Short Story: Ator Ali, the Perfume Seller

Painting: Chababi Abdelhakim

By Sharif Atiquzzaman

The Marquis Street in Kolkata is always bustling with Bangladeshis. Rooms are never found vacant in hotels on either side. There is no peak season here; the whole year is crowded with Bangladeshis either for medical checkups, sightseeing, or shopping. The counters of international transport agencies are also abundant here. When the buses stand in rows, they clog the narrow roads and make movement difficult for people. Since restaurants, money-exchanging offices, garments and cosmetic shops are open till midnight, the area teems with people all the time. Coming here, people get to meet one or two familiar faces from one’s own country.

Arif visits Kolkata twice or thrice a year for follow-up treatment of his father. Usually, he doesn’t want to come in the winter, because there is the added pressure of the travelers then. Even if one books a hotel room online, there is no guarantee of getting it after coming here. When the hotel owners get more money, they give it to others. But this time he could not help coming here, because his father has developed new complications. They have an appointment with the doctor tomorrow.

After dinner, he took his father to the hotel and came out for a walk. He could not smoke all day since his father was with him. If he can’t take a puff at night, he won’t be able to sleep. While smoking a cigarette, he came to a turn on the Collin Street and stopped suddenly. An old man caught his attention. He was selling perfume crouching at a corner in the dim light of the street. It was half-past ten at night, but he didn’t show any sign of getting up. He looked grey and depressed in the middle of winter. He wore a hat, his rickety body was draped in a loose, torn coat, and a woolen muffler was wrapped around his neck. Perfumes of different colors, kept in small and large vials, were arranged in rows on the sack placed in front. Arif never uses perfume; he is allergic to the smell. If he inhales the smell of any perfume, it makes him sneeze for hours on end. But looking into the steely grey eyes of the old man, he moved towards him as if hypnotized. As he stood in front, the old man said in a trembling voice, ‘Will you buy perfume, my son? I have a variety of perfumes.’

Arif sat silently in front of him and carefully watched the perfumes of various colors kept in glass vials. The old man enthusiastically described the various types.

‘You see, this one is Shamamatul Amber. This type is made by mixing sandalwood with musk. And this perfume is called Alf Johra, made from a flower extract. And this is Fawaki. It is made from fruit juice. You see, it takes musk, incense, flower extract, and fruit juices to make perfume. Which one would you like to buy?’

The old man eagerly looked at his face for a positive response.

Arif’s father likes perfumes very much. Every time he comes to Kolkata, he buys some perfume. And every time he tells the same story with the vial of perfume in his hand. Arif can’t remember how many times he has heard this story. After being defeated by Sher Shah in the Battle of Kanauj in 1540, Humayun lived a miserable life and was in a bad mood for a long time. Meanwhile, his son Akbar was born in 1542. Humayun, saddened by not being able to entertain anyone at the birth of his child, spread perfume among them and said that his son’s fame should spread everywhere like the fragrance of the perfume. Arif didn’t know what his father wanted to mean by telling this story over and over again. Perhaps, he had a similar desire hidden in his mind for his own child. He didn’t know how much of his father’s desire had been fulfilled. However, his reputation as a teacher and sociological researcher has now surpassed the national boundary. Arif pointed to a bottle and said, ‘How much will ten grams of this perfume cost me, Chacha?’

‘A thousand rupees. Since you have come just before the closing hour, I’ll take hundred rupees less for you. This is Meshak Amber.’

He took the bottle in his hand and wiped it with a clean white piece of cloth. Despite knowing how expensive perfumes were, the words slipped out of his tongue, ‘So much!’

The old man gave him a smile and said, ‘I have a brand worth ten thousand rupees, my son.’

‘Give me ten grams of Meshak Amber,’ Arif said.

The old man picked a small vial out of the wooden box kept on the right side, carefully weighed the perfume, and stuck a bung in it. As he handed it to him, the old man suddenly said, ‘You are from Bangladesh, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, how do you know?’

‘Why not? Our business runs here for Bangladeshi customers. Restaurants, hotels, transport businesses – all run because of people from your country. The owners and employees of the shops are from Kolkata, but the customers are from Bangladesh. Otherwise, do the local people stay or eat here? By the way, where do you live in Bangladesh?’


‘Khulna!’ The old man uttered in amazement. Arif looked at his eyes as if he were surprised to find something that had been lost for a long time. It seemed to him that the curiosity that drew him to the old man was about to unravel. His wanted to talk to him, not buy perfume as the old man thought. The life story of a man selling perfumes for a meagre income at this age on a cold winter night could not be very simple. He had a lot of experience too. Arif wondered if some useful socio-political information could be got out of him! But he did not know how to proceed; the old man himself made the move.

‘Do you know Khulna, Chacha?’

A smile slowly spread across his face and he nodded his head sagely. Putting forward a small wooden stool, he said, ‘Sit down.’

Arif had difficulty in sitting on the stool wearing tight jeans, but he managed to sit cross-legged and said, ‘When did you visit Bangladesh?’

‘I can’t remember the exact year, but I went before the Indo-Pak war when Prafulla Ghosh was the Chief Minister. And Ayub Khan was ruling East Pakistan then.’  

‘Why did you go?’

‘There was a food crisis here. My elder brother went two years ago. I got a letter from him, “Food is very cheap in this country, come away if you find it difficult there.” I was working in a jute mill, which paid me a salary of 18 rupees a week. I could not run my family with my wife and two children with the salary. So, I went there at the call of my elder brother.’ 

‘What did you do there?’

‘I used to work in a jute mill there too and received a salary of 28 rupees a week. The price of essential commodities was cheap there, and I could manage everything well.’

‘Which jute mill did you work in?’ Arif’s curiosity grew.

‘Khulna Star Jute Mill. Things were fine and then the chaos ensued. Sheikh Mujibur started a movement organising the students. He asked Ayub Khan to hand over power and quit the country. When he refused, the commotion broke out and continued for years.’

The old man said as if he was telling his grandchild a fairy tale to put him to sleep. Arif found it fun the way he spoke.

‘Was that the incident of 1969?’

‘Maybe, my son. I can’t remember more than that, but then Yahya Khan came to power by deposing Ayub Khan. As soon as he came to power, he brought the army down the street and issued “Mashallah”.’

‘Mashallah! What was that?’

‘Yes, Mashallah, very strict laws. It was announced that if anyone peeked through the doors and windows, they would be shot immediately. Then there was a big chaos.’

‘Chaos! You mean the war of 1971!’

‘Yes, war.’ 

‘What did you do then?’

“What else could we do? We lived in the house of a Muslim in Khalishpur, and we stayed there. Many Muslims who went there from this country lived nearby. Among them were many Biharis. Many of them were killed and thrown into the river because they supported Pakistan. Since we spoke Bangla, they did us no harm. They just said, “We will not allow the Biharis in this country. They are traitors.”’

‘Did you stay there during the war?’

‘What could I do? We had nowhere else to go. I trembled with fear and could not sleep because of the sound of gunfire at night. I would stay up all night. Then the Indian military joined the Mukti Bahini and the Pakistanis surrendered finally. The country was liberated.’

‘Did the mills run during the war?’

‘No, they didn’t. After the war, many workers were dismissed from their jobs and the mills reopened though they didn’t continue running for long. The local workers said, “We are now liberated, why should we work?” And the mills gradually closed again. I came back here as I had begun to starve with the family there.’

‘You’re back here again! You kept coming and going and no one stopped you at the border?’

“Who would stop me? We had to spend some money and the brokers helped us cross the border. They had a ‘settlement’ with the police and others.’

The old man started coughing as he spoke incessantly. On a cold winter night, he took a sip of water from a plastic bottle kept beside him.

This time Arif went back further. He observed him as a researcher. He wanted to know if he had any idea about the political crisis because of which he had to repeatedly change his dwellings.  

‘Can you remember the event of partition?’ Arif said as he leaned forward.

The old man gave a blank stare and said, ‘I was born before the partition, in 1941-42. I heard from my father that there was a big riot between the Hindus and Muslims during the partition. The Hindus would threaten, “We would kill these Muslims and send them to Pakistan.” But we didn’t have any problem where we lived. We didn’t have to go then, but later we went because of poverty. And my elder brother asked me to go. In the end, I could not stay there. I had to come back again.’

‘What did your brother do?’

‘He also came back after two years.’

‘Well, do you think it would have been better not to divide the country?’

‘Of course! It would have been better if there was one country without two parts. It was not a wise decision to divide the country.’

‘Well, do you know anything about the reason for partition?’

‘I don’t know much about politics, my son. Everyone still blames the Hindu-Muslim conflict. But there was no quarrel between them before. The English created the division. Everything was the cunning ploy of the red-faced English.’ 

‘Is there no Hindu-Muslim tension at present?’

‘My son, if you keep many pots and pans together, sometimes those take a little knocking. Even then they have to be kept side by side in one place.’

Arif stayed silent for a long time. He wondered how many simple-minded people there are on earth for whom life means living on just three good meals a day! They don’t have any pipe dreams in life, except for a desire to live together with everyone peacefully. They don’t care much about caste or religion. But the cunning politicians can easily play with these people, and all human feelings are subject to their stubbornness and vengeful act. Religion has created more distance between people than it has bridged. The country was divided not just because of the cunning ploy of the English. There were many more issues. Ordinary people like this old man never understood it. They do not understand it yet. It’s better not to understand. The word ‘humanity’ probably survives for these people who neither hurt nor deceive anyone.

‘Uncle, do you love this country?’ Arif said.

The old man managed to force a smile in reply. He said, ‘If we say that we love the country, the majority of Hindus laugh at us as they don’t believe it.’

Arif looked at his watch. It was eleven o’clock at night. He had to get up. He took out a thousand taka note from his pocket and handed it to the old man. When he was about to return hundred rupees, Arif held his hand and said, ‘Please, keep it; you need not give the change back.’

He got up and walked towards the hotel. He could not get that man out of his head. There was no comfort in their experience of life. The old man was neither conversant with the rules of political chessboard nor expert at its cunning moves. Like millions of people of this country, he became a pawn in the game. Once he had fled to East Pakistan with the hope of safety and came back to this country after 1971 in utter frustration.

‘What is a country in the true sense?’ Arif thought. Did the country only mean territory and nothing else? Since a country denotes the sovereign state, the government, the nationality, community, culture, social security, and so on, the old man doesn’t bother about these complexities. How can he love the soil on which he has never been able to stand firm? Where will the feeling of patriotism come from if it becomes blunt by repeated shocks?

He had forgotten to ask the old man’s name. Should he go back? What would he do with his name? What if his name is Ator Ali or the scented man?

As he walked to the hotel, Arif thought of the carved map of a divided country on Ator Ali’s cracked, worn-out skin.

Born in 1965 in Narail, a small town in Bangladesh, Sharif Atiquzzaman has been writing for almost three decades in his mother tongue, Bengali. He has so far published twenty-three books. He lives in Bangladesh and teaches as a Professor of English literature in a post-graduate college.


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