

Translated by V Ramaswamy

Two-and-a-half vulnerable humans reached the shelter of the red light on Park Street after walking long. Pointing excitedly at the red neon advertisement that hung like an icon over their heads, the girl exclaimed to the man: Look! Look how tis suck’t up heart’s blood! The baby began to cry. Spring’s breeze wafted down from the Maidan and floated by, touching the two-and-a-half humans.

On that smooth-surfaced road, they saw a donkey, white in colour, lying dead. That very white donkey, against the black tarmac, four legs splayed high, was visible from far away. But despite seeing it no one looked at it. The cars skirted it and passed by. The people walked by, handkerchiefs pressed to faces. Those without handkerchiefs held their noses with their hands and went by that place.

They went close to the donkey. They saw a stream of red blood that had flowed from its ear, wetting the road. Now that had dried up and the blood’s colour couldn’t be discerned any more. They saw the pupils of the upturned eyes of the donkey. They saw a fly sitting near its belly. The stomach was horribly bloated. They wondered how the donkey came to be here on this road. But their hunger-crazed heads didn’t worry about such things for long.

The man grabbed the infant from the woman’s bosom and started begging near the cars stopped at the red light: babu, justapenny! … The man then had to undertake various acts using his vocal chords and limbs, like hunching up his whole body and bringing his voice to a whining cry, and that utterance had to be relentless because until the "babu justapenny" cry drove the people in the cars to despair they’d not fling one or two coins. Sometimes he would have to hit his empty belly. This circus act was vital to prove that he’d really not eaten, or wasn’t being able to eat, and thanks to that some people would be moved to pity, or assailed by this sound, and throw out some coins.

Instead of doing all this, those two-and-a-half humans also did other things, or could. Like the woman would lay the baby on the pavement and lie down beside; and the man would shriek and try to grab the attention of the pedestrians, haven’t eaten, here babu, twopennies! Performing all this, on and on, they’d get a few coins. People still indulged in charity in order to achieve pious merit.

Since the evening was advancing a cool breeze from the Maidan wafted down and passed by, touching them. The baby began whimpering in hunger. The woman pressed the infant to her bosom and gazed blank-eyed at the darkness of the Maidan, at the people on the road, at the trams and buses, at the few youths walking along who looked furtively at her exposed bosom out of the corner of their eyes. She just gazed on.

After a while their eyes settled upon the white donkey. A few dirty, skinny boys wearing loin-cloths came and cut out flesh from that dead donkey’s carcass. The girl pointed this out to the man and the two of them gaped at that sight. Soon there was a crowd of such greedy humans. All of them came and cut away meat from that carcass, quickly finishing off the white donkey. They too were tempted. They said something like this:
People ’r eatin white donkey’s meat!
I can see people ’r eatin!
Mussay white donkey’s amazin dear.

Jostling and pushing through the crowd they tried to get in, and once in they saw the donkey was almost laid bare. They thought: we shouldn’t delay any more, everyone’s eating it, why not try some ourselves. They somehow cut off a bit of the leg and came away.
The man took a bite. The woman took a bite. Biting into the white donkey’s leg, there was blood around their mouths. They said to each other:
Kilt n ate crow once!
How tis?
Hey tis sweety!
Nah, tis bitter!
Tis bitter then!
Nah, sweety!
Muss be sweety then!
Whatevr’s eaten with the hungry mouth’s sweety!

As the girl, hunger-crazed, chewed and ate the flesh and bones, two people from across the Maidan crept up like foxes. They stopped under a tree, and closely observed their behaviour and movements, and especially the girl’s youthful body. And because they were standing concealed in the relative darkness under the canopy of the tree, hence one couldn’t guess whether they were decent-folk or lowly-folk, loafers or pimps. Treading warily, they gradually advanced, looked all around, and then gestured to them to come towards the darkness.

Though they were somewhat startled at first, eventually they went up to the two men. Their eyes gleaming like foxes, the men studied them. They looked more at the girl. After that they asked where their village was. They replied. They wanted to know how long they had been beggars. They replied. Then, pausing somewhat, and affecting a cough, they finally asked whether they desired pots and pots of money.
Hearing this, that couple just gaped agog. One of the men then lightly patted the girl’s bare back, and pointing to the region of darkness in the Maidan said: There’s a money tree there! Shake it and it rains down! If you’d like to gather some come along!

They were scared. They wanted to, but weren’t brave enough. The two men then emboldened them: Don’t be afraid! You’ll come to no harm! … All this money … a money tree! Seeing that the man and woman were still frightened, the men put up an act in front of the girl: All this money! Pots of money! A money tree! And when you’ve got money you won’t have to beg! You won’t have to eat the rotten flesh of a dead donkey! You can eat two square meals a day!

Going on like this, when the men saw the girl’s eyes lit bright with desire, they knew it was time. They thrust the infant into the man’s arms, caught hold of the girl’s arm and pulled her along. Hey boy, you stand here with the baby, I’ll show your wife the money tree and be back. Without waiting for any response they dragged the girl by her arm into the fold of the darkness. The man simply stared, benumbed, and looked agog at the dark clump in the Maidan.

Like foxes, the two men swift-footedly reached the centre of the darkness. The girl realised she was almost entirely enveloped by the darkness. There were so many lights and people all around. She could see all of them, but no one could see her. The men said: You ate the white donkey’s flesh, there’s still some blood on your lips, wipe it off! And saying this one of them took out a silk handkerchief from his pocket and wiped her mouth. The girl gazed vacantly. The men cleared their throats, and fluttering their eyes affecting pious demureness, said: The money tree is a precious resource! You can’t touch it at just any odd time or in just any way you please. You can only touch it when you’re entirely bare. Take off your sari girl!

The girl just stared at them. She didn’t quite understand what was happening. The men then started taking off their clothes. They said: Here, look, we’re taking it off too! The girl hadn’t quite understood what was happening. Then, unable to control themselves any longer, the two men didn’t bother about courtesies any more. They tugged at the girl’s torn, dirty sari.

The girl was completely naked under that undifferentiated darkness. Of course, she didn’t really feel anything, because she had lost all sensation besides hunger. She had long ago lost even the sense of shame at being naked in front of men.

The red neon continued to glow in the heart of the metropolis. The radiance of that colour spread far. Perhaps that glow would light up her face as well. She just stared into the red hue. Maybe she thought about something. Maybe she didn’t. Or maybe she didn’t think like this.

The southern breeze came and touched her body. The nocturnal chill floated by her uncovered body. Indifferent to everything, she peered into the faces of the two men to find a trace of the money tree.

This is a translation of the original Bengali short story "Moydaney takar gach" by Subimal Misra, a critically acclaimed Bengali writer of India. The story is anthologised in Subimal Misra’s Anti-golpo songroho (Anti-stories collection), Bitorko, Calcutta, 1999.

See also The Camel

Subimal Misra (born 1943) has been writing since 1967. He has written only for small, non-commercial literary publications (or "little magazines").  Misra is regarded as the leading anti-establishment and experimental writer in the Bengali language. His first collection of stories, titled Haran majhir bidhoba bou-er moda ba shonar gandhimurti (Haran Majhi's widowed wife's corpse or the Gandhi statue of gold), was published in 1971. Over 20 volumes of his stories (or “anti-stories”), novellas, novels (or “anti-novels”), plays and essays have been published. Most of these have been published and distributed by the author himself. Misra’s most recent book of stories and essays, Kika Cutout was published in 2006. Now a retired school-teacher, he lives in Calcutta.
Translated by V Ramaswamy June 2006
rama.sangye at

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